Beeps from the kitchen, Miriam punching at the timer. Outside a dog howls and Wilson goes nuts, scrabbling on the wood floors, relaying the message, the sun’s gone, oh my God, oh my God. Then he drops an octave, growly, probably the mailman, or somebody in a hat.
"Honey, the dog,” Miriam shouts, as if I don’t know, and I go for the mail, toss a catalog to Wilson. “It’s a high fly ball—” sails out of the TV, the crowd cheering, the smoke alarm tooting in the kitchen like a sick ambulance; a Tarzan yell from Miriam’s phone, then mine whistles, all some crazed Popeye soundtrack.
“Summon the teenager,” Miriam says, lunging for the oven, but Gabby’s already stomping down the steps.
“I don’t care if he calls or not,” she broadcasts over the bleating alarm.
“Who, Elliot?” I holler from three feet away, stabbing a broomstick at the ceiling.
“Honey, I thought nobody actually calls anymore,” Miriam says.
The beeps stop but then Gabby’s phone chimes and she whizzes away, clicking, as if we can read her thumbs. Elliot, God help him.
“Okay, but I’m eating your artichoke,” I yell and she U-turns to the table, her text whooshing off, sliding into her seat like she’s stealing home as Miriam plunks down the blackened chicken. The dog is nuzzling my ankle and praying to the gods of gravity while the rest of us hold hands like a trio of skydivers, and Miriam races through to an “amen.” Then, incredibly, a moment of absolute silence as we let go. I take a deep inhale, toking on our own randy mix of oven and sweat and animal and pheromones, and I hold it in, feeling the rush.
* * *
Two weeks later and Gabby’s gone. College girl. Syracuse, if only because she didn’t realize Maine was even further.
“She’ll be back,” Miriam says across a mile of dinner table. “She’s already complaining about the snow.”
“In September?” I say, forking at my fish, wishing it was a T-bone (Miriam’s idea of a “fresh start”). “Wait, she texted? What’d she say?”
“Hey, don’t make me—”
“You stick that thing in your nose and I’m so leaving you.”
Once, in the early days of the mother-daughter coalition, they’d been whispering about tampons, like Dad couldn’t handle it, so that night at dinner I pulled out a handful and screwed one into each ear and nostril. Gabby giggled and plucked one from my ear and stuck it in hers. We both deadpanned back to our food, and as I maneuvered the last bite of pork chop past my tampon tusks I caught the corner of her eye, but she didn’t flinch.
* * *
I have a thousand best friends and they’re all dying. So different from back in the atomic age, when you’d know a bunch of people at church, a few more at work, parents at school and whatnot. Your family; in-laws. Maybe a hundred at most, twenty you genuinely care about, three or four you’d die for. Things had their limits. Save up for an LP and listen to it over and over. Forty songs on the radio. The occasional movie. Once in a while somebody’d pass away, but you kept planting in the spring, thinking you’d live to eat those tomatoes.
I’ve been trying to explain this to Miriam, what’s been gnawing at me.
“People live longer than ever these days,” she says.
Which isn’t my point, but I let it go.
Later at the gym Derek and I are on the ellipticals.
“It’s like I’ve got a thousand friends now,” I say.
“You’ve always been more popular than me,” he says.
“Dude, I’m not kidding. I mean, there’s this whole frame of reference, this vast backlog of movie stars, baseball players, people on TV, pop singers, that somehow . . . look, how did you feel when Whitney Houston died?”
“Devastated of course. But she’s still in here.” He points to his heart. “And here.” He makes a circle with his thumb and forefinger, lower down. Jesus.
“And Facebook,” I go on. “All these new old friends, from like grade school. I reconnected with this guy, Ricky Butler, my best friend when I was ten. A week later he drops dead. Heart attack. I mean, who just drops dead at fifty-five?”
“I don’t know. Ricky Butler?”
I look around the bright, wide-windowed gym at the young women with their swishing ponytails, pumping Stairmasters in time with their ear-buds, at the clipped, Nike-clad executives gaping at the flatscreens on their treadmills, like they don’t know every day is a tragedy. What about their own thousand friends? Their own coterie of sitcom actors and standup comics, and old girlfriends and third cousins, all so vulnerable to a quick shift of the odds. Kirk Douglas. Is he still alive? How about Moe? I worry about Bono, Springsteen, how can they keep that up? And Jagger. And the guy who moves like Jagger. Any one of them tomorrow’s headlines.
“How can you wake up every morning and not worry about who’s going to kick it next?” I say to Derek, wondering if his cool insouciance is really just dopey ignorance.
“I don’t know, it’s like worrying about planes falling out of the sky.”
“But planes do fall out of the sky.”
“Less than ever, don’t you think?”
“It’s not how many planes.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s the people on the planes.”
* * *
At the breakfast table Miriam is reading about the asteroid, something I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, not to think about.
“You’re not worried?” I ask.
“About your thousand best friends?” She’s heard it up to here.
“The asteroid? According to this guy at NASA, it’d be like hitting a bullet with a bullet.” She fluffs out the paper and turns the page.
“Still,” I say, “there’s that crater in Arizona. Not to mention the suspicious depth of the Atlantic Ocean.”
“So sometimes the bullet hits the fucking bullet.”
Miriam blinks at me over her paper as if I’m a stranger in a coffee shop who just plopped down at her table, then presses her hand to my cheek. “Don’t worry, she’s fine. She’ll be back.”
Who tells somebody who’s worrying not to worry? It’s like telling a drowning man to swim. Or a parent staring into the crib saying, Just breathe, dammit.
* * *
Another night we’re in the family room after dinner, the AC humming, Miriam’s fingernails clattering on her keyboard. Almost like normal, but still, two doing the work for three. I put on the Beatles.
I read the news today, oh boy.
The microwave dings. Popcorn. Wilson shoots me a hopeful look.
“About a lucky dog who made the grade,” I sing, pushing up from the couch. But the song is making me nervous. I’m remembering that humongous piano chord at the end. Holy shit, what if that’s the whole story right there? That final twenty seconds. The murmuring orchestra getting higher and louder, chaotic, ascending, converging like a horde of Tomahawk missiles on the penultimate note, then Blam! Cradle to grave. Like the twenty seconds before the asteroid hits, its own gravity yanking us heavenward.
* * *
Scientists report on the odds of an asteroid strike. Bono suggests a new space initiative. Jesus, we can’t lose Bono.
* * *
When Gabby was a toddler we’d be on a road trip and I’d use the Time Machine. “Close your little eyes, then I’ll snap my fingers and we’ll be there,” I’d say, and she’d conk right out.
It works on me too. Visualize where I want to be, what I want to be doing, across some vale of unpleasantness. Sausaged into a plane to Mexico for example, I can catapult my awareness into that future moment on the sand sipping a neat tequila, blazing a Cohiba, and before you know it I’m actually there, looking back, thinking that was really fast.
* * *
Miriam and I watch that movie, ReAnimator, with the evil doctor, now just a detached head in a dish of reanimating fluid, plotting revenge. I’m digging the ludicrous impossibility of it, my own body on the couch sympathetically comatose from the neck down, when I remember I met the director once. Nice guy, overweight, rubbery gray skin. Did he just stop making movies? My intravenous drip of worry starts up again. Miriam hears my sigh and peers over her MacBook.
“What?” I say.
She bites her lip, considering me. Maybe I’ve become the detached head in the fluid. Not evil, of course, but still not everything a woman might want from a man.
* * *
With Gabby gone and Miriam barricaded behind emails and newspapers, I’m grateful for my thinking-about-things job and start working longer hours. Problems with solutions.
* * *
I loom over the bathroom sink. Miriam’s in bed reading People, all articles that will some day be repurposed as obituaries. I study my eyeballs and track the red capillaries. I try to make each one of my real pupils look only at its corresponding reflected pupil, then roll all four of them up to examine my eyebrows. How many hairs? If I counted one per second, how many seconds? If I named each one would I need a baby book? Maximilian. Bubba. Dylan. Dakota. Carolina. South Carolina? Two hairs growing out of a single pore. Jack and Jill. I run out of names, then scan down my mountainous nose to the sandy stubble above my lip, each single whisker squirming out of the viscous surface of skin, which puckers up around it. I imagine the razor shearing off the ends and the skin sinking flat, then almost immediately the little bumps as the hairs resume their struggle.
It seems like hours later when I turn off the bathroom light and climb in next to Miriam.
“Was I in there long?” I ask her.
She puts down her magazine. “Where?”
* * *
I’m at work, perusing my list of Things To Think About, but the other list keeps cutting in. Five more “friend” requests. Don’t they know?
Derek’s back and drops a wooden figurine on my desk. “Got this in Moscow.” He pulls up the one to reveal the other inside, and so on.
“Wow, like I’ve never seen one of these,” I say as he lines them up.
“Hey, it’s for you,” he says, and now I feel bad. But not too bad, because while he was in Russia scarfing down sturgeon eggs and icy vodka and sharing the company’s great thoughts with people who don’t have many of their own, I was here in my cubicle squeezing out new thoughts into the hopper. His week lasted a month while mine blinked by in a single day.
“So what’s the latest on the asteroid?” he asks.
Thinking about the asteroid isn’t my job, of course, isn’t even part of our department, but Derek knows I’ve been thinking about it on the side, that I’ve seen memos from the fifth floor.
“Pretty soon it won’t just be the Hubble,” I say. “Amateur astronomers will be able to see it.”
“Like a comet streaking across the sky?”
“No, like a dim star slowly getting brighter.”
He does his own thinking on that and frowns.
“Who’s working on this?”
“Apparently our best people.”
After work I shoot pool with Derek. Sighting down on the eight ball I hear him cough and suddenly think, Jesus, what if he’s next.
* * *
I’m clearing and Miriam’s filling the dishwasher. “This isn’t about your thousand so-called friends,” she says, and rests her hand on mine, but her touch feels prickly and I pull away. She’s right, but not how she thinks. If you can’t care about a thousand souls then what chance do the real numbers have? The five thousand soldiers in Iraq, or the fifty thousand in ’Nam, or the half a million in the Civil War, or the six million Jews, or the twenty million Russians, or God knows how many if the asteroid hits. I mean, the thought of even rounding off the numbers.
Try to imagine just one person, I tell Miriam. Say a kid in Baghdad, sitting at the table in the morning eating oatmeal, or whatever it is, I don’t even know. His mother packs a cloth bag with his lunch. His little sister on the bench next to him, kicking her feet that don’t quite touch the floor and singing a kid’s song. He’s eleven years old, serious-minded as he eats his breakfast, thinking about solving the numbers in school, then getting his degree at an American university and returning to Iraq to care for his mother because his Shiite father left a month ago with two Sunnis and hasn’t been heard from. I imagine him realizing in two or three years that he can’t leave at all, because who’ll bring the bread. But for now, he quits the table with purpose, arms himself with books and lunch, and launches into the dust-choked street, already loud with pushcart vendors, livestock and chickens, suited business men, Mercedes with blacked-out windows. I’m pulling for him, just to make it to school and learn a little something, then get home to his mother for a bowl of milky tea, to giggle with his sister, having been the man all day. He shortcuts by the bazaar and I picture him sneaking up on his pal who cooks cornmeal pancakes there every morning, and knocking off his hat, the two play-wrestling for a moment, then “God is great” and he heads off. But there’s a car bomb in the bazaar and I want to yell run, but he can’t hear me and stops to buy a papaya for his mother. He doesn’t even hear the explosion.
“And that’s just one,” I say to Miriam, who is looking at me with alarm as I push tears off my cheek.
* * *
For a week I’ve slept as little as possible, worried about the Time Machine zooming forward when I’m not paying attention. I’m reading a book about Franz Hausman, the German guard who saved all those people at Auschwitz then died three years later on a cobblestone street near the castle in Salzburg when the bullet from a misguided Nazi-hunter entered his brain, widowing his war bride and leaving his twin baby sons fatherless. I’ll be looking at page fifty-seven when suddenly my eyes will fly open and it’s still page fifty-seven, but hours later.
* * *
The days pass so quickly at work I stop going. I tell Miriam they’re painting the cubicles and I can’t think through the fumes, but I’m pretty sure she doesn’t believe me.
“Who was that guy with the sword hanging by a hair over his head?” I ask while we’re reading in the living room. “Procrusteles?”
“Damocles” she says. “And don’t worry, he’s already dead.”
Right, I think, but was it the sword?
* * *
“You’re not eating anymore,” Miriam says, watching me twirl spinach with my fork like it’s spaghetti. She sounds tired. “You can’t just worry about everybody.”
“It’s not like I have a choice, Miriam. Do you know who died today? Do you want to see the list?”
“You’ve got to stop it.”
“I can’t stop it.”
Her phone bleats.
“Go ahead, it might be somebody’s last words,” I say and she burns me with a look. “What?”
“Her doctor’s visit.”
“Gabby’s fine. You’re the one with all the friends dying. Jerry-fucking-Lewis and Steve Jobs and Helen Mirren and the guy from the J. Geils band who’s not even J. Geils for fuck sake.”
“Helen Mirren’s not—”
“Oh, she will be. Maybe any moment now.”
“If I could—”
“If you could what? Save them? For what, your asteroid?” Her lip turns down, she squeezes her eyes shut and then the sobs hit her like a seizure. I’m at her, holding her while she shakes. “I worry about her so much,” Miriam stutters. I pull her face into my neck.
“She’ll be fine. You said so,” I say, then shake my head to scatter any possible thought that she may not be fine.
“What about your thousand friends,” Miriam says, the last word rising out of a fresh spurt of tears, but no shake of the head can keep my heart from groaning under the weight of so many souls.
“I’ll make more,” I say, faltering.
“But what about the asteroid?” she says, and I lose all hope, thinking of the inevitable midday shadow, the low rumbling, the clattering cups and plates as the earth quivers before its firing squad. I feel the orchestra rising up in me like a sickness, accelerating toward that final incandescent note, then the brief pause, the fake reprieve, just long enough for me to look back on it all, thinking that was too fast, before a hundred pianos hit the sidewalk.
In a conniption of panic I jam my lips against Miriam’s; hers reach back as they always have, and it could just as well be the first time we kissed, how many years ago on the crowded escalator, when afterwards she slipped her fingers into mine, our grip tightening as we stepped off into the shared vertigo of the next new thing, then the thing after, and again, the flip-book blur of events that couldn’t possibly have already happened.
I trace my fingertips down each vertebra while Miriam strokes the back of my neck, and who can tell if it’s then or now, moments side by side or they’d stretch on for centuries.
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This Poem is about a Small Town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and a College I Hated in Massachusetts
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Petals and Roots
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