(This is a chapter taken from my book MALACHI JONES. I am including it while I work on a new short story for you guys. Enjoy!)
Myths and Monsters: Myths
Thom seemed filled with his mother as much as I was filled by Malachi. Every day he told me a new tale from his childhood, something that made me admire his mother even more than the mere fact that she loved and respected him. She had a difficult life, and always seemed to pull through in his stories. Times were hard for a deaf widow with four children, but she didn’t give up. She even got a job as a grocery store checkout clerk despite her handicap, so she could support her family. It was there at that job that she met her second husband. She had always been there for Thom, just like Malachi had been around for me.
Malachi herself, of course, always came for a visit when he talked about his mother. She. invisible, sang and hummed softly behind him while he told another tale of hardship, triumph, and love, with some twist of fate, some turn of events. I imagined Thom as an ancient storyteller, a wise old man relating tales around a bonfire, with me on the edge of my seat.
One Saturday afternoon in deep December we were eating lunch in his studio/living room. I made tomato soup with bacon bits and grilled cheese sandwiches. There were no pressing projects, orders to be filled, or apartment building work to be done. As well as being an artist, Thom was one of the partners in a small group of tenants who had pooled their resources and bought the apartment building where he lived away from an absentee landlord, so there was always painting or plumbing or cleaning to be done in somewhere. Malachi had not materialized visually in a few weeks although I could sense her in his apartment with me at times. She didn’t make herself known at my place at all. I didn’t mind- I wasn’t possessive about her and was happy she seemed happy.
“You know, you make grilled cheese just like my mother- double butter and a hot iron frying pan.” He pointed his sandwich towards me. “Num num num!”
“P.O.M. used to make me these for lunch all the time. When I was in high school, we lived right across the street from Donna High School and I could walk home for lunch.”
“Pretty sweet. I mean, that you could skip high school cafeteria food.”
“She cut the crusts off and cut it in half just like you do. It takes me back.”
“That’s kind of like what happens to me. I get reminded of things. It’s like a trigger or something.”
It was the one thing that I couldn’t fully explain. When I got “reminded” of something that happened in the “past” I didn’t just think about it- I relived the entire moment. It wasn’t something that happened to me two years before, ten years before, twenty years before. It was the total moment all over again. I could never see the outcome until the moment was finished so it wasn’t like I could predict things in my memory before they would happen. I was living the same moments- hell I was reliving my entire life through the actual experience again and again. My reality was fractured between time and distance, and had little relation to the linear way most people seemed to experience things. I was really there in the past, not just in a memory. Chalk another one up to Malachi. She taught me to experience life like that in crib-side whispers.
“I’m glad you like the sandwiches.” I leaned back in my chair and put the napkin into my empty bowl. “I wish I could have gone home for lunch, although my mother would have given me the same bologna sandwiches and greasy potato chips just like she gave me to carry to school.”
“P.O.M. always had a hot lunch for me and the girl who lived in the house next door who also ate lunch with us. Her name was Gloria and she had a parrot that could talk.”
“I thought all parrots could talk.”
“I guess they all can, but this was a special one. He would sit in his cage out on their front porch. It faced the school on the side of the building where I had math class. That bird would squawk all morning, calling Gloria over and over again. I sat in algebra and all I heard was ‘Gloria! GLO-ria! Gloooooooooria!’”
“That’s pretty funny.” “I thought it was too until I failed math because I was listening to the bird instead of the teacher.”
“Would you have passed if you paid attention?” “No.”
“Then it wasn’t the bird’s fault, sweetie!”
“What’s odd is Gloria had asthma and smoked.”
“That’s not funny. I have the same two problems thanks to my grandmother teaching me how to smoke when I was eleven years old. She said I was high strung and that it would calm my nerves.” I held out the albuterol inhaler that I kept in my pocket. “It didn’t.”
“Well, I think Gloria smoked pot for her asthma. She always had some special cigarettes that she wouldn’t share. She said it was her medicine.”
“Ha! I don’t know about that. But I’m pretty sure that Gloria was a pothead. I think she taught that bird to call out to her during the school day. Just for laughs.”
“Maybe he really missed her.”
“I guess so.”
“Did you ever have any pets? I mean besides me.”
He broke out in a crooked grin. “Yeah. Sure. You.” He rolled his eyes and stroked his beard. “I had a cat named PC, short for Precious Cat.”
“Naturally.” I laughed and he turned back to .
Thom really enjoyed telling stories about his past, about his mother and family in particular. His determination came from her, he frequently said.
Her name was supposed to be Georgette but the county register misspelled her name making her birth certificate read George Etta. So everyone called her Etta. When Etta was five her own mother died from laudnum, a tincture of opium that she took to relieve her migraine headaches. She soon became addicted to the lulling effects of the drug, and took increasingly more drops for relief until the overdose. The death devastated her father, a poor farmer who could barely handle his other two sons, much less a daughter. His solution was astonishing to me. He took his young girl to the side of a busy road and stayed there with a sign asking people to stop and take her. He gave her away to a man and his wife, strangers who were traveling through Kentucky to Arkansas. Her aunt found the child two weeks later in Arkansas, scared and confused. She went to live with this aunt and one of her brothers who the father couldn’t take care of either. That brother is the one who pushed her into a pond and caused her to lose her hearing at age 14. When she was 17, she left to the aunt to marry Thom’s father, the one who was later murdered by a belligerent neighbor. Her was like a novel in itself. Deaf widow with children during the Great Depression, something right out of a John Steinbeck novel.
I think that is the reason that Malachi seemed to hold such affection for him. She had never materialized or shown herself so much to another person as she did to him which signified to me that she thought he was special. His mama didn’t make junk, and Malachi didn’t like junk- they were a perfect match. I sometimes wondered why she attached to me, because my own mother was a damaged woman, an emotional roller coaster with cigarettes and Jim Beam bourbon.
Lunch was over and I began to clean up the bowls, spoons, and pans that I used to make the soup and sandwiches. Thom fell asleep in his chair, his head thrown back, his breath rattled by snoring. I took off my shoes and headed back for the bedroom to take a nap.
I stepped up to the platform and slowly pulled myself up onto the bed. The sheets were cool and I quickly fell asleep. A few minutes into my nap, I felt a vibration on the end of the bed, like something was jumping up on the mattress. There was a pressure that felt like it was walking up the side of the bed towards me, and something that felt like a soft paw touched me on the side of my left leg. This lasted for the entirety of my “nap” and afterwards I went back into the living room unrested and undone.
Thom was still snoring in his chair, his head thrown back in the same position as he had it when I left for a nap. I patted him on the back of the head just hard enough to wake him up but not piss him off.
“Hey what’s the big idea? Do you have a cat?”
Thom looked up, a little groggy from his impromptu sleep. “Cat? We were just talking about my cat.”
“I thought you said that cat was dead.”
“Then why did I feel it in your bedroom? It rubbed against me while I was trying to sleep!”
“That’s not a live cat.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Well, you’re ‘Mister I-believe in ghosts’ so you tell me. You’ve been around here a lot so you should know.”
“Are you saying that the cat in your bedroom is a ghost?”
“PC died in the late 1980s. I never got another cat.”
“So what touched me in the bedroom was…”
“PC. Dead all these years and come back to haunt you!” He laughed and got up to go in the kitchen to fix a cup of coffee.
I blocked his path and cocked my head. “You’ve said that before. I know I’m a haunt magnet. If something weird is going to happen, it’s going to happen around me.”
“Something weird is going to happen if you don’t let me go get my coffee!” He kissed me on the cheek, nudged past, then turned and looked back. “I’ve seen more in the way of spirits since I met you than I did in all my life, but I did have some experiences before.”
“Like a ghost cat for one thing. Other things too. Now let me get my coffee.”
A few minutes later I was sitting on a stool staring at the television which was blaring endless news. Thom kept the cable tuned to the 24 hour New York news channel that replayed the local news until something else happened. Then they would run that story over and again until another event. He found it soothing to listen to the reporters all day, always knowing the temperature, seeing if the subways were running even when he wasn’t going to be using them. It drove me to distraction.
Thom came in from the kitchen with his cup of coffee and sat down. “Now you wanted to know if I had strange things happen to me. Let me tell you about something that happened when I almost died.” “You almost died?”
“Uh huh. On more than one occasion. But this time was when I was visiting an aunt and some cousins in Tennessee the summer I turned nine years old. I thought I had a stomach ache but it turned out to be a ruptured appendix. The doctors thought I was going to die before they could remove it. My mama had to travel from Donna, Texas to Memphis on the Greyhound bus. By the time she got to the hospital I was pretty sick.
“Mama sat at my bedside every day and spent the night every night. She was there for three weeks while I fought the infection. There weren’t any antibiotics back then. I started getting a little better day by day. I remember going to sleep each night with Mama holding my hand.
“My aunt would visit every few days too. I had to stay in bed and not run around and play, which was hard for a nine year old, even a very sick one. My aunt would bring me pages to color, puzzles, and eventually when school started, she brought me schoolwork.”
“You missed school? How long were you in the hospital?”
“I was in from the beginning of August until the end of the next February. I didn’t go back to school until the next fall.”
“So you were held back?” “Not really. I went through fourth grade only once, just a year late.”
“Anyway, that’s not the strange thing. Let me finish. My mother had to go back to Texas when school started to take care of my sisters and step-father. But I was still very sick and couldn’t travel home. My aunt tried to come over to the hospital every day, but sometimes she couldn’t make it. She had to take care of her own five children, her mother, and my uncle. so there were some days that the only people that visited me were the nurses who treated me like I was special.
“I remember there was one nurse that was really nice. She said her name was Nurse Mary. She came by every day that she was on duty, giving me special treats like a plate of cookies she made or a pile of comic books and movie magazines that her own child, a little boy she said was around my age, had finished. And every night before she went home she would come by in her civilian clothes to say goodbye. She had this one dress that was navy blue with red piping, and there were little plastic cigarettes for buttons. I thought it was the most beautiful dress I had ever seen because of those buttons.”
“Sounds kind of different.”
“People didn’t think about smoking in the same way that they do now. Nearly every adult I knew smoked including my P.O.M.”
“Same here. I grew up during the 60s and 70s in South Carolina where they gave out full-sized packs of cigarettes as freebies at the State Fair. Both my parents smoked. Daddy used to smoke a pipe. I sort of liked the way that smelled but my mother didn’t very much. She smoked Carltons end off of end, same as you.”
“My mama only smoked one cigarette a day. She would lie down and take a nap around two o’clock, and when she got up she’d have a Coke and a Lucky Strike. But the doctor made her give that up when she turned 80 a few years ago.”
“So what about this nurse?”
“Yes. Nurse Mary. She would come into my room every evening to kiss me good night. She’d stop and put on bright red lipstick first, then kiss me on the side of my cheek. She always left lip prints. I had such a crush on her, you know, because my mother couldn’t be there and my aunt had her own family to car for, so the nurse sort of became my substitute mother figure. I kept the tissues where I wiped away the lipstick from my cheek. I put them in the drawer in my bedside stand between the pages of a movie star magazine she left for me.
“This went on for a couple of months. I kept getting better and better. Everyone was relieved I didn’t die because back then a lot of folks did die from appendicitis. The medicine just wasn’t there. It took me a long time to get over the effects of that infection. I believe they called it septic or something. Anyway I kept getting better, until one day I was finally ready to go to my aunt’s house for a couple of weeks to regain my strength before I could go back home to Texas.
“It was the evening of the last night I was going to be in the hospital. I waited and waited for the nurse who kissed me goodbye to come. I made her a card with the crayons and paper she had brought to me and I really wanted her to see it, to show her how grateful I was that she treated me like her own little boy.
“About an hour after she usually came another nurse came into my room to check up on me. She brought in the food tray for dinner, but there wasn’t anything special on it, no cooky, no pie, no candy, just hospital food, which was bad even back then. I asked the woman about Nurse Mary, where she was. I told her I wanted to say goodbye and thank her for the cookies, candy, and stuff.
“Well that nurse stared at me like I was crazy. She told me that there was no Nurse Mary, and that as far as she knew, I had no cookies, candy, cake or otherwise since I had been hospitalized. It was not hospital policy to give the patients a lot of sweets to eat.
“I told her that every night when my aunt or my mama couldn’t come by, Nurse Mary always came by and gave me a big kiss after putting on her lipstick. The nurse went and got another nurse and she also told me that there wasn’t a Nurse Mary, and that nurses weren’t allowed to wear makeup at the hospital. She couldn’t think of any of the other staff who would break that rule. I showed them the lipstick stained tissues. No one there could ever tell me who Nurse Mary was and to this day, I wish I knew. I think she was my guardian angel looking out for me. It could have been all the drugs they gave me. So to answer your questions, yes I’ve run into weird things before, but Malachi is the weirdest.”
Malachi was definitely the weirdest thing I had ever met too, only I didn’t say that back to him. When I was a child I thought that everyone was the same as me, that when they went to sleep there were things that danced in the dark around their bed like what happened to me every night. As I got older and more aware of people, I realized I was different, but I also realized that I wasn’t alone, that there were others who could sense things. My parents were religious Christians who didn’t believe in the paranormal and ridiculed me for being afraid of the dark and what it could contain. They didn’t see what I saw, things and people lurking in a dark world just beyond the corner of my eyes, leaving smells and tastes of shadowy lives elsewhere lived.
My mother, like me, was a magnet for weird things, but the weirdness manifested itself mostly by the drama that revolved around her. I think her unhappy upbringing as a child of divorce in the 1940s gave her cockeyed view of the world, one in which everyone had a motive to lie to her. History affects everyone. Mama broke down in tears and threatened to leave the family more than once, sometimes locking herself in her car for hours. She’d throw a real tantrum if anyone sat in her accustomed place on the couch, pounding her fists on her thighs and stomping her feet. She was the generator of negative drama, and like Saturn, rings of stress and satellite moons of bitterness followed her orbit. I learned a valuable lesson- avoid crazy people at all costs. I learned the scrambled egg scent that came off of unstable people because it was so strong around Mama it made my eyes water. It made bells and explosions go off in my head. Malachi opened my eyes to the way to sense things, but she really didn’t have to tell me that the cloud Betty June lived in was toxic. I knew without her pointing it out.
Anyway, I knew Malachi loved Thom because of his history and his stories. She listened to everything, and she remembered all of it. You, reader, don’t have to remember anything but that this moment is past, and to get it back all you need to do is reread these pages. This part of the history lesson is over now. There’s a mountain of events to get everyone to this point in life, and it’s hard to know where to end the string. So it ends with me, and that’s why I’m telling you these stories too.