I walk in from school and drop my coat on the floor. I stand in front of the mirror at the front door, watching my stone face as it listens for clues.
A Kris Kristofferson record is skipping on the stereo. "Jesus was a Capri-tic, Jesus was a Capri-tic, Jesus was a Capri-tic." I lift up the lid of the cabinet. I drag the needle across the surface in a digging, scratching line. I replace the arm gently in its cradle. Mom has stacked several other records on top that are supposed to drop down one at a time to play: two Olivia Newton Johns, an Anne Murray, more Kris Kristofferson. Her here-we-go-again music.
As I move down the hall toward her room I watch my feet silently indent the brain-patterned carpet. I push open her bedroom door and look into the dim. The little light that streams through the drawn curtains is full of floating dust specks that make me not want to inhale. Her body glows so that she looks like a reclining angel, only smeared and twisted from crash landing on the bed after stepping off a cloud without her wings on. I creep in a few steps and notice the smell of something burnt. But it isn't a photograph of my father, or a gift to me from his girlfriend, or any of the other things that usually burn in our house. This smell is uglier.
I come closer to her and squint down at the rug beside her night table trying to pinpoint it. She has fallen asleep while smoking so many times that the little tubular black scars in our carpets encircle every piece of furniture that one can possibly pass out upon. I run my fingers over the area, feeling softness, then hard burnt plastic grooves, then softness again. Nothing is hot. I sniff the air a few times. My eyes focus on her hand, hanging limply over the side of the bed.
I see the smell. What is left of the butt is still there between her fingers...but the rest has burnt past the air into her flesh. The insides of her fingers are bubbled and white where the cigarette's red hot cherry has been allowed to cook. She hasn't woken up, not even to watch herself burn. I sit frozen staring at her fingers. Hating her. Hating Kris Kristofferson. Hating Jesus in her favorite song.
For several weeks now she has taken to mixing different kinds of pills with her drinks. For fun I decipher the ingredients of her intoxications and note the results of each. Little white pills plus rum and coke equal a litany of her bitter memories. A few black capsules plus a mickey of rye she has stashed in the back of the toilet tank equal all the goddamn trouble I'm causing her. Her latest mix seems designed just for numbing.
I sit beside her, matching her shallow breaths, guarding her.
The back doorbell sounds a few hours later. I silently close her door behind me and race to the back landing in an effort to outrun someone's impulse to ring a second time. It is my gang.
"Are you ready to do it?" asks Murray, our handsome leader. His tousled brown hair settles over one eye as he looks deep into mine with the other. "I brought a watch. We can time it."
I nod and say, "Be quiet, my Mom's asleep," as I usher them downstairs. Troy, Peter, Dan, Perry and Billy stand together looking nervous and exhilarated and wait for some direction. Murray pulls the stop watch out of his pocket and holds it high for all of us to see. The most solemn task of the week is at hand. Everyone looks at me expectantly.
It is a well-known fact among my friends that I am expert at holding my breath. I can swim laps underwater at the neighborhood pool without coming up for air. There is an undeniable sense of freedom that comes with the experience and I believe that if I stick with it, eventually I'll be able to hold out for hours. I have begun timing myself obsessively at home to see how long I can do it. My regimen consists of one minute of hyper ventilation followed by a tremendous inhaling gasp. Then I visualize something calm and safe, something that won't consume the oxygen at all but will merely sit for infinity using up nothing. I have managed to reach the three minute mark. But my gang demands more proof than my word and so I have invited them over to witness the event. The plan is simple; I will lie down on the floor and they will seal my mouth and nose with their hands while Murray keeps time. He stands over everyone and directs them to various stations around my body as I stretch out on the concrete floor.
"You do his nose, Troy. Peter and Billy, both of you cover his mouth so for sure he can't breath. Make sure he isn't cheating. OK, you guys, when I say 'Go', go."
They swarm over me in a quick frenzy, ready to pinch my nose and seal my mouth tightly to ensure that none of my breath sneaks past them. The remaining boys join the action, too. Their free hands grip my arms and legs as a gesture of participation more than anything else. Encircled, pinned and covered in sweaty boys, I feel safe and good.
Murray positions his finger over the button of the stop watch and raises his other hand in the air as if getting ready to start a drag car race. "R-e-a-a-a-d-y, s-s-s-e-t," -- I take a deep breath -- "go!" His arm swings down to start the event.
I narrow my vision until I see only the small square door of the laundry chute in the ceiling above me. I begin the count in my mind: One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand and then I drift to the nothing place carrying only the boys' embraces with me.
At first, Murray announces the time every thirty seconds. When we have smashed the two minute barrier the whole gang starts to get excited and Murray begins to punctuate his time-keeping, now at ten second intervals, with words like 'Wow' and 'Holy Shit.'
"Two minutes and forty seconds, wow, man, go for it, look how easy it is for him, all right!...two minutes and fifty seconds, unbelievable, holy shit, you can do it!"
I am almost to my limit. My chest and lungs are beginning to heave now, going through the motions without being able to take in any air. My blood is screaming out for oxygen. I imagine my cheeks turning an ashen blue and my eyelids slowly going purple. In a few seconds I will have proved to them that I can really do it.
"Three minutes!" screams Murray. "Keep going, keep going!"
I can't believe what he has said. I try to sit up but they hold me immobilized as they hoot and cheer. I struggle against their weight and find I have so little strength left that the gesture registers as no more than a shrug. They can't understand that they are killing me. "Go, go, go" they chant.
Their hands tuck me in securely like a blanket, like a mummy, but I begin to spin around slowly. I am in a Ferris wheel chair, its safety bar tight against my limbs. From the top of the ride I watch a tremendous fire raging out of control around me. In an instant it consumes itself and vanishes. The smoke becomes a steamy bank of fog rolling, rolling over me until my skin glistens and drips. Freer than I've ever been, I dive head first into liquid nature, splashing pollen and hornet droplets. The wake subsides and slowly gels as I crawl up and out. All around me naked boys laugh and sing. Suddenly Jesus appears in front of me looking just like all his pictures. He leans over me, dropping ashes onto my chest from a cigarette that dangles from his mouth. He takes out a needle and thread and begins to stitch my mouth closed. I stare at his black and burned fingers as they sew.
"Jesus Christ!" yells a voice directly overhead. The male embrace falls away. My mouth sucks in great heaps of air in halting, sputtering gulps. At first, all I see are two points of red light blinking on a black canvas. Slowly, my mother's eyes come into focus squinting down at us from the laundry chute above. A lit cigarette dangles out of her mouth. Bandaged fingers hold open the door of the laundry chute for a few seconds before letting it fall with a bang.
Bits of sparkling ash float slowly down, alighting on us all like firebugs.