Donald Freed
International Playwright
and Master Teacher

 Chapter 12  A SHORT LIFE
  by Mitchell Ryan
     
 


          Genevieve walked up the steps of the small frame house, turned and watched Charles follow, step by step by step, until he reached the porch and sank into his rocking chair. His frail body hunched over, arms folded on his lap, he tried to rock, gave up, looked out into the night at a nearly full moon, and listened to the duet of locusts and crickets, one chop-chop, the other click-clicking.

         The air was soft as velvet. As Charles sat on his front porch, the fireflies in the side yard gave everything a special depth, reminding him of an outdoor Cincinnati beer garden he’d once visited. He knew he was forever complaining about what life had dealt him, but tonight he was grateful to be alive. He loved his yard, how green and lush it was most of the year, and now, tonight, this one night, well, maybe this is what life is about, being alive with the locusts and crickets and fireflies and the warm air. Just to be alive.  

         He was weak and surprised that the doctors had released him from the hospital. After a massive heart attack you’d think they would want him around. He had insurance. Oh, well, doctors … He looked at the rotting top porch step. Should get that fixed, he thought  … maybe do it myself. He shouldn’t have quit selling; it had been downhill after that. He missed driving from town to town—not the people so much, but the lonely two-lane blacktop roads, the old barns, rolling farms, and the sleepy hamlets that always featured a welcoming tavern or two.

         Back in the kitchen, Genevieve took a glass of cold water out of the refrigerator. Why had they let him go from the hospital after only four days? Doctor said he was fine and would do better at home, but Genevieve felt that it was because they wanted the bed. The terrible experience that night, before the police came, when she’d found him lying on the floor face down. At first she thought he was dead, but then he gagged and threw up. She had called the emergency police, cleaned up the mess, and held him until they came. And now, after four days, they sent him home. Well, doctors are supposed to know. “Do you want anything, Charles?”  Genevieve looked through the screen door.

         “No, I’m fine…. Come out and sit with me.”

          She made her way out and sat down on the top step. The light from the streetlamp fell over the porch. He studied her. She was putting on a little weight, and the thick red hair was streaked with gray. “Come and sit here,” he said, indicating the other chair.

         “This is fine. How do you feel?”

         “I think I feel better.” He put his hand on his chest.

 She leaned back on her elbows. Charles tried to rock and the chair moved a small squeak. They sat. Charles turned toward her. “It’s nice out, not too humid. The wisteria is full a little early.” He looked at her face in the dim light, hoping she would look toward him. “Hear the loon?”

         She looked out through the blue-gray light dotted with thousands of fireflies and listened to the slow scratch of his rocker. “Mitchie should be here sometime tonight, it’s what Maggie told me on Friday when she left.” She lit up a cigarette.  

         Charles took a careful breath, watching his wife smoke. “He’s twenty-seven years old, I would think you could stop calling him Mitchie.”

         “He had a ride part of the way and then was going to take the bus. I think he told her he would be here by Tuesday.” All that could be heard were the noises of the night and the silence in the distance between them. “He was doing a play and couldn’t leave until Monday morning. ‘The show must go on,’ they say," and she gave a chuckle with a hint of hysteria.

         “Don’t smoke around me.” 

         “Sorry.” She didn’t stop but instead pulled herself up and went down to the gate and looked out at the night. “I thought you were dead.”

He stopped rocking. She came back to the stoop. They sat there with the light from the streetlamp falling across the porch. He could only see her profile. After a while, “It was a good thing you came home, or else I would have been a goner.” He breathed a strained sigh. “When was Mitch here last, two years? Three?” Charles was irritated that he couldn't remember how long it had been.

 She waved the cigarette at the bugs. “Damn mosquitoes…. You ever wonder why he took up acting? Course, he would be artistic coming from my family. My father was something of a poet and could have been a good actor; he recited Shakespeare around the house and knew all the famous speeches.” A light breeze lifted a few strands of her hair. Charles grunted, “Yes, yes, we know, we know.” She got up again and went down and leaned on the front gate. “He was tall and very good-looking.”

“I thought your father was a drunk.”

“He died fifty years ago, and not from drink. Don’t worry, Charles, Mitchell got your handsome features, and my father’s height.”

They both turned to the loud hoot of the Ohio Valley loon. “He’s telling us to shut up.” Charles slowly creaked up and stood there on uncertain legs. “From Mitch’s letters it sounds like the boy is doing well. I think I’ll try to walk to the corner.” “Is that a good idea?”

                                       ***********

Mitchell smelled the gas fumes again as he boarded the Greyhound bus. Pittsburgh was the first leg of the trip back to Louisville. Yet another bus trip.

 The phone call from his sister: “Dad had a terrible heart attack. Mom wants us to come home.”

“Is he okay?”

 “He’s alive. The doctor said he might not recover.” 

 He might not recover. Louisville was the last place in the world he wanted to go, whether his father was dying or not. There was a vague feeling he had about his father, what, a wasted life? He thought of his own.

He tossed and stretched most of the way another bus trip that would take forever.

It was just getting dark when he left the Greyhound and took the city bus to Crescent Heights. Then he walked down through the darkening streets toward the house. Around the streetlights he watched the familiar swarm of beetles and moths, all diving and chirping like a crazed army of creatures from outer space. Walking slowly, his body relaxing, he marveled at his old friends the maples, lining the street. It had been five years since Mitch had been here, but it seemed longer. He sat down on the front step of Shanebacklers’ long walk and looked up through the trees. A marmalade cat came down the walk and rubbed against his arm. His mother had a marmalade cat when he was a boy. Feeling…feeling. He could have let himself go and indulge in this deep feeling of what? Loss. Instead he kept petting the cat. At last he stands and the cat complains. He laughs at the irony and walked on. 

 He stopped again, in the alley that ran down along the yard of his house. He could see his parents across the side yard sitting on the front porch. He waited. His dad was in his rocking chair. His mother on the step. Who were these two people? He fished out a cigarette, lit it, and thought about leaving. At that moment his dad rose up slowly and walked down the stairs, out the gate toward where Mitch stood in the shadows. His mother sat on the top step and watched. Should he run? The son waited. Didn’t think his father could see him as he barely shuffled forward. The last time he was here his father had seemed young and strong. They had had several arguments, and he left before he had intended to. All he could remember about his life in this house was arguing. When Charles came to the corner of the alley he stopped, looked at his son, and smiled. Mitch thought for a moment he was looking at an old man, a human being heading toward death. Then the old man’s smile faded and he became Mitch’s father. 

“Hi, Dad. You can’t be too bad, up and walking around. Maggie told me Mom said you were ‘near death’ in the hospital.”

          “Well, you know your mother. She was just hoping … I’m surprised you came. What are you doing in the alley?”

         “I think I’ll walk up to Miller’s and get some cigarettes. Be right back, unless you want to come.”

         “Let’s see how I do, son.” Mitch hadn’t heard “son” for a long time. Once upon a time it would have meant something. They walked on to the corner and turned up Cannons Lane toward Miller’s Drug. He looked back to see his mother watching from the porch. Neither of them spoke. The shuffle of Charles on the sidewalk was the only noise. Mitch staying beside him felt like a giant. When they reached the store, Charles fell onto the bench by the door. “Get me a lime Popsicle.” 

         “Not fudge royal?”

         “The doctor said no ice cream.”

         Mitch went in. There was Mr. Miller behind the counter. Everything the same as when he was a boy—the dingy mirror behind him, the little wooden half door to the pharmacy, all the drugstore items stacked on one side of the room and women’s cosmetics all down the other. Mr. Miller even looked the same, wearing the same shirt and green celluloid visor. “Mitchell, you’re home! My goodness, it’s wonderful to see you,” Mr. Miller beamed.

         “Yes, it’s nice to be home.” It sounded like a line from a bad movie. “Could I have a pack of Camels and a lime Popsicle?”

         “How are your folks?” I know your dad’s in the hospital.

         “No, he’s out. He must be okay, the Popsicle’s for him. He’s on the bench.”

         “He’s okay? That’s wonderful.” Another bad movie line from Mr. Miller this time. Mitch came out with the cigarettes and sat down next to his father, who took the Popsicle and began to struggle with the wrapper. “Let me help, Dad.”

         “I got it.” Mitch turned away. They both at that moment knew it all Why there was such a divide between them. They looked out across the street and railroad tracks to a sparse stand of trees. “All gone now. Remember the big woods when we first moved here? Look at it now.” 

          “I don’t remember much of those early years. Isn’t that strange? Why would I?”

          “Tell me what you've been up to. I understand that show business is a tough way to go.” Then flinging away the popsicle. “How come we never hear from you?”

         “I write from time to time.”

         “Christmas. You got some kind of a backup job to take care of things?”

         Mitch walked out to the road, still looking to the woods. "I do remember when I ran away to those woods and you called the cops.” 

         “I would never call the police. It’s not in my nature.”

         Mitch stared at him. “Dad, how bad is your condition? Five years ago you seemed young for your age; now you‘re having trouble walking.”

         “I’m not dead yet.” Mitch sits at the end of the bench. “Just a clogged artery. I need to rest and learn to eat right is all, and neither will be easy with your mother.” He struggles closer to his son on the bench. “The reason I asked you about a job and money is because sometimes …” It looked like he was trying to get his thoughts in order, and then he stammered on. “Just making ends meet can keep you from going after what you really want.” He stopped and half-heartedly sucked on the Popsicle. “I wanted to be a painter at one time …” He stopped again. “I loved to paint, still do, something about the smell of linseed oil and turpentine… Well, it just didn't work out that way. Money had to…money." He was having trouble breathing.

         “I know what I want, Dad.” Mitch stood up. “This is hardly the time for advice. Let’s go back. I think you need to be in bed.”

         Charles looked away, and they waited alone in front of the hissing neon sign in the drugstore window. Finally Charles, barely audible said,  “Go ahead and see your mother. I’ll be there in a minute.”

         “Don’t you think I should stay with you?”

         “No! Go, Goddamn it.”

         Mitch backed up and moved away.

                                                    ************

         Later, after his father had fallen asleep in the living room, Mitch listened to the click of his mother’s knitting needles and recognized the old look of rage on her face. But now there was also fear. Her hands trembled as she fumbled with the yarn.

         “What am I going to do when your …”

         “I’ll help you, Mother. Anyway, he’s not going to die.”

         “You’ll help?  When did you ever help?” Twisting the needles in her lap. “Nothing. You have done nothing to help this house. Ever! Your father worked at that rotten job for twenty-seven years. Then what? They let him go, fired him, and what did you do? You left town without a word. You’re too self-centered to work. All you do is play around with this theater business. You failed in school and they threw you out of the navy.” She began to cry.

         “Mother, I had to get to that job in Richmond, that’s why I left so fast.” He leaned on the mantle and looked down into the small grate, now black and empty. “I called and wrote the next week. You’re not being fair.”  

         “Fair! Nothing is fair. Do you think life is fair? Life is hard and stupid, and people are hard and stupid. If you won't stay and help, it's better if you don’t come around.”

         He went out and slammed the door.

         “What was that?” Charles shook awake from his chair by the fireplace.

         “Mitchell. He said he’d be back. Are you hungry?”

         “No…. I think I’ll go to bed.”

         It took Charles a long time to get undressed and into his pajamas. Everything came off with great effort. Genevieve wanted to help, but he wouldn’t let her. She brushed her hair and lay down on the bed, waiting.

         “I hope Mitch does well,” he said as he fell back on the bed. “People like him … he’s so friendly. He’s a good boy. Jesus, I’m tired.”

         “You shouldn’t have gone on that walk.”

         "It’s out of my hands. He’ll do what he has to, I suppose. Whatever he ends up doing, I hope he sticks it out. I wish to God I’d stayed with …” There was a long silence.

         ''Goodnight, Charles." She turned off the light. 

          He looked over at her face, soft in the light from the street, and wanted to tell his wife he loved her. The grip of fear took him, the thought of life seeping away. “‘That time of year thou mayst in me behold—when yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang upon those boughs which shake against the cold, bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang …’ What would we do without Shakespeare?”

         She opened her eyes. “Was that Shakespeare?”

         He was asleep.

        Mitch went to Shelly’s Bar and Grill at the corner. It had been there since he was a kid. Old man Shelly was now dead, but his son ran the place. Still the same, same smell and dingy lamps on every table with red shades— nothing ever changes. He had several drinks but didn’t want to get drunk, so he went for a walk around the neighborhood. When he was sure his parents would be asleep he returned to the house and quietly crept to the sofa and tried for sleep himself.

                                            *************

         Genevieve awoke—low moans then a long exhale of breath. Charles moved slightly then was still. The darkness was profound. Genevieve lay as quietly as she could remember, waiting for the next breath. It never came. In the silence, not allowing the possibility that he was dead to enter her mind, she heard the old house creaking and the wind rattling the windows. Those were the only sounds. Then suddenly she struck out at him, pushing him off the bed. “Goddamn you, Charles! Goddamn you!” The noise of the body hitting the floor horrified her. She ran around the bed, knelt, and took his heavy head in her lap. “Oh, Charles. She wept then, very quietly, saying through the tears, “Never, never, never, never, never. What would we do without Shakespeare?”

         Genevieve stayed holding him until it was light, and then she reached for a pillow and lowered his head onto it. She went to the living room and put Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 on the record player, cranked the handle, then sat on the sofa near to Mitch, who was sound asleep. She touched his back gently. He awoke and looked up to her.

“Your father is dead.” 

They both looked to the bedroom, then at each other.

“I’ll call sis,” Mitch said, sitting up.

“You better call Uncle Liam too.” Mitch put his arm around her. She lay her head on his shoulder.

After a while he disengaged from his mother and went to the phone. At the bedroom door he paused, then went in. He was startled to see his father on the floor. With great effort he got him back to the bed. Laying him down, Mitch folded his arms over his chest. In life he had never held him as much as he did now in death. White, peaceful face of a man he never knew. Trembling, he suddenly somehow understood that he was deeply related to this man his father, and all he was came from him. He wanted to tell him that. Would it always be too late? 

         After the funeral he stayed with his mother for several weeks. There was no sympathy, no charity, no feeling from him for her—behind the numbness there had to have been damned up a sea of emotion, but he could not locate it somehow. He finally got her to talk about meeting his father for the first time. Still Mitch was unmoved; nothing she said seemed to have any effect on him. He tried to understand if what she was telling him was in her writing. If he could get her to talk about the writing, that would be one step removed from her suppressed hysteria that was frightening him.  But she flatly refused. “It’s nothing to do with the way I feel, it’s just a book, Oh! Goddamn, I’m suffering, can’t you see.” She went into her alcove and slammed the door. He heard the sobbing. A deeply human conflict was stirring in him as he put his face on the door. He turned, and on the table by the bed he saw his parents’ wedding photo. Genevieve and Charles.  

         He walked slowly out to the front porch and stood feeling the nearly unbearable contradiction he had always felt from these two people. There was nothing in him that could open to a woman who had lost her husband and was alone in the world. No, he seemed isolated from the entire human condition and at the same time completely removed from any knowledge of his own condition. The pain was so deep he could not access it, and yet feeling this laceration of opposites was not to be borne, and all he wanted to do was run. Standing there looking out to the street he felt truly lost. His only relief was at the bar or the theater.

         He went to see Doug. The founder of the Carriage House Players was sitting in his little office at the theater. At the entryway Mitch watched as he sat in a disquieting slump and didn’t look up when the door was pushed aside. “You too, what’s the matter with people?” Then Doug noticed him and smiled. “My boy!” he said, overjoyed, and came to him with a warm hug. It was so full of love and goodwill that Mitch felt shame pricking at his tears. Mitch told him all he had been up to and never mentioned that his father had just died. Doug did not seem well himself, but the old man dismissed the question with a hardy laugh. “Meet me at Cunningham’s in an hour, and we can chew over old times.”

         Mitch went to see Gretchen. At her apartment a young woman told him that she had gotten married and moved to Maryland. Back at Cunningham’s, there was no Doug. He waited an hour, still nothing. Back to the theater, where all was locked. He realized he had no number for Doug and no information about any of the actors from five years before. Nothing in the phone book—several Rameys, but no Doug. Mitch returned three days in a row but there was no one to be seen. Suppressing the sense of betrayal, he decided to go back to New York. It was time.

         “I’m leaving.”

         His mother raised her head from her book. “Where?”

         “Back to Barter or New York. I’ll write and let you know.”

         “Good-bye. Yes, write. Wait, give me a kiss.” He moved to her and she raised her cheek.

         He left a letter for Doug in the theater mailbox and took the Greyhound to New York.