Death in the Dust Days - part two
Part one is here. This is what I think will be the conclusion of the first or second chapter.
This time I would not close my eyes.
This time I would not close my eyes.
No matter how unbearable it would become I would not join him. There was nothing that would allow him to harken me to times that brought me anywhere save where I willed to go. As I stared in steel resolve at him, his eyes clenched closed. From time to time a slight flutter would almost open them but I was used to their appearance and they did not make me so afraid that I sought to capitulate to his leadership. It barely seemed that a minute transpired when his face became more than lightly twisted with pain. The perspiration left his brow and began to drip from the tip of his bumpy nose. As he grew more disfigured and more disturbing to look at I fixed my gaze elsewhere for fear of becoming even more nauseated than I was. Stealing a glance back to him I noticed his hair twisting and falling out in clumps upon the table with most of it cascading to the floor. Ants rushed to quickly grab the strands in their mandibles and scurry it away deftly avoiding my bare feet. "He must have a cruel master," I thought as yet another lock was thinned from his crown. "Why is he tortured so?"
Disregarding his condition I stiffened my resolve to not join him in the journey he wished upon me. I found myself avoiding his visage and staring at the top of the table when it began to wave. I knew the rhythm well for this lapping of Seneca Lake graced upon the shore of my Aunt's Cottage in Hector. Grass grew and the railroad ties that had always just seemed to be there rose to form the . Flat rocks fell speckling the beach. As they cascaded down I half expected the large kerplunk of the giant boulders that we stepped on as we wore our swamp shoes and waded out to the chilly, chest deep just beyond the last pillar of the dock. We never went past that point. At least not without a life jacket, or a snorkel and pair of goggles.
I looked away from the scene recalling the shattered Summer Wednesday that he had brought much too close to me. It was there that I found my aunt and her friends playing euchre at the picnic table dressed in the shine of a vinyl orange and green table cloth. It was the kind with the fuzzy backing that caught on the splinters that jutted from the boards that formed the table top. I was often thankful that many bottoms had already smoothed the seats as they slid on and off. I went to sit with them and they barely acknowledged my presence as my aunt shifted in her seat making a little more room for me next to her.
Clink! Clink! The quarters were thrown into the middle of the table as the cards were dealt. I had no idea how to play the game (some would say I still don't) but the fact that there was gambling me to stay. I rather enjoyed the of it all. Even though I knew the stakes were not all that high, my parents never even played the lottery let alone cards or dice. The $.25 that signaled their entry into the hand may as well have been $10 or more. Clink! Clink! The pot grew as the two who thought that they had the requisite number of tricks forced the others to call their wagers. My aunt would lose this hand and more than a couple of coins. I knew she wasn't rich and to see her handle money with such recklessness made me smile and long for my driver's license. It was then that I would be allowed to gamble for that was when I would be an adult like her.
The game broke up for drinks and snacks as the sun rose a bit higher in the sky. "Where's Uncle Walt?" I asked her as she returned from inside, drink in hand.
"He's still out fishing. He must be doing well or he would have been in by now," she informed.
"He's still there?" I reacted with surprise. "Oh I bet he's catching a lot of fish," I exclaimed with a great deal of confidence. "He fishes a lot. I bet he's one of the best on the Lake!"
"He likes to think so," my Aunt Mary laughed. "And so do I."
They were perfect partners and their long marriage proved their love for each other. They were old. They seemed to be always old and it was hard for me to believe that the pictures, slides, and movies of them that were trotted out and ogled from time to time were real. "I think I can still get a few hands in before he comes back," she said as her partner and their foils returned. "I need to get some of those quarters back or your dad won't have a paper tomorrow morning." I knew that she was kidding. She always got the paper for my dad. And raisin toast with extra butter. And the sun. And the smell of the drying seaweed on the stony beach. And even the grey sky with rain when they knew they needed it. This was her cottage after all. This was their lake.
As the clinking game continued I caught sight of a boat heading straight for shore. It was thin, almost silent at first but grew loud and fat the closer it came. I knew that it was Uncle Walt and I ran out to the dock to greet him. I made it halfway until I remembered the differently colored board that we were not allowed to cross for fear of us falling into the lake and never being seen again. I plunked down just passed it and crossed my legs signaling that I both knew my place an held the rules imposed upon me in contempt. The boat was expertly maneuvered to the other side of the catwalk banging ever so lightly against the milk jugs filled with sand and suspended from the grey, weathered ropes.
The fishermen disembarked as my uncle passed the poles and tackle to outstretched arms. He began to lift the boat slightly out of the water. The creaking of the wheel stopped sooner than it would have in the evening for he knew after lunch he would be giving us kids a ride in the boat. We would go fast. And we would scream in fear that that this was to be our last few minutes above the waves.
Once my uncle was out of the boat and kneeling on the catwalk he opened the hatch and retrieved the fish that were strung on the metal chain. They were strong, sleek, and fat fish that were rather whale like in comparison to the ones I kept at home. As he brought them out I noticed their eyes darting back and forth and their gills extending frantically for air. I had no idea how fish breathed but I had full knowledge that they could not get what they needed from the air like we did. These fish were not in their cold, green home any more. They were in ours. In his. This was Death's house and they were choking on Death's air; drowning in Death's dust.
I winced as my uncle threw them too roughly onto the ground as they flopped around a bit rattling the chains as they seemed to slowly lose consciousness just to regain it again. I wanted to save the fish but I knew I couldn't. They were beautiful. Even in the midst of death the marvelous grace and strength they possessed never left. Muscles flexed as the sharp, bony mouths drew their demise deep. All of it filled my eyes and arrested my attention. Everything I could see was lying there on the ground. On the ground that my aunt and uncle raised from the depths to form this cottage on their lake. The lake that they hurled fish into formed from the splinters of wood safely concealed beneath the picnic table cloth and always at the ready for their intended purpose.
My uncle bore his bounty dangling from the chain to my Aunt Mary. They embraced. A long, still, fragile embrace it was and she smiled as his hat fell to the ground. At least I thought that is what happened as I continued to stare at the almost still fish. I wondered how long they would show signs of life as, one by one, my aunt removed them from the stringer. She was more gentle than he and seemed to hold the fish in thankful reverence as she placed them on the preparation table; the altar where she would commit their life to someone. Or something. Retrieving the hammer from the shelf underneath the table top she struck the first fish on the gills with the handle until she knew it was now subject to her will. Then the second. Then the third. Hopelessness swept over me as she finished and Uncle Walt appeared from the cottage with the cleaning tray. I didn’t follow him to the back of the cottage for I knew precious little about what he was going to do and did not dare illuminate myself. My attention to the matter finally left me for he was not going to clean three fish. They weren't fish anymore. They had been reduced to mere husks: sacks of bones, guts, and blood.
I had largely forgotten about the fish when the time for the boat ride approached. Much to the delight of me and my siblings we all piled in for the ride of our lives. There were no roads on the roof of the fish's house as we darted this way and that visiting the large white house on the opposite shore and envying the pipe that my uncle hung from his mouth. When he gestured with his hand waving it by the bowl and extending his reach as he pointed I swooned and drew in staccato breaths of admiration. The clinking game would be so much more than I could ever have dreamed when I could drive and puff on a pipe of my own. I found myself wanting to be like him. In my heart, on that day, my sole desire was to be just like him.
Once the boat pulled into the dock and my parents helped me and my brothers and sisters out onto its sturdy wood my eyes met his and he would not let my stare go.
"Mark," he started laughing a bit. "Did you have fun?"
"I did, Uncle Walt! That was the best boat ride ever." He laughed a contented man and began to walk away.
"Uncle Walt?" Driven by my desire to be consumed by him I, even I, was shocked by my own boldness. No one ever saw me shy but addressing him without invitation was always a bit frightening even to me. "Can I wear your hat?"
His back still towards me he stopped, cocked his head in what I know now was a bit of confusion, and turned to me. "You mean this old, faded, sweaty thing? This one filled with hooks and flies?" He pointed to it with the tip of his pipe which fueled my longing all the more.
"Yes!" I said sensing that he was going to grant my request. "Yes! That one!" My heart raced in excitement and anticipation in the fact that he had not rejected my request straight away.
"It's full of sharp things and your mom and dad will kill me....but....ah what the hell." He reached up and removed it from his head. He gave it a gentle shake and carefully placed it on my head pulling it to one side. It fit remarkably well and he seemed to admire it on me. "I can't say that I have ever seen it from this angle before," he laughed. "Now don't go running your fingers through it or those hooks will be a lot harder to get out than they went in."
"I won't!" I said through my smile and almost crying tears of happiness. I ran to show my brothers and sisters looking forward to their jealous faces. I dared not ask him for his pipe. If I had the transformation would have been complete. I would have put on his skin and felt the beating of his heart. I would know why my teeth were stained and how my throat would feel to laugh so deeply ending it with a cough. Yet, as shallow as it was I had traversed the valley, my Rubicon, and had been inserted into this place a fisherman. I became the one who filled the lake and lit the fireflies at night. As sure as I breathed I became the one who brought the waves and chose the fish to catch and eat. Of course I was none of those things but I was all of those things. I was everything I needed. I was.
As I ran the lures and hooks shook and pinged together. The more I moved the louder they grew and the faster I flew. His sweet sweat mixed with mine and I wiped the hair from my eyes. I was not disappointed in my siblings reaction to the crown upon my head. They were fit to be tied and marveled that I had asked and been granted such decoration. I was the darling of the lake. I was the light and heat of the sun that shone through the clouds for the first time that day to illuminate me.
The now familiar jolt sent me back to the ever-increasing Friday night and I expected my friend to be, yet again, by my side. All that remained was the dampness left by the sweat that, I presumed, had jeweled his arms. There it sat, light pools on the table as two flies drank their fill of it. I didn't them away as they served to erase any trace of him much as the ants had done in carrying away his hair. "Filthy rot," I muttered to myself barely able to move. Just then, as if at my command, I heard the garage door open as my wife pulled in. I couldn't move and I wanted the flies to hurry in their endeavor. Making her way into the kitchen with the bags of clothes she was shopping for she looked at me and almost dropped them.
"Have you been crying?" she asked with an inquisitive stare concerned about my appearance.
"Nah, just allergies," I assured her using all of my energy to rub my eyes. I could always make them look tired and teary if I did it just right.
"Well stop doing that!" She admonished placing the bags on the table causing Death's sweat to scatter and the flies to take flight vanishing into the thickening air. She removed the shirt and shorts she bought for me and the articles of clothing she had secured for herself. I appreciated her thinking of me and really liked what she had picked out. I thought I was covering the journey I was subjected to rather well.
"Are you sure you are all right?" She asked again wondering why my allergies bothered me this late into the Summer. "You just don't seem like yourself."
"Well, no. Actually. He was here." I admitted.
"Oh," she exclaimed weakly. "Where did he sit?"
Still barely able to move my arms I nodded to the chair directly in front of her. She removed it to the dining room and retrieved one similar to it placing it at the head of the table. "Maybe he'll sit in there next time," she encouraged placing her hand on my shoulder. "She'll be all right. They all will."
"I know," I answered slowly drawing a deep breath. "But I don't like the new normal." Kneeling down next to me she signaled that she wanted me to push back from the table. She rested her head on my sweaty but drying lap as I aimlessly stroked her hair. "This place..." I began as my legs tightened. "...this awful place." A distant clap of thunder signaled the approach of a predicted storm. I sighed knowing he would return this night. When, I had no idea, but he was coming back.
"I'm so sorry." She whispered. "I'm sorry he'll return before the sun."