Tenebrae

by Matt Starr 


 

This is the place where I grew up. A little blue vinyl-sided millhouse a block behind Main Street where the Christmas parade starts the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving every year. Santa used to park his sleigh in front of our driveway and Deddy would cuss him and all eight of his plastic reindeer. He couldn’t get to work. Mr. Eagle would watch it unfold from the porch next door, his wife gone on ahead to receive her heavenly reward. I was too little to remember, but she always kept Fly Pies in the pantry just for me.

We had a fence with no rails. Just lichen-stained posts torn through the earth like rotten bones. And two great sockets in the ground from which trees once breathed. The hurricane took them in 1989. Deddy saw it press a man up against a chain-link fence like one of those sticky wall-crawler toys. In the backyard, a trampoline served as refuge from the neighborhood dogs and shelter for propane tanks and flat basketballs from the spring rain. My brother stepped on a rusty nail there and had to get some shots. I smell the gasoline being poured into the lawnmower.

Would you believe it if I told you that Mama had a flowerbed? That every year someone on the street died, but our snowball bush bloomed the coldest of blues?

I can still see the front door with the numbers on it. A 4, a 2, and another 2. There I am, coming back from a ballgame. At a birthday party eating a cake with the frosting that’s so good it makes you sick. On the deck watching fireworks and feeling small. Running through the sprinklers, the air so thick you can write your name in it. Mama takes a picture, and the flash knocks me down. I’m still somewhere in that undeveloped roll of film.

And if I close my eyes, I can imagine the negative. Fifteen slender flames shivering on the ceremonial hearse, a boy not yet half of fifteen bathed in shadow. The colors of the night bending prisms of stained glass. My body is a temple. My body is not my body. Contralto shapes echo through the sanctuary, dreamlike:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

There are collages on my wall of people I don’t know anymore.

This is the place I couldn’t wait to leave. Cracks in the walls from where they blew up the mill. There’s a rip in the carpet from one of me and my brother’s scuffles. And a hole in the sheetrock from the time I swung a baseball bat inside because it was raining, but I needed to be Vladimir Guerrero. This is why we can’t have nice things. Our kitchen table gave Paw Paw the best lasagna he’d ever had. No one had the heart to tell him it was Stouffer’s.

Did a smell ever take you back to a place? My childhood is blueberry toaster pastries and linen-scented candles in a house that holds ghosts like a snow globe holds glitter. You can’t see them but you can feel them all around you, and part of you doesn’t mind it because at least they’re yours.

There I am, on the landline with a girl. Get off the phone, Mama. Watching Halloween movie marathons on a television that still has knobs and wood paneling. Typing something problematic on my MySpace page. Touching the red coil on the stovetop just to see what will happen. Staring at the clock radio, the minutes melting away like a Sun Drop slushie in the summer, the tang still on your lips long after the light is gone.

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

This is where I pressed on my Deddy’s chest, begged him to breathe. Considered his ribs like they were my own because they were my own. Laid my fingers on his eyes and said don’t go. Crawled into his arms while he rocked me in the living room wicker chair. One time I choked on an ice cube, and he hung me over the porch and smacked me on the back until I coughed it up. Saved my life.

Would it make sense if I told you that home wasn’t somewhere I remembered, but rather a dream that found me when it was the last thing I was looking for?

There I am, sitting on the edge of the bed. Letting my leg go to sleep just so that I can savor the numbness. Losing my religion in a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Eating leftover funeral potatoes at four o’clock in the morning, face blind with tears. Hugging my childhood Winnie the Pooh, and ingesting its dust like something that will get me high.

Sometimes it causes me to tremble. tremble. tremble. tremble. tremble.

This is the place I’ll have to put in boxes someday. Extract the organs like a surgeon at harvest time. Wash like a dirty dish that you can’t get clean, no matter how hard you scrub. Gut out the shed and haul away the overturned swing set that lays atop the graves of our goldfish. We had our own little burial services because it seemed like the right thing to do.

Would you judge me if I removed the moments in time that made me flesh and blood? Exhumed the laughter, the screams, the love, the hurt, like corpses from the floorboards?

There I am, standing in the doorway. Carving my initials into the heart of a body—broken for me. Watching the procession as it passes in front of me like so many days and years, the seconds of which I can’t separate. The multi-colored lights on the floats extinguish in succession, leave me by myself where it all began. In the morning I’ll be risen. But I’ll carry that darkness to remind me wherever I go.

* Italicized lines are from Hymn #233

 
 

 

Matt Starr is from a textile town in North Carolina. Versions of his short fiction have appeared in FishFood Magazine and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and his debut book, Hell, or High Water, was published by Main Street Rag in 2018. He lives with his girlfriend, Emily, who is much smarter than he'll ever be, and their two children, a corgi named Winnie and an Aussie named Raleigh.