The whir of the machine, then the silence as the nurse switches it off. I peer up at the circle of faces around my bed, concern and grief and, in one case, repulsion.
I feel myself floating, entirely aware. My individuality seems intact, though I can tell even now it is beginning to dissolve at the edges.
This is not what I’d thought it would be. There is no tunnel of light, no line of predecessors waiting to greet me. But neither is there an emptiness. The world is still there, going on without me while I look on, detached.
Hanh glanced up at the long room, the rows of sewing machines.
The black hair of the women hidden by the uniform blue scarves they were required to wear.
The clatter of the needles, the staccato whir of the motors.
Old Tham paced the rows of bowed heads, one eye on the women and the other on the clock.
Beside each worker stood the stack of their completed work.
This week it was Bermuda shorts in festive colors.
Next week it might be khaki trousers or faded denim.
Hanh had never seen anyone wearing any of the clothes she made.
I guess I wasn’t thinking. I never meant for it to go so far. I was just shook by the insult, I guess. If I’d cooled down some, I probably wouldn’t have done it, and that little girl wouldn’t be paralyzed.
It wasn’t like it would never have happened sooner or later. Butler was always lax on wheel safety. A good many of them bolts was stripped so’s you could turn ’em with your hands anyway. I just loosened up some of the others.
The truth is if they hadn’t fired me none of this would have had to happen.
Oh Mama I know you don’t like it
when I bring up my funeral.
You always want to change the subject,
what with your practical mind
but I say a man gets buried once, and once is enough
so I will lay it out:
I want a second line, sure
but in both directions, with no sad marching coffin-carry
joy all the way, for you know I am free
and everyone at the after-party should bring a dish
some favorite taste to linger in their mouth
remind them of me their whole life through
Tanny’s more careful than me.
I wanted to barge right in, but he said wait so we waited.
Turned out I was right this time, but I appreciate his caution.
That first few weeks after the bug hit, people were likely to do anything.
Before the news went off the air for good, we’d hear stories of murder-suicides nearly every day.
They’d lose hope and love and everything but rage.
Eventually they lost that too.
Nowadays, there’s so few of us left you’d think we’d get along better, but no.
It’s the same as ever.
That’s why Tanny’s so careful.
My husband the Beatnik did not want to get married at all.
Why do we need a legal contract that compels us to be happy? was his common argument.
Whenever he said it I’d give him an enormous pantomime yawn.
When we’d been together fifteen years, he suggested a trip to the Hudson Valley for a weekend getaway.
In the very center of Grand Central Station he went suddenly down on one knee and tugged a blue Tiffany box from his pocket.
We stood frozen in time, all of New York hurrying by, their footsteps echoing off the cold marble.
They do what they can to communicate with us. It ain’t easy, since there’s a gulf between this world and that one.
Hot and cold. That’s how you know. A spot in the room that always makes your gooseflesh prickle up.
Sometimes there’ll be a smell. Cigarettes when nobody ‘s smoking, or a trace of perfume.
Worst is when they get hornets to build a nest. Then they stir them up, see. Get them riled so’s they come after you. You might be able to ignore the sound of chains in the attic, but nobody can ignore a hornet’s sting.
Dan’s Uncle Eddie set down his empty quart of bourbon and grinned around the fire at us boys. He jammed his hand into his pocket and produced a fistful of .45 cartridges.
“Guess how many I got here,” he said. “Go on.”
Jim guessed twenty, Dan eighteen. I said thirteen.
”Well, let’s see who’s right,” he said. He got to his feet, swayed a moment, then hurled the bullets into the fire. “Make sure you count all of ‘em.”
He walked into the darkness to his tent.
We sat stunned for a moment, disbelieving, then jumped up and dove for cover.
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Carries-Her-Water led his pony over the ridge, heart glad with homecoming.
His spirits sank when he looked down at the camp.
Normally the morning would be full of laughter and playful banter as the women worked outside the lodges and the men prepared for hunting or war parties.
Today there was nobody. The lodges seemed to stand vacant.
He reached back and took up his lance, holding at the ready as he approached.
“Hey!” he called out. “It is I, Carries-Her-Water. I have an elk! Come get it and we’ll eat!”
From inside the Medicine Lodge he heard only moaning.
Max had a powerful fear of night travel, a real handicap considering his chosen profession of jazz musician.
You see, in them days the gigs was scheduled catch-as-catch-can, usually back-to-back and sometimes five-hundred miles apart.
There weren’t no interstates then, so the boys would finish playing, get their money and pile into the car to head for the next stop.
They’d spell one another every few hours, but each man was as tired as the next.
It was cramped in there, what with all their instrument cases and so many bodies.
So you see, Max was right in being afraid.