by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan
Morris stood at the top of the stairs in the second floor hallway, staring out the window at an icicle that murmured faintly of the soft, gray stories being told at the sky’s zenith, and that, faintly murmuring, repeated the rich, violet tales whispering in from the west, where the light from the setting sun still seeped through the gaps between the clouds. Clear and cold tonight, the weatherman had predicted.
Morris had been in his bedroom, trying out the Christmas presents Ann had given him: kidi and sogo, his two favorite Ghanian drums. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, twenty years earlier, he had studied West African drumming, and ever since he regularly would revisit the complex and entrancing rhythms he had learned, to escape from the pressures of everyday life. When his emotions were on the verge of boiling over, an hour of drumming would leave him calm. He sometimes wondered whether, if he drummed more often, he would drink and take drugs less often. But then a hollowed-out, sickly face appeared before him, the face of one of his old teachers…
Morris had met Kwadzo Addy near the end of the Ghanian's life. Kwadzo was naturally a small man who had been turned nearly skeletal by cancer and chemotherapy. When he demonstrated dance steps his movements were graceful, but slowed as if he were dancing underwater. His voice was like gravel rubbing together and his eyes sunken deeply in his skull. Soon enough, he was gone, and Morris was playing at a concert in his memory.
The specter of Kwadzo led Morris's thoughts to his parents, whom he would see in a few hours. The strong man and woman who had raised him had departed, and their replacements would need their son's help to walk up the hill from the driveway; they, too, would soon be shades with the shade of Kwadzo Addy.
At the Kenner's party Maria Robinson had talked about the recent death of her father, confessing how helpless and vulnerable she had felt during the last stages of his fatal illness. No one listening had been able to find an appropriate response, so an uncomfortable silence descended on the group. The passing of the previous generation marked a grim milestone, which Morris and his peers tried to avoid noticing; their parents and their friend’s parents had stood between them and an unobstructed vista on their own final destination. Morris imagined himself at his father’s funeral, standing before a gaping hole in the earth, while his mother clung, weeping, to her son's arm. Anxious to occupy his mind with something other than that image, he headed downstairs and immersed himself in dinner preparations.
He found Ann by the stove, preparing the hollandaise sauce for the broccoli. The roasted goose was sitting on the counter. Potatoes, rice, green beans and corn simmered on the stove. Pies, cakes and pastries, baked over the previous few days, lined the kitchen table. That morning, Ann had lashed into him for being so negative about the holidays, so now Morris did his best to be of good cheer.
“Everything looks and smells great, honey. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Sure. First, see if the kids are still presentable, and then you can slice the goose.”
Morris went to perform his assigned tasks. He found his children in the family room, entranced by some television program. They were surrounded by the litter of the morning’s frantic opening of presents: ripped cardboard boxes, shreds of green and red wrapping paper decorated with trees and angels, cast-off ribbons, stray pieces of tinsel, and empty Christmas stockings. Isa and Rudy might be a bit more ragged around the edges than they had been a few hours earlier, but Morris thought they still looked fine. He turned from them and climbed the half-flight of stairs back up to the kitchen. As he was slicing the goose he saw his parents’ car pull into the driveway, so he walked outside to help them. He noticed that his mother’s hands were shaking more than last time he had seen her, just a couple of weeks before.
Ann’s parents arrived several minutes later. The six adults had a couple of cocktails each, along with cheese, crackers, shrimp, and olives, in the living room as a warm-up for dinner. The kids appeared for long enough to greet their grandparents and open their gifts. Then the children drifted back into the family room to watch the rest of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Ann had to remind them to turn off the TV when she called them for dinner.
The light from the electric chandelier in the dining room scattered tiny stars across the dinner table, reflecting off crystal and china and silverware. Morris led grace, after which he began serving the goose, and the other dishes were passed around the table. Morris’s father, Roger, had trouble chewing meat with his false teeth, so he took only vegetables. All the while his mother-in-law chattered with hardly a pause, punctuating her remarks with occasional pokes to Ann’s arm.
“I haven’t been able to go to Calf Pasture Beach in years. Those little black kids are running around everywhere. And the older ones have their radios up so loud that you can’t even hear.”
“Never should have let ‘em in Norwalk in the first place,” Roger remarked while releasing a blob of mashed potato from his mouth.
Isa was aghast. "Grandpa, you’re dribbling!"
Ann told her that she was being rude. Isa looked for a moment as if she would argue, but then she yielded, realizing that her case would not get a fair hearing with guests present.
“You know, she’s only five,” Morris said quietly to Ann.
Despite his attempt at discretion, his mother heard him, moving her to reminisce, “Oh, I remember how cute you were when you were her age, Morris.”
Morris felt himself flinch, anticipating an embarrassing tale.
“You were such a little adult. One time we took you to the zoo, I remember. And an old man said, about the ducks in the pond there, that is, he said, ‘Sonny, do you like the quack-quacks?’ and you said, Lord bless us, ‘They’re not quack-quacks, they’re ducks.'”
All of the adults except for Morris laughed heartily, but the children both looked puzzled. Morris was relieved when the conversation meandered on to politics, to local gossip, and to stories of the old days in Norwalk.
“Why you used to be able to take the trolley straight across town, all the way from Roton Point to Winnipauk, for only a nickel,” Roger recalled. “Bet it'd get you there faster than those buses they’ve got running around now, too. And the buses are always empty to boot!”
They talked of how the corporate headquarters boom of the eighties had changed the character of the area, of the days when you could trap muskrats right in town, and other memories of the previous seventy years of the city’s history. Soon dessert was served, followed by a last round of drinks back in the living room. Then everyone said their goodnights; Ann’s mother nearly smothered Rudy and Isa with farewell hugs. Morris, accompanied outside by Ann and the kids, lent each of his parents an arm as he led them to their car. Rudy and Isa waved at and shouted good-bye to their grandparents until the taillights of both of their cars disappeared around a bend in the road.
The rest of his family went back inside, but Morris lingered in the front yard. After a couple of minutes, Ann's head poked out of the door.
“Are you coming in, or are you sleeping out there tonight?”
Morris chuckled. “I’ll be in a minute.”
“Okay — I won’t have the energy to deal with a frozen corpse in the morning.” Ann’s countenance vanished as the door closed.
Morris pulled his coat more tightly around his body, watching white wraiths of breath escape his mouth and coil upward through the crystalline air. It was brisk, but not deathly cold — maybe twenty degrees. A thin layer of snow coated the ground from the morning’s flurry. It alternately glowed pink and blue in sync with the blinking Christmas lights Ann had laced around the front windows. From off to his left came another blue glow, which he traced back to the nativity scene squatting on his neighbors' lawn. Ultramarine snowflakes rode gusts of wind past Jesus, Mary, Joseph, four sheep, and a donkey.
Towards the manger advanced three wise men, following a star. Morris’s eyes drifted upwards, to the south. Over the roof of his house a dead tree raised two stumpy branches, as though making a belated gesture of surrender. Just above its lifeless limbs glittered Orion, a familiar figure striding across the heavens pulling along his hounds in his wake. Since boyhood, Morris had been captivated by the winter constellations. Orion was perpetually poised to combat Taurus, and the bull to gore the hunter with his horns — and yet they never consummated their incipient battle. For centuries bull and man had awaited the slightest narrowing of the space between them, so that one might strike a blow. Would they ever tire of the dumb show that, night after night, they performed for the billions who gazed up at them? Together they had greeted mankind’s birth, mesmerizing humans with fiery gems bejeweling the night sky. They had looked down upon the Nile when the pyramids were built. They had watched Greek civilization arise and give them the names by which he knew them. Beneath their cold, indifferent eyes a child had been born in Bethlehem. He grew to adulthood, and tried to tell people that they were free, that they could live together in peace. The stars had remained unmoved when his message, anathema to those addicted to power, who relied on fear and war to maintain their status, had put him to death. In the centuries that followed his execution, others, claiming to follow him, read his words as endorsing their own dominion over their fellow men. Countless wars and inventions and lovers and poets had passed under these stars' silent gaze; still they did not flinch, still they stood tensed, ready to strike a blow should the heavens offer the chance.
Like a bird mesmerized by the stare of a cobra, for a long while Morris could not look away from those isolated fires burning amidst the vast, empty expanses of the dark universe. He, too, was fixed in space, unable to make contact across the surrounding void, even if just to land a blow. Like Rigel and Aldebaran, like Betelgeuse and the Pleiades, the fire burning in his core would at last consume all of its fuel, leaving behind a cold, spent lump of useless matter.
A sudden gust of cold wind swept his unmoored thoughts back to the yard and house. Shuddering a little, he turned and slowly walked inside. He heard Ann washing the dishes in the kitchen, but he drifted noiselessly to the living room. He sat facing the TV without bothering to turn it on, instead simply staring at the lifeless screen. After a few minutes, unable to think of anything better to do, he rose and mixed himself a tequila sunrise. Libation in hand, he sank back into his armchair and idly observed a spider descending towards the carpet on a silky thread it had suspended from the ceiling.
The sound of the water running in the kitchen changed from a strong steady stream to a regularly spaced drip, its pick-pack-pock-puck tapping at the edge of his thoughts. A few seconds later, he sensed that Ann was behind him. She placed her hands softly on his shoulders, and then began to knead the taut muscles she found there.
“Did you have an OK Christmas?” she asked.
Morris groped for words that would at least hint at the trackless immensity of the wasteland into which he had strayed, but he was no more able to descry them than he was a path back home. Instead of answering her, he again rose and perfunctorily walked to the bar. As he was pouring his drink, Ann tentatively approached him and asked what was wrong. He downed the contents of his glass in one gulp before he looked at her, with eyes as cold and alien as Orion's. The years he had spent with this woman he now read as a brief, insignificant passage plucked at random from a tome that, despite its enormous length, was without significance. An icy wind swept across the barren landscape of his soul, across its dry fields, across a lonely snow-covered plain. Amidst its chorus of ghostly voices he heard clearly only one, and he repeated the lyric it sang almost as if in a trance: “Ann, I need a divorce.”
July 20, 2006
Gene Callahan [send him mail], the author of Economics for Real People, is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a contributing columnist to LewRockwell.com. His first novel, PUCK, has just been published.