Sunday, January 26, 2014
An orchestral swell fills the house, surrounding the audience in its lush, sweeping melody, sweetly melancholy; the type that pulls tightly against the heartstrings, loosening with each melodic downswing, only to pull the audience back in seconds later. Tear-inducing Hollywood magic. The actors on the screen bat their eyes, sniffling and wiping streaks of tears with sunlit hands. The ensemble has gathered around a large dinner table after having scattered the remains of the recently departed patriarch. The music reaches a crescendo; the screen slowly fades to black. Hushed sniffles and muffled throat clearings can be heard sporadically throughout the theatre. The house lights stay off as people begin to file out, large sections migrating en masse to the lobby. Most exit in silence; others talk quietly, their conversations concerning the film and the final scene’s poignancy. Their heads pass before the screen, turn into the main aisles, and disappear through the door at the back of the house. I wait until the credits end, listening as the music changes twice. The final song is not nearly as melodic as the previous few, and it ends abruptly. The final image on the screen reads “In loving memory of…” and then some name I cannot pronounce. The houselights come on, and the curtain begins to close. The mechanic whir is all that I can hear as the gap between the curtain’s edges begins to narrow. The purple and gold velvet drape swings to a stop, the screen now totally obscured. That has always been my favorite part of the show for all of my adult life. Regardless of how good the film, watching the curtain always makes me smile the most. Reminiscences conjure the image of my childhood Sundays spent watching matinees with my father in this theatre. The curtain still works, unlike in so many theatres where, if there is a curtain, it’s merely for décor. I suppose that is what keeps drawing me back, week after week, to this movie house.
I dab my red-rimmed eyes and sniff loudly. As usual, I am the last to leave. I pull my navy blue ball cap farther down over my eyes and slip into my coat. My leather bag slips easily over my shoulder, and I retrieve my empty popcorn box and watery drink from beside my feet. Butter has coagulated on the cardboard walls of the red-and-white striped box, and the aroma, strong, stale, fills my nostrils as I carry the box toward the exit, providing a moment of olfactory bliss. As I pass row after row of empty seats, I notice all the discarded popcorn and candy boxes in and under seats, the sweating cups leaving pools of condensation soaking into the red and gold carpet. A twinge of sadness starts to well in my stomach and then spreads, my heart fluttering slightly. I have the overwhelming urge to get a trash bag and collect the boxes; to get on my hands and knees and wipe up the water, paper towels soaking through with the miniature puddles; to scrape the mounds of chewing gum hardening to the once pristine carpet. I fight the urge, just as I do every time I observe the degradation of the theatre. I fight the urge and continue to the exit. The cleaning crew have too long a night ahead of them, and the sooner I leave, the sooner they begin the painstaking process of wiping away the grime we leave behind.
I hurry through the door and drop my trash in the receptacle, moving down the dimly lit hallway toward the lobby. I pass framed black-and-white pictures, the dim fluorescence shining off of them: Garbo, Bogey, Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe. The cinematic heroes of my youth. I look each of them in the eyes as though they are real; my eyes reflect back to me. Most of the redness has subsided.
I round the corner to the brightly lit lobby. The far wall is lined with posters of coming attractions, most of which I’ve never heard of; but the closest wall is lined with classic posters: The Kid, Duck Soup, Some Like it Hot, Gone with the Wind. Each of them I’ve seen numerous times, walked by the posters more times than I can count. I stare at each one, committing each line, word, shape to memory. My attention turns to the concession stand; the glass cases are illuminated by small bulbs that run the perimeter of them, casting light on neatly arranged rows of boxed candies. The attendants wear red-and-white striped button up shirts under white vests, some smattered with soda and melted butter.
I find myself standing at the counter, looking up to my father as he towers over me. I feel the overwhelming calm of youthful innocence, folly, as he tousles my hair. I smile a gap-toothed grin up to him, watch the white calluses on his hands as he pays for our box of popping corn and glass bottles of Coke. The bottles glisten with sweating frost and are cold in my fingers. His hands are rough and hard as my impish hand is swallowed up in his. The aroma of freshly buttered popping corn wafts toward my nose.
It’s Sunday, my father’s one day off from work each week. He’s dressed in his best suit and tie, his shirt freshly pressed, his shoes shined. My father tips his hat to a lady he knows from the neighborhood, says hello to her husband. “Excuse us,” he says. His voice is a rich baritone. “Excuse me.” I can feel his free hand pressed against the small of my back as he guides me past a small group of men who stand outside the theatre door, smoking cigarettes and talking. I hear them talking about Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. I recognize both names, of course, but I can’t make out what they’re saying. All I really know is they’re both in this picture; it’s the first time they’ve worked together. “Excuse me, sir.”
“Excuse me, sir.” My father’s voce is not the voice I hear. One of the concession attendants is calling to me. “Sir, we’re about to close down. Do you need something?” I’ve been staring, I realize. They’re cleaning counters, taking off knobs on the soda machine and soaking them in large tubs of water. Someone is mopping behind the counter. The boy who spoke to me, maybe sixteen or seventeen years old based on the red splotches on his pale face, has purple hair twisted into a small bun under an anachronistic white paper hat, the kind I remember hot dog vendors and soda jerks wearing when I was a child.
I step up to the counter. “I’d like a bottle of Coke, please,” I answer. The purple-haired kid reaches under the counter and procures a plastic bottle from a hidden refrigerator and sets it on the counter. The bottle starts to sweat. “That’ll be $5.75,” he says. It is evident he is anxious for me to leave.
My brow furrows, eyes squinting, as I scrutinize the bottle. “Do you not have glass bottles?” My question garners a curious look from the kid. The corner of his mouth twist up into a grin as though he thinks this is a joke and at any second I’ll laugh and pay him. I stop him before he can speak. “No, of course you don’t.” I chuckle softly to myself as I turn away. “Have a good night.” I can tell the young man is annoyed; I can hear him whisper to his coworkers, all of whom snicker at whatever he said. The purple-haired boy calls as I walk away, “Hey, old man. Nice purse.” Muffled laughter is not well contained in near silence.
A cleaning crew has come down the stairwell from the balcony level; they stand at the concession counter and watch me leave, snickering as the purple-haired boy relays to them the story of the gaff they just missed. I’m sure to them, all under twenty-five, I am quiet the oddity: an old man, alone, who stares at the older pictures each time he comes; who sits alone, always the last to leave; who stares aimlessly, lost in conversations they will never hear.
I run my hand over my leather satchel unconsciously. Their eyes are still watching me. Through the glass door, the streetlights dance under a lightly falling rain. The last remnants of the day’s popcorn linger in the air around me as I turn and take in the full view of the lobby again, breathing deeply: the posters; concessions; the stairwell; the maroon-colored walls lined in thick gold trim; the carpet, darkly specked and stained from dropped sodas and mud tracked through over the years; the posters that adorn the walls, their glass cases muddied with handprints and speckles of snot and food. When my eyes focus on the workers, all but the purple-haired boy look away as if they have been working all the while, not watching the silver-haired old man relive distant elements of his childhood.
“Goodbye,” I say. The workers eye me suspiciously, assuming in their presumptuousness that I’m speaking to them. I turn back to the door and step out into the cold rain. I whisper, “Old friend,” the object of my goodbye, as the door shuts behind me. I hold my bag tightly against my side; the leather is becoming wet, slick under the steady drizzle. The wind is chilly on my face. It whips softly, steadily. My upturned collar offers little protection as I burrow inside my coat. A voice carries on the wind, a rich voice, full and gentle.
“Gray.” My father’s voice. I turn back to the theatre. He walks through the front doors. A Lucky Strike is pressed between his lips; he straightens the brim of his hat, exhaling smoke from the corner of his partially open mouth. There are four distinct smells associated with my father: the harsh smell of a freshly lit cigarette, the smell of which burned my nose, forcing me to cough in disgust; it would linger on my clothes, carrying with me wherever I went; the fiery scent of bourbon, drunk only on Saturday nights after dinner; a select bottle would sit on the table all week—Saturday nights, my father’s reward for a week’s hard work; his aftershave, the name of which I’ve long since forgotten; it was strong, almost minty, a biting wintergreen; and popcorn, buttery popcorn, shared between us. I could often smell my father before I could see him when he would enter a room. I would crawl up onto his lap and fall asleep as he read the newspaper. I found a solace in the combination of these smells. I focus now, trying to pick up any of them on the wind—the aftershave, the cigarette—but I can’t.
“Gray.” His voice is tired. “Gray, run on home, son. Tell your mother I’ll be late, that I have something I have to do. Eat without me, ok?” He turns but stops after a few paces, turns to look back at me. “I love you, Gray.” I had never questioned my father’s affection for me; like many things, it was understood, but rarely spoken of, especially in public. His smile is wan and his eyes hollow as he turns back and walks away. My voice catches as I try to call after him; then he’s gone, dissipated into the rainy night.
The rain is cold against my skin. It’s beginning to rain harder now, pelting my face with tiny, pinprick drops. The street glistens under streetlights, soft sloshing whispers rising from under slick tires of passing traffic. I head north, thinking about Walter Matthau. The last film my father and I saw together was The Fortune Cookie. 1966. Billy Wilder, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon. I’ve scrutinized that afternoon, the conversations we had, how he laughed during the film, the way he held his mouth, his cigarette. I went over that afternoon thoroughly for years until I just grew too tired.
My reflection stares back at me, reflected in the window of the small café. It’s a short walk from the theatre to Katie’s Coffee. I stand under the awning and try to shake myself as dry as I can before I open the door. The bell above the door dings. The sound is tinny and depressing, quiet. It is the loudest sound in the café, it’s only competition an ancient jukebox that stands in the corner. Bight neon lights bubble in liquid over its frame. A Buddy Holly song pipes through the speakers, which do not project the volume much farther than a few booths in front of it. Those close enough to hear it bob their heads in time and continue as it transitions to Bob Wills.
I smile at the waitress behind the counter. She’s young and pretty. A soft smile sends creases across her cheeks, the corners of her mouth turning up into a half-smile-half-pout. I make my way toward a far corner booth. Most of the people I pass are young, far younger than I. Most are college kids, talking quietly over coffee, some with books, studying. I watch them as I make my way to my favorite booth. My eyes wash over the other patrons, over the walls, the booths. The stained yellow walls are lined with framed photos. There are photos from the café’s opening, the original owners, events signaling the passing of the torch from generation to generation, each set of subsequent owners. Certain booths have pictures of famous people, celebrities and politicians, who have eaten there over the years. Under each celebrity photo, a placard indicates who famously wiped his or her mouth in that spot: Frank Sinatra, John F. Kennedy, Jack Kerouac. “Neil Simon sat here.” I choose his booth.
The waitress stands at the end of the table, pad and pen in hand. “What’ll it be, honey?” She seems nice, tired; her voice is soft and warm. I smile at her from under my hat. “Cup of coffee, and do you have butterscotch pie?” She nods. A strand of blond hair falls into her eyes, and she blows it way. “Yes,” she answers.
“A slice of butterscotch pie then, as well.” She writes the order and walks away. I sit and quietly hum along to the jukebox as I await my food. My coat is wet, as is my hat, so I take off both and hang them on the hook adjacent the back of the booth, looking to make sure I don’t sling water on any unsuspecting patron. But no one is around me. I run my hands through my hair to straighten it from the flattening suppression of the hat. I open my bag and slide out a large stack of papers. Post-it notes and a blue pen are retrieved from the bottom of the front zipper compartment of the bag, and I bite into the cap of the pen and pull out the shaft, and then reinsert the butt of it into the cavity of the cap. It hangs there for a second like a cigarette as I toss the sticky note pad onto the table.
“Careful,” a voice says. My shoulders tense as I turn to my right. “Tennessee Williams died that way, you know.” The waitress is standing slightly beside me, looking over my shoulder. She moves on around and places the coffee and pie before me on the table.
I drop the pen onto the top sheet of paper. “Actually, it was an eyedropper lid.” Our eyes meet. She shrugs and smiles. “But thanks for the concern.” I raise my coffee cup to my lips and sip. Needs sugar, I think to myself. I can feel the waitress still standing beside me. It is that awkward tension that lingers between two strangers when one wants to speak but doesn’t know what to say. I reach for the sugar canister.
“So,” she starts, “you’re a writer?” I nod. “Wrote anything I’d have read?”
I stir the sugar into my coffee with a plastic stirrer. I shake my head and try the coffee again. My eyes roll up to meet hers. “I doubt it. I primarily write—” But I can see that she’s not listening to me. My gaze follows hers to the kitchen door. A burly middle-aged man, quite portly, is standing in the doorway. His balding head glistens with sweat, and he wipes his forehead with a fat hand. The redness of his face is matched only by the gruffness of his voice.
“Allison,” calls the man. “Come on, I ain’t got all night, sweetheart.” The girl rolls her eyes and tucks her hair behind an ear. She turns her attention back to me and I turn back to my coffee. She says something, but I can’t hear her over the portly man’s booming voice. “Seriously, let’s go.”
She apologizes and walks back toward the kitchen. “Film reviews,” I say to no one. “I primarily write film reviews.” I fork my first bite of butterscotch pie into my mouth. The meringue is soft and foamy, the top crisp and firm. My tongue breaks through the golden-brown crust into the creamy middle. It melts around the thick butterscotch. It reminds me of my mother’s: rich, thick butterscotch, foamy mounds of homemade meringue. She always made them on special occasions; they were my father’s favorite. He would eat butterscotch pie every Sunday after the matinee when we would come to Katie’s. He would eat his pastrami on rye, and I would eat my grilled cheese, Swiss on French bread. A split piece of pie would be our dessert. Every Sunday except that last one. My mother had cooked dinner for my father’s birthday. He was fifty-seven and still worked six days per week, an exhausting existence. Had I been more than fifteen, more aware of others and less centered on myself, I’d have seen he was tired, worn down. My mother had made a roast and a butterscotch pie. We’d waited until the roast was cool, then placed in the oven. The pie began to crust over on the counter. I went to bed that night while my mother sat waiting up.
“So, can I have your autograph?” Allison is back by my side.
“I’m sorry. What?”
“Your autograph. In case you get famous.”
I try to read her face to determine whether or not she is serious. Apparently she is. She stands there with no real expression on her face. “I collect autographs of famous people. I’ve met several famous people working here, people just passing through.” She rattles of a series of names I don’t recognize.
I scribble my signature on a Post-it note and hand it to her. She squints at it. “What’s your name?”
“Gray. Gray Kelsing.” It doesn’t ring a bell, I can tell. She has no idea who I am, and I don’t suppose that she has really any reason to.
She thanks me and disappears back behind the counter. I push my half-eaten slice of pie away from me and turn my attention to the manuscript before me: Leaving the Matinee: A Life Spent Watching Film. I had tried to parlay my passion for watching films into a passion for acting in them. Countless auditions came and went. Each was met with disappointments. My acting career was limited to a few student films, mostly experimental stuff in the late seventies and early eighties, some work as an extra in a few movies and television shows. But that big break, that film that would make me a household name, never came. I supplemented my work as an extra with a job reviewing films for a small newspaper. Gradually the writing career far surpassed that of the acting, and my relationship with film became, as it had been when I was a child, one of awed respect. I respected the craft, was enamored with films, the beauty of them, their potential to move us, to speak to us—I just wasn’t to be a part of them. I made a name for myself as a critic, even if in limited circles, once I returned to my small childhood home. My writings made it across the state, some over the river into parts of Ohio and West Virginia, through syndication, but I was known mostly at home.
My few devoted readers will be interested to read my memoir, I’m sure. I read over the top page again. My publisher has been after me to finish this draft for some time. Overall the process has taken the better part of two years, between the planning, the writing, the various drafts and subsequent rewrites of each. Collecting the photos. The list goes on and on, and I’ve been left tired of the process. When I send it off, I’ll be glad to be rid of it. I scribble on the top sticky note: Final draft. Print as is. –Gray. I press it onto the top page and lift the papers into my hands. My hands are soft compared to my father’s. They are ghastly pinkish-white and smooth, even in my old age. He is in here, this book. It was he who began my love of film, who took me to the theatre to see the classics. The pages are heavy in my hands. Four hundred and fifteen pages of hours spent watching and writing about film. I tried to answer the question that each memoir attempts to answer: what did I learn through this? How did this shape me, and how do I want my book to shape you, the audience, to move you? I don’t know that I fully accomplished any of that. Over four hundred pages, several mini-answers, mini-lessons, but no definite, life-altering revelation. Perhaps that’s fitting.
I slip the stack of papers back into a large manila envelope I pull from my bag. The papers slide easily through the mouth of the envelope and sink to the bottom. I lick the adhesive on the envelope. It leaves a bitter, acrid taste in my mouth. The waitress brings my check when I signal her, and I pay, leaving far too much money as a tip. Her face lights up and mouth widens with surprise. She thanks me politely as I don my coat and hat. I scribble the necessary information on the envelope, press on a stamp that has lingered in my pocket all evening, and toss it in my bag. As I’m walking out, I catch a glimpse of a black and white photo by the door. In all my years here, I’ve never noticed it. In the foreground stand two men and a woman: George Walton, the original owner, Katie, his wife, and his son, Steven. But it is not they who catch my attention. A man in the background is holding open the door to the café for a small boy. The man is tall, with black hair specked with grey. All I can see is his profile, but I recognize the angle of his chin, the soft smile on his face. I must have been around six or seven that day in the picture; my father, holding the door, barely resembles the man who was so worn down a decade later.
Outside the rain has stopped. It is cooler now, and I button my coat. “Where are you going, Gray?” My father has been standing under the awning waiting for me. He exhales a lungful of smoke that lingers in the air between us. “Go back in and finish you pie, son.”
I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the café’s glass door. I look tired, my smile is wan, my eyes hollow. I look a lot like my father did. Same cheek structure, pointed chin. My hair is grayer than his, but then I’m older. “No. I’ve something to do.” I start walking south, back the direction I came. I hear my father’s footsteps behind me. We walk in silence for a few blocks before my father speaks again.
“You should’ve been an actor, Gray. It’s what you wanted to do.” His baritone sounds parental, like when he would reprimand me as a child. His steps quicken to keep pace with mine. “Gray.” I ignore him and keep walking. My heart begins to race and I feel a nervous anxiousness welling up inside my stomach. I feel lightheaded from the throbbing against my skull. I try to keep ignoring him, thinking he will go away. Finally I feel his hand press against my shoulder. “Son—“
“I tried,” I say, my voice harsh and stern. “Damn it, I tried.” My sallow face begins to burn. “I took acting classes; a pathetic waste of my time because all they did was let me down, showed me that I was just one of a million actors trying to get noticed. I auditioned; I spent years scraping by in bit parts in little films, as an extra on short-lived television shows. Demeaning student films that questioned the meaning of life through improvised scenes and a myriad other what-they-called-artistic-expressions that no one really understands. Stuff I didn’t even understand, but I was determined to make it, and that was a start. A start that never finished.” I sigh, overcome with exhaustion. “But do you know how humiliating that work was?”
His eyes narrow at me, and he shakes his head. “You should have tried harder. You could’ve been great. Could’ve been Groucho Marx, Cary Grant. You could’ve made a name for yourself. You could’ve directed. You should’ve been the next Charlie Chaplin, beloved my millions across the country.”
I shake my head with a smirk. “Chaplin died in Switzerland, Dad; rejected by the country that once loved him.” My father nods and counters, “You forget, though, that he returned for an honorary Oscar, and that could’ve been you. An Oscar for your lifetime of work.” We stand still under the darkened moonlight. Cars pass, bathing us in fluorescent white light. Neither of us says anything for the longest time; we just stand and stare at one another.
“Look, Dad, I have something I have to do. I’ll see you later.” I turn and start to walk away. He’s then in front of me. He shakes his head, dragging on his cigarette. “Go home, Gray. Go to Kathy and the kids.” I scoff and walk through him.
“Kathy’s gone, Dad. And there were no kids. You know that.” And he’s gone, dissipated like a fog. But he doesn’t know that. He was gone long before there was even a Kathy. Before we knew she was barren. Before she slipped away at the hands of the cancer eating away at her intestines, causing her to vomit green and nearly constant, especially toward the end, ravaging her fragile body. Before I sat by her side, watching old films as we held hands; looking at black and white pictures from childhood as her eyes grew heavy and finally closed. I pass back by the theater on my way to drop my envelope in the mail. The theatre is dark, the glamour drained from it with everyone gone home for the night. The marquee looks ominous, titles black against a dead white backdrop. I glance briefly and continue on my way. The closest mailbox is only a few blocks, and it is as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders when I reach it. The blue lid creaks open. I lift my envelope from my bag and slide it down into the darkness. It lands at the bottom of the mailbox with an echoing thud. My breath escapes slowly in a deep sigh, materializing in a vapor before me. It is growing colder as the night progresses, and I shiver deeper into my coat. Several cars pass me as I walk along the street. The taxis’ yellow car toppers streak by, each illuminated brightly. I consider flagging one, of stepping toward the street and throwing up my hand. The car will pull to the curb, I’ll throw open the back door and toss in my bag. The taxi will be warm, the heater pumping full blast a thick heat that will envelop me, warming me to the bone, consuming the chill that has settled deep within. I will sigh deeply and nestle against the door. The scent of past passengers, the odd combination of sweaty gym members and the heady stench of perfumed men and women linger in the fibers of the seats, will lay stagnant around me. I’ll laugh at my earlier decision, my plan for the evening. The cabby will take me home. I’ll stare up at my house, walk inside; of course, I’ll be looking all around me to wonder if the neighbors are watching, wondering why my arrival is so late—that is small town life: always be prepared to be peppered with questions from your neighbors should you do anything out of the ordinary. At least, that’s how it used to be. I’m not even certain I could name my neighbors now. We see each other. We speak. The common pleasantries that pass for casual relationships in today’s world. Everyone knows everyone, but no one at all. I’ll fall into bed, a deep, heavy sleep, and in the morning all will be fine.
But all the taxis are gone. Several have sped by, off into the night. I continue my walk.
I can hear the river before I see it. The water sloshes against the banks, rocking gently up and over the rocks. A few cars’ headlights stretch the distance of the bridge, everyone hurrying somewhere. I turn my head away from them as I take to the bridge’s footpath. The rusted blue pillars, crisscrossing beams covered in bird excrement, tower to my left, reaching toward Heaven, casting a shadow over me and onto the water, illuminated from the soft white lights high atop the bridge. The handrail is cold under my fingers. The water is black, softly rolling. No signs of life: no boats, no fisherman on the shore. Only the soft whisper of the gentle waves, so soft and slow, the water looks more like blacktop, solid and thick.
“Go home, Gray,” my father’s voice calls from behind me. I hear him light a cigarette and can soon smell the smoke wafting toward me. “Son—” I turn to face him and he stops speaking, reading the lines on my face, narrowed eyes sending wrinkles spreading from the corners of my eyes. My breathing is heavy, deep. He nods slowly, a fatherly understanding finally settling over him, edging out the harried demeanor I so clearly remember.
I stare past him and watch the cars passing over the bridge. Their yellow headlamps cast an eerie glow over the glistening road. In between the passing of cars, the night is deadly quiet. The rain returns, falling softly over me. It patters softly off the brim of my cap; drops wet on my cheeks, almost like tears charting courses over the contours of my aged face. I turn my eyes back to the black water below. The rocks on the shore look sharp and jagged under the barely discernable stains of algae and bird feces. “What’s it like?” I ask my father. Just briefly, I catch the light scent of his aftershave, and I hold onto it, forcing my memory to recall it more vividly, to etch it into my mind. He was wearing it when he left the movie theatre that day. The next time I saw him, his already haggard face an ashen grey, his lips purplish blue and set against each other, his cigarette having been lost along the way, the scent was gone. His entire body was bloated, as if everything inside had been washed out to make room for all the water.
My father shrugs. “It’s a shock at first. The body tries to adjust, coughing and gasping. You feel weightless, limitless. This newfound freedom is given over to the desire to fight. The muscles kick and move, thrusting upward, pushing. And it takes a strong man to fight this urge, to accept. Your extremities go numb, the lungs burn. Your head throbs, the temples pounding as your lungs try to force air out. This tension mounts, escalating. Time disorients. You find yourself wondering if it’s been seconds, minutes. Hours? Air tries to force apart your lips, by now turning blue. Your jaws, tightened from the effort to keep them closed, ache. Your body is in panic, the mind racing, its natural instinct to fight. But not fighting takes so much more strength. And when you breathe, when that rush of ice fills your lungs, you gag, vomit and spit mingling in your throat with the rush of water…” His voice trails off.
I look back at my father, expecting him to continue. But he’s gone again. And I’m left alone on the bridge. The rain has begun to fall harder now. I stare down at the black water like pavement below. The rain falls harder and sends up little spouts as it hits the river. The air has turned much colder, and my lungs burn as I breathe in the midnight air. My extremities are numbing, my fingers gripping the railing with white knuckles pressed tight against the skin. I find my jaw tightening as I hold my breath. My head begins to swim, and I feel my lungs start to ache. My breath escapes slowly through my narrow hole of a mouth. I glance around again: no one present. I lay my bag against the railing of the walkway. My lungs burn with icy breath, held in to settle on the idea. My eyes stare intently at the icy waters below. My fingers remove my cap and run through my hair.
And the icy black waters stare back at me.
The walk home is exhausting in the frigid night, my breath forming clouds before me. I tuck myself tighter into my coat, pulling the collar in closer. As I slip my key into the lock, I see one of my neighbors—the Wilson wife, maybe? Or is it Watson—looking out her front window. I smile and wave as she quickly covers her face with the curtain, pretending we didn’t see each other in the early morning hour. I slip into the warmth of my house, dropping my coat over the back of a chair and placing my leather bag on the table. It has been unnaturally quiet since Kathy passed, and I always fight the urge to call for her, to walk about the house looking.
But I know the effort would be useless. I turn on the TV in the living room and recline, smiling as I recognize the film. Walter Matthau talks to a wheelchair-bound Jack Lemmon as I smell my father’s cologne. “Good choice, Gray,” his soft voice calls from behind me. “Good choice.” I don’t turn to look for him; instead, I turn up the volume on the television and wait to drift off to sleep. He’ll still be there tomorrow, I’m sure; I can look for him then, and maybe then we can talk. Maybe then I’ll have answers to everything he asks and hints.
But not tonight.
Saturday, January 18, 2014
Someone told me over dinner recently that, while he enjoyed my writing, he didn’t think I was being completely honest in it, that I was sharing only partial truth, revealing only shades of myself, what I wanted to express at the time. And I think that’s what we as writers do—we reveal ourselves, shades at a time, bits and pieces that reveal some small part of what makes us who we are, some small portion of truth, our truth, with the hope that it can affect someone who reads whatever we deem important enough to say.
On here, I’ve written about religion, politics, stereotyping, education, relationships—those various components of our lives, those ideas and ideals to which we devote so much of our waking hours—and I’ve expressed my views concerning them—in part. When I’m feeling close to God and more spiritual, my writing reflects that; when I’m pining over the loss of a love, or an infatuation, or a missed opportunity, my writing reflects that. When I’m feeling overly happy and content, well, I don’t write, because it’s in those times that I’m enjoying life. Only when those happy moments cede, giving way to moments of questioning and concern, of introspection and doubt, do I take to written words to make sense of my life. Sure, this reflecting and debating exists internally in my mind, but I’ve found it easier to sort out my thoughts and ideas in writing, for I’ve always been drawn to writing, to what it allows us to do, how it allows us to manipulate language, thoughts, and emotions, mixing them into something new. Something representative of that internal dialogue, that banter, between our head and our heart.
What is truth? Does Truth exist? Is it in the eye of the beholder, each of us forming and shaping the world around us and our version of truth as it pertains to us and how we interact with those around us? Two people, we know, can witness the same event and yet walk away with two different versions of what happened. Is one person’s experience, which differs from the other’s, truer than the other person’s? Does your experience negate what another experienced? Are personal experiences and credibility enough to form a strong argument, strong enough to persuade another of your beliefs, convictions, and ideas?
And that is part of my problem with God and religion. I once claimed that Christians should be slightly agnostic in their thinking, that they should be skeptical by nature, ever questioning. And I suppose that’s the academic in me—the critical thinker whose worldview is shaped by both church and secular learning, by pastors and professors—who believes in God but finds it difficult to articulate any argument for the absolute existence of God without relying on personal experiences, arguments based in ethos. Anyone who has taught rhetoric will tell you that a combination of the three—ethos, logos, and pathos—makes a good argument, and if you know your audience and their expectations of you, you can adjust the degree to which you rely on any one of them to meet the needs of your audience.
Yet I find that most who argue for the absolute existence of God and the arguments that follow—abortion, gay rights, evolution—rely most heavily on ethos and pathos. After working in English 101 and 102 for a few months, I found myself sitting church analyzing the homily and evaluating the rhetorical techniques the pastor used. Emotionally charged language married with personal anecdotes seemed to be the techniques chosen by most churches. And I think we see this in churches all over—just watch a televangelist sometime or attend your local church on a Sunday morning . Produce a warm fuzzy feeling, and you’re more apt to get people to follow you.
And I’m not saying this is wrong, merely making a point about what I’ve seen. But let’s be honest: when asked over dinner recently about my thoughts of God, I turned immediately to personal stories, stories of how I’ve traced what I believe must be God’s hand in my life. I may be a skeptic at times, questioning my thoughts and why I believe them, trying to determine if I truly believe them because I actually believe them or if I believe them just because they’ve become comfortable, accumulated over the course of a life spent in church, a welcome sort of feeling to which I’ve become accustomed. Yet I can’t deny the existence of God—as much as the intellectual in me wants to be a liberal humanist—for there are too many coincidences in my life, serendipitous moments that have shaped me and led me to here for there not to be someone at least guiding the way. I don’t believe in coincidences, and I believe that everything happens for a reason (a banal statement, I know) , so as I trace the moments of my life—my mother’s passing which led to my father remarrying, which in turn led me to my first wife and son, and to the church, where I happened to meet the person whose conversation inspired this post; my being too poor to attend Morehead and too “rich” to attend Berea (my number one school of choice) fresh out of high school, which led to my attending ACTC, which led to my first few teaching jobs and my meeting some of the people whom I consider my closest friends and confidants; my dad’s career of choice and encounters with people, connections that led to my nonteaching jobs—and as I play the Seven Degrees of Separation game with the events of my life, it affirms to me the existence of God.
Yet this requires me to rely on personal experience and credibility; the academic in me wants hard logical evidence to prove the existence of God, to silence the critic and skeptic in me, and it is that same academic with a liberal voice that can’t side totally with either the Creationist or Evolutionist argument. A friend asked me if I thought a Christian could believe in both God and Evolution, or if the belief in one negated the belief in the other. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle, not truly picking a side, believing in microevolution, but not macro. I don’t believe in the Big Bang Theory or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, yet part of me wants to think that God allows nature to take over at some point. I like Old Earth theories far more than Bishop Usher’s chronology, and while I found the Creation Museum interesting, I don’t know that I bought everything they were selling. Is the entire Bible literal (outside of Revelation)? Or are some stories meant allegorically? If so, which ones? Six literal twenty-four hour days to create the earth? Or days spread over the course of millennia, for “a thousand years is as one day?” Was the Exodus conducted exactly as the Bible details, or was it carried out over the succession of years, as a professor I once had proposed? Is Daniel Quinn’s version of Cain and Able, as found in his brilliant Ishmael, or of Adam and Eve as found in Stories of Adam, more similar to what actually happened? What about Milton’s version of the Fall, a story I’ve always found more touching and human than the account in Genesis?
Can a person be a Christian and still hold liberal political views, views that are seemingly antithetical to Christianity, at least as it is so often portrayed in media? I'm unabashedly pro-gay rights, because I understand that we live in a democratic state, not a theocratic state, and I don't think religion should be used in a non-theocratic state to dictate whom someone can marry. My liberalism-- I consider myself both a social and fiscal liberal (progressives, I hear we're called now...)-- doesn't toe the typical party line. For instance, I'm pro-life (though I hate the terms associated with both stances, for I think they too narrowly define both camps), yet my stance has nothing to do with religion. In fact, after my political views began to shape in high school, it wasn't until I became a father that my views on abortion changed. Having said that, I understand and can appreciate the validity of both sides' arguments.
So how do I reconcile my worldly beliefs--evolution, acceptance of all religions (and not just for the sake of winning others over), gay rights-- with my religious beliefs? Most days I don't have an answer, at least not one that's the whole truth.
These are representative of the conversations I’ve had recently. We all search for Truth in our lives, and we look for it in religion, in those around us, in work, in morality; in the art we produce, and the choices we make. Do we all find it? I don’t think so. But we work toward self-actualization, a lifelong process in which we come to terms with morality, creativity, enlightenment, the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy, in the name of meaning and truth. And along the way we question what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, what it means to be a part of the world around us, to truly be. And we question truth with the same breath that calls out for it, looking with blinded eyes for answers that will allow us to construct a narrative that makes our lives make sense. So do we as writers swear to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God? Well, maybe with the help of God, we’ll give you some truth, something about which to think. And sometimes, we as writers will give you a glimpse into part of that journey; but we don’t allow you to see it all, just what we want you to see, for it’s our truth, colored by our experiences and our beliefs, shaped by who we are and what we do. And we’ll continue to reveal ourselves, one small glimpse at a time, word by word, until you gain a better understanding of who we are and, just maybe, of who you are too.