Patient 3917 (Recording)
by Peter Shoemaker
I have three memories of my childhood home. In the first, I watch my father tend trays of winter tomato seedlings under the basement stairs. A 100-watt bulb jiggles at the end of a fraying cord looped over a nail in the ceiling.
In the second, I’m on a couch just on the other side of those same stairs. Some girl whose name I probably knew but don’t now—whose hair I do know smelled of jasmine—is under me, her nails in my back, her legs tight over mine.
The third is of burying a man in the back yard under a mulch of old paperback books, red clay soil, and oak leaves.
He had—that man—grey hair flecked like rain-soaked granite. His eyes were burnished mahogany, and they shined tiny when he smiled. Perfect white teeth. Like a coyote before the storm. But it is his smell that I most remember—a blend of saddle leather and Earl Grey tea, a censor’s swirl of transcendental smoke in the maelstrom of the Te Diem.
I don’t now know how we killed him. It was a long time ago, and too much since vies for space in a brain too full. There was little blood. So maybe a rope or a piece of firewood. There was lots of firewood around, worm-eaten and covered in fins of grey and brown fungus, always too much work to burn. But it was in that same basement where this man, whose name seems always on the edge of a memory, always receding, died between three friends. You ask why, I don’t know. Don’t know if it even matters, or at least anymore now, than then.
That makes us sound like monsters. Which of course we may be. And probably. But we could do anything at that age. Like all boys at that age—gods before the fall. There was only good and evil and the difference between them was still the smallest of fractures. Hairline cracks in bone china, the warm sweet tea pouring over them, unbothered.
The man had stopped at the house to sell something. Or maybe to ask for directions. When I dream of that day that part is always fuzzy. It’s not until we’re in the basement, the smell of wet carpet, cat litter, and turpentine—a smell that makes me think of my family and its refuge—that the lens spins and the picture once again comes into focus.
“Get rid of the books. Just box them up and we’ll drop them at Goodwill,” my mother had said a couple of hours earlier. That would have been a waste. All those trees turned to words. And then made worthless, to sit on shelves of those afraid of their power.
And so we decided to give them back, back to the oaks that had rooted in that space between my house and the pasturelands that stretched out behind it, where I had played cops and robbers, where I had learned to shoot a bow, where I had fought my share of lions, and tigers, and forest serpents. It was a wet spring, and the ground was damp and yielding.
And so we buried him in a trench, lined in paper and broken spines. A Viking burial adrift in a sea of burning ideas, long unspoken stories, and the labor of man. And we never again spoke of that day.
Ron is dead now. A car accident late at night witnessed by no one but me, and he screamed a name—maybe the man’s name—as the car went over the rail and into the tree. And Luke has never responded to my email or Facebook requests. He always was the one most afraid of what it meant to be who we were. It was him who shivered when he saw his own reflection. He cried at night when the lights went out and he was alone and his mind went on. It was Luke who thought about suicide and redemption and the cost that life demanded.
And yet you keep coming back to this question of why, like unending telegraphic static that refuses to settle into something, something like an answer. At least that I can tell. Do you know, you who lurks there, hiding behind the shadows cast by sense and your immutable rectitude? I don’t know whether you too felt alive in that moment, the world laid out before you, your face sharing our reflection, the fractal possibilities of the future unfolding as fast as you could think. Did you breathe as deeply as we did? Just there, just before, lost in remembered sensoria of English estates, fair-haired maidens, and olden times? Do you remember, lurker, those days when there was only good and evil and the difference between them was still the smallest of fractures, between all of us, and the world out there? Not much different than the space between these bars and the deep blue sky.