A Lessening of the Sail

by: Chris Thompson

Oftentimes it is only at the extremes of our emotions where we find out what’s truly important in life….

It’s a Monday morning, mid-June, and my mother’s been calling for me from the bottom of the stairs for a while now. I can hear her just fine, but I haven’t responded to her yet because that’s what you do when you’re a teenager. I’m fifteen years old and school’s been out for almost a week, but the dull, tedious aura of classes and exams still hangs heavy in the air, concealing summer’s arrival.

From my perch in bed I glance over to my desk and notice my book bag hanging from my chair, utterly ignored since the last day of school. It’s a colorful fabric cornucopia, trimmed in reflective grey and filled with the ephemera of my cleaned-out locker. Assorted notebooks and papers, my old scuffed gym shoes, a half-full bottle of anti-frizz spray, the pot I threw in art class that droops heavily to one side that I can’t bring myself to throw away. It all swims within the cramped confines of my bag, pressing out to bulge its weathered sides as if probing the fabric for escape. My hand rises to rub my shoulder, the one that it slung from all year long and the phantom press of its weight still lingers. “Stay” I say pointing to my bag, as if relinquishing it of its duties, and in my mind I see it slacken and relax.

My mother calls out again, louder this time, more agitated, and I turn my head, scrunch up my freckled nose and narrow my eyes. I gaze at the closed bedroom door, to that spot of painted wood that exists somewhere between my terrycloth robe and my raincoat, trying to will it into some type of enchanted mirror to conjure her up in so I won’t have to get out of bed.

“Come down here Brinn.” she calls once more and I close my eyes fully. I can picture her  standing there at the bottom of the stairs. Resolute in her spotless blue Ked’s, faded jean shorts and flowered blouse. She’s resting her left foot on the lowest stair while her right hand grips the banister. Her body is poised and tense, radiating potential, ready to climb the stairs if it comes to that. But she’s hoping she doesn’t have to. That she doesn’t have to barge into my bedroom and scold me for ignoring her yet again, because inside a tiny piece of her dies every time she has to yell. She calls out again, louder still and now more clearly annoyed. I can tell she’s losing her patience. I close my eyes and hold my breath, falling effortlessly back into my thoughts. She’s going to have to try a lot harder than that to get me to respond.

That first week out from school is a transition period for most kids, an inflection point where the greatest amount of change is likely to occur and I’ve been keeping a running list of how my classmates respond. Some kids prefer to seek that change out, charge the summer like a bull through the hall, heading off straightaway to tennis or 4-H camp the minute the final bell rings. Others pile roughshod into the backseat of the family car and simply disappear. Their parents pulling the station wagon slowly away, bound for summer houses on the Cape or cabin’s upstate with splendid views of the lake as siblings vie with each other for the coveted window seat amid spasms of limbs and muffled cries. Still, other kids sit back and let the change come to them. Devoid of plans or desires they slide slowly into summer’s embrace like an old man into a warm bath, preferring to let the days take them where they may. Their world is simple and uncomplicated, filled with hours of Play Station and trips to the mall. Driveway pick-up games and basement sleepovers. Whatever adventure the day beholds is their mantra and they adhere to it with a singular focus.

Me, I fall in the middle somewhere, ambivalent to summers encroachment but at ease with the change. Aware of its rhythms, but preferring to remain trapped in the present, taking great gulps of life as it unfolds before me. Nothing manufactured, but each day as laid-back and welcome as the next. Sometimes I slow the days down to a crawl, so that every second lasts an hour, and I exist in that great chasm of time that occurs between moments. Other times I speed them up, watching with amusement as life dashes madly by.

“Brinn! Your mothers calling you!” my father, finally annoyed, shouts from down the hall. That gets my attention and my eyes snap wide, the ruminations of my morning mind snuffed out like a birthday candle. The pace of my existence speeds back up to the cadence of reality as I look around. He’s in the bathroom most likely. The one that we all share, hastily shaving for work. Shuffling mindlessly through the paces of his morning routine. He’ll pass the blade of his Gillette razor over the familiar contours of his face, trying to wrest that last shave from its dulling blade. Maybe let fly a muted curse as he nicks his neck. I hear a muffled ‘Damn’ as my thoughts ring true and the ‘clink’ of the razors handle as he sets it down on the porcelain sink. There’s a splashing of water as he washes off his face and a sharp sucking in of his breath as he throws on his Pinaud Clubman after-shave, the one that smells of orange and lavender and musk. The one that reminds me of him above all else.

“In a minute mom!” I call out finally, my voice perfectly laced with the subtle tinges of teenage irritation. I look back down to the open book upon my lap, run my eyes across the passage one more time, the same passage that I’ve been reading over and over since the sun came up and stirred me to awake.

“Oh,” said Castle. “Him.” He shrugged. “People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order, so they’ll have good voice boxes in case there’s ever anything really meaningful to say.

My lips and mouth form the words silently as I read them. They’re Vonnegut’s. Cat’s Cradle actually and I so want to understand their meaning. Fold them into me. Make them a part of my machinery. Like an upgrade or a swapping out of a broken part. I’ve become fond of using words in that way. Phrases too. Oftentimes the things people write about are so profound and so insightful. So beautiful that they need to be absorbed, not just read and consumed for the sake of their existence; so one can casually say “Yeah, I read that”. This one by Vonnegut calls to me in that way, and he’s right that people talk too much. Especially when they have nothing to say. So like the others I’ve collected in the past; I store this passage in an easily accessed corner of my mind for later thought.

I slide a bookmark between the yellowing pages and close the book. It’s long and purple and has a kitten sleeping peacefully in the tall grass. It was the last birthday gift I received from my grandmother, a soft-spoken woman steeped in kindness now lost to the fog of Alzheimer’s. Above the sleeping kitten is a single line of poetry in an elegant cursive font fecked with glitter. The dreams of a kitten are gossamer things. A slight hint of breeze. A faint rustle of wings? it says. It’s tacky, I know, but it reminds me of my grandmother and her thoughtful ways. She never forgot a birthday, not once. Now she can’t even remember her name. Sometimes life really sucks.

I’ve been reading a lot lately. Ever since Cinnamon Ballard let me borrow her dog-eared copy of Galapagos, the one that she swiped from her older sister Lindsay’s room. Lindsay’s eighteen with purple hair and a perpetual scowl. She wears dark makeup around her eyes and a black leather jacket and says outlandish things like, “Punk is an attitude, not a genre.” or “Nothing would have happened without the Sex Pistols. Nothing.” She can be intense sometimes but she has great taste in literature. If I ever get her cornered for a second, can force a word in-between her unsolicited commentary, I’m going to tell her “Thanks”. Thanks for being such a well-read kook. Thanks for being oblivious to your missing books and for introducing me to Salinger and Thompson. Bradbury and Atwood. She’ll have no idea what I’m talking about but I’ll say it just the same.

But it’s not just Vonnegut’s stories that I’ve been exploring; there’ve been others as well. Old Man and the Sea all the way to Jitterbug Perfume. A Perfect Day for Bananafish to The Handmaid’s Tale. But of all of them I get Vonnegut the most. I entertain the thought that if we’d ever met we’d become instant friends. Swap awkward stories of personal victories and life’s mysteries as we delight in endless cigarettes. Stay up late into the night and wrestle with our dogs across the living room rug until finally, exhausted, we’d roll onto our backs and look up at the ceiling, declaring boldly that nothing in the world is better than this moment right now. It’s an empty daydream, a placeholder for a reality that I know could never exist, but one that pleases me to entertain nonetheless. What can I say? I’m a sucker for escapism.

My mother calls out again and I’m on the move, lest my father decides to get involved. I toss Cat’s Cradle down, watching as it sinks gently into the soft folds of my comforter, and I rise quickly out of bed. I cross my room and head for the door, catching a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirror that leans against the wall. I’m starting to grow into my body more and that’s a relief. Last year I shot up a full five inches and had to get all new clothes. Some of the crueler kids at school even took to calling me Beanpole and Skyscraper and that hurt a lot to hear. But now I feel like I’m finally beginning to even out, to catch up with all the parts of me that took off. Bobby Curtain even told me on the last day of school that I had great legs and that’s oscillated within me ever since, going a long way towards healing my inner joy. God bless the Bobby Curtain’s of the world I think, even if he is just some silly, mop-haired teenage boy.

I stand at the top of the stairs and look down at my mother. She’s clearly agitated and struggling to hold her composure, to not explode at me for ignoring her calls. I’m impressed. I really made her wait. I look to my left and notice my little brother Tony peeking his head out from behind his bedroom door. I flash him a smile and he looks worried, scared that I’ll get into another shouting match with mom and he’ll have to hide. I don’t blame him for his concern; we’ve had some real bouts lately.

“Brinn,” she begins, my name overflowing with tone. Then she pauses, looks down before starting again, this time her voice softer, more reconciliatory. My defenses have been up since the get go, my walls thick and topped with razor-wire. My teenage mouth a loaded gun ready to fire.

“Brinn, honey. Your father and I are going out tonight. We have early tickets to a play in the city. I’m going to need you to babysit Tony while we’re out, okay?”

At once I’m ready to attack, to launch into some adolescent bullshit rant questioning why I have to always babysit Tony. Exclaim that I have a life too and it doesn’t revolve around him before I storm loudly back to my room and slam the door. But before I can answer I hear a newscaster break into the oldies station my mother has on in the kitchen. The smooth current of Otis Redding’s Sittin’ On The Dock of the Bay has been replaced by the baritone voice of a stern-sounding Cronkite-type. A little boy has fallen down a well in the town nearby and his parents are frantic for his safe return. My mother and I cock our heads simultaneously as we listen in further. The boy is six, Tony’s age, and immediately I wonder how I’d feel if that was him all alone down in that hole. If he was the one injured and calling out in the darkness for his family to come rescue him. Scared I think to myself as I look back to Tony’s room, checking that he’s alright. Guilty my inner voice whispers as I look back at my mother, imagining the toll it’d take on her. The simple thought of losing Tony takes all the anger and conflict out of my sails and inside I feel a calming change. A dissipation of my teenage wrath.

“Sure mom,” I say. “Whatever you need. I have no plans tonight. I’ll watch Tony. Have fun at the play.” My mother flashes me a look of surprise as the words fly out my mouth. She wasn’t expecting my response and for an instant we lock eyes. It takes her a moment, but a knowing smile eventually appears on her face as she fully absorbs my reply.

As I walk back to my room I look in on my kid brother. He’s opened his door wider and seems pleased that’s there’s been no yelling. I hold onto the door jam and lean deeply into his room, watching amusedly as he runs his toy trains around their wooden track. He’s even put on the striped conductor’s hat that I gave him this year for Christmas.

“Cho-choo little man?” I ask.

“Cho-choo.” my kid brother says smiling.

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