COLUMN FIFTY-SEVEN, MARCH 1, 2001
(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)
& THREE DOWN
too little too late)
The walk to the pay phone seems like a three mike hike
in knee-deep mud. You already know
its bad news youíll hear.
You dial the numbers with sticks for fingers.
Youíre calling collect. A
robotic voice tells you to say your name after the tone.
me,Ē you say. Your tongue feels
thick in you mouth.
The rings connect the miles. You already feel the cramp of tears in your sinuses.
You hear the auto-operator come on again.
You hear yourself say, ďItís me.Ē
*Push one to accept the charges
* Push two to not accept the charges
A beep from the other end.
Itís your dad. He
sounds scared, a kid in the dark on the other end of the line.
to sleep, goddamnit! Thereís no
monsters in the closet
going on?Ē you ask, trying to be nonchalant, but you already know whatís
going on and thereís nothing left to do but get confirmation.
Your dad tells you Norman is gone, that he died that
afternoon, around lunch. You wonder
what the hell you might have been doing around that time.
Your grandfather is dead. You cry. You try
to hold it back, to be a man for your fatherís sake, but it doesnít work.
you donít quit, Iíll give you something to cry about!
You say youíre sorry, that line used in movies and
real life to make death seem more comfortable, every day and less real.
You ask how and get the details, as your fiancť, Jenny, stands there beside you, watching it
'You canít remember him ever telling you that, although you would like to think that he did'
all, crying to herself. He went to sleep. He
didnít wake up. He told your
grandmother thathe loved her, just before he went.
You canít remember him ever telling you that,
although you would like to think that he did.
Memory is a subjective thing.
Cars whip past in the dark. The wheels roll on the pavement like thunder.
The people in the passenger seats stare at you.
Pedestrians walk by. They
rubberneck you both. Maybe they
think youíre a junky, begging for smack.
The whole thing is getting more and more surreal.
You make plans to come over for the weekend.
Dad tells you not to worry about it if you canít get the time off of
work. You tell him not to worry
about it. Youíll be there.
You never had a big desire for work of any kind.
You go home, numb and totally aware at the same time.
You sit on the couch with your lady.
You smoke. Your roommate
watches a movie. Something by Tarantino.
It doesnít matter.
You tell him. He
says, ďThatís harsh,Ē then goes back to Mr. Blond or Mr. White carving off
the copís ear. You donít hold
it against him. Youíve done the
same thing to other people, unable to identify with their kind of suffering.
He gets up and goes to the fridge.
He brings you a beer. You
drink. He offers to get you high.
You agree. The pair of you
smoke the joint. You donít think
you need it. You tell yourself that
itís not the addict in you telling you to numb it out.
The claustrophobia feeling sets in, so you go out on
the patio. You drink the beer,
looking up at the stars. You see the heavens in a whole new light.
The stars are the eyes of the dead.
ones are his?
You hold the beer to the sky.
ďHereís to you grandpa,Ē you mumble, choking on the tears.
You feel like a shit immediately.
You never knew him to drink, but youíve heard the stories.
belt in the West. All youíd hear
is the leather spinning in the loops and then...WHAMMO! HA HA HA.
dominant family gene that no one escaped unscathed.
up and go to sleep!
You go to bed. You
coma-sleep, then get up in the morning, call in and tell the boss.
It feels like a lie. Wal-Mart
can make you feel like that.
Back in the room, you pack a bag, kiss your fiancť,
then hit the bricks out to the ferry. The
bus ride out there could have been ten minutes or ten hours.
You buy your boarding pass, then stand in the waiting area with the other
passengers. Smoking a cigarette,
you stare at the dark water below. You
butt it out. You wait. You
smoke some more.
Finally, you board the boat. It feels like a slug under your feet as it moves through the
channel. You watch the islands pass. You
watch birds shit on the deck. You
have no idea what might be waiting for you on the other side.
Small children run past, yelling and screaming, their
feet sounding bigger than they are on the metal deck. You try to appreciate the life, idly wondering when it will
be your turn.
The ferry docks. You
get off and get on another bus, then the skytrain.
You ride to Metrotown Mall. Thereís
now two blocks between you and his building.
there, drink your milk and then you can have a cookie
You get there. You
throw your bag in the back of your dadís truck.
You go inside and up the short flight of stairs to the apartment.
The door is unlocked.
Stepping inside, you hear voices.
The first thing you see is his study.
The recliner is empty. Heís
really gone. Heís sat in that chair for the last five years.
You walk into the living room and hug your grandmother.
Sheís tough as nails. There
are hints of tears in her eyes, thatís all.
But the red rims show that there have been many private tears and
sit with me, there you go.
i see your magic teeth, grandma?
the better to eat you with, my dear...
You get through the visit well enough.
You go eat with your parents and sister.
Then you go to your aunt's place to sleep.
Your dad and you get the basement couches.
Father and son. Your
dad tries to be brave. You watch
some stupid movie on Showcase.
It doesnít matter.
Anything to shut off the mind.
Your dad falls asleep. His sleep betrays him. He
whimpers and kicks violently.
back in your bed!
a bad dream, can I sleep with
back to bed.
said get back into your bed before I count to three or youíre getting the
lickiní of your life!
Ghosts, past and present.
You light the last cigarette in the second pack of the
day. You shut the television off.
Then itís just you and the red/orange taillight of the coal.
You smoke until you taste filter.
You look at your father, now a silhouette.
The sheet looks like a shroud. He
looks so small under it. He is the
strongest man youíve ever known.
You wonder how strong youíll need to be when itís
you and your son in the dark. ##
* * *
fiancť comes with you. She will
meet your family for the first time. You
are nervous about how you will hold up in front of herÖ
before, the family gathers at your grandmotherís apartment to talk and grieve
as a unit. You act as if the years
between seeing aunts and uncles is a tragedy in itself, but youíve given them
no more thought than you have to obeying your new found religionís
point, you go and have cigarette in his study.
You see his crossword is still on the clipboard beside the recliner.
Picking it up, you notice that there is a thin line, a faint scribble of
black ink trailing away from Three Down.
suddenly scared to be holding the crossword, realizing that he most likely
passed away solving the puzzle. His
black Berol fine-point pen sits on the table.
You consider finishing it for him, then reconsider.
You never were good at that sort of thing and you think you might get in
enters the room. You feel the ice
form inside your stomach. You
donít want to talk to him. Heís
the boyfriend of one of your aunts. He
beats her. They are chronic
alcoholics and drug addicts, plunging down a road you know all to well.
He starts talking in a QuebeÁois accent, your familyís mother tongue at one point.
'You hear your dad tell his mother that if that guy shows up at the funeral, heíll kill him'
Something about where he
works, where you work. You answer
as politely as you can. The rage is
blinding. You all have it, just
like the taste for booze. In the
background, you hear your dad tell his mother that if that guy shows up at the
funeral, heíll kill him.
want to throw this man out of your fatherís study, knowing that if Norman were
here, old as he was, he would beat the man black and blueÖ
remember your grandfather, standing up to a man twice his size, begging for a
fight, because the man has called me a little son of a bitch. I broke that
window and I was a little son of a bitch, but your grandfather understood what
family was all about. No man had
the right to call me a little son of a bitch except himÖ
lean in close to your auntís boyfriend. You
tell him not to come to the funeral or you will cut out his eyes.
He looks at you and then out the window.
He knows that everyone knows. You
vow never to tell your family, but you know that in all probability, you will
break that vowÖ
of the funeral arrives. You get
ready at a friend of your motherís. She
lost her husband to throat cancer a few months before.
Youíve called her Auntie Anne all of your life, although the only
kinship she shares with your mother is that they are both natives of Scotland.
stand outside to smoke and clear your head.
You take pictures of your niece. You
try to keep her happy, knowing she scares easily.
You try not to think. Your
fiancť comes outside. She hugs
you, tells you that she loves you.
drive to the church is a blur. St.
Francis of Assisi. Catholic.
True Goth, horror film ambiance.
comes up to you. Too much make-up.
Dark blue blazer. She looks like a stewardess.
Cousins arrive. You canít
remember all of their names. You
were never really close to any of them, didnít really want to get to know
them. You wonder if thatís wrong.
play with Ricky.
donít want to.
said, go play with your cousin! Give
him a hug, heís your friend!
donít want to!
give Ricky a goddamn hug!
hearse arrives. Itís time.
The Legion supplies the pall-bearers at the demand of one of your aunts.
You think that itís odd. Your
grandfather never spoke of his role in the War.
Or maybe he did. You were
never there to hear him.
was in demolitions in Africa. He
used to put bombs in ammo dumps.
he didnít, he was in Italy as a motorcycle messenger.
he was in Africa!
coffin is in the entrance to the church, the church youíve hated for as long
as you can remember. Doom and
gloom, hell awaits. Say five Hail
Maryís and one Our Father and all your bullshit is forgiven.
You file past, one by one. You
knock lightly on the lid. Thereís
no echo. It hits home.
sit beside your Aunt Sheila and your fiancť, Jenny. The last time you saw this aunt, you were sneaking out of her
apartment with your boots in your hand, after you and a drinking buddy ended up
stuck for a place to stay.
dad tells you to keep an eye on her. She
might go off. The Legionnaires
bring in the coffin. As they reach
the halfway mark, the piper kicks in on Amazing Grace. The song tears
your insides in half. You break
down. You go off. Shelia squeezes
one hand, Jenny the other.
priest climbs the short steps to the pulpit.
He never knew your grandfather. Apparently,
he wasnít big on going to church. Another mystery of the family history, shrouded in innuendo
and myth, the truth being only as correct as the person you hear it from.
catholic ritual of burial drones on and on.
You kneel and pray. You
stand and pray. The priest whips
you with the Blood of the Lamb, dries your eyes with the incense that smells
like heroin cooking up.
canít stop crying. You not sure
why you are. Maybe itís because
heís your grandfather. Maybe
itís because you never took the time to get to know the man.
You look back three rows to your cousin Mark. The look in his eyes confirms it. Or maybe this is your own guilt reflected back at you.
can I play a game on your computer?
Thereís more to computers than games, goddamnit!
Tedder, did you hear what those goddamn Tories are up to now?
father gets up to speak. You see
him looking down on you while he talks of Normanís blue eyes, so similar to
your own and you know that the wars you fought with dad are over.
You finally see the acceptance, the love and respect that was always
there in the first place.
itís over. The piper stands in
the doorway and plays. The
acoustics of the place send the notes into your eardrums like drill bits.
You see the family empty out behind the pall-bearers.
dad is first, right behind his father. You
see him salute his fallen. You see
him salute the man who taught him to be a man, taught him what self-respect,
dignity, integrity, devotion and pride were all about.
You see him pick up the flag, so to speak and carry on as head of the
You go outside. You see your grandfather loaded into the hearse. It drives away. Your
'A family of soldiers.
watches it drive away, standing rigid at attention, hand cocked in salute.
A family of soldiers. You
hat hangs by the door on a hook you screwed in. He wore it on his walks.
You took it as a reminder of a man you never really knew, but wish that
you did. Every time that you look
up from your spot on the couch, you see it.
you, Normanís memory is more reality than any God or Christ could ever be.
You look up at a picture beside the stereo.
You and your grandfather at Christmas.
can see the pride in his face.
picture above that one of you and your father on your wedding day.
twenty-four. Your father is close
to fifty. That same pride, the sly
grin frozen on both of your faces behind a pane of glass.
last photo. You and your new wife,
kissing. You pledge to be the man
your father is, the man his father wasÖ
write and smoke and wonder if you canÖ ##
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