Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 117 in February, 2009.
A welcomed morning is when my mother is not screaming at me to get up. Never mind that she usually rushes into my room without the warning of a knock and twists the door handle as if she was breaking a chicken’s neck. But when it’s five thirty in the a.m. and she has yet to assault my room like an all-pro middle linebacker, I’m a happy person – at least for that moment.
After all the ruckus my mother creates on a typical morning, the usual question she poses to me as I lay with my mouth and nose pressed against the pillow is, “Are you up?” If I had any worthy gumption, I would fish out of my small pool of sarcasm and perhaps give her a cheeky answer. But I don’t and a froggy mumble is my general response.
The solitary steps I take along the path to school are measurements of moments in time. Each step is a thought about the day before, the rude wake up call, the day ahead, the song that swam in my head when I was in the shower, the anticipation of watching my favorite sitcom, the girl (or girls) that seem to arouse a tremendous erection when I see their nipples seemingly bust out of their cardigans. These steps are my gateway to memories past and signify the dullness of the future as all my thoughts, every morning as I trudge slowly down Hillcrest Street to the freeway overpass, seem so eerily the same.
My older brother had died of alcohol poisoning two years ago when he was only seventeen. He was the apple of my father’s eye but was also stricken with the same lust for liquor and nihilism as my father. Believing that life was nothing but a sequence of time signifying doom, a shop class accident that led to a severed left pinky convinced him that he wasn’t willing to find the fortitude to endure the remaining trials and tests of life. And so in a locked motel room, he consumed three bottles of grocery branded scotch and passed away in a pond of his vomit. In a note he left me in my box of baseball cards, he simply wrote that he was too scared of the future to give a damn about taking another breath. He didn’t write, “I love you” or “Tell mom I’m sorry”. Instead, his last written words were, “Just find a way to survive.” And I think of him now, as I do every morning when I pass by his ex-girlfriend’s house.
In this, my sophomore year, I elected to take an extracurricular activity in photography. Since it is not a part of the curriculum, the pony tail sporting, ex hippie teacher designed a morning activity where we would meet outside of his art class and roam around the schoolyards to snap pictures of insects, dog crap, shoe laces or whatever else that we thought was worthy of committing to film. He gave us no tips nor educated us on photography as an art: no mention of composition, lighting, aperture, etc. Instead, he merely said that through the camera’s eye, we can somehow find a piece of our design. I was pretty pissed when he told us this. Not only did I not know what the hell he meant but we were all given one disposable camera and due to cost, we were allowed only one snap per day.
There are three metal poles that stand in front of the entrance to the walkway of the overpass. I have no mind to think about why they are there, but over time, I developed a habit of touching the cold, rough tops of these poles from left to right. Sure they were covered by moist bird shit, gum, phlegm and the usual sort of bacteria and germs but none of that quelled me from my ritual. I thought to myself that it is part of what makes me unique.
The left curve of the overpass that leads to the incline is a sonic rush. All of the sudden, the screaming whooshes of the morning traffic hit me like wind through a tunnel and for the first time in the morning, I feel awake. A curved, overhead chained fence separates me from the throes of the commuters who drive in a straight shot to get to work, perhaps with the illusion that if they get there faster, they can speed up time and get home quicker. The speed of the cars amaze me as it’s hard for me to understand why there’s such a need (or is it a want?) to get to somewhere that seems as meaningless as where you’re coming from. As the cars keep racing by in either direction, I dread the day when some kid sees the blur of my car as I rush off listening to traffic alerts and fumbling over my coffee tumbler so that I can put in my eight hours of widget work per day.
I must admit that there is one reason why I chose to take this informal class in photography: I relish having the streets mostly to myself in the morning. The steps, as I said, are my measurements of time and thought. I enjoy thinking about nothing and everything without the hassle of my mom’s bum rush or my teachers invading my dreamy thoughts with a surprise question about the Taft-Hartley Act. Hillcrest Street is my domain with the exception of an occasional car, streaming exhaust as it makes its way to a freeway entrance. I extend my domain to the overpass for in the three months I have taken this class, I have yet to see a single soul walking the same path to school at the same time. This solitary exercise makes me feel clean.
Then, this morning, as I slightly hunch over to lengthen my strides while walking the incline, I see a solitary figure standing at the midpoint of the overpass and staring out into the stream of commuting cars.
My mother is like a combat weapon: short, blunt, has extraordinary implosive energy and at times, emotions can be kicked away to the curb to be picked up by garbage men. Her favored method of verbal communication is sharply lucid closed ended questions and she leaves no room for counter arguments. Perhaps this is why my brother chose to communicate to her with nods or faint smiles rather than words. Yet, my brother never complained, bitched or moaned about my mother’s motherless style. “She’s our mother and that’s that,” he’d say to me anytime I would complain, bitch or moan about her.
As I left for school this morning, her last words to me were, “Did you purposely not put on a jacket so that you can show to your teachers what a thoughtless mother I am when it’s near freezing outside?” Having learned from my brother, I put on a parka in front of her and managed a squinty smile. She looked at me with a stern disdain and started preparing breakfast for my father. And as I am now walking up the incline, just that mild form of cardio exercise is making my arms sweat and I begin to feel a tingling of perspiration on my sternum as I walk closer to this slender figure.
With his back towards me at an angle, I see the figure of a smallish man with his head slumped, staring at the freeway lanes. It takes me a minute to realize that what I perceived as my domain was nothing more than public space that I happened to use every morning before anyone else. That feeling of being violated in my space starts to slowly seep out of my thoughts and I know that by this time tomorrow, I’d have the walkway and the vista all to myself again.
Standing directly above the freeway median, the young man pivots his thin, bony face but at a downward angle as if to check to see if I was wearing shoes. Then as he lifts his face to look upon my body, I am now close enough to make out his features and describe it to the authorities if I needed to. With his stringy light brown hair and paper thin lips, he steps back with his left leg and turns his front side towards me. His zipper is undone and out of his pants, a pale, engorged penis points straight up to the sky as he rubs his head with his left thumb. I realize that I am now staring at his penis and after awkwardly correcting my path of vision, I proceed to walk a straight line as if I had seen nothing more interesting than a wild rabbit prancing in tall, dry grass.
“Hey,” he says.
I don’t stop walking.
“Hey. I knew your brother.”
I stop five paces away from him and without turning around, I reply, “My brother is dead.”
“I know, man. I know he’s dead. Me and Case and your brother used to hang out sometimes. I wanted to go to his funeral, but you guys had him cremated, right?”
I begin to walk.
“Wait, man, just wait a second. I wanna show you something.”
I turn around.
“I miss your bro so much, man. I mean, I know it’s been a long time already, but every second that goes by, it’s like this hole in my gut is getting bigger, you know? I mean, just the fact that there’s no fucking possible way for me to even see him again hits me like a ton of bricks.”
“Do you have something you want to show me other than your dick? Because I’ve seen enough of it already and I have to go and take some pictures.”
“Did he ever talk about me? I mean, about me and him?
I stand in silence and tell myself to not make even the slightest movement.
“I’m going now.”
“Hold on, just hold on. I’ve got something I want to show you.”
He reaches into his coat pocket and takes out a switchblade.
I turn the other way and wonder for a flashing second if I should bolt or stay.
“I ain’t gonna hurt you. I promise. Please…I promise.”
He begins to speak with a sickening urgency without raising his voice. And I can’t figure out if his tone is of heartbreak or insanity.
“I miss him every fucking second, man and just knowing that I can’t ever get him any closer to me is driving me nuts. I need him back. I want him back. But I can’t, you know? And why? Why can’t I have him back? Just tell me if he ever talked about us. That’s all I want to know”
I turn to face him again.
“I have to get going, Hardy.”
Hardy flinches his shoulders and twists his lips to the left. He then flips open his blade and looks at me for the briefest moment. Now crying with drool dripping out of the corners of his mouth, he then makes a quick, downward motion with the blade towards the base of his penis. He grits his teeth, screams out an unholy sound, falls to his knees, crashing onto his right side and begins to make a confounding noise that mixes a scream, a cry, a laugh and a whimper.
The knife falls out of his hands and he kicks it so that it is near the edge of the walkway as if it was threatening to teeter off. I walk over silently to pick up the blade and then see Hardy on the ground, his hands clutching his thigh and knee, twitching like a seizure victim while thrusting syncopated guttural grunts. His penis is cut at the base and a steady stream of blood paints the concrete walkway. As I pick up the knife and march towards him, blood eases its way out of his body like rendered fat pouring out of a punctured plastic baggie. It is surprisingly thick and viscous and his cut flesh bares itself like ground beef behind a butcher’s display.
I force Hardy’s right hand open and place his blade in his palm and close it. His eyes are closed and he couldn’t stop twitching, thrashing and crying.
“Hardy,” I say, “You’re a fucking idiot.”
“Class,” the ex hippie with an accidental teaching credential says, “I have some disappointing news. It appears that the school or should I say, the principal of your esteemed learning facility, has decided that having this particular activity does not provide a productive or creative outlet according to the guidelines set forth by the powers that be. So, unfortunately, we will no longer be conducting our adventurous get togethers. I am so sorry about this, kids. But if any of you want to meet up on weekends to explore the beauty of capturing life with a shutter, let’s talk and see if we can turn this negative into a positive. Pun intended. Get it? Negative?”
None of us laugh or manage a polite chuckle.
“I know…bad timing. It’s not the right moment for a joke. Believe me, I’m heartbroken about it, too. But there’s this old, funny saying: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
I walk over to him and hand him the yellow, disposable camera.
“I took a picture already this morning on my way to school. Take a look at it and see how it fits into my design.”
The teacher looks at me with a positive grin. “That’s the spirit. Will do.”