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The Night, The Music
Turn off all the lights before you go to bed.
Late now. My parents have gone to bed. The house feels like it has let out a long held breath, except I am the one who has not been able to breathe. I am still thinking about my mother. There are circumstances I cannot talk with her about. It was years ago, and I do not recall how we came to the conversation, but my father told me if he had anything to confess, anything that troubled him, he would go to a Catholic priest. I ask him why. He said a priest takes his vows seriously. His vows are to God and his vows are to protect the confessor. Given that Dad spent 50 years as a Protestant preacher, I asked him if he wouldn’t rather go to another preacher, not to the priest of a denomination he does not follow. “No,” he said, without leaving room for why.
The living presence of my mother and father is everywhere inside their home. It is to be expected. After my grandmother died, something of her person remained in her house, though not for long. If I were to return to that house today, nothing of my grandmother would yet exist. Dad has told me over the years that not much good happens to a person after eighty. He and my mother are not far from that age now. When I was a boy, I rode with Dad to a funeral home where another boy had been laid inside a coffin for a viewing. The boy had been dressed in a grey suit and a dark blue tie. He was not the first body I had seen, but he was the first dead person I had seen that looked like he was sleeping. You hear people talk about that, how the dead look like they are sleeping, yet all the dead I’ve seen look like they’re dead. This boy is the lone exception though. He had drowned. He had drowned in a canal trying to save his dog. Dad told me later he had gone to the boy’s house. He said all the windows in the house were open. The family wanted to make a way for the boy’s spirit to go. They did not know when the boy would leave or if he would leave, but he could stay as long as he needed. That’s what the boy’s parents told my father.
I notice the quiet in Mom and Dad’s house, the rare quiet of the living. The windows of the sunroom are behind me. I turn from the couch where I am sitting to stare at them and to listen. Outside, the comfort of other houses and other lights push away some of the dark. The house would feel different if my parents were dead. I don’t think often about my parents passing, but I do not want to pretend there is some other reality ahead of them, ahead of any of us. Dying is serious. And soon enough, I am likely to be a man without a living mother or father.
I was friends with an artist who decided to move into his parents’ house after they had died. The house had been his retreat in those years when he had lived away. The house, in fact, was where Frank, the artist, had been born and where he had grown up. It was the same house where his mother and father had lived from day one of their marriage. Frank told stories about growing up there, about the trouble he got into and the trouble he could get away with, which, he knew, was the privilege of being the only child of older parents.
In the years Frank and I knew each other, Frank liked to spin stories as he drank cup after cup of dark, over-brewed coffee. He chain-smoked too. He chained smoked Romeo y Julietta cigarillos. The entire house smelled of coffee and cigars. Frank liked to share photographs of his parents. His favorite photograph was of his mom and dad posing in their backyard, leaning into each other. In the picture, his parents’ clothes are neatly pressed and well fitted. His father wears a grey window-pane suit, with a blue and white tie. His mother wears a red turtleneck beneath a star patterned blazer. Her hand rests below the collar of her husband’s suit. I could see something of the younger man in Frank’s father, of a time when his eyes had been free of wrinkles and when his hair likely needed to be pushed back from his forehead. His mother’s eyes are much the same, aged though softer somehow, and something of the younger woman is still there. Her look is one that admits some regret though remains compassionate. Everything about Frank’s mama, though especially her hand resting near her husband’s collar, carries signs of loving a man, of raising a child, of caring for a household, and ordinary years. Before he died, Frank gave me a couple of his family photographs. The one I like best was a picture of his father taken after a duck hunt. His father appears to be in his late teens, maybe his early 20’s. He poses with both hands wrapped around the distended neck of a large mallard drake. He stands straight but with his right leg cocked at the knee and his feet apart. A smile stretches across his face. He is cleanshaven and proud. I recognize the same eyes that the older version of himself will keep. To the right of where he stands, there are four shotguns leaned against the car door—three side-by-sides and one pump. On the fender is a pile of canvas coats and two leather gun belts stuffed with shotgun shells. Strangely it seems to be a sunny day. There are shadows under the car, and the sky is uninterrupted by clouds. This is not weather for duck hunting.
I am not sure what it is about this photograph that I love. It could be that because I cared about Frank and his life, I see the photograph as an extension of both. Or it could be I am reminded that by his gifting me the photograph, Frank had entrusted me with a part of his memory, with those worlds and people he had come from. It cannot be coincidental that one of the last paintings Frank gave to me is one dedicated to his father. The painting is called “Hard Candy Christmas.”
“Like the song?”
“Yeah. Like the song”
“You mean like the Dolly Parton song?”
“Yeah. It’s a good song.”
“I think so.”
He puffed his cigar. “She has big tits, too.”
“She does, Frank.”
“But they’re not real.”
“You don’t think they’re real?”
“No. Hell no.” He swallowed some coffee. “It’s a good song though.”
“Hard Candy Christmas,” the painting, is an expressionistic watercolor in which there are spirals of candy patterns and bright colors and twists. I can see butterscotch, red & white candy canes, gumdrops, and tinted wrappers. Frank mentioned that when he had been a child, his father at Christmas time kept his pockets stuffed with hard candies. This was an open secret between the boy and his daddy. Frank could ask for a candy, ready to be surprised all over again when his dad pulled a butterscotch, like magic, from one of his pockets.
Frank assured me he would die in his mother and father’s house, and he did. I do not recall the circumstances that caused me to ask him what it felt like to be without a mother or father. I imagine Frank and me standing beside a row of oak shelves hung along the living room wall, between the front door and the way to the back of the house. He kept many things on those shelves. Old books, seashells, feathers, a fountain pen, pipes, a silver pipe packer, a boat oar spilt and painted to look like a whale, a human skull. Maybe we had been talking about his parents. Maybe something that had belonged to them lingered on the shelves. I don’t remember. But I asked Frank what it was like to be without parents. I asked him if he felt like an orphan at 76 years old. He said he felt alone without them but not like an orphan exactly. He said their dying made it easier for him to die. He would meet them when his time came. He felt that time would be soon. He wasn’t ready to die, though he had learned or was learning to accept his own death. The fact of my death coming brings me closer to them, he said. I think about them. I think about other people too. He said he thought about his Daddy’s best friend, Charlie. Charlie liked to play cards with me. He sometimes came over early in the morning, early, before he and Daddy went to work, and Charlie cooked eggs. Charlie knew I liked to eat scrambled eggs. Even when they were kids, Daddy and Charlie and a few other boys went camping along Town Creek. They dressed like cowboys and gunslingers. They missed the old days they never knew. I think about seeing some of those boys again. About seeing Charlie and Daddy and Mama. I feel like they’re closer. I can sense the edge of a love that is drawing me closer every day. When I go, I will step off this edge we have all been living beside, and I will enter a love so deep and wide that I will not believe it is possible. I feel that edge now. What it will be like to have Mama and Daddy take me into their arms again. But let’s hush these stories for now. Let’s hush my old people.
To the left of the kitchen sink, a medium sized white bowl and a crumpled paper towel have been left on the counter. They are the remains of my mother’s nightly popcorn consumption. Eating popcorn is a habit I share with my mother. We are both greedy about popcorn. We guard our bowls. My mother is insistent about this. A bowl of popcorn for my mother is a comfort, the same way a Hallmark movie is a comfort for her. Others are not invited to partake or to participate. While the rest of the kitchen is clean, wiped down, this crumpled paper towel and greasy bowl, holding sprinkles of unpopped seeds and feathery flakes of popcorn, is the goodnight, the see you in the morning. All else is put away, immaculate.
I turn on the lamp beside the couch. I wait for my eyes to come back from the dark. Be sure to turn off all the lights before you go to bed. I want to find a couple of books before I settle in for the night. Books and music. Tonight’s music, which I asked Dad to help me find before he went to bed, comes from the television. There is a sequence of channels that play music. I can blackout the television screen. I don’t know how many of these channels Dad carries. We scrolled through them earlier. World Music. Folk Music. The Best of the 60’s, the 70’s, the 80’s and Today! Classic Country. We found a cool jazz channel, which is what I was looking for. Almost immediately I recognized Paul Desmond’s “Alone Together.” ‘
“Is that what you want?” Dad asked me.
“That’ll do it.”
Dad handed me the control. “There you go. Be sure to turn off all the lights before you go to bed.”
I turn up the volume a little and listen. Then it comes to me. “Come Sunday.” Gerry Mulligan and Billy Taylor. This music, this house, this late night—this may be the best place in the universe for me. I keep the volume as low as possible, which isn’t very low. My hearing is poor, and Dad’s hearing is worse. Mom sleeps hard. On nights like this, the music and the house become almost one. We can feel more in a house or in a room with music like Mulligan’s playing. I will spend the night on the couch. Mom made a fuss about it.
“Why don’t you sleep in a bedroom?”
“The couch is fine.”
“I put fresh sheets on the bed.”
“The couch is fine, Mom. Really.”
“Don’t you want a sheet or anything?”
“I’ll grab a blanket.”
I look over my shoulder at the bookcase. I don’t know what I want to read. I guess it’s not about what I want to read as much as what books I want to sit with. I will read, to be sure, but only a few sentences or lines, perhaps a page or two. I get up to find a couple of volumes. Swann’s Way, The Brothers Karamazov, The Aeneid, Country Life in Classical Times, Brideshead Revisited, which is one of Dad’s favorite books. The risk of these great books is that they will keep me awake. I trained myself a long time ago not to fall asleep while reading. Then I discovered the great books and couldn’t sleep at all. I select two volumes. Good Poems for Hard Times, which is a Garrison Keillor poetry anthology, and The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel. Both books are a risk for not sleeping but surely no more so than The Brothers Karamazov. I remember when the Keillor anthology was first published. I read a few reviews. Critics and poets quibbled. As though poetry still mattered to Americans. Academics and poets have buried their heads up their collective asses if they think so many Americans care about poetry. I chose the anthology because I know my father has marked the poems he likes. The first poem I find he has underlined is called “Carnation Milk,” with an anonymous author.
Carnation Milk is the best in the land;
Here I sit with a can in my hand—
No tits to pull, no hay to pitch,
You just punch a hole in the son of a bitch.
There you go, Pop.
I continue thumbing through the collection. Dad has underlined the final line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 106, which reads “Had eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.” He has underlined a Hal Sirowitz’s poem, “The Benefit of Ignorance,” as well as the first two lines: “If ignorance is bliss, Father said, /shouldn’t you be looking blissful?” Hmm, did Dad want me to notice this one? He has marked David Ignatow’s poem, “That’s the Sum of It.” The prose poem opens with, “I don’t know which to mourn. Both have died on me, my wife and my car. I feel strongly about my car, but I am also affected by my wife.” I don’t read any further into this one. I set down the anthology. Surely Dad has underlined some Yeats. I get comfortable again and pick up The Library at Night. The Library at Night is about a love affair between one reader and his books, which inevitably becomes our love affair with our own books. The Foreword begins with a single sentence, “The starting point is a question.” What follows is, “Outside theology and fantastic literature, few can doubt that the main features of our universe are its dearth of meaning and lack of discernible purpose.” The paragraph continues, with Manguel writing about the “scraps” we gather with the hope of making sense of the world.
“What are you reading?”
“What are you doing up?”
“Couldn’t sleep. What are you reading?”
“The Library at Night.”
“That’s a good one.”
Dad, wearing again his tighty-whiteys and a thin, blue blanket thrown over his shoulder, fumbles his way to his recliner. He moves like a very old man. He drops into the recliner and leans over and scoops up other blankets and covers himself. He picks up the television remote and switches the channel from cool jazz to the classic movie channel. He mutes the volume. He folds his hands across his chest.
He looks my direction, as though surprised that I am here.
“Are you sleeping on the couch?”
“We got another bed.”
“I know. The couch is fine though.”
The volume is muted but the quiet is gone.
Dad asks me, “What else are you reading?”
“Well. I was reading Good Poems. Now I’m reading The Library at Night.”
“The Garrison Keillor poems?”’
“The ones he collected, yes.”
“That’s a good one.”
“I think so.”
He tucks the blankets up under his legs.
“What are you watching?” I ask him.
“I don’t know yet. It could be His Girl Friday.”
“That’s Cary Grant, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Cary Grant.”
He stares at the television.
“Cary Grant and Jane Russell…no, not Jane Russell. Rosalind Russell. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.”
I wish there was something I could tell him. I could convince him that his world does not need to be so small. But I cannot do this. He tells his stories. He plays CDs of big band music while he drives and pretends to groove with the music, but the music does not touch him. He watches old movies and can name the players and quote the important lines, but this is a trick of memory or of keeping memory.
He. He. He. I. I. I.
“What time is it?”
He is different again.
“I don’t know. Maybe one or two.”
“Are you leaving in the morning?”
“I’m not leaving. I’m going out for a couple of days.”
“Well. Drive safe.”
“I’m not leaving till the morning, Dad.”
“Drive safe whenever you go.”
He reaches for one of his books. Doc Holiday. Doc had been a dentist. He may have been in love with his cousin, but Big Nose Kate Horony was his girl. People said he was steady in a gunfight.
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Damon Falke is the author of, among other works, The Scent of a Thousand Rains, Now at the Uncertain Hour, By Way of Passing, and Koppmoll (film). He lives in northern Norway.