I always want to start with the metal stairs
that rose over our apartment door
to theirs. Each step, for traction in snow, was patterned
like chains of mouths, open and fanged. And in autumn
the mouths filtered the a.m. sun, spattering
the walk with vesicae piscis which translates
to fish bladders, but means peaked halos, like almonds,
in paintings of Christ. The neighbors became our friends
because as strangers they gonged down the stairs
to help with boxes when we moved in, and I want
to name them, but I cannot name them. Vesicae
piscis—each morning a Scantron of light at my feet,
or the spaces of overlap in Venn diagrams.
Any two things, their shapes reminded, can be
somewhat the same. Our family’s three birth
certificates sat tidy in a fireproof box
while their son’s anchored none of their lives.
When the father was twenty-one, church visa
in hand, his mission work complete, he skipped
his flight home. Now he hung drywall in apartments
my students soon would rent. Our dryers squeaked
in identical halls. Our nightlights cast shadows
we paced through, bouncing infants, singing lullabies
we despised like any abracadabra, and there,
in our lips’ embouchures, the shape again:
vesicae piscis. Their son, our daughter—two
citizens. But dreaming a baby’s common dream
of falling, their boy could flail and wake to parents
enduring an early knock, or any unknown
smoker near their car, or a raid set in motion
by a friend who slipped some telling detail. So I
can describe for you a cobweb bulked with dust
on our furnace pipe and the current of warm exhaust
from our modest wants at summer’s ebb—just laundry
and a few degrees of heat. I want to name them,
but I cannot name them. The mother, when four,
in the purring black of a big-rig trailer, clutched
the knobs of her own mother’s ankle and crossed
the Mexican-American border. Now, most days
she stayed inside, blinds closed. It’s true the weather
could be petulant, and true our mats
said Welcome, true the numbers on our doors
were Goudy Old Style. But now can you hear
the sirens coming? I thrummed with the need to go
to work, despite the holiday, and our daughter
was sleeping mercifully in. My wife went back
to laundry after we kissed goodbye, laying out
then folding whites, humming across the house.
When an alarm started shouting Warning—
carbon monoxide detected from our daughter’s room,
with screams erupting between the words, my wife
scrambled to the crib, slipped her hands
beneath our daughter’s fluttering shoulders. Outside
without a phone, she beat our neighbors’ door
until they opened, the mother reaching for
our child, the father seeing my wife’s panic
and calling dispatch. Then he and my wife reentered
our home and split up—she to the nursery,
he to the bedroom—to open windows. Pinching
her breath, she rattled the stuck sash, she pushed
until her back and thighs shifted and slumped
like sand, her vision warping and fuzzing. O world
of spirits come down from heaven, immigrants all,
sometimes one of us shows a crisp proof
of origin. She watched a blur with shoes come into
the room. The father hoisted her to her feet
and coaxed her shuffling over the bright path
he called a kitchen, then pivoted and lifted her
into open air. They sat on the grass. The mother
brought down the kids, then a blanket. I need
you now to hear my ringtone as I was parking
in lucky shade, and the sirens arriving then hushing
in the background of my neighbor’s voice.
The story could stop there: a neighbor saved
by a neighbor, then a little song. Warning—
carbon monoxide detected is just one way
to translate podría dejar que la desesperación
pudra mi vida, y la de mis niños, o partir.
But this story doesn’t stop, and I return
to telling it here again because I want
to name them, but I cannot name them. Instead,
I can say there was a quaking aspen in front
of my bumper, and in the white of a large eye
up the trunk—like neighbors passing before
your eyes as you read this story—someone had carved
a tally of crosses. What next to put before
your eyes, those vesicae piscis in your face?
When I arrived home, my wife was still on the grass,
breathing, assuring the EMTs that she was fine.
The father was narrating the timeline to an officer.
The kids scooted and burbled. The mother and father
looked at each other, then away. A tension
in their shoulders stiffened their gestures,
but it broke when the sole suited fireman stumbled
out of the house waving a sensor and barking
4400, which is more CO than a mother
can withstand. We could then imagine any number
of endings—the one where my wife’s brain no longer
produces memory, or the one where my daughter’s
fills with her mother’s absence—and then, swelling
with gratitude, I would say how relieved, how very
beside myself with thanks I get, that they
needed only a short ambulance ride, some oxygen.
But before we let ourselves be carried off
with joy, let’s linger, while we can, with the neighbors.
I want to name them, but I cannot name them.
The Fire Chief called the father over to talk,
and all the firemen were tightening masks. Rocking
our kids, the mother and I watched two officers
arguing off to one side, one pointing upstairs.
Then EMTs helped my wife onto a gurney.
They motioned for me to bring our daughter
to her arms, and then they were lifted together
and the ambulance doors closed. The mother shifted
her son to her shoulder, so he could follow the lights
down the street, and told me to call from the ER.
I sat once more in my driver’s seat. The father
bowed his head, and pulling away I watched
the mother who’d held my child, in a swirl of uniforms,
stretching out her son’s citizen arm,
jiggling it until he grinned at me and waved.
David Thacker grew up in northern Utah and teaches at The Ethel Walker School. A recipient of the Fredrick Manfred Award from the Western Literature Association, a Pushcart Prize XLII Special Mention, and a finalist for the Berkshire Prize and the Levis Prize, his poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2015, Ploughshares, Plume, Subtropics, the Colorado Review, LitHub, and elsewhere. He holds a PhD in poetry from Florida State University and an MFA from The University of Idaho. Visit him at dmthacker.com.