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   s i c k

--- J U L I E   B E R M A N

      The day the twin towers fell, my mother was attacked by a wild dog. He was loping and galloping around the neighborhood that morning like he owned it. Calls were made to stay in the house. ďDonít go outsideĒ a neighbor told the machine, ďitís part pit bull part shepherd. Heíll tear Max to bits.Ē But my mother was already outside. She would play the message over and over again the next day. I would call the machine and listen to it too. I had just left home for college out west. I had fears I might be enjoying myself too much in Arizona, and now I knew it had been a mistake. I never should have gone away. I never should have left my mother. She was all alone back in New Jersey.
      Heíd got to her eye, cut the cornea. There was only pain when she blinked, my mother said, so just about every other second. She had held Max in an arm and kicked with her ballet slippers, using a free hand to push off the wild dog. A cracking sound. A screen porch, metal against metal. Mr. Chadbourne flew down his drive; heíd been watching leaves change from his bay window. Heíd spent the last ten years doing that. He would later say that from watching shows like 20/20 and 60 Minutes and most recently, When Animals Attack, he learned one should take action with the feet. So he held my motherís hand off, and kicked at the animal with his army boots first, and hurled a steak he had brought from inside his freezer. It landed on the Bravermanís lawn like a discus might. But before that the plastic stuck so tight to his fingertips, it would be months before the skin grew back and healed.
      At first the dog paid no mind to the steak. Heíd already tasted my motherís flesh. So, as Mr. Chadbourne would later explain, he gently guided my mother onto the ground by nudging the undersides of her knees. Max was still clutched in her arm like a loaf of soda bread, and Mr. Chadbourne plied them into a fetal type position, instructing them to look away. I cannot imagine my mother submitting to such a thing. In her yearbook it said she spit nails. The dog sniffed at this human pile for a moment, his jaw finally releasing from my motherís hand Ė or her cheek, I imagine in the bloodiest of my nightmares. Finally he leapt up in the direction of the steak, following his snout, and began munching on the carcass on the Bravermanís front lawn, head thrust; his mouth shaking, his jowls swinging loose with happiness.
      In my motherís version, which cannot always be trusted, which often cannot be trusted, she wakes up in Mr. Chadbourneís arms, Max in hers, his paws in the air. She is on a couch that is foreign. It is a tweed couch, rough, scratchy, with a scent of pipe smoke; she sees bits of sky from a bay window. She is saved. Mr. Chadbourne is the hero.
      Mr. Chadbourne feeds her rice pudding. He feeds her rice pudding! And he coos endearments into my motherís soft ear, and for a whole while she feels she has fallen in love. His words are like a long lost balm, a salve. Everything is fine he says. Everything is fine. Youíll be okay he says. Everything is fine. And she believes Mr. Chadbourne; she believes in him like she could never believe in my father. Why? Who knows why? There is something about the way Mr. Chadbourne says the word (fine) that makes her wonder about the notion. With Mr. Chadbourne taking care of her perhaps everything will be fine. She considers this. Though her daughter is gone, and she is left with a quiet, adequate husband, perhaps everything will be fine. Perhaps fine exists. It seems to exist here in Mr. Chadbourneís arms.
      According to my mother there were flowers. She woke up to flowers.
      Theyíre yours, says Mr. Chadbourne. I suspect, however, that they were not simply a gift, but that he meant he had plucked them from her garden. Somehow they looked twice as beautiful in the delicate glass vase shaped like a tall, thin question mark.
      Thank you, says my mother. She touches her hair, feels for the clip that always keeps it up and in place. There is a satisfaction in knowing it is right there; her hair has not been undone. Max spreads his haunches and his paw pads separate. He pads across the room and both my mother and Mr. Chabourne watch him walk away and down the hall. Youíve been so good to me, she says to Mr. Chadbourne.
      Mr. Chadbourne sits in a beat up office chair across the room. He swivels. I havenít left the house in a long time. I was happy to see you. I was happy to help you.
      When my mother told me that I nearly didnít believe her. I wondered if it was a poor connection and I had heard her wrong. I was all the way in Arizona and there she was in New Jersey. Her voice felt small. Words, I was learning, could be misconstrued.
      Let me get this right, I say, and before I repeat the information, she cuts in.
      He fed me rice pudding, she says, triumphantly. I thought Iíd die. I thought here is my last day on earth and Iím going to die with a piece of my face in this dogís mouth. And Max will die. Weíre all going to die. You too.
      I have exams soon, I explain, and itís sort of true.
      But itís only September.
      I tell her that we have midterms and finals but also half midterms and half finals. They are coming up soon.
      Iím thinking of sending Mr. Chadbourne a gift or stopping by. Either or. What should I do?
      Write Mr. Chadourne a thank you or something, I tell her. Mr. Chadbourne is about a million years old and I figure heíd enjoy a handwritten letter or note. I encourage her to bring him some flowers from the garden. That would be nice.
      Mr. Chadbourne has the bluest eyes, she says all of a sudden.
      The bluest skies? I think for a second, Oh eyes, I tell her. Eyes, eyes, eyes.
      Rice pudding and that tweed couch, she says. I can feel him on my skin.
      Mother, I tell her, calm down. We learned all about this last week in psch. class. Mr. Chadbourne saved your life and now you feel guilt, not to mention post traumatic stress syndrome.
      Post what?
      Post traumatic stress disorder.
      I was just upset, she says. Is that what that is?
      I donít know, I tell her. And I donít. My eyes are glazed over from watching the TV all day. Have you watched the TV? I ask her. Do you know whatís going on in the world?
      I donít own a television set, she says. Remember? I threw it away when you moved. I threw away your awful pink television set.
      I look at my tiny dorm room. My roommate has left a wet ring on my desk again. When I found this I wanted to take a sweaty glass and put it up and down all over her bookshelf. A parade of rings!
      Just stay inside the house, I tell my mother. Turn on the radio. Just stay in. Just donít go outside. Ever, okay?
      What plans did I have to go outside, she asks. Iíll wait right here until you come home. Iíll wait here with your father and not move an inch. Donít worry about a thing.
      Four years, I say. You canít wait for me. You canít wait four years.
      Why not, she asks? Why the hell not?
      I feel like crap, and so I pretend Iím losing my connection. What? I say. What? And though I can hear her little voice growing larger on the other end, asking me, Are you there? Are you there? Hello? I hang up. I hang up on my own mother and predict that I will rot in hell for this, but it must be done.
      That day nobody goes to class. We wander the campus like zombies, like vampires. Like zombie vampires. I run into my roommate in the main quad and we discuss our plans: we have none. We could drop out, we could give blood, we could support a side. But we decide this: we are at the start of school, and the end of innocence. We would do what we could do, which is nothing.
      We drink beers. We drink beers like they are the last ones on earth. We drink them like theyíd cure us of disease. And it is a disease, this sad state, this sick feeling.
      We sit at a table outside, beneath the safety of an umbrella. We drink several rounds of whatever is on tap. We drink quickly as if we have some place to go, as if people are waiting for us, cooling their heels. But there are no people waiting and there is no place to go. My head is spinning. I try to imagine my mother supine on Mr. Chadbourneís tweed couch. I try to imagine all of it. But I canít. I close my eyes, and when I open them everyone is gone.

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published in association with the |
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