400 Feet

It was raining. That’s what I most remember of that day. I guess there was a mass. I guess the priest called out the rosary, prayers were chanted, automatic responses extracted from the mouths hidden beneath umbrellas, a field of somber black, an occasional flash of color.

To me it was a blur, chanting of ritual prayers a buzzing in my head. A radio station tuning in and out. Static and white noise broken up by the bar of a song.

I don’t remember most of it. I’ve been to funerals before and they’re all the same. Nothing changes but the weather. Pete was there. He’d shoved a flask in my hand before it started. To calm the nerves he said. Good scotch, and knowing Pete probably expensive.

I remember that, the clear memory of the same church with the same man giving me a drink to calm the nerves. Almost exactly like my wedding day. A grey wool suit replaced by an anonymous black one, a sunny day in May replaced with the cold rains of February. The same hip flask. The same whiskey.
I don’t know if I drank it or not. I just know it was offered. It was raining. Li was dead and my life was over.

I should have railed against the drunk drivers, scream at the injustice, deny a god who would take her from me so early. Anger, denial, bargaining and, depression would be understood. Acceptance would not. All I felt was numb.
A shock went through me when the first scoop of earth clattered down on a pale coffin lid. Some small stones in the wet clay to make such a noise above the rain pattering softly down. Strains of Dave Matthews spinning in my head, the raindrops a soft drum accompaniment.

“Gravedigger, when you dig my grave, can you make it shallow, so that I can feel the rain…”

She loved Dave Matthews.

The first dance at our wedding was to The Space Between Us.

“That’s not a first dance song,” I had said. “It’s about breaking up.”

“No it’s not, it’s about holding on,” she said. “And it’s better than U2. Everyone goes with One and think’s it’s a love song but it’s not. Anyway, I like it.”

Of course she was right. Or if she wasn’t it didn’t matter. It was an argument I wasn’t going to win. I liked the song too. We’d danced to it, down in the back room of The Ivy’s. Just the two of us alone, like the thirty or so friends and family weren’t there. That was a good day.

Today wasn’t. The coffin, a little over five feet in length, so small, like a child’s. The crucifix shining in gold paint atop the lid. Instead of a ring Pete handed me a small shovel filled with wet clay. My hand shook and the earth to fell to the wooden box with a such a noise I almost cried out with the pain as it landed, wanted to call it back. It should be left gently down, with barely a whisper, not dropped four or five feet, in an uncaring manner to land where it will.

I wanted to kick everyone out, and slowly and gently fill the grave. Tenderly like pulling a blanket to cover her. The yellow digger, parked out of the way in a laneway was no way to fill a grave. There was too much life in her to cover in such a mechanical manner.

A memory I could hold on to. The memory of that dance. But it’s broken now. Holes sides leak out to the other holes, dragging me again and again to other spaces, other times. The empty bed. The rain in the graveyard. Her clothes on the floor. A knock at the door and the cops, quiet, polite, reserved. They’re the memories I want to tear from my brain, scrub out of my life. That’s why I left. Just two weeks after the funeral was over I’d sold nearly everything I owned, quit my job and drove to the mainland.

The first few weeks are a blur. I know I drank a lot, popped pills. Numbed the pain.

I woke up in Portland. Or was woken up by a knock at the window.

“You’ll need to move. There’s no parking here after 9,” a guy in a truck. Some city employee needing access.

I’d slept in my car again. After closing down another pub I’d crawled in, opened a bottle and passed out. Now with blurry eyes and a pounding head I had to move. I started the car and pulled away. A mile or two in some direction, away being the only destination. A Walmart car park. Aspirin in the glove box. An empty water bottle. Wash down with whiskey. Back to sleep.
Sometime in the afternoon I woke up again. I rolled down a window to let in air. Even to me I stank. As I sat there, smoking a cigarette a mother walked by with her young kid.
The kid waved. I smiled back and the mom dragged her away, throwing black looks in my direction.

She had a point. I checked the mirror, it had been a week or more since I’d shaved. Or changed my clothes. Eyes bloodshot, sleeping in my car. Cheap whiskey beside me.
The kid waved again. She was young. Three or four, little black curls on her head.

“We need to get a house,” Li said.

“Why? I thought you loved this condo, it’s right downtown. In the middle of everything.”

“There’s no room for the baby. We should buy a house,” Li said. “Then it’ll be our home. Us.”

I liked that. ‘Us’.

9 thoughts on “400 Feet

  1. johnsonofdaw says:

    400 Feet: I’m sorry, but you are asking me to share your (your character’s) pain without so much as an angry thirst vengeance or mystery as to how it happened to hook me in. If I want a dismal tragedy I’ll read the news.

    I like your writing style, it’s descriptive and economic without cliche; e.g. “To me it was a blur, chanting of ritual prayers a buzzing in my head. A radio station tuning in and out. Static and white noise broken up by the bar of a song.”

  2. Kathy Panzella says:

    I agree with the other reader. After my father died, I was numb for weeks, but not drunk though! I would delete: Holes sides leak out to the other holes, dragging me again and again to other spaces, other times. Change: I started the car and pulled away. A mile or two in some direction, away being the only destination, to I started the car and pulled away, my only destination. So why is the title 400 Feet?

  3. Douglas Hazelrigg says:

    It’s a high level of writing. Perhaps a bit unremitting or repetitive in tone, but strong. But some great language and turns of phrase. I’m guessing you write poetry, too. It feels like something Andatje might write. I like it.

    I get what John is saying, however. There needs to be something that makes this particular instance of grief stand out, and some allusion to how Li died might be one method.

    In paragraph 13, you write:

    “like the thirty or so friends and family weren’t there.”

    I think “as if” works much better than “like”

    “car park” — are you a Brit? 🙂

    I loved the sensorial aspect of the small stones in the clay hitting the casket — great

    Later, when “wet clay” is mentioned again, I would put the word “the” in front of it, so it links back to the first mention of it.

    All in all, your style is quite effective. Main takeaway: something more to attach us to the narrator’s grief

  4. William Ayre says:

    I rather liked the darkness of this and agree with Douglas; strong voice.

    I did feel attached to his grief, and thought paragraph 5 was the allusion to how Li died. Did I interpret this wrong or did others miss this? It struck me strong enough – but some of the comments may mean that others didn’t see it the same way.

    Working backwards:

    – I didn’t follow the jump from the little girl waving at him to the sentence where Li wants to buy a house. What prompted him to think of that? Ok, re-reading I guess the wanting a baby may be the link, but it seems sort of weak and was easily missed.

    – “Holes sides leak out to the other holes, dragging me again and again to other spaces, other times.” My reading slowed to a halt on this sentence. I still don’t get it really – ‘holes’, ‘sides’? I think I know what the feeling is, but the wording throws me off.

    – “The yellow digger, parked out of the way in a laneway was no way to fill a grave.” needs comma after “laneway” but can this thought be written smoother?

    – “Some small stones in the wet clay to make such a noise above the rain pattering softly down.” Verb tense tossed me here.

    Overall I really liked this and want to read more.

  5. gainford says:

    Thank you all for your comments, these are really helpful. I think I need to re-write my opening.

    This opening was just to set up a very broken protagonist as the novel is about him trying to find his way in life after the death of his wife and unborn child. There was no revenge or focus on their death, it leads in to him trying to pick up the pieces of his life and figure out who he is now that a fresh start was forced upon him.

    As he tries to move on and change he’s confronted by what could be her ghost or could be a hallucination.

    Thanks again.

    Gerry

  6. Gentle Reader says:

    The writer has a distinctive voice and did an excellent job of establishing the tone. Reading this snippet made me feel something. The guy lost his wife, and now he’s lost. I think before going on too much longer with the lamentations, the writer needs to give a hint about the direction the novel is going to take and the theme of the novel.

    Like so many pieces of writing, the writer has some “favorite” words that are used too much.
    For example, the word “black” is used four times:

    “a field of somber black”
    “A grey wool suit replaced by an anonymous black one”
    “throwing black looks in my direction”
    “little black curls on her head”

    The writing would be strengthened, imho, by making use of synonyms.

    Another example is the word “song.” also used four times:

    “Static and white noise broken up by the bar of a song”
    “I liked the song too”
    “That’s not a first dance song”
    “Everyone goes with One and thinks it’s a love song but it’s not”

    The word “down” is used seven times:

    “down on a pale coffin”
    “pattering softly down” – this is awkward.
    “down in the back room of The Ivy’s”
    “It should be left gently down” – this is awkward
    “closing down another pub”
    “Wash down with whiskey”
    “rolled down a window”

    There are also some obvious errors, like missing words. Example:

    You’ll need to move. There’s no parking here after 9,” a guy in a truck.

    The word said is needed at the end here.

    There are some confusing sentences, like:

    “Holes sides leak out to the other holes, dragging me again and again to other spaces, other times.”

    I hope the author won’t take all of the notes as a sign of discouragement, because this writing shows promise. Good luck, and definitely keep writing!

  7. Gentle Reader says:

    “Like so many pieces of writing” should read “Like so many writers” …

    Oops. Glad I came back to check for replies. I type too fast at night.

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