He sits in the stiff folding chair and knows he is starting to fade, becoming transparent. His granddaughter is fussing over the sweet potatoes, pouring marshmallows over the top and talking about the great deal she got on celery at the grocery store. She introduced him to the crowd when they came in a few minutes earlier, but their names were lost beneath the football game, over the crying of a baby, and under a lifetime of Thanksgivings. There is a young girl with a pierced nose peeling the wax off a piece of cheese at the counter. A young woman chasing a toddler around the pool. He sits in the chair but he is not there. He watches people come and go as if they are in slow motion, as if they are moving through gelatin molds of time. New faces meld into old right in front of him, a young man in the corner suddenly becoming Earl, right there in the corner, Earl.
Earl looked up from his hook with a sly smirk, a fat worm writhing on the end. The water rippled brightly in golden lines across his face, moving as if melting his skin, shaping it like loose clay into a new strange countenance. Earl could catch fish with his mouth. He held out the pole with the worm on the line. "Here Stew, give it a shot," he said still smirking.
Stewart cast out the line and waited, sitting on the bank with dampness seeping into his pockets, chilling him. Earl waded out a few feet, soaked to the waist, and the contest was on. Beneath the surface of the water, colored slime rushed by, flash of crimson, jolt of blue, like serpents from another world, a living marble, swirling, some witch's brew created by a frog-liver spell. His line was still, pulled only by the current, hanging limply in the stream full of life. Earl was dancing. He took off his hat and shirt, suspenders trailing behind him in the current like tails. His hands were over his head, eyes closed and he started to sway, moving like the slimy life around him. The sun played tricks, reflecting and chasing shadows across Earl's face in splotches of maritime hues and tones until he became part of the creek, disappearing below the surface, diving and rising with the current like a patch of white water over rock. In a wet instant Earl stood before him with a scaly slick shine of aquamarine squirming in his mouth, tail frantic against his cheek, gills struggling in desperate longing for the living stream. Earl stood there, smirking.
"Grandpa," someone is shouting. He looks up to see his granddaughter hovering over him as if he is very small. She shouts in his face "can I get you something to drink?"
The question sounds familiar, appealing, reminder of countless holidays, parties, bottles of brandy poured in wide mouthed snifters, icy cool julep on mossy porch, warm eggnog intoxicating beneath the nutmeg rhymes. But now the question answers itself with a glass of water, no ice, placed in front of him. He nods to her, and she smiles as if she has done something good. She tries her best, her life so dull, he thinks, married at eighteen, already a grandmother, selling clothing at the mall.
The Busybee General Store had wooden floors, planks cut from redwoods, each one nearly six feet wide and running the whole length of the store. Up front, on a large rack in the form of tree, was an infinite selection of candy, each leaf holding a different kind. There were anise drops, orange strips with lemon sugar, peppermint pies with chocolate filling, tangerine tugboats with melon barges, and caramel cats with gumdrop tongues. Each one came wrapped in flavored edible paper, melting in your mouth like a memory. Further back were barrels of spices and teas, some so pungent the lids would fly off into the air and land with a hard crack on the wooden floor. Josephine, the storekeeper's daughter, minded the store and joyfully plodded back to the spices to interpret the cause.
"Uh-oh, problem in India I see. Yesterday there was something amiss in China, now India. What do you think it could be, Stew?" she asked him with lilac eyes blinking glitter away.
"Maybe someone fell off their camel," he told her, staring at her white velvet hands.
"Camel? Do you even know where India is, Stewart?"
"Yes Jo, I do."
"Well then where is it?" she asked with an angel clear smile.
"Its in the back room, in a large barrel locked with a key," he told her grinning.
"So show me," she said racing to the back, her red and gold skirts shimmering through the raspberry vines and pomegranate trees.
In the back was a rich jungle, moist like no air he had breathed before, so damp his lungs got heavy with the jasmine that mingled with the gloss of the green leaves, larger than his whole body. In waves the shady heat overcame him, birds clamoring in his head and crunchy bugs lifting their feathery legs along his skin, shaking despite the heat, chills in his spine while the sweat dripped onto the moss-covered soil.
A young woman passes him without a glance and he fears someone might try to take his chair away. His granddaughter has her back to him talking to another woman. He can hear through their small attempts at whispering.
"He's just impossible, I don't know what to do. He's miserable all the time and I try to be nice but its like he wants to be left alone."
"So leave him alone," the other woman says.
"Well then he gives me that guilt trip when I do visit. I mean, he must be lonely, but he never seems happy to see me, just angry that I don't come more often, or angry that I come at all."
"When I get to be that age I'm just going to jump off a bridge. What's that mark on his forehead?"
They turn to look at him and probably sense he can hear because they go about their food preparation. He looks down at his lap, remembering the smooth round circle above the bridge of his nose, extending to his hairline.
It was a train without an end, the tracks racing below his feet, over mountains, through mountains, and always returning to the same place. Despite his greatest efforts he always jumped off at the ranch. He worked for days, laying out a fence, hammering posts one after another to enclose a space with no boundaries, never knowing where he was going but creating a fence wherever he walked. Each post resisted the dry mica-speckled earth, before yielding reluctantly to the mallet. He walked for miles each day, off into nothingness where the sandy soil mingled with rock and dusty foliage. The sun-baked landscape like the contents of a roasting pan, charred remains of flesh dotting the soil, skulls and bones laid out undisturbed in a drama of death poses.
It was out here, on a burning red afternoon, that he met the vulture. The bird had circled above him for days, blocking out the sun in flashes of shade. On this afternoon he suddenly swooped in, perched on the post he was about to hammer down, and fixed him in a beady dead gaze. The scavenger's sapient eye seemed to expose his already scorched flesh, burning and peeling in red patches. The bird moved in, pecking him fiercely on the forehead where the sun beat down hardest, knocking him to the dirt.
With the light glowing behind the crooked, obscene neck of the hulking bird, it looked at him and said,
"You are not dead yet," in a high cackle voice repeated, "you are not dead yet."
In a flash it was gone and the light returned to his burning face, a trickle of blood cooling his cheek. He stood up, dropped his hammer, left the piles of posts behind and walked into the sun, returning to the tracks. In darkness the train approached and he ran beside it, nearly outrunning its labored chugging before he jumped onto an empty car and waited for the scenery to change. It never returned to this place again, running, like his fence, in a straight line without end.
The young girl walks past again, stopping to talk to a man right beside him, almost looking right through him to see the man. They converse through him, on either side as if he is not there at all, as if they are speaking over a piece of furniture. He sees his hand is now transparent, not invisible, just transparent, as if it can no longer hold pigment. They bustle around him, reach across his face for the tortilla chips, let dip fall onto his lap, step on his toes, drop cracker crumbs onto his head. He lets the lightness fill him, imagines he can sink into the chair and just stay here forever.
The mushrooms had taken over beneath the sink. Rippled fleshy layers of red and white clung to the pipes and tiny brown caps emerged between the bottles of cleaners and soap. The earth pounded through the copper, and grass sprouted up and out of the drain, lining the sink with an overgrown lawn too thick to chop down with the garbage disposal. The silverware drawer had first become the favorite haunt of tiny blue aphids clinging to the teaspoons to drink the distant remnants of sugar and juice. The ladybugs soon followed, growing fatter by the minute, snacking on the blue aphids while their black spots pulsed in joy atop their red backs. An occasional sparrow fluttered into the drawer to snatch up a ladybug or two before returning to its nest in the green teapot or two-quart saucepan, always keeping one eye open to survey the stray cats that had taken up residence in the pantry. The cats' preferred meals actually came from the packages of noodles, now damp and expanded through the plastic, heavy with moldy vitamins and minerals. They also liked to hop up on the counter, thick with moss, and search beneath the mixer for the nest of baby rabbits abandoned by their parents. The sounds of crunching and snacking, of caterpillars nibbling at the oven vines and moles scurrying atop the plates, made it particularly difficult to have a decent dinner conversation.
So they mostly ate in silence. Even if his wife could have thought of something to say the concentration required keeping the beetles off her plate was enough to make her lose the intended question. He had given up on the beetles long ago and now focused on simply keeping them off his forkful of food. The house they had bought together, carefully restored to perfection, added on to, brought babies home to, redecorated and re-furnished, had somehow broken down, disintegrated. His wife had the face of a nymph, a sculpted piece of stone he could not pull out of a crowd. After all these years it seemed this teeming, cracking pile of soil and insect webs was all they shared. So they sat at the moss encrusted table, the cacophony of crunching, buzzing, singing, meowing, and digging in constant contrast to their own hushed lives.
An older woman has just sat on his lap. For a brief moment he thinks she is being affectionate and then realizes she believed the chair was empty. She only sits for a moment, perplexed by the warmth and fleshy texture of the wooden chair. He is watching lives continue without him, in spite of him, literally on top of him and right through him. He is seeing them all as if they are on a stage, on a television, one step removed from reality. They are telling jokes, they are laughing, they are feeling as if this is the first time any of this has happened and believe without a doubt that it is the last. Each one is still carrying that spark of hope for the future that they fear may be dimmed if they turn to look at him.
He pushed papers, he pulled chains, pounded posts, and potted plants. He searched for facts and hid from truth, he swept floors and washed dogs, he drove cars through the forest, and bikes on the grass, left things in the rain and dried books in the sun, and at one point he stopped and painted. He got off the bus, he hitched his horse to a post, he parked the car and for some time, how long he will never know, he stopped at the ocean, and built a house. After he had built one house he found it so satisfying that he built another, and then another, and another, until he had a whole row of cottages along the shore. People came to the cottages, stayed for a while, kissed on the porch and brought bread to their beds. In between days he sat on his own porch, looking out at the rocks rising in hazy forms above the surf, canvas stretched in front of him along the porch rail. Moved by miles of life he found the colors for skirts among the raspberry vines, fish flailing in aqua splashes, vultures eyes in a desert scorch of light misting through jungles of intimate earth of mushroom moments, moments there and gone staked in his mind like posts in the land. He painted it out in a great purging, one after another releasing all that had come and passed and realizing, on one quiet sunset when a couple roused him with loud talking, that his brush was empty and he was old.
The chair back is no longer hard, he is bending to it, it is forming to him, his transparent jelly body is merging with the chair even before the turkey is carved. His granddaughter continues to shout to him, asking him if he is okay, but she's no longer looking at him, even she can not see him. At one point she thinks she takes him home because he is not feeling well. She drives what is not him all the way back to the home and leaves it in a chair while he sits at that table, hearing the dinner in the next room, watching people enter the kitchen for extra gravy. His granddaughter sighs, tells the table his story and they listen to her, fascinated by this great tale, this myth that is a life. The tale so rich they wish, for a moment, that he was there to speak, but he remains unseen, a mass of memory without words, a story without a voice, a person invisible to eyes too quick to see.
Laura Taylor Lambros