Concept: The Words We Cannot Say

An incessant beeping noise permeates the room, a chirp really, but it’s irritating nonetheless. My nerves are already tattered like an exposed wound, and this noise just puts me closer to the edge of losing it. I take my breaths, just like the therapist said, but they don’t help. I want to punch the machine until it stops, but I don’t want to raise any concerns among the doctors and nurses that come and go from my wife’s room. They’re here to help her, not me, but I wonder how much longer it will be before I need help, too. I cover my eyes with my hands and rub them until I see spots.

“Mr. Soczek,” a slight voice says in the darkness of my palms.

I look up and there’s a nurse standing before me. She’s an older woman who reminds me of my late grandmother, but she has gray hair that is tied back in a ponytail, not the dyed-brown bouffant that my sweet grandmother wore. She smiles slightly as if she’s waiting for me to acknowledge her presence, but the room still spins around us.

“Yes,” I say, and I know I sound exasperated because I am. The last 48 hours have been a roller coaster of emotions. I put my hands on the arms of the chair I’m sitting in as if it will stop the spinning.

“Dr. Kaufman will be here in about 30 minutes.”

“Is that what he said?”

“Yes.”

“Last time he said that, it was two hours.”

“Mr. Soczek, please understand that Dr. Kaufman is a busy man. He has patients all over the hospital. If an emergency comes up, he will be delayed.”

“I understand that, but my wife needs him now.”

“She’s stable now. There’s nothing he can do other than wait to see how she recovers from the surgery. Only time will tell.”

I look past the nurse to my wife laying on her back and unconscious in the bed behind her. Bandages cover her head and part of her face. Her eyes are swollen shut, and a breathing tube snakes down her throat. The chirp of the machine continues, amplified by my anxiety. I think I see her twitch, but my vision is so shaky that I cannot know for sure.

“Mr. Soczek. Mr. Soczek.”

I drift back to the nurse and look at her a moment before I realize she’s still talking to me. “What?”

“Why don’t you go outside and get some air?”

“I don’t need any air. I’m fine.”

“You look like you haven’t slept for a while.”

“Do you know when she will wake up?”

“She has a lot of injuries. It’s best that she sleeps for a while. It will help with the healing process.”

“Is she blind?”

“I don’t know. Dr. Kaufman can discuss the prognosis with you.”

“Is she going to make it?”

“She’s stable now. The worst has passed, but you should discuss this with Dr. Kaufman.”

“When will he be here?”

“As I said, I expect him to be here in 30 minutes or so.”

I run out of questions to ask her. My mind is whirling through the last few days, and the lack of sleep has affected by ability to think clearly. The nurse looks at me for a moment longer as if she expects me to grow another head or something, then, she sighs slightly before she turns and walks away. I slump back into the chair as the door to the room swings shut behind the nurse.

I look at my wife for a moment, and I swear to myself that I see her twitch, so I get up and go to her side. Her bruised and bloodied hands, at least the parts not covered with bandages, lay by her side. Casts are wrapped around both of her arms. An IV needle is taped to her left hand. I look up to the bag hanging by her bed and watch the fluid drip slowly into the funnel that feeds the needle.

The drops remind me of our honeymoon. It rained the whole time we were in Costa Rica. Some days the rain tore through the jungle like angry bees battering the large leaves on the vegetation, and on others, it trickled from the sky and lazily dripped from the gutter above our balcony making a plopping sound that drove us both mad when we tried to sleep at night. It was too hot to close the windows, and since the air conditioning only worked sporadically, we had to choose between the annoying sound or broiling in our own sweat. It wasn’t a great way to begin our marriage.

I turn back to Bree, and a wave of gloom overwhelms me. I gently touch her hand fearing that I might upset the complicated mass of tubes and needles that loop across her body. I find some exposed skin near her pinky and I rub it with my thumb. I wonder what she will say when she wakes up. If she wakes up.

After a moment, I return to the chair, and the weight of the last 48 hours collapses on me. I lean into the back of the uncomfortable chair trying to get some rest. It’s inflexible with a prickly, coarse material that covers a stiff frame. My head lolls against the wall, and I shut my eyes. Sleep beckons me, but I’m afraid to go to sleep. What if Bree wakes up? What if Dr. Kaufman comes by and I’m asleep? I shut my eyes anyway unable to win this battle any longer despite that damn chirping noise.

***

Something startles me awake. When I open my eyes, I’m staring at the ceiling of the hospital room. The hanging ceiling tiles, perfectly square with irregular perforations, look down at me knowingly. An unsettled feeling comes up from my gut and I jerk up into a sitting position. I had leaned over in my sleep and rolled onto my back against the hard, cushioned arm of the chair. My back screams at me and I groan back. I stretch my arms out just as Dr. Kaufman walks through the door.

“Mr. Soczek, you’re awake,” he says. He seems surprised.

“I just dozed off.”

“I came by earlier, but you were asleep. The nurse said you wanted to talk to me.”

It took a moment to process what he said, but then, I remembered I wanted to talk to him about Bree. “How is she?” I shift my eyes from him to my wife, but I return to him when he responds.

“Well, the surgery was successful. She’s stable, but she’s still in serious condition. We managed to stop the internal bleeding. She has multiple fractures, a punctured lung, and both orbital bones are fractured.”

“Is she blind?”

Kaufman stops and looks at me strangely, but maybe it’s just the remnants of sleep affecting my perception of his mannerisms.

“I did not detect any damage to the eyes, but we won’t know for sure until she’s awake.”

“When will she wake up?”

“She’s in a drug-induced coma. We need to keep her that way for a while. She needs to rest to help her body recover.”

“So she won’t wake up until next week, when?”

He gives me another odd stare before he answers. “Let’s give her a few days and see where she is. Then, we can determine when we can back off on the sedatives.”

I breathe a sigh of relief.

“Your wife, she’s a tough lady. I think she’ll pull through this. It may take a while, but she should fully recover.”

I muster the best smile I can for Dr. Kaufman. He nods and glances over at Bree one more time before he ducks through the door and disappears into the hallway. I look over at her and I wonder what she will say when she wakes up.

***

I managed to get away for a bit after the doctor visited us. Since I didn’t have to worry about Bree waking up, I decided to go home, our home, not the place I’d been living for the past few weeks, and clean up. I’d been in the same clothes for several days and hadn’t showered or slept. I felt disgusting. After my shower, I fell onto Bree’s, I mean, our bed and slept for a few hours. I don’t know what time I went to sleep, but when I woke up, it was late morning. I awoke in a panic, but then, I recalled my conversation with Dr. Kaufman and relaxed. Another shower helped.

Before I left to return to the hospital, I called Bree’s parents and her sister and let them know what had happened. I had to apologize repeatedly for waiting so long to call them, but I explained that I’d been out of it because I was so worried about Bree that I didn’t even think to call them. It didn’t help that my cell phone was shot and I hadn’t had time to get another one. Her family lives in Northern California, so it will take them a few hours to get to San Diego to be with Bree. That will give me time to get my shit together.

***

I don’t know what I expected when I returned to the hospital. I guess I thought there’d be more activity in Bree’s room as the doctors worked to bring her back, but when I stepped through the door to her room, all was quiet. She lay there in the darkness with only the faint overhead light illuminating the upper half of her body. I sit down in the uncomfortable chair again and just stare at her. I think of things to say when she wakes up. How do I make this all better?

As I’m rehearsing the things I’ll say in my mind, someone pushes the door to the room open hesitantly, and I see a large man in a tight-fitting sports jacket step into the room. It must take his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness because I don’t think he saw me at first. He looks at Bree and then scans the room until his eyes land on me. He nods and steps toward me. Another man, similarly large, follows him.

“Mr. Soczek?” he whispers.

An anxiety comes over me when I see the badge glimmering on his belt. Police. “Yes,” I reply.

“I’m Detective Swanson, and this is my partner Detective Manous. Can we talk to you out in the hallway for a moment?” He continues to whisper as if he will wake Bree up, but each word he says sends a chill down my spine.

I nod and stand up. I look at Bree one more time before I follow the rotund officers out of her room. They step down the hallway a bit and I join them in a small huddle near the door of the room down the hall from Bree.

“Thank you, Mr. Soczek,” Swanson says.

“You’re welcome,” I reply. “What can I do for you? I’ve given my statement to the police already.”

“I know, and we’ve read through the reports, but we have more questions if you don’t mind,” Swanson says.

I don’t feel like I have any choice, so I nod my head in agreement.

“The report says that you arrived at your home at 10 AM on Tuesday after you didn’t hear from your wife. Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“And you two are separated. Is that correct?”

I don’t like the word separated. We weren’t separated. We had just decided to live apart for a while until things settled down. “We were living apart for a bit, but we had planned to move back in together. Things were getting better,” I reply.

“When was that going to happen?”

“Next week.”

“Why next week?”

“I don’t know. That’s just what we decided.”

“When did you decide on that?”

“This past weekend.”

Swanson looks at Manous. Something passes between them, and it raises my anxiety a bit.

“That’s the last time you saw your wife before the incident, correct?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know why anyone would want to hurt your wife?”

“No one would want to hurt her that I know of, but this was a robbery.”

“How can you be so sure?” Manous asks.

“Look at the house, it was ransacked.”

Swanson nods, but Manous doesn’t seem convinced. I fidget in place. My back starts to ache from spending so much time in that damn chair. I hear footsteps behind me, and I look back just as a nurse goes into Bree’s room. My anxiety level rises more.

“How is your relationship with your wife?” Swanson asks.

I pause a moment before I respond. I look from Swanson to Manous and back again. “What do you mean?”

“You lived apart. What happened?”

“We’ve had our ups and downs just like any married couple. We decided to try some time apart to see if that helped us.”

“Helped you?”

“You know, absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

“Did it?” Manous interjects.

“Yes. We are still deeply in love. Our time apart made that very clear.”

Behind me another nurse enters Bree’s room. I feel very anxious. I look behind me as her door shuts. Swanson asks a few more questions and I respond absently. I forget the questions and my answers as soon as they are spoken. I’m worried about what the nurses are doing in her room. I shift in place and a creeping nervousness shimmers down my back.

“I’m sorry detectives, but I need to check on my wife. Do you have any more questions?”

“Not at this moment, but, Mr. Soczek, if you think of anything we should know, please give us a call. Here’s my card.” He extends his hand and gives me a business card. I look at it briefly before I stuff it in the back pocket of my jeans. They smile as I shake their hands before I turn and go back to be with my wife.

The Red House

The novelty of having a baby brother wore off fairly quickly. In my mind I had expected him to be play-ready when he came home from the hospital, but the reality was actually quite different and, to say the least, disappointing. Danny slept more than my dad did, and it didn’t take long for boredom to settle in. After the chaos of his birth, I had resumed my usual routine except mom had less time for me and started wearing a harried look like a soiled and overused cocktail dress. Luckily, I started kindergarten later that year and had plenty of other things to keep me busy.

While I was distracted, Danny went from being a lump in a bassinet to being this curious, crawling machine to walking and stomping around the house in a short amount of time. By his first Christmas, he could putter around the house after me like it was no one’s business. At first, I had a renewed interest in the little squirt with visions of big brother domination, but it didn’t take long for us to have our first spat, which ended with Danny crying after I popped him one. I got away with that one because he couldn’t talk, but there’d be few that I’d wiggle my way out of going forward. That was but the first shot across the bow in a long line of legendary battles that wouldn’t end until I moved away to college.

I had waited a long time to get a brother (in kid years, it was an eon), but my parents weren’t finished with the surprises. Danny hadn’t even tested the waters of being the baby of the family long before my next brother, Jason, was born. By the end of 1977, our little family was complete, and my mom’s life and sanity would never be the same.

Adding another child to the family meant we’d outgrown the tiny home near my grandparents, so dad decided to move us a few miles down the road to what became known as The Red House. The mere mention of The Red House brings back a bunch of mixed emotions. It was our home for over seven years, and within its walls and beyond occurred many of my best childhood memories, but those years, to this day, remain the toughest of my life. For that reason, I’d rather forget many things, but others I cherish.

The Red House was nothing much at all. I don’t know when it was built, and if I had to guess, I’d say it was built in the 1940s. It had five rooms including a large kitchen in the back and a large living room in the front. Bedrooms were wedged between those two main rooms, but the smaller bedroom, the one Danny and I would share until we moved out, would barely pass for a hallway. In fact, there was no hallway to speak of – we had to pass through every room to go from one end of the house to the other.

The walls, covered in dark paneling on the inside and red asbestos-laden siding on the outside, lacked insulation. In the winter, frost would form on the inside of the paneling in the living room. Like so many houses back in its heyday, if it ever had one, The Red House stood on stacked cement blocks, so air circulated beneath it making the floors very cold in the winter. We heated the house with these terrible stand-alone gas units in each room, and the only air conditioning we had in those long, hot southern summers consisted of over-worked box fans that hummed like a nest of hornets all through the day and night.

The porous walls made heating the house so expensive that my parents permanently closed off the living room, and we lived in the remaining four rooms. The large kitchen had plenty of space for a couple of recliners in the corners, and we put a small TV on top of the refrigerator. We’d come home from school and sit in the recliners and watch Gilligan’s Island as mom flitted about the kitchen making dinner. I’m surprised my brothers and I don’t have necks that are permanently locked in the upward-looking position given the years we spent staring at that damn TV on top of the refrigerator.

To complete the grand misery package, we shared a fickle water well with our neighbors. The water from this well smelled like rot and was so hard that it stained the ceramic tub in the single bathroom. The lime green and rust-colored stains licked the sides of that cold-as-hell tub making baths equal parts torture and mesmerizing. The uneven floors creaked when we walked on them, and the well-worn carpet had permanent grit in it that could not be vacuumed out no matter how hard my mom tried. Foot traffic from three less-than-hygienic boys didn’t help. Sometime around 1980 I think my mom gave up as we wore the carpet down to a dirty nub.

The greatest thing about The Red House certainly wasn’t the living conditions. Although we had a few neighbors in close proximity, the house abutted an old pasture and a seemingly endless woodland that had creeks and a lake. I think I spent most of my formative childhood years exploring those woods. To this day, I still love exploring any woodland area. I had a neighbor who was about my age and lived behind us, and we’d explore it together when we weren’t fighting. Friends would come over and we’d tramp off to the woods. As Danny got older, he’d join us, and we’d run through those woods like a horde of wild horses.

Back then, parents didn’t hover. As long as you were back before dark, you could run around the neighborhood as free as a bird. We’d go fishing, search for crawdads in the creek, or climb trees until our arms and legs ached. We did a lot of things we shouldn’t have like trying to stand on a flimsy sheet of ice on the lake or climbing into an old, dilapidated barn that could have collapsed on us. We got hurt – bumped our heads, cut our hands, skinned many a knee. We may have wanted to cry from the pain, but we didn’t lest we become the object of ridicule at school or in the neighborhood. There were worse things that could have happened, but not to a young boy.

Many years  later, I drove by The Red House. It’s still there, but it’s not red anymore, and the woods behind it aren’t as vast as they used to be as development has swallowed up some of my old stomping grounds. I don’t miss it, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I do miss the innocence and wonder that I had there, at least for a time. I miss those long summer nights catching lightning bugs (fireflies for you non-southerners). I miss playing stick ball or baseball in the backyard until it got too dark. I miss running through the creeks and climbing trees without a care in the world. I miss my good, childhood friend, Ronnie, who lived across the street and was like another brother to me. I miss those moments, but I don’t miss The Red House.

 

The Matriarch

I cannot imagine two more diametrically-opposed personalities than my paternal grandparents. My grandfather was a rather quiet and withdrawn man who often sat in his rocking chair in the midst of the chaos of Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve dinner in his small house as members of his family chatted amiably and grandkids ran to and fro shrieking and playing games. My endearing image of Papa, as I called him, is of him sitting in that chair, quiet and almost stock still with just a tinge of a smile on his face. He never said so to me, but I think he enjoyed being in the middle of all that noise even if he preferred the quiet of his more typical days.

Contrast that with my grandmother, or Granny, a fiery, boisterous woman who loved to be in the middle of it all. Much of that noise during those family dinners came from her as she engaged in lively conversations with her kids and grandkids. She raised six kids (three boys and three girls) and had eight grandchildren, which made for quite a ruckus when we were all crammed in three of the rooms in their tiny, six-room house on the hill.

My grandmother was your prototypical southern woman with the sweet southern accent that could charm anyone, and she did. She could talk to strangers as if she’d known them all her life. She loved being in the middle of it all, and as if she needed to prove it, she usually went shopping the day after Thanksgiving with my aunts. In fact, she expected them to include her (there’d be hell to pay if they didn’t). She was always going somewhere or had somewhere to be. Even after she retired, no moss grew under her feet. She didn’t have time for that.

Many times my dad would take me to visit my grandparents, but it was usually just a visit with Papa. Granny would be out with her daughters or simply out on her own or with friends. That house fell so quiet with her gone. As a boy I remember stepping through the door when Papa was the only one home and not hearing any sound. He’d be sitting in his chair reading the paper or just resting. That’s the way he liked it, his respite from what had to be constant chatter when Granny was home. When we’d drive by their house sometimes, I’d look for the car in the car port attached to their house. It was usually gone, but if it was there, I knew Granny was home, and I knew Papa was likely nodding in silence as Granny rambled on about whatever caught her fancy.

Never the wallflower, if Granny had something to say, she said it. If you crossed her, you knew it beyond any doubt. My dad often recalled stories of times when he misbehaved as a kid or a teenager and had to pay the price with his mother. She struck fear in him as a kid, but he loved her beyond words. Both my grandparents passed within a few years of each other back in 1998 and 2002, and while both losses were hard on my dad, the loss of his mother was the hardest. Her passing altered his demeanor in subtle ways that only those who knew him very well could see, like he was a fighter who had taken one too many punches.

Of course, my view of my grandparents is mostly through the lens of a kid and a young adult. I couldn’t possibly know them as my dad, aunts, and uncles did or understand them beyond the construct of their roles as my grandparents, but each of them had a different impact on me. I cherished the quiet conversations that I had with Papa because they were so few and far between, but Granny set the tone as a vivacious, determined woman who lived life to the fullest extent she could. Papa was as deliberate as Granny was exuberant, and that’s probably why they fit so well together.

To me, Granny was the center of our extended family. For all of his subtle wisdom, Papa seemed content to take a backseat to his outgoing wife as long as he could relax in his rocking chair or recliner as life ambled by. Granny enjoyed her role as the center of attention and set the example of what a strong woman should be, which had an immeasurable impact on me and the person I would become. All these years later, I can still hear her sweet voice in my head opining on what’s happening in the world or plotting her next trip or adventure with my aunts. If ever there was a person with whom I wish I could have one last conversation, it would be her.

Pup in a Box

My dad used to tell me stories about one of the dogs he had growing up. I forget its name, unfortunately, but the dog lived nearly 15 years before it succumbed to the vagaries of old age. Even when I was young, I could tell that dad loved that dog. He lit up every time he told that story, and I’d ask him about it frequently just so I could picture it in my mind’s eye and imagine my dad as a young boy running around with his dog. It’s hard to imagine your parents as kids themselves, but something about that story resonated with me and made my dad more real to me.

It goes without saying that my dad loved dogs. You don’t talk about something frequently unless it stirs a passion within you. I had many dogs growing up. I’m not sure my dad was ever as close to any of them as he was the one from his childhood, but he always made sure I had a dog by my side.

The first dog I remember was a mutt named Sam. Sam barely stood knee high to an adult with his stubby legs and long sandstone coat. He wasn’t even particularly fond of me, occasionally growling at me when I got too physical with him. He snapped at me once, and that made me hesitant to get really close to him, but I loved having him around and played with him outside often.

Sam loved my dad. He would follow him to the car when he left for work or ran errands and he’d trot out to the road when my dad pulled that old, blue Ford Maverick he drove onto the two-lane road that ran in front of our house. There was rarely much traffic on that road, but the cars that did pass by were often speeding. Despite the dangers of the road, Sam would amble casually across the road as if any cars would stop for him.

One weekend, dad drove me up the hill to visit my grandparents (we only lived a quarter mile away but my parents never walked anywhere back then). As Sam was wont to do, he cut through the pasture behind our house and followed us along the short, circuitous path to my grandparents’ place on the hill. He probably moved as fast as his stubby legs could take him, but we were already parked and standing outside talking to my grandfather when Sam cut through my uncle’s yard and headed across the road to greet us.

We could see him coming through the fields, and my dad even laughed that the dog had followed us as all three of us watched him, but just as Sam started across the road, a junky, old car came flying around the curve and struck him right in front of us. Sam flew into the air and landed with a sickening thud on the pavement. The car continued around the curve but came to a stop and turned around.

Dad cursed under his breath, but mostly, we just stood there, stunned. Sam didn’t move, and perhaps, we all knew how this was going to end. Except me. Dad tried to keep me back, but I insisted on helping my dog. By the time we reached the road, the driver, a young man with a porn-mustache and billowing, flowered shirt, stepped from his car and apologized profusely as we drug our dog from the road.

Dad didn’t express any anger toward the man, nor did the man hang around long, but he wasn’t happy that our dog had been run down. It didn’t help that I refused to accept the fact that Sam was dead. His eyes were still open in a vacant, lifeless stare, which to me meant he was still alive. I tried to convince my dad that he was not dead and I pointed to his open eyes repeatedly as he drug him to a grave in the pasture. Finally, he put a stop to my rambling with a few curt words, and the tears came. After he properly buried Sam, he put his arm on my shoulder as we walked back to my grandparents’ house. Dad didn’t say anything, he was never good at dealing with emotion, but it comforted me nonetheless.

At that young age, I learned two important lessons that have stuck with me: life is fragile and fleeting and bad things may happen but something good eventually comes along. Sam may have perished that day, but I wasn’t without a dog for very long. Dad worked with a guy who raised dogs, mostly mutts, and always had a steady stream of puppies ready for new homes. One morning, not long after Sam died, I awoke to find a new puppy in a box in the middle of our living room. I was ecstatic.

Shorty, as I aptly named him, was a short-legged mutt who was mostly white save for a patch of brown and black on his face. He was as excited to see me as I was to see him. I fell in love with him immediately, and we became inseparable companions. He was the first dog that was truly mine. We went everywhere together. As I got older and began to explore the woods behind our house, Shorty was there, always at the ready to chase away dangerous squirrels.

On that first morning, my mom had to tear me away from Shorty long enough to get dressed and eat breakfast, but I was so excited I could barely eat. I wanted to show Shorty off. My cousin Crystal lived across the street at the time, and I just had to show her my new dog. After breakfast, I took Shorty, in the box, over to Crystal’s house and we played with him for a long while. Shorty’s introduction into our family was a roaring success, and thus began my love affair with dogs that still persists to this day. I have my dad to thank for that.

Oh Brother

I rarely saw much of my dad in my early childhood. Two years before I was born, he landed a job at the Ford plant south of Atlanta that was over 50 miles away from our home. Since he was new to the unionized workforce, he was relegated to the night shift, so when I was sleeping, he was at work, and when I was awake, he was sleeping. As I got older, it felt like he was a mirage I only saw occasionally. Even on the weekends, he spent more time sleeping or napping than anything else because the night shift distorted his natural sleep patterns.

At the time, we lived on a small rectangle of land wedged against the perimeter of my paternal grandfather’s pasture. My grandfather had once farmed the land, but it had long since been handed over to grazing cattle. We lived in a single, narrow trailer, a tin can of a house that rattled and rocked when storms rolled through. On one end sat the small living room crammed with modest furniture that screamed a 1970s-era vinyl with a psychedelic pattern. The kitchen and dining area were fused into what would pass for a hallway in most houses. We couldn’t pull the chairs out from the table too far without blocking traffic moving through the house, not that we ever had many visitors. From the kitchen ran a long, dark hallway that led to a single bathroom, my tiny bedroom, and my parent’s larger bedroom.

That hallway was the stuff of nightmares when I was a kid. It featured a couple of small opaque windows that were wedged up near the ceiling and let in very little light. Since my dad slept during the day, my mom had covered their bedroom windows with the thick, sticky paper that most people used to line their kitchen drawers, so there was even less ambient light filtering in from the largest room at that end of the house. As a kid, I often felt the walls were moving when I tip-toed down the seemingly pitch-black hallway. The meager hall light that hung on the wall barely illuminated the floor, much less brightened the path down the endless dark gash that greeted me whenever I stood in the kitchen. Needless to say, I preferred to play in the living room or outside.

On most days, it was just my mom and me. I was an only child at the time, and my mom stayed home to take care of me. A preternaturally nervous woman who worried way too much, she watched over me like a hawk. I couldn’t so much as breathe funny or sniffle without raising my mother’s anguish. She had lost her first child over two years before I was born, and the fact that I was born prematurely and seemed to get sick a lot didn’t help her fear that I’d evaporate like the morning fog on a cool fall day.

My mom has never been a social person. While we lived in a sparsely-populated, rural area of North Georgia, we did live near relatives including two wonderful great aunts who were just steps away from our front door. Nevertheless, my mom kept to herself, and that meant we spent countless hours together. To a kid time is already slow and sometimes painfully so, but it’s worse when there’s a large gulch of time and little in the way of entertainment.

In spite of the frequent boredom, many of those hours weren’t wasted on unfounded worries and concerns or spent in anguish over our self-imposed isolation. My mom had a plan and it involved molding me into the little man she thought I needed to be. She had never really had the opportunity to dedicate much time to or finish her own education, and she decided early on that would not be the case with me. From the moment I could talk, she started teaching me the basics. I remember sitting on the floor of our living room with my mom as she looked over my shoulder teaching me how to write my ABCs in one of those large-lined tablets common at the time. She’d chastise me for being sloppy and make me do it again. I learned very quickly that her exacting standards didn’t just apply to writing but to everything I did. To this day, I can’t make my bed sloppily. I just can’t.

Every once in a while, I’d wake up early and wander into the living room to find my dad still awake after his night shift. Most mornings he’d already be in bed by the time I woke up. In my memory, it always seemed to be a bright, sunny day when my dad was still up in the mornings. The living room in our house had these large windows at one end and when it was sunny, especially in the mornings, the rays would filter through the dusty curtains and make the room glow to the point that I had to squint when I looked in certain directions.

If dad was in a good mood, he’d sit on the couch after breakfast and play some of his records. He had one of those old console stereos, the ones that stood about thigh-high on an adult and were as large as a coffin. Inside sat a turntable, a radio tuner, and various large silver knobs that adjusted the bass and treble. It took a while before I was tall enough to peer inside, but I’d climb up on it and try to play with the knobs much to my dad’s dismay.

In those years, before my dad’s disappointments overwhelmed him, before a darkness came over him that would cast a pall over the rest of his life, he sang. Not loud or obnoxiously, but amazingly soft for a man with a deep voice. I could barely hear it over the records he played, but sometimes, I’d lean into him to hear his voice echo through his chest as we sat on the couch together. I loved that sound. I still do. I hear it sometimes when I think of him.

Outside of those glowing moments, my mom and I trudged along in a daily routine fit for a couple of farmers except we did housework and practiced our ABCs. In the space between chores and studying, I played outside a lot. I visited with my great aunts next door and helped them in their garden. Some days after we’d spent the morning working in the garden, they’d make me lunch. They baked the best bread and even made some vegetables palatable to a terminally-picky little boy. That bread and their green beans were the stuff of legend, to me at least, but unfortunately, they took the recipes to their graves.

When I played alone, my overactive imagination often got the best of me. I’d make up elaborate stories and play them out in my head. I would pretend I had a baby brother and have full blown conversations with him in my sandbox. Amazingly, imaginary little brothers are very cooperative and respectful of older brothers. Real ones, no so much.

That summer in 1975 came to a close with change in the air. My mom got fat. Not really, but she grew a large belly that was bigger than me by the time Christmas rolled around. She had talked about me having a baby brother or sister for some time, but it never really resonated with me until the day my mom had to go to the hospital. That’s when it hit me, and I wasn’t happy.

Suddenly, our tranquil little habits were disrupted. I was uprooted from the house and deposited at my maternal grandparents, while my dad took my mom to the hospital. I had grown accustomed to always being with my mom. That was our routine, but now, this baby was taking precedence over me. I didn’t want to stay with my grandparents, and apparently, I was very clear about this because at some point during the melee I kicked my grandmother. I was such an awful, spoiled brat that my grandmother, a dour, stern woman, relented and called my dad while he was trying to get some rest as he waited for my mom to get to the point of giving birth. Dad tried to reason with me over the phone, but I fretted over reasons for why he had to come get me. Eventually, he gave up and joined me at my grandparents’ house. That quelled my irrational behavior for a bit, but only for a little while.

A few days later, I was reunited with my mom when she returned home with my real baby brother in tow. My stubborn, boorish behavior fell by the wayside momentarily as I looked at the big, squishy-faced baby that slept even more than my dad did. I remember being elated at the sight of him and thinking of all the things we’d do together. Peacefully, of course, like brothers always do. I’d take care of him, and he’d let me. That’s the way it would always be, or so I thought.

Somewhere I Belong

As I work on my writing skills, one of the exercises that I’m undertaking is writing a memoir. This is not something I ever plan to publish, but it helps workout my writing muscles, so to speak. Here’s an excerpt from Odd Man Out, my memoir.

My earliest memories date back to the summer of 1975 when I was just four and a half years old and my parents took me on a rare vacation to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. These memories are not necessarily coherent but more like a series of sights, smells, and feelings that have lingered in the fog of long ago as if they have some purpose to serve in defining who I am. Nothing dramatic happened, and I was too young to have any sense of a seminal moment in my life, but for some reason, these lingering memories float into my consciousness regularly when I look back on my life.

I do remember this: my parents were young and vibrant and enjoying a rare moment of happiness. My dad stood tall and lean with a shock of thick, wavy hair that would define him until his death 40 years later. I remember sitting near the pool at the motel where we stayed and watching my dad jump into the deep end and swim around. He’d emerge from the edge of the pool, water streaming off his lean frame, and ask if I wanted to join him. I shook my head no because my mom had impressed upon me her fear of water, a fear she’s never overcome.

Instead, mom took me to the kiddie pool nearby, a shallow concrete oval overwhelmed by the smell of chlorine. I splashed around and sat in the water while my mom, always a worrier, watched diligently, too preoccupied about my safety to enjoy the moment. I remember my mom’s big hair – tall, thick, and long, framing her face much like it had in pictures of  her from the 1960s. That’s the only moment where I remember my mom having a haircut other than the mom-cut she adopted in the late 1970s and has worn since. She kept her eyes on me for the most part, too shy to speak to any of the other people around her other than my dad, a relic of her upbringing.

After a while, a little girl about my age joined me in the kiddie pool, and my dad sensed an opportunity to tease me. He asked me if she was my girlfriend. I gave him my best puffed-lip “No.” He kept going until I became frustrated and embarrassed and stomped out of the pool to sit on the lounge chair next to my mom. My mom admonished my dad for his behavior, but he just laughed before he dove back into the water. I sat there, my arms folded and face burning with indignation, inhaling the mildewed scent of one of the old, cushioned chairs that ringed the dilapidated motel pool.

After a while, dad grew tired of swimming and teasing me and pulled himself out of the pool to join us. He brushed off my insolence and we reconciled in the way only fathers and sons can – he tussled my hair and told me to stop being a baby. He dried off and fumbled through his shirt to find his cigarettes. He went through the motions that I eventually grew to know so well: tapping the cigarette out of the pack, cupping his hand to light it, and then exhaling a big plume of white smoke as he held the cigarette between his yellowed fingers. Dad smoked my entire life only giving it up reluctantly in the final 18 months of his life when it became medically necessary. I never took up the habit myself, but to this day, I think of him when I smell smoke.

Later that evening, or maybe it was the next day, the three of us walked down the main drag in Gatlinburg in waning summer daylight. I don’t remember much about that night, but I remember walking between my parents. I remember the faint smells of rot that drifted up from the alleys where the trashcans sat. I remember the bright lights of the store fronts and the crowds of people coming at us and overtaking us on the street. My short legs could only move so fast, and my parents were not in a hurry.

The most vivid memory of that evening came when we walked by a store selling candy and other high-sugar sweets. My eyes fixated on a rotating plate of caramel apples. I could practically smell them through the glass. I wanted one in a bad way. My mom demurred casting aspersions against the effects of the sugar on my teeth. Dad overruled her, and before I knew it, I was sinking my teeth into the warm caramel as it dripped onto my hands and shirt. My mom fretted at the mess; my dad laughed.

We resumed our walk down the vibrant street stopping occasionally so that my mom could look in the storefront windows. I stood between my parents as we walked and held their hands, almost suspended between them as my tiny feet glided across the sidewalk. I remember looking up to dad and thinking that he was so tall and strong. I remember the smell of the smoke as he inhaled one cigarette after another. I remember the warmth of my mom’s hand and the soft tones of her voice, but mostly I remember feeling a sense of belonging, a deep-seated satisfaction that I didn’t understand at the time but that I now recognize with the benefit of many years.

Looking back, I realize that moment in time was one of the few times in my life where I felt like I was somewhere I belonged. The months and years that followed brought great change, some good but mostly not. That moment of happiness faded into our collective memory, a rare jewel in a box of dull gems.

Concept: Leaving Arizona

Red Connor’s headlights flashed on the large blue sign up ahead to the right of the Interstate. The sign sparkled in the beam of light, glowed really, as he sped toward it. The blue became deeper and the words, despite being blurred by his tears, became clearer. The cartoon image of the sun with exaggerated red and yellow rays shooting from the horizon sat below the words “Leaving Arizona.” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and breathed an unwarranted sigh of relief. He watched the sign welcoming him to New Mexico come and go. No matter how far and how fast he traveled from Phoenix, he couldn’t escape. He knew this, but he kept his foot pressed on the gas pedal and his eyes focused on the largely vacant road ahead of him.

The hum of the car’s engine surrounded him, soothed his frayed nerves. He sunk back into the supple leather seat of the luxury sports car. He remembered when he bought the car and how it made him feel. He loved the way the seat wrapped around him and kept him snugly in position when he zipped around sharp turns. The steering felt firm like he was gripping the road with his own two feet. The low profile of the car gave him confidence that he could handle any turn, and he did. He’d spent many weekends just driving through the desolate canyon roads of northern Arizona testing the limits of his driving skills. How else could he stamp out the anger that swelled inside him.

For a moment, only the glow of the dashboard provided him any light inside the car. Either side of the freeway was vacant as the darkness swallowed him. He felt safe in that moment as if he hid behind a giant cloak and no one knew he was there. That’s the way it’d have to be from now on. He had no one but himself to blame for what he’d done.

In the miles-long, dark space behind him, two needlepoint lights pierced the night sky and Red held his breath. He maintained his speed right at the speed limit – he couldn’t draw any unnecessary attention to himself – and gripped the thick steering wheel a little harder as the two eyes grew brighter. The car behind him traveled at a very high speed, much more so than normal on this long stretch of isolated road in western New Mexico. Red peered into his rear view mirror trying to discern the type of vehicle approaching him. Was it a police car? He couldn’t tell.

The car came upon him quickly. It’s bright lights flooded his car almost blinding him. He swallowed hard and blinked away the light before the approaching car jerked into the left lane and sped past him. Red tried not to look, but he couldn’t help but notice the clunky old Dodge Charger as it gunned by him. He couldn’t make out the driver in the dim light, but he doubted that the driver noticed him or his car. If he had, he would have slowed down or given some indication that he had seen something out of the ordinary.

The Charger’s taillights disappeared into the darkness like two evil eyes descending into a cauldron and Red felt alone again, relieved, but the red lights brought a memory to him, something deep in the recesses of his mind. His Uncle Carl owned a Charger when Red was a boy. He’d seen those same taillights disappear in the darkness before. A feeling of loneliness overwhelmed him. Shouting, crying, and the sound of flesh being slapped and punched flitted through his foggy, repressed memories. He pushed the sounds out of his mind and refocused his eyes on the road ahead, but his heart still raced like the eight-year-old version of himself threatened to burst out of his chest.

His headlights struck a bright, green sign along the side of the road that announced that Gallup, New Mexico was only two miles ahead. He felt a need to stop to get some coffee and maybe something to eat, but he knew that he couldn’t. Not now. He watched as the exit came into view and then fell by the wayside. He’d have to stop at some point or he’d get stopped against his will. Either option filled him with dread.

His phone buzzed in the console between his seats. The screen momentarily brightened his dark car as the notification floated on his lock screen. He squinted at the screen and read the text from his wife. “Where are you?” The screen went dark. Marie. What would he say to her? He blinked slowly and took a deep breath. Nothing would make this easy. He decided to ignore her text.

More traffic appeared on the road ahead of him and in the other direction. Headlights on the opposite side of the freeway washed across his car and lit his face. He glanced into his rear view mirror and caught sight of his bruised right cheek and the cut that run the length of his right eyebrow. He winced as if the sight of his wound renewed the pain, but the truth was that the pain had settled into a dull throb. He didn’t really feel it anymore. He didn’t feel anything. The adrenaline still gushed through his veins.

A mile or two east of Gallup, darkness once again shrouded him. He felt safe at that moment as if no one would ever find him. His phone lit up again with a text from his wife, each text becoming more and more frantic. He couldn’t put off texting her back or calling her. She deserved to know what had happened. She deserved a lot, certainly more than him. He didn’t know what to say to her. Nothing he said would make her understand or make the situation any better.

In a moment of clarity, Red knew he had to come clean. He had to tell the truth. There was no escaping it. He grabbed his phone from the console and pressed the button for his home screen. His poked the telephone icon and slid his thumb down to a familiar number before he held the phone to his ear.

After three rings, his mother answered, “Hello.”

She sounded groggy as if he had woken her from a deep sleep. He looked at the clock above the touchscreen in his car. It was only 8:30 PM in Texas. He swallowed hard suddenly unable to speak. Thoughts and memories raced through his mind in a jumble of confusion that only made him feel disoriented, discombobulated. The wound on his face suddenly radiated pain and a burning sensation sparked through his chest. He gasped for air inaudibly and heaved.

“Hello?” his mother said again. “Who is this?”

“…Mom…”

“Red? What’s wrong?”

His car veered to the edge of the road and his tires struck the rumble strip along the white line. He pulled the steering wheel to his left and corrected his path. He still couldn’t breathe or speak. He felt outside of himself as if he were looking down from above the car watching himself struggle to say something to his mother.

Finally, words formed on his tongue, “I…killed him. I killed Dad.”

He heard her breath hitch on the other end of the line like something had jumped out from behind her couch and scared her. “Red, please tell me this is not true. Please.”

A tear escaped the corner of his eye and trickled down his cheek. He sucked in a long breath trying to maintain his composure. The air in the car felt limited, stale. He could smell the blood on him, the residue of the gunshot.

“I couldn’t take it anymore, Mom. Not after all of the things he did to you – to us. I did it for you.”

“Red…I didn’t want that…”

He could hear her begin sobbing and he began to cry as well. He’d always reacted that way when his mother cried. He’d seen her cry so much throughout his life that he thought he’d be immune to it by now, but instead, her sadness overwhelmed him.

“What about the kids? Marie?”

“I don’t know…”

Her breathing and sobs rattled in his ear. She caught her breath. “Where are you now?”

“I’m just outside Albuquerque. I’m on my way to your house.”

She fell silent on the other end of the line. Red imagined that she had a tissue in her hand swiping away the tears that wouldn’t stop.

“Okay…I’ll be here…” Her sobs overwhelmed her again.

“It’ll be okay.” Red tried to assure her, but he knew his words were hollow, improbable. He waited for her to respond.

“Just get here…I love you, Red.”

“I love you, Mom.”

He punched the red icon on his screen and dropped the phone back in the console. The road ahead of him blurred in his tears. He wiped his face again with the back of his hand and pressed the gas pedal a little harder. His car sped up and cut through the darkness with a renewed urgency. He didn’t have much time left before the cops realized where he was or figured out where he was headed.

A renewed determination filled him as his tears dried on his cheeks. He didn’t regret what he’d done. He should have done it years ago. That much he knew, no matter the consequences.