Scenes From the Struggle: Rodney

None of them, not Jack Hugh nor Denny Porter or Rodney, were good at basketball, but they still made it a point to stick to their ritual; the thin generic adhesive that held their friendship together. A pencil box with three cigarettes and a half book of matches, courtesy of Ma Porter. Three young punks smoking down by the John L. Hensey Bridge; smoke rings pulsing through the air for a moment before fading away. Theresa, from as far back as anybody could remember, was always there. Rodney’s geeky little shadow. The little girl with the oversized glasses and thick charcoal frames. Skinny as a blooming cornstalk; Mickey Mouse t-shirts and bell bottoms. The thirteen year old girl who listened to her brother and his friends laugh and argue from the fences. Acne and an overbite of crooked teeth. Stringy auburn hair, the same charcoal frames, and hand-me-downs from the Salvation Army. The seventeen year old girl who was pregnant with Denny’s baby. She had told him, and he lectured her about how hard it was being a teenaged mother. You’re gonna catch a lot of shit for this, ya know?

Rodney was furious at the news. He put his knuckles through the drywall of the hallway,breaking his right hand in the process. He wrapped his bleeding knuckles with one of his old Black Sabbath cutoffs, holding his throbbing fist with the other hand. Who’s the dead man? She wouldn’t tell. She lied and told him that it was somebody she had met at the Good Neighbor Days. What does the dead man look like? Like a sixteen year old. Details, goddamnit! Is he tall? Short? What color is his hair? Who does he hang out with? He’s average. Blonde, maybe. He might have had light brown hair. It was dark. His friends? I don’t know. He was fighting the air in front of him, cursing and tossing off threats. The cocksucker. The mother fucker. Catch the beating of his life. He was fucked! The cocksucker!

That night, Theresa laid on her side on the single mattress in the corner of her room, hot tears streaming down her cheek, collecting in her ear. Rodney screaming into the receiver, hanging up, dialing another number. Screams, threats, hanging up, and dialing yet another potential snitch from the neighborhood. His voice was coarse, trembling. A tightly-wound joint burning in the empty ashtray on the kitchen table, a perfect coil of smoke rising.  The door across the hall swung open. The stomping of house slippers on the creaking hardwood floor. The muffled argument. Roddy, it’s pas’ midnight. Hang up the goddamn phone and sleep it off! Fuck, you act like ya don’t even give a shit! For once, act like her goddamn mom and make everything okay fer her! Can you do that? Just one goddamn time! And how would you like me to do that, Rod? What’s done is done! It’s over! Now, sleep it off!He threw the receiver hard against the wall, breaking it into several shards of yellow plastic and tangled wire. He grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair, and quickly left. She didn’t sleep, not even for a minute, that night.

Denny, stop picking at yer fuckin’ disgusting scab and get her ass in the game! Rod would bury him if he only knew. She had half a mind to tell him. He’d be sent to prison, for sure, perhaps for the long jaunt. She knew that he wasn’t afraid of jail. All of his overnight stays in county proved that. The longest stretch that he had ever done was in ’79, just after his eighteenth birthday. Four months. The beating that he had given Redd Tate should have killed him. What it did do was leave him with a blind right eye, several broken ribs, and a mouth filled with broken splinters of bloody teeth. it was a simple matter of mistaken identity. Poor Redd.

 

My Aim

I want to drag my fishing nets across the murky bottoms of my past and paint brilliant sketches from the distance that keeps me isolated from, yet longing for, those deeply flawed apparitions that meant the world to me while still keeping me breathing with my nostrils dragging across their window panes.

Building a Town

In ’92, a shockwave tore through the four corners of town. A murder-suicide. A husband, spurned. A wife and her lover. Four bullets, two reserved for her. The police lights illuminated a part of Washington Street; a tragic Broadway production taking place in a small, midwestern town.

I was an eleven year old child and death, beyond natural causes, was nothing more than an exaggerated dramatization, up to that point. It was a foreign land, a distant planet, a language that I couldn’t quite wrap the curves of my tongue around. Even as a young child, I distinctly remember pondering where the three of them had been, and where they would have gone. A sensitive child who took on the loss of strangers. What a heavy load to bear!

My hometown wasn’t exactly a bustling metropolis. Businesses would come and go, and those that became the fixtures of a community clung to dear life by the whites of the fingernails. Parents were either poor, aided by government assistance and local charities, or they were part of the struggling working class. Paycheck to paycheck. Kids would go to school in hand-me-downs and cheap Reebok knockoffs from Payless. The next town over, Washington, lorded over us and we were the wart. The Washington brats wore clothes from Szolds, wore Air Jordans, and dressed like clones of their parents; they looked down on us, just as their parents and grandparents had. We were the Scummylanders; dumb kids who were destined for dead-ends, drugs, and teenage pregnancies. In their eyes, there were no exceptions. You were branded and shackled to the miserable, beating heart of a ramshackle town that cowered in the shadows of the better part of town.

So, we formed our cliques. We developed our mantras, rallying cries. We’d walk the late-night streets like packs of fearful, raging wolves, though we were far more vulnerable than we ever let on.

——

 

 

Scenes From the Struggle (Rough Draft of first four pages, pages five through eight to be added from phone notes)

Snapshots of the Struggle
I.
Bernie Russell’s Mauser
Autumn of ‘83
The bulbs that lit the single room of Quail Way Tap were weak, and they flooded the habitual regulars with a subtle depression; enough to keep them drinking, enough to make them create shortcut answers to their problems, yet not quite enough to ever bring them much-needed clarity. Five stools in a drunken, disorderly line; padded dodger blue seats with the guts busted out by the cruelty of time, the negligence of tending to the wounds brought on by the one-sided battle of the squirming asses. A stack of miscolored-white ashtrays, many of them missing teeth and the whole lot of them unsightly and nicotine-stained, leaned away from an old Genesee Beer poster. The Taste Invaders. Three beer cans, any one of them large enough to knock any planet off of its axis, being escorted by a trio of space ships that more closely resemble intergalactic luxury cruise liners. The ambiance of the bar itself was stodgy, barren. The same Farrah Fawcett poster that hung from so many teenaged boys’ bedroom doors, or above their beds. The lone pool table with the dulled Aztec felt. The ubiquitous overcast of a tobacco orgy; a cancerous tryst between the cigars, pipes, and sticks. Those who dipped? They were left to their spit cups. The misfires. The grains and bumps of dried tobacco chew. The disgusting bastards!
Most nights, one could count on the same regulars to amble through the faded jungle-green storm door sometime after four. Hank was a used car salesman for Musselman’s, a shack-and-lot for the economically disenfranchised who clung to the bottoms of the next town over. Musselman’s bait-and-switch was the sign in the window:
$100 guarantees you a car.
Though true, there was always an entire paragraph missing from that promise:
$100 guarantees you a car from our small cache of broken-down losers from our sister site across town. It is the Musselman guarantee that you will wish that you had more money. Scribble some chicken scratch on the dotted line, and we guarantee that you will wish that you had some common sense.
Hank was a star shooting guard for East Peoria varsity during the ’66 and ’67 seasons. He also happened to be ace at hiding bottles of different brands of whiskey and wine under two loose floorboards in his closet. After graduation, his lean and muscular physique ran out of steam and he slowly sank into an early middle age; his first shades of grey at twenty-one, deep crevices ran across his forehead by the time he hit twenty-five, and his cohesion sank into a permanent slur by the time he hit thirty. A corpulent man whose veins were nothing more than weathered mains of distilled barley; Jimmy Musselman tolerated Hank’s professional drunkenness. Was it out of pity? A favor for Hank’s old man? Nobody knew, for sure.
He had married Candy Sanderson, who was a cheerleader for the Washington basketball team in ’66. She was a promising girl who came from a good family. Her father, Bill, owned and operated Sanderson Lumber, on the outskirts of town and was a member of the Washington Chamber of Commerce. Bill was a well-respected man about town, business-minded yet casual in his everyday dealings and demeanor. He believed that a firm handshake was directly linked to the character of an individual; eye contact, or lack thereof, spoke of the chapters and verses, the history, and the highways both thoroughly traveled and neglected. Time was of the essence, and he couldn’t be bothered by anyone who had nothing to bring forth.
Five days a week, Irene chain-smoked while shakily dropping nickel upon nickel into a slot machine that otherwise collected layers of dust in the corner. A Primadonna, framed with a cherry trim; a lavishly-painted geisha girl, fanning her cheek and wearing a wildflower kimono. The seventeen year pattern of fumbled curses, open-palmed slaps against the pay table; the twenty-two year old machine had lived a tragic, subservient life. The payout of a pimp, and the work of a prostitute. Pockets of loose, leathery flesh clung to the bones of her neck. Slender, frail. A mess of dried, bleached hair that looked like a patch of dead grass. Cracked fossils of bad blood ran like poisoned streams along her armsA bald spot just above her left ear. She drank with the worst of them; Coors in a can. The combination of stale cigarette smoke and bargain perfume lingered on her lime-green quilted jacket.
Danny Lee, the thirty-six year old bag boy at Thompson’s Grocery, would come in three days a week, con drinks out of the more cheery, generous drunks, waste an hour tossing darts, shooting the cue, or flirting with the hopeless women who were just sober enough to say yes. He treated his position at Thompson’s with the sort of reverence typically reserved for that of a tenured professor, or consul; he would stalk every teenaged boy who walked through the double door, gifting them a small number of minutes before approaching them. If they had nothing in their hands, he would rudely tell them to leave. If they were lollygagging, he would pretend to clean the shelves behind them while loudly clearing his throat. Throughout the years, he had been reprimanded on numerous occasions; accusations of harassment, angry phone calls from mothers. The legend of the middle-aged bag boy had been passed down, from older siblings, since ’63:
If you go to Thompson’s and see an older dude with a really bad comb over and moustache, you might as well go somewhere else because he hates kids—well, some kids. He gets all touchy with the girls who come in, and leaves them the hell alone. Boys? He’ll give them the boot, or threaten to call the cops.
His feet, two well-oiled machines, were his carriage. He never bothered with getting a driver’s license or, for that matter, a car. A simple life with no credit, no debts. He bowled with his old man on Monday nights, though he seemed to spend more time playing Asteroids in the corner arcade and making calls from the payphone by the wood shelves that housed the shoe baskets.
The other regulars, the old-timers, occupied the same three stools every afternoon. The same drinks. The stories never changed. The days before the world went to hell. Two of them grew up together, old Bert and Leland; street toughs who survived the 1920’s on pancakes and water, chipped beef on toast. Fist fights on the playground. Blood and spit up baby teeth in the snow. Fathers working where there was work. The fear that wouldn’t go away in the local kids who still had fathers: the day when the family suitcase disappeared from the closet.
At some point, in the early ‘50’s, Charlie Hugh Jr. came into their lives or, more appropriately, stepped into their bar. A young veteran, or at least younger than both Bert and Leland, with a trick leg of shredded bone, muscle, and affixed shrapnel. A defining limp that was a souvenir from an unknown gunner in Palau. A mean drunk. An immutable whiskey stink fuming from his pores. When he came home from the war, in January of ’45, he got a job stocking shelves at Gambles in Monmouth. By ’48, he had worked his way up to management while attending night school. In ’51, he earned his business degree, moved to Sunnyland, and opened the doors to Hugh’s Hardware off of East Holly. A cramped little hole in the wall with cluttered shelves that carried no rhyme or reason. Loose bins of screws, nails, and thumb tacks were housed next to the lawn décor; plastic gnomes, cheap swans, and ceramic fountains. Two cigar boxes in front of the register, above the candy cigarettes, Swell bubble gum cigars, bags of black and red licorice, and packs of Beech-Nut peppermint chewing gum. Lining the walls, the George Petty pinups: flawless women, all of them blondes, who are captured at the peak of their climax while leaning against a larger-than-life wrench, or a threader, or a tristand portable power drive. Those posters were a town legend, in and of themselves; nobody, from Doc Oliver the pharmacist to even Jimmy Lyle the mechanic, would have dared use sex to sell their services…..at least not until the early 1960’s.
Central Illinois went through a cultural metamorphosis; the music of the British Invasion screamed from the windows of passing cars on Washington Road, the hair was getting longer, separate-but-equal began losing its social footing. Both Pekin and Washington ceased being sunset towns. Pekin, however, would never shake the stigma of being the sunset town of Central Illinois; a prominent sign was driven into the soil of the ditch near the town’s entrance. Six polished yellow slats, nailed to three vertical posts. The sloppily-painted message that had resonated for decades:
Black men don’ let sundown catch you in Pekin

Even with the transition, which was slow in catching on, there was a societal indifference. Tally-Ho, located at the tip of the Washington Square, remained a whites-only diner.The separation itself was passive; there were no beatings, killings, or even intimidation, for that matter. An unwritten rule:

Black men don’ let sundown catch you in Washington

 Charlie Hugh had fought hard to keep Sunnyland a sunset town; he proudly displayed a No Coloreds. Period sign in the window by the entrance, until local law enforcement gave him no choice but to take it down. He seemed to take great pleasure in shoe-horning the word (racial slur) into any sentence that he spat, and every joke that he told. Had any black man, woman, or child dared enter Hugh’s Hardware, local ordinance be damned, he would have done whatever it took to make them feel uncomfortable enough to leave and never come back.

Ilene! Sam Dennis held his hand against the nicotine-stained receiver, coughing tar fumes into his other. Ilene, you’s got a phone call! Sam bought The Tap from Freddie Floyd in ’61; Floyd

 

((add the rest of the scene))


 

The niceties. Where ya been, Dougie? We haven’t seen ya ’round much. Forgeries of long-toothed friendships. Strangers who go way back. Oh, I’ve been ’round. Lotsa time in Alta, taken care of mom, doin’ odd jobs, here and there. Nothing specific. The three of them rounded the bend that linked Rosewood and Almond; Theresa pulled her hood up, crossed her arms and let Rodney do the talking. Interrogation. You still usin’? Some. A lot? Not like I used to. Word is that you took off to Alta cause you knew Causey was lookin’ for ya. Stuttering and stammering. A jolt of adrenaline rattling the cage of bones. Th-that’s bu-bu–bullshit! I d-d-did nothin’. A broken window, at the rear of the garage. Two gas cans, filled. Tools, missing. He didn’t realize, until he got home, that his wallet had slipped out of his pocket as he hurriedly slipped out the window. A threatening phone call. To Causey’s credit, he followed the code of not calling the cops; in Sunnyland, such matters were handled personally, oftentimes with swift acts of violent retribution. Dougie disappeared. He hadn’t been in Alta. His mom passed away in ’77, and he hadn’t seen her since Thanksgiving of ’69. 

There were stories all over town, about who Dougie’s father was. The scandal. An unwed teenage mother. An unstable home with an all-American lawn, a father with a drinking problem and a black leather belt that either clung to his waistline or wrangled the blood from his knuckles. Anything that she, her brothers, or mother did. Nothing was right. When he died, she wanted so badly to pretend that he drank himself to death, because that would have made sense. It would have been easier. Instead, he put a thick barrel to his lips and squeezed the trigger in ’56, when she was eleven. Carl, the oldest, held it all in, for months, but started exhibiting some of his behaviors and mannerisms; he privately inherited the bottles from the cabinet, cracked his knuckles frequently, took on a mean-spiritedness that hadn’t been there before. Georgy, the baby of the three, carried on as if nothing had ever happened. 

(More)

Just as they turned off of Summit, onto Mimosa, Rodney lunged at Dougie, grabbed him by his collar, gave him a spin, and threw him to the ground, where one of the lawns met the street. Sitting on his stomach, he pinned Dougie’s arms with the weight of his knees, forced both of his hands over his mouth. You listen to me, you little faggot. Causey’s in jail, but we all stick together and look out for one another. I oughta fuck you up for what you done. Theresa yelled for Rodney to stop.Two hard slaps to his left eye. You want out of this? You want up? Dougie nodded his head. Rodney slowly stood up, lifted his foot, and stomped on Dougie’s stomach. A sharp pain. Panic. His heart, racing. Dizziness. Get up! We’re walking.

They walked down Briargate, cutting through the blinding darkness of the small stretch of woods that took them to the pale blue water tower that lorded over the modest slab of concrete that was the Hensey Bridge. Down Quail, along Washington Road. Theresa kept her head down, listening as Rodney outlined the details:

His name was Bernie Russell, a long-retired line inspector for Keystone. In his younger days, he served under the 3rd Infantry Division in the Second Battle of the Marne. Rodney had been hired to replace the loose planks of Mr. Russell’s foyer, the previous summer, which lead to a number of other odd jobs. Switching out some old piping in the crawl space, painting the den, stripping warped tiles of linoleum from the kitchen floor. 

Bernie was a distant man to the few people who knew him. He was polite enough, and he came through on pay, but he largely kept to himself. Occasional lapses of dark humor. He had never married, nor had children. Friends had come and gone. Baby Pearl, the name he had given to Irene, died just before the Bicentennial. Seven years without his sister. He missed her dreadfully, and he found it harder to remember the time in his life when she was there than it was to imagine her being gone. She was the only one who understood his introversion enough to never question it. 

A lonely life where the silence pulsed throughout the house, up the staircase, and through the one bedroom and the attic like a heart palpitation. 

The house itself was a museum of his life, better days that had long since passed. A charcoal coat tree next to the door. The narrow hallway that led into the kitchen, decorated by a single wooden stand with a lava-colored lamp on a snow-white doily. Old portraits of mama, papa, and baby Ilene, stained by age with a copper hue. A framed Army of Occupation of Germany medal, a photograph of a stiff young man, the butt of his rifle in the dirt, the long barrel in his grip. Those days when the dead were still dreamers, ornaments for the fold-in lens of a tripod camera. 

Three prescription bottles stood atop the stainless steel breadbox on the kitchen counter. A yellow refrigerator. A small rectangular table positioned in the middle. A doorway next to the pantry that led to the basement. The musty smell. Two cracked steps. A cheap plywood hatch that masked the crawl space. A room, caddy corner to the boiler. A red door, locked by a simple patch. Keys that hung by a hook in the foyer. An old man who had the wherewithal not to trust financial institutions. Nobody from his time did. Shoeboxes under the bed, or the the lining of jackets, or behind a locked door tucked in the back of a dark basement. 

This is all you, Dougie. There’s something in that room. Something big. I know it! And you’re gonna check it out for us.

He stopped walking. Rodney turned around, stepped towards him, and cracked his knuckles. Dougie started breathing heavily. He couldn’t help. He hadn’t come back to get into trouble. He just wanted to keep a low profile. Rodney chuckled to himself, dusted Dougie’s collar, then grabbed the fabric and pulled him forward. I didn’t ask, you fuck! You screwed my boy  over, and this is how you’re gonna make up for it! Why can’t you do it yourself, Rodney? That’s none of your fucking business! Look, you’re gonna do this, and you’re not gonna mess it up—otherwise you’ll never be seen again! Theresa panicked. She started crying and pleaded with her brother to drop it, that they would find another way. His anger grew, and he tightened his grip. If you think I’m joking–

He let go, pointing his finger in Dougie’s face as he slowly stepped backwards. Your doing this! Rodney turned to Theresa, nodded his head towards the end of Cherry, and they walked off. Dougie stood by, stiff as a statue, his mouth agape. Numbness. The thought of being sent away. Something about the darkness, the way that the faint breeze created lost, pleading souls from the shadows of the swaying leaves, was unsettling. Even his thoughts stuttered, mid-sentence.

—-

Every morning, the same routine. A click of the tan knob that brought the radio to a whispering life. He would pull the cast iron skillet from the cabinet beneath the counter, the egg carton from the bottom shelf of the yellow refrigerator, the milk from the top, the bacon from behind the glass jug of orange juice. He’d flip the lights, let out a deep stretch, and the frail bones would yawn. His walk across the kitchen floor was slow, hunched, and weary: the feet-dragging shuffle of an eighty-seven year old man who spent his days wondering if St. Peter had simply neglected to dispatch the angels. 

He’d juggle three large eggs in his hand, crack them against the rim of the skillet, slowly watch as the yoke slid through the chasm and form a bubbling pond, and lay the shells next to the sink. A quick rinsing of the coffee pot. Scoops of Sanka formed a landslide at the bottom of the thin filter. Four strips of bacon, spitting grease, sizzling. A spatula coated in egg guts and pepper. The Peoria Journal Star on the table, opened to the classifieds; he hadn’t worked since ’64, but he made it a point to circle his pencil around any job that he felt qualified to do. The years had dulled the muscles in the back, weakened the joints, and had thrown a cloak over his eyesight. The world, once so vivid and pleasing to the senses, had shrunk and the colors bled into the soil, killing the grass and the verve of the surrounding harvest. Autumn weeps into winter, and everything dies as it is wont to do. The cyclical ways of the world, rolling out the seasons and claiming bodies to nourish the roots. The smell of the perversion of coffee. Breakfast, as it always was. Another day. Who would hire such an old man anyway? 

By time lunch rolled around, the leaves were raked and bagged; space was cleared for the final onslaught of the season. Bernie dropped the rake between the two welded channels in the garage, huffing loudly as he slowly walked alongside the Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, running his hand against the side panels for support. He pulled a piece of crumpled yellow notebook paper from his shirt pocket as he made his way up the stone steps and through the back door. Mean little bastard. Kids in packs, like ravenous wolves, on bicycles. Anonymity. Safety in numbers. Every one of them has a parent, who knows a parent, who knows an elderly old man. The threat from Thursday morning was intended as a promise. The thick reading glasses were yanked from the nightstand next to his suede recliner, and he positioned them as he spread his palm across the protruding veins of the paper. 

Mean little bastard.

He knew the cocky little son of a bitch. He was, in fact, the cocky little son of an alcoholic used car salesman from East Peoria. The drunken fool had sold him his Ninety-Eight, offering peanuts on the dollar for what amounted to the worst sort of trade-down. Diamonds with blemishes exchanged for an imitation leather pouch a quarter of the way filled with splinters of fool’s gold. Hank something or another. The man stunk to high heaven! Stunk like a damn brewery! It was a wonder that he hadn’t been canned, or wrapped his car around a telephone pole by now!

That boy of his, Mikey, was the spitting image; Hank before life got the better of him. Skinny as a rail, but with an athletic sort of leanness to him. Sandy blonde hair that formed waves of calcium over his eyes, his ears, and the back of his neck. A flat, unobstructed canvas of youthfulness. A dresser drawer filled with faded t-shirts: REO Speedwagon, Journey, Foreigner. Strategically-folded Levi’s with permanently dusty knees, holes in the pockets, and tattered fabric at the seams. Mismatched socks. Four Playboy magazines in a ceramic sleeve, taped to the boards under his bed. A window that gazed upon the emptiness of the backyard: unkempt grass, a leaning doghouse with an unoccupied chain on a spike, a clothes line, and a fence plagued with deeply-running veins of rust. A house like all of the others.

As low into the drink  as he may have been, Hank was a good father or, at the very least, a caring father. He never drank openly around his son, though he was certainly drunk around him regularly. He never kept beer in the house, but there were plenty of bottles in the cabinets above and below the sink. 

The worst thing that he had ever done, that Mikey could remember, was the wreck of ’79. Pee wee baseball practice. A Tuesday in September. The early morning rain made the shabby streets shimmer liked cracked mirrors. The sparring mounds at Oliver Thomas were like diamonds handcrafted from melting chocolate and tins of cocoa powder. The odor of volcanic antifreeze. Smoke. A stiffness of the neck. Gashes. Hank’s drunken curses under his breath. He never once asked if Mikey was okay, or if he was hurt. No, all he did was rub the back of his own neck, wearily laughed, and told him that he’d be late to practice. He never forgot how badly that hurt.

The phone was ringing. Three rings. Hello? Hello, is this Mrs. Hank? Bernie always took full advantage of his age, when it best served him. He adopted a sweetness bathed in questionable senility. This is she. Hello, ma’am. The fury of a strong wind rustled the branches that scratched their tips against the kitchen window. This is Bernie Russell, over on Cherry. The phone cord uncoiled as he sat down at the kitchen table, running his narrow fingers over the pencil marks he had made on the classifieds. Part-time work, unloading freight in downtown Peoria. If provided with enough sick days, he was sure that he could muscle his way through it. I promise not to take up too much of your time, Mrs. Hank—-please, call me Candy. Candy? Interesting name. You know, in my day, you didn’t meet too many girls, or anybody, named Candy. Is that short for Candace? Nope, just Candy. What can I do for you mr….what did you say say your name was again? Bernie. Bernie Russell. Short for Bernard, but everybody just calls me plain ol’ Bernie. He heard a bit of rustling in the background. The muffled sound of a carving knife, like a guillotine, cutting through a head of lettuce, perhaps? Oh? What can I do for you, Bernie? A smirk crept upon his face as he went into detail the events from two days prior. Bike tires ripping across his wet lawn. The taunts of a number of kids, three of whom were faceless, anonymous. Free to go. The fourth, Mikey, had the misfortune of being the wrong son, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and he delivered the parting salvo. Whatcha gonna do, ya old fart? Chase us down and beat us with your cane? Interruption. Mikey wouldn’t do that, Mr. Russell. Please, Bernie. Our boy wouldn’t do that, Bernie. The smirk grew ever wider, a touch of the devil erupted in his eyes. Mrs. Hank, Candy, I’m an eighty-seven year old man who don’t get ’round so good. My mind is gone to mush, but I have my wits about me just enough to know what I saw. Your boy was at Musselman’s Saturday morn, right? She sighed into the receiver that he was. And that was the boy I saw, sandy blonde hair that covered his eyes. He described what he remembered of the other three: a porker whose back poured out of his tight red t-shirt, a small, underweight boy with jet black hair, and another who was too tall for the bicycle that he was riding. She knew exactly who he was describing. She held her hand against the receiver and called him into the kitchen. Yeah, mom? Bernie listened as intently as he could: the did yous, were yous, and were theys. Something that sounded like a scream into the thick of a pillow. ‘Cuz back in my day, you jus’ didn’t do those things. We had respect for our elders. Fuel to the fire. An old man, giddy as a young school boy. She apologized, promised to rectify, wished him a good day, and hung up. 

Bernie chucked, put on his reading glasses, and started flipping through the classifieds again. 

—–

And what if I get caught? 

Uncle George’s basement was like a wood-paneled Fallout shelter. No windows. Absolute darkness was at the mercy of three light switches, a dimmer by the basement door and a lamp on the nightstand. An ashtray overflowing with half-smoked butts,a thumbprint pressed into the center of a loose mound of ash. No television. The hushed sounds of the television from upstairs vibrated the floorboards. Uncle George ran it day and night, even when he wasn’t home. A part of Dougie felt that he did it out of spite, to make him feel just uncomfortable enough to remember that his occupancy was only temporary; when Dougie asked to borrow the black-and-white 13″ from the kitchen, George bluntly told him no. 

You won’t get caught if you don’t go in there acting like a dumbass. Rodney explained the layout of the house. The keys on the hook. The foyer. The basement door next to the pantry. The creaking stairs. The locked door in the back of the basement. The time and place were set. Theresa chewed her thumbnail, looking away from them, dwelling on a split in the wood paneling. Whatever it took to keep her mind off of things. 

Rodney was a good brother, in his own way. An anger flowed through him, and he showed little restraint when it came to protecting those he cared about. 

When he was growing up, he was the target of countless after-school beatings from the Bogart twins. They’d wait for him, at least once a week,under Mrs. Zobrist’s oak tree, at the corner of (). They did just enough to drive fear into him: a black eye here, bloody nose there. They asserted themselves in the hallways, the locker room, and from their table in the cafeteria. Other kids got it, sure,but not quite as badly as Rodney did. 

With time, the beatings made him mean; he spent the summer of ’75, just after his fourteenth birthday, in his bedroom, eating like there was no tomorrow and lifting weights. By that August, he had packed on fifteen pounds of muscle. He had but one goal in mind: take the memories of every beating that he had ever endured, roll them into his fists, and simply lose control. One September morning, five minutes before the bell rang, he followed Tim Bogart into the restroom next to the recess doors. Tim didn’t know what hit him as the sharp end of the pencil went into the side of his neck. He staggered backward, spurts of blood hitting the floor. He slipped to the ground, and Rodney climbed on top of him. Punches cracking the bones of the face; welts, scratches, and busted skin. Rodney pinned Tim’s arms down with his knees, and wouldn’t let up until he was pulled off and dragged to the principal’s office. Rodney slumped into the hard yellow plastic of his chair, rubbing the pain in his knuckles. He closed his eyes, and felt something akin to peace. He no longer cared about the Bogarts.

The door to the basement swung open, and George stormed in. He looked at Theresa, then Rodney, and shook his head at Dougie. Your friends have to go. Rodney stood up and glared at him. Tell me yourself, chief. Okay, get out of here, the both of you. Theresa grabbed her purse from the side of the bed. Rodney took one last, taunting pull from his cigarette and pressed it hard into the ashtray. Now! Theresa hurried up the stairs while Rodney strolled, muttering curses and slurs. The hushed sound of the garage door being rolled up. Without saying another word, George turned off the lights and went back upstairs. Dougie remained on the beanbag, wide eyed, in the darkness.

——–

The kitchen table had become nothing but storage space throughout the years: a refuge for homeless groceries, week-old newspapers, Mikey’s school work, and unopened mail. Stacks upon stacks of mail with nary a hint of a small rip. The kitchen counter itself was no different; clean dishes never found their way to the cabinets, and there was always a pizza cutter, caked in old cheese and calcified grease, sitting at the center of a pile of crumbs on the stovetop. Candy had stuck to her protest, refusing to clean it after slicing her hand two weeks earlier. Hank never helped. He was always too tired. She always caught herself wondering, out of a festering resentment, how sitting at a desk, occasionally circling the lot when the odd sucker showed up, could possibly suck so much life out of him. His skin was pale, bloodless; his eyes, always gasping for breath and haunted by jaundice. In the back of her mind, she knew that he likely wouldn’t live long enough to spoil a grandchild, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about that. 

Thirteen years of marriage and she felt as though she was in a chained commitment with both Hank and his drinking. She had the bed all to herself, but the thunderous roar of his snoring from the couch in the living room rattled through the hallway and kept her awake most nights. Sex was an obligatory arrangement, a hobby rooted in survival; they wouldn’t speak as they disrobed in separate corners of the dark bedroom, the shades drawn. They’d cautiously pull back the covers, he’d struggle with his manhood, climax before she even had the pleasure to pretend that he was someone else, and then he would kiss her on the cheek, tell her that he loved her, and disappear from her life once more. 

Every Thursday night was the same. Mikey would pick at his lukewarm Salisbury steak and the stiff, tasteless peas, huddled and lifeless in their cheap foil bunker, while Hank and Candy treated their dinners like an afterthought from opposite ends of the couch. The lights were faint. The flickering bulb spat choppy gasps of light from the lamp on the end table. Candy would remind Mikey not to sit so close to the television, which he would usually ignore. Every few minutes, Hank would get up and stagger drunkenly towards the old tv to either smack the top of it or change the channel, sometimes both. Worthless piece of shit. That does it! I’m buying us a new one this weekend! He would always say that, but he never did. That ’73 Zenith had taken its share of beatings and verbal abuse. The once-vibrant trim had lost its luster; deep scratches at the base of the antenna. Every sitcom, drama, and film was seen through an obstructive snowfall; the picture melted sideways at the top of the screen. 

Mikey, why don’t you tell your father what you did? The moment of reckoning. He probably wouldn’t care. Even if he did, it wouldn’t matter. Mikey sat back on his knees, and looked at her. Why? Because I think he needs to know? Hank’s hand froze, just as he was raising the fork to take a bite. What did you do? Mikey took a deep breath and told his version of the story, one of a crazy old man who threatened him. That’s not how Mr. Russell told it. Well, it’s the truth. A sliver of dark brown meat fell from one of the prongs and hit the carpet; Huck, the family mutt, paced towards it and chomped down. Did you apologize? No. A twisting of his stomach. The taste of bile, the sensation of an amputee dance. A deep belch, followed by a hacking fit. He took a drink, told Mikey to apologize, and he staggered into the kitchen, dropped to one knee, and a stream of pale vomit poured from his clenched teeth. Candy ran in, saw what he had done, and stood over him as judge and jury. One of these days, Hank, this is gonna kill you. You know that? I-I’ll be just fine. He threw up once more, his open palms pressing against the linoleum, his chest heaving, knees rattling. He moaned a few curses, and wiped his mouth; the puddle grew long arms that birthed hands that joined together and formed a stream. He dwelled on it just as a child would a cloud from the peak of an undiscovered grassy knoll. Hank, you know that if you die—I’m not going to die, Candy. She bit into her bottom lip and looked at her watch. 8:29. Such a mess of a kitchen. Well, you sure ain’t livin’ forever and…you do whatever you want. It’s your life. She left him on the floor, apologized to Mikey and told him that it was time for bed. The click of the black plastic knob  at the base of the lamp. Two doors slammed at the end of the hallway. The argument of his thoughts. The cadence rehearsing from the faucet. The bold stench of pitched meatloaf, dried eggs burnt to the bottom of the skillet. 9:00. Another day.

———

I don’t know what to do, Danny. I mean, the kid’s been through the mill and he’s my nephew and all, but—His slender fingers wrapped around the glass and, like a trout begging for the stream, he quickly brought the foam to his thin, dry lips and took a deep gulp. His thinning hairline of black-and-gray,and the pouches of blue, sagging skin that defined the exhaustion in his eyes, betrayed his thirty-four years. He had never felt well. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction

When I was a student at Eureka College, I was tasked with creating a six-word novel. At first, I wasn’t entirely sure how to encapsulate my life with so few words: how could one convey a powerful message without bleeding every detail? It was then that I read the following, written by Ernest Hemingway:

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn

There it was, a hole in the heart that lurched for the eyes of the reader as a means of seeping into the soul. I spent the entire afternoon walking about the campus, surveying the beauty of a midwestern Autumn afternoon. My now ex-wife and I had recently separated, and I was a thirty-one year old man who didn’t relate to those around me; actually, I had never been capable of relating to anybody beyond the occasional bout of intimacy that was shared with a generous stranger. Perhaps I didn’t want to relate? Maybe I felt a sense of pride, or some obligation, to be as off-putting as I possibly could be. The cheapness of the material that melded my masks together were only so strong, and people would eventually be exposed to who I truly was: a man who cares, who has difficulty showing it. The child of the 90’s who wanted to be cool, but had no idea how to be. The hopeless romantic who stuttered through awkward phases of love and devotion, even when it was all a lie. The man who wore corduroy during the Jnco era…..then it hit me:

I wear corduroy, and you don’t.

That was me. Deep down, underneath the manholes and highways of what the outside world saw was a man who was still trying to figure out how to show the world that he was proud of who he is.

I’ve always tried to reconcile who I am with what I ultimately want to write about. I have started so many projects that, to this day, remain unfinished and I finally figured out why! Every character, from static to the protagonists and antagonists, was a caricature of who I thought I was. It was a fool-hearted way to conduct my characters, like an orchestra with only percussion or woodwinds. My projects, though well-written, were occupied by a number of one-dimensional characters. Nothing ever changed, and there was never anything at stake; there were no real winners, or losers, but rather fallow tragedies that never planted the seed for something bigger.

My current project, which I am determined to finish, was born from a previous project. Following my divorce, I had decided to throw caution to the wind and I moved from my small midwestern town to a city thirty miles south of Seattle. Though the teenage dream, that sprang to life when I was seventeen years old, was to actually live in the city, it simply wasn’t financially feasible, so I settled on Puyallup. My girlfriend, at the time, was pregnant with our first child, so the transition carried with it some weight; regardless of how homesick I felt, I couldn’t return without leaving my child. Washington state would be my home, through thick and thin.

That first year was especially hard; money was tight, and supporting three people was hell on my knees and back! I cursed myself for being foolish enough to assume that the dreams of naivity could adequately chart the course for a thirty-two year old man who would stand out in the very crowd that he first fell in love with. I was still a writer, but I was unproven, and I felt a sort of apathy beat me down. I missed my family, my friends, those familiar places, and I spent my nights questioning the course of my life. Through that confusion, I started writing Stone Pillars Crumble, the story of a man who, like me, moves to a big city following his divorce. Through circumstances beyond his control, he finds himself destitute yet too proud to return to his home, feeling as though it would be both defeat and death. His mother dies suddenly, and rather than catch a flight home, he throws his phone into a nearby pond and goes off of the grid.

What forced me to temporarily put the brakes on SPC was the lurking feeling that I didn’t feel enough of the mythology, history, nor culture of the city that I was attempting to portray. I was treating the city, this place that was allegedly my new home, as an uninviting blank canvas that wasn’t to be painted on. How can growth ever occur in a place that can’t be understood? So, I stopped writing and fell into a crisis. If I’m not a writer, I must accept that I am something that I never wanted to be. I’m a man who works with his hands and can’t create.

After a few weeks of feeling sorry for myself, I forfeited that silly notion. I wrote small pieces, centered around my mixed feelings about the election, where I stood on basic human rights, and questioned how divides can be both created and dismantled. I wrote of friends who had passed, and friends who slipped through my fingers. I remembered my grandparents, two beautiful souls who were ravaged and spat out by the starving mouth of time. I remembered the place that I came from; every name of every street, every myth, every local legend. The people who never had dreams, who followed in their parents’ footsteps, never bothering with the distraction of dreams. These were the people who only wanted to have children, food on the table, a steady job, and a warm bed. My parents. The sacrifices that they made that I would have never had the stones to make: how in the hell did they do that?

That was the book that I had written long ago, that poured through me and all it needed was a suitable translation. The town itself would serve as both the protagonist and antagonist, with the occupants orbiting about, over the course of several decades. I grew up knowing the town pharmacist, and everybody knew the owner of Don’s Restaurant, the shocking story of the man who murdered his wife, her lover, and then turned the gun on himself. I thought about Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska: extraordinary songs and tales told that centered around unextraordinary people, places. A canvas that craved every drip of every color, begging for it. A working class town that was the laughing stock of the next town over. Very few people made anything of themselves, but they were damn good parents and hard workers.

More will be revealed. I want to use this blog for feedback as I post the rough drafts of chapters. Be as critical, complimentary, damning as you possibly can be. I’m striving for something beyond anything that I have ever done, and I believe that I can make it there, with your help! To those who take the time to read what I post, thank you so much! I look forward to getting to know all of you, with time!

-Josh