Friday, December 12, 2008

Letters From Below

For some reason I'm compelled to re-visit a story I wrote some time ago. I've made some minor changes and apologize up front for the redundency to those that may have already read it.

Perhaps my arrival comes too late. It is quite possible there may be no reconciliation for such things; no chance for peace, but I’ve journeyed across the years prepared to deal with a relationship of neglect. There are some things the mountains of West Virginia cannot hide. My childhood is like an illness gone untreated. I’ve long know the cancerous poison should be cut from my heart. How much should remain—will there be enough to survive?

In the dusty corner of a familiar room my shadow has grown long. Tonight I will ask fear to step aside and embrace the dim flicker of candlelight that watches over me. These tired pictures, dog-eared and yellow, speak loudly of dysfunction. Only one portrait bears saving and I rescue it from the pile, still clinging to the hope it represents.

Tears filled my eyes as my mother’s casket emerged cold and gray, mirroring the low hanging sky. Like giant lumps of charcoal the clouds swallowed the ground in stifling shades of murkiness. The pastor’s eloquently designed words of comfort fell at my feet with no hope of penetrating my wall of protection. His feeble attempts to describe the life of a woman he barely knew offended me deeply, on my mother’s behalf. How could he have failed to praise her adhesive nature? She was a peacemaker, a capable liaison stuck between two polar-opposite slices of humanity, as were my father and I.

Cole Deavers was a hard man, by even the most lenient definition. Proper etiquette required me to address him as, ‘sir’. Earning respect never occurred to him; he simply extracted it by use of his heavy hand. Neither I nor my mother could escape the terrible wrath of those hands. No room in the shack provided a corner dark or deep enough. It was those hands forged from years of toil in the coal mines that struck fear in me. With each alcohol-fueled blow came the erasure of any admiration I ever had for the man.

Mother, 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 challenge for some weeks. The beating should have been mine. I would have preferred it that way, but regretfully it was for my cause that my mother suffered so greatly.

Her only offense was caring for her son too much. She continued to squirrel away coins, placing them in a Mason jar tucked high atop a pantry shelf; saving to buy a guitar. Only mother was aware of the love I possessed for music and performing, something a third-generation coal miner refused to wrap his mind around. She was shocked to find the jar empty. My father never admitted his culpability, expecting us to believe the week-long binge was purely coincidental. A man can forgive a great many things, but the larceny of another man’s dreams shall never be forgiven wholly.

Upon graduation my bags were packed for Nashville. I approached my father, who despite the rising sun remained comatose in his easy chair. More than a dozen of his closest friends, disguised in the form of ‘Old Style’ cans, steadfastly by his side. In good conscience I cannot relay the ensuing blue streak that flew so freely from my father’s lips. Also I cannot find words to accurately describe the rage that distorted his face as he demanded I address him as ‘Sir’.

With both fists doubled I prepared to defend my decision. I fought hard to keep my voice calm, but my mind gave way to the repressed emotions of seventeen years of hell.

“‘Sir’, is an indicator of respect, perhaps had I know the wonderful man my mother fell in love with, I could do that, but that was before you climbed into the bottle! The empty man you’ve become 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 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 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 of leaving the bright city lights to return to this dark place I sit tonight; not until I received a letter from a nurse that was caring for my father. As I read it aloud once again, this particular setting seems more appropriate than I imagined.

Dear Walker,

You don’t know me personally, but I’m a nurse caring for your father. 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 he was involved in an accident recently. He and four other miners were trapped in a collapse. Although they were 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 for the empty Mason jar in the pantry—so many containers filled with hope I raided, but I’m proud of you son. Occasionally I hear you singing on the radio which makes me smile.

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.

Striking the match, I watch its temporary flash illuminate the room; its healing flare igniting the letter placed beneath the photos. Ever-widening flames creep up the curtain and engulf the walls. Satisfaction consumes me as I watch my past burn in the embers.

The squeaky screen door wishes me farewell as I take refuge on the rotting porch and strum my guitar in honor of my father's last request. The chords' lament leaves me to contemplate one nagging thought. 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.
My soul’s atakin’ flight
It’s time I fly away.
I’ll burn the past tonight
that holds me back no more
my soul atakin’ flight
from a past that haunts no more.


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful story about pain and forgiveness. This story brought tears to my eyes. . . many tears. . . I cry as I write. What a big man to write such a letter, even at the eve of death, many are too hardened to admit their foolishness. If there is a heaven, your father will be right there with your mother . . . What God could not see the light in his heart? I could not tell if you had actually song the song at the grave or not - but it is so wonderful that you have found forgiveness in your heart, and realize that we all have something about us that can use some fixing.

Great, soul stirring story. It needs to be published! It could change the outlook of someone out there!

Dan said...

Cordie, glad you enjoyed the story. It is purely fiction, but you received it precisely as I intended (which as you know as a writer doesn't always happen).

paisley said...

makes me wish it was just that simple pike up all the hurts and burn them...

this was excellently written and the scenario dragged me right in.. an excellent piece of writing....

snoring solutions said...

You have said it very well. Keep going.
This is a fascinating post.Great, soul stirring story.