The Jaws of Life

by Laura Shaine Cunningham

For nine years, Len and Kit Callendar faced west. One morning they drove into their view.

Outside, in the predawn dark of Riverside Drive, Kit sat at the wheel of their car, motor running, while Len made several return trips up to 7B, to ensure that he had not forgotten anything.

No matter how hard he concentrated, his papers seemed to disappear as he looked at them, especially his own birth certificate.

The tiny room was crammed with papers and files, his own and those of the foundation that had employed Len as a catastrophe scout, paid to evaluate international disasters for emergency aid. The office was walled by bookcases, top-heavy with tomes on world hunger and histories of religious massacres. The bookcases created a canyon that threatened to collapse and crush Len under the weight of global tragedy.

The buzzer sounded from the lobby: Kit. “I’ll be right down,” he said, but he didn’t leave. Instead, he picked up his thesaurus (he never knew when he might need it) and looked around 7B for the last time. He walked across the living room and took a final look at the “drop dead view” of the river.

The day they moved in, the man who lived alone in 7A, who would have been their immediate neighbor, jumped from his balcony balustrade. Len and Kit, carrying small, breakable objects, were walking toward the entry of the Abelard when the man hit the concrete.

What impressed Len, clutching a blue-and-white Chinese porcelain lamp base, was how soft and soundless the impact had seemed. The man didn’t fall the way Len would have imagined—he simply folded, like a stuffed doll, a Raggedy man. Len hadn’t wanted to stare but he did. Then he turned to Kit, who knew CPR, but she shook her head and walked past, holding the Art Deco frosted lampshade. Kit could diagnose definitive death when she saw it.

Kit was good at rescue. She had saved the lives of people whom she despised, including some of her in-laws. Most recently, she’d saved Len’s uncle, who would otherwise have died at a wedding, and at the same event, Heimlich-hugged a great aunt who gagged on a cocktail onion.

Every summer, at an upstate mountain village where they rented a lakeside cabin, Kit regularly revived drowning victims, almost always teenage boys, who thanked her, drooling. She belonged to the local volunteer ambulance squad and dashed out on many a midnight mission. She always returned bloodied but beatific, wearing a becoming white jumpsuit. Kit had become well-acquainted with “the jaws of life,” and she loved to use this device, a metal vise that expanded to widen mangled wrecks and extract the car crash victims. Len liked the expression “jaws of life” and wondered if it could be used in other applications.

After a rescue, Kit would sit on the edge of the bed, as eager to confide as when they’d first fallen in love. She was breathless, filled with interesting information—“Did you know that many people crash as they leave fast-food franchises?” They were discovered dead, burgers between their teeth, or with a hand stiffened in a bucket of fries.

These melodramas allowed Kit to savor moments in her own life. After an emergency, she could soak in a bath of iridescent bubbles and sip vodka over ice, even though she knew that imbibing in this way was dangerous. She’d been summoned to the scene of more than one hot tub death, and said the victims looked like “happy lobsters.” Sometimes, while wet and intoxicated, Kit had become amorous and tugged Len into the tub with her (once she almost knocked him unconscious against the taps).

Lately, he’d begun to wonder if Kit required near-death encounters to feel the old heat. They had started their lives as students in a three-sided garret so small they almost had to cleave to one another to stay in it. They had taken chaotic coital tours of their small space; made love on sink tops and floors and upside down on armchairs. Now, she wanted to make love only after multiple car collisions.

He had known for a year that he and Kit were spinning out of control. They had joined the ranks of the prosperous poor, a group that struggled to survive on six figures a year. This was a segment of the society for whom Len felt little sympathy, even after he had to include himself in their panicked number.

The last two weeks they had no cash. They had tapestries, chinoiserie, tiger bamboo etageres, but no cash. Len actually scraped the bottom of a Limoges candy dish, a once casual receptacle for keys and coins. And he’d felt thrilled to find so many quarters.

He tottered around 7B, arms akimbo, as if he could not grasp his situation. As he looked around, 7B seemed to sparkle with cost, as if its unpaid mortgage and maintenance had infiltrated the air, charging it with an invisible menace, like radioactivity.

He felt a gutslide of fear woosh down to his running shoes. He began to pray, an agnostic’s prayer so desperate, he could not even conclude it… The prayer was just two words, Please, God… and it knocked him to his knees onto a prayer rug that Kit had bought for a song at an Afghan bazaar. Kit had accompanied him on his last fact-finding mission to the shrapnel-pocked village that had become a sort of second home to Len. The village had been under siege for so long, Len’s visits had taken on the rhythm of a commute. As always, he visited a country at the worst possible time; during revolution, civil war, after an earthquake, or during a drought.

Len had long been accustomed to traveling alone, checking into fifth-rate hotels that offered a lightbulb with the room key. For several weeks each year, Len had become habituated to the bad hotels, to walking down their long brown corridors to small dark chambers that smelled of the national beverage and cigarettes. He was used to the concave, ribbed beds, the insistent song of the toilet, the encroaching damp.

At first, it had seemed a miracle to have Kit there, someone to cling to in that foreign dank and dark. In a bullet-riddled hotel room, they’d spent the last sweet night of their marriage. But in the morning, Kit left his side, eager to explore the bazaars that still operated, although peddlers and shoppers were sometimes nicked or even killed by sniper fire.

Fearful, Len had chased Kit to the open market. He grabbed her by the elbow but could not restrain her. She’d spotted the prayer rug—under a soiled woman who had set it out as seating, not for sale. Kit had tugged Len aside and said in a stage whisper, “She doesn’t know what she has there…”

By the time that they came home to Riverside Drive, they both needed that prayer rug. In the sickening symmetry that bad news often assumes, Len returned to find that, only two weeks after his wife lost her job, he, too, was displaced. The foundation had folded and now so did Len. He almost fell onto the prayer rug and into spontaneous prayer, as perhaps five hundred years before, a fundamentalist also prayed—Please, God.

Now, he added to the prayer. Please, God, save me, or at least let me stay in 7B.

The doorman buzzed. He had a guest. Was he expecting a gentleman…? Yes, of course. Len rolled up the prayer rug as if it had been an exercise mat.

All night long, he’d argued with Kit, trying to convince her that the Abelard co-op board would never accept Gong Yu Tong as their cousin, come for the summer, and not a stranger paying a fortune for an illegal sublet.

“They can’t prove we’re not related to Gong.” She held a neat stack of sealed envelopes, all their outstanding bills. For a woozy moment, Len imagined that she might have entered a fugue state, signing checks without value and then tidily dispatching them.

“By the time the checks are cashed,” she said, “they will clear.” The single catch being that they had to be out by dawn. There was a part of Len that was impressed by his wife’s forward momentum. “Where are we going?” he asked.

“That’s not important,” she answered. “It’s just necessary that we go. I thought we’d drive to Wyoming.”

“Wyoming?” Len said, allowing the name of the state to become the question of his life. “Why Wyoming?”

The doorbell buzzed.

Gong Yu Tong stood there, wearing black tie and holding an iPhone. Gong Yu Tong had a round face, with dimples, and a twinkle that glanced from a single gold tooth to a reflection in his eyeglasses. It was impossible not to welcome him to 7B.

Len wished Gong well, showed him the pilot light, and offered him the services of Theresa, a Colombian cleaning woman who had fled the drug cartels of her native Medellin. Gong Yu Tong and Len exchanged their final nods and grins, and Gong Yu Tong shut the door in Len’s face.

Len, a born New Yorker, knew that he was violating a sacred principle of the city: Never leave your apartment in time of trouble.

He was walking through the downstairs vestibule when he heard the woman scream. Through the glass-paned lobby door, he was startled to see a running girl, naked except for the odd detail of white anklet socks.

She had high white breasts and a Botticelli curve to her hips. Her hair, long and fair, hung down her back. Len considered taking off his shirt and giving it to her. As a child, he’d enjoyed movies in which men removed their own clothes to cover the nakedness of beautiful women, and this theme had become central to his private imaginings. His favorite old movie featured Robert Mitchum continually taking off his own shirts to cover Marilyn Monroe.

“She’s a prostitute,” the doorman said as he held the door for Len.

“She’s not your problem. Let’s get out of here…” Kit said, when he finally slipped into the passenger seat of their car, a German import that he’d always had a religious conflict about buying.

As they pulled out of their parking place, Len felt that they looked, for all the world, like an upscale version of The Grapes of Wrath.

As they headed west, the sun rose behind them, and they left the city in the shadow of the previous night. Len thought of all the people behind them, still asleep, curled up in their own beds.

Kit was intent, frowning, as she drove. Her once sharp “Can-You-Draw-Me?” pert profile was blurred by a recent weight gain. Her dissatisfaction had taken the form of fat. The fat obscured her prettiness; doubled her chin and hung from her upper arms, giving her a meaty, combative look. Her eyes, once so wide and sky-blue with innocent flurries of white, had narrowed to colorless slits. And there was more—just because she was eating the way other people drank did not mean that she wasn’t also drinking—she was. Not only that, she’d started smoking—Len could actually hear her smoke—she bit the filters and sucked the butts.

To top it off—the redecorating, junk-food munching, guzzling liquor, and smoking, Kit was also turning Republican, in stages, like a werewolf. After each strong drink, she expressed an opinion farther to the right. She was now a Medusa to escort to parties: she hissed smoke, breathed political fire. Only the fact that he was a liberal and that he loved her kept Len from telling her to shut up. The menthol 100 cigarette was clamped in her tiny pink mouth, looking like a vandal’s joke. Both her eyes burned with miniscule red centers, the blue of gas jets.

He asked why she was so angry. Was she angry at him?

“Sorry it shows,” she snapped.

By the time they reached Forty-Second Street, Len felt a drag on his gut each time Kit put on the brakes. Mistake, mistake, he thought.

The months of sick and septic travel had taken their toll, Len conceded. He’d come home from this last trip to Afghanistan more than defeated; the mission had become inverted. Not only had he not saved the population of the last blasted village—he’d fled, infected by their fear. Instead of exporting the shiny excess of America, he’d imported foreign desperation, smuggled it home inside him like an internal parasite, which he also had.

A more mundane ordeal lay directly ahead—the tiled terror of the Holland Tunnel. Len squeezed his eyes shut as the ceramic tube closed over him. He thought of the tons of river water above, coursing toward the sea. He was glad that he wasn’t at the wheel. He felt that he would have given in to panic and steered into the walls. No wonder he surrendered to Kit. Maybe she was going crazy, but at least she was still going. Somewhere.

They emerged into the grunge of New Jersey at dawn. Purple refinery stacks burned against a reddened sky. The chemical stench was so strong, it seemed visible—the lavender fog that hovered over the refineries. Len had traveled all over the world and never seen a landscape as alien as this one. It could have been presented in a science fiction film as a Martian heliport.

They turned onto a six-lane highway, headed west. Len leaned against the headrest. Kit drove at illegal speed, as at her side a portable anti-theft radio blared that overnight, on the other side of the world, there had been an end to disputed settlements in Gaza. One country after another was overthrowing their dictatorship and declaring democracy.

That’s wonderful, Len thought, but wondered why such good news failed to bring even scant relief. It struck him as too soon after the death of “another most wanted terrorist.” He was scared of these sudden solutions to old conflicts. It made him feel as if he, and maybe everyone else, was nearing the end of something, as if some higher order had been instructed—“You have one year to wrap things up.”

He lay back, staring out the open sun roof at a pink and platinum sky, and worried about the starved dying, the soon-to-be slaughtered millions of the earth, and now, without warning, a new metallic shriek in their car’s engine.

The dashboard lit with lively symbols—oil cans, red arrows. Kit at last acknowledged the car’s flickering electric warnings: “We’re overheating and burning oil.”

“Not we,” Len corrected. “The car is overheating.”

“Whatever,” she snapped. “If it keeps up, we’ll crack the head. Then we’re dead.” A cracked engine head was the ultimate car injury, she said, and it was always fatal.

Kit slowed, scouting for a place to ease off the road. The car, dripping oil and rudely backfiring, seemed at one with its foul environment. The car joined a motorcade of thousands that moved, humpbacked, en masse toward the horizon. It had to be an optical illusion, but it seemed to Len that as they climbed the wide highway toward that distant demarcation, he could feel the curvature of the globe. The little car strained, passing black gasses, in company with its kind. The sun glanced from the many metal rooftops. Len shut his eyes against the glare. It was almost dusk when they reached the Exxon station, set against the matte buff and gray of the Jersey flats, a place where man and nature conspired to create an apparent endless wasteland. The station was operated by East Indians, and a turbaned attendant offered to help.

Kit refused his assistance and went off to fetch more orange drink for herself and oil for the car.

Len got out of the car and walked down a slight grade behind the station. He found a margin of greenery that descended to what might have been a brook but, with its chartreuse tint and occasional puffs of mustard-colored foam, was more likely some chemical runoff. Still, Len sat down beside the iridescent stream and somewhat enjoyed the respite; he could hear the gurgle of the water rather than concentrate on the not very distant diesel thunder of the road.

He was recalling more sylvan glades and blaming Kit for their current predicament when he heard her scream. Len had read of people having their clothes blown off them. He knew that a flash flood or a fire’s backdraft could strip a person naked. But he’d never seen it happen until Kit came flying, nude, her hair frizzed upward as if moussed into a new, violent style. She came straight at him as if on rollers, like a special effect in some low-budget horror film. She was not only naked; she was in some sort of electroshock—her blue eyes bulged, showing white all around.

Wooosh. Woooomp. She slammed straight into him. He felt an arc of power, as if he’d been thrown by a master of juijitsu. He picked himself up and saw that Kit had landed in the dirt beside him.

She appeared as a white marble statue of herself. Her lips were blue, as if painted with an inappropriate lipstick. Her eyes were open, but the irises had slid in opposite directions into the sockets. Her tongue drooped from her open mouth. She was, to all appearances, dead.

Without thinking, he fastened his mouth onto hers and exhaled into her. He wasn’t sure that he was performing correctly, but he tried to follow the rhythms of artificial respiration. A geyser of orange soda spouted from her mouth. He pressed her chest again, hard. He continued to breathe into her, to pound her chest, in spite of her breasts with their puckered blue nipples. He followed the motions of resuscitation for what seemed like too long. His hand hurt and his own lungs burned.

His urgency was such that he was not aware of speaking, but he could hear someone say “One. Two. I love you.” He couldn’t swear that he did love her, but that didn’t seem to matter now anyway. Life needed no excuse, or even reason to be saved. He had to save her; he had to save anyone, if he could.

One. Two. One. Two. She gagged and drooled. Her eyeballs rolled back into alignment in their sockets, clicking back “on” as though battery operated. That tension that signals the life force straightened her limbs and made her twitch. Kit came back to life, and with a vengeance.

“Don’t pound me so hard,” she said. “I’m fine.”

He knew that she would survive when she asked, “How’s the car?”

How was the car? Len looked up and saw that it had exploded.

All the belongings that had been piled inside the car had blown out the sun roof. Len saw their clothes, the bits and pieces of their lives, strewn around the Exxon station. What appeared to be his birth certificate was blowing away…

Kit was berating him for his CPR style when Len had a religious vision. Gandhi was running out of the Exxon station. He looked like Gandhi, anyway; he wore white. He ran toward them, his bony arms held out as if for an embrace.

Then Len recognized him—he wasn’t Gandhi—he was the Sikh who ran the gas station. In a cerebral striptease, he was unwrapping his turban as he ran, spinning round, toward where Kit lay. As he moved, the gauze unfurled like an endless bandage.

They both looked up. The sun was setting over the Exxon station. The sky fired, like an electric grid. Then the hot orange and fuchsia streaks faded, and the lights of the station and the emergency vehicles began to dominate the oncoming night. As darkness settled over them, Len could imagine how they appeared from afar—their accident set aglitter, like a costume brooch, flashing on the flat chest of this dull, wide highway.

He felt the exhilaration he thought Kit must have always known right after a rescue. His own heart pounded, and he was breathing hard. He felt strong and light, as if he could run for miles. He watched in wonder as the Sikh completed his head-unwrapping and bowed, allowing his blue-black hair to fall like a curtain to the asphalt. As the Sikh knelt beside Kit, Len realized what the other man intended to do. Len put out his own hand to stop him.

“No,” Len said, “let me.” Then he unbuttoned his own shirt, leaned over the naked, protesting Kit, and covered her.


Laura Shaine Cunningham is a novelist, memoirist, journalist, and playwright. She has published nine books with mainstream publishers such as Knopf, Riverhead, Simon & Schuster, etc.; two memoirs; and hundreds of articles in The New York Times. Her two memoirs, Sleeping Arrangements and A Place in the Country, were excerpted in The New Yorker and The New York Times. A Place in the Country was a New York Times Notable Book. She has also written a column for The New York Observer and published pieces in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Esquire, Mademoiselle, Ascent, the London Times, and regional US publications. Laura’s literary recognition includes two NEA awards, two NYFA awards, and a Ford Foundation award. In addition, she has served as a guest speaker/faculty member at Harvard, Omega, Woodstock Memoir Festival, Woodstock Writers Festival, and the San Miguel Allende Writers’ Festival.


Filed under Fiction

2 responses to “The Jaws of Life

  1. What a terrific story. This is why we read literature–for vivid characters, deep emotion, powerful detail, and breathtaking unpredictable events. Thank you!

  2. Thank you! A fine comment form an extraordinary writer.

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