“Totem”

There is a moment, now, the sky outside the funeral home alive with snow—a white world of commotion—that she is here beside me, gripping my elbow. We are exhilarated and sobered by what we have done, and it occurs to me that if I bent down to kiss her, however inappropriate, she might let me.

I am twenty-six, a graduate student in history at Northwestern, focusing my efforts on colonialism in South America, though all of that in this instant feels vastly far away. Hannah is twenty, an undergraduate, an art major, dressed in jeans and a white wool sweater, and we are walking so quickly that we seem to want to put what we have seen behind us, or perhaps to carry it away like thieves.

My feelings for Hannah first became apparent a few weeks ago when we sat on my apartment couch, her legs draped across me, and she told me about her Glioblastoma. A few minutes earlier she had left my roommate’s bedroom. Cal was an artist, too, a graduate TA, and Hannah had met him through an introductory class. She spent most weekends at our place, dressed in little more than a T-shirt and panties. I couldn’t turn away from the sight of those long legs, from the dark brown hair that made its rope down her back, but it wasn’t until she showed me the surgical scar on her scalp that I felt more. She spoke with me in a way she rarely did with Cal, telling me how certain she had been for two years during high school that she would die, that the radiation and the chemotherapy wouldn’t save her.

“That’s when I began to draw,” she said.

Her sketchbook, I knew, was a marvel. Some days when Cal was sleeping or working, she told me how everything she drew—at least in her mind—was about the cancer she had beaten, was the tumor or the death of the tumor, whether it was an evening sky or a crow or her own face or a river or the body represented as a totem pole. In those last sketches her face was at the top, while the rest of the body was made of what she referred to as sacred objects: tombstones and cobwebs and ropes and scalpels and genitalia and blood. She told me that still, to this day, she lay awake some nights and imagined being dead, as though death were her muse or amanuensis. The apartment where Cal and I lived had a view across Franklin Avenue of Hanson’s Funeral Home, and often Hannah and I sat together on the couch and watched the mourners in their dark clothes, watched the elongated hearse, watched smoke seeping from the crematorium chimney. I told Hannah, one night, how my father had died of a stroke when I was nine, how my mother had died of breast cancer when I was twenty. I admitted that I spoke to my parents in my thoughts, telling them how my studies had been going, confessing I was lonely. Hannah said that death is a natural state, and to fear it was no different than to fear the passage of the clouds.

I keep thinking about that moment while the snow is falling around us. I am remembering how, this afternoon when I was working on my computer, Hannah knocked on my door and asked me to join her on an adventure. Cal, it seemed, had refused. We took the stairs and out into the world, crossed the street in what was not yet snow but threatening it, stepped into the funeral home. A Viewing was in process, and although we did not know who had died, were not dressed in a respectful manner, we stepped into the room and crossed, to our astonishment, to a small open casket. A child lay there, no more than eight or nine. The boy’s face was oddly swollen, with fat cheeks and lips, a few pale wisps of hair. He seemed to be holding his breath, dreaming. Hannah clutched me tightly as we hurried out, and now, in the snow, still clutches me. And suddenly I turn and want to bring my lips close. But of course I can’t, shouldn’t, won’t. After all, this moment is perfected, is something, I believe, that both of us will remember until we, too, are carried off.

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Doug Ramspeck

About Doug Ramspeck

Doug Ramspeck is the author of six poetry collections and one collection of short stories. His most recent book, Black Flowers (2018), is published by LSU Press. Individual poems and stories have appeared in journals that include The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Slate, and The Georgia Review. His short story collection, The Owl That Carries Us Away (2018), is published by BkMk Press (University of Missouri-Kansas City). He teaches at The Ohio State University at Lima.