Michael Bonacci died the night of the Father-Daughter Dinner Dance. He died at home in his bathroom. Technically, it was the next day. Like Cinderella, Michael might have joked, he expired just after midnight, his lungs filled, his heart aflutter, his mind plunged into the cold black expanse.
He was sober when he got up that morning at five. He walked in the dark to the bathroom, feeling his left hand out for the door frame, then the wall, then the light switch that he did not turn on because his wife was sleeping. By five thirty, he sat in one of the club chairs in his study, feet off the floor and tucked, arms resting in his lap, counting breaths. He started over when he got to ten, beginning to let go. Then, for the fifth time that week, he was interrupted by the paper woman’s headlights. They spoiled the darkness, sliding along his study wall, slowly at first, and then quickly as the white hatchback passed and the high beams flashed across his face. It was annoying to him that after a year and a half, she still paused in front of houses that had never received the paper.
Michael was at the window when the woman drove back around from the end of the cul-de-sac, snailing past each house. A deep manvoice exuded from the hatchback and drifted over his lawn, past the tired maple, reaching his ear as an undertow of chopped sound. She was probably in her late sixties, drove through their neighborhood on the wrong side of the road each morning, paused often to study what must have been a list of addresses written with a shaky hand. Even after her car passed and was no longer visible, her brake lights dashed any hope of recovering his meditation. Michael shook his head and felt old frustrations rising. Better to have a fresh-faced kid, like it used to be, he thought, beating down the street on a bike, pitching the morning papers for strikes, the large canvas strap of the bag full of news slung diagonally across his chest, maybe a baseball cap turned backwards so the wind wouldn’t blow it off. One nickel in his pocket for every dollar tossed. It struck him as he stood there that he had not seen a paperboy in twenty years. Where had they all gone? His thoughts went back to the old woman who drove the paper route in her used car. She looked to be in her late sixties and was driving every morning in the dark before the crack of dawn. She could not keep her houses straight, she delivered a dying medium, and she worked a job once reserved for kids.
Michael’s annoyance transferred from the paper woman to the circumstances that he started imagining had brought her to his neighborhood each morning in the twilight of her life. Then he noticed himself in the reflection of the window as the red afterglow disappeared. He had lost fifteen pounds during the first thirty days of sobriety in a combination of exercise and abstinence. Today was day number forty. He left the window and went to find his running shoes, thinking about himself and where he fell on the line between the paperboys and the old woman. I am an old woman, he thought and laughed at himself, remembering those words from a John Prine song, though the name of the song escaped him at the moment.
As he stooped to tie his shoes, his mind already was racing again, and he thought about whether he was going to have a drink at the dinner dance that night. He pictured the drink, the martini glass filled with ice cubes bathed in water to chill while the gin was poured into a silver shaker, more ice packed, shaken hard and carefully set aside, the ice water emptied from the martini glass, and then the smooth pour, the gin chilled so that it seems to stack along the slanted sides of the glass almost like shaved-ice slush, until it filled from the bottom and the last drops were coaxed out by the bartender’s smooth tapping finger, the final fat olive speared and perched toward on the rim, a whisper of vermouth creating a liquid plume in the near-frozen gin.
A week or two ago, Michael’s wife had suggested a journal to help with the anger that came on when he quit. Her therapist recommended journaling, she said. It was the opposite of what you assumed, he thought. When he drank, he felt warm and content, not violent. But the edge was there when he was sober; he felt that nobody listened unless he yelled. When he was drunk, he didn’t care if anyone listened or not. Write about that, his wife suggested the morning after they argued deep into the night and he had thrown the coffee grinder to make a point, cracking the plastic. Michael hated the idea of fixating on himself in writing, scribbling like some mad man under the glow of an electric lamp, the scratch of the pen feeling all wrong and akin to crumpled paper. But he had started the argument that night and she left a journal and a blue ink pen beside a note in the kitchen. He decided he would not write about himself, but set out to write bad poetry.
“What did the Bard write when he retired down at that river town?” Michael wrote one morning. “What did he read if he could not read his own Upon Avon?”
Imagine long walks,
Perhaps with a cane, perhaps
With a wife, or a dashing young boy,
Lean and willing, but writing nothing, playing nothing, keeping up with precisely
Painful to remain silent and be thought the fool,
He remembered, than to speak and,
Without regret, remove all doubt droll-fully.
Bad poetry helped. It was like betting against your favorite team. You could not lose. If they lost, you won. If they won, you didn’t care that you lost. Bad poetry had saved him once before. Just out of college, his first job since working construction in summers, he lived at the end of a hall of tenth grade boys in a dorm at a New England boarding school, a teaching fellow. His window overlooked a small mound with a circle of green saplings, a hedgerow, and a boundary of older trees that lined a gravel lane connecting the campus to a cornfield. He could see a portion of one of the fields in the distance through the gap the road created. He arrived on campus at the end of summer when the corn had not yet been harvested and the sky stirred pungent with moisture in the late afternoons.
Michael ran, sometimes, down the gravel lane that swung through the farmer’s fields and around the farmhouse and emerged eventually on the state highway a mile or so north of campus. From there, he could double back, which he often did, or if he was feeling adventurous and strong, which he started to feel in full autumn when the football conference games arrived and the charter buses rumbled through campus to tour the fall foliage, then he would cross the highway and venture on the trails that zigzagged across the mountains, foothills really, and old logging roads that were maintained more or less for hikers and runners and snow mobiles and, he assumed, the late winter assault on the maple trees for sap when snow still covered the ground.
These trails were steep and upkeep varied. Somehow he felt he could run farther when the terrain was unstable and he was forced to concentrate not on whether he had run a mile or more, but whether he was putting his foot in the right location, whether the rock was going to slide, whether the leaves covered a hole or something else tricky to traverse, whether a branch was going to slap him in the face. Time warped on the mountain trails, the sunlight became something tangible, stabbing through the autumn leaves, catching the tree dust and suspended woodland air that he could not see, but that seemed thick until a gust of wind swept through and swirled it clean. He wrote a bad poem about this. He wrote bad poetry about his students, his college girlfriend, his terrible JV soccer team, his morning commute on foot across the campus from his dorm near the river to the main buildings, over the field where ice formed on a foot of snow so that it bruised his shins when his feet busted through the crusted layer.
On the morning of the day Michael died, he wrote a bad poem about a door that was carved and hung for the first time on a New England home in 1797. “There is something that doesn’t love a door,” he began. Then he turned his attention to the azalea bush outside of his study windows, thriving in the humid city he had migrated to shortly after law school. The bush had been anemic all fall, just beyond the shade of the maple, barely getting enough to drink.
The sprinkler system needed an update. A pipe, he thought, must have split somewhere under his yard, out of sight, pressure released, system fail. But the bush held despite a few mornings where it looked brittle, sapped, and tired. There had been rain that winter, a small flood, and general dampness into the New Year. The bush revived. By mid- February, the bush had leaves and during a few days of eighty-degree weather, unseasonably hot in February by historic measures, even for Houston, the bush grew buds and one of those buds even flowered into delicate white, tissue-like pedals.
His wife would find the poem several weeks after his death. She would read it once, misunderstand the triggers, find meaning where there was none, and save the notebook for the remainder of her long life, even after she remarried and moved east for her second husband’s career on Capitol Hill, even after he, too, died and she moved back to Texas where she had been born and was raised and where she still had a few old friends to talk to on the patio of the old club where the grandkids could order Shirley Temples and she could enjoy the sound of babies with their mothers. She would not remember the bruises on shins from ice in spring. She would not recall the smell of the mountain laurel on those long, crisp afternoons amid the buckets that were nailed to the trees like suckling tin dolls to gather the oozing sap that yet was weeks away.
Michael started his run with the memory of those New England jogs still fresh in his mind and his bad poetry safely tucked in his study drawer. He knew the club would look perfect for the dinner dance that evening. The uniformed men waiting at the valet, the sweep of stair, the bone white columns, the intimate foyer where some would mingle and greet, cocktail in hand, waiter and waitress staff gliding with small round trays of wine, beef tartar on crusty baguette slices, escargot. Through the open double doors into the grand ballroom, the big band would be poised and the polished wooden floors would glow beneath the crystal chandeliers ready for light and festive feet. The men would wear white tie, their daughters, semi-ball gowns. If he chose, it would be his first drink in forty days.
Michael recalled the first time he had inhaled wealth, back east—a towel of all things, thick and luxurious. He had stayed with an aunt who was not rich but who lived in a resort community while her husband struggled as an architect. The aunt and uncle had access to a club through his university. They took Michael to the resort on his uncle’s days off. The towels were at the entrance. They were stacked, ten high and three rows back, on a low shelf beneath the shade of a cabana. Michael reached for one, noticing nothing else until he heard a clicking tongue, and looked up to see a boy, just a year or two older, forming a big, wide grin. The older boy held out an identical towel from another stack, this one beside a director’s chair where the boy was perched. Michael felt himself flush beneath the boy’s gaze. Unlike the summer pool back home, this place was quiet. There was no off-the-reservation laughter, no country music piped in from suspended speakers, no mother shouting for her child to come on back and get some sunscreen on before he turned lobster—just the cool, soft-spoken hush of wealth.
Michael nodded at the boy as he took the towel, feeling its weight, sensing the boy watching him and passing through the gaze to the other side, where the spell was snapped as quickly as it had arrived, first by his uncle who mocked one of the sunbathing men wearing a gold chain, and then by his aunt who followed, a bit overweight, a bit underdressed, and laughing a bit too loud at his uncle’s crooked smiles.
His aunt and uncle ordered Old Fashioneds poolside. The name seemed perfect to Michael when he saw them, the cherry lodged in maple-colored crystal like a mosquito caught in amber from one of the National Geographic magazines his grandparents subscribed to him.
Only one way to go, Michael thought, remembering his aunt and uncle, their white skin and floppy hats, their short limbs reclining in the sun, the umbrella, never quite perched in the right location to protect all the three vitals—their bodies, their drinks, their beach bag that looked more like a canvas grocery sack. And so the drinks remained shaded, cool, iced, and well-tended by the young waiters who strolled from umbrella to umbrella, chair to chair, group to group. And the beach bags faded and Michael got his first bad sunburn of his life that he could recall.
Bad Poem, No. 34 By Michael
Late autumn days when the Pilgrims recalled the harvest,
The Pequot raced for game, and signs of winter torched the breeze
That slightly sounded so all could see that summer’s laze had shrunk.
Down here, winter’s hints, they never come. The breeze it flies
From the Gulf that is thick with preludes, grand storms, salt
To delta mud, like whiskey, heat so thick it coats the gravy sky.
After his run, wet with sweat, Michael walked back to his bedroom where his wife was still laying down. One of the children, their youngest, had made his way from his bed to theirs, and was snoozing with his worn, stuffed elephant, his fingers in his mouth, always two fingers rather than a thumb. She was reading a novel, a paperback with seashells on the cover that her sister had discarded. On his side of the bed, magazines were stacked, a measure of the months, dusty to the touch perhaps, but not visibly. There was something slightly worn about the magazines, so different from when each arrived, as if pressed, smooth, and surprising. By the bed, they were picked over and smudged. He headed for the shower.
From the time he took a shower until lunch when he ate a hotdog with his daughter and his son at Weenie Stand Number Three, Michael moved through his punch list of odd jobs around the house. The garage door opener needed a new fuse. The hole that the dog had dug and that Michael had filled with sand and dirt and planted with grass was, by some great mystery, a hole again. The sprinkler system needed to be repaired to ensure the survival of the azalea bush so that it, in turn, could inspire more bad poetry. He completed exactly none of those tasks, but managed to read an article about the mathematical connection between the mating rituals of rabbits, the syllables in Sanskrit poetry, and the shape of his ears. In reality, Michael was just biding his time until his wife got back from the morning basketball games with the kids so that he could escape with them from the house for hotdogs and the park.
“Why do you put coleslaw on your hotdog?” his daughter asked. “That’s disgusting.”
“That’s the only way to eat a hotdog,” he answered.
She looked at him and sighed, and he thought how it was just recently that she had learned to sigh. It wasn’t clear to him whether she had mastered it, though she seemed to have innate talent.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I put chili on it, and relish, too.”
“That’s really disgusting,” she said and bit into her own hotdog, dressed only in ketchup.
They went to a park near their house. Thirty years earlier, the land had been a vast field and men sometimes walked with dogs and shotguns to hunt dove or quail. He thought about this as he sat on a bench, watching his son run around a playhouse, pausing every now and then to pick up an armful of wood chips that carpeted the area and throw them in the air, laughing. His daughter played on a seesaw with a girl half her age, gently pushing the plank up for the girl whose legs did not reach the ground, even on the downside.
The park stretched out toward a block of houses, clipped grass and a few trees here and there. There was a baseball diamond at the far end, a basketball court, and a pair of tennis courts where neighborhood kids met private coaches to practice their serves. On days when the wind blew in from the Gulf or down from the high plains with nothing to stop it save the neighborhoods that circled outward like a snail shell, people would fly kites in the outfield of the baseball diamond. He always thought it was a great idea when he saw it, but he had never done it. He had never gone to the store to buy a kite. Where would one even find a good kite that was made of something real, not cheap plastic that got twisted and torn? He wasn’t sure. That afternoon, there were no kites. The air was still, the sky cloudless. Tomorrow, he thought, he would buy a kite for when the wind next blew.
Looking out at the playing fields, Michael tried to imagine the farmland that once dominated. He imagined his grandfather, a retired veteran who had spent his last thirty years hunting dove in cornfields in Virginia and North Carolina, set up in a blind with his retriever darting out for a fallen bird after the crack of the shotgun blast. He could not imagine it.
Instead, he recalled a moment when he was a boy with his grandfather, laying in the back seat of his grandfather’s diesel Volkswagen Rabbit. The morning began with frost and Michael recalled watching his grandfather turn the key in one direction to heat the coil and then turn the key the other direction to start the engine in a guttural sigh. The blast of air turned to heat by the time they drove along the ocean front avenue toward the road that lead out of town.
“I’m tired,” Michael’s son said, a streak of mud across his cheek and a bit of snot caked around his nostrils.
“Do you want to go home and take a nap?” Michael asked, stooping to wipe the kids face with general movements.
“No nap!” the boy said and ran off, making his way toward the jungle gym until he tripped on something invisible and started crying, a few wood chips stuck to his face.
Michael called to his daughter. It was time to go.
In the bathroom, an hour before the dinner dance was set to begin, Michael shaved. He had been careless and the water from his shower had pooled on the hard tile floor. It was slick, but he did not have time to mop it up with a towel. His daughter showered in a separate bathroom and worked with his wife to comb her hair and put on her new, white dress. They met in the hallway, she did a self-conscious twirl and he laughed, hugged her, kissed her forehead. The front porch light was on, the night was warm but with a breeze that promised kite-flying weather in the morning. The moon was oblong and hanging high in the sky. He placed his arm around his daughter’s shoulder. They made their way down the footpath, away from home, her smile anticipating dinner and dancing and friends amid the live oaks and beneath the shimmering lights of chandeliers that held at bay the black night sky.