Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Sonny’s Daily Shrinking

This story was somewhat inspired by my friend and fellow scribe, JD Mader, who periodically coaxes me into stripping down to my droopy drawers and jumping into his Friday Free-write love swamp. The story below is a first draft of a free-write session.

          Sonny’s all jacked up. The thieves who stole his Igloo full of PBR at the last Gang Green game are setting up shop two pickups down our lane. The nerve, he says. Some pair of balls, he raves. But I don’t think it’s the same guys. How could you tell?
          “D’ya know they gave me rancid meat?” He stops unloading the hibachi from the back of my truck to grab me by the shoulders and quietly yells in that peculiar way of his, “Rancid meat!” an inch away from my face. This is too close. I want to shove him clear across the lane into the obese family who has just taken half an hour to climb out of their monster-sized SUV. But I don’t.
          Because Sonny’s jacked up. On what, I don’t know. Even this close, it’s hard to smell him for a change. He varies his drugs: sometimes meth, sometimes crack, always cheap shit made by basement-bound losers who could’ve been chemistry professors or real pharmacologists. I regard Sonny’s wild eyes. “I don’t think it’s them.”
          I take a tiny step back – anything more might set him off in a rage that’ll end with us both in the county lockup. Again.
         “You sure?” His grip on me tightens.
          I reach out and gently wrap my mitts around the sides of his head. “Yeah, buddy. I’m sure. Those are different guys, nice guys. I know ‘em,” I say softly, like a shrink talking a lunatic down from a psychotic break. Which I am.
          Thanks to a full scholarship to Rutgers, I never got the chance to get away from him. From this. For what it’s worth, though, he’s the only one who’s truly given a shit about me since we were little kids running motherless and free through the streets of Newark.

          A thing that never changes, the lesson I keep failing to learn, is that I should never bring Sonny to a football game. Or any sporting event. Or for that matter anywhere in public where interaction with people is possible. When Sonny’s not jacked up, he’s loudly morose. Sucks the life out of me, but without me to keep him in check, Sonny would lose his shit all over some poor unsuspecting person who just wants to flip him off and move along when Sonny rants and raves in his or her general direction.
         Why have I elected myself as Sonny’s keeper? Simple process elimination. Actually, there was no process, no list of previous applicants to sort through before landing on me. Sonny was nearly a ward of the state when his dear old ma checked herself out of life behind the new Walmart with a big, bad dose of ammonia in her veins. She probably had no idea what she was shooting. It got bad when Sonny and I were high school juniors. He only made it that far without getting kicked out on account of my father being fairly oblivious to the extra mouth he was feeding. My own mother found her exit door via stomach cancer when I was thirteen, and my two older brothers made like good kids and escaped to colleges thousands of miles away from us and apart from each other.
          We were never all that close, even when Ma was alive. She functioned in a joyless stupor of obligatory meals and neatly pressed clothes in a glove-clean house. My father worked himself purposefully toward a young death at age fifty-three via a massive coronary while battling one of a half-dozen wintertime blazes that happen in poor neighborhoods where roach-ridden apartments are heated with jury-rigged space heaters running round the clock so the asthmatics don’t die of pneumonia.
           I guess I never had any hope of getting out anyway. May as well keep Sonny in check, so no one else dies. My other job – the one that pays the property taxes, utilities, and Sonny’s care -- is an equally futile endeavor. I’m a guidance counselor at Newark Middle School. Good thing I minored in wrestling.

          We somehow make it through the tailgating party without incident. I’d tried to talk Sonny out of it but certain ideas get permanently lodged in his noggin, like of course one tailgates before a football game, and there’s no talking him out of it. I wouldn’t have even gone to the game, but the tickets were free. Sonny won them from a radio station contest because he’s my ward now and I let him stay home and listen to the radio all day while I earn enough to keep us indoors. Neither one of us made it out of Newark, or out of my dad’s crumbling clapboard house. My brothers don’t even bother coming home at all. Why would they? Would you?
          St. Brian, the eldest, called me last week just to make sure I was still breathing. Like he cares all that much. Seems he’s inherited our mother’s sense of obligation, along with my father’s gruff resignation to do his duty. Now that I think about it, it really is the same thing. Either way, there’s no genuine warmth involved in the contact, just as there was never any warmth in our household. Mom wasn’t big on hugs. Dad wasn’t big on words.
          As the youngest I just followed along. Except when it came to Sonny. He was as much my pet rodent, a dirty thing no one else could love, as much as he was the only one who treated me like an actual living person with thoughts and feelings. Even when he ran roughshod all over them, which he couldn’t help because he was born a mental case, it felt good to me all the same to be acknowledged for my existence on this earth and deemed important – by anyone. To my mind it was equivalent to the parent who hangs your shitty drawings all over the fridge.
          Life in Newark went on pretty much the same forever and always. Nothing much happened and when it did, it was trouble with Sonny at the epicenter. Like when he starts brawls in public. His mouth grows exponentially louder the longer he’s in my company. Even with a PhD in psychology, I can’t figure him out. I can’t figure myself out, either, much less the dynamic between us. Yeah, I’m Sonny’s keeper but what is he to me? The parent who praises and approves? The out of control child who desperately needs the boundaries I set for him?
          I’ve been working on getting Sonny to be a productive member of society. I found programs for people like him, but he keeps getting himself kicked out because of drugs and flipping out on people. I filed his SSI papers for him. It’s what you do with people who aren’t disabled enough to be kept in some facility but who lack the wherewithal to hold down a steady job. I take the piss tests for him. He doesn’t even bother asking me to anymore. Guess that makes me an enabler.
          I go to work every day and face the same bored, belligerent young faces I grew up with and try not to sound like I’m begging them to get the hell out of Dodge for everyone’s sake. I figure if I can get all that young animosity out of this town, it’ll ultimately be a peaceful place to live. Anger dissipates across miles when new ideas and personalities and ways of life are introduced. Well, it’s a theory, anyway.

           Sonny’s gone too far. It’s not the first time he’s brought a woman home to play. It’s not even the first time the promise of party favors was a lie. She was a junkie looking for a warm place and a fix. The junkies’ logic boggles me. They brag about all the good dope they can get for you because they need some themselves. Neither party gets the game until it’s time to use and there’s no product. Sonny smacked her around for what looks like the better part of the day. I feel for a pulse on the pale grey skin of her dirt-ringed neck. Faint, but there. I breathe out.
          “Get her feet.” Sonny is cowering in the corner like a five-year-old who shit his father’s bed.   “Come on, Sonny. Help me carry her down.”
          Reluctantly, he complies. We get her off my parents’ bed, down the stairs, and onto the floor near the front door. I think better of it. “I’m going to pull the car around to the back. We’ll take her out through the kitchen.”
          “Good idea.” He goes off to the kitchen, for what I don’t know. I grab my car keys and ease the front door shut behind me. It’s cold as a witch’s nips out here, and I notice for the first time all winter that no one bothered to shovel the driveway. That’s on me, the responsible one. What’s on Sonny? Don’t burn the house down. I fully expect that one day, though. He’s not great with compliance.
          I take one look at my decade-old Honda, a car that would make my dad punch me for owning, and want to punch myself. I go back in the front door and walk straight through to the kitchen door, where I have to lean into the door to push enough old, frozen snow aside to squeeze through. I pound the hasp on the shed open and repeat the snow shoving until I squeeze through that door. It’s dark and gloomy as the inside of my head, but I find the snow shovel right where I left it when my dad was still alive. The last time I shoveled snow.
          I can’t keep up with it, anyway, so it’s easier to pay the city’s tickets when they bother to come around to give them. It’s not as often as they’d have you believe.
           My feet are wet and freezing. Sonny steers clear because I think he can see inside the dark gloom where my current thought resides. No one would care if I brained him with the shovel right in broad daylight. Good riddance. I know I couldn’t, but Sonny seems to know me better. I shovel the entire length of the driveway on the steam of my anger at myself for perpetuating this shitty situation. I even shovel the sidewalk. By the time I’m done, it’s full dark. I ease the Honda into the parking space behind the house where a normal family would have a patio set and a barbeque grill. We never did. Not even a hibachi. Hot dogs were always boiled, hamburgers fried in a pan, corn came out of a can. All-American suckfest.

Sonny’s filled the kitchen with cigarette smoke by the time I come back in. The girl is still on the floor near the front door. I contemplate it before kneeling down to check her pulse again. Still hanging on. To what? “Get her feet.” He does. I take the shoulders and walk backwards through the living room and into the kitchen. I stop. “Did she have a coat or something? A purse, maybe?”
“I dunno.”
          “Go check.” I ease her front half back down. Sonny lets her feet drop. I follow him back into the living room, turning on lights as I go. We check the whole house for any sign of her. Upstairs, under my bed, I find a fake shearling jacket. In the bathroom, I find a dirty white pleather sack studded with rusty doodads that were probably fashionable decades ago. I think, did she have shoes on? I look around for them. I don’t find anything else besides the jacket and purse. Sonny’s waiting for me at the top of the stairs. We go down together.

          “She was passed out on Van Buren. Near the park.”
          “And you found her there?”
          “Yes. I stopped for the light and noticed her slumped over a garbage can.” I hope my face projects a guidance counselor, a good guy.
          “Do you know this woman?”
          “Never seen her before.”
          “The police may want you to fill out a report.”
          “What for? I just found her, I don’t know her, and I really need to get home. Can I go, please?”
          The intake nurse gives me a dirty look. When she shrugs a few seconds later, I take it as my cue to leave. I stop off for bucket of greasy chicken and reconstituted mashed potatoes on my way home.

          The living room is filled with cigarette smoke. We eat in the kitchen, where it’s dissipated some. We drink cola with our meal. I want something alcoholic but don’t keep anything in the house. Sonny drank all of Dad’s Irish whiskey and whatever odd beer was in the back of the fridge a long time ago. I didn’t bother replacing it. Even an enabler has his limits. I look at Sonny while we eat. He’s as unselfconscious as ever, yet he eats in silence. Something needs to be done about him. My eye catches the metal snow shovel. I don’t recall bringing it inside.

          Maybe Sonny has a plan of his own. It wouldn’t be such a bad deal for me. The final escape. But Sonny lacks balls. I don’t.  I get up to wash the chicken grease off my hands and remember there’s a pair of Ma’s dishwashing gloves under the sink. I bend down, open the cabinet, and spot them right away. I close the cabinet. Now I’m just leaning on the kitchen sink staring at the back of Sonny’s greasy, balding head. No one would miss him.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

An Exercise in Dialogue

One day not so very long ago I was banging my head against the keyboard revising my WIP and felt the urge to rip my nails off with pliers take a break from it. I didn't want to go too far from my desk (or I'd have kept right on running out the door and there's a lot of traffic here), so I opened a new Word doc to do a little free-writing, hoping it would revive my creativity like a cold splash of new words can sometimes do. Sick over my apparent inability to show more and tell less, I challenged myself to tell a whole story using only dialogue. No tags, no exposition. (You say I tell too much? Ha! Now I tell you nothing.) It's not exactly a new concept and I don't know how well it works here but it was way better than strapping the ice pack to my forehead. Again.

A Saturday Afternoon

“Hey stop it! I hate it when you do that.”
“You had a smudge of chocolate on your cheek.”
“Who are you, my mother and did you have to lick your thumb first?”
“Ooh, check out that guy.”
“Ew. Why did you make me look at that?”
“Because it’s not something you see every day.”
“That’s not something I want to see any day.”
“What, are you afraid if you look at the homeless, you‘ll become one?”
“Jeanine, he was masturbating!”
“So you’re afraid if you see…”
“Oh shut up!”
“We should go give him a dollar.”
“You should go give him a dollar. Maybe he’ll propose to you.”
“Ew. Now who’s being gross?”
“Well, you are the last one, Jeanine.”
“Oh and you’re all so happy in your perfect marriages.”
“Oh my goodness, he just keeled over.”
“Someone should go see if he’s alright.”
“I’m not going near him.”
“We should at least call 911.”
“But then we’ll have to stick around and give our names. No, I don’t want to get involved.”
“Yeah, I still have to pick up libations for tonight.”
“Yes. I have a surprise for everyone.”
“But it’s in a restaurant.”
“I think they’ve got the libations covered.”
“I bet they don’t have wine coolers.”
“Who the hell wants wine coolers?”
“It was our signature drink, Adele, part of memory lane.”
“Oh, I don’t think anyone wants to remember that part.”
“You’re such a killjoy.”
“And you’re ridiculous.”
“I think I’ve known you too long.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I can’t remember if you were always this cranky or if you’ve grown into it.”
“Cranky? I’m not cranky. I’ve never been cranky. It’s you. You refuse to grow up.”
“I’ve grown up.”
“You’re still wearing the same denim jacket from high school.”
“Oh, they never go out of style.”
“Maybe so, but I’m sure the giant Pink Floyd patch on the back isn’t exactly screaming high fashion.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“Now don’t pout, Jeanine.”
“I’m not pouting.”
“Oh jeez. I don’t have time for this.”
“For what? Insulting your oldest, dearest friend?”
“Hey, you just called me cranky a minute ago and I’m not pouting about it.”
“Right, because you’re all mature and I’m not.”
“Well, if the denim rock jacket fits…”
“Very funny.”
“Here comes EMS. I guess someone called 911 after all.”
“I thought you didn’t care about the homeless.”
“Of course I care. I donate every year to the food pantry and the soup kitchen and the church down the road that lets them sleep there. I do my part. How about you, Miss Bleeding Heart?”
“I do my part. I talk to them, treat them like people. I give them a few dollars when I can spare it.”
“Oh, so that makes you all holy and I’m a shit.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“It’s in your self-righteous tone.”
“I’m not self-righteous. I’m defensive. There’s a difference, you know.”
“Ugh. Look, can we wrap this up? I’ve got to drop the kids off at my mother’s house and get ready for the reunion.”
“You go ahead. I think I’ll sit here for a while.”
“Jeanine, come on. Why do you want to sit here all by yourself, to make me feel guilty?”
“I’m not trying to make you feel anything. Go. You’ve got things to do.”
“You know damned well I’m not going to leave with you sitting there with your arms folded so tight around you that you look like your head’s going to pop off any minute.”
“Now that’s funny.”
“I’m glad I can still make you laugh. Not bad for a mature old crank, huh?”
“I never called you that.”
“You said as much. But look, that was, like, so five minutes ago. I’m over it already.”
“Are you?”
“Of course, you nitwit.”
“So, what are you wearing tonight? Please don’t say your prom dress.”
“Ha! No, I’m going with the one little black dress I own.”
“That’s sensible.”
“What are you wearing?”
“My usual post-partum outfit.”
“Which is?”
“Anything that fits and isn’t a muumuu.”
“You’ve never owned a muumuu in your life.”
“I may have to borrow one from my mom.”
“Come on, you’re not fat.”
“What did I tell you about lying to your best friend?”
“So you’re my best friend?”
“Who else would put up with you?”
“I feel like I’m your fourth kid.”
“Sometimes you act like it.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. It kind of reminds me that I was young once.”
“You’re not old now.”
“I feel ancient.”
“You’ve been through a lot.”
“At least I’m not homeless.”
“You’ll never be homeless. You’d never be able to masturbate in public.”
“You’re so gross.”
“And you’re so not.”

Monday, July 22, 2013

Flash Fiction: The Earth is Not a Perfect Sphere

I wrote this piece for a flash fiction contest a couple of years ago and hesitated so long, I missed the damned deadline. It's quirky and probably not my best work, but seeing as the Northeast just spent the last week under a dome of extreme heat, I thought it appropriate to dig it out and post it here. 

The earth is not a perfect sphere. It isn’t. I can prove it to you. No, I’m no scientist, though I am embarrassingly over-educated. I could have been a scientist. I thought about going into the social sciences, perhaps sociology or psychology. The woman I am today would choose climatology. I think they’re all related. All the sciences. They’re all relative to people all over the globe, aren’t they?

One thing sparks another, affects a person who in turn affects another. Like an infection. That’s biology - also fascinating to me. I’ve always had a keen interest in science, not terribly common for schoolgirls back when I was one. But on this day, it’s the climate that occupies my mind the most. We’ve broken all records this summer with the never-ending heat wave. Thirty-six days and counting. The news is full of sweaty faces, tired faces, tiny faces no longer excited to be wet down by fire hydrants in the street or at the public pools, which are so terribly crowded that riots have broken out. People are dying in their non-air conditioned homes. People are dying in their cars, on the roads, in subway tunnels. First it was senior citizens, then it was children and immune-compromised individuals of all ages. Now, it seems, anyone can die in this heat. Except me.

Here I am in an embarrassingly large home in a lovely suburb far outside the land of fire hydrant cooling in the streets. I’m sure we have fire hydrants around here. I’ve just never noticed them. On the television, Maria (last name not given) is being asked how she’s coping with the heat. She says, in broken English, of course, that she and her children have been in and out of the hydrant stream all day every day, though she doesn’t use those words. The newscaster talks about rolling blackouts all over the city and in some suburbs north and west of the city. I am both north and west of the city, but only just. If there have been rolling blackouts here in paradise, I’ve not been affected. We have, as I understand it, a backup generator which kicks in automatically.

As I listen to the news, I get the feeling that I want to help someone. I know I can’t help everyone, but I do have this enormous air-conditioned home and plenty of food that is safe to eat. There’s even a pool here, an Olympic sized in-ground pool. Surely that would cool off a lot of sufferers. I can help people with all I’ve got here. I get it into my head that I’m going to drive into the city. Perhaps I’ll even find Maria (last name withheld) in Spanish Harlem where she spoke on camera into a ludicrously large microphone festooned with an equally ludicrous number with slightly smaller letters beneath it. I could do that, I think. My car is large enough to fit several people. I could pick up Maria (last name withheld) and all of her children and, perhaps, some of her neighbors. Just pluck them up right out of the concrete oven where they live, where they are trying to just survive, and bring them out here, where life is good, where they can thrive. I could share so much with so many. It’s all I can think about all day every day.

I try to convey this to the few people around me. I want to tell them we can share all of this space, this cold air, this unspoiled food. I have no family. It is just myself and a few people here. The doctor comes occasionally, but he just looks at me and says the same thing each time. If I have to hear the words “persistent vegetative state” one more time, I think I’ll clock him one but good. If only I could.
Only I have all of this and cannot share. They are so many with so little and cannot access more. So, you see. The world is not a perfect sphere, for that would suggest an equal balancing of weight. Life, earth and all the people on it and in it, we’re not balanced at all.