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Adult content, suggestive language...
the following is a draft of chapter one of a nonfiction narrative laced with extended metaphors.
A Prodigal Son
by TJ Nickel
WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA?
Chapter One: 3 A.M.
she says it's cold outside and she hands me my raincoat
she's always worried about things like that
she says it's all gonna end and it might as well be my fault
and she only sleeps when it’s raining
and she screams ‘til her voice is straining
and she says baby
it's 3am I must be lonely
when she says baby
I can't help but be scared of it all sometimes
the rain's gonna wash away I believe it
~ Matchbox Twenty, 3 a.m.
I smoke to pain my fathers. Next week I will travel to be with them and I hope to quit by then. I’ve spent at least five hours on the phone with my older sisters discussing my anxiety over this family affair. I can’t get to sleep at night, and I can’t roll out of bed until the snooze button has been touched at least once by each finger on my right hand. Pressing it with my pinky seems to leave a cramp in my smallest sleeping aide. The cramp keeps me awake. Like other nights in the recent weeks, my wife is sleeping on the couch here at 11 p.m. and soon will head off to bed without me. She’ll wake with a night terror and bring the sentence I am working on to a terrifying death. She’ll remember nothing of the terror itself and will head off to bed where she will sleep until my thumb reaches for ten more minutes. I envy her forgetfulness and her rest. She is beautiful in the daylight and works so hard with our daughters that she deserves the bliss and rest much more than I do, but there on the couch her face wears some pain I can only suppose is her regret at marrying a smoker.
I call my older sisters because they know I have three dads. My oldest sister, Marie, recently discovered she once had three moms. I count her lucky for not realizing this until after Aunt Kathy died. She connected with Kathy in ways impossible for her to feel with mom, and she opened a door to caring adults that her siblings would also walk through. Aunt Kathy and Uncle Ken lived in Minnesota. When I was a freshman in high school, my parents sent me to live with them. I developed a relationship with them that I confused to be more than it was. I suppose I knew Kathy was spoken for by Marie, and so I worked to claim Ken. I hoped he could heal me from my father’s last words and save me from going to that place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
God was always necessary in my worldview. I could not consider the reality I lived in to be possible in any world without sin, and in spite of my hatred of God for sin’s existence, I still hoped he’d be able to conquer it. If for a moment I lost that hope, I believe my lungs might have filled with smoke and I would have choked to death in the fire of despair. I had no problem seeing God as a father, for he seemed as unwilling and impotent to fix the world as my dad was to fix our home. Having been raised Catholic and attending church regularly through my confirmation as well as attending a Catholic school until the beginning of the fifth grade, I took my Bible and my rosary with me to Minnesota. Maybe God would fix things for me if I were only more full of grace.
Dad is an agnostic. Somehow he received grandpa’s permission to marry mom, but the rules were clear from the beginning – the kids would be raised Catholic. The kids were raised Catholic, and at a great cost I am sure, for there were nine of us by the time I was seven. Mom, legend has it, wanted more children. As it turned out, dad had a closeness with God beyond that of mom’s and rivaling that of Holy Mary, Mother of God, for he willingly suffered what can only be described as an immaculate contraception. This wave in the relationship of my parents may have recreated a virginity in him that he has to this day retained. Only he and mom know for sure. We kids are denominationally split over the issue.
The time to quit commercial just played between commercials on HGTV, the channel my wife adores falling asleep to. I haven’t the heart to tell her how it may be the cause of her terrors. A home is a great deal to manage and we are in the process of adding six hundred square feet to ours. The modest home’s already large wraparound porch will extend once again to protect the front of the new addition. She added the porch to the original designs. It is her favorite feature of the home.
A few weeks back, we celebrated our oldest daughter’s fifth birthday by having family over. I offered to set up card tables on the front porch to help keep the party outdoors. Early that morning, I sprayed the siding with the hose and cleaned the porch and railing of the bird droppings the baby robins had left.
Our daughters loved that the baby birds were perching on their cycles parked so perfectly behind the front railing. They decided the birdseed we keep for the feeder could be tossed around the porch and then they’d be able to watch the baby birds throughout the day.
So, the three of us went to clean the porch in preparation for the party while my wife prepared things indoors, surely unable to bear her precious porch’s recent egging. The spraying caused water to creep down the walls of our basement. Water seeped between the brick and concrete and gravity did the rest. There was no time to fix it, her family would soon arrive.
Not one of my eight siblings lives here in Indiana with me, though the youngest did stay with us in our home for a year, met her husband to be, and moved home. She’s not going to make it to the reunion next week as they are traveling to see his parents. They are stopping here on their way home and are considering moving here by year’s end.
It’s possible, if I don’t help the builder, that we might have extra living space in our home by that time. My help would surely slow us down. The porch took me three weekends to fix, and I still need to fix the step and crack along the sidewalk. It takes me several trials and a great deal of errors to accomplish manual care needed for a home. Uncle Ken would have taught me those skills. If I’d have only given him the time to do it, he would have taught me those things more often than during the one project we did to build a bedroom for me in his basement. What could have been…?
I’m a fan of the meta-narrative, the layered story, the pun, and the double entendre (sexual or non) and I used that ellipsis to smoke. I walked out on the front porch to smoke and stepped over the threshold and the excess quick-dry cement smudged over the crack between the brick and porch. I lit the cigarette and inhaled (let there be no mistake about that) and looked into the porch light to watch my smoke float. I turned to look for the baby robins, expecting my mentioning of them in my writing to bring them back to this nesting position. The robins moved from the porch into the bush near the garage. I nearly stepped on one in the deep grass near the porch and it fluttered back to safety, still unable to properly spread its wings. It could have been the one my dog had in its mouth after the birthday party before I barked at her to drop it. The mother robin chirped alarms and birds flew in from other yards in the neighborhood. My peripheral vision caught them as I watched the baby robin hobble through the hole in the black, chain links. What I can only assume were parents raised their baby into the air and disappeared over my roof. My five year-old raced onto the porch to find out why I hollered. She’s not allowed to come out the side entry door while I smoke, but I alarmed her. She heard the chirps through the open window and raced outside prepared to face despair, and I quickly lied to her and brushed her back indoors. I lied to her on her birthday, but I couldn’t burden her happy heart full of balloons and chocolate cake and pink ribbons. How could I explain to her that my smoking habit just saved her baby robin?
While smoking in the ellipsis, in the moment of realizing the robins would not repay my good will by presenting their adolescent to me to verify its health, the rain increased in weight. I feared the new addition of my home would have a flooded crawl space. The rain hasn’t been kind since our building project began and the smooth crawl space became a muddy pool on two separate occasions. Even a professional builder is forced at times to trials and errors. Why is it so difficult for me to build a home? The builder taught me how to clean brick. The experience reminded me of Ken and the room in the basement. I’ve been cleaning brick for weekends and I’m getting very good at it. Ken would be proud. Dad would be indifferent. God might use it to save me. I looked to the sky and considered my writing, and I considered standing out in the rain, and then lightning lit the sky and thunder clapped, and I worried whether it woke my wife in terror or my daughters from their sleep. My laptop had run low on battery and I plugged it in prior to heading outside. I worried this document might be lost. I came inside and didn’t wash my hands, as is my practice even in the winter when it causes my knuckles to bleed. My wife asleep and no noise from the monitor – I have no idea why we still use a baby monitor for a two- and five-year old – I checked the laptop and, of course, everything was fine. I sat down to write when my two-year old hollered through the monitor.
There she sat in bed, looking like she’d woken from a night terror. The resemblance was amazing and I saw my wife in her.
“Hi, kiddo. You okay?”
“I was picking my bottom.”
Holding back laughter, I picked her up and asked, “Why?”
“Because it had a scratch.”
“It’s okay, kiddo. Lay your head down.”
“But daddy, I need to wash my hands.”
We washed her hands and I put her back in bed. Maybe being a dad heals the wounds of being a son. And I wonder if, for God, being a man healed the wounds of being God. I will never understand the Trinity in the manner it is presented. So long as I have attempted to conform to it, I have only seen Abraham standing over Isaac with an angel of mercy bound and gagged and a ram that wandered through the black chain links of a lion’s cage. I have only seen my father’s face in a fit of rage and felt his overgrown body crushing my fourteen year-old frame until my tears and forsakenness finally compelled him to send me on yet another mission, “Go to hell!”
There may be nothing that happens in this book beyond a tale of a writer that quits smoking.
Grandpa smoked for years. My dad’s dad had been in remission when dad spoke these words to me, and many since his death claimed he never really quit. Kathy smoked in her youth as well before God had her exchange her sin sticks for M.S. and a man named Ken. Kathy and Ken took me in, at my mother’s pleading. Grandma and grandpa lived with them in the summer months and stayed in Arizona in the winter months. I moved there in October and stayed in my grandparents’ room. In January, Ken and I built the bedroom in the basement. They arrived in March, but grandpa was sick. I spent time with him over the next two months, more time than I’d ever spent with him in the fourteen years prior. Then, in May, he died. My dad arrived on that evening. They said grandpa waited to see him. But I was there in the room when Kathy told him about Jesus and I saw his tears. I think he waited to hear the gospel and Jesus let him wait for dad. I was there when he died, and my barking at Jesus to “Drop him!” fell on deaf ears. Our Lord is a horribly trained professional and so I can’t help but wonder if he too is subject to trials and errors.
Smoking killed my grandpa. At least that is what a few of them said. Kathy talked about the years she smoked and her thankfulness for the thorn and blessing that had replaced her addiction. The trivialities and stupidity caused by grief beset my soul and I wanted to smoke forbidden fruit and fall from grace at the shame of my shared humanity. Dad read a letter he had written and his sisters stroked his ego and talked about how much he looked like grandpa. Here in the present, I realize grief had its grip tightly around their souls, for there was no mention of him picking his bottom, and instead they gained their laughter through tears in liquor and other adult manners of deadness.
The day after the funeral, my dad, who had been sleeping on the pull out couch in my relative’s home, asked me to move home after school was out in a few weeks. I sat in silence, remembering my moment as Isaac and feeling as though it paled in comparison to the weight and ferociousness of this moment, and I listened for an angel’s voice and I looked for a ram, and I remembered thinking Jesus was an untrained bitch, and my ears could not hear and my eyes could not see, and so I fell from Eden and my benevolent uncle I loved as Abba into the arms of this man whoring me to heal his grief. And the next day I was supposed to go to school, but the house was still busy with visitors and they had many things to do that day, and so I said goodbye and waited behind the trees just outside of Eden and then made my way back into Eden and snuck into the very heart of it. There, upstairs, I crawled into Kathy and Ken’s neatly made bed and cried myself to sleep.
That was nearly twenty years ago. Ken lost Kathy to cancer since that time and then remarried and lost his new bride to cancer as well. Next week I will take my wife and daughters to Minnesota. It will be our first time there as a family and my wife’s first time since Kathy’s funeral. She’s moved off to bed now that it is ten after 1 a.m. and all the bottoms needing picking have been picked, and so I changed the channel to listen to Matchbox 20. There are 20 cigarettes in a box, but mine is down to three. I’ll be editing and re-writing for at least another two hours. Which one will I burn?
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