“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” (W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Reunion Pt. 2

This is the 2nd pt of a story, so if you are confused by the jumping off point, it is your own fault, please go back and read pt. 1.

      Arriving early to the funeral home, Jack sits in his car flipping through the pages of his yearbook, trying to memorize the faces from his past. Feeling tired he closes the book, then his eyes. Remembering the reputation he is trying to shake, he jumps up and exits the car. Lighting a cigarette, he slowly walks towards the entrance, looking around cautiously before extinguishing the butt and entering. He was unsure of what to expect inside. It was now a couple of minutes before the scheduled start time and there was hardly anyone around. What few people were there are concentrated around a woman of slight stature, maybe fifty years old. She has bundles of tissues laying everywhere. A wad in her right hand is balanced by an empty Kleenex box in her left. She had some sticking out of her little black purse that was on the coffee table next to another pile of used tissues. Jack assumed this was Kevin's mother.

      He made his way to a photo collage near the casket. There he saw shots of the deceased with a deer, freshly killed and gutted, hanging on a hook. Some showed him with a child Jack later learned was Kevin's nephew. He settled on one of Kevin in the god-awful yellow cap and gown they wore together at graduation fifteen years ago. Jack recalled his classmates grumbling at their misfortune of graduating in an odd numbered year. The school's other color -the more regal maroon was worn only in the even numbered years.

      His reminiscing is interrupted by the placement of a hand on his back, startling him a bit. He turns, half- expecting to see some girl or another from school. Instead he is confronted by the weeping face of Kevin’s mother. Through her tears and tattered tissues she asks how Jack knows her son. The worn look on her face makes him think of a waitress that has served one too many coffees. Jack introduces himself as a friend of Kevin’s, explaining rather apologetically that he has not seen her son since graduation. She seems very touched that he found the time to come. With her hand still on Jack’s back, she guides him to the casket. Seeing his face up close brings back memories of conversations and dealings with Kevin. There was a skip- party they were both at which came to mind, in fact Jack just now remembers that he and his friend Tommy (who had a car) gave Kevin a ride home that day, since he was too drunk to walk. Jack decides to withhold this memory from Kevin’s mother.

      She escorts Jack to a seat, and sitting with him she explains how Kevin died, all the while holding his hand in hers. The notion that Jack is the same age as her son is impressed upon him. Kevin’s death was brought on by heat exhaustion. It seems that Kevin had taken some medication that helped him sleep at night. If she knew her son… and she assures Jack that she does… he probably knocked back a couple of beers as well. Either the thermostat in his apartment was busted or he forgot to turn it down that night, Jack can’t quite discern through the sobs and pauses in her story. The next day she was supposed to meet her son for a bagel and coffee. Something they did once a week for the last couple of years. She tells Jack this was not only to spend time with her son, but also to keep tabs on him.

      Jack doesn’t say anything, he just sits there, listening and handing her more tissues with his free hand. She goes on to explain that the medication was to help him sleep, a problem for him since he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Kevin was diagnosed sometime after graduation. He was taking some courses at UW-Milwaukee, just basic studies. He had not yet figured out what it was he wanted to do with his life. He found a little one room efficiency just off campus, and seemed very excited to be starting a new chapter in his life. Shortly thereafter, his behavior became erratic. He frequently locked himself out of his apartment, and had to bother the manager to be let in. He would show up at the wrong time or day for his classes, or he would skip classes altogether and wander the campus aimlessly. It was during one of these seemingly directionless walks that an Army recruiter caught him in a weak moment. The young officer simply walked alongside Kevin, gently guiding him into his office just across the street from the school. He lauded all the benefits of serving one’s country, as Kevin listened. At this time Kevin was having trouble determining the difference between everyone else’s reality and the “reality” being played out in his head. The voices were just starting to make their presence known to him and he felt powerless to resist. Whether he knew it or not, Kevin enlisted in the Army that day. The young officer, feeling very proud to gain his first recruit so easily, shook Kevin’s hand and gave him a slip of paper telling him when to report for duty. When Kevin failed to show at 0900 two weeks later, the recruiter went to look for him. He wasn’t in class or his apartment or the commons area or the campus coffee shop. Unsure of what to do next, the officer reported back to his immediate superior. The older officer was not about to let a new recruit dodge his sworn duty. The two men went back out in search of Kevin. They finally found him later that night sitting in a corner of his apartment, rocking back and forth with his hands cupping his ears. He was shouting out nursery rhymes he remembered from childhood mixed with heavy metal lyrics. His TV and radio were both turned up to max volume, he was trying anything to drown out the voices in his head. No longer deemed fit for the Army, the officers contacted the school psychologist in an effort to get Kevin the help he obviously needed.

      From then on, she watched the disease slowly take over her son’s life. There was little she could do to help. She tells Jack of the ups and downs; the slow progress derailed by inevitable set backs that were part of the territory. Jack imagines every moment not spent with her son is spent in research, either in the library or on the internet. She carried the burden of this affliction along with her son and it showed in her face. Recently, she says Kevin seemed to be slipping away from her. Not two months ago he lost his third job this year, a little stint at a local record store. He would only drink beer around her, but she was sure that he had been into more than that lately. She could see the effects of it on his body, his skin was pale and seemed paper- thin, he rarely showered anymore and he looked as if he never slept. He conferred to her that the voices in his head were getting louder and harder to ignore, and confirmed that he was sleeping less. A recent visit to his doctor brought on a heavier dose of medication to hopefully make his nights a little easier.

      The day he didn’t make it to the bagel shop, she began to worry. She stood outside the little eatery for an hour, smoking one cigarette after another. When she finally worked up the nerve, she went to Kevin’s apartment. The same little one-room efficiency he began renting a decade and a half ago. As soon as she opened the door she was knocked back by a wave of heat and the odor of sweat and near-empty beer cans doubling as ashtrays. The smell combined with the sight of her son, slouched tellingly in his easy chair caused her to re- experience the cheese danish and vanilla latte from earlier that morning. After she composed herself, she dialed 911 and calmly explained to the operator that she had just found her son dead in his apartment. Waiting for the ambulance, she started to straighten up her son’s humble dwelling. No tears were shed by her at that time, she had expected to find him like this one day. The scene before her now had been played out in her dreams often. Guiltily, she admits that she’s almost relieved, at least he would no longer be haunted by all the voices.

      As she finishes her story, Jack can’t help but wonder if this was not an accident on Kevin’s part.  When she stops talking, she lets go of Jack’s hand and stands up. Jack stands with her and she hugs him and thanks him again for coming. A man up front mentions that the service is about to begin. Kevin’s mother strides off to take her place among family, leaving Jack standing there, dumbfounded. After a moment, he takes a seat near the back. Symbolically, and quite literally leaving space between himself and Kevin’s family. He feels like an intruder to this very personal ceremony.

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