You are reading Fiddleblack #13
We stand beside the microwave. The sound of it spinning a ceramic bowl of mashed potatoes laced with salt. Through the kitchen window I can see a dog being walked along the street with its tongue dangling near the pavement. Its owner walks alongside, this look on her face, smiling like no one else can see her.
So how long are you staying? my mother asks.
I don’t know, I say. Until I get back on my feet.
As long as you like, my father says.
Do you want something else to eat? she asks. More food.
No, mom, I say. I can make my own food.
Here, she says. Help me with our dishes. You come late to dinner. You help with the dishes.
A stack of plates greased with meat passes between us, and there is the sound of silverware clanging together, the ceramic of the plates, and I can smell beef and the water run hot into the sink.
Goddamn it, I say. The dishwasher is full.
Well empty it, she says.
Don’t you say that, my father says. Don’t you say goddamn it.
What? I say. It isn’t like I believe in God.
Jesus Christ, he says.
Goddamn it, I say.
Jesus Christ, my mother says. She leaves the room.
We stand there, staring at the loaded dishwasher pouring steam into the room. Through the thin walls is my mother sitting before the TV, watching the screen with her darting eyes and a bottle of beer clasped between her hands. I imagine this. I’m still standing there with my father. I imagine the bright reflection flashing on the lenses her mother’s glasses. She pushes her hair across her face. She sips like a child.
Turn that down, my father yells. He looks out of the window. You don’t believe in God, he asks. Since when?
Since I was sixteen, I say. Maybe fourteen.
No, he says. It’s fine. I see it. You make it work for you. You do whatever you want and believe in whatever you want, and everything is alright. OK, he says. No God.
It’s not that there isn’t a God, I say. Maybe there is. But there’s no verifiable observation of him. Her. It.
Well, he says. Isn’t that convenient. When is someone going to get tired of that excuse. You believe that old can’t-see-it so-you-don’t-believe-it routine. Are you a scientist? Look, he says. He points to the microwave where the mashed potatoes are still cooling. Look. You see the that? The radiation? Where? he says. Show me that.
You can’t see radiation, I say.
You can’t see God, he says.
Well, I say. I take the bowl out and a small curl of heat comes off of the potatoes.
My father puts a hand against his gut. Your grandmother once swallowed a handful of painkillers. Do you know who saved her life? Do you remember that story?
Her dog, I say. Her dog ran a mile to the neighbor’s house. I remember.
Uh-huh, he says. You’re telling me that dogs can just pick up on pills. On death. God told that dog to save her life. It wasn’t her time then, and he told that dog.
A dog can’t think? You don’t think a dog gets a little concerned when an old woman falls face down and breaks her own nose? That wouldn’t make the dog a little concerned? The sound of her lying there with her face smashed and her nostrils clogged. That dog, I say. She probably fed it six fucking times a day. It probably sat there and waited for her to get up, to stop shaking. She didn’t and then it went to get food.
Oh, he says. Go ahead. Talk bad about my mother now. Your grandmother loved you to pieces. We all love you to pieces, and all you do is walk around and try to outthink everything you see.
Christ, I say. I don’t want to empty the dishwasher again.
Leave it then, he says.
Jesus, I say. I leave the kitchen and see my mother there as I pictured. Her body perched like some old bird. She looks at me through the dark, the bottle in her hands. She places the bottle beside the couch and I notice it. She notices me noticing it. I walk into the hallway and open the garage door and breathe in the night.
I drive to the quarry, not knowing exactly what else to do, and I park the car at the start of a long road of limestone cut through two sides of mud and shale and the ruddy tracks of tires. I walk and skip loose rock into the black pits alongside a silo. There’s a kind of hardened feeling in my chest like I’ve got something better or something more, and from somewhere behind the silo comes an owl. I watch for a moment with a handful of rocks. Only its shape against the dark. There is only the light of a few halide lamps along the trail. The owl scoops something living from the rough edge of a basin and ascends. I make my way to the halide lamps and stand beneath them. I look back down the road and check for my car and see it still there at the end of the road, blocking anyone else from pulling in, and I look up to the lights. There are five along the row, and I try to count the last and most recent times I went to church. There was a time when I went on Sundays like everyone else, and my mother would drive me. My father would stay home and sleep or mow the lawn. My mother and I would sit in our same pew and mouth the words to the hymns and stand and sit and stand again. I would stare the whole time at Jesus’ thin body nailed to boards. I would wonder if such a thing really ever happened. I would think, can narrow wrists support the weight of his body? Did he weigh more than me? Could I be put upon a cross and hanged there, bleeding? Would I die? My mother would do nothing but hold steady her eyes. She smiled when we held hands. We would put a check into the basket as it was passed along, with the quiet understanding that my father was never to know. At communion I would wait behind her. We would pass on the wine and walk together back to the pew while the impatient people would walk past us with busied looks on their faces, hoping to beat the parking lot traffic and get home in time for football or parties or housework or nothing.
The halide lights have an unsteady glaze, their blue glow on the visible space me. The deep pits of bedrock are small ponds, their glass tops. I skirt the outside of an open mine, minerals gleaming like reversed stars under the open air. I think then of my father and his heartened faith in something that was never his, and sediment falls along the quarry walls, and I can hear the him speaking with earnest on God and my mother and his other weaknesses, and there are the few things he told me when I left:
Go on, he said. Get on with it.
Well, I said. I’m going out West and I may not be back for a while. It might be terrible.
It has to be terrible, he said. So you know you can do anything.
Do you believe that? What have you ever lost?
Well, he said. I have another saying: Do as I say and not as I do.
You have everything, I said. A job and a wife and a house and a son.
Yeah, he said. But I don’t know anything else. Your mother and I have always been together. Since high school. She’s all I got. And you. Don’t you quit.
I don’t quit anything, I told him.
Well quit crying, he said, red-faced.
I think about someone coming here, a foreman or a police officer, and arresting me for trespassing in the place where I came at sixteen to drink beer in the dark. There’s a sort of embarrassment to it all, like I was almost where I wanted to be in life, and then, suddenly, I had to leave. But no one comes near my car still parked on the edge of the road. I know now that it’s the anxiety of change that has kept me thinking that everything is okay, and I can see that it’s been this dread of falling off the edge that makes me whole now and tells me not to be hollow, and it’s in this thought that I can see where dread makes awareness and where dread creates potential. And as I pull away from the quarry, I have another vision of church. There were fish fries at the end of every week during Lent. My father would go with the incentive of food. His thoughts on God seemed more scattered then, without the grievance of my mother’s drinking to drive him to faith. There was a moment, at one fish fry, where I knew I lost mine. Sitting across from them in the community room and watching the neighborhood come in for whitefish. I remember she looked away and was lost for a moment in the din of the crowd. I turned my back to them, almost out of earshot, and she turned to my father: I never imagined this, she said.
Imagined, what? he said.
You, here. Us, here. This. This town, these people. Is this what you imagined?
I imagined you, he said.
Of course. I’m here, he said. Isn’t this what you wanted? I came to church.
I want you to come to church because you need something from God, she said.
I switch lanes in a long and sloping pass, to the left, accelerating. The radio is tuned to a college station playing late night classical with something full of harried, quick, and pensive strings. It’s Schoenberg with this great atonality that like the lowest register of the halide lights. Like God as sound. For a few moments I feel the release and sustain and release of the violas before before they attack again. A car pulls alongside me, alongside the curb, its engine revving. I look mirror and a man is there, this wretched look on his face like he might break in two. I don’t move, and the violins solo and crescendo and fall into a long arpeggio before traipsing back with all their yearn. I wait for a few more seconds, and the man begins to pass me, pulling into the oncoming lane. His window rolls down, and I turn, looking at him blankly, and he opens his mouth, and I turn down the radio.
Buddy, he yells. Get a fucking move on. Wake the fuck up.
He goes, squealing ahead. Behind me are the the shadows of storefront awnings hanging over the sidewalk. An overfilled garbage can shakes with plastic trash flapping against the air. Two streetlights are off and a third’s light is cast across the median. On the edge of the road is a utility pole tilted slightly at the weight of its cables, crossed at its crest with a perpendicular tie.
Elias Marsten is a lifelong Midwesterner, writer and hobbyist hacker. He briefly attended classes in the Ohio State University’s creative writing program as an academic auditor.