International Writers Magazine:
I am not a pill-popping avoider of life. Nor am I a pill-popping
participant in life. I am IN life. I am in the stream of it, in
the middle of it, I swallow it and eat it and shit it right back
out. I stare at a mirror and think Im old. But, goddamn it,
Im old and alive and today I can go fishing because Ive
always gone fishing because my fingers still work.
still work! My heart still works. My eyes still work, with reading glasses,
but so what? I can still pull-start the little Evinrude motor on the
boat in the lake, and I can still reel in the Big One. I will die, but
I will die one day. I will feel pain, and that will be every damn day
of my life because I am in life.
Rheumy blue eyes blinked back at him and saw his sagging chest resting
as if sighing on his protruding belly. It was covered in scraggly grey
hair. The high bathroom counter prevented him from seeing further down
if he had wanted to, but forty-two years in front of the same mirror
will get one used to only seeing what it offers. He reflected that forty-two
years was half of his life, and then he wondered why he was reflecting?
There was no smell of bacon, perhaps, or coffee. That must be the reason
he was thinking on subjects such as staring in the same mirror for forty-two
In the threadbare white bathrobe he walked into the kitchen, which stilled
smelled of old cookies which meant it still smelled of her. He wondered
if her smell came from the kitchen or if the kitchen smell came from
her. The smell was that of store-bought cookies in those cheap shiny
packages with words like BIG SIXTY stamped on them and in
varieties like Lemon Creme that had been left opened for
a week and were unpleasantly chewy-soft to the bite when finally eaten.
But who could eat sixty cookies in a week? Not a man and wife; not when
she only doled out one cookie a day. I could afford more and better
The coffee machine sputtered as he was finishing his bowl of corn flakes
and 2% Real Milk. It was new flavour to him, that 2% Real Milk. There
had been a lot of new flavours in the past month, like Rhondas
Family Kitchen catfish and fried okra. There were some lost flavours,
too, but those were ones he didnt miss: skim milk and bologna.
The processed meat was gone from the refrigerator, which had never been
without bologna for the past forty-two years.
Bowl in sink, hand to rack of coffee mugs, to my coffee mug, to coffee
machine. Pour coffee . . . . Drink . . . . Warmth.
He finished the coffee the same way he had finished the corn flakes:
standing up. Breakfast had become very informal for him; it was much
the way it had been for him after he had gotten out of the army and
was working as a Junior Associate at the local Sears, Roebuck &
Co. That was forty-five years ago. May had worked as an accountant upstairs,
and he had asked her out after waiting five months for her to break
up with his then-friend, Dick. They did not kiss until the second date
and they did not have sex until their honeymoon. He had been prepared
for this, because Dick had expressed his frustration to him while dating
her. He did not care. He wanted the house, the white picket fence, the
television, the children, the grey fedora and the grey suit and the
well-polished black shoes and the Buick. May had the stolid persona
that he was ready to anchor to and swallow the pill of life and swim.
That didnt make sense. Who finds an anchor to go for a swim? Life
buoy? Or was she an anchor? Did she keep me from swimming I dont
know I only wanted to say she was a solid figure in my life.
The white picket fence was a painful thing to keep painted white. No
one wears fedoras anymore. Only old people drive Buicks now. Rinse out
coffee cup, no soap. She always used soap. I always told her not to.
He placed the fishing tackle, fuel tank and the life preserver alongside
the boat on the dock. He climbed down the ladder without trouble to
the boat, and reached back up to get the gear, and arranged it in the
Facing the motor, he undid the latch on the side and lowered it into
the water. He attached the fuel line, and then primed the fuel bulb
until it was firm. He turned back toward the motor, and was looking
at the houses front porch.
Her chair is empty.
His next step was to pull the starter rope of the engine, but he sat.
His hands were where they needed to be to pull the rope, but no motion
happened to get the twenty-year-old motor to roar to life and disturb
the still-calm of the misty lake morning. He only heard the diminishing
lap-lap-lap . . lap . . . lap of the water on the bottom of the boat
as it, too, settled into the state of its captain.
Her chair is empty.
Their wedding was a happy one, funded by their combined incomes and
nice, in the middle-class fashion, with a big cake and her dress and
her smile. Never had a woman been so beautiful than in that moment when
her veil was lifted and that smile unleashed itself on him. They had
taken a honeymoon to Miami.
He admitted to her that first night that he was ashamed that she was
not his first woman.
"Stop," she said. She took his head in her arms, and held
it to her bare chest, stroking his hair over and over, before kissing
the top of his head. He turned up to kiss her. They never talked on
the subject again.
He went back to university, and she took care of the baby. They became
increasingly poor. He didnt want her to work, so he worked late
hours cleaning dishes in a roadside diner. When he came home, there
was something to eat soon on the table (he didnt eat at the diner,
and still today wouldnt eat at one), but only after she got her
kiss. He kissed his son on the head, prayed another wasnt on the
way, and ate with her (if it was late, she drank Sanka) while his son
played with baubles his grandparents gave him.
He had spoke to her of quitting, of going back to the relative success
promised by the Sears, Roebucks & Companies of the world, but she
would always say, "Stop." Which of course meant keep going.
He graduated, finished his year of in-church training, and received
his formal ordination in their fourth year of marriage.
There were two red rocking chairs on the front porch. The house was
in the old style, because the front porch faced the water and not the
road. One of the chairs was hers, and if the weather was like today,
she would come and sit on her chair and drink her instant regular coffee.
Over the forty-two years in that house, the chair had always been there,
repainted by him a number of times, but no question about it being red
because it had been red when they bought the house. She had always been
in the chair, when he went fishing on the good weather days. Early,
it had been with their eldest son, then their daughter, and then their
youngest son, and then coffee. As each child became successively older,
they would migrate from the chair to the boat, then the boat to a car,
and from the car to college and away.
He pulled the starter rope, and the motor roared into life. As it fitfully
complained about being in neutral, he undid the lines holding the boat
to the water, and sat back down, the motor behind him and the water
in front. He looked back at the porch.
She always waved goodbye, and I would wave back. Then she would shout
something, which I would pretend to hear over the roar of an engine
with a thumbs up. Did she know I never heard what she said, in forty-two
The front porch went away and the water replaced it. It was a grey morning,
though the monochrome of early morning nature was betrayed by a fine
yellow strand above the trees off in the east. He headed west, away
from the sun, to a cove where he had taken his sons fishing for years,
though now none of them fished. To them, fishing was an event, an organisation,
that required planning and food and beer and outfits. The sport required
the right platform, a nice boat with swivelling seats and a radio. Casting
a pole with a lure, hearing the plop of lure in water, the sound of
birds waking up, the whine of other motors, and the conversations about
life and religion and football didnt happen anymore. Well, football
happened. That was a remaining connection.
Click-click-click-click-click the reel rewound the fishing line as he
pulled it back in from the water, watching the surface carefully for
any sign of action.
When she died, a doctor came to see him and talk to him about her death.
His eldest son had told him the doctor was coming; the doctor had been
his roommate in college. He was supposed to listen to him carefully.
He smiled with his lips compressed. Dr. Jim Herbert came to the house
and told him he was suffering.
He told him that suffering was natural, especially after forty-four
years of marriage. He watched Dr Herberts mouth move and heard
the words lounge around him, just letting them float as he nodded his
bald head and feigned absent mindedness by focusing on the pattern of
the linoleum of the kitchen floor. He was creating additional doodles
to the Mexican restaurant design when the word pills made those flourishes
vanish forever and bring his eyes to Dr. Herberts green ones.
He wanted cut through that slurry of words and ask Dr. Herbert, who
had a fat silver or was it platinum? ring on his finger
that was too clean, too unscratched, too shiny if he realised the death
of his new wife if he loved her, his eldest son didnt love
his wife would hurt as much, if not more, than after forty-four
years of marriage?
"In short, Reverend Tarleton, Id like to prescribe you an
anti-depressant to help you . . . cope . . . with this difficulty."
The doctor went on quicker after looking up straight into those reanimated
rheumy blue eyes:
"Its perfectly normal, and I prescribe this to a lot of patients
going through your type of suffering."
He stood up, never taking his gaze off his sons college roommate.
"Thank you, Jim," he told Dr. Herbert as he led him to the
door. "I appreciate you stopping by, but Im not going to
take the pills."
Dr. Herbert shook his head sagaciously, and handed him a gold-engraved
business card covered with acronyms. "If you need anything."
He would throw it away after he left.The fish werent biting and
he wasnt worried. He was going to Rhondas Family Kitchen
tonight anyhow. He didnt like to think he had become a regular;
May had never liked to eat out. After years of penny pinching as a ministers
wife, even when they had money she didnt want to spend it.
This was only the second day he had been alone since May had died. All
others days, his children had been there, followed by neighbours, followed
"Shes in a better place now," they would blink, and
he would be forced to nod and tell them of course she is.
"She always had such a beautiful voice," they would say, which
she didnt, which he always said she did.
They would press their hands into his, and look into his face beatifically;
or searchingly, as if waiting for the old minister to crack. The triumph
they must feel to see the man who had shovelled all that God stuff down
their throats for so many years and told them to believe that May, their
dead husbands and wives and parents and children and dogs were all in
a better place now. Dead.
He felt it starting in his gut. One hand wrenched around the squishy
handle of the pole. The other grasped the gunwale. Big, heaping sobs
retched up from inside his body and resounded across the little silent
bay. In all the days they had been with him, he had to face them; he
had to face the idea of May. To preserve it, consecrate it, to tell
them all about the idea of May. A loving wife and mother, carved in
Times New Roman under an all caps "MAY LOUISE" which sat to
the right and underneath an even bigger TARLETON. His rectangle to the
left was blank.
The family, neighbours and parishioners had left with their ideas of
May, a composition of something that he had given them and which they
had fashioned in their own heads. But when they left with their ideas
of May, they left him with the real May. The one he had slept beside
for forty four years, whose snores he had grown accustomed to, whose
smile and button nose he had kissed, who eyes had flashed whenever he
even tried to pretend to handle the finances, who tolerated his fishing,
who made him white bread bologna sandwiches he never told her he hated,
washed his coffee mug with soap and had borne his sons.
He prayed through tears. It was the right way to pray, he realised.
Sirmons Jan 2008
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