Monday, May 7, 2012

Begun but unfinished fiction #005: I wrote this in the voice of my mother


© mykl g sivak 
5:09 pm, December 23, 2005 

I wrote this in the voice of my mother


Up the hill, framed by the downward bowing electric tower lines and the bare arterial branches of winter trees the mall was visible.  My parents’ suburban home sat at the apex of a small hill over which the cul-de-sac ran. The hill itself stood in a little valley between two ranges of slightly larger hills. At the top of a hill of the easterly range the mall sat.  The back porch stood attached and parallel to the second floor of my parent’s house, and I stood there in the light breeze of the atypically warm December afternoon smoking and watching the mall.
Being winter the sun had already arced low in the sky, now hanging only slightly above the trees that covered the crest of the westerly range.  The hill our house sat on and indeed much of small valley were veiled with the cold winter shadows that had somehow always filled my psyche with thoughts of death and fear.  The mall, however, which sit at a higher altitude was still bathed in the sun’s yellow glow.  The reflective portions of its façade, the mirrored glass storefronts and vestibule windows as well as the windows of the many vehicles parked in and moving about the lots gleamed in the distance.  As the trees’ highest branches swayed with the breeze the reflections seemed to sparkle giving the appearance of some minute diurnal galaxy.
I could see people, tiny flecks of color moving in the mall lots.  It was four days before Christmas, and I myself had yet to buy a single present. At twenty-seven, unemployed and living in the basement of my parent’s suburban home, the spirit of Christmas had failed to catch me.   I was near penniless, and during the three month’s since my release from the state prison I had accrued a few thousand dollars of debt on my various credit cards.  When the bills arrived I paid the minimums, which were usually in the area of twenty dollars.  I had yet to surpass the limits of my available credit, and so I knew that I would be able to supply my friends and family members with gifts, but still the idea of sinking further into debt with the purchase of each present bothered me a bit.

In the seven or so years since the deaths of my grandparents, the intensity of the Christmas ghost had slowly declined.  For my family, and especially in the case of my mother, the concept of Christmas was intrinsically tied to my now deceased grandfolks.  Years back they had been famous for their annual Christmas shindigs.  They were working class people.  My grandmother spent years on the assembly line at Shick razor, and my grandfather had been a steelworker whose extracurricular activities ranged from Union involvement to bowling leagues to moonlight TV repair.  They were salt-of-the-earth folks, good people as some like to say, and their friends and relations were many.  They were well loved.  Some time in the sixties, their dreams came to fruition with the construction of the small one-family home built by my grandfather’s own two hands.  I believe it was the first Christmas they spent in the home that marked the commencement of what was to become a much-anticipated yearly custom: the Gallagher Christmas Social.  The party was always held in the basement, the centerpiece being the ten-foot bar my grandfather had constructed of good solid wood he’d retrieved from the town dump.
My mother grew up with this event shaping her concept of Christmas.  And so to her, Christmas was not only the sights of snowfall and garland and silver bells and mistletoe, the scents of pine and frankincense.  It was also the smell of spilled gin, cigarette smoke and old spice. It was aging men in synthetic-fabric suits and women who kicked off their high heels to dance happily and wildly to spirited songs by Ives and Crosby and Sinatra with the husbands of their neighbors, their cousins, each other.  In my youth I witnessed the tale end of the phenomena, before the party regulars began to die off one by one in rapid succession and the yearly event became a low-key event centered more on the giving of gifts to us grandchildren and less on the mirth making of adults.
I soon saw men I’d first while I was only a small child, men whom I could only picture half-drunk, smoking and happy, laying in caskets at wakes and funerals.  The deaths were always difficult for my mother.  She seemed somehow unable to comprehend the transformation from robust living to stone-cold death.  It was her own youth she saw passing before her eyes.  These men and women held iconic, almost archetypal spots in her mind and as those people died the reality of the departed past became all too apparent.  Those funerals signified something else.  They marked the encroaching demise of my mother’s own parents. 

My grandfather died first, my grandmother not six months afterward, and once they were gone we all felt a great absence, especially during the holidays.  Christmas, that once had been electric and merry, became tepid and routine-like.  As I stood smoking on the porch, watching the tiny human blurs shuffle senselessly in the distance I wondered what Christmas meant to them.

I finished my cigarette and went back into the house.  I sat on the living room sofa. Being unemployed, I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands, and since all of my friends and family members had full-time jobs, I spent most of that time by myself.  My girlfriend Katie worked full-time, and since she lived at home with her own parents and generally went to bed early in order to wake up early for work, we did not spend much time together during the week.  We had been together for eight years, meeting shortly before my grandfather’s passing.  At times the relationship had become weird and strained, the deaths and my arrest, court dates and eventual imprisonment were origins of complication.  They served simultaneously as devices of division and adhesion. 
That evening I was to attend a party, an annual Winter Solstice celebration being held by my former professor and his life partner, also a professor of English. As of that moment, Katie had failed to commit to going or not.  I called her….

[She opted not to accompany me to the party, but instead said she would try her best to meet me there later in the evening. I told her I was more than willing to wait for her, so that we could go together, but she insisted I go ahead without her.  She had so things she had to take care of after work and she was unsure of just how long it would take her.]

After the phone call, I walked alone down to the coffee shop on the town green not far from my parent’s home. It was warm for December, and I did not need to fasten the large anchor-embossed buttons of my grandfather’s old pea coat that I had worn religiously every winter since he died.  I was feeling a bit sleepy and the walk set my blood flowing, waking me up a bit. I contemplated weather or not I might have a sleep disorder.

I’d spent March through September in prison for a crime I had committed when I was twenty-one years old.  After years of legal battling, I pled no contest to the charge of second-degree assault for cutting a stranger with a broken bottle during a barroom fight.
Visions of the brief incident still haunt me to this day. Mostly, they come during the night as I lay in my bed somewhere between wakefulness and sleep.  Often, in the instants before the visions slide back over me, I find myself paralyzed, eyes upon, I cannot move them.  I cannot blink.  I cannot move my limbs or neck.  My breath, as it passes automatically from my lungs through my esophagus over my dead tongue and out through dry still lips sounds loud in my brain.  Through that strange shroud of swarming purple, grey and orange pixels that make up almost total darkness I can see the ceiling.  I can make out the cracks I know by heart without truly knowing them, and then the pixels spiral, swirl and explode into a flash of some unreal green or violet.  It is then the recalled visions come.  They solidify out of the morass of psychological color, and then I’m in the memory.  It plays like filmed footage, edited with light that behaves like the proxy of light and shadow of a projected film.  The reds and yellows are nightclub reds and yellows and the yellows are ambient, cast by flickering tea light fires.  I see people in pea coats, in loosened neckties and unfastened top buttons with the white downward smile of T-shirt neck collars.  I see short-cropped haircuts faux-damp with hair gel, and women in silk blouses sitting cross-legged atop barstools their asses and the cushions pressing against each other in demonstration of Newton’s law.  Each one giving just a bit. The cushions are firmer than their flesh.  Beneath the sights I can hear the throbbing beat of electronic bass as if from some distant submerged speaker, and the disco ball’s kaleidoscopic reflections flit and swirl across the varied textures of the humans and their clothing and the glass and plaster of the barroom.  And then I see the bottle’s neck within my clenched fist, the bottle’s broken jagged abdomen. I cannot move.  I cannot avert my eyes as my own hand pushes the bottle forward, as the uneven pointed ring of glass passes through the fabric of the man’s blue rayon dress shirt. It incises his flesh.  Blood flows from his gut down the bottle’s glass.  It coats my hand.  And then the darkness returns and I can sleep until morning.

At the coffee shop I ordered a large house coffee, no room for milk. I added no sugar, and paid for the drink with change I’d collected from beneath the cushions of my parents’ sofa.  I took a seat beside the large store font window and glanced momentarily at the sparse cluster of people who stood upon the railroad platform waiting for the 3:13 train to Grand Central station.
The day’s paper lay tucked between the table’s edge and the window’s frame, and I pulled it from the spot.  The front page spoke of a local boy, not two months twenty-one who died a hero fighting for his country in Iraq.  His mother was quoted in the article, and she said she missed her son terribly, but was proud he died in honor performing a job in which he so deeply believed.  She said that they had birthday presents, wrapped and waiting for his return the coming spring.  She said she hadn’t really been able to bring herself to think about it, but she supposed that the family would probably leave the gifts upon his bed, or perhaps in time they would donate them to charity. “I can’t stand it,” she at one point broke down sobbing. “I just can’t believe he’s really gone.”

The article reported the boy had been the lone American casualty in a firefight against Iraqi insurgents, that he had fought bravely and played a hand in the successful killing of all the attacking enemy combatants.  There would be a closed ceremony held in the boy’s honor at the local Presbyterian Church. In lieu of flowers, the boy’s family asked that charitable donations be made in his name to the American Red Cross. After reading the story, I folded the paper and returned it to its nest between the window and the table.  I sipped my coffee and watched life flow casually by outside the coffee shop window.
I though about the past summer, how I had watched it too crawl past just beyond the bars and glass of my prison cell window.  I would sit for hours reading books I’d borrowed from the prison school where I worked as an English tutor to the other inmates.  I read as much as I could, all of the books I’d been to busy and too lazy to actually read during my tenure as a student of English.  As I read I thought of my meaningless diploma, the B.A. I had never tried very hard to attain.  I wished it meant something, that it represented some actual wealth of earned knowledge and that I could envision some real future use for it.  But then everything had been concrete and iron and the summer was without heat.  It flickered past like a projected image of washed-out green leaves, blue skies and colorless grasses and bleached concrete.  I longed for cool clear streams, hot specks of sun through the filter of a forest’s cool bright green shadows.
That summer, instead, was the deep whisper of institutional A/C ductwork and the allergic rasping scent of the dry rot pages of those old forgotten books.  The books I chose to read had clearly not been prison favorites.  Other books, by authors like Tom Clancy, Dean Koontz and Mario Puzzo, had the appearance of waterlogged lumber, their pages swollen and stained with finger grease, their edges no longer square but rounded blunt from frequent handing.  Often the library slips glued inside the covers of the books I’d chosen were blank or at most held one or two date stamps from years decades in the past.  I’d selected books by authors like Joyce, Steinbeck, Hemmingway and Twain.  Being a tutor I was granted the privilege of taking more than the two-book borrowing limit, and I was allowed to keep them in my possession for as long as I liked.  By the end of my prison term I had amassed an impressive personal library. Every inch of space between my mattress and the bed frame was occupied by a book, some small precious fraction of mankind’s good creation. And so the summer had passed, and when in September it came time for my release I truly found myself sad to have to leave the books behind, to once again sit forsaken upon the prison school’s shelves unloved and unexalted.

I sat there for a long while, slowly nursing my coffee, thinking and watching the people at the railroad platform.  The 3:13 arrived on time and the people boarded and others got off.  By 3:45 more people began cueing for the 4:13, and when that train arrived the people moved on and off the cars as the others had earlier. 
By 4:30 the coffee in my cup had long since grown cold and I removed myself from the chair in which I’d been sitting and exited the shop.  In my mind I considered my day’s itinerary.  I would go home, make myself a sandwich and then shower and dress for the party.
I had not attended the event in at least two years, but when the invitation arrived in the mail the preceding Wednesday, I decided it was a good excuse to get out of the house and actually socialize with some other human beings. As I said, my contact with other people had declined of late. While in prison my interaction with other people had been reduced to little more than the time I spent tutoring inmate students and the weekly visits from my parents and girlfriend.
There had been inmates who reached out to me for companionship, mostly older men who I recognized me as the first time convict I was.  Their advances did not appear to be in anyway sexual. Rather, they seemed attracted to my naiveté for another reason.  I sensed a paternal instinct at work.  Many of these men had sons my own age or younger.  When we did converse, the men spoke of their children the way a person speaks of an ancestor whose story they had heard a hundred times but whom they had never actually met.  Their comments had a far off nostalgic tone, and I came to suspect that they sought to connect with some younger person in way they had never successfully done with their own children.  But I always deflected their fatherly advances. As my sentence went on I came to despise my fellow inmates almost as much as I detested my jailers.  It was not unlike how, during my years in college and afterward, I had come to loathe other English majors.  This was why I had ignored the previous invitation to the professors’ parties; the attendees would be strictly students and alumnus of English programs. I had come to project my own obvious dilettantism upon them. Or perhaps more accurately, I had somewhat subconsciously entangled our mutual incapability in an attempt to deflect my own feelings of insignificance.
Upon this realization, I had decided the best way to cease being a dilettante would be to simply stop writing, abandon art.  And so I did, however, a few of the more tenacious affectations of my writerly past persisted. I continued to look like a writer, at least: the square framed plastic tortoise-shell eyeglasses I sometimes wore instead of my contact lenses, the dollar-store Burberry scarves, the dirt-brown corduroy slacks, railroad boots, the olive and pumpkin-orange plaid flannel shirts.  Perhaps the biggest cliché I was guilty of was the pea coat, but that was purely coincidence.  As I said, it had belonged to my grandfather.  It dated back to his days in the Navy during World War II.  It was my soul inheritance following his death seven years earlier.  My grandmother gave it to me the morning of the funeral. 

Though my mother pled with my grandmother to stay with us for a while at my parents’ house after the death, my grandmother vehemently refused.  She did not have a driver’s license, and without anyone ever mentioning a word, it was somehow understood that I would be taking up the job of providing her with transportation.
When I arrived to pick her up for the funeral the house had been dark.  I found my grandmother dressed in black, sitting in my grandfather’s armchair.  She had the pea coat folded neatly upon her lap. It’s raining out, she said. Take this. I want you to have it.
I remember wishing I had a better car. My bright blue Cavalier seemed inappropriate and insulting to the reality of the situation.  Before then I had never understood the purpose in funeral limousines, but that morning the concept made sense to me.  My grandmother was chauffeured to her last viewing of her husband in a shit box. The thought made me feel horrible.
She died shortly afterward, and at the funeral just as I had at the funeral of my grandfather I served as pallbearer.  In each instance, the fear of losing my grip, of not being strong enough to carry to weight of their bodies nearly froze me where I stood.

The invitation said 5 to 1, and at 5:45 I sat upon the bed in my basement bedroom smoking a cigarette.  The room was lit dimly, a single 40-Watt bulb glowing duskily through the antique map-patterned lampshade of the Spanish galleon-shaped nightstand lamp. I was showered and dressed: Pinstriped blazer, blue dress shirt, solid grey tie, black slacks and black Doc Martin’s.  The blazer fit easily beneath my pea coat, which I had already put on.  From my digital alarm clock radio the voice of an NPR correspondent spoke of John McCain’s take on the American torture of enemy combatants.  I tried not to listen, but found myself too unmotivated to actually flip off the switch.  The rest of the house was empty.

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