Sleep, My Child, and Peace — by Eddie Martell
Pippo was a small boy walking home from school one day when he saw that his little sister Roza wasn't keeping up with him. She was sitting on a lawn way down the block. He called her, but she didn’t look at him or move.
* * * * * * *
For many years, he remembers nothing more of that day. He never tries to remember. He barely notices that he has forgotten, until one day a couples’ counselor asks, “What was your most difficult family experience? Whatever comes to mind. Aside from coming out.”
"Coming out was cake," answers Phil, as they call him now. It is literally true. His lover swept him off his feet with a gourmet dinner including a 50th birthday cake -- Phil's birthday. It had three elegantly frosted layers, each a different kind of chocolate, with sugar hyacinths on top. Phil has had an affection for cake since childhood, when his mother put the whole family on a sugarless diet. Today, there are sweeteners she could have used. There is a lot now they could all have used.
Phil wishes he never let this man talk him into couples’ therapy in the first place. Each week, at great expense, the trouble with the relationship is discovered to be Phil. Phil resists change. Phil refuses to admit that begging and pleading are not enough. Phil misconstrues everything the other two say.
Even if the two of them weren’t set against him, he’d have no wish to revisit the time when Roza was the only diabetic toddler anyone had ever seen. He doesn’t remember much of the day he has begun to recount. But welcome or no, it is coming back.
* * * * * * *
Pippo started back down the block toward his sister, walking fast because he had a basketball at home. He had been practicing hard and could almost dribble it. Soon he would be able to dribble with just one hand if he practiced every day.
“Come on! Get up and walk,” he ordered.
She didn’t get up.
He would have to stay here and take care of her. He’d get home too late for basketball, probably too late to watch cartoons, maybe too late to do anything but eat dinner and go to bed. And she was probably pretending. He swung his book bag and hit her arm, but she still didn’t cry. She toppled over on the grass and curled up to take a nap.
A Corvette driving by slowed down. The lady inside told Pippo not to hit his sister and drove away. Roza was curled up on the grass to take a nap. Maybe she wasn’t pretending.
“You need a snack!” he shouted, but she didn’t move. There was no more candy in her book bag. She must have gotten diabetic at recess. He had to run home and tell Mommy. He picked up his book bag and started running, hard.
* * * * * * *
“You hit her because you thought she was pretending. And your parents had abandoned you, to an extent, by not giving you one of those little devices to check her blood sugar.”
“They weren’t available in those days,” says the man Phil loves. Phil tries not to wince at “in those days.” The lover is younger.
“So you couldn’t really know, but you felt pretty certain,” states the therapist, dropping the attack on the parents.
“I knew because she didn’t cry when I hit her,” he says.
“And you couldn’t ask the woman in the car to help.”
“She wouldn’t have known a thing about it. She’d get in the way.”
“Phil knows everything,” the lover often mutters, but he’s silent now, concerned about keeping his status as best patient. Or perhaps, and Phil can’t say why it feels so much less probable, sympathy.
“Were you afraid?"
“No.” Phil’s becoming annoyed by the question, the interruptions, and this memory reaching out after forty-odd years to hog his therapy for itself. “I had more to worry about. That day in the playground, one of the big kids told us atom bombs in Cuba were pointed at the school. That day or the day before. It was during the Cuban Missile Crisis," he says, and thinks he hears a sigh from the therapist.
The lover says, “You were worrying about Cuba?” He should talk. He’s the one who interrupted their latest attempt at sex with a comment about his work.
“My father said it damn well could be the end of the world as we know it!” Phil bursts out, in the tone of voice used by the lover’s uncle, to whom his lover’s mom defers too much.
The therapist does a fact-check. “Your father told you it could be the end of the world?”
“No, he said it on the phone, to some grownup,” Phil explains, knowing the lover’s too young to understand that all-pervasive fear. “Everybody knew there’d be five minutes’ warning if the Russians fired the missiles. We had air-raid drills.” He laces his fingers across the back of his neck and bends double in his chair as they bent in grade school, on the floor of the hallway, head between knees pressed to the sheltering plywood wall.
His lover says, “They must have known that wouldn’t do any good.”
Phil sits up. “I didn’t know what the end of the world was. I thought it meant Dad would fall off.”
“Pippo was really very alone, it seems to me,” the therapist breaks in. “He was there on a lawn far away from home, a very young boy left alone to face a medical emergency no one around him could understand. I think he might have wished a little bit for his mother.”
“I wasn’t that young,” Phil says. Blank look from the psychologist. Do the math, Phil thinks in exasperation, but he explains, “The missile crisis was in October, 1962, and my birthdate, on your chart there, is 1955. I was seven. She’d had diabetes for three years. Each of us had a Roza job. Dad boiled the syringe in the morning and Mom gave her the insulin shot. I kept an eye out in case she acted strange. I knew what I was doing.” He turns to the lover. It always comes down to this, to Phil being the older and having to inform. “Yes, it was irrational. Kneeling in the hall would have done no good. They wanted to think they were prepared if it came to a nuclear exchange.”
“Exchange?” The lover’s mouth is open, corners upward, savoring the anticipation of a laugh. But he apparently thinks of some of the exchanges and treaties to which Phil has lately agreed, most particularly what they call Article One, that each of their articles, as they joke, be used with whom the user sees fit. He shuts his mouth and nods.
* * * * * * *
Pippo ran and ran, his book bag thunking against his legs. His hand began to hurt from holding it. His chest hurt when he breathed in. He dropped the book bag and didn’t pick it up. He was sweating and the sidewalk looked as though it were waving up and down. He felt dizzy, like Roza when she got diabetic.
* * * * * * *
"You're such a nursemaid!" The lover has said this before. He’s become impatient with Phil's solicitude, his tender avoidance of every scratch or mosquito bite in bed. “You don’t make love, you doctor me!”
Phil begins to weep. “You won’t even let me try to not hurt you. I can’t ask you if you’ve got a cold.” He has tried so hard not to urge tea, not to bring the extra hat or sweater. He tries to divine needs and fulfill them secretly, is parried by new independences, and tries again.
“No, I do appreciate courtesies,” the lover says. They skirmish in courtesies.
“Where aren’t you guys out?” asks the shrink.
Phil tries to dry up. “Work,” he answers. “Family.”
“Work,” the lover says. “One or two friends.”
“Work. How’s work about gays?”
Phil doesn’t answer. The lover says, “Liberal, but.”
“Do you have each other’s work addresses?” The shrink turns from one to the other. “Does he know which friends? Does he know how to reach the relatives? Have you accessed each other’s email?”
Each knows the other could destroy him with the knowledge so freely exchanged in the days of their happier intimacy. One or two love-emails forwarded as if by accident, just one bitter scene at work. Each is sure he would never do this, at least would never do it first. How silly, how childish, how they storm and weep and suffer nightmares in their sorrow and fear.
Many, many ticks of the clock go by, at many dollars a tick. Phil says, “You have to take the risk.”
* * * * * * *
As Pippo turned the corner by the house, the old lady who was always there called out, “What’s the matter? Is it Roza?” Pippo was too out of breath to say yes, but he nodded, and she yelled, “Tell your mother to use my car!”
Pippo’s legs felt very weak as he ran into the kitchen shouting, “Mommy, Roza’s low!” He saw President Kennedy in a picture in the Times on the floor.
Mommy was getting the orange juice out of the fridge.
“Mrs. Howard said we’re allowed to—“
“Good. Let’s go before Roza wanders off. You really shouldn’t have left her there.”
Pippo said, “I had to. She wouldn’t get up.” Mommy put her arm around his stomach and picked him up and ran.
Up the street, Mrs. Howard came to the front of her porch, wobbling on her bad ankles. She dropped her keys over the rail and Mommy caught them, and Pippo told the address, and then they were flying along the way to school.
* * * * * * *
The lover says, “You had the address of the house you left her in front of? You were small enough for your mother to carry you, but you had the address? Phil, you are no end of amazing.”
“I was too big to be carried. She was just very--” Phil knows he will cry again if he uses the word ‘scared.’ He says, “Unconsciousness is near death, of course.”
There is a great deal of silence. Very quietly the lover hums, “Sleep my child and peace attend thee, all through the night.” Phil once told him his mother used to sing that lullaby. Phil thinks “all through the night” sounds eerie, as though the song knows it’s asking too much.
* * * * * * *
Mommy’s wedding ring knocked on the steering wheel when she turned the car. She sped up to the back of another car and honked the horn. Pippo asked, “Is she going to die?”
“Be quiet! I’m concentrating!”
The radio was on, and Pippo wished she would turn it off because it was saying “Crisis” and “Emergency,” but he didn’t ask. She had to concentrate. The radio said, “End of the world as we know it.”
“That’s what Daddy said.”
They came to the lawn. The car stopped, so fast that Pippo fell into the footwall. Mommy grabbed the orange juice and ran to Roza.
Pippo scrambled up and got out of the car. He wasn’t allowed to slam car doors, so he left it open. Mommy had left her door open, too. He saw the box of sugar on the front seat, and climbed in and got it.
“Good,” Mommy said when he brought it to her. She had Roza’s head in her lap. Roza’s eyes were shut.
Mommy made a puddle of sugary orange juice in her hand. She dipped her finger in the puddle, and then she put her finger in Roza’s cheek, where Roza couldn’t bite her if she woke up scared. She laid her thumb along the side of Roza’s neck. “There’s a pulse,” she said.
Mommy put more sugar and juice in Roza’s cheek. She counted. Then she said, “Pippo, go knock on doors. Ask them to call an ambulance.”
Pippo started to go to the house, then Mommy got up and ran ahead of him. “I’ll go. Stay with her!” she shouted.
* * * * * * *
“What did you fear? Right then!” the therapist breaks in.
"I was afraid if she died, her diabetes would come after me."
"That it would blame you," his lover says. "You expect to be blamed for everything that happens to anybody, Phil. If I miss a bus you apologize for the underfunding of mass transit. I used to think it was sweet, but it's starting to remind me of people who think they're God."
Phil ignores this petty revenge for having called the lover a self-appointed fallen angel the night before. "I was afraid it would come after me," he repeats. The therapist nods a therapeutic nod. Phil laughs, so merrily that his lover begins to laugh along. The degree of Phil’s relief is a revelation possibly worth all the cash.
He thinks of Mommy running from house to house, banging on doors and yelling, “Call an ambulance!”
Pippo tried to make an orange juice puddle in his hand the way she had, but the carton fell over. The sugar box fell over, too. It made a pile in the grass, though, so he licked his finger, dipped it in, and stuck it in Roza’s mouth. He saw, for the first time, that his hand was very small. He sniffled. He wasn’t scared.
Mommy came back and sat down and put Roza’s head in her lap, with her hand on Roza’s neck. She began to lullaby, “Sleep, my child, and peace--” Her voice stopped.
Phil’s lover’s hand is on his shoulder. “Pippo,” he whispers. “You were a good, good boy.”
Phil remembers that next his mother put her arm around him. He let his eyes close. Pippo had to tell Mommy they needed to find his book bag, but not yet.