Here’s a Story
J. D. Schraffenberger
For weeks after Michael Brady’s wife died, he couldn’t get that kids’ song out of his head. The boys used to sing it together, marching single-file through the den, up the stairs, down the hall, swinging their arms in military unison before collapsing into a heap of laughter at the final line—“They all go march-ing down!” The song wove itself into Michael’s breathing, his walking, his dreaming. The words fumbled unspoken in his mouth, under his tongue, stuck in the clogged phlegmy valve of his throat. He felt awkward and distracted by the song, and the three voices of his three boys, echoing fine and ghostly, like spider silk, filament, filament, filament. The song’s downbeat vibrated inside him when he breathed deeply or walked slowly or remembered his more vivid dreams.
Driving home from work calmed Michael. Cars were reliable machines. They confirmed his longtime faith in an orderly universe. The wild wind rushed into the car and swirled the interior. He was wild, like this good warm wind, but also contained and tranquil behind the wheel, deliberate. He was a deliberate person. He’d always been someone who understood exactly who was, and other people liked his firm handshake, his bright eyes and smile. Now he was someone whose wife had died, and everyone knew it. At the office, he stared out the window or studied whatever indecipherable document lay on his desk. He sketched pictures of Donna in the margins, trying to recall living images of her, not momentous occasions but actual in-between moments—dressing in the morning, feeding the baby in his high chair, flipping through the pages of a meaningless magazine in bed. For some reason, he couldn’t stop remembering a flicker of a moment in the early years of their marriage when she was crouched down on her knees to wipe a muddy footprint from their shiny kitchen floor, her elegant wrist swooping the wet orange sponge across the linoleum in a swift arc, the mud disappearing like magic. All these random moments blurred together in Michael’s mind so that they didn’t even seem like moments any longer. They became a haze of randomness. He tried teasing these memories apart to investigate their meanings but would lose the thread each time. Either nothing is random, or everything is. Even contemplating the choice—nothing, everything—depressed him, but at least driving reliably smoothed his thinking to a cool hum. Maybe one of these days he would pull over and gallop west into the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains, curl his body somewhere like a tired animal—in the cleft of the roots of a giant coastal oak, or deep inside a cliffside cave—and sleep until there was nothing left, no more grief and pain and suffering, only the memory of grief and pain and suffering.
The muddy footprint had been his own, he was sure of it.
After the funeral, Alice had told him to wear a brave face, for the sake of the boys. Her face wasn’t brave, though. She was pouring his coffee and wouldn’t make eye contact. Michael inhaled the tang of her ammoniac perfume, a Valentine’s gift from her new boyfriend Sam. Jesus, the butcher’s cheap little fancies, Alice and her stupid life. It was uncharitable, but his stomach soured at the idea of their happiness, together in love.
He wasn’t certain what a brave face looked like anyway. Was it supposed to be stoic and blank? He stood in the midnight fog of the dining room staring into the china cabinet at Donna’s Royal Albert cups and bowls and saucers imagining brave faces in their colorful design. Vines of red and yellow roses burst forth like tiny rashes smiling along the edges of the plates. The teapot’s chipped spout reminded Michael of broken teeth, and he tasted the memory of blood.
People were sorry for his loss, they were so, so sorry. He confessed to the teenage girl at the supermarket cash register, apropos of nothing at all, that his wife had died last month. She stopped ringing up his order and gazed directly into his bleary eyes to ask what happened, precisely what everyone wondered but were too timid to ask. Good for her, Michael thought, and offered her his first genuine smile since it had happened. What happened was she disappeared from her body, voila, like magic. He snapped his fingers. Like that.
He drifted upstairs raking his knuckles along the balustrade. He hardly noticed lately moving from place to place to place, and not just because he’d begun drinking again, more or less full time. He glided from the kitchen sink to the front porch to the end of the driveway where the dented garbage can lay on its side. Now suddenly he was floating naked in the backyard pool trying to conjure the long-ago names of constellations, a slimy clump of elm leaves pasted to his forehead. There was Andromeda, the chained lady, or was it Perseus? Michael Brady closed his eyes and watched an arcade of Greek heroes and monsters and ladies waiting to be saved in the sky.
As an architect, Michael engineered solutions. He was good, thorough and systematic, deliberate. He could close his eyes and simply discover an answer, turning objects over in his consciousness, things fitting together with other things in space. But his problem was not a problem of space. It was a problem of time, the problem of death. Of course, that was his problem, that was his real problem.
Vaguely, he contemplated buying a gun.
A thousand half-open doors shimmered darkly around Michael as he descended the late-night hallway. Whispers from the boys’ room trailed behind, followed him into the bathroom, grasped his ankles like desperate children, coiled up his legs, winding finally around his neck. In an unsummoned moment of clarity, Michael realized that if given the choice, he would—not gladly, but without hesitation—trade his boys’ lives, one by one by one, to bring Donna back. He would bind them all on the altar as a sacrifice. My three sons for one dead wife. It was more than a hunch. He knew. He understood, too, that whatever small moments of happiness that might visit him in the future, whatever lovely lady he made a new life with in the measureless oceans of space, they would always be tinged with this most unspeakable of darknesses. He could never untell this story to himself. It rang inside him like a dangerous song. Greg and Peter and Bobby marching up the mount of the Lord, the little one stopping to suck his thumb.
In the mirror, he tried on a new face he believed might be brave, not blank but full and animated. He clenched his jaw, flared his nostrils, and made all the living muscles of his face rigid at once, but he looked ridiculous, pathetic pink-faced Mikey pretending to be a man. He let go the reins of his body, loosened his breath, and then turning on the cold water and then the hot, he carefully, deliberately, noiselessly vomited into the filmy white spiral that slurped down the sink’s black drain, O my soul.
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J. D. Schraffenberger is editor of the North American Review and professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the author of two books of poems, Saint Joe’s Passion and The Waxen Poor, and the co-author with Martín Espada and Lauren Schmidt of The Necessary Poetics of Atheism. His other work has appeared in Best of Brevity, Best Creative Nonfiction, Notre Dame Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.