Oct 21 ● BY Elisabeth Geier
Jonah saw the bike first, front fender shining into view. He saw a scabby left knee. He saw hair stuck under the strap of her helmet, so it almost looked like she had a beard. There at the stop light across from Dinosaur Hill, where high school kids went to make out and Jonah went to do research for his geology project, Jonah saw decision cross her face, a sudden stillness, like when the oldies station cuts out in the middle of a song. Baby, baby, where did our love want me no more. Bike Girl looked him in the eye; the light turned green; his father hit the accelerator; she turned her handlebars and thunked off the hood of the car. Right before it happened, Jonah’s father was saying, “Because there is no duty greater than service unto God.” Now he is saying words Jonah has never heard him say.
At the police station, an officer in dark blue asks Jonah’s father a series of questions. The police station is across the parking lot from the community center where Jonah took a babysitting course over the summer, after his mother got pregnant at age forty-two. The whole family decided it would be good for him to know how to help with Baby. It was a responsibility he was happy to have, like his father was happy to serve the Lord. Jonah was the only boy in class. During the infant CPR test, he counted out chest compressions loud and clear because that’s what he saw them do on TV. This technique was not strictly ideal when demonstrating CPR on a rubber baby in a room full of girls, but still, Jonah achieved certification.
When a baby is in cardiopulmonary trouble, one must be unafraid to press down hard just below the sternum. What you are doing is literally squeezing Baby’s heart between her chest and back. A newborn’s heart is about the size of an adult man’s thumb. An adult man’s heart is about the size of that same man’s own fist. At age eleven, Jonah estimates his own heart to be the size of an adult woman’s fist if the woman is slender and strong and doesn’t wear rings.
* * *
“Tell me again what you were doing at the time of the incident?” the police officer asks. He has a mustache like a dirty toothbrush across his lip.
“I was driving my son to orchestra,” Jonah’s father says.
“I play percussion,” Jonah says, miming the xylophone. “With mallets.”
Dirty Toothbrush ignores him. He is not at all like police on TV. Jonah’s favorite shows are the ones where the crime and criminal are apparent from scene one, where the mystery of each episode is how and why instead of who-what-where-when.
“And you say she turned her bicycle to the left, directly in front of you?” Dirty Toothbrush asks.
“Right,” Jonah’s father says. “I mean, correct.”
“And you kept driving straight?” the officer asks.
“Only for a moment,” his father says. “I didn’t know what was . . . I pulled off onto the shoulder.”
The police officer sucks on one corner of his mustache while he writes in his pad. Jonah looks at the gun in his holster and wonders what would happen if he grabbed it. How far could he get?
“Is she going to be okay?” his father asks.
“I don’t know,” Dirty Toothbrush says. “How would I know?”
* * *
On Monday, everyone is talking about what Jonah’s father did. It was on the front page of the county paper, and anyhow Bike Girl goes to their school. The newspaper didn’t say her name, but when he gets to school he learns it is Michelle, and she is in eighth grade, and she is in woodshop with Jonah’s friend Magnus, and she helped Magnus figure out the jigsaw just last week, and it is un-fucking-believable that she got hit by yer fucking dad.
“Shit,” Jonah says, the bad word metallic in his mouth. “I didn’t know she went here.” He can’t remember ever seeing her at school. He has trouble believing she could be almost the same age as him, could sit in the same assemblies about following the righteous path, could stand on the same field during fire drills.
“Was there blood?” Magnus asks.
“I didn’t look,” Jonah says, which is a lie. It didn’t feel like anybody else’s business, but there was some blood, not a lot, where the bone stuck out of her arm. She kept her eyes open the whole time.
“Did she say anything?”
“I couldn’t hear,” Jonah says, which is true. He saw her head thrash and her mouth move and her good arm clutch at the pavement. He wonders if she recognized him when she looked through the dirty window of his father’s sensible car. If his face even registered before she turned.
“Yer dad is lucky as hell she’s alive,” Magnus says.
“What if her parents sue?” Peter asks. “Can they even afford that?”
“I don’t know,” Jonah says. He knows they have some money, but not as much as his friends’ families seem to have. He knows they feel bad. He knows there is a wall going up between them, and they will only tell him so much, and sometimes he wants to tell them more than he is able.
When Jonah’s sister was delivered blue last month—when she didn’t breathe, not even once—everyone called it a loss. “We lost the baby,” his father had said in the hospital waiting room. Like it was an action against her. Like it was somebody’s fault. The news was published in the church bulletin and in an email to select family and friends. We lost the baby, donations in lieu of flowers, private services have already been held. At twenty-four weeks, a human fetus weighs a little over one pound. Jonah lifts his backpack and follows Magnus to class.
* * *
Jonah takes the public bus home from school. Most days, one parent or the other is able to pick Jonah up, but today they have made plans to visit the hospital to take a teddy bear to Bike Girl. To Michelle. Jonah picked it out last night before he knew who she was—that she is older than him, that she knows how to operate a jigsaw. The bear has crutches and a cast on its leg that you can sign with a real pen (included). Jonah hopes Michelle is the kind of girl who will find this funny, who will write song lyrics and draw cartoons on the teddy bear’s leg.
On the bus, there is an ad about crib death. He had never noticed before how often dead babies turned up in public, but now he notices them all the time. On television, in radio PSAs, and now here on the bus. Face Up to Wake Up, the ad says. It almost makes Jonah laugh. In babysitting class, he had sat next to Merle, short for Esmerelda, but only her Nana ever called her that. Whenever Fat Teacher turned her fat back to write something on the board, Merle would lift her dummy-baby by the heel and swing it gently back and forth.
“Hypnotize me, baby,” she would say.
From the transit station where the bus route ends, Jonah has to walk several blocks home. He starts down the metal staircase from the hillside to the street. He thinks about being kidnapped. How would it happen? He imagines a van pulling up, a fist coming down, a heavy boot planted in the middle of his back. Later, his body being flung into a dumpster in an alley not too far from here, and his parents wandering up and down the streets calling for him like a runaway dog.
“Have you seen my son?” his mother would ask every stranger she passed, flashing his seventh grade portrait from her wallet. It is Jonah’s least favorite picture of himself because of the way his hair sticks up in front and the collared shirt his mother made him wear. His favorite picture of himself was taken at the beach two summers ago: Jonah standing on top of a boulder as waves crash and foam around his feet. His stance is wide and his arms are up, and even though he was shorter then, he looks like conqueror of worlds. That photograph is not wallet sized.
Jonah slips on the bottom step and is suddenly on his back looking up at a colorless sky. Then an old woman’s face eclipses the sun, then the back of his head feels like a door just slammed, then he sits up and says, “I’m fine.” Then he pulls himself to his feet and the whole world wobbles and he touches sticky on the back of his head. As Old Woman fades away, he starts walking towards the hospital. It is just around the corner, and it seems like the right thing to do. On the way, he calls his mother from the phone they had given him just a few months before.
“I fell down and hit my head,” he tells her voicemail. “There’s blood so I’m walking to the hospital so maybe I’ll see you there if it’s the same hospital. I don’t know but that’s where I’ll be if you need me. Okay, bye.”
In the hospital lobby, Jonah squeezes his fists, left-right-left-left, right-left-right-right. The information desk swims in green.
“Can I help you?” asks the girl behind the desk. Her nametag says Sage, but she has round, pink cheeks. Sage faces should be thin. Maybe this is not her given name; maybe she changed it herself. Maybe she is Angela or Jane.
“I fell down and hit my head,” Jonah says.
“You need the ER?”
“‘Kay,” Sage says. “You’re gonna wanna take the elevator,” she points off to her right, “to the fourth floor,” she holds up four fingers, “then the skyway across the street,” she draws a line in the air, “and the elevator back down to the first floor.” She holds up one finger, then swoops it all around. “Round the corner to the left, and you’re there.”
Jonah makes it to the elevator and tries to remember all of the important facts he has learned today. He presses the button for four. On two, a man in scrubs gets on pushing a covered cart that smells like disinfectant and cafeteria food. On three, Cart Man gets off, and Jonah follows him to the right through a wide pair of swinging doors. In a long hallway, they pass room after room after room, all with wide-open doors. Jonah tries to keep up with Cart Man. He tries to look forward, not into people’s rooms, but he notices the shapes of feet under blankets, televisions tuned to talk shows with the sound turned way low, and now his parents, facing away from him, standing at the bedside of Michelle. He knows them right away because of his father’s plaid shirt and his mother’s long coat, and how if you feel about your parents the way Jonah feels about his, you will recognize the backs of their heads across a crowded room, and every time it will be a relief.
From the hallway, Jonah watches his parents with Michelle, this stranger who Jonah knows was trying to get hurt. Her hair is loose now, and dirty, and she seems very small. She cradles the teddy bear while Jonah’s father speaks. Jonah cannot hear what they are saying, but he watches all of them nod, Michelle try to smile, and his mother holding tightly to his father’s hand. He doesn’t want to interrupt. He wants to hold this picture in his head and remember it later on.
Jonah almost walks into the back of the man with the cart, who has stopped to move some things around.
“Hey man, where you headed?” Cart Man asks.
“I hit my head,” Jonah says. “I got off the elevator. I’m fine.”
* * *
In the emergency room, they need parental consent to treat him, but his parents are not answering their phones. Jonah does not say that he just saw them and they could page them over the intercom like on TV. He doesn’t want to interrupt, and besides, he wants to see what happens next. So Jonah sits on a bench in the waiting room until he feels like he is going to throw up.
“Still haven’t heard from them, please take a seat,” says the nurse he talked to before.
“What should I do if I feel like I’m gonna puke?” Jonah asks.
“Do you feel like you’re gonna puke?” the nurse asks.
“Maybe,” he says, and then he does, into a pink plastic basin the nurse hands him just in time. The basin is shaped like a bean. His vomit is bilious and yellow, and suddenly nothing is fun, and he hopes no one else in the waiting room can see.
When Jonah’s mother came home without the baby, she spent thirty-six hours in bed. Jonah and his dad ate cold cereal for several meals in a row, and his dad carried tea to his mother through a barely-open door, as if opening it all the way would let out too much air. In the hospital, people die all the time, and the hallways are wide and brightly lit, and doors are almost always left wide open. Doors can’t block anything, really, so why bother closing them at all? Jonah tries to share this with the nurse, but it comes out as, “Why doors,” and then more vomit, and then he is taken to an examining room and put in a paper gown.
“Do you know the date today?” asks a new medical professional.
“Who is the president of the United States?”
Jonah tells her.
“What’s forty-two minus sixteen?”
Jonah takes a long moment to see the math in his head, then gives an answer he knows to be correct.
“That would have taken me just as long if I didn’t fall down,” he says. “Don’t get any funny ideas.”
Jonah is not sure how long he has been in this bed when his parents finally arrive, only that he has been given a styrofoam cup of water and ice, and he has been escorted to the bathroom and back one time, and the television is showing a crime show he has never seen.
His mother rushes through the open door and presses her lips to his hair.
“Jonah, Jonah, Jonah,” she says. Baby, baby mine.
“What happened?” Jonah’s father asks, holding Jonah’s hand in his.
“I took the bus home,” Jonah says. “Whoops!” Then he laughs, and laughing makes his head hurt, and his head hurting because of laughter makes him laugh some more, and everything is laughter and pain and his mother’s smell like coffee and cinnamon gum. It occurs to Jonah that a hug is probably the way: reach for the gun while the officer’s arms are busy doing something else.