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A short story
People used to call him “dirty Luke,” she remembered. He had those yellow eyes, eyes people used to talk about, said they used to burn like curdled milk. Those eyes that sickly, dully brimmed before her now. His persona was legendary, as Grand mama put it. The kind of man Amber would have liked, Grand mama said.
Fifteen Years after the accident Uncle Jim swore he could still hear that rocket-belly laugh all the way down I-55, Luke’s old pickup roaring Texas rust in the evil winter sun. Even after they found his body in limp and raucous pieces, scattered all along the highway, Jim swore on any grave north of Corpus Christi he could still hear Lazarus plowing down every empty road, just laughing, laughing, laughing.
Grand mama said Uncle Jim was full of s***.
“Don’t listen to your uncle, Amber. He’s always got his nose half way up nostalgia’s a**, missin’ things before they’re even properly gone yet. It ain’t like your daddy’s dead anyhow. He’s just taking a little nap. Right Luke?” As grand-mama spoke, she ripped the plastic off a fresh pack of catheter tubes, counting them before untangling a selection from the flock.
“He’s been dead for nineteen years, woman,” Uncle Jim shouted from the parlor, still struggling to remove his ragged cowboy boots. “We’ve been having this argument half as long. Now would you just give it a rest?”
“Shut up Jim. At least he ain’t thirty years old, living with his mama of his own volition.”
“What was that mama?”
“I said go put on the coffee on, you old redneck.”
Grand mama went back to work, fiddling with the tube, working it between the stale bed sheets.
Amber stared hard at her father.
His face was thick, like hers, but more bloated from years of wearing that flaccid visage, expressionless, inhuman, almost. His head was always tilted, a stream of drool collecting modestly in the corner of his parted lips, only just revealing the bottoms of his crooked teeth. Staring into those vacant eyes, Amber was always overwhelmed by the peace that seemed to lay dormant within them, his brow unfurrowed since the day of the crash.
On the dark and overwhelming days, Amber would feign some phantom illness, excuse herself from school and creep home to his bedside.
There she would sit, eventually blanketed by the quiet hours of night that crept breathlessly into morning. Staring. Just staring.
In those shivering moments of uninterrupted thought, a longing would creep from the darkness and lodge itself somewhere in her gut. How content he looked to age like plant-life, so still and tranquil.
After nineteen years of fragile equanimity, Lazarus blinked. Vile creases lined his brow.
“Not Sarah, daddy. Not Sarah. I’m Amber, remember me? Who’s Amber?”
“Ah…ber is…. A bay..beh.”
Amber remembered one of those breathless afternoons spent inside her father’s eyes, when Jim came home early.
“Quit staring like that, go do your homework.”
“Go. Or I’ll tell your Grand mama you skipped school again.”
“She knows. She’s home. Taking a nap.”
Amber grudgingly crept into her room and sat against her door, watching through the sliver as her uncle paced on the cluttered carpet. He stood still for a moment, hands thrust into his pockets, staring at the man rooted in the bed before him.
Jim could not look into his eyes. His gaze burrowed deep into his brother’s blood like angry Jaws-Of-Life, cutting shards of metal from a flaming road-side wreckage. Jim looked past the body into some black and distant memory, sequestered from the rest of the world.
Jim cleared his throat and the room in three long steps, kneeling by the television cabinet. He plowed his hand through the mass of clattering videotapes until he extracted a small, sharp cornered case. He ran his thumb across the smooth lid at first, and then removed it. Jim emptied the box into his hand and held its contents to his eyes, letting light threaten across the glimmering blade. Just as he made to slip it into his jacket a harsh voice grated across the room, startling them both.
“What are you doing with that thing, Jim?” Grand mama croaked.
“It appears that I’m takin’ it,” He said, looking at it as if for the first time, then fully submerging it into a warm leather pocket. “Ain’t like he’s gonna make any use of it, anyhow. Wouldn’t want him to.”
“Put it back Jim, I don’t want you touching his gifts.”
“You know mama, sometimes I wonder, if you just listen to yourself now and again... I don’t think he’d have any business with a knife.”
“you don’t know that. Give it to me. I said before, I don’t want nobody getting hurt…”
“He was always more of a danger with a knife than I ever was.” Jim drawled, jerking the knife away from her grasp.
“but you know that, don’t you? I got to thinking… Luke was rotten from the start, wasn’t he?” A dangerous anger began to bubble in Jim’s voice, like hot sick gridlocked in his lungs.
“Don’t say that Jim, your brother…”
“My brother cut a man up and left him to die. Nearly got away with it, too.”
“That man deserved what he got, not Luke. After what old man Granger did to Sarah… You can’t do that kind of thing to your own daughter and expect not to… well its not any wonder the sheriff called off the investigation. The whole town knew something needed to be done. Police couldn’t do it, so Luke did.”
“Didn’t fool God, either… didn’t he?”
“I made my peace with God a long time ago.”
“As I see it, that’s why he is how he is, retribution like. It ain’t no coincidence he got into that wreak.” Grand mama stopped grabbing for a moment and looked at her only conscious son, the guilt and bitterness teetering above his heart, threatening to tumble inside.
“Its been nearly nineteen years, Jim. What’s done is done.”
“Then why can’t you let him go?”
“It’s different, you know that.”
“Fine, Have it your way then,” Jim bellowed. “But if I’m gonna spend my whole life cleaning up his mess, this is the least I can get in return!”
Grand mama swiftly turned in resignation and swooped upon Lazarus, adjusting the sheets around him.
Jim stormed down the hall.
Amber shut her door.
The family didn’t blame Sarah for skipping out on Amber. Sarah and Lazarus loved each other with a kind of fairy-tale desperation, love enough to face Sarah’s high-school pregnancy without one quarrel... even with the rumors about it being her father’s child (rumors that Amber knew in her heart were false). It was enough heartache for Sarah to see the ghost of her husband latent in a little girl, let alone in a vegetable shell, recumbent in the bed that they had once shared. The bed of Amber’s consummation, now occupied by one still and lonely frame, feeding through a hole in its stomach. It was all too much for her, Amber understood that. They only saw each other at Christmas time, so Amber didn’t feel right calling her “mama,” but she did it anyway.
Amber recalled one of those bleary-eyed Christmas mornings, living room scattered with colorful paper eviscerations. Sarah sat where she always did, in the far corner of the room. When it came her turn, Sarah handed over a plain wrapped box. TO: LAZARUS, FROM: SARAH.
“Open your present now, Luke.” Grand mama screeched, delightedly ripping the wrapping from the box herself.
Those Christmas presents were not traditionally the leather jackets or Lone-Star crested fishing hats that Lazarus would have coveted before the crash. They were cheap, plushy stuffed animals, dolls, objects with empty sparkling eyes. After many years these useless gifts accumulated around his bed, like so much colored lint.
That year, however, when Grand mama’s claws skinned the gift and ripped off its lid, a shiny, ivory handled switchblade came into view.
“Got it from the hunting store he used to buy from. They was closing down after this winter. Figure he would have liked it.”
“Oh… well, look at that, Luke. Sarah got you a little knife, see?” Grand mama held up the box half-heartedly to his unseeing eyes. “Well… we’ll just keep that right over here, just so nobody hurts themselves with it.” Grand mama hastily opened the cupboard under the television and thrust the knife and box inside.
His unused voice choked, ached, like impotent molasses.
“Amber, Daddy. I’m Amber.”
“N…No yer naw…t youwer Say… ruh”
She pulled her fingers deep into her hand, turning the creases white.
Nobody blamed Sarah for leaving early that year.
After a time, the family scarcely worried about the placement of blame anyhow. Such thoughts served as brittle weapons against the state of things. If the blame were to sit anywhere, Amber thought, it would sit firmly on Grand mama’s shoulders.
“I don’t care what the doctors say,” she would insist, “brain-dead or not, he will get better. I’ll keep him with me until he does. I don’t care how long it takes; You can’t take my son away from me, any of you. Even if you’ve given up on him, I never will. Never.”
“He may not come around, but she will.” Uncle Jim would say apologetically whenever friends were forced to wait as she tended to the body’s hapless mechanisms. “She just misses him, that’s all. She’ll see reason in the end.”
Grand mama never hesitated or faltered in her promise.
She carted him around with her, like a small child mothering a favored rag-doll. Sunday drives, Wednesday night service, D.A.R. meetings, even family vacations.
Amber recalled the looks of pity and confusion shot out at her across the sand as she wheeled her father around the Galveston’s boardwalk, playfully bucking the chair, laughing. Amber didn’t care. She imagined the cackle of the seagulls to be his, rolling out with the waves, entirely delighted by her company. Each night, even Saturdays, Amber would read him a story, pet his hair, whisper into his ear the turmoil and triumphs of the day.
The day she turned nineteen, it wasn’t any different.
A few of her close acquaintances sat around her cramped dining room table, bearing cake and gifts, trying to ignore the smell of stale urine and hospital cleaning-solvents wafting from the bed in the corner.
Her acquaintances were escorted out by nine, and Amber retreated to her father’s bedside.
“Happy birthday, Amber,” Grand mama said, surveying the house for a final time, searching unused lights or abandoned dishes, then bustled off into her room.
“Don’t stay up too long kid, it’s a school night,” mumbled Uncle Jim, throwing the Wine-in-a-box back into the fridge.
Then, somewhere in the infinite blackness, something snapped back into focus. Some dark chemical changed its direction. With a force that seemed all too brutal in the stillness, Lazarus sucked in air and coughed up vague, compressed syllables, unintelligible sounds like a rock being pushed from the mouth of an empty tomb.
Moonlight streamed in through the kitchen window.
Amber lifted her head from makeshift railing which jailed the edges of his bed. The first thing she saw was the color, a sharp and evil yellow draining back into his eyes. Her heart stopped.
She shut her eyes, then opened them.
Those eyes. They burned in hers, lightning resurrected. Those nineteen-year-old eyes, in a crippled, thirty-eight year old body. They did not see any daughter of theirs huddled hopelessly by the TV cupboard in the ruthless Texas moonlight, they saw only a nineteen year old girl, the spitting image of love itself.
An hour later, Amber stood over him.
“sah… ruh… I loh..ve you. Misst you… sooh… much.” Lazarus wept.
His words stumbled out, woken from him after the imprisonment nineteen years.
Amber felt sick just looking at him. The father she had was gone. Those eyes she knew were gone. The tiny motionless openings that revealed some distant glorious kingdom had been shut out, destroyed. His face contorted with disgusting pain each time a syllable passed through his trembling lips, a terrible and unmistakable mortality chewing through his veins.
She imagined for a moment the nineteen short years of her life. The millions of souls that traveled between the realms of life and death, the machines and wars pumping endless fumes into the modern air, The shadows and frown-lines curving sharply across Sarah’s face. She wished for a few moments that he would silently slip back, descend unnoticed into his former oblivion.
“Sah.. ruh… diht youh haghve… thuh…. Baybeh?”
Lazarus blinked again, and again, tears of strain and confusion streaming from his eyes, begging for understanding. He shouldn’t know. He should never know.
Grand mama awoke, hearing a dense and unfamiliar voice trickle in from the living room. She jumped from her bed, straightening her night gown as she reached for the doorknob.
Stepping out into the hallway, she saw Jim first, wakened by the same alien sound, now standing in his boxers, arms extended, hairy and naked in motionless disbelief. In his hand he gripped the knife, his knuckles as clenched and white as the handle itself. Then Grand mama herself faltered, staring, unbelieving.
Lazarus crying out, injured but alive, confused but conscious.
And there was Amber, arms around his belly, head pressed to his heaving chest.
“Yes, it’s me Luke. It’s Sarah. Don’t you worry, Luke, everything is going to be alright. I’m here for you now. Sarah’s here.” She whispered, rocking back and forth.
Lazarus began to laugh.
First a strange quiet sort of choking, then a great rolling guffaw, he smiled and raised his gimpy hands upward, each contraction of his body sounding out a great herald, past the bed, past the living room, along the old abandoned Texas roads and rolling up, out into the endless morning sky. Just laughing, laughing, laughing.