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.

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.