Jeff and I learned CPR at the hospital where we worked. I secretly hoped to use it someday. I wanted to drag someone back into life, to tear them away from death; I wanted that power.
A few weeks later we went fishing.
The old man was on his back in the early-morning grass. Beads of dew stood out all around him like stars. His hat had come off when he fell, and it was in the grass beside him. There were flies in the sheepskin hatband — well-tied flies of beautiful feathers. The old man’s eyes were open, and he looked quite dead.
“How long ago did this happen?” Jeff asked a bystander.
“Just now. He fell over when he caught that fish.”
We ripped his shirt open so Jeff could get his hands placed properly, and saw a raised scar on his chest. The old man had had open-heart surgery years ago. He’d been fishing on borrowed time.
I rocked his head back to open the airway, put my lips against the old man’s mouth, and blew. The breath echoed like wind in an empty cave.
Jeff began pumping with his arms and counting.
After twenty minutes, beads of perspiration had gathered on Jeff’s face. Air had begun to build in the old man’s stomach. As Jeff pumped, the air churned. It escaped from the man’s slack lips with a damp farting noise, bringing up a greenish foam that I wiped away as best I could between breaths. His color had drained away, leaving his face a waxy yellow-blue, and his eyes had begun to dry, losing their shine and depth. His lips were like cold putty beneath mine.
I wanted to stop. The old man had caught a trophy trout and died as he landed it. He had fallen with his face to the sky on a fresh mountain morning. He didn’t need me. He didn’t need anybody. The bystander knelt beside the old man’s head and said, “C’mon, you can make it.”
He’s already made it, I thought, but I didn’t say anything and I didn’t quit.
The ambulance came after the man had been dead forty minutes. Jeff was drenched with sweat and I had flecks of green bile in my mustache. They loaded him into the back of the ambulance. They didn’t hurry and they didn’t use the siren.
“I hope he was gone before we got to him,” Jeff said as we watched the ambulance taking him away. “It was too nice a place to die to have a couple of heroes work you over.”
We clapped and cheered when we crossed the state line into North Carolina. M. and I had decided to leave New Hampshire when he lost his job to the recession choking New England. Migrating to the Sun Belt was one of those fantasies I dared to dream while scraping ice from my windshield on a dark December morning. Now the dream seemed the answer to a nameless longing for change. M. had a promising new job. S., our daughter, was apprehensive but excited about seeing her new school. She would have the summer to make new friends. The sun’s warmth filled the crowded van and penetrated our Yankee bones.
We found a small house in a tiny fishing village hidden behind a barrier island. M. and I quickly made friends with some folks we met on the beach. They had loud, rollicking parties where the beer was icy and the tequila salty. We saw our new friends more and more, leaving S. with adolescent baby sitters. We got high and watched sunsets over the backwater. We ate barbecue with our beer and sucked limes with our tequila. We danced, laughed, and stayed up all night.
Sometimes, after a few days of hard partying, I’d lie in bed watching the ceiling fan turn in the shadowy light. I’d try to decide which party was the one where the beer, the joint, or the line on the mirror became a need rather than a casual choice, but my memories were always hazy. The stories and jokes seemed to be the same ones I had heard the night before. The arguments became more frequent between friends, lovers, spouses — and in the end, between M. and me.
Now on sunny mornings I sit in the golden Carolina sunshine with my coffee cup in hand. M. and I have been clean and sober for two months. We spend most of our time alone or with S. We take long walks on the beach; we meander through the countryside on weekends. We seldom hear from our old friends, nor do we seek them out.
We took S. to the zoo yesterday. It was a long ride out to Asheboro from the coast. S’s laughter and awe at the sight of the exotic animals proved contagious. As our headlights lit up our little house when we finally pulled in at the end of the day, my lips formed a silent cheer. I was glad to be home, once again hopeful for what tomorrow might bring.
In the last month, I have given my wife more than fifty shots. We began by injecting Lupron into her upper legs to shut down her hormonal system. Over the last two weeks, I’ve injected cocktails of Pergonal and Metrodin to stimulate her ovaries. These last shots are the brutal ones. Twice a day, I line up as many as eight glass vials. After snapping off the tops, I mix liquid into the little bottles, carefully drawing the chemicals into a hypodermic. Then, with the syringe full, I unscrew the needle to attach a longer, thinner one.
My wife lies on her belly, whimpering into a pillow, her underpants down. Stretching her skin with my index finger and thumb, I target a spot not yet bruised or spotted with the dried blood of past shots. As I plunge the two-inch needle into her, I can feel it tear through layers of muscle.
My wife is healthy. She rarely gets a cold, or even a stomachache. Up until these last two years, she has never needed a doctor. But we cannot have a baby the way everyone else can.
We have been through five cycles of these injections during the last two years, each cycle lasting a month and a half. We hate the shots but there is a point, after weeks of needles, when our life is suddenly quiet and almost normal. The doctors have poked and prodded, collecting dozens of vials of blood. We have written an endless stream of checks, in amounts that could buy cars or African safaris. When the fifty to sixty injections have ended, a handful of eggs are sucked from my wife’s ovaries, then mixed with my sperm, to create embryos that are returned to her uterus.
During those ten quiet days, as the embryos float within her, looking for a spot to cling and grow, we are gentle with one another. We do not argue. We laugh softly. We smile sadly at each other and hope that this time it will work. But it hasn’t worked in our last five attempts. Prayers, lucky pennies, and the wishes of friends haven’t worked. We’ve come to believe that there is no such thing as magic — and maybe, though it scares us, there is no such thing as God. We are on our own as we wait out the ten days before the pregnancy test.
We continue to dream about a child, about teaching her to ride a bike, about sharing the wonder of a burrito with a five-year-old boy who looks like us. We no longer resent seeing moms fussing with their naturally conceived children outside the vegetable store. We dare to believe that now we can actually become a member of that club.
It is the best part of these cycles, this time of anxious hope.
San Francisco, California
Uncle Paulie smelled of herring, schnapps, and man-stink. His polyester suit was too tight, too short, and the color of dead leaves. He clutched me close as we danced. His hand felt sweaty and hard, like the bottom of an iron.
“Some daughter you’ve got here,” Uncle Paulie yelled above the music to my parents, who sat at a nearby table. My father laughed and raised his champagne glass in the air.
Uncle Paulie suddenly stuck his tongue in my ear and squeezed me tighter. I pleaded to my mother with my eyes. She whispered something to my father. I heard him growl, “Sit down,” and saw him grab her wrist. My mother knocked her wine glass into her lap and walked quickly out of the catering hall. She avoided my eyes as she held up the bottom of her dress with her hand.
“Play something jazzy,” my father yelled to the band, waving a celery stick. As the band played, Uncle Paulie spun me around. I managed to run off the dance floor and out the front door.
It was dark and quiet. I felt the fresh air cool my hot cheeks.
“Boo!” Uncle Paulie appeared suddenly, grabbed me by the shoulders, and pushed me against the wall of the building.
“Where’d you go, hot cakes?” He slid the top of my dress down and ran his hands over my breasts. Then he put his finger to his lips, and laughed as he walked back into the catering hall.
My mouth wouldn’t work itself into a scream and my fists were frozen behind my back. I ran into the bathroom.
My mother stood in front of a sink, wiping her dress with a paper towel. She slurred as she spoke.
“Your goddamn father,” she scowled. “For twenty years I’ve put up with his shit. I don’t know who he thinks he is.” She dumped the contents of her pocketbook into the sink, searching for her lipstick.
“Uncle Paulie —” I began.
“I don’t give a shit about him either.” Her hand shook as she dabbed at her lips. She turned to leave, then paused to poke my chin with her finger.
“Fix your top. You’re falling out of it. And your slip’s showing. What are you looking for, trouble?” She shivered. “God, you and your father.”
My daughter thinks I can do anything. I can heal her boo-boos with a kiss and get rid of the monsters under her bed with my broom. I can order a McDonald’s Happy Meal in three languages and ride a bicycle without training wheels. She says I am even prettier than the Little Mermaid.
My mother fell from grace when I was thirteen. My daughter is only five. Perhaps I have some time left.
Sitting cross-legged on the unmade king-size bed, Bay looks much smaller than his five years. He watches me intently as I put on my dark pin-striped suit.
I rarely wear a suit. As a teacher for twenty years, I have passed with the tweedy patches-on-the-elbows look. In fact, I have owned only one suit since I got married in 1968. Around the house it’s jokingly called my wedding and funeral suit. Unfortunately, this morning I am not getting dressed for a wedding. I have been to several funerals lately. I suppose that happens when you reach your mid-forties. As I button the sleeves on my crisp white shirt, I see Bay’s reflection in the mirror. A man’s time with his children is so short. It is never enough. Even with seven children spanning a generation, the years are not long enough, the days racing by like windows in speeding trains, their soft baby faces growing more angular and wary with each passing hour. I was not much more than a boy when my oldest son Cael was born. I will be sixty when Elizabeth Bayou Grace — the baby — graduates from high school.
Stepping into the dark pressed trousers, I silently promise to spend more time with my family while I still have a chance. This funeral is proof that no one knows when his or her time will come. Life is no joke; not even a second is to be squandered frivolously.
As I pull up the zipper, press the button through the hole, and begin to thread the black belt through the loops, Bay slips off the bed. By the time I yank the shiny buckle tight against my growling stomach, I see his mouth forming a thought.
“Dad, when I grow up,” he says, cranking his head to the side, “I want to be just like you —”
I reach for the slight shoulders and little head covered with soft brown hair. I ache to press him so close to me that we will never be apart, but he leans back as if there is still more to say, something that will illuminate the rest of my days. “When I grow up, Dad,” he adds, nodding just like his older brothers, “I want to wear a belt every day!”
New Paltz, New York
I grew to love birds after I started feeding them in my back yard. I could see the bird feeder through the large picture window in my dining room, and bird-watching quickly became an obsession. Soon, books of nature lore, field guides, bird-call tapes, and binoculars joined my already-crowded bookshelves.
I decided I wanted a canary. Bred in captivity for hundreds of years, canaries are not frustrated by the confines of a cage. Their average life expectancy is twelve years, far longer than any songbird in the wild. A canary would be my companion through many cold, gray winters. A canary would sing inside my dining room.
I called him Pip. It is the sound he makes as he hops from perch to perch. “Pip! Pip!” he calls to the birds on the other side of the window. “Pip! Pip!” he calls to get my attention.
The one thing Pip does not do is sing. Once in a while, he’ll sing two or three notes, but that’s all. Maybe he’s a she; maybe he’s still too young; maybe he’ll sing in the spring.
The week after Pip came into our lives, my partner was laid off. We get by on unemployment and odd jobs and the generosity of friends. We have a lot of free time, but very little money. We have the luxury of many hours to read and talk and write, to listen to music, to take long walks. Our lives have become far simpler.
We hope we can live this way forever. We’d like to do farm labor perhaps, or refurbish and recycle old clothes, or cater vegetarian meals, or work in a hospice. We’d like to never again have to heed the bureaucracy, big business, the IRS. We’d like burger chains to lay off the rain forests; we’d like war and violence against women and children to end. We’d like to win the lottery and operate a wildlife sanctuary. We’d like for Pip to sing.
Ithaca, New York
Driving with T. to my fifth college reunion I said, “You know, you could be someone else, and the baby in the back could be a different baby, or not exist at all, and I could be driving alone or in a different direction toward another fifth reunion of something and it would have been OK.”
It strikes me how often people are distracted by myths, big ideas, delusions of grandeur about what they really want to do or to be and how great it will be when they get there. Our culture promotes such fantasies about romance and relationships, and tries to sell the idea that if we buy this or that we’ll become something else, and happy, and a success — however we define that. The mundane parts of life — fighting with someone we love, buying groceries, sitting at the laundromat, paying bills, having to use up what’s in the fridge — disappoint a lot of people who expected more. It seems that many of the people around me, all of whom have their basic needs met and then some, have a sense that there’s something more out there, and they’re waiting for the show to start.
I’m generally content with what comes my way. I know that a lot of it is luck: being born into a family where people care about each other and treat each other well, having enough to eat and a warm place to live, having the resources to do things I really want to do, having good friends I can depend on. Meanwhile, I am delighted by garage sales, tabloid headlines, the smell of gardenias, the curvy shapes of my kids’ naked bodies, and the fact that a creature like a seahorse even exists. A different lover or no lover, or different kids or no kids, or living on a farm or in a city would work out for me just fine, I think. I’d learn things. True, I expect, even demand, quality, sincerity, integrity, and meaning. But that can all happen when I slice open a red cabbage.
Griff is a high-school senior. I am a disillusioned college student. We met over the summer and became best friends. Griff meets my weekly bus from State College at Monroeville, a cigarette in his mouth, Grand Funk on the eight-track.
Grant’s Super Service is a simple affair — two pumps, a work bay, a wash bay. Griff works after school and on weekends, pumping gas, fixing flats, and pushing stalled cars. He sells two hundred gallons in an evening. He collects the customers’ crumpled bills, drains the pump hose into his lighter. Saturdays are hectic. Sunday is a joke. There is no such thing as self-service.
Saturday nights, Griff’s parents go out. We split a bottle of wine, work on his car, fix dinner, and talk. When the sky is solid black, we unfold the sofa bed, toss our clothes in a pile, climb under wool blankets, prop ourselves on our elbows, and plan the future. Next year, we will enroll at the university, share an apartment, and pump gas for pocket money. It all sounds reasonable and easy to believe.
Sunday morning, I awaken slowly. Griff is asleep. I dress by the window’s cold light. I have a first cigarette. I leave my shoes, slip to the kitchen, and brew coffee.
The house is quiet. Griff’s parents may have returned and left again, or perhaps they have not returned at all. I take a cup back to the room where Griff, awake, reclines, his eyes still blank. He takes a sip of coffee, takes my cigarette. He carries his coffee to the bathroom. I fix breakfast as he showers and dresses. The station is open by ten. We smoke. We talk. We laugh. Business is slow.
Griff crouches behind a car, pump hose in hand, on a February Sunday. The sun begins to fall. The pole lamps turn the pump island into a stage. The station driveway hasn’t been swept. The toes of his boots are caked with snow. His cigarette burns in the office ashtray as he watches the dials on the pump. His coffee gets cold.
Perched in the corner of the office, content, indifferent, I believe it will always be this way. I listen to the AM radio over the squealing of the heater. The compressor snaps on with a world-ending clang. I move from the stool to the doorway, focus the camera, and shoot. We do not fear the future. The year is 1971.