What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk

We’ve been together most of your life. And, I have only one rule.

An eighty-four-year-old widow, hands trembling and crying on her marital bed—remembering her ninth year on earth and the death of her mother in 1919. Too afraid and confused to say, They took turns flicking holy water on my mother’s casket before it was lowered. First dad, then Josephine, the Eddie, then—when it came to me I couldn’t. I threw it on the ground and ran home. Her face wet, she sat in silence.

The girl who walked home each day after school with the sixteen-year-old boy, suddenly and silently absent from her seventh-grade class.

Sitting by themselves in front of their Sylvania halo-of-light console television screen. Lights down and volume up as minds veered from her husband’s burned sister dying in a foreign state to her three children soon to be motherless. The single available channel tuned to Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town.

A German war bride, during the annual church supper at the municipal building, her palm held across her stomach, unable to empty her mind. She remembers. That poor girl in the basement house next to us. Her father renting her out to men for fifty dollars a month. No wonder she did what she did to him. Then turned away.

Daniel’s best friend, the ten-year-old no one talked about, dead within days. His mother’s friend standing in their kitchen on the evening of the funeral, stared out the screen door, her arms clenched across her chest, thought but never said, His family was haunted by that image of their ten-year-old—waxen and pasty-faced. With the rest of his body covered. Just a few days before they were water skiing.

A young woman, eyes fixed on the hospital floor tiles, shivers in silence near the window of a group therapy room, body shaking, her thoughts on childhood, her voice silent after she struggled to approach a nurse—sheltered behind the nurses’ station. The young woman shuddered—remained silent. Before I started school. If my father’s friends were over, he’d dress me up like a go-go dancer. Her breathing hitched. He would stand me on the table, and say, Dance for me, darlin. Then pat me, and hand me to his friend.

An old man cries in a crowded room six blocks from his childhood home. When he was a boy, his father would prance wildly in front of him and cross his eyes—imitating his son’s strabismus.

A grown man, his face in tears, arms scarred by burns received when, as a three-year-old, he urinated on his father’s boots. His father spread lighter fluid around the boot, dumped the three-year-old in the center, and tossed a lighted match into the circle.

A thirty-nine-year-old man, in a dead-end treatment center in a small town in the western part of the state—in recovery for cocaine addiction—decided not to risk telling his counselor about pressing a pillow into his lover’s face and shoving it down for long minutes—after months of attending to his dying partner who lay splotched, festering, and boiling from a disease not yet named.

A middle-aged woman isolating in a corner of a hospital room, after learning her father was killed for reasons yet silent. For decades quiet about a phone call from her father’s paramour, answered by her—then five years old. The child’s contralto voice mistaken for her mother’s.

That call followed by a divorce; her father’s imprisonment, their visits through a twelve-by-twelve glass window, then silence. She watches nurses remove the needles from her father’s veins as the room is prepped for the next person.

You know who I am.

We’ve been together most of your life.

And, you know my one rule.

Thomas Elson

Thomas Elson’s stories appear in many venues, including Ellipsis, Better Than Starbucks, Bull, Cabinet of Heed, Flash Frontier, Ginosko, Short Édition, North Dakota Quarterly, Litro, Journal of Expressive Writing, Dead Mule School, Selkie, New Ulster, Lampeter, and Adelaide. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas.