How’s this for a situation? Let’s remove one small chunk from the universe. Once we removed patience, and you know the result. Peter murdered his father, his mother and his younger brother, an almost immediate reaction, in fact carried out with the axe he had in his hand as I was passing. Of course we put patience back immediately, and watched it spread out through the whole village, the cleared woods, the tussocky fields, the shacks at the outskirts. An entire cathedral rose up. It seemed to us made out of toothpicks, ultimate grandeur and design, yet spare, cheap, we could see through it, rotate it to any angle, peer up into this life now restored to what had been lost. Justice locked its bolts. Each man, woman, uncle, vagrant, held a numbered ticket placing them in the correct order and relation to each other. The momentary undoing had bound things up again with renewed spirit. With such gentleness wives knelt in the cow barn; how tenderly they carried the milk bucket back to the kitchen.
Easy, too, to take away just one family member. You know what happens when the wife walks out, or the daughter dies. All the remaining family interactions creak along on unraveling strings, each smile garlanded with the kind of dust that clumps up behind the china cabinet. Greeting the son’s teacher becomes an elaborate scripted pantomime. The teacher wonders, “Should I shake her hand? Touch her shoulder? Say ‘I’m so sorry’?” so that the simplest conversation pleats out into a thousand wrinkles of possible other sentiments that would be purer, cleaner. The astringent bareness of the diningroom table with only three place settings makes the walls wider, voices softer. Each day rolls out, an inadequate bandage, muffled linen.
This afternoon it was my car that failed to appear from the lot behind the Sears, seemed never to have existed, left no trace. Where I expected to see its blue, salt-grimed behind, someone else’s car, beige, rounded, equally dirty but in a less charitable way, flashed its buttocks at me. One aisle over, the identical spot but further out, yet another strange backside confronted me. The other direction too, only foreigners, heads down, ignored me utterly. I clutched the keys in my pocket. Only half an hour ago I’d pulled them out of the ignition, slammed the door, clicked the orange button that promised my swift return. An empty slot would have been reassuring. But everywhere unbroken lines of cars shivered in the wind. They all kept their backs to me, and did not look up at the sound of my boots cutting through the slush. “You left us,” they muttered. “You never cared for us.” “How could I?” I said. “You’re not mine. It’s only my car I want.” “Selfish,” they said, one after another, and they refused to help me.