November Web Feature by Richard Wirick
Richard Wirick is the author of four books that have been translated into more than ten languages. One Hundred Siberian Postcards (2006), short memoir-fiction pieces, was a London Times notable Book for 2007 and nominated for a PEN/Bingham Award for best first work by an American writer. It was followed by another story collection, Kicking In (2010). The novel The Devil’s Water was published in 2014, and a new novel, Sudden Mountain: Chapters From The Ghost Year, is forthcoming in 2022, as well as a third story collection. His collection of essays, Hat of Candles, came out in 2021. He writes for a wide variety of periodicals in the U.S., U.K., and is a senior voting member of the National Book Critics Circle. Originally from the Midwest, he practices law in Los Angeles, where he lives with his family.
Rain in the Heart by Richard Wirick
The cinderblock had fallen from the bridge overpass, plunging through the windshield of the mother’s car, bashing her head so badly her foot left the accelerator and she drifted over into the side lane near the Overland Avenue exit. It would begin to kill her slowly, but looked like it already had—her face a mound of scarlet mush that fell back against the headrest, which dripped with backsplatter, bone fragments, rivers of blood thickening on the elegant leather seat. None of her four kids were with her. No errand items. No dogs or purchases.
She wasn’t an immediate DOA, so an ambulance took her up to Cedars, where Lil’s friend Bev was a nurse in the ER. So much blood soaked through the sheets they kept putting new ones on her. The orderlies had a drill where they could whip the bloody one out as the new sheet floated downward, billowing, curved like a quiet parachute in the cave of sound—screams, shouts, metal clanging—that surrounded all of the beds. It was the plague time. People stayed away from hospitals.
Her husband was travelling and the kids were taken to an aunts. Lil went over for awhile. Their faces were so white and unbelieving that they could not cry. Sometimes they stood in a row and sometimes the row of them placed itself on the couch as the aunt and a cousin brought them glasses of water. Lil wondered who had told them without the father there. There were people at hospitals, social workers, that had such jobs. Death-messengers, like oncologists. Lil wanted to ask Bev how such messages were delivered. But Bev was beside herself in the café now where they talked now. She had just come from the house and had been in the ER when the interns were pumping the mother’s chest.
Bev had seen a lot—small plane crashes, commuter train suicides with heads and hands cut off by rails, explosion burns from chemical labs where the stuff couldn’t be put out and burned the people down to the bone. But Bev had never seen anything this bad, a head wound this severe. The mother had no facial skin intact, and a corner of the block had gouged out an eyeball and flattened her cranium, its centerless squares having left their exact footprint on her forehead and the beginnings of her scalp. They had shaved her head in case there was hope of getting her up into surgery.
But this was the worst, Bev said. She would talk for a minute and then start sobbing, looking down at the bowl of milk that some cereal—was the waitress sleeping?—was supposed to go in. She could hardly look at Lil. But when she did her eyes were so red and puffed that Lil imagined her as the swollen purple head of the woman herself. Bev, a nurse for thirty-five years, told Lil there was motion in the woman’s hand as she held it, tremors that were probably involuntary final twitches, the organism trying to preserve itself, trying to stay for a few more minutes in the world.
Bev put her head in her squared arms planted on the formica. Lil heached out and grabbed her arm, her head. They were close enough friends for Lil to hold her, but it somehow seemed wrong. Lil thought she would scream or faint, and then felt bad that that kind of spectacle would bother her. Bev shook with the sobs, reaching out to take a napkin, to roll them in one hand when Lil passed them to her.
“There was nothing left of her face,” Bev said, muffled, choking, looking up but out the window. It took a long time for her to meet Lil’s eyes. Lil felt helpless, imagining the helplessness of all nurses. How do you keep your head on straight with an assembly line of gunshot wounds, glass shards pulsing from the flesh of car crash victims, severed hands bundled in towels beside the body while nurses ran around looking for a refrigerator key, trying to save the shredded wrist and fingers for the calm, binoculared reattachment surgeons.
“Honey, I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand there and look, and I’m the nurse.” Fuck, she said. Lil tried to support one arm and saw what was left of the washed-off blood on Bev’s skin, faded but with its edges sharp, like the sea-reaching splotches of land on a map.
When Lil asked the waiters for ice in a hand towel Bev waived her away, waived away the manager wondering what was wrong. Her lips trembled as the tears slid off of them, and when she looked at Lil it was like she was looking through a window, looking out a door that led to pastures, meadows of death.
Lil was twenty minutes late to her class. The teaching assistannt looked at her warily, looked down at the nail marks Bev’s fingers had left in the back of her hand.
“I’m not OK. Not OK. I can’t be here today.”
But she had to be. The other teachers and staff were strapped. They needed her. The assistant brought a paper by, knowing what had upset Lil. The headline called the mother’s death another “infrastructure accident.” There were many of them now. Under the banner was a “news analysis” editorial calling for taxes, grants, anything to fix the high, crumbling stone that was falling down everywhere.
Lil pushed the paper aside and looked out on her class of problem kids, an audience of what was now called the developmentally disabled. She saw their constant agitation as a kind of light around their bodies. Gravity was like a cloak, the lightest garment they could slip out of. A silk robe, a kimono. Alison was her cartwheeler, her hand-stander. She spun across the room on her windmill, calloused hands, hair wagging. She taught Tom, and later Dmitri, to stand on their heads, first with supporting hands and then with nothing but their heads, the warm pillows of young hair cupping their skulls with soft certainty. Allison put her classmates into circles, first still and then moving, like ancient Maypole spinners or toddlers playing ring-around. Her twin, Amy, brought in sticks and branches which she bent adeptly into animals.
They, the lot of them, could be aggressive. The girls, oddly much more than the boys. If a hand slipped, if a step in the dance was missed, a girl might slap another, push her so her neck jerked and her hair came out of its morning-Mother arrangement.
Dmitri was among the mollifiers, the calmers. The psychiatrist Jill consulted with told her about Melanie Klein, who had written written of “flips” from violent to peaceful and back again, something children carried from their early agons with their mothers, at once sunlike sources and enemies to be eviscerated. Lil’s kids riffed on this model, holding their companions’ shoulders and minutes later karate-chopping the bottoms of their backs.
Dmitri was the peacemaker, infallibly calling for calm, pulling people apart. This sheriff’s role came to him when he was most quiet and depressed. The same cloud that passed its mist over his face had a kind of pixie dust that stopped the clamor of his fellow spinners and dancers. He had a touch, and in the touch Lil imagined a gift, something almost supernatural, but pouring out of the grittiest earthiness and normalcy.
One girl, in an epileptic fit, threw books around the room like a spinning machine. Dmitri timed the spokes of her hands—lots of these kids, some high intelligent Aspergers with an intuitive physics—and made sure nobody became a target. One boy, two boys tried to drop a globe from the high bookshelf they stood on. They were waiting for vthe right enemy, a certain snide redheaded girl. Dmitri stood below their perch. If you want to hit something, hit me. Drop it and I’ll catch it.
He not only caught it but snagged it on the tips of his fingers, like a basketball player. He bounced it on his palms and watching him, Lil thought of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, Hitler passing a globe around like a basketball.
The Glover sisters were in one of their imaginary cooking fits, funnelling their neurosis into a kind of Formula One baking run-off. They couldn’t have a lighter or be in the kitchen, so all they could do was pull down bowls from the cupboards, whip the butter, load it all up with flower and yeast. Once, in an earthquake, their concoction swayed like the tiny waves of a resevoir. They pushed the pastel china together with air-hockey velocity, but could tell—again from their disorder—to push just hard enough to avoid breaking the bowls. Once they miscalculated, and geysers of unwhipped gunk flew out and spread across the pleats of their dresses.
The boys liked the rough tones of this supposedly gentle gaggle of females. The expected manner of the cooking, too, had a clamor much louder than seemed possible. Doug Grosso loved this, leaning forward as if at a zoo creature behind its glass. Jim Roper, whose class picture revealed a fly on his head, egged them on—‘Go girl. Go bitch’ in a soft tone they couldn’y hear.
Dmitri would laugh, in his gulping, asmatic, but somehow patois-like streams of laughter. He’d tapped out a rhythm on his knees, trying to follow the calve-slapping of Grosso. Lil saw Dmitri as the keel in this showboat, steadying, steadying it as the whole thing started slipping and collapsing. He was good, as was Grosso, with the girls, who were far more crazed than the boys, manic pools of estrogenic explosions. Lil locked up all the knives and scissors, but worried even about the bowl shards, even the girls’ clean, fast-growing nails. She thought of the psych-techs, burly bouncer-types in the Cedars 5150 wards, who of course the school could not afford. The funding gaps were cloying at first, then infuriating. She bought texts out of her paycheck, brought food from home as the girls’ weights were dropping. Boys took pieces of the food gratefully and walked around eating it, their skin shimmering with the white pallor of the hungry.
The acrobats—that’t what she called them—lined up before their stunts—sweet or macabre—like a formless row of sagging shacks. Then each would start to break away, as if in something modernly choreographed. One girl—Lil was terrible with names, a deficit for a teacher—told Lil she felt like she was going to “buth open.” What she would do is simply hold her breath and puff out her cheeks like a blowfish. Her whole body would inflate—her stomach and tiny breasts, and make a metal balloon inflating sound, that kind of tinny, unfolding crinckle. She told Lil she never thought of anything because she was afraid she’d become the thing she was thinking of. After learning a little Darwin in biology, and with Lil spotting bulemia symptoms, the girl would suddenly throw out crazed savant phrases, like “Everything looks for something softer than itself to eat.”
One of the cartwheelers spun through, knocking a ruler and pencil sharpener off Lil’s desk.
An older girl, who looked so much like the Darwin girl they could be twins, had body separation and skin-shift hallucinations, talking about how, at certain times of the day, her head had shifted a little to the left. Or her eyes, her skull, the thoughts coming forward out of it like a tiny circus megaphone. The articulation of this always changed, but it was always a shift, a tilt. Usually to the left.
Disembodiment was a constant mean for these kids. Less of them were the usual fare—like in other homes—of delf-harmers, cutters, skin gougers, water-running scalders. They stood entirely to the side of themselves, so the harming would seem like they were harming somebody else. They felt their lives were being lived by somebody else. They loved the East European torture movies, but that was as far as true slashing and bludgeoning would go. For Lil, as ashamed as she would be to admit it, the lurid movies were bringers of peace, flickering buffers in the dark.
Dmitri never spoke of diisplacement, of distancing, or what the DSM called ‘splintering.’ He could be wildly eccentric, bugging out his eyes, pretzelling his arms. But he had, by Lil’s lights, grown into himself, robustly embraced who he was with all of its warts and flashes of unravelling. He didn’t seem to need the others, which Lil saw as a kind of strength. He was happy in his own company. Most of her kids were hard and incomplete, not having come into their characters, the fullness of their personalities. They were like kits, beginning to fill with the wind of themselves like the puffer girl. But Dmitri filled all of himself, catching hold of some early branch of maturity.
His eyes were smooth, as calm as a windless pond. Their blue, blue sameness made Lil want to believe in God.
When the pandemic came, the school stayed in session. It was in one of the red counties whose governments were skeptical of masking, bureaucrats, federal entities handing out “guidelines” that had so far seemed fruitless.
Her acrobats were there each day, spinning with masks on, standing upside down and pulling the bottom of the cloth off their chins so they could breathe and shout. They brought all of their old selves with them, but with a new sense of both fearfulness and joy. Following the lockdown’s tiny steps filled them with wonder, made them part of adult life, made their lives belong to the world.
When Dmitri wasn’t back by the fourth day she wondered if he’d shown symptoms and his mother had sequestered him. Surely it was something she was controlling, finding the limits of. He had not missed a class in three years.
She felt a hole quivering in the space of the room where he always sat. But he was so silent so much of the time that the empty space couldn’t be silent too. The clatter and laughter of the new-masked spinners filled out the square of his clean emptiness, his chilly Buddha calm. A Buddha stillnes. That was the thing about him. Lil felt she had finally happened on it truest description. She liked the odd assessment. She liked the idea of it.
When Lil called his mother’s cell—everyone’s mobiles were on an 8X by X app—but they went unanswered, even when she tried every three or four hours. Lil called Bev at her nurse’s station and asked if she’d heard from anyone at the house or anyone who knew him. Bev’s voice was cagey. She said that something was going on. She didn’t want to talk about it, felt that she couldn’t. Her clipped snippets took on an old-fashioned, gossipy tone as she hedged and deflected, the kind of guarded jabber she remembered from the days of party lines. This absence of information from an old confidant chilled and irritated her. Toward the end of the call, in a near-whisper that made Lil’s stomach flip, Bev said Lil might want to turn on the TV.
After about an hour and a half Dmitri’s school picture came up on the screen. Lil picked up the remote but it wouldn’t work. She checked the batteries. The area of the school she sat in had such poor reception, its open spaces and athletic wings pocketing voices and then bursting them back. She finally got the sound on, but it was just as his face was fading, still staring out at her with the eyes that had made her breathless so short a time ago.
Dmitri was missing was all she could conclude. She dialled the assistant principal, the school nurse and counsellor, people she had true friendships with. He was missing. Missing. She went back throughherthoughts of him, the long, filmlike row of images. She wondered how far he could get if he’d just left home. Five miles. Twenty-five miles. He had that kind of energy, that sureness of purpose.
- * * *
It was Dmitri who had dislodged the piece of concrete from the overpass. Someone had seen him run from the missing square with a steel rod or a crowbar. Those were the allegations. He had been released on his own recognizance, to the mother who never picked up the phone.
Lil went to the wastebasket in the media room and vomited, the surge of it splashing and smearing the ink on the crumpled paper. When her stomach was empty and her head blank—at least for now—she went into her office, thanking God it was study hall so she could keep her door locked. The tears kept falling, in neat, streaming drops down onto her blotter. She pushed her keyboard toward the monitor to keep it dry.
She felt there was nothing left for her now, in her heart or what was left of her head. She took out her Xanax, pear-shaped light peach pills, and downed four of them with a bottle of Fiji water. “It will break you down.” It’s what her father had said about working with kids like this. “It breaks you down.” It was worth it, she thought, the fracturing, the personal crumbling. She was a passenger on their train, setting each one of them down in a cracked plastic but still useable seat. She built on that, that moving forward. She walked now in her thoughts through the sun and shadow of the imagined, racing, voice-filled cars.
Bev would have known Lil had seen this all already. She scrolled through the Beverlys in her contacts, even though she knew her number by heart. They would get someone in to see him. Somebody other than a lawyer.
In a newspaper quiz the day before, she learned that Hitler was known to have loved and treated with special attention his loud pen of shepards. For hours, it was the only thing she could think about. In the next couple of days, as details developed, she could not rid herself of the image—the small man leaning down in his perfectly pressed tan officer’s uniform, taking pieces of meat out of a bowl and placing them, with the utmost gentleness, into each one of the upturned mouths.