My short story “The Shadow of the Family,” a fantasy on a family holiday gathering is published in the current issue of the online magazine “New Reader Magazine.” It’s a lovely, well-illustrated online publication, but It takes a couple of steps to read the story on the journal.
You have to download issue No. 4 from the magazine’s website (here’s the link)
then tab down to page 91 to find my story.
To make things easier, I’m posting the whole story below, just as it appears in the magazine. Please take a look.
The Shadow of the Family
Thomas wakes from what he assumes is a dream, unless he is dreaming now and what his mind was experiencing while his body apparently slept, a blur of faces, a desperate need to keep up with a gavotte of disjointed activities, is actually his real life. He discovers two frost-grizzled guests materializing at the front door, the emotional price of negotiating the ice-slicked front walk and super-slick porch surface (one of his father’s old do-it-yourself projects beginning to decay) writ large in the frosty discomfort of their slowly thawing features. But who are they? Thomas has planted these people in his mind’s back garden years ago; now they pop up like some conspiracy of the undead. But if the stooped, graying figure wrapped around himself like a mummified artichoke is indeed Danny Keller, as Thomas’s sleep-furred memory begins to suggest, it follows that the woman arriving with him is—and can only be—his wife, Thomas’s own first cousin Ronnie. Dressed up as her mother.
Guys? You in there? What the hell happened?
Thomas feels his consciousness resetting to the time, decades ago, when the now disturbingly aging Danny Keller caused a brief sensation when he left his loosely strung first wife to marry then-young Ronnie, who had stitched him up in the ER the night the wife went after him with a steak knife. Aside from the fallout from his explosively failed marriage, the securely employed Keller was as safe and unobjectionable a life partner as could be imagined… Except for the annoying detail that, as Thomas’s execrable, now deceased step-grandmother insisted on putting it, “He’s black.” Thomas thought the old lady needed her eyesight examined. Keller was, at most, a lightly tinted dusty hue, as if his flesh had been coated by fireplace ash freed to blow around the room when someone left the cottage door open. Step-Grandma had no cause to be alarmed over the future of the Fremont gene pool since Ronnie and the slightly off-white Keller had taken
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a vow of childlessness. The years passed and nothing (to his knowledge) ever wombed inside his cousin, who seemed happy with her lot while occasionally loosing a streak of disappointed judgments on the quality of the human material given to her to return to health in her capacity as emergency nurse. That such commentaries appeared to be typical of the females of Dad’s family, Thomas reflected, might explain why the men of the family hid their thoughts like prisoners of war.
In such company, Danny Keller fills a room more sociably than most. He joshes with Ronnie’s brother, the Peter Pan-ish Nicholas (called “Nickels”) Fremont, about keeping late hours in the local taverno and leading others astray. He joshes with his wife’s septuagenarian mother (Thomas’s “Aunt Fanny”) about her golf game, but keeps a slightly warier eye out for his wife’s sister Gal, the family evangelist, who has discovered religion after achieving prosperity through an early match with husband Nelson, a generally quiet industrialist with a sideline as a practical joker.
So many old, roughly familiar faces in the house give Thomas a warm, rootsy, slightly curdled feeling. He wonders if the presence of his late brothers’ descendants causes his father simple pleasure, or pleasure mixed with regret, and wanders off in pursuit of the old man to get a reading on his mood. He finds him hiding out in the chilly back porch (sun room in summer, chill room in December) where he has set up his bar. Barkeeping is a kind of homing instinct for Harry, Thomas realizes, some piece of cherished tribal knowledge doomed to go no further where Thomas himself is concerned. Put Dad anywhere—out back for a barbecue, a motel room in Atlantic City, or a bus tour of the Great Southwest—and he erects a “set-up,” though his own needs never exceed anything more complicated than a can of beer. He must have imbibed this instinct with his mother’s milk (a drink, Thomas reminds himself, poor motherless Dad never actually got to taste), this innate rapport with the ice bucket, clear glasses, and colored liquids that bespoke hospitality to him. The older we get, suddenly middle-aged Thomas reflects, the more we slough off the incidentals and return to the first truths of our nature: Here is the essential Harry Fremont. All we ever learn we encounter in diapers. Over time the primal imprint works its way to the surface, like a worm through an apple; or some time-lapse photo revealing its subject after decades. A lifespan later we stare at the picture, confounded, and exclaim, ‘My god! What’s Dad’s face doing in the mirror?’ The old Adam spreads like a disease, pushing everything self-made out of the picture.
Discovering his father duplicating his father before a row of bottles like a priest at his altar leads Thomas to reflect on the enduring mystery of the old man’s ancestry. Who was the Fremont tribe’s founding father? The patriarch whose psychic elimination begets the tribe? The missing man?
Yet if he really yearns for a picture of the Grandpa Thomas G. Fremont nobody mentions, maybe all he needs to do is spend some time in the chilly sun room and watch his father set up the bar.
“What can I get you?” Harry asks as his guests arrive and allow their coats to be taken and piled decorously in the master bedroom.
He collects orders, mildly insistent, courts rejection by recalling some previous favorite drink now lost to age and moderation, then disappears.
A few minutes later he makes a second sortie.
“Fix you something, Fanny? You all set, Nickels? Danny? Thomas, you can help yourself.”
Duty done, he ambles back to his cold-porch retreat to leave the getting-on to others.
Where Thomas now discovers him.
“Can I do anything, Dad?”
“Oh, I think I’ve got it under control.”
Thomas watches his Dad fill a glass with scotch and soda, then stir a little. ‘Am I right?’ he wants to ask. ‘Is this what your Dad used to do?’ But he has no experience in putting questions to his father and can’t manage to change the rules so late in the game.
“You don’t have to wait for me, Tom,” Harry says, without lifting his eyes.
Dismissed with his scotch, Thomas retreats to pursue some other line of research in his quest for ancestral knowledge.
The living room has filled up. His brother’s young family having arrived from ‘out East,’ the children plant their toys in the house’s pedestrian lanes until somebody with the clout of age expels them to the basement. Maybe they’ll find some magic down there amid the shelves of ancient toys, playthings of the Fremont boys who grew up in this house.
Cousin Kit, up for a visit to his New York relatives from one of those Naval spawning bases in Delmarva, hunkers down in his safe berth at one end of the couch. Thomas wedges himself in beside him, the room’s mutter of mingled conversations creating an umbrella of welcome privacy. Thomas and Kit, two first sons of their generation, the latter fatherless for twenty years, pick up an old conversation about Kit’s father’s last trip to Long Island to say goodbye to the places of his childhood.
“He knew he was going to die,” Kit recalls.
Guilty in his cousin’s presence of having for a father the lone surviving Fremont brother, Thomas is tempted to observe he’s not sure how much difference it’s made: twenty years of not talking about anything that, ultimately, matters.
When cousin Gal, the vivacious (if at times intrusive) soul of Thomas’s generation of Fremonts, turns her enthusiasm on Kit with a request for updates on his brothers, Thomas closes his eyes for the thought experiment of reconstructing a world of sporadic cousinly connections. Behind nearly shuttered eyelids he floats through the house, hovering over
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conversational groupings, delving through the year’s accretions for the whatness of kinship while he still possesses faculties to understand it, maybe even appreciate it. He listens as cousin Nickels, shirt open over a mostly flat stomach, a nest of subtle vipers tracing faint paths in his fair features, explains to all who care to listen that his teenaged son’s life revolves around basketball. Nickels’ son, called Tommy (in homage to the mysterious Thomas G. Fremont, Sr.), is a shy splinter of a lad who lives under the protection of a baseball cap and wants nothing to do with the day’s holiday gathering but to survive it without causing or enduring some horrible embarrassment. His dark-haired older sister Lucy, on the other hand, exhibits a maturity and social poise beyond her years: how like a girl. Lucy (for Lucia) is mini-Mom. She takes after her Mediterranean earth-mother Donna, an archetypal made-in-millennia match for boy-god Nickels, who will always treat her husband as a peer of her son. Donna, Thomas reflect, incarnates the eternal feminine recurrence in lipstick and heels: blooms, breeds, fights for her young. Barely out of junior high, daughter Lucy is already capable of running a household or a modest retail outlet.
Thomas’s thought-experiment monitors the talk, but when the conversations veer toward money and other mid-life stuff, as they always seem to do, he grows bored. O, where are those youthful follies of yesteryear? Gal and husband-to-be Nelson stealing a march on adulthood (he remembers hearing his father’s eyebrows rise as he reports news of this unseasonable haste): pregnancy and marriage before high school graduation. Sister Ronnie flouting the interracial marriage taboo. Intermittent sister-on-sister feuds. Domestic unrest. Not to mention Thomas’s own few peccadilloes (the worst of these forever classified).
The whispered scandals of yesteryear shine in their faded glamour compared to the tired respectability that wafts like the odors from the steam table, now that the catered spread has arrived. Limping from his sun-room retreat Harry generously tips the two lads from the deli, joshing with them in a creaky, but touchingly effective gesture of class solidarity. Where are the family memories, pleasurable, scandalous or otherwise, that will flicker in the gaslight of time for Thomas’s children when the youthful sinners and adulterers of his generation are geriatric? Where are the crepuscular encounters with sentimental, colorful, and annoying elder relatives? These days, instead of the traditional All-Uncles penny-ante poker games of Thomas’s youth, the backroom is the scene of the constant kiddie-videos film festival.
Tradition going all to hell, Thomas thinks. What will future generations have to remember us by?
At that moment, happily—in the grip perhaps of her own restless urge-to-enlivening—Cousin Gal gets to her feet and begins agitating her Aunt Ginny to sit down at the piano and perform the family’s last party trick. Thomas’s mother, cocooned in her advancing deafness, demurs as party manners require; then with a nervous laugh and a little wiggle for old time’s sake allows herself to be persuaded over to the piano bench. She must want to play, Thomas thinks, if she’s this easily aroused. Then come the preparatory rituals. He watches with a mixture of impatience and affection Ginny’s fussing over the right glasses for reading music, the prolonged searching for the right sheet music (abandoned ultimately in the face of the general clamor for any music), and finally the first few, startlingly proficient runs up and down the ivories proclaiming beyond a doubt the reanimation of the old magic that holds everyone in the room in its sway.
Still got it. Still there.
Everyone is a little stunned, even Thomas. The only activity requiring disciplined effort applied to natural inclination anybody in this gene pool ever managed. At the sound of these opening incantations, acting on his brain like keening rents in the space-time continuum, it all comes back to him. Everything that ever was: the inarticulate childhood gifted, and endured, within these then-considerably-younger walls; his skinny inarticulate run-around-and-hide boyhood; the falsely ennobling torments of his teens. Then, waking still older ghosts, the vibrations emitted by all those nearly forgotten great-uncles and their unknown wives, their meteoric careers, sad declines and unspeakable failures, bruited about in snatches of stories by older relations too deaf or cantankerous to be closely questioned: the tragedies (real or imagined) of the grandfathers he never knew. Gabriel Gravecart’s sudden death (piano-playing daughter Ginny a mere lass of five) by ruptured social conscience with the name of the working class hero he had betrayed on his lips. Pop Crafty’s Roaring Twenties engineering journeys to distant lands to record the old magic of the human voice for the new magic of the mass market phonograph; then everything, all the evanescent wealth of self-inflation, lost to ‘the crash.’ Model T Fords and ocean cruises while the good times lasted; those high times washed away in an instant, as if by a rogue wave in the sea of time. The mysterious bizness of Thomas’s namesake, his father’s father, whom he conjures to his own incommunicable satisfaction by observing Harry’s bar-keeping flourishes. All those other branching antecedents who walked on two legs at noon, yet disappeared when darkness flooded the land.
Now the cousins and their tag-along spouses (known collectively as “the outlaws”) call for the familiar tunes, the Christmas carols everybody knows. Mom, however, fiddles and diddles through her music book’s complicated “Introduction” to the piece that’s caught her fancy, announcing to the increasingly peopled room, most standing, craning their necks toward the score they’re unable to read, “This is the ‘Introduction.’” Thanks, Mom. And only then strikes a familiar phrase and gives the experienced accompanist’s lift
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of the chin—ready, everybody?—before launching into a lately popular tune too new for the old days, yet somehow evocative of the spirit of a place and time capable of stretching in all directions. Like playdough.
“I always knew! You were the one!”
Ah. Thomas, impressed, thinks here’s a score well suited to his Cousin Ethan, who likes to show off his soaring tenor. Funny thing, though, he hasn’t previously noticed Cousin Ethan among the evening’s company. Ginny launches into some spooky solo business, bone rattling riffs up and down the scales. Then segues—flexing those finger muscles—into a showy rhumbo-classical crescendo, a touch of Rockin’ifyou’remanenuff, followed by some Bumpin’ Beethumpin’, plus a dash of Paderbrewski (whom Uncle Felix always called “Paddy the Rooski”), before modulating into an improvisation on the theme of the Moonshine So-Nada (“so nada new with me neither”), finished off with a theatrical swerve back into the ghoulish melody from “The Shadow of the Soap-Opry”—that paean to the melodramatic flesh-eater of time and grave robber of spirit.
Strong-voiced Ethan (probably just slipped in when Thomas wasn’t looking, in time for the musical interlude) lowers profoundly over the keyboard. Pushing sixty, he doesn’t have his glasses, can’t make out all the lyrics, and nobody else can peer around his substantial form. But he can sing. Thomas can’t find his place in the sheet music and sings the wrong words repeatedly. Cousin Kit’s contra-tenor buzzes in and out on favorite lines, while various female voices thin out in the upper registers where Ginny ambitiously tries to take them… Yet the Incompetent Chorale snaps into a surprising harmony when “The Shadow”—da-dum! da-dum! da-dum-dum-dum!—rumbles back around in the left-hand, like the horror movie villain popping up in his party masque-of-the-red-death. The extended family song-gang bravely singing out, crooning, soaring, bellowing, proclaiming, celebrating and intoning as e-pluribus-oneness, joined now by the distantly ghoulish voices of the departed (who, apparently, only Thomas can hear, since no one else looks about in astonishment):
“There is a home for us!/ It’s down be-low!”
Spirits in the rafters. Phantom faces at the window. Presences unglimpsed in an ice age booming in on cue.
“I always knew! You were the one—”
“There was a time we lived”—Ethan’s heroic tenor roaring now, time-traveling, flying by memory—“T’was long a-go/ The earth closed over us/ How cold be-low!”
“Dark is the endless night/” — Gal and Ginny’s sopranos twining in reply—
“Black is my heart!”
“The Shadow of the fam-uh-lee—”
All the room’s voices joining in now, even old Harry emerges from his backroom bar-room to stare at the rumpus, weak eyes blinking in surprise. Keyboard runs overlap one another. Ginny’s fingers fly like the souls of the possessed. The clash of climbing voices and pounding keys obscure the final lyric.
Voices end as one, as the piano fills. “Da-da-de-da-da-duh! Da-dah-de-dah!”
Uncannily, the theme starts up again, though no one knows who begins it. The voices of the ancients join in, the quick and the dead together reconfiguring to wriggle through the space-time continuum:
“Red flows the sacred heart,” the living exclaim.
“Bled white the wound…”
“You were the final face,” the dead reply.
“Both then and now!
“You had a spinal taste
“It’s good and how!”
“It was a darkened day!” combined voices assert…
The volume shakes the walls, rattling the chandelier; porcelain mugs chatter on the coffee tree in the dining room.
“Sun burned us through!”
The two choruses trade off lines.
“There was a time for us,/You know it’s true!”
“The shadow of the fam-uh-ly—”
And then the quick and the dead combine in one final lyric:
‘You?’ Thomas thinks. Who?
Yikes! Thomas looks about for his son, Stephen. Haven’t seen the boy for some time. Probably down in the basement with his cousins.
The singers take a breather together. Ginny turns the musical break into a romantic old time standard, slow-dance tempo.
“Time for a slow one,” Gal announces.
She pulls her still-after-all-these-years luvin’-husband Nelson out of his chair and they lean together in an affectionate back and forth sway, wordlessly recalling that amazing night in their senior year that brought them together so unconventionally soon. His consummately teasing whisper; her easy, fertile laugh. The half-hearted protests taken (and probably meant) as encouragement.
In the nearly empty “sun porch” where Harry has gone back to minding his bar, Gal’s mother, Aunt Fanny, communes silently with the life partner of her livelier days, the long-departed Herm. God, Herm! Twenty-three years! Has it really been that long? How can anyone live alone so many years?… Glimpsed through the wreaths of their combined cigarette smoke, the folded eyes, high hairline and still glossy (though now well thinned) hair of her brother-in-law Harry transmigrate into the remembered features of his elder brother, her long-gone Herm.
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“Thank goodness the kids were all grown up,” Fanny says. “As much as they ever would be,” she adds, reflectively. Even Nickels turned out all right, despite giving her some rough moments. “I wish you coulda’ seen that, Herm. I wish you coulda seen Nicky get married.” Regret pulls the deep lines of her mouth down farther still: “You never got to see Nicky’s kids. Never knew your other grandchildren… They all turned out so good, Herm.” She starts to cry.
Old Harry holds his puzzled peace inside a turban of smoke, displaying the half-smile of a man who doesn’t hear well but offers a near saintly willingness to endure almost anything for the pleasure of others. Is poor Herm’s widow talking to him? It doesn’t make much sense? Do these wild remarks require a reply? What’s that? Something about Herm? He frowns, unwillingly recalling the night he came back from the hospital and said to his wife, “He doesn’t look that bad.” That same night—poof!—he’s gone!
At least that hospital couldn’t do anything more to him after that. In matters of health Harry always pronounces the glass half full. Not bad; can’t complain. Then offers to top it off for you. Better that than call the doctor.
Noises loom in the basement. He hasn’t checked on them for hours, Thomas thinks guiltily. He hears a wailing chorus, perhaps a kind of singing, but can’t recognize the voices. He’s hearing more voices down there than kids he can account for.
“Stop that!” Gal scolds. Then murmurs a laugh and relaxes into Nelson’s arms.
Nelson whispers something in reply.
“I know,” Gal whispers back. “Just like the old days.”
The hallway door to the basement bursts open, and a flock of skinny-limbed youngsters—features familiar, but names unplaceable—pour out, overrunning the crowded living room, fingering the wrapped company sweets displayed grown-up style in candy dishes on the coffee table, swarming the kitchen, rumbling past Grandpa Harry’s slow gasps of surprise and muffled protest on the porch, and throwing open the back door to the frigid outdoors before the family elders can lift a finger.
For some reason, the air outside now feels fresh and unaccountably spring-like. Dream children, Thomas thinks, the fruit of a path not taken: Aunt Fanny’s spirit grandchildren. The unborn children of her childless second daughter, the daughter of her heart.
The slender-limbed wraiths dive off Harry’s cement satellite deck and land with shrieks of pleasure on the still frozen walks. They slide past Thomas’s iceberg vision as he pursues them through the open back door and espies a country of befuddled boobies and smarmy petrels, awkward auks and uncles, gawking grebes, panicked platoons of imperial penguins, frigid blasts from the frigate-birds. Circling the globe on a great circle migration, the insubstantial brood of unborn Fremonts arrives indoors by way of the front door just in time to separate the amorous collusions of their tenderly paired-up elders, who lean against one another in strange, time-worn middle-aged embraces, a few persistent sing-meisters still softly crooning the past-haunted lyrics of “The Soapbox Shadow.” The family’s tenors swath the room in magnetic bands of ionic sound, Ginny’s slippery soprano slotting through in the quarter-rests like the voice of a faded, but still hopeful angel, singing the anthems of the bright college days that never were…
Too late, Thomas thinks, hearing this. Too late for any of this.
Until, finally, just as the grown-ups come to themselves and begin recovering their realistic attitudes and time-worn shapes, the visionary children slip back through Harry’s bar-room retreat and assume for Aunt Fanny’s inward eye a roster of dappled moon children of mixed streams: her own and Herm’s, plus Danny Keller’s mingled origins.
Changelings spun from some undreamt cookie cutter of Platonic forms. Wild sublunary beings, silver-eyed, checker-cheeked, elfin-haired, slippery-limbed.
None pale and wasted; or dull. No, never that.
“Send me, O send,” Fanny hears, the words of the hymn rolling over the strains of the Episcopalian pipe organ in her memory, “my arrows of delight!”
Released from time-forged manacles, the invisible children play on some imaginary summer day. They are beautiful, eccentric, unwilling to stay still long enough for a count. Children of the uncertainty principle. Their voices sweeten the air. A mixed scent arises in Aunt Fanny’s transfigured senses: sea-salt, Christmas pine, the incense of a childhood church shared with Thomas’s mother, the heavy winter uniforms of the Fremont brothers, home from the war.
“There is a time for us!” mortal voices sing in the other room. “The time has come!/Now plays the orchestra/Hear now the drum!…”
Thomas hears a drum, and follows it through the house to the back room, the napping place, where he finds Stephen thoughtfully massaging the leather skin of a Christmas present.
“Like it?” Thomas asks.
Stephen murmurs a yes. A shy gesture.
Thomas waits; then asks, “Did you hear the singing?”
Stephen nods again. “That song… It’s about…?”
It’s all in the music, Thomas thinks. Everything known (and unknown) in the music.
“Listen, son,” he says, “I’ll tell you the story.”
Boston area author Robert Knox writes fiction, poetry, and journalism. He is the author of Suosso’s Lane, a novel based on the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case, a contributing editor for the poetry journal Verse-Virtual, and a correspondent for the Boston Globe. His stories have been published by Words With Jam, The Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket, and other journals, and he has published two poetry chapbooks. For more, see his website, www.robertcknox.com and blog, prosegarden.blogspot.com.