By Jeff Jarot
It was somebody’s birthday party. The screen revealed a cake adorned with lit candles. The individual candles on the cake appeared as a single blended disk of fire hovering over the confection. The image of Ed floated above the blaze atop the cake. The party was taking place on a shadowy screened-in porch, and although several partygoers were visibly present onscreen, Ed's face was the only one illumined. Everyone and everything else was cast in darkness.
It was one of Ed’s birthdays, a decidedly unhappy one from the looks of it and from what he could only hazily recall. Yet he remembered that mere minutes before the first party guest arrived, he had punctuated the screams directed toward his girlfriend-at-the-time by lifting the vacuum cleaner straight up by the handle and slamming it onto linoleum, nearly shattering it in the process.
Later they had a…discussion.
“You good-for-fucking nothing son of a bitch! You’re a god-damned alcoholic!”
Ed had calmly replied, “I have a drinking problem, okay? That doesn’t make me a god-damned alcoholic.”
“Do people with just drinking problems go to bar after bar and leave their kids in the fucking car for hours on end? Do people with just drinking problems need a fucking river of beer and whiskey to hide their problems?”
His response to this was immediate; he threw the nearest graspable object at the wall, in this particular instance a Pfaltzgraff plate. Miraculously, it hadn’t shattered but rather had simply thumped against the amber and white checkered kitchen wallpaper and clattered to the floor, chiming the distinctive chord of fallen dinnerware.
Back onscreen, his girlfriend and two kids were in picture. Their images looked somber, disheveled, dirty, the screen version of himself haggard and spent, his eyes half-closed, looking much like Newman as the alcoholic lawyer in The Verdict, only not as nattily dressed.
The real Ed lurched from the bed and moved with his arm outstretched toward the screen. As he stepped toward the television, he brought his hand up to his face, crossing his eyes to focus on it so that the movie images in the background blurred in periphery.
Reaching the TV, he placed his hand over the images of his family and closed his eyes, willing himself into the picture to start anew, to be in a world he knew was safe because such a world was over, finished, closed, however soiled by his actions. Ed pushed his already closed eyelids down with even more force until he heard thunder within his skull.
He brushed the pads of his fingers across the surface of the screen, where he knew his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend and kids and former self to be, feeling rather than seeing the paths of his fingers as they made furrows in the layer of dust clinging to the screen, could hear and feel the faint crackle of the static electricity.
The cough and sputter of the air conditioning unit brought him back to the reality of the motel room. He opened his eyes, turned toward the bed in a single motion, and paced back. Then he resumed his position on the bed and propped the weight of his body up on one elbow.
He listened to the monotony of the surrounding silence and watched the square of blue light on the television screen without seeing it for some time.
The quiet was suddenly broken by the rhythmic creaking of bedsprings from the room next door. Ed's mind immediately raced to thoughts of lovemaking until he heard a thump followed by the cackle of two children. Staring at the adjoining wall, he sighed. “Only jumpin' on the bed...” The bedsprings resumed their creaking.
He then strained his left arm to reach the light switch on the nightstand and turned it with two clicks, creating near-darkness illumined only by the glow from the television. Ed fumbled a remote control off the nightstand and channel-surfed for ten minutes after that, catching glimpses of Crockett and Tubbs, a Miller Lite commercial, and a Bears / Packers game until, exhausted, he settled on a screen full of static.
He was hopping across the pointillist patches of static, and all at once he recognized that the air around him was raining grit and grain, an occasional hair curling out from the edges only to vanish. A monotonous, faint clicking teased his ears.
He was walking the pavement at Disney World again, gazing upward at his son, his daughter, and the sun. His children were ascending and descending and going round and round on the Dumbo ride as the sun rose and fell and went round and round across the crisp blue silent sky that had replaced the black and white snowstorm of static yet nonetheless remained gritty and grainy and hairy.
Occasionally, between glimpses of his kids, he would peek directly at the sun and squeeze his eyes shut, and, in the next moment, when he would open his eyes and spy the children again, he would have to make out their forms beyond the obscuring green blur that the sun had globbed over his retinas.
All at once he sprung into the air to land inside the chipped gray elephant riding across the sky, hands clutching his son’s and daughter’s shoulders from behind. He mouthed both of their names, but no sound came out.
The elephant drifted down to land without a scratch through a screened-in porch from a nondescript home out of his past, inside which his own birthday party was in progress. His family awaited him in the shadows that were just beyond the flaming candles atop a cake that had the circumference of an LP record. His son and daughter alighted from Dumbo to lead him toward the table upon which the candlelit cake rested.
He gripped the edge of the table with one hand and interlaced the fingers of his children’s hands with both of his own as various other family members gathered around, rivulets of tears mixed with sweat running down his weathered face to pool on the table and douse several of the candles on the cake to mix with the ever-present grit and grain and hair…
Ed snapped his eyes open. The creaking bedsprings had stopped. He instinctively reached for the phone, dialing by rote. Ed's ear, pressed against the receiver, met with the recorded outgoing message of an answering machine. The accompanying beep startled him.
“Greg,” Ed recited into the coiling emptiness of the machine as it dutifully preserved his every word that, he knew, would nonetheless be erased as soon as his son pressed the “Delete” button. The realization that his ramblings were being etched into the small tape on the machine and were irretrievable once they were committed across the distance caused him to immediately clam up. All Ed was able to manage was a weak “This is your dad.” Yet he was proud of the way he was able to raise the tone of his voice at the end and give the final word a certain degree of stress, imbuing the entire message with a fleeting, vulnerable optimism, or so he hoped. Ed hung up the phone.
Maybe Greg’ll keep the message, he thought.
He pledged to call his daughter next, his initial attempt at reconciliation breeding unadulterated confidence in him. Ed sat up on the bed until his eyes unfocused, and then his head hit the pillow again violently, the haze behind his eyes having faded to black.