Chapter Eight: Reseda
My stepdad’s self-satisfied face stared back at me as I looked at the book. I was at the Carl’s Jr. on Sherman Way. I didn’t feel right about reading the book at Magdalena’s restaurant because she’s Jewish. And I couldn’t go to the library in case they think I took it from them. Carl’s seemed as good a place as any to go. I ordered a small fries and got a cup for water, and they pretty much left me alone. And this one was open 24 hours, so I had some quiet time to sit.
I didn’t tell Mrs. Cimino that Dr. Steven Dimity was my stepdad. I’d then have to tell her all sorts of things about him that would make her think less of him, especially when she said his book saved her life. And it was true that I never read the book. I knew Steven so well that I knew what the book said without reading it.
But since Mrs. Cimino asked me to read it, I felt I had to.
"My face time with Jesus began in Iraq..."
I was ready to put the book down right then. It was a story I knew by heart because I heard it too many times. I continued anyway.
"I was with the Third Infantry Division heading into Karbala..."
And when he was clearing out the neighborhoods, he found himself surrounded by Iraqi troops.
"As we entered the neighborhoods in the south of town, we ran into heavy resistance from Iraqi Republican Guard. We thought we found an opening on a side street near the Imam Hussein mosque. Then our sergeant, Antoine, took several rounds in the shoulder. That’s when we saw the sniper on the minaret above us. Bullets whizzed around us. Two Republican Guards in the house across the street. Three more down the block. We were trapped!"
I missed some details, but this was basically the story he always told. It was at this point of the story that he started talking about his shitty life growing up.
"With almost certain death facing me, I thought about my life up to that point. I was always a troubled kid. I grew up tough in a bad part of Cleveland. The only white kid in a poor, run-down neighborhood. My dad moved out when I was three. He was arrested for armed robbery a year later. He joined a white supremacist gang in prison and was shanked by a rival gang. Mom did the best she could working two jobs and collecting food stamps..."
I knew he had it tough growing up, but he never told me about his dad being stabbed in prison. And if he had so many problems growing up, why couldn’t he be more understanding about mine? I got more frustrated the more I read.
"I turned to crime because that was basically what everybody did. These were little things at first. Boosting candy bars at the supermarket. Shortchanging clerks by paying with a dollar bill, and when I got my change, I said I paid with a five. When they wouldn’t give me the money, I started crying and throwing a fit until the manager gave me the rest of the money. I had my first sip of alcohol when I was ten and smoked my first joint when I was eleven."
I didn’t do most of the shit Steven said he did. I never stole or cheated anyone. Except for money I took from Mom’s wallet. But she had so much cash, she never kept track of it. And she spent it on new designer handbags instead of me. I didn’t drink or smoke weed until I was thirteen. And it was only because Mom and Dad were breaking up. I had to do something to quiet those hateful thoughts in my mind, which were screaming at the time. Thoughts that caused me to spend too much time around the kitchen knives and wonder which one would be long enough to pierce my heart.
I looked back at Steven’s book. I didn’t want to read anymore. I already knew the rest of the story. How he was arrested for dealing. How the cop who busted him didn’t send him to jail, but encouraged him to go to church. Which is the kind of thing that happens to white kids when they get busted. And what happened to me. If Steven or I were black or Hispanic, our stories would have a different ending. We would’ve definitely gone to jail, if the cop didn’t shoot us or beat us to death. It’s amazing what cops can get away with and claim someone was “resisting arrest.”
But Steven’s story turned out better than mine. He managed to stay out of trouble, finish high school, and after 9/11, decided to join the Army. Which is how he wound up fighting for his life in Karbala. And meeting Jesus.
"We found ourselves surrounded by Muslim terrorists, bullets flying inches away from me, my buddies wounded and bleeding. And I gave a silent prayer, ‘Lord Jesus, if you deliver us from death, I promise that I will devote my life to serving you. I will spread your Holy Gospel and inspire others to live purer and better lives...’”
And -- spoiler alert -- Jesus saves him and his fellow soldiers. As an added bonus, Steven got a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
The first time Steven told me his story, I really like it. And him. He wasn’t an ordinary doctor like Dad who stuck his finger up old men’s assholes and told them to eat right and exercise. Steven was a real war hero! As soon as he told me the story, I wanted to see his medals. Steven explained that he didn’t have them with him. He had to put them in storage so his ex-wife wouldn’t take them. It didn’t matter to me at the time that I didn’t see the medals. Just being around a war hero was cool enough.
I stared back at the book. I only had gotten through the first twenty pages. I thought about reading more, but my fry box and water cup were empty. And it was getting late. I tucked the book under my arm and headed out.
Steven’s book was supposed to inspire people, but it just made me feel more depressed. He was a loser who made something of his life, and I was just a loser. No wonder why he kicked me out and Mom called me an “ungrateful little shit.” I was worthless to them.
As I walked along Sherman Way, I kept looking at the cars and wondering which one I could step in front of. I then looked at the two-story building on the corner. It wasn’t tall enough, but if I landed the right way, it would do the trick. And it had a flower shop on the first floor in case anyone wanted to make an impromptu memorial. Not that anyone would.
Then I thought about how disappointed Mrs. Cimino would be if I offed myself after reading the book she said had saved her life. So I kept walking.
I could have cut across the gas station to get to the parking lot behind the theater, but I worried that Carlos might be there. If he saw me, he might have the Explorer towed. Or he might shoot me with that .38 of his. It seemed strange that I was ready to step in front of a speeding car or jump off a two-story building, but I was afraid to get shot. I guess if I was going to die, I wanted to decide when and how. If I couldn’t control my life, at least I could control my death.
I stopped in front of the old theater for a moment. I wondered why they hadn’t torn it down. What else are they going to do with it? I hated seeing movies anyway. Always the same shit. Superheroes. Sequels. Sequels about superheroes.
There was only one movie I saw that ever moved me. It was a DVD that someone’s mother gave me as a birthday gift. It was Disney cartoon, but it wasn’t about princesses, singing lions, or some shit like that. It was about this kid named Jim. No one understood him until he met this guy named Silver. Even though Silver was supposed to be the bad guy, he believed in Jim. He saw the good in him when no one else did. There was some science fiction shit with aliens, and robots, and planets that blow up. And even though it was set in outer space, it had old-style sailing ships. Still, the cartoon moved me. It showed that no matter how big a loser you are or how worthless you feel, you can still be a hero. I wanted to be a hero. I wanted someone to believe in me too.
Why couldn’t Mrs. Cimino have given me a book like that?
I sighed and continued my walk to my Explorer, where I would sleep alone.