A Second Attempt

Sam Martone

Writing Exercise: Begin a story with a horrific death, an agonizing scene of violence, then use the story to track the trauma, its aftermath. One track unavailable to you is vengeance or retribution. There is no further violence; no one else dies for the duration of the story. The story is to be about the living, with the death happily or not, ever after.

*

The story begins like this: You, sitting with your ex-girlfriend at the house she is housesitting. You don’t remember whose house—her high school physics teacher maybe. You don’t remember if there were dogs to take care of, plants to water. You are watching a movie about Alaska’s perpetual days, sunlit nights, sliding closer to her on the couch, wanting something to happen, as you always want when you wind up on a couch in an empty house with her. Something does happen: You get a call from your father. It only takes you a second, less than a second, to answer, but in that sliver of time, you remember the phone call from your aunt earlier that day, how she said she was getting no answer at your grandmother’s house. You remember the way you were not worried then, and now, here is the word Dad lighting up the screen of your phone, here is your thumb about to fall on the glowing green call button, here is you, in that less than a second, thinking all these thoughts and knowing even before you put your father’s voice to your ear what he will say, and then, here is him saying it. Come home, he says, It’s your grandmother, your mother’s mother. And then you are weeping in the foyer of this maybe-physics teacher’s house, in the arms of the ex-lover you still love, the maybe-physics teacher’s maybe-big black dogs howling all around you, the maybe-potted houseplant vines wrapping around your wrists as you are buffeted by the hum of the pause-frozen screen where Al Pacino’s foot slips into a split in the ice, that still-framed moment before a fall.

In the coming weeks, your mother will find a stockpiled pile of greeting cards in your grandmother’s basement, an accumulated future of birthdays and holidays and rainy days and just-thinking-of-yous. Your mother will send these cards to you on special occasions, notes from the past, reminders of the days her mother wished she would spend with you, alive.

*

You once wrote you had never been to a funeral.

*

The story begins like this: You, two years later, filling up the half-full gas tank of the car you’ve borrowed—you don’t remember if it was a station wagon or an SUV, if it required unleaded or premium. You are going to see the movie about the teenage boy bitten by a radioactive spider, wondering what’s going to happen in this origin story, this new beginning. This happens: You get a call from your father and in that less than a second before you answer, dread rushes up cool through your feet, you can feel all the blood fall away from your head, you remember the maybe-physics teacher’s house. You imagine a foot falling through thin ice. You know, somehow, he is not calling just to say hello, even before you thumb comes down on that glowing green call button. Your father tells you she didn’t make it, your grandmother, his mother. And then you are sobbing at the gas station, asking what he means, what happened, because none of this was supposed to happen, but you retain nothing of what he tells you: it was sudden: a heart attack, a stroke, a failed surgery. It was all three or none of these. A respirator, a plug to be unplugged—you will have to wait for another call, one that will come in the middle of the night, one that you will not answer because you cannot bear to hear what it will bring. Your father will leave a message that you will not, even a year later, be able to delete. But now, standing at the gas station, trying not to alarm your passengers with your choppy breaths, you are thinking of the card she sent you, just two weeks ago, the last card you will receive with her writing on the inside, and how you didn’t call to say you missed her, too. You want to call her now, to hear her voice, and can’t understand why you can’t. You want to call her and hear the answering machine click on, her holiday-themed message, her voice asking you to leave your name and number, telling you to unfurl the flags, break out the red white and blue. You want to call every day for years just to keep hearing her, you want to believe her repeated promises to get back to you, her words making certain every month stays just the same, that hellish heat, that smoky din, July, July, July.

*

A year from now you will need a new pair of shoes, and so you will buy red ones, like hers, the closest shade you can find. Jester Red, she’d say, pointing to her toes, but those are sold out, or maybe just not available in your size, so you get the standard red. You think of her whenever you run, whenever you look at your foot, whenever a pebble is caught against your heel. You think of shared desserts, of animatronic Santa Clauses, of all the clipped and folded newspaper columns that will go unwritten.

*

You once wrote you could count on one hand the people you knew who died.

*

The story begins like this: You, lying on the floor of your humid sunset-soaked bedroom. You once wrote you did not know much about death or dying or the way things are after someone has died, what a mouth is like when it is empty of stories. It is the only thing you once wrote that is still true. You still do not know, do not understand, how someone’s body can simply come to a halt. You still do not know how someone can be gone when you can feel her weight in that pall you bear. You do not know how someone can not be there, how someone can not be. You hear yourself, the invented hymns you whisper in an attempt to bring them back: O mother of my mother, o mother of my father, I can still hear you. I can still hear you, breathing. You know there are more questions you should’ve asked them while they were here, even though every time you asked, they only responded with questions of their own, only cared to hear about you, to know and love the things you had done. You know you cannot know what your parents are feeling, the absences that have been carved into their lives, but know that you will know, someday. Know that it is something no one can outrun. Know there will be more stories that begin with death, there will be more attempts to track the trauma, and know, you must know, that every attempt will fail.

*

The story ends like this:

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Sam Martone lives and writes in Tempe, Arizona.

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