I am alone in this house of death. The bright track lighting overhead does nothing to push back the gloom. Somewhere near me, sharp surgical tools cut into white, bloodless flesh. Faceless machines suck organs and fluids from open body cavities.
My lips curl back. I can almost hear the high pitched whine of electrical saws grinding their way through bone and gristle. I want to hold my hands tight over my ears to drown out the noise. Then, the Valium kicks in. Take a huge breath. Hold it. Let it out slowly so it makes no noise. Hands loosen and fall to my lap. A drop of sweat tickles its way through my eyebrow. Brush it away with the sleeve of my jacket.
So. Me. Waiting. My brothers and sisters are scattered to all points of the globe. Part of a great diaspora that, until now, included me. To them, the news of our mother’s death is inconsequential. A minor inconvenience.
“God, Jace. If only she’d waited a week or so. I could have made it for the funeral. I mean, I’ve got this big deal I’m working on,” said Ted, my older brother.
“Jace. I’ve got four kids,” said my sister, Alicia. “I’m working two jobs. What do you want me to do? I’ll send flowers.”
Who am I to judge? Seven children. Can’t recite their names without a crib sheet. Four ex-wives. None of them would spit on me to put out a fire.
And so it goes. Five kids and I’m the only one here. Those douchebags did find time to contact the family attorney to inquire about any possible inheritance.
He’s late. The handsome clock hovering over the casket-sized credenza says it’s 12:22. The acid in my stomach burns its way up to my throat. Eyes sting. Blink back the tears.
The arteries inside my eyes bulge in lockstep with the pounding of my heart. Feel like spitting on the floor. If I could tap dance, I’d jump up on that fucking desk and give it a little character. Take in another great gulp of frigid air. Got to watch the old blood pressure. Should have taken more Valium.
Someone tried too hard to make this room feel comfortable. Dark wooden panels cover the walls and should make this place warm and inviting. The desk facing me is as stout and sturdy as a church pulpit. The faint scent of lilacs and Lemon Pledge float on air so cold it gave me goose bumps when I walked in from the heat outside. Except for the computer screen, wireless keyboard and a square box of tissues, the desktop is bare. The familiar whirring of the computer’s fan almost drowns out the organ music that always seems to lurk about in places like this.
There is nothing personal here. No pictures of the wife and kids. No diplomas or certificates of achievement proudly hugging the walls. Almost as if a thief stole in at night and stripped out any clues that might reveal who works here. Dead. Sterile. Wonder if they left any fingerprints.
Another glance at the clock. Enough. Push up from the bottomless leather chair.
Sound of heavy breathing. Shoes brushing their way through heavy carpet. Papers rustling with his passage.
“Sorry. Sorry I’m late.” The funeral director. We’ve only talked on the phone. He offers his hand. Shake. His skin is cold and damp. A fish. He holds on a little too long. Pull my hand back, and as he turns to sit at his desk, scrub my palm on my pants leg.
Printed in black letters on a gold background, his plastic name tag boldly states, “Mr. Nathan Gooden, Funeral Director.”
He pulls the keyboard closer, clickety-clack. Looks up. Turns the big computer screen around so both of us can see it. Licks his lips. Looks at me again.
“Mr. Weatherall, I’m deeply sorry for your loss. I want to assure you that all of us here at Gooden, Plath and Waters Funeral Home are here to help.”
Delivered like a pro. The first line he ever learned in Cliches 101 at Funeral U.
He knows I’ve got money. Without money I’m just another asshole. With it, I’m eccentric. People love eccentric.
Already cast his hook and started to reel me in. Wonder how much I’ve missed.
“…of course,” he says, “you can go with the Heavenly Breeze casket and our Bronze Funeral Plan which includes a complimentary three-hour viewing of the deceased in our Loving Light Chapel.” He frowns. Here comes the upsell. “However, given your standing in the community, I heartily recommend our Platinum Package for only…” The price is just short of the cost of a new tricked out Lexus.
My hand goes up. He stops. “How much for cremation?” I ask. “Simple and sweet. Graveside service. No frills.”
Looks like he’s just bitten into a lemon. Until now, my mother was a gift. A windfall. Seventy pounds of payday wrapped up in a sack of wrinkled, yellow skin. He sighs. Shoulders slump. Smaller now, he whispers, “I’ll start the paperwork.”
Mercifully, my mother’s funeral is a wrap. The obligatory after services party is finally over. A few hours ago the old family homestead was filled with my mother’s friends and acquaintances. The Irish call this kind of gathering a “wake.” I call it the “Let’s celebrate because somebody died and it wasn’t me” party. There was sorrow here. Grief. Remorse and guilt. Sure. But mostly, relief.
My cheeks are red from being pinched and kissed by little old ladies wearing too much makeup and cheap perfume. They must have applied Walgreen’s best with a ladle. It clings to my clothes. Hell, I can taste it.
Funny thing. My mother’s name was never mentioned. Not once. Today she was, “the deceased” or “the dear departed.” Didn’t really die. She’s “off to a better place.”
Mrs. Barker, my ancient math teacher approached me as the party was winding down. Her 300 pound frame parted the throng like a snow plow mowing through a few inches of light powder. Her husband, Nate, shorter and half her size, tagged along in her wake.
“So Jace. You’ve been a naughty boy, I hear.” She smiled and waggled her finger at me. “Your momma was so proud.”
Yeah. I’m a huge success. Small town boy with big dreams makes good.
The Wonderkid. Rich Hollywood bigshot, a blockbuster screenwriter.
“Those books and movies and all,” she said, “then those lurid stories splashed across the covers of those awful tabloids.” She paused, catching herself. “Of course, I don’t read that trash. But I heard. Oh my, did I hear . . .” She dropped her head and shook it from side to side.
“Like to broke your Momma’s heart. All the promiscuity. The fights. The paternity suits. But she forgave you. I want you to know that. He’s always been high spirited, she’d say. He’ll grow out of it.”
“Well,” I said, “she’s with her maker now. I’m sure she’s looking down at us and smiling.”
Nate moved closer and nudged me. Tilted his head, swiveled it around like an owl. Made sure no one of consequence could hear him. His right eyebrow rolled up. Formed an upside down ‘V’ halfway up his forehead.
“Jace,” he whispered. “That Hollywood poontang. It’s as good as they say?”
I’m the right guy to ask. The serial fornicator of a long line of gorgeous actresses and models; willing participant in multiple orgies with strangers of indeterminate sex; liver of the good life; three-time graduate of the most famous rehab clinic in the country.
Mrs. Baker opened her mouth. Her face turned red. She whirled and bullied her way to the front door.
“Nate,” I said, “you wouldn’t believe.”
His face lit up all white teeth and smile. He shook his head. “Thought so,” he said.
There were the usual, “Jace. Got this story. Like nothing anybody’s ever wrote before. A blockbuster. Can you give it a read? Show it to a few people?”
I’d pull out one of my cards, the ones with my name, the number of a phone sex operation a friend of mine owns, and hand it over. “Gimme a call. We’ll do lunch.”
Alone again. The ancient refrigerator clinks and whirs. It is filled with casseroles, sandwiches, veggie plates, cookies, pies, cakes. Enough to feed my sorrow for a month. Let out a breath like I haven’t exhaled in a year. Never felt so alone. Or so at home.
I’m tired. A rag doll with all the stuffing torn out. Guess that’s how you should feel when one of the only people on earth who loved you dies. Especially after you’ve ignored her for over twenty years. Never really gave her a thought. To me she died twenty years ago. The day my brother Jeb was killed.
Stayed here for two days and nights mustering up the courage to enter my mother’s bedroom. And my old room, up the stairs and all the way to the back of the thinly carpeted hallway.
Slept on the musty old couch in the living room counting the tick-tocks of the giant grandfather clock in the foyer.
Pity-party’s over. Time to face the demons.
I shake myself like a dog after a bath. Nothing falls off so I’m good to go.
The wooden stairs creak and crackle under my feet. The sounds as welcome and comforting as an old pair of slippers. My mother calls my name. My brothers and sisters laugh and play tag in the woods behind the house. More ghosts whispering in the wind.
The bright red door to my room is closed. A hand painted sign hanging at eye level screams out a warning. Bright yellow letters on a jet black background. NO ADMITTANCE. WRITER AT WORK. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
Guess that would be me.
The brass doorknob is cool. Turn it. The latch snicks back into its chamber. The door swings open. I’m Sir Edmund Hillary about to plant the flag on Everest.
Another deep breath. Step in. I’m 6 again. 13. 17. Whatever’s on the other side of that doorway, it’s gone. Erased. At least for a few precious moments.
Everything is as it was. Only smaller. The four-poster bed on the far wall squats heavy and low, tries not to block the view from the large wooden-framed window hanging above it.
My multi-color patchwork quilt, all reds, blues and yellows, clings to the bed, military tight. The pillows push up like speed bumps.
Next to me, my prized book collection. Ten square feet of white wooden shelves bowed under the weight of high adventure. Strange, fascinating places and people. And the promise of thousands of boy hours of sheer enjoyment. In the middle, bracketed by red tape, my favorites. The books my brother Jeb gave me on my fourteenth birthday.
“These are yours now,” he said. “Over four hundred science fiction books and magazines. Friend of mine had ‘em at school and needed some cash. Knew they had your name on ‘em as soon as I saw them. Enjoy, little brother.”
Some are worn and tattered. Some with wormholes. Loved them all and treated them as carefully as if they were first editions. If my eyes grazing over the words in each one could harm them, they’d all been ground to dust years ago.
Slowly, I spin. Let my eyes take in a big bite. The little white dolphins hanging from the ceiling dance and swim again with a slight wave of my hand. They’ve been waiting for me. All these years.
The old cigar box sits on my desk next to the ancient, black typewriter. Flip it open. Smell of rubber erasers and pencil shavings fills the room. The cracked mirror on the wall sitting under crossed “genuine” Cherokee Indian arrows, the open closet with a young man’s clothes still hanging neatly in their places.
I thought she hated me.
The ancient shag carpet whispers under my feet. In front of me, my scarred and pitted chest of drawers. On top, a manila envelope with the words, “Treasure Beyond Measure” written in bold, black letters across its face dares me to pick it up and open it.
Sit on my bed and bounce a little. Hold the envelope in both hands. Inspect it as closely as if it is a bomb. Hands shake. Paper rustles. The rest of the room blurs, disappears. There is only me and the envelope.
The paper is brittle with age, its edges frayed and coffee colored. Open it slowly. Inside? Letters. Each addressed simply, “To Jace from Jace.” Fan through the stack with my thumb. Each letter numbered 1 to 10. A length of kite string cinched around the middle of the packet holds them together with a figure eight knot. Pull slowly on one of the loose ends. The knot disappears. Place the string carefully on the bed beside me.
In childhood scrawl, the first letter screams, “OPEN ME FIRST!” A date is scribbled in the upper left hand corner. The letter is forty years old.
My handwriting hasn’t improved much in all these years.
Scrape at the aging flap with my fingernails. The paper tears a little. I swear a little. The ancient glue gives up its grip. My finger underneath the flap. Lift. Slide it all the way to the other side. Breathe in the sweet smell of moldy loam.
Heart beats faster. I feel dirty. Like a peeping Tom.
Reach in. The years have been kind to the yellow, college-ruled paper inside. They look and feel strong and new.
Unfold the pages and press them flat. One last breath.
I am 11 years old. And I am a writer. That’s all we ever wanted to be. I wish for us a happy life. A wife and kids. And a lifetime of writing.
I want to remind you, in case you’ve forgotten, what writing means to you. I hope and pray that you are at least twenty times better at it by the time you read this.
For you, the filling of a page is exhilarating and fun. A blank page is a dare you can’t refuse and you feel like an endless, overflowing cup of words. They scramble and tumble out. They laugh and dance. Cry and pout. Glistening wet ink, slippery and slick like newborn babes.
Where they come from you don’t know. You only know that you can always depend on them to be there for you when you need them. They well up from the depths of some mystical source you’ve tapped into and they spill out, fashioning themselves into the shape of a thousand different stories.
They won’t stop. They are made of every color, idea and emotion. A glowing tapestry of words. Sometimes clear and warm as tears, they crawl down your cheeks and graze your mouth with a tickle and the taste of salt. Then inchworm their way to their proper places on the page.
They scratch and claw, screech and preach a hundred sermons to sinners who will never listen and never care. They come out smooth and sweet as ice cream on a warm summer’s day. Or ragged and ugly like a patchwork quilt of beggar’s rags with their ripe smell of the gutter. Dirt and despair cling to them like leeches fat and bloated with blood and corruption.
They pour from your pen, pushing and shoving anything and everything before them like Noah’s flood. And you feel good. Because wherever you go, you have the words. Your friends. Your passion. Your immortality.
That’s it for today. Mom’s calling me down to dinner and you remember how that is. So. From me to us. With all the years between, I will always be a part of you. Good night. I hope that, by now, we are rich and famous.
My hands lose their strength. The letter flutters to the floor. Fall back on the quilt my mother lovingly made for me so long ago. I have everything I ever wanted. And nothing.
Rick Jones has always known he wanted to be a writer. He began his writing career as a copywriter for one of the largest ad agencies in the Southeast. Served as Creative Director for a number of years. Then moved up to President/Creative Director/Partner for another big agency. Finally, the itch to write novels and short stories became unbearable so he took the leap. Quit his job to become what he calls, “a real writer.” Currently, he writes 2,000 words a day, every day, and is finishing up his first novel in the YA genre. His website, www.rickjoneswriter.com is currently under construction. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.