A Set List for Common Prayer

Short fiction contest: second prize winner

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If you lived in a city indifferent to your existence, failure wasn’t suspect so much as an alternative lifestyle. Every morning, the couriers, clutching newspaper parcels, would pedal across the same neighborhoods and with delicate accuracy leave welcome mats filled with unwelcome news.

Occasionally, the strength of an autumn cold front coming in would disturb the trajectory with unfortunate results. On these days (and other days), the collective sound of coffee dripping from espresso machines, in all the likely houses, created an echo of mutual understanding.

Here was a calm not yet registered and not yet taken as truth. Like many things, uncertainty was a feeling that could not be deterred by forceful consciousness — it would remain as the hours went away.

Driving past trashcans and recycling bins claimed as victims to the current, Elaine had come to terms with having forgotten the night before.

She considered not going. Half drunk and 17, it would have been forgivable if she had chosen to remain home. The sensation of the first of many hangover-induced migraines paralyzed Elaine as she desperately attempted to keep both hands on the steering wheel.

With the radio trailing off slowly behind her, Elaine drifted into the songs she had revered the night before. Surrendering her foot to the gas, Elaine fell into the rhythm of the lane change, unconsciously attempting to merge where she was from and where she was going.

– You’re being unreasonable, Elaine.

– You’re a terrible mother, Susan.

Over time these words were a constant reoccurrence in Elaine’s household. They would become pervasive reminders, like the cigarette stained floral wallpaper or the fireplace that now functioned as a display.

And, while the house seemed to be slowly collapsing, it could only hint at the real trauma.

It was apparent to everyone but Elaine that she had tempered her disgust for her mother to defend against the realization that she might actually love her.

Despite this, Susan hoped that her daughter might one day marry a good man who would paint their walls, fix their fireplace and never leave her. That Elaine was too busy scandalizing her mother, by dressing in a post-everything sensibility, spewing nihilistic nonsense or blaming Susan for making her father leave, seemed only natural for her age.

If only she had realized that her mother would have met her half way, or that all mothers, long after the appropriate age, seek to rock their children gently to sleep.

If she had known this, Elaine might have realized that her own existential angst indicated an obnoxious inflation of her ego and confirmed, ironically, that at least for her, life mattered. To Elaine, it seemed that even now redemption was far outside the realm of possibility.

The more she thought of it, the more angered she would become. Elaine woke up one day to find that there was an irreconcilable chasm of ideologies. Having not yet learned the difficulty of ideology, she persuaded herself that her mother had ruined her life and never considered the other latent possibility.

– I’m going to a concert tonight. I’ll be home by three.

– Elaine, you promised to stay in and watch Whose Line is it Anyway? with me.

– I don’t remember making that promise and even if I did, I don’t owe you anything Susan.

– Try to get home earlier then.

– I don’t even like Whose Line is it Anyway?

It seemed problematic to Elaine that she had won the war that easily. In a short and succinct manner, she had convinced her mother that she had never made the promise that she had and lied about her obsession for an old and lame television show.

The fact that she didn’t really know the band playing, only made it apparent to her how confused her heart really was.

Arriving late to the concert with her boyfriend, Elaine had managed to squeeze past those who had been there hours before. Although she was sufficiently drunk, she had managed, by flashing a smile at the bouncer, to conceal a water bottle of rum and coke. Finishing the alcohol seemed to enable a more pleasurable experience as the once dissonant melodies slowly sounded more immediate and sonorous.

The people around Elaine had begun to sway in a motion that slowly enveloped her. Staring into the eyes of her boyfriend and then others around her, she felt a similar reverie. Their anger towards her for pushing forward had been pacified as they were caught in a form of rapture: every lyric became a loaded message of clarity and every note resonated in a new spirituality.

They would listen to the lead singer as she spoke, through the ambient sound systems, at some sort of immortal soul. Slowly repeating every lyric, as the audience became a choir and the concert transformed into a sermon, Elaine was reminded of younger days, of family and Christianity. In unison, they chanted.

In unison, they waved their hands. And, in unison, they seemed to be changed in an ordinary moment.

As the generated smoke and synthetic lighting faded into an encore, Elaine began to cry. These were tears for her wasted youth, for admission and for an uneasy repentance. Suddenly, it seemed to Elaine that she might have been wrong.

Perhaps it was entirely plausible that it was her father who walked out on her mother. Perhaps it was logical that her mother, in an attempt to love her, had allowed the distance between them to grow.

Perhaps she was, in the end, being unreasonable. Or, perhaps, it was merely the alcohol to blame.

– I need to go home.

– I thought you were staying over tonight?

– There’s something I forgot to do.

Elaine would repeat the sequence of events for a long time, hoping to understand the unspoken motive that had escaped her.

She would remember the distinct warmth of the porch light as she gently opened the door. She would remember the sublime feeling of the wool carpet as she entered the house.

She would remember seeing the half-eaten dinner on the rosewood table, craving to finish it but compelled to find her mother.

Climbing the stairs to her mother’s room, she would remember finding her mother, in her favourite nightgown, lying in bed with an empty bottle of pills.

What came next was significantly harder to filter through. Had she called the paramedics before attempting to find a pulse? Had she left the front door unlocked to minimize the amount of time needed?

Had she done everything that was necessary and required? Had she done anything at all?

These questions would remain for years to come as the unexpressed foundation of her new relationship with her mother. Elaine, fearing the truth, would never ask her mother the only question that would ever matter.

And Susan, out of love, would have never told her, even if asked. The motive would remain buried between them, not for convenience, but out of necessity. It was, in the end, the nature of things unsaid that would allow them to continue counting the days, months and, eventually, the years.

The room was now vacated of paramedics. As the television hummed silently in the background, playing syndicated reruns of Whose Line is it Anyway? Elaine had shut out curious audiences by retreating behind the closed door.

Slumping onto a distressed leather sofa, she stared at the ceiling fan as her mother’s still-lit cigarette billowed into the air. Pushing the noire IKEA coffee table in front of her, she felt the weight of her knees buckle through an invisible force. Elaine found herself in a familiar position. She had devoted Saturday mornings, on her knees, staring with dilated pupils at the television screen and repeating catchphrases such as “Hey football head!” or “This womps!” When Elaine clasped her hands forward, it became clear to her what she was attempting to do. Unsure of how to proceed from here, Elaine began to repeat the anthem she had learned that night in a slow monotonous voice:

Used to be one of the rotten ones / And I liked you for that / Now you’re all gone, got your make-up on / And you’re not coming back

Waiting for a revelation, desiring an epiphany and hoping for a miracle, Elaine would remain steadfast and stoic in her prayer until the early morning.

The divination, when it came, had proven to be a false start, a moment of weakness that inspired no spiritual improvement but an open recognition of her failures as a daughter. After all, she was once asked, “what was faith if it didn’t endure when we are tested the most?” Elaine could hear Drew Carey speaking now, an angel inside her head, “Welcome to Whose Line is it Anyway? where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.” It seemed to Elaine that she might have learned something that night. But as she got up to drive to the hospital, she was unsure what that might have been. Elaine began to diminish, bit by bit, until what “self” remained was irreconcilable with the girl from last night.

She wondered what her friends might think, of an atheist attempting to pray, kneeling for hours in an attempt to find God. But she would have taken any god that day, if they had let her.

Walking down the street to her car, with a renewed sense of hope towards her mother and an epiphany of some sort, the studio audience’s laugh track wouldn’t be far behind.

Sometimes, Elaine thought, you have to pick the places you don’t walk away from.

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