Here Where I Was

Here Where I Was

Sitting pants-at-ankles in a men’s room stall at the mall movieplex on Pico. First screening’s at 11 but they open at 10, and bathrooms are on the lobby side of the usher, so no ticket, no problem. On mornings when a certain light—clarifying gray or bruise blue—draws me out of my room, this is often my first station.

Scrubbed, sanitized tile and steel partitions gleam, welcoming. From paper silos fully charged, roll edges dangle. A bell-like quiet, moodily lit by white and violet baby ceiling spots, echoes from a floor unpuddled, shiny enough to rest a hat. I love mornings like this. Nothing’s gone bad yet. Having sipped a store-bought coffee to the grounds, had a donut or three, I make the first (or second) movement of the day in a clean, restful place. This particular morning I wasn’t alone—you could hear a few of us, but barely, each mutually respectful, grateful for a fresh, dry perch from which to launch into the calendar date.

But the peace is mercilessly broken. An eruption of door and voice, lurch and whimper, stalls rudely rattled in search of an empty, the one to my left at last breached, latched. Two in there, vying for dominion: little boy crying, daddy murmuring directions, perfectly reasonable, don’t lean back, don’t touch that, not so much paper, careful. But the weeping. Call it bawling. The boy’s inconsolable. What could be so wrong? The event in the stall seems successful enough. Noisily they finish, clean up, leave.

But later, after I wash my hands and face and go out, I hear the boy again in the lobby sobbing on a padded bench, feet dangling, his father squatting below, soothing, coaxing, pleading. The boy wails, falls to his side on the bench. The father, to the bystander’s eyes infinitely patient, is surely exasperated.

I stand gaping, then turn to the wall, to glass-cased coming attractions, while listening, glancing back. It’s twenty minutes since they left the bathroom. Still the boy snivels. What the hell. A good man’s son is unhappy. The man’s wife begged him to take the boy to the movies, give her a little reprieve. Now in a darkened room somewhere she tries to sleep. She hopes the pill she’s taken puts her deep enough to make them leave her alone when they get home. Is it too much to ask for the boy to stay for a second movie? Two long loud ones with crap to eat in between? Sounds like a good day for a kid.

Not this one. They took him to doctors. Ruled out the physical. Then the mental. Fit as a fiddle. Sharp as a tack. A crybaby. His mother loves him. As does his father, clearly, if this is his father. But neither has slept well in years. They don’t eat right, no appetite, no time. Aside from wrangling, wrestling, and cajoling the boy into civility day after day, they get no exercise. They’re ill, strained to the breaking point. They need to go away someplace green, wander and swim and sleep, sample spreads of ripe fruits and soft cheeses, salty treenuts, exotic cocktails. Leave this boy with a stout nurse.

Dad sits on his heels, hands on either end of the bench lest his son bolt. In many ways the boy reminds him of himself—eyes, mouth, turn of the head. Had he used to cry like this too? Makes sense that he’s forgotten. How did he live through it? How did they not smother him in his bed? His own long-suffering Dad telling the paramedics he just didn’t wake up. But what about the tongue sticking out, sir, the red marks on his neck?

The man is miserable. He is so desperately miserable he thinks if he becomes miserable enough the boy will notice and suspect he’s the cause. Force the boy to reflect, begin the transition out of savagery. That’s so funny he forgot to laugh. He would pray but fears his prayers could only be for the boy to cease to be the boy who cries, to cease to be. He’d let his chin fall to his chest in surrender, but if he indulged such emotions for even a moment, the boy might leap from the bench, fly across the lobby and collide with a wall of glass like a sparrow. Screams, blood, firemen. When ripped from her drugged oblivion by the call from the hospital, the mother grinds her teeth, squeezes swollen feet into a younger woman’s shoes. Another day in hell, that which love has made. Why else would she tolerate it? The boy is sedated, sewed up, served up, lollipop mute for a blissful hour. They take him home, put him to bed, and sit at the kitchen table, wondering how they live, sleeping and going to the movies in the middle of the day, middle of the week, middle of their lives, as they wait for the demon to rise again.

I left them in the lobby. Behind me a scream echoed down the escalator. I went straight home and lay down. Stared at a corner of the ceiling. I’d saved one of my donuts, I got up and ate it. Stood by the window, sweet grease glazing the roof of my mouth. Sat at the table, made some notes. Yawned a lot, the day a loss. I’d sleep this afternoon, work through the night. As if I’d ever done that.

I stripped to my boxers, lay back down, closed my eyes. They couldn’t stay in that lobby all day, not with him blubbering like that. One way out, down the escalator and into the street. Hair pasted to his face with tears, up on Dad’s shoulders, and Dad’s the friendly giant now, drawing him out, pointing—over there, there, look at that, buddy, look at this. The boy takes the bait, looks at this, at that, but his little forehead furrows—what? What? WHAT’S SO GREAT ABOUT THAT, ABOUT THIS? And he takes a deep breath and lets out a soul-shattering shriek.

I opened my eyes. What now? I could listen to music, lounge around in my robe courting solace. I’m a big believer in terrycloth. When I’m hot it cools, when I’m cold it comforts, when I’m wet it sops me dry. I reached for it and cursed. Three hooks hang from the wall by my bed—one for my robe, another for pajamas, and a third for a guest to keep her pants and things off the floor. In my haste to lie down I’d apparently hung my own pants and shirt any which way on the hooks, obscuring my robe beneath. I leapt up, grabbed the extraneous clothes and flung them behind me. Don’t put things on top of things, I told myself. Don’t make me pick something up just to get to something else. God.

I shrugged on the robe and cinched the belt, went to the fridge, opened it, slammed it closed. Scooped up my jettisoned clothes and with all my might hurled them the length of my room to my area for dirty laundry. Went back to the fridge, took a swig from the carton of orange-peach-mango juice, slobbered, and wiped my chin on my sleeve, leaving a yellow spot on the white terry. Shit, that wouldn’t come out. Those stain sprays that stink like chemical weapons? Not on my watch. I picked up the peanut butter, the plan to put it on some celery, but the celery was rubbery. I threw it back, wham.

I got up on my platform by the window, had a seat. Late morning now, a tricky time. I wasn’t exactly hungry but would be soon. Grocery day. I’d meant to stop on my way home and forgot. This was supposed to be a much longer day. That homunculus and his maker threw a wrench into it. Wonder what they fed him. Experiments with one-bowl breakfasts, varieties of maple mush spiked with vitamins, seeds, and fibrous nutri-lumps like hairballs. Stains on the kitchen wall from spoonfuls flung there, the color of loose stools. They hang Saran Wrap, like the walls around a monkey cage. Put the spoons out of reach until a big Russian in gloves arrives for feedings. Or they grind the mush fine and freeze it in ice trays, give it to the boy on a stick. Anything to put in his mouth to keep something else from coming out. And donuts.

Jesus, I was sick of him. Would gladly be rid of him. At least have a place to put him. But where? Weren’t there stories of children lost in the woods adopted by kindly wolves or bears, end up at Harvard? Put this boy in the woods and he’d sit on an anthill and howl. But after a few nights sleeping in the warm hold of a mama bear, maybe he’d shut up. Spend all day following her around. What did she care if he cried? As his clothes rotted off, a crust of salt and sap and earth would form on his body, toughen him. He’d learn to eat nuts and berries, which tend to be pretty healthy. He’d grow still and canny, careful to avoid human habitats. He’d lose what language he’d acquired but retain some primitive capacity for cognition. Though a boy might live like a bear he can’t be one. Give him a year to grow quick, stealthy, ever alert—never to cry. Then go find him, Mom and Dad. Or let him be, let him grow up, one day leave the woods, cross a road and remember, I once was in a place like this, up on someone’s shoulders, looking at this, at that. He’ll turn down the road, return a man, to save his father, his mother, humanity, from ourselves.

I went and peed, caught a look in the mirror. Skinny bear in terrycloth, up on my hind legs, scratching the nap around the logo. It came from a Palm Springs spa via Goodwill. Swag for a rich matron who wore it once, gave it her stink, then figured somebody like me could use it. If she could see me now, worthy object of her philanthropy. I went back to the window without cinching the belt, letting it all hang out, for no one. The morning light was gone. Whatever I’d do I’d better do soon.

I grabbed a couple of Kleenex, went and lay down, parted the robe and pulled out old Willie, thinking of the spa matron standing by my bed, flustered, trying to yank her robe out from under me. She ends up looking like Monica from grade school: I’d found a picture of her online—fat now, she might remember me. Wearing a skirt that flares out like a lamp shade she pouts, then turns and bends over my nightstand. Nothing on under there. I flip up the skirt and take hold. She feels me­—Oh!—go in. Oh? Oh—so—good. I blotted Will, crumpled the Kleenex, went and looked in the fridge. No. I’d go to the Greek place, stuffed grape leaves and feta and lamb. Date made.

But first I sat at the table, more notes. Dad hustles him sobbing down Pico, carries him into the park, puts him down under a tree, looks at his watch. Another hour before he can go home. His back against the trunk the boy boohoos, but they’re alone now, no one to bother except a few golfers. Dad watches one through chain link. A man in pale yellow about his age, long flag in his fist. What do you deserve? he wonders.

Turning, Dad looks behind him at the fields, ball fields, like an orphanage, he thinks. He could leave him right here. The boy didn’t know his own address. Did he know his last name? He’d never heard him say it. By the end of the day the police would find him, take care of him. The crying would make sense then—poor kid’s been abandoned. Everyone comforting him. Women at the station house. Buxom. Donuts. How would that be worse?

At the orphanage a tough but protective older kid teaches him to play ball, he gets good, is drafted by the Dodgers—wait, what is this, 1933? No, a foster home, thrown in with other foster kids, parents paid per kid, a little unclear who’s who, dinner’s where you find it, eat it. Foster brothers take turns raping him, beating him senseless if he cries. Boy learns to be soundless, transparent, at 18 leaves, black shoes, white shirt, black pants, gets a gun, gets a bus to the outskirts, makes a blind in the brush by the off-ramp, and picks off a dozen strangers in an afternoon. Never cries again.

Aw, phooey. What could he be so upset about? Didn’t he like movies? There were other things to see. Good things to eat. Didn’t he like food? Didn’t he like to sleep when he was sleepy? Listen to a story till he slipped away? Didn’t he like to run around on the beach on a sunny day? To dig a hole in the sand? Dig a whole network of tunnels, a system for getting from here to there and everywhere? Build a city? It wouldn’t last an hour, but he could build another next time, bigger and better. Soon he’d like girls. Or at least want them. Want something. And sometimes he’d get it. That would feel good. Music was good. He could listen to one thing over and over then listen to something else.

Instead, everybody had to listen to him. He would not be gentled, not be, at last, acknowledged. I know that park, those trees, from long ago. What time is it? I could bike there in half an hour. Chances are slim it would help, but they’re getting slimmer all the time. The biggest, shadiest trees south of Wilshire rise from beds of needles. There I am, my bike on its side in the grass. Breathing hard, my face on its side in the grass. The life I long for, on its side in the grass. Under a tree at 3 o’clock.

Alone. Did I really think I’d find them here? The world is big enough to keep us from stumbling upon each other. We take turns, like in a cemetery. A whisper and a ping, a man posing with a silver club over his head. A long walk down a green meadow to see what’s next. That’s what I need—goals, a map, a game. Up on an elbow I write walking down green meadows. Fingers through the fence I watch. Couldn’t afford to play but I could caddy. Involved carrying a heavy bag. Or I could sneak on the course, dressed in dark green like a groundskeeper. Walk along the margins with a rake, pause under a tree while they hit, walk on. Or pale yellow, carrying a nine-iron, perpetually hunting lost balls. There are bathrooms, water fountains. I’d pack a boiled egg, nuts and berries. It takes a day of your life to finish a round, I’d do it Monday through Friday. But the marshals in their carts, see how they ride! I’d have to run, hide, hasten down the rough, darting tree to tree, no time to contemplate the verdancy, the greensward, tackled, cuffed, Miranda’d, taken downtown. Oh well. The least likely idea can be the most promising, if only because the least troubling when it inevitably fizzles.

Meanwhile, here comes Dad along the fenceline, his son stumbling behind in the duff. When the mewling turns bitter Dad relents, puts him back on his shoulders, and as his little head bobs above the razor wire a hooked tee-shot catches him in the vital crockery just behind the ear. Crack, baby, crack. The horror, the pity, in headlines, the golfer’s insurer quickly agreeing to a windfall settlement. Man goes home from the lawyers and fucks his wife on the washing machine, passes out on the laundry. The vasectomy is vintage, proven. A merciful God.

From the grass beneath my cheek, empty desert opens on every side. It’s hard to imagine thirty more years but it’s likely, actuarially. Finally they’re home, Mom’s up, wants to be glad to see them. The boy runs, wedges his ears between her knees, screams. Dad goes to the kitchen, opens the refrigerator, slams it, sits, elbows on table, head in hands, waits, listens. Time. And time. No sobbing now, just the steady whirr, the distant vacuum cleaner of life on earth. She can’t be nursing him—he’s 7 no 4, he’ll go to school next fall and school will call daily. He’ll have pissed himself, puked himself, poked something up himself, but mostly he’ll have wept. No peers, his pressure’s from elsewhere, the space around his head, invisible fingers grabbing, clutching his face, curling into his little mouth, nose, deep enough to get a grip until they’re picking him up by the jaws and cartilage, flinging him into the corner once reserved for the Dunce, now the Quiet Place. Good luck with that.

But it is quiet now. Is he asleep? Assume so. If not, what unspeakable comfort is she having to render to shut him up? Bright people, gentle, they met in a museum—no a gallery—no a library, in the hall by the restrooms where they could talk without disturbing anyone, especially each other. They took their books and had a cup of coffee, had so much to say, had sex, had sex six times in a day—well, six for him, hard to know her count, but she took the long view. And look at the view now, misery in flood over the horizon.

Fingers through chain link, this side of green pastures, Dad dreams. If he could play like a pro he’d be set. Just good enough to be in the money, make the cut. Motels. Distant lands. Women in bars. Show him the sights. No, he’s never seen the Dell of Dingle, the misty green glades, so many stars in his whole foggy life. If he doesn’t get enough sleep, if it costs him a few strokes the next round, the few thousand lost can be written off, the price of a night in the world. He’s on the tour.

I pushed away from the table, got dressed and caught the bus. At the Greek place there was no place to sit so I took my souvlaki outside. Settled on a bench in the sun by St. Sophia’s, fists full of pita spilling white sauce and lamb, watching for the groundskeeper. Ravenous. Almost immediately stuffed to the gills. Bad old habit, forgetting to chew.

I decided to walk home. Six miles maybe. With long strides an hour and a half, nothing in a six-decade life. Flatulence like the last of St. Helens. Help the lamb go down, God. Normandie to Venice, a peek at the pyramids, Venice to Crenshaw, a turn through Wellington Square, over the freeway and through the palms, west on west Adams we go. Nice old grandma houses but who would live in one? Now if they divided each into seven or eight self-sufficient units—lots of PVC and fiber optics threaded round 19th-century timbers—here, out of the woods, the boy could live, bear habits behind him. Nutjob neighbor lodgers bring him tea. Or one special neighbor, matronly, fleshly, reckless. One hazy afternoon, tea cool, they make out on the couch, a pinch between the cheek and gum. Ever after the boy keeps his door cracked waiting, but Cupid’s a brat, looks at him like he’s the groundskeeper.

Then one night she brings someone home. The boy contemplates arson. Falls on his knees and begs for obliteration. Weeps big greasy tears, lowing like a grizzly. He wants to punish her with his misery, but she’s busy. He leaves a long, sweet, vituperative letter halfway under her door, but there it rests the next morning, then the next, untouched. Did she get loved to death? Is she in there rotting? Pale powdered upper lip nibbled by randy maggots in his place? He sniffs by her door. Should he call the police? Did he even get a look at the guy? A shadow at her side, hulking. Or did she just move out?

Next morning the letter’s not there, he remembers what’s in it and knows he has to move out. Some things can’t be countenanced. To you, whom it may concern, my only sunshine, so big and inclusive, so many handholds, toeholds, clean up one side, dirty down the other. And you stood for it, big lubricious mama bear of God, then you didn’t. Well, I’ve got news for you. There’s a boy on your roof and he won’t come down. He should’ve stayed in the woods where there’s no saying no. What’s so wonderful about the world? Besides dry-humping the neighbor lady on the couch? Better get the ladder, the broom. Give him a thump. Shoo him. Shoo him off.

It ends nicely. She has a baby, a doughy squaller, swears it’s his, offers to blood test it but he says No no please. Leaves it with him while she’s working at the club. Can’t fault her, a gifted entertainer, she brings home the bacon. It’s a boy, they go on walks. West down west Pico into the sun, keeping the kid in front of him like a wheelbarrow. People driving by think they’re playing, the boy screaming in delight, for miles. Here comes the wheelbarrow, wobbly, wobbly! He’s done it now.

The sun sinks dead ahead, I can’t see a thing. But what can see me? For a moment I’m happy, surrendering to the glare, to the way I walk. My way of walking is west of being seen. Head down, eyes gritty, grey road underfoot turns green. I push on, the wheelbarrow ponderous with sand for refreshing the traps, wobbling down the 18th fairway behind the last players of the day. They take their time, no one to rush them. I’ll be out here grooming till the moon is high, till the coyotes come to run. I wait for the last man to putt, then dump the boy into the trap. It’s cool here in the dusk and as I rake and groom a breeze goes up my pants.

What is this place so stark, so fat, so strange? What is it? Why cool me, breeze? Why, trees, rustle, soothe me? Blighted by unrelenting light why sleep through the dark just to wake, to burst open into more? Can I hug, can I climb, can I hang from your limbs, Mother May I? No You May Not. Forgive me, Mom, Dad, forgive yourselves. I’m here where you left me, doing what I will, what I would, what you’d have me, what all, what for, world without end.

The green turns grey again. I find a bus stop bench and take out my notes. Oh leave me alone, he howls down the road, just leave me alone. It’s been a long day and I’ve got to go to the bathroom.

Jack Garrett has worked in radio in Colorado and New Mexico and performed onstage in New York where he helped start a theatre company. His fiction publications include The Literary Review, The New Orleans Review, Fugue, Natural Bridge, The Portland Review, The Santa Monica Review, Quarter After Eight, The Los Angeles Review, Monkey Bicycle, Witness, and The Superstition Review. He is also an audiobook narrator.

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