the matter of mind

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

"Miens of Existence" is the coming together of two stories that take the reader on adventurous journeys of the mind and heart. through a blending of genres, science fiction, memoir, fantasy and spirituality, together the book delves into deep questions about the nature of reality and the power of love. it leaves the reader to speculate about whether these might be revelations from some place unknown or simply the product of an imaginative or warped mind.

in the first story, “The Matter of Mind,” a man laments the impending empty nesting by his son. as the story transitions from chapter to chapter, and he moves through memories, dreams and mysteries, his son continues to age and his reality continues to transform. what is this man experiencing? is he in conflict with reality or is reality itself changing?

 

 

 

The Matter of Mind

 

A Short Story by Alan M. Weber

 

 

One

 

 

“He’s leaving. Soon he’ll be gone, off to college. And I’ll be all alone.” He shifted in his bed and for a moment dejectedly returned his clouded gaze to the random television image. “That kid was everything to me. He grounded me, taught me how to love.” After taking another sip from one of the soda cans at his bedside, he slumped back down stiffly so that he was now revisiting the well inspected crack in the ceiling. “I know he sometimes thought that my trying to be a mother and a father to him, especially after the divorce, was unmanly, but he made a man, a true man, out of me. Hey, when he was little, I was his hero. And we had such good times together.” He wasn’t crying, he seldom did, except at almost anything on television, but at the feeling of his eyes moistening he almost instinctively curled up in his familiar fetal position. “It was hard, and even harder becoming a single father. Sometimes I didn’t know what to do, how to understand him, how to help him. Sometimes we argued, as fathers and sons do. But we always worked it out.” He set up the pillows for sleeping, but after the several naps he had already taken during that day, he was too restless. “We were so close. I know we were. I must have done something right because now he’s on the verge of manhood, and he’s a good and a healthy and a popular young man, smarter than his dad ever was.”  The very little comfort that thought had provided him did little to relax the restlessness, so he repositioned himself again and refixed his stare toward the t.v. screen, and past the shadow that his eyes failed to acknowledge.

After a few blank seconds, thoughts reformed. “But after sixteen.... He didn’t want to hang out with his dad anymore. He had his friends and his girls and he wanted to be cool. I used to be the cool dad, but I guess I wasn’t anymore.” The words replaying in his mind and then fading into subconscious free association, he tossed off his blanket, allowing the stagnant air to cool his clammy body. Ironically, with that a cooler head also momentarily prevailed. “I don’t blame him. I was like that myself when I was his age... except I didn’t have many friends or girls when I was sixteen. And I still don’t.” He had, in his eyes, been the stoic, self-sacrificing father for all those years. He was tired. He closed those eyes. It was too hard to resist the lamenting anymore. “All I wanted to do was to go to a movie with him sometimes, but he told me that teenagers don’t do that anymore, and besides, he didn’t have time. I wanted to still be his pal, but he said that dads can’t be pals, they’re just fathers.” His face turned from bitter to blank, but then the slightest of smiles emerged. “He did let me cook for him. And I loved being able to do that. It was kind of a way of saying ‘I love you,’ for both of us, since neither of us were very good at that.” He stopped to digest that insight, then continued. “And we could watch movies together and at least be parallel pals while we were eating. I loved buying him things; they didn’t have to be expensive, except of course for that car. And I got to help him with homework and studying.” A small hint of that pride that had made the pain tolerable poked through. “Maybe that wouldn’t be much of a memory for other fathers, but school wasn’t easy for him at first, what with the learning disability and all, yet he ended up on the Honor Roll. That made me feel useful, and it got him ready for this.”  Confusion set in. What was “this?” He held onto the thought long enough to refocus and finish it, thanks to the power of the universal ambivalence of fatherhood. “... to be successful... and to leave.”

He shook his head, almost imperceptively and for no one’s benefit. “No, I’d rather think about the good times, the past. I wish I could go back and relive them with him.”  Memories started flooding his limited onsciousness. “God, I remember it like it was yesterday. When he was little he never cried. Didn’t have to... we took good care of him, my wife and I.” The intermittent thoughts of his ex-wife had grown somewhat fonder over the years. He never regretted the decision to divorce, but he couldn’t escape the reality that the loneliness he had feared had led him here. “I was such a typical man.” A slight chuckle interrupted his mumbling. “Well, maybe not a typical man. I mean, I felt as helpless as our baby son. But I watched over him diligently until his mother got home. Sometimes I would put him in the swing to watch a Sesame Street video, which gave me my only chance to shower and eat. But usually I would bundle him up and take him out in his stroller or drive him around in circles to get him to fall asleep.” His eyes began to droop with the notion. “You know, I wasn’t as well equipped. She had the maternal instincts and, better than that, she had the, uh....” Suddenly those eyes took on an all but forgotten twinkle. “... the maternal mammaries, that’s it. Memories... mammaries....”  Momentarily amused, he repeated the refrain a few times until they dissolved into incoherent whispers. And in an instant, the faint smile that had briefly hijacked his face faded back to darkness. “Shit, where was I?” 

“Oh, yeah, that face, that smiling little mischievous face. He had my eyes, my chin, my expressions... no matter what anybody said. People used to come up to us, to me, to comment on how happy he looked. It was hard work, I should have told them, but the best work I ever did.” A hint of resolve struggled against the recurring bleakness. “And when I had to do it alone, I stepped up.” Resigned to another fitful if not sleepless night, he summoned the will to prop himself up. From this readjusted vantage point the shadow looming over him was virtually inescapable. But reality wasn’t. “I remember that routine we had, every day bringing a different place. One day it was Adventureland, one day it was The Kiddie Box, next day it was the local zoo, then came A-Maze-Ment, then it was the stuffed animal store. Always something to do.... I was always there for him.”  A tear welled up in the corner of his eye, finally dropping to the well-worn pillow. “I was there....”

 

Two

 

And now the water, cold and unavoidable, showered the inner tube as he tried as best he could to shield his squealing and giggling son. The “Rambling River” ride at Sesame Place was his favorite refuge from stress, a slow ride on which his son grudgingly accompanied him, contingent on the promise that they would then go back to the “big boy” (presumably as opposed to old man) rides once it had completed its round. It was a beautiful summer day, which must have made for a comfortable and scenic drive to Pennsylvania, although he couldn’t really recall it. What he did seem to recollect was that the destination had been kept a surprise from his son, who was beaming at the sight of Elmo in the plaza by the gates. But it wasn’t just his son’s favorite vacation spot, it was his, too, simply for that smile. Nothing matched the excitement or comfort his son felt about anything non-food related bearing the name “Sesame.” He would watch the videos endlessly, collect the figurines obsessively and wreak havok with the stuffed dolls in stores containing them. His first music icon, well before gods of thrash metal, was Elmo, and first crush, long before his dalliances with the flesh, was Prairie Dawn. They were reaching the underpass now, and dutifully, if not frantically, father was hand-paddling to steer the stubborn tire to the section outside the climactic torrent. Of course, once again he was unsuccessful, but he was the only one who really minded. As the exit came into view, he, nonetheless, would have preferred staying for another loop, but his son was already reaching his arms out to be lifted off and led, generally from behind, to his next adventure.

After drying off, for whatever reason, given the hotness of the day and the promise of so much more drenching to come, it was on to the wave pool, a somewhat less relaxing spot for a father overprotectively clinging to his little boy in the face of the periodic unloosing of the tides. It was distressing seeing so many other young children left by their guardians to high currents and pimply-faced lifeguards, but his son, despite reaching for the rush and risk of freedom, would have to wait a little longer until his father was ready to let go. And when Charybdis had finally subsided, and calm returned to the crowded waters, there was the laughter whose music could beat “Elmo’s Song” hands down. He would have to endure this cycle of the tides three more times before his son was finally ready to move on. Between the sapping of his energy and the soaking of his body, he could think of more personally pleasurable ways to vacation, but, even so, he was already aware of how much he would cherish moments just like these, when he could hold and protect his child, once they would be outgrown, not by him, of course, but by his son.

Being no daredevil, he, despite his son’s disappointment, felt secret relief each time his little one didn’t quite measure up to the line that would have allowed them admission to one of the more terrifying rides. In being a dad, he believed, there was a fine line between showing enough strength to inspire security and enough honesty to admit fear, but, fortunately, this other line served to delay such calculations for at least one more year. There was, however, one ride that did require him to step up, quite literally, a bit too high for his comfort, along a twisting staircase leading to three “mini-slides,” undoubtedly designated as such, he figured, by some female overseer who was in the habit of underestimating size. So, with him surrounding his son carefully, they made their way along with the crush of the crowd up the steps and to the landing. At the top, they were faced with the critical decision of which death defying slide to take, a decision that would take careful analysis of... oh, his son just pointed at the middle one, so they got on line and somehow survived the twelve seconds of wet gravitational pull and ultimate splash. Like an astronaut at the end of his mission, father, like his son before him, was helped, reeling and stumbling, through the two foot high currents to shore.

As he and his son were dressing for the highlight of the day, the show, and his son was in no immediate danger from this dry clothing, he had a chance to think. Over the years, he had cultivated the ability to identify dreams at least enough to wake himself from them when desirable by exerting some sort force of will. And although leaving this treasured place was anything but desirable, he had started to wonder why everything seemed so oddly coherent and real. So, with regretful anticipation he tried to awaken, and tried again, expecting for his mind to resurface in bed, or at least in a different dream, probably a more familiar one of nightmarish desolation. But no, this was no dream. Somewhere in his semi-conscious the words he had last uttered, “I was there,” resounded ironically, because, in fact, he was there, where his desperate wishes had somehow brought him. He didn’t know how or why, and instantly didn’t care. And it was all just as it had been, all except for the pleasant erasures of his chronic anxiety and of his ex.

This would be their third visit to “the show” on this day. What could merit return visits more than the spectacle of seasonal employees dressed in furry suits singing and dancing to familiar anthems about the likes of cookies and rainbows and trash?  His son was enchanted. With slight embarrassment but a call to fatherly duty, he guided his son through every musical number and letter. And, as the last notes faded into the late afternoon, suddenly, there came the most harrowing yet exhilarating ride of them all, as his father, ever the matchmaker, grabbed him up, tucked him under his arm, and ran him down to the stage like a halfback shedding tacklers (or in this case other parents dangling or dragging their own children) so he could be lifted to the stage to be reunited with and kissed again by none other than the alleged Prairie Dawn herself! His son was in heaven, which is where he wondered he himself might be.

Last on the day’s agenda was the grand catharsis, the sundown parade along the replica of Sesame Street itself. But first, of course, they had to stop at one of the Sesame Place stores, where his son could add to his precious collection of mini-likenesses of the heroes of his world, of which dad could still count himself as one. His son began to line up, then animate the various characters, and the manager was gracious enough to allow him to spread out on the floor and engage his imagination. Finally, as curbside spots along the parade route were filling up, dad asked him to pick one to take home. After rounding them all up protectively, his son inspected each with care, finally putting some back in some random place from which his dad could replace them to their origins. Now two were left, yet another Elmo, this one posed in a friendly wave (and not the kind they had recently escaped and dried off from), and a Grover strumming a guitar. Dad did suggest that since he had so many Elmo’s that Grover might be a nice addition to the family, whereupon his son tightened his grip on both. And so, of course, they would have each other’s company on the long drive home.

Dusk, in shades of gold and purple, was setting in over Sesame Place. They hustled over to the “street” and, with good fortune, found a big enough gap near the fabled trash can. Within minutes, the festivities began, replete with cheerleaders and floats, bright colors and what passed for music. And as Big Bird and The Count and Oscar the Grouch and even Prairie Dawn passed by, his son, who had laid his tired head in his father’s lap, fell asleep, his father stroking his hair and, in this surrounding of noise and excitement, feeling a rare and satisfied sense of calm.

 

Three

 

“Wait a minute!” he suddenly called out, as he unconsciously reached around for something to drink and discovered an almost empty can of cola by the bedside. “He’s not leaving... he left already. It’s been, oh, I don’t remember. What am I thinking? He’s gone... been gone.” He tried to concentrate on his thoughts, raising somewhat the volume of his jumbled soliloquy to drown out another voice. “How long is it?  A year... two...? But that would mean... no, he’s not still in college, can’t be. Is he?”  Oblivious to the murmur that seemed to attempt an answer, he was instead lost in visions of a graduation. Then more images invaded his mind, appearing and fleeting quickly: a woman dressed in white with flowers, a whimpering baby being placed gently in his arms.... “Am I dreaming now?” he asked, not to the otherworldly voice that defied recognition, but to some internal pathway to reality. This mental montage he was experiencing was certainly more dream-like than the coherent journey he had just taken. And he had liked that one so much better. There was none of the anxiety rush that was overtaking him now. He wanted to go back there. But how?

He tried to concentrate on his surroundings. It all started to look vaguely familiar: the old porcelain lamp beside him, the conspicuous crack in the ceiling, the almond-colored venetian blinds with the missing slat that let in the room’s only light, and then the dresser, with the faded golden handles that directly faced the large and half-empty bed that was his quilted cage. His eyes were drawn, despite some enigmatic inner resistance, to two objects that sat atop the dresser, a mirror and two picture frames. Cautiously he raised himself to make contact with his reflection. He recoiled at the image of a worn and wrinkled face looking back. “No, it can’t be, this isn’t real,” he moaned as he buried his face in his pillow. He heard shuffling and, again, another voice following his own. Courageously, he turned his head to peek at the photos, but a shadowy figure had emerged quickly to obstruct his line of vision. It kept expelling words, some of which he could make out... “matter,” “here” and “wreck-something.” 

He struggled to look past the intruder, finally catching a glimpse of the hinged double-frame. One photo was of a boy, his boy, his bright eyes and warm smile momentarily exorcising the dark and cold from the imprisoning room. The one facing it was of a man. Could it have been himself?  No, the hair and the nose were all wrong, he thought, but there was something familiar, something that almost mocked him. He continued to stare at it, increasingly blankly, or at least it seemed so on the outside, although his inner vision was now struggling to find focus. But something was in the way again, and his frustration externalized. He grunted and craned his neck, when suddenly he felt hands on it. Fearing strangulation, he began flailing. He kept lashing out, even after it had become clear that whatever sense of choking he now felt was self-induced. For as long as his will would allow, he held out, but weariness led to surrender. He took a hard, relenting swallow, and soon a deeper darkness set in, and, at last, he was asleep.

 

Four

 

There was a certain deja vous quality to his desperate attempts to find his way home. He wandered, disoriented, through darkened streets and corridors, fighting anxiously with his memory, until he came upon what he identified as his apartment. Somehow he knew it was temporary, a shelter that he had to remain in until he could return to what was once a home that had been lost, or at least to escape to a place where he might really belong. As he tried to reacquaint himself with the many rooms, cold and littered and in utter disrepair, he quite naturally came upon his parents. He was, inexplicably, especially glad to see his father, as it seemed like it had been a long time, although his father hardly acted like it. What seemed like a conversation ensued, but whatever they discussed, across the distance that had characterized their relationship, was mostly a blur. It did seem his father had been talking about dreams, and since he rarely if ever spoke about his own, his son felt safe in assuming that it had something to do with his. And now his ex-wife was the one standing next to his father, going on about how the place needed cleaning and fixing, while his father was somehow being pulled away into some sort of vacuum. He wanted to reach out in a hug and bring him back, but he couldn’t move his arms, and soon found himself alone in the kitchen, except for some chicken that had been left out. The kitchen had some familiar elements, but seemed awfully small. He attempted to escape to another place or time, but the more steps he took, the further the end of the long, narrow confines seemed. As frustration turned to panic, he squeezed his eyes shut, and when he looked again he was standing in what he took to be his bedroom.

His first thought, after the briefest of inspections, was to go to bed. He laid down, propping up the pillows and reaching his hand out for a soda can, but, feeling around, he found none. There was no comfort to be found here, he realized. That’s when he heard a voice. This one was clear, and child-like, calling up to him from beyond and below the corner window. He got up and walked over. Opening the blinds, he saw familiar faces, those of several of his childhood playmates who had recently come to mind. The one calling out to him was the one acknowledged as the leader of the pack, the one whose obituary he thought he remembered having come upon recently. But his eyes were particularly drawn to another among them, a young person he thought he should recognize, who had a familiar look, but whom he couldn’t quite place here. Anyway, they invited him to come out and play, but for some reason he said he couldn’t, with a regret that haunted him as they left. He didn’t want to see them go, especially the one who seemed misplaced.

He closed the blinds and went back to bed. Still unable to get comfortable in what had usually been his customary sanctuary, he began to examine his environment more critically. What he had taken as his room held pieces of his childhood, but they didn’t quite fit. He noted the posters of Roger Maris and Sandy Koufax. Did he actually have posters then? He saw his toy shelf, stocked with old baseball and board games. There was the green Strat-O-Matic box, with its math homework-like statistical baseball game. And right next to it was good old Electric Baseball, with its little plastic players doomed to hop and fall randomly upon its vibrating metallic field like demented rabbits. He had always envisioned something a bit more satisfying, something mostly indescribable, something wherein he would be looking out over a simulated field of realistic looking players designed to take his managerial orders. And yet here it was somehow, a computer game so realistic that the pixilated players actually doffed their caps to him as they entered the simulation. As Kate Smith broke out with “The Star Spangled Banner” on the stereo speakers, he became aware of another, somewhat less bombastic voice, coming from the small black and white RCA television by the window with the fire escape. Despite the distorted and snowy image, standing in less than sharp contrast to the computer graphics that now faded from view, he immediately recognized Soupy Sales. Too lazy to get up and adjust the rabbit ears, he reached for a remote, but instead found a cap pistol, which he held in his lap, where he began to play with it fondly, as the channel changed from “The Soupy Sales Show” to “I Dream of Jeannie.” He kept himself busy with this for a while, until his parents walked in on him embarrasingly to fluff his pillows. Upon their leaving, he fumbled for the soda by his bedside again, and this time a bottle of grape Nehi appeared, which he proceded to spill a portion of on the white sheets.

After drinking the remainder, he had to relieve himself, so he grudgingly got up and began an increasingly urgent hunt which finally led him to a dirty, seatless toilet with no flushing mechanism standing in the midst of a mingle of family and unknown others. He didn’t see his father among them. With some disgust but undeterred by necessity, he quickly did his business. Now standing naked, he made his way, through a crowd which had completely ignored his presence, back to the bed, or at least a bed. Overwhelmed and disheartened, he swallowed hard and closed his eyes.

When he opened them again, however much later, maybe an instant, the scene had entirely changed. The walls were  now blackened and beginning to crumble. Feeling the bed giving way, he lept up, knowing he had to get out, knowing he never belonged here. He headed for the fire escape, but his fear of heights overtook him and he grabbed onto the railing as if his life were in the balance. Hugged to the wall, daring to look down at a receding and dizzying point of impact, he then managed to turn his head just enough to locate the band of kids trudging up the hill and disappearing toward what he figured to be the schoolyard. There was either fall or flight now. If he was right about his circumstances, falling would wake him from this nightmare, but if he was wrong.... He tried to find a fingerhold in the brick, but he couldn’t hold on any longer. With the first sensation of terrifying free fall, his reality flickered, but didn’t fade to the salvage of wakefulness, leaving him with only one option. He willed himself to resist the forces of doubt and gravity and wing it. And so he flew, with little claim to grace, to and over that hill to catch up with his friends. Despite a few scary dips along the way, when his concentration or belief momentarily lapsed, he landed, or more like materialized, in the school itself.

As he stood inside the stairwell, looking through the grating of the generic metal staircase that held a faint glimmer of familiarity, a new sense of panic set in, not for his own safety, but for that little boy whom he imagined to be lost. Would he know where his room was and would he make it in time for the test? He had to find him quickly. There was no time to climb each step, he had to take them three at a time, five at a time, propelling himself with the bannister until he had reached the top. He began to run down the empty hall, crying out and opening doors. The rooms were pitch black, not just unlit, but foreboding. Ahead he saw the kid who had called to him. When he caught up, he asked him where the boy he was supposed to protect was. But the only response he got was a lifeless stare. Desperate, he shook his old playmate, who crumbled into dust. The shock sent him reeling... and he emerged, in a pool of sweat and a tangle of blankets. As if reflexively, he took hold of the unopened can by his bedside.

Blurrily, his eyes searched for the ceiling crack that had become his Polaris. He couldn’t find it. Instead, his vision retreated inward, to a party the night before, in which he had been reunited with a beautiful young woman, “the one,” whom, by destiny or desire, he somehow felt he had belonged with. Suddenly his reflections became deeply emotional. He never thought he would see her again, for however long it had been since they must have been together. He recalled previous dreams, probably from that time, that had turned to despair at the prospect of losing her and living a life alone, a nightmare since borne out. But somehow now she was back, and the hole had been filled. It had been a most unexpectedly romantic and passionate night, he seemed to recall, and at the thought he stirred, causing him to brush the soft, warm skin of someone, maybe, probably, hopefully that same young woman, laying beside him.

He tried to remember the sex, but it wasn’t coming to him. He figured that it might as well now, so, shutting out that voice that revisited the background, his hands reached under the blanket and began to caress her nightgowned body as she started to move sensually to his touch. He ran his hand down from her now blonde hair to the lacy neckline of her negligee, and then inside it, fondling her smooth breasts as she began to purr and slowly awake. He kissed her, gratefully, and then reached for the hem of the knee-length garment, which slowly rode up her incomparable thighs with the touch of his fingers. He could feel his arousal, which usually took so much work but now felt so natural, as his hand reached her tiny panties, already moist to his touch, and began to stroke her as she writhed and moaned and parted her legs. Now moving the covers, he stopped to take in the perfection of her body and the pale beauty of the face he must have known so well, set off so strikingly by the seductive flow of her long, dark hair.  Already naked, he rolled on top of her, reached for a hard and throbbing penis to slide inside her awaiting, wet and shaven pussy, and, despite some desperate struggles, of course woke up.

 

Five

 

His eyes unblurring, his genitals tingling, feeling frustrated and groggy, he soon became aware of a shadowy figure hovering near his bedside, almost blocking his view of the crack, still there, his grounding on the ceiling. He tried, seemingly again, to process the face, and the words eminating from it, but fighting through the confusion and distress was too much for him and he looked away. After some more words, and a touch that startled him, the invasion of his senses ceased and this appearance of reality took its turn.

He noted a chilling breeze and a flood of sunlight. Someone had opened the window and pulled up the blinds! Was it that shadowy figure, sneaking into his room when he was least aware to frighten or abuse him? He pulled up the covers, to insulate himself from the cold, then further, over his face, to block out the intrusion of daylight, and finally above his head, completely enshrouding him, to hide him from harm. He was momentarily free of this waking nightmare, this limbo of shadows and contradictions, until he felt the blanket being pulled from his face and tucked around his neck. Again he feared that he was about to be strangled, but with no further pressure applied, he found he was now in fact able to breathe better. As he took in a deep breath, he smelled something. The next thing he knew some kind of restraint was being placed over him. He reached to resist it, and felt the legs of what he figured out, after some degree of lucidity had also reawakened, was a bed tray, upon which he saw, after some craning of his neck from his still prone position, a bowl of some kind of food. He felt hunger, but could he chance that this wasn’t some poison courtesy of his tormentor? He flung the tray from his bed, taking some pleasure in the empowering sound of clatter he had effected. The voice that followed, one that seemed stridently disapproving in its tone, was far less pleasurable. But after some more sounds, of scrambling around, had subsided, he turned back the covers, freed for the moment by having won this battle.

Triumphant and unencumbered, he found himself temporarily more relaxed. And so it was for a few precious minutes. But finding himself could only exist as a counterpoint to losing himself, and the brief visit of whatever it was that had passed as lucidity was now over. Panic once again washed over him. “Where am I... really?” he demanded of himself, as he tried to make sense of the virtual blackness containing him. He frantically searched his surroundings, lurching and twisting in his bed now, to find something familiar, something that would shine some light. His eyes, as if of their own mind, shot up to the ceiling and that curious crack that for some reason seemed significant. He stared at it as time stood still, as aware as possible of the little taste of comfort it brought. Finally, although still in an agitated state, he purposefully tore his eyes from the ceiling, struggled to a side position, and surveyed the rest of the room. He first saw the window, shut and with almond-colored venetian blinds closed over it, with only the slightest hint of illumination coming through a broken slat. Next to it was some sort of metal object with handles and wheels, a little like a shopping cart but without the basket.

Continuing counter-clockwise, he came to a mirror, but for some reason someone had covered it with a large maroon drop cloth. That was at very least curious, more likely sinister, he thought. Then came the dresser, a timeworn but still imposing oak piece, upon which he saw a men’s jewelry box, some mysterious medical paraphernalia, and a photo frame... no, two photo frames. The larger one was hinged, something that the sharper pieces of his puzzled mind wondered if he still was. It held two pictures half-facing one another, that of a child on the left and of a man on the right. First his eyes moved leftward, and stayed there for some time, squinting and searching. “I feel like I should know that kid. I think I must have just seen him somewhere, but where?” he begged himself. The smiling face looking back at him elicited a strange reaction, a mixture of joy and despair. Elusive glimmers of recognition taunted him until he was finally forced to look away and, after summoning up enough courage, he turned to the man. At first there was no reaction, no recognition. But the longer he looked, the more inexplicably agitated he got. He started shaking his head while murmuring “no, no.” And then the world disappeared into blackness. He fumbled around for his pillow and shoved his face into it. And for the first time in a long time, he began to sob. Unexpectedly, he felt comforting hands on his shoulders. They were accompanied by that voice, and he could distinctly make out one word, “yes.” When he dared look around again, his hysterical blindness had disappeared, and so had the room.

 

Six

 

The scents of sweat and popcorn within the arena, the screams and chants of the crowd, and the discomfort and closeness of the conjoined folding chairs all combined to create a backdrop of sensations. Intrusively manspread on the seat next to him was… his son, a twelvish year old boy sporting a filled out wrestling shirt and a distinctly matured yet still familiar face. He drew in his leg to give his son room, and shifted his eyes up toward the ring. But he wasn’t watching, not yet, he was now remembering. He himself had grown up watching wrestling, but though it remained a guilty pleasure, he had been determined to keep it away from his little boy until old enough to be able to distinguish real from fake violence, and to have a fighting chance of growing up undesensitized to it. But one day his son announced his discovery of it through a friend whose father was somewhat less circumspect, and the preteen was quite surprised to find that his own dad was very well versed in this testosteronic soap opera. In fact, it became the one thing that the young man who professed such distaste for school allowed his father, the Professor, to actually teach him. It became their instrument of bonding. And it allowed Dad to step out of character and be the raucous, red-blooded father of his son’s dreams. They waved signs, initiated chants and revelled in the innocuous obnoxiousness. And here they were now at ringside, in this poorly lit, non-air conditioned warehouse that one Saturday a month was magically turned into a gladiatorial arena, well, close enough to have their indecent heckles heard by the combatants, most often the “good guys” who suffered the bulk of their mischievous wrath. Sometimes they even got to be part of the action, through flying bodies, counter-taunts or at very least some of the sweat. He looked over again at his son, who was in the midst of a one-sided shouting match with a Day-Glo-painted demon in spandex, one of those “good guys” in this twisted universe, and realized just how big his boy had grown and deep his voice had become since… when? It was no longer just his uncushioned butt that was feeling some sense of discomfort.

Suddenly the hall went black. Such a dramatic ploy was not uncommon at wrestling events, so, rather than anticipate the coming of yet another dimensional change, he sat there in anticipation and darkness. Time ticked away, and just when the first feelings of doubt began to creep in, there was a white light. He was relieved when he recognized it to be a spotlight, not the other kind. Out of the spotlight, now engulfed in smoke, was the champion, adorned in a garish, glittering robe, upon which his long platinum blond hair cascaded. The sneering strut to the ring elicited catcalls, from pretty much everyone in the audience, with two gleeful and oppositional exceptions. He and his son continued to cheer as the champ had his vivacious, half-dressed valet, who, truth be told, was the real target of their devotion, open and remove his robe. Now, had this been a major federation, rippling bronzed muscles would have appeared. But this being a small indy promotion, what was revealed instead was the pasty, bony body, perhaps a hundred and sixty pounds soaking wet, of someone whom they actually knew pretty well, not only from passing conversations at previous cards, but from running into him at the mall and at his day job in the supermarket produce section.

The match itself was nothing to write home about, or anywhere else really. But it was never about the wrestling holds themselves. It was about holding on to each precious opportunity to further the bonds and create the memories for when he would have to wrestle with his own demons, anticipating future days of loneliness and regret. After the match had ended in a bit of scripted controversy that reconfirmed for both father and son that they could do a far better job with the “booking,” the time had come for intermission. Together they got up to stretch their now nearing equally-lengthed legs and mingle with the stars. They had already collected autographs and signed photographs from many of them, all of which he had carefully stored for his son in a bound leather keepsake. And it had become quite noticeable within its pages that where once his son was pictured with the muscular arms of imposing would-be role models flexed next to him, he now preferred posing with the somewhat less muscular arms of decorative would-be lingerie models draped around him. “He’s growing up,” he said to himself as he watched his son do a fair imitation of flirting, feeling a mixture of admiration and lament... and jealousy, as he had to confront the reality that he himself had aged right along with his son and so those sexy young women were now pretty much out of his league, too.

Before they returned to their seats, he asked his son if he was hungry. “Nah, Dad, I’m still kind of stuffed from all that ‘Foodies.’” 

“Oh yeah, ‘Foodies’ drive-in, the first stop on our wrestling day itinerary,” he thought to himself. He always tried to make it a special day together, and this place was paradise for a fast food gourmand. They didn’t have a franchise too close to home, but, fortunately, there was one not too far from “The Sportatorium.” What made it so special was that his son could survey not only their “drooliscious” menu of burgers, footlongs and tots in every guise and combination, but their cute teen waitresses on skates while waiting. They would then smuggle their stash into the arena and chow down on their kingly fare while the other suckers had to settle for their plebeian hot dogs and popcorn. Good times.... As he tried to conjure up a memory of having actually been there this day, he now realized that he wasn’t hungry either, the taste of a Foodies famous “Bunsen Burger” now repeating on him. But, of course, he had to buy his son the obligatory slushie, a blue slushie to be exact. What could he say? It went with the routine, and it was always about the little things... the things that made his kid, and by extension himself, happy in the moment.

The flashing light indicated that the matches were about to continue. They excused themselves through a thicket of legs as they made their ways back to their center seats. As the entrance music blared, there was another flickering of lights, but this one seemed different and misplaced. At first he attributed it to a glitch in the makeshift overhead lighting, but he couldn’t shake the sensation that something in the ambiance had changed. He turned to his blue-tongued boy, intending to ask him if he shared a similar feeling, but was stopped cold by the presence of adolescent whiskers under the icy blue smear. His son was not the twelve year old whom he ha come in with, not that he could actually recall their having come in, he was now probably fifteen. “Dad, you’re gonna miss this,” his son warned him while trying to redirect him back to the champion tag team entering the ring.

This was too much. Now his boy was getting older right before his eyes. What had been discomfort was now nearing desperation. “Make it stop!” he cried within his mind. And just like that, it all vanished.

 

Seven

 

He was being fed, and definitely not anything like a Foodies Burger. It was a lot less tasty and awfully mushy. And there was that man on the other end of the spoon. He could swear he knew that man, from his dreams or his waking nightmares... someplace. He didn’t resist this time, he was undeniably hungry, unlike in.... An image of another place or time fled as fast as it came, leaving the thought dangling. He began the process of reacclimating himself just as the man had finished, handed him his soda, and moved from view. He took a hard swallow and tried to gather his thoughts. He knew this place. He knew the bed and the ceiling and the TV. He saw that there had been some changes to the window and the mirror, some form of covering, and wondered why. But there was something nagging, something about pictures, something unfinished. He scoured the room looking for that something. His eyes came upon a picture hanging on the wall above the well-worn dresser. It was an odd but familiar painting of melting clocks. The artistry and color pleased and fascinated him, but the more deeply he was drawn into it, the more disturbing those clocks became. He quickly looked away, knowing that this wasn’t the kind of picture he had in mind anyway.

As he sagged, discouraged, in the bed, his eyes now level with the dresser top, his mind’s eye took over and steered his view left and to two golden picture frames. There was a large one, with two photos, one of a boy and one of a man, and beside it was a smaller one holding just one photo, that of a boy, but a different boy. He tried to make some sense of this. The man... he kind of reminded him a little of that man who had just fed him. Maybe that was just coincidence or his imagination playing tricks on him, or maybe this was that man’s home that he was taken to. But if that were true, then when, and for what purpose, and why did it feel so familiar? The boy must be the man’s son, he figured, but why did he look so familiar? And then who was the other boy? This was all too much and he closed his eyes for a moment. Something was wrong. He had to get out of here. He pushed the covers aside with all of his strength and tried to roll and wriggle off the bed, but just as he was about to try to get up and finally free himself from this seemingly timeless captivity, there was this man again, strongly but gently lifting him back and tucking him in.

He stopped fussing, at least outwardly, as he plotted his next move. He had to put together the pieces of this puzzle. And for a man of his intellect, there seemed little doubt that he could outsmart this guy and get out of this situation, if only he could concentrate. His mind was racing, and he tried desperately to catch it. Then it all became so clear.

“I can call my wife and she could come get me, like she had just the other... just last, um, well, when I was stranded at the university with a dead battery in the Packard. Simple, I’ll just.... Shit, what’s the number? Why can’t I remember more than the exchange, Ludlow 7? I... no, but wait, she must be home alone with our baby. I can’t have her bring him into something this distressing and confusing. Hey, I know, I can dial the Operator! Okay, now the phone should be over there next to the bed. Where is it? Where’s the radio? What the hell is going on?!”

He started trembling. His thoughts were now whirling out of control, but, quickly and mercifully, the fog rolled in. Where was this place, he wondered, as he plumped the pillows and stared up at a crack in the ceiling until he entered it.

 

Eight

 

As he turned to his left, he saw a woman. She was sitting in the adjoining auditorium chair, pointing enthusiastically, and it was now apparent that she was there, wherever “there” was, with him. He followed her polished fingernail’s direction to a stage, decked out in celebratory banners. One read, "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." Cool! he thought. Above it was a larger one which spanned the entire back wall. On it was written, “Congratulations to the Class of....” He couldn’t read the rest from his angle. But it was now clear that he was attending a graduation.  His son’s…?! As this woman began to say something, the somewhat discordant sound of marching music commenced, drowning her out. Following soon, in walked a procession of graduates. His attention was almost instantly drawn toward the back, to a teenager with a slightly gangly gait that, from this modest distance, appeared to be a further evolved version of said son. While this woman, whom he was now able to presume to identify as his ex, took out her camera and started capturing the moment, he, amid the reflection of flashing bulbs, became lost in his own reflections. Here before him was this boy, no, this young man, whom he somehow realized he hadn’t seen in a couple of months or so, and looked like he had just about caught up with him in height. Thoughts that passed for memories continued to take shape, and now he was reminded, from somewhere, that, more importantly than staturally, this young man who no longer seemed a stranger had also practically caught up with him in another way, intellectually. Now that would be the hope of any devoted father, but this thought struck him as amazing, and overwhelming, considering the depth of the disabilities that his son had had to overcome and how “dumb” he had once believed himself when he was young. A lot of hard, probably often uncharted work must have led up to this day... and plenty of love, he imagined, until imagination turned to recollection, and he was able to claim some of those struggles and sacrifices, along with this almost adult, as his own. And as his son drew nearer to the podium to receive his diploma, he felt himself making the ingrained effort to hold back his tears. Those droplets devoted to the pride he felt in his son’s achievements of the present intermixed with those mourning the bygone days of the little boy’s past and those foreseeing the independent journey of the grown man’s future. He discreetly asked the woman for a tissue.

His vision clearing, he saw that his son was now standing just a few children... then he thought to correct himself again... just a few young adults from center stage. Trying to divorce himself from the sounds of the woman, his ex-wife, furiously clicking away, and of other audience members engaged in post-event planning chatter now that their children had already had their turns, he surveyed the moment, anxious for the introduction of his son. As if in preparation, he glanced down at the graduation program that he held protectively, knowing it would soon be living in his overflowing box of memorabilia, and, through a returning mistiness, read the words yet again. “Dean’s List”... “Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society”... “recipient of full scholarship”... “Governor’s Award for Academic Achievement...”. He stopped.

“The last one, that’s the kicker,” he bragged to himself, “’cause only one student gets that one. It’s for the student who has,” he was now reading “’continued to exceed expectations in the achievement of meritorious academic growth and success through the overcoming of hardships or obstacles, personal or environmental.’” He managed to quickly retrieve that journey, which now seemed an instant, from the mourning he had gone through that his young son would never be the genius that he had, however unfairly, expected, to all of the interventions, trials and errors, and love along the way, to some switch turning on in the boy’s brain, lighting the path to here. “The hell with ‘expectations,’” he concluded, but then another thought occurred to him, mostly ironic but with just enough underlying doubt. “Those ‘hardships or obstacles’ they talk about, they wouldn’t be including us, would they?” he mused, glancing sideways toward his former spouse just as she nudged him, not in response to his implication but because their son was up. In a somewhat shy and business-like manner, he took hold of the diploma, then the President’s hand, stood grudgingly for the obligatory school photo, and, with an ever so subtle sideways glance of recognition up toward where his parents were sitting, he quickly walked off.
Now that the moment was over, there was no further need to shut off those conversations around him. But soon one single word began jabbing at his vulnerability from all sides. Grandparents were swooning over how “grown up” and handsome their precious grandchildren were, mothers were melting about how “grown” and poised their little girl looked in her cap and gown, fathers were proudly noting how “fully grown” and strapping their “chips off the old block” appeared standing next to the President.... He tried to shut them out again. But all he could hear, echoing around and seemingly mocking him, was that word, “grown,” “grown,” “grown,” and all he could think of was how bitterly fitting it was, as he sat there, alone, his stomach in knots, doing just that, groaning inside with heartache. “I used to see my boy every day, and watch TV with him and feed him and study with him and argue with him. And now I only get to see him on breaks and special occasions… if I’m lucky.” Sure, he shared their pride and wonder and relief. But how did these people not feel the conflict that he did? Didn’t they miss their kids, or feel like a piece of themselves was lost?

It was time for families to meet up for the picnic celebration, and it was a beautiful day outside. He got up hurriedly and headed for the steps, weaving through the otherwise orderly crowd that included his ex. It wasn’t long before he saw his son, standing around one of the tables and talking with a few friends. He rushed over, only to receive a cursory acknowledgement in lieu of a hug and a “hang on” gesture as his son then returned to his conversation. He had learned to accept things like this, or pretend to, and did so instinctively. So he sat down nearby, trying hard to not listen in, and waiting patiently to give his son the thousand dollar check that was burning a hole in his jacket pocket and savings account. When the food was brought out, the group dispersed and his son came to sit with his family. For years it had been this way. Only the lure of food or money could earn the reward of precious time spent with his parents. Otherwise, the privilege and outcomes of the parenting itself were to be considered sufficient reward. And expressions of affection, physical or verbal, they were just too difficult. Nonetheless, here they were, the nuclear family whose bonds were already coming apart. How he wished he could have had the chance to rebuild the one with his son, undivided and unstressed by the other nuclear body, but this wasn’t the time or place. Maybe while they were up there visiting there might by a chance when just the two of them, he and his son, could get away and do something, like in the old days. But now he somehow remembered that that was not to be. And the depression set in again. No, this wasn’t the time or place, he was now realizing, and, just like that, the sun vanished into obscurity.

 

 

Nine

 

“It’s dark. What is this place? I’m scared, and I feel sick. Wasn’t I just...? I can’t remember... anything. I... where am I? Who am I? There’s a little light coming through a crack in the blinds. I can see shadows. Who is that man, and why is he there looking at me? I don’t... okay, calm down. My name is... my name is... fuck, what’s going on? Why is he getting up? He’s coming this way. Why? He has his hands on my face. What’s he trying to do? Why is there a boy here, next to him? The boy is hopping onto the bed now. He’s taking my hand. Do they know me? Wait... a boy...? I remember something... about, yes, a boy… a boy, right … my son! Is this him? For God sakes, why can’t I remember?

“He’s saying something to me. I can’t hear them through these words in my head... something about ‘okay’ and ‘here.’ Where is ‘here?’ He’s handing me something, a drink. Should I drink it? It’s cold and I’m warm… under these blankets. I hope I can trust him. Here goes.... Okay, it’s soda, that’s good. His hands are off my face. Now I can see the room again. There’s this big, dark cloth covering something. That right there is suspicious. Next to it is a long, old-fashioned dresser with some stuff on it. I can’t really make out what it is, except for some pictures over there. I can’t see their faces. ‘... only the echoes of my mind.’ Perfect, I can remember some stupid song and almost nothing else, except... oh yeah, except my son. The boy is letting go of my hand now. He’s sliding off the bed and running to the outstretched hand of the man. If that really is my son, who the hell is he? Why are they...? No... could that man be me, and I’m imagining all of this? These shadows.... Maybe I’m gonna wake up and I’ll be back in some sort of reality, where I can see clearly and... and things make some sense. Or am I stuck in here?

“What’s happening? I’m drifting! Have to hold on! I don’t think it’s just my mind anymore. I feel myself floating. Passing images... faces and places... backlit… flashes of colors and light. If this is my escape, I don’t want to go. My thoughts are starting to scatter. Try to think... try hard to think. What is that? Can’t make it out. I think it’s speaking to me. Have to listen. I hear my own heartbeat. I smell something familiar... pleasant. Should I just let go? I’m too scared, but maybe there’s no choice. Things are crumbling, yet getting brighter. I’m starting to... what... wait... now I feel something pulling on me... like… like a vacuum... wooshing... back... through darkness. It’s stopped. Things are hazy. But... here... I am again, in this bed, and that shadow of a man is touching me.

“Okay... I think… coming back… to my senses… maybe… a little. Senses...? I don’t even know if I can trust them anymore. But... could I ever? How would I know? Was there a time when it was clear what was real and what wasn’t? Is it supposed to be? All I know is that... is that... I don’t know anything. My head hurts. At least that’s real. So is pain what I’m left holding onto? My son.... Why does it hurt when I think of him? I have to close my eyes, from the pain, and.... I’m trying to visualize him. Just now I thought I’d captured his little face, but then another picture came to mind, and another... but too quick to hold... and I’m trying to get back to the one that lingered, since I can’t seem to fix on anything else, but he’s not coming back. I think my eyes are open now. And I’m looking around this... this place. I don’t see that boy here anymore. Was he here? Was he real? Was he my son? The man, he’s still next to me, kneeling. I feel myself shaking. And now I have something in my mouth, and a hand behind my head, and the taste of... cola. I’m swallowing something....

“There’s that little ray of fading light, and if I follow it... great, I can see a crack in the ceiling. That sure tells me a whole lot. But there’s something.. a boy again, and... uh... some pictures. I know I saw pictures. Were they here, or in my head, or some other place? Everything’s starting to slow a little... my breathing, my shaking, my mind.... My eyes feel droopy, but I don’t want to close them again. I want to see what’s going on, figure this out... somehow. If only this place wasn’t so damn dark. He’s still here, nearby, pacing. If I don’t look at him, maybe he’ll disappear. Maybe I can make this whole place disappear. Just bear down, you’ve done it before, it’s all a matter of will, try... harder.... Nothing’s happening. I’m still here. Yeah, ‘here.’ Wherever ‘here’ is, it looks like this one is inescapable. Wait... could I have made my son disappear? Was he a dream? If he was real... and this was the nightmare... I could wake up. Try… dammit. What if I wake up into a dream, what if I find out I abandoned myself and can’t find my way back? That would be even worse… I think. Maybe I should just stay here, this ‘here,’ and just try to keep my mind busy. I’ll play a game. Let me think. Name the seven levels of Purgatory. Okay… let’s start with ‘The Proud.’ There’s ‘the few, the proud, the Marines….’ Wait, is that the clue, The Marines? Does this mean war… who am I fighting, that man over there, who’s still watching me? He could be a spy… and the war… it’s against me! Maybe, no, that’s… wait, do-over. ‘The Proud’… The Proud… it’s coming to me… the ‘Proud… Poppa’… yes, that’s it, my son. I almost forgot. Where’s my son? I have to look for him.

 

 

Ten

 

The first thing he was aware of was the flowers, adorning the archway standing almost directly in front of him. Behind him were perhaps a hundred or more guests, dressed in colorful clothing of a semi-formal nature, and seated in rows of folding chairs, nearly all occupied. He flashed back vaguely to another place and time of folding chairs, but these were neither particularly uncomfortable nor closely attached. And speaking of flashbacks and unattachments, there, down the front row he found himself seated in, was that woman that he felt he had seen someplace before. She looked a little older than he thought she should, and was seated alongside a balding man whom he took to be her significant other. That seemed incongruous. So what was happening now, or whenever this is or was? He explored his apparently latest surroundings. It appeared to be some kind of chapel, not particularly extravagant but cheerful with its translucent stained glass windows and lighted fountain. A young man walked past him and sat himself at the simple digital organ off to the right of the arch. He didn’t look like one’s everyday church organist, nor did the first few songs he played, a mix of rather secular romantic classics and only mildly restrained rock songs, sound like he was. There was some bustling in the back, drawing the attention of the musician, who quickly tied up “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and struck the first chords of… “The Wedding March.” Everyone turned to see two young men in tailored black suits begin to make their way down the aisle. One of them, whose odd but unmistakable familiarity was jogging locked up pieces of memory, sent a warm, personal smile his way, followed by a pat on the shoulder as he passed. Could it be? Could this be his boy, all grown up? But how…? When the young men had reached their place, his (it was hard to say it to himself)… his son looked toward the back as his friend gave the organist a nod. Now the simple sounds of “The Bridal Chorus” filled the chapel, and a petite, shy and attractive young woman, draped in a cascading white gown, slowly walked the aisle on the arm of someone whom he assumed to be her father. Lucky man, he thought. But maybe he was pretty lucky, too. He wished he remembered.

He heard several people among the crowd crying, one of them that woman. The boy’s mother…? But that would mean…. Now he sensed the warm wetness of his own tears, although otherwise feeling disembodied from them. His confusion was starting to draw him back from the happiness that had seemed to surround him. Was this really happening… or did it happen? All of a sudden his mind flashed on a picture, one he had seen somewhere. “That… that face in a frame.” That was him, his son! But there was another picture, in another frame, another face, a younger one. His son, too? No, he would remember that, he thought. He was trying hard now to stay focused, in the moment and the celebration. He desperately wanted to know how this would turn out.

His head cleared in time to catch the words being spoken. “… you are my best friend, my partner, my soulmate, my playmate, my confidante, my fellow traveler, my rock, my true love….” His son must have turned out pretty well, and he looks so distinguished, and happy. There’s comfort in that surely, he supposed. But is this a memory of the past or a vision of the future… or an hallucination of a scared and lonely man? The vows seemed to pass quickly, as did the happy couple up the aisle, dodging the rice and flowers. Those around him began to get up to leave, but he remained seated, his head in his hands. Amidst the sounds of scurrying, he felt an arm on his shoulder. He looked up and saw that woman standing over him, her companion to the side and a few respectful steps back. “She’s a great girl. Our son’s so happy. You should be, too. We did our jobs.” “Our? Our?” he thought. “Yeah, she’s the mother, and I’m the father, and she’s apparently gone, and now he’ll be….” He couldn’t finish the sentence, but the thought was complete, even if his memories were far from being so. He searched deeper within. When did he grow up so fast? How did they all get here? Of course she was right. If these memories and events… if they were real, really real, then he had to be happy, and proud, and probably was… of his son anyway. To the extent that he still held a grasp of his identity, he didn’t think himself a selfish man. But “our jobs...?” Jobs are things that you do, that you can walk away or take a leave or retire from doing. Parenting… that’s not a “thing,” it’s a bond, it doesn’t end. It’s not what you do, it’s what you are. Happy…? He stumbled to get to his feet. Confused in thought and feeling, he walked up the aisle, lagging behind the crowd, and staggered out the exit just in time to see the car carrying his son drive into the distance.

He surveyed the scene, the cliques of youngsters and relations and empty nesters. Most were talking and hugging and laughing. He spotted a few sad faces, some alone, some just feeling that way. Raindrops started to fall, as seemed fitting, and the gathering started to disperse. He couldn’t feel the rain, he couldn’t feel anything, physically anyway, as the fog consumed him. 

 

Eleven

 

He was in a darkened room. He felt dizzy, sweaty and barely able to breathe. The blurry outlines of several people rushed around him, and he felt hands on his body, then a cold wetness, followed by a different coldness, metallic. He tried to move his arms, to reach out for them or to fend them off, he wasn’t sure but it didn’t seem to matter. He was so weak… his body, his mind. He tried to speak. “I… I….” And now he was gasping for air. Two of the figures came rushing over. He was conscious of their presence and of a frenetic feeling surrounding him… inside of him. They were doing something to him, but he was neither brave enough nor conscious enough to know what. His sole ambition now was just to take a breath. And as he did, the darkness melted into blackness, his eyes rolled back, and the sensations, along with the room, were gone.

He was in a darkened room. Doors encircled him, in shades of black and white, some eminating light from behind or within, some moving, some suspended and some still and dark. His head spun. He knew that he had to escape the room, but which doorway led to salvation? He was immediately drawn to one whose corona appeared a brilliant white. He began crawling toward it, but it kept receding just out of reach, but not out of his mind. He knew he had to get to it, but now was not the time.

He caught sight of another door, which kept shifting in appearance. Opening it, he confronted a mirrored wall blocking his way. As his vision adjusted and he looked into it his likeness started to dissolve, striking terror within him. He lashed out at the image, and again, causing it to shatter. Large shards of differing dimensions fell to the floor, and as he followed them down with his eyes he saw in them assorted distorted faces, all bearing a vague similarity, but each reflecting an altered perspective.  Then he noticed the jagged, gaping crack that had been left in the wall. He tried to scramble through its small opening to find out what was behind it, but in so doing he got stuck. He struggled frantically to be freed, but was soon succumbing to the panic of suffocation. In one last determined effort at survival, he began wriggling backwards, fighting to breathe while being jabbed by the sharp edges of this nightmarish tomb. With every bit of his remaining strength he managed to extricate himself, and fled through the door, back into the dark.

His next selection had to be more reasoned, but the doors were becoming blurry. He was able to make out one just within reach, and, grabbing for the knob and finally gaining hold, he pulled himself close enough to enter. Rising to his feet, he found himself in an empty corridor, filled with nothing but the echoing sound of a baby crying. He started down the hall in search of  its origin. His walk became a jog, soon a sprint, and still nothing. He turned down another corridor, this one sloping up toward a hidden foreground, then another twisting back downward, more and more desperate to find the source of the cry. A few more turns and he was back where he started, with the sound only intensifying. He knealed to rest and regain his composure, then, knowing he had to try again, rose and took off in a mad dash. But no sooner had he begun to pick up traction than he collided with something, no, it was someone, a man. Before he could look up to see the man’s face he felt himself being pushed away, and now he was hurtling backwards, back out the door, returned once more to the darkness.

Still reeling, but feeling that he had to find the man, see him, he staggered to his feet and reentered. The baby’s cry seemed more distant as he studied the corridor, searching for any hiding places. He started out again, more cautiously this time, but just as determined. He turned a corner. Now there was a new sound rippling through the room, that of a child’s laughter. With each step it echoed back, seeming to mock him and his efforts. Nevertheless, he picked up the pace, running feverishly through this labarynth, lost and gasping for breath. He fell to his knees, then collapsed to the floor. As he began crawling, the laughter seemed to die down, and then it disappeared. In its place, there was now a new sound, indistinguishable at first but at the same time familiar. He stopped for a moment to listen. The reverberating sound was of a voice cracking, as would that of a pubescent male. He was able to decipher two words: “Not now.” Inexplicably, tears began to fall from his cheeks as he continued his crawl, until he saw… the beginning again. He called out in anguish, but the sound couldn’t escape his choking throat. All that was left to do was crawl to the exit and disappear, but as he arrived he lay there for a moment, looking once again down the corridor, looking for something, anything, to give him hope. He pulled himself up by the door handle, still looking back, when another sound emerged from god knows where. It was baritone this time, and said, simply, good bye. And with another shove, he was once again in the dark.

His eyes opened. He was in a darkened room. Struggling to breathe, trying to scream, through his haze he had become aware that something was being forced into his mouth and down his throat. No attempts at swallowing could dislodge it, and no cola was forthcoming.

 

 

Twelve

 

“It’s a boy!” He woke up to the rejoicing of several people seated near him in a small, sterile room, with those words dancing in his head. Clearing his eyes and his mind, he surveyed them. There were a familiar looking woman and next to her a balding man, sitting closer to him another, older and heavier-set woman, a couple maybe in their forties standing now across the room, and a nurse. The older woman gave him a hug, and he found himself not pulling away. He watched, through a mist of mysterious tears, as the nurse led the couple out of this room and down the hall. And now he was quietly sobbing, with the arm of the older woman draped over his shoulders. But, surprisingly, this catharsis did not feel like one of sadness, although he was aware that loneliness and despair were also companions in this room. It came from another place, one more like… hope… fulfillment. So he just sat there, his head buried in his hands, sensing that he was waiting for his turn and aware of the impatient pacing of that other, conspicuous woman. Time flashed forward and the couple and the nurse reentered, and he, the older woman and the other two were beckoned to come, and then ushered down the corridor to what was now clearly a hospital room.

Inside the room were flowers, which immediately had him flashing back to somewhere he had once been. Beyond them he saw a young woman laying in the bed,  happily holding a newborn baby. His view, though, was partially blocked by a young man bending over the bed, talking to and kissing the woman while tenderly stroking the baby. He was pretty sure he had seen this man before, too, maybe in that same place and time with the flowers. Out of the corner of his own, tear-filled eyes, which were otherwise transfixed on this miracle of life, he saw that woman leave the side of her companion and, audibly weeping but with her eyes never leaving the baby either, rush to embrace the young man. He felt a strong urge to do the same, but something told him that it needed to be restrained. Instead, he walked toward the young man and gently patted his shoulder, a gesture that was quickly returned with a smile, a haunting smile. He returned his gaze to the beautiful baby boy now cradled in the arms of that woman.

“What’s my connection here?” he asked himself, as the baby was now passed to his welcoming grasp. He looked down at the baby’s eyes, which looked so unmistakably familiar that he turned to look at that young man once more. Visions of a photograph crept into his thoughts, and now more tears fell. “Let’s not get the baby wet” his… his son laughed as he reached for his own son.  

Suddenly he was gasping for air. The room began to dissolve, and the pain and panic dissipated with it. Now there was acceptance… then peace… then nothing.

 

 

Thirteen

 

The room was dark, until the thirty some-odd year old man opened the blinds to let the light in. Undraping the mirror, he gazed somberly at the bed, with the empty cola can still left there. Holding back tears, he looked over to his son, a boy of about nine, who was helping box up the contents of the room.

“Remember these?” he asked his dad, pointing to the two picture frames on the dresser that he was about to pack away. “Grandpa always said that if there was ever a fire or anything that these are the things he’d remember.” He carefully picked up the double-sided frame of his dad, as a young child and as a young man. “Grandpa really liked looking at this one and remembering, huh, Dad? It’s too bad that at the end he didn’t, you know, didn’t even remember you.” He folded the frame and placed it gently into the box. Then he reached for the other photo, the one taken of himself a few years prior. “I don’t know why he didn’t change it to a newer picture of me. Maybe it was because he said he could see the… what did he call it?”

“The family resemblance,” his father murmured.

“I’d like to keep this one, okay?” But his father was no longer listening. He had walked over to the bedside and was just staring. After a while he picked up the cola can from the nightstand and his father’s favorite blanket from the bed, and put them separately from the boxed items. His son noticed this.

“Why are you taking the blanket that my great-grandma knitted for grandpa?”

“Memories,” his father answered.  They’re a way to keep people you love alive. I know you don’t really remember your great-grandmother, but she was a wonderful woman and she loved you very much. She was there in the hospital when you were born, and used to bring you all kinds of home made blankets and clothes and play things. She… she used to pick you up and practically smother you against her big bosom.” His son half-laughed.

“It’s so sad that she died when you were still so little. It hit grandpa hard, especially it being after the divorce and all. He was pretty lonely, except for you and me. I wish we had seen him more….” He stopped and corrected himself. “I wish I had seen him more, that I was better at showing him how much I really appreciated him… that I had made time for him.”

“I appreciate you, Dad,” his son quickly responded.

That was all his father needed for the tears to start flowing. “Thanks, I needed to hear that, selfishly. But God, I wish he remembered us when we were here with him at the end.”

“I don’t know, Dad. When I jumped up on that bed, you know, the day before he… I mean, I think he kind of remembered.”

The thought slowed the tears to a trickle. “I’d like to think so.”

“Well,” the son continued, “when those men…”

“… the EMT’s,” his father interrupted.

“... yeah, the EMT’s took out that tube, it was almost like I saw a smile on his face. Do you think maybe he wanted to go?”
There was no reply. His father was just standing still and looking up, as if lost but searching for an answer. Finally, he was brought back to the here and now. “I think we’ll need to patch up that crack before we sell this place.”

 

Fourteen

 

And now the water, cold and unavoidable, showered the inner tube as he tried as best he could to shield his squealing and giggling son. But his son’s smile warmed him to his soul, even more than the sun’s rays beaming down on Sesame Place. The boy, three and a half years old now, looked up at him. “Daddy, can we go to da tunnel next?” His Dad knew exactly what he wanted, although realizing that the ride his son had in mind was at a different water park.

“Whatever you want,” he replied, as he held onto his little boy, and not just to protect him from the geyser, but to protect himself from something less immediate but much deeper. They closed their eyes… and they were at Waterworld. “Okay, let’s go find that tunnel,” he laughed, as his son took off running with Dad right behind. Soon they were at the entrance to the “Funnel,” the water ride with the chute that briefly descended into darkness before emerging at the end into light. He smiled in acknowledgement as they walked through the gate.

At the end of the ride he lifted his son out of the raft and carried him to the sand. “Are you hungry?” he asked, to which his son nodded. “Then let’s go dry off,” he suggested, and the little boy reached up and took his hand as they walked up the path.

“What now?” his son asked. “It doesn’t matter,” the man replied. “We could go to ‘A-Maze-Ment’ and play indoors, or we could hit the arcade for a while, or we could just go home and watch ‘Sesame Street’ together.

“Okay,” his little boy replied. “Let’s go home.”

When they reached the car he strapped his son in carefully, handed him his stuffed Snuffleupagus, and then backed out to get to the front seat. Before he got in, though, he looked up in the heavens, and gazed in wonder at the light that continued to shine after what in reality, or some corner of it, might have seemed days. But time didn’t matter now. They had eternity.

 

  ?


Submitted: October 08, 2022

© Copyright 2023 Alan M. Weber. All rights reserved.

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