Messenger

08Jan10

This is a story that was originally over 3,000 words, and I found a publication that was looking for things like this – not the usual flash with the surprise ending but something with emotion and introspection throughout it. The problem was, the word limit was 1,000. So, could I cut a 3,000+ word story down to 1,000 and preserve its essence? Honestly? I think this one has much more power and punch! Which only goes to show how mediocre the first one was.

He sits with his mother on the patio of her Florida home, relaxing in a wicker chair and swirling his wine as she speaks. Although it is well past her bedtime, she keeps right on talking from her wheelchair. Even addled by stroke, there is plenty going on behind her glaucoma-dulled blue eyes.

“Have you seen the two new wings on the house?”

“I can’t find them.”

She describes the secret door inside the walk-in closet.

“How do you get there?”

“There’s a trick door in the closet, and up a hallway, there’s a door to a big outdoor room, where thousands of people lie in their beds. We watch the sky for shooting stars. Sometimes we see the northern lights. I figure the others are like me, sharing the rest of their lives with hired help.”

He asks if she recognizes any of them, but no. He wants the conversation to continue, to distract him from his anguish.

He has learned that there is a time to dispel her delusion and a time to indulge it. Tonight, this is her world, and he wants to go with her. It is just the stream of consciousness of an old and sick woman whose mind is chocked full of thoughts and images, and she flips through a random catalogue of them. As she speaks, he imagines that they become more vivid in her mind, and she adds color and clarity to them, and he wonders if she hasn’t actually seen these things. He wants to inspect the back of the closet for himself.

“He was perfect, your father,” she says.

“Everyone says that.” He inspects the legs of the wine in his glass.

She asks if he remembers the songs his father sang.

“Sweet Betsy From Pike!” he says, and she laughs with a rasp.  He sings it. “Do you remember sweet Betsy from Pike, who crossed o’er the prairie with her lover Ike, with two yoke of Oxen, a big yellow dog, a tall Shanghai rooster and one spotted hog.”

She laughs so hard she coughs deeply and Sandra rushes to her. She hacks through it and waves Sandra away.

“Your father loved music. Before we were married, we went to the jazz clubs. We saw all the Big Bands.”

“What a time you must have had.”

“You have no idea,” she says. Her eyes sparkle, and then they narrow and she lowers her voice almost to a whisper. “But your father wasn’t really that perfect.”

“No?”

“Other women,” she whispers, with not a hint of anger or hurt, but a big knowing smile.

“No!” He tries to act surprised. His father was discreet and inscrutable, and never gave him the slightest reason to think it. But he always has.

“Even the strongest men have a weakness,” he says.

“If it’s only one, it’s women,” she says, and she laughs. She begins to say something, and stops. He is sure she would ask if he has always been faithful to his wife, and he is relieved that he doesn’t have to lie to her.

“Do you think…” he begins to say, and stops. But he can see her mind working.

“That he felt he was paying his debt after I had my stroke?”

“Something like that.”

“Your father had a sense of duty that was unshakable. So no, he wasn’t paying his debt. He was doing what a man does for his wife.”

He thinks that is certainly true.

“I wonder if he’s mad that I’m telling you this,” she says.

“You’ll have to ask him, when you see him again.”

“Oh, I’ll see him again, don’t you worry,” she says, and looks at her son. “I’m not afraid to die. What the hell’s so good about hanging around here all by myself? I got things to do up there, old friends to look up. Your father’s waiting.”

It is after midnight, and she announces that she is tired. The nurses wheel the Hoyer lift in and deftly winch her up in her sling.

“I’ll be out on the sky room for a while,” she says, and he kisses her.

He goes to his bed, tired, drained. It is a tough business, reconciling that kind of loss, and it is something you do without practice. With a parent, you think you have your whole life to anticipate such a certainty, but it’s never enough. You can accept the fact in your mind, but you can never train your heart to accept the void. He wonders if it is easier for a son who does not love his father, if the void left is a source of relief and not pain. But he decides not. The pain of loss cannot be lessened by hate or estrangement; this would require an order of existence that rendered love worthless, and that could not be. He falls asleep and doesn’t dream.

He awakes in the morning, and goes to her bedroom. She is in her hospital bed. The oxygen machine hums, churns air; the clear hose at her nostrils hisses. He puts his hand on her shoulder and her eyes open.

“Did you sleep well?”

“Not a wink.”

“Why not?”

“I was concerned that I had told you too much. I don’t want you to think less of your father.”

“I could never think less of him.” He bends over and hugs her. “There isn’t anything weak about overlooking a man’s faults. It doesn’t hurt me to know that he wasn’t perfect. I was afraid I wasn’t good enough.”

“He was very proud of you.”

“And I of him.”

Her teary face beams, her eyes bright and soft. “I’ll make sure to pass that along.”

He bends over again, squeezes her shoulder and kisses her. He leaves as she returns to the big room in the sky to deliver his message.

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9 Responses to “Messenger”

  1. 1 Fred C

    Too tired right now (probably from the story) will write later.

    Peter, this is good stuff!

  2. 2 layinda (Linda Wilt)

    Peter, tiny typo:
    He is sure she would LIKE? to ask if he has always been faithful

    Very good story. Timely, too, with so many baby boomers in similar situations with their parents. It is easy to be sympathetic to the protag, and his relationship with his mother is poignant. Good luck with the contest!

  3. 3 layinda (Linda Wilt)

    Well, getting it published, I mean! It IS sort of a contest to get published, isn’t it? 😉

  4. “He wants to inspect the back of the closet for himself.” – such a lovely rendition of a painful yet bittersweet moment so many endure. Reading it, I saw the emotion rising through the words, felt the intensity of the responses as you waited to read what she would say next. In the end, I was left with the sentence I quoted and the notion that we are all too often denied fantasy in the harsh glare of reality. This yearning to share something, to glimpse what she sees that he cannot, I found especially beautiful. Thank you for writing this as it was a particular highlight of my evening.

    Respectfully,
    Olivia

  5. Aw gosh – that’ll get me comin’ back.

  6. A lovely piece. I went through this situation with both my parents with Alzheimer’s (I know what I have to look forward to).

  7. 7 Sue

    This is really good, and perfectly nails the sadness, those feelings of loss and grief we have even while they’re still with us.

  8. 8 Lisa Gibson

    Really liked this. The pain was almsot palpable and the emotion very deep. It’s so difficult, dealing with the loss of a parent, and watching their slow demise is no easier.

  9. Peter,

    You are a story teller. It’s a gift to transcend writing so one doesn’t notice they are reading, but rather feeling.

    Well done.


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