Gray Area

By Krista Madsen

By twilight, I could organize the time that remains in the way of my wife: maintaining her coupon system on the dining room table – one pile for the expired, another expiring soon, the third expiring further off, but never exceeding year’s end, that’s as far as they ever go. I could check the dates, perhaps weekly, and shift more of the discounts for things I’d never buy anyway into the expired pile.

Or, I could organize time in the way of oncologists: Two years ago, they gave me only months to live. The malignancy had spread beyond their ability to target it locally; chemo would just make me sick. No one could have imagined I’d still be here now, voice rising octaves from the hormones, moody like a pre-teen. Developing breasts; becoming mother in her absence.

It’s not that their mother is gone exactly, it’s just that she was never really here to begin with. She never left much of an impression – the woman couldn’t even bruise a peach – and then she just wafted off, slowly evaporating until she was invisible. I’m sure she’s lingering in the attic rafters or, more mundanely, under the bed among the dust motes and storage bins, but I haven’t heard a peep from her in nearly a decade and there’s just too much stuff for her to be misplaced in.

Now that they’ve confirmed the universe is expanding, I understand it’s harder for the girls to get here as often or how I’d like (together, when I’m awake), the distance growing and their schedules so dense. I feel the tectonic plates shifting under the floor boards, the space between the coupon piles on the table increasing, neighbors sliding into their own new neighborhoods as we find ourselves all islands.image1-small-16

I see some of them, these former neighbors, clinging to their edges, becoming sunrise and sunset worshippers, gravitating to the coming and going of the light as if to church. I too used to worship these creative outbursts of the sky when it wasn’t all I had. I can’t just stare at it like it’s some television set when there’s so much left to do. My weakness forever weakening, skin covered with bedsores from so much sleep, I am exhausted from any exertion. My eyes can no longer dark-adapt to night or bear the bright light of day so I find myself only able to work by the softer, grainier light of dawn and dusk in the two 20-or-so-minute blocks I am awake in the course of 24 hours. Even a small project requires a long series of installments, lining up desperate for their chance, so it’s essential to be picky.

To help me prioritize, I make lists, maps, sketches on paper scraps, equations.

Atop my bucket list – do before death – is carving a Neptune to finally complete the pair of figureheads flanking my mantle. On the left side of the basement boat room mantle since the girls were little kids has been a lone mermaid bust whose wooden breasts I once modeled from a nude model in a men’s magazine. Carved into the length of the mantle, an old barn beam, is a fleet of masted sailing ships. On the right there has for decades been a space I intend for the muscly bearded sea god.

I’m eager to share my progress with the girls; I also know they won’t appreciate the effort.

One arrives by night and the other by day – both when I’m sleeping, just a wall’s depth away – and they skim off the top, taking bricks they’ll shellac for a paperweight, circuit boards for lamp shades, empty paint cans for utensil holders. They say they’re doing me a favor, upcycling their father, trying to make a dent in this legacy of junk they resent that I’m leaving for them to deal with. They surface in my dreams as harpies, pirates, circumnavigating my day in tighter and tighter rings, alarming me with their boldness, their beauty.

One of them tends bar until ungodly hours. The sorrow swallowed with the last warm swish of beer in the last patron’s last glass always clings to the area around her eyes.

The other – light hair, slimmer, the one you’d think would be the face of the operation but instead she’s its brain – cranks the tenement storefront gate back up sometimes only hours after her sister lowered and padlocked it, in order to accept the deliveries, call in liquor orders, bicker with the landlord about his crew who leave the basement door open and pinch her tools and inventory, and write letters in opposition to the sanitation fines for their alleged illegal mingling of business bottles with residential trash.

They fight over what’s worse, dealing with the customers or the money, each telling me the other has it easier, and I weigh in – in the dusk, over the phone, both of their handwritten notes before me on the table summing up what they pillaged while I slept in the next room – that they both win; it all sounds like the worst kind of awful; and I had best be going. Then they start defending it of course, sticking up for their right to complain about their life without it being called complaining.

Why choose such work? I remember the one visit they came together for – nearly two years ago, when they sat shoulder to shoulder on the sheet-covered loveseat and asked me if I might support this sudden dream of theirs.
See, Dad, it’s no ordinary bar, they pleaded, it has this theme. And they described their poison idea, just a playful thing to trot out for costume parties, they said. One would dress up as Madame Bovary with her arsenic and the other could be Cleopatra with an asp, on months with a 31rst. “Pick your poison,” the flyers would advertise, and they laughed. But I found myself, despite girding myself against them, impressed with the business plan, professionally bound, a whole section of market research they had somehow conjured in the last three weeks during a trip to New Orleans. I gave them the $10,000 they needed to sign the lease and of course didn’t wish them to fail but never imagined they’d do anything but.

I’m sure they must be relieved they asked for money before the verdict came from the doctors. They haven’t asked for any more since, which means they’re either stubborn, cancer-silenced, or succeeding. They used to come and really load up on things they thought they could sell – my binoculars, the silver baby spoons passed down through the ancestors, the water-stained Calder poster – but now they are just digging for the frivolous, minor items to support a shabby chic bar decor.

They open windows, air things out; I worry about the definitive loss of whatever’s left of their mother and re-shutter myself when I awake. In the basement, they later tell me, they corner whatever rat or opossum they make eye contact with and try to beat it toward the back door with a broom. I explain I’m at peace with these things; we can coexist. I say this is what you attract when you become crepuscular.

I imagine myself part of some dying breed whose members never get together. We who are living out our sentences, toying with the terminal, we who settle ourselves into the padded, softer spaces surrounding the comings and goings of the sun and moon but cannot tolerate actual presence. There are fireflies at day’s end, birdsong particular to the morning and to the vespertine. We don’t mind that the bottom feeders, the scavenging animals, gather here as well, taking whatever we had reserved for ourselves to eat, parasites to a colony of isolates.

Some of us practice the foxtrot, some sing with the birds, some snap hardened tubes of oil paint; we all collapse. We sleep. We wake and dance again, wincing as our bedclothes drag against the sores. We know our daughters are coming but that we still won’t actually see them. That there will never be any direct communication. We don’t drink, haven’t really supported that business we supported. We’ll read the notes they leave; try to balance the ledger of all that’s left to take care of against the items that have been taken. Neptune’s shaping up into some last gesture. Death of course is coming, it’s always been coming, but as we get closer and it’s time to decide the contents of our luggage, the idea of luggage, or even decision, becomes increasingly absurd; we have less control over or inclination to care about the way we used to try organize ourselves, how we used to lay claim to such a thing as time. With no hope of getting our estate into order, carving a wood block – yes – that we can try.

I picture these proud wooden busts thrusting out from mantle ends as if their hearts are massive, blood flooding the empty spaces of the universe until there’s no space left. Their mermaid and king mouths look as if they might open and release something meaningful, some song, something to sum it all up, screams, or just bubbles.

By twilight, the river is the same color as the air, the pavement, the aluminum siding, the lawn, the counters, the closets and the surface of everything is pixelated as if you could turn a knob and change the focus.

It’s not true that you go toward the light when you die, and we should know because we are on the constant approach. We’ve always been dying, we will always be dying, and there is no true path when the arrows point outward in every direction.

We the dying breed no longer drive. They are building these state-of-the-art bridges we’ll never cross. When the wife was here and the girls still lived with us I got rid of our boat, befriending people with boats instead of mooring to the trouble of one. But the friends with boats drifted off.

Bar ownership – now that seems to me rather like something that owns you. Bars contain the opposite of embracing the truth about life (which is: death). Denying the night, crossing limits, surpassing tired, past drunk, past hungry, past consciousness, pairing up with someone only more attractive by candlelight. She of the night shift says she thought she’d hide out there in the dark behind her masks but in fact she’d built herself a stage. She of the day shift says even people who start off looking attractive get their flaws revealed in the light of day. The poison theme, they claim, is like a truth serum, keeping people a little more sober, on guard, slightly afraid. So their bar did embrace reality, if only thematically, theatrically.

I once asked them to get their hands on some hemlock for me when I was first diagnosed and they refused, saying they didn’t have any anyway, didn’t I remember, it’s just a joke, seriously. They looked at me closely then, worried. I told them they needn’t be, I was just making light of things that are overly heavy. I wouldn’t think of adding any more to their burden by leaving myself behind too.

The house is its own boat now – cargo-packed with the totality of everything its inhabitants ever touched, loved, used, neglected, and didn’t get around to discarding – is this what it amounts to? – someone’s fingerprint grazing the dust on the lid of canned peaches in syrup, wooden yardsticks, the workbench vice, milk crates of lace-up skates in every size the girls ever wore, Audubon magazines, a medicine cabinet rusted shut, VCRs, a lost wife’s yarn balls, the old board games, rolled carpet scraps, descendants of descendants of descendants of pet hamsters – and, call it what you will, art: I’ll soon put the Neptune in prow position and we’ll see if the whole contraption budges. If we might push out toward that bar.

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