Apr/May 2002  •   Fiction


by Joshua Levy

It was about a year ago when we last spoke. Do you remember? As usual, our conversation wasn't anything meaningful; we were full of talk about the cool air, the humid summer we'd had, the intermittent rain. You told me you'd never faced a summer like that: the heat enveloped you like a blanket. I found your imagery romantic, if not defeatist: Isaac Hatcher, trudging through the hot streets, naked but for the heavy duvet covering his thin, sweaty body.

You said the heat bothered you—your asthma—and you suffered from June all the way through mid-September. I said you'd feel better once the humidity broke.

The last time I saw you we walked together for a long time. We walked right out my front door and along busy Route 9. The cars whooshed past us; their exhaust hung thick in the hair, making you cough. You wore winter boots in the middle of the summer; your feet stunk. We walked on the single-file sidewalk running along the road, headed for the 7-11.

You coughed your way into the 7-11 and I imagined your soaking wet blanket, in cahoots with the exhaust from the street, choking you to death. There were clovers all over the wall-paper clovers, signed by the residents of the area, with little notes written on them: "$10 Bob and Mary Sullivan," "$25 Ruth Shapiro." They represented donations to some charity fund. You bought an artificially flavored Strawberry Shortcake ice cream. There are always jokes on the sticks of those ice cream bars. I couldn't wait to read that joke, and I watched you lick the ice cream so slowly. You reveled in my agony as I watched your tongue glide over the dripping white ice cream collecting in a pile on the hot asphalt. I watched you smile as you turned your gaze directly into the sunlight, wearing your new sunglasses. And I never read that joke. Once I'd remembered, you'd thrown the stick away, and we were far from the 7-11 and were heading toward the pond. Remember the pond? Frankly, I don't know what you remember.

The air is getting cold now; the pond will probably freeze over within the month.

Things are strange here, Isaac. Everybody's afraid. Yesterday I spoke to my father on the phone. He said, "Are people still stunned where you are?" I never could have invented that question before. And now...

"People are still stunned here." You never saw anything like it. It's the never-ending living room drama, and it's real. For the first time I can recall, the stage is remarkably clear of any other actors, or a set, for that matter. It's more like a succession of monologues, spoken in weary, unbelieving tones; a ticker-tape parade of "facts." The funny thing is, everybody around me acknowledges these "facts" are kind of estimations of facts. "They" can't give away the real facts, so we're left with an approximation of what the facts might be if we were to know them.

We've been attacked by enemies from the other side of the world. Thousands of people are dead. Who knows how many more of us are moribund? Warnings are sounded every day-beware of this, watch out for that, be extra vigilant!—and they're beginning to drown each other out, and I fear soon I won't hear them at all.

Last night I took a walk with Peter. We cooked dinner together. It felt so wonderful to see him standing in my kitchen, holding the frying pan, sautečing chopped vegetables; the early autumn air billowed through the windows and swept up the scent of frying onions and carried it through the apartment, where it sneaked into every inch of the place, reviving slumbering ghosts and reminding the living to live. Infecting everything with the scent of food. Peter put on jazz and poured me some wine. When's the last time I listened to jazz and drank red wine? And Peter is so handsome, I thought of you as I watched him cook. You would have found him handsome too, all 150 pounds of him. If I could just get him to lighten up! He kept pushing me to talk, but I hadn't had enough wine to drink. He asked about you, but I made sure to save it for two more glasses, when I would lose any excuses I might have for being so verbose.

Peter told jokes in between his prying questions, and I watched him fry fresh produce on my stove and sprinkle pepper on my plate, and I kissed him for it, because at that moment—remember, people have been killed—my attachments dissipated like the humid summer three months gone. For a few hours last night, I gave myself to Peter, and loved him.

After dinner I sat on his lap, stroking his hair. He said, "I've never seen you like this, I don't know," and I said, "What?" "Yes," he said, "focused." I got off his lap and put on my running shoes. "Let's go for a walk," I said.

So we left with garlic and wine on our breath and distended bellies and the air was full and refreshing! We strolled along the outskirts of the pond, back into town, and then along the new park that runs straight along the train line—you've never seen this part of town, yet I seem to see you everywhere here—and we passed by the subway stop.

I was staring at my reflection in the glass when I heard a cry from behind me. Peter stood beside me, his eyes narrowed like an eagle's, and a woman ran toward us screaming "Please! Pleeeeaaaaaase!" From behind her a man—an ogre, really—was patiently striding toward her. I most remember that stride: confident, determined. He had the look of a man who has never been wrong, who has an answer for everything. He put his hand on her shoulder just before she reached me. She screamed "Don't hit me again!" I swear this really happened, she really said these things, and I'm still amazed it wasn't scripted; in her eyes I glimpsed the fear of thousands, dead and gone.

Then Peter said, "Get your fucking hands off her!" and pried the ogre's hand off her shoulder, and with a shriek she bolted into the station. The man powerfully charged after her, but Peter stood in his path and said, "Don't touch her," and pushed the ogre. Confrontational little Peter! The station was completely empty, except for the guy in the ticket booth, but he must have been jerking off, because he did nothing. Peter was yelling "Call 911!"—like he needed to tell me—and I was running toward the phone when the girl came up to me and I asked her if she knew the ogre. "He fell asleep but he woke up when he heard me leave," she said. And then the bastard hit Peter in the face! Peter yelled, "Don't you fucking touch me!" and pointed his index finger at the ogre, who had turned around and was briskly vacating the scene. Peter looked over at me, and he looked fine, if not a little handsome with that red mark covering half his face. He looked like he'd been bitch-slapped. The girl was so contrite I wanted to slap her, too. "Thank you, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." "Don't talk to that guy anymore," Peter said huskily. She thanked Peter, apologized, thanked him again, and then a car drove up and she said, "That's my sister. Thank you! I'm sorry!" and bolted out of the station and into the car.

Four thousand people. One girl I didn't know. And you.

Heather at work has taken to staring at me lately. They've promised me my own office, since I got promoted almost six months ago. Until then, I have to sit next to Heather and her imploring eyes. They fall on me all day long, inspecting my appearance, my countenance. She knows the necessary facts about you-everybody does—but nothing more. I don't talk about you anymore, especially not to strangers. I've constructed a new history for myself, and last night confirmed this. Heather seems confused by the new, upbeat me. She's used to witnessing spontaneous crying fits, weekly absences and so on: the native routine of a grieving young woman.

Peter and I sat together on a nearby bench, and he held my hand. Mr. Peter Sound-Of-His-Own-Voice fell silent as I let him massage my palm. I wondered what could have been running through his head.

He leaned over and kissed me and cupped my breast in the palm of his thin, veiny right hand. It took you months to do the same thing, Isaac. I felt my nipple harden beneath my sweater. And suddenly the cool breeze became a sharp wind, and my soft breaths intensified into a series of quick gasps. An undercurrent of heat seeped through my clothing, and Peter pinched my hardened nipple. His fingers clamped down hard. He had such an innocent look on his face, like he'd gotten his first erection. Soon his left hand caught up with his right and closed around my thigh and then it moved toward the center where it confidently took hold of me. I squealed. I squealed!

Isaac Hatcher

Isaac Hatcher

Isaac Hatcher

Did you ever see my notebooks in college? When I first met you I was like an eleven year old girl with her first crush. You never seemed to notice those things. While I scribbled your name on countless college-ruled pages, you filled yours with tiny, serious notes. You took the college thing seriously, and I bragged about you to my friends—Isaac got another 4.0 this semester—and of course they never seemed to care.

That last time I saw you, after you let your tongue lick the last of the Strawberry Shortcake, you threw away the stick before I could read the joke. It was just about this time last year. I asked you a question I've never forgiven myself for. Maybe you don't remember. We were across the street from the pond and had run into a flock of geese. I watched you, your new sunglasses-you'd just gotten them that day-reflecting the sun as you fed crumbs to the geese. I looked at you intently and said, "Do you believe in sacrifice?" Understandably you twitched at the foolish earnestness of the question, but I meant it, and I asked you again. I was thinking of Abraham, the prophet, because you were his son, Isaac. Didn't that haunt you? Elderly Abraham and barren Sarah were suddenly about to have a son. What would you have done if you were Abraham? If I were Sarah, I would have laughed and laughed and laughed. I would have giggled myself to sleep, I would have hobbled out of my hut and shook my age-spotted fist at the Palestinian sky, I would have laughed myself through the market, over the well, and while feeding the livestock. And that is why they named you Isaac, Laughing. Because they couldn't believe God's good will and they laughed; it was the only possible response.

God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Laughing, as a show of faith. Abraham must have thought, Didn't I show you my faith when I lived for a hundred years without Sarah bearing a son, didn't I show you my faith when I laughed at the good news you brought?

I asked you, "Should he have gone through with it?"

"But he didn't," you said. "God showed up as a ram, just before Abraham cut into his son's throat."

I darted across the street, towards the water, and you were slow to catch up. The asphalt gave way to gravel, the gravel to sand, and the sand to water. Were you afraid? For whatever reason, you refused to pick up the pace, and a car came around the corner of the rotary and plowed into you. I was wading in the pond. Your sunglasses flew off your face and landed ten feet from where I was standing. When I turned, you were lying still as a fallen tree, swimming in blood. After I shrieked and wept over your body, while the paramedics hovered over you, I began to laugh. I could never have anticipated it, but there it was, yet I never even found out what that joke was.

When Peter pinched my nipple, I squealed. When you died, I laughed. Are people still stunned where you are? Are they laughing too?