[DEATH MESSAGES: INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE OFFICER]
The snow is on everybody tonight—on upturned faces, reflected
back in the irises of children in the window; on the hot back of your
wife's neck as you know she's shoveling the snow at home;
on the men chopping wood for the stove, warming themselves (as the Finnish
proverb goes) twice. You can hear the echoes of the axework just barely
through the winter air so thick with flakes. You are bringing the bad
news to the family whose daughter went through the ice. This always
goes to the youngest, they told you, the ones who haven't got
seniority or sense to avoid the dark work. And you're it, just
out of the old high school that will be torn down in a year, so you
read in the Daily Mining Gazette, the newspaper that rarely reports
on the mines anymore except in retrospectives and to say that they're
still closed and still there are no jobs and the hills surrounding the
town are riddled with shafts like holes in the body.
You have no holes in the body from duty.
No bullets taken. You've never even been cut.
A girl through the ice with a guy. Elizabeth
and somebody. You never remember men's names. Prom night and you're
holding a gun and you're working, you're walking up some
other girl's steps to her parents—only a year beyond prom
yourself, that night that had held so much before you got it and turned
out as empty as a fist, that night which you regretted.
Your breath forms fountains in the air
as it batters the snow. A couple lights on in the house that you had
to walk up the snowed-in driveway to get to. You are halfway. The manual
says to make lots of noise on your way to the door so that you are not
a surprise, to leave the cruiser's lights on for authority, to
make sure that the parents are properly seated. You do all of this tasting
salt, hardly making out their backlit faces with the fire open behind
them and the warm air coming out to your breath and melting the snow.
Inside there are pictures of the girl and you try not to look and you
know you must come straight to the point and give them the news that
is bad that is the worst that is good only because it's something
certain, but nothing good.
You write down instructions on how the
parents can recover the body—she is being dragged up as you speak
but it is certain that the body in the base of the lake is her. They
don't even understand what you are saying. You are back out the
door walking backward, back in the snow that's half-down on the
ground, a down on your body, a fuzz in your voice and your breath leaping
out of your mouth and it's like you are eight again, your brother
ramming your head through the wall and your lack of understanding, and
having to cover up the holes in the walls with glossy posters of cars
that gleamed in the bedroom light. You are shaking, as if you were the
one receiving the news. You sit down on the snow next to the sidewalk,
and then you lie back in it.
When you get to your car, the street
light is out. There are kids throwing rocks at one another, but you
won't reprimand them or take them in. The water main might be
leaking and the pipes are frozen all over town, you're sure. Drunks
on their way home troll the roads like zombies. City Council election
posters hawk their candidates. All the animals in the street are dead
below the plows. Your mother will die soon, you just know it now, no
more holding on in the home with the iron bars of the bed and all the
static on the radio since she can't tune it in quite right. And
you know you must go back to her with this knowledge wrapped like a
gift—a syringe or a prayer in your hand, hot on the back of your
neck burning red and wet from the snow.
[from BIG 32]
210—true boiling point of water at this altitude in this climate
in this place in the summer underneath the summer heart and heat, given
the mineral residue from the mines and other impurities that have made
it into the water, and given the general resistance of the people this
far North to drinking water straight without fizz, a lime, or an alcoholic
spike. Drink up. You find fish floating gut-up in some of the lakes.
Come out and grab them with your hands. Take them home and clean them
up; cut out the tumors and they're fine to eat. Though still, in Harriet's
opinion, an unacceptable risk. Some things are worth your life and other
things are not.
184—temperature of sparks caused by the plowblade
on winter pavement after cutting through the epidermis of snow; Harriet
always felt it was like the guys who fired off bottle rockets and roman
candles on the Fourth while she ate fried fish: greasy, good, both the
boys (though just for a while) and definitely the fish. Liz and Harriet
would pick up these kinds of boys some summer nights, do their cool-girl
smoking thing in the Subway parking lot as the leftover gunpowder haze
settled around them like a shawl. Liz and Harriet in that shawl together,
boys outside. Harriet more coy, all smolder, no flare; Liz all burn,
a bright and flying thing, a beacon.
184—Sparks don't stay at this temperature for
long. They're like birds moving swiftly South for winter. Or atoms dying.
A flake of dandruff descending to the floor at the end of an aborted
114—when she exfoliates her skin by rubbing
quickly, this is how hot it gets.
106—as high as her body temperature has ever
gotten; scared her father sick what with her mother gone a month before
and Harriet bed-ridden and brow hot as a wake-up airplane towel; she
made it to the emergency room and they managed to bring it down with
ice and medication; temperature she has tattooed on her lower back as
her breaking point. The tattoo that she showed to Liz just after having
it done at the only tattoo place in town. Liz surprised, for once a
step behind—like in a daze. Even briefly jealous, Liz. Temperature
of no small excitement.