“There are depths even in a household
where a whale can live. . . .”
–John Haines, “The Whale in the Blue Washing Machine“
During the decade of Kate’s grief, she remembered only the bright moments; her grandfather remained a saint to her.
It’s one way to deal with loss: Canonize the one who left until he becomes too good for this world, making departure inevitable.
Departure is always inevitable, even for those who, like all of us, harbor moments of self-absorption, thoughtlessness, unkindness. Even for those who struggle with their shadows. There are no saints among us who are not also wholly human.
By the time the grief had ended, the chair of his old department at the university invited Kate to edit her grandfather’s notebooks for publication. The old moleskins contained literary criticism, mostly, veering often into philosophy and social and cultural commentary. Of course, he’d focused on T. S. Eliot.
When she was very young, during the first years she’d come to live with him, she tagged along to campus, playing in the hallways with echoing tile floors while he was in class and in the black-dusty cavern under his oak desk while he worked. Then, he stopped going to campus. He worked from home.
There were days when he didn’t leave his room. Had she forgotten those?
She would pour her own bowls of cereal, out of the giant Cheerios box, hastily scooping up the spilled bits, then dash out the door. When she got home, late with the setting sun, she’d find the cereal box still on the table, the door to her grandfather’s room closed.
He wrote advertising copy after the university named him professor emeritus, to supplement his stipend and early pension. She thumbed through the notebook. “And yet, people keep on buying,” he wrote, “while they sell the largest parts of their own lives to do so.” It must have killed a large part of him, she realized, to write the words that sold lilac-scented dish-washing soap, over-sized convertibles, and television sets.
Some days she would come home to find the coffee pot on the table, amidst half-filled mugs and plates of cookies and donuts. Beethoven would be playing, loudly, on the stereo–the ninth, usually. Or maybe Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. He would scoop her up and waltz . “We’re getting ice cream, Katy-Moon!” And they would drive all night, “discovering the important things,” and he would talk on and on, until she crawled into the space behind the back seat, pulling the scratchy travel rug over her head, letting his words run together, so that his fast talk sounded, maybe, like a blackbird singing over the creek.
The notebooks had large gaps in them, broken with entries that were rushed, panting, leaping over thoughts and ideas with connections she could not follow.
And so Eliot discovers what we were all searching for, all along–decay. Decay. Nothing but the emptiness clothed in everything: in time, in thought, in moment, past future now all wrapped up in the nothingness of the horridness that is humanity–“Ridiculous the waste sad time/Stretching before and after,” and after and before and they keep buying the sanitized soap to wash their dirty hands dirty minds dirty wallets while the Cadillac drives through the bodies of our ancestors–
It went on like that for pages. She checked the date. It was written during the summer that she and Baron, her dog, were sent to live with the great aunt. She feared they might have to stay with her, for the great aunt would never answer the question, “When can we go home?” But in October, on a Saturday when the brightness of the low-angled sun made the trees and dried grass sparkle, the great aunt drove them back. Baron raced out of the car, dashing through the meadows. Kate went inside. Grandpa sat at the table. He poured her a cup of tea, fixed it with cream and honey, as if it were an ordinary day. “Less said, the better,” he said. And the great aunt left.
How do we fit our lives around the corners of another’s pain? And what becomes of the gaps when that person has gone?
She had the memories she had told herself composed her childhood, and then she had these truths, which only now were being revealed. Somewhere between the two her own self waited to be discovered.
Prompt for May 5: “Steal something from a favorite published universe,” from StoryADay.org
My modification of the prompt: I chose not to write about someone else’s characters or worlds right now: I’m intrigued with Kate Elder, who has popped up in three of the four stories I’ve written so far for May. So, I decided to take a line from a poem and write a story about Kate around that line. The source poem is The Whale in the Blue Washing Machine, by John Haines.