~for Julie Turner
I do not faint.
I do not die.
But I fear, someday, someone will leap the fence, come up the path to my house, knock on the door, and I will die. Die or faint. A mailman, or perhaps even a stranger, a process-server looking for a person I am not. They come striding up, give a rapid series of knocks, and I—watching television or doing laundry or stooped in front of the dishwasher—fall over with hands clutched to my chest. Mouth contorted. A smell rising off me.
Dr. Thomas Kinchella.
It has not yet happened, though I wait for it daily, the knock. I have an eight-foot chain link fence, securely padlocked. A security system with alarms and sensors. I have pulled each blade of grass and put lava rocks in their place. There are motion detectors whose control switch I alternate between on and off. My daughter often sets the alarm to whirring and this is nearly disheartening as fear of the knock. I have tried to explain to her, but she is five, and cannot understand. I hope I haven’t passed my fear to her. I hope, one day, she can venture bravely outside, sit indoors and read books without the fear of blows upon the door. I know all about genetics and genetic transfers, this chromosome attaching to that, but I hope.
I dress her in pink and white, and there is neither a speck of dirt on her clothing nor a hint of dust in her room. Hardwood floors. An air filter. Constant vigilance. We sit in the rocking chair and read together, or I read to her out of the fairy tale book, or she reads to me her letters and numbers and I merely sit and cradle her. I feel, at times, I want to crush her into myself, so strong is my fear she could be harmed. There are things waiting to get her. There are people.
I used to have a successful practice and wife. Large home. Stock options. What is the word? Etcetera. I had things and I knew things and then one day I inserted my ATM card into the Instant Teller, put my finger to the keypad to enter a number, and drew a blank. Stood there staring at the blank, blinking screen. Am I saying that right? The thing that blinks and blanks? I don’t know. I had never before forgotten an item in my life. I ejected my card, put it back in my billfold, and got into the car, unable then to find my keys, unable to remember what the keys, precisely, were for. I had the presence of mind to call my wife, to negotiate my cellphone, but after that, after she and a friend came and brought me home, I began to forget things at an exponential rate. My colleagues conducted the scans, injected fluid inside me, pulled the fluid out. They could find nothing (they said virus, perhaps), and by the end of the month, I forgot their names, sold my practice and stocks and house, moved everyone into this small but comfortable home. I was expecting to lose consciousness altogether, but then the forgetting stopped. I recall distinctly the moment I no longer continued to forget, and things began slowly coming back, scraps of language emerging piece by piece. And that is when my wife left me for my friend. I sel- dom hear from her. Her name had been the last to go.
Maybe one day the forgetting will start again. Things always seem to just stop and start, or perhaps I stop and start them. Is there a way to do that, or do they do it for themselves? I want to believe I can make them stop, stop and start, and then, if necessary, stop again. I try to prepare my daughter to think on such things, but she cannot under- stand this either. She is clean and white and pink, with pink knees and white skin and dresses of perfect white. Her name now is Rachel. It was Cynthia before. We watch cable and we read to each other or ourselves, and there are board games, and other games we have made up with stuffed animals and flashlights and the cardboard boxes our food and clothes are delivered in. My bank balance is more than adequate. Everything we want, we have. She has only to ask and then there’s the beep of the computer and the buzz of the modem, and we click and scroll until our packages are said to be on the way.
I am a good father.
Things go for a while, quickly and slowly, and then the television goes and there is a woman kneeling in front of it with a belt of tools and a cable in her hands, smiling. She is beautiful and kind, and we begin to talk. I ask her to come join us for a meal. I ask her to bring a movie. The months go and my daughter is now six, and then there is a minister who one day comes to our home and we are married, man and wife, things around our fingers, and she calls them rings, and I smile, and she smiles, and for a while, everything is very good. I worry about the door and the knocking, but she lays my head against her chest in bed at night, tells me it will be okay.
And it is.
And then it isn’t.
She tells me she has a daughter. A daughter by a former husband, just as I have my daughter by a former wife. Her husband managed to get custody, even though he is, what she calls, addicted. He and her daughter live in a trailer, and she tells me the trailer is dirty, and her husband cruel, and she wants, on weekends at least, for her daughter to come and visit.
I say that this is all right.
As long as there isn’t knocking.
So she comes. Her name is Mary Ellen. She is also six. She wears a pink and white dress, but this dress is smeared with dirt, and there is dirt on her face, and dirt on her knees, and dirt on her hands when she extends them.
“Hello, Mary Ellen,” I say, but Mary Ellen says nothing whatever back.
“Sweetie,” says her mother nudging, “sweetie.” But Sweetie only shakes her filthy little head. She looks as if she might begin crying.
I feel something inside me drop. I breathe deeply in an attempt to lift it.
Then Rachel comes into the room, bright white and perfect pink, bows in her golden hair, my child. She walks over and smiles at my wife’s daughter. She puts a hand on her arm, and when she draws it back there is a smudge of something I hope is chocolate on the outside of her palm.
“My name’s Rachel,” she says.
My wife grins over at me, her face beaming happy home, and all of us together, and isn’t this cute.
I turn and go in search of a towelette.
And then the screaming.
And then the running.
The all hours of the night television and computer games. The spilled juice and spoiled milk. The pills of cereal waiting underfoot to be ground into Persian rugs.
The smears on the walls…