Wineskins Archive

February 6, 2014

The Write Side: For a Short Time (Sep-Oct 2001)

Filed under: — @ 4:52 pm and
Sometimes resurrection is announced by a stone rolling away. Sometimes it’s announced by a yo-yo.

by Albert Haley

This story won First Place in the Emmaus Road Contest sponsored by the Calvin College English Department and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, a contest judged by the writer James Schaap. It was originally published in Christianity and the Arts 8.1 (Winter 2001); 26-28.

He is my father. He is in my life every day. Like an athlete on game day he walks on the balls of his feet. Always he is ready to pick me up with his joyful, iron hands.

This man is also my source of wisdom. That’s him crouching down to teach me to identify eight species of non-venomous western snakes. He starts with a gray garter curled in the soft grass at our feet. “See?” my father says. “See?”

Another day he shows me how to walk the dog with my new red Duncan. “Like this, son.” In fifteen minutes I have done the impossible, mastered the taut string and wrist flip. I am prepared to wow the kids at school with the yo-yo.

The fact is, with my father miracles are regular. Vacation time, for instance, he slides behind the wheel. As Mother smiles, he recites silly limericks and then smoothly shifts into the natur epraises of Psalm 104. Meantime, Sis and I go on like barbarians in the backseat. We end the day in a motel and get down to rigorous application of tiny soap bars. “Don’t miss the cooties,” he says. With gentle thumb and forefinger, the magician leans over the tub and pretend-inspects our ears.

I still have the silver quarter.

Am I claiming perfection here, as if this man were some saint? Not at all. For there is a thin crack in one good Christian man. Simply put, he lies to us. He does it so beautifully that it is only much later I review his actions and sentences and I learn. His implied “I’ll always be with you” is as bogus as sunshine rain.

Of course, he never says he won’t go away. All those years it is really a fault of my own, reinforced by his armchair hugs and I love you. I just always assume how it will be. Dying? Impossible. But one day it hits him. The chest heaves then caves back upon itself. He is in a restaurant dining with Mother. Wedding anniversary of all things. Water glasses and silverware go flying. In his chair he falls.

As soon as we receive word, Sis and I fly in. In the hospital bed, the thin givure’s kindly face is obscured by smashed pillow. The doctor takes us away from the tubes and the unthinkable. “The next twenty-four hours are critical.”

What shall we do? We fall back on old ways. As a family, we hope, we pray. Two days later, we are looking on. We hardly believe it. He sits up in bed. He eats spoonfuls of yogurt. He smiles weakly at Mother. “Some repast, eh, Princess?”

In our hotel room we are in a celebratory mood. Let’s raise a minor family toast. We sip soft drinks from plastic cups and chew slices of delivery pizza. “Didn’t he look better?” “Did you think he’d improve so soon?” “No, but God doesanswer prayers.” I am pulling on a string of cheese, contemplating some specific words of thanksgiving. The telephone rings. We freeze. We wait for Mother to answer.

In the backseat of the taxi Sis squeezes my hand. Soon the familiar hospital looms. There is complete silence except for Mother’s reserved sobs. My hand has gone to sleep. The three of us get out. The voice on the phone has told very little, saying only, “You must come right away.” I fling fare at the driver who gestures toward his meter. “No change,” I say.

When we get to the room a woman in white is beside the bed, writing on a clipboard. Now the picture completes itself. This woman, still unaware of us, is reaching down and abut to pull the sheet up. Sis shrieks. They’ve tied him to the bed rails to prevent thrashing in his sleep and he has finished up in a splayed posture, his arms outstretched. Sis rushes ahead of Mother, starts unfastening him. She is going to claim the body, anointing it with spicy spittle flying from her mouth. She souts at the nurse: “You let him die. You didn’t stop it. You let him die!” And then she just cries.

Now we come to the difficult part to explain: how he is in the grave a month, a month, and another month. Then suddenly, out of the blackness, a dream comes. You might think I’m preparing to reveal that my father is a wavering ghost within that nocturnal vision, but it’s not that. My dream is about a carnival and bright lights followed by a long, foggy climb where I perch at the peak of the roller coaster. “This is going to be fun,” I am saying. After that, with breath blasted from my lungs, I make a terrifying fall from the top.

I wake up from a nightmare.

A man stands across the room. A stranger. I know he is real because he has one hand touching a photo on my dresser and I can hear his fingernail scraping the frame. He turns to me with a sympathetic look. His penetrating gaze causes me to plunge into his eyes. The progression from screaming terror to indented reality – a reality in which everything is on hold and painfully understated – comes with stunning ease.

“I’m ready,” the Stranger says. His words are calm, confident, as if this is what he’s ben instructed to say. “Tell me everything.”

What can I do? I start speaking of my father. I know Dad is what the dream has been about. His life lived, his life taken away. I even tell the Stranger abut pouring Dad from the urn into my hands ninety days ago. He had been converted into a mound of gravel-like gray. We scattered him into a clear mountain stream.

“Do you know what that’s like? To have the one who led you your whole life, curled up as ash in your palms? Do you know what it’s like?”

“You need to eat,” the Stranger says. He fiddles around beneath his robe and hands me what I take to be food. I swallow, suddenly unable to see again, but whatever I eat, it caresses my tongue and I taste the goodness until something else comes out from under his garment. It makes a clatter when it hits the floor. After that, there is a distinct, long-lasting rattle as it rolls across the floor. Apologizing, he gives chase. Just as he catches up to it, the room lights snap on.

It is red as a harvest apple. The yo-yo.

I’m wondering does resurrection come with uproarious laughter? Could there be a hint of comedy in redemption? I know, yes, I know – what it means to spin dizzily at the center of amazement. Sometimes a miracle announces its own logic. It comes around.

The boulders are removed from my father’s voice. “Listen, child,” Dad says. He puts hands on my shoulders so the weight is there: solid, real, no transparency. He pauses and I feel he is about to offer words that will go into me permanently. They will vibrate within my bones, tissues and organs. Like one of those prayers that at a peculiar moment grows wings and it flutters past our closed eyelids and we don’t say so, but we are amazed at what we feel.

“Here’s how it works,” Dad says. “He fought the battle for me. And Death could not win.”

Until now I have not told anyone about this, though it rings like Solid Truth. Perhaps the familiarity comes from the book I pick up. I learn of a similar case long ago. A man they urgently missed was right alongside them and they took a long, long while to recognize him. Despair coupled with a lack of imagination makes a powerful camouflage. Which leaves me with where I am today. In the coffee shop, my briefcase at my feet, I am a nondescript, middle-aged man about to settle into another day at the office. But now that I have seen with these eyes I have to start writing. I want to get it straight before I tell others. As I work with the felt-tip, an odd thing occurs: the words on the yellow pad write themselves. I have no idea why they emerge like this. For a short time he was here.

I tear the sheet off the pad, place it in my pocket. I feel what else is in there. I take it out. I play it out on its string a couple of times. Nice, easy wrist snap and it always comes back. People look, then grow disinterested. I put it away.

On the street corner now. See me. Hurrying people and traffic animate air molecules with dusty humanity’s presence. A siren cuts in, fades out; it’s far away. I linger obediently at the curb. The light turns green. I step off. For the first time, I think I know what morning is. Then my feet hit the pavement. Great strides. Briefcase swinging. A man is going to work. A man is going further. See me.New Wineskins

Albert Haley is writer-in-residence and assistant professor of English at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of Home Ground: Stories of Two Families and the Land, Exotic: a Novel and other works.


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