:: Article

Mom and Dad, Deleted Scenes

By Brad Phillips.

Mom and Dad, Deleted Scenes

I was the child of a man who wanted no children. Sometimes when I was younger I wondered what my life would have been like had I never been born. Obviously, I was very young, not making the connection that having been born was the sole reason I was able to entertain these thoughts. I thought too much as a child. It’s a problem I’ve been unable to shake. I asked not only why the sky was blue, but why blue was called blue, and why things had names. I asked who I would have been had I not been named Brad. If they’d named me Simon would I have been shorter or taller? If they’d not named me at all would I even exist?

These questions exasperated my parents. I can see why. They also exasperated me though, and even though I’m all ‘grown up’, I find myself preoccupied with the same unanswerable questions. Or, maybe they could be answered, but I’d need to raise money for a flight, find a guide, and hope that there really was someone two-hundred years old living off rainwater on the summit of a remote mountain.

 

Later, when my parents began to fight more often, I’d wonder what they would have been like, had they never had me. I tried to see my parents as people, not parents. It wasn’t that hard, especially with one of them, who rarely ever acted like a parent, and often acted as If he hadn’t had me.

My therapist tells me it’s important that I write everything down. I’m supposed to be doing this to ‘process’ my feelings. Apparently transferring the mess of confusion that is my private mental soundscape onto paper is therapeutic. It engenders understanding and clarity. I have no more understanding or clarity now than I did before I took his advice. What I do have is over three-hundred-thousand words of those same insipid questions on paper. The longer I’ve been doing this exercise, the less they seem like questions. Now they seem like answers. Not necessarily the right answers, not the ones I want to hear, not the ones that make me understand – just answers. Maybe answers aren’t even what they are. Maybe I’m just rewriting my life to make it more palatable to me. I think that’s more likely.

The following is what “Andrew”, who prefers I not call him Dr. Babcock (causing me to take him far less seriously), suggested I write down when I told him I still often spent time wondering what my parents would have been like if they never had children.

I admit to being shocked at what came out. The more I’ve read it though, having spent twenty-two of my forty-three years knowing my father rather intimately, the story seems sort of reasonable, not quite as science-fictive as it did the day I put the period on the last word and pressed Control S. I remembered just now that the only piece of advice I recall my father ever giving me, was that you can beat a lie detector test by clenching your asshole before each question.

*

The year is 1981. Bernie and Sophia have been married since 1972. Nine happy years of a long engagement. Bernie is handsome in a sort of low-level criminal way. Two gold chains, one with a star of David on the end, although he’s not Jewish.  One gold bracelet and the multitude of rings typical of the era. He has a not quite mountain-man but not closely cropped beard, almost black save a bizarre silver dollar sized patch of white on the left side of his chin. He’s maybe five foot six but usually wears cowboy boots, often at home, so always seems taller. His eyes are that rare and sometimes spooky light sky-blue. On the inside of his left forearm he has a tattoo of a cartoon devil face. It’s worn and blown out, making it look like he either got in high-school, or in prison. Bernie works in advertising, except he was fired from his job eight months previous and Sophia does not know this. Bernie has ‘family money’ and as a result there aren’t the typical economic peculiarities to alert Sophia that something is not quite right. Sophia is a grade school teacher. She teaches mathematics, and twice a week physical education. Grades three and four. Sophia is neither beautiful nor unattractive. Her high cheekbones and deep green eyes lead her to be called ‘striking.’ She’s slightly taller than her husband and extremely thin. Her hair ends in the middle of her bum. It’s dirty blonde and she’ll often keep it in two long braids for close to a week before untying them to wash her hair, which she then braids again. Without the braids it’s too free; getting in her mouth, getting caught on things. She typically wears bell-bottom jeans and those mesh football jerseys that don’t advertise any particular team, over which she usually wears either a shawl or a loosely knit wool cardigan.

They are thirty-five and thirty-three respectively.

 

When Sophia met Bernie he was a heroin addict. Not a gimpy unshaven disease ridden heroin addict. A heroin addict with a manageable habit. And Sophia, being fond of the occasional line of cocaine, was not one to judge Bernie. They told each other as the wedding got nearer that they’d each clean up. They wanted to have a family. This was before they found out that that Bernie was sterile, and the waiting list to adopt a child was so long that they’d not have a child until they were of such an age that said child would become odd and therefore easily bullied. This was Bernie’s opinion anyway, having been born when his mother was forty-three. He told Sophia that kids like him stood out, having adopted the references and idiosyncrasies of their too-old parents. So, they decided against children and instead opted for a cottage. A place to get away to – on a lake, near a stream, by a pond, in the woods – and get away from their troubles. That they had no real troubles didn’t mean to Bernie and Sophia that they should be excluded from this classic North American dream.

Sophia quit cocaine quite easily, as is easier with cocaine, unless you start using crack, which was not on the scene by the time she put the last line to bed. Later Sophia would often remark that crack had given cocaine a bad name. Bernie however was struggling to curtail his heroin use. Heroin is not easily curtailed, heroin is not easily shaken, heroin is a top-shelf, high priced private detective that follows you in cars that change colour and model. A detective that taps your phone and photographs you from long distances with advanced camera equipment. Heroin interviews ex-girlfriends, old school mates, distant relatives, gathering information so that it always has something to hold against you. Heroin is extortion and blackmail and a litany of late seventies early eighties gambits and characters. To cut out the prosody, a hard habit to quit.

But Bernie, being an unusual man, one day just stopped. It was approximately three months after they set a wedding date and two months before being terminated from his ambiguous position at the Art & Design Studio. Sophia just thought he’d gotten food poisoning, and he felt guilty when she took such good care of him while he was actually going through withdrawal. He felt it was one of the only times in his life that he experienced a genuine emotion. Having gone over it numerous times, Bernie can’t quite put his finger on what happened; all he’s certain of is that he no longer uses heroin, and he doesn’t miss it.  But Bernie doesn’t tell Sophia this. Because if Sophia and Bernie are both clean and sober, then a certain sense of expected equality will enter the relationship that he’s unprepared to accept, at least at this point in his life.

Each day very early Sophia heads off to school to tend to what she affectionately calls her ‘flock of brains’. When she kisses his drowsy face goodbye and whispers her loving reassurances in his ear as she does each morning, his face without permission from his mind forms an affectionate smile for his wife as she leaves to do her good work.

Bernie then sleeps another hour and rises to face the day. His wife thinks this is when he’s at work. However she never called him there when he did have his job, as being a teacher she rarely had time to herself, and he’d often be out of the office on sales calls or other undefinable assignments. So he has the apartment to himself for hours, until exactly four-thirty when she comes home happy but tired from her day, with cute tales of cute kids doing cute things.

 

Bernie eats a bowl of Raisin Brain, watches the news, shits, showers, and settles into his time alone. His day looks like this, as it has since the very first day after he recovered from his heroin withdrawal

He lays on the shag carpet floor of the living room. It was once a vibrant and sickening period-appropriate combination of purple and orange swirls that’s now a far more optically forgiving matted grey and pink. Beside him lay a jug of water and a glass, an ashtray, two packs of Marlboro Lights, a yellow lighter (always yellow), a box of pills and a bottle of pills. There is a stereo in the room as well as a television but they remain off for the eight hours or so hours he’ll be alone.

 

The first thing Bernie does after laying down and lighting his first cigarette, is to take, while propped on one elbow, two one milligram tabs of Clonazepam. Then he lays flat on his back and stares at the ceiling, smoking and ashing his cigarette with the familiar accuracy of repeated experience that only the blind can mimic. A certain drowsiness sets in. Bernie fights it. This lasts an hour. He may smoke a second cigarette. After that first hour, Bernie props himself up on his elbow again and reaches into the box for a sleeping pill. An off-the-shelf sleeping pill called Nytol, which contains the drowsying chemical diphenhydramine hydrochloride (recommended one pill an hour before sleep). He takes the glass of water, which he’s hardly touched since the initial consumption of the tranquilizers, swallows one of these pills, lights another cigarette since he’s already propped up, then lays back down. After fifteen minutes a crashing wave of sleep batters him around his face and mind, but he keeps it at bay, something that years of heroin use have given him a certain skill for. Staying awake in the face of chemicals meant to make you sleep. This is repeated each hour, with the dose increased with each intake of medication. Two milligrams of Clonazepam become four, one Nytol two. At this point he begins to drink more fluid because of the intensely dry mouth he’s experiencing. Although he always prepares two packs of cigarettes, he really doesn’t get around to smoking many, because the drugs make smoking seem uninteresting and he’s always slightly worried that he might one day just fall asleep and light a fire. Bernie’s greatest fear when it comes to death is that of being burned alive.

In this way he is a reasonable man.

Around one o’clock: this is when death becomes the primary focus of Bernie’s mind. How much he’d like to die. (Not by burning though.) So much of his brain is unavailable to him, in that it’s been called to duty elsewhere in keeping him awake. So, the focus is on not falling asleep and fantasizing his own death.

A curious thing happens almost daily after what’s probably the fourth cycle of pill consumption. Although they don’t have a ceiling fan, one appears directly over Bernie’s head. He can feel it cooling his face, which is a relief as the drugs make him warm and sweaty. After the fifth and penultimate cycle of Clonazepam and Nytol, Bernie watches as the ceiling fan disengages itself from the ceiling then in super slow-motion descends towards his stupefied and stupid face. For some time the ceiling fan oscillates perhaps six inches above him, slowly; slow enough so that there isn’t the typical blur we associate with ceiling fans. Instead Bernie can make out all the mechanisms that have built the fan. He sees the blades and the rotor, but also each individual screw.

His mind is fixed on suicide, his eyes are fixed on the fan. Then a very interesting thing begins to transpire. While Bernie smokes a Marlboro, the blade of the fan slices the ash of his cigarette off. Then it slices the cigarette in half. There’s no sense of fear in Bernie, there’s really no sense of anything in Bernie because there’s scarcely a trace of Bernie left. He watches as the tip of his nose is taken off and sent flying across the room,  bouncing off the coffee table, rolling along the tile of the dining room floor until it comes to rest against the leg of the nearest dining table chair.

Then as Bernie abstractly fantasizes about various ways to kill himself, in a car, driving fast off a cliff or into a tree, with a gun at his temple or up inside of his mouth, leaping from a tall building or kicking away a chair on which he’s standing with a noose around his neck, the slowly moving fan begins to dissemble Bernie’s very face and head, sending bloody chunks of himself all around the room.

 

This is when Bernie, each and every day to his amazement, consumes the last of the pills he’s set aside for himself. Amazed each time because as far he is aware in the moment, he has no face with which to consume those pills. Down go the Nytols, down the astonishingly large dose of Clonazepam. Every morning, although he wakes up fully aware that the previous day’s experience had been a delusion, he’s astonished once Sophia leaves to find a mouth in which to put that first cigarette. Shocked to find himself drinking water with what he imagines to be a chasm of sinew and torn flesh, astonished that the water does not fall out of his mouth and dampen the once gaudy, now faded shag carpet on which he’s laying prostrate.

Bernie has not once looked in the mirror since he began this experiment.

He’s understandably very sleepy in the period between the penultimate and last dose, or what Elvis called ‘attacks’ – it’s at this period when he finds it hardest to stay awake. Yet Bernie’s hallucination of the ceiling fan descending slowly to mutilate his visage is not a dream – he is not asleep. He knows so because this is one of the occasions while, in slow motion, he sees a common ceiling fixture become intimate with the protrusions of his head and face, that he smokes a cigarette. The blade of the fan moving so slowly that he’s able to time the cigarette and get it into where he thinks his mouth is supposed to be. Bernie always wonders what kind of fan can be this sharp, that moving at what seems to be the pace of a cat sauntering down a hallway, it’s still able to slice a cigarette in two, or expertly remove and then toss across the room the nose he’s had on him all his life. He begins to wonder about advancements in both fan technology and just how thinly metal can be sliced. Can it be sliced more thinly that the government is telling us? These are the things that jockey for space in Bernie’s mind while the entire fiasco of facial disarticulation is taking place, a thing of which he has no fear, and really no opinion whatsoever. He does at times think that, of all the ways he’s fantasized about killing himself, this one has not popped up. It seems unlikely. It seems improper.

           

After the lurid tango with the fan, Bernie will typically have what he believes to be a lucid dream. He knows that he’s not asleep when he has these dreams, as more than a few times the phone has rung or someone has knocked at the door. Those instances interrupt the dream, but also prove that he’s conscious, as later there will be a message on the answering machine or a package outside the door to their apartment. These dreams are Bernie’s favourite part of the experience with the pills, because they pull him out of his fantasies of self-annihilation, and because he often finds himself in interesting or glamourous places, able to some extent to control how the narrative unfolds. Typically, the dreams involve things familiar to Bernie and his life; sometimes Sophia appears, or an ex-girlfriend or friend. Rare are the dreams where Bernie finds himself dropping napalm over a village in Laos, feeling a deep sense of comradery with his fellow soldiers.

Today the dream is one he’s had many times. A dream about driving. Obviously driving dreams, when it comes to dreams drawn from life, are much more exciting than ones of being at his aunt Clarice’s house for Easter. Once he’s in the car he can decide what type of trip he’ll be taking. Well, to put it more accurately, and he does hope that over time his ability to control his lucid dreams will improve, dreams of driving feel more like some phantom has their hand on the steering wheel, and Bernie is doing his best to take control and make the turns or hit the gas. Sometimes the phantom is strong, sometimes weak. Today the dream will be brief, and for the most part, Bernie is the one doing the driving. He never knows once it starts where he’ll end up, and the dream always ends with no warning whatsoever.

Bernie sees himself back in the bedroom, Sophia having just left for work. He thinks he has an appointment, and that he’s possible late. Out of the closet he chooses a casual brown corduroy sports coat and dark jeans, brushes and washes that which needs brushing and washing, slips into a pair of loafers, splashes on some cologne and leaves the apartment to take the elevator down to the parking garage. It feels like a long time since he’s left the apartment. The parking garage is half full, but every single car there is a 1978 goldenrod Subaru, the car that he and Sophia had bought new four years ago. He walks to the nearest one and find his key fits.

Now the illicit thrill of driving. A left turn out of the garage and he’s assailed by the brutal sun. The world is awake and alive. The car begins to move and he puts his hands on the wheel. He can’t be certain if he’s driving very fast or very slow. The world outside the car seems to speed up and slow down in a nauseating way. Children here, children there. A homeless person. Garbage swirling in the air caught in a spiral of wind under an overpass. A crosswalk. Smiling at the crossing guard. The turn signal, the turn. A woman’s legs, distracting, facing forward he’s slightly out of his lane. Birds screaming and flying anarchically overhead. Imperceptibly small insects dying quickly and often as they collide with the windshield. Apartment buildings inside of which people are fucking and fighting, eating, weeping on the phone. A man is being stabbed somewhere he cannot see. A woman has been betrayed by another woman. Drugs and greasy money are exchanged with discreet hand movements in the doorways of bars. A man with a horribly sad life, who knows all his dreams are unattainable and prays each day he’ll be one of those windshield bugs, smiles with difficulty wearing a used suit trying to sell used cars. The horrible reality of teenagers acting embarrassed by and smarter than their parents at shopping malls and doctor’s offices. All the things Bernie associates with driving. Once more the turn signal, the turn, the Kentucky Fried Chicken which signals the nearness of Dr. Hansen (and Bernie becomes aware that this is another dream which is taking him to his therapist, the one he stopped seeing four years ago) – he rolls his window down when he passes to take in the smell, one more turn, reduction of speed, eyes scanning for empty spaces, then a sequence of highly complex but now extraordinarily easy manoeuvres and the car is parked. Then he lowers the car window, takes a cigarette of out of the package in his left jacket pocket without taking the package itself out, lights it, turns off the ignition and leisurely smokes the cigarette before flicking it out the window. Ignition back on, power windows up, ignition off, out of the car – the office becomes nearer and nearer to him as he moves forward.

 

“Mr. Phillips! It’s been a while. I hope you’re well, please take a seat Dr. Hansen will see you shortly.”

“Thank you Pat.”

This was the secretary, Pat. She smiled too often not realizing how frightening her false teeth looked. Bernie wondered what her opinions of him and the other patients were. Surely, she could hear the screams and weeping from the office while she did, what?  Crosswords? Or was Pat a ‘good person’ who tried to not listen at all. That seemed unlikely. Anyone with false teeth like that would be riddled with their own mental calamities and prone to curiosity about the troubles of others. Each time he looked up from his magazine (Pen Collector’s Digest) there was Pat, smiling back. It was possible that she never took her eyes off Bernie, or if that weren’t the case had developed and almost animal fast awareness of incoming eye contact and was always ready to meet it with a failing smile of comfort.

“Bernie, come in.”

This was Doctor Hansen himself now. Robert as he knew from the diplomas on the wall and the business card still stuck to his refrigerator. Doctor Hansen was bald. This comforted Bernie because he knew his doctor was familiar with real and profound suffering. He wore stylishly crumpled linen suits and smoked languidly with his head slightly tilted in a way they surely must teach you when studying psychiatry. He was a good enough psychiatrist, Bernie could attest to this solely due to his large amounts of prescribed Clonazepam.

“I was happy to hear you’d, please sit down Bernie. Why would you smell a plant? I was happy to hear you’d made an appointment Bernie. I was worried you were giving up on therapy. And as your doctor I can assure you, you are not one who can give up on therapy. You’re a deeply ill man Bernie, and the problems you contend with are not going to resolve themselves without the help of someone with training such as I’ve received.”

“For fuck sake Doc you’ve never said I was ‘deeply ill’ before. Jesus, did they teach you bedside manners?”

“You’re not in a bed Bernie.”

“Fine. I think I do ok for the most part.”

“You don’t do okay for the most part Bernie, not at all. The fact that you think you’re doing okay for the most part is proof enough of how delusional and unhealthy your mind is. ”

“I don’t think I like -”

“So, what prompted you to come back and see me Bernie. Tell me what’s on your mind.”

 

Bernie was prompted to smash Doctor Morris’ phone over his head and walk out, but realized he’d be bored for the rest of the day, plus probably no more Clonazepam. He watched the thought leave his mind.

“Listen Doctor. Do people ever say that, Listen Doctor? Like that? It sounds wrong. Listen Doc. Doc? Fuck.”

Then Bernie, whose eyes were never closed, feels the back of his head on the rug and realizes the dream is over.

Once the final pills are consumed Sophia will be home in exactly one hour. Anyone who might happen to come into the room would see the following: a man of average height and weight, middle aged, not particularly striking but not unattractive, laying on his back in the centre of his living room on a shag rug.  A man wearing charcoal grey flannel slacks and a white dress shirt with the first three buttons undone. Wearing socks but shoeless. No pillow under his head, no blanket over his body. Near his body are various objects. Two packages of Marlboro Lights, a jug of water and a glass with which to drink from, a chunky crystal ashtray containing numerous half smoked cigarettes, a pill bottle and a small colourful box. That is all they would see. If they were to come into the room and stand over Bernie, they would see his grey eyes fixed with almost religious tranquility directly at the ceiling above him. They would see him occasionally smile, the way one smiles when children are witnessed playing in a pile of raked leaves in mid- autumn. A smile of beatific innocence that conveys a sense of peace, the smile of a man who is made happy seeing the blissful state of uncorrupted children, of marvels of nature, of late afternoon light flickering off a flattening lake.

After Bernie takes the last pills what he sees is this: Slowly, a slowness for which I don’t have a word, the ceiling fan begins to ascend from where Bernie feels it to be, lodged directly inside his skull, up to where it belongs. Where it would belong if they had a ceiling fan. As this happens, somewhat more quickly but still terribly slow, Bernie watches as his nose rises from the floor adjacent to where he’s lying and comes as if invited by his head to reposition itself where it belongs between his two eyes and slightly below them. Small pieces of flesh do similar things. Bernie is often reminded of a sort of snowy chum, red flakes of tissue settling upon his face and creating a pile, a pile called Bernie, the way snow settles to makes a pile, a pile called snow-bank. Within thirty minutes Bernie is returned to the man he was when he sat and ate cereal and watched the news. He gets up, very sleepy still, and cleans up what’s left on the floor. Puts the pills back in his cabinet. He drinks all the water left in the jug directly from it, then puts the jug and the glass in the sink to be cleaned later. Going into the bathroom, without looking in the mirror he washes his face vigorously, still stunned to feel his nose. He combs his hair, buttons up one of the buttons on his shirt so that now only two are undone. There is a briefcase he keeps by the door. He opens it and rearranges the various papers and files that are in it as he does every day, just so that were Sophia to look into it (and she never would) it would appear like there had been changes in that case, work had been done, files attended to.

Sophia will be home within five minutes now. Bernie is not as tired as one might think, but he’s tired. He pours himself a gin and tonic, sits on the couch, and turns on the television to watch the early news. As precise as ever, he hears Sophia turn the key in the lock and come in.

“Bernie darling are you home?”

“Yes sweetheart. I just got in myself, just fixed a drink.”

Sophia comes into the living room after taking off her shoes. Bernie inclines his head to look back at her and smiles. She holds it in her two hands and kisses him on his forehead.

“You okay baby? You look tired. Is it work or are you trying to taper off the dope again?”

“No darling I’m not trying to taper, not now. Things are too hectic at work. I can’t deal with feeling sick while I have this much work on my plate.”

“That’s okay baby,” Sophia says. “Remember there’s no rush, remember you can do it when you’re ready, and I’ll be here to support you. I love you. What you want to do isn’t easy, but hey, at least you’re willing to admit it’s something that needs to change right?”

 

Bernie pulls her around to his side of the couch and she sits beside him. He maneuvers her legs onto his lap and rubs her feet. She smiles at him and he smiles back. He hands her his gin and tonic, watches her take a sip.

“Let’s see what the fuck is going on in the news Bernie, the world is so up its own ass right now.”

 

While Bernie and Sophia watch what’s happening in Beirut, Bernie looks up to where the ceiling fan had been not an hour ago, shakes his head slightly, and suppresses a slighter smile.

 

From Never Forget to Not Forgive by Brad Phillips, forthcoming from Tyrant Books in October 2018.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 1st, 2018.