The boy appeared out of the odd blue glare of an early summer evening on a Huffy, I think it was, and I hit him doing over sixty with the Infiniti.
Laura stiffarmed the dashboard and pumped her right foot on the phantom brake of the passenger side. We both saw the child’s face turn our way in a flicker and then saw the distortion of the headwound against the windshield and the eruption of a starburst of gore with a complex but entirely mathematical symmetry whose spatter could no doubt have been calculated from the velocities and vectors and masses of the two objects and the wind.
My instinct had been to steer left, but that was the wrong call. It sent us directly into the boy when it might have been different if I had just kept on ahead or gone right. A misjudgment of basic Newtonian physics, or not a misjudgment, but the failure to engage judgment at all, taking your lead from the thing itself, competing for its destination, its spot on the floor. Idiot.
He disappeared over the top, leaving a clotty little stain on the moonroof and then reappeared out the back window, receding geometrically in ways keyed to the deceleration of the car, the indifferent pulse of the ABS and nauseating metallic grinding of the bicycle under the front wheels.
Laura was out of the passenger door before the car had rolled to a stop and she receded in the rear window in a different way, running not girl-like in that breast protecting way, but full-out, flagging traffic with windmill arms as she approached the boy, urging cars at a minimum to avoid the child’s form, midlane, and perhaps, I guess, to stop for reasons she could not possibly have processed if she had had time to think about it, since anyone stopping would have been help of such a rudimentary kind as to be no help at all.
She grabbed for her phone in her purse, detritus falling randomly while she fished for it and blowing away in the eddies created by traffic. She dropped it and bent to pick it up and squatted on her haunches near the boy and dialed. It was all silent movie gesticulation and panic to me, triple-framed in the mirror and then the rear window and then in the perfect curve of her hips and lower back as I observed and then emerged myself into the punctuated white noise of a highway in summer.
The boy was not technically dead but I had seen such a thousand times and I knew he was gone. Laura couldn’t know and when his body began a seizure, she knelt and held and cradled him as if he were asking for someone to help him hold on. She gripped him in the instinctive way of women everywhere, sobbing the ancient feminine pietà, a proxy for the child’s mother who could not possibly be near enough to matter.
I reminded her that if it were spinal—which I knew to be a complete irrelevancy—he should be kept as immobile as possible. She looked up at me pitiably, the left side of the boy’s bloody head and face staining her yellow sundress and then lay his twitching body down gently on the blacktop.
Honestly, were the whole thing not such a self-satisfied fraud, start to finish, I might fully accept that I should live forever in hell for that one lie by itself.
* * *
For most of the next several minutes, I played at what I am. People want the Alda at moments like this—Not today, dammit, not on my watch, that kind of thing. So you oblige, taking his pulse and looking into his pupils and dialing a neurologist friend in trumped panic telling him to get the best surgeon he can think of to Christ and when he says they could airlift the boy to Children’s you say Fuck yes, that’s better, do that.
— Tony thinks he can get Children’s to send the helicopter.
— You didn’t even say where we were.
So I got him back on the phone and ginned it up again and told him where on 42 I thought we were.
— You’re wasting time. The helicopter people could’ve gotten it from EMS in Warren County.
— Oh, okay.
Then to her.
— He says the medevac team will figure it out by talking to the paramedics.
— Oh, Jesus, David.
— Okay, sweetie. People are coming. Okay.
It was wasteful and unnecessary theater and when EMS arrived and Laura told them I’m a doctor, they looked at me silently with a kind of knowing disgust that I had allowed it to go on as long as it had. Through the two-way pinned to his breastbone, the man called off the helicopter in a voice blank and void without looking at me and the woman, knelt with Laura and bandaged the boy’s flattened and open brainpan.
— Are you taking him to Cincinnati?
— No, ma’am.
— My husband is a doctor. He called for the helicopter to Children’s.
— Miss, this child is hurt really bad.
She shouted at the woman.
— That’s why we don’t have time to screw around.
The boy seized once more, then expired. The EMTs went through the litany of things you do. They reperfused him and then defibrillated him and then an IC needle of what I assume was Pitressin or adrenaline, but no one but Laura expected anything and Laura not for long.
* * *
I asked if they were making a determination and the first one gave a mumbled no with no eye contact, that no they would get him to the hospital and have an attending do it there and I asked why and they both looked at me and said nothing awhile.
— Families like the hospital, doctor.
— Your call.
So I dislodged the bicycle from under then front end and we trailed to the hospital in silence. We sat together in a room off the ER and when the nurse came in with a police officer to take our names, Laura was sobbing, her long fingers weaving through mine.
— Who is he, do you know?
— No, not yet. It won’t take long. Are you a physician, sir?
— Yes, that’s right.
— Did you call down to Cincinnati for that medevac?
— I called someone who called, I think. I was doing everything I could think of. I thought if we could get him into surgery fast.
— We didn’t see him, Laura said. He darted out.
Then the officer.
— I know. That’s right. Kids are always crossing 42. It’s a shortcut.
— To what?
— They built up a fort in the woods on the other side.
She thought we should stay until the parents arrived. I felt sick when she said it and then regrouped, projecting my most reliable look-through, not full-on but with small head feints always to the right, catching her retinas against the fluorescents, hand clasp tentative and intermittent, acknowledging that I am no more than a fellow traveler, unsure like you are, but perhaps a little more sure, perhaps that is something, calling her both daughter and little sister with my eyes—a look established on hundreds less vulnerable than she at that moment, and before me, hundreds of millions, looking not just for the math of it all, which is a magic practiced by aliens, but for someone kind as family to unvoid her conscience—to persuade her staying would be well intentioned but wrong. It is an authority bought with the pretense that we are professional death-seers—that we know how to work with it—but that is such the lie. We never see it. We are always conveniently absent when it comes. We have to be. We would vaporize else. It is axiomatic that you cannot be present and it is best by far that you not even be nearby when desolation alights on the lids of the remains, the remaining, the remainder.
* * *
So rare, coruscation of unnumbered Christmas lights, perfume like cinnamon, the glimmer off her hair, the tug of lambswool from each hip forward, wrapping, fabric cannot contain her, the ache from the tautness of her back, yours, bowing and alert, all rare swell and lushness and fullness, you try not to plead but you do, you always do, please, please, please, every troth affirmed, every dot connected, so rare it chases you sideways, there is nothing left undone, it will be care and ease foreverafter, every secret kept, any creature killed that dare not affirm how rare and precious and then you learn the proposal she has heard is a different one than the proposal you had made. She is hearing Let’s never tell anyone anything shameful. Let’s never do anything you can’t do in a restaurant and you are asking Let us live until we die in the seraglios of night.
* * *
There was a bellywail from a man and for most of several seconds, everything went silent. Chatter you hadn’t been hearing announced itself by disappearing. The eyes of the waiting go big and round and deep when it happens, then down and away, wherever they may be, even if they are in for a rugburn or have been bitten by a poodle.
— That’s him. That’s the father. He found him.
— We don’t know that. It could be someone else. We need to go, sweetie. They don’t want us here.
— No, no, no. We didn’t do anything. But it’s wrong to run off.
— We didn’t do anything?
— No, baby, no.
— This is private for them. Trust me.
She walked out, her yellow dress flowing over her like a sunlit bay in morning, her white sneakers squeaking on the linoleum. She pushed through the antiseptic curtain and found them, father and son together, his frame hunched pitiably over the bed and the body, face buried in the boy’s chest, kissing it continually and autonomically, bumping his nose blindly over and again through a tshirt about Legos.
When Laura appeared, his head pivoted toward her, but his body held to the shape of abjection over the boy’s frame.
— Oh my god oh my god.
Laura noticed the blood on her bodice and abdomen and covered instinctively with her forearms, the man’s face twisting as it pivoted back.
— Everyone is dead. I told him a thousand times. I am a terrible terrible terrible terrible.
Laura with her elbows still over her breasts, her fingertips covering her mouth, crying with the man. And through his sobs, the man.
— Let’s go get the biggest pizza you ever saw. Or Target. Anything. Everyone is dead.
* * *
My family met her for the first time at the wedding in Baltimore of a cousin of mine where people said that she upstaged the bride. And unquestionably she did, all summer dress and legs and back and perfume.
My mother asked if she were a model and I snorted back a syllable that wasn’t a word and tilted back the ice at the bottom of a glass to make it clear that she certainly was not and then I took a good last look at her and shuddered Jesus Christ to myself. So it is. Jesus.
I say last look because I have never really brought myself to look at her again after that. I see her, obviously. I catch her most often in reflections and side glances. But there is a way we avoid looking. She tries and fails to hide the fullness of her hips and breasts in clothes meant for boys and I pretend to oblige her hiding by almost never seeing and, past just seeing, I hardly ever look. It is just too heartbreaking.
Her beauty is embarrassing to me because of what it says about her and what it says about me. About her it says Everybody knows that she chose this one for utility and because she is hopelessly broken. About me it says He is one of those who traded on it to troll among the beautiful for the broken ones.
Over time, the ways she is broken have become comfortable or at least I have become familiar with them enough to be able to work with them. As for why she is broken, I can’t say and will probably never know, but there is a kind of relief you get from knowing that the reason for something that seems impossible is the invisible apparatus of the entirely likely reasons and it sedates you to know it had to be so.
And the ways I ignored her allowed her to live an existence scrubbed nearly clean of unchastity, assuring she would never be guilty of saying, doing or wanting anything in arousal that she might later be ashamed of. Our mutual cowardice about creating moments of scene-making or scandal among our families meant she had a life in which the emptiness of our interactions was nearly invisible to the people capable of making her—well, either of us—feel ashamed.
In all, a grim and silent opera of absence and it might have gone on like this forever and I wish it had. But what you learn is that such stillness is bought with cables and turnbuckles, intricate, entropy-arresting suspension lines that bear unnatural tautness and whose failure means an unnatural wildflying scourge of frayed wiring, shredding you before the whistling sound of it arrives.
* * *
Everyone is dead. By which I later learned he meant that the boy’s mother had died when he was three. From there it is a series of short straight connecting rays to the things Laura set into motion without permission on behalf of both of us, things—not to be an ass—that you shouldn’t have to do when you kill someone with your car. Help with the funeral, not the cost which would have been insulting and feudal somehow, but the preparations. Calling the boy’s school to let the principal know. Calling the soccer coach for Christ’s sake, which I overheard from behind a wall. An obituary. Something at the credit union in Lebanon. A memory wall at their church, all bundled with more crying or choked crying, all bundled with the inevitable negation—repeated to ritual—of the assumption from the other end, unheard, I’m so sorry for your loss. Are you? pick one Mother. Sister. Aunt. Cousin. Relation. Family the antiphon barely audible but always audible from one side No, I’m a friend of the family.
And then, beyond the merely unusual, there were the odd things that led us down a path. Monosyllabic calls to the father, not in secret, not hidden from me. She would grab both my hands in that irritating movie-of-the-week earnestness and look me face-on and say I won’t if you don’t want me to and what do you say? No, it’s fine. I think you should. I don’t care. Absences. Checks to a woman in West Chester.
— Who is this? Were you going to tell me?
— She’s a doctor.
— Are you sick? What kind of doctor?
— It’s just someone to talk to and you know I’m still all broken up, sweetie. Do you know?
— How did you find her?
— On the Internet.
— She’s a bargain.
— What do you mean?
— She works for cheap.
— What do you mean?
— I mean she’s not a doctor. Do you want me to refer you to someone?
— Do you need a script?
— She’s not a doctor.
— Stop it.
— Do you want me to go with you?
* * *
October was warm and perfect and silent. I left early and worked late and late and came home to Laura already in bed or watching TV in the dark. Stillness had redescended, though not the same stillness. Nothing was said.
I had gone to the woman’s website—all fucking soft focus and footbridges and inspirational proverbs—and pulled her number and it sat in a pile of paper on my passenger side for weeks, under foodbags and newspaper, empty hardpacks and travelmugs. Pulled the number, but not called, and then on a Tuesday, did, not knowing what to say or ask, expecting to get the receptionist when she picked up herself. In the end, though, it was no more than the simplest mercantile math that led to the answer, asking for rates, hearing, at first, the standard blather about scale, then cutting to it and running the numbers in my head, numbers not divisible by the checks she had written, not even as installments against a future total.
— Um, do you work with couples too?
— Can I ask what we could expect?
Double. Exactly double. I laughed and then said thank you. She asked for a name and I gave her the name of my college roommate and laughed again. Are you kidding me? The most ridiculous cuckoldry you can think of. I still laugh about it.
I honestly didn’t care. I didn’t. I still don’t. It was for pure perversity that I cancelled out an afternoon and sat in the damn parking lot smoking until her car pulled past, then the signature little whirr of her car at idle, then her stride from car to door, hair back, the sun glinting off it, all shoulders and back and neck, her hips so arched and feminine in fall linen, shoes I hadn’t seen before or hadn’t noticed, swinging her purse, breasts full and high, smoking and staring while she opened the tinted door and disappeared inside. Then the boy’s father, emerging from a Ford, blazer and jeans and sunglasses, you have got to be kidding me.
So it was a three o’clock and I sat smoking two more until three-twenty and then went through the door myself, scrubs and labcoat, stitch visible in the left pocket, curled like a pet ferret, walking in and smiling at the receptionist, asking for the “doctor,” the woman smiling back, telling me what I knew, telling her it was urgent, watching the agitation in her eyes, not knowing what to do, then making it easy for her, taking it out of her hands—they just want you to take it out of their hands—Is she in here? Is this the one? I’ll just be a minute and walking through and in on the three of them, two sitting together chastely like before the prom on a discount store sofa wrought to seem made of uncarded wool, mobiles of abstractions in primary colors, like you see in the nurseries of infants, hung by wires, pivoting slowly in the currents created by officepark ventilation and the opening of the door, the third behind a desk with a tabletop fountain the likes of which you might find at Brookstone in the mall.
— Oh, sweetie.
— Why are you here?
— What is this, Laura?
— Stop it.
— What is this about?
— Don’t be an ass, David.
The father of the boy, knees wide, hunched over, looking like he might throw up. The woman barely showing the studied inner panic of professionals as if I might have a gun.
— Eleanor, will you call security, please?
Then Laura stood and pushed past and departed, the scent of her skin and hair settling over me again and for the last time, the moment suspended in the still air pivoting gently on wires, not frozen, but still, which is never absolute, which is always still just moving, bought by gentle motions, as quiet as you could want, as still and quiet as only once before, just once, at thirty-one weeks, the crowning, then flicker, then the spatter of birth, the gloved hands of professionals, of sexless women in rubber shoes, a language you had oddly ceased to understand, in your arms, then gone, holding your wife with unimaginable love, together watching them minister to him, listening to their low snarling chatter about pO2, about the capriciousness of Celestone, about intubation and the taxonomy of its varieties, their bodies hunched over a box, their bent backs, shoulders flexing through scrubs, through the narrowest of viewlines, his skin as slack as a Shar-Pei, his call to you as if from across millennia the combative squeak not of a child but an animal, all somehow impossible stillness, its slow drift on cables and rods in an imperceptible flow and then she took your chin in her fingers and found your eyes at last, pleading to know, to know nothing you know, to know what will become of us, the three of us, to know why oblivion alights thus, his tiny frame soon covered in slack diagnostic filaments, but indifferent to them, the squeak displaced by the calculus of ending, unsaved by hands he is heedless of, a creature who will never know he was the child of a father who, under different circumstances and on a better day, might call down Sikorskys from the sky.
Greg Sendi is a Chicago-based writer of fiction, essays and poetry whose work has appeared in a number of professional, general interest and literary publications, including Wire magazine, American Way, Environmental Leader, The Best of Bad Faulkner and Chicago Review (where he served as fiction editor from 1989-1990). He has spent most of his career as a communications professional with a focus on measuring and analyzing the factors that affect human attention and the ways language and ideas create social change. He is currently at work on a novel of which the short story “Seraglios of Night” forms a part.