Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Doe, by David Ryan

Somewhere along the drive home it occurred to Wayne that science had rendered sixty the new middle age — or would, by the time he reached a-hundred-and-ten. He knew, too, that this improvised errand his wife had sent him on was the setup to a benign trap, that a surprise sixtieth birthday party waited for his return. Of this he was confident. Wayne was known for his confidence, and for his far more appealing wife. A year into early retirement, he had taken up watercolors and already claimed himself a superrealist. Several lessons into his piano playing he began to liken himself to a young Bud Powell. This lack of self-reality provoked in friends an odd endearment, a kind of compassionate pity. And so at the garden party at home the crowd screamed Happy Birthday! And Wayne shrieked a bit too enthusiastically: I can’t believe this!

The party had been going well for an hour or so, when a doe entered the middle of the yard from behind a magnolia tree. As if just another guest. Wayne assumed this was a prank by his brother-in-law. That someone might jump out of the deer. But her flank was badly scarred, perhaps from a car. Her impossibly authentic looking eyes had locked on Wayne’s. He felt something tug and flush in his chest, a small seizure, the air around him rupturing. And then Wayne lifted.

Lifted over the crowd, where now he saw his father standing over the kitchen counter of their cabin in Michigan where there lay the body of another doe, hit by the car that day so many years ago. Butchered and put into the freezer, she would last two seasons. Participating in her death made her taste sacramental, even if Wayne did not understand the complexity of her taste each time. And Wayne, seven or eight, was now in the rowboat on their small lake, skimming shallows for turtles; holding the medium snapper he had snatched from beneath a clutch of pond grass close to his face, little Wayne asking his newfound friend’s retreated red and yellow head to show itself, pleeeeeese; the head darting out to bite Wayne clean through his cheek, blood running down his face, a lifelong v-shaped scar (later attributed to a college fencing incident). Ice fishing with an uncle who would die in a car accident someday. A badger that looked like stole strewn with teeth, rasping back at that barking dog. Wayne falling down the stairs, failing a hearing test, hitting ice during winter football. And then Wayne looked much as he looked today. He saw the canvas on his easel, unfamiliar, brushstrokes smeared, limited to pinks, blacks, grays. As if he had used his fingers. His wife in the doorway watched Wayne enter the room like a damaged child. His wife seemed frail. Now Wayne was banging the piano with his fists. His wife weeping into the phone, he could see her soul hovering grayish, parting from her body slightly, rubbing against the warmer air of her flesh. She was leaving him. And suspended in the air, all Wayne could hear himself thinking was My fingers, eating keys. She had taken his paint away. Wayne was walking crabwise, backwards, sometimes forward, confused. His wife on the phone again, her soul lifting of her warmth altogether, her shadow shaking Wayne free of her. Wayne was surrounded by extraordinarily old people. Light from a window bleached the room. The thermostat set high, compensating for the gathered lassitude. Muttering to himself. No one asked his opinion.

Wayne descended from this vantage, possibly created by a prank-deer. Planted possibly by his wife’s brother -- who always sang harmony when it came time to sing the Happy Birthday song, and insisted on trick candles for the cake. Now the lawn again supported Wayne’s sixty-year-old feet at the party thrown on their behalf. The deer was gone, his wife was leading him through thickly-peopled applause. The soft grass, the terra firma. Clustered friends parting for Wayne and his wife, allowing passage to the cake ahead. The sixty lit candles. Were these people just another trick? Were the candles supplied by his brother in law?

His wife, tugging his hand, pulling him through the crowd. These people appeared to wish him well. There ahead sixty candles flickering. His brother-in-law, smiling off to the side. The son of a bitch has drugged me, he thought. All the clappers and smilers and laughers and pitiers, with their well-wishering Happy Birthday to you.... His beautiful wife’s smile — she will leave me to only myself when I become too difficult to love. And like the child he had just revisited for a time Wayne thought, this is the worst birthday ever! He could hear roofers and their percussing nail-guns far off, as if keeping time like a maniacal idiot against the ongoing birthday song. Happy Birthday Dear Wayne, Happy Birthday To You.... Wayne’s brother-in-law now supplying the dread single contrapunt of harmony of the song’s cadence, the major third, the look-at-me augmented fourth -- when Wayne expected to see all the neighborhood’s dogs leaping into trees -- and then the final major third and his brother-in-law’s outstanding “. . . and many more.”

To which Wayne expelled, scanning the cake with his breath, his wind leveling miniaturized devastation, the sparking smoke, the collapse of this dioramic empire of sixty lights. The crowd’s Whoas and clapping splattered as Wayne, center of attention, blew out every candle.

Then inhaled and blew again. The crowd half-chuckling because there really was not anything left, Wayne. His breath now battering these smoldering wicks, and he felt very dizzy, breath begging Please of the withering sticks. Please, to the timepiece in front of him. He recalled the venison had tasted, each time, like it had been hit by a car. You could taste the adrenaline of its last moment on earth. Sixty lights down, how many remaining? He inhaled, blew again, nail-guns spitting off a roof not far away.

David Ryan’s fiction has appeared in BOMB, The Mississippi Review, 5_Trope, Denver Quarterly, Cimarron Review, Tin House, Alaska Quarterly Review, Hobart, New Orleans Review, and the Norton anthology, Flash Fiction Forward, among others.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Disruption of Memory, by Stephanie Cornell

“I told him four times already.”

“He doesn’t remember anything,” said my mother. “It’s from his accident.” Of course. The accident. I had missed so much in two years.

“Oh, did he hit his head when he fell off the roof?” I replied, suddenly trying to put together how a broken heel might result in memory loss.

“No, the bicycle accident.” She said it so casually, as if this was common knowledge. Not once in twenty-eight years had this been mentioned, but now she was recklessly tossing around the possibility as if it were fact. As if we all made this association, as if it were regularly inserted into conversations at family functions or pulled out among friends as the punch line to a joke.

I remember the warm spring afternoon we gathered to celebrate Colin’s first birthday. I remember the Fritos and vegetable dip, the bottles of birch beer soda, and how quickly the laughing stopped when the slideshow abruptly shifted from California landscapes and group photos at dinner to my father smiling weakly from his hospital bed, half of his face as black as obsidian, swollen and taut. His shoulder the color of eggplant. That photo, in an instant, sucked all the air from the room, holding our breath hostage until a collective exhale resumed the balance of oxygen. My father chuckled uncomfortably, allowing a breathless “Wow” to escape his mouth. He hadn’t seen himself like that.

I had not seen him like that either. When he arrived at Logan Airport the previous November, the thing I was most concerned with, more than anything in the whole entire world, was not the condition of my father’s face, but that my mother not cry in public. “Please. Do not cry,” I’d insisted more than once on the way to the airport, and again while we waited at the TWA gate. It was vitally important to me that these tanned, radiant strangers from California not see my mother cry. Before the first passenger exited the jetway, my mother was breaking every rule and allowing tears to fill her anxious eyes.

It was my grandfather I saw first, his tall frame popping up from the crowd of the passengers. When my father finally emerged, his face was the color of mustard, a pale mossy green lining the edge of what now revealed itself to be the remains of a bruise covering the right side of his face. The white of his eye a deep crimson; the skin around it a dark mauve. His right arm was suspended in a sling to support the broken clavicle. And if this were not enough to bear, my father – upon first seeing us – began to cry in public. My mother fell into his chest and also cried in public.

At home, he would show us his purple hip and the platter-shaped bruise that ran down the side of his thigh. He would give us presents from California, like he always did when he traveled on installations. For me, a copy of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, not because he liked them – I’m not sure he even knew who they were -- but because I had started playing flute the previous year. In many ways, it was no different than the other times he came home after a long work trip. This time simply included a sling and adults crying in public.

I was eleven years old that October in 1983. As a child already prone to worry, it was my misfortune that I be the recipient of the first phone calls from Palo Alto. I didn’t sense anything at first. Steve, my father’s coworker, was a close family friend. I’ll try again in an hour. Just tell your mom that I called, ok? To me, it was still a novelty to take a message and carry it around like a secret until I could report it to my mother when she would return home. It made me feel responsible, like a grown-up. I carried three or maybe four of the same message around that afternoon, ready to burst when she finally came through the door. But it was immediately clear from my mother’s reaction that three or four phone calls from Steve was not something that should feel like a privilege but something that should make you worry.

My mother would soon learn about the bicycle tire that turned at ninety degrees, how my father had flown through the air and landed on the pavement. I would soon learn that the initials I.C.U. meant Very Badly Injured and that teachers and guidance counselors will treat you a bit differently when your father is admitted to one. I would not learn any details other than “blood clot near the brain” and subdural hematoma, but those words don’t mean anything to an eleven-year-old. It was through the behavior of the adults around me that I understood it was Serious. When one’s family never takes phone calls behind closed doors, the sudden onset of whispered conversations from the bedroom is terrifying.

It would be ten years before I learned how close to death my father had been; five years more before I learned that he had slipped into a coma. And still another twelve years to learn that my father’s memory had suffered as a result of the accident; that he suffered toxicity from the Dilantin he’d been prescribed to prevent further seizures; that there had been seizures at all; and that it was perhaps my mother, and not my father, who suffered the most. My father’s memory of the entire day and those that followed has been erased forever. It was never written to his hard drive. My memory and that of my sister’s is written based not only on limited information but limited understanding.

My mother remembers everything. The date comes without hesitation: October 25, 1983. It was a Tuesday. He returned on a Saturday. She almost lost her husband. We almost lost our father. She remembers everything.

Stephanie Cornell is a gypsy with too many hobbies living in Asia, where she has worked as a copywriter, marketing consultant and television producer in Seoul, Tokyo and Singapore since 2007. A Boston native, Stephanie's photoblog documents her life overseas, travels around the continent and a love of bicycles.