Things he dreamt began to show up in the bushes, the plastic figurine from a parachute firework, the small dull rusted circular saw blade he thought of as a throwing star, and he pocketed those things. His pockets were large: all year he wore one of the three pairs of army cargo pants he had purchased with his own money from the Surplus on Huntoon. Desert camouflage. Understand he had over 400 dollars in mainly twenties. He had a dozen Buck folding knives. He had in the same drawer with cash and knives a Crossman pellet gun he had often claimed to be an actual revolver and once pointed at the younger Gordon boy, which led the older Gordon boy to open a cut above his eye. The coconut smell so strong he experienced it as a taste of the young nurse who stitched that up and the very thin gold braided chain against her collarbone appeared now in his dreams, but that was OK, Doctor S said, the problem is when it goes the other way. It was like that paper topeka high school banner cheerleaders held for the players to burst through when they took the field. More than to actually play that’s what he’d wanted, imagined when he was a water boy in middle school. (See him in pure joy sprinting up the sideline when one of our running backs breaks away.) Now there is a hoop somewhere that held the banner between sleep and waking and things and people pass through.
He’ll be at the McDonald’s on Gage Avenue getting his hot water and he’ll suddenly just know the man ordering in front of him is Dad, particles of windshield in his matted hair. So he walks right out head down and gets back on his Schwinn Predator and pedals full speed to the bushes of Westboro Park where he can breathe and pocket stray items from the dreams. What about the bushes makes you feel safe, Doctor S asks him every time he mentions sheltering there. Understand there is a network of tunnels under the big mass of honeysuckle and he has supplies, a plastic bag of small Snickers and PayDay for energy and some jerky lightly buried under brush in a place he will not reveal. Are there other places like the bushes? What about thinking of this place as kind of like the bushes, Dale?
Well, maybe he could do that if Doctor S didn’t say at the end of every hour, Come on in, Ms Eberheart, and then Dale has to listen to his mother complain. Most recently about how he ruined the perfect job at Dillon’s Grocery that Doctor S had helped arrange for him, calling in a favor. Because Dale was dishonest, unreliable, and let’s not even talk about the GED. What requires Dale to slow his breathing deliberately is how her voice goes very high-pitched, almost a squeal, animal in pain, right before she starts crying, then goes deep again: I don’t know how much / More of this I / can take. His lies. My diabetes. Working nights. That’s when Dale feels like he is about to cry himself or choke her out but instead just looks at the clown painting on Doctor S’s wall hard enough that its colors change a little. Do you like it? That is a poster of a painting by Marc Chagall.
It can’t be like the bushes when that bitch is here. At first Doctor S would say we don’t use words like bitch, faggot, pussy, but since he started seeing the back of his dad’s head there aren’t really rules. Because understand Dale is not a faggot or a pussy no matter what Gordon or Hishky or Carter or Dad said before he hit the median and went through the windshield underground. Dale had more than once confessed to killing him, at which point Doctor S said very slowly, like he was reading it off a billboard at some distance, No, Dale, you are not responsible – in any way – for your father’s death. But Dale had flipped that Honda over and over in his head, pressed rewind, flipped it again. In his mind he’d sat bored and sweating through the service in the front pew of Potwin Presbyterian Church before the Highway Patrol had even called them. Feel the starched collar against his recently shaved neck.
Since he was a boy he’d have hot water in the morning to pretend along with his mom and dad that he was having coffee, here is your morning coffee, Dale, black no sugar, almost time for work. Rare shared laughter. The joke was that he was a man but now he is one, eighteen, and it’s just what he does in the morning, a hot drink. At McDonald’s they give you hot water for free although it can be hard to explain that you don’t want to buy their Lipton tea. More than once he’d had to purchase the bag he would discard. (On Gage Avenue they gave the steaming styrofoam cup to him mostly without trouble, but the one time he’d tried on 21st someone from among the cooks he might have known said tell the retard to fuck off.) When he’d started the job at Dillon’s his dad had not yet come through the tattered banner and Dale would sit in one of the red plastic swivel chairs near the glass façade and watch through his own vague reflection the traffic while he sipped it, stirred it with a plastic spoon, sipped it. And then he would rise with a purposefulness he believed the other men could sense.
If you are going to your job, the scenery organizes itself differently around your bike as you cut through it, elms and silver maples lining up respectfully to let you pass. Stacy, the friend of Doctor S, had showed him where he could lean his Predator just within the side entrance and where he could take a green apron from a hook. Tie it in the back like this. Then just ask me and I’ll tell you which of the checkout lines you should help with first. Here come the heads of broccoli the box of frozen waffles the Wonder Bread the two-liter Dr Pepper slowly over the black rubber conveyor to be rung up at which point he is to put them in doubled tall paper bags and if asked to carry them or push them in the cart to the trunks of cars, beds of trucks. Often he was transporting the food of people he knew, had known, and they would speak to him, and it was fine. Eggs and milk get their own plastic bag, don’t ask me why. The satisfaction of jamming the empty shopping cart into another shopping cart in the corral. Four twenty-five an hour times thirty was more money than he could imagine once you timesed thirty by however many weeks there would be in the years he planned to work. One thing for sure: he would buy Ron Waldron’s silver Fiero and even let his mom use it if she followed certain rules.
But then halfway through the first month a large can of something doesn’t ring up and Mike the faggot he is bagging for tells him to check the price which means first finding the aisle and then the shelf and then whatever number on whatever label corresponds to the can in question before carrying all that in his head and hands back to Mike who will have long since finished ringing up the other groceries, the customer pissed for sure. Stacy never said that pricing was his job. By the time he locates the aisle in question he already sees himself back unable to account for how the label with the price was equidistant between two similar but distinct sets of cans, or how those distinctions blurred as he looked hard, the color of the labels transitioning until he could not define a border between what costs this, what costs that. He would match the words if letters and numbers didn’t go ants running across pavement twigs floating away on water as he stood there and if the other shoppers hadn’t started to laugh at him until he turned to catch them. Only standing in a cold sweat before the shelves does he become aware of the muzak that’s been circulating through the Dillon’s all of 1995.
And then he’s being told by Mrs Greiner to read aloud from How the Grinch Stole Christmas! in fourth grade, to sound it out, we can wait all day, the laughter, while Coach Skakel grabs him by the facemask during tryouts in seventh and throws him to the ground for being dumb as shit, ears ringing, cut-grass smell. He’s also sitting in an office as Doctor Allen says to his father think nine- or ten-year-old in teenage body while being tripped up by Carter in a story about fingering Becky Reynolds some years later, do you even know what fingering means, same laughter around the fire, sparks crackling off the Osage orange. All these innumerable moments are present whenever one is, little mimic spasms around the corner of his mouth reflect that.
You have to get away from wherever those moments pool in space so he walks head down to the storeroom, hangs the apron up, and bikes the four blocks to the Surplus where he can sit far in the back latching and unlatching a .50 caliber ammo can until Cut it out Stan finally says from behind the counter without looking up. Stan, even if he is fat and wheezy, and despite the missing thumb, could cup and clap his hands over your ears like all Marines in a way that kills you or shove your nose into your brain with his palm. These and other combat skills Dale sometimes believed he had absorbed, hoped he wouldn’t have to use. Likewise Dale felt that he had had a little of whatever experience Stan recounted, the way a teacher once told Dale that to smell a thing means to get some particle of it in you. So if Stan said there were whores everywhere you barely had to pay them you’d just spit on your cock for lube Dale would not exactly feel that he was lying when he told a group of middle-schoolers playing basketball on the Randolph court that he had fucked one, spat on, etc. He didn’t have to pay her though he could, I have over 400 dollars. If you say a thing that when it comes out holds together, that makes it true enough, so he didn’t feel that he was lying, even though he often later felt he had. His whole life his mom would demand he admit that he was lying before it was possible for anyone to know.
Yes and no the Surplus was like the bushes. Yes because no way a Gordon or a Hishky or a Carter could reach him here where Stan, who had known Dale’s dad, was boss. You are free to hang around if you are quiet. Yes because this was like the bushes a dark place where Dale had tactical knowledge, even knew where locked behind the counter the antique but loaded Luger was. No because particles of Stan’s anger would get in him. They all say they want nice guy sensitive types then bang the whole team is that not right Dale. I’m no racist Dale but do they not chase after them and beg for it. His name was always mixed up in these sentences when Stan was in a talking mood. The summer before freshman year they had dared him to kiss Holly Ziegler, swore she wanted to be kissed by him, was just too shy to ask, and the way she screamed and reddened and held her hands shaking out in front of her was like when a bee landed on his mom who was allergic. The laughter. He was guilty even before his open hand connected with her face and while they were showering him with blows, dirt in the mouth, he wanted to say I’m sorry, Holly, whom he’d known since kindergarten, she only lived three blocks away. They have no idea how hard it is to taste your own blood, cut-grass smell, and not go home and get your knives or gun or flip their cars over in your mind. And when Stan’s anger got in him Holly just was a whore who held the hoop the others jumped through. It could be days in his mind before she wasn’t.
Doctor S was not angry about the job, he had no particles of anger in him period. More than once Dale wondered if this made Doctor S a pussy. It was no trouble on my end, it’s something we can try again down the line if that feels right. What concerned Doctor S was how Dale might be having at least some mild hallucinations, which isn’t the same thing as telling stories. Dale, Doctor S said, Dale, until Dale looked from the painting to Doctor S’s eyes, what I mean is that it kind of sounds like you’re seeing things that aren’t there, like your dad. Dad didn’t see things that weren’t there, Dale thought, gaze back on the clown in its silver frame. Although in what Dale would come to understand as drunkenness, his dad would curse people who were not present, put his fist through the basement’s Sheetrock wall. Or maybe you’re just telling me you think about your dad, that it feels like he’s right there, but that you know he isn’t, really. If you think you are seeing or for that matter hearing things that just can’t be, Dale, maybe it would help to repeat to yourself, or even to say out loud, this isn’t real. This isn’t real. You’d be surprised how much that’s helped some other people that I know.
May break my bones but words. Bounces off me sticks to you. Early in the exclusions they would equip him with weak spells to cast back against the insults. The need for the sayings disproved them and as he grew they would if anything just feed the laughter. Nice comeback, Dale. If he still sometimes said those things or other private phrases to himself, it was only to slow or interrupt the machinery of his will before it was too late and he’d set some trap for an enemy on a highway or country road. It’s like there is a video game inside his head except what happens there will happen here. Recently it’s been based on Spy Hunter, which is among Dale’s favorites at Aladdin’s Arcade in White Lakes Mall. Same electronic music. From above he sees a strip of asphalt running vertically through a simplified landscape. The image is so vague it would be difficult for Dale to say if he’s picturing graphics or real terrain. But he can make out the silver Fiero that is his avatar speeding down below and he knows that if he presses a button in his mind the car will release an oil slick or smoke screen in its wake. And while it is impossible to say when Hishky or Carter or Gordon will encounter these vague but fatal hazards, understand they will, they’ll go through their windshields. Once, after they’d been talking about his dad, Doctor S asked Dale if he knew how he had acquired such powers. Dale said no.
But he did know. It was at Bright Circle Montessori on Oakley Avenue when he was four, when he was still the same age as his body. It was warm for late September and the sky was cloudless as his mom dropped him off. OK, sweetheart. Dale no longer clung or cried at this point he would just walk to Mrs Coleman and hug her hello and then quietly build and knock over towers of wooden blocks and wait for Ben and Jason to arrive. Then he would follow them around and they would let him. That day they were in the sandbox in the backyard during free time and Ben said that he had a plant with special powers that he had picked from along the chain-link fence. Like poison ivy or poison oak or the way spinach makes Popeye strong this was a plant Ben rubbed between his hands until it released some kind of force. You don’t have to eat it. Ben rubbed the green weeds he had picked then gave them to Jason who then gave them to Dale who got them to stain his hands a little and then buried them as Ben instructed in the sand. Then Ben said you make a wish for something to happen and it does. Dale doesn’t remember what Ben or Jason wished for, or if they told him, but Dale was obsessed with tornadoes and he said he’d use his power to make one happen and then they played some other game.
The chests of fifteen toddlers rising and falling on cots in the main beige-carpeted room as poorly simulated wave noise issues from a portable stereo plugged into the corner. Mrs Coleman and her assistant Pam are preparing snack in the adjacent kitchen, small paper cups of grapes halved to minimize the risk of choking. Dale wakes to his awareness of rain falling on the school’s aluminum roof. Quietly he rises and carries his stuffed rabbit to the window and parts the curtain to see unusually dark clouds he thinks are lowering. The wind throws acorns from the red oak in the school’s front yard against the window and he startles. Only gradually does he realize he is looking at his work. His hands are clean now, Mrs Coleman made him scrub them before lunch, but they feel at once oversensitive and numb, like the time he touched the stove. The smell of the magic plant is still detectable beneath the artificial lemon of the soap. He hurries back to his cot and pulls the Peanuts sheets up over his head and tries to call the storm he’s summoned off. To his rabbit whose name is lost he says again and again that he is sorry. And then we hear the sirens starting up.
Dale would help his neighbor Ron Waldron move things from his garage to his truck or back, mainly tools and lumber. Dale can you help me with this filled him with pride. Cody Waldron was Dale’s age and while they had played together in the distant past, Cody, a quiet athlete, now looked right through him. Cody would not defend him from Carter or Hishky or Gordon types but he would do him no harm, never joined the laughter. Whatever Cody’s inclination he would not defy his father who had wordlessly made it clear you do not fuck with Dale. Sometimes Cody and Dale loaded or unloaded the truck together and Dale felt a brief commonality of purpose with a peer, lift on three. If Ron and Cody were shooting baskets in the driveway Dale could park and comment or maybe dismount and rebound for them. Take a shot, Dale.
On weekend evenings Dale had biked past Ron’s and seen in the yellow light of the garage Cody and his friends and girls drinking. Sometimes Ron would be there smoking a cigar, would wave to him, but never call him over. If it were summer and Dale stood in his own yard he could hear through the insect noise the radio and the laughter.
Until one Friday in November, after unloading heavy equipment until dusk, Ron said over Cody’s mute objection stay and have a beer. In the garage Dale saw there was a silver keg in a rubber trash can filled with ice and he watched as Ron locked on the pump and tapped it. It’s Cody’s birthday and I’d just as soon they do their drinking here. He gave Dale a red plastic cup primarily of foam, then served himself and Cody. Ron indicated a stack of folding chairs and Dale unfolded one and sat beside the keg while Ron put away some tools on pegboard hooks and Cody took his cup inside, I’m showering.
To move only to drink or wipe the foam off on his sleeve and to pull down his KC Royals cap as far as possible over his eyes seemed to Dale his best strategy for sustaining this improbable inclusion. When Ron refilled his cup he refilled Dale’s, but even without the alcohol Dale’s anxious joy would have released into his bloodstream chemicals sufficient to prevent him from feeling through his sweatshirt the cool autumnal air. As if to mark the occasion Dale saw the streetlight on 6th and Greenwood flicker on and then around it first snow fluttered moth-like more than fell. Hear the car doors slamming shut and the voices of Carter Hishky Gordon types approaching. Ron was there so Dale did not move. No speech but surprised, unreadable smiles were addressed to Dale as the types greeted Mr Waldron, one of the cooler dads, shook Cody’s hand, the latter back now in baggy jeans and licensed sports apparel. Ron must have handed Dale the stack of red plastic cups because he found himself offering them to whoever approached the keg. A job, this one without prices. You working the keg, Dale, someone said, only mainly mocking him.
When did the girls appear, Holly Ziegler among them, and how did he know she wore black jeans, a red V-neck sweater, hair pulled up tight since he absolutely would not look at her? But she said, Hi, Dale, matter-of-factly smiling lips freshly glossed and when he held the cups out to her she took one out, thank you. He knew either from his two years at THS or his previous schools the names of almost everyone in the garage although he’d rarely had occasion to speak them. Let me fill that for you, Alec Owen said, and did. Cheers, dude, let’s get fucked up. The metal of the light beer on Dale’s tongue.
Stan had given him a fund of anger about rap music and all those wiggers who love it now but Dale felt that what came out of the stereo had like the shopping carts or the ammo latch or one of his rare sentences that managed to hold sense over time a rightness of fit which made him feel identical to his body, now his body with the night. Dale had not moved from his chair but the brim of the hat was raised a little and he saw that some of the girls while not dancing in the cold garage were nodding or bouncing a little to the beat, the rhythmic chanting, as they milled around. The intensity of the desire this inspired in him was closer to its fulfillment than anything he had previously known. Dale in that garage, in his chair, last century, his happiness. All eyes on me, the music said.
Then Hishky was offering him cigarettes, hey man what’s going on. Gordon too was there, no hard feelings about what went down last summer. Nod from Davis. Dale knew to be on guard, but when the girl named Laura said let me see your hair, removed his hat, and ran her fingers tipped with ruby through or at least across the black matted mass not recently washed or cut he was too overwhelmed by pure sensation to care about the laughter here and there. This isn’t real. Others began soliciting speech from him, where did you buy those awesome boots, is that a hickey or a bruise, do you still practice martial arts. You should hang out with us more, Dale. Yeah, we’re tired of the same assholes in this senior class. He just laughed whenever others laughed, kept drinking from the cup they kept refilling.
From alcohol and sheer improbability a widening delay obtained between experience and its conscience registration, Dale realizing the party had broken up only as they were coaxing him into the back of a Jeep Cherokee he had often almost flipped, Hishky driving, Laura riding shotgun, see the cherry of her Marlboro Light, Davis beside him in the back, proffering a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 Coco Loco wine, the bass of what Hishky called his system rattling Dale’s chest, all eyes on me. It’s as if by the time the cold air thundering through the sunroof Hiskhy left down to let out smoke makes Dale aware they’re on I-70 they have already arrived at Lake Clinton some twenty miles away, mainly upperclassman drinking around a bonfire, sparks flying off the crackling Osage orange, a few couples making out on blankets, same artist issuing from another system. Only when he rolls onto his back after puking painlessly in the grass somewhere beyond the circle of the firelight does he really hear them chanting Dale, Dale, Dale. And now he shuts his eyes he sees the stars.
Photograph courtesy of the author
Photograph © Francisco Barberis