Strange Humanities

By Mike Sauve

y father had always been a heavy drinker.  It had only become a problem recently as a result of some new medication he was taking.  I hadn’t been home since the previous Christmas when he could still put back eight or twelve drinks with no visible effect and then drive across the city without anyone raising an eyebrow.  He was a dentist.  This might have had something to do with it.

Now, after the first drink he was slurring his words.  By the third he was stumbling and generally making an ass of himself.  It was Christmas and he’d really thrown caution to the wind.  He said everything with a painful, maudlin sincerity and tried to show all kinds of ill-advised affection.  At one point he’d nearly fallen asleep on my uncle’s shoulder.  My uncle was a recovering alcoholic and not enthusiastic about his brother in-law’s condition.

It was New Year’s Day and the visit was coming to an end.  I was grateful because it was painful watching my mom alternately condemn and try to rationalize my father’s condition.  And there was little to occupy my time.  Returning home was once a whirlwind of social engagements.  These had slowly dried to a trickle and then complete drought.  This meant hours spent smoking too much marijuana, sitting in front of a basic cable package that did not hold a candle to my own.  My parents were set to leave for a dinner about an hour out of town.  By the time they returned, my girlfriend and I would be on the bus headed back to Toronto.

There was a bad feeling in the house.  I joked that it was haunted, but I had a constant sense of unease.  My heart rate always seemed too fast.  Someone suggested I was just uncomfortable around my parents.  This was true to an extent.  When you live with your parents as a young person you may resent them for all sorts of things, still, you are comfortable around them.  When you leave and make only brief, sporadic returns there is pressure to fill that void.  Small talk becomes forced, silences exaggerated.  But this was not causing my increased heart rate.  I experienced no physiological effects when they visited me in Toronto.  It was sitting alone in my room when I distinctly sensed something had gone wrong with the place.

Also, something upsetting had happened on the second night home.  I’d been drinking quite heavily at the apartment of my one remaining acquaintance.  I decided to walk home even though it would take an hour.  I’d done this the previous year in June and enjoyed the mystic, moon-misting Lake Superior night.  In winter Sault Ste. Marie was crisp white tundra.  The snow can never stick to the ground in Toronto so it lacked this winter majesty.  The street was so empty a lyric from Mr. Tambourine Man came to mind:  “on the ancient empty streets too dead for dreaming.” I did dream on these streets, of girls, of future Sault Ste. Marie life possibilities.  I would lie on the crisp seventh green at the country club, talking with my best friend about our future lives here.  Attending barbecues with the Sault’s inordinately pretty French and Italian girls, golfing with six-packs in our carts, old men with the same high school friends—that’s all we wanted to be then.

The first nineteen years of my life were spent here accumulating memories:  grade eight mistresses of friend-affection in pretty sweaters, the cheers and camaraderie of the chilly football game night, simple things.  We made forts then launched snowball operations as wild pre-teens, dried our hands and ordered twenty-eight dollars worth of chicken wings and spuds then ate them all with a complete roll of paper towels and lukewarm burning Pepsi.   By our teen years those dark Italian girls were something so exquisite they’d forever exist just out of conscious memory’s reach.  So now the beautiful girl in the boring bar brings them all back and reminds me of what’s long gone.

To revisit the site of your old hopes and find they are no longer viable is an upsetting paradox.  Those hopes never came to life, but they existed.  And somehow this place, this home, had been lost in the process.  I still dreamt of the people, only now it was like a haunting, the same things happening again and again.  I’ve read that the function of dreams is to forget, “a sort of neural housecleaning,” but I’d been forgetting these faces for far too long now.

Thinking these thoughts I’d walked about two minutes down the main drag of town.  A solid hour’s walk remained ahead of me.  I closed my eyes and then I was just a few doors from my parents’ house.  There was no transition between the midtown shopping district and the eastern suburbs near the native reserve.  I Googled this phenomenon, it’s called missing time. I tried to tell my girlfriend about it; she attributed it to the many blunts I’d smoked at my friend’s place.  I knew this was not the cause.

We said goodbye to my parents with hugging and tears from my poor mother.  She whispered her hope the cold air would sober-up my father before they arrived at the dinner.  She looked unsure.  We hugged again and they were off.  I stood in the doorway as my mother helped my father into the passenger seat.  This was a new development.  In the past I’d only seen my mother assigned to designated-driving on the rare occasion my father got into the twenty-plus drink range, and never in stormy weather like this.  She was a poor driver.  Cindy and I sat down at the table to finish an open bottle of wine.

Fifteen minutes later we heard an unmistakable voice call my mother’s name from my father’s bedroom.  Both the front and back door to the house were visible from the kitchen and no one had entered.  The car had certainly not returned.  I ran up to the room and I felt a pain right between my eyes.  A hazy sense of dissociation filled the room.  My father was in his bed, appearing to have recently awakened from a nap.  He had always worn a neatly-trimmed beard.  When he left the house it had grown out significantly and most of the neck hair was coming in.  This man in the bed looked the exact same, except his neck was clean-shaven and he had a fuller goatee.

He acted as though nothing was wrong, except maybe having too much alcohol in his system from whenever he began his ghostly nap.  I actually screamed.  I wrapped my arms around his frail shoulders for no good reason and lifted him out of bed.  He was looking at me very confused and annoyed.

“What?”

I really didn’t know what to say.   I walked to the kitchen where Cindy was.

“Go look in my dad’s bedroom,” I told her.

She could see how I looked.  “I don’t want to.”

We sat downstairs and listened to my father go about his business.  Then he came downstairs and casually started talking about a new emergency dental position that would pay him several times more than what he was making hourly now, though the hours would be fewer and inconsistent.

He was quite enthused about this opportunity and did not sense the significant unease Cindy and I were feeling.  The kitchen television was showing a true crime show hosted by William S. Burroughs.  I appreciated the distraction.

My father said he wanted to visit a colleague of his to discuss this part-time opportunity.  He was confused that the car was missing.

“Where is your mother?”  he asked.

“She’s gone to Goulais River.”

“Why?”

“For a dinner.”

“Why didn’t she wake me up?”

Burroughs was still presenting a lengthy intro to the episode, which was on the imprisonment of Wilhelm Reich.  The facts were presented as though Reich was the victim and the medical establishment was the perpetrator.  Burroughs was doing a bone-dry channeling of 80s cable patois.

My girlfriend had been crying more or less the whole time.  My father must have been aware of this, and he tactfully tried to ignore the situation at first.  Perhaps he assumed it was caused by some kind of relationship trouble.  As a teenager I’d brought all kinds of girls around and he always kept his nose out of my business.

“What the hell is going on anyway?” he asked.

“I’m going to take a shower,” I said.

“No you’re not,” said Cindy.

“OK, well why don’t we go upstairs for awhile.”  We sat in my bedroom like a couple of prisoners.  On my bookshelf was a book I’d never seen The Cat’s Cradle:  Strange New Humanities by Hunter S. Thompson.  Looking back now I know Thompson never wrote such a book, but at the time I thought it would be helpful.  Its contents would shed light on the missing time, on the replication of my father.  But we just sat there silent with faces like stone.  What could you say?  When there’s a glitch in what the televised Burroughs called “the reality studio” you can’t even cover the discomfort with small talk.  I couldn’t think of one shared-interest to discuss with Cindy, only the situation.  But something about the situation didn’t allow you to think about it in any kind of meaningful way.

Then my parents returned.  They’d only been gone about forty-five minutes.  The father with the thick goatee was downstairs and fortunately did not come up immediately when he heard the door slam.  He was probably having a wake-me-up drink in his basement study.

My mother was visibly upset.  She looked at me and knew something was wrong.  “What’s wrong with you? You look like Lee Harvey Oswald or something.”

She took me aside and whispered, “I had to turn the car around because your father threw up.”

My father’s drinking had rarely been spoken of even though he’d technically been an alcoholic most of his life.  He could have ten drinks on a Christmas afternoon then carve the turkey.  That was good enough for most people.  He needed the medication he was on, but it was making him seem like a young person drinking for the first time.  This blow to his tolerance did not embarrass him.  Something about the mixture eliminated all anxiety, so this formerly austere Dentist would stumble around making crass remarks to everyone.

The indignity of the vomiting loomed so large that I forgot what was going on for a moment.  “How much did he have to drink?” I asked.

“I’m not sure, about five or six drinks.”  I knew the medication affected him when mixed with booze, but I wasn’t sure it would make his hearty liver unable to process such a relatively small amount given his lifelong standard.  I wondered if it was caused by the goateed father’s arrival.

“Maybe he is sick.  Has he been to the doctor?”

“He won’t go.”

I heard the man downstairs enter the bathroom, probably to brush his teeth.  He often did this after having a drink.  He was very vigilant about brushing his teeth after almost any meal or beverage whenever possible.

The dad who’d just thrown up didn’t seem very drunk to me however.  Perhaps this could be attributed to a combination of the alcohol being purged from his system and the -12 Celsius night air.  He sat calmly at the kitchen table.

“Dad I heard about some emergency dental service that could pay you a much higher rate of pay, but less hours.”

“No…” he said, looking confused.  “There was some talk of that a few years back but it never came to be.”  I remembered that seven or eight years ago, before I’d left for University, my dad had worn his beard with the goatee much longer than the rest.

I knew some badness was approaching.  I wanted to be in control of it somehow, rather than just let it happen.  My dad was always a very small man, and he had lost a lot of weight in the past year.  I put one hand under his armpit and lifted him out of the chair.

“Come downstairs,” I said.  He didn’t look too happy, as though this was an indictment of his failure to hold his liquor.  He came grudgingly, and my mother followed.  Cindy was still upstairs reading Thompson’s take on the Strange New Humanities for all I knew.

The second man opened the bathroom door as I held the first father in place.  Then another Bob Dylan lyric came to me, “And the first father was with the second son, somewhere down on Highway 61.”   Except we were closer to Highway 17.

I noticed a picture of myself taken after high school graduation.  My face had changed since then.  The human body more or less totally regenerates itself every seven odd years.  I was a different person too, but the old one only existed in those photos so far as I knew.  I thought of the thousand Facebook photos of old friends I’d consumed, and data’s immense need to replace itself in the mind with new data.

The first father screamed in pure alcoholic terror.  I held him in a firm bear hug, not affectionately, but to prevent some kind of disaster.  He crumpled in my arms and I let him fall to his knees.

The second father shook his head violently and without control, then eventually said, “Well I don’t know.”

My mom could not face this and retired to her room.  Neither wanted to leave, but the second father seemed curious about the appearance of my mother, not recognizing her recent dye-job or modern black-framed glasses.  Though both men were conscious that something was substantially wrong, it was the second father who then projected the sense that if he was in the right place, maybe he was in the wrong time.

The last bus for Toronto was leaving in one hour.  The next one wouldn’t leave for an entire day.  Cindy texted my Blackberry from her own upstairs, “if we Rn’t on that bus in 1 hour I’m nvr talking 2 u again!”  She didn’t want to dig deeper into this, and that struck me as very wise. This is why sometimes it’s nice to have a girl around.  They won’t stick their fingers into a gaping wound just to feel like they are handling the situation.

The second father now sat in the study having a presumed second scotch.  The first father appeared like he wanted to do the same and was accordingly put-off.  He didn’t want to drink in front of my mom so soon after the vomiting scene.  To his visible relief she actually poured him a generous double, without ice or pretention.

I told my mom we wanted to get to the bus.  She said, “Will you take him with you?” At first I thought she was joking about the first father.  She used humour to diffuse her discomfort over his condition.  When I looked in her eyes I realized she meant the second one.

“How we going to get there?”  I asked.

“I’ll give you money for a cab,” and suddenly it was all so mundane.  Our bags were already packed.

When it was time to go my mother asked me, “Can you go get him?”

I went down to the study and told him, “Listen, I don’t know what’s happened here.  I’m sure you realize it isn’t right by a long shot.  I know this is your home, but you can’t stay here with the other guy for obvious reasons.”

“I know.  How has your life been?” he asked with a tenderness that seemed foreign to me.

“Fine.  I met that nice girl you saw.  I have a master’s degree for whatever that is worth.  I teach English at a college in Scarborough. I do some other things still, like writing…I wrote a short film that may be produced by a government agency.”

He appeared proud.  “Good for you,” he said.

“Where will you go?” I asked.

“I want to pursue that emergency dental opportunity.”

“It’s gone.”

“Well what do you suggest I do?” he nearly yelled in his exasperation.

“There can’t be two Tim Syrettes practicing dentistry in this town.”  I had an idea.  “Grab your degrees, Dad doesn’t need them here…” I felt weird calling my real-time father Dad in front of this man, who I was intensely conscious of as also being my father.

He looked incredibly sad then, realizing for the first time he would be stealing the other man’s degrees.  Though he had earned them at some point in history, they weren’t distinctly his anymore.  He put them in a small case.

Cindy and I said a brief goodbye with my parents upstairs.  The cab ride was silent until he asked to be let off at a bar far from the bus station.  I thought this was a bad idea.  “You should come to Toronto, or at least Sudbury.  It will do no good for you to be seen around town, to see your friends.  They’ll have changed.  You’ll reveal that something is wrong Dad.”

“Why the fuck can’t I reveal that something is wrong?”

He was right.  Something was happening to the fabric of reality.  He got out of the cab.  We shook hands and small tears began to form in his eyes.  “Have a good life,” he told me.  “I was always proud of you.”

At this I really broke down crying.  The goodbye with the first father had been a stilted handshake in the privacy of his room.  My mother would try to pass the thing off as some kind of alcoholic hallucination to him tomorrow.  It would be easier that way.  In fact before we left she was pouring him drinks left and right supposedly to calm his nerves.  Something she never did.

We boarded the bus and I really looked at Cindy for the first time.  Her eyes were very wide and her pupils were pinned like she’d been taking hard drugs, though she’d never touched a drug in her life.  I could only shake my head.  I’d asked her to bring the Hunter S. Thompson book on The Strange New Humanities but when she took it out of her bag in Blind River it was only The Great White Shark Hunt, a book I’d been through many times.

“You brought the wrong book.”

“I’m not really sure what you’re talking about,” she looked very uncomfortable, so I didn’t press the matter.

Sleep set in.  Waking in Sudbury I couldn’t quite remember how the experience had gone down.  It felt like any old nightmare of the Sault, though I knew from looking at Cindy’s face that it hadn’t been.  There was a sense that the entire experience had been normal after all—that it had happened, but to someone else, the first son maybe.  I think it started with the missing time, or maybe when I first left Sault Ste. Marie eight years ago.

There was no accounting for the second father.  I wanted to forget the entire affair, the whole ghost of the town.  To remember the cool fresh wind of the Sault Ste. Marie night is to reinvent a beauty that cannot be brought back.  Yet the faces of those friends, those fathers, will not be left behind.

——————–

A graduate of Ryerson Journalism, I’ve written for The National Post, The Toronto International Film Festival Group, Exclaim Magazine and other publications.  My fiction has appeared in the humour journal Feathertale.  I believe my National Post features reveal a sardonic prose style that is unique and inviting.


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