Monday, November 25, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 25

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

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Already making plans for the days after Thanksgiving, pending Stephen's still vaguely open-ended visit for the holiday, the plan this chilly morning could easily be to stay in bed. If it were not for putting the birdseed out, I would probably not bother crawling out from under the covers until closer to noon.

One of the few things Stephen and I have in common is a mutual dislike of cold weather, one reason he chose California and another reason he couldn't understand why I would actually move into Old Uncle Junior's house in the woods of Maine. The fact it was in the very southern part of Maine and only a few miles from the warmer coastline made no difference to him. As far as he was concerned, I was out in the wilderness with only moose for neighbors.

This may explain why, over the last six years, I have only seen him once before and even then, in late summer, he didn't stay long. I was his only family here and the visit would be strained for lack of variety.

Besides, I had to admit, since he was now in his thirties, he was at that stage where a parent was an afterthought and his immediate family were his friends, his and Leo's extended family by definition of social interaction. I was on the opposite side of the country at the opposite end of his world.

He and Leo had, on occasion, kindly extended me an invitation to visit them during the winter which I seriously considered, at least one particularly bleak and chilling year not long after moving to Langley, but for some reason I reconsidered and decided I should not intrude on them.

Leo told me his mother would be visiting them as well that year and at least if I were bored by their company, I would have a charming widow (she was, I believe he said, still in her fifties) for company.

I chuckled to think perhaps they were setting us up for a romantic ambush. Life in California being so much a situation comedy, I could only imagine the denouement.

Of course, that was the last year they invited me, outright. In a card sent after returning from his truncated visit a few years ago, Stephen added (and I could hear Leo's gentle voice behind him, in this one), "You know you're always welcome to come visit." He would never say "stay," because I think the last thing either of them would want was to have either of their parents moving in with them.

And at least at this point there was no need for that, as long as I was still healthy enough on my own. The winters may be cold here and idiotically perfect in southern California, but it would take more than climate change to get me to move there.

What would happen when it came to that? By "that" I mean when I was no longer capable of living on my own. There was concern in Stephen's voice whenever he'd ask how I was, afraid news of some fall or a slip in my mental acuity would mean, "oh God, Dad's going to have to move in with us."

I realized the concern was mostly on his part, the changes it would wreak on his life and less on my own. I probably shouldn't be so black-and-white about it, since there were many details, shades of gray, to consider where Occam's Razor could come in handy; but basically, yes, I think that was it.

There had been, over the years, several TV shows where this was the premise: featuring the gallantly struggling sandwich generation contending with the antics of their children growing up and their parents growing old (again, the idea of growing when it should be decaying into age).

I chose not to watch any of them. Aside from being Generation X's revenge on the Baby Boomers, I did not find this at all appealing entertainment and I dreaded other people drawing their conclusions from watching it.

Students will tell you the story of a novel they've supposedly read but will instead tell you about the movie they'd seen that was based on it (who has time to read novels, today?). History is like that, too: Old Man Occam has pared away the details leaving only the headlines. You would think he had invented Twitter.

It irritated me that people who didn't know me and had no idea who my son was – or that I even had a son – would evaluate my life by a short-sighted send-up starving for ratings.

Looking at the calendar, I see it is November 25th, three days before Thanksgiving with a month to go before Christmas Day. Why this sense of dread, merely from a calendar? Perhaps, "growing" older and living alone, the sense of the holidays has gone full circle from what it had been to now at the full circle of my age. A child looking forward to tables loaded with food (even if surrounded by old and notoriously cantankerous relatives) and to piles of gaily-wrapped presents under the tree was different from the old man at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Memories can be pleasant escapes, most of them – witness the popularity of such nostalgic (if not maudlin) films as It's a Wonderful Life or the story of Ralphie and his BB gun – quickly becoming traps, a way to waste a good part of the day, if you're not careful. But then, I have the TV set or the computer for that.

"I see," I'd say, peering at the screen, wishing I could wield an ocular razor to pare away the clutter. Log-in. Check. Password: check the box "Remember me" (but, ah, forget my fate). Lost to the rhythm of the Great Tick-Tock.

Was memory – at least what we chose to remember – an interior form of the visible, not what's presently before us but the past made, in some fashion, partially if dimly perceivable, best seen with the eyes closed? There were sounds or smells, tastes or the mention of a name, some intangible silent spark that could, out of nowhere, create a reflection of reality – what. (How?)

There were times some wave from the past was so strongly felt, I thought I would turn around to see the old birdcage Grandma Hemon had kept in the little parlor, and hear the parakeet chattering away with what in its mind passed for speaking.

Do we slip through the slightest of tears in the fabric of time, arrive unknowingly in some parallel world? Sometimes, it is as quickly gone as it arrived.

A whiff of something on a passing breeze may be all that remains, the persistence of the human heart, a molten clock.

But can it be visible, the past – ineluctably speaking – if it has no color? It doesn't matter, knocking up against it (does it?), kicking at phantoms. There is reality (left-brain) and there is fantasy (right-brain) but how many shades of gray, these phantoms, in between? The future, I'll wager, is not visible. To see the future, you keep your ears open.

To bring something into life, born of your soul, your mind or body, the mid-wife telling you to push: we do not remember the moment of our birth. I played no part in mine, so far as I know. It is not the beginning but a continuation of the process still spinning ever outward, changing, and I emerge in its constant repetition, the production and reproduction of the past, awake, alive, apart.

Whatever the modality, this major phase of our experience modifies as we go from youth, perhaps maturity, till then at some mysterious summit of our lives, unaware, we grow into old age and decay – morbidity, the gravitas (having trod through Flounders' Field), till our ship arrives, Blue Peter, and we sink longingly into the fabric of time and space.

I cannot see what you see but it is only because of that I can see at all and erase the boundaries of the mind, releasing the guiding spirit of the place (my soul) to become the genius of my self, maestro di color che sente.

Dates on the calendar are closer than they appear. Christmas will be here before we know it – then gone. I remember Thanksgiving as a time we were thankful for what we had, not looking forward to what we'll find, a month later, under the tree. Not just the anacrusis to the celebration of capitalism, the upbeat to Black Friday. I am thankful for this house, however it finally came to me. Dad had called it "The Wild Goose" as if the house had had a name, one of those romantic, homey names like "Pine Acres" or "Distant Runes," which, come to think of it, at one time it might have had. It was difficult to imagine Uncle Junior or Grandpa Hemon giving their simple home such an airy, estate-like name.

But after the Civil War, who knows what was in the hearts of those who built a life here. It was not meant to be a working farm beyond the usual run of chickens, a few horses, and a patch of land for vegetables, long overgrown over in the southeast corner where a small barn once stood. It must have been a peaceful refuge after the horrors of war, a place where one could ignore if not forget the past while looking out toward the infinite sea. Does one need to see it to know it's there?

Changing to a life in Maine meant (for me) getting rid of many things from my past, the stuff and baggage of a life, though I was hardly down-sizing, taking on the ownership of the family homestead. The house was half-again as large as the house Madeleine and I shared in Pembrick, even with its smaller and deceptively concentrated rooms.

But Uncle Junior had left behind a lot of "deferred maintenance" and much of the furniture that hadn't been thrown out was not worth the keeping of it except the old dining table. What furniture I brought with me barely suited the house: it took a while and more money than I cared to spend to balance my life with the house's.

The house, of course, it not the same as it once was, either, for all the care I took in finding things that matched its style and essence. This is not the same house that Great-Grandfather Logos built for his family, but then Great-Grandfather Logos was not the same man who had enlisted as a Union soldier only a few years earlier.

Family gathering for dinners in generations past might recognize the dinner table but little else – not to mention the modern appliances in the kitchen or the phone or television set. Aside from the old photographs, I wonder if they would even know where they were?

And yet the house has endured far longer than any of its occupants. I figure it is now 143 years old. What is that in house years?

In reality, I am less than half its age: why does that make me feel older?

The new calendars are now ready to go, placed within easy reach for the end of the year. I must remember to check what needs to be placed on them, once the New Year begins – not that my calendar has been busy recently. Do I have a dinner night set aside with Henry that first week or so?

Speaking of Henry, I wonder how his novel is going? We're into the last week of the month and his goal is fast approaching: how many words does he have left to go, another end-of-the-year count-down as we approach zero?

With Thanksgiving drawing nearer, Time begins to speed up: so many shopping days left till Christmas. I remember as a child seeing this in bold type on the front page of every newspaper, the long slow countdown to that magic morning.

Now, if Black Friday hadn't been enough to whip excitement into frenzy, we've had "Black Friday Sales" for the past two weeks. What has become of us?

Last year was the Year of the Mayans, when someone (sometime) had calculated the otherwise indecipherable Maya calendar would come to a stop and there would be "no more time." The end of the world: destruction in apocalyptic tetrameter. Boom! (Or whimper?)

But it didn't happen. There wasn't even a blip in the weather to signify at least an attempt on the universe's part to show the power of the last page of a human-made calendar.

On New Years Eve, the countdown of days turns to minutes and finally, to seconds as the world holds its collective (if time-zone appropriate) breath. The speeding of time followed by the suspension of time.

What would happen if Zeno were right?

It is the eternal second, the last moment of the old year turned Limbo, when I heard two voices coming slowly closer. Old men, by the sound of it – coming here? Unannounced visitors are always a concern, especially in this day and age of strangers. I steal into the dining room to get a glimpse of them, hoping they do not see me through the diaphanous sheers of my curtains, motion detected (someone is home, they might think). Yes, I see them, an old car left in the drive as they shuffle forward, old men indeed, bundled against the cold, the coldest day of the season so far.

Wrapped in heavy coats and bundled with scarves, gray hair protrudes in all directions from beneath hats pulled low over scalps, ears nearly but not quite hidden. Too well dressed for Vladimir and Estragon. I've seen them in the village, though, and pull back quietly into my shadows to avoid detection. Why would they come to see me? It is mid-morning on a Monday: would they know I am home? They look a bit old for burglars, unless otherwise disguised. Seeking donations for the homeless? Fund-raising for the library? Contributions for a church food bank?

"A rash of break-ins, lately, in the suburbs outside Langley," I could hear the news report, "where witnesses say two burglars disguised as old men have been seen approaching a house and, once determining no one is home, find an unlocked door or window to gain entrance. Items reported missing were computers, tablets and cell phones though in some cases money, jewelry left lying about." I waited, wondered.

They shuffled toward the porch and once at the door, continued talking, discussing something. "It was last year, I think," said the taller one. "I believe you're right," the shorter one said back, fumbling in his pocket. "But we can't be sure."

And then a long moment of silence, the limbo of the final second before the awaited zero: nothing. They had stopped talking, the clock was ticking loudly. I held my breath. If I went back to the kitchen to get my phone, how long would it take before the police would arrive?

No knock, no door bell. If they had wanted to surprise me, they would not have been talking. My car is by the side of the house, parked quite obviously in the open by the fence. Someone would be – might be – home.

The screen door open slowly, something else earlier generations would not have recognized a century ago. Would they try the inside door? Had I left it unlocked?

Should I make a noise to let them know someone is in fact home? Would that scare them off? But then they might expect me to answer the door if they rang the bell. I waited. Were they waiting, figuring out what they would say, warming up their spiel? Salesmen? A bit long in the tooth to be selling magazines door-to-door. A pair of them – two for safety if not just company.

So, no, probably not the Publishers Clearing House prize team here to award me a million dollars a month for life. But enough to overpower an old man alone in his remote house where the neighbors would be unlikely to hear him scream.

I heard the scrape of paper. Then the door was quietly shut. A click. Another pause but still no knock, no doorbell ringing. Through the gauzy sheers, I saw them turn and heard them resume their conversation.

I could only catch a few words, once the wind kicked up again. "Thanksgiving" was one, "visit" another. The shorter one took the lead as they headed back toward the driveway.

I waited till their car disappeared beyond the trees before I opened the door. A small slip of paper, half a standard sheet, folded neatly – a pamphlet. "Can the dead really live again?" Religion salesmen, gathering up souls before year's end.

On the back, I saw a small-font mention of their brand – Jehovah's Witnesses. A web-site, a QR code, modern technology meets the Rapture.

We are of course all going to die, whether it's for Adam's sin or our own or because the human body can only live so long.

But rather than focus on the destruction of the non-believers, it tells me there will be another resurrection. Good to know.

I drop the tract in the wastebasket on way back to the kitchen: another cup of coffee, perhaps, before I go out, steeling myself for the cold air. I need to stop at the store for cat food (and better now than wait till the day before Thanksgiving and the chaos of the great procrastinators). And while I'm out, why not stop in at the library, though the main reason would be to see if Joyce is in – and what if she is?

What if the Rapture comes before I speak to her? On the other hand, why do anything if it's all going to be taken care of by our own personal resurrection? We will all be taken up – no, only the saved: who will be left behind? No child.

Stephen has been left behind, my child – Leo has left him, apparently, and his company had abandoned him long ago. There's a storm expected to cross the nation, snarling travel plans across the country, according to the news: he is unsure when he might arrive in Boston. If so, he'll rent a car and drive up.

"It's not that far," he says. No, not if you've flown in from California, I thought, glad not to have to drive in to pick him up, regardless of the weather.

There is a quick knock at the door, firm and knowing, followed by the doorbell, in case I hadn't heard the sharp rap on the wood. Not Vladimir and Estragon again, too confident. I feel dubious about going to see who it is but clearly they would know I am home – the car, after all.

And if I don't answer, whoever it is would be concerned why I'm not answering the door: a stroke perhaps? Lying dead from a heart attack on my bedroom floor?

It is not a neighbor or the police checking to see if I had seen two possible burglars in the area. It is Sybil, once again, who pushes past me with the aplomb of Attila the Hen – no Vladimir, only Estrogen – a white plastic shopping bag dangled in front of her.

"I told him to go to hell," she says, walking straight through to the kitchen. "I feel like celebrating."

She has brought take-out, in case I haven't had lunch yet – and if I had? – along with a couple of beers which she knows I don't drink (so they're all for her: pity, no sense wasting them).

I wonder for a brief flash how Henry's novel is going and think (for a fraction of that flash) how Sybil could make quite a character in a novel, if I ever choose to write one, if I could make her sympathetic.

She regales me with tales of her latest crisis as if having taken the bull by his balls she has somehow managed to extricate herself from the crutches of Fate.

I listen because I have no choice. Besides, by now I imagine Joyce will have left the library.

The cat food will have to wait.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

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