The pilgrims come every day, all of them the same: ducking underneath the garage door before it’s settled into its cradle up with the sawdust and the rafters and the cobwebs as fine as angel hair clogged with upward-floating prayers. The pilgrims’ lightning-veined faces all go as pink and plump as a bushel of fresh-dug radishes, matching the armful of roses they’re carrying in to win my favor and blessings so as that I might heal them, or their kin, or their parents who’ve gone as frail and weak as all the gamboling tea-candle flames Momma has stationed circling my chair like dim satellites. Their gaze skitters from the broad strokes of my face—where they don’t ever meet my toggling eyes—to the concrete idols that flank me, then back and to my supporting chinstrap of leather that Daddy fashioned to keep my head from capsizing while the pilgrims go eyes-closed and pray. The leather’s caked in the white-salt crust you get all over the barnacle-sequined stones and sand-bound beachfront houses at land’s end, not a two-hour drive from where I am, at home, in the garage, the crust being my dried spit. I can’t help drooling a lot; I don’t even notice I’m doing it. We’ve got suction to keep it from dripping in the sticky and long threads that trickle from my face to my fingertips. The pilgrims hate that. Daddy says that suction is the third best miracle God ever made after me and central air.
The pilgrims all cry in the same way, with little bits of tissue lint stuck in the rims of their noses. They all cry at the same time too: when the idols start weeping blood. Momma buys the bulk-size tub of coconut oil from the outlet grocery store—what Donnie calls Gross Out—where all the food toes what Daddy calls the lawsuit-bait line of the can’t-sell-it-no-more date printed in computer digits on bottle caps or underneath the nutrition information. She scoops the coconut oil in two-tablespoon servings into a microwave-safe bowl, zaps it soft, then stirs in red food coloring until it’s the refined poinsettia shade of a paper cut. Once the oil’s cool and solid as a booger-wad, she loads it into the hollowed backs of the idols’ heads, where—back when the first pilgrims had begun coming to visit—Daddy drilled out basins right behind the eyes where the idols’ brains ought to be. He used the small-as-a-needle drill bit right where their tear ducts would go, so they can sob once the oil gets runny again from the desert wind of the space heaters Momma runs whenever we’ve got company in the garage, always going on about how my body can’t make its own warmth anymore, to which pilgrims always just nod and try to levee their noses that have gone runny with sniffles in order to keep their boo-hooing at bay until they can ask for my help. But once the garage is hot and the pilgrims have gone eyes-closed and then stripped their canopy-layer dress clothes to reveal goose-fleshed arms and pits ringed in sweat—that’s when the idols weep, and that’s when the pilgrims’ spigots turn open and they spill ugly, stringy spit, just like I would without my suction.
They say, “I think I saw Margaret’s finger twitch.”
And then, “Quiet, quiet. Is she whispering in tongues?”
Then later, “I bet she’s going to get up and walk out of here after she’s done blessing us.”
But I won’t ever walk again, I know it; even if I could, Momma would chase me down with a butcher’s knife in order to hack my legs to stumps and fasten me back to my chair, due to all the donating the pilgrims do and seeing as she hasn’t worked a day in her life and plans to keep it that way. Daddy only works small-time hours manufacturing parts for airplanes—the turbine engines that give the wings the metal-birdie whooshing song of a whistle—ever since I came down with what Momma calls my I-can’t-move-it mutism. She says that but for the grace of God I should be six feet under in one of those tiny and very sad coffins they make for stillborn infants or else toddlers too curious for their own good, that I should be nothing but worm-food remnants by now, thirteen-and-then-some years on. I can’t remember anything from when I caught the I-can’t-move-it, but I’ve heard the story about all the times in the world since Momma tells it to every single pilgrim: they had barely started counting my age as a-year-and-a-half instead of a clump of months. We were down at Lake Eunuchus before dark, the pre-twilight hour when gnats veiled the water and the sky had faded to dusky, dying-leaf shades that pooled and overlapped like melted candle wax. The water had gone dull in the low light, so even in the shallows it was easy to lose the beachcomber’s treasure-to-be of a wedding band or a wristwatch while doing a sloppy doggie paddle.
Daddy says that suction is the third best miracle God ever made after me and central air.
Momma always tells the pilgrims I went off misbehaving behind their backs, trying to drink the whole lake in cheek-swelling mouthfuls, giggling and inhaling wrong so the water went and filled my lungs up like lead into a helium balloon, all my fault. Donnie says the truth is that Daddy was holding me palm-to-belly, skimming the surface and teaching me the row-boat strokes of how to swim. Maybe it was too dark, or maybe Daddy got too drunk, or maybe he just went thoughtlessly eyes-closed on everybody at the wrong minute. Donnie thinks he dunked me on purpose. However it went, I was face-down and effervescent for a good while. Then, next thing—Momma and Donnie agree—my face had gone purple as a guinea squash and I was limp like a teddy bear in Daddy’s arms as he held me, fingers spidered around and supporting my head as delicately as a bassinet.
Momma tells the pilgrims that the ambulance ride was the loudest thing she’d ever heard, seeing as it never funneled away into the doppler of a rounded block, her riding with me inside its guts; she always says she thought it must’ve been the seven big-belled trumpets honking out the revelation overhead. Daddy and Donnie followed in the Bronco like a tailwind, parking in the emergency lane behind the ambulances that waited in a tidy line like ants at the bay of a Coke spill. Momma was half-shocked to see that the sky hadn’t fallen once we got out and I was gurney-rushed through the guillotine doors and hooked up to beeping machines that made everyone howl about how I was dying. Momma still turns on the faucets and gets tinsel-eyed and snotty when she talks about how they scurried in the reverend to administer last rites to me; she went clutching at her chest and whale-crying so loud she had to be evicted from the room during the rubbing-on of oil, looking like I was about to be tossed on the bed of a charcoal grill just post-calling. But eventually the beeping machines settled and Momma was let back in. I was breathing via the gushing bellows of white-paneled clinical instruments, and the doctor got all winsome-like and said I was napping and would be for some time, maybe forever. When Momma tells this part she always sweeps the hair from around my face with the tines of her fingernails, showing off her teeth, yellow as a bird’s beak, in a blushing grin as she says I was her sleeping beauty, a princess same as any other. It was when I was snoozing they started posting my picture all over and asking for the spare change of strangers so as to chip away at my infirmary bed-and-board. That’s when small numbers of local pilgrims started to show, so they could see what they were paying for.
Small numbers of local pilgrims started to show, so they could see what they were paying for.
I woke up about three months in, and that’s when the real donations started. No one noticed I was awake for a couple hours; Donnie sat making witch-fingers with Bugles and watching TV with his feet up on the bed’s railing, not seeing my eyes oscillating in panic like a cat clock. But then the doctor came in and hollered, this time in a good way. He flooded all my cavities with a flashlight before diagnosing me with my I-can’t-move-it and saying I was about as uselessly heavy as a paperweight. Donnie always footnotes here that the doctor added: “Maybe she should’ve drowned and been done with it.” But Momma and Daddy didn’t feel that way at all, and ever since they’ve called me Margaret the Miracle Child. That’s when the pocket change rained down in a deluge through the phone line, and the pilgrims started showing up in multitudes. The doctor said I barely escaped the scalding jaws of death but that I’d be in the dirt by ten. Momma says: “Well, here you are, at the dawn of right teenager-hood, so don’t start misbehaving on me now, kiddo.” Then she laughs in the horsey way of smoking for a lot of years—a wheeze, like a muggy noontime breeze squeezing through the garage door slats. When Momma tells the whole yackety story she gets very not-pretty. But come nighttime, post-bath, when she brushes my hair, she says that what I’ve got on my head is nothing but a straight-up nest of rats, but OK, that’s all right, nothing’s going to stop me from being gorgeous, especially to the pilgrims who come day-in, day-out, cutting checks of many digits for all the healing that I can offer given my being what Momma calls on the telephone a victim soul.
The first thing Jeremiah said to me was he wasn’t named after The Book Of, but instead after a bullfrog. Him and his own momma had matching crop-dusted mustaches and a burnt toast scent about them that lingered like an off-hours bus. He hadn’t yet started chemo, at which point he’d become exhausted and hairless and nauseated; he told me the blood was in the water and that he’d be down for the count within a week. Him and his own momma ducked underneath the garage door just like all pilgrims did, anxious after their six-hour drive from the west, bladders full and sloshing like camping canteens. Jeremiah’s own momma went into the main house to pee, but meanwhile he stayed and babbled at me, his voice carrying gunshot-clear through the wall so both our mommas could hear him. He told me that he ain’t never had a daddy ever, that his own daddy ran off straight away when he saw Jeremiah’s own momma starting to get so belly-swollen and fat that she couldn’t hide it under sweaters any longer, which was what she’d figured would happen once he found out she was with child. Jeremiah said she had been too dense to go long-term in planning for how to break the fatherhood news.
When his own momma came back in the garage, she had the jumping beans of a laugh in her throat. “You know she can’t hear you,” she said, which wasn’t true, but Momma didn’t correct her. Jeremiah just shrugged his shoulders inside his too-big T-shirt the mottled soil color of dip spit. He wandered back toward the garage door, kicking idly at the fissured and oil-ringed slab floor as if it had called him dumb.
“All I was gonna say was neither you or my dad had wanted me. And seems God’s trying to finish what you didn’t have the guts to.”
Jeremiah’s own momma told him he needed to shut up or else he was going to be spending a real long afternoon in the driveway-planted car that was getting to be about as hot as a clay-cooking kiln, and that he better believe it, and that she wouldn’t be accountable if he happened to just fry like an ant that met the wrong magnifying glass out there, so he should watch his mouth if he knows what’s good. She said she didn’t mind praying with me on her own. She told Jeremiah he was the most important thing in her life, and that he was a fool, and then she tried to roll out the I-brought-you-into-this-world stuff before Momma intervened and said, “OK, it’s OK,” and that she knows how hard it is raising a child, and “Now let’s all breathe,” and that self-pity is just too easy a trap to fall into.
Momma distracted them with the whole nine about how I got my I-can’t-move-it; my eyes had gone muscle-sore from ping-ponging between everyone hooting at one another. Jeremiah went sullen-like, head bowed in the way of eyes-closed but not praying. He had turned away, facing the garage door and its streamers of light; he stood still as stained glass then, hands in pockets. I wondered if he was old enough to drive yet, pictured him with wind-combed hair, undammed river of the radio babbling at high volume, American flag billowing out the window to denote an unbounded sense of freedom. I didn’t think so. It was hard to make out the shape of him, his clothes all rumpled and hand-me-down large. But most pilgrims were either tiny as peapods or else white-haired and lilting and perfume-heavy; it was rare to meet one around my own age. He made me wonder what I looked like: the spit crusted on my leather strap; how many chins I had stacked up against my slack neck; my arms bone-thin and with a fresh field of dark hair that had sprouted like newborn seedlings come last year, some months before Donnie told Momma I had mosquito bites on my chest—for which she slapped the back of his neck so hard it turned the rosy shade of a sunburn and he yelped as loud as a puppy blasted by a BB pellet about how life ain’t fair—which led to me getting a training brasserie that was polka- dotted like the candy buttons that come on a roll of parchment. I had often wanted to move, or talk, or run like a striped-fur beast toward the coastline; this was the first time that I’d wanted to see myself in a mirror. I wanted to look down and see how my dress was fitting along my abdomen, and to pull the suction from my lips and wipe them of residue before casting them in a frosted glaze of Vaseline so they wouldn’t be peeling or chapped but instead supple and ready for touching.
And when he whispered, I could smell hours-old tuna fish on his breath: “I’m not scared to die, you know.”
It had been years since I had really listened when Momma told my story to the pilgrims; her voice had become as much a part of the background as the white noise of the space heaters, their filaments humming and crackling to life like puffed rice meeting milk. Momma had been ruffled by the whole fuss of Jeremiah and his own momma verbally trying to sweep each other’s legs, so now I wondered if the idols would even weep before Jeremiah left and the garage went flat-pulsed as a tumbleweed-dusted ghost town again. I was usually happy to see the pilgrims go; this time I had the upper respiratory itch of wanting to waggle my dead tongue and blurt out air in the shape of “Don’t leave.” I thought I might miss him. And then there was that thought’s unquenchable follow-up: I will miss him when he’s gone. And then Momma asked Jeremiah and his own momma to join hands with her so they could all go eyes-closed and ask for healing, so as that Jeremiah might never have to go bald and smooth as a strong man or cough up anymore blood-ribboned loogies. They formed a scythe-curved row around me. The garage was hushed for a minute, maybe two. I usually went eyes-closed too, but this time I didn’t. I stayed trained on Jeremiah as if I was looking through a rifle’s sight. With both his hands occupied by our pair of mommas he couldn’t wipe his teeming brow-sweat with the length of his forearm. It all gathered and dripped like an IV bag full of saline into the dugout of his eyelid. He blinked violently, catching me rubbernecking at him only in passing as his lid fluttered open like the cartoon flipping of a window’s roller shade. This happened twice before he let our mommas’ hands go and whipped off his oversized T-shirt, exposing his body: bone-etched and thin, boxer shorts popping out from the mouth of his carpenter jeans, a map of bruises across his ribs, wiry hair tufts under each arm. Quick as a mousetrap, his momma belched out about what in Sam Hill did he think he was doing, that he better put his dang shirt back on, that this weren’t his house where he could walk around half-naked all day.
“It’s too hot. I’m sweating balls. I can’t deal with the heaters.”
Jeremiah’s own momma said she’d give him something to sweat about if he wasn’t fully clothed by the time she got to five. She didn’t even start counting before he crawled back into the T-shirt headfirst. Jeremiah’s own momma muttered to no one, or maybe to me: “Don’t know what’s wrong with that child.”
I had never noticed the silence of a long session of eyes-closed before. I could hear the shunting of central air back in the main house, the forever-sighing of the space heaters, the snot-gated whistling of nose-breathing from someone in the semicircle, the gurgling suction catheter tugging at my saliva strings and squirreling them all away in the plastic jug to be emptied come evening. And once Momma said “Amen” and closed the session, the silence didn’t give up or change but instead felt like it was going to drag on eternally, into the endlessness of being dead, as if everyone in Heaven was about to give everyone else the silent treatment for all time. Jeremiah’s own momma seemed to regret what she had done, like she’d just cashed in her only token for a miracle in order to save a child that maybe she hadn’t wanted in the first place. And I don’t think Jeremiah had really gone eyes-closed at all, but that he’d spent that time just thinking about how he’d been right about his own momma all along, how there was that dunce-capped corner inside of her that was jubilant about his being sick and her getting a do-over once he was post-calling.
Momma shuffled her feet like she was lazy-waltzing before suggesting that she take Jeremiah’s own momma back into the main house, purse in tow, in order to chat and maybe she’d also like some lemonade, to cool off. Jeremiah’s own momma glanced back at him squint-eyed as she exited, telling him he better not act stupid. And same as the mommas could hear Jeremiah as he jabbered at me when they first showed, we could glean whatever Momma said from the other side of the drywall as if via tin can telephone, like: “I know how hard it is raising a sick child,” and “I think you got to watch that fire-bellied anger,” and “I know it’s hard to see your one-and-only suffering, but you got to take out that frustration elsewhere because he’s looking down-barrel at being dead sooner than later.” They gibbered like tree dwellers, circling the kitchen and sipping at glasses that sweated into palms and clinked with rafts of ice.
But Jeremiah kissed like the way my suction kissed: all dry, all business.
Jeremiah tottered close to me, then near enough that I could begin to feel his body heat distinct from the gaping vents of the space heaters; I could smell him strong as if I was him—the scent of things that had burned too long and at too high a temperature. I didn’t avert my eyes. And when he whispered, I could smell hours-old tuna fish on his breath: “I’m not scared to die, you know.” And I did know; I’d had a lot of hours to reckon with spending a life in the rubber room of the I-can’t-move-it, never eking out my first words in the clover-shaped lips of goo-goos and milk-craving whines, never scratching my own itches, never having a body to myself, invaded so often by doctor’s mirrors and Momma’s scrubbing fingers. I’d had a lot of bathroom breaks with Momma wiping me when I should’ve been wiping myself. But never before had my internal cup flowed up and over and made such a mess as when I wanted to say to Jeremiah that I did, in fact, know.
My gaze on him stayed as steady and sure-locked as a turret.
“It’s not that I want to die,” he said, from a distance that was nearly forbidden for how rarely anyone ever got up to it, where I could feel his breath on the tendril-hairs of my upper-lip. “But I ain’t a coward, either.”
Jeremiah had crescent moons of dirt underneath his fingernails, jagged-cut but overgrown like riverside weeds. Momma trimmed my footsies and my fingers every Sunday night during bath time; come Easter weekend, she’d even paint them with the pink lacquer of polish before dressing me in bow-decked crushed velvet. Jeremiah’s own momma didn’t do any such thing for him. His hands danced across the skin of my face, intimate-like, before pulling the suction from my mouth and unleashing a chin-dribbling brook of spit. He lifted my head so it didn’t rest on the leather strap anymore and planted a kiss, dry and cracking as a root-nudged panel of sidewalk. Our teeth clinked like we were toasting to some good thing, and I felt his breath throttled all molten down my throat.
“I didn’t want to die without kissing a girl, even if that girl is a retard. Even if you can’t hear me. Still.”
He touched his thumb to the pocked lines of my training brassier. Spindly-fingered, he tugged at the shoulders of my dress some, so he could see the straps cresting my shoulders and then fastening in the back. He began probing into me: fingertips indenting belly and thighs and sides and underarms. He lifted my dress hem and stayed above-underwear, eyeing everything, prodding as if he wanted to understand my consistency—my malleability, the way that I retained my shape. And it felt different than when Momma cleaned me or went up-dress for lavatory reasons. It was full of index-fingered curiosity and detective work, a sort of touch I hadn’t felt before—not the delicate latex-guarded contact of sick-person swabbing, or Momma’s obligation to keep orifice rims clean. This was the sort of touch that all blessedly standard pedestrians seemed to have with one another, normal and not with the grimace of burden; Jeremiah went all-in on the archaeology of my body—with its drool puddle forming in the lap of my dress—because of some internal-bred desire. I had, up until then, only ever been an object that required tending, a high maintenance houseplant inhabiting a series of infinite years that gummy-stretched in both past and future directions wherein my own physicality was a matter of automotive-like maintenance. But Jeremiah was a new thing: an undiscovered animal, born rabid.
Before long, the mommas came back in to the find the idols had started weeping; I had jungle vines of spittle dragging from my lips and my dress was still above-knee. Jeremiah’s own momma started at the whooping right away. It was easy to imagine that the next six hours of riding shotgun toward home were going to be painfully bump-laden on his reddened rear-end. Just like all pilgrims, they started crying at the same time as the idols, wailing at each other like a pair of thirsty infants with the requisite swollen, wet cheeks. I didn’t feel bad for Jeremiah, though. He wasn’t scared to die. He’d get his earful on the drive westward, I knew. But he had a leg up; even the healthiest pilgrims who came to the garage in order to go eyes-closed on behalf of someone else ended up sobbing as they thought about their own inevitable calling coming for them. Unlike Jeremiah, they were all cowards. He didn’t cry for the oncoming being-dead but instead for the not having died quite yet.
Momma was none too happy with me, too, and left me alone in the garage once she’d wiped the idols clean of their tears and resettled me in my chair. I had been right: I did miss Jeremiah once he was gone. But the kiss felt different and far worse than I had expected, having seen so many other people kissing so many times before. After a long session of eyes-closed, a lot of the saggy-skinned elderlies with the spiderweb-thin hair that failed to cover the balding of both male and female crowns would end up locked into big-mouthed and sloppily wet kisses that ended in denture-revealing grins and a lot of sanguine-spirited hope. But Jeremiah kissed like the way my suction kissed: all dry, all business. Even if I could’ve lifted my lip corners and told him how much I didn’t want him to be dead so soon, I don’t think I would have. I think I would’ve remained as still and silent as I had been with the I-can’t-move-it weighing me down and rendering me inert.
In the after-supper hours of frog-croaking evening Donnie came to administer my feeding. I knew he’d heard from Momma about what Jeremiah had done earlier in the day, and how I was equally complicit in the up-dress iniquitous touching because, for all the healing I’d ever done, I still couldn’t rid that boy of his sinfulness along with his cancer. Momma tended to pass pilgrim gossip hand-in-hand with green beans or Hawaiian sweet rolls. Most often, it was Momma who did my nighttime feeding, followed by the last bathroom break before bed. But I knew Momma couldn’t stand the sight of me, all sullied. And she’d told Daddy, and it had been all the scuttlebutt over a dinner of pot roast or else meatloaf from the smell of it. The food steam had wafted through the door gaps along with the dinner talk, finding me in the dark of the empty garage that felt more lifeless having had Jeremiah in it than it would have had he never come at all.
Donnie had to unhook my suction and dump the line out in the pebble beds of the needle palms beside the driveway before he could connect my feed; with the garage door open I could see the moon drenching all the neighbors’ houses with dirty scallop-shell light, and then the sky beyond that, and then a whole lot of nothing that I was never going to see unless framed by smudgy van windows as I was ferried to and from offices that smelled the way a tongue depressor tastes or else the hallowed dusty rooms of a rectory. Once Donnie came back, we just sat in the quiet for a while, listening to the feed line shuttle its mush. But I guess he got restless, watching my eyes look at him and then at a wall and then back to him, so he got close and tickled my earlobe with his whispering so Momma wouldn’t hear: “I heard about what happened today.” Then he looked at my face. I stared right back at him.
“There’s a girl at school I like,” he said, “named Amanda DeSilva. Amanda DeSilva. Ain’t that a name? A good name. I’m gonna ask her out, you know. In secret, as in not gonna tell Momma or Dad. I’ve been saving up allowance in order to buy her food, after which maybe she’ll wanna go make it.”
Donnie was too close for me to see him anymore; I went eyes-closed and felt his breath on my ear in addition to all the internal churning of gut-bound feed. The truth was that I never felt like I was healing anybody, or that I ever had a direct line with the up-above to which I could send messages about making anyone any better. And I wondered why I was so good at fixing others when I couldn’t even fix myself. But I tried then, anyway, saying: Let Donnie get what he wants, because he came to take care of me even when Momma was too stomach-turned to look at me and Daddy was too tired to try.
Before long, the feed line cleared and Donnie pulled it from between my teeth. But he kept whispering, “You’re older now than anybody thought you’d ever be.” He didn’t put the suction back. My spit glands, activated from eating, began filling up my mouth like a garden hose dangled over-poolside. I opened my eyes to see him there, moving slow and careful as a bandit. His voice was low and croaky as the frogs outside as he said, “And I still blame Dad for what he done to you.” Then he went finger-to-chin and whisked at the drool I had rolling. He picked up my suction catheter between index and thumb and we both looked at it for a minute.
“Them barn fowl are so stupid,” he said. “When it rains, they just look up in awe. Mouth open. It all pools in there and they just go on breathing. Before too long they drown. And next thing, farmer comes out and finds a field of dead fowl all face-down in the puddles and in the mud.”
The truth was that I never felt like I was healing anybody, or that I ever had a direct line with the up-above.
He hooked me back up to my suction and clamped my mouth closed on it. All my spit got sucked up and splattered all over the interior of the now-empty jug to my side. He sighed just like Momma in the heat of high noon. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I think a lot about that doctor, when I was little and you were in the hospital. About how he said you would’ve been better off having died in the water. I don’t know. Maybe you would have. I don’t know.” Then Donnie didn’t say anything for a long time. Night wind whistled in the reeds. All the wildlife whirred behind the garage door. My stomach churned through the feed. I wasn’t as stupid as any awe-struck birdies. I heard what Donnie was saying: one of these days I would fall asleep tilted chin-up. Free of suction, my mouth would gurgle full with my own noxious saliva. That’s when I’d get my calling. It’d probably happen all by accident, or else by Donnie, or maybe it’d be the doing of the almighty up-there himself, but it was coming, and even if I hadn’t been tied down by my I-can’t-move-it, there was nothing I could do to slow it down.
When Donnie finally got up, he carried the emptied feed bag with him. Before he left the garage, he leaned in and gave me a butterfly-like brother-smooch on my forehead, still salt-licked with the day’s sweat—from earlier, when it was hot and Jeremiah had wanted something out of me that I’d never had for sale. Then Donnie was gone, and I could hear him on the other side of the wall telling Momma I was ready for bed, followed by a lot of harrumphing coming out of her as she labored to stand up. I went eyes-closed, trying futilely and with all my might to scurry my thoughts through the cobwebs and the rafters, all the way to the mysterious up-there: I don’t want Momma mad at me anymore; it’s not the dying that I’m afraid of; I’m no coward; it’s the not having died quite yet.