|Apr/May 2008 Fiction|
A year after my mother died, we were still playing psychiatrist. It was one of our favorite pastimes. My father had already remarried another woman in town, another one he'd known all his life, and we moved into her house, which meant I had to ride my bike an extra mile to get to Jerry's. That was no problem, because I was eleven and getting stronger by the minute, and I had a lot of anger with which to attack the pedals.
That was one of Jerry's favorite lines: "You have a lot of anger, young man." He'd put that stupid monocle in his eye. The tarnished thing came from the flea market and was only used for playing German guys or psychiatrists.
Jerry's father was a real psychiatrist, but he didn't have a monocle. What he did have was a practice and an apartment in New York City, three hours away. Sometimes he came home on weekends.
Jerry's mother was quiet and sad and rarely left their big house. She painted abstract paintings on the porch, and I mean on the porch. The wide planks and even the pillars were covered with passionate scenes from the life of some long-haired, lopsided heroine only she knew about and could not explain. "I think that's her other self," Jerry told me. "Sometimes I go out and talk to that woman, because I'm practically invisible to my real mother."
Because of that, and because my newlywed parents encouraged me to be out and about, we had our run of the town. The hills and the woods and the fields were ours. We didn't know or care whose property we were on, and nobody else seemed to care, either.
We spent a lot of time at "The Farm." It was not a farm at all; it was a cabin on the side of a mountain owned by Jerry's father. "The Farm" was printed on the mailbox.
There were some overgrown gardens around the cabin and a crooked barn where an old tractor rusted next to a Chevy Corvair. Mainly there were just woods with a few old logging roads. The cabin was kept locked, and Jerry had yet to find the key. He'd been through all the drawers in his house, especially the ones in his parents' room.
What he did have a key for was the Corvair. It was a maroon and rust death-trap, speckled with barn-swallow shit. It usually took about half an hour to start, but it always did start, even in the dead of winter. Jerry drove because he could reach the pedals. We'd go popping and snorting along the narrow logging trail at about five miles-an-hour. The floor was rusted through in spots, and we could have been poisoned by carbon monoxide, but we didn't know about that.
As he drove, Jerry would analyze me. When he put on the monocle, he'd sideswipe trees because he was really only seeing out of one eye then. "Tell me about that day, young man. The day your parents went to Buffalo and you shot up the house."
I put my head back. I had to talk loud over the sound of the motor and the rustling of leaves through the holes. "That was a day in October. But it was still hot and very dry. It was so dry the house seemed brittle. When I ran out the front door and slammed it, I hoped the house would crumble. Then I hoped the dry ground would crack open and swallow it up."
Jerry shook his head. "You have a way with words, young man." Saplings whipped the window and drummed in the wheel wells. A jutting stone took another chunk of floor. "Go on. Then you got your gun?"
"My bee-bee gun was there on the porch. I shot at the front windows. Two of them cracked."
Jerry always lost it at that. He giggled, and the monocle popped out. He swerved down an embankment and up again. "You were really pissed!" He pulled himself together. "I mean, why were you so angry, young man? Because they weren't taking you with them?"
"I don't know. I guess I just wanted them to ask me."
"And where were they going?"
"To Buffalo. To another hospital."
"Did they tell you she might not come back this time?"
"No. They kept that from me. I thought it was just another treatment. They were protecting me, you see."
"Oh, I've heard that one before. Protect the children. They won't be able to handle it."
Jerry stomped the gas angrily and we spun around a curve in the trail. "Excuse me. I'll try to control myself. Do go on."
"I dropped the gun and ran across the road and hid in the bushes. In a minute my father came out, looking around and looking mad. He didn't even notice the windows then. He yelled out. 'Paul! We're going now! Come say goodbye!' I kept quiet. He was making fists."
"Is that when you left your body?"
"Yes. I don't know what happened, but I fell back and left my body like a shell there in the bushes."
Jerry always stopped the car for this part, out of respect. This part was like a prayer. He turned the car off, knowing it would be hell to start again. We put our heads back, and he said, "Go on, young man."
"I sailed in on my father like a movie-camera, moving all around his head at different angles. His eyes were not really angry or sad, just kind of empty. Then my brother came out and stood next to him, and their eyes moved together. They had their arms folded, and they looked like bodyguards scanning the area for danger before they brought my mother out. She came out with Gram holding her arm. Even though it was hot, she wore a white sweatshirt with a hood to protect her from the sun. Her face was white and sunken in from being so sick. She looked like some tiny boxer that had lost way too much weight before a fight. Nobody had tears in their eyes. It was like they were all dried up, like the year. And I wasn't going to cry, either."
Jerry put his forehead on the steering wheel. "And you wouldn't answer them when they called."
"No. Not even when I came back to my body."
"Your brother could have found you. He could have told you you might not ever see her again. He could have dragged you out."
"He didn't move, and I hated him for that. And I think they hated me."
"Then what happened?"
"Then Lily started calling me and waving. She was on her porch and saw me hiding. I don't think they thought anything about it, because she was always calling me. Sometimes at night if the windows were open, you could hear her calling me. So they just put my mother into the back seat. My father was the last to get in, and before he did he stood with his hands on the dusty roof of the car looking right at where I was."
I sat up and hammered the dashboard with a fist. There was a riot of dust and mouse turds.
"You see, it wasn't your fault. They should have told you." Jerry's eyes were teary, the one warped into a lake by his monocle.
"When they started to drive, I jumped out and ran down Lily's lawn towards her. I saw my mother's face looking out the back window at me. I still see it."
We sat in silence for a while. A wind howled high in the trees and crackled some leaves under the car. Finally Jerry told me to get out and do the dance. I did a sort of rain dance around the car while Jerry worked the key. Then I climbed onto the roof and continued a spinning tap dance until it finally turned over. There was no explaining how it worked.
Around the next curve Jerry suddenly stomped the gas. The engine popped, and we sailed over the bank, caught some air, and landed against a rotted stump, which exploded into a fine dust that settled on the windshield.
Coughing and holding his chest, Jerry shouted, "There! That's for our parents! We're dead! No warning!"
"Are you crazy?"
Jerry picked the monocle off the dashboard and handed it to me. "Yes. Let me tell you all about it."
That week there was a car crash on Lebanon Mountain that killed four teenagers. It was a spectacular one involving flattened guardrails, a tree severed halfway up, and a ton of empty beer cans. A decapitation was rumored. That gave us the idea for our fake car crashes. We snuck around town finding empty beer cans and loaded them into the Corvair. On my side they were knee deep. There was a terrible smell. Some of the cans had cigarette butts in them. Jerry gave no warning until he would suddenly twist the wheel and say, "Oh... my... God," in his deepest voice, meant to sound like slow motion. We'd then crash into a tree, just tap it really, and leave our seats in extreme slow motion, throwing up some cans at the same time, hitting the windshield with our heads, arms cocking at odd angles to simulate multiple dislocations and bones shattering within flesh. Sometimes we'd arch backwards over the seats like broken, slow-motion pole-vaulters, tumbling into the cans in back. Other times I would just cling to the dash in a contorted manner while Jerry hung over the steering wheel by his neck. We'd hold our positions for a while in silence, listening to the birds and the imagined sounds of crashing death in our heads and the voices of souls welcoming us to the other side. Then we'd sit back, and Jerry would produce his monocle and sigh.
"Now that you're dead, young man, tell me what you see."
"I see my mother's face. Wherever she is, she's put on weight and her cheeks are pink. Her hair is all wet, like she was in the rain."
Jerry tapped the wheel thoughtfully. "Or your tears." Then he looked at me and his eyes grew. "My god. It's back. Look at your face."
I looked in the mirror. The handprint was there on my left cheek, unmistakable, skin blanched around the outline of the fingers. I felt its heat.
"Tell me about the next part," Jerry said. "When you went to Lily's house."
"She was on her porch yelling to me. I kept running down the lawn. There was a cloud of dust behind our car, so I couldn't see my mother anymore. Lily's mother was standing behind her, and she looked huge. She seemed to be growing the same way my mother was shrinking. When I got on the porch, I saw that her mother was holding this knife. It was dripping some kind of juice from her cutting fruit. Her face was really red, and she looked really mad."
"Did she say something?"
"I don't know. Lily said, 'Come up to my room. My dad sent me some new stuffed animals.' And we just ran up the stairs. She had piles of stuffed animals. Her father had left for a while and sent her a couple every week."
"'Where are they going?' she asked me. 'To Buffalo,' I said. She wrinkled her little nose and said, 'I have a buffalo.' She dug around and handed me her stuffed buffalo. I said, 'What kind of name for a place is Buffalo anyway? It sounds like it's in the wild west, and that she'll have to ride a bull for her to be cured.' 'It's stupid!' she said. She took the buffalo from me and threw it against the wall. Then I threw it across the room and creamed the lamp off her table. She took some scissors out of her desk, and we stabbed it, pulled out the rags inside and threw them all over the room. She started this screaming laugh, and I screamed, 'I hate buffalo!' She pounded her bed with her tiny fists."
"And then her mother appeared, of course."
"She stood in the doorway, looking huge and angry. But she didn't have her knife, at least. She came and grabbed me really hard by the arm and even twisted it. 'Did you say goodbye to your mother?' she said. 'Why didn't you?' She had me in a corner of the room. She was still growing. Lily started crying and crawled under her bed. 'I hear that you never say goodbye. Why don't you cry?' She grabbed my shoulders and shook them. 'Why won't you cry? It's okay to cry.' Then all of a sudden she brought her hand across my cheek, a burning slap, and in the next second she was holding me against her and squeezing the hell out of me as the tears were pouring down my face and onto her. It was the first time I cried the whole time my mother was sick."
"Shit," said Jerry, shaking his head. "And to this day the mark of her hand comes back. My father would love to hear about this. But of course it's just between us, doctor and patient."
In the spring this veteran guy my father knew, Ted Hendricks, got naked and climbed the mountain behind his house and dove off a sheer face of rock onto some boulders below. They found the pile of army fatigues at the top of the cliff. We visited the site about a week after but were disappointed to find no teeth or blood or anything. That's when Jerry came up with the great G.I. Joe idea. We both had some, but I could only find one in the trunk in my room. Mine was already wounded, as my dog had chewed off his left foot. Back at the cliff, we followed some bootprints. "Hey, they must be his." There was a little pile of cigarette butts. "I bet he sat up here awhile," Jerry said.
We stripped our soldiers of their crusty uniforms. "It is a sad day," Jerry told them. "But you give your lives for a greater cause."
"Well, for the sanity of young men everywhere."
We stood our brave men on the edge. Their serious combat expressions were unchanged. I guess anything was better than being stuffed in a trunk forever. Jerry looked at his man and called him Sergeant Nutless. "My guy is Private Nudey," I said. "Even though he has no privates. He is no hero. He was just a lousy cook, and he doesn't like himself. See, he already shot his foot to get out."
Jerry whipped out the monocle. "This is no solution, soldier. Maybe I can help you."
I turned Nudey to look at Jerry and made a tiny but deep soldier's voice. "Eat shit."
"Then die, bastard," Jerry said, and he flicked Nudey with a finger and sent him the thirty feet or so onto the boulders. There was a little thwok sound, and then we couldn't see him. Nutless followed quickly in the same manner. He had no last words. We stood and saluted, then climbed down to find them.
Nudey was wedged head first between some rocks. Nutless was standing with one leg driven into some soft ground. The swivel nature of their joints gave them poses utterly disgraceful for soldiers. Nudey's arms and legs were behind his shoulders. He looked like something out of the circus of the naked flying eunuchs. Nutless had his free leg up in front, about face high, and his arms over his head. He looked like a chorus girl.
Jerry looked up at the cliff and said, "It's not really much of a drop. What if it didn't kill him the first time, and he had to keep getting up and dragging himself back to the top until it worked?"
We took our guys and struggled on our hands and knees up the bank. We pretended to be partially broken men, dragging with broken ribs and twisted limbs over rocks and brush, moaning in pain but also laughing like hell.
At the top Jerry said, "Then every time he dragged himself back up, he had to have another cigarette to get up the nerve again."
"Yeah. And he smoked with this droopy, broken hand, and with blood running down his face."
Like detectives we examined the pile of butts for traces of blood. Finding nothing, we went back to making our soldiers do their suicide dives and then going to see how they landed. We entertained ourselves this way for most of the afternoon. So many cheerleader splits and yoga positions and chorus girl kicks. Along with their serious combat faces, it was just too hilarious. After a while I started filling with a strange sadness, even though I still laughed with Jerry. No matter how many times we threw them, these guys were truly indestructible. They would be coming back forever, and we wouldn't. I started thinking about what our lives might have in store and how destructible we might become.
Our fun stopped when a huge thunderhead appeared from nowhere. There was a single crack of thunder. We figured it was Hendricks, getting us for making fun of him. We went back under some trees, but the rain came horizontally to punish us. When it stopped, we sat on a wet boulder and tried to smoke these cigarettes Jerry had swiped from his mother. We had to go through a bunch of damp matches, and then the cigarettes didn't burn so well, and we started coughing besides. Anyway, on my first puff the handprint on my cheek returned.
"Look at that," Jerry said. "The hand of guilt. Do you think you'll ever be able to get away with anything?"
"Listen," I said, flicking the limp cigarette over the cliff. "Let me tell you about the last part, when my mother was driving off down the road."
Jerry reached into his shirt pocket, but the monocle wasn't there. In a panic we scrambled and slid on the bank for about an hour looking but never found it. Finally we came and sat back down, and Jerry said, "Tell me anyway, young man."
"I have to admit that this part didn't really happen. I made it up, so that I could have an ending."
"Sometimes we have to do that."
"What really happened was that Lily's mother made me lie on Lily's bed and close my eyes. I went into this deep sleep. When I woke up, it was dark out, and my grandmother was sitting on the bed saying that we'd go back to the house, now. But this is my ending: While I was on the bed, I had another out of body thing. I flew up behind our car in a cloud of dust. My mother was still looking out the back window. Then something changed. It got pretty dark all of a sudden, and I heard my father say, 'Jesus, where did that come from?' He slowed way down. His face and my brother's face were up to the windshield. There was a huge purple cloud in front of them, angry like the one we just had. It started to pour so hard, he had to stop the car. My mother's window was getting good and clean, though, so I could see her face better, even though it was kind of blurry with the river of water. In the purple light it glowed. Then all of a sudden, she rolled down her window and stuck her head out. She pulled off her hood, and the little bit of hair she had was plastered. My father was yelling at her, but I don't think she cared. I think she somehow saw me in the air next to the car, because she put her arms out towards me. Then the rain stopped just as suddenly. I heard her say to my father, 'Go back. Right now.' He mumbled something I couldn't make out, but turned the car around. Then I returned to my body as Lily's mother was pulling me up. 'Look,' she said. 'They're coming back.' And it was true. I ran out to the car. I could hear some movie music playing as we all hugged, and even my father and brother cried. Lily's mother brought out a towel to dry my mother's head, and then we all kissed her. After that it was okay for them to go. Of course she still didn't come back, but that's my ending."
Jerry sighed. "I like that ending." He put his arm on my shoulder, and we just sat in silence watching the strange pink light that had followed the rain into the valley. I tried to see my old house but couldn't. We looked at each other, and without speaking we knew we had to go home. We left our soldiers, ran down to our bikes, and rode off quickly in our opposite directions.