Why do pens, when their clear tubes are still full of ink, suddenly stop working?

It is questions like this that cross my mind these days, when I find myself suddenly rapt by the insignificant things. The white of the paper, the dust floating in the air above the professor's head. Like background noise, everything there, just waiting for you to notice.

Do these things make you sad too?

A few nights ago my roommate was telling me about this party she'd just returned from, and as I sat there, my retainer in my mouth, all I wanted to do was sleep. But I sat there, listening to her. My legs were cold.

Then she stopped, abruptly. She hadn't even finished a sentence, I think, and she started to look at me. She shook her head, said how very sorry she was for keeping me from my sleep. She said that last part with a little pity in her voice, her smile growing bigger by the moment. I watched her get up and walk out of the room, and then I screamed in my pillow and stayed awake half of the night, waiting for her to return so she could see I was awake and she had not ruined my night and so she could finish her story.

Things in life stop working for no reason sometimes. That's what I tell myself. Pens. Television sets that fizz out slowly. Lightbulbs when they choose not to come on any more, after they do a grand finale, popping and exploding.

Maybe it is because things stop working that we have to get new things, that we remember things stop working. What kind of place would the world be if everything never stopped working? Maybe it would be a good place. Or not.

What do you think?

My brother stopped working last week, when he decided to stop swimming in Lake Huron. They said it was an accident, that the lifeguard didn't notice him until it was too late. My mother was on the shore, taking pictures. This is what vexes me the most. How my mother, standing there, looking at her own son out in the water, could not notice him. But maybe he didn't flail, perhaps he didn't struggle. Maybe he just went under. Like that. Maybe he sank at the exact moment my mother was looking into the lens of the camera, and her eyes squinting, she had a hard time finding her own son.

Poppet, my father said when I picked up the phone. I'm afraid I have bad news.

I can't come home, I told him. Final exams are next week.

I heard my mother weeping in the background. She was waiting for my father to hang up the phone and comfort her. When my father did not hang up right away, the both of us sharing the silence of our steady breathing, her weeping grew louder.

It was me who hung up the phone, first. For her sake.

I haven't showered since my brother stopped swimming. I know I wouldn't drown in the showers. I couldn't, anyway. There are always girls there. Talking about how they've gotten so fat, or about a boy they slept with last night. No, actually, they always say fucked. I fucked Steve last night. You know, Steve, with the shark's tooth necklace?

The water's what troubles me. I've only drunk Coke ever since my brother stopped swimming. The pop of the tab is comforting. The bubbles fizzing, the contact of the cold top of the can on my nose. He probably swallowed a lot of water that day, my brother. I can just imagine his lungs filling with the murky brown water. It must have gone up his nose, too, right?

Last night, I told my roommate I wanted to join her.

To where? She asked, because she was all dressed up and already giggly after a few shots, and I couldn't possibly want to go with her to a party.

To whichever party you're going to, I told her.

Really? She did not leave her mouth hanging open. It shot out of her mouth, past her thin lips.

Yes, really. I nodded. Told myself to put on a smile, so that she would think I was excited.

I couldn't even fool her. That's how bad it was.

Are you sure? She put a hand on her hip, eyebrows arched as if she just knew. As if she was my best friend, we'd grown up together, playing house and we had been each other's first kiss. She'd said I was too gentle, too forgettable. When she asked me what was wrong with her kiss, I had said nothing.

But last night, she did. Know better, I mean. She put a hand, the one she'd been holding her hip with, on my cheek. Told me I should just stay in and sleep so I could do well on the exam tomorrow.

Then you can just go home and deal with all this, okay? She smiled, and this time, it hurt. Because it was genuine.

There's another thing that bothers me. Why do we have to deal with things we don't want to deal with? I understand there's a proper process to death, the five steps and all, but isn't it hilarious to think everyone can follow the same idea when death happens in such weird, individual ways?

I mean, my brother drowned. Maybe your mother choked on a pretzel. My friend Natty from high school said her cousin died when she dropped a toaster in the bathtub. Now, I don't know that whole story, so don't ask me what she was doing with a toaster in the bathtub.

The point is, I know, at this moment, my mother is screaming her lungs out. She's probably still in her nightgown, up in her bedroom. My father will have given up, and he will probably be in the den, drinking scotch. That means my mother's best friend Patti will be with her.

At this moment, as I am writing this, my brother's body is probably on some cold slab in the Funeral Home, over on Fig and Seventh. Have they embalmed his body yet? Is it still full of the water from Lake Huron? Or would it have evaporated by now, the lake water? Does water in your body evaporate when you're dead?

If there's anything I'm going to learn from my brother's death, it's this: the questions never stop coming. Have you noticed that too? Sometimes people notice things. Like how I noticed when everyone started writing in their blue books, you looked at us all, and you sat down at your little desk. You didn't do anything right away, you just sat there, staring at us all. I wanted to know what was going through your head then.

But I won't know what you were thinking about.

Just like how you don't know what your students are writing about, or if they're going to be any good. Just like how you don't know I'm not actually following the question, and that I am not writing an essay. I am not writing about the influence of the Spanish Inquisition on Colonial Europe. You don't know my brother has just died last week, and that as soon as I finish writing this essay, I will get on a bus.

You don't know I won't be coming back.

They will say I never recovered from this, and later, when you remember you had me in your class, you will dig through your files. You will take out this essay, and you will read over what I just wrote. And you will be inclined to agree.

Any questions?

About the author:

Joshua Feldman is a student at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. When he's not trying to pull papers out of his ass at the last minute, he enjoys wrestling with his pit bull, Annie Hall.