John Thorndike | The Last of His Mind |

–Excerpt from Anna Delaney’s Child

Anna Delaney jammed the claw end of a hammer under the two-by-four nailed across the doorway to her son’s room. She pried but couldn’t budge it, not even by propping her feet against the door and hanging all her weight from the hammer. Three months before, she had driven a pair of twenty-penny nails through either end of the board into the oak door frame. Now she beat on the two- by-four in frustration, dropped her hammer to the floor and strode outside in the sunlight.

Anna liked seasonable weather, not this heat before its time. April’s sudden warming had leapt ahead of everything green in nature. The pearly grey extremities of the maples on the Kentucky side of the Ohio showed a faint salmon color, but the trees on this side of the river were too close to show the change. Anna followed the path to the barn. She walked inside past the tractor and field cultivators, into the deep shade and silence of the tool room, where the farm’s steel wrecking bar hung from a nail on the back wall. She nudged it and listened as it pivoted back and forth, clanging sweetly against the wood.

The three-foot bar was heavier than she remembered, and still cold from the night before. Anna’s legs felt like rags. She carried the bar home and sat down at the kitchen table until her strength returned. Then she hammered the chisel end of the bar under the poplar two-by-four and pried. The nails didn’t give. The board pried off, but the four-inch nails remained imbedded in the oak jambs as if set in concrete, puffing through the poplar board, head and all. Anna let the two-by-four clatter to the floor. Damnable dry oak, it firmed up a building like steel but was merciless on mistakes. Using all her leverage, she attacked the nails directly and pulled them creaking from the jambs, then lay the bar on the floor and curled her fingers around the doorknob.

She rattled the knob in warning and opened the door.

The air in the room was cool and still, like a poised animal. Everything inside looked the same. Anna wished the room had changed—it would mean she herself had changed—but every detail was the same. Kevin’s books and albums lay on the naked mattress along with his baseball mitt and a pile of toys. His dump trucks were still parked on the floor next to his boots and sneakers.

Anna knelt and put her face against the musty clothes hanging in Kevin’s open closet. She fought down the emotion using from her chest. She wanted to be in the dark, but not to cry. For an entire year she had cried, weeping on the floor, on her bed, on her father’s couch. She no longer wanted to scour herself with tears, nor turn her back on Kevin’s room. She stood up.

From the top of the dresser, Kevin’s hamster cage gave off a stale, abandoned odor. A few dried hamster droppings lay on top of soiled wood chips and decayed pieces of lettuce. Anna put her nose to the miniature bars.

She had once promised Kevin a dog, if he’d start with a smaller pet and take care of it. He chose a hamster and tended it faithfully for six months. But after Kevin’s death, the hamster went on living. Month after month it followed the same schedule, waking at night and running in its spindly metal wheel, destinationless, futile, uncared for. Anna sat in her living room and listened to it spin. In the mornings she fed it and gave it water. It slept all day, surviving month after month without affection, without space, without Kevin. During the long nights of autumn it began to run its wheel earlier in the evening. One night Anna entered Kevin’s room and found it arched backward inside its tiny wheel, its ballpoint eyes fastened on her own. She put her face to the cage. Couldn’t it recognize danger? Opening the small door, she grasped and lifted the animal. It trusted her, completely ignorant of her resentment that it had gone on living all this time. She came close to crushing it in her hand.

Stepping outside into the chill landscape of December, she released the hamster at the edge of a field. It didn’t move. Fifteen minutes later she returned to the same spot and found it curled up and shivering, its fur cold to the touch. She picked it up and returned it to its cage. A week later, realizing she hadn’t heard it run for a couple of nights, she entered Kevin’s room and prodded the animal under chips of wood and bits of tissue aper. It was cold and stiff.

She didn’t want the hamster in her house, so it had obliged er and died. She understood that. What she couldn’t under stand was how it had gone on living for so long without anyone to hold it or let it Out of the cage to play, or even to look at it. After its death she missed the sound of its wheel spinning in he darkness, and a few weeks later she nailed the board across the entrance to Kevin’s room. She didn’t expect to think of her on any less because the hamster was dead and the room closed. Like everything else, it didn’t help. Anna was sorry the animal had died—but she’d been sorry it was alive.

She picked up the empty cage and set it on the living room floor, not knowing what to do with it—or with anything else in her son’s room. After a full year, everything of Kevin’s was still in his room. A shirt stuck out of the chest of drawers exactly as he had left it. She plucked it out and threw it into the living room. Then a pile of comic books, one after another, and a poster of a dolphin. They skidded across the waxed pine floor. If she threw them out of the room, she’d have to do something about them.

But take all his clothes out of the chest of drawers and throw them on the floor? She had only opened the drawers once, to get the corduroy pants and red-and-black cowboy shirt Kevin was buried in. The funeral parlor had asked for clothes, and the cowboy shirt was his favorite. They asked for dress shoes, too, but he didn’t own any leather shoes. They called her about them twice, but Anna couldn’t bear to think of her son lying inside the casket with his track shoes on grey silk. Let him go barefoot, she thought.

Somewhere in Kevin’s book there was a snapshot of him wearing a cowboy shirt. Anna rummaged across the mattress and found his album, on whose black matte pages she had glued photographs, letters and schoolwork. Leafing through it quickly, she found the picture and sat down on the dusty mattress to look once more at her child. He was as beautiful as sunlight. Below the snapshot she had written in white ink, “The Ultimate Badman.”

More than anything in the world, Kevin wanted a cowboy suit with two guns and holsters that tied to his legs with strips of rawhide. His father, Paul, wanted to buy a suit for him, but Anna said never in this house. For two years running Kevin asked for a cowboy suit for Christmas, and she gave him a racetrack or a toboggan or some expensive present that didn’t have anything to do with guns.

Anna’s father hated guns, and her mother hated them as well; it was a family mania. Paul didn’t share the feeling. On one of his visits after the divorce he took Kevin out for a drive and showed him a .22 pistol he kept under the front seat of his car. Anna found out about it when she discovered a half-dozen empty shells in the pockets of Kevin’s blue jeans. She complained to Paul about it over the phone, but he said, “Hey, Kevin loved it. We shot up a couple of cans, that’s all.” She was too angry to ask if he had actually let Kevin shoot the gun.

It got worse when Todd down the street was given a cowboy suit for his birthday. Kevin gave her no peace for weeks. He called himself Silverman and Tough Stuff. He wanted a suit and two guns like Todd’s. He needed them. One Saturday he left for Todd’s at eight in the morning and didn’t return until noon. He rode full tilt into the garage, braked with a streak of rubber across the concrete and pushed his bike against the back wall. With a snapshot in his hand he burst into the kitchen shouting, “See, Mom, I’m a cowboy!” He had gotten Todd to loan him the suit and Todd’s dad to take a Polaroid picture of him with full scowl and guns up.

She never had a sadder moment with him, realizing how she had denied him a harmless fantasy for years. But he paid her no more attention now than when she gave him sermons on violence. He had finally gotten into a cowboy suit and had the photo to prove it; that was all that counted. He danced around the kitchen and shot into th air with his fingers, saying, “I’m Jesse James! I’m Pretty Boy Floyd!” Anna could hardly keep from crying. Guns were playthings to Kevin, there was nothing in him that was violent or tough. He didn’t want to hurt anyone, he just wanted to blast the light bulbs and the clock. He didn’t even remember her resistance to guns. Grabbing the picture from her hand, he looked at himself and said, “Isn’t it great, Mom?”

He was eight years old.

What could she do with his clothes? And with his tool kit and dartboard and collection of baseball cards? Send them all to families in the South Bronx? Give them to the Salvation Army and have them show up at local yard sales in Fell River? She didn’t want to find one of his trucks for sale some Saturday morning on a card table along with some other child’s leftover toys.

Anna paced the floor of the living room, unraveled the telephone cord and dialed her father’s number. Six rings and she almost hung up.

“Hello, Dad?”

“Hi, Anna. What’s up?”

“You sound out of breath.”

“I ran back inside to get the phone.“

”You were going out, then?” she asked.

“Down to the courts. I’ve got my first real match of the season today. How’ve you been?”

Alex Delaney was in his sixties, but still an accomplished tennis player. The previous summer he and a woman half his age had won the town’s mixed doubles tournament.

“I spent the morning in the greenhouse,” Anna said.

“That’s always your favorite, isn’t it? Do you want to play some tennis later? My match is only a couple of sets.”

“Thanks, Dad, but I’m. . . I’m working on my house.”

“You’re not going to start working sixty hours a week again, are you?”

“I might, if I need to stay out of trouble.” Anna’s eyes fell on the hamster cage and the pile of comic books scattered over the floor. “I wanted to ask if you knew what happened to Mom’s cashmere sweater, that beige one from London she liked so much.”

“I sold it, along with all her other clothes. Or gave them away, actually.” Alex’s tone implied that he’d told her this before.

“I thought you might have saved some out.”

“They would have been too small for you.’

“You’re probably right,” Anna said. “But . .

“But what?”

“Didn’t you ever worry about seeing someone else wearing those clothes?”

“Minneapolis is a big city. Anyway, I left the next morning.”

Anna paced slowly, only two steps, back and forth. “What about those boxes under your bed? You didn’t get rid of all that stuff?”

“No, I didn’t. Those are all Freya’s books and papers.” His voice dropped. “I’ve never meant to hide them, you know. If you ever want to look through them, you’re welcome to.”

“I was just wondering about the sweater. But now that you mention it, what’s in those boxes?”

“All the letters Freya wrote me, and almost everything she saved in her own files. I’ve looked through most of it.”

Anna’s mother had died two years before. Her sudden death from bone cancer followed a stormy divorce from her father, a decade’s separation and two years of passionate revival. Anna
knew that Alex could not have read Freya’s papers with equanimity.

“You were brave to keep it all.”

“What else could I do?”

“Burn it, or. . . something.” Anna’s voice cracked, and she made a joke of the idea: “You know, the way they burned books at the Inquisition.”

“It’s an idea,” Alex said, gently.

“Well, Dad, I only called about the sweater. Don’t let me hold you from your match.”

“I should go. But I’ll see you this week, for sure.”

Anna hung up the phone—and imagined burning the books in Kevin’s room, and the clothes in his dresser, and the dresser itself. She felt giddy, as if her head floated far above her limbs. She had to do something about Kevin’s room.

The small, square room was built into one corner of her house, its pine walls anchored only to a floorplate and a ceiling joist. Gently, Anna picked up the crowbar and wedged it under the baseboard molding. The wood splintered lightly and sprang away from the wall. The tongue-and-groove siding popped off almost as easily and twisted to the floor. Dust dropped from the joist, filling the air. Anna knocked the pins out of the door hinges and dragged the heavy oak door outside, around to the back of her house. Instead of carrying out the pine boards, she opened the kitchen window and pitched them directly onto the lawn. She finished one wall and attacked the other. Once she had a pile of wood outside, she went back with matches and newspaper, knelt beside the boards and started a fire with some of the splinters. The pine caught quickly. In five minutes she had a small blaze, the resinous wood crackling and sucking at the dry air. She propped the long siding boards into a pyramid.

The flames burned a black oval in the grass. Anna contained it by beating out the edges with a shovel, her face tucked way from the heat. Her hands were shaking—~not from exhaustion, but from fear at what she had started. She tore out the last of the boards, flung them out the window onto the fire and started with Kevin’s clothes. An armful of books went into the blaze, volume by volume. Acrid smoke swirled back into the house, smarting her eyes. Without resting, she gathered up her hair and pinned it up on top of her head, a few blond strands hanging past her face.

The mattress was a struggle. She lugged it outside, leaned one end of it close to the fire and tipped it in. She dismantled the wooden bed, smashed the dresser apart and threw the drawers out the window. A stream of Kevin’s goods passed into the fire: his records, his shoes, his. football, the encapsulated globe of snow Anna had shaken for him every night before he went to sleep. The lamp beside the bed, the table it stood on, the pillow, a game of Parcheesi: everything went. Anna breathed hard, her eyes blinking against the smoke. Her neck hurt and she had to carry her head to one side, peering out of the window as she threw the baseball cards into the fire, then a plastic flute, then a slingshot.

It went on and on, she never thought it would take so long. Like an obsessed housekeeper, she persisted until there was nothing left but the marks where the two-by-four plates had rested on the wooden flooring. She swept meticulously and scrubbed the floor with a mop. The room was gone, and everything of Kevin’s. She had removed it all from her house.

Except for his book. Anna sat down with it on the living room couch, holding it open on her lap. Large and well thumbed, its black pages smelled of dried glue. It was filled with naked-baby shots and drawings from school, as well as a list of Kevin’s first spoken words and the “books without pictures” he had read. Anna skimmed through the album, her temples pounding as the fire rushed and whistled outside. She felt as if she had been driving the freeway and drinking coffee for three days straight.

She read the letter from Kevin’s day-care center, formally typed on eggshell stationery, announcing his four-year-old transgressions: he wouldn’t take a nap, wouldn’t keep out of the bushes and trees in the playground, couldn’t paint without making a mess, didn’t pay attention in prereading class. Even Paul bad been outraged by that letter. He stayed up half the night with Anna’s books on child raising and marched off the next morning to defend his son to the center’s stout directress. He quoted from Leo Tolstoy and John Holt, and told her, “The reason Kevin is like this is because he’s a child. You’ve had kids in here before, haven’t you?” Even though his antics got Kevin bounced for a week, Anna loved Paul for having stood up for his son.

The album, in fact, had originally been Paul’s idea. He bought it on the day of Kevin’s birth and paste in the first entry himself: the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. Over the next few months he added a copy of Kevin’s birth certificate and a few photographs, but then he abandoned the project to Anna. At Kevin’s funeral the album was never mentioned.

The thought that someday Paul might claim the album brought Anna out of its cluttered pages in a rush. She didn’t want him to have it. Rising from the sofa, she carried it to the kitchen window and stood tautly, holding it upright between her palms. It was the last object. Its dry pages would catch and burn fast; it would be gone in a moment.

Anna, no.

Her father, dressed in tennis shorts and a white sweater, stood in the doorway, his eyes going from what had been Kevin’s room to the dense column of smoke outside the kitchen
window. He took five quick steps toward her. Anna pressed the album flat against her chest with one hand and held off her father’s approach with the other, like a cop against traffic.

“I can burn it,” she said. “I can, if I want to.”

“Yes, you can.”

She hugged the album to her chest, ashamed of herself but wanting the demonic feeling of rebellion. She wanted that feeling—or any feeling—because after tearing apart her son’s room
and throwing everything he owned into the fire, she didn’t feel anything at all.

Alex sagged in front of his daughter, his tall frame humbled by the lift of her palm. She lowered her hand. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m not myself.” But she went on clutching the album to her chest.

Her father nodded. His shaggy grey hair protruded over the tips of his ears and over his wide, elevated forehead. A pair of bushy eyebrows hinted at his age, though he looked a good deal younger now than he had in the worst of times after his wife’s death.

“You could never replace what’s in that book,” he said.

“I could never replace Kevin.”

Some perverse streak drove her to make such comments. She wanted to see her father at a loss—though the desire passed immediately when his face turned sad.

He disappeared upstairs, returning with a blanket to drape over her shoulders. Anna let him sit her down on the couch like an invalid, glad to be taken care of. He tucked the blanket over her feet and slipped a pillow behind her head. Within seconds, almost as if she had been knocked unconscious, soft images of the ocean swept over her, green and flickering. Her father gently disengaged the album from her arms, but she opened her eyes and drew it back.

“Anna, I’m not going to take it away from you.”

She was halfway into the dream and wanted to go on, into the slanting ocean waves. She gave up the album to her father, who stepped into the kitchen and put it on top of the refrigerator. “You take a nap,” he said, “and I’ll fix something for dinner.”

Anna let her head fall back against the pillow. The ocean was close, if she could only let herself drift toward it. She thought of the salt smell and fogless nights in the little town of Seal Rock, on the Oregon coast, but she could not reenter the dream itself. A tight band stretched across her abdomen and would not let up. She tried over and over to go into the dream, but in the end she couldn’t do it.

Softly, she stood up from the couch and stared at her father’s back as he sliced vegetables at the counter. Alex wanted her to sleep, of course. He wanted to protect her, and sleep was the great protection. But Anna didn’t want to sleep off the fact that she had just burned Kevin’s history out of her house. She walked unsteadily across the floor.

Alex looked around at the sound of her steps, surprised. Didn’t she want to rest?

No, she wanted to stay awake and help him with dinner. She set the table but moved through a haze. Her father started three pots on the kitchen stove. Anna washed her face at the sink and looked at herself in the mirror. The light outside had begun to fade, and she had trouble focusing her eyes. Her hair smelled like old margarine, and her hands were the color of an opossum, even after she washed them. When her father served dinner she was unable to eat more than a few bites. He worried about her, she could see.

After dinner she picked up the album with one hand and led her father outside. The clear evening was chill, the last red light fading from both the sky and the fire. Anna passed her father the shovel so he could rustle the coals and pile on a few unburned pieces of wood. She ignored his wary look. In the burst of flames, his white shorts and striped athletic socks stood out against the dark. He had put a jacket on over his sweater, but his knees and long legs remained exposed.

Holding Kevin’s book under one arm, like a student, she asked, “Why should I keep it?”

“What if you had another child sometime who wanted to know about Kevin?”

Anna imagined a dark-haired girl of Kevin’s age. Of course she would ask about her dead brother, her half brother. She would want to know what Kevin had looked like, and how much Anna loved him. And how would Anna ever explain about her child without a photograph, without anything he had owned or painted or written? No matter how she told the story, the girl might think she had never loved Kevin at all—and might fear being abandoned in the same way.

Alex saved her from throwing the album into the fire—but Anna resented what he said nevertheless. Like everyone else, he assumed she would have another child.

The fact was, she was ovulating even now. That was the tension that had stopped her from slipping into the dream. The pressure had been there for hours, though she had been slow to recognize it. It angered her still that every month her body should prepare itself for another child, repeatedly and insistently tendering an ovum. She didn’t know how to tell that to her father.

Alex rustled the fire again, which blazed up and illuminated her face. He still looked worried. “You’re not going to burn that now, are you?”

“No, I’m not. It’s a good thing you came out, though, be cause 1 probably would have.”

“There’s nothing else left?”

“Probably the whole idea was pigheaded.”

“Maybe in the end it’ll help,” he said.

“1 doubt it, since he had his hands on everything I own.” She had to get in the last word.