Tuesday, May 15, 2007

I am not at home in the only world I have ever known.

His wristwatch marked half past twelve. He fished in his jacket pocket for a pen and wrote HAPPY BIRTHDAY on a cocktail napkin in neat, capital lettering. He tilted the napkin to the right, then the left, finally fixing it upside down—the words, suspended atop a phantom Ferris wheel. He swung them distractedly.

The girl behind the bar was hoping he’d notice her and had been all night. She felt silly for watching him so unabashedly, and even sillier because he wasn’t watching her. When she caught herself brushing past him, closer and more often than necessary, she blushed and hurried to the ice bin, where she wetted a towel and pressed it to her hot cheeks. In a town where each spring ushered in a fresh crop of men and each fall saw them exit with the last salmon run, girls spent years immunizing themselves against the newcomers' sweet talk, their lewd comments and gawking stares. So how was it that one evening, one of them could walk into her bar wanting nothing more than a drink, and she was immediately reduced to a school girl? She eyed his near empty glass. She should offer him another drink. Or, was that too eager? She busied herself, instead, checking on her few tables and lingering over other patrons at the bar.

Dell rubbed his face hard, polished off his drink and rested his elbows on the mahogany bar. Wanting another whiskey, he surveyed the wait staff, lazily, aware that he hadn’t noticed his server enough to remember her. He was trying to think of something: something that had bothered him a great deal four drinks earlier. It was something Mrs. Begley had said to him at the hotel. Her skirt was red, like raw sockeye salmon flesh, and it was hemmed too long for her short stature. It trailed her like a wake, but just cleared her feet in the front, where its length was buffered by an unusually large midsection. He had followed her down a fishy-smelling hall and waited while she unlocked door number 9. The color of her skirt and the way it seemed to propel her over the concrete floor like a fish tail, together with the stench of dirty fishermen and sea-sopped clothes had made him queasy. He had leaned against the door-frame and closed his eyes. That’s when she said it. She had pressed a spare room key into his limp hand and said, “Make yourself at home”.

It was many years since he had seen his family home in Iowa; the weathered porch, the bright blue kitchen with yellow paisley-print linoleum, the green shag rug in his bedroom that doubled as his pasture when he was playing Jimmy’s horse. There was the living room, with his mother’s ceramic figurines and the “new” sofa, covered in heavy plastic for fifteen years. Mom insisted this was "to keep it nice", though nobody sat on it but twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, when Dad’s bachelor brother drove Papa Burt and Nana Kat up for a visit. The town was nice enough, with hard-working, friendly folk, but Dell had never quite made it his. He used to lounge in the fork of the old black walnut tree and read Jules Verne, while the other children played. When he left town at seventeen, he told himself it was in search of monsters, more than running away from what had happened there.

That was eleven years ago. He had seen other homes. He had seen Nicaraguan women, all but widowed, barely keeping their children alive in wood slat houses with leaky plastic roofs, while their men roamed far and wide, in search of non-existent work. Those who survived poverty and unclean water died from years of exposure to toxic smoke, billowing from inefficient stoves. Mercedes had daily turned the empty corn barrel and oil jar into scant tortillas or boiled a handful of rice with a few red beans—while babies played at her feet and smoke filled her tiny shack. In time, her elderly mother coughed up a bloody lung and her little asthmatic girl turned blue for want of air.

He had seen the masses of Katrina survivors, rendered homeless in one fell swoop; vagrants now—extra bodies with no place to put down. The relief effort, of which he was part, felt like a response at least as ineffective as, and far less impassioned than, that of a man whose story was circulated among the workers. Having no means of escape, he had climbed upon his rooftop and yelled into the hurricane winds.

He had known this very town, though it had changed since he was here last. Phineas--whose mother still lived here--was quick and sure with his fishing rig, and as dependable a friend as fisherman. In the water, he was a magic so astonishing that tall tales grew of his adventures; he was the Davy Crockett of the sea. He made his home at sea, but it betrayed him at last.

Dell looked, again, at the words on the napkin, as if hoping to make sense of them. He thought he’d identified his waitress; she seemed flustered when their eyes met but didn’t come to him. He closed his eyes. Eleven years…and at once he understood that he wasn’t looking for monsters. He was looking for where monsters were not. He was looking for home. In stories, the heroes—having battled the monster—returned home to great rejoicing. Slaying the monster made home safe; made home, home. But straight-forward monsters like dragons and giant squid were mere fantasy. In the world, there were only the ordinary monsters of poverty and inhumanity. Inhumanity, he had come to see, claimed poverty among its legion of psychopathic sons. Poverty could be dealt with, if uneasily. Inhumanity was unwieldy; it pervaded everything, the world over. Dell remembered the first time he’d seen a satellite image of the earth from space; it was cold and empty—unspeakably beautiful—but not a place he would instinctively call “home”.

When they finally pulled Phineas out of the tangled net, his face was contorted like something from a horror movie. Many friends, villagers and family members would tell the story of his death as a romance: a tall tale befitting a life of tall tales. They said the sea had finally claimed him, that he would have wanted to go no other way, that he was always more of the sea than of the land. One townsman even claimed to have seen him swimming in the bay, but upon over taking him, met a blue eyed seal, who looked at him, knowingly. Nobody, even the other crew members, ever mentioned his face. It was over-taken, afraid; as one surprised by treachery just before the plunge of the knife: Et tu, Brute?

Dell suddenly remembered how it felt to run the length of a corn row in the dark, with Jimmy and how he used to run ahead to lose him. He’d dart through the eight-foot wall of papery leaves, into the next row and sit, as quiet as his father sat when hunting pheasant in the brush at the far side of the crop fields. He used to watch the white moon--corn tassels like fuzzy black caterpillars, crawling on its glowing face--and listen to his brother wail. When Jimmy came up close, he could tell by the sound of his step when his foot left the worn trail and faltered in the soft mound of dirt heaped up around the plants or when he tripped on corn-stalk stubble. He could hear, too, Jimmy’s breath, labored and glitchy from running so hard and sucking up the snot running down his face. When he finally stepped back into Jimmy’s row, he did so stealthily, sidling up behind him until Jimmy felt his presence and turned around. This always scared Jimmy and Dell found his scream priceless, but a moment later when the moon shone on the boy’s upturned face, puffy and wet, he always felt a pang in his chest and would lie awake long into the night, remembering. Home, Dell decided, was somewhere in Jimmy’s face.


Dell slid sweaty hands from his forehead to his temples, pushing back loose strands of hair. He opened his eyes and stared at the waitress, without understanding her.

“Can I get you another?” She indicated his empty glass.


She hurried away, looking rattled and flushed. He shook a cigarette loose from his diminishing pack.

It used to be a show of bravery he put on for Jimmy, letting the match burn nearly to his finger before blowing it out. Now it was a reason as uninteresting as habit or as singular as curiosity. He didn’t know which and resolved not to find out. It was need, either way. He lit the cigarette and watched the match flame dwindle until he felt the quick pain of it on his finger. He blew it out.

“Whiskey, neat,” announced the waitress. She set a glass in front of him and hurried away, again.

He dragged on his cigarette, long and deep. When he reached for his drink he saw that the cocktail napkin was gone and the waitress had supplied him with a fresh ashtray.


Eliot said...

That's a wonderful bit of writing. Does it stand alone (which it certainly can) or is it the beginning of a novel?

Rachael King said...

Eliot, Thanks. I was thinking somewhere in the middle of a novel. But for now, it stands alone.

Anonymous said...

great writing, I was transported...

Home for me is easy to describe. I'm very fortunate though as I'm very happy with my lot. I'm in a good relationship have a close family, strong faith, good job etc..
For others like Dell though, life has dealt a tougher hand. There's nothing reliable in his life.I think home has to be something reliable. I do feel at home in the only world I have ever known, but this short story does make me ask myself what it would be like if I had got to the age of 44, and didn't have the things I mention above. Would I feel at home, or would I be consumed by questions like what is the point of life, what happens when I die etc. I still ask my self those questions but I'm not consumed by them, my kids don't allow me the time to be consumed by stuff like that.

Rachael said...

anonymous: Thanks for the comment. I agree that home needs to be something reliable. If it is reliable, it is trustworthy, constant and can't be abolished or broken down, even by our failures or inadequacies. We find people and things to make ourselves at home among in the world, but it is mind-boggling really, that these things could be snatched away from us tomorrow.

I've never felt entirely "at home" in the world, but I suppose it is a personality disposition. My problem is impermanence. If I'm going to trust something I want to know it will always be there. Maybe that's misguided.

Is home something permanent or does it shift as our environment changes? Can something impermanent be reliable?

lithereed said...

I came across a quote that is a good reply to your question about whether home is something permanent:

"When you love someone you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. It is even a lie to pretend. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand. We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of the tide of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide of life and resist in terrors it's ebb. We are afraid it will never return. We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life, as in love, is growth... is fluidity... is freedom."

-Ann Morrow Lindbergh, from Gift from the Sea

I too seek people and places that are reliable and give me a sense of permanency. Yet I know that nothing is permanent. The few times I've felt "at home in this world" were fleeting moments. However, I live a very comfortable and stable life. I (like anonymous) have surrounded myself with family and friends as well as a good, fulfilling job. That does not mean that I consistently feel at home in this world. Comfort and security are different from a sense that you are exactly where you belong. A sense of belonging and peace, which is an integral part of the feeling of "being home," can only be experienced in moments when the various elements of our lives happen to converge in just the right way. At least, that is my experience. Perhaps life will prove me wrong.

One last thought--

I think "feeling at home" has more to do with a sense of self and its relation to the world than it does with outside circumstances. If one is at peace, one will also "feel at home."

Unfortunately, I am a long way from enlightenment.

Rachael King said...

lithereed: I've been giving your comment some thought. Impermanence is the natural state of the world and of our lives. I mostly agree with what you quoted from Anne Morrow Lindbergh. When she says, "the only continuity possible, in life, as in love, is growth... is fluidity... is freedom", I want to add that there is something which remains or rather persists through change.

I no longer have and cannot reach by any means, my son as the fat-cheeked two year old who would twirl my hair into knots while he sucked his thumb. Sometimes this saddens me. But should it? After all, it is the loss of that toddler and his toddler ways that enables him to talk to me in more sophisticated ways and makes him a pretty decent partner in a game of cards. He has changed, shedding one incarnation for another, but he is still my child. He is still someone who knows intimately the texture of my hair and the taste of his thumb. And I recognize him.

When we talk about home or feeling at home, it is hard to divorce our conversation from place. We are beings in an environment and like all creatures, our environment shapes us and is our raw material for survival, enrichment and growth. Familiarity and facility with elements of one's environment go a long, long way toward aiding a feeling of "at home-ness". We probably feel less at home today than most people did before the Industrial Revolution, simply because people were born into and generally stayed in a place rich with history and human culture. Places change, even sometimes so much as to be unrecognizable years later, but knowing, say, that I'm standing on the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn ties me to something human and meaningful to my own life. If I hold a handful of earth, how much life and passing away of life is contained therein?

Maybe our inability to "feel at home" in more than fleeting moments is partly due to the conception of home as static, as a state. One state of being, one physical compilation of parts is always giving way to, even paving the way for, another. So why do I feel the loss so acutely? Why do I regret the loss of the little boy rather than rejoicing in the blossoming of the little boy into a big boy and into a man?

I think it feels like loss instead of gain, because we all know we've boarded an express train whose last stop is death, where we finally lose the world and our very lives. The fact that our lives will yield to and make way for new ones is little consolation to our sensibilities, given that those lives will in turn yield to new ones until the sun burns itself out and the curtain goes down on the stage forever and ever.

Although I've many times had my doubts, I think this is why I still believe there is life after death: it makes sense of loss. As long as the man lives and grows, the little boy and the toddler are not entirely lost; they have contributed to and made possible the man. If he ceases to exist, so do they all. So, too, if my life, even the eventual loss of it, makes possible what I will be after death, this means pain, sadness, loss are folded into the story--redeemed.