He stands in the kitchen doorway, a black figure surrounded by the yellow light background, the small details of his face unseen from the darkness of the living room. His left shoulder leans slightly against the threshold, a pistol suspended from the left hand, dangling in the yellow space between the hip and the dark.
The other man sits on the brown couch in the living room, his face in one hand, crying. The sounds are muffled and light, but the anguish is deep and extreme. His breath catches in places along the line from oxygen to escape, and the body silently convulses with every catch. It is more than a bad day or even the death of a friend. It is the sight of life being gagged upon, forced upwards, and expelled into the cold air. The eyes tight-shut under the pressure of unclean fingers. The wetness and the dirt and the snot running slowly past the scars down the wrist to the elbow and soaking through a round point on the thigh of the jeans. The low smell of metal and medicine and the hum of the cylinder inside the shaved chest. A pistol in a cold hand resting in the lap.
The man in the doorway closes his eyes and remembers. The memories tell the story, and the story ends the same. There is no real purpose except the purpose we create. You make it or you don’t, and if you don’t, there’s no reason to wait. No one’s coming to the door to explain. It’s like sitting in the waiting room of an abandoned building. Eventually, you have to get up and leave. Eventually, against all hope, you must recognize the futility.
His eyes open to see his brother on the couch, the muted light touching his shaking arm and shining on the clear liquid. He has shit his pants again, and the stench overlays all other smells and drifts without restraint through pockets of air to the four walls.
The step forward is deliberate. The futility recognized. The strong are always the chosen. “Why is that?” he thinks to himself. “Why are the strong always the chosen?”
“Because they choose themselves,” he answers, five steps from the threshold, and two steps from his only brother.
And his brother looks up. And the pistol is raised, and the barrel points precisely, and there is the human hesitation, and then the pull of the trigger.
With the sound of the explosion in the cold room, misery ends, and yet for the living, only continues.
(Monday, January 17th)
I don’t know much about the law. Believe it or not, my experience with the criminal justice system was limited. It’s not limited anymore. The sound of the gun was unbelievably loud. I just stood there with the noise vibrating inside my ears.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t fail to grasp the weight of the moment, having just shot my little brother in the side of his head, but I’d already done all my crying beforehand.
I’d already spent years and years agonizing over the decision. It was almost a relief, to get it behind me, to move to the next step in the process. I called the police, and now I’m right smack in the middle of the next step in the process. But this part never really mattered anyway. My father was crazy as a fuckin’ loon. Certified, honest-to-God crazy. I watched the mental illness eat away my brother, from the inside out. It was just a matter of time, and it’s just a matter of time for me. You can’t get away from your blood, and my blood’s poison. I imagine tiny blue balls floating through the river of my veins, each filled with toxic liquid, the outer blue shells of jelly slowly melting away, releasing the poison into my blood until I end up just like the old man and Danny, rubbing my hands over my head and talkin’ crap. You wonder, does it sneak up on you, slowly, until you don’t know the difference, or does it hit quick out of the black, like a full punch in the face? I guess I’ll find out soon enough.
Because mental illness runs in the family, and because they can’t find a motive to satisfy themselves, and also because I won’t let them argue self-defense, my two court appointed lawyers decided to have me evaluated to determine my sanity at the time of the shooting, as well as my competence to stand trial. What do I care? Maybe the doctor can help me understand a few things I haven’t figured out for myself. So I agreed to cooperate. Before I met the doctor he had me take a bunch of written tests: Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, Wide Range Achievement Test, Bender-Gestalt, Multi-phasic Personality Inventory, and Competency to Stand Trial Assessment.
It was like being in high school again. At first I thought I’d just blow it off and fill in the dots, but I figured, what the hell good would that do? The man’s got a job, and besides, maybe I really am crazy. Maybe this is what it’s like.After all, I’m sittin’ in a jail cell for murdering my only brother, who I loved by the way, and I’ve got all these little tiny blue capsules floatin’ inside me, each one about the size of a cricket’s eye.
He was a tall, lanky guy, about six foot three, with glasses, maybe forty years old. Dr. Ellis Andrews introduced himself with a smile.We met in a conference room in the county jail, separated by wire mesh, but I could get a good look at him. He wore a wedding ring. It wasn’t too shiny anymore so I figured he’d been married a good long time. There was a watch on his left wrist, one of those digital watches with a black rubber watchband. Some folks wear watches like jewelry, for decoration, intended to impress. Other folks, like Dr. Ellis Andrews, wear watches because they really like to know what time it is.
“How you feeling?”
“Pretty good, I guess.”
He sat down and started shuffling through some papers. I saw the tests I’d taken days before. His face was a good face, clean shaven, solid, but not too hard. He wore a short-sleeved shirt, and I could see lots of dark hair on his arms, which was odd because he didn’t strike me as a hairy man.
“Joel, you know what I’m here to do, and I know from your tests you’re a smart man, so I won’t talk down to you. I need you to be open and honest with me.
Nothing you say in our conversations can be used against you. I’m here to learn about you and give the court an opinion on your mental state at the time of the incident and your competence now to stand trial. I’ll put together a written report. The District Attorney, and your lawyer, and the judge, will all receive copies. Do you understand?”
“Are you willing to talk to me, answer my questions?”
“I’m ready. I’ve got nothin’ left to hide. It’s like water built up behind a dam. Get it started and gravity will take care of the rest.”
I’ve always had really good eyes. I can see things other people can’t. Dr. Andrews jotted a few notes on a yellow pad. Upside down, through the wire mesh, in his scribble, I could make out most of his words, but I didn’t let him notice me looking. I figured it might come in handy.
“I hope those tests turned out alright. When I got arrested, they wouldn’t let me get my glasses. It was a little blurry.”
“I can help you with that. Just let me know who to call.”
“It’s O.K., I’ll get my mom to bring them up next time she comes.”
He wrote down, “Subject appears late twenties, white male, five feet ten, 170 pounds, brown hair, blue eyes. Strong eye contact. Intelligence test reveals high IQ. Education level high school graduate, one year college. No obvious indication in written tests of malingering or deception.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-eight. No, I’m sorry, twenty-nine. It’s strange to forget how old you are. It seemed so important when I was a kid.”
“I guess we’ll just start at the beginning, Joel. What’s the first thing you remember?”
“Yes. The first thing you remember as a child?”
“Well, I’ve got some early memories, bits and pieces, you know, like my mother’s face, but I guess my first complete vivid memory is when my father wrecked the truck down the road. He was a crazy son-of-a-bitch, you know?
I mean really. Screwed-up-in-the-head crazy. But how can you know that when you’re a little kid?
“I was about five, I guess. Danny was just a baby. My dad was off somewhere, and he called home. I could hear him screamin’ through the phone at my mother. That crazy screamin’. The kind my mother couldn’t control.
“You gotta understand.We lived underneath the man everyday. It was like a hurricane sittin’ off the coast. You got no way to know what it might do. And I guess she loved him like a person might love a hurricane. It’s necessary. You might as well love the fuckin’ thing, even if it doesn’t know.
“Anyway, he was screamin’ through the phone. Somethin’ about the dog. Somethin’ about me not cleanin’ up the dog shit in the backyard.And for some reason, he took the dog with him that day. He told my mother he was comin’ home to beat my ass, and she was tryin’ like she always did to calm him down. It was nighttime, and rainin’ outside, and he said he was comin’ home to teach me a lesson about bein’ a man in this world.”
“Was there mental illness in your family?”
“Yeah. I was told my grandfather died in an institution somewhere, but I never met the man. He died before I was born, which is O.K. with me.”
“Anyway, Mom hung up the phone and tried to tell me not to worry. But I knew different already. I knew what he could do. I’d seen it.
“We waited. I sat at the front window and waited for the headlights of the truck. But they didn’t come. I remember hoping he’d gone off again like he sometimes did. Gone off to wherever he’d go for days at a time.
“And then the phone rang again. I remember the sound made us both jump. My mother was afraid to answer the phone, but she did anyway, and I could tell somethin’ happened. My father wrecked the truck just down the road from the house. A neighbor lady called.
“I remember wishin’ he was dead. At five years old, I didn’t know what dead really meant, but I remember closing my eyes and wishin’ he was dead. Think of that.
“The dog didn’t even have a name.”
“We went out in the rain to see, me and Mom and Danny. She had him wrapped up in a blanket with his head covered. She got an old umbrella. I was in my pajamas. I remember they were blue. The kind with feet.
Mom made me put on my little boots. I guess she figured I was safer with her than back at the house alone. In case the crazy son-of-a-bitch walked away from the wreck and
came to the house through the woods or something.
“We could see the headlights of the truck up against a pine tree. The neighbor lady was out in her yard. As we got closer, I could hear the windshield wipers on the truck still slapping back and forth. There was no ambulance or cop cars there yet.
“My momma made me stand back a few yards. She put down the umbrella and opened the truck door real slow. The inside light came on, and I could see my father slumped over the steering wheel. A whiskey bottle fell out on the grass at my mother’s feet. When I think about it now, I wonder what she was feeling. I wonder if she was hoping he was dead, too. Or if she was worried about the son-of-a-bitch, like you might be worried about a wild animal caught in a trap.
“Anyway, he wasn’t dead. He started to moan a little bit. The window on the passenger side was either rolled down or busted out. I kept standin’ on my tiptoes in those little boots, tryin’ to get a look past my father to see the dog. But the dog wasn’t there. He was gone. I ran around the other side of the truck in the mud to look for him. I remember callin’ for the dog, lookin’ out in the black woods for any movement.
“The ambulance showed up. My momma had the neighbor lady take me and Danny inside her house. It smelled like mothballs. Our house always smelled like my father. I watched through the window as they put him in the ambulance, and I cried for the dog. The dog with no name. Maybe I was cryin’ because the old man wasn’t dead. I don’t know. I just remember thinkin’ about that black-and-white dog somewhere in the dark woods, alone, afraid, not understanding what happened, or what was gonna happen next.
“You know what I mean?”
“Was your father’s mental illness ever diagnosed?”
“I don’t know. I doubt it. I’m not exactly sure what that means anyway. If nobody gives it a name, can we pretend it didn’t exist? Does the illness make the diagnosis, or does the diagnosis make the illness?”
“Do you mind if I talk with your mother? Maybe she can provide some family history and background.”
I was careful with the question. I didn’t want to appear hesitant, but I hated the idea of my mother going through everything again. I glanced down at the doctor’s notepad. I couldn’t make out the first sentence. The second line said, “Possible manipulation.”
“Yeah, you can talk to my mom, but be nice please. She’s been through enough.”
I closed my eyes and felt emotion come up inside. I could have cried, but I didn’t want to.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m O.K.”
“Tell me more about your father.”
“He was a tall man, skinny, like you. My brother favored him. I look more like my mom. Maybe that’s why the old man was always harder on me than Danny. Or maybe he just knew I could take it.
“I don’t want it to sound like the old man was always a bad father. There were times, when he took his medicine and stayed away from the bottle, he could be a good father. He was a funny old bastard. Always tellin’ stories. He had a quick mind when his mind was right, but mostly I remember the times when we were scared of him.
“He smelled weird. It’s embarrassing when you’re a kid and your friends say your dad smells weird. He let his fingernails and toenails get long and yellow. Mom would have to sit him down and cut his toenails like he was a baby. She was always on his ass to take his pills, cut his toenails, take a shower. She’d hide the whiskey and some nights you could hear the crazy bastard going room to room looking for his whiskey bottle.
“He talked to God.”
“What do you mean?”
“He used to tell us God would say things to him, and he would say things back. When I was a little kid he told us God ordered him to plant twenty-seven Christmas trees. So he did. Twenty-seven Christmas trees in a row along the back of our property. He said God told him he would be alive twenty-seven more years, and so he would need twenty-seven Christmas trees.
“Every year after Thanksgiving he’d go out with his saw and cut down the next tree in line. We started out with little trees, just little scrawny trees in the living room with a few Christmas ornaments hanging off like earrings on a skinny street whore.
“He died on the fourteenth tree. I guess he wasn’t talkin’ to God after all. The other thirteen trees are still lined up in the backyard. They’re big now.”
“Do you believe in God?”
“That’s a pretty big question. Does the definition of insanity include belief in God?”
“Let me ask the questions, please.”
“I mean, my daddy believed in God. He believed he had conversations with God. And I know my daddy was insane. If I say, ‘Yes, I believe in God,’ does that put a check in one of your boxes? What if I say, ‘No, I don’t believe in God? Maybe the men who wrote the Bible were like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, they wrote the Bible like those guys wrote the Constitution. As the population grew to unmanageable numbers, somebody had to make the rules. Somebody had to lay the groundwork for a civilized world. So they came up with the ten commandments so we wouldn’t kill each other, or steal from each other, or fuck each other’s wives. They came up with heaven and hell, a reward for doing right, a punishment for doing wrong. They used the fear of eternal damnation as a tool, because nobody could prove they were wrong. Man’s natural fear of the unknown, life after death.’
“Don’t get me wrong. It’s a brilliant concept, the idea Jesus may show up tomorrow so you better do right today. And you better be nice to everybody because that guy you cuss or kick when he’s down, that could be Jesus himself. Your judge and jury, right there in the flesh.
“No, Doc, at the risk of sounding perfectly sane, no, I don’t believe in God, at least not the God who told my daddy to plant twenty-seven Christmas trees in a row behind our house.”
My voice had risen, and I could feel the skin on my forehead tighten like a rubber band around my skull. The doctor was taking notes, but I wasn’t looking. He seemed ready to change the subject, and so he did.
“How did your father die?”
“I was twenty-one years old. I’d been staying at the house, mostly because I was afraid to leave my mother and little sister there alone with him. Danny was in and out of the crazy house, and dad was mean as shit. He was a man of extremes.
“I remember the day before he died like it was this morning. He was thin and old like a skeleton, but that mean bastard could lock his hands on you like he had metal fingers. We got in a full-blown fight.”
I had gone over that day in my head a thousand times, at least, but saying the words out loud to the doctor was different. I had never lined up the words in sentences to make sense to someone else. It took me a few seconds to put together the idea.
“What was the fight about?”
“This girl died in our front yard. She was a teenager out driving around one night like teenagers do, and she flipped her car on the curve. It killed her. The car landed on the edge of our front yard at two o’clock in the morning. They carried her away in an ambulance, but she was already dead.
“About a week later, on a Sunday morning, I was sitting at the kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee. I saw the girl’s momma drive up and park on the road. She got out in her Sunday dress and put a little wooden white cross in the grass where her daughter died. I watched her dig up
some dirt and plant little pink flowers at the base of the small cross.
“She was on her knees. From where I sat I could see tears rolling down her face. The girl’s name was written on the cross. Jenny was her name, in little black letters on the white cross.
“I watched the lady lift herself up from the ground and wipe the dirt off her hands. She stood back from the cross, and I’m sure her mind wouldn’t let her stop seeing her baby coming around the curve that night, and the car flipping, and her daughter lying dead in the broken glass, her eyes closed. The lady finally left.
“A few hours later I heard my father go outside. He walked to the little cross with the flowers and stood there. I wish I could know what he was thinking. I wish I could know.
“He walked around the back of the house, and I heard the riding lawnmower start. I stood at the front window, the same window where I sat that night waiting for him to come home and kick my ass. I watched my father drive the lawnmower across the lawn and over the white cross.
I watched the wood pieces spit from the blades and the pink flowers scatter in the air.
“What kind of motherfucker does such a thing as that? You tell me, what kind of motherfucker runs over a dead girl’s cross with a lawnmower?”
I felt my blood pressure go up. It was like I was there all over again. Right there, at the window, watching that motherfucker do what he did. I looked up at the doctor, and he was looking at me real close, like he was seeing something worth writing about.
“I went out in the yard and yanked him off the lawnmower.
I think I would have killed him if my mother wasn’t there.”
“That was the day before he died?”
“Actually he died that night, in his sleep. Real peaceful-like. The doctor said he died around eleven o’clock that night, but my momma didn’t notice a thing until the next morning when he wouldn’t wake up.
“She slept in the bed all night with a dead man, just a few feet away, in the bed with her. It was probably the best night’s sleep she ever had.”
“Were you sad when he died?”
“Sad? I’m not sure what sad is. I was glad he wasn’t in the house anymore. I was glad my mother didn’t have to worry about what he might do the next minute. I wish he had just gone off in the woods and died like an old dog instead of dying in my mom’s bed, on her clean sheets.
“You know what? We buried him at night. We had a night funeral, almost like my momma thought she could sneak the sorry bastard into heaven when nobody was lookin’. Maybe God wouldn’t notice until Daddy was already in the door.
“Let me ask you a question. You do this for a living, study folks. How do you separate pure meanness from mental illness? My daddy was mean. He mighta been crazy, but he was mean underneath. Danny was different. He suffered, but he didn’t hurt other people. At least not on purpose.
“How do you separate those things?”
“Sometimes you can’t, Joel. Mental illness affects all kinds of people, nice and not so nice. Sometimes symptoms of mental illness can be violent outbursts or episodes of uncontrolled anger, but it’s not really possible to blame everything your father did on his mental problems.”
Dr. Ellis Andrews looked like a big bird. I could tell he wanted to take a peek at his watch, but he didn’t want me to see him look. At least he had enough respect not to appear bored while I spilled my guts. I didn’t care what time it was. In jail, who gives a shit if it’s 10:35 or 2:35? There’s nowhere to be. Nobody’s waitin’ at the movie theater or the mall for me to show up.
Even when I was out of jail, time didn’t matter much to me. The division of days is completely manmade, an artificial separation. In reality, it’s truly a flow of days like a river, one part inseparable from the next. You can’t break it up for organizational purposes any more than you
could divide the oceans into small square cubes and space them out neatly in the atmosphere. None of it matters anyway. None of any of this mat-ters at all. Dr. Ellis Andrews. His evaluation. My dead father. The tiny blue capsules floating, or not floating, as the case may be, inside my body. It just doesn’t make any difference at all. The world spun around just fine before I was here, and I’m sure it’ll keep spinning after they bury me in the dirt. There’s nothing I can do or say one way or the other that makes any difference.
A high school teacher once told me about the stars. He said most of the stars we see at night burned out hundreds of years ago.“How’s that possible?” I said. “I can see
them, right up there in the sky.”
“You can’t see the stars,” he said. “You can only see the light that left them hundreds of years ago.” He explained, “The light travels at 186,000 miles every second of every minute of every hour of every day. It’s like a flashlight in the heavens suddenly switched off. The beam of light keeps traveling through space at 186,000 miles per second. That’s how far away those stars were,” he said. “That’s how bright they once shined. All you’re seeing is the light that left the flashlight a long, long time ago.”
If that powerful star doesn’t matter, how could a person really matter? How many people leave their light behind, hundreds or thousands of years after they’ve burned out? None, if you ask me. I hate to think about the stars.When your father was a lunatic, and you watched your brother go crazy in front of your eyes, and you’re just waitin’ for the next shoe to drop, crazy-ass ideas like the star thing can’t stand alone.
Any odd thought, any strange fear, can be the beginning of the slow, or not so slow, slide into dementia. You can’t just take the idea for what it is. You have to wonder if it’s the final weird idea that may take you over the line. The line you won’t ever get back across, or maybe ever recognize again.
Still, the star thing freaks me out.
I said, “My dad used to tell my friends in the neighborhood he was a cheese salesman. He thought it was the funniest damn thing he ever heard. He told them the car trunk was full of cheese, different kinds of cheese, American, cheddar, mozzarella.And he said he drove around all day, door to door, selling cheese to folks. Big blocks of cheese.
“At first some of the guys believed him, but after he told the stupid story fifty times, they’d look over at me not knowing what to say.
“And the story always ended the same. He’d say, ‘And we’ve got a special today on Swiss cheese. I won’t charge you for the holes.’”
“What did your father do for a living?”
“There was a time he worked framing houses, but for the last years he just stayed home and cashed his crazy check from the government. When folks get something for nothing too long, it changes ’em. You know what I mean? It realigns their DNA. They’re not good for much after that.”
“Tell me about your mother.”
“Do you have to go somewhere?”
“Why you keep lookin’ at your watch?”
“I didn’t notice. I’m sorry.”
Dr. Andrews hadn’t actually looked at his watch, but now he wasn’t sure whether he had or not. I rubbed my forehead and took a glance at his notes. “Positive eye contact except when speaking directly about his father. Quick to anger.”
“Quick to anger,” I thought. He ain’t never seen “quick to anger.” Then again, maybe he has. Maybe he’s seen people in this very room rip off their own heads and flail about like the headless horseman, flinging blood in circles around the cream-colored cinder block walls. Maybe it happens everyday.
I looked him straight in the eye and said, “My mother is a good woman. Probably the best person I’ve ever known. And no, I never wanted to fuck her, if that’s what you’re gonna ask me next.”
We stared at each other a few moments. We both waited patiently.
“Do you have a sister?”
“I do. I never wanted to fuck her either.”
“Joel, do you want to end this session? I can come back later.”
I looked down at my feet and pretended to feel bad for the way I’d acted. Actually, I didn’t have to pretend. “I’m sorry. Can I ask you a question?”
“Is the definition of insanity a person’s inability to weigh the consequences of their actions, or is it the ability to weigh the consequences, but the inability to make the proper choice regardless?”
Dr. Andrews smiled. It was the first time I’d broken through. I had to pull him somehow outside the standard professional groove, outside the typical psychiatric trench warfare and into the open space of human communication.
“That’s a heck of a question, Joel.”
He wanted to answer, I could tell. There was a mind in there after all, buried underneath the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, and all that bullshit education. I bet he’d be just as freaked out by the star thing as me, he just wouldn’t admit it. To admit it would be to recognize the total futility of the next question. And to recognize the total futility would make him dead inside, just like me.
Who’s better off?
“My sister was our only hope. She was a lot younger, the furthest away from the old man somehow. I remember when she was little, her arms were always open. Me and Mom, and even Danny sometimes, tried to build a wall around her. Some nights I slept on the floor in front of her bedroom door.”
“Where is she now?”
“I haven’t seen her in a long time. She just left. She moved as far away from us as she could get, like the distance could lessen her chance of being like us. Like she could outrun her own blood. But you can’t outrun it, can you? It’s inside. It goes wherever we go. The old man lies beside us all.
“Her name is Lisa. I miss her, a lot.”
“Does she know about Danny?”
“Above Lisa’s bed my mother used to have a dreamcatcher. That’s what they call it, a dreamcatcher. It hangs above a kid’s bed, a blue crystal ball held in a copper wire circle.
“My mother said it would keep away the bad dreams and hold onto the good dreams, but really, it was my mother who was the dreamcatcher.
“She would take turns sleeping in our beds at night. I wished it was my night every night, but being the oldest, there was a part of me that was willing to skip my nights so Mom could be with Danny or Lisa.”
“Do you resent Lisa for leaving you behind to deal with the family problems?”
I thought to myself, “That was pretty good. He’s gettin’ down to the meat of the matter now.”
“Do I resent her?” I asked.
“Yes. Your sister ran away from the problems. You chose to stay behind. Do you have any resentment about your sister or your decision?”
“It doesn’t matter. It never mattered, and it never will. In fact, nothing in this world matters at all. Not one bit.”
We were at a standstill. The doctor shifted up in his chair closer to me. He pulled the eyeglasses from his face.
“If nothing matters, Joel, then why did you stay behind to protect your sister and your mother? Why did you stay to take care of Danny? If nothing in this world makes any difference, why did you try to make a difference?”
“Because I didn’t know better.”
He leaned back in his chair and slowly placed the glasses back on his face. There was a chip in the glass on the edge of the left lens. I wondered how long the man had neglected to replace the lens. I wondered if he sometimes saw a flash of rainbow light in the bottom of his field of vision. An illusion of light that wasn’t really there. Maybe it appeared in front of the yellow paper as he wrote. Maybe he liked it.
“Have you ever been diagnosed with a mental illness, Joel?”
I laughed. “Yeah, lots of times. We didn’t have insurance or money to see the right doctors, so Mom would take us to state doctors, or whoever the hell would see us. I remember first hearing the word ‘schizophrenia’ when I was about five years old. Maybe they were talking about the old man. I just remember hearing the word.”
I laughed again.
“I just thought about why my mom took me to the doctor that first time. My father whipped the fire outta me one morning. I don’t remember why. I just remember what I did to get him back.
“I was afraid of him then, but not too afraid to do what I did. He went off to work, I guess. My mother tried to make everything alright. She fixed me chocolate milk and let me watch TV, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the son-of-a-bitch. It was just eatin’ me up.
“I went to the bathroom and took a shit in the toilet. My mother was busy in the kitchen. I picked up the little log of crap and wrapped it in toilet paper. I snuck to my parents’ bedroom. I pulled back the covers and wiped the crap on the mattress under my daddy’s pillow. I rubbed it in hard, washed my hands, and then put the sheet and the covers back where they were.”
I smiled and shook my head. “Daddy came home that night. He didn’t apologize, and I was glad he didn’t because I’d already put shit in his bed.
“I just remember laying awake that night, waiting. I heard the old man yell, ‘What’s that goddamn smell?’
“I don’t know if he figured it out, or if Mom cleaned it up or what, but the next day she took me to see this doctor who asked me a lot of questions. He had me do things with blocks and circles. I think he’s dead now, the doctor.
“It wasn’t until a lot later I got medication, which is a big trick anyway, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Medicine is supposed to make you well. You take medicine when you get the flu or chickenpox or whatever. It makes you well, and so you stop taking the medicine.
“I must’ve had the same conversation with Danny a thousand times. The medicine would make him feel good, good enough to stop taking the medicine, and so he’d stop. And the same shit would start all over again. The next thing you know he’d be running down the street naked.
“One night I got a call from the cops. They found Danny walking down the side of the road at three o’clock in the morning, completely naked. Not a stitch of clothes on him.
“Cop said he pulled his car over and Danny froze perfectly still, like a statue. Cop said, ‘What the hell you doing?’ Danny just stayed frozen. Cop said again, ‘What the hell you doing?’ And you know what Danny said?
“Danny asked, ‘You can see me?’
“Can you believe that? He thought he was invisible. He thought if he took off all his clothes, nobody could see him. He was late coming home. He’d been drinking. So in his mind the safest way to get home without getting caught was to take off all his clothes: socks, shoes, underwear.
Put everything in a pile under a tree. And then walk naked two miles back home.
“When I came to get him at the jail, the first thing he asked was, ‘Can you see me?’”
“Did the medicine ever seem to help you?”
“No, it never did. It seemed to help my father and Danny, when they would take it, but I never got much good from it. Of course, I never thought I was invisible either.
“For some stupid reason I always thought they were giving me sugar pills. Even so, I felt like I could think clearer without it.
“It was different for Danny, though. He believed they were experimenting on his brain. He said the medicine messed up his seasons.He said he had seasons inside him: spring, summer, fall, and winter. They came and went at their own pace, always in the same order. It was the winter he couldn’t remember. He said he would go to sleep one night in October and wake up somewhere strange, not knowing how he got there.
“That never happened to me. Not like that anyhow.”
Somebody yelled out down the hall, “Get your fuckin’ hands off me.” The words vibrated down the hallway, and Dr. Andrews looked up over the top of his glasses at me. I think he wanted to see my reaction, the way a scientist might look for a reaction from a monkey who hears the cry of another monkey being tortured in the room next door.
He lowered his eyes and pulled out what looked like a page of form questions from inside his stack of stuff.
“Do you remember having any separation anxiety as a child when you were away from your mother?”
“Do you have certain questions you always have to ask in these things?”
“Yes, Joel, I do.”
“Who made them up?”
Dr. Andrews didn’t answer.
“I mean who made up the questions? Do you think the guy who made up the questions is smarter than you?”
“Maybe, Joel. Maybe not, but it would be helpful if you’d answer this question and then we could move along to one you like better.”
“I don’t really dislike the question. I was just wondering. Anyway, yes, I remember having separation anxiety. When she dropped me off on the first day of school, in the first grade, I thought it was the last time I would ever see her. In fact, every single day, for my entire life, when I’ve left my mother’s presence, I’ve imagined it would be the last time I would ever see her.
“You’ve got to understand. We didn’t just depend on her for food and tucking us in at night. We believed she was the only thing that kept us alive, literally, everyday.
“I didn’t say one word, not a single word to anybody, my entire first-grade year. I heard the teacher tell another teacher she thought I was retarded. That’s a hell of a thing to say in front of a six-year-old. I wrote down on a piece of paper, in very correct penmanship, ‘You are the retarded one,’ and left it on her desk. Fat bitch.”
“Did your mother teach you to read and write?”
“She did. She loved books. I guess they were her only escape. She would read out loud to us. I remember she used to take us to this secret place and read to me and Danny. She called it her church in the pines. It was a spot in the woods where eight or ten pine trees had grown twice the size of all the trees around them, tall with big round trunks. They were all bunched together. It was quieter than any place I’ve ever been. The sunlight would slice through in columns, yellow like butter. We would move our hands slowly though the beams of light from one side to the other.
“I wish I could go there right now. I would take you with me if you wanted to go, and show you the columns of light. If we could, if things were different, do you think you’d want to go?”
Dr. Andrews hesitated, and then nodded his head up and down slowly.
“Yes, I would want to go.”
He looked down at the form questions and asked, “Have you ever had any physical problems, such as asthma, allergies, diabetes, seizures, or headaches?”
“Did you ever get hurt seriously? Trauma to the head, broken bones?”
“When I was eight years old I fell out of a tree down the street from our house. I hit my head on a root. It knocked me out pretty good.
“A man in the neighborhood, a preacher-man, found me and carried me in his house. He had a wife and two girls. One of the girls was in my class at school.
“You know, it’s been a long time since I thought about it, but there was a feeling in that house. Different from my house. There was a gentleness. He carried me inside and laid me down on the couch. They put a cool rag on my head, and the lady gave me a glass of orange Kool-Aid. I remember it was orange. They were like a real family. It was calm inside that house .Maybe I was just delirious.”
“Did you go to the hospital?”
“The man drove me to a doctor. I think he paid for everything.My arm was broken. They put it in a cast.
“One day, maybe a year later, the girl didn’t come to school. They told us her daddy had a heart attack and died at his church. He was pretty young to die. The lady took her girls and moved away. I never could figure out why they lived on our street anyway. They just didn’t seem to belong there.
“It’s funny how we think the things we remember are somehow more important than the things we don’t. I hadn’t thought about that day in a long time. It could have been gone out of mind forever, like so many other things. And once it’s gone, it’s like it never happened.”
“Have you ever been arrested before?”
“Yeah, nothing big though. Nothing like Danny. He got arrested enough for all of us.”
“Tell me about your arrests.”
“Well, I went a year to college. It didn’t work out too good, but that’s another story. There was a bar down the road from the apartment I was staying in. All you can drink for five dollars from nine to eleven on Wednesday nights. If you want to, you can drink a hell of a lot in two hours for five dollars. We were shootin’ pool one night, and my buddies ended up leavin’ me. I guess I decided to walk home around midnight.
“I walked down the railroad tracks alongside the street. The bar was about a mile from home. Don’t ask me why, but for some stupid drunk-ass reason I decided to climb inside a coal car to take a piss. You ever been inside an empty coal car?”
“No, I can’t say I have.” “Well, first of all, the sides at each end are slanted like ramps. It rained that night earlier. I slid down the ramp easy enough to get inside, took a piss, and got ready to
“Well, there ain’t no ladder to climb out. The sides that aren’t slanted are too high for a normal drunk human being to jump up and pull himself out. I tried runnin’ up the ramps, but every time I slid back down on my belly. It was dark, so I couldn’t see I was covered in black soot from fallin’ down and rollin’ around in the mess.
“Pretty soon I was too tired and too drunk to have any chance of gettin’ out of that hell hole. I was probably soaked in my own piss puddle.
“It sounds funny now, but at the time it didn’t seem too damn funny, in the middle of the night, full of cheap whiskey, cold, wet with piss, black as a Sunday mornin’ nigger.
“Anyhow, I just started yellin’ and pounding on the sides of the coal car. Somebody must have called the cops. They got a kick outta the whole deal. I got arrested for public intoxication. Spent the night on the floor at the city jail because they didn’t want me sleepin’ in their clean beds.”
I laughed and shook my head. Dr. Andrews held back a smile. I was curious what his laugh would sound like. Would it be short and squeaky, the way some folks laugh? A cackle? Or would it be a deep belly laugh, the kind that makes everybody else want to laugh along at the same time?
He just kept jotting notes on a yellow pad. “Minor criminal history. Alcohol.Verify through NCIC records to determine truthfulness. Subject has habit of biting fingernails.”
“Were you arrested any other times?”
“Just once, when I was a teenager. I let a monkey out of his cage at the zoo. I was there with a school class, a field trip I guess. There was this one monkey, a little brown one, in a big cage with maybe ten other monkeys. He just kept staring at me. Just me, like I was his only hope in the whole wide world. Like I was the only one who understood.
“When the class left the monkey area, I went back by myself. I stood there a long time, me and that monkey just lookin’ at each other. Finally, I walked around the cage until I found a place where they fixed a hole with chicken wire. I pulled it loose until the hole was open.
“But you know what? That little monkey just sat there. He wouldn’t move, afraid to be free. Afraid to move a muscle. One of the other monkeys found the hole and got loose. Somebody must’ve seen me do it, because I got in all sorts of shit over it. I’m not sure I was actually officially arrested, but they took me down to the police station. They called my father.
“I sat on a bench in the police station and waited for my father to come get me. I sat there for hours, just waitin’ to get my ass beat by the old man. But you know what? He didn’t do anything. We just rode home in the truck, neither of us said a word. We went inside the house, and I could almost feel the belt leather on my ass, but he didn’t do anything. He didn’t say a word about it.”
“I noticed earlier you used a racial term to describe black people. Do you have negative feelings toward black people?”
“No. I didn’t mean anything by it. It was just a saying. I’ve tried awfully hard not to be like my father, and my father was a man who hated black people, and Mexicans, and most anybody else not like himself. He blamed them for everything he didn’t have. They took all the good jobs, he said. They got special treatment. Jews ran the government. Mexicans were taking over America.
“My mother couldn’t stand it. I heard the old man tell her he didn’t have time to get to know people one by one. So if he didn’t have the time, he had to bunch all of them together. Every black person was like the worst black person he knew. Every Jew, or every Mexican, or every Catholic, were like the worst ones he ever met or heard about on TV. I guess it’s some kind of natural survival instinct. An animal must be able to recognize another animal immediately as a threat or as no threat. My father believed everybody was a threat, one way or the other.
“Being lazy is an evil thing. It breeds hatred. My momma taught me to respect everybody until they prove, one by one, they don’t deserve respect. Not the other way around.”
“Have you had any suicidal or homicidal thoughts?”
“Well, I suppose I’ve had homicidal thoughts. I shot my brother in the fuckin’ head, didn’t I?”
“Besides your brother, have you ever wanted to kill anyone else?”
“Well, hell yeah. I wanted to kill my dad a thousand times. I even thought it through a few times, from start to finish. From cracking him in the back of the skull with a baseball bat to burying his sorry ass in the backyard. But I never did it. I probably should have, but I never did.”
“Now there’s a question worth asking. I bet that question isn’t on the standard form. I bet some guy sittin’ behind a desk in a Yankee university never thought of that question.”
“Do you have an answer?”
“No, I don’t, but I’m sure my inability to answer that question probably says more about me than any bullshit answer I could think up.”
“What about suicide? Do you ever think about suicide?”
“Something’s the matter with a man who doesn’t think about suicide, a man who fails to figure out control of his own life belongs only to him. You have to find the courage to explore the darkness in your heart. If you can’t find the courage, you can’t really know yourself, or anyone else for that matter.
“Anybody who says they don’t think of suicide is either a liar or an idiot. It’s the only real choice a man makes in his entire life, all the other choices are diluted, watered-down selections of one worn path over the other.”
We sat quiet for nearly a minute. Dr. Andrews wrote notes I couldn’t see. The pad was tilted as he leaned back in his chair. He was left-handed. The long, thin fingers seemed awkward wrapped around the blue ink pen. In the relative silence I could hear the sound the pen made on the page, a soft scratchy sound, words from the mind of the doctor, in reaction to my words, traveling down the long, hairy arm to the hand, and from the hand to the pen, and from the pen to the paper, and later from the paper to some typed report of the analysis of my existence. It suddenly seemed so arbitrary and ridiculous.
Different words, different doctor, different-colored pen, maybe a different result. Maybe undo what I’d done. But I wouldn’t undo it anyway, no more than I would choose to forget.
“I think we’re done for the day, Joel. I’ll be back on Thursday for our next session.”
He gathered up the papers in a brown binder. I watched Dr. Andrews rise from the chair, even taller than I first thought, and walk to the door behind him. His pants were baggy in the back; corduroy pants, believe it or not. The brown leather belt snaked around his waist, skippingthe belt loop on his right hip. The door opened and then closed. I knew the door on my side was locked, so I just sat still in the little room, alone.
I closed my eyes and hoped no one would come for me, at least for a few minutes. I saw myself climb inside my mother’s car, with Danny in the car seat in the back, and we drove down Highway 49 to the place in the woods, my mother’s secret place, the church in the pines. We walked down a dirt path past a cotton field in full white bloom, like a sea of bright snow, hazy in the breeze. We walked in the woods a short distance, Danny in my mother’s arms, to the spot where the big pine trees stood like ancient fingers reaching to the sky. I wrapped my arms around the biggest trunk, unable to reach even halfway, with the smell of pine sap close to my nose.
My mother opened a book, To Kill a Mockingbird, and read to us the stories of Scout and Jem. Her voice was soft and easy, and Danny just stared at momma’s face, listening to the flow of the words, the rhythm of one sentence to the next. And around the words there was a silence, a gentleness like the gentleness in the preacherman’s house, a calm before the winter. A sense of life with meaning.
I lifted my hand and moved it slowly through the column of yellow sunlight, feeling the warmth, watching the shiny specks of dust floating in and out of the column of light, and wondering.
I heard the clang of the keys on the metal door, and the turn of the lock, and the swing of the heavy door, and the touch on my shoulder.
“Get your fuckin’ hands off me,” I said.
Excerpted from BLOOD AND CIRCUMSTANCE © Copyright 2004 by Frank Turner Hollon. Reprinted with permission by MacAdam/Cage Publishing. All rights reserved.