I saw my father buried at twelve years old. After the funeral we had one of those weird post-funeral parties at our house. I always hated those. I hid in my room for as long as possible. I laid on my bedroom floor and played an old beat up Nintendo, trying not to think about or feel anything. Occasionally, someone would make their way upstairs and do their best to assure me that my father was safe, or in heaven, or watching over me. I would smile, or nod, or say thank you. My bedroom would then fall into uncomfortable silence until the person would feel awkward and leave me alone.
I couldn’t feel it. I couldn’t feel anything. I just felt that overwhelming numbing, isolation. I wasn’t positive anything of my father remained aside from a pile of ashes contained in a small box handed to my grieving mother. I felt how empty my family’s home felt now. It was January. It had been the coldest winter in one hundred years. Some nights when the winter sun went down to the west, you swore never coming back.
I spent the remaining winter months existing in my own tiny Fimbulvetr. I never saw or felt my father’s energy any more after he died. I couldn’t be sure of the solace of safety of an afterlife. I just felt an all-consuming emptiness filling the quiet house, and creeping in behind my mother’s eyes. At the funeral the preacher had talked about heaven, and god’s plan. I held my grandmother’s hand. She leaned over and softly told me that when she felt like she was going to fall apart, she counted the roses at the front of the room. Within a few weeks, we threw all the roses away, and it was just my mother and I in an empty house, standing on a quiet street. I was pretty sure god wasn’t there.
As an adult, I find myself taking breaks from whatever I’m doing to stare into a corner, or an archway. I have done this as long as I can remember, and I always wonder why. What am I searching for in those empty corners? Is my heart looking for something my eyes can’t see? Sometimes catch myself and realize I have been staring at a doorway or archway for several minutes. Am I looking for ghosts?
The year is 1996. We are fifteen, Forrest, Adam, Chris, and I. My father has been dead for two years now. This house is growing in it’s clutter, creeping dread, and all-consuming despair. The walls are yellow with cigarette smoke. My mother is gradually becoming less and less functional, and more and more a shadow of her former self.
My mother is out of town for the weekend. With the internet being newly available, she has found another escape, one that will gradually consume her. Through the use of the internet she has found a way to reconnect with a boyfriend from before her and my father’s marriage. They strike up a long distance romance, and decide to go on a cruise together one weekend in February, just after Valentine’s day.
Tonight, this house my mother and father bought on a hill is our playground. I am getting drunk for the first time. Because we’re kids, and because we don’t know what we are doing, we are getting drunk on that nausea inducing a little bit of this, a little bit of that from every bottle in the liquor cabinet, just a little so nobody will notice combination all teenagers do at one point or another. We mix it all together with cheap orange juice someone got before they came over. This is the kind of thing that seems like a pubescent good idea. I have no idea how some of my friends’ with more protective mothers talked their parents into letting them hang out with me for the night.
We sat around the kitchen table, with the lights dimmed and candles lit. We smoked cigarettes, and drank our awful teenage drinks. We played music as loud as we wanted into the night. The Cure, Sisters Of Mercy, Black Flag, and The Misfits were on heavy rotation. This was the year that both Punk, and Gothic rock carved a bloody, blacked space in my heart, one they have yet to vacate twenty years later.
We made small teenage talk. It consisted mostly of our friends, how much we hated school, and the bands we would someday start. Our words became more and more pronounced and slurred, as our smiles became wider and wider. At some point, we realize that Kevin has come home with his girlfriend, and is upstairs losing his virginity as we hang out downstairs getting drunk.
Kevin is an older kid who’s parents are friends of my mother. His father took a new job in North Carolina just before his senior year started. He had really wanted to finish high school in Pennsylvania, so my mother took him in. He’s kind of creepy, and is difficult to live with. He’s one of those relic 80’s rocker dudes with a mullet, and perpetual greasy Metallica shirt. He just turned 18. His last girlfriend was still in middle school. This one is fifteen. We make no attempt to be quiet and every attempt to be louder, hoping to ruin his romantic evening.
Chris mentions he brought his Ouija board with him, maybe we should goof around with that for a while. It’s late at night, and I’m stumbling and warm with drunkenness, so I concur. I add to the plan by suggesting we step into my mother’s room, the room my father died in, and try to contact my father. Everyone is quiet for a moment, then nods there drunken agreements. Chris gets his Ouija board, and we set our drinks down on the kitchen table. We trudge up the stairs to my mother’s cold room. Ever since my father died, she sleeps with the television on as loudly as possible, and the thermostat nearly as low as it gets. Sometimes I wake up at night and hear her TV blaring through my wall. I never understood why. I just knew some things were between my parents, and not mine to understand, some of my mother’s sense of loss must have been the same way.
We take our places on the floor at the foot of my parent’s bed. All four of us place our hands on the oracle. My head is swimming.
“Is anyone here?” I ask.
Our hands move to the “Yes.” position. I swear I’m not moving mine. I don’t ask the others if they do. I play along.
Sure, whatever. One of my friends could have very easily moved the oracle to reply in the affirmative. I’m not freaked out yet.
“What is your name?”
Okay, now it’s getting weirder. That was my father’s name, but still… One of my shithead buddies could have figured that out, and is playing a prank on me while we’re drunk. Teenage boys can be mean, after all. I know our telephone number is still listed under his name in the phone book.
“Fine, Mr. would be ghost of Josh’s Dad, what is your father’s name?”
I am drunk and smarmy, and think I have my friends shown up.
What the fuck? That is my grandfather’s name. It’s not a common name. Can you even think of anyone born pre-1920 who had that name? This level of knowledge definitely would have maybe taken more than the sleuthing skills of a liquor drunk ninth grader in the mid-nineties possessed. Especially since this was kind of right before the internet was widely available to everyone, and in dial-up no less. I am now freaked out, and need out of my mother’s room. It feels like the temperature has dropped several degrees in the last five seconds.
Just then, the bedside lamp on the night table just next to the spot where my father’s body was found snaps on. A picture of my mother and father from their wedding night that has been on the nightstand as long as I can remember falls over. For a minute, my eyes catch a shadow move right on the bed where my father had slept. It looks as if it is in the shape of a person. My friends and I stare at one another in a moment of pure, unadulterated fear. We all get up and are practically pushing past one another to get out of the room. We leave the Ouija board where it is. We’ll come back and grab it in the morning; when the morning sun creeps in through the windows, and this room is less filled with menace. My mom won’t be home until Sunday afternoon anyway.
I go downstairs to the kitchen, and pour myself another vodka and orange juice. I put on my jacket and step outside. Pennsylvania in February, the sky is that weird winter red color and the earth is dusted with snow as far as the eye can see. You can see the lights of the baseball field a few miles to the west, and the lights of the K-Mart parking lot the next town over, but not much else. This is home, and I feel stuck here. I’ll return to this spot over and over again in my mind throughout my adult life, either on the road, through years of traveling, or through memory and a seeming lack of movement.
My friends and I finish our drinks and run through the empty street, drunk at three in the morning. Chris is well over six foot four, at 15 years old. He looks so funny to my young and drunk eyes, a childlike gentle giant sliding through the snow. Forrest and Adam share a cigarette and laugh. It sets my mind at ease, four fuck ups, sliding around in the snow. The alcohol sinks to my belly, diffusing through my blood stream. I think about what my life will be like now. Am I going to turn into a teenage alcoholic, or drug addict like everyone seems to expect? Just barely a year ago Johnny Rotten screamed the words “No Future!” to me through a battered stereo for the first time.
It was like entering a secret world. It was like finding a hidden path, or a secret doorway. You didn’t know where it led, but you didn’t care. You didn’t care because what really held any meaning anyway? All I knew were these cold rooms, my mother’s despair, and my teenage hopelessness. How was I supposed to look forward to anything else?
I don’t know where my father is. I don’t know if god is there or not. I just know that I feel that same old great emptiness when I reach out to feel either one of them. I’m thankful my mother doesn’t ask me to go to church with her. I’m thankful that two years have passed and people stop trying to talk to me about him all the time, and then getting uncomfortable when I just stare at them blankly.
Tonight I know this and this only: I have three friends, some records that are meant to be played loudly, and a silly haircut. Punk rock is changing my life, these distorted chords are changing every single thing about how I see the world around me. I’m excited, and the world feels new for the first time since I was a child. Night follows day, and spring follows winter. One day, I will escape this town. That much I can feel, that much I can rely on. If there is a heaven, it’s not to going to be found here.