Sunday, July 17, 2011

October 4th, 1957

This is a story I wrote way back in undergrad, but I think about it every October 4th on the anniversary of Sputnik, so this year I figured I'd dust it off and publish it here.

October 4th, 1957

Tommy Morgan died the day Sputnik was launched. He was seventeen, three years older than my brother, Billy; I was ten and had trouble grasping outer space, let alone anything larger. When my mother came to pick me up from school that day, she looked more scared than Mr. Murlitz, our principal, he talked to us about the Russian threat in our annual assembly. “It’s going to be very hard on Billy,” my mother said, shifting her eyes from the road to me. “Tommy was really his best friend.” I nodded automatically. “If you could do anything for him…” she paused and swallowed. “You know,” she continued, tightening her grip on the steering wheel. “Just be a good brother.” I nodded again, quickly, and turned to the window.

When he was thirteen, Tommy Morgan learned how to stand. His parents got him leg braces from the best cerebral palsy doctor in the country which locked his legs into place and set them so he could be lifted upright and then balance, unsupported, his arms jerking with effort and his chin stuck out, proud. My parents and I clapped, and Billy, amazed, rocked back and forth with so much force he almost fell out his chair, his mouth open, one eye trained on Tommy, both of them forcing out raw bursts of incredulous laughter. Two years later Billy was standing too, but since he couldn’t balance on his own, my father built him a standing table to hold onto while the braces kept his legs straight. By then Tommy Morgan was fifteen, and back in his wheelchair, frustrating himself trying to move pegs on a pegboard and relearn exercises he had mastered two years before.

When I got home from school, Billy was in his chair, a pegboard on his lap, crying in rough barking sobs as Miss Burch, his tutor, sat across from him. “I think we’ve done all we can do today,” she said when we came in, putting her hand on Billy’s shoulder for a minute before she gathered up her papers and pegs and put them in her bag. After she left, Billy kept crying and my mother walked over to him slowly, then bent and hugged his jumping shoulders in silence.

“Do you want to take a walk, Billy? I’ll go with you for a walk,” I volunteered. He swung his head no. “Do you want to watch American Bandstand?” Watching TV and riding in the car were two of Billy’s favorite things, but he swung his head again. My mother stood up and moved to the seat at the table that Miss Burch had sat in.

“Do you miss Tommy?” she asked softly, leaning forward and looking into Billy’s face. He nodded, then pitched his head forward and made a little crying wheeze, a question she couldn’t begin to answer. “You know Tommy wouldn’t want you to be sad,” my mother tried, her voice tense as if she was walking a tightrope. “Everyone has to die sometime, don’t they?” Billy twisted in his chair. “For some people it’s sooner, but Tommy lived a lot in the time he had,” She shifted her eyes away from Billy’s crumpled face, her voice stretching out. “You do what you can while you can, Billy, and keep hoping that’s worth something. It’s all you can do.” He twisted further away, so he was looking at the opposite wall, gasping raspy, irregular breaths and crying slowly.

“Do you want to go for a ride –“ I started, reaching for anything that could make it better, but even before my voice gave out it was overwhelmed by Billy’s awkward sobbing. I walked over to the TV and turned it on low, then sat right in front like I was never supposed to do with my back to both of them. After a minute my mother wheeled Billy over and he sat a little behind me, shifting in his chair until I moved over to the couch and sat next to him. We sat like that until my father came home, wrapped in silence except for the muffled voices on the TV and the occasional chokes of sobs that caught in Billy’s throat.

We were back in those same positions, watching the television news about Sputnik when Uncle Clint came by after dinner. “The skies are red tonight, thanks to Eisenhower!” Uncle Clint waved his stubby hand at the screen as he dropped down on the other side of the couch. Immediately I looked over at Billy, whose arm jerked in response. “Well, I know you’ve got a fondness for him, Bill, but as your parents should be telling you, that man’s taking this country straight to hell.”

“Clint –“ my father warned, but Billy cut him off with a raw angry squall and a twist of his knees that rattled his chair.

“Settle down, now!” Clint reprimanded, taken aback as Billy broke into hiccupping wails and bucked in his chair, rocking it back and forth. “It’s only my opinion,” he added, ejecting himself from the couch and moving towards the door as my father went to the closet to get him his coat. Uncle Clint forced an arm through one sleeve and turned back towards us, hunting for some apology. “You know I’m not saying that I could do any better,” he shrugged over his shoulder.

After an hour, Billy’s crying stopped and we went to bed, tucked in and quiet, just a few feet apart. Down the hall, I could hear my parents talking about the whole scene, my mother’s voice starting, sad and plaintive. “Part of the problem is that Clint is just clumsy with people. He can’t help it, you know.”

“Part of the problem is Clint drinks too much and shows up in people’s living rooms without an invitation,” my father answered gruffly. “If he had just asked how we were doing before he jumped in…” his voice trailed to an angry, dry cough and we heard the easy chair squeak as he sunk into it.

We were silent in the bedroom, except for Billy’s uneven, heavy breathing, which didn’t relax until I crawled out of my bed and crossed over to his. He lay on his back, arms pinned down by the sheets and blanket tucked in tight around him. His head, as always, held between two “teddy bears” – the inserts which kept him from rolling over and smothering in his sleep. I reached down and hugged his confined body the best I could, pressing my cheek to his collar. I stayed for a bit, almost forgetting Billy’s tense and shifting body, then when back to my own bed, slipping in as quietly as I could. As we went to sleep, I kept remembering Tommy’s asymmetrical smile, the proud angle of his chin when he stood for us in his living room, and Billy’s pain now that he saw how it had turned out.

Monday evening, Uncle Clint came back with a signed picture of Eisenhower that he got at the Republican office in Buffalo, which my mother arranged on our living room mantle. Billy smiled softly at Uncle Clint, who sighed with relief and reinstated himself on our couch, and we watched the news together quietly, until Billy and I went to bed. In our room that night we stayed awake a long time, both staring up at the ceiling above our twin beds, each minute wondering how many more we had before we’d fall asleep.

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