Congratulations to The Novelettes for winning in the 2012 Team category!
Character: Police station clerk
Action: Tightening a knot
Setting: A meeting for a subversive group
Prop: Decorative songbirds made from vinyl records
Life in Knots
by The Novelettes
I know I just said goodbye to you as you headed out the door, off to another one of your science classes I think, but I have always hated saying goodbye and prefer hellos instead.
So hello, I am your Dad. Remember me? You and I have been best friends for a long time, just you and me against the world and all that good stuff. I couldn’t ask for a better friend. Who else would have taught me how to play with Playdough and color in coloring books? Who else but you would indulge me whenever I get inspired by one of my kooky projects? We have always taken care of each other.
But lately darlin’ I feel as though you’re drifting. I know you’re a big kid, that I’ve raised you and now you’re in college and you’re out trying to find your own little independence. I’m ok with that, that’s the natural order of things—baby birds leave the nest eventually, right? But what if I haven’t done my part, given you everything you need to succeed? I figure if I write everything down, you can read it at your leisure and always have it with you. Lately we haven’t had much time to chit chat, you’ve got a lot going on with school and life, but there are things I really want you to know, things I think you need to know.
The sky was already autumn dark when Celeste got out of her last class. As she walked to her car, she was startled by the buzzing of her phone. It was Mrs. Omar from across the street.
“Celeste, honey? Something’s happened.”
When the coroner pulled the sheet away from her father’s body, the first thing she noticed was his hair. Her father had brown hair, it was often scattered in many directions like the veins of bark on a log. But now it was dry, like volcanic ash. She hadn’t been there, not that morning, not that afternoon, otherwise she might have told him to condition it, reminded him that he didn’t like constantly scratching his scalp when he worked. These were the things he forgot, after all.
She had risen at six, before his alarm, before he had a chance to begin slicing the linguica. His fingertips always smelled of chopped peppers, from the breakfast of omelets and sausage he would make them before he headed to his shop. Her father had prepared nearly every meal she had eaten since she was six. “One of the perks of self-employment” he’d say, “I get to cook for my little darlin’.” But since beginning university, she hadn’t sat down to eat with him once. At first she had been swept up in the novelty of stopping at a drive-through as she went into the city, a hamburger to start the day, coffee for lunch, and a sandwich purchased in the cafeteria for the drive home.
She felt furious with herself now, with her desperation for independence. The desperation that had made her miss those last meals with him, that made her arrange her class schedule to ensure she’d be out all day.
“Miss,” the coroner’s voice was a gentle if unwelcome intrusion, “is this your father?”
“No,” she wanted to say, “my father is at home, bringing life to the heart of a wind-up toy, setting each miniscule gear in its place.”
Instead, she simply nodded.
Hey there darlin’,
So I said there were some things I needed to tell you. Well, this is a big one.
Two weeks ago I went to see Abe Franklin. He has a new office a couple of miles down the street from his old one, in this fancy high rise building where the elevators don’t make any sense and the front desk secretary looks at you like you’re there to steal something. “Just my test results, madam, and then I’ll be on my way!” She didn’t laugh, those office types never do.
Anyway, after what felt like forever they put me in a room and gave me one of those silly paper gown things to put on. I’ll never understand why they do that, making you sit with all of your personal business hanging out there for the world to see. Even a nice bathrobe would be better than that little shred of paper that doesn’t even go completely around your back. I sat in that cold room in my socks and paper gown and I had to laugh at myself, at how ridiculous I looked, how small. It reminded me of Carl Sagan when he used to talk about how tiny Earth is in relation to the universe, that everything that ever happened to us, every bit of history happened on this tiny bit of dust in a sunbeam. Of course it feels bigger to us when it’s our lives happening. It felt big to me as I sat on that examining table. Glioblastoma. It’s funny, the thing that brought me there was so tiny, smaller than my thumb, but the words they used to describe it were bigger than any I could imagine: Inoperable. Brain tumor.
Immediately it felt like a stranger had moved into my head. Not wanting to be inhospitable I gave him a name, Alfred. I had a dog with that name when I was growing up, a beagle. He was always by my side, Alfred was, and we went on all sorts of adventures together. So I tried to imagine that this thing Dr. Franklin was telling me about was just like my Alfred, ready to accompany me on whatever adventures the rest of my life had in store for me. It’s been slow going, getting used to having Alfred with me all the time. I go to bed at night and he’s there. I wake up in the morning and he’s there. He’s there when I brush my teeth and when I build something particularly brilliant in the shop. He’s there when I kiss you goodnight and when I read the paper until I see the light go out under your bedroom door.
I’m sorry you’ll never get a chance to know him, not that I’m particularly fond of him myself but because I know when my time is finally up it will be a dreadful surprise for you. I’ve thought about telling you a hundred times since I learned of his presence and I just can’t, I just can’t do that to you. You’re so young yet, your life should be about college and studying and your friends, and I just couldn’t live with myself if I dragged you down on this journey with me. I will just have to make our remaining time together really, really count.
His customers called her father “the clockwork man,” and when she was a little girl, Celeste thought it was because of his eyes; rusted copper things with specks of pale brown in them that looked like the spokes on gears. His hands were always striped with grease and oil stains, which ended up marking every surface he touched, including the arms of his favorite chair in the living room.
Celeste wandered from chair to fireplace to bookshelf, and then again, in the slowing way of an hour winding down. She couldn’t stay still, but she couldn’t bear to move into the kitchen, or her bedroom.Those were places his laughter haunted.
Celeste felt her throat tighten and eyes well, but she wasn’t ready for that nonsense yet, so she breathed through it, her chest drawing a curtain of shadow across the plush red carpet. When they had had it installed it was as close a color to ruby as Celeste had ever seen, her father said that he couldn’t wait for it to get worn and faded, so that it would echo the wispy ash red of her hair. “My favorite color,” he’d say, picking up a streak of it and smiling, his face warmer than buttered toast and cocoa.
“The clockwork man found dead,” the paper had read. “The clockwork man,” because that is all he was in itty-bitty Linnton, the man who fixed the clocks, crafted the clocks, made clockwork knicks and clockwork knacks, and righted all that was wrong in the world of gears and cranks.
To Celeste he was the magic man that she had called “Papai,” the way Portuguese daughters did in the old country. The man who walked in from the rain one evening with a box of warped and ruined vinyl records that had been left near a trash bin on Ankeny. “What do you suppose we can make with these, darlin’?” he asked, always hating to waste anything with a modicum of potential in it. Celeste remembered looking up from her book with a much more practical eye, “I vote it goes back where it came from so you don’t have any more half-finished projects lining the driveway.” Their house was often too small for her father’s ambitions, which left more “not-junk” outside, irritating their neighbors, than finished masterpieces inside. He laughed, always in good humor, or at least always willing to be, and said, “I suppose you are right.” Celeste went to bed that night, thinking the matter settled. In the morning she woke to find the records transformed into little vinyl song-birds hanging from strings pinned to her ceiling.
I’m sure you’ve wondered about your mother. I know I still do.
Your mother was beautiful. The first thing I noticed was her hair, her copper hair and the way light would ripple through it, giving it life. That beautiful hair framed her fun little crooked smile—she used to tell me she smiled that way because she figured it would make her teeth look straighter (not that they were really all that uneven anyway)—so to see her smiling in the sunlight, her hair all lit up looking like a waving ocean of copper, that was certainly something. Mesmerizing. But I can’t forget to mention her eyes, such an interesting mix of hazel with flecks of green around the edges. I swear that every time she laughed, those little tendrils of green moved giving her eyes a new pattern, a new persona.
But I didn’t fall in love with your mother because of the way she looked (though I’d be lying if I said that didn’t help), I fell in love with her because of the way she made me feel. When I was around her, I felt wanted, I felt important. I wanted to commit to her, to stand by her, be there for her, the whole sickness and health, richer or poorer thing, you know what I’m talking about darlin’.
So we tied the knot.
But no two knots are exactly the same. An infinite number of people can tie an infinite number of different knots, that’s why some relationships are unstable or fail altogether while others last a lifetime, even if the rope frays on the outside just a bit. It’s all about durability. Are you tying a knot in something that is worth it, a fabric that can support it? Did you do it correctly? Did you leave a little too much slack? That’s what I think I did, left too much slack. It didn’t take long, a matter of years before our little knot started to fray at the ends, eventually unraveling and unwinding until it was almost completely loosened, nonexistent.
Your mom had lived a sheltered life growing up. Her father made most of her decisions for her. So when I proposed, she saw marriage as the way to finally break away from that house, away from the prison he had made for her. I’m sure she cared for me at least a little, she couldn’t have looked at me with those dancing hazel green eyes in the way she did if there were no feelings of love. But maybe I didn’t express my love in a way that made her feel it, maybe she didn’t know how truly devoted to her I was. I wish I had been more open about my feelings, shown her more affection rather than just hoping she understood. I knew she wasn’t finding what she wanted at home with me, but it still hurt when she began to look elsewhere.
At this point, many people might have bailed out, moved on to a different opportunity, another relationship. But not me, I wasn’t willing to let go so easily. This knot, the one I tied with her, was a part of my lifeline, it was not only what kept me from falling to a disastrous end, but she was also your mother my little Darlin. Without her, you wouldn’t be here and I would have missed out on the amazing feeling of being your daddy. I knew that I could only do one thing—I needed to find a way to tighten the knot, to strengthen our commitment and somehow make her see that I was what she wanted too.
But how to do it? I started by doing more around the house, all the things she had asked me to do that I had never quite gotten around to: fixing the leaky dishwasher, putting leaf guards on the gutters, trimming the hedges out front so she could see out the window. I even did more laundry, started cooking dinners, mopping the floors, so she could relax after coming home from work. But none of it impressed her, none of it changed her growing disdain toward me. The day I brought chocolates and she threw them in the trash, I was dumbfounded. I thought girls liked chocolate! I had so hoped that she would appreciate me and the gesture. But gourmet candy in the trash doesn’t exactly scream out “Victory!” does it?
It wasn’t long after that my dear, that your mother left us. One night she just packed up and disappeared, not a word to me nor a hug goodbye for you.
Now that I think about it, your mom and I weren’t really compatible.
I guess what I am trying to say darlin’ is that when you find someone to love, make sure it is someone who is interested in loving you, the person that you are, not what you can do for them or how you can further their own personal development. Make sure you find someone who appreciates the amazing, wonderful person that I have loved ever since you were born.
Celeste couldn’t make herself go to any of her classes that week. She stayed in the house with her cell phone shut off so her friends couldn’t call. She didn’t want to see them, she didn’t want to make arrangements for a funeral, she just wanted to be immobile.
Saturday morning she woke, her hair a tangled disaster. She didn’t bother to get showered or dressed, she went down the hall to his workshop and sat there.
She had never once gone in there, not even to ask a question. Not even to bring him a snack. Not even to bring him coffee. One evening, when she was younger, she asked him why she wasn’t allowed to enter this curious space in their house, when every other corner of the earth he owned was hers to freely occupy. The store, his room…all of it he left unlocked, like his smile.
“Papai, why can’t I go in the workshop?” she’d asked, raising her head from her homework, “I promise I won’t break anything.”
“Well,” he said, leaning away from the edge of the kitchen table, “it’s not that I think you’ll break anything, darlin’, it’s just that…” he sighed, running his stained and roughened palm over his face, his expression searching, “Well, it’s like how you don’t want me goin’ in your room all the time, that’s your space…you need a place where you can go to think and just keep yourself company for a while, and that’s kind of how my workshop is for me. It’s just my space, where I can go to be with myself for a while, and I’d feel really bad if someone else were to go in there…like it wouldn’t be quite right anymore, like I couldn’t quite think as freely in there.”
Celeste thought of her diary, locked and hidden away in her room, where her thoughts roamed unpoliced. Perhaps the workshop was like that for her father.
Now, sitting outside the locked door, it still felt off limits even though she knew where the key was.
Around lunchtime there were a series of knocks at the front door,
“Celeste? Celeste are you in there? It’s Hannah and Mark…” more pounding, “Celeste! Answer your goddamn phone!”
She didn’t move. She didn’t call back to them. She had the feeling that she had ended, there was nothing beyond this moment.
“Celeste, I am calling the police if you don’t answer your goddamn phone!” Hannah warned.
Celeste breathed out long and slow, closed her eyes and waited for them to leave.
Hello there sweetheart,
I know it’s going to be tough for you when I go. I’m having a hard time thinking about it, about leaving you and not being there for you anymore. I’m not trying to toot my own horn or anything, but you and I have only had each other for so long, I can’t help but wonder what you are going to do without me. Will you have anyone to go to? Will you even think about finding some help?
Well, let me tell you, there is no shame in finding help.
After your mom left, I was a destroyed man. I was feeling sorry for myself, drowning in an unmotivating pool of “I can’t do anything right” and “Why do I even bother trying.” While I was there, in that torrent of self-deprecation, I wasted a lot of time on trivial things. I think I almost forgot that you were even there, honey. I mean, I know I still made your meals, and I know I took you to school, and I know that I tucked you into bed every night planting a kiss on your forehead, but I did it all in a haze. For those first few months after your mother left, none of the things I did for you were saturated in love the way you deserved them to be.
I was totally self-absorbed, slouching at the kitchen table everyday (I remember slouching because it made my back ache). I would browse through the daily newspaper with my chin resting on my hand and my eyes aimlessly taking in the pictures, reading about the blessings and hardships of others. I am not proud to say it, but I couldn’t help being jealous of the happy ones who were luckier than me and angry at the ones who complained for thinking that their lives were so rough. My problems were obviously more painful, more unbearable.
My thoughts became a storm cloud in my mind, growing darker and thicker as they inched closer, obscuring my vision, my perceptions. I was a powder keg, sitting idly as my fuse grew shorter, the glowing red tip inching its way to my most explosive contents, me downright unaware of life going on around me.
That was one of my worst moments, one of my darkest. Luckily that was also the day I saw the ad. It took up no more than a couple square centimeters of space, had no vibrant colors, was in fact the same dull and ashy gray as the page and read “Community Support Group” in an unassuming black font across the exact center of a square made by thin black lines. I cannot to this day describe why I was so drawn to it, why my lips felt the need to mouth the phone number as my fingers dialed them on that antique rotary phone I restored and installed in our kitchen. I originally mounted that phone as a novelty, I never would have guessed that it would actually make a huge difference in my life one day, that I would use it to reach out and grab for that hand I needed to pull me out of the rapids. All I can say is, that little nothing of an ad was exactly where I needed it, when I needed it.
The Community Support Group was an outreach program, a place where people gathered to talk out their problems and seek help from others. You could talk about anything in the support group, why your children acted out all the time, why you always failed to catch a fish out on the lake, how your marriage crumbled despite every effort you made to keep it whole. The group may not have always understood how I was feeling, but it still felt nice to talk everything out, to know someone cared about me, was listening to me. There were times I cried. I was the living Niagra Falls, drenching everyone within a four person radius. There were times when I laughed so hard I swear I bruised a rib. But most importantly, the group helped me to remember my purpose in life. You.
I was sitting among my group members one day, giving them the whole “woe is me” spiel when someone interrupted me, actually full on interrupted me, and asked, “But where is your daughter through all of this? How is she handling everything?” I felt like someone had just thrown a bucket of ice water at me, my eyes popping wide in shock. I couldn’t answer that question. I had no idea how you were doing, what you were thinking or feeling. How could I have been such a blind fool? Sure I lost my wife, but I still had my life, my health, and my precious little girl. From that moment I realized that I couldn’t let my past dictate my future, our future. It was time to pick myself up and keep heading forward.
Darlin’, I need you to remember this. It’s ok to be sad, it’s ok to miss me, but you need to promise me that my death won’t devour the rest of your life. Don’t forget to observe and be a part of the world, you’re too special to hold yourself back.
Celeste rose and went to the living room where she had left her phone. She turned it on and it immediately began ringing. It wasn’t Hannah or Mark calling, it was some number she didn’t recognize. Celeste frowned and answered out of distant curiosity, could it be her mom? Maybe she’d heard the news. “Hello?”
“Celeste Alegria?” the unfamiliar voice asked,
“Yes?” She replied, her brow coming together.
“My name is Patrick, I’m a clerk at the Linnton Police Department. We’ve been getting some concerned calls from your friends.”
“They called a clerk?” was the only thing Celeste could think to reply.
Patrick chuckled, “We’re a bit understaffed right now, so I take some of the non-emergency calls these days” there was a pause, “Your friends say you haven’t been answering your phone and no one has seen or heard from you in almost four days…” he trailed off.
“My father is dead,” she said.
“Oh,” Patrick responded with a sudden heaviness to his voice.
The silence was an infinite second, and Celeste considered hanging up.
She took her phone to her spot next to her father’s door and sat. It felt strange talking to someone, hearing a voice that was nothing like her internal thoughts responding to her.
“Um…when I was ten,” Patrick began, “I set my neighborhood record for largest glob of bubblegum chewed in one sitting…thirteen pieces. My mom made me throw it away, though, which is absolutely nothing like having a parent die, but it did make me sad for weeks.”
Celeste choked on abrupt laughter that quickly led to sobbing. No tears, just chest clenching sobs.
After a minute, Patrick spoke.
“Celeste?” he asked, his voice pitched higher with worry.
“What do you want?” she croaked out between the noises that her diaphragm was forcing out of her.
“There’s this song, it’s called “Mary’s Eyes”…you should look it up, my mother always said it’s healthy to listen to sad songs when you’re depressed, it makes you feel what you need to feel,” he added quickly, “It always makes me feel better.”
“Thanks” Celeste choked out. Patrick had helped her break, at least temporarily, from the cloak of bizarre nothing that had settled upon her after the coroner’s office.
“You’re welcome” Patrick said, then “have a good day, Celeste.”
On Sunday, Celeste took a shower and ate before going back to her place at the workshop door. She downloaded the song Patrick had mentioned onto her phone and listened. The first time through there was nothing. She put the song on repeat. This time the longing swell in the chorus made her heartache and her stomach tighten.
Celeste saved the number Patrick had called her from into her speed-dial at number three.
Dad was one.
She pressed and held down one, knowing she would get the landline at his store.
His voice recited the business hours and information that customers would need to know. Then came the part that he had recorded years ago, just for her, “If this is Celeste, I’m probably on my way home, darlin’, I’ll see you soon.”
I’m afraid Alfred is up to his old tricks again. This morning the two halves of my body had a little trouble agreeing with each other. My right arm didn’t seem to want to wake up with the left one, my right leg took a lot of coaxing to press against the floor and stand me up. It’s rather disconcerting, to know your limbs might take a vacation at any time with no notice whatsoever. I managed to wedge myself against the wall and hobble down to the bathroom but for once I was glad you were in class and not around to see me. Very undignified behavior, and you expect more than that from me.
I’m not sure anymore how many miles I have left in this ol’ body. Sometimes I imagine I can feel Alfred in my head, stretching his arms out, growing into another part of my brain. I wonder if that’s how it happens, if one day I will wake up more Alfred than myself. I shudder to think of it. As much as I hate the idea of leaving you I hate the idea of living as something other than the dad you’ve always known even more.
There were two weeks between Celeste and her father’s death. She still felt that she should not actually exist. Stones and leaves and passersby were all so tangible. But Celeste felt that she could disappear or be passed through by a tree branch at any moment. Talking to Patrick sometimes helped ground her into a sense of flesh, but she needed more.
The flyer she had pulled from the bulletin board in the cafeteria was ink-heavy, the background entirely blackened. Block red letters read “A Group for the Bereaved. All-Souls Cathedral, SE 13th and Furlow, Tuesdays at 7pm”
She placed a hand she could hardly feel on the steadying wood of the cathedral door and pushed. There was a well of holy water on a pillar at the entrance. Celeste sidestepped the pillar out of a suspicion that she may in fact be solid and not simply a wandering figment. Everyone was gathered in the front of the sanctuary. In all there were two blonde heads, four shades of brunette, one person with grey hair and one person with bright orange spikes going in every direction. Orange spikes was standing behind the pulpit facing the room, and as Celeste approached she raised a questioning brow.
“Bereaved?” she asked, and Celeste’s eyes caught on the pointed end of a lip piercing.
“Yes” Celeste replied, her voice sticking to the air just inches from her mouth and refusing to travel any further.
Orange spikes nodded. “Have a seat.”
She did not introduce herself nor ask Celeste for an introduction.
“Depression is not a symptom of loss, it is a symptom of an oppressive society,” spikes said.
“Anger and sadness mean you are finally waking up. This is about more than the loved one you lost, this is about a world in which so called “mental illness” and “depression” are just labels that psychiatrists diagnose you with so they can medicate you and keep you asleep”
Celeste was confused. She stared at the pulpit, comprehending nothing.
“We aren’t some radical new organization. We have no agenda, we just want you to know the truth.”
And now it was the woman speaking that was becoming like vapors, barely there at all.
My dear Celeste,
I had a dream last night, that you and I were walking together on the shore of somewhere very snowy, Alaska or maybe Antarctica, though I didn’t see any penguins. It must have been cold but I didn’t feel it. We were both in our pajamas and our bare feet seemed to glide over the frozen snow without so much as a hint of frostbite. The moon was full and the stars exploded across the sky, more than I’ve ever seen and in more colors than I ever knew stars could be. Reds and blues and golds tumbling across the night sky like the inside of a kaleidoscope, all illuminated by that bright, full moon. Then a cracking sound as the ground beneath us split apart. My piece of shore began to float away and I grabbed for your hand, but there was nothing for me but empty air and frigid saltwater as far as the eye could see. Just me, the ocean and the gorgeous night sky.
I worry about you after I’m gone, darlin’. I worry about everything I’m going to miss, your graduation, your wedding, the births of all of my grandkids. Maybe you’ll name one of your sons James and he can grow up into a silly man like me, making his living with his hands instead of his brain and books like his smart Mama. I can’t tell you how proud I am of the young lady you’ve become, how much it pleases me to see you come into your own, to become your own person. I know you are so hard on yourself but I hope you also realize there are more things to life than just working hard. There has to be a moment when you stop and appreciate where you are, when you let yourself enjoy the life you’ve built and the people around you who love you. And there are so many people who love you, little one. Don’t forget to let them in every once in a while. Let yourself be loved.
Celeste stood facing her father’s workshop door, key in her hand. It was a typical house key, for a typical house lock. Nothing fancy or special or artsy, just ridged silvery metal. She flipped it over and over between her fingers, the speed with which she did so steadily increasing. Then she stopped and slid the key into the lock.
“I’m sorry, Papai,” she said, turning the knob. “I’m coming in.”
The same red carpet as everywhere else in the house made up the floor. He had a long, scratched up work desk in the center, and boxes piled against every wall. His messy, scattered, unmanaged personality permeated the space. His round, and metal world. She moved forward until her shadow was over the surface of the desk.
The journal rested there.
“Oh, Papai,” she whispered. She picked up the book and opened it to the beginning.
“I know I just said goodbye to you…”
© 2012 Darwin Riviere, Holly Dickinson, Carrie Padian