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There are stories that unwind themselves as simply
as a ball of string. A man is on a plane between
New York and Denver. He sees his life
as moving along a straight line. Today here,
tomorrow there. The destination is not so
important as the progression itself. During lunch
he talks to the woman seated beside him.
She is from Baltimore, perhaps twenty years older.
It turns out she has had two children killed
by drunk drivers, two incidents fifteen
years apart. At first I wanted to die every day,
she says, now I only want to die now and then.
Again and again, she tries to make her life
move forward in a straight line but it keeps
curving back to those two deaths, curves back
like a fishhook stuck through her gut. I guess
I’m lucky, she says, I have other children left.
The man and woman discuss books, horses; they
talk about different cities; but each conversation
keeps returning to the fact of those deaths,
as if each conversation were a fall from a roof
and those two deaths were the ground itself—
a son and daughter, one five, one fourteen.
The plane lands, they separate. The man goes off
to his various meetings, but for several days
whenever he’s at dinner or sitting around
in the evening, he says to whomever he is with,
You know, I met the saddest woman on the plane.
but he can’t get it right, can’t decide whether
she is sad or brave or what, can’t describe
how the woman herself fought to keep the subject
straight, keep it from bending back to the fact
of the dead children, and then how she would
collapse and weep, then curse herself and
go at it again. After a week or so, the man
completes his work and returns home. Once more
he gathers up the threads of his life.
It’s spring. The man works in his garden,
repairs all that is broken around his house.
He thinks of how a spider makes its web;
how the web is torn by people with brooms,
insects, rapacious birds; how the spider
rebuilds and rebuilds, until the wind
takes the web and breaks it and flicks it
into heaven’s blue and innocent immensity.
Copyright 1987 Stephen Dobyns.
Originally published in Cemetery Nights. Included in Vox Populi by permission of the author.