That Funky White Light
By Fred Shrum, III
I expected to hear trumpets. I thought I would see horsemen. I predicted that the Mississippi would run red. But we can’t always get what we want. How does a man test his mettle when his hand is made of leather and his throne of wood? The pitch of my life was coming in fast. It turned out to be a sinker, like the pit of my stomach.
I raised my son to wear Cardinals red in hopes of a better life. Not that he was going to be a pro ballplayer. No, but the quest would be in him. The quest to do better and to be better. This was an example that I had failed to set for most of my life. I have treated him terribly, and now I need to make up for it. I’ve spent the last several years trying to forget that I was a father.
Fatherhood just wasn’t the style for Noel Darlington. I felt that I was too rugged, cool and smart to be a dad. With my dark hair, blue eyes and intelligence, it just limited my options. I already had some money tucked away, and I planned to make more once I moved to New York to become a stockbroker. I couldn’t see where strollers and dirty diapers fit in.
Don’t get me wrong, I did try it. It’s not like I got a girl pregnant and then bolted. I got a girl pregnant and then married her. Rose was the kind of girl that you would cross the river for. She was lithe, with smooth, radiant skin. Her hair was the burnt red-orange of a sunrise. We moved to the Frontenac neighborhood and started our private forever. Our son was born a year later. We named him Jonathan. He came home to his own room that was stocked with anything he could have ever wanted. Shouldn’t I get credit for that? I tried the “right” thing. It just wasn’t right for me at the time. That is how I justified my absence to myself.
I stayed with Jonathan until he was two. I made a big mistake at work and got fired. There went my salary, our dream home, our vacations, our cars. I came home drunk and in a fury. I picked a fight with Rose. Not mentioning my termination, I told her what a terrible wife and mother she was. Neither was true. I started throwing and smashing things. She went to bed in tears. I sat on the front porch and had serious doubts about my ability to cope in the real world.
I figured Rose and Jonathan would be better off without someone as lousy as me. She could remarry a more intelligent man. One who could provide a real future instead of a welfare check. I went into Jonathan’s room and watched him sleep for a long time. I placed my wedding band on the kitchen counter, scribbled a note, and walked out for good.
That night I slept in a cheap hotel. Taking pulls of malt liquor, I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I decided that I was. I moved into a studio apartment and began the next phase of my life. I was determined to make a clean break. I never sent a birthday card, let alone child support. If they were not dependent on me, they would be much more likely to reach for their dreams. It was another of my rationalizations.
The only contact we had was through lawyers. I took pains to become invisible. I changed my phone number and unlisted it. I took a job on the opposite side of town than where I lived. My mail went to a PO Box by my office. I rented an apartment so that I would not show up in the property owner records. Every once in a while I would think of Jon and Rose, but pushed them out of my mind. Everyone knew they were better off without a wretch like me. This charade went well. I was free.
Ten years later I had a nightmare. It was night in the dream and I was walking alone downtown. I could smell the fecund odor of the Mississippi river bottom. Rain pummeled the foggy streets. A Metrolink car whooshed behind me. From a distant alleyway I could hear the lonely whine of a violin pleading for someone to assuage its solitude. A crack of thunder forced me to look up.
With each subsequent lightning flash, I could see a figure hanging from the center of the St. Louis Arch. As the picture drew in, I could see a man swaying in the breeze by the noose around his neck. The man opened his lifeless eyes. I realized with shock that I was looking at myself. My view followed the rope on its long descent to the ground. A black-robed figure stood at the bottom of the arch, holding the end of the rope. He delighted in its every twist and swing. The figure pulled the cowl off of his head, revealing Jonathan’s face.
I awoke in a sweat and sat straight up. I hunched over the side of the bed and began to sob uncontrollably. I did not know what was happening to me. Was I having a heart attack? Was I going insane? There was an abject sense of fear and sorrow coursing through my entire body. I had never felt so alone. Then it occurred to me, was this but an inkling of how Jonathan felt? I poured three fingers of whiskey and tried to calm down. I knew what had to be done.
The letter arrived at Rose’s house the next day via International Parcel Service. It explained how sorry I was and that I knew that I could never earn their forgiveness. However, I wanted to try. I wanted to reconnect with them, if they would allow it. I gave them my home, cellular, and business phone numbers. I told them they could call me 24/7. To show my seriousness I enclosed a check for $10,000.
Rose’s initial reaction was as you would expect. She did not respond to the letter and shredded the check. After a couple weeks of unreturned messages she agreed to meet in a public place. Fittingly, we met at the Statue of the Naked Truth in Compton Hill Park. She proceeded to tell me exactly what she thought of me. I listened to it all without flinching. After she had completely vented, she paused and fixed her gaze on me. I flinched.
“Noel, you are a selfish, sorry, shell of a man,” she emoted.
“I agree,” I responded.
A surprised look curled at her lips.
“I know that nothing I can do will make up for the lost years. But, I want to make sure that the future years will be great.”
I was disheartened, but not surprised, by the presence of a new wedding ring on her finger.
“OK Noel.” She exhaled. “So you know, there is no chance of romance between us. I am totally happy with Max…my second husband.”
Anger flashed in her eyes again, but she managed to stifle another outburst. “I do think that a connection would be in Jonathan’s best interest. He is still angry with you. Yet, he is open for a trial visit. You owe him that much. After witnessing your sincerity, I will allow it.” The old Noel would have resented her attempt to control the situation. All I could do was grin and tear up.
“That’s great! Thank you, Rose.”
I thought I saw a tear in her eye, but she clopped away in her high heels.
We met at a restaurant in a historic part of town called The Landing on a Saturday afternoon. It was the kind of place where the décor was made of wood. We exchanged pleasantries and I shook Jonathan’s hand.
“Maybe one day, you will let me give you a hug,” I said.
“Maybe,” Jonathan replied, unsure of how to react.
I actually liked Rose’s new husband, Max Mabry. In an if-you-weren’t-taking-my-wife kind of way. He seemed to believe that my intentions were above board. His conservative brown haircut and gold glasses seemed to impart a gentle wisdom. Deep down, I was both saddened and grateful that Rose had found someone better than me.
Once the food was done it was time to pack up. As Rose pulled her purse to her shoulder, I interjected.
“Wait, hold on. I have one more thing to say.”
I pulled a piece of paper out of my wallet and handed it to Rose.
“Noel, this is a check for $15,000!”
She inspected it. Her face reddened, and she handed it back to Noel.
“I told you that we didn’t need your money then, and we don’t need it now.” My jaw fell a bit, but I recovered nicely.
“I know that, Rose, Max. However, this check is solely for Jonathan’s college fund.” Max leaned forward and interlaced his fingers on the table. “In that case Noel, we’ll take it as penance.”
We all laughed. When we left Jonathan did hug me. I could only describe his embrace as guarded optimism.
Months went by and conversations flew. Gradually the Mabrys relented to unsupervised visits with Jonathan, then weekend sleepovers. Eventually they came to accept my honesty, and granted joint custody. I do not think Jonathan will ever forgive me for what I did, but he is getting better at forgetting. That is fine by me. I cherish every moment we have together. I realize that those ten years with no contact were like a wasteland in my life. He would show me fear in a handful of dust.
This brings us back to Cards red. I bought Jonathan season tickets to the Cardinals baseball team for his thirteenth birthday. It would be just him and I sitting in the house that Busch built. Oh, how he jumped with delight!
“I figured it would be a great bonding experience for the two of us,” I commented.
To my surprise, I got a smile from Rose.
“Sure, he needs some bonding with his father. Nothing like the chalk lines in the outfield to do it,” she responded.
“Not to mention, it’s a great conversation-starter with his friends,” Max added.
I beamed. I didn’t deserve total support.
Opening day was a game against the dreaded Cubs. There is nothing like a good sports rivalry to bring the fun. As long as you both are on the same side of it. Perhaps it would get our minds off the fracas spiraling within our family. If only Harry Caray were here to moderate. Who would he favor?
“This is going to be great,” Jonathan exclaimed as we pulled off Clark Street into the stadium parking lot. He pulled the red ball cap lower on his head and brushed some of the sandy-colored, scruffy hair out of his eyes. “Do you think we are early enough to watch B.P.?”
I smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “You know it, Jon.” I was a bit excited myself. I felt like a kid again.
We had a grand time. Batting practice lead to autographs. When the game started, we sat behind home plate in the upper level. The score went back and forth, enough to ratchet up the excitement. Jonathan and I ate hot dogs, crunched Cracker Jacks and drank soda together. We chatted about his life between innings. He was getting straight A’s in all his classes. He was thinking about trying out for the baseball team at school. After a 3-2 count, Pujols hit a home run. I saw the light in Jonathan’s eye as he jumped up and down and hollered with joy. My eyes started to tear up. Maybe, just maybe. One day, he might start to forgive me.
It happened during the seventh inning stretch. By now darkness had fallen and the stadium lights were at full wattage. I looked up and saw a different light. It seemed far away at first. I thought it might have been a plane. The light originated between The Arch and one of the skyscrapers. I yawned. Then it got bigger.
The light was somehow both pale and luminescent. It shone high in the sky. As it came closer I realized that the light was in the shape of a perfect rectangle. It emitted squiggly rays around the outside. It appeared to be miles wide. I stared directly into the center of it, while fearing it would burn my eyes. It was moving at a slow but even pace. Definitely closer now, it seemed to be coming down and in towards me.
I turned to Jonathan, expecting him to ask about the light. He was too engrossed in the game, counting balls and strikes. I turned to the family beside me, but they did not seem to notice the light either. I started scanning the stadium. It seemed like I was the sole person in a crowd of 42,000 who could see the light. Good-‘ol, bad old, Noel.
Something unusual occurred at that moment. The entire ballpark went silent. I knew I was not deaf because I could hear my heart beating, my sweat hitting the floor, and even the digestion in my stomach. It was as if the awareness of my body functions went into overdrive. The sound of the blood flowing through my veins made my ears pound like a bass drum.
Quietness endured around me. People’s mouths moved as if talking or laughing. The beer man in the next aisle dropped a handful of bottles. The bat connected solidly with a fastball. None of these made a sound. It was as if someone had draped a veil of hush over the rim of the arena.
A noise emanated from my head that I could only interpret as neurons firing. My mouth went dry. A slight breeze kicked up and tousled my hair. I felt an unexpected wave of dread wash over me. I heard a voice that had to be my own exclaim a single word: “Why?”
A cursory glance up found that the light was now on top of me. It enveloped the whole stadium now. I felt that it might have covered the entire county. The only person to notice was one Mr. Darlington. The organ player piped on in silence. I squinted from the brightness.
I felt myself falling. Mouth agape, I gasped as the ground rose up to meet me. My bones seemed to crunch as I hit the pavement. Pain worked its way into nausea. I had no idea what was happening.
All I could think about was Jonathan. I turned my head and saw his shoes. An intense feeling of longing struck me. What was his shoe size? What was his favorite type of shoe? Who bought these shoes for him? Did his friends like his shoes? Who were his friends?
A good father would know these things. Sadly, I did not. But I was trying! Mending the relationship takes longer than mending a fence. It is my top priority. If only Rose and Jonathan could see that. I just need some time. Don’t we all need just a little more time?
I tried to stand up but found that I could not move my legs. I reached towards Jonathan but my arms would not cooperate. I turned my head with no success. Was I paralyzed? How did this happen? My field of vision got progressively whiter until it was all I could see.
I had a vision as I grew accustomed to my private tunnel. I lay upon a vast desert, blanketed with the windblasts of eons. I flipped onto the sands of an island where the trade winds ruffled the fronds of a thousand palms. I wanted the waters to be blue, but they were black. I was transported into the walls of an ancient catacomb. Buried deep, I felt that I was the only person alive on the continent, and I could not get out.
I flashed back to the hard concrete floor of the stadium. My vision cleared so that I could see my surroundings. That funky white light had dissipated like morality among thieves. Jonathan was beside me now with a look of alarm on his face. I heard his voice, but it was distant in a way I cannot describe.
“Daddy, daddy, where are you going,” he cried.
A group of EMTs arrived, but it was all elementary now.
Fred Shrum, III was born near Washington, D.C. and grew up in Florida. He attended the University of South Florida and earned a B.A. in Communication with a minor in Business Administration. He enjoys the beach, music and all things horror.