We all have a “last story we’d ever tell” story, maybe even a closet full of them. A story that lives with us in the shadows, follows us on cat feet, haunts us. A story of a collosal mistake, of shame or stupidity. As it happens, this particular story has been percolating for me recently for reasons that may or may not be entirely clear. It partly surfaced as a result of conversations with another blogger, and partly because it’s just time.
The story involves a girl of 5 or 6, Cheyenne, whom I never actually met. I should have met her, but I didn’t. It happened many years ago. I was staying with my mother in North Carolina, sleeping on her floor. I was awakened by sounds from the townhouse next to hers — loud, unlikely sounds for 2am, shouts, bumping, a girl’s voice? Muffled voices. And the thought came to me as I lay there: the neighbor is abusing her child, or, at the very least, is punishing her in a way that was not right. And, the most awful thought of all, the thought I don’t want to own: it’s none of my business. This, before I ever imagined I’d one day have a 5 or 6 year old of my own.
Things got quiet. And then, I heard it — did I? — almost impercecptibly, a small knock at our door. There is something about a knock on the door at that hour that’s never right. I bolted upright. I froze. I listened — for a sound, for another knock. Who could be knocking at this hour? I denied it. I waited. I finally got up, went to the door, looked through the peephole — nothing. Went outside — no one.
I went back in and woke my mother, shaken. I told her what I knew. What should we do? I wanted courage right then, I wanted an ally, I wanted to stand up but I needed help. This was not our business but it was. My mother did not want to get involved. It was quiet now, after all. She wanted to think it was nothing. I did not make it clear how much I needed her right then.
And in that moment, as I lay back down on the floor to try to sleep, I dropped something precious, I let go of my humanity. I let go of the compass and veered. I could have, should have — but didn’t — do the right thing. And I knew it. Felt it in my mouth. I slept fitfully for the rest of the night.
From my point of view, the next morning was alarming but simple to describe: an ambulance outside, and voices. A stretcher and a body. A girl I didn’t see.
It is Cheyenne’s point of view that haunts me. Her grandmother banging around, shouting, clutching her heart, trying to get to her medication, falling to the floor. Cheyenne waking up to hear her calling for help. Cheyenne — brave, brave Cheyenne — opening her own door and walking out into the night, into the 2am night against all childhood instincts, leaving her house to knock on a stranger’s door, to ask for help, to help her grandmother. Knocking on our door, scared — scared of what she just witnessed, scared of the stranger on the other side of the door, but willing herself to go, willing herself in spite of her pounding heart and confusion. She knocks on that stranger’s door, the sound loud to her in the quiet, her knuckles sharp on the door. Her small, heroic knock filling her ears. But no one opened the door, no grown-up could take her fear for her. No one could help her. No one would help her. So at that moment she had to give up, turn, and walk back inside her house, alone — alone –where her grandmother lay. She came back to her grandmother empty-handed.
They found Cheyenne the next morning curled up next to her grandmother’s body, asleep. I picture her huddling ever closer during the night as her grandmother grew colder. It is an awful image.
Had they brought out the body of a child who was tossed against a wall by an enraged drunk, rather than the body of a grandmother who couldn’t get to her medication in time — well, I don’t know who I would be now. I received a gentler message than that, though pain enough. But the point is, I know that’s how it could have been.
I’ve replayed this night so many times because I want a different ending, because I want to have been a bigger person — not a hero, but simply someone who cared enough to act. But mainly I want Cheyenne to be unscarred. But I can’t change that now. As horrible as it must have been for her to be there alone, watching her grandmother die, feeling her body grow cold, that’s not the scar I mean. It’s the scar that comes from reaching out when you most need help and finding no one there.
I have explained away my behavior, forgiven myself even. But I have vowed that this will never happen again. That I will step up when needed. That I will do the right thing in spite of the fear-swarm. I say these things to myself, but the truth is that once you have seen yourself cross over into that territory, you know you can do it again. As the poet Stephen Dunn said, there is a clerk in each of us, willing to say yes — who wants to do what’s easiest and to please, who wants no trouble — and I live with that clerk every day. That clerk, that faceless, innocuous clerk, this sycophant who does anything and nothing, is my most haunted self.
That clerk is also the genesis of another self, which is why this story has recently resurfaced. I’m struggling against this clerk as I attempt some metamorphosis out of the shadows of just getting by into something bigger. The clerk holds me back, but the clerk leads the way, too, by being the thing I struggle against.
The clerk must die! Long live the clerk!