Prone to Uprising by L.S. Bassen
prostate gland: gland that is part of the male reproductive system. It is an organ about the size of a chestnut and consists of glandular and muscular tissue. See also prostate cancer, prostatis.
pros·trate Pronunciation: \ˈprä-ˌstrāt\ to spread out, throw down. 1 : stretched out with face on the ground in adoration or submission; 2 : completely overcome and lacking vitality, will, or power to rise 3 : trailing on the ground; see prone
After 38 years, Carl had had enough, but he wanted more. Both his sons were married and had each reproduced twice. Carl had finally moved to the top of the tallest ziggurat he was likely to climb, the presidency of an international bank branch in Palm Beach, specializing, predictably, in wealth management. Carl had loathed banking since his first appointment, post-Princeton (’70), in Syracuse, NY, having married into an influential family there where his wife, his roommate’s sister, recreated her mother’s diorama-life with their boys. Repeatedly, Carl had been moved around by the bank as it corporately willed. When the boys were young, there had been a dozen years when Carl had commuted weekly from Syracuse to Providence, Rhode Island. Charlotte (Lottie) had relocated with him twice. The bank sent him first to Jacksonville. then to Palm Beach before the housing bust in ’09. One son was married to a younger Princeton grad, now an MD; she practiced in Providence, an echo of unhappy years for Carl. The other son, near D.C., was married to a born-again MBA who opted for home-making after the birth of their second baby. She was the stuff of voluptuous fantasies Carl thought he kept to himself.
In 2009, along with the U.S. economy, Carl’s life tumbled downhill. In Ohio, where she had been in a nursing home, his mother died, and Carl had surgery/chemo for prostate cancer. When Lottie waved her religious wand, referring to his “prostrate” as a Providential trial, Carl yelled Jack Miles on Job:
“When Job says he understands, he means that God is a bully. And God knows Job’s right because He never says another thing until the New Testament, and that Word is in a different language.”
Lottie’s blue eyes had widened at him, but like God, she said nothing. She walked away from him to the lanai where she sat beside the indoor pool, patting Macbeth, their black terrier.
Carl left the house and drove to the club to play golf. He was surprised that he felt no guilt about blowing up at Lottie. In 38 years of marriage, he had rarely expressed himself, let alone shouted. As he walked from fairway to green, he remembered a documentary he’d seen about Temple Grandin and her 'squeeze machine'. He’d read her book, ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION. He had liked her apparatus that comforted by confining. As the son of an alcoholic father, Carl kept himself within tight bounds. On the golf course on the warm Florida November day, Carl took pleasure in his stance and studied swing. It was good that Lottie had never surprised him. The missionary position spread a gospel of Passion, not passion. Carl had never believed in men’s braggadocio; he heard his father’s drunken voice when they spoke. Carl’s father had kept different women for the decades his wife was institutionalized. No one in the family spoke of them to Carl, except his father in gross detail.
When Carl's illness developed, and his infrequent sex life stopped altogether, Carl had not minded. Lottie’s responsiveness had grown as thin as she had, so that her legs made him think of rubbing two brittle sticks together to make a pitiful fire. Once, instead of sex, he found himself telling her the Jack London story, To Build a Fire, and how the snow fell off the pine and doused the narrator’s last match and hope. She had fallen asleep in his arms, content as a child.
Carl’s administrative assistant at the bank, Joyce, was a different story.
She was a 43 year old divorcee with identical twin teenage daughters, spoke with a molasses accent, and glowed. She had been assistant to the bank president Carl replaced, and one of her many skills had been adapting to Carl’s ways. She spoke a language he found accommodating (“I’m a secretary,” she said when they first met, “I don’t know where this administrative assistant nonsense came in”) and pooled like water around Carl. Pre-surgery, he’d been severely dehydrated. When a nurse inserted an iv line, flooding his veins, he revived. Carl conflated this sensation with post-operative morphine and a visit from Joyce. She’d handed him a cup of water, and their fingers had touched. Joyce also felt a shock.
“It was like a circuit breaker breaking. Oh, not breaking,” she flirted, “turning back on.”
For Carl was in love, he felt, for the first time in his life. Joyce’s identical twins liked him. He was neither fat nor balding, and he didn’t try to win them over. They’d never known a father (whom they called “the SD” – for sperm donor) although Joyce insisted she had been married and divorced from a real person.
“Then why are there no photos of him anywhere?” Jackie and Jillian asked.
“He thought he was God,” Joyce answered. “No craven images allowed.”
Jillian stopped in the midst of pulverizing basil in a mini-food processor. “I thought it was graven – images.”
Tearfully slicing onions, Jackie added, “Like engraved.”
Carl enjoyed the easy way Joyce and her girls included him in outings and dinners at home. Accustomed to his long hours and business trips, Lottie never missed him.
But Carl’s improved humor could not be attributed solely to his golf game. Lottie became suspicious. Finally, she confronted him. She asked, and he told. That very night, she sent him packing. Carl moved in with Joyce and the twins. Then Lottie surprised him.
Her older son Chris, the doctor’s husband, described his mother to his therapist in mixed metaphor: “She became a Fury, an Erinye, a burning bush unconsummated by divine fire. Her outrage was boundless. She could not speak her anger. Achilles was an ant beside her. Troy was a suburb.”
Lottie turned to her church and put herself in the hands of the Lord she often quoted, “Vengeance is mine!” Carl was not present to dispute her misreading of that rare merciful moment in the ancient text. Their divorce took a bit more than a year, and then it was done. The house was sold at a loss, the assets divided. But Lottie’s rage was unabated. Both her sons suggested pacifying outlets. But since she heard Carl’s voice when Chris and Will spoke, Lottie berated them. She antagonized both daughters-in-law with warnings about their own inevitable dooms. After a bit more than a year, Lottie had succeeded in alienating family and friends, except for her older married sister Elizabeth in Pittsburgh.
Carl felt airborne with Joyce. Her twins kept him grounded by arguing politics.
“Why are we in Iraq?” Jillian demanded, and Jackie emailed him links to YouTube clips of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Carl drew the line at Rachel Maddow.
“If one of us was gay,” Jillian teased, “would you turn us off, too?”
“If one of you were,” Carl corrected.
“What’s that?” Jackie asked.
“The subjunctive,” Carl answered.
There would be no talk of marriage (Carl vowed never to reenter a church), but the twins were glad at last to have a father-figure. Carl was surprised how much he preferred daughters to sons and gin and tonic to iced tea.
Lottie moved to a condo near Elizabeth in Pittsburgh. Lottie’s décor was an exhibition of Divorce as The Afterlife. She pared down 38 years and 5000 square feet to 2 bedrooms and 2 baths, and an “open-concept” living room whose dining space was defined by a brass chandelier expecting a table to lie passively beneath it. Lottie replaced it with a pewter one. She chose the condo without a balcony. Carl had barbecued. She expected he would fry in Hell.
April arrived cruelly. The first moon after the vernal equinox waxed full for an early Easter Sunday. A few days later, after two decades with Alzheimer’s, Lottie’s 90 year old mother died. The sisters flew to Syracuse to join their father, but before funeral plans were completed, he succumbed to a stroke. Lottie collapsed. Elizabeth retained her parents’ longtime aide, Wendy, to stay with Lottie, who could not get out of bed.
Will was already in Syracuse when Chris arrived and felt his i-phone vibrate.
Speaking from the kitchen while Joyce prepared dinner, Carl said, “I heard from Will that your mother is prostate with grief.”
“Nice, Dad,” Chris said.
Joyce stopped slicing tomatoes. “It would be good to send flowers,” she whispered.
Jillian walked into the kitchen. “Flowers are God’slaughter,” she quoted sarcastically for Carl’s approval.
Jackie appeared and competed, “Mono-Theo has no sense of humor.”
“There is no Theo,” Carl said.
“Dad?” Chris said.
“How is your mother?”
“In bed. Won’t let us take her to a doctor.”
“Have Wendy keep her hydrated.”
Chris heard a Southern accent offer, “Sugar cube ice chips,” and he could hear his father’s approval of Joyce when he added, “Your mother will get up for the funeral.”
But Lottie remained prone. After the cemetery interment, Chris and Will returned to their grandparents’ condo, without hope of getting their mother to join the reception at a surviving great-Aunt’s nearby home. But they decided to try once again to lift her depression. Wendy made a pot of coffee with cinnamon.
Will talked about his family, and Chris talked about the walk he’d taken before the funeral along the Erie Canalway which had been domesticated into a walk in the park.
“Remember, Mom, in 9th grade, I appropriated the playroom to build a model, complete with locks and water features for Lake Erie and the Hudson? Remember the wars Will and I fought in the model landscape from Syracuse to Rome to Troy?”
Lottie stared into space.
Will said, “The Canal hardly inspires epic memory.”
Wendy served the coffee in mugs. She put dollops of sweet whipped cream on top. Will and Chris helped Lottie sit up against a chintz chairpillow. She didn’t resist nor cooperate, but she did drink the coffee.
“Well, it was epic once,” Chris said. He was encouraged by the white moustache of whipped cream on his mother’s upper lip. “It was a vital artery of commerce.”
Then Will blurted, “Dad sent white lilies to the funeral parlor, white roses to the church, and two big coffin blankets of white lilacs to the cemetery.”
Lottie licked her lips.
Wendy reacted first. “Missus -- ?”
Lottie’s first words in over a week were screamed, “That goddam son of a bitch!”
Both sons were stunned, but Wendy moved to assist the furious woman as she launched out of bed, giving breathless orders for clothes and shoes and, “Will, get the car!”
Chris quickly followed his younger brother outside. “What were you thinking, telling her about the flowers?”
Will squinted and put on sunglasses. “I didn’t think she’dexplode.”
“You didn’t think,” Chris said, “of the emotional shrapnel.”
“Y’know, there’s a statue of limitations on birth order. The Erie Canal? What was that?”
“Mom knows Dad well enough to know that the flowers weren’t his idea. So whose idea would they have to be? You just rubbed her face in it.”
Wendy was walking their mother toward them. Chris started to open the car door.
As he went to the driver’s side, Will said, “Well, it got Mom up.”
At the funeral parlor, Lottie was led into a room still filled with white lilies. Lottie snapped off one pungent white trumpet after another, until her fingers were stained with brown pollen, and the patterned carpet was littered with flowers. As Chris tried to mollify the employees, Will dissuaded her from crushing the flowers with her heels.
“New shoes, Mom,” he said, “and the rug.”
Lottie nodded and caught her breath. “Now the roses,” she barked.
“At the church?” Will said.
“Then to the cemetery!” Lottie ordered, “and the goddam lilacs!”
After she shredded the funeral blankets lying on her parents’ adjoining graves, Lottie knelt and sobbed. Releasing the lilacs' scent aroused pity in her -- and guilt. Guilt was neither defeat by nor fury at. It was hers to keep. As if baptized by tears, Lottie rose from the ground. When the trio finally arrived at Great-Aunt Alice’s, Lottie was greeted like the Resurrection.
At the reception, Chris and Will got uncharacteristically drunk. With the other 30-somethings present, they joined in frat party exuberance mourning their youth rather than the deceased nonagenarians. Great-Aunt Alice’s grand piano became the center of a sing-a-long of 90’s Golden Oldies.
“They were the real Gay Nineties,” Chris said.
“Are you really that drunk?” Will said.
“I’m politically correct at weddings, not funerals,” Chris said. He emptied a discarded glass left on the piano. “The more you drink,” he observed, “the thirstier you get.”
Everyone took his remark as a cue to make pronouncements.
“The thing about Islam that gets me is being prone.”
“Prone to what?”
“They look like the scales on a fish.”
“Remember where you put your eyes from Sesame Street?”
“The Blue Marble, that was.”
“Religion is always about groveling.”
“Nietzsche said he could only believe in a god who knew how to dance.”
An attractive blond cousin from Rochester struck a provocative Hindu dance pose, then undulated. Chris stared at her. Will moved close to his older brother. “How many hands does she really have?”
Chris held up his left hand in the Spock Vulcan-V and tapped his wedding band. “This is the only hand you should be thinking of.”
Will poised between anger and exhaustion. He eased into sly. “What about you?”
Chris looked across the large salon toward the dining room where his mother was accepting cake from an older relative. The tall bald man, whom Chris remembered uneasily, patted his mother’s shoulder and then led her toward a settee, his palm in the small of her back. Through a lead-pane window, sunlight fell on her short pale hair.
“I didn’t know Mom could go so -- wild,” Chris said.
“Or Dad?” Will smirked.
Through an alcoholic haze, Chris registered his brother’s implied crudeness, but only at a great distance from something he saw taking shape in his mental fog. “What got Mom out of bed was being madder at God than Dad.”
Will said, “You’re drunker than I am.”
Chris saw the wisdom in this. “I am the Erie Canal,” he agreed.
Downing a screwdriver, Will choked trying to spit out: “What did you ever connect? Mom and Dad? That was me. You were the geek. I played golf.”
Chris looked at the glass in his hand, wondered how it got there, and drank it.
“That’s all I meant.”
“The Erie Canal. Me. Not then. Now.”
Will felt a rush of wonder. Had his older brother conceded priority to him in anything, ever, before? Swept along by inebriated hope, Will offered, “Mom and Dad are just the GOP. A few too many disasters exposed their core failures.” He slurred, “He’s pariah-moderate,” and chicken-flapped his arm, “and she’s strictly right wing,” spilling the drink in that hand and accepting another he finished off. Then he blinked slowly and concluded, “Can you imagine if we were Catholic, with their problems? You can never find a Reformation when you need one.”
“You are as drunk as I am,” Chris said.
“Pass me a bottle, Mr. Jones,” Will began to sing.
“Help me believe in anything/I want to be someone who believes,” Chris sang back.
Then they were both playing drunken air guitar, appalling the elders and attracting cousins who joined in, one at the piano. Chris’s Tigertones baritone and Will’s raw tenor led the younger crowd through the Counting Crows song.
Back in Providence, well after the hangover, Chris described the scene to his wife.
“We got to ‘When I look at the television, I want to see me staring right back at me,’ it was – I knew that I wouldn’t want that Mistuh-Kurtz-he-dead-kind-of-horror. But I was staring at myself and everyone there, at my parents, at my deadgrandparents.” Chris did not tell his wife that he also saw their children, grown, and their grandchildren. “It was like we were all notes on a music staff with the repeat sign. The notes are separate, but they sound unified to our ears the way sight does to our eyes. Persistence of vision, that. I saw I was anobject, just a thing like anything else. But when I looked at Will, I loved him.”
Chris’s wife remembered Arthur, her cadaver in Gross. How after dissections, in a bar, she and her classmates had been drunk on more than alcohol. She was an adept young doctor who knew that a harrowed soul was hardly a diagnosis and not always a bad thing. She took Chris’s hand and led him to the stairs. Now was not the time to say she was relieved there would be some distance, at least for awhile, between Chris and his parents. Carl had become an inebriated flirt and played too roughly with their four year old boy, tickling him to tears. Lottie was more negative than their two year old whose favorite word was No. Now it was time to go upstairs with her husband and lie down.
© L.S. Bassen, 2014
L.S. Bassen is the winner of the 2009 Atlantic Pacific Press Drama Prize, a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship, and has had her poetry and fiction published in many various publications over two decades. She was a Finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award for her story collection BELONGINGS. She is Fiction Editor for Prick of the Spindle, and has four books coming out in 2014 from publishers in Hong Kong, Canada, & Tennessee. She is a reader forelectricliterature.com, and writes book reviews forbrooklyner.org, rumpus.net, Big Wonderful Press, Cider Press Review, and Small Beer Press.
Prone to Uprising was read by Mark Woollett on 5th February 2014