Alan Stewart Carl|
FOR A MOMENT, PRESERVED
The bath water is running and steaming and Wallace is telling me they’re all entombed in ice. He’s speaking of the great artic explorers: Scott and Amundsen and Shackleton and that lot. He’s wrong, I believe, but I let him continue on, telling me how we should all be left undecaying within our roles. Painters preserved in acrylic. Architects walled-up in their buildings. Wallace is—was—a chef. I ask if he’d like to be baked into a pie.
This prompts him to smile in that thin, practiced way of his. Good one, sis, he says. Good one. Then he shuts off the water and lets his robe fall to the floor. He’s gotten thin since the last time I was here, his rear flattened and his spine become insectoid. He scratches at his beard and stares at the water. Want to join? he asks, and glances at me sideways. Like when we were kids? he says.
I lift his robe from the floor and hang it on the door hook. The hook is made of rubber, as are all the faucets and spigots. The floor is carpeted and the tub is a plastic basin like the ones used for garden ponds. Jeanie—Wallace’s wife—thinks this is compassion. She thinks this is rescue.
You go ahead, I tell Wallace. I’m too big.
Wallace sits with a splash and bunches himself up at the far end, his knees against his chin, his arms wrapped around his legs in such a way that I can see the scars on his wrists. There’s room, he says.
I step nearer, look down at my brother. Jeanie is at the hospital having some benign tumor thing removed from her neck. Our parents are off in Santa Barbara. I wonder how quickly Wallace could jump up and run into the hallway. I wonder if I’d be able to stop him from finding some hard corner to fling his head against, some poorly barred window to break into shards.
Scott ate his ponies, Wallace says. Amundsen ate his mush dogs, he says, and glances at me as if this is something profound. I don’t know about Shackleton, he says. Maybe he ate his own men.
You’re not supposed to be so morbid, I say. Let’s talk about something happy.
Like baking me into a pie?
That was a joke.
Was it? he says. Wallace is staring at his knees now, although it looks like he’s staring inside his knees, right through the skin and into the bone. He says I never come to see him anymore. He says he wants to die.
Just don’t, I say, and put a hand on his head, feeling his warmth, the gentle motion of his breaths. I think of him as a boy, older than me but the one who always grabbed the toy ships, who always let my fleet win, let his fleet succumb to the depths.
There was nothing that could be done to save them, Wallace says. You can’t keep out the cold forever.
I run my hand to the back of his head and make a shushing sound.
Jeanie, he says. If she—
She’ll be fine.
He presses his hands into his face, his palms seeming to grind into the sockets of his eyes. He’s rocking now, the water rolling from one end of the tub to the other. Doesn’t even matter if they’re preserved, he says. They still died. Cold and alone.
I’m sure that’s not true for all of them, I say.
A whining begins to escape from Wallace, a high-pitched hum that grows louder and louder until he shouts and scratches his face. I grab him by the wrists and try to restrain him. He struggles. He hits his head against the padded wall. Stop it, I say. Stop this now.
He wrenches his arms away and sticks his hands in the water, punching—or more like pressing—them at the bottom over and over. The whining starts up again, pausing only so that he can breathe. In the water, his hands are magnified, large and strong. I think of those explorers wrapped in their ice. Then, as Wallace beats the back of his head against the wall again, I step away. Slowly, I slip off my jeans and my sweater and my underwear, and I place it all on the lid of the soft plastic that serves as a toilet. Wallace stares absently as I step into the tub and lower myself down. The water is hot. It rises to the lip and sloshes onto the rug.
Pulling my knees inward, I let my feet overlap my brother’s. He stops hitting his head into the wall. The whining softens. I reach out and take his hands into mine. He lets my fingers slip between his and he leans his head down so that his chin rests against his chest, his gaze focused on our hands, large and entwined. For a while, he is quiet. Then, glancing up, he tells me their ships always made it back safely. Every one of them, he says. Even through all that ice.
At that, he closes his eyes and rests his head back against the padding of the wall. I watch him there. I watch him breathe. And so we sit, unmoving, pretending the water isn’t growing cold.
Click here for Alan Stewart Carl's bio