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Vol. 3, No. 1

Among the 1k
by Steve Almond

The conversation in the other room hit a lull. There was just the occasional snap of the fire that his son had built earlier. Rodgers had forgotten how to open the flue, and suffered some gentle teasing over this. He listened, now, to the fire, and sat back and stared at the orange shadows cast along the doorway between the two rooms.
      Mary Martin had spoken just once in his class. But he was alarmed to find the memory of this incident still very much alive. Rodgers had been lecturing on the Ik, an African tribe celebrated among cultural anthropologists for their meager standards of community. Mary Martin was in the back row, where she customarily sat. Gradually, as if with great effort, her pale face took on a disturbed animation.
      "You mean they just leave one another to die?" she demanded.
      "Oftentimes, yes."
      "Even a relative, or a friend?"
      "I'm afraid so."
      Mary Martin shook her head and glared at him, as if he were somehow responsible for the Ik's behavior.
      Rodgers tried to soften his approach: "It is true that the Ik represent an extreme, an affront to our conception of compassion. But every culture operates according to what Mead referred to as a concentricity of love. We all make decisions about whom we can afford to care for. In essence, we choose who to love. We do this every day, without even thinking about it. We might feel bad for a person, but that doesn't mean we choose to take care of him, to love him. We might pass by him every day without a thought. If any of you have been to Mexico, for instance, or India, you know it is impossible to move about without beggars asking for help, people who are in real need."
      "But that's different," a second student said. "This tribe you're talking about--"
      "The Ik."
      "Yeah, the Ik. They leave their own relatives to die. Parents leave their kids."
      "In some cases, yes. I know it's disturbing. But this is how they must lead their lives. They live in an extremely harsh environment and must make harsh decisions as to whom they can afford to love. Sometimes a father or mother decides there is only enough food for the two of them, and not for the children. Or they decide that a child is too sick to care for and, yes, they are left behind. But this is not cruelty. Weakness, perhaps. But not cruelty."
      "You're saying it's not cruel to leave a kid like that?"
      "No. What I'm saying is that the Ik, all of us, really, we possess only a finite amount of love, a finite amount of the internal resources by which we can enact demonstrations of our love. And in some cases, some people choose . . . they choose to love themselves, or to love each other, rather than their children."
      Mary Martin sat at the back of the classroom, her jaw clamped. Rodgers fumbled on, but the rest of the lecture was a loss. He felt overruled, condemned by the dull contempt of her gaze.
      Ken cleared his throat. He was staring steadily at Rodgers. "Are you okay?"
      "Yes. Certainly."
      "Did you want to finish your story?"
      "My story?"
      "Yeah. Did you ever ID the body?"
      "Oh yes. Yes. Where was I? In the car? Okay. In the car with the president and the troopers, right?" Rodgers motioned toward the wine and tapped his brow. "We drove for a while, I know that. Then the car pulled up behind this building. It was low brick, with a concrete ramp and a doorway. I thought for a minute it must be some kind of errand one of the troopers had to run, because it was clearly the back entrance. The lot was unpaved. The president said, 'Let's get this over with,' and got out. The cops got out, too. I looked through the window and saw these bright circles of light pouring through the doorway, and at the center of these circles at the top of the ramp was a gurney and on top of that was the body, this white body lying there looking very small. The president crouched down and stuck his big face in the window and said, 'Are you ready, son?' and I got out. The troopers fell in around me, as if I were a suspect, or some personage worthy of protection, and they marched me up the ramp and to the doorway and I looked down."
      "Jesus," Ken said.
      "Jesus is right." It was infuriating, what he'd been asked to do. He could see that now. What right had anyone, even puffy old President Van Buskirk, to drag him into this? He was a young adjunct, with a pretty fiancée, not so many years older than his students. It was Saturday night, late. He had been sitting at home, innocently, waiting for her to call, to hear her voice. He had nothing to do with any of this. He remembered, particularly, how bright it all was, how he had been forced up the ramp, a suspect.
      "I looked down. She was in awful shape. A real mess job, as the trooper put it. They had her naked there and you could see one of her ribs, the end of it, poking through. Her eyes were closed and I remember that one of the orderlies reached down and opened them and in the same motion he pulled her jaw up. Because, you see, her jaw was broken, hanging loose there, and he did this so I'd be able to recognize her. The other orderly said: 'Is this the woman you know to be Mary Martin?' I couldn't speak. I nodded and turned away. But then this same orderly said, 'I'm sorry, sir, we need you to be quite certain. Could you please look again?' I started to feel sick. It wasn't the blood. They'd cleaned the blood off. But there were these places where you could see the fat, these yellowish gashes, and her face . . . I mean, it had to be held together. They hadn't given me any chance to adjust, was the thing. It was just: out of the car and up the ramp and yes or no."
      "Jesus," Ken said again.
      "I kept looking at her, this young girl, and thinking: that's her. She's dead. She isn't coming back. But I couldn't really believe it, not emotionally. It didn't register."
      "You must have been protecting yourself."
      "Right. Sure." Rodgers nodded. He was trying to remember why he had started this story. Perhaps he had meant to convey a mood of boyish exhilaration, that sense of possibility that belongs to the young. But this was not how he felt. Rather the opposite. He ran a finger under the collar of his new turtleneck, a gift from the girls. A drop of sweat traced his ribs. How had his home become so ungodly hot?
      Ken said something more about the police and their ill habits. Rodgers listened to his children in front of the fire. They were worrying over the baby. His daughters were noting, for perhaps the hundredth time, how much she resembled Connie.
      Just before dinner, in fact, they had converged outside his study and yammered on about the likeness. The same button chin and generous forehead. Wasn't it uncanny? Rodgers had stooped over his desk and felt a pulse of rage bang bloodily behind his eyes. He imagined storming into the hallway and telling them what he really thought: that the child, with its drooping cheeks and fat lips, looked like a little Jewish gangster. That he half expected a cigar to be poking from the corner of its mouth.
      In moments such as these, he wanted nothing more than the peace of an empty house, an end to the polite dismay his children forced onto him.
      It was expected he would join them soon, and find his place at the edge of them, his two daughters and his son with the new baby. But he knew, without a strong sense of wanting to know, that he would not be terribly missed if he stayed put.
      It was not that he didn't love his children. He did. There were photos all around, photos with the right sort of smiles, or nearly so. But he had always felt overmatched by the demands of their love, the red wailing and grubby hands and later the expectant gazes and sullen protests. It was Connie to whom he conceded a true concern. And she who had run interference between him and the world of his deficiencies.
      He could hear her, the soft lilt of her voice, as she stood at the stove and hummed a Beatles song, that one about a silver hammer. If Connie had been there, with him in Newton, she would have known how to handle the situation with Mary Martin, how to undo his panic. He wouldn't have been stoned in the first place, if she had been there. Or he might never have answered the phone. And if she were here, tonight, he would be in the other room with her, with their children, together. She was the one who made that possible, coaxed from him feelings that brought him closer to the center of things.
      Ken shook his head. "That's a crazy story," he said. "Crazy."
      Rodgers said nothing. He had thought to answer, but found he could not. The feeling was not one of drowning, more that the breath had been sucked out of him. He was seized by the urge to tear his new turtleneck off, felt this might ease his breathing, cool his skin, though he merely looked to the table in hope of finding water there.
      "We should probably join the others, huh?" Ken said.
      "Yes, of course."
      The young man got up and offered an awkward wave and left.
      Rodgers listened absently to the discussion in the other room. "Where've you been?" his son asked Ken, and Ken murmured something and the group laughed. "Maybe we should make him drink wine more often," his son said. Then the group discussed plans for the next day. A late brunch, a trip to the nautical museum. The baby began to cry and was given over to his mother to be fed. There was a momentary humming. Rodgers knew that his absence was being charted.
      Those last months had been so quiet. The children were gone, sunk into hectic lives and cowed, truthfully, by their mother's illness, or perhaps afraid to interfere with his grief. They had proved adept, this last year, at matching him silence for silence. These were not angry interludes, as Rodgers sometimes wished. They were simply hollow. And they made him wonder: is this all there is to fatherhood, or have I missed something?
      Connie had been dreadfully quiet. She spent mornings by the sun window, perched in her favorite rocking chair, and afternoons sleeping in the den. She moved with the deliberation of one who hopes to obscure suffering. Rodgers watched her grow gaunt. He felt, in her presence, small and boneless.
      In moments of duress, such as after treatments, he adjusted pillows and said the right words, but these somehow had the effect of underscoring the unnaturalness of his attempts. Knowing her affinity for sun, he cursed the gray days of autumn until he felt his throat rip.
      And then the study; that afternoon in the study. She had done well the previous day, eaten all her potatoes and even a bite or two of chicken. In the morning he had seen a trace of color in her face. To find her like that, still and unbreathing, her hand clenched against her white cheek--he simply shut down. It was only the phone calls and later a visit from his neighbor that allowed things to move forward.
      One by one his children came into the kitchen until he was surrounded. They were here now, his sweet son and daughters, asking what was wrong and their voices, all going at once, composed a child's chant. "Are-you-okay-are-you-okay-Dad-what-is-it-Dad-what-is-it?" He tried to tell them, "Don't be scared," but could not. He understood that it was his role, as father, to provide some reassurance, to subdue the tide of sorrow that now threatened them all. It was only this business of breath that held him back, the loss of breath.
      To calm himself, Rodgers closed his eyes. The baby was whimpering and Ken was apologizing and someone was stroking his poor old bald head and the youngest, Amy, she was even weeping. He felt hands being laid upon him, one pair then another, the hot cling of his children's fingers. They were good children, more than he deserved, because within them lived some link to her; it was this link to which he attached his hopes.
      There was quite a lot of commotion, you would have to say that, a lot of crying, a lot of noise, and he could feel his children crowding in on him and he heard the baby nearby, crying now, and he must have reached out for her or made some indication of his need, because someone placed her in his lap. Rodgers opened his eyes. She stared up at him with sleepy eyes, a tiny fist worked loose from her swaddling and pressed against her cheek. Rodgers examined the intricacy of her face and hands and straightened up a bit and then quietly said, "Why do these crazy people cry so much? Can you tell me that? Why is everybody crying so much, baby girl?"

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