A subterranean journey finds a man spelunking into his past, where family divisions and friendships long since passed compel examination of life’s ups and downs…
by: William Kitcher
I kissed Jacqueline, and climbed into the cab of the truck. Without saying anything, my brother Phil put the truck into gear, and pulled away from the curb. I looked back once and Jacqueline was waving slowly, with an expression on her face that told me I shouldn’t be going anywhere. Damn. I was leaving the most intelligent and interesting woman I’d ever met, and going home. Home. No, that wasn’t right. Trail River wasn’t home anymore, hadn’t been for years.
My father had died a few days before from years of a malignant cancer, and Phil and his wife thought it only proper that I come home and take care of my mother, at least until she was over my father’s death. I didn’t know how long that would be. My mother was not a strong woman, and subject to severe bouts of depression. I didn’t know what I could do for her. I’d seen her only half a dozen times in five years — bleak Christmases, and the occasional birthday — and in those times, we rarely talked except for informational purposes.
It was Phil’s opinion that I should take care of our mother. I didn’t understand why he and his wife couldn’t do it, living in the same town. Phil said that he had his own family to take care of and didn’t have the time to look after Mom. He assumed that because I was single, I should do it. True, I didn’t have a job, but I didn’t want to leave Port Grande to return to a city I would rather have forgotten. Whereas Port Grande was modern, clean, thriving, and cosmopolitan, Trail River was stagnant, gray, and oppressive.
All that didn’t matter. I suppose my sense of “family duty” was too strong, and Phil had offered to come down and transport my belongings back to Trail River in his truck, so that made the move somewhat easier. However, it had never occurred to me until then what a painful journey this was going to be. The old truck couldn’t go over eighty kilometers per hour, and loaded down with furniture and clothes, precipitated a ten-hour trip, which seemed even longer. The truck didn’t have a radio, and when I started to hum near Brookfield, thirty miles out of Port Grande, Phil asked me to be quiet so that he could concentrate on driving. Consequently, we didn’t exchange more than a dozen sentences the whole trip. We stopped a number of times at service stations along the highway to fill up with gas and have coffee, but even when we were sitting inside a coffee shop, we didn’t speak. But I didn’t mind.
Phil and I had never been close, being seven years apart in age, and when he came to be married to a woman I detested, we drifted even further apart. Phil was never, and never could become, my friend, and didn’t even seem like my brother. More of a distant relative you hope you never have to meet again.
The last hour of the trip was the most unbearable. The road signs indicated all of the towns and villages that were a part of my childhood, but now had almost been forgotten — Kingville, Williamsville, Shigamog, Descray, Penn Mills. Even the names depressed me. Flat, uninteresting towns where people were just waiting out death. This county had the largest per capita number of senior citizens and cemeteries in the province.
We arrived at my mother’s house about midnight. Phil’s wife, Veronica, and Mom were sitting up watching over Philip Jr., a particularly violent three-year-old. As I entered the living room, vague memories came back to me, but none of them were happy thoughts: when Dad broke Mom’s jaw during a drunken rage; the death of my little sister, who had swallowed some ammonia Mom had left out (Mom had spent three years with a psychiatrist over that); Dad giving away my dog because he chewed the furniture. And the smell. The same smell in the house that used to make me nauseous when I was young, as if something had died somewhere and not been found. No-one else ever smelled it. I assumed it was the smell of hate. I hated the house, and it hated me.
Mom rose from her chair and walked towards me. I kissed her lightly on the cheek and looked at her. She was pale and fragile. Her eyes had receded into their sockets, with lines of black around them. Her cheeks were hollow, her hair dull gray and unmanaged. There was no life about her, not that there had ever been much, but somehow, she looked even worse. A feeling of immense pity welled up inside me, and I wondered what she was living for.
“How are you, Mom?”
“I’m fine, Michael. How are you?” she said wearily. Even her voice was different, hesitant and cracked.
“Oh, I’m OK. Hello, Veronica. Hi, Philip.”
The child, if he could be called that, looked up at me. “Hi, stinker.”
“Philip…” my mother started to admonish.
“Mommy told me to say that,” he snapped. I turned away, knowing that it was likely true. Veronica said nothing.
“Would you like something to eat?” my mother asked, obviously trying to break an uncomfortable silence.
“No thanks. We ate on the road. I’m kind of tired. I think I’ll go to bed.”
“Yes, we should go too,” Phil said. “Get your coat, Philip.”
“Shit,” he spat, as he ventured to the closet. I waited, but no-one said anything. The kid had no future, not with parents like his. The last time I had seen Veronica was on a patio of a bar a week before Philip was born. She was reeling drunk, and chain-smoked two packs of cigarettes over the space of about four hours.
“Thanks for coming to pick me up,” I said.
“I’ll unload the truck and bring it back to you tomorrow, OK?”
“Fine.” Phil was a man of few words, most of them monosyllabic.
They left, and Mom and I were alone in the big, quiet house. She spoke softly and humbly, “Thank you for coming home, Michael. I need a man around the house, and Phil doesn’t seem to care…” Her voice trailed off.
“Whatever I can do, Mom, I will.”
“I’ve fixed up your old room.”
“Thanks. I’m really sorry about Dad.” I almost choked on the lie. “Goodnight.” I kissed her, and headed up the stairs, the third step creaking as it always had. Entering “my” room, I flipped the light switch, and took in the room, virtually unchanged since my departure eight years before. I fell on the familiar lumpy mattress, and cried for the first time in many years.
The next evening, after I had unloaded the truck, Mom and I attempted a conversation. She was still in shock over Dad’s death, and I realized that I would be there for a long, long time. Her doctor had given her a combination of pills that were supposed to stop her from being depressed, but the only thing I could see was that she was oblivious to reality for long periods of time. I suggested that she give up the pills, but she trusted her doctor, a family friend who had once been barred from practice for a year for reasons that were never made public. I knew there was nothing I could do for her except offer support. When she tuned out for the umpteenth time, I left her a note, and ventured off to my old haunts to see if anyone I knew still lived in the city.
I stopped by the King’s Hotel bar, reasoning that any of my peer group who had stayed in this town would likely regress to a down-and-out place like that.
I saw a familiar face. I didn’t remember his name, or where I had seen him before, but something about his manner, and especially his slight limp, took me back several years to a very different time. Finally, I heard someone call him Larry, and I remembered. Larry Armstrong. High school English class, twelfth or maybe eleventh, although I didn’t recall his ever being in class much. And the limp, he had shattered his leg in a motorcycle accident, and spent several years getting it repaired. Obviously, it still hadn’t completely healed. The last I’d heard of him was that he was in jail for a breaking and entering. That was only a rumor, however, and I didn’t think I’d mention it to him.
On his way to the bar for a refill, I stopped him. “Larry Armstrong?”
“Do you remember me?”
He looked at me carefully for ten seconds or so, and was about to shake his head when his eyes lit up with recognition. “Mike. Uh… don’t tell me. Mike. Walker.”
“God, I haven’t seen you since high school. What have you been doing? No, don’t answer that. That’s a long time.”
“Let me buy you a beer. Come, join me.”
We went over and he pulled up a chair for me, putting me in the middle of his friends, who resembled bikers. “Guys, this is Mike Walker. Used to go to school with him. Mike, I won’t introduce you ‘coz you won’t remember their names anyway.” Most of the crew were rather drunk, but managed to nod at me, and I acknowledged in a similar manner.
“So, Mike, what brings you back here?”
“Well, my father died…”
“Sorry to hear it.”
“He’d had cancer for a while. It was expected. So I’ve come back to take care of my mother.”
“Where were you?”
“No. Enjoying myself.”
“Good for you.”
“Larry, I was wondering if anyone I know still lives around here.”
“It’s been a long time. Who?”
I named about a dozen people. Larry didn’t know half of them, two were working in Manitoba, one was in India, one in Mexico, one had been killed in a car accident, and two had disappeared. Sounded typical. Why did anyone want to stay around this town? Why did Larry? I didn’t ask him. Realizing the pointlessness of searching through other bars for people I wouldn’t know anymore, I decided to stay with Larry and his buddies and drink.
After several beers, and feeling downright rotten about being back in Trail River (so named because of a “trial” and several lynchings at the turn of the 20th century, and the subsequent mis-spelling of the first road sign), a fight broke out. For some reason, one of Larry’s friends took exception to another customer’s presence on Earth, decided to inform him of the fact, and the inevitable happened.
Of course, Larry and his friends had to get into it, and so did the other guy’s friends. What had started out as simple individual hatred mushroomed into a full-scale riot. Fists and feet were thrown, bottles and glasses hurtled about the room. Then came the heavy artillery, chairs and tables. I stood well back on the periphery to avoid the debris, but someone recognized me as an acquaintance of Larry’s, and took a swing at me. My relatively quick reflexes took my face out of the arc of the fist, and I looked at my assailant. I’d never been a fighter, but the guy was quite a bit smaller than I am, so I retaliated with a straight left to the space where I thought his nose was. He, too, had good reflexes, and avoided my punch, countering it with a blow that glanced off my ear. I rammed my head into his chest, and wrestled him to the ground. We rolled about on the broken glass, and he ended up sitting on top of me, taking free shots at my face as one of his friends held me by the hair to the ground. As I heard my nose crack for the second time, I saw a steel-toed work boot come through the air towards me. I waited for the impact, but it never came. The boot belonged to Larry, who planted it squarely in the teeth of the guy sitting on me. He then smacked in the head with a blackjack the one holding my hair, and helped me up. I wiped my face with my sleeve, and it was instantly soaked. Larry motioned me to stay out of any further fighting.
“What’s the point now?” I asked him, as I buried my boot in someone’s ribs.
The fight continued uninterrupted for a minute or so as the staff of the bar were unwilling and unable to stop it. I hit a couple of people, but no-one seemed interested in me, so I danced around the edges, occasionally kicking one of the bad guys who appeared to be winning. Four policemen entered the bar, and the fight escalated, a couple of insolent people swinging at the police. I tried to sidle out, but an officer saw my blood and assumed I was involved.
After some effort, the fight was stopped, and the group of us were taken to the police station. On seeing a dozen bleeding messes, the desk sergeant performed what he thought was instant justice: throwing us all in the same cell and telling us to settle it ourselves. By this time, however, the alcohol had worn off, and pain was being felt to one degree or another by everyone. No one wanted to discuss the issue of contention, whatever it was, anymore, and men dropped where they stood, and passed out into semi-comas. I collapsed in a corner and, every so often, woke to the sound of a pathetic moan, not knowing whether it was mine or one of my cell-mates’.
Very early the next morning, we were woken up and brought before another desk sergeant. He spoke to us for quite a while, but I doubted that any of us heard a word he said. He gave us small pieces of paper, and I squinted at mine, deciphering the squiggles as meaning I had a court appearance sometime in the next month. I sighed, but I was going to be here anyway.
I felt a sickening twinge. I thought of my mother, probably panicking if she realized that I hadn’t been home. It was as if I was back in high school, responsible to parents, sneaking into the house after curfew. I had a bad feeling, and it wasn’t just the hangover and the aches.
Larry slapped me on the back. “How do you feel, sport?”
“Good. Good. Glad to hear it.” He was obnoxiously happy, and remarkably free of wounds. “What are you doing for the rest of the day?”
“I don’t know. I’ve gotta see my mother. I should have phoned last night, but I forgot. I’ve gotta go home.”
“Well, tell you what. Let’s go to a restaurant, get some food, and you can clean yourself up. You’ve got blood all over the place.”
As he said “food,” my stomach turned. “No. No food. I’ve got to get home.”
He wrote on a piece of paper. “Here’s my address and phone number. Give me a call later, and we’ll get drunk. We were thinking of doing some wilderness exploration.”
“Great.” Outdoor expeditions. Something I really felt up for. “Talk to you later, Larry.”
I washed my face and hair as well as I could in the police station washroom, threw my blood-stained shirt into the garbage, and headed home. When the house was in view, I noticed that the lights were on. Unusual for early morning, unless Mom had been waiting up all night, and fallen asleep with the lights on. But Mom was an early riser, and would have turned them off.
I entered the house, and there was Mom, lying on the couch in her housecoat, the TV turned on to the early morning news. “Mom?” No answer. “Mom?” On the floor in front of her was an empty pill container. I touched her cheek. It was clammy and waxy. Like a dried-out slug.
I called an ambulance, and after they took Mom away, I sat by myself quietly. They said she had probably gotten confused, and accidentally overdosed, but I doubted it.
I felt nothing. No remorse, or guilt, or emptiness. Nothing at all. I was already thinking about how I would get home to Port Grande and Jacqueline, and how we would divvy up Mom’s possessions. I felt even less than I did when my father died. Not that I cared for my father either. It’s just that my father had been a more vivid memory for me; kicking a soccer ball at me, showing off at a Father-and-Son day in Wolf Cubs, sticking up for me when I told my mother I didn’t want to go to church. I supposed that, sometime in the future, I’d remember something good about my mother. But not then. I thought about my Dad, and even managed a smile for him as I drifted off to sleep.
I dreamed that I woke up, and then I dreamed that I fell asleep again, only to be awakened by the sight of me falling asleep. The phone rang, and I realized that I’d have to tell a lot of people that Mom was dead.
“Hello?” I answered, trying to inject the right tone of sadness into my voice.
“Is Mike Walker there please?”
“Speaking.” Who knew I was there? Could it have been Larry?
“Mike. This is Pete Lucardi.” An acquaintance from Port Grande. “I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you.” What now? “Jacqueline was killed last night in a car accident.” My heart missed a beat. “Mike?”
“Someone ran a red light and hit her as she was walking across the street. I’m sorry. There was nothing…”
“Yeah. Thanks for calling, Pete.”
I hung up, and stood there, uncomprehending, and un-acting. For a long time, I stood there. My insides dissipated. I felt hollow, and I cried. Why Jacqueline?
I got drunk. Extremely drunk. I called Phil, and told him about Mom. He said he’d make more funeral arrangements and deal with selling the house, and he gave me a list of people who should be told. I methodically called them all, and most of them expressed the hope that I was bearing up under this tragedy, and that I sounded as if I was. If they had only known what the real tragedy was. Their responses seemed too regular. The human race became a stereotype, and I didn’t need to listen to the zombie-like monotones on the other end of the line to know how to answer. “Yes, it is terrible.” “Yes, it was unexpected.” “Yes, she wasn’t old.” I hated these faceless people who behaved so pitifully and pointlessly, so phonily considerate and sympathetic, and I felt good about making their days a little worse. But then I realized I was wrong about that — they were people like people everywhere. They weren’t bad. I was feeling that way because of Jacqueline.
I thought of her, her friends, her family. I threw up, then reeled out of the house to the address in my wallet.
Larry and two friends, Steve and Keith, were working on their second forty-pounder of rye in front of the television. We introduced ourselves, then sat in silence watching a bad movie, slowly taking turns drinking the rye. When the movie ended, not a moment too soon, we talked about sports, a little politics (it was apparent that the three of them hadn’t read a paper in quite some time), and then, as usual, recollections of the past. Steve liked to tell stories, his best one was about stealing a huge flag from the Post Office building on a New Year’s Eve, and cutting a six-inch gash into his hand in the process.
Larry told a story about the famous Trail River caves. “It was back in high school, and me and some friends decided to check these caves out. People had been talking about them for years, but everyone was too scared to go down in them. So we went into one of them, but got only about ten feet in before the daylight had vanished. Someone had brought some matches, and every few feet we lit one. We went a long way into the rock and started heading down when we realized we didn’t have many matches left. I wanted to keep going deeper, but no-one else did. So, we made our way back, but someone dropped the matches. Great fun. At one point, we started to rise much more sharply than we went down, and discovered that we’d veered into another passageway. Then, one of the guys ahead of me, who was quite large, got stuck between rocks, and I couldn’t get past him. I thought I was gonna be in that rock forever. But we finally got out by climbing in a different direction. Once, it felt as if I was standing on the edge of a cliff. I thought I could hear something below me. I reached out for the opposing wall, but I couldn’t feel anything.” He paused, and I looked at him. His eyes were focused on unknown sights. “When we reached the surface, we were twenty yards from where we’d entered. I’ve been back into those caves ten times, with a flashlight, but I’ve never been able to find that cliff.” He paused again, then added, “Do you want to go look for it?”
I thought we had no choice. It seemed like a perfect end to the evening.
It was quite late when we reached the caves, and a partial moon gave us our only light except for Larry’s flashlight. Its beam prowled the wall, stopping each time Larry noticed one of the several entrances to the catacombs beyond. Larry chose one at random, and I followed him in, followed by Steve and Keith. Within seconds, we were in total darkness as Larry turned the flashlight off.
“Come on, Larry,” Keith pleaded.
“It doesn’t make any difference. We only have one direction to go, and the light won’t show us much anyway. I’ll turn it on every once in a while.”
We sidled our way into the rock for a couple of minutes. It might have been longer, I don’t know. Then we started to descend slightly. After a few steps, I could feel the rock pressing at me from both sides. We pushed our way through and reached an area where the four of us could stand in a group instead of in a line. Leading from this space were two more passages.
“Which way now?” asked Steve.
“I think we should go back,” said Keith. “Suppose we can’t find our way back?”
“We will. We’ll recognize this spot when we come back, and then we just go up there.”
Larry flashed the light on to where we had just come from, then arced it towards our two new possible routes. “Which one?”
I felt in my pocket, then said, “I’ve got some matches. I’ll go down one if you want to take the other one.”
“I don’t think we should split up. Someone might get lost.”
“I hope it’s you. Come on.”
Larry and Keith went one way, Steve and I the other.
“Are you OK?” called Larry.
“Fine, fine,” answered Steve.
We made a long descent at about a fifty-degree angle, Larry’s voice slowly fading away. We did all this in darkness as Steve suggested we not waste matches. The next time he spoke to me, his voice came from above. I lit a match, and Steve was on a small ledge ten feet over my head.
“Do you suppose this is the cliff Larry was talking about?” he asked.
“I doubt it. He said he reached out and couldn’t touch anything. There’s rock right in front of you.”
The match burned my finger and thumb and went out. I lit another one.
“There’s another passage beside me,” said Steve.
“You try that one, and I’ll stay on this one. I’ve got some more matches.”
I sidled back up to Steve and gave him my two packs of matches, and started down again.
“Keep talking, Mike.”
I continued going down.
I turned slightly to the right, and forced my way through a thin opening in the rock.
“Mike, can you hear me?”
The path got a little wider.
“Mike, are you still there?” Now farther away.
I didn’t need to walk sideways anymore, and I took normal strides along a very smooth, flat ledge.
“Are you OK, Mike?” I heard in the distance.
Then I heard something. Birds chirping? No. Bats? Water running? An underground stream well below me. I put my hand out tentatively into the darkness before me, and touched nothing. I leaned forward, but still there was nothing there. No light. No reason. No point.
I peered into the blackness, and I couldn’t tell whether my eyes were open or not. I touched my eyelids. They were closed, and I opened my eyes wide, and touched my eyeballs. On the black background appeared red and orange inkblots that metamorphosed into…
A voice came from somewhere. “Mike, this passage leads back to Larry and Keith’s. I’ve found them.”
“Good,” I said to myself. “You belong to each other.”
I continued along the ledge, and descended to where it was warmer.
William Kitcher’s stories, plays, and comedy sketches have been published and/or produced in Canada, the U.S., Holland, India, Ireland, and the U.K. Recent stories were published in Writer’s Block, The Blue Nib, Ripples In Space, Worthing Flash, Short-Story.me, and Twist & Twain, and he has stories forthcoming in Yellow Mama, Schlock!, 34 Orchard, The Bookends Review, and Revolute,