It was a Sunday morning, mid-April, sparrows twittering from the telephone wires, the town washed after a night rain, the asphalt of Bonard Road steaming in the spring sun at the feet of the Crown Power workmen, who sipped their coffee, waiting for Gant, their foreman, while across town the Ostlers, all five of them, were exiting the parking lot of St. Luke’s on Spellman Street.
Mr. Ostler was not driving—although there are plenty of stories, you’ll recall, in which he drives; in most of the Ostler family stories he drives. The most memorable, surely, is the one set in Maine, or on the way to Maine, in which, in the opening paragraph, as they come around a bend outside Bethel, Mrs. Ostler, terrified, sucks in a breath and thrusts a hand to the passenger-side window as if to ward off the moose that stands so shockingly close to the road, proud and unmoving under its enormous rack, that Mr. Ostler loses his grip, literally, on the wheel for a second; but that second—not even a second—is long enough that his efforts then to regain control of the now pendulously swerving Malibu wagon do not succeed before he plows the front end into the sign for Bellamy Orchards. Ever since that story—and that unforgettable argument among the Red Delicious that drove Bellamy himself to throw up his hands and march back indoors to phone the police—Mrs. Ostler offers, now and then, to drive, though really she would prefer to knit in the passenger seat (you might recall her eczema; the knitting keeps her from scratching at the skin between her fingers).
This Sunday, after she’d exited the church, humming the recessional, and turned back to see her husband lifting their girl into his arms and whispering in her ear something that brought a smile to her lips, bunching those irresistible cheeks, she was prompted to offer to drive home. So: Mr. Ostler gladly took the passenger seat; he held the knitting needles in his lap. And the three kids, of course, were in the back.
Regardless of who did the driving, the boys always took the window seats. The girl, as youngest, got the middle, her feet resting on the hump in the floor of the car, her line of view out the windshield unobstructed. In light of the mention of the Bellamy incident, one can’t help noting that, back then, there was no girl in the back seat, just the boys heading on vacation to Maine with their parents, who had barely broached the topic of a third child. After the collision with the orchard sign, the boys—unharmed, and neither of whom had caught sight of the moose, because they had each drifted into sleep outside Woodstock—had remained in the car and witnessed the fury of their parents’ argument among the gnarled trees. Rare but intense were their parents’ altercations. Unable to hear the words, they studied the gestures: their mother, arms folded, moving her head side to side; their father, red-faced, glaring, now raising both hands above his head, fingers splayed, as if calling for divine support. Or maybe he was trying to imitate the moose.
“My heart’s still going crazy,” said Ben, the younger boy. “I thought we were going to die. I woke up and thought we were going to die.”
Something under the car’s mangled hood let out a breath, a gasp, and Matthew said, “Shut up,” whether in response to his brother or to the car or to the embarrassing sight of his parents in the orchard it wasn’t clear.
The boys will probably never know that the argument in the orchard, tamed only by the arrival of the spinning blue lights of a member of the Bethel police force, was the prelude to their sister. Despite the hissing radiator of that Malibu wagon, the car made it to the cabin on Umbagog Lake, and after the boys were asleep in their bunks, Mr. and Mrs. Ostler fell into their laughing fit, hands on their mouths until their mouths were on each other and their hands were roaming, and ever so quietly on the old springs of the iron-framed bed, with a mouse peering down from the rafter, they made a love they never will forget, not only because of the outrageous day—that moose, the crash, an Officer Beekman threatening, as he put it, to throw both their asses in the clink—but because their girl was conceived there, by the lake, with the smell of pine blessing them through the window screens. The name for the girl wasn’t difficult. By the fifth month, believing this time it had to be a girl, and recalling Bellamy Orchards, they knew: They would call her Belle.
So there Belle sat, quiet between her brothers, in her church clothes, her white dress and white tights and blue button-up sweater and black buckle shoes, facing forward as her mother turned the car off Spellman Street onto Maple Avenue with a wave to Mrs. McHenry, who worked in the children’s room of the library and gave out a dinosaur sticker with every borrowed book. When Mrs. McHenry caught sight of Belle in the back seat, she bent forward and changed her wave from a simple raised open palm to a finger roll, her face taking on that overly pleased expression that sometimes surprised Belle. Adults were often looking at her that way, a sudden lift and crease of their brows, and light in their eyes. She had asked her mother why they never looked at her brothers that way. Mrs. Ostler laughed and placed her hands flat on Belle’s cheeks, holding her still and gradually assuming the expression herself. “You’re just so beautiful. That’s what you’re seeing. You’re seeing you. My girl. Ma Belle.”
Belle waved back at Mrs. McHenry, though she was careful not to reach in front of Matthew, who sat on her left. Not to “invade” his space. His tie was already off and crumpled in his lap. He slumped, his temple pressed to the window, and peered at the sky as his music charged into his ears from his headphones. He was trying to make something out of the shapes of the clouds, but he could find nothing there; and then, after a glance at his father, who probably thought he was holding the knitting needles properly like drumsticks, asked again in his mind why they had to do this every goddamned Sunday, this traditional, conventional, religious crap, as if it really made any difference. What made a difference was being able to see yourself, really see yourself, with no bullshit. No labels. We aren’t labels—we’re people. If you recall the story in which Mr. and Mrs. Ostler send Matthew to speak with Dr. Fryburg, who was the one to introduce the term “Oppositional Defiant Disorder,” or O.D.D., into the family’s vocabulary, you’ll understand Matthew’s struggle, and you’ll note that nothing much has changed since then, except perhaps the volume at which he listens to his music. Now, in fact, slouching lower so that his knees dug into the back of Mrs. Ostler’s seat, he turned the volume up.
On Belle’s right, Ben sat reading, his torso turned toward her so that she could not peer around the book cover to see the pages, though it wouldn’t have been any great surprise to her to see a diagram of the solar system spread across the spine. On the way to the church that morning Ben had announced that Earth was eight thousand miles wide, and that the sun was eight hundred thousand miles wide. At the moment, he was considering the fact that the library book Mrs. McHenry had checked out to him was out of date, because it considered Pluto a planet like all the rest. Everyone knew that Pluto was now considered a “dwarf planet,” as he had informed his family last Sunday on the ride home from church.
“You’re a dwarf planet,” Matthew had said, before plugging his ears with his music.
“Matthew,” Mrs. Ostler warned, without lifting her gaze from her needles.
“Well, you’re a jerk,” Ben said. “I’d rather be a dwarf planet than a jerk.”
But Matthew heard not a word.
“Come on, now,” Mr. Ostler murmured.
And then, after a moment, Belle asked: “What’s a dwarf planet?”
The silence that then filled the car was, for the Ostler family, not unusual, not since Belle had been taking part in conversations. The girl was always asking such questions, curious to know what it was that, apparently, everyone understood, only to find that, in truth, no one had an answer, at least not one readily available. She had a knack for uncovering a sudden empty space among them. In this case, though he tried in his head to compose something about Pluto’s orbit and mass, not even Ben could offer a reply; he stayed quiet, flushed a little with embarrassment.
Mr. Ostler had fared better under Belle’s questioning at the close of this Sunday’s service, during the recessional, when Belle had tugged on his sleeve and pointed to the faces of babies carved in wood in the high corners of the church. “Why are there babies up there?” she asked.
Mr. Ostler looked and said, “Those are cherubs.” The word, though, sounded to his ears like a type of vegetable. He knew what was coming next.
“What are cherubs?” Belle asked, her eyes fixed on one of the infant faces as she took her father’s hand and they stepped from the pew into the aisle.
They were, he said, he thought, well, a kind of angel.
“What do cherubs do?” she asked, and looking at her father’s face then she saw the expression that meant he didn’t know what to say (his eyebrows rose at the same time that he took in a breath and held it). But he bent down and slid his hands under her arms and lifted her and whispered into her ear: “They play. In Heaven, they play. Like you, my Belle. Though you play here.”
“What do they play with in Heaven?” she asked, but by then they were on the front steps of St. Luke’s, and her father, after shifting her to his left side, was shaking hands with friends in the congregation.
There should have been a congregation of sorts on Bonard Road as well, but only two workmen from Crown Power—Plunkett and Mendoza—had shown up, and they were not playing, though they were collecting overtime every minute for having taken the job of setting the reinforcement utility pole on a Sunday morning. The pole had lain on the sidewalk for more than a week. Neighbors had complained about it. Dogs had urinated on it. Gant said the pole had to be planted before Monday, and not with a line truck but with the Creature, as they all called it, which Plunkett thought looked like something for driving on the moon. “It’ll happen someday,” he said to Mendoza, kicking at one of the Creature’s tires. “They’ll put power on the fuckin’ moon. We’ll be going to work in spaceships.” If O’Malley had been there, he would have told Plunkett how ridiculous that was—exactly how far up his own ass Plunkett’s head was—but O’Malley had called in sick, and Gant still hadn’t shown, and dispatch wasn’t answering, and weren’t they supposed to have a cop for traffic? Goddammit, Mendoza thought, setting out the cones, the hole was dug. Plunkett was thinking the same thing: what’s the point in waiting around any longer? He set the outriggers on the Creature.
“The what?” asked the newspaper reporter that evening on the phone.
“The Creature,” said Plunkett. “That’s what we call it. The hauler,” and he’d tried to describe the thing, how it could fit into places a line truck couldn’t, how you could hoist a pole by remote control. He gave the official name—the Rackman Hauler 2500—which the reporter diligently recorded for the item in Monday’s paper.
Without O’Malley, Plunkett was lead, so he took the Creature’s control board a few steps out in the street, looking both ways. One thing good about doing this on a Sunday: there wasn’t much traffic. But he couldn’t drive and spot at the same time, couldn’t do O’Malley’s job and Gant’s job—and the cop’s job—while they were all probably sitting themselves down at the A-Train right now to plates of eggs and sausage, the lazy fucks.
In the front passenger seat, Mr. Ostler looked at his wife, pleased with the way he had fielded Belle’s questions in the church and wanting to tell her about it, what cherubs do. Because if they were failing in their parenting of their first child, they were triumphing, weren’t they, in their parenting of their last? They had improved. There was nothing O.D.D. about a curiosity about cherubs—if that was indeed what those carved little faces were. Just look at the girl. He looked at Belle now, over his shoulder, as she sat gazing straight ahead, hands flat on the lap of her dress, and Mrs. Ostler brought the car to a stop at the intersection with Bonard Road, squinting slightly not from the sun on the windshield but from a thought: whether she should stop now for groceries—if she was going to make the meatloaf, she needed onions at least—or send her husband out again later.
“In five billion years,” Ben reported from behind his book, “the sun will be a red giant that burns up the Earth.”
According to the Fatality and Accident Investigation Report filed at the Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the apprentice lineman, male, 29, was wearing the rubber lineman’s gloves required by company policy. Yet the report’s postmortem recommendations included suggestion that utility companies consider “the utilization of redundant methods of protection when erecting replacement utility poles within existing energized overhead powerline installations.” In other words, Mendoza’s gloves were nowhere near enough to absorb the charge of 19,900 volts. They made no difference at all. Plunkett had the pole hoisted, boom extending. Mendoza was leaning forward over the hole, arms out to position the butt, inhaling the Creature’s exhaust, when his right foot slipped in the wet mud piled there from the digging. The spin of his boot sole on the edge of the hole sent him counterclockwise, so that when he met the rain-slick pole, it was, first, with the base of his spine, which planted the butt loosely in the hole but also nudged the top of the pole against one of the energized conductors—of which Plunkett should have been aware, to which O’Malley would have pointed, to which Gant should have cut the power.
Mrs. Ostler had looked right for approaching traffic and had started to ask if Mr. Ostler would go out later to the grocery store for a few items—if meatloaf sounded good, she was glad to make it—when the volts streaked down the wet utility pole and sent the ventricles of Mendoza’s heart into fibrillation. Plunkett, in his kitchen, exclaimed to the reporter that it wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t rained, and if they hadn’t stuck them with the Creature—he’d be drinking a beer with Mendoza right now. The Fatality and Accident Investigation Report indicated that the electric current “exited to ground through the victim’s right elbow.”
Mrs. Ostler looked to her left. Mr. Ostler said meatloaf sounded great, adding a drumroll of the knitting needles on the dashboard. Matthew’s eyes remained closed as if to better appreciate the squealing guitar solo filling his ears. Ben never looked up from his book. What Belle alone saw straight ahead through the windshield was Mendoza leaning back against the pole, his hard hat tilted forward, shading his eyes, but his face turned up toward the sky. He looked like a boy trying on his father’s hat—except his chin was shaking. His elbow quivered. When Plunkett saw it, he cut the engine, ran around and reached a gloved hand out into the air but never touched Mendoza, not quite, not while Belle sat there looking through the windshield at them both. Then Mrs. Ostler, who thought she would also need fresh parsley, steered out onto Bonard Road. A moment later, after Belle unbuckled herself and turned around in her seat to kneel and peer through the back window, all she saw was Plunkett also with his face to the sky.
“What is it, Belle?” Mrs. Ostler asked, looking in the rearview.
But Belle didn’t know what she had seen, what kind of trouble or danger, and then Ben announced that it takes eight minutes for light to travel to Earth from the sun. Light travels at more than 186,282 miles per second. Belle turned back around and buckled her seat belt.
The article in the Forestdale Tribune the next day was set in the lower left corner of page A6. The headline was a question: “‘Creature’ Responsible for Electrocution?” No Ostler read the item. A follow-up investigative piece on safety rules for utility repairs and installations appeared eight days later (page B3). There never was a photograph of the accident scene, nor an obituary for Rafael Mendoza (but he didn’t live in Forestdale, couldn’t imagine living in Forestdale. What the fuck was there to do in a place like Forestdale? he used to say. Give him the city any day). The only images, then, of Mendoza with his back against the pole as the electricity crackled through the nerves of his body existed in Cal Plunkett’s tortured memory—he didn’t sleep for a week as his brain kept offering up different versions of the event, all with the whiff of burnt flesh—and in Belle Ostler’s mind. There the image flickered into view now and then—on the school bus, before bed—a curious scrap in the light wind of her thoughts. But after about a month, even though it was the first sight Belle ever had of a person dying, Mendoza slipped under into the endless dusk of the nearly forgotten, not to resurface again, not fully, for more than fifty years—although he did come very close several times.
For instance, three weeks after Belle met the man whom she would marry and with whom she would bring two girls into the world, the power went out in her apartment. This was in Cleveland, near Lincoln Park, on Starkweather. A studio, second floor. She was cooking dinner for Philip. He was sitting near the window of her kitchen. On went the CuisinArt, out went the lights. “I just realized,” Belle said. “I don’t have a flashlight.” He set his wine glass down on her sill and, following her directions, groped his way to the narrow entry to the apartment—the fuse box, she said, was up above the door frame. She went to the closet for her step stool. In a moment, she was listening to him flicking fuse switches in the dark. When the lights flashed on, he looked down at her with that pleased expression, the almost pained, desirous gaze, and instinctively leaned forward, toward her, pivoting on the toes of his shoes, and lost his balance. As his right arm went out for the wall, the image of Mendoza’s spine meeting the utility pole blinked awake and started to spiral steadily upward. It was less than a second away from breaking into consciousness when Philip, having stabilized himself with his right arm, pulled Belle toward him with his left, and in the ensuing passion on that step stool in the entryway, Mendoza drifted back down to a basement corner of Belle’s mind.
And years later, after the girls were in school, and Belle herself had gone back for her psychology degree, as she hunted in the university stacks for a text that included a paper on “Familial Aggregation for Conduct Disorder Symptomatology”—her thesis a refutation of the validity of the Oppositional Defiant Disorder diagnosis—she turned the corner and faced straight down a row of books and out the library window, which framed a man standing in the bucket of a crane and changing the bulb of a streetlamp. Just then the stack lights, which were on timers, clicked off. She looked at her watch; it was nearly five o’clock; she needed to pick up the girls. And again Mendoza never quite bloomed in her mind’s eye.
It is in the last of the Ostler stories, you’ll remember, fifty-two years after the accident, that the image returns—the story in which Belle sits by her mother’s bed in the Bon Secours Hospital. This time, stomach pains and nausea, thought to be signs of diverticulitis, have brought her mother in, but she has been failing in general, in mind as well as body. Now it is her mother who asks the puzzling questions, or utters abrupt non sequiturs that have become strangely comforting to Belle, because, however outlandish, they suggest an active social life in her mother’s imagination. “He fixed me a drink,” she says, turning to meet Belle’s gaze, “and wasn’t that the most beautiful sunrise?” She points a hand toward the wall, as if instructing Belle to look, and Belle notes the white cotton gloves her mother still wears to bed to keep her from scratching raw the skin of her fingers. She tells her mother yes, it was. A beautiful sunrise. Sometimes there is no recognition of Belle at all. She is just another object in the room that draws her mother’s occasional blank stare.
The last time she visited, with her oldest daughter, Amelia, they made signs with magic marker on yellow construction paper reminding Grandma Ostler that she was in the hospital, that she should not get out of bed, that if she needed anything she should use the call button for the nurse. Because, as Amelia knows, Grandma Ostler forgets most everything, including that Grandpa Ostler has lived in Florida for nearly 12 years now with a woman named Candace.
But on this visit, which Belle has made alone, her mother remembers her. “Ma Belle,” she says, smiling in her eyes. And then: “Do you know how you got your name?” Belle, of course, knows every detail of the story, of the long-ago collision at Bellamy Orchards, but she lets her face take on a quizzical look as if she can’t quite recall what happened. “Well, naturally you don’t remember,” her mother says. “You weren’t even around.” And the smile leaves her eyes as she begins to describe the towering moose she saw through the car window.
After an hour, Belle leaves to run errands and eat some lunch, and when she returns to the hospital, the nurse tells her in the corridor, “We’ve been trying to reach you. We tried to reach you.”
When she enters the room, her mother is motionless under the sheet and blanket, her head centered on the pillow, yet her chin is raised as if she is about to open her eyes and speak, as if she is searching her memory for something she is very close to finding. An oxygen mask remains at the foot of the bed. Belle approaches and reaches out a hand, not knowing yet where to place it, where to touch her mother. She looks at the white gloves and decides to rest her palm flat on her mother’s chest, but then, disturbed by the absence of a heartbeat, she moves it to her mother’s cheek. At the touch of her skin, there is the expectation still that her eyelids will part, that she will suddenly deliver something buoyantly nonsensical into the room, some fragment of a memory that Belle knows nothing about. Belle waits for it, the tips of her fingers grazing her mother’s silver hair. When she draws her hand back to her own chest, she has to look away.
In a moment, under the pressure of the silence, Belle moves to the window, which looks out over the hospital parking lot and beyond to neighborhoods—houses, fences, trees, telephone lines extending along the roads. The spring sky is clouded. The undersides of leaves flash in a wind. Maybe rain is coming. Looking out, with her back to the room, she feels somehow unreachable.
When it comes—that man in his hard hat with the jittering chin, the flapping elbow, dying that ancient Sunday morning on the ride home from church—it seems to drag behind it and up into her chest her whole childhood. But it is only a sense that, once, long ago, everything and everyone was in place: her parents in the front seats, a brother on each side of her in the back.
If the story allowed her to remain at the window a little longer, uninterrupted, she may have found words for what it feels like, such disconnection, such displacement, an empty space expanding around her as she stands alone in the room in which her mother has died, and needing to make calls across the country—to San Francisco and Detroit—to inform her brothers. If she were to have remained undisturbed, possibly she would have recollected the morning, or just the inside of the car, her parents’ voices, Matthew’s music, Ben’s musing about—what was it?—an orphan planet? The phrase would sound correct, would sound like what she feels herself to be, standing here, the only one breathing. But instead, as the story goes, the nurse enters to ask if she’d like a glass of water, and to inform her that the hospital chaplain is on his way, if she would like to speak with him. And as Belle turns and looks not at the nurse but at her mother, her mother’s body, impossibly still, eyelids shut, a different image opens, lasting just a second, but it is enough to shift her slightly forward, a ridiculous image of cherubs with their plump little hands joined around her mother, dancing in a circle around her, an image that comes from who knows where.