The following is part three in a seven-part essay about two disastrous years in the author’s life. We will be posting a new installment every Monday. In this chapter, the author’s cousin’s health takes a turn for the worse.
Here is Circle One.
Here is Circle Two.
At my other job, an SAT tutoring place, I’m not supposed to be on my phone during sessions, but I check it while making copies of the students’ sample multiple-choice-question sheets. I see I have a text from Sarah asking if I can walk Chance tonight—Dante is going to be in the hospital for a while.
A fair amount of my anxiety hearing something like this comes from fear of being a bad family member, and the shame—this is the word Sarah would actually use, with only a little irony—it would incur. Once, when Hope and Dante were little, they got into a fight on a paddleboat during a visit to an elderly relative’s house. Theo and I, the two older kids, swam off in frustration, leaving them to their own devices, and Dante started moving the pedals with Hope’s foot stuck in them, then laughed at her. Our great-uncle had to go out in his motorboat and get them. Sarah recounts this story frequently to absolutely no one’s amusement, and each time she paints little Hope as more antagonistic, little Theo and Nate as more monstrous in our abdication of responsibility, little Dante’s act of violence as more pitiful and defensible. (Update: Aunt Sarah says she thinks Theo and I did the right thing.) In the family canon, the paddleboat story is a despicable classic, like Triumph of the Will or Birth of a Nation or Manhattan. You can imagine what would happen to the family narrative if I, as an adult, did something genuinely neglectful, something that had real consequences other than some toe pain and an uncomfortable family dinner. Of course I will walk the dog. I’m sorry my phone was off, I was at work.
I go back to my students, one of whom is working on a question that refers to “The Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka. “Y’all ever read that story?” I ask. “This guy, Franz Kafka, wrote some messed-up stories. He was like a regular working slob, in some office doing accounting or something, right? But he went home and wrote these horrifying stories. This one, ‘The Hunger Artist,’ is all about this guy who starves for a living. As like, an act in the circus or whatever. Then people get sick of him. They’re over it, the way Americans now would say they’re over, like, ‘Gangnam Style’ or something.” Both kids groan and chuckle audibly at “Gangnam Style.” “And so he just keeps starving and starving and no one cares! Can you believe that? So messed up.”
The kids are suitably impressed. I failed to mention the end of “The Hunger Artist,” when the hunger artist says, “I couldn’t find a food which tasted good to me. If I had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.”
I head home. The weekend flea market at the BART stop near our house is shutting down for the night. The guys who try to sell you their mixtapes are gone by now, the drum circle down to its last few hippies. The merchants are packing up the cell phone covers they sell, and the pirated DVDs, the probably stolen bicycles and sunglasses and bongs, the popcorn and Obama memorabilia, the herbs and roots and rocks and candles and VHS tapes. A big windowless white van pulls up in front of me, towering, terrifyingly unaware of my presence in front of it, and does a three-point turn. I just stand there, waiting for it to finish turning and leave so I can keep walking. It’s all I can do now. “California Dreaming” plays loudly from inside it.
I take Chance for a walk around the block. On a dark side street adjacent to us, a man and a woman are screaming. As I get closer, I can make out the screams as sincere, desperate cries for anyone around to help them. Some cars are in the way, and I don’t want to get too close, but I can make out what’s happening: a stray pitbull is attacking the couple’s dog. They kick the pitbull and keep yelling and screaming but the pit is relentless, snarling and biting crazily at this innocent domestic dog. They pull on their dog’s leash and run out into the street but the pitbull won’t let go. All of this happens very fast and I don’t want to get close enough to get a good look at what’s happening. Chance is alert but does not bark at the scene ahead of us. A car stops in front of the scene. A guy comes out of his house, behind me, and runs past, cell phone in hand. I ask if he’s calling 911 and he says he is. I rush Chance home.
The next day, the power goes out. Fucking trials of Job up in here, I think. I call the power company and the representative says, “Yeah, the power’s out all over your area. About 2,928 homes have been affected.”
“Sorry, did you say 2,928?”
2928 is our address.
Theo flies back from a trip to Singapore, a twenty-hour flight, to come see Dante. Sarah gets the OK from the hospital for a visit from Chance, so Theo and I get the dog in the car and cross the Bay Bridge in rush-hour traffic. Theo puts on her iPod, and Jeff Buckley’s ethereal, heartbroken rendition of “Hallelujah” comes on shuffle. The sunset is one of the most beautiful either of us have ever seen, deep blue and salmon hanging over Oakland’s AT-AT cranes. The car joins a thousand others, waiting for our light to turn green once we’ve paid the toll. Some lights take longer than others, but everyone gets their turn eventually. “Hallelujah” cuts off halfway through—something wrong with the file.
Theo and I meet Sarah outside the hospital. In the elevator, the dog freaks out. I think I heard somewhere that dogs can’t understand elevators, how you get in one room and end up someplace else. Sarah makes the point that it must smell like the vet to him. I’ve bonded with Chance a fair amount the last few days, and now he looks at me like, “Make sense of this for me.”
What do you say to a person in the hospital? Not “How’s it going?” “How ya doin’?”: also out. That eliminates my two main greetings. So what do you say? How do you not just stand there staring and breathing and smiling like a psychopath? This is the kind of problem people like me have, and people like Dante—effortlessly socially graceful people—have to be on the receiving end of it when they’re related to people like me.
It’s not the only difference between the two of us. He’s a savant about sports and hip-hop, two things of which I have only a dilettante’s knowledge. He’s not a big fiction reader and doesn’t get why I’m always holed up in my room. I don’t even really like marijuana anymore. He often seems embarrassed by talk of the old days, when we were closer.
Chance, normally very affectionate, doesn’t want to get close to Dante, who is hooked up to machines through his nose and can’t get up out of bed. Sarah beckons him over and over to come get on top of the bed, but no amount of sweet-talking or treat-offering works. Dante gets tired pretty quickly, thanks us, and announces he’s going to sleep. The thought occurs to me that I love Dante and admire him, and that I should say it right now, but that I know I won’t. Before I go, I ask him about the basketball game on the TV in front of his bed, in which the Heat are beating the Bulls by 12.
“Have they been up this much the whole game?”
“I dunno, man, I’ve been asleep. The game started at zero-zero.”
The story continues here.