Sunday, December 23, 2007

Letters From Below

I find myself huddled amidst the cobwebs in the corner of an unfamiliar room, a room I used to call my own. My outline shrouded in eerie darkness, and rightfully so. It’s by the dim flicker of candlelight that I come here to deal with a relationship of neglect. Dusty photographs, edges yellowed and ragged, no match for the grinding wheels of time. Tired pictures only serve to remind of my dysfunctional existence, and can no longer be tolerated. In my present state, my vision is clear, no longer obstructed by mere cobwebs. Tonight I prepare to lay waste to the wretched past, no longer willing to bear the rusty shackles belonging to the prisoner I once was.

Desperately I clung to a vivid image of my mother, as her casket passed by, cold and gray, mirroring the low hanging sky. Clouds hung, like giant lumps of charcoal, momentarily swallowing the ground in stifling shades of murkiness. The pastor’s eloquently designed words of comfort fell far short of penetrating my painstakingly erected wall. His feeble attempts to describe the life of a woman he barely knew offended me, on my mother’s behalf. How could he have encompassed her wonderful thirty-eight years? He should have praised her adhesive nature, one capable of bonding together two completely opposite slices of humanity, as were my father and I.

Cole was a hard man, by even the most lenient definition. Proper etiquette required me to address him as, ‘sir’. There’s nothing wrong with a show of respect for an adult, especially a parent, but father never believed in earning respect, he simply extracted it by use of his heavy hand. Neither I nor my mother could escape the terrible wrath of those hands. No corner of the shack, we called home, could provide sufficient shelter. It was those hands, forged from years of toil in the coal mines that produced one alcohol-fueled blow after another. With each of his debilitating blows came the erasure of any admiration I ever had for the man.

Mother, the peacemaker, I believe out of desperation made excuses for his Neanderthal-like behavior. Only on one occasion did she confront him directly, and pitifully she wore the markings of that ill-advised challenge for some weeks. I recall that horrible day with ever-present pangs of guilt. That beating should have been mine, for it was my cause that my mother suffered so greatly.

She had been squirreling away any bit of cash she could earn, placing it inside a Mason jar, hidden atop a pantry shelf. She was saving every precious penny in hopes of buying me a guitar. Only my mother was aware of the love I possessed for music and performing, something a third-generation coal miner, could not then and would not ever, wrap his mind around. She carried another meager deposit to the nearly full jar, but was astonished to find it empty. My father never admitted his culpability in such a heinous crime, claiming the empty jar and his week long binge were purely coincidental. A man can forgive another for a great many things. Perhaps the stealing of money not belonging to oneself is one such pardonable offense, but the larceny of another man’s dreams shall never be forgiven wholly.

The day after my high school graduation was different somehow. It was the first time in my young life I actually believed I would escape from these mountains. I summoned the courage to make bold move. From deep inside the bowels of my soul seethed a repressed anger that surprised both my father and I.

With my bags packed for Nashville I approached my father, who was still comatose in his easy chair from the previous night’s bender. More than a dozen of his closest friends, albeit in the form of ‘Old Style’ cans, remained steadfastly by his side. Dismissing a fleeting thought of leaving him to sober, I instead chose to let him know of my decision. In good conscience I cannot relay the ensuing blue streak that flew from my father’s lips when he heard my news. Also I cannot find words that would accurately describe the rage that painted his groggy face, as he demanded I address him as ‘sir’.

With both fists doubled and ready for action I assumed a defensive stance. As I fought hard to keep my voice calm, my mind gave way to the repressed emotions of seventeen years.

“‘Sir’, is an indicator of respect, perhaps had I know the wonderful young man my mother fell in love with, I could do that, but that was before you climbed into the bottle! The shell of a man that sits before me has not earned my respect!”

Briefly he struggled with equilibrium before finding his feet, but one well-placed punch on that protruding square jaw sent him back to the comfort of his chair. He gripped the chair arm, his knuckles white and ready to dispense justice, but before he could respond or react I spewed my final words to my father.

“You go ahead and double up, but I’m telling you now, I ain’t no boy or defenseless woman to beat on as you please! I’ve got seventeen years of hurt and disappointment you never saw fit to deal with and I’m warning you now, if you make a move towards me you’re going to carry some of my pain with you for a long time!”

In retrospect my hasty actions and vengeful words brought me little comfort, yet they did allow me to make my necessary escape from these mountains. Insincere apologies during brief moments of sobriety couldn’t heal the open wounds, nor could ten years of separation and a successful music career in Nashville. Sadly I must confess I had no intension to ever return to this place I sit tonight, until I received a letter from a nurse that was caring for my father. Without this letter my deed would be incomplete. As I read it aloud once again, this particular setting seems more appropriate than I imagined.

Dear Walker,You don’t know now me personally, but I’m a nurse caring for your father during his last days. He expressed a desire to set things straight before moving on and begged me to transfer his words from a hand-scratched note. I’m sure you’re unaware that he was involved in an accident recently. He and four other miners were trapped in a collapse. Although they were successfully rescued after several days, your father’s sustained life threatening injures and will probably pass before you read this: Walker, I now find myself a prisoner in a world of dark, much the same as I held hostage your mother and yourself. There are so many things I need to apologize for. I’m sorry I left the empty Mason jar in the pantry, so many containers filled with hopes that I raided, but I’m proud of you son. I occasionally hear you sing one of your songs on the radio. I must go now, the air is getting scarce, but I’d like to make one last request. ‘Sir’, if you can find it in your heart, please visit my grave and sing me a song. For I don’t believe my destination will be the same as you and your mother; I fear I’m only trading one dark lonely place for another.

Unwanted tears streak down my face as I carefully place the letter beneath the photos. Striking a match, I touch it to the corner of the letter until a sufficient swirling of embers emerges. I diligently stand in place long enough to witness the ever widening flames as they creep up the curtains and engulf the wall. I pick up my guitar and make my way to the door of the shack, closing the squeaky screen door one final time. I take a seat on the edge of the rotten porch and begin to strum my guitar. I dismiss one final nagging thought; honoring my father’s last request. Perhaps some day I’ll be the bigger man, but for now I suppose my father and I are much alike.


“Tonight I’m lettin’ go
of all the painful dreams.
They’ve eaten through my soul;
moved on to tender things.

I’ve laid out all the wrongs
upon this wooden floor.
Tonight I’m burnin’ dreams
Slamming shut the open door.


I’ll burn the past tonight
that holds me back today.
I feel my soul atakin’ flight
It’s time I fly away.
I’ll burn the past tonight
that holds me back no more
I feel my soul atakin’ flight
from a past that haunts no more.


Bubba said...

Geez, Dan... this sounds like my own relationship with my father. He was a hard-drinking man from the coal mines of Kentucky. It wasn't until after his death that I learned to put my anger aside. I even wrote a story about it. If you'd like to read it, let me know and I'll send it to you.

Good story... packed with emotion.

Dan said...

Thanks Bob. I'd love to read you story. Small world, huh?

Bubba said...

Hi, Dan...

I like your re-write. I have a couple of suggestions that I'll make privately, not for correction; but for possible technique opportunities. Nice job...

HouseMouse said...

Fantastic story Dan! And, I see you've made a good contact with one of the best story tellers I've come across.. Good for you!

Dan said...

Thanks Shirley. You're absolutely right about Bob. My abilities are quite rough, but as long as he doesn't mind imparting some of his short-story wisdom, I'm all ears.

Jo Janoski said...

Me, too! I had the same relationship with my dad. He was a great one until he hit the bottle. Then the crap hit the fan. He wasn't physically abusive, just emotionally. In his case, he was a fierce old Irish steel worker. I threw a few plates against the wall before I moved out. BTW, Bob helps me a lot, too. You've got one of the best working for you there.

Dan said...

Sorry to hear that Jo. I suppose I was lucky in that my parents didn't either one drink a drop, but I belive some form of dysfunction plauges us all.