Authors: R. A. Nelson
heat death of the universe
The wedding announcement.
A dying spacecraft falling at ten thousand miles per hour loses bits of itself on the way. Some parts are built to endure almost anything. Others are big-time fragile. If the fire of reentry, five thousand degrees, gets to the fragile parts, they warp, melt, vaporize. Sometimes instantly. Soon there’s no recognizable center to the craft; it’s all flying apart on various trajectories.
NASA calls the aftermath of a catastrophic event
It takes time to set up a wedding. So Mr. Mann has known about this for a while. Yet he was with me right up to the very last minute.
He has a substitute teacher for his classes. I haunt his apartment. He’s never home. Speed dial his number. The message has been changed:
“I have discovered that all human evil comes from this, man’s being unable to sit still in a room.
I put the phone down.
Scream and beat my fists against things that can’t beat back.
Spend hundreds of miles in aimless driving.
Walk through an empty house, a fragment of living death.
After they take my wisdom tooth out, I fall into bed for three days, waiting to die.
Dad calls this the Trophy Room.
From here all I can see is a sickening, dusty, useless collection of testaments to my mental perfection. Willpower, obsessions. My framed National Merit Finalist letter, perfect attendance certificates, science fair trophies, Scholar Bowl cups. Egghead awards and citations of every stupid description imaginable.
Mom and Dad blame it all on my tooth. My crash. Thank God.
My tooth was killing me, that’s what it was. Driving me insane. But now that it’s gone, I know what they want, what they expect, even if they can’t say it. They want me to find the girl I used to be.
But as I sink lower and lower, I realize, what does this room add up to? This person? What risks did she take?
When did she die?
I can’t go back there. Ever.
One night I feel myself plunging literally through my mattress, too weak to stop my fall. I’m falling into a darkness larger and colder than deep space. This is it. The Last Days. I’m going, lost, gone.
There is nothing beneath me anymore, holding me up. I’m in midair flying apart. I have no center. I have several potential trajectories, up to and including:
Something touches my hand.
How does my cat still know me? He rubs against my hanging arm just the same, no different. No different at all. Doesn’t he find me strange?
This is a start.
This is where I begin to find my way back. Realizing that if Kitty Nation senses something there, something worth touching, something real, then something must be there. And finally, after a time—
After a long, gruesome, ridiculous struggle deep inside a black, desperate, featureless, void—
Absolute zero with a bullet—
I choose Trajectory 1:
Remake myself into something that doesn’t burn.
I hope I’m late.
I’m wearing the long, froofy dead woman dress with the purple flowers. On the way to Mr. Mann’s wedding.
In this disguise, I’m as disconnected from the world as an astronaut.
I pull into the half-full parking lot and cut the engine. Wilkie Collins ticks and farts as I rummage the floorboards for my wedding gift. It fits in the palm of my hand.
The church looks like a hundred other churches. Architectural style: Big Doghouse.
Even before I enter, I sense that awful captured feeling of a place where only a limited range of human activities is allowed. Even scratching an ear must be done a certain way. Never with the end of a pencil or the point of a key. I hurry-hobble up the steps and tumble through the air lock.
Here’s the bride herself, Alicia Sprunk.
A butter bar of spring sunshine slaps her across the temple as I open the door, causing her to look up. Expression: Petrified Belle. I could strangle her with my bare hands.
I could. But instead I kill with my eyes. My smile.
Alicia is younger and prettier than her picture in the paper. Her veil perches on her billowy curls like a bucket rider about to plunge over Niagara Falls. Dress: phosphor bomb white. She appears to be legless.
A man I take to be Alicia’s father is holding her arm. Mr. Sprunk is large. He glares at me with the cold intensity of a Komodo dragon. I’m an intruder, a purple monstrosity. Something to be masticated to death. I smile again and brush past them to grab a seat in the back.
The sanctuary is suffocating under huge sprays of golden daffodils and tulips. In the center of all this gush, there he is, at long last, my teacher. Mr. Mann.
So beautiful, dark hair hanging just so. I hate how even now he takes my breath away. The groomsmen are ganged around him like linemen protecting a quarterback. Six horrifying bridesmaids stand on the left. I will never wear yellow again.
I won’t talk about the ceremony, that near-death experience.
I will talk about the end.
Alicia and Mr. Mann are kneeling before the minister, heads tipped forward reverently. My heart pounds, gathering steam to cross this mountain. I’m The Little Engine That Could. The minister intones the famous demand:
“If any man can show just cause why this couple may not be lawfully joined together, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.”
My Lullaby League gloves slip on the pew in front of me as I begin to stand.
I see faces turn toward me. The weight of the personalities is terrifying and intoxicating.
No. I can’t do it.
I’m not going to smash them. Not now.
I pull at my dress, smooth the pleats, sit down again.
On with the show.
I look at Mr. Mann and Alicia and cock my head empathetically. My eyes flood with unexpected tears. I’m projecting myself in Alicia’s place. How ecstatic I would be, how complete.
At the end of the ceremony, the congregation applauds when the couple is presented. I let go of the pew and clap with all my might. The sound of my gloves beating in the puckered space is the fluttering of a large, frightened bird.
We move into another building.
This is a gymnasium, I realize. There is the basketball goal. Time to score.
Help me, Emily.
At last I stand beaming before the happy couple. My gift is clutched in my gloves. The video camera can’t help it. It’s drawn to me. The lens rotates to zoom in. I will be on Mr. Mann’s wedding video a hundred years from now.
He suddenly turns pale as the icing on the cake.
“For you,” I say.
I press the gift into Alicia’s small hands. She holds the package the way you would hold a smallpox-infected pudding. Without her Raging Cataract Hairdo, she’s nearly a foot shorter than me.
I don’t hang around to watch her open it.
Inside is my wisdom tooth the dentist broke from my jawbone. And a violently scented note that says:
MINE by the right of the white election!
Mine by the royal seal!
Mine by the sign in the scarlet prison
Bars cannot conceal!
Mine, here in vision and in veto!
Mine, by the grave’s repeal
Titled, confirmed, - delirious charter!
Mine, while the ages steal!
I’m the last person on earth who would do this. Or maybe the first.
The giddy couple is still honeymooning down in Mexico. They’ll be home any day now. This might be my last chance. The wooden stairs are warped by sun and rain. From his door you can see the lake. Just in case, I abuse the knocker. Silence.
Security is lax, but I have no idea how to pop even a simple lock. Credit card? I bend Mom’s
Home & Garden
Visa trying to fit it in the slot. There are two windows I can reach. One has a small tear in the bottom of the screen. I make it larger with my finger and lift; the window miraculously gives. Hallelujah.
Somehow a daylight break-in feels completely safe. I can already hear the police officer:
I make a show of what I’m doing.
Fixing this screen, see? I live here, don’t I?
All those moments, hours—his bed—it sure feels that way. I screwdriver the frame loose and I’m in.
The apartment smells disused and empty. Hot as Venus in here. I bump the air down to sixty-four and the building rumbles subserviently. Everything is just as I achingly remember it, a charming wreck. I see his little brown box of New Wave CDs on the shelf and my heart cracks open.
Slam it shut.
Okay, what first?
I rifle everything. Papers, cabinets, closets, boxes, drawers, even CD cases.
Nothing. No letters, no photos, no evidence of Alicia or the wedding or even a past. Mr. Mann dropped out of the sky one morning in January.
Tacked to his bulletin board is a printout of a receipt from
. I don’t know how this can help, but I pocket it anyway. The answering machine has seventeen calls, all mine.
I press the button, listening to myself sounding more and more desperate. Crazy. Pathetic. Halfway through, I stop the tape. I hate whoever that person was. Now she just makes me angrier.
I turn on the decrepit computer and mouse through his files: lesson plans he never uses and not much else. I check his book-marks and history file. Everything looks familiar, including the honeymoon trip we picked one night on a lark while he fed me strawberries.
The trip they are on now.
Meander through canyons dotted with ruins of Mesoamerican civilizations! Splash in the waterfalls of El Encanto! Relax in the hot springs of Rio Antigua! Climb the spectacular pyramids at Teotihuacán! Feast on exquisite Mexican cuisine!
Contract flesh-eating streptococcus!
One can hope.
See, I’ve sunk to the level of schadenfreude.
a malicious satisfaction in the misfortunes of others
Or at least a dangerous first cousin. Schuyler told me about this. It’s bad for your karma. In this case the misfortune hasn’t happened yet, but daydreaming about it doesn’t let my soul off the hook.
God gives a rat’s ass. I’m not sure I do.
Put that one on my tab, Schuyler.
I fall over on the white couch. What am I doing here? What do I hope to accomplish? My eye falls on Mr. Mann’s beloved copy of Emily’s poems, a paperback published the year Kennedy was assassinated. I jerk the book open and start to rip it in half along the spine. I can’t bear to tear through the words themselves.
Several lines jump out at me:
SHE rose to his requirement, dropped
The playthings of her life
To take the honorable work
Of woman and of wife.
I reverently put the book back in its place. It’s not Emily’s fault. I should have known she would have the answer.
It’s time to make ready for the newlyweds. Time to make a Wife.
I exit by the front door, leaving it unlocked.
Rush to the Wal-Mart Rules the World Super Center and come back loaded with supplies.
I scrub the dishes, splash the kitchen with pine cleaner, the bathroom with Ajax. Mom is right: what men don’t see doesn’t exist. I straighten everything. The trash goes on the landing. I make a great show of opening the front door each time I go in and out; I live here, don’t I? I certainly deserve to.
Mom’s voice nags in my ears, scolding:
What a miserable little vacuum
Well, no wonder, if you never change the bag
When I start to strip the bed, something breaks open again. I burrow my face into the sheets while Emily watches in white loneliness from the wall. When I’m finished, I ball up the old sheets and leave them on the landing.
Crisp new sheets are tucked in a shopping bag in the hall. Lightly lavender, dotted with honeysuckle and crocuses. Alicia will love these Laura Ashley horrors. I snap them over his mattress, make the hospital corners neat and square.
One thing more.
In medieval times honeymooning couples were given a one-month supply of mead to drink. Honey = mead, moon = month. If they drank a cup each night, within one year their union would produce a baby.
I have no mead. This will have to do.
I tear the wrapping paper and silver bow away from the package Mr. Mann was supposed to open.
The label on the jar says TRAPPIST, below that, RED RASPBERRY JAM. Unscrewing the top is like turning the core of the earth. Those monks must be Bowflex junkies. I dip a finger in, dangle a string of the stuff on my tongue; it’s warm from sitting in the car. Mr. Mann was right: I taste like heaven.
I jerk the bedspread back, use three fingers to smear jam across the bottom sheet.
I can’t stop. I scoop out economy-sized globs and finger paint until the jar is empty.
A bloody Rorschach nightmare.
Happy birthday, Richard.
I remake the bed crisply and leave. Grab Mr. Mann’s sheets on the landing and stuff them in the car.
Come back and set the air to ninety.
“Darling, you’re home!”
Her hair looks freeze dried; if you broke off a lock, it would feel like coral. Her eyes aren’t quite so red today. Pollen count must be down. I’m barely inside before she’s peppering me with questions.
“Where have you been? Is it that hot out there already? You’re flushed, sweetheart!”
“Springtime in Dixie,” I mutter.
Mom reaches up to touch my shoulder. “Don’t do anything in the bathroom, dear. We’re out of paper.”
“I’m going to get some at Kroger’s. I won’t be home right away. There’s a used book sale at the library. If there’s an emergency, I put some tissues—”
“I said okay.”
“Can I get you anything from the store?”
“Thanks, Mom, I’m fine.”
I’m also exhausted. I sit at the table and find the dining room window. Trees still green, sky still blue. Our neighbor, Mr. Garner, is trying to mate with his garbage can. Life stumbles on.
“Are you sure? Your father will be home a couple of hours late. He’s out at the test stands again. You might want to order a pizza. I believe Terry’s is having a special—”
“Mom. I’m fine. Truly. Skedizzle. Think about yourself for a change.”
“But I worry about you, darling. Is it all just too much?”
“The end of school, being so awfully sick, everything.”
But my cat loves me.
After Mom is gone, Kitty Nation steps into my lap to sniff my breathing. I scratch his sweet flat head. Kitty Nation is the color of grandma afghans and leaves and burning. I will kill anyone who tries to formaldehyde him.
The empty tub is coldly supportive against my back. The rug is soft. This is my favorite reading place. I wrap myself in Mr. Mann’s sheets. His scent suffuses the space around my head. I spread open my copy of Emily’s poems across my knees:
HEART, we will forget him!
You and I, to-night!
You may forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.
When you have done, pray tell me,
That I my thoughts may dim;
Haste! lest while you’re lagging,
I may remember him!
I’m forgetting something. Yeah.
I reach into my pocket. It’s still there.
I crash out of the bathroom to my computer and slap the JetFare receipt next to the mouse.