Dead Man Floats

When I woke up yesterday, something told me I ought to go back to sleep. To celebrate the fourth, DJ and I hit up Christopher’s in Porter Square after we saw off Steve in a cab headed for his ship with his crewmate (Uncle) Dizzy, someone whom I had only just met but had immediately adopted me as his own because I refill my pint glass with an athletic celerity.

Scott, the bartender, told me that last call on the fourth was scheduled for midnight. DJ and I left, the last ones to leave, close to 1:30am. Just months after my college graduation, I’m too old and too out of practice to close a bar and not pay for it twelve hours later. The sun is too unkind. The trees are too loud.

After work, Janice picked me up at the Braintree T. She was tinkering under the hood in a no standing zone near the main entrance. Her car burns oil and we had quite a drive ahead of us, and it was already close to midnight.

“JC called. Mom had a heart attack,” she told me as she helped me load my bag in the trunk.

“I told her to go to the hospital yesterday when I talked to her. I thought she needed a few liters of fluid,” I answered.

This morning JC called again. This time I picked up. My mother was air-lifted about four hundred miles away to a hospital in Sudbury, second best in Canada he said, but things looked bad. Her heart had failed her. Only about a quarter was still functioning, the rest of it was probably dead. I stood in the middle of Commercial Street, the main thoroughfare in Provincetown with my father, sister, and her boyfriend Andrew. We were on a mission: to find Andrew a bathing suit. I had just picked up a pair of navy blue running shoes for myself, a purchase about a year over due.

“Thanks for calling. I appreciate your taking care of my mother,” I told him with utter sincerity.

“Well, I didn’t do a good enough job, now did I?” he answered. JC and I have never exchanged more than 250 words, less than a middle school book report. Now his voice was shaking. Emergencies can make strangers into family.

I replayed critical scenes every movie I’ve ever seen in mind head, measured my words, and tried to be comforting and appropriate. “You’ve done the right thing. There’s nothing left to do. All we can do now is wait.” My voice was noticeably flat. I put on a smile for my audience to explain that my mother was ill and almost certainly going to die. Now I know why couples break up in public. No one was angry. No one cried. We continued on our way to the next shop, to find Andrew a suit.

On the way I snapped at my father and apologized.

Once there, I ducked out again, this time to talk to my grandmother for the second time that day. I thought we were done talking, but she interrupted our goodbye with a very simple and moving prayer. I winced but the public setting saved me. I didn’t cry.

The walk back to the hotel lasted about twenty minutes. On the way Ellen, Paul’s wife, pulled me out of the crowd. She was with her daughter Gracie, who was happily nursing in the stroller, and Alice, their dog. A moment later Paul bounded out of the cigar store across the street. I walked into him, head down, and quickly. It seems to surprise everyone every time. For a moment I was able to suspend the severity of reality; I smiled without thinking too much about it. He reminded me that I find out about a job tomorrow. Even if I don’t get it, “there’s still purpose to your life,” he told me.

On the walk back, I pondered what that purpose might be. My dad filled the time with talk of submarines. The Germans or the Swedes, he couldn’t remember which, have developed a new submarine that leaves an almost invisible signature. It uses diesel and fuel cells rather than conventional nuclear technology. The hull is rubberized to absorb sonar, and all of the metal, even the dishwashers, are magnetically neutral. Maybe I’d take that commission in the navy, I thought. I could fight the good fight against Ikea.

There wasn’t much to do back at the hotel except swim. My dad challenged me to a few races. I gave him a crash course to the butterfly. Then we stewed in the jacuzzi a while. As he lounged, I practiced holding my breathe. First trial: 70 seconds; then: 63; third: 71; and finally: 82. I laid on my stomach with my arms and legs extended and my eyes closed. I tried to imagine what it’s like to be dead. I aimed to last longer at the start of each go and to be more convincing, at least to me, of my death. I let my limbs go limper than before. Over time I found muscles I hadn’t realized her tense and relaxed them. The bubbles turned me onto one side. I floated. I felt free.

Janice and Andrew left for the pool just as dad and I returned. Now there wasn’t anything left to do. I played a little Tito Puente in the background and started my routine of push-ups and crunches. My mother isn’t stable enough even to be a candidate for a heart transplant. The first from a collection short stories by Judy Budnitz, Flying Leap, crept into my mind.

In this story, a woman needs a heart transplant. Her sisters cajole their nephew, the woman’s son, to donate his. At the end of the story, the woman lives and thanks the son, who promptly dies. I’ve read most of the other stories in the book, and heard this one on NPR, and even installed an AC for the author’s sister a few weeks ago, but I just can’t get into it. Magic realism just isn’t my thing.

Tonight my sister made her signature boiled dinner. Tomorrow I may be in Ontario. Check me out if you’re in the Greater Sudbury area.