I first met Syd and Peggy Brinton in August 1977 on the Sunday after Elvis Presley died. It was a sultry evening at the Pier Pavilion Theatre, Scarmouth, and an argument was simmering before the show in No. 5 dressing room which Victor Bright and I occupied. We had come in early that day to gorge ourselves on images of the doomed star in our shared Sunday papers. Details about hamburgers and drugs, the distended, tawdry glamour of Graceland, were pored over with sickened fascination.
They say goodbye. They say it with a strange smile like a kid who overheard a secret. But they don’t share what they know. They just walk out the door. Maybe it’s a cabin door. Or an office door. Or a plain screen door in suburbia. They walk out and they don’t come back. My Uncle Ray’s the first in my family to vanish. It happens in the early weeks when the chattering faces on television and the mindless voices online still claim it’s some newfangled fad that will taper off like acid-washed jeans or hula hoops did.
Andy chugged up the incline, sweatsuit shadowed with perspiration. His Nikes compressed on the asphalt and the sound of his inhalation was the only noise on the country road. He glanced at his waist-clipped odometer: 25.7. Not bad. But he could do better. Had to. He’d worked hard doing his twenty miles a day for the last two years and knew he was ready to break fifty. His body was up to it, the muscles taut and strong.
Grandmother died when I was seven and aliens raided the village. Their long guns fired out of nowhere, shattering walls and smashing bodies. Father threw me to the floor, shielding me, and I didn’t see Grandmother die, didn’t realize Mother was missing until the raid was over. Father got up and looked outside the house, cautiously; there were shouts of dismay and distress everywhere, and my ears were still ringing from the gunfire. The whole world seemed wreathed in smoke, blurred. My eyes stung.
Boy howdy, had the match proven an ugly one. The fight’s underdog had her entire arm ripped off at the shoulder during the first five minutes in the ring, but then she dropped into a deep stance and swept her opponent’s legs out from under him, knocking him to the floor in what the audience clearly considered a thrilling reversal of fortune. When she stomped his neck, hard, and used her remaining hand to pluck out the other geung si’s left eye, the crowd went crazy.
I don’t read much, out here on the highway, but I remember everything I’ve read. And here’s something I remember, a stray scrap of poetry, cribbed from a water-stained paperback that someone left on a bench in front of a Valero. I left the book where I found it, but I kept the words: “The living are wrong to believe in the too-sharp distinctions which they themselves have created.” That’s Rilke, sister. Keep it in mind.
The thing he would remember most about his days, his weeks at the Rivendale resort — had it really been weeks? — was not the enormous lobby and dining room, nor the elaborately carved mahogany woodwork framing the library, nor even the men and women of Rivendale themselves, with their bright eyes and pale, almost hairless heads and hands. The thing he would remember most was the room he and Cathy stayed in, the way she looked when she curled up in bed, her bald head rising weakly over her shoulders.
Outside was too big. Eric felt like an ant crawling on the surface of a volleyball, as if the big white cotton dome of the sky was surrounded by giant faces peering down at him and sniggering. He wished it was raining; heʼd have an umbrella then, at least. Tilly was waiting at the bus stop already. Her hair needed cutting. “Hi,” she said, eyeing him warily. He hadnʼt been at school for a week.
Long past midnight, Carl Weston sat in a ditch in the Sonoran Desert with his finger on the trigger of his M-16, waiting for something to happen. Growing up, he’d always played army, dreamed about traveling around the world and taking on the bad guys — the black hats who ran dictatorships, invaded neighboring countries, or tried exterminating whole subsets of the human race. That was what soldiering was all about. Taking care of business. Carrying the big stick and dishing out justice.
Hand in hand, your family and some friends stand in a circle around your father. Ten seconds have passed since his last breath, and you’re counting, wondering if it was his last breath or his last breath. Your eyes lock on his face, and you try to remember when he last opened his eyes and looked around. Days, at least. The memory blooms in your head, something like a flower or a drop of ink expanding in water.