Ben Hall : Two Essays : Essays : May 2019

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Skinny, straight-haired, fishing for antlions in the dry dust of Faulkner’s tool shed at Roanoke. Waiting, watching the evening in the branches of tall magnolias. I am there in 2004, as the cicadas, after seventeen years of silence, emerge and turn the state into a hum. I am still fishing, watching, waiting for myself to emerge.

You Were Abraham and Isaac Too

These calls always end in disappointment.  Oh, just get us in the same room and started on politics or the education system and we’ll burn down the hours and a handful of cigars too, but put a phone line between us and we’re tight-lipped as a couple of over-cautious teenagers.  Or maybe it isn’t like that.  Maybe the phone line isn’t a barrier but a blade trimming off the fat of our combined verbosity, our proclivities for intellectualization, our habitual retreating into the sterile and the academic.  It’s no wonder that we say so little.  We never were much good at intimacy, and by now, the inarticulate mass of all we do not say has grown immense, but we are running out of time to learn.  One day, there will be no line left to carry my message to you, and I will have to learn to hear you in the silence.        

I’ll go first: I worry that the clocks won’t stop for you, that idiot sun will still run his idiot mile.  I know that I will miss the way you agonized the dinner table by hamming through poems like you were Eliot himself and worry that you never knew your son.  I am old enough now to understand the man who was my father, his simple beginnings and honest dreams.  The great irony of your life: you chose family over career, but it is the family that has failed while your career soars on.  When that stone fell into our lives, you had sense and waited for the waters’ stillness.  But I was young and trusted less and absorbed all the wrong lessons.  I learned to ride the ripple, and even now it carries me into lands your eyes will never see.  You will stand by your wife, as you always have.  She will be the familiar crash of dishes, the crescendo of the barking dogs, but also the hallway in the storm and the warm-sheeted comfort of sweeter history.  And you will wrap your bewilderment like gauze around tender questions.  Whatever their answers, we don’t need them anymore.  What use is it to torture our lives for what they might have been?  Would the room where I write these words melt away in a Cary Grant ripple of unreality, transporting us to our own best of all possible worlds?  Or would it only bring us here again because here is all we ever had?

I have tried to reach the top of myself and have at least seen beyond the lie of my blamelessness.  Do you remember when I said that I would kill you, that I was coming for you?  Of course it was a lie.  I had no intention of ever leaving the Motel 6, planning instead to drink until either the money or (preferably) my body gave out.  But I hoped you would believe it and that it would torment you.  I wanted to pour out my vengeance, to empty my fangs into you on behalf of the boy you’d failed.  In that moment, I imagined myself a demon born out the rot of his memory.  But somewhere inside the maelstrom of my hurt, I imagined if my lie weren’t a lie.  I imagined you coming out to face me, and our bodies colliding.  And in that clash, our contorted, tormented histories might finally be relieved.  I imagined that we’d know one another.  Was it silly?  I’m incapable of judging such things anymore.  The next day, when you came to me in the hospital, eyes lined with tears, I could only think, Enough.  That’s enough now.  I have tried to find the bottom my heart, what there is beneath the rage.  I think it is a kind of joy.  

I think often of the lines between you and me: the line of your paternity; the lines of the portrait I drew of you as a boy where you are striking a tennis ball towards the screen of the page and horribly misshapen by enormous comic book muscles; the phone lines that suffer our diffidence; the lines I write now; the line that these thoughts refuse to draw.  Was there ever any understanding to be found between fathers and sons?  Between you and yours, him and his?  I cannot hate my differentness, can’t begrudge you yours.  Are we truly men before the day that we close the earth over our fathers and inherent what remains of their spirit?  Most lives merely write the stories of their children, and most children are merely the next chapter of that human effort that trudges through the ages, but I believe that yours could stand alone: sufficient, needing no addendums, an arrangement struck with the green-tinted waves that ever rocked us.  You were Gatz, not Gatsby.  You were Abraham.  You were Abraham and Isaac too.  I was Kierkegaard but bent, hunting for God in the gorges of our past. 

You had wanted to raise a philosopher or a preacher.  Things go wrong, but here is my treatise, my sermon:


There is a line that runs.  From that noxious motel room where I hurled my furies at you, to the pink and brown-laminate kitchen in the old house where, as a boy, I helped you chop the onions and wash the dishes, when Mom was someone else and Amy was too young to know any better, and I believed (child that I was) that it was you and I holding our fractured family together.

It is a crooked line.  It ricochets across the years, is arced by denials and diversions and the sounds of hard talks long avoided, but if you could, you might trace it back to a different room where I am small and chest-bare and laughing so freely in the ship of your guitar case, where you are young and skinny and mustached, and Mom, who isn’t someone else, snaps a photo of us together.  Where I love you as I do today, but without the need for words.

Does the Earth Become Strange Again?

For a week he sat inside his car beneath the suns of August, between the bakery and the park with the green, chain-link fence.  People were passing by, but no one stopped, and no one leaned over to tap on his window to ask if he was lost or sad.  Someone found a dead rat, but still the odor lingered.

Desperate text messages were being sent by his sister and his brother, but they would never reach their destination, instead collecting in SMSC basins where they would idle till the day the drive space was reassigned.  Then those moods would be lost in a flurry of shifting magnetism.  Not much of an epicure, but his own final text to his little sister had carried a gustatory note: “Stuff does taste bad as I thought it would.”  He’d bought it off the dark web.

I imagine that he never felt more alien than he did at that moment, as the streets were beginning to cool and crowd with other passengers returning from work or school, people carrying bags, book bags, basketballs, groceries, suitcases, mouths stuffed with food or conversation, shoulders searching for the proper angle to heft the evening, and there, curdling on his tongue, the flavor of poison.

Was he thinking of the choices that he’d made?  The camera stand traded out of desperation for an uncashable check.  The good job he’d left thinking that he’d find better ones.  The woman he’d married, had children with and, at least for a while, loved.  The divorce.  The scene he’d made at a McDonalds that had haunted his Google search results until he finally abandoned his family’s name. The slinking paths forward that seemed to materialize out of nowhere offering transient relief and options for survival but never much certainty and never even the hope that he might ever match his previous success.

But it’s possible that by that time he was past all of that.  It’s possible that, as he held it in his fingers, that little vial of extinction seemed to be his life’s grand design.  Assured a future of attrition, he’d laid his bets against the Barking Years on that street, that block, that space beside the bakery and the park where the children played.  All sentiment, all imaginary futures vacated by a hard physicality of glass and the tiny, acrid wet therein.        

Maybe this is true: As the sky sank into the oranges of evening and the poison scouted his body before launching its attack, he saw the eternity of that moment: his tiny, timeless place in that uncertain struggle, the weeping truth the laughing truth contains.

I have never died before.  Not really.  But in my own way, I have sat in that same car, have held that same bitter dose between my fingers, and across space and time, I have longed to ask him if it is like other kinds of leaving. Like leaving a lover or a city–someplace where your life has happened–when your vision is sharpened and softened by the knowing that nothing more is added?  Not the sadness.  Obviously there is sadness.  But I mean the other thing.  Does the Earth become strange again?  I think what I’m really trying to ask is, “Is there love at the end.”  Do we fall in love with this life one final time?  With the little chain-link fence?  With the lights that dance inside the fire-escape?  The fossils of our joy?  Some fragile token of her rapture and her excess?  Maybe just enough to make you second guess.  Just enough to make you wish that you could try again.