Lana Hechtman Ayers

Nate Frizzell, Short Break Between Fights


On September 11, 2001, my older brother was at World Trade Center building 4 for a special certification class related to his job as an electrical engineer. After the planes hit the towers, my brother, a trained Red Cross EMT volunteer, stayed to help rescue efforts. Eight years later, he was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia associated with exposure to toxins such as those emitted by burning jet fuel. A valiant fight ensued, but my brother succumbed to the illness May of 2010. After his death, all my memories of my brother became tainted with the fact that he was going to die before his time. I couldn’t look back at childhood, or any earlier events, without seeing his death as an inextricable part of who he always had been.

The Dead Boy Is Diagnosed

For nearly eight years after
the twin towers fell,
after he rescued
survivor after survivor,
my brother was fine.
Now, he can’t lift his head.
The doctors say,
Rare form of leukemia
from burning jet fuel,
smoke inhalation.

The doctors say,
Things we can do
to prolong life.

The doctors say,

They do not say,
I say, Yes
to being a bone marrow donor,

spit into the container for minutes,
wait weeks for the results.
My DNA says
No, not a match.

The dead boy and I
have so much in common—
bad mother,
bad luck,
bad teeth,
but not our marrow.
The doctors will not save
my brother.
Neither can I.
All my memories shift,
become lies.
It is as if he never was wholly alive
once I know how young
he’s going to die.

This is how my brother becomes
the dead boy.

The Dead Boy Teaches Me About Godzilla


Is the monster a boy or girl? I say.
I press my face to the television screen
to see if I can tell.

Shut up! my brother says.
So you don’t know either, I say.

A soda can smacks
the back of my head.

The dead boy has dead-keen aim.

Sometimes Godzilla resembles
an ordinary boy in a rubber suit
throwing a tantrum.
Other times Godzilla’s a tiny toy
in a broken toy city.
Godzilla crushes apartment complexes,
flings cars, flips buses. 

Godzilla screeches flames.
People run and scream.
Why is the monster so angry?
I ask the dead boy.
Because his stupid sister
won’t shut up!
my brother says.

I think the dead boy is wrong,
but I keep it to myself.
I think the monster is just like
my brother and me—
lonely, longing to be loved.

The Dead Boy Babysits

My brother is thirteen,
a man by Jewish yardstick.
Our parents leave him in charge
of me and the cat.

Our cat runs off, hides.
I am too fat and slow to escape.
The dead boy ties me to a chair,
forces me to watch
bowling on TV for hours,
the sound turned up so high
I hear thunder in my head
the next two days.
When the show ends,
my brother lets me go.

I run from the house into
a sudden thunderstorm.
I have no coat,
so I try to get back inside.

The dead boy has locked all the doors.
I press the bell again and again.
I pound.
My brother doesn’t come.
I skulk to the backyard,
plop to the floor of the potting shed
that smells like dirt and motor oil.
Rain ticks on the roof.
There’s bowling pin thunder,
but maybe it’s only the sound
of my own pulse.
I could go ring the neighbor’s.
They would let me in, feed me,
but I want to stay quiet a while,
stay hidden,
so maybe the dead boy will
worry where I am.

Maybe my brother will
miss me too.

The Dead Boy Shrinks

My brother receives chemo treatments.
After six weeks, he’s released
from the hospital, his white cell
blood count acceptable for visitors.
I come thousands of miles to see him,
pause on the front porch a moment
before I can ring the bell,
afraid I won’t say the right thing.

The dead boy answers the door.
You’re here, he says.
We thought you got lost.

A long line at the car rental place, I explain.
My brother’s head is bald as a baby’s,
his face missing brows and lashes.
He’s pale and frail.

I realize we are seeing eye to eye—
his like hard-boiled eggs—
equal height, though the dead boy
used to be taller than me.

Still can’t be too careful about germs,
my brother says.
So don’t kiss me.
I am ashamed to admit
it never occurs to me
to kiss the dead boy.

The Dead Boy Saves Lives

It starts with him manning a ham radio
for the Red Cross,
but now the dead boy wants
to save lives,
so he becomes
a volunteer EMT.
He can’t put it into words,
but talks about blood gases.

At a special training session on 9/11,
World Trade Center building #4,
my brother is front and center
for the tragedy.

On the phone, the dead boy says
At first, we thought it was bombs,
people panicked,
women kicked off heels to run,
one headed straight into traffic,
was mowed down by a taxi.

My brother does all he can,
helps save life after life,
then walks across the boroughs
until he finally arrives home
safe, but exhausted.
My brother is silent a moment,
then there’s a catch in his breath,
I just wish I could have done more.

A Mitzvah for the Dead Boy

It has been a year in the plans,
big as a wedding,
complete with a smoke mirage,
and a troupe of rabbis who boogie
with wine bottles on their head,
the Bar Mitzvah
for my brother’s oldest son.

My brother smiles more this day
than his entire life.
Such a mitzvah.
My nephew sings the Lord’s word,
later plays drums to The Beatles’
“I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
This child turned man,
his father’s greatest pride.
My brother doesn’t wear
the prescribed hygienic gloves,
allows everyone to shake his hand
and offers hugs.

A month from now
my brother will be dead,
but for tonight
the dead boy dances
and dances.

Lana Hechtman Ayers, MFA, is a poet, publisher, and aspiring novelist. She’s authored seven collections of poetry, one of which was nominated for the National Book Award. A multiple Pushcart nominee, Lana has won honors in the Discovery / The Nation Award, the Rita Dove Poetry Prize, and the Rhysling Award. She enjoys the Pacific Northwest’s bountiful rain and copious coffee shops. Her favorite color is the swirl of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Lana Hechtman Ayers’s Website

“The Dead Boy Visits the Hayden Planetarium”

Lana Hechtman Ayers at Woodzickwrites

Audio poem by Lana Hechtman Ayers

Video poem by Lana Hechtman Ayers at YouTube, made by her nephew Max Hechtman

More Art by Nate Frizzell

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