Mark vs Cancer

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Power in Sean's Palm: A Short Story

     Evening blows across the sky, early stars stretching out like cotton, soft and deep. This is August in Colorado, just past dusk: cool, dry, and violet. I make my way up the trail from the culvert, across the field and towards the car, with Sean at my heels. He pants and shuffles along, struggling to keep up. He's a foot shorter than me, and as is his custom, he keeps on talking. 

     ". . . and then the ghost waved his arms and because the Indian was afraid of ghosts he jumped on his horse. . . "

     Sean talks, but we rarely converse. These excursions of ours across the expansive suburban meadows are exercises of his legs, tongue, and imagination--and my ears. I take him on these hikes by choice, but not for the conversation. I feel some sense of obligation towards Sean, though I’m not sure why. Maybe it's my inner nice guy. Or maybe it’s just fatigue that makes me relent to his constant requests, because I have a hard time saying no. But something tells me the real reason has little to do with Sean. These trips are for me, an imperfect antidote for loneliness. On a otherwise perfect Friday night, it’s either Sean, or no one.

     Sean has a syndromic appearance: short stature, misshapen face, mild retardation. But either through denial or bravado, his parents don’t acknowledge that he is different, determined that he be treated as absolutely normal. Since they moved onto our cul-de-sac two years ago, they've never made mention of him being different—playing catch in the front yard, inviting me over to watch movies, going to football games. Or encouraging him to go with me on these evening hikes. Sean is eighteen years old, a year older than me, on track to graduate from high school next year in the special ed program. He is nearly "normal" enough so that at times I've wondered if he has any true handicap other than being slow. He is nice, harmless, not unpleasant in any way. But his small size, compact facial features, and thick gaze mark him physically. I take the cue from his parent's and act as a friend, treating him as normally as possible. But what does normal mean to Sean? He’s still talking,  

     “. . . then the chief shot the arrow straight through the heart and then the Indian . . .”

     I’m ready to change the narrative. “Hey, Sean,” I interrupt, and we stop walking. I point upward. “Look at the stars tonight.” Sean continues to blithely tell his story for a few more steps until he collides with my leg.

     “What?” he asks, stumbling backwards through the weeds. He sees that I'm pointing and looks up. “What?”

     “See that really faint cloud up there?” I feel like a museum guide. My elaboration of facts is a standard feature of these treks. I continue, “That's really a billion stars or more that are so far away that to us they look like a cloud of light. It's called--”

     “--that's the Milky Way,” he finishes for me, matter-of-factly, staring at me rather than at the stars he’s just named. I cross my arms and look back at the sky.

     “Yeah,” I say, “you're right.” Sometimes he surprises me by knowing more than I expect. I breathe deep and feel the cool, dusty air in my nose, and for a moment I feel like I'm breathing in stars--so bright, so far away. The breeze glides open and vast across my face.

     “Mark,” Sean calls, “do you know what stars are?” He has yet to lift his eyes off of me, continuing with that thick gaze. I smile down at him, waiting for his answer, preparing a gentle correction. He concludes emphatically, “They’re burning planets.”

     A thin smile escapes my lips, and after a second, I respond smoothly, “Well, kind of, Sean. They're actually huge balls of gas that burn super hot. They're like the sun, just farther away.” His gaze remains unbroken. In the starlight, I can't tell what he's focusing on—my nose, my cheeks—but it’s not my eyes. He stays silent, and I wonder if he is thinking or if his brain is just on pause. We're only few feet apart, but suddenly it seems there is a great distance between us. I glance towards my car a hundred yards away and turn towards it to walk.

     “Mark . . ." I turn my head back around and see Sean holding up his palm. He whispers, “Wait.”

     I stop walking and turn to face him, wondering what he's going to do. He is breathing deeply and closes his eyes, bending dramatically forward. He squats and brings his palm down among the weeds, passing his stubby hand back and forth a few inches off the ground. He whispers, “I can feel them.” I say nothing. A moment passes, and he tries again. “I can feel them,” he repeats, adding, “They were here.” He grabs a handful of dust and pebbles and lets them sift slowly out of his thick fingers. He soulfully turns his gaze back to me and begins to speak.

     But I beat him to it.  “Who?” I ask. The line between reality and imagination is thin for Sean, and I have run out of patience for tonight. “Who was here?”

     Sean theatrically sweeps his gaze across the fields, to the mountains and back, fingering the dust. With his eyes on me again, he intones, “The Indians.” Tension mounts in his voice. I wonder what movie gave him this idea. “Six of them. They died on this ground, because of. . .” Once again, his eyes sweep to the ground, back to me. "Because of . . . the white man."

     He says "the white man" with a well-imitated, introspective guilt, as emotionally raw as an 80’s TV Western. When he pauses again, I blink and turn away, walking briskly towards the car. Sean churns his legs and stumbles through the weeds, struggling to keep up. The drama intensifies in his voice. “Mark, I can FEEL them.” He waits for me to say something, but I don't. He grabs my arm, but I don’t stop. “You don't believe me, do you?” I have little desire to respond and can’t think of what to say. We have reached the car. I walk over to the driver's side door. Sean follows me around, watches as I slip into the driver's seat, and then walks back around to the other side. I turn the ignition as he opens the door and plops down. The radio comes on loudly, and I turn it down to a murmur. Sean stares forward and asks again, “You don't believe me, do you?”

     I roll down the window and put the car into drive. I glance at Sean, then back to the road. What should I say? “Sure,” I shrug, “there used to be lots of Indians around here. Utes, Arapahoe, some Cheyenne, I think . . .” Then I stop, realizing I don’t really know any more beyond that. The lights from the suburbs shine across the fields. In the daylight, I can pick out my house from the crowd, but at night they all melt into a wash of lights and empty spaces. The cool Colorado air flutters through the open window, drowning out the radio.  I reach over to turn up the volume. I look at Sean. His head is bent over like he might be asleep, but I catch a wet glint of the distant lights reflecting off of his onion-skin eyes. He's awake, staring at his open palm like a Bible.

(If you liked this story and would like to read more, please check out my website at


Matthew said...

Who is this Mark? He doesn't sound anything like you, he sounds exactly like you.

Your character sketch of Sean was lucid. I could seem him and hear him in my head.

Tyler said...

17 year old Mark knows about as much about Indians as I do...

Thanks for the story, I think I'll go check out your website so I can read some more.