The Day Archie C. Drove Past the Boneyard
On the table sits an ashtray, five fags above capacity, their filters, worn and torn and hot box brown. Next to the ashtray lay a TV guide, an empty pack of Winston cigarettes, a small stack of lottery tickets, and another ashtray, this one filled with discolored and thick nail clippings. A perfectly still, anemic and stale study in still life of a man’s daily routine. A couch, just to the right, fills the room with the sour aroma of sleep and motor oil. It is day, but the shades are drawn tight to the window sill where a bee, long dead, lays belly up, an empty and brittle shell of a once robust and purposeful life.
Exiting the room, we pass by yet another table, this one belonging to the dining room, littered with unopened mail; crisp, with cellophane windows that penetrate the stillness with crinkles and snaps. A sudden applause of sleet bouncing about upon on a parked car’s roof in some faraway empty lot.
The doorbell rings. It’s the postman. He needs to inform the owner of the house that if the stairs to the front porch are not fixed, he will no longer be able to deliver mail to this address. The phone rings a few times throughout the day. Wrong numbers perhaps, but, with there being no answering machine, there is no way for us to be certain.
Entering the kitchen, we notice a quick change in the air; it’s less oppressive. There are memories here to be sure, but they have become ancient and discolored, like the bee, like the toenail clippings, like the gauzy curtains all filigree and shadow. An unused room rearranging purpose. Settling in and setting off on its own.
A car comfortably pulls into the driveway, slowly coming to a stop in front of a detached garage, not painted in years. A rotting and hopeless basketball hoop. A barn owl. Cans of motor oil and paint. A backyard no longer mowed or cared for. Stray cats, their tails tall and stiff. A faint outline of where the summer garden used to be. The front door of the car swings open. He is home. He is in his fifties, wearing beige pants, sensible beige shoes, somewhat orthopedic, and a blue golf shirt; a pack of cigarettes in the left breast pocket. Unsure on his feet, he seems to be having some trouble walking. It’s been that way ever since she died. He woke one morning a few days after answering a 2 am phone call from the hospital feeling lost and afraid; untethered. That was to be expected. But there was something different about this morning. He was shaking; his hands, his legs, his feet, his soul. The man tried to convince himself that it was just his nerves, that he was in a state of shock, but he knew better, knew that this was something more. Doctors couldn't pinpoint the exact cause without running a few tests but the man declined, thinking to himself, “What’s the point?” Excusing himself, he would get up; leave the office and drive away, staring out the front window at a road he no longer knew, immune now to the sweet and soulful scent of a cool summers night.
Approaching the stairs leading up to the back door of the house he stops, shakes his head, lets out a sigh and returns to the car. He has forgotten a bag containing a hot fudge sundae he bought from a roadside ice-cream stand on his way home from work. Another prop to exaggerate his loneliness, another external to fill the void.
Some hours later we find the man on the couch, the TV bathing the room in an almost blue and almost cozy unholy glow. He is watching one of his favorite shows and looks to his left now and again about to make a comment. But to whom? He stops himself short and braces himself. Reality is about to snake its way back into his life if only for an instant. But that’s all it takes. An instant to recall a lifetime of memories. Instinctively, he reaches for the ice cream container, now empty, scraping the bottom with a plastic spoon, nothing left but a quarter spoonful of melted vanilla ice cream and useless fudge. Soon the cigarettes will begin to taste stale, his unbrushed teeth will begin to feel coated with, well, just coated, and sleep will start weaving its cocoon of safety round and round his aging and fragile body. And he will stretch this aging body out on this aging couch and try to forget all the things that need forgetting.
He wakes the next morning five minutes before the alarm goes off as he always does, shocked that there is yet another chapter to write. A cigarette while on the toilet and a cup of instant coffee later we see our friend, shaking his way down the stairs of the back porch to his car as he always does at this time, rain or shine, workday or weekend. Still unsteady from sleep, he staggers with purpose past his car towards the detached garage, still in need of a paint job, struggles the door open and disappears inside When he emerges he is carrying something foreign to us and a pail. Opening the trunk of his car, he throws said objects in and slams the door shut. The sun is slowly rising, a cicadas love song zips through the thickening air and we can tell, just by the way the trees are breathing and the birds are singing that it’s going to be a long, hot day. It’s Tuesday so we are caught off guard when, after calmly backing out of the driveway, he makes a left instead of a right. So set in his schedule as he is, we double check the date and time in case we have lost some time back there at the luncheonette; milkshakes and French Fries, chain smoking counter gals and stool after stool of distant men resigned to the fact that this is all there is.
Our interest is peaked and he now has our undivided attention. He drives for a good thirty minutes before we realize where he is going and we are surprised. He hasn't been out to the cemetery where his wife is buried in more than a decade. But, he casually passes the bone yard, seemingly unaware that he has any connection to that silent parcel of land. Driving for another mile or so, he puts on his left blinker, waits for traffic to pass and pulls into a parking lot. He slowly drags himself out from the car, opens the trunk and retrieves a bolt cutter. Walking calmly over to a chained and locked gate, he cuts the lock, removes the chains and pulls open the gate. He returns the bolt cutters to the trunk and reemerges with a putter and a pail of golf balls. Shuffling on over to the 1st hole, the man drops a ball from the pail and positions it with his foot making sure he keeps a sharp focus on his balance.
“Arch, honey, it’s just a game. Don't teach them to take it so seriously.”
“Helen, there’s a correct way and an incorrect way to hold a putter as well as how to line up a shot. Now why wouldn't I show them the correct way/”
It was mid-July and Archie and Helen were with their two kids playing a round of miniature golf. They had just finished dinner at a family friendly restaurant and decided that tonight would be a perfect night for golf. This would be the last summer. That’s all. The last summer. Helen would pass away three months later, at 1:39 am in a hospital some thirty miles away from everyone she knew. Only a select few knew that she was sick and the people, who did not know, including her parents, were starting to voice their concern about her appearance. She had always been self-conscious of her weight and they began to worry that she had taken it too far. She hid her illness well, and many were left numb and confused when they learned of her passing.
After a relaxed 18 holes, the man puts a ten dollar bill on the counter of the shuttered kiosk and weighs it down with his putter. He calmly opens the gate, closes the gate, and returns to his car. And he sits there, alone, in the parking lot of a closed miniature golf course overlooking the end of the World. How long he sits doesn't matter. The fact that his tears flow the way tears happen to flow doesn't matter. The fact that his shaking seems to have gotten worse doesn't matter. The fact that he never called into work doesn't matter. And all those unopened bills on the dining room table? Doesn't matter. What matters is that he sits. Alone. With his thoughts. With his memories. And it is there, in his car, that he recalls a memory, a memory not his own. A sad and peculiar memory belonging to his late wife. A memory of her brother Walter. She spoke of him often. Mostly funny or sad coming of age stories, but whenever she was on her fourth or fifth glass of wine she would, without fail, sleepily, lazily, drunkenly recall the days leading up to his disappearance.
"About three days before Walter vanished we were sitting at the kitchen table. We were splitting a six pack of beer and had just finished smoking a joint. Walter was talking about this book he was reading. It was written by a Samurai back in the 1800's. It was a book about life." At this point his wife would pause, take a long swallow of wine and would travel back in time. Everything about her would change, her voice, mannerisms, even her hair. She would gently push it out of her face in the opposite direction than usual and she would transform, right there in front of his eyes. Once his wife had settled in, she would continue on, a completely foreign person now telling the story. “In this book, I can't remember the title, the Samurai is talking about finding one's bliss, one's calling, and Walter was really connecting with these ideas and felt that it was changing his life in real time, altering his reality and redirecting his path. Towards the end of this book this Samurai begins talking about his own true bliss in life; sleeping. He truly cherished sleep more than anything else on earth and his plan was to sleep as much as possible for the rest of his life. It was then that a light went on in Walters’s brain. You see, Walter, like most of us believed that our bliss or life's calling was connected with doing something tangible, like playing music, acting, writing, becoming a teacher or fireman. It never occurred to him that his bliss might be something as simple as sleeping. It was then that Walter had an epiphany. His life's calling was to disappear. That's it, to just disappear. I remember us laughing hysterically at this thought. It was both so beautiful and so absurd at the same time. But, after that talk I saw that something in Walter had changed. He was no longer the brother I had grown up with. In the next few days I saw him slowly start to fade away. He started to blend in with the objects around him. He started to disappear. In lieu of a better word, he became fuzzy, out of focus. It was as if he was weaving himself into the fabric of time and space. On the last night before his disappearance I passed his room on my way to the bathroom. As I passed I heard talking. One of the voices was Walters and the other I could not make out. The odd thing was, Walter and this other person seemed to be speaking what seemed to me to be Yiddish. Only problem was, Walter didn't speak Yiddish. I shrugged it off, figured he and a friend were smoking weed and were just being stupid, went to the bathroom and then straight back to bed. That night I slept like I've never slept before. I don't believe anyone could have woken me from this sleep. And I had this dream. A terrific, Technicolor, fever like dream. I was riding my bike home from school. It was red and the paint was chipping. It felt like a relic. The wind had started to pick up. It seemed to me that I was moving at a faster speed than the car traffic around me. They all seemed to be having a hard time seeing where they were going, leaning and squinting, trying to make sense of the road ahead of them. I passed my grandparents as they sat in their car at a red light. They were both very animated in their conversation with each other. My grandmother was in the passenger seat. She had on way too much makeup and was wearing some sort of corset that was pushing her old deflated breasts up and out from her half buttoned blouse. My grandfather was at the wheel in a powder blue suit made for a night of losing. He was smoking and had an open can of beer between his legs. They saw me but pretended not to. As soon as the light turned green they sped off. The car had, and I remember this so clearly, Florida license plates. So weird that this one detail is burned in my mind. I reached my house and caught my breath. I walked the bike the rest of the way, up the driveway and into the garage. I got itchy from the untreated wood and spider webs. I longed for a toothbrush. Leaving the garage I noticed my brother in our neighbor’s lawn. He was raking leaves. His build seemed larger than I remembered and there was steam coming from his hulking flannel covered back. He looked at me and tried to speak. I could not hear him and he seemed to recognize this. He started to become frustrated. He seemed lost and alone. He put his head down and resumed raking the lawn. He ignored me and took a torch to the pile of dead leaves that sat as his feet. I inhaled deeply. The flames leapt high. Two neighborhood dogs began barking. A crow rested on a pine branch. An old pickup truck drove by. I tried to call out to my brother but was interrupted by a terrible banging on the back door of the house. I turned towards the back door but there was no one there. The banging grew more insistent and I realized it was coming from inside. I ran down the driveway towards the front porch. I'm frantically searching for my keys in the pockets of my jeans. I feel a presence chasing after me and I'm starting to panic. Shaking, I start going through my keys to find the one for the front door. God damn it I'm fifteen, why do I have so many keys? A voice inside my head tells me to stop panicking; any of the keys will open the door. Just breathe. I close my eyes and choose a key, it slides right in. All panic leaves me. I no longer feel a sense of dread. I turn and face the street. My neighbors are having a children's birthday party. A police car silently and effortlessly passes by. I let myself into the house. It's warm, a heavy kind of warm. It's oppressive but comforting. Climbing the stairs to my room I notice an unexpected odor. A cloved tobacco pipe smell. I inhale deeply. I feel safe.
The door to my room is open as are the windows. A strong breeze flows through. It smells like clean laundry. There is a man sitting on my bed. I cannot make out his features but I understand that he is well groomed, clean and not a threat. I approach him. He reaches out and unbuttons my jeans. He unzips my zipper and slowly lowers my jeans. I feel my whole body blush. I am helpless and it feels right. His hand moves up the inside of my thigh. He never removes my panties. He has his way with me none the less.
When I wake in the morning I feel refreshed. There is a hot and throbbing soreness between my legs and I feel alive. I don't want to shower or brush my teeth. I want this feeling and only this feeling to last a lifetime. But the longer I stay awake the more it starts to fade. Where are you going I ask this feeling, I felt so at home with you. It doesn't respond, it just fades away like the long summer shadows at twilight. Chewing gum and making up games out of thin air.”
In three minutes of isolation from two people in the closer parts of my life, I chose to accept the separation I’m feeling and create while acknowledging the new light that’s been shed on the relationship. Things will get better, but they might not ever be the same. From this, I’ll find a new path with new growth.