Gallery

A short story . . .

 

 

Gallery

 

It was Raymond’s suggestion. I understood art about as much as I understood Chinese, so I was never inclined to visit art galleries. I like the colours, I appreciate the skill; the talent involved. I understand that there’s talent. Well, most of the time—as Bob Dylan said. Other times . . . Well, I just don’t know.

Like I said, it was Raymond’s idea, and it sounded like it would be a nice thing to do; I don’t see my brother often enough and if I’m to be completely honest I don’t get out often enough myself. Not since John became ill. And when I do get out it’s usually to visit him at the nursing home. Once a month at the home there’s a support group for the spouses of the residents of the home. One of the women there—Julia—she calls it the “Sad Bastard Get-Together” (SBGT). I laugh at that, even though I shouldn’t. I like Julia; she sees the humour in the sad side of life. She said there’s always a sad side (and don’t I know it), so why not try paint over it with humour?

Like an artist painting on a canvas, I guess.

At the support group they encourage you to be more active; become involved in different activities; join clubs; be more sociable. Now that’s all well and good, but I don’t drive, and with the miserable weather we get here most of the year I don’t want to go out half the time. And as for being more sociable; well, that’s all well and good, but any time I go out it’s always with couples, because almost all of my friends are married and have been for over thirty years. And I know that’s the way it is, because that’s the way it is. But it can be a little hard. It’s hard being around couples all the time when you remember what you had; when you instinctively reach for that hand.

Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. That’s not important. At the SBGT they encourage us to avoid indulging in negative thoughts; not to spend too much time swimming around in the past. So, I shouldn’t do that, I guess. And in any case I’m not a very strong swimmer—never have been. But sometimes I forget that I shouldn’t linger on those thoughts. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older.

But the trip to the gallery . . .

It was a Saturday and as usual it was raining. I had taken the bus from the shopping centre to town, which left me only a few minutes’ walk from the gallery. Once I’d rambled up the cobblestone street I found Raymond standing at the entrance in his rain jacket. He’d always wear the same rain jacket, even if it was a sunny day. He has a gloomy disposition; always has, always will. John used to call him “Smile Awhile”. John always liked to joke and tease, but not in a mean way.

Raymond and I have similar faces. We both share a petit, stubby nose and a big mouth, as if one was compensating for the other. But while Raymond has always had cheeks decorated with freckles, my skin has always been clear and soft, thank you very much. That’s one thing I’ll hold on to, please. Raymond’s black hair—like mine—is greying in places. He has these narrow eyes which have become narrower with time. You see, his eyelids droop, like curtains, and so there’s not much of an opening for his vision, but he never looks like he’s squinting—just gloomy, like I said. Me, I’ve got my mother’s eyes: big and blue and full of surprise. Although there isn’t much that surprises me anymore.

We kissed each other on the cheek and Raymond smiled in his usual way: as if it took a tremendous amount of effort. He paid the admission, and I thanked him, and we began to wander around the gallery. See, Raymond’s the cultured one in our family; he’s the smart one — the educated one. The one who went to college. Of course, I couldn’t go to college because I was running the family home from the age of fifteen; my mother needed all the help she could get because she was ill, and my father was out working most days. We were a poor family: Me, Raymond, and our sisters Debbie and Cassandra, all shared the same room growing up just outside Dublin’s city centre. The three of us sisters would pile ourselves into the same bed—which was good for keeping warm during the night, and for those moments when we’d hear a noise and become scared—and Raymond had his bed to himself. Considering our financial constraints, the fact that Raymond got to go to college is a miracle in my book. But he did, and he’s reaped the benefits of an education. And I don’t begrudge him that one bit. He teaches now, at a college out by Crumlin.

The gallery was quiet for a Saturday, or so I guessed; I don’t know what’s busy for that place. Raymond would comment on paintings every now and then; saying things like “isn’t the use of vibrant colours here marvellous,” and “the despair’s in the work; isn’t it obvious? This captures a moment in the artist’s life—a moment of despair. It all over it, isn’t it?”. He would look at the works in different ways; every now and then he’d place an elbow on a wrist and a hand under his chin, and would tap his lips with his index finger as he studied a painting. He’d seemed displeased in many instances. I just looked at them and liked the ones I liked and didn’t think much about the ones I disliked. When we came to a painting, “A convent garden, Brittany”, by a man I’d never heard of named William John Leech, I asked Raymond what he thought of it. In it a very pretty woman holding a book is looking up at something, maybe the tree, maybe the heavens—I don’t know. Behind her there are a number of women looking away so you can’t see their faces. There are branches and leaves and flowers in the foreground.

“You like it?” he asked.

“Do you?” I replied.

“I do. I’m a great admirer of Leech: I share his love of sunlight.”

“Then why do you still live in Dublin?”

Raymond smiled and placed a finger over his lips as he looked at the painting.

“Do you like it?” he asked again.

“I do,” I said as my eyes lingered on it. “It’s like life, in a way, isn’t it?” I said tentatively.

Raymond turned his head to me; I wasn’t used to talking about art.

“How do you mean?”

“Well,” I began, and hesitated before continuing. “We can see her face. She’s very beautiful. You want to look at her. It’s like we’re the ones looking at her through the leaves and flowers there at the front, isn’t it? But the other women; they’re just there. We can’t see their faces.”

“Go on.”

“I don’t know. I think it’s like life; only a few will be seen and the rest will live in the shadows of others.”

Raymond nodded. I don’t know if that’s what the painting meant. I don’t think it did: I don’t know very much about art.

“It’s his wife, actually.”

“Oh.”

“It’s oil on canvas. Beautiful execution.”

I nodded as once again Raymond tapped his finger against his lips.

It wasn’t long afterwards that we came across the tank. It wasn’t a very pleasant sight—not to my eyes. There were a number of people around it. It was hanging from the ceiling and was a few feet above the floor. There was a big fish in it, surrounded by blue liquid. The big fish’s mouth was open and its razor-like teeth were on display. It must have been around 6 ft long. It was a horrible-looking thing. We got closer and a few of the patrons moved along. There was a sign in front of it that told us the name of the piece:

                        In the Eyes of the Beholder—Death or Life

Raymond nodded.

“This is the piece everyone’s talking about,” he said excitedly.

“It’s a fish,” I said.

Raymond nodded again.

“It’s a lancetfish,” he said. “That liquid is a formaldehyde solution. It slows the decomposition process.”

I took a step back, walked around the tank, and inspected it. The fish was skinny, and its fin was tall. It’s dead, I kept saying to myself.

“It’s like it’s alive, but it’s not,” I said to Raymond.

“So it seems.”

“Why put a dead fish in a tank?”

“Why not?” he said.

“Is it art?” I asked Raymond.

“It’s in the gallery,” he replied.

We stood in silence for a few minutes, staring into the eyes, the mouth, the soul of this dead lancetfish. I felt sorry for the thing; it shouldn’t be there on display like this, I thought.

While we were standing, looking at the fish and the tank, my phone rang.

Raymond looked at me with disapproval. I hunched my shoulders apologetically. It was the nursing home calling. I couldn’t let it ring out; I’d missed the last SBGT, maybe there was something they wanted to update me on. I walked away into a corner where there was no one else and quietly answered the call.

“Hello?”

“Mrs. Callaghan?” came the voice of a young woman.

“Yes—Mary. Mrs. Callaghan makes me feel ancient—call me Mary. Is everything all right?”

“It’s fine, yes, nothing to worry about, Mary. John’s just been worried and has been asking us to contact you.”

“What’s wrong? There’s nothing wrong, is there?”

“No, no. Not at all. John just wanted to tell you to remember to bring his cigarettes when you’re coming up next.”

In the background I could hear John.

“I’ve only five left,” he was saying.

“Yes, I have some there for him. I’ll be up later today.”

“Okay,” said the young woman. “John just wanted us to call to make sure.”

“Okay,” I said. “That’s okay.”

 

The rain had stopped when we left the gallery. Raymond waited with me until my bus arrived. I hugged him and we said we’d do it again soon. He trundled off in his raincoat as I waited in line to get on the bus.

On the way to visit John, as the bus travelled along the river, as the traffic crawled tediously, I thought about that poor fish. Then I thought about the beautiful woman in the oil painting. I imagined her there on that day, in the heat of the sunshine, surrounded by the leaves and flowers, and all that beauty. Then, after all the hours her husband had spent on the work, he would reveal it to her.

When I got to John’s room I opened the door slightly before stopping. I imagined the artist’s wife as she approached the door to the room where she would see the painting for the first time. She’d see herself on that canvas; she’d be the focus of attention for years to come. I imagined the excitement, or the apprehension, as she prepared to enter the room and see the work her husband had made for her. Still I stood outside the door. Then I closed my eyes and entered the room.

 

 

Valley Trail – Tracks and Carver

When I was up at Nita Lake (near Whistler, BC) a few months ago I went for a walk along the Valley Trail. I came across these train tracks and found myself wanting to wander from the trail and follow the tracks to wherever they would lead me. Alas, I didn’t have enough time to go on an adventure.

When I look at this picture I get the same feeling I get when I read a Raymond Carver short story. I don’t know if the image reminds me of Carver’s stories – like when Harry and Emily explore the Washington countryside in ‘How About This?’, or if it is simply an effect caused by both experiences: calm, connected, content. If Carver’s stories can produce in me the same feelings I get when looking at a beautiful image like the one above, I guess you could say he was a talented guy, to say the least. How wonderful, to be able to impart those feelings to someone with the words you put on paper – even if it’s only me.

Raison d’être (Or, The Ramblings of an Unsound Mind)

The following letters are to be sent in the unlikely event of my passing before the person to whom they are addressed.

They are to be sent as they are, and under no circumstances are they do be redacted, abridged or amended.

I would also like the following declaration, as well as my previous directions, to be affixed to the aforementioned letters:

I am of sound body and mind. I am of sound judgement. I am the ruler of no one but myself.

I am Alexander Klein.

I am sane.

May 9

On this day twenty-nine years ago we met for the first time. That’s all I have been thinking about. They said, after I had told them of my intention to write you, that there was a strong possibility my efforts would prove fruitless, that my wishes would likely be dismissed, but I write nonetheless. They stated that our “altercation” meant that I would be forbidden from having any contact with you, yet I will write.

   You probably remember our first encounter better than I ever possibly could, given the circumstances surrounding it. I’m sure you were filled with joy just as I am as I write, thinking about how it was. I’ve discussed with them how my mind becomes distorted,; memories can become quite vague. But those which consist of us remain vivid. Most of them.

   Do you remember the house in which we stayed all those years ago? I recall how I would sit in the kitchen some nights, nights when you would be reading, and I would think about you. I would play out scenarios in my mind in which I would enter the room and take your book. I would take your hands and sit next to you. But that was your time, you would say, to spend alone; the only time you ever had to yourself. You deserved it and I would not disturb it. In the house itself (in fact I’m not sure if you were ever aware of this) there was a copper box filled with old coins. I had found it in the cupboard to the left of the kitchen sink. Some of the coins dated back as far as the war I had read about at school and watched documentaries about on the television. I thought, for some reason, that they would be worth a vast sum of money. I kept them to myself in the case that they were valuable and that I could become quite wealthy. I don’t know why I never told you because I could never leave you. If it had turned out that they were worth something substantial I simply would have spent the money on the two of us, showering you with gifts of course. But they weren’t. I’m telling you this because I always felt terribly guilty at not having shared this information with you. Maybe you had known that they were there, but I still should have said something. For that I apologise.

   When I think about our time in that house I remember you as an effervescent soul. After the hardships you had overcome, one could accept if you were skeptical of the world and those who inhabited it, but you were quite the opposite. You were always quick with a smile, even to strangers, something that, in my opinion, people take for granted. That made me proud. When we would walk hand-in-hand and pass people by, I would watch you smile at them, and I would watch their reactions. I wasn’t being rude myself; I had an indelible smile fixed on my face as a result of merely looking at you.

   They were mostly happy times until Albert returned to live with us. If there is one thing which I am wholly against, something which irks me far greater than any prison cell ever could, it is a person who doesn’t value the gifts offered with life; the gift of independence and responsibility for oneself; the gift of the freedom to pursue greatness. Every individual is born with the freedom to pursue brilliance, regardless of the circumstances into which they are born. Everyone is born with an inherent greatness waiting to be unleashed, to be embraced. Those who choose to ignore it are the burden of mankind. Alas, my brother Albert was one of those who simply couldn’t see past his nose which sniffed only for quick fixes and terminable conveniences.

I believe it was April of that year when he returned 
having spent months living as a vagrant. He carried with him an odour; a stench of parasitic dependency. I always knew he would arrive on our doorstep with outstretched hands — I just didn’t think it would be so soon. The shift in the atmosphere was almost instantaneous. I knew you were always going to be ingratiating towards him. It was in your nature — it is your essence. Although I could never accept it. Nor could I accept him. I wasn’t happy until he left again to roam another city in search of whatever could benefit him in the short term.

   The duration of his stay, short as it may have been, was — as you sure recall — tumultuous. I rarely come to exchange physical blows with people: I am a true believer in  the non-aggression principle, and in the power of words. But on Albert words were lost; in his direction they would travel, only for him to dodge or ward them off. He wasn’t interested in the reason words offered, so a physical exchange was inevitable. One instance which is firmly lodged in my mind is the time (occurring on the seventeenth day of that month, I believe) when Albert had requested money to purchase a car. It was a beat up, hideous jalopy, but he had said it would serve him well, to help him on his way, he’d said. My anger was not in his wanting to leave of course — it was the fact that he had asked you for the requisite money. When I confronted him about his leeching ways we quarrelled. Afterwards I gave him the money myself and told him to purchase the car and to leave us in peace, never to return. This, I am sure, pained you. You didn’t deserve to witness our tempestuous relationship, and for that I also apologise.

I prefer to forget Albert and the period of his lodging 
with us. Dwelling on it has no good to offer either of us. I would assume you feel the same way. Our time spent together was far too precious to place in the same memory vault as the one which stores Albert, or anything else for that matter. The vault is solely for you and I.

It pains me to write with the main purpose of 
apologising for certain things, but in cleansing myself of the guilt which accompanies those memories of you (even if Albert does feature in some), I can recall them with a greater fondness. I hope, too, that this will help you look back on them with a heightened appreciation.

It is my intention to keep my exchanges with you short, 
as I feel it would be inappropriate for me to flood you with the incessant thoughts I have on a daily basis. I have been meticulous in my deciding what to write you.

-Alexander



June 17

   Since I first wrote a letter I had intended to send to you, which they tell me is still pending approval, my thoughts have mostly been consumed by the developments which led to my current state of incarceration.

   I was, at the best of times, one who was extremely passionate in my beliefs and feelings. I can freely admit I was quite an intense person — something for which, in contrast with my previous letter of grovelling (to be critical of myself), I shall never offer apologies. One’s principles are something that can never be stolen or debased. They are mine to alter if I please — no one else has that privilege. It is clear I have never altered those principles or beliefs. In doing so I would be nothing more than a hypocrite.

   The day when our relationship reached a point from which there would be no return — our crossing of the Rubicon — fell on a Tuesday, during winter. I have trouble recalling the month, which is something that greatly irritates me. I remember the day but not the month. Strange as it is I believe my brain has chosen to forget it, in order, perhaps, to spare me the pain that that month may now bring. It is something I have not discussed with a single person. I’m sure you know. What distresses me is how it was simply a misunderstanding that got completely out of hand. I could never harbour any ill feeling toward you, but there is a hint of disappointment which I can never shake from my being. In doing what I did, I felt I was protecting you, even though you did — and always will — refuse to believe it. In my murdering him I was following the instinctive nature of the animal, which is, when one considers our ancestry, what we are essentially. Being protective is innate just like the gift of potential greatness life offers us. In my assaulting you (which I still maintain was a complete accident) I destroyed everything that was precious in my life. The crime I am interned for was hardly down to the display of the dominant male (which they will argue it is) — it is the acts I took against you. It is not the cell which punishes me, it is the knowledge that I squandered the relationship which was so very dear to me.

   I’ve also thought about the media coverage which surrounded the trial. It is without vanity and with the utmost honesty that I can say I am an attractive person, as are you, and as was he. Everyone loves an attractive victim. Don’t you think there is far more coverage from the press when a person who is murdered happens to be quite attractive? Especially when the victim is a woman. ‘So beautiful’ they say. ‘What a terrible loss’ . . . If the victim isn’t the most attractive, well, let us say the victim was horribly deformed. Do you think there would be such a public outcry of grief, as well as that from the press? I do feel, personally, that looks add more to the story. The same goes for the perpetrator; in this case me. In the past, when I have followed a murder trail, I have noticed far greater coverage when the accused is kind on the eyes. I recall an American girl who was accused of murder who practically became a celebrity. I am firmly of the belief that if she was not attractive (and she was indeed very attractive) she and the case would have garnered little attention.

   This is not important of course — merely an observation. What is important is that you know that my feelings toward you have never changed. They will never change. The disappointment may remain but it is more with those who surrounded and misguided you in the aftermath of that life-altering day. I hope — and I believe — that you still think of me and the days we spent together with nothing less than great affection.

-Alexander

 

October 22

Ma chère,

   In the past few hours I have received news that my brother, Albert, has died. Of course you know of this. I would be content if we could grieve together. Sitting alone (as I’m sure you are, too) at a time of desolation is a sentence more unbearable than the one which was handed down to me after our misunderstanding. It is common knowledge shared between the two of us that I had little time for Albert, but he was blood, and the blood of a sibling is greater than that of the blood of a sacrifice offered for the greater good. Is it the greatest paradox to abhor a sibling whom you truly love?

   I’m led to believe he was stabbed to death during an altercation at a bar near a Parisian suburb. I never imagined he would die in France. He had told me he disliked the people, so why he returned there I will never know. The catalyst for his own downfall . . . I expected nothing less.

   My previous attempts to write you were denied so I had refrained from putting ink to paper. It pained me, you see, to waste these words on nothing more than paper. I feel, though, in the event of my death, they may acquiesce and allow you to receive my letters. This would serve as my satisfying last meal. Albert’s passing has prompted me to write again, with my thoughts solely on the pain you must be experiencing at this time. Though he and I had our differences, I’m aware that you were quite fond of him. You were always blinded by your kind nature, something which you should never be ashamed of. It is what defines you.

In thinking about the suffering you may be experiencing 
I have been reminded of a time in my life which, perhaps, defined me. It was the day my father died, which we’ve discussed on numerous occasions. In thinking about my father, I am not reminded of grief, or any feelings of real anguish. These feelings never accompanied his death. We were together when he died of course, and I can still feel the grip of your hand entwined with mine at the funeral. That grip — which was as tight as you had ever held my hand — I was sure would remain the same from that day forward. In losing my father, I had gained a true companion in you. Someone who would be there for me as I would be for them. I remember how you were saddened much more than I was during the months that followed. I had assumed -—and to this day still do — that your pain was in relation to the pain you had imagined I was feeling. It never occurred to me to tell you that, far from feeling grief, I was elated at the
prospect of us being together. Thinking, with the squeeze of your hand on the day of his burial, that I truly had someone who was mine. Not someone to dominate, but to share
my life with.

   There’s a question which has resurfaced in my mind many times since I have been here: Why have our lives turned out this way? How could the predisposition to protect someone
in every way possible lead to a separation of immense tragedy? I have never been able to arrive at a fulfilling answer to the question. But I think of the greatest stories ever told, and they are all tragic. That offers a comfort which I’m sure we can both appreciate until we die.

As always, and forever — with love, mother.

-Alexander

Youth

 

The boy is stirred by the sound of bickering.

His eyes do not open, though he can tell that it is morning. He lies still. His ears translate the scene to his brain which creates the imagery. His mind has already mapped out this austere room; the single mattress, the bare concrete walls, the dusty floor, the paneless window. The entire one-story home made of concrete is etched into his memory like the face of a loved one. Like the loved ones who argue outside. He needn’t open his eyes. Soon he will have to, but for now he keeps them shut.

He’s curled up on the thin mattress, sheltered under a ragged Najafi abaya, which he found while wandering along the Tigris a few days earlier with his friend, Aban. He thought about all the possible prominent figures who may have worn such a luxurious cloak, hand-woven from refined wool; an oil-rich sheikh, a prominent politician, a visiting emissary. Most abaya weavers had stopped working after the US invasion of 2003, and the market was flooded by foreign goods not long after Hussein’s trade embargoes were lifted. His abaya was an original—however tattered it may be now—and had it been brand new it would have been the most expensive thing he’d held in his hands.

The bickering is between husband and wife. Nothing more natural, nothing more human. In his abaya cocoon he brings his knees to his chest. He feels safe here. Here he feels inviolate despite the inimical nature of the world outside. He takes a deep breath, and as he exhales as quietly as a gentle breeze, he hears a series of distant thuds, one after another, and then the journeying cacophony of chaos.

And the bickering ends.

Conversations with Family Members (and the Bits In Between).

 

 

The mother (i)

 

My mother calls while I’m in the middle of editing a piece that’s to run in a tabloid.

I pick up, because she’ll keep calling until I do.

‘Hey, Mam. I’m kind of busy.’

‘I know, you’re always busy, can you just do something for me for a sec?’

‘What’s that?’

‘I can’t get into the Facebook.’

Sigh.

‘Why can’t you get into your Facebook?’

‘It’s asking for my password. What’s my password?’

‘I don’t know; it’s your password.’

Silence.

‘But, is it my email?’

‘Is what your email?’

‘Is my password my email?’

‘Is it your email address?’

‘Is what my email address?’

Frustrated deep breath and closing of eyes.

‘Are you asking me if the password for your Facebook is your email address?’

Silence.

‘No, is the password for the Facebook the one I use for the email?’

‘I don’t know, Ma. I told you to write down all your passwords in the notepad I gave you after I helped you set them up.’

‘I did!’

‘Well, where’s the notepad?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Okay.’

‘It says,’ she begins again. ‘Beside the box for the password it says. . . email or phone. If I press phone will that put me through to a helpline?’

‘No, Mam, that’s your username.’

‘What’s my username?’

‘Your email address or phone number.’

‘Oh.’

Audible exhale on my part.

‘Can you ring Aaron? I really need to get this done and sent before ten.’

‘Okay. Are you working on something?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is it good?’

‘I think so.’

‘What’s it about?’

‘How the sexuality of men can be shaped by the toys they had as kids.’

‘Oh. . . That sounds interesting. Will that be in the paper?’

‘Yes, I’ll pick up the paper for you.’

‘Your dad used to play with your granny’s clothes when he was a boy. It makes sense, I suppose.’

‘Mam, I didn’t need to hear that.’

‘And you used to play with Barbie with Amy across the road.’

‘No, I didn’t.’

‘You did.’

‘Did I?’

‘You did, and your brother played with anything he could get his hands on.’

Smile on my part and think about that one.

‘Mam, I really have to get this done-’

‘Can you try blog-in on your computer?’

‘Blog?’

‘Yeah, can you get in to the Facebook for me on your computer?’

‘Mam, I can’t get into your Facebook if I don’t have the password. Did you click on forgot account? I told you this before.’

‘Where’s that?’

‘It’s below the box where you enter your password.’

Silence.

‘But I don’t know my password.’

‘Okay, bye.’

‘Oh, you’re always so impatient, I’m only asking!’

‘Bye, Mam.’

 

The brother (i)

 

My brother calls an hour later as I put the final touches on the article.

‘Hey bro, I’m in the middle of-’

‘Did you tell Ma to call me about her Facebook account?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Dickhead.’

‘Hello?… Aaron?’

 

The piece I’m editing is something of a throwaway article on a recent study about how men’s sex lives are fundamentally shaped by their childhood toys – Stretch Armstrong and cable ties featured prominently from ages six through eleven so I’m not entirely sure what that would indicate for me, but anyway, I tell myself it’s okay that I’m writing a frivolous article because these additional jobs pay for the additional expenses, i.e. fun things like drinking (fun apart from the hangover) and films (fun apart from the bad ones and the cost of a cinema ticket and food) and gym (fun apart from the big men who look at themselves in the mirror psychotically, and who release audible exhales and loud groans similar to those of a Game of Thrones character being disembowelled, and with whom I’m afraid to make eye contact).

Photographs

 

There was an old record player there.

He’d never made the transition from vinyl. The turntable rested on an ugly sepia sideboard by the window. The curtains hadn’t been opened for months. The drawer sideboard had chunks taken from it — probably from when the grandchildren had been over, but he didn’t remember them much and couldn’t put it down to that.

The couch was where he sat.

Really, there was no need for any of the other furniture but he hadn’t considered getting rid of it.

A few months back he’d found himself looking through photo albums. Then, about three weeks ago, he decided to stop looking at the pictures. There was one which had belonged to his mother, and in it he posed next to his sister. They had been swimming in a lake somewhere upstate and he was only wearing shorts and his hair was wet, as was hers.

He’d studied the picture intently: there was a cut on his left kneecap but he couldn’t remember what had caused it. His face was untouched by time and his body was firm. From what he could remember he was twelve that summer, or thereabouts.

The lake had small fish in it and they weren’t shy. He had tried to catch them with his hands but they were always too fast; too slippery. They always swam in groups. He thought that their swimming together would make it easier, but it didn’t. He never caught one.

His sister would’ve been fourteen if he put himself at twelve, and she was smiling. The two of them were.

That was the last picture he’d looked at.

He wanted a drink.

He slid his feet into his slippers and stood up, then ambled into the kitchen. Beside the refrigerator were four crates of beer stacked atop one another; two of them empty. There were no cold ones in the fridge. He’d forgotten to fill it, so he took one from the stack and cracked it, taking a sip, took three more and put them into the freezer, before taking another three and placing them in the refrigerator door. He walked back into the living room with his beer in hand and sank into the couch, catching a glance of the photo album as he sat down.

He grunted, took another sip.

In the past he had enjoyed silence but now he would rarely leave the TV off. It would be low so you’d barely notice, but there was something. He picked up the remote and switched channels, then got back to his beer, again catching a glimpse of the photo album in the corner of his eye.

When he took his second from the freezer he sat at the kitchen table and lit a cigarette. He looked around and the glow from the TV was prominent in the living room. He didn’t want to think about the photographs. The problem was that they made him think, and he was tired of that.

He tried to take his mind off of it so he sifted through the build-up of mail on the table. There was more in the hallway that he had failed to pick up. He simply hadn’t bothered. Most of them were old bills and those promotional ones that annoyed him. The telephone had been cut off almost seven months ago. He didn’t use it so he didn’t care. He wouldn’t throw the mail out, though; he’d just leave the envelopes on the kitchen table or on the floor in their pile.

Something to do, eventually.

After he finished his cigarette he got back to the couch with his beer, flicked the station again. He wasn’t watching anything in particular.

There was a knock on the door.

He waited a moment until another knock arrived. He hadn’t removed his slippers so it saved him from sliding them back on, and he stood up, pulled the curtain slightly and peeked out at the overgrown lawn. He couldn’t see who was knocking until they took a step back and looked up at the upstairs windows. Then they looked in his direction and he quickly removed himself from view, but it was too late — the kid had already seen him.

A knock on the window followed.

“Hey mister, I know you’re there. I saw you looking out,” the kid said as he shaped his hands in front of his forehead and around his eyes and stared in the window.

He was standing by the curtain, separated from the kid by an inch of glass.

“Come on, mister. Open up!”

“What do you want?” He wanted to sound grumpy so the kid would go away. He didn’t need to put much effort into it.

“My ball, mister,” the kid said. “It’s in your backyard. Marshall has a really bad throw.”

“Who?”

“My friend, Marshall. He has a really bad throw.”

“Well, tell him to practice.”

There was no response. He stood at the curtain, using his finger to move it a little and stared furtively at the kid who was looking around outside.

“Well?”

“What, mister?”

“Well, what do you want me to do?”

“Get it, duh!”

He sighed, and as he walked to the door he kicked one of the photo albums out of his way.

He hesitated, turned the latch and opened the front door.

The kid was probably twelve or thirteen. His hair was like a bird’s nest and his face was covered with freckles.

“Well, what kind of ball is it?” he asked from a crack in the door. He didn’t want to let too much light in.

“A football,” the kid said.

He looked to the kitchen towards the backyard.

“The grass is a mile high out there, I’d croak before I found it.” The kid didn’t respond. “It would take me too long to fish it out.

“I can get it, mister. I’ll be quick. I saw which direction it went in.”

“Why would I let some kid into my house?”

“I just want to get my ball, mister. I’m not going to rob you.”

He took a moment before he opened the door fully, squinting at the light.

“Hurry up.”

The kid brushed past him and on into the kitchen. He tried to follow him as quickly as he could and left the front door open in case people were watching and started talking like people tend to.

When he got into the kitchen the kid was waiting by the back door.

“It’s locked,” the kid informed him.

“I know it’s locked,” he grumbled.

He felt around on top of the refrigerator where his wife had always kept the key.

“You’ve got a lot of mail, mister,” said the kid as he stared at the stack of envelopes on the table.

He didn’t respond as he took the key and opened the back door.

“Be quick, now,” he ordered.

The kid was, and came back with the football in a matter of seconds.

For some reason, he felt a little embarrassed by the overgrown backyard. He hadn’t felt embarrassed in a long time. He closed the door after the kid had re-entered the kitchen, and locked it, placing the key back on top of the refrigerator.

“Is your wife coming home?”

“Why do you wanna know?”

The kid shrugged his shoulders as he gripped the ball with both hands and looked around the kitchen without much regard for the old man’s privacy.

“That’s a lot of beer,” the kid said.

He didn’t respond, instead he opened the freezer and took his third can. It sprayed a little and he tried to catch the trickling alcohol with his mouth before it made a mess. He was usually to be good at this maneuver, but this time the beer spilled onto the floor.

The kid just looked on.

“Well get me that towel over there, will you?” he barked as he motioned with his spare hand.

The kid handed him the already damp towel. He shook his head as he looked at the kid and placed the can on the kitchen table before slowly kneeling down to clean the spillage.

“I’ve never seen your wife, mister.”

“I’m sure you haven’t seen Mars either.”

He held out the towel and the kid looked at him.

“Well, take it!”

The kid did.

“Help me up will you?”

He used the kid’s shoulder to pick himself up. He considered how difficult the simplest things were now. He looked at the football resting in the kid’s hands and he momentarily recalled his childhood.

Feeling a little out of breath, he picked up the beer and took a sip, then proceeded to walk the kid to the door. In the hallway the kid noticed the photo album by the living-room door. The earlier kick had opened it.

He looked at the kid, who was staring at the photographs, and he waited for him to say something, but the words didn’t arrive. Then the kid looked up at him, and he was looking at the youngster for longer than he had looked at anyone in what seemed like years.

He waited.

The kid squeezed the ball with both hands.

“Well thanks, mister,” he said as he left.

He closed the door and went back into the living room, stepping over the photo album. He stood by the curtain and looked at the grass and tried to think of the last time he had mowed the lawn. There was no one outside, and he couldn’t hear the kid or his friend. He sat back in the chair and drank from the can of beer. He looked across at the photo album and he thought about the picture of himself with his sister at the lake. He looked away, changed the station on the TV and hired the volume.

Kite

 

It comes on slowly, gently at first.

Afters years and years, after fears

And arrears and tears.

 

It comes on slowly.

And on a day like any other,

The wind arrives.

 

And the kite is airborne.

In the Supermarket

In the supermarket

I purchased a pound of laughter

when the checkout girl hollered

over the PA for a price-check on

“asshole customers”

 

In the supermarket

I purchased a kilo of Schadenfreude

when I witnessed asshole customer

fall over as he complained to the

checkout girl

 

In the supermarket

I purchased a tub of anxiety

when I noticed standing on the frozen

foods aisle the lunatic I’d partied with two

nights earlier

 

In the supermarket

I purchased two tins of dejection

when I reached into my pocket

and found that all I had to spend was

seventeen bucks

 

In the supermarket

I purchased a punnet of pessimism

when I thought about the jobs

I’d recently applied for online

and in-store

 

In the supermarket

I purchased a five gallon barrel of regret

when I remembered my father’s eyes

the last time we spoke

in person

 

In the supermarket

I purchased three packs of empathy

when I witnessed the bawling kid

being pulled along by his

drug-fuelled mother

 

In the supermarket

I purchased a bag of loneliness

as I considered the apartment

and the town that I needed

to escape

 

In the supermarket

I stole two Mars bars, a bag of mixed nuts, a 500ml bottle of Coke and a pack of condoms.

Born Quitter

Well, I decided I’d quit after I’d heard about Stuart Frost’s father. I’d just turned 21, and Stuart’s father thought he had a year or two left in him. But it wasn’t to be: he died after a short battle with lung cancer a few days after my 21st birthday, aged 51. I decided there and then, on the spot, that I would never smoke a cigarette again.

Then I had a beer in Stuart’s father’s memory and said a few smokes with a beer was all right.

 

I was determined. I’d think about Stuart’s father, and I’d think about the toxins and all the horrible things smoking does to the body. I’d read up on it, you see. That book by that guy. It was all in my head. I got myself some of the gum that’s supposed to help with the cravings. This was a year after Stuart’s dad’s death, so, needless to say, I hadn’t done incredibly well in my early endeavours to quit following his passing. But, like I said, I was determined. For two weeks I chewed the gum and I only wanted a cigarette around four times a day, which wasn’t too bad.

At the time I was dating Lorraine O’Neal. Now, there was a babe. Jesus, she was wild. We’d been together a few months after I’d met her at a fair, and there was this chemistry between us right away; only a few hours after meeting we were tearing each other’s clothes off and going at it like rabbits at her friend Wendy’s apartment.

Jesus, she was wild.

And things were going well with us, I thought. I thought that that kind of physical chemistry was something unique. Hell, it was to me. But to Lorraine, well, I soon learned that she experienced it with a lot of guys, and on the night I found her in Wendy’s apartment with Ritchie Landis I must’ve smoked about two packs. I deserved them, of course. In the event of heartbreak I was entitled to allow myself some form of comfort. I never saw Lorraine again.

Jesus, she was wild.

 

So a few years passed and I hadn’t quite managed to quit. But I’m a pretty determined individual, and I found myself in the midst of a new attempt at kicking the habit. They say the years go by and, boy, do they go by. I was 28 and it felt like only yesterday that I was hanging out with Stuart Frost and smoking cigarettes on the hood of his car. Now it was seven years to the day since his old man had bit the dust and I was back in town for a special service being held for Mr. Frost and poor Stuart’s poor grandma who’d died a few days earlier.

I was feeling good at the time. I felt healthy, and fit. I looked good, too. I hadn’t smoked in three weeks. When I saw Stuart I shook his hand and we embraced.

‘Cigarette?’ he asked, holding out a pack.

‘Sure,’ I said.

 

I met Sarah Jane when I was 31 (10 years after the death of Mr. Frost). SJ was so damn beautiful. God, she blew my mind the moment I laid eyes on her. She took a bit of work, mind you. She wasn’t as keen on me as I was on her. But I got there in the end. I was cigarette-free, too. I’d been cigarette-free for seven months (apart from one before bed and a maximum of five with beers, allowing myself a maximum of three drinking nights per week). Well, SJ and me eventually got together after I’d hounded the life out of her. I’d told her. I’d said, ‘I’m going to marry you. As God is my witness I will marry you.’ And she’d rolled her eyes at me and said she wasn’t interested in getting married until she was at least 35, but two years after we met we were hitched and on a honeymoon in Italy, where I allowed myself full licence to smoke as often as I liked—you only get one honeymoon, after all.

Well, sometimes.

We had our first child, James, a year later. The kid—for the first two years of his life—was a  goddamn nightmare. Every time that little monster screamed his head off I’d have the urge to smoke a full pack there and then, right in front of the exasperating little bastard. Then I’d calm down and regret thinking like that and I’d hug him and kiss his forehead and tell him ‘daddy loves you’ and then I’d feel bad for a day or two for thinking that way. Of course those days would be filled with regular smoking intervals at the office as a way to help assuage the guilt.

 

You know, some things stick with you, and some things fade from your memory like fog on a spring morning. One thing that never seemed to leave me was poor Stuart Frost’s father. No matter how many years passed by, I’d always think of Stuart’s old man. How he’d once been so healthy, only to croak after less than a few months of being sick. If anything was gonna make me quit smoking, well, that poor man’s end was going to do it. He’d been dead twenty years when I crumpled up my last pack of cigarettes and tossed them in the trash next to the back porch. I kept one from the box to celebrate my intentions, of course: one last smoke.

Me and SJ? Well, we were great, still. Never did a day pass by without us laughing. Not one day. No matter how stressed we got, we’d always laugh, be it first thing in the morning or right before bed. We’d laugh. In between those laughs we’d argue, of course. What couple doesn’t argue? And SJ would know when she’d see a cloud of smoke on the front porch that she’d pushed me too far. She’d have to take some responsibility when she’d driven me to drive to the store to buy a fresh pack. And as for when her parents visited. Jesus, you may as well have sparked up ten at a time and stuck them in my mouth. It’s typical, isn’t it, that the mother-in-law is a nightmare? How clichéd. But, God help me, a vegetarian would work in a slaughterhouse if it would help shut that woman up. She never stops talking.

 

When my parents died within a year of each other it was a difficult period, and I told myself I’d quit once I’d allowed myself time to grieve.

 

When I was 49, coming up fast and furiously to the ‘Big Five-O,’ I decided I’d quit smoking. I really meant it this time. I was only a couple of years away from being the age Stuart Frost’s father was when he died all those years ago, and so I said ‘no more mucking about, for real this time.’

I arrived at my 50th birthday a non-smoker. We toasted the big night with whiskey and cigars and I thought, Okay, this is nice. My youngest, Sophie, had brought her boyfriend (who, if we’re being honest, was a little bit of a wiener, and I knew she could do much better – I’d even told James to do something about it but he told me he’d ‘do it later’). When I noticed The Wiener getting a little touchy-feely with Sophie, I grabbed him by the shirt collar and slapped him upside the head, and warned him to keep his hands off of my daughter and to get out of my party. I knew the little bastard smoked so before he left I told him to give me his pack and I shared a cigarette with him before I told him to take a hike.

 

I’d just turned 63. My doctor told me it’d be a good idea to quit smoking. I told him that I’m a determined man—always have been. He told me he’d been a smoker, but he’d quit seven years earlier and hadn’t smoked since.

I asked him, ‘What’s the trick?’

He said, ‘I got divorced (hahaharr)!’

Sophie’s wedding was happening a few weeks after my appointment with the doc. She was marrying The Wiener. It was a long time coming, but he was all right. Her mother wouldn’t stop encouraging James to pop the question to his girlfriend but that was about as likely as peace in the Middle East, I’d told her.

Sophie took me aside one day. She said, ‘Daddy, I want you to do something for me. For my wedding gift, I want you to promise me that you’ll quit smoking. It’s something I’ve never liked, and the thoughts of you getting sick and leaving mom and James and me. . .’ Here she got a little emotional. ‘That’s all I want. And I want you to know I’ll help you every step of the way.’ And she kissed me on the forehead like I’d kissed her and her brother when they were kids.

I said, ‘Okay, sweetie. Right after the wedding.’

 

After Sophie had her first kid I made a promise to myself. I reminded myself that I was a determined man—had been all my life. I’d worked hard, raised my kids, provided for my family. The promise I made to myself was that I would quit smoking. It was having the first grandkid, you see. Well, it tickles the heart; made me as emotional as my wife watching Titanic. So I’ve decided that I’m going to kick the habit once and for all. And I bumped into Stuart Frost, too. Yeah, a few weeks back. Good ol’ Stuart Frost. Looks well, he does. His old man, huh, I remember his old man well. Gave me my first pack of cigarettes, he did.