An elbow blade in my vision like the one true thing, then — a bright crackling, the wheeling world.
I wander off the basketball court, the pain rising and crinkling into stars. There are bits of garbled conversation, my own heaving breath. No blood that I can feel — but space, I need space, to be away from other bodies, to be alone in my own blood-heavy, throbbing body.
Slowly I take my hand away from my left eye, and everything — the court, the nine other men, their sweat pants and mesh shorts and reversible jerseys — slides, with a sick, liquid jerk, back into place.
I see now, blurrily, the tall man whose elbow has just connected with my upper cheekbone. He’s standing two or three steps away, hands laced over his head, staring at me with an astonished, gee-whiz grin, which he is trying without success to twist down into a frown. He has caused this sudden, startling violence. Or, more accurately, we have caused it together: he driving with the ball past one defender, then another — graceful the whole time, tall and lean and powerful, one of those blessed beings whose flesh and bones are their true home, his arm and the ball a sinuous river of skin and orange leather — and I pulling my stubborn feet into position, planting myself like a fence post between him and the basket, with no particular grace to speak of but perhaps a kind of foolish, straight-up-and-down dignity. And he flew, as his kind do, sort of sitting in the air, as if riding some invisible seat up, up to the rim, the ball leaving his long fingers and rolling lightly over the iron when, with a wet crack, his falling elbow struck my upturned face, his bent knee thumped my sternum, and we tumbled to the floor.
He was up quickly — I could hear him step away and ask if his shot had dropped — and then I got up, too, but slowly, humped over and stumbling around the damp, badly lit corner of the YMCA gym, my hands cupped over the left side of my face. Which is what I’m still doing. Which means everyone now has to stand around and blow air and scuff their shoes and wait to see if I am all right, which means the young man who struck me has to step over and put his hand on my back and say, “Hey, man, you OK? That was some fucking wreck. Here. Let me take a look.”
He leans down and tips my chin up and studies my face. He touches my temple — lightly, very lightly — and whistles. “You’ll have a hell of a bruise, but you’ll be all right.” He straightens and starts back to the court. “And nice fucking play, man. I had to change my shot. Almost didn’t get that one in.”
And so, with that, I am obliged to finish the game, and to play the next game as well, because I have been pronounced fine. Bruised but fine. And it was a nice fucking play. And they need a tenth man. As we jog again up and down the court, the others grin and kid about not driving in on the “Professor” — which is what this group of linemen, lawn guys, farmhands, short-order cooks, sales associates, construction-site managers, and bus drivers call me — because “he’ll wreck you.” I grin obligingly back, each step shaking the crushed tissues of my face, jostling the bones those tissues were crushed against (maxilla, I remember from some long-ago anatomy class), bones I am suddenly achingly aware of, bones whose hollow, winging architecture I can feel now in intricate detail beneath the blood-soaked meat and hot skin of my face.
And with each step and sideways slide, my left cheek swells up and out, and my left eye becomes a slit and, finally, shuts.
The laptop screen begins to swim.
I have been working too long, for one, but blood and various serums have been rising as well into the space around my left eye, have pooled in the north maxillary region, distending further the orbicularis oculi muscle, and my left field of vision — after a few initial rounds of careful ice application — has again thinned to a sharp crescent.
I shut my laptop (with which I looked up all these various bones and muscles and the etymology of the word bruise and whatever else I could think of relating to my aching face, the singular fact of my life this lonely night) and wander into the kitchen. My wife has left for her book club. My one-year-old son is asleep. I grab a bag of peas from the freezer and a can of Pabst from the fridge, drape the peas over my face and pop the top on the beer and take a long drink. I clomp down the basement stairs and turn on the opening rounds of the Big East basketball tournament, Rutgers suddenly coming after favored Cincinnati.
By halftime the peas have thawed and smell green and weedy. I pull the dripping sack away from my face and feel — what is it that I feel? Tough isn’t quite it, or isn’t all of it, though I’ll admit I do feel tougher this Tuesday evening than I do most Tuesday evenings. And it’s more than just watching the young hotshot forward from Cincinnati make some of the same mistakes I did out on the court today, more than just the guys calling me the “Wrecker” instead of the Professor. It has to do, I think, with being nothing but a body, with the raw reality and ache of this particular body.
It has to do as well with how I peer this evening out of my squinched eye at a world similarly squinched and distended; how whenever I breathe, the contours of my swollen face reify themselves in my mind. To dull the pain, I focus on something outside of me: the broken-backed couch we bought for twenty-five dollars at a garage sale, the old braided rug, the dusty television screen, the tumbling stack of videotapes, the ragged line of empty beer cans. I am someone who lives a good portion of his life in his head, someone for whom the force of an idea can be as powerful as the rush of a winter gale or the startling thwack of an accidental elbow. Yet this night whatever ideas I have must wait in line, must sit tight.
This night I am here: in this bruised self, in this bruised world.
The odds are against us. The death rate is, of course, an irrefutable 100 percent — let’s get that out of the way — and though the chances of this or that awful thing happening to any one of us are thankfully low (save cancers and car accidents, which are more or less assured), they do happen. We have the stories and scars. We are so awfully unlucky, so awfully lucky.
I grew up on a hay-and-sheep ranch out on the Big Dry of eastern Montana, a place of long, rainless summers and calamitously cold winters, a place where the body was what mattered, where the physical world was reckoned with daily. We’d come in from an afternoon spent fixing fences, bucking bales, or trailing cattle, and everyone would wash up and drink a glass of iced tea or beer before dinner and compare barbed-wire bites and barked knees and smashed fingers. We’d brag of the tons of hay we’d hauled, the bulls we’d whipped and driven over the ridge, the mangy coyote we’d shot cleanly through the head. We had survived another day in this meanest of places and were proud of the work we’d done — as long as the work’s toll leaned against us like a hard wind but did not blow us down. (I think here of the confused boys I knew who were thrown by some wild horse and used a wheelchair ever after, or the rage of old men, backs clacking like dominoes, no longer able to wield a shovel.) We were proud of our bruises and wounds; they testified not to our strength but to our continuance, for out on those far plains it was survival itself that was sacrosanct.
I remember as well other moments, more luckless than toughening, when the world didn’t wear at us but up and bit us — though here, too, survival is what makes all the stories matter. Say, the day I broke my arm as a boy: balancing one moment atop the gray wooden fence that circled our farmhouse, then falling. I hit the ground, the air went out of me, and I looked up at the cornflower-blue sky and my little brother’s sun-haloed head, the pain just beginning to make its nervy jailbreak. I did not realize the severity of the situation until my brother began to cry and pointed at my impossibly kinked arm. Or, a few years later, roller-skating with my cousin Molly at our grandparents’ house, I turned a corner too fast and tripped over a seam in the sidewalk. This time there was a moment or two of pure black before I picked myself up slowly and put my hand to my forehead, which was warm and wet. I blinked, and the world was suddenly washed with blood, the sun a wound, the far hills streaming red creeks, Molly’s long hair a crimson shawl.
And I remember standing in the dirt swath of the discus range during my first year of high-school track and field. I was “shagging” for the big-armed varsity thrower: watching the spinning discus thwump to the earth, then trotting over to it and rolling it back to the throwing pad. Someone called my name, and in the second it took for me to turn, everything heaved and buckled, as if an earthquake had opened a great, yawning chasm at my feet, shaking and breaking the plains. I stumbled, tried to stay upright, gouts and runnels of some liquid pouring off my head, dripping from my cheeks and chin. I could taste the sticky salt of it but couldn’t imagine what it was.
Later, treating me for shock, the first responder kept asking me what had happened, and I kept asking back, Yeah, what happened? It wasn’t until the next day that I understood: I had been hit in the head, at a distance of some two hundred yards, by a four-pound, metal-rimmed discus. It took me a week to wash all the dried blood out of my hair — at least, what bits of hair the doctor hadn’t shaved off. When I finally came back to school, they let me wear a hat to cover the wound, and at the end of the season the track coach gave me the Iron Man Award, which pleased me mightily. Really, what matter that it was happenstance? I’d survived: that was what counted. In front of the new kid or some group of girls, curls and waves and ringlets in their eyes, I could push back my hair and let them run their fingers over the five-inch scar along my scalp. It was a story I came to tell often, something I could rely on. I felt singled out, chosen by the dry plains wind that day.
I remember very little from the emergency room, but there is this one moment: Swimming up and out of some lake of painkillers, I see the doctor’s white coat and my mother’s denim purse. They are bent over me, looking at me. No, they are looking at the skull-deep wound on my head. This one, the doctor is saying, and I can see his thick lips, his stubbled chin, his blunt finger jabbing at the aching district above my forehead. This one right here. If this artery had busted, he wouldn’t have made it. His heart would have pumped him dry in a minute. This is one lucky kid you’ve got here.
I wake in the dark, the throb and sharp ache of my face waking with me.
I have heard my son stirring, but he hasn’t cried yet. I sit up, and screws of pain twist into my cheek and grab at the bonehouse of my eye. I swing my feet off the bed and am still a moment, breathing through the worst of it. Finally I can stand and wander through the dark into the bathroom.
In the mirror I study myself: A sharp black arc beneath my left eye fades into various plums and blue-greens and grays — a leathery demon wing, I think, lifting from beneath my skin.
Bright red vessels spider the eyeball itself. My cheek and temple are drum tight and twice their normal size, the swelling so pronounced it has drawn my whole face close around this pain, the left half of my mouth pulled up in a permanent sneer — quick wink of eyetooth in the mirror.
I turn my face this way and that, the blacks and blues and greens and reds glistening in the shifting light. I look hard and mean, I think, and I feel sort of hard and mean, feel like letting my hair fall in lank, greasy tufts and driving too fast down to the gas station on the highway, Alice in Chains or the Stones or maybe even Kid Rock on the radio, and buying a pack of Camels. I grin at the thought, and in the mirror my smile looks more like a jagged wound, like I’m chewing glass and gravel. It’s a good thing it’s spring break. I don’t have to see colleagues and students for another week yet. In a few weeks this bruise will pale, and I’ll be back in the classroom, back on the court. I will survive this.
Survive, from the Latin super (over) and vivere (to live). To live over. Even when the muscles have reknitted and the livid contusion has faded, this bruising will not be gone. I will live over it. It will always be there beneath me, buoying me.
My son, Walter, cries. I set my glasses gingerly on my nose and go to him.
Over his red-faced protestations, I strap Walter into his backpack and swing him up onto my shoulders. (As I slide my arms through the straps, some part of his weight settles along the tender, bony ridges of my aching face.) At just under a year, my son has yet to make even a halting peace with the cruel mechanics of cause and effect. Though I sympathize, I can do nothing about it; long ago some god twinned joy and injury, and so the ritual of clicked buckles and yanked straps, which Walter loathes, inevitably leads to that which he loves: a hike to the prairie park.
The light this morning is of the order that adores stones, two-lane roads, tall grass, and trash in the dry weeds. The light slants and glances, brightens the still, cold skin of things. Tromping south down the alley beside an overgrown hedge of bare, black-armed lilacs, Walter and I meet our neighbor Keith ambling north, his wife’s round little dog, Mika, straining at her leash. Mika barks and leaps and wiggles about my legs. Walter giggles and claps at her. Keith hitches to a stop in the gravel — am I imagining it, or is he limping more than usual today? — lifts his cigarette to his lips, and takes a great, smoky drag.
“Jesus,” he says, seeing my face. “Liz finally get fed up with you, or what?”
I grin, or try to grin, and shake my head. “Nope. Caught an elbow playing ball at the Y yesterday.”
Keith raises his head to examine me through the bottom half of his bifocals. “I guess you did. Must have been one hell of an elbow.”
As Keith peers at me, I find myself peering back — at the liver-spotted skin of his neck, the sagging bag of his belly, the way he shifts and slides his weight over to his good hip. Keith retired not long ago from thirty-odd years on the floor at the Winnebago factory. Now he walks Mika in the mornings and fishes for bass in the afternoons and goes to auctions on the weekends, his salt-white hair Brylcreemed back off his face. He is a big, gruff, good man. Sometimes he will bring us a sack of apples from his tree and say, “Hell, don’t thank me. I got apples coming out my ears.”
Keith finishes his study of my face and clucks his tongue, then pulls hard on his cigarette, and I imagine the gray-white smoke as it drifts and rolls down his throat, blows through the meaty wings of his lungs, the black and thinning alveoli. Is it the light? Is that why I seem to be so taken with the winter limbs of the lilacs, with the sad facts of our bodies? Or is it not the light but this dark bruise? Am I already “living over” this most recent wound? Does it already color the world around me? Earlier, before the sun was even up, I knelt to change Walter’s diaper and found myself thinking not of breakfast or work or the book I read last night but marveling instead at my son’s slick pink feet, the heartbreaking circumferences of his ankles. Which of these slight and perfect bones, I caught myself thinking, will he one day break? What sharp thing will tear and scar his skin? Here in the light-shot alley I see the world through a veil of bruise. I am wounded, and I see wounds — even those hidden deep within us.
Mika sits in the gravel and pants. Walter bangs the sides of the backpack with his little fists. Keith mentions something about the Cincinnati game last night, then takes another drag and says, “Well, I better go do something, even if it’s wrong.”
People pass by us each day and read our bodies, marked like great ash trees — pearl bark ribboned with hearts and arrows and what all else — and wonder.
Consider my brother, who some years ago was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. MS is an autoimmune disease, the sufferer’s own immune system mounting a furious and deleterious insurrection, scraping away the myelin that insulates neuron connections in the brain. My brother woke one morning and was blind in his left eye, the whole left half of him gone shifty and slack.
Six foot four, a twenty-three-year-old former high-school basketball star, he was suddenly birdlike. He’d just graduated from college and had been planning on teaching in South Africa, was set to go in a few weeks — but now there was this sclerotic scar on his brainstem, and he was worried about getting the right medication, worried about getting worse. So he canceled his flight, and, after a few months of sorting out treatment and healthcare, he came to live with my wife and me.
We were busy in our first year of teaching in the Mississippi public schools and needed the help. He cleaned house for us and had big pans of lasagna bubbling in the oven when we came home late from tutoring sessions. He volunteered at an after-school program, and every evening, after we’d finished the dishes and poured a final glass of beer, he sat at the kitchen table and unbuttoned his shirt and scrubbed his belly with a cloth soaked in isopropyl alcohol. Then he took up a syringe and slipped the needle in and pressed the plunger, the oily medicine bulbing his skin. Just to the right or left of where he worked you could see yesterday’s red needle track with its nimbus of bruise — pale blue, green, and yellow.
Or consider Liz, my wife, when she went into labor with Walter: As she closed her eyes to the pain and slumped to the floor, it didn’t seem real. The doctor said it would be a while before we should bring her in for the delivery, especially because this was our first one. I dawdled a bit and asked if she wanted to take a walk. She growled at me. On the way to the hospital I turned on the radio. She growled again. It still didn’t seem real. Even at the moment of birth — upwelling of cranberry-colored blood, the doctor scissoring her perineum, gray-green child sloughing forth, that child finally sucking air enough to scream, scream, scream — even then it seemed a dream to me, a horrific series of motions we were just acting out, as if in a few hours, or maybe tomorrow at the latest, all things would again be as they had been, for this couldn’t possibly be the way we entered the world — and if it was, why in the hell did we keep doing such a foolish and terrifying thing as this?
Liz didn’t sleep for days. She hurt sitting down, hurt walking. She hurt holding him, hurt being held. I do not mean to say childbirth wounds; or, I guess, that is exactly what I mean to say: the way it tips and rips the body, wrecks the happy heart. Of the birth of her first son, Faulkner’s Addie Bundren says, “That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not.” Even today Walter cries in the night, and Liz wakes, her breath running from her like water, for the rending memory is with her still. And now (what were we thinking? we were not thinking) she rallies and readies for the next child. Oh, these startling, blood-licked bodies: this one we waited for, this one waiting for us. Even when she does not carry our children, she carries them. Will always carry them.
What I am aiming at here is this: There is some connection between the contusions on our skin and the various contusions that bloom in our brains. As the violet bruise blossoms — as, weeks later, the flared scar finally diminishes — the neurons themselves lurch and wobble, link and relink. It makes sense but is still somehow shocking. Each wound changes how we see ourselves, how we understand the world around us. This bat’s wing will color more than the tissues around my eye, will stay with me longer than the few weeks it will take for the skeletal muscles to repair themselves and the extracellular serums to drain. (Even now I can almost feel the dendritic connections shifting behind my eyes, can almost hear the liquid pop and snap of my brain rewiring itself around this wound.)
I think of this morning in the alley: Though neither of us said a thing, I am sure Keith was aware, as I was, that we spoke by our neighbor Jesse’s back door, by his black row of lilacs. Jesse and Keith had been close. Before Keith retired and Jesse was laid off, they’d worked together at the plant for more than fifteen years and lived as neighbors nearly as long. They both fished and hunted and sat in their backyards with beer and cigarettes as the sun went red and muddy over the cornfields. Then, a year ago, just months before Walter was born, Jesse laid himself down on his big couch, nestled the cold O of a pistol barrel up to his temple, and fired.
A few days later his sister came to clean up the house, but the couch was too heavy for her to move. Keith wasn’t home, so Liz and I ended up carting Jesse’s blood-soaked sofa into the street. We stood there catching our breath and wondering. Though Jesse’s wounds were labyrinthine and hidden, there was no hiding the damage they had wrought, the puddle of his blood in the late-winter light.
A plumber is over at the house this noon.
Cup of coffee in hand, I watch him from the kitchen window. The contractor who’s building our deck has sent him to move our outside spigot over a few feet so it will be beside and not under the finished deck. Here’s what often happens: some workman, after banging away all day, comes in the house to say he’s finished and catches me on the couch in my sweat pants, staring at my laptop, and he gives me one of those eye-rolling, you’ve-got-to-be-shitting-me looks, one of those this-guy-is-just-pathetic shakes of the head. If I remember someone’s coming over to fix something, I try to work upstairs or in the basement, to stay out of the way — or, more accurately, to hide.
I watch this particular man smoke a cigarette and frown at the spigot, then lean in for a closer look. In his unwashed, faded jeans he is not lean but weedy, all elbows, ears, and whiskers; tattoos wrapping both scraggy arms. He runs his fingers through his red hair, spits, and squats down. I take this as my cue to let him work, to try to do some work myself. Liz has taken Walter to a friend’s house, and I should use the opportunity. I pick up my laptop and that same package of peas — the curve of my contused face frozen into them overnight — and make my way into the basement. It’ll be cooler there, darker, easier on my shuddering skull.
Not five minutes later I hear the back door whine open, and then the baritone note of the door at the top of the stairs and bootfalls banging down. The basement is where all the pipes are, of course; the plumber has to come down here to turn off the water before he moves the spigot. This bruise must be pulling blood away from my brain. I wonder what else I’ve forgotten. Anyway it’s too late to hide. I hunker down and try to look busy as I hear him turn the corner at the bottom of the stairs.
“Shit. Sorry, man,” he says. “Would’ve knocked if I’d known you was down here.”
I look up. There’s no sneer, no shake of the head. He’s looking at me, at my face, and I see he thinks he knows something about me beyond the fact that I am sitting here on the couch with my feet up in the middle of the day. This man — with his hooked left index finger, thick scar on his upper left arm — is thinking that I am like him, that I must sometimes get up off the couch and do some work that would break my face like this. This is new to me: beyond wonder, there is kinship in injury. Today, despite my laptop and the belt of tools hanging at his waist, there is some mutual recognition. Maybe it is good to be broken now and again. Maybe suffering is what binds us, makes us human.
Feeling nearly giddy in this sudden affinity, I stand — the musty basement air streaming like a kind of liquor into my nostrils, a smattering of light at the recessed windows — and stretch and say to this man, “No problem. Just working where it’s cool.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I got to get at these pipes. But, hey, what the fuck happened to your face?”
Is that right? Do we find in suffering our shared humanity? Through our wounding do we understand our own limitations and forgive the limitations of others? A moment ago it sounded right. Now I think of the boys (now men) I grew up with. I think of the unmappable distances between us, and I don’t know.
Years ago, when I was first off at college, in those days when distance rightly distanced us, before Facebook and e-mail kept everyone aware of each other’s doings, I came home at Christmas to find that one of my good friends hadn’t left town as planned. He was the first in his family to finish high school and had earned a scholarship to a university, but he hadn’t gone. Instead he’d pulled a trailer up into the hills south of the river and started pouring cement with his father.
One dry, cold night he had a party out at his trailer, and everyone was drunk and listening to Kid Rock too loud, and some boys were racing their pickups along the dirt road and raising great clouds of dust in the winter night, and my friend kept telling me he just didn’t think college was for people like him. It was freezing, the wind hard and cold, but for some reason he’d taken his shirt off. His work-stained jeans hung from his sharp hips. I could see that a season pouring cement had hardened him: abrasions and bruises in various shadings of red and blue and dirty yellow spotted his arms, the curves of his ribs.
“Look at me,” he kept saying, his arms in the air, wind running through his shaggy, dishwater hair. “They don’t let people like me go to college!”
After my brother woke blind and doddering, and before he moved in with my wife and me, he lived for a while back home, in our mother’s drafty farmhouse on the high plains of eastern Montana. When he wasn’t at some clinic or hospital in Billings or Spokane, he was on the phone with insurance companies. It looked as if he might still be covered under our mother’s plan. He called and called, trying to confirm this. He was told no and no. He pored over forms and policy booklets until he found the very passages that stated he was indeed owed insurance. He called again. Again a man told him no. He wrote a letter commencing legal action against the insurance company and had our brother-in-law — the only lawyer he could afford — sign it. A few days later the insurance company called back, said of course he was right, said sorry, sorry, sorry. His medical bills for the next few months would run into the tens of thousands. Each small vial of the serum that he injected cost several hundred dollars. What if he hadn’t had the time to call, to read the fine print in all those policy booklets? What if he’d taken their word for it? What if he hadn’t had a brother-in-law who was a lawyer? What if he really hadn’t been covered? What if his shaking had gotten worse? What then?
The writer Annie Dillard says, “It does not wash,” of the idea that all this comes of God, that there is some purpose or design behind calamity and tragedy. “Fatal to reason,” she calls it. And I agree. (Thinking back on all this — on my thinning brother; on the droll malevolence of faceless, bodiless corporations — I am almost physically ill.) And so I will make no attempt to assign blame. I am after not the why but the “what now?” For even if there is no meaning, even if there is nothing behind our wounds, those as plain as day and those hidden, there must yet be something for us who are living over them. What do we do with these wounds now? What do I do with the fact of my son’s perfect ankle bones? What do I do with a neighbor’s quiet pain? We will bruise and suffer — that much is sure. What do we make of the wreckage?
Those afternoons in Montana, just to get out of the house, my brother often walked south down the dust and gravel of Queens Point Road. He took a cane, to steady his shaking, and turned his collar up against the wind. A mile on, there was the old one-lane iron bridge over the river — water the color of lead, crusts of ice forming in slow pools and channels — and another mile or two farther were a few abandoned farmhouses, rusted screen doors banging in the wind; and finally fields of grass and sage and pear cactus sweeping out, the land rising and folding, knuckling up into ridges and buttes and scrub hills.
There are the covered mouths of old coal mines out in those hills, the wrecks of abandoned claim shacks, rusting mule harnesses adrift in the dry grass. Mile after mile my brother walked those ruins.
I’m at the grocery store, buying sharp cheddar and tomatoes and onions and beer, when the maybe-sixteen-year-old checkout girl gives me a wary “Is that all, sir?”
Again I am forced to see myself as for the past three days everyone else has seen me: snap shirt and Carhartts, long hair sticking out of the back of my ball cap, and this still-vivid fist-sized bruise across my face, this still-bloodshot eye. This girl doesn’t know anything about me. She doesn’t know I’m a happily married father, a teacher, an environmentalist, a Democrat, a never-even-been-in-a-fistfight poet. She doesn’t know me beyond the bright fact of this bruising, this raw bit of evidence, this blood-red warning sign that says, Watch out, that says, This one is hurt. He might very well hurt you back.
Going about town for the last day and a half, I’ve begun to see how such bruising might lead to one seeing oneself as a hurting, hurtful thing; to a deep identification with pain and anger. I do not want that. I am ready to be who I really am again, or who I think I am.
“Yes, thank you,” I say as nonthreateningly as possible. “I don’t need anything else.”
She steps forward and places the beer, block of cheese, onions, and tomatoes in my sack and pushes it to the edge of the checkout counter. She lifts a curl of sandy hair to her mouth and chews at it. She looks at me. She looks away.
Can it work this way: can a bruise both bind us and divide us? And if so, how do we tend to the binding? How do we avoid the divisions?
When I was just out of college, I taught pre-algebra in a public junior high school in a little town in the Mississippi Delta with Teach For America. Delta schools were still very much segregated: whites in the shiny private academy on the outskirts of town, blacks in the old public school across the derelict train tracks. The rest of town was more or less segregated as well, save a few restaurants and businesses out on the highway: Church’s Chicken, Sunflower Food Store, McDonald’s.
Only a week or two into my first year of teaching, I was pushing a blue Walmart cart full of notebooks, dry-erase markers, tissues, and many other items the school didn’t provide for teachers when I came around a corner and ran right into Ms. Davidson and her daughter Stephanie. I remembered Ms. Davidson from our first conference night because she was so young, maybe just six or seven years older than I was, and because the stone-brown skin of her hands and arms was pocked with little white scars — a sign, I would later learn, that she worked as a cutter at the catfish plant. “Ms. Davidson. Stephanie,” I said. “How are you all?”
Ms. Davidson glared at me. “This is my niece,” she said. “This is Shenique, not Stephanie. Shenique is in your third-period class, and Stephanie is in your seventh-period class. You got that, Mr. Wilkins?” Embarrassed, and a little angry I hadn’t been given any kind of leeway — I did have more than 160 students that fall — I apologized, said a quick goodbye, and pushed my rickety plastic cart toward the checkout, forgetting half the things on my list.
The next conference night, just after first-quarter grades had come out, Ms. Davidson stomped into my classroom wearing thick rubber boots glinting with catfish scales and accused me of mixing up Stephanie and Shenique again. She claimed there was no way Stephanie was failing, that I must have her confused with Shenique, who’d already failed two grades and had never been any good at math. I tried to assure Ms. Davidson that I didn’t have them mixed up. I told her that seventh period had been a struggle, that too many students in that section didn’t take their studies seriously, and that Stephanie was no exception: she simply hadn’t turned in any homework. I showed her copies of the weekly grade reports I’d sent home and said — and I’ll admit I was pleased to be telling her this, pleased to be putting her in her place — that this shouldn’t have been a surprise.
Ms. Davidson swore at me. She kicked my desk and yelled and swore some more. Someone ran and got the assistant principal, who picked her up — great big man that he was, she looked like a child in his arms — and hauled her out of the school. As far as I know, Ms. Davidson never came to another conference night, and both Stephanie and Shenique failed pre-algebra.
Beyond Ms. Davidson and that seventh-period class, my first year of teaching had been a success. And my second year was a revelation. I felt at home in the classroom, the school, the community. My students were working hard and learning so much — more than two years of mathematical literacy in less than a year. I was doing what was necessary: I was changing things.
One day that second spring, caught up on my grading and with twenty minutes to spare in my prep period, I drove to the bank to deposit my paycheck. I found myself in line behind Ms. Davidson. I don’t think she saw me. She was in those rubber boots again and a kind of rubber smock as well. She shifted on her feet and wiped at her nose and eyes. I wondered if she had a cold. When her turn at the window came, she didn’t have her ID. She said she was on break from the fish plant and must have left her ID at work and wouldn’t be able to return to the bank until the following week, so could she please just deposit her check? The white teller, with wide eyes, told her she was sorry but there was nothing she could do. Ms. Davidson was silent a moment. She lowered her head. And then, all of a sudden, her breath tore out of her with the sound of a saw, and she turned and swept a mess of papers and pens to the floor. Her teary face wrecked with snot and catfish scales, she said something unintelligible and rushed out of the bank.
I remember thinking she was making it too hard. I remember thinking she should just calm down. But then I got up to the teller’s station and realized that I, too, had left my ID somewhere. “Oh, don’t worry,” the teller said, her thin lips turned happily up. “We can pull your number right up on the computer.”
I felt myself sinking in a pool of bile. The acid of it burned my throat, my ears and eyes. The fluorescent lights slid across the polished floor, and I wondered how many times this very thing had happened to Ms. Davidson, how many times someone had looked at her and not seen her — how many times she must have sworn never to let it happen to her daughter.
In my intro-to-lit class we’re discussing Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie, about the ill-fated Wingfield family, whose crippled and oversensitive daughter, Laura, collects the fragile glass animals of the title.
Around and around we go, trying to pin the blame, or at least the responsibility, for the family’s breakdown on this character or that one. Was it Tom, the son, an aspiring writer? Amanda, the struggling single mother? That no-good, absentee father? Or Tom’s friend, that stealer of hearts and kisses, Jim? The various factions argue finally to a standstill.
I recognize this need for the sharp clarity of blame. In the play Williams pushes his audience right to the brink of absurdity, and I want my students to take that step. I want to see if they can consider either a villainous God or an unauthored universe.
“Can we blame whoever crippled Laura?” I ask, last week’s massive bruise now only a suggestion of blue beneath my left eye. “And who did cripple Laura?”
There is a beat of silence. Then another. Nicole slowly raises her hand. She’s from Chicago and has had a hard time in this little Iowa town, at this mostly white college. “No one,” she says. “This kind of thing happens. No matter what her mother or her brother or her father did, or whether Jim should have kissed her or not, she’s always going to be crippled. I mean, you could blame God, but what’s the use? That girl’s just crippled.”
Across the circle then, as if moved to prayer, a young man from a small town in Iowa begins to tell the story of his grandfather, who in late middle age was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. Years later, at the grandfather’s funeral, everyone talked about how strong he’d been, how he’d never complained and had always made the best of his situation, never letting it get him down.
But after the funeral, the young man says, leaning forward in his chair, his college-kid grin flattening, trembling, he caught his grandmother crying, and she told him that she’d almost left his grandfather — because of his complaining. He was miserable. He felt “broken and useless.” He thought he had to be strong in public. So he saved all his sadness for her, for when they were alone.
About a year and a half after his initial diagnosis, my brother — still taking his daily injections, still living his life with MS — had a third MRI at Mount Sinai Hospital after starting graduate school at Fordham University in New York. The doctors didn’t know what to say, but the sclerotic scar on his brainstem was gone.
He left the hospital and wandered down through Central Park. He wanted to believe. He wasn’t sure he could believe. His current neurologist doesn’t think they can call it MS anymore, since the symptoms, even after they discontinued treatment, have simply disappeared. His balance and vision have come back. He graduated from Fordham, he married, he is a father now. It’s quite a thing. It has been nearly nine years.
Most are not so lucky. Most carry those invisible marks for the rest of their lives. My brother carries his weary gladness now out in front of him. When you shake his hand or hug him, you taste it, like the last swallow of a rich red wine in the back of your throat, and you know, just know — as you know breath or the need for water — that he was once very close to disaster, which reminds you of your own precarious and ultimately finite situation, which makes you hold his wide shoulders a moment longer.
And the loud, knotted contusion beneath my eye has thinned and faded as well. A shadow now. A scrim of smoke. Soon, like smoke, it will be gone.
And I am thankful. For I do not want it there, do not want it to define me.
But I also want it there: to remind me, to help me see. I am in need of reminding, of clarified sight. I need to remember that we are not, not one of us, whole.