Had the train been going full tilt when Harold, flying on Oxy, stumbled into its path, there wouldn’t have been much left besides chunks of flesh, organ and bone, perhaps the odd recognizable chunk. But since it had been slowing on its approach to Hillsborough, it had only bisected his body at the waist leaving the two halves contorted (his feet were pointing floorward off the end of the cooler shelf, a toe tag dangling from one of them) but otherwise intact. Gone was his magnificent afro, victim of baldness or a straight razor it was hard to say, and his overgrown eyebrows were as white as exploding phosphorus. A hump of cheek bone looked like it might push through the cracked skin below his eye and when I pushed it back into place, something else protruded from the top of his head and his unhinged mouth fell open grotesquely with a click. I looked up at Phoebe and she smiled weakly, honey-colored eyes moist and sympathetic.
“Not sure you’re going to be able to make it look like he’s dreaming something nice.”
“Not a problem,” she said breezily, leaning down and patting Harold’s head back into shape as though she were fluffing a pillow. “But didn’t Lucy tell you he’s going to be cremated, like whenever the coroner signs off on the report?”
“Right.” Lucy had mentioned that. To take him home rather than “stick him in a pit” she had said during our brief encounter on the street. When I asked her where home was these days, she told me she had recently moved back into the old house around the corner from Aunt Carrie’s, the same one we had all hung out at as kids, after her mother had died there of delirium tremens.
“How is that even possible?” I said, searching Lucy’s face which really wasn’t so ancient once I realized the reference point living in my memories was a nubile 18-year-old girl who had made my groin ache by doing panty-revealing cartwheels in the backyard and landing in the splits. “I once saw a bottle of CC in the washing machine in that house.”
“She fell and cracked her pelvis in the middle of the living room floor. Couldn’t get up. Couldn’t move. The Warehouse,” – this had been our nickname for the liquor cabinet – “and her cell phone were right there in front of her, just out of reach. Imagine that, hmmm?” I remembered that now, Lucy punctuating half of everything she said with an interrogative “hmmm?”
“Like collapsing in the desert right in front of the oasis,” I said with a visible shudder Lucy noticed and a mental note to buy a bigger hip flask.
“Exactly, and –” Whatever words followed were gathered up in the roar of a passing bus that, in a cloud of diesel fumes, buffeted Lucy a few paces down the pavement and made me wonder if her own pelvis’s days might be numbered.
“So frail,” I whispered.
“I know,” said Phoebe, giving my shoulder a squeeze. I snapped out of it and refocused on Harold’s crumpled body. It somehow reminded me of the bodies in those misty old black-and-white photographs taken after the great battles of the Civil War, something about its flung-away rag doll posture, the haunting “what happened?” expression frozen on his face. That in turn reminded me of the ghastly ultrasound pictures of Melanie in the womb, bones like broken plates going nowhere and a nose that looked half shot off. “How can you call them creepy? That’s your beautiful daughter!” Ally had cried in disbelief. “She looks like a dead soldier from Gettysburg,” I had said to Ally’s back as she waddled from the room slapping her bloated thighs.
Melanie. I felt my heart contract and rise up into my esophagus. It tasted like wet ashes and it wasn’t easy to swallow back down. “Let’s go,” I murmured.
Phoebe gently slid Harold back into the dark mouth of the cooler, the heavy hatch door closing with a hermetic sigh behind his upside-down feet. “You okay?”
“I’m okay,” I said, looking up and blinking into the unforgiving glare of the florescent tube lights, a hint of formaldehyde lingering in the air. “I just hope my daughter is too.”
“Daddy, can I go to D.C. next weekend?”
“What’s his name and are you using condoms?” Melanie stared at me with her mouth ajar, the mixed expression of incredulity and horror crinkling her forehead above a raised frown making her in that moment the spitting image of Ally. “Alright, Alright,” I said, showing her my palms, “If not that, then what?”
“Mel, if you want to see a bunch of dirty animals, I can take you to the Central Park Zoo. After, we can go to Mom’s old bar for a belt.”
“Stop it, Daddy! There’s a Zero Hour march at the National Mall and I need to go!” I should have guessed. Melanie, or Melmans_the_treehugger as she went by on Instagram, was a self-anointed ‘Climate Change Warrior’ who never tired of hectoring me about my carbon footprint. My showers were too long, I ate too much meat, the weekly empties I amassed my own private Pacific garbage patch. Just that morning, during our Saturday morning breakfast ritual, I had absently tossed the eggshells into the garbage and suffered under her contemptuous scowl until I fished them out and put them in the proper repository – a vile composting box with flies buzzing around it she had installed by the backdoor. And her despair over my complicity in “catastrophic aviation emissions” bordered on grief. Anyone would think I was personally responsible for the environmental Armageddon she and her friends so morbidly anticipated. But since I was ever the good cop to Ally’s bad cop, whenever Melanie wanted something Ally resisted, selective amnesia set in and she would curl up in my lap stroking the lapels of my uniform, just as she was now, and moan, “Pleeeeaaaaaase, Daddy?”
“Who are you going with?” I said through a sneeze, a coil of her chaotic hair having caught in my nose.
“Celeste. Her mom is even lending us her car,” she said, elevating her voice so Ally could hear.
Celeste was a year older than Melanie and was one of those teenage girls who dressed like a five-dollar hooker either because she was petrified by the thought of sex and camouflaging her virginity or because she was, in fact, a five-dollar hooker. “Virginity it is,” I said after flipping a coin.
“Nothing. Tell your mother I don’t have any problem with it but it’s her decision.” This meant Ally would cave and grouse about it with me later, but I had to leave for the airport soon anyway.
“Coolest dad ever!” shouted Melanie, leaping to her feet and punching her hand.
“Does this make me a Climate Change Warrior now too?” I asked the empty space where she had just been standing. The transactional moment lost, I looked out the window where the first of the fat, wet snowflakes floated down under the yellow spray of the streetlight at the end of our driveway. If only the storm had accelerated quicker and stranded me in New York. If only I had never made it to Montreal. If only I hadn’t gone looking for a hockey ticket.
Then I never would have met Julianne Robbins.
An economy class roundtrip transatlantic flight emits an average 1.6 tons of planet-warming CO2 per passenger. With nearly 4.4 billion passengers carried by the world’s airlines annually, their combined flights emit almost 1 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. This amounts to about 2% of all human-induced carbon emissions, 12% of emissions from all transport sources. Although massive, the carbon footprint left by the global aviation industry is baby sized in comparison to that made by… babies:
“Boom!” I said triumphantly, slapping down the printout in front of Melanie. “The worst thing I’ve done in my life to the environment, BY FAR, is having you!!!”
“Why only one?” I had no idea what Phoebe was asking about since we had just been discussing our road trip to Lucasville, Ohio to witness Carrick Mayweather’s execution. Her thought processes seemed to tick over at such a rate her voice only caught up with them when they brought her to a question. These could be as abstract as “Where is the thing for the thing?” Her doe-eyed presumption of my clairvoyance into her mind did not arouse in me the suspicion it would have if we were becoming romantically entangled, in which case I would have sniffed a budding mind game. Instead it was somehow endearing, funny even, and I had struggled with my composure when Phoebe earnestly explained how her attempt at making a living through direct marketing had stalled before getting started because “it seems a lot of people don’t understand me.” This admission did much to clarify how the trajectory of her career path had ended at the mortuary.
“Take a few paces back and start where your brain did.”
“Kids, dummy! What did you think I was talking about?”
“I thought we were talking about going to watch a man die but what do I know?”
“Let me guess, you only had one to save the environment?”
I stared at Phoebe, the wings of her mouth bent into a wry smile, as my recollections collided within me like tides tugged by opposing moons. With the saner ones coming better into focus I plucked at the word uncertainly, as though I were in the throes of the disease myself: “Huntington’s.”
“…Happy Birthday to yooooouuuuuu!” came the ever-grating climax, belted out enthusiastically by most everyone in the balloon-festooned yard but me. Even though it was my own daughter’s first birthday party, I had only half-heartedly mouthed the words, my singing voice a crime against humanity as demonstrated by an excruciating rendition of Yummy Yummy Yummy I had croaked out one morning in the shower unaware my old girlfriend, Ida, was recording it for the purposes of emotional extortion. Besides which, I was distracted by a little kid I vaguely recognized from up the road who was looking to brain a tabby prowling through Ally’s flowerbed with a small spade he had found god knows where. Thwarted by uncoordinated toddler’s legs that sent him sprawling, the startled cat hissed and leapt up into the safety of a tree where it stared down, disdainfully licking the pads of its paws. The boy’s eyes seemed to turn as black as the mop of hair on his head, blacker when his mother pried the spade from his hand and irritably shooed him back into the society of other children. I empathized with his frustration but had little doubt that, in the not too distant future, there would be a noticeable increase in the ‘Missing Cat’ flyers taped to the streetlights.
Too busy concentrating on decorating her face with cake and ice cream, Melanie wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to the celebrations going on around her anyway (like funerals, birthday parties for babies are for everyone except who they honor). Neither was Dorothy who, sitting across from Melanie, struggled equally with her food, not much of what set out on her shaking fork making it to her mouth which was ceaselessly chewing, sucking, and swallowing as though her molars were made of hard candy. When she stooped over her plate, her party hat dangling from its elastic around her throat where it had fallen, and stabbed at its elusive targets, her head jerked up and down like it was attached to marionette’s strings.
“Hey, don’t forget to leave some for the birthday girl!” I said in phony cheerfulness, sitting down beside Dorothy and wiping spittle from her chin.
“There you are at last, Marvin,” she said, poking me in the eye as she tried to give my cheek a stroke. Her voice snapped like dry twigs but was otherwise one of her few remaining faculties left unaffected. “The captain was just saying the swell should let up this afternoon, thank god. I’ve spent quite enough time leaning over the gunwales feeding the fish. I think we deserve champagne cocktails when we dock tomorrow, don’t you darling?”
“It’s Paul here, Dorothy,” I said, immediately regretting it. Why pull her away from whatever boat she had returned to, crisscrossing the broad blue world of adventure, and bring her back to the howling prison her reality had become?
Her sharpened fingernail rasped down my face and, pausing at my mouth, tapped on my gold crown. Some idle bellows kickstarted behind her eyes and breathed fresh fire into them. “Paul? It is you, dear boy!” It was small surprise gold managed to glint through the dark swarming pathogens and illuminate a shard of memory. “It’s otherworldly,” she had declared when she first admired my tooth at Ally’s. “Did you know that tooth is literally heaven sent?” When I shook my head, suspecting this was one of those instances her eccentricity wandered over the border into madness, she did nothing to help her case by providing this abortion of a clarification: “Gold is born of dead stars.” When she caught me twirling my finger around my ear at Ally, she brandished a fist in my face which, with its fingers adorned with chunky rings, made brass knuckles redundant. “Want a matching one, buster?” she said coldly as I fought to keep a mouthful of Jack from coming up through my nose. “Look it up for yourself.” Easier said than done. Those were the days before you could reach for Wikipedia in your pocket to reign in a bullshitter which was too bad for Dorothy because, as I learned from a grizzled prospector during a layover in Reykjavík a few weeks later after having forgotten about it, she would have been vindicated: gold is the byproduct of a cataclysmic collision between two neutron stars billions of years ago. When I bought Dorothy a gold double star brooch with a repentant note (“You were right D, here’s a little more cosmic bling to add to your collection. P- xo”) it cemented my elevated place in her eyes as firmly as it did my sycophancy in Ally’s.
“My golden Paul,” she said just before her nail slipped from my chin and the fire went out. Seized by another violent palsy, a black hole grimace tore open her face with enough centrifugal force to shower more heavy elements across the lower half of the periodic table. I looked around for Ally. There she was traced against the sun, trademark sideways ponytail lashing the air as she swung a heavy platter of watermelon wedges I had warned her no one would go for as an alternative to “all that awful refined sugar”. For all her healthy living, there was a 50% chance she would end up the same and bleak anxiety would pull the skin taut over the ropy muscles in her throat whenever she accidentally tripped or knocked something over. I looked across at Melanie, a fresh slice of cake swimming in a pool of spilled grape juice, her face contorting not unlike Dorothy’s in preparation to howl as it disintegrated.
If Ally had the defective gene there was a 50% chance Melanie had it too and, in the end, I could lose them all.
“Come now, Benjamin,” mumbled Dorothy, back at sea on a fresh voyage. “Let’s get back up to the deck for this meteor shower everyone’s talking about.”
“So no, not the environment,” I said, looking up at Phoebe who had a death grip on her lower jaw as though it might come away in her hand if she attempted to speak. The firelight played across her smooth skin and the air that night in Milkwood’s was especially tannic. “I begged her again and again but Ally always refused to get tested. I didn’t know back then I would lose them all anyway.”
To be continued…
*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available at: http://bit.ly/2u7rqcL
© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 12), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.