The inky mass opened its many mouths; they gaped and retreated. The water always looked like a trained dolphin pulling itself through its daily routine, wanting only to be fed.
Camille wanted to sacrifice herself every day, that desire never left her. Beside that wide oceanic arm, she was less than a microbe, a speck. The water owned her. She was its possession. She owed it to the river, to feed it. And often the fall looked more inviting than a chocolate cake or a feather bed.
But she wouldn't jump, because then what would Harold do? He was not self-sufficient. His existence depended on her.
The river just kept shimmying along, through the track it had worn deep. No seagulls circled the water here. It was a no man's land of beaches that stunk like an collection of fish markets. Down below were stretches of salt and pepper sand with rubbish buried beneath like ostrich eggs. Some houses and buildings that replaced trees were fastened on the vast hills on either side of the river, attached only to the dirt by cement foundations.
She herself was a walking forest, in her muddy jacket and a stretched-out lambs' wool sweater the color of pine needles. She brushed her hand roundabout her scalp, smoothing her invisible hair. She had been told she looked like a fish, with her lips which she puckered big and flamboyant when she had not yet tired of listening. She took this as a compliment.
Camille asked herself how she could be sure anything outside of Scottsdale existed. How was she to know that there were forty-nine other states glued together out there? That Minnesota was not the whole world? Her geography teachers had been, arguably, not trustworthy. Minnesota to Wisconsin, Georgia to Florida. Apparently they connected like limbs. America was just a two-thousand-mile disfigured body, its skin indented and raised by bruises and tumors, battle scars and fat. On maps, the state boundaries were drawn like the sections marked on plastic surgery patients.
The sea, too, seemed like a short-lived thing. She had no evidence that, when out of her sight, the water did not dry up or chop off. For all she knew, outside of this town could be an oceanic ledge, where the water ended like a cut off chunk of ice, a perfectly vertical cliff. Camille imagined the half-fish frozen in this spot, their bright yellow fins wriggling perpetually alongside strands of seaweed, comatose starfish and lumps of coral.
It was fascinating, the idea of neverendingness. But unable to investigate any further, she dropped the idea and stepped off the bridge.
It was only about 75 yards down the road, to the Safeway parking lot. She trusted her choice because they could never prove she didn't work at Safeway or didn't spend the day there. She had done so before, transfixed by the fruit and vegetable section, waiting for the programmed showerheads to extend and moisturize the food.
She climbed into her pale green Buick and turned the key in the ignition. The car wheezed for a moment and then rumbled into action. The bunch of plastic grapes she'd purchased at the craft store jiggled from her rearview mirror. Nothing else in the car moved, except maybe whatever dust molecules were escaping from within the pages of the hardbound 1950s poetry books in the backseat. The radio played some Frank Sinatra as she drove down the road into a slightly more urban end of town.
Her house was the only brown one on a street of light blues and greens. That's why she bought it. Just the appearance of it was dismal, and she made sure to keep it that way. Weeds consumed the front yard, and the grass grew in sickly, stained clumps.
She parked her car in the garage and let herself into the house.
"Harold," she called out in a hushed yell. She didn't want to startle him.
She dropped her bag on the off-white countertop and hung her jacket in the closet. She turned the thermostat up to 61.
Harold was awaiting her on the coffee table in the living room, occasionally making a trip up for air. She turned on a couple lamps.
"How's life?" she asked Harold, hand reaching into a compartment of the table to retrieve his dinner. Shaped like semi-curled brown ringworms, she took a pinch of them and sprinkled them on the surface. They moved almost on their own across the water, like ice skaters. Harold noticed quickly and raced up, opening his mouth like a vacuum cleaner extension tube, sucking the food bits into it.
Camille closed the food container and replaced it in its spot. Then she moved from squatting to sitting and said to Harold, "I got to wash dishes today. Isn't that exciting?"
Harold stuffed himself full of worms and then returned to a life of circling his only scenery, a plastic wrecked ship.
Camille sighed dramatically for no reason at all and patted her head to make sure the hair was still gone. She got up to turn the TV on and then made herself cozy on the couch again.
Nothing really outrageous was on the news. A girl found raped and shot in a hotel bathroom. A convenience store robbed. An uproar in regards to the President's latest speech. Camille stayed rooted to the spot anyway, safe behind the house's burgundy drapes.
Two hours of various news channels later, Camille gave in to her stomach. She went to the kitchen and popped two pieces of wheat bread down into the toaster. She poured a massive glass of buttermilk and sliced up a kiwi. She arranged the dry toast and slippery fruit on a medium-sized ceramic plate and sat herself down at the kitchen table.
She ate everything with her fingers, even the kiwi pieces which challenged her grasp. The toast crunched loudly. A couple crumbs stuck to her upper lip until she took a long chug of milk and wiped her mouth with a cotton napkin.
Eventually her dinner was finished, at which point she took her dish and glass to the sink and rubbed them down with a scrub-brush, exorcising any residue. She flushed them with several dollops of bright blue soap and dried them with a checkered washcloth. Even if they weren't thoroughly sterilized, it wouldn't matter because her own germs were the only ones she had to worry about.
After that process, she sat herself down at the piano and flipped up the cover.
"Listen closely, Harold," she said to the air. "Let me know if there's any genius in this."
She laid her fingers on the keys. Her fingers were strangled by rings which had rusted over time from water damage. Her hands felt heavy against the delicate ivory, but she left them to their own devices. They tinkered along freely, eventually forming a tune.
Camille realized the song her fingers created was familiar and mediocre. It sounded like a combination of all the progressions she'd ever written. Aggravated, she had to resist the urge to slam her hands down onto the keys and create the most gruesome din she could. Instead she kept playing, rougher, in hopes that her hands would realize their mistake and revise it.
They didn't, not even after an hour. So she tied off her pitiful "song" and called it quits.
She turned off the lamps and retreated to her twin bed. She stared at the cracked ceiling. Her eyeballs shone like hard-boiled eggs under an abundance of eyelashes which were arranged like centipede legs. She fell asleep beneath an ocean of wrinkled dark green sheets. They held her affectionately, unaware of any other option.
The mirror glared at her again as she plowed over her head with the electric razor. It sung a reassuring vuhhh, vuhhh. She pretended her head was an overgrown lawn and swiped in straight lines, engulfed in the process. When she finished, she admired the job she'd done. Thorough. Just enough fuzz.
The river looked more vicious than usual that day as she made her way across the bridge. The waves were enormous and more frequent. It was begging for her to succumb. But the faint scent of potato soup blew against her nose almost seductively, attempting to draw her to her real destination before she chose to satisfy the ocean's hunger.
She stepped onto the gravel of the land and made her way to the back door of Rusty's.
"Camille," a red-faced Gerry greeted her, drying his hands on a towel. "Can you wait today?"
"Yeah," Camille replied, realizing it was Saturday.
She selected a half-apron from the rack and tied it snugly around her waist. It was like the tool belt of waiters, and it made her feel substantial. There were three pockets on the front: one with an order-taking notepad and pen, one with a black plastic receipt book, and one with an "emergency" towel. She located her nametag in a box of plastic and pinned it on the breast of her lavender sweater.
She served countless tables of customers and collected fifty-four dollars in tips before she was assigned to her most interesting customer of the day. He was sporting a seemingly historical hat that read "Elk's Club 1983."
"How're you doing today?" was the first thing she asked him.
He pushed his back into his wooden chair and made a bit of a face. "I'm okay," he huffed finally. "I'm very tired."
Camille nodded. "I know how that is," she replied respectfully, scratching her thigh with the top of her pen.
"I feel very alone," he continued, with far-off eyes, as if she had never contributed to the conversation at all. "There's no need to do anything anymore. Not without her."
"What did you used to do?" she found herself asking.
"Um. Go out in my boat," he stated coldly.
Camille was speechless. The man was staring out a window, at the bridge or the water. The hair sticking out from his hat was a speckled gray, and she guessed he was in his fifties. Eventually she sputtered, "that's wonderful. I mean, the boat."
"Yeah," he said.
He didn't want a specific drink, just water. She brought it to him, and he mumbled a thank you.
"Have you decided what you'd like?" she asked him finally. The menu was lying on the table in front of him, and so she assumed.
He nodded and ordered their famous potato soup. She told him it was an excellent choice.
"If you need anything else, just let me know," she said to him when she arrived with his bowl of soup and five packets of saltine crackers.
"There's a lot I need," he said after a beat.
"Is there anything I can do?" she asked.
So Camille went on to serve others, always glancing at the man wistfully, plotting how she could gain entry to his life. She couldn't follow him home, and she wouldn't be able to find his address without asking him. She needed to propose something when she took him his bill.
"Sir, do you need any help around the house?" was what she decided on. She placed the receipt book in front of him.
"What?" he asked, looking at her for once with solid blue eyes.
She reached up to push hair behind her ear and forgot it wasn't there. Foolishly she returned her hand to her side. "I mean, if you need anything. Dusting, organizing, cleaning, anything."
"Why? You need more money?"
"No," she assured him. "I just think you deserve a little help."
He wrote "Richard" and his address on a slip of paper, and she slipped it into the towel pocket of her tool belt.
Camille had to drive across the bridge to get to Richard's house. It was the first time she'd driven across it since her job interview at Rusty's. Before the interview, she'd never even been across the bridge at all.
Her eyes kept reverting to the river as she drove. She felt obscene and sinful not taking her time, but 15 mph was a crawl to the hurried drivers behind her. She was honked at, once.
Richard's cottage, as it turned out, was only about eight miles down the road from Rusty's, and just as close to the river. It was nestled in a fairly wooded area, painted a disappointing Robin's egg blue, with curtainless windows.
"Oh," Richard said when he opened the door to the nearly-bald girl dressed in green. His face was sullen; his eyeballs sunk into their sockets. He was wearing a plaid, flannel shirt.
"Is it okay?" Camille asked. "I'm... here."
"You're here," he repeated, looking over his shoulder at the mess of a house. "Yeah."
He opened the door, and so she stepped in. The entryway reeked of feminism. It was decorated with an elegant oval mirror and dusty blue tiles, and a side table boasted framed photos of Richard and his wife. The only sign that a man inhabited the house were the grungy boots and tennis shoes tossed up against the wall.
Camille slipped off her leather clogs and listened to Richard fiddle with all the locks on the door. He heaved a sigh and brushed past her, into the living room. The living room, yes. That was the disorderly part. There were dishes all around and everything was dusty or misplaced.
"I don't know what you want to do here," Richard said, lowering himself into a recliner that was not reclined. "There's... the cleaning supplies. They're in the hall closet." He flittered his hand in the direction of a claustrophobic hall.
Camille followed his orders with only a nod, finding the closet to be a treasure chest of disinfectants, window cleaners, feather dusters, and scrub brushes. She hauled these things into the living room and worked silently, massaging stains out of the carpet, polishing the coffee tables, carrying dirty dishes to the sink. Wearing some yellow rubber gloves, she felt like a warrior fit to combat anything. Her thoughts drifted away from the labor, and Richard read the newspaper from his chair. The only sounds in the room were the turning of pages, the squeaks of liquid against glass, and the steady eshh, eshh of scrubbing.
After a long bout of silence she finally asked, "when did you build your boat?"
Richard laid the newspaper in his lap noisily. "19... 76."
Camille nodded. "That's amazing," she said.
His mouth shrunk in, as if a secret had been revealed. He watched her sweep over a vase with the duster.
House-cleaning made the weeks pass quicker. Camille would show up impulsively, but rarely. The river did not like her disrespecting it all the time. She was slowly burrowing inside, though, climbing up even. The view out of the kitchen window reminded her of her goal: the cool, swift water, the shade of overripe blueberries. It was a garden of its own – an ongoing leak, or so it seemed, from some core of the earth. It had escaped the ocean. It had rebelled and succeeded.
She made a habit out of washing every dish in Richard's sink. She even ate there sometimes, standing her back up against the island, nibbling on a flaky pastry he had offered her, unaware of the taste.
The TV was a square-shaped reject sitting in the corner. Richard was more into reading the words that would shape his life than seeing them. He learned about the politicians; he was onto their scheming, he said. And those poor drowned rescue dogs in Alaska? That was a shame, but it did not affect him. He gave a half-shrug and tongued the rim of his coffee mug. He liked his coffee with two pinches of cinnamon and a peppermint drop, like the ones they sell in bulk.
Camille tried not to look at him when he had not shaved. The bristles on his chin looked like a war zone where bombs had once gone off but now there were aftermath weeds. He was a sloth. He moped across the carpet, slippers dragging, forgetting his brain.
He did not demand a thing, but only occasionally did he acknowledge money. Camille refused any payment and kept up the cleaning. In his bedroom she replaced a dead bulb and tidied his bed. Triumphantly she folded his size 37 jeans into thirds and arranged them inside his dresser drawers. All of the white socks had stains. She amused herself by matching mud to mud, sweat to sweat, grass to grass.
She advanced to the bathroom, wiping the countertop and reorganizing his pills in their orange tube containers.
He didn't stop her or grow uneasy, but he never did unless she steered into his wife's territory. She was not to touch the perfume bottles, though they winked at her from the vanity. The jewelry did not need any cleaning. Camille nodded to this, hoping only to piece together the puzzle that was presenting itself through its vagueness. She was mostly honest, though she did put her nose to a pink nozzle once: Rosemary.
She had seen enough photos of the woman that had loved him, and it seemed an unfit match. His wife obviously went to many Tupperware parties and owned just as many party dresses. She had not married for money, it seemed, unless Richard was required to die before she would reap the benefits. Looks were debatable. In the wedding pictures, Richard resembled a trim businessman, perhaps with a lazy eye, but otherwise suitable.
The years had grown on his face and belly, though. Now he sagged like a bag of potatoes being held up by a fist. Even the skin under his eyes seemed to be making its way south.
Camille knew the secrets of his house, after a while. The shriveled orchid gripping its stem in a slim vase on top of the TV. The mink fur in the coat closet. The magazines under his bed. These were the things of significance to him. He did not want the flower replaced. He did not want to hold an estate sale and profit from the mink. Camille knew better than to ask about the magazines.
On a late afternoon, Richard stared out the living room window.
"Looks beautiful outside," Camille told him and herself. She had a Greek goddess statue in her hand, caressing it with a dish towel.
He agreed with a vague nod.
"It'd be a good day for boating."
Richard seemed evoked for a moment. His eyebrows raised, his ears honed in, and he almost made a sound.
But it was as if a spirit had passed through him. "Yes," he stated. "It would." Back he went to a slouch, melting into the armchair.
Camille set the statue back on a shelf and laid her free hand on her hip to keep it from shaking. She said, "I wouldn't mind going out on the river with you."
Richard, being more focused on the color of his jeans than Camille's mannerisms, replied with a simple "no, thank you."
Camille pressed her fish lips together. She folded up the towel in her hands. "Maybe," she said. "I could go, and I could come back and tell you all about it."
He could shoo her away, and she knew it. She almost expected it. The nights when she focused on the patterns in her ceiling, during those nights, she constructed his reactions. She had imagined everything, was prepared for nothing.
"You want to?" he asked in a bit of a raised, questioning voice.
"I'd love to," she said.
"It's out back," he said. "Down the hill there. Don't rush. Don't get caught in the current."
Richard, who had mastered expressionlessness, smiled.
She didn't rush until she was out the door. She kicked her clogs joyously into the slanted grass and walked onto the dock. The pieces of wood seemed to be attached to each other not by nails, but by the clusters of grass and dandelions which grew between them. The dock was short, only a couple yards long, and built in a sort of private inlet established by tall plants extending to the sides. The skimming of water-bugs across the water's blackish surface reminded her of how near the river truly was.
It still didn't seem touchable.
She rolled the socks off her feet and discarded them on the dock. The boat, a petite but sturdy-looking thing, was tied up to one of the dock's poles with hairy rope. She dug her fingers into the knot and worked it until it was untied.
She lowered herself into the boat and found two oars stuck inside. She had no idea how to use them, so she sloshed them about in the water, listening to the noise. The water lapped at the sides of the boat.
She didn't go far, fearing the water would whisk her downstream. For hours she sat still in the small boat, entertained by the rise and fall of waves and the passing of other boaters. Some boats made guttural roars and combed the surface of the water with their speed. Others simply drifted, synchronized with the moderate waves.
Camille drifted too, but only a little, and she pulled herself back when she did. She knew better than to challenge a force so unknown to her. Just looking at the water, she decided, and dreaming up conjectures regarding it, did not grant her the knowledge of how to harness its power.
The oars now lay, discarded at her sides. They were cracking in numerous places, and so was the boat. Richard had let slip the fact that he and his wife had gone out on the river too many times to count. It was an event that was romantic to him, Camille could tell just by his glazed eyes. He had never opened up to her more than to say his wife had been beautiful, but Camille knew. The boat had sustained many years.
Now it was a relic of times past. Richard loved it but could not truthfully handle the joy it was supposed to bring, not anymore. The scenery was his only release, because it was, for some reason, not as attached to what he knew as his former life.
The bridge could be seen from where she was, laying across the river like a huge board held up by the land on each side. Cars sped across it, on average, at an alarming speed. Camille figured they could be late to a job interview or to pick up their kids from school, but those were all petty things. Perhaps some were scared of the water (though Camille thought the idea appalling). This was the only excuse she would accept for the speeding.
The water was demanding their attention, could they not see that? They had built their lives around it, almost as if it were an obstacle. And yet they depended on it for their existence. Not just the obvious things, like the fish, but for the mental issues. Camille took more from the river than she had ever absorbed in school. A couple times she swished her fingers about in it.
Of course the ocean didn't end. It had far too much to be alive for. It had so much to prove.
Civilization was so apparent on both sides of the river that it made her push together her lips. She thought of Safeway and cursed it for being so unnatural. She thought of Rusty's and hated that she gathered her money from such an industry – no matter how small – designed only for profit. She thought of Harold, and how caged he must feel. She had never before realized his isolation so regretfully.
The sun was just about to set. It hung over the horizon like a string teasing a kitten. It looked like an exploding bomb or a puddle of spilled yellow paint. It was shapeless and scattered, with bits of red-orange in spots. It was getting a little cold out, but Camille released a pleased sigh anyway. The water kept closing up, almost as if winking at her, granting her permission to go inside.
She returned with stories. She sat herself in a chair across from Richard. He sat himself up straighter to hear her words and coughed into his palm with a strange kind of forced masculinity. She told him of the color of the water, the humming of the water-bugs, the beauty of the sunset.
The skin around and under his eyes radiated weakness; it was as if he had grown two years older in the hours she had been gone. Tissues, pinched up, stood on the coffee table beside him, on top of the day's newspaper.
She arrived home later than usual, that night. It was about seven. She turned the thermostat up to 61. She removed her jacket. She called out to Harold, "Harold!" He did not reply.
She went to the living room and found that Harold was just a body now, floating at the top of the bowl. His eyes were not eyes, they were beads of white. His orange scales no longer glistened. He looked as if he had flung himself into death.
Camille was wracked with weeping. She made herself into a ball, a shaky bundle on the couch. Her lips met in painful passion, keeping out her rolling tears. She poked her fingers against her closed eyelids, milking them of their sadness. She had the frustrating urge to feel hair between her fingers, to comb it restlessly and brutally. Instead she was forced to scratch, with ferocious fingertips, her sphere of a head.
"Oh, God, Harold," she cried.
Harold would have been a year old in a month. She did not know the life-span of a goldfish, but when she had asked the underage pet store employee for a fish from the swarming tank, he gave her a look of disbelief.
"A goldfish?" he had asked. "These are feeder fish. They won't live more than two weeks."
Harold must have loved her, then, to live for her. It was certainly not a suicide, though she was convinced he would have been capable of willing himself into death. Old age did not seem like a possibility, simply because he had survived so long already. He had passed death by! And so the cause of his death was a mystery.
Camille scooped his limp body out of the water and laid him on a cloth napkin. She folded it up. It looked like a napkin full of nothing – an acorn or toothpick maybe, but not much.
She changed into a black sweater and nearly choked herself with a woven scarf. She put on a black coat with buttons and slipped Harold and his casket into one of the pockets. Then she drove to the bridge.
Being night, the water was like liquid obsidian. Camille hung her hands over the edge of the rail. Headlights and taillights passed over her, but other than that she was transparent, black against black.
She took Harold out of her pocket and unfolded the napkin. Half-expecting him to wriggle, she was half-disappointed.
"You've been so good to me," she whispered, her words immediately stolen by the rush of cars and wind.
He laid there.
Tears came to her eyes. She took Harold's cold body in her palm, trembling. The ocean below her played all by itself. He was finally allowed to be sacrificed, like she had always dreamed for herself. It was for this reason that she smiled as she cried, her tears making rivers of their own, springing from the oceans of her eyes.
She let Harold go. He blurred as he went, carried by the wind. He swam in the air, a quick little falling kite, a creature returning to his proper home.
Camille began to feel. Her eyes grew in size. She felt overcome by death; she felt vicarious. She understood, then, the devastation of loss. She understood the journey from sparkling joy to balled-up tissues. Richard's eyes made sense.
She couldn't see Harold reach the water, so she stood there for another ten minutes to make sure.
possibly, assumably, the best short story i've written. i remember sitting in the basement of a coffee place, telling ~missedpoints my idea for my next story: "it's going to be about a girl who loves water!" she looked at me, weirded out, and asked how that was even a plotline at all.
it wasn't, and that's what made it so delightful to write this. i wrote it within a very short timespan, as in two or three days. two days in a row were spent mainly at cafe delirium, telling myself to write 5 pages before i could get coffee. that coffee tasted damn good, even though i kept getting distracted by some hispanic women talking about vases.
my ideas about camille actually came from a chick i saw once, driving. she was bald and had big fish-like lips. i don't even think she was driving a green buick, but i said to myself, "she needs to be driving a green buick." later, in the school parking lot, i saw the exact car i imagined. it wasn't a buick, but i gasped nonetheless. then i realized i made camille up.
also the longest story i've written, so what does that tell you?
When I was younger I thought death was an end, but now I think it is a process. I see this in the conversion of mourner's black to a trite fashion statement, in wisdom replaced by progress. It is a searching in the sand for words that might save you, while stones fall and understanding departs. It is knowing that most of my grandchildren's generation will not recognise the reference to which I allude, let alone its significance.
The gas heater flickers; orange light beneath plastic coals provides a comforting illusion. No more cinders, no more black dust coating every surface. I suppose I should be grateful.
On the television a man grins inanely. His wife competently organises around his bumbling ineptness. His children sigh and look embarrassed, or resigned.
"That's what it's like now, see?" I say to the ghost in the chair by the fireplace.
"What's that, Dad?" my daughter Alison asks from the kitchen, where no doubt she is planning my week very efficiently. The effective career mum, at home in her world. Only I miss her youth now.
"Nothing, dear." My Sarah would have smiled at that without taking her eyes off her knitting, or embroidery, or the quick sketch dashed off in the pad she always kept at her side. I am proud of Alison, truly. She hasn't been mine to hold, to comfort, for too many years. A grief only Sarah ever understood.
The ads end their sad social commentary and the film reappears, its hero calmly achieving the impossible in a few seconds of impressive action. Another small death. There is little left for a man to be. I wrote about such things once. The wild and hairy has been caged and the key has been handed from mother to daughter, its use forgotten.
I shift uncomfortably. The pain in my chest is dormant now but I can feel it sleeping, gathering strength.
Oh Sarah, must I lose my dignity as well?
The ghost in the frayed and faded armchair raises her eyes to mine. They are still that deep, vibrant blue, young and confident. Around them the wrinkled skin fades away, the thin grey hair mists and she is solidly Sarah, painfully present. And then she is younger yet, and Alison gazes at me, not yet a teen, not quite a child, sweet, careless, and gone. Just a ghost, but the memories are as close as thought, as real as I am. I do not know how to tell her. Not now. Not yet.
I find the remote and the television once more becomes an expectant weight in the corner of the room. My book is on the table next to me, its spine against the reading lamp, its thickness partially obscuring the photo frame with its melange of memories. I will submerse myself in an older fiction, a slower time when description and contemplation were rich and complex. Alison sees only my age and thinks that I dislike change. She is wrong. It is speed I distrust. Unseemly haste. In the rush of living there is no time to delve below the seething surface, the non-stop information invasion. Teenagers still ask their questions but their eyes are dazzled by technology. They seek without finding, become without knowing, and live without depth. Or so it sometimes seems to me.
Perhaps I will write my thoughts again when I lift my face from the soft grey flakes of my faith. All that remains of the fire within has crumbled to dust. That is the process and must be endured. Deeper is the hope of the phoenix.
"Are you okay Dad?" Alison is concerned. I blink and wipe my eyes. Alison has Sarah's eyes. Her face is weathered now, her eyes and mouth cobwebbed, her cheeks drawn and pale. She has her own grief. I wonder who she sees when her friends ask about me. What memory does she compare me to? Does she know that she is twelve in mine? And how can I tell her, so soon after after?
"No, I'm not okay." I won't lie to her. "And that's okay, really." And it is. I don't want to be okay and I need Ally to accept that, to trust me. I will tell her when I'm ready.
"Oh Dad. I miss her too." Alison's façade collapses and she kneels and cries into my chest. I hold her, and with her the Alisons crowding my past: the guilty, the penitent, the joyful, the sad, the brave, the loving. She may be Dr Marshall, mid-forties, academic, painter, wife and mother, but she is still my daughter. We weep softly together, each a comfort to the other, lost in the past, negotiating the present.
The phone bleeps. "That'll be Rick." Alison disengages, swallows and takes a breath. She finds the handset and walks out of my view. I hear her footsteps on the kitchen tiles. Her voice is low and I can't catch her words. I look down at the book open on my lap, the unread pages now crumpled at the top corners. I glance at Sarah's empty chair. She is still there, smiling, drawing. Two of her pencil sketches, simply framed, sit on the mantelpiece: one of Alison and one of Rick. They are brief, deft and bold, and lovingly mocking. Alison's head is tilted forward and slightly to one side. Her upward gaze is partly hidden by her long hair, and her eyebrows are raised in sly appeal. One corner of her mouth is lifted in impudent admission of her blatant manipulation, which won from me countless reprieves, concessions and offerings when she was a child.
Rick earned my admiration very early on when, over the head of his girlfriend then nineteen and successfully wheedling my car out of me for the evening he asked me what I'd done wrong. Not only did I have to live with the calculated use of 'that expression,' but someone else had seen fit to torment me by having it framed to rub my nose in my male weakness. It was an observation as astute as Sarah's, for that had been exactly the intent of her sketch. The fact that Sarah was in the room at the time, and that Alison hadn't been conscious of either her expression or my long awareness of it, was delicious. For once, and for very different reasons, my two wonderful women were speechless.
The moment was priceless and my casual reply insulted Alison's intellect and Sarah's self-esteem. Rick and I duly suffered the consequences. It came as no surprise to me when, a few months later, Rick asked my permission to marry Alison. Of course, Sarah made the most of that occasion. She was quite merciless, and the sketch sitting at the other end of the mantelpiece shows Rick wearing a pathetically apologetic expression.
Oh Sarah. Do you see the hot sorrow behind my eyes? Can you draw me as I am, solidify the truest representation of my anguish? Can you sketch what love leaves behind?
"Dad?" Alison. Regret and uncertainty. "Dad, I have to go."
"I know, darling. Thank you for your company."
"Will you be alright?" Guilty responsibility.
"Love, you and Rick are a phone call away. Iain is across the street, Dan and Melanie are five minutes walk. Rob and Jane have invited me to dinner tomorrow. I'm fine. Give my love to Sally and Kim."
"They want to see you, you know." Granddaughters. They have their own versions of Ally's expression. Winsome, but not as sophisticated. Rick says that's because they're not mine. He's probably right.
"Are you busy next weekend?" They're old enough to see me as I am. I won't disinfect death. No plastic, protective sterility will cheapen Sarah's life.
"You want to come over?"
"How are the kids?"
"They loved their Gran. They miss those dreadful sketches. It's one way they'll remember Mum." Ah, yes. The caricatures and cartoons the children thought were very naughty. Sarah's wicked streak had occasionally caused trouble with her daughter.
"I'd like to come over, Ally. I oh damn."
The moment had come. I could see Sarah giving me a look that said "if you don't tell her tonight you'll never forgive yourself. And it'll only get harder." I know, oh Sarah, I know. Alison is staring at me. Something in my expression forewarns her and she sits down in her mother's chair.
"What, Dad? What is it? What's wrong?"
I can't speak through the warm, aching tightness in my throat. I don't want to do this to her. I don't.
"Ally. I We " I swallow and try to erect a barrier of composure. Sometimes it's not our children we are protecting. "We found out just before, just before your mum had her heart attack. It was all so sudden, and I haven't been myself, but you need to know."
"Dad!" Alison is stricken, shaking her head in denial before my admission has even left my mouth.
"They diagnosed lung cancer, love. I'm sorry. Medically stage two, extensive small cell lung cancer. I can still manage by myself; performance status zero is good, apparently. Too far gone, maybe only a year with chemo. And I refused it after your mother I could still go, but the doctors say it might only prolong my life for a few months more, and my quality of life for maybe weeks I'm sorry."
I'm not sure I'm making sense. It's like I'm standing to one side, watching an old man sag under the weight of his age, of those he must hurt and leave behind.
"How long have you known?" Angry, Alison is all control. Tight lips, tense body.
"Your mum had her heart attack on the way home from the hospital." Alison's eyes widen almost comically and I see her sudden comprehension. She shakes her head, gentle and forlorn.
"You found out the same day. Dad, that must have been terrible!" Empathy, agony.
"I couldn't tell you. Not then." How could I add to the grief of such a sudden loss? Sarah had seemed completely healthy. As much as her age would permit, anyway. I try not to dwell on the circumstances too much. Ashes to ashes.
"Dad " Alison doesn't know what to say. I put my chin in my hand and stare at the blue flames of the fire. My daughter is in two minds. One of them remembers the solace of my comfort. The other calmly assumes responsibilities. The pendulum must swing, and now it is supposed to be her place to comfort me, to look after my needs as I once watched over hers. Or so that part of her will argue. She has Rick now and I can tell she doesn't want to make this any harder for me.
"Dad?" I look up, to find that my daughter is crouched by my side. Distress twists her face and her speech staggers. "I won't let you be on your own. I know you won't want to leave the house, so we'll come here."
"You don't have to do that, love," I say, because sometimes I'm a polite fool.
"Yes, I do. We do. We didn't get time to say goodbye to Mum, so "
Unable to go on, Alison lays her head on my lap. I stroke her hair just as I used to do. My mother lived to a good age, but my father died too soon. Alison was only twelve when I received that call, and that week was the only time she ever really saw me weep. She would kneel beside me, just as she was now, and wait for me to pull her onto my lap and hold her. She cried with me, but I knew even then that she was comforting me, not the other way around. She spent so much time with me then. It would be good to spend such time as I have left around my child and her children.
"Thank you, Ally," I manage finally. "You know I'd love you all to stay."
We are silent for a while, simply sharing each other's company. Sometimes words just get in the way.
I feel a certain contentment. Alison knows now, and that is a lightening of a burden I hadn't really realised was there. It is hard to look grief directly in the face, especially when you do so alone. The plastic fire looks friendlier somehow, the familiar surroundings more comforting.
"Have you looked through Mum's sketches yet?" Alison asks then, raising her head abruptly as if she has just remembered something. To my surprise, a mischievous smile startles her wan face, lighting her eyes. I shake my head, confused.
"She always showed me the better ones," I reply with a shrug.
"You know, I always wanted to see your face up there." Alison jerks her head at the mantelpiece. My brows knit. I have a suspicion she is leading me somewhere.
"You know why it isn't though," I say, my voice thick. "We used to have to explain it to everyone. People always asked."
They did too. "I draw the people I want to remember," Sarah used to say. "My girl will grow up and my sketches will take me back to the moments I captured them. People surround me, but they all move on, leaving me to recall the past. Only I am always me, and only Scott will always be with me."
It was Sarah's philosophy, and I loved her for it. We had each other every day. When we looked back it was not at each other but at those who created the context of our lives at the time. Of course we had photographs and memories, of course we did. But we shared them in the present, in the comfort of togetherness.
We understood each other.
"I'll be a moment." Alison is crying again but her expression is that of a child giving a surprise gift. I don't know what it is but I can't breathe properly. Something hurts, and it isn't a physical pain. Sometimes I can tell the difference.
My child reappears and kneels at my side. She holds out a package. I imagine Sarah grinning at my mystified gaze. For once, I don't even try to control the shake in my hands. Beneath the twine and the waxed brown paper there is a bundle of sketches.
Draw me as I am.
"Mum told me about them just after we found out she had the tumour." Eleven years ago, then. Alison's voice shivers. "Before we knew it was benign. She told me she never once looked at them, but they were for me after you were gone." I find her shoulder and squeeze. "She Mum also told me, if she if she went before you, perhaps you'd appreciate them too."
After a while, Alison realises I haven't moved. I'm lost in a haze of memory, wonder and curiosity. I'm past trying to guess what she's thinking, but for whatever reason, she gives me what I need.
"I'm going to phone Rick and see if he can bring the girls around tonight. Is that too early?" I manage to shake my head. "Okay. I'll be in the kitchen."
And she leaves me with Sarah.
How often did I define who I was through my relationship with my wife? Somehow, I thought I'd move beyond myths in old age, but now I know I'm in one. I still feel the crouching, untamed wild beneath my social serenity, though it is much faded now. Sarah kept the key, but never closed the door. She never tried to capture me for herself. But she had captured me.
That was her skill. Capturing brief moments, powerful expressions. And she had known me better than anyone else who touched her life.
The top drawing must have been her last of me. I'm sitting in this chair, a book forgotten on my lap, staring without seeing. Sarah's scrawled title sums my expression up well: Scott, remembered sorrow. The date is two days before we went to the hospital for my test results.
Slowly, I leaf through the thick pile. Alison is right. Each sketch is in date order and the edges of the paper are still crisp. The years retreat with each sheet I lift. And there, suddenly, is Sarah, a tiny smile on her mirrored face. I know that expression. My pulse quickens. The mirror shows her naked torso and me sitting up in bed. I check the date. Our twentieth wedding anniversary. I think of Alison and surprise myself by blushing. I laugh out loud.
"What?" Alison says from the kitchen in her do-I-really-want-to-know voice.
"Your mother's sense of humour," I reply blandly. I continue this wonderful, unexpected time-travel still chuckling.
"I can imagine," Alison replies dryly. She says something else but abruptly I can't hear. My ears are full of a rushing sound like many waterfalls. The last drawing in the pile; the first one, in fact. I am sitting in another chair, holding Alison tightly. My face is hidden, but Sarah has taken her time with Ally's twelve-year-old features and the expression she has captured feels like a white hot key in my heart. My need is written in my hunched shoulders, my tenderness in the hand that caresses my daughter's long hair. Beneath her work Sarah has written simply: I love you. There is no date.
What I see, what Sarah saw, is not grief but love.
Sarah could not have known, all those years ago, what this drawing would mean to me now. She has answered the faithless "why?" that I scrawled in the ash her departure left behind. I am overwhelmed.
The phoenix rises, wild and free.
"Oh!" Alison's exclamation is hushed, reverent. I take her hand.
"Will you frame it for me tomorrow?" My voice trembles, but there is no more shame in my sorrow. I no longer fear my grief.
"Of course I will. Are you okay Dad?"
"Yes. Yes, dear, I am. Thank you for this." Thank you, Sarah.
There is the sound of a car in the driveway.
"That'll be Rick and the girls. Do you need some time?"
"No, I'm fine." I look at the drawing again as the sound of young, excited chatter reaches us. Sally and Kim. There will be time enough for solitude. I will not ignore Sarah's gift, or the tender prompt within its message.
"I'm fine," I say again, smiling. "Go and let them in."
Usually I don't like the idea of using a picture for the preview. That's because I can't draw and finding something already available that says something about a story just doesn't happen. Unless, of course, an artist comes along and reads the story, then draws something from it. I've always wanted an illustration based on my work, and the above drawing by ~moyen is wonderful. I'm very grateful to her for letting me use it here. You can see the original, full size version here. (25 June 05)
<edit>argh. lots of tense mistakes in this. I think I've found most of them now.</edit>
<edit>thanks to ~Coffeehouse, `darkcrescendo and `PoeticWar. Live crits are very cool. I've got more to think about than the edit I made... If you want to read this, nows the time, because I'll be removing it shortly in order to revise it and submit it to either a competition or a publication of some sort. Wish me luck!</edit>
<major revision>thanks primarily to `Bringa, `darkcrescendo and ~Spinosum, whose specific comments have all been addressed here. New beginning, some sections extended, some garbled, vague bits removed, one too obvious bit removed, symbolism enhanced, hopefully.</major revision>
The silhouette in the back seat seems to say, what's a few more miles per hour? Jesus, there ain't any cops around at two AM. The needle on that glowing green dial shivers, taunting.
After forty days of temptation in the desert, I turned his breath bitter and blue from nicotine.
The illuminated cone of open road chokes the windshield And he cranks the gas, feeling his back press against the seat. A rush of lines and blue-grey pavement.
His fists were scarred, probably thought even Behemoth was wary of his mirrored sunglasses.
And he thinks: bitch, you're gone, You're all gone. Bet you didn't say your prayers right. He grips the cracked leather steering wheel Cranks up the radio, His feet brush crumpled cans Of beer and Diet Coke And he feels them holy.
I made him proud of that stain on the wall; Made his fists bruised from scrubbing and scrubbing.
He stops when it gets light, Wheels kicking up dust under the dead tree, Bone-white, like fingers in the sun. The dust scratches his lungs through the open window. It glistens in the air, a black cloud
Like an oncoming storm, or the Fifth Plague.
He gets out, straightens his shirt, Pops the trunk. And walks away across the deep black earth, A shovel in hand.
This is the first piece of poetry I've done since Sewanee, and I don't know how it turned out. It's creepier than a lot of the poems that I like to write. It's called Matthew because I wanted to heavily allude to the book of the bible in which Jesus is tempted in the desert. I wanted to re-imagine it in a modern setting, happening instead to some guy named Matthew.
There is a tear in the corner of my eye that bears your name, The sound of your voice, the roughness of your grip. The bruises on my wrists remind me of your chains, The kindle in your stare, the elicit grin living on your lips, The sudden rapture of my reliance on you.
My eyes are the ocean and my stomach is a void, My mind is the storm raging, and my fists the iron burning. I am the lie you want to cover, the memory you want to erase, I am the enchanting glance you feared to adore, The maddening thirst you didn't forbid to clench.
And I still walk tall, and proud, and brave. For I am the Seeker of dreams, the soldier of sweet desires. And for those who kept on denying me the sword, Hear me roar and defy your mockery For I am the Fighter you created between your perverted palms.
Another blue ceiling, shadow-choked and unfamiliar, stares back in sympathy - withered paint crackling with unshed dust and old-man's tales of long ago, a silent confidante with blown-bulb twilit wisdom - It's comfort as cold as this half-empty bed.
Cataleptic - a midnight-waker with four hours lost and the ceiling is shadow-smothered, blue gone grey like old-man's ashes spread out over this dark grave of a room - dust unto dust in the throat, and coughing with all the enthusiasm of russian roulette.
Pull the trigger on the TV remote to no effect - 3am and the damn thing's still dead, the traitor with screen black like a post-midnight moodswing, mourning the absence of love, laughter, light-bulbs and illumination lost to night's darkened thoughts.
No time for sleep, but dreaming away of such escape - a 5am fugue with pre-dawn gloom glaring intensely. Black goes to grey and then back to the familiar view of weeping cracks in the sarcophagus ceiling above - tortured eyes read their decaying-paint epitaph.
The tombstone bed restrains this living carcass - even as the chaplain, Dawn, lays the night to sleep. 'There's rest for the wicked, but none for the weary' reminds the open-window memorial, too bright, and as comforting as the broken bulb above.
7am sneaks in, apologetic, and another day begins.
Tuesday: 14:20 A few of the men say this used to be a church, but it's hard to tell anything in this storm. We are pinned under a black and violent sky that has held us inside this crumbling room since we arrived yesterday morning. The water slides along the cracked ceiling and bombards us from different spots. Captain tells us to keep our weapons dry, but he knows it's impossible. The floor clutches our boots with three inches of sucking wet mud. If the wind ever dies down we'll have a better look around this old place, but for now we just listen as it batters the trees into the stone. None of us know how long we have to wait here. Captain says we are to protect this structure so our side can launch rockets from it if the war ever begins. Barnes says there isn't going to be a war. He says neither side is willing to start it; but here we are, drenched and freezing, just in case. In the brief moments when the wind and rain pause we can hear the water trickling down through the walls. Sometimes I swear I can hear voices in them too. Barnes laughs at me and says it's just mice. He's killed eight so far; he tells us every time.
Wednesday: 18:00 The light is growing dimmer. I would have recorded this sooner but until now it has been impossible. I still cannot believe what I see across the room, but after what happened this afternoon, my astonishment is turning to sadness. Last night we awoke to the startling crash of an oak tree destroying the other half of this building. One of its limbs busted through a narrow section of our northern wall, sending the icy wind charging in upon us, soaking us through and covering the floor with yet another inch of water. As we scrambled to our feet, shouting to each other over the roar, and rescuing our supplies from the new flood, a second tree smashed into our roof. I was struggling to hear Captain's frantic orders in the dark, but then I heard--we all heard--them. It suddenly felt as if there were twice as many of us in the black room, and under the screaming storm we heard the barking, gravelly voices of the enemy among us. Our guns being entirely soaked, no one could have fired, and in the darkness and noise we could not have found where to aim. There were great shouts and shoving in the confusion, and we listened hard for Captain's voice, huddling around him until we were all present and safe against the easternmost and driest wall. The enemy settled on the opposite side of the room.
We stood for hours afterward, waiting, bracing ourselves for a fight. I tried to discern their faces in the roaring darkness, but I could hardly see them there at all. We could hear their commander grunting at them in their rough language. I imagined that he had the face of a dog, and that his men had empty eyes and stained teeth. I don't know when it happened, but at some point during the long night, I fell asleep.
I awoke to the feeling of Barnes's muddy boot shoving me sideways. Apparently I had rolled too close to the enemy's side during the night. As I struggled to sit up, I felt my hand drop into a shallow trench that had been dug through the center of the room while I slept. The rain was still heavy but the wind had subsided. Finally I saw the enemy commander. He was tall and wiry, with a stiff hat set on stiff shoulders. He was creeping quietly among his men, glancing first at us, then back to his men, whispering in their ears until their faces showed the same contempt as his. I watched him for some time, until another of the enemy caught my attention. He was sitting in an awkward position against the near wall with his feet drawn up under him, swimming his hands desperately through his empty pack. I kept on my guard, trying to interpret his behavior and prepare my defense for whatever trick he had planned. But after a long period of desperate searching and scrambling through his belongings, he shifted up onto his knees and laid his head down in despair. That's when I saw his feet. They were bright red, wet and chapped with cold. As for his alarming posture, I now understood that he was shivering but trying hard not to show it. I realized that he must have lost his boots when the roof collapsed on them last night. I should have been glad to see my enemy at such a disadvantage, but in this moment I was taken aback, and his face reminded me of a neighbor's back home. I don't remember thinking about what I did next, or considering the consequences of my actions, but I reached into my own pack and threw him a pair of dry socks. Suddenly I became nervous as he recoiled from my throw and looked up. What had I done? But then he stared at me for some time. I have never felt a feeling as strange as when I saw his face relax deeply, and I heard him say, "Thank you" in English. Perhaps I had not expected him to respond at all. I don't know. Instinctually, I said something about the cold and the rain, but before he could reply, one of his fellow soldiers intervened. In moments both sides were on their feet. My socks had been kicked through the mud back to me, and the soldier who had received them was given severe knocks about the head by his commander, who shouted mercilessly at him until all of our guns were again at our sides. I am glad it's finally dark. I am angry and yet I do not know what to say. He has not even looked across the line once since the incident this morning.
Thursday: 09:15 There is still no signal that the war has or will start soon. My uniform is now soaked through, and I have already moved three times this morning to avoid the dripping water. I couldn't sleep last night. No one could. We could hear our enemies whispering occasionally to each other but we could not understand them. Barnes kept swearing that he could hear them plotting, and he begged Captain to let us attack them as they slept. Captain refused but Barnes repeated his paranoid plea several more times. After a while I grew weary of hearing it, and reminded him that he was only hearing mice. Captain spoke to me about what I did yesterday. He wasn't angry, which surprised me. Ever since, he has been acting strangely. To fill the time, both we and the enemy have been cleaning our weapons. Their commander is sneaking around and pointing at us again. When I hear the first bomb drop, I am going to kill him. There is one thing, however, that gives me a strange feeling of hope, and yet I have avoided writing it until now because I dare not believe it. Earlier this morning I was struggling to light my tiny stove with wet matches. Then I saw something hit the ground near my foot. It was a pack of dry matches. When I looked up, over the trench, one of the enemy--a different soldier, made a slight nod, and turned back to cleaning his gun.
Thursday: 13:38 It all happened so fast. I don't know what we are going to do now. The enemy commander is sitting in a far corner, bemused and seemingly paralyzed, and a few of our men are actually playing cards with the enemy. This is what happened: There were rumblings this morning, which could have been either thunder or guns. Both sides sent scouts to investigate. We sent Barnes, and they sent one of theirs. In view of our counterparts we gathered and rationed our dry ammunition. It was difficult to look across the trench as I did so. After a few hours, the scouts had not returned, and it was clear that everyone was hungry. As if there had been some signal, we all began to eat at the same time, though it proved a difficult task while holding our weapons ready in our laps. That's when Captain stood up and walked across the line, holding a large piece of cheese in his hand, and holding the other hand out in a sign not to shoot. We all stood to see what he was doing, and the enemy stood in response, leveling their guns at him, and us. He was standing over two enemy soldiers whose shared rations had run out the previous day. Soon the enemy commander was shoving him down into the mud and threatening him furiously. Captain, however, just kept getting up and walking forward with his hand out toward the two men. He ordered us to lower our weapons, which we did unwillingly, and then he said to the commander, "Once this war starts, we can murder each other as much as you like. But right now, these men are hungry, and I am going to give them something to eat." By their expressions we discovered that many of the enemy soldiers understood English. They began to lower their weapons too, even as their commander's rage peaked, and his face went red with shouting. Seeing his troops no longer willing to share in his hostility toward us, he retreated into the far corner of the room, where he began shouting threats to his men. But now he is quiet, and he will let no one speak to him. The men took the cheese from Captain and thanked him. Then, following his example, many of us began splitting our rations and taking them across the trench to our enemy, who had lost almost all of their food two nights ago. The mass of men soon shifted to the middle of the room, and the trench became overrun and effaced by new footprints and fresh mud. I did not stay long in the group because I felt it necessary to record our Captain's next words. As we ate together, he took a position by one of the few windows that look southward down the hill we climbed to get here. Then he said, "If we must fight to defend this ground, then let us choose what it is we defend. If I am to die here, then let me die defending a place where men would rather share meals with their enemies than kill them for the mud on which they stand. My weapon will be turned outward, to any person, to any side or country that would deny us the right to peace."
14:01 I am writing as fast as I can. No one else is by this window and no one else has seen yet. Let whoever finds this journal understand that we tried, that something worthwhile could have happened here. The group is laughing and talking together as I write, but down the long hill, one of the scouts just killed the other as they ran to reach us. I cannot tell who is dead. Over the talking, the men haven't heard the shot--but there goes another, it was something big--a cannon of some sort. There it is again. The men are quieting down; they know what's happening now. I can see the man clearer. It's the enemy scout; he has killed Barnes; he will reach us in minutes; he's yelling and waving his arms. There was just a great explosion in the distance. I can't find my gun.
Haven't wrote anything in awhile so i wrote this i got a lot of inspiration for it from the song 2.20 Girl by Suicide Sports Club. Which Ashley showed me So i hope you guys like it. Comments and any other feedback is always welcome
I fall victim to those things That don't quite make sense: The sky is assigned blue And your irises the colour of tea, Wholesome and warm, With a glint of danger That correspondes with your rising pulse.
They manage to Slice me open While simultaneously Stuffing some metaphysical aspect of me With the weight of A continent Of wild flowers.