"A Timeless Man" by Ben Spencer

Categories: ISSUE 03: Edgar

A Timeless Man
You are fifty-four years old. You are visiting your youngest son Jay in the mountain town where Jay lives when he suggests the two of you venture out to a waterfall popular among the locals. You might want to borrow a pair of swim trunks, Jay says, to which you nod gamely, eager for an adventure with your most daring son.

The water when you dive in is colder than expected, a dip in a Slushee machine, and by the time you reach your son at the waterfall’s curtain your breath is a closed fist and your vision a steam-room window. You attempt to calm yourself, taking deep breaths and treading water the way you did when you were a teenage lifeguard, but then, unexpectedly, panic sets in, and you begin batting frantically at the liquid partition. For a crystal-clear second before Jay’s hand reaches through the water and pulls you to safety you understand the essence of the situation--namely that you are an old man attempting to keep up with a twenty-two year old, and though you’ve spent a lifetime engaging in similar activities you’ve finally reached an age where such tomfoolery can get you in real trouble.

Safe on the other side of the waterfall, you study the spider web tattoo on your son’s bicep. It’s bulging from the strain of Jay’s effort to reel you in, the web a convex grid of fleshy muscle. Jay smiles when he sees you looking at it, and then he thumps you on your left pectoral with his free hand, near the spot where your own tattoo resides: a faded blue-green D.K., Jay’s mother’s initials. Ever since Jay got his spider-web tattoo he’s advanced the idea of the two of you getting matching ink, specifically bulls, in recognition of Taurus, your shared astrological sign. Even though you’re not one for astrology you can’t help but feel honored that your son wants to share this with you, and you’re seriously considering it. The only thing holding you back is your age. For the first time in your life you wonder how it would appear for a man with your number of years to walk into a tattoo parlor and ask for the same tattoo as his adult son. You envision snickering while you’re there, disparaging comments once you’re gone.

Jay speaks. The waterfall is deafening, a white noise machine traveling at Mach speed. You scrunch up your face and shrug your shoulders, miming the universal sign for “what?” You feel strangely ashamed for being unable to hear. Jay thumps you again in the chest, this time harder. He never went to college, but he’s wearing the expression of a fun-poking frat dude. His muscles rip, the ubiquitous physique of the modern twenty-something-year old male. He shouts, and this time his words plow a trench in the field of noise.

Pop, you gotta put on some muscle if you’re going to get a new tattoo.

You nod, dumbly.

O Typekey Divider

It’s Thanksgiving and you’re a nervous wreck. Three of your kids are coming, everyone except Jay, who couldn’t get away from his job at the whitewater rafting center. They’re stopping by for supper after having lunch with Deidre and her new husband, Carl. Over the last couple of weeks there have been numerous allusions to how full everyone will be after the midday meal, but you’ve decided to forge ahead with a full-on Turkey Day feast regardless. You’ve prepared the works--turkey, sweet potatoes, green beans, dressing, gravy, cranberry sauce, even the traditional Kingsley Family oddity, pigs in a blanket. When you informed your oldest daughter Janie about your plans she begged you not to overdo it. Her exact words were You never were a cook dad, and you don’t have to become one now. You mumbled something about the chip beef gravy you used to make when she was little. Then you hung up and went back to deciphering the inscrutable directions for preparing dressing.

Mallory is the first to arrive. There were rumors she might bring her fiancé, Tad, but when she pulls up the driveway she’s alone. Where’s Tad, you ask as she hugs you hello, and even after you accept her explanation that he drove back to Rowan County for dinner with his family you still feel the insult of his lunchtime visit to Deidre’s. Better he visit neither of us than just one, you think, but you don’t say a word to Mallory. She separates from you and studies the house like a detective examining a crime scene. Same old house as when you were little, you say, but Miss Contrarian shakes her head and says No, it’s smaller. You wonder, as you always have, if smug matter-of-factness is a character trait shared by all third children.

Randy brings the grandkids, Janie her mother’s brownies. You toss William and Brian too high in the air, disregard their father’s disapproving glance, call the boys their special nicknames (Willy and Bear), ignore your daughter-in-law’s admonitory glare (Bear she doesn’t mind; it’s Willy she’s begged you to stop saying), and help Janie inside with the brownies. Janie looks the same as she always does, like she’s about to collapse from exhaustion. She’s got crow’s feet at thirty-one and a sullen demeanor you believe hampers her chances at landing a second husband. She had the makings of who she is now even as a child but managed to ride a short-lived tide of teenage vim into her first marriage. If a spark of vitality still flickers you haven’t seen it since the miscarriage and subsequent divorce. On the way in you ask if the brownies are leftovers from her mother’s luncheon. She says Don’t be silly Dad, you know Mom’s the only cook at her house. I made these for you.

The meal is fraught with interruptions. Bear and Willy are in no mood to eat again so soon after their lunchtime feast, and their parents aren’t about to fight them. No less than two minutes after grace the boys drop their utensils and make for the Lincoln Logs you keep on hand for their visits. Randy and Rebecca abandon the table soon after to break up a fight over the equitable distribution of green roofing boards. They don’t return, electing instead to help Bear and Willy finish construction on their respective cabins. Mallory receives a cell-phone call from Tad a few minutes later and shuffles off to her old bedroom to talk. He’s just calling to let Mallory know that he made it home safe, Janie tells you, but Mallory doesn’t return. Janie picks at the turkey with the fork in her right hand and rubs her bloated belly with her left. The pigs-in-a-blanket snuggle contentedly in their towel-lined serving basket, the lot of them unmolested.

You, however, are ravenous. You skipped lunch, which is highly unordinary, so now you’re double-timing it, downing Thanksgiving Day staples at a pace that would shame a famished Pilgrim. Turkey rockets down the gullet, followed by dressing slopped with gravy. The first of the pigs is wrenched free from the litter, the remainder left uncovered and cowering in the basket. You wish Jay were here. The boy’s got the metabolism of a hummingbird and eats like a too-skinny wrestler trying to make weight, and you sure could use a partner in gluttony right now. But he’s not, and the rest of your children are avoiding the table like it’s plague-ridden. Even Janie has scooted her chair away.

It’s then that a hunk of dressing gets lodged in your esophagus. You hadn’t noticed how dry the stuff was, but this piece avoided the gravy-bath you’d been giving the others and now it’s clogging up your throat like sand. You lurch away from the table Frankenstein-like and suddenly the house comes alive with activity. Janie reaches you first. She offers you sweet tea, which you inadvertently send flying in an attempt to wave it off. The turkey, you notice pointlessly, is drenched. Randy reaches you next. He’s quizzing you about whether or not you’d like the Heimlich maneuver performed, but it’s difficult to control your body language while choking. You think you’re nodding yes but you’re not sure because he still hasn’t jumped into action. You briefly wonder if this is how your last moments on Earth will pass, in a vain attempt to grant your son permission to save your life.

Just as you’re about to lose consciousness you hear a familiar thunder of footsteps, the same distinctive clop of the little girl who used to tear around the house as a pretend unicorn, an apropos choice of animal, you always thought, in light of her heavy gait. Then Mallory’s arms are wrapped around you, and though she’s not quite lifting you off the floor she is giving rise to your heels, a fact that manages to traverse the high passes of your oxygen-depleted mind and cause you to worry that she’s straining her back. But before you can think another thought the dressing is out, spewing forth in comical fashion into a cup of water on the table, and from the living room comes the emotional gut-level response of a young boy who has been watching the events unfold in mute-stricken wonder.

Willy, sweet Willy, is clapping.

O Typekey Divider

Mallory and Tad are married on a Saturday in April. It’s a six p.m. ceremony, but you follow the orders you were given and arrive for pictures by three.

The ceremony is to be held outside, on the grounds of a golf course that meanders through the skeletal Uwharrie mountains. A picturesque knoll near number nine is the site for the wedding proper. The staging is finished by the time you arrive, and you have to admit: it’s quite impressive. White wooden chairs lead to an arch of flowers set against the backdrop of a scuppernong vine in spring bloom. It’s understated and yet not without a fairy-tale flourish, which fits Mallory’s aesthetic to a T. You’ve heard Deidre was the driving force behind the wedding preparations, so you’re not surprised everything’s spot-on. The woman always had a touch with such things.

The day is so beautiful it makes you reflexively nostalgic. Your thoughts turn to when your kids were young, and the times you shared as a family. There’s an abundance to choose from; you could spend forever ruminating on how good you had it. Ironic then that you’re left feeling unsettled. No matter how many memories you conjure, it seems as though there’s an especially pertinent one just out of reach.

You mean to say hello to Mallory, but before you have a chance you’re shuffled off to mix with the men. Jay and Randy, monkeyed-up in their tuxes, look desperately happy to see you. It doesn’t take long to understand why. They’re the odd men out in Tad’s crew of predominately college-buddy groomsmen. The three of you form a huddle and strike up a conversation concerning the topic male members of the Kingsley clan most love to discuss: who, between, the three of you, was the best high school wrestler in his day?

Jay, as usual, makes the most passionate case.

What weight class were you, Randy? 178? You know I only wrestled 150, right? And I made it to the state semis twice. Twice! What’d you do, win conference once? C’mon man, you know if you had wrestled me at my weight I’d have beat your ass.

Neither here nor there, skinny little bro. I’d a pinned you in a heartbeat. Matter of fact, I do remember pinning your scrawny little butt back when you were in middle school and I was teaching you all your moves. 

The smack-talk is all in good fun, as evidenced by the wry smile both men (your boys are men!) wear. Jay’s definitely the more imposing physical specimen of the two now, all pronounced muscle and young-man strength, though Randy still outweighs him by a good twenty pounds. The two have locked up at the occasional family affair, and although Jay demonstrates a stronger command of technique, Randy is usually able to neutralize Jay’s aggressions with his added heft. If one does get the upper hand, they tend to stop before bodies and egos are bruised.

You used to lock up with the boys yourself, back when they were in school and still learning the sport. It was you who taught them the basic moves: the cradle, the fireman’s carry, and the one and two-legged takedown, to name a few. The living room floor was your wrestling mat; you’d push back the furniture and Kingsley wrestling academy would commence. Deidre and the girls hated it. They would perch on the pushed-aside furniture like agitated crows, cawing about how they couldn’t see the television. The boys, of course, loved it. Randy, serious and methodical, made you show him each move a million times, while Jay always just dove in, kinesthetic to the core, the little rug-rat putting up a fight on pure energy alone until the day everything clicked, and then by God if he didn’t start taking down both you and Randy from time to time, no matter the weight he was giving up.

Now old man Kingsley over here talks like he could put a whooping on people back in his day, but that was in the seventies when they wrestled like woosies. 

Jay’s completely relaxed when he ribs you, no undertone of a challenge in it like when he needles Randy. It’s been this way since the last time the two of you locked up, during Jay’s junior year, and you sprained your back when he dropped you to the floor. At the time he was all apologies and offspring-guilt, but as the months went by and you begged off wrestling him again a touch of arrogance crept into the way he talked to you about the sport, the implication being that he was better than you now and you both knew it. You’ve never made much of it, supposing the son surpassing the father is the natural order of things, but from time to time you get an itching to lock up with the boy one last time just to see what would happen.

You ready a reply, but when nothing leaps to your tongue you find yourself reaching for your son, beginning the process of shooting under his armpit to gain leverage. You do so at a speed partway between joshing and serious, so that by the time you’ve established position Jay still hasn’t gauged the gist of your intent. You’re not sure of it yourself, but once you’ve got the upper hand you find you can’t help but suggest the possibility of a throw. You turn your hips with gleeful torque, meaning only to impress Jay with the prospect of what you could do to him, but the instant you shift your body weight Jay’s eyes bulge white with surprise and it’s unerringly evident that he is standing too tree-tall straight to go anywhere but down.

The sin of wedding day dirtiness hits home, and suddenly you’re grasping for your son with all you’ve got, fighting the physics of gravity and its insatiable desire to cleave the fallen to its chest. Jay, athletic marvel that he is, finds purchase with one of his feet, and for a split-second it appears disaster may be avoided. But Jay’s only remaining upright because he’s got a death-grip on your arm, and before you know it the roles have reversed; Jay has climbed your arm like a ladder to the safe haven of stability while you’ve severed your ties with verticality and are crashing to the ground.

Grass stains like the finger-paint offerings of a three-year old color your tux. You pull yourself up to a sitting position, needing a minute to compose yourself before beginning the long ascent to upright. Jay, red-faced with embarrassment, offers you his hand. It’s then that the women appear. They emerge from the staging room of the clubhouse in all their terrible beauty, your ex-wife leading the way. Janie’s directly behind Deidre, while Mallory’s apparently at the end of the procession waiting for a signal that Tad’s out-of-sight. The women scan the grounds like predatory birds for the groom-to-be.

Deidre spots you first. Clumsily grasping at Jay’s hand, looking every bit the naughty boy trying to skirt trouble. She casts a withering stare quickly coupled by Janie, their chastising eyes harkening back to a place and time when you took their looks of disapproval for granted. You turn to your sons. They’re staring at you with oh shit expressions, hoping against hope that you’ve got an excuse to keep everyone out of trouble.

It’s then that the memory comes to you. The one you’ve been trying to place all day. Back when the kids were strung between adolescence and teenagehood and your relationship with Deidre had lost some of the elastic of its early years. There’s a broken lamp in the living room, courtesy of a fireman’s carry gone wrong, and Deidre’s leveling you with the same stare she’s got you pinned with now. Janie’s yelling at Jay to move so she can see Step by Step on the television and Randy’s trying to pick up the broken pieces of the lamp and Mallory’s in the kitchen talking on the phone with the mustard-yellow cord that stretches across half the house. And what are you doing? You’re breaking off Deidre’s stare and walking away from it all, out the front door and into your truck, driving to the gas station to get a pack of smokes.

God, you think now, turning back to Deidre and soaking up her stare for all that it is worth, if I wouldn’t have done that I might have lived forever.

--Story by Ben Spencer