Commentary #12 (of 28): MAINTAINING


Every so often (weekly at the moment), I’ll be writing a commentary about a story from EMPTY ROOMS LONELY COUNTRIES. I’ll tackle the stories in the order they appear in the book. Given the nature of this exercise, I cannot guarantee that I won’t spoil specific details from the story. So you may want to return to the commentaries here when you’ve finished reading the book. If I don’t address an aspect of the story you were interested in, by all means leave a question at the end of this post and I’ll do my best to answer it.


This is one of the many DC stories, following behind “One Dead (Potted) Plant”, “Pancakes, Wishes and Other Tales” and a whole lot of other stories that aren’t in Empty Rooms Lonely Countries. This story puts us somewhere around February of 2000.

If I’m remembering it right, this was my first weekend back after spending a month in Florida for the Christmas and New Year holiday. This was the holiday when Derrek invited me to a New Year ’s Eve party. It was at a mansion somewhere in South Tampa. When I arrived, after ringing the bell for a few minutes, I let myself in. I found Derrek in the hallway. He invited me to have some expensive beers from the fridge and we munched on some amazing food in the kitchen. When I asked him who he knew at the party, he said no one. Apparently, he was invited by someone who was actually invited, and that person was passed out in the bathroom covered in his own vomit. By the time I realized I was the invitee of an invitee of an actual invitee, the owners had entered the kitchen and asked us not to drink their personal supply of beer and food, and that if we must stay, we could drink the beer (cheap!) provided outside by the pool. The night went down – or maybe up, depending on your point of view – from there.

And, no, I have that wrong (this is what I get when I don’t read the whole story before writing the commentary):

The week before had been the worst week in my entire life. There was no way around it. There was the never-ending snow; being trapped in Asheville followed by Atlanta; the plane ride with the stupid magicians; the realization that I had no keys to my car or home, that I had left them in North Carolina; the punks trying to rob me in Philadelphia; the other snowstorm that trapped me inside my apartment as soon as I managed to break in; and then there was the kicker: the dwindling down of all the illusions that made my life tolerable until now.

This part tells me everything I need to know. And rather than explain specifically, I may as well just post the entire story here (again, not included in Empty Rooms Lonely Countries):

Written by Christian A. Dumais

“I was motivated by love.”

I am pretty sure I said this to myself around the time my second flight out of Asheville Regional Airport is cancelled. The terminal is hollow and angry; the people shift nervously and stare towards the ceiling. Winter came during the week and overstayed her welcome very quickly. Outside the windows, a child is shaking the looking glass furiously: snow falls in all directions.

I am sitting on the floor by the pay phones, my knees pressed up against me. I am tired and I am alone. I want to be home, but I don’t know where that is anymore. I can close my eyes and think I see it, somewhere muddled in the darkness, beyond my emotions and within my memories, but it keeps slipping away. I feel like I was supposed to be on a journey but I never got around to packing my bags.

No Prophecies, no Revelations, but plenty of alcohol…

The phone rings above me and I reach for it. I press the receiver against my ear and listen.

“You deserve this,” says a voice. I don’t say anything. “This is what you get when you fuck with us. This is what you get. Do you understand?”

I hang up the phone. I don’t need to be told what I already know; I just need to be told the Truth.

I want to call her up and tell her to pick me up.

I want to say, “I think I am making a mistake. If it isn’t you, then it is something else…but I know I can’t leave you like this. I need to be in your bed, to stay there. Forever: if that’s what it takes. It is as close to a home that I can find. Do you understand me? I need to hear you breathing beside me. I can’t let go like this. I am a fuck up. I am scared. I am tired of being Different. Why can’t I be like everyone else?”

But that is not the way it is supposed to be.

Persephone stares at me for a long time. I try not to focus on the Blue. I don’t know what to say to her anymore. I am afraid to say anything, but I am more afraid not saying anything. This silence is too much to take. I would give anything for it to end, to end rightly instead of awkwardly…which is the problem with silence, not the way it stalks the room when lovers pause, but the way lovers choose to break it.

I have seen gods sell their souls to kill the silence, and what they have never learned is that noise is meaningless when it involves words void of emotional value and music that cannot be danced to.

What price would you pay to end the silence, for everyone to stop speaking and actually talk?

She moves to speak, then walks away instead. I reach out for her but my muscles are twisted and exhausted. I turn in her direction and watch her flip the light switch as she leaves the room.

The room turns dark and I am falling in every direction. The gravity has declared me unfaithful and has thrown me away. As I fall, I feel the darkness pushing its way inside of me.

And then I am drowning in déjà vu; familiarity and fear overcome me. It is suddenly hard for me to breathe and I close my eyes, substituting one darkness for another, and as I do this, I push tears free. I remain in the center of the room, unsure if I am standing or falling or drowning, and the darkness grows and grows, larger than the room itself, larger than the world…and then I hear the darkness speak to me.

My thoughts are impending and slippery and my emotions are changing faster than my heartbeats.

She walks back into the room and turns the lights on, and she sees me standing by the bed in tears: “What’s wrong? What is it?”

“I don’t know,” I tell her. My mouth is dry, and when I speak, my voice cracks.

“What? Tell me, Christian.”

“Jesus, I don’t know. Something…something about the way you turned off the lights.” She wipes my face with her hand. “I don’t know…I’m being stupid.”

“What is it?”

I think I know, but I don’t know the words to explain it. When it comes to the emotions, to the feelings inside all of us, to the reality behind the eyes that we know so well, the words have not been invented that will properly convey it. I say, “I don’t know, really.”

I manage to get aboard a small plane to Atlanta. The lady at the counter warns me that there is a strong possibility that I may be stuck in Atlanta for the night. “It’s the storms,” she says, “nobody seems to be able to predict them. If you want I can get you a flight somewhere far away from all of this. How does Greece sound to you? Or how about Oz?”

“I better just stick with this reality for now.”

“Your loss.” She wishes me luck as I leave for the gate.

Once on the plane, I find myself sitting next to a hobgoblin. He is old and I notice that he smiles to hide his wrinkles. He wears a black ski hat to hide his pointy ears and wears sunglasses to contain the power in his gaze. He tells me that he used to speak only in rhymes. “But I discovered that cleverness wasn’t appreciated in the New World.” He tells me he has been around since the Beginning, but I know he is lying. I learned in my experiences in Florida never to trust hobgoblins. “Do you think we’ll make it to Atlanta?”

“Probably,” I say.

He nods his head. It takes twenty-four minutes to get to Atlanta, and on the way, the hobgoblin tells me a story. “You must never repeat what I have said,” he warns. “To repeat a story once told by a hobgoblin will damn the teller.”

“And if the teller is already damned?”

“You mean: if the teller thinks he is damned?” He laughs. “The problem with mortals is that they all want to be damned for something.”

When we arrive in Atlanta, he shakes my hand. He tells me that I am a good person even if I write lies on paper for a living. Out of curiosity, I ask: “Where’re you going?”

“To Key West. A bunch of us are having a reunion.”

“How often do you all meet?”

“As often as we possibly can.” He smiles and looks younger. “We may be of the Old Ways and we may be Extinct, but we still need our friends.”

I manage to find a plane leaving for Philadelphia at around midnight. I am told that everyone on the flight, with the exception of me, is a magician. Everyone is making things disappear and appear all over the place. Outside, the wings disappear then re-appear. The pilot gets on the intercom and asks for everyone to stop playing with magic.

Finally, the magician in Row 27, Seat B, makes the pilot disappear. I hear someone ask him how the plane is going to land and he says, “We’re all magicians here…we’ll find a way.”

Everyone laughs because they know it’s true.

Stupid magicians.

The woman next to me, who I learn is not a magician either, begins to panic and then is transformed into a purple turtle. I ask her what it is like to be a purple turtle. She says, “Not as bad as you’d think. You really should try it sometime.” I ask her how the world looks from her point of view and if there is hope for all of us. And then the flight attendant comes over and takes the purple turtle away before I asked too many questions.

The plane lands safely and once it is parked, I realize that everyone has disappeared. I gather my bags and notice a blue rose sitting in every seat. I remember that I wrote a story with blue roses in it. If you place a petal in your mouth, everything makes sense…but in the morning, you forget how it felt.

That’s what it was like on paper, at least.

Philadelphia International is unusually empty. The television monitors hanging from the ceiling keep talking about another storm getting ready to begin.

I take a bus to the long-term parking lot. I see the snow crashing into the windshield like burnt-out stars.  The driver tells me to get home and get warm with a woman before the storm hits.

Outside, it is cold beyond anything I have ever known and I am not dressed for it. My ears begin to hurt. I walk for a long time, finding my car where I had parked it nine days earlier. I reach into my backpack and search for my car keys. I find nothing.

A snowflake lands in my right eye as the comprehension in me blossoms: I left my keys in North Carolina. They were sitting next to my bag next to her bed. Just sitting there and I never picked them up. I drop all of my bags on the wet concrete and I think I say something to God…something like, “Fuck you.”

I realize that it is the first time I have ever spoken to God. I did it for the same reasons everyone else does, because I was Alone. I am trapped in loneliness without measure, like a man trapped between two mirrors, unable to figure out where he began and where he ended. I have no one to call, no one to turn to.

I think it takes a moment like this to push in the reality that you are no longer a child, that you are an adult, and all of this, the losses, the disasters and the bullshit, is all up to you. And then there is the voice in me that says, “It’s all you. Right now. Do you stop here or do you keep moving? Keep living in the past or try the present for a change? And whatever is thrown your way, deal with it and move on. So, Christian, what is it going to be?”

The only taxi driver who is willing to drive me to New Jersey, watch me break into my own apartment for an extra set of keys, then drive me back to the airport inside the upset belly of violent winter storm is a man named Granville. And to my amazement, I discover comfort in the backseat of Granville’s taxi. I tell him my story: all of it. I don’t spare him from any of the details; I tell him more than I even knew.

“Why did you cry when she turned the lights off?”

“Now that I still don’t understand.”

“I think you do,” he says. “But you are too afraid to admit it.”

“You’re probably right, Granville.”

“What did she do next, after that?”

“I don’t know, really.” I say again.

She presses the side of her face against mine and I feel her trembling. She holds me with a strength I never knew she had and she says, “I’m sorry, Christian.” She pulls her head back and I see her face is wet with tears. “I’m so sorry.”

And she apologizes like that over and over again until her voice is overcome with sobs.

I want to tell her to stop it, but I realize that I want to hear her say it, that I want to see her like this.

I need to see her like this.

I need to see her in pain, to reflect a piece of what I have been feeling all of this time. I need to see her suffer as I always had: to know how it is to see the woman you love in bed with another man; to know how it is to understand that everything you say won’t be remembered come morning; to know that the one that abused her is more loved than the one that would give her the world; to know that he is tired and can’t keep fighting for a heart that would never be his.

“I love you,” she says. “God, I do. I do love you, Christian.”

“I know,” I tell her.

And to know that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you believe in it, Love isn’t enough.

Granville turns off the meter when it hits a hundred and pulls into a gas station for some coffee. He asks if I want some. “You’ll be paying for it either way,” he says.

“No, thanks.”

He turns the car off and turns around. “Let me tell you something, son. And this is something you can tell everyone in one of your stories. I’m no hobgoblin, see: just an old black man with more years behind him than forward.” He stops and I can tell he is thinking by the way his eyes quiver. “Hell of a thing being a man in this day. Nothing seems worth fighting for anymore, every direction you turn you can taste the sadness all over.” He coughs. “I love my wife. Loved her since the first time I put my eyes on her. It was all so easy, her and me. I could tell you good stories. The kids are all grown and now it is just her and me again. Sad and nice like. I work hard so we can move to Florida. I want to retire. I want to spend more time with her. You understand that. Every night I get into bed with her, I know that someday this is going to end. The good things never last as long as you want them to. The kids grow up and leave. The woman you love turns old. Nothing you can do to stop it – like trying to beat a river with your fists.” He clenches his hands together tightly. “That’s how I see it: like a river rising on you. Flooding everything you know and love. You can fight it all you want. Break every bone in your body. Even kill yourself. Give up and drown if you like.”

He smiles and passes it to me.

“Or you can swim.”

You may notice that “Pancakes, Wishes and Other Tales” has a different meaning now. And parts like this make a little more sense:

Jenny called later that evening. I was maintaining as best I could until she started crying about all the shit in her life, and this just made me cry even more. I don’t think I ever cried in front of Jenny. And looking back, I imagine the scene would have sounded pathetic to someone listening in: two adults crying so hard that when they spoke the words sounded cracked and painful. At the end of the call, we made some promises to one another, I told her I would be coming to DC on Friday, and then I hung up feeling a little better about myself.

Or maybe not.

It should be noted that Francois in this story is the dancing guy from “One Dead (Potted) Plant”. I’m not sure why I left that unclear. And it’s probably apparent that the relationship Jenny had with her boyfriend was, for whatever reason, extremely complicated:

“So, what’s this all about? Did Jenny break up with her boyfriend?”

“No. She’s still with him.”

“Is she going to break up with him then?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then they’re together.”

“No. They haven’t been together for a few months now.”

“Then they’re not together.”

“Oh, they’re exclusive.”

“But didn’t she say she’s going home with that bartender tonight?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“So she’s cheating on her boyfriend?”

“Jenny? She can’t cheat on her boyfriend if she’s no longer with him.”

“Then she’s single?”

“Yes, Jenny’s single…unless, of course, you count her boyfriend.”

“Whatever.” Antoine raised his glass. “To Jenny’s freedom.”

“To Jenny’s freedom.”

For those keeping score at home for influences, I had recently finished reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

This was a tough one to read again. It’s amazing how heavy everything feels when it’s going down, and it feels like it’ll never go away. And now, almost ten years later, I can’t even recognize that weight.

If I get that time machine, I’d go back and tell myself not to worry, but, you know, it worked out anyway.

Next week : “Before Waking”.

Previous commentaries:

#1 “Cowboys and Indians”
#2 “Little Conundrums”
#3 “The Illusion of Swing”
#4 “Kicking Love’s Ass”
#5 “On Being Velma-less”
#6 “Muted Porn”
#7 “Defying Gravity”
#8 “The Fifth Ocean”
#9 “One Dead (Potted) Plant”
#10 “Remembering Drajra”
#11 “Pancakes, Wishes and Other Tales”

Written by

Christian A. Dumais is an American writer, humorist and public speaker living in Wrocław, Poland. He has published fiction, journalism, and academic articles in several magazines and journals such as GUD, Shock Totem and Ha!Art. His first collection of short stories, Empty Rooms Lonely Countries, was published in 2009. He also created, edited, and contributed to Cover Stories, a euphictional anthology of 100 stories inspired by songs, which was published in 2010. His most recent book is SMASHED: The Life and Tweets of Drunk Hulk.

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