I'm thinking about entering a few excerpts from a couple of my novels in short story contests.
In this particular excerpt, though, I'm having trouble deciding where to end it.
Should I cut it off where he goes to the phone and has no one to call, or where his dad's ghost grabs his shoulder?
If I end it with his dad, should I add in these lines I've put in bold type to explain why he's always felt so cold toward his dad, or does that block the flow of passion in what he's been feeling toward his mom?
I'd appreciate any and all advice and suggestions.
Also: I start each chapter of the book with a few poetic lines from the narrator's journal, so the opening lines below should be centered and in italics, and are not part of the prose.
"When Spirits Speak," then, is my working title for this excerpt, and the story begins immediately after that:
Dogs don’t echo in the city.
Under a low, sodden moon, one far distant and solitary beast
called out to a world that had turned away.
His plaintive baying haunted me, echoing unanswered through the wooded hills.
His loneliness drew up into a soft little fist of tears inside my chest.
The evening was just gathering;
this poor empty creature would have a long time to cry uncomforted.
- Then I sensed forsaken spirits wandering lost among the trees around me,
keeping silent company,
themselves uncherished and unanswered.
When Spirits Speak.
It’s hard to think “was” about your mom.
I’d dropped down on the threshold, not quite inside, rocking a plain cardboard packing box on my lap. I was coming all apart, blubbering. I wanted so badly to hug it. I would never find the courage to open it.
Inside it: nothing, really. A few old tarnished and thread-worn nothings anyone else might have thrown away. Mom’s fuzzy blue robe she’d always worn at the table over her Nescafe Instant Coffee on my rare visits home. I’d tried so many times to buy her special percolators and gold filters and exotic coffee grinds from Jamaica and Guatemala and beyond, but she’d always had to have her instant. She’d lean in over her cup, embracing it with both hands, listening intently to anything I wanted to share, no matter how trivial.
Her glasses. Glasses she’d never take off. I’d caught her dozing off in them once and asked if she wanted me to take them before she passed out and scrunched them into her face. She’d told me she’d forgotten she’d had them on. She’d been so used to them.
Those glasses had known her better than I had. And now I didn’t deserve to touch them.
Her ring. A mother’s ring with a single faded birthstone. Mine.
Looking up and far away between the trees, I watched the deflating sun flatten as it fell.
With one last soul-draining sigh, it drenched the world in crimsons and blues that pierced my heart with the supernatural, and growled in the pit of my bowels.
It gave up and let go, drooping away, down behind the fuzzy edge of nowhere.
Its fading residue lingered, cherishing Nature’s farewells, like that moody iridescence you sometimes catch wandering among graves.
I held the carton, rocking it oh so gently on my lap. I watched out into the gathering night and have rarely felt so lost.
Her last moments weep through me even now; as they did back then, holding that box; as they have most nights ever since when I haven’t been able to sleep.
Sitting with Mom day and night before the end. Rubbing that blue swelling out of her feet, trying to chat, but muted by helplessness and guilt. Massage school had taught me how to love with my hands, but not how to fully express my heart; taught me how to help, but not how to heal someone truly and irrevocably broken. It had left me useless and choking in the shadow of inevitability.
I could remember Mom coughing a few times when I’d phoned her but I just hadn’t put it together. She’d called it just a little cold, or another time maybe her allergies acting up. Maybe it was mildew during rainy spells. How long had she known? How long had she suffered the incoming fears without telling me? Had she just been marching to her death, always the brave soldier, as my father had? Had I suspected, but shaken off the most dire possibilities, denied her mortality and simply prayed harder? How blind, how foolish had I been? Or had I just been too selfish, too wrapped up in my own stuff; off somewhere in another part of the country? Should I have pressed her on it?
I should have called her more. But it had hurt to call, to hear the distance growing between me and the woman who had once formed and guided, even been my whole world, and to know I was the one who’d been pulling away, leaving her alone and isolated. To hear a choking quality in her voice and wonder if I’d caused it by being an insensitive, self-centered jerk of a son, abandoning his mom when she’d needed him. She’d never even hinted; never would have. She’d never guilt me out that way. It hurts either less, or a whole lot more, to think her voice had maybe choked that way all through my childhood.
In the hospital I spent her final days and nights crushed by all of that and more.
That pallid, grey body in front of me had been my entire life; those split lips had taught me to speak. She’d been my model, my guide; my goal, and the only destiny I could imagine. She had home-schooled me back when everyone had thought I’d die first, that I would never grow up to see this moment.
Tubes digging into her everywhere, strapped down to her bed so she couldn’t pull them loose. I prayed she was completely out of it, where that total and undeserved degradation couldn’t reach her, the pain, the chapped dry mouth. But there was still some selfish little boy part of me that wanted her to know I was there, loving her, rubbing the awful blue swelling out of her ankles and feet, to know that she wasn’t alone.
Her doctors let me spend her last three days and nights by her bed, but told me she had no idea I was there, that rubbing her feet was just a waste of time, that I was doing it more for me than for her.
How could they know? She was my mom. She was hurting. I was losing her.
Sometimes Mom opened her eyes just a little, but she never seemed to notice any of the ruckus around her in the ICU. That helped me focus back in on true priorities. Sometimes she even tried to smile. The doctors said that was impossible, what with that horrendous fat tube taped down her throat; all the drugs keeping her shut down and out of it. So maybe she smiled only in my imagination, or whatever other realms my mind’s always carried me off to, but I still believe it. I was just beginning to suspect at that time, that my “imagination” might actually be much more than that. Like some silent, low-riding flatboat, plying the heavy-laden shadows across the River Styx to a land where the dead and dying hurt to share with the living, but can’t. That sometimes I saw things that wanted to be seen. Even if no one else saw them.
Did she really speak to me? I think she must have. I went into that hospital with no thought at all for my father, my heart long closed and sealed to him, but then came out knowing he had loved me. Where would that have come from if not from her? I remember her words. “Your father really loved you, you know. He just couldn’t show it. He knew you’d have to be tough to survive.” She’d never told me that before. Where else could I have heard it if not in some lost lucid moment in that hospital?
She told me, “When you first came home, all wrapped up in your tiny blue outfit, and your little blue blanket, all he saw was this bright round head with eyes that never wanted to close, peeking out over the rest of the world like you saw something maybe we didn’t. Your dad took one look at you and called you Moonface.”
Or I imagined she sighed. And then she added, “You were probably five years old before he stopped calling you that. He called you Moonface and BubbleBum. And sometimes still did back in our room late at night where you couldn’t hear him.”
How could she have grabbed my hand when she was all trussed up like that? She couldn’t have. So where is this memory coming from? “You have no idea how hard that was on him, Sweetie,” Mom confided through tears.
She looked away for a while.
Or maybe she didn’t. Then she told me, without turning back, “He knew those weren’t strong names for a man.”
And then she was gone again.
I couldn’t be making this up.
It feels too real.
It hurts too bad.
And yet all the while she was building a world for her frail little son, she had herself been sadly thwarted, cut off, diminished. She’d been the keeper of my keys, but in taking that on, she’d locked herself out of her own life and possibilities.
Then, as I’d survived, only because of her; and as I’d grown; I’d needed distance for my sake alone. I hadn’t meant to hurt her. I couldn’t let myself get choked off like she had, buried in a marriage, a small town, and motherhood, but I hadn’t wanted to bury her any deeper when I’d left. While I’d been off gallivanting all over everywhere, stewing over why everyone could commit to forever loves but me, the one woman who had always meant love to me had been dying.
I hadn’t even known it.
I’d raced, hell-bent, out of the childhood she’d worked so long, hard and selflessly to build and hold together, just as soon as my legs were big enough to carry me. I couldn’t wait to get away. I’d deserted the one woman who could never ever have deserted me.
Mom had pushed me off to study in another city, to learn to survive. “Your dad would’ve wanted you to.” She had forcefully cut the strings.
Now, a tumor the size of a grapefruit was eating away at her heart and lungs from behind, all wrapped up in the nerves from her backbone where surgeons couldn’t cut through to it. Her doctor and his team were standing right in front of me in the emergency room, face to face, telling me the tubes were just keeping her heart and lungs functioning, but that she wasn’t really alive. She’d never get better, never wake up or get out of that bed or open her eyes again. He was calling on me, the selfish son who’d abandoned her so long before, to finish the job. It was time; it was “what’s best for her” to pull the plug. He was asking me to kill my own Mom.
I stood there, all locked up inside, needing to do something right for her for a change, needing to end her suffering right now, this minute; but there I was, too, the little kid who used to hide behind the couch, waiting for the world to go away, and all I could do was bury us both in her past. Hold on to our history a little bit longer.
I recalled how much my one and only friend, Emma, had loved my mom. She’d always want to come over to my house to be part of our classes. Sometimes we’d pull little pranks on Teacher, like trading her pencil for one that was all eraser, or giving her an apple out of the bowl of plastic fruit. Sometimes I’d wad up paper and toss it at Emma’s head; an easy shot since she’d sat right beside me. I’d have to lean way back and curl my hand to keep from swatting her as I’d released. She’d know it was coming, let it hit her, but keep right on listening to my mother, enthralled.
Mom had played along, pretending to punish us by making us lick sheets of Top Value stamps that had come with her groceries, and paste them into her bulging little books. Once she’d collected a few million stamps in a dozen books or so, she’d trade them in for a pillowcase or a can opener or something.
Mom had known all the time that we’d enjoyed all that licking and slapping, making faces at each other as the sticky stuff had built up on our tongues. She’d rewarded good behavior with Bazooka Bubble Gum. We’d carried on her tradition then, saving the comics that came with the gum for quietly exploding battleships or whistles Dad would never let us blow.
Dad had saved the Raleigh coupons that had come with his cigarettes, too, but would never have traded them in for anything. That would’ve been like admitting we’d been poor. The fact that he’d had to let Mom get a job at Woolworth’s toward the end of his life must have been like unfurling the blazing yellow banner of his defeat.
Back in the hospital, the doctor’s mouth was moving and then pausing and then moving again, but he hadn’t known my mom.
Emma and I used to get so excited in those classes we’d both be waving our hands for recognition so we wouldn’t get lost in the crowds of other kids who weren’t there. Who else could have brought that out of two strange and silence-locked kids but my mom? She’d stand up in front of us so happy and proud.
This doctor didn’t know that about her. Cripe, he may have gone to med school, but he was practically still a kid himself; what could he know about anything? How could he just stand there, so calmly, with such deadly arrogance, and ask anything that mean and ugly of anyone?
There were ducks outside the hospital windows, but Mom couldn’t see them. Or maybe she could. Maybe that anesthesia set her free of her body, let her spirit roam out by the lake, or back to her roses with Dad. I watched one ratty, wounded duck, kind of auburn and tan with a twisted foot, limping around, and imagined Mom out there bending over and talking gently to it, maybe even trying to heal it, somehow magically uncurling its foot. But that was probably just my weird imagination. I’m a sucker for anything that limps.
“Did you hear what I said?” The doctor broke through. “Look. I know how hard this must be…
Where was all the joy Mom brought? And not just to me. Emma had laughed with a delightful little snorting giggle. She’d written with her right hand, but drawn with her left. Mom had called her her little Da Vinci. Her “second favorite genius.”
“Mr. Tierney, Denys, Mr. Tierney, we need a decision.”
I hugged Mom as she died, watched her inside and out, felt her turning blue, and cold. The breathing machine kept clacking out its rhythm, but all her vital signs zeroed out. She slipped away quietly and I felt her love. She was eager to get on with it, but I felt her love. She came back just long enough to plant words in my head. Her hands were tied to the metal frame of her bed, but I felt both of them slip around one of mine, and I felt from her, of all things, gratitude.
I felt so loved it hurt.
I heard her words. “Your dad says,” and she kind of laughed. “He says he plumb forgot to tell you he’s always been proud of you. He hopes you’ll forgive his little oversight.”
And then inside her, all tears melted; and her smile was absorbed into a smile so vast I had to turn away. In that moment I lost her.
I didn’t look over at the gang next door as I parted the curtains with as much dignity and aloofness as I could muster for appearance’s sake, and walked quietly out and away.
I could feel others watching.
They were holding themselves back. They were silent.
I walked out of Intensive Care, off the floor, to a quiet room near a bank of phones, where I cried, having no one to call.
I sat in that room wanting to be alone with my mom, but memories of my father kept forcing their ways in.
He’d had to fortify himself to come home to his family. I’d hear him out there in the driveway, belting out a robustly cadenced song about caissons rolling, and field artillery. No longing or reverence, just stampeding over the enemy with arrogant pride. He’d fought the Nazis on their own turf, hand-to-hand and face-to-face, but somehow come home with no stories, and no regrets. And least none he could bring into the house.
Mom and I would hear the war song and know where he’d been. We’d know he was coming in smelling of cigarettes and beer. He’d march to the vestibule, into the front room, and slam up against our alternate reality. I wouldn’t need to look up to watch his face and spirit sag as he was forced once again to acknowledge the son who would never be a hero. He probably figured if I didn’t actually watch him sigh, I wouldn’t hear it either.
I’d feel him staring at me as he greeted my Mom. Checking his disappointment at the door, stuffing his sense of loss into private pockets he thought we couldn’t poke into.
After a long moment of readjustment, of just standing there, putting his war buddies back on their shelves, he’d step the rest of the way into our home and, as much as he could, into our lives. He’d ease his sample case down onto the floor so slowly it wouldn’t make a sound. I’d try so hard to imagine his hand, hovering just over my head, almost ready to give me a little pat, and call me son; but not quite.
But then he would always ask my mom, “How’s the boy?”
At her funeral, I finally reached a point after all those years, all the guilt and the pain and loss, when I just couldn’t take any more. I was bending over her coffin when it all busted loose.
I started to bawl.
Then I felt a hand on my shoulder.
Even after all those lost years I still recognized it. It was my father’s, old Sergeant Carl’s tight grip. Of course my logic tried to fight that off for a moment, but that was no time for logic. Then our history tried to tell me that if dad was really there, if he’d returned from his grave with a message, he must have been telling me to “suck it up,” not to cry – that it’s not manly. It’s not tough, like a man had to be.
But all of that had to let go. There was no room in that moment for anything but love, and it was in a total state of love that I finally heard my dad; heard what he was, and what he had always been.
In words just as clear as if he’d been standing there, breathing, I heard, “Attaboy, Son. Let ’er rip! I wish I could have cried like that.”