’The mind is an amazing place. If you can’t deal with a truth, it will create one for you. Your memory which would otherwise pester and haunt you will overlook those painful details. It can be like the pain never was. There was no theft. No one ran into your car. The vehicle just got that dent. It’s a way of building walls to protect your mind, heart, and soul from trouble you can’t bear to face.
’Some people are better at this than others. They shouldn’t be praised, just understood. These people usually can’t see the truth they’ve been protecting themselves from until they’re forced to accept what they’ve been hiding from themselves. At this point, they should be pitied for it will hurt.’
Lazy Summer Days
‘How do you judge a person? How do you ever, truly know someone? There are factors to consider: his actions (how he lives), his environment (where and when he lives), and what makes him act the way he does (why he lives). Only in time, with careful consideration, can someone ever, truly know another, but even then, can you truly, properly ever judge him?’
Jan heaved a sluggish sigh. The summer sun came in from his brother’s bedroom windows, then through the single window that connected their rooms. His brother’s room had once been a veranda when their house had been whole. That was before the house had been creatively split into two distinct halves and smaller bedrooms throughout.
There was a door and window connecting their rooms leaving a large, corner chunk of Jan’s room walled off. Even with that darker chunk today, the sun was still creeping steadily ever closer encroaching on his space.
Jan stared at the bright beams that came through the off-white window and made his cream-coloured walls, off-white door, and old, curled flooring nearly glow. Those beams made a heat barrier he dreaded breaking. With any luck, he could lie there all day and avoid it completely.
There was no point to going outside.
There was no one to do anything with.
He rolled over onto his side and lazily gazed sulkily around his room. At times like this, his mind wandered. He couldn’t help but avoid it, and he never liked what he saw. There were no guitar parts or posters like his brother had. His corners had kid stuff, and his walls were just badly printed wallpaper that curled where it met the off-white baseboards.
There was an old stereo, some records, a few books, and random toys on the thick, wooden shelves nailed to the opposite wall, and boxes sat along the top length. What was in them anyway? It had been so long that he didn’t remember.
The metal pipe that ran through his room from the living room below rattled. Jan wished it wasn’t there. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the heat the pipe gave off. He’d actually learned to sleep to the rattling sound. On those nights when it became ominously quiet, he’d lay awake for hours. But even then, sometimes, he just wondered what it would be like to not have a pipe running through his room.
Otherwise, he had a small, converted-crate shelf and heavy, chipped-paint dresser by his bed. Clothes hung to one side of the wall shelving. They were mostly dress clothes he utterly despised. Luckily, he wasn’t forced to wear them often.
He closed his eyes and ran his fingers through his short, brown hair. He was ten already. Shouldn’t he have more things? Shouldn’t he have his own guitar, in parts or whole? Shouldn’t he have more than just hand-me-downs? They never listened to him when he asked for anything. He always got the same answer when his mother bothered to offer him one.
They couldn’t afford it.
Jan knew they weren’t rich. Still, it wasn’t fair. He rolled onto his other side and let his head sink deeper into his pillow. Maybe if he lay there long enough he might sleep and dream about somewhere better?
He could hear the sounds of a chair scraping. Something heavy was dropped onto the kitchen table downstairs. Chair springs complained. Something else? Was that the oven door? Jan perked his head up.
Someone was home.
He suddenly felt very hungry.
Jan rolled out of bed and found his shirt, then started looking for the socks. He wasn’t that tall, and he was skinny enough that everything fit. Sometimes he rued that was why he got every cousin’s extra bit of clothing. He didn’t even know the cousins who passed their things on down to him for the most part. The clothes always just showed up, and Jan had no choice but to take them.
Thinking about things, he stopped searching for the socks. He even got rid of his jeans and put on some blue shorts from his top drawer. It was too warm for jeans with the sun’s heat coming in.
Stopping at the door, Jan sized himself up with the notches along the door frame. He frowned. He’d been checking every day since summer had begun, and he was still just over five feet. Not tall enough at all. His mother had told him being tall wasn’t all there was to life. Even staring at the notches now, he still didn’t believe her.
Jan opened the door all the way and stepped fully out into the hallway stopping beside the small, green shelf. It was quiet. With an older sister and brother, even though the house was big, three stories plus an earthen basement, the house was rarely ever quiet. One good part of it being summer was that his sister and brother weren’t around as much.
Standing there alone in the hallway in all that quiet, Jan liked it.
He felt powerful and in control. Being the youngest, that power and control didn’t really ever exist, so he stopped to enjoy the moments when they came. Feeling paranoia creep in, he made sure his door was shut. It was. Turning again, he took in his domain once more.
The door to his sister’s room was closed, as usual. Opposite his own was the door to the neighbour’s upstairs bedroom. It was odd to share a house with another family. Of course, the ’other family’ was an aging couple. They had to be at least seventy, maybe more. Thinking for a moment, Jan had to admit that he wasn’t really sure exactly how old they were, but they couldn’t even make it upstairs, and they rarely left their side of the house, so he never really saw them.
Unfortunately, their smell usually struck out like a clawing hand that grabbed at him from time to time, almost strangling and suffocating, certainly stalking him. Right now, things smelled good, so he smiled more. Someone must have come to visit and opened an upstairs window.
Left were the stairs leading down. To the left of them down the hall was his parents’ room, and above him was the attic.
Jan slowly made his way down stairs. It had taken a while to figure out the right spots on those old steps so as to not be heard as you walked down them. Each step had its one spot that would usually, not always, stay quiet. Everywhere else would creak and moan and give away your presence.
The whole house was old. It pretty much moaned and groaned every chance it could get especially when a good wind would blow rattling the windows and shaking the gutters.
“So you are up there.”
Damn, he’d been heard.
Jan took the steps two at a time making all the noise the steps wanted and turned into the lower hall. The neighbours had their own whole half of the house, so they had a door down on the main floor as well.
On Jan’s side of the hallway there were the folding antique, brown doors with milky glass in each pane. They were connected by hinges and made up most of the wall. They ultimately were the wall that separated the hallway from their living room. They were closed now like they usually were which made the lower hallway seem very dark and lonely; as such, the thin, brown carpet that ran the hallway’s length looked kind of black. He turned from the front porch, and trotted off towards what had been the original house’s summer kitchen.
His mother stopped to rest against the stove as she worked another cake pan free from the oven’s lower drawer. The lower drawer never did open all the way, and it was heavy if it fell on your foot. His mother was dressed in one of her white, long sleeved work shirts, the fancy ones she always wore to look nice for the customers. She was also wearing her black work pants under a heavy, cotton apron. Jan could see the beads of sweat forming on her forehead just under the curls of her brown hair.
She glanced at him and offered a patient, tired smile.
“I thought it was you. Why aren’t you outside like the others? It’s nice out there.”
“It’s hot out there,” he complained, trying to figure out what she was making. “I thought you were at work.”
“It was slow, so they gave me the afternoon off. As much as I could use the work, I have things to do here too, so I took the offer. As for it being hot, it’s summer. What do you expect? Why don’t you go play with Alex?”
“He’s grounded,” Jan groaned. He headed for the fridge. His mother furrowed her brows. “What’s there to eat?”
“Eat some fruit.”
“There isn’t much in there to snack on anyway, so don’t ’Hey, Mom’ me. Fruit’s good for you.”
Jan closed the fridge frowning heavily and grabbed an apple from the wicker bowl on the end of the table. Like everything else in the house, the table had been picked up from a yard sale or flea market, so it didn’t perfectly match the rest of the furniture. It didn’t match anything in any current fashion at all.
It’s black, iron legs and light green top was a direct contrast to the white fridge, yellow oven, and light brown cupboards. Completing the kitchen, there was the usual clutter that collected on the washer and dryer in the corner. It was an interesting mix of clothes, books, hats, and something brown Jan couldn’t identify.
The kitchen walls were painted olive green setting the room apart from the rest of the house, but the years of dirt and cigarette smoke had dulled the glow. It was almost vomit-coloured now.
The wooden mouldings were still nice. The ceiling here was plain wood with small lines where holes were forming. It had been painted over at one point, but the damage still showed, and the light in the middle of the room wobbled like it could fall any time.
“What about Ryan or Ken, then?” His mother asked.
“Ryan’s visiting his grandparents somewhere, and Ken’s never home anymore. He’s been acting weird for a while now.”
Jan’s mother rolled her eyes. “I’ll bite then. How come?” She pulled out two more cake pans and moved the collection she’d freed to the kitchen table. She stopped again, rolled up her sleeves, and loosened the top button of her shirt. Jan leaned up against the table and shrugged.
“How come what?” he asked, trying to avoid the question.
“How come Alex is grounded?” his mother patiently pressed, pulling some lard and pastry boxes from the fridge.
Alex’s father had found his stash of nudey magazines moved, and as usual, he’d blamed Alex. The worst part of it was that Jan had been the one to put them away last. Like a true friend, Alex had denied he even knew his father had any magazines. He certainly hadn’t turned Jan in. As usual, even if his father couldn’t prove it was him, Alex had been punished him for it anyways.
He got grounded a lot when his father got angry. He’d finally be let out to play, but it made for some lonely times waiting for Alex to be off his given sentence. Jan wasn’t going to repay such loyalty, Alex’s not telling on him, by revealing their secret to his mother. He just shrugged and shook his head.
“What about Theo then?” she asked, watching Jan suspiciously.
“Theo’s Alex’s friend.”
“You play with him don’t you?”
“Sometimes, but I don’t like him.”
Jan took another bite of his apple and sat down. He watched his mother pull some saran wrap and oven mitts from a drawer by the sink. He didn’t like Theo. Theo was loud and rude, and he got Alex into trouble a lot. Jan couldn’t tell Alex he didn’t like Theo. Alex liked Theo; Alex would take Jan’s objection as jealously, and there’d be hurt feelings. They played together, sometimes. There were times Jan got over there to play with Alex, and Alex would already be gone with Theo somewhere, so Jan was left to wander around trying to find them, and he usually didn’t.
“Well, at least go outside and do something,” his mother urged. “Do something instead of being locked up inside all day.”
“What are you making?”
“Some cakes for the Bake Off they’re having this weekend,” his mother explained, placing her hands on her hips in exasperation. “They asked me to make them some in case other people don’t contribute.”
“They always ask you to contribute.”
“Because other people always don’t.” She smiled again and laughed. Jan shrugged. “Go outside, Jan,” she insisted. “Get some sun. I need to get changed into something cooler soon before I get too far into this. I’m going to find the recipes first though wherever I left them last.”
“I’m ten, mom. I’m not a little kid.”
“So,” she said, peering around the room.
“So I don’t need sun. That’s for little kids. Besides, there’s nothing to do out there. There’s no one to play with.”
“Then you need to make more friends. That way, you’d have more people to play with.”
Jan rolled his eyes and headed back upstairs. He stopped on the way to throw his broken apple core out. He paused again on the top step and stared down into what he could still see of the kitchen, which wasn’t much.
Jan listened to his mother bringing out cans of what he assumed was cake or pie filler and such. The local bake offs and fundraisers were always getting the good stuff. He knew it was for a good cause, but why did the good causes always lean on them? It wasn’t like they had much.
His mother just never seemed to see it that way.
Jan returned to his room and lay on his bed listening to the metal springs complain beneath him. The downstairs had warmed him up, so he lay there for a bit letting his body cool down. Glancing around, he sighed. Everything wasn’t just unimpressive. Most of it was old and falling apart. Casting an eye over his stereo along the one wall, he thought for a moment.
Listen to music to kill time?
The stereo was old too, but not as old as the house. It played eight tracks, radio, and tapes. He’d gotten it from a teacher of his who’d told him it had just been collecting dust in his basement. At that exact moment, Jan didn’t want to listen to music.
He scanned his collection of books and toys.
The books were too much work to read.
The toys were leftovers from his youth. He certainly wasn’t getting rid of them, but still, he wasn’t going to set up a toy fort or have a battle between his Master of the Universe figurines and Transformers.
His mother usually puttered around for fifteen or twenty minutes gathering odds and ends before she got changed. He just had to be quiet so his mother wouldn’t actually send him outside. Out there, he’d just have as little to do suffering a lot more heat and, as such, discomfort.
His mind wandered yet again. What did he want to do?
He wanted Alex to be off his grounding. He wanted something exciting to happen. He wanted to do something fun with other people. He could think of a few other people he’d like to be with true enough, but he couldn’t talk to them.
The girls that came to mind and often filled his dreams were completely out of reach. Jan could barely talk to them, and he never let them see him watching them in class or on the playground. Added to that, now that it was summer, he didn’t even know where they were, so there was no hope of him having fun with the real things.
Jan wasn’t sure how long he lay there sulking. He just noticed that the sun had seemingly gone down, so he’d managed to waste another day. Frowning, he walked to his brother’s door and opened it a little. A dark sky beckoned from the other side of the distant window. He was tired of doing nothing. He’d be happy with anything just then.
Heaving a tired sigh, he went downstairs.
Jan’s mother, wearing a beige tank top and brown slacks, was just putting bake pans in the oven when he came down. He stopped and gawked at the clock. What was going on? It was getting dark, but it wasn’t anywhere near supper time. Before he could truly try and understand it, his mother raised her finger for his attention.
“I need you to go downtown and get me some things.”
“Mom, why me?” Jan groaned.
“Because your sister is still out, and your brother’s at a friend’s tonight.”
“Can’t you get it tomorrow?”
“No, not if you want to eat tonight. I made a list. It’s ....” His mother paused to blink around the kitchen appearing quite bewildered. “It was right over there.”
Jan turned to where she was pointing, but he didn’t see any list. All he saw were empty lard boxes, a half-used Kleenex case, and some folded, yellow gloves. His mother shook her head and sat down. She then moved a rolling pin and pie pan aside to make a new list. She frowned heavily like she was trying to remember what else she’d put on the lost list.
Jan rolled his eyes and leaned on the back the closest chair. He just hoped she wasn’t going to make him carry too much. The washer and dryer were now cleared off. The hats and such had been moved somewhere else, and the machines hummed restlessly, each one busy on a load of their own with the worn, dark green hamper to the side waiting for more business.
The table and counter were now a clutter of pans, utensils, and dough. A thin layering of what resembled dust covered most of it, and two cupboards were sitting half-open. Behind his mother, a warm glow came from the oven. There was a sweet welcoming smell of something really good wafting from inside. It was also a bitter smell since he’d never know what those sweets tasted like.
As he considered the sink full of dirty dishes and frothy bubbles, Jan felt the urge and banked right for the bathroom. He lifted the latch and closed the door. On the other side, he slipped the hook into its place before dropping his shorts to go.
He heard his mother calling from the kitchen that she’d finished the list. At that point, he was too busy doing other things to care. He was just enjoying making rings around and over the water in the toilet. Every so often the yellow stream would hit the water, and he’d have to push harder to lift the pee out faster and write things on the porcelain. Eventually, the stream died out, and he pulled everything back up; then, he flushed, picked up the soap, and washed his hands. He made sure to tilt the tap so it would turn on properly and not fall off.
While he washed his hands, the cabinet door slipped open and fell towards him. He dodged the door and caught it before things went flying out, which was known to happen. The last thing he wanted to do at that moment was to pick it all up and put it back in again.
The cabinet was always stuffed past full with things that Jan couldn’t see the use of, and the clasp rarely held. He closed the cabinet door as firmly as he could and dried his hands. Reaching over the tub, he lifted the window curtain and checked the weather.
There were storm clouds coming in.
That was why he’d thought it was night already.
His business done, Jan unhooked the door and returned to the kitchen. He took the list and money his mother had left him and stepped outside instantly grumbling.
Even with the darkening sky, it was still sweltering out. He’d only been outside for a few seconds, and beads of sweat were already forming.
The dog glanced over from where he lay chained to the tree. He was large and black, so everyone figured they should run when he bolted out to the end of his chain. The dog wouldn’t hurt a fly. Just lick it to death. Jan had other things to do, so he just waved, found his sunglasses where he’d left them by the steps, and started down the lane.
“Let’s get this over with.”
He banked right and started for town.
Town wasn’t very big. It was a collection of about seven stores and two banks. He was pretty sure there were three churches in the mix too. He knew where the one was, yes, but the other two were a mystery to him. A large funeral parlour took over one corner of town along the opposite side of the river. That muddy river cut the houses on his side of town from the downtown core and newer, nicer houses.
His mother called the place a heritage town. She talked like that was a good thing. They’d lived there long enough for him to know better. As he saw it, with his years of experience, it was a nowhere town with buildings that were old and falling apart. They were buildings no one could or ever did properly fix, so they just fell apart in stages.
They never tore any house down or crossed anyone else’s property, so he always had to go around large tracts of land he could easily have just gone through.
A bridge straight across the river from his house would be nice, but that would likely bend some old fence post some guy hammered in a century ago. In short, heritage just meant really old that no one wanted to fix. Only, they were being praised for not cleaning up? As he saw it, going the long way around to save some chipped bit of wood was just a waste of time and effort. None of it made any sense.
The muggy, summer heat was making the trek feel longer.
It felt good to whine sometimes.
Jan passed by the old mill on his way. It was one of those buildings no one ever tore down even with its boarded-up doorways and creaking walls. They still used it as a feed storage sometimes, but the mice and rats were too set on living in the wooden planks, so it pretty much sat there unused except by kids who jumped off their ramps and played around on its decaying wood. Three kids were playing there now riding their bikes. Jan didn’t recognize them, but that didn’t change anything.
Make new friends.
His mother had no idea what she was talking about.
No matter how hard he’d tried to make friends, he’d always managed to mess things up. He’d insult the wrong person or make a fool of himself with all the accompanying ridicules. The times when he hadn’t done the wrong thing, someone who knew him would tell his new friends not to play with him, and they’d walk away. He was a laughing stock.
Jan had stopped trying to impress anyone new some time ago. It was easier and safer that way. If he stopped putting himself out there, no one could hurt him anymore.
Only Alex ever saw past what the others said.
Ryan was a good friend too, but it wasn’t the same. He wasn’t always there backing Jan up. He’d be quiet one time, protective the next, indifferent most of the time. It was like Ryan was a friend, but not. Like he just couldn’t decide what being a friend meant.
And Ken had been acting weird. There’d been no lie in that with him not returning calls and avoiding Jan the last month of school. There’d actually been nothing from Ken since summer started. At least Ryan had let him know he wouldn’t be around.
Even if Jan hadn’t known Alex the longest, there was a bond of friendship between them that would be undying until the end of time.
Dropping his gaze, Jan continued on towards town.
He made his way past the quiet houses and down the street turning left at the town hall: a large, newer building where the annual dance was always held. He’d heard there was a small library and some offices in there too. Not that they were ever open. The sidewalk led to a set of stairs that met up with road level and the existing wide, lazy town bridge.
There wasn’t much to the bridge. It was younger than most of the town, but it wasn’t all that colourful. While crossing the bridge, Jan glanced at the dam further along the river. It was a solid steel walkway with tall towers on both ends and a large flood gate with cables resting between them. After the dam, the river levelled off. On that other side of the dam, there were some good places for fishing. The river then went around the town dump heading off somewhere else.
Jan closed his eyes. If he could find that place, he wouldn’t have to watch the other kids play games without him. He wouldn’t have to try and look brave and content in his own little world. If he was gone, he wouldn’t have to face the buildings and stores knowing nothing was ever going to change.
The biggest news came when a car broke down and someone needed more tires. Maybe the price of gas would go up a cent. Oh, and the Beckers actually stayed open until seven at night last Sunday. Not to worry, the local gossipers spoke to the manager, and it won’t happen again.
He could remember when they’d first moved to town. He’d looked on that dam with such wonder. His mother had held such hope and faith. She’d figured the town would be so good for them. From how she talked, she still did.
Jan sneered. Good hadn’t had much of a chance, and nothing had improved much to date. There was too much history that didn’t agree with great hope.
Grudgingly, he crossed the bridge before coming to a stop. He glanced down the street on his left at the store where that street turned, at the store where his mother worked.
It was one of the few brown buildings in town anymore. The store was never busy, and he wondered how the owners could afford their expensive house by the highway when they rarely sold any clothes. He shook off his curiosity and headed into the long, brick grocery store to his right.
Taking in a breath, Jan took out the grocery list and set his mind on just doing what he had to do, so he could get back home. At least there he could try to ignore the void of existence around him.
And that’s what he did.
On his way home, just after the bridge, Jan took a detour. He headed up the six blocks to the Catholic school, a tall, angelic building of glass and beige walls and turned down his old street, the one Alex still lived on.
They’d lived across from each other once, but his mother and father had decided to move to the house they lived in now.
He liked their current house, but he missed opening his curtains and seeing Alex’s place. Jan stopped a house from Alex’s and checked to see if there was any sign of movement.
Heavy curtains, chipped wood, shadow-filled doors - nothing. But then after a time, he could see Alex in his upper, bedroom window. Jan ran up in front of the house and waved. Alex waved back; then, he turned around quickly and disappeared.
There was shouting from inside the house, and Jan hid behind the hedge that ran along Alex’s house. After a while the fighting died down, and Jan peered out. He hoped he hadn’t gotten Alex in trouble again.
After a long time of no further movement, Jan moved off.
He made his way to the end of the street and turned right. It wasn’t far until he hit his public school, the town’s normal school. It was a flat, brick building with a slightly larger gym built onto the one end. Most of the houses on this stretch of road were new, but there were a few heritage houses here as well. One of the newer homes sat across from the school.
Jan avoided it. It wasn’t that the house was ugly or badly built, and he didn’t dislike anyone living there, but the whole town avoided the place. All the kids made fun of the boy who lived there.
Jan didn’t agree with making fun of someone because they were different, but he also didn’t want to be laughed at or bugged more than he already was, so he just usually didn’t say anything. As bad as it made him feel, those times when the others were making fun of the boy were some of the few times when he wasn’t the target of everyone’s spite, and that felt great. Ultimately, there was no real damage done.
At least, that’s what he kept telling himself.
When he got home, Jan dropped the bag of groceries on the table and went upstairs. He lay down on his bed and covered his eyes. He had to get the town out his head. He had to get somewhere else.
Nature was against him.
The clouds drifted apart, and sun shone through the windows in his brother’s room. The bright intrusion invaded any chance of sleep. Jan opened his eyes to see the light coming into his room as well. It was too bad they’d yet to invent a dimmer switch for the sun.
Jan gazed to his shelves along the wall where his stereo and toys sat. He decided to listen to music after all and started picking through his cassettes. Choosing one at last, he popped in Prince. Purple Rain had the emotion he needed even if he couldn’t make out half of the words. He decided to stay absorbed in music until supper time when his mother would call him down to eat. Only then would he leave the sanctuary of his room again.
Only for food.