The kitchen was still the same as it was when I left to start my own life. The big green front door, the ugly yellow wallpaper with delicate blue flowers, the deep cocoa colored cabinets that lined the entire back wall, and the large oak table that took up 75% of the room. I asked a few months ago before we found out about her cancer why she had kept such a big clunky table in such a small room, she told me that it is so gorgeous that it is allowed to take up all that space.
I look down from my spot at the table for a moment and see my daughter Hannah, her hair soaking wet from her swimming in my Mom’s pool about an hour ago. She is under the table with a platinum blonde Barbie in her hand, making the doll do acrobatics on the beams of the enormous piece of furniture. She never liked to play out in the open, maybe it is easier to play pretend when you can not see the real world.
That’s what I thought when I played in the same place when I was eight, until Mom would yell at me to get out from under feet while she chopped the vegetables for dinner and I would run back to the safety of my father. I wonder if Hannah ever feels the familiar dent my head left on the underside of the tabletop from running to my room so quickly after my Mom snapped at me.
“Hannah, why don't you go play in the living room sweetie, me and Grandma need to talk about grown-up things.”
She looks up from her Barbie and I see the reflection of the dolls sparkly pink dress shimmer across her face. My mom sits holding her favorite blue coffee mug at the kitchen table. I reach my hand across to her place at the table squeegeeing her limp hand tightly.
Hannah crawls out from under the table.“Okay, Mommy! Barbie is going to go to a pool party with all of her friends! She wants Grammy to come too!” She held up the Barbie and makes it swim through the air.
“That’s great! I think Barbie really wants to go now. And Grammy can’t go right now, she doesn’t even have her swimsuit on! You should take her to the pool right now.”
“Yay! Can I put on my swimsuit again so I can go to Barbie’s pool party?”
“No, it’s still wet!” I said as I am realizing I have now made a rule for whenever she wants to play pool party: everyone has to wear a swimsuit.
“Actually,” my Mom says, “I put it in the dryer a while ago because I didn’t want it to go home all damp. You can go grab it!”
She sprints over to my Mom and jumps up into her lap to give her a hug. I see her pained smile half-buried in my daughter's shoulder. She squeezes her even harder for a few moments until she lets her go.
She runs off, the tulle of her dress flows behind her and her tennis shoes emit pink purple light from the toes until she reaches the laundry room. I hear the door slam against the old and creaky house.
“I think we have her preoccupied by now. Does she even know how to open the dryer?”
“I don’t know. I’m glad you got me out of that pool party though, I’d come out more wrinkled than I already am!”
I squeeze my hand tighter against hers. She lets out a pained worble.
“What do you think will happen when I tell her?”
I give up my grip on her hard wrinkly hand. “I don’t know Mom.”
“Do you think she even understands what having cancer means?”
“Maybe, only because we are talking about you and her. You two have this connection like I have never seen before. You can have a full conversation with an 8 year old.” I want to add that her relationship with my daughter is nothing like what she had with me. I wonder if she loves my daughter more than me.
“It is one of my favorite things about her. I feel like I know her like she has been my friend my entire life.”
She would probably give her all of her love until she can’t love anymore.
I let go of my mother and pull the wooden chair closer to hers. “Just- think about what you would want to hear if you were her.”
She looks down in her coffee cup and gets up for another cup.“That my grandma doesn’t have cancer and that we should go out for ice cream.”
“Stop saying things like that. You have always brushed off terrible situations with jokes. When Dad got sick all you did was laugh and joke with Hannah, up until the end. It’s like you didn’t even care.”
My Dad had early onset Dementia and he had always been forgetful so we always just thought it was him until it wasn’t. When I was little and he needed to remember something important he would have me write it down in his special notebook and he would give me a quarter or a piece of candy. Before I was around, Dad said mom would hate writing everything down for him and say it is just one more chore for her to do and that it is only enabling him to never remember anything. That was just Dad being dad, but then he started forgetting our old dog's name, then birthdays, and then words altogether. My mother started saying “What word will he forget today?”. He became so frustrated in the end he started turning hateful towards everyone except me. Hannah was very little then and that is when my mother started pouring all of her energy into her. One day while Mom was out shopping with Hannah while I was at work when he fell down and hit his head too hard for anything to be done.
It’s funny how I’m the one that is forgotten about now.
She pours herself more coffee from the pot with her back turned to me. “I’m serious! Let’s go get ice cream. You are not forcing me to do anything I don’t want to do! I can tell her whenever I feel ready to!” She sits back down at her seat and lowers her head slightly. “And I did care about your father, not like you did though. You two had something special, like me and Hannah have. We don’t have that.”
She is right. Ever since I was Hannah’s age she called me Daddy’s girl. I would sit on his lap and watch Saturday morning cartoons with him while she made breakfast. We would go to the carnival in the summer while she went to the grocery store. The only thing we ever really did together was she was the one I clenched my grip onto when I gave birth to Hannah. But as soon as she was born, she couldn’t take her eyes off of my new baby girl.
I try to change the conversation back to what really matters with a softer tone than before. “ But you start treatment next week, she is going to find out eventually!”
“Find what out Mommy?”
I look over in the hallway and my daughter is standing there.
“ I thought you were supposed to be playing Hannah.”
“ I heard you guys talking kinda loud, and I couldn’t figure out how to open the dryer.”
“Just go back and play with your dolls.”
My mom puts down her coffee cup and starts walking over to Hannah. “I can help you. get your swimsuit, come on sweetie.”
“Mom, sit down. You need to do this.”
Mom bends down slowly to Hannah’s level, all of her joints crackle and pop individually, each waiting their turn to be heard. It’s obvious getting down that far took all of her effort.“Do you want to go get some ice cream?”
“No! I want to know what’s wrong!”
“You have to tell her mom, she can’t hear it from me, she won’t believe me.”
She lets out a deep sigh, “Alright. Sit down Hannah.”
“What’s going on? Why is everyone so sad looking?” as she sits down she immediately starts swinging her legs.
My mom sits down and I walked over to Hannah and wrap my arms around her, tightly.
“Hannah, do you know how you feel when you get sick?”
“Yeah, my stomach hurts and so does my head. I feel dizzy and sleepy all day long. And my head gets super hot. But it's okay because that means I don’t have to go to school.”
“Well, I am sort of super sick, but I don’t feel bad all the time. Sometimes I get dizzy, sometimes I am really tired, and sometimes I can’t stop coughing. And do you remember when you came over last week and I got all angry because you were running all over the house because you got a new pair of shoes and you wanted to test them out?”
“Yeah, sorry Grammy.”
My mom grabs her hand, she is making an effort to console her. When she told me two weeks ago she just passed me the folder of all the information that pretty much said she had developed lung cancer because she had been smoking since she was 20, the only reason she stopped was because of Hannah, she didn’t want her to get sick. My Mom asked me if I had any questions after she handed me the folder. No build up, no taking it slow, nothing. Just here you go, I have cancer. I asked her if she was scared and she said “No, but I’m scared of what it will do to Hannah.” I harden my embrace around Hannah slightly, out of both anger and fear for her.
“No, no that’s alright. That isn’t the point either. I was angry because I had a really bad headache because I am kinda sick all the time.”
“And, I am so sick….. that -“ she started to choke on her words.
”That what Grammy? Do you need to go to the doctor? The doctor is pretty scary though, maybe you will feel better in a little bit?”
“No honey. Go ahead Mom.”
“Hannah, I’m going to have to go to the hospital in a few days.”
“Why? Is someone having a baby?”
“No the doctors are going to help me by giving me a special medicine that is going to make my hair fall out and makes me really tired all the time. I am also going to have to have surgery just to make sure all of the things that are making me sick are gone.”
“What kind of sick do you have Grammy?”
I feel a lump in my throat, I thought I wanted her to just say it and get it over with like she did with me, but I want so much better for Hannah I wish this would all go away!
“I have cancer.”
She looks down for a second at the floor with her eyebrows scrunched together. She looks up and locks eyes with my mother.
“I know that is bad but people on TV always smile when they say they have cancer because they are at a good hospital and they have lots of friends.”
“Yeah, maybe that is what will happen.” my mom says with a little laugh tucked in.
“Can you play now grandma? Maybe that will help you feel better.”
“Yes, let's get your swimsuit out of the dryer first though.”
I stand up and break my arms away. “No Hannah, it isn’t like that in real life. She hurts a lot right now and she can’t play anymore! At least for now.”
Hannah runs away and my Mom goes after her. I sit by myself at this massive oak table. I trace my fingers through the swirls of the wood where the imprint of my head is permanently stamped in. I move my hand over slightly and feel a new dent forming.
Kendall could taste just how neglectfully his morning coffee was burnt but continued to sip through it anyway. A small grimace trailed by a deep, soft chuckle and smile followed every airy gulp. The styrofoam cup barely fit in the minuscule cup holders, doing more of what was a balancing act in the stop and go traffic rather than resting easy in the holder. Coffee spilling over the edges of the cup began making a small pool at the bottom of the cup holder.
“These cup holders really do hold drinks,” Kendall said, amusing himself and getting a laugh out of his misfortune.
A plummeting feeling of incompleteness rushed over him. Something was wrong, something was missing. He looked out the window after reaching a dead stop in traffic. The silhouette of the mountainous horizon was barely visible thanks to the newly rising sun hiding itself behind them. The shadow blackened mountains’ golden edges looked hazy.
The stereo clicked on and the Stevie Wonder album in slot one began playing ever so quietly, functioning as background music to the silence that Kendall used to appreciate so much more.
He pulled up into the parking lot of the bank in which he worked and took the spot farthest from the entrance. After fumbling around to gather his things, excluding his unfinished coffee, he walked through the automatic sliding doors and straight to his desk.
“Good morning Kendall, how are you? Weekend went well?” said Jenny, his coworker and desk neighbor. She continued typing away as she awaited an answer.
Kendall hung his coat on the rack behind his desk and took a seat, still contemplating his answer. “Fine, a bit stressful, yourself?” he finally responded.
“You seem to say that exact line every morning I see you. Is it scripted? Predetermined?” Jenny continued to type away.
“No, that’s just how it is I suppose.” Kendall said. His deep voice seemed to reverberate off the marble countertops and glossy walls.
“Well, I’m also considering moving soon, so how has your change and adjustment from New York to little Fox Valley been?” she inquired, now looking at Kendall to see his response in addition to hearing it. Kendall felt her examining eyes but refused eye contact.
“Fine, a bit stressful.”
“I could have told you that.” The sounds of aggressive typing reignited. Kendall chose to ignore the tension building between them.
“At least you know for certain now.”
Kendall sat still, slumped back in his chair. He began drumming his fingertips across the top of his desk.
“You’re an interesting man, Kendall. I feel like I never know what you are thinking.” Jenny said with a sigh.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Exactly my point.”
“Exactly my point Kendall, I don’t fucking get it.”
“I don’t expect you to, you’re not in the same spot I am with Dad.”
White noise from the phone responded to the silence between the two.
“Why won’t you even tell us where you are? Or at least me? What in the fuck did I do to you?”
A sob followed.
“How many times do I have to tell you this isn’t about me and you, Ryder. Or Mom. It’s just between Dad and I.” Kendall said with a warm voice while pulling out some insignificant strands of his remaining hair. Cars continued to fly past him as he and his car sat motionless on the shoulder of the highway.
“It’s not cause it’s affecting all of us. You should be here and you know it.” Another sob. “It’s getting worse.”
“It would have gotten worse regardless. For both of us. You don’t understand Ryder. This sickness isn’t like a flu. You don’t just get better. Our lives revolve around getting that needle in our arms. Constantly. And we can’t seem to help it no matter what we do.”
“So then let's keep working together to find a way to fix it.”
“I’m done trying. I can’t be around him and stay away from it. Separation from both is the best way.”
A long pause. Kendall strained to hear anything from Ryder’s side of the line.
“Fine. I don’t understand it but I trust you.”
Kendall then hung up the phone, turn the key in the ignition, and continued on his way down the highway.
Vibration and buzzing came from Kendall’s pocket. No one ever called his cell phone while he was at work. He would normally put it on airplane mode and turned it off before entering the building. He pulled it out of his pocket and read the screen.
He stared at the phone until the screen read ‘1 Missed Call from Mom’ and placed it on his desk. He watched and waited. The buzzing began again, louder this time as it rattled on the desk’s hard surface. The buzzing engulfed the silence in the room. Kendall let it buzz until the screen read ‘2 Missed Calls from Mom’. Silence reentered the room, bringing with it stiff tension rather than serenity.
Heart sinking buzzing began again.
“Are you planning on picking up? Or turning it off?” Jenny snapped while observing Kendall.
He snatched the vibrating phone from the desk and rushed out the door of the bank. The phone felt as though it was vibrating in frustration.
“Mom? Is something wrong?”
“Kendall, it’s happening again. At the parking garage.”
“Where are you and where is he?”
“He’s on Level 5, same spot. I’m on the ground with the police, fire department, and bystanders… Kendall? Kendall, are you still there?”
Kendall’s breathing was audible through the phone. He looked out at the slim golden edges of the distant mountains. They were still hazy.
“Why haven’t you or Ryder returned any of my calls, texts, letters, emails?” Kendall said to break the silence.
“Right now, Kendall? Are you joking? If you don’t want to show up then don’t but whatever happens is your fault,” Kendall’s mom snapped back to him.
A beep signified the end of the conversation.
Kendall hopped out of his car and jogged over to the large group of bystanders, some of them pointing up at Ryder who stood looking over the edge of Level 5 of the abandoned parking garage. Other members of the conglomeration talked quietly to one another while others just stared up at the building. Police and firemen stood at the base of the building under the ledge where Ryder stood. Kendall’s mother stood there with them looking up at Ryder and discussing how to approach the situation. Kendall noticed her and made his way around the small gathering to her.
“I see you decided to show,” she said. “I thought you might decide not to. I thought you might avoid it.”
“Of course I showed, I’m not nearly as cold hearted as you are.”
“Enough. Go up there and get him down. I need to get him help.”
Kendall looked at the police officers who surrounded his mother and took their silence as admittance into the building.
“Is anyone else in there with him?” Kendall asked the officers.
“As far as we can tell, nope, just him again,” said one of the officers. “He won’t cooperate with us, as usual, but he always seems to with you so get on up there. We won’t go in behind you like last time.”
Kendall took a few steps back to get a better view of Ryder and where he was standing. Ryder took no notice of Kendall and looked blankly outward.
“Ryder, I’m coming up there. Is that ok?” Kendall called up to him. Ryder brought his distant stare at the horizon into focus on Kendall.
“Yes, please do. Only you.”
Kendall nodded, walked past his mother and the officers, and began making his way up the staircase. Kendall’s footsteps echoed off the concrete walls of the staircase as they did between the damp walls of the buildings that lined the narrow alley he searched when he knew his father was in hiding. He walked up to the two massive, green dumpsters where he saw the same two feet and legs sprawled across the ground between them. He gave the two feet a nudge with his own.
“Mom’s freaking out again,” Kendall said.
“You just come from the house? It’s late.”
“Well, can’t expect anything different now, can we?” said the man laying between the trash cans. One of the few scattered lights in the otherwise pitch black alley lit up his dirty face. The two men stared at each other with blank expressions.
“When are you going to stop, Dad?” asked Kendall.
“I could ask you the same.”
“You did this to me.”
“Just because you can’t handle the responsibilities and consequences of your stupid decisions doesn’t mean I’m taking the blame for them.” said his father, his voice sharp.
Kendall scoffed and shuffled around the alley, kicking around the cans that littered the area. Anger flooded his head and threatened to burst from his temples. He took a deep breath instead.
“Well, we both know we’re not getting any better. We just fuel each other to keep using and it’s tearing everything apart,” said Kendall.
“I knew I raised a smart boy,” said his father with a thin grin stretching its way across his face.
“I’m tired of us enabling each other and causing stress and frustration. It’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it?”
“You’re starting to understand what it’s like to be hooked,” answered his father, shaking his head.
“I’ve had the car packed for a couple days now. I’ve decided I’m leaving tonight. Please go home tonight. Take care of Mom, Ryder, and yourself. I’ll take care of me. Separation from each other is the best way right now, agreed?”
“I think it might be the solution that we’ve both been avoiding.”
Kendall turned the corner of the final staircase and saw Ryder standing on the ledge, just as he had been when Kendall began his ascent. Ryder seemed to glow against the background of the still shadowed mountains but brightening sun.
“Ryder, what’s going on bud? May I come closer to you?” Kendall asked. Ryder turned around at the sound of Kendall’s voice.
“Yes, please stay at least thirty feet away from me. I’ll give you one warning if you get too close,” Ryder replied.
“Thank you, I appreciate that… Well, we’re back to square one, aren't we? You haven’t been responding to my texts and calls, has Mom been telling you not to?” Kendall asked as Ryder turned away to stare again blankly at the ground below.
“She took my phone away, says it's bad for me to indulge in artificial social desires,” Ryder said low and dull. “Why won’t she treat me fairly? I can’t leave her side at all. She worries too much.”
“Treat us fairly Ryder, us. Last time you and I spoke was right here wasn’t it? Same situation, only a couple months or so ago. Do you remember what we discussed?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And how have you been?”
“Look at where we are now, Kendall. Square one.”
The nervous sounds of the bystanders below made their way slowly into the momentary silence between them.
“Therapy and treatment haven’t been effective?” asked Kendall.
“Square one, Kendall.”
“And I’m not surprised. This is the fourth time now?”
“Fourth and final time.”
Kendall straightened up at Ryder’s response to his question. He hesitated before responding with a question of his own.
“So you’ve made your decision?”
“I’m done. I don’t want to keep going,” Ryder said as he moved his gaze to their mother. “Mom doesn’t seem to support me in this.”
“You can’t expect that she would. I’m not very fond of the idea either.”
“They think I’m going to jump, don’t they? They brought nets.”
Kendall raised an eyebrow and studied Ryder who maintained his stillness. A light breeze pushed around Ryder’s wispy blonde hair.
“Well are you not?” Kendall asked with apprehension.
“It’s funny that they brought nets, I could just run to the other side of the garage and jump from there if I really wanted to jump. They wouldn’t catch me,” Ryder took his gaze back to the mountains. “I only stand in this spot to see the sunrise better.”
“Ryder, what are we doing here again? Why can’t we help you? We are going through this tough time together, as a family.”
“If you call our mother cutting off all contact between us ‘going through this together’ then I guess you’re right.” Ryder said with snap in his voice.
“Ryder, we need to stick together as a family if we want to get through this. Just because Dad has passed doesn’t mean things can’t continue. I quit my job and moved all the way out here to be closer to you guys. We need each other.”
“I didn’t ask you to come back. Mom didn’t ask you to come back. We were going to be fine without you and Dad.”
“You say that but look at where we are. This is the fourth time in a year. You aren’t fine, Ryder.”
Ryder turned his head and looked at Kendall. His stare was cold and lifeless.
“You asked if I was going to jump or not, right? I never did answer you.” Ryder said.
“Kendall, if you move from the spot where you stand right now, I will act, understood?” Ryder said with unmistakable surety in his voice.
“Ok... What is it?” Kendall asked.
Ryder jumped down from the ledge and began walking slowly toward Kendall. A roar of relief erupted from the crowd below, but neither Kendall or Ryder shared in the rejoicing. Ten feet from where Kendall stood motionless, Ryder stopped in his tracks.
“Don’t react, do you understand?” Ryder asked.
Ryder lifted his shirt and pulled a gun from under his belt, handling with a soft touch as if it were an infant.
“I don’t plan on jumping Kendall. I don’t need to,” Ryder said. “Why did you leave Mom, Dad and I when we needed our family together most?”
Kendall was frozen to the spot.
“I thought I was helping and it was a mistake. I acted selfishly. I’m sorry Ryder.”
“You might be sorry, but you’re also a hypocrite. When Dad needed us most to support him through his addiction, you left us. And now you’re back to say we need to stick together. To help me. Why didn’t you want to help Dad?” Ryder’s voice was empty and emotionless, void of any tones of anger.
“Ryder, I was trying to help. You know how bad our relationship was. But regardless of that, it was still a mistake. I’m here to try to fix this now.”
“Dad’s gone, you can’t fix this.”
“I’m talking about you. Please,” Kendall pleaded.
Ryder and Kendall’s gazes’ continued to stick to each other. The gun Ryder held lay against his thigh in a gentle grip.
“We all make mistakes Kendall, I get it. I’m not mad at you. Not like Mom is. I just wanted an explanation. Or a confession works too, I suppose... Don’t get me wrong, I still trust you. I believe you want to help me.”
“Yes Ryder, I want to help. How? How can I? I need you to tell me.”
“I just want to talk to you a little more about what I’ve been thinking.” Ryder said as his voice trailed off.
“I’m here to listen,” Kendall said and observed Ryder whose eyes shifted to his feet. Ryder waited before calling his thoughts to his mind.
“What do you think about suicide?” he asked. Kendall noticed Ryder’s voice fall unnaturally low for himself.
“I’m no God but I don’t think that it’s the right answer.”
“What do you think about death?” Ryder asked in the same low, calm voice.
“It’s inevitable. It’s part of life.” Kendall answered with eyebrows furrowed and confusion in his voice.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“I don’t think I follow.”
“I’m going to walk towards you. Don’t worry, you are safe. You trust me? I’ve already said I still trust you.” Ryder said with his hand wrapped carefully around the gun, making a conscious attempt to keep it pointed straight down.
“Ok, I trust you then.”
Ryder crept right up in front of Kendall with gun in hand. Kendall did everything in his power to not move a muscle but his legs still shook uncontrollably.
“Stick out your hand, Kendall.”
Kendall raised his shaking arm from his side, his palm up to Ryder. Kendall flinched as Ryder began to lift the gun.
“You don’t trust me Kendall, do you? I understand, but I still trust you.” Ryder said as he placed the gun in Kendall’s outstretched hand. He took a few steps back and asked, “See? How does that feel?”
“I don’t understand what you are asking me.”
“Suicide, Kendall. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s not a bad thing. It’s a tool. It’s powerful. It’s liberating. Don’t you feel it in that gun?”
“Feel what?” Kendall said as he looked at the gun that lay in his hand. He refused to grip it properly and allowed it to lay flat.
“A revolver. Only two bullets. Your death, our deaths, are in your hands. It’s a part of life, isn’t it? You said it yourself. Why is it frowned upon to want to control it?” Ryder said with crazed confidence.
“I can see where you’re coming from Ryder, but why do you want this?”
“I’m not happy with the way things are now and I’m not happy with the future that I am foreseeing. I am okay with dying, I think it is best for us all.”
“But you can’t know for sure, things could get better.” Kendall replied with a sense of urgency.
“Things could get worse than I think too.” Ryder answered quick as if expecting Kendall’s response.
“That’s fair. But you have so much time left, you’re only twenty.”
“You don't know that. I could die tomorrow in a freak accident. And it wouldn’t be under my control... What a shame that would be,” Ryder said as he gazed up at Kendall’s eyes.
“I guess that is also fair,” Kendall resigned.
“I trust you Kendall.”
“You said you want to help me, right?”
“Yes, but we are going nowhere right now,” Kendall said and looked down at his hand, still holding the gun. “I’m just going to put this in my belt and-”
“-you will not if you want to help me.”
The epiphany set in for Kendall. His shoulders dropped and he felt as if all the breath from his lungs was pressed out.
“Ryder, I’m not going to shoot you. You can’t possibly think I’m going to shoot you.”
“I trust you, and you said you trust me. This is what I want. Please help me.”
“-help me Kendall. I trust you will do the right thing.”
“I won’t shoot you.”
“Well if you won’t do it, hand it back to me.” Ryder said as he put his hand back out,
asking for the gun to be placed in it.
Kendall’s fingers finally gripped around the gun. Once they settled around the handle, he felt like he was made of cement. Nothing could move no matter what he attempted.
“I trust you Kendall. I want this. It’s my turn to have some control.”
The commotion from the bystanders below began to pick up again. The nervous chatter that had dissipated returned stronger. Warmth trickled down through Kendall’s arm and into his fingertips. The gun’s grip felt rough in his hand.
“If you really want to help me, you will give that back to me.”
Words finally came to Kendall’s numbed mind.
“Are you sure you want this?”
A tense pause grew between them. Kendall glanced back and forth from Ryder to the gun but he felt like he wasn’t fully processing what he was seeing.
“Okay… I trust you then,” Kendall said as he placed the gun gently in Ryder’s hand.
“Thank you Kendall. I knew I could trust you. I knew you could understand. I forgive you for what you did to us and I will forever be in debt to you for this,” Ryder said as he took the gun and backed away towards the ledge. He felt around for the ledge and when his hand finally found it he climbed back on top of it. Shrieks and screams of “Ready the nets!” from the bystanders below rang through the hollow garage.
Ryder looked out again at the horizon. A small sparkle of the orange sun finally peered out over the edges of the mountains. The once hazy silhouette was now crisp, clear and glowed gold.
He turned to Kendall, smiled and said, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
In Search of Dog Heads
He walked through campus after dark, trying to enjoy the steady drone of bugs in the
trees. He had been teaching at the college for fifteen years, but never truly felt comfortable there
before midnight. There were too many students cluttering up the place. At night it was surreal
and wondrous, like an empty movie set. Still, he couldn’t enjoy the quiet on that night. He was
occupied with something he had read that afternoon while preparing for an independent study.
One of his students was interested in the historical significance of saints’ lives, and, though it
wasn’t his field, he felt obligated to help her. After all, so few of them were interested in
anything, the ones who were needed careful cultivation or they would be smothered by the
He had been reading about St. Christopher, when he came across a passing mention of a
variant story. In it Christopher had a dog’s head, which was miraculously replaced with a human
one when the saint accepted baptism. For the rest of the day he thought about cynocephali, as
humans with dog heads are called. St. Cristopher was not an isolated case. There was a long
tradition of medieval Christians deciding there were cynocephali anywhere Christians were not.
There were even stories of the first Christian missionaries to reach the Karakorum, the capital of
the mongol empire, asking the locals where the dog headed people were, which confused the
Mongols, who believed cynocephali lived in the west. Dehumanizing the other, he thought, an
intellectual muscle memory that had served him well through decades in higher education.
That should have been explanation enough, but there he was walking through campus,
after everyone else had gone home, thinking about dog-headed people. The college was small, so
he found himself walking the same paths night after night. The one he had taken, like most of
them led to the small, hundred-odd year old chapel. Though it seemed to be on the way to
everywhere, it was only used for weddings and panel discussions anymore. He rested on its
concrete steps. He would never have sat on the ground in daylight. It would have seemed like he
was trying too hard to relate to the students. That sort of thing wasted everyone’s time. The little
steeple stood behind him, like an upturned ice cream cone. He did not go to church anymore,
though he had been a member of thirteen congregations before he graduated high school. His
mother could never find one she agreed with. “Church isn’t social hour,” she had told him after
one unsuccessful attempt. Another church was too focused on their missions, several had
congregations that would not stop asking what she considered personal questions, one held
services in what looked more like a gym than the house of God, and one had seemed perfect until
the pastor’s wife suggested she take her son off gluten.
Back then, he had lived among people who believed in a God that brooded over them like
a mother hen, and he had believed in that sort of God too. He thought he still believed in
something, though, after he left home for college, he realized God was an elusive, distant thing.
He left it alone, as long as it did not interfere in his business. Sometimes, on his late night walks,
he felt a twinge of affection for the being that had made whatever random thing caught his
attention: an orange cone of streetlight broken by the branches of a pine tree; a light rain that
made the air feel thick as a blanket; or the empty, black vault of the night sky, scrubbed clean of
stars by light pollution. These were only twinges, though, like exhaustion or the complacent
feeling after eating a meal.
He didn’t think about God very long. Cynocephali were more interesting. The problem to
medieval people was not that dog headed people weren’t human. Scholars took a break from
debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, to decide that, since they wore
clothing, cynocephali must have had a sense of shame, and, since shame was something people
inherited from Adam, they were human. He knew it was either ironic or touching that an idea
invented to reduce people to monsters only ended up reaffirming their humanity, but he realized
he was too tired to decide which that night.
He got up and walked the two blocks from school to his apartment. He was in his forties,
but still lived alone. Occasionally, he considered getting close to someone else and maybe taking
them back to his small, disorganized home, but there always seemed to be something more
important to think about. Before he went to sleep, he sent an email to everyone in his department,
asking if they had heard about dog headed people.
The ones who replied the next day had not, so he set himself the challenge of finding as
many journal articles about cynocephali as he could before his first class. That was what he was
doing when the student who was so interested in saints came in. Her name was Paige, a small
woman with a flat nose and round head that made her look like a koala. She was not religious;
she just thought saints were cool, which was a good enough reason to spend months studying
them in his opinion. He told her to talk about what she had read for the day. Paige had the great
virtue of stumbling through long strings of facts, qualifiers, and corrections without prompting
from a professor. That meant he was free to stare out the window and think about whatever
interested him, while she did his job for him. His office window faced the chapel. He amused
himself by comparing it to random things: a huge finger pointing at the sky, a traffic cone, a
witch’s hat, the tip of a rocket, or an upraised spear.
After a few minutes, Paige started talking about St. Christopher, which got his attention.
“He was from Canaan, I read in one of the sources he was some sort of giant, but I’m not sure
what I want to do with that information. He was working for a king who crossed himself, when
he heard someone mention the Devil, so Christopher thought, ‘Why am I working for this guy, if
he’s so scared of the Devil, then maybe I should be working for him instead.’ So Christopher
quit his job and went to find Satan. Eventually he ran into a bunch of robbers, and their leader
said he was the Devil for some reason. He worked for the robbers for a while, until the head
robber wouldn’t get close to a crucifix, and Christopher decided that, if Satan was afraid of Jesus,
then he should be working for God instead.
“So he found some sort of hermit, and asked him how he could do that. And this guy said
he should become a hermit too. Given the time period, he was talking about the sort of thing St.
Anthony or the pole-sitters were doing, so a pretty extreme form of asceticism. Christopher
didn’t think he could handle it, so he went to work carrying people across a dangerous river
which, being a giant, he could do. One day this little kid came to cross the river, and Christopher
started through the water, but the kid kept getting heavier and heavier. Christopher barely made it
across and, when he got to the other side, he said, ‘You’re pretty heavy. I felt like I had the
weight of the world on my shoulders.’
“And the kid said, ‘Not the world, but the one who made it. And you‘re doing my work
here.’ That’s what Christopher means, Christ carrier.”
He interrupted her, “Did you read anything about him having a dog head?” She had not,
so he spent a few minutes trying to explain what he found so fascinating about cynocephali,
feeling sicker with every indication that she was not interested.
He gave up and let her talk about Cristopher’s role as a warrior saint. He traced the
patterns in his chair’s faded upholstery. It was old. He had bought it for his first office to replace
the incredibly uncomfortable chairs the school had provided. Back then he still wanted to be
something other than an old man in tweed with leather patches on his elbows. He wanted to
engage students, to get them to talk about ideas, instead of lecturing at them. This was despite
working as a teacher’s assistant in grad school. He could still remember the overzealous air
conditioning that had prickled his skin on his first day teaching a class. He had stood at the front
of the room, asked his first question, and watched his students say nothing. They stared at him
like deer watching a tiger, hoping it would pounce on somebody else. It had taken only a few
years for him to give up on students. Their heads were filled with lust, greed, sports and
whatever inane stuff they watched on T.V., none of the things he had devoted his life to pursuing.
Paige was talking about Santiago Matamoros, St. James the Moor Slayer, who the
Spanish believed helped them to take Iberia back from the Muslims. He wondered, if, when all
the Muslims had been slain, driven out, or forced into church, the inquisition, whose job it was to
make sure the moors kept their minds fixed on the right kind of heaven, prayed to Santiago or if
they had a saint of forced conversions for that. Thoughts like that made him love knowledge. It
painted the whole world with the same black brush. He had not always felt that way. His mother
used to tell stories about him forcing the other kids in the neighborhood to play crusades. He
always wanted to be Richard the Lion Heart in those games and made some other kid be Saladin.
But, when he was in high school, he learned about the massacres in Jerusalem and his love of the
crusaders suddenly seemed embarrassing. Then he admired Saladin and the other Muslims, who
expelled the invading Christians, until he learned that many of the soldiers who fought for the
Muslims were slaves and that many of the people massacred by the crusaders were Christians,
Jews, or Zoroastrians. This had been like a revelation to him, but, when he had tried to explain it
to anyone else, it had seemed dull and lifeless.
Paige left, and, after two hours of telling students why they were failing his classes, he
walked home. On the way, he thought about what he would heat in his microwave. Every few
weeks he decided he needed to learn to actually cook for himself, but there always seemed to be
something more important to do.
When he got back to his apartment, he realized he only had half a sleeve of crackers, a
bag of shredded cheese, a little bit of frozen corn, and an old peach. He sighed internally. He
would need to drive the three miles to the nearest Walmart. He did just that, picking up bread,
sandwich meat, and a few cans of soup.
On the way back to his car he heard a woman’s voice shout, “Jesus Christ, Jesus fucking
Christ.” He and all the strangers in the parking lot looked around like startled geese. The voice
had come from a dark purple PT Cruiser. A woman was climbing out of it, looking for someone
to help her. He tried to get back to the safety of his car in case she decided to recruit him, but the
woman called out, “Excuse me. Excuse me, sir.”
He turned to face the stranger and saw she was very large, easily a head taller than he was
and that the light tee shirt she wore in the early autumn heat was soaked with sweat.
“What do you need?”
“My car battery’s dead. Would you mind jumping it?”
“No. No problem,” he lied. It was nearly seven and he had not eaten since noon. He was
hungry and needed a break from helping people. He pulled his car up next to hers.
“It’s been one of those days,” she said, “My ice maker stopped working, and they can’t
come by to fix it over the weekend, so I came to pick up a bag of ice, but, with the weather how
it is, I was worried it would melt before I got home.” He nodded and murmured his assent every
few seconds, though he was not listening. When the car finally started running, the woman rolled
down her window and said, “Hey, thanks for the help. You’re a godsend.”
He looked up from coiling the cables and saw that the woman had a dog’s face. He did
not know how he had failed to notice it before, but it was unmistakably canine. He said it was
not a problem and watched her drive away. Standing, stunned, in the parking lot, herealized
everyone he could see was a cynocephalus. It was almost a physical effort to keep from staring at
them. He was not exactly surprised by the realization. It was more like seeing an old car break
down completely after having problems with it for years. More people walked by, each with a
dog’s face. One stopped next to him, stooped down, and picked up the jumper cables he had
dropped. The cynocephalus handed them to him and said, “Are these yours?”
“Yes. Thank you,” he said and walked back to his car as soon quickly as he could without
attracting strangers’ attention. He drove home to get away from that crowd of monsters, but,
when he opened his laptop to check his email, his face, reflected in the empty screen, was a dog’s
face. He checked his email anyway, and, when Monday came he talked with a dog headed
student about holy men who had probably never existed.