Thomas Denis Gibney

FICTION

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POETRY

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SOUND

The Convalescence

 

Δ

The house occupies an auspicious corner of Amish green, tucked behind a Bi-Rite drive-thru pharmacy and a place called the Mermaid Motel with the sclerotic look of a disused saloon. The paint is slightly peeling, the corrugated tin roof of a makeshift add-on garage now darkened under the clouds. It is just far enough from the road, a certain Bahia Vista, which affords nothing of either a vista or a bay, as to reside in a space of nearly complete and humming quiet. Two steps behind the clover-shaped clump of boxwoods and sawgrass that hugs the Rite Aid and its papal assemblage of Escalades, Oldsmobiles, Corollas, Hyundais, F-150s with jacked-up rims, an oddly-enough golfcart wallowing in the sauna of a 4Runner’s smoke—and you stumble down the slope and hit the creek at its foot. Like a mote, the creek rings the street that rings the house. Farther on, it doubles back along the eastern edge of the yard. Then into the pond stretching from porch to mangrove-choked woods. The Escalades and Oldsmobiles et al. grunt and idle in the clouds of their discharge. Creased paper bags intone a soft crumpling noise as they pass from hand to salivating hand, from drive-thru booth to suntanned patron. It occurs to one that this could be a scene from a rap video.

Kaylee Prince is seated on a plastic Lady Vols folding chair. Her line of vision hovers directly above a casket draped in black velvet cloth, projecting toward a vanishing point of violet jacaranda and regal live oak. The chair is a clinical, boiled-egg white, the odd beer stain laminated on the plastic-wrapped cushy-seat now creasing into a Rorschach-wrinkled mold of her backside. Her posture is almost baroque in its symmetry. The vista: like a botched Manet caking in the humidity of a brewing storm.

It is early June in Sarasota, Florida.

There is the house. There is the concrete slab of porch. Trinkets dangling from the rafters: a festooned dreamcatcher, a painted rubber vampire bat, a hammock. There are clotted brushstrokes of brambles and undergrowth. There’s the pond, licking the edges. There is the yard beside the pond and the thicket beyond it. A small tangelo grove, a garden. Misshapen rows of lawn chairs, tree stumps, bean bags, passable Goodwill La-Z-boys, facing the casket. K.P. sits there like an uncut marble, honey hair long and seriffed around the ears. Surrounded by East Tennessee’s finest taxon of flab: pockmarked, loofa-faced gents sweating through their pelts; chinless, Botero figurines moving like ballerinas in vaseline; elderly specimens with necks as red and elastic as gobbles, pearl necklaces swallowed beneath folds of skin. The place is like a firing range of projectile smokeless tobacco.

The house itself is large. Rooms and floors cubby in and on top of one another like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. A panoply of fire escapes, rope ladders, and conch-shellish stairworks rise from the overcast green and into the charmed embrace of an elm. They lead to obliquely-jutting tarpaper rooftop patios; crows’ nests of hanging cacti; balconies, nooks; a Rapunzel’s chambered spire of a bedroom; the cobbled ladder of a treehouse: cobbled against the elm’s flank. This is all visible from across the street. Compared to the awkward, circumambulatory shuffling of these cottontailed folk making requisite noncommittal gestures around the casket, K.P. takes it in with a face void of expression or affect. Her mouth is drawn taut, her eyes blue-green as the pond that yawns before her. Reflected in those eyes, a stoic egret poses in tadasna on a mangrove. K.P. sits, still as a headstone: only half-listening to her mother’s voice pittering around her at various ingratiating frequencies. She’s thinking what it would be like to lie in a grave, covered in dirt—extremely cold, for example, or insufferably, infernally hot???

 

“…And can you imagine what I felt like then?”

“God bless her heart.”

“And were they just hollering and carrying on?”

“….And they were just hollering and carrying on.”

“I’ve heard what a spectacle…”

“…And you know how the coloreds love their funerals.”

“God bless her heart.”

 

K.P. is not colored.

Neither is her mother.

Neither, either, is a single dame or sire comprising this gathering.

 

A man who was probably in his day either an American football linesman or a professional competitive eater has hoisted, along with several other men of comically apposite build, the marbled casket into the ground. The rest teeter anxiously in ringed small talk. One dame wants to give her varicose veins a rest and looks at the stump and the orangish fungi pluming from it and thinks twice. Almost without exception, it seems the go-to banter for second cousins twice removed has been exhausted in every circle. The juicy spits fill the air with a cricket-like chorus, call-and-response-like, in lieu of the banter. Sandy-haired June and gel-haired Zeb sit together near the front. Carolyn paces between them and what appears to be a kind of pulpit. Jacquelyn’s voice pitters. The casket-hoisters are standing aloof wondering what to do next. Mary Louise is somewhere in between, as firm and silent as an ancient tree. Her hair is an elegant, silvery white. The lines on her face play the part. Simple pearl earrings, a thin gold necklace slipped beneath her black dress, where a locket hides. A frankly enormous rock on her marble-white finger. An indiscernible opacity carved in her eyes.

 

“…and the worst part was, they actually started dancing—” Jacquelyn’s voice pitters, as if on pins.

 

It is early June in Sarasota, Florida. The sky is on the verge. The confederacy of suits and sundresses is beginning to eye the brunch spread…

 

 

 

This happened in some sort of order: Kaylee Prince at the window of the new 7th Ave bedroom that’s been prepared for her, the pillows and the 320-thread-count Egyptian cotton comforter thrashed about cause she’s never made it before, why start now? It’s a small act of defiance against her being here, where no TN-green mezzanines unfurl beyond the window. Below her, summer blows and burns on bubblegummed sidewalks she’s never seen the likes or the cracks of before, not like this, not like she imagined. The difference between Manhattan and Brooklyn means about zilch to her, though she’s sure to find an impassioned opinion on the subject. To her, Park Slope means Brooklyn, roughly, and New York, more or less, and the cold and hasty North, as a matter of geography. The curtains are still. A floral pattern, looking something like lilies she’s sketched in some college class thus far, though she wouldn’t be able to say for sure. Whether they’re lilies. The only thing to offset their posturing is the massive ecru bookcase from the only other bedroom it’s ever occupied—lovingly chipped and stretched against the wall straight from the Dixieland itself. Even skeletal, without its books, it comforts. How they hauled it all the way from Nashville and got it up the two flights of this baking Brooklyn brownstone is a matter of pure speculation. Kaylee’d torn straight across to this, her “room”, and hit the stereo switch with an anger that surprised even her. Jacquelyn’s voice had assumed the hollowness of a PCP tube, Jacquelyn not looking at but rather past her daughter, out the window, the receiver still in her hand. Kaylee didn’t mind that it was Joe Simon on Northern Soul’s Classiest Rarities that piped out with a chipper unrequited gusto from the speakers. She’s been through three of such rarities when her cell vibrates against the ecru.

A sprint of the hand to grab it.

“John—”

“Kayles.”

“It’s you.”

“Peepaw’s dead.”

“I know.”

“You know?”

“I’m home. I mean—”

“Is it real this time?”

“I thought the same thing. But apparently.”

“Man.”

“I know.”

“Who told you?”

“Mom. I’m at home.”

“And Angelica?”

“Yeah, she knows.”

“And Mary L??”

“Her too.”

“Jesus, why am I always the last one to find out?”

“About Peepaw dying?”

“It’s like I’m not even part of the family. Wait—where are you?”

“You didn’t hear about the last couple times till last either.”

“Was mom hysterical?”

“I think she’s numb to it now.”

“Mom was hysterical on the phone. She couldn’t get a word out. Eventually she had to hand the phone to dad.”

“Like the last two times.”

“Yeah, but at least then it ended up being a joke.”

“Only once. He only faked it once. The other time he was literally his liver was spitting all over the place.”

“I wish I had seen him again.”

“…”

“…Kaylee, you alright, sis?”

“…”

“…I heard about what happened. This is some shit timing, isn’t it. I’m sorry I haven’t called in a while.”

“I’m alright.”

“Now we have an excuse to see each other.”

“This place is weird, John. It’s like there’s a wall in every room. Right down the middle. Like in the middle of the room.”

“…”

“Mom and dad have this weird thing going on. I don’t know what to make of it.”

“Like, fighting?”

“No. Like a wall. Or a mirror. I don’t know what I’m trying to say.”

“Where are you?”

“It’s like they’re bringing the wall in the room with them every room they go. You can feel it as soon as any one of them walks in.”

“Oh. You’re at the new pad. Sure you aren’t imagining it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hang in there, sis. I guess I need to start looking at flights—”

“They’re coming over with the will tonight.”

“—get over to y’all as soon as I can—”

“Apparently there’s some lawyer we don’t even know who.”

“—Will you hang in there, sis? Jesus, you scare me sometimes.”

“…”

“I’ll call you from the airport.”

“John.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you think mom and dad are in trouble?”

“Like with the law?”

“I don’t know. Like, trouble with anything.”

“I haven’t heard two cents about it. I haven’t been home in a while, you know that.”

“Don’t you talk to them?”

“Not really. It’s nothing personal.”

“Maybe they need a vacation. I’m starting to think dad works too much.”

“That’s probably one of the truer statements of the day.”

“And all mom does is go to the grocery store.”

“That’s what married women do.”

“…”

“…Kayles, I gotta go. This has been some bum news, Peepaw.”

“Yeah.”

“I was starting to think he couldn’t die.”

“I was starting to think that too.”

“But of course…”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“I’m gonna miss him, Kayles.”

“We’re all gonna miss him.”

“Hang in there, kid. Jesus, keep a watch on mom and dad, will you?”

“That’s all I do here, I think.”

“Alright sis. Chow, then.”

“Bye, John.”

“Bye, Kaylee.”

With cell phones there’s no resolving click or plastic clink of receiver clapping hook—just a blinking, soundless, glowing blue report of the call’s time elapsed. 03:25, to be exact. In blinking digital blue.

The Joytones have come on now and northern soul suddenly is just about the last of things Kaylee wants to hear as she jabs the i-Cloud shut.

 

 

 

Dearly Beloveds—  says the tall character with a tangelo branch laureled in his hair and a ratty vampire cape languishing on his shoulders like it hasn’t come off since last Halloween—  It is with great sadness and yet it’s great joy we convene here today to commemorize the long and cardovascarly challenged life of Lawrence Tabers Prince… a life that was larger than life, we all know, whether we knew, or we didn’t. We knew for instance that Lawrence Tabers was a guiding light in a sea of lighthouses, or so it seemed to all who had fortunes to meet and knew him too, big or small. His was the brightest light, the most sing’lar and the most shinin too. But most of all it was ’is own particklar shine of light gave him the light we all knew so well or perhaps didn’t but couldn’t but be touched by ’is light somehow one way or another, even if we didn’t know it. Lawrence Tabers Prince was this kind of light. He was this kind of shine.

Friends and families, people who traveled far and wide from his native East Tennessee all the way down here to Florida take a look around you today, take a look around………And what do you see? I see the lights of a dozens Lawrences burning right here and now, both symbolic and metaphoric as well. Lawrence hisself woulda done a shrug. He weren’t much for elegies, that we know of, didn’t speak much bout death or its particklars. And so of course how would he take to such a grandioseness this gathering here today, to honor him, his light, a man without qualms about death? without spittles?

 

 

And yet friends and folks our dearly Lawrence must have knew the hooded man was breathin down him. He knew because in his last days he committed his last sentiments to thought and laid out with his own particklar light his true and live intent for what would become his leavin behind when the man came. Among the things he left to us was love. His love, a cosmic love, a deep and shining love that was like the light he left and he was. Lawrence was like a cosmic brother to me. And when I say brother I mean somethin that goes beyond family and blood and even death and life. Brother like in primitive terms, like primordial. Religious and metaphorical too. A kind of brother like that that catches your spittle in ’is palms when it comes down your chin and offers you ’is shirt to wipe with. Brother in the purest meanin of brother. And so it is with a heavy heart that I take upon it the last wishes of our brother-in-light Lawrence and his will to stay true and cosmic even in death, even, right down to the very last—though whether it took him by surprise, as it took us, without a doubt, by surprise, his dying, we’ll never know, if it took him.

His wishes weren’t many. He was a simple man. He wished to be buried right here, away from the troubles of life that—no offense, brothers-in-light- and- Lawrence—had took him so hard upon up TNward. It was during this time I began to know the man they called Lawrence Tabers. By the end of his tenure on this earth I began to know what this man was was he was a seeker. A seeker after anything that moved. And he says to me one day, with his cole eye a glarin, he says, Beaux, he says. Beaux I got a question for you. And I said now what’s that, why so serious Law? And I laughed a little and I hemmed and hawed and but there he was starin at me, cole eye uh-glare. I swallowed my breath. Well don’t keep a man waitin, I said, tell us what’s on your mind, Lawrence sir, I said, and he looked at me unbroken-like and said, Beaux, if I die, if I died, right here and now, would you see to it I don’t leave this place right here, this lawn chair right here, this flank of earth right here, would you see to it? Of course I’ll have you covered in dirt before the blood’s left your face, brother—and I laughed and I chucked around a bit but then seein how he wasn’t sayin nothin what-so-ever I said I got real serious-like and I said, Of course, brother Lawrence, why would you ask a thing like that? But he wouldn’t answer me a pinch. He just nodded like he was satisfied wit’is answer and went right back to put them sunglasses back on and right back went on starin at the great oak right here on down behind me. Two weeks later, I find, and our dearly beloved brother Lawrence done passed.

 

 

But most of all friends and folks this day today is a celebration not a mournin. And so we will celebrate the way Lawrence woulda wanted us to celebrate and how he would celebrate were he here today, at his own funeral, were it him who was doin the celebratin. And so, loved ones and ones we may yet come to love, with that, I humbly supplecate: let us pray

 

 

 

The Greyhound is a tarnished silver relic, a gloomy omega caught in loops of piedmont, tidewater, burned-out ruralia, anachronistic mountain towns and indigo-pleated lowcountry. Kaylee’s made this drive before, the long haul up I-40’s vertebrae of pastures and gas stations. As a child, she memorized the landscapes rising like patchwork quilts out the window. Not two hours outside of Nashville, the land would begin to billow and stretch, the wraithy mists of the Smokys wreathing the segmented limestone shelves and the tree-crowned caps of the Blue Ridge Mountains yawning broad as ancient furnaces. Angelica turning mischievous on her and saying how watch for falling rock is from a legend about this Indian this Falling Rock who jumped to her death out of unrequited love from those craggy shelves and you can see her sometimes leaping, still, over and over from the mountainsides as a warning kind of like it’s like she’s looking out for travelers and Kaylee’s eyes combing the windows for her shadow and John Jr. face down in the morning light in his Egg McMuffin, which makes the car smell funky. Kaylee asks what does unrequieted mean. She especially loved the swift plunge into evening, when the mountains glowed embossed against the sky and night swallowed it all in a matter of minutes. Then the billboards exhorting passengers to consider what part of “thou shalt not…” didn’t you understand? – god emerge hyperelectric between the swaths of Appalachian dark. In between, it is all dark. A dark that Kaylee feels assured by now, in the rattling Greyhound—the same earth’s-end feeling you get at the cusp of a coast’s horizon, everything receding and yet bending back, knowingly.

Kaylee’s made this drive every year for eighteen plus, Nashville to Asheville, Asheville to Durham, Durham to Georgetown and Georgetown to ultramarine Atlantic. But that Atlantic was the muddled glassy coasts of South Carolina, studded with groins and marshland: some real down low country. The Greyhound sputters. There’s this young Rubensian BBW and what must be her three kids clambering on her shoulders like spider monkeys, next to Kaylee. Oh the endlessly lapping roads on which play out close-quartered tests of nerve, for which Greyhounds are infamous. Every June it was the same: the family would all pile into the khaki Ford Expedition with thrice-recalled brake pads, set off before the light had a chance to surface, and wear out the hard pavement of I-40 across the Smokys, up and against the Blue Ridges’ lip, back down the backcountry roads of walnut trees and haunted cotton fields that pock the Old South like boils on a pumpkin. They’d stop at roadside peach stands, Jack doling coins out to each of them: Mary Louisa, Angelica, John, and Kaylee. Kaylee liked to imagine where those coins had been before. And now, where they would go: into the palm of a pruneskinned man, a thatched basket of peaches outstretched in return. Men like him who seemed to sit in bingo chairs on the highway for all of time, men who rolled their own cigarettes, men with lips in permanent paunch, men whose years were dug in circles under their eyes, like rings in a tree. And each year the Dunn-Prince family came, those same men were there on the same chairs, in the same spot, like they hadn’t left never. The coins still jammed in their overalls, Kaylee imagined.

This time Kaylee won’t be stopping at any peach stands. The trips to Carolina suddenly dried up this year—the explanations shadowy, Jacquelyn’s brow in a permanent knot. Now, Kaylee’s on her own, without John’s headphones blasting overheard by everyone, without Mary Louisa’s nagging about she’s trying to read, do you mind?, without Angelica’s “I spy…” games of leg-pulling imagination, early morning light and the fields swooping past—nope, now just a waffle-faced Rubens and the shrieks of monkey girls and boys and the sputter of the Greyhound, which is most notably not an Expedition in any way shape or form. She can still make out, in hindsight, the corkscrews of Jack’s earhairs from behind as he governs the wheel. Kaylee won’t be getting off in Carolina now. This time the drive is longer and deeper into the South—toward that other coast where there’s supposedly a lot of Amish people live there and some snowbirding European tourists or something. In any case: she can’t forget the last time she was there, six or seven months earlier—back when this all started—

 

 

 

 

O Creator, O Sacred Feminine, O Black-Tonguèd Destroyer of the Seven Realms: we offer thee these our portraits, these memoryums, of a man we knew—a gentle soul with a fiery wit, a belly like a whiskey jug, a heart like a dove and a pen like a sword. May he live on in them, may his light continya to visit us, may his love and his dreams of a True Earth endure, and touch us in our hours of darkest need—

 

 

O Heavenly Figger, for this and all of time memoryal we beseech thee, keep thy Lawrence in thy blessings, as thou keepst us in thy blessings alike, and may these remembrances of a man who was so much to many tarry ’is departure so long’s our remembring it requires for us its stayin behind—

 

 

may thou bear him up on wings of eagle and maketh great flyer out of he who done flown—from this coop, from this fiscal coop of the body, this cage of corpral flesh and bone and guts and blood and gnashing of teeth and lit out for calmer more perfect shores—this man, whom we now return to earth from whence he crawled

 

 

O Dear Friend Lawrence, we here lay you rest in this most pedestrin yard, your last wish to bed yourself once more to mellah loam—we hereby send you off where you wilt, to thy place of own return, where the low worms tunnel and maggots churn—

 

 

—but let it be without regret, good sir, for thine art a life done lived good and long, to be missed by many—daughters and granddaughters, sons-in-law and sons bound by blood alike—

 

 

 

 

Hours later, over the border; the brimming night. The land flattens, the air sweetens, the roads rush out at higher velocities. Splayed monkey forms lay sugar-crashed and dormant over the Rubens, the one of them’s waxy braid wadded in her mouth. The lonely clusters of motel lights emerge from highways in intervals, steadily those intervals shortening, a tiki bar’s unmistakable torchlight cajoling. She’ll arrive sometime past two, the string of lights coalescing into the grids of neighborhoods and byways, houses and fences, lawn junk and carports. The dark swallows all. Beyond the trees, the apertured husk of the moon dashes alongside the bus, stride for stride, never falling behind; occasionally the trees part and then the moon shows up doubled on the mirrored surface below, glittering in the waves. One sweeping turn past the Amish creamery, and a Bi-Rite buzzing with electric enamel opens like a neon tabernacle to the road. Still ahum with trucks and hands, as if it’s never shut down, not in the seven months since she’s been here. New York wasn’t for her, she thinks—but what about here? Is this the idea, to just trundle around until the places get comfortable? Where did she go wrong? Why does her head hurt? Why can’t she feel normal? Feel wanted? Feel—? Now the landscapes thicken into familiar swaths. Is that the right word? She’ll need to crash when she gets there, to the Denouements’. She’s been too racked, too empty for even an attempt at sleep. When did I start feeling so sad? Sawaad will pick her up in his periwinkle van. What makes you think coming here will help? They’ll drive to the house. He’ll show her to her room. She’ll note the moonlight dipping in through the window. What makes you think? Slowly, she’ll start to feel alive in the dark—then quicker than ever she’ll sink again, and sink into her bed.

Over the creek, up the slope and behind the boxwoods, the disembodied hands still stretch— reaching— fingers straining in Sistine-ceiling yearning toward hands likewise stretched in fluorescent symmetry, inflamed paper bags perched yearningly aloft—

 

 

 

…and in a single sweep of lightning, the heavens go apeshit and the clouds break under their weight. Beaux is mid-sentence when the gentry, some collective gastrointestinal instinct firing, turn like a choreographed herd of elephants and clamber as fast as their trunky limbs can carry them toward the precious buffet now under full-fledged assault from the sky. Beaux is undeterred, his vampire cape billowing awesomely, the rain pelting the bean bags and the milk crates, the entire scene unfolding in slow motion: John hauling ass with indefatigable whips at his wheels (as though the flanks of a horse), Jack running after him, Mary Louisa flapping like an egret, tugging at her namesake, June and Zeb beelining it for the house, Sawaad and Rogerio all heads a-swivel, torn between their duty and the promise of the porch, until Dave collars the both of them and grabs a shovel and goes and jabs furiously at the dirt, heaving the soggy clumps in the grave—and the gentry, converging in a stampede on the table, a fungi-imprinted straggler tumbling over a lawn chair, crying out hideously as she faceplants into a mudpie, and Jacquelyn and Carolyn hysterical in the downpour, and Angelica now tugging at Mary Louisa, the two of them chainlinked trying to haul their grandmother away from the scene—this is all happening so clairvoyantly and hypnotically slowly—every man for himself at the table, elbows flying, grotesque morsels of tofu and cacao balls crumbling in the rain, in the cufflinked hands, the hands moving furiously, stacking ziggurats of food on plates, stuffing sandwiches in coat pockets, stuffing no-cheese cheesecake in their mouths, jockeying for position, the Fantasian bellows of Beaux Denouement thundering in vain against the heavens’ coda, the rain collapsing in twisted corpulent droves, and Kaylee Prince the lone spectator remaining, not budging in her chair, her line of vision hovering, her figure upright and swathed in rain, as still as ever, her mouth drawn taut—as a Botero dame gets trampled beneath the trunks, and a man who made off with his booty suddenly slips on a mud slick, his figure, for one pellucid moment, suspended like a cartoon horizontally in air, and the ziggurat pile of oozed tofu dates balsamic button mushrooms chicken-not-chicken julienned cucumber slopped fake butter banana mash cacao balls tapenade watercress drowned beansprout et al. unstacks itself, each layer suspended, the plate spun off in orbit, the whole structure segmented and stretched like one long slinky, reaching, straining at its apex just at the exact moment the man crashes down with a wrenching splash and the ziggurat, poised at its apex, paused there, like a lucid celestial body, directly above the man’s winced and redly pockmarked face, now feels the sweet tug of gravity retrieve it, the bulbs of rain spiraling as it compresses back into place and careens with a renewed and awesome vigor toward the wincing red target flopping magnificently below it in a billowing divot of tobacco-puddled earth.

 

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