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Promise


It started--as so much does--with a phone call.  The Santa Anas were
torturing LA, scorching the life from plants and people alike.  I had
been fretting over a dying morning glory vine.  The desert winds and I
were in a tug-of-war over the life of this purple-flowered vine.  They
were pulling its life away as quickly as I could pour fertilized water
from my bright yellow plastic can.  Then the ever-present cellular phone
tucked in the pocket of my workshirt rang--not shrilly, but timidly, a
gentle nudge to commune with the outside world.

Centuries ago, this news would have been slow moving.  A ragged messenger
full of hunger and sores would have presented himself to me one
afternoon, and his message would have been blunted by the intervening
months of travel from the time of the tragedy to the time he arrived at
my door.  Decades ago, this news would have been ink smears on thick,
rich paper; the letter would have sat innocently in my stack of mail
along with mundane and trivial bits of correspondence.  In a 1930s-era
black and white movie full of short, gangster men and thick, strong
women, this news would have been slipped anonymously under my door and
lain unnoticed for hours, perhaps days.

But our age of microwaves and satellite links and high-speed modems has
robbed me of the slow, luxurious balm of messengers and letters and
telegrams.  My grandmother's voice hurled through a half continent of
fiber optics, the sharp pain and sickening terror unmistakable in her
voice.  I heard her tones before I could make sense of her words.  Her
sounds gripped my soul and shook it as a dog shakes a rag doll.  The
shape of her words formed black monsters who spread huge, webbed wings
and flew at my understanding, clawing their way into my brain.

It was over; it was time for me to come home.  My sister was in a
terminal coma; she had lost the battle, the war.  Cancer had won each
cruel encounter.  The banishment she had imposed was at an end.  She had
fought her part of the fight; now I must fight mine.

I cursed the Santa Anas, for I knew in my absence, they would win the
morning glory vine.  They would work a black, Satan's magic on its
turgid, green leaves, and dew-speckled purple flowers.  They would
transform it to a raspy rattle in the wind, to curled, sapless leaves
blowing across the yard, to a betrayal of my promise to care for it.  I
put the watering can away and pondered what to wear to fly to the damp,
piney, East Texas hills to watch my sister die.

The pilot of the plane announced we were flying over the Grand Canyon.
Along with the other passengers I looked down to see the black slit in
the earth with tiny, ant-like vehicles swarming around it.  I thought of
the small planes who violate its privacy every 90 seconds, of the
pollution that is murdering its plant and animal life, of the vibrations
of buses and automobiles that are crumbling its walls.  I could almost
smell the sweet bubble gum, see the broken lenses of discarded
sunglasses, hear the whining of children needing to go to the bathroom.
I imagined the heart of the earth shuddered and began its glacially slow
upheaval to reclaim its splendor from sightseers and tour guides and
lovers who leave spent condoms in the bushes.  And my heart sang a solemn
response knowing that its time on earth would be long past before the
canyon made itself whole again.

In miraculous degrees of latitude and longitude, we made our way from the
unfocused, chaotic personality of the celluloid and neon City of Angels
to the uncompromising, unseeing life of the red dirt, Klan-ruled East
Texas hills.  It was as if I had had an orgasm at the hands of a brutal
lover when I stepped onto the tarmac at the small, regional airport.
While my mind trembled at returning to this severe, closed land, my body
thundered with recognition and homecoming.

It was the early afternoon of a dog day, the Texas sun as merciless as
the California Santa Anas.  The air was sticky with humidity and the
omnipresent scent of pine.  The rental car's radio buttons were all set
to country music stations, and I tried to remember the words to songs I
didn't know as I picked my way through familiar streets to my sister's
hospital bed.  And I tried to gather my strength, hoping it would be
enough but knowing there isn't strength enough in the world.

I opened the car door without unbuckling the seat belt, and the fabric
bond squawked and attempted to choke me.  I thought of my grandmother,
who keeps a pair of scissors in the glove box to cut her seat belt should
it not let her go when she wants it to.  I entered the glass-walled room
where my grandmother sat as close as she could to my sister who lay in a
high-tech bed replete with medical wonders to make dying merely a
cessation of mechanical sighs and steady lights.

I held the once strong, round body of my sister and damned its rebellion.
I wished I were a Caribbean voodoo doctor who could reach into her body
and pluck out the bloody, destructive mass and its dangling roots.  I
would pour kerosene on it and set it afire as Grandpa used to do with
webworm nests in the pecan trees.  I would revel in the crackle and spit
of it as the fire consumed it, and my sister and I would toast its
departure with glasses of thick, sweet homemade plum wine.

I spread the sheaves of white, notarized paper in front of the hospital
administrator, the papers that consigned my sister's last moments to me.
The administrator laid out twins to my papers, copies my sister had
already filed with the hospital; the legal staff had blessed them.  The
hospital was not liable.  The doctor was not liable.  I had promised.
Only I was liable.

My grandmother wept for her two granddaughters.  My sister lived exactly
39 minutes and 32 seconds after the machines and drips and lights
stopped.  I looked hard, hoping to see a frisson of spirit hover then
speed away, heady with freedom, a freedom I could never again know.


© 1996 Marlana Coe