We’d been at it for hours, me and Lauren, hitting the road so hard you’d find fault with its character for not striking back. It’d actually been around 45 minutes, but we were late, and Lauren, my beautiful bride of 16 years now, was in some mood. We’d been living in Austin for about four months, a time in which I had come to rely heavily on the merits of Map-Quest. Except tonight, the Château Evrex wasn’t on Culley Lane or Arback Drive or any of the neighboring streets, at least not anymore. They must have moved, maybe to a road name of befitting pomposity. I don’t know. Jonas and Lucy were with the sitter and Lauren wasn’t at the office, so I knew this was big. Our friends, Harry and Christine, were having an art installation: cellophane mummy murals modernizing King Tut and his ilk, and papier-mâché recreations of horrific car wrecks on the I-27, real chic, sharp-edged stuff, stuff that’d bite and leave a mark.
It’s all new to me so I’ve got my feelers out, edging my way through the whole thing (continual heat-wave and all), like I’m out for a foggy Friday morning jog, back when I jogged. It’s all uncharted turf and that’s great if Lauren’s asking. I’m Mr. Understanding, the self-portrait of reason, because sure, I know what her new position at the firm means for us—for the family; it’s a golden-ticket opportunity, we’ve really lucked out here. And it’s not like I was leaving behind anything real back in Charlotte, Indiana, my baby reminds me with all the subtlety of a left cross to the jaw. It wouldn’t matter much because we both know my dreams go in a jar on the shelf in the basement. I head on down every other day and run my hand across its obsidian, dust stained rim because nobody else will. Besides, I’m fond of telling her that unemployment can be just as gainful, and her doing her best Donna Reed when she can stomach it. But hey, its her show so here we are, reading electronic road maps like we’re nun-weary Sunday schoolers poring over the Lord’s Prayer. And I’m Christopher Columbus if she wants to know, living for open waters, the salient stumble of discovery, but really, my stomach’s in a fisherman’s knot and my feelers are out and between me and the cuttlefish I’m not exactly loving what they’re coming back with.
So we’re late and Lauren’s lips are curved and quivering like somebody went and put lemons in her Shirley Temple and her silence isn’t golden; it’s a molten shit brown that ushers in the biblical overflow of the river Jordan and I know this. I put the car in park on Shottler and start to fiddle with the GPS, prodding at felt buttons with my little finger. I’m looking busy, concentrating real hard on my tiny dash screen, like I’m an astronaut and the good of the world depends on it.
“There’s a parking lot over there,” she’s squinting, failing to suppress a sigh, though not investing much. “Why don’t you go over and ask the attendant for directions?”
It’s a great question and it’s dark and the pylon is up so I have to get out and walk around under this shadowy overpass, and its cold as All-Jesus, give or take a few degrees, but I don’t argue, not with her, my perpetual peaches and cream princess. The lights are off in the little booth and the attendant isn’t in attendance, so I start to walk back to the car. I’m crossing under the bridge past this tatted-up concrete pillar when I’m sure I see a silhouette of a scarecrow and I’m thinking, Christ, imagine if that were a person. Imagine what a fright that’d be, knowing that it isn’t. And then I see it’s moving towards me, this thin, outstretched hand protruding from shadow and I think, Christ, it is, it is a person.
“Give me your phone,” it says.
I’m already trembling from the cold, which masks some of my terror, but I really am terrified, shaking like I’d dry your soggy unmentionables if that’s what I had for lunch. He leans forward a bit and I can see him, a tall man, gaunt and disheveled. He’s wearing dark khakis, a white, untucked dress shirt, stained in brown at the lower edges and a kind of zebra-striped tie. He’s got on a puffy lime winter jacket but its unzipped and he wears it like he doesn’t know it’s there, like it might as well not be.
I don’t move. His small, coal eyes are staring at me.
“You should give me your phone,” he says again.
“I—Okay. Is this a robbery?” I feel the need to ask.
“I’m saying you should give me your cellular device.”
“So this is a robbery? I’m being robbed?”
“I’m imploring. It would be in your best interest.” His voice is thin and raspy, like goose-down against sand paper, like the death rattle of something beautiful. The wind carries it to me, his voice. I get the sense it might up and float away, that he might float away.
“Oh, well, that’s different, I suppose.”
“Does he know? Does he know where it is?” I hear Lauren calling from the car a few feet away.
“No,” I call back.
“No, he doesn’t know?”
“No, it’s not the attendant. This man wants my cell phone.” I’m shouting to her but I’m looking at him.
“I’m calling the police,” she says.
“Lauren, I don’t think that’s necessary. Is it?” I turn to him.
“I reckon not, no more than you’d sic the dog on the parcel man or, say, apprehend a Samaritan who performs the Heimlich on you. It’s invasive, sure, but hardly criminal. ”
“You’re a Samaritan? And you want my phone?”
“I’m a Samaritan because I want your phone. Listen to me, sir. I want to save you from the digital databanks of interweb connections and rapacious dot coms of dubious intent. Now they’re watching you, sir, and they’re taking things you won’t soon get back.”
“What’s he saying to you?” Lauren calls out. “I’m calling the police.”
I raise my hand to show her everything’s copasetic before turning back to the man, half expecting him to be gone. But he’s there, his hand outstretched, his grime-crusted palm exposed. I can see the cold sores that lie underneath his bushy beard, at the corners of his chin, swollen and agitated. His hair is greasy and windblown. A strip of exposed skin shows just above his temple, arching around the back. He could be anywhere from 18 to 38. It really could go either way. But either demographic would leave you feeling for the guy.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“George Harrison? Like the Beatle?”
“A great man.” He nods. “His expiration came too soon. Silenced for what he knew, what he sang and shared with the masses; pieces of himself: Locks of hair and toe nail clippings. Festering pimples from childhood. Skin shavings. A revolutionary type.”
He’s twitching with every other word and I get smart to the idea that he isn’t so much looking at me, but rather, at my chest, like he’s addressing some part inside of me, like my gall bladder, maybe. I feel warm and weird and I want him to keep speaking.
“He was a hero of yours?”
“Of ours, yes.”
“And you want my cell phone?”
“To save you, yes. Hers, too.” He gestures towards the parked car, towards Lauren.
My thumbs twiddle in the lining of my pocket. “And, I’m sorry, this is a government thing?”
“Sure. We’ve heard it before, that age old-ballad of motherly mistrust. I trust I don’t need to serenade you.” His mouth starts to twitch again in what might be a smile, before retreating back to the boilerplate expression. “Well, you’ll find nuggets of wisdom in even the most destitute of locales, that’s where they bury the good stuff. The truth is, I hold no ill will towards our brothers and sisters of big government control, BGC, if you will. I used to survey for them in the national marshes of Paratoga back in ‘95. I’m saying so you know I’m bona fide. Now they’ll do what they have to, what they need to, and we’ll do the same to maintain cognizance, to survive.”
The sun’s high in the sky and I’m in relatively good health, so I ask what exactly we need surviving from.
“Well.” He tugged at his beard with his free hand, the one not pining for my phone. “All of it, to be as frank as schnitzel,” he goes, like he’s selling me the premium package.
“It’s the whole caboodle: We’re talking kidnappings, deafening silencings across the globe, originating in but not limited to the Gobi desert, wave-length monitoring, molecular refurbishings, UFOs—”
“UFOs, like aliens?” I’m whispering.
“Oh, no, sir. UFOs exist, and they’re manned by folks like you and me. Everyday Jimmys and Jannies. Except not. Except tweaked, ever so slightly, like salt.” He holds up his fingers, index and thumb, rubbing them together. His nails are long and discolored, a shade or two darker than his own coat.
“Abduction is a human concept. So inhumane it has to be. That’s how you know, you pick up the funnies on any given afternoon and you know.”
“What’s happening?” Lauren’s shouting. “You need to get away from that man. He could be dangerous. Get back here, or I’m calling the police.”
“Tide’s rising, sir. We’re just mammals, bloated, land based, dim-witted mammals.” He’s practically whispering now, like he’s bestowing something upon me, a “my ears only” type of deal.
I pull out my LG chocolate strawberry shortcake doo-dad (my rectangular flashlight and pediatric waiting-room confidant) from my jacket pocket. With a little nod, I place it in his palm, my hand briefly brushing up against what feels like Summer leather passing for skin. His slender fingers close around the phone. I notice this crude tattoo he’s got of a small sailboat in the center of a spiral on his wrist as he lowers his arm with a little flourish like some kind of magician to signify the end of an act so all the kiddies know.
“I don’t know what you’re—I’m dialing—there’s a dial tone.” Lauren holds her phone out the car window.
“Work on that one.” He tilts his head.
“Hey now, buddy,” I feel obligated to say.
“These are indigenous times we find ourselves in. Times when survival means gnawing on the ankle of your neighbor. Indigenous times in which I’m glad to call you a stranger, friend.” He turns and disappears back into the shadows of Shottler Avenue.
I get back in the car and Lauren starts in on me. 30 minutes later we’re pulling up to the place, the Château Everex, not Evrex, it turns out. We walk in and Lauren’s telling all of her-our friends about the harrowing experience, about how we could have been murdered—murdered, she actually says.
“Honey,” I’m scratching my chin, “I really don’t think he was dangerous. I think he wanted to help in his own way.” I’m thinking of research chimps that pepper the lab technicians with snowball hefted levels of feces and that maybe it isn’t done out of malice. To them, maybe it’s a high honor to be covered in their shit, for them to WANT you to be covered in their shit. It always seemed to me that there was more to it than mere human hatred.
“He gave this man,” she says the word like it’s not exactly fitting, like it’s Brussels sprouts in her mouth, “he gave him his cell phone, just handed it over to him.”
“Oh, guy, I don’t know about that,’ says Harry, the great big fat husband of my wife’s friend. Okay, he’s fat, but he doesn’t carry himself like a fat man. He’s completely bald and wears a set of red horn-rimmed spectacles. Also he’s always grinning, which really bugs me, like he’s in on it, whatever it is.
“I’ve read about this kind of thing. These homeless folks, what they do is they take out the innards and trade the shells to street venders or alloy dealers, who in turn melt them down to manufacture untraceable weapons and the like. Vice had a segment on it recently.”
“You see.” Lauren elbows me. “Christ knows what he gets out of it, probably funds for his next heroin fix.”
“I think we can assume he won’t be using it to phone home.” Harry’s smiling and everyone’s laughing.
For the rest of the night, I make it my goal to get obliterated, shoving-strangers-in-supermarkets obliterated. Five martinis in and I’m staring at a live human art exhibit, people-naked people covered head to toe in marshy seaweed, like some morose shipwreck come to life, minus the animation because they’re all so still. I’m asking them, yelling, why are they so still, where’d they learn to do that, did they go to school for this? I catch the girl draped in driftwood move her chin a little to the left so I direct my line of inquiry at her. She doesn’t answer and a few minutes later I’m hurling into the sink in the men’s room.
It’s morning or afternoon, maybe, when I wake up in my own bed. There’s a hamster wheel in my head except the hamster’s not in the wheel. He’s wandered off, bouncing around, exploring crevices he’s never seen, getting lodged in places he’s never been. He doesn’t know better, the little guy.
I’m thinking about my dreams from last night. They’re coming in with little flashes: the woods, Eli’s face, the harsh light, that mechanical hum. I’m asking why am I thinking about this now, about Eli and that night in the woods, and then I remember George Harrison coming out from the night, talking about UFOs, saying unbelievable things with more clarity and confidence than I’d ever had about anything.
See, I don’t think about Eli anymore. He’s dead, pancreatic cancer a few years back, before the girl was born. We were dumb together, Eli, and me, back when it was permitted, before groceries and mortgages and PTA conferences. Eli, he had the habit of starting conversations with you at inappropriate times, like the guy had no boundaries. One time I’m on the toilet doing my business and Eli walks in, freshly buzzed from Raymond’s down the street, talking about how he saw his ex there and how she looked like shit. I say okay, thinking he’ll stop talking and let me finish up, thinking I don’t necessarily have to tell him to close the door that doesn’t have a lock, that he’d take the hint or pick up on my social cues or whatever but not our Eli. He goes on about what she’s wearing, who’s got their arm around her, what a bum move it was breaking up with him in line at the DMV like she did and how she really looked like shit.
Then there was the other time, that time we got turned around hunting for buck. We couldn’t find the RV and decided there was no sense tripping over each other in the dark, so we’d hunker down until morning. Eli was a Webelo for two and a half seasons and despite getting us lost and never graduating to Bobcat, he seemed to know his shit. We set up camp in a brush under the cliff side and collected ourselves a fine enough pile for the pyre. And yeah, we took some stuff. Absolutely. We got jittered up like a pair of rotisserie birds, the two of us, on some particularly strange stuff that Eli got from his cousin’s girl’s step-dad, a pharmacologist by day, if you can believe that. But the high was as fierce as it was fast and soon it’s just nature and us.
My back always ached on solid ground, so I wasn’t getting much sleep. I was awake around three a.m. for the wind wading in with wolf-like howls, when the ground gyrated and grass bombarded my nostrils and mouth with that earthy aftertaste. Then there was light, but not the biblical kind you’d joke about in your grandfather’s attic, fumbling for the lamp. This was spotlight, high-beam light, searching, searing light. I could make out the circular silhouette of this hovering structure above me, like some giant sky ravioli fit for the plate of a God. And the noise, these metallic clinks and clanks that were louder than anything you’d swear you heard. So I burrowed my fingers into my ears, screaming to Jesus and Gandhi and anyone I thought was likely to listen, to descend from sweet Godiva skies and deliver my less-than-righteous rump from harm.
I didn’t remember it disappearing into the night, the big thing, only waking up in wet trousers and thinking it was a dream but knowing it wasn’t. It had been a good some years since I had seen fit to piss myself.
On the ride back I finally asked Eli about it, if he saw something in the trees last night, if he heard anything weird, real low key, like I didn’t care either way. He went pale, ice cold, Frosty the Snowman in the driver’s seat and he told me, he goes “There was nothing to see, we didn’t see nothing. So there’s nothing to say.” I press him a little and he brakes hard so that I bonk my head on the dash like a cartoon dolt. He starts to holler, saying he’s gonna get out of the car and lay down in the road, let some AM cargo hauler mistake him for road kill, that he might as well just do that. I don’t say anything so he fumbles for the door before I changed the topic to bacon burgers at Carl’s Jr. up the road. “It’s on me,” I tell him. And nobody says anything more about it.
But I got to thinking. Over the next few days, deep thoughts, toilet thoughts, stretch-of-road thoughts, they passed through me like faucet water through a strainer. I thought about what I really, truly knew, the givens and the granteds, about the flimsy fabric that made up my reality and how all I’ve ever had to do was poke at the seams to part the threads.
I put in a few subscriptions to some magazines, wonders of the universe; Green men sighted in Honolulu, Bigfoot ate my father-in-law type stuff, just for a laugh. But I didn’t shake with laughter when I read ‘em, I just plain shook. It got to where I stopped going out for beers after dark, made Eli drink alone. Then, walking back from the corner stor one day, I heard this awful kinda whipping and I got it real deep in me that it was coming back, the sky clinker, boomeranging home months later to track me down, double knot that loose end. First thing I thought to do, I threw myself under my neighbor, Jeffrey Fahew’s, parked car (soot and diesel fumes my everything now), peering up like an adolescent bed-wetter, the Goodyear’s my blanket covers, to see this stupid noisy news chopper tear by. So I stopped leaving the house altogether. Just for a few days, to clear my head. Sky to ground, we were outnumbered. There was a logic in that, anyone would agree.
I thought to set up my mattress in the basement and sleep with all the lights on, like I was living outa Santa’s workshop. Eli came by a few times, but I kept him at the doormat. I was only a few days into my sabbatical when my no-boundaries buddy enlisted the county sheriff and the fire department and the goddamn mailman to kick in my door and wrestle me out into the light of day. They ruled that my threat factor was low so I got off with a few free clinic sessions. They ask me why. I’m young, I say it’s drugs. We all agree perspective is the best medicine. On the last day I see Eli’s pickup parked out by the back entrance, riding up the curb like he did. I told him how I didn’t tell the doctors anything, that there wasn’t anything to tell. Eli, he comes back with how he saw his ex again on the self-checkout line buying laxatives, how he played it cool. Years later he’s dead, I’m married, moved round the country and in bed, dreaming about dreams on account of a man under a bridge.
I take off my good pants and stumble out of my good bed, realizing it’s been weeks since I’ve actually slept in it. Lauren’s left a note on the mirror by the dresser (cursive, red ink, serious stuff, her e’s a declaration of war), saying she’s taken the kids to school and that she’ll be working late tonight.
I pop some Advil and take off the rest of my clothes on the way to the bathroom, dropping them in the hallway or by the kitchen island, wherever they fall, because that’s fine. These were the days, the hours from 8 to 3, from drop-off to pickup, my pissing with the door open days. I’d rub one out in every other room and shower while belting out every other lyric from that song in that musical in that city where they make deep-dish pizza. I’d get a whiff of my stream in the shower, swearing with every shake that there was unknown quality that had it smelling strange, like somebody threw in nutmeg, and I’d dry off wondering about the science of fluctuating piss stream odors.
My stasis days, the pages inbetween, the stuff you’d leave out from the biography, before my congealing dream jar in the basement sees any slit of light. “Barks on Board” I’d call it: The Future Mobile Dog Grooming Service For Dogs That Get Dirty. No, not your Chihuahuas, or your Pomeranians or your delicate little pocket fluffies. This was for snow treading Huskies and Golden Retrievers that actually retrieved, dogs that could hunt; domesticated predators, I like to think of them as. I’d even started going down to Mike’s Lot on Saturday mornings, asking questions about vans, all business-like, what are the dimensions, how much weight can it hold, stuff like that. It was practical and marketable and, for the time being, on hold. Wife says. And Lauren, the first thing she does? We’re in our house for a week and if this isn’t the first thing she does, she goes and gets our girl a cat. My wife, if she isn’t a complex tapestry scribed in some age-old language, if that isn’t the very thing to say when you meet her.
Now I’m in the bathroom, with the toilet that doesn’t flush unless you jiggle the handle, looking in the mirror at naked me, naked hairy me who could stand to lose five to ten pounds if I wasn’t so good at sitting. Dreaming, naked me with my jars and my big van plans. My pubes are like a midnight Bonsai tree, gnarled and overgrown. Sometimes I stick Q-tips in them, just to see how many I can hold and because it looks weird and because I can.
Today I don’t do any of that. I shower and dress and I’m out the door, back on Shottler Avenue. I’m milling around under the overpass, by the psychedelic street columns, acting like I don’t know what I’m doing here, and it’s only half true. I don’t see George Harrison or even signs of George Harrison, just un-recycled recyclables, hollow cardboard boxes and the odd sneaker or two. I’m feeling stupid and I turn to leave when I see someone sitting on a bench a few yards away over by a patch of green. I see it and I know it’s him. So I’m crossing the freeway in a big hurry and only a few people honk and one guy in a Civic swerves a little, but it isn’t a big thing.
George Harrison is sitting on his puffy lime green coat, which is sprawled out across the park bench. He’s mesmerized, staring off at the clouds like a six-year-old at a Bengal tiger enclosure. I’m standing to the side of him and I tilt into his line of view with a big grin, like I’m selling popcorn, like we’re old buddies, asking if he remembers me.
“My rights. By rights I have a right to be here.”
“What? No, no, it’s—”
“My rights, sir. I have a right to be here. Now I will holler.”
“No, it’s me. I’m—the guy from last night. We talked for a bit. I ended up giving you my cell phone? We left it there.”
He doesn’t say anything. He just looks straight ahead at the brush beyond. I sit down next to him, then stand up and ask if I can sit down next to him. He doesn’t answer, so I just plunk down again.
“Cant have it back. It’s gone.”
“Long gone. Nothing to reclaim. Destroyed it with mine own two appendages.” George Harrison shows me his slender hands. His knuckles are hairy like mine.
“I don’t want it back. I want to know more. About … BGC.” I’m rasping, the words not coming out as easy as they aught to.
He’s considering this for a few moments. Or maybe he doesn’t hear me. Then tugs at his feck-speckled beard, making little ringlets with his finger, and he starts going, like if he had an engine, it’d be purring.
He tells me that procedures like open heart surgeries are actually about planting regulating devices inside of you instead of correcting dire coronary concerns (bully for the surgeons who manage both). He’s saying that household appliances emit untraceable airwaves designed to give you terminal illnesses, his words whirling through me, like they’d streak through the street and maybe muss up some poor guy’s comb-over.
He puts his thumb to his wrist, tracing the sailboat tattoo. Its a symbol, what else, representing the quiet yet timeless fact that everyone from Arkansas to Everest is born ambidextrous and that drawing it helps to unlock—no, awaken, he says—that part of your brain, the one suppressed by society’s longest-running game of favoritism. He’s telling me that they steal your memories at 5-hour photos; you have the picture and you think you can recall but you’re really only remembering a fraction of it, like the outline of a book you’ve read, the longest short of it. His words.
He’s talking about how they killed Harrison, the real George Harrison and I’m shifting in my seat. I feel the sweat pooling in the pits of my arms.
“I’m not saying they—the big them—themselves gave him the cancer. I can’t know that. But they made it possible, you know? They set it up, they boxed him out. I’ve seen it first-hand. I know how they operate, manipulate.” He’s tugging at a dirty little strand above his forehead.
“Like, they didn’t put the needle in my arm, or the snuff in my gums, I know this, I’m not delusional as all that to think so, but they are responsible.”
I’m nodding like Pavlov’s pup, and at this point I’m afraid to ask, but I do anyway.
“And the UFOs. . .”.
He closes his eyes like he’s shifting gears into a migraine. “No, sir,” he’s shaking his head and I can see the wisps of dandruff falling off of him like pollen on the wind. “No, no more. Not today. I don’t like the shade of this conversation, its growth, you see.”
“Its growth?” I’m thinking, like a tumor.
“Yes, sir. An ugly growth. Anyone would agree. Not for today.” Then he’s standing and stumbling off in a Z line for the forest, his coat slung over his shoulder. He looks back over his shoulder once or twice at me before he’s gone. I think about following him for a few fiery seconds but something stops me, could be the hamster in my head, back on the wheel. “Don’t prod this circus pony,” it says in some indiscernible squeak that only I can understand. I don’t think I want to believe George Harrison; I don’t think I want to know the truth, or not his truth anyway. At the same time I’m cursing myself for not asking about them sooner.
I get back to the car and I’m swearing some more because the clock on the dash reads 2:35. I rush across town to Oakfield and they’re waiting outside, Jonas and Lucy, several feet apart like strangers at an airport; his doing I know. Jonas, he’s all attitude, grumbling about being late for Daren Whatever’s whatever down the street, slamming the door behind him like it’d made a crack about his limited edition sneakers. His unnaturally dyed bangs hang low over his face and I ask myself the last time I’ve seen his chestnut eyes. Lucy’s spitting in my ear, showing me her macaroni arts and crafts project, the one she got a shooting star on on. She’s bouncing up and down in her seat, asking me, begging, if we can put it on the fridge when we get home. I say we’ll see.
We’re at the kitchen table, me and Lucy. She’s doing her homework and I’m there if she has any questions about dotting I’s, short division or the length of Lincoln’s beard; moral support, really. I pick one of her colored pencils, the brand with the cartoon tabby and its enormous green eyes, and some of her scrap paper, and I start to draw. This big stupid green coat flashes before my eyes and now I’m drawing with my left hand, trying to remember how his little sailboat went. Lucy starts to scream, asking me what I’m doing—do I realize what I’ve done? I don’t, and she takes the paper from me and flips it over. It’s one of her renowned watercolors she did in Mrs. Casardi’s class.
I tell her I’m sorry and that it was an accident. She’s telling me I’ve ruined its value, but she eases off when I say she can have a slice of cinnamon-swirl toast, the starving little artist, even though it’s before dinner and I know Lauren would rather I bleed out in a frigid alleyway than interfere with our children’s feeding schedules. I’ve got the piece of bread in my hand and I’m at the toaster when I stop short, my mind on dandruff clumps and sore lips that don’t smile but try to. Lucy is watching me, eyes as big as her cartoon cat pencil, when I turn to her and tell her she’s got to have it dry, that the toaster’s broken, sorry sweetie. She’s fixing to argue when I unplug it, scoop it up in my arms and take it away.
It goes like this for the next few days, my big strategy. The blender, the pizza dough mixer, the Keurig coffee maker, one by one I take them away. I put them in a trash bag under the basement stairs. “It finally crapped out, the piece of shit,” I say to Lauren. “The kid’s stupid cat knocked it on the floor. It clogged the other day. I told you about this. It never really worked the way your uncle said it would. I’ll go and get a new one tomorrow.” A few times, I try Shottler Avenue, poking around for George, the man in the grimy suit, but he isn’t there. Something tells me that he never will be again, that I’m all alone.
A few nights later I get up to take a piss when I see Jonas in the bathroom. He’s got his shirt up and his phone raised to the mirror. I’m standing in the doorway and a part of me is thinking, good for him, getting out there and playing the field at 14, having that confidence with girls (Jesus, I’m hoping girls) that I didn’t develop until well into my twenties, the Eli days. Then there’s that other feeling, that arresting, heart-thumping, My Sweet Lord, all-encompassing feeling that swallows me whole. It puts me in a tailspin because I know what he doesn’t. I know that phone might as well be a hand grenade. Don’t let him pull the pin.
I’m barging in and I’m asking him to give me his phone. He’s pulling his shirt down, startled, telling me to knock, that I need to learn boundaries. Now I’m telling him, “Give me your phone.” He’s laughing, but not because he thinks anything’s funny. I go for it. I pull the phone from his surprisingly large hands, wondering when they got so big, and I fling it into the toilet bowel. He’s cursing at me, calling me a freak, but I don’t stop there. I’m out, darting across the hall. Lucy’s asleep by now. I don’t need to fumble long in the dark for it. Its there, on the nightstand, a shiny crystal pink in the black of her room. She’s young, creative. She doesn’t need it, she won’t miss it. I make for my room now, moving with purpose, get out of my way, a predator on the hunt. I’m barreling down the hall, my steps thunder on our jute carpeting.
Lauren’s in bed on her Blackberry. It’s work related, it always is. She’s tussling with the big guns or some such, dolling out justice by the five-dollar word. I sit down in front of her at the foot of the bed. A solid 60 go by before she notices me staring her down.
“Listen, I’m feeling bloated. So okay?” she says.
I want to tell her, to explain myself to her. She might understand, she probably won’t, but she might. I go to speak, but I can’t manage the words, they’re stuck in my throat like silly putty in the blender. It isn’t right, not with it in the room. It isn’t safe. My eyes dart for it and she knows. My hands lock around the phone and she grabs my wrist.
“What are you—I’m in the middle of this,” she says, like it might be cute if it wasn’t annoying.
Annoyance shifts to anger and I’m standing now, tugging and wrenching. She’s stronger than Jonas, more determined. Her turquoise-polished nails are digging into my wrist.
“Stop!” She’s up, too. “What’s fucking wrong with you?”
I push the palm of my free hand, as lightly as I can, into her nightly moisturized face and she falls back onto the bed with a little thump. I’m out the door again, going I don’t know where. She’s howling behind me, I can feel her heat. I pass the bathroom; Jonas is wiping down his phone with a hand towel.
“It’s broken.” He’s teary eyed. “It’s broken, you lunatic.”
“All right, let me just—” I reach out and snatch the phone back.
Now I drop all three phones in the toilet. Plunk, dunk and spritz. Lauren’s in the doorway cursing up a nor’easter; its category 1 winds would claw at my cheeks and spit hail into my eyes, if words were literal. She pulls our son out of the bathroom by the arm, shielding him from the storm. The three phones, black, blue, and pink are floating in the bowl before us and I’m still not satisfied. I know the handle will take some finessing.
“Who does this? Who does what you’re doing? Are you sick? Are you fucking sick right now? This is what fucking sick people do. Do you know that?” She’s waiting for some kind of an explanation, fuming in her purple pajamas, and I think I’d have a good laugh if I wasn’t so scared. Instead I think of Eli and the George Harrisons and the blinding white lights in the brush and I lean in to jiggle the handle.
Time goes by like NASCAR on coke and they dig it all up, the professionals, the ones you’re supposed to leave things to. They dig it up with a cast iron shovel, Eli and UFOs and my little “episode” they call it, like I had a walk-on role in the Honeymooners, me and Jackie getting on famously. They dig it up and leave it at Lauren’s feet like an overzealous foxhound that did wrong by you but you still can’t seem to muster any hatred for. The doctors, they’re tender when they want to be and firm when they haven’t had their java. They good-cop/bad-cop their way through our wife-mandated sessions, except there’s only ever one at a time and I’m checking myself in the mirror, like I’m the one with the cranium issues. Their words ping-pong their way through my head, like a kickball in an empty cavern and eventually they decide I’ve had enough, the guys with more degrees than a pot of spaghetti water saying, “this bastard’s had enough,” that I’m all cured.
“It’s a long road,” Lauren tells me one night, coming home late, the first words she’s thrown my way in weeks. I’m lying on the couch. “It’s a long road, but we’ll stick it out for awhile. So no one can say we didn’t.” She runs her hand through my hair and starts to talk about her Grandfather’s sciatica. I pretend I’m asleep.
So its six months later and I’m at the hospital. Lucy managed to break her leg in one of her soccer tournaments, but I’m telling her its alright, that casts are cool, that her friends can sign it if she wants, the whole class even, everyone except Chrissie Childers, with the pigtails. Lauren’s run off to talk to the doctor, making a four-course meal out of the whole thing.
She doesn’t look at me differently, Lucy. It’s that same look she’s always had. Not adoration, but something close, a second cousin. Nothing lurks behind those eyes. And when I get up to take a piss, I leave her in good spirits, with a kiss on her scarlet cheek and a pat on her butterfly-braided hair.
I make my way down sterile hallways, my eyes lingering on one wrinkled, deflated face to the next, knowing all of these folks are in the worst possible way and feeling a little superior about it. I start to wonder, forgetting all about the bathroom when I hear it, that voice, and like ticking disproportionate hands, I’m trembling and sweating.
They’re wheeling George Harrison out. He’s speaking in a low tone to the orderly and she’s nodding at every other word. Before I can ask myself why, —but I know why, I do—I’m following him down the elevator and out the automated doors. I’m ten feet behind them, staring, as transparent as my daughter’s affection. His gray rubber wheels plot my course, my future. We’re outside, the three of us and they’re waiting by the curb, him shrinking into his wheelchair, her holding firm, like this demented little man is some kinda flight risk. I’m looking around again at all of the faces, the parade of smokers, of pick-up and drop-off-ees, thinking about how endurances and exits are the most exciting points in a person’s life, how the stuff in between is the stuff you forget. It gets lost, the first to go when you take on water, the in-the-building-moments. But coming and going, that’s the foundation. I’m thinking this, my eyes on George Harrison, but its deep in the back of my mind, like I’m not even aware of it. A few minutes go by and this bus pulls up. Its short and white and clean, like one of those buses. The orderly, she leaves him, skipping up the ramp to talk to the driver in real “how ya doin” fashion.
I’m strolling up on George Harrison, but its clear I’m no cucumber, me a distant squawk from my typical loose-around-the-collar self. His eyes are bloodshot and he seems to have less hair than before; it’s greasy and now it sticks to his forehead. He doesn’t see me, doesn’t know me, his saliva-glazed lips trembling with every muted hymn.
I start to think its pretty funny, me hovering over this mumbling loon; this dilapidated individual in every sense. Sure, I wanna throw my head back and let out the widest cackle you’ve ever heard, like so big I’m not even sure I can finish it, like my sense of humor’s too big for my lung capacity, but I don’t. I don’t because I know they kill the Harrisons. The orderly’s wrapping up the pleasantries; she’s rounding back for him. So now I’m leaning in real close, and I get a whiff of something else, like rhubarb pie that’s been left out on the windowsill for weeks, like Granny forgot. But I’m in his ear, his surprisingly earwax-free ear and I’m whispering while I still can, with the minutes left to us, asking for clarification.