Spring/Summer 1996, Volume 13.2
Darren DeFrain (M.A., Kansas State University; M.F.A., Southwest Texas State University) is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Western Michigan University. "The Monolith" is his first published story.
On my way to settle up Dad's estate I crossed into Missoula in time to see another stolid, waxy sunset. The day remained hot and thick but I began to catch the night breeze across the tightening skin of my sun-burned left arm that had been hanging out the window since morning. It was eighty-plus degrees all the way up and my Bronco didn't have air. Late summer dusk was the consummate time to arrive; everybody between work and going out, and the drag pacific and sober. I drove past the exit to get to my sister Deb's hotel, and I thought briefly about stopping. But I was swimming in sweat and closer to Dad's, so I figured I'd better plunge in now, before I chickened out.
The key was in the back of the mailbox, like Deb said, and there was a note to call AS SOON AS I GOT IN. I grabbed my gear out of the back before I went inside—get a quick shower and make the call. But twelve hours of Mountain Dew, Happy Meals, and road kill was weighing on me too much to deal with Deb's rigid competence.
The house smelled like antiseptic. Deb had told me some people from the school were going to stop by and clean, and I could tell immediately that they had washed Dad right out of the air.
I put my gear down in the hall and walked into the kitchen. At the end of the counter was an endless series of flashes on Dad's machine. The first one was from me about four days ago, and I wondered if he heard me before it happened. Worse, I could picture my voice coming through as it was happening and dad just lying there trying to give me a telepathic call.
There was a message from Dad's lawyer saying your father was a very gifted, talented man and a good friend… if there's anything I can do, call . He didn't leave his number. There was Bill telling me to call, and Steve telling me to stop by if I just, you know, needed to talk. Then there were a lot of other messages from people I didn't know or remember. Condolences, and a couple of newspapers wanting to talk to me or Deb; just a word or two. Deb could handle that stuff better—she read Dad's books cover to cover.
I took a beer from the refrigerator. It was pretty well stocked for sure Dad hadn't planned on this. I sat down on the old couch in the front room and wished Dad had left the stereo in there, so I could escape the heavy quiet insulating the house. After Mom died he moved into his office, coming out only to lecture, drink his beers, and rearrange the yard. The old couch was great. I remember fighting with my wife, Natalie, when Mom passed away over where we were going to put it. Dad had walked in and said the hell with us, he was keeping all the stuff and staying put. I don't know if our fight prompted it or if that was his plan, but Deb and I already had a condo picked out for him, closer to the campus. We were worried about him taking his heart pill. Sometimes he'd lock himself in his office and wouldn't come out until Mom drug him to bed. She never complained. Without Mom there to tell him to eat, to take his pill and when to go to bed, we were worried he'd have a stroke, but he always told us to mind our goddamned business.
To be honest, though, I would have been sad to see the house go. There'd be this weird cross-town void in my memories and I'd have to rely on Dad for my nostalgia.
The couch for example. Far too worn out since Mom died for me to think about taking it home, but more so because, without Mom and Dad around, it lost its ability to grant perspective. It was where I first touched Jill Hower's bare nipple; I could tell what shade of pink it was by how soft it felt. She asked me if I wanted to and I said okay, and we were fighting with her Jordaches when Mom and Dad's headlights splashed against the curtain. I made her promise me we would and we did the next weekend, right on the couch, but it wasn't nearly as exciting as touching that nipple. And now, without Mom and Dad, it's a couch where I used to roll around. It's not scary or magic, just comfortable.
I could tell I was putting off seeing Deb, but knowing her, she'd be all business by now. I dragged myself to the bathroom and showered down.
While I was getting dressed I decided I'd just call Deb's hotel room and see if maybe we could do this tomorrow. I wasn't feeling tired, particularly, but I knew I couldn't sit still and talk about taxes. When I called I got Jim, "Jimbo," and he said that Deb was over at Ray Milliken's, Dad's lawyer, and that I could probably reach them. I knew I was asking for it, but I told Jim to just have Deb give me a call when she got back. I could tell by his long silence Jim knew it was a bad idea. He probably worried he might be aiding and abetting, but I left it at that.
I decided to call Bill and Steve. I hadn't seen either of them for almost two years. Find out if they wanted to come over and have a couple of drinks before I went to bed. It sounded like what one was supposed to do; be consoled and what not.
Bill wasn't home, so I left a message for him to bring over a six-pack and stop by. I caught Steve on the way out. He said he had to go cover one of his employee's shifts at Dick-Nixon's but he'd be out by 9:30 if I'd still be up for talking. I told him great, no problem, bring some beer. He asked if he should tell anybody else I was in town and I said that's alright, if he wanted. I knew who he was talking about, and I probably said okay just because Natalie and I were in the middle of a nasty fight when Deb had called about Dad. And I was pissed off.
I'd opened all the windows in the house and was sitting on the couch in the front room when Steve came by. There were people with him, and I heard one voice ask if Steve was sure anybody was home. Steve said he thought so, and right then I pulled open the door.
Steve asked why I was sitting in the dark, and if I was doing okay, and how I'd been, and why hadn't I written or called. And introduced me to Kathleen, a bulbous-bodied blonde in a too-tight skirt and top. And Carl from work. I said hi and told them there was a pool out back and that the fridge was right through there.
Steve said he hoped I didn't mind him bringing Carl and Kathleen, but the three of them had plans since Friday and what did I think of Kathleen? She's great, I said. Nice. And right then she came in from the kitchen and asked if this was my place and I said as much as anybody's and she asked if I had a spare bathing suit she could borrow, she wanted to get in the pool.
I went out to the pool house to turn on the lights. I could hear the filter running, and the water seemed clean and clear. The pool guy must have come by. I tried to reach across the table to flip the switch, but I couldn't get to it. Something was making me reluctant to turn on any lights I didn't need, but I had to turn the light on in the little shed to see the pool switches.
The shed was like it used to be. A place for everything, and my old Slinky hanging from a nail above the bench. I remember asking Dad if I could get one, and he asked what I wanted an old spring for? And if I just wanted a two-dollar piece of curly metal he had plenty of those. He was a smart ass, and I was ecstatic when I got the Slinky home. Unfortunately, we didn't have any stairs so it wasn't as much fun as I thought, and it only took me about a half hour to get it into a Gordian knot, and Dad said that's what I got for being spastic.
He said the same thing when I bounced my Silly Putty onto the roof and told me point-blank it was foolish to think he was going to risk breaking his neck getting some goddamned rubber ball off the roof and maybe next time I wouldn't be such a doofus. But he kept buying me the trendy toys I begged for and I usually did my best to fuck them up. He never moralized like some Dads did or made me earn the money for a toy, or threaten not to buy any more. He just told me I did a stupid thing and that was that. Carl came out and said he was sorry about my Dad and should he maybe, you know, split. I said don't worry and have a beer, and I went back to find Kathleen a swimsuit. I had to turn on more lights, but I finally found one of Deb's from when she was fat and I thought it might fit Kathleen. Sort of.
Steve and I were sitting at the table by the pool and Carl was sitting on the edge with his feet in the water holding a beer bottle by its lip. I don't know why, but it annoyed me, him holding the bottle like that. Like it might spill into the pool. Dad told me, when we got the pool, that he put some special chemicals in and if I even thought about pissing, or if any of my friends thought about pissing, the water would turn bright purple around us and our trunks would bleach out and everybody would know. It scared the crap out of me to think that there were secret agents in the water. But really, at the same time, I felt I could rest easy because I wouldn't be swimming in piss. Deep down I was worried Carl's beer was going to fuck up the chemicals and then anybody could piss when they wanted.
Kathleen came outside and did us all a favor by getting in the water as quickly as possible. Her enormous breasts were barely covered by Deb's old swim suit and she had a severe case of plumber's butt. It wasn't attractive, but it was sexy, and I could see what Steve, and maybe Carl, saw in her.
Steve and I cut through the how-you-doing, is-everything-alright and what-you-been-up-to's quickly and quietly, and I was just about to remark how few mosquitoes there were for this time of year when a voice at the side of the house probed into the backyard with a tentative "Hello is anybody there?" And called out my name.
I figured it was Bill. He stuck his head around the corner of the house and looked into the pool at Kathleen who bore an amazing resemblance to this polar bear I once saw swimming at the Minneapolis zoo. At the time, I didn't know bears could swim.
I told Bill to come in. He and Steve greeted each other in a way that told me they didn't hang around anymore. Bill said he didn't know I already had friends over and asked if I could use some company. And I said sure, great, before I figured out he hadn't come alone either. Bill brought in these three happy, bouncy university girls, mousy and young. One of them blurted out "Wow-you-have-a-pool," and before I could return the introductions I was back in the house turning on lights and hauling out swim suits. They also brought beer.
While the girls went to get dressed, Steve made the introductions and I opened another beer. Everybody made sure they asked if I was doing alright at least three times and made comments about how much they liked Dad, and how cool his books were, and I finally felt like I could relax. Neither Steve nor Bill had done anything since I was here almost two years ago except draw apart, and by the way Bill acted towards Kathleen I figured it might have something to do with her. She had something, incidentally, that got more attractive the more I drank. And in a town like Missoula those were the exciting women.
Kathleen kept swimming back and forth and every couple of times would stop to take a drink from a sweaty beer Carl would hand to her, and I was about to tell her the story of the special chemical when she all-of-a-sudden climbed out. The pool didn't want to let go, and she went sliding out of her suit for everybody to see. She just laughed and got herself together and asked where the ladies' room was. I noticed that the other girls had left as many lights on in the house as possible, and they were making themselves busy trying to figure out the logistics of putting all their beer into the refrigerator.
But I felt good. There was enough activity around. There's this part of my brain that needs conscious stimulus or I can't relax. I've always got to have a radio on just to get my fix. Everybody knew not to bother me and yet they were amicable and courteous—even Bill's university girls.
I told Steve how nice this was, and he said something about how drinking under the stars made him think of moon water. I asked him to repeat that, and he said he liked to think he was drinking moon water when he drank outside on nice nights, and I said that was a pleasant sounding term: moon water. Like something you'd think up when you were in the mountains camped out in big-sky night-country, or if you were drunk in that liquid, blissful way, both of which possibilities still occupied Steve.
The phone rang, and it was Natalie. She said she wanted to see if I got in okay and that Shelby had wanted to know what happened to Grandpa. And I said I was on my way out and I'd call her tomorrow. I guess I was still steamed at that fight we never finished.
There was another knock. I shouldn't have been surprised since Steve warned me he'd call her, but it was Jill Hower. Jill and I had dated off and on from high school until I was twenty-three, and everybody said we were going to get married, but the heavy mystery of Dad's advice about not marrying the first person you slept with terrified me. I told her to come on in, and she looked at the couch like she remembered it, and I could tell she felt weird too.
I told her Steve and Bill were out back and she asked if I didn't mind if a couple of her friends came in; they wouldn't stay. I told her great, sure, no problem, and she yelled out the front door and some body sulked past me without so much as a hello, followed by a slow-moving, affectionate couple. They brought beer, and the slow-moving couple smelled like pot.
I followed everybody out back, and when I came through the screen door Steve asked if I didn't mind if he went to his car and got his CD player, and I said sure, that's good. Carl had taken off his shirt and was swimming around with the four girls, and Bill took his shoes off and dangled his legs in the water.
Steve got the music going, and everybody was hanging out but not talking. I made everyone else fight over the other three chairs. I said "kapu" when I got up for more beer. When you stood up and wanted to save your chair you said "kapu." Once I moved away, though, I realized no one said it outside of Missoula. But most everybody was getting into the pool, and so there wasn't much call for "kapu" anyway. It made me nervous at first, all of them swimming, but washed away with beer.
Steve decided to get in the pool too, without kapuing, and Jill pried herself away from her friends and Bogarted his chair. One of her friends, the sulky one, told her he was going on a beer run, and Jill asked if anybody wanted some. I was looking at the stars, and she asked what I was looking at and I said Cancer the Crab. She looked up too. I could tell she was trying to follow the trajectory of my eyes. And she said she was a Cancer. I told her, "A malignant one." And then felt bad.
There was something abusable about Jill. I liked to think that it wasn't that old business about how guys treat girls they've slept with, but it probably was. Moreover, Jill hadn't really changed. She'd take classes at the university and drop out when they got hard or she got a new boyfriend. She must have had twenty semesters under her belt, but no ambition. Not that ambition is any gauge.
Jill asked if I needed someone to talk to. I said no and felt even worse. We sat there and I tried to think of some kind of conversation that would show her there were no hard feelings but all that came out was that I couldn't believe how nice the weather was for this time of year.
And Jill agreed.
Bill passed around a joint that smelled so pungent I didn't know if I could take some, not to mention the whiz-quiz at work in two weeks, but I figured it beat talking. We were high by the time Jill's friend came back. He seemed more animated than when he'd arrived, and he told everybody that the Roxy was on fire, and there weren't any fire trucks there. One of the girls let out a college-girl squeal and the other two said they wanted to see and they got out of the water one-two-three and put towels around their little butts, and put on their shoes and left a shiny trail of water behind as they walked through the gate.
The Roxy was only three blocks away. It was the oldest theater in Missoula. I remember seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey there the first time I got stoned; my sophomore year of college. I was confused about why the apes were dancing around that big black rock shaped like a hard-on; a "monolith." The Roxy used to show a lot of cool movies and they'd rebuilt it to look 1950's. We could see the sky getting lighter over the fence, and then I heard the sirens and people yelling and horns honking.
Steve turned up the radio, and Jill wanted to go see the fire, but I said I had to piss and that I didn't want to deal with crowds. She left with her friends, but they came back, even before I went to the bathroom. They must have just stood in the front yard.
I "kapu'd" my chair again and could hear Jill explaining that "kapu" meant nobody could take my seat as I walked inside. By this time, I guess, it was our own word.
I was going to turn off the lights as I went through the house, but I was feeling stoned and turning off lights didn't seem to make much sense. I followed the little puddles of water down the hall and took a piss and when I came out there was Deb.
She looked as out of place as she did out of breath. She was going to hyperventilate. She teetered on her heels for a minute and then told me I had sunk lower than her lowest of low, low expectations. I assume she meant all the people and beer cans, which I admit, looked bad. And then she said she'd be by with Ray Milliken in the morning and I'd better be cleaned up. She walked into the kitchen and tried to formulate something to say, but only mustered something about you people, which she repeated several times before slamming the front door.
Bill came in and asked if maybe they should, you know, leave. I said not to worry and this is my goddamned house as much as it is Dad's and then corrected myself and said Deb's. Bill and Steve and Jill all knew Deb so it was no big deal.
I wanted to swim and turned around and went back into Dad's room and found a pair of his trunks. They were red and yellow and the thought of wearing them when a short while ago they were covering his private parts made me feel funny about putting them on naked, so I left my boxers on.
When I got outside everybody was out of the pool, either drinking beer or looking at the Roxy. Jill was holding hands with one of her friends, and Bill and Steve and Kathleen were sitting around talking.
Even drunk I dove in sharp and smooth like Dad had taught me and made very little splash. The water felt colder than I thought, but my body acclimatized. I dove. Like I used to when I was a kid and Dad would throw my allowance quarters into the deep end.
I like swimming at night. The pool lights aren't bright; you can stare right into them without hurting your eyes. And you can be more inconspicuous than in the day when the sun shows off your love-handles, soft stomach and pale skin.
One summer I burned so bad I got these yellow, runny blisters all over my back. I cried for days, even while Dad explained that it wasn't the pain that was making me cry, just the fear it wouldn't go away.
I swam to the side of the pool and asked Jill to get me a beer, please. She handed me one and I noticed my fingers were already wrinkled like an old man's. I stood in the shallow end and drank until I could feel beer sloshing around, and then dove back into the water.
I was tired and loose, and as I paddled around I felt I wanted to stay forever. I rolled onto my back and looked at the Montana sky: on one side, coruscating from the Roxy and looking like the sunset I'd seen on the way into town, and on the other, indigo with a million tiny stars, and I felt like I must be seeing what Dave saw in 2001 when he gazed into the futuristic monolith.
I was losing Dad. As soon as I went back to Nevada, as soon as I left the house, he'd be gone. It was the feeling I got when Mom was at the Mayo. After a point there was no use thinking she was coming back and I let her go.
I floated out to the middle of the pool, my face breaking the plane of water. The ripples I made when I jumped in had hit the sides of the pool and ricocheted back softly. Pieces of ash from the Roxy lit on the water and then all-at-once they tore into a hundred pieces and scattered. The water pushed against my ears and I could feel the bass from the stereo and the people talking pool-side. But I couldn't hear . I made out the silhouette of the apple tree and focused in on the shape of one apple. I thought for a moment that I was like that late-summer apple. Barely hanging in the water on my imaginary stem. And with one soft little tug, I'd come down.