Thomm Quackenbush, author

06.10.06 6:34 p.m.

A baby is God's opinion that the world should go on.  

-Carl Sandburg

 



Previously in Xenology: Emily's father died of cancer. Xen applied to programs well beyond his capacity. Becky became pregnant.

The Things They Carried

I have spent much of the day in retrospection, focusing on the people in my past. I remembered a snippet of the dream I was having just before waking, where I was telling a girl that I couldn't be with her because I was going to marry Emily but promised her that not a day would go by that I wouldn't think of her is some small way. She took this very well in the dream, as my devotedly remembering her was better than the kisses we would never have.

She is a real girl, one I met the first time I was a student at Summer Scholars. I had romantic feelings for her then and it briefly seemed that we might date, but we quickly lost touch once our summers began in earnest. There have been many, many days - probably months - where I have not given her single thought and I cannot imagine why my subconscious pulled her up for the dream. But my brain tried to unravel her meaning to me much of the morning without success. I don't mean to be overly Freudian; she doesn't necessarily have to mean anything.

There are only a few people for whom I find myself unconsciously reaching out on occasion and rarely the expected ones. She is one of them, though our interactions were only those of fourteen days. There are many people with whom I spent a significantly greater span of days whom I don't give a solitary thought. I know I have ineffectually typed this girl's name into search engines and social networking sites in hopes of seeing her face - what does it mean that I can easily bring her sixteen year old face to mind, though she is a decade older now? I rarely make that effort and, I think, few make the effort to find me. It takes little effort to find me, yet who has?

Over lunch, trying the search again and answering a letter on a social networking site, I happened upon one of my best friends through much of my schooling. He looks little changed in the one picture I can find, reasonably older. In a chance meeting, his mother gave me his number over a year ago and called him a couple of times, but I only got his answering machine and never an answer. I left my information and that is where it stopped. That is where I let it stop, I suppose. I don't want to force interaction. I want someone to have interest in contacting me in return or there is no point.

I had searched the internet for him before, though never using the diminutive of his name. He was a rarer search; I knew he was around so my searching was less desperate. It was not that he was less important. Even though the hard times in his life, I was his friend for thirteen years.

I think I build people up in my head, taking a few interactions and weaving them together with the thread of imagination until the person is something more and just maybe that our friendship was genuinely meaningful. I find meaning in the smallest interactions, but one can't maintain a three dimensional perspective with only a fistful of pictures and eyes half closed. It is unrealistic at the very least and maybe more common than I care to admit. In a few instances, I finally get in contact with someone for whom I had build a pillar in my mind, only to find them too human. Their negative traits that I have forgotten, or ones I never knew, drip into the conversation and I am a little upset with myself for being enamored of my own projection.

He is different. I knew him, which is to say that the five-to-eighteen year old me knew the five-to-eighteen year old him. He sat at my table in kindergarten and I faintly remember him liking a girl my mother babysat who sat to my left. He was an artist with aspirations of comic design. I don't know if that ever happened. He did not go the road of Dezi, indenturing himself to a college to perfect the craft. He went into construction, if the grapevine is to be believed. He still has long hair - longer than mine now - and I find it reassuring. He at least looks like someone who was my friend. I have enough memories of him that I do not feel my conception of him is flawed.

Bored at work one day and eager to put my new Excel abilities to practice, I made up a spreadsheet of every girl whom I had ever kissed or had a relationship. There were a few exceptions on either end of that spectrum; kissed but not dated, dated but not kissed. It wasn't notches on a bedpost or anything so stupid and male. It was curiosity and a bit of sadness that the cells kept growing horizontal and vertical as my mind plumbed the depths of my past. I won't waste your time or mine replicating it here. It would disappoint some and astonish the rest. I was telling Dan B. about it, telling fond or funny stories of old friends and flings, and he said that I must be very nostalgic. I immediately grew defensive and said I was not, taking this to mean that he was suggesting I was interested in having the serial monogamy of my high school years. My heart was in each attempt, but it wasn't anything I would want to reproduce.

I reconsidered after a moment and said that I missed these people and wondered how they had turned out. A few internet searches later, I found a couple of them and was in contact of a sort. They, sisters, were both now mothers of more than one child, though when I knew them they were little more than children themselves. In turn, I searched for most members of the list and had no success. Some on the list never ceased to be my friends or associates, which makes me happy. What I saw in them must have had validity if we are still talking a decade later.

I tried to add my childhood friend to my friends' list on the social networking site, hoping that this level of interaction would be more acceptable. Maybe he never got my messages, maybe he meant to call. But I know I would be easy to find if he wanted.
Becky and Alyssah  
Proud mother

I am stuck on the good of the citizens of my past, though some of them are just as stuck on the bad in me, throwing away years of friendship because for a moment I showed my age. But who is really better off? I am clinging and open, they are closed but righteous. They can dismiss all thoughts of me with a scoff and an expletive and I, I carry them around in a knapsack, checking them on occasion to see if they are hatched. I get nipped time and again for my efforts, or ignored entirely. I think theirs is the better way. They are not the ones hung up on the events of high school, eight years ago. Even if it is not growth that I want, growth that would make them appreciate that we were once friends, it is growth. They do not leave apartments in their brain vacant for me.

They are not still carrying me.

Serve and Protect

Emily's father funeral was a week ago and things seem fairly normal now. The calls have tapered off, as Emily knew they would. No one is coming over to make us dinner and be sure we are emotionally sound. Life is commencing at record speeds. For some, who I doubt we consider as close as we once did, life did not even pause for a moment to hold us when the pain came.

Things are not yet normal for Emily and me.

"I am having the hardest time writing anything," I confessed to Emily. I wished I could have written this all down immediately so as to not lose a drop of the impact. It seems cruel that a writer's block appears when I have the most to say.

"I think that is good though. It is your sacrifice to my father's memory that you can't write right now. It honors him."

I banged on my spacebar, hoping to trick my fingers into loquacity. "I would rather honor him by writing something amazing in memory of him."

She nodded. "Yeah, that was where my logic fell apart."

Emily has moments of grief, which she symbolizes by stabbing her heart with invisible skewers. We passed a hot sauce display at a street fair and she thought for a moment that one of these would make a good gift for her father, who was always a fan of spicy foods. Then she realized.

She is forever without a father, even if much of what she thought she knew of him was a conjuration. There is no easy way to step back into the daily flow of life, more so because she lost her job in the effort of caring for him in his last days (months). His death irrevocably changed her and it will be a while before she fully synthesized and integrates this new identity.

She has had to clean out his apartment, which seems callous. The job has to be done, the apartment has to be relinquished, but there should be people who do this. But strangers, even family friends, cannot know the depth of meaning to seemingly insignificant objects. Only Emily is in the position of knowing what needs to be protected and saved.

She always is.

SIG

I am facing one of those obnoxious life decisions. If I choose one path, there is no attempting the other.

Choice one is staying at the library. The benefits include a steady paycheck and ample down time for writing. The drawbacks are the fact that I am technically still a temporary worker and, should the man I am replacing come back, I am immediately out of a job with no actual recourse. I asked the director, who said that they were going to decide what to do this month, which will involve posting the job at best. Should anyone with an actual degree in library science apply, there is no chance I will beat them out just because I helped establish what this position actually does. I am not bitter about that, exactly, though I don't feel that this position requires very much in the way of post graduate study.

Choice two is the Summer Institute for the Gifted at Vassar College. Benefits include the fact that I would be working with children from all over the world who are bright enough to deserve entry and whose parents care enough about them to expend more money per three week session than I make in two months. Some of that cash, $775 per class if I am remembering correctly, would go directly into my pockets and I would be teaching three classes per session. This is the sort of activity which I feel looks amazing on resumes, especially given that I am teaching improvisational comedy, fantasy writing, robotics, creative mathematics (I have no idea why they felt I was qualified), and survival skills. Drawbacks include the fact that I only have work for six weeks, after which I am on my own. I can always sub again come fall, which is fairly steady work, even if it entails never knowing where or if I will have a job the next day. So the worst case scenario does not starve me, it simply doesn't seem like progress.

What is galling - and interrupting my belief that I have a choice in this matter - is that my brain is already parceling out three weeks into lesson plans to classes for which I am not wholly qualified. "Sure, I can teach a survival course. Makes perfectly good sense. I'm still alive, after all, clearly I've got my ducks in a row." Some part of me made the choice in an instant and there is no choice but to face up to the dread I feel at leaving a sinecure for harder and more rewarding work. Teaching gifted students at Vassar utterly fulfills my ego gratification; that is the sort of thing I want to shout from mountain tops and drop annoyingly into unrelated conversations. "You say you are a confirmed Libertarian vegan asexual dwarf? That reminds me of this course I taught to gifted students at Vassar College..."

Freaky

"So I hear congratulations are in order," Emily chirped.

"No, not yet," Nikki replied, "we just picked out the ring, Dave hasn't actually given it to me yet. I just visit it on weekends. My mom thinks that is cruel."
Emily and Alyssah  
Proud Auntie M

Dave shrugs, neither knowing nor caring if what Nikki's mom thinks is correct. I do not know his plans for the proposal, but I am confident he will make it worth the wait.

"Emily was keenly aware of where her ring was," I interrupted.

"Yeah, but I didn't look at it. I wanted it to be a surprise."

Dave and Nikki came over to console Emily about her father's death, though I cannot say that the conversation tarried much over the reason for consolation. Mostly, we discussed the raw deal I got in the teaching profession - Nikki knows many people who work for Wappingers schools - and the evening's entertainment, a black and white film from 1932 called Freaks. The charm of the movie, by which I mean the only reason anyone begins to care about it seventy years later, is that the eponymous freaks were genuinely disabled and deformed circus performers, including the Human Caterpillar, and man with no limbs whose only memorable quote is "What can you do with your eyebrows?" The moral was that mean people are the real freaks, though it was somewhat obscured by the circus freak brutally mutilating the villains. The original ending is lost to the ages, though it would have been practically G-rated by today's standards. Instead, modern people would decry that Hollywood employed these people, ignoring the fact that it was a fairly sympathetic and loving portrayal (up to the vengeance based mutilation) that helped these unfortunate people earn a little money and positive attention. I admit that, had they not been genuine circus freaks, there would have been too little plot to justify wasting ninety minutes, particularly since the love triangle featured two dwarves who were siblings in real life.

Contrasted against the fact that their daughter could have ended up in a similar situation, Nikki's parents should be thrilled beyond all reckoning that she found someone as sweet, caring, intelligent, stable, and appropriately limbed as Dave. He can do amazing things with his eyebrows.

Alyssah Julianne [My Surname]

I am now the proud uncle of a little girl named Alyssah. Becky's other two daughters are named Alieyah and Ayannah, so they had to keep the theme of named beginning with A and ending in H. Okay, granted, my niece is currently little more than a doll with tiny fingernails; it will be a while before she gets acclimated enough to the world that she exists as a sentient being. Such is the way of newborns.

I got the message early Friday morning. My mother said it in a very casual way, "I don't know if your father told you, but Becky had her baby last night." I had expected a call as it was happening, though as labor started at 2AM and I didn't fancy hearing my sister-in-law give birth, I am not wholly disappointed that we were not called. Dan apparently sat in the corner of the delivery room, equal parts horrified and awed.
Xen and Alyssah  
Proud Uncle Thomm

When Emily and I arrived at the hospital to visit with Becky and Alyssah, the nurse told us that the doors were locked and would remain so for another half an hour no matter how much I looked like the father. Emily occupied our time by wandering about the gift shop, searching for someone appropriate for a new born.

"Look, they are out of 'Alyssa' license plates," I pointed out.

"Probably because of the family," Emily stated and I hoped she wasn't right. I would have to get "H" stickers to correct them.

Dan waltzed in with an arm full of gifts just as Emily and I were relaxing into month old waiting room magazines and we followed the berth left behind him, knowing no nurse would stop us if we were escorted by the father.

Alyssah is so small to me. I do not have the paternal drive yet, as I see nothing familiar in her face. She could be anyone's baby at this stage. Dan and Becky are, unsurprisingly, not of this opinion. They can trace to whom each of her miniature features is owed. Dan's chin and Becky's ears. Winston Churchill's head.

I was apprehensive holding Alyssah, not sure that I could do it correctly. Until I can have a conversation with someone, I have a hard time finding the nurturing instinct. They placed her in my arms and she began to cry, confirming that I was not yet doing it correctly. Emily picked Alyssah up and she instantly was silent. Emily has the instinct and drive to mother.

I eventually got it right and held Alyssah as she fell asleep in my arms and cuddled up to my shirt. I like the girl well enough, but I can't imagine who she is. We speculated as to whom she would take after. She is a [My Surname], no matter what the birth certificate currently states, and so should have in inborn intellect that Dan and Becky can nurture. However, this intellect and general aptitude manifests itself differently (Dan can make robots and successfully repair electronics, I can only spend twenty minutes wondering if there is a speculative tense of the verb "to be" in the Oscar Meyer song). I can't yet read a future in her, but I had fun proudly trying.

I love my other two nieces, but they don't acknowledge that I am their uncle. They are not of my blood, no matter how often I push them on the rope swing or give them piggy back rides. Alyssah is, in every way, my niece. My mother has stated, half joking, that this may be the only biological grandchild she gets, which is not to say she isn't prodding my unconscious to spawn.

Maybe it is because she is so new and the miracle of birth is so fresh in his mind, but Dan loves Alyssah more than he has ever loved anything in his life. The change seemed to be instant. While Becky was pregnant, Dan was aloof but helpful. When we saw him in Becky's hospital room, his eyes fairly twinkled when he looked at Alyssah. He was soft and careful. I don't know what it is like, this paternal change. Where is it located, in the heart, brain, pineal glands? He went from Dan, my brother and Becky's affianced, to Dan, Alyssah's daddy, in a breath. I like to envision a delivery room scene where he looks, almost frightened, at this baby who has escaped from Becky. He doesn't quite know what to make of her and is apprehensive. Then Alyssah, fulfilling some divine instinct, grasps his finger in her tiny hand and this transfiguration overcomes him. His heart melts for her and he knows he will spend his life loving this girl. I don't doubt he would die for her.

When he were leaving, Emily asked if he wanted to hold her. He replied, "No, put her in the crib. I'll just stare at her for a while."

Soon in Xenology: Free Spirit.

last watched: Freaks
reading: Snow Crash
listening: Jill Sobule

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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Works by Thomm Quackenbush

Anthologies

Find What You Love and Let It Kill You by Thomm Quackenbush
Pagan Standard Times: Essays on the Craft by Thomm Quackenbush
A Creature Was Stirring: A Twisted Christmas Anthology by Thomm Quackenbush
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