You've been unwell. Three nights you've burned, a fever I douse with alcohol,
fanning you till gooseflesh prickles on your belly and you shiver.
Tonight, sirens startle us from uneasy sleep, from dreams I feel, as often, I
share with you -- my role only witness, unknown passerby. "Clackhorns," you say. "Blazing."
You get up unsteadily, slide out of bed without even displacing the sheet,
cross the creaking wood floor, and naked, pass the high uncurtained windows. You
cross the room it’s dark, so dark I can’t see you turn the brass knob and step
out into the carpeted hallway, still nude. I feel the angular mass of you shouldering
through the resistent air, weaving past other doors all closed toward the bathroom.
I hear the door latch, and for a long moment, I am alone in the universe, rudderless, frightened, and free.
Through the airshaft I hear the landlord's tortured vomiting, the first floor toilet flush,
then sirens again, and the toilet on the fourth floor our floor the bathroom door,
your footsteps in the hall.
You lumber in again, through the apartment door, a large stooped shadow in the glare of red
emergency lights that flash through the windows as you pass them, crossing the bare board floor, which groans.
You step into the kitchen. I know the movements you will make, the old linoleum cool under your
long toes, the last drop of falling amber as you stand at the open window, lamplight modeling your
nipples. I wonder if the coolness reaches your groin, if you lift with pleasure.
You open the refrigerator its yellow light lays oblong in the passage I hear the faint slosh of
liquid as you raise the dark brown
bottle you've replaced every day for months. You stand in the cold
press the bottle to belly, face, and neck, pull the cork and drink and drink I hear you
swallowing put the bottle back and close the door. You stand silent, still so still I
wonder if I have imagined you, if it is I who am ill, I who have created this dull gray
rain-soaked world from some hidden reserve of accidie. Outside, a
shout “Motherfucker!” two shots more shouts sirens again. Engines racing. The
flashing lights move away, up hill.
You come to bed, slide back between the sheets and lie staring up into the darkness
that collects near the ceiling. What are you thinking are you thinking? Your eyes are wide
open. The whites shine ivory in the darkness around their gray pupils and you do not blink.
I hear your heart beating fast and loud, hear your shallow breathing, feel even where I lay
the heat of your imagined illness.
I remember another night when we were wakened by sirens, by the woman on the floor below, whose
cries we heard, who later was taken away, silent. There was no more sleep for us that night, either,
and you, victim of a different fever, wore a path from the bed to the kitchen, down the hall and
back again. I reached for you, but then, as now, you wrenched away to lie rigid on the farthest
edge of our bed, the narrow confines of our lives.
Tonight, your pain, her death or worse than death, her life and yours, and mine all
our births and lives and loves and deaths the darkness near the ceiling, the emptiness beyond the window
all of it, all of it devastates me. This bed, this high-ceilinged room in this building,
this city, Seattle, on the world’s western rim. Raw edge of the limitless Pacific. Seattle. Slum of the spirit.
Red flashes again, an erratic beacon, on the street below our windows. The siren's
urgent track draws loud and near, then away toward tall white buildings on ‘Pill Hill’ above
us, toward an open door, a square of yellow light set down on the dark street, clean, smooth
white beds, clean hands that reach to soothe, to lift and heal.
You were there, once, in one of those hospitals, dressed in creased flat whites, the folds of
your long face collecting, like dust, shadows left by the wrecks that stream from the city’s black places.
I think of your hands, the bones of your wrists, the fine black lines of tubes, masks,
needles; the shapes of pills, the smooth
motion of carts you wheeled each night through a maze of halls, down narrow shafts to a refrigerated
room like a large chest of drawers filled with naked bodies so many open mouths, so many staring eyes.
What happened there? You do not say, but this I know: it did not, could not, save you; you did not,
could not, save yourself nor can I save you, no matter how I might once have wished it.
In a glass case in a remote room in the Milwaukee museum, a famous explorer clad in shorts and a
desert hat is caught in wonder at his discovery: an ancient mummy hugging its dessicated knees, its round
head angled to face the glass. Sewn shut with great Xs, the eyes look only inward. But unsewn, the broken
threads dangling, the skin folded and dried brittle as a wasp's nest away from its center, the
toothless mouth choked with sand strains out "O!" -- the great, the infinite question. The only one.
When I was a kid, one summer in August, when the heat was so great the sidewalks buckled and people
got their pictures in the local paper, frying eggs on the hoods of their cars, on the blistered surface of
their red cement steps, a rabid dog was at large -- a shepherd female recently littered, her heavy dugs
hanging below her soft gray belly. The local police, guns exposed, crouched in their uniforms, surrounded and
shot her in the shade of young willows at the entrance to the park.
We were going home from the pool, my sister and I, walking on grass in the parking strip to save our
bare feet. On the corner by the Full Gospel Mission where we had gone to Bible School, seen cartoon
films of Christ and the Lost Lamb, drawn colored outlines of each other’s hands charms against evil there,
by the pale green high-staired church, against the hot side of the vivid blue Sunday School
bus tilted crazily on the yellow grass, the mailman stopped us, held onto our arms, and we watched while the
police advanced on the terrified animal.
She did not foam at the mouth, but crouched with her ears laid back, shaking her head, her mad, intelligent
eyes flashing everywhere for help, though surely she knew there was no way out of that tightening circle.
I have thought that she begged of me something then, something I did not have, could not give, and so
was glad of the restraining hand on my arm, though later, in bed, in my room just under the roof, there was
guilt in my gladness.
All summer I dreamed at night of the dog, of her eyes, that strong hand on my arm of the guns, black
as holes, and the sharp dry crack of summer lightning above the breathless green of willows no older than I,
who was ten that year.
Among the Bushmen in Africa, it is generally believed that the death of a large animal, even a man,
leaves a hole in the universe a tear in the fabric of Things As They Are. Through that hole terrible beasts
may come beasts with empty eyes and cold breath that sucks away everything. Every thing.
This morning, you give me the keys. I maneuver the long drive, the freeway unfamiliar with you reclining
beside me, your grey eyes closed, your long hands not on the wheel. The gray sky seems alien, and the gray rain
falling, and the traffic lights screaming pointless
alarm, and the people in their fragile metal shells, their pale expressionless faces held up behind dark
windshields and dark glasses, avoiding each other, intent as we all are on signs and exits.
Who among us is beast enough to love?
An ambulance races to fill the lane beside us with flashing lights, the banshee howl that issues from
distended mouths in childhood nightmares, the universe vomited forth out of darkness, flushing itself again
through the dark hole in existence, narrowing to Absolute.
"O!" we ask. "O!" On which side is the vacuum?
(A much earlier version appeared in Arnazella's Reading List (Bellevue Community College 1985) The story has
been much expanded since then.)