Erin Slaughter - "Tricks Of The Light"

 

There was a funeral in progress across the street as I was walking to school. I could make out the grimly dressed figures blotting at their eyes, though from grief or allergies I wouldn’t know. Tacky piles of reddish dirt sat off to the sides, grave diggers opening up the earth like a wound. They fill it with a body, close it back up again. An offering.

Spring’s chilly kiss lingered on my skin, sticky and disturbing, while cars began to pull out of the cemetery gates. A woman remained at the spot, the spot they carefully chose to put someone they knew underground, then stood for a while to feel bad about it. I watched the diggers come in with shovels to close the wound.

 

I’m kind of jaded with the whole idea of school. There’s only one class I actually pay attention to: Philosophy. It doesn’t have so much to do with the subject as with the professor. The professor is this remarkably old guy who wears slacks belted up to his sunken chest, and his few strands of remaining hair slicked back like a reporter from the 1940’s. I mean, I guess he probably grew up around then, so it makes sense. I like it. And he says all kinds of great stuff, out of the blue, like lines from a really classic movie. I take notes on that stuff, instead of the actual philosophy stuff. Things like:

“The world seems to me to be much of a muchness and much of a many sort of things.”

“It’s fine to have a cosmic moment of zen and the universe crashing down around you…but make sure to watch out for traffic.”

At the end of each class, he invites students to “continue the discussion” at the coffee shop across the street. Some people always go: a guy who takes his notes in a leather-bound journal, a girl with frizzy blonde hair and the whitest, widest smile. I always think about going, but I never do. I don’t know why. I saw him once, at the coffee shop, with a stack of papers and a newspaper in front of him. He was wearing wiry bifocals, squinting at the comics section.

 

I’ve walked by the graveyard on my way to school and back for two years now. I like to hang out there sometimes, in the historic part. The oldest gravestones date back to the early 1800’s. I know them all by now. If it’s sunny, I sit and do my homework under a tree that shades a five year old girl, Little Druie. She died in 1872. Her stone is flush with the grass, and a porcelain bench sits beside it, although the bench is cracked in half now and I doubt anyone would want to sit on it.

Another favorite is a solider from Georgia, thirty years old or so when he got trapped in a burning building. The inscription reads: “He fell but felt no fear.” When I read it, it makes me angry. How did they know “he felt no fear?” He burned alive, so I’m sure he was really fucking afraid. Didn’t they bother to wonder what he was thinking as his flesh was melting, if he regretted not ever seeing the ocean or telling some girl he loved her?

There is another like that, further down the hill, buried with only a woman’s first name, Hattie, and “Consistent member of the Baptist church for 20 years” summing up her life. Her wide-eyed wonder, the shape of her hair when she woke, the husband who left his life’s light under dirt, all muted with that one phrase.

I guess that’s why I go to the graveyard, to think about the people who are buried there. To remember people nobody else remembers.

 

It was Tuesday when my father called from the hospital. I was standing in the kitchen of my apartment, boiling macaroni on the stove.

“Heya, Mike,” he said, his voice sounding more hoarse than last time.

“Hi, Dad,” I said, “How are you?”

“I’m doing better, the nurses have me on some pretty heavy meds, and I’m not arguing with them, if you know what I mean,” he laughed, then coughed.

“That’s good…” I don’t know what else to say. There is an uncomfortable silence.

“Well, I just wanted to say hi. Take care of yourself. Do good in school.” His raspy voice evoked memories of cardboard microwave meals, uncomfortable Thanksgivings I don’t even journey into thinking about anymore.

“Thanks,” I said, “hope you feel better.” This is how the script always played out. The lines tasted gritty in my mouth.

“Love you, Pal,” he said, and hung up.

The water on the stove was frothing, nearly boiling over the edges of the pot.

 

“The universe is a majestic entity, independent of us, of which we are a part. Our own experience proves our worth as humans. Experience never leaves you isolated in time or space. There is a past preceding you, and a vague sense of the universe and world around you, that keeps you connected to everything you touch, everything you do.” The professor says.

I write that in my notebook: Experience never leaves you isolated.

The girl who sits in the row to my right raises her hand, “So would you say all experience is unique to the person experiencing it, or is everything you experience pretty much commonplace, since it has already happened the same way to so many people before?”

“I think that’s a question of the word ‘unique,’” he said, “ In the splendid, raw diversity of nature, each atom, each proton and electron is unique. When you go around living your life, you have fresh experiences flowing on you, bearing down on you constantly. There is a panorama of uniqueness in qualitative diversity, but even more so in the quality of individual experiences.”

She looked at him, nodding as he spoke.

“Basically, though human experience is commonplace, because of the individual’s unique nature, no one experiences something exactly the same as another.”

People began shuffling their bags, filing their notebooks away, indicating time was up.

“Yes, well, if any of you would like to talk more, you can join me at The Daily Grind across the street.” he said.

As I shoved my things into my backpack, two or three students hung around at the front of the room near his desk, preparing to walk with him, however slowly to keep with his pace, to the coffee shop. As I moved towards the door, the professor nodded towards me and smiled his toothy smile. I grinned back, and left.

 

My mom called in the morning, “How have you been, honey? We haven’t heard from you in a while. We wanted to make sure you were okay.” I knew the ‘we’ she meant was her and my father, but it was really only her.

“I’m fine, mom. Just busy with school and stuff, you know,” I said.

“I know. Just know that we miss you and we love you.” She said. She was a good mom.

“I know,” I said, “I love you too.”

“Michael, I didn’t want to say anything, but you should really call your dad.”

“Why? Did he say he needed to talk to me about something?”

“No, nothing like that. But he’s in bad shape. The doctor said…well, it’s not going to get better. It would mean a lot if you called him.”

“Yeah, okay, if I get a chance I will. Like I said, I’ve just been busy.”

“Okay…” she said, concern in her voice.

“Not like he’s dying to talk to me anyway,” I added. “Not after last time we saw each other.” I forced a small laugh, to make light of it, so she wouldn’t worry.

“You know he loves you,” she sighed.

“Sure,” I said. “Yeah, sure. I know.”

 

I wasn’t in the graveyard, only walking by it, on the day that it happened. Up ahead, a man wearing an untucked suit was shaking the iron gates to the new part of the cemetery, trying to get inside. I walked past him, and it began to drizzle. I put the hood of my red sweatshirt up to block the rain. When I looked behind me, the man had given up and was walking down the sidewalk in the other direction. Two frat boys sat on a wrecked sofa in the front yard of their house, talking to a girl with long, wavy hair. She laughed loudly and suddenly, and slapped one of the boys playfully on the arm. It started raining harder, and they all went inside.

That was when my phone rang, and I answered it, and the thing that happened, happened. I’m not going to talk about what happened. I’m not going to talk about the woman on the phone, her Southern accent both slow and sharp, like a leaky faucet dripping. I’m not going to talk about the words she said, about “hospital” or “peacefully.” I’m not going to talk about that.

What I will talk about is how the rain began to pour, and I started running. And somehow I ended up in his office, I don’t know why, and when I knocked on the door and slid my slippery body into the wooden chair across from his, I still didn’t know why.

“It’s Michael, right? Michael Mitchell, from my twenty-three-hundred class?” The professor asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “But, um…you could call me Pal. Sometimes people call me that.”

“Great. Pal,” he said, “what can I help you with?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I thought...I just thought…I don’t know.” I could hear my own voice cracking, could see how I must have looked there, wet and disheveled and not making any sense, but I didn’t move.

“That’s fine. It’s okay,” The professor said. He paused a moment before picking up a glass of water off his desk, and holding it up to the window. There was a small chip in the window, one I hadn’t noticed before. The professor held the glass up to the crack in the window, and rainbow light sparkled over his desk. “Have you ever been in love? I loved someone once,” he said. “and this is what it was like. It was color, dazzling color. But it was only a trick of the light.”

He took his hand away, and looked at me with those wrinkled, smiling eyes, “The value of human experience is not an illusion; it is bedrock. It is the bedrock of existence. What we call ‘romanticism’ is just common sense. You see, we don’t have to throw out the artists to be scientists.” He looked at me, expecting something, but I didn’t know how to answer. It wasn’t what I wanted, what I needed, none of it. It was beautiful, but it didn’t mean anything.

I wanted to ask him if he was afraid of dying, being so close to it and all, but that seemed too personal, so I just sat there. The longer I sat there not saying anything it started to bubble up inside of me and my eyes started watering and before I knew it I guess it looked like I was crying, and not being able to stop, and not saying anything, just wiping my face against the scratchy back of my sweatshirt sleeve. And it was so fucking embarrassing but I would rather have embarrassed myself than ask the question I wanted to ask, and make him mad at me, or kick me out of his office, or worse; afraid of me, afraid of death, afraid like I was.

We watched the rain. The professor looked straight ahead for a while, and said, “It’s really coming down hard out there, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I said.

It all seemed so futile. I wanted answers but I didn’t know what the questions were. I didn’t say anything else. I let the rain ask the ground as it fell without restraint. The thunder sounded out like an atom bomb as it opened up the sky.

Erin Slaughter grew up in Anna, Texas. She is currently pursuing an MFA at Western Kentucky University. You can find her fiction, poetry, and non-fiction in River Teeth, Boxcar Poetry Review, Off the Coast, ELKE, and GRAVEL, among others. She loves puns and cheap hotel rooms in unfamiliar places, and lives with a cat named Amelia.