The first time I saw Bill after his boy went, we were in the check-out line. He was right behind me, hair wild, a kind of lostness in his eyes. He looked like someone else had dressed him; perhaps his wife had pushed him into that wooly suit and fixed his tie, trying not to remember doing the same for the boy. Maybe when she twisted the silk into a knot, she thought of how the boy’s laces were always untied. He’d fallen—more than once—retreating to the house bloody, and each time she placed her gentle hands upon his small shoulders and guided him towards the downstairs bath to clean it right up.
I threw my arms around him instinctively, tried to fold him far enough into myself that he’d see why I was absent the day he buried his boy. I thought of whispering to him quietly so the cashier couldn’t hear: I have it, too. But I just hugged him hard. Would he feel through my skin that I shared the same marrow and muscle as the boy? Maybe he’d hear my questions, moving like the worn ends of a rug in the wind, or hanging lights come winter swinging from the eaves. The how would I. The what would be left. The would they cry until the day they too were dust.
He smelled of gin and those little brown cigars, his beard yellow around his lips. He opened his frayed wallet and lifted the limp, worn bills with fingers that shook. As he handed the money over slowly, he saw me watching, tried to lift his lip into a smile. But his eyes weren’t on me. They fixed instead on the rope or electrical cord or the belt. His other son finding his brother. What was once five, now only four.
We made our way towards the exit, and there next to the window above the cabbages was a small ledge. Here, let’s sit, I said as I put my hand on his sleeve. Underneath I felt the thinness, the space between fabric and flesh. Up close, the lines in his face ran deep. My own gauntness hid under my thick sweater. I wanted to pull it up, point at my ribs, say this is why I couldn’t go to the church. Tell him I tried. Say but the quicksand found me. It’d been a year. I’d never even sent the card that I’d put in my backpack, now crumpled and torn. I had it with me. I could just give it to him: hand it over, embarrassed, telling him to read it later. But if I did, it would be true. If he never got the card: then. His boy would be alive: then.
I listened. He talked of his wife, of his remaining children, scattered and alone. Did he worry that it was in them, too? And if another went, then what would become of him? And if they went: could I go, too? I placed my cold hand on his. There was nothing you could have done. But the words, the truest I’d ever known, remained unspoken. Has someone already told you that and I don’t know the etiquette for went. We sat there amongst the cabbages, the two of us. My veins showed through my skin under the fluorescent lights, the scars now just little white lines. Would my own father someday sit amongst cabbages trying to pull letters from the sky into words that he did not ever know he needed—lei seg, forvirret, jeg dør, trist? We all have the words, I would say. We’re just scared to use them.
I stood to leave: My kids, I’d said. I hadn’t meant to mention them, the beautiful elephants. I wanted to say I’m sorry they’re still here and yours isn’t, but instead I bit the inside of my cheek until my heart scorched at the edges. He was born that way, I wanted to say. Me too. Bill rose from the small ledge and tucked the bottle under his arm, the loaf of bread swaying in its plastic bag. He looked at me with wet eyes, sorrowful and old. Those kids, he said. Hold onto them. You just never know. I do, I said. I will, I said. Then I pulled my sleeves back down, unclenched my fists, the two of us shattered and broken, our pieces too far flung out to find.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Paul Hayday