Friday, February 4, 2011

Old Stories Not Worth Submitting


By the Time I Get to Arizona

Fifty-five years together and she still asks questions that are already answered. She knows the answer, but sometimes she must feel that in the asking she has verified her own need for existence, for breathing, for a chance to make a difference, even if small. Maybe today he will ask for sugar or cream, but she knows he won’t. “Black,” Frank replies then turns the page of the newspaper, pretending to read though he has long since found all news banal and meaningless. When he was younger, he might have been reading the paper, or he might have looked at Becky and pretended her question meant something to him, and he would have responded with a word that amounted to something like care, but pretensions lost all significance during the winter months. “Maybe in the spring,” he thought, “maybe with the first burst of green I will tell her to put cream in the coffee just to cheer her up, but not now. Not with the snow blanketing the earth and leaving its stale and decrepit breath on everything, especially my mind.”
            Frank’s mind: Becky had long wondered when, as he put it, the black ink, coursing through his head and coating everything with a tinge of death, would overpower him and cause him to commit a final act of stupidity against himself.  Frank tried to explain this ink once to her, told her it functioned like a rising tide of darkness which would first attack his legs as autumn began to leave, forcing him to quit taking their daily walks. Then it would swell up and enter into his stomach, and he would lose his appetite, abstain from almost all solids and live off coffee and tea. Next, it would rise up with the first frost and enclose his heart with darkness, causing him to find no joy or love in anything. Finally, the black ink would smother his brain with the onslaught of winter and then all thoughts became dark, and he rarely spoke. Becky laughed at such descriptions of mild depression and figured Frank’s “depression” constituted a subconscious motive of getting back at her because she was the one who insisted on moving to Utah, to the Wasatch Front, where all four seasons manifested their glory with abruptness and precise calendar dates. Only…winter exaggerated its stay some years, and the clouds hovered over the Wasatch Front the way a dog won’t leave the cupboard where the bones have been put away. But what was a little dreariness when spring so easily erased all memories of winter and when the summer sun beat down upon the aspens and caused the streams to sparkle? And fall, my goodness, Becky would say as they drove through canyons and marveled at the deciduous trees blended amongst the pines and the yellow Union Pacific engines chugging over ravines and next to cliffs while the puffs of gray smoke and the whistle both bellowed forth. No, Frank could deal with his depression. Becky would never leave Utah and go back to Arizona where summer and monsoon season were all they ever had to look forward to.
            “It’s already February,” Becky says to Frank as she sits down in her mocha-colored armchair and reaches for her book. Frank swivels his head in her direction and lowers the paper just enough to see her torso and the tattered copy of The Great Gatsby. “How many times could she read the same three books,” Frank wonders. If it wasn’t Fitzgerald, it was The Grapes of Wrath or My Antonia. Four years ago Frank had bought her a set of William Faulkner novels, but she never had turned a page of one of them, not even to appease him. There they sat on the book shelf, collecting dust. “It feels like December,” Frank manages to say then lifts the paper to cover his face from Becky’s scrutinizing gaze. Becky puts her book down and rocks forward weighing her next sentence for a moment. “The weatherman said the inversion would likely lift after the next storm rolls through, but it is crystal clear out in the Salt Lake Desert. Maybe we ought to take a drive out there like we used to? See if we can spot some antelope or the wild horses.” She leans back in her chair after saying so much, and waits anxiously for Frank’s reply. He lowers the paper once more, this time more agitated and replies, “That long of a drive hurts my back, and there is no where to take a pee once you pass Tooele.” He lifts the paper once again, this time to avert the hurt look he knows Becky’s eyes will exhibit. “I was just trying to cheer you up, asshole. Heaven forbid we leave this god forsaken house once in a while.” That’s how Becky acts when she is hurt. She doesn’t cry or cower. She tears up and spits out venomous words. Vivid in Frank’s mind is the one time she spouted out a barrage of “shits” at him. He loved her for it. It didn’t offend him at all, maybe just shocked him a bit. He had forgotten her birthday, and she didn’t remind him even with subtle hints all day. When it came time for bed, Becky had already tucked herself in and wrapped herself in most of the blankets. Frank finished brushing his teeth, turned out the light and slithered into the bed. He commented on how cold it felt and tried snuggling up against her for warmth. “Don’t you lay one of your fingers on me you shit,” she spitted out at him. Coming from such an amicable woman, Frank first flushed with shock then turned white as the blood drained from his face and his heartbeat pounded profusely in the cavern of his chest. He didn’t know what to say, and then it donned on him that he had forgotten her birthday. Usually one of the two kids remembered stuff like that, but since they had married and moved away, Frank had no one to remind him. Two weeks! Two weeks, she didn’t say a word to him and just muttered under her breath, “You forgot.” After her final demonstration of enmity, which she plotted and played out to perfection—Frank came home from work tired, and he sat down to a table already set, picked up the fork and spoon and looked at the plate. She had put out the good china, the china used for rare and special occasions, and the table had a bouquet of flowers, wild flowers full of color, set as the middle piece. Frank yelled out to Becky, fork still in hand, “Honey everything looks great. What’s for dinner.” No answer. Frank looked at his watch, six o’clock, dinner should have been ready. “Becky, is everything okay in the kitchen?” No answer. Frank left his chair and scuffled into the kitchen. Becky wasn’t there. He scoured the house by yelling her name and checking rooms with no lights on. He walked upstairs and Becky, to his surprise, lay curled up in her blankets with her face turned away from him. “Becky, are you okay,” Frank asked full of concern. Becky turned to face him, her eyeshadow had smeared and gave her a drag-queen look. “I’m fine,” she replied. Just a little cold.” Frank knew what she had said, but to him it sounded like she said, “What kind of shit forgets his wife’s birthday?” He was on the verge of walking downstairs, but then he paused and asked what they were having for dinner. “Huh, I must have forgotten to cook it,” Becky remarked as she cocked her head up to look Frank in the eyes.  When Frank looked down at her, stupefied, and like a third grade student who just got caught cheating on a test might stare at a teacher, Becky burst out laughing, and so did he.—Peace was restored, and neither mentioned the incident again. “I know you are just trying to be kind,” Frank says, tossing the paper on the coffee table and peering at Becky with rueful eyes. “Just not today.” Frank stands up, using the arms of the chair to bolster him then without saying a word, walks into his room.
            His room: “What a crock of shit,” Becky mumbles to herself as she watches the three fluorescent lights turn to a titian sliver reflecting off the hardwood floor as the door slams shut. At first, Frank had envisioned the room as an arboretum, tearing down the walls a year after his son went off to school, but once the blueprints had been drawn up, he realized he didn’t want to sit amongst so many exotic trees and plants, nor did he want the room to be cold. He redrafted his blueprint and constructed a room with no windows, only insulated walls and three annoying lights which buzzed rather than hummed at you when you walked in. He then concealed the walls, rather than dress them, all the way down to the floor with ludicrous amounts of Renoir paintings. The room, a maze of color, almost like random fields of tulips, reminded Becky of the game Tetris, and it still perplexed her how he juxtaposed so many pictures with so little blank space between them. “Did he measure them out before he placed them,” she wondered to this day. She had learned her lesson. Never let Frank build during autumn with winter fast approaching. The whole cockamamie scheme could be blamed upon his mild depression. When Frank confirmed the room as finished. He bought one customized leather chair, a small mahogany desk with lion claw feet, three expensive fountain pens, the brand of which Becky never could remember the name, and a stack of leather bound writing pads. He placed the desk in the middle of the room, so when he sat down he would be facing Renoir’s Two Sisters (On the Terrace,) the largest painting of his collection. Then, he would come home from work, take a walk with Becky, eat dinner, and say, almost sheepishly, “I’ll be in my room if you need me.” What he did in there Becky never really knew, never wanted to. She had seen once, that he used one of the notebooks as a journal, only the writing seemed sporadic and hard to decipher, more like random thoughts, and one time he had revealed to her his penciled rendition of Renoir’s Flowers in a Vase. The drawing turned out horrendous, and Becky warned him not to quit his day job. She might have been less reluctant to probe into her husband’s behavior had he not spent a portion of the winter before in a psychiatric ward after foolishly and haphazardly cutting his wrists. “No,” thinks Becky, “sometimes it’s best to prevaricate rather than admit your husband might be a nut job. Besides, he isn’t going to kill himself with a fountain pen.” Becky picks up The Great Gatsby, and thumbs through to a random page and begins reading.
            Inside his room, Frank sits down stone-heavy and slouches forward. He focuses his eyes first on a flower, then on a young girl smiling, then on a clown. After identifying these objects for ontological reasons, Frank starts to let his eyes doze off, take a type of slumber so that all he sees is color: wonderful, vivid, lively color. And for a moment the black ink starts to sink, starts to wander away from his brain and down through his heart. It recedes all the way down to his stomach and stops. Frank, with his eyes still open, but in a trance, knows what is coming. He refocuses his eyes on a single flower and thinks it might be a chrysanthemum. “Yes, it is a chrysanthemum,” he reassures himself. “The whole world is a beautiful and bright yellow chrysanthemum.”  But Frank cannot fool biology. The black ink starts, for no reason he can discern, to swell back up, penetrating his heart, then his brain again. He imagines the ink rolling forward in his eye sockets until they are smeared with darkness. He looks at the Chrysanthemum, but he no longer sees a flower. He sees the wilted and bent over carcass of a flower. He looks at a young girl. Her dress, colorless, sloughs off her shoulders and reveals nothing but bare bone. Her hair is still attached to her skull, but it is ratted and small slithering snakes jut out. Her eyes are simple sockets, deep black holes. Men on a boat plow overboard and sink to the bottom of a murky ocean. They are drowning with the women who have already sunk. Frank thinks he hears their screams. Naked bathers crash upon the rocks as the tide rises without warning, some walk into the forest and get lost. A little girl has grabbed a piece of black yarn and is strangling her older sister from behind. Frank can see the struggle in the older sister’s eyes. The pleading eyes, “I don’t want to die.” He cannot bear to watch the little girl strangle her sister. He leaps to his feet as fast as a seventy-five year old can, and with his legs full of lead, black ink, like metal ball and chains wrapped around his ankles, it forces him to hear the girl plead as he tries to leave the room. He makes it to the door, opens it and rushes out with his face pale white. Becky wakes up when the door slams and looks at Frank, terrified by the visage of death strangling his gray eyes. “What it is, Frank?” she asks as she rushes to his aid. “It’s nothing. I just got a little startled is all.”
“What startled you Frank? I think you better sit down.”
            Frank sits down, and Becky sits next to him, waiting for a reply. But she has seen him like this before, and she knows he won’t reply; she knows he will now wish to leave the house for the rest of the afternoon. Frank keeps his unresponsive head face down and refuses to raise it. “I’ll go make you some coffee. Black,” is all Becky can think to say and brushes her hand across Frank’s shoulders as she makes her way to the kitchen. When she returns with two cups of coffee, Frank’s head is raised, and much of the blue has returned to his eyes. He does just as Becky suspects: changes the subject. Becky wonders now, as she has in the past, what is left to live for when the element of awe and surprise have already revealed all they can reveal. Then she shudders because she knows she has the answer, and the answer lies six feet under. “Would you like to go to the store with me?” Frank asks. “Why,” Becky responds, “you know it doesn’t work.”
“It does work. You ask any kid, and even my doctor seems to think it isn’t a bad idea.”
“Frank, don’t be ridiculous. You are a seventy-five year old man. How could you possibly benefit from going to Sarah’s Place?”
“Melatonin, Becky. Ever heard of it?”
“Liver spots, Frank. Ever heard of em?”
Becky sips her coffee and lets the rampant spark of her eyes do her talking. Frank’s laconic reply, “Suit yourself,” sends Becky up the stairs and into her room in a flurry, but not before her vehement “How many dumb ass seventy-five year olds go tanning?” boomed through the living room so loud Frank could hardly tell she said it while retreating.
The jingling snake of bells roused Melissa from the depths of her calculus book. “Oh, hello Mr. Peterson. Sure is cold outside,” Melissa says from behind the counter. Frank had sat in his car and watched the young girl, Sarah’s niece, through the window. It always embarrassed him when customers were there the same time as him. He felt the stinging rebuff of his wife at those times, and had to admit to himself that he did behave like a clown. “Cold and dreary,” Frank admits as he makes sure the door closes. He walks up to the counter and pulls out his seven dollars and fifty cents, placing it on the counter. “What are you studying? Calculus?” Frank already knows Melissa studies calculus, but he doesn’t know what else to say. “Yep, Mr. Peterson,” Melissa responds as she puts the money in the cash register. “Same bed for you today?”
“Yes, please. I am kind of fond of bed number six.” Melissa giggles, making Frank feel like a pedophile for some reason, then she asks if he would like his usual six minutes. Frank, as he always does, explains to Melissa that he doesn’t tan out of some sort of vanity, but rather the heat and brightness of the bed cheer him up. At first, when Frank shuffled in and got all embarrassed, Melissa used to tease him about his getting ready to take his shirt off after winter and wow the women. Frank never really knew how to respond to her sarcasm, and so he would just blush like a child and say “No, no, no.”  He had gotten used to her by now, and she to him. He found her sarcasm more pleasant. He responds in a firm, sort of what the hell way, “Why don’t we make it eight minutes today. I could use a real heat wave.” Melissa screws her eyes up and wrinkles her nose as she asks him if he is sure that’s a good idea. “What’s the worst that could happen? I might get cancer at my old age?” Melissa nods her head. “Well, I won’t” Frank rejoins. “Let’s make it eight.”
“You’re the boss, Mr. Peterson. Just don’t go telling my aunt on me. You know she tells me to watch after you.” Frank smiles, crinkling the hard lines of life around his eyes and mouth. “God bless your auntie. She’s a wonderful lady. You tell her I said that.”
“Will do. You’re all set in room number six.”
            Frank stares at his feeble body in the mirror. His underwear droops and when he turns sideways he can see his impotent manhood hanging like a broken branch after a lightning storm through the open gap where his scrawny leg pokes out. “How pathetic it is to get old,” he thinks to himself. He refrains from staring directly into his eyes. He knows death still lurks in his vision. He lies down on the cold bed and shivers as he closes the lid over himself. He places the shielding goggles over his eyes, turning his world purple. “Better than black,” he mumbles again, the words echoing inside his coffin bed. He continues to shiver and his body convulses so bad he doesn’t say anything at all. The bell rings and the bed kicks on, lighting up everything to neon purple and immediately warming Frank’s body. As the bulbs burn brighter, Frank begins to sweat and feel the heat rush all over him like dead but friendly spirits. Then the heat rushes through his body as if each breath he takes invites a warm spirit, a holy ghost into his abode and forces the black out of him. He falls asleep in total comfort. The jarring noise of noiselessness, the bed turning off, wakes Frank. He opens the lid and raises his hands while proclaiming, “wonderful” as the ambient heat still thrills his body. He puts on his clothes and opens the door. He makes sure no one is in the waiting room then shuffles towards the exit. Melissa waves goodbye, and Frank reciprocates. He is greeted by the cold February wind, and the gray skies make him feel sick to his stomach. When he sits down in the car, he can feel that his back is burnt. He doesn’t mind. “A sunburn in the middle of winter. What could be more pleasant?” He pulls the sleeves to his coat up, exposing his red-blotched skin and blue veins. Two milk-white scars cut across the rivers of blue. The white skin is raised. Frank ponders how much the two marks resemble bridges over water. He pulls his sleeves down and turns the car on. “Spring is almost here,” he says to himself as he pulls out of the parking lot.
 Becky waits until she hears the car pull out of the driveway then she walks back downstairs and finishes her coffee. The saucer clinks as she puts the cup on it. She is agitated. She picks up her book, but before even opening it, throws it back down. “Why couldn’t I have married a normal man?” she announces to the empty room, maybe expecting an answer. She reclines back on her chair and pauses for a moment. Her mind is empty and agitated, waiting for a thought to fill the monotony of a cold and lonely house. The thoughts begin pouring in, or ushering forth from within. Becky never really knows if thoughts are like clouds that descend upon her mind or like wells springing forth from her own remote body. “He did act normal when I first married him,” she thinks, “but he has changed. Everything changes.” She lets Frank drift away from her mind or descend back down to the unknown regions, and she begins to ponder her own life, her own motives, her own desolations. It isn’t like life had been any easier for Becky than it had for Frank. She just chose to face it, head on, and that silly black ink Frank once told her about, did he think she didn’t have it rear up in front of her? She confronted it, let it know who the real boss was, and then moved forward. Did Frank think it easy for her to deal with a broken femur? She lay bedridden for two months, and the plastered cast, how it made her itch like worms were writhing under her skin, how she wished more than anything she could scratch her leg until it bled. Frank devised a wire hanger, untwisted and straight to reach down beneath the cast and scratch, but it never quite alleviated the pain. And after the cast had been removed, good hell, how they doted on her in therapy and made her feel like a baby taking her first steps again. Between the lying in bed, and the constant hospital and therapy visits, vivacity went out of her which never rekindled. Within five months of her recovering, the call came from her father. “Becky. Mother passed away last night.”  There had been no warning that she was ailing, no inclination to believe that the Christmas before would be the last time she would see her mother. “How Dad? How can this be?” A stroke damaged her brain and killed her in an instant. She didn’t even have time to cry out to her husband who lay beside her. Becky’s bereavement took a strange toll on her. At first she refused to believe her mother had died. Then she decided to face it, to realize that she would be next in line, that her life had passed its apex and the nadir, the somber and cold trek towards death, awaited her. She confronted such brutal reality by living life more fully, even if pretended. She planted flowers, initiated walks with Frank when he arrived home from work, volunteered at the local hospital. Her father passed away four months later, euphemism aside, Becky would say, “he croaked, died, bit the bullet,” and her chipper attitude tumbled towards full on depression. She would not, however, let circumstances determine her fate. She demanded her depression to get the hell away from her, and she knew it would, because it had been an invention of her own weak mind in the first place, and she refused to be weak or ruled by some stupid force which tried to descend or swell up within her. “I live life on my terms,” Becky again utters at the empty room. “On my terms, damn it.” She gets up from her chair and ascends the stairs once more.
Frank enters the front door.  “Becky. I’m home.” He no longer feels depressed, and he no longer sees the tinge of death upon everything, including the thin air. “Becky, where are you?” Frank checks the kitchen then the living room. He figures she doesn’t answer because she is reading. When she isn’t there, he climbs the stairs and peeks into the bedroom. “Becky?” The bedroom is empty, but the bathroom light is on. He walks towards the bathroom, and starts to say, “Becky, how come you didn’t answer…” The bathroom is empty. He knows in this weather she is home. Maybe she is still angry from this morning. Frank descends the stairs and checks the usual rooms again, calling out Becky’s name. When he has thoroughly checked the house, he sits down in his usual armchair and lets his mouth fall open in a spasm of comatose bewilderment, a look befitting him. He raises his head in mechanical increments, and as he turns it towards the hallway he hears the bones in his neck crack. The door to his room is closed, but he sees the fluorescent light sneaking through the bottom. “She never enters my room,” Frank mutters. When he began to use the room, he had always kept it locked, afraid Becky or someone else might enter and rummage through his notebooks, but after years of Becky showing no fascination with the room, Frank had put the key away and left the door unlocked. Frank feels a shiver run down the back of his spine and the sensation causes the sunburn to tingle all over his back, especially where the shirt touches it. “What would she be doing in my room?” he says as he enters the hallway. He puts his hand on the round metal knob and turns it. He flings open the door, and utters his second to last phrase in life—“My God!”
Sheriff Poulsen arrived to an open door and walked in only to find Frank sitting in the fetal position underneath the stand the phone sat on, and the phone disconnected and blaring its, “beep, beep-beep, beep” dead tone in his lap. Frank’s eyes stared straight, but it quickly became apparent he had lapsed into a state of oblivious shock. Sheriff Poulsen bent down and examined Frank’s face, putting his lips next to ear, he whispered, “Where is she, Frank?” Frank didn’t respond. Sheriff Stone and two ambulance workers entered the house. Frank didn’t notice. Sheriff Poulsen asked Frank again, “Where is Becky?” Frank unclasped his hands and with his right hand pointed down the hallway. The ambulance workers, escorted by Sheriff Stone, walked the hallway and then entered Frank’s room. “Good hell,” one of them yelled out. Sheriff Stone exited the room, and in his best authoritative tone, one not too demanding, told Sheriff Poulsen to kindly escort Mr. Peterson to the ambulance and stay with him until the crime team and another ambulance arrived. Frank stood up with the help of Sheriff Poulsen and shuffled out of his home baffled and with a look of despondency only matched by survivors of some horrific holocaust. One of the ambulance workers walked behind them.
            When the cause of death has been determined and no foul play is visible, Sheriff Stone leaves the house and hops into the ambulance. He doesn’t like this part of his job, but he has to get a statement from Frank. He had known Frank’s son, grown up and went to school with him. He had even visited the Peterson home to hang out with their son on occasion. He places his hand on Frank’s knee, notices the granule and rubber feeling such skin has when it has lost its elasticity. “How we doing, Frank?” Frank is laid out on a stretcher and stares at the roof of the ambulance. “Frank,” Sheriff Stone begins, “I need to take a quick statement.” Sheriff Stone waits for Frank to respond. “Of course he is doing horrible,” he thinks. He asks if Becky had been through any traumatic experience over the past few months, if Frank noticed any change in behavior that would indicate her suicidal tendencies. Frank remains mute and unreachable throughout the conversation. Sheriff Stone, aggrieved and out of patience, asks almost in soliloquy, “What will you do now?” Frank’s head raises slightly, the veins and bone in his neck stretched out as vulnerable and fleshy as a turkey’s on the chopping block, and replies, “Move to Arizona, I guess.”

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