Over the Fenceby Lowry Pei
I remember I was next to the back fence when I almost died. I was in the back yard, doing nothing, wandering around scuffing my feet in the old leaves that were spilling off of the pile that I had put there the previous fall, and what was I thinking? Nothing cosmic enough for such an occasion. I was probably thinking about work without meaning to, or trying to figure out why Ellen was feeling however she was feeling, and then I found myself lying on the ground by the back fence, my face turned toward the house. My cheek felt ground into the dirt. I had no memory of getting there; I seemed to have fallen without knowing it. I wanted to feel my head to see what had hit me, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and besides I couldn’t move my arms or, it seemed, any part of myself except my eyes, maybe not even them, except I was focusing sharply on some grass stems inches from my nose and it had been several years since I could focus well on anything that close, and they looked peaceful and shimmering there in the shade with the pear tree behind them and the afternoon light glowing on the grass behind that, and while I watched, a big, gorgeous, iridescent bug came into my view and made its way over some leaves, a beetle all purple-green, “like a Japanese beetle” I thought but it wasn’t one and I knew that. I loved it for being there right then so I could see it, so shining and hard and changing colors as it moved, its clever legs clambering purposefully and smartly over the leaves, full of its own intelligence, and for an instant I saw just how smart that beetle was, smarter than I would ever have imagined, and how the beetle was living its own life walking over that grass and those fallen leaves, but also the grass and the leaves were living theirs, and even though they were not walking, their being exactly as they were, to be walked upon by that beetle, was every bit as purposeful and intelligent and complete as the beetle’s walking—and then I almost died.
That part I can’t remember. I want to say that my soul left the body and I could see myself lying there next to the fence and I felt the silver cord connecting my soul to my body get longer and longer and thinner and thinner, and say that I even saw Charlotte Carter from next door turn around from her lawnmowing and spy me lying there and run for the house to call 911—and that then I went down a long tunnel, toward a light that pulled me towards it, and I saw the outlines of familiar figures in the hazy brightness ahead of me—and that then a voice told me I had to go back—but I don’t remember anything until I came to and it was like I was under some sort of white shelf, and it turned out to be the starched bosom of a nurse who moved away, revealing fluorescent tubes and acoustical tile and Ellen, and Ellen saw my eyes were open and started to cry. But just before she started to cry, in that instant, our eyes met and I realized she looked guilty. I saw it. And something else: she knew I saw. Maybe that was what she was really crying about. Guilty of what? For one second I was as smart as that purple-green beetle: she wanted out. And if I died, how clean an exit that would be for her. No guilt, no blame. She wouldn’t even have to move out, if she could pay the rent on the house. I was thinking about whether she could afford that when my vision started to repeat itself, the same scene behind itself, behind itself, and dwindling to a silver dot, and I seemed to back-dive off whatever I was lying on. Then it’s the middle of the night, I’m in a hospital room, somebody is breathing stertorously in the next bed behind a curtain, my brain feels like a horsehair sofa and my mouth tastes like I’ve eaten one.
I lie there and send my attention into all the various parts of my body cautiously, without moving, except the slightest wiggle of fingers and toes to be sure they work, and all the parts are there and still alive. I can tighten the muscle in my thigh and make the covers twitch a tiny bit, just as I always could. I can breathe all the way down into my lungs. I can contract my anus and send a little shiver up through my balls and my penis. I try to feel if there is anything wrong, if there is some terrible ominous ache that I’m somehow ignoring, not letting myself get the message that it’s over for me after all, but the more I feel around with my mind inside my body, the less there seems to be to find. Something has definitely happened, but I’m still here. I start feeling with my fingers to see if parts of me hurt. There seem to be some minor bruises where I landed when I fell, but that’s all. What the hell happened to me? It must be my heart. Isn’t it always the heart? I begin to think of things it isn’t. Aneurysm, cerebral hemorrhage, blood clot to the brain—did I have a stroke? But both my arms work. I try making faces as I lie there in the dark, grinning with bared fiendish teeth, sticking out my tongue as far as it will go. My face still feels like my face. Mental illness, more likely. If a doctor comes in and finds me impersonating a crazed samurai—I start giggling and try to stop. But if it giggles, it’s alive. Unless maybe this is the next life. So try and buzz for a nurse. But what would that prove? If the afterlife turns out to be exactly the same as…there is a dim light from the windows, reduced to almost nothing by the curtain that separates my bed from my roommate’s. He got sick first, he got the bed with the view. Only fair. But I can’t look out and see if I’m still where I think I am. I feel the lamp on the table next to my bed, looking for a switch, and finally find it. As soon as I turn it on, the stertorous breathing stops, and from behind the curtain a hoarse voice whispers, “Turn that. Off.”
I recognize that voice, I’m almost certain; and nothing seems impossible anymore. “Erdman? Is that you?”
“Off,” he replies. To hear him say that one word, all the grievances in the world seem to be summed up in my having turned on the light. Exactly like when we were roommates at Moo U.
“What are you doing here?”
No answer. Maybe this is the afterlife, and we’ve both died and been sentenced to one another’s company for eternity, for our sins. I turn off the light.
“What are you doing here?” I ask again. Still no reply. Maybe he expects me to explain myself first. “They stuck me in here because I collapsed, or something. All I can remember is lying in my back yard, then the emergency room or something, then here. Somebody must have called the rescue squad.”
“Pay attention,” Erdman croaks, surly but weak and short of breath, unquestionably sick. Pay attention to what? I wait for him to go on, but all he does is wheeze, and in the darkness the wheezing seems amplified, too loud to be real, almost like twigs snapping. Jesus, is he in trouble.
“Listen, you’ll make it,” I say. “Whatever it is.” But there is no reply except his effortful breathing, and I can feel that he is lying there awake focusing all his attention on every breath, and maybe he isn’t ever going to get up out of that bed and leave the room. But I’m alive, right?
I lie there and remember hating Erdman at times—hating his smelly size twelve feet and his pile of gray T-shirts in the corner and his dandruff, hating him for being male like me and the two of us having to live together in our smelly unbeautiful maleness, wishing we had girlfriends. If I can still remember how that felt, still feel it somewhere inside, I must be living. His door was always closed, and on it was a sign that read, “The occupant of this room is either sleeping, masturbating, or copulating. Keep out.” “You wish,” I wrote under it, but he didn’t bother to reply. And now here we are again. I can’t smell his feet, and he isn’t doing any of the famous three things. It seems like half a lifetime since college, but not long enough for him to be over there struggling for each breath, or for me to find myself, without warning, lying next to my back fence with my face against the dirt. My feet are cold, I realize, and they shouldn’t be cold on a May night in Missouri, and for a second I think Oh shit, here it comes after all. I wait for the cold to come creeping up my legs and paralyze me inch by inch and let me know I’ve died, but nothing happens. Maybe they just have the air conditioning too high.
“Erdman,” I whisper. I figure he can pretend he didn’t hear me if he wants. There is a long silence while he keeps breathing and I keep waiting after each breath for the next. “Remember the sign on your door?” He doesn’t answer. I give him time, but why should he? And anyway, if I want to talk, how can he stop me? “Remember Betsy? I was the one who met her at that party, remember? And I was stupid enough to tell her I couldn’t go to that concert she had tickets to because I had a date already, so I fixed her up with you and then I came back and I had to listen to her moan all night while she sat on your face? I spent the whole night sharpening pencils while you gave it to her. Didn’t your dick ever need a rest?”
He doesn’t answer. “Remember the time you pushed the pumpkin off the windowsill and it went flying down from the fourth floor and smashed on the sidewalk right in front of some guy, and you leaned out and yelled, ‘What the hell did you do to my pumpkin?’”
No reply. I try to hear if there is any difference in the breathing. Maybe he doesn’t care about those old stories anymore; maybe he doesn’t care about anything outside that room or the next breath.
“Remember when you put the condom on the hood ornament of the Dean’s car?”
Erdman starts to cough, violently, terrifyingly, with a retching sound as if straining to throw up his lungs; it sounds as if a hand reaches down his throat and rips something up out of him. Something with roots. I lie there feeling the hair on my arms prickle in horror. Is he dying? Shouldn’t he be on a respirator or something, in intensive care, somewhere where people are watching him in case of something like this? I can hear the bedsprings being punished by the weight of his body hurled against them, as if he were in the electric chair and the warden threw the switch. Gradually it subsides, with periodic eruptions that I can hear him try to stifle until he is only wheezing, and I can feel the tension as he focuses everything he has left on not coughing again. Time passes. I lie there, thinking of how many cigarettes he smoked in those days, maybe three packs a day—how, contrary to the sign on his door, he hardly ever slept more than four hours a night, which was why he had time to fuck Betsy half of Sunday and play pinball the other half and still write a history paper that was due Monday morning. Maybe it was the cigarettes. I smoked then, too. I remember morning cough. It wasn’t like this.
“Erdman?” I say. I have to stop myself from saying “Are you okay?” which would only be the most inane question imaginable.
“Why are you in here?” he whispers.
Didn’t I just tell him that? He’s more out of it than I am, and selfishly enough I find that reassuring.
I feel my own breathing gliding smoothly, follow the air down into my lungs and back out, lay my hands on my diaphragm and feel it rise and fall, relish the tickling of the tiny hairs inside my nose as I breathe out into the darkness above me. All of a sudden I remember having a cold once when Erdman and I lived together, and how he ordered me to stop coughing because it was getting on his nerves, the unreasonable bastard, and now I wonder if even then he had some kind of foreboding that it would come to this. No, impossible. But I could be a little nicer to him, couldn’t I?
How the hell did Erdman go from being the guy with the pile of gray T-shirts in the corner and the Playboy stuffed under the bed to what he is now? He’s married, he has two kids, his wife seems like about the nicest person on earth, and what he’s ever done to deserve that eludes me, just like why he was the one who got to fuck Betsy a hundred times, instead of me, when I met her first. Or why he owns a house big enough for him and his family and an in-law apartment for his ancient father, while Ellen and I are still renting. I wish he would tell me how all that happened, right now, before he dies and it’s too late.
“We’re going to split up,” I say, and that surprises me—not just hearing myself be so certain, but why say it out loud, and why to Erdman, of all people? Why tell anyone—but why not go on, now that I’ve started? “Me and Ellen. My girlfriend. She’s going to leave me. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s going to.” Then I almost forget about him, breathing there, as I lie and stare up at the dark ceiling and that sinks in. She’s going to leave me. One day soon. Find a place, pack her stuff, and split. I remember we made love on the living-room couch among the unopened boxes when we first moved into the house.
“She knows,” Erdman whispers. What the hell? Where does he get off telling me that?
I lie and think about Ellen: maybe she does know, maybe Erdman’s right. I picture her in our bed at home; is she worrying about me? I can see her lying there propped up on one elbow, looking out at the back yard. A view I’ve liked for a long time—not just the yard, but her in bed. I remember how I was dying to get her there, almost as soon as we met, how seeing her, and the way she looked at me, made me fantasize about how she’d look naked and what she’d be like in a state of passion, dying to have her let me see that, to share everything secret with her…she knew how easy it was to make me want her, right from the start. It was all over for me the second she started to flirt with me and let on that she might want me, too.
Now I keel over and practically die and she’s going to leave…just thinking that makes me tired, and Erdman’s breathing is finishing the job, wearing me out with the labor he’s putting into it, with the struggle of staying alive when after all it could end any moment—I know that by now, after what happened in the back yard, and the secret is it might not even be so hard to let go, it might be fine after all, only the bed feels like it’s sliding forward, carrying me feet first into the dark, and all of a sudden I don’t like this one little bit, it’s picking up speed and I try to sit up but can’t, I feel as if some sort of animal is lying on my chest, and for one instant I glimpse the branches of trees overhead against a black sky, and I have a premonition that there is an abyss I am being carried toward, stranded on this hospital bed, and just before I get there I either hear or dream that I hear Erdman’s rasping whisper one more time: “You don’t know a damn thing, Averill.”