The first time I died, I was an infant.
They told me about it later. We lived in the woods near Rockford, Alabama, if you are one of the few people who know where that is. It was during the second World War. I was born only twenty-three months before my death. I learned much during those months, however.
Next to the river whose name sounds like a particular of Creek foreplay, and close to that isolated little city of Rockford, there was (in 1942) a narrow road, Glaze, which led to a ferry. The ferry worked constantly because of the many people who had to travel that road. My father and uncle worked on the ferry and had almost no time off work during that period. At any time of day or night green army jeeps and trucks might come to one bank or the other, their drivers bellowing across the water for haste. The ferryboat was quite old and could not move fast.
My father worked the night shift and my uncle the day shift. When either of them tired of the shift they pulled, he would tell his brother and they would switch. This went on for some years after the war and after my death.
One night before my birth, the last part of December 30, my father was plowing the ferry like a water-ox across the Coosa, trying to ignore a man who wanted to sell him one of the motorcars. “Man drove it three and a half years, died, heart attack, wife sold it to my boy and my boy’s in the Marines now. Whattaya say, man? Huh?”
Suddenly my uncle came running to the bank toward which the ferry was creeping, waving his left arm (he was left-handed), his voice moving over the night waters like some nearly-mute flying fish, though fish in the Coosa are not known to fly.
“Sa-a-a-a-am!! Hey Sa-a-a-ammm!” A whistle through his fingers pierced the air.
The purpose of this commotion was to let my father know that I was being born and that he would cover my father’s shift that cold night and the next morning, too, if necessary.
I grew along like any infant. A local store supplied me with plenty of bland jellied food, since my mother’s breast milk was no good. I received numerous uncomplicated toys of wood and rubber. It was a relatively happy life.
Ah, but just about the time I was beginning to develop a rudimentary concept of myself, disaster came in the form of a small bone.
Near Thanksgiving, 1944, with many giving thanks for so much (the Bulge battle had not yet surprised everyone), I ate something a two-year-old shouldn’t. A friendly aunt or perhaps a naive young cousin gave me a bit of turkey or chicken – whatever it was that year – and a burred bone caught in my throat. I remember hacking, coughing, making catarrhal sounds belonging to someone tens of years older.
After listening to me cough all day the following Friday, on Saturday I was taken to a doctor in Montgomery. Our odd old car had no heater and, ah luck!, a freakish snowstorm that day – the 25th – hampered everyone on the long, awful drive. Just outside the city the snow stopped falling and I ceased to sleep without waking. I knew I was done for, as they say. Vague keening sounds seemed to come from outside the car. The air force base’s planes were all covered in white, or they may have been painted white.
At the hospital, the ER doctor pronounced me dead before he went into another room to complete the necessary paperwork concerning my demise.
© 1972, 2018 Thomas N. Dennis
Relationships cannot really develop, as they once did, for each person is lost in his or her own inwardly-spiraling narcissistic technological nightmare, isolated by the photographs one takes and shares or does not share, texts sent and read — I put a lens between me and you and then send the picture to someone who puts the image of you away at yet another remove. No touching allowed. Just pictures.
If you are unphotographed, untagged, you do not quite exist, in this world. We have slowly become more and more disconnected from nature and from the other people around us . . . and how many of us think about this or even care if it is true?
Does it matter to you, that you spend so little time staring at the device known as the sky?
Does it bother you to realize this?
I often consider this line of action:
I’d go over to the local gun-shop, as ubiquitous in Oafwood Estates as fast-food joints and RapidCashTitleBack shops, take it to the range not a mile away, as I learn how to handle what Lolita’s mom, in the movie if not the book, called a “sacred weapon” — not a task I look forward to, by the way, since I hate firearms — and thence, in a few weeks, after I have gotten all my affairs in order, cleaned up as best as I can the mess that is my family finances — kapow! Nóche ciéga: blind night. I know just the place for it.
“Howdy. I’m here to buy a gun for to kill myself.”
“We don’t ask you what you do with your firearms, sir.”
“Is that right? That’s nice of you.” He didn’t want me to tell him; I had put him off.
“Well, and now it pains me — I hate to tell you this, I’m very sorry, but um you’ll have to undergo a waiting period . . . ”
“It’s pretty long.” Light sparkles on the hoods of the trucks parked out front.
“It’s alright, Bob.” I had read his shirt.
“I’m not ‘Bob,’ ” somewhat surprisingly, “in fact, I just wear the Bob shirt if you know what I mean . . . ” His look made me notice how carefully his beard was trimmed. I mistrust closely-trimmed beards.
“I — misunderstood.” Smiling greyly. The boy almost smiled back. How old was this guy? Hard to say. Maybe the owner’s son. I remember standing there a few moments while he went to get some sort of paperwork, staring at all the wood and metal, smelling the smell of the place, watching a few customers as they tried out the wares.
A creepy place. Unexpungable odors. All kinds of weaponry in cases, behind bars, hung up on the wall, piled in corners like so many fireplace pokers. A cardboard sign on one door (I meandered as I pretended to look at various firearms) read “SUPLIES.”
My uncle Walter (he lived with our family for a while as I was growing up) had an idiotic maxim, I heard it every time I pointed out a misspelled word: “You don’t have to spell to sell.”
That’s how I envision it. Kapow! Bob Knelbern, local ex-farmer, found dead in his shed, surrounded by the artwork loathed by all his contemporaries, though he himself was not personally loathed (though at least one person thought they had something to fear).
No one left to write the obit. (I’ll post mine in a later chapter.) I can actually envision the moment, the smells in the shed, the raising of the gun. The final considerations. Pressure of the finger. This is not a personal loneliness; this is an existential loneliness, a feeling of being acutely solitary in a world where others seem to enjoy a world of fellow-feeling. They play games together, they watch television or films together. Happily do they play Scrabble and talk about it afterwards. Someone tonight asked if I wanted to come over and play chess. Nah.
I have noticed in recent years the vanishing of large talk. There is nothing now but small talk — even micro-talk! — though weather-jabber does not quite fall under that rubric since we lost our winters. Climate discussions are no longer small talk: imagine that.
Looking from time to time out this large window, day in, night out, it’s a mise-en-scène, isn’t it? The dog either hyper-vigilant on my sock feet or curled sighing in my lap. Cars sweeping by the flat suburban street, no different than your street . . . it’s then that the memories of inane things I have done or allowed to be done — morose regrets that are so pointless (as we cannot change anything that’s already happened) — that’s it, you know, it is no more than a mass of tangled, wretched regrets that I have as I look back over this paltry thing called a life.
I’ve done nothing good. I’ve loved so badly. All my relationships failed, the emotions that once charged them flattened by time, ennui and — more than anything else — horizon sickness. You know what that is, don’t you? Google it if you don’t.
(c) 2017, 2018 Thomas N. Dennis
I was a new consciousness, almost 5 1/2, standing over my first corpse.
It was that of a man of 55 who looked 69, its face covered with velvety grey make-up creased by small dark red rivers, covered by a lacy shroud. We kids agreed later that he looked a lot like Frankenstein — the eyes seemed sewn shut. I noticed a fly standing on the lace and thought: Don’t they know? and made a mental note to ask someone about them.
The strange mourners of our neighbor O.E. McCann filed past the raised display, which was right in the middle of his aged, uncooled house. O.E. was a war hero, had had two appendages blown away, or so we were told, in some war or another.
Everyone in 1959 sat on porches, and O.E. sat on his, which had formerly been the home of my maternal great-grandfather, a chubby overalled carpenter who died a few years later before we little kids could get to know him. Desultory hounds and children with nothing to do wandered up and sat on the porches, which were cooler in the summertime than the weedy yards. But we didn’t go to the old house’s porch after O.E.’s family moved in. They had two sons, one whom collected motionless cars and piled them around the chicken coop behind the house — Paul — and Bill, who practiced punting a football from his yard into our yard. (Bill turned out to be quite a freak, later — I’d run across him in a Kmart and he’d act oddly astonished. Bill was one of those doomed by his size to be set apart and either groomed or shunned, to become a hero of some proportion (Vietnam) or a martyred monster, a Grendel.)
Did I mention that my bedroom window looked directly down up on O.E.’s porch?
Before he died, O.E. could drive a car. How? we wondered, tossing pine cone hand-grenades onto the roof of his house — how? Someone, possibly the legendary hump-backed creature called “Uncle Ned” (he who drank beer with O.E. on the porch on Sundays), with the help of the boys, built him a ramp which he used to wheel himself out to his old 1950 Plymouth, which his wife would park on the little road separating their house and ours.
Eventually it was discovered that he had cancer, like my mother.
Packed off one cold December day to the hospital in Siluria. “He’s dead,” said my male relatives. “Sad thing to see,” the womenfolk muttered. Mirable dictu — he came back with one of his arms gone, alive but — slower. Less visible. Snow fell a few days after his return and O.E., amidst great ceremony (it seemed, but we were kids, who knew?), was rolled out in his wheelchair to see it. I watched from my foggy side window: the rust-colored roof as well as the unpainted wood of the house becoming calligraphed by the snow piling up in its elbows and eaves, the old man’s breath coming out in big white plumes, unaccountable mists and vaporizings whirling off the snow and over the tops of all our houses….
He was quite a horrible man. Despite ourselves, we kids saw him as a neighborhood ogre whose sons were unwholesome oafs. Stocky, red-faced, raucous voice laryngitic even late at night while I tried to sleep, my brother’s snores on one side, O.E.’s hackings out the window on the other side. Still salt-&-pepper hair in the usual crewcut, greased by sweat. Ernest Borgnine on a very bad day.
The cancer chewed him up within a year of his last limb-loss, though, and the funeral was held there in the old Elliott house. Packs of formally-dressed folk thickened in front of the house, their cars parked wildly amidst the browning mimosas of late summer. The brothers decorous, black-suited, their football jowls hanging like useless tissue.
Why was I, so young, allowed to file through and take a peek? What point was there in showing a first-grader-to-be such a thing? The fireplace was immense, the ceilings seemed higher than the ones at church, and the odor of old ladies’ perfume mingled unhealthily with man-smoke and that of food being cooked in a back kitchen.
Why did the flies light on Mister McCann’s lace cover and struggle so to get close to his face?
Because he was a vegetarian, I was told.
The next year, my favorite dog was born under Mrs. McCann’s house. When the house was torn down, some years later, a brick cosmetology school was constructed on the site.
The scribble on the back of this thin, over-handled photograph does not say what year it is, but only gives the child’s name and age. Little grooves of snow run down the rutted hills beyond the icicle’d eaves of this house’s porch. A similarly-styled house sits next door. This middle child with pleasant dark bangs peers warily toward the corner. Is an adult about to arrive to mess up the elements of the photograph which she has arranged? The dull doll with bonnet, last month’s gift; Buster Keaton dog; an unidentified boy squinting into the sun, his feet close together, holey skullcap kicked askew. Was he placed against his desires here? The young, brilliant developer of this scene [Hazel Marie Dennis née Elliott] has her hands placed on the roll-top desk in front of her. A teacher: she’s pretending to be the teacher: they are her class. She is trying to be in control of the situation.