At dinner, Sid told Francis that Keith wasn’t feeling well. Francis said, “Is this news?”
Francis and Gerald had their own concerns.
Francis was implementing a program of depression. Or, that’s what Sid thought he was doing. He made himself revolting. He never showered and dust turned his brown hair white. His skin wrinkled and thinned. Conical zits emerged behind his ears, and his long nails peeled in jagged sheets.
At dinner, the radio masked the lack of conversation, and Gerald ate fastidiously while swigging from a bottle. The cooks were polite with pitchers of ice-water, poured out the side to prevent a sudden clunk, spill, excuse for a fight more exhausting, everyone knew, than feigning comfort with quiet.
B.T. wore a white shirt and Chefwear checks. He didn’t flinch at the smell as he leaned over Francis, lifted the man’s glass, and Francis thanked him, almost imperceptibly, thoughtlessly, a nod before he filled his mouth delicately with salad. When B.T. left, Gerald shook his head.
Sid asked if the greens were too bitter, which was something she’d heard Francis say before, so probably wasn’t an excellent strategy for assuaging tension, but she was trying out the phrase, and Gerald liked her anyhow, would tolerate her, which he did, by saying nothing.
Francis leaned across the table, releasing fumes—he smelled like a pissed-in alley, a subway in the winter—and said, “No, honey, he thinks I’m sleeping with that cunt.”
Sid said, “B.T.?”
“Isn’t that absurd?” Francis said, slicing his eggs into a bite-sized triangle. “Look at me, how filthy I make myself for him, and he thinks I fuck around.”
Gerald said, “I don’t think anything.”
“I debase myself for him, to show my loyalty, and he won’t have a conversation with me over dinner.”
“I know enough to love you,” Gerald said. “I know you.”
“Me, the most hygienic man in the world, come to this.”
“I see you gawking.”
“He doesn’t want you.”
“No one wants me, honey,” Francis said. “Alright? Not in the state I’m in.”
Gerald asked Francis to race up the terracotta, but Francis said no. He was weak, sickly, and what was the point if Gerald always won? Francis said there are other games to play, and Gerald said show me, and Francis said he would. He did. The next morning, rather than descending into the hole, Francis crawled over the mine with a rope coiled around his arm, another around his neck. The ropes were identical—looped at bothends—and he strung each by draping a loop over a joist, then feeding the rope through the loop and pulling it tight. When he was finished, two nooses were hitched.
Francis left one rope hanging and climbed midway down the ladder with the other in his hand. That close to topside, the light was cleaner. He was easy to see. Darkness at the mine’s bottom made Sid feel she was a different creature, different from him, or a similar creature in a different place. Francis was making this place different, again. He could do anything, not all things, but so many things were possible that these possibilities became enough to be anything. He fit his foot in the loop, tipped forward, swung into the open space.
Arcing back and forth, he stood upright with one boot in the noose while using the other to push off the stony claim-end walls. Flying fast on the long rope, his greasy hair sucking back from his face as the dirt rattled out his cuffs. Sid sat on a bucket, her neck kinked. Gerald stood beside her, looking down while he stuffed a sandwich into his mouth. Walking and eating and gone, sprinting up the ladder three, four, rungs at a time. Sid watched his animal shape, crawling over the joists. Back on the ladder with the noose in his fist, he fitted his foot in the loop, swung out. Sid clapped and leaned back in the dirt, grime, rocks. Switched off her headlamp and watched them flaunt their willingness, back and forth through the wash of topside-light.
They were indestructible. They were beautiful.
These men’s bodies: swooping, pushing, crashing.
Francis was laughing, drifting almost stagnant at the mine’s center while Gerald swung back and forth. Gerald was gathering a fierce momentum, kicking off the stony claim-ends, squatting as the rope arced down, standing as it neared the walls. His focus was an elegant, ecstatic anger as he made speed, constructed and spent it, and Francis stood in the hanging loop watching as he turned with the motions made by his adjusting weight, his gloved hands gripping the skinny rope.
From underneath, Sid saw mostly Francis’s boots, edged in corduroy, and topped by the pointed ends of the rose-embroidered vest. He leaned away from his grip. Tipped his head like a girl at a porch railing. His head looked detachable. He was flirting. He was smiling when Gerald arced down, straight at him. They collided and Francis spun, his hands sliding down the rope. Squatting when Gerald hit him again, from the other side, and they both jostled in the mine’s center, crouched in the loops that held them.
Gerald gripped his rope with one hand and swung at Francis’s shoulder, his back, while Francis cowered, laughing, his arm held up in a block, and their happiness and animosity seemed so private that Sid had to leave them.
She climbed the ladder, her eyes on the wall of dirt she was scaling, the ladder twisting slightly with each step as she moved through the gradient of light, the lifting darkness, closer to topside, and she had something to say if she met Gerald crashing against the rock by her head. He didn’t, and she didn’t have to. She emerged through the joists with quiet at her back, allowed herself to look.
They hung at the mine’s center, bumping passively. Strung up things. They didn’t touch, maybe talked. She shouldn’t watch.
She watched Gerald grip his foot’s loop, turn upside-down, unhook his boot, drop into darkness at the mine’s floor. It had to be at least fifteen ladder-rungs down. The darkness hid him. He didn’t shout. A few seconds and Gerald switched on his headlamp—a round white eye—and held out his arms to catch his lover. Sid didn’t know if the gesture was sincere, if catching someone who fell from that distance was a gamble or a precaution, or if Gerald was special enough, sure enough of his athleticism that doubt never marred him, never made him awkward enough to torque his joints, turn his muscles uncooperative or uneven, and she decided, yes, he meant it, his arms stretched out.
Either way Francis lowered himself without assistance: inverting, hanging, and dropping to the darkness below.
Keith recovered on a couch sheathed in plastic, his foot elevated while he listened to Journey. Sid visited daily to bring him meals, feed him medicine, take his temperature, and record her medical observations in three separate logs: a yellow account-book, the coffee-table’s chart, and a pictorial representation of meds taped to the inner lid of his pillbox.
She had a key, but kept the apartment unlocked. When she walked in, Keith often pretended to be asleep, stupidly, as a way to exert control, she thought, so she’d tease him, be mock threatening, or what she thought that he thought was mock threatening, the right mix of mock and threat, and she’d stand over him with a pillow in each hand until he opened his eyes.
Sid used the pillows to prop him up, and he’d eat four sandwiches greedily off the hard surface of a children’s atlas that she used as a tray. He never asked about the mine. About her mother. About diamonds, digging, collapse. When she tried to tell him, he said he’d deal with it later because this healing was a holiday.
His wound was marked by striations of color. The creamy stump covered with skin formerly belonging to the bottom of his toe. The brown of his foot’s top. The seam of the incision itself.
Under a coating of newly grown skin, the seam turned from purple to red to a healthy blush. The cells took their time closing in, from the outside edges, like thick ice hardens a filmed lake. Sometimes debris is trapped, dead trees, leaves, fish if the freeze is fast enough. Inside the wound, there were black specks. The specks looked arranged. Dots in curving lines, tendrils. Fibers of ash. Or fragments of some lacy root.
She told Keith about the ash, and he said antibiotics would take care of it.
Keith didn’t like to fall asleep alone.
She sat with him, waiting, and he gave her advice.
He told her she was thin and narrow and dumb for her age, but lucky, and even if she didn’t have her GED, she was at least honest. She was stupid and naive, but so completely honest. Keith trusted her. He said that he liked her inner nobility, and apparently he was sincere because sometimes he cried.
She tried to be honest with him.
Sid explained how she didn’t like to dig, or do hard work, and he told her that was wrong. She told him how she was afraid of collapse and he said the walls were mostly rock. His eyes were hazy, and she decided to lie.
She said she didn’t believe in God.
Keith was suddenly lucid. “Who believes in God?”
“I thought you did.”
“Don’t waste my time, talking about definitions of words.”
“I don’t believe in God,” Sid said, the truth coming out. “But I don’t not believe in him either.”
Keith asked for a double dose of bi-colored pills, and Sid gave it to him.
She liked when he was drugged because he either fell asleep or told stories.
He told her a story.
He said his stepfather was the worst kind of person, lazy and ambitious. His stepfather had a face that belonged on the side of a box of butter: blonde and creamy. There was one good thing, however. This was the man who showed Keith how to build muscle without lifting weights. Bungee cords, he told Sid. That’s the trick. And a protein rich diet.
Every morning, the stepfather exercised in the cold bedroom on the second floor, smoking cigarettes bought with the money Keith earned at 7-11.
What else? Keith had a dog, a russet mutt about the size of a bread loaf. A mix of three tiny breeds, this dog was wild. Smart as hell, but not selfish. This dog had the love in him.
This dog wasn’t two-faced, Keith explained. Like Sid, he was loyal. This dog hated the stepfather, and as soon as he smelled cigarettes, upstairs, he started on a project of major noise. Barking, yapping! The stepfather hated it. It was hilarious!
Then, one winter, for some days, they were snowed in. It wasn’t too cold after the storm, but snow covered everything. They were trapped inside, more or less, which was also due to the fact that the land was treeless-flat and the north side of the house was the only stopping place for blown snow, which piled up. Like what? Like a giant wedge almost to the second story, while on the other side of the house, the stuff was only four feet deep.
After a few days, they were all a little strange.
That’s what his mother said. That was her explanation.
It might have been the third day, Keith told Sid. After working out a few hours, the stepfather opened the door, scooped the yapping dog, and clamped a hand over its mouth. With his other hand, he opened the casement window, one side, the other. Kicked out the screen. Took a few steps back with the animal gathered in his fist like a baseball, and hurled the dog into the yard, a good twenty feet. The little dog arced up, then disappeared into the deep slope of snow.
Keith ran into the room when he heard the dog’s pathetic fighting noises, and he saw most of it. There was no sound when the russet dog hit. Also, the room was very quiet, without barking.
Keith didn’t know what to do, but he didn’t want to act too excited in front of his stepfather. He didn’t know why. He went downstairs, put on his jacket, and opened a window on the side of the house. Sitting on the sill, he strapped on snow-shoes, then jogged over the fluffy stuff until he found the hole—deep and narrow—where his dog had fallen. And you know what he saw? Nothing. There was nothing inside the hole.
Keith didn’t understand. He called the dog’s name, but there was no sound. He crouched on the expanse of snow, then looked at the crystals stuck in his mittens. He thought about digging, but he didn’t know where to dig. He figured he’d find the skeleton when the snow melted.
The sun was bright, and it wasn’t cold. Keith unzipped his jacket. Walked to the house in a sweater and mittens. At the sill, he unbuckled his snowshoes. He went to his room, then stretched bungees the way his stepfather had shown him. He didn’t know what else to do. He tried to punch a hole in the wall, but must have hit a stud because his hand collapsed. Or that’s what it felt like.
The next morning, he told Sid, he was awake before anyone else, but still didn’t have an idea. He ate Cheerios with sugar. He was picking at plastic threads in the tablecloth when he heard the scratching. He pulled the door inward, cracking it. Some snow fell in, but not much, and there was the tiny dog, cross-eyed and shivering like hell. When he picked it up, its front paws were icy blocks.
“How did he get there?” Sid said. “I don’t understand.”
“Do you believe in free will?”
“The ability to choose your own life?”
“No, I’m talking about free will, Sid, the ability to push through anything. That’s what this dog did, and not any dog could do it.”
“He tunneled through the snow?”
“I knew he was smart. Before he did it.”
“He tunneled through the snow?” Sid clapped, and the yellow account-book fell to the floor. “That’s amazing!”
“That’s what you should strive to be, amazing.”
Sid picked up the account-book. “How did he know where the house was?”
“Do I look like a dog?” Keith said. “In any case, he was very cold, and that’s how I learned to amputate.”
Sid didn’t say anything. Then she asked, “You trimmed his ears?”
“I cut off the foot of my dog,” Keith said, musing.
“You cut off his feet?”
“He bit me twice, then passed out. His teeth were small.”
“You cut off both feet.”
“You cut off both paws.”
“Just one,” Sid said. “I’ve seen three-legged dogs.”
“He didn’t live.”
Sid didn’t say anything.
“I don’t know,” Keith said. “Sometimes, it’s not enough.”
“What isn’t enough?”
“It isn’t,” Keith said.
She tried to make him explain, but he closed his eyes. Content. He smiled, his eyes still closed, and asked for water. When she returned with the glass, he was asleep, and she wanted to pour the liquid all over his face.