Monday, January 23, 2012

Closed Casket Introspective: A True Story

I’ve shared two things that are very important to where I’m going with this. You see, I open my author interviews with the following question: if you were in possession of a Six Demon Bag, what would yours contain? Not all of these posts are simply random blog entries pulled from my life and experiences. I am, in essence, slowly disclosing what’s in my Six Demon Bag. I’ve just been taking the scenic route and laying some groundwork.

The first important thing I shared stemmed from when I experimented with conjuring the Devil. If you’ve been paying attention and reading along you’ll probably remember it. If you haven’t take a moment to go back and read the post. Or not. I’m going to disclose it here anyway, so if you want the Cliff’s Notes version proceed to the next paragraph in an orderly fashion...

The most important part of that particular story was at the end. In fact, I recounted the experience just to make that point. I was convinced, at a young age, that I had inadvertently left a portal between the worlds open. That, in my panic and haste, I had allowed very dark, very evil things to cross over. That, as my High School creative writing teacher would have said, was the "main idea", the nexus around which the entire tale of young Todd versus the Devil revolved. Keep this in mind.

The second important element may have seemed like something I’d just mentioned in passing. An seemingly offhand bit of history that didn’t actually pertain to our night of terror on the riverbank. But my point in sharing that memory wasn’t actually the fear that night instilled. I wanted to show how close my mom’s side of the family had been back them. How intertwined we were in each other’s lives. How much I loved them (and still do). The piece you’ll want to take away from that entry is near the beginning, when I mention a series of unexpected and tragic deaths rocked our family. Keep this in mind as well.

I’m going to let you know ahead of time that for a while chronological order gets a bit scrambled. I know what happened, I know how I felt. Yet time itself seems like this hazy, abstract idea. It’s like all these memories are puzzle pieces adrift in the sea. I can see each piece distinctly, can tell where the pictures bleed into the edges. But I can never quite get them to all fit together, can never make the image whole again no matter how hard I try. Almost thirty years later, I’m just now starting to accept this.

Flashpoint: slushy rain drizzling from a sky as gray and cold as that rocks jutting from the hillside like the exposed bones of some ancient beast. The rain streams down black umbrellas and the resulting hiss sounds a lot like radio static. The pastor's sermon fades in and out, his broadcast too weak to do anything other than hint at words of comfort to those who huddle around him. A prayer, a eulogy, a list of items to pick up at the store once the service has concluded: it could be any of these things… or none. Words are ideas and ideas no more substantial than the fading memory of a dream. In this world, in this particular little corner of the universe, nothing is more concrete, nothing is more real, than the long, black box which glistens in the rain.

"I'm here." he whispers. "It's dark and it's cold and I'm alone. What's really changed? I'm still inside my own little box while the rest of the world looks on from the other side. Only this time, you're the ones crying."

In the distance, I notice three shriveled veterans standing on the hillside. They cradle rifles in their arms like infants; their uniforms seem loose and baggy but they stare straight ahead, as proud and silent as when their bodies actually filled these clothes perfectly. On the ground, like a faithful dog by its master's feet, is a boom box, its shiny metal seeming out of place in this field of drab colors and granite markers.

"They've been there. They've seen what I have. They know."

Around me, I see only familiar faces: grandparents, my mom and sister, various relatives with forgotten names; my cousin with her head buried into my aunt's shoulder, both of their faces puffy with tears yet somehow drained and shrunken at the same time. Where are the people I don't know? Did he have no friends, no coworkers who could take time from their busy schedules to attend? Was there no one here who hadn't at least been glimpsed at family reunions or seen milling around in the background of yellowing photos in my grandmother's hutch?

"I'm still in my own little box…"

We all huddle together: for warmth, for comfort, for a show of solidarity among those left among the living. We huddle together amongs the wreaths and flowers, beneath the umbrellas and the green tent covering the grave. A single unit, yet each of us alone in our own thoughts, memories, and emotions.

This much I know. My uncle watched Lonesome Dove on VHS obsessively over the past two weeks; then he announced to my aunt and cousin that he was going out onto the porch to shoot himself. While they both watched from the kitchen door, he placed the barrel of the shotgun in his mouth and coaxed out its load like a cut-rate whore.

His blood had dripped between the slats of the deck and pooled in a rusty coffee can of nuts and bolts below. Bits of brain and bone were plastered to the side of the trailer and, days later, the buzzing of flies was so loud that it almost seemed as if the sound were vibrating somewhere deep within your head. And that unmistakable stench: a smell almost like a steak dumped in the trash and left to go bad in the August sun.

That much I know.

"And there's so much you don't. So much they won't tell you, so much you'll be left to try to figure out on your own. It's the way of the world and you better get used to it now."

I'm faintly aware that the pastor has concluded the ceremony. One of the old soldiers in the distance bends over, presses the play button on the tape deck, and snaps back to attention. The bugle is familiar, the song instantly recognizable to anyone whose seen a military funeral on TV or the movies. Only someone must have forgotten to put fresh batteries in the player for the notes waver and slur, seeming to drag for a few moments before rushing back to normal tempo only to lose steam again seconds later.

"A fitting soundtrack, don't you think?"

Undaunted, the veterans raise their rifles to their shoulders, ready to carry through with the traditional salute to a fallen brother.

The first of the shots echoes off the hills as my aunt screams, the sound of gunfire penetrating the haze of prescribed relaxants and bringing that terrible morning back into a clear and sharp focus. Three veterans, seven volleys, my aunt covering her ears, her voice raw and piercing as she continues screaming; people stand frozen in time, as if we were all just bit players in some low budget art flick: Closed Casket Introspective… fade to black and scene.

Flashpoint: The room crowded and buzzing with the murmur of fifty hushed conversations all blending into a wordless drone. The air is cool and the scent of flowers overpowering and sweet. Soft strains of organ music play from speakers hidden in the baffling overhead and I am trying to hold back my own tears as I hug my mom, my aunt, my grandmother.

"You've got to be strong." I'm told over and over as people file by. "You've got to be strong for them."

But who will be strong for me, I wonder.

I look toward the front of the room at the five coffins lined in a row. They sit on a raised section of floor, almost like a stage, with soft lights reflecting and glistening on the polished wood. The two largest are on the far left, the remaining three laid out in descending size order: first the powder blue, medium-sized box; next, the smaller tan coffin, and finally the tiny pink one looking so much smaller than any casket has the right to.

I close my eyes for a moment but the images still remain, as if the stinging behind my lids were actually from some sort of magic dust blown in from another realm. It provides me with the ability to see through closed lids, to see through the wood of the coffins, through the liners. I see them all: my aunt and uncle, my three cousins. I see their flesh blackened and twisted, hints of bone contrasting against the charred, hairless skin. In unison, they turn to look at me through hollow sockets and try to reach out to one another but meet only the smooth, silk padding that remains hidden from everyone else. Sometimes, a powerful imagination is a curse…

My eyes snap open, but the image remains like an x-ray seared onto my retinas. They should have put a night light in there for little Jennifer. She was always so afraid of the dark, afraid of what monsters might be hiding in the shadows, waiting for their chance to spring to life. And now it was darker than she had ever known, with no way for Mommy or Daddy to come running when the creatures began their advance.

Perhaps she’d known more than all of us. Perhaps she could steal glances into another place, a world to which anyone above the age of five is no longer privy. Over her three short years, Death had come for her as many times. When she was just a baby, cradled in her mother's arms, crossing a bridge, seemingly asleep but then twisting the way only infants and snared animals can. Her body arching upward and away from my aunt's grasp, tumbling toward the handrail and the gravity of the cold, flowing water so far below… only to be snatched back at the last possible second. Fast-forward almost two years, her chubby little legs practically quivering with the pent-up inertia of their newfound skills. Walking was fun, but running… that was where the true joy lay. She slips through the screen door on my grandparents' porch: no one notices. They continue to smoke and laugh and talk with Sunday lunch still warm in their bellies until the screeching of brakes and blaring of horns mix with the smell of burnt rubber. She straddles the double yellow lines, crying now as relatives dash from the porch amid yells and shouts. She emerged unscathed, thanks to the quick reflexes of the man driving the rusty Dodge, and the monsters slithered back into shadows of the surrounding hills, biding their time.

They finally caught her two weeks before Christmas on a lonely stretch of road miles from the nearest town. They took the form of a man with heavy eyelids and the stench of cheap whiskey surrounding him like a cloud. They slid behind the wheel of a truck jacked up by a lift kit and wove through the back roads and ridges before rolling up and over the station wagon my family were in. The massive tires crushed the doors and windows, flattened the top of the vehicle, and then moved on to compress the gas tank. All it took was one tiny spark, one little ember. They were still alive as the first flames licked at the twisted metal. Still alive as the monsters dissipated into the night like dissolving fog, their work finally done.

Images of them had splashed across the front pages of newspapers statewide and when we left the funeral home to the waiting string of cars with the little flags attached to their hoods, news crews clustered together on the railroad tracks across the road. Their cameras followed us as we filed out the doors, zoomed in as we held on to one another in our cheap suits and dark dresses. The anchormen and women morphed in my mind, their carefully sculpted hair growing coarse and shaggy as noses elongated into snouts lined with razor sharp teeth which gnawed gouges into the bones of pain and suffering.

Later, I would see myself on the nightly news: a lanky teenager with long hair and ill-fitting tie whose overweight aunt leaned against him as they took tiny Geisha-like steps toward the parking lot. Very soon, her husband would be dead as well, finally succumbing to the cancer that had withered his body into the dry husk of a man. And the tall guy with the reddish-brown hair and an almost boyish look to his narrow face? That's my uncle Bobby. You met him on the river bank a few posts back and, if you recall, there's an aneurysm hiding somewhere within the vessels of his brain, waiting to rupture and plunge him into a sleep from which he'll never awaken. But, for now, he's staying close to my grandfather who wobbles forward with his cane.

Like many in this state, the old man was a lifelong coal miner, had delved into the lightless bowels of the planet and cut away chunks of its innards to be hauled back the surface in miniature trains. But it would have its revenge: for, even now, the dust that had swirled in those subterranean passages had begun to stain his lungs and would eventually claim his left eye and sinus passages as its own. The last days of his life would be spent without the benefit of sight and smell; my Grandmother would awaken one morning in the near future with his cool, motionless body pressed against her and then he would descend into the darkness of the earth one final time.

And beneath it all the guilt, the secret belief I’ve never previously confessed to anyone but my wife: you, you, you… you're to blame, messing with forces you never understood, calling to the darkness like a toddler lost in the woods. You brought this, it’s all your fault.

I realize now this was a form of survivor’s guilt. I held myself responsible because it was a way of imposing order onto a chaotic system. In shock and grief, my mind clung to any reason it could find. One some level, part of me needed to believe the span of our lives weren’t really that random. So I assigned responsibility to the only thing I could think of: me conjuring the devil and abandoning the burning candle and mirror.

Entirely irrational for someone who puts so much stock in science, I know. But you have to understand that this felt like Fate had launched a shock and awe campaign against our family. We didn’t have time to really begin coming to terms with the death of one family member before being faced with that of another. Boom Boom Boom. Just like that.

We even had a family discussion around my grandmother’s dinner table one afternoon. They’d moved by then. The house and furnishings were much nicer with a cute little gazebo overlooking the pool in the back yard. Hutches were still present but now they were lined with trophies, certificates, and ribbons my grandfather had won from showing his antique car … porcelain dolls from my grandmother’s collection… framed photos of those we’d lost. So we sat there in the dining room and very softly and very seriously discussed the possibility that our family was cursed.

I was around sixteen or so at that the time and my interests in dark and/or esoteric matters were a well established fact.. I’d studied the writings of Aleister Crowley, was familiar with the tenants of ceremonial magick, and had a working knowledge of voodoo. (in fact, I actually met the love of my life – and future wife – by casting her horoscope in the school cafeteria after our typing teacher had called off drunk again). The bookshelf by my bedside contained translated "Books of the Dead" from both the Egyptian and Tibetan cultures, as well as reference guides to astronomy, the tarot, and alchemy. Severed baby doll heads hung from my ceiling on pieces of twine and an old sewing desk sat in the corner of my bedroom. On the desk was my word processor (this was back when a word processor was a machine, not a program) and reams of paper containing stories of monsters, sacrifice, black magic, vampires, and death.

So I was the defacto "expert" when it came to curses and, as such, all of their questions were directed to me. I gave the facts, shared what I knew about the subject matter. But I never told them them everything. I never hinted at how I truly felt. I simply allowed the guilt to fester inside. If only I’d known then that it would end up poisoning me….

Sadly, this is also a true story.

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