FEBRUARY 2009 – NO. 30
This was the Promise
Our first original short story for 2009.
I showed up to my opening in dirty pajamas. It was Elise's fault. Before her, I had always thought people exaggerated heartbreak. Of course, I kept this opinion to myself when, say, watching a friend order pizza for every meal while watching Matlock for an entire week. Not because they liked Matlock, but because it was the only show that didn't remind them in any way of their ex. It's not like I had to stifle laughter or anything, I simply thought it was all so very dramatic. But when Elise left in October, I slept in the bathtub because it didn't smell like her, and ate from paper plates because I threw our china down the garbage chute just to hear it shatter.
So when my opening arrived as scheduled in December, I shuffled outside and caught a cab. I couldn't leave my pajamas alone; they had looked so sad and empty on the floor. And my suit had looked so evil. I shoved it to the back of the closet. As I walked the floor, people pretended not to be surprised — they all wanted to feel as though they were cool enough to not only expect an artist to show up in his pajamas, but to find it boring.
My brother Marty came — I suspected on our mother's orders — and brought his children as well. I didn't see them come in, I only saw them leave, Marty and his wife, Christine, covering the kids' eyes, their small faces wet with tears underneath their parents' hands. For a moment, I wished for my camera, because the sight of those two uptight parents shielding their children's faces with my glossy blow-ups of roadkill in the background would have been an amazing series. Of course, I didn't wear my camera around my neck to my own exhibition and my pajamas didn't have pockets. I ran after them, but they were already gone. They were a fast family, I decided. Not surprisingly, they didn't invite me for Christmas, but in March Marty called and asked me to Easter. I looked at myself in the mirror. I washed my face, shaved. Elise and I had been to Marty's for Easter every year.
From the backseat I retrieved two enormous Easter baskets, filled with candy and toys and stringy fake grass, greener than anything in nature. Once upon a time the kids, Michael and Maya, would have come rushing outside at the sound of my car in the driveway. I slammed the doors, twice, thinking they must not have heard, but theirs remained shut. No little faces peered out from the windows.
Marty and Christine greeted me warmly but warily. The children sat splayed on the couch, watching a movie.
I said hello to the kids and held up the baskets. They looked over and grunted hellos. Their vacant gazes reminded me of a buddy in grad school, who we had thought was just relaxed, but later found out had a massive heroin problem. For a brief, disturbing second I imagined the kids tying off, tugging belts with their teeth and slapping their soft young arms.
We ate ham, squash, scalloped potatoes and rolls. Christine asked, "So how are you?" in an inflection reserved for those who might slit their wrists in her pristine bathroom, forcing the use of guest towels.
I didn't have much to say. What news did I have of the last few months? That heartbreak did exist? That the drama was unrehearsed, and real? The exhibit had paid for more wallowing in sorrow and I didn't think any of them wanted to hear about my new idea for a series of diseased animals. Marty tried to make the kids talk about school and sports and friends, but they kept quiet. As dinner wore on, I felt sure that when they saw me they only saw that squirrel, like salsa poured over a ratty mink stole. Even for me, the thought made the ham less appetizing.
"Can we be excused?" Maya asked forthe two of them. The thought of uniting a brother and sister in practically running from the dinner table when candy and presents hung in the balance made me feel like Christine might need to break out those guest towels after all.
After dinner, I went down to the basement to wait with Michael and Maya while their parents hid the Easter eggs. When I rubbed my hands together and told them I hoped the Easter bunny had made it, Maya looked up at me and said the only thing either one of them had said to me since their unintelligible greeting, "There is no Easter bunny."
Perhaps this bothered me more than I care to admit. Perhaps I thought the kids needed to appreciate what they had — two loving parents who protected them and loved them and took them away from galleries with dead animals everywhere and kept them in a home where neither one would run out on the other, leaving only a few pit-stained t-shirts and some empty picture frames. But whatever the case, I knew I needed to find every damn egg in that yard.
I burst out of the screen door, and where the year before I had jostled the children lovingly, jokingly, Elise close behind me, giggling, loving, I now shoved past Michael with no concern. He landed in a heap as I retrieved a bright yellow egg that said 'Maya' in glitter paint. I hip-checked Maya away from an egg nestled in the joint of the swingset posts.
As I sprinted around the yard, my shoes slipping on the moist grass, the cool air filling my lungs and exiting just after in a raspy wheeze, I saw an egg settled in the crook of the elm tree that shaded the living room. On a dead run, I planted one foot against the trunk of the tree, ignored a sharp sting in my ankle, and leapt into the air, snatching the egg from its resting place. I thud onto the grass, awkwardly. In the ensuing quiet, noises returned to me, Maya crying and Michael kicking the support for the swing set, my own harsh breathing. I opened my hand, revealing a baby blue egg, filthy from a year's worth of rain and snow and rain again, with my own neat scrawl spelling out 'Elise.' I longed for my pajamas and for tears that no longer came. I stood, my ankle screaming, and threw the egg as hard as I could.
I didn't aim, but I could see what was going to happen before it did: a sparrow flitting across the evening sky, the egg rising in a smooth parabola. The sparrow exploded in a mass of feathers and the remnants fell to the earth with a small thud. The feathers came down like fat, lazy snowflakes. Like some kind of psychotic philosophy problem, the egg had killed the bird.
The kids wailed. I didn't blame them. Though to some degree, I would've thought that an uncle who could hit a moving bird from 40 yards with an egg was pretty cool.
"It's okay kids," Marty said, "Uncle Ford was just leaving."
But I was already halfway to the car. Marty was yelling after me, the children were screaming and the noise made me turtle my head between my shoulders. I remembered when Elise and I went to a Giants game soon after we started dating. At first, we pretended to be above it all, the full-grown (over-grown in most cases) men with bodies painted red and blue, dressed in costumes and wigs. As the game progressed, however, and the Giants came back to beat the Eagles, we were standing with the rest of the stadium, taunting the Eagles in a sing-song way as the final minute ticked off the clock, "It's all over. It's all over." I looked at Elise and I smiled, and I chanted right along with her. The Eagles never had a chance.
Original art courtesy Rob Grom.
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