People come to me and they say, Pearl? When are you going to give up your dream of marching in a drum and bugle corps? And I say to them Never! Never will I give up my dream!
Unless it’s Friday and my iPod is predicting the future. Then, I tuck the dream aside and listen intently as the muses trapped in my iPod show me the way…
Right Place Wrong Time by Dr. John
Senor Blues by Taj Mahal
Watch the Tapes by LCD Soundsystem
Golden Age by TV on the Radio
Hole in the Sky by Black Sabbath
Big Bottom* by Hayseed Dixie
Ain’t No Friend of Mine by Mason Jennings
And there we have it. Say what you will, but the iPod’s shuffle is never wrong.
But what’s it all mean, you say. And I say, sorry, I’ve gone back to my dream of playing a screaming trumpet in a drum and bugle corps…
So! Last week was the first in a series of Scary Stories that will be posted the remaining Fridays in October.
The first one was entitled “Unexpected Passenger: The Second Time I Almost Died”.
The second one, posted here, is called “Unexpected Guest”. Not a story of the supernatural, but scary nonetheless.
Hmm. What’s with me and the “unexpected”? A ponderment best left for another time, perhaps.
In the same way that trailers are not known for their excellent plumbing or their ability to stay earthbound in a stiff wind, they are also not known for being soundproof; and I was awakened one night by a shift in the usual nocturnal noises. I was a light sleeper, the result of sharing a bed with my sister, who wet it until she was six. There are few things as distressing as waking in a puddle of someone else’s urine.
I looked at the clock next to the bed: 12:20. Dad was at a gig. Mom should either be in the living room, watching TV, vodka gimlet on the coffee-table, or in the back bedroom, listening to talk radio, vodka gimlet on the nightstand. I could hear neither the TV nor the radio.
I pushed Karen’s leg off me and she snorted in her sleep. “If I tole you once,” she droned, “I tole you a t’ousan…” Her muttering collapsed into a snore.
I got out of bed and opened the door. My mother was dead-set against children creeping around the house at night. We were allowed up only if we had to “p, p, or p” -- pee, poop, or puke. Anything else could wait until the morning. Mother enforced this rule by making waffles, sloppily, the first available weekend and requiring that the offender do the dishes. In our house, this was a good deterrent.
I had just entered my parents’ half-closed bedroom door at the far end of the trailer when I heard the sound of a man’s voice behind me. It was not my father’s.
I turned toward it, then back to my parents’ room. I pushed open the door. The radio on the nightstand was on, the ice in the vodka gimlet was melting, iridescently, but where was my mother? I heard the voice again, coming from the living room.
I was suddenly aware of my blood moving through my veins, pudding-thick. I didn’t know this man’s voice. I didn’t like its tone.
I got on my hands and knees and crept down the hall toward the voice. All of the rooms were on my left: the bathroom, mine and Karen’s room, our brother Kevin’s, and then the living room.
I pause, less than a foot from the living room. The drapes are closed. The only light in the room filters in from the streetlights through the sheers behind the couch.
My mother is standing just inside the living room. I can almost touch her, but I don’t. She is staring in the direction of the couch.
The outline of a man’s head is framed against the window. It is dark enough in the room that he is all outline, no details. He is sitting on our couch, smoking a cigarette.
“Come sit by me.”
“No, thank you,” my mother says. There is a tremble in her voice I have never heard before.
“I said, come ‘ere!” the man says, louder. His voice is slurred. I raise my hand to my mouth, afraid I will cry out. I don’t want him to know I am here.
“And I said, no, thank you,” my mother says. She does sit, though, in the chair just to the left of the entry into the living room. I can no longer see her. On my hands and knees, I move in as far as I dare. I can make out her profile. Fear leaches the iron from my blood, and I am wide-eyed and boneless.
“I was in ‘Nam,” he says.
“I see,” my mother says.
The man on the couch leans forward. “I died,” he said. “I DIED. They putta metal plate in my head, man, an’ I don’t know why --” he trails off. There is silence as he lifts a bottle out of the shadow of his lap and takes a long drink. I feel nauseous. The only phone is in the kitchen, and it’s on the other side of the living room. The back door cannot be opened without making noise. The windows are louvered six-inch slats.
The man on the couch suddenly shouts. “I DIED!”
“I’m sorry,” my mother says, quietly.
“She’s sorry,” he slurs, head slumping forward. “I died f’yer sins,” he mutters. He raises the bottle to his lips, tips his head, then the bottle. Framed by the streetlight through the window behind him, he looks as if he’s been cut out of black construction paper.
The absence of sound presses on my eardrums. I fight the urge to swallow, afraid he will hear it.
Finally my mother speaks. “Thank you,” she says.
The man on the couch takes another long drink, belches loudly and drinks again. I finally dare to swallow, imagining that the sound of his own swallowing will drown mine out. The man on the couch tucks his bottle between his legs. He raises his arms.
“We c’n do innythin we wan’ ‘ere,” he slurs. “This MY worl’. I died, goddamit. I died, an’ now –“ He spreads his arms grandly, and his head flops backward. “I am the TIME WIZARD.”
“Oh,” my mother says. Her voice is very soft.
I watch his arms move, their silhouettes against the windows, in what I imagine to be karate moves. Suddenly he stops, his arms raised above his head. He takes a deep breath. Time stops as the world waits for what will come next.
“I’m the TIME WIZARD!” he shouts. “This MY worl’, an’ wha’ we do ‘ere, stays ‘ere, unnerstan’? Y’unnerstan’? We c’n do wevver we wan’. We ca’go f’ard. We ca’ go bakkard.” His hands weave a scrolling tapestry of drunkenness and delusion in the air. He reminds me of footage of Charles Manson.
“Forward and backward?” my mother says. “In time?”
“Wevver. In time, yeah,” he says.
“And what do you have in mind?” my mother says. Her voice sounds calm and patient – and familiar. I’ve heard this tone before. In the deep black of the trailer, my fear steps back. My mother has a plan.
“Innythin’. We ca’…” he trails off, confused.
His head drops forward again, and I watch the lit end of his cigarette as he grinds his fist into his temple.
His head snaps up abruptly. “I diddit fer YOU, man! I died fer YOU. I served my COUNTRY, goddammit!” He is breathing heavily, and my hands begin to shake. I shove them under my knees, sitting on them. I think of my father on the stage of the Crow Bar on the other side of town. I imagine he is half-way through their version of “Born to be Wild”, a leather aviator’s hat on his head, smiling.
The man on the couch raises his bottle and drinks. The hand with the bottle drops into his lap. The hand with the cigarette appears. His pupils and the end of his nose glow as he inhales. “I diddit fer you.”
In the darkness, my mother speaks. “Of course you did.” Her voice is friendly, almost conspiratorial. “You served your country. You’re goddam right. You’re a hero. And believe me, I appreciate everything you’ve done“ – she stops – “ I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name.”
The man is staring drunkenly in the direction of my mother. “Uh. Mark,” he says. Her request for his name has caught him off-guard. He lifts the bottle to his lips and drinks.
“Mark,” she continues. Her voice is warm and firm, slow and kind, as if speaking to a child. “I appreciate the sacrifices you made. You’ve suffered. I hear it in your voice. You think I don’t know that? Do you think I don’t know that, Mark? You’re a hero, Mark. A hero. But do you get any credit? No. They got ya comin’ and goin’, don’t they, Mark? Comin’ and goin’.”
Mark has been completely still since my mother started talking. He now bobs his head slowly, and I find myself nodding, too. “Comin’ an’ goin’,” he repeats.
“That’s right, Mark. But we know, don’t we? You’re goddam right we do. You soldiers don’t get the respect you deserve.” She pauses. “I’ve learned a lot tonight. But, Mark, I have to tell you: you know, I work in the morning. You didn’t call first…”
Mark nods heavily at this. It’s true. He didn’t call. His silhouette loses its edges as he slumps drunkenly forward.
My mother raises her right arm into the air. “Here’s to calling first next time, huh, Mark?” Mark’s head snaps up. “Come on, Mark!” she says. “Raise yer drink! To the good ol’ USA! I’ll drink to that!”
My mother brings an imaginary drink to her lips and knocks it back. Mark raises his bottle. “Ahl drinka tha’!”, he bawls. He puts the bottle to his lips and drinks deeply.
“Chin up, Mark! Rally the troops!”
“Ahl drinka tha’!” He drinks again. He belches loudly.
“’scuse me,” he says.
My mother stands. “I’m glad we met. You know, we almost didn’t meet, do you know that?” She rises from her chair and walks to the front door. She opens it and looks to the form on the couch.
“I appreciate everything you’ve done. I really do. You’re all right in my book, Mark. Yes, you are. Now you make sure that you drink plenty of water before you go to bed tonight, you’ll do that for me, won’t you?”
I am in awe of my mother.
Mark stands drunkenly, nodding, patting the couch absentmindedly for fallen keys or coins, makes sure he’s leaving with everything he came in with. He stumbles against the coffee table, and she catches him as he crashes into the railing around the dining room. She pushes him toward the door as if they are jostling in line for seconds. She pushes him out the front door and on to the front steps.
In the hall doorway, I stand, rubbing the shag-carpet indentations on my knees. I feel ridiculously relieved. Mark is gone.
“You have a restful night now,” my mother says, shutting the door. “Don’t be a stranger,” she calls.
“Hey,” he yells. My mother opens the door a crack.
“Hey,” he slurs. “Hey, hey. Ah jus’ wanna –“
“You’re welcome,” my mother says. She shuts the door and locks it.
She turns, with an enormous sigh. Seeing me in the hallway, she cocks her head quizzically; and I say what all us kids say when we are caught out of bed after lights out:
“I had to poop.”
*Big Bottom? That’s right, the bluegrass group Hayseed Dixie is covering Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom”. Makes ya tingly all over, dudden it. (This is on YouTube…)
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