“A Welcome Haunting” (November 2009)

Jonathan stepped down the metal stairs of his house before remembering they weren’t always made of metal: the image of dark, stained wood, appearing under thin grey carpet sprang out in relief from the surface of the staircase, which glinted in the noonday sunlight seeping through the Venetian blinds, and when the glitter of light on shiny metal caught Jonathan’s eyes he promptly directed his gaze towards the window, where he saw the back of his own head, his own hand clutching the sill, eyes transfixed outward onto the green hills of his homeland.

No sooner did he reach the place where the vision of his former self had been gazing than the timer went off in the kitchen, compelling his right shoulder to twist in the same direction it had late that night in ’84, when his father called for him from the very same kitchen, but before Jonathan had made it out of the living room and into the adjacent dining room, he saw that his father was already there, next to the dinner table, an expression of anger on his rashed face at… what? Jonathan didn’t have time to hear his father’s parched lips pronounce the thing that upset him, because turning to face the chandelier brought about a most distracting image: Brianne pulled up the left side of her thermal shirt with its floral pattern, since Jon had informed her that no one else was home, and his smile spread wider until the tiniest of red flowers took him from the surface of one image and onto another, the prior dreamlike apparition fading behind him like its message was delivered.

Mother sat at the table with the rose in her hand, stirring a cup of yogurt with the stem before biting down silently on the blood-red bloom, and reminded Jonathan of her confusion until the whiteness of Mother’s unstained teeth prevented him from sympathizing for much longer than a moment, the mouth of his deceased uncle Jeffrey opening itself up before him as it had when he was small enough to be intimidated by it. “HELLO, little Jonathan, HOW ARE YOU?” it said, but the boy never quite knew how to answer with anything that would satisfy the tall, balding, war-deaf man.

It was with this sense of resignation and inadequacy that Jonathan took another step forward, yet the lingering feeling of failure provided him with a suspicion of being watched. In turning around once again towards the window, he saw little Victoria peering out from behind the curtain. “You dummy,” she said, bringing Jonathan to the mall by association, where the mannequin fell down the up-escalator, tearing its exemplary clothes as a plastic arm got caught in the little girl’s ribbons…

The timer rang again to remind him, and Jonathan said “Okay,” as he had and did again when someone offered him a joint, and the resulting memory was a blank slate, made of lost time, yet this didn’t prevent the little white stick of a drug from looking like the styptic pencil his father showed him how to use, so that Jonathan found himself scratching his face from the mild irritation of astringent on recently opened skin, but this time, he avoided looking at the blood in the mirror, for fear of being reminded…

In his evasion, it didn’t take long for Jonathan’s eyes to close and open again on the darkish dining room in front of him, where the chandelier had yet to be lighted, while in the kitchen his dinner simmered on the stove without so much as a scallion or a sprig of parsley to garnish it. Yet this plainness almost brought another tear to young Jonathan’s eye when, as a boy, he realized that some people in the world have nothing in their lives to rely on but hunger, who would be grateful to have a simple meal like this everyday, without fail. And so Jonathan didn’t lament his simple dish, but was grateful for it.

And the thought of gratitude sent Jonathan stepping down the aisle of a church. He attended only to please his mother until it no longer pleased her, but entering the dining room at last and recalling the memory of the rose caused him to remember that ultimately, his motivation changed: no longer did he need to please her, but only to keep her calm, as calm as the flame of the candle on the altar, as plain as the wafer of pastor’s bread placed in his mouth, welcoming its simple satisfaction fully with grateful lips and tongue.

But his tongue found its way back into his mouth when he saw what was happening through the dining room window: his brother, Tim, lay supine in the driveway, playing dead on a thick layer of snow, in a bright red coat and blue snowpants, while the neighbor slogged by with his snow shovel and bent over to see if Tim was okay, and Jonathan was worried until the younger boy hopped to his feet and stared in through the window, as if to remind Jonathan that it had been his job to watch Tim.

Jonathan felt a sense of urgency rippling through him and he took one frenzied step towards the kitchen, where the backdoor was, until he remembered that the door was not his destination, but Jonathan kept it in mind anyway, as his teacher, Mrs. Belfiglio, kept it very well in mind that he had been whispering during class, and, despite being in  third grade, Jonathan’s vocabulary was extensive enough to whisper “Fuck her” to Billy, who sat next to him and who smiled scandalously as though presented with Brianne’s breast, which tempted Jonathan to forget all else and force himself back into that silly white soft dream, hoping to press forward towards the dream’s conclusion…

But he resisted the temptation, because Jonathan knew he would starve and start a fire if he did not tend to his dinner, never recovering from the recollection: his life would restart from that point in time, and when Jonathan lived back up to this point again…. it had happened to him before, and it was no fun.

A brushing-by of cool breeze from the kitchen took Jonathan by surprise, and it was as though he was beside that ice-coated window in bed, his glazed eyes glaring lovingly at the evergreen trees which seemed so much more fortunate than himself, until it occurred to Jonathan that he was lucky enough to receive He-Man’s castle for Christmas when he was five, and the Castle’s voice-amplifying Magic Microphone really annoyed Victoria and Tim after he used it throughout Christmas morning and well into Christmas night, even taking it out of the house so that Jonathan’s high little voice could be heard above the din of dinner at Granny and Grandpa’s house, where cool breezes seeped in under all of the closed windowpanes, and made everyone hungrier for hot turkey and ham.

The coldness made him hungrier for rice after the surprise wore off, and Jonathan’s thoughts took no notice of his thirst, to avoid recollecting that awful incident at the drinking fountain… But stopping there, in the doorway, he paused in his breathing when an amoeba slid across the dark wall of the cavernous mud-room, much like the one his science teacher had shown him with a bioscope; this amoeba was thin and moist, the size of half a piece of bread, with its little white organs swimming around inside, and Jonathan wondered if his own organs swam around or if they preferred to stand still…

…Until the amoeba crept upon the face of the wall, then, when it noticed Jonathan’s threatful stare, the single-celled organism darted down in fright and disappeared behind the coats on the wall-hooks.

But the sight of the coats made him think of his mother again, wearing her beige cashmere coat indoors in the summertime, when the weather was as hot as rice in a pot, too hot to be wearing an overcoat let alone a hat and scarves. But Jonathan ended the thought, wondering why the coat was still there despite his mother’s absence for the last ten years or so…

“Oooh,” he said, smiling and turning back towards the kitchen, where the timer rang once more. He smiled, now, with sadness, remembering that nature had made him this way, and that he had nothing but to be grateful, as he would be for that simple, basic rice that didn’t question its existence: why it was heated in a pot, why it was spooned onto a plate, and why it was eaten. If it did do such a thing, Jonathan would be unable to eat it and then he would starve, because he decided long ago to eat nothing conscious.

It took a moment, since the thought was so well-driven, but the man who had sat across the street from the house—begging and screaming for food to be brought to him because he was too weak to stand, who died of starvation there a day and a half later, his naked arm still woven through the slats of the picket fence—he could have just been sleeping. This was how Jonathan remembered it. And Tim, little blond Tim, wanted to help him, taking two granola bars from the new box in the kitchen and starting out the door and across the street and offering them to the Hungry, and what was Jonathan doing? He found himself in the bathroom, looking into the mirror for longer than usual and tending to his unpleasant face, when Father’s yelling forced him away from his gaze: Hunger had struck Tim in the legs, and the little boy lay on the ground crying while the man on the fence remained there, eating the granola bars….

And remembering this occurrence, Jonathan yanked himself away from the bathroom mirror and ran right across the kitchen, passing the rice and the timer as it rang out yet again. He whipped open the backdoor of his house, the amoeba peering out from under the basement door, the sound of the bells on the doorknob ringing in his ear while the mud-room light switched on and the bulb flickering out gave him that frightened feeling in his neck… his mother and his father kissed in the hallway with the passion that had been there only before he was born—his father had unscrewed the lightbulb…

Yet, when Jonathan was outside, an unmistakable moment arrived when he was reminded of nothing.

He saw the sun was setting, sending a dull red light like old bricks over the surface of the earth, where debris of broken sidewalks and overflowing garbage cans obscured the ground, the tangled mess of dead trees offering no shade to prevent the light of the tired sun from reaching the greasy ground beneath the bodies of derelict automobiles, desolate from disuse, while a coating of moths is momentarily startled from its resting place over the streetlamp, revealing green light as it winks out for the last time.

Jonathan’s eyelids narrowed, his eyebrows crinkled, his hand reached towards nothing since nothing was there, and he breathed a deep breath in the first moment of peace that he had had all day. Yet now, he again beheld the world, whose image was frightening, more than any of these memories that grasped at him and refused to leave him be. Moments like these, though, made Jonathan grateful that he was haunted by them, since the present day of the world was too dull red and desperate faded white for his eyes to behold, and Jonathan could feel as each decaying moment crept up his legs and tried to overtake him.

The moment was only a moment, and Jonathan felt it come to an end as the sight of a tattered billboard, its remnants swaying like something dead in the acrid wind, depicted an open mouth trying to say something, and the memory of poor Magen, forced to speak in front of the class, yet without any words behaving like friends, stood with her mouth open as her face grew redder and redder like the steadily intensifying sunlight, and again Jonathan wanted to place his hand on her thin shoulder, leaning towards her to whisper the words into her ear…

But before long, he sighted a rat, peering out from underneath a sopping cardboard box before scurrying right past Jonathan, fast as he could, pulling a comrade behind him, and what did Jonathan think of but Tim and Victoria, pulling their brother from underneath a car, whose danger he had failed to recognize as he stood in the street and contemplated an encounter with a covered wagon (from when? he would never be sure), and it made Jonathan feel sad for having been saved, and for needing them to save him.

His sense of sadness and happiness had always been odd, but it took this remembrance to provide Jonathan with an unaccompanied contemplation: as he looked upon the slow destruction of the world around him, little images were poking out from the crevices and cracks, with meanings great and small and free from value of good or bad, much like the faithful friends of memories were separate from his physical self, yet they were still a part of him somehow, even while they waned and faded away like shapes in clouds.

His mind marveled at its own fullness, like the great glass of lemonade his mother had poured for him. He forced himself to finish it because it was so good; that sweetness, that tartness, that cold liquid that ran down his throat and into his body was the reason he remembered it so well…or was it the tall glass glistening under the summer sun, while his mother smiled under her sunglasses and gently stroked his bare shoulder, and Jonathan’s little friends splashed about in the swimming pool behind him?

Tim walked up and said “Could I have some please?”

Jonathan then said “Yes,” and Mother said, “Of course you may.”

Jonathan turned and walked back into the house, wanting to know, and yet not needing to, remembering, by the sound of the timer through the screened window, the rice was ready now, and Jonathan smiled; he only had to eat, and his life would continue, and remain his own.

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