Saturday, May 4, 2013

Sticky Acrid Dread

It had been a pretty good day before the voicemail. Tara had been productive at work. Nothing bad, nor overly good, had happened, and now she was home. The kind of day that was as mundane, and as joyful, as a warm breeze in your hair. Besides having to deal with the occasional detail of a bankruptcy and a divorce, life was fine.

After nine years, a few of them happy, she and Rich had called it quits. Actually, she had moved out. For a couple months, she had quietly moved things into a little storage unit across town, planning for the day it got bad enough or she got brave enough to just leave. Rich's drinking had made the last three and a half years or so excruciating. She had tried everything; screaming and yelling, crying and begging, supporting and caring.

She had managed to get him into counselling a couple times and there was a helpful psychologist at the hospital. Helpful to her perhaps more than to Rich, but help anyway. Rich had been in the emergency room in medical danger from the booze several times that summer. The hospital didn't do rehab, but they would keep him for a week or so to dry him out. While Rich was there he had people to talk to and things to think about. Each time, what first seemed like a new beginning quickly dissolved into the same old hell.

Tara had moved out three months ago. Rich had racked up tens of thousands of dollars of medical bills, even after insurance. The last three years had been enough, she wasn't going to take care of the co-pays too. She had talked Rich into doing a bankruptcy before a divorce. She knew that he had gone along with the former to possibly prevent the latter, but lawyers abounded in her life. The bankruptcy had just gone through and the divorce was coming next.

Then this morning, the voicemail. By lunchtime, she had gotten brave enough to listen. Rich had simply asked her to call. He sounded healthy, if that was possible to determine in the span of a short message. He had even been sober when he called. It was just that she dreaded returning the call. Hopefully it was just some detail about the divorce that wasn't quite complete. She couldn't imagine what he wanted or why he hadn't elaborated. Rich had simply said, "Hey, Tara. Rich. Could you call me when you get a chance?"

Tara could almost detect a false optimism in Rich's voice. It hung on her phone like fresh paint on a dirty wall. She hoped he was just healthy enough to purposely try and sound positive. Still, a little echo of something else hung on in the silent moment before he had hung up the line.

She'd been home more than an hour. After the grocery store, she had laid out all the ingredients for supper on the counter, but hadn't begun to prepare anything. Twice she had hit the button, lighting the little screen, but both times she just stared and let the the phone go dark again. The thick paste of dread on her fingers prevented them dialing. The thought of talking to Rich gave her stomach a sticky, acrid feeling. Nevertheless, like tearing off a band-aid, on the third try, she dialed in a rush as soon as the screen lit, just to get it over with.

Rich had moved back in with his family. His parents and two brothers, none of them were particularly healthy or well adjusted themselves. They were not equipped to help the prodigal Rich. Tara worried that his drinking would just continue unabated. Rich's father answered the phone.

"Hang on I'll get him." The father had said.

The abandoned handset collected the familiar sounds of her soon-to-be-ex in-laws' house. There was a rustle in the kitchen; that would be Mom. A television was on, that would be brother Geoff. Dad's boots clomped across the dining room floor and Tara heard him call upstairs to Rich.

The rhythm of Rich's ambling gait approached. The phone would be laying on the desk in what used to be the dining room. There wasn't room for a table any longer, just two desks and a bench. The house was so small, especially now with five people living in it. Tara heard a scratchy fumbling as Rich picked up the phone.

"Hello, Tara?"




Tara couldn't speak. Rich was more than obviously drunk. His dad hadn't even warned her. Had it become so normal in the tiny house that it hadn't occurred to him to mention? She stood in her own kitchen, not able to decide whether to throw the phone against a wall or collapse on the linoleum and cry.

"Tara?"

She took a jerking breath, fighting against the weighty dread. In his stupor, Rich held the phone too close to his face. Tara sensed the heat of his stale breath against her cheek. He was miles away but she could smell the whiskey, and his dirty teeth. With a strained hollow gurgle, he drug air down his torpid throat. His alcohol addled breath thrummed against moist curtains of saliva in his sickeningly drunk mouth.

"Tara," he repeated. "Are you sure you want to go through with this divorce thing?"

He had practiced the line for days, she was sure. Rather than a dramatic flourish, however, the words had come out like junior high theater - one part Broadway come on, three parts primal fear. Her brain could not catch up to the audacity of his drunk question. The phone line went silent as an ancient temple. A lone pebble skittered from the cave wall of her soul and ticked randomly down a bottomless crevasse. Anger, confusion, even loneliness, ached in her throat as if she had swallowed a glowing coal.


"Yes," she finally said. "Yes, Rich, this is something that I have to do . . . for me. For my own survival."

Just then she heard a faint puffing whoosh as the pilot light of her heart re-lit. There was a little spread of warmth inside her chest and she hung up the phone. Her own life had begun again.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Eve of Compassion

This post is out of sync with the seasons, but its part of a Creative Challenge my friend Emily and I set up to spur each other on and get our creative juices flowing. This week's theme is "Joy."



The compassion of a child is finely tuned; right and wrong, fair and square appear in stark contrasts. Kids can be cruel to each other for sure, but they also display great clarity when something isn't as it should be; isn't fair. I wrote a story a while ago based on the insight of a child. We would all do well to keep such an innocent view of how things should be.

It had not been a very snowy Christmas. I wasn't yet a teenager. The snow that had been so clean and white when it fell, was turned over, run down, and muddied. The whole world, under the dirty slush, seemed shop-worn and tired.

The houses on our block were a diverse cast of characters. Next door a retired couple's immaculately trimmed landscaping culminated in a gurgling fountain centered perfectly in their backyard. There were other houses with nice yards, but those tidy porches and neat lawns suffered with contractor trucks and kids' bikes parked in their drives. There was a little old lady across the street whose house was nice but only occasionally looked after by her far flung family. Two large Catholic families meant lots of kids for us to play with. At one end of the block was a nicely kept stone mansion with a Dairy Queen just beyond it next door. Into the next block at the opposite end was the Dawson Mansion. The once palatial manse of a local car manufacturer, it had been split into several apartments and was run down in all the predictable ways.

We were preparing for the Christmas Eve service at church. It was a midnight mass, but most of the sermon was the singing of Christmas hymns. The pastor let people shout out requests by the hymnal numbers; a popular service by a popular pastor. We'd had our Christmas Eve fondue supper; a family tradition. After cleaning up and dressing for the slightly less formal church event, I was milling around the house waiting for everyone else to get ready when I heard the fire truck's siren. Such a terrible thought – a fire on Christmas Eve.

The siren persisted and it soon seemed I could hear sirens from several directions. The blaring racket told of a large fire. Perhaps a number of departments had had to respond. I started to imagine the tragedy. A weight caught in my throat as I swallowed dryly. I could almost taste the smoke.



Mom found me in the sun porch staring out at the drab night through the expanse of windows; listening to the approaching sirens. As she put her arm on my shoulder, we hardly dared speak of the thoughts racing in each our heads. The painful lump, more in my chest than in my throat, would have made it impossible to speak anyhow. We just stood silently and stared out into the street.

Lights came roaring around the corner. A firetruck careened noisily off the Main Street. The weight of our empathy grew heavier as we imagined someone we knew having a fire. The firetruck stopped in front of the one house most out of character on the street. A poorer family lived in a decent house made ramshackle by comparison. Their lawn was more dirt than grass and there was obviously no money for such frivolity as sprucing up the porch or painting the siding. We tried not to squint into the darkness for smoke or fire.

Just then, Santa Claus leapt off the back of the firetruck, jogged across the muddy lawn with a great sack on his back and banged on the door. Dumbstruck, our sorrow had evaporated. We were stupid with relief; embarrassed as joy swelled in our hearts. We'd been had.

The front door opened slowly and the mother of the house swooned with her own joy and relief. Santa must have asked to see the kids. There was a young boy and a younger girl and a couple teenagers. As they each came to the door, Santa dug through his sack for a present. Mom and I watched, dumbfounded, as the human spirit shined – brighter than the piercing lights of the firetruck idling in the street. Someone had wrapped presents and coded them by gender and age range. Santa was visiting families all over town. Families that had known there would be no joy on Christmas were finding some anyway. As the firetruck blared passed our house, all the fireman, and especially the one dressed up as Santa, were smiling from ear to ear. I guffawed, choking back a sob as a chuckle. Our incredible emotional journey felt like a spin on the Tilt-A-Whirl.

Later, as people shouted out hymnal page numbers in the candle lit sanctuary, I basked in the spirit of the season. It wasn't about getting stuff, it wasn't even about giving stuff, it was about spreading joy and goodwill – to everyone.