“If knowledge hangs around your neck like pearls instead of chains you are a lucky man …”
Alan Price, “O Lucky Man!”
The little girl reached up and tugged on her mother’s sleeve. “Mommy. That man’s here again!”
“Don’t point,” said the woman, gently pushing down her daughter’s arm. “He’s not bothering anyone.”
“But he just waved at us. And he was smiling!”
The woman looked over at the odd man who’d been at the park for the last several weekends to see that he was, indeed, smiling at them and waving. Ignoring him until today had been easy because he seemed oblivious to everyone and everything around him, but this … this worried her.
She took hold of her daughter’s hand and pulled her away from the outskirts of the duck pond. “Come on. We’ll go inside and get some ice cream or something.”
“But I wanna feed the ducks! I already got the popcorn, see?” She defiantly held up the bag and shook it.
“We’ll feed them next week, sweetie, I promise.”
“Uh-uh! You said that last time when he was here. I wanna feed the ducks today!”
The woman looked around, noticing that she wasn’t the only parent who was anxious about the man’s presence; a few people were already searching for park security. It was a pity, really. Cedar Hill didn’t have anything nearly as nice as Utica’s Ye Olde Mill, with its livestock barnyard, its petting zoo and picnic grounds, its lovely scenic trails that the woman loved so much, not to mention the remains of the original stone dam and immense milling water wheel that was still operational and that the children loved so much to watch trundle round … but, of course, the biggest attraction for the children (aside from the ice cream) was the large duck pond where every weekend dozens of them clamored to feed popcorn to small armies of the waterfowl that were only too happy to charge up the embankment, if necessary, to get their fair share.
The woman sighed, cast a quick nervous glance at the strange man, and said, “Well, let’s see what happens with these other parents, okay, sweetie?”
The little girl shrugged. “I guess …”
The woman hoped someone would finally do something about this man. It angered her that a person like this could completely ruin other people’s afternoons. It wasn’t their fault that he didn’t have any kind of meaningful existence. Why did he have to spoil things for everyone else?
Words scrawled on a Post-It note stuck to a car’s rear-view mirror: Enough cognitive dissonance will give you a fucking nosebleed.
Two nights before she died, Glenn Palmer’s sister, Janice, called him at four in the morning to tell him a joke.
“Okay, so there’s this guy, right, and he’s involved in this really horrible traffic accident—I mean, it’s a gore-fest, one of those teeth-and-toenails-and-guts-all-over-the-highway driver-safety slaughter-fiesta films they used to show us in high school to scare us into being safe drivers, you follow me?” She sounded manic, her speech rapid, which meant that she’d taken an extra hydrocodone; those damn things always made her chatty as hell for the first thirty minutes or so, especially since she’d been crushing the pills before taking them.
“You should be resting,” Glenn mumbled through his third hangover of the week.
“Screw that, the Big Sleep’s coming soon enough—besides, this joke’s too good to wait … now, where was I?”
“Traffic accident. Teeth and guts all over. There was mention at the outset of some guy being involved …?”
“Right! So this guy was hurt really bad and they take him to the hospital. One of his legs is, like, taffy, you know what I mean? All twisted and broken and wiggly and soppy—not a pretty sight is what I’m saying. So they knock him out with some gonzo stuff and take him in for emergency surgery.” She stopped to cough for several seconds. Raw, painful wheezing followed the coughing. Glenn could almost see the blood spattering over her t-shirt and bed sheets.
“You need to shut the hell up and go back to sleep.”
He listened as she took several drinks of water and caught her breath.
“Okay. So the guy wakes up late the next day and there’s his doctor standing there, and his doctor, he’s got this weird look on his face, so naturally the guy is concerned. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asks. ‘Well,’ says the doctor, ‘I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news.’ ‘What’s the bad news?’ the guy asks. ‘The bad news,’ says the doctor, ‘is that we amputated the wrong leg.’ Now, the guy is justifiably taken aback by this, but he manages to pull himself together and asks, ‘Okay, so what’s the good news?’ ‘The good news,’ says the doctor, ‘is that your bad leg is getting better.’”
Fifty-two hours later, she was dead. No bad legs got better.
More words, these printed neatly in black paint by hand across the top of a bathroom mirror: Keep In Mind: The World Was Already A Broken Place Before You Got Here, Dipshit.
The first thing Glenn did upon returning home from Janice’s funeral was make a beeline for the kitchen, grab the bottle of George Dickel 86 Proof Barrel Select Scotch from the cabinet over the sink, unscrew the cap, and take two mouthfuls straight from the bottle.
Only then could he bring himself to face what sat on the desk in his apartment’s middle room.
The computer—an Apple Mac IIvx that had cost almost two thousand dollars—had belonged to Janice. She’d bought it about ten months ago and had immediately signed up for a handful of online services so she could (as she put it), “Talk to people without their having to worry about touching me.”
“Newer computers scare me,” he’d said to her.
“Everything scares you in one way or another, Bigbro. Which explains why you’re such a social butterfly.”
“I prefer to think of myself as a homebody.”
“Right. And I prefer to think of myself as being immunologically challenged.”
“Yeah, it is,” she said, her voice even then carrying a hint of the raw, agonized whisper it would become. “When I was at the hospital this last time, somebody told a tumor joke to one of the terminal cancer patients. You should’ve heard that guy laugh. Said it was the funniest joke anyone’d ever told him. It’s days like that I’m almost glad Licking Memorial doesn’t have the facilities to treat HIV and AIDS patients—but, boy, sometimes those trips to and from Columbus … phew! I’m glad I always stay a few nights. I’d miss out on being part of the floorshows, and I’m getting kind of popular there, she said with all modesty.”
“Anyhoo, the thing is, what all you non-termies don’t understand—”
“Non-terminals. Try to keep up? What all you non-termies don’t understand is that true appreciation of tomb humor depends on which side of the door you’re standing. I’ve been chatting with other patients online and I’ll bet I’ve saved a couple of hundred AIDS jokes they’ve shared with me. Funny stuff.”
“Uh-huh,” said Glenn. “I suppose you plan to leave ‘em laughing?”
“You betcha. I’m gonna do an Oscar Wilde—‘Either those drapes go, or I do.’ Something to remember me by—which reminds me, you’re inheriting this, so you might as well sit down and let me show you how it works.”
“I’d much rather watch you paint.”
Janice shook her head. “Oils? Not today. Maybe not anymore. But don’t worry, I’m working on … something. You just can’t see it yet—insert ominous chord. Come over here and sit down. Now, this is called a ‘keyboard.’ You see all these little keys with letters on them? This is the letter ‘A’—”
“Look, Bigbro, if you and me’re gonna go online together, you gots to pay attention.”
“Why in God’s name would I want to do that?”
She smiled at him. “It’s a great way for you ‘homebodies’ to meet people. Besides, you never know what you may find waiting for you out in—dum-da-DUM-DUM—cyberspace.”
“Nice Dragnet theme. Hey, did you know that was originally from a Burt Lancaster movie called—”
“—The Killers, yes, I know, I listen to you on Trivia Night, which is pretty much every night with you.”
The Pulmonary Kaposi’s Sarcoma had just been diagnosed, but she hadn’t started chemo yet; she was still being treated for early-stage Pneumocystis Pneumonia, but was able to get around on her own, still able to crack jokes and get under his skin like only a younger sibling can.
Jesus, she went down fast when it finally happened.
Still staring at the computer, Glenn started to take another swig from the bottle, decided that was a little too Lost Weekend-ish, and so poured the liquor into a glass and marched over to the desk.
He sat down and began sorting through the mail from this morning; bills, a couple of grocery store flyers, a package from the Book-of-the-Month Club, the new issue of Mother Jones, a few more bills, and a padded manila envelope addressed to Mr. Glenn “A#1Bigbro” Palmer.
He stared at the label for several seconds, then looked at the return address:
The AWARE Network
He couldn’t fault their timing; that was damn sure.
“What kind of service is this?” he’d asked Janice once.
“It’s specially designed for folks like me.”
A shrug. “All terminal cases.”
“What does it provide?”
A smile. “What was it I used to say to you when I was a kid? ‘That’s for me to know and you to find out.’ It’s gonna be a kind-of present for you down the line, so don’t be a nib-shit and spoil things.”
“I am not a nib-shit.”
“Yes, you are. You get it from Mom.”
Inside were a cover letter and a gold CD (both of which he placed on the desk and stared at as if they were multi-legged things that had just crawled out of the garbage disposal). He read the letter:
Dear Mr. Palmer:
Enclosed please find your startup disc for The AWARE Network. Your first year’s service has already been paid (excepting any additional hours you may accumulate over and above those provided free of charge every month) and your sponsor has requested that we activate your membership immediately. We at The AWARE Network hope you will enjoy the countless services available to you here twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year.
To begin, simply insert the CD into your computer’s CD-ROM drive. Your sister informed us that newer-model computers are not, as she put it, “… your thing …” so we have designed the installation to be as simply as possible. This is not a reflection of our opinion of your intelligence. Janice asked us to make sure we said that because your feelings are extremely sensitive.
Important: please make sure to follow all instructions precisely as they are displayed on your screen and follow them through until the program has been installed. It will take about twenty additional minutes; any attempt to exit the program once it has been engaged could result in damage to your computer’s internal memory. We assure you that this is a one-time only danger to your system and apologize for any inconvenience the setup/logon/download portion may cause you.
Welcome to AWARE!
He put down the letter, took another drink of Scotch, and inserted the disk into the CD-ROM drive.
He began to shake. At first only around his stomach, but it quickly fanned out into his shoulders, then his arms, and then his hands. He felt the thin layer of sweat that was coating his palms and tasted something bitter on his tongue, which a second hard swallow of the 86 Proof helped to make a bit more palatable. No, no drinking problem here; he had no problem drinking whatsoever. A man had to perfect his talents, after all.
He turned away from the desk and looked at the painting hanging on the opposite wall of the room, Janice’s very last oil painting, the one she hadn’t wanted him to see until it was finished. He’d found it in her tiny studio the day she’d died. A heavy tarpaulin to which she’d taped a note had covered it: For you, Bigbro. Please don’t let Mom or Dad see this. I don’t think they’d get it.
It was a sort-of self-portrait she’d begun shortly after being diagnosed HIV-positive.
Staring at it now, Glenn almost couldn’t breathe.
She’d positioned herself and the easel between two large, full-length mirrors so that every reflection of herself painting held a reflection of herself painting a reflection of herself painting a reflection of herself painting, each successive image growing progressively smaller until she was little more than a smudge in the final, smallest reflection. If that had been all she’d done with it, it still would have been a dizzying Magritte’s Not To Be Reproduced-like study in perspective, but Janice had gone several steps beyond that; starting with the second reflection, her features began to change, to grow more shrunken and diseased until, in the last clear reflection, she had been reduced to a monstrosity: a pasty-faced, emaciated, diseased, hairless thing, its mouth opened and twisted downward as if gasping for breath, eyes so deeply sunk into the back of the skull it was hard to tell if they were eyes at all. Everything that had made her human, that had made her Janice, had been slowly, agonizingly siphoned away, a horrible vaudeville of Munch’s Der Schrei der Natur … because there was something almost comical in each of her reflected faces, something that told you she was letting you in on the joke, even if you weren’t exactly sure what the joke was supposed to be.
But she hadn’t stopped there. Ever since they’d been kids, she and Glenn had been huge fans of silent movies and Japanese monster movies, Buster Keaton and Godzilla being their hands-down favorites. Looking over her shoulder in each alternate image of herself in the painting was the reflection of either the Great Stone-Face or the King of the Monsters; unlike Janice, though, their faces and expressions never changed. Glenn supposed it was difficult for a giant radioactive lizard to display much emotional depth, anyway, and Keaton would probably have had himself arrested if he’d ever cracked a grin. Why she’d decided to have the two of them hovering over her as the specters of death was something he still hadn’t figured out.
She’d titled it: Godzilla vs. Buster Keaton, or: I Didn’t Even Need a Map. Sounded like the name to some Rocky & Bullwinkle episode.
“C’mon, Sis,” he mumbled, draining the glass and then refilling it. “There’s enough cognitive dissonance there to give you a fucking nosebleed.” He turned back to the computer in time to see the following appear:
At The AWARE Network, our goal is to provide you, the survivor, with the best and most personalized service available. Please take a moment to answer the following questions:
1) Do you consider yourself an outgoing person?
2) Do you consider yourself an introvert?
3) If “Yes,” please state why.
4) How emotionally close were you to the deceased?
5) What are five of your best memories concerning the deceased and yourself?
6) What are five of your worst memories concerning the deceased and yourself?
7) Are you lonely?
8) Of all the deceased’s worldly goods that you might have in your possession, what is the one thing that best defined them? (We recommend you apply the following guidelines when making this choice: the item should be of such a nature that anyone who knew the deceased can look at it and say, “Yes, this was (deceased’s name); no one else but (deceased’s name).” If it will help you to choose, ask yourself the following as you look at each item: if he/she had chosen to leave his/her soul behind, would he/she have put it here for safekeeping?) It is strongly recommended that you have this item nearby, as the session cannot be repeated.
Glenn sat back and stared at the screen.
Were they really truly no-bullshit serious? The one thing that best defined her?
He mentally sorted through her paintings—God knew there were enough of them, and she’d put parts of herself into each and every one, but not one of them was definitive of his sister, not even good ol’ Godzilla vs. Buster; he then went into the second bedroom (which he’d been using for storage ever since he’d moved into this place) and started going through the smaller boxes of Janice’s possessions that his parents had asked him to keep. Nothing in any of them released a note portending some grand Shostakovichian epiphany.
He turned his attention to the larger boxes hidden behind the double-wide sliding closet doors: photographs, 45 RPM records, her high school yearbooks, cross-stitch Christmas ornaments, antique wind-up toys she’d collected over the years, letters from friends long moved away, every birthday card she’d ever received, a scarf, a tattered red glove, her Campfire Girls uniform and merit badges, knickknacks, whatchamacallits, thingamajigs, recipes clipped from newspapers now gone yellow with age, a framed caricature of her playing the piano drawn by some sidewalk Picasso at an amusement park when she was seven, programs from a few community theatre plays she’d acted in … none of them clicked. There were several boxes of her favorite books in the back of his bedroom closet, but he doubted he’d find what he needed in her well-read copies of A Wrinkle In Time, Horton Hears A Who, The Poems Of Christina Rossetti, or P.S. Your Cat Is Dead; Mom and Dad had kept most of her furniture, her small kitchen appliances and cutlery, her DVD and CD collections …
He thought: Is this all it comes down to? Everything here once had meaning for her, a thousand memories attached to a million feelings, valued pieces from a life now reduced to so much clutter, the cycle nearly at its end. Sure, there would be mourners at the end, friends, family, people you thought had forgotten about you, maybe someone you had a crush on in the eighth grade, and they would gather, and they would weep, and they would talk among themselves afterward and say, “I remember the way (deceased’s name) used to …” and then belongings would be catalogued, divided up, sold, given away, tossed into the trash, pictures would be moved to the back of a dusty photo album and, eventually, those people left behind would die as well and no one would be left to remember your face, your middle name, even the location of your grave; the seasons would change, as seasons do, the elements setting to work, rain and heat and snow and cold smoothing away the inscription on the headstone until it was no longer legible and then, later—days, weeks, decades—someone who happened by would glance down, see the faded words and dates, mutter, “I wonder who’s buried here,” and then go on about the business of living, trying hard to forget they were part of the same sad sorrowful cycle of the universe that you had reached the end of: no one left to say that this man was important, or this woman was kind, or that anything they strove to achieve was worthwhile. What purpose did any of it serve? You dreamed, you loved as often and as well as you could, you struggled and worked and laughed and watched what you ate and took your vitamins and got a good night’s sleep sometimes and showed compassion and what waited for you at the end?—lime and rot and darkness, a fitting finish courtesy of a broken world that you never asked to set foot on in the first place.
And on that note, we put a quarter in the juke and boogie ’til we puke.
He stared at his sister’s things and realized he couldn’t do it, he couldn’t find the One Thing that would serve as the summation of all she was and had ever hoped to be.
A corner of Glenn’s mouth curved slightly upward, a smile-in-progress abandoned at the halfway point. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, the last two syllables raising half an octave in pitch as they tripped over something caught in his throat and he began to weep. He sat down on the floor, pulling his legs up toward his chest and wrapping his arms around his knees, then rocked back and forth, the tears like ground glass in his eyes as the grief surged through him until his throat was raw and his limbs were cramped and his lungs throbbed from lack of air.
“Fuck. Fuck! Fuck!” he snarled, burying his head between his knees, the convulsions slowly becoming less severe, the flow of tears from his eyes and the backwash of snot down his throat stanching themselves, his sobs dwindling into ragged, exhausted croaks.
Sis. Janice. Dammitohell!
He pulled himself together and lurched back to the computer. He returned to the questionnaire and began typing in his answers, hoping like hell the network had some kind of online assistance for people who couldn’t provide a ready answer to the last question.
When he didn’t type in an answer to #8 after three minutes, the screen went blank for a moment, then:
(05:35:38PM) Were you unable to locate the One Thing?
(05:35:42PM) No. I mean, yes, I couldn’t find it.
(05:35:46PM) Did you keep in mind the suggested guidelines for choosing?
(05:35:55PM) Are you now in possession of all the deceased’s worldly goods that you wish to have or that they wanted you to have?
(05:36:05PM) We understand that this portion of the process may be difficult for you. We can provide more time for you to make the proper selection.
(05:36:42PM) I’m a little confused about something. I know Janice mentioned that she had taken care of providing you with all the necessary items and information you needed to design this particular program, but she never told me what it was all for. What exactly is it that you people do?
(05:37:20PM) In a manner of speaking, we raise the dead. The rest is up to you.
The screen once again went blank, the gold disc in the CD-ROM drive revved up, and then an image appeared.
The interior of a small apartment, its walls covered with framed movie posters: The Man Who Would Be King, Roman Holiday, Pumpkinhead, numerous others, but one poster was isolated in a place of honor: Farewell, My Lovely, starring Robert Mitchum. A television screen flickered in a far corner of the room and Glenn immediately recognized the opening shot of the Mitchum movie; a dead-on view of a chintzy neon hotel sign that dropped from sight as the camera panned slowly upward, stopping at last on the image of an unshaven, moth-eaten, fedora-wearing Mitchum staring out a window, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth: the ultimate Philip Marlowe.
“Oh God …”
The view altered as the camera panned to the other side of the apartment, where a small sofa bed was angled toward the now-unseen television. An emaciated, pale figure lay in the bed, covered up to the stomach in blankets, her claw-thin, lesion-spotted hands folded on top of one another. Light gleamed off her nearly-bald head as her eyes widened and her dried, cracked lips parted in a tiny, painful smile.
“It’s starting,” called Janice.
“… no,” Glenn whispered, “… please …”
(We raise the dead.)
Of course it was her apartment, how could he have not recognized it? He’d bought the Mitchum poster for her at a film convention two years ago. Farewell, My Lovely had been her favorite movie. She and Glenn would get together to watch it and scarf down pizza once every three months, their quarterly ritual of celebrating another season down the tubes, thank God. Both of them had known the movie so well they often sat there quoting the dialogue word-for-word, Janice taking all of Charlotte Rampling’s lines, Glenn taking Mitchum’s.
Janice sat up and adjusted the pile of pillows behind her head as a dark, blurry, featureless shadow, a living silhouette that was acting as Glenn’s stand-in, entered the room. Janice smiled at the silhouette, then reached up to brush one of her few remaining strands of hair from out of her eyes, only to have it fall off her scalp and become tangled in her fingers.
“You know the thing that pisses me off most about this?” she said to the silhouette. “I mean, besides the fact everyone told me that my hair’d grow back? If I’d been thinking, I could have saved all my hair and sold it to a wig-maker. The way I understand it, they pay big bucks for locks from we strawberry blondes.” Her hair had been magnificent once, long and thick and bright, a head covered in spring; but fall had come, followed by winter’s ice, where all things once blooming with color and promise withered away.
The silhouette took the strand from her fingers and turned toward the TV. When it spoke, its words were the ones Glenn had spoken at the time—exactly, precisely the ones he had spoken—but the voice was a cold, flat, buzzing monotone, the sound of someone speaking through an electronic voice box.
“HAVE * I * MISSED * ANY * THING * IM * POR * TANT?”
“Just the credits.”
“THEN * WE * SHOULD * START * THE * MOVIE * OVER * YOU * KNOW * I * LIKE * TO * SEE * THE * WHOLE * MOVIE * FROM * START * TO *—”
“—finish, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, you’ll just have to suffer tonight.”
“YOU’RE * AN * E * VIL * WO * MAN.”
“So sue me.”
The silhouette sat close to her on the bed, draping one of its arms over her shoulders. Janice leaned her head against its chest and held one of its hands in her own.
“God, honey,” Glenn whispered to the computer screen, “I miss you so much.”
He reached out toward the image, foolishly thinking that he might touch her again, then pulled back his hand.
Over the next several minutes he was treated to a variety of similar scenes, all of them shot from different angles, showing Janice and himself, sometimes Mom and Dad, as well, eating meals, playing cards, and assisting Janice with various daily functions she was longer capable of performing on her own.
Then the scene abruptly changed locale. Here was the silhouette standing in the bathroom of Glenn’s own apartment, removing a bottle of pills from the medicine chest over the sink.
“Ah, hell,” Glenn croaked; the criminal returning to the scene of his crime.
Despite all of the drugs Janice had to take—some of them being serious painkillers that she’d started abusing toward the end (what she referred to as her “shiny pills”)—she’d been having trouble sleeping nights. Five months before she’d died Glenn had developed insomnia and finally had to get his doctor to prescribe some intensely potent sleep aides. The prescription had contained thirty tablets; two a night for three nights in a row had done the trick for him, but he’d decided to hang on to the rest in case of a relapse.
The silhouette stared at the bottle in its hand. Glenn knew exactly what it was thinking: This can’t be a good idea. Though he’d never been one who thought it was all right to offer someone medicine that hadn’t been prescribed for them, Glenn was about to ignore that particular principle for the sake of his sister’s peace of mind. She didn’t have much longer left; wasn’t she entitled to relax and nap-out a little when she wanted to?
The silhouette shoved the bottle into its pocket and left.
Cross-fade. Back at Janice’s apartment: Mom busy fixing dinner, Dad puttering around with a bucketful of household cleaners, spraying and wiping and scrubbing, Janice still on the sofa-bed, the silhouette sitting next to her as she finished taking the last of her many medications.
“What a load of crap,” said Janice. “DDI, AZT … ’twas abbreviations that undid her. Quick, hook up a new IV. PDQ. Which is SOP for a future DOA.” She then lay back and whispered, “Did you remember to …?”
“I’VE * GOT * THEM * RIGHT * HERE.”
“Oh, thanks, Bigbro. I knew you’d come through.”
The silhouette reached into its pocket and handed her one pill.
“That’s it?” she said angrily.
“I * THOUGHT * IT * BEST * TO * START * WITH * ONLY * ONE * AND * SEE—”
Her eyes filled with ice. The silhouette was slowly becoming more transparent as Janice glared at it; so much so it seemed as if she were looking through it and past the computer screen at Glenn himself.
“You think one measly pill’s going to do it for me? You said yourself you had to take two, and you didn’t have a fucking pharmacy in your system at the time!”
Glenn waited for the silhouette’s reply but none came; the thing was almost a sheet of glass now.
Janice was still looking at him, asking, “You think one measly pill’s going to …”
The silhouette did not respond this time, either.
By the time Janice asked the question a third time, Glenn wondered if he himself shouldn’t try answering her.
“… pharmacy in your system at the time!”
“I didn’t want to chance screwing up your system with something you’re not supposed to be taking,” he whispered to the screen.
“Like hell,” said Janice. “You’re worried that I might—”
“I never said that.”
“You didn’t have to! Christ! It’s written all over your face.” The sudden burst of anger drained her; she collapsed against the mound of pillows, coughing with such violence Glenn almost expected her to spit out a chunk of lung.
“Dammitohell, Janice, what good does it do you to get mad like that? You shouldn’t—”
“—I shouldn’t have done a lot of things, Bigbro. I shouldn’t have been so distant to some of the people I’ve known, I shouldn’t have let Rick talk me into fucking without protection, I shouldn’t have been so selfish when I was a little girl, I shouldn’t have done this, I shouldn’t have done that, I wish things were different, blah-blah-blah, cha-cha-cha, zippadee-fucking-doo-dah.
“You think I’m anxious for the carnival to end? No way. I’m scared to death! I am twenty-three years old going on a hundred-and-ten. I won’t see twenty-four, we both know that. I do not want to go gentle into that good night because lately I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that maybe, just maybe, that night isn’t so good after all. I wish I could tell you—” Her voice cracked. “—that I’m at peace with things, but I’m not.”
He’d almost forgotten how defeated she’d looked that night. Loneliness can wear many guises, but none is so frightening as that found in the face of a dying loved one; the room could have been packed to the rafters with family and friends huddled around her and she still would have been alone. She was only days, maybe hours, away from death and that made her the oldest and loneliest person in the world. What words or gestures were going to make it better? It wasn’t as if she were only leaving for an extended vacation, eventually to return with snapshots and souvenirs; this was It. Gone. Period. No more, no more.
Maybe talking about it would make things easier in some small way; so he asked her, then, the question all of them had been avoiding: “What’s it like? I mean, knowing what’s going to happen?”
She stared at him; a vicious, hurt, how-dare-you-ask-me-that-Now look that held a gun against his temple and cocked the hammer; then, with a blink, her features softened, and she sighed.
“I hope you never have to experience it like this when your time comes, Glenn, I really do. There’s not an ounce of self-pity in me, truly, but this is … goddamn ridiculous. One of the most annoying things is what goes through my head when I’m lying awake at night. There’s a new wood-fired pizza place that’s opening in ten days and I’m never going to know if it’s any good or not. I know how trivial that sounds, but for everything I think of that’s been a terrific part of my life, there’s another thing that I’ll never get to experience. I keep thinking about Charlie Chaplain at the end of Monsieur Verdoux, remember that? They’re getting ready to haul him off to the guillotine and they offer him a cigarette and a glass of rum. He turns them down, but just before they take him away, he stops and says, ‘Wait just a moment—I’ve never tasted rum.’ Then he takes the glass and drinks. I always thought that was great. Even on the threshold of death, he wanted one last new experience. That’s how I’ve been feeling. I want one last new experience before I bite the Big One. Is that so unreasonable?
“And how do I feel now? You mean besides stupid because this didn’t have to happen? A couple of good orgasms shouldn’t cost a person their life—and to be honest with you, they weren’t that good, wouldn’t you know. So besides stupid, how do I feel?” She closed her eyes and thought about it for a moment. “Bested,” she said, opening her eyes and wiping the tears off of her cheeks. “And cornered. The boundaries of my world have progressively shrunk; first it was the hospital, my world, then this apartment, then just a few rooms, then this old, lumpy sofa bed, and now the circle’s narrowing to such a point that pretty soon all that’s going to be left for me is the central core of Janice Louise Palmer, and I’m so scared of having to face that. I keep wondering, what if it’s not everything they taught us it was? What if there isn’t a God or Heaven or any of it? What if there’s only … nothing? A big, ugly, unimaginable zilch?”
“Don’t do this to yourself, Sis. Please?”
“You asked. Not what you expected, huh? It’s like that old joke about death with dignity—‘You know what death with dignity is? You don’t drool.’ You want me to act like Bette Davis in Dark Victory? You want tender, luminous, soft-focus courage in the face of the end? Tough titties. There’s a bedpan over there that I just puked my lunch into a while ago—this was while I shit myself at the same time. Screw dignity—this gal’s going out kicking and screaming all the way.”
“Good for you.”
“Don’t patronize me.”
“Then leave the sleeping pills with me.”
“Weren’t you listening to yourself? If you’re so damn determined to fight it, why take these things?”
“Half the reason I feel like this is because I haven’t gotten more than an unbroken hour or so’s sleep a night for six days! Even my catnaps are shot to hell. Maybe if I got four or five straight hours I wouldn’t have such an enchanting attitude.”
“What if these put you under so much that you, well …”
“I swear to you I won’t die in my sleep. It’d be too much like sneaking out on a dull party through the kitchen door, only now I don’t care if the party’s dull, let it bore me. At least I’ll still be alive.
“God, isn’t that a stupid thing to say? ‘Let it bore me.’ Oh, Glenn, I think about all the times I should have treasured but didn’t because I was too impatient or wasn’t in the mood for company or was PMS-ing or had what I thought were better things to do—like that time you and Dad came over to help put those bookshelves together. Dad was in a really good mood that day and was telling stories about some of the awful practical jokes he used to play on the other guys in his unit when he was overseas during the war … he smiled a lot that day, more than I could ever remember ever seeing him smile before. But I had a date with Prince Rick and the Envy of All Mankind in his pants that night and the longer it took you guys to finish, the more distracted I became. After you two’d been at it for a couple of hours, you decided to run out for some burgers and instead of spending that time with Dad, I decided to start tarting up for my ‘big evening.’ I figured if I made enough fuss, Dad’d get the hint and the two of you’d hurry the hell up and finish when you got back. So all the time I’m bouncing around, getting ready, Dad’s working on the shelves and talking to me. Oh God—he was trying so hard to be good company. I should have paid more attention. You know what he was talking about? The night he first met Mom. He’d never told me that story before, and it sounded like a great story, romantic as hell, like something out of a Greer Garson/Walter Pidgeon movie or maybe a Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn thing … it doesn’t matter because I was only half-listening, if that. Those twenty minutes when the two of us were alone could’ve been among the most precious of my life, and now they’re gone, do you understand? They’re gone.
“I did that a lot. I invested too much in moments that didn’t matter a damn and not enough in those moments that were diamonds. I think about all those little, misused pieces of time that I’ll never get back—ten idle minutes here, a half-hour there, the moments adding up and slipping away. I’ll bet if I did the math, I’ve probably trashed a couple of years. I wish I could be given back just one of those misused days, y’know? I’d take it, and I’d divide it up so carefully; I’d look every second over like a diamond cutter with a jeweler’s glass, then I’d say: ‘I’ll put this moment here, this is for admiring the sunrise; and these fifteen minutes—ah, these I’ll need to listen to some favorite songs and feel the warm afternoon light on my face and smell freshly-mown grass outside, so these should be close by, say, here; and this hour, this hour is the most precious of all because I want to spend it holding the hand of someone who loves me, I want to kiss their cheek and feel their arms around me and say only the most important things and listen to their wondrous stories. There must not be any distractions, so this most precious hour goes right there, where I can keep an eye on it’…that’s what I’d do. ‘I’ll put this moment here, and I’ll put this moment here …’ and I’d have them waiting for me right now. Right now. This time. This day. This moment. Not dead, not dead yet.”
Glenn (had) leaned over and kissed her, then embraced her as tightly as he dared. “Don’t forget to reserve five minutes for eating a wood-fired pizza.”
“Only five minutes?”
“You forget—I know how you get around pizza.”
“Oh, ha-ha, Mr. Funnyman finally puts in an appearance. I know how you get around burritos, and God forbid anyone got in our way around Velvet Ice Cream.”
He nearly laughed. “Velvet Ice Cream. I haven’t thought of that place in years.”
He (had) kissed the top of her head, and then gently massaged the back of her neck. “Tell you what—I’ll give a few extra pills to Mom and we’ll see how you react to taking just two.”
Janice tensed. “Coward.”
“Don’t say that.”
“I just did. And you’re only getting defensive because you know it’s true.” She pulled away to look at him. “What happened to you, Glenn? When I was a little girl, I remember you being fun, always full of energy and life and never without a prank or smartass remark at the ready. What happened? When was everything ruined for you?”
“Nothing was ruined. I just grew up.”
“Gave up is more like it—and don’t argue. I haven’t got the time.”
“What do you want to hear? That I experienced some soul-shattering catharsis along the way?”
“Don’t, Glenn, please? I’ve watched it happen over the years. Your spirit wasn’t broken in one sudden blow; it bled to death in thousands of small scratches. Didn’t you see it?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Leave it at that.”
“I can’t. I’d like to know that you’ll at least try to be happy once … once—”
“—not your problem.”
“I’ve always worried about you.”
“Maybe you should’ve spent a little more time worrying about yourself.”
“Take your own advice.”
“That’d be a big mistake—but not half so big as my giving you these pills would be.”
“Then you shouldn’t have agreed to it in the first place! Christ! It seems like everything you do is designed to put distance between you and the rest of the world—which, by the way, was broken long before you got here, Dipshit. I don’t mean to be so crabby, but … ah, hell—I don’t want you to be lonely.”
“There’s a difference between being lonely and being alone. I like being alone,” he said, almost believing the lie, as usual.
“So you’re telling me, what? That everything’s oh-so-blissful in your own Private Idaho?”
“Poke at me all you want but I’m not handing you more than one pill.”
“Then get the hell out of here.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Don’t talk to me about fair—and don’t you dare look at me like that. It’s too much like pity.” (Maybe it was; he never knew for certain.) “So pill up or fuck off, Bigbro.”
Even now, in the safety of his own apartment, Glenn felt the same sudden, unreasonable surge of anger enter his chest. The same foul taste was in his mouth. Another visit with George Dickel almost took care of that.
“Here,” he (had) said, taking the bottle out of his pocket and throwing it on her lap. “Try not to choke on them.”
“Gee, thanks. You really stink on ice sometimes, you know that?”
“Feeling’s mutual right about now.”
“Then leave me alone. Go ahead, run away, skedaddle. That’s at least one thing you’re good at. Don’t let me keep you. Idaho awaits. Potatoes, couches, re-runs of Hardcastle and McCormick.”
Glenn looked away from the monitor. It had gone downhill from there. Mom eventually intervened, he’d left, and Janice was dead less than thirty-six hours later.
He looked back at the screen. It was still displaying Janice’s apartment, only now the rooms were empty, the walls bare, the books gone—and (as if the computer wanted to remind him that everything was coming to him courtesy of cyberspace and its meaningless ether) there was a toolbar across the top of the screen, which displayed various icons. A clear image of himself as he’d looked at age seventeen stood in the middle of what was once the TV/sofa bed room, staring right through the screen and into his eyes.
Why had Janice chosen this particular image of him?
“Still with us?” asked the other Glenn.
“Uh … yeah.”
“Quick story Sis wanted me to tell you. There’s an ancient Zoroastrian legend about the first parents of the human race. They were two reeds so closely joined together that you couldn’t tell them apart. They knew that nothing would get accomplished as long as they remained like that, so, reluctantly, they separated, as was decreed by God. In time, they united as a husband and wife were meant to unite, and there were born to them two children whom they loved so tenderly, so irresistibly and totally, that they ate them up. After that, God—to protect the human race—reduced the force of man’s capacity to love by ninety-nine percent. Later, those same parents gave birth to seven more pairs of children, all of whom lived and went on to procreate so you could walk the earth today.
“There was no autopsy, was there? Of course not—she knew there wouldn’t be. The Cedar Hill Coroner’s Office doesn’t yet have the brass ones to autopsy an AIDS casualty.
“You never found the container, did you? And you looked. A lot. So why don’t I just tell you what you’ve been telling yourself all along?—she took the whole bottle and checked out early and you gave them to her! Hell, you practically shoved them down her throat! No wonder you’re putting away the 86 Proof like Eliot Ness and the boys are going to break down the door any second. How do you live with yourself? — Inquiring Minds want to know! Why would you even want to now?
“Look at me, will you? That’s better. Janice took four of your pills and then threw the container away because she wasn’t sure she wouldn’t yield to temptation. It was an overdose, sure, but—and pay attention here—it wasn’t enough to kill her or even put her in a coma, for that matter. Is this registering? Just nod your head and try not to drool. It wasn’t suicide, Glenn, it was just … the end of the whole mess. C’mon, we both know her system was thrashed and couldn’t hold up any longer. She wasn’t in any pain when it happened, if that’s a comfort.
“You were not responsible. Now, like the song says, get down off the cross, people need the wood.
“Oh yeah, one more thing: she didn’t get to do her Oscar Wilde. She had her wits about her, just not enough strength to speak.”
Glenn cleared his throat and then rubbed his eyes. “Do you know what she would have said if … if—”
The other Glenn shook his head. “No it isn’t because you’ll always wonder what she might have said. Do you have any idea how much of a person’s life is wasted because of might, had, should have, and could have? Ever since her death you’ve been punishing yourself for all the things you wished you had said to her but didn’t, cursing yourself for all the times you could have spent with her but chose not to, and you refuse to forgive yourself for all the countless mights and should haves that parade through your mind every waking moment. Do you know how pointless that is? How—shut your mouth and let me finish. I’m only programmed for another four-and-a-half minutes and there’s a lot to get in.
“Let’s say you could go back in time and be by her side on that last night, and let’s say the ebb and flow of time could be halted while the two of you were together so that the moment of her death was put on perpetual hold—pretty cool, huh? The two of you could share every hope and dream you have ever had, reveal every secret, bitch about your failures, cry over your lost youth, unleash your petty jealousies and angers, whisper private shames, tell each other everything there is to know about yourselves so that, once she was dead, it’d be all, y’know, tabula rasa.
“Well, guess what? I promise you that if you did that, if you talked to her until your throat was raw and your lungs ached, if you told her everything that was in your heart and mind until she knew you more intimately that anyone ever has or ever will—if you were to do all of that and then she were to die, I guaran-fucking-tee you that one second after she was gone you’d think of at least three different things you forgot to say to her. That’s why God reduced the force of our capacity to love, because if He/She/Them/It hadn’t, you’d be toast right now, burnt on both sides, a gobbled up morsel in Love’s insatiable belly—and that’s why this mawkish martyr routine of yours needed to close out of town last week! You’ve conditioned yourself to be terrified of getting out there, to become part of the world, or to make friends, or to try anything new—even if it’s just a different route to work in the morning. You think it hurts now, this pain you’re feeling, this non-stop loss and regret and Sturm und Drang? It’s only one-goddam-percent of what it could be! But the capper to all this, the last act of this floor show at the end of the multiverse, the punchline to the famous Pagliacci joke that has become your existence is that you—you who so mourn her death, who’s so evangelically determined to hang on to your grief because she was your best friend—you of all people, can’t come up with the One Thing that most defined her! And so you’re sitting here staring at me with an expression that would make Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy look like Carl Sagan—me! Me who is you at seventeen—and that soon-to-be-pickled mass of Silly Putty that we’ll be charitable and call your brain still hasn’t figured out why Sis chose to have you show up this way.
“Do you want to see it, the moment of her death? Because I can show it to you. Then maybe you’ll stop picturing it a thousand times a day.”
Glenn couldn’t speak.
His younger self’s expression softened. “Feels like you’re the only person in the world who’s grieving right now, doesn’t it?”
“… yes …”
“How noble you’d be if that were the case.” The figure turned around, made a circular movement with its right hand, guided the cursor to the toolbar, and, snapping its fingers, caused the cursor to click on an icon of two faces looking at one another.
“Just a little reminder, Glenn, that grief lives on in here, too.”
The icon clicked, the word CHAT appeared for a second, then the screen went white and suddenly Glenn found himself in the middle of a real-time conference on Alzheimer’s Disease, reading line after line of anguish and confusion as caretakers and surviving loved ones talked about their guilt and anger; another click, and he was with women who were talking about their battles with breast cancer; another click, and it was the parents of SIDS babies pouring out their hearts to others like themselves, damning the injustice of a God who would take away a new life so innocent and fragile and defenseless; on and on, click after click, each conference filled with more pain than the last, the words themselves seeming so cold until he read them and then there was such misery, such loneliness, so many demons snarling through so many damaged spirits that he felt almost selfish for wanting to hang onto his own pain—
—and then the screen blinked, and once again he was back in his sister’s empty apartment, looking at himself at age seventeen.
“You’re not alone, Glenn; you never were, and you don’t have to be. All you have to do is put your hands on the keyboard and tell someone something. That’s all.
“If Janice were here, she’d kick your ass up between your shoulders for remembering her the way she was at the end. She’d much rather you held on to this.”
The screen filled with a montage of images: Janice at six, ten, Sweet Sixteen (she’d hated seeing that written on her cake), eighteen, twenty-one … and underneath it all was her voice as it once was, clear and chiming, reading one of her favorite Christina Rossetti poems, “Song”:
“When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.”
Glenn smiled as she brushed some of her thick, magnificent strawberry blonde hair from her face and stood in the middle of her then-new apartment, hands on hips, one foot impatiently tapping as she carefully examined every space, trying to decide where to put all her stuff once she finished moving in.
There was a large, old crayon box at her feet, the same crayon box she’d had since she was three. She knelt down and pulled something out of it, a manila envelope she’d kept there since she was four or five; Glenn had seen it countless times during his life but never given a second thought.
On the screen, Janice smiled at him and said, “Guess what, Bigbro? There is a … a kind-of Heaven.” She shook the envelope. “We saw it once, when I was six and you were seventeen.
Glenn covered his mouth with both of his hands, gasping.
It happened during a rare family vacation. They’d driven to Rhode Island for reasons no one was ever clear on, not even their parents. “Seemed like a good idea at the time,” joked Dad, claiming it was a line that came from the old Fibber McGee and Molly radio show. They’d been driving around, trying to find the way out of Newport because Dad had lost the map and wound up on this dead-end road. There was a guardrail at the end of the street, and a big cast-iron sign in a stone wall that said, “The Breakers.” Dad turned to everyone with an embarrassed smile on his face and said, “Well, we might as well see the ocean while we’re here,” so everyone got out of the car and followed the guardrail along this winding cement path until they came to a lookout point. Both Janice and Glenn had been awestruck by the sight of the ocean, this vast body of water down there, going out farther than you could see. There was an incredible, heavy mist hanging over the waters, stopping just a few yards from shore. They could hear buoys clanging and unseen boats sounding their foghorns, and every so often a break in the mist would roll by and they caught sight of a lone lighthouse in the distance, perched on an isolated rock island. They had stopped at a point where the cement path branched off in two directions. Right smack in the middle of the branch was a dirt path that led down to the beach where small but fierce-looking swells were rolling in, all foam and volume, slamming against the base of the cliffs before snapping back out again. Even from where they stood they could feel it shaking their bones. Mom and Dad decided to go on up the cement path to the visitors’ center so Dad could buy a new map, but Janice and Glenn asked to stay right where they were. A minute or so after their parents were gone, they looked at each other; Glenn said, “Hop on!” and Janice climbed up to ride piggy-back. It was rough going at the start, but after the first, unbelievably steep twenty feet down, the climb became much easier, and soon they were down on the beach. Janice jumped off and began running around, saying, “Pretty rocks, pretty shells.” There were so many pebbles and stones. So many colors. Glenn stayed nearby her because the swells were coming in awfully close. He had visions of the swells suddenly turning into bigger waves and knocking them down and carrying them out to sea. Janice was very small for her age and he worried about her a lot. They climbed around, getting soaked to the bone every time the swells came in closer and not caring about it. Janice laughed like she hadn’t laughed since the trip started as they made their way along the edge of this cliff-face that suddenly cut down and inward, forming a hidden grotto under the overhang. They stumbled their way around part of the rocks to get a look inside the grotto, and there was this balloon wedged underneath the overhang, one of those great big, shiny silver children’s birthday balloons, all stuck up in the wedge like it had misbehaved and was hiding from someone. It was absurd and beautiful at the same time. Janice thought it was just the greatest thing on Earth and she just had to have it. A long, red-ribbon streamer attached to the balloon was fluttering out toward the ocean; it seemed to go on forever, reaching all the way out to a series of smaller rock platforms offshore. Glenn hoped that Janice wouldn’t see them because he knew she’d want to play “jump-across” on them, hopping from one to the next, then to the next and back again. He told her to stay put while he crawled underneath to get the balloon. With the now-snarling swells crashing into his ass, he managed to get himself in there and grab hold of the treasure, suddenly feeling pretty good about this because his little sister wanted this balloon and he was going to be her hero because he’d actually gotten it for her. He remembered, then, a scene from one of those old silent Buster Keaton movies they’d watched one night where Buster had been swinging back and forth across a waterfall to grab the hand of some in-distress heroine who was about to fall and drown. Of course Buster rescued her, and Janice had spent the whole scene with her face half-hidden behind her hands, fingers splayed, squealing because she said it was scary but laughing at the same time. Glenn found himself wishing that Janice could see him right now because she’d be scared and laughing and maybe even proud of him. He turned around and worked his way back out, then stood up and held the balloon high, the victor victorious, then the breakers came in again and knocked him against the cliff and the wind ripped the balloon from his hand and carried it away. He stood there, watching it soar upward, then suddenly stop, hanging above the foam and thunder. The red streamer was still attached and he followed it with his eyes down to one of the farthest rock-islands to see Janice standing there, her arms parted wide, the ocean-spray cascading all over her. She had the end of the streamer wrapped around her right arm. Glenn screamed out her name and she turned toward him with this … smile on her face. He froze. He had never seen anyone smile like that before. It was as if she’d just been let in on this Big Secret, something so wonderful and great and full of happy promises that nothing else would ever seem bad to her again. And standing there, pinned against the cliff by the breakers, staring out into the mist that danced around Janice’s ankles, Glenn fell in love with his little sister. There was nothing remotely sexual about it, nothing physical or lustful, it wasn’t perverse in the least; he fell in love with her the way some people fall in love with a piece of music, or a certain time of day or the year—twilight in autumn—or even an idea. It was the kind of crystalline, untainted love a person feels maybe half-a-dozen times in their entire life. It was a perfect moment; the balloon so high above, the breakers and the mist and foghorns and bells, a glimpse of the lighthouse … for him, it had been absolutely miraculous. And there was Janice, his little sister, standing strong in the center of it all, looking happier than he’d ever see her looking again. He fell in love with her-Then, her-There. He saw Life in her smile. Then it became something even more, for she saw him looking at her and laughed, then began dancing around in a circle, her arms still held wide open, shouting, “Glenn-nyyyyy! Glenn-nyyyy!” as loudly as she could. Above her, the balloon spun around and around while the breakers came in and rattled Glenn’s bones and she kept shouting his name—Glenn-nyyyy! Glenn-nyyyy!”—as if it were a song her heat could no longer contain. Her voice bounced off the cliff-face and echoed all around him, even the breakers seemed to repeat it and Glenn thought: the ocean is singing with her! He looked down at the pebble-flecked foam scrolling up onto shore and lapping at his ankles, then Janice sang his name again and he looked up to see her coming toward him, hopping from rock-island to rock-island, the balloon seemingly lifting her higher every time she leapt, and it was like she was flying toward him, flying through some space the waves couldn’t reach: For a few seconds, maybe longer, it was as if her feet were touching nothing at all because the balloon wanted her to know what it felt like to be not of this Earth. All Glenn could see was this magical little girl flying toward him, her arms pushed out in front of her and that absurd balloon overhead. When he at last caught her in his arms, she kissed him hard on the cheek and said, “Did you see it, Glenny? Did you see it?” and even though he had no idea what she was talking about, he said “Yeah, hon, I saw it,” and she giggled and kissed his cheek again and said—
—Glenn jerked upright in his chair.
She had said, “I found Heaven. And I’m not like Daddy. I didn’t even need a map.”
He turned around, rose slowly from the chair, and crossed toward the painting.
Gently lifting it from the hooks in the wall, he turned it around and for the first time noticed the thick cardboard sheet Janice had stapled onto the back of the inner-frame over which she’d stretched the canvas. He’d paid no attention to it before because she always stapled a heavy piece of cardboard over the back of the inner-frame, but now …
He shook the painting once.
And heard it.
A small, muffled fwish! of something soft and light shifting around.
It took him fifteen minutes to pry the staples loose and remove the backing.
And there it was. Dusty and deflated, little more than a silver square wrapped in a long red ribbon, but there, nonetheless.
“Thought you’d forgotten all about it, didn’t you?” said Janice from the monitor.
Glenn could only nod his head.
“It’s not torn or punctured in any way, so it’ll be easy to re-inflate, Bigbro. There’s that new party supply store downtown that will fill it with helium for you.”
He sat down in front of the monitor and smiled at her. “You know, someone could have just told me about this at the start.”
A shrug. “I wanted to see if you’d remember on your own.”
He grinned. “You always were a little pain in the ass.”
“And you were always a little obtuse, usually at the worst time.”
He held up the balloon. “I found it, didn’t I?”
Janice snorted a laugh. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“Then … what? How am I being obtuse?”
“Look at the painting again, Dipshit.”
At first he saw only the same painting as earlier; Janice in Magritte-Munch Mode, becoming more sick and diminished in each reflection, every other image of herself watched over by either the King of the Monsters or the Great Stone-Face, it was still a stunner—an oddball stunner, to be sure, but a stunner even so—and he was just about to turn back to his sister and ask, So what? but then caught sight of something in his peripheral vision, something he at first thought was a trick of the light, but when he leaned forward and looked closer …
“Oh, come on! You gotta be shitting me.”
“Nope,” replied Janice in a tone of voice that was, for her, smug.
He spun in his chair and faced her. “What’d you do—change it while I wasn’t looking?”
His sister shook her head. “I did no such thing, Bigbro. That painting is no different now than the moment I finished it.”
“How … how did I miss that?”
“You didn’t exactly miss it. It just didn’t completely register. You know, that old ‘people see what they want to see’ thing?”
“Can’t be that simple.”
“It isn’t, but that’s the best explanation I’ve got that isn’t going to make your brain implode—unless, of course, you want to hear all about what the Hindu mystics call adhoksaja—which roughly translates as ‘unknowable through the false discipline of three-dimensional perception.’”
“I think I’ll pass.” He pulled in a deep breath, releasing it slowly. “Thank you, Sis.”
“No. I never thanked you. Of all our great moments together—and there were hundreds of them—that was one of the greatest. When I think of my childhood, Bigbro, that moment is how I define it, and that defining moment was always with me, even when I died. It’s yours now. Keep it safe for me?”
“And live your life well, Glenn, or at least better than you have been. Become part of the world, even if you have to make a fool of yourself to do it—sometimes, that’s even more fun. Will you do that for me? Make a fool out of yourself. People will remember you. They might even want to get to know you.”
“I love you, Bigbro. You can be a real jerk sometimes, but I love you anyway.”
“I love you, too.”
She laughed. “Yep, there’s my saccharine alarm. Time to truck. Take care of yourself, Glenn. And remember me like this, like I was before I got sick.”
And that’s where he left her; in the center of her then-new apartment, her face flushed with exhaustion and excitement, her eyes glittering with the promise of all the choices and possibilities that were now—or soon would be—hers and hers alone. The organizing of the kitchen; where to hang the plants; the angle of a chair, the view from that window; a slant of light, the sounds from the street. A certain young woman. Her radiance. Her wonder. This time; this day; this task; this moment. Not dead, not dead yet.
And so here he stands, at the edge of the duck pond at Ye Olde Mill, dressed in tight, pleated grey pants, suspenders, white shirt, thin grey tie, sporting a grey pork pie hat with a rigid brim and low crown, looking like something that stepped out of an old silent film—that is, if you can overlook the red streamer in his hand that leads up to the shiny silver balloon floating above his head; even if you could overlook that, it’s hard to ignore the bulky, green plastic Godzilla feet covering his shoes. But, there he is.
“That woman is going for Park Security, I just know it,” whispers Glenn.
“So what?” comes the response of six-year-old Janice from the balloon. “This is fun, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but why have we been coming here every weekend?”
“‘Cause I like the ducks and you like the ice cream.”
And I haven’t made a big enough fool of myself yet.
(When he’d looked at the painting before leaving Janice in her then-new apartment, he saw that both Godzilla and Buster were holding up something folded and silver, wrapped in a red streamer. The objects were quite small, and he’d missed them; he was too busy looking at the dawning horror in his sister’s eyes.)
Glenn sighs and nods his head. “I guess this is kind of a hoot.”
“Uh-oh,” says Janice.
A well-dressed woman holding a young girl’s hand is moving toward the pond, flanked by two security guards, both of whom look all-too-ready to open up so many, many, many cans of Whup-Ass. Worse, it appears that several other parents are gathering to follow, children in tow; all they are missing are the burning torches. It appears even the ducks, massing into ominously even columns, are organizing for an attack. Glenn wonders whom he can call to come post bail for him. Dad will probably get a kick out of this. He swallows and moves to step back.
“What should I do?” he croaks.
“Something funny. Like, real soon.”
He feels something that’s definitely not perspiration dripping onto his upper lip and realizes his observation was right all along.
Enough cognitive dissonance will give you a fucking nosebleed.