HE’S STARTING TO WORRY NOW, just a little, that the people he loves the most, the ones he can’t remember not having, won’t be here forever. It isn’t a revelation, a brand new, packaged in plastic thought, but it’s the most afraid Billy’s ever been.
He calls his parents a lot, in class, at lunch, when he gets off work. In the middle of the night, he waits to hear his father’s voice on the answering machine, an old hunk of plastic from before Billy was born, a cassette recording everything he says that doesn’t matter, strips of his voice looping around themselves.
He writes things down now. He wishes he’d carried a tape recorder when he was little, strapped to his ankle, a wire under his shirt. There’s so much his parents have said. Most of what Billy’s parents told him dropped like liquid into his memory, colored the ground and were forgotten. Retracing his steps, Billy catches markings, footprints cool and vivid, but without their luster, like dried blood. His entire mind is a crime scene, clues and evidence, roped off with yellow, and he can’t find the little boy he once was to tell him what it means.
Billy asks his parents to call his voice mail and talk, just talk. He’s considered buying a machine like theirs, something that won’t beep after two minutes. He prompts, says, “Remember when” “What happened after” “Why did this.”
Billy knows there are things inside, deep, skimming along the surface of his muscles, put there by his parents. There are things he’s certain of, like the simple existence of God apart from what any book or men in expensive robes scare you into believing, the difference between driving lost and driving looking, and what arms feel like after you’ve climbed a tree. There are things he knows are true but can’t quite believe, fish dangling lanterns in the darkest dark, saints healing with their fingertips, a universe that hasn’t stopped expanding. His father picking him up, holding him like air, ‘the sky is a big mirror, reflecting oceans,’ and Billy still looks for sharks in the sky.
Billy supposes it was early on, before kindergarten and after he could write his name without tracing that he knew, without a doubt, he wanted these two people always. His mother washing dishes because his father wanted a country house. His father with his hands under Billy’s arms, spinning him like the cartoon whirlwind they’d just seen on TV. Billy is leaning his head back, his hair pressed against his father’s chest, the warm, earthy smell that would always make Billy think of him washing over his face like a blanket. Billy’s legs are almost parallel to the ground; velcroed shoes strapped soundly, such a kid that he needed a step stool to wash his hands.
His mother calls about a bird outside, bluer than Billy’s eyes, and his father looks up, stumbling. Billy’s mother’s voice, soft and pure, could always make him stumble. Billy’s feet veer towards the ground, ankles scraping the floor and his father’s hands drag across him, desperate, leaving bruises on his ribs he’d find days later. Billy is upended and righted in the same motion, his father’s knees hitting the floor, arms under his neck and thighs, cradled like the girls in fancy dresses in the black and white movies his mother watches, light and helpless. His father is shaking Billy, breathing his name and Billy rolls his head towards him, hair spiked across his eyes. His mother is beside them in an instant, a dishcloth in her hands. ‘What’s all the commotion?’ His father tells, in a voice more shaky than he wants, about their little boy and what almost was and his mother moves her hand to her head. ‘If Jesus came down from heaven,’ she laughed. ‘I’d be in the bathroom.’ Her smile is one of force, so truly meant, its very presence demanding all wrongs to be righted, all disasters avoided, a strength to save and make anything okay again. Billy watches them, the little tears in their mouths, the blinks of their lashes, telling him he was rescued, snatched from harm. He thinks without effort, ‘They loved me the moment I was alive.’
When he thinks about it now he wonders if he made it up, if he was capable of understanding any of it; a kid with carpet burns on his elbows, dinosaur sheets, spiders for pets, but his mother’s hands, still wet, firm and insistent under Billy’s chin, soap sliding down his collar, his father’s weight around him, holding him above the ground like something precious; he understood more then than now, he decides. He knew what he’s forgotten.
Billy’s still watching his parents, twenty years from when he figured them out. He comes home on weekends and plays the messages, looking for clues. “I remember this” “I never knew” “When did you tell me.” He’s found his own history project, one that started before he realized and one he won’t ever finish. His mother and father smile at him, smile like they always have. His mother is tilting her head back and laughing, soft and pure, and his father looks at Billy like he’s out of breath. He makes Billy remember jack-o-lanterns on Halloween, a light in the middle of his father, flickering in his eyes. Billy is happier now than worried but he knows what he’ll lose. What will have existed and disappeared when he can’t call and say, “Talk. Just talk.” He’ll wake up every day with a bright, empty place inside him, like a room made of windows.