Haiti was in ruin. Again.
It was one of those places outside my consciousness most of the time—couldn’t tell you anything about the local politics or even, with any precision, where to find it on a map, until it materialized on the news, the victim of earthquakes and tropical storms and hurricanes.
It was on TV. Sheets of rain, trees pulled up from their roots, homes torn asunder. “It’s coming for us, buddy,” Uncle Ron said.
“I mean if she was a perfectionist I think I would be able to understand that. I think I would be able to understand if she was an anorexic or bulimic.” I can hear my wife’s voice in the distance.
We’re driving through the drizzle to reach you. Thoughts on my mind. Passing endless fields.
You’re my daughter. You will always be my little girl. You’ve gone through something, is all that I can read in your eyes, that and the fact that you don’t want to talk about what is on your mind. All I can read, see, analyse is the veil that covers what you want to hide from your mother and me. I’m wooden in your presence. You’re wooden in my presence. We’re mortals but we’re tender ghosts as well. I don’t want you to waste your life. You’ve always had such presence in the company of your peers. Of course, I’ve always wanted to protect you. Your mother had other plans. It was she who wanted a daughter. She wanted you to make your mark on the world. Ballet, tennis, diving, Toastmasters, editing the school magazine, the drama of the house play every year in high school. Nothing could stop from putting a mark on everything that you put your mind to.
The first Christmas I ever spent without my wife was the year she studied on exchange in Germany. I was in the final semester of my own studies when she left and in the months leading up to the festive season I had struggled with life in her absence. At the time I was flatting in Remuera with Ingrid, a Plunket nurse working in Glen Innes, and her eleven year old daughter Emily. After everything I’d put them through all I wanted was to give them a perfect day. I owed them that. And so I decided to avoid the usual calamity with my family in favour of remaining in Auckland with the girls, and any other unloved orphans left in town on Christmas morning.
I thought I could hear Ingrid moving around her bedroom. I didn’t want to wake her but the milky concoction in my hand only she could call coffee was lukewarm at best and I was already considering making her a new one. I pushed my glasses back up my nose, looked at my watch, and knocked.
“She won’t stop referring to you as my roommate.”
Sandy adjusted her purple headband until it rested evenly upon her dusty, short-cropped hair. There was a long silence in the room as she scrutinized herself in the mirror and picked at a tiny piece of dry skin that hung from the tip of her nose. Mariah admired the shape of Sandy’s pea-sized nose and the way it pointed up at attention like a tiny soldier. It was one of the first things she noticed about her. “It’s as if we never even had the conversation,” said Sandy, who had stopped fidgeting. She looked herself over and sighed, as she often did in front of the mirror. “I shouldn’t have told her over the phone. I should have waited.”
Mariah watched Sandy helplessly, the way only a lover can watch her beloved when she’s been inundated with troubles that are out of her control. Sandy began to fiddle with the straps of her long dress. It was dark blue with a simple floral pattern. The ends of it danced around Sandy’s ankles as she moved. Mariah thought Sandy looked out of place in that dress. She was used to seeing her girlfriend lying on their couch in pajama pants and a t-shirt or out in the world in a collared shirt and a pair of slacks. Sandy liked to present herself to the world as a customary professional, with folded arms and a stern but genuine smile. Mariah decided to cherish the dress while she could. Although it looked foreign on Sandy’s body, it characterized innocence in her which Mariah had only become acquainted with after several months of sharing space with her, after the emotional barriers that Sandy had spent years surrounding herself with finally broke down and the two of them found themselves next to each other in bed.
Rolling the ball of her mother’s carpal-friendly mouse, Ani woke the hibernating laptop to find an unfamiliar screen. The last person in the office, a balding guy Marie had called an impudent beast because he’d devoured the last package of peanut butter cookies without asking, must’ve changed the default from Chrome. This new search engine’s logo was a cyan ball with big, cartoon eyes that glanced toward the text box when she hovered the cursor around it. Ani steadied herself as she typed.
Rapid heartbeat, nausea, confusion, dizziness.
“Ani, we need those sheets changed.” Marie hustled down the hall with a bottle of window cleaner and a bundle of newspaper. Her dark hair was held in a high bun that looked like it’d fall out if she turned her head too quickly, and she was still wearing the loose cotton pants and tank top that she called her pre-guest outfit.
“They’re in the dryer, Mom.”
The computer stalled. The impudent beast must’ve forgotten to clear the cache. She refreshed, noticing that the camera light was blinking purple instead of red. When the same old links came up, she deleted the search and began to type impudent, just to be sure.
1855: the year Dr. Livingston became the first European to set eyes upon the waterfalls he would subsequently christen after his illustrious Queen. The same year British North American backwater Bytown was renamed Ottawa, inching up to a declaration of Capital. The year Central Park in New York City was orchestrated, landscaped, and constructed. The world did not yet exist in photographs.
The colonial mind of Dr. Livingston, concluding that anything not witnessed by Europeans sat nameless, awaiting. A man of his time.
More than half a century later, from the rubble of the First Great War, the British bully who forced a hard line in the sand through the nomadic tribes, and arbitrarily defined the Saudi Arabian border against Iraq. A border held, but never stable.
Upon a mound of bodies is no foundation for a moral high ground.
He writes in his notebook: at times I try to fabricate a memory.
Demington had been dreaming the dream, in one form or another, for as long as he could remember. The action was always extensive and complicated, as it usually is in dreams, but the principals were always himself and his wife, Morgan. All manner of things happened inside his personal nighttime movie: sometimes he was lost on the highway in his car, or he was about to run out of fuel, or the road was slick with ice or snow and he panicked
Andy and Dad always stopped off at the church before going fishing. Andy looked through the window as they crunched over the gravel, and waved to the man inside.
Pastor Cunningham sold tackle and bait and rods from a room at the side of the church, even on Sunday mornings, and even when it was still dark. He would read the Bible with his feet up. He opened his shop half an hour before dawn — even on Christmas and at Easter — according to sunrise times listed in the Kaipara Harbour Fisherman’s Handbook, which he put together himself each summer using the photocopier in the Church office.
The shop smelled of bait and ice and oil, and that black tea the pastor drank. There were always strange shadows on the wall made by the rods standing at different angles in the window. Pictures and maps of the Kaipara harbour were pinned to hessian boards. The room seemed crowded and full and was always warm, even in the black winter mornings.
“Nice morning,” said the Pastor.
“She is,” said Dad.
Andy had seen pictures of priests and church-men, on TV and in books: Pastor Cunningham looked like none of them. He looked pretty much like Dad, hairy and tall and brown from the sun, with a pot belly where he would sometimes rest his hand, or his tea, or his glass of beer. He dressed in shorts and a brushed cotton shirt, red or blue usually but with other colours running through it, except on Sundays when he wore his brown corduroy trousers and a shirt and tie.
Cunningham was his first name, and his last name was Thomas. Cunningham Thomas. Andy had first thought he must have had them backwards, but no, Mum said that was the way it was. Backwards was forwards.
Mum had grown up with Pastor Cunningham, and so had Dad. They’d all been kids together. Some people, like the big kids at Andy’s school and some of the grown-ups, called Pastor Cunningham a different name. They called him Sly Bacon. Mum didn’t — Mum called him Cunningham — but Dad did. Actually, most often Dad just called him Bacon, and he didn’t seem to mind.
Pastor Cunningham pulled a bag of bait from the chest freezer and handed it to Dad. The bag had frozen into a strange shape, like a squashed sausage. Dad pulled out a two-dollar note from his pocket. The pastor raised his hand.
“I’ll take a smoked Kahawai, next time you come by,” he said.
“You’ve always been a gentleman,” said Dad.
They walked back to the car. The sky was beginning to glow.
“How far we going today, Dad?”
The hurricane passed in rain and in wind that threw sand from the beach against our windows. But none of the windows ever gave and we only lost power for couple-minute spans, never for the long haul.
That next morning, the sun was shining. It was still windy, but not the kind of wind that would overturn a car or uproot a tree. The kind that would, at worst, mess up your hair, maybe pry loose one of the balloons outside the venue.
The phone is all the way across the house. The kitchen, the dining room, the long corridor. It didn’t used to look so long. I’ve told you this house is too big for you. Each step is so slow. Just three digits to dial, 9-1-1. And yet, it’s so far. A trip across the house like a perilous adventure. One more step. Betsy offered to stay, didn’t she? You should’ve taken her up on it. She will feel terrible if…no, no, you can’t think that. Not as long as you keep making step after step. Yes, that’s right, step after step. And that pressure in my chest is okay, it’s not so bad. It was nice of Betsy. She’s been nice to me for the last year or two. She used to be so irritable. I wonder what’s changed. One more step. Don’t panic. You can make it. Yes you can. One more step. One step at a time, nice and slow. Betsy has been doing better since she divorced that terrible man. Why not let your daughter stay overnight? You know why. She can’t stay every night, can she? Then she might as well move in. Tonight is like any other night, or at least it was supposed to be.
Grandma gets cranky when I ask her about Dad, so I wrote deceased under his name on the family tree. I thought it was a stupid assignment anyway.
Sister Mary Agnes calls me in during lunch. I sit in the creepy chair next to her desk, the low one that makes you feel like a little kid.
“Bring the rest of your lunch,” she tells me, but I throw it away when I follow her inside.
She takes a bite of her peanut butter sandwich, sets it down on a paper towel then twists the cap off her thermos and pours water into it. After a sip, she asks if Dad has died.
“No, ma’am,” I say.
“He moved, didn’t he?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Grown-ups ask questions they already have answers for.
With the exception of the hand towels, Edith and Mark’s mom kept a neat house. Every Sunday, she’d crouch down and slide ratty bath towels around the just mopped wood floors, dewey and smelling of fresh pine. She’d scrape Mark’s salty and crusted remains from the corner behind the toilet with steel wool. Emptying the trash, she’d find the cigarette butts he tried burning us with wadded up in toilet paper.
Tucker was struck by how different Miles looked in his pictures. Time had been good to him. He was bronzed and broad-shouldered, muscular and bearded, a handsome, smiling buccaneer. Gone was the pale, waifish, gloomy boy of Tucker’s memory. Tucker looked different, too, he knew. His hair was thinner. He was softer and flabbier, thicker around the middle. There was more flesh under his chin. He had, by his own admission, not aged as well as his friend. But he reassured himself. Looks aside, he had been pretty fortunate. He had a beautiful wife who loved him. He had sold more houses last year than any other Realtor in his company. He had financial security, a nice house on a good street, and a son on the way. By nearly every objective measure, he was doing quite well.
By the looks of his house, Miles was doing quite well, too. He lived in a large, impressive Tudor in the middle of a broad shady street lined with other large, impressive Tudors. As Tucker and his wife pulled into the driveway, Tucker estimated the house’s value. He figured it would go for about four hundred and fifty thousand if it were listed tomorrow. If he were the seller’s agent, he thought he could probably get five hundred thousand for it. He quickly calculated the commission in his head: a little over six thousand dollars after the buyer’s agent and the brokers took their shares. Not a bad haul. With that kind of paycheck, he could take a month off.
Tucker and his wife parked and got out of their car. Miles came out to greet them. Dressed in a tight gray t-shirt and form-fitting jeans, he looked even more chiseled and strapping in person than he had in his pictures. Behind him came a tall, trim man with a shaved head and dark, deep-set eyes. Tucker reached out to shake his friend’s hand. Miles ignored the hand and went right for a hug, wrapping Tucker up in his strong arms. He slapped Tucker on the back and pulled away. “Tuck,” he said. “It is so good to see you. It’s been too long.”
The lizard was an unusual choice for a favourite toy. It wobbled like old jelly and its rubber had the catch of human skin to it. Half of its bottom jaw was missing on account of Matilda’s insatiable need to chew. It went everywhere with her and today it was in the kitchen, its green mouth gaped over the crusty end of the bread.
“Move it, Tildy.” Mallory stopped sawing through the loaf. “The kitchen is no place for a lizard.”
The directive was met with a stomp and a pout.
“That thing has been in your mouth. It’s not hygienic. Take it away.”
“Matilda! Do you want time out?”
The little girl grabbed the lizard to her chest with chubby hands.
The dogs have stopped barking
Throats thick with dust and pain
And every drop of every storm that has ever been
lives on my tongue, asking why
I saw you once and nearly drowned