Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Victor

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My father once put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, the sound so loud in the small room it made him jump.  I believe the sharp shadows of old regrets lived at the edge of his vision almost constantly, making his eyelids ache. He grew tired of them, I think, the weight of all those shadows.

I imagine him sitting at the cheap wooden table in his kitchen, its rickety legs matching those of the chair in which he sat. Nicotine-sheen covered and coffee stained, it holds the ashtray full of death, orange and black and smelly, and the whiskey glass he picked up from a bar that cradles its amber liquid and sends droplets of dew down its sides to stain the table once more. My father doesn’t like to touch the table – it feels greasy under his fingers and represents so much of what he’s become, and so he gingerly picks up the glass, puts down the cigarette, rests the book open-faced on its surface in such a way as to avoid contact with it. He doesn’t know that he does this, that he still feels this way even after washing and washing and washing it.

I think he put the gun to his mouth many times before that moment, to practice maybe, to see what it would feel like when the time came, that dark hole of its mouth calling and calling and calling to him, making promises he chose to believe, offering relief from the pain in all those shadows, their constancy making him weary.

On this night, as on many other nights, the Dark Presence comes to this room. It waits just outside the limit of his vision but he doesn’t have to see it to know that it’s there. Its energy is like a pulsating heart, beating out its insistent drumbeat, thumping its rhythm: tonight, tonight, tonight. The Dark Presence has come on many other nights, nights just like this one, the angle made by the smoke of the cigarette and the cylinder itself the same each time, the whiskey glass in its ringed spot, the pages of the book turning and turning quickly, as if he is breathing in their essence instead of reading the words; everything in its accustomed spot. Other nights my father has resisted, shifted his position in the rickety chair to signal his intent to stay, turning his back without knowing it on the Dark Presence, which quietly draws back into itself and turns away. It doesn’t go very far, though. No, it doesn’t go very far.

Tonight, when the Dark Presence arrives my father is ready, he has everything ready. It is 3:00 a.m. or thereabouts, the time when demons go looking for the weak, the vulnerable, the tired, the lost. They hit pay dirt when they found my father and visited him many times over the years, and have done their job well, bringing him despair and misery and depression for him to brood over in those dark hours, needling him with all the ways he’s failed, let people down, not measured up, their whiny voices incessant and loud, laughing at him, adding to the pain he carries in his physical body. He has no defense against them, doesn’t know they are separate entities from him and not his own thoughts. They have finally worn away his resistance, and so tonight, as expected, the Dark Presence holds sway, and so they just watch him from the sidelines.

The whiskey in the cheap glass no longer burns as he empties it into his throat, and the thick fog he pulls into his smoke-darkened lungs has no taste. His mouth goes dry as he stubs out the last cigarette he will ever smoke, his three-pack-a-day habit finally broken. Its orange filter lies in the ashtray next to its many brothers – he’s had to empty it twice tonight, already, to make room for more. He gets up from the table, a cheap and ugly table in a cheap and ugly apartment that represents everything he’s ever lost and nothing he ever stood for. He pushes his chair in close, as he always does out of habit. In this moment, he has nothing but vague thoughts of anyone but himself, he is too full of and befouled by the voices, but he writes a hastily scribbled note: “No more pain” and leaves it on the table with the glass, the ashtray and the book, the Bermuda Triangle that took my dad.

He then unknowingly turns to the Dark Presence and invites it along, asks it to please join him as my father walks quietly and without hurry to his lumpy bed, the flattened pillow sweat-stained and old but covered in a cheap but clean pillowcase. He lifts the pillow, takes the gun out and checks the chamber, an act he’s obsessively performed for days, and holds it carefully away from him as he gets into the bed, fully clothed. He pulls the covers up, gets settled and comfortable, adjusting his shirt behind his back so he doesn’t feel the wrinkles. He doesn’t want things to be too terribly horrible when he’s found and he knows he will be found or he would not go to the trouble of being neat. He knows he will make a mess, his death will make a mess, and he is trying to make it less so, as if he is somehow of the belief that this –his being neat about it - will make it somehow less painful. He is very, very wrong. It seems a passionless act this way, incomprehensibly so, and the neatness makes it even harder to make sense of, to understand why. It is clearly not an impulsive decision, it is very much a planned and premeditated act.

* * *

It has been ten years since that night, and every year the memory sneaks up on me. I mean, all year I know my father is no longer alive, I know how he died, I know how long it’s been, I know where his ashes are, I know. But for two weeks before the date I am weepy, crying a little every day, forgetting that the anniversary of the day my father killed himself and nearly killed my brother is looming, until like fucking clockwork, like a goddamn heavy iron shovel, one day I say, “Oh” as it whacks me in the heart, behind my eyes, grabs me by the throat. The grief and the sorrow and the pity and the guilt and the rage come right back, as if they’ve never left. It is just as intense and timeless as it was the day I learned of his death, the voice of my sobbing brother sending his enormous and nearly incoherent pain down the telephone line from Florida directly into my heart, changing everything forever. The only good news is that the sorrow recedes a bit, it goes back to its hidey-hole until next year, or the next holiday or major life event, or until I talk to my brother, or until I speak of it out loud.

I have questions that remain unasked, unanswered. Like these: Did he think of me, of my brother, my sister, his grandchildren, his three ex-wives as he stubbed out his cigarette and stood up? How many bullets were in the gun? Was every chamber loaded? How long had he been planning it? Did he really think he was that unimportant? What were his last thoughts? Did he tell himself when the Dark Presence arrived, “OK, Jim, this is it, it’s time, no more playing around?”

I would photograph the scene this way: Shoot the whiskey glass in black and white from just below the edge of the table, at an angle and from a child’s height, the whiskey holding the only spot of color. Snap a shot of the back of his hand as he stubbed out another cigarette, and the glint of his hazel eyes through the smudges on his eyeglasses he no longer notices, and the yellowed rings on the table and the black burn marks from cigarettes left forgotten, and the cigarettes themselves crumpled up together in the ashtray. I would capture the brief curve of a page-wave as he turns another one. I would take a close up picture of his nose, the one that is so like mine, and his close- cropped white hair, and highlight the collar of his shirt. I would photograph the greenish-blue cover of the book, a book full of adventures he would never have even if he’d chosen to live, and I would photograph myself reading it over and over, aching for answers I will never get, searching the pages for some truth, any truth.

Or no, maybe this: a one act play in which the lone spotlight highlights a man alone at a rickety table on a dark stage, who smokes constantly and drinks occasionally and reads unceasingly. The man’s breathing is just a little too fast and a tiny bit audible, and the tears running slowly down his face go unnoticed, and his attention is not entirely on the words on the page or the drink in his hand or on the cigarette resting and burning in the ashtray, sending tendrils of gray smoke into the already thick air, or even on his own pain, but of the Dark Presence cloak-shrouded in the corner.