Today I’m feeling much better, spirits rising with every free step.
In retrospect, the first few days in the psychiatric ward weren’t so bad since they kept me sedated. My recollections are blurry, but basically I lost it when I was talking to that lawyer and they shot me with some kind of tranquilizer. How long they kept me that way is still unclear because they drugged me every time I asked a question.
Eventually I stopped asking.
My natural distrust of authority wouldn’t allow me to accept any information they gave. They locked me in a little room with no windows and kept me there until the psychiatrist was finished shrinking my head.
Once my will to fight was broken by exhaustion, I had to rethink my strategy. I determined that the best way to get what I needed was to do everything they told me. So I played along with all their requirements for counseling, forgot all about the minor details, like time and reason, as if the last seventeen years never happened.
I danced, like a little monkey to their Organ Grinder. I told them everything they wanted to hear to advance the course. It took some convincing on my part, but finally, when that doctor said there are no such things as smart cars or smart phones, and that despite a failed bombing attempt a few years ago, the World Trade Center towers are still intact, I told them it was all in my head. I made up the War on Terror, the nation’s first black president, and the iPad. There are no full body scanners in international airports and Hillary Clinton is still just First Lady.
He says O.J is innocent until proven guilty and I’m the crazy one.
There’s nothing like a forcible stay in a psychiatric hospital to make a guy appreciate the small things. Like shoes with actual laces and the air outside. It is fresh and cool, smelling of exhaust and hot dog water. The sidewalks outside the courthouse are crawling with people. The scents bring instant relief as I walk down the last set of steps, allowing myself, for the first time, to hope for normalcy.
Staring at the release papers in my hand, I listen carefully to the instructions of Mr. Adams, my attorney. He took my case, pro bono, after he learned I was being held without bond and from what he says, clearly in need of medical attention.
I never should’ve left the hospital. I never would have, had I known how bad I was.
“Are you sure you don’t need a ride?” Today, his suit is sharp, his tie is free from coffee dribbles, but the disheveled salt and pepper hair still hints at him dressing in a hurry.
“You’ve done enough, Mr. Adams.”
“I don’t mind—”
“You’ve already gotten me out of jail, bought me new clothes,” I pull at the tie and dress pants. He starts to argue but I hold my hand up to stop him. “Besides, I’m not sure where I’m going to stay, yet. So, rain check on the ride?”
He nods. “Call my office as soon as you have an address. And, you’ll call about the job?”
“First thing in the morning,” I agree.
He’s got a friend who may consider hiring me as a file clerk. I’m qualified in the sense that I know the alphabet. Mr. Adams thinks I have a screw loose, too, so he doesn’t expect much. We shake hands and part ways.
The only person I’m sure I know drives away, leaving me to my own vices and though I’m very grateful for all he’s done, I’m very glad to see it— if, and that is a very big if, everything is as they say, and the year has somehow miraculously transformed into 1996, which I’m still not entirely sure it has. I’m inclined to believe that this is all a very vivid figment of my overactive imagination.
Finally alone, amid the crowd on the sidewalk outside the courthouse adjacent to the police station, I crumple the paperwork that tells me to report back within ten days to give my current address once I find one and proof of employment or least proof of ability to obtain it. In my pocket is a little over three hundred dollars. That’s all that is left after the new—I mean counterfeit—bills were confiscated. I don’t know why they let me keep some bills and not others. They all came from the same bank and none of them were counterfeit. My lawyer said the new bills were probably misprints, whatever that means. The charges for trying to run out on my cab fare were dropped at the suggestion of my attorney who argued I wasn’t in the right frame of mind and incapable of running anywhere.
I’ve been waiting to see this city in the clear light of day for almost three weeks. Partly, because being out here means I am no longer in there, but mostly because I need to see for myself what I cannot believe.
Raising my eyes, I take in the sights of the cityscape and exhale in disappointment.
There’s a hot dog cart on the corner. The surrounding buildings look similar, or the same. I never spent much time in this part of town so I can’t be sure. I try for several minutes to draw on some familiarity, but honestly, how often does a person go to parts of town that their daily business doesn’t take them to just to memorize the names or locations of stores and restaurants?
The only real differences I spot are in the cars. Even the nicest models are outdated, like the obsolete clothing and mushroom haircuts on some pedestrians. Across the street are large posters in the window of a nearby . . . Tower Music! That place has been out of business for years!
I am walking now, with no plans beyond getting a good look inside that store. Weaving through what I can only guess is lingering lunch traffic, I squeeze past several groups of people moving the opposite direction and step onto the black mat that opens the automatic door into a living relic.
Inside, everything is exactly the way I remember. Row after row of CD’s in tall cardboard cases wrapped in cellophane, and surrounded by the plastic caging of an ancient anti-theft system. To the left, a small section is dedicated to vinyl with a larger section for tapes and to the right a wall of merchandise. Band t-shirts, posters and huge displays of VHS tapes, and in the far back—the most impressive sight—a short counter holding an ancient beige computer. It’s oversized and blocky with only a four inch screen on the monitor. Above it hangs a sign: Concert Tickets.
I want to laugh.
It brings back memories of a time when buying tickets for anything required actually leaving home. Getting good seats was an event. It meant camping outside overnight to save your spot in line and impatiently waiting for eight a.m. when the tickets to whatever show you wanted to see more than anything went on sale. When I was about fourteen, I camped out for the first time for tickets to Lollapalooza. Green Day opened with an awesome set, but I was there to see the Beastie Boys and George Clinton. Nirvana was supposed to play that year, too. Everybody I knew was going and it took a fair amount of convincing for my mother to allow it. It was my first concert and the best I’ve ever been to, next to the first time I saw Santana. I remember spending a lot of time out on the sidewalk, curled up in a sleeping bag for those tickets, too. It was pure, unadulterated fun. That used to be the only thing worth the time and trouble. Music, man. Not like now, when the only people who camp out are bunches of twenty-something’s in parkas with folding chairs and their ten dollar espressos, anticipating the latest in telecommunications when all the next generation model will ever do is two more things than the device they already have. No, those times were different. It was a different era.
Dookie, Green Day’s very best work to date in my humble opinion, sets near the end of the aisle under the Best-Seller placard. My eyes lock on it and I’m immediately sucked in. As soon as it’s paid for I scrape off the thin plastic wrapper and look inside. It’s so strange seeing the actual pictures, the smooth paper liners and lyrics. It makes me realize how much MP3’s have really changed everything.
The 90’s was a decade like no other; full of musical firsts, history making tragedies, the birth of the Grunge Era which brought about the death of hair bands, boy bands, and the like. Music so rich in potential. New Jack Swing, R&B, East Coast/West Coast rivalry; all of it happened back then.
The thought that then is now comes creeping in, but I refuse to think in those terms. The only way to reconcile what I know with being in this place is to separate it—to keep what’s in front of me contained within this coma-fantasy land. I’ll indulge it until I wake up. And until that happens, I’m going to make the best of my circumstances.
I buy a few things, allowing myself to reminisce a while longer, but trying to keep an eye on the time. Fantasy or not, I still need to find a decent motel, preferably roach-free, to stay in until I can get my bearings. Plus, my stomach is rumbling.
The distractions run rampant and before long I’m nearing starvation and nostalgia overload.
Outside, people pass the windows of the store making me wonder what else might be different. My allotted time us up plus thirty when at last, I start walking. Out on the street, the air is pleasant. Warm but not hot and the sun is shining. I glimpse the courthouse across the street and pick up the pace, anxious to get as far as possible.
Everything old seems new again, but some things never change. Honking horns remind me that most people are still terrible drivers and road rage, at least in downtown, seems to be operating at the usual level. In keeping myself occupied with the sights along the way to wherever, I notice a movie theater a few blocks down. The large marquee out front advertises Fargo and Romeo+Juliet. At the entrance is a huge poster with the image of a young Samuel L. Jackson, advertising for A Time To Kill. Near that, another poster’s encased in the ‘Now Playing’ glass case—Jerry Maguire. Another poster with large red letters reads, “Happy Gilmore… Coming Soon.”
Much of the walk feels like a stroll down memory lane. At every payphone, every old restaurant, the fountains, the walk of fame, the absence of modern technology that disconnects us from each other is notable. People are engaged with one another, not hiding behind their Bluetooth’s and laptops. Even the pagers necessitate a return phone call. One man carrying himself with a strong sense of confidence clutches a huge cellular phone inside a briefcase-size bag drawn over one shoulder. The receiver has a coiled cord and a retractable antenna.
Dirty looks still accompany a smoke on the sidewalk and it still doesn’t bother me. A little further down is a news stand. I don’t stop but take my time passing, looking at the headlines on the upcoming election. Bill Clinton is running for his second term and swathed in scandal. The Times headlines alert the world of a new threat— Beware of Mad Cow Disease. The Fugees are on the cover of several magazines. Their version of Killing Me Softly is number one. Pictures of The Spice Girls are everywhere, too. I keep walking, energized by the joy of freedom and coffee, breathing in the sights as I stroll from one milestone to the next.
Before long, the businesses become houses. The concrete turns to grassy knolls and cobblestone driveways between sprinklings of trees. The sidewalk ends and I step into spongy grass with an open view. There is no sign to mark my destination, but I don’t need one. This is a park I used to visit on regular basis, a place easily found without conscious effort. I walk towards the center to the giant sandbox filled with teeter-totters, monkey bars, a selection of multi-colored slides and several swing sets to choose from. The park is crowded; kids are everywhere playing games, yelling and laughing.
While making my way towards the tire swing, two young girls reach it before me so I swerve and head for the standard swings. Sitting on the highest black rubber strip coupled between thick metal chains, I commence.
Starting slow and building, I pump my legs, going faster and higher, topping out when the chains straighten and jerk back. Eye level with the top bar. At the pinnacle, I start to level off, comfortably working in a rhythmic stride. Some of the kids below stare up and I wave. Relishing the pendulum of sensations; shifting between gravity and weightlessness, air sweeps over me and I smile, genuinely, for the first time in a long time. The sky is blue, specked with white plumes that resemble cotton balls.
There’s a moderate level of comfort in knowing what to expect. Maybe that is why my subconscious chose this place instead of something more modern or dreamlike. Places like that, one never knows what could happen. Here, there will be nothing to worry about, at least for a while. In my world of predictability there are no limits. I can do anything.
The sun moves across the sky, casting long shadows over the playground equipment. Relaxing completely, I let my shoes drag in the sand. It’s not quiet but it is peaceful. The dense groups of kids begin to wander and break apart, taking the bustle with them.
I still need to find lodging for the night. I’ve been too wrapped inside my neuroses trying to associate this place in my past with my present and have forgotten about physical necessity. Dinner would be nice, too. Maybe sleep will help me fit the pieces together.
Preparing to leave, I am startled by the sound of screeching tires. Some stupid teenager is doing donuts in the back lot, hanging his head out the window and laughing.
“It was this year,” I remember, sputtering to myself.
I wonder how I managed to make it through all this time missing the obvious. 1996 and every year after were marred by a single mistake so central to my disappointing makeup—I’m disgusted at the length of time it’s taken me to realize.
Life as I knew it was changed forever that year. I’ve been wandering aimlessly to parts of the city that I have purposely avoided since and whenever possible. Yet, in my assumed state of repose, I happen to come upon the park I played in as a child? It can’t be coincidence. It must be one of those things that are so obvious that the subconscious doesn’t even bother to take notice.
My concentration shifts, distracted by a high-pitched giggle. A resounding laughter that rings almost on cue. The sorrow in hearing it knocks me breathless because it’s been nearly twenty years since I’ve heard that particular sound.
I turn, staring in the direction of the keen giggle and spot them a few feet away, at the end of a small yellow slide. Squatting near the bottom is a young girl in blue jeans with a little heart cut-outs at the bottoms and raven black hair. She can’t be anymore than seventeen years old. In fact, I am sure she is exactly seventeen because I used to have a crush on her. I watch her make silly faces, wriggling her tongue and flapping her arms for the benefit of the little giggler that’s posted at the top of the toddler-sized slide.
There’s an audible crack in my chest. I swear I literally hear it break and feel it completely when I see the three year-old smiling and covering her mouth. She shakes her head from side to side, refusing the pleas of her babysitter, the raven-haired girl, perched below.
“Come on, big girl! You can do it!” Her encouragement saturates the barren ground.
Carrie’s sandy brown hair is cut in a straight line just below her shoulders. It swings as she shakes her head. It’s a refusal if ever there was one.
Carrie comically thrusts out her bottom lip and crosses her arms. “No! I want to run! Run is fun!” Her flawlessly formed words chime like the sweetest music.
“You said you wanted to slide,” complains Mary.
“Run!” She smiles hugely, revealing a row of perfectly square milk teeth. She always loved to run more than anything.
A knife-like knot twists in my stomach.
“But I am tired of running.” Mary’s complaint is given in such a bright tone it is hard to tell if she really means it. “Alright, we can run if you come down the slide like a big girl.”
Carrie uncrosses her arms and leans back, lying down across the platform. In a flash, she flips onto her stomach and starts crawling backwards down the metal slide.
Laughing, Mary reasons, “I guess you are, technically, coming down the slide.”
I chuckle with her.
Once Carrie’s feet touch the sand, I watch my baby sister who has been dead for nearly two decades, push off the low end and stand up. She applauds her own achievement. Mary joins the clapping, cheering the three year–old’s bravery while Carrie grins from ear to ear.
They move from the sand into the grass and begin to run wildly through the field. Mary takes baby steps, pretending to cringe and run as fast as she can away from the toddler. Carrie tags her leg as Mary turns around, now in pursuit.
Elated and inconsolable, I’m spellbound watching her little legs wrapped in acid washed denim cutting through the turf. The same legs that used to climb onto the couch beside me when she’d beg me to reread her favorite story day after day. Without fail, as soon as I read the last line, she would turn back to the first page and plead with me to start again. At first, I did, without a second thought but I got older and selfish. Worries over girls and acne seemed more important. And those moments became more infrequent. By the end, I thought her a nuisance. She wouldn’t let that stop her, though. She was so cute, she had the book memorized. I remember her sitting on the sofa, crossing her tiny legs and reciting each line.
How could I have allowed myself to forget how wonderful, how perfect she was?
Buried memories continue to resurface tearing open the wounds that flash the damming details of that last morning. My indignant complaint over having to do anything for her. How our mother repaid my laziness with extra chores, cancelling my plans for hanging out with my friends. She made me cut the grass. I was feeling sorry for myself and wasn’t watching as I should have been.
Carrie was my mother’s favorite and the apple of my dad’s eye. Her sudden death was the catalyst that launched our family into ruin and my life into the impoverished pit it is today. She was the heart of us all and I never knew it.
My reverie is broken by a wet drumming against my forehead. It rolls through my eyebrows and down through my lashes. When I wipe it away, another drop hits, and then another. I peek up to the bright sky and curse as Mary sets Carrie on her hip, making for the shelter of a nearby tree.
A strong sense of something like desperation overwhelms me and I know I’m not ready for separation. I dart from my place through the sudden deluge to the dry patch beneath the same large tree. In the shelter of its branches, Mary places a small sweater over my little sister’s bare arms. Carrie fidgets and throws her head back, preparing a wail. I plead with her not to cry, sure tears will sprout from my own eyes if she does but Mary flashes me a fierce look.
I remember myself and clamp my mouth shut.
It’s not long before the sudden downpour is reduced to a sprinkle. The two girls sprint quickly away. I start to follow, but my beeline is interrupted by the return of that menacing glare from the babysitter. I would have expected her to be a little nicer, being that this is my dream, but Mary never liked me much to begin with. Beneath the tree, heart heavy, I look on as they get further away. Feeling smaller and smaller.
Until I realize I know exactly where they are going.