Keeper and Kid

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        If dogs, rats and pigs can all sense a looming earthquake and make plans, how come all I can manage is a quick stare at the phone just before it rings? I was at work, wishing for another cup of coffee. It was 9:32 and they were playing Big Maybell on WRIU’s Hard Boiled Jazz show, at some other Cynthia’s request, so her name was already in the air. There was no one else in the shop. Just me, searching the web to gauge how much the prewar Lionel trains and rolling stock in the box at my feet might be worth.

        On the second ring I picked up and said, “Love and Death,” as that’s the shop’s name. It’s one half of this antique store salvage yard empire that my middle school buddy Tim asked me to come down to Providence and help run. That was four years ago, shortly after everything in Boston spun apart.

        “Jimmy?” It was Joan, Cynthia’s mom and my ex mother-in-law. My shoulders hiked because everybody here calls me something else. To Tim, I’m Keeper, my last name. Leah, my girlfriend, calls me Keeper too, but she’s working on making the switch to James.

        “Joan? How did—”

        “I called Tim at home, which was Cynthia’s idea.” Usually Joan sounded like the high school vice-principal she used to be, but right then her voice felt thin, as if it were pushing out from under a rock. “Did you move?” she asked. “Would a forwarding message have been so hard?” Her tongue made a hard click. “This will be a shock,” she said, “but Cynthia really is quite sick and I am not using that term lightly. She would like to see you. Today.”

        My first thought, which I knew had to be wrong, was that Cynthia had a cold or bronchitis, pneumonia at the worst. Something you could solve with soup. Cynthia never got sick. She was one of those healthy-as-a-horse exemptions you’d expect to read about in some study. I used to think it was all that adrenaline, knocking off viruses right and left before they could get a toehold. “What do you mean sick?” I asked.

        “Exactly what I said.” Joan’s tongue clicked again. “We’re at Mass General and she would like you to visit. Early afternoon is generally a good time for her.”

        A heating oil truck downshifted on Wickenden Street. I closed my eyes.

        “Jimmy,” Joan said, “Cynthia would like to ask a favor.” Even from an hour away I could tell that Joan didn’t like the idea of this.

        I said, “What room?”

        She hung up. I stared at the phone, examining the holes in the red handset the way everyone always does in the movies.

        Mass General, I thought, O.K., I can find the room. And yes, it annoyed me that Joan wouldn’t say what had happened, but it wasn’t a surprise. I had already decided that whatever it was couldn’t be that bad. Cynthia was tough. Tougher than me by a factor of ten. Cynthia. All those days, and a lot of them, most of them, good enough to be scary. Even then, in certain moments it still felt like I had done something wrong.

        The snow-amplified sun kept pushing through the windows, reflecting off the hairdressing shop’s plate glass across the street. Big Maybell kept on singing. I needed coffee. I still had the phone in my hand. It was still red. It felt like that night when I was ten, staring out my bedroom window when I should have been asleep, watching as the sky turned white because a meteor landed three states away and not knowing until the next morning what it was I’d seen.

Copyright (c) 2007 by Edward Hardy