A short short for Wynonie Harris.
It was then that he had a horrible moment of clarity, standing in the kitchen, listening to the clock. Normally, he didn’t hear it or didn’t pay attention to what he heard. But tonight, with only the soft whisper of rain against the roof, the second hand sounded terrible, like it was chipping away at something—inexorable, unconditional, tiny-but-relentless chipping. And the horror of it, of everything it implied, rooted him to the spot.
Perhaps that was the only place he could have one of his moments of clarity, the only confluence of space and circumstance—breaking a glass in the sink three hours before; gulping the last bottle of red wine to get the hateful, spiteful, self-critical voice out of his head and promptly vomiting; lying awake beside his sleeping-pilled wife, administering the old self-accusatory review of all his failures back to age eight—which could open his mind now to the hard truth.
One day he’d be too old. One day he’d run out of ways to hustle up the meagre scratch that kept them going. And then, when the juice ran out, it would be the street. The small mercies of the little house owned by his in-laws, to which he and his wife had repaired when they both lost their jobs, would be long gone. And then the street. And all the street would entail.
He could already see the signs: gray streaks in his hair, his wife’s chronic pain, the litany of sacrifices they’d had to make increasing steadily, incrementally, over time. His moment of clarity was a moment of dread so deep and profound and undeniable that he felt tears almost come. But crying was something he never did.
Still, one might cry, all alone in a kitchen, thinking about the future to a ticking clock. Daddy’s ghost wouldn’t bar his way to heaven for a transgression as small as that. Would it? Then again, if Daddy’s ghost were anything like Daddy, it would be a puffed-up, arrogant, critical, contemptuous sonofabitch. So maybe yes, Daddy’s ghost would bar the way for shedding a tear.
As Daddy’s cruel voice had reminded him not long ago in bed, as he’d learned the hard way growing up, all failures are accounted for, all sins recorded, all capitulations and weaknesses tracked with Newtonian precision. The world does not forgive. The world does not forget. And the only law the world has is that of Motion, of cause an effect, action and reaction, crime and punishment. And then the street. Where even this whispering rain, so quaint while one is safe indoors, becomes the executioner’s song.
This is why he drank, to stop that cruel voice and it’s precise accounting, to stop the dread. This is why he drank a whole bottle of his father-in-law’s discount red, since the beer ran out days before, and the lockdown meant getting to the store entailed days of advance planning and a depressing conversation about expenses.
But the voice didn’t care, that part of him that sounded like Daddy and hated him, that wanted him to suffer. He had to drink it into submission. And all he had now was the unopened fifth of Jim Beam he’d gotten for Christmas two years ago and was afraid to open. If he drank that, then the voice would tell him about his stupid, crazy things, things that he’d regret for years, that his wife would be sure he never forgot. Because he was weak. Because he’d lost his job. Because the Law of Motion. Because consequences.
And the voice, the cruel presentiment that kept him awake on nights he gave in to thinking. Its horrifying clarity about what would come. His failure to find more work. Their struggle to pay her strict disappointed parents the modest rent on this house and the sheer certainty that he and his wife would then be turned out of doors. The juice running out. Better, said the voice, not to think at all. Better not to wake up and have to face the payments and punishments of another day.
He walked to the sink. The razor-sharp Japanese paring knife was there, drying on a cloth towel. Don’t think about the electric bill you can’t pay, about the choices you’ve made, about a virus in the streets, dead bodies piled in the morgue, the juice all gone. Don’t think any of it is right or wrong—because you’re still going to pay, one way or another. Don’t think about Daddy’s ghost or the seven steps to heaven the song says are just too steep. Don’t think about what will become of your wife. Don’t think about the street.
Dead plants on the window sill over the sink. Dark blacktop glistening from the amber streetlight at the corner. The old willow just beyond, waving in the wind like it knows, dense with amber shadows. Don’t think about the street, the relentless ticking of the clock. And don’t cry. The doorway to eternity resides in every moment. Tell yourself that. Pick up the knife.