Clearing the air

Even the shell of him that was left was cracked, and it resembled little of what I remembered from the time before the signs started to show. After the mountaintop high of rehab’s effects had eased back down into another valley, my dad was on his way out of the family.

This was three and a half years ago, but I’ve tried to push it out of time and out of mind ever since. Now and then someone will crack a one-liner about something related to cocaine, and the memories will come rushing back, but for the most part, the sense of loss I felt back then is kept locked up, irretrievable.

Then I read “Sonny’s Blues,” and I was there once again.

Usually I feel distant from fictional characters, and the bond I share with them generally becomes more tenuous as the stories reach back further in history. What can I say? Life in Nebraska isn’t something that would captivate the world, and aside from one deep-tissue emotional bruise, I’ve had it easy.

So to relate my personal experience with that of someone infatuated with yellow wallpaper or a couple mulling over whether to get an abortion or not, it takes a mighty long stretch.

Here, in James Baldwin’s short story, it took only a few sentences, and I was the narrator. I’ve felt the way he did.

“A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long… It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less. Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream. This would always be at a moment when I was remembering some specific thing Sonny had once said or done.”

Just as the narrator received a blow to the gut when he read Sonny’s name in the paper, grasped the same pain when my mom told me about a time years ago when my dad left me and a friend at our cabin at Lake Minatare to hop on his Harley and make for the garage sixty miles away back home in Alliance. Before that moment, when it all clicked, the tension in our family wasn’t real to me.

When it hit, it hit hard. The stagnant memories once filed away felt like that had been pinned to the bulletin board at City Hall. I turned in on myself, and I never wanted to talk about it, preferring to go back to the way it was, when it wasn’t my problem. It seemed all was lost, and the true emotions broke through the seams of my facade only sparingly.

In the same way, Baldwin imbues the story with a sense of standstill, a stubborn refusal to be rational. No longer can the narrator accept that his brother is a heroin addict. He says, “I couldn’t believe it: but what I mean by that is that I couldn’t find any room for it anywhere inside me. I had kept it outside me for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to know.”

It’s not his staggeringly veiled hints at some foreshadowing of death or clever wordplay that so often grabs the focus of someone taking a “reading” of literature that makes Baldwin’s writing so moving. It’s the humanity, the visceral truthful feeling spread out on a page for all onlookers to see and take part in.

The mistrust the narrator has for Sonny’s boyhood friend cuts, yet he still gives up a five to tide the junkie over till the stash runs out. His heart gets twisted by what used to be and what is, longing for a return to better times and bearing the agony of what has become of the world surrounding his brother.

I remember the e-mails my dad sent me during the roughest spots, after he had been kicked out of the house and was living at the cabin. They were always somewhere between desperate pleas for attention and heartfelt apologies.

He’d either tell me everything that was on his mind, or try to keep from me something he feared I would forward to my mom. I felt like a tennis ball being slammed back and forth across the net of middle ground: both kinds of messages incited invisible guilt that I had for the dissolution of my family. It wasn’t really my fault, but what was between the lines in those “I miss you” missives knocked me out.

The letter Baldwin includes hits the nail on the head. “Sometime I think I’m going to flip and never get outside and sometime I think I’ll come straight back. I tell you one thing, though, I’d rather blow my brains out than go through this again.”

Then I remember the times when it’d be just me and him, without the buffer of my sister who could diffuse the awkwardness. We’d go to dinner and be done in fifteen minutes, exchanging a few words from time to time about school or the weather. There was a high-strung energy that poured profusely which took the place of conversation.

“We hit 110th Street and started rolling up Lenox Avenue. And I’d known this avenue all my life, but it seemed to me again, as it had seemed on the day I’d first heard about Sonny’s trouble, filled with a hidden menace that was its very breath of life.

‘We almost there,’ said Sonny.

‘Almost.’ We were both too nervous to say anything more.”

Sonny would continue to speak his mind through music. My dad sought solace in hard labor, working full time as the owner of a body shop and filling his time with odd jobs here and there. Neither the narrator nor I thought much of these outlets of frustration and sadness.

We’d fall apart even more as our paths diverged and hope for a better relationship seemed to be flushed down the tubes. I started immersing myself in music, and Dad didn’t understand what I was trying to do. Everything I was doing was “neat,” but that’s all my battered teenage feelings would get out of him.

Then I remember when I began to see things from his side. Once I reached furthest point in the metaphorical boomerang curve that took me away from my dad and brought me back, I needed a job, and it just so happened that the kid who washed the “done” cars at the shop had just quit. So I took the spot. And I saw my dad again for who he truly was in his natural environment, working away with the group of guys he’d employed for years. They plowed through each week’s pile of repairs with finesse just like they used to before it all. I knew, once again, he loved what he did. He had kicked the habit for good, and realized that I loved him all along.

“Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his.”

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Published in: on March 26, 2009 at 11:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

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