by Dan Chaon
of the time, Sandi is okay. Everything feels anesthetized. The
worst part is when her mother calls. Sandi's mother still lives
on the outskirts of Denver, in the small suburb where Sandi grew
up; her voice on the phone is boxy and distant. Mostly, Sandi's
mother wants to talk about her job, her patients, whom Sandi has
come to know like characters in a book--Brad, the comatose boy who'd
been in a bicycle accident, and whose thick, beautiful hair her
mother likes to comb; Adrienne, who had drug-induced brain damage,
and who compulsively hides things in her bra; little old Mr. Hudgins,
who suffers from confusion after a small stroke. Sometimes he feels
certain that Sandi's mother is his wife. But the cast of her mother's
stories is always changing, and Sandi has learned not to become
to attached to any one of them. Once, when she asked after a patient
that her mother had talked about frequently, her mother had sighed
forgetfully. "Oh, didn't I tell you?" she said. "He passed away
a couple of weeks ago."
Sometimes, Sandi's mother likes to talk about death or other philosophical
issues. One night after dinner, while Sandi is drinking tea at the
kitchen table and the girls are watching music videos on television,
Sandi's mother calls to ask whether she believes in an afterlife.
"I realized," Sandi's mother says. "I don't know this about you."
Sandi sighs. "I don't know, Mom," she says. "I really haven't given
it much thought."
"Oh, you must have some opinion!" her mother says. She has that
bright, nursely twinkle in her voice that makes Sandi cringe.
"Really," Sandi says. "It's not something I want to talk about.
I mean, I hope that there's some part of us that lives on. That's
about as far as I've imagined at this point."
"Hmm..." her mother says thoughtfully. "I'm undecided, myself. I
don't think most people are interesting enough to have souls." And
her voice takes on a musing quality that Sandi recognizes with grim
resignation. "Do you know that the living now outnumber the dead?
You understand what I'm saying? It's the result of the global population
boom. There are 6 billion people alive on this planet, and that's
more than have died in all of recorded history! It's a fact."
"Where did you hear that?" Sandi asks. "That doesn't seem accurate."
"Oh, it's true," Sandi's mother says brightly. "I read it!" Then
she sighs. "Oh, Sandi," she says. "I wish your father and I had
given you kids some religious training when you were young. Religion
would be very helpful to you right now."
"Oh, really?" Sandi says. She thinks of Uncle Sammy and
his packets of devil-dust.
"Well, you are that type of person, sweetheart," her mother says
firmly. "You've always been that way, ever since you were little.
I'm very comfortable with doubt, and I thought you'd be the same
way, because you're my child. But you're not that way at all!"
Sandi doesn't know what to say to her. "Comfortable with doubt?"
What does that mean? Where has her mother picked up language like
that? "Okay," Sandi says passively. She has been reading a lot
of self-help books with the same tone. They spoke like this--"coping,"
"coming to terms," "finding closure." As if such a thing is possible.
At the IRS,
sometimes people are threatened. The woman in the next cubicle,
Janice, has been getting letters from a man who wants to kill
and eat her. It's not funny, Sandi feels, though Janice often
pretends it is. She reads his letters aloud--gruesome descriptions
of what this person would like to do to her--and her voice takes
on a dry, comic quality, as if it is nothing more than an anecdote.
"It's like something out of a movie!" Janice exclaims. And Sandi
loves Janice's easy, unfrightened confidence
when she and Janice go out to lunch, Sandi wonders if the letter
writer might be watching, following them. As they pass through
the lobby of the building where they work, Sandi watches the
faces. The man will look outwardly normal, Sandi feels. She
lets her eyes rest on the lecherous security guards at the front
desk, the skinny one and the handsome one. She scans over the
heavy-set man who sits before his open briefcase, eating a sandwich;
beyond him, three young men in identical suits and haircuts
burst into laughter; through the window behind them, Sandi can
see the figures of people walking by on the sidewalk, their
shapes hazy in the windblown snow, the small cadre of secretaries
huddled against the side of the building, smoking cigarettes.
Once, not long ago, she walked past the standing ashtray they
convene around. She remembers looking down. There, among the
slender, lipstick-stained cigarette butts, which stood up
in the gravel like dead trees, she saw a tooth--a human tooth,
lying there. She stood there staring at it. What's happening
to the world? she thought.
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