Breath of Fresh Air

(This is a short excerpt from the new novel I’ve started writing – I’ve been having fun letting it take me where it goes and discovering its stories.)

It was 3:00 on a cold Saturday morning in January of 1947, just hours after seeing his own father for the first time in fifteen years, and locked out of his own bedroom by his wife, when my father, Corey Tyler, drunk and disoriented, realized that he was soon going to be a father himself. He stood in the living room of his small upstairs apartment, staring at his closed bedroom door, and tried to comprehend everything that had happened in the past several hours.

His mind was racing from one image to the next, from his father’s eyes as they looked into his own to his wife’s moist eyes as she told him she was pregnant, to the German SS soldier’s panicked and wide eyes in Dachau as he pleaded for his life seconds before Corey ended it with a single cartridge fired point blank from his M-1 and the sound of the subsequent shots as Corey emptied his clip into the soldier’s already dead body, and the clicking sound as Corey continued squeezing the trigger until he felt Sergeant Harris’ right hand on his shoulder.

He found himself staring into the ice box unsuccessfully trying to find another beer. Then he tried the kitchen cabinet where he kept the hard liquor.  All that was left was a couple of ounces at the bottom of a bottle of brandy; he took the bottle and undid the top and raised it to his lips and emptied it down his throat. It burned as it went down, the familiar warm burn of a wildfire hungry for more fuel. He put his army fatigue coat back on and walked out the back door of the apartment and stood in the little landing at the top of the stairs and buttoned it up. He walked down the stairs and stepped outside into the cold and clean night air, down the gravel driveway to the sidewalk. He started walking to the west, where it was only one short block to Main Street.

When he got to Main Street, he stood for a moment and adjusted his eyes to the glow of the streetlights.  He looked up and down and it was empty, no cars parked in front of the store fronts, no traffic on either the street or the sidewalks. He knew the bars and Fred’s Liquor Store were all closed, but he walked to them anyway, hoping that somehow he was wrong, and that he’d be able to satisfy the empty ache in his gut.  But one by one, as he passed The Bull Market, Smitty’s, and the Foxes Den, and finally Fred’s, there was no drunken miracle unfolding to provide him with that just one more drink.

He reached the end of Main Street, his search for a drink proving fruitless, and the still, cold quiet doing nothing to silence the noise in his head. He kept walking, turning south on Sixth Street and continuing on past  the darkened homes  and empty driveways.  He found himself at the corner of Sixth Street and Logger Avenue, two blocks from the shack with the dirt floor that he lived in with his mom and brothers and sisters in the winter of 1933, after his father had left them with no warning or explanation. He knew there was nothing left of it, that it’d been torn down years earlier, but still he was compelled to walk down the darkened street and observe the space the shack used to occupy.

The shack was in the backyard, facing the alley, of the owner and landlord, Mr. Peters, a skinny little weasel of a man who worked as an accountant at the paper mill. Randy told him stories about Mr, Peters, things that Corey was too young to have known about, how he’d hit on their mom and offer her discounts in rent in return for certain favors, and how he beat his young wife, Mrs. Peters, a pretty and young blonde who Randy had a crush on.

The shack and Mr. and Mrs. Peters were both long gone now, the Peters’ having sold the property and moving downstate some time ago. The very first thing the new owners did was tear down the shack, and at some point they erected the chain link fence that Corey leaned on as he looked out to the empty space that his memory still occupied.  He thought about Randy, and Mrs. Peters and how her blonde hair would bounce when she walked, and he thought about his mom, how tough it must have been for her to live there, keeping Mr. Peters’ at bay while trying to keep her family together while trying to understand why her husband had left.  And here he was, on the night that his wife told him she was pregnant, alone in the dark, while she slept alone behind a locked door, locked to keep him out. He inhaled and filled his lungs with cold, fresh air.

He thought about the moment he shared with his father earlier that night, when their eyes locked on each other, and he wondered what it was he saw there, what it was he recognized, and it came to him. It was the same thing that had driven his father to leave that drove Corey to be outside in the middle of the cold night.  It was the same thing that drove him to drink, to leave his wife alone night after night. It wasn’t the same specific thing that made them both leave, it was the thing inside of them, the thing that let whatever haunted his father haunt him, just like it was the German soldier at Dachau that haunted Corey. It’d always been with him, even before the war, it’d been handed down years ago from the small man in the plaid wool coat in the Lyons’ Den, it was in his blood. Now he knew it, and he was able to name it, to put his finger on it, while at the same time he wondered if he’d ever be able to defeat it. He knew now that his father was powerless against the restlessness that drove him away from his home and family, and he understood that now, just like he understood that he was destined to stand in the dark on the outside of chain link fences looking back at his own pasts.

He thought of Anne and their honeymoon and his heart broke, and he realized that every night he came home late to a dark apartment he was chipping another fragment off of her crumbling heart, and he wondered if he’d already damaged it beyond repair. He turned his collar up and started walking again, further into the darkened streets, and he thought of his unborn child, safe and warm inside Anne’s body, and the cold and dark world it will have to enter, alone, a world of death and mutilation, and for the first time since he’d been out on the streets he could hear the echo of his footsteps in the cold and still night air.

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