We used to exchange zucchinis for tomatoes, Fred Jones and I. He used to garden early in the spring before most people had even finished their winter pruning. He liked to say hello in foreign languages as we walked past, when Simon was still a toddler.
Now Mrs. Jones is at the door. When I open it, I can see that she’s been crying. Simon is beside me, asking if he can watch TV.
“Fred’s gone,” she says. “He’s been taken by the Lord.”
I’m sweating, shaking. “I’m so sorry.”
“Over by the school,” she says. “He got hit.”
“Yes,” I say to Simon. “Go ahead.”
I feel like throwing up. Once he’s gone, I stupidly ask, “By a car?”
“He never left the yard,” she says. “You ever seen him wandering around?”
I nod. “One or twice,” I say, but my voice comes out tiny and tight. “Just out for a little walk.”
She’s shaking her head. “I was just getting the vegetables ready for dinner, and when I came out he was gone.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Then, as if something has pushed her from behind, Mrs. Jones stands up taller, with a new, blank look on her face. “Well,” she says, “we shouldn’t feel sorry, should we? God’s got him. He’s in the Lord’s care now.” She tries to smile but it comes out wobbly.
And with that she makes her way slowly across the street, back to her empty house.
What happened two years ago: Fred Jones got a gift from the Crown, the coronary vessels circling the heart like a tiara of thorns. A piece of the past had come back to haunt him, a package sent floating like the baby in the basket, Moses in the bulrushes, up to the Pharaoh’s sister, arteries connecting to the Lord of all, the Almighty brain. How many religious metaphors does it take to give the picture?
The Joneses don’t believe in medical intervention. Fred had a stroke. He didn’t go to the hospital.
What happened today: I saw him, alive, out walking. It was a beautiful day, and I just kept going. It was a timing error—I didn’t have the time. He really did seem to be out for a walk and only three blocks from his house, after all. I continued on to the schoolyard.
Another name for a stroke: cerebrovascular accident.
It wasn’t an accident, Annie Jones would say. Nothing is accidental. She believes in strange blessings, that it was her duty to God to care for her husband; the stroke was a message, and she and the others in her congregation believed they could heal him with prayer.
Does she know that the word blessing comes from the old German word bletsian, meaning blood? A souvenir from times when they performed regular sacrifices to God?
Following the stroke, Mr. Jones could only say three words. For no, he said Boy. For yes, he said Boy oh Boy. When he didn’t like something, he said Balls! No one thinks to say that anymore, but his wife still reddened, apologized, mumbled into his ear, Now, Fred. She tried valiantly to make sure he liked everything, but she couldn’t keep up. His frozen face said nothing at all, yet he could shuffle-walk when he needed to. His body was doing better than his brain.
After I ignored Fred today, I heard sirens getting closer while I waited for Simon. I smiled blandly at the other parents. It’s nothing, I told myself. It isn’t anyone I know. I found a piece of gum in my pocket and chewed the daylights out of it while I waited, doing what I had to do. I said to myself, I didn’t hear any screeching tires.
“Mom!” Simon called when he came running out of school. “Ambulance!”
He was fascinated by sirens, and before I could stop him, he was running down the sidewalk towards the blue car stopped in the middle of the street, its driver’s door flung open. Simon didn’t notice who the body was or recognize the plaid slipper by the curb. He was more interested in the flashing lights. My whole body weakened, lost all feeling, until I realized what my son was about to see.
“Come on,” I said, yanking him by the arm before he could get a better look. “It’s just an ambulance. We’re going home.”
Now Simon’s watching a kids’ nature show, eating from a giant box of Ritz crackers, giving me time to get my head around it all. The animal on the screen, what looks like a giant hamster, is rolling around in mud. I know the name of the animal, but I can’t remember it. I studied mammals at university in the days before making a mammal of my own. It’s not the right time for animal name recall. But what do I know about timing?
The fact that I can see my son, sitting there, safe, makes me weepy. Then I imagine my pretend husband, just like a young Mr. Jones might’ve been, coming home to me. My husband doesn’t exist, and never did. But my brain conjures him up often enough that I can close my eyes and a whole scene unfolds.
It’s all right, Jonathan, my made-up man, tells me, my head on his chest. Our son is safe. Like me, he measures everything against that. Jonathan is the guy who starts the high fives, the one with the open, hug-ready arms. He’s earned his wrinkles from sunshine, kindness, wonder—the perpetual Boy Scout, collecting badges from a world he sees as harmonious and good.
I’ve helped to kill a man. I’m looking right at him, my face broken and wet.
He stares back at me then peeks through the archway to Simon, and I do the same. When I open my eyes for real, Simon’s face is registering the wonders of seeing a rodent as big as he is. He’s gotten crumbs all over the couch. My eyes close again.
I might as well have done it myself, I tell him. I let him get run over.
You didn’t know. He could’ve been okay.
He’s dead, I say. Fred Jones is dead.
After the stroke it was months until I saw Mr. Jones outside. When Simon and I passed him sitting in a reclining lawn chair, I called out, “Buenos Dias!” Fred just looked confused and gripped the arm of the chair with his good hand.
“Yook,” Simon said. “I got a new yo-yo!” But Fred said nothing. He closed his eyes.
“Adiós,” I said, quietly, and reached for Simon’s shoulder as we walked away.
I thought of his mind as a prison, trapping him with his three words. But some days, at home with the list of must-dos and Hot Wheels in every corner and work orders for more designer pillows piling up in my email inbox, no one coming home to help me clean it all up, I grew to nearly envy him. Nothing to do but sit.
On other days, I felt angry at him, on his patch of grass, staring at anything that might come past. I might have hazarded the thought that he deserved it. Or else his wife did, all her bravado and clarity about the will of God. Medical treatment is a necessity, like getting enough protein, or sleep, whatever’s required. Of course prayer is helpful. But not as therapy. Not as a substitute for an intravenous drip.
Just as ghost-man Jonathan says something in my ear about loving me anyway, about helping me to forget this terrible day, as I’m walking with him to the bedroom, feeling my way with my eyelids firmly shut, the telephone rings.
“Phone!” Simon yells.
It rings again.
When the receiver is pressed against my ear, I don’t say anything. Then I hear a shaky hello. “It’s Annie Jones,” the voice says.
Eyes open. Bye-bye Jonathan.
“I’ve slipped,” she says. “I think my ankle might be broken.”
“I’ll be right there,” I tell her.
My whole body goes cold. Maybe she knows that I saw him today. That might be it, and now, she’s giving me a chance to make it up. She wants me to show that I’m still a good person, that I can make choices that would make her God happy. Otherwise, why not call 9-1-1?
Oh, right. No medical intervention. She’s not trying to give me anything; I’m just handy.
“Stay here,” I tell Simon. “I have to go across the street.” He’s zoned into the show. He doesn’t even know I’m talking.
Suddenly I remember the name of the animal he’s watching. It lives in South America and loves to swim. Catholics are allowed to eat its meat during Lent because it was classified as a fish in the sixteenth century. It tastes like pork.
My mind holds onto so many things it doesn’t need. It’s no wonder my head feels as full as it does. The curse of my species, to have these thoughts; the blessing, too.
Despite the circumstances, I feel hope rise in my chest. “Capybara,” I yell to Simon.
“Okay,” he calls back. “Bye.”
I wonder how he’s going to like sharing couch space with Mrs. Jones, once I get her over here. Boy oh boy, or boy? More likely, balls.
“Jonathan,” I say quietly. “Please keep him safe.”
I close my eyes when he hugs me. My prayers, answered.