The Viewing

I never liked this tie.

I must admit, I’m sure I’ve looked better in my life, but my life ended three days ago. I have no say in how my family and the mortician presented me for final inspection by whoever is coming to, at best, say goodbye to me and console my family and, at worst, see if I managed to leave a decent looking corpse.

True, it’s only 6:00 PM, but I expected a bigger crowd. Maybe it’s the weather, rush hour traffic or extended happy hour prices or something. Denise and I were always early arrivers at the wakes we had to attend. Even for the schmucks who couldn’t die soon enough for my tastes.

Ooh, there’s old Fred Howser. Wow, Fred, time to put down the beer and Doritos. There’s room for only one in this box, buddy, and I have the lease until The Rapture. Take care of yourself and moderate some, pal. The world needs more happy drunks like you, not dead ones like me.

Uh oh, here comes a coven of ladies from the old job. Jesus, what the hell are Diane and Sally doing with Elaine and Joanie? I never got any warm vibe from them. Wish I could sit up just a little to hear what they’re saying. I was afraid of this. I’d hoped for some sort of omniscient point of view deal when I tripped on that rainbow. What fun is watching your own wake when you can’t hear what the all the people are saying about you? If I could breathe, I’d be sighing now.

The kids look pretty busted up. I guess the dead can feel guilt, even though your balance sheet for the afterlife is closed. But damn, seeing them cry like that makes me feel good as much as it makes me feel sad. Wish I had been a better Dad. I know I can’t go back to make it right, and that I was a good Dad for the most part. When you’re lying here, you’ve nothing but time to figure out when and how you could have done better. Maybe this is what they really mean when they talk about Purgatory. No fire, no pitchforks, just your soul and time to think about your shortcomings.

Oh no, here she comes. I guess Purgatory is a timeout to think about your sins, even the almosts, too.

Been a while, but she looks pretty good, at least to these closed eyes. But then I always had closed eyes for her, from the first time I saw her. She had all that crazy curly hair, angry victimhood, fierce intelligence in a man’s world and some spark that lit a flame in me I didn’t know I had. She was my red ink, my fall from grace, my weakness in the face of vows, honor and duty. Boy, was I stupid, but boy did I love her.

Okay, Rose, Joe, Jake, Marylou and Bobby, move it along. Nothing to see here but the husk of the entertainer. No more yuks, except for the fact Denise made the mortician put this tie on me. Oh, well. If it makes Denise happy. I owe her that.

Shit, now Teresa’s right there above me. Wow, real tears. I remember how I joked that when I died I expected her to get a gussied up for my wake and then throw herself across my body, shuddering in wracking sobs. Damn, she did wear a dress. If she throws herself atop me now that I’m dead, I’ll be so pissed. No, she’s kissing her fingers and touching my cheek. Well, I’ll be damned. Perhaps. Probably.

Well, last call, I guess. Funny how time moves when you’re not counting it anymore. Bounces around and then you can sit somewhere in the past for who knows how long. There was that bender in ’78 that was like that. I guess I’ll get used to it.

Hi, Denise. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there to support you tonight. It really is all I’ve ever wanted to do. You’ve been my rock, my touchstone, my soul mate, my savior. Don’t know how you can look at me with such pride. You finally got me sober and some drunk plows into me. Sorry I never made it home with your ice cream. This time I remembered—peanut butter crunch.

Aww, man, please don’t cry like that. I don’t really hate this tie. Don’t lay your head on my chest. I don’t deserve…I’ve been a total drunken fuck up…I… Wait, what’s she saying? Damn it, why can’t I hear her? There’s that crooked grin I fell in love with 45 years ago. That’s it, honey. Straighten this cool tie.

Please don’t drop the lid, dude. Denise, I don’t know if we’ll ever be together, you know, on the other side, but if your face is the last thing I’ll ever see before…

I guess that’ll have to do for this eternity.

I wrote this piece in a rush and no doubt sparingly so it would fit within the parameters of my friend Dan Mader’s every-Friday feature 2MinutesGo over on his site, Unemployed Imagination. Since I went away for a week without access to a computer nor my iPad, my writing muscles got pretty flabby fast. So if this looks like I think it does, realize that it’s an exercise to get back in writing shape. In the my case , though, I just choose to exercise here in the equivalent of a picture window…wearing a Speedo.

A Life Full of Comings and Goings

The rains came and went,
just as the sun and stars did,
over and over. But that’s summer,
which also came and went like blinks
for half a century of my recall.
Some things like opportunities
came and went, few I snagged,
others slipping through my fingers
like a silver bass, some passing me
without my noticing, as if
flashing beneath the lake ice,
which comes and goes, too.
Clouds came at night, taking away
the stars I dreamed upon,
dreams that never came,
true or otherwise. But what
would I do with a dream
come true anyway?
Comings and goings are what
life is about. You never came,
just moved past, like that
ice-bound fish, though it was you
not noticing me standing there
with cold feet, captured by your
flash of light and thinking how like
the sun and stars you were.
Always coming, ever going…
unfailingly untouchable.

With Stars in Our Eyes

I closed the book, put down the lighted magnifier and realized this might be the last one I’d ever read.

You think of these things when you’re going blind. And fast. Ischemic optic neuropathy is what the doctors called it. On top of that, I had something called low tension glaucoma, something the regular eye exams would never pick up.

They were something I’d had for decades as my eyesight deteriorated and the doctors just gave me stronger eyeglass prescriptions and the lame, “You’re getting older” jive.

“Another headache, Dave?” my wife Jen would ask.

“Yeah. Work’s just been a bitch and my sleeping has sucked.”

“When are you going to see a doctor about it?” Jen would always say.

“It’s okay, Jen. Just migraine or something. I’ll take an ibuprofen and it’ll be fine,” I’d reply. But then the ibu didn’t seem to hit it anymore and my peripheral vision seemed to be shrinking.

After I nearly rolled off the shoulder of the country road out near Oneonta, almost taking out a jogger, I decided I’d better see the doctor. But it was too late. The damage was done, my optic nerves were dying and the world was going dark faster than the onset of a January night. Only no dawn was riding to my visual rescue.

To her credit, even though I deserved it, Jen never pulled the “I told you so” card on me. She was calmer than I thought she would be, though in no way unsympathetic. She just was Jden, the woman I’d loved for over forty years.

She found me sitting in the dark, moping, feeling sorry for myself. I’d become your typical panicked patient. You begin groping even before everything goes dark, pondering how you’ll survive in the perpetual night coming in just a few months or even weeks.

“Hey, why so dark in here?” Jen said and flipped on the lights.

“I’m trying the future on for size. Now turn out the lights, Jen, and let me think, okay?”

“I wasn’t talking about the lights, Dave,” she said.

“Wouldn’t you be upset if you were me, Jen? Tell me you wouldn’t,” I said.

“I would be and I am, Dave. But sitting here silently raging in the dark isn’t going to change that. Now let’s about this some so we can figure out what we’re going to do when…you know.”

“Are you kidding?” I said, jumping up from my chair and moving toward her voice. I tripped over the ottoman and fell to the floor, banging my head and seeing flashes of light like I hadn’t seen in months.

“Dave, are you okay?” Jen said, hitting the light switch again and rushing to my side.

“See? See what an invalid I’m becoming? I’ll be nothing but a fucking burden on you and useless to myself and everyone else.”

She stood up and looked down at me. I could feel her eyes boring a hole through mine. I recognized that energy from all the other times I’d been a self-absorbed asshole with her.

I scrambled off the floor to the window, embarrassed for my whining outburst. I opened the curtains and looked into a darkness that might well be my view for the rest of my life.

“I can’t even see the stars anymore, Jen. Our stars, the one’s we’d stare at from the bed of my pickup when we were 17.”

“We can get through this, Dave. We’ve been through worse. What about my mastectomy? Fucking cancer and you never wavered in your devotion and care. You’d hold me every night, loving ME, not just some bra mannequin, as much in love as in the back of that pickup.”

“I’ll never see the kids faces anymore, never watch the grandkids grow up. And worst of all, I don’t know how I can take never seeing you again, Jen,” I said with a catch in my throat.

“I’m right here,’ she said, putting my hand to her face. “I’ve got your stars right here,’ Jen said, touching my fingers to her closed eyelids. “And I’ll keep them for you, let you hold them, bring you every bug or vista you’d ever want to see. That’s what we do, Dave. If you can’t see that, then you’re blind already.”

Slowly, her face so close to mine I could feel her eyelashes and a dampness on my cheek, everything became so clear, even with our eyes closed. So clear a blind man could see it. She’s beautiful, isn’t she?

Quick first-draft flash fiction in response to Annie Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines challenge based on the Sara Teasdale line, “Give me your stars to hold.”

To Hold You

I sometimes wonder
what it would be like
to hold you close,
if you’d let me.
but I know that’s
an impossibility
at this point.
I’ll always wonder
about it though,
even if it’s as likely
as me touching the stars
lighting these lonely
dark nights as I always
hoped you would.
I wonder if you still
shine as you did
when this old man’s
dream began, this
silly dream about you
holding me and I
holding you. As I grow
older, I find myself
wondering more what
it would be like
if you’d give me
your stars to hold.

Written in response to my friend Annie Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines challenge to compose something around a line from Sara Teasdale: “Give me your stars to hold.”

The Empty Dotted Line

You never signed up for this,
I know. But neither did I.
The fact you’re a part of this
one and that and who knows
how many more of my fragments
of lives lived and unlived,
loved and unloved, shouldn’t
leave you too surprised.
You lurk in the shadow places
my memory can’t fully illuminate,
the wells once full of possibility
of what could have been love, back
when love actually meant something.
But I stumbled, mumble-mouthed,
in my one chance to connect while
my words carried might, but not
the light for you to find my
dotted line.

The Deal

Life has loveliness to sell. ~ Sara Teasdale

If I had the strength, I’d
steal some, because I don’t think
I’ll ever trade for it once more.
I recall it felt like holding you,
your eyes piercing mine, inspecting
the inventory left upon
the shelves of my soul.
That’s what loveliness feels
like, like holding you in my
ever-weakening arms once more —
priceless, though it’s cost me
so very much of my life.
Would that I had more days
I could barter for that loveliness,
but my stock has grown scant.
I exchanged them for moments
of the loveliness I felt you share
in my daydreaming yesterdays.

I’m not feeling too well these days and mortality has suddenly become my wingman. And, like a lot of people who feel thus, I go back and audit the balance sheet of my life’s black-ink experience versus the red of its too many hopes and dreams, and I’ve found how much I’m in arrears. Don’t waste your life’s assets, children. Splash that ebon ink all over your ledger’s pages until it’s full of nothing but black and the balance reads zero. It’s like they say, “You can’t take it with you.” This poem is in response to my friend Annie Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines prompt up there of a quote from the prolific early 20th Century American poet Sara Teasdale’s poem “Barter.” Hence, my title.

On Grafton Lake

“What’s her name?” Matt asked, smiling his practiced interested smile, yet dreading the answer.

“Does it really matter?” Andi said, her eyes losing focus on his as she gazed through her ever-rosy haze her new lover’s perfection in her mind’s eye.

“No, not really,” escaped around Matt’s smiling shield, the one he had built and buttressed since Andi and he were twelve. That was the day they walked into the woods above his parent’s place on Grafton Lake—Andi and her parents were visiting for the weekend from home in Albany—and Andi kissed him full on the mouth.

“I think I’m in love with you, Matthew,” young Andrea Mezaluna said after pulling her lips away from Matt Harkin’s beet-red face. And then she stuck them right back as if he was a powerful magnet and she a piece of hot steel.

Matt’s hazy pre-teen confusion over Andi’s surprise and surprisingly abrupt pronouncement of her heart’s desire eventually burned off, like morning fog of the lake’s surface, by Sunday afternoon. Their hand-holding and long walks had not gone unnoticed by both sets of parents, who thought it was borderline inevitable, since the two had been playmates, fast friends and classmates since kindergarten.

Before the Mezaluna’s said goodbye to the Harkins for the remaining two weeks of their summer vacation, Matt and Andi walked to the spot where they first kissed. Sitting close, her head on his shoulder, they one last time took in this view of the lake, boats sailing or motoring by on its surface, framed by the pines, maples and birches, and the azure sky flocked with clouds that would gather into a thunderstorm later that evening.

No longer confused nor embarrassed, Matt took Andi’s face in his hands and kissed her as clumsily passionate as a twelve-year-old boy could muster and then said, “I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you…”

“Andrea! Time for us to go,” Mrs. Mezaluna called from below.

“…Andrea,” Matt finished. He wasn’t sure if she recognized the significance of the fact he never called her Andrea.

Andi gave him one more kiss, hard, hugging him so close he could feel her heart beat. Or maybe it was an echo of his, he was never sure.

When they walked hand-in-hand out of the woods, the Mezaluna’s were saying their thank you’s and goodbyes to the Harkins from within their car, waiting for their daughter before they’d head for home.

Andi turned toward Matt, hugged him close one more time, kissing him on the cheek and whispering, “Please hurry home, Matt. I don’t think I can stand waiting two whole weeks until I see you again.”

And then she was gone.

When the Harkins returned to their Albany home that Labor Day weekend Sunday, the Mezalunas popped over from next door to invite them to a barbecue in their yard. That’s where Matt saw Andi holding hands with Richie Bischoff, who was thirteen hoping on fourteen, and he got a new understanding for what Andi Mezaluna meant when she said she couldn’t stand waiting two weeks for him.

That was Matt’s first inkling that for Andi, falling in love — which he later felt was her falling into obsession — was what she loved most.

“So she’s The One?” he said in her ear over the din of bar.

“Oh, yes. And she’s crazy about me,” she said, her eyes as shiny and earnest as they always were when her heart was ablaze with a new love.

Reflexively, the corners of Matt’s mouth bowed up, as he recalled all the times she’d run to him with that same expression he fell in love with in sixth grade, flashing that same spark he saw above Grafton Lake that melted his heart, yet ever since then burning down his hopes with it.

He never thought to tell her the truth each time she’d run to him like a little girl excitedly showing a new doll to her best friend. Because he recognized that her best friend was who he was.

He couldn’t bear losing her smiling face, the intimate warmth of how she’d whisper to him, bringing to flaming life any embers of his remaining hope, even knowing they’d burn his heart to ash once more.

This was the procedure she followed throughout high school and into college, where she discovered her attraction to dolls was more than just to the American Girls that still lined her bedroom, but to real American girls, along with one Pakistani and a girl she met in Montreal. Then there’d come the hockey player from Watertown.

Matt had tossed his heart at his share of dolls, too, one even Andi had even dated for a couple of weeks. But none of them worked out in the long term. They would give him either the “It’s not you, Matt, it’s me,” speech, or just realizing they couldn’t connect with a guy who had but one carefully tooled connection.

“So, tell me about this mystery woman, Andrea,” he said, that contented smile on his face, drawing close enough to feel her warm breath against his cheek one more time, feeding more fuel to the torch he’d compulsively raise in these dark moments, just to ensure he’d be able to share the only intimacy he ever would with the love of his life.

“Oh, Mattie, I love you,” Andi said with her bubbly laugh, hugging him so close he felt her heart beat just as perhaps she could have felt his heart, breaking, one more time. And it was the moment two twelve-year olds shared above an upstate New York lake and a hope Matt would always have that would glue it back together until the next time Andi fell in love.

On Day 27 of my story-a-day in May quest, I was challenged to write a story of a non-traditional love. I’ve written about men having an intense bond with their dogs, their jobs, the land, you name it, I’ve written a story or poem about that love. But a poem I wrote during April’s Poem-a-day challenge inspired this tale of a love that probably will never come to fruition in a traditional sense, but is as intensely felt by its principals as any. Just not in the same way.