When you were small you were as brown as a leaf in autumn. You were browner than the planks of our first house and browner than the old spool-bed in the room where you were born. You and your downy hair were the color of toast or weathered wood and your milk-white mother and I wondered where you had come from.
When you were bigger—long and lean so that boys watched you from behind uncut hair (how can they even see with all that mess in their eyes, we wondered)—you stretched out for hours under the sun in the backyard. You drenched your skin with tanning oil so that you might grow browner still and your hair more golden and the oil was scented to suggest endless tropical beaches or perhaps warm, sun-baked people but you had nothing to compare it to and every time you wore it I saw the women of the islands who used the same scent in their hair, which they kept coiled and pinned to their heads with wooden combs until the moment they would let the whole shining black curtain down and everything would be full with the scent—plumeria, perhaps, or jasmine. Or some other intoxicating tropical flower, or maybe the scent of the islands themselves and the salty skin of the people and the fruit and fish they ate, the water they bathed in. Even the day the air filled with thick, black, grease-fire smoke, the sweetness was there and seemed to me to weave itself around the scent of charred flesh so that I thought at first someone had set fire only to the flowering trees or to the women’s hair. Even now I think of the islands at work when the oil leaks out of the crippled cars and burns on the garage floor but also in the yard when you sleep under the sun and I cannot single out either a sweet scent or a bitter, burning one.
The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, which fell on the earth; and a third of the earth was burnt up, and a third of the trees were burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up. The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea; and a third of the sea became blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed. The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven…and many men died of the water, because it was made bitter.
The end total was twenty-one ships out of ninety—less than a third. True, though, that many men died in the water, which was made bitter with burning oil and sinking ships. Mine was one of the first to go all the way under (“The USS West Virginia sank quickly,” says one of your schoolbooks), so what was I to do but dive free of the wreckage and swim for safety through the bitter water, through the sea which became blood and the fire mixed with blood. I wanted to be away from the great mountain, burning with fire, and I swam so fast and strong through the sea in which a third of the living creatures had died, and if I hadn’t—if I had died in the water with the other men—you never would have been more than a thought in the head of your lovely mother (who was I believe at that very instant only fourteen and cleaning the counters of a soda shop in Sherman, Texas).
When they found me on the beach they said, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, son, what’d you go and do a foolish thing like that for? Hard enough to get out of the burning water alive without you like to choking yourself on a goddamned dime-store timepiece!” You see, they had found the golden watch in my mouth, which I had placed there, as a fish carries its eggs, for protection. I only lived, they told me, because the watch was ever so slightly too large to slide down my throat and stick there.
I was a fool, said my rescuers, and I knew that I could not tell them any different—I could not explain to them why the watch was so important. I wanted to say—I wanted to tell them what it meant and why I’d be buried with it in my mouth to pay my way to heaven if I had to. Would they understand that I’d sooner have choked on it and been buried that way than let it sink to the floor of the sea? But the metal strap had bruised my mouth and cut my tongue and the saltwater had crusted my throat shut it seemed, so instead I stared up at my rescuers and pleaded with my swollen eyes for them to understand.
Now, for you, I will explain about the watch and what it meant. You see, if the saltwater had worked its way into the cogs and wheels of that watch, and if the time had stopped, even just for a moment, how could the seconds and minutes and hours of my life continue to tick away? The very first thing I remember is that delicate, muffled mechanical heartbeat so close to my own. My mother, they said, had left me that watch and they laid it beside me in my crib so that the ticking might soothe me—might be a mother’s heartbeat. Did you know that when you were small I used to lie beside you in your bed at night and listen to your heart pulse out a rhythm regular as my watch, and I would be a babe in a basket once again, feeling calm and possibly even safe?
Things come back to me this way, triggered by your beating heart or the scent of you bathing in the sun. Light glinting off a boy’s car while he waits for you (while he idles a little ways down the block from our house, because the ones you go with don’t want to think of you having a father), the shining metal so like the silvered spoons at the orphanage. That’s all I remember of St. Jerome’s besides the ticking of my watch: spoons, strung up and dangled over the cribs to catch light from the small windows and calm the babies in their beds—the other children without even a watch to soothe them. The nuns had painted upon the wall God’s words to Zechariah: And I will bring the third part through the fire; and I will refine them as silver is refined and will test them as gold is tested. How many days—spent lying still and swaddled in sterile white—passed in glimmers, spoon-shadows on the walls, silver turning to the time kept by my golden watch?
Now the days pass in the shining metal parts of cars and the sharp scent of gasoline burning the tender skin of my nostrils at the garage. Each day I work on the local boys’ flashy cars, knowing it might be in this car or that one that you come home late at night, later and later these days and smelling of strange smoke and stale beer. And maybe salty, sweaty skin. Knowing I’ll see these cars linger on our block in the evenings, wondering if it is on these green leather seats or on those brown cloth ones that you are turning slowly into someone else. Someone from whom I can find no comfort: no calm in a heartbeat, no beauty in the scent of a flower.