Wien: A Story
In my last column, I talked a bit about how I am comfortable moving forward in my life as a writer of fiction; the fact that our attachment to feeling is stronger than our attachment to fact comforts me. Fictions have repercussions in the “real world”: we do not traffic in lies but in the space between thought and action. In the academy, there is a lot of prestige put on analysis, and a little on creation. The work of interpretation is creative to be sure, but only within certain bounds. At some point, I stop caring about the role fiction plays in our everyday, about hermeneutics versus erotics versus authorial intent. At some point, I just want to write it.
So, a story:
A Thousand Nights in Desert Hope (An excerpt)
When my parents plan their funeral it is always a joint affair, with two urns sitting neatly next to each other and ’80s dream-pop playing in the background. Neither of them considers what would happen if one died before the other. They think about the occasion daily here at Desert Hope, which is kind of like rehab but not quite. It’s more the drying-off place. Like laundry, my parents have grown accustomed to cycles of dryness and saturation. They look like hand towels that have been wrung out over and over again. They are cradling Capri Suns, dripping mauve circles onto the downy white bedspread.
The room looks like a four-star hotel with thick oatmeal carpeting, brass fixtures and crisp white linens. The prints on the wall are of calm desert landscapes, with buttes and red rocks and empty, empty space.
My mother, Sylvia, and my father, Milo, have the duvet pulled up to their chins. Under the covers they rub feet. At first glance, the two of them look like just another layer of fabric on the bed, sack-like and horizontal, with glassy eyes and faces wrinkled beyond their years. Sylvia’s blonde hair is muddy and brittle, Milo’s is gone altogether.
They beg me for a new story. 5 o’clock has come to Nevada, standing on the threshold with feet shoulder-width apart and the saloon doors swinging behind him.
My parents are the two most in-love people but it is confused, whether they are in love with each other or both in love with the same thing, two bodies immersed in a medium. 5 o’clock used to be the hardest hour for alcoholics. Then 3. Then 12. Soon it becomes difficult enough to welcome the waking world.
They have so much in common that for a brief period of time they feared they were siblings, separated at birth. They are both orphans, both raised in the Midwest, both deathly allergic to tree nuts. When Sylvia discovered that they both had the same birthmark on their calves, they decided to get a DNA test, and only after the results came back negative did they marry.
They joke that upon their death their bodies will be preserved in alcohol. But here they are, ripe in their sixties and a year into another dry phase. They both worry that any slip at this point will be their last.
The two of them met at the Alcoholics Anonymous Dry Disco in the summer of ’79, in sizzling Topeka, Kansas. These were notoriously ungroovy events, held in the VFW Hall, decorated with flaccid crepe paper and plastic flowers. The fluorescent lights were all on, and the speaker system was so third-hand that if a dancer cha-cha’d or hustled with too much enthusiasm the song would skip and then stop and then Floyd, the A/V man at the VFW, would have to meddle with some wires until the music started up again. Floyd, who had served in the First World War, was missing five of his teeth and six of his fingers. But try to help him and he’d ask you how many landmines you’d extracted, how many bombs you’d diffused, how many trenches you’d dug. If the answer was none, four-fingered Floyd would chase you out of the A/V booth for good. So the dancing was limited.
This particular AADD, s’79, T, KS, was held during a thunder storm. Someone had placed a bucket center-left of the dance floor, and four revelers were crowded around it, watching the drip of water from a crack in the ceiling. The music slowed and descended to a baritone, I had a one-step plan to –to –to -proooooooove. Diana Ross melted. The overheads dimmed and then shut off, leaving only the soft yellows and reds of the emergency lights. Rick was trying to continue the song a cappella from atop a wooden chair. Rhonda stepped outside to the covered porch and sacrificed cigarette after cigarette to the winds. And Sylvia, in a low-backed, floor-length silver polyester number, entirely overdressed for the occasion, was nursing Sunny D in a plastic cup by the eastern window. She watched trees whipping sideways, hitting the ground with their branches, then straightening up again to bend in the other direction. Milo, in cargo pants and a polo shirt was at the western window, doing the same. The first punchy notes of a new song came over the speakers, and Milo, quite frankly done with the whole ordeal and sure that this would be his last AADD, took to the dancefloor and began sliding like a madman. Sylvia lifted her dinner-plate eyes to apprehend the man who had apparently come drunk to the dry disco. He was all knees and elbows, shake and flail — she was sure he had more than two joints in his legs. And with some urge, out of pity or envy, Sylvia went up and joined him. When their hands met, the following occurred, in this order:
1. Diana hit a high note,
2. The overhead lights came on, and
3. The roof of the VFW was torn clean off.
It wasn’t the first tornado to take the hall, and it wouldn’t be the last. But still, they returned to Sylvia’s home and fell in love over the nectars of various tropical and subtropical fruits. Pineapple juice: their childhoods (suburban, quiet). Guava juice: their adolescences (wet). They fell asleep on Sylvia’s brand new futon, breathing in plastic wrapping, industrial foam and each other. The carrot-ginger sun glared into the single window on the eastern wall and reddened the insides of their eyelids. Milo promised to call and he did.
Back before I knew how to refuse, and before they learned to be secretive around me, I would mix their drinks. These three-person cocktail parties felt like the only authentic communication we had. They left rings on the mahogany sideboard, likening it to the starboard of a ship, so warped it became of liquid and salt.
Then one day I learned to say no, and they learned to move their evening drinking later, putting me to bed just as the sun went down. From up the stairs I could hear the air escaping beer bottles, their laughs like hyenas and yawns like toads. I became less concerned with the fact that they were drinking and more with the fact that they had the most fun in my absence, in my oblivion, they believed. I feared they knew that I knew, and even more, I feared they did not care.
One of the saddest sights I’ve seen was the two of them dancing the tango to Donna Summer. I must’ve been 10 or 11, and I remember peeking between the balusters at the top of the staircase, holding my breath to keep silent. They went at a third of the pace they were supposed to, and the music was completely wrong, but my mother closed her eyes and leaned her head against my father’s chest and they swayed. He stood on tiptoes, with shoulders hunched forward and teeth bared in a smile; she stood with feet shoulder-width apart and a bend in the knees. Hyena and toad cavorting once more.