Chapter Sixteen: “Eyes Everywhere”
Scott Brubaker was nearly as tall as my tallest uncle, and would’ve towered over Lenny if the two had ever stood side-by-side. He was thin, but muscular – athletically built one could say. He was six years younger than my mother, thirty-two, when he came into our lives. I knew from the moment I met him, he was very different than my one-time father. One could see it in his expressions. He wore them upon his sleeve and they were almost always jovial.
He was a light complected man with his amber eyes and dark brown hair, combed back in a tamed version of a pompadour and cut high along the back of his neck. He was one of the few men I’ve known who actually grew sideburns. His grew down the middle of his earlobe and were as thick as the hair atop his head. His face tended toward narrow, his features blended together like they’d been sanded down to an inhuman smoothness that shouldn’t have existed on a man as manly as he. He had a square jaw and a five o’clock shadow that never seem to go away no matter how many times he shaved during the course of a given day.
His presence around the house on Lincoln Drive was minimal at first. I think my mother was concerned over the effect her dating another man would have on Elijah, which might sound unfounded, made moreso by the abusive nature of her marriage, but my mom wasn’t about to bring strife of any sort into our newly remade household. So, Scott and she stayed away at the beginning of their relationship, preferring to stay at his Culver City condominium when they shared time together.
She hadn’t been worried over me or Valerie, and often used us as a springboard for the various questions that popped into her mind. It had been so long since she’d last dated, they were aspects of her newfound condition that made her wonder. Often, those questions were posed to us, though sometimes they were a little too risqué for Valerie’s taste, as if she had anything to complain about. The little tart was contemplating the very same thing my mother was experiencing; only she and Jose were teenagers. But then, Valerie was always little off-kilter when it came to sex and its’ verbalization. I guess one could say she was a private person in this regard, better suited for discussion with her significant other and no one else. My mother’s open, curious conversations gave her the heebie-jeebies.
Over time, Scott’s visits became more frequent. In the beginning, he came by for quiet dinners or for the odd lavish brunch on the weekends. His stays were short, but became much longer as the weeks passed and we all, my mom included, felt more comfortable with him around, integrating into the family.
I liked him. He played sports like I did, watched sports too, which I really enjoyed, because no one else in the family was so inclined.
Eli, sometimes, but he was too young and lacked the patience to sit down and watch a full game with me. On most occasions, he was in and out of the room so often. He missed as much as he saw, so I couldn’t count him as a sports fan, yet. He would be when he grew older, but at the time – no.
Having Scott around to cheer - or jeer - alongside me was golden. We weren’t always for the same team either, and this often led to long, if not loud, discussion on whose choice was the better. We capped on each other so hard, my mother would sometimes come from whichever room she’d been in just to make sure we weren’t actually fighting.
With time, her interest peeked and she began, more often than not, to sit with us and watch what was transpiring upon the screen of the television. That was how she learned to love football and basketball as much as she does nowadays. It all started back then with Scott and I talking shit to one another as we feuded over the Lakers vs. Boston, or the Raiders vs. the Steelers.
It was the first healthy contact I had with a male older than me, one who I’d eventually look up to as a mentor. Scott Brubaker taught me a lot.
We talked about my training for the upcoming spring when the Track and Field season began. At the moment, I was on the Cross Country team, keeping my “running” muscles in shape, which, I had come to find over time, were quite different than those I exercised in the weight room. Lifting free-weights and working on machinery made me strong, but they did nothing to improve endurance. That had to be earned with mile after mile of pounding upon a road or along a hiking trail. Plus, I was competing on the collegiate level now, and it was a whole new can of worms. Training was on an entirely different level, seven or eight notches above anything I’d done in high school.
Though he hadn’t been a runner when he was younger, Scott still had a lot to share when it came to building one’s stamina and cardiovascular fortitude. He’d been a wrestler and on the Lacrosse teams in high school. His coaches had taught him a slew of techniques and practices that he, in turn, passed along to me on those languorous afternoons when we played catch or were waiting for the next televised game to begin.
It proved fruitful as I went on to compete with a good degree of success during my college years. I was never quite All-American, but I got close as a senior. I guess being ranked 31st in my event in the country wasn’t all that bad. I like to give Scott a degree of credit for my success therein.
One such Sunday, Scott stayed the night.
Valerie had slept in the guest bedroom (self-exiled), so my mother and he could have a degree of privacy.
I smiled hugely at my sister when she brought her pillow and her favorite throw-blanket up to the second floor, asking, “What’s wrong, Val? Are you afraid you might hear a little “Oi, Oi, Oi” and thought it better to sleep up here?”
She scowled so deep, her entire face nearly vanished into her brow. “God, Jerry, you are sooo gross sometimes!”
I snickered all the more when she slammed the door in my face.
What a prude!
When we all seemed okay with this latest twist in our lives, Scott began to spend the night on a more regular basis. For some reason Sundays and Wednesdays were days he stayed the most, although he did put a spin on the routine now and again. On Fridays, my mom stayed with him, so Valerie and I were put in charge of Eli for the remainder of the day and night. It wasn’t all that big of a deal, even for a pair of teenagers. He was a good kid, properly behaved and all.
Of course, it wasn’t like we didn’t spoil him when she was gone, so I’m sure that was one of the reasons he minded his manners when he was under our immediate supervision.
Sometime near the beginning of November, no more than ten minutes after Scott had left that day, Lenny called the house. I remember, because I picked up the phone and for the first time in quite some time, he didn’t hang up.
“Put you mother on the phone,” he demanded through the corner of his mouth. I could almost imagine him speaking through clenched teeth.
“What for?” I asked, equally demanding. As far as I was concerned he wasn’t my father, so there was absolutely no need for me exude any degree of respect for the man. He’d almost killed my baby brother! So, he could go suck an egg and choke on it for all I cared.
“Boy, don’t you take that tone with me…” It was his ominous tone.
He was silent.
I couldn’t waste the opportunity. “How’s your plastic nose?”
“PUT YOUR MOTHER ON THE MOTHER FUCKEN PHONE!!!”
Well, touchy, touchy!
She must’ve heard him yelling through the phone, because suddenly my mother was on the line, on the cordless she’d left in the living room where’d all watched a movie together. “What the hell do you want, Leonard?” She sounded fatigued, but it was the weary sort, the type she’d express when something tedious was dampening her mood.
“How’s the new boyfriend? Did he go home for the night?”
I could hear the smugness, the false sense of control he felt he had over her.
It also told me he’d been up the hill again. He was probably calling from the payphone down the street at the HiHo Market. He was becoming so predictable; the games seemed more stupid now than sinister.
“Why does it matter to you, Leonard? You have Roxanna,” then she chuckled, “Or whatever the hell she’s calling herself this week.”
His reply was immediate. It was like he hadn’t heard her, though. “You should watch out, Pillar. I could be around any corner waiting for you.”
“When are you going to leave us alone? Why don’t you just go away? You never liked being a part of this family in the past. Why bother now? Why are you doing this?” There was a slight tinge of emotion creeping into my Mom’s tone. She was getting tired of the hassle. We all were actually.
“How was the movie? I think Robert De Niro played a really good Al Capone don’t you?”
I looked at my mother from across the room. How had he known we had watched The Untouchables? Scott had grabbed a VHS copy at the rental store before he’d come over. We all watched it in the front room on the TV. How could he have -?
“He was watching through the window!” mouthed my mom, pointing at the front porch.
“How did you -?” I began.
“I know, because I have eyes everywhere. All of you should remember that. I’m everywhere. I could be right behind you, right now…”
I felt a shiver go up and down my spine. That asshole was on the property! He wasn’t just watching from the top of the hill anymore. He was right outside the front door!
“What’s wrong, Pillar? Is something the matter?”
“You better leave us alone, Leonard.” Her voice intensified, her eyes narrowing.
My one-time-father laughed, throaty, much too harsh. He was forcing the act. There was no joy coming from within. “Oh, but Pilly, I’m not done with you. You and I have unfinished business.”
“You’d better leave my mother alone, you asshole! Or I’m going to mess up more than just your face this time!” I yelled into the phone.
The entire house went quiet for a moment.
Then, I heard Valerie’s foot falls as she came from her room with Eli in tow.
It was too late. Lenny had hung up already.
My Mom pushed the “talk” button on the cordless as I put the receiver back in the cradle, closing the line.
“What was that all about?” asked Valerie from the far side of the dining room.
My mother sighed, walking over to Eli to cup his chin and gave him a reassuring smile.
“Jer, what’s up?” I could see from the look in her eye she wasn’t going to give up.
“It was Lenny on the phone, talking shit,” I supplied, taking a seat at the dining table, feeling just as worn out as my mom.
“Is he coming?” asked my little brother, his voice quavering.
My mother sank to one knee. “No, sweetie, he isn’t. He doesn’t live here anymore, remember? Mommy and the police said he can’t stay here anymore. Not after what happened.”
Elijah was nodding at every other word coming out of her mouth, his eyes as big as saucers. It was easy to see he wanted to believe, but there was something in the back of his mind – just as there’d been with me – telling him otherwise.
Valerie must’ve sensed it. “Plus, Mom had a restraining order put on him that says he can’t come within five hundred yards of us.” Her voice was soothing.
My little brother gazed behind him so he could see her.
I caught my mother’s look. Her face had gone deathly serious before she turned to peer at my sister. “Elijah, why don’t you go play in your room with your ColecoVision for a bit, ok? Can you do that? Mommy needs to talk with Jeremiah and Valerie for a few minutes.”
He stared at each of us individually, his gaze appraising. Then, the idea of playing with the brand new video game console my mom had purchased for him as a “Welcome Home” present must’ve appealed to him, because suddenly he was beaming with excitement. He was nearly bouncing on his toes. “Can someone help me set it up?” he asked, his hands clasped before him in excitement.
“I will,” I volunteered and led him from the room.
Five minutes later, I was back down in the dining room with my mom and my sister seated at one of the end of the dining table. I made my way toward them, sitting in one of the chairs closest to their position.
“Are you serious, Mom? He was right outside, on the front porch, while we were watching the movie the whole time?” She was vexed, disgusted too, as if she’d walked-in on someone in the bathroom, in the middle of pushing out a tremendous crap.
My mother shook her head in the affirmative. “He’s not going to stop.”
“You think so?” I asked, scooting the chair closer to the table.
“I’ve known the man since high school. Once he gets something in his head, he won’t stop.”
Valerie clicked the roof of her mouth. “Even after Jerry put the smack-down on him?”
“He won’t be caught by surprise the next time.” My mother made certain her and I shared a glance. She wanted to understand, if there was to be a second encounter, it wouldn’t be as easy as the first. “He’ll be ready.”
“God, I hate him!” My sister was glaring at the both of us. “I know I’m not supposed to say the word, let alone feel it, but I can’t help it. I can’t stand him!”
My mom reached out to take both of Valerie’s hands within hers. “You just make sure, if he comes you find your brother and you run. Don’t stop until you know the both of you are safe.” I saw the knuckles on my mother’s hands whiten.
My sister was peering directly into hers, tears beginning to well. “What about you? What about Jeremiah?”
My mom was adamant. “You don’t worry about us. You take Elijah and you keep him safe. Remember what we talked about.”
Valerie’s head was bobbing up and down.
“Your brother and I will take care of what needs to be taken care of.”
We talked for a few minutes longer, but there was nothing else of merit to be said. My mother had explained it perfectly. We would take care of it. That was the plan.
So, ironic it didn’t quite turn out that way.
I woke up in the middle of the night. It was terribly windy outside. It’s what had to have awakened me.
Huge gusts buffeted the house, howling as it swirled through the canyons and valleys of the portion of Highland Park we lived. They sounded eerie like a giant woman lamenting the loss of her beauty or her lover… or her child. Every time I heard it, my imagination went wild. I kept seeing this lady in a long flowing gown walking silently about the yard, from front to side to back, to side to front to side, around and around she went. Sometimes she was young, at other times she was impossibly old and misshapen. Sometimes her dress was pristine, perfectly white. Other times it was torn and tattered, dirty as she she’d walked through the shallows of a muddy river or stream, for the hem was nearly black with grime. She would make no sound other than the “OoooOoohooOoooo!” that came with every billow of air.
I would roll over, attempt to banish her from my thoughts, but she kept returning. I tried to think about Myra, her young body in my arms, kissing me, holding me, making love to me – anything to get away from the image of the maiden/hag circling the house outside. It didn’t work. I tried pulling the blankets over my head, but I got too hot and had to pop my head back out from underneath them. I tried counting sheep or think about the last book I’d read or a story I wanted to write, but she kept invading my thoughts.
The young woman, the old witch, the young woman, the old witch, the young woman, the old witch – I couldn’t get away from her.
After nearly an hour, I got up to look for my Walkman. I was hoping music would help distracted my mind.
I got no more than three or four steps when the doorknob turned and the door to my bedroom began to open. I froze in my tracks, so frightened I nearly peed. Though I didn’t want to look, my eyes betrayed me, forcing me to gaze over at the portal of my room.
I expected to see her, dressed as I’d envisioned, beautiful, resplendent. Her bearing would be regal. Her delicate skull would be perched atop a sculpted neck, her collarbones visible through the loosened strings of her bodice. Her hair would be swept back, tucked prettily behind her ears. Her lips would be dark shadows in the absence of true light. Nonetheless, I would be able to tell they were pink, or maybe red. There would be no lipstick. It would be their natural color.
She would be mesmerizing, captivating. I wouldn’t be able to take my eyes from her. I would be forced to stare. She would regard me, her pale blue eyes like unheated sapphires aglow with an inner flame no wind could extinguish. There would be the beginnings of a simper at the very edge of her lips. She would train her gaze upon me and know me.
There would be little I could do, other than to stare back.
Then, she would melt. Right before my eyes, she would change. Her beauty would be stripped away like flesh rotting before my eyes, fast-forward, drying out, with huge clumps falling to the ground. Her dress would wither. Her hand would become claws. The warm glow in her eyes would burn white-hot. The color in her eyes would be burned away. She would shrivel. She would become something else.
I could feel the fear begin to rise.
I wouldn’t want to look, but I couldn’t help myself.
She would become Her.
I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to see.
“Can I sleep with you, Jerry?” asked Eli.
It wasn’t her. She hadn’t changed before my eyes.
It was my little brother and he was frightened.
I cleared my throat. “Is the wind scaring you, little buddy?” I asked, masking the fear with my inflection.
Even through the dark, I could see him shake his head. “It’s the voice, not the wind.”
“Yeah, she won’t shut up.” He walked the rest of the way into my room.
I beckoned toward him. “Come on, get in.”
He scurried forth, knee-walking to the head of the bed.
I got in the bed with him, comforted at once by his presence. I was asleep within minutes.
But later, I awoke again and I heard her. It wasn’t Her, my phantom from before. It was something else.
Over and over, it said, “Not safe. Not safe. Not safe.
The mantra, the drone, put me back to sleep.