Air rushes in quickly as I yawn, fighting to stay awake while keeping watch.
I’ve kept my distance since the first night. I expected at some point I would have to deal with more surprises but my dad’s reaction was confusing. He acted like he wanted me here but asked me to leave. Then, I thought he was angry. I expected him to let me rot on the porch all night because guilt trips never worked with him but I didn’t care because I was pissed. Ten minutes later, he came out and sat in his chair as if nothing was wrong and started talking. Usually, I have to apologize before that happens.
It was the kind of casual, inconsequential conversation I remember overhearing when he spoke to acquaintances; the odd warmth of the early fall, the changes President Clinton is making to health insurance, the scandalous election, and the housing market. It was weird.
As we talked, I studied. I could see he wanted to ask me why I’m here and I really wanted to tell him, but didn’t, reasoning, ‘If he asks again, I’ll explain.’ I was worried of what he would think.
There could only be one of two outcomes. Either my veil would slip and I would have to explain the nightmare and he would hate me. Or I’d completely lose my mind. I suppose I’m better off leaving it alone. How would he take hearing that none of his reality is real? Besides, I’m here for me and Carrie.
I thought that his coming back to the porch meant he changed his mind and wanted me to stay. My mistake was assuming anything where he’s concerned.
The moment I mentioned how tired I was, he gave me a pillow and a sleeping bag to take over to Mr. Smith’s place. He said, “as long as it is safe,” across the street would be the perfect place for me until I do what I came to do. It seemed like he was worried about offending me or something because he kept rambling on as we walked. He was overly helpful, digging up the ‘For Sale’ sign, and removing one of the small panes of glass from the back door to get inside. He even made a joke about searching for hidden microphones.
What bothers me more than the intrigue is that my father— the one constant in my tumultuous upbringing—is different and I can’t relate or explain it. He’s always been very direct, saying exactly what he thinks no matter how other people might take it, so I don’t know what to make of this version. I’m not entirely sure he bought the ‘I remember’ routine, but he never said anything. The dad I know would call me out if he suspected a lie and has never been easy to lie to. This man was distant, helpful, and irritatingly polite.
I guess, even in my wildest imaginings my brain is still incapable of understanding my enigmatic father. His complexities have eluded me my entire life, so I don’t know why I expected anything different here, but I did.
The past seven days have left me with little in the way of comfort or sleep. Last night was especially difficult. Lying in the living room that’s always dark no matter the time of day, I felt wide awake. This is the new norm: running over every part of that first evening, obsessing over each detail, looking for significance in the insignificant. Basically searching for reason in madness, which is useless because dreams don’t have to make sense. That’s what makes them dreams.
Yawning again, I make a mental note to get the hedge clippers and take another trip down the block to make sure the street sign is visible. I trimmed it once, but Weeping Willows grow quickly. I have been outside every day this week watching my little sister play in the yard. I follow her everywhere she travels with Mary on foot, except for when she is with her mom, because I remember the day of the accident she wasn’t there until after.
It must be subconscious or something because no matter how hard I try, I can’t remember the exact date that she died. I mean, on the one hand who wants to memorialize something like that? On the other, how could I forget? I recall most parts of that day except which one it was. I know she was wearing a little pink windbreaker with a hood that had white lining and purple pants. Her hair was down and there were smudges of peanut butter and jelly on her cheeks. She was playing with a ball and there were leaves in the air.
We buried her on the following Saturday. In the newer part of the cemetery, in a section directly across from a rose garden, seventh row back, two spaces from the end, near the cannon. The weather was inappropriately sunny and I broke into a sweat in my suit coat. Through the whole thing, I didn’t cry a drop but did get sick when they sealed her casket.
I can remember all of that shit, right down to the stench of vomit that lingered on me the rest of the day but not the damned date.
On the next blink, my eyes stay closed a little longer. It’s safe now that Carrie’s gone inside with her brother. Mary hasn’t been around to take her to the park in the afternoon like usual and I remember that she wasn’t there on that day either so I’ve been trying to be extra vigilant. Anytime I’m inside or try occupying myself with an alternate activity I get this creepy feeling like I’m about to be caught unawares. So all I do is all I have done since I got here. I sit on Mr. Smith’s porch and watch and think. Or sometimes for a change of pace, I sit on the curb to watch and wait, and think.
It’s boring and when I get bored I get tired. These days, I’m always tired.
The sun’s going down and Carrie’s in for the night. I stand and stretch, popping my stiff back and cursing. Like an old man, I hobble into the dark house.
Dinner is on my mind. I don’t eat with them. The food’s better, but I don’t want to wear out my welcome. My mother extends an invitation nearly every time she spots me, but she still thinks I’m an old friend of her husband’s and that is just weird. And I’m not going back over there until my Dad invites me.
Hopping off the porch, I start to go left up the winding road but then break right, instead. It’s a solid half mile to get out of the subdivision then another couple of blocks to the nearest convenience store. Why go that way when I can jump over the wall at the end of the street and be there in less than five minutes?
Nearing the high gray barricade, I pass a few parked cars and try to think of what sort of places used to be inside the strip mall. Flush with the brick barrier, I start to get a good idea of just how high fourteen feet really is. If I make a running start I’ll probably just break something and there are no footholds out here. After a cautionary look around, I decide to head into my dad’s backyard.
Behind the garage is a growing heap of junk that was “temporarily” stacked against the gate to make room for Carrie’s swing set. The screws of which are now rusting, but the pile is still going strong. Stacked precariously against the fence, it’s the perfect spot to make my attempt. After checking and securing footholds, I make my ascent up the pile. At the top, it’s an easy leap up and over the small gap between our fence and the cinderblock barrier.
My legs dangle over the side as I look out at the surrounding city. Strategically placed specks of light illuminate the windows of distant skyscrapers. With all the smog, they’re the closest I’ll get to seeing stars and it suits me fine. The sprawl and encompassing skyline is one of my favorite things about this city. There is always somewhere to go. Always something to do.
After a while, I’m feeling like Humpty Dumpty because it looks like the only way down the other side of the high wall may be to fall. To avoid his same fate, I make my way over to an abandoned shopping cart near the base of the wall, probably for this very purpose. I’m scaling down feet first—there isn’t anyone to impress—until my legs are free and the only thing holding me on the wall are my fingertips.
The second my feet hit the cart, the two wheels set on the black top of the parking lot swivel and roll. Before I can stop it, the bark flies up to meet me.
Story of my life.
There’s a sandwich shop with band flyers covering the windows. I don’t recall ever eating there before, which is weird because I’m sure I would remember a place this trendy. It’s lit by candle-like lamps set inside mason jars that hang from cords attached to the ceiling. The floor is a black lacquer, the walls are dark red, splattered with what looks like more flyers advertising shows for major bands before they hit it big. Moving in for a closer look, the collection is impressive. Guns N’ Roses and Motley Crue are set beside each other in one large frame. My fingers sweep over the laminate, admiring the signatures of Axl and Slash.
“Can I help you?” A voice shouts from somewhere behind me.
“I’d like a turkey sub, no mayo.”
“Anything to drink?”
“A can of Dr. Pepper. Hey, where do I sign up for the song contest?” Turning, I am shocked to see I’m speaking to Lisa.
“The original songs contest?” She asks.
“Yeah,” I hope for some spark of recognition but, of course, she doesn’t recognize me.
I purposely befriended her because everyone at school was so weirded out by her. She was Goth before it was cool. Right now she looks exactly the way I remember. Blue penciled in eyebrows, long black hair shaved at the sides and ratted up into a bouffant streaked with green and yellow. Her thick, black eye makeup spikes down the sides of her nose over vampirical white skin. Her thigh high Doc Martens are visible from behind the counter. What I liked most about her was that she wasn’t afraid to stand out. Most people hide their eccentricities whereas Lisa always put them out there for all to see. This girl is a piece of my personal history. Yet she stands behind the counter slapping together a sandwich for me and has no clue who she’s with.
“Anything else?” She asks, wrapping the food in parchment and setting it alongside the soda next to the register.
“Where’d you get all the flyers?”
“I didn’t. The owner did. You can ask him if you want but between you and me, he’s sort of a dick.”
“I feel you.”
Her forehead wrinkles.
“Are you always this busy?” The place is empty.
“Actually, this is normal for a Tuesday at this time. It gets crazy on the weekends, though.”
“Do you work the weekends, too?”
“Yep,” she pops the ‘p’ and shoves the food towards me.
“Who’s playing?” I ask, entertained by her utter lack of enthusiasm.
“Whoever signs up.” She answers flatly, touching a stack of light blue paper. It’s crudely drawn flyers that advertise the contest I’m asking about. It looks like it took about ten seconds to make, roughly drawn with a black marker.
“I see you’ve gone all out with advertising.”
She smirks. “Spared no expense.”
I take one off the top and look it over.
Opportunity Records presents Unique Sounds original song contest! You could be part of music history!
Open auditions on Friday! Saturday night contestants perform! Grand prize is $500 and a chance at a recording contract!!
“Snap. I’m so there.”
Lisa laughs a little too loud and way too long, handing me my order.
“What’s with the witchy cackle?”
“No offense, dude, but you’re kind of old.”
“I mean old by comparison. To, like, everyone else on that list.” She points to the wall behind me where there hangs a clipboard and a pen dangling from the end of a string. “They’re all like a hundred years younger. No offense.”
“You realize that saying ‘no offense’ doesn’t override any of the offensive things you’re saying, right?”
She shrugs. “You asked.”
I laugh, “I’m aging like a fine wine.”
“If you say so,” she chuckles, setting a form on the counter in front of me, then starts speaking in a droning monotone.
“You must be at least eighteen years old to enter—which we both know isn’t a problem. Fill out the top portion of the form. Be sure to put in a daytime phone number. Brian, the owner, will be calling everyone to attend auditions on Friday night. If he likes what he hears, you’ll be asked to come back on Saturday night when the representatives from Opportunity Records will watch and judge all remaining participants. Be sure to keep the bottom portion with your entry number and bring it with you to the audition on Friday or you cannot participate. If it’s lost, it will not be replaced. All music must be original and unpublished. Got it?”
“Wait a minute. The original song contest won’t allow covers?” A giddy sort of excitement is building in my bones. This is my chance to do something different.
She smiles. “I hate to see old people getting picked on.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ve got thousands of original songs.”
I shove the food inside my jacket pockets, slide the money towards her and make for the exit. At the glass door, I look back. “You just make sure your boots are tied nice and tight; because my song is gonna knock your little, cotton socks off.”
I’ve spent the better part of my life living and breathing music. I’m not good at much of anything, but I’m a hell of a singer and a pretty decent guitarist. On top of that, I’ve got thousands of original songs. My brain is a vault of musical wealth that no one can tap, except me. The modern classics I’m thinking of haven’t even been written, recorded, or thought of by any of the artists on my iPod. Therefore by definition, they are all original. I have the car charger in my back pack; all I have to do is use it. I can go through my lists of music and choose whichever song I like, go over the chords on my guitar—I don’t have it with me but that’s easily remedied with a trip to a second-hand store. The more I think of the possibilities, the more excited it makes me. Something different and positive to look forward to.
My dinner is gone by the time I get to the back lot. When I climbed down the wall the first time—fell more like—I noticed a wooden plank lying in the bark. Taking it from its resting place at the base of the wall, I prop it up like a ramp and use it to hike up top. Before climbing down the other side, I take up the board and set it in the space between the fence and the wall, for next time.
Again, I take a minute to sit and stare at the city lights. They’re oddly peaceful.
I can’t believe I just bumped into Lisa. I don’t remember that lounge being there. It doesn’t seem like the type of place a teenager ought to be working. I remember her working at a novelty shop in the mall. I probably forgot that she changed jobs. That novelty store wouldn’t allow her trademark makeup. They made her wear a really terrible wig, too. I remember clearly, because I stopped by once after I bought a football jersey at the store downstairs. That was the first time I saw her true face. She still had the pale complexion, but the distracting eyeliner was gone. That was the first time I noticed her green eyes.
We had one of those friendships that opened my eyes to the world beyond my own door. It was brief, but impactful. Through our conversations, I think I learned more about the hardships of life than through any first-hand experience up to that point. She had a really screwed up family but she was a fighter. The craziness in her life served to make me grateful for my own moderately unbalanced upbringing. I never understood how big her problems were until years later. To be honest, part of me never wanted to know. Not consciously, of course, but I think I somehow knew that knowing precisely what she was going through meant reacting and I wasn’t ready for that. Now I can look back and see exactly what I didn’t want to know. She dealt with the kind of problems a girl might drop hints about but would never explain, at least not to someone like me. The boy who never asked.
I think it was senior year when her mom threw her dad out. She was overjoyed. Not long after that, she moved to Nebraska to live with her grandparents. I was sad but mostly for me, because she was the only one who understood. The only one who still treated me normal after Carrie and my mom were gone. For a time, she was my only friend in the world.
I have thought about her from time to time since then and always wished I had taken the time to thank her. But, like my musical aspirations, the years passed and life got in the way. It just didn’t seem so important anymore. I keep up with her in my own way. I ‘like’ her comments on Facebook sometimes.