Behind the Curtain

Illustration by Amy Mackens and Ruby Wallau
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By Alexander Bernard , LSA Sophomore
Published February 22, 2014

Joseph read the newspaper and sipped a coffee too hot to be drunk by a first timer. His mother made scrambled eggs on the stove and talked to Gwendolyn on the phone, a conversation defined largely by its “oh-my-God’s” and “no-way’s!” Joseph wasn’t bothered though. This was the morning ritual: coffee, newspaper and “Didn’t you hear, Gwen!” every day. Even this day. And though the momentous occasion begged the Singletons to break routine, they did no such thing. Joseph appreciated this consistency to the bitter end, just as he’d grown to appreciate the little things about his mother, who had separated from his father when her son was just two.

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Now, Joseph was 16. He was mature for his age; at least that’s what teachers told his mother at conferences. “He’s a quiet boy,” they’d say, “but very smart. I think he just needs a little encouragement.” His mother spoke with Joseph those nights about planning for the future, how college was just on the horizon and had he started thinking about what he might want to be when he grew up? The when of that question, after all, was fast approaching. Joseph would pause, check his watch, and say, “I don’t know yet. Ask me in three years.” To which, his mother would give him a look of indignation or disappointment — Joseph could never tell — and ask him what he wanted to do for dinner the next night.

Of course, the next night didn’t matter anymore to these two, what with the clinics springing up in every town and the government orders. And it wasn’t just the next night that had lost any sort of relevance. It was the night after that. And after that. And the one after that. But most folks weren’t complaining. Life is a difficult, uncontrollable force. Life suffocates and strangles and squeezes you until you’ve forgotten what it feels like to breathe. Now, Joseph could still breathe, but he knew it wouldn’t last. He imagined it would be nice to have some say in when life began and ended. At least, with the clinics, he could make an appointment, schedule it.

The day was April 12, a Thursday. His history teacher Mr. Abner assigned a paper for next Monday. Joseph was happy he didn’t have to do it. The essay topic was on the West European migration to America in the 17th century and the inherent struggles of such a transition. This issue, of course, carried little weight with 16-year-old boys, especially Joseph who, at the time, had other, more holistic matters weighing his mind, specifically an appointment with the clinic at 5:30 p.m. that afternoon.

“Thanks for everything, Mr. Abner,” Joseph said, shaking his teacher’s hand.

“Oh you’re most welcome, Joseph.” Mr. Abner said. “I hear you have an appointment with the clinic tonight.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ah so no essay for you huh?”

Joseph laughed while he had the chance.

“I guess not,” Joseph said.

“Well it’s been a pleasure, son. Good luck out there.”

“Thank you. Have a good one.”

“You too! Hey would you mind calling Steve Mason in here? I need to talk to him about his handwriting.”

“No problem.”

Joseph called Steve; then went to his locker, grabbing his backpack and cramming as many books and notebooks into the three pockets large enough to hold them. His theology textbook proved especially difficult to fit, so he decided to leave it with Sister Anthony, the head of the religion department and a nun whose name caused more than one taunt from the boys of St. Charles Preparatory Academy. Regardless, the petite, scarlet-haired woman retained a tough exterior (Rumor has it she once beat a boy with a ruler for throwing a paper airplane. His parents threatened to sue if Sister Anthony didn’t automatically pass him. She did so, but not without informing both the mother and the father that they were, “failures to their son, their God and themselves.” She called them “pathetic, shriveled worms devoid of backbone, yet inexplicably filled with hot air.” Joseph considered Sister Anthony the very definition of a Woman of God).

“Sister Anthony,” Joseph said, waiting at her classroom door. She graded papers and drank tea in her free periods.

“Come in, Joseph,” she said, not glancing up from an essay on the sixth commandment.

“I just need to return my theology textbook. I was cleaning out my locker, and it wouldn’t fit in my backpack.”

“Saying goodbye to us are you, Joseph?” Sister’s Anthony spoke quickly and without inflection.

“Yes, Sister.”

“Should I wish you congratulations?” Her eyes looked up from the paper and stared at Joseph over the frames of her glasses. Joseph knew she expected an answer, but had none.

“I suppose so, Sister.”

“Well congratulations then. Are you nervous?”

“A little.”

“Well from what I hear, the procedure isn’t very painful. But then again, who on earth could attest to that?” Joseph laughed unsteadily. Sister Anthony sighed, removed her glasses, and stared at him with a concentration rarely seen outside of life’s most heart-swelling or heartbreaking moments.

“Good luck, Joseph. It’s been a pleasure having you as a student.”

Joseph’s face warmed at the old nun’s words, but his stomach churned at her tone.

“Thank you, Sister. It’s been great having you for a teacher.” Sister Anthony smiled a sad smile, and Joseph said, “Well, I’ll let you get back to grading papers.”

Joseph left her room, and then the school. He attended piano practice, played a few of his favorite movements, and drove home, waiting for his mother to return from work. He never saw Sister Anthony again.

***

Joseph’s mother drove to the clinic. The driving helped her relax; at least that’s what she told her son, who wasn’t paying attention in the first place. Nostalgia had gotten the best of our Joseph. He was thinking of girls he’d never kissed, books he’d never read, and mistakes he wouldn’t have the chance to make. Most of all, Joseph wondered whether life was meant to be lived at all; if death was so inevitable and forthcoming, why even try? To quote the darkest and most melodramatic recesses of his mind, “What was the point of it all?” Joseph and his mother never did discuss it, and so on she drove to the clinic as the shy boy thought of questions he would never ask.

***

The clinic was a dank little building, perfect for an optometrist’s office or a two-bit law firm. Joseph’s mother pecked her son’s cheek before sending him to tell the receptionist they’d arrived for the appointment. Meanwhile, she took one last smoke while reviewing the pamphlet, which the government had loaded with percentages, statistics and quotes, her personal favorite being: “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” The line gave her confidence. She referenced those words whenever anyone questioned her decision. Gwendolyn never did, which was enough for her. No one could argue with her choice, except maybe Joseph, but, like Gwendolyn, he never said a word against it. The procedure was supposed to be like falling asleep anyway. One doctor said the vaccine gave the patients a feeling of “relief,” as though the weight of life were finally off their shoulders. The anxiety, the worries, the fear, the doubt. Life has fewer pros than cons, Joseph’s mother thought.

She caressed her favorite quote. “This makes sense,” she whispered.

Joseph opened the passenger door and said that there would be a five-minute wait. The clinic was busy, today, but the doctors were moving quickly to get everybody in. That’s what Joseph said he heard at least.

Three minutes later, Joseph and his mother left the car and walked across the parking lot to the clinic doors, which were smudged with something red, or was it pink? Joseph’s mother held his hand, that is, until he released her grip and sprinted away from the clinic, across the parking lot, and into the street. She watched her son leave her, wiped a tear from her left eye, and opened a glass door smeared with blood.

“Ms. Singleton?” a nurse asked.

“Yes,” Joseph’s mother said.

“The doctor will see you now. Congratulations.”

“Thank you.” Readjusting a wayward strand of hair, Joseph’s mother composed herself and followed the nurse to a small room that was mostly unfurnished save a leather couch and chair. It looked like a therapist’s office without the coziness of a bookshelf or a window.

The nurse checked Ms. Singleton’s blood pressure and asked how she was feeling today.

“Fine.”

“Good,” The nurse said altogether too cheery to be genuine.

A few minutes later, the doctor opened the door, said hello, and instructed Joseph’s mother to lie flat on the couch. He turned on a powerful overhead light, practically — but not completely — blinding her. She could see, and she saw enough. Joseph’s mother saw a black case, then a syringe. She heard the doctor say, “You’re making a good choice. You’re doing the right thing. Good luck over there.

Joseph’s mother saw the needle pierce her arm. She saw the doctor and nurse leave the room. She saw a fog settle over the ceiling.

Joseph’s mother saw many things, except Joseph.

Then she saw nothing.

***

“Go inside and check on our appointment,” Joseph’s mother said while pulling out a pack of Marlboros. Silently, Joseph exited the car and entered the clinic. A baby sobbed in the corner. An old man clutched a wooden cane with one decrepit hand and an old woman’s hand with his other, a hat tilted over his head partially concealing two gray eyes. A picture of a sunset hung on the wall with the caption “PERSEVERANCE: Fall down SEVEN times. Stand up EIGHT.” Joseph wiped his nose and walked to the welcome desk, but the receptionist wasn’t quite ready to see him. A tall girl with straight red hair leaned on the counter. She wore a black sweatshirt and white pants, which were covered in splotches from an exploded red pen. Or maybe it was a marker? A sharpie? Joseph couldn’t be sure. The girl didn’t bother to wash the pants though. After all, with the inevitability of the appointment, why wash pants? Who is there left to impress?

“I’m sorry, dear,” the receptionist said. “ But you must be at least 18 years old to have an appointment.”

“I told you, I already scheduled one!” The girl’s face was as red as her hair.

“Sweetie, the government strictly told us not to give the vaccine to anyone under 18 unless accompanied by someone over 21.”

“I turn 18 in a month! Just let me in!”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I cannot. In a month, come back and we’ll give you the vaccine. Trust me, it’ll be worth the wait.”

The girl noticed Joseph and pointed a chewed off fingernail at him. “You! You’re not 18. Who are you here with?”

“My mom,” Joseph said.

She grimaced as if in pain. “Oh. You’ve got someone. Congratulations.” She turned back to the receptionist, a look of hatred and hopelessness in her blue eyes. But she fought for this lost cause: herself. “I’m not waiting!” The girl’s hands slammed the counter.

“There’s nothing we can — ”

“Look in your book of quitters and find a spot to fit me in right now! Do it! Please!”

“My dear, I — ”

“I’m…not…your…dear!” The girl’s words came out in harsh sobs, like pulling arrows from a wound.

The receptionist’s voice softened. “I’m very sorry.”

“I don’t have to wait you know,” the girl said. “I can go out there right now and do it myself! There are other ways!”

She pulled something out of her pocket and showed it to the receptionist whose eyes trembled, if eyes can tremble.

The girl clicked a button and a small blade popped open. The receptionist’s words shook.

“Please don’t — ”

Holding the blade to her wrist, the girl cut until the skin broke and fresh blood stained her already reddened white pants. Tears filled her eyes but she smiled a defiant smile. Her gaze challenged the receptionist, begging her to turn a bleeding, hopeless girl away. Joseph felt something fill his throat and lungs. Perhaps vomit, perhaps rocks. He rubbed the skin on his wrists with his thumbs over and over, cringing at the sight of the girl’s slit arms and wanting so badly to be more than “the Boy with the Mother.”

“How about now?” the redheaded girl said. Her mouth twisted into a quivering grin.

“I’m sorry. I just. I can’t — ”

But before the old receptionist could finish her sentence, the redheaded girl had pushed Joseph aside and flung open the door. She took two steps onto the sidewalk, then turned back. With a single swift swing, the girl — whose name Joseph never learned for the saddest of all reasons — wiped her wrist on the glass door, leaving a streak of red across the sign that said:

SECRETARY OF FREEDOM:
LIFE-CURING VACCINATIONS
OPEN 24 HOURS.

With tears in her eyes and blood dripping from her thin arm, the redheaded girl sprinted past Joseph’s car and out of the parking lot to find a street vaccination, somewhere that would take walk-ins.

Joseph told the receptionist that he and his mother were ready for their own appointment. Then he left the waiting room, careful not to touch the blood on the door.

***

Meanwhile, as our Joseph sprinted after a redheaded girl he’d never find and a mother lost the most common ground she’d ever have with her son; a government official read over a speech in his office. He could practically say the entire thing by heart at this point, he’d had to give this one so many times at so many different venues. Its reception had mostly been good, if not great. “We are giving people a choice,” he mumbled to himself, practicing placing the emphasis on different words and checking the new meanings of each alteration.

We are giving people a choice.” No. Too egocentric, he thinks. This isn’t about us. This is about the people.

“We are giving people a choice.” No. Why emphasize people? We wouldn’t give this choice to dogs or cats. In fact, they have the opposite of a choice in the matter.

“We are giving people a choice.” No. It distracts from the conclusion and focuses too greatly on the process of giving.

Any way he sliced it, the emphasis was on choice. Choice. Choice. Choice. This isn’t required. If you want, go and take it. Who are we to stop you? Freedom. America.

“Everyone has the right to life. Why not the right to death?” That was an earlier draft. The next said, “Everyone has the right to life and the privilege to choose his time of death.” But that didn’t work in the focus group. (Only four of the 10 in that group made appointments).

“Everyone has the right to life and the privilege to decide how to handle that right.” That worked better. More appointments. More rhetoric. More edits. By the State of the Union, the speech had been rewritten 47 times, each draft bleeding with ink scratches. You could barely recognize the thing, but hey, he had to read something.

People were counting on him. Voters. Of course, both parties agreed. Why wouldn’t they? If people want to take themselves out of the game, good for them. Solve the over-population problem, as some of the more tactless state senators would say. Americans should be allowed to have control over their body, others might claim.

At this point, the arguments for and against blended together in his head, indistinguishable from one another. The politician didn’t care much for debates anyway. He saw them as golf tees for politicians. You give the public and the pundits the driver and tell them to keep their elbows in and knees slightly bent. Watch for weakness now; that’s the sweet spot. There you go. Keep your eye on the Democrat. Republicans go a long way too. Is that a sign of corruption? SWING NOW! Nice shot, son. Shanked a bit, but that asshole is way out of here.

Well not anymore, thought the political official. Now, after years of trying, he’d done right. This was the good thing to do. What’s so scary about death anyway? We all experience it. It’s inevitable. Why be scared of that which cannot be avoided? Better to get it over with now while you have a chance. No long drawn out battles with cancer or painful therapy sessions. Quick. Painless. And the relief! Oh! That one doctor said it was like waking up from a dream? Or was it like falling into a dream? And was that a doctor or a priest?

The political official thumbed a framed picture on his desk. Three daughters and a wife. She was pretty enough to get him elected without having every guy in the audience mentally undressing her. His girls were quiet enough too. The politician didn’t mind his life, but as he thought about it more and more, he felt empty. As he read and reread a speech he could give backwards in his sleep, this balding man felt something like regret. And he was tired. As he recalled his life, the politician wished he’d slept more.

Snapping out of his daze, he noticed a light blinking on his phone board: a call waiting. He picked up the receiver and pushed the flashing light. “Hello?”

A nasally voice spoke quickly on the other end. “Hello, sir. How are you?”

“Ah, Don. What can I do for you?”

“Well nothing, sir. I’m calling to tell you that your speech has been cancelled for today.”

“Is that so? What happened?”

“Not enough tickets were sold.”

“What? This was a small banquet hall. Maybe 200 seats? We couldn’t fill 200 hundred seats?”

“We couldn’t fill 20, sir.”

The politician felt a bubble in his throat. He beat his chest once and coughed.

Don’s voice softened as though reassuring someone who just went through a break up. “I’m sure it has nothing to do with you, sir. Your approval ratings are higher than they’ve ever been.”

“I suppose so,” the politician grunted.

“It must be the weather, sir. Terrible these days. Nasty.”

“Rain makes for bad politics,” the politician said, quoting himself from when he was just a city commissioner.

“Yes, sir.” Don said.

“Well thank you, Don. Have a good day.”

“You too, sir.”

Don hung up. The politician listened to the dial tone for a few seconds, then hung up as well. He walked to the window, pulled back the curtains and looked outside at a sunny day, no clouds in the sky.

“Janice!” the politician said.

A secretary opened the door. “Yes, sir?”

“The speech has been cancelled.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Looks like I have the night off.”

The secretary smiled politely and said. “Yes, sir, you do.”

The politician sighed and turned back to his desk. He picked up the framed picture and felt nothing. “Janice, I want you to make me an appointment.”

“Sir?”

The politician set the frame on his desk. “It’s time.”

An hour later, he felt nothing at all.

***

Joseph realized his mother hadn’t followed him, but there was no time to cry. Not now. His eyes searched for a speck of red in the distance, either her hair or the blood on her arms. Running between cars and out to the sidewalk, he called out to a nameless girl, jumping to see over cars and around buildings. He ran up and down the street, checking restaurants and coffee shops, asking strangers if they’d seen a troubled redhead with blood on her arms. None had.

Joseph ran from street sign to street sign, revisiting the same crowded intersections over and over. He talked to people who’d never been near the clinic that day, begging them to remember anything, offer any sort of guide.

“Where is she?” he asked. “Do you know this girl? She needs my help!” The people simply apologized, wishing they could offer more help. Joseph wished that too and continued his search. Gas stations, doctor’s offices and pharmacies yielded nothing, yielded no one. Not her. Each un-freckled, untroubled face was a disappointment. Each clean arm was a dagger in his stomach. The world melted and evaporated like ice under a hot sun until the buildings and the sky blended together. The people turned faceless, gray and unimportant. Joseph looked for one person in a world of many people. What did he expect?

What did he expect?
What did he expect?

The words buzzed in Joseph’s head because he knew what he had expected. Peace. He wanted it so badly it hurt. “Endings,” his mother told him once, “were what the middles are for. Don’t forget your ending.” Joseph stood outside of the clinic and wished for the ending he’d planned, the one with his mother. The word thumped his head like a woodpecker’s beak. Mother. Mother. Mom. Mommy. Where are you now? Hot tears drowned his eyes and streamed down his cheeks. He cried like a boy scared of the dark. He cried and wanted his mother more than he’d ever wanted anyone or anything. She would make everything better. She would understand. She’d wrap her arms around her baby and kiss away the badness. She’d protect him like armor against the world, against adulthood and darkness and death. Fight the dark. Save. Protect. That’s every mother’s job. Joseph turned to the clinic doors and yelled in a voice that broke and crumbled, “NO!” No one answered.

A doctor had come to Joseph’s school one day and told him that there was something after death; too many people had experienced heaven in near-death situations for science to discount the findings. The doctor told the teenagers to take comfort in this fact if their parents wanted to make a family appointment. He said, “Don’t be afraid of death. You’re just going behind the curtain. What’s behind the curtain may be partially unknown, that’s no reason to fear it. Be brave, kids.”

Joseph was going to join his mother. They’d be together again and all of this — the pain, the tears, the blood — would be forgotten or forgiven, whichever they did in Heaven. Joseph, like many before and after him, was journeying behind the curtain and leaving the audience without a final bow.

A tear dribbled down Joseph’s cheek and dripped off his chin. He watched it fall to the pavement, but didn’t see its impact. No, his eyes fell on a small red puddle, no bigger than a teardrop itself, by his right sneaker. He stared at the cement and sidewalk in front of the clinic and found more red puddles. Turning around, he saw even more, a trail leading to the back of the parking lot, past what used to be his mother’s car.

Joseph followed the trail drop by drop. They extended across the street and past gas stations and doctor’s offices and pharmacies. The drops didn’t lead to restaurants or other clinics with blood-smeared doors. They continued like tragic marks on a map. Take 400 blood paces east. On the 400th pace, the drops ended in a puddle by a navy blue minivan in a school parking lot. In the passenger seat, sat the redheaded girl. Her eyes were closed. Her head tilted to the side and rested on her shoulder. She held her wrist in her other hand, which was covered in dry blood. She looked tired and pale.

Joseph opened the van door and called 911. The operator asked if she was breathing, if she was alive.

“Can you hear me?” Joseph said to her. “Hello? Can you hear me!”

The girl’s eyes gently opened so only a fracture of blue iris could be seen.

“Hi yes!” Joseph said. “Her eyes are open. Come quickly!”

The girl mumbled something.

“What?” Joseph said.

She mumbled again.

“What did you say?” Joseph asked leaning closer to her.

“They left,” she said.

“They left? Who’s they?”

“They left me,” the girl said, and then, she was quiet.

Joseph’s heart beat through his chest as he called to her, begging the girl to come back, to speak more. But she didn’t. No amount of screaming or shaking her would do the trick. It rarely does, I’m sorry to say.

When the paramedics arrived at the school, they tried to resuscitate the girl, but found it a lost cause. A heart like that doesn’t start beating again. They removed her body — or what used to be her body — and placed it into a black bag, one that can’t be stained by blood, tears, or piss. A few police officers snapped pictures of the bloody passenger seat and joked about how there was a clinic just a block away. She should’ve made an appointment, one man said, save the department a little trouble. The men laughed while another said that open and shut cases like these pay the bills, put bacon on the table. No strings, no problems. A third officer asked if there was anyone to contact. A man in a uniform flipped through a clipboard and shook his head.

“Doesn’t get much easier than this, huh?” said an officer with a mustache. “Poor thing. Only worth a page of paperwork and a line in the paper.”

“If that,” said a clean-shaven man.

Joseph sat on the curb and listened to the men, tears down his face and blood on his hands. His fingers dug into his hair and gripped his scalp. He pushed on his temples, but couldn’t and wouldn’t force her out of his brain. No matter how hard his palms pressed his skull, he couldn’t forget the way she looked at him, or the fact that she did. He couldn’t forget the dry blood on her thin arms. He couldn’t forget her unstained black sweatshirt or her violently stained red hair. He couldn’t forget her scream, which pierced his mind and made his brain hurt like the inside of a pumpkin being carved out for Halloween. Joseph remembered every detail about her. Her everything hurt his everything. He couldn’t forget.

So there Joseph sat, wondering who had left her, asking himself who could leave her, and knowing the answer. Joseph sat there, not forgetting the redheaded girl alone in the passenger seat on a blue minivan. No one in the driver’s seat. No one in the booster seat in back. Alone until the end.

Well, almost alone.