July 27, 2017
by Ron MacLean
About Ron MacLean
Ron MacLean is author of the novels Headlong and Blue Winnetka Skies, and the story collection Why the Long Face?. His fiction has appeared in GQ, Narrative, Fiction International, Best Online Fiction, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and teaches at Grub Street in Boston. Learn more at www.ronmaclean.net.
I got it from her, this habit of clenching my feet into a fist. I may not be the sharpest knife in the jar, but I understand this: a marriage is built of bones and teeth. We take care of ours: we brush, we floss, we see our dentist. Even so, I’m holed up in a Florida hotel writing this eulogy while she’s at a shoot–‘em–up flick.
She doesn’t understand why we’re here. Thinks it’s some self–inflicted wound. Some alligators are always trying to skate uphill, she’d say if she were here now. You practically sawed off a limb to free yourself. Why come back? Her kindness slays me. I’d know enough to not say, It’s my family. For her, the boundaries are clear. She came for me — doesn’t even like crossing the Sunshine State line. Can’t understand why I have to go into the teeth of it. She wants to keep me from pain. Knows that’s not always possible.
The bed is too hard, the pillows too soft, it’s too cold to swim, and we can’t afford room service. Every sentence I scribble I cross out, erase. The persistent hum of HVAC. Low voices in the wall. Scraps of memory — a dish rack with two coffee mugs, a transistor radio playing Percy Faith. The terrifying calm after each tempest. The way, with enough conditioning, a crackle of static can make you flinch. Family, I scratch out, is what hurts you.
I ordered dinner anyway. When it arrives, I will bounce it on my knee like a baby.
I’ve tried to live by one simple rule: never microwave anything you care about. It’s an inhospitable frequency, prone to shoot sparks or suck the life from things. I’m the last one standing on this particular branch. She’d say all my family ever cared about was getting the pool cleaned. What pool, I’d ask her. She’d make that exasperated grunt. She won’t come to the funeral. Won’t cross that line.
Forty–three degrees. People think Florida is warm. Some of us know it takes a second skin. But it must be beautiful in Berlin this time of year. The tulips at Mauerpark, the former death strip between east and west. To walk hand in hand where the wall came down — mauerfall — a place now alive with gardens and ponds, jugglers and buskers, young love heedless of tooth decay. To see a city once divided, now thriving. We can still get there.
Silence comes in so many forms. Companionable. Caustic. Cancerous. I cross out. I write. I cross out.
Once a month or so I have this dream where my teeth fall out. Pour from my mouth like water and glisten on the ground. I wake up caressing my molars. I don’t tell her this. Where is your backyard pool then, she’d want to know — your pet parrot squawking for sunscreen? Someday you’ll be soiling your trousers and wishing you could chew solid food. I wouldn’t know what to say.
I once held a chunk of it — Berliner Mauer — at a college talk, the day I met her. This woman — the speaker, a former East German — told how she chipped it out and kept it, first to remind her the wall was down, then, over time, to remind her that what’s built inside you doesn’t fall so fast just because you can move around freely.
Some nights a burger and a cold beer can set anything right. Here’s hoping. I don’t want to paper over problems as I eulogize. Don’t want to let her down. The room’s not helping. This polyester bedspread of autumn leaves. This broken bedside table. How what we do to each other is the best we can. How we know in our bodies silence can cut quick as any other blade. Somewhere there’s a minibar with my name on it.
We got as close as Frankfurt. A stopover on a work trip to Denmark. Sat in oversized rockers awaiting a connection. Failed to consider how singular the opportunity could be. It wasn’t the best time for us. She on the phone with her sister. I overheard: “To save that man, you’ll need a sharper knife.”
Do I wish she was here now, taunting and teasing, crumpling each inadequate attempt into a ball and missing the wastebasket as only she can? Of course I do. Instead of these scratched-out hotel pages, to bring a chunk of my own wall, softened and smoothed with time, pass it from hand to hand: Here’s your eulogy.
Even the strongest signals aren’t always clear. We have our troubles. She talks and talks. I shave my head, and still I can’t quite hear.
We’ve had a good ride, though. And we’re not done. I remind her almost daily. She’ll come back adrenalized from the movie; she’ll chastise me for ordering room service and for caring so damn much about this. You can’t toss a donut to keep a duck from drowning, she’ll say. I’ll beseech her, I have no idea what you’re talking about. She’ll hug my head. Family, she’ll say, are the ones who love you. We’ll take out our teeth and put them in plastic cups ‘til morning. So we don’t hurt ourselves, or each other, any more than is necessary.