“Sound the Alarm” — John Joyce

 

 

 

Beep! Beep! Beep!

 

This is the sound of a familiar and often unwelcomed modern convenience. The metronome of tones somehow intrusively pierce into your sleeping mind and drag you awake; dropping you abruptly into the humdrum of a day’s work. You as well as I know that familiar sound, and we all have an opinion of it. I recognize this tune as the ubiquitous sound of an alarm clock. Now, this particular waking refrain came from a white clock with red digital letters which perched precariously on top of the refrigerator in my childhood kitchen. The clock was smartly fashioned with a built-in radio, its purpose in life, which seemed to be only capable of playing NPR or the droning rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh; this I believe as I rarely heard anything else from it, not even the alarm.

 

Beep! Beep! Beep!

 

That’s the sound. More than ten years ago, on a night similar to the one in which I write this now, I heard the alarm clock cry out into the sleepy darkness with its indelible noise. The loud mechanical tones raced from the kitchen, cascaded down the narrow hallway, burst forth through my locked bedroom door and penetrated my very dreams. As I laid there, wrapped in the moderate warmness of a teenager’s filthy blanket, those tones screamed to me, “Wake up!”

 

Beep! Beep! Beep!

 

In its most basic function, it was successful. The alarm jerked me awake, ripping me from the deep clutches of sleep and back to the manifestation of the living, while unbeknownst to me the alarm also foretold the sounds of the opposite. The sounds of death. The sound of a man alone, traversing from this very real life into the black grips of the unknown.

 

Beep! Beep! Beep!

 

Such a horrible tone. A repeating cadence. This was the innocuous sound of my father taking his own life.

 

Beep. Beep. Beep…

 

But before the alarm, the day was just like any other. I arrived home, probably returning from one of my feeble attempts to get big at the gym. I lean towards probably because I don’t quite remember the first part of that day, or if I even went out at all. There are many details you may find odd that I don’t remember, given the circumstances. Yet all I can say is that while fresh memories are written like bold black letters against the white parchment of the mind, most of my pages have been washed out by time, allowing them to fade to a indistinguishable Gainsboro grey, muddled together, and even forgotten. However, I do remember certain events. I did not pick them, but certain moments of that day are seared in my mind like the very language I speak. These are permanent fixtures in my few regretful memories of life, and sadly they are the ones I return to most often.

After returning from wherever I was, if I was anywhere at all, I remember opening the front door to the kitchen and walking in from outside. The air was thick and suffocating with the odor of cigarette smoke, which was the normal fragrance within my home. If you are not familiar with a small room drown by smoke, you will not understand the terrible disgust a nonsmoker experiences. There is a certain anger at having it cling to your clothes and bind within your nostrils, leaving a burning stench with you no matter how far you run. It’s sickening really, and daily it drove me quite mad.

As I passed through the door, to avoid smelling like an ashtray, I hurried through the kitchen and noticed my father standing in his usual spot and the familiar voices of some political commentators filling the air by radio wave. I couldn’t tell you who it was or what they said, because honestly, I didn’t care. I was just a teenage boy and had no interest in the government, law, or politics. Sadly, I was a youth unworried and uncaring about anything that didn’t involve me. A typical teenager.

So, my father stood there like an old Greek statue cracking in its veneer, and although he was still handsome in his age, he was worn and corroded, and the crumbling in his hips caused him to lean quite heavily. Short and fine silver hair graced his head and ran the entirety of his once muscled body. Rarely moving, he rested his stout frame against the countertop near the sink, although sometimes he vastly changed his scenery and moved two feet closer towards the stove. Yet no matter where he stood, his demeanor was always the same. He wore a constant glum expression, and if not that, then an irritated scowl sat on his reddened face day to night.

He mostly stood in silent indifference: listening to the radio, staring out into the woods behind my home, and thinking of what only God could know. But I never worried about what he was thinking. My eyes were always drawn to the permanent features within his calloused hands. As if sculpted there by some tragic artist and molded between his fingers, was the foul invention called the cigarette, and always, always within grasp of the other, some cheap can of beer. Inebriation in those last years appeared to be his natural condition.

As I passed by, I made as few glances in his direction as possible and normally said as little as I needed to get by without introducing some type of conversation. I do not remember saying anything that day, and I am quite certain I said nothing at all. I am sure I passed by without even acknowledging his existence. After my escape, I slipped into my bedroom where I disappeared until the evening, losing myself playing video games and watching television.

You may wonder why I had such an indignant attitude, or why I acted so cruelly. Unfortunately, I do not have a proper answer for you. There are many things, and yet there are no things that justify it. Perhaps a reason is that for many years he had not worked, and the reason being was completely unknown to me, though I believe it was sheer laziness. It left a financial burden on my uneducated mother. Despite this, he still controlled all the money and all the authority within the household, and this abuse and undeserved power from someone who no longer earned it, kindled a fire of resentment in me that would not easily be extinguished. There are others, darker and more relevant.

But, if you want the general reason, I’ll use the excuse that I was the stereotype. I was the American teenage boy at war with his father for no reason other than his own adolescent fiction. I hated that he controlled me, even though he did not try to. I hated that he would tell me what to do, although he usually let me do as I wished. I hated when he thought he was right, and he always thought he was right. I was callous, bitter, and quick to turn a friendly passing into a violent one by the mere misinterpretation of his words or actions, because he was drunk or had an attitude, or had once offended me or someone else.

We often fought with unpleasant language, and even fought with our hands on several occasions, of which I cannot recall the reasons which started them, only the aftermath: hurt, shame, and ultimately regret. Yet the worst I did, I think, was the silence. I forced my silence upon him and created an artificial absence from his life. I knew he was there, but I chose to not even see him. I chose to look upon him with uncaring eyes. I chose to make him feel as though he had no son. He didn’t know it, but I often foolishly wished for his death as I slammed my door or threw myself into bed. If only I could go back…but I do go back, and it never helps.

That evening, my father brusquely called for us to come to dinner. We typically ate early in the evening, so let us assume it was around five o’clock. It was also typical that he was the one to cook, as he could control it and had nothing better to do. I strolled into the kitchen and saw him sitting at the table. He did not ask or expect us to sit and eat. We took our plates which were already prepared to the far corners of the house and ate in solitude, as my family, and as some families in this increasingly disconnected society do. As he sat there, my mother exchanged pleasantries with him and he smiled. No, every day was not some nightmare. Some were pleasant enough, as was this one.

I took my plate from the counter and absently remember walking over to the refrigerator to get something out. It must have been a drink. Do not bother wondering what I had to eat because I could not tell you. It was one of the things that was unimportant. As I started to head back towards my room, I noticed something odd. There was a piece of paper beneath his hands. It was a blank paper that he did not try to hide or cover, but one he simply pushed aside and left as if it was unimportant. I only glanced at it, but it appeared to be computer paper, white and crisp, pulled from the old word processor stored away downstairs. He got up and returned to his post, the sentry leaning against the counter, staring blankly at me, while magically the familiar drink, the demon which he was addicted to, appeared in his hand and moved to his lips.

I do not remember if we spoke to one another, but I left when I saw him tilt the beer to his lips. I went back to my room and ate my food. I did not think about his paper at the time, as I had seen him on numerous occasions write letters to an editor of the local newspaper complaining about something the city had done wrong. He also dabbled in other things which I never bothered to feign an interest. So this was not an unnatural occurrence, and at the time I thought nothing of it.

When I was done eating, I took my plate back to the kitchen and there he was, rooted in his same spot. This time however, something was different about him. This moment I remember like yesterday. It felt like an easiness had replaced the tension woven throughout the house. It was pleasant, and I half smiled at him. His face had softened and he looked back on me with his own smile as I placed the plate into the sink and watched it disappear to the bottom of the standing murky dishwater. I believe he said something to me, and I said something back. I was happy. He seemed happy.

As I started to walk away, I had an urge, a push even, from the deepest part of my being. Where it came from I do not know, but it was a powerful feeling, an intuition that begged at me. It told me to hug him. I looked upon his tranquil face and I truly wanted to hug him. To this day I have no reasons or any inclination as to why I felt that way. There was just something in that moment which made me want to tell him that I loved him, that I still loved him. Yet it was the hardest thing to do.

As I walked away this feeling gnawed at me. The steps seemed to take minutes and I saw his white piece of paper sitting on the table. There was script on it now, but still nothing I cared to read or investigate. And as I kept walking, that sensation kept calling like the tide, an unrelenting ebb and flow. I felt as if I were the beach, and it were the sea. But in all my desire, I did not turn back to hug him. I did not turn to him and say, “I love you Daddy.” Even with the sensation of knowing something was missed, knowing a moment passed that I would regret, it was so hard to give love, and so easy to be angry. So, I just walked strangely saddened back to my room and shut the door behind me, and that was the last time I ever saw my father.

 

Beep! Beep! Beep!

 

That’s the sound I will never forget. I have never been the type to linger along in the bed, groggy or still half-asleep. It always came easily to me to just jump up, awake as when I fell there. When the sounds of the alarm cut through the stillness of the night air, I rose quickly. I found it odd to hear an alarm outside my room, but not too odd as I just figured it was set by accident. I rose and stretched in my common fashion like a cat arching his back, which is something I rarely do anymore, and stepped out of bed. At a point I had grabbed my glasses and looked at my own clock. Its digital read out telling how late, or I guess you could say how early it was. I do not remember the specific time. All I can remember was it wasn’t a right time to be woken up by the sound of a wailing alarm, its deafening notes strangling out all other noises.

 

Beep! Beep! Beep!

 

I peeked out into the hall and saw my mother walking past and I followed her into the kitchen where the alarm sat noisily buzzing on the kitchen table. Beneath it was the white piece of paper my father had left there. Dark ebony characters filled its margins. It was a note. She called out for my father. He did not answer. I peered into the living room where he usually slept and saw the couch was empty. She reached down and picked up the note. My heart began to flutter and my chest heaved. I did not know why. I felt hot, my skin flushed, and I ran towards the basement door unlocking the chain and bolt and called out to my father. The locks told me he was not down there, but I yelled anyway. I cried out for him. He did not answer.

 

Beep! Beep! Beep!

 

My mother has a peculiar way of reading, as if she were speaking aloud, her lips would silently mouth every syllable. As she read, she was as silent as a mouse, and the downturned corners of her lips and the tears that started to well in her eyes told me something was terribly wrong. She began to cry outwardly and told me to call the police. I did.

 

Beep! Beep! Beep!

 

That infernal clock just kept going. Louder and louder it resounded. It seemed to cut into my heart and I assumed at that point there was no turning it off. It would go on forever. So, we just sat there and listened. The longer I waited, the more I thought. The angrier I became. The more I wanted to scream. I wanted to curse him to hell. I wanted to hold my mother. I wanted to cry. I wanted him to come back so I could hug him one last time…

We sat there and waited for the police, and at some point after they arrived, the noise vanished. My mother spoke with them while I stood, silent. We waited at home while the note carried them to Doe Run Park. It was a place not far from my house, but too far and too newly created to have any meaning to my father, at least any meaning I can think of. Why he chose that park is a mystery to me, but they found him there, true to his words.

The police escorted us to the hospital where they asked my mother to identify his body. I of course was offered the opportunity to see him as well, but I chose not to. I do not believe it was out of anger or hate, but only sadness. I did not want to see him empty, or hollow, but he might have been that way all along and I just didn’t care to realize it.

My mother went in and stayed for an eternity. My uncle came and met us, saying kind words which blankly passed through my stoic facade. When she finally came out she walked hunched, broken, and with her hands upon her chest. Rivers poured from her eyes. While the tears ran down her beautiful cheeks, and as her very breath struggled to escape from her lungs, a fire within her voice told my uncle that they did not even bother to clean him off. That they just laid him on a cold steel table and left him filthy, as if he had just been dragged up from the ground. They left his face and body covered in sand and mud. Her words broke me.

My father had shot himself in the side of the head while standing in the middle of a shallow dark creek. Supposedly, and from where this information came from I do not know, but he did it that way to ensure his death. If the bullet did not kill him instantly, he would fall into the water and drown. The idea came from a movie they say. It worked well and he was gone forever. The only thing I was left with is the sound of that alarm, the one I never heard for all those years, and now it’s too late to turn it off.