by Christina Carson
An unexpected kindness eases two broken hearts
The day started like any other except no alarm awakened Jan Thompson. Instead, she was jolted into consciousness rather than eased there by the marimba rift that played through her I-phone each weekday morning. The unusual arousal left her groggy and confused. Uneasy, she groped for what day it was. Not a weekday; no alarm. A Saturday then. Or a holiday? She drew a blank. She patted the spot next to her in the bed. It was empty. Her husband was already up. He was the early riser. Pulling the covers up higher, she settled back onto her pillow to clear the mental fog that was keeping her from a timeworn habit of organizing her day before planting her feet on the floor. But she couldn’t focus on that either. Some bit of cerebral flotsam, vexing as it hovered just out of reach, caught enough of her attention to intervene. Even a drubbing pain behind her eyes had to wait on her acknowledgement. She noticed it only when she felt herself squint and clench her teeth in response to its sharp throb. Her tidy, predictable existence proved unable to provide a ready clue for such an odd morning. Her only guess was that she was hung over. Her mouth was dry, but there was no empty wine glass on the night stand, only a pile of used Kleenex sat clustered within reach. Thwarted, her accustomed list-making started back up, but the effort required concentration beyond her capability this morning. Too much of her focus was captured by an unremitting sense of forgetting something. “What is it?” she whispered. Her head throbbed more intensely with her effort to recall. She shivered as she felt the hair on her scalp and the back of her neck prickle, but with no time to ready herself, a wave of shock which swept violently through her, heaved her stomach and clogged her breath in her throat. Whatever instinct had been protecting her, holding the truth at bay, lost its grip in that moment. The sound, that horrifying sound, blasted into every corner of her mind. She screamed and sat upright, stiff with fear. The impact pushed her past tears, holding her inert, as her mind assembled bits and pieces of awareness that held the image that sound conjured. It wasn’t the weekend. It wasn’t a holiday. It was the day after, and it would be the day after for the rest of her life.
As if the bed had suddenly become a place of great danger, she jumped out of it and stood steadying herself as she grabbed the bedstead. There was a perceptible sway to her stance as she gulped air in small, frantic gasps. That was the only sound she made. She didn’t hear the squeak of the floorboards behind her. She didn’t see her husband standing in the doorway, his fingers whitened by the force of his grip on the doorjamb. Her eyes were open, but they weren’t looking at anything.
He stared at her, watched her inch her way toward the dresser. When she got close to it, she dropped her nightie to the floor and stepped out of it. She opened her lingerie drawer and stared into it as if she were making the most profound decision of her life. Two seconds, five seconds, ten seconds passed as she stood naked, looking. Finally, with a shake of her head, she pushed the drawer shut and turned toward the closet. Only then did she notice her husband. The two looked at each other with the semi-conscious focus of old drunks, only they were both more sober than they’d been in years. They instinctively sensed even alcohol couldn’t kill the agony that lived in them now. Jan turned back to the closet and pulled at a pair of jeans until they gave way from whatever was holding them. She acquired a denim shirt in the same manner only it took an extra tug. Without bothering with underwear, she put them on. Her attention felt like it was on a 5 second loop which caused her to walk then pause as if she kept forgetting what she meant to do next.
As she passed through the bedroom doorway, her husband reached for her arm. They were both unsteady, but the small amount of balance they each had acted additively, and they moved down the hall just above a shuffle and then began the descent down the stairs. Talking was out of the question. It took too much energy. At the bottom of the stairs, she exerted a slight pressure to turn toward the kitchen. It wasn’t the best of choices. They both saw at the same moment all the left-over cakes and casseroles neighbors, friends and relatives had brought throughout the day as the tragic news worked its way through their personal grapevine. Jan walked across the kitchen to the percolator. Sensing her focus could abandon her at any moment, she loaded the water and coffee slowly with great deliberation. The only constant they had in a life where everything else now appeared different, was the aroma of the strong, dark French Roast as it started to perk. She leaned against the counter and stared out the window. Sam sat at the table. They waited.
When the pot finished its enthusiastic churning, Jan brought it and two cups to the table, filled one for each of them and sat down. She wanted to stop thinking. She wanted oblivion. She was terrified that yesterday would begin playing out like an old rerun she’d be helpless to stop, and with good cause. For no sooner had she seated herself, yesterday paraded across her mind with arrogant license.
“Morning, Sam.” Her eyebrows arched as she recalled how she’d chirped that toward the basement door, slightly ajar. She was so happy to have Billie home. Then she added, “Billie down there with you?” When no one answered, she remembered thinking; I bet they’re making me a surprise, just like times past. Memories of those years returned effortlessly. A smile flushed across her face as she recalled how Billie and Sam named the basement shop Middle Earth, “Lord of the Rings” being Billie’s favorite childhood story. It was then she called aloud, “How come no one is answering me?” She stopped making breakfast and walked to the head of the stairs. She figured Sam had gotten up earlier, made a cup of coffee while waiting for Billie to rise and then they headed to the basement to finish up. Nothing in her imagination could have constructed the scene as it, in fact, was. Nothing.
She pulled the partly closed basement door open and stepped down onto the first stair. Almost before she could adjust to the darkened stairwell, she felt the arms of her husband clasp her vice-like. She instinctively struggled, misunderstanding what was happening. “Sam,” she shrilled, “Sam, what are you doing?” He didn’t speak but angled her around and pulled her up the step into the kitchen. He used one foot to close the door and then more gently half-walked, half pushed her toward the table where he sat her down tenderly. She stared at him, not knowing what to make of his behavior. Just as she was about to ask, her mind cleared like fog off a windshield and she recoiled. She clapped her hands over her ears as if that would stop what she now recalled from those few seconds she’d been on the basement stairs. The rhythmic squeak of a rope on a spike. She closed her eyes and bit down hard on her tongue so that she wouldn’t scream. Instead, a moan guttered out of her, then a wail, howling and tremulous until she had no more breath to sustain it. Empty, she sank hunched over and shook rhythmically to a soundless, wrenching sob. Helpless, Sam stood by her side. Then desperate to do something, he moved off from her a bit, grabbed his cell phone and called for an ambulance. He didn’t want to say the words since she sat close by, but the dispatcher must have insisted on knowing. After several attempts to dodge the dispatcher’s only question, with Jan but a half-room away, he capitulated just above a whisper when he said, “There’s been a death in the family.” With those words, she lifted her head, her eyes, deep brown and pleading, searching Sam’s like a child’s, helpless, lost. He knew what she was asking. He just couldn’t answer. The darkest of his war years couldn’t compete with the horror of this moment.
When they finished their first cup of coffee, Jan filled their cups again. They didn’t know what to do. Sam stared at the tabletop; Jan at the wall.
As if talking more to herself than her husband, Jan began haltingly, “When I woke up this morning, it was as if it had never happened. I just did what I usually do each morning; make my plan for the day. “How?” Her voice quavered. “How… could…I…have…forgotten?” In those five words, her voice crescendoed to a high-pitched squeak. She started to tremble. Sam jumped up, ran to her chair and wrapped his arms around her.
He didn’t know if he could stay strong if she collapsed. He was so scared. He held her tight and whispered, “Oh baby, oh baby, we’ll get through this. We’ll survive.” His soothing brought her back to quiet sobbing against his belly as he stood there, holding her head tight to him.
They did not dare speak to what happened. Likely they never would. It seemed beyond human reckoning. Billie had always been a quiet child. That seemed his nature. They hadn’t seen it as a shortcoming. In fact, Jan interpreted he son’s seeming sensitivity as creative, artful. But suddenly in the crush of this monstrous outcome, doubt cornered her, taunting, undermining ground she’d trusted, only now it didn’t feel so firm beneath her feet. The primal need to survive was the only reflex sustaining them, whether they welcomed it or not.
Sam wasn’t sure how long they stayed that way, but when the phone rang, it jolted them both. Still holding her hard against him, he reached one hand into his pocket to get his phone. Jan heard Sam say, “Yes, yes that…that would be good. Now? Yes.” His voice switched from stammering almost to entreating. He wanted to say, “Help us. Please help us.” But instead he stayed as calm as possible and silently blessed this stranger for calling.
Jan tilted her head upwards and looked at Sam. “That was the paramedic,” he said to her questioning stare. “Said he’d like to stop by; he’d like to talk with us. We need someone to help, Baby. We …need…help.”
She had dropped her head as she listened, but now raised it again and looked up at his face. With the tiniest nod, she agreed. “Why him?” she whispered, confused. “Why a stranger?”
“I think he’s been here… where we are.”
Galvanized by something familiar, a guest arriving, Jan got up and took the cups and pot to the sink to wash them and make a fresh brew. As she leaned across the expanse of counter to push the plug back into the wall socket, she felt the unaccustomed weight of her breasts against her shirt. She pressed her hand to her chest, confirming she wasn’t wearing a bra. Her mind jumped back to earlier that morning, but before the recollection could steal the marginal balance she had regained, she forced her thoughts onto acquiring underwear and shoes, just that. It actually felt purposeful, safe. Sam quickly shaved and found a clean shirt, grateful that these simple, routine acts of everyday-life rescued them in trifling yet significant ways. When the doorbell rang, they felt more grounded then they imagined possible under the circumstances.
Jan ushered Mike into the kitchen. She preferred talking over coffee in the kitchen. It was homier. She had set some slices from the various cakes as well as cookies and squares on the table along with the coffeepot and cups. Sam came in just as Mike was sitting down. Mike rose to shake hands, and as their eyes met, it was clear they shared the memory of that moment in the basement like a war story; a silent acknowledgement of life at a most terrible moment. Together, they had lowered Billie’s body; a brotherhood of two. Sam sighed, and in that induced camaraderie, he relaxed for the first time in 24 hours.
A tangled mix of emotions, too knotted to sort out, kept them all silent. Mike finally broke through the shared apprehension. “Mind if I smoke?” Jan, staring at him like she wasn’t sure he was real, quickly nodded her head. She popped up and brought him a saucer to use as an ashtray. She hated any smoking in her house. But in this moment, she wasn’t even sure who she was let alone what mattered. What the rules were now. Nor was she about to interfere with whatever might make it possible to believe they could survive.
“How long you been a paramedic?” Sam asked, wanting to reduce the tension.
Mike, a man somewhat younger than they, looked at Sam and smiled. “Fifteen years now.”
“Do you have a family?” It seemed a safe, simple question.
Mike appeared momentarily jarred, then shook his head. He leaned on the training that years in his trade had given him to withstand most any impact.
Sam noticing, regrouped. “Bet you’ve seen a lot in that length of time.” All Sam’s years of corporate committees and projects came into play as he altered the tone of the conversation and schmoozed the meeting into something easier and more comfortable.
Mike picked up Sam’s lead and related some of the funny situations in which he’d found himself. “You know, I went after this treed cat one time. Guess the firemen were eating lunch. It was one, big cat, I’ll tell you. And you know what else? It really liked being up in that tree. Well, we had a bit of an argument, and that old sucker bit me clean through my hand. Right here.” He held out his right hand to show the scar between his thumb and his index finger. “When I jerked back, the lady’s rickety ladder snapped, and I headed back to mother earth, rapidly. Fortunately for me, my buddy and I had driven the ambulance to the call. He got to take me and my broken arm back to the hospital. When the lady started to yell at me for leaving the cat in the tree, I told her to call a fireman. They might be done eating now.”
They heard themselves laugh. Not robustly or even loudly, but like those still able to catch a funny edge and appreciate its power to relieve.
The reminiscences and stories of all their lives eased the morning into mid-afternoon. The long shadows of a lowering sun shot fingers of soft light through the kitchen windows. They had stopped a while back for some lunch, to settle all those desserts. They had gotten up multiple times to pee. Pete went out to make a call. Jan made pot after pot of coffee. They had shared this awkward, difficult time like old friends.
As the kitchen grew soothingly dusky, Jan found nerve enough to ask the question she was desperate to have answered. Her voice was hesitant, barely audible. “What about the tough calls? What about those?”
Mike sat quietly, sucking deeply on this, his sixth cigarette. All the while, he looked directly at Jan, his gaze so fixed, it looked as if he were reading her mind. He broke his focus by inhaling deeply and letting his breath slide out slowly, calmly, his top lip covering his bottom one, directing the smoke down and to the side. His eyes followed the smoke downward and fixated on the tabletop. He stole a quick glance first in her direction, then Sam’s. He shrugged as he dropped his eyes once again. Almost inaudibly he said, “There was this one day.” His head nodded as if he were agreeing with himself. “I was called to this scene. Car wreck. Hit a power pole. Two fatalities. It wasn’t our car, yet I was pulling my wife out of it. Then I pulled him out. On that day, everything changed. The world became unrecognizable. I think I just stumbled on for a while. Don’t remember exactly. Can’t even say how much later it was before I could navigate it. But there came this moment. Maybe I was drunk, maybe just so hurting, I quit trying to…to hang on; just quit. It wasn’t a voice. It wasn’t some grand philosophical truth that exploded in my brain. I just forgave them; I forgave myself; turned it loose. What followed was the strangest sensation. It felt like I was melting, melting into kindness.” He looked up and continued to shift his gaze from Jan to Sam. “I really needed some kindness. It felt so good.” He was almost whispering, his eyes teary. He nodded his head again as he lifted his eyes toward the ceiling, inhaling deeply, his chin quivering.
He had to stop. Jan grabbed for the coffee pot she had pushed out of the way. She snatched it and filled his cup.
Mike drank a sip and then pulled himself up in his chair, gathering himself to finish all he’d come to share. “The other half of that yin-yang equation was resolve. Was I going to get on with it or not? I found that kindness was stronger than bravery, and more honest. The truth, setting you free, you know that one. Resolve befriended me; helped me remember that on the endless days after.”
The room was now deep in the dusk of early evening. Crumbs littered a table top blotched with coffee stains. Cups holding splashes of cold coffee shared its surface with crumpled napkins and used plates. It momentarily felt like a home again. The flux of Life, unhindered by the constraints on human vision, had already begun to birth family anew. These three souls would in time learn to notice such artful conjuring, the breath of renewal already drifting their way.
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