Stages of Man

Talking to my wife is never easy since she died…

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Courtesy of Horsekeeping

Bumping into my wife is like a migraine. I’ve lived with both for a long time, both are extremely painful and disorienting, and when either thing happens it messes me up for days. I should be able to get used to something like that, like how Southerners should be expecting the heat, or how people really shouldn’t fear death: you know it’s coming, so it’s no big deal, but no, every time I run into her, it leaves me feeling cold and sick and exhausted for days. It doesn’t help that when she sees me, she scolds me the way she used to at the end of a long work day, when she came home and there were dishes in the sink. She never seems to understand how painful it is to see her. If she could avoid it, I wish she would. As it is, it’s almost like she’s still alive.

She’s never particularly polite as she scolds me with her empty body made of smoke. She never quite acknowledges what it’s like for me to raise our daughter and deal with all the effects of her death. There’s a lot of legal crap that comes after death, but for us there was also seeing it on the news, and explaining to my daughter that her mother had a major problem that she was very good at hiding. That’s just a small part of being a forty-year old man with a fourteen-year old daughter. I’ve read all the damn books and I have friends back in Nashville with daughters—with wives who aren’t dead—but if her mother is going to bother haunting me, she should help me out. Instead she mainly tells me how I’ve screwed up and how I should have known differently, but that’s not what I’d like to avoid most.

The worst part is the end of one of these encounters. She doesn’t seem to have control over it, but whoever is in control is definitely creative. When Mara’s ghost gets tired of my jokes about Wuthering Heights she always makes a dramatic exit. She might leave in a burst of flames, or turn to ash and fly out the window. Once she went straight from filmy silk to solid marble and exploded, spraying the inside of the house with powder and chips of stone. Faith came into the kitchen and kept a suspicious eye on me, making dinner while I swept up her mom and tried to come up with an explanation. I smiled at her like there was nothing funny going on, but then the pieces of Mara disappeared while nausea and vertigo doubled me over. I swear Faith doesn’t know, but she can tell something’s up. When I get that look on my face she knows I’m going to be in bed for a few days and calls her friends for rides.

I would like to blame Mara for these scenes but she never seems happy about it either: whatever fantastic finish happens is accompanied by gut-wrenching moans and screams that don’t peak before she explodes, or crumples, or dissolves into stinking liquid. It’s never a gentle fade-out with a smile on her face. Never a “goodbye.”

I didn’t get to say goodbye. She drove home from work and never made it, meaning the guys from her practice had to cover their asses from the crash and pretend to be taking care of Faith and me. I thought Mara would have explained to them how musicians work, but they’d call me and talk for hours, saying shit like “Until you get a job, Will,” as if a dead wife entitled me to a new father. I had to get us the hell out of Nashville, and we came to North Carolina. Close to Faith’s grandparents and close enough for me to work.

The last thing I have to do to finish the move is register the dog. If I can get that done in the morning, I’ll have time to write in the afternoon. I want to drop Faith at school, head to the clerk’s office and get home to work. Everyone says that routine helps with grieving, but taking Faith to school is the only thing I’ve gotten a rhythm with yet. I have to face everything one step at a time, I tell myself, so when I pull up to the school I feel like I’ve really accomplished something.

Faith talks to me from the backseat for the first time in the drive. “Are you going to write anything today?”

“Yeah, Dave called me last week, we’re workin’ on something.” Bullshit on both counts. My writing partner is waiting for me to call him, and I have nothing to write. I pull up to the curb and lean back for my kiss. When her belt comes off she does a possum-in-the-headlights, forgets about me, and fiddles like crazy with her backpack. “Did you forget your homework?” I ask, genuinely curious, to see if I can help.

“Not funny!” she shouts. “Take me home.”

I say “School’s about to start.”

She goes all tight-lipped, and puts on her tough face. She’s the boss now. “Dad. Take me home.”

“You’re gonna get a tardy, young lady.”

Her face flushes. “Take me to Walgreens.”

“No way,” I say, “get out of the car.”

She looks out the window, like she’s scanning for a place to avoid gunfire, and gets out without our customary send-off. Never missing my chance, I roll down the window and yell so her friends can hear: “Hey, where’s my kiss?”

She doesn’t have to give me the finger because her face says it all. Something changes hands and the girls look at me like I’m a total asshole, but I shrug it off. It’s probably just heroin, not anything for me to take as a sign of my seriously fucked-up fathering skills. I feel shitty about talking to her that way. I suppose if I’m going to be firm with anybody it should be my daughter, but doesn’t it seem strange that I don’t consider talking that way, even kidding around, with anybody else? Especially right now I don’t want to make people uncomfortable or call attention to myself by telling them why we moved to town. People avoid me just like I avoid them and nobody gets hurt. Any talking I do is fairly perfunctory, and with good reason. Forty-year old men don’t get into confrontations.

I drive to the city clerk’s building, park, pay for an hour of parking, and get all the way to the little window with the bulletproof glass before I realize I don’t have the documents for the dog’s shots. Behind the glass there’s a toad with an eyeglass chain who can’t do anything, so I turn around without speaking and drive home. As usual, the dog looks over without moving his body and goes straight back to sleep. I have to hop through a cardboard maze to get to the right boxes, but after an hour of digging, finding my wife’s effects and getting all misty-eyed, I give up. I should move this shit. This is the corner I’ve picked out for my guitars, but I can’t move anything now. I’ve got to get this done. My memory of where I’ve put things is completely clouded, but I know that Toby has been to the new vet’s office already. I called the vet in Nashville to fax the records at the end of his appointment, so it will be faster to go to get their copy.

§

The sign on the door of the vet’s office says “No weapons allowed.” I’ve been seeing that for twenty years living in the South, but I’m still not used to it. When I get in, the woman in scrubs behind the desk just sits there looking at her computer screen. After I roll my eyes a little bit, she looks up and asks for my name.

I say “Sorry about this, I don’t have an appointment, I just need some documents—”

She cuts me off and says “Do you have an appointment?”

She’s on auto-pilot. “Can you print one out for me? I just moved and—”

“What’s your name and the dog’s name?” she asks, so I tell her. She says she’ll get it and tells me to have a seat, but seems a lot more interested in her latt’e and talking to the woman next to her.

I don’t feel like wasting my time, so I start again. “Sorry, would you mind—”

“Sit!”

A terrifying series of names to call this woman goes through my mind but a hint of maturity kicks in to tell me this isn’t a big deal. There was no reason for her to talk to me like one of their “patients,” but I’m an adult, so I grab a copy of DogFancy and obey her command.

Every now and then I see something so bizarre that I think my wife’s ghost is not the only clue that I’m crazy. Then again, if you look close enough, weirdness is what life is made of, and it seems people get through their days by actively ignoring all the strange, absurd things right in front of their eyes. I wish I could ignore what I’m seeing, but it just keeps getting more interesting.

Sitting across from me in the waiting room is a soldier in desert fatigues, with boots laced all the way up, sunglasses, crew-cut, a cast-member of American Sniper, seriously. He’s visiting from Camp LeJeune or Fort Bragg. Not an uncommon sight in Durham. But when he lowers his magazine and sees me inspecting him, he has a chihuahua in his lap that takes up as much space as a medium-sized guinea pig, wearing a pink leather harness encrusted with rhinestones. He nods at me and goes back to his copy of Southern Living, but he isn’t just reading. He’s commenting, to the dog, in one of those pre-school voices I refused to use when Faith was little.

They call him back for his dog’s appointment and I sit there waiting, while the women behind the counter gossip. The woman who barked at me gets up to sprinkle fragrance on the concrete floor, and ignores me some more. My magazine gets boring and I just sit there with lyrics coming up in my mind, playing with this little medallion I have on a chain around my neck. Mara got it for me on a trip to Mount Rushmore, and I mostly like it because it looks exactly like something you would get on a trip to Mount Rushmore. It’s a cat’s eye disc wrapped in silver, with four little silver waves radiating from the center, like a South Dakota peppermint. The four wavy legs on the medallion represent the four stages of a man’s life. Now that’s a country-music lyric for you, I think, about a singer who hits it big after a long hard struggle, then he realizes the important things in life are off the stage. I could get a double-meaning out of “stages of man.” I even hum to myself “a man is a performer…I was never enough for her.”

Someday some magazine will interview me about how my biggest hit came from this period of boredom and depression following my first wife’s death, and I’ll have a neat story about sitting bored in a vet’s waiting room without my dog. I’ll say “I’m doing fine thanks to some twenty-two year-old guy in a hat who doesn’t know what the hell he’s singing about, pipelining money into my mailbox” and “I’ve got all the wives I need now, thanks.”

Finally, the woman at the desk calls me up and hands me exactly the documents I asked for, smiles like we’re best friends, and tells me to “have a blessed day.” I stand there supremely confused, and pretend to check the paper for the important information, while the soldier comes out with his Paris Hilton dog who strains the leash, scratching against the floor like someone in bowling shoes chasing a criminal. I give them both a quick look, smile, and walk out to my car.

The guy follows me. He puts his dog in the passenger side of his car, and then things start to get weird.

“What the fuck were you staring at me for?” he asks.

I just say “Sorry,” and turn back to get in my car, but he’s right behind me.

“Are you a faggot?” he asks.

“Am I what?” I say. I try not to laugh, like the time a cop asked me if I had grenades in my car. I turn around and the guy’s staring right in my face. Up until this point I assumed we were both adults, or at least trying to give the world the overall impression. Even on nights in the worst places in Nashville where people got drunk instead of listening to the music, I never had to deal with anything like this. Not even in college.

He says “I bet you’ve got a little dick.”

To which I say “Aren’t you disappointed.”

He shoves me with both his military hands against my car and I get the wind knocked out of me. What the fuck? I just stare at him. He just attacked me. He goes into focus while the rest of the world and its conventions, which are supposed to protect me from things like this, crumple like burning newspaper. I’m ready to fight back, but I just scowl at the guy in confusion as he reaches forward and grabs the medallion off my neck.

He plays with it, twirls it on his finger and says “What the fuck is this?”

“That’s mine,” I say to raise the maturity level. “Give it back.” My limbs tingle. “Give it back to me, motherfucker. That belongs to my wife.”

“Bullshit,” he says. “I’m keeping this.”

My fist fires into his mouth like a howitzer and he splatters back against his car. His dog is totally losing it, jumping up and down on the passenger seat. He’s already peed all over the dashboard. My arm feels like it’s crushed under a fallen tree.

When I see his bloody spit, it occurs to me for the first time that this guy has a gun. Faith will live the rest of her life knowing she’s the offspring of two totally irresponsible fuck-nuts. She’s already into the eye makeup, and the only thing worse than two dead parents is two dead stupid parents. I don’t want this bleeding, crying fool to keep her from me, but there are other things I want to keep, so I pick up my medallion. I want to say something to remember, like “this is mine, dick-paddle” or “nobody takes anything from me” but the time to shut up has come. I get in my car like a responsible adult and peel out. I’m not waiting for the cops to come by so this guy can say I provoked him.

I’m grinding my teeth and gripping the steering wheel like I’m about to fall overboard, staring straight past every cop car that goes by. The people in the vet office know where I’m going, but like an idiot I keep to my plan, and I’m almost there when I see her. She looks different this time. Usually she’s Athena, complete with helmet and spear and a little owl, handing down pronouncements of wisdom. Once she even pulled an Iliad and grabbed me by the hair as she turned into a solid flame. But this time she’s dancing in the middle of the road, with wheat crooked in her left arm and a sack on her hip. As she dances, she dips her hand into the sack and spread it around, sowing seeds into the asphalt. I slow down, check my side-views, and pull up next to her. I’m pissed.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I say. “It’s not even Spring! God damn it, Mara. Get in the car.”

And she’s in the passenger seat. I wish I could quantum leap like that. I pull into a space on the side of the road, and wait for her to start in on me. What I did back there was pretty stupid, just the sort of stupid man trick that she was always defending people for. It’s not just fear of her scolding that keeps me quiet, however. I have to hold it together or else I’ll let her have it. I beat that guy to preserve her memory, and I just know she’s about to bludgeon me with it, so I’m ready to go on the offensive. For once I didn’t take shit from a human, so I’m not about to take shit from a ghost.

I’m actually getting impatient. Her eyes just sit there like smoke in a projector beam. “Faith needs you,” she says.

I fire back. “Needs me? I doubt it. She doesn’t have a right to talk to me that way, Mara.”

“Do you want her to talk about her period, Will?”

“Yes, God damn it. Does she think I don’t know about it? If she doesn’t have what she needs, how the fuck am I supposed to know? She won’t tell me. Do they teach you to blame men for failing to mind-read at woman school?”

She gets ready to speak, but her voice stutters a little bit and she clams up tight. I get ready for the explosion, or the puddle of maggots or whatever it’ll be this time, but it doesn’t happen, so she takes a deep ghost-breath and tries to speak gently. “It’s going to take her a while to get used to living without me.”

“Oh really?” Now she mentions this. After she’s dead. Everything I do revolves around that girl, and everything I do tells me to make sure I am available for her because it would be a crime for that girl to live without me. Attacking Lance Corporal Chihuahua was the first time since the girl was born that she didn’t dictate my decisions. I am so pissed at Mara. “You’re fucking selfish, even now when you’re fucking dead. Did you think about any of this before you got loaded with your work-buddies?”

“I thought it had been a long day—”

“Fuck you and your long days! And speaking of fuck, how many of those guys were you sleeping with?” Seeing a ghost look embarassed is kind of like seeing a parent or close friend completely naked in a pool of vomit or better yet, diarrhea. “You didn’t really need me did you? You made all the money and left me with a job that I suck at, in a house where I couldn’t write music. You left a human being dependent on me! Screw you and your law school for that.”

She keeps her voice calm, despite everything I just said. It was basically the same voice she had when she was alive, nothing spooky about it yet. I was waiting for the screaming to start with all its weird overtones, but it seemed like we still had some time. “I was working to support you,” she says.

“Money?” I shout at her, scaring someone walking a dog on the sidewalk. “Yeah. Thanks for the money while you were alive and the life insurance now and thank you very much for abandoning me and your daughter.” Tears roll down my cheeks, but while I have my chance I let the truth roar out of me, and I don’t care if people are staring or if they can see her, too. Instead of backing down or waiting for the fall, I get right into her hazy ghost face and let her have it. “I fucking hate you for dying.”

She doesn’t move back, she doesn’t scream and collapse into a pile of cobwebs, she doesn’t leap into my mouth and tear at my stomach for twenty minutes. She just looks at me and raises her smokey eyebrows. “Honesty?” she asks.

“Yes. Finally.”

“Finally,” she repeated.

I look into and through her eyes. I try to focus on the film of smoke instead of on the grassy field behind her. I catch my breath. I should tell her that I love her, but I am too busy bracing myself for her exit. “I think that’s all I have,” I say, and tighten my jaw.

“Thank you, William,” she says. Tears come from her eyes and evaporate. I think it’s the beginning of the finale, but she smiles, content with her tears, and fades away like thinning haze.

The clasp on the medallion is broken, so it goes into my pocket. I am alone. I have always been alone. I have Faith, and I have music, but even before I met Mara, being alone and having no one to turn to was life. She didn’t really change that, but I thought I had someone to depend on, and it fooled me. How could I be a father when my wife had deserted me? She wasn’t really there in the first place. She was always a ghost. Nevertheless, I miss her. She’s really gone now, I can feel it, even as the cold settles over me and I get the shakes. I put my hands on the wheel, fully conscious that my nausea might make me run a stop sign, and pull back into traffic.

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