When my hands caught fire, my mother dropped her wineglass. It popped like a light bulb and the shards skated over the frozen sundeck. The flames must have affected my brother Len's bad knee, too-it buckled as his cigarette dropped from his mouth. "Larry!" he cried, down on one knee, as if in a sign of respect for his younger brother, who was suddenly capable of sprouting fire from his fingertips, just like the Human Torch in The Fantastic Four. The Human Torch was always Len's favourite character. Me, I liked the strong man, Ben Grimm. Neither of us thought much of the guy who could stretch.
Everyone knew that barbecuing the Christmas turkey was an idiotic idea. But it was a new barbecue, a Weber, a Christmas gift to myself. It had arrived the day before, delivered by a young guy in a bright green uniform. He even gave us a complimentary bag of hickory briquettes.
"Like tramps around a barrel," my old dad kept muttering until I poured him a big one.
My mother said nothing, and that said it all.
My wife, Marie, wasn't too enthu-sed either. She hadn't been out to look at the bird, not even once. It was the first Christmas dinner Marie and I had ever hosted, and she'd wanted to know why I insisted on this dumb barbecuing idea. We'd argued about it all morning. Three years we've been married; how soon my charms have turned to aggravations.
"Just tell me why," she'd demanded.
"Something different. Something to talk about."
"Your mother will hate you for it."
"She should be pleased. She's always saying she's exhausted."
"She doesn't want a solution, Larry, she wants sympathy."
When Len arrived and saw what was up, he was quick to stay one step ahead. He began discoursing on the subject of pavo, which is Spanish for "turkey," saying how he'd eaten some, done on a rotisserie, at this little place in Mexico City just off the Zócalo, and claiming that the bird was native to the New World.
"The pilgrims. Everyone knows that," said the old man. He and Len dislike each other. My mother says it's because they're so similar. They have the same sneering expressions and hard, mad eyes. People shake their heads and say they're twins, just that one was born twenty-five years earlier. I used to be jealous of that. Then I got spiteful. Fuck 'em. At the age of twelve, I decided not to take after anyone, to be my own man, the Littlest Hobo. Dad dislikes me, too, because I borrow money off him. A thousand here, a thousand there. And then having to co-sign the loan to start the cucumber farm. Who can blame him?
"Not pilgrims, Aztecs," said Len. "Aztecs ate turkey."
Len always brings up Aztecs. He's been all through Central America: Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and-the feather in his Mao cap-Nicaragua.
"Mexico City," said Len. "That's where I hurt my knee."
"I thought you hurt your knee in Honduras," I said.
"No," said Len with the patience of the wise. He struck a match and lit a cigarette. "I got stabbed in Honduras."
I know that. I like to grind him, though. He got stabbed with a chopstick in a Chinese restaurant in Tegucigalpa. Apparently, there are a lot of Chinese people in Honduras, although my brother was stabbed by a white guy from El Paso who didn't enjoy commie Canadian remarks. Len is a sales rep for CompCan, a manufacturer of trash compactors. Mexico and Central America are his area. Len never misses a chance to joke about how popular the compactors are with military dictators.
"Don't you get tired of all the hotels?" said my mother. "Can't you get a different position? We never see you."
Len likes being elusive. He grinned. He put his arm around her shoulder and gave her a jovial hug. He just got back into town a couple of days ago, but will be taking off again after New Year's. He has an all-year tan that he's very proud of. He thinks it makes him look exotic.
My mother never fails to remark upon it. Standing on the sundeck, she said, "You'll get skin cancer."
"It'll go with your lung cancer," said the old man.
"How's your prostate?" Len asked him.
"You want to grease your finger and find out?"
My mother's mouth tightened until her lips disappeared.
I don't much like travelling, so I keep my distance in other ways. I hum. A sort of tuneless musing, like a barrier of sound, an invisible force field, like what the girl had in The Fantastic Four. My mother hates my humming. "What are you? A mosquito?"
Then Len lit his cigarette.
That's when it happened. Len reached over with the match, and for a moment I thought he was going to burn me, like that old joke: Hey, have you ever seen a match burn twice? And then you strike a match, blow it out and then stab someone with the hot end. Ha ha ha. Len liked that one. So I flinched, jostling the can of gas with which I'd doused the coals. It slopped. I reacted fast and caught it before it fell off the railing, but managed to get even more gas on my hands.
What a nifty little whoosh the can made when it caught fire. Or was it more of a whump? Whoosh or whump, I held my hands aloft as if modelling gloves of flame. And what did I see as I looked up? Snow. The weatherman had predicted a white Christmas and here it was, on its way, the flakes tumbling as slow as motes. Then the pain arrived. I pirouetted, I howled. I shook my hands hard enough to fling them from my elbow joints, but they would not come loose.
I was ablaze. My fingers were tor-ches. I could raise my arms and lead worshippers through the night. Then I saw, through the glass door, Marie rush toward me. Her expression-pinched, strained, weary-made it clear she was way ahead of us, seeing the days and weeks down the road, past the ambulance and the hospital and into convalescence, changing my bandages, smearing on the Flamazine, feeding me, washing me. What I saw was the fish pond on the other side of the railing.
I congratulate myself on what I did next: I executed a near-perfect western roll. The slight groin pull was unfortunate, but I am forty-two years old and the rail is, in a curious bit of symmetry, forty-two inches high, so I think I did pretty well in clearing it. I haven't high-jumped since grade ten. I was pretty good then. Very good, in fact. Mr. Keen said I could probably get a scholarship if I kept my grades up and stopped being a jerk.
And now I was airborne again! That's what I loved about high jump-ing-defeating gravity and becoming a bird. I'd made a solid liftoff. You can always tell. I bent my knee and sprang, hurling my entire body into the leap and then curling over the rail. It all came back to me after nearly thirty years, and it felt good. No, it felt glorious.
I cleared the rail and then kicked out with my trailing leg. That's when I pulled my groin, but I could hardly stop midway through, could I? As I completed the roll, I saw Len still down on his bended knee. I also saw Mum and Dad. They were turning with the action, keenly following the event, Mum with her mouth open and one arm extended, fingers reaching, like a woman in a fresco: storm clouds roiling in the background, while peasants and gods and moneylenders crowd close. But I was out of her reach. I'd been out of her reach since I was twelve years old. The glass door slid open and Marie stepped out.
Then there was silence. The sound got turned off and I was falling through space and time, rolling back through my life, calendar pages blowing, clocks running in reverse, the sun travelling the wrong way across the sky, familiar faces growing younger. Dick and Jane. Dr. Seuss. And then I burst the icy membrane of the fish pond. Sound returned. My mother shrieked. And then the water, dousing the flames and cooling my hands. I've always loved water. "You're a water baby," Mum used to say whenever I lolled in the pee-warm tidal pools of my youth. The pond water, in stark contrast, was freezing and abrasive, and entering it was like being smacked with a cold bastard file. Oh God, I thought, I could use a drink. A Scotch in a wood-panelled library with glass-door bookshelves. A wise man's den. Someone who can offer counsel.
I hit the bottom of the pond and struck my head on a garden gnome.
I recognized the gnome. He'd fallen in last summer. I'd bumped him in with the Toro mower and not bothered to haul him out. And now here he was, lying on his side, his beard grown slimy with algae. But that wasn't all that had changed. The gnome's smile had taken on a distinctly malevolent cast and his eyes were leering, not at all the jolly little chap I remembered, so innocent and seven-dwarfish, a union man happy with his lot. My head struck his ear, which snapped off with the sound of a decayed tooth crunching in a dentist's pliers. My skull cracked too. Some things you just know, and this was one of them: I now possessed a cracked skull. I thought of a hard-boiled egg rapped on a plate. I found myself eye to eye with that sneering gnome and felt betrayed, after all the times I'd scrubbed the guano off his head and washed him down with moss retardant. The truth was that I hadn't much liked him, and that's why I'd left him at the bottom of the pond. I lay there, stunned and gulping, my bubbles wobbling upward. I rolled onto my back like a sunken ship settling in its final resting place, and saw the bobbing shards of ice above me, the smoky blood ghosting up like my departing soul, and then the disembodied hands plunging in and reaching for me. How greedy they looked, as if I'd robbed them and was getting away. But I was already far beyond their reach, and that made me a touch sad, as did the thought that I'd stopped high-jumping too soon.
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