Listening to Alison

The meeting began as I always expected it would. Awkwardly. And with something akin to pain, though perhaps only because whatever it was attacking my nervous system made me wince like I’d closed a dresser drawer on my fingers.

I never expected such a meeting to occur, but here I was, sitting in a suburban Starbucks, not really hearing the bustle and hubbub clattering and whirring around me. I was more listening to the voices in my head. Mine and what I remembered of hers.

“Hello, Jason,” I heard a voice say. It sounded just like Alison, so I knew my memory might be getting better. Then this somewhat familiar looking woman walked from behind my chair into my daydream-shrunken field of vision and I knew the voice I thought I heard was actually the real thing. Though different.

“You’ve changed,” she said.

“Well, hello to you, too,” I said. She was always one to knock you back a bit, never letting you get too close, even in friendly conversation. I was pretty sure this wasn’t going to be one of those.

“No, I can see it in your eyes,” Alison said.

“Perhaps. No, you’re right. I’m sure I have,” I replied.

“You’ve aged, too.”

“No, I’ve gotten old. But that’s not the biggest change, now that I’ve thought about it. Oh, and I can see how you’ve changed, as well.” Touché.

Alison brought her hands to her hair, which had become wiry and gray, then to her hips, which she shimmied in exaggerated defense of an unspoken observation from me.

I rose from my seat and motioned her to the chair opposite me where I’d placed my jacket to hold her spot for whatever it was she wanted to tell me.

Inevitably, such resurfacing into my humdrum life was never a good thing. Not that it didn’t make the world a little more exciting. As I said, I always kept those old memories. But Alison usually only surfaced to make me feel badly, which I guess made her feel better for a spell by comparison.

“I got you a coffee,” I said, pushing the cardboard cup next to mine toward her. “I’m not sure how you take it these days, so I left it black. But it’s still hot as hell. I can attest to that.”

“Oh, thanks. I’ll be right back after I put in some sugar and half and half,” she said. And once again she lit off for something to temper and sweeten her here and now.

Alison was right, though. I’d changed in my old age. I was thicker around the middle, had an extra chin, silver hair with a sunroof and wasn’t so ostensibly cocksure and snarky as I had been when last we met.

Now that I looked at her, though, all of her, I saw her changes even more clearly. She looked shorter. I wasn’t sure if that was age or the illusion created by her widened hips and the weight she’d put on elsewhere. I’m sure my old 5’10” must’ve looked about 5’3” by now. But I also noticed how her clothes looked baggy on her, too.

“Okay, now where’d we leave off?” Alison said as she woke me from another reverie with the squeak of her chair and the wobble of the little table.

“We hadn’t yet. Nothing to leave off from. First, how are you? Are you doing okay?” I always worried about her, even when she cold-cocked, cock-blocked and outright shocked me over the years.

“Oh, I guess things are the same as always. Fucking miserable,” she said. There was a tone of defeat in her voice I’d not heard before. “What about you?”

“Probably the same, only with some new physical ailments that you earn along with your Social Security benefits. Perhaps some day you’ll earn your own.

“Oh, I hope so. Though I’ve got more than I can handle now.”

Even if I tried hard as I might, I couldn’t help but allow my feelings for her to ask.

“What do you mean? Are you all right? Oh, I’m sorry. None of my goddamn business.”

“No, no. It’s okay. A lump here and a bump there and if they cut ‘em out and start the chemo in time, which I hope they did, you get most of you your health and hair back. Only neither of them as shiny as they were before.”

“Jesus, Alison, I’m sorry. Are you doing okay now?”

“That’s kind of what I wanted to talk to you about. I’m looking to leave a legacy for when I go, whenever it is I go. Something that my kids and whoever else wants to can read and learn about life and the roads some of us have taken, I’ve taken, to all ultimately get to the same place,” she said as she rolled the coffee cup between her hands as if trying to warm them.

“And you want me to…”

“Write it? Yeah, if you wouldn’t mind. I’ve started it but it just sounds like whining to a damn therapist. Clinical, accusatory and bitchy. And you’ve always had that way with words. So, maybe, I thought I could ask if you’d…”

“Edit it? Or ghost it for you? Aw, I don’t know. I’ve never done any memoir or biography or anything close to that, except for obits I wrote in my early days,” I said.

“I’ll bet you were really good at them, too,” Alison said, as I saw her eyes brightening for the first time tonight. Or was it in twenty years?

I was, but this was not the assignment I ever wanted either. I knew this was going to be the ultimate obituary for someone I once cared for. And she knew it.

“Let’s slow down a minute and talk about this, Alison.”

“I don’t know if I have a minute, Jason. I get the latest test results back Friday.”

“So what are you telling me? You believe your cancer’s back and you have a short time to live?” I said, leaning forward and tilting the table her way with a bump.

“Basically, yes. I know how my body works, how it feels. And I know it doesn’t feel, oh…let’s say doesn’t feel right.” she said.

“Jesus Christ. Sure. You know I’d do most anything if you asked me to help. Do you want me to come to your place, wherever that is, or what?” I said, my voice getting a little louder than it probably should. Even in a semi-crowded Starbucks.

“No! I don’t want you coming over to my place. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t call, either. Here,” she said, and pulled two USB drives from her bag, as well as some pages ripped out of a spiral bound notebook. She pushed the pile across the table to me.

“Pretty confident in yourself, I see. You figured I’d never say no, even after all those times you used me as you sounding board, your chew toy, the target for your anger at everyone else,” I said, because it had to be said.

“No. I was hoping, because hope’s all I might have left. And because I trust you. You never told anyone about any of the things I told you, even though we’d have those blowups. Now I want you to,” she said.

That was true. Even after she’d scalded me so many times, knocked me down like one of those blowup clowns with the sand weighing their bottoms. I’d pop back up when she’d call. I had the sleepless nights, the wrinkles, the choked-down guilt and anger to prove it.

She admitted to being a cheat long ago. But I’d come to realize she was a recidivist thief, too. Time and again, she stole my heart. But what else should I expect, always leaving it hanging out there for her like that? My question I always had been why she insisted on giving it back to me only to steal it again, each time returning it more busted than the last. I guess she was a vandal, too. And I was her abettor.

“Okay, I’ll do my best,” I said. And now I was aiding as well as abetting.

“Thank you, Jason. Thank you, my friend, my dear Jason,” Alison said, all the brightness leaving her eyes as she reached her once-soft hand across the table and touched my cheek. Even after rolling her cup, her hand felt so cold. And then she was gone.

I began listening to her recordings that night. A lot of the stories she’d told me or intimated years ago. Nothing about her shocked me anymore. I made some notes and went to bed but didn’t sleep very well. Not for the two weeks thereafter, as I worked on Alison’s memoir.

One night, as I was typing away, the phone rang and it was Alison’s number on the screen.

“Allie! I’m glad you called. I’ve been working away here and have a few…”

“Hi. Jason? This is Gregory, Alison’s son. Mom died this afternoon. Pancreatic cancer. She went fast and in the end we were all there and there was no pain. She just drifted away.”

“Oh, my God! No. This… I… I’m so sorry, Greg. I just have no words,” I choked out.

“Thank you. One of the last things she said while she was still with it was to make sure I called you when she was gone and say thank you for all you’ve done for her and what you’re doing now. Whatever that is,” Greg said, a little puzzlement in his voice.

“Just a little project she asked me to handle for her. I guess maybe she won’t need it now,” I said, mostly to myself. I really didn’t know what to do with her story now.

“There’s one more thing,” Greg said.

“Yeah?”

“She wanted me to tell you she loved you.”

“Oh…”

The next day I handed Greg the most beautiful obit I’d ever written. I left out the hurt, but left in the true. And I cried for three days and for three months and now  three years since then.

Each time I listen her voice again.

A desperate two hours spent trying to write a story. Here’s the first draft. In life, most of us only get a first draft, so try to make it better than what Hemingway allegedly called them. (Shit.) Or what this one probably is. But at least it’s written and that’s the best part. I guess my lesson is to never stop trying to do my best at writing, whether it be a story or my life.

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Silent, These Bouquets

When first we met, I thought you were so young,
hands smooth and eyes bright as shining star jewels.
And I’m sure no old poet’s words I sung
to you since back then I lacked any tools.
Dumbstruck, I could but only nod “Hello,”
or I could not express my true feeling,
in a heart that’d whisper, not bellow.
Even today I find my head reeling.
Voicing what my heart longed to say back when
ev’ry fiber of me still wants to shout.
Nowadays I take in hand this hack’s pen,
so on paper I try digging words out.
And still I sit silently hours and hours,
yearning to grow you poems like flowers.

My brilliant poet/teacher friend Bethany Pope encouraged me to try writing a double acrostic sonnet this morning. But I thought I should crawl before I ran. So I scribbled this single acrostic sonnet, a poem of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter (I think) with a rhyming scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. The tricky part is making the first letter of each one, read top to bottom, spell out something that relates to the theme of the poem. (Again, I guess.) So here’s my very first try, with an old message. 

The Lights Went Out

The power blew this morning.
The washing machine, the television,
the internet router, everything
went poof and their little lights
went out as if they lived behind
the closed refrigerator door.

This did not bother me so much,
for my power blew months ago,
so much light already snuffed
in my life when the door
between you and me slammed.
Barely a momentary crack
has it opened since.

They say eventually your eyes
get accustomed to the dark,
but only if you keep them open.
I’ll keep mine closed until
I know you’ll be there
when I open them again.

Then, Fall

It’s been too, too long
since I’ve seen you.
Four seasons of my life
have come and gone.
And I feel like a tree
that’s dropping its leaves
before it’s ready.
Just the edges of each
of them is tinged
in blood like the wounds
I’ve suffered without you,
rather than the autumnal
arboreal conflagration
I’d hoped to go out with.
Death by a thousand cuts
rather than the lingering
pyrotechnic I wished would
make you ooh and aah
and remember me as a light
in your life I’d always
strived to be. It is October
in every way, and all I’ve left
are these bare limbs and
this shock of gray.
So I write upon this leaf
in the blood-red ink
that still runs for you,
and I hope you’ll see it one day
and ooh to its wording
and aah to its message.
Then, fall I can.

Be Well, Dear Heart

If I had the sun and moon
as flashlights to plumb the depth
of our well of sorrows,
would you be able to see its bottom?
And if I had a line as long
as all the ones I’ve written
put together, could we reach it?
Why would we want to, though?
There’s nothing there but
choking sadness, such that
even if we stood on the bones
covering its floor, neither the dead
nor the living could hear us call.

So I think it’s time we climbed
above our despairing memories,
not hiding them, but keeping them
near as reminders of what love,
even unspoken, looks like.
We could try to fill that space
of sunken dreams with all that love
we shared with the lost.
So be well, dear heart, look to
your right, left, ahead and behind.
We’re together in this, and not
so alone as you think.

The (Try Not) To Do List

1. Try not to think of them.
2. Try not to think of them so much.
3. Try not to think of them on weekends.
4. Try not to think of them in public.
5. Try not to think of them when you’re alone.
6. Try not to think of them in the rain.
7. Try not to think of them in the shower.
8. Try not to think of them when you try watching TV.
9. Try not to think of them when you try reading.
10. Try not to think of them when you look up at the sky.
11. Try not to think of them when you look down at the sidewalk.
12. Try not to think of them while eating.
13. Try not to think of them when you can’t eat a bite.
14. Try not to think of them while you’re writing.
15. Try not to think of them while sitting in front of a blank screen.
16. Try not to think of them even though you know you can’t.
17. Try not to think of them when they’re all you can think of.
18. Try not to think of them at all.
19. Try not to think of them.
20. Try not to think.
21. Try not to.
22. Try.
23. Cry.

Today is the first day of the month I’m trying to write a story a day with Julie Duffy and her Story-a-Day folks. The first prompt was to write a story made from a list. I did one a few years ago about my last day of working and first day of retirement. I was stuck because I’m in a rough emotional patch right now. A month and a half ago my oldest and closest friend died. On Thursday his wife called me to see how I’m doing. Not well. Then today I watched Meghan McCain eulogize her father and my sister-in-law posted a photo of my youngest brother’s grave on another holiday without him. Let’s say my emotional scab has been ripped again. And so I wrote this story. It’s funny (not in a ha ha way) how sometimes you realize the love you had for people only when you lose them. Or maybe you realize how much they loved you. And you can’t stop thinking about that for a month and a half or years and years. So you do your best to get by with the thought of them always there next to your consciousness in your head and heart. And sometimes you just cry.

Going to Be

“It’s going to be fine,”
she said as she tried to
convince me of that which
she tried to convince herself.
“I know,” I said, because
I figured it’s what I needed
to hear as much as she did.
And that’s the cadence to which
she’ll march, in words as much
as deed, past but never away
from the loved ones we’ve lost.
I’m sure I have it confused
in my wrong-footed way.
“I’m right behind you,” I said,
though I’m uncertain it’ll be okay.
That’s because what I hear is
“Fine. It’s going to be.”
But maybe that’s enough.