Originally published in Voiceworks
I woke up at the cemetery. There was a duck next to me. I yelled at him: “Why are you so goddamn obsessed with death?” Yelling cleared the tobacco tar from my throat, but the duck did not answer. “It’s a duck, Harold,” I said to myself. “It’s a goddamn duck.”
Below me, spread over the grass, was an orange and black, paisley-patterned sarong. Apparently, I was a well-prepared drunk—a midnight picnicker who’d found his way to Our Lady of Bethlehem. But how I had arrived there was uncertain. An empty bottle of bourbon sat beside me, covered in ants. Stuck into it, like a cork, was a rolled up piece of notebook paper. All memory of the night before was a mosaic with missing pieces. The pieces I remembered included: my ex-girlfriend playing a Jew’s harp, very badly; a talking moon on my walk to the cemetery; my reflection in a windowpane, crying, what a stranger might call “blubbering”; and a dream, a sequence of dreams.
Now it was morning.
Mourning, I was still drunk. The tombstones and the family two rows down floated in a haze. ‘Perhaps I am asleep,’ I reasoned. Who could say? Keats. John Keats could. He said: ‘How can death be sleep when life is but a dream?’
I said: ‘Fuck you, Keats. You got me into this mess. You and Mr. Daniels—that dastardly Tennessean. For Christ sake, John, I read a poem at her funeral!’
What a pile. What a steaming pile of ego—as if my words were enlightened enough to memorialize Life! Words get you nowhere. You want to do something worthy, stay silent, become a goddamn gunslinger; become a bank robber, something out of a Terentino movie. Let Whitman and Rilke and Charlie Bukowski rot. Let their words die with them. I’ll be a mime. A drunk mime. Severely drunk. Or a monk. A drunk monk who meditates on nothingness for the rest of my goddamn life.
Alcohol sounds almost as bad as cheese. That’s right, cheese is part of the mosaic: Blue and Gouda, the old Cheddar with the wax on it that my Uncle peeled with his right incisor, Brie (how I loathe the bird shit of cheese), Feta, Danish and whatnot. My family—another piece of the mosaic. What a lark! What a ruse! How pathetic.
There are goddamn ants everywhere! In Australia, there are ants that’ll eat your flesh while you nap on the front lawn. But at least they’re honest about their ruthlessness. The ants here, at Our Lady of Bethlehem, wait until you’re dead or asleep, then steal your liquor and rape your loved ones. They’re probably raping her right now. I can hear my father in the back of my mind: ‘They’re like black people.’ What a bigot. What a bogan. He laughed when I read my poem! He laughed and then sauntered out of the chapel, clapping and carrying on as if he were at the stock car races. “Leave!” he yelled over my free verse. “Leave your poetry in Australia. Leave! Don’t ever come home.”
If I were a gunslinger, I’d have a gun; then I could get rid of this headache.
The wind is blowing the flowers from her garden hat, which I must have placed atop her tombstone last night. Add the hat and its flowers to the mosaic: hydrangeas from the neighbor’s yard, bulrush from the side of the road, tulips, lavender, rosebuds and unknowns from condolence bouquets at the wake. Oh, the wake. “Can you eat roses?” my youngest cousin asked last night as I sipped brandy from a mason jar and stared at one of the arrangements. “You can’t eat roses,” I answered. “They’re for her, mate. We’ll put them on her grave. She can enjoy their aesthetic sustenance in peace.”
He laughed. “Mate. You just said ‘mate’.”
It had been four years since I’d been in the U.S. Four years since I’d seen any of
the family, except her. She visited last September, around my birthday.
“Are you speechless?” my Aunt asked me after the service. “Aren’t you just speechless, Harry?”
“Yeah,” I lied. I was about as speechless as the goddamn priest and all he had were words. Words and wine. Red wine. Communion. Symbolic goddamn cannibalism—oh how the family loves it! Alcohol, blood and meaning: our three favorite things. I wasn’t speechless. Everybody just wanted me to be speechless because it was easier than talking to me. Nobody knew what to say.
Meaning. Let’s hope the message in the bourbon bottle can color our mosaic. Let’s hope the lined piece of paper, blue as the firmament and smelling like hell, with more words, can offer us some insight.
Home. I want to go home. It’s not Australia and it isn’t here. No, it’s not the womb. It’s not where my heart is or where my shoes are or where my stuff is. Our Lady of Bethlehem is an ocean; the headstones are lighthouses; home is this island of souls. I want to go home.
She told me, when she visited, that she loved Australia. We were sitting at a Pokie machine, at a pub across the street from my derelict apartment. She turned to me as the coins rained into the metal tray. “Harold,” she said. She was the only person who called me by my full name. “I love this blotty country.”
I must have looked confused, which is pretty normal. “Bloody,” I said. “It’s bloody, ma. You love this BLOODY country.” We clinked glasses. “And thank you. It bloody well loves you too.”
She scoffed. Her eyes were hard yet they were filling with tears—a beautiful contrast. I know now that she knew even then. “It’s a country, Harold. It doesn’t love anybody.”
She was drunk. She was my mother.
She would have loved that goddamn duck.