24 The Luckiest Person Alive
The call came sometime before dawn.
While I brushed my teeth I watched the mirror closely and became aware of my skull: of the fact that my teeth were rooted in bone, and that my jawbones and all the other bones lay just under the surface of what I could see. I wondered how I could have missed noticing, before, all those bones. I was a skeleton with flesh and clothes and thoughts. We believe there is such a safe distance between the living and the dead. I recalled how I’d used Mrs. Josephine Nash to shock my students into paying attention, on the first day of school. I’d thought I understood something they didn’t, about death. That it was understandable.
I was still at the mirror when Loyd came. I saw him appear behind me. First he wasn’t there, and then he was. He was going to drive me to Tucson. I had to go to the Mexican consulate to get a registered letter and some papers, and then I would sign some other papers from the Nicaraguan government. Of course, there was no Nicaraguan consulate. It was the Minister of Agriculture who called. We had become something like friends, though we would probably not speak again now. Or perhaps we would. I’d heard of people united by disaster keeping track for years afterward, holding reunions. I thought of boat people. Business executives stranded overnight in elevators. How would they celebrate? What specific moments would they recall for each other? My thoughts kept straying onto random paths like these, hoping to get lost in a thicket.
The Minister said there would be a package coming later. Not her body, but a parcel of personal things, some books and journals. Her plate and cup, her clothes, those items were distributed to neighbors. The body would stay there. She had requested of somebody, at some point, that she be buried in Nicaragua if that ever had to happen. She said Nicaragua could use the fertilizer.
What was the last thing she said to me in person? How did she look? Why can’t I remember?
“Loyd,” the face in the mirror said. “What do I do now?”
“Put on your shoes.”
The sun was just coming up as we drove away from Grace. The world looked inhospitable.
“I should have gone down there,” I said.
“And done what?”
We drove past an old junkyard outside of town. I’d never noticed it before, though it must have been there since before I was born. A man stood on the bonnet of a rusted car, shading his eyes, looking down into the ravine.
“On the phone they said her hands were tied,” I told Loyd. “He said they found her that way. But I can’t believe that. It doesn’t sound right to me that she would let anybody just tie her up and then shoot her in the head.”
“Maybe they made a mistake,” he said. “Maybe it didn’t happen exactly that way.”
“I know my sister. I think she would get away somehow,” I said.
“Wait for the letter. That’ll tell everything.”
“Maybe they made a mistake,” I repeated. “Maybe so.”
Within an hour the daylight had overcome its early bleakness. Now it looked like any normal, slightly overcast day. The normalcy made me angry, but it was a weak kind of anger that held no pleasure.
“If I’d told her about Doc Homer back in December, how bad he was, she would have come home.”
“You can’t make this your fault.”
“But she would have come home.”
“Codi,” Loyd said, looking at me and not finishing. His face held such pain I didn’t want to see it. Finally he said, “You could probably think of a hundred little things that would have made this turn out different. But you’d be wrong. A life like your sister’s isn’t some little pony you can turn around any way you want. It’s a train. Once it gets going it’s heavier than heaven and hell put together and it runs on its own track.”
I didn’t say anything to that. Loyd barely even remembered meeting my sister. How could he know what her life meant?
On the interstate we passed the site of a bad accident. You could see it coming: the cop cars and ambulances all huddled around, lights flashing importantly, making their scene. As we came closer we had to slow down; one lane was blocked by a trailer rig with a smashed front end. Out in the median, at an angle that bore no relation to the direction of traffic, sat a white convertible with its frame bent violently into a V-shape.
When we passed it I saw that it wasn’t a convertible after all; the top had been sheared off, and lay on the other side of the road. An are of glass and chrome crossed the highway like a glittering river littered with flotsam and jetsam: a pair of sunglasses, a bright vinyl bag, a paperback book. At the trail’s end was the pile of steel. I’d never seen such a badly wrecked car.
“Doesn’t look like anybody walked away from that one,” Loyd said.
I thought of Hallie walking out of the library that time, years ago, then remembering her sunglasses and turning back just before the marble facade fell down. She could just as well have died then. It made no difference now.
The luckiest person alive.
The ambulance pulled out right behind us, its warning lights alternating like crazy winking eyes. We quickly left it behind, though, and we weren’t speeding by any means. Loyd saw me watching the ambulance and glanced up at the rear-view mirror. “They’re not in much of a rush, are they?”
Just then, while we watched, the lights stopped flashing. I understood that I had just seen someone die. No reason to hurry anymore. My limbs flooded with despair and I didn’t see how I was going to survive. I kept imagining what that little white car must have looked like half an hour ago, and the driver, some young woman listening to the radio, checking her hair in the mirror, preoccupied with this afternoon or tonight or whatever small errand had taken her out.
“Why does a person even get up in the morning?” I asked Loyd. “You have breakfast, you floss your teeth so you’ll have healthy gums in your old age, and then you get in your car and drive down 1-10 and die. Life is so stupid I can’t stand it.”
“Hallie knew exactly what she was doing. There wasn’t anything stupid about her life.”
I practically shouted at Loyd, “I’m not crying about Hallie right now. I’m crying about that person that just died in the ambulance.”
He was quiet.
“Loyd, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” I was afraid the muscles in my chest might tear themselves apart. I thought senselessly of Doc Homer’s discussion of liver tissue and heart tissue. As if it mattered what part of your body was the seat of emotion, all of it could be torn up, it was just flesh. Doc Homer didn’t even know about this yet. I’d called, and we talked, and it was clear he didn’t know what I was telling him. He talked about Hallie being kept after school. Maybe he never would understand, maybe his mind would just keep wandering down other happy trails. Loyd handed me his handkerchief and I tried to blow my nose.
“What would she want you to do?”
“She would be crying for a person in a damn ambulance that she didn’t even know. Not me.”
I saw lightning erupt in the dark clouds behind the Catalina Mountains. It was an impossible time of year for a lightning storm. I’d seen photographs of lightning frozen in its terrible splendor, ripping like a knife down the curtains of the sky. They say that to take those pictures you just open your camera on a dark night, in a storm, and if you’re lucky you get a wonderful picture. You have no control.
“Hallie isn’t dead,” I said. “This is a dream.” I laid my head back against the headrest and cried with my knucklebones against my mouth. Tears ran down to my collarbone and soaked my shirt and still I didn’t wake up.