This essay was published in a print fanzine a while back, as Big Hands #9. I figured it was about time—time past, passed, passing—to put it up online.
We strap my brother into the back of the handicapped accessible minivan and the door telescopes closed with a satisfying pneumatic whoosh. Cliff, Ben’s caretaker most weeks, paid hourly to hang out and play video games but also to help develop basic life skills, jumps up in front of the wheel. Cliff is a big teddy bear of a guy with a thick Southern accent, built like a linebacker, but with a gentle and compassionate spirit. He’s from Rutherford County, largest town Rutherfordton, up in the North Carolina foothills. Like so many young people from the rural edges of the state, he came to the metropolitan Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area to go to college and stuck around to suckle at the cash teat of the Research Triangle Park. Metica, the company that Cliff works for, employs college guys with Medicaid money to work in home with the disabled throughout the area. Cliff gets assigned one or two clients, like my brother, and sticks with them for years at a time. The caretakers assist with basic physical needs like helping the clients eat, go to the bathroom, get out of the house—they use small steps and a goal-based, familiar routine to march toward the ultimate goal of self-sufficiency.
Inevitability personal relationships and preferences develop. Cliff often talks about how lucky he is to have gotten Ben as a client, telling horror stories of the other folks who came before—kids who threw up on him all day, autistic youth who would scream and punch him. While Ben, 22 years old, was born with cerebral palsy and is physically handicapped (he is always in a wheelchair) he is relatively well off on the spectrum of disabilities because he is high-functioning and his intellect is fully intact. He’s also more optimistic and hopeful than most able-bodied people I have met, who tend to be preoccupied with their own petty misfortunes. I often wonder if his emotional life and the sense of native wisdom he possesses is a byproduct of his physical disability—like how the blind have a more refined sense of smell and character judgment, an ability to wholly assess the feeling of the person that approaches them. Ben is a movie and pop culture buff, able to reel off actor’s filmographies, entire oeuvres, always able to identify the directors of photography and gaffers in the credits. He looks on the bright side—major surgeries, unemployment, the uncertainty of the future, it all seems to roll right off his back.
Take for instance, a conversation I overheard in the kitchen between Ben and Cliff while they were making pizza.
“Cliff, aren’t you excited for our trip?! Come on, get excited!”
“I am excited, buddy. But I think it’s going to be stressful.”
“Why don’t you just hope for the best? Try to have a positive attitude.”
“Well buddy, I’m a realist about things.”
“Why are you a realist?”
Cliff pauses for a moment, giving the question serious consideration.
“Well, it’s probably so that when things don’t turn out well, I don’t get so disappointed.”
Ben looks at Cliff compassionately, and without speaking exudes a sense of peace. If anyone needs to be realistic, it would be Ben. But he manages to hold onto his hope, joy and enthusiasm.
In his sweetness, Ben manages to charm every person that he comes in contact with. Like how in the business bestseller 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the author says you have to be a golden goose to lay golden eggs. You can’t just buckle down and push yourself hard to be something that you are not—you have to embody it, to possess the purity of spirit within you. Ben lives it and the energy he has irradiates the world—enduring positivity and joy in every interaction with other people. He’s a magnet, drawing the good, the desirable, the ever-smiling toward him. He can’t go through the mall without girls and old friends saying rushing up to say hello.
Cliff spends more time with Ben than I do, his own older brother. Every afternoon Cliff drives over to our house and sits at the bottom of the cul-de-sac, waiting for my brother’s school bus to roll in from community college. Because of all the stops and the time it takes to drop off other kids in wheelchairs, it is usually an hour and a half ride. But still, life takes on a Sesame Street quality—everyone knows his name. All the red carpets roll out, the bus driver smiles and says, “Have a good day, Ben!” assuring him that he’ll be there early the next morning to pick him up again. Cliff opens the door of his old clunker and shuffles over to meet him. They wheel over to the mailbox and it’s Ben’s job to reach out and open it. His right arm is folded up like a birdwing, but his left arm, the dominant one, unfolds as he reaches out to pry open the mailbox door. Cliff helps him lift out the stack of mail and catalogs and sets them in his lap. Then Ben mashes his wheelchair joystick forward and charges up the steep hill. At the top of the driveway, he comes to the screened-in porch, and plows into the screen door, pushing it open with the brunt force of his chair (The doors don’t last long with this kind of daily pounding. The last one collapsed in on him one afternoon, like a pre-broken piece of movie set furniture.)
Inside the house, the air-conditioner runs at full blast. Ben whirs past his window to his world, a large flat screen loaded down with all the most recent satellite equipment and video game systems. Cliff ushers him into the kitchen to place the mail on the kitchen table. As Ben reaches out with his dominant arm, a couple of pieces of mail drop out onto the floor. Cliff sighs reassuringly because pieces are always getting dropped like this, and it just can’t be helped. Patience, patience.
“It’s alright, Buddy. Let’s just feed the cat.”
Cliff picks up the cat food dish and puts it up on the kitchen table for Ben to reach. Cliff roots through a drawer to find a can opener. He then struggles to get the black can-opener to grip onto the lip of the can. Once he’s done he hands the cylinder of compacted meat to Ben to finish, like a mother bird chewing baby’s food.
“There you go, Buddy”. Ben gingerly grasps it in his left hand and presses it toward the plastic cat dish, dumping the mushy meat in.
“Good job, man,” Cliff smiles wearily. Cliff has just graduated college and seems preoccupied—a post-graduation slump, perhaps troubled by existential questions of what to do with the rest of his life. Ben has noticed his ennui. But Ben has worked with so many caretakers that he is learned how people are and how to treat them, and knows its better to just not say anything. Maybe it will just go away. Maybe they can just be friends and have fun.
Cliff careens down US-1, that little half-mile stretch of well-maintained highway behind our house that goes out to Goldsboro, Pinehurst, Siler City, and Wilmington. A stretch of highway like any other but somehow syrupy sweet and comforting, having carried me to all the places that made up my life. The road our bus would go down to get to elementary school. The road to the neighborhood where my girlfriend lived; the road I drove down when I got my first car; The road we would take to go to the grocery store, to get ice cream, and rent movies at Blockbuster on a Friday night, before the Redboxes came and shut down that one gathering place in the suburbs where people could browse George Clooney movies while voyeuring other people in the store from behind the mattress of geographic isolation. Then in the later years, the highway I took to dumpster dive at the Food Lion, dredging expired birthday cakes, half-rotten veggies, and packages of mashed potato flakes up from the Stygian depths of the bin to take back and feed to my friends. I stare out the window as Cliff drives past the dead memories, the futuristic, EPCOT-looking strip mall Waverly Place where we used to skateboard and ride the plaza escalators up and down. We crawled all over the bronzed statues of white-collar businessmen on benches at the shopping center, giving them kisses, grabbing their crotches. And late at night after the roving security patrol left, we put detergent in all the fountains, and then went around to the Whole Foods dumpster and had massive food fights with rotten tomatoes and fruit. We were just teenagers wasting time in what seemed like a life sentence. No respect for anyone or anything that had come before or that had been built by money or human sweat. The suburbs were our playground.
“I’m glad you’re coming with us Brother!” Ben shouts, high-pitched, his excitement unrestrained and honest. I used to get excited like that. I used to dance around in the living room just to expend the nervous energy. I used to feel unconstrained by the expectations of the world that now weigh me down like bricks on my ankles. The world wants you to be poised, to be cool, to not get to excited. The world wants you to walk tall, wants you to always smile, wants you to be friendly, wants you to be a charming and awake and playful. But at the same time, the world doesn’t want you to step out of line—it wants you half-dead, shambling to some job, it wants you to want to afford things you don’t need. And finally, when you’ve given up completely—when you’re crumpled up and your spirit is broken, the world welcomes you back with its cold, clammy embrace. Late at night, in moments of despair, it whispers its soft refrain into your ear: Do what everyone else does, talk like everyone else does, interact with people like everyone else does, suffer like everyone else does. My brother, being born different, was never quite beholden to their strange expectations—not expected to grow up, to be mature, to ‘make something of himself.’ And having been exempted, I am happy to report that his zeal for life has remained intact.
“I’m glad I’m coming too, Ben!” I smile, sticking my hand out the minivan window to feel the breeze.
“Man, getting outdoors …” Cliff seems rejuvenated to be outside, out of our house where he’s cooped up five days a week. We coast through the leafy spring overgrowth, passing fields and valleys, cows, and emu farms. Cliff’s inner country boy is showing now that we’re out in the country, and he starts talking about where he grew up in Rutherford County.
“Grandma had some debts to pay back and without thinking too much about it, she clear-cut her land. Those were woods that her and me used to walk through just about every day. The earth doesn’t just magically grow back what you cut away. Half of what she cut was taken over by kudzu before she could even replant. The other half, she replanted with just regular pine trees; The pine needles were so acidic that when they dropped they made it so no other species of plant could survive on the forest floor; So that was the end of the ecosystem—if you go there now it’s just these mechanically spaced rows of pine trees. Sad part is, most people don’t even notice that there’s something lacking. There’s no biodiversity anymore, we’re missing all kinds of plants and animals. That perfectly sustaining, diverse natural ecosystem is now pretty much gone around here in the South, except when you see it at on a nature preserve or on some private conservation land.”
I can’t help but imagine how wonderful the land we’re driving past used to be: hidden away in the glorious full-grown backwoods, old ivy-covered barns that smell of tar slowly decaying back to dirt.
In elementary school, we would go on field trips out to the nearby Sharon Harris Nuclear Power Plant. I found the place fascinating—it was packed with glossy cardboard cutouts of atoms and clear vacuum tubes. Our class would sit up on the carpeted steps of a little theatre and watch flickering propaganda films about the incontrovertible good of nuclear energy. The company even built a park beside the nuclear plant for the community.
Harris Lake Park is set back behind several gates that creak open and shut at sunrise, some distant bureaucracy regulating the open hours of what was once-wild. Cliff parks in a handicapped space. With the press of a button, the ramp gracefully unfolds out onto the pavement. We’re going to take Ben off of the familiar asphalt, down an unpaved trail. I don’t doubt that his wheelchair can handle it—its built for rugged durability, with gyroscopes and rubber tires, but the pavement has always been his river.
“Time to go off-roading, Boy!” Cliff harangues him and puts him in a headlock. Ben gets riled up and excited with the roughhousing. As he motors forward onto the unfamiliar terrain, he tenses up, unnerved by going off the sidewalk. We meander slowly down the trail, Cliff and I on either side of him to stabilize his chair if he hits a rut. We are all grinning at his first encounter with the raw world of nature—that world that in the recent past would have been off-limits. I think about how, in all the eras of history, how lucky it was for him to be born after the time when people referred to the disabled as “crippled”, in the spring-bloom of civilization and technology and great society programs like Medicare and Medicaid. I also think about how in this new era of austerity, how devastating it would be to handicapped citizens if these programs were systematically dismantled. Medicaid helped him along, paid to have his wheelchair modernized, paid for physical therapy, got him the leg and back surgeries he needed, and provided daytime caretakers so that my mom could continue to work.
And the fact that my brother was born in the late 80s, right when disabled people were engaging in the direct action that led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1991, also seems fortuitous. To be born in a time when a culture of acceptance and assimilation was on the rise and disabled people had choices and could determine the course of their own lives. 1991 wasn’t that long ago. The rise of consumer electronics has provided unprecedented access to worlds previously inaccessible—Nintendo Wiis, iPads, a whole array of new tools and accessible entertainment. The world of nature is janus-faced and cruel—its beauty is thorned, its gift is also its curse. Until the discovery of fire, life was a short, cold brutal affair. Nature has not been so good to us. Like Prometheus, when humans finally wrested control from nature, they took their revenge on God—they penetrated his dark starry night with electric lights, they paved over his naked soil with our roads and cities, they hunted down the predators that attacked and intimidated us for thousands of years. We saw to it that this violent thing called Nature was tamed, left as only a shadow of it’s former self. I often wonder about people I have known who have advocated some half-baked theory of “primitivism” and hold a utopic vision of the return to some ideologically perfect pre-industrial society—these warm-hearted souls who earnestly believe that living in tree houses, shitting in buckets and printing our own pamphlets could ever be enough to rectify the human. Their ‘community’ is a niche undertaking, a youthful art experiment. Their better world isn’t for everybody. King Kong will remain shackled and caged.
We continue through an opening in the trees. There is a wide clear-cut of high-tension power-lines receding into the distance. From there, the colossal gray, cooling towers rise in the distance, big puffs of steam spilling out into the blue sky like a mushroom cloud. Nuclear power—dark nature, yes, but oh how dark is Prometheus! Still, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. There is a placard sign there in front of us, put up by Sharon Harris to reassure a skeptical public. It reads something to the effect of, “Don’t worry! That smoke coming from the reactors is just steam–totally natural and healthy!”
Cliff and I talk suspiciously, wondering why, if it’s so healthy, they built it so far away from the city. Ben motors out onto a scrubby little isthmus that juts out into the lake. The further we get away from asphalt, the more nervous he looks. But still, he’s Christopher Columbus—probably the first disabled to come this far. Cliff and I are chatting away when we hear Ben shouting for help. We rush over. We find him stuck, wheels of his power chair spinning futilely, flinging mud everywhere.
“Don’t worry, we’re not going to let anything happen to you, Bud,” Cliff reassures him. We push with our shoulders to pry him out of the rut. When his chair finally gets some traction, he immediately zips off back down the trail to the comforting asphalt of the parking lot.
Like polar magnets, nature and civilization repel each other with a strange, unknowable force. Nature cuts him off, saying “no more”, as if unnerved by how close he has come. As we walk back through the beautiful woods, I think about how the cool breeze is no more natural than the billowing chill of an air-conditioned indoor mall. Human adaptability is the great engine of our power, but also the source of our tragic fall. There’s nothing to be done when things get too far off track, no one to press ‘stop’ on this life when things get to be too much.
Later that night, I put Ben to bed. Wheeling his cybernetic wheelchair into his bedroom he sits there, looking uncertain, waiting for me to move all the clutter from his bed. We both know this is an important moment and that it needs to be treated delicately—since I’m not home so often, he prefers my mom to put him to bed. I have to feign confidence, act like I know what I’m doing in order to make him feel comfortable. I pull the harness out from under a pile of clothes and slide the big nylon belt around his waist. He’s gotten so used to being manhandled by strangers—big college guys who come over every day and put him on the toilet, lay him on the floor to exercise, more his big brothers than I am. I unstrap his seat belt and wrap the harness around his waist gently and pull the motorized pulley system along the ceiling. I press the button and the pulley magically lifts him up in the air out of his wheelchair. He dangles in mid-air over his bed.
“You look like Peter Pan!” I smile.
He laughs, weary-sounding.
“Has anyone ever told you that?”
"Yes” he says, curtly. I lower him onto a towel and undo the straps and slings. Success! Ben’s bed is still outfitted with the same racecar sheets as it was when he was 10. Take off his shoes and socks. His cute little gnarled hobbit feet—I pull off his gym shorts and grab the adult diaper from the pile in the corner. Rip the plastic and pull out the adhesive wetness protector and affix it inside the diaper. Then rip the sides of the diaper he’s wearing and yank it off, urine-soaked. Whenever I do this, I think about—most parents have to change diapers for a few short years. She’s had to be the evergreen mother, doing it for over 20 years. My mom still looks like she’s in her 40s. Has having her youngest son so close, so dependent, kept her young, kept her from stagnating? Is the key to not getting old having a purpose and knowing that people need you? I brush away unresolvable thoughts and pull out the box of WetWipes. I wipe around his crotch and he looks away ashamedly, seeming to like it even less than I do. I make small talk about what he wants to do the next day and wheedle the new diaper on him, careful, careful not to rip it. Then throw away the dirty diaper and pull the towel out from under him like a magician pulling out a tablecloth. Voila! Arrange the pillows around the edge of his bed, a clock nearby so he knows what time it is, put a single pillow on his head. I get everything just right for once. I kiss him on the head and say goodnight. Goodnight Ben, my eternal brother, cozy and comfortable in your little nest. Something about my mother shepherding him through life, protecting his innocence moistens my eyes. Just the way it is. Happy families are all alike, Tolstoy wrote. For the rest, not necessarily something therapy should fix.
The rides at Disney World develop cracks and tears, metal rusts and colors fade. VHS movies and cassette tapes sit in dumpsters and on spider webbed driveways across the country. Sitcom characters dance around all night on turned-off flat screens, recorded by TiVo. Malls slowly crumble to dust, their Coptic exteriors pulled down by kudzu. My brother’s room remains the same after all these years—a museum piece where time stopped in the mid-90s. This is the best way for life to continue—laden with mystical layers and coincidence–cryogenically frozen in the comfortable and familiar. A librarian who works for 30 years in the basement of the same building. My grandfather built his own house with his bare hands and spent fifty happy years there. His cells bound themselves up there, and the day it burnt down a part of him died. He passed away just over a year later. Everything is constantly re-shaping everything else, like a lathe—consciousness melding to cells, bodies melding to geographies and locations, people melding to one another. The cocoons that we build around ourselves are time warps to the future—when one day they break, we wake up, as if roused from a long slumber. The world chugs forward, in its harshly, mechanistic way. The near past is gone, the future is here, and the person you thought you were has gone missing.
Posted above the coffee maker, on the kitchen cabinet, my mom has affixed a little poster printed out on computer paper that reads: Don’t Worry Be Happy! Take Your Medicine! Just Wait And See What Happens! Love and The World Will Love You Back! The very need for a poster of this kind, a cheery reminder with the morning cup of coffee seems like an intimation of warning. Yet, when I hesitantly ask my mom if there was something wrong that warranted putting up the note, she just smiles and says ‘You know, your brother likes it—and I like it too.’ We live in a topsy-turvy world in regards to mental health—it seems like those with the most to lose are also the most upbeat and optimistic—they are like surfers, gliding on the briny wave of the world’s misery. Upbeat, smiling people, so locked into their situation and their lives that they don’t have the time or the luxury to get depressed about it. They listen to inspirational music, they try to stay busy, they smile and look for the positive and the life affirming in the day-to-day. They go through life cultivating a well-maintained mental landscape, pruning out grim thoughts like stray weeds. Conversely, middle-class suburban white boys tend to form the primary listenership of aggressive, ‘depressing’ music and the most steadfast producers of dark, contorted postmodern literature.
It’s easy to be preoccupied by the emptiness of existence when you don’t have to concern yourself with day-to-day survival. Perhaps suburban youth love aggressive, depressing music so much because they have so little to lose by letting darkness into their lives. It’s fun to splash around in pain when all you have is a shallow wading pool, rather than a dark substantial reservoir. I often find myself often thinking about those people whose experiences have inspired horror and suspense-movie plots—like the ‘73 Uruguayan rugby team whose airplane crashed and ended up having to eat the bodies of their friends; or the Chilean miners trapped underground for weeks; or Aron Ralston, from 127 Hours, who sawed off his own arm with a pocket knife; I’m talking evening-news blunt force trauma. It’s a testament to the human spirit that people can recover from this stuff. Strange too, how the near-death sometimes can clarify your priorities—after you’ve survived a plane crash or have dashed out of a collapsing tower as your co-workers are incinerated, you realize how much is at stake in this life and start treating people properly. You reunite with estranged family members. You stop going to bars. You pursue your dreams. With the adrenaline shot of a little death, you remember that you are alive.
I fidget and count the seconds as the Target register lady scans my socks, toothpaste, and floss, and puts them in a bag. To this twenty-year-old cashier with tattoos and lip piercing and a faded 21st century demeanor, I’m just another indistinguishable adult man, 18-40, no history, no context, no personality. The possibility of friendship—that possibility offered by every interaction—dissipates with every passing second like a shot clock running down as I stand there sweating and frowning, anxious for her to bag my products so I can leave as soon as possible. Oh well—no human warmth, no human connection, not today. Life gets repetitive—friends, relationships, parties, jobs all begin to resemble the ones that came before. And it just goes on and on, but not forever—a limited time offer. And the need to get excited about the conversations–
“Have you seen that movie?”
“Have your read that book?”
“Have you heard about what happened between those two?”
“Well let me tell you…”
Endless shit flowing between endless mouths. And the time just rushes by unabated.
Getting older, preferring isolation, building up walls against the world. The process of aging, “growing colder and less and less warm” as Stephen Merritt put it. The last reserves of magical youth energy are fast dissipating. I’ve been seeing the world as if behind a mattress, looking out onto cultural events, parties, and potential new friends with the dull ache of loathing. I’ve been noticing myself holding my breath when I’m put in situations where I have to interact with strangers—at a cash register at Target, my heart pounds out of my chest as the cashier looks up at me and says, “How are we doing today?”
Beads of sweat coarse from my forehead…”I’m doing fine…how are you?” Nothing comes naturally anymore—I have to remember to smile, to put ‘good vibes’ out there in the ether. Humans are great mimics, like parrots, and when you smile they always smile. Smile—try it sometime–mild conspiratorial human connection established. When you frown your way through a conversation, people leave you feeling ill at ease. Smile. Use exclamation points in text messages. Stay upbeat—talk about the ‘good things’ happening for you. Discuss movies and plots to books. Avoid dredging up the unresolvable. Old pains. But still, even this measured positivity can’t quite bridge the distance gaping distance between these bodies moving through the world.
My mom has gone to sleep after a bottle of wine shared with church friends. After putting my brother to bed the house grows still and evening-quiet. Something about the quality of these suburban nights–low cloud cover, soft breeze, like a ghost wafting through. I take my mother’s little Subaru out onto the dark empty highways. Islands of civilization, floodlit parking lots pock through the impenetrably dark wilderness of central Carolina. The quiet, moisture-filled air whispers through the country’s empty corridors, nature slowly retaking what once belonged to it. I drive through Cary, past the mall, past my old high school, under the harsh glow of the big Carolina moon, the lush green landscape of meadows and evergreen trees like a plush mattress to sink into; the wrought-iron town clock at the edge of town by the highway on-ramp, always keeping time.
Orderly, everything in such perfect order! a network of sprinklers set to come on at night and keep the patches of astroturf grass by the sidewalk fresh and neon green. All the lights of the stores on hours after the employees have left–squares of illuminated blues, pinks, yellows like a Mondrian painting. The moon bright and clear and in the distance and the white monolith of an Embassy Suites like the Arc de Triumph shaded back in the pine trees. The trees shake in the wind, making wispy noises in the friendliest way. The employees are shutting down the glowing Starbucks across the street, the windows all fogged up, a girl with a hat and apron standing out on the curb shaking out a rubber mat. I drive down the Beltline and park my car in a gravel lot set back in a student-housing neighborhood, the houses partitioned into ramshackle apartments. Somewhere downtown, a lonely train whistle. I have been coming to this spot for a decade now, like a Christian to the river, to dunk my head and be reborn into new life. I make my way into the thin copse of woods that divides the gravel lot from the hidden world of the train tracks below. The woods have grown wild in my long absence, and are now choked out in kudzu. The clay looks blood red, everything looks bigger and more fertile now. Prehistoric-looking neon vines climb up to my waist. Looking down at the tracks, I regret all the time I’ve sold away—all that invaluable, irretrievable youth, given away at bargain basement prices. So many things have happened over the years—the negative, cyclical patterns repeated over and over while the worthwhile potent memories recede until they become foggy and shadow-like.
The train tracks remain a hidden world, persisting quietly in the 2001: Space Odyssey future—a wayside relic from a time when iron behemoths carved through the inky black primeval wilderness on a diesel-stained voyage through the night. The world of the train tracks is completely different from the world seen through the window of a speeding car—this network of disused lots, shadows cast from backyard floodlights, stray dogs howling, underpass bums drinking, concrete monoliths and telephone poles engulfed by kudzu. A string of rusted old freight cars sit off to the side, like a commuter waiting for a bus that will never come. Walking alongside the forsaken string, I find a grainer with a porch and pull myself up on the cold metal latter and sing a little song to myself, Johnny Cash. Then I jump down onto the rocks and do a kind of a jig, The rock island line is a mighty good road the rock island line is the road I ride, and hope that no one is watching—some hoboes were probably laughing at me from the bushes. I feel the leathery exoskeleton that I show to the world, all wrinkled and blanched from years of waste, begin to crumble away and reveal the smooth untouched thing underneath. The blood pumping through my veins feels warmer, more full-bodied. Then it all floods back—the early years—the broken glass, burning sunset, the hope that slowly boiled down to a simmer. I lay down on the gleaming quicksilver tracks in the moonlit Southern night, and remember…
After a while I get up and march towards the emerald-lit skyscrapers of downtown Raleigh. Down the line, a wide-open empty junction—the dusty little five corners is a kind of stage set, the trash and gloom coming together to form a shanty city in the nook of the overpass. The kudzu and graffiti have grown wild over the years, fed by moonlight. The old central prison has been replaced by a shiny, sterile new white structure. The NO MORE PRISONS graffiti piece that once faced the structure has since been removed.
I hear the sound of a train horn blaring and then see the light plowing down the track and jump out of the way as a bullet-like Amtrak barrels past—I look in the windows of its bright lit-up windows of its cars, people inside clamoring for their luggage as the train pulls into Raleigh. They look out the windows at me, lonely figure in the littered Golgotha switchyard, as the train speeds past, Afterwards it becomes silent again. I look around and see the tracks splitting off in several directions.
I ask God for some sign of which direction to go. He said nothing—he no longer spoke to me. The silence in my head is deafening. There was a track that went out under a crumbling stone bridge, and in that direction were clouds, white in the dark sky, that looked like snow-capped Northwest mountains risen on the horizon—those mounds looked so beautiful, so perfect and picturesque framed underneath the green ivy and the stone, like a portal to a different world. I headed that direction. The air smelled like honeysuckle. I walked under the old stone bridge feeling possessed, my feet no longer my own. The damp underpass was filled with abandoned shopping carts and mattresses and red clay like giant anthills. On the other side of the bridge, the landscape opened to reveal a garden of hidden verdure—vines hanging from trees, a freshly mowed meadow, streetlights and a cabin against the track gravel. Continuing, the track eventually came to a long trestle bridge over Western Boulevard. The headlights of vehicles passed underneath, where were they all going? Stepping forward to cross a bridge I looked down and felt dizzy. Wasn’t I too old to be tempting fate? The safe thing to do would be to walk down to the road and cross. But a hidden voice told me to dare.
So I started across the creaky, tar-smelling bridge—the maw of asphalt yawned between the irregularly spaced rail ties. And as I crossed I looked down at the cars passing below and the rows of quaint little shotgun-style houses, and dreamed about how nice it would be to live in one of them, to settle down in a place where you would always knew the river was flowing right outside, a river that would carry you across the country—so nice to know that you could leave anytime. And with the option to leave always there, you could just stay put forever and savor it all. How nice to buy bookshelves and accumulate cats and finally have a place to put all my books and records and art that has for years been gathering dust in a shed behind my mom’s house!
I tiptoed across the bridge, praying and mumbling the entire way. Upon reaching the other side, I felt unabashedly proud and alive, as one does when one tempts death and emerges unscathed. The big pine trees swayed gently, as if congratulating me, and there were fresh cut meadows and cicadas all over. The air above my waist was hot and humid, while the air below my waist was cool. The landscape eldritch—Fireflies swarmed all around me, little neon lights and sunset lit up red clay hideaways.
A streetlight flickers on and off in a strange syncopated rhythm as I run out of the estate, coming to a little dirt path in the woods beside Western Boulevard. I follow the path toward some distant glow and the dirt slowly turns into fresh asphalt. Car headlights zoom by in both directions and I see the whites of drivers’ eyes staring out at me like a fugitive or hitchhiker. The road comes out of the dark woods—a bright fluorescent blooming BP gas station sign is lit up like a green beacon—I stumble up into the parking lot, drawn like a moth to incandescence. Dark green wilderness and trees surround the light green and white BP plastic. Soft radio muzak plays from hidden speakers. I walk in through the automatic sliding glass doors. Inside the gas station, the air-conditioner freezes sweat to my skin. The lights perfectly illuminate the products in the aisles, each of them appealing and necessary in their own way, each designed to be desirable. A tired-looking Indian attendant slouched behind a digital screen, fiddles with his iPhone, looking bored. I shuffle over to the cooler, lit up with appealing blue lights, and open the case. I look over the dozens of beverages and grab a bottle of Sprite. The attendant rings it up, not looking—both of us lost in our own heads. Back in the blanket-humid Southern night, drenched in fluorescence, I open the bottle with its perfect carbonated hiss and gulp it down, satisfied to live in no other place than this one, no other time than right now.
Nightshade, my face buried in neon roses, dark green twilight all around, the sound of insects buzzing around the closed-for-the-summer elementary school. Security floodlights illuminate the schools tiled hallways, a large bulletin board decorated with tissue paper shaped into little flowers, and those metallic string-up craft letters “WELCOME TO MS. KELLY’S 3rd GRADE CLASS!” There is the smell of azaleas in the night, as if the breeze was blowing through some giant sheet of fabric softener at the edge of town. Walking in the dark past all the little garden cottages set behind white picket fences, I feel like a drifter prowling. Their windows of the cottages are lit up and familial warmth radiates out from inside–Wooden bookshelves and pianos and antique lamps. Moss and ivy covering the roof and the smell of burning wood coming from the chimney—a fire in the hearth!
In front of one house with a long stone porch and two wobbly porch fans, through the half-drawn shades I spy an old man standing beneath the fluorescent kitchen sink light, looking down at his old hands. Deeper in the womb neighborhood, I come to a massive cul-de-sac—homes draped under trees and in the center a green lawn, like The Shire–two men who look like grad students walk through the park absorbed in a conversation about institutional grants. The City of Oaks—majestic trees and churches with white, paint-scraped steeples. Coming out from the neighborhood, I emerge onto Hillsborough Street, the spine of Raleigh’s college district. All the buildings and commerce looks industrial and faded, trapped in the 90s. Ramshackle bead stores and independent record stores and an old comic book store. There’s even functional factory, noises of industrial saws and radio blaring from inside. The Cup-o-Joe, that stalwart coffee shop—open late and filled with conspiracy theorists and goths and punks and weirdos of every stripe—its glowing sign is a flypaper beacon for anyone looking to loiter. It’s 2011, but the windows of Cup-o-Joe are still filled with photocopied fliers, for house shows and parties. There are Elvis posters on the wall, a Mrs. Pac-Man table in the corner, an old guy reading a book about Maoism. Raleigh remains a kind of atomic fallout shelter for genuine freaky weirdness, a place where subculture and an authentic way of life have been exquisitely preserved. This is what I’ve searched all over the country for and have not found—oh yes, the real thing. As Billie Holliday sings, back home in your own backyard.
Tornadoes have been sweeping through the South for the past week, killing hundreds, nothing like it seen since the early 1900s. People sit at home in their living rooms watching TV then the sky glows green and out of nowhere, like a stray bullet from God, they are crushed and killed. Homes in rubble, pets missing, weeks on the cot at the shelter, all of them saying, “It was so unexpected, I never saw it coming.” The ongoing lottery of suffering—the dice fall where they may—natural disasters, metastasized tumors, abject failure. There’s no choosing, only getting chosen. Until the time when you’re picked out of the line-up, all you can do is go through life with the serene self-confidence of the righteous. There is a look on the face of a person who is in love with life and knows they are living on borrowed time. It’s been storming day and night, the clouds moving swiftly over the little roof of my mother’s house. I open the screen door and step out onto the back porch—the faded white deck is bathed in golden sunlight. Inside, Ben sits in his power wheelchair in the living room, in front of a fold-out table littered with Playstation and television controllers, watching Boardwalk Empire.
“Do you want to go for a walk?” I ask. He readily agrees, seeming eager to get out of the house. I open up the screen door and he powers out onto the porch. All of a sudden he is zooming down the driveway, spinning around in circles, his wheelchair making little pneumatic sounds. Venturing down the steep driveway, I keep one cautious hand on his chair the entire time. When we get down into the bottom of the cul-de-sac, Ben shifts into a faster speed and drives up the green, suburban street.
“Stay on the right side,” I say, having a horrible vision of some iPhone-wielding teenager driving down the road and plowing into him, the wheelchair and the car, both machines smashing into each other, Ben caught in-between. This haunts my dreams—his wheelchair falling off a cliff, or getting caught on something and tipping over, or the two of us getting separated in some vast public transit system and him being trapped alone down there with no way out. As we head down the street, our neighbor Mike is getting up into his boxy SUV. His wife has just recently been diagnosed with cancer. Mike, who before always seemed so lively and excitable, looks tired, his hope for a happy endless future dashed up against the rocks. Still, he manages to summon his reserves of enthusiasm and shout down from the top of the driveway.
“Howdy, Ben!!!” he shouts down.
“Hi Mike!” Ben waves and smiles.
The sky has opened up and a soft spring wind blows. The only clouds in the blue late-afternoon sky are three-dimensional and scenic looking, like in a Charmin toilet paper commercial. Occasionally, I tense up at the sound of a car coming—but as the cars approach, one by one they slow down to a crawl. I look in the windows and see that they’re driven by elderly suburban couples, a population subset extremely cautious and sensitive to safety of individuals in wheelchairs. They smile and wave as they pass. As Ben and I wave back, I think about how funny it is that nobody ever waves or smiles at me when I am alone, but when I’m with Ben, the world opens up and becomes generous and friendly. It’s as if with the absence of physical mobility, Ben has developed an excess of charisma and social grace, like tree roots growing inexorably around objects in their way.
“Beautiful out here huh?” Ben grins up at me.
“It sure is.”
“It’s like we are in France or something.”
“North Carolina is at least as pretty as France. It’s kind of the France of the United States, really.”
“We are really lucky.”
“Much prettier than New York. And sure is prettier than Mississippi.”
“New York smells like a sewer. And it’s too damn hot in Mississippi.”
Ben is wearing a white V-neck t-shirt, khaki shorts and cute little clunky brown shoes that are strapped into the legrests of his wheelchair. I look him over approvingly. He is strong and healthy, his arms big and muscular. I can’t help but think about how if he had been born without a disability, he would have been taller, more athletic than me.
“How about we go to the new park?” I ask.
“The one up on Debra?”
Ben cruises down past all the familiar houses and blocks.
“There’s Ryan Whalen’s house.” Ben points, “And down there…Eric Krauss’s parents still live down there by the pond.”
I look towards Ryan’s house and nod, pretending that it was the first time I had considered it. In truth, I thought about him and his mom and dad every time I rounded the corner. Young couples with children tucked into car seats sit staring at flat screens in cumbersome SUVs—vehicles purchased with the same mentality that drives the nuclear arms race—that one can’t go around in a violent world defenseless.
“Do you think people should get married?” I ask Ben.
“When they’re in love, I suppose…”
“And have kids?”
“Mmmmm,” he demurs, “Already so many kids in the world.”
“But part of getting married is the having of kids. Even if the couple doesn’t want kids, they eventually give in to social pressure, right?”
“I hope one of us has kids.” Ben says indignantly.
“What about a dog?”
“I want a dog too!”
“Yeah, why don’t you get one?”
“Mom doesn’t want me to get a dog. She says she’ll end up having to take care of it.”
“One of us has to have kids. To carry on the legacy.” He says.
“The blood legacy.”
I furrow my brow and look over at my brother in the wheelchair. Same blood, same veins. Same hawkish yet handsome features. The blood legacy. What’s his is mine. A vision comes to mind of the happy ending: cute kids and a wife who smiles and hugs my brother. She wraps her arms around his neck and ruffles his hair in a playful way, “Oh, Ben!” The kids call him Uncle Ben and hang out all day grilling out and playing Nintendo Wii. Strange future, not-so-distant future. The real “community” we talked about building so many years ago comes about eventually through an organic process. And after so many years and all that we’ve been through, staring down the rifle of the rest of my life, I now know the only legacy is the blood legacy, the only community the giving-in. Everything else is so much selfishness, the soon-to-be dust of accomplishment, the coffin-smell of worldly ambition.
We reach the park as the sun is going down. All the curbs are perfectly molded, handicapped accessible. Ben checks out the lift of a handicapped van, comparing it to his vehicle. The lot where the park stands was a chemical storage facility when I was in elementary school, but it burnt down one night. Everyone in the neighborhood came out to watch the flames leaping into the sky. After years of sitting abandoned and dusty, the town decided to build a park there—everything in the park was state of the art shiny plastic, fresh astroturf, gentle, ergonomic playground equipment. It was nothing like the parks I went to as a kid where everything was made of metal and the swings creaked and kids broke their arms on merry-go-rounds and got their fingers smashed between links of chain.
Going down the park’s fresh, yellow-brick path, up ahead I see a young-looking girl in an electric wheelchair and an older middle-aged woman sitting on the bench beside her. From the way the little girl lolls her head around, it looks like she might have an intellectual disability. As they see Ben and I coming up the path, the girl straightens her head up and her caretaker beams at us with a warm smile. One of us. A barely-audible frequency transmits openness and warmth–Friend. “Good afternoon, young man!” the caretaker says to Ben as we meander past. “Good afternoon to you!” Ben says. Blood warming up in the veins, human interaction killing the cancer of loneliness. Everyone is searching for some commonality, some connection and friendship in this endless sea of humans.
A leaf rolls down the street, making crackling noises as it flips headlong into the trees. The sounds of birds pouring in through my open windows, blue-dark out on the lawn, dew reflecting off the cul-de-sac; I rise from bed and brew coffee. When Mr. Coffee hisses to completion I pour it into a Thermos, adding a dash of organic milk, blooming through the blackness—and then leave the house and go out into the front yard where the moon looks down in the ever-blue sky. I kneel and give thanks for such a beautiful day, after having for so long been imprisoned in cramped apartment in a cramped and overcrowded city, after having been shuttled back and forth from work to home in claustrophobic underground subways, after having spent my days in temperature-controlled cancerous offices in a place where no birds sing and no grass grows.
I hear the pitter-patter of my feet down on the quiet dark road, past all of my neighbors mailboxes, their little daffodils planted below the mailboxes and their trucks parked out on the road; their old dusty boats parked up at the top of the driveway; freshly-tilled vegetable garden beds with the red clay dirt bunched up around young tomato plants; little pewter bird and little-girl lawn sculptures; American flags hanging from flagpoles; senior citizen joggers, running by in the morning light and waving and smiling—and I hold up a salutary arm to them and smile like a Folgers commercial, steam pouring out of my aluminum coffee mug. I veer through a little copse of trees down into a green-smelling gully. There the grass is lush and thick like a shag carpet and I go up on the mossy banks of a little stream. There in the gazebo in the back of the woods are the flowering bushes and the wooden swing. I jumped from one side of the stream to the other and don’t feel the least bit upset when my shoe plunges into the water and gets soaked up to my ankle. I just shake it off, laugh at myself, and move on.