Into the Void

By Ken Malatesta

“Galveston” is in my head. An odd byproduct of summer, COVID19, my father’s death, and sublimating grief into a series of home improvement projects. I don’t remember what “normal” feels like. I don’t imagine most people do.

Is existing ever normal? Normally, during the first four weeks of summer, I drop my sons off at park district day camp. When I pick them up, and they are sweaty and hungry and happy in the way only a twelve, nine and six-year-old can be happy- freed from strictures of school, their days spent crafting shit from paper plates and playing Gaga, foursquare, football and who knows what- I am somehow exhausted. When camp ends, they are completely in my charge. We fish, swim, wander nature parks for six weeks, and sometimes spend entire days doing nothing. Teaching for the past fifteen years has afforded me this luxury and sometimes exasperation. But there was no camp this summer, and the pools were closed, and summer coalesced into a string of indistinguishable days. So much, so a trip to the orthodontist becomes a welcome novelty.

It is August. School should be starting soon, but there are no longer beginnings or ends. June feels far away. Lingering in Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport feels even further. It took me nearly 3 months to read. The narrator’s consciousness is my own- the ennui, the fear, the exhaustion, the absurdity of raising children and existing in the 21st Century. That the narrator lost both her parents years before the events in the novel and still thinks of them daily is a terrifying comfort. The book anchored me to the time before March 13th, 2020, before COVID 19, before the world seemed to be on fire, and before my father died. I hated to finish it. 

Two months after his death, I can still hear my father’s voice, not merely the undramatic last words he spoke to me, but his voice, sentient and alive and as real, if not more real than when he was alive. Maybe Hamlet wasn’t mad. 

Maybe nothing is real except my father’s voice and Glen Campbell’s singing. 

I still hear your sea winds blowin’; I still see her dark eyes glowin’.

So I lingered in Ellman’s book, ground a patio slab to gravel with a sledgehammer, painted my kitchen cabinets, tore out carpet and installed new floors, fished with my sons. Anything to avoid writing this. Anything to keep my mind from returning to my father’s last days.

I’m not sure what is more incomprehensible, that we live or that we die. Or that we live only to die. 

“Maintaining normalcy, at least at home, seemed possible a few months ago.”

There was never anything normal about my children’s orthodontist’s office being on the ninth floor of a corn cob tower in the saddest mall in America. But it is even stranger during a global pandemic. I am not allowed in the waiting room, so my oldest checks in, and I ride the elevator down to wait and wander with my two younger sons, hoping he won’t need braces we can’t afford. We wear our masks. I’d prefer to sit outside on the benches next to the shuttered grocery store, not because of fear of COVID, but to spare myself and my sons the despair of this place. This forsaken retail dream. Its naked mannequins and five-month-old movie posters, the sun has faded. Coming soon! Coming soon!

Golfmill Mall was like this before COVID-19. Sears was its anchor store, for Christ’s sake. Value City furniture remains. JC Penney. Kohls. There is a Target, partitioned from the rest of the mall. Seeking comfort in a big box store is probably a sign of psychosis. Still, this Target seems to belong to some parallel universe we can never reach. 

Pastimes, a comic and game store is fluorescent-lit and welcoming, but an iron accordion gate and the absence of people instruct us it’s closed. In all our visits here, I have never seen it open. My sons agonize at its Funko Pop window displays. Next door, a troupe of old Korean ladies wearing face shields silently sashay at Activ8 Dance Company. We have seen their act before. A bizarre holiday routine the day after Thanksgiving- sans face shields- a year and a half ago. The memory is quaint, a ridiculous touchstone that my sons and I share with a laugh. The dancers are well-meaning, and we are no talent judges. I attribute their presence to the ambiguity of what is deemed “essential” and appreciate them as the only life in this purgatorial gloom.   

I still hear your sea waves crashing,

This is one of the dozens of daily sojourns we have taken this summer. One of the hundreds of summers’ past. I try to imagine what it would feel like if it were only the Coronavirus and my father were alive, and then try to reimagine my father dead without the Coronavirus, but my brain ambles out of focus. Both hypotheticals seem absurd, but the combination is incomprehensible. A reality that seems to atomize and re-solidify in the vacant storefronts, wandering seniors, and Korean dancers. As if I’ve been disembowelled and projected on the walls. Downtown Skokie, where we live, feels this way too. We have biked there once a week this summer, examining the headstones in the cemeteries en route. My middle son is fascinated by the dates. 1887-1945. 1874-1918. We return again and again to an out of way street that divides two cemeteries- Catholic on one side, Lutheran on the other. We idle near the parkways. 1858- 1924. 1887-1945. 1924-1984. He is transfixed. He asks questions about “Papa.” The heat conjures sudden glimpses of what summer was and could be. My father’s ghost, a global pandemic, and civil unrest cast a beautiful pall.

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“We are open,” says the handmade sign outside Paint and Party. Paint -your- own ceramics. It too is well lit, and a woman stands behind a cash register, but it is empty at noon on a summer Tuesday. Save for the doddering senior citizens wearing masks around their chins, most of this place is empty. “We are open.” It is like peering into America’s soul.  

“Win an iPad” (sic) says the sign taped to the side of an arcade claw game.  

Galveston, oh Galveston. I have never been to Galveston. Barely been to Texas.  I have no connection to this song. I actually never knew the words until this summer.

My father hated country music. The Beach Boys too. I don’t know the origins of my predilection. Something to do with summer and swinging a hammer. I spent eleven years as a concrete labourer before teaching English. 

My sons are equally perplexed, “Why do you like country music, dad?” the middle one asks.

“It grows on you, I guess. And I only like the old stuff, and only in summer.” This seems to confuse him more, but he allows it. Stranger things have happened in the past six months. He sings along and saves his follow-up questions for more poignant moments. At the cemeteries. On our umpteenth visit to the hardware store. 

While I watch the cannons splashing…I clean my gun.

 It is an anti-war song. I hadn’t noticed. 

“Why’s this guy singing about cleaning guns?” My middle son again… 

“You know, I never really heard that line till now,” I say. 

I just liked the melody, but I looked it up, and read that songwriter, Jimmy Webb, denied the anti-war part. He said it was “about a guy who’s caught up in something he doesn’t understand and would rather be somewhere else.” Sounds right.

By August, when we enter the liminal realm of the suburban mall, we all have it memorized. We like the melody. We sing as we wander the orange tiled floor, past a vacated Cinnabon, past the Lotto vending, past the shuttered kiosks and the cellular store. 

We sing songs from Apple and Onion (our latest Cartoon Network favourite) too. Aloud. To ghosts, to the brown brick, to anyone we walk past. “Bottle Catch,” and “We know how to make people happy,” and “What’ll we do today, today?” And “Classic Domino Chain Reversal.” No one recognizes these or notices our bad English accents. I like having our own language full of nonsense songs, and “Galveston,” and movie line banter. In a few years, this will embarrass them. Still, for now, this is what we share beyond me yelling at them, fighting over screen time and bedtime, and the tacit anxiety about the future, and what will we do today? 🎜What’ll we do today, today? What’ll we do today?🎜 

Maintaining normalcy, at least at home, seemed possible a few months ago.

“We persist because we don’t know any better and probably will until we do.”

And is she waiting there for me, on the beach where we used to run

We have been to the beach, but we are pool guys without a pool. So we have fished at least once a week since June. The Skokie Lagoons is our spot, but we’ve fished the Busse Woods, Lake Glenview, and Independence Grove. Always in search of elusive Bass. We have mastered catching Blue Gill and Crappy and SunFish, and I worry the novelty -even catching 15 fish between us some days- will wear thin. But we talk about Bass, how we’ll get ’em next time, different baits, what we don’t know about certain lures, and then we talk about the cartoon character Apple. 

“Why is he your favourite, dad?” they ask.

His fatalism. His absurd enthusiasm. Because he is a peculiarly apt symbol of a summer spent deflecting the reality of a crumbling world. I want to say.

“Because he’s funny,” I say.

 I do realize I am talking about an animated character that is a piece of fruit, but his mantra and perpetual hope that he and Onion be “free from suffering” makes him feel like one of us, and in moments like this- wandering the vestige of the American shopping mall-my sons like to ask “What would Apple do?” Because they know I will comply with an ad-lib imitation of Apple’s staccato deadpan and end with a resounding, “…and we will be free from suffering forever!” And we laugh.

These are the momentary antidotes to the malaise of quarantining, wearing masks, worrying about COVID, and grieving my father. 

I should call my mother. But I am terrified of picturing her in my childhood home, alone in the room where my father died. Instead, I wander malls and do the crossword puzzle and study photographs from the Tribune. Everything looks like someplace else. I take refuge in books, cartoons, an occasional 80’s movie because I can’t bear to be in this moment. I preferred thirty years ago or some foggy vision of thirty years from now. Neither is absolute or clear or true. And I wonder will I wander into religiosity or continue to be subsumed into bland meaninglessness. 

I am so afraid of dying…

Maybe it isn’t just the melody. This place should be filled with angsty teens and Sbarro odour, and t-shirt kiosks, and all the weariness of consumer wants. There is barely a food court. If Cinnabon can’t survive, how can I? And is my father speaking to me through the static of my Sports Sync radio? Someone tells me it’s pennies left in parking lots and window sills. Answers to questions I never asked. What fathers keep from their children. 

I don’t even eat Cinnabon. All that heavy sweetness. 

We persist because we don’t know any better and probably will until we do. And the raw resistance, to death, the immateriality of time, the inescapable and the routine will materialize in these bare brick spaces, the maws of empty mall benches, and assiduous old ladies dancing. 

What would Apple do? Sing, of course, happily into the void. What does anyone do?

Ken Malatesta is a teacher and writer. 0riginally from Chicago, he now lives in Skokie, Illinois.

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