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Empty Nest

"Staring down the same wall of darkness"
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Published 3 weeks ago

Birdie’s son left in the Spring.

She rarely saw him in that last six months he’d lived there anyway. He'd worked full time at Domino’s, came home after midnight, went straight into his room in the basement. She heard the TV. She heard the trips to the fridge for food. Occasionally she’d hear a friend of his come in with him, play video games for a couple hours, leave.

She listened from her bedroom on the second floor.

After he left she noticed his absence primarily through the silence that accumulated in the empty rooms of the house like drifts of snow.

After a week and a half of cold silence, Birdie moved into the basement.

Fuck it.

Her ex-husband had started turning the basement into a bar and pool room the better part of a decade ago.  Vertical two by fours marched across the center of the room, one every sixteen inches, true and plumb, the sturdy beginnings of a wall that was never finished. It reminded Birdie of the bars of a cell. More two by fours had been gathered into the far corner of the room, along with a stack of crumbling sheets of drywall, once pristine but now succumbing to gravity and time and disinterest.

A pool table stood in the middle of the basement. They’d once planned to make it the centerpiece of the room, with hanging lights suspended overhead, a small bar with stools at the side, a handful of close friends engaging in friendly competition.

Now it was where she stacked the folded laundry. She hadn’t seen the green felt of the surface of the table in years.

Birdie’s son had taken over an old storage room on the far side of the basement.  When Birdie decided to move into the basement she walked straight past the pool table and half finished walls, and walked a straight path to her son’s old door.

She entered the room.

Darkness.

No lighting fixture hung from the ceiling, no windows, no table lamps anywhere. She took out her phone and examined the room with the narrow beam. She’d rarely been down here since he’d moved in. He hadn’t decorated. Cinderblock walls surrounded her. A twin bed sat in the corner, filthy blanket atop it. A chair covered in his clothes sat next to the bed. Both the bed and the chair faced the ancient cathode ray television set at the end of the room, and the gaming system console underneath. Video game controllers stretched out from the console like tentacles.

Behind the television was pitched black. Birdie knew there was a wall there. But no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t see it, not a single detail revealed itself. No evidence met her eye that it was even there. It was like staring into a hole.       

She made quick work of the bed. She stripped it of its sheets and filthy blanket, piled them on top of the washer, then rummaged through the various strata of clothes and linens and towels on the pool table for a fresh set of sheets and a new blanket.

She made the bed by the light of her phone. Her son hadn’t even bothered with a pillow; Birdie took the stairs to her old bed, grabbed the pillow, stripped and replaced the pillowcase, then placed it at the head of her new bed. Something about having a pillow and a made bed made the move official.

She lay back in bed, fully clothed, and turned on the television. A reality show with a cast of blandly attractive young people appeared on the screen, the last channel her son was watching. A hundred other stations were available, but this one occupied her eyes and filled her restless mind.

The TV had the added benefit of providing some much needed illumination to the room. She scanned the unadorned cinderblock walls and the grimy floor as televised shadows played across their surfaces. A pile of takeout food wrappers emerged from the gloom as her eyes adjusted. She noticed a hidden ashtray peeing out from under the chair.

She wondered what her son’s life had been like between these walls as she slept two floors above him. The blank walls and artless disarray of furniture implied a similar state of mind. Perhaps she should have visited him more down here. Perhaps she should have paid more attention.   

The only spot in the room that had not been lit up by the television was the area directly behind the television. The same total black that had once enveloped the entire room was now banished to the back of the room, behind the television, a darkness so total she could not even make out the wall. Birdie probed the area during the commercials of whatever show currently played on the TV, and was unable to puncture the black.

It was as if the wall itself was made of darkness.

Just as sleep began to come, she remembered the prescription bottle at her bedside table. The doctor had prescribed it a few weeks back, and it took her several days to rouse herself to deliver the prescription to the pharmacy and pick up the anti-depressants. She’d barely even started taking them, and tried to convince herself she didn’t need them, but the doctor’s words about missing a dose looped over and over in her mind, and she knew she’d never get to sleep until she got up and retrieved them.

After returning to her son’s bed, she held the prescription bottle for several minutes before attempting to open it. And of course, it took her several tries to defeat the child-proof cap. Once she did, she plucked out one of the tiny pills and held in on the tip of her index finger, studying it. The pills were supposed to help. Maybe they would help. That’s what the doctor said: they’d help.

She surprised herself by flinging the pill across the room with all her might. She didn’t hear the pill hit the far wall. She thought the tiny click of impact as it hit the wall would give her satisfaction, and sleep would soon follow. She threw another pill, listening intently. Nothing.

She reached out blindly and found a ketchup packet on the floor, nestled inside the folds of the fast food bag. She flung it against the far wall. Again, not a sound, as if the wall wasn’t there at all.  She reached out toward the fast food wrappers again, praying not to touch something half-eaten and disgusting. She found a quarter under the bag. Surely something that hard and metallic would make a sound.

Nothing.

Not even a “clink” as it hit the floor.

It was as if a hole had opened on the far side of the room. 

She lay in bed watching TV for another frustrated hour before sliding out a third pill from the bottle. This time, she took it before she had a chance to change her mind. She was asleep within minutes.     

#

Morning did not dawn inside her son’s room.

No windows. No lights, save for the submarine hues of the television left on overnight and the thin strip of illumination at the bottom of the door.

The far wall remained lost in blackness.

Birdie awoke to the same channel she’d fallen asleep to. She looked to her phone to find out the time, saw that it was late morning, and roused herself out of her son’s bed.

She turned off the TV. She walked upstairs into the sunny kitchen and the new day. She rarely slept this late in the day, and though she had no job, and no obligations of any kind, she felt guilty for oversleeping.

She shook off her guilt by making a full pot of coffee and a large breakfast of eggs and sausage and toast. The activity made her feel better, as did the food and the full stomach.

When she was done eating, she cleaned up and did the morning dishes. She rummaged around for a box and took it up to her bedroom. The table lamp, her phone charger and her alarm clock found their way inside the box.  She brought them all downstairs, to her son’s room, and realized she had nothing to set them on; she returned to her bedroom and tucked the bed table awkwardly under her arm. Once putting the table in place she set the lamp and clock in the same places on the table they’d occupied before. She plugged in the phone charger. She turned on the lamp.

Light changed everything.

The bright, greasy colors of the pile of discarded fast food wrappers assaulted her, and the rancid smell of it trebled with the sight, threatening to overwhelm her.

She saw the poor workmanship of her ex-husband’s construction. The poor paint job, the errant drips, the seams between the drywall.           

The cigarette butts and discarded joints mocked her from the ashtray half-hidden under the bed.

The table lamp had also defeated the darkness from the wall across from her on the far side of the room. Birdie could see it in much more detail. Small white pockmarks pitted the darker color of the wall like bullet holes. A scattering of white lumpy powder discolored the floor below.    

Why was there powder on the floor? What had her son been doing to leave such a powdery mess?

She’d have to clean the room soon.

Rather than face the responsibility this morning, she returned upstairs. She cleaned the rest of the house first, room by room, top to bottom, even the disgusting parts, like the toilet and showers, under the couch, behind the stove.  Everything except for the basement. She was saving the basement for last.

She expected cleaning to take the rest of the day. When she finished the last room in the house, the guest bathroom on the second floor, she looked at the clock. 2:07. It was early afternoon.

The rest of the day yawned before her.

She cooked lunch slowly. She ate methodically. She washed the dishes with daunting precision. She looked at the clock. 2:48.

Only one room left in the house. The basement. She could start now, take her time, really scrub the entire place down, and work until supper.

She filled her bucket full of cleansing products, a brush, a rag.   She walked to the basement door and stood in front of it for what seemed like an hour, but couldn’t bring herself to take the stairs down.

The newly cleaned kitchen shone in her peripheral vision. The handset of the ancient landline phone had an inky smudge on it; Birdie thought it might be from newspaper ink. She didn’t read the newspaper, her husband had, but it still came to the house every day, then went straight into the garbage. She hadn’t cancelled the subscription yet.

Five minutes later she was on the phone with him. She’d started out by cleaning the handset, wondering how the newsprint ink had made its way onto the hard plastic of the phone, realizing it had probably marked her hands as she took it from driveway to garbage can. She finished cleaning it with soap and sponge, put the sponge away, and hung up the phone.

She picked up the handset again and dialed before she could change her mind.

“Hey,” she said, as he answered.

An almost undetectable pause separated his identical response. “Hey,” he said.

“What are you doing?” The question sounded lame before it was fully out of her mouth.

“I’m working,” he said. “You called me at work.”

She felt some annoyance behind the question, but noticed he took some effort in trying to hide it from her.

“I just wanted…”

“I understand,” he said, as she faltered.  “How are you?”

“I’m…okay,” she said.

“What have you been doing?”

“Cleaning. Staying productive.”

“Good. I’m glad to hear that.”

“I moved into Josh’s room yesterday.”

This statement resulted in a long silence. Birdie’s ex-husband couched his next statement in a patient, understanding, non-judgmental tone.

“And how did that go?”

She recognized the overcautious tone, but found the care behind it comforting. “It went okay. I mean, I’m not moving in there, exactly. I’m not sure why I put it that way.”

“Well, not moving in is probably wise.”

“Yeah.” She brought the handset a little closer to her face. “I spent the night there last night. I slept in his bed.”

“And how did that go?” The same question he’d asked before. She heard the same patient, understanding, non-judgmental tones. He sounded like her therapist.  

“It took awhile to get to sleep. Not until….”

“Not until what?”

“Not until…,” she said again, but the rest of her words were replaced by crying. It started out with a sniff so soft and tentative she wasn’t even sure it was her own voice. But when her ex-husband asked if anything was wrong, the whimper turned into a wail.         

“Hey,” he said. “Hey. It’s okay. Things are okay.”

She spit out, “No, they’re not,” and continued sobbing.

“No,” he repeated. “They’re not.”

For a time, the phone line carried the sound of her crying, and little more, across the hundreds of miles between them. As her weeping subsided, it was replaced by the ambient hum of the phone line.  She so rarely used the landline in the kitchen, her cell phone was her go to device and she was used to its insidious practicality, the tinny voice, the pauses and dropped words; usually if someone called on the kitchen phone it was a salesman or a recording. The feel of the handset in her hand brough back a heady nostalgia, for the joy and simplicity of the past. Landlines and handsets, knapsacks and homework assignments, bassinets and pacifiers. Like most nostalgia, she knew the feelings it aroused in her were over-simple and suspect, an easy comfort. Life before cell phones may have been a bit simpler, but it had been no less fraught. 

Still. The line seemed clearer. Her ex-husband’s voice sounded strong, like he was right in the room there with her.

“I miss him.”

“I miss him too.”

“So what finally got you to go to sleep?” he asked.

“I threw my anti-depressants across the room.”

A heart-felt laugh shared between the both of them eclipsed the pause that followed.

“I mean, not the whole bottle,” she added. “Just one pill.”

“That must have been anti-climactic. The whole bottle would have been cool.”

She actually chuckled. “Oh yes. Cracked plastic, pills flying all over the place, that would have been rewarding. The one pill, like, didn’t make any noise at all. I didn’t even hear it. Hardly satisfying.”

The conversation settled back into silence.

“So. The pills. You aren’t taking the pills?”

She noted the chiding tone in those last five words. You aren’t taking the pills. She felt a defensiveness and anger flare up. He meant well, she reminded herself. What seemed to be at work here was love. She needed to remember the love. He was worried about her.

She answered with simple honesty. “I am taking the pills. After I threw the one pill across the room, I took another one. Okay, I threw a second one. And then some other stuff.” She heard him chuckle. “But after that, I shook out another pill and this time I swallowed it. Like, right away. Before I could throw it.” She allowed a small laugh to escape, and join his own.     

“I’m glad,” he said softly.

“I’ll keep taking them. There’s no reason to worry.”

“I’m not worrying about you. I’m just checking in. I just…I just answered the phone, is all.”

“I’m glad you did,” she allowed.

“Me too.”

The phone call headed toward closure. The usual normalcies—the “I love you’s” and “I can’t wait to see you again’s,” the terms of endearment and the whispers of avowal—were avenues no longer available to them since the divorce. Or at least not yet. Someday, maybe.

She put as much emotion as she could into the words that were available to her.

“Take care,” she said.

“Take care,” he replied.

#

She replaced the handset into the cradle, and sat down at the kitchen table.

The bucket of cleaning supplies sat where she left it, at the top of the stairs that led to the basement. The bright sunlight pouring through the windows of her freshly cleaned kitchen told her it was still early afternoon. She had plenty of time. 

She felt little hesitation at mounting the stairs down to the basement. She started in the part of the room closest to the foot of the stairs, farthest away from her son’s room. She scrubbed floors. She washed walls. She confronted the tall, listing piles of folded clothes on the pool table head on, sending any clothes that had been dirtied back to the laundry room for rewashing, refolding the rest and taking them to their appointed rooms. Seeing the bright green felt again after months of absence lifted her heart so absurdly she was embarrassed at her outsized reaction.

She swept up the plaster around the disintegrating pile of drywall sheets. She restacked and straightened the supply of 2 by 4s.  Perhaps she could convince her husband to come finish the job. Perhaps she could hire someone to finish it.

Only when the rest of the basement had been cleaned and scrubbed did she approach her son’s room.

She missed him. She realized she’d always miss him.

She opened the door.

The wall of black still confronted her from the far side of the room. She avoided the confrontation easily by flipping on the table lamp she’d brought down to the room.  The light was feeble, but strong enough to pierce the darkness. It was just a wall. Not a hole. Not a destination.

She crossed the room to the far wall. She wanted to know what the powder on the floor was, and the white pockmarks on the wall.

Pills.

Crushed pills.

He’d been throwing his own anti-depressants against the wall, rather than take them. The pockmarks were the result of impact, the powder on the floor was simple crushed pills.

Two slightly off-white pockmark, slightly different in hue than the others, stared at her from the wall.

Her pills.

Directly below all the pockmarks: a swath of the same off-white substance, in powder form. Two off-white ovals of powder dusted the top of the white.

The off-white pockmarks and powder came from throwing her own pills into to the darkness, the same thing her son had been doing, and for quite some time, based on the number of marks.

She had been following him down the same path he had taken.

Staring down the same wall of darkness.

She touched her fingertip to the powder on the wall, touched tongue to finger and tasted the tell-tale bitterness of the chemicals.

The ketchup packet and the quarter lay inert on the floor top of the powder. She plucked the quarter and pocketed it. She threw the ketchup away.

Her sponge floated in the bucket. The water had been discolored by her previous cleaning, but the water was still warm and soapy.

She took out the sponge and made an exploratory swipe across the wall. A clean stripe of wall rewarded her effort, like the blank slate of a chalkboard. Energized, she dipped her sponge back into the bucket, squeezed it out, and began the long, dull and rewarding process of scrubbing things clean.         

 

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