By Lance Larsen
I finish with the lawn when the mail truck pulls up. It's Saturday.
The afternoon breeze has gotten hung up in the canyon, and the leaves
of the transplanted aspens refuse to quiver. Above the street, a sea gull
glides a vigilant circle, surveying by turn each house on the cul-de-sac. His
wings are grayish, his body a dazzling white, and every few moments he
beats the air to stay afloat. He shimmers in the heat--any moment he
might melt into sky. With the rumbling of the mail truck, his cries and
flapping are a silent ballet.
Sandwiched between a bank statement and an ad for time-share
condominiums somewhere in California is Jamie's letter--her scrawls not
cursive, not print, but something in between. She writes:
I don't know how to tell you the things that have happened to
me since I graduated. One thing is very good. I have a
boyfriend . . . .
The cars, the snaking television aerials, even the pieces of gray
lawn that separate the houses seem suddenly hazy. Only Jamie's words.
And behind her words the slowness of her voice:
The bad thing is that my brother, Jess, who is nineteen, was killed
on April 12 in an auto accident. He was driving. He was killed
instantly. I wish you could have met him at graduation. He drove
all the way up that morning, even when he had to work the night
before and the next day. He looked so handsome that day. It was
the last day I saw him.
Her words would have come carefully. Perhaps she was sitting at her
kitchen cable, dirty breakfast things pushed aside; or under a tree; or in
her room, sitting cross-legged on her bed, surrounded by familiar voices--
Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, T. S. Eliot--voices that wash across the dark
creases of her mind, giving taste and texture to her world, helping her to
focus her poet's eye.
The postmark reads' 'April 19.'' Already a week has passed, a seven-day
string of getting up, stumbling about, and trying to sleep things off. I
want to ask her things. Has she gone walking by the lake, searching for
answers in the churned water? Has she tried to write? These details seem
Her father--or at least the him lurking behind her poetry--is a sinewy
man with rough hands, quick to anger but gentle enough to comfort a
splinter of a girl. Sometimes he leans over a balcony railing to survey the
dusky green of Virginia. When the wind blows hard dust, he is in Vietnam,
leaning into the turbulence of a landing helicopter. On quiet mornings,
he stands in the corner of a Paris bar at closing, while the waiters busy
themselves stacking chairs. I think of Jamie's loss as the slow uncoiling of
a snake. I consider my own losses--the family Siamese when I was six, later
a grandmother I hardly knew. But these didn't leave me with a chunk gone,
with a leg gnawed off. I am whole.
Outside, I look for the sea gull, but there is only sky. I lie in the grass,
supine, my legs close together, my book blocking the sun the way Jess's
lids must have blocked artificial light. I become Jess. For the longest time
I do not move. No blood, no organs, I am stone. No air stirs my lungs.
My hands lie across my chest, but I forget which hand is which, which
fingers are intertwined. Heavy, I sink into the grass, the blades pushing
up around me. The rain will come, and the wind. Together they will chip
away at me until I feel myself melting into loam.
I imagine the visitors, a slow current of downward peering faces:
cousins, friends of the family, an aunt who used to plant kisses on Jess's
forehead until the smell of powdered lilac lingered in his hair, a high school
algebra teacher, a neighbor who used to let Jess ride his horses. And toward
the end, Jess's friends. A girl he kissed in the school parking lot when
everyone had gone home. Friends from work. And behind them, the boys
in his car. Someday they 'd pry into the why of it, but by then, solaced
by the embrace of soft wives, the answers would lose their edge. And Jamie's
there-with her careful smile and cowlicked bangs.
She'll come back slowly, losing herself in the petals of a shrivelled
rose or the tangled mane of a filly. Poetry will help. And the starlings that
tear a black wedge across an orange sky. Wet leaves damming a gutter, the
smell of rain. The lyrics of Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen. They will
In the evening I sit down to dinner with my mother; Dad is out of
town for the week. We talk quietly. Later, I go outside and the crickets
are so loud that after a while I do not hear them. Nothing exists but the
night and these parked cars, brittle as pods. The moon is up, a half-crescent
of white above the neighbor's house. As a child Jamie might have wished
for a wedge to soothe a scraped knee, but tonight the moon just hangs.
Following a preset course, it pulls at dark, malleable oceans but changes
nothing, heals no one.
I get in my car and drive west. It is Lana Howard's wedding reception
at the Holiday Inn. Inside, I pass the bar. Above the clink of glasses and
the laughter, a guitar accompanies a nasal voice singing about empty bottles
and mothers-in-law. In the hall is a sign: HOWARD~JAMISON WEDDING
PARTY. A table near the door is piled with elegantly wrapped gifts--
toasters, silverware, and tumblers. At the other end of the room where the
sound system and dance floor are set up, the rabies are packed with people.
Lana is walking toward me. She has on a taffeta dress with
bills pinned across the front--some fives, but mostly tens and twenties.
"Hi," she says, taking my hand . ''l'm glad you made it. Eldon and
everyone from pricing are over there.'' She points to the far corner. I nod
and ask her how the ceremony went. "Fine," she tells me. I compliment
her on her hair then ask about the bills.
She giggles, partly from champagne. "They're from everyone who
wants to dance with me one last time. I've made over two hundred dollars.
Tom has most of it in his pocket.'' She says something about making a
call and hurries out.
For a moment I think of leaving. The hall would be empty. Outside,
behind the hotel, shielded from the rushing cars, I could sit on the grass.
Neon would bathe me; bugs would dance in the artificial light as they
did when Jamie and I would sit on the hill behind the library. We looked
at the trees. And beyond them Saint Joseph's steepled roof and the lights
across the lake. Once we talked of summer. Jamie told about planting
geraniums and watching snails weave iridescent ribbons in the dust. And
I told her of sea gulls-how on mornings heavy with wet air they would
circle, a shifting gyre of gray and white, how one, brighter than the rest,
would hang close to shore, marking vigil. I told Jamie that and she nodded
and we looked to the lake.
A waitress brushes my arm. I pick my way past tables of bald men
wearing polyester suits and women working thin, brown cigarettes. Smoke
and music and scratchy voices fill the air.
At the corner table I say hello to everyone from pricing, shake a few
hands, and laugh when Eldon tells me that I'm late, that he thought
I wasn't coming. A reggae song begins and Christin, married and with
three kids, asks me to dance. I move to the music the way I do when I
feel it, and no one knows the difference. Christin tells me I dance well;
she wishes she were still in college.
A maid hands out small bags of rice and the DJ. announces the last
song. It ends with a flurry of drums, and everyone spills into the hallway,
forming a tunnel the couple will pass through. I see all this from a distance.
The tunnel of dark suits and backless dresses-pinks and whites and corals.
The blur of moving arms. The white and green Blazer, stuffed to the roof
with presents, backed up to the open doors.
Lana and Bob emerge from a side entrance, arm in arm, giggling.
Everyone cheers and begins throwing rice. Soon they'll be saying their
good-byes. They'll break off into couples and walk through the parking
lot. Lana and Bob will check into a bridal suite somewhere, while the guests
hurry along bare highways. I wait, then go outside. Above me against the
stars, nothing moves.
Back home, the TV is on in the family room. Mother looks up from
the sofa, asks me how the reception was. She tells me "Camelot" when
I ask her what she is watching. Despite the theatrics and singing, the fall
of the kingdom seems real. She turns off the TV and says goodnight. I
watch the curtain blow. I imagine myself padding upstairs, standing at my
mother's doorway, looking in at her. Propped in her bed, her glasses on
the tip of her nose, she would be reading a best seller. I could talk to her.
I could bury my face in the blanket, my eyes closed, and talk.
Instead, I go to my room. I undress quickly, dropping my shoes to
the floor, letting my pants and shirt fall where they will. I switch off the
light. In the darkness, I reach out my hand and feel the wall. I think of
bleeding knights, a vanquished queen, of my mother upstairs, tossing across
the width of her king-sized bed, of Jamie hugging herself into sleep.
At the foot of my bed, a patch of moonlight quivers, moving in perfect
time with the aspens, dipping a degree, then sliding back into place. The
heater comes on, the ducts filling with air. And in my mind the patch
of light changes into a dazzling gull with wings that unfold a feather at
a time. Beating a slow rhythm, the gull rises with healing in its wings,
above the earth and moon, bidding all to follow--a kingdom, a sister, a
boy plucked before his time.