This Great Society - Writing

 



Illustration: Joel Bentley


Chelsey Clammer: Man in the Basement
Illustration: Joel Bentley

 
 

              He is in the shadowed section of the basement behind me. Stuffed in two baggies inside of a dark cherry wooden box, and placed in a larger cardboard box that is stacked against the other side of this gray wall, he sits. And I still don’t feel like he’s dead enough. His ashes pile up inside themselves, hiding in the small plastic baggies, like how he stacked up and stowed away the facts of his own addictions, his desire to just go away, smashed inside that once-alive skin. He floated away seven years ago, wrapped his lips around the bottle, trying to expunge his depression, the bottle that finally took the life away from him.
              Seven years and six months after my father died with a 0.46 blood-alcohol level, I sit in my mother’s basement writing this with my back turned to him, his ashes that have yet to be spread. This is my usual position, how I placed my body in relation to his. Never wanting to look at him, to see the screaming self-hatred that oozed from his skin, I turned away. My back my only protection.
              Now in this basement, with his body and breath long gone, I wonder at why my mother keeps his ashes buried in a box underneath her house. I want to release him, sweep him out of my life. But there is something she holds on to. Even in her hatred, in her desperation to see him just go away, even after his death, finally his death, she still holds on.
              Something is not right here.
              The basement here is cold, the dry Colorado air creeping into my toes. It is the end of spring, and the mountains are trying to push forward the idea of warmth. But in my sweater and jeans, I sit at this large wooden desk, in the rickety old chair that used to be his chair, and I shiver at the feeling of something being not quite right here. And I ask myself, what am I doing here? I have come back to Colorado to be with my family, to surround myself with what’s left of them. In this blank space in which I have no job, nothing to keep me busy throughout the day, thoughts of him creep in. Now that I’m back home with all of this time to fill, with his ashes in the next room, the memories spread, engulf.

***

              Earlier this evening, an old man offered me a flower. I sat outside a coffee shop and smoked my cigarettes while I tried to concentrate on writing something, anything. I watched the man lean his short square frame over the flowers that were outside the glass door, and pull on one of them. I do not know what kind of flowers they were, but pink. The whole bunch of flowers came up in his hand with a chunk of dirt, and I tried not to scowl at what he destroyed. In his large blue coat that looked vaguely military or perhaps Navy, he reached down again, and again yanked hard on one stem. Two conjoined flowers released. He strode over to me and placed the offering on my round black metal table, then turned and sauntered away. His intentions seemed pointless, just something to do in order to fill a collection of minutes.
               Perhaps I have something in common with this wandering old man. I am here in Colorado filling my time, trying to figure out what to do with my own collection of minutes, with this life I try to claim as my own, try to decorate with something, anything. Though life in this mountain town feels unsettled, torn, yanked up from a dried, dusty earth that does nothing to keep me grounded.
               And in this boredom, in these blank spaces where life struggles to grow, to move on, the feeling of my father presses.

***

              In the morning before the boredom, before the empty day has a chance to settle in on my skin, I go running on a trail my mother and I have hiked in years past. This trail became the place where we would finally talk, where we hashed out conversations about my dead father. A few years ago I visited my mother in her mountain town, taking a vacation from my hectic city life in Chicago to breathe in the mountain air. Now, on this trail, with my feet pounding the red dirt that sweeps up and clings to my ankles, I remember the time when my mother hiked in front of me and told me how my father never wanted children. She was carefully crossing the creek, her trail shoes grabbing onto a few yellow moss-covered slippery stones. I followed behind her, trying to keep my socks dry. As we emerged from the water and hiked a few steps up the steep trail, she told me, “Your father never wanted children. He just thought life would be better without them.”
              I was not surprised by this statement. I felt like my father never really wanted me. He was never engaged in my life, always choosing to do his own thing rather than come to any of my sporting events or school functions. But the strength of this admission, the way she said it, not to hurt me but to get me to understand, struck my blood, and now I breathe in the truth of it again as I run on this trail by myself. The mountains stare me down, question what considerations I will have as I run on this trail which holds so many memories of his absent body. I cannot sweat out the recollections of him here; I will forever be unable to expunge all of the depressing thoughts about him that have accumulated in my flesh. As my mother’s words play another revolution in my mind, my foot finds a stone and I come crashing down onto the rocky dirt. Blood leaks out of my knee, my thigh and rib cage also badly cut. The trail tells me to be careful, to look out for the meanings hidden in the dirt I could trip on, could hurt myself on if I don’t watch out.
              After my run, I take a bath to soothe the cuts. I did not place my feet carefully enough, did not pick my thoughts carefully enough. And as I came to a rocky section, to the harsh memories I wished I could glide over, I fell onto the earth face-first, my body splayed out.
              I continue to trip into remembering my father, as there is nothing else to consume my time.
              In the bath, the hot water washes over my scrapes, his ashes bleed into my mind from the other side of the wall. I sit there with nothing else to do. And so I soak my skin as I prepare for the day, a day in which I will deluge my time with meaningless tasks, avoiding the thoughts that press up against my sternum, claw at my ribcage.

***

               It shouldn’t be so sad to be so utterly bored. But that’s the way it is, the way it goes. Boredom is like this: I sit in my mother’s house, a wooden structure all rustic on the inside and very log cabin-like on the outside. I am surrounded by pictures that represent life, and knick-knacks that have accumulated from years spent living. My mother and I are lounging around, waiting until 1:30 p.m. when she has to go to work. We have an hour and a half to go. Her house is in the middle of the mountains, nothing nearby for us to do, nothing to entertain us until we leave. I’m driving her to work so I can have her car for the day and do my own thing, mainly writing and smoking. My mother doesn’t mind that I smoke, but she doesn’t like it either. Though she loves my writing. I smoke when I write, the smoking keeping my fingers going, though I do not know if she knows this.
              She also probably doesn’t know that I smoke when I’m bored. Waiting for the time to slip by so I can take her to work, I badly want a smoke, the action that will give me something to do, if only for a few moments.
              I sit on the peach leather couch with my hands underneath me and stare at her as she flitters about the room.
              She starts to show me pictures, the images I’ve seen my whole life, some I’ve even lived. I know all of her stories, and yet she decides to share them with me again. She yanks at each frame, knocking over a few knick-knacks with her desperate grabs, and provides words to capture the time when so-and-so did such-and-such.
              My father is in none of these pictures. He has disappeared from the picturesque proof of her life.
              “Anyhoo,” she says, words that indicate she’s trailing off, moving on to another thought, another photo.
              I feel the time drip slowly by, wishing I were interested. Nothing sparks my engagement, not even the piano that stares at me from across the room, the instrument I used as a kid in order to fill my time, back when my father was around and I played songs to tune out his roaring TV, to try and ignore how he caved himself into his room on the other side of the wall instead of placing his body around mine. After a few moments, a few seconds of realizing she will show me no pictures of my father, will remember nothing of him as an alive him, I surrender to the piano and try to remember those melodies I learned 15 years ago. Unsteady songs plunk out of my fingers in the still mountain air.
              This is life in the mountains, calm and serene, teetering on boring. Our air fills with stillness, with sorrow.
              In the spaces between her pictures, in the time uncaptured by her film, I feel the memory of my father slip away. And then I remember the baggies in the basement, his ashes waiting, perhaps impatiently, to be spread, and the boredom, the unfilled moments bring on a sense of anxiety, of something obvious not being said.
              What will we do with dad? I want to say this, but cannot call forth the words to my lips, cannot forge into that conversation when we are both so vulnerable to this boredom that provides the space for an utter sadness.

***

              In this mountain town with nothing to do, I finally take my mother to work, then drive around aimlessly trying to find streets that will lead to somewhere. I drive away from the house, leave the ashes behind, but they follow me around, pressing on my boredom with strength, as I attempt to avoid entering into that space of remembering. But one memory enters, and the strength of them emerges.
              Dad in his room, drunk and threatening suicide.
              Dad coming out of his room to sneak off to the liquor store.
              Dad in his room, drunk and screaming that he doesn’t want to live.
              Dad lying dead in a hospital bed.

***

              Being a newcomer to this mountain town, being a bored alcoholic who used to fill her time with drinking, like my father, I decide to head to an AA meeting just to be in the company of other people. I could be optimistic here, could say I am awesome for working on my sobriety by attending a meeting. But I do not use this meeting to help keep me sober, and instead use it to kill another hour of my life. Drinking used to consume so much of my time. Memories are carved inside my bones, memories of being bored in this mountain town, and going to a bar to feel like I was doing something, anything. But I do not want to go there again, do not want to lose my mind in that blurry faux-engagement.
              I learned the trick of drinking to fill time from my father, though he never used the alcohol to connect with us. Instead, he would close himself off in his room, drink alone and watch TV. No wonder he is in no pictures. Who would want to capture that?
              At the AA meeting, one of the older guys says, “You can be working on your sobriety, but that first drink is out in the parking lot doing push ups, getting stronger as it waits for you to come back to it.” And I think of my father, consider how he was sober for 13 years and started drinking again after he lost his job. It only took him two years of drinking to die, a small bit of life surrendering to that first drink that strengthened itself with each sip.
              I try not to talk about my father while I’m in AA meetings, because my alcoholism is about me. Talking about him would help me avoid my own addictions, to concentrate on the mistakes he made instead of the ones I did. But in this meeting with his ashes lingering in the basement of my mother’s cabin a few miles away, the memories of him begin to do their pushups, begin to push up inside me, and I begin to remember him, to fill this time with his story.
              “I’ve seen the power of that first drink,” I say. “I saw how it struck my father down until he finally died of a 0.4 blood-alcohol level,” I say. The people nod their heads in sorrow, in understanding. I say nothing of myself, nothing of how I drank like he did, filling my time with alcohol instead of life.

***

              I keep wondering, what am I doing in this small mountain town? It may be about getting away from the city, about finally trying to turn to a life that will ease my anxiety, that will provide me with the serenity of tall mountains instead of anxious towering buildings. The stress of the streets replaced by the freedom of the trails. I have left my city life behind in search of something else, looking for something that will relieve me of the anxiety I felt while living in a too-busy city. Or perhaps I want to finally reckon with the memories of my father, the recollections that had nowhere to move when I lived in Chicago.
              Perhaps I move closer to his ashes to be able to push away at how they haunt my skin.
              What I do know is that there was a pull to be near my family again, to feel some connection I had cut myself off from when I went to grad school in Chicago in order to get away from my dead father, in order to soak myself in liquor. Now that I’m here, my mother reminds me of him, and questions about their relationship arise. How I want to understand them, want to get why they stayed unhappily married for decades until he died. “Why didn’t you leave?” I asked my mother as we hiked on the trails last year. “Because I was married, said I would stay for better or for worse.” And while I understood she wanted to stick to her vows, I did not get why she would continue to suffer. She smiles now.
              Here I am, perhaps understanding the ways in which we suffer, to try and live through something. Here I am with the memories of him, with his ashes pressing up against my back, and I draw myself towards them, hope to get something out of being so near to the memories of him. That is my purpose here, that is why I have moved into this small mountain town, into my mother’s basement. But now I have become bored. Now I open to the pain.
              At night, the cuts on my thighs from falling down during my run yank my skin, make me grab my flesh in pain. Bruises sprawl out underneath the gashes.
              After my morning run, after that morning bath, after I sat on the peach leather couch with my hands underneath me, after my mother showed me pictures that were absent of my father, after I drove around aimlessly, after I went to an AA meeting, an old man offered me flowers at a coffee shop and I continued to count my collection of minutes, of memories.
              And then I drove home, closed myself into the basement, closed the door from the shadowed side of the room, the side with the concrete floors and the cardboard box full of two baggies of my father’s ashes.
              Here I am at this wooden desk, sitting in his old rickety wooden chair, knowing that tomorrow will be another day in which time will create blank spaces in my skin, in which my father will not shift any further away. I sit, the mountains surrounding me, keeping me here, keeping me nowhere, keeping my flesh swarmed with ashes, engulfed by this man who spreads himself through the cracks, presses himself against the basement wall.

 

 

 
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