They Used To Be Called Pen Pals (via …A Mental Squint)

A friend of mine took up writing letters this summer as a way of keeping track of friends during the school break. I have to admit that when she told me about the idea, I was immediately struck by a wave of nostalgia and the yearning for the simplicity of pen, ink, and paper. I came across this
WordPress article and I realized that I’m not the only one. Sometimes it’s nice to slow down and remember simpler times.

They Used To Be Called Pen Pals Long ago and far away, when I was a young girl, I loved to write letters. This was a time when there were no computers, no cell phones, and… gasp… long distance telephone calls were very, very expensive. I wrote letters to friends in the city I had moved away from.  I wrote letters to my grandparents.  I wrote notes to classmates…. (antique style texting under the table) in class!  I also had three pen pals. I don’t remember how I acquired these … Read More

via …A Mental Squint

How to Be a Writer Although You Probably Shouldn’t Be One

First, try to be something, anything, else. –Lorrie Moore, How to Become a Writer’ A few weeks ago, The Guardian published some lists of

via How to Be a Writer Although You Probably Shouldn’t Be One.

Turning the Other Cheek

When Wally turns seven, his grandmother gives him a Bible and tells him to learn his verses.  He studies dutifully for two weeks, and then never reads his Bible again.  One day, he goes to the convenience store with his grandmother.  Mr. Weiss at the store tries to sell his grandmother some brake fluid, though she doesn’t need it.  His grandmother lies.  She says no thanks.  She says that she is getting ready to put her car in the shop anyway.  Wally decides that this is what it means to turn the other cheek.

Wally is ten.  His teacher tells him to write a story about what he wants to be when he grows up.  She tells him that he can be anything he wants.  Wally wants to be a dump truck.  Not a driver.  A dump truck.  Wally writes the story.  His teacher tells him that this is impossible.  Wally doesn’t believe her.  Wally weeps.  His teacher draws a big “D” in red ink on Wally’s paper.  Nobody gets to be a dump truck.

Wally is sixteen.  He just got his driver’s license.  He is in the back seat of his father’s Buick with Leslie Connelly.  They are kissing, and Leslie lets Wally touch her breasts.  Wally has a hard on.  Wally tries to unbutton her pants.  Leslie says no.  Wally tries again.  Leslie slaps Wally in the face.  Her plastic fingernails cut his face, and he is bleeding on the leather seats of his father’s Buick.  Leslie cries and demands to know how Wally could do this to her.

When Wally turns eighteen, he enlists in the Marines.  His mother does not want him to go, but he does anyway.  He ships to Parris Island.  Basic is hard.  Wally has trouble sleeping.  Wally has dreams.  In his dream, he is standing in a field of yellow sunflowers.  Their petals look like teeth.  He awakes crying, but he doesn’t know why.  Wally tells Private Thayer, his bunkmate, about his dream.  Private Thayer looks at him, laughs, and says:  “Are you some kinda faggot or what?”

A week later, on the rifle range, Wally holds Private Thayer at rifle point for seven minutes.  He puts the rifle down.  He spends six weeks in Psych.  He is discharged.  Wally has a section eight.  The night after he is discharged, Wally smokes marijuana for the first time and ejaculates inside of a prostitute.  She has a prosthetic leg.  She fakes an orgasm.

Wally is twenty-six.  He lives with his mother.  His father is dead.  Wally works at a barbeque joint.  He doesn’t like barbeque.  After closing, Wally and his friends stand out behind the building, smoking marijuana.  One night, they are bored.  They kidnap a young, black boy.  In the kitchen of the restaurant, they tie him to a chair.  They call him nigger and ask if he wants to be white.  They boy, terrified, says yes.  Wally holds the boy’s head while they spray paint his face white.  Wally laughs.  Wally is disturbed.  Wally has nothing against black people.

When Wally is twenty-nine, he meets his wife.  He responds to a personal ad in the newspaper.  They both tell each other that they’ve never tried personal ads.  They laugh.  They are both lying.  On their third date, they have sex twice in the back seat of Wally’s Toyota.  Wally puts a sheet down to protect the leather seats.

Wally is forty-five.  He is married, and his son is sixteen.  It is late one night and Wally tries to make love to his wife.  He fails.  He is ashamed.  Naked, Wally goes downstairs for a drink.  His son is on the couch in the living room.  His son is kissing another boy.  His son’s hand moves vigorously across the other boy’s lap.  Wally goes blind and deaf.  When his senses return, his son’s arm is broken.  The ambulance takes his son to the hospital.  The police take him to jail.  No one seems to notice that Wally is still naked.

Wally is fifty-one.  He is divorced, and his son has not spoken to him in nearly seven years.  Wally sits on the front porch and listens to the crows taunting each other.  He puts the barrel of the pistol in his mouth.  It tastes like sucking on a penny.  The night is cold.  Wally turns the other cheek.

Estrogen

I was raised in a home with seven women, all of us living together in my grandmother’s house.  I’m talking about two sisters, a foster child, a cousin, an aunt, a mother, and a grandmother, all co-existing in a three-bedroom millhouse with only one bathroom.  Obviously, there was some bed-sharing going on and the concept of privacy was about as strange as a mosh-pit at a Kenny G concert.  On the boy’s team, there was my father and me, drowning in an ocean of estrogen.  The odds were against us from the start.

Now, every year, quite literally, dozens of women from my family gather together for Christmas and Thanksgiving and wonder why, at twenty-five years old, I’m not married, with a gaggle of children running around.  The answer is simple.  I’m terrified of women.  I’m not saying that these women treated me badly for being a boy; they treated me like a little prince.  But any guy who has ever wished that he had seven women that treat him like a god has never taken into consideration that God has never really had all that much say in how Man worships Him to begin with.

Unfortunately, I can still remember the first time that I realized that there was something unnatural about living with this many women.  I was potty training at the time, which I’m sure is traumatic enough for anyone.  My mother believed with all her heart that a child learning the proper way to take a dump was a family moment—not to mention a Kodak one.  In the evenings, when everyone had gotten home from work or school, she would place the potty in the center of the living room—where everyone was sure to have an unobstructed view of my little, naked baby ass—and she would demand that I sit on the godforsaken thing and go poo.  Child abuse laws in those days weren’t nearly as effective as they are now.

I learned how to take a crap with an audience of females cooing and pointing and making comments like “Aww, look at his little thingie!”  This is the sort of thing that can cause lifetime problems with erectile dysfunction.  At the time, my father was sitting in the corner of the living room, in his favorite rocking chair, his head leaned back, staring up at the ceiling as though willing the sky to open up and swallow him whole.  Through the course of middle and high school, when showering after gym, I would be struck by the horrible mental image of someone thrusting a finger at me and proclaiming “Aww, look at his little thingie!”  And I’d think to myself, Is this what sex is going to be like? Years later, my father and I would sit on the front porch of his house, talking and enjoying a cold beer in the scorching summer sun, and I would remind him of the incident.  My father would set his beer on the ground, lean over and embrace me, and say “God help me, I’m sorry, son.”

Female number seven, my Aunt Lori, moved in when I was five years old.  She had just gone through a particularly nasty divorce and my grandmother was never one to turn away a family member in need.  After her failed marriage, Lori developed an obsession with children and, more than anything, she wanted a little girl.  You would think that, between my two younger sisters, she would have her choice of little girls to play with.  But, this wasn’t the case.  One night, when my father wasn’t around to stop her, she started out by painting my fingernails a deep purple color.  “Isn’t that so pretty?” she asked.  I don’t know about pretty, but I thought it was pretty cool.  It made me look like I had monster hands, just like on TV.  So, I went along with it.  Before long, she had me in full make-up and wearing the little, white flower-girl dress that my cousin had worn to her wedding.

“Oh my gawd!  You look like a little doll,” Lori shrieked as she admired her handiwork.  She had taken me into the bathroom to stand in front of the full-length mirror on the back of the door.  I was a little offended at that point.  After all, I was a boy, and boys don’t play with dolls.

“Well, what do think?” she asked.

My first reaction was to start crying, but I stood there for a moment, studying my appearance.  I thought I looked, well, sort of pretty.  My dad didn’t think so.  When he came in and caught a glimpse of me, he wore a pained expression as though he had just received a swift kick in the testicles.  That night, the two of us stood under the glare of the sixty watt light bulb in the bathroom while my father scrubbed my face with a rough cotton rag and a bottle of Dawn dish detergent.

“Damn women gonna try to take your balls of next,” he muttered.

“Daddy, are you mad at me,” I asked.

My father gave me a tired smile and wiped his own face with the rag, leaving a streak of make-up across his forehead.

“Naw…you’re still my little man.”

By the time I was six years old, my parents had divorced.  My father moved out of the house and I was left alone to the devices of a flock of women who seemed to be turning synchronized menstrual cycles into an Olympic sport.  This is not an exaggeration—there was a marked calendar on the bathroom wall over the toilet tank.  Just above the economy-sized box of tampons.

It’s a strange thing for a six-year-old boy to discover tampons.  Tampons were an unholy relic, mysterious in design, serving functions of which I knew not.  I just knew it was a lot of fun to jam the tampons into the water faucet of the bathroom sink and to see how long it took for the pressure to build up enough to shoot the thing out like an unlikely missile.  I would stand over the sink, feeling like the captain of a submarine, saying, “Ai-ight, gentlemen, you may fire at will.  One time, my cousin, Dana, walked in and saw this.  She started throwing tampons at me, chanting “Dougie’s gotta vagina!”

“I do not!” I shouted.  I didn’t know what that was, but damned if I had one.

Hearing the noise and figuring that Dana and I were fighting again, my grandmother came striding into the bathroom, brandishing her favorite weapon: the flyswatter.

“What in the world is going on in here,” she demanded.

“Doug’s playing with tampons,” Dana informed her gleefully.

My grandmother gave me a strange look.  Apparently, this is not what she had expected to hear.  I still had one of the sodden wads of cotton clenched in my fist.  I didn’t know what else to do, so I held the soaked sanitary product out to her.

“I’m sorry, mamaw.  I think it’s broken now.” I said.

Terrified, I braced myself for a butt-whipping that never came.  My grandmother grunted, then snickered, and finally broke out laughing until tears were poring down her face.

“Ah, Lord,” she said, wiping her face with the back of her hand.  “I love you, but you’re full of shit, sometimes,”

I swear I haven’t played with a tampon since.

It was around the time my mother remarried that people in our house started going their own separate ways, forming their own sub-families.  With my mother’s marriage came a stepfather and a stepbrother.  I like to think that our combined masculine powers repelled them like vampires shying away from a crucifix, but I’m probably deluding myself.  After we had parted ways, I started to miss the ladies.  Not the dresses, but the familiarity that comes with so many people living in close-quarters.  At Christmas and Thanksgiving, we reminisce and say, “Good times, good times” and, when they hound me about marriage and children, I tease them, telling them that living with so much estrogen had probably made me sterile.  But, sometimes, I do think about what it would be like to have a son of my own, to tell him to honor these women that love him so much.  I wonder what it would be like to hold him against my chest, to gaze into eyes that are a reflection of my own, and to say, “Aww, look at his little thingie!”

Benny

The night I met Benny, I was walking out of the Crazy Train, one of those trendy coffee joints that pseudo-sophisticated types like to frequent, usually sitting in a corner with their laptop computers, sipping on a mocha latté, trying to give the impression of a struggling writer working diligently on a first novel.  God knows where they come from.

As I stepped outside, trying unsuccessfully to light a cigarette with flimsy matches, I saw the manager of the Crazy Train leaning over one of the patio tables.  His face was as red as a baboon’s ass, and he was spraying spittle and profanity towards a nonchalant, elderly man sitting in a chair, his legs crossed and a tattered notebook resting in his lap.

“You been sitting here all night, and you ain’t bought a damn thing.  Do yourself a favor and fuck off before I call the cops,” the manager said.

The man looked at the manager the way you might look at a dog turd on the sidewalk, and turned his attention back to his notebook.  He held a stump of pencil loosely in his hand, and he sat with his head tilted at an angle, his brow furrowed as he studied the page, occasionally sketching lines.

“For Christ’s sake, I…,” said the manager.

“I’ll please you to keep yer Christ-saking to yerself, thank you.  I don’t recall Jesus having a stake here,” the man said, his eyes still on his notebook.

The manager slammed a ham-sized fist down on the table.

“I’m telling you, you gotta leave.  I can’t have a bum hanging around here.  It’ll offend my customers.”

“That so?” the man said. “Hey, sonny boy,” he said, snapping his fingers at me.  “Is my presence here o-fending your sensibilities?”

“No, sir,” I said.  “I can’t say that it is.”

I had to grin.  This guy had moxie.

“Well, there you go,” the man said to the manager.  “But, just the same, if it’ll keep you from gittin yer pecker tied in a knot, I’ll leave.  Cain’t git no work done here anyhow with you carryin’ on so.”

The man jammed his notebook into a rucksack sitting on the ground beside his chair and leaned forward, using the table to help push himself up.  He lurched oddly to the right, off-balance.  As he stood, the leg of his overalls inched up, and I could see why.  Shoved into a scuffed Brogan work boot, his right leg wasn’t a leg at all, but a prosthetic.  I saw the manager staring wordlessly, coldly, at the limb, and, for a moment, I felt embarrassed for the man, as though he had accidentally shown us his penis.

“Let me get that for you,” I said, picking up his rucksack and tossing it over my shoulder.

“You offering me a ride?” he asked.

“I walked.  But I’ll carry this to wherever you’re going.”

“It’s ‘bout a mile and a half walk for me,” he said.

“I don’t mind.”

The man nodded.

“Name’s Benny.”

Sober

The summer after I dropped out of college, I found a job washing dishes at a small barbeque joint in Rockwell, North Carolina, a town that was little more than a crossroad to nowhere.  I worked fourteen-hour shifts, five days a week, for a few cents more than what, at that time, passed for minimum wage.  I can’t say that it was all time wasted.  I learned a few things while employed there.  For instance, if you take a whole chicken (before you throw it on the grill and char the sin out of it) and hold it beneath its fleshy, naked wings, it looks disturbingly like a small child.  You can’t get this from a college education.

I would leave work every night, drenched with foul dishwater, soaked as a newborn baby, and smelling like a dumpster, to walk home so that I could take a shower and fall prostrate across the floor of my younger brother’s bedroom.  Being in a position convenient for speaking to the Lord, I would melodramatically pray for God to kill me in my sleep.  Nothing fancy, just a nice, peaceful aneurysm.  When I would awake the next morning to do it all over again, I’d think, Maybe it’s time I start worshipping a darker god.

I said that I dropped out of college.  I have to admit that this is an evasion of the truth.  I didn’t so much drop out of college as fail miserably.  Not in the sense that I was kicked out of school for bad grades or anything of that nature…I never made it that far.  When I started college, I was like a dog that has just been let off the leash for the first time.  I went nuts.  I stayed up most of the night, drinking enough to pickle my brain like an hamster fetus in a biology lab, drinking as though I expected to find salvation in a ninety-proof bottle.  Then, I would sleep until noon, waking with a look of sheer horror on my face at the sight of sunlight streaming through the window.  At that point, I expected Professor Van Helsing to step through the door of my room, brandishing a crucifix and rebuking me in the name of Christ.  Then he would drive a stake through my heart.

Two years later, I began to suspect that I might be an alcoholic.  By the end of my sophomore year, I was a complete washout.  I had no goals in life, no idea what I wanted to do, and, honestly, didn’t really care.  So, I decided that it was time to seriously rethink my life.  I did what any self-respecting failure would do.  I moved back in with my parents.

I had intended for that summer to be a time of reflection and personal growth.  At the very least, I planned to knock off the booze, dry out, and regain some semblance of perspective.  I believe Mr. Robert Burns had something to say about “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men.”  My situation was probably more common to men than mice.  It turned out that many people trapped in jobs that lead nowhere, living boring lives and leading existences devoid of purpose turn to alcohol as an escape from existential angst.  Who would’ve thought?

The manager at the restaurant where I worked was this guy named Jeff, a charming individual with a gun rack in the back of his pick-up truck.  He kept the walk-in coolers in the kitchen well stocked with cases of Coors Light.  Each night, after we had closed down and cleaned up, we sat at the counter and enjoyed a time that we referred to affectionately as Communion—this, of course, being stale cigarettes and a cold beer…or two or ten.

That summer, on the day before Independence Day, we were one of the only restaurants in town that remained open.  It was a busy day, with people dropping in to pick up smoked barbeque shoulders for their Fourth of July celebrations or simply stopping by to shoot the bull.  Although things were hectic, everyone seemed in a good mood.  Jeff, knowing my disposition for being easily embarrassed by matters of sexuality, had taped magazine cutouts of hard-core pornography to the wall in front of my workstation, seeking to elicit one of those blushes that I was so famous for, the ones where, all of a sudden—WHOOSH!—my head spontaneously combusts and my body is a flaming heap on the floor.  Then he festively informed everyone that I was masturbating on the job.  After that, in a fit of high spirits and good will, he announced that we were shutting down to attend a party at his house.

As I pulled into the driveway, Jeff was standing on the front deck of his house, waving a beer at me like an air traffic controller flagging down a 747.  I walked up to the deck and he pushed a Heineken into my hand, admonishing me, “If my wife gets drunk and takes off her clothes, goddammit, you better not tell anybody.”  At that point, I made a solemn promise to myself that I would just have one or two beers.  Gang aft a-gley. Several hours later, I was lying bare-assed in the kiddie pool, holding a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam in much the same way a newlywed couple, spent and vulnerable, hold each other after that first night of passion.  I think it was Jeff’s six-year-old daughter who tapped me on the shoulder and asked what the hell I was doing.

It was daylight by the time I left Jeff’s house.  I drove home, looking like I’d just survived an ethnic cleansing, with a headache that pulsed in a perfect salsa rhythm.  I consoled myself, saying, At least you’re putting what you learned in college to practical use. Fresh out of college, I had could pull a hangover as well as anyone.  As a general rule, alcoholics are a gullible bunch.  We tell ourselves that we don’t have to drink, or when we do drink, we can do it like normal people.  The comedy of it all is that we can’t even tell that we’re lying.  It’d be funny if it weren’t so damn sad.

After I parked the car in the driveway of my parents’ house, I staggered to the front door, wanting nothing more than to crawl into bed and sleep until the Second Coming of Christ.  As I stepped through the door, I heard a clatter and my sister sprang out of nowhere, flinging her arms around my neck.  I was prepared to slaughter her and leave her lying in the doorway while I went off to bed.  I would’ve, except that she was sobbing into the front of my shirt and later the curiosity would’ve killed me.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I asked, hoping that this wouldn’t take too long.

“Mom and Eric had a fight,” she said.

That my mother and stepfather had been fighting was by no means a life-changing revelation.  It wasn’t Moses and the Burning Bush.  The two of them had spent the entirety of their marriage pissed off at each other and their frequent battles were epic.  Think Gilgamesh versus Humbaba.  Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader.  Mike Tyson versus Evander Holifield.  You’ll get a pretty good picture of Saturday night at my parents’ house.  My sister, seeing that I wasn’t exactly blown away, clarified herself.

“Eric hit Mom.  He was drunk and they were arguing.  Eric started screaming in Mom’s face, calling her a bitch, and Mom slapped him in the face.  Then he kinda snapped and starting hitting her.  Brandon jumped on his back and had to pull him off her.”

“Where’s Mom?”

“She’s in bed.  She won’t come out of her room.”

“Is she hurt?”

“No, I don’t think so.  Just a little bruised up.  Eric left, and took Brandon with him.  Where were you last night?  I kept hoping you’d come home.”

I didn’t want to admit to her that, while she was dealing with all this shit, while I should’ve been there, I was busy getting drunk.  Looking down at the floor, trying to avoid the question, I noticed a knife lying on the floor behind her foot, one of the long butcher knives from the cutlery drawer in our kitchen.

Though I knew the answer, I pointed to the knife and asked, “What’s that?”

My sister’s face hardened.

“When you pulled in, I thought it was Eric.”

I just nodded.  There was nothing to say.  I told my sister to go to bed.  I didn’t imagine that she’d slept much the night before.  I picked the knife up and stepped out onto the front porch.  Gazing across the yard, I noticed that the glare of the sun on the morning dew had given everything a sort of faded-orange look, like an old photograph.  I sat on the steps, watching the blade of the knife as I turned it over in my hands.  I relished the feel of the cold steel.

For the next two weeks, my mother was a wreck.  She went through crazy mood swings: giddy one moment and bawling the next.  My sister told me it was because she was taking pills and drinking too much wine.  One day, she and my stepfather miraculously reconciled their differences and decided to get back together.  Not surprising—my mother had never lived alone in her life, and I’m not sure she even knew how.

I should’ve stayed to make sure that she would be okay.  It’s a little-known truth that most alcoholics, deep down in their hearts, are selfish bastards.  Wrapped up in our own problems, we don’t like to consider the possibility that other people might be suffering as well.  Maybe we’ve lost the emotional capacity to care.  Or, maybe, we feel incapable of giving moral support and we’re afraid to see others suffer so.  Maybe we’re dead inside.  Maybe.  So I moved out.  I found a roommate, a better-paying job, and took an apartment a couple of towns away.  For the better part of three years, I stayed away.  I found reasons not to visit.  I never returned their phone calls.

One January evening, I was driving through Concord, enjoying the nightlife.  I had gotten the night off from work, telling my boss that I was attending the funeral of a fictitious family member, so that I could spend the night in a bar, have a couple of drinks, bullshit around a little, maybe entertain the possibility of getting laid.  As I waited at a red light, my cell phone rang and, when I answered, my aunt told me to get to the hospital.

My mother had had a massive heart attack.  No one is sure how long she stopped breathing before the paramedics revived her, but they know that she died three times before they got her to the hospital.  The deprivation of oxygen damaged her brain beyond repair.  Her body hung on for three days, though her brain was all but dead.  When the doctors finally removed her from life support, I watched her vital signs fail from the nurse’s station.

I was hung over when I went to my mother’s funeral.  The night before, deciding that we would send Mom off in style, my three siblings and I broke open a gallon of cheap vodka and a mason jar of black cherry moonshine and proceeded to get shit-faced.  In retrospect, I can’t really understand why people consider getting wasted a tribute to someone who passes away.  It’s not like the deceased is present, with their arm thrown over your shoulder, laughing along in drunken revelry.  Consequently, we all showed up at the funeral home looking worse than some of the residents.

I was the pianist for the reception.  A young preacher (who had never met my mother) presided over the service.  I sat on a bench at the piano, sweating alcohol through my pores while the preacher spoke passionately of my mother, as though he weren’t being paid to do so.  He clenched his fingers as though he were trying to wring tears from the air, and you could tell that he was imagining himself in some dramatic role, like someone Paul Newman might portray.  I waited for him to finish off with a speech: “I’d like to thank the Academy….”

Listening to him, I was overcome by the morbid urge to break into a cheerful rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”  I stifled a giggle at the thought, but, luckily, anyone who might’ve heard me probably thought I was trying not to cry.  I wish I’d done it though.  Mom would’ve laughed.

After the funeral, for a while, I fell back into the familiar pattern of staying away from anyone who cared about me.  The phone would ring and I would just let it switch to the answering machine.  I wouldn’t call back.  From time to time, one relative or another would show up at my apartment to check up on me, frown at the collection of empty bottles lined up like so many little dead soldiers on my coffee table, and report back to the rest of the family that I was still alive.  I stewed in my own self-indulgent misery.

I can’t remember that there was ever any single moment of epiphany.  No one imparted any profound words of wisdom.  God didn’t speak to me as a disembodied voice from within my microwave oven—or any other appliance for that matter.  At that time, I would’ve told you that there are no divine revelations, but there comes a point when it becomes physically painful for a body to remain in decline.  Imagine a river cutting through a vast countryside, slowly eroding away the edges of the land until it finally carries those fragments of the earth into the sea.  I was sobered by the thought that I was on a superb track for a career as a professional failure.  I began to envision myself in twenty years: drunk, bald, lonely, sitting in a La-Z-Boy recliner, watching especially grotesque pornography while whacking off to cheerless, unfulfilling orgasms (surely the only kind drunk, balding, and lonely men can have).  This sounds funny, but I’d bet the house that it’s not funny to the guy in the La-Z-Boy.  Just ask him.  I decided that, at twenty-four years old, maybe it was time to put the booze down and give college another try.

A week before I returned to college, I dropped in to see my stepfather, more out of a sense of duty than any real desire to see the man.  He had moved out of the house that he and my mother had shared and into a small apartment up the road.  I hadn’t seen him since the funeral.  When I knocked on the door, he opened it and grabbed me into a bear hug that nearly jerked me off my feet.  My first thought was, Shit, he’s gotten fat! Ushering me into the living room, my stepfather pushed me onto the couch and then plopped down into an adjacent armchair.

I was horrified to see that every square inch of the coffee table in front of us had been plastered over with photographs of my mother: holiday photos, wedding pictures, even her driver’s license.  I looked at my stepfather, waiting on him to comment, but he just looked confused, as though he had forgotten what he was doing.

“So…how’s things been going for you?” I asked.

“Good…Good.  I’m getting by the best I can.  But, sometimes, it’s hard, you know?”

I nodded, not sure what to say.  He gazed at the pictures that had been so obsessively scotch-taped to the glass surface of the table.  A hundred images of my mother smiled up at us.  He touched one of the pictures, as though he could reach through the surface to caress my mother’s face.  I looked away, embarrassed because he had nothing left but a silhouette of the woman who had been my mother.

“I talk to her…every night.  Sometimes, I just sit here alone and I talk to her and it’s like she’s still here.  I can imagine her talking back to me.  I’ll see her again someday.  We both will, you know that?  I believe it.”

“Yeah, I know you do.”

I thought at that moment that perhaps my stepfather had gone insane, and I couldn’t blame him if he had.  I wondered what it must be like to be severed from the one with whom you shared the marriage bed.  It’s probably like losing part of oneself.

He slumped in his chair, deflated.

“I don’t know what to do anymore.  Sometimes I think I should just kill myself, so I can see her again, you know?  I just miss her so much and I feel useless without her.”

Seeing that he was crying now, and desperately wanting to change the subject, I excused myself to get something to drink from the kitchen.  When I open the refrigerator, I saw that the inside was empty except for several bottles of Night Train.  On a hunch, I checked the wastebasket in the pantry and found several more bottles, empty.   As much as I wanted to feel contempt, I couldn’t muster up any sense of exasperation or moral superiority.  This was something I understood all too well.  I went back into the living room, carrying a glass of water.

“I’m leaving for college next week,” I said.

“Yeah, I know.  Your Aunt Jann told me.  I wish I’d found out sooner.  We could’ve done something together, spent some time together.”

“Yeah…that would’ve been great,” I said, and the truth of it is that I think it might have been.

I imagined that my stepfather had pictured the two of us together on a boat, in the middle of some lake, fishing.  Perhaps the two of us would have shared a beer as we laughed, reeled in catfish, and recalled fond memories, remembering that time when….  The prospect seems pleasant now.

“Before you go, I got a bunch of stuff of your mother’s.  I’m sure you want to go through it.  You can have anything you want,” he said.

“No, that’s okay.  You hang on to it.  A college dorm room probably isn’t the best place to keep Mom’s stuff.”

“No!  I want you to have it.  Just wait here a minute.  I’ll go upstairs and get it and we’ll go through it together.  We’ll go through it together and you can take anything you want.  Just wait here.”

My stepfather stumbled up the stairs, talking aloud to himself.  I stood by the foot of the stairs for a long while, listening to him fumbling around up there.  He was talking to my mother.  I waited in the living room for maybe half an hour and, by then, all I could hear from upstairs were sounds of my stepfather weeping.  I started towards the front door, stopping to take one final look at the coffee table.

She looked more beautiful in the photographs than I remembered her being in real life.  A picture at the corner of the table showed her holding a bouquet of sunflowers. Much younger versions of my siblings and I were standing beside her.  I remember the day that photo was taken.  It was Mother’s Day.  We had asked her what she wanted for Mother’s Day, and she told us that more than anything, she wanted us to go to church with her.  We didn’t usually go to church, but we wanted to make her happy.  She won the bouquet for having the most children of any mother at church that day.  I’ve never seen her smile like that before.

The night before my mother died, while the rest of the family slept in the waiting room, I had stood beside her bed, holding her hand.  The doctors were trying an experimental treatment, cooling her body in order to give her brain a chance to cope with the damage.  Her skin was tinged blue, and her hair (which she had always been so particular about) was plastered, lifeless, against her head.  Her hand felt cold as glass, but I held onto it, hoping that the heat of my body would somehow flow into hers.  I prayed to God that night, as I never had, making every promise I could think of, asking Him to give my mother back to me.  For a moment, I thought I felt my mother squeeze my hand.  I sat in the armchair beside her bed and fell asleep, secure in the conviction that the following morning would bring a miracle.

A year later, that night in my stepfather’s apartment, standing in front of all those images of her, I prayed again.  It was a real prayer, precise, not just an empty pleading directed out into the cosmos.  This time I knew to whom I was speaking.

I’m sorry, Mom.  I don’t want to do this anymore.  I don’t want to be just some fuck-up.  I swear to God or whoever is out there listening, I don’t.  I’m sorry….

I walked out of that apartment for the first and last time that night.  Days have come and gone, and I’ve tried to live in way to be deserving of the most intimate connection to my mother, who bore me into this world on a river of amniotic fluid and blood.

It’s a strange thing, blood.  Across the span of human history, civilizations have made blood sacrifices to appease their gods.  You hear stories of how the Son of God shed his blood to restore Man to salvation, how we’re all washed in the blood of Christ.  Maybe that’s how it happens.  In the beginning, God created Man, and from Man came Woman.  God gave them the gift of passing along a part of themselves to create new life.  The mother, wracked with the pangs of birth, suffers to bear a child, and by virtue of her sacrifice, that child comes into the world baptized in her blood.  I don’t know.  I just hope my stepfather is right.  I think—I believe that one day, we will see her again.  All bad memories will be shed like a wet raincoat, and there’ll just be that one perfect moment.  It’s a sobering thought.