Once as a child I trapped a lightning bug in a jar and sat it upon my dresser. The trapping occurred around dusk and I brought the jar to my room and laid on my bed in wonderment. I feel ashamed now, that I did such a thing. I know it was done due to childhood innocence, but I still think it stupid.
Saying this now in the recesses of my mind is far worse than explaining it to the counselor here. In the mind it is much louder and far more brutal. This much I know because when I am busy berating myself about all the things done wrong someone comes by and I am so pleasant to him or her. An explosion in my mind and a flower blooming from my mouth.
There is only so much room in which to walk around and I fear that wear will become of the flooring I travel throughout the day. I putter and mutter and slide within the daylight hours feeling like a bird in a cage. Why do they clip the wings of a bird and then put that bird into a cage? How redundant. It is as though they are making a hard-earned point to the bird so that it knows exactly whom the master is. And they think it cute when the bird chews at the bars of the cage. They do not see the cunning of the trapped animal. They do not know the trapped bird is planning something entirely elusive.
My lips are raw from nervous agitation. I constantly chew at the torn edge inside my lip hoping to clear away the rough debris but I continually chew. It never seems to get smooth. There’s always a rough edge that cannot be smoothed over.
The medicine has become my other half. The ghosts float in and make sure I swallow and then I do nothing but dream. I float, but really just lying stiff like cardboard in a dumpster. I am awake but asleep and it is itself a nightmare. They bring short cups of water with tall straws that bend part of the way down the neck. I can drink lying down with these fancy straws but dribble water down my chin. It is another nightmare I cannot escape – the small drops of liquid travel slowly around the curve of my chin and I can feel every slight movement trickling its way down. When I haven’t shaved the drops move between the hairs and in my dreams I see the path the drops take – right then left then they stop to tease me. The drop of liquid stops behind a tiny facial hair as though it were playing hide and seek. Sometimes it dries there and sometimes it travels again towards the base of my neck. It is part of my routine; it is part of the basement I cannot get the light to shine in on.
They keep doling out the wrong medicine. All I really need is a glass of lemonade and better eyesight on the beach. And a plan.
Sometimes I turn my head sharply to one side to see if I can feel my brain move against the inner bone of my cranium. I do this until my eyesight is blinkingly critical. It does assist me to sleep but I am always curious whether there is something in my head at all. I can never feel my brain slosh around like one of those artificial sponges that looks like a brain the kids put in a pickle jar. Everyone has seen these at Halloween; the sponge absorbs water and grows in size until you have this creepy sponge brain floating in a jar or a bowl.
Perhaps the sponge in my head has absorbed too much water and that is why I cannot feel it slam against the interior of my parietal lobes. I sometimes sit cross-legged and lean forward and then backwards, viciously, to try and force my brain to hit the inside of my temporal lobe and then back to my occipital lobe. I never get results. I never get proof. I worry that my brain is swelling and that it will seep out of my ears or that it is growing because it is consuming my spinal cord and that, yes, it is draining of all my cerebral-spinal fluid.
That is why I drink lots of water. I am in a race against my brain. This is a challenge I must win. I will not succumb to a brain that seeks to dry me out, make me arid as the Arabian Desert. Notice that I did not mention, say, the Gobi Desert. If I did I would surely have been false. In Mongolia’s Gobi Desert well diggers hit water nine out of ten times and often within a few feet. One could draw such a conclusion that the whole desert is afloat.
I drink so much water that my urine barely looks yellow, except for first thing in the morning. Although I cannot drink while I am sleeping I do dream of it. I dream of the Pacific Ocean and that I am floating there with a colorful box of straws. The Pacific is the largest object on the planet Earth and I am floating there, drinking all the water possible so my brain doesn’t defeat me.
People that are close to you are supposed to be friendly. But most people prey on others. You are either predator or prey. You are either dead or alive. Someone close to me a long time ago said that the apple in my head must have grown rotten. I think back now and wonder how did they know, what signs did they see that I most certainly have missed. Well, they had to have been wrong and I was most certainly in the right.
I am not being allowed to drink water, at least not as much. I am fearful and no one here listens to me. I know that they most certainly do not. How could they even possibly hear me above the blaring white light of these walls? It is so incandescently bright white that I can hear the walls hum. Walls humming like Gregorian chants, chanting for the clouds to bring them oxygen. Of course, oxygen. Oxygen partly has water as its makeup.
It is so loud in here and no one else can hear it. Why? What is wrong with you people? Why can I see and hear and everyone else is so… preoccupied?
So let us move on. Out I went into the crisp cold air. Into to the night. From one freezer into another. The attendants will never know for sometime. They assume I am sleeping away the night without my water supply.
No more water they say.
I say, okay, no more water. But they don’t understand that is the lifeblood. I need my water. I need I need I need. They can’t hear above the hum of fluorescent light and the glow on the walls. They don’t know about the screaming that is never truly dealt with.
My speckled pajamas made of cotton traded for a gas station attendant’s uniform. I still have my pajamas. I could never part with such comfort and they warm me under the attendant’s uniform. I would not want my skin to make contact where his scales once worked.
The nametag says Hector. I left him sleeping, slumped against the cabinets below the register. He didn’t look right with that mustache, appearing so bedeviled to me. As he slowly went to sleep I asked, I begged him to tell me what the fluorescence was talking about. What was it muttering, I asked.
I could hear the drumming and the humming but I could not make it out. I threw a phone book at the fluorescent strips hanging above us two and they flickered and swung a little. Adjustments in color, light and dark, moved around us, dancing. The attendant lay there ignoring me. I asked again about the gibberish I was hearing. Nothing. Just the sound of cicadas in the distance.
The scenery here seemed too familiar. My own eyes flickered at the image before me. I kept hearing my name.
Layne? Layne? What have you done? Layne!
It was one of those instances when life affords you a grace of complete clarity. It was a random aunt of our family who came to us one particular holiday or another. I can't recall which one. My hands were stuck to my legs. I remember, I remember the hair had only begun to grow on my skinny legs recently.
I was young and he was older. My father. He was older and far more gruesome than I. He always stood, towered, over me like Mount Rushmore over the pebbles under its patriotic gaze. My neck would crane to try and stare at him but the pain afterwards persisted for what seemed like an eternity. Now I had not to strain upwards to eye him but only bury my chin in flesh of my chest to stare down at him.
I had always dreaded the old man coming home from work in the afternoon. A long dirt road led up to our house and I would watch him from my upstairs bedroom window. I could lie on the bed flat and I was sure no one could see me from any distance if I lay perfectly flat and still. The sun was setting behind him and everything appeared as shadow, dark and ominous.
Everyday I would wait and watch for him walk up that old dirt road. The orange sherbet skyline setting beneath the trees made my part of the world seem on fire, set ablaze and angry. Shadows fell from the trees long and stretched on the field toward the house, sleeking ever slowly like predatory snakes as the sun changed position in the afternoon.
My father walked without purpose, other than to come for me in the afternoon. His walking posture was always tilted forward, bent like an old highway road sign. The shoulders pouted and the arms reaching deep into pants pockets resembled lanky tombstones at the center of an ancient cemetery. I would stare so long that I began to see things. I believed I could see two hulking black birds on his shoulders, believing both to be offering ideas on what to do with me.
The temptation to set the house on fire was never closer during those afternoons when the sun melted into the dark evening sky. I planned to be out back watching our house burn once he slid a key in the front door. Somehow I was always too paralyzed in which to act on that impulse. And then one day, I was not. The gift of clarity came over me to seek out my freedom.
My aunt shook me but it was no use, for my hands were sticking to me. I had stood there frozen for too long. My only movement before becoming frozen was the attempts to put the skull fragment back I had removed from his head. There was a small trail from my father’s head to against the kitchen cabinet, maybe 22 inches or so, where the piece of skullcap traveled. It was almost graceful the way it careened away from father’s body, away from his head. He had fallen there from some collapse and I stood above him with his work tool. The sink was acting up again and he just slumped over while working. I came in and thought it time to retract the past from him he had whisked away so easily from me. The blow was quick and childlike, even though I was barely a child anymore and barely a man. One swipe and there it traveled across the floor like a hubcap escapes from an over sized car during a swift left turn. I tried returning it, but to no avail, I was incomplete and so was my father.
I would be pressed to remember when, but I suppose that was the time I received my speckled pajamas. They were yellow, light yellow, with green speckles. They were the most comforting things that I can remember. And, of course, glasses of water all day long.
But they tossed me in that refrigerator and asked me question after question after question. You’d have to see it to believe it, or rather, hear it. They proposed to me all these riddles and never seemed to realize the truth. The truth was about being fed up. I was full of it all and wanted to be exempt.
I had relatives come and look at me like I was a can of vegetables on the shelf in a grocery store. To make the visits tolerable I trained myself to just stare into their faces without one facial tick or expression. I was that good. They would leave frustrated, muttering words like…animal… not a surprise, and, my favorite, deranged.
Well, I thought on that one for a while and I came to the conclusion that I was not deranged. I was suddenly enlightened with clarity. I was enlightened by the knowledge I had that they were deranged. And that they were blind. So many visits, so many occasions, these people came to our home and they were blind to what was so apparent to any open eye.
I was ashamed for being submissive for so long and I realized I was guilty of the same thing again by staying here. I heard that in my head long after the humming became offensive. What right did anyone have keeping me there like a frozen piece of meat never thawed and eaten?
I wanted to get some time on the playground with the other kids. I know why the dog screams and rages at his own flesh day into night. I know why a brain boils in its own juices in the afternoon watching others walk free, always longing for decent food and a woman in a business suit and glasses. I am alive and want to breathe the air and dirty my lungs with the filth the world has polluted itself with. Passivity and gentleness are timid soldiers for the weakest of causes. I am that Sherman tank busting up cars on a Los Angeles freeway at three o’clock in the afternoon on your local television news station that you will not stop glaring at. Pride is a ruthless teacher and you’ll be curious about me. I can lease myself to the outside world for pennies a day because I am free now. I got freedom pumping through my veins at this late hour and I will be doing the same tomorrow afternoon.
I walk along the freeway with my speckled pajamas, incognito, and I am a loose peanut rolling along the floor looking for the easiest path. I am already gone, this much is certain. When Valentine’s Day arrives I will be ready. I will be normal by then. I will be somewhere and I will be a samurai. I will be something again.
Up ahead is a truck stop. Perhaps I can hitch a ride with someone warm.
Hello, I am Hector.
I am Hector America. I was born long ago and yesterday. I am, today, my gift to myself. I think to head west where it remains warm and the sun is the most prominent of neighbors.
I meet Lenny, portly and bearded; he offers me a ride to California. He tells me that it don’t get any hotter than Los Angeles except for close to the equator. He makes himself laugh and I am surprised at his likeability. I like Lenny. I imagine to myself only for a moment what his life must be like and what his friends must be like. He has to make a stop in Colby first to drop off some supplies for a fast food restaurant. His eighteen-wheeler is a frozen foods hauler. For once, the freezer will be behind me. Near, but not my cage.
Why Los Angeles, he asks me.
I tell him I want to live the exact opposite of what I am living now.
The opposite, he asks. I tell him that I want disappear into the wilds of nature that is the world. I ask him to name a better place than Los Angeles.
Lenny tells me that I should disappear just fine in Los Angeles. Leaving the country altogether would work too but I decline, so much here to see in America. If you cut me, I bleed red, white and blue. So California it is. I leave it at that.
California it is, Lenny says.
Published in The Albion Review 2005