My ribs crackled with pain when I coughed. Bruises peppered my body. Still, I’d healed enough to be able to walk out. The nurse insisted I exit by wheelchair. Hospital rules. “We wheel you in, we wheel you out,” she said, gliding me down the Windstop Memorial General’s off-white corridors. The odor of urine and pine needles, of desperation masked by cleaning supplies, filled the entire place.
I’d been born in that building and had ventured back numerous times. These were the people who stitched my head after the diving board interrupted my backflip, cut out my tonsils, freed my Krazy Glued fingers, and diagnosed the rash speckling my skin as a case of flea bites—courtesy of Mackerel. These were my neighbors, fellow church members, the parents and relatives of my classmates, the people my family and I depended on in times of emergency.
In the lobby, the summer light pounded through the windows, sharp and blinding. Outside, a world I wasn’t ready for waited.
I had the nurse stop at the gift shop where I bought a cheap pair of sunglasses and a pack of cigarettes. “Really?” she asked. “I didn’t take you as a smoker.”
I slid on the sunglasses and gripped the cigarette pack. “I’m not.”
A battered ambulette the color of creamed corn waited out front. As she helped hoist me into the passenger’s seat, the nurse said, “Don’t forget to…” She trailed off, realizing her words—whatever they might be—were useless. I buckled up.
Nodding to the driver, I told him my address. There was no need. He knew me, knew my family. Knew what had happened. He was the father of my old church youth-group leader, used to provide apples and shelled peanuts as snacks for the group. Clamping the steering wheel like it was the last life buoy on a stricken ship, he shuttled me home in silence. Nothing new could be learned through talk.
My father, mother, and best friend Clement. Everyone in Windstop knew what had happened. Just as everyone in Windstop knew of the brutal knocks of life and bad luck my ambulette driver had endured. Within a matter of months, he’d been diagnosis with cirrhosis, lost his wife to skin cancer, and lost his son—my youth-group leader—to a meth lab explosion. He’d been stripped of his reasons to live. Still, the magical mechanism propelling life continued to churn deep inside him, pushing him forward.
During one youth-group meeting, his son made everyone kiss the blade of a hatchet while he explained that our own birth and death were the only two things we could truly call our own.
But he was wrong. His father was proof. I was proof. Your death is owned by family, friends, and creditors, the people left with the burden created by your absence.
The van pulled to a stop in front of my house. Loneliness cauterized my blood, burning it dry in my veins. I didn’t want to be here, but then I didn’t want to be anywhere. I slid out, then turned and offered my hand in thanks. Disdain flashed over his face like the sharp, fleeting shadow of a passing plane. His misery didn’t need the company of mine. My tragedy had upstaged his, stolen the town’s sympathy and left him even more hollow than before.
That first night home, I lay in my parents’ bed and listened to soft noises work their way through the empty rooms: the drip of the tub’s faucet, the rattle of a loose window screen, the scrape of some small animal making its way through the walls. All sounds my father said he’d get around to taking care of. Now they were mine. Everything that was once my folks’ was mine.
It’d been my plan to start college in the fall. The University of Iowa. I had my dorm room, my class schedule, and an oversized black-and-gold Hawkeye’s hoodie. Forty-five hundred freshman would swarm the campus. New friends and interests. Experimentation and exploration. New learning, followed by new identities. Distinct individuals. People different from our past selves. Or that was the hope.
I’d applied to four schools total, each for reasons other than their programs. My love of the whole grunge era drove my desire to go to the University of Washington in Seattle. I’d applied to Columbia University after reading Kerouac had studied there. The University of Cincinnati? Because the Bengals were my favorite football team. And Tulane because, well, it was in New Orleans. Accepted to all of them, so cost and proximity won out. University of Iowa it was.
But plans change. College, it now seemed, was an avoidance of the inevitable. Life was looming, waiting to take hold. Better to face it head on, I thought. Better to start it now.
Word got around that I was out of the hospital. Heavy casseroles made with Campbell’s soups and topped with fried onions arrived on my doorstep. Food for my grieving. I threw them out.
Small, somber cards from my uncles and aunts, from the Hendersons, Joneses, Dices, Wagners, Nees, Reeves, Critlens, Peters, Franks, Lynchs, and Smiths arrived in the mail. I threw them out.
People who had never taken an interest in my parents when they were alive called to offer their condolences, their advice. Everyone knew what I should do. Close out accounts, sign documents, decide on the font for my parent’s tombstones. They called to instruct me on decisions I wasn’t prepared to make.
Life went on, at least for everyone else.
At first, the money my parents had in the bank seemed a lot. Then it didn’t seem enough. Mortgage, utilities, taxes, insurance, and the cost of simple upkeep. Why did anyone want to own a house? What kind of dream was that? My dream was to be free of it all, out from under all the things my folks had gathered over time, the debris that defined them. I wanted to shed the load that had been heaped on me and walk away.
I rang a real-estate broker. My mind tangled with all the tasks of selling the house: the prepping, the showings, the strangers wandering from room to room, examining my life on display. If an offer actually came in, there’d be haggling, the back-and-forth. Then the struggle of the closing.
I hung up the phone. There had to be quicker, simpler way to cash out.
The answer was in the pile of bills—home owner’s insurance.
It seemed an easy way out. But the moment the flames took the kitchen, a crushing sadness gripped me. I’d made a mistake. I was destroying the last bit of my parents, the remnants of what I once was.
By the time the fire department rolled up their hoses, there was little left of the house. A flooded, charred frame surrounded by a dark halo of burnt grass. Filled with regret, I held to my story: the lawn mower had somehow set off the blaze.
Insurance investigators don’t so much sniff out lies as not believe anything. Cops, though, know a lie. They’re fed them daily, cultivate a palate for what’s true, what’s not.
Windstop’s sheriff visited me at my motel room, my temporary residency. “Shit, really?” he said. “The lawn mower?” It was the ninth time in two days I’d told my story, each time exactly as before. I’d learned that the words inflammable and flammable meant the same thing. It was astounding how many household products were just that.
The sheriff sat next to me on the bed. “Listen, I never much liked your father. Me and him never got along. So seeing his house—your house—get burnt down doesn’t get me misty in the least. But that doesn’t mean you can—” He broke off, stared at me hard.
I couldn’t hold his gaze, had to look away. The only thing worse than fucking up is getting caught fucking up. Needing something to do, I pulled out the pack of cigarettes I’d bought at the hospital. They were still unopened. “Mind if I smoke?”
“Yeah. I do.” He stood, hovered over me. “Get up.”
Out at his cruiser, I asked, “Want me in the back?”
“I want you to shut up.”
He drove me to the next town over. Parking at the bus stop, he said, “You know anything about quantum mechanics?”
“Well, me neither. But I saw this thing on TV about it. Don’t know why, but they talked about putting a cat in a bunker with a grenade or bomb or something that had a fifty-fifty chance of blowing up in the next minute. Then they closed the lid tight and waited for the minute to pass.” He bit at a hangnail. “Thing is, no one knows if the cat is dead or alive until the lid is opened. So the cat is both dead and alive, as long as no one opens the lid.”
I didn’t understand.
“Right now,” he said, “you both did and didn’t burn your house down.” He pulled out his wallet, tossed seventy dollars on my lap.
I picked up the bills. “What’s this?”
“Opportunity.” He opened his door and climbed out. “I’m getting a coffee. When I get back, I’m going to have to crack open that lid.” He drilled me with a hard stare. “You understand what I’m saying?”
I bought a bus ticket.
Wedged tight into a window seat, I watched the sheriff slowly make his way back to his cruiser, coffee in hand. He kept his back turned as the bus started up and then lurched westward, kicking off a gray cloud of diesel exhaust.
As the day slipped to night and Iowa disappeared behind me, I tried to sleep, but the woman beside me kept elbowing me awake with her knitting. It was only when dawn found us nearing Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that the worrying thought took hold of me: Why sell cigarettes at the hospital?