Meaning Machine.


The feet, mechanical, go round.

Lily thought of Dickinson each time she had to pass Charlie’s room. His room was unavoidable on the way from her bedroom to the kitchen: a flight of stairs from the top floor, held breath and a slowing of all the systems of the body for the duration spent on his floor, and then that last flight down to the merciful impersonality of the kitchen. More often than not, instead of passing his door, she found herself inside his room, kneeling on his floor, on the bathmat she’d lain there for just that purpose. Here she was again, unsure of the mechanical process that had gotten her here, the feet, mechanical. She sat dazed for a moment or two. Then, overwhelmed by pain like a jet of squid ink in her bowels, she leaned forward and touched her forehead to the floor of her son’s room like a Muslim supplicant. But it was a misheard Catholic prayer from childhood that floated up into her mind, and then out of her mouth; Our Father who does art in heaven…

That’s how, kneeling before the church’s plaster Jesus, her child’s mind had imagined creation: God, in paint spattered robe, casting about His brushes in a heavenly art studio.

Finding the prayer insufficient—irreverent even—she turned, as usual, to poetry.

One must have a mind of winter…

…not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind.

No. Stevens was too cerebral.

The evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Eliot’s more like it. He knew his way around emotional numbness. Lily had named her daughter, April, after Eliot’s cruelest month, after the hope that she’d always found, despite herself, in that barren poem. April was the only one who still lived in the house with her, but Lily could rarely spare a thought these days (and here a little shot of guilt niggled in with the other pain). Charlie’s car accident, his ten-months-old death, had caused this sustained internal numbness, that just kept getting worse, and Lily had trouble seeing other people through the fog. So no thank you, Eliot. Too close to the bone.

There was a word for this condition of numbness, of course: depression. From the Latin diprimere, “to press down upon.” The past passive participle of the verb, dipressus, as in “oppressed/pressed down on.” Accurate, sort of. Although for Lily it felt more like a vitreous substance thickening around her, sealing her tightly inside. A sound, too, accompanied the glassy thickening: a rushing wind—with maybe the faintest of chimes tinkling in the background—that grew louder and louder until it was difficult to hear anything else.

Lily settled, finally, on Emily Dickinson; just right. The Goldilocks poet.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs

She liked the poem for many reasons. For one, the turning of regular nouns into proper ones. There is no “I” in the poem, the self negated, but Nerves and Tombs become, in essence, characters, helping the identityless body survive. Also because the poem suggested the pain was temporary, an idea that appealed to Lily: this period of numbness could be—had to be—waited out, endured. Finally, she liked the poem because its ultimate lines suggested that some pain might not be survivable:

This is the Hour of Lead—

Remembered, if outlived

As Freezing persons recollect the snow—

First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—

If outlived. Lily reserved fantasies of letting go for her darkest moments. Not that she thought she’d ever plan anything, but she comforted herself with death when, as now, she had only two other choices, each unbearable: the squid ink of loss, with its sudden, random blackening of every Nerve; or the wind and the glass, ever louder, ever thicker, accompanied by the neglect of her personal appearance and, worse, of her surviving daughter. Richard—well, he was a loss she could probably survive, should he decide to stay out at his temporary work assignment in California.

Her bedroom and the kitchen: wind, glass. Humi.

Charlie’s bedroom: pain, a cleansing madness. Domi.

Floating between these two Latin locatives— “in the ground” and “at home,” as she’d come to think of the two emotional spaces—she had only poetry left to comfort her...



Was April nervous? Just a little. She swung her feet below the office seat. Its cushions were leather-soft but the back was stiff with those tube-steel girders around the outside that you can feel through the cushions. They left the senses in confusion. What was sitting in a seat like this communicating about the experience to come? Don’t get too comfortable! Or: This might look like luxury, but let’s not forget where we are.

April opened her homework. Before the end of the Christmas break, she had to read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates and write a summary. It’s a story about the bad things that happen when you leave a young person at home alone. It takes place in the suburbs, where crimes don’t happen often, so death just rips everyone apart. The young girl is raped and killed by a guy who comes to her house and cuts the telephone line. When a story like that happens in New York, everyone’s reaction is, Oh. Again? April hooked her legs around the legs of the chair. That was the reaction last summer when Charlie died.

 After English she had to get familiar with cell division, but since she and Mahesh, her lab partner, had the falling out, she couldn’t concentrate on biology. She unhooked her feet and kicked the tubular steel with her Doc Martin toes, which were also steel, so that the whole chair rang and vibrated. She kicked it again. But the only other person in the pediatrician’s waiting room—a sharp-faced older woman holding an infant—looked up angrily. April smiled at her and watched her face soften. April’s smile was her superpower. But inside she cursed the woman who thought this waiting room needed more gravity than its grey-and-pink wallpaper, worn-out Highlights magazines, and pastel art prints already emitted.

She looked back at the story. Homework made her anxious. She had to pass, of course, but couldn’t do so well that she drew teachers’ notice. This story is a story about a not-very-smart girl who is left home alone and a man comes to the girl’s house in a muscle car. In English, the secret was long sentences, repetition, and a smattering of grammar errors (but not so many)—a configuration designed to bore Ms. Glancy cross-eyed, so she would file April in the “mediocre-but-not-a-problem” category.

“Thurston?” the nurse called out. When April approached the kiosk, the nurse touched her arm. “How are you, honey?”

April relaxed into the touch, and, when it was proffered, took the nurse’s warm Irish hand, holding on for a little too long.

“I’m good, Mrs. Flaherty,” she said. “How are you?”

“We’re so sorry to hear about Charlie.”

April kicked out her foot against the rubber bumper around the kiosk. The toe of her boot left a scuff mark so she kicked out and left another mark parallel to the first. She didn’t change her expression. “Thank you,” she said.

“How’s your mum holding up?”

“Better every day,” said April.

“There’s nothing worse than losing a son,” Mary said. “I lost mine at three months. I thought I’d die. Really. I thought it would kill me. I can’t even imagine losing a son—or a brother—Charlie’s age.”

“We’re managing,” said April. But then, sensing this was not what Mrs. Flaherty wanted, she added, “It’s so hard, though. Charlie is… was… the family’s center. We’ve lost our center.” Something her mom said, and April realized it was true: Charlie’d been the family’s center in the way a big thing is orbited by small things, and if the big thing goes the small things are unmoored.

Mrs. Flaherty gave a sad smile.

Outside, a record snowstorm was brewing. April felt tears brewing below her larynx, hoping to get up and out. Something was holding them down. She wished they would come while she was here with Mrs. Flaherty. Maybe she could hold the nurse’s hand again...