Story #6, Among the Living and Other Stories, 2000
Appeared previously in The Rockford Review.
The longer I live, the less I know. The less I understand. What makes people tick? What makes them tock? “We have ways of making you tock.” Isn’t that the punch line of an old joke? A prisoner of war is sitting in a cell. Every second or so, he tilts his head mechanically to the right and says, “Tick.” His interrogator, an ugly guy with a scar, gets impatient. “We have ways of making you tock,” he says. Ha-ha. Right. Anyway. Who said laughter is the best medicine? If I could get my hands on him, I’d wring his neck. If he’s a woman, I’d take her to a nice restaurant with candlelight and music — then I’d wring his neck. I’m the prisoner, of course. Tick, tick. I, Martin File, the maker of mistakes and eater of cold spaghetti. The international spokesman of the dull. The guy who not only finds it, but steps in it and leaves it on the carpet. Here comes File. All rise. File the Unnecessary. File, the pale fellow. “File? Sure, I know him. He’s the guy who stumbles around downtown and talks to the pigeons. Doesn’t work. Something wrong with him. Nuts, maybe. Disabled. Has a weird limp. Drags his right foot.” But they don’t know. Not really. I’m a person, too. They think I was born this way. But I wasn’t. I was much smaller. Much, much smaller. When I was a week old, my mother hid me in her chest of drawers. She was young and emotional and a wee bit troubled, and afraid someone would try to steal me. She always kept the shades drawn. She fed my father potatoes and chocolate cake, day in and day out. My father hated her. He loved her too, but he hated her more. He wrote about her in long letters to his brother in New Hampshire. “Johanna is strangely beautiful,” he said once, “but more strange than beautiful.” My father was quite a poet. But he sold encyclopedias. Once, when he was selling door to door in a neighborhood where there were a lot of kids, he stepped on a marble, fell backwards, and cracked his head on the sidewalk. He was in a coma for months. Strange fluid of an orange-colored nature seeped from his head onto the pillow. His room at the hospital smelled like tea and moth balls. My mother and I visited him every day. While the nuns whispered in the hall (it was a Catholic hospital), we’d sit by the bed, and my mother would cry on my father’s arm for several minutes. Then she’d rock back and forth, and babble nonsense. I was eight then, and unjoined by other offspring. I was the first and the last. My father died. Never woke up. Killed by a marble. My mother never spoke again. She boiled potatoes and became morose. I had no friends. I wanted to break away, but felt guilty. How could I leave my mother there alone? One night, I brought a girl home. A bad mistake. It was late. I thought my mother would be in bed asleep, but she wasn’t. She was sitting in her rocking chair, brushing her long, prematurely gray hair, and staring. “Mom,” I said. “You’re up.” My mother looked up at my companion. “This is Darlene,” I said. “Darlene, this is my mother.” Darlene held out her hand. “Hello, Mrs. File,” she said. My mother brushed her hair and kept silent. “I think I’d better go now,” Darlene said to me then. “I wish you wouldn’t,” I said. “It’s late,” Darlene insisted, and before I could say anything else to stop her, she turned around and left. I looked at my mother, brushing her hair. A sad sight. A terrible sight. “I’m in a bad situation,” I said. “I can’t go on like this. We’ve got to figure something out.” Silence. “I know how hard it is for you. But it’s hard for me too.” Silence. More brushing. “Mom. Are you listening? This can’t go on. It isn’t right. It isn’t healthy. Both of us are wasting away. Mom!” But it was no use. I could have left her there, I know, but I didn’t. Or had her committed. Or had myself committed. That would have been more to the point. To get to a safe place, to be alone, to be shut away in a nice quiet room unhampered by windows and air and life and the folly of people who tell themselves stories, who tell themselves that everything is fine, and that the world is made of republicans and democrats, and who believe what they read in the newspapers and see on television, and nod because they are paralyzed monkeys. Instead, I worked in a bowling alley. I smoked cigarettes and ate ham sandwiches. I sat in bars. Went to garage sales and to the flea market. Took walks by the river. Watched drug addicts write in filthy burrows under the cottonwoods along the bank. None of this was fun. It went on for years. Then, late one night on my thirty-seventh birthday, I came home and found my mother dead in her chair with her hair brush in her lap. I cried. I picked her up and carried her to her bed. I bathed her and perfumed her and watched the shadows on the wall. Outside, the sirens of police cars and fire trucks and ambulances wailed. A cricket chirped, but no one heard it. No one had the time. I waited. There was pressure in my sinuses. I felt the liquid draining down the back of my throat. My mother didn’t return to life. She proceeded into death. Death suited her. Death adored her. After a hurried courtship, she was gone. I said, “So be it.” I said, “It was bound to happen.” I said, “We all die sometime.” the preacher I hired smiled and said, “She will know life everlasting, and be free from sorrow.” I said, “Thank you.” Before my mother’s casket lid was closed forever, I took a lock of her hair. I put it in an envelope, and I put the envelope into a drawer, and then I spilled gasoline all over the room, lit a match, and walked away. Some things aren’t worth saving. Some things are better burned. But you can’t burn memories. You can’t scour them from your mind. The more you try, the deeper their roots become. And so I still live with my mother.
Anyway. This, in a nutshell, is how I became a comedian. The limp I picked up somewhere along the way. It was a nice prop, so I kept it. Ha-ha. Let’s see. What else? I live in a beat-up old hotel downtown. I share a bathroom with nine other guys, guys with veins in their faces and knots on their heads, guys who cough, guys who count the tiles in the floor and who never finish counting. Nice guys. The kind of guys that scare respectable moms and dads and local bureaucrats.
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Categories: Among the Living and Other Stories