Maybe grief is an artifact. Or a trinket God hands you that you’re bound to keep. Once you have it, you can’t be caught without it ever again. You can’t give it away, can’t sell it, can’t dress it up as something else—empathy or depth of intellect, for example. “The way his mind works: He’s so deep.” It’s a whatnot so especially personal that even though other people might have their own, yours in their hands would be totally unrecognizable. “It’s a pebble, so what? The beach is literally made of them.”

Maybe it’s an inevitable mile marker, something you’ll have to pass, or maybe it’s even as big as a way-station. A thatched cabana just beyond the reach of the waves where the bartender, a big-boned, gray-haired mama-san, keeps pinching your cheek. A place to order drinks, a place to drink alone for the first time, a place to swallow something brand new. Not whiskey neat water back this time but something in a huge red cup festooned with skewered pineapple chunks and paper umbrellas.

Maybe it’s a hole in the ground. Maybe it grows like kudzu on that single odd hillside. Maybe it’s an ink stain on your shirt. Maybe it’s the sound of a popping balloon.  Of a million popping balloons at once.

 

II.

Right away Brett did all the things you have to do but never think about doing but are nevertheless necessary and, after all, are all that’s left to be done. Not for the preservation of life, but for the preservation of the life of a newly minted memory. He smelled her towel, smelled her clothes, went back and smelled them all over again. Went through the medicine cabinet and threw away her nail polish, Paxil, deodorant. Uncapped that and smelled it too, several huge Secret lung-fulls which sent him back to July when it was ninety-five and they’d rambled downtown with the tourists. They made faces at each other in the Bean, jumped in the fountain, got kicked out of Dunkin’ Donuts.

“You two leave now. You’re too wet. You’re too wet.”

“Not till tonight,” she said, pointing to Brett, “When he gets his hands on me.”

 

III.

Comin’ Up Blues

Stopped by the graveyard to see her tombstone.
Ain’t no footsteps in the dew this morning.
Fell on my knees, hollered, “Come back to me please,
Ain’t I lowdown and lonesome?”
Ain’t no footsteps in the dew this morning.

Blues, blues, blues. Them baby done gone blues. Blues, blues, blues. My baby done gone, my baby done gone, my baby done gone away forever.

Slept in the graveyard all night by her side.
Ain’t no moon out tonight.
Wept and moaned, screamed, “How do I make it alone,
When all I can do is cry?”
Ain’t no moon out tonight.

Blues, blues, blues. Them baby done gone blues. Blues, blues, blues. My baby done gone, my baby done gone, my baby done gone away forever.

Went to the pawnshop to buy a gun.
Ain’t no dust on the knives or the pistols.
Asked, “How much?” “A buck and
A free bullet too, son.”
Ain’t no dust on the knives or the pistols.

Gone away, gone away, gone away forever. Gone away, gone away, gone away forever. I’m coming, baby, I’m coming. I’m coming up. I’m coming up soon.

“Comin’ Up Blues,” written by William“Killer Will”Brown, copyright © Blue Streak Music

 

IV.

Maybe grief is being caught in an empty field when a huge summer squall pops up. With lightning strikes that make the ground explode and oblong chunks of hail that leave purplish welts on your back and arms.

Maybe grief is a kind of castration by a butcher with a bloody apron, a wet stump of a cigar in his lips. There’s a sharpening stone, a cleaver, a length of rope on the counter.

Maybe grief is an endless sunny song sung by a choir of demons. A massing of the shrillest voices in hell ripping through ‘Jesus Loves Me’ over and over and over again.

But maybe grief is a doorway. Wisdom has a home on the other side. Beauty is his neighbor. Peace and Freedom live there too. As do Blessing, Serenity, A New Normal. Walk through, walk through, walk through.

Maybe grief is inconceivable violence.

 

V.

The first month and most of the second Brett didn’t go into their bedroom. When he took off his clothes at night, he threw them on the living room floor, then picked them up and put them back on in the morning. Every night, sometime around Seth Myers’ show, a black sleep would leach from the couch and fill him.

At the end of the second month he finally went in. The air was thick. He yanked the cords of the blinds and yellow daylight spilled in. Sparkling dust motes, billions of them, swirled through the air. Dust, he’d heard, consisted mostly of sloughed-off skin. How much dust from their room would he have to collect before he had her back?

Her pillow still bore the small, circular indentation of her head. He put two fingers in the middle of the dent, then ran them over the rounded rim of fabric—here is where her ear would have been, this is the top of her head. It’s a fabric fossil, he thought, she’s the same as a mastodon footprint. This pillow ought to be in a museum. I’ll donate it to the Museum of Heartache.

 

VI.

Train Blues

Found me a job with the railroad
Pounding steel on broken tracks.
I swing my hammer all day long in the hot sun,
till I can’t straighten out my back.

All that smoke and noise gonna make me forget my tears. The trains rumble off down the tracks. Wished to God I was on one. Someday I’ll be on one. I might ride around for years.

I’d work all day and all night if I could
Dodging hoppers and boxcars
Gonna save my money, all my money,
To get far from here, oh so far

All that smoke and noise gonna make me forget my tears. The trains rumble off down the tracks. Wished to God I was on one. Someday I’ll be on one. I might ride around for years.

I know what’s over the hill,
Where all the trains are bound.
Chugging away, chugging away, chugging away
Off to Beulah land.

“Train Blues,” written by Blue Avery Hampton, copyright © Blue Tailed Hawk Music Group.

 

VII.

Maybe grief is a thing you thought you heard or saw, a quiet but clear, singularly plucked guitar string in a morass of noise. Or a spurt of color as when the party girls step off the el at Belmont.

Maybe grief is a mouse hole. Could it be a mouse hole? A refuge, in other words, a place you run when you’re being chased by the proverbial cat? So what’s the cat? Wasn’t grief the cat?

Maybe it’s a cigarette in the rain. One of those long slow soakers that last all day. A walk in the rain down an empty country road. Eight-foot corn stalks marching in straight lines over the gentle contours of the land all the way to the horizon. In the coming months, combines will rumble through and strip the fields but in the spring, they’ll turn green again.

 

VIII.

He finally went back to work. The tide of people getting off the el swept Brett along toward the steps that led above ground. He nipped at the heels of a kid in a Pokemon backpack and behind him a woman sighed into her phone. She pushed out half sentences laced with exasperation. “Andrew. Andrew, you’re not listening to me. I said—” Interrupted. Cut off.

Andrew, Brett imagined, had said, “Don’t leave me. Why are you leaving me? I’ve always loved you.” He felt his chest fill up with the desire to grab the woman’s phone and scream at Andrew, “She’s done with you, you twerpy bitch. Now leave her the fuck alone.” Then he’d hand the phone back and drink down the radiant gratitude in her eyes.

 

IX.

Begin to Begin to Begin

Girl, it’s true that you broke me in two. It’s true that you shook me all the way down,
Down to my shoes. But girl, I’m a man and I’ll do all that a man can to get over you.

I don’t know how, I don’t know when,
But I’ll begin to begin to begin.

Sweet Thing, I know when I go on, it’s going to be slow. I know an old snail moves faster,
Faster than I go. But Sweet Thing, I’ll survive. Somehow I’ll stay alive, and get over you.

I don’t know how, I don’t know when
But I’ll begin to begin to begin.

Darlin’, I was mad that you’d gone and sad that we’re over. Now I’m glad to be free, free to be glad. So darlin’ goodbye, I’ve quit all my crying

I figured out how and the when is right now
As I begin to begin to begin.

“Begin to Begin to Begin,” written by Percy McWright, copyright © Blueboy Music.

 

X.

At one year, Brett saw the dust on the picture frame. Even the dust caked on the glass. A selfie at Sleeping Bear Dunes their first summer together. The sun had just started to go down and the clouds were catching fire. Lake Michigan, glazed with a sheen of the sky, reached back through the horizon, all the way back to Chicago. At a year and a half, he put the picture in his top dresser drawer with all the other things he’d saved in his life that meant something. Birthday cards, diplomas, his Eagle Scout medal, a medicine bottle full of shark’s teeth.

On the first day of February he drove to Wilson Beach because he wanted to walk in the snow. He parked by the skate park and imagined the way it would look in a few months, filled with bruised, bloody kids, immune to their own pain, rumbling, flying, wiping-out.

Except for his Accord, the huge parking lot was empty of cars but in the middle of the lot was a mountain of blue and white road salt that looked like an iceberg. He trudged past it, through the snow toward the hills in the park and, beyond, the water. The wind off the lake bit into his cheeks. He followed the tracks of a cross country skier who’d made deep, parallel lines when the snow was fresh powder. Now the lines were low ridges of ice, like tiny train tracks winding away.

He scrambled down the terrace of limestone blocks that protected the beach. The snow-covered sand and then the lake, gray and white, stretched before him. He jumped into a drift and sank to his hips and after he’d struggled free, he saw that the snow clung to his pea coat up to his armpits. He waded through the snow to the breakwater that jutted into the lake.

When the thump of his heartbeat in his ears quieted, when the labored in-and-out of his breathing calmed, he heard something else. He walked out on the breakwater and the sound grew louder. A layered clicking, a scrabbling of thousands of crab claws, an avalanche of fish bones.

Fifty or sixty yards out beyond the point where the water was frozen solid, he could see a much thinner layer of ice undulating as the lake beneath it rippled with the wind. This ice was driven slowly toward the breakwater and when he looked over the side, the ice was piled nearly to the top of the breakwater in great chunks and shards. Some of the pieces, he guessed, were six or seven inches thick. The ice on the lake colliding with the breakwater was a kind of slow motion Armageddon. It hissed and crackled and crunched and hissed and crackled and crunched.

Brett let his breath out in a long cloud that whirled away. He sat down, dangling his legs over the edge so the soles of his boots brushed the peaks of the tallest triangles of ice. Still it came on, toward him, a never-ending creep of ice, bowing at his feet, breaking itself in front of him. He wondered when the lake had started its freeze and how long it had taken to become so thick. It felt like he was convening the ice, drawing it from all the beaches on the entire lake, from Green Bay, from the Straits of Mackinac, from Ludington, from the Indiana Dunes. He summoned it with a new vastness inside. He imagined the ice as an audience. Its great sound an applause. Thank you, he thought, there are so many of you. I’m tremendously grateful. Thank you very much.

 

© Paul Luikart
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer. Read Paul’s interview]