It was the kind of a rain-chill that invaded every part and muscle of your body, regardless of a raincoat and other weather resistance clothing you might attempt. The persistent pitter-patter of the cold sheets of the downpour hit upon the oval pane of glass in the old-fashioned Victorian door. The door’s heavy frame was slightly more than a comfort against the dreary weather, and through the lace curtains frosty lines of rain could be seen trickling down the glass. Every now and then, a flash of lightning would cast a glow into the vestibule, quickly followed by a burst of thunder.
The front door would stand momentarily guarded by a deep silence: not a creak, rustle, or crack. Only the monotonous flashes of the thunderstorm and the cool chill of the dark day invaded the front hallway, tutored by the old Grandfather Clock which recited at definite intervals with it incessant tick-tock-tick-tock. The polish of its veneered surface gave a slight sheen that highlighted the masterful artwork of a by-gone era; it also gave a peculiar comfort and coziness to the evenings encroaching wet condition.
Without warning, the presence of someone had arrived on the outside porch. A heavy shuffle denoted a person arriving from a hard day’s work, and the hulk of a man in a grey overcoat vaguely appeared on the outside of the partition. A gust of moist chilled air rushed into the house as the man quickly opened the door and then abruptly turned and closed it shut. His shoulders tilted from side to side as he shivered from the cold air. He walked over to the coat rack standing desolately in the corner and draped his overcoat on it. The same action occurred everyday between eight in the morning to five in the afternoon—-or else, he was sure he would become heavily blotched from the rain, when it rained, and he was glad to get the garment off. Just as despondently, he placed the wet hat on the rack, it stood still for a moment and then sagged to me side just as sadly.
The man stood stopped and stood motionless to think for a few seconds.
Everything seemed to be as usual; thought a private emotional storm was raging and barely subdued beneath his chest; not quite able to mimic the downpour outside, however, the man was sure he had it under control.
The smell of a freshly cooked dinner; the deeply invigorating aroma of a roast overlayed with the delicious touch of hot, buttered rolls, coffee, and gravy.
He gave a sigh. It still was comforting to still be able to come home to the smell of a robust dinner. Perhaps it would be many years yet before that bit of tradition would be torn asunder. It was hard to tell.
Wiping his nose on the handkerchief he has drawn from his pocket, he began to part his lips, then stopped. He tried once again.
”Clarisse, I’m home!”
He combed his damp, shaggy hair into place. It was rich, dark, and sleek. He needed every bit of that professional ‘white collar’ air that he endeavored to project. He needed that aspect of that executive job, from eight to five every day, or else he was sure he would go quite mad—-if that term meant anything any longer.
He shivered again, then stepped away from the small puddle of rain he deposited at the door He took a few steps for the kitchen..
‘Hi honey, how’s the damp weather?” came the cherry response of his wife. “So far, so good,” Mark thought.
He stopped abruptly when he came abreast of the huge sliding doors to the front room. In the shadows and dark, the doors appeared as one darkened monolith. He wrinkled his brow as if to look beyond the doors into the room. There was a certain intensity in his glance. The he stirred himself and headed for the kitchen. What was laying in the front room would just have to wait—-wait a while longer.
“Eeeem, smells good!.” He glided up to the back of his wife and kissed her on the shoulder. He could smell his wife’s favorite perfume, the one he had liked to well. It was down-right titillating.
She twisted her neck to smile into his face. It was a modest smile, but he could see that she at least meant it. She kissed him on the cheek.
“I thought we’d have a roast tonight, Mark. Bobby said the other day that he’d like one prepared,” she said washing her hands beneath the sink facet. She routinely wiped her hands on her apron. Then she pushed a strain of glowing black hair from her forehead to smile at her husband. Mark had had begun to pick at a steaming bowl of asparagus.
“Stop that Mark!” she just looked at him with an almost unquestionably indifference. “We’ll eat in minute.”
“Ah…y….yes,” he smiled comically, glancing up into the small, fogged bay kitchen window, “and how soon will that be?”
“Any minute dear, any minute.” Clarisse chided with a pleasantness that was rare but quite welcomed to Mark. When she smiled , a sparkle would enter automatically into her eyes and ridges of skin would flow evenly back from the bridge of her long, narrow nose atop two thin lips that, when parted, would show rows of beautifully even teeth.
She placed another bowl of food on the table, then fell back into a routine composure.
“Where Is Bob, anyway? Home from school?”
“Yes, he’s up in his room. I promised him that if he’d get his schoolwork done by seven he could see Sherell tonight.”
Mark didn’t say anything, but he acted slightly disturbed. He eased himself into a table chair. The he folded his hands in an almost prayer posture.
“How did your day go, Mark?”
Mark gazed across the table set with food. Then he glanced at his hand which was resting on the table’s edge and he noticed the nervous tremble the hand had acquired.
“Not too well —- as usual. Not too well.” Mark’s dark eyes held a slight sadness at that moment. His olive complexion almost turned white. He rubbed his stub of a nose and folded his hands together again.
“Oh. As usual?” There was a certain pique in his wife’s voice, but also a bit of cold sarcasm, almost always. “Later, Clarisse.”
“Seems that’s all it’s been here of late. I hope they let up on you.” Now that was a bit more tender, thought Mark, a bit more sincere!
“It’s not them. I guess, it’s me. I’m just not a good accountant…I’m …” Mark stopped and gulped while lifting two watered eyes to look at his wife. She returned the probing glance. “Later Clarisse,” he pleaded.
It was quiet for a moment. She continued her activity by clumping two tablespoons into their respective bowls. It was obvious she had put some work into the dinner preparation. The curious way her almost coal-black hair rippled along her temple and stuck in the corner of her mouth was a tell-tale sign of her industry but also of her sensuality.
“How’s our box doing?” It had been on his mind all day. In fact, it was somewhat exciting, though a strenuous day at the office had deadened that excitement somewhat. But such natural, wholesome excitement was getting to be a rarity, and he hadn’t wanted to give it up that easily. But for now, it was at least a pleasant diversion to speak of.
“Still sitting there on the pedestal, still sitting there,” she said, gracefully stepping around the edge of the chair and neatly pulling it beneath her. When she had herself settled-in, she timidly gave a nervous glance at her husband , then busied herself with the dining utensils. “Look at him,” she thought to herself, “sitting there like a time-bomb, fuse-burning, waiting to explode!” “It’s people like him that cause all the terror going on today,” she silently annumerated to herself, “pushing , prying, tearing! Well, I didn’t cook this dinner just to see how much energy I could send. If he is going to pull his usual guff, at least my son and I will enjoy this meal.”
Mark gave a smile: “I wonder why grandpa did something like that? It’s so unlike him. I guess the old fellow had a sense of intrigue and humor to boot. Imagine, stuffing an old box behind some bricks and tying a mystery note, to boot. So mysterious.”
Lightning flashed through the windows and a moment later thunder boomed causing the usual drone of loose glass throughout the house. Clarisse glanced out at the storm having just set her first bowl of food down.
“Spooky!” she joked, referring to grandpas’ mystery box. Indeed, it was, they had taken the flowerpot off the wooden front room pedestal and placed it in the sun-room replacing it with the ole’ rotten thick oak-box. Its henges had become badly rusted, the latch to the lock still worked, though it was uncertain the key to the, now, red-crusted mechanism dangling in the loop would ever be found. It almost seemed unceremonious to attempt to open it without going the participance of a key.
Clarisse noticed that her husband hadn’t touched his coffee yet, so she indicated that he do so: “Drink up.” It was going all too well, thought Mark, it couldn’t last. If Mark could only tell her what his dictatorial boss, Mr. Ferrell, had said: gee, Mark pleaded to himself, If I could, just one time without an argument. Keeping on the topic and referring back again to Grandpa’s mystery box: “Thank you. Ah, what did his note say, honey, something about a Pandora’s Box?’’
Grandpa Bellinger had been a loner of sorts. It probably was because he differed intellectually with a large majority of his friend; an eternal beacon of something from frontier times like the old shod-shack hut, the buck-board wagon, the General Store, and, later, the Model T Ford, Racoon coats, and full-length swimsuits: some private idioms of his own personality in exchange for allowing the maddening world pass him by. Grandpa had a scientific bent, was a professional chemist most of his life. Towards his later years, grandpa had become a science-fiction reader. He once attempted writing a fiction story, but it was too nostalgically moral and a publisher accused it of being too bland; Grandpa Bellinger resigned it to the limbo of the trash can.
“The note’s upstairs,” her brow wrinkled for a moment, “ I don’t recall exactly. There was something about the latest Presidential Assassination; the nuclear conflict…”
She stopped for a moment. Mark imagined that he saw his wife shiver with a slight fear, the same as he also felt. “Well,” she continued, “it seems your Grandfather could visualize half the mayhem going on today—-the book burning, the body tattooing…”
“Pandora’s Box, Clarisse, what did it say about Pandora’s Box?”
“He said it just might be one depending on who found it.”
Yes, that sounded like Grandfather, thought Mark. Idealistic. Studious. And always fearful of mankind’s inhumanity to man and the various tyrannies about. But about Bellinger was also a kindness too, a sense of humor that was evident, so evident, when he died and bequeathed the old two-story, four-bed-room home—an old early-American mansion.
And there also was those old memories. Old memories and this ‘box’—-dredged from a cob-webbed hiding place in the attic and the chimney.
Thunder roamed the skies again, In the street, a car passed through a deep puddle of rain, spraying it upon the wooden porch. It resembled the thumping of fingers upon a table.
“Yes, well,” Mark gave a sigh as he licked a drop of coffee from his lower lip, studiously setting the cup back on its saucer with both hands, “there’s so darn much going on from day to day it is paranoia.”
His wife just kept intently looking at her husband. Her rich, sleek auburn hair somewhat tousled by homemaking, was lazily draped over the shoulders. The wash dress she wore had a floral arrangement with a backdrop of pink and white checkers. She had a small face sculptured with a thin mouth and smooth-running features that came to an abruptly pointed chin. Her brown eyes were saucer-large and floating in magical fluid: Her whole face revolved around those two beautiful ovals. Her face was sprinkled with dimly visible freckles on the slopes of her cheeks.
Don’t start, Mark, she sneered inwardly, please don’t start that infernal sniveling , that filthy tongue-waggling about the world conditions. Believe me, my husband, the only dirty thing is your damned evil mind!
“I’ll call, Bob.” She looked almost as if she were daydreaming. Perhaps she was concentrating on how well the dinner was harmoniously occurring? Mark spread his legs out under the table, laned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head.
“How’s the boy doing? I don’t hear that loud squalor he calls music. He must really be studying?”
“Don’t be sarcastic, Mark. I’m going to call him to supper now. He’s having a hard time here of late, just, just, let him be.”
That did it, thought Mark, what possibly could that bundle of cloth and hair be troubled about? Does he have a Mr. Ferrell breathing down his neck? “He’s having a hard time here of late?” Mark’s face reddened a little, “That kid has it so easy…ah, gosh, get the boy…” Mark sat straight-up and prepared to eat. Mark’s wife looked at him questioningly, slightly grimacing her lips. Mark just sat starring at her.
“Bob!” she called. “Bob, come and eat!”
A silence, then a muffled sound like “all right’’ or ‘‘coming.” It was Clarisse that sighed an eternal sigh this time. Her saddened look forced her husband to break his gaze at her as he glanced off into the raising steam of the food. He thumped the table nervously.
The endless melody of the Grandfather Clock weaved its sad song into the kitchen. Mark unbuttoned his coat, letting it slink off one arm, then the other, and wrapping it across the back of the chair. Just as rapidly he loosened his tie. He stopped to glance at his wife with a mute indignation, the said:
“Well, is he coming?” Mark quickly unbuttoned one sleeve and began to roll it up.
Clarisse resigned herself to the predicament, “I’ll call again.”
Mark repeated his glare and began to roll-up the other sleeve. “Bob, come on now, we’re waiting on you!”
The same low, muffled voice reached the kitchen and after a moment of silence heavy clump-clumps bounded down the stairs that led towards the second level. Into the kitchen bounded a rather tall youth of eighteen with long, shoulder-length hair. He wore a full free-flowing white robe, encircled at the waist by a red, silk-like cord. On his chest was an emblem of a blazing sun thrust through by a well-defined lightning stroke which gave the illusion to descend from the tip of his goatee beard. His feet were sandaled and dirt smudges were obvious between his toes.
Bob walked in clumsy steps, tripping over legs of chairs, scrapping the woodwork, and finally bouncing into a kitchen chair, but holding, all the time, a most graceful air of serenity upon his face to which his father gave a silent gasp and bewilderingly arching back and looking at his wife with raised eyebrows.
The boy shoved himself near the table and quickly began to grab a bowl of food, dumping a portion onto his plate. Before his long arm managed to lay hold another set of china smoldering in steam, Mark Bellinger forced himself to speak.
“How are you doing, son?” there was a barely subdued air of contempt beneath Mark’s words.
“Fine, pop. How are you?” Bob looked up only casually. His long lanky hair swung back and forth each move of his head. Mr. Bellinger hadn’t started to eat .
“Your mother tells me you have troubles here of late. What seems to be the problem?”
Mark Bellinger, his wife had once said, looked like the late actor Tyrone Power, though some pronounced wrinkles around hi neck, and laugh lines around his mouth, gave an appearance more alien than familiar to the forever-youthful Powers. Two large ears were part of that alienness, and his eyes had a foggy appearance which was created early in his youth when Mark put many hours working as a welder in the government’s production of nuclear submarines for the most recent African conflict—-the one that witnessed no less than six nuclear attacks, without the resultant worldwide conflict. The attacks had, however, left several emotional scars.
Mark’s eyes would cloud when in deep thought, but occasionally, in moments of joviality, they would sparkle and a crystal-clarity would arise to transcend the current confusion: they would sparkle with a touch of anger.
“Well, just that I like to help if I can, son. I might not be a college graduate – and I understand that High School today is along a college level…” with all the mayhem, confusion, debauchery and riots of the college of my day, thought Mark, “…but I did go to school, son, I did go to school.”
“Dad, the things we’re studying in school today are so far removed from the High School of your day that it would be useless to explain…” The boy stopped his eating to look at his father. Clarisse hadn’t taken a bite to eat yet.
“Boy, you can say that again!” Mark Bellinger flipped hi napkin open and spread it across his lap. He reached for some food. “In our day, we didn’t have half the crazy things going on that I hear about today. ‘self-instruction.’ Who ever heard about literally doing that?”
When Mark had graduated from High School, and years later was able to squeeze in a few night courses at a local university, he was often bewildered by the campus bulletin boards. Besides odds and ends for sale, there were ads about homosexual liberation, lesbian liberation, childcare ‘corrals,’ anarchy as a movement towards human freedom—-page after page, notices, postcards all thumbtacks in a confusing mosaic on the bulletin boards.
And then Mark woke-up to the fact that people took these things seriously, and not as a momentary aberration. He was happy to know he was morally able to feel nausea.
Bob Bellinger leaned back in his hair to look at this father in a more serious vain. Girlishly, he flipped his hair over this shoulder, caressing his moustache with his fingers.
“Pop, it’s a different world! The things you would never happen ten years ago – are! The things that I wondered about then – I am! We are moving! We are also evolving, Pop! You know how I feel on this.”
“Ya, I know! I know how you feel! Pass the spinach, please.”
Clarisse disturbed her short passivity and proceeded to reach for the bowl and pass it to her husband. The she folded her hands again and quietly listened.
“You’ve never been to a ‘Rata-Tal,’ have you, Pop?” The father just looked at the boy questioningly, his beathing growing heavier. Of course, Mark hadn’t! “Well, if you’ve never tried to transcend this material reality by attuning to the ‘all-soul’ Rata-Tal chants—you really don’t know what you are saying…” The boy excitedly turned to look at his mother. “You know. You know, Mom. Mom’s been to one.” Bob turned to look again at his father, while Mark suddenly found himself trying to cushion the shock of those words.
Clarisse lowered her head slowly and rested on the elbow-supported palm of her hand, as she played with bits of meat on her plate.
“Yes, I’ve been to a Rata-Tal , she thought. I didn’t understand it, but I know one thing, she informed herself. There was excitement there! There was people, there was noise, noise and fun. Anything – anything – but this infernal cemetery of an existence.
Then she almost allowed a visible smile: she recalled the tiny black ‘bat’ that had been tattooed on the bottom of her right foot. She remembered the exciting instance when she dramatically received it at the orgy of body-tattooing at the Rata-Tal; she was eternally vigilant to hide it from her husband. She invented alternate excuses to tell her husband since its implementation, should he discover and ask about it.
“While you say we are rapidly ‘moving ahead,’” Mark Bellinger put a contemptuous air to the words, “I see us ‘falling back.’”
“Look at the whole picture, Pop.”
“Listen, young man, I’ve been around…’
“You see what you want to see!”
“I see what is happening! It isn’t new!”
“Man is a freedom-loving, evolving animal!”
What was this, thought Mark, a conspiracy? Just why is it that so bad for hard-fought-for wisdom of a father to be accepted? Why, in the world, are these two lovely people wanting to destroy me in such an ugly manner?
The slam of the fork upon the tables startled Clarisse and her son. The mother gave a small gasp of surprise, coming to astute attention. Mark gained a slight composure, examining everyone’s face, now, in tension. Was he happy the conversation had come to an end! He released the slight tautness of his muscles. It was the same old thing again, he thought, why was it never any different?
“Aren’t we supposed to say a little something before we eat, or something?” Mark questioned.
“Like what, Mark?” his wife asked.
“Like – like – a prayer or something.” Mark pleaded, swaying his hand through the aroma of the food. He reached for his coffee and sipped it hurriedly.
The steam coming off the food had died down somewhat, and several nosy flies buzzed from dish to dish. One landed on the table and began scurrying between the bowls of food and plates. Bob eyed it casually as he routinely lifted a fork-full of food into his mustached mouth that existed below the two the two large eyes he had inherited from his mother.
His mother straightened herself in the chair. She held back a bit of tears in her eyes by widening them for a moment. She pushed back a cluster of curls on the side of her head. She attempted to eat and her small lips parted for the first bite of food.
“I could say a neo-Indonesian chant, Dad?” It was hard trying to interpret that remark, as to whether sarcasm or genuine concern, ‘’or, perhaps a stanza from the Kali-Yuille?”
A form of panic gripped Mark’s tender features and his throat suddenly became lodged with a flood of liquid as he gasped and nearly dropped the cup of coffee, pushing himself away from the table and letting out a string of coughs.
“Y — you — you, you see what, what (cough) – I mean – (cough) – Clarisse, the boy is half done mad!”
Mark pointed a finger at the flush-faced boy. It had arrived, Clarisse thought, it had arrived! His wife slowly turned her penetrating eyes to her plate, blinking them once or twice, and dropped her fork to the side of her plate.
“Kali-Yuille! Kali-Yuille! I never heard of such terms. It’s some of that crazy oriental stuff those kids down at the University Loop have invented,” Mark continued, “do you know that area was nearly quarantined, Bob, by the City?” Mark looked at his wife, who now had both hands clasped over her ears while gazing down to her plate. “Fourteen rapes, Bob, and three murders, Bob , not in one year, son, or a month my boy, but one week!”
“So, people have problems!” Bob interjected.
“People have problems. You are darn right!” Mark whipped the napkin off his lap and began to dab the spots of spilled coffee, “you’re darn right people have problems, and we have some right here. Right here!” Mark threw the wet napkin into plate with a ‘splat.’
Clarisse yanked on her hair, first with a whimper, than a chain of sobs, and finally a loud cry. Those at the table came to a halting silence.
She lifted her head to reveal two greatly watered eyes and the beginnings of two tear droplets on the lower lids of each that shivered and swayed when she shouted deliberately and somewhat crudely:
“Please, just be quiet! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”
“Mom!” the guru of Denver Boulevard started to rise from his chair. “Mom!”
“I fixed a roast, especially for Bobby tonight! It was hours in the cooking! I cooked a lot of favorites! It was going to be a nice dinner! A niceevening!” She pointed a tearful glance at her husband: “Why did you have to ruin it!”
“Me?” exclaimed Mark: This wasn’t just exasperation, it wasn’t amazement, but the usual tragedy warmed over.
“You come in here, moping like the dark dreary day outside, complaining your usual complaint about possibly losing your job! You started picking on the boy before he even got down the stairs! You can’t even…”
“Picking on the boy!” doggonit anyhow, thought Mark. “Now what a minute, this didn’t start tonight…”
“Oh sure, that’s right, you never did like the kid.” Streaks of acidic tears crossed her cheeks. “To you, he always was a gimpy screwball.”
Mark’s olive complexion had turned a shade of red, and his frustration at the swiftness of the change of circumstance had somehow turned into panic. Just then, a large boom vibrated the old house much like a heavy piece of furniture having been dropped onto the upstairs floor as a thunder-burst rolled the sky.
Mark began to swiftly scratch a sore on the back of his hand, and his Adam’s-apple groped in pain every few seconds. “Now, that’s not true! Why are you saying that?’’ Mark turned with a look of astonishment to his son who was now was sitting absolutely erect in stark silence. “Bobby , we always did things together. Remember?”
Mark leaned over to his son slightly, as if to place a hand on his son’s shoulder, but not daring to. “Remember the open-air circus they held every summer down at the Emmerson Expressway? You remember? And that big elephant you rode on, the one named Tiny. Oh, ‘Tiny’ was a favorite name of yours for a long time.” Mark tried to force a crude chuckle. “You even named your pet rabbit, your basement turtle , and a garden-snake you found, by that same name.”
The boy said nothing, just stared mysteriously with a vexation at his father. Bob’s small, rounded nose glistened under the kitchen ceiling light.
“Yes, pop, I remember!.” Bob threw his napkin on the table and tugged on his loin belt rather angrily. “I remember the time you killed that cat, little Clarabelle.” The thought of that little animated ball of fur hadn’t crossed their minds for some time now. Mark was shocked!
“What? I told you I did no such thing! That was a big misunderstanding!”
“Sure. Misunderstandings, like the time you slapped Mom, or the time you locked me in my room. We should have called the police, Mom.”’ He had turned to his mother who had finally lit her cigarette and was observing with curious but rapt attention.
“This is crazy!’’ Mark jutted up from the table, glanced down at the food, put his hands on both hips for a second, and then hurriedly walked away from the table, “This is nuts!”
Mark quickly rushed to the sink and gazed through the frosted windows, past the stream of rain and into the patio of the next-door neighbor. Twice now he had tightened his lips together, forcing them downward somewhat, stretching his neck muscles to abate the lump of fear in his throat; suddenly he became the prisoner in his solitary emotional cell again. He gripped the side of the sink.
No sound came from the family at the table for a second. A roll of thunder past overhead. Bob said in a more casual tone, “How’s our ‘box’ doing?’
“Still in there, still locked,” added Clarisse.
“Well, Grandpa was nobody’s fool Mom, I bet it’s full of money. No change, just bills,’’ Bob jested.
Darn it, anyhow, thought Mark. how can they be so casual about it all?
Clarisse was quick to laugh at the remark from her son, “sure, it would be nice. I wonder.”
That boy had no cause to say that to me, so easily, so quickly, thought Mark.
Mark noticed someone on the patio next-door. It was Mr. Maxwell, who had just finished his supper and sat down in his favorite easy chair, a glass of his favorite bourbon in hand. It was hard to make out everything plainly for patio glass was heavily steamed, but Mark believed that his neighbor had a look of contentment upon his face.
“I had to lock you in your room, Bob, you were doing some bad things at fourteen-years-of age. Some bad things. You should remember.” Mark’s voice was soft, listless, with a tone of frightening exasperation that trailed off into the corners of the house.
The other voices at the table stopped for a second; they surely heard what Mark spoke. Then they quickly resumed their conversation.
“Ah, I don’t think its money,” Bob informed, “but probably one of his inventions he made – one that he never told us about. You know, I went up to grandpa’s private laboratory in the attic once when I was six, and I remember,” the boy’s eyes rolled to look at the ceiling in deep thought, “ this big coil outfit he made—I didn’t know what it was for, at the time—but he said it had an ‘electro-magnetic’ output of such and such; you know the regular laboratory jargon. Grandfather was talking about making a larger condensed-model one day.”
“You think that’s what it is?” his mother smiled, blowing a puff of cigarette smoke into the air.
(Mark imagined that cocky, serene look which had suddenly grown on the face of his wife, and those two thin lips that moved indifferently to haunt him; what was that slogan: thin-lipped people are selfish?)
“Maybe not this big model,” the boy explained, “but maybe a smaller one?” His mother just lifted her eyebrows in question. “Boy, when he pressed this button I thought my short was going to be pulled off my body! I think it was kind of a force field!” The boy was excited in telling of the event.
(Mark saw their indifference as a continuation of the sardonic conspiracy to the genuine circumstances Mark was feeling and had experienced at other times: what was going on, Mark argued inwardly?)
Through the ‘crystal ball’ of a kitchen window, Mark saw the imagined face of his employer, and suddenly he was back at work, computers whirling invisibly beyond him as he busily punched a tabulator in front of him. The supervisor just stood there for a moment. A look of stark anger upon his slim face—-a face that seemed to have been constantly washed morning, noon, and night.
Mark hadn’t stopped his tabulating immediately. No, he wanted to be as casual as possible. Yes, through the corner of his eye, he could see Mr. Farrell’s tweed-like material of his suit coat. He could smell the strong fragrance of his cologne, but Mark didn’t want to appear too startled, too shocked, though he knew very well why Mr. Farrell stood there with his cheek bones slowly moving and protruding somewhat aflame.
“Damn it, Bellinger, can’t you see?” Farrell’s voice brought Mark to full attention. “You did it again! What’s got into you, man?” With a slap, Mark’s boss threw the file folder on Mark’s desk, causing the papers to spew over its surface. Mark investigated the man’s face. Mark did nothing, just pushed his glasses back on the bridge of his nose. Mr. Farrell looked at him questioningly. Then just as crisp:
“Be in my office in five minutes!”
The ceiling lights on the office became once again the many flowing raindrops upon the kitchen windowpane. His next-door neighbor had made it a short-lived habit of reading the newspaper this evening and was soundly asleep in his favorite chair, paper crumpled on his lap. The oval of his mouth denoted an active snore.
Mark tangled with a thick, heavy gulp in his throat. The emotion was hurting his neck as if it was cement. His lips quivered and the tears in his eyes made visibility almost impossible.
“Well Mom, I am sorry about dinner. I really am. I would have gabbled-down that roast —- well, it was good!”
“Sure. At least I tried, Bobby. You know I tried.”
“Sure, I know, Mom.”
Was there something in those surprisingly mellow voices that emotionally ‘included’ him, Mark asked himself? There must be! He suddenly felt a loneliness that quickly accompanied his growing freight:
“I love you, Bob!” Mark practically sobbed the words. Mark remained in his feigned position. The boy only stared at his mother’s pretended surprise glance. She looked back at her son just as tritely. A moment of silence stood between everyone.
“Well, can I leave for Sherell’s now, Mom? We’re going to have some practice chants in the oriental sketches we’re doing.” Bob prepared himself ready to push away from the table.
“Your homework done?” she eyed him with a half-hidden and warm smile, part-way disguised by the drawn appearance of her lips and the way she cradled the cup of coffee in her hand. Her eyes twinkled unexpectedly.
“Yes, Mom!” Bob answered a bit resentful as he stood; I have to get-going, he thought to himself.
Bob! Bob! Come over and pat me on the back, cried his father inwardly to himself, and take me by the arm, squeeze it, tell me that everything’s alright – it’s alright! If the porcelain of the sink were clay, it would have ten deep impressions from his iron squeeze. But instead of secret pleas being vanquished, a kitchen chair was pushed into the table and rapid steps headed for the hallway.
“Bob!” Mark blurted out, his had towards the boy as if to grasp him away from some deep precipice. “Bob, son, let me talk to you.” Small tears had formed in his Tyrone-Power-eyes, and somehow the strong smell of spinach, mash potatoes and rich gravy was so, so out of place as they now sat forlornly under the dull fluorescent ceiling light.
Bob Bellinger just stood there before his father. Tall, somewhat lanky, his hair draped over his shoulders, a look of feigned exasperation on his face, partially recognizing the urge within himself to do the duty he was neglecting to do. He fidgeted on the ruffled cuffs of his Victorian short; oh, how obnoxious it appeared up against his faded jeans; old, whitened jeans that protruded from the bottom of his gown.
“Not now, Father.” He said softly.
“I want to go, Pop!”
Again, a small but deadly manipulative silence filled the room forcefully touching all those in the room.
“You just can’t do this, walk away,’’ Mark flipped his hand in the air. He glanced over at his wife who had a look of growing sick anticipation, “Things have been said! I need to explain. Please!” Mark’s wife just looked at him, shockingly sedate and surprisingly serene, lipping the rim of her coffee cup.
The boy lowered his head and swiftly turned down the hallway to the coatrack and jacket. Mark raced through the kitchen doorway; the light threw a long, slender shadow that reached to the front door.
“Stop, son, let’s talk!”
The boy only gave the usual exasperated look, swished the jacket onto his back, pausing:
“See you later, Mom!” Bob jerked the door open and headed out into a continuing, somewhat subdued fray of lightning. The door shut with a clump.
The Grandfather-clock seemed unmoved, undisturbed by the household activity.
Mark noticed that the Sun had set, and the temperature had dropped significantly. He stood still for a moment, filled with the solemn silence of the moment as he glared at this shadow. He made a tight fist, then relaxed his fingers again. There was a clank as his wife set her coffee cup down to the saucer.
“Well, better get the dishes.’’ His wife voice was a vote for resumption of daily routine.
The panic within Mark was somehow fortuitously held at a subdued level but he knew it would somehow evolve into a barrage of words any second. He slipped back into the kitchen light.
“Clarisse – honey – talk to me! It’s not right!” How could he describe the tense knot in his stomach and what it meant emotionally? Nor was he able to explain the thousands of little prickling sensations of pain rushing up and down his flesh. His body cried out for justice.
“Go on, talk.’’ The drabness of her voice was as deadly and metallically cold as the lovely strains of her Cole-Dark hair that ran across her shoulders, down her neck all the way to the middle of her back. She ventured to the sink and moved the few dishes deposited there in the water. When she pushed the facet handle tight, drops of water still leaked through causing a lonely ‘drip-drip-drip’ adding to the solemn quiet. Mark’s throat was sore from emotion: ‘‘Can I be that bad?”
“Tell me, honey!”
“Talk to me – talk!” It was torture: his very being cried out for help.
“What about?” She quickly moved to the table, gathering dishes for the sink.
“Are you happy with things this way? Do you take delight in knowing that your son hates his father? What’s going on here, anyway?”
Mark’s thinking was a maze of confused. He had the impulse to run out into the rain: washing the frustration and hurt like just so much dirty muck out of his system.
She stopped her trips across the kitchen floor, holding a ‘mash-potato-caked’ tablespoon limply in her hand, then coming to a military ‘attention’: “You are what’s wrong!” She quickly continued her march.
“Your nothing but a big overgrown brute!”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that!”
“That’s not fair. W….w….what specifically are you talking about?”
“Everything? Clarisse, what are you saying, you’ve never said that before?”
“Money. You’re tight. We can’t even spare a dime for a candy-bar around here!”
“Clarisse! You have this house—ah! You…you have plenty of cloths. I don’t understand!’’ The knot in his stomach continued to twist and churn.
“Work! You need to quit your job! You want your wife to work; you are plain lazy!”
‘Lazy!’’ his voice exploded. “What, are you nuts….?”
“Ya! I’m nuts! Stark-raving-mad! Thanks a lot!”
“Oh, honey, don’t confuse things – I’ve got problems at work. Today, I wanted to talk, to…to…ask your help about…”
“All you want, mister, is to drive people batty!”
“Stop it, Clarisse! You make me sound terrible. That’s lousy! Let’s be fair!’’
“Fair!” she sardonically laughed.
“I love you and the kid.” This was awful, Mark thought, grabbing his hair and yanking on it. He gritted his teeth.
“You wanted to get rid of us all along.’’ Clarisse smirked.
Mark was beginning to think of his sanity holding intact in this Kafkaesque game.
“That’s crazy! Crazy! We’ve got problems, but Clarisse, we’ve had good times. We had fun, Clarisse…”
“Ho, boy!” She leaned her head back now and then to project her words to him. She had slipped her shoe from one foot and was messaging the other with it: was she enjoying this? “We can’t get up and go to sleep without getting permission from our Lord and king, Master Bellinger!”
You’re wanted to be cruel, thought Mark, you’re wanting to be!
“It’s hard times, Clarisse. Terrible things are happening. We must run a tight ship around here. You know that.” Silence from his mate. “All those laughing, hysterically silly people cabaret about the nation – their happiness is short-lived. You must have some long-range goals, a little disciplined….’’
“So, we can go around moping in tears like you?”
“Inflation has driven most the nation into poverty!”
Again, her sardonic smile, “That’s because you want to live like the poverty smut taking over the city, instead of moving out into the county, like I wanted to!”
Mark injected a slightly different view: “What’s wrong with this house! it was grandpa’s house! What a terrible thing to say about a wonderful gift from my Grand Pop! It was an upper-middle class house home at one time, you know.”
“And now, dear, it’s junk—in more ways than one,” she was running a wet kitchen cloth over the now cleared table.
“You’re confusing things, Clarisse! Darn you! Can’t you try to be helpful? Darn you, anyhow!”
“And damn you to hell, too!”
“You brazen little two-year-old!” This growingly grotesque slander had been too much for Mark, too darn much. Mark lunged forward at his wife, when swift jerks of her hand from her bent position revealed a dire look of hateful determination at her husband.
“Go on! Hit me, you monster! Hit me like you did before!”
Mark stopped dead. There was a sharp shooting pain in the back of his skull like bolts of electrical pings. Something like a huge, thick wall had been lowered in front of him. He was unable to move around it. He wrung his hands together, gritting his teeth, and then suddenly his submerged eyes burst into tears, and the corners of his mouth drew back into a painful sob.
“I didn’t plan this!” wretched Mark. “Oh, no! I didn’t plan this!”
Mark covered his face with his hands and felt himself fall back to the doorway, momentarily leaning against the wall, letting his chest fall into deep heaves till his muscles were sore.
It was almost as if his feet had a mind of their own as he lingered in the darkness of the hallway, he stumbled, swayed, and almost falling, and then he soon felt his nose against the cold glass of the front door.
It was lonely, a terrible loneliness that had become his companion and a reality. The darkness was lonely. The rain was lonely. The low rumble of the thunder and, now, infrequent flashes of lightning were— lonely.
Father! Father! He sobbed aloud again: Oh, Pop! What a misery your grandson must have been!
Mark’s hand slid gently across the veneer-wood of the tall clock. The strokes of its long pendulum could barely be made out in the dim light. He could feel the cool glass on its front and Mark rested his head upon it for a moment, as if were caressing an old friend.
Somewhere upstairs a light had been left on, probably in Bob’s room, for its rays could barely be seen on reflecting surfaces in the upstairs hallway and onto the wall. One’s eyes could move in the darkness till they came to rest on the thick siding doors to the downstairs front room; and it struck Mark majestically as if he were viewing the entrance to some ancient tomb: the analogy was absurd but the feeling was striking.
A unique chill ran through Mark as he approached the sliding doors; he touched them, momentarily listening to the cars splashing through the puddles on the street outside. He slowly pushed the huge door panels into their recesses, and a woody growl of sound came forth.
Mark fumbled his way into the room. The smell of musty old gray dust along with the invigorating smell of vinegar from the kitchen was a peculiar mixture. He glanced about the room; what a cemetery! He could feel his father’s presence there, almost as if he were sitting in his regular upholstered easy chair in the corner, his grandad looking at him casually, a small light smile on his aging but still pink lips. Grandpa appeared as he was in his late sixties. Whitened sideburns, and patches of dark on his hoary head. The smile would momentarily leave, fluctuating at times into a serious grimace—almost as if grandpa could see the aches in his grandson’s heart. Grandpa still fidgeted with the corner of the armrest, a usual habit of his that Mark had noticed during their many front-room discussions in year’s past.
Somehow these thoughts scared him, and Mark rushed to switch the small frontiers’-lamp on an end-table. The first thing that small amount of light revealed to his vision was the box! It sat smackdab in the middle of the room on an old wooden pedestal. It was obvious that Clarisse hadn’t been in the room to clean the for some time as a sizeable layer of dust covered it and most of the furniture.
Mark walked slowly over to the box. It was an ancient object; something you might find in an old cabin somewhere, during or before the civil war, or, even the Revolutionary War. Its metal parts were badly rusted. The lock and loop were a grisly red. Barely visible was a gold and silver trim, and a design of something like an American Eagle could be seen. It looked as if termites had attempted to invade the crypt at one time.
Mark ran his fingers gently over the side of the box. Though he had handled it before, it suddenly felt more significant to him this time. Grandpop! Something Grandpop left for us! Something special!
He let out a deep sigh: if only he could have made up to his granddad all that he had wanted to do. Mark glanced over into the partial cover of shadows.
“Oh, Grandpop,” he whispered, “what am I to do! Things are getting rougher all the time!’’
Mark was thinking, of course, of the vast economic and sociologic changes going on since his granddad died ten years beforehand. He and his grandfather spoke openly about some of the coming trends. He was thinking about some of the wild kids running around the neighborhoods beating-up everybody on sight. Half of them were brazen, loud-mouthed homosexuals. The other half were nothing but freaks who had marvelous means of inhibiting and ‘handcuffing’ the police whose severely limited capabilities were bought-on by the various radical ‘civil liberties’ of groups that had sprung-up-out-nowhere seemingly overnight.
The communal tribal life of people had finally arrived. It first was a few excited isolated ‘communities,’ but with the passing of Supreme Court laws, whole city blocks were rented and designated ‘A,’ ‘B,’ and consecutive letters, and soon numbers like 184, 185, till the cities became thriving ‘free-for-all’ areas of living causing havoc with real-estate and Credit businesses, the new census polls, and schooling. Delinquency would no longer be traced back to ‘families,’ only back to the ‘community,’ and the ‘community’ had an abysmal way of avoiding all responsibility.
So, with Dad and Mom being nothing but murky, changing figures and faces, the youngsters became nothing but a wild, undisciplined herd of animals.
The police department surrendered to the National Guard; eventually, the National Guard surrendered to the ‘people!’ The ‘people’ told the ‘peace officers’ when ‘when-to-and-when-not-to.’ It became so difficult , so enmeshed in red tape, that finally it was simpler to ‘brush’ a dead body under a rug and then call “the law.” Was he your husband? Well, there’s always another man. Was she only a mate? It was never too late to find another.
Libraries became the property of the ‘Liberated Peoples,’ and Oriental-Asian-type nomads, descendants of the contemporary ‘hippies,’ that made quick business of using them as “Outposts.” It was crazy! It was nuts! But inevitably, books were burned in protest in one town, and soon spread as a ‘fad’ through the states. Magazines were “narrowed-down” to a few who adhered to the “New Age-Politic.”
It was a society that had sprung-up over-night and with surprising fury, for even its far-reaching effects couldn’t be seen by everyone, everywhere. The Nazi swastikas, the witches’ lore and ‘bent cross,’ plus other pagan symbolism, again became common. Everything was quite contemporary, yet quite ancient and fantastic.
In New York City, a recent poll indicated that the ‘red’ Communist Party was inadvertently ‘in power.’ The traditional mafia had some of its tentacles into the matrix as well. And there was even talk that the Russians had postponed an “invasion” because of the rapid success of the American Communist Party; we’ll give them another five years, the mighty ‘Bear’ said.
But above all this, the city of Yorkshire stood out in comparative peace. The Liberated Peoples’ movement had gained access to only perhaps 15% of the City and 8% of the County. And not everyone had convinced themselves that they had what it took to drop old values and step-in with the new; at least, not yet, all the way!
The trends were well-set, Grandpop Bellinger had said one night, sitting in that very armchair. It was already upon them; and that was ten years ago, recalled Mark (who had become tentatively content with the weak ideas that he and his family had not yet, despite the tragedy in their pasts, succumbed to the New Age altogether).
Mark shook his head. His hand could feel the small, corroded keyhole in the lock of the box.
What would money do? Sure, we needed it, he said to himself, but he wasn’t sure that it would help. It’s meaning and purpose would be twisted and pulled around beyond all recognition, and in the end, Clarisse would swear up and down that it was some diabolical misuse on his part. It always happens. But, oh, they could use the money. They could move…
Move! To where? And who could save that it was money in the box?
Maybe it was blood and guts! Perhaps Grandpa Bellinger had fallen before the weight of the cascading wickedness about him and wanted to play a hellish joke! Maybe he, too, dabbled in the back rooms of the university laboratories, the same as the strange ‘people;’ trying to create Frankenstein’s! And here, as a last weary tribute to a forgotten page of history and a nostalgic way of life, were the actual entombed bits and pieces of that life itself. Blood and guts!
Oh, what a hellish thought cried Mark inwardly, shame on myself, grandpa, forgive me!
Then, though, who could say – who would say?
Mark listened to the drizzle of the enduring rain hitting on the two large front-room windows. Every now and then the shades would light up in a faint headlight glow as a car passed-by.
Dull clinks and clanks rolled into the front room from the kitchen as Clarisse washed the rest of the dishes. Mark sighed deeply again, continuing to rub the box. It almost was polished from his incessant handling. He reached for a cigarette out of his pack. It had been years since they’ve had a cancer warning in the news media, he thought, holding the white cigarette cylinder before him. He lit it quickly and blew a heavy puff of smoke over the box. Then he slowly backed away and set into the thick, padded armchair.
Mark could imagine his wife at the kitchen sink, where he had often watched her gracefully at work under the dim kitchen-window-light. She was lovely, thought Mark, somewhat petite and thin, but very shapely with rich, sleek auburn hair that gently cascade about her shoulders and down her back, smooth and lovely ankles that were accentuated by delicate, sensually bulging calves. Even in an old mini skirt (the modern housedress) she had beauty; a beauty that even her small breasts couldn’t detract-from; after all, thought Mark, they had fed two babies; a lovely boy and his sweet little daughter.
Mark’s throat choked again. It had been some time since he thought of his daughter. He loved his daughter, despite the animosity that somehow existed between them. And he knew, too, that he loved his wife; yet, their lives were such a panic at times. And his wife could be so devilish! But then, thought Mark, she was not so nice to some others all the time either. Oh, what was the answer? How did they get into such a mess? An early marriage? A child out of wedlock? A punk kid with no formal schooling? Yes, sure, all that was correct, he confessed; but then, there seemed to be more.
Mark gave another thick sigh. “Oh, Clarisse! If we could only step beating each other over the head!”
His chest still hurt but he had stopped his crying. He just wanted to relax the tension and frustration. Relax! Let every muscle ripple loose and flow into a magical state. Relax. Relax.
He puffed the cigarette again. Smoke gradually filled the air. “The key,’’ Mark whispered, “Grandpop’s key! Let me think. Think!”
The box sat immobile in its mute witnessing. A museum piece in a crypt from out of the turn of the century; my, how time flies.
Mark closed his eyes. His eyes felt heavy and sore. He placed the cigarette in an ashtray, and he was thinking of the place his granddad may have kept a key.
Soon his olive complexion erased its wrinkles and a serene look of peace passed over it slowly. His head slumped to one side. The rain had stopped. Distant rumbles could be heard in far parts of the city. Mark Bellinger had surreptitiously fallen asleep.
Soon following, Clarisse decided to sleuth the situation on Mark’s whereabouts. Her expression was suave and noncommittal. She walked over and turned the lamp off without saying a word to her husband. Then she climbed the stairs.
Mark didn’t hear the melodious chimes of the Grandfather Clock announcing that the hour had arrived. Neither did it cause the clock to change its routine. It only said:
A steady stream of clear day light came through the curtain on the big front door. It lit-up the parlor delightfully but not in the full burst-light of noon time. There was a vague, dull overcast outside, but it didn’t deter the squall of the blue jays. One could hear the coo of pigeons on the roof and the crisp chirps of those hundreds of little brown birds that seemed to be imperceptibly everywhere. There was a steady rustle of the autumn leaves causing a placid, dim sound, like a waterfall off in the distance.
Every now and then, a silhouette would pass down before the front door in a swirling, rocking motion as several more leaves came off their parent tree to join the companion blanket on the ground.
The quick, rocky ‘putter’ and rumble of an automobile was heard as it raced by the front of the house — and then another going in the opposite way. Only the Grandfather’s Clock made the sole conversation in the autumn afternoon symphony: its choice of words never changed.
The someone scampered up the wooden steps to the house; Rather briskly turning the door, turning the nob once, hesitating, and then going back to the steps, and sat down. He sat there and made no motion for a long while. Only the ‘chee-chee’ of a bird indicated that someone was aware of the person’s presence. When minutes had passed, the person got up, quickly opened the door, and holding its edge, peered in.
It was Bob Bellinger. He looked fazed, like he had the flu or a bad cold. There was no doubt that he was troubled about something.
“Mom!” he called, glancing back and forth through the house. He listened for an answer. “Mom!” Still no response.
This prompted him to come and shut the door. It quickly dulled the whine of a jet’s after-burner overhead.
Bob peered into the kitchen. No one. And no one was in the Sunroom. Upstairs?
Apparently, not, thought Bob, they surely would have answered by now.
He gave a short sigh, whipped the thin layer of sweat from the palms of his hands onto the stripped pants (pants designed by the elite of homosexual clothing designers). He started for the stairs – but suddenly stopped. He glanced for at the heavy sliding doors to the front room and felt a sudden compulsion to go in. Why, he didn’t really know, but within seconds he had the doors pated enough for him to pass through. He just stood there for a moment, casually scrutinizing the alien sight.
It wasn’t too often that he had spent any amount of appreciable time in the front room, it seemed so odd and outlandish. And for the most part, the heating was shut off there to help to reduce the heating bill — this was denoted by a sudden draft that wafted past him. Bob pushed aside the doors.
But still, it was quant, thought Bob, something nostalgic and reassuring. A symbol — a symbol out of the past of never-changing values – of permanence and even loyalty. As loyal as the musty old chopped and unlit wood in the fireplace; it hadn’t been disturbed in any great degree since Grandpa Bellinger died.
Bob shivered. His complexion was still flu-like. He let his hands slide from the edges of the thick doors to his sides with a notifiable tap: he rubbed the brightly decorated, thin satin material of his trousers, as if attempting to warm himself. The necklace around his throat was brassy but still distinctly appealing in color. His skintight, evenly creased trousers were the latest style among the ‘Ultras,’ a faction of the Liberated Peoples of America.
And, boy, did he need some reassuring!
How could such ominous yet commonplace things have happened so spontaneously and yet present so many difficulties? He wasn’t even sure it was happening! And Sherell, he thought in utter amazement, was giving him some fantastic doctrine about doing it ‘the correct way!’
Sickening, he thought, yet, there still existed laws that bound a man to marry a woman with children resulting, and the one party, usually the female, wanted to consummate the union because of children.
Such an anarchic law! Who paid any attention to this, any longer? And above all, why, in the world would Sherell – a princess-maiden in the American Liberated Peoples – pull-off something like that?
Bob just shook his head dejectedly at the floor, churning his fingers into his palm, all emphasized by the gulp of his larynx. In the next instance, his thoughts had become too overpoweringly bewildering. He shook his head again, and ‘swooned’ the few feet to the sofa, falling onto it, allowing his head to finally rest.
He peered up into the old venetian-blinds. Light streamed faintly though them making zebra strips across his face. Apparently, Mom had felt compassion towards the old place, for she had, almost despite herself, replaced the yellowed shades and the crinkled, bent venetian blinds, with brand-new ones. It probably took some effort to break-away from daily daydreaming to do that toil.
He slowly lifted his head; his vision was confronted by the old wooden box, situated no more than three feet from him.
“Boy! How can everything go so wacky?” he said aloud to himself, and suddenly he realized he must tell his parents about the cryptic happening, the sooner the better, he told himself. But how? Dad was out of the question, he reasoned, he could not bear to approach him. But what was more frightening, Bob Bellinger acknowledged, he wasn’t so sure his Mother would react according to his preconceived notion of what should happen.
Ah, Mom was a swell cooky, Bob thought, and she had many ‘swinging’ ideas. Bob Bellinger gave a wicked little smile: Ideas that would even have blown the top of Grand Pop’s head off. Oh yes, Mom had shared some of the current scenes: the ‘blood-runs’ outside the City Limits; the Rati-Tals; the various ‘New Age’ magazines and newspapers. She wasn’t completely alien to Bob’s private world. Perhaps she would understand. Perhaps. It was a secondary thought, but one of weird comfort, nonetheless.
“There will be help. Maybe, just maybe, things aren’t as bad as they seem. If I’ve known that stupid girl would pull something like that,” continued Bob in his dramatic thinking, “I’d would have dropped her long ago.”
He just shook his head again; it was useless to go on in this panic-like way. Mom would be home any minute.
He glanced at the old Grandfather Clock, the face of which peered at him incessantly, ticking off minutes and seconds like eternity dispensing through a box.
His eyes fell upon the decrepit construction of wood before him. He slowly lifted himself off the soft springy sofa and reached for the box. He noticed fingerprint smears over its polished surface. Mom had a remarkable job of cleaning and polishing the old relic, what a souvenir it had become. But ‘why,’ asked the rather stern-looking teenager, didn’t they open it? A hammer, crowbar, or axe – anything would do.
“Silly,” he whispered. He glanced around the room at the antique and vintage furniture, “dumb, crazy, idiocy,” he eyed the old fireplace, “nuts, gooney, stupid…” It wasn’t helping any. He dropped his hands down at his sides and looked back at the box. The afternoon stillness grew upon him.
And then his heart spiked, and immediately began to pound — someone was coming up the porch steps.
He tightened his forefinger onto the box. His throat went dry. A key turned in the door lock. There was the rustle of a paper bag, and soon his mother appeared in the parlor, headed towards the kitchen.
“Mom!” the words came out suddenly, almost unexpectantly. The fear that had been rising in him was coming to a quick peak.
Clarisee backed-up till she was in the middle of the doorway. She had a satin scarf about her head, and her slender arms looked strained under the load of groceries she was holding. It pinned her knit sweater up to her elbows. She looked at her son questioningly.
“Home from the scatter lands already, Bob?”
Bob was momentarily lost for words, and his mouth was gapped a space. His eyes rolled over the strained stance of his mother.
“Ah, yes, Mom.”
“No instructor today?”
“Yes, no instructor.”
“Boy,” she shook her head and smiled, “school sure has changed since my day. Didn’t one of the kids get up in front of the class and teach? They usually do that, don’t they?”
“Yes, Mom. Mom,” his voice picked up a slight sense of urgency, “could I talk to you?”
There. He was well on his way. It would be out in the open any minute now.
Clarisee’s forehead wrinkled slightly, “Sure, Bob. What’s wrong?’’
“Here, set the groceries down,” he approached her taking the bag and setting it on the sofa. Clarisee untied the knot of her scarf, whipped it off her head into her pocket. She shook her head, letting her hair fan out round her shoulders. There was a strong scent of beer on her breath. Dad had given up years ago to fight her lavishing alcohol; but it had led to their share of conflicts, thought the boy, and — well — maybe she’s just relaxed enough to take his message smiling.
“Well, go on.” There was an element of suspicion in her voice.
“Sit down, Mom.” Bob’s voice had turned somewhat somber. He pointed to the sofa for her to set as he turned to the musty old armchair. There was the perpetual chill to the room. It was almost as if the logs in the fireplace should have sprouted into flames out of desperation. But, instead, the unending sweeps of the pendulum of grandfather’s clock; the rustle of leaves along the street outside; and the forlorn melody of a popular song from someone’s stereo down the way, all indicted the unchanging seriousness of the moment.
Bob’s mother’s large brown eyes held the face of the boy seriously, who, now, nervously groped for words. She squirmed. Then crossed her legs in anxious suspicion.
“Mom. Promise you’ll try and understand that what I tell you is something that ‘can’ be handled.”
“Mom, I am sorry but Sherell Getigard…’’
“Go on, Bob! What is it?”
“Well, she’s having a baby…’’ The words just fumbled out. It was no use to decorate them by proper tone or volume of voice. Bob Bellinger felt suddenly nihilistic and just wanted time to ‘pass’ in a swift fashion; perhaps the universe would melt away.
(The shocked expression on his mother’s face didn’t change for a few seconds. Her lips were pressed together firmly and slightly wet. Her eyes didn’t move. She just sat looking at her son in a skillfully subdued moment of panic. She perhaps wanted to cry but something much deeper than fear flashed before her now; and for that moment, she saw, again, the flashing red signal atop the ambulance in front of the house: it was then that the neighborhood had gathered before the white picket fence — Mark Bellinger was holding the door aside in desperate urgency while white-smocked attendants handled the wheeled stretcher down the steps out to the sidewalk. Heavy sobs and an occasional sequel echoed from his wife’s throat as Mark pathetically hung onto the sides of the stretcher.
She remembered the heavy lines on the face of a father who had just lost a baby daughter, seeing Mark standing there in the flashing light sweeping through the dark night, falling on his solemn and painful countenance.)
“A baby?” she spoke painfully.
“A baby, Mom” answered Bob Bellinger, and she just as well had said ‘what’s new?’ – thought the boy – for all the fashion she was reacting to it.
Clarisee lowered her head slightly, turning it aside, and grabbed the bag of groceries.
“I’ll put these away.”
She hesitated only momentarily, and then rose slowly to head into the kitchen. Bob sat nervously in the chair, fidgeting on its upholstery.
A moment later, a strange howl rose from the kitchen — an almost agonizing whimper: a lonely, low scream, an agonizing moan of desperation, came from Bob’s mother.
Bob wished he could run; run quickly, immediately and without any responsibility or recollection as to what was happening. But as the voice of his mother shrouded his very being, he knew it was hopeless; and Bob knew she was crying for more than just any baby.
Amongst the ‘Liberated Peoples,’ and large segments of the American populace, children were far and few between. It wasn’t a need to curb the rise of venereal disease, but, moreover, it had justly become a look for more restrains for ‘lusty independence.’
When the ranks of the ‘LP’ decreased because of such regulatory and medical concerns, an added maneuver was instigated to bring about a second generation of children, prospectively trained and drilled in the Liberate People’s philosophy: the result was ‘Babylon,’ and children were mere chess pons on a diabolical chessboard.
Mass abortion was common, even the ‘Law’ in some cities. But more fantastic, there were rumors of ‘child sacrifice’ in some segments of the decadent society. How it came about was uncertain; but where power and prestige were at stake, anything was possible — even in a democracy of a neo-utopian-sophisticated-America.
And there where those, suspended in a limbo of confusion, who had not yet accepted the growing fads and trends of the new “Utopia.” Some were still single-minded – and aware of the sanctity of children. Some still cried when they died, and still fewer worried what would happen when they grew older.
It was baby ‘Margaret Ann’ that Bob’s mother was crying about, thought Bob, and in a sudden moment, a vast panorama of grisly gangs of punk kids; orgiastic pranks in darkened avenues; and the whole scope of his earlier private delinquency passed before his mind’s eye.
He quickly brought a hand across his face, and he, too, began to cry in hard, deli berate sobs and chokes.
“Oh, baby Ann,” he sobbed, “oh, baby Ann!”
Through watered eyes, Bob tried to drink-in every ancient and comfortable sight in the room. He was thinking, at one time the bookshelf held classic novels and stylish, contemporary stories, but now only a stack of the latest LP publications sat there, worn, and well read, but triumphantly quiet.
There was the old phonograph, dusty but useable, setting silently in one corner. The melodies that were played on it were something out of another world altogether; what was the one name — Glenn Miller?
A world that believed in fresh roses, goldenrod, and ragweed that once was placed on the tables throughout the room. A world that was as eloquent as the yellowed chandelier hanging from the ceiling…as majestic as the old Grandfather Clock…yes, a world as ancient and romantic as…as…
As the old wooden box setting in the middle of the room!
Bob rose from the chair and reached for the box. He pressed his fingers tightly onto its surface again, and then quickly turned away from the pedestal.
Why were they living as they were? Actors in a surrealistic panorama? A phantasmagoric drama?
Loud voices could be heard outside, about a block’s distance away. Chatting, singing and a general grumble came from a large crowd.
Bob Bellinger slowly made his way from the chilly room into the hallway. He glanced at the dignified sweeps of the pendulum in the masterly face of the Grandfather Clock, as he went about opening the thick front door.
He cursed at himself, suddenly, as he peered outside — he cursed at his stupidity and jeered at the impending doom about him: over the trees and housetops across the street, in the distant horizon, was a deep glow, a rosy, pink vapor enveloped amid thick black fringes and edges: somewhere buildings were burning; somewhere property was being destroyed.
Soon, a parade of screaming, jeering, chanting long-haired delinquents appeared. Youthful girls clad in plastic-like, clear one-piece jumpers made from the latest synthetic material in space flights, shielding their nude bodies from the cold about them. Many were carrying torches in their hands. Faces of boys and girls alike were contorted in savage teenage frivolity. Mouths were formed into large round ovals; it resembled an over-sized searching party who had gone out to get Frankenstein’s monster.
It was going to be a rough weekend.
“Bob, I don’t know what is going to happen. I just don’t know. I think, I might do crazy any minute.” It was the weak, sick voice of his mother. She was much smaller than her towering son, and she had to reach up to caress her boy higher on his lean back.
Bob could feel her moist cheek on his arm as the two peered out at the crowd passing in front of the front door window-curtain — the red infernal hovering on the horizon. His body shivered with a peculiar freight and pain.
“But I want you to go to your room,” she continued to speak firmly, “and I want you to stay there and not come out. You’ll tell your Father …no, I’ll tell your Father that you are sick. You’ll be in bed, too sick to see your Father.” She looked at her son with tearful eyes.
“Do you understand?”
Bob turned slowly, feeling the small hand of his Mother slink down his back.
It was a Johnson-Clark respirator that had been used on Baby Ann in the ambulance. Bob remembered the churning hum that emitted from somewhere inside the vented mechanism, and the red cross pasted on the side somehow stuck in his memory. A cross? He was not sure what it stood for; any more than he understood the real purpose for those round, heavy, brick, stone sculptured gothic structures the LP assembled as groups to practice their sundry rituals.
He walked towards the stairway. With painfully heavy steps, he crept up to the second floor. Then suddenly when he reached the landing — he raced down the upstairs hallway into his room, as his Mother had ordered.
Mark Bellinger had been such a dashing fellow, Clarisee was thinking, perhaps in a juvenile way, but he was the man-of-her-dreams. She had built her whole world around him in their teen-years. He was swell, good looking, muscular, and a man; how she needed some of that strength; beg, borrow or steal…
The parade of teenage libertines had left his street; only a bright red color filled the parlor hallway and door window, fading back and forth reflections as the furious flames fluctuated far out in the city.
The parlor clock chimed the hour, and the sound carried to other parts of the house, a sound that also seemed to dance about the patiently- waiting front room pedestal—–and the companion ‘box.’
The box—–it appeared stretched and out of focus—-being viewed through a female’s tear drop.
The light from the table lamp in the front room cast a cozy warmth into the parlor. It lit-up the face of the majestic Grandfather Clock, part of the front door, and the somewhat dirt-stained rug on the parlor floor.
It was pitch-dark outside, and the cold steady howl of the wind portrayed the winter’s coming intentions. The panes of the house-windows would vibrate forlornly under the wind’s persistent challenges, and every now and then, a gust of an additional turbulence would slash against the house, whipping it with snow and ice. In the light of the arched streetlamp on the sidewalk, one could barely make out the dazzling mounds and drifts of snow lying about. Tree branches were laden delicately with ridges of snow, and the silhouette of a large icicle could be seen protruding from the rim of the front porch, amidst an array of smaller icicles.
Nevertheless, it must have amused the Grandfather Clock immensely to be in the warmth of the house, as it just stood unalarmed and chanted its lullaby as it looked out over the passing vista of the household.
Mark Bellinger was busy about the old box. He had seen it sitting there long enough, and he had forsaken the idea of ever finding a key to fit the lock, if the lock was mechanical enough to even use.
Instead, he brought a hacksaw from the basement, and had placed the blade upon the corroded loop and was presently sawing it about a quarter of the way through.
But why was he prompted to such sudden action this evening? And why the drooped mouth and the sullen continuance? Was it just preoccupied worry about imaginary ‘blood and guts’ Grandpa Bellinger might have deposited-away to teach a cruel lesson? Perhaps, Mark’s grandfather had a few esoteric and cryptic tib-bits about his Grandson, Bob?
He did talk to the boy often – even when he had been arrested by the police for theft – and maybe the boy confided in the man more than they had thought: You know, “…here was the cruel information.” Ah, no, no! Grandpa Bellinger would have come right-out with it, right then and there.
But it was obvious that Mark was caught in a spastic web of deep thought – deep enough to prevent him from successfully completing his objective, for he would stop a few seconds and breathe deeply, his eyes agog, and looking dramatically at the box. And then he would move the saw a little more.
“I was a child once, just like Bob, like my wife, like millions of citizens. Now, I am a man,” Mark was instructing himself. “What is a man? What is a human being?”
In the silence of the cold night, footsteps were trudging the snow-covered sidewalk, making a crunching sound under the weight of the huddled form. The person quickly scamped-up the walkway to the house and pounded-up the wooden steps. A thick ridge of snow was knocked from the person’s boots onto the huge front door mat. Then suddenly —
‘Boy!” exclaimed Clarisee Bellinger, somewhat breathlessly, as she stepped into the vestibule, she shut the door with a big shiver. Mark froze still, quickly throwing the saw into the lap of the old armchair. He just stood there for a second looking at the fireplace. His heart pounded a little from the surprise.
Clarisee quickly dropped the coat off her back and proceeded to drop it over the coat rack. The fur cap followed just as quickly, and then she placed the goulashes and wet socks neatly into one corner. She stood by the old cast-iron radiator, barefoot, trying to grasp some warmth in the wavering air over its surface.
“Who’s in the front room?” she queried, trying to peer about the edge of the sliding door. A short silence followed.
“Just me, Clarisee.”
“Home early tonight? No overtime, eh, Mark?” Her conversation was unentertaining even though he attempted to be pleasant.
“Yes, honey, I’m home early tonight.” There certainly was no enthusiasm there.
The solemness of the remark sounded slightly peculiar to her, and she moved into the light of the front room doorway, her bare feet giving that sensuous ‘thud’ of a feminine walk. She stood there placing her weight to one side, outlining a shapely hip. The blurred redden appearance of her eyes and the heavy smell of Jack Daniel’s liquor rolled in waves to his nostrils, revealing that his wife had somehow left the Budweiser stage. Clarisee acted more sexually titillating when intoxicated, but Mark could help feel nothing but disgust. It was so brash, so careless of her; however, he held his peace.
“How come? Inventory over?” was her bland query.
“Yes, it’s over.” He said with a bit of sarcasm, and he turned to look at her. He casually walked over to the sofa and wearily slumped down onto its cushions.
“And you? I didn’t know you did your shopping today?”
Clarisee’s face went somewhat flush as if a forgotten moment flashed before her eyes, or an unspoken secret had been nearly disclosed. “Eh, no shopping. I – I – I just had something to take care of.”
“It’s cold out there,’ she exclaimed, trying quickly to change the subject, “feel my hands.’’ She approached her husband and rubbed her fingers over his cheeks. He dimly smiled.
“What in the world were you doing?” she asked, pointing to the metal filings on the table and floor.
“I’m going to open that darn thing,” he pointed a straight finger accusingly at the box.
“Why now? It’s been sitting there…”
“Clarisee,” he interrupted her with an outburst, “Clarisee, it’s happened!” His voice was filled with emotion.
“I’ve been fired!”
“And worse than that, Mr. Farrell has threatened that I’ll not be recommended for another job.” Mark didn’t really wish to, and he didn’t intend to, but his eyes rapidly filled with tears.
“But why?” his wife asked. “Why are they threatening you?”
He suddenly felt speechless, so he just shrugged his shoulders, looking somewhat desolate. Mark had been home long enough to change into an old knit sweater and casual trousers that lapped loosely around his legs. Perhaps he had worn these clothes trying to locate some form of comfort in doing so. His chin rested on his chest, and he looked directly at his slippers.
I cry too much, thought Mark, his eyes becoming increasingly watered. And what is Clarisee going to say, Mark asked himself, now that I need someone close – close at hand?
Clarisee straightened for a moment. A slightly worried look had come over his face, as she paced back and forth near the wooden pedestal in the middle of the room. She had a hard-time placing her thoughts appropriately on her husband now, and she found her thoughts were centered more on Jack Getigard – Sherell Getigard’s father.
Ever since the crisis that involved Bob and his girlfriend, Jack Getigard had been an understanding friend. Clarisee had been afraid to approach him about the problem at first. Apparently, Sherell had not confided in her father, and it was her mother who accompanied her in the intention of filing legal charges. But Jack Getigard spoke consolingly and assuredly – and then several visits had ensued, and several more, clandestinely, most private, and then….
Clarisee squished her eyes, biting her lower lip; Oh, boy! she thought, my, my, my, things are happening!
The wind buffeted the windows, and a whistling sound ensued around the house. The panes of glass in the room opposite the vestibule vibrated eerily.
Look at him, Clarisee jeered to herself, gazing analytically at her husband, like a child with his hands covering an embarrassed face. Jack Getigard wouldn’t act that way, not Jack!
She walked over to the fireplace and gazed aimlessly into it. Ah, what’s coming off, Mark, he yelled inwardly, you need help, I need help. Oh, if I could walk right out that door right now!
“What’s happening, Mark? I mean…things are getting so dog-gone confused.” I need someone to hold me, Clarisee secretly pleaded, someone to say the world is the same sweet country cottage I lived in as a girl.
“Your confused?” blurted out Mark. It was the wrong expression to use at that moment, but Mark had no idea as to what Clarisee had been thinking, ‘‘How do you think I feel? Eh, Clarisee? I’ve warned you. I’ve been telling you what would happen! Instead, all I’ve gotten back was a bunch of rotten names…now I want help!’
You want too much, thought Clarisee! She couldn’t help it; it was the way she felt at that moment. Mustering-up all the authority she could, she glared at her husband’s questioning face.
“You’ll get early tomorrow,” her words were slow and deliberate, “get dressed – and go look for another job! You understand? You’ll be a man and get out and find a job to support us!” It was hard to subdue the look of anger upon her petite face.
“Clarisee, don’t start that! Of course, I will! But you always start off on the same foot: I’m jut a dumb guy who just doesn’t do anything for you. I don’t understand how you can say that? Clarisee, honey, you’ve got a lot – really! This house! You’re not starving, you know!”
She rolled her eyes in disgust: “You’ll get up! Get dressed…”
“All right, cut it out! I don’t need that ! Not now, honey! Please…”
Clarisee mumbled the curse to herself and turned so Mark couldn’t hear the full expression.
Suddenly, the shrill ring of the telephone from the hall jerked the two to a sudden alert. It seemed to echo endlessly in the solitude of the large house. What’s that? Did the old parlor clock stop its relentless chant from the freight o the sound?
Exactly why, it would be hard to say, but Mark immediately raced to the phone before his wife reached it. When his hand was secure on the receiver, Clarisee froze in her tracks with a look of almost horror.
Oh no, Clarisee thought, oh no !
“Hello, Bellinger residence…who?…Sherell Getigard?…oh, yes, Bob’s girlfriend…I haven’t heard too much about you lately…what?…yes, go on, I’ll listen…”
It’s Sherell, Clarisee mumbled, what is she trying to do?
“What?…I can’t understand you…why are you crying?…Sherell?…Sherell?” Mark’s face took-on a placid expression, as if trying to fathom a deep cryptic message. His heart gave small thumps against his chest-growing-into-lead, as if a small animal were jabbing his breast with its feet.
He’s twisting the telephone cord, thought Clarisee, and he has a look of confusion and anxiety. What was he hearing? Oh, Mark, turn around and look at me! Look and see that my heart is hurting too! Oh, Mark, hang up! Hang up and come hold me!
“Yes…yes…a baby?…now, wait a minute, whose baby?…Sherell, Sherell, stop crying, I can’t understand you…yes, yes…yes…yes…oh, no…no, it’s notso!…angry?…Sherell, where’s your father?…yes, get him, please…”
Mark turned to look at his wife standing limply in the middle of the front room. His face had a peculiar exasperation, denoting the thunderous parade of thoughts running through his mind. Half of his body was cast in shadow causing an electric effect.
“Sherell Getigard,” the words just stumbled out, “she’s having a baby. Bob’s baby !” He looked as if he wanted to say more, but his lips stayed parted, his mouth dry, and he never continued more words; instead, his glaring eyes said all the words that were necessary.
Clarisee just tried to shake her head, her eyes stinging from the acidity of tears. Once again, those brown opals were filled to the brim like water filled and overflowing in a canister after an all-night rain.
Suddenly, she slumped to the floor, almost as if her legs had suddenly become stricken with paralysis, into a kneeling position, thrusting her hands over her face, and sobbing heavily into her palms.
Mark’s attention was suddenly snapped back to the conversation on the phone.
“What’s that?…he isn’t….he what?…who?…”
Again, a look of utter dismay came over Mark’s face like a cloud slowly covering a near beclouded moon. Astounded, he held the receiver away from his mouth as he clumsily formed words to his wife:
“She…she…she says to ask you ! You would know where the father is at,’’ Mark’s lips moved hesitantly, and his eyes squinted in deep puzzlement, “and that you had seen him earlier. That you would know!” She took her hands aware from her face, but did not say anything, only stared at the floor.
“Sherell!” There was deep panic in his voice. “Sherell, listen to me! Go find your father, you hear me? Find him, and you, your mother – all three – come here Immediately! immediately! Yes!…yes!” and then weakly, rotely, insincerely out of the range of the receiver as he hung up, ‘‘goodbye.’’
Mark stood immobile for a moment, then staggered back into the shadows and sat on the bottom of the stairway. He just kept shaking his head in steady succession. Eventually, he lifted his head, “Where’s Bob?’’
Hesitant at first, Clarisee made the insipid reply, “In his room.’’
“Bob!’ Mark called out a shrill command. Doggonit, this head aches, he swore silently! Pain!
A moment later a shadow appeared in the dim light cast -down the upstairs hallway. Bob gazed down at this father rubbing the pain in the back of his neck denoting his panic. Mark’s blank expression was hidden in the shadows. “Bob, come on down here!”
The boy said nothing but slowly descended the stairs. He passed his father, and when he had appeared in the light of the front room, it as plain that he was uncomfortable. He had been sleeping fully dressed his clothes were wrinkled and rugged. His face had a saddened drawn appearance; his hair ruffled and dislodged.
His mother was already seated on the sofa and was making faltering attempts to light a cigarette.
“Sit down, Bob,’’ his father gestured towards the sofa. Mark limped to the old armchair, as if attacked by insufferable boils – or maybe sore diseased muscles – or both – had suddenly seized his body: a body that seemed to have aged measurably within minutes. His throat gave a gruff crackle, as if to excuse the prickly salvia and its heavy warmth resting in his mouth.
Lost for words, they sat for a moment. The whistling wind about the house went racing at a furious pace. And every now and then the windows behind the sofa would bang under its force. The only solitary sign of warmth seemed to be the smoke-column rising from the cigarette Clarisee held precariously between her fingers.
Mark couldn’t discern the meanings on the faces of the two people before him. Either they, too, were filled with mutual hurt and bewilderment – or – or – the same old resentful indifference and hatred existed in each of them: ‘which?’ asked Mark secretly.
He rubbed his hands together tightly lacing the fingers between each other. That at least helped to abate that lump in his emotionally racked larynx. The panic within him had been gaining rapid momentum.
The sound of the whining wind outside suddenly resembled the heart rendering, distant, whimpering of a dog in pain. It drew his attention to the windows for a moment. A car had slowly passed down the snow-caked street, dredging its way along, with its headlights hitting the front room windows. It left the street with the constant ‘whirring’ of its tires all the way.
It only betrayed Mark’s utter frustration to find the proper words. In the silence of the room, he could feel that deep, heavy thud of his heart, a slight ringing was in his ears, and there was a deep pain behind his eyes along his temples; every time he gulped, the ache grew with the feverish fear of enveloping him.
“Bob!” Mark finally said, startling the young man sitting in fearful placidity. “What in the world is going on, son?” Mark shook his head painfully. “How about taking pity on this old man, eh? I can take a lot, but a lawsuit….from a bunch of legal gangsters…a baby…’’ He again was suddenly filled with emotion, rushing his hand to his mouth to ward-off a sob.
Clarisee dropped her blank look of numbed agony to flick the ashes off her cigarette. The she turned to her son.
“What is Sherell going to do, Bob? Does she still plan to get an attorney to file the complaint?’’
It’s not the right time, nor the right place, thought Bob. And perhaps dad wouldn’t like to hear what’s really been going on.
“Mom! Later! Please!”
“You might as well get it out in the open, Bob.’’
“Mom!’ pleaded the boy. He fidgeted with the thongs hanging limply from his feet. Finally, somewhat exasperated, he relinquished to the request.
“Dad, what I am about to say might sound strange, but try to remember, this has been going on for some time now.”
Now, Clarisee’s complexion took on a shade of pasty white from the drab pink that already resided there. The scanty vale of freckles that resided on her face became invisible altogether; and she suspected that she too was about to hear something altogether new – and perhaps frightening.
“When Sherell became pregnant, I didn’t think it very unusual, pop. After all, these things are happening quite regularly. I mean, the child could have been ‘sold’ to one of those full-fledged Liberated People’s regimes – and I might as well tell you – I’ve been trying to gain membership for some time now. Anyway, there are ways to handle this.”
Bob’s father just looked at him, wide-eyed, shaking his head. For a moment, Bob thought it was useless to keep talking, but he endeavored anyway. It would almost seem foolish to stop now.
“But when Sherell said that she wanted to marry, and to keep the baby,’’ he continued, “ I didn’t know how to handle that! I mean, Sherell never let on that she ever even anticipated doing such thing to me!”
His mother wearily forced her lips apart to peak. “Why, Bob, didn’t you use contraception?” Her large brown eyes seemed to be drooping somehow, and it was hard to carry on conversation.
“Why?’’ the boy refrained from commenting further for a moment, “I mean, gee, it is quite a thing to have a child. They are born, placed in a ‘circle group,’ and given care and guardians. I imagine, I’d see the kid quite regularly,’’
Are you serious? That’s all Mark could have thought to say. He wanted to scream something out to the boy but couldn’t.
Clarisee eyed the dirty, crinkled pole of Liberated People’s magazines on the shelf of the bookcase. She recalled reading several articles on the topic of children practices; but it was always in another part of town or a half-mile away; maybe only several blocks away that these happen…but…
Her ears had gone deaf for a moment. The words that were now rapidly tumbling out of the boy’s mouth were only silent vibrations to her. In a moment, the conversation will evolve to her. What will she have to say? And why did she alert the Getigard’s? Why did she not keep it a secret? Soon, there would be the sound of someone at the front door, and she realized that she didn’t have one idea of what to say. To say? It would be hell, she thought, for she would have to make a frightening decision!
Her vision slowly traveled over the old room. It passed over the partially lit parlor and the hypnotic sweeps of the Grandfather Clock pendulum; the pale, slightly yellowed, olden wallpaper displaying various colonial villages and wooded areas. A crack had developed in the wall, towards the ceiling, and a spider web could barely be seen at its apex. The dull light of the old floor lamp behind the antique armchair soon drew her attention, and then the rim of her husband blended into the scene, and she casually examined that familiar visage.
Oh, he’s trying to be serene, she thought! The poor guy, what in the world is going to happen? What can I do for him, anyway? Do I want to do anything? Ah, who cares? How hopeless, how utterly hopeless!
Mark’s sleek, shinning hair was accentuated by the glare of the floor lamp, and his face was split in a slicing contrast of light and shadow. Every now and then, his mouth would move to form words, and his lips would barely pull apart, as if a thin layer of glue impeded their movement. Multiple ridges ran across the dry surface, and the rugged appearance was only deflected by the small lines of wrinkles on his forehead. They were evenly and succinctly planted there by the heavy weight of words his son was now speaking.
“I thought you went out in the evenings to visit Sherell or a friend or two! Maybe you played basketball, or compared notes, you know, like I did when I was a kid!” Mark poked himself in the chest at this point. “Now you start all kinds of crazy talk about Eastern rituals, with long complicated phrases about Oriental Initiation. About…about…oh, gads, son…child sacrifice! Are you joking?’’
“Pop. I thought you knew it’s going on. I mean, what’s so strange? Mom knows…ah…ah…everybody…’’
“Everybody! Mom! Son, I haven’t read a book, seen a television broadcast, or read a legitimate newspaper since that cockeyed regime’ took over everything years ago. The last time I read a newspaper it was called the Tribune and its editor was Paul Darrell. Now, all I see lying about the streets are those bits of printed trash!” Mark indicated the magazines on the bookshelf, there lay pages of erratic faces and cartoons of blatant pornography and esoteric philosophies. “I suppose I’m still living in a world long passed, son. Why, I remember taking a stroll through a local park on a sunny day, and watching parents with children, who fed ducks. Now, it seems, all one thinks of when ‘the park’ is mentioned is horror and disgust.” Mark’s voice seemed to trail-off at the vision that paraded before him, heavily sensitive to those last few words.
“I don’t agree with everything that’s going on either, Pop. That’s why I – I — I want help.”
“Do you?” Mark’s voice was sarcastically quizzical.
“Do I?” the boy didn’t understand. He glanced suspiciously at his mother. “Tell the man, Mom, tell him that I can go to jail if this isn’t straightened out.”
Oh, how stupid, thought Clarisee, did anyone really care? Nothing was making sense, and everything seemed to suddenly swirl in the cesspool of humanoid confusion.
With one agonizing leave of her body, Clarisee lifted herself off the coach and made her way to the fireplace. She noticed that someone that someone had attempted to start the logs aflame at one time but had done an extremely poor job. Slowly, she stepped over to and opened the gas jets and then pressed the red button that ignited the fumes, shooting a burst of flame over the wood. Soon it would burn and send a graceful aroma and flummery of forest-perfume-fragrance into the chilly room.
Deep within the flames she could see the sun-caressed fields of wheat and clover that surrounded the old country cottage of her childhood. And beyond that was the small suntanned little girl that she recognized as herself. Yes, she was running swiftly after a beautiful Collie dog. And Clarisee’s heart leaped to run with that little girl!
The vision was suddenly cut short with the agonizing scowls of wind and snow outside the house.
“Bob, Bob, I keep seeing a little boy before me,” Mark’s stomach was catching up with the rest of itself in his mouth, “a little boy that had the sweetest smile. I used to hold and cuddle you, son.” His throat became thick, and he quickly cleared it. “I’d carry you around at the Zoo on those hot, sultry days, and we’d walk for blocks on end; go shopping on cold days….son, we need to get together again – in one piece!”
“Sure, Pop, but…”
“There’s a chasm. A big, dirty chasm that has descended between you and I, Bob, almost overnight.’’ Mark lowered his aching head to look at the floor for a moment, and then spoke more softly, “I – I – guess I’ve made mistakes. I did some lousy thinking at times, son. I suppose I’ve gotten desperate at times…’’
“Dad, Dad…I need your help! I…”
That’s strange, thought Clarisee, the boy is crying! I don’t recall ever hearing him, seeing him, act in such a way in front of his father lately: it almost sounds sincere, she told herself, without turning to look; for she too would see tht small four-year-old child stiffly sitting on the sofa looking wide-eyed at his Dad. But what was it that made it seem so incongruous? Perhaps it was the fact that Mark was, in her estimation, so unworthy of such loving glances. Darn it, why do I resent you do, Mark?
Clarisee bit her lip as he eyes filled with fluid; she hugged herself tightly. “Hold me, someone, hold me,’’ she barely said audibly, but it was the haunting visions that prevented comfort from forming before her minds’ eye.
“Oh, Bobby, son, I might be your idea of a perfect father – but I do care! I do care!”
“Let’s get this out in the open. Let’s get together, boy, and fight this thing!”
“Oh, Dad, where in the world do we start? I’m not even sure if the baby is alive…but if it is, can we bring it home with us?”
Mark was constantly whipping the sweat off his palms onto his trousers, he was at a loss for words. He feverishly glanced about the room, thinking, searching for something. And int the back of his mind was the almost imperceptible sound of a siren. The flashing light of an ambulance. A cry of a small baby. An agonizing whimper of an infant.
Springing to his feet, Mark began to pace the floor, his hands firmly entrenched in his pockets, toying with coins. A look of hysteria enveloped his wide-open-eyes, and he nervously ran a chaffed hand through his hair and then guided his hand back into its pocket-lair.
“Baby Ann,” he spoke softly at first, then he stopped and glared at his wife, “Baby Ann! Baby Ann!”
“What’s that?” came the voice from the wet face of Clarisee. She swung about to face him. He glanced at her quickly, and with no surprise, continued his pacing.
“Baby Ann,” he spoke just as softly at first, then he stopped and frowned at his wife, “Baby Ann! Baby Ann!”
“Oh, don’t shout!” Clarisee screamed back.
“Life, Clarisee! Love! That’s what that baby was! We’ve lost something, honey. It passed away quickly as that darling little baby.” Oh, Clarisee, he thought, can’t you understand? Oh, for goodness sake, woman, can’t you see?
“Don’t talk about Baby Ann! How dare you!”
“Ah, honey, please try to understand. Clarisee, we need to get together again. To be made whole.” He swung around to face his son, who was now standing, his face red with anguish, and two glistening tears on his cheeks.
“Bob, it can’t be straightened all at once, not tonight. But we’ll work on it, son. Believe me…” He unconsciously held his hand out.
The boy was caught off-guard for a moment. A bleak silence filled the room. Bob Bellinger glanced at the shaking hand, fingers stretched out to him. Seconds were swiftly passing, and the only sound was that of grunts barely emitting from the lips of the two.
Suddenly, dramatically, the boy plunged to the hand of his father! He grabbed it: It was warm, strong, and firm. The callouses he had achieved while he had worked at the government shipyards were still there at the base of his fingers. Mark grabbed his son about his back, and he embraced his cheek to his own, squeezing himself tight against the older man’s bosom. Then Mark cried! He cried like the four-year-old boy he once had been!
This is almost ecstatic joy, thought Mark, and he began to smile. He believed he could even laugh without much effort, if given more time. A laugh of love reclaimed. Oh, one giant step. The thin air at this height was exhilarating!
Then – the telephone rang! Mark, still smiling, released his son, to listen. The boy held onto the thick part of Mark’s arm.
The phone continued to ring incessantly.
“Oh, no!” cried Clarisee.
“What’s wrong?” innocently asked Mark.
“Oh, Mark, don’t answer it!” Clarisee raced to her husband. “Please, please, don’t answer it!”
The man looked down into his wife’s large brown eyes as they dramatically searched his face. A whole story had suddenly been written there. He was no longer smiling. His lips were straight and taunt; his face slowly lost all color.
The ringing of the phone not only was incessant but maddening!
“Why, Clarisee? Why shouldn’t I answer the phone?”
She brought her breast close to his body, and it seemed to Clarisee as if she would emerge into those two eyes of darkness.
“Because…because…I need help too, Mark. Mark, I … I…need you, too. Please!’
Her desperation was apparent, but of no avail. Mark slowly backed away from the two people looking somewhat aghast at him. A look of barely subdued horror was upon his wife’s pale features.
Mark’s hand groped behind him in the darkness until he felt the familiar coolness of the ceramic receiver. The shrill alarm of the telephone that had echoed insanely through the museum of a house stopped abruptly and the sudden silence came like the dead-end of a car crash.
The long cord lazily unraveled from the stairway booth and fell indifferently to the floor: Mark brought it apprehensively to his ear; tiny, almost imperceptible, beads of sweat had formed along his upper lip and forehead.
“Hel…hel…hello…Mr. Getigard?…yes…ah, yes…what?…your drunk!….I say, you’ve been drinking, man!…yes…yes!…is that right?…what?…how dare you, you, you!…shut up!…no!…no!…no!…”
Clarisee let the two hands that shielded her mouth beneath her wide-eyed expression slump to her sides. She turned her head aside as if in shame. The in an unexpected moment of compassion, Bob Bellinger stepped next to his mother, cradled her in his arms, and provided a nest in which she could rest her guilty sobs.
It was an agonizing reach, for Mark, to place the receiver back into its cradle. The sardonic chatter of Dave Getigard could be heard rippling tin-like from the phone still. Then it abruptly vanished.
Mark rubbed his stomach. A continued nausea had progressed and he had gained a serious headache. He knew he wasn’t thinking too clearly, but he also knew he needed to be left along…quickly. His body suddenly became gripped with an aching pain comparable to an attack of stomach influenza.
Mark touched Bob on the shoulder. “Please take your mother upstairs, Bob. It’s getting late. I’ve got a busy day ahead tomorrow. It looks like I’ll be pounding the street again, son. You old man lost his job today.’’ There, thought Mark, I made a complete unbroken sentence, statement, in fact, but I don’t know for how long I can keep such a steady voice.
“Oh no, Pop.”
Mark just nonchalantly waved his hand as a polite token of silence.
“Anyway, I’m feeling very tired. But Bob, we’ll talk tomorrow. Son, we’ll work something out. I don’t know exactly what, but something!” He squeezed his son affectionately on the shoulder.
The boy brought his mother up from the floor. The perpetually hidden ‘bat’ tattoo on the bottom of her foot relinquished its secret in the light of the fireplace. Bob slowly led her into the parlor shadows when her pleading voice resounded: “Mark, oh Mark!”
Mark looked sheepishly at her. He was feeling very sick. “All right – all right – dear – please – please – go upstairs. Get some rest. Enough. Enough. Enough for today.” Mark waved his hand sadly through the air.
Now Mark stood there in the mellow glow of the floor lamp, examining the box; he looked as if in a state of agitation and anguish. The flames of the fireplace lapped about the logs dutifully issuing the fragrance of the wood. Suddenly the room seemed filled with the invisible presence of Mark’s grandfather. He could sense that presence in the forest fragrance of the burning wood; the nostalgic crackling of its combustion accentuated by the cruel whistling of the wind, snow, and sleet outside, making the sweet features of the grandfather fill every corner of the musty old room. And suddenly, he realized how much he had needed his grandfather. His guidance. His encouragement. His – his – love.
He gripped the old box earnestly. He could almost feel his fingers slip across the heavy wood to the sides as if to grasp the contents beneath. First, a vision of a pulsating heart, alive, moist, and dripping, only kept active by a unique stimulation that Grandpa Bellinger mystically affixed to it. Yes, yes, Mark could hear the throbbing of it beneath the lid – then – then he felt its wet, smooth surface under his quivering grasp. No! Now it was documents, insurance policies, funds….
Mark gritted his teeth and squinched his eyes to halt off a cry of pain and anguish! He had cried too much. Too much.
Oh, granddad, what did you leave us in this box? What is it that you felt so important? Money? A special invention of yours as a token of affection/ Just what?
Mark’s chest began to heave deeply again.
I dare not cry! I dare not cry!
Mark raced for the saw nestled deep into the cushion crack of grandpa’s armchair. He grabbed it and swung back to the box, placing the blade into the grove of cut loop; he began to saw in even motions; now and then, Mark would stop and wipe the tears from blocking his vision. He continued to work the saw.
The Grandfather Clock urged him on like the drumbeats upon an ancient slave galley. “Loud, confound you, why are you so loud?” queried Mark. And why did his oar on that ship seem twice as heavy, twice as grueling? Ah, still the clock was masterfully authoritive.
It was almost something of a comfort, that synchronizing sound, thought Mark, as his breathing grew heavier denoting the near completion of his job. He again wiped the tears away.
“What’s in the box? What’s in grandpa’s box?”
His thumb was slightly scratched and drops of blood spread over the curve of his skin; but Mark tried to ignore it, swearing:
“The box! The box! Oh, God, open the box!”
Little more! Little more! “Bob, son, I love you. Oh, son, I am sorry, my boy, my baby. Oh dear! My baby! Oh gosh, oh my gosh! Get this darn thing open! Help me! Clarisee! Clarisee! Oh!”
Then, suddenly, the lock, almost unexpectantly, dangled for a moment in the eroded loop, and like a miniature drunkard, staggered off and fell to the pedestal, then to the carpet. The clock magically, triumphantly announced the beginning of the hour with vibrant, melodious chimes.
With fury, now, Mark flipped back the old lid on its scratchy hinges. He tearfully gazed upon a black ‘something’ – no, by the feel, it seemed like cardboard; like coarse hide – no – no – leather; the jacket of a – a – a book! Grandpa’s novel?
Mark tried to detect the greatly faded ‘gold’ lettering on the cover: O-L-I-E….ah, no, no, he couldn’t read it (“…darn, why do I cry so?”). “ The book must be ancient?’’
Swiftly he turned the cover back. “I can’t see,” he hysterically whispered between jagged sob of anguish. “I – I – can’t make it out! Granddad, I can’t see what it is!”
He tried to dilate his eyes trying to make better visibility. Then he ran his fingers over the smooth super-colander finish of the first page.
He would try to read. First column. First paragraph. It says…
“In a beginning created by the Alueim were the heavens and the earth. Yet the earth became a chaos and vacant, and the darkness as on the surface of the submerged chaos. Yet the spirit of the Alueim….”
Steve Erdmann – Independent Investigative Journalist