STILL LIFE

by David Klein

Part One

1

Jane answers late-night phone calls on the first ring. “Yes,” she says, listening, nodding in the dark, one hand already smoothing her hair into place. Then she hangs up and dashes off to the hospital, leaving me to curse the ruin of sleep. I’ve acquired this peculiar habit living with her: I sleep well only when she is next to me.

This time she nudges me.

“Someone is asking for Vinny,” she says.

No one calls me Vinny.

Jane hands over the receiver and watches carefully.

“Hello?”

“Vinny?”

One person calls me Vinny.

“Dad?” I get out of bed, naked, my feet tensing on the cold hardwood floor. “Is that you?” I walk out of the bedroom, descend the stairs in the dark, one hand on the banister for balance.

“Your voice sounds different, not the way I’ve been remembering it,” he says. “You never came to see me, Vinny. All these years. But I’ll forgive you. Your mother brought me home tonight, I’m all settled in. It’s so good to be home.”

“Mom didn’t give you my number.”

“Your mother’s asleep,” my father says.

“Of course she’s asleep. It’s the middle of the night.”

In the ensuing pause I hear the deep, low wheeze indicating that Jack Howell is thinking. More like misfiring synapses.

A light flicks at the top of the stairs; Jane is following me. I get as far as the front door and stop. What am I going to do—escape bare-assed into the winter night? I am trapped.

My father says, “There’s ice on the lake. Not enough yet for skating, but it’s there, it’s taken so long to freeze this year. Remember how smooth it can be? I’m looking out there now, what an incredible view. And the moon is brilliant tonight, round and full.”

I look out the window and twist my neck and sure enough there’s the moon, just like he says. The same moon he’s looking at right now. I imagine the lake, too, through the leafless gap in the trees that winter opened like a cathedral door. I remember the silvery expanse of the season’s first ice. What my father says is true. When ice forms, if there is no snow, if the wind has not rippled the new crystals, there is a day or two, sometimes only a few hours, when the first thin sheet of ice becomes both a mirror and a window. Look from one angle and you see the bottom of the lake—the murk and old logs and bloated plants—then from another angle, just by blinking, you can see the reflected clouds and sun, at night the moon and pinpoint stars. The clarity is magnificent, the colors true and vivid. We called it a miracle.

“Can you see the moon tonight where you are, Vinny?”

“Yes.” My voice flat, response clipped and curt.

“I’m home Vinny,” he says. “And this time it’s for real, not just a weekend pass.”

“Is that what Mom said?”

Jane is behind me, mentally recording every word I say. I must be careful with my words, for her and for him.

“But I don’t know where you are,” he tells me.

I say, “It’s late. You should try to get some sleep.”

“Vinny, I have something important to tell you. That’s why I’m calling.”

I wait, but he doesn’t continue. Finally, “What is it?” I say.

“When are you coming home, son?”

Never. I tell him I have to go, and hang up. A firework pops in my chest, embers flare up my throat and down my stomach. Inside, I’m burning; on the outside, exposed and shivering without clothes. I squeeze the phone as if trying to crush it in my hands. It doesn’t ring again.

“Vincent,” Jane says.

“I’m freezing, I have to get in bed,” I say. I hurry back upstairs and scrunch down under the covers, curling like shrimp to get warm again. Milky rays of moonlight slant behind the curtains. Jane sits on the edge of the mattress, keeping her distance.

“At least look at me.”

I turn, grudgingly, trying to think fast.

“Vincent, you told me your father was dead.”

Damn. I have been accused before of saying and doing things that I no longer remember. If Jane says I told her my father was dead, I probably did, early in our relationship, when we exchanged family histories and I stated my father had passed away years ago. But from what? Did I say cancer or heart disease? A car accident or in his sleep? I must have kept my story simple. Jane is a doctor. If she asked questions she could trip me up.

Now she nudges my memory: “You said he drowned one summer in the lake by your house.”

Oh, right, I remember now. It’s amazing how much easier it is to forget a lie you tell than one you hear. “I meant my grandfather drowned,” I say, but I’m caught on the ropes, I’m about to go down.

“You made a mistake like that?”

“Well . . . he is dead—for me. My father. We don’t have a relationship.”

“Is that really how you want to answer? Have you been keeping a secret from me all this time? Have you been lying about something like this?”

Once she gets started, Jane storms me with questions, one after the other they rain on me. Her careful phrasing opens the opportunity for me to lie even more, dig my trench hopelessly deeper. I never know which question to answer first, which she asked first, which are rhetorical, so I duck them all, hiding under an umbrella of shrugged shoulders and confusion and bad jokes.

“It’s a long story,” I tell her. “I didn’t want to bore you with the details.”

“That is such bullshit,” Jane says. She looks at me differently now, clinically, perhaps like a wound she must treat. She is quickly re-assessing everything I’ve ever told her, dividing each statement—I’m sure she remembers them all, has them safely locked up with her Phi Beta Kappa key—into what she believes and what might be a lie. How about the time I told her how much I love her? Or how beautiful she is? Or that because of her I’m happier than I’ve ever been? Were those all lies, too?

They weren’t. I swear they weren’t.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

She can see how distressed I am, and rather than make me face a gale she tacks toward a gentler wind, for now.

“Why did he call you so late?” she asks. “Are you an entire family of owls?” This is her own joke, which is a play on my last name, Howell. The same as Thurston Howell III from that old TV show, Gilligan’s Island. What an unlikely bunch of morons that was to get shipwrecked together. I used to endure jokes in school, back when Gilligan re-runs were popular. Hey Howell, where’s Luvie? Another one was: Howell you doing Thurston? Howell you ever get off that island? There were others, too, I don’t remember. I used to swear I’d change my name as soon as I was old enough. Now, since I can never get back to sleep again after Jane is called into work, she calls me Owl. Secretly I like it. I’m intrigued by an owl’s vigilant eyes, its nighttime predatory habits, the clean query of its language: who? who? who? Always left unanswered.

Jane’s last name is Oujima. I have yet to think up a joke in return. Not much rhymes with Oujima, except the last part of Hiroshima, which is not funny.

Also not funny is how she has grouped me with my father: two insomniacs, a family of owls. I will rage against this coupling, as with all comparisons between myself and that man. I want nothing to do with him. There is a reason I said he was dead. Many reasons.

“Come on, come back to bed,” I say.

 The other member of our household, Matisse, is up, kneading and purring on my chest. I smother him with strokes, his fur floats, butt arches in the air. I move him aside, then turn to Jane. “I shouldn’t have kept this from you.”

“Vinny. I’ve never heard anyone call you Vinny. That name doesn’t sound like you.”

“It’s not. I hate it.”

“Your cheeks are wet. Are you crying? Tell me—what is it about your father?”

“No, please, not now.”

She slips under the covers, still wearing her robe. Immediately I reach for her, inside the folds, find her warm skin, nudge closer to annex myself to her. I kiss her neck. I must lose myself in her flesh, salve myself with her body, forget that phone call from my father.

She resists. “No, not now. This isn’t what you want.”

And so it starts. This is the first time she’s turned down an overture to make love; we’re still that new and sparkly—or were until five minutes ago. But I don’t blame her. She doesn’t know what to make of this new and unsettling discovery about me. She wants an explanation, but in convincing detail, not abortive late-night whispers. You do not lie to the person you love about whether your parents are living or dead; there must be a darn good reason for withholding such information. So what is it, Vincent?

Jane waits me out, but I have nothing to say. Finally she looks at the clock: 3:20 a.m. Her shift starts at seven. For Jane, late night phone calls have always meant explosions at foundries, highway pile-ups, a psychotic gunman opening fire in a diner. She races to the hospital to stabilize burn victims, straighten broken limbs, dam blood draining from wrecked bodies. I’ve seen her dressed and out the door in less than two minutes, not even stopping to brush her teeth. She has revived people declared clinically dead, has felt life slip irretrievably away in her arms; then she’ll come home in the evening, kick off her shoes, put her feet up on the couch and watch TV while I cook dinner. It’s an arrangement we both like. 

But whatever is going on with Vincent now will have to wait. She must be fresh for the morning. She fluffs her pillow, sighs, turns away from me. No good night whisper. No kiss, no embrace, no removing of the robe.

Within minutes, she is snoring lightly. She can always sleep, no matter what, a skill she picked up in medical school when a few minutes of downtime on twenty-four hour shifts provided her only chance to recharge. Now she will snooze for three hours before the alarm goes off.

I, on the other hand, lie awake, shackled and rigid. Fear grips my joints like arthritis. It has color but no shape: blue, indigo, claret. Shadow but no clarity. A blur of doubt. Perhaps there is a familiar face hidden within its bruisey shadows, if you look closely, which I don’t.

I lie bleary-eyed and ashen until dawn.

Want to know what happens to Vincent and Jane–and Jack Howell? Click here for the rest of STILL LIFE. It’s free and it’s easy.

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, avid reader, discriminating watcher of movies and series.

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