The Book of Decades


She lies in her hospital bed, skin orange with jaundice and a stent hanging from her hip. There is something wooden about this place, she thinks. Down the hall a door opens and a television is discussing international trade agreements. Someone else is afraid to sleep. The wet meandering of hospital slippers across the corridor, a horse’s tongue along the rosy exterior of a child’s palm. The morphine makes melted plastic of her memories, molding them into tiny pictures she hangs on the wall beside her bed.

This machine keeps beeping.

A man enters, his skin smooth and pale. He is the walker. His knees buckle under the weight of a book he carries on his back. The Book of Decades. Inside he shows her Henry Ford, the First World War, the Great Depression. He shows her John Dillinger. He shows her Amelia Earhart’s plane, a dot of sunlight moving across the Pacific Ocean. He shows her other things, too: Jackie Robinson and an old western with James Coburn. The man is wearing a tuxedo the color of dry dirt. It chafes every time he turns a page. He turns them slowly, giving her time to see everything. After they have read The Book of Decades, he lifts his head up to look at her, and his beaked nose seems familiar, a nose that reminds her of someone she was in love with. If somebody drew the nose of the man that she was in love with, and that drawing had tiny, nearly imperceptible imperfections, it would be this nose, the nose of the man who carries The Book of Decades.

“You look afraid,” he says.

“I am,” she says.

“I understand. Have you seen all your children?”

“Gregory flew in from California this morning. It’s the third time in the past month,” she says. “He’s lost weight. He looks good.”

“That should take a load off.”

“This isn’t right, this beeping,” she says. “Can you page the doctor?”

“What doctor? They’ve all gone home to their families.”

She closes her eyes, but the television distracts her. Bonds, the television is talking about bonds. She remembers learning how to swim, when her father threw her into Beardsley Pond and left her there. And years later when she and some friends walked the sandbars out to Charles Island, and on their return the tide rolled back in and Long Island Sound filled up to their waists, and in that cloudy water she felt the hand touch her leg, a boy nobody knew, an unclaimed boy.

“I wore this tuxedo in my wedding, sixty-seven years ago.” The man poses, holding onto the lapels. “My son brought it to me. He thinks it’s crazy. He can’t understand.” His eyes are pin-sharp. “When we see our children now, we can only wave.”

She scans the pictures on the wall: Niagra Falls from the Canadian side, an oak tree felled by a bolt of lightening. She’s watching the pictures, but they keep changing.

“I think we can talk to each other,” she says.

“Definitely, we can talk to each other. We have to talk to each other,” he agrees.

She closes her eyes again and when she opens them she is sitting beside a boy, a boy with the same nose as the man who carries The Book of Decades. They’re at a fair on the beach, sitting side-by-side on a blue Ferris wheel. The metal bar locks into place and the boy smiles, his teeth too big for his mouth.

“All aboard! All aboard!” yells the ride operator, a bushy, black mustache wrapping around three sides of his mouth. “Going up! Going up!”

The Ferris wheel jolts backwards. The mechanical arm raises them smoothly into the sky. Flying frogs and rusted, metal lily pads come into view. She points them out to the boy. Bowled goldfish. Oversized stuffed animals with black smiles and broom whiskers. Cotton candy. In the distance, a small island. Seeing how much she is enjoying everything, the boy hands her binoculars. She looks through the glass at the magnified lights flashing across the sky.

“Heat lightning,” he tells her. “It’s safe.”

She looks through the binoculars again, thinking it would be possible to see this carnival from space.

“Up, up! Going up!”

Almost at the top, she looks down and sees Gregory, her son. Where did he come from? He lifts a wooden mallet above his head. It pauses at the top of its swing, when gravity and the hammer’s upward momentum have equaled each other in force, and for one instant the heavy object is completely weightless.

“Look,” she says, offering the boy the binoculars. “It’s Gregory! He’s swinging on the bell!”

But the boy doesn’t take the binoculars. His face has changed. His nose. He turns them around and gives them back to her. “This is the way they go now,” he says, and when she looks through them again Gregory is just a tiny white dot in the sand.  

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