“You Made Me Happy Sometimes, You Made Me Glad” was originally published by Zygote Publications (Leslie Timmins ©2002, 2020)
You Made Me Happy Sometimes,
You Made Me Glad
by Leslie Timmins
THE SUN SETS EARLY IN THE NORTHERN ROCKIES, except in summer when the sky holds a bowl of light high above the mountain tops until dawn. In the middle of the night, the rifts and folds of Tekarra, Pyramid and the Colin Range, mountains you can see from town, stand out black and crisp like woodcuts with that pale light behind them. Down in the valley a headwind blows, carrying silt from the glacial fields, dusting the stones on the riverbanks with a floury whiteness.
In June before the tourists came, before I panicked and slept with Jonas, and another man passing through, I used to go out to the playing field at the edge of the town and stand around in the dark. The field had been cleared for the locals’ kids to play soccer on, but at night a herd of elk claimed it. They’d come down out of the pine forests below Pyramid and gather under the few yellow street lamps to escape grizzlies and wolves who preyed on them. On the long walks I took through the benchlands that spring, I’d find the bones of the ones who hadn’t made it. Strands of hair from coarse winter hides drifted in the spring breezes, insubstantial as dandelion seed.
One night, around midnight, there were about twenty in the field; grazing, cheeping to one another. A yearling fawn trotted over to its mother’s side, dark and buff brown, exactly alike. Born on one of the islands in the river, it would have swum across when it was only a few hours old, the dappling vivid on its sides. Two big males knelt near them on the grass, seven or eight hundred poundsa piece, over six feet high. One of them started to stand—an elaborate procedure—a heave at the knee and then shoulder to hoist the enormous head. The other male joined him and they knocked antlers playfully, making a sound like bare branches sliding together, a hollow clack, no threat between them yet. When the rut arrived in a few months, one of them would wander around town with a mountain bike tangled in its antlers. Another would charge the grill of a yellow cab, a terrified couple clinging in the backseat, the driver trying to reverse into a string of tour buses. He’d driven through the harem unawares, cutting between the stag and two of his cows as they crossed the road.
But there was no one around that night. No cars, no people. Just me, standing on the edge of the field outside the cast of yellow lights. “You’ll get lonely,” the woman in the grocery store told me that afternoon. “You’ll get so lonely you’ll move back to wherever you came from inside a year.” In a family town, she said, a single woman was suspect.
Jonas hadn’t appeared on the scene yet. Hadn’t shown up in the video footage I was editing for the rafting company. Helmeted, with a lifejacket bulking up his shoulders, his raft appears at a bend in the river just as the current strikes, jerking the bow, boiling over the sides in washes of white water. He hauls back, guiding, bringing the whole weight of his arms and chest over the oars. A centurion, a river god. Something, anyway, blessed. I slow-mo’d it, of course, set the music into an arc. In the video as I cut it he never sets foot on dry land. I won’t sleep with him, I told myself every time I hit the replay. And then that image would come torrenting down across the screen like a comic denial.
Maybe the other women who came in to buy their tickets, who saw the video on its loop on the VCR, saw what I did. Or maybe they just liked the way he looked, and the way he would say to each one of them uniquely, It feels like a silk cord being pulled out of me, when he came.
From the field where the elk gather, you can’t hear the noise of the river. You can sometimes hear a train braking inthe works yard two miles away, a languid iron screee. And after awhile, that night, another sound— something running, coming down out of the woods behind me. A sharp resiney smell floats out of the pines as three more elk emerge at a trot, two females with a fawn, cautious when they reach the road. Only fifteen feet away, I hold my breath. Nostrils and tails quiver, ear tips flicker. Each footfall, too, when they finally decide, is hinged, angular, considered. Wild, we call this.
They settle in, long necks stretched to the over-fertilized grass. One of them turns casually away and dark pellets, a few at a time, spill out of a pink velvety anus.
I’d been there over an hour, probably. I shiver, push my hands into my jean pockets, but I don’t leave. There is a comfort in their elkness, which seems somehow to encompass me. When I shift my stance, the Colin Range comes into view. A stone wave, fortress wall. Something, anyway, unbroken.
Out on the road two men slide suddenly by in the darkness, riding side by side on bicycles. Duffel bags slung over their shoulders, knees stuck out from the small wheels for balance. They’d taken their kids’ bikes, I guessed, and I imagine the morning’s shrill complaint in the houses I will pass by on my way to work. Railroad men, on their way to the 1:45 to Blue River. Silent as they pass me, unaware, and on their faces the look of dreams.
A female shakes her ears. I listen, but detect nothing. In my mind the line from a song, You made me love you, I didn’t want to do it. I sing quietly, feeling foolish. You made me happy sometimes. You made me glad. But there were times, dear, you made me feel so bad. My voice is clear, not so bad. The elk look over, a few of them, and then go on with their stillness. I head into the chorus, opening it up— I want a love that’s true. Yes I do, indeed I do. Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme what I cry for. You know you got the brand of kisses that I die for. You know you made me love youuuuuu.
I never did learn how to live in that town, how to get involved in the right things, how to restrain myself. I only lasted eight months. But when I walked home along the road in the dark compass of that night, inside the ring of mountains rimmed with light, I was singing. I was singing to myself.
*Lyrics from You Made Me Love You, James V. Monaco, Joseph McCarthy
©1997 Hal Leonard Corporation
“Unzip the Dog” was originally published in The Fiddlehead, Autumn No 213. (Leslie Timmins ©2002, 2020)
Unzip the Dog
by Leslie Timmins
ONE WEEK TO THINK ABOUT WHETHER OR NOT I’m going to die, whether or not I’m beautiful.
“You’re beautiful, Maudie,” Bryan used to say, easily, when he’d find me peering into the mirror. I’d scoff. Just last summer (an omen?) he put a sheet over it. I took it down, of course.
“I’m vain, honey, not dead,” I told him.
Lately he says, “The odds are in your favour, Maudie,” because defying the odds is his one vanity. This is why he smokes a single cigarette a day, never carries an umbrella, bets his students jazz will survive as the pre-eminent music of our time.
He says to take the codeine, but I don’t want to. My breast aches and burns under the incision, but all I want is that chunk they sawed out, put back and sealed up without a mark.
“We like our patients to be awake for the funeral,” the surgeon had said at the pre-op interview.
I stared at him. What had he said?
“The autopsy results will take about a week.”
“Biopsy?” I whispered.
“Yes. To culture the tissue.” He looked at me, quizzically. “You can have Imovain if you like, it’s a mild tranquillizer.”
I shook my head. I wanted to be awake for the funeral, at all cost.
“And you can wear your own clothes.”
I understood that part, I could wear my own clothes during the operation. They wanted it to seem casual, participatory, The New Surgery for Women. Now that so many of us are going to need it.
After they took it out, they showed me the X-ray; they snapped it into the view box on the wall. It looped across the slide like a string of jelly, like protoplasm stricken in its prime. No more mitosis for that little baby.
The surgeon grinned, “Excellent. Excellent result. We got all of it.”
“Great.” I was sitting up with a flannelette blanket around my shoulders. On the pocket of my black cotton shorts, a pool of blood had dried from when the radiologist had inserted the hollow needle into my breast at the beginning of the procedure. Once the needle was inside, she pushed a fine wire through. It was to stay there, marking the spot for the surgeon.
“The wire is as thin as a hair from your head,” the radiologist said, after the local and then the wire. “Well, not my head,” she added. A woman, she meant she had thin hair, troublesomely thin hair, I didn’t have to look. From where I leaned into the image machine all I could see anyway were her breasts, full and shapely as pears, about ten years younger and three times the size of mine. The part above her nipples, pushed up by the cup of her bra, lifted under a sheer white blouse. They looked so soft and comforting, poofed up like that, I wanted to put my hands over them.
The technician who was assisting her, cranking and cramming my breast between the glass plates to get the images the surgeon would need, had hard athletic breasts, high up. The kind that look exactly the same naked or with clothes on.
I wonder now if they saw me looking at them. If they’ve noticed that all of the women who go in there look at their breasts while our own are being pinched between plates of glass, punctured like tires.
When the hollow needle passed through, it felt like water, a push of water, filling me up. The radiologist would pause, and I found I could adjust to the sensation of tissue being displaced, an entirely new sensation. At the very end, on the last push, there was a surge, bigger than I thought I could contain (if there was a thought, my breast doing the thinking) and then the wire was pushed through, the hook at the end catching and biting down, or so I felt. I gasped. They told me to breathe easily. Slowly. I managed a few shallow breaths between the glass. No point making a fuss, getting in their way. The pictures mattered; they had to take another one with the wire in to make sure the surgeon cut in the right place.
The abnormalities, they said, looked powdery. Powdery calcifications deep in dense tissue. When the surgeon applied his knife to the outside curve of my breast, I felt the skin parting like two sides of a sandwich, but no pain. I could see the calcifications in my mind at the same time, clear and pale as ghosts, alone on their own little plate in the middle of a table. Uncertain of themselves, I thought. Who are we? they asked. Are we beautiful? Will we kill her?
In the recovery room, which was also the waiting room (waiting to breathe again, waiting to stop shaking), I ate the cookies the nurse brought me. The surgeon stood in the doorway in street clothes. “It looks good,” he said. A red line from where the mask had pinched his cheek under his glasses was still there.
“There’s still a chance, though, of disease,” he said.
“I know.” Let’s just find out, I thought, I can handle it. Bryan doubts it, but I do not. I don’t care if it’s first stage. I can handle those extra bubbles in the cell’s soap, toxic as DDT. I will blast them with my X-ray vision, I will suck them into little flowers, I will irradiate them with the sun that burns like a sword in my dreams. I can handle anything up to third stage. If it progresses beyond that, I’ll cover the mirror myself.
“We’ll know in about a week.”
“Fine. Thank you.” I snuffed down another cookie from the plate. There was a pale trembling in my solar plexus still. Bryan hadn’t arrived; they were bringing him up from the other waiting room. It had been only three years since he brought his mother, Millie, to this hospital for the last time.
“Great cookies,” I said to the surgeon, but he’d already gone. I ate all of them, little round vanilla ones, hard and riddled with preservatives. A hundred year shelf life, just in case. The people who process food on this planet are pathological. Section their breast tissue and you’d find cookie crumbs, powdery, indestructible; they’re never going to die.
“Let’s go,” I said when Bryan arrived. I adjusted the bag of frozen peas they’d given me to put in my bra. The cold prevents excess swelling from the blood under the incision, they told me. The bilicarbon in the blood breaks down when it’s cut, or burnt as they did in the surgery to stop it from flowing out of my chest — the smell is normal, they kept telling me, the sound is normal, as the cauterizing machine went on and off. What the smell was I couldn’t tell; electrical, perhaps, but not the iron-sweat of menstrual blood, my blood, as I know it. I buttoned my shirt.
Bryan eyed the peas, “We’ll have those for dinner.” He was watching me. At times like this he’s careful not to ask too many questions. Go with the flow. Women are a puzzle he doesn’t try to solve, an old-fashioned theory he admits, but just as good as the new ones, which are not going to pan out either.
That morning in the hospital, four days ago now, he was pale under his beard. He held my left elbow when I stood up.
He let go. My breast, the breast, is on the right. Shameless, I admit. Beneath me. The trouble with marriage (or maybe its secret charm) is that everything can be someone else’s fault. The bands go on, you are joined, and the world divides.
The deep lines around my mouth in the car mirror (Bryan was putting my bag, an overnight bag just in case, into the trunk) are not from smoking. I imagined telling someone this; I don’t know who. A plastic surgeon, a cosmetician? “I didn’t smoke.” That much, at least, is true. I will say (I have rehearsed this many times) that the lines around my mouth are from too much sun in my teenage years. It struck me, just as Bryan got in, readjusted the rear-view mirror and sighed to our dog, Frank, licking his paw in the back seat, that this was a bold-faced lie. I went out in the sun like a fool every summer until I was thirty-seven years old. Eight years ago. That is the truth. I didn’t mind if sweat washed off the anti-radiation lotion, I didn’t replace it. I just pretended I cared. I even scolded Alice’s girls in the yard next door for basking in their bikinis without protection. To whom do I direct this deception?
When I put my reading glasses on, these lines are greatly magnified. At least I hope they are. (The excised tissue is magnified, they reassured me, when they hung the X-ray in the view box.)
Right now, I could use a drink. Alcohol is a balm for the breastless. What? For the blameless. I don’t like these little slips. The day the mammography results came back irregular, three weeks ago, my watch stopped. The jeweller said the battery had corroded inside the case but the sight of my watch, reliable for years, still and quiet, stopped me cold. No! I thought. Not yet! I didn’t tell Bryan.
Can he see those lines pinching the top of my lip? Probably. Think of that. (Maybe he doesn’t know whether I’m beautiful, just like I don’t. (If I don’t know, that might mean I am?)) Anyway, there they are. And to top it all off, my mouth is caving in. Not so as you’d notice it yet, but my dentist– a woman–pointed it out. It’s age, she said, nothing to be done for it. She doesn’t believe in orthodontistry and I draw my own line there as well. After four or five thousand dollars your teeth just pull back into place. They know how old they are; they can’t be deceived.
A few blocks from the hospital, Bryan started to relax. He was humming something, I couldn’t hear what, a Miles Davis solo, probably, early sixties, his favourite period. His arms looked nice in his short-sleeved shirt, his biceps in good form from lifting weights at the gym three times a week. Men keep longer.
The strange buoyant feeling I had after the cookies, the feeling I’d aced it, had passed. “The autopsy results will be in next Wednesday,” I told him.
“Biopsy, Maudie,” he said.
“That’s what I said.”
He’d sighed at Frank in the mirror, again, and then mentioned something about a movie at the Ridge he wanted to see. We should try to catch it (the plastic and gauze over the stitches will stay in place for several days, they assured me. But no exercise, no lifting with that arm, don’t get it wet). I missed what he said about the movie. He has taken to mumbling, or my hearing is going. Ear drums riddled with disease, no doubt, a train of cellular regrets heading straight for my brain — alar in the skin of apples, chlorine in water, copper from the pipes degrading, dioxins in tampons, turpentine and butane and methane in cigarettes — all, somehow, saturating there.
My grandmother died of second-hand smoke, her husband an addict all their married lives. (I remind myself my husband smokes a single cigarette a day, outside. I take a deep gulp of air.) An unhappy woman, my grandmother, by all accounts, her upper lip lined deeply — I imagine this — but not from smoking. Her daughters slipped needles under the covers and cranked her full of morphine; she never felt the pinch, they said. But how could she not feel it? Unless the first dose had not worn off when the next began, unless they didn’t want her lucid and troublesome. A difficult woman; Mater, they called her. Temperamental, vain, disappointed. I don’t know why, I never met her. I was five during her demise, her long convalescence.
My mother went away for her mother’s funeral and came back. I don’t remember it, but I remember my father taking us into his bed because my sister was crying because her grandmother, whom she had never met, was dying. I think she got mixed up, that’s all, and missed my mother, or saw my mother being sad, which I must have seen, too, her back to me in the bedroom packing her suitcase on the bed. She wouldn’t have talked to me, although she would have known I was there. She wore a suit with a peplum, pale blue, a knee-length narrow skirt, and high heels. She went from the bed to the cupboard and back. She put the hangers on the bed as she slipped the clothes off, and then gathered them up clinking softly against each other in a blue vibration like her suit. Her colours and their sounds as close as she ever let me be.
The surgeon talked about the place where he grew up while he worked on me. Don’t look at your breast, he and the nurse both advised, don’t open your eyes. When the shaking moved higher up, I concentrated on feeling the weight in my limbs, my head on the pillow, the heavy stones of my hands stretched out, one down beside me, the other on a board at a right angle to the table. My feet rested on a similar board, pulled out to accommodate my height.
“Kootenay Lake,” he said, “is the most beautiful lake in British Columbia. It has an interesting history.”
The cauterizing machine went on, there was that smell. “The smell is normal. The sound is normal,” the nurse said.
“There were mines around there. Gold and silver. In a year, ten thousand people would move in. When the vein dried up, they’d all leave again, just like that. During the war, they put the Japanese in those ghost towns.”
“Oh?” I said, my eyes closed.
“I don’t agree with not compensating them. Especially the fishermen on the coast. All their boats and everything.” He sighed. “That was wrong.”
The nurse made a sound, assenting.
“No,” I agreed. I thought of the miners, and then no one, the Japanese, and then no one.
“But people were terrified. Really afraid. The inscrutable Japanese… The smelter at Kaslo was thought to be a target.”
I didn’t want to argue with him. I hadn’t even thought of people being afraid. I saw the buildings in my mind, charred and black, gaps of light between the wooden slats. I sensed weather moved on, just passed.
“There are still some Japanese up Greenwood-way.”
I’d been to Greenwood. Bryan and I went camping near there last summer. I couldn’t remember seeing any Japanese people, though. We’d stopped at a fair, the one-hundredth centennial of the town, it turned out. Bryan had perogies and cabbage rolls. I’d joked about sushi, but only as a city person does in a small place. I said, “I’ve been there.”
“If you visit the little graveyard, you’ll see Japanese names.”
Was it Christian or Buddhist, or was everyone buried together? I didn’t ask him, the trembling in my middle was starting up again. Then I remembered the small wooden church on the hill as we drove out of town, an odd, openwork bell tower like a box chimney on one side.
“When you put someone you love six feet in the ground,” my mother said when she came home from her mother’s funeral, “you will believe in God.” I can’t imagine that I’d disagreed with her, being five, but she was arguing with someone. I only thought about a box of earth, and wondered about winter.
It was springtime when Aunt Clare, my mother’s sister, died. “Can you pray?” my aunt asked me.
I was twenty-three. She was propped up on two pillows in the hospital bed, her scalp blue under her sparse hair. I didn’t want to lie. Atheism was a point of pride as every little idea is at that age, as if you’d invented it yourself, as if you had to. I said I could do something like pray, maybe. I remember smiling, rueful, but smug, too.
She went on, worried, “They said we could see a psychiatrist here. That Rob and the kids could. We haven’t even talked about it.” I thought she was talking about dying, but she hadn’t said the word, so I only pretended to understand and nodded.
My Aunt Clare drank Bloody Marys in the morning and smoked Camels all day long. I don’t know why; what her sorrows were. The doctors made her quit in the last six weeks and she suffered, shook and suffered from the withdrawal, and then the chemo. She weighed about eighty pounds and waited until everyone went downstairs to the coffee shop before she’d die.
Cancer. There it is, so far away in my aunt’s bed. In my ignorance I had nothing to offer her. Youth is terrible. (And beauty, which is youth?)
I still have nothing. Nothing for myself. Which is I’m at this cliff edge now, unaware of how I got here, unfamiliar the terror that comes at night and clings to me as if it were my own body. In my dreams, it separates to march in dark armies. Takes children so young, they are still the colour of water over rock; their mothers and grandmothers, like stairs in old houses, all taken.
When I wake, in horror, shaking, Bryan is asleep beside me curled on his side, another child, another mother. I feel pulled from him like skin. I tell him about it in the morning. He nods, unshaken. I am glad these are my dreams and not his.
I’ve had some good days since the surgery — walked the dog, made love with Bryan in the kitchen (an odds-defying place), spent an hour with my breast soothing it with white light — when its shadow like wings crosses me, again. Struck still, I don’t take my eye off it, a fine thread before a needle. I have learned in these last few weeks since the first tests came in not to dress it in dread, songs for my funeral, nor to cheer it with news of impending health. I bear it through the needle as it is, until it dissolves like stitches under my skin.
I have not told Bryan the rest of it. How I tell lies in these dreams. How I steal ingots of gold from someone’s pocket, sleep with someone I do not love, lie and cheat until the law almost catches up with me. I zig and I zig, I brag shamelessly, why zag now?
I do not tell him in case he recognizes it. But, what is it? What have I done?
I am standing in front of the big mirror in the hallway, looking at my face, when I notice him.
“See anything that wasn’t there ten minutes ago?” he says, leaning against the kitchen door.
A few coarse hairs on my chin he can’t see from over there. His mother, Millie, had noticed them the first time they’d appeared. She ran a thick finger under my jaw and muttered something between her own whiskered lips.
“I’m taking Frank to the vet’s in a minute. Want to come?” Bryan says.
I shake my head. He disappears through the doorway.
Maybe I look at my face to see what he loves.
Maybe I look at my face because it is pleasant to see.
“I sleep with you, but I do not love you,” I whisper, speculatively, to myself in the mirror. “I steal gold from your pocket.” My pocket has lint in it, a folded and washed grocery list — Tampax, Cutex nail polish remover. I put it back, I never bought these things.
I take a last look. A freckle, squamous, rests above my right temple. I persist.
I see an eye looking back. Dry, uncurtained. There.
What beauty doesn’t know, it says.
What? I look again. Nothing.
From the back door Bryan calls out that he’s leaving for the vet’s now. Frank has jammed something up between his toes, again, in the pad there. It’s gone by the time we look, but by then Frank has worried the place half to death and it’s raw and needs ointments or pills to fix it. We don’t know what he puts there, some secret thing. A pebble, a bit of food?
“A code of some sort? One of those little keys from a locker at the bus depot?” Bryan queries him. “The phone number of that poodle down the street?” He eyes me to see my reaction to the last one — corny. He turns to Frank, “Why do you do it, man?” He ruffles his ears, offers him a hiding place in his sock drawer instead, but this is for me, of course, to cheer me up.
Frank came to our back step four years ago. We opened the screen door and he walked into the kitchen as if he knew it. A stray, he wore no tags. Bryan thought we should call around, look at signs on telephone poles. I said I would. We bathed him in the laundry tub in the basement that night, flea shampoo and then regular. There was tar in his fur and burrs from the ravine below our place. We had to cut away the mat of twigs and leaves under his tail and soak the scabs of blood off his forelegs. When we dried his long coat with our hair dryers, one of us on either side of him, he howled, but stood it. The howling clinched it. “He’s ours,” Bryan said. “The little guy belongs.”
I’d already taken the old bowls down. Rowdy, our last dog, was crazy, even for an Irish setter, but he died of old age.
Bryan stood back to take a look. “Upzip the dog and what have you got?”
“A mutt?” I said. But I had to admit Frank was beautiful. Without effort or conscience, and with just a little love.
He became a favourite of Bryan’s mom, Millie, when we moved her here from the nursing home. She was pretty well out of it by then. She seemed to like living with us though, only panicked a little when Bryan went to work, and then when I left and the homecare, Dolores, arrived. We thought Frank reassured her, though she never spoke to him. I only saw her reach down to touch him once, while she was watching TV, but only as if she were adjusting a rug. He followed her into her bedroom every night just the same, slept on the floor beside her, didn’t seem to mind her odd smell of lavender toilette water mixed with eucalyptus from some old nasal spray she carried around with her in her sweater pocket. She’d had a soft spot for animals, Bryan claimed, all the while he grew up.
One night we were watching television together, a Wild Kingdom sort of show (I never watched TV much until Millie moved in, all those young actresses, how many sit-ups to look like that?). About bears, brown bears, and about this one bear that had been too late to make its winter burrow. The commentator kept asking, plaintively, what will happen to this bear? We watched it scratching through the deep snow, which was already sloping up the sides of the trees. Lumbering, digging with its big paw through the banks, looking confused, or so the commentator said. Where will it go, now? Where will it sleep through the long winter?
“Well,” Bryan’s mother said, seriously, after listening to this for awhile, “he could stay with us.”
Bryan and I looked at each other over her head.
“In the spare room. But there’d have to be some rules and regulations,” she added, sternly.
Bryan started to laugh. I couldn’t. I didn’t want to end up like that, not knowing the difference between a bear and a houseguest. But it strikes me as funny almost, now. Jesus.
Even before she lost her marbles altogether, Millie was an odd box, as we called her. She used to haul herself out of her chair and shuffle past us in the kitchen as we cut up the vegetables for dinner. I’m just going to the bathroom to have a stroke,” she’d say. It used to frighten Bryan.
“When people die,” he says, sadly, helping me pin a wet towel to the clothesline on the back stoop (something Millie used to do, half-do), “it’s like you’re sending postcards to them. ‘Wish you were here, did such and such, saw this and that.’ You’re still carrying on this conversation.” He pulls out the last wet sheet and shakes it — floup! — and clips it to the line.
I watch him. I still can’t use my right arm much. I tried to go for a run this morning when he was at the vet’s, but it hurt to jolt myself around like that.
I look out into the yard. It’s a perfect blue afternoon, that’s for sure, green grass on the ground, a few clouds very white high up. I stand in the overhang of the roof out of way of the harsh sun.
“And where are they?” I ask him. “Where do they go?”
He looks down. This is not abstract to him, he misses Millie and his dad, who died two years before. “I don’t know. Somewhere. Nowhere.”
I touch his arm. This is happening to him, too, I think. But then, I don’t really know. It’s hard for me to tell with him sometimes.
When he goes in, the screen door clicks after the pause in the vacuum hinge. It’s quiet out here without him, as if caught in the same kind of lull; holding. Swing, he calls it when he listens to Miles, and Art Taylor, the drummer who played with him in that little club in Chicago in ’61. Bryan plays the recording in the car a lot. Oh, that cooks! he says, happily, that really swings. The tension between the hands of the drummer keeping time, between the notes in Miles’ horn, that pulls your body from one side, over to the other. Swing. In there, as if between the opening and delayed shutting of a door, something breaks time.
Behind the picture postcard of our back yard — the cedar fence on either side and the open end where the ravine climbs up into our property — Bryan’s mother and my Aunt Clare, still in her hospital gown, our first dog, Rowdy, and my own mother from four years ago in the hand-dyed hat with the whisper-blue veil that she insisted on being buried in (to make her nose — the one I inherited from her — look smaller) are standing in a little circle on our back lawn. In tiny, mouse voices, they say, Wish you were here.
Oh, God! I drop the clothes peg I’m holding on to the wooden stoop and turn to run inside when something catches at me, that swing, that silence in the sequence, and my eyes suddenly go slack, half-close. I turn around. Wish you were here.
Millie’s explaining something, or maybe it’s Rowdy, they all sound the same. “When you first come here,” she says, (O Jesus, why didn’t I take the drugs they offered me at the hospital?) “you feel so alone.” The others assent, mousily, in the background. “You see ahead of you that field, or is it a desert?” Her voice is louder. “And that branch over there in the distance. Is it alive or is it dead? You can’t say for sure, can you?” The rest of them are listening, my mother, too, the shadow of the clouds unmoving on the summer lawn. “After awhile,” she goes on, “you see that that field or that desert, and that branch in the distance, aren’t all that different from the boy you liked — what was his name? — in high school. And the leaves, those dried leaves rustling on the sand, are moving the same way you move, aren’t they?” Murmurs, assenting.
Millie looks different, looks like them, but I can’t say how. Here and here and here, she says, looking into my eyes, the lines around my eyes and mouth. Wish you were here. They laugh, some of them, I think it’s laughter, but they’re starting to fade.
Dried leaves, I repeat this phrase, dried leaves are the same, move the same… is that what she said? Another sound extends itself into the yard, ruffling the blue surface of the postcard. Bryan’s put on a Turentine disk, the best tenor sax in the world. The clouds shift on the grass.
Leaves? I must have heard wrong. There’s a sharp pain in my breast below the nipple. Disfigurement, the surgeon said, is a risk in this procedure. I open the door. The hole should fill in with fluid in a few days. Frank is lying on the tile floor, his front paw covered in a bandage. I think of that bear on the TV show, unprepared for the long sleep. After awhile, a year at most, the scar will turn white.
Who will see the colour of my nipples, the length of my legs, if I’m a dried leaf? If I’m just the same as everyone else? “I’d have to pack a lunch,” Bryan used to say, “to get from one end of your legs to the other.”
I take a deep, deep breath, and step over the dog into the kitchen. I’ve zigged and I’ve zigged. How zag now?