He was dead probably before the ambulance arrived at the hospital.
I stood at the window in my bedroom, peering down the street where, on an otherwise quiet morning, two cop cars, a fire truck, and an ambulance from a local volunteer squad—as well as a quaint red Chevy truck from the same squad—were parked. The lights on their hoods were all spinning their heads madly, red and white and red and white, but I couldn’t hear what they were screaming. Aside from an occasional yelp, a bleep or a bloop or a whoop, their sound had been muted. I was too far away, anyway, inside my house where it was temperature-controlled and crisis-free. All I could hear were the sounds of my kitten, Lily, the scrabbling and flopping of her leggy body as she attacked her scratching post from below, or balanced precariously on its highest, now sagging, perches. And underneath that noise, the steady rumble of the furnace, so constant now after a recent snow had shocked the air temperature into the negatives. And still below that noise, if I really tried, were the soft tides of my breathing, slow and steady as my heart. Outside, at the house down the street, two police officers stood talking on the edge of the lawn, gesturing at each other with leather-gloved hands. I watched the work of their hearts in the small clouds that formed, like exhaust, at their mouths and faded away, wondering about my neighbor, about things said between strangers, about diagnoses and outcomes and fates I might not ever know.
It was the yellow house that had cried for their attention; the yellow two-story house with forest green shutters that stood taller and had more windows than any other house on the street. I knew the elderly couple who lived there, but only in the vague sense that I knew most of my other neighbors. Last summer, I’d sometimes see them in the yard in the early hours of morning, during the weekdays mostly, garden hose coiled around the old man’s sandaled feet as he washed lawn clippings from the driveway and his wife misted flowerbeds of marigolds, aster, and geraniums. In the evenings, when the sun transformed the face of their yellow house a luminous orange, they would sit together on the front porch, watching over the street and the rest of us; watching the white lights and the ant-like scuttle on the baseball field a half-mile away, behind all of our houses, listening as the voices of Little Leaguers resounded over our rooftops and through our trees and colored the air.
Now the front door to that yellow house, normally white, was an empty black space. The screen door was propped open, the same as it would have been any typical Moving Day. Only what moved in that narrow space wasn’t a big brother or his knucklehead friends, not a flatscreen television in some sweaty bear hug or a couch wrangled to fit, but young men in dark fatigues and dark shirts bearing the name of one volunteer fire department or another, stethoscopes draped around their necks, hands purpled by latex gloves, hands underneath that were sweaty, racing and trembling with adrenaline.
The old man wasn’t wearing a shirt when I saw him outside at the bottom step of the porch. He lay flat on the gurney near the hedges and flowerbeds once so yellow, pink, and white. His left arm tucked under a blanket that covered most of his chest, his right arm resting outside where the air was lethal, held limp and straight at the elbow, a white ribbon of skin.
For a while after that first glimpse, I lost touch with the man. He was still out there in front of his house, I knew, but had been moved farther down the walk, and now the ambulance obscured my view. Still the lights on its hood spun out of control, red white red white red white. Long minutes seemed to pass where no one moved or entered or exited the yellow house, and I stood at the bedroom window shifting my weight from one foot to another as my heels began to ache. Beside me, the scratching post was quiet—the kitten had hopped onto the bed with her big brother and snuggled in beside him. The moment I turned to look at her she was already looking at me, not quite ready for sleep, it seemed, her big round eyes shining yellow-green where they caught daylight, her head softly tilting to the left every time her brother licked the side of her face. Outside, at the yellow house down the street, fractured activity every now and then: a policeman jogging across the lawn to where his cruiser was parked illegally, facing traffic, a moment later jogging back up the front steps and into the house; a pair of young men lugging bags and an EKG monitor out of the house; and then another man exiting the house more urgently, hopping down over the last couple of steps on the front porch, never seeing those hedges and those flowerbeds once so yellow, pink, and white.
When they wheeled the gurney down the driveway and out into the street it was a crowd of them, a kid or two at both ends either pushing or steering as the wheels jostled and twisted on the uneven concrete. I saw more clearly then; again, the old man’s exposed white arm, the rising hairless hill of his chest, the valley of his sternum where another man, riding along the side of the gurney, pushed down with locked arms and flat, hard hands, pushed down once every second, down so hard the force pleaded with the old man’s heart, urged his blood on through quiet veins.
It was Monday, a mere five days after I had been discharged from the hospital. I was beginning to return to my life, revisiting it in pieces when and where I could. I had things on the agenda that day—an appointment with Dr. W, my new gastroenterologist, but that was for much later in the afternoon. In the meantime, I’d borrowed Mom’s car and gone to check on my own house, my two cats, and to maybe spend a few hours writing. That was always the plan, and always in vague, non-committal terms like that—to maybe spend a few hours writing—but so far my trips home had seen me curling up on the bed instead, glasses off, and either staring blankly at the white expanse of ceiling in some depressed reverie, or watching the shadowy, blurred form of the little one, Lily, as she climbed and clawed her scratching post.
I had a memoir to write now, apparently. That’s what I’d been telling myself as I lay in my hospital bed dreaming while the months of January and February seemed to coalesce into one long, stupid day—that I had something important to write about, finally. This belief is what powered my hand to write more than fifty pages of notes and anecdotes, and it’s what I told the nurses whenever they saw me hunched over my black book, printing careful and small words. But in the days since my discharge that drive seemed to have faded. Sitting in front of the computer, the white screen, exhaustion often creeped into my body through the tips of my fingers before I had even begun typing. For a while, my attention would wander elsewhere: to the books on my bookcases, hardly read; to the papers taped on the wall behind the monitor—a poster from the movie Requiem for A Dream that I once thought evocative, but now was just stills and captions I’d seen too many times; a Walgreens drug facts sheet from two years ago that came packaged with my Ativan script that, in one of my more warped moods, I’d thought to display because it seemed to verify, more clearly than anything else, my status as an ill person; and beside that, nearly out of sight, a printed message from Elle, also from a year ago, that sadly had gone quiet over the intervening months and was, now, less meaningful to me than it had been, something I considered throwing away. If I wrote at all it was just to transcribe what was already in my black book, in script so neat and tidy it called to mind all my therapeutic relationships over the past two months, and filled my ears with the gleeful voices of all my nurse friends, the times they had exclaimed, “My, what small handwriting you have!”
I was there in my office, in front of the computer dredging up the will to write, Monday afternoon when I first saw the ambulance’s red white red white light. I closed my book of handwritten notes, shut down the computer and blued the room, and went into the bedroom to see what was happening just down the street, at the yellow house with the forest green shutters and the flowerbeds once so yellow, pink, and white.
“Hey, look who’s back from the dead.”
It was John, my next door neighbor, calling to me from his backyard. A couple days had passed since the ambulance sped away from the yellow house in a halo of whining lights, and I was once again home, checking in on my cats. I’d stepped outside into my own backyard with a small Folgers can of scooped cat litter, and had just finished hurling the contents behind the wooden fence, into a thicket of disintegrating maple trees, when I heard John’s familiar, mumbly Midwestern drawl. I walked out from behind the shed where he could see me and waved hello. By the time we approached the chain-link fence that marked our separate squares of land, I was smiling like a fool—it was good to see a friend from the neighborhood, good, after so much time in another place, just to have that feeling again.
He looked different now, though, older in the way his face sagged, long and gaunt, beneath gold-rimmed glasses I had never seen him wear before. Maybe part of the reason I couldn’t stop smiling as he wandered near the fence was his constant grumbling about the goddamn sun in his eyes, his lenses, how he had to keep to the shade where he could see out of them. Sometimes with John I had no idea what he was saying or where his tangents were leading, but I enjoyed talking with him all the same. There was an earnestness about him, an impression left on me that he was a real and regular guy with a good heart and soul. After a minute of listening, trying to decode John’s muttered and muddy thought processes, I realized he had begun talking about a man named Bob, asking if I knew.
I didn’t know anyone named Bob. John pointed his thumb behind in a vague, westerly direction that included his house, the street in front of our houses, and the houses across the way. Sure you do, he seemed to say. He meant Bob from the yellow house just down the street. The yellow house where days earlier police and volunteer firefighters and emergency kids, with their holstered guns, medical expertise, and bags full of heart-jolting drugs, had trampled a perfect, dead lawn. The yellow house with the forest green shutters and the flowerbeds once so yellow, pink, and white where they had tried to save a life.
I nodded as the images of that Monday returned and filled up my head. For a time I merely sounded out the names of the things I had witnessed, as if learning them for the first time. The ambulance and the fire truck. All the spinning little lights. The gurney. The old man’s white arm, unbent at the elbow. “They were doing CPR on him—did you see?”
“He died,” said John. “Heart attack.”
I leaned on the fence, looked toward the yellow house even though it couldn’t be seen from where we stood. “That sucks. I didn’t think he was going to make it.” I hadn’t heard many success stories that involved patients receiving CPR en route to the hospital. Admittedly, I hadn’t heard many stories involving CPR en route to the hospital, and I’d never actually lived through one, never performed or seen CPR performed on anything other than plastic dummies—and TV. But it seemed to me if you were being rushed to the hospital Code 99 you were already kind of fucked.
“Blocked,” John muttered. “There at the end he wasn’t doing too well anyway, I heard. His daughter—you know the fat one who’s out there from time to time?—I guess she moved back in and they were fighting all the time.” John turned and surveyed the rest of his backyard, his thumbs looped through his belt. He moved to another part of the fence where it ran north to south and stared out at the trees. I looked after him quietly, unsure of what to say. There in the same direction, maybe a quarter-mile or so, were the baseball fields where in the summertime the Little Leaguers played. At the moment they were silent and snowed over, no longer distinct from the weedy fields around them but reduced, bootprints around home plate, maybe, where on a dreamy schoolless morning a group of kids tried playing despite the weather. “He was a strange one anyway,” John said finally.
For a moment, I gazed at the side of John’s white house, the north-facing window there. The curtains were drawn as usual, swept into long, elegant folds that never seemed to move. They were sheer and hinted at the darkness inside. Even from outside, if I tried, I could almost feel the gauzy fabric between my fingers. “How’s Angie doing?” I asked.
John turned to face me again, and again I found myself taken aback, forced to mentally revise the image of him I’d had all these years to include this new image, this new long and gaunt face regarding me through large-lensed, gold-rimmed glasses. He came closer to where I stood at the fence. “Oh, she’s all right. Cancer free.”
I was glad to hear that. I hadn’t seen much of Angie for almost a year. The last time I remembered talking with her was even longer ago and had again been at the fence. I was raking leaves into a large pile when her car glided soundlessly down the street and into their driveway. She’d waved hello once outside, but even from a distance I could see her eyes were round and held in them concern for me. Even her smile seemed sad. She wanted to know how my recovery was going.
It was only in the last six months that I knew anything about Angie’s cancer diagnosis. I’d been chatting with John again, probably about squirrels or raccoons or the ethereal deer that, like ghosts, sometimes emerged from blue air to dart among the trees behind our houses. He’d merely slipped the information into the conversation, almost randomly: Yeah, Angie has cancer. I was stunned.
Since then I had seen her only once, just briefly. I’d been reversing out of my driveway, headed somewhere, and happened to glance over at their house. It was a moment that seemed to have no beginning or end, a moment that was just an image, that, without me, might have repeated on and on forever: Angie, a dark blanket wrapped around her shoulders, walking to the front door of their white house with the help of another woman—her sister, maybe, or daughter—walking slow, stoop-shouldered, and afraid.
I had mentioned Angie’s cancer to Mom, mostly out of a desire to do something for them. Her and John were good neighbors, friends of my sister when she had lived in the house that I now lived in, and now they were friends of mine. Twice I sent over a loaf of glazed poppyseed bread and some tea I thought Angie would be able to drink—the second time because the bread was a big hit with John. Mom, while walking the dog one afternoon, stopped by to see and talk a little with Angie. She offered to be there if Angie ever needed any help getting around the house, or if she needed in-home nursing care—Mom said she would do it for free. Angie was grateful, but declined the offer.
“What’s really bothering her now,” said John, “is her hip. The radiation. Burns all down the side of her leg.”
I looked up at John’s house again, the north-facing window, the curtains so swept and sheer. Behind them I was sure was another bedroom—maybe Angie’s. It sucked to hear she was still in pain, but, as warped as it sounded and as true as I knew it to be, maybe it was an improvement. Maybe it was recovery.
“But … cancer free,” I said softly.
“Cancer free.” John grinned, light catching in the lenses of his glasses.
We all got born so afraid
We still search for words to describe that pain
and cling to each other
like pigeons in the rain
and nuzzle over feathered breasts
with beaks all worn and cracked and stained
Hang on to each other
and hang on to each other
So this one’s for the lost ones
and the dead ones and the ones who fell away
All our busted brothers
Tumbled lovers spitting at the rain
We all got born so afraid
and still search for words to describe that pain
And hang on to each other
hang on to each other
hang on to any fucking thing you love
Birds toss precious flowers
from the murky skies above.