CONJUNCTIONS:64, Natural Causes (Spring 2015)
After the Jump
Only when the daughter soothes Seth Snow’s skin does he feel the pressure beneath it. Seth spikes at June’s touch, eyes shut as she works him over. He hasn’t been aware of the twinges, though they’ve been building against him a while.
Seth’s back is, in June’s ten-year-old opinion, a jagged mess. “And your neck’s a rock pile,” she marvels, briefly patting that area, then going back to the back—trapezius first, next the quarry down his spinal column. Patiently gauging where she’ll do the most good, as Seth grimaces, belly down, atop the garage workbench. It’s the garage of a tool jockey, a man who welds and solders, rivets and planes. In this garage where so much has been built—there’s June’s first field easel, her brother Joyner’s old crib—it’s easy for Seth’s thoughts to unravel, to imagine June’s pounding hands as an excavator’s claw, loosening boulders in his shoulders, bashing chunks of crust into stone, then those into pebbles, those into dust, at first coarse, and later, finer and finer …
Seth winces, and June stops. “Too hard on you?”
“Don’t let up,” he responds drowsily. “It all feels like tapping.”
Tapping, Seth repeats, demonstrating on his neck. His words come out softer than they should, reedier, the result of an old viral infection and partial vocal-cord paralysis, which make him sound perpetually parched, as if dust went down his windpipe. Strangers once offered him water when he spoke. These days, they dole out lozenges.
As June finds a rhythm—sting and lull, sting and lull—Seth considers saying why he’s so tense. Revealing how the trouble that her mom has gotten into may trigger a countdown of their last days together. Only it’s gratifying to not be on edge, to savor the aches breaking. “A bit badder than usual,” he says instead. A hiss rises beyond the driveway. “We better head to the misting. Your brother and mom are waiting. Got your card?” June pats her pocket. Seth gazes through the garage’s grimy window. “Gonna be a full moon tonight.”
“I know,” June says, dashing dead a no-see-um on her knuckles. “But it’s never full enough to see Dad.”
A map hangs from the belt-sander hook, one including images of all twelve lunar colonies. This month’s featured colony is the one June’s dad now labors in, an omen Seth wants to ignore, but can’t keep from seeing.
Subdivision denizens are already lined up around cul-de-sacs. As if waiting for a shuttle, or to be admitted into a show. What they’re waiting for, though, is dusk. Dusk and droplets. For jets of water to curtain their bodies with oscillating streams. As Seth and June race by, Tim, from two doors down, chucks Seth with a porcine fist. “Thought you were gonna miss your dousing, man.”
“Miss what I live for?”
The two trade tired grins: The line is one Seth would say at Tim’s liquor store, if he still bought gin from there just before closing. But since booze’s alchemy depends on water, it is hardly an option for anyone anymore. Liquor hasn’t quite been prohibited but is certainly prohibitive. Tim’s costs nearly eclipse his profits. More customers than ever want stiff belts but, thanks to this mess with the moon, fewer can afford them. Liquor, liquor everywhere and not a drop to drink.
But other, drier vices are still floating up for grabs.
“They knock off that guy you’re working on yet?”
Seth shakes his head. “It’s scheduled just after midnight on Monday. Only the president can pardon him now.”
“When you draw him croaking,” Tim says, “do me a favor. Under his picture, sign ‘Good Riddance.’”
As Seth and June step close to the sprinklers, beside Sylvia and Joyner, none of the other residents gripe. But make no mistake: Seth’s an interloper. Residents of this subdivision—one of the few that can afford a weekly misting—guard their privilege doggedly. Residents at Seth’s meager apartment complex only get to herd in a barren pool once each season. Stand atop its baking concrete crater as the landlord soaks them with a fire hose. Seth has paid rent there ten years. Works check to check as a courtroom artist for federal cases—a final frontier where film crews cannot tread—sketching hot-button trials, how defendants appear on witness stands once damned by the light of their lies; how aggrieved victims react to judgments.
This work makes Seth feel like an elevated caricature artist. Viewers expect to see crags of defiance in guilty faces. Heavy lines early in trials, elation later, on the surfaces of innocent skin. You see his pastel sketches inserted in online articles “after the jump.” How we adore comeuppance! It’s worth scrolling or clicking past endless pop-up ads, in order to see the look on son of a bitch X’s face when he learned he’ll pay for what he did. The neighbors wish that kind of comeuppance for Seth. They view him as a moisture moocher. If he weren’t shacking up with the moonnaut’s missus, he couldn’t afford to live here. And if they knew how friendly he’s been with me—his current guilty subject, the most notorious moisture moocher—they’d wish even more comeuppance upon him.
But Seth’s staying is Sylvia’s call. Even with him in her house, its population remains at its pre-moonseeds quota of four. May be deplorable, what they’re doing, but it’s legal.
“Dad-B’s back is screwed,” June reports, mist dancing on her fine arm hair.
“Language, June,” Sylvia responds, but there’s no gravity to her gruffness.
“Screwed tight is all I mean. God, I wasn’t cursing.”
“Ease up on your mom,” Seth says, though truth is, he isn’t feeling charitable. He hasn’t spoken to Sylvia all afternoon, not since having to pick up her and her belongings from work. But now the water emerges in a heavier mist—a maze of vapor they’ll all get to briefly lose themselves inside. With the droplets comes relief, a slight springiness, as if this is some supermarket mister writ large, refreshing all the wilted families like bunches of kale or rutabaga. A little mist won’t restore the brown, matted front lawns, but it does restore the homeowners. Beads float over them, catching dusk’s last light: Soon everyone glistens under its wet net, like they’ve donned party clothes. The water’s sweet electric scent eases body odor and curtness, the festive atmosphere betrayed only by nearby policemen standing guard with truncheons.
Drops cross Sylvia’s and Seth’s faces. Looking her way, he sees the sting of regret in her eyes, the frustration of her tensed brows. “We’ll work it out,” he mouths to her. Sylvia reads his lips and, thankful, draws close, offering her moist lips to his.
“You two are gross,” Joyner says, a reference to their gentle kiss, not the grime.
“Your dust’s not coming off,” Sylvia tells Seth. Meaning not general dust from the general day, but powdered pigments from Seth’s soft, fat pastels.
He wipes a blade of vermilion off his cheek, stubborn smudges of hunter green. “Drawing’s due.”
“Drawings do what?” Joyner asks, clasping spray in his palm like lightning bugs. “They’re not alive. How can they do anything?”
Sylvia and Seth giggle over the miscommunication. They laughed this way when they first met, effervescent, easy. Droplets hang before them, held aloft by warm air currents and lack of density. Sylvia playfully waves at the mist, as if dispersing gnats. “Do shoo, dew.” Now the whole family has caught the giggles. Can’t help it. Water seeps into a desiccated head, and the head’s owner gets giddy. Happened in spaceflight, when Sylvia’s spouse broke from earth’s gravity, his body water redistributing to the sinuses, producing puffy light-headedness. Happens to Sylvia after gulping Percocet.
Seth knows neither sensation.
The misting continues beyond the usual stop time. Has a water surplus been harvested? No—it’s the reverse. Forecast calls for major fluid ebb. People need to hunker down for the coming drought, like bears fattening for winter.
“Are they saying severe?”
“No, exceptional. Exceptional drought this time.”
Seth steals a gaze at the marauder moon—cold pearl, robber baron of rivers—as it begins to emerge in the sky, and is grateful. Sure, during the prior planetary exceptional drought , a population equal to that of Louisville, Kentucky, died from dehydration, but he is grateful. Keep drying us up, he thinks. Long as it keeps him up there.
To think we thought our moon might make a perfect mirror of earth.
A carnival mirror, in fact. We launched our initial moon transports years ago, their bellies plugged with supplies. Former oil-rig and pipeline laborers followed, along with skilled contractors, like Sylvia’s husband, and engineers, like me. We’d developed an enzyme meant to generate moisture: We were going to grow water. Early setbacks didn’t tamp our plans, or audacity. Soon as a few safe pockets were secured, wealthy tourists joined us on brief excursions in tiny cabanas, drinking earthrise cocktails, exhuming wallets while our vehicles trod and tromped.
Science, business, legislative, ecological leaders: We all blazed with belief that colonizing the moon could help ease our crowding resources and swollen membership. So pleased about altering the moon that what the moon might reflect back didn’t enter our thinking.
Workers like Sylvia’s spouse carved open the moon’s skin. Drilled impacted-basalt basins, plains of volcanic maria, inadvertently carting back home millions of dust flakes from a now-hardened ocean of magma. The dust—inaptly referred to as moonseeds—stuck to uniforms, equipment, adhered to fingers and bodies handling uniforms and equipment, and made its way to water sources on earth. Turned out moonseeds salinize fresh water, impregnate it with crystalline salt deposits. Imagine invasive plants capable of sparking drought. Imagine beach sand clinging to a shoe, reproducing rapidly, leeching more moisture with each germination, reducing some of our largest bodies to withering appendages. Lake Superior? Half-lost. Louisiana wetlands? Bone-dry.
I voiced early concerns about the dust we dragged back. For saying my piece about earth, I got reassigned to earth; an alarmist Jeremiah. Now I’ve been proven right, but am still a failure; twice over, in fact. First, because I failed to sway skeptics that they had made any error, and later, because I stole from them to rectify the error once they finally copped to it.
Seth Snow told me he kept up with my case down here, but never deeply. He had a job to show for. A family to raise.
A family that became his, piecemeal. First member was Sylvia. Leaving Tim’s liquor store one night, Seth looked up from unlocking his car to see soft moonlight glance along her bell-shaped jaw. He’d seen her in this store before, seen that jaw before, but the pieces didn’t quite snap into place. Because the Sylvia browsing aisles on other nights had done so while gripping a man’s hand. On this night, she only gripped a bottle that reminded Seth of an Oscar trophy.
“What kind of drinks,” asked Seth, “can you make with Frangelico?”
“Earthy ones.” She gazed at Seth’s feet. “Are you … wearing sandals with a tux?”
Close. He was supposed to be at a gala with his girlfriend, but had forgotten to pick up his shoes with the other borrowed threads. Now the rental place was closed, and the gala, which they had to skip, nearing dessert course. The mild extravagance of liquor was meant to smooth over a rocky argument. Things were getting a little heavy with this girlfriend, though. If she couldn’t see the humor in wearing flip-flops with formal wear, did he want to wear the relationship’s weight around his neck much longer?
“Open-toed shoes usually make Tim nervous. All that glass in his store.”
“He probably appreciated that my flip-flops are black. It’s the little efforts.”
Seth and Sylvia’s trajectory moved in an ordained arc. Drive to his place, put on music, put out drinks, tell a few tales from his repertory, and … hours later, escort her from his apartment with a grateful, final kiss. He’d forgotten how small the effort one-night stands—the hummed tune in sex’s symphony—required to jump into, then away from.
As he walked her to her car, moon still visible, he was doubly happy. Happy to have gotten laid, sure, but also to have leapt from a laborious union into a light one. Within a month or two, most memories from this night would evaporate from his mind. So he thought. One light night turned, though, into a blurry month of sex at his apartment on Coming Street. In place of plans, he and Sylvia cracked jokes: Yeah, here’s my place on Coming Street … no, not there, there, oh yeah, right there, right there, right there. The realtor says on Coming Street, it’s all about location, location, location. He never thought to ask why they always went to his place. Never looked closely at the darkened recesses of her car’s interior, which would’ve revealed crayons and stuffed animals. Made him ask questions, made her reveal a sitter assigned to all moonnaut spouses was caring for her children. Sylvia never volunteered mother or marital status, and if it wasn’t volunteered, it didn’t, so far as Seth saw it, exist.
“Fill up fast, guys,” she says now, as the group shuffles back from the misting and shuffles out dinnerware. Thanks to Sylvia’s slip today, a Child Protective Services agent may visit. She’s probably hoping it happens. A visit might mean another chance, an opportunity to throw herself before the court’s mercy.
“What you bring us, Dad-B?” June asks, watching Seth hoist a translucent sack.
Chinese freeze, from off the highway. Meal’s been sitting in Seth’s car for hours, but refrigeration is redundant: Few restaurants bother serving fare that spoils anymore. They arrange themselves at the table—Sylvia sitting where her spouse would have, Seth in Sylvia’s spot—divvying various freeze-dried chunks and strips, dyed to look as they would if fresh: egg roll (desert sand), General Tso (russet), bean curd (cream), squid surprise (charcoal). Last time Seth got to-go, June and Joyner fought over portions. This time, he’s taken no chances. “I ordered extra dim sum.”
Joyner jostles the sack, doubting Dad-B on the dim sum. The six-year-old’s bond with Seth has always shown strain. June’s been the easier sell—on Seth’s presence, pledges, even this switchover from fresh to freeze-dried food. Eating freeze is an option now. But soon it won’t be, and June understands the need to get used to something alien early. Adjust to doing without. Our initial goal was to cart all our luxuries to-go to our neighboring satellite. But now, to conserve H2O, we eat astronaut food on earth instead. Freeze-dried Chinese has proven a delicacy. The sodium-paste strips approximate sauce, liquid. The hardened plum sauce’s reflective hue reminds Seth of the lake he once fished bream from. A place where Seth could draw away from his father’s demands that he learn a trade, quit wasting summer months drawing faces at pools.
“We have a working pool. In my correctional facility,” I told Seth, during our earliest chat. Once my trial ended, we were permitted to speak freely. “Got caught heisting water, and I’ve been sentenced to one of the last prisons left with a pool. Is that funny or grotesque?”
He sought me out first, but I kept asking him back. To learn about his accidental family. The stories poured, once he saw how thirsty I was for them. He’d tell me about routines as minute as dinner cleanup, as teaching a boy to grip a baseball—routines neither he nor I had known before—and they left their tread on us both, an impression that wouldn’t lift.
Joyner says little at dinner, jetting to his telescope after fulfilling his required bites and comments. “Can we draw water?” June asks. The two have been sketching Seth’s evaporating childhood lake. Tonight he plans to teach her how to capture coruscating sun, the tide of light when it strikes water’s surface. Seth will feed June bits of memory, which she translates into images. Her talent exceeds his at that age, though he wonders if June’s devotion will stick around once boys begin weighting her world. And will he be around to stop the departure?
“We need to neaten,” Sylvia says, frowning. “I want the house looking its best.”
“What for? Who are we trying to fool?”
Seth isn’t sure if June is just being brassy or knows something about the trouble brewing. If she is throwing a challenge at her mother, it’s not an errant one: Junk skirts every surface in the house. It would take all night to make a dent.
But Sylvia’s hope of making amends moves Seth, so he tells June they’ll conduct art lessons later. He heads out to install replacement roof shingles in the dark. The clouds are terrifically uncooperative, blanketing the moon’s fat face of work light. A rainless tropical storm is to blame for the shingle shakeup. All gust, no downpour. Something like what this affair was supposed to be: all steam, no substance. When did the substance arrive? When did the affair become adultery? When he took Sylvia to bed? Or when he discovered she belonged in another? And has it remained adultery? Can Seth claim—now that he’s taught Joyner to throw a four-seamer, and monitored iffy areas in June’s report cards, all things the man upstairs didn’t do—mitigating circumstances?
Or does that only amount to so many appeals meant to get him off the hook?
I know Seth questions such things, but I’m unsure why he does in my company. Why he willingly spills any detail I ask for. The moonnaut’s clothes: Do they still hang in his closet? (They do.) Did Seth ever try on the sweaters and shirts? (Yes, but never in view of Sylvia.) It’s possible Seth has no fear of judgment from me. What’s the harm in telling transgressions to a man in a prison jumpsuit, running out of breaths to inhale? Coming here may prove, in where I sit, that my misdeeds always efface his. Or maybe he doesn’t hold me in judgment. I’ve never asked how he’d have voted if he’d sat on the jury. Maybe I’ll ask before midnight Monday. Maybe I’ll let it die a mystery.
Seth begins slapping in a few replacement shingles, confused by the sudden illumination guiding his work; the moon is still wrapped in clouds. Surveying the area reveals the new light source: the kids’ bathroom skylight. He peers through Plexiglas at Joyner and June, weighing themselves on a scale. “I’m down to seventy-two.” “I’m up to fifty.” They convert their findings into moon weight. “It’s too late for you to go, June,” Joyner determines. “They don’t let moonnauts receive more than sixty earth pounds in one shipment. But I’m getting bigger. I need a rocket to take me there quick.”
“They’re not bringing you up.”
“Why not? They said under sixty. That’s why I didn’t eat my extra dim sum.”
“You aren’t cargo, idiot. You’re a life form.”
“But I need to be with Dad. Not Dad-B, Dad!”
“You’re only saying that because you can’t remember him. If you knew who you were missing, you wouldn’t miss him.”
Seth is grateful to June for that remark. But he also admires Joyner’s goal. He knows by heart Kennedy’s call to “conquer” the moon by decade’s end; the hard choice made because it is hard. Watching that speech now is bittersweet. We have a new lunar clock ticking down: simultaneously racing to the moon while trying to dodge the damage it caused down here. If we don’t bring moisture back to our blue marble soon, our cradle of life will convert to a cavernous desert. Meanwhile, the moon, meant to be a high-end resort planet, is being built up rapidly as a camp for affluent refugees.
Knowing H2O would soon outrival crude oil as liquid currency, I began, after my forced reentry, hoarding it. I wasn’t much of a hydrobandit, though; I left a big, fat trail. Jury barely took an hour to deliver a verdict; the judge immediately sentenced me to a correctional facility until my execution could be arranged.
Why do you call this a correctional facility? Seth once asked me. And not just prison? Semantics, bub: I’m amused that’s what they call it, while offering me no way to correct the behavior.
So you’d reform? If they gave you a chance?
Touché, I told him.
Seth refused to reform too, shacking up with Sylvia after he met her kids, and after he learned her husband was in the brackish heavens. Even after he saw her doing her best, through powders and pills, to ascend in her own right. The husband still remains Sylvia’s spouse. No divorce papers are allowed for moonnaut marriages, even if there is a claim. And there is a claim.
That’s another reason Seth sought me out: I’d crossed paths with Sylvia’s spouse. His trail was notorious. Not that dicking around up there was rare. I’m not here to claim sainthood, understand, just because I bolted beyond the clouds. That setting is Alaska frontier, with foxhole thrown in, to the nth degree. Enough laborers were killed or injured in accidents—the detached-helmet incident being, of course, the most horrifying—to plant this calculus in our heads: You can die any day. And since you can die any day, do you really want your bed to have been half-empty the night before?
Sylvia’s moonnaut slipped orbit four years ago: rotten dad, alcoholic, treated her like dirt. To neighbors, that all gets eclipsed by the fact that he’s there, suffering interstellar ailments, earning scads of cash to be deposited into June’s and Joyner’s accounts upon completion of mission or life (should moon exposure end him, they’ll clean up double).
Moonnauts are heralded profusely for their service: automatic heroes no matter how low a life they led down here. For jury-rigging a new home to rescue us from this one, laboring round-the-clock to provide an emergency exodus from shortsightedness, they receive our eternal blind praise.
“How will it happen?” Joyner asks June in the little capsule of their bathroom.
“I don’t know. I guess they’ll tell us where we can live.”
“Here or the moon, you mean?”
“Joyner, moon travel isn’t an option. I doubt Dad’s coming back. He just might legally become our main parent, if Mom’s not allowed to keep us anymore.”
The kids, Seth realizes, are conspiring about what he and Sylvia tried to conceal. He wonders if the moonnaut contacted them on the sly, a satellite call when the adults’ backs were turned. But he reconsiders: Of course Joyner can sense dinner-table tension. Of course June can read wary faces. Of course they want to know if they’ll have any say in their next destination.
“If we’re sent away from Mom, will Dad-B still get to see us?”
“I don’t know. But if Mom can’t see us, I bet Dad-B stops seeing Mom.”
Stunned, Seth wonders how June could have reached this view. She’s jumping to conclusions, believing one break means an end to the family unit they’ve built. Or Seth’s irritation with Sylvia’s lapses is more evident than he thinks. If not for love guiding him, he’d have given up on her months ago. Each time Sylvia veers, he’s been there to correct her course. Holding her head over the toilet bowl. Deleting texts, shredding notes from suspected dealers. Trimming back a dusty orange grove by the fence so she couldn’t do a line there, under darkness of grimy fruit globes.
“Quit.” Seth looks into the Plexiglas. Joyner is succumbing to his own vice, thumb-sucking, and June is none too pleased. “I said quit it.”
“It feels good and you can’t stop me.”
“Maybe not. But it’s disgusting. Makes your skin all bumpy. Bends your teeth. And you know better.”
Seth couldn’t watch Sylvia constantly, couldn’t trace her dark side everywhere. So when she got fucked up at work, got caught cowering in the custodial closet, and instantly got her walking papers, he retrieved her from the office, tried to sober her up before the children leapt off the school bus. Hid her from them until she had.
Hiding. Seth knew it well. The lake was the lone place he could escape his dad’s wrist slaps, back shoves, repeated judgment. His way of leaving the planet. Seth fell into his job. It wasn’t premeditated. He started sketching his dad as a sinister thug as a lark by the lake, having a bitter laugh with each completed, snarling face.
What I did wasn’t premeditated either. The first water I took, I took only for friends and myself. It was only later I began arranging for mass illegal transport—black-market deliveries to nations in no position to endure the drought or purchase “credits” needed to secure water from countries with the means to stockpile it. It’s become an arms race with agua that everyone must enter. But the nations least able to keep up could least afford not to. Were the ones that had nothing to do with colonizing the moon in the first place. Got nearly 230,000 gallons into hands and mouths before being caught. I know. Insert your drop-in-the-bucket remark now.
Seth has drawn me throughout the process: arraignment, trial, verdict (he’s very impressive, though I didn’t know my forehead looked so domed since its hairline receded). He’ll sketch me for a final time at 12:01 a.m. Monday—the first execution for water theft and fraud, an act deemed sedition. But he’s practiced in advance of the big event. I’ve peeked at rough sketches, curious how he imagines I’ll look at the end.
It’s my first execution too, I remind him.
Seth climbs down from the roof, joining Sylvia to clear the dinner remains. The unfinished freeze-dried ropes and paste strips look bumpy, wrinkled, the way the American flag appeared like little more than a shirt in need of ironing in early moon-surface shots.
“Finished up there?”
“Hardly started.” He clears his throat, deciding not to scold Sylvia or repeat what he overheard on the roof. What good would come of either reaction? Instead he says: “I do noses and expressions, not cabinets and wiring. I’m not as handy as … the former man of the house.”
“Oh yeah, handy. The former man was plenty handy.”
Seth drops a tablet into a jug, then switches on the sink spigot. The jug fills with opaque liquid, then shuts off automatically. Suds fizz as the household’s allotted weekly drinking water agitates against this tablet, making the water potable. “If the court denies … ,” Seth starts to say, shaking the jug swiftly. “If we don’t hear good news, maybe you should reconsider reconciliation? Please. Listen. That way you’d still keep the kids, the home. We could still find a way to … more or less maintain what we’ve got. With his track record, he’s not coming back. Not with all the action he’s getting up there.”
She jams a spatula in the jug and stirs. Turns on the stove-top fan to circulate noise, keep the kids from hearing. “Reconcile? Give him that satisfaction? Ask for mercy from a bastard who tightened my lungs, sucked my oxygen for most of our married life? Who’s gone hog wild with no repercussions? Platinum member of the 230,000-mile club. He’s known as the Lunar Rover up there, did I tell you?” Before the moonnaut left, Sylvia had been on the verge of leaving him. If she’d done it then, she’d have been excused, even commended, by most. Now she’s the villain. “Can we drop it? We’ve got to get this place in order, in case the court plans to send someone by late . . .”
“Sylv, you’re having a come-to-Jesus moment.” He watches fizz break, sediment sink to the jug bottom. “But how much is that moment worth, since you already jumped the cliff?”
“Oh, so sorry. Sorry for trying to keep us all together.”
If she wanted to keep them together, why’d she act so stupid? Why leave the coke in her compact, imagine the dust on its mirror wouldn’t be spotted by someone, and then wouldn’t drift to her boss, parole officer, estranged husband? “Maybe it’s time to pay the piper. Accept some share of the blame.”
“What did you say?” she asks. But she doesn’t need a repeat; his voice was clear. A miscommunication maybe, but not missed communication. She storms into the next room, dim sum residue still on her fingers.
A drawing of June’s rests in the family room. One of the lake he hasn’t seen. She must’ve drawn it after dinner. God, her vision doubles him over! The way she thought, at ten, to capture not only the reflection of a figure fishing, but to leave that reflection quivering with light where the lure strikes the water. Technique’s coming along, but just to have the idea. Seth feels his own hand quivering—not with excitement but a strange charge of dislodged rage—as he reaches for her sketch pad.
“Pick it up.”
Now he’s the one needing a repeat. Pick up—what? He looks away from the pad to see Sylvia aim a phone at his face. Didn’t he hear the ringing? It’s someone calling from the court; the judge has reached a decision.
“It’s for you, Sylvia. You’re the one who has to answer.”
Sylvia nods, cups the phone, blows on it a moment. Then she orders Seth to at least get on the hallway phone. Hurry: She can’t face this news without him. Seth does pick up, but with his back to Sylvia, so she won’t see that he’s holding a hand over the receiver. He doesn’t want to hear the ruling. He’ll be able to see Sylvia’s face from the hallway mirror. See it widen with relief or constrict in pain, and that is all he can handle.
The defendant’s reaction, after the jump:
Supposedly dispassionate, pH neutral, a ruling is always a blessing to one party and punishment to the other. But it doesn’t always fall along the lines and loyalties a witness would expect. Seth Snow has sketched faces he guessed would register horror but instead were colored by relief; pardoned faces continuing to defend themselves. Even those sitting on the same side of a courtroom respond differently. Best friends, family members, failing to reflect one another’s reactions to rulings.
So it is with Sylvia’s face, when she learns she cannot keep her kids; that she will, come Monday, lose custodial rights to the court, and they will be officially entrusted to a man living eight earth circumferences away. Her look is an imitation of composure: the moment where self-possession grinds to powder. Tranquillity’s last stab.
That tranquillity will disappear for stretches in the days to come, then show again when she visits whatever facility the court exiles June and Joyner to, or when loose acquaintances approach, asking how are those kids, does she have pictures on her? Oh yes, pictures are all she’ll have on her. In days to come, Seth will sketch Sylvia’s aped composure over and over, until wrist nerves deaden and his hand feels free of weight. He’ll draw so hard, fine powder will spill over a towel lying in his lap, permeating his apartment carpet, pigments no solvent could remove. He’ll lose his deposit. Dust from each sketch fluttering off his fingers, onto prior drawings he has put aside.
There was tension in Seth’s face when the call came, near his brows and the edges of his lips. It may have looked similar to hers, but was not a mirror. His spiked the moment hers vanished from her face. His has been in constant orbit since she hung up the phone. Orbiting questions he’s fated to ask in a vacuum. Will he take steps toward Sylvia now, to help her pick up the pieces of what she helped shatter? Or leave her completely? Because, when he looks at that last lake drawing June drafted, one he scooped up just before the state scooped up the kids, he realized June was right. All that effort he’s made these last months hasn’t been for Sylvia. The affair only amounted to putting one foot in front of the other, a quick tumble into bed, a predictable and small step.
The giant leap, the fall into love? That happened with Sylvia’s kids.
In a minute I’ll turn in this tale, then prepare for 12:01 Monday.One small bite from a needle in my veins, and I’ll attain escape velocity. Before that, I’ll request lobster Newburg and peach and raisin-bread pudding for my last meal; you’ll send in its stead imitation crab and apple compote. I’ll ask for bottled water too. Why not? Did I hoard what was precious? Yes. Will I pay for the crime? I will. Would not taking have been a larger crime? My answer to that is the reason I’m here, and won’t be this time tomorrow. So forget tomorrow. The moon, at this moment, slants through my window; its glow floating past the bars, spreading an elongated rectangle of itself onto the concrete, the shadow of a shallow, glowing bed. Do you remember when moonlight was romantic? I’ll lie atop my cell’s smooth, cold floor gazing at that glow all night, until it becomes romantic again.
Matthew Pitt is the author of Attention Please Now, winner of the Autumn House Fiction Prize and Late Night Library’s Debut-litzer Prize. He teaches creative writing at Texas Christian University. The illustration to this piece appears courtesy of Kevin Somers.