CHAPTER 2: SAD MAN GRINNING

By the time he was fifteen, Joel had been abandoned and betrayed three times over.  First by his birthmother, then by his father, and finally by his adopted mother.  He was eleven before he even knew that his mother, the only mother he had ever known, was not his birth mother.

This he discovered by accident.  Sitting on the open porch of their 2-story house, Joel overheard a conversation between his mother, Catherine Harris and his new step-father, Rick Tanner.  When he heard his name, he had peered through the screen to look.  They were having coffee at the kitchen table.  His mother was explaining the circumstances of Joel’s adoption.  She and her husband, Doug Harris, were not able to have children, so they were looking to adopt, she told him.  They had gone to an adoption agency in Wheeling, West Virginia, as they were living there at that time.  Both of their families were from there, she explained.  Joel’s mother was a wreck and had committed suicide, she said, and she and her husband, Doug Harris were able to take Joel, or ‘Baby Q’, under their care when he was only a few weeks old.  Does he know? Rick had asked.  We never saw any reason to tell him, him being so small at the time, Catherine explained.  What good would it do now, his father being gone and all?  It would just be upsetting.  Besides, he has a new father now, Catherine chimed, smiling and caressing Rick’s forearms.  He couldn’t see Rick’s expression.

Joel pretended he didn’t hear his mother’s words.  He had backed away from the screen and swallowed the words and stuffed them so far down in his belly that he could only now vaguely recall putting them there in the first place.  But from that day forward he knew that the world was deceitful, unreliable, and unforgiving.  The information struck him hard and heavy, like the way a baby turtle discovers its own shell is its house and knows it will carry it on its back his whole life.  Joel lived in that house.  It was the beginning of the hole, and he hadn’t yet found a way try to fill it.

Less that two years earlier his father had died.  He had cancer of the bone marrow, but at the time Joel only knew that he lost his father because he was very sick.  Joel had attempted to cope, by carrying on as many nine year-olds would. He was put immediately back in school.  Church was a regular part of his life at that time.

But he increasingly became aware of his loss, more despondent…

The pre-teen Joel was dead.  By the time he discovered he was adopted, he knew that no man could replace his father.  Somehow, the more estranged he and his mother became, the easier he could envision her being his adopted mother.  She became a stranger to him.  But his father was his father.  Even though he was present only in memories, and Joel knew him superficially, the way a young child knows only certain aspects of his father, no one could replace him.

Then his mom began to ‘date’ other men.  Joel didn’t hate those other men, but he came to resent his mother more and more for it.  Now his mother, Mrs. Catherine Harris was no floosie.  Far from it.  She knew the Lord had his reasons for taking Doug.  This is a fallen world, she knew.  Without Jesus, without her friends from Gale Ave. Pentecostal-Holiness Church, without the Word, Catherine would have collapsed long before she did.  She also suspected that the Lord hadn’t meant her to stay widowed and single forever to take care of a young child.  Marriage is a holy union.

Joel scarcely remembers the first two suitors of his mother.  Their names are unimportant.  For Catherine, they were not right and they were not devout, even though they were long-standing church members.  A few dates were sufficient to prove that to Catherine.  Rick was the third and final suitor.  Rick was tall and thin, with matching thin auburn hair and a well-kept mustache.  He spoke softly but sincerely.  His tame speaking voice masked a powerful tenor singing voice, which was what brought Catherine’s attention to him in the first place.  One Sunday, he had graced the front of the church, singing “God’s not Dead, He’s still alive.” He just seemed so filled with the Holy Spirit and right then and there Catherine sought to befriend him.

She learned from church gossip that Rick too was single.  He had just gotten divorced the previous year and was in the process of church shopping.  His church evidently was good but too liberal, too compromising.  Catherine’s church frowned on divorce, but Rick’s case was warranted.  Rick’s ex-wife had gone down the wrong path, reading new age and other unbiblical material.  She had stopped going to church with him, despite Rick’s persistent witnessing to her.  When he had found a Tarot Deck hidden in her dresser, it was the straw the broke the camel’s back.  There was nothing wrong with these cards, she had protested.  Then why did you have to hide it, he asked.  You are so narrow-minded, she responded.  If I am, then God is, he answered.  Maybe so, she said.  Was this adultery?  Not sexually, but betrayal of some sort?  She simply refused to be guided or counseled, so Rick and she, realizing they were on very different paths, agreed to divorce after ten years of marriage.

Catherine had invited him over to fix the front porch door.  When he refused to be paid, but instead asked for one of those ‘wonderful home-cooked dinners’, Catherine was smitten.  After several repetitions of such amorous behavior, it was clear that they were more than mere church associates who occasionally exchanged favors.

It turned out that Rick was not the outstanding guy Catherine had believed him to be.

From an early age, Joel had abandoned that ubiquitous illusion that most are prey to: that they are in control of their lives, perhaps in the way one owns and drives a car.  With purpose, with ease, with control.  He never recalled having any of those things.  There were patterns, and people were beholden to them.

Joel’s reaction to all this was increased despondency.  His mother had made sure he ate dinner with him, but he ate in silence unless she or Rick asked a question.  In time he warmed up a bit, especially when Rick began to show him how to use his camera.  Rick had been a long-time amateur photographer.  Even before Rick moved in with Catherine and Joel out of his small apartment, he had set up a make-shift black room in the basement, until then the basement was used mostly for storage and laundry.  Now it became a virtual photo lab.  Rick took great group photos of the congregation and even began to be asked to do weddings of fellow congregants friends or family.

Joel’s father had a camera he had gotten in Asia somewhere when he served in the Korean War.  He doesn’t remember him using it, but when he was younger, he would occasionally open the dusty black carrying case and once he took it out and began to pretend to take pictures, until his father sternly told him to put it away.

So when Rick offered to show him how to world the old Minolta, Joel agreed.  Soon both Joel and Rick were developing whole roles of film together.  Images of local parks, the backyard, birds, raccoons, and even once a fawn that somehow found its way into the park.

Outside of this hobby Joel and Rick rarely did anything, finding everyday communication awkward.  But when taking photos and developing the film it was easy and natural, even exciting.

Until sometime the following winter, when Rick stopped taking pictures of nature and architecture and began taking photos of Joel.  It began innocently.  Rick said they were to try to capture the essence of human faces.

“You need to really see them,” Rick tells Joel.

He was referring to people’s faces.  Rick believed that one could–given the right angle, right lighting, right perspective–capture a person’s essence with a camera.

“You can’t just go taking close-ups of strangers,” he says.  So Rick and Joel begin taking close-ups of each other’s faces.  They first experiment with different facial expressions.  Smiling, laughing, frowning, silly faces, angry faces, surprised faces.  They experiment with different lenses, filters, angles, etc.  A few dozen of the results of these experiments hung via clothespins on makeshift wires strung up around the basement.  They hung alongside images of natural subjects like the gazebo at the park and the Old Mill outside of town.

“This is a virtual museum of human emotion,” Rick glows proudly as they survey their masterpieces, as they showcase them Catherine.

A corner of the basement had in fact become a miniature studio, with small lights and carpet backgrounds.  Rick even invested any extra cash he had in different camera equipment, developing chemicals, lighting arrangements, etc.  A large storage closet on the far end became a convenient black room.  Rick and Joel spent an entire weekend hauling junk out of the closet and converting it by installing a small cabinet to hold supplies and basins for developing.  It was the most they had ever done together.

By October, though, the experiments had gone further.

“What a wonderful thing the body is, Joel.  What a wonder God has given us,” Rick explains as he posed for Joel shirtless. Joel was to take photos of him in different positions.  He remembered not wanting to, but Rick explained, “This is the only way to really see a person.  In their natural state.”  He talks in the third person, as if it wasn’t just he and Joel in the room.

Joel angles the camera up to his face. He looks through the lens and Rick’s too-white chest, ringed by darker, redder arms, came into view.  It was a foreign object, the furthest thing from natural than he could think of.  Small, ugly patches of dark hair protruded from random spots on his chest.  Rick puffs his chest and flexes his arm muscles as he adopted various poses.  “Did you get that one?”  Rick asked and “How’s this one?”

Before long, shirtless became pant-less, and pant-less became nude. If this was natural, Joel wanted to be un-natural.  He felt sick to his stomach each time he snaps the camera.  Rick says that this was how Adam and Eve had come into the world and how we all come into the world.  Now it was Joel’s turn.

“How can we be true photographers with all these un-natural obstacles?” he asked as he pulled at Joel’s shirt.  Joel shakes his head.  “You’re not ashamed of what God has given you, now, are ya?”

Joel doesn’t know what God had to do with it.  He had been told that nakedness was shameful.  He had also been told that the body is the temple of the soul.  Which was it?  He wasn’t ashamed of his body.

Rick presses, “We want to really see a person.  And there’s only one way to do that.”

*          *          *          *          *

Joel felt Julie’s stare, but he didn’t look up.  His boots were untied, his yellow shoe-laces caked with dried mud from the trail in the woods.

“Do you remember anymore?” she asked.  Wasn’t this enough?!  What was the point of all this, Joel screamed inside.

“It’s all right if you don’t, but it’s important you know it wasn’t your fault…anything you did.” Julie said calmly but firmly.

I know that! Who ever said I thought that!

“You couldn’t have prevented it.  He was manipulative.  You were young.”  She continued with other declarations.  Then Joel felt Julie’s warm hand on his arm and her voice, far away, was a cotton sheet blowing in the wind somewhere.

“Do you understand?”

*          *          *          *          *

“Do you understand?” Joel hears Rick ask him as he stared him down intensely.  He stands there in the bright studio light they had both installed, bereft of clothes.  “Now you,” he motions.

He remains paralyzed internally, even though his body continued to move.  Dark, random images float to the surface of his mind, like slowly developed film revealing flesh and muscle, patches of hair and un-natural hardness, intertwined unfamiliar legs, foreign, fleshy lips.

It was cold.  Goosebumps.

Too-hot hands on his shoulders and back.

Other Places.

God’s Temple defiled.

A bulb shatters above.

Then a deep voice resounds, “Don’t worry, we don’t need the light anymore.”

Dillon’s Past

(Chapter 4 of Novel: Road Trip)

Dillon slid himself casually into the front seat like he’d done this a thousand times before after putting his duffle bag and guitar in the back. He put his hat in his lap and reached up and slid his hand over his pony tail, pulling a yellow rubber band off, then pulling his hair together close to the back of his head. With one hand he replaced the rubber band with the other, twisting it on as he pulled his hair through. He wore cut off jeans and a faded black button-up shirt that fit loose, like he had lost weight. It was old, but not dirty. In fact, I was caught by how clean he was, opposite of my typical image of a hitchhiker. I’d given a lift to people before, but usually for a few miles from one end of the town to the other. One time I’d picked this guy up when I was running across town. He said he’d give me five dollars to drive him to the mall, so I figured since I was going that way I might as well make some cash. He had reeked so unbelievably I about puked. I stopped and told him to get out, making an excuse like I had somewhere else to be. Dillon seemed pretty clean-cut really, even though he was certainly unconventional in dress and hairstyle. The only dirty part seemed to be his feet.

“No shoes?” I pointed to his feet.

“Oh.” He seemed surprised as if he’d forgotten he wasn’t wearing any. “Back there, “ he thumbed to the back. On hot days like this, I’d just rather not wear ‘em.” I wondered how he didn’t sear the bottoms of his feet on the pavement. I just nodded as if I understood.

“Going to California, huh?”

How did he know that? I must of looked surprised because he said, “Relax, I just overheard you on the phone back there.” He laughed casually.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I suppose about as far as you’ll have me. I’ve been out there a couple times. Beautiful state, man. Just beautiful.” He smiled and gazed off like he was momentarily making a mental visit there. He turned to me, “You?”

“Nope. Actually, I’m really headed to Colorado.”

“Oh, yeah!” He exclaimed like it was a hot chick or something. He looked sideways at me with one eyebrow turned up. “Been there?”

“Nope. First time.” I felt a bit embarrassed. The furthest I’ve been in my twenty years was right here on this stretch of highway.

“Colorado’s a beautiful, old & mean lady. You can settle in for a while, she’ll take care of ya, but she can beat you down too.” He told me as if he was talking about his old landlady. I didn’t quite know what to make of him.

“I’m from Ohio. This is really my first trip out here, and let me tell you I’m glad to be gone.”

“Don’t knock, Ohio. She ain’t no Colorado, but she’s gotta gentle charm to her.”   I was starting to see a theme here. Every state’s been a she for this dude.

“Oh, yeah, how’s that?” I had to ask, curious. I never noticed, charm, gentle or otherwise.

“Most people think fields of corn, Cleveland, steel industry. But she was also the ‘ol stomping grounds of the mound-builder indians. They had whole civilizations before Cleveland ever thought of being a city. Plus, you’ve got your Appalacian hills. And beautiful trees, lots of ‘em, like here.”

“Now, Tennessee…”

“Damn, you been to every state?”

“Never been to Georgia. Or Florida.”

“I’ve been there,” I said proudly, not sure why.

“What’she’like?” he slurred into one word.

“She? Never noticed her breasts!” I laughed to myself. I thought it was clever. Dillon didn’t laugh.

“No, man, it’s not the body, but the soul. Every place’s gotta soul.”

“And states are female?” I looked at him credulously.

“Some are, some aren’t”

“Well, how do you know which? There a big sign or something I’ve been missing all these years?” Attempting another joke. His face didn’t change and with all seriousness he said, “You feel the soul. You sit back, watch, listen, and feel.” And as he said each word slowly, he clasped his hand together behind his head and slid down the seat. He turned and grinned my way.

“Now Florida’s male as far as I can tell.”

“Why’s that?” I said.

“You’ve got lots o’ sun, lot’s of sky, plenty of…” he paused, then looked at me to see if I was buying this. “Well, plus the panhandle juts out like a giant penis right!” he was grinning ferociously. We both laughed.

“Hey, like I said, you gotta be there to feel it.”

By now it was pitch black out but for the headlights looming ahead. This stretch of Kentucky was quite a bit flatter than where I’d just come from.

“So who is she?” Dillon asked.

“Who? Oh, on the phone? Just a girl I grew up with.”

“She have a name?” Man, this guy asked a lot of questions.

“Angela.”

“Pretty name. What’s her story?”

“Don’t know. I mean, I haven’t seen her in 5 years or so.”

“Whew! She must be burning a hole in your heart to be driving 1000 miles to see here.”

I shot a nasty look. “Look, man, we’re just friends. We were, I mean. We never went out or anything. I told you, we grew up together.” Dillon didn’t say anything after that for a while, which was all right with me. I began to wonder why I was traveling so far to see her. I just wanted to see her, that’s all. A link with the past. When we were younger we’d talk about everything. Angela was cool and I can’t imagine her being any different now. She’d sent her senior photos with a short letter complaining about her boyfriend at the time and saying she wished she could just start college immediately and not put up with the whole high school thing for another year. I have to admit, she looked great in that picture. Short brown hair, straight, real naturally and healthy looking. She smiled like she meant it, something rare in those school pictures.

I looked at Dillon, “How come you’re out here hitching? At least I’ve got somewhere to go.”

“You sound defensive.”

“What the hell? What’s your problem man?”

“Nothing. I’m just saying you sound defensive. I ain’t attackin’ ya, just trying to converse.”

“Well, I’m done conversing.” I flipped on the radio. This guy’s really getting under my skin. “Country. Shit.”

“Hey country’s cool. Sometimes.”

I shot him a warning look and hit the search button. “…this’ll be the day, eh, eh, that I die.”

“Oldies, Damn it. I swear to God this state’s got the worst music.”

“Oldies are cool.”

“Everything is cool with you. What’s your problem?” I realized as soon as it came out I sounded like a jackass. “I mean, you’ve gotta have taste, standards, ya know.”

“Sure. I just try to be flexible. Try to find the soul in each song.”

“Soul, again. I might as well be listening to Mr. Evangelist again.”

“What?”

“Never mind.” I said. Actually I was rather glad it wasn’t all church and sermons on tonight.

“Every song is what it is.” Dillon offered.

“What’s that supposed to mean? Of course, it’s what it is. Everything is what it is. Doesn’t mean I’ve gotta like it.”

“Absolutely. Everything is.”

“Everything is what?”

“What it is. That’s what you said.”

This is ridiculous. “You must have smoked a lot of shit in your day, man. I also said, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.” I couldn’t believe this guy. “You think you’re really deep with all that Zen crap or whatever you call it, don’t you.”

“It is what it is.” He grinned.

“Screw it! No wonder you’re not out to see a girl. I don’t know a whole hella of a lot, but I know a girl will put up with that shit for about 60 seconds, then she’s out of there.” I saw the sign for the bridge crossing the Ohio River over into Illinois and was relieved. One state down, three to go.

“My wife died,” Dillon said calmly, matter-of-factly. I didn’t say anything. What was I supposed to say?

“She was my girl. You’re right, though. Women don’t put up with shit for very long. Katrina was her name. I’ve never seen a girl like her since.” He fiddled with his hat in his lap, pressing the rim together with his fingertips. “Cancer ate her up. Then it ate me up, you know. That was 4 years ago. He turned to look at me. His eyes were warm, steel blue-grey. I hadn’t really noticed them before now.

He continued. “Metaphorically I mean. That’s when I started traveling. We had been places before, Kat and I. Had good times. But after she died I just went and soaked up places.”

I looked at him briefly, trying to not show I was uncomfortable with his talking about his wife dying. “Hit all the states, huh?”

“States, Mexico, Europe, Japan.” He rattled off like he was making a grocery list.

“Damn, how’d you afford all that?”

“But it was India that spun my head and kicked my ass.” He didn’t seem to register my question.

“India? Why India?”

“I took what I had in savings and sold my car and headed to Europe. I’d been to London, Amsterdam, Stonehenge, Madrid, Venice, killer time in Zurich, all over. Last stop was Germany and that was it, I was coming home. Then, Bam! I met this Australian guy named Kelly!” Dillon lit up and slammed his two hands together, then continued. “This guy, quite a character, had been traveling for 4 years straight. He said he’d worked for six months then travel for months, wherever he wanted to go. The guy would carry a pack on his back and on his chest. Crazy. He’d been all over and seemed a carefree as can be. The thought had never occurred to me before then. I figured my trip to Europe was it, a once-in-life-time opportunity. Kelly had just been through N. Africa and Israel and before that Sri Lanka, Thailand, and then…” he paused dramatically and looked straight at me, “India!”

“He told me about the Himalayas and monkeys and peacocks and cows. But he wasn’t bullshitting me either. He told me about the poverty and crowds and scams. He was very cool and honest. I knew then I wasn’t done. But what was I supposed to do?” He looked at me as if I knew the answer. “I was supposed to fly out of Zurich in a week and I was down to $100 or so. He suggested I stay with a family and work a bit. He’d done it in Ireland a few years ago. But Irish is one thing, German’s another. I didn’t know Deutsch from Douche. He said it shouldn’t matter, I’d get on somewhere. So to make a long story short I got set up with a local family in Bonn via the hostel manager. Nicest family ever…dad was a state representative, mother was a housewife, with a couple typical grade schulers. I scrubbed dishes and cleaned at a bakery right down town for two months and learned a little German in the process. Transferred my plane tickets and whammo! Headed to Delhi.”

After telling me about Delhi traffic, wild-eyed sadhus, temples, monkeys, and holy cows, he said, “…but it wasn’t until I was on that little boat watching the countless bodies burn on the cremation ghats that I understood death, or at least as much as man can. I can’t explain it, but everything I’d held onto, everything negative, every guilty bone, every sad bone, I just dumped right there, on the banks of the Ganges.” He sighed a pensive sigh.

“Heavy stuff,” I managed to say.

“That’s the whole thing though. I could move on. Sure I miss her like hell, but I’ve made peace with it.”

Dillon couldn’t tell, but my eyes were already tearing up. Don’t ask why. I’m glad it was dark in there. My body felt heavy and my heart large in my chest, like it was expanding. My thoughts raced with a thousand images and questions, stumbling over one another. Olivia with that chump, laughing and eating home-made tortillas.   Danny falling over the table with that goofy, surprised look on his face. Olivia’s voice screaming at me like she did a thousand times before that night. Grandma’s limp head and old grey shoes. My boss’s idiot expression when I told him he could fuck my dog. I don’t know why I did it, I just couldn’t help it. Did I take her for granted? Did I force her into it? Fuck it, it doesn’t matter now, I won’t ever see her again.

Then the past flooded in. My sisters’ expression of horror and betrayal when I told them about dad turning the car around to go get my skateboard. The front end of the rig that smashed into us. The nurse in the hospital when I woke up. I thought about the accident. I knew I hadn’t made peace with it. But how do you make peace with something like that. I can’t change it. I’m the one who made us turn around and nobody can change that.

I didn’t tell Dillon any of this.

“Hey, man, at least your girl didn’t cheat on you.” As if it was some sort of consolation. I didn’t know where that came from. “Sorry, man, I didn’t mean anything.” I added immediately.

“You have a girlfriend?” he asked.

“Had.” I could barely believe the words out of my own mouth.

Dillon must have sensed my nervousness about it and didn’t press. We didn’t say anything for miles. The dependable, steady purr of the engine put us both in a road-trip trance.

Then suddenly he blurted out, “I cheated on Kat.” He said it plainly. He tugged at his ponytail. I didn’t get this guy. Why is he telling me all this stuff? I wasn’t sitting her pouring my past all over him. I didn’t even look at him.

“Worst thing I ever did. I’d give everything not to have done it. It’s funny. You’d do things in the past, some distant foolish version of yourself. You have a future self too that will be saying the same things.”

“What did she do?”

“Nothing. Never knew. Never knew the whole time we were engaged, the whole time she was dying.” His face crinkled up, like he’d just bit something sour. “I’m not sayin’ this to justify it, so don’t take this the wrong way, but we just found out we were pregnant a few weeks after we were engaged. I felt like the whole world was like sand being poured on me.”

I listened intently. I knew that feeling. I lived that feeling, like I was treading in sand, trying to escape some invisible oppressive burden. I heard Olivia’s voice again, figment of my imagination. Only I wasn’t afraid of commitment. I can’t say what I’d feel if I knew Olivia had a kid growing inside of her, but it was something else. It had been with me a long time.

“I guess I just freaked out and I had been drinking. Not a lot, but a beer or two, just feeling a-o-k, and in walks Samantha. Now I had known Samantha since high school and we sort of flirted with each other from time to time. She looked amazing, wearing tight white jeans and a pink t-shirt. She had her black hair pulled back. I can’t say I wasn’t attracted to her, but never gave a thought to anything else before that night. Kat and Samantha didn’t know each other and Kat was in Minnesota visiting her grandparents. Those things went through my mind the minute Samantha sat down next to me. Man, she smelled so good. We drank a couple and talked. I felt alive, free, electric. You know.” He shot a strange smile my way.

Maybe I knew. The few times I did meth I’d roll into this sublime roller-coaster body trip that felt electric and alive, like every cell in my body was shaking hands with each other, smiling. It would lift me out of the whatever heavy I was feeling. That and when I’d met Olivia in the driveway and she made fun of my hat. A bolt hit the back of my head just as it did a couple days ago in her room, but then it was shocking in a good way.

“So we wound up at my place, feeling good, and we knew what we were doing.” He continued with a serious voice this time. “You know what she says to me? ‘What about your honey, Katherine,?’ she said.” Dillon snorted and shook his head in disbelief. “Samantha was hot on me like an Indian summer, but she even gave me an out. You know what I said?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“We broke up,” he emphasized each word deliberately. “We broke up. I lied to her. Can you believe that? She gave me an out to the very end and I lied to her and said Kat and I had broken up.” Then he turned to me. “My fiance who was pregnant with our baby.” He said it almost as a question, like someone doubting in disbelief that a man lifted a car over his head.

I wondered if Olivia had said the same thing to Danny. If she did, no wonder. It wasn’t his fault. For all I knew, every girl I’d been with could have said the same thing. Does that mean they deserve to get their nose busted for it?

“Next thing you know I get a page from VFD. I was a volunteer fireman. I had to go. I told Samantha to leave and I’d call her the next day.”

“Well, what happened? You just left?” I demanded.

“I just left. That’s it.” He answered.

I guffawed. “But you said you cheated.”

“I would have.”

“But you didn’t.” I insisted.

“But I would have and I know it. What’s the difference?” he was adamant. “I never called Samantha and I never told Kat. We got married 2 months later. A week after the wedding she was diagnosed with liver cancer. Five months after that she died.”

“Damn.” I said in shock, but trying to be consoling.

“I can tell you one thing. That night with Samantha ate away at me everyday sitting at Kat’s side.” He took a deep breath and switched topics. “Your girl. Were you guys planning on getting married?”

I wasn’t comfortable with the spotlight turned on me. “I don’t know, never really thought about it.” Which was true, never really crossed my mind and we certainly never talked about it.

“Maybe it’s all to be then. Get you out on this road, away from a dead end. Find a new path.” As he slapped his hand on the dash.

“It wasn’t a dead end.” I snapped. But then I wondered if there wasn’t truth to that. Olivia and said we loved each other, but we seemed more like buddies. We’d hang out, drink beer, play pool at Sharky’s, go to the movies.

“Sorry, man. Just trying to find the silver lining,” he responded.

“Silver lining? Where’s the silver lining in that?” I asked. Where’s the silver lining in a logging truck crushing your parents and your childhood? Where’s the silver lining to a dead grandma on your porch? I thought to myself. “Some clouds are just dark and heavy. They ain’t got no silver.” I said ominously, sure I’d stumbled onto something profound and hoping this would end the conversation.   He didn’t say anything. I saw drops of rain sprinkle sporadically on the windshield.

“Shit.” I said.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Just it’s starting to rain. I don’t like driving in the rain.” I knew it sounded dumb. I just can’t stand it. Whenever it began to rain I pulled over or didn’t go out at all. Ever since I got my license I remember getting into fights with grandma about it. She’d ask me to go to the store for whatever and if it was raining or looked like it was about to I said I’d do it later. She didn’t ever drive and I suppose it’s just what I should do, but it loathed it.

“I can drive. I mean, if you don’t mind me taking the controls. But I’ve never driven with a floor-shifter before.”

“Listen! I don’t drive in the rain! I just don’t, got it!” I blurted. I knew he thought I was nuts now and he was just trying to help. I pulled off at the next exit. The drops were coming heavy and faster. My heart followed suit.

“Shit! Shit! Shit!” I hoped there was a hotel this exit. I saw a pink star lit up past the gas station and underneath, Brier Motel. I headed in that direction and pulled in. Vacancy. I turned to Dillon. “Hey, man, sorry I snapped. I need to stay here for tonight. I don’t know how much…”

“I’ll split a room, 50/50,” he interrupted.

“Really?”

“No problem.”

I pulled in the lot and got out and paid the manager who came to the window groggy-eyed and slow. I must have woken him up. Dillon gave me half plus gas money for filling up in the morning. I got back in the car.

“Room 17.” I turned around and went to park. Dozen or more cars lined the lot. I couldn’t believe this hotel in the middle of nowhere could fill up with so many people.

“What do you suppose their stories are?” I speculated out loud, nodding to the cars.

“Same story as all of us, I suppose.” Dillon offered.

We grabbed just a change of clothes and his guitar and settled in to Room 17.

FIGMENT OF OUR IMAGINATION

(CHAPTER 2 of Novel called Road Trip)

I found Grandma in her rocking chair, cold and limp, her head tossed to the side, resting on the green and orange afghan she knitted herself ages ago. I wasn’t yet shocked. I wasn’t yet sad. I was too pumped up by rage to take it all in. I had just bloodied my knuckles on some guy’s face.

I sat on the steps against the porch and stared at her closed eyes. She must have fallen asleep. And never woke up. I was somehow glad. For her, I mean. I don’t recall a single evening when grandma wasn’t right there in that old chair, staring off into the horizon. At least since grandpa died several years ago. She didn’t read or knit anymore. Just sat and rocked like she had always been there and would always be. Sometimes I would hear her make these strange sounds with her mouth closed, as if she just took a bit of the best banana cream pie. Or else she’d shake her head and sigh once as she folded her hands on her lap. She was content. Even now, she looked content. I couldn’t bear to touch her, let alone move her. I hoped I was lucky enough to die in such a way some day, but I doubted it.

I stretched my fingers out on my right hand in front of me and saw scraped skin peeling off my knuckles, revealing bright red marks as if my real flesh was underneath. My bones ached, but my head hurt worse. Seeing Grandma there calmed me down a bit.

The bastard had managed to clip me once on the side my head, smack against the left ear, and it hurt like hell now even though at the time I didn’t even notice.

I lifted myself up and headed inside. The screen-door still needed fixing, it’s ripped from the frame in several places and Grandma had been on me for weeks to replace it and warned of mosquitos taking over the house. Bounding up the stairs to my room, I grabbed my cheap blue Adidas sports bag, then thought better and headed to my twin sisters’ old room. They’re both out west now. It was used as a general junk room now pretty much. Over the last couple years it had accumulated old pictures and boxes of crap moved from one part of the house, ancient toys and dolls from an era I didn’t recognize, old trophies of my dad’s, all this alongside my twin sisters’ old beds with pink bedspreads that no one had slept on in years. Even the few times they visited since moving out West they had slept in Grandma’s room with a larger bed not accumulated with a 1000 stray memories. Grandma had taken to sleeping on the couch since grandpa had died, despite my sisters’ protests that her back would be hurt. I figured she’s a grown woman, if she wanted to sleep on the couch, let her sleep on the damn couch.

I was looking for luggage that I remember seeing in here once. They were my sisters’ before they got a new set from Uncle Travis and Aunt Ellie when they graduated. Crouching down I felt under the bed and caught the corner of something solid and pulled it out. Aha, a large suitcase, unfortunately pink, but I didn’t care about that now. The lacy doyles that hung down over the bed frame slid over my arms and hands and unevenly over my knuckles. Tiny spots of blood got on the yellow lace. I decided I better get it cleaned up and lugged the suitcase up, dumped out its contents of old clothes, and walked down the hall to the bathroom.

Turning on the faucet, I let water run over my hands. It stung. I didn’t see any band-aids in the medicine cabinet and almost called to grandma to ask, then realized she was not going to answer.

I’m alone. Again.

Band-aids won’t help anyway on these kind of cuts. I looked in the mirror and was startled. Not by my rustled hair, but by how white my face was. It felt hot and flustered but the only color was my left ear which was blood red by comparison. The guy had really pummeled me there, but I had pummeled him everywhere, the asshole. But I regretted doing it, not because he didn’t deserve it but because I jeopardized my job. By the look at my hands, the guy will probably press charges. My eyes burned, like they had salt in them. I kept feeling the need to squint. I splashed some cold water in them.

Olivia would either be calling or expecting me to call. I left her this morning sitting in her mom’s house alone, where she lived, after almost knocking her head off like I did to Mike. I swear I wanted to. She could push my buttons. I never was so angry than when she played her little games.

“I thought we were meeting last night,” I told her. “I waited until 11:00at work.”

“I thought so too, but you didn’t call.”

“I called three times! No one answered!”

“Well it must have been late. I thought you got off at 8:00.”

“That’s Wednesday’s. I’ve told you that a thousand times. I work late on Fridays.”

It was still early, probably about seven or eight. I’d maybe slept a couple hours in my car after leaving Danny’s in the middle of the night. After trying to call Olivia from work a few times I gave up and decided to drive to her house. She was still in her pajamas, grey shorts with High written in pink across the butt and a tank top with thin straps revealing her shoulders.

“Yeah, I noticed your car was gone.”

“So, I went out. Is that a crime now?”

“It is when we had plans!”

“We had tentative plans. I figured since you didn’t call, you had other plans.”

I took a deep breath. “I told you, I had to work late,” I could feel the heartbeat passing from my chest into my head. “Did you ever think to call down there?”

“What, am I supposed to wait around for you? Be on your schedule all the time?” she fired back. “And besides, maybe you shouldn’t just expect things.”

The words echoed, I heard the word ‘expect’ over and over like the smoke after a gun has gone off.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I demanded. “Olivia, what the hell is going on?”

She was too calm. She continued to rummage through her closet for something to wear. A shirt fell off a hanger and she bent down to pick it up. Her shirt stretched up, revealing her lower back just above her shorts. Those little soft hairs drove me crazy. I could tell she wasn’t wearing any underwear.

She didn’t answer. “I said, what’s that supposed to mean?”

She stood up, calmly put the blouse on its hanger and turned sharply around.

“It just means, maybe you take me for granted…Maybe I take you for granted…Maybe….

It occurred to me like a random bubble popping, Where was she last night, anyway?

“Who did you hang out with last night?” I asked.

“Why?” Her nipples were protruding from her shirt.

“Olivia, who’d you hangout with?!” I demanded.

“Different people.”

“Different people who?”

“Well, Renee and me went over to Chad’s…”

“Chad who?”

“You know that weird guy with the geeky car who thinks it’s so cool.”

“Camaro.”

“Yeah, whatever. And he had some people over.”

“Like who?”

“What does it matter?”

“Who was there, Olivia? If it doesn’t matter, why make such a big deal?”

“Fine! Me and Renee, Eric and Brenda and her new guy from Springdale, Danny…”

“Danny, from work?” I worked with this guy Danny who worked out front running Cashier. I never really talked to him much. Whenever Olivia would visit me at work or pick me up when my Chavelle was up on blocks I’d come out and he’d be talking to her. I didn’t think anything of it until she told me in the car he said she was pretty. I’d been pissed, but she said she’d told him about us.

“Yeah, he’s nice.”

“Yeah, I bet he’s nice. So what did you all do at Chad’s?”

“Just hangout. Chad’s dad got a new pool table in the basement so we did that for a while.”

“Then what?”

“We made homemade tortillas. They were greasy, but good.”

“You could have called me at home.” I said, even though I know she wouldn’t have got me. Then I recalled something. I scrunched my face.

“When I was leaving work, I saw Renee’s car uptown. You said you guys took her car to Chad’s.”

“We did but she left early because she had to get up early this morning.”

The possibility spring in my mind. “How the hell did you get home then?”

“Danny took me.” She just stood there…

I shook my head and bit my lip. Danny took me. My gut leaped a mile.

“What do you mean Danny took you home? That bastard…”

“Listen Alex, stop it! We drove around for a while and he took me home.” Her eyes narrowed her face hardened.

“I get it! This guy’s ‘nice’ and all of a sudden I take you for granted or whatever! I can’t believe this!” I imagined Danny and Olivia dripping with greasy enchiladas and wiping each other’s mouths and laughing.

“We’re just friends!” She screamed back, “Did you ever think I might like to hang out with someone other than your dummy friends?”

Then in a softer voice… “Maybe we are a figment of our fucking imagination.”

A bolt of energy zapped my brainstem and I jerked my head up. I took a couple steps back. I saw Olivia in the closet doorway, just standing all-too-serenely with an odd, look, something new. Like a CD skipping, my mind fumbled over the words “figment of our imagination”. The heat in my headed exploded in a furry of half-conscious vocalizations.

“Was it my imagination that weekend we went to the lake? Was it a figment when we talked about moving in together? Did I take you for granted when I bought you that ruby ring?”

Then I noticed she wasn’t wearing the ring.

All of a sudden I turned to the door and bounded down the stairs.

“Where are you going? Alex? Don’t you dare!!” She screamed as I punched the door open and jumped in my Chavelle. I have to hand it to her, she knew me well enough to know where I was going.

I hammered the gas, and turned around, smoking the tires, probably leaving a 3 foot black stripe. He was probably on morning shift. All I could think was this asshole trying to be suave with my girl with his slick hair and idiot smile. I knew that guy was trouble. From day one. He’s not going to be smiling much once I put use that cash register as a hat on his head.

Turning the corner onto Jackson, I saw his Jeep out back. The restaurant part wasn’t open yet, but the bakery part was. I could smell the yeast and sugar as I hoped out. I stormed in the back door, which was open. No one was there. I wasn’t thinking. My fists needed a target. I pushed the brown swing doors that opened into the dining area. I saw Danny up front, counting money into the register. He heard the doors and saw me enter and from the look on his face knew why I was there.

“Danny!”

“Hey, Alex.” The fucker had the balls to just stand there and say that? I went fast forward and slammed my hands on the counter. “What did you do last night with Olivia?”

He was in terror by the way he backed up and put his hands up. He had a bundle of ones in his right hand.

“We just drove around and I took her home.”

“Drove where?”

“Around town, to the lake road and back. We talked and that’s all…”

But I didn’t let him finish the sentence…my adrenaline was in control. I leaped over the counter and before my feet landed my fists found his jaw. It hit solid and he keeled to the side. Dollar bills flew around everywhere. To the lake. My instinct said wail him, pound his head senseless, and throw him into the lake.

“We didn’t do anything!” He screamed out. Holding his hand to his jaw. I landed my left fist into his side and heard the air slide out of him. As if just then realizing my intentions, he suddenly stood up straight, but I had him cornered in. He started swinging his arms wildly at me and used his elbows. I pushed him back and pounded on his head and shoulders with my right hand. One landed on his plastic name tag and it busted in two. Everything was slow motion and it felt like I was barely hitting him but for the blood dripping from the side of his mouth.

“What the hell?” I heard from the back and saw Tony, our manager heading towards us. Out of the corner of my eye I saw something towards my head. A roll of quarters landed on the side of my head and rattled my brains.

Figment of our fucking imagination.

I grabbed his head and forced it down on the open drawer. Coins flipped out with a crashing sound and rained over our heads and over the counter.

“Stop it now! Alex! What’s going on here?”

I heard a voice say again. Next thing I felt were hands on both my arms and then around me from behind. I succumbed. I saw Danny’s forehead with a diagonal red gash. He was breathing heavy.

I fled…

By 9:00 I’d been in a fight. By 9:30, I’d lost my job. By 10:00 my girlfriend Olivia was my ex-girlfriend. And by noon I was on the road.

In the Basement

(Chapter in Novel Sad Man Grinning)

By the time he was fifteen, Joel had been abandoned and betrayed four times over. First by his birth mother, then by his father, then his step-father, and finally by his adopted mother.  He was eleven before he even knew that his mother, the only mother he had ever known, was not his birth mother.BasementBulb-main_Full

This he discovered by accident.  Sitting on the open porch of their 2-story house, Joel overheard a conversation between his mother, Catherine Harris and his new step-father, Rick Tanner.  When he heard his name, he had peered through the screen to look.  They were having coffee at the kitchen table.  His mother was explaining the circumstances of Joel’s adoption.  She and her husband, Doug Harris, were not able to have children, so they were looking to adopt, she told him.  They had gone to an adoption agency in Wheeling, West Virginia, as they were living there at that time.  Both of their families were from there, she explained.  Joel’s mother was a wreck and had committed suicide, she said, and she and her husband, Doug Harris were able to take Joel, or ‘Baby Q’, under their care when he was only a few weeks old.  Does he know? Rick had asked.  We never saw any reason to tell him, he being so small at the time, Catherine explained.  What good would it do now, his father being gone and all?  It would just be upsetting.  Besides, he has a new father now, Catherine chimed, smiling and caressing Rick’s forearms.  He couldn’t see Rick’s expression.

Joel pretended he didn’t hear his mother’s words.  He had backed away from the screen and swallowed the words and stuffed them so far down in his belly that he could only now vaguely recall putting them there in the first place.  But from that day forward he knew that the world was deceitful, unreliable, and unforgiving.  The information struck him hard and heavy, like the way a baby turtle discovers its own shell is its house and knows it will carry it on its back his whole life.  Joel lived in that house.  It was the beginning of the hole, and he hadn’t yet found a way try to fill it. Continue reading