Exit Music

a work-in-progress memoir

(1953 – 1973)

1949 (2012_08_18 15_01_40 UTC)

When I was born precisely nine months after the death of Hank Williams, my mother fell into what was then called “post-partum depression.” Crazy wasn’t a word anyone used.

It may have taken a few days, perhaps a week or two, for it to set in: just how unimpressed my father was with the child she had given him. She already had two other kids, one boy aged six and a girl of twelve, by other men whose names were never mentioned. She had hoped my birth would create joy, a dance, a smile — a new life of emotional attachment with the man she’d agreed to marry on Halloween, 1952.

Her doctor suggested electroshock therapy, and it happened.

I shit and peed my diapers and sucked my thumb while my mother’s brain had electricity run through it. Did no one ask, How does this work, exactly? What shall be the long-term effects of this, uh, electricity to a 28-year-old woman’s brain?

Personally speaking: What does it do to the baby-child of a woman who is given this horrific treatment? My elder sister treated me like her own baby, as she said, though she was barely old enough to develop any maternal instincts, one would think. I have read the tales of baby Rhesus monkeys who, equally cruelly subjected to early loss of their mothers, became quite neurotic and unable to function in baby monkey society. Read up on “selective mutism” sometime, if you are interested in this line of thought. I am and I am not. Some nights when I go to bed — my mother and father long since dead and my life deadened by myriad deadening agents — I think of the baby Rhesus monkeys, and doctors, and experimental treatments. The night is long.

In 1959, my mother’s cervical cancer was diagnosed. No one knows how the earlier post-partum shock therapy took — the spiritual records have gone missing — but we do know how this new shock hit her: Hazel Marie, “unspecial” middle daughter, became depressed and deeply religious, going to church as much as she could (awaiting the day she would enter the hospital for the focused radiation regime) and preparing for what she knew would be her imminent demise. Payment — God knew! — for all the years she spent in wildness, she later hinted.


You can see it in the set of her mouth and in my father’s masculine workadaddy despair. I saw it in the shifts of her concentration on the mornings I begged her not to make me go to school, explaining how hideous and prison-like the whole set-up was, how I’d already learned enough to read the words in my comic books — wasn’t that enough? Couldn’t I just stay home with her?

Sure, son. And I’d stay home, happy yet absorbing her anxiety somehow, while she watched soaps and listlessly did dishes, made up the beds, and stared out the front windows. No smiles. I learned from her how not to smile. How never to smile. How, even around others, when your inner world overcame you, and you knew it was expected of you — not to smile. Not to care if they worried about your unsmilingness. I missed too many days. When I wasn’t farmed out to my grandma Dennis, often I dozed on her bed with her, reading my comic books, until the afternoon turned to evening and everyone else came home from their outer lives.

The day she came home from the treatments, the whole family gathered but we were told not to get too close, that she was still somewhat radioactive. Everyone stood flattened against the wall across from the bed and around her bedroom. A banner, Welcome Home Hazel We Love You, hung across some space of the house. Her sisters, both living nearby, were there and all my cousins. There was a quaint sense of broken joy, transmuted thankfulness, because no one really knew whether the treatments would work. “Five years,” said my mother, feebly, her arm above her head, tucked into the bed covers. “Give me five years, then we’ll know.”

1952 (2012_08_18 15_01_40 UTC)
Midge Dennis (hiding) Hazel Dennis

Years of feebleness, mayonnaise sandwiches, underlined Bible verses and diurnal unhappiness followed. Five of them, eventually, then more than five, and she had not died. We kids soon forgot that she was supposed to die and began to expect that she would live — yet somehow she seemed to get sicker with the decades, contracting this or that disease, taking a job and getting too ill to stay with it — peppering every phone conversation with details about her shingles, about how bad she felt that day (this in her diaries), until it became wearisome to speak with her. Did she make up this stuff, or did she really feel that bad, some wondered. A plea for attention, since she got none from my father?

Keith Dennis, Neil Dennis, Yogi, T.D. Dennis

My father learned to tune her unhappiness out. He played a lot of golf, worked a lot of overtime. As an adult, I joked with girlfriends about how she only talked about ailments, hers and those of others, every time I called her. That and my failings as her youngest child. “Sharper than a serpent’s tooth, it is –” I heard the Shakespearean quote again and again, until I began to write jokes about it into the cards I sent her on Mother’s Day.

When she died of broken bowels in 1993, the doctors mentioned almost offhandedly how the radiation treatments she got in 1960 — though temporarily saving her life — had placed within her the decadent seeds for the problems she eventually died of.

The night she died, I was not available to sit with other relatives at her bedside in the hospital, though they tried to contact me.

I was away, doing something fun, trying not to think about the previous months of hospital visits and operations and life-saving measures which did not work.

I tried not to think of her descent into mental debilitation, where she could barely remember any of us and swore that a rose my father brought her was not a real rose but a fake one. “Look!” he said. “Touch the petals,” he begged her. “Smell it! It’s a real rose, Hazel…I got it from the garden today — ”

“Fake. You always brought me fake roses.” It hurt my father so much. Too late, he had begun to realize he’d always loved her but was unable to express it.

I came home from the bar and heard the news.

November 22. “Your mother died last night.”

Post-funeral, my older sister confided, “After the cancer treatments, she was never the same.” What did she mean, I asked. What was different? “She was never as adventurous and carefree as she had been when I was little,” my sister said. “Always fretful and worried about everything and everyone.”

Unsmiling in the face of life.


Keith Dennis

That was the word that explained my cousin’s sharp difference from the rest of us kids.

“When he was born, Neil,” my mother impatiently explained, “the doctors used these big…things…called forceps, kind of like clamps, and they, um, mashed his head a little too hard with them, and — ”

Forceps. This was why he could stand in the front yard translated into another world for hours by the sight of convicts whacking grass along U.S. 31, or road-grading machines — any sort of repetitive construction? Why he thought it entertaining to place a puppy on a swing-seat, pull the puppy back, and let the puppy fly?

This was why he got so incredibly angry while we played football in my back yard, why he ran away complaining to his mother about how mean I was, how I started the fights we had? (The fights brought about the forceps conversation.)

Forceps: an explanation for why he tried to imitate me in every way possible, to the point that people at school and even elderly relatives mistook me for him (and vice versa)? Without knowing what forceps were or how they entered into the birth process, I found this an unsatisfying answer. (My cousin’s emulation of me was not, as far as I could see, at all similar to my emulation of my older brother’s pants, shoes and haircuts.)

It griped my kid ass to think that the other people in school thought I was he and he was me. A damnable Doppelganger. Nobody wants to be mistaken for somebody else; singularity is everything, isn’t it? Individuality — Neil Dennis not Keith Dennis. It didn’t help that we were cousins and had the same last name. I could see that my aged elders might mistake one of us for the other — they saw us all the time and had trouble remembering lots of things. We laughed cruelly behind their backs and imitated their stutters as they tried to name us, remember us. “Kee– Nee– uh — ”

My mother: “It drives your aunt Betty nuts. She has to buy the same clothes we buy you so he can look like you. He just wants to be like you, son. He uh looks up to you, he’s a little younger you know… you might feel a little bit sorry for him. He’s different and he will always be different.”

But I couldn’t. I didn’t. No way. I was angry enough to make ignoble unspoken wishes about him. I’d run inside before the bus came, on some school mornings, just so I could switch into clothes that changed up our matching outfits. “That’ll throw those stupid kids at school off.” But it didn’t work. I was an infuriated fourth-grader. Whenever someone said, “You’re Melissa’s brother, right?” I knew I had been misidentified.

Evil was a metal cylinder, white with red markings framing dark cobalt fancy-font script I could not read except for the seal in the middle: AB. From the triangular holes punched in the top came an unfamiliar, unnameably rich odor. Sometimes there were two of them, dew-covered, ant-invaded, lying on their sides in the grass beside my uncle Donald’s oddly-parked Mustang.

An early-morning uncle: “Get away from them beercans, boy.”


Fake-sweet — you knew somehow it would not actually taste sweet, because it was the color of pee. So this was the color of the evil that corrupted my Uncle Donald, that made him start talking and acting crazy, as his relatives put it. He drank so many of them that he forgot where he was and drove the Mustang so slowly from the beer-joint two miles north, in Jefferson county, across the line, that the police were always catching him. I could stand outside my grandmother’s trailer in our back yard, where Donald lived, and hear the adults talking:

“Why, he left his false teeth in a glass of beer at some place and — ”

” — drove all over the county looking for — ”

” — arrested three times in two different counties — ”

” … don’t know what we’re gonna do, but we gotta do something…”

I liked my uncle because he was always kind to me, even bought me a Benjamin pellet rifle one year despite my parents’ objections and helped me learn to load, pump and shoot it. He talked to me as if I were grown — perhaps this was part of the craziness the adults mention in their family conclaves.

He mentioned Korea and Vietnam, which I heard as “Core Ear” and “V. yet Numb.” He talked about the coming end of the world as if it might be before school began the next September and also showed me his Watchtower magazines.

My father decided he had to be committed to the Bryce Hospital for the Insane in Tuscaloosa.

bc_betty (2012_08_20 08_00_02 UTC)
l-r: B.C. Dennis, T.D. Dennis, Hazel Dennis, unknown woman, Donald Dennis

When Donald came back from Bryce — there had been some electro-shock therapy and who knows what else — he was shivery. His voice, always antic, was croaky and throbbed with nervousness, as if he were not sure what to say or how it would be taken by those he spoke to. Aside from that, he looked the same: quick thin-lipped smile, darting green eyes (like me, like my father), a wiry physiognomy that required little food. For awhile, he was okay. He retrieved his old job at Hayes Aircraft and rose early each day (everyone in the neighborhood rose early) to ride in with my uncle Clem. I saw him making a dew foot-trail across the back yard, weekdays as I got ready for school.

But one morning (I later heard) he woke with the fragments of a dream about his ex-wife, Merle, she who had been married to him only long enough to discover his extreme love for the products of Anheuser-Busch. By this time, he and my grandmother had been moved from the trailer to a small house on the edge of Alabaster and he had been doing a laudable job of taking care of her and growing vegetables in the back yard, living a quiet life.

And that morning, he started back drinking. “All because of that dream of Merle,” he would later laugh, making odd inbreath noises between chuckles. “All because of a dream.” Again — after a week or two visiting the county’s bars and jails — he got back on the wagon, this time for good. I’m not sure my father ever quite trusted him to stay there, however.

Once, needing some money for an apartment, he loaned me $90.00 which I never paid back but for which I was forever thankful, as it helped me get out of my parents’ home at a time I was too old to be hanging there.

I would occasionally take time out from my bohemian life-style to visit him and my grandmother, and it seemed to thrill him to see me and my wife-to-be (later, our kidlings as well) when we pulled up at their house. With that same nervousness, his smiling jittery demeanor that meant no harm, he welcomed us and asked if we needed anything to eat — “We’ll be glad to cook you something.” No, no. Grandma’s kitchen was kind of dirty.

He kept giving me, on each visit, nearly-clear glass stones that he said he found while plowing in the garden. He felt they were important and unusual in that they were hexagonal, with points on either end. “How did they get like that, bud, d’ya reckon?” I didn’t know, but later I did discover that the stones were natural formations — not the magical lapis philosophorum he seemed to think they were. “Keep ’em,” he told me. I have.

Just before he died — first one lung went, then another, then it was in his brain — while grandma stayed at my house (infuriating my wife with her quaint and incontinent ways) — I took him weekly to a cancer treatment center downtown — it was named for George Wallace’s wife — where he received radiation therapy.

I stood outside the waiting room doors smoking cigarettes. Muzak audible. How stupid is that? Smoking outside a cancer treatment center’s waiting room. I was in my thirties.

He was so pitiable when he came back from the treatments, a red bindu marking the spot at his third eye where the rays went in. Over the weeks when I was his escort service, I only asked “How was it?” one time. The look he gave me belied the mild answer: “Pretty rough. Pretty rough.”

The last time he had the treatment, just before we reached the house, he asked if I would mind stopping at the local grocery store. Not at all. He was in there a long, long time, and just as I was about to go look for him, here he came walking out, pulling his baggy new jeans up with one hand.

“Had to get some hot dogs to feed Pablo. He loves ’em.”

I drove back home thinking of this dying man talking to his dog, lovingly feeding him raw hot dogs. Smoking my Kools, probably thinking about stopping for a six-pack.

When I was ten, because I skipped church, I got to see a putative assassin assassinated live on my parents’ Zenith television. (Black-and-white, no red blood, scarcely as disturbing as a 2018 video-game for young children.) Even a dumb crew-cut kid could tell: the O of the shot man’s mouth, the jumble-view of the scene as the cameramen were pushed. I ran to my grandmother’s house, out of breath from the November cold by the time I got there, unable to speak. Calling me by my cousin’s name, she muttered non-consolatory words and asked if I wanted something to eat…

The Friday before, shouts of happiness from the halls of the high-school announced the shooting of JFK, the president almost all Southerners and surely most Alabamians hated — the hate sliding from parents to children, as hate always does.

But I recall nothing but confusion as Mrs. Kroell, our teacher, announced the shooting and put her curly dyed red hair down on her desk to weep without shame or self-consciousness as we all rolled out the door in queues to the playground, there to await the buses taking us home early. An early weekend should have pleased us, but a certain weirdness hung in the warm and dusty light along the route where the buses began to line up. When I got home no one was explaining anything, but more than one relative was disturbed at the pre-emption of soap-operas and local evening news. The silence of adults was deafening.

Friday night and into Saturday, a cold front came through — perhaps the same one that cleared the air over Dallas on Friday, allowing the president to go on his motorcade without bubbletop protection. There was something pulling us to the continual parade of people talking on the TV, that did not allow anyone to turn it off until everyone went to bed. I probably dreamed, in early wish-fulfillment, of receiving a gun for Christmas — seeing the assassin’s gun with its sight could easily spark such a dream.

Did I mention that I had recently accepted Jesus as my personal savior and had been baptized at night at Pelham Baptist Church?

Saved? — not truly feeling saved, not exactly one with Jesus — but with a surly and stinking brown hound I walked on cool October mornings, crunching gravel, gnawing a piece of straw, out into deciduous woodlands soon to be gouged into subdivisions. These were secretive morning forays, made only on weekends while my parents were still snoring.

I’d rise super-quiet, put on jeans, shirt and a rat-colored coat, fill the pockets with saltines and cheese, then lead the ecstatic, muddy-footed dog out through sleeping trailer-park denizens to the first of what I was told was a net of mining road used years ago to haul coal out of Helena, the nearest town.

A game I played with myself as I went further and further on these roads was: will I ever get to Helena’s defunct mines? I knew the main road couldn’t be terribly far away, but I had no conception of distance nor how far I was walking.

I did feel something like a scary little rush of libertinism, however, as I moved past the point where I could see the little curve of known highway — where our neighborhood houses sat — and into the thicker woods. The trail narrowed to two ruts. Crows hacking up high above the resiny pines gave me a goofy chill, intimated something deeper than the simple fun of being where no one knew where you were, but I could not have expressed it to anyone I knew, and to bring someone with me (this never happened) would surely spoil it.


(c) 2018 Thomas N. Dennis



Broken Stone

I’m thinking about K., a Lyft driver, who gave me a ride home to my motel from a conference in Orange Beach last Saturday night. She was 33, almost my daughter’s age, and had extensive forearm tattoos I could not quite discern in the dark front seat. Ordinarily I sit quietly in such situations, mute as a broken stone, but this night was different and we talked. She said she used to work for Uber but had switched over. She had a husband who had been incarcerated in the Baldwin County jail for a year due to two public intoxication arrests. She was happy that she had made some payments on her car, unhappy about having to deal with a diagnosis of MS some years back — she was only working because $800 a month disability just wouldn’t cut it for her and her two kids, ages 7 and 3 — and she had a good trailer to live in now, though the one she’d had to endure for some time was horrible, had been flooded and infested with insects…there was talk of a landlord who didn’t care…but things were looking up, now. The littlest child hated for her to go out to work and clung to her before she left each evening. She wouldn’t take the painkillers that were prescribed for her — “They make me feel like such a slug!” — and had discovered a doctor who’d helped her find other ways of dealing with her physical problems. At the entrance to the motel, as we were turning in, there was a small blank-faced man (perhaps drunk, perhaps injured, perhaps just resting) a few feet off the main four-lane to the beach, barely visible, his legs splayed out before him.

— Uh-oh, she said. Looks like somebody in trouble!

Filmed in Oblivionvision


I see that we’re now in the pre-Mercury Retrograde stage and that, also, Venus seems to be wanting to hide Herself behind the horizon. I feel particularly non-depressed this morning. I warm the hound’s food, a treat he dearly loves and wishes I would do diurnally.


Madrugada, with distant train. A pataphysical friend, DJW by acronym, has traced where the trains, loaded and moving at night out of the old city, split off to move toward Issa City or Chankamulgee, and we have often burnt spliffs on his porch, studying feline behavior, watching hummingbird feeds, and listening to both ground-grumble & whistle-chords.


Trains — why are they still here? They are a bit like public phone booths or even horses. We see horses from time to time along the top road — people take them for brief runs, and it is said the horses are sometimes rented. When I take the hound for his walk, I see no horses anywhere along that road, only one iron-colored mule who never moves from the different place he stands every morning.


As a small child I often walked off into the woods. It was the best time of my life, and it was spent, like now, with an animal. Perhaps it as simple as this. A human walking with an animal in deep forest — rain forest, oak forest, pine forest, it doesn’t fucking matter, Jackaroo! Any secluded, quiet spot will do.


Stop and keen from time to time. Keen for what? For that which is lost when our instinctive edges soften and blur toward what glozing neuters love to think of as a certain dayindayout blissfulness. It isn’t.


The old dog that I walked with (all those years ago) smelled horrible, like shit mixed with death and soaked in muddy water. Had no manners. She was a young German Shepherd/Lab mix and loved every human she ever met so much she wanted to lick them continually. She’d push someone’s trousers up in order to lick their shins and behind their socks, a disconcerting trait.


(c) 2018 Thomas N Dennis


—Texting is toxic.
—To what?
—It’s complicated. It enables you to say something to someone (perhaps even a loved one) which precludes their knocking the shit out of you – slapping your shanky jowls or telling you to get the hell out of here, What you gotta say that for? They can text those things back at you, but all physicality is absent. The words grow vicious, perhaps to make up for that? I dunno. This is a study in progress.
—You think texting makes it easier for people to be mean to each other.
—Yeah, I think that’s much of it. It also helps us de-center from wherethefuckever we are, the perfect Don’t Be Here Now mode of communication. It’s also good for people who prefer only to be seen, never touched. Perfect, in fact…
—But then, we’re carrying on this conversation by text, so . . . ??
—A smidge of irony never hurt a conversation.

First Death (excerpt from “Exit Music”)

bi_newcover1 (2012_08_18 15_01_40 UTC)

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

Ulrich Knelborn’s Nóche Ciéga


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 cool.”

“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

O.E. McCann, Dead Man (from “Exit Music”)

1949 (2012_08_18 15_01_40 UTC)

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.


Testing in Progress (excerpt from “Exit Music”)

1958 (2012_08_18 15_01_40 UTC)

Soon finished with the English usage test the teacher passed out — just a couple of pages giving us sentences where we had to circle the proper choice of verb tense plus a list of words to be defined — I felt little kid ennui swooping in, and began to stare out the unopened windows to the right of my glyph-scarred desk. The desk could be interesting: backwards swastikas grooved into the wood by kids from the fifties, nasty words scratched through yet readable. I had a little time for myself.
Pencil-on-paper sounds tickle the quiet of the room until someone drops a pencil and every kid laughs. The teacher’s gone for a quick Winston at the lounge down the hall. The other students take longer with the test and some struggle and mouth the verbs to themselves, but I had no way of knowing if they struggled with (was/were) and (let/leave) or if they knew how to define travesty or apathy. It was all right, truly, just to stare out the window, eyeing bits of rain water that dripped down the limbs of cold leafless trees, hearing without seeing the hiss of a car moving past on wet asphalt, watching for big birds in the sky. Expandable spare time.
The door opens and closes as the teacher returns and today’s lunch menu is made olfactorily obvious. Spaghetti. Thoughtless, neck aching now, I continue to stare out at the world until it seems the saturnine overcast of morning has begun to chop itself apart. I do an inner, unspoken radio weatherman shtick in my head: WDYC, What Do You Care? Apathy Radio 666 AM on your dial . . . morning clouds will give way to — Shards of bright blue sky, yes! and the sun lashes the schoolyard for about four seconds (not entirely unlike the quick scary brightness of lightning at night) before another gigantic cloud returns to re-darken the morning.
Neil. Neil, have you completed the test?


1931 (excerpt from “Exit Music”)


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.