Death, the Moon & Dry-Rubbed Steak
by Joseph Lezza

I have seen death in the phases of moon. Each one an absinthial blend of color and light. Each one both an absence and a presence. 

I have seen death in the new moon; in a pervasive and suffocating blackness. It siphons the complexion from your world, leaving you bloodless and breathless. Arms extended and wildly splayed, you work your way through the pitch, grasping for walls and patting the floor in search of a feeling. 

The new moon rose the morning I heard my mother screaming my name. I woke in a blind fury and tumbled from my sleepy perch on the living room couch. Hitting the floor and wriggling myself free from a tangled web of blankets, I saw Mom crouched over the hospice bed. The bed we’d rolled next to the transom window during Dad’s final days, so that he could still take in that marvelous view of the water. This place was his vision, the home by the sea he’d coveted his whole life. 

I recalled the hot summer nights he’d spend sitting on the porch of our old house; the house that sat on your normal, everyday cul-de-sac in your normal, everyday suburb. The humid, east coast air carried the scent of his freshly lit Romeo y Julieta as I played under the weeping cherry in our front yard and felt the rhapsodic harmonies of “Sloop John B” slip through its billowy branches. Night after night, he’d sit there staring out at the black pavement, wishing for it to melt into salt water. A wish so fervent at times you could hear the tide lapping at the shoreline. Night after night, he’d sit until the light drained from the sky and a man dissolved into an orange circle of tobaccoey cinders. 

Finally, at 67, his harbor-front palace became a reality. But, the long awaited dream home would only know nightmares. For, just as quickly as the closing papers were signed, did cancer make a comfortable home out of his endocrine system. And, as I ran to his bedside that clear July morning, my hand reached for his chest as the cresting whitecaps glistened in his still-open eyes. And there, palming his ribs for signs of life, is where I found death, the new moon; nothingness where something once was. 

I have seen death in the crescent moon, the flame that struggles and dances and gasps for air at the end of its wick. An incandescent, carbon-particled, bluish burn living just on the outskirts of darkness, demanding to be light where all other light dare not go. 

The crescent moon hung, waxing blithely as my Mustang hugged the corner of Route 35 that bent past the old Arbor Terrace Senior Home. For years, I’d made a point of avoiding eye contact with that place, having spent most of my high school career volunteering at all manner of convalescent homes. Even now, years later, the sight of one triggered a bitter sense memory of stale, sterile sadness; a cocktail I’d never acquired a taste for. Turning my eyes away, however, I shifted my gaze and landed on a figure. And, as it came into focus, I saw it. Lying on the side of the road. A corpse. 

It was the abandoned Steak & Ale that had closed nearly a decade ago, though I knew the last time I’d been there was long before that. There were no boards, no graffiti and, overall, very little evidence of decay, save for the busted “e” on the plastic sign that rendered it STEAK & AL. It was as if all of the diners, waiters and owners had collectively decided to go home one night and just never return. And, so, it sat there, unwanted, unnoticed and unattended for years; a memorial to herb roasted prime rib and Hawaiian chicken. 

Orange and white traffic drums hung from the chain that blocked the entrance away, swaying in the breeze like a toddler swinging his legs in a vinyl booth, anxiously awaiting his roast beef and french fries. That was the fun part. The difficulty always lied in getting past the vegetables but, each time, it happened in the same unavoidable way. The waitress, probably named Jackie or Karen (they were always named Jackie or Karen) would deliver Dad’s root beer, Mom’s water and my Shirley Temple and leave us in a cloud of Davidoff Cool Water For Women. I’d grope my straw and get a good three or four stabs at the cherry sitting at the bottom of the glass before my parents whisked me towards the salad bar. While Dad went straight for the beets and hard-boiled eggs, I’d fall in line behind Mom and watch as a deluge of broccoli, carrots and baby corn descended from the sky and onto my plate. 

When the moment presented itself, however, I’d quickly abscond to my father’s side at the dressing station. Without even looking down I could always tell he knew I was there from the way one corner of his lip would curl upwards. “Red or orange?” he would ask. “Orange! Orange!” I’d shout to the ceiling. “Tell me when,” he’d reply as he scooped and ladled and scooped and ladled, eventually giving up when every single speck of green was hidden under a thick blanket of Russian dressing. Mom would watch in frozen horror as I’d return to the table with my platter of salad soup and wash it down with heaping gulps of sugary fizz. And, as the bubbles ticked my nose, I’d catch a smile creeping through her quizzical stare while Dad sent the ice in our glasses clinking with vigorous laughter. 

I sailed past the restaurant that night as I’d done a thousand times before. But, in my rearview mirror I watched as a memory peeked over the building’s hollow bones, a flicker in the void, a scrape of light through the darkness; the crescent moon. 

I have seen death in the half moon, a world awake and a world asleep. A war between two paramount forces set ablaze on a starless battlefield. Clashing and charging, shield to shield, churning up the dirt with their heels and never once looking around to notice that they haven’t moved an inch. 

“I thought there would be more lava people,” said the mess of auburn hair and pale skin behind me, as she fished a stick of gum out of her purse. When my best friend Erin had decided to accompany me on my sojourn to a family wedding in southern Italy, I’d failed to tell her just how much walking would be involved. The ultimate big city girl and lover of all things steel and automated was a fish-out-of-water amongst the ruins. A skyscraper in the desert. And, as one of her heels sunk into the uneven cobblestone streets of ancient Pompei, I grabbed her elbow and broke her impending fall. 

There was a positively eerie feel to the place as the September sun beat down on the first century walls and sidewalks, baking the thousands of tourists brave enough to venture through this hot clay oven. Narrow alleyways and long courtyards revealed to us all manner of weird and wonderful relics. Empty plinths sat where statues one stood. Fossilized corpses littered the streets, arms extended, reaching for someone or something dear to them in their last moments. It was as if life had been freeze-framed and, at any moment, Rod Serling would round the corner and begin to assemble a plot device. 

But, what would have been completely lost to me as a child now left me positively bewildered. We wandered through forests of columns with no roof, so tall you’d swear they held up the sky. We sought shelter from the buttery-thick swelter under a canopy of stone pine. I flagged down the drink vendor’s pushcart and exchanged the last four euro in my pocket for two sopping wet bottles of Chinotto. And, as Erin wandered off to dip her feet into a fountain walled-in by ancient graffiti, I sipped my bittersweet soft drink and rested my back against one in a long line of smoothed out trunks. 

            That day I marveled at how so much life could fill a place of death; how, despite being at odds, two potent and opposing agencies agreed to coexist in a sacred place. I stood on the border of two worlds with a passport in my back pocket and watched as the half moon mixed lilac into the blue, creeping softly over the simmering horizon. 

Off in the distance loomed Vesuvius, the great destroyer, the sleeping giant. Its stoic silence betrayed a total lack of shame, surveying its damage and taunting anyone who had anything to say about it. This quiet moment of reflection, however, was to be short-lived. A young boy, too busy to notice rivers of melting gelato running down his arms, noisily crossed my path, kicking a rock and shrieking as it became airborne. His mother pulled up the rear and gave winded chase, yelling something in German that I couldn’t understand. And, as he led her through a passage into one of the hundreds of mazes that snaked through the city, I glimpsed the world in a way I hadn’t ever before. I saw a young couple sharing a slice of focaccia as they sat in the doorway to what was once someone’s home. I saw a father teaching his young daughter how to spin a top on the altar of a centuries old place of worship. I saw Erin tearing pieces off of her panini and tossing them to the gaggle of birds that waded around her ankles. “Check me out! I’m feeding the Pom-pigeons!”

That day I marveled at how so much life could fill a place of death; how, despite being at odds, two potent and opposing agencies agreed to coexist in a sacred place. I stood on the border of two worlds with a passport in my back pocket and watched as the half moon mixed lilac into the blue, creeping softly over the simmering horizon. 

I have seen death in the full moon, a wholeness amidst the nothingness, the aught against the naught. A glow that sifts through the shutters, it jostles the sleeper awake, tricking the eyes and bathes the weary skeptic in belief.  

My mother still lives in that house by the sea, the house where Dad silently slipped out the back door the morning he took his last breath. People often wonder, to this day, how she can stand to reside in a home so mired in death. It began at the funeral, really. Once the requisite “Sorry for your loss(es)” and “He’s in a better place(s)” had been uttered, the subject of real estate inexplicably became of paramount concern. It happened the same way each time: One of the faceless humanoids would grip my shoulder reassuringly and draw near, brow furrowed, and mutter some derivation of “Your Mom’s not gonna keep that house, is she?” 

Absence of tact aside, I couldn’t help but find it astonishing how no one seemed to realize that, at one point or another, we have all lived in a place where someone has died. It’s as if we operate under the assumption that a fresh coat of paint, some treasured tchotchkes, and a couple of throw rugs can somehow absolve an objectionable past. But, what’s more, I couldn’t help but find it impossibly hilarious that anyone might have the unmitigated nerve to assume they know your story better than you do. Loss is subjective, and it’s punishingly individual. In that individual loss, however, are a thousand threads that continue to tie you back to a person who’s no longer there. And, my mother’s house is a veritable quilt. 

Considering his brief residency, Dad’s overflowing love for his seaside fasthold waterlogged the place so profusely that the paint was on constant verge of chipping. His cigar cabinet still sits in the same corner where it’s always sat and, on summer weekends, I’ll stop by to pop open the door and check if there’s enough water in the humidifier. But, more realistically, to catch a whiff of that familiar scent that always seemed to perfectly compliment a triple-spritz of Givenchy. The fig trees he so delicately transported have taken root in the backyard, blooming once a year with a flourish of fuzzy green buds. And, with their return, I pluck the first one I see from its branch, bite off the end and suck out the honey sweet seeds just exactly how he taught me to. I feel him in that place more so than I’ve felt him anywhere else. He lives in the studs and the joists and speaks in knocks and creaks.

As for why my mother continues to live there, that’s no one’s business, really, and I don’t ask her about it. But, if I were to wager a guess, I’d say it’s because she feels a comfort there, the same comfort that envelops me when I visit. More than that, though, I believe she lives there for all of the days that my father didn’t get to. 

I can sort of see why those on the outside might view that house as a tomb. But, the fundamental misunderstanding there is that a tomb is a dark place, a place for death. That house was built for life and though, yes, death did visit, it was only for a moment. Life, however, stuck around. And each object, each remembrance, is the reflection of love and light that pushes through the darkness like a full moon in a hollow sky.

Joseph Lezza is a branded content marketer in New York and a part-time student in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Texas at El Paso. Joseph’s work is often influenced by the juxtaposition of physical and emotional space. 

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