SECTION THIRTEEN


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COLUMN FIFTY-SEVEN, MARCH 1, 2001
(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)

GHOSTS & THREE DOWN

GHOSTS

(or too little too late)

The walk to the pay phone seems like a three mike hike in knee-deep mud.  You already know its bad news youíll hear.

Heís gone.

You dial the numbers with sticks for fingers.  Youíre calling collect.  A robotic voice tells you to say your name after the tone.

 ďItís me,Ē you say.  Your tongue feels thick in you mouth.

The rings connect the miles.  You already feel the cramp of tears in your sinuses.  You hear the auto-operator come on again.  You hear yourself say, ďItís me.Ē

*Push one to accept the charges

* Push two to not accept the charges

A beep from the other end.

ďHello.Ē

Itís your dad.  He sounds scared, a kid in the dark on the other end of the line.

Go to sleep, goddamnit!  Thereís no monsters in the closet .

 But dad!

Shut up!

ďHey.  Whatís going on?Ē you ask, trying to be nonchalant, but you already know whatís going on and thereís nothing left to do but get confirmation.

Your dad tells you Norman is gone, that he died that afternoon, around lunch.  You wonder what the hell you might have been doing around that time.

Your grandfather is dead.  You cry.  You try to hold it back, to be a man for your fatherís sake, but it doesnít work.

 Quit that crying!

Iím trying!

If you donít quit, Iíll give you something to cry about!

You say youíre sorry, that line used in movies and real life to make death seem more comfortable, every day and less real.

You ask how and get the details, as your fiancť, Jenny, stands there beside you, watching it


'You canít remember him ever telling you that, although you would like to think that he did'


all, crying to herself.  He went to sleep.  He didnít wake up.  He told your grandmother thathe loved her, just before he went.

You canít remember him ever telling you that, although you would like to think that he did.  Memory is a subjective thing.

Cars whip past in the dark.  The wheels roll on the pavement like thunder.  The people in the passenger seats stare at you.  Pedestrians walk by.  They rubberneck you both.  Maybe they think youíre a junky, begging for smack.  The whole thing is getting more and more surreal.

You make plans to come over for the weekend.  Dad tells you not to worry about it if you canít get the time off of work.  You tell him not to worry about it.  Youíll be there.  You never had a big desire for work of any kind.

You go home, numb and totally aware at the same time.  You sit on the couch with your lady.  You smoke.  Your roommate watches a movie.  Something by Tarantino.

It doesnít matter.

You tell him.  He says, ďThatís harsh,Ē then goes back to Mr. Blond or Mr. White carving off the copís ear.  You donít hold it against him.  Youíve done the same thing to other people, unable to identify with their kind of suffering.

He gets up and goes to the fridge.  He brings you a beer.  You drink.  He offers to get you high.  You agree.  The pair of you smoke the joint.  You donít think you need it.  You tell yourself that itís not the addict in you telling you to numb it out.

The claustrophobia feeling sets in, so you go out on the patio.  You drink the beer, looking up at the stars. You see the heavens in a whole new light.

The stars are the eyes of the dead.

 Which ones are his?

You hold the beer to the sky.  ďHereís to you grandpa,Ē you mumble, choking on the tears. 

You feel like a shit immediately.  You never knew him to drink, but youíve heard the stories.

Fastest belt in the West.  All youíd hear is the leather spinning in the loops and then...WHAMMO! HA HA HA.

Alcoholism.  The dominant family gene that no one escaped unscathed.

Monsters, daddy!

Shut up and go to sleep!

But dad!

Shut up, goddamnit!

You go to bed.  You coma-sleep, then get up in the morning, call in and tell the boss.  It feels like a lie.  Wal-Mart can make you feel like that.

Back in the room, you pack a bag, kiss your fiancť, then hit the bricks out to the ferry.  The bus ride out there could have been ten minutes or ten hours.  You buy your boarding pass, then stand in the waiting area with the other passengers.  Smoking a cigarette, you stare at the dark water below.  You butt it out.  You wait.  You smoke some more.

Finally, you board the boat.  It feels like a slug under your feet as it moves through the channel. You watch the islands pass.  You watch birds shit on the deck.  You have no idea what might be waiting for you on the other side.

Small children run past, yelling and screaming, their feet sounding bigger than they are on the metal deck.  You try to appreciate the life, idly wondering when it will be your turn.

The ferry docks.  You get off and get on another bus, then the skytrain.  You ride to Metrotown Mall.  Thereís now two blocks between you and his building.

Sit there, drink your milk and then you can have a cookie .

You get there.  You throw your bag in the back of your dadís truck.  You go inside and up the short flight of stairs to the apartment.  The door is unlocked.

Stepping inside, you hear voices.  The first thing you see is his study.  The recliner is empty.  Heís really gone.  Heís sat in that chair for the last five years.  You walk into the living room and hug your grandmother.  Sheís tough as nails.  There are hints of tears in her eyes, thatís all.  But the red rims show that there have been many private tears and agonies.

Come sit with me, there you go.

Can i see your magic teeth, grandma?

 All the better to eat you with, my dear...

You get through the visit well enough.  You go eat with your parents and sister.  Then you go to your aunt's place to sleep.  Your dad and you get the basement couches. 

Father and son.  Your dad tries to be brave.  You watch some stupid movie on Showcase.

It doesnít matter.  Anything to shut off the mind. 

Your dad falls asleep.  His sleep betrays him.  He whimpers and kicks violently.

Get back in your bed!

I  had a bad dream, can I sleep with you?

Go back to bed.

 But iím scared!

I said get back into your bed before I count to three or youíre getting the lickiní of your life!

Ghosts, past and present.

You light the last cigarette in the second pack of the day.  You shut the television off.  Then itís just you and the red/orange taillight of the coal.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale.

You smoke until you taste filter.  You look at your father, now a silhouette.  The sheet looks like a shroud.  He looks so small under it.  He is the strongest man youíve ever known.

You wonder how strong youíll need to be when itís you and your son in the dark.  ##

* * *

Three Down

You remember the day of the funeral.  The weather typical of VancouverÖ

Your fiancť comes with you.  She will meet your family for the first time.  You are nervous about how you will hold up in front of herÖ

The day before, the family gathers at your grandmotherís apartment to talk and grieve as a unit.  You act as if the years between seeing aunts and uncles is a tragedy in itself, but youíve given them no more thought than you have to obeying your new found religionís commandments.

At one point, you go and have cigarette in his study.  You see his crossword is still on the clipboard beside the recliner.  Picking it up, you notice that there is a thin line, a faint scribble of black ink trailing away from Three Down.

You are suddenly scared to be holding the crossword, realizing that he most likely passed away solving the puzzle.  His black Berol fine-point pen sits on the table.  You consider finishing it for him, then reconsider.  You never were good at that sort of thing and you think you might get in trouble.

A man enters the room.  You feel the ice form inside your stomach.  You donít want to talk to him.  Heís the boyfriend of one of your aunts.  He beats her.  They are chronic alcoholics and drug addicts, plunging down a road you know all to well.

He starts talking in a QuebeÁois accent, your familyís mother tongue at one point. 


'You hear your dad tell his mother that if that guy shows up at the funeral, heíll kill him'


Something about where he works, where you work.  You answer as politely as you can.  The rage is blinding.  You all have it, just like the taste for booze.  In the background, you hear your dad tell his mother that if that guy shows up at the funeral, heíll kill him.

You want to throw this man out of your fatherís study, knowing that if Norman were here, old as he was, he would beat the man black and blueÖ

I remember your grandfather, standing up to a man twice his size, begging for a fight, because the man has called me a little son of a bitch. I broke that window and I was a little son of a bitch, but your grandfather understood what family was all about.  No man had the right to call me a little son of a bitch except himÖ

You lean in close to your auntís boyfriend.  You tell him not to come to the funeral or you will cut out his eyes.  He looks at you and then out the window.  He knows that everyone knows.  You vow never to tell your family, but you know that in all probability, you will break that vowÖ

The day of the funeral arrives.  You get ready at a friend of your motherís.  She lost her husband to throat cancer a few months before.  Youíve called her Auntie Anne all of your life, although the only kinship she shares with your mother is that they are both natives of Scotland. 

You stand outside to smoke and clear your head.  You take pictures of your niece.  You try to keep her happy, knowing she scares easily.  You try not to think.  Your fiancť comes outside.  She hugs you, tells you that she loves you. 

The drive to the church is a blur.  St. Francis of Assisi.  Catholic.  True Goth, horror film ambiance.

An aunt comes up to you.  Too much make-up.  Dark blue blazer.  She looks like a stewardess.  Cousins arrive.  You canít remember all of their names.  You were never really close to any of them, didnít really want to get to know them.  You wonder if thatís wrong.

Go play with Ricky.

I donít want to.

I said, go play with your cousin!  Give him a hug, heís your friend!

I donít want to!

Seth, give Ricky a goddamn hug!

The hearse arrives.  Itís time.  The Legion supplies the pall-bearers at the demand of one of your aunts.  You think that itís odd.  Your grandfather never spoke of his role in the War.  Or maybe he did.  You were never there to hear him.

He was in demolitions in Africa.  He used to put bombs in ammo dumps.

No he didnít, he was in Italy as a motorcycle messenger.

Goddamnit, he was in Africa!

The coffin is in the entrance to the church, the church youíve hated for as long as you can remember.  Doom and gloom, hell awaits.  Say five Hail Maryís and one Our Father and all your bullshit is forgiven.  You file past, one by one.  You knock lightly on the lid.  Thereís no echo.  It hits home.  Heís gone.

You sit beside your Aunt Sheila and your fiancť, Jenny.  The last time you saw this aunt, you were sneaking out of her apartment with your boots in your hand, after you and a drinking buddy ended up stuck for a place to stay.

Your dad tells you to keep an eye on her.  She might go off.  The Legionnaires bring in the coffin.  As they reach the halfway mark, the piper kicks in on Amazing Grace.  The song tears your insides in half.  You break down.  You go off.  Shelia squeezes one hand, Jenny the other.

The priest climbs the short steps to the pulpit.  He never knew your grandfather.  Apparently, he wasnít big on going to church.  Another mystery of the family history, shrouded in innuendo and myth, the truth being only as correct as the person you hear it from.

The catholic ritual of burial drones on and on.  You kneel and pray.  You stand and pray.  The priest whips you with the Blood of the Lamb, dries your eyes with the incense that smells like heroin cooking up. 

You canít stop crying.  You not sure why you are.  Maybe itís because heís your grandfather.  Maybe itís because you never took the time to get to know the man.  You look back three rows to your cousin Mark.  The look in his eyes confirms it.  Or maybe this is your own guilt reflected back at you.

Grandpa, can I play a game on your computer?

No! Thereís more to computers than games, goddamnit!  Tedder, did you hear what those goddamn Tories are up to now?

Your father gets up to speak.  You see him looking down on you while he talks of Normanís blue eyes, so similar to your own and you know that the wars you fought with dad are over.  You finally see the acceptance, the love and respect that was always there in the first place. 

Finally, itís over.  The piper stands in the doorway and plays.  The acoustics of the place send the notes into your eardrums like drill bits.  You see the family empty out behind the pall-bearers.

Your dad is first, right behind his father.  You see him salute his fallen.  You see him salute the man who taught him to be a man, taught him what self-respect, dignity, integrity, devotion and pride were all about.  You see him pick up the flag, so to speak and carry on as head of the house.

You go outside.  You see your grandfather loaded into the hearse.  It drives away.  Your


'A family of soldiers.
You
look away'


Uncle Mike watches it drive away, standing rigid at attention, hand cocked in salute.  A family of soldiers.  You look awayÖ

His hat hangs by the door on a hook you screwed in.  He wore it on his walks.  You took it as a reminder of a man you never really knew, but wish that you did.  Every time that you look up from your spot on the couch, you see it. 

For you, Normanís memory is more reality than any God or Christ could ever be.  You look up at a picture beside the stereo.  You and your grandfather at Christmas. 

You are five.

You can see the pride in his face.

A picture above that one of you and your father on your wedding day. 

Youíre twenty-four.  Your father is close to fifty.  That same pride, the sly grin frozen on both of your faces behind a pane of glass.

The last photo.  You and your new wife, kissing.  You pledge to be the man your father is, the man his father wasÖ

You write and smoke and wonder if you canÖ  ##  

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