Canada |

When the Stillness Comes

by Arjun Basu

The noise from the neighbors’ party interrupted the father's slide show for the last time. A slide frozen on the wall: Furby on the couch, playing with a ball, in a photo the father had just seconds ago called “The boy cat thinks he’s LeBron James.” And then, right after he said that, a song from the party invaded the living room from their side of the lawn. The son recognized it as "Die by the Sword" by Slayer, but the father, Anthony Mooney, he didn’t care if it was Slayer or Sly and the Family Stone, the music was too loud, too late at night and, most of all, he was trying to show photos of his cats to his guests with a new slideshow app on his smart phone. He had at least one hundred photos of cats, hence his titling of the show, “100 Consecutive Photos of the Cats.” But the new neighbours—and especially their kids—were all about ruining the moment, his moments, and now they had ruined one moment too many. “Dear, I’m sure it will all end soon,” the mother, Doris Mooney tells her husband; she could see a vein crawling across the left side of his forehead and she knows what that vein foretold—and it was not a pleasant thing.

She got up and walked to the bar cart and poured him a scotch. She added a splash of water and she placed it on a coaster on the red antique table in front of him. Then she returned to the bar cart and put some margarita mix in a tall glass and filled it with ice and about five ounces of tequila. “What’s the next slide, dear?” she asked. Anthony took a sip of his scotch and pressed the screen on his phone. He said, “The boy cat was on the couch like people!” And then Slayer kicked the guitar up a notch and everyone in the room noted the throbbing vein on Anthony’s forehead.

Anthony and Doris had bought the house in the early Eighties. A large split-level in a development not yet developed. Across the street then, fields extended toward the horizon, interrupted by the highway to the city and beyond that, another world. The night they’d moved into the house, a young couple, Doris pregnant, they sat out in the backyard, taking in the endlessness expanse of yards before them, young trees barely taller than bushes, lawns just taking root, construction materials and back hoes in the distance, they held hands and stared off into their future, content, successful, the house a fulfilment of every promise they had ever made to each other. Then they bought a pair of cats.

Doris gave birth to Max and, two years later, she gave birth to Mindy and then, three years after that, to Sam. They would host backyard barbecues and birthday parties and extended family gatherings and sometimes Anthony and the neighbourhood guys would play poker in the basement and get drunk. Once, Norm Hornstein, who was a fine dentist, fell onto a glass table which shattered and it cut his mouth up really bad, but he was so drunk he laughed about it and asked for a mirror so he could examine the damage and when he saw his bloody mouth, he asked to be taken to the hospital and he could never smile properly after. The cats died, within a week of each other and the Mooneys bought new cats. Once Sam was in school, Doris returned to school as well and earned a degree in sociology and found work at a halfway house on the other side of the highway, now so far away, the land full of more homes and strip malls and big box stores and industrial parks. And then Max went off to university and Anthony sold his business and started a new one—this one online—and Mindy went off to school and Doris decided she wanted to open a café because the half way house was doing damage to her psyche and that's exactly what she did. The café was successful, the kind of place where suburban students hung out until they were chased out by the tables of old people commiserating among themselves of dreams that had died or dreams that were always somewhere beyond the split levels and concrete blocks of the suburbs.

“That’s loud,” Anthony says. “Is it me or is that loud?”

Dan Tribble, Anthony’s brother-in-law says, “That’s loud.” He gets up and stumbles over to the drink cart and helps himself to the Bacardi. "One Bacardi, two Bacardi, three Bacardi, four", he says.

Sam found himself on the floor, by the couch, as his father had started to futz with the new app that would project the slide show on the wall. Sam was drafted into helping his father with the app and then to start the slide show and once it had started, he had been trapped inside the room. He was supposed to be at the party next door, he had been invited, and now he was stuck with his relatives, with cat pictures, listening to his father complain about a noise he was to have been a part of. Sam stared at the photo of Furby sitting on the couch, the same couch his father was on now and yes, it was true, Furby was sitting as a person would—on his ass, leaning back on the couch, looking for all the world like he expected someone to hand him a beer at any moment.

There are very few photos of Princess, Max notes and his aunt Debbie, Dan’s wife and Doris’s sister, seemed to notice this at the same moment. “Where’s Princess?” she asks.

“Oh, she’s always scared when you guys pop up and she's hiding under the bed,” Doris replies and takes a gulp of her margarita and some part of her is activated as some part of her dies in equal measure.

“But there are no photos of Princess,” Debbie says, emphasis on the photos, as if this fact is the cause of the tension in the room caused by the Slayer coming from next door.

Sam stands and wishes his siblings were here, or at least Mindy, because Max would have been next door for sure, but not Mindy, she would have remained and perhaps diffused the tension causing the vein to rise on their father’s forehead because she soothed things, she was the sanity around which the family revolved.

The music died out and then it returned, louder, angrier, this was beyond Slayer and even Sam was unsure what they were listening to next door now, but he realized they were streaming the music and that no one at the party knew what the music was or was even paying attention to it, the kids next door didn’t seem like metalheads, but these days, anyone could be a metalhead, anyone could be anything.

Anthony puts the phone down and then he empties his scotch and he stands. “I’m going to that party, who wants to come?”

Doris makes for the drink cart. “I’ll come,” Debbie says and she gets off the divan and steadies herself. “Let me get a drink first.”

Dan stands by the drink cart and takes this in with the beginnings of concern. “Honey, I don’t know that this is such a good idea,” he says, but he says it without emotion, or authority, flat as the beer in his glass and he walks from the drink cart to the kitchen to fetch another from the fridge. He returns to the room and finds his wife and brother-in-law by the sliding doors. “You’re really going to that party?” he asks, with thoughts of the party as another chance for his wife to leave him.

Doris makes herself another margarita. Max eyes his mother wearily; she’s about to go over to that place where she stops making sense.

“The party calls us,” Anthony says. “And then I’m going to return and finish the slide show.” He puts his phone in his pocket—this slide show is not going to happen without him—and he steps aside to let Debbie out first because he sees himself as the eternal gentleman, even with his sister-in-law. He steps out to the yard and trips on the lip of the door and catches himself on the lawn. Debbie lets out a laugh and closes the screen door and they are in the dark of the lawn and in front of them is the noise, the angriest-sounding music either of them can imagine and they walk toward it, Anthony with purpose, Debbie with drunken curiosity.

The lawn was long and it attracted Anthony and Doris—the size of the lawn was so obviously symbolic neither had to speak of it. When they first moved in and showed off the house, the lawn was the ace in the hole, always, eliciting shrieks and moans. Anthony’s father had patted his son on the back upon taking in the expanse of the back yard and all it implied.

“A few more steps and we won’t be able to hear each other talk,” Anthony says. And then they reach that point, where the sound is a physical force and rattles their insides and Anthony puts his hand on the small of Debbie’s back, to steady her and to steady himself. They are upon the bushes that separate the Mooney’s yard from the Vikander’s lot. Anthony has a plan. He knows Mr. and Mrs. Vikander are out of town—the party makes it obvious—and he knows the Vikander boys are not all that bright—the Slayer made that obvious.

They walk through the bushes and take in the scene. Anthony spots the eldest Vikander boy, Ronnie. He is standing beside a garden table next to the small pool the Vikanders had dug up when they moved in last year. This was not a neighbourhood of pools and the Vikanders’ pool was the topic of gossip and envious chit-chat, not that the people in the neighbourhood couldn’t afford pools, but there was a public pool just down the street, why were these new people so anti-social?

Ronnie is surrounded by three or four lanky boys, their pale skin glowing in the flickering light of the citronella candles and tiki torches. On the table, red Solo cups, arranged in groups of five on either end. And in Ronnie’s hand, a ping pong ball. Anthony starts to laugh, because he understands what he’s about to do. Debbie can feel Anthony shaking with silent laughter and she looks around to see what he’s seen, to see if she can find the source of this humour, but there is nothing, just kids, neighbourhood kids smoking weed and drinking beer and ignoring the music that is rattling her head.

Ronnie leans over to her and says, “I have a plan.”

In the noise, Debbie hears “avalala” and she decides she’ll follow his lead. They approach the table and Debbie reaches down into a bucket and pulls out a beer and twists off the cap. Ronnie’s eyes meet Anthony’s and the color leaves his face and he scans the yard for help or escape or proof that his life is real and he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone and reduces the volume of the music. To pretty loud.

“Mr. Mooney,” he stammers. He hands the ping pong ball to one of his pale lanky friends and puts his beer down on the table. “Is the music too loud?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Anthony says. He points to the bucket. “Can I take one?” he asks.

Ronnie looks at the beer and then at Anthony’s extended finger and then back at the beer. He reaches in and grabs a bottle and twists off the top and hands the bottle to his neighbour. Billy Vikander appears now, nervous, trying to figure out if Max’s dad is here to call the cops. Anthony acknowledges Billy.

“Can I play?” Anthony asks.

“Play what?” Ronnie says.

“Beer pong.”

“Beer pong?”

Debbie lets out a laugh. She understands what her brother in law is attempting.

“I haven’t played in forever.”

Ronnie studies the table.

“I’m going to kill all of you at beer pong,” Anthony says.

Debbie lets out a yelp. Something like a war cry. She walks to the edge of the pool and starts to dance. She looks like someone trying to run through a car wash.

“Game on,” Anthony says. He lets out a yell, like he’s a wrestler or an ancient Greek warrior and he musses his hair and untucks his shirt. He takes his place at the end of the table and examines the cups. He pours his beer into a cup and then takes a long swig from his bottle. “Let’s go,” he says.

Ronnie prepares to throw the ping pong ball.

“The dichotomy of your existence is amusing,” Anthony says.

“What?” asks Ronnie.

“How’s your father?” Anthony shouts.

Debbie is pulling embarrassed lanky stoned teenage boys to dance with her. “Hold me!” she screams above the music. “Just pretend I’m your frisky aunt!”

Ronnie puts the ball down. “What about my father?”

“How is he?” Anthony yells and he gestures to Ronnie to throw his ball already.

Ronnie shrugs and gets set to throw the ball.

“Did he get his thing checked?”

Ronnie straightens up. “What thing?”

“Throw the fucking ball!”

Ronnie throws it and it bounces off the table and onto the grass.

Anthony retrieves it and tosses the ball into a cup and Ronnie takes the cup and downs it in one gulp. And then he gets ready to throw the ball again.

“What thing?”

“I saw your mom just a few days ago,” Anthony yells.

Ronnie lobs the ball and it bounces off a cup and settles on the grass. Anthony retrieves it and throws it into a cup and Ronnie reaches for it and gulps the beer down. “She was telling me about that time she caught you jerking off,” Anthony shouts.

Ronnie looks around and his friends are laughing, they heard the end of the sentence and then backward engineered the rest. “I’ve heard some embarrassing things but that is straight-up I-love-Justin-Bieber embarrassing!”

Ronnie throws the ball and it sails over the cups and hits Anthony catches it before it hits the ground. “Any of you ever get caught beating the meat?” he yells. He throws the ball and it lands in a cup and Ronnie has another drink.

The song ends. In the silence before the next song, Anthony yells “Your mother said you don’t have a very big dick.” Slayer's Seasons in the Abyss starts to play. Even Anthony thinks he knows this one but he's thinking of Metallica's Enter Sandman. Ronnie throws the ball and it lands in a cup and Anthony looks inside but it is empty. He takes a pull of his bottle instead. Before the drums start the song, he says, “We like to think size doesn’t matter but it does.”

If Ronnie were smart he would know that his life can only get better from here. His friends are high-fiving each other, their empathy as solid as the smoke from their bongs. Ronnie whispers in his brother’s ear and Billy takes Ronnie’s phone and runs toward the house. Anthony tosses the ball into a cup and Ronnie takes a deep breath and shoots down the beer. One of the lanky boys reaches into the cooler for more beer but Ronnie tells him not to. And then Enter Sandman-lite exits night and the world is silent and Debbie stops dancing and the Ronnie says, “Party’s over,” and then the impotent moaning of stoned protest. Ronnie stares at Anthony and says, “You’re not going to tell my mom and dad, are you?”

Anthony takes another pull of his beer. “Someone may, but it won’t be me.”

“Let’s go!” Ronnie yells and then the sight of stoned and drunk teens feeling the force of gravity, fighting the forces of gravity, fighting physics, standing, walking, doing things they didn’t think they’d be doing so soon. Leaving a party.

Anthony reaches into the cooler and takes a beer. “Nightcap,” he says.

Debbie dances over to him and she grabs his beer and takes a sip. “Thanks for the party,” she says.

“Good night, Ronnie,” Anthony says.

He places his hand on the small of Debbie’s back and leads her toward his yard and when they are half way to the house, Anthony lets out a laugh and Debbie says, “His mother didn’t really say that, did she?”

“I’ve never spoken to his mother.” He takes a pull of his beer. “I don’t think she likes me.”

Debbie dances into the house and heads for the bar cart. Anthony takes his place on the couch and pulls his phone out of his pocket. Doris watches them. “What happened?” she asks.

Anthony lets out another giggle. “They’re just kids,” he says. He touches the screen of his phone and Furby is on the wall again. “Here’s the cat sleeping,” he says. “And here’s the cat sleeping on Max’s bed. And here’s the cat sleeping on the couch in the basement. Look, you can see Princess in the corner!” he says, his eyes sparkling with joy.