Haunted Passages: Melissa Benton Barker
The Over/Under: A Triptych
1. The Solid and the Vapor
I was sitting on the sofa in my yoga clothes when the phone rang. I had just finished watching a re-run of The Office with my husband and children. My children had gone upstairs to brush their teeth and get ready for bed.
“Melissa, you need to come over right now,” my mother said. “There’s something wrong with your father.”
“Did you call 911?” I asked.
“I called 911. They’re already here,” she said.
My husband was in the kitchen getting started on the dishes.
“I’m going to my parents’ house,” I said. “Something is wrong with my dad. I think he might be dead.”
I drove five minutes through the twilight to their house, the sky a heavy blue and the trees gone black. There were hardly any cars or people out that night. Just me, driving, and the town that we lived in rolling by like a reel of film. There were many emergency vehicles parked in my parents’ driveway so I pulled up to the curb halfway down the block. I didn’t want to block the ambulance when it peeled out and rushed him to the hospital.
Once inside, I tried to make my way back to the bedroom where they were working on my father, but a large man wearing a uniform blocked my way.
“You don’t want to go back there, ma’am,” he said. “That’s not something you want to see.”
I sat in the living room next to my mother. The sun went down and we forgot to turn the lights on. Finally, a police officer came out and apologized to us.
“We did everything we could,” he said, “but he’s dead.”
The policeman and the firefighters and the EMTs left. The emergency vehicles filed out quietly with their lights turned off. My mother and I had to wait for the funeral home to pick him up and take him to the morgue. I was told we could be waiting for hours.
My father was alone in the bedroom.
I went back to the bedroom and saw my father lying on the floor. His desk drawers were open and the screensaver was swirling on his computer screen. They’d swaddled him in a bedsheet, but his head was bare, swollen and purple, pointed at the door, his eyes open, but blank, the way cartoonists x-out eyes to signify oblivion. His perfect teeth (implants) were parted to reveal a bit of blue plastic shoved into his mouth where they’d intubated him.
I sat at the edge of the bed.
“Dad,” I said. “Are you dead?”
It took him awhile to answer me. It was as if he had to think it over.
“I’m not dead,” he said, but his voice sounded faint, and had a whistling quality, due to the plastic left over from the intubation.
“We need to do something about your face,” I said. “You’ve turned purple.”
“Yeah,” he said. “This is ridiculous. I kept telling them to leave me alone but they kept pounding on my chest, shoving this goddamn thing down my throat. I mean, really.” His eyes rolled up. They were still pretty blank, but I could tell that he was looking at me.
“Can you get this thing out of my mouth?” he whistled.
“I don’t think I can,” I said. The thought of reaching into my dad’s mouth and getting his spit all over me was gross, and I didn’t know how far the tube attached to the plastic piece reached into his body. Maybe it went all the way down his esophagus. What if I braved it, pulled the plastic from his mouth, and out with it came all sorts of internal organs, making a bubbling mess on my mother’s rug?
For me, this was a firm “no”.
“But I’m supposed to babysit for your kids tomorrow night,” said my father. “How are they going to listen to me if I have a tube down my throat?”
I noticed there were three packages of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavored Beans sitting on his dresser, one for each kid and one for him. I figured that’s what he’d done with his last day. He’d prepared for babysitting.
“Look,” I said. “I’m willing to help you, but let’s wait until they get you to the morgue. There will probably be tools there that I can use, and if I make a mess, it will be easier to clean it up.”
I could have sworn I saw his eyebrows raise, just a tiny bit.
“I don’t want to go to the morgue,” he said.
“I’ll go with you,” I said. “It will be fine.”
“That would be great if you could come with me,” my father said. “But you need to take care of her too.” His eyes rolled up toward the bed. My grandmother was lying on top of the covers. She had become very thin, like an ironed out pancake or a deflated balloon, so I hadn’t even realized she was there. She’d been dead for almost twenty years, and with every day that passed she’d become more and more of a wisp.
“She’s the one who really needs help,” said my father.
“Oh, I know, I know,” I said. I climbed to the middle of the bed. The giant four poster bed took up almost the entire room, leaving just a sliver at the foot, barely enough space for my father’s body. My father had been sleeping here for about fifteen years, ever since his open-heart surgery, when my parents decided to take separate bedrooms.
I climbed onto the bed next to my grandmother. I could see right through her to the quilted comforter that my parents had received as a wedding gift back in the seventies. My grandmother reached toward me with her gnarled and spidery hand.
“Oh, there you are!” she whispered. “My beautiful granddaughter.”
Even though I sat right next to her, she couldn’t touch me. It was like she couldn’t reach that far.
“See what I mean,” my father whistled. “She needs some help from you too. If we go to the morgue, she’s going to have to come with us.”
“I think I need to get you both out of here. This is bad,” I said.
I could hear my mother sobbing in the next room.
“What’s taking so long?” asked my father.
“I don’t know,” I said. “The funeral home people were supposed to come with a car. A hearse, I guess.”
“Looks like you’re going to have to get us there yourself,” my father said.
I figured I could probably drape my grandmother over my shoulder. Then I would come back for my father. He was a very big man, but maybe I could roll him out like a boulder.
I reached for my grandmother, thinking I would grab her by the armpits, the same way I used to hoist my children when they were little. However, when I managed to get hold of her and lift her over my head, my fingers slipped right through her. I worried that she would drop back onto the bed, but instead, she rose a little higher, folded herself up like a piece of cloth, and tumbled over me, as if my back were a slope, and she were doing a somersault. My grandmother laughed. She hadn’t had this much attention in forever.
“Try again,” my father said from the floor. “We’ve got to get some help for her.”
So I did try, again and again, but every time I managed to grasp her she slipped away and did somersaults, turning over and over in the air, until we were doing somersaults together, spinning above the bed, my grandmother laughing and me growing more and more exhausted.
“Grandmother, please,” I said.
Still, she laughed. She must have thought it was great fun. I disentangled myself from her limbs, as if I had been wrapped in silk ribbon. She had tired herself out, so I unlooped her and stretched her and lay her gently back on the bed.
“I think we’re going to have to leave her here,” I said to my dad. “I’m sorry. Anyway, I think you might actually be in a more desperate situation.”
“I don’t want to go to the morgue,” said my father. “They’re going to put me in a refrigerator.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll go with you. If they put you in a refrigerator, I will crawl in and sit next to you. I will keep you company.”
“That might be okay,” he said.
“Plus, I still have to get the tube out of your mouth,” I said.
“I think you can do it, sweetheart,” said my father.
In the end, I didn’t have to roll him out to my car. The funeral home people came with their hearse before I had the chance to try. When they came to take him to the morgue, my mother chose to stay in the other room. She felt that she had already taken her opportunity to say goodbye, and she didn’t want to watch them carry out the body.
This was a smart choice on my mother’s part, because my father was a very big man, so the funeral home people needed to call the firefighters. None of them could lift him onto a stretcher. The had to move furniture, and carry him out by hand. I’m not sure how many people it took to carry the body of my father. I brought my mother into the kitchen and talked loudly to her about unrelated topics so that she couldn’t hear the firefighters grunting and swearing with the struggle.
But underneath it all, even underneath the sound of my own voice, I could still hear my father whistling for me. I squeezed my mother’s hands and left her standing by the sink. I ran back to the bedroom first, to check on my grandmother. She was still hovering over the bed and I understood that she always would be, and that I didn’t have to feel too bad about leaving her there. The back door to the hearse slammed shut and the headlights and the engine switched on. I ran out into the night and jumped onto the hearse’s bumper and held onto the back door handle. The hearse rolled out of my parents’ cul-de-sac and picked up speed on the four-lane road, headed for the highway. I held on tight. My kids would have been so proud if they’d seen me. I looked like Spiderman. I didn’t let go at all. The hearse pulled onto the on-ramp, ready for take-off. And just like that, together, my father and I went reeling through the night.
2. We Opened Up Our Arms
My dad kept coming back after he died. Sometimes he just clanked around in my closet with the cat. Other times he had long, one-sided conversations with me in the middle of the night that I could only half-remember in the morning. Once he sat on the bed and held my nine-year-old son on his lap for hours while my son slept, and that was okay with me. I knew he missed us, and we were missing him as well.
For awhile he was a little pissed off at me because I ended up leaving him in the morgue. I tried not to, I mean I sat with him for a long time, in a refrigerated drawer that was really only big enough for one person. In order to fit, I had to lie next to my dad and put my head on his shoulder. I hadn’t cuddled with him like that since I was a small child. In fact, I’d spent a lot of time avoiding him, starting when I was a teenager and going on into my adulthood.
Eventually, I got cold in the drawer, even shoved right up next to him. There’s no body heat emanating from the dead. After a few hours he froze up so much that he stopped talking. And I knew that my children needed me, so I left him. After I left, I guess they took him out of the drawer. The next time I saw him, he had turned into a cardboard box that the woman from the funeral home left in my mother’s driveway, because we were running late that day, and apparently she couldn’t be bothered to wait for us to come home.
I lost so much sleep after my father died. He just wouldn’t leave me alone. He kept me awake all the time, talking, talking, talking. I started to feel like I was going crazy, like I was bitter, good-for-nothing, dry-eyed.
“So how come you’re back here all the time?” I asked him. “Why are you such a Chatty Cathy?”
He laughed because I’d made an ironic joke. In a way, I’d turned the tables. When I was a kid, if I went on for too long, he’d ask who had pulled my string.
“This is what happens when you turn into a box of ashes,” he said. “You can do whatever you want.” He made jazz hands and waved at me. “I’m free! I’m finally free!”
All night he kept me up, that night and many others, sitting at the foot of my bed. Sometimes he even sat right on top of me!
Finally, I went to visit my friend Amy, who had a healing practice on the second floor of her home. I climbed onto her massage table and lay there face up and fully clothed. She slipped her hands under me and held onto my kidneys. My kidneys sighed and took a nap together, cupped in her palms.
“Why the kidneys?” I asked.
“This is where you hold all of your adrenal stress,” she said.
I began to leak. My father came into the room and made some space for himself. He moved things around. He rearranged me.
“Okay, Dad, whatever,” I said. “Just make yourself comfortable. I guess you’re here for the show.”
“I am the show,” he said.
He lifted his arms to reveal strips of flesh cut out of them. His arms were flowing with blood.
“Come here, come on,” he said.
I noticed that my arms were cut open too. Both of us, we opened up our arms.
“It’s okay. Do what you need to do. I gotcha,” said Amy.
I put my arms against my father’s arms and the blood flowed back and forth between us. It reminded me of the first time my heart broke, after my eighth grade boyfriend dumped me. I was in the kitchen doing the dishes and sobbing into the sink. I thought I could hide myself behind the sound of running water, but my father heard me crying. He came into the kitchen and turned me toward him. He put his arms around me. I cried, and he cried. Our tears flowed back and forth between us. The water ran over the dishes and all the pots and pans. In less than a year, we moved out of that house. We would never again stand in that kitchen. We didn’t know it then, but we were the last family to live there. We moved out, and then someone came around with a wrecking ball. It wasn’t our decision to make. Now there’s just a patch of grass, with a barbed wire fence around it. I took my children there once, but I could only hold onto the rusty wire. It was almost impossible to tell there’d been a house there, but I told my children and they believed me: once, right here, there was a home.
3. The Over/Under
After my father died, what I wanted more than anything was sleep. Every time I went outside I came back inside with new shiny patches on my legs where mosquitoes had bitten and then I’d rubbed myself raw. It’s like the mosquitoes were the instigators. Come on, they said, let’s show everyone what you are on the inside/outside: Raw. Shiny. Sore. Itchy. Wounds weren’t closing up right away, not like they used to. I just wanted to put everything down.
I wanted sleep. Eight hours or more. Uninterrupted by children standing at the foot of the bed needing things, uninterrupted by the cat whining, or by the blanket too hot, fan too cold, uninterrupted by my father who insisted on coming in even when I tried to hold the door shut in his face. I wanted sleep: wide, thick, blank, uninterrupted.
Sleep. I waded up to my ankles in the dark pool. A full moon hung low just outside my window. I went in waist deep. Then, I let the water cover my shoulders. I spread out my arms and pushed the water out all around me. I put my whole head under.
The cat curled up at the foot of the bed, tucked his head beneath his paw. The children turned over in their own rooms, lost in the tide of breath.
What was lost remained lost. It floated away when I pushed my arms out, it came closer when I pulled my arms back in toward my body.
All the world, lost and found, dead and living, floated all around me, until these words in their duality lost meaning, as did sleep and wake, sun and moon, over/under.
Melissa Benton Barker’s work appears or is forthcoming in New Flash Fiction Review, Vestal Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. She has received Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations, and she is working on her first collection of short fiction. She lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with her family.