When I signed my first deal to have one of my comedy performances recorded and distributed for sale, I had to fly out of Orlando International to Los Angeles where the recording would be taped. The morning of the flight I was sitting in Orlando traffic, eating a breakfast burrito, thinking can traffic be funny, and trying to not let my mind wander onto heavy thoughts. I added the burrito wrapper to the pile of trash in my front passenger floorboard. The trash was beginning to spill over into the seat.
Every morning going south on I-4 into Orlando, traffic bottlenecks to a crawl in places; in-between trying to work on material, I use my phone to Facebook stalk my kids. What my parents would have given to be able to Facebook stalk when I was growing up. I’m not a cool parent because cool-parent is an oxymoron, but as far as my kids know I’m not the nosey parent either. It’s much easier to check up on kids now—someone in their group is going to post something.
Recording in L.A. and selling a stand-up performance doesn’t make my kids want to be seen with me more. Kids are like your grandmother, no matter what you do you’ll always be Jimmy-Doodle. Only Jimmy-Doodle isn’t a term of endearment this go round. Either way, their social media profiles (my daughter and her friends have been on this weekend-traveling kick and my son with his tech competitions) help me to understand them in this stage where we were all hurting but no one was talking, except their weird father who talks enough for everyone.
On my son’s and daughter’s pages, in their bios, there was a link that lists our family: father, mother, brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Their mother’s name, like the others, was blue and underlined. I had to dodge eye contact with her profile picture. Sometimes I click the link and it takes me to her page. The kids call it a wall. It reminds me of this block wall in my hometown that you are allowed to graffiti. There are murals all over it and the most common tags read: rest in peace. My wife’s wall was the electronic version. Her social media page was overwhelmed with comments from people. For all my avoiding, I’d end up here and read the posts every time I run out of things to do.
I didn’t do enough wrong that I’m sitting here racked with guilt over my wife. I’d just see my wife’s pictures and wish I had said more to her that she’s still fine; made her blush. At forty-two she was stronger than ever (except the months after giving birth, she was on this warrior-woman trip then, and could do anything). But at forty-two my wife was happier than ever; the kids were healthy and getting older; she had time for the gym again; it had been years since she’d carried a child. Even though Deanna looked great when she was with child, she was always worried about how “fat” she’d gotten. She’d lost the water weight and since that made her happy it added to her beauty. My wife had these life experiences, but her eyes could still pop like she was nineteen and it’s the time I’d taken her to see her to see Phantom of the Opera. I’ve seen her appreciate more coming home to find I’ve cleaned the kitchen, than a Le Vian ring.
For more than twenty years, she’d bring home the groceries, and I’d walk out and grab all the bags I could and load them into one hand—she’d get out of the car—there’s a couple more heavy bags left: milk, ice cream, butter, biscuits, potatoes, and cantaloupe—I’d have my arm freed up—she’d still try to carry the bags inside (even when she was pregnant) —she could carry them, Deanna was a strong woman—but that’s not the point—I’d hold my arm out and she’d slip the bags on, my arm would not fall an inch, and she’d run up the steps to get the door. I’d walk into a cool house and she’d say, my big strong man. I could still make her giggle so she’d want to leave the groceries wherever and jump my bones.
I can’t look her in the eyes now because maybe I didn’t have enough of those moments with her, and maybe when she joked back: You’re not as funny as you think, she was right.
One night—it was one of those rare times that I was home and my wife wasn’t—my oldest daughter was watching 12 Angry Men for her high school English class, and me and my son got roped in, we were all sitting around watching the movie and the house phone kept ringing.
“Dad, I’m trying to watch this, answer the phone,” my daughter said.
“I’m watching the movie too. You answer it.”
“It’s for my class!” my daughter shouted.
Not expecting her to have freaked out, I got off the couch and picked up the phone. I had barely answered before my wife’s mother was talking.
“Rocky, are the kids with you?”
“Of course they are,” I said, “We’re watching 12 Angry Men. What’s up?”
“Go to the kitchen,” my wife’s mother said.
“Okay,” I said, but hesitating.
I left my kids watching the movie in the living room and went into the kitchen. When I got in the kitchen my wife’s mother started talking. What was coming out of the phone was so heavy, I left the kitchen and went into the backyard.
“Deanna was killed in a car accident,” her mother said. “I’m sorry, Rocky. You and the kids come over and be with me and pop”
“Should I tell them before?” I said.
“I don’t know, honey.” Deanna’s mother said, and I could hear her muffled crying. “Maybe it’s best we come over there? We can ride to the hospital together.”
“I’ll tell them,” I said.
I got off the phone and thought: my kids are in the living room. My daughter, prom in a few months and school choices; my son, she was our representative at his engineering competitions, she was his tutor; she might have still dressed him; he was only a freshman in high school. When I came back into the kitchen, I thought, “I’m successful enough, I can finally get a woman half my age like Johnny Carson.”
That was our joke. When we were sophomores in college she’d said, “You’ll look good when it matters like Robert Redford. You’ll be older and have money.”
We were so young then. I’d say “Gross.”
“I’m trying to say you’ll be a silver fox,” Deanna said, and I’d said, When I’m successful enough I’ll get a woman half my age too like Johnny Carson… and she’d always laugh. “Uh-huh. I can’t wait to grow old with you.”
“Kill me, if I look like Nicholson when I’m older.”
“Get your young wife to,” she said.
Deanna worked for social services helping kids—she chose to do that work. Something I always had a hard time understanding. Her work surrounded her with survivors; depressing stuff. She worked with the same kids for months, as long as the state allowed. I told her these kids were lucky to have someone like her in their corner. That’s all she wanted was to know that no matter where a kid had been before coming to her when that kid got to her that kid was safer. She’d hold them like a mother, if they needed it, talk to them like a friend. She wanted to be a lifeboat to kids; and knew that if she got to them early enough, she could save them.
We dated for twelve years; I swore if we got serious we’d have less fun. Fun to us was barely affording a nice dress and tux and buying some of the best seats in the opera house; going to the beach and eating lunch on the water, fighting off sea birds with bread we’d kneaded and stacked into cannon balls; watching the trilogy, drinking multiple cups of coffee late at night, and hitting the books for college; tailgating with friends; road tripping from Florida to New Orleans and back; or staying home, just having a good time to Al Wilson and Charles Bradley—Aretha Franklin and Gregory Isaacs. For nearly a decade it was enough.
Eight years into the relationship, when she was pregnant with our daughter, that’s when she wanted to get married. We engaged late in the pregnancy and married four years after our daughter’s birth. It was the party we’d saved for. I never stopped thinking with each step closer to marriage and kids our life would no longer be fun. But I was wrong.
Her passing hadn’t set in, of course, when I was in the kitchen desperate to still be the same not-as-funny-as-I-think-I-am dad and I said that joke about replacing her with a younger woman. It wasn’t my first thought, but it was the loudest thought because I was digging to say something, anything to not faint before I made it to the living room, and I didn’t want to start crying when I got there, in front of my kids. I didn’t think I’d regret not allowing myself to cry. I ended up crying my brains out days later watching Queen of Katwe though. It’s not the same, getting out your feelings second hand.
I used to joke that my wife, when she was my girlfriend in college, liked me too much; for as confident as she was, she could be possessive when someone flirted with me. I used to joke that she was fattening me up, having me grow a beard, anything to put some space between me and other women. “Maybe it’s true,” she said sitting at the kitchen table we’d just set down. I handed her some food-menu brochures. We still had half a moving truck of stuff to bring in the house, our first real place together. She was running hot from the moving and bit the corner of her bottom lip. She studied the menus; we’d just been talking about what if I kept this look, beard and fifteen pounds heavier than when we met. “I will always be able to see you,” she said.
I knew I should have asked her to marry me then, the empty brand new house, smelling like wood, the sliding glass door open, humidity mixing with the cold a/c, a cooler full of drinks, an air mattress all made up in the living in front of the TV, but the last thing I wanted was for the fun to ever stop.
Now, when regrets visit me, they burn in my lungs. If I didn’t have performing, I’d be fighting to breathe. So when I’m driving five miles an hour—for an hour—I’m forced to look at my empty passenger seat. Trash has built upon the floorboards and some on the seat, reminding me that no one sits there. Every time I noticed it made me feel freshman-in-college lonely, how you are messy when no one is around.
At the airport parking, I found a plastic grocery bag in the car, and I put all the trash in it and threw it away. I had this creeping panic in my chest, a hovering uncertainty, and I had to try my best to fill every minute of the day, which required me to pay attention to little things like the trash or I’d get these jolts of nerves and my lungs burn.
Once, I had an attack so bad I was sitting in my room thinking so this is it. This is your body shutting down: a real burning in your lungs, cold skin but sweaty, making yourself breathe with a rhythm because it feels like all your involuntary components have quit working together—you lie down for what you think is the last time you will ever lie down anywhere. And just when you’ve accepted what’s happening, you throw the bed covers off and turn the a/c down because you don’t want the air in the room to be any less cold. You lie down and then throw the covers off again. You can’t sit still. Every time you nod off you jolt back awake. You do this until it’s nearly dawn, and then you finally sleep. You’re surprised to wake up in the morning. But your first thought is you will do whatever it takes to never feel that way again.
Michael Hammerle is pursuing his MFA at Bennington College. He holds a BA in English, cum laude, from the University of Florida. His fiction has been published in The Best Small Fictions 2017 selected by Amy Hempel. His prose has been published in New World Writing, the Steel Toe Review, and the Matador Review. His poetry has appeared in the Sandy River Review, Corvus Review, Eunoia Review, Poetry Quarterly, and elsewhere. Hammerle was named a finalist for the 2016 Hayden’s Ferry Review Flash Fiction Contest and for Press 53’s 2015 Prime Number Magazine Awards. www.mikehammerle.com