The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint
by Brady Udall (W. W. Norton & Company, 2001)
(This commentary was first published in the August 15, 2002 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
If it hadn't been for the strong recommendation by a friend, I would never have got past the first page of Brady Udall's unusual story, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint. I'm just too squeamish. So, if you're at all like me, let's get through that problem right now. Here is that page:
"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 paper -- the siding had never been put on ‑‑ and 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 cans -‑ there were hundreds of them, and more than a dozen new ones being added each day -‑ would 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 tray 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 ants -- I 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, something -- God only knows what -- compelled me to crawl under that jeep. Maybe I saw something intriguing under there -- a page from a catalogue or a stray hubcap -- or 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 father -- not to mention his crazy witch of a grandmother ‑‑ might 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?"
Thank goodness for that recommendation, however. I forced myself to read on and I am happy that I did so for Udall's story comes as close to Dickens as any I have ever read. This strange little boy with what is at first this terrible injury has to make it through a world not at all happy to accept him. That he does make his way is indeed a miracle.
First we live through his hospitalization:
"So that's it: little Edgar woke up from three months of coma and croaked, 'No.' Not as much drama as one might hope, but a miracle just the same. That word: miracle. Edgar heard it two dozen times a day at St. Divine's, heard it so much that the hard‑syllabled sound of it made the pain in his head flare like a bad tooth. The nurses, the orderlies, even the doctors, uninclined to any word that smacked of the supernatural, could not help themselves: miracle, miracle, miracle. Edgar was the miracle‑boy, a marvel, a saint, the luckiest child on earth. He even had the Mexican women who worked downstairs in the cafeteria coming into his curtained‑off area as reverently as pilgrims, pressing their crucifixes to his lips, whispering their prayers.
"And the doctors would not leave me alone either, though they did not come to pray. They came from all over to study me, to find out where the small miracle of my existence fit into their tables and statistics. During those first few months it seemed whenever I woke up there was a new doctor at the foot of my bed, looking over charts, asking impossible questions. Even though I could barely say a word or lift my hand to scratch my nose, they wouldn't stop with their questions and requests.
"'Will you count to ten backwards for me?'
"'Where am I pinching you?'
"'What color is this pen I'm holding?'
"'Can you roll your eyes in a counterclockwise fashion?'
"'How do you feel?'
"Let me answer that last one here and now: I felt like shit. My skin burned, my ragged nerves spit sparks, my eyeballs throbbed, and whenever I tried to focus on something -- a doctor's bow tie or the face of a nurse -- the colors and shapes would shift and melt together, transmuting themselves, until I would fall into such an intense nausea my bones felt like they were vibrating. I would be with my eyes closed, concentrating on keeping perfectly still, breathing in, breathing out, in, out, slow, slow.
"For much of the time I was awake, which was in those first months only two or three hours a day, I hallucinated. I saw ghosts floating above me, the spirits of dead people come to take me back where I belonged. My peripheral vision was tormented by murmuring phantoms. Sometimes at night I could feel them touching me, a hand placed lightly on mine, a kiss on the forehead, and I would struggle away in such a terror that I would pitch out of my bed, ripping out tubes, tangling the sheets, pulling the IV tree down on top of me.
"After this happened two or three times they put restraints on me, binding me to the bed with canvas cuffs placed on my ankles and wrists, a leather strap across my chest.
"'You bunch a blackhearted quacks!' Art hollered at them the first time the restraints were put on. 'This here is a boy, not a got‑danged criminal!' To me, it sounded like he was shouting from the bottom of a mine shaft. The orderlies and supervising doctor ignored him as usual. Later that night, Art, grunting and cussing the whole way, climbed down from his bed and came over to mine.
"There were four of us in the room and Art was the only one not completely bedridden‑one of his arms was in an industrial‑size cast, the left side of his face was collapsed and most of his internal organs were in a state of constant breakdown. All in all, though, he was doing pretty well -- he was the only one of us who could tiptoe to the toilet when he felt like it."
Edgar does recover although he is left with some continuing physical problems related to his brain trauma. But those are the least of his worries. He goes on to a school that is the equal for him of Dickens' Dotheboys Hall. And, his parents out of the picture, he is taken into a remarkably dysfunctional but oddly caring foster home. All the while he is trailed by the oddly-threatening and now decertified doctor who saved his life.
Edgar Mint's life is indeed a miracle and I much enjoyed reading about it -- after that first page, that is.-- Gerry Rising