Jed Brody teaches physics at Emory University. He spent two years in the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa. He hasn't had a driver's license since 1995.
Helen is wearing her favorite dress and sitting in her favorite chair. She smiles, but only I can see it. We speak the new way now. Heart to heart. Mind to mind.
"You know what I've been thinking about lately?" I say.
She raises an eyebrow.
"I've been thinking about all the jackass things I used to do to try to impress people," I say. "I used to do card tricks. Only jackasses do card tricks. I used to juggle. Only jackasses juggle. I used to make puns all the time. I don't even know the word to describe the jackass who makes puns all the time. But if there is a word, its meaning is 'jackass.'
"It gets worse. I used to think of jackass things to say and then come up with jackass ways to bring them up in conversation. One of my favorites was this: Other people feel sorry for Jesus up there on that cross. Not me. I feel sorry for the tree. The tree was crucified first."
"I don't think that's a jackass thing to say," Helen says. "And I don't think you should be so hard on yourself."
"What kind of jackass isn't hard on himself for all the jackass things he's said over his entire life?" I say.
"I know what will cheer you up," she says. "I'll tell you a jackass thing of my own."
I try to raise an eyebrow, but my eyebrows aren't working now.
She says, "Lately, I've been imagining that I'm canoeing at dusk along a gentle stream."
"That's not a jackass thing to say," I say. "That's an idyllic reverie."
"I haven't gotten to the jackass part yet," she says.
"Oh," I say. "Do go on."
"In the dim twilight, the stream is dark and thick, and my oar presses silently through the waters. Thunder bellows rhythmically, and the breeze is humid and hot. The cries of loons and the wails of coyotes bruise the glowering sky. I sample the current with my oar. Other streams are joining mine. Up ahead, the mouth of a cavern swallows blackness. I crouch as I enter and feel chill droplets falling from stalactites.
"The stream veers and descends, and cold gusts rush out from the depths. My canoe plummets out from under me, and my oar shatters against something I cannot see. I accelerate down spiraling passageways as the thunder pounds louder. I splash into an ocean that tosses up waves with every crack of thunder. I become aware that I am in my own heart.
"And this ocean is just a small well, and I'm not even in the depths; I'm just floating at the top. I drift down into the sunless rock that holds in its pores the Earth's blood. The silence is somehow musical. And I see that this aquifer is pierced by the wells of billions of human hearts."
"I was with you until the end," I say. "I think every human heart is a toilet that flushes into a common sewer. This might explain the thunder you heard."
She laughs, but other people think she's sighing.
"My husband and I went canoeing once, early in our marriage," she says. "It was my idea, so I drove. That day, I drove my own car for the last time. My husband worked from home, or he flew out on business, so I usually drove his car. I liked his car. It smelled like him. Cigarettes and rottweiler."
"You had a rottweiler who smoked cigarettes?" I say.
"Did I ever," she says. "So, one day I decided to get back in my own car for a change. The windshield was whitewashed with bird droppings. One of the tires was flat. And one of the side mirrors was cracked. But I got in and put the key in the ignition. I turned the key, and the engine wouldn't start. So I just left the key in there anyway. It was comfortable there, and it had nowhere else to go."
"I never rode a real canoe," I say, "but when I was a young boy, I used to build little rafts out of grass and twigs. I'd put them in the creek in the woods behind my house and run along the bank to race them. There was a tree that marked the finish line. I'd always careen into it at full sprint, stopping myself with my arms.
"I usually finished ahead of my rafts. But it was more exciting when a raft won. That meant I'd built a really good raft.
"One day I built the best-looking five-inch raft ever constructed in this world. I'd peeled the bark from the twigs to make it slick. I tied the twigs together with dandelion stalks that I'd squeezed the juice out of. I kicked it around in the dirt to test its sturdiness and to give it that weathered look.
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