The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 3, No. 1

Among the 1k

by Steve Almond

Rodgers was a nervous man and now, with his wife dead, he was even worse. He had a story to tell, but kept insisting he was no good at stories. His hands flapped about like loose cardboard. His tremendous nose, which might have made another man feel powerful, bloomed red with agitation.
      "This was, oh gosh, this was back in the sixties. Is it that long now? Yes. It must be. We'd just graduated from the University of Chicago and we were looking for work. I was looking for work I should say. This was before Connie and I, before we were married. I went to some conference or other and met this nice old fellow and, you know, everyone was looking for work back then. He said I should send my material along, would I do that, and a few months later he called and asked if I would like to teach at Newton College. There was none of this business of search committees, interviews. I was twenty-three years old, maybe twenty-four. A silly age." Rodgers giggled tentatively. He was speaking to a friend of his daughter's, a tall fellow named Ken who had arrived that afternoon in a gale of slightly forced cheer.
      They were at the kitchen table, regarding one another over the leavings of dinner: crumpled napkins, bits of risotto stiffening on flatware, a shank bone whose joint shone faintly blue under the track lighting. The table itself was yellow pine, a stern piece of furniture Rodgers had once hoped to extend with leaves and move into the dining room. As he spoke with Ken, he envisioned running his hand across its surface, though the wood had dried and gone splintery in the last few years. That was the problem with yellow pine.
      Rodgers's three children were in the living room, sitting around the fire, peeling tangerines and playing with his baby granddaughter. They had descended upon him for the holiday, an intended gesture of support that filled his house with ruckus and presumed smiles.
      Connie's death had not been sudden. But Rodgers had somehow experienced it as sudden, not quite believing until belief was no longer a choice but a condition. He found, in her absence, that his children frightened him. He drifted about their busy conversations, offering an observation or pun, enough to keep himself from drawing the suspicion of despair.
      Ken was a Ph.D. student who knew enough anthropology to pretend at understanding, and they spent dinner chattering about Malraux and Veblen and Dube. Rodgers emptied his wine glass twice. He said too much when he was drunk, or uneasy, and now he was both.
      "You took the job?"
      "Oh yes. Of course. I packed my books and papers and drove to Newton and taught two classes a week. A hundred and ninety-five dollars I was paid, plus faculty privileges."
      "One ninety-five?"
      "Plus faculty privileges. That was the royal business in those days. They had a faculty commissary and an indoor swimming pool. It was all very exciting. Someone had hired me on. That first job, you know. You're just happy to be there. You take nothing for granted. You haven't learned that yet." Rodgers reached for his wine. He couldn't figure out whether the young man was compelled or merely indulging him. He had never been good on reactions. Those he had left to Connie.
      "Newton was wild back then. Everything ran by consensus. The students were always protesting something, running around naked. Anyway, one night, about two months after I got there, the phone rang. It was late Saturday and I'd been to a party and, actually, I was stoned. Stoned out of my mind, actually." Rodgers lowered a make-believe sledgehammer onto his head. "That was another thing about Newton. There was some very good grass around. It just seemed to be around. I figured it was Connie calling. But the voice on the line was one I'd never heard before, this deep, official voice. 'Hello, Alex,' he said. 'This is Joseph Van Buskirk. I'm terribly sorry to be calling you so late.' I thought to myself: who is Joseph Van Buskirk? The name sounded so familiar. 'As I say, Alex,' this Van Buskirk said to me, 'I hate to disturb you at home.' 'It's okay,' I told him. I was racing around my mind, thinking: Van Buskirk, Van Buskirk. Then it hit me: the president of the university! President Van Buskirk! This real Wall Street type. 'I'm afraid I'm going to need your help, Alex, in an extremely unpleasant task. One of your students, Mary Martin, has been in a car accident. There's really no choice in this.' 'No choice in what?' I said, and he said, 'We need you to identify the body.'
      "My God. I mean, this was some strong grass I had smoked. Very strong. I could have handled a discussion with Connie. I maybe wanted to talk to her. But this was crazy. The president said, 'The problem is that we can't notify the next of kin, Alex, without someone to identify the body. We didn't want to ask one of her friends, you see. These situations can be very rough emotionally. There was no one else to call, really. She's just a first-year. You're her adviser. She's even in one of your classes.'
      "'The morning class,' I said.
      "He jumped right on that. 'You know her, then? You'd be able to identify her?'
      "'I know what she looks like.'
      "'Good,' the president said. 'I'll be by in fifteen minutes.'
      "Jesus. What does that mean? He'll be by? Does he have her in the trunk? No, that means he's going to have to drive me somewhere. I'm going to have to get into the car with him and we're going to have to drive somewhere. To a funeral parlor. I'm going to have to drive to a funeral parlor with him. To identify the body. I mean, this is how my mind is operating. All very scrambled. I'm trying to figure out whether I'm going to be able to keep it together, actually. Because if I can't, you know, if I somehow lose my cool in front of him or he picks up on my being stoned . . . I mean, that's it. No more job. My career ruined. You know how the mind can get under the influence of grass, that paranoia."
      "Wait a second," Ken said. "Didn't she have any ID on her? Why did they need you?"
      Rodgers shrugged. "I don't know, exactly. I never asked about that. It must have been a law, that someone who knew the victim had to inspect the body in person. All I knew was that the president wanted me there. It must have been some state law." Rodgers sipped his wine. "I lived in this little carriage house out in the country that I rented for $60 a month, utilities included. If you can imagine. A quiet place. Peaceful. About five minutes later, I heard this car pull up on the gravel. It was much too soon. You know, when someone says fifteen minutes they usually mean half an hour. That's understood, isn't it? I felt ambushed, really. You don't tell someone fifteen minutes and then drive up five minutes later. I might not have been any more ready in fifteen minutes or half an hour, but at least I would have had the chance to adjust to the idea. Wash my face, brush my teeth. Maybe it was fifteen minutes. But it didn't feel like it.
      "Then I see these colored lights spinning outside my window. This car that's pulled up is a cop car. Now I know for sure that I'm fired. The president's going to pull up in his Rolls Royce as I'm being led away by the cops, right? There's a knock on the door and I freeze. Just freeze. It's like one of those movies where you can hear the clock on the wall ticking. Tick tick tick. Except that I didn't have a clock. Maybe a minute goes by and there's another knock. This one louder. What choice do I have? I get up and open the door and there's President Joseph Van Buskirk, this big fat man in a black coat. He has this very concerned look on his face, very Walter Cronkite, and he's holding something in his hand. I swear to God for a second I thought it was a scythe. But it was just an umbrella. The cop car is behind him and it's raining and he looks at me and I look at him. I thought he might have smelled the grass. That was my concern. For a second neither one of us moves. He's sort of leaning in with his big Republican face, looking me over, and I'm figuring how I'm going to explain this to Connie, to my folks.
      "'You'll need something more than that,' he says finally. 'It's a cold one.'
      "So I get myself a coat and put that on and we walk out together and get into this car with three cops already in it. State troopers. With those shiny black knee boots. All three of them sitting there, not saying a word. I get in the backseat, between a trooper and the president, and there's two more in the front seat and I'm stoned out of my tree and we're going to identify Mary Martin's body. I mean, shit."
      Ken said, "Why all the cops?"
      "I don't know. I wondered about that later. Wouldn't one have been enough? Why all three? But there they were. Not one of them said hello. The driver started the car and we drove. I was still stoned. You couldn't have devised a worse place to put me. The troopers were looking at my clothes, jeans and some kind of leather fringe coat, and my hair. They knew what I'd been up to, I was sure of it. 'I hope I didn't wake you up,' the president said. 'Oh no,' I said. 'I was grading some papers.' 'On a Saturday night?' the president said. He whistled and the cop sitting next to me let out a chuckle. There was an awkward moment there, but the president smoothed right over it. 'I need to apologize again for this inconvenience, Alex. We're going to need to head to the morgue and get this over with. We should have you home in less than an hour.' I said, 'Sure.' 'I appreciate your being available.' 'Of course, I'm just sorry it's necessary,' I said.
      "The driver, he must have been the commanding officer, he said, 'Goddamn shame is what it is. These kids. The risks they take.' He looked at me in the rearview mirror. 'They don't believe it can happen to them.'
      "I said, 'What happened?'
      "'Single-car accident. Out along 41. Driver drinking. Lost control of vehicle. Into a ravine. Passenger, this Martin girl, through the windshield. Into a tree. Broken neck. Dead on impact.'
      "'What about the driver?' I said.
      "'Oh, him,' the trooper said. 'He's fine.'
      "'What a mess,' said the trooper next to me.
      "'A real mess,' said the third trooper. 'A real mess job.'"
      Rodgers paused and reached for his wine, then thought better of it. From the other room, he could hear his son cooing at the baby: "What kind of girl does that? What kind of a silly girl?"
      His son was obviously, stupidly smitten. He couldn't keep his hands off the baby. "Lambchop," he called her. "Love of my life." He carried her around in a ridiculous contraption, a sling that held the baby's back to his stomach, so that she hung there in front of him, her head bobbing absurdly. Rodgers could hear his son quack playfully as he changed her diaper in the next room.
      His daughters, of course, had plopped the baby into his arms the moment they arrived and motioned with their hands, as if they were tossing salad. This meant he was to interact with her. There was about the act a kind of covert aggression; Rodgers felt as if he were being tested. See here, his daughters were saying. Life goes on.
      But the infant felt inert in his arms, like a stony loaf of bread. He muttered one or two awkward words. As if sensing his discomfort, the baby squirmed with an alarming vitality. Rodgers feared he would drop her, briefly imagined the chaos that would ensue. The baby began to sputter, then to cry, its gums gleaming like tiny pink rinds. His daughter-in-law appeared immediately and swept the child away. "She's just hungry," his oldest daughter said, and they all agreed. Nonetheless, Rodgers felt humiliated by the entire episode. He wasn't Connie, goddamnit.
      Ken said, "Cops never change."
      Rodgers nodded. "Yeah. They just kept on like that. I was relieved, actually. I settled back and kept my mouth shut. The president was staring out the window, at the rain. He was a dapper fellow, but up close you could tell he'd had some acne as a kid. He had those scars. His hands were folded in his lap and his shoulders were tense. I guess he was scared, too."
      "That must have sobered you up."
      "Not really," Rodgers said. "My thoughts were coming too fast. What I was most worried about was that at some point I might start talking, you know? Really let loose and start blabbing. And then I might not be able to stop. You know how that can happen?"
      "Sure," Ken said.
      "I was already paranoid. I was sure the troopers, for instance, knew what I'd been up to. But we were trapped in this strange situation. What could they say? I started thinking about what was going to happen next, picturing things, planning it out, really. We were going to pull up to the funeral parlor--"
      "Wasn't it a morgue?"
      "Yes, that's right. It was. But somehow in imagining it, that's not what I saw." Rodgers smiled and the ball at the end of his nose flushed. "What I saw was this small-town funeral parlor, lit from within, sort of like one of those Hopper paintings. We'd walk in and there'd be this warm foyer with flowers and wreaths and things. Then we'd pass into another room, a kind of chapel, with pews for people to sit and a raised area for people to speak. And we might wait there for a few minutes. And they might bring us coffee. Then we'd move along into this back room and that's where they'd have the coffins. The bodies would all be neatly dressed and they would wheel Mary Martin over and I would look down at her, lying in this pink-padded coffin, and nod, and that would be it. I kept running this scenario through my head. The foyer, the chapel, the coffee."
      "What's that theory of Malraux's? The assimilation of death?"
      "Yes, the assimilation of death. The adjustments one makes, tries to make. That's what I must have been up to," Rodgers said. For a moment, he saw Connie; saw her as she had appeared when he entered her study, lying under a blanket, her face set in the wax of motionless blood.
      "How well did you know the student?" Ken said.
      Rodgers shook his head and steadied his hands on the edge of the table. He wanted more wine, but worried that he would spill. "Mary Martin? Oh, I barely knew her at all. She was a quiet girl. Quiet. She looked a bit like that actress, the one in Love Story. Pretty. Dark hair. But quiet."

The conversation in the other room hit a lull. There was just the occasional snap of the fire that his son had built earlier. Rodgers had forgotten how to open the flue, and suffered some gentle teasing over this. He listened, now, to the fire, and sat back and stared at the orange shadows cast along the doorway between the two rooms.
      Mary Martin had spoken just once in his class. But he was alarmed to find the memory of this incident still very much alive. Rodgers had been lecturing on the Ik, an African tribe celebrated among cultural anthropologists for their meager standards of community. Mary Martin was in the back row, where she customarily sat. Gradually, as if with great effort, her pale face took on a disturbed animation.
      "You mean they just leave one another to die?" she demanded.
      "Oftentimes, yes."
      "Even a relative, or a friend?"
      "I'm afraid so."
      Mary Martin shook her head and glared at him, as if he were somehow responsible for the Ik's behavior.
      Rodgers tried to soften his approach: "It is true that the Ik represent an extreme, an affront to our conception of compassion. But every culture operates according to what Mead referred to as a concentricity of love. We all make decisions about whom we can afford to care for. In essence, we choose who to love. We do this every day, without even thinking about it. We might feel bad for a person, but that doesn't mean we choose to take care of him, to love him. We might pass by him every day without a thought. If any of you have been to Mexico, for instance, or India, you know it is impossible to move about without beggars asking for help, people who are in real need."
      "But that's different," a second student said. "This tribe you're talking about--"
      "The Ik."
      "Yeah, the Ik. They leave their own relatives to die. Parents leave their kids."
      "In some cases, yes. I know it's disturbing. But this is how they must lead their lives. They live in an extremely harsh environment and must make harsh decisions as to whom they can afford to love. Sometimes a father or mother decides there is only enough food for the two of them, and not for the children. Or they decide that a child is too sick to care for and, yes, they are left behind. But this is not cruelty. Weakness, perhaps. But not cruelty."
      "You're saying it's not cruel to leave a kid like that?"
      "No. What I'm saying is that the Ik, all of us, really, we possess only a finite amount of love, a finite amount of the internal resources by which we can enact demonstrations of our love. And in some cases, some people choose . . . they choose to love themselves, or to love each other, rather than their children."
      Mary Martin sat at the back of the classroom, her jaw clamped. Rodgers fumbled on, but the rest of the lecture was a loss. He felt overruled, condemned by the dull contempt of her gaze.
      Ken cleared his throat. He was staring steadily at Rodgers. "Are you okay?"
      "Yes. Certainly."
      "Did you want to finish your story?"
      "My story?"
      "Yeah. Did you ever ID the body?"
      "Oh yes. Yes. Where was I? In the car? Okay. In the car with the president and the troopers, right?" Rodgers motioned toward the wine and tapped his brow. "We drove for a while, I know that. Then the car pulled up behind this building. It was low brick, with a concrete ramp and a doorway. I thought for a minute it must be some kind of errand one of the troopers had to run, because it was clearly the back entrance. The lot was unpaved. The president said, 'Let's get this over with,' and got out. The cops got out, too. I looked through the window and saw these bright circles of light pouring through the doorway, and at the center of these circles at the top of the ramp was a gurney and on top of that was the body, this white body lying there looking very small. The president crouched down and stuck his big face in the window and said, 'Are you ready, son?' and I got out. The troopers fell in around me, as if I were a suspect, or some personage worthy of protection, and they marched me up the ramp and to the doorway and I looked down."
      "Jesus," Ken said.
      "Jesus is right." It was infuriating, what he'd been asked to do. He could see that now. What right had anyone, even puffy old President Van Buskirk, to drag him into this? He was a young adjunct, with a pretty fiancée, not so many years older than his students. It was Saturday night, late. He had been sitting at home, innocently, waiting for her to call, to hear her voice. He had nothing to do with any of this. He remembered, particularly, how bright it all was, how he had been forced up the ramp, a suspect.
      "I looked down. She was in awful shape. A real mess job, as the trooper put it. They had her naked there and you could see one of her ribs, the end of it, poking through. Her eyes were closed and I remember that one of the orderlies reached down and opened them and in the same motion he pulled her jaw up. Because, you see, her jaw was broken, hanging loose there, and he did this so I'd be able to recognize her. The other orderly said: 'Is this the woman you know to be Mary Martin?' I couldn't speak. I nodded and turned away. But then this same orderly said, 'I'm sorry, sir, we need you to be quite certain. Could you please look again?' I started to feel sick. It wasn't the blood. They'd cleaned the blood off. But there were these places where you could see the fat, these yellowish gashes, and her face . . . I mean, it had to be held together. They hadn't given me any chance to adjust, was the thing. It was just: out of the car and up the ramp and yes or no."
      "Jesus," Ken said again.
      "I kept looking at her, this young girl, and thinking: that's her. She's dead. She isn't coming back. But I couldn't really believe it, not emotionally. It didn't register."
      "You must have been protecting yourself."
      "Right. Sure." Rodgers nodded. He was trying to remember why he had started this story. Perhaps he had meant to convey a mood of boyish exhilaration, that sense of possibility that belongs to the young. But this was not how he felt. Rather the opposite. He ran a finger under the collar of his new turtleneck, a gift from the girls. A drop of sweat traced his ribs. How had his home become so ungodly hot?
      Ken said something more about the police and their ill habits. Rodgers listened to his children in front of the fire. They were worrying over the baby. His daughters were noting, for perhaps the hundredth time, how much she resembled Connie.
      Just before dinner, in fact, they had converged outside his study and yammered on about the likeness. The same button chin and generous forehead. Wasn't it uncanny? Rodgers had stooped over his desk and felt a pulse of rage bang bloodily behind his eyes. He imagined storming into the hallway and telling them what he really thought: that the child, with its drooping cheeks and fat lips, looked like a little Jewish gangster. That he half expected a cigar to be poking from the corner of its mouth.
      In moments such as these, he wanted nothing more than the peace of an empty house, an end to the polite dismay his children forced onto him.
      It was expected he would join them soon, and find his place at the edge of them, his two daughters and his son with the new baby. But he knew, without a strong sense of wanting to know, that he would not be terribly missed if he stayed put.
      It was not that he didn't love his children. He did. There were photos all around, photos with the right sort of smiles, or nearly so. But he had always felt overmatched by the demands of their love, the red wailing and grubby hands and later the expectant gazes and sullen protests. It was Connie to whom he conceded a true concern. And she who had run interference between him and the world of his deficiencies.
      He could hear her, the soft lilt of her voice, as she stood at the stove and hummed a Beatles song, that one about a silver hammer. If Connie had been there, with him in Newton, she would have known how to handle the situation with Mary Martin, how to undo his panic. He wouldn't have been stoned in the first place, if she had been there. Or he might never have answered the phone. And if she were here, tonight, he would be in the other room with her, with their children, together. She was the one who made that possible, coaxed from him feelings that brought him closer to the center of things.
      Ken shook his head. "That's a crazy story," he said. "Crazy."
      Rodgers said nothing. He had thought to answer, but found he could not. The feeling was not one of drowning, more that the breath had been sucked out of him. He was seized by the urge to tear his new turtleneck off, felt this might ease his breathing, cool his skin, though he merely looked to the table in hope of finding water there.
      "We should probably join the others, huh?" Ken said.
      "Yes, of course."
      The young man got up and offered an awkward wave and left.
      Rodgers listened absently to the discussion in the other room. "Where've you been?" his son asked Ken, and Ken murmured something and the group laughed. "Maybe we should make him drink wine more often," his son said. Then the group discussed plans for the next day. A late brunch, a trip to the nautical museum. The baby began to cry and was given over to his mother to be fed. There was a momentary humming. Rodgers knew that his absence was being charted.
      Those last months had been so quiet. The children were gone, sunk into hectic lives and cowed, truthfully, by their mother's illness, or perhaps afraid to interfere with his grief. They had proved adept, this last year, at matching him silence for silence. These were not angry interludes, as Rodgers sometimes wished. They were simply hollow. And they made him wonder: is this all there is to fatherhood, or have I missed something?
      Connie had been dreadfully quiet. She spent mornings by the sun window, perched in her favorite rocking chair, and afternoons sleeping in the den. She moved with the deliberation of one who hopes to obscure suffering. Rodgers watched her grow gaunt. He felt, in her presence, small and boneless.
      In moments of duress, such as after treatments, he adjusted pillows and said the right words, but these somehow had the effect of underscoring the unnaturalness of his attempts. Knowing her affinity for sun, he cursed the gray days of autumn until he felt his throat rip.
      And then the study; that afternoon in the study. She had done well the previous day, eaten all her potatoes and even a bite or two of chicken. In the morning he had seen a trace of color in her face. To find her like that, still and unbreathing, her hand clenched against her white cheek--he simply shut down. It was only the phone calls and later a visit from his neighbor that allowed things to move forward.
      One by one his children came into the kitchen until he was surrounded. They were here now, his sweet son and daughters, asking what was wrong and their voices, all going at once, composed a child's chant. "Are-you-okay-are-you-okay-Dad-what-is-it-Dad-what-is-it?" He tried to tell them, "Don't be scared," but could not. He understood that it was his role, as father, to provide some reassurance, to subdue the tide of sorrow that now threatened them all. It was only this business of breath that held him back, the loss of breath.
      To calm himself, Rodgers closed his eyes. The baby was whimpering and Ken was apologizing and someone was stroking his poor old bald head and the youngest, Amy, she was even weeping. He felt hands being laid upon him, one pair then another, the hot cling of his children's fingers. They were good children, more than he deserved, because within them lived some link to her; it was this link to which he attached his hopes.
      There was quite a lot of commotion, you would have to say that, a lot of crying, a lot of noise, and he could feel his children crowding in on him and he heard the baby nearby, crying now, and he must have reached out for her or made some indication of his need, because someone placed her in his lap. Rodgers opened his eyes. She stared up at him with sleepy eyes, a tiny fist worked loose from her swaddling and pressed against her cheek. Rodgers examined the intricacy of her face and hands and straightened up a bit and then quietly said, "Why do these crazy people cry so much? Can you tell me that? Why is everybody crying so much, baby girl?"