I know something is wrong because he’s silent.
I’ve been here before. I know the progression. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
The screams are expected. The screams are natural. Everything’s been natural since we found out. No booze. No drugs. Even now, in this temple of pharmacological worship, she refuses the drugs and embraces the pain.
And I know something’s wrong because he’s limp.
He’s tall, but you don’t say tall yet. You say long. Tall will come later, when stubby legs support a chubby body. My eldest son is tall.
My youngest son is long.
The doctor holds him with both hands: One supports his head, the other his rear. Incredibly long arms and legs hang from his incredibly long torso, pointing at the sterile floor. This isn’t right. Limbs constrained for nine months don’t unfurl this way; overcooked spaghetti draped across fork tines above a boiling pot. They bunch and flail as new lungs suck oxygen to fuel those first movements unfettered by the confines of the womb.
He doesn’t move.
The doctor’s eyes meet mine. Sparks crackle along my spine and a metallic taste floods my mouth. The doctor’s eyes mirror my own.
They show me fear.
The doctor has more years than I do, but not many. He’s me plus internship plus residency. Eight years. Maybe ten. In knowledge, he dwarfs me. In talent, he eclipses me.
In our eyes, we’re equals.
He goes quickly now (the doctor, not my improbably long son). He jumps off the stool positioned at the juncture of my wife’s legs and moves across the room, carrying my long, limp son. He places him on a small table, illuminated and heated by a powerful light. Figures in matching scrubs surround the doctor, and my long, limp son disappears behind the wall of bodies.
A hand squeezes mine, and I turn away from the medical barricade. Her face is soaked with sweat, the flush from her exertions fading as she recovers from her efforts. Modesty forgotten, she lies with her feet still in the stirrups and asks questions with her fingers and eyes. I pray her exhaustion camouflages my fear. I nod.
More people enter the room and join the congregation in the corner. Nurses leave the group, pull supplies from cabinets and run back. Sterile wrappers flutter to the floor. Words muffled by masks fly among the congregation. No one speaks to me.
I am forgotten.
I hear a drip, and then another. I look at her, still in the stirrups, too weak to move, too weak to worry. I hear another drip and see the blood on the floor. Another drop falls from her, mingling with the puddle, unnoticed by the growing mob. No one raises an alarm. Her blood does not matter.
She is forgotten.
I wait for the doctor to turn. I wait for the wink. I believe it is coming. I believe it just like I believe the key will turn in the front door when she’s not home when she says she’ll be. My mind creates scenarios too terrible to contemplate, secure in the belief that they’ll never occur. Wrecks happen to other men’s wives. Diseases strike other men’s families. It’s always someone else.
I wait for the wink.
I hear a faint cry from the table and I relax. Cry equals breath and breath equals life. The tension holding my shoulders rigid dissipates and I slump on my stool. Here comes the wink. Here comes the thumbs-up.
Here comes the key turning in the front door.
I strain to hear another cry. Things in the corner move faster. The voices are louder. Their words are heated. Any semblance of courtesy has vanished. Shouted instructions are immediately countermanded; suggestions dismissed with weary headshakes.
I glance at the clock. Twenty-seven minutes since the pushing ended. My son has lived for twenty-seven minutes and still not seen his parents. Twenty-seven minutes surrounded by a sea of gowned and masked strangers.
Twenty-seven minutes is all there is.
The doctor turns to me. As he crosses the room, he pulls down his mask, but he won’t meet my eyes. There’s no wink, no thumbs-up, no key turning in the door; only a hand clamped on my shoulder and a mumbled apology. Then he’s back on his stool between the stirrups, tending to the living.
A nurse stands before me. She carries a bundle. She asks me a question. I nod.
She gives me my son.
I study his face, the only part not covered by the blanket. I memorize every feature, extrapolate from this to see the boy, and then the man, he might have been.
I ask for water. A moment later, another nurse tries to hold it to my lips. They’re afraid I might faint. I wave her off; tell her to hold the cup close.
I turn the stool to face my wife. Her eyes are open, but she isn’t seeing me. The puddle on the floor has grown, but the doctor has it under control. Now I get the wink.
Two fingers in the plastic cup. A small cross traced on his forehead. My hands and lips move from instructions received decades earlier. I invoke the trinity I discarded years ago and give my son the only gift I have.
I give him his name.
“Oh God no. Please. No.”
“That name has no power here.”
“I can’t. . .I can’t. . .no more.”
There is a police officer at my door.
This isn’t a regular cop, a city patrol officer with powdered sugar on his face and a Styrofoam coffee cup in a plastic holder clipped to his cruiser door. This is a State Trooper, complete with mirrored sunglasses and a Smokey Bear hat with the chin strap that rests just below his lower lip. His Crown Victoria sits idling at the curb in front of my house, blocking my wife’s parking place, which is all right because I don’t expect her home for another fifteen minutes.
I step across the threshold and onto the porch. The rain that had started on my trip home has intensified and disappeared in the half hour I’ve been here. The wet pavement reflects the pre-ignition glow from the streetlights above. I light a cigarette and turn to the trooper, who still hasn’t said anything.
He states my name. I nod. He says my wife’s name. I identify her as such. He nods. He swallows, hard.
And I know.
His sunglasses hide his eyes, and I’m grateful for that. His choice in protective eyewear has given me thirty seconds more of life. Without the mirrored Ray-Bans, I would have known before I opened the screen door. If it had been colder, and if State Troopers wore scarves, I might have missed the swallow and gained another half a minute.
I want those thirty seconds.
There’s half a cigarette filter in my mouth and glowing embers dotting the front of my dress shirt. The remaining portion of the severed cigarette lies smoldering on the porch, burning a hole in the cheap indoor-outdoor carpeting she didn’t want. She wanted the Astroturf, but the carpeting was four dollars cheaper per square yard, and there were other bills to pay that month. I wonder if the Astroturf would have burned this quickly.
I ask if I should follow him. He hesitates before offering to drive. He obviously expected a different reaction. If he waits long enough, I’m sure he’ll get the response he’s looking for, but not now.
His mouth opens. His lower lip brushes the hat strap but I step off the porch before he can speak. I can’t hear it right now. I won’t listen yet.
I’m fighting for seconds.
There’s another trooper riding shotgun, so I open the back door and get in behind him. The cop on the porch closes my front door for me. He could have left it open.
What else do I have to lose?
The equipment hanging from the driver’s gun belt clatters as he climbs behind the wheel. With his gun, handcuffs, pepper spray and extra ammunition, he must be carrying around a lot more weight than most folks are used to.
I know how he feels.
As we drive away, I see him glance first at his partner and then into the rear view mirror. His partner responds with a shrug. I can’t see his throat, but I’ll bet he doesn’t swallow. I’m glad he wasn’t the one who knocked on my door.
The partner takes a microphone out of its dashboard clip and tells someone that they’re en route, 10-12, ETA ten minutes. The speaker mounted beneath the dash crackles back an acknowledgement.
I calculate distance as the trooper drives. City Hospital is less than ten minutes away; any other medical facility will take at least an hour to reach. I think of at least six mortuaries less than ten minutes away.
Don’t think about that.
Ten minutes of travel at reasonable speeds will take us to the mall, or to the other side of town. Ten minutes at state trooper speeds will get us a lot farther, but after the driver makes his first turn, I stop calculating.
I know where we’re going.
I always worry about her driving the mountain. Descending over 2000 feet in three miles makes for a tricky stretch of highway. Curves lead into curves. Brakes overheat. Even in a lower gear, gravity pulls relentlessly. Speedometers and tachometers rise in unison.
But that’s where the job is, so what can she do. After five years, she’s driven that road more times than I have, and I spent my childhood on top of the mountain. As a kid, I couldn’t wait to escape it.
She can’t wait to climb it every morning.
The trooper makes another turn. We’re on the highway now, speeding across the last flatland before the foothills. Inertia pushes me back against the seat. I tell the driver not to go so fast.
I’m fighting for seconds.
We reach the base of the mountain. I feel the transmission gear down to compensate for the incline. The huge V8 takes the hill without a groan of protest. The driver takes the switchback curves at full speed, rocketing to the summit with practiced ease. Obviously, he’s driven the mountain a lot.
Just like her.
Tall concrete barriers separate eastbound up from westbound down. Like most other locals, I complained about their installation at first. In bad weather, they kept motorists from executing an illegal 180 and heading back to town when road conditions prevented a successful ascent. Now, I am grateful for their presence.
Halfway up the mountain, I see the roof of a fire engine, the top of an ambulance and the light bars of several more state police units. Anonymous heads bob along the top of the Jersey barricades. Peers and colleagues of my two chauffeurs dash around behind the concrete wall, but the object of their activity remains hidden.
My fight for seconds continues.
At the summit, the barricade slopes to a double yellow line. The driver keys his siren and fishtails into the opposite lanes as his partner and I brace against our seats. Rubber squeals, and we race back down the hill.
Sixty seconds later, we’re stopped by a line of emergency vehicles. If my escort still wants the reaction he expected on my porch, all he needs to do is look in his rear view mirror. My seconds are up.
The sporty four-door she’s so proud of will never run again. I say it’s red; she calls it champagne. I wonder what the insurance company will call it. I see auburn hair beside the ambulance and reach for the door handle. At the same instant I realize that backseat passengers in police cars need their doors opened for them, the owner of the auburn hair turns around and I’m thankful for the safety locks.
It’s not her. I knew it when we pulled up. I knew it when I answered the door, when the trooper swallowed. I know it now that I see the sheet spread over her, blinding white against the dark asphalt.
I also knew the rest, but fought against the knowledge. Now that fight is over. A second sheet lies next to hers. It covers the same area of highway.
But what it covers is much smaller.
“How much longer. . .?”
“Longer? You are the mountain of granite and I am the raven, sharpening my beak against you. When finally I wear you down to nothing, that will be the first second of your time.”
“The reason is the same for all.”
I run the engine to keep the car warm. I change radio stations when I don’t like the song. I toggle the wipers to clear the rain from the windshield.
This is where it started. I haven’t been here in twenty years, but tonight I find it easily. No wrong turns. No dead ends.
No chance of anyone finding me.
I never told anyone about this place. I don’t know if she did. It didn’t have a name then, and no one’s named it since. A small grassy turnoff on an unmarked narrow road connecting two other unnamed narrow roads. Somebody must own it. Somebody must cut the grass and keep the brush from engulfing it. Maybe on a surveyor’s map it has a number.
We found it by accident the first time. Tonight, I find it by fate.
It hasn’t changed.
Twenty years ago, I left here changed. Here is where we exchanged our vows, sealed our bond without benefit of word or witness. When we drove away hours later, our covenant was made.
Tonight, I fulfill that promise.
I swallow another capsule, chasing it down with a mouthful of Diet Coke.
Blank paper lies on the seat next to me. I reconsider the note and uncap my pen, only to close it again and place it unused on the paper. There’s nothing new to say, and no one left to say it to. Those who know me will understand my motive, if not my method.
Until death was the pledge, but what about beyond? If there’s an after, will love be forgotten in the bliss of eternity? Should I rekindle my heart with another here to arrive there torn between my loves? If they wait on the other side, shouldn’t I come to them there as I was here?
And if they’re not there, at least the pain will be gone. The ultimate win-win.
Another capsule. Another drink. The bottle’s almost empty and I’m down to three cans of soda, but I’ve come prepared. I refilled the prescription and bought a second six-pack. Here, where I made my first commitment as a man, I remain steadfast in the determination to fulfill my last.
The capsules finally begin to dissolve, worn away by the acid in my stomach and the soda I drink. I’m beyond the point of rescue. Drugs flood my system as time-release biotechnology does its job. Medicinal dominoes fall one after another, impervious to pumps and vacuums. As the final leg of my journey begins, I relax. I’ve prepared well. I’ve considered all the possibilities.
She comes to me.
She moves. She lives. She remains as I remember her. I smile. I’ll be with her soon.
The car grows dim. The radio fades. The pain subsides.
She frowns. She shakes her head. She berates me for my ignorance. She pleads with me to fight, to hold on.
She’s brought them with her. They reach for me, but I fall away. I reach for them, but my arms aren’t long enough. I cry out, but my words drown in the gulf separating us. I struggle to make it back, but I’ve planned too well.
“I didn’t know.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Ignorance is no excuse.”
“It hurt so bad.”
“As will this.”
“No. You can’t”
“I can. I do. I will.”
“My fault. All my fault.”
“Cry mea culpa do you? It matters not. Alea jacta est.”
“This can’t be.”
“It is. This is what it is.”
“The definition of Hell.”
I know something is wrong because he’s silent.