by Jonathan M. Sweet
What would he think of her, she wondered fitfully as she paced the length of her tiny trailer. 1987. God. Nine years. What would she think of him, she amended? She’d had a hellacious crush on him back then, but of course she’d only been nine, and he’d been close to eight years her senior. It would have been improper, in so many ways, to act on such a feeling... for both of them.
He was the only person who had looked at her as a human being... not with the restrained sense of disgust or the barely-veneered pity most people’s faces wore when they saw what the fire had done to her, as if she weren’t a girl at all, but a curiosity, something that threatened to blow apart to dust if touched, a thing that had no right to be. He spoke to her not as some cripple, or even with the condescension one would use with a normal child, but afforded her the respect one would any adult.
“Neitzche had it wrong,” he once said, sitting with her in the kitchen of her grandmother’s house. “He said that Man would someday achieve a state of perfection in which he would lay God aside and call Him dead, and that would be it. But he was too shortsighted. Do you think God will simply lie down and give up? Do you think, now that Man has no use for Him, He will say, ‘Well, I think I’ll go fishing, or take up turkey farming, or something.’
“Hell, no! He’ll make Himself known in a thousand ways, getting underfoot constantly, attacking and sabotaging Man’s newfound purity and clarity of thought, avenging His being put out to pasture in every conceivable way. If He can’t be constructive, He’ll be destructive, just to keep busy. Neitzche, in short, was a moron.”
Jerome thought of himself as a nihilist. When she asked him what that meant, he said, “I b’lieve in nothing, and nothing b’lieves in me.”
The letter she’d gotten on Monday was as spare as his faith: “I’ll be in Springfield this week on business. Your granny said you were living around there now. Figured I could come see you on the 13th, about ten or eleven.” These three simple sentences were followed by his signature... abrupt, sharp, as boldly sketched as his convictions.
Heather checked the clock on the microwave as she passed it; it was 9:24. She continued her restless pacing, punctuated by bursts of cleaning and straightening, more to keep her hands busy than anything else.
“Yes. Your letter said you’d be here at eleven, the latest. It’s nearly half-past noon.”
He checked his watch. “Now it is half-past noon. Smack on the button.”
He looked at her. He’d first met her the summer after the house fire that had burned her alive, leaving the whole left half of her face a mess of scar tissue, singeing away most of her hair on that side of her head. He reached out to touch her cheek. It was smooth... but if he applied a bit of pressure, he could feel the heads of the pins in the bone, the edges of the metal bolted to the bridge of her nose and below her eye, replacing, reshaping, and remolding the damaged bone and cartilage. A fine scar joined the inside tips of her eyebrows, tracing where the steel pieces had been implanted in the upper half of her face.
“You like what you feel?”
“I do. Yes.”
“The operations took, thank the Lord. I’ve been living here for the last, oh, seven, eight years now. Easier than schlepping me four hours to and from the city every time I needed to go to the BTC for a follow-up operation.”
“You’ve had a dozen or so, I hear.”
“Yes, more or less. Still in touch with Granny, I take it?”
They had a simple lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and potato chips. He watched her as she ate slowly, methodically, marveling at how together she was for someone who had suffered so much in her short life.
A gas main had ruptured under her home and ignited the flame. Her babysitter had been killed by smoke inhalation. Heather, age 8, had been trapped in her bedroom, her parents up at the high school for some damn town meeting. Part of the back wall had fallen, weakened by the flames; the cold night air had awakened her. She was thankful for that propitious combination of factors to which she owed her life, but it had been a mixed blessing.
Heather had managed to get out of the house and to safety, but at the cost of a good forty or fifty percent of her skin. She saw Hell that night: the street around her in flames, the sky filled with choking smoke, houses exploding like beer cans stuffed by bored, malicious boys with a pocketful of Black Cats. Somewhere a tree fell with a groan and a thud. There was screaming. There was...
She really remembered little about how she had got out of there, or what happened before she awoke at the National Avenue Burn & Trauma Center. She’d been found by someone — a neighbor, or a rescue worker — her mind didn’t like to dwell on it. She remembered she’d been crawling on hands and knees through a field, that there had been dirt clumps sticking to her raw flesh... or maybe only thought she did, from the stories traded second- third- and fourth-hand, embellished by countless mouths.
Heather didn’t think she was pretty. When she looked in the mirror she saw only a burned, half-bald little girl staring back, her flesh held on by metal studs and braces. The countless hours of recuperative therapy, skin grafts, chemical peels, the untold dollars in medical bills, the lazy, drooping right eyelid, the scar on her nose, the traces of old scars under her right boob, which was markedly smaller and less well-formed, causing her to assume a self-conscious stoop when she walked or sat, to conceal her irregularity; the right ring and pinkie fingers a half-inch shorter than the left and malformed.
She recalled suddenly the first two lines of a poem, the rest long forgotten, that her physical therapist had, following her first set of grafts, taped to the mirror over her sink: “A sweet disorder in the dress / Kindles in clothes a wantonness...” It was to remind her that it was her flaws that made her pretty; her scars were badges of honor, not brands of shame. Imperfections meant experience. Wrinkles were wisdom. Scars were learning tools.
Heather wanted to believe Dr. Seymour, desperately, but when she looked at the fire’s ravages, she saw only ugliness, ignorance, futility staring back from the glass.
“I never knew you smoked.”
“You couldn’t.” Jerome waved out the match with a quick flick of his wrist and pitched it into the kitchen sink. It hissed in a stagnant pool of water. “I didn’t take it up until a couple of years ago. College.”
“You’re in school?”
“Not by choice. Couple of years ago — Feb’rary ’94, it was, I think — I took up with a woman who was the news editor on the Explorer. She was married.”
“Did you know?”
“Not till later. When I found out— ”
“Too late to stop?”
“Her husband found out?”
“Husband... bosses... she was up for a promotion in the spring; I was in grad school. Major scandal. She made it sound like I seduced her. Which was total bullpuckey. My advisor says — real off-the-record one day, y’ know? — that the gossip about me sleeping with a married undergraduate student might seriously harm my chances of moving forward in the graduate program and that it might be wise of me to leave Clark. Seek other venues.”
“That doesn’t sound right at all.”
“Still married. Didn’t get her promotion, but she’s still in school, still working on the paper, and her husband f’gave her and took her back.”
Jerome smoked silently for a while. Heather cleared the plates, brushed away the crumbs from the tabletop.
“That whole mess in Canaan... that was — what year? 1985?”
“Ten years ago, last month.”
“That so?” Pause. “You were having treatments. When we met.”
“I was going to. Started fall. Lived with Granny while she was seeing your dad... And we got left to our lonesome a lot while they went back into her room and...” Pause. Giggle.
“She really did a lot of that, didn’t she? Geez. That horny, at her age.”
“She was 55. Not that old, really. She had my dad young, like at my age or something.”
“You mean have, or want?”
“No to the first, undecided on the second. I might have one, like, while I’m real young, then get one of those operations. You know, where they take everything out.”
“Is that what it’s called?”
“What a name. Sounds like a disease more than a cure.” He laughed. “Yeah. One of them.”
“Pretty risky. They don’t do them as often, willy-nilly, as they used to. Too much possibility of infection setting in, internal bleeding. To say nothing of lawsuits. They only take out your plumbing if you, you know, have something really wrong in there, like tumors, cancer. Something drastic.”
“Can you, do you think?”
“Can I what?”
“Have kids. I mean, with the— ”
“Might have damaged something inside— ”
“The doctors would know if it did, wouldn’t they? They’d tell me.”
“Guess so. Though maybe it’s one of those things...”
“That you can’t tell right away?”
“Ayup.” Jerome stubbed out his cigarette. It was his second so far. He selected another.
“You should quit.”
“Maybe. Find I don’t give a damn either way.”
“What are you doing? Since you left Clark, I mean.”
“Kicking around. I’ve got a couple of interviews for sales jobs day after tomorrow at the Battlefield and North Town Malls. Southgate Center, Tuesday. You?”
“Drawing disability. But I may go in for my G.E.D., since I, you know, had to quit school. Granny home-schooled me since I was ten, but I want something real, you know? After that, probably college.”
“I need... whatchamacallit... direction in my life. And... it’s... a good school.”
“It’s a nightmare. Built on narrow-mindedness and sneering elitist intolerance. It deserves to burn.”
She winced visibly.
Fourth cigarette. He looked at the girl, appraising her. He stroked her face, feeling the fresh softness of her new skin, the hardness of the screw-heads drilled into the bone beneath. His fingers danced in her hair.
She closed her eyes and forgot herself, sitting up straight. His eyes traveled towards the simple sheet that hung in the doorway separating the tiny kitchen from the bedroom... then returned to Heather.
Jerome rose from bed the next morning. She‘d already gone. He reached for his pack of cigarettes on the night-table, found below a note from her.
I’ve gone to the store for a few essentials. Please don’t be here when I get back.
Last night was beautiful but also sad, because I realized that we could never really be together and make it work. Two people so damaged have no business loving one another.
You told me once you believed in nothing because nothing believes in you. I used to think that was so wise, but now I realize that was just your scars talking.
We’re both scarred — my face and your mind. The difference is, I want to heal and you don’t seem to. You like being the way you are. You see ugliness in front of you and want to burn it... but with that attitude you will destroy a lot of beauty as well.
I’m sorry, but I can’t live believing in nothing, like you. That to me is ugly, and empty. Your God may be dead, and worthless, and a nuisance — but mine is not. So — goodbye.
Jerome shrugged. Smoking, he rolled the note up tightly, tucked it into the space in the pack where the cigarette had been, and began to search for his pants.
Copyright © 2009 by Jonathan M. Sweet