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Dirge : In Six Parts


I am throwing things away.  It's the tenth day after my brother's death and I called my friends to tell them, but it seems somehow I have already told them, and somehow they have all sent cards and flowers and fruit.  Some have even visited and left behind cake.  I've thrown it all away.  I am in a frenzy of throwing things away, and I am angry that this doesn't demolish my grief.  That watch without its stem, that hoop earring minus a mate, they are going, also: old coins, pay stubs, tiny photos from a locket.


They used too much formaldehyde and destroyed the natural lines of his face.  His wife placed a tiny rosebud on his chest and retreated.  I went home, hunting for everything that was broken, alone or unused.



I am eleven.  I am sitting on the stoop squawking at old people who look like chickens.  Me and you, Helen, we trade secrets.

"I got my period already," I tell you.

"I'm learning to be an Ambidextresse," you say, ignoring me.  "It means I'm learning to use both my hands equally.  Most people can't."

"Some secret!  You owe me one!"

"I do not!  Only a few people can use both their hands, but everyone gets their period!"

"Boys don't!"

"If you tell me another one, I'll tell you another one too," you offer.

And I want another one.  I want to know about you and your family, Helen.  You go to that large church with the light orange brick that holds the sunlight so gently it makes me want to cry.

"Okay," I agree. 

"My brother is learning to be an Ambidextrian."

"Big deal!  What good is it anyway?"

"It's to be prepared.  If you can use both your hands my dad says you can face anything God sends your way."

"Like what?  Wiping your behind with your left hand if your right one gets broken?"



Today is my brother's dead birthday, Helen.  His first dead birthday.  It's the secrets of my family body I am learning about now.  And on my brother's first dead birthday the hologram of my family body is dismembered in many places at once.  Sometimes it can appear whole…but then, the quietly clicking valves in the loyal highways of my mother's veins permit the reflux of her blood.



The week before my brother died we drove along a flat expanse of highway with my window rolled down and my arm resting out.

"You drive like a crazy woman!" he accused.

"I drive like a man," I corrected.  "The highway is a man's place and you don't get respect doing forty with the windows rolled up.  I like to look like I'm prepared for anything."

"I'm prepared for a drink.  Take this exit."

"You're gonna drink that horrible absinthe again?  Or is it a different obsession this week?"

"You know what they thay, `Absinthe maketh the heart grow fonder'."

I tried to smack him but my nail barely scraped his fat, hairy arm.

"That hurt!"

"You'll live."


Once he was dead I had to believe he meant it when he said he didn't care if he died young.  He wouldn't be around to know it and he didn't care if anyone else suffered.  I knew he was capable of this skewered selfishness, so why am I suffering anyway?

I want to tell him nobody gave a damn when he died.  That there were fireworks, and it wasn't only because it was the Fourth of July.  That he never would have been so cavalier about it if he knew his heart was going to throw him face down on a floor in Manhattan, first hitting the glass coffee table and carving out a piece of his nose.

"It's no big deal," he explains, speaking to me from the dead.  He is almost the same too: overweight, sweating, eager for laughter.  But he is drumming his fingers the whole time we talk. He never did that before.  

"You seem nervous," I venture.        

Then he winks. (He was always a man of winks and puns.) "Let's just say I'm all stressed up with nowhere to go."


Helen, you had long splendid fingers, and your palms weren't the wide fans mine were.  Your father taught you the secret of your own two hands; that it takes both to save your own life.  And I bet you could save mine too, if I could only let you.

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