Me And A Shadow
Right about the time my iPod’s done charging, a series of voices echo up the street. I can tell right away who they belong to. One is my young counter-part, the other my best friend, Elijah, and another old high school buddy I haven’t seen in years, Trey . . . something. We called him Double Dragon.
The state took Trey away from his mom when he was just a baby. I think she was using and he was born addicted. Newborn withdrawals behind him, the doctors said he would be fine and the state placed him into foster care until his mom completed her treatment requirements to get him back. She never did and he was eventually adopted by the Johnsons. Johnson! That was his last name. We nicknamed him Double Dragon because of the chronic halitosis.
“Nah, homie, that ain’t how it went down.”
I can’t help but roll my eyes at Trey’s forced ethnicity. We should’ve called him White Chocolate.
“Think what you want, Trey, I was there. I saw him try to run.”
“Did he, Eli? You was there, too.”
Elijah throws his palms out. “I am not involving myself in this. I would never want Dylan to think I’m spreading rumors about him getting beat up and running away from some dude old enough to be his dad.”
They all laugh.
“I heard he runs from his dad, too.” Little Gerry chuckles.
“Day-am!” Trey covers his mouth, “like that?” and turns his focus back to Eli, whose face is turned down to hide a smirk.
Eli shakes his head. “All I know is I did not see Dylan get clocked and make a run for it. I did see him give in a nice kick to the dude’s chest, though.”
“Dylan deserves everything he got and more. He’s always pushing people around. It’s nice to see him get his for once.” Little G says.
The car is secured and I’m half way across the street, heading back to my post before they notice. They carry on, cracking more jokes at Dylan’s expense in hushed voices; each one contributing some cut to his intelligence, laughing quietly as if someone may overhear and report back. From the porch, I see them glancing curiously and look away.
A second later, little G nods his head, mumbling, “I know, but he did.”
Trey’s face lights up. “Hey!” He calls to me, “You’re supposed to be the winner? I saw Dylan this morning. You’re the one lookin’ all jacked up!”
There’s nothing to gain. It’s pubescent to brag. I know this. Besides, I barely won and Dylan is just a kid—a monstrously tall, bully of a child. It is difficult not to grin, though. My face may be bruised, but it seems I’ve saved more of it than their little friend has.
“Hey!” Trey calls again as the company makes their way towards the front steps. “You know he’s coming back, right?”
Now I remember why I quit hanging around him. “You’re a talkative little guy, aren’t you?”
“You ’at the top of his list now!”
“I don’t care.” Sitting on the front steps across the road, I think I’ve have had all the advice I can take today.
“Don’t get mad at me. I’m just tryin’a to help your old, wrinkly ass get a head start. Give you time to get your walker and get up outta here!”
I’m ready to respond until he makes the remark about the walker. I want to laugh, but keep a straight face. “You’re a regular comedian.”
“I’ll be here all week!” He waves as if he’s finished performing and makes his exit into the house behind his friends.
A second later little G comes out, takes a quick look at his mom’s car and runs back inside.
“I locked it, Mom.” I say to the wind.
Removing my iPod from my backpack, I start my search by flipping through the varied lists of music. Right away, rap is eliminated as a possibility. Eminem had the ‘white rapper’ thing on lock. Besides, I’m more of a singer/songwriter type. Scrolling through the menu, I jot down several possibilities in the notepad I got from my forced time with the chief headshrinker and begin to pick apart song chords, trying to deconstruct each song without compromising the integrity of the melody. Some of my choices won’t breakdown the way I want and I have to start over with another selection. The process is tedious and frustrating.
It’s too bad I can’t take a trip down to San Diego. Rap Core is about to blow up down there. Linkin Park, P.O.D. will be hitting it big in another year. System Of A Down will, too, but I’m not sure where they’re from. After I help Carrie, I’ll have to work on making my way down south.
Distractions aren’t hard to find, only to overlook. Little G and his friends have emerged from the house across the way. They are being noisy, but that’s not the distracting part. They are playing basketball and Eli, the trusted scorekeeper, is cheating. The funny thing; he isn’t even trying to hide it. The other two just pay so little attention that he gets away with it. After the first round, he tells them he’s won and they believe him, no questions asked! I don’t remember being so gullible.
Finally, I’ve got my list narrowed down to three possibilities—all potential number ones as far as I’m concerned. They’re all in my key, culturally relevant and break down well on acoustic.
“We better get busy,” Eli persists, passing the basketball to little G, distracting me again.
G catches it and Trey starts laying on the ‘charm’. “Fag, I don’t swing that way.”
Little G smirks at Eli. “All that cheating must be very tiring.”
Eli gives his best evil laugh, “Mwa-ha-ha! You make it too easy and I don’t cheat. I win.”
They continue tossing the ball, heading back through the gate.
“Hey, Gerry!” I call. The proper name leaves a bad taste in my mouth. “Got a second?” I wave him over. The yelling makes my mouth hurt.
He tosses the ball back to Eli, who barely catches it before walking inside with Trey. With a light jog, he leaps from the street to the lawn. He looks and sounds laid back as his eyes rake over every inch of my bruised face. “What’s up?”
“Where’s your dad?”
He shrugs, “Probably working late.”
“He was supposed to lend me his car.”
“That’s probably why he’s not here.”
“Probably. Hey, I’m going to call you ‘G’ from now on. Okay?”
“That’s cool,” he says, sounding nonchalant.
“What are you guys doing tonight?”
“Rehearsing for the talent show.”
His hands reach sheepishly into his pockets. “Yeah, it’s kind of stupid. I’m thinking of quitting.”
“Nah, you don’t want to start that habit. Are you playing music, or what are you doing?”
“It’s a comedy skit—Vanilla Ice meets Bobby Brown in a dance battle.”
“Who’s playing Bobby Brown?” I bet I can guess.
“Trey is gonna wear this huge wig and we have this whole dance thing choreographed. We’ve been working on it for a while.”
“Sounds interesting.” Actually, it sounds idiotic. “Whatever you do, don’t let him paint his face.” That knucklehead is probably planning to do just that.
“Eli’s the DJ. It’s supposed to be funny.” He shrugs.
“Good luck with that.”
“You should come. It’s Friday night in the High School Auditorium.”
“You need security?” The jab makes him smile. “Thanks for the invite. If I’m not busy, I’ll definitely check it out.” We’ve spoken here and there but this is the first conversation. It is very nice of me to invite myself.
“Are you working or something?”
“I’m performing in that song contest.” I point behind him towards the wall. “Over at the Brick Lounge.”
“Oh yeah, Lisa mentioned that. Well, good luck!” He turns to leave.
He stops. “Yeah?”
“I hear there’s a really bad flu going around that’s especially hard on little kids. Tell your mom so she’ll keep Carrie inside.”
“Okay,” he starts to trot off again.
“One more thing.”
He stops again, “Yeah?” and turns around.
“I have a feeling my ride is gonna flake. Do you know where I can find a reasonably priced acoustic guitar within walking distance?”
He shrugs. “You can borrow mine if you want. My dad won’t care.”
Of course! “Are you sure?”
“It’s cool. Hold up, I’ll go get it.”
Watching him jog across the street, I think about how good it feels to be charitable. “I am awesome.”
Not a minute passes before he’s walking back carrying my old beat up, second-hand acoustic. A total beginner’s guitar my dad gave me when I was younger. They don’t make them like that anymore and there’s probably a good reason. It does appear to be in better condition than the version I used to play. Minus a few dents and scratches that I probably haven’t inflicted yet, it looks exactly like I remember.
“Here you go.” He holds out the guitar by the neck, showcasing a longstanding dustcoat.
“Thanks.” The strings look brittle. They may break before I get a chance to tune them.
“How well do you play?” The doubt in his voice is sufficient enough to warrant a demonstration.
“Time to get schooled,” I say, setting the strap around my neck. After some tuning issues are dealt with, I begin to strum, starting simple to test the strings.
“Nice.” G compliments.
Encouraged, I break into a simplified version of Dirty Diana.
He bobs his head, enjoying the rhythm. “Is that the song you’re gonna play?”
I chuckle. “No, that was the late-great Michael Jackson.” The smile sends a shooting pain deep into my jaw. My gums ache.
“Oh, I don’t listen to any of that old stuff.”
“Old? It was released . . .” I pause, trying to count in my head. “Nine years ago. No, the album was seven; the single was six years ago.” It was the fifth single released in spring of ’88. It’s tragic that I know that and not the day I’m dreading.
“The Thriller album? More like twenty,” he rolls his eyes.
“No, the Bad album,” I argue. “How can you not know this? The man is a living legend.”
“Was, dude—Michael Jackson is dead and I don’t think he made any bad albums.”
“I know.” The response is natural because it is true—where I come from. To him, it shouldn’t be. Not yet. “Wait. He . . . died how?”
He rolls his eyes. “I don’t know, he got burned or something. I was really little when it happened so I don’t know. Go to the library, look it up in the encyclopedia.”
Burned? He was burned while filming a commercial back in the eighties, but everyone knows he recovered and came back with some of his best stuff. I can’t begin to fathom what this means to the world of music. He was such a tremendous influence on so many people.
The shifting breeze amplifies the feeling of sweat building on my forehead and temples. It’s all these odd, little discrepancies that keep catching me off guard. So many things that I’m sure about are not what they should be. Why are the absolutes so chaotic?
“Jonas, are you okay? The part of your face that isn’t purple looks green.”
“I’m fine,” I say, knowing all I can do in the moment is shut it off. Change my mind and keep going. “Can I ask one more thing?”
“Whatever’s clever.” Little G crosses his arms, taking on a pose that reeks of impatience. I’ve monopolized enough of his time and he wants to go. I should say, ‘never mind’ and let him get back to his rehearsal, but there is something else bothering me.
“What’s the story with your friend, Lisa?”
“My girlfriend? Why?”
She’s his girlfriend? Strange how some regrets surface and change things that were, and other things I’m sure could never change simply do and for no apparent reason. My subconscious is turning out to be a treacherous place.
“Does her brother always act that way?” I don’t remember him being such a dick, but then I hardly ever had to deal with him. Strangely enough, I can’t remember why that is.
“Yeah, he’s a prick for sure. He was only being like that ’cause he thought they were alone.”
“What happened after they left?”
“What’s the matter, the memory a little fuzzy?” Eyes squint slightly as he asks, teasing.
“That’s an understatement.”
“Well, he won’t come back here if that’s what you mean.”
“Was your dad upset?”
“About the fight? Probably. He doesn’t approve of ‘physical confrontation,’” he moves his hands in the air, making quotes around the words and repeating in a tone that mocks the giver. “He knows how Dylan is already. They had it out before and he’s not allowed around here. So you don’t need to worry about him—”
“I’m not worried about him.” The need of insistence is incredibly annoying.
“I know,” he responds in a tone a little too high-pitched to be convincing.
“Do you really think I care what that pissant does?”
“Anyways, he’s gone after this weekend. He starts Job Corp on Monday.”
“You think I’m afraid of him, don’t you?”
His eyes widen with false innocence. “No. Not at all.”
“Look, I am the one who—”
“Hey Gerry Springer, your show’s on!” Treys voice carries across the street. I can see his mealy face peaking between the curtains of the living room window.
We both cringe at the sound of the name being called.
“See ya.” Little G spins and starts across the street.
“Don’t forget to tell your mom what I said about Carrie!” I want the advice repeated by someone other than me—the more people that duplicate the warning, the better.
He raises one hand in a short wave acknowledging he’s heard as he sprints away. Alone again, I make my way inside, pull the wadded sleeping bag from the closet, and set it on the floor in the well-lit kitchen.
Once I’m comfortable, I pick up the guitar and start noodling. My fingers slide over the chords, strumming mindfully on the old strings. The ease of playing loosens the constant tension in my body.
Another day is gone, marking nearly three weeks I have been in this house. Almost two months since I woke up in this strange place. The long days are difficult but the nights are hardest. Not only because I am lonely and running out of money—which are two problems I will have to face at some point if I don’t wake up—but also because I can’t shake this anxiety. It’s not just that I don’t feel at home in this house, or that I spend so much time with nothing to do but think.
I can’t stand the idea that Carrie’s future, real or imagined, depends upon me. I am forced into waiting for something I need to avoid. The definitive success or failure of everything I hope for hinges on one moment. One split-second decision if my memory doesn’t provide any forewarning. I don’t doubt my ability to prevent the accident so much as I doubt myself.
I am capable, but will I succeed?
I have some idea of what the death day looks like, but there are so many parts missing. I’m not sure if I’ll see or understand before it happens. Will the setting spark a memory?
What if I can’t remember and I miss everything?
I can’t live through it again if she doesn’t.
I’ve trimmed the weeping willow vines away from the sign up the block. I watch Carrie whenever she’s outside. And I have tried to get my mother to keep her indoors. I’ve done everything I can think of to keep the situation from happening short of telling my dad outright and he wouldn’t believe me if I did. Still, the efforts seem insufficient.
Anxiety bites at my fingernails while I contemplate the worst. What if I can’t stop it? What if I save her and everything goes the way I want it to? What then? Will I wake up? What if nothing happens? What happens then? Will I live out the rest of my life in this in-between place?
Outside, the night grows darker. So do my thoughts. I worry about my dad—my real dad back home. He’s probably losing his mind with worry. What has been happening with him since the accident? He’s probably lost his room, been forced into a substandard state facility that reeks of infection and stale urine.
He has no place to go and no one to protect him. I’m his only family and a shitty son because I promised him I’d be back for the box he wanted me to have. I let myself hide, too afraid to face his disappointment. Jeanine left me that message telling me I needed to see him and I still didn’t go.
I thought I had all the time in the world to squeeze in a visit. Now I’m unstuck in this place, seemingly trapped inside my own subconscious—or worse, truly here in this isolated, hope-to-be-forgotten space in time. Whether I succeed in saving Carrie or not, there is no promise of home to be found.
To top it off, one song keeps spinning through my head. I have loved it since I watched Donnie Darko. Now the constant loop has me kind of hating it. Still, I run through the first verse and chorus of Mad World, hoping that playing it will help me forget it and curb the worry in the process.
I can’t believe how much I miss my crappy life.
The feeling of concealed eyes watching returns and I stop strumming. I lean over the sink and stare out the kitchen window. The night has turned completely black.
A thud sounds from behind me. I turn toward the dark living room, guitar in hand. My fingers clench the wooden neck, ready to swing. “Who’s there?”
“It’s just me!” My dad’s voice rings through the dark. “Don’t beat me up!” He chuckles. His feet, followed by his legs, then torso, enter the lighted kitchen. He isn’t empty handed. “You look awful.” His eyes bulge as he flings a huge pizza box and a six pack of soda over the bare countertop.
“I don’t know.” I tease, touching my face. “I think the black and blue really make my eyes pop.” The wit and feminine intonation are completely wasted. Abi would think it’s funny.
He shakes his head. “I brought dinner.” He points to the heap on the counter, “I should have brought plates.”
“Don’t trip, pizza was meant to be finger food.”
He looks at the floor around his feet and shrugs. I smile in favor of a smart-ass remark, unsure if he’s being serious.
“I thought you weren’t going to show tonight.” Opening the box, steam rises off the extra large masterpiece. I inhale as much of the cheesy goodness as my lungs can handle. “Pepperoni is my favorite.”
“It’s Gerry’s favorite, too. How’s the face?”
“Manageable.” My mouth is full, which makes the word sound garbled, but he doesn’t ask me to repeat myself.
He stuffs his hand into his jacket pocket and pulls out a wrinkled bag. “This is for you.”
Taking the brown paper, I unroll the top and reach inside. “Whisky,” I set the flask on the counter.
“For the hangover; one shot plus one pain reliever equals cured—so long as it’s only one of each.” He smiles weakly and starts to fidget.
“Pull up a space and eat.”
At my invitation, he takes off his jacket and lays it across the floor to sit. “I always liked this house.” He looks around. “The dining room is bigger.”
Absence of clutter will make any room look larger, I want to say, but nothing comes out.
The silence grows until there’s nothing but awkwardness between us. One of us really should say something, and since I’m the one who’s been waiting for him, I attempt to glaze the weirdness with menial comments between bites, jabbering about the weather and upcoming Halloween.
He doesn’t hear me, though. He’s too wrapped up in his own thoughts to consider mine. His fidgeting increases.
“What is it about me that makes you so nervous?” I offer the bottle of whisky with the question.
He takes it, pours nearly half into his soda can, then takes a long drink from the flask before handing it back. “Thanks.”
“Thirsty?” I mumble and set it on the floor between us.
The silence stretches, again. I finish off my second slice and start the third before he’s touched his first. He’s just sitting there, sipping his drink.
His complexion washes white all of a sudden. He tips the soda, noisily chugging.
“What is wrong?” Nodding towards the guitar, he finally speaks. “How long have you played?”
So, he’s pissed little G lent it to me. Why doesn’t he just say so?
“Off and on for about twenty years. Do you mind?” I ask, trying not to sound bitter. “I wasn’t going to take it but he said you wouldn’t care.”
I am feeling more than edgy now. It’s only been about ten minutes and he’s polished off most of the bottle he supposedly brought for me. If he spews, I’ve got nothing to clean it up with. A dirty bathroom is one thing, but I am not spending the night in a house that smells like puke.
“Just tell him I said, ‘thanks but no thanks’. You can take it back, no hard feelings.”
“Jonas, I . . . I wonder if I was wrong.” His hands reach up to clasp the sides of his face like he’s trying to keep his head from falling to pieces.
“Wrong about what?”
“Everything,” he mumbles, then goes into a one-sided discussion about some souvenirs his father left him, and then quickly changes the subject. “How can you believe in someone that won’t answer?” He asks me, like I’m not only supposed to understand this riddle, but also enlighten him.
“That depends,” I say, trying to avoid a committing to an explanation.
“I don’t understand,” he slurs.
“Neither do I.” Why do even my imagined conversations with him have to be so stressful and ominous?
“What did we do to deserve this burden?” He asks and starts talking under his breath as if I’m not even here. Sadly, the longer I sit and listen to him, the more familiar this type of conversation becomes. My father never had a drinking problem, but when he drank, he was consumed by problems that he refused to explain. And I know that it is my duty to sit here until he’s done.
After several more minutes of confused murmuring, he raises his head, looking around with glossy eyes. I don’t know what he sees but whatever it is, he is not comforted. The anxious curiosity I saw in him on the first night is back. Now amplified and contorting his features.
I’ve had about all I can take of this. “You know, I hate the melodramatic bullshit. If you’ve got something to say, say it. Or let me put you out of your misery.”
I see no immediate objection. He doesn’t lean away or back-peddle, and obviously he doesn’t get angry. No, he’s mild, bearing only a hint of the internal struggle that just moments ago seemed to be tearing him apart. In a strange way, the lack of opposition helps.
“I will tell you whatever you want to know.”
He looks me in the eye. “How did you get here?”
Should I be surprised by his isolating approach? I expected he would want to know my real name. “A bus accident, downtown. We were hit by a diesel truck.”
He scoffs and crosses his arms like he’s irritated.
“Alright, now we’re getting somewhere!”
He glares at me, all drunk and stubborn and finally familiar.
“My name is—”
“No! The less I know, the better, remember? Wherever you are, so is he.” It’s a phrase he used once before. His pasty face begins to show color. I am not sure if it’s the alcohol or genuine alarm, but a whimper escapes him.
“Maybe that is true for you, but not for me.”
“Don’t fool yourself, Jonas, none of us are impervious. But still, I’m glad I didn’t send you away. It helps a little knowing you’re close.” He covers his face with his palm, taking out the stress on his forehead. The motion is tainted with a not-so-subtle weave.
“You should have something to eat before that whisky gets the better of you.” I reach for the pizza box still on the counter and pull it down to set on the faded green and gold linoleum. “I’m not used to hosting.” I say, explaining away the lack of courtesy.
He reaches across his chest, pulling a wad of napkins from the pocket of his navy work shirt. “I forgot about these.” The flimsy papers drop, breaking apart on the floor between us.
“Gerry, are you alright?”
He shakes his head. A wail sounds as he clumsily climbs to his feet. Once again, he’s talking to himself, voice steadily rising. “You can’t make me!” He staggers in the direction of the door. Half way there he’s freezes, almost as if he’s forgotten where he was going. Looking down at me he asks, “Why are you so calm? He can’t find us Jonas!”
“Calm down,” I plead. “Who is ‘he’? There’s no one here but you and me.”
It seems whatever incident that made my dad such a piss-poor drunk in his past, this present and present-future, has already taken place. Some people use alcohol as a crutch, others, as a mask. For my dad it’s always been a shovel. He’d try to bury the anonymous trauma beneath foggy layers of inebriation only to find afterward that the reverse was true. I think, maybe, during his youth he was a victim of a crime and never dealt with it. As the years passed, maybe he learned to deal, but not well. Inevitably, a day would come when he was having trouble with whatever it was and then he’d drink. The alcohol, meant to bury the pain, would only dredge it up.
I am filled with sympathetic embarrassment. My father never liked me to see him this way, but his inability to cope caused me some trauma of my own. There were a few times I found him crying in his underwear next to a half empty bottle of scotch inside my bedroom at three in the morning. (There’s an image for the headshrinker.) He would wake me up, blubbering his way through some story he was so sure would change my life but could never answer any questions. I would spend hours trying to guess what it was, like when this thing he couldn’t speak of happened to him, but never got near the mark. Eventually, my curiosity surrendered to his stubbornness and I quit asking.
“Do you know where he is?” His voice bears an edge of desperation I find unsettling.
In all the times I recall seeing my father caught up in a daze of suspicion, distrust of the world around him—worried over things that were or weren’t happening—never once did he seem incapable to me. Not even on the nights he was barely hanging on. I was never afraid of what came next because he was there. He may have been scared but he never seemed powerless.
I shake my head. “Maybe if you explain a little more I could help.”
“Have you seen him?”
There’s a depressing weight in the question—as if everything hinges on my choice of words.
“No.” I answer and his countenance lightens immediately. So I add, “And I don’t think I will.” I have no idea who he’s talking about so it’s no trouble to lie. I doubt this version of my father could spot my tells anyway.
Seeming mollified, my father’s posture returns to the more relaxed state. He resumes his stagger for the front door. “We have to do it. Don’t you think so?”
There’s something in the way he asks odd questions and releases meaningless bits of information that makes me want to scream. This guy is drunk and a pushover and not real. I’d be a fool not to make the most of this opportunity. To iron out the details of my chaotic creation.
“Tell me about our first meeting,” I demand.
He stops, swaying as he studies me. “You’re not you, are you?”
“Humor me,” I say, reaching around and shutting the door behind him.
“Okay.” He blinks several times, his forehead creases, he clears his throat, as if these little rituals will draw out the words.
“If you remember, my son was still a baby. Maybe two years old. I was out in front of the building, looking for a park to place the car. Then . . . WHAM!” He throws the fist of one hand into his other palm. “The top was gone. He was standing over me with his black heart.” Welled tears spill down his red cheeks. “He was gonna smash me. My family. We didn’t do anything!” He shakes his fist in the air.
“That Keeper. He called me a thief! But I didn’t take’m! I left’m in the dirt! I don’t want any part of this!”
More confusing nonsense is my reward for probing. I guess I am either truly crazy or have one hell of an imagination. I shake my head. This version of dear old Dad is falling apart and I can’t subject him to anymore humiliation.
“Do you need help getting home?”
He shakes his head. “Don’t let it happen again, Jonas.”
“Don’t let it pass to him.”
“You shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach.”
“I never drink on an empty stomach, gives me gas.”
“I know.” We both give a little chuckle—me, at the memories of being gassed out of endless rooms and him . . . well, he probably laughs because he doesn’t know what else to do.
I walk back to the dining room and grab the slice of pizza he left on a napkin and bring it to him. “Can I ask you something?”
“I don’t want to talk about—” He pauses, choosing to work on the half-chewed bite in his mouth. “Talk about you-know-who.”
“Since when are you such a light-weight? Honestly, I’ve seen first timers handle their liquor better.”
“I had a few after works with a friend of mine, before.” He waves and then staggers out the door.
I watch him swerve down the path and then cross the road. When the porch light turns on, I know he’s made it inside, welcomed by people who care about him, will clean up after him, and make sure he gets to bed alright.