Snapshot

By W. Leander

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See me: I am nine years old, short, brown and bony, lying on my belly under the dining room table in only my socks and underwear on a hot and listless Saturday morning. I am alone, nobody else but me. It is so quiet in the apartment you can hear the floor groan; you can hear the refrigerator’s motor humming off and on; you can hear the kitchen faucet’s slow, ceaseless dripping. Outside, through the apartment’s propped-up open windows, you can make out boys cursing, women laughing, cars honking and motorcycles screaming by down at the streets far below. Mom is still in her room, door closed. And I need to be careful. If I wake her on her day off, that will be bad. Very bad. So I stay quiet.

             The table I am under is large, made from stained wood and thick, heavy, black glass. We rarely eat on it. It is normally only for nights we have “company.”  When it is just Mom and me, we usually eat in her room on her bed in front of the TV, watching Lou Grant or The Love Boat or something. Mom didn’t buy the table. She got it from Granny. Most of our furniture is from Granny: the dining room table with the three chairs that don’t quite match; the twin, tan sofas; the rug underneath the sofas; the vacuum that barely vacuums the rug; the crockpot where Mom makes pork and bean chili; most of our plates. Lamps and hangers and blankets and things. We had to get the furniture from Granny because Mom couldn’t afford new couches and rugs and crockpots when we left Granny’s house. Granny isn’t rich, she just has a lot of stuff because she’s old. When you’re old, you have to get rid of all your belongings before you die. That’s the truth.

*

I like to be under the table. I like to be under things. I like hiding under my bed or hiding in the closet, and when I sleep, I sleep with the covers over my head. Then I pretend I am a turtle hiding under my shell. And my pillow is my little turtle friend.

             Mom used to get mad at me when she caught me under the table. She would say it was weird. “Hey you, come on out from under there.” But I feel safe under the table. It is cool and dark. I sometimes bring toys with me when I am under here—Star Wars action figures and GI Joe’s, stuff like that. I can stay down here for hours. During these times, of course, it’s not really a dining room table. No, it is a dark forest. And these are not table legs and these are not chair legs. They are the trunks of ancient trees that rise up and up into a murky, hooded sky. And it is not an area rug I’m lying on but a field of golden, wild grass. You will not find grass like this anywhere else in the entire world. No, you have to come to my dark forest to see it. But I’m the only one who knows about it! However, sometimes our dining room table isn’t a dark forest at all. No, sometimes it is an abandoned underground city, sometimes a gigantic starship, or an exploding volcano.

            But sometimes it’s just a table.

            Right now what I have open in front of me is one of our large photo albums that’s housed in one of the bookshelves in the living room. There are four photo albums total: one is blue, one is red, two are green. What I do is, I grab one of the dust-covered albums, get under the table and look at pictures. There must be hundreds of photos nestled in these plastic binders. I go through them one by one, slowly, even though I have seen each of them many times. Pictures of family: Mom and Granny and Uncle Stacy and Aunt April. Close cousins and far flung cousins or friends from long ago, never seen again. Spooky yellowed pictures of old men and women, strangers to me, frowning stiffly in heavy clothing so scratchy and uncomfortable looking, I want to itch myself just looking at them. Pictures of birthday cake and backyards. Pictures of old cars and empty birdcages.

            The photos are all faded and creased and stained with fingerprints, most of them mine. That’s why Mom doesn’t like me looking at them by myself anymore. I have dirty fingers.

            But I feel sorry for the albums. I wonder if they get lonely by themselves, just sitting there on the bottom shelf getting older and older. No one takes them out and plays with them. At least they have each other.  When I go to the living room I can hear them calling to me: Pick me . . . No, pick me . . . You picked green last time, it’s my turn today. I try not to play favorites and give each one a go when I take one off the shelf and sneak off for the dining room table. But, of course, I do have a favorite. The blue one is my favorite. That’s because it has the oldest pictures. The red one has the newest. And the fewest. I like that one least.

            The photos in the blue album are from another time. A time before I was born, before I was “even a thought.”

            Here is Granny and Grandpa in black and white, looking serious but young. Not young like me. Young like Mom. Grandpa is in a dark suit and tie; Granny wears a long, flowery short-sleeve dress with a stiff white collar. They are standing on the steps before a blurry brick church. They stare directly at me. Like they know I’m looking at them and are not happy about it.  Here’s a picture of my uncle Leander before he was killed. In this picture he is standing in the driveway of Granny’s house. He is wearing jeans with no shirt and leaning against a huge yellow car, squinting into the bright camera flash and smiling.

            I skip over some of the pictures of family and friends. It is my mom I want to see. The ones of her before. Before I was “even a thought.” It's hard to think of my mother as ever being young, but here's the proof. Here she is at a park, sitting on a swing. She is with some school friends and they are laughing and smiling at each other. Here she is in her high school cap and gown surrounded by other kids her age. They are waving and making silly faces. It's like she is my mom and not my mom. Here, in these albums, she is almost always smiling, always happy.

            The pictures are in no order. Time jumps and skips. Here she is when she was my age. She is in Grandma’s living room, but the furniture is different. Gone is the couch covered in roses and plastic that make my legs sweat. Nowhere is the glass coffee table, the large color TV. Even the wallpaper is different. Mom stands with her brother Leander.  They stand shoulder to shoulder. The both of them are all smiles, mouths open, Mom’s front teeth missing, like they are saying cheeeeese!

            “Your momma used to follow that boy everywhere,” Granny once told me. “Got to be Leander had to hide from her in the bathroom. Just to get a little peace.” I try to picture this, a little girl named Momma chasing her older brother through the house. I had tried once asking Mom about it, but she told me she didn’t remember.

            I turn the page.

            Here she is as a teenager in a sweater and cutoffs, standing barefoot in the backyard of my grandmother’s house, hand on her hip, her face tough and frowning into the camera. Here she is, older now, with some of her friends in some unknown kitchen. She has her hair done up in a way I have never seen before and she’s sitting at a table playing what looks like dominoes with another girl and two men I don’t know. Mom has a lit cigarette in one hand. The girls wave and smile to the camera. The men squint and try to look hard.  One of the men (he has a wispy mustache and shining eyes) has an arm draped over my mother’s shoulder. I see his arm and I get mad. Get your arm off my mom! I want to say to him.

            I wonder what it would be like to have been the same age as her. I wonder if we would have been friends, if she would have even liked me.

            I don’t like the ones that were taken after I was born. Like this one: mom seated outside by a public pool with me in a diaper and crying on her lap. Her face is wooden. Unsmiling. Her body round and thick because of me. She has never been able to get back to her pre-me shape. Though she tries. Once every few months she goes on a diet and then there’ll be a couple of weeks where she eats nothing but grapefruit and boiled eggs. You’ll see pink dumbbells in the living room, exercise magazines on the coffee table. She’ll have a can-do attitude. “This time I’m going to stay on the diet. This time I’m going to lose the weight!” In the evenings after she comes home from work, I’d see her in the living room exercising, her face sweaty and intense. For fun I’d sometimes do her exercises with her, both of us on our knees and elbows doing mule kicks. But after a week or two, she’d break down and buy a cheesecake or pickup McDonald’s at the drive-through and then I’d know that diet-time was over.

 *

Soon Mom will wake up and shoo me outside, harping on me to go and find my friends. When that happens, I will go downstairs and sweat on the steps and watch people parade past me on the sidewalk. But for now I am content to lie on my stomach under the table—which is not a table but a forest—tuning out the noise down below while I stare into the past and wonder.


W. Leander is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Seeing Monsters

By W. Leander

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Nights are terrible. Nights are the worst. This all due to your dislike of the dark, your fear of it—that slow dread that descends upon you every evening once the sun sinks, the sky purples, and you know bedtime is fast approaching.

            Your mom has long since lost her patience with you and your behavior, how you carry on, fussing and whining, scared to sleep in your own bed. Gone are the times when she’d check your room for you at night: theatrically inspecting under your bed, locking your windows, examining your closet door, verifying that it was unable to swing open on its own. Sometimes your mom even sat with you as you lay there in the dark, the two of you silently watching lights from passing cars slowly play across the ceiling. There she sat and gently rubbed your belly until you finally drifted away.  However, this now seems so long ago, so hazy and opaque, you aren’t sure if it is a real memory or just an imagined one. More wish than fact.

            Now, as often as not, if you leave your bed and run to her complaining about hearing strange noises, she’ll march you back to your room, stand there in the doorway—hands on hips—and glower at you as you climb once again into your hated bed. Instead of checking locks on windows and securing closet doors, she’ll threaten you, tell you that if you got out of that bed again, she will give you something to be scared of.  You are not a baby, she’ll say. You are a Big Boy.

            “Too old to still believe in monsters,” she says—unable to sense the monsters all around her.

            However, you know that the monsters are there, just waiting for her to leave. That’s when they will come out and show themselves. That’s when you will see their teeth.

*

Tonight, she has warned you again about getting out of bed. Tonight, it is important that you not leave your room. Because tonight she is entertaining. A friend from work. The friend is due to come over after you’re in bed. So, no, you won’t be introduced. Not tonight. Maybe next time.

            So you don’t get to see the friend arrive. But you do listen. While in bed you hear the front door open and your mom greet her friend. You hear the friend too. It is a male voice. You go through the audio files in your head but can’t place that voice, which has this gritty, lumpy quality to it, like his throat needs constant clearing.

            You listen from your bedroom. The two of them. Out there in the living room. It’s soothing, the sound of their voices, the sound of your mom’s laughter, the way their hushed murmurs complement each other. For a while it keeps the monsters at bay.

            But time passes and once again you find yourself still awake, caught in the middle of yet another endless night. And your muddled mind can’t tell whether you have slept at all or if you have been awake for hours. It is now quiet out in the living room. No more murmured voices, no more whispered laughter, and whatever protection the adult’s voices provided has been removed with their absence. Now you are sure that the shadows skimming across the walls are more than a trick of light. And you can almost hear something panting from the narrow space beneath your bed. So you try to keep your eyes open. Because though you are so tired your eyeballs are burning and itchy and your eyelids feel ten times their usual weight, you are scared to close them, sure that as soon as you do the things that have been lurking, biding their time, will begin to slither.

            And now there is another problem: Your bladder. Up until now you’ve tried not to think about the pressure there. But this insistent need is verging on painful. Finally, you detangle yourself from your covers. And in one jerky motion you leap from bed, do a little hop-skip before the thing under there can grab at your feet (which it’s been waiting to do all this time). You race to the light switch, flick it on, and drown the room in solid, rational light.

            You stand there, wide-eyed and gulping air, knowing you barely made it. The first part over, you slowly open your bedroom door and take a tentative step into the short, dark hallway—ready to fly back into your room at any moment, if need be.

            You creep along in only your red Spiderman Underoos. The plan is to leapfrog from light switch to light switch, past the living room and kitchen, until you reach the bathroom. And after you relieve yourself, you’ll follow the same path in reverse, clicking off lights, letting the darkness chase you back to bed where you’ll resume your watchful vigilance. But as you skulk into the dark a voice calls out, “What’s up, little man?”

            A sound like a whimper escapes you.

            A man is sitting in the dark. Smoking. Right there on one of your mother’s honey-colored sofas. “What are you doing up?” he asks. Then he answers his own question. “Can’t sleep, huh?” And yes, you recognize the strangely clogged voice, like something stuck in his throat still waiting to be swallowed. Your mom’s friend. He is still here. But you can’t see him clearly. You can only make out half of his frame in the ebbing light spilling from your room, the rest of him is consumed in darkness. He sits with no shirt on, jeans open at the fly, the hair on his half of visible chest a murky forest of spidery hair. One eye glints at you.

            You can smell the cigarette, see the red ember sizzle at you as he takes a drag. Your mother doesn’t smoke. She wouldn’t like this.  On the coffee table before him, among the remains of their evening—wine glasses and balled napkins and the remnants of leftover cheesecake—is a dirty saucer used for an ashtray, the crushed and broken butts lying there like discarded chicken bones.

            “Where’s Mom?” you say. And why are you sitting in the dark?

            “She’s in her room,” says the voice. A glimpse of teeth from a half-lit smile. “She’s dead to the world.” The voice chuckles at this. It’s a dirty sound you think. On the other side of the living room, past the kitchen and down the hallway, you can make out your mom’s room. The door is open, but you see only darkness. Like the mouth of a cave. 

            “You remember me, don’t you?” the voice asks. “We’ve met before. Here, go over and flip on the light.”

            But now you don’t want to flip on the light switch, don’t want to fully see the face of the voice talking to you, don’t wish to watch his form solidify in the all-too-revealing light. So you tell him that yes you remember him. And then you say, as if asking permission, “I need to go to the bathroom.”

            “All right,” the voice says. That chuckle again. “Don’t let me keep you.”

            You make your way to the bathroom, feeling uneasy—not liking the half-man sitting back there on the couch, not liking his smoking in the dark by himself, not liking his clogged voice or his glinting eye or his half-moon of a smile. You don’t like his nasty chuckle, his hairy half-chest, and especially his undone fly. The word that comes to mind is icky.

            He makes you feel icky.

            As you approach the bathroom, you see your mom’s open door. And, at last, you can see a head of soft curls spilling from the mess of blankets and pillow. Just seeing those curls (and even hearing her faint snoring) returns a kind of reality back to you, cuts through the strangeness of the last few minutes.

You enter the bathroom, close the door, click on the light. The overhead fan begins to whir. Instead of lifting the seat to pee, you turn around and sit on the toilet to do your business. Like a girl. Because for some reason you don’t want the voice out there to hear you, don’t want to share such intimacy. So you sit and listen to the fan and quietly empty yourself. When you’re done, you flush and leave the bathroom without as much as a glance at the faucet.

            Your mother’s bedroom door is now closed. You stand there for a moment and listen but can hear nothing. That closed door bothers you. You have to fight the urge to knock. Instead, you return to your room, where you shut the door, click off the light, and slide back into bed. Your room is now empty. The shadows just shadows. Nothing under your bed but dust. Still, you don’t sleep. You will yourself awake. Because she was right: You are a Big Boy now. And now you need to stay vigilant. So you listen for her, your mom. Because she is still unable to sense the monsters all around her.


W. Leander is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Me and Morgan Freeman

By W. Leander

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             I was eight years old when my grandfather, a kindly, sports-loving, retired police officer, died—in the same manner he had lived his entire life. Quietly. He died from lung cancer. He died at night.

              It was summer, and I was staying with them, he and Grandma, out there in their little house at the tail-end of a dead-end street in lifeless Independence, Missouri, where I spent my summer vacations during those early years.

              I know I was there when he passed away. Because I am told I was. Just as I am told that on the night he died, when the paramedics arrived—with their stretchers and squawking radios and forbidding flashing lights—I cried as I stood under the shadow of the hallway, in my Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear and dirty tube socks, whispering to any adults who passed near me: Where is Grandpa going and when is he coming back?

              I can’t, however, remember anything from that night. Not the paramedics. Not the stretcher. Not the tears. No, my memory of that time is as hazy and tenuous as summer itself. No day stands out.

              This is what I remember: tubes. Thin, clear tubes attached to bags; bags filled with liquid—buttermilk-looking liquid that replaced his food, bright pink liquid you needed gloves to handle, clear liquid that smelled like aspirin. The tubes snaked down from these bags, first into blinking, burping machines—the various serious-looking apparatuses that kept him alive once he came home from the hospital that last time—and then into Grandpa, who stayed confined in bed, not the bed he shared with Grandma for thirty-plus years, but the new hospital bed, which took up space in the dining room, positioned in such a way that he could still see the TV comfortably.  

              I remember that hospital bed, with its heavy rubber wheels and thin blue mattress. It had chrome bars that could be raised on either side and locked into place with an ominous click, along with a hand crank used to elevate both ends. I remember the gauze; the oxygen tank; the large plastic cup, always nearby and always filled with ice water because he was so constantly thirsty; and how no one could ever make noise during the day, because he was either sleeping or trying to sleep—the pain not always kept at bay by medication. Plus, I can recall the sharp smell of urine, which hung in the heavy, stale air that entire final summer, at first from the commode, placed as it was in the living room, right next to the TV, then later due to the urine bag that hung and drooped off one side of his bed. 

              What I can’t remember, no matter how I try, is his face. Grandpa’s face. What it looked like. Its creases. Its blemishes. Its moles. Instead, in my head is a runny image of a face. Nothing is in focus. Just a brown blur with a crop of grey hair and the same nondescript, haunted, hollowed-out eyes that could be found on the face of any elderly black man who had spent the majority of his life in the South.


"I don’t have the beginning to this scene, no idea why we are sitting across from each other, so delighted as we are, rocking out with imaginary instruments."


And that’s it. That’s all I can remember about my grandfather, not his love of catfish and Royals baseball, not his fondness for toy models of classic cars. Nor can I recall any time spent with him before the cancer robbed him of so much.  I can’t remember any fishing trips or any trips to the park. Can’t remember a time when he chased me in the yard with false teeth rattling in his hand. These moments, if they ever existed, are gone.  Erased from my memory. All except for one.

              It is one simple scene, years before. The two of us. Alone. Grandma out running errands, no one else in the house, and Grandpa is babysitting. However, in my faulty memory, Grandpa is played by Morgan Freeman.

              We are in the living room. I am on Grandma’s plastic covered sofa; Grandpa is seated across from me in the easy chair. Between us on the coffee table are three discarded Jell-O Pudding Pop wrappers. I’ve eaten all three and am thinking about asking for a fourth, the benefit of Grandma being gone. We are both rocking, side-to-side, grinning at each other while playing air-guitar.  We are mirror images, the two of us.  I am either copying him or he is copying me. I don’t have the beginning to this scene, no idea why we are sitting across from each other, so delighted as we are, rocking out with imaginary instruments. There is no audio. I can’t hear my grandfather’s voice.

              I see me—him—sitting there in my striped tee-shirt and missing front teeth, grinning goofily at my grandfather; so nakedly happy and uninhibited and trusting that I am sure I have never smiled like that since.

              I look at my younger self and wonder what is going through his head. How much does he know about the world around him and his place in it?  I don’t know. Will never know. I can’t remember, can’t fit myself inside such a small frame. He is a mystery to me.  Just as I am to him. Forty years, for him, is an eternity, an inscrutable span of time.

              And he is right.

              We are strangers, he and I—separated by an impenetrable wall of years and experience. Our cells aren’t even the same now. His body, still coated with baby fat under tulip-soft skin, is free from the scars long since faded on my scraped and rusted self. We hardly look related. Still, I feel paternal and protective of my little me. I shudder for him. I want to reach out and shield him from the years ahead. From what comes next.

              Remember this, I want to tell him. Remember this moment. This man. Your first father figure. You will have so few. Remember his loving, healthy face. His aged patchwork of wrinkled, brown skin. His scratchy cheeks.  His sorrowful, smiling eyes.

              Remember him for me.

              But I am too distant. And it is much too late. They are ghosts now. The both of them.

              So, I must content myself to watching these two strangers from afar, watch as they beam at one another. Laughing and strumming to music only they can hear.


W. Leander is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.