“I’m not an alligator wrestler, but damn!”
Ralph’s Cheshire grin stayed a while; he was delirious from the late-night dip into both the water and his mind. Reality is a thin skim of ice over a deep lake of dark water, and when he tackled the two men off the dock, he shattered it into oblivion, the waves of feelings and pertinent memories crashing on top of him.
Wave on wave.
“Are you okay, man?” Jasper asked. He feared this was when his uncle faded into the deep end, the point in the play where he lost the plot.
“He’s zonin’,” Doug said. “Let ‘em be. Besides, he got eaten by a big machine full of sharp teeth running full steam. We all did while we were monkeying around with it.”
“Yibbut! Yibbut!” Ralph was ribbeting the words, bouncing around like a deranged battle toad. He licked his lips as a rain storm sprinkled from the sky, a microburst of wind combing through the trees from the North. “Wait a minute... did one of you kill a frog?”
“No,” Vern said. “But you sound and look like a monkey fucking a football.”
“No, no, no.” He wagged his finger in Vern’s face like Dikembe Mutombo after another demoralizing rejection at the rim. He was also waking himself from the trance. “Every time someone kills a frog, it rains.”
Vern held that thought for a moment. “Now that I think about it, I remember running over one with my bike when I was a kid.”
“I was pissed at you for doing that.” Doug said, his heart made of gold. “It rained hard right after, too, so we had to go inside the rest of the day.” And memory sharp as cheddar.
“Yeah, but…” Vern caught himself, but not before Ralph could start laughing again, forming a smile that showed as many teeth as there are keys on a piano.
“But remember where we went after that?” Vern asked his brother.
The images of Doug returned, one memory stepping on another. Move your flint in closer, son. “Discovery Zone.”
“Yup. We shot those brontosaurus-looking aliens in the Men in Black laser game.”
“Heh, yeah we were stomping around like dinosaurs alright. Happier than pigs in shit.”
“And do you remember who took us?”
Come in closer, Douglas. Come closer for your father’s sake.
“Dad did. And he drove us there in—”
“That old Ford Explorer. The one we all called…”
“The submarine,” they said together. Our old man drove a submarine.
The past is obdurate. But it also resonates from time to time.
“Now you’re cooking with gasoline, pawtnah’s.” Ralph breathed in the air from the water, inhaling with gusto. This air feels different. It’s fresh above the water. It feels so... good. “We always pay for our penances, no matter how small they may be.”
Jasper chimed in. “Well, I must have pissed off that girl beaucoup for her to attack me like that!” The cicadidae chirped through the trees, their noise clipping through the leaves, echoing off the water in the late-summer early morning.
“She didn’t attack you, Jasper. She healed you. Look how straight you’re standing.”
Jasper expected to fall over. But now, he was standing on his good leg like a heron.
“You’re right,” Jasper said. Once a wretched waif, the incipient palsy was gone faster than a toupee in a hurricane.
“Your hunch was telling you that you made a mistake of some kind, one that you hadn’t made amends with, hence why you dropped to your knees and recited “Our Father.” I only wish I would have listened to mine.”
“What do you mean?”
“Tell me... do you guys ever feel a strange sadness as dusk falls?” Ralph asked his nephews. A little vague moonlight seeped through the clouds like smoke, drifting up and turning blue through half-drawn curtains. The reflection beamed off his Garbo shades resting in his t-shirt pocket.
“Of course,” Doug said. “The night is a deep ocean, filled with all the real emotions.”
“Exactly. And once you put that energy out in the universe, somebody will eventually take it from you.”
“That’s what she did to you out on the dock, isn’t it?” Vern said.
Ralph nodded. “She could see the doubt in me, she could feel it. They came incognito at first, but then they were there, right in front of us. I saw them with my own two eyes; there’s no fucking way I was imagining it! They weren’t trying to hide at all. But I still didn’t want to believe any of it.” His arms rippled with gooseflesh. “Throw me that towel, would ya?”
Jasper tossed it to him. “They were our angels, weren’t they?”
“Spirits. Ghosts. Angels. You can call them whatever you want. But you all know who they were. And so did I.” Ralph hung the towel over his shoulders, then whipped out his wallet. The leather was still drenched, but everything seemed to be intact. He removed a card from the first sleeve.
“This was your Aunt Ann, my sister. She died in a car accident before you all were born. I kept her license after it happened.”
Jasper, Doug, and Vern hovered over the relic. She had the same eyes as Miss Blue.
She was Miss Blue.
Vern tapped his brother on the shoulder. “Do you still have that picture of Jennifer?”
Doug dug into his back pocket, unveiling a crumbled picture from his billfold. It was their baby sister; the one that existed but they never knew. Her almond eyes told them everything.
She was that little girl, too. The one that never wanted to leave early.
“So does that mean…” Jasper tailed off from his sentence. He knew who the two men were now; he just wanted Ralph to say it anyway.
“The Blonde was Paul, your brother. He was called ‘The Icebox’, and you were ‘Tinsel’. Remember?”
Chills went down Jasper’s spine. He threw a towel over his shoulder to get warm. But the gooseflesh wasn’t from the weather: they were from Icebox.
“He was also my best friend, who was named Paul, too,” Ralph continued. “He died from stomach cancer in his 40’s. The best man I ever knew.”
He took in another warm gulp of that sweet, morning dew. Your word, like your heart, should be worth gold, he always told them. Never make a promise you don’t intend to make, and your heart’s value will stay intact.
When his friend was dying, he promised that he would always honor him.
So he named his son after him.
Ralph looked at Doug and Vern. “And the brown-haired guy was…”
“Our dad,” Vern said with a deep sigh. They seemed to be contagious.
Doug grabbed his brother around the shoulder. “We were because he was.”
The four of them used to be above these emotions. Now they were back down in them.
“You know,” Doug said, looking at his two uncles. “You two look like Arthur and Ford.”
“Who?” Ralph said.
“They’re characters from one of my favorite books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
“Is that good or bad?” Jasper said.
“It’s good. If a person was able to make their way through the galaxy and still know where their towel was, then they were someone to be reckoned with.”
“You’re a towel,” Vern said, smiling.
Ralph sighed, scratching the top of his thunderdome, the hair starting to leave him. These millennial references gave him transient nausea. “Guys, don’t be bringing that Disney World shit into all of this.”
“Well, technically the movie was distributed by Buena Vista Pictures. But they weren’t bought out by Disney until 2007, and it came out in 2005–”
“Jesus, son, how do you remember all of that?” Ralph froze. He knew the boys didn’t like it when he called them “son”. For obvious reasons.
But Doug and Vern smiled back. So did Jasper. Besides, all of them knew the truth.
Ralph may not have been their father, but he was their daddy. He was the one that picked up these hitchhikers, the true guardian to their galaxies.
Ralph compartmentalized the pride. “What I meant was, you can’t be milquetoast.”
“Milquetoast?” Their bellies rumbled. “Why are you talking about breakfast?”
He laughed it off. Now we’re even, young bucks.
“It means to be timid. Unresisting. On the fence. Stuck in the middle. It’s the worst place you can be.” He looked over at Jasper. “That goes for you, too.”
“I know,” he said. “But this shit is heavy.”
“Of course it is. We’ll always carry these feelings and memories around with us, but we don’t have to let them sink our ships.” The sun poked its head over the horizon. Ralph yanked out his Garbo shades and put them on. “Whoever said that the meek will inherit the Earth is full of beaucoup bullshit. Nothing is free in this life, and eventually, you’ll have to pick a side. You have to signify. Because if you don’t, somebody will come and spook the shit out of you. If you’re lucky, that is.”
Scaring people is a dirty job alright, but someone has to do it.
“You gotta admit though,” Jasper said. “It was a sight to behold. ”
“Seriously,” Doug said. “I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.”
“And the lights,” Vern said. “I felt like I was a mosquito being drawn into them.”
“Oh, no question, pawtnahs,” Ralph said. “It just had to be.”
A foo fighter disguised with a surplus of bright lights. But none of them were wasted.
“We can’t blame ourselves for what happened to the people we’ve lost,” Ralph said. “The way that your dad, your brother, my sister, my friend died. Your sister being adopted. It fucking sucks. I know it still hurts.” He looked back at Ann’s driver’s license. “There’s not a day that I don’t think about them.”
There’s no chart floating in the ether, telling us what’s going to happen next and how to prepare for the crazy train when it pulls into the station. People make decisions, they commit acts, and shit happens. And when it does, you plan accordingly, surround yourself around good people to help you through it, and move forward.
Or you can crawl into a hole and die. Time is a tree with many branches, and most of them will snap on you at some point. But there are plenty more limbs to grab that will keep you from falling.
It was time for the four of them to stop feeling sorry for themselves and rejoin the parade.
Doug and Ralph put their sister’s pictures back into their wallets. The palaver had hit a crossroads; the long light of the Tennessee morning, the one that they came to love, was shining brighter than the ones on the lake. It didn’t unlock any deep memories. It wasn’t an emotional paradox that will never be repeated. It didn’t destroy any thinnies, places where the fabric of existence is almost worn away.
It conferred convivial con brio. An appreciation for life’s essential absurdity.
To no longer live in hindsight or the past. And to start living instead.
Jasper started whistling a familiar melody, breaking the silence.
“That’s the song from earlier, isn’t it?” Ralph said.
“Yep. ‘In The Air Tonight’.”
“Can one of you play it again?”
Vern whipped out his smartphone, playing the tune in a matter of seconds. Ralph only shook his head.
“What a wonderful life.”
They listened to the first verse:
Well if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a handI've seen your face before my friend, but I don't know if you know who I amWell I was there and I saw what you did, I saw it with my own two eyesSo you can wipe off that grin, I know where you've beenIt's all been a pack of lies
Then the second:
Well I remember, I remember, don't worry, how could I ever forgetIt's the first time, the last time we ever metBut I know the reason why you keep your silence up, oh no you don't fool meWell the hurt doesn't show, but the pain still growsIt's no stranger to you and me...
Doug and Vern air-drummed the iconic Phil Collins’ fill, mimicking the sound of the toms.
Ba dum, ba dum, ba dum, ba dum, boom boom!
“There you go,” Ralph said. “That’s why she sent me to the water. She knew where I had been.”
“And why we had to lend a hand to save your old ass,” Jasper said.
“Oh, whatever. I learned how to swim in the merchant marines. Everything was kosher.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Doug said. “You sailed around the world twice.”
“And you had a horse named Lightning,” Vern said.
Ralph laughed, knowing he was outnumbered. “Hold what you got, right?”
They all smiled and nodded. You’re welcome, Ralph.
“I think he was talking about himself in the song though.”
“How do you figure?”
“Think about it. How can a person tell someone else that they are drowning? It’s like someone saying they are choking; it can’t be done.”
The three of them were staying tuned. But they were fading, the hunger and mental fatigue sunk further in.
“He’s looking into the mirror, talking to his former self. The past doesn’t know who the future is, but the future knows where the past has been, what he’s done, why the hurt never showed but the pain still grew when he never said anything. He saw it all with his own two eyes. What’s done is done, and he’s not going back to save him; he’s letting him drown and not lending a hand back into the ship.”
“Well, well, well,” Vern said. “This Vern has been derned before, but I’ve never been derned like this.” They all laughed.
“Slick as goose shit, you are, Vern,” Ralph said like Yoda. “What I’m trying to get at is that we’re all messengers, all speakers of truth if we’re willing to listen and learn from ourselves. You have to crack a few eggs if you want to make an omelet…. but then again, I’m not at Bennigan’s.”
Their bellies rumbled again. “How about you whip us up some omelettes while you’re talking about it?” Jasper said.
“I agree,” Doug said. “You know, for saving your life and listening to you ramble on?”
“I suppose I do owe ya,” Ralph said. “What do you want with them?”
“How about some milk and toast?” Vern said, opening the sliding door.
Ba dum, ba dum, ba dum, ba dum, boom boom!
Delirious, exhausted, hungry laughter filled the living room.
Sometimes it’s okay to have a little milquetoast in you.