The Ceiling by Merrie Greenfield

The Ceiling

The Ceiling


Merrie Greenfield

The CeilingSometimes he’d purposely forget it was a lie. It was easier to face Helen if he believed it, if he expected to arrive at American Photograph to perform his accounting duties. Even though one of her eyes was now blind, she looked at John through a NASA-grade microscope, questioning. Her syphilis inspired paranoia. Determined not to take her illness out on their kids, John was the logical target. She was constantly requiring him to account for things. Ha ha. Accounting. His entire life was accounting, in the office, at home. (Before he was fired, that is.) And he let this joke rest in the front part of his consciousness as Helen half-heartedly wished him a good day at work. He could feel the quip there before it fell away letter by letter, like leaves.

A long day ahead, sitting at the train station, again. Maybe he would sleep today. Maybe just a bit to make up for the overnight hours he’d spent poring over their finances. He was in a suit. He could sit on the bench for eight hours if he was in a suit, especially with a briefcase. The station workers wouldn’t want to know his sad story. As usual, John didn’t speak to anyone else.
It would be payday soon. Well, “payday.” Two weeks since he started pretending he was still employed. He could try to hide the bank account from her, or blame a payroll mistake. But Helen was irrational lately. She might call the office herself. And then she would know. Everyone would know.

He could hear his dead father’s voice, dripping with disdain for the type he was becoming. Lazy failure on the dole. John wasn’t a man. He’d soon be unable to feed his ailing wife, his elderly mother (not quite healthy herself), the 13-year-old, the 15-year-old they’d named “John.” Patty had college in two years and wanted to be an actress. An ACTRESS, for goodness’ sake. No independent child there. The church would expel them. The beloved house would be lost, the bank owning their beautiful Tiffany-style glass ballroom ceiling. The family would split up.

In a way, the hopelessness of it made the decision easier. The columns didn’t zero out for any option except one. He’d contemplated the formulas, the plans. Once he decided, his shoulders untensed. His stomach muscles relaxed.

He began plans on the 14th of October. The obstacle was Halloween. All that unwanted attention, the pesky neighborhood kids who didn’t know (or didn’t care) John’s family didn’t socialize. Knocking on their door, begging. Disgusting. A festival for Satan with a beggar’s entitlement. John’s plan only worked if no one paid close attention. He cringed at the thought of becoming a prop for that holiday, almost as if he’d planned it. No. He wouldn’t dare give that evil holiday an endorsement, even obliquely. He’d wait out October.

He’d barely gotten through it when it was time.

He expected to feel differently. He kept resolutely thinking of what awaited his family. He thought of their troubles by Christmas (Christmas!), as opposed to his alternative.

John stared at the flower pattern on Helen’s robe, the way it blossomed with her breathing. The sound of the newspaper. Her coffee’s perfume. She couldn’t savor these things, so he would do it for her. He couldn’t remember the last thing he’d said to her. He thought that a shame, considered adding something nice to replace whatever mundane sentence she’d last heard. But then she’d turn around. Then preparing everything out in the car would be moot. He unburdened her from her pain, mentally checking off his assignment’s first line item. He knew it was right, to send Helen to Heaven. His heart didn’t. It was rabbit-foot, break-neck thumping, the speedy rap of impatient, costumed kids on a door John never opened for them.

Immediately he understood the clichéd amazement over a body’s volume of blood. He knew the back of her head would disappear in a wide swath against the wall, but the blood flow! It was impossible, as if being vacuumed out. It rushed down the table legs, hurrying to escape, spreading across the floor towards his feet. It smothered the robe’s flowers until they disappeared altogether in reddish black. If he’d doubted the assignment before, it no longer mattered. It was set in motion. He’d complete it. No choice.

Line item two: upstairs. He hated that the gunshot startled Mother. The minute he barged into her room, she requested he account for the noise. “That’s why I’m here, I want to look out the back window to see,” he said. He saw her concern and decided to balance it with reassurance. There should be no fear on their way to salvation. He kissed her, thinking, “Like Judas.” He brought the gun up surreptitiously. Instantly he’d sent her to meet her beloved savior. John said a prayer over her, but never cried. The only thing he felt was an overabundance of adrenaline. And that was just biology. Proof his plan was just.

No time. Work.

He imagined how much blood Helen had spilled by then in the kitchen. He gave up on lifting Mother’s corpse and descended the staircase.

Before long, the blood was cleaned. He placed Helen in the ballroom. He resented her body, the way it fought her. She might be watching, so he treated her former vessel with an undeserved respect, placed it on a sleeping bag. A towel was draped across the meat once forming her face. He thought Jesus would approve. He hoped she regretted her difficult behavior, watching his gentleness with her, regretted overlooking Christ’s love. Things were balancing now. Equations began adding up.

He stopped the mail. Newspaper, too. Calling people wasn’t his favorite line item, but everyone accepted his story they were all leaving to visit Helen’s sick mother in North Carolina for some time.

The bank clerk gave John a pinched look as he pulled out his calculator, checking if she’d paid him the correct interest when cashing out Mother’s savings bonds. (She had, to the penny.) He sensed her subtle gloat. John didn’t care. He’d ended two people’s pain that day, single-handedly. Was SHE ever that kind?

Meal. A famous, fluffy, beauty queen “reporter” later asked him, “You ate LUNCH…in the kitchen where you’d just shot your wife?” (No objectivity, only shame…unlike the producer who’d convinced John to talk.) But I’d cleaned the kitchen, John thought. We’re probably sitting right over a spot where Natives died, yet we don’t stop this interview out of respect, he nearly said. But he played contrite, acknowledging his mistakes.

Then she asked, “How could you?” Lazy. (How can YOU, Lady?) John immediately answered at her perfect, overly-made-up face, “I was hungry.” His timing was perfect and he chuckled – the only one present to do so. Another bit of humor wasted.

Patty graciously went just as quickly as her mother. She might have swayed him. Maybe.

John mopped up the reddish-black from Patty and rested her in the ballroom near Helen. He was ready to receive and deliver his 13-year-old baby Frederick, about to show up soon, alone. He had no time to ring Patty out of the mop so he shoved it into a bathtub.
Frederick was obedient. Same thing. Head shot, lots of blood, but no screaming, no turning, no begging, no awareness. Good boy.

John Junior, though. His namesake. His favorite. After John Junior, the majority of his assignment and its most challenging formulas would be resolved.

Yet the boy wouldn’t die.

He gave his father a Judas kiss of his own – throwing the horror of death back at him.
He was just as clueless as the others had been, for a good 5 seconds, maybe? Perhaps 10? The noise was confusing – he looked around for firecrackers.

But the warmth was even stranger. John Junior wondered why his sweat was thick and gushing from the back of his skull.
The 15-year-old used all his strength to face his dad. “Why isn’t he helping me?” Junior saw the barrel creating those blinding, hot stabs. He finally saw his father, emptying the 9 millimeter into his awkward frame, then the .22. The smell was metallic and he understood. “This is why I can’t get up.”

Junior was forming the words “Dad” and “stop” and “why” (the last one with the most urgency and the most often) but only his lips obeyed. The heat edged into a white freeze, his vision clouded as he forced his lungs to support the words. Dad. Stop. Why. He never got them out, only a horrid, animal sound, something guttural and desperate. It frightened John Junior. He was determined not to stop it.

But he did. His frame jerked as John Senior kept shooting. He hallucinated Junior still made the tortured sound, so he kept firing, angrily. Eventually nothing moved except an off-black river from ten fresh gaps. Years later, John would say he only wanted to put his son out of his misery. It was easier to forget if that was true.

John figured suicide spelled Hell. He’d killed them to meet them again someday in Heaven. No bullet for himself.

In the ballroom, he adjusted their figures with an accountant’s precision, straightened them into tidy columns. The sun pierced the Tiffany-style glass ceiling, illuminating dust. He’d escaped pity from other congregants. No snide remarks or looks. He slept there that night, above the kids and Helen, a few doors down from Mother. The next morning he left, and ran for 18 years.

In his 80s, after consistent prayer, aped remorse, confession to and forgiveness from a priest, John Senior died of pneumonia in prison.

By then John knew his title: “bogeyman.” The public didn’t consider him ill, nor merciful, just a demon. His image was, indeed, trotted out gleefully around that blasphemous holiday.

By then he knew his beloved house had burned down (unknown vandals). By then he’d heard jokes of his stupidity at not realizing his Tiffany-style ballroom ceiling WASN’T “Tiffany-style.” He’d owned a signed Louis Comfort Tiffany original, worth about one-hundred-thousand 1971 dollars. Enough to solve his crisis, prevent the murders. He’d chosen wrong. The glass ceiling? Lost in the fire.

No matter. John’s eyes closed the last time, awaiting familiar, peaceful faces.
His longed-for family reunion never materialized.

Instead, he was sent back to Westfield, to a frightful version of his old house. He is forced to reside uncomfortably, right next to L.C. Tiffany’s signature, each movement triggering the sensation of close-range gunshots. Some days he gets to stare at the bodies of his beloved as they rot a month until their discovery. Some days he’s in the new house built on that site. Watching the new family’s happiness in that space – HIS space – is torture. “They’re naive,” he thinks. “They couldn’t handle my burdens. It’s so easy for everyone else to judge. But they just don’t know, goddammit.” His father punishes him constantly. The remorse so alien to him on earth, John feels exponentially in death.
His faith vanished. He figures God has forsaken him, if He ever existed. Or maybe his family is just elsewhere, hogging Him.

He’s a prisoner again, only this time, he’s unable to pray.
Junior’s inhuman howl lasts months.
John Senior desperately wants sleep.

Each evening, the trick-or-treaters keep him awake.


Merrie Greenfield

Merrie Greenfield is a Portuguese writer-performer from NY, normally based in Chicago but temporarily braving the Southern American West. She’s written for Otium Magazine, 2nd Story, the Neo-Futurists, Mortified, Stories At The Store, Ray’s Tap Reading Series & others. Merrie won 2010 and 2011′s timed improvisational storytelling competitions for WNEP at Michigan’s Acorn Theater. One victory was during a tornado, which should probably count extra.