Chris began to question the wisdom of this trip as he blinked the cobwebs away from his eyes. The swaying of the bus had lulled him into a restless sleep. Outside, the swollen white buds of the cotton blooms sang a familiar song as they whizzed by in the dusk. God, I feel like I’m going back in time every time I go back home, Chris thought. Catty-cornered across from him, the pungent bickering of a mother and daughter had melted into his dreams, dredging up many of his most rancid memories. At least I will be ready for what’s ahead of me, Chris thought. As if I actually need preparation for any of our dysfunctional Special Olympics. Chris’ head lolled on his shoulders as the bus crawled past a semi, the turbulence of the truck shaking memories loose.
“I don’t know why you don’t like Billy; he’s always been good to you and always brings you things.” Angela Smart said. And she was right; Billy did always bring things when he would visit. He was the uncle who always had a story, always wore a smile, and in Chris’ case, always hugged you just a little too long.
“He’s just weird, mom.” Chris would always say. Chris’ young mind grasping for the words try to vocalize what he felt. “He’s just weird and he smells funny.”
Angela’s face blossomed with rage. “Oh good god, I can’t believe you. You’re such an unappreciative little shit. Your worthless old man goes out and gets himself shot, ‘In the line of duty’. Ha, that’s a joke, the only thing he did in the line of duty was the whores he’d pick up.” ‘Pick up’ was mumbled through a fresh cigarette. “Yeah, he gets himself killed and leaves me to clean everything up for him. If it weren’t for your uncle Billy coming over all the time to help me out…” The ‘chack’ of the cigarette lighter punctuated the speech. “Well, I don’t know where we’d be.” Words and smoke dancing in rhythmic puffs. “I do know where you would be, and that is a whole lot worse off.” Angela contemplated a little vortex of cigarette smoke, her thoughts wafting back to her own childhood. Everybody’s got a Billy. And that’s good. Makes you think about life. You hold the good close, and the bad you just deal with as best you can.
A Kenworth’s air horn brought Chris back to the present. Uncle Billy. Billy Stooksbury, well, William S. Stooksbury the tombstone would read. Chris frowned, turned his head out the window to watch the utility poles go by. The rumble of the bus’ engine had suddenly seemed to find a sweet spot with Chris’ growing headache, stimulating it into an embryonic migraine. Chris instinctively shut his eyes, the cool darkness calming his brain. ‘Stress’ the company nurse had said; that was what had caused Chris to start having migraines. But Chris knew better. Long rows of stable like cubicles, filled with noisy people chattering on tightly clamped headsets; all under the relentless gaze of fluorescent lights. Like eggs in an incubator, yet for Chris, the secrets of his childhood were the chicks struggling to break free. This incubator, however, was not warm and nurturing but cold; like the cold that had settled in his bones, the cold that had made a home in him, and chilled him to the marrow.
Chris snapped back to reality at the voice from across the aisle. “What?”
“I said, what does your tattoo mean? Lord boy, you were a million miles away.”
Chris looked at the flowing script on his forearm. “Uh, it’s Latin, ‘Carpe Diem’. It says seize the day.” Chris looked up to see to see a warm smile.
“It says seize the day? Now what does it mean? It’s not always the same thing.” The little wrinkles at the eyes seemed to radiate a natural warmth. On another person they’d be called laugh lines.
“There was a Roman poet named Horace who used that phrase in a poem. If I remember correctly, he was part of a group who thought that life was about pleasure. Carpe diem sort of summed up their ideals; the best pleasure in life is in the moment, not putting it off into the future. “I don’t even know why I got the stupid thing.” A crooked smile played on Chris’ lips. “I wasn’t even drunk.”
“I like that.” She said. “A lot of folks make themselves miserable. They are all the time talking about what they are gonna do, or ‘when I make my money I’m gonna’.” You can spend a lifetime waiting on a ship that never comes in. And that’s just time wasted, more wasted than a life in prison really.
A shadowy line of light from the streetlamp played across her face as she tilted her head.
“So young mister carpe diem, why are you seizing yesterday?”
“What do you mean?” Chris said.
“Old Mr. Horace had it right I think. Live now, not in the past. Seize today, not, tomorrow or even worse, yesterday.” The woman shifted in her seat. “Let me tell you a story; a story about an old woman. But this ain’t no wise old woman who tells everybody how to live their lives, and it turns out like peaches and cream. No this is just an old woman who’s seen about everything in life. Good and bad. Her first husband beat her son ’til he ran off. He would have beat her to death too; once when he was drunk, and figured to take it all out on her, he got more than he figured. She took a knife and she cut that man. She would’ve killed him if that knife wasn’t old dime store junk. When she cut him, she cut ties with everything. But this was the old south; the sheriff and the judge didn’t think it would be a good thing to let a woman get the notion she could do something like this, so they figured Brushy Mountain state prison was the place for her. Out of sight and out of mind.
The boss man let her out of his prison, figured she’d learned her lesson. She took off running. Running from her past without realizing you can’t run from your shadow. There comes a time when you just have to turn and face it; face the past with all it’s demons and all it’s ghosts. She finally figured out that you just have to accept that she had done some good, and some bad. A lot of bad maybe, but that’s just it. Life is the good, bad, and in-between. So this Horace fellow, I know what he was saying. And I’m saying it to you right now; don’t live in the past, live today.” Gazing more intently at Chris, she continued. “You’ve never left your past; or it ain’t left you. And I suspect there’s been a lot of folk’ doing a lot of figuring in your life, and not much of it by you. I think you need to do your own figuring now. You’ve got to cut out and move on; be who you are.”
“I don’t know how.” Chris’ eyes shifted down to his feet. Chris’ feet had always gotten a lot of attention in his life. What I really mean is ‘I don’t know who.’ Who I really am.
The night Chris shutdown was the night he had tried to make a stand. Billy was staying over to help Angela fix up her bathroom. A mold and wood rot had taken out the floor behind the toilet. Whenever you sat on it, you had to lean forward so the toilet wouldn’t fall off the sewer pipe. Chris, of course, was assigned as Billy’s helper. Billy told Angela to go ahead and fix herself up and get on down to the VFW.
“You might just find yourself a good looking Army man down there.” Billy said with a wink. Angela yelped and then giggled as Billy smacked her on her butt. Billy’s smile hid his thoughts. Yeah you fat old bitch. Go get you some. Billy then fixed his smile on Chris. We’ll all get us some tonight.
A sheep cornered at the edge of a precipice by a mountain lion, doesn’t consider the possibility of just stepping back into the abyss. Sometimes there is no abyss, no enveloping unknown to fall into the arms of. Sometimes there’s just the inevitable.
It was midnight, and in the darkened bar a dishonorably discharged soldier was dancing with Angela. The little curls at the nape of her neck kept time with the man’s cigarette breath. Another darkness, like the darkness in the bar, a darkness that grew and hid all the evil that was in a man’s heart was growing few miles away; growing and desirous to consume, and was about to consume all that was a young man.
The new bathroom floor was in place, a piece of oddly aligned linoleum laid down and calked. Billy loved gangster movies, laughing each time someone got ‘whacked’.
“Now that’s a man there Chris. When he wants something, he takes it.” Billy tousled Chris’ hair. Chris visibly shrank further to the corner of the couch. Billy’s hungry smile just spread further. Chris’ hand had started edging into the gap between the cushion and the arm of the chair, his hand finding the cool plastic handle of the steak knife he had placed there earlier. The precipice was close. Billy had just started squeezing Chris’ leg and was inching higher with each new scene of the movie. Chris could feel Billy’s excitement growing. Chris had backed into the furthest recess of the couch, but Billy would just edge closer. Al Capone was introducing his ‘little friend’ when Chris pulled the knife out from the cushion and held it up to Billy’s chest.
Billy just laughed. “What are you gonna do Chris? You gonna cut me? You ain’t got it in you.” Billy’s ‘you’re mine’ smile seemed to widen even further, almost opening to completely consume Chris. “Not to stick it in me you don’t.” Chris mouthed “no” but nothing came out. It was then that Chris created his own personal abyss. And it welcomed him with open arms.
Chris wandered around the bus station wondering how he would get to his mom’s house. He had known better than to call her before he left, otherwise he would never have gotten on the bus.
Chris lifted his eyes up to the top row of snacks. Looking through the ghostly potato chip bag floating before his face, he saw into the empty eyes of an old young man. He saw the sad face of a clown. A torrent of emotions ripped the snack bag from his comprehension, and he remained, focusing on the eyes in the reflection. “Stop staring at the past”, the old lady had said. A past that had robbed him of his future, stolen the could from his life. A seed planted doesn’t have to be a seed of life, a seed that becomes something. Sometimes it’s a seed of doubt, or a seed of despair, or rather a seed that takes life rather than giving it. The ferociousness of his punch startled everyone around him, but no one more than himself. The glass of the snack machine spider webbed in cracks. Chris’ hand had lashed out at those eyes in desperation, hoping that if they couldn’t be fixed, maybe they could be put out. The cold grey of the reflection more of a reality than the man-boy causing it. His breathing coming in gasps, Chris could only think why! Why would anyone do this to another person? Let alone a little boy who just wanted to be left alone. The tiny rivulet of blood then caught his attention. A glaring red exclamation mark punctuating void in Chris.
“All right big boy, we all know what a bad-ass you are.”
Chris turned and saw the badge first, then the tired face behind it. “I think I cut my hand.” Chris said, finally looking at the source of the blood. A long thin diamond of glass was protruding fro the web between his index and ‘bird’ finger of his right hand, and the blood was flowing freely.
“Let’s head back here.” The cop said as he cupped Chris’ elbow in the palm of his hand and led him to the back of the bus station.
The staff offices of the bus station were clean but plain. Nothing exceptional to make you think of an unexceptional place.
“I’m going to need to get your information, do you have a driver’s license?” The cop asked.
“Uh. Yeah, it’s in my backpack. Oh shit! Where’s my backpack?” The whites of Chris’ eyes glistened; his whole life was in that backpack. Meaningless as his life may be, it was still the only one he had.
“You sit here, I’ll go out and get it.” The cop said standing. “Don’t go anywhere.” He added as he opened the door.
Chris got some paper towels from an old coffee cart that appeared to be held together by the petrified amber of thousands of coffee spills. Each running stain a story from the life of someone no one knows. Chris held two balled up paper towels in his fist to catch the blood. There was only a little pain as Chris pulled the sliver of glass from his hand, the fluorescent lights made a dull glare on the sharp corner of the glass. Chris twisted the splinter between his fingers. All this blood caused by such a small thing.
“Kid, there ain’t no backpack by the snack machine.” The cop said as he came back into the room.
Chris looked up at him and noticed his nametag said ‘Daniels’. “Officer Daniels, I promise you I had a backpack, and I sat it down when I was going to get something from the snack machine.
“Well, there’s not one now.” Office Daniels said.
“Man I’m sorry about the machine. I don’t know what came over me. I’ve… I’ve been dealing with a lot in my life. Sometimes it just seems to be one shitty thing after another. I guess I just got fed up with it.”
“You’re still going to have to pay for the machine son. That’s just life. And yeah, sometimes it is just one big shit stew, followed up by a hearty helping of shit pudding. And it may be cliché, but it’s a lot better than the alternative.” Daniels, walking from the coffee cart, grimaced as he swirled the sludge in the pot. “Damn, this stuff could make a dead man hard. I think I could use a cup of fresh coffee, what about you kid?”
“Yeah that sounds good.”
“Yeah, sometimes life sucks. But let me tell you something.” The coffee oozed down the sink. “I ain’t no preacher, and I’m not sermonizing. But you’ve got to go on living, no matter how much life sucks. Trust me I know. I used to be a cop, a good cop. I even got a medal from the mayor once when I was stabbed by… ready for this? A circus midget.” Daniels laughed, spilling some coffee grounds onto the scuffed toe of his boots. “Ain’t that something? There were some circus folk who had taken to robbing stores in the towns they’d visit. It wasn’t hard to figure out, they had left a trail of thefts, and so when we started getting reports of missing cash in cash registers, two and two made four pretty quick.” Daniels punched the button to start the coffee brewing. “So we knew, with very little doubt, that it was some of the folks at the circus, we went over to pay a visit to the guy running the circus, and as soon as we showed up, they took off running. The midget ran into one of the cargo vans and was going to try to get away. But the back doors were open, and I just jumped up into the van. There was metal mesh wall between the back and the front of the van, but the holes were big enough for me to get my hands through, so I reached through and grabbed him. He was having a hard time driving the thing; I guess he had to have some special things to help him reach the pedals, so I had pulled his arms back to his side so he couldn’t drive away. I guess that pissed him off.” Daniels was contemplating the brewing coffee pouring into the pot. He turned to Chris, and unbuttoned the sleeve of his right arm. Chris saw about a half dozen puckered scars on his Daniels’ forearm. “Well, he pulled a knife out of his pocket and started stabbing my arm. I screamed, but held on and tried with my other hand to grab his little arm. Finally somebody heard me yelling and came.” Pointing at one scar near his elbow, “the doctors said this one could have done me in, came really close to an artery. But you know what was funny, was the little person would climb into the ventilation system and either open the doors for the others, or if there was a security system he would just take what he could and wiggle back out with it. So yeah, I was the only one injured when we nabbed them, so I guess they felt they needed to acknowledge it with a medal and a picture shaking hands with the mayor. Two years later when they were having cut backs, I told the lieutenant I’d trade him my medal to keep on working, but he said it didn’t work that way. So they cut me.” Daniels had turned and looked at Chris’ bloodied hand. “Sometimes the cut that hurt the worst are the ones that don’t bleed. Do you want to hear something funny? They cut me from the force three years ago, and last year the mayor and several of the county commissioners were indicted on embezzlement. Seems the mayor had a nice house down in the Caribbean. Well, that’s where the money goes huh?”
“Didn’t you try to get your job back after that? What if you got a lawyer, couldn’t that help?” Chris said, fumbling a coffee cup off of the stack with his good hand.
“Yeah, well maybe, but after I got cut from the force, I started drinking pretty heavy. I did all my drinking at the bar.” Daniels smiled at Chris, “only alcoholics drink alone at home. Well, the law of averages worked against me, and I got popped with a DUI. That pretty much killed any chances I had of getting back onto the force.”
“Man, that sucks. I’m really sorry. My dad was a cop, but I don’t remember much about him. He died when I was young. He was shot. My mom wouldn’t really talk about him much. And when she did she’d just get mad, so I quit asking.” Chris’ mouth assumed it’s typical shrugged twist.
“Now it’s my turn to say ‘sorry’.” Daniels said, sitting down across from Chris. “It sounds like you really have been through the wringer, and this takes me to the second part of my non-sermon. Even though I’ve had my share of highs and lows, and the lows were really low, still I’m glad to be alive. Sure I was cut by a midget. Damn. Little person.” Daniels’ and Chris both smiled. “And yeah I was cut from the force because some damned greedy politicians had to have more money. But I’m alive.” Daniels gestured back and forth between he and Chris, “we are alive, and that means a lot. You say your dad got shot while he was a cop? Well, my dad did too. But in his case, he was the shooter. Yeah he killed himself. Bullshit really, he was having money problems; my mom had left him a few years before, and taken me with her. Now I don’t know this to be true, but he may have been on the take with some illegal liquor runners, and some of the other cops were beginning to suspect. They didn’t pushed it after he died, didn’t want to tarnish his ‘good’ name I guess. I was seventeen when he blew his brains out. That was my low. Yeah I still carry that scar, and though it doesn’t hurt all the time, when it does, it fucking hurts bad. But I’ve learned something very valuable from that, and that is that no matter what, life is definitely worth living. I’ve been saving money for a while now, and I took scuba lessons at the YMCA. I think I’m going to go to Belize or Costa Rica and work on dive boats. I may not get rich, but I will be alive. And that’s what counts.”
“Yeah, that is what counts huh?” Chris sighed. “I don’t think I’ve ever really lived. Not really. I think I’ve just been going through some motions. But dammit, I’m not going to let all the bullshit from the past eat me up. You know, this bus ride has been more than just a trip for me. It really has been a journey.” Chris’ eyebrows pinched, “I never got her name.”
“Whose name?” Daniels said.
“Oh, someone I talked to on the bus. She had a story. I guess we all have a story, and sometimes it is good to share it.”
“Yeah, sometimes. I guess.”
Daniels contemplated the oily sheen in his coffee and Chris’ plastic seat groaned when he leaned back. Slowly Chris peeled the blood-caked paper towels from his clenched fist. Waiting for the blood to start oozing again.
“You really should be holding that hand over the table instead of over your t-shirt.” Daniels said, getting the first aid kit out of one of the file cabinet drawers. “Let me clean that out and put a bandage on it. But you really should go to one of those walk in aid clinics first thing and get it treated right.”
Chris looked at Daniels’ security patrol badge, and thought about the knockoff life Daniels was now leading. He had taken this job because of a shadow of his past. Though he was still living in that shadow, he was looking out into the umbra of what could be. I can be too, Chris thought.
“What was that?” Daniels said, looking up as he finished taping the gauze pad in place.
“What was what?”
“You mumbled something.”
“Oh, uh… I don’t know I was just thinking. Look all my money and my ID and all that was in my backpack. I have my ticket in my pocket, so I can get home, but I don’t have anything else. I can give you my details, you have to believe it’s me.” Chris said, gently pleading.
“Look kid, I don’t really know what’s going on with you, but I can tell you seem to be a good kid. Maybe you have a bunch of shit to deal with, or maybe you haven’t dealt with it yet. Either way, you need to think about who you are, and move on with that. Just move on with it. Make your mind up and go. It might not seem like you are moving, maybe not physically, but as long as you know who you are and where you are going, then you really are moving.” Daniels got up and took twenty dollars out of his pocket. “Here take this and get on the bus. Take that trip back and start living. I’ll forget I saw you break that glass, and chalk it up to vandals.”
“I really want to thank you Officer Daniels.”
“Just Daniels, I’m not an officer anymore.”
Chris smiled. “Alright Daniels, I really want to thank you, you’ve helped me more than you can know.”
“Go. Live.” Daniels said as he opened the door for Chris.
“I think I’m going to buy a suit.” Chris said to no one in particular as he headed to the ticket window.
Angela fumbled with her lighter as she lit another cigarette.
“Where is that damned boy”, she said to no on in particular. The small funeral crowd had dwindled dramatically when the potato salad ran out; finally leaving Angela alone with the undertaker. An aloneness that cut deep and cut quick and cut to the bone.