Devotion

Prompt: Inhabit

fish

My given name is Adolph G. Zenith, though my friends always called me Zen. The “G” means nothing; my parents merely thought it gave my name more gravitas, and lacked the imagination, I suppose, to find a suitably, equally formidable middle name to compliment “Adolph”, and that also started with G, George, Gregory, Gerald notwithstanding. But my parents were busy people, and did not have the time or inclination to pour over baby name books. So Adolph G. Zenith it was.

You might have heard of the Zenith family. We were frequently in the news for a groundbreaking campaign for science- and bible-backed eugenics. My parents were large, powerful people who tried to live as they preached: god-fearing, white-proud, “true” Christians. Both were tall and muscular, infused with presence and charisma. Hopes for me, their son, were high.

I was not even remotely a formidable child. Instead I was plagued by allergies, was asthmatic, was very thin with delicate skin prone to dryness and sunburn, and had sparse, ash brown hair. Hardly the model Aryan boy my parents so vehemently wished for. We travelled the country, and sometimes ventured overseas, attending rallies where my father spoke for hours at a time, sometimes replaced by my mother when he needed a drink or a bathroom break, and I was to stand proudly behind him with his “stage staff”, looking young and strong in a blue slacks and a white shirt and a blue blazer.

My father would take his jacket off, revealing a short-sleeved shirt, and loosen his tie, to demonstrate that he was a man of the people, sweating, passionate, and powerful; but I was not permitted to remove the blazer no matter what the temperature, because the shoulder pads were sewn into the jacket, without which I would look like the underweight, bony, fragile child I was. More than once my mother had to hustle me off the stage before I fainted in front of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people.

They tried to bulk me up with red meat, which I was fed at least twice a day; and some fruit juices which they heard were “cleansing”, but except for potatoes there was not much in the way of vegetables set before me because they personally did not find them appealing. I was allowed sugary drinks and pastries, but nothing in my diet seemed to change my core appearance. I was not a poster child for their movement and never would be.

I grew up under a cloud of palpable disappointment, a daily routine of sighs, eye rolls, impatient instruction, and whispered, disapproving comments. I could read at an early age, and was good at spelling, and had a knack for model building and climbing trees, but not at running, swimming, aerobic exercise, weight-lifting, growing tall and blonde, or understanding or explaining the philosophy of race purity and pride.

My father was not averse to a good whack across my temple with a meaty, open hand if I transgressed, sometimes knocking me to the floor. “It’s for your own good,” my mother would say, as if I didn’t know.

To be honest, I don’t remember much of the dogma or the philosophy of my father’s speeches. I developed an ability to completely tune out whatever came out of my parents’ mouths, possibly as a defence mechanism, since they often brutally smothered or slandered things that were important to me, like my love of rock and roll, my satanic curiosity about parapsychology, my devotion to fishing, and my friend René. To survive long evenings on the stage, to avoid a wallop across the head, to attempt to build a core that I recognized as me, I would zone out and travel in my mind, float across oceans, relive kind moments, play scenes from films in my head, try and communicate with René across the miles.

As a teenager, I was able to worm out of many of the stage performances, if not the sermons and some of the prominent, televised protest marches. I was still thin and unthreatening, but I was quick and newly certain that everything my parents did and said was wrong, as teenagers are, except that I felt righteous and outraged and on the side of the true god.

Zenith was not our real name. Father had it officially changed when he learned his heritage. “I’m not a Jew,” he said, “not even close, it’s passed down through the mother, my mother was not a Jew.”

“You have Jew blood,” I said, using the only phrase I knew, which now makes me cringe.

I was sixteen, and about to be kicked out of the house. He had confiscated my cellphone and laptop in order to confirm that I had not been communicating with undesirable people, and that I had no porn nor access to porn. I was angry; more painful than the anger was the loneliness I felt without being able to text René or visit the forums that connected me to a greater world

“I have no Jew blood,” my father said, and his face flushed, and his eyes darkened. I tensed and flexed, ready to dodge a blow.

“Nothing wrong with Grampa’s blood,” I said defiantly. Grampa was a grumpy old thing, dead six years, but he was kind to me, and never hit me but once.

“You’re an ignorant fool, always have been,” said my father.

“Thanks,” I said, and instinctively ducked. For the first time, my father’s hand missed my face. He looked startled, and I felt a surge of power and confidence. This was new to me.

But I was not quick enough to avoid the next blow, which was a closed fist against my upper cheek. I fell to the floor.

“Respect,” my father said.

From the floor, I said the most hurtful thing I could think of: “Grampa’s blood is in you, you are a Jew.”

My father kicked my shoulder, hard, and I fell on my back.

He spoke to me then, in a dangerously low voice, about how the “Jew blood” had been flushed from his system, pint by pint, and he was pure, but somehow bad blood had infested me, his son. I’d heard this before, though hadn’t thought he meant it literally, which he had.

“I’m a Jew,” I said. “Thanks to you.”

He kicked my in the mouth, ostensibly to silence me, and that’s when my mother appeared from upstairs, and saw the beating had been taken too far, and banished me to my room without checking where the blood was coming from.

I didn’t ever get my phone or laptop back. And yes, I’d been communicating with undesirable people and looking at porn, so chances are I would have been booted out anyway.

Ten years later, in Portland, Oregon, I met a girl name Addy, and changed my name to Ted (short for Teddy, short for her nickname for me, “Teddy Bear”) Rickman (a family name on my Grandpa’s side), and was able to renew my friendship with René before he died.

As far as I know, my parents never tried to contact me or see what became of me. They continued touring for a while, then settled down with a congregation in a town called Green Falls, which they hoped (according to an obscure news article I found) to convert to an all-white, all Christian community. I heard nothing more, nor do I look anymore.

I supposed I was erased from their lives, and no longer inhabited their consciousness or their memories. They had the kind of minds that could exclude anything painful or conflicting or unpleasant.

I don’t have that kind of mind.

I think of them daily.

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My August Long Weekend

Prompt: Organize

beach party crowd

My long weekend starts on Thursday evening, with a mac & cheese dinner for family plus 4-6 guests.

Friday morning: Golf.
Friday: sunning, swimming, boating, sand-castling, beverages. Make 2 salads.
Friday dinner: Bring Your Own Dog (hot dog BBQ) for family plus 20.

Saturday morning: Golf. Make spaghetti sauce for 50. Pick up garlic bread. Make salad. Buy watermelon.
Saturday: sunning, swimming, boating sand-castling, beverages. Set up marquee and tables. Prepare plates, cutlery, napkins and condiments.
Saturday dinner: Pasta for 50 (some years 70-80). Meatball Contest. Musical entertainment. Beverages. Dancing.

Sunday morning: Golf.
Sunday afternoon: Bocce Bitch Tournament. Prizes. Variety of salmon appetizers. Beverages.
Sunday evening: Tacos for 30.

Monday: sunning, swimming, boating, sand-castling, beverages. Strike down marquee.
Monday afternoon: Greek lunch buffet.
Monday evening: leftovers for ? Strike down tables.

Tuesday: Bye bye to all except 3 visiting family. Return rental plates, glasses, cutlery, tables, cloths, and pots.

Wednesday: Sleep. Do laundry, Do more laundry. Try to find lost kitchen utensils. Hose down deck. Avoid weighing oneself.

___

Now, the above is too much work, and as well-organized as it all has become over the years, the number of people who come early and linger late has increased. People have procreated and bring their children to a weekend that meant so much to themselves as children. And so it goes.

How do we scale it back without offending anyone or ruining childhood memories of a fine gathering put together by generous, open-hearted and loving hosts? I enjoy all of the events and dinners, but there are never fewer than 20 or so people here, in and out, over the course of any day. I don’t golf. I personally oversee only the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday dinners, and I have help; friends or family host the others. I organize and provide prizes for the Bocce Bitch Tournament. Most people pitch in to clean up.

We go through scads of toilet  paper. The fridge stops functioning properly. The dog gets neurotic.

But it’s mostly fun. And utterly exhausting. What to do?

The Great Scheme of Things

Prompt: Hopeful

leaves_in_pool_a0045-000030

Folly, Plato, and I were sitting by the pool at the Best Western Motel, just outside the town of Chandler’s Folly. The pool still held water but was almost covered with leaves. It was not an unpleasant sight, as it was too cold to swim anyway, and it was night time so the stars flickered and danced on the water’s surface.

I talked to Folly too, now, and not just to my dog Plato. Folly was about as responsive, but at least she would hear the words, somewhere inside that lost, confused head of hers. She might not understand the words; after all, she was only eleven. I was only sixteen, but I learned a lot, especially after the end of the world, just by travelling around with Plato in the Jag.

For one thing, as I told Folly and Plato that night: “Some days I forget what the date is, or the day of the week, or the month, or the year. What difference does time make? I don’t have to go to school or be home in time for dinner or do anything or keep track.”

We were sitting on loungers, wrapped up in towels we’d found by the indoor pool. Plato was lolling on the tile floor, content to hear my voice.

“Plato and I kept a journal at first,” I said. Plato’s ears stood to attention. “We wrote down what we did and what we saw. We had— well, still have— a notebook about the plague and the end of the world, that we put clues in to help us figure it out. Why the catastrophe happened, why it was so bloody and why everyone disappeared. Why we survived. Don’t you wonder, Folly?”

Folly stared at the pool.

“The Internet still works, in case I want to google something,” I said. “I don’t know why it does, or for how long it will work. And then I think, who cares if it ends, too?”

I stared up at a million stars.

“You know, books and libraries and everything that is recorded will disappear too. No one will be here to notice it or be sorry, or wonder who lived on this planet.

“So I’m not going to write in the notebooks any more. I don’t need to remember stuff about my sisters or my parents or my cousin Dwayne. It doesn’t matter any more, do you understand?”

“No,” said Folly.

Her voice didn’t startle me, rare as the sound of it was. That was part of the problem. Things didn’t startle me, or scare me, or make me curious, or make me laugh. It had been sort of a gradual thing. And to tell the truth, I thought Folly felt the same way.

“It’s hard to understand,” I conceded. “Do you want to remember your parents?”

“Yes,” said Folly. Again, the voice didn’t startle me. But the words did, a little.

“Okay,” I said. “Good. Tomorrow we learn about your parents.” I didn’t care. I thought it would be a good thing for Folly to get her memory back, and find out what her real name was, and all that but in the great scheme of things, it didn’t really matter.

“It does matter,” said Folly. Plato got to his feet and put his big old head in her lap. She scratched him behind his silky ears.

“What else do you want to remember?”

“My birthday,” said Folly.

“Okay,” I said. “Good.” If I was still surprised by things, this evening would have surprised me.

I hesitate to be unkind

Prompt: Guest

king of hearts

My uncle was born to immigrant parents on May 24, Victoria Day in Canada, so in homage to their new home they named him Victor.

He was their youngest son, undoubtedly spoiled and pampered by my grandmother, and partner in crime with my father as they grew up poor in Vancouver. The apocryphal story goes that they had no money for the movies, so as the patrons filed out after a film showing, they joined the crowd and walked in by walking backwards. They sold newspapers on the street, like characters in a musical comedy. They played baseball. They loved music of all kinds, especially American pop (Dean Martin) and opera.

Uncle Vic had a dog, and he used to play hide and seek with it at home. The thing is, his dog was blind, and Vic used to go into the clothes closet and hang from the clothes rod, to confuse his dog. My family finds this story hilarious. Vic would hurt nothing and no one, so he was allowed to be charmingly, weirdly nasty when he played hide and seek with his blind dog.

He and two brothers enlisted in the military at the onset of World War II, all of them very young. Vic signed up for the navy (my father air force, and my other uncle, army).

Uncle Vic, possibly before his marriage and definitely after his divorce, was a kind of a 50’s era playboy. Dark, handsome, athletic, with a lazy, open smile, he belonged in a rat pack, since he was cocky and funny– but never smug. He remained friends with all “his women”, including his ex-wife, with whom he had two children. And his women got along with each other. Family gatherings often included a fascinating mix of beautiful women. It was a world so outside my understanding, so different from my father’s life. Unlike my other relatives, Uncle Vic had some connection to sex. You could just tell.

Vic did card tricks– or rather magic tricks. He was jaw-droppingly good, entirely professional. Your missing playing card would be in your jacket pocket, or pinned to the door with a carving knife. I never learned any of his magic secrets. Damn it.

He was a union man all his life, even when he was promoted to management– a move that rendered him less dangerous and threatening to the corporation. At one time he was head of Human Resources. My brothers were all hired for jobs in the mills or forests. He called friends and family who hinted for jobs “arm-twisters”.

Vic loved to perform. He recited Casey at the Bat and The Salmon Run from memory at family gatherings. Do you know The Salmon Run? It goes like this:

I hesitate to be unkind
But the salmon has a one track mind
Once every season full of fire
He swims up stream higher and higher
From dawn to dusk and dusk to dawn
From morn to night and night to morn
Up rocks and rapids, up streams and hills
Up high cascades, up grassy glades
Up canyons steep. through waters deep
Up stones and rocks, up dams and locks
From day to night from dark to light
Until at last on one bright dawn
He gets there just in time to spawn.

Now having done his salmon duty
Now having wooed his salmon cutie
And weary from his trip up town
In quiet waters he will drown
Pondering with his dying bubble
Why sex is so damn much trouble?

Vic denied the use of Grecian Formula for years and years; as his contemporaries greyed, his hair remained thick and black. We didn’t believe him then, but I do now. Vic had no reason to sprout grey hairs. He didn’t worry. He was Victor every day, and that was enough. He had no agenda, he had no stressful secrets, he refused to fret and fuss when it would do no good at all. He slept the sleep of a man whose conscience was clear. The salt and pepper hair arrived eventually, but it was guilt-free. No-stress, happy grey hair.

We never invited Vic to anything. It was a family joke. He would turn up anyway.

He married a lovely and beautiful woman, and many thought she “tamed” him; but he really just adopted a more recognizable set of manners. He was always a gentleman. They made a handsome couple, and a loving one.

He loved family. He loved my father, and was there for him when he started to fail. My mother, who resented what she saw as a flightiness and irresponsibility in the young Victor, looked at him with new eyes. He never noticed her attitude towards him (if he did notice, the knowledge gave him no grey hairs, because he was Vic). He always treated her with love and respect. In time, my mother felt the same way.

He talked about my father after my father passed away. He told stories. He was a good story-teller. He called me by my childhood name. He was loyal. His second dog was a miserable little thing called Willie, that he loved with all his heart. He also loved the St. Louis Cardinals. He had a lot of love. He was sentimental, but it was natural and normal and welcome. He was the last of his generation in our family.

Vic looked like a glass of red wine was part of his physical body, so right and natural was it in his hand.

Uncle Vic died this morning, peacefully. I seem to have forgotten how to write, but I wanted to say something.

He was very pensive

Prompt: Pensive

grapes-690230

Todd’s mother answered the door. She stood there staring blankly at Lily-Rose, without recognition or curiosity, and said, “I’m not interested.” She started to close the door.

“Mrs Caper?” Lily-Rose said quickly. “I’m Todd’s English teacher, Ms Roades. I was just wondering how he is doing.”

“Oh,” said Todd’s mother. “Oh, well, come in.  I’m so sorry, we get so many suspicious people coming to the door!”

Do you? Lily-Rose thought, slightly ill-at-ease with the lack of some kind of immediate connection with Todd’s mother. There was always something, she found, when you met someone new, if you looked. A warmth in the eyes, a recognition of challenges shared. A camaraderie based on a flimsy but mutual instinct. She felt none of that, and neither did Mrs Caper.

Todd’s mother was tall and thin, with wavy, partially grey hair pushed behind her ears, and now that she was smiling, was not unattractive.

She stood aside and Lily-Rose tentatively entered the Caper home.

Nothing wrong with it. Clean, carefully decorated and tended. Framed pictures on the living room walls, though Lily-Rose would be hard-pressed to remember their content later.

“How is he doing?” she asked Mrs Caper.

“Well of course the flu became pneumonia,” said Mrs Caper, as if that was the established progression of life. “He has always been delicate. I’ve done my best.” She looked at her watch.

“Of course,” said Lily-Rose. She held out a small brown paper bag. “I brought some fresh grapes,” she said smiling,” it’s kind of a traditional offering.”. Mrs Caper took the bag, looked inside, and then back at Lily-Rose. There was an odd silence. “May I see him?” said Lily-Rose.

Todd’s bedroom had the usual accoutrements expected of a “normal” affluent teenager: expensive computer, posters of badly photographed women, blood-spattered heavy metal band posters, wi-fi speakers everywhere, yet the room was completely neat and in order. Mom had obviously taken her son’s weak moment as an opportunity to tidy up.

His bed was dishevelled; a sign of restless sickness and restless sleep. A pitcher of once-icy water and a clean glass were set on the bedside table. There was a small plastic tub, too, presumably to catch any stray vomit. The room was not stuffy since the window opposite the bed was wide open. The curtains moved lazily, like ghosts.

Todd looked a little pale, with not unexpected dark circles under his eyes. He looked at her with a pronounced What the Fuck expression.

Which was not surprising, since Lily-Rose and Todd had evolved into mortal enemies since the start of the spring semester. He refused any attempts at discipline, and bordered on physical threats. Lily-Rose had never experienced such hostility in her teaching career before, and needed to see where he came from. She needed to know if it was her failing, or his– or no one’s failing, but a circumstance to be endured, a problem to pass on to his next set of teachers.

“How are you feeling?” Lily-Rose asked when his mother finally retreated from the room.

He didn’t answer. He stared at the ceiling.

“I have your last test results with me,” said Lily-Rose. “And a little outline about what we are studying now, into next month.”

He then turned his gaze on her. “Get out,” he said.

“Here,” Lily-Rose said, pulling a sheet of paper out of her soft-sided briefcase, “is your answer to one of the test questions, Use ‘pensive’ in a sentence.” She read his answer: “He was very pensive.” Then she looked up and smiled.

“I thought that demonstrated a sense of humour,” she said.

“I don’t care about you, your class, what you think, who you fuck,” said Todd.

Ouch, thought Lily-Rose.

“Well, I appreciate a sense of humour,” she said. “But anyway the main reason I am here is to apologize.”

He pretended not to be interested.

“I came into the classroom when I had the flu,” said Lily-Rose. “I should have stayed home. I’m sure you caught the bug from me.”

Todd looked startled. Lily-Rose concluded he was expecting a different kind of apology. She was intensely interested in what apology Todd expected. She was missing something.

Mrs Caper came into the room, unannounced, with a thermometer. Lily-Rose stood up.

“Let me show you out,” said Mrs Caper.

They walked to the front door, and Mrs Caper said politely, “Thank you for coming.”

Lily-Rose caught her eye, and held it for a moment. “Please keep me informed,” she said.

And she walked home, thinking about the look in Mrs Caper’s eyes, and what it meant in relation to Todd. She understood it completely. It was a look of complete detachment, disinterest, distance, and disdain.

That was the look that Todd, as a child and now an adolescent, faced every day. Lily-Rose would think about it, but she believed when Todd returned to school, they might become allies instead of enemies.

 

Anita Day is Dead

Prompt: Locked

cats in zoo

Bernard picked the worst possible outing for him and his new grandson.

His grandson wasn’t “new” exactly; he was sixteen, but then Bernard hadn’t known he had a daughter, let alone a grandson, until two weeks ago.

DNA found him, and he was surprised to discover that his clumsy liaison with Anita, in the front seat of his vintage Ford, had produced a child. He wasn’t even sure, at the time, that they consummated the act.

The boy’s name was Andrew, and they were to be thrust together for a Saturday afternoon at the insistence of his daughter Emily, whom he’d talked to a few times on the telephone but never met. She had a nice soft voice, and was full of questions, and readily answered any of Bernard’s questions about their lives and about her mother. He learned that Anita Day was dead. Bernard felt sorry, in some little honeycomb of his heart, right next to the mild resentment that she hadn’t told him of his daughter, and his sense of nostalgia for something he’d never actually had a chance to experience.

Emily and Andrew turned up at Bernard’s house at 1:20 pm. He had cleaned it up, with the help of a neighbour, since things like the floor boards and the tops of cupboards and the frames of pictures hadn’t been cleaned in far too long. The floors were adequate, since Bernard had a Roomba that he won in a raffle. It just toodled around the house by itself most days, a companion that he started to feel kindly towards, when he’d had a few too many glasses of beer.

He made sure the cats stayed outside, in case one or both of his new family had a problem with cats. He hoped that wouldn’t be the case.

Emily was 39 years old, very stylish and fit, and fair of face, like her mother (as far as Bernard remembered) and her son. Andrew was a good foot taller than Bernard and bore the unshakeable glumness of a teenager, but was mostly cooperative when Emily told him to say hello to his granddad, shake his hand, and so on.

“I guess this is awkward,” Bernard said, when Emily had driven away.

“A bit,” said Andrew.

“Do you like cats?” asked Bernard.

They went to the backyard where four cats were sunning, running, digging in the garden, and sleeping. “They aren’t all mine,” Bernard said. “Just two of them, the tabby and the grey. The other two are just visiting.” The trees were full of birds, chirping, trilling, squawking. Bernard had never really noticed how noisy they were.

Andrew played with the cats for a bit, and they seemed to like him, which was good. Then Bernard said they could maybe go to the zoo for the afternoon.

“The zoo?” said Andrew, as if it was a foreign word.

“My grandfather took me there when I was a boy. I thought I would carry on the tradition,” said Bernard.

Bernard had been eight and a half years old, and was utterly enthralled with what he saw, and what his grandfather told him on that day. He told him that porcupines had 30,000 quills, that crocodiles can’t stick out their tongues, that flamingos had to turn their heads upside down to eat. Oh, and he also told Bernard that he and grandma were getting a divorce, but that’s another story for another time.

But this time, on this visit with his new sixteen year old grandson, Bernard felt a sense of deep dread and foreboding as soon as his taxi pulled into the parking lot.

They didn’t stay long. Bernard suggested a visit to White Spot instead, remembering the constant and voracious appetite of teenage boys.

It was a good day, a great day in so many ways. Meeting his daughter, his grandson, walking, talking, learning about one another. Noticing that Andrew had his great-grandmother’s eyes. Watching him scratch the back of his neck when he was nervous, just like Bernard. Eating burgers with special sauce with the same concentrated gusto.

Then there was the zoo. All those animals. Alone in bed that night, Bernard tried to summon up all the good memories of the day, but all he could think about was the brume of sorrow that enshrouded that place, the zoo. He would have to do something about it.