Walking down the street, I brush against people and, for one split-second, get a sense of them. Then they disappear. I find this hard to accept. All that individuality! So precious and mysterious. I try opening my mind to their beauty, ugliness, eccentricity, grief, wisdom…divorced from any qualities of my own, not shoe-horned into narrative, not blunted or smoothed to accommodate an arc. I try recording these shards of experience, true humanity, slicing by.
Remember tuning a radio, how you would trawl through oceans of static before suddenly coming upon a signal? At first, it wasn’t clear if it was talk, song, music, a ballgame, drama. You listened hard, asking simply, What is this? Then came the moment, the click of recognition.
That is when I stop, each time, the instant before self-consciousness enters. I hear:
They’re my half-family so I don’t really know them. And my father’s dead. I didn’t even know they existed until I was in my teens so there was no growing up together where you are all forming in relation to each other, staying soft where a sibling is hard, ceding them that, but also rushing in to take any space that’s available, making it your own, grabbing territory and planting a flag, not because you’re good at it, being social, say, or a brain, but because it’s available, it’s doable, possible. That’s how a lot of my personality seems now, when I look back. I took what was given. I guess the “I” part is how you take it, how you go about it, ferociously or sneakily or unconsciously. The “I” part is style. Is that right? Anyway, this other family, when my father came back into our lives because he was dying, they were younger of course, he had left us for them, to make them. The woman, I had no interest in. The mother. She was almost young enough to be my friend, but not. Befriending her or opening up to her in any kind of way would have been a betrayal. I may have had issues with my mother but they faded when I was presented with a choice, even a bogus choice. So I guess I owe him that, that he brought us closer together, my mother and me. But Jack and Jim, these kids, they looked up to me in a strange way. Like I was their aunt. It was odd. I was a very fucked-up sixteen, if that isn’t redundant, and they were seven and nine, something like that. “Why did you want kids?” I felt like asking, “I mean…more kids?” when that, I always assumed, was the reason he left us. Because of our whining and complaining and generally being alive. Now, of course I know, well, don’t know but assume, that it was Gerri, she wanted them. It was the price he paid for, what? Whatever they had together. And he got lucky. Boys. Who everyone says are easier.
“But they don’t take care of you,” my mother always added, pointedly, lining me up as nurse for when her cigarette habit came calling to collect.
I found myself in charge of them sometimes, when I visited. He and Gerri would go out. It wasn’t so bad because I really didn’t like spending time with her, it was too awkward, and my dad, who was the reason I was there, supposedly, always had overtime, was always calling from the top of a pole on that cool plastic phone that could tap into any line, saying he’d be late, really late, to start dinner without him. So when he did have the rare night off he and she would go out to a bar, “dancing,” they called it but I think they didn’t do much dancing, not from how they acted when they got home, I would be left with forty dollars and Jack and Jim.
“What do you do?” one of them asked me.
I couldn’t be bothered to keep them straight. Who was who. I always made sure to get stoned out back, first thing.
“Go to school. Just like you.”
He looked at me totally goggle-eyed, like, No way.
I would put them in front of the TV. We would order a pizza, actually two pizzas, and then, this is the only fun thing, the only baby-sitterish thing I did, when they arrived I would take the pies into the kitchen and rearrange the toppings, the slices of pepperoni, so they spelled out their names, JACK and JIM, one on each. Then I’d close up the boxes and bring them in again, bring them in front of the TV. They never caught on. They were always amazed. They thought I could order them that way, with my magic touch. Like I was some superior age, better than being an adult, a kid but with Powers. I would sit back and watch them eat and stare simultaneously, this undifferentiated chewing and believing, just wolfing down experience. I would look down at the top of their heads, those whorls little boys have, the hair pattern looking like a fingerprint, individual. I guess you could say I was happy.
They fired at us so we fired back. That’s what I tell my son when he asks if I ever killed anybody. So I have no idea. Maybe a lucky shot. I saw him wince when I said that.
“Well, unlucky would be if I missed, and the other guy had a chance to kill Dear Old Dad,” I pointed out.
He’s fifteen. Old enough to be told the truth.
“In which case you wouldn’t be here.”
Not exactly true. I froze sperm before I deployed but I’ll be damned if I tell him that. He’s only fifteen. There are truths and there are truths. You portion them out, during a child’s upbringing. In fact, those sperm are still there. We haven’t decided what to do with them. Katie, our youngest, what if she can’t have kids? That’s one of our Doomsday Scenarios. Because the man she marries has a low count. Then, in order to keep things in the family, she might want. My wife was like:
“What about the husband’s family? They’re not going to want to see some product of incest coming out of their daughter-in-law.”
“Incest?!” I said.
But that’s another story.
Todd, my son, is an anti-war activist. I have told him repeatedly that his name means “death” in German but that seems to have no impact. He’s fascinated by my trophy room—his word, not mine, to me it is just my room, “the study,” if you will—which he sneaks into when he thinks I don’t know, and looks at stuff, fingers it, memorabilia. Reminders. He’s of two minds, that’s how my wife describes it. I only see one. The one he shoves in my face every chance he gets. I guess it’s a form of love. Inverted. He doesn’t know whether to try and live up to his father or tear him down. My own father— That’s one of the things about him, about Todd, that sets me off. He brings up all kinds of memories I would rather not have about my own relationship with my father, which was not good, which was probably why I enlisted in the first place, although of course I said it was patriotism. Everyone was doing it at the time (9/11.) I don’t want to have that same firefight or Cold War with my own son. So I bend over backwards not to explode. Or I withdraw.
“What were you even doing over there?” he says.
It’s provocative. Like I was Secretary of State.
“Attempting to survive.”
Remarkably similar to what I am trying to do now, I add silently.
But he goes in, that’s the thing. Not to trash the place. He knows better than that. It is somewhat of a shrine, I’ll admit. People, fallen comrades, are there, in a way they are not in a cemetery or hovering above some watered-down memorial service. He goes in and tries to understand me, is what I would like to believe. We can’t do it face-to-face. We’re both too, I don’t know if it’s stubborn or different or too much the same. It’s almost as if we occupy separate universes, like in a science fiction movie. And we can only communicate by leaving things for each other to find. So I see, by the dust, I don’t let my wife clean in there, not that she’s ever offered, I can see by the dust on my desk that he has taken up my Purple Heart, picked it up and what? Held it in front of his chest? Seen what it’s like to own it, truly own it? then put it back down just a little bit out of place, enough so there’s this obvious border. And what do I do? I weep a lot. I muffle. It’s at night and behind doors and with the water running. But I weep. Does he hear that?
It’s a beautiful garden but you’re not allowed to eat out of it because of the toxins. So we grow flowers, mostly. I wonder, not out loud, if they are also poisoning us, putting out some gas or evil, mind-bending scent that encourages, I don’t know, destructive behavior. You think I’m crazy but twenty years ago you would have said the same thing if I told you cucumbers grown in this soil caused cancer, yet now scientists say they do. It’s an established fact.
What was this lot, before? A family residence. It has a checkered past. Historians still come by. It was hit by a plane. Several people were killed on the ground and of course everyone on the plane. Fifteen in all. They were smaller aircraft, then. This was back in the 60’s. A mid-air collision. I don’t know what happened to the other plane. But the building was leveled and they didn’t put it back up again. Superstition, maybe. I could see that. The ghosts of. Also, shortly after that the city began to go to pot. Plenty of places got abandoned, became shells. This was nothing but a heap of rubble for years. Then a bunch of us started clearing it out, on our own. There was no government, per se. Cops came, if you called, but they’d as likely rob you as help. Besides, what could they do? It seemed like the tide had turned. Evil was in ascendency. Everywhere. So we very consciously created this Garden of Eden, or tried to. Tried re-creating it. You know that saying, If you build it they will come? Well, this was long before that, but the same principle. Make something pristine and green, something Good, and maybe good will come of it, maybe it will encourage decency in our souls.
But at first, all this stuff started coming up, not from the rubble, not cement or twisted pipes. Older stuff. We didn’t know what, at the time. Turns out, this is what one of the historians told me, even though he was only documenting the plane crash, the neighborhood used to be factories before it was residential. This was a kind of industrial center because of the canal. All sorts of pollution in the ground. Tubs. Vats. Still smelling, still stinking, after 150 years! We carted it all away, got a grant from the city for a dumpster. Things were picking up then, on the municipal level, or seemed to be. They were recognizing us, recognizing our contribution. We planted. Corn, okra, potatoes, melons. People had their own plots. You work, you eat, that was the motto. Everyone tended. It got a fair amount of sun. Food tasted fine, I thought. But then some inspector came by. That’s the problem with the city. Once you take their money you have to play by their rules. See, the property was not ours. We were just there by the grace of the Powers That Be. He took samples, came back later, said, “No, no. Don’t you dare. For your own good.” Which I suppose it was. But we were resentful. I had, that year, a bumper crop. I was of two minds what to do with it. Then I looked at my children and thought, No. I can’t. I can’t feed them that. What if? So we mounded it all into one big pile. Compost. Then the rats came. “Testing us. The Lord is testing us,” one of our more devout members kept repeating. I was holding a pitchfork at the time and remembering thinking if the Lord was ill-advised enough to come here and tell us that in person, I would run Him through.
So like I said, we grow flowers now. Place has gone over to gentrification anyway. Even those of us who were fortunate enough to buy our own homes, what you can get for them now is a sore temptation. I sit on the bench. My plot has a bench. My wife is scattered here. I will be too, I suppose, if they don’t build some twenty-story glass box on top, which is what there’s talk of. The flowers, they’re so red, so gold. Beautiful, but I can’t help wondering if they’re poison, just like everything else. Maybe they don’t put out a toxic gas, maybe it’s how they look, what thoughts they make you give birth to. I know I’ve been assaulted by visions, lately. Or maybe it’s the ghosts from the plane. They’re scattered here too. Bits and pieces. That’s all we really are.
Thomas Rayfiel is the author of eight novels, including In Pinelight and Genius.
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