I am half here, I say. I am half here. My mother died. My father died. Suddenly I was half there, not working, not sleeping, a new man. Not a worse man. I thought, ‘I am not a worse man.’ It was a bright, white world – a morning kitchen world. This made and makes sense to me, still. I sit surrounded by gadgets from my former life, unbranded gadgets, like a listening device I was contracted to develop for Aerospatiale. There was a middle-man, Ben, paid well, and in a letter confirmed that the device worked and the customer was happy. The customer was happy, I was happy. Everyone, it seemed, was happy. I sit in a too-soft sofa in a typical, suburban living room. It is 6:00 a.m. or thereabout. It is an assumption I have made – about time. The room is filling with light. I don’t wear a watch. I am half here. In the kitchen, the smart kid babbles. He’s six or seven or eight, I can’t remember which. No, I never knew which, never asked. Maybe I should ask. In the mirror over the fireplace I watch his father squeeze something onto burnt toast, spread it with a shaky hand. The mother is dry-heaving into the sink and her hair is matted. She still wears the nightgown with the torn neck. Why wouldn’t she still be wearing it? For how long will she wear it, I wonder? Until I tell her to change. Should I tell her to change? The laptop sits split open on the coffee table like a book with a broken spine, the LED screen smashed to bits. The father whispers to the son, “eat, you should eat. I will eat, too.” In the mirror, he picks up a black piece of toast, puts a corner in his mouth. I watch his teeth sink into the crust. I see the kid shake his head. The mother looks thin, thinner, dehydrated maybe. They are tethered together, the mother, the father and kid, with climbing rope, nylon, which doesn’t chafe much. They are tethered together, a unit, the taught rope like spokes between them. It isn’t art, exactly, but something approximating art – a performance. They don’t appreciate the performance yet…
They are also filled with assumptions, the father mostly, not so much the kid. Dad assumes the performance will have a logical conclusion; a conclusion that he has been trained to anticipate: maybe a rape, sodomy perchance, something. That’s what I smell: the odor of dead-certainty, how it will unfold, must, the kid scarred for life, one parent dead, at least. What is more, mother thinks I am cold and calculating; that I’ve got the whole thing worked out, maybe on paper somewhere, replete with sketches, figures. For me, it’s just one more morning, deep experience, better than sleep, dreaming, literature. And it will be over soon, sooner than the household expects. I rise from the sofa, cross the room in bare feet and peel back the drapes. The yard is treeless, flat, without grass. The house is new, brand new, high-ceilinged, wall-to-wall Ethan Allen, plastic plants. “You should plant grass,” I say. “Before you do anything else, plant grass, a whole yard of it, let it grow, don’t mow.”
He would mow. Even after all this. He doesn’t know he will live to be the man on the lawnmower, but I do. He expects violence, depravation, depravity, a knife. There is a gun, a pistol, but I won’t use it. “You can sit,” I say to the mother, “on the floor, or on the stool, anywhere.” She doesn’t sit. I don’t understand the kid. I expected a tantrum, questions, raw fear and panic, but none of those things, only compliance, quiet, equanimity. I wanted a drink, something strong, in a tumbler with ice, ideally crushed ice. In the hallway to the kitchen were stacked oblong pallets of ceramic floor tiles. “For the kitchen,” dad says. “We’re taking up the laminate, putting down tile. It’s travertine.”
“Good,” I say. “You can sit, too. You don’t have to stand, not if you’re tired. I can make a drink. Want a drink? I need one, something strong.”
“In the cabinet, over the fridge,” he says. “There’s Crown Royal, Johnnie Walker. Anything you want. Take a glass out of the washer, over by, my… Honey, just move over a little, come over here, sit. Sit while he, uh…”
She doesn’t move. The little bones in her wrists wiggle as she grips the edge of the counter. There is a door that opens onto what will one day be a deck. Now it opens into empty space. “Your husband will build a deck. Friends will come. You’ll eat, drink and put on sweaters when the sun sets. You’ll listen to the bug zapper sizzle, marvel at how quickly those little bags in the garden fill with Japanese Beetles. You’ll wonder why you don’t have more empathy for the beetles, even after this.” I put my hand on the mother’s thin waist. It was damp. Here is the woman. Here is her waist: a narrow, comely waist. “A few inches to the right, ok?” She doesn’t budge. I open the dish washer into the front of her thighs and pull until she skids backward a few inches on her socked feet. I reach in, feel for a tumbler. It must be a tumbler, I think, cut glass, thick. It isn’t. It’s a jelly jar. It will do.
The road to the jelly jar is not a logical road. No, it’s a pitted road, lined with flag-waving bastards, and by the self-righteous and the self-assured. They are confident the story must be both told and lived a certain way. Which story? The being in a human body, scrambling, gnawing, clawing story; the story in which a man thinks he is owed for his troubles; in which he makes more of himself that in turn too think they are owed. It’s a terrible story and mankind seems not to bore of it. It is a miracle, really, that it hasn’t bored of it – the tail-chasing; and the silent begging life-less-taste and -color and -dimension, for clean lines, sense, order, parallelism and predictable stochastic output. The gun-toting man, the man with the gun in his glove compartment, or in his dresser drawer, stuffed beneath a pile of underwear and rolled up socks, the clip for the unused .40 in the bedside table. He always imagined, even as a boy, emulating the men on TV, protecting a woman, hearing something go bump in the dark, retrieving the gun, the clip, unlatching the safety, pointing and finally shooting, probably missing, covering the hole in the plaster with a hanged, framed family portrait. Fulfilling a small dream, like making a son, hopefully a son without defects, a son like a jelly jar, that the man could fill up with squirming, earth-covered night crawlers and with whom to drive up to a quiet pond on state land, cast for guppies, or carp or steel head or pike or whatever – bass, maybe. Did it matter? The kid sleeps at the end of the hall, his door open a crack, and you, the man, when you hear the lug-soled boots on the linoleum, see your wife stir, reach for the clip, but realize you don’t know how the safety works or where it is located or if the Sherriff by whom you were issued a license said to keep your elbow stiff, or relaxed; if he said to pull the trigger or squeeze it. You will squeeze it. No, you will pull it. The gun will kick and you’ll probably miss. You might even get a small sprain. You will learn that the movies you have seen and the books you have read were written by men with gun-lust, but never fired one, wouldn’t, or couldn’t. You won’t get your man, bury a bullet in his lungs, or in his stomach; the lug-soles will mount the stairs and you’ll wonder if it all hasn’t been a dream. You’ll wake in the old one-bedroom apartment, realize you haven’t yet met the woman with straw-colored hair or made the kid with the little nose and attached earlobes. You’ll say out loud:
“I haven’t made the kid with the attached earlobes.” Relief, then coffee, eggs, cheese, more coffee; you don’t own the gun yet. You sleep alone. There is a half-dead tree in the window. Your mother is dead. Your father is alive. You are a little more than two-thirds there. You will use that unusual word, maybe in a sentence, out loud. You will say, “There is hope.” The word is: hope.
There was hope – and a knock on the door – not the main one but the screen one. You could answer it but you won’t. That’s not who you are. You don’t answer the door early in the morning, not while sitting on the floor with a plate of eggs and a mug of coffee. You won’t even peer through the spyglass, see what it is, what it wants. ‘It will go away,’ you whisper, and turn down the television set. The blinds are closed and whatever it is it can’t see in.
“Someone’s knocking,” the father says.
“Uh, oh,” I say. “I was a million miles away, not here. I wasn’t here for a second. It works that way sometimes – memory. Someone’s knocking?” Someone was knocking, not on the main door but on a screen door, just like in the old apartment. “We let them knock. Them, him, her, it…”
“It?” It was the boy, his first words. I took off my glasses, squinted; he had attached earlobes. I was confused and I was holding a jelly jar.
“I wanted something,” I said. “I wanted a drink, something strong. We won’t answer the door.”
“Above the fridge,” father said.
“Right,” I said.
I closed the dishwasher.