Post Road Magazine #21

How We Looked

James Scott


First he dropped a hammer. A.J. had never driven a crooked nail in his life, now I watched him mar the brand new hardwood, leaving a crescentshaped indentation. I started to give him a hard time, but then I noticed his expression; he looked at his hand as if it didn't belong to him.

After that came tape measures, planers, and nails of all shapes and sizes. The floors of 11 Finch Lane were beginning to look like the stage of a strip club. The conversation between A.J. and me—which had been non-stop since our mothers set up a play date in preschool, even when I came home from college with Nic, my girlfriend, in tow and she took up most of my time—had dried up. Neither one of us knew what to say. One day at lunch, I asked A.J. if he'd been drinking before work, and he looked away, his eyes wet. I looked away, too.

Our boss, Mr. Bingham, called A.J. from his cell to say he was coming to the site. A.J. waited outside, sitting on a fat roll of fiberglass insulation, until the black F-150 pulled into the dirt drive. I kept at my work, making sure the cabinets were lined up properly before the guys came in to lay the countertops on them. It was hard to concentrate with A.J. standing there uncomfortably, Bingham not even bothering to get out of the truck. I could see his red, wind-blasted face through the window straining with anger. A.J. stood still and took it.

When he came back in, I rechecked the level. A.J. undid the buckle on his tool belt and laid it across the center island like it was a baby. I asked him what Bingham had said.

"He told me to remind you not to be late for softball," A.J. said, and walked out without so much as glancing in my direction. His exit was a little less dramatic because they'd taken the door off that morning to get the jigsaw back inside, and I watched him walk all the way to his car.

Company teams were a big source of pride for Mr. Bingham. I was a terrible craftsman, but a great hitter. When Bingham hired me—I'd tried out for the Reds twice and played down in Mexico for a year before understanding that almost everyone around me was at least as good as I was—he said that wearing the Bingham-Wales construction uniform during the day was as important as wearing their softball jersey every other Saturday afternoon. Then he winked. A.J. knew how to handle a hammer, but was worthless with a bat, and I wondered if that had anything to do with his being fired.

When A.J. called me a week later and told me about his diagnosis, I joked that Lou Gehrig must be rolling over in his grave at being associated with such a terrible ballplayer.

"I doubt he's rolling," A.J. had said, "he was probably paralyzed by the disease when he died."

I shut up. As soon as we got off the phone, I read about the disease, but when I started to question whether my own hands had lost their strength, whether I was beginning to slur my words, whether my body had decided to eat itself from the outside in, for no rhyme or reason, I turned off the computer. The thing that scared me most was his brain would still be there, unimpaired, fully functioning, but unable to crack through the hardening shell of his body.

*

His parents set him up at the hospital, where his dad had been a surgeon before he went to work for the drug companies, and guys at work kept telling me how A.J. was asking about me, getting our box scores from God knows where, calculating my average and on-base percentage. But something about it, seeing him wasting away, his hands clenched into tiny fists, his staggering steps—I just couldn't do it.

I saw his mother at the video store one night. Unfortunately, I'd emerged from the saloon doors leading from the adult room. I discreetly held my hands, containing two movies, behind my back, and she, in turn, pretended not to notice. And even though A.J. must have told her I hadn't been to visit, we both avoided talking about him altogether. Instead, I told her about the house on Highland we'd been working on and she told me about her second grade class and how difficult teaching had become. "The parents," she said, "just aren't parenting anymore." As we said goodbye, she grabbed my wrist and pulled me into a hug. I could still feel her arms holding me, her thin biceps straining, even as I got into bed that night.

*

The next day I took the afternoon off—all Bingham said to me was, "Make sure you're there for the first pitch"—and drove up Route 11 to the hospital. It was set into a hill, and looked like a large house. Evergreens surrounded it like enormous fence posts, their needles spreading like thick carpet on the expanse of lawn that separated the hospital from where I parked my car.

Behind the woods, four cranes growled in the background, huge yellow arms that dangled over the trees. The low rumble of construction sounded beyond the tinkling of the fountain and the rustle of the trees in the courtyard.

I was sent through a number of hallways by a number of nurses, before finally finding myself at the open door of A.J.'s room. His father must have pulled every string available to him—it was the penthouse, overlooking the entire hill and valley and the lake encased by the forest. The cranes were closer, holding onto giant I-beams, but the sound couldn't penetrate the solemnity of the hospital. The trees played along, keeping the sun out as well, and the room was cool.

A.J. sat in an armchair. His legs were splayed out to the left, his knees knocking together, his feet at odd angles. He snored lightly.

"Hey," I said, barely loud enough to know I'd spoken.

A.J.'s eyes snapped open. He tried to straighten himself, pulling on his shirt with his clenched hands. "Hi," he said, his words soft, slurred a bit, "I didn't think you'd make it."

I shrugged. What do you say to that? I crossed the room and held out a hand to shake his, but dropped it before he could manage to lift his arm. My cheeks glowed red; I could feel them burning. "How are you doing?"

"Great," he said, "I should be out of here any day now." "Really?" I asked. Then kicked myself again.

"The other guys have been around." "What'd they say?" I said.

A.J. shrugged, an exaggerated, twitchy spasm. "They took me," he said, "out for a spin." He managed to nod his head in the direction of a wheelchair.

Everything was going worse than I could have imagined—I was speaking, acting, reacting all wrong. He was sick, not stay-home-fromschool sick, but truly sick, and the thought made my body shiver and sweat at the same time, like a horrible fever. But it was seeing him and never for a moment thinking, He'll pull out of it, that made me feel even sicker. A.J. was going to die. Only a couple of months ago, he'd slept on my couch after a particularly beer-drenched post-game evening. I sat on the couch all the time, I now understood, and had never thought, That was the last thing A.J. ever touched in my apartment.

"Let's do it," I said, overcompensating now, clapping my hands together.

A.J. pushed himself to his feet. I reached a hand out to grab his elbow but he shook me off. I confused it for a spasm and reached again. He said, "I'm fine."


Outside, the sun warmed us both, and things seemed easier somehow. I told him about work, about the house on Highland and the job I'd done mangling the custom cabinets they'd ordered. A.J. laughed, and it sounded like a hiccup.

I remembered how he used to work, engrossed, his blonde hair full of sawdust, his mouth full of nails, which he would take and drive with quick succession in a perfectly straight line. His father had wanted him to be a surgeon, and A.J. had gone pre-med for a while at Cornell—his father's alma mater—before switching over to American Lit. His father stopped talking to him for a while, threatened to stop paying for school. Later, he took A.J.'s dexterity with tools as a sign he'd inherited his steady hands and fine motor control and sat A.J. down and offered to pay him to go to med school—not pay for him to go, but to pay him a salary for going.

One of the nurses came outside and told me to have him back in fifteen minutes—they didn't want him to get sunburned. She held a small bottle of sunblock, and I could tell she wanted to smear it all over his face, but she kept it clasped in her hand and looked from one of us to the other. A.J. told her we'd take our time. The nurse walked away, her rubber shoes squeaking with each step.

A.J. told me how his parents had gone back to treating him as if he was still a teenager, the same teenager I used to hang out with in the parking lots of convenience stores. We'd drink bad beer, and listen to music, messing around on skateboards, flirting—poorly—with girls. I'd go into hibernation during the baseball season, more so as the years went on and the colleges—Nebraska, Wichita State, UCLA—started sniffing around. A.J. was one of the only friends who stuck with me, who would rent movies on game nights and go get pasta after practice, before we went home for dinner. He was the only one who knew I had to go for it, and he never said a word about it, even when I failed.

I wished I could forget that I was pushing that same guy around in a wheelchair, making loops in the hospital parking lot, and just talk, but I couldn't. There was the nurse, the sunblock still probably clutched in her hands, watching us from the window. There were the handles, sweaty in my hands. And there was A.J.'s head, his severe part emphasized by his unwashed hair, below my line of sight.

The construction equipment growled. Concussive blasts shook the ground. "What are they building?" I asked.

"Looks like an Army base," A.J. said. "Sharonsburg is a key city in the war on terror."

When I brought him back to his room after twenty minutes, the nurse flashing me a dirty look, A.J. didn't ask me when I would be back. The walk had wiped him out, I could tell. He needed help getting from his chair to the bed. His forehead was pale, his eyes were quiet with fear. I stifled a brief thought to kiss him on his forehead. He gave me a weird look.

"What?"

"Why, Gregory, it just looked like you were going to kiss me." I snorted.

"Are you going to see Nic?" he asked.

Nic, who'd come back with me to Sharonsburg after college. We'd met after my short residency in Mexico. She played folk music in the coffee shops in town, but then her gigs started to radiate outwards— Concord, Portsmouth, Boston, Providence, Albany, New York. Once she got that far, it seemed like keeping Sharonsburg as her home base didn't make sense anymore. So she left.

"She's back?" I asked, trying not to sound interested.

"Playing at the Grounds tonight," he said, too exhausted to warn me off, which he used to do every time she came back into town. Don't get caught up in her again, he'd said, several times. "She didn't call you?"

I didn't say anything in response. A.J. had taken me back when Nic left without saying anything about the year and a half we only talked a couple of times a week, and saw each other a couple of times a month. It was almost as if he'd been waiting for me the whole time, all through college, through my stint in the Mexican leagues. He'd worked in a law firm for a year. He started having panic attacks and lost weight, which we tried to put back on every weekend with beer and pizza. When he quit the firm and came to work for Bingham-Wales, I wondered if he did it to spend more time with me. Whatever the reason, he'd found a calling.

"I'll come back," I said. "You better."

*

That night I walked into the Grounds in an outfit picked out purposefully to appear as if I hadn't spent a lot of time picking it out. The Grounds looked like any other coffee shop—wooden floors, glass display counters. The stage was about the size of a large walk-in closet, and Nic leaned over a set of speakers, her ear close to the sound, strumming her guitar. She stood, adjusted the levels on a small soundboard, then crouched down again. In the spotlight, I saw that her hair was shorter— she could barely tuck it behind her ear anymore. She'd also streaked her chestnut brown hair with purple, which I thought was kind of ridiculous. Her breasts looked bigger, which I attributed to a decision to wear a bra, something Nic had always dismissed as playing to the male ideal.

I'd spent hours, days, in this room, until the smell of coffee made me nauseous and I'd gained five pounds from all the muffins and scones I felt compelled to pick at. At home, she'd practice her stage banter in front of the mirror, trying out different smiles for when she made a little joke or a self-deprecating comment. It drove me crazy, first in a good way, then in a very bad way. She played the same songs every week, maybe changing the set list by one or two songs, changing a verse here and there. When I stopped being able to answer her questions, when she got so into the music that she asked me about moving the bridge up or altering a chord progression, I knew she was as good as gone.

I wanted to call out to her from that crowd of people, all of whom felt some slight ownership of her and her guitar—she'd started in Sharonsburg, after all. I wanted to tell her that she was from a little town in upstate New York, and purple hair didn't make her from New York City or Los Angeles. I wanted to say that her breasts weren't really as big as they seemed and ask her when the male ideal became so important to her. I wanted to tell everyone that she never would have come to Sharonsburg if not for me. Instead, I leaned back against the wall, and waited for it to be over.

But when she stepped to the microphone and unleashed one of her practiced smiles, I felt a familiar leap in my chest. As I stood there—ador-

ing the woman and forgetting about the nights I spent waiting for her to sign autographs and flirt with other guys so they'd buy a CD, mornings I woke without her, days I spent listening to her push me away with tired arguments—a skinny guy in even skinnier jeans hopped up onto the stage and took a seat behind a sparse drum kit that I hadn't even noticed. Nic looked back at him and the smile on her face when she turned back to the room wasn't practiced. It was real.

*

I went to see A.J. the next day. I figured that if I waited, I might lose my nerve. If I went a lot, it wouldn't be quite as big a shock to see him lying there, all crumpled up. ALS would swallow him up in slow-motion, not fast-forward.

When I was in high school, I'd been arrested with a couple of other kids for sneaking onto the roof of a Wal-Mart to drink and smoke. The corporate suits pressed charges and we all found ourselves with a hundred hours of community service. Because I had a car and a license, I had to take this eighty-six-year-old man, Mr. Ward, to his doctor's appointments. His wife had died the year before. I saw, even over the six months it took me to fulfill my hours, Mr. Ward falling completely and totally apart, his body quitting. The idea of the same thing happening to my best friend, sixty years too early, gave me tunnel vision and a grasping pain in my chest.

I took A.J. for another walk. The nurse told me to keep it to ten minutes, but as soon as we got outside, A.J. asked me to take him on the nature path that went up the steep hill that held the lake like a dirt cereal bowl. His words were thick, like he'd been given novocaine. I told him I didn't think we should; last time he'd practically fallen asleep before we could even get back to his room.

"Come on," he said, "I'm like one of those Make-A-Wish kids who get to throw out the first pitch of the World Series or kill a bald eagle or something."

"And all's you want is a walk?" I said. "How very unselfish of you." "Damn straight," he said. "But if we see a bald eagle, I want you to throw a rock at it. For me."

The path was mostly free of roots and rocks, and it wound in a snaking pattern up the hill, so we could stop for a break every now and then. I told A.J. that I'd been to see Nic, and yes, she was still hot, and yes, I would still sleep with her, but then I told him about the drummer and the smile. He knew enough to understand what it meant and didn't say anything else. I told him that I'd run out of there like the place was on fire. A.J. shook. I asked him if he was cold, if he needed a blanket or something, even though it had to be seventy degrees out.

"I'm laughing," he said.

We finally reached the top of the hill. A.J. raised his arms in victory. The path widened, and I pushed A.J. until the trees gave way to the lake,

which was about the size of a football field and muddy brown. On the other side of the water, the yellow cranes that loomed above the forest sat in silence. Another hill had been made there, a large mound of dirt that was topped with what looked like a concrete bunker.

"What the hell is that?" I asked. It really did look like an Army outpost, sturdy, built of cinder blocks and cement and brick.

"You remember Nathan Garlow?" he asked.

I checked my watch. It was almost four o'clock. I was worried about exhausting him again, bringing him back to the nurses pale and worn thin. "Sure," I said. Of course I remembered Garlow—he'd gone to school with us, had been on the wrong end of a lot of teasing and a few casual beatings. I'd never touched him, and had never said more than three or four words to him in our twelve years of school together. Nathan Garlow ended up having a particular affinity for lenses, which wasn't surprising given how often schoolmates happened to knock his glasses onto the ground and somehow step directly on them—good old stereotypical American bullying. And in the circular nature of the American Dream for nerds, NASA purchased Garlow's lens polishing technology for satellites and telescopes. After that, Garlow made a deal with Canon to produce his own line of 'NG' telephoto lenses. My mother, and I'm sure every other mother who had a child who attended Bear Tree Elementary or Auburn Hill Junior and Senior Highs, kept me apprised of the growing financial empire of Nate Garlow.

Garlow, A.J. told me, had purchased the lake and was building the observatory, which would be open to all. It was hard—impossible—not to be impressed as I stood and saw the new dirt piled on top of the hill, the observatory taking shape. When it was done, I thought, Garlow would be able to see inside A.J.'s hospital room.

"Time to get back?" he said.

I nodded and pushed the wheelchair, out of Garlow's view, and into the cool shadows of the trees.

*

I went to my mother's house, which I still thought of as home, to see my nephew, Tyler, who was playing with Legos. The last time I'd seen him, he'd been capable of going to the bathroom (not by himself, on himself) and smiling (which I was told was the result of gas). He'd about tripled in size, and could babble some incoherent words. My sister and her husband had gone out to the movies, leaving me with my mother and a toddler.

I told my mother about A.J. while helping Tyler build a tower out of blocks. I watched Tyler's tiny hands as they gripped the blocks awkwardly and thought of A.J. My mother hadn't heard, which I found shocking given the small social circle of Sharonsburg. It made me worry about her; hadn't she left the house? As I spoke, I didn't want to look at her because

I thought she might be crying, and if she did, I might want to, and then curl my head into her lap like I did when I was a kid and I felt sick or had a nightmare and came downstairs to find her watching some TV drama about cops or doctors or lawyers or sometimes all three. She didn't say much, a lot of "oh, dears," that sort of thing. When Tyler's tower fell over, I stood, brushed some non-existent dirt from the seat of my pants, and hugged my mother.

I was putting my jacket on when the doorbell rang. My mother picked Tyler up and answered the door. I knew from the first syllable it was Nic. She asked my mother if she could have my address. Nic added that I'd moved out of the apartment we'd shared, which, of course, I had. Everywhere I went there had been her pieces of furniture, her scribbles on the pad of paper by the phone, her half-finished crosswords. When I thought I'd gotten rid of all of that stuff, it was her hair that haunted me. It was everywhere, these long chestnut brown reminders of my shortcomings.

My mother cleared her throat. "He's here, actually," she said. She said she had to put the baby down for a nap and I heard her footsteps thump up the stairs. Nic moved with care, and I stood there, one of my jacket sleeves on and the other off. She wore a loose sweater and a pair of long jeans that almost covered her sandaled feet. "Hi," she said.

"Hi."

"I'm back in town to do some recording," she said.

"Hm?" I said, as if I didn't even know what the word recording meant.

"Did you come to the show?" she asked and eyed me from beneath her hair, which she had to bend her head low to keep in front of her eyes.

I shook my head no. I could never lie to her. At least not well.

"I thought I saw you there one minute, and the next you were gone,"

she said.

I shrugged.

"Ghosts," she said. She tugged on the drawstrings of her hood. "Hey, I wrote a song about you."

"What's it called?" "Martin Luther."

"The civil rights guy?"

"No," she said, and I remembered her way of speaking when she thought I was being particularly dense. She told me these statements even came with their own face, which she called my "baseball face." "The Protestant Reformation guy."

"Oh," I said. "Thanks."

"It's about me leaving you," she said, "how it made me change and grow and become this different, complex person."

I thought of all the nights I'd spent at this house, afraid to go back to the apartment, before my mother and A.J. took the initiative and rented me another place. "Wow. Different and complex. That's great. Thanks."

"I didn't say better," she said. She looked uncomfortable standing in the middle of the kitchen, the red linoleum below her marred from years of children playing on it. "Martin Luther nailed his thoughts to the door of a church, and in the song, I clip my letter to the door of the fridge."

"What letter? You never wrote me a letter. You just kind of left."

She was flustered. She tried to push her hair behind her ear, but it was too short and ended up flopping right back down into her eyes. "The letter works better for the song."

"It might have worked better for me," I said.

"I'm sorry," she said, and I thought she meant it. She seemed to. She even straightened her neck and the bangs lifted from her view. I didn't know what to do with the thoughts that came crashing back into my head, of our time together, forgiveness.

"I always wrote the best songs about you," she said.

I understood. She'd come by to see if she couldn't squeeze some more songs from me. I saw all those fake smiles being thrown against the mirror. "Look, I've got to go visit A.J. He's dying, you know." Before I even said it, I knew that I was going to, and I was going to be doing it with the intension of making her feel bad. I didn't even bother to pull on the other arm of my jacket, and walked out like I always wore my coats like that.

With my back to her, I knew Nic stood there, in my mother's kitchen, the overhead lighting making the purple streaks in her hair obvious, but I didn't know what her face must have looked like. I didn't know what she was thinking anymore.


A strange thing happened: I stopped hitting. All of a sudden, I couldn't hit a straight fastball to save my life. Bingham-Wales Construction started to drop games by one or two runs, games that a key hit here or there would have won. Bingham got on my case about it, even coming to my job site on Washington to scream at me while I hung DVD cabinets in the theatre room.

It made me too embarrassed to go see A.J., because I felt like he would blame himself, for putting too much pressure on me or for making it all seem too important. Or too trivial.

Nic showed up at a game one night. I didn't see the drummer with her. She wore a thick black coat with a fur hood and kept her hands in her pockets, even when I made a diving catch in the third inning. With two outs remaining, and Bingham-Wales down a run, she left. We lost.

I was swinging from my heels, trying to crush everything. When I swung too hard, my college coach would tell me that there was no sense swinging hard enough to hit two homers on one pitch. It was a habit I'd worked hard to break, forced myself to keep back on the ball, stay patient, not let my front shoulder fly open. As I stood at the plate, I imagined A.J. sitting in his room, his father or mother bringing him the box score from the game. They'd kind of tuck it behind their backs, afraid of hurting him. His eyes would dart down the list, past cleanup, where I usually hit, all the way down the sixth. Then they would trace the line, five at-bats, zero runs, zero hits, zero rbis.

The great thing about swinging hard, though, the allure of it, was that once in a great while, I caught the ball flush. I'd been hitting nice home runs, friendly home runs, with the slight backspin that helps the ball carry. They had a nice parabola, a sweet arc. These, however, screamed off the bat on a straight line and went crashing into the trees that surrounded the field.

The game after Nic's appearance, I hit two such screamers, one to put us ahead in the eighth that hit a tree loud enough to be heard over the thirty or so fans and the pounding of my heart.

*

The next day I walked the halls of the hospital, tossing a softball from one hand to the other. I planned on telling A.J. that I'd hit the homer with it. In truth, that ball had landed in a huge puddle and no one had wanted to wade in to fetch it.

In A.J.'s room, the curtains had been drawn and his covers were pulled all the way to his chin. I'd been gone for just over a month. I waited in the doorway, as if he might not want me to come in.

His head shook violently. He was the color of a hotel room—a neutral, sickly pastel. Somehow he managed to raise an arm in greeting.

"You've been struggling," he said, after he took a sip of water from a straw that dangled in front of his face.

"Trying too hard," I said.

"No sense trying to hit two homers with one pitch," A.J. said.

I laughed. This felt like my key to the room, and I stepped inside. "Sorry I haven't been to see you," I said and left the ball on his bedside table. He didn't say anything about it. It rolled onto the floor, and I picked it up and placed it on an empty glass. I sat in the chair in the corner. After my eyes adjusted for a moment, I made out a person standing in the corner of the room.

"Who is that?" I asked.

"Boss brought that," he said.

I turned the weak lamp on his bedside table towards the shadow. It was a mannequin. It wore a Bingham-Wales construction softball uniform. A.J.'s uniform.

"Christ," I said, "what did he think you were going to do with it? Want me to get rid of it?"

"I kind of like it," he said.

Something about his tone made my eyes water. I couldn't look at the mannequin, couldn't let A.J. see me crying. My whole body felt heavy, and I thought if I tried to stand I would break right through the floor.

"Want to go for a walk?" I said. "I don't think I can," he said.

I must have looked disappointed. I wanted to get out of there, away from the cement coffin that was filled with LED displays and flashing lights and beeping machinery and plastic softball players and my best friend.

A.J. must have sensed my restlessness. He tapped the open newspaper on his lap. I thought he was twitching, but after he did it twice more, I pulled the paper out from under his elbows. Staring back at me was Nathan Garlow, his glasses and clothes a bit more fashionable, but Garlow nonetheless. I read the first few paragraphs. It was a puff piece about the hometown boy who never forgot his hometown roots.

"Fucked, isn't it?" A.J. said. "Nathan Garlow's probably banging supermodels, and I'm going to die."

"I don't think the science nerds get supermodels," I said, "maybe like Sunday circular models—you know, the Sears white sale girls." Rather than face the second part of his statement and his shaking, quivering body, I made a lame excuse about practice and left.

But even from outside, I could see the swelling bubble of Garlow's observatory and hear the machinery trying to hurry and finish it before winter set in and the ground became too hard to pierce.

*

That night I couldn't sleep. I opened the window to my apartment, trying to get some fresh air, but that wasn't enough, I still felt choked, stifled. I put my bare feet out the window, letting them dangle in the nighttime cool, and sat on the sill. My face pressed up against the glass. It was something I'd done as a kid, when I was afraid of heights. Something about the rush of fear would help me sleep.

I caught sight of something outside, between the trees. Panicked, I thought of the mannequin. I knocked on the glass in front of my face, as if to scare the apparition—for surely that's what it was—away.

Out from the landscaping stepped Nic. She waved, sheepishly. I tried to extricate myself from the sill, but there was no easy way to do it, and I ended up falling backwards, my knees scraping on the underside of the window, my back and head thumping on the floor. It hurt like hell. I gathered myself. For a second, I considered pretending I had been hurt; I would've stayed out of sight of the window for as long as she stood there. I knelt on the floor and pushed the window open just enough to get my head outside. "What are you doing here?" I whispered in that especially harsh way of someone trying to be quiet but needing to be heard.

"I'm recording," she said in a normal voice. There didn't appear to be any trace of embarrassment at having been caught loitering outside my apartment in the middle of the night.

"I can see that," I said. I'd always been sarcastic to her. It was my one slight edge. She was much smarter, prettier, better than me. But she never understood sarcasm, always answered with genuine answers. It made me sad.

"Not here," she said, "Down the street. I heard you lived here." "What'd you have dinner with my mom?"

She didn't say anything because she could never lie to me, either. It was one of her great faults and one of the downfalls of our relationship. Lies are essential. I took a mental note to grill my mother next time I saw her.

"Can I come up?" she asked. I stepped away from the window and shut it. I didn't know what to do after that. I looked around my apartment and tried to picture her standing there. I smelled her spicy perfume, heard her laughter echo off the unadorned walls. I grabbed my jacket and ran down the stairs. I met her at the front door, ready to leave.

"Here to squeeze some more songs from me?" I asked her by way of greeting.

She didn't say anything, and instead started to walk. I fell in step next to her. We walked down the road, towards her studio. If I'd hurt her by not letting her come up, she didn't show it. I asked her how often she hid in the bushes outside my window—thinking I was being sarcastic—and she told me she waited there every night until she caught a glimpse of me, then she went back to the studio. "You're getting a belly," she said. Now I didn't answer. I wondered—briefly—if I could have her arrested for stalking or loitering or being a peeping tom. The stars were out, and I tilted my head as we went along. Fall was beginning to let go. The leaves didn't have that fresh smell anymore, and they decayed in the gutters. I breathed out hard to see if I could see my breath. I couldn't.

"I'm writing a song for A.J." she said. "What's it called," I asked, "Charlemagne?"

She scrunched up her face, and I wanted to point out to her that she had a baseball face, too.

"Like Martin Luther," I said. "Historical figure who doesn't seem to have much connection to the actual person you're writing about."

She laughed and touched my arm lightly. I feared it would feel like electricity, like longing, but it just felt like a hand on an arm. One of them happened to belong to me. It made me feel good. It made me feel mean.

"No, no. It doesn't have a name yet," she said. "I'm working on harmonies, layering sounds, building them up piece by piece. It's fun."

"Sounds like a ball of laughs."

"I didn't mean it like that," she said. "If you want to talk about it at all, I'm here."

Wet leaves squelched under our feet.

"I think it's depressing," I said, "all the time we spent together. I mean, all those broken-up couples, it's depressing. They spend all those days and nights together and then in the end they would do anything they could to forget them."

"Do you mean that?" she asked.

I shrugged. I tried to imagine what my song sounded like, and what A.J.'s would sound like, and what it would sound like when I said goodbye tonight and had to go back to my apartment. I didn't know how long I could fight off everything I wanted to say to her. Do to her. That meanness grew on me, began to cover me over.

She hummed a bit. "That's how it goes," she said. "The song for A.J." "Does it have any words?"

"Not many yet," she said. "It ends with 'They all said Amen for you, boy.'"

I didn't reply. Something inside of me wanted the knowledge of A.J.'s sickness to belong to me. It felt like a secret that I had let escape. I slowed my steps.

"Your mother told me they'd been praying for him in church," she said. "Every Sunday. It was weird to think of all those people, saying prayers for him, talking about him. It's weird that someone we know needs that."

But I had already done to her what she'd done to me almost a year before—I just kind of left. I had turned on my heels and was walking in the other direction, back towards my place, my head still tilted back at the stars, still breathing out hard, hoping it would cloud up in the late fall air. Nic stayed consistent in one respect: she didn't call after me.

*

The next day I skipped work, not even bothering to put on a fake sore throat or pathetic voice, merely told them I wasn't coming. I drove out to the hospital with the windows down, despite the chill. I turned on the radio and sang whatever song came on, to give myself some company.

In A.J.'s room, a large cardboard check occupied the chair in the corner. "What's this?" I asked, and picked it up.

The check had been made out to the ALS Fund. There were a lot of zeroes. Not surprisingly, it was signed by Nathan Garlow.

"Garlow stopped by," A.J. said, his words even more viscous than the last time I'd seen him. He stabbed at his bed control with an incommunicative hand, finally raising himself. I stood alongside the bed like an idiot.

"Want to go for a spin?" I asked. "I don't think so," he said.

"Come on," I said, and picked him up. I felt like I'd dropped some of him; he must have lost forty pounds. He leaned his head against my cheek, and I let it rest there, for a second. I felt tears approaching again.

"Why, Andrew Jonah," I said, "it seemed like you were going to kiss me."

His body shook with laughter. I placed him in his wheelchair. "Okay," he said, "let's go for a walk."

One of the nurses stood in front of me, saying "No, no, no" over and over again, holding both of her hands up. I smiled and steered A.J. around her.

I practically flew up that hill. I ran as hard as I could for as long as I could, all out. Under the canopy of the trees, A.J. looked translucent, his skin the thinnest container for his blood and his organs. I felt as though I could pull his shirt off and I would see his lungs and stomach and intestines, like the Visible Man that every science teacher at Bear Tree Elementary kept on their desk.

The observatory looked almost done. The cinderblock walls had been covered with white siding. The new hill that Garlow had built was in the process of being landscaped; the retaining walls had been put in place, and stacks of new trees and shrubs sat with burlap sacks covering their roots. The telescope protruded from the rounded ceiling. In the sun, getting farther away by the day as winter approached, the upturned lens gleamed like a wet eye.

I tried to catch my breath.

"What does Sharonsburg need with a telescope?" I said. "I like it," A.J. said. "Garlow told me about it."

I could tell he had a lot more to say. A.J. wanted to tell me what Garlow had told him about the stars and the planets, but the disease hung onto his tongue, and snagged in his throat. I thought of Nathan Garlow sitting on the edge of A.J.'s bed, showing him pictures of black holes and all kinds of shit.

"Let's go take a look," I said. "Should get back," A.J. said.

I ignored him and pushed the wheelchair up and across a mound of loose gravel. Garlow's hill wasn't as steep as the other, and it was smoother without rocks or roots to impede our progress.

We soon reached the metal doors of the observatory. They were adorned with an interlocking N and G. I tried the handles. The doors didn't budge.

"Maybe we could break in," I said. A.J. made a noise that expressed his displeasure with this idea. "Remember when we snuck out of my house that night, in high school, so we could go back to Gary Phinneas's party?" I knew he did, but I just kept talking. "How you put that piece of wood in the downstairs door so it wouldn't lock? And we went to the party and the door blew open, because of the wood. Those two raccoons ate all of the food your parents had bought for church group the next day. We came back all wasted, and your mother and father were armed with a broom and a frying pan. We thought they were going to beat us, and you walked to the fridge, calm as shit, cold as ice, and opened one of your dad's beers, sucked the whole thing down, then said you might as well be drunker if you were going to get into trouble anyway."

A.J. wasn't laughing.

"That's what I wish people had known about you," I said, then immediately swore to myself. "I mean, back then. I wish all of the people in high school who didn't understand why we were friends knew what a badass you were. I just played baseball."

"Needed an excuse?" he said.

"No, A.J.," I said. I felt like I was losing him, like when Nic asked me a music question that I couldn't even pretend to answer. "People had the wrong idea of you, that's all."

A.J. snorted. I pushed him around to the other side of the building. This hill, I now understood, was the highest place in all of Sharonsburg. We could see everything, the whole town. There were the three intersecting main roads, the four traffic lights, the steeples of the churches, the roofs of the schools. The heaviness came over me again, and I collapsed into the dirt. I picked out a stone and tossed it down the hill.

"Hey," he said. A.J. nodded his shaky head. "I don't know what you're saying."

With tremendous effort, he held his hand out as straight as he could, then extended it forward and up, like someone explaining how a plane takes off, albeit with a lot more turbulence. I stood up and looked down the hill. The landscapers had left a perfect path, straight down the middle of the hill, ending on the edge of one of the retaining walls.

"No way," I said.

But he was already gone. He released his breaks with a solid punch and went careening down the hill. He let out a fierce banshee cry as he did so. His hair—long and blonde and untended—trailed behind him like a tail. The chair bounded over the terrain. Dirt clouded behind him. He passed over the retaining wall at top speed. The chair landed in a pile of mulch. A.J. separated from the chair and flew an additional five feet, coming to rest in a pile of leaves at the edge of the lake.

I ran after him. I tripped a couple of steps in, and tumbled halfway down Garlow's hill. When I tried to stand, my head was still rolling and I weaved back and forth on my way. Fuck, was all that I could think, please don't be dead.

When I reached the pile of leaves, I dropped to my knees and turned A.J. over. His forehead and knees and hands had been scratched, but other than being covered in dirt and mud and wet leaves, he wasn't much the worse for wear. Even still, I wondered how I was going to explain this. I hadn't seen A.J.'s mother, I realized, since the video store. Maybe it hadn't been my own fear I'd seen reflected in her eyes, but her own. I hadn't seen his father, even though he worked in the very same hospital where his son's body was eating itself. I didn't have a song, I didn't have an observatory or a cardboard check, I hadn't brought a mannequin, and I couldn't hit, but I was there.

I picked leaves from his hair, and pulled him closer, against his shaking. He gathered himself to say something, but he shook so violently that he couldn't. Some day soon, Nathan Garlow would be able to watch over all of us, but at that moment, it was just me and A.J., sitting in a pile of wet leaves, trying to catch our breath. Ι





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