If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was
seven years old the mailman ran over my head. As formative events go, nothing
else comes close; my careening, zigzag existence, my wounded brain and faith in
God, my collisions with joy and affliction, all of it has come, in one way or
another, out of that moment on a summer morning when the left rear tire of a
United States postal jeep ground my tiny head into the hot gravel of the San
Carlos Apache Indian Reservation.
It was a typical July day, ten o'clock and already pushing a hundred, the whole world lit with a painful white light. Our house was particularly vulnerable to the heat because, unlike the other HUD houses on the road, it was covered with black tar paperthe siding had never been put onand there were no shade trees, not even a bush to block the sun. There was an old lightning-struck cottonwood in the front yard, a charred skeleton of a tree that offered no shade at all until my mother got into the habit of hanging beer cans from its charred branches with fishing line. The beer cansthere were hundreds of them, and more than a dozen new ones being added each daywould make a peaceful clanking when a breeze came up, but they never did much to keep the house cool.
When the mailman stopped in front of our house that day my mother was in the cave-like darkness of the kitchen polishing off breakfast (four Pabst Blue Ribbons and half a way of ice cubes) and Grandma Paul was out back under the bear grass ramada in her traditional skirt and Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, grinding acorns and managing not to perspire. I was outside somewhere poking around in the weeds by the side of the road, or maybe wreaking havoc on a hill of fire antsI guess it doesn't really matter where I was or what I was doing.
What matters is that the mailman, a small bird-boned man with sweaty orange hair that looked like the inside of a pumpkin, put his jeep into park and went to have a word with my mother. What matters is that during the time he was gone, somethingGod only knows whatcompelled me to crawl under that jeep. Maybe I saw something intriguing under therea page from a catalogue or a stray hubcapor maybe the purple rectangle of shadow under the jeep seemed like a good place to cool off. I have to wonder: is it possible that seven-year-old Edgar, with his perpetually drunk and heartsick mother and his disappeared fathernot to mention his crazy witch of a grandmothermight have considered suicide? Is it possible that Edgar, seven years old and tired of it all, simply laid down his head under the tire of that jeep and waited?
From the little I know of my life until then, it's not a possibility I could rule out entirely. Even with my less-than-ideal childhood, one of the small regrets I carry around with me is that huge parts of that boy are lost to me forever; I have a broken, leaking memory of him at best. I guess this wouldn't bother most peoplewho remembers what seven years old was like anyway?but for me, obsessed with memory, with facts, with history on the smallest scale, obsessed not only with the whys but the simple whos and whats and wheres, it is a nagging absence, like the gap a knocked-out tooth leaves. I know more about total strangers than I do about seven-year-old Edgar; I'll never know what his favorite TV commercial was or where he hid all the worthless knickknacks he collected or what he feared most when he had to visit the shithouse in the middle of the night. I'll never know why he crawled under that jeep.
I do know, though, what happened when the bird-boned mailman got back behind the steering wheel of his mail jeep, released the emergency brake and stepped on the accelerator. When he felt the jeep labor against some resistancemaybe he thought it was a bump or a rock in the roadhe gave it a little more juice. The back end of the jeep rose up sharply, dropped back down, and the engine died. The mailman got out to investigate and when he saw my little body under the bumper of the jeep, my face mashed into the gravel of the road, blood already seeping among the shards of black rock as if welling up from a place deep underground, he screamed so loud that the dogs in the vicinity, most of them hairless renegades used to the worst and loudest kinds of shouting and drunken argument, howled in terror.
Excerpted from The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by BRADY UDALL. Copyright © 2001 by Brady Udall. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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