I Will Not Die for You

By

The threat is buried, a pit like a convex pumpkin seed, thick with membranes, buried at the center of a fruit so squishy I didn’t imagine anything gagged the core. It’s a relatively new creation—the pluot. What do I know? My two-year-old daughter is boostered at the dining table, and I’m distracted, elsewhere, wiping down the soapstone counter in the kitchen or plopping in the yellow desk chair, just a couple of minutes until she’s done. Maybe I can reload my Facebook page four times waiting for a small conversation bubble to transmogrify from blue to white. She is declaring things to herself as she smacks her lips and I am tired of listening; a toddler can talk all day, stringing together half-phrases and halting to bellow, “MOM! Are you LISTENING?” and this is my third rodeo—I’ve done my toddler time with her two older sisters—so I know how to make “mmm-HMM!” sounds loud enough, keeping up my end of the conversation like an introvert who doesn’t know how to inject anecdotes about herself. My daughter’s babble thuds into a cough, chunky, and she starts to scream in her high-pitched fuss and I reluctantly haul myself up. “What’s the matter?”

Her cough starts to sound like the prelude to a vomit and I am instantly irritated; it is like that hot, sweaty flush that would prick in my armpits when she was still a baby, still nursing four times a night. I’d hear her wakeup wail and my first reaction was anger, a violent, deeply pained fury that my sleep was interrupted, anger I taught myself to quickly smooth over, like stroking a cat, sighing and somnambulant as I calmed myself on the approach, knowing that when I picked her up, if I was angry, she would drink anger from me.

I am angry that I am going to have to clean up puke; her sisters are at school and we are supposed to leave to pick them up in twenty minutes and I don’t want to deal with it. But my daughter lets out one more throaty cough and swallows hard—I can see the wad moving down her small, vulnerable throat—and before she shrieks “I ass-i-den-ally ate da PIT!” I already know what has happened, have already pulled her out of her seat and started thumping her on the back, hard blows between her shoulder blades, her angel wing spot, like she’s my firstborn who just finished nursing and I need to burp her; you thump that hard, right? What did I know?

My daughter continues to wail, a clear, clean cry, and I know the pit has passed. I flip her around and hug her, “I’m so sorry, buddy,” carrying her on my hip back to the computer and sitting her on my lap as I google “my two-year-old ate a pluot pit,” afraid of the sharp edges slicing up her intestines or, worse, blocking them. This is what I do when I am afraid: I google my fears, grateful to find obscure, vaguely medical forums where people have asked similar questions, received unqualified medical advice; they couldn’t have all died. I am supposed to watch her stools for the next couple of days to make sure the pit comes out, but after seven straight years of diapering her and her sisters, I don’t have the drive to dig through shit I don’t have to touch. I believe she will pass it; I believe she will pass.

*

I’m thwapping Japanese beetles into a plastic ice-cream pail filled with Dawn and water. The beetles would be pretty if they weren’t killing my nectarines, gobbling through the still-green skin and leaving grotesque, immature black pits clinging to the branches. I counted on these nectarines to fill the void left by my taking-a-year-off peach tree, but instead the nectarine tree is covered with these green-and-orange scarabs, glinting like oil in the sun, black-massing on my baby nectarine-lets, devouring them.

I humored the beetles last year—I’d find one here or there on the nearby apple tree, eating a lacework into the green leaves. I knew I should kill the beetles but I cringed at getting my fingers close enough to flick them off; their bodies appeared hard-shelled and slick, and I have never fared well with the physicality of defeating the insect world.

I do not share that with my daughters—never have, always bravely smile when they pick up pillbugs and place them on their arms. I don’t believe it’s fair to inherit fears you’ve only seen modeled. I obscure my squeamishness, trapping wolf spiders that make my knees go weak; the thought of crushing their exoskeletons overwhelms me, so I cover them with cups, wait for my husband to do the dirty work. My youngest collects a handful of pillbugs, plucking them from the cement with her thick toddler fingers delicately enough that she doesn’t squish them. I don’t even have to warn her of the brownish goo-guts that would smush out the front and back end if she did. Somehow she innately knows how to hold the bugs. She giggles, “They’re tickling me!”

I pull on long-sleeves, jeans, and shit-kicker boots, covering my head with a faded pink cowboy hat before I fill my nightly pail of beetles, clusters of black bugs poking through the cheerful white bubbles. They’re swimming, dammit. Swimming. I am frantic to kill the beetles before they gnaw through all my fruit, but online research essentially shrugs its shoulders at me—the only way to stop Japanese beetles is to kill the grubs, which means I should have put down treatment early in the spring, not high summer. These little jerks have already laid eggs that will be hatching through July, through the harvest season.

But every night I approach the tree, soapy pail looped over my arm. Each bug in the water is one less bug on my fruit, I tell myself, ignoring the truth: under the soil, another is born.

*

My grandpa has been lying in the same nursing home bed for almost half my life. But it is not half my life; it has only been six years. It just feels like forever because every phone call from my mom reminds me of the same thing: every year is his last year of life, every visit the last. Every time I go to pick up his impossibly soft, age-spotted hand to pat it, I have to remember, again, to pick up his left hand, the side that still works, or he will not feel me.

I did not know my grandpa; I had seen him maybe ten times before his stroke when I was eighteen. My parents did not live near their birthplace during my childhood, and it was too expensive to go home more than once every handful of years. My grandparents flew out to visit us twice, three times. We were tentatively tied together through our family tree, but our relationship was a formality: these are your grandparents, they love you, they will send you $25 checks for your birthday, they loved your parents so they love you.

Death was an abstraction. Death is an abstraction. I have never lost anyone I knew well, anyone I truly loved. I honor my grandparents for bringing my parents to life; I respect the helical bonds that inexorably link us. But I did not know them, so I could not mourn them when they died.

I attended my grandpa’s funeral, although it is hard to make the distinction between my grandma’s funeral and his: same funeral home, same afterhours on my aunt’s three-season-porch in the country with the vestiges of our family eating sub sandwiches and drinking wine coolers. It was like every other family gathering I’d ever been to; there was not a pall over the room. Grandma was just inside, scooping macaroni salad into Tupperware. Grandpa was still at the nursing home; this was his nap time, and no one went to pick him up.

What did I know; no one was planning to bring my grandpa to my wedding four months later anyway. I was confused by my grandma’s tears in the preparations room before the ceremony: was she moved by how beautiful I was? Surely she wasn’t surprised by how grown-up I was, or maybe she was. Maybe she realized that I had grown up away from her and here she was at my wedding, expecting to feel joy but suddenly knowing, irrevocably, I was no longer a child she could get to know. I wrote my grandma letters in college that I composed during my dead-end job as a receptionist in a dying mall, stealing their stamps to mail. She wrote back, small bits of family news and daily routines. That habit had not ended by the time she ended; at my aunt’s house after her funeral, my husband found the last envelope I had written, addressed to my grandma’s hospital room, returned to sender, unopened.

My grandpa is buried, later, in a new graveyard, with the ashes of my nineteen-year-old uncle, saved for over twenty years, sprinkled on top. When the headstone is purchased, my grandma’s name is carved on the opposite side, waiting. She follows three years later.

But maybe she does not. My mother is apparently there, in my aunt’s house in the country, and my grandma’s daughters arrive downstairs to catch their mother’s body still warm, just starting to cool on the dawn of Mother’s Day, but maybe it does not happen. Maybe she is still traveling between the hospital and her house during those last few months of corporeal shutdown; she has not gotten to her final destination. Static fuzzes over the demarcation between death and life; either way, I know nothing. I pilgrimage to the homeland and hug my cousins every couple of years and I go back to my life in the lower Midwest and everything up north stays as stagnant as it has always been—same tall pines, same graveyard with my great-grandparents buried just down the block from the same house from which they all spilled.

*

My grandpa is not dead. He is still lying in his nursing home bed, still lying somewhere, unchanged.

*

Another thudding against the window. There are mutant bee-queens, not wasps but also not the fat, friendly bumblebees that have been hovering around our yard all summer; I assume the sound is one of them until I look down, craning my body away from the computer to see a small brown bird on the cement, flipping a wing frantically, the other wing crushed beneath its body.

Shit. I think about the rabbit I discovered out by the catmint, flies buzzing on the body. Catmint was lethal to rabbits, I learned upon googling—shouldn’t have been eating my flowers, dummy. Natural selection. I brought a flat-headed shovel from the shed but as I approached the corpse, my knees got weak. I flash-forwarded to the mechanics of lifting the weight of the body onto the shovel, and I left the shovel propped against the side of the house. I made my husband deal with it when he got home from work.

But that was at least three years ago, and when I look at this little bird, expending the last of its life trying to escape its fate, I have a flash of compassion—I should call the Humane Society, right? I think of all the books and essays that feature kindly women making splints out of toothpicks for birds’ wings, nursing the injured back to health, the sad joy when the bird leaves to join its animal race—I’d be able to let it go easily, no attachment here. Maybe the Humane Society could deal with it. I know this is what I should do, but the exhausting prospect of making the phone call, sitting through the call menus, explaining the situation—are they really going to dispatch someone down from North Omaha to come heal this bird? So I turn back to my social media, resolute—this bird’s life is not my business.

But I keep sneaking glances at the bird—it ain’t givin’ up the ghost, the wings still thump-beating against the cement, chunking its body from corpse-pose to corpse-pose, arranging itself for death. The reality of the situation overwhelms me—I am watching a living thing die, and I am willfully doing nothing to prevent it, nothing to help it.

I sigh and I open a new tab on my browser, looking up the address of the Humane Society, reach for my phone.

Instantly, the bird ka-chunks to life, flying seamlessly off the ground, uninjured wings gratefully sucking air. I am stunned at this God-test. The bird was dying, okay? I was going to save it. Something was going to be saved.

*

A town of 45,000-ish good old boys, as hard to penetrate as the pine windbreaks planted around the tobacco fields, gone to seed, or whatever happens when curing shacks get abandoned and the cracks in the boards widen and no one fixes the hinge on the door and it’s left open, just a sliver, an invitation or a warning: something lies inside. Will I be brave enough, or stupid enough, to approach it?

The curing shacks fascinated me when my parents would take us on country drives through the fields outside of town after church. We didn’t have any friends in North Carolina like we did in Oregon, no one’s house procured with a casual last-minute invitation at the parish hall after Mass, sure come on over, we’ll grill hot dogs and burgers, an easy friendship. We tried going to Krispy Kreme to revive our old tradition of donuts after Mass, but we were choked out by the heavy cigarette smoke clogging the air inside the donut shop. We were too polite to turn on our heels and leave so my dad bought us donuts anyway. In the minivan, we scoffed at our “smoky donuts” and decided to buy them, in the future, from the grocery store, not knowing that nothing opened in our new town until 1 p.m. on Sundays, like it was a law, something we didn’t know.

With donuts-after-Mass stripped from our habits, no friends, my parents may have concluded that we should know where we live. They would take the small backroads out of town into tobacco country, looping past Farmville, Winterville, Chocowinity, roads leading past the ghosts that populated the coastal plains. The fields were planted, but I couldn’t find a single house that looked like it was inhabited; they were all ramshackle one-story houses, sometimes an attic window peeking out of the roofline, sagging front porches and peeling white paint, every cliché I could recall. Sometimes there would be a fresh double-wide trailer skidded alongside the house, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why anyone would abandon their family home and buy a trailer rather than reinvest and repair the history that stood.

It was a town I left for dead, marching north after four years, away from that shithole an hour from the capital and an hour from the beach. If the South really will rise again I wanted to see them rise from God’s own wrath when the town was swamped with a hurricane three years later. I was glad to see the destruction on national television, glad to watch the milky brown river rage twenty feet over flood levels, sliding across the flat landscape of the town where I was left to drown. I wanted to see my old house half-underwater, to see the shallow ditches behind the neighborhood that I’d dreamed of canoeing in a storm suddenly turned into the Mighty Missouri in the days before riverbank control. But my neighborhood was too far away from the river; there were just a handful of downed trees, the same aftermath as every storm.

What do I do with a town that puts its jail bookings on the front page of its online newspaper, displaying photos and names and reasons for arrest? What do I do with a town that routinely arrests people for “COMMUNICATING THREATS” and once, inexplicably, for “HABITUAL FELON”—the only crime that a man was once a felon, nothing else in the indictment. It’s been twenty years since I lived there and I know my classmates have grown up. I don’t expect to recognize anyone by their face alone, but I have always been good with remembering names, so I click through page after page, looking for the misbehavior of someone I know.

But the town has bloated itself to twice its size in the last twenty years, all the newcomers filling in the cracks where my natives would have fallen. Burroughs-Wellcome changed hands, then changed hands again, and one more time. The medical center puffed out its chest and became a regional superpower. The town has swollen, the tobacco fields behind my neighborhood were sold out and subdivisioned. No one is bussed across town anymore; they have their own schools nearby.

What do I do with a town that poured out sweet tea for company after I’d angrily stormed off the porch; a town quietly pouring a fresh foundation as I kicked at the rotten exterior; a town that brought me to my knees with that old adolescent desire to belong, willing to take the hazing if it meant my forearms would be clutched, pulling me through the doorway into the darkness, leaving the others outside?

*

My heart is aching, dull spasms on the bones shielding my fragile muscle; it’s not metaphorical but it is hypochondriacal, hysterical, a classic presentation of a panic attack but I don’t know that, no one’s ever suggested that. I just go into the emergency room every year-and-a-half and pleasantly inform the attending physician that yes, I’m having heart spasms; no, I don’t have any pre-existing medical conditions; no, I’m not on any medications; no, I don’t smoke and I don’t do drugs and I only drink socially and I’m not on any hormonal birth control; and yes, I’ve had two heart ultrasounds and a chest x-ray and a spiral CT scan and an EKG and a stress test, and yes, they’ve all come back normal.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me and every time another raw squeeze clenches my chest wall, I look up my symptoms, certain that if I don’t go in, this will be the time it is serious; this will be the time they can determine the cause. We’re close to hitting our deductible anyway. So I kiss my daughters on their heads and I hug my husband who nods again and I drive myself to the ER and I breathe easily: it is the only safe place, a place where, if my body really does start to give out on me, collapsing in the waiting room, a slide down a plastic chair to the linoleum, all the medical equipment is nearby. I can be saved.

Year after year, I spend sunny afternoons and I spend hundreds of dollars and I spend triage doctors’ time, waiting for someone to diagnose me with the fatality I fear most. I want something to be wrong with me because to name it is to develop a plan to fix it. But they all refuse. A touch of costochondritis. A slightly smaller ejection fraction on the left valve. Nothing to treat.

After six years, a homeopathic doctor will prescribe me Kali arsenicosum and I will gratefully dissolve two tiny sugar balls beneath my tongue twice a day, thankful to have something to do; Kali arsenicosum, the remedy for people with medical paranoia, for the people who over-attend the minute articulation of the malicious flickers in one’s body, for the people unable to trust in a doctor’s soothing words, a truth my homeopath does not tell me about my prescription but which I find by googling.

Anxiety. Panic attacks. To know them is to name them but it does not stop them, does not stop my fear that my heart ache is the real thing, that the thumping is a spasmodic last gasp, that heart cancer is a thing, that I will leave my girls and my husband behind, trailing heartache in my wake. I whisper, in the car in the garage, before I back out, before I drive, the only promise I ever want to keep, balancing my distrust against my desire to keep them protected from the waves of mourning I have never known: I will not die, for you.

*

There is a head in the bars of the wolf cage at the Oregon Zoo. Maybe it is my head, maybe it is my brother’s, but I remember it as my head. Maybe it isn’t the wolf cage; maybe it is coyotes, but it is certainly some sort of feral, dog-like animal. It is the late 80s or the very early 90s.

I do a Google image search to confirm my memory, but the wolf exhibit does not exist anymore; the Oregon Zoo claims they didn’t begin displaying wolves until 1996. How can this be when I remember the feeling of gray bars around my neck, the startling inability to move my head, the impression that a wolf could approach and somehow drag my body through? Yet how can that be, wolves able to come right up to a fence I remember as half-high?

I can see the gray fur of the wolf riffling in the wind, feel the cold raindrops on the back of my exposed neck as I watched it pace back and forth, preening for the audience. I can feel the wolf’s hot breath as it bares its teeth at my eye-level, feel the wolf’s mouth closing around my neck and dragging me through the enclosure, the horrified onlookers screaming, and my fear that I would be in serious trouble with my mom when they rescued me.

It didn’t happen, it surely didn’t happen, but it did. Someone had their neck stuck in the bars in front of the wolves and I was there. It was me or it was not me. I can feel my mother’s frustration at my inability to quickly detangle myself, and the wild thought that someone would have to go to the hardware store to get pliers to bend the bars so I could get back out. The disbelief that somehow I could get my neck in but I could not get it out. Surely it is impossible, but I know it as surely as the sense of relief when I ducked my head and twisted my neck, stumbling backwards, knowing life would go on.

I am gone; the exhibit itself is gone; I cannot verify the enclosure was as I remember, or that it existed at all. All I know is that the Internet informs me the last wolves on display at the Oregon Zoo were moved to Nebraska in 2012, to the Wildlife Safari twenty miles from my house where I unknowingly took my daughters one month ago, standing on the wooden platform over the prairie canyon mottled with evergreens, looking for something that eluded me.

***

Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.


Kristine Langley Mahler lives and writes on the suburban prairie of Nebraska. Her nonfiction has appeared in Sweet, Split Lip, Storm Cellar, and received the 2016 Rafael Torch Award for Literary Nonfiction from Crab Orchard Review; recent work is forthcoming in Quarter After Eight and Chautauqua. Visit her at kristinelangleymahler.com. More from this author →