by Kevin Craig
2007 Winner: Adult
I first met the poet in 1973. I was a child, cleaning up after one of my father’s infamous parties. I can still recall that encounter. I found the poet passed out on our living room couch. He was sprawled in such a way I had to move his arms to clear the mess on the coffee table. His hand was resting inside the detritus of an overflowing ashtray. Putting my collection of beer bottles down on the table, I tried to move his hand without waking him.
His dark face was serene, almost angelic in sleep. It could have been chiseled out of stone. There was something achingly familiar about the poet. I found myself compelled to stop what I was doing and examine the landscape of this familiarity. I could not place it…but something drew me to him. I sat on the edge of the coffee table and stared into his sleeping face, mesmerized.
He had a large, aquiline nose and jet-black hair. His ample mouth was open while he slept, and a tiny trickle of drool ran down the side of his face.
I watched his breathing, listening to the in-out rhythm of his sleep song. Then I noticed the record album on the table beside me. The poet’s face looked back at me from the cover. A close-up of the same face that lay in slumber on my father’s tattered sofa — a sofa that had been temporary residence to many vagabonds and drunks in the past. On the album cover, however, his eyes were fully open — great dark orbs that pulled you so far in you were afraid you would never be released. And in his face, I also saw incredible sadness and vulnerability. Something I could immediately relate to.
The picture pulled me in with painful longing. I looked at a complete stranger and thought, I wish you were my father. The poet wasn’t the first one to be treated to this wish — I was constantly fantasizing about having any father other than the one I was stuck with — but he would be the last.
As I bounced back and forth between the picture and the man in repose on the couch, I went into one of my famous zoning out moments. I concentrated so hard on him that I lost touch with everything else around me. It took me a moment to realize he was actually awake and meeting my gaze. The picture had become the man.
I quickly turned back to the album cover and read his name in the bottom left corner. His photo was so large I had to squint to make out the name. Or maybe it was just his sense of presence? Maybe his face had a habit of overwhelming everything in its proximity?
“Why is your name Teal?” I asked, to bridge the space between us and break the morning-after silence of the sleeping house.
“Because Green would have been stupid,” he said in a deep and gravelly voice that made the air between us tremble. He took another glance at me before rolling onto his side and showing me the back of his head. But just before he turned away I saw a look on his face — like this was a comeback he used often, one that made everybody laugh.
I didn’t laugh. As much as I was drawn to the man, I had already learned by then to keep a comfortable distance between myself and the people who floated through the vast wreck that was my father’s life. To laugh too early would have been giving in too easily. They had to earn that kind of familiarity.
It took only a moment for him to roll back around and face me, expectantly too. Since he was a person whose face adorned album covers, I supposed he felt it my duty to at least chuckle at his attempt at humour. We stared at each other for a moment, gauging one another’s stubbornness.
“Hmph?” he said. “Who are you, anyway? Who is this baby with the wounded wings I see before me?” Not waiting for an answer, he slowly rose to a sitting position on the couch. “Teal Landen.”
He extended his hand, like I was a real person and not just some runny-nosed kid. I was too surprised not to take it.
We shook. And we continued to shake.
“This is the part where you tell me your name,” he suggested. “So we can stop shaking each other silly.”
I tried to clear my head of fog. “Oh. Sorry. Sebastian. Sebastian Nelson.”
He released my hand from his monstrous grip. “Tom’s your old man? Wow. Nice to meet you, Sebby. How about you make me some coffee? Do you know how to do that?”
I tried my best to look offended at his suggestion I wouldn’t know how to do something so trivial, but I found his personality as infectious as his face.
“Black? Or cream and sugar?”
“How about black with sugar? Two,” he replied as his hand blindly searched the floor beside the couch for his abandoned t-shirt.
“I’ll be right back.”
“You do that. I’ll be right where I am now, holding down this here couch,” he said as he looked around at the dishevelled state of the living room and pulled the t-shirt over his head. Perhaps he was trying to remember how he had gotten there. Or more likely, just how many of the empty beer bottles in his periphery could be directly attributed to him.
As I walked into the kitchen, he let out a series of coughs that convinced me he was responsible for filling the ashtray his hand had earlier been resting in.
A few minutes later, with a hot cup of coffee in my hand, I returned to the living room to find Teal doing his best in his hung-over state to make things right. He had a neat pile of beer bottles on one corner of the coffee table. He gingerly attempted to balance three ashtrays in his shaking hands.
“I could really use that java.” He coughed. “This man is too old to play these silly games any longer. Remember when to quit the party, Seb. Bow out gracefully while you’re still young.”
I set the coffee on the end table and managed to take the pyramid of ashtrays from him before any real damage occurred. Instead of refusing my help, he reached for the coffee and allowed himself to fall back into the cushions of the couch.
“You shouldn’t be cleaning up after your old man’s messes,” he said with little to no conviction. “That’s not right. How old are you, Sebby? Seven?”
“I’ll be nine in December,” I said with enough force to push him further into the dilapidated cushions. “I know how to clean up a little mess. Besides, somebody has to do it. My brother is going to be coming down here any minute. He’d get into everything.”
“Two kids, eh?” he said. He groaned and let out a long sigh, clearly feeling gypped for choosing the wrong house to crash in the night before. “And how old is your little brother?”
“He’s four. But he’s not so little. Almost five.”
“This four-year-old — does he happen to do a lot of screaming early in the morning? Running around, bouncing off walls kind of thing?”
I headed toward the kitchen to empty the ashtrays. “Lots. My dad says he’s like an elephant on an airplane.” Teal closed his eyes and took a long pull from his steaming cup.
“Listen kid,” he said from the living room while I tried to make the kitchen look more or less like a kitchen. “Why don’t you just tell your old man I had to split? I got this session thing later today and I have to get some sleep or I’m gonna die. The last thing I need right now is a Mexican jumping bean almost-five-year-old going crazy in my space.
“Besides,” he continued, now standing in the kitchen doorway, coffee in one hand and an empty beer bottle on each of the four fingers of his other hand. “I’m not even sure if he knows I crashed. I don’t remember a thing after I got here.”
I stopped cleaning the counter for a moment. “My father’s not here. He left for work before I got up.”
“He leaves you here alone, man?” Teal said as he plopped the four beer bottles into the empty Molson Export case on the kitchen floor. “That’s not cool, Sebastian.”
“He does it all the time, Mr. — ”
“Hey. No. Not the mister thing, little man. I’m Teal. There’s no age constraints with this guy.” He pointed to his chest. “I don’t go by mister, so you can forget it. My daddy was the mister in my family. Now that he’s gone, there’re no misters left. Call me Teal. Your old man can’t be leaving you here alone. You’re eight — ”
“Almost nine,” I quickly corrected. “It’s not really all the time. He mostly doesn’t work. He’s just been working some the past few weeks.”
“Yeah. I guess I should have known that. Studio, right? Session work? Well.” He glanced around the wasted kitchen then looked to the door with longing. Turning back, he looked me in the eye. One more sad look at the front door and it was obvious he wanted to run. But he just shrugged. The sigh that escaped him told me he would stay.
Not that it would have mattered. I was already pretty much on my own when it came to Renee, my younger brother. Had Teal known the truth, he would have realized my father’s presence was more hindrance than help. Even at his best, my father never made much of a parental figure. By the day the poet had pulled up on our party-contaminated communal sofa, my father was just about the farthest he had ever been from his best — if there ever was such a thing.
“Well what, Teal?” I said, more to test the feel of calling an adult by his first name than for any other reason.
“Well, what do you wanna do?” he asked. It was a strange question coming from a rumpled semi-famous stranger, who, moments before, had seemed only to want to escape the morning-after ensnarement in which he had found himself.
“I’m cleaning the house,” I said. “And after that, I’m going to make Renee his breakfast.”
“Who’s Ren — ”
“My brother,” I interrupted.
“Right. The four-year-old. Wow. This is some heavy shit. You ever feel like you fell down the rabbit hole, Sebby?”
“Never mind. I’m going to make breakfast for the both of you.”
Before I had a chance to protest, he started to move around the kitchen like he knew exactly where everything was. It freaked me out. A lot of people went through that old house, but I got to recognize their faces. This was the poet’s first visit. Goose bumps bloomed on my arms as I watched him. Time stopped. My world went slow-motion on me as I took him in.
The way he moved, too. It was an extremely familiar dance he made from the fridge to the stove to the cupboard. He had a precise synchronicity of movement I recognized, but I couldn’t place where I knew it from.
It was comforting to see an adult move with so much determination. The ones who normally crashed through our house were drunk and disorderly. For the first time in forever I felt like I could sit down and let somebody else take care of business. I sat at the kitchen table and watched Teal while I dreamily traced the many circled design on the table’s surface with my finger.
“How do you like your eggs?” Teal asked as he cracked four of them into the cast iron frying pan that had magically appeared on the front burner. He began to beat them vigorously with a fork.
“But you’re already mixing them scrambled?” I asked, smiling.
“Yeah, I just like to ask so it appears like I know what I’m doing. It’s the only kind I know how to make.” He walked toward the fridge. “Hey. Do you have any buttermilk? It’s so much better than milk in scrambled.”
“I don’t even know if we have milk. Dad didn’t give me any money this week.”
He stopped and looked at me. A troubled expression washed over his face.
He did his best to make it disappear before I caught it, but I saw it. I never miss those looks. It was a mix of disgust and pity. I could read him loud and clear.
He did not approve of my father’s parenting skills. He reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a pile of crumpled bills. Tossing them on the table in front of me, he went back to the stove, removed the frying pan from the burner and turned the flame off.
“How about you run to the corner and grab some milk — and buttermilk if they have it — and I’ll wait here. I’m sure I saw a store down there somewhere last night. Oh, and while you’re at it, get some orange juice. I bet Renee would be happy to see a tall, cold glass of orange juice when he finally gets down here.”
I grabbed the money and put it in my pocket. “Okay, but you have to watch for him if he comes down before I get back. He gets into everything, Teal. I mean everything.” I walked to the side door and left him to the solitude of the kitchen.
The corner store was only three houses down from ours. The only tell-tale indications that it was more than just another house were the sign above the eaves and the glowing Coke machine on the front porch. The Coke machine was empty. You actually had to go inside to buy a Coke. Mr. Clarke didn’t trust anyone enough to keep the machine loaded.
The Clarkes had run the store since before I could remember. They were always happier when I came in without my brother. Renee never got out of there without knocking something over or causing some sort of disturbance that weakened the already frail, elderly Clarkes. When I went there without Renee, Mrs. Clarke always slipped me something on the sly so Mr. Clarke wouldn’t see her doing it. It was my reward for showing up alone.
“And where’s Renee this morning, Sebastian?” Mrs. Clarke said when I walked into the store. “Don’t tell me your father is home again. Lose another job, did he?” She said this with much scorn, making sure, once again, I knew exactly how she felt about my father.
“No, Mrs. Clarke. He’s gone to work. His friend is home with Renee.”
“Well, good,” she said. “No need of you dragging that poor little boy from pillar to post and back, him getting into everything and causing such a stir.”
Her skin was losing its noble fight with gravity, pooling at every dip and dive of her heavy frame. Mrs. Clarke was as big as a house, but sinking with age like a mansion in ruin. I always imagined I would come into the store one day to find a pile of old bones in the spot behind the counter.
Renee and I were afraid of Mrs. Clarke. She was harmless, just a miserable old woman who had no time for rambunctious children. That was the word she used for Renee: rambunctious. She said it so many times in his presence that he cringed in anticipation every time he walked into the store. His loathing of the word didn’t stop him from living up to its meaning, though. Renee just couldn’t help himself. He left a trail of destruction behind him after each visit.
I placed a carton of buttermilk on the counter beside the bottle of orange juice I had just deposited there.
“What’s this, Sebastian?” she said with surprise. “I don’t recall you ever buying — ”
“Teal asked for it. For scrambled eggs,” I said.
“Teal is a colour, my child,” she said as she rang up my things. “Have yourself some Bottle Caps, Sebastian. They’re your favourite, aren’t they?” Mr. Clarke was nowhere to be seen, so there was no need to be surreptitious.
“Thank you, Mrs. Clarke.” I grabbed the package of Bottle Caps before she had time to change her mind. I think Mrs. Clarke might have secretly liked me a little bit. God knows I was there often enough. We never really did groceries in our house. It was more about picking up a couple things at the corner store, just enough to get by on a daily basis. I never knew when my father was going to have money, and he wouldn’t let me walk all the way to Cirone’s Grocery by myself.
Just before the door closed behind me, Mrs. Clarke mumbled, “What kind of a name is Teal?”
I had pondered that myself in the time between reading Teal’s name off the album cover and saying it aloud to its owner. Since mulling it over, though, I came to the conclusion his was the perfect kind of name. Better than my name, that’s for sure. Almost all the kids at school made fun of mine, and not very many of them could even pronounce Sebastian. Renee, back then, managed only Bashtin, so that was the name I answered to most. Outside school, I spent most of my waking life with Renee.
I heard them laughing before I even got back to the house. A pang of jealousy shot through me before I had a chance to squash it. The second thought that came to mind, though, was why shouldn’t Renee get to have Teal too? In the five minutes I’d known the man, I liked him more than I had ever liked any other human being. The excitement of his newness put him miles above my father, which, admittedly, was not much of a feat.
I walked into the kitchen in time to see Teal swinging Renee like an airplane in his outstretched arms. Renee’s thick black hair blew out behind him, and his head was a mere inch from brushing the ceiling.
“Careful, Teal!” I said. “He’s the only Renee we’ve got. You can’t break him on us.” Renee squealed with pleasure.
“Hey, Bashtin!” Renee said, giggling. “You see Teal flying me?” I didn’t like how comfortable he was with Teal already. Given the assortment of strangers who wandered in and out of our lives, though, it didn’t surprise me.
“Yes, Renee,” I said. “But you better come down from there now. You have to get dressed before breakfast.”
His laughter stopped. “But Renee don’t like breakfess. I wanna fly, Bash. Teal’ll fly me first.” All the while, Teal continued to fly him around the room. I was amazed he didn’t fall flat on his face. I don’t know what I missed while I was gone to the store, but I had a feeling the flying was Teal’s way of distracting Renee from being his normal boisterous self.
“Come on down now, Renee. I need your help, big boy,” I scolded. I looked directly at Teal as I spoke. He pouted just as much as Renee. But he managed to make the landing as enjoyable as the flight. Renee went giggling up the stairs to get dressed while Teal went back to the stove and returned the eggs to the burner. Turning the burner on, he took a step back as the bluish flame beneath the pan popped into life.
“Were you always a party pooper, Mr. Sebby?” Teal asked, as he gestured for me to bring him the buttermilk. I handed it to him, and he pried it open and poured some into the pan, whisking the congealing eggs up into something closely resembling scrambled.
“Renee would have let you do that for hours. But I know what’s best for him. He should only get excitement in small quantities.” I began to set the table.
“Small quantities of excitement! Whoa. That’s harsh. How old did you say you were? You are way too old, man.”
“I’m almost nine,” I said defensively.
“Oh yeah. How could I forget? There are a lot of almosts around this here house, Sebby. I’d say your father is almost a father. Renee is almost five. You’re almost a kid, but almost an old man. You have to let your hair down, little man.”
He kept whisking those eggs like he wasn’t quite sure they were dead. He was a hundred percent right: I didn’t do the kid thing. He made me feel like a kid, though, so his words didn’t make sense.
“You don’t get it, do you?” he asked, stopping his massacre on the eggs just long enough to stare me down. “Sebby. You should have come in here hollering that you wanted a turn. You’re eight, for Christ’s sake! What has your father done to you?”
It was my first uncomfortable moment with the poet, but not my last. He had the ability to make people re-examine themselves. Even though I was only eight, he was able to make me question myself. Perhaps especially because I was eight. I shrugged. I had no defense, really. I had stopped being a kid long before Teal woke up on our couch. But somehow I was okay with being the grown up. I hadn’t really thought about my lost childhood. It just sort of happened.
Somebody had to keep our house moving. If I stopped doing things, everything would grind to a halt and what little semblance of normalcy we had left would instantly evaporate.
He acknowledged my shrug with one of his own, moved to the bread box and hauled out the half loaf of bread he found inside. He put two slices into the toaster. I felt the vibes coming off of him, those thinking vibes people get when they’re deep in thought and your brain feels all icy and fuzzy at the same time — like when you eat ice cream too fast.
He looked at his watch, his eyebrows arching in concentration.
“You know what? I should call off the studio thing today. I have this hangover and it feels like it’s going to be an all day thing.” He held his temples and watched the toaster with exaggerated intensity. “The last thing I need is to surround myself with loud music and even louder musicians. Why don’t we take Renee to the beach after breakfast?”
I looked at him like he had suddenly sprouted a third eye. Who was this man who thought he owed us his time? Usually when the strangers woke up around our house they couldn’t get out fast enough. And here was a man making breakfast for us — buying breakfast for us — and offering to take us to the beach?
As much as I felt myself being taken in by his charms, there was also a feeling that things weren’t quite right. Fighting with this was the familiarity I felt when he started working his way around the kitchen. Not for the first time I wished we could go back in time and he could miraculously become my real father.
But it was wrong to feel that way. He was just a guy, a drunk who happened to wake up on my couch.
“Shouldn’t you be going?” I suggested. “My father will be home at lunch. He’s gonna wonder what you’re still doing here, Teal. He usually — ”
“Oh, to hell with your father. I can deal with him. I’ve known him long enough to know how he shuffles his cards, little man. You leave that to me.”
For someone who claimed to know my father well, he had appeared pretty shocked to find out the man had children. Nonetheless, I wanted to take the gamble.
“We eatin’ eggs, Bashtin?” Renee asked as he bounded into the kitchen, nearly knocking over the cup of orange juice I had poured out for him.
“Yeah, Ren,” I said. “Teal wants to take us to the beach after. You have to eat all your breakfast, though.” I had given in that easily. Telling Renee about the beach had instantly solidified my decision.
“I’m eatin’, Bash. I will. And in the beach we can splash?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Renee.” Teal laughed. “But maybe we can fly like airplanes again, eh? If it’s okay with Sebby, that is.” He turned and batted his eyelids exaggeratedly in my direction. The orange juice almost went over again, as Renee twirled around to see if I’d agree.
“Yes, Renee. But you have to eat your breakfast.”
“Good deal!” Teal brought the eggs and toast to the table and started divvying them out between the three plates I had set out.
“Yeah. Good deal,” Renee chimed.
And that was how Teal Landen seamlessly wormed his way into our lives. A stranger from one of my father’s all-night parties who had found himself accidentally abandoned to our living room sofa. And, as he was perhaps just as broken as we had been at the time, he decided to stay. Not that he moved in. It was never as official as that. But he never quite left, either. He became as permanent a fixture around our house as beer, women, and loud music. And somehow his presence made all the rest seem just a little more tolerable than it had been without him.
About this Story
This story is available on Amazon. This novel was originally published by Musa Publishing. The publisher has since closed its doors. It has since been republished by the author.