FOR THE LAST MONTHS of his life, my father lived upstairs from us. His ceiling pitched all the way to the floor, and three tall windows overlooked the pines and the bayou behind the house. For furniture there was a double bed, an oak dresser, and a nightstand—any more wouldn’t fit. The room had never seemed small to me when Kay lived there, but during my father’s stay it felt very small, the bed hardly wider than a cot, the dresser cheap and shameful.
He didn’t want us to see him in his condition, and like the rest of us he believed it was just temporary. A little time, maybe a week or two, and things would get better. Until then he’d just have to suffer through it—through the dizziness, the hallucinations, the clutching sensation he felt in his chest and stomach, as though he’d touched his tongue to a nine-volt battery, except all over his body. To distract himself, he cleaned out the garage below his room, killed the cockroaches beneath the stairs, and scrubbed the oil spots from the floor, and in the evenings, if he felt well enough, he walked along the shoulder of the bayou, sometimes all the way to the neighborhood pool, not yet open but cleaned up and ready to open, the surface glowing blue, the lifeguard stands perched over the water.
But it didn’t help. Back in his room he saw things that weren’t there. Towers of newspapers stacked up to the ceiling. The baseboards swarming with ants. The only way he could make it stop was to sit on the edge of the bed and concentrate on the floor, on the fractured colors cast over the stains in the carpet by the glass lamp on the nightstand. He unfocused his eyes until he could not separate one color from another, until the entire floor dissolved into a great spinning kaleidoscope, without center and without edges. Then he would lie back and close his eyes and stay that way until morning. I avoided going up there, and he had stopped coming downstairs for dinner.
What happened to him might be explained by a single substance in the brain: Gamma-aminobutyric acid. gaba for short. It floats in the synapse between two nerve cells, that ethereal gap over which every thought must leap. gaba blocks excessive stimuli and quells convulsions; its deficiency is connected primarily with epilepsy, though my father’s research also applied to more exotic afflictions. Batten disease is one example; children who have it progressively lose the ability to walk and talk, and die bedridden, seizing. My favorite was stiff-man syndrome, in which sudden noises or jarring movements triggered spasms that made it impossible to bend; patients walked like toy soldiers and broke bones by tipping over, not so much as a hand extended to break the fall. Whenever I didn’t want to take out the trash, I’d pretend to be stricken with it. I’d walk with my arms out, bumping against the can but unable to bend or cinch the sack closed. My father would crinkle his mustache and say, “You wouldn’t think it was so funny if you had it, Rowdy. Taking out the trash would feel like a privilege.” Kay didn’t like me walking that way because she thought I was making fun of my mother. She sometimes walked with her hands out.
In 1975 my father was still a graduate student at the Texas Medical Center. Wandering the building that housed his lab, I had seen enough graduate students over the years to understand how ascetic this life could be: your twenties lost to sixteen-hour days in a linoleum room, the men to your right and left unshowered and unshaved after nearly a week, dinners of ramen noodles right out of the Styrofoam cup while the sequencer was running. Though it is not this way anymore, I could count on one hand the number of women I saw on his floor. Everyone knew their names.
My father withdrew a mouse from its cage, stroking its head and scratching the fur behind its neck. Calm mice were easier to anesthetize. He laid the mouse on the table and opened its skull with a scalpel, then attached to the brain two tiny cannulas, one to deliver drugs, the other to monitor how the brain responded. The mouse was lowered into a glass box where it lived for five days, convulsing beneath the wires, sometimes hard enough to bleed into the sawdust. On the sixth day my father withdrew the cannulas and placed the mouse beneath a glass beaker with a cube of dry ice. The mouse tried to climb the side of the beaker above the smoke, but the smoke filled the glass and soon there was no more air to breathe, and it lay down and suffocated. Then my father decapitated it with a miniature guillotine, a device I have since seen in bagel shops. He extracted the brain, sliced it into thin strips, and floated the strips onto slides. He examined the slides and passed them to his advisor, humped over the bench around the corner. He was the only graduate student in his lab, the project leading to his dissertation a four-year ordeal. His friends from his first-year classes were in larger labs, his neighbors in his apartment complex were medical students, always smoking and fondling their pagers. He had a black-and-white television perched on a milk crate and a blind long-eared rabbit named Puka, rescued from euthanasia in a pharmacology lab. Puka lived in a refrigerator box in the bedroom, but at night my father would let him hop around the floor while he ate dinner and watched TV. The rabbit explored the baseboards and electrical outlets with his nose, eventually finding his way to my father’s legs and rubbing his soft head against my father’s ankles. Puka calmed him. Made him feel locatable.
That spring, Francis Crick—the famous scientist who helped unravel the double-helical structure of the DNA molecule—came to Houston to give a lecture at Rice University, just across the street from my father’s lab. He had lived in Houston for five years and had never been to Rice before. It took an event that big to lure him out. He descended the back stairs and entered the world through a fire exit, an alarm ringing, a warning he ignored, as he weaved his way through the hospitals and across Main Street. The trees at Rice surprised him, the enormous rectangles of grass filled with blue jeans and bare feet and short skirts, hats so elaborate they could not be taken in with a single glance. He squinted at the buildings surrounding the central quad. He looked at his watch and again at the pathways. He didn’t know which way to go. When he looked up he saw a woman coming toward him. Her brown hair hung past her shoulders. Her purple socks rose and rose. She was the tallest woman he had ever seen. She would later say that at first glance she thought he was James Watson, whose picture she had seen in Time. (In her recollection, it was Watson, not Crick, who was giving the lecture.) She was twenty years old, a junior, and had stepped away from her friends to get a better look at him. He who knew no one, whose shirt had been pressed against his kitchen table with the heel of his hand, who even when he was outside the lab smelled mice and so was certain he smelled of them, who stood like a wind-titled sign at the crossroads of a university campus that wasn’t his. Him.
Downstairs, my mother sat at the kitchen table. She listened to books on tape from Texas Lighthouse Ministries, the one service for the blind she used with frequency. The tapes arrived in little metal boxes, army-green and plain, strong enough to withstand a grenade. Titles were in Braille, on the face and down the spine. I understood some Braille but not a lot. I did better when there were words to follow, when I could reassure myself that what I was feeling was a space between words and not my finger straying from the line. My hands alone were never certain. I would finger lines of dots and catch fractions of the titles—a B here, a mis there—and try to guess my way to the rest. “Broken Promises?” I asked, rattling the case near my mother’s ear. “Birthday Mishaps?” I wanted her to tell me if I was right, but she wouldn’t. Her books were her secret.
She used to wait for him in the oaks and azalea hedges that bordered campus, the misty netherworld that divided Rice from the city. When I was in high school, three women were attacked there after dark, their assailant never identified. My father would pull his car to the curb and stare into the black leaves, seeing nothing, and then, as though materializing in the dark, she’d be knocking on the windows. She never asked him to come to her dorm, or introduced him to her suitemates. She was slumming, he thought, and didn’t want her friends to know. Or her parents either, who were wealthy, her father an oil executive with a Texas pedigree dating back to Moses, which meant expectations about the kind of man she would date and eventually marry, almost none of which he met.
In his apartment he laid his twin mattress on the floor so that he and my mother could lie down together. When they turned out the lights, Puka charged the sides of his box, something he had never done before—as though he understood his own waning importance in the equation. My mother and father—not yet my mother and my father, but soon—lay braced in the silence, waiting for the sound of Puka’s feet sliding over the cardboard, and for the box to snap against his pointed skull. My mother would laugh in my father’s ear, “He’s like a baby,” and eventually my father would lift Puka from the box and drape the rabbit’s long ears over his arm and stroke it back to sleep. “Come on now, Puka. Let’s all get some rest.” The only light was from the parking lot coming through the cracks in the blinds. My mother watched him with her arms folded behind her head, her naked breasts stretched nearly flat, her belly and chest a creamy orange. She smiled at my father. My father suspected she was smiling not at him but at the pleasures of her rebellion. The rabbit’s ears draped over his arm a curiosity she would share with no one.
He was certain that one night she would walk into the trees and be gone from him for good, their time together a brief intrusion of company and sex into his loneliness. He collected souvenirs of their time together. When they went for ice cream he pocketed her spoons, and in his lab examined them beneath the microscope, the twiggy cells of her saliva, the residue of her lips and tongue—her invisible everywhere, lodged now in his open spaces, in his ears and navel and the folds of his elbow. It was a feeling he would have again just fourteen months later, when my mother, still unused to blindness, her stomach still scarred with bedsores from the months she spent lying on her stomach, kissed his neck and said she wanted to try. “Are you sure?” he asked, having waited for this moment since the beginning of July, but now nervous that after all that had happened she would never want him again, not like she did before. My mother said she was sure. She named whatever her lips touched. When she kissed his ear she said, “This is your ear.” It was an act of reclamation, the world perceived through touch and sound, and it started with his body. He felt her saliva cool beneath the ceiling fan, the nodes of his body emerging beneath her mouth. Later that night she woke up gasping. She said she’d been dreaming she was in a large room filled with babies; I was one of them, but she could not tell which. He smoothed her hair and said, “I’m right beside you. Reach out and I’m here.” When he woke up again his hair was in her fist, as though she had anchored herself to him before drifting back to sleep. Before I was born he worried that an anomaly had somehow entered my genetic map, a single crooked or broken chromosome that could sprout a thousand potential horrors and change his life forever. Now his life was changed forever and here he was, breathing in her hot exhaust, his heart full, more suited to it than he ever thought.
A sound I could hear but not decipher filled the air around my mother’s head. She was at the kitchen table when I woke up in the morning, and when I returned home from school, and when I went to bed. I am certain she slept and ate and showered, but for nearly a year I did not see her do any of those things. The only thing I saw her do was remove her prosthetic eye and set it on the table. I knew this to be a kind of protest, though I did not know what, exactly, she was protesting. Melanoma had been found in her left eye the previous summer, and the eye had been enucleated to prevent the cancer from spreading into her brain. The prosthetic was a good match—oblong, with a concave back form-fitted to the implant attached to the ocular muscle. It moved around like a real eye. When she first came home with it, I spent a while holding it in the crater of my palm, studying its perfectly static pupil, the faint vermillion border between the black pupil and brown iris, the barely visible capillaries wrapping backward from the sclera. The entire thing was hand-painted, impressive work when I considered how small it was, though my mother, of course, could not appreciate its craftsmanship. She had not wanted to surrender her eye, and I first took her silence to be a response to losing it. After a while her silence became its own thing, consuming and eternal, with no beginning and apparently no end.
When she was first home from the hospital we all took turns sitting with her. My sister Jill and I read aloud to her or talked about school, ignoring the fact that she was ignoring us. My father sat there while he paid bills and Kay scissored grocery coupons from the newspaper. Kay had lived with us since right after my mother went blind. Whenever it rained, I used to climb the stairs to her room to watch water run down the bayou slope to the muddy stream. Lightning lit her room bright purple, and if the thunder came at night, and I could make it through the garage and up the stairs to her room, she’d let me sleep with her. Jill, too. She and my mother used to walk through the mall with their elbows linked together, the way groomsmen and bridesmaids walk at a wedding. When they spoke, they spoke into each other’s ears.
When my mother did not respond to any of us, when it seemed she had sealed off the world completely, my father and Kay began whispering to each other. They talked with their ears leaned close to each other’s mouths, Kay’s eyes stretched wide, my father’s long neck bent and nodding, passing their worry back and forth. Was she okay? I heard them say. Could the surgery have caused some sort of nerve damage? Kay hid her mouth with her hands. Then one night my father followed Kay upstairs to her room and their worry became a different thing, and despite the guilt they felt they continued that way through Thanksgiving and Christmas, all the way to the end of February. Most of the time they met in Kay’s room upstairs, but they also went to a hotel near the medical center, and sometimes to the back of the van parked out on one of the newly cut roads through the pines, secluded and dark, without street lamps or stop signs or traffic. The back bench of the van folded flat, or almost flat. I had caught them together once last fall and though they made a point of arriving home at different times, I could always tell when they had been together. I knew it in the same way that I knew when a couple at school had crossed that dangerous threshold: the way they were careful not to touch or dare stand too close, the fear of giving themselves away giving them away.
Climbing into the van I could smell Kay’s perfume, and with the windows up the interior smelled like the laundry room at the end of the week. Once I found a smudged handprint on the rear window, the palm and all five fingers, and I wiped it away with my sleeve. As though there was a danger of my mother seeing it. It seems impossible to think that my mother didn’t feel the aura of their betrayal every time the back door opened, that her nose did not tell her exactly what was going on, but her silence made it possible to believe she did not. Jill figured most of it out in February, and to keep her from figuring out the rest, I pushed her bike down the bayou. She came up with a broken wrist and when my father saw the cast, he took my mother into their bedroom and confessed. Two days later Kay was gone. When Jill and I came out for breakfast, dishes and silverware were set out, juice was made, and a note between our bowls said, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen. None of us did. I hadn’t meant to hurt Jill any more than my father and Kay meant to hurt my mother. The only one who seemed to intend anything was my mother, and she wasn’t talking.
I was still keeping the secret about him and Kay the day my father showed me a bunch of photographs of the brain. We were sitting in the car in the park where Jill and I played soccer in the fall, baseball in the spring. It was January and the park was abandoned; we were the only car in the lot, the fields all brown, water frozen in the culverts. Our breaths condensed on the windshield and front windows. The little triangular window in the corner was totally fogged over. Sitting there, I felt we were doing something illegal; any minute a cop would come arrest us. Every conversation during those months felt that way. My father passed me a manila envelope and told me to look inside. The pictures were printed on thin, rolled paper that in the cold car suctioned to the heat and pressure of my fingers. Like many scientists, my father believed his work possessed the secrets of the universe. “The brain is the universe,” he used to say. “All there is is all we can process.” There were about a dozen photographs in the envelope, all black-and-white, all with different lobes highlighted. He pointed to one highlighted area and said it was the temporal lobe. What I was seeing lit up was dopamine. “You know what dopamine is?”
“For pain,” I said.
“That’s right. Pain is how your brain says, ‘change the course.’” Since we lived in Houston, he often explained his science like it had something to do with nasa. “What’s interesting is that this dopamine release is trigged by desire. You see what I’m orbiting here?” I shook my head. He said, “Desire keeps us healthy. That tent in your shorts when you wake up in the morning is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s your body’s way of saying, ‘all systems a-go.’” I said that made more sense, even though I was still confused. It was a confusing time in general. Houston was colder than I had ever seen it, the freeways so icy school was closed, and after this, my father would drop me off at home and drive somewhere to meet Kay. Everything he said was a code for me to decipher and guard. Only now do I see the pictures as his way of telling me that what was happening with Kay was simply biological, his brain making him do things his heart resisted. Once my mother came around things would return to normal. He would find his release another way.
My mother lost her vision giving birth to me. When she went into labor her blood pressure spiked so high that her retinas bled and detached. Two days later my father sat in a chair beside her hospital bed while a nurse shaved away her eyelashes and eyebrows and flushed her bowels with an enema. Then she was wheeled down to surgery and strapped to a table that flipped upside down to encourage her retinas to float back into place, an experimental procedure in 1976. The ophthalmologists hoped to restore some of her sight, but told my father not to expect too much. He hadn’t slept since they arrived at the hospital, and had instead spent his nights walking the corridors, pacing his way up one hallway and down another, passing doorways open onto the bored, the sick, and the dying. He watched a nurse unfold a blue sheet, flap it once in the air, and allow it to settle over a shriveled, yellow corpse. By the time my mother was in surgery, he had become consumed with the fear that she would not survive the operation. I would be taken from him and given to my grandparents. She was their daughter. He was her husband, technically, but he hardly knew her. They had been married for only three months.
He showed the nursery attendant his wristband and his badge from the Baylor College of Medicine and persuaded her to let him take me out. She made him promise to stay on the maternity floor, but when the nurse turned from the window he stepped into an elevator and rode it down the lobby and did not stop until he had left the medical center and had crossed Main Street and was standing in the trees at Rice. If my mother had disappeared here, perhaps he could too. It was mid-morning, the slab of summer clouds cracked open to let the sun burn through. Sweat dripped from the back of his neck and slid down his spine, a narrow stream damming at his waist. I was wrapped in a blue blanket, my face bright pink inside his hand. He was thinking about what he was going to do, not what he was doing. When a few hours had passed he would slip back to the parking garage, tuck me into the gulley behind the passenger seat and head toward the freeway, as swift and consuming as a river. We would join it, and we would be gone. Legally, he reasoned, he would only be running away, not kidnapping me. My birth certificate had not yet been printed. Legally, I did not yet exist.
He watched two women and a man descend a short flight of steps, each carrying a Styrofoam cup and bag of potato chips. At the top of the stairs he found the cafeteria open, nearly empty. A lone woman stood behind the counter, her gray hair tied in a bun and covered in a net. She was scraping a tray of hash browns into the garbage. He asked her for milk.
“For you or for him?” she said.
“Whole milk. How old is he?”
“Two days. Almost. In a few hours.”
“Two days! He’s the newest thing in the world. Where’s his mother?”
“Across the street. We’re taking a walk.”
“He’s too young to be out.” She leaned her forearms on the glass casing and examined his red face. He held up his wristband. “Okay, I see,” she said. “He’s yours. Go sit down. I’ll bring it to you.”
He sat at the table nearest the register and watched the woman pour the milk into a pan on the stove. On the griddle she toasted bread and slapped down slices of yellow cheese, and when she carried the tray to the table the milk was in a bowl and beside it was a grilled-cheese sandwich and a Coke in a glass bottle. “You look like you could use a little something yourself,” she said.
He looked at the milk, then at me. “You don’t have an eyedropper behind your counter, do you?”
“He’s no hamster,” she said. She sat down beside us and stirred the milk with the spoon. She lifted the spoon from the bowl and let half of it run out before touching it to my lips. The milk pooled on my tongue and I swallowed. “Just little tiny bits,” she said. She passed my father the spoon, and he mimicked what she had shown him, one spoonful after another. When the milk pooled in my mouth and did not go down the woman showed him how to burp me, holding me face down until a thin stream of milk whitened her knee. Then she braced me against her shoulder and told my father to eat. The sandwich was the first thing he had eaten since my birth not dropped from the coiled grip of a vending machine. The cheese oozed out from the bread and the bread was yellow with butter. It filled the spaces between his teeth, and he felt his legs and back settle into the chair. In his head we were in Dallas, or farther, close to Oklahoma on an open grassland road. The sandwich brought him back. He noticed the fine plucked hairs between the woman’s eyebrows, her silver fingernails. He thought of my mother’s eyebrows smeared across the nurse’s towel.
When he was finished he wiped his mouth, took a long swig from the Coke, and said, “How much do I owe you?”
“Nothing. It’s bread and cheese.” She handed me back to him. “He’ll need a better meal before too long. He’ll need his mother.”
“We’ll go back soon,” he said.
“You should go now. Who knows what kinds of germs we’re sitting in.”
He stood up. “Okay. We’re ready.”
“Hurry,” she said. “Even half a day is a lot of life when you’re two days old.”
“We’re going,” he said. And we went.
My father pushed Stop on my mother’s cassette player. “Can we talk about this?” he said. Kay had been gone a week. My mother’s hands were set diagonally, right over left. He sat down and crinkled his lip, sucking his mustache into his nose. From the kitchen sink where I stood washing that night’s dishes I could see his eyes working over her face for a sign of her attention. He had once attended a conference session on the neuromechanisms of human facial expressions. Lifting of the inner parts of the eyebrows, for example, was the mark of anguish; depressing the triangularis, at the corners of the lips, betrays distaste. The conference was in Las Vegas, and after the session ended my father had gone into the casino and won fifteen hundred dollars at a poker table. He came home with presents for all of us—T-shirts for Jill and me, twin bracelets for my mother and Kay. “How’d you do it?” we asked him. Reading minds, he said.
But my mother’s silence was practiced. Her silence was a weapon. My father said, “Come on, Cordelia. Enough of this Madame Tussaud routine.” He separated her cassette player from her headphones and moved it to the far side of the table. He lifted the little metal plug at the end of her headphones and spoke into it. “Hello,” he said. “I’m not leaving until you talk to me. I’m going to sit right here.” After I finished with the dishes I went and sat on the couch where I could look across the kitchen to the table and watch them, his eyes fixed on her, her eyes fixed on nothing. I watched a repeat of Unsolved Mysteries, and after that I watched the news, and after that I watched Leno. I waited up to see if anyone would tell me to go to bed, and because I believed that what was happening at the table was something I needed to stay awake for. An event that might require a witness. But nothing happened. My mother did not speak and my father did not move. When Leno ended I looked over and saw my father’s eyes were closed. I touched his shoulder and said, “I’m going to bed.”
His eyes popped open. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep. He looked at my mother and let out a long breath, deflating his chest. “I should too, I guess.” He had been sleeping on the couch the last few nights, and, I could tell, not very well. The skin around his eyes was sunken and crinkled, the whites full of blood. The window behind him was fogged. He brought his fist to his mouth and coughed into it.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Not feeling too hot,” he said. He stood up from the table and stared down at my mother’s head. Her scalp was a white line beneath the part in her hair. He studied it with his right elbow half bent. “I’m just tired,” he said, shaking his head. Instead of going to the couch, he went out the back door and climbed the stairs.
Crowds made my mother nervous. She didn’t like the sensation of strangers, her inability to discern which touches were accidental and which were violating. Whenever we went to AstroWorld or Christmas shopping in the Galleria, she walked between my father and Kay, her arms looped through both their elbows. They talked and laughed, and Jill and I followed behind or else ran ahead. Occasionally one of them would do a kick or a shuffle step, like they were dancing the Cotton-eyed Joe. During his nights with Kay, upstairs in her narrow bed, his bare thigh pressed against hers, it felt to my father that my mother was still between them. They talked across her even when the space between their bodies was a negative distance. They tried to talk of other things. Kay had seen a television show about a town in Switzerland that could only be reached by train. “I’d love a vacation that did not include cars,” she said. My father talked about seeing the Rockies or the Pacific Coast by rail, whole days spent in the glass car watching the mountains or the coastlines. Jill and I could walk around if we liked and at night our compartment would turn into a sleeping berth. “Like traveling in a movie.”
“Cory would go batty,” Kay said. She couldn’t stop herself. “The old Cory, anyway. This new one, who knows.” She looked at my father sadly. My mother was her closest friend. But she did not look away, nor did my father. They both needed the attention. The need for human contact is a matter of survival; my father had abstained from it before and could not bear to do it again. It was sadness that had brought him to this point, and when his sadness returned so did his desire. He pressed his forehead to Kay’s, locked his eyes with hers, and entered into sorrow as though entering the woods beyond our yard, touching the stalk of every tree. My mother’s nose against the car window, her hand on his chest, her eyelashes, grown back long and wispy, fluttering against his neck, his stomach, his everywhere. Her beautiful oblivion obliterated by the awful present, the inescapable now.
On Wednesday nights he attended a marriage recovery class at Pine Creek Community Church, a few miles north of us on the farm-to-market highway. The church was a square, brick building flanked on both sides by aluminum trailer classrooms, sagging white boxcars set on blocks. The class met in the trailer at the end, the faux-wood wall paneling bowed beneath the window air-conditioner and spackled with posters of the Ten Commandments, gleaming bronze sunsets, a family smiling so widely they appeared about to die from happiness. We were not a religious family; my father had once described religion as a mass seizure, a kind of low-grade epilepsy. Temporal lobe epileptics were famous for their religious visions, Jesus emerging in a slice of burnt toast, the Virgin in beveled glass. Such visions were caused by an overactive bundle of nerves behind the ears, nothing more. He went to the class because our neighbors across the street, Steven and Betty Stevenson, swore up and down that Reverend Gene Bunting had saved their marriage.
Mildew crept through the carpet and the floor bounced every time someone stood or shuffled a chair. Sitting there my father could feel in his legs the movements of the others surrounding him. He could feel their discomfort. There were six other couples, fourteen people in all if my mother went with him, which she did only once, on the first night. He asked her to take a ride, there was a place he wanted to take her, and she stood up. A miracle, we thought. She was finally coming out of it. My father rubbed his hands together. His keys jingled when he took them out of his pocket. “We’ll be back,” he called from the back door. His voice was light, and he waved goodbye.
That night, Reverend Bunting paced the circle in the center of the chairs. His copper hair was combed sideways and his long nose pulled his chin and lips to a point. He said, “Good marriages fail because couples lose sight of their beginnings.” He bounced his weight into the floor, and held up an index finger: this was rule number one. “You used to spend all your time looking at each other’s face, and now you don’t do that anymore. You think you know all there is.” He shook his head. “The first thing we’re going to do is remember that there’s more still to discover. Go on and turn your chairs so you’re face to face. Look into each other’s eyes and remember the moment you met. How everything felt mysterious. Go on now.”
My mother sat unmoved, her eyes fluttering beneath her lids. He thought about that day at Rice, her purple socks rising, but it was incomplete. He was lost and my mother was a stranger: what did he know then? The entire span of time between that first day and the day of my birth felt like an island slowly separating from the coast of his life. A shore he could see but could not cross to. The day he met her was the day he stole me from the hospital. After we returned from Rice, after he had convinced the nurse and my grandparents and the police that he had just needed air and had meant me no harm, after I had been fed and changed and allowed to sleep, he took me in to see her. Both her eyes were patched and beneath the patches her eyelids were sewn shut. Sandbags had been packed around her temples. She would spend six weeks this way, much of it on her stomach, kept dreaming by a steady drip of dopamine from a suspended plastic sack. He fingered the cannulas on the back of her hand. He kissed her forehead, the tip of her nose. When she exhaled swiftly, waking, he said, “I’m here. I brought someone to see you.” He slid me into her arms. She reached up and touched his chin, the still-hairless strip between his lip and nose. “You’re holding your breath, Lee,” she said. “I can hear it. It’s okay to breathe.”
He was back in that room. He was sitting in the green vinyl chair by the window. He was smelling her witch hazel. He was looking at my mother. He wanted to tell her Reverend Bunting was wrong: we have no one beginning; in life we begin again and again, and we can begin again this time as well. He reached for her hand, but she pulled it back. Her prosthetic eye stared out, fixed and indifferent. Her shoulders shook, and a tiny spasm advanced up her neck. It took him a moment to realize she was laughing, and a moment more to understand why. “Look deep,” Reverend Bunting said. “Jesus tells us, If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.”
He stopped coming downstairs and I lost sight of him. Jill and I blamed him for Kay being gone. Even though we knew better, we blamed him for our mother’s silence, too. Adultery, as I have learned, has a way of rearranging cause and effect. Jill and I would hear his car pull up the driveway and would stiffen our backs and cross our arms and get ready to ignore him if he came inside. He didn’t come inside and after a time I stopped expecting him to. Then I stopped thinking about him altogether. There’s a blank spot in my memory. I remember his car cooling in the garage and mail coming for him, but I don’t remember actually seeing him. Once I got to wondering where he was and went into the garage. The door of the stairs was closed, a tight bead of light creeping out from beneath the jamb. I touched the knob but didn’t knock. The garage, with the door down, was pitch-black and hot as an oven. I stood in the dark and listened until I heard him cough and the ceiling creak and a rush of water fill the walls around me. Then I went back inside.
A pulse orbited the crown of his skull, plunged into his temples and eyes, and worked back up to his forehead. It was April, the bayou full of geese, but upstairs he could not shiver himself warm. He coughed up phlegm that looked as though it had come from his stomach, yellow and brown, except that it had come from his lungs. He clutched his stomach and rocked back and forth. He stared at the doorframe of the bathroom, and though he tried to resist, he came to see Kay standing there, undressing, slithering from her jeans and unhooking her bra with a flick of her wrist. Her shoulders were framed in the bathroom’s yellow light. He could see her earrings lying separated from their backs on the dresser, her flimsy watch on the nightstand. In the mattress he could feel the indentations where she had set her knees.
Other times it felt as though he left his body. He followed my mother into the woods. The lawn and patio came right to the edge of the trees where little sunlight could penetrate, and the brush was lavish, wisteria climbing the dead pines, pitcher plants blooming in the open spots. Jill and I over the years had made most of the paths ourselves. In the spring the ground grew spongy; it shifted beneath my father’s feet, as though this specter of his fever had a weight to exert against the earth. My mother moved ahead of him, to the left and right, through the thin threads of sun. He hurried to catch her, but couldn’t. She stopped moving and turned her head so that her face was in the sun. She did not squint—blindness had made squinting unnecessary—so the skin around her eyes was uncreased, as youthful as a child’s. He wanted her to see him, for his shadow to register on the slim corner of her retina still capable of receiving light. For the shadow to add up to him. He wanted to call out that old phrase, Reach out and I’m here, but his voice could not make a sound. Calling out from his bed, thirsty but too sick to walk to the sink, no one could hear him.
My mother was the closest to him, just inside the door at the bottom of the stairs. Her cassette player was turned up too loud.
From the road, it looked as though we were all together. My father’s car was in the garage beside the van, the lights on upstairs and down. Had Family Services come to our door they would have seen our house in order, my mother home, our beds made, the four of us at home during breakfast and dinner. They would not have recognized Jill and me as orphans, though that’s essentially what we had become. No one cooked anything, so Jill and I took turns. I got up early to make breakfast, usually eggs and toast, and coffee, which Jill and I drank black, standing up, at the counter. Some days I’d set a cup in front of my mother before going to school, just in case, and when I came home in the afternoon, it would be there untouched, cold as mud. I took the mug away and washed it out. My mother did not react, did not smile or refold her hands, but I sensed she was pleased with herself.
Jill made the lunches, ham slices and Kraft singles, squeezing the mustard into a smile the way Kay used to do. Working a knife was hard with her cast. At lunch I’d peel back the bread to peek at the smile before devouring it. It looked up at me, flat and even-keeled, same as it had for years. I often found myself thinking about it in the minutes before class let out for lunch—its steady gaze evidence that we could take care of ourselves. It was the tiniest of reassurances, but I depended on it, and I was thankful to Jill for remembering it.
I didn’t have my license yet, but I was tall and looked old enough. When my mother’s disability-benefits check came at the beginning of each month, I drove the van to the bank and cashed it. I used half the money for two weeks of groceries and stashed the other half in my closet so I could go back in the middle of the month. Jill came with me and we did our best to consider our diets. We bought low-fat lunchmeats and yogurts, low-sodium crackers, whole-wheat bread, artificially sweetened iced tea, fresh and canned vegetables, only one package of cookies. One week Jill put back the cookies in favor of a paperback Easy Eats cookbook, a thousand uses for a can of cream of mushroom soup and a bag of tater tots. She said she thought we could make most of the recipes, so I agreed to get it, and after that we ate pretty well.
We didn’t have enough left over to pay the mortgage or the utilities, so I never did. I left the bills in a stack near the telephone, one month on top of the other. I considered asking my father about them, but I had grown proud of my avoidance and didn’t want the streak to end. The utilities never shut off, and no one came to tell us to leave the house. Every time I flushed the toilet and water returned to the tank, I felt filled with relief. Every light lighting was a tiny miracle.
My father returned to the marriage recovery class. He was still weak and moved slowly, and some nights he could do little more than watch the mosquitoes swarm around the light beyond the window, but the fever was gone. My mother did not go with him, and in the trailer he sat beside an empty chair. In May, when Reverend Bunting shut the door and windows and turned on the air conditioner, a woman came to the class without her husband. Her name was Leita. She said she had been there the entire time; she said she remembered my mother. “Tall,” she recalled. “Something weird with her face.” My father did not remember her or her husband. While the other couples did their encounter exercises, my father and Leita practiced on each other. They faced each other in the folding chairs and pretended they were each other’s others. Leita complimented my father’s haircut, his good job; she praised his idea about spending a week waterskiing at Lake Conroe rather than with her brother’s family on Padre Island. She was in her middle thirties and still childless, a fact which had become a point of contention with her husband. “I’m sorry I have such unrealistic expectations, Wendell,” she said. “I don’t need children to be happy. I put too much pressure on you.”
Her hair scooped in at her chin, rounding her face, and her neck filled the collar of her yellow blouse. She folded her arms across the rolls of her stomach, as if to hide them. My father imagined her pacing her bathroom, her pants still on the hook behind the door, the pregnancy test lying on the sink. He squeezed her hands. “I still love you, Leita,” he said. “You’re still beautiful to me. Our children will be, too.” He didn’t know what else to say. Leita quit twisting her watchband around her wrist. He felt the floor stop vibrating.
When his turn came, my father apologized for sleeping with Kay. “It wasn’t something I set out to do,” he said. “It just happened.”
Leita patted his knee. “You’ll have to do better than that, honey.”
“I was sad. It’s like you’re not even there.”
“Where do you think I am?”
“I wish I knew. I wish you’d tell me. While we’re at it, what the hell are you listening to all day?” He held both of Leita’s hands and squeezed them tight. “I’m sorry.”
After class, he walked her to her car. She opened her door and set her purse on the driver’s seat. She turned to him and said, “Thanks for playing along. It makes it easier.”
“Thank you, too.”
“It isn’t a good sign. Them not being here.”
“I don’t know what I’ll do if I lose Wendell.” For just a second, a single fall and lift of his eyelids, he was back in the trees at Rice, running away from the cafeteria with me tucked into his arm. Running toward my mother, the sun a searchlight against his neck. The amber parking lights lit the moisture between Leita’s eyebrows and beneath her nose. The night was warm and thick, like a blanket. “I guess it’s fortunate,” she said, but then, quickly, “Never mind. Dumb thought.” She looked off toward the church and my father shifted his weight from right to left, his arms half raised. Leita stepped forward, slowly allowing her breasts to mold against his chest. Her stomach pressed against his. She rested her head in the dimple of skin just below his shoulder. He touched the back of her neck, the fringes of her hair crisp with hairspray. He laid his cheek against the top of her head. He felt his heart race as his palm floated over the clasp of her bra. Leita heaved, then sighed. “You asshole,” she said. He didn’t know if she was talking to Wendell, or to him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I really am.”
He waited until the tape ran out and the cassette player clicked off and no sound came through her headphones. She wouldn’t talk but maybe she would listen. Or simply hear. “I’m sorry, Cory,” he said. The tape slid out and my mother turned it over. “I wish I had another way to say it but I don’t. If I knew what you wanted me to do, I’d do it.”
My father’s life ended on the last Saturday in May. The last day of the marriage recovery class. Members arrived at the church in shorts and white T-shirts. Some of the men wore old undershirts, the cotton stretched as thin as tissue paper, bushes of chest hair visible underneath. Others wore shirts with logos, the Houston Oilers or Spuds MacKenzie; it didn’t matter so long as it was white underneath. Reverend Bunting led the class from the fellowship hall to a portable wading pool in the parking lot. He slipped off his shoes and ascended the steps and entered the water. The water lapped against his waist. Pine needles had collected in drifts against the parking blocks. The sun was in the oil spots. Reverend Bunting said, “When Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptized, John the Baptist was hesitant to do it. But Jesus said, Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness. John consented and Jesus walked into the river and was baptized. At the moment he came up from the water, the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and lighted upon him, and a voice said, This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Reverend Bunting opened his hands and raised them above his shoulders. “Come forth in this spirit, as God’s child,” he said. “With you he is well pleased.”
The first couple—both brown haired, both in their forties, both with tan-lines dividing their biceps and thighs—climbed the steps and entered the water. They were holding hands. Reverend Bunting crossed their hands over their chests. He placed one hand atop the woman’s hands and another on her back and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” She fell backward and came up with her hair washed over her face and ears, water dripping from her nose. Reverend Bunting did the same to the man, and when he came up, he hugged his wife and kissed her lips. Then they climbed out of the water and dried off with towels stacked on a chair beside the pool. The next couple went up.
My father and Leita were without spouses and went last. Leita went ahead of him. When she came up from the water, her breasts were clearly visible through her T-shirt and bra, the layers of cotton suctioned around her pointed nipples. My father looked once, then looked away. Leita passed him and squeezed his hand.
He climbed the steps to the water. The surface was warmed by the sunlight, but around his feet the water was cold. Stray hairs floated over the surface, riding the wrinkles of sunlight. My father crossed his arms over his chest and Reverend Bunting said, “God bless you, Lee. Cordelia, too. Don’t give up.” Then Reverend Bunting’s large hands moved him under the water. The water filled the spaces inside his ears, and in his nose, and between his lips. He held his eyes open and stared up at Reverend Bunting’s head and the liquefied sky and the sun, and he felt for that moment weightless. His feet left the bottom and his body rose up. The pulse in his head returned, except this time different than before. Rather than move around his head, it happened everywhere at once; every neuron fired, all one hundred billion at the same instant, his entire brain sending and receiving the same thought simultaneously, the current passing through him unimpeded by gaba or by any other substance or thought. He was stunned by it, paralyzed, unable to move his hands or mouth. Unable to blink. All he could hear was the rapid percussion of his heart against his ribs. It drummed faster than he could count, and then he felt it slow, and then he felt it stop. He looked up and saw a face staring down at him. The eyes looking into his were clear, not bent by water, and in them he felt seen: the ligaments joining muscle to bone, his thinning blood starved for oxygen. Then the eyes looked deeper, into his memory, so that looking up through the water he saw himself standing in the bathroom, watching my mother shower through the glass door, haunting her like a ghost beyond the perimeter of her perception. He saw the power he felt when she slipped her wrist through his elbow and leaned her ear toward his mouth and listened to him describe the world, the trees and buildings, the faces of people. How that power was, ultimately, the source of his love, and now, how my mother had taken that power back.
Reverend Bunting pulled him up and he gulped a mouthful of water. He wanted this substance inside him. Reverend Bunting slapped his wet back and said, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” My father refused the towel and stood barefoot on the asphalt, drying in the sun. Reverend Bunting pulled the drain plug, and water flooded the parking lot.
Electric pulses carry thoughts down the axon of the nerve cell. At the end of the axon the pulse fans out into the terminal branches, like a river delta, and eventually arrives at the synapse. Electricity is converted into chemicals, which drift across to the dendrites, the receiving branches of the next neuron. gaba polices how much goes at once. Receptor proteins on the dendrites collect the neurotransmitters, convert them back into electricity, and the process begins again. Each neuron may have as many as ten thousand dendrites, and so can receive signals from ten thousand other cells. A thought inside the brain moves in all directions, loosed from linearity, everywhere at once. Chemicals fluctuate in the synapses; even the receptor proteins traffic in and out. Occasionally some of the receptor proteins stick to the dendrites, strengthening the synapse and the transmissions between the neurons. The next thought that passes through leaves a piece of itself behind. That piece is a memory. A memory is a fragment. Combined with others, it forms an incomplete whole. The illusion of a whole.
The face, he swears, did not belong to Reverend Bunting. He swears it wasn’t a hallucination, either. He swears it belonged to Jesus. Jesus visited the parking lot of the Pine Creek Community Church on the last Saturday in May. Jesus drowned my father in a wading pool and brought to the surface a different man, a believer. This is the story my father tells. It is his testimony.
After the affairs with my mother were settled and our house was sold, my father left his lab at the Texas Medical Center and took a job teaching biology and chemistry and a class called “creation science” at a Bible college in East Texas, not far from the Louisiana border. Deeper into the pines than we ever lived. He is encouraged, along with his colleagues, to share his testimony with his students. He tells about Pine Creek Church, the way the floor bounced, Reverend Bunting’s vice-grip hands, the inflatable pool, the sky, the face—it’s all there. How ironic, he says, that after two decades spent searching for truth in a microscope, he found it in a kiddie pool outside a trailer. He doesn’t mention Leita’s breasts soaking through her T-shirt after her baptism, or the day he stole me from the hospital, or make any mention of Kay at all. When he remembers my mother it is only to tell how he came to a moment of crisis and how Jesus led him through it. “I committed adultery,” he says. “I had an affair and it destroyed my family.” He always says it that way—“I committed adultery”—as though adultery is a singular act that can be committed, and that he committed to committing it. As though he plotted his course into it the way a diver peers over the edge of a platform and plots a course to the water. As though adultery is the kind of thing that can be done and then left behind. As though he was the only one who did shameful things.
Sometimes, in the course of sharing his testimony, a bold student will raise his hand and ask for more. “Who did you commit adultery with?” he’ll want to know. “Where is your wife now? Doesn’t her blindness connect to Paul’s blindness on the road to Damascus, after he saw Jesus?” My father will agree that they connect, but then he’ll look around the room he’s in, his students nineteen and twenty, from small towns along the Sabine River. The women touch their stomachs, dreaming of babies, and between classes, in their dorms and in the cafeteria, he hears them talk about what’s wrong with America: the silencing of prayer in school, the judicial assault on marriage, the crusade against the unborn. He knows there are things they’d rather not hear. “Speaking of sin is like speaking of Satan,” he’ll say. “We should only say enough to know what to avoid.” He won’t say any more and his students don’t ask him to. They’re content to let his story end there.
If I don’t remember, who will?
A testimony is a story that relies upon an awful past. At the very least the arrangement of past events in an awful way. If Jesus is to rescue us from ourselves, and heal our necrotic hearts, we must leave behind who we were. Burn every bridge between now and then. In Christ’s mercy our sins are forgotten, but so is the person who committed them. In Christ’s mercy my father tries to forget that for fifteen years he was happy—that despite my mother’s blindness, and her silences, and every bold plan that drifted away, he had all that he wanted and hadn’t wanted any more. Every time my mother laid her hand against his chest he felt located in the world. It was the kind of touch Jesus could never give, and had my mother given it again Jesus wouldn’t have stood a chance. He would have spat the name of God from his mouth. Shaken the dust of Jesus from his feet.
He arrived home that afternoon still in his baptismal clothes, his T-shirt wrinkled from the water, his shorts clinging to his thighs. He swung open the backdoor and did not pause to consider my mother at the table. He gripped the back of her chair and spun it around. Its plastic feet screeched across the tile. He cuffed her wrists with his hands and pulled her to her feet. Her cassette player slipped from the table and landed on the floor. The tape spilled out and slid beneath the table. Neither of them spoke; they struggled in silence, my father pulling her forward, my mother pulling herself back. Finally, gritting his teeth and huffing, he was able to move her across the kitchen to the couch where Jill and I were watching TV. Sun came through the windows and glared out the screen. I had muted it when I saw him coming toward us. The only sound was of their feet sliding across the tile, my mother’s stiff ankles cracking. He sat her down beside me on the couch. Jill was on my other side, her cast propped up on a cushion, faded from its original white to a dull gray and graffitied with signatures. “Just sit here for a minute. Please, Cory. Just give me a minute.”
He disappeared down the hallway and came back carrying a stack of towels and a plastic basin filled with water. He set it down before Jill and knelt and lifted her foot and sank it into the water. His hands were shaking. “What are you doing?” Jill asked.
“Washing your feet,” he said. He looked up at my mother. “I’ve been arrogant. I didn’t understand it before today, but now I do. I’m going to make some changes.”
“This feels funny,” Jill said. “I don’t like it.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “Jesus did it to the disciples, at the Last Supper.”
My mother didn’t say anything. She slapped her bare foot on the tile.
“I’m not saying this is a miracle,” he said. He stared down at the water, grayed by my sister’s feet. His scalp through his hair was pink with sun. “Just a start. So you know I mean it.” He slid the basin over and I felt his hand lift my foot. His fingers were wet and clammy and pressed oddly into my arch. It felt like I had stepped on a snail. He sank my foot into the water, rubbed the skin between my toes and my cracked heel. Our eyes met, my discomfort with his grief-stricken stare. I looked away.
My mother stood up. My father said, “Cory, wait.”
She turned and, at last, she spoke to him. “For what? You’re not doing that to me.”
“I need to. I need you to see how sorry I am. I understand things differently now.”
“For Christ’s sake, stop apologizing,” she said. “I’m so sick of hearing it.” She started to walk out and then she turned back. Her shoulders were down and her long hair pulled over her shoulder. She set her hand on the top of his head and said, “You need to be forgiven? Okay, I forgive you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. There, all better now?” She stood there, looking down, impatient for a response. Hmm? she said. My father grinned. It was what he wanted to hear, but not the way. Kneeling on the floor, my father tried to envision the path his future would take, the calls he would make, the little apartment he would rent, the pots and pans he’d need to cook himself dinner. He felt his past returning to him, except that it wasn’t the past he wanted. He looked up at my mother. She stood with her back to the windows. The afternoon sun poured in, hazy and dispersed through the pines. It liquefied the glass and the floor and illuminated the air around her head, her flaming wayward hairs, the transparent fuzz on her neck and ears. Her face, her chin and mouth and nose, the curved outline of her body eclipsed in shadow, already gone, her corona a burning edge. He felt himself dissolving in it.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.