by Landon Houle
Those of us who saw it first stood stunned and still. Every eye and mouth hung open. Every hand fused into a mitten of clumsy incompetence. In that deceptive peace (because no one spoke or moved and yet inside us something began to build like breath upon breath), we were nothing more than blow-up dolls down for anything but real love.
In the city, a sixty-two-year-old woman is stabbed in the street, and everyone runs away. A security guard tells a reporter, “I was scared for my own safety.” Alone, the stabbed woman is suddenly tired enough to lay her carefully blushed cheek on the smogged curb while the leash slips from her wrist. The whining poodle—Pepper is his name—sniffs her ankles. Their toenails are the same maroon, a shade of the blood in Pepper’s fur.
But this isn’t the city or a murder, and eventually some of us dolls turn back. It’s slow going—learning to love rather than loving. For some, the old woman’s frosty perm is a mother’s or a grandmother’s. Others see the toppled walker and think of a daughter’s wrecked bike.
To feel something, in other words, we need a mirror above the bed.
The sister will pull the car around. A bag of ice is fetched. Napkins. The old woman is bloody in the face, and it’s hard to tell just what’s been hurt. Someone opens an umbrella because it’s July in South Carolina, and already the woman is burning. Last month, a little boy died in Row 11 while his father placed an order at Great American Cookies.
The sister pulls up to the curb where elsewhere, another woman might have rested for what she only thought would be a minute. A former EMT spreads his legs and sets his feet. He hooks his arms under the old woman’s and lifts. Her patterned blouse rises, leaves exposed that part of the belly between breast and button.
And the air blown into us, at last, grows into a conscience that addresses not a doll factory in China but God. We see the old woman’s belly and in our silent prayers, we bemoan the tragedy that’s befallen us all, the absolute embarrassment of our quick-set human natures.
We watch the sisters drive away. The car disappears behind an Olive Garden, and there’s no turning back.
Like exiles, we wander into the lot, into the fuming heat, and we can’t help but wish things were always as they’d been in that moment just after the old woman went down. Better—more sensible even—to stay as dust or else a doll that evokes rather than experiences. Then we couldn’t have seen the woman’s skin. We wouldn’t need to remember where we parked or which silver car is ours or why we were ever here in the first place. No one could blame us if this time, we were the ones who forgot the baby buckled inside.