Ernest Hemingway once said "the first draft of anything is shit." He said a lot of things, but that one is short, easy to remember, and true, so I like it. I also believe that quote has less to do with writing than with life in general. Though I’ve asked him as much, he only laughs and disappears. He disappears to avoid answering questions.
You know, he didn’t like my original Chapter One. He said it was the wrong place to start the story. He said "It started much earlier."
That is true. It did.
"I’ll tell those other pieces later, because if this was truly chronological, I’d have needed to start it in the 1920’s, hop to the 1960’s, make a couple of brief stops in the 1980’s, and arrive at myself entering the picture, present day, quite near the end."
"True," he said. "That could pose a problem."
"So for now," I told him, "we’ll set the scene, early morning, eastern United States, in a car going across country."
"Eh, amateur. How cliché. A car?"
I had to laugh. He knew the significance of that car ride. That's where we first met.
"Okay. Okay. A week before that then?"
Finally, we agreed. So here we are, a week before that.
Good things come from writing this story down, not least of which is a second draft. It’s not nearly so easy to re-draft life; no backspace, no delete. If the second draft is done properly, the truth reveals itself. I can’t help believing that Ernest came to know me because he wanted a second draft, too.
Four a.m. I was summoned to my mom’s house. As I walked up the path, I had a sense of déjà vu; my chest felt hollow. I was an empty shell, recognizing everything around me but not belonging there anymore.
I made my way up the sidewalk and noticed the pattern of bricks. I’d lined up my Matchbox cars on those bricks. Tim and I raced them there too many times to count. The predawn light blurred and softened the bricks now, and while I knew the pattern well, I barely recognized it.
Then I looked at the front stoop as one might look at an old photo of something beautiful but long since lost. I wanted it to be exactly the same - not like it was the last time I’d left when my father told me not to return, but of the time before when I was part of the family.
The front door had been replaced with a green one and seemed as wrong to be there as I felt. I paused for a moment before I walked up the three steps, and was surprised when the door opened. My sister appeared, looking dismayed. She was not happy to see me, though I have to say that over the last few years, she always looked at me that way.
"I’ve finally got her sleeping," she said. "Are you just gonna stand there or are you coming in?"
The foyer clock had been moved. I walked past the void where it stood for most of my life and felt my own absence and distance.
"How is she?" I finally managed to ask.
"Her husband died last night. She’s just how you’d imagine she’d be; a fucking mess." My unbreakable sister looked, in that moment, breakable, and I welled with sympathy.
I followed her to the family room with my hands firmly tucked into my jean pockets, fighting off a phantom chill. When she got to the sofa and turned to sit. Judgment was etched on her face. My sympathy faded when I realized how she’d be.
My sister always took my parents’ side in our disagreements. Who could blame her. They were, on some level, right. She didn’t want me there, I knew, but I nibbled on my bottom lip instead of confronting her about it.
Mom called and I told her I would come.
I repeated it to myself over and over to keep from walking out the door.
Liz curled her legs under her. "She was really pissed, you know."
I stood still in the doorway, feeling like a guest in the house I was raised in. I was an intruder in another family’s home it seemed; a family I didn’t belong to anymore. I didn’t speak so Liz continued. I shrugged my shoulders to my ears, tired, uncomfortable, and hollow.
"She thought you did it on purpose."
My jaw dropped and my shoulders slumped. She let my expression be my reply and filled the pause by expounding. "Grudge-holding." She lifted a mug from the lamp table with her left hand and rubbed her red-rimmed eyes with her right.
"It was them!" I didn’t mean to raise my voice, so corrected it to a scratchy whisper. "They stopped talking to me. Not the other way around." Why didn’t anyone understand that?
My father sat in the den with me and told me to go away. "If you insist on living this miserable life, you are going to have to do it alone. I won’t stand by and watch." I walked out then and hadn’t looked back until I’d gotten this phone call nearly two years later.
"Well, as big a loser as you are, she wanted you there. God knows why."
"You can stop sniping anytime, Liz."
I walked to the kitchen to get away from her with the excuse of getting something to drink. I had drunk plenty the night before; had stopped just an hour or two before the call. I didn’t need more. As it was, my eyeballs were floating – little rafts in a sea of beer.
I stared into the refrigerator. A new knot crowded with the others in my stomach. It shuddered and quaked with a wave of nausea; I felt damn near seasick.
I held the fridge door for support. My fucked-up night rushed to greet and taunt me. I thought about Lisa. Regret…the messages…more regret, and that fleeting self-righteous thought I’d had about Dad -- the one before I found out he had died. I would have to hear it in my head for the rest of my life. Regret didn’t even begin to cover it. I shifted my weight and the floorboard under my feet groaned. So did I.
The cool air from the fridge soothed and calmed me for what I would have to do, who I would have to see, what I would have to say. Mother. My stomach flipped again.
The days that would follow would be excruciating. I had to stave off my sister's assault, manage an awkward grieving reunion with my mother… hell, I had to see my Aunt Bird. Talk about nausea.
Maybe I could just stand here for the next week. Maybe I could crawl inside the icebox and sleep through the next few days. My lack of sleep was catching up to me as I thought about how the night had ended badly enough, with Lisa’s meltdown. Boy, was I wrong.
Looking at the food wasn’t helping my seasick head, but it was better than facing my sister, so I stared into the fridge, taking inventory of at least one thing in this place that hadn’t changed at all: milk, eggs, butter, cheese, fresh vegetables, half empty condiment bottles, and leftovers. They equaled normal.
My mother approached from behind. She shuffled her slippers against the wooden floor as I turned to look at her. She held a balled-up tissue in one hand, and a large overstuffed manila envelope in the other. Her hair was a tangled mess. Her face had aged by a decade since I’d last seen her. In crumpled pajamas, she looked irreparable. My heart ached for her as she approached me.
I opened my mouth to speak, but she held her clenched hand to my mouth to shush me.
"You have something you need to do," she placed the Kleenex to her lips to stifle a sob. She handed me the envelope. "After the funeral you have to go."
Again I tried to speak, to ask what she was talking about. I wanted to say something that would connect us, tell her that I was sorry for not answering my phone when she called the first time. I wanted to apologize for being a lousy excuse for a son. Something, anything, to make this feeling stop.
She just shook her head, obviously not wanting to hear any excuse, condolence or apology. "It’s in here." She did not look at me, but stared at some middle distance between me and the wall, which was also an intruder in my vision of home since it had always been yellow and now was an olive green.
All the time she stood with that envelope, I thought my father had gotten sentimental. ‘He wanted you to have these’ would be the words she spoke, but I did not get the truce and too-late peace offering I was expecting. Instead I got ‘you have something you need to do’, a tissue soaked with tears and snot pressed against my mouth to keep me quiet.
She walked away, and up the stairs with Elizabeth’s urging. "Go to bed, Mom. Come on. I’ll take you up."
My mother played the part of the invalid rather well. My sister was born to play the part of caregiver daughter. She would martyr herself for it, I knew. She was another Aunt Bird in the making.
I pinched the metal clasp and ran a finger down the seal.
Before I got the envelope open, my cell phone buzzed in my pocket.
"What the hell happened? I got your message."
"Dad died," I said. "I’m here with Mom and Liz right now."
"What happened to him, though?" Tim sounded half-asleep still.
"All Mom said was ‘his heart’ and I haven’t gotten a chance to ask questions. Heart, big word, sob, you get the idea."
Tim would be funny even when he didn’t mean to, even at times like this which couldn’t bear even the tiniest bit of funny.
"A heart big word? Did he die of a big word?" I would have laughed about the Brideshead reference if it had been someone else’s dad.
"Doofus. Liz is trying to get Mom to sleep. She just gave me this pouch with stuff inside. She said I had to go do something after the funeral. I have to dig through this. Can I call you back?"
"Yeah. I’m going back to bed, but call me later."
I was relieved to be off the phone. I could always talk to Tim but not today. So much of what I had to say seemed to fade before I got the words out.
I wasn’t able to talk to my sister. Mom wouldn’t let me speak. No one would get a word in edge-wise once Aunt Bird arrived. I felt the words in my head, I felt them rattling around in my chest, but I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I’d lost my words. I didn’t have any words for anyone. Strike that; the one person I would have had words for was gone.