It happened on a Friday. I had that balled up feeling of a week's worth of school. The school day itself was its usual mundane slide show of undone homework and chalkboard and recess. It was like every other throw-away day that's easily lost once the bell rings and you go rushing for the exits. I remember I wanted badly to go to a concert that Henri was going to and I was fixing to ask Lou Anne if I could go.
When I get home, Nanna is drooled out on the couch. She had her feet up, sipping a martini from a coffee mug, watching Oprah on the 28-inch screen in the living room. When she's drunk she becomes completely self-occupied, so she doesn't pay me no mind unless she's sober. I watch her mumble under her breath, keeping secret consultation with no one. I mention something to her about food, and that I haven't eaten all day and she grunts and gives me five dollars.
So I leave because I hate an empty house and Nanna has a talent for making a house seem emptier than it normally would. I jumped on my bike -- which I remember was losing air in its front tire, making a desperate kind of noise if you ride too long -- and without really thinking, I race on towards the park to sit on the wall. Sitting on the wall was a habit that my buddies and me adopted long ago and abandoned long ago as well. It was the wall in the park that divided it in two, isolating the swings and the seesaw from the small area where the elderly folks come to play chess on stone tables and sit on benches, dropping bread crumbs for the birds.
Anyhow, I am at the park -- the one across the street from the library -- and somehow I've ended up on top of the wall, not remembering anything or anyone that may have come before. The wall itself was simply a large stone slab in the ground that was too short to play handball on, and being about six to eight inches thick. The deal is, you've gotta climb the chain-link fence adjacent to it and then, depending upon your athletic ability and how brave or show-offy you were, you'd either jump onto it or slowly maneuver yourself so you end up sitting on top. Though not as tall as most walls, on top one could see the whole park and even the surrounding streets and sidewalks, the library across the street along with the houses and buildings that cluster around to form the scenery. All of it crawling with humanity. People walking somber and alone. Couples, young and old, holding hands down the street. Cars, and the traffic speeding past or parked along the curb. Old ladies with their grandkids on the green painted park benches dropping bread crumbs or bits of uneaten bagels for the pigeons and the seagulls to feed upon. Pregnant women pushing empty strollers and kids playing jump rope. The "good kids" are on the court taking turns at the home plate while the "bad kids" smoke reefer on the stairs where no one can see. All of it unimportant at that moment, yet occupying their own personal dramas, walking softly on the imperatives of their own day-to-day, with their own Williams and Lou Annes and Nannas, their own walls and hiccups, heart attacks, and mistakes. Remembering to walk the dog or going to work and morning cups of coffee that fit squarely somewhere neatly in the daily oppression of daily living. So then we see them briefly as they pass, thinking of them absently or not at all as they continue briskly on with their own lives.
Where they are going is unimportant. They are the strangers you stand in line behind at the supermarket, who hold the door open for you when your arms are full. They crowd the elevator you stand in, you say 'excuse me' when arriving at your floor and nothing more. This is the extent of the business you have with them, whose true faces are hidden beneath a determined stride or a smile, polite to the point of suspicion. They could never guess what is alive in me, that my life is here or there or that I know this or that. Where I've been is not written on my face, and so I am a stranger. Just as easily, I could never surmise to know what they were about or where they've walked. Anything that is possibly found in the visage of seemingly amiable grins is not any less important than what is found in other faces or your own.
The way it was back then, some kid sitting on some wall, it was somehow good. That I was dumb and didn't know. This innocence allowed me an alternative from the daily woes of the real world. I was dumb. A fifth-grader on a wall and all things were reduced to the importance of chewing gum and slices of pizza for a buck twenty-five, Slurpies from the 7-11 at the corner of Joe's block, picking on the foreign kid just off the boat from Turkey or Bangladesh, sitting on the hood of my Aunt Dee Dee's pick-up with my cousin Astrid, watching the 4th of July fireworks, water fights in the backyard, and the long discussions we shared on how Rich we were gonna be and how all the idiots and teachers who thought we would never amount to anything could be seen somewhere in the near future eating out of trash cans and we would laugh and point before speeding away in our convertibles. Yet never included in our exchange was any mentioning of what profession or lotto number would supply us our wealth in the distance of our shared adulthood. It was only because we believed we deserved it that it would somehow come. It was good because, even if our parents didn't pay us any mind or cook soup for our sick days, we still had hope that things would change.
Back then, there were no genocides or news coverage of war-torn cities that were too far away from our own to care about, and earthquakes and floods that wipe out the homes of whole families, or kids like me and Henri getting beat up or shot or molested, all sorts of talk about the ozone layer being eaten away by careless industrialists and the rain forest being totaled -- acre after acre every minute, while we were playing tag somewhere in the U.S. -- that could distract us from our comic books.
There was a lot of lost time up there. All kinds of random thoughts and ideas slipping in and through my hair with the breeze. At that lofty space, there is no barrier from the wind besides your own goosed skin and there's nothing to do but watch the other kids down below. Many thoughts pass through me that seemed more common for a kindergartner. It was peculiar to think about what it would be like if Lou Anne were to marry Mr. Kaufmann, the art teacher, and how it would be like to have him for a dad. With him at home telling me what to do and seeing all my 'at home habits' and then me getting an eyeful of all his lazy couch slouching, TV watching, PBS pledging, cultural, educational, activist crap that he's into. Not that Lou Anne and Mr. Kaufmann had any chance of getting together or anything.
Then I thought about what if Beth and Big William went and got themselves a divorce. Because back then they were having marital troubles that I wasn't supposed to know about on account that I'm so young and stupid, and from time to time they'd come over to our house to have Lou Anne referee one of their arguments, each of them trying to get her to take sides, proving in some way that they were the one who was right. I remember one time I was sitting at the top of the stairs where they couldn't see me and it was the first time I'd ever seen my uncle break down and cry like that. He had always been so controlled and cool, like nothing in the world could possibly bother him. At that moment I felt more like an intruder witnessing something I wasn't meant to see. Like something inside me had been broken, something valuable and irreplaceable. I don't want to say that it affected the esteem I had for him, but that was exactly what it was. To say that it disturbed me would be unjust. I went to my room and, lying in my bed, I was sleepless till dawn.
I climbed down from the wall with no great conclusion or answer and so, when setting myself solidly to the ground, I felt the heavy weight of disappointment travel through my head. Restless, because I couldn't decide what to do next or perhaps too bored to carry out the tedious endeavors that might place me where I needed to be. First, you must find contentment where you are, was Lou Anne's take on it. Frustrated with the realization -- like a million other times realized since -- that nothing changed. I was growing up and nothing that moved ever went anywhere important. It was constantly stopping for some morose reverie that served no real progress. I was caught in juxtapose, relying on the familiarity of my unchanging existence to always support me. And it promised to do so with on the condition that I would remain insufferably appeased with the current by which my life now traveled. I was not allowed to reach beyond the limits of this arrangement I had with fate. Then on the other side of this contract, between the fine print, there was written in my life a need to break from routine. But I was afraid. This had always been my shortcoming: a fear of the fulfillment I might find in those fundamental excitements they talk about so marvelously in books.
I wanted to tear myself from this town. I wanted to see myself grow up quick so I could feel the heaviness of my own self-sufficiency.
William had done this. My uncle had balls. When he was thirteen or fourteen, as I'm told by Nanna, he set out quietly with a backpack full of books and clean underwear to brave the streets of New York City. When I was being told, I remember imagining him sitting quietly at the kitchen table doing his algebra when the thought to Go exerted itself so loudly in his mind he could think of nothing else. It was like the schools of salmon seeking out that first and final river, whose memory had all its days clouded the pointless pursuits of swimming in an ocean that was silent as the stone. The hope that, out there, in the wilderness, there was something better, is perhaps the last thing worth believing in for some. It only took the courage to go and snatch at the flames before it was too late and they would burn out forever.
My uncle had real heart. He lived out there a whole year, never once phoning or writing home to say he was okay and not dead. It was a kind of self-amputation from your life and those you love that only the very strong or very cruel or very desperate person can arrive at. Who can say what goes on in the hearts of desperate people? He was only a kid. And why he went and why suddenly he came back were never things that were debated over in my presence.
"He just showed up at the front door like he'd been out there all the time and we hadn't looked hard enough to find him -- though all the same he'd been changed," was how Nanna explained it.
Nowadays, there is an urgency that underscores my day-to-day dealings with the world. I want, I want, but to whom do I go to gratify this need, spelled so innately in my blood? It was the hunger written there, for that first and final river. I was only drifting on its current now; I wanted to swim purposefully against its progress. I go unconsciously towards it. I am confident now that I will arrive there someday. But first, patience, William. You will find it soon.
From the wall, I moved next to the swings furthest from where anyone played. I chose the one cleanest of grime and graffiti and sat.
The sky shone silver like chrome in the sun. It seemed only a dream or some graceful lie I was seeing. The grace of it made the lie believable.
On a bench far off in another desolate corner of the park, I saw the ancient face from the unmentionable years they exclude from history books. Sitting there was the grimy bum that me and my friends used to bother. He lived in the park and protected it as any homeowner in our community would. He went around cursing at the kindergartners and pissing in full daylight on the maple tree. They say he's crazy, a schizophrenic or something that a lot of the housewives and the community big shots would like to see dead. He sat quietly lost in his thoughts, remembering perhaps or else plotting. Then I began to wonder what kind of shit he fucked up at to have him end up the way he did or where along the line things changed to grant him his misfortune. Looking over at him, at my safe distance, I didn't feel sorry for him, I hated him. I hated him for the thing he took from me without my consent. Because, sitting on that swing, becoming who I am, and living in this town, I was susceptible to his questioning. I thought for a moment how it might be nice to be him, or to kill him. I thought I might feed him if I was someone else.
And as the sky over the park withdrew to a darker shade, I didn't know yet that by then he had been dead perhaps an hour already. Crossing the street at the corner of Lincoln and Cypress, he pushed my Aunt Beth out of the way of a speeding truck and was thrown twenty feet and cracked his skull with blood on the pavement. Then the clouds gathered in thick clusters and a drizzle sent me home on my bike. And I think about how unexpected it is; the weather report made no mention of rain. While my mother rushes from her work to the hospital. She doesn't believe in God, but all the way there she is praying. And Beth is given a shot because she's so hysterical she can't look in the mirror without seeing him. And Nanna sits plastered in front of the TV, whispering to herself, "They got it wrong, it wasn't him, it wasn't him."
(Reese Thompson lives and works in Spain and New York. His work is forthcoming in Yefief, Third Coast, Paris/Atlantic and No Exit.)