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The Center of Everything
Author: Jamie Harrison







Sunday, June 30, 2002

When Polly was a child, and thought like a child, the world was a fluid place. People came and went and never looked the same from month to month or year to year. They shifted bodies and voices—a family friend shaved a beard, a great-aunt shriveled into illness, a doctor grew taller—and it would take time to find them, to recognize them.

Polly studied faces, she wondered, she undid the disguise. But sometimes people she loved disappeared entirely, curling off like smoke. Her father, Merle, told her that her mind was like a forest, and the trees inside were her people, each leaf or needle a memory. Her mother, Jane, said that memories were the way a person tried to turn a life into a story, and Papa, Polly’s great-grandfather, said that there was a story about everything. He would tell them something long and strange to explain the existence of tigers or caves or trees, but then he’d say, Well, the Greeks said the same thing, or the Finns; the Athabascans, the Etruscans, the Utes. Days were an Aztec snake swallowing its tail, water came from a Celtic goddess’s eyes, thunder was a deadly fart from a Bantu in the sky. There was nothing new under the sun, but nothing truly repeated. Papa would row down a stretch of the Sound and back at high tide, proving his point, slipping home before it was too late to recognize home, but the water and light and noises of the world they’d left were different than the one they returned to, except for his humming, the splash of the oars, the fact of his presence.

Lately, Polly thought her mind was a river, constantly scouring and pooling, constantly disappearing, filling with details that glinted and vanished. Even as an adult, every small thing meant a little too much to her, but these days she couldn’t go on like that, because though the world had become as strange as it had been when she was a child, she could no longer indulge it. She needed to buckle down, accept some objective reality.


On June 30, a Sunday morning, Polly Schuster and her mother, Jane, were having a carefully worded argument in Livingston, Montana. Polly had smacked her head in a bicycle accident a few months earlier, and during a bumpy recovery, a long period of confusion and doubt, she’d begun to point out all sorts of things she could still remember clearly: arcane facts from college Russian history courses, lines from Othello, houses and funerals and train rides from early childhood.

“These aren’t true memories,” said Jane, reaching into the back seat to fix her granddaughter Helen’s twisted car-seat strap. Polly was backing the car out of the garage; they were off to do errands. “They’re photographs you’ve turned into memories. Ninety percent of childhood memories are pulled from photographs.”

No one believed Polly about anything, and it was wearing her down. As she craned to check behind the car, she saw the alley rabbit by a neighbor’s gate, and the alley rabbit—clear-eyed, dusty gravel-gray fur, brain the size of a chickpea—watched back, sweetly framed by new green grass. Fritz, a black-and-tan mutt, saw the rabbit, too, and went on something close to a point, frozen with one paw up, tail straight. The old poodle watched, and Jane’s spaniel twisted on her lap, but the children in the back seat seemed oblivious. Sam was reading a comic, and Helen kicked her grubby sockless sneakers in time to a Clash song Polly was playing to annoy her mother.

One side effect of Polly’s head injury was a tendency to lose her train of thought. Once she saw the rabbit, which had waited for them every morning that week like some furry Pythonesque talisman, she might as well have been another dog. But Jane would not give up the argument, which was really about what Sam and Helen would remember about a drowning that had happened two days earlier.

“All those photos we have out for Maude’s party—you’re turning them into memories,” said Jane. “You’ve always been muzzy that way, but the head thing has made it harder to tell the difference.”

Muzzy; was that a word? Polly and the rabbit held their stare, and here was the thing: Polly wanted to reach behind and set Fritz free, give him a little joy. He’d never manage to catch it, and maybe this was a game for the rabbit, too.

“It’s possible that you remember that first apartment, or doing errands in the Village,” said Jane, oblivious.

If they kept this up, Jane would be putting her daughter in a book. Polly thought she might as well give her something to write about. She was reaching back with her left hand for the door handle when a flash of light glinted through the trees, like a bright-plumed bird, a noisy parrot: the helicopter looking for their friend Ariel Delgado.

“Give me another example,” said Jane. “And what are you doing with the back door? You need to concentrate on the car, honey. And Sam, put on your belt.”

“Nothing,” said Polly, bringing both hands to the wheel. This was the second time she’d driven in a month. In the rearview mirror, she watched Sam peacefully turn pages, Helen hug the spaniel now trampling her lap. Two women, two children, and three dogs in one car; a strange idea of fun. “Well,” she said, while Sam fumbled with his belt. “Another example, then. The drowning.”

“What do you mean?” said Jane.

“Not the one on Long Island. On Lake Michigan, with Rita and Tommy, when we were seven,” said Polly. A long, idyllic day on the beach with the Wards, but then a drowning, a young woman pulled out of the water after an hour of being churned against a harbor break wall, like a forgotten sock in a dryer or more pointedly a pebble in a rock polisher. Polly remembered the picnic basket of fancy food the Wards had brought, the quilt Jane spread on the sand, the wind spout that ran across the water toward them and disappeared just before it struck. The children lay on their bellies in the wet sand, letting the waves tug at their feet, watching everyone talk and laugh until a woman ran toward them from the harbor, calling for help.

“Another photograph,” said Jane abruptly. “Or Merle talking.”

There might have been a snapshot of the group together that day, but they certainly didn’t have a photo of the red-and-white body. Just a glimpse, but Polly could see the color, feel the water, hear the waves, hear the person who’d found the body scream. Which was only natural. Wouldn’t anyone scream?

“Not the picnic or swimming,” Polly said. “I remember the body.”

It was the wrong word to say out loud. Helen was tracking everything now, watching Polly’s face in the rearview mirror, and Sam gave up on the comic. He wouldn’t look at the helicopter anymore but she knew he could hear it.

“What body?” he asked.

“Years ago,” said Polly, putting the car in drive. “Put on your belt, now.”

Fritz gave a low keen, still locked on the rabbit, which squared off to face the car directly. Polly put her foot on the brake and turned in her seat, once again judging the distance to the back door handle. Fritz was trampling Sam, but he only held his comic higher and gave his mother a small, evil smile. “He just wants to play with the rabbit,” he said. “Aren’t you going to let him?”

People told Polly that she had the nicest children in town.

Jane tapped her leg. “Don’t do it.”

Polly honked and accelerated and focused on the street ahead. Look twice at stops, brake, be patient. The rabbit vanished into some browning lilacs.

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