by Patrick Redding
I think I was lying in the floor of my friend Callie’s living room when the shift happened. Something vital was taken away, to be replaced by something spectacular.
We’d been fooling around with our guitars earlier, and now we were stoned. We were listening to Heart; Ann Wilson was belting out “I’ve Got the Music in Me” – not a particularly profound song, I know, but I believe that’s when it happened. The music took over my brain.
I didn’t notice the change at first. It was getting late, and I wanted to get something to eat before I headed home, so I said my goodbyes and went out to my car. I laid my guitar case very carefully in the back seat, poked a CD into the player, and started the car.
Then I was in a boat on a river, and Lucille Ball was decked out in a diamond bracelet and earrings, flying an airplane in the orange sky overhead. I didn’t remember Callie having landscaping quite like this in her yard – and she didn’t live near the river, for that matter – but I figured it was the weed skewing my perception, making me see the flowers as being much taller and stranger than they actually were.
“This is some wicked stuff,” I thought. “Really creeps up on you, though. You think you’ve straightened out but then off you go again. Weird. Like… extended-release weed. Are they growing that now? I haven’t heard anything about it. Wow. Look at those little plastic dudes over there with the mirror neckties. They’re like some freaky new set of Lego guys. Wow.”
I sat there in la-la land, watching the parade of nonsensical visuals for several minutes before a sharp rapping on the car window got my attention. For a minute, I thought Callie’s eyes were spinning, speckled – like what you’d see in a kaleidoscope – but then that faded and I was able to focus.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I assured her. “No. What was in that stuff? Did you lace it with something else?”
“No,” she laughed. “Why?”
“It’s just some kind of Afghani stuff. It’s good, but it doesn’t cause hallucinations,” she said.
Then she was gone and I was sitting in school, and the teacher was yelling at me. That wasn’t cool. I was confused and getting really uncomfortable, and then Callie was back, leaning across me and popping my Sergeant Pepper’s CD out of the player. “You didn’t hear anything I just said, did you?”
“No,” I admitted. “I don’t think I should drive.”
“No. It’s probably where you came out into the night air. It just hit you again,” she suggested. “Come on. You can crash here tonight.”
So I went back in with her, and we ordered pizza and listened to more music, and over the course of the evening we managed to figure out that something in my brain was making me actually experience the music that I was hearing as a sort of hallucination. It started when a song came on; it went away when the song did. It was most noticeable on songs with weird lyrics. Like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” And it completely overrode any contradictory input from my other senses.
It was the weed. Had to be. Callie wasn’t experiencing anything like this (and was heartily laughing her ass off at me, cuing up every bizarre song in her varied collection). But it had to be the weed. Right?
Well… not really.
I ran my car into a ditch the next afternoon. I was driving home, totally straight and sober, having had a good night’s sleep on Callie’s couch, and without thinking, I clicked on the radio. The local classic rock station was playing “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin, and the hammer of the gods drove my Toyota to new lands to fight the horde, only instead of singing, I was crying, because I hit the ditch with a crash, and found that rather than ice and snow or soft, green fields, my car was mired in mud and rocks.
When the cop showed up, he gave me a sobriety test (since there were no other vehicles involved) and a ticket for reckless driving (since I passed his sobriety test). I didn’t want to sound like a smart-ass or anything, so when he asked me what happened, I told him a bee flew into my car and startled me. I figured that would sound better than what really happened, and it did, I’m sure, but I still got a ticket and had to pay a tow truck to come and get my car out of the ditch.
The tailpipe was dangling and scraping the ground, so I had to have the car taken to a garage. I rode in the truck with the driver, and it was really unfortunate that he was an old-school country music lover. He blasted George Jones and Tammy Wynette songs all the way there. I became convinced that my wife had left me and I’d become an alcoholic with nothing to live for, and when the tow driver shoved me out of his truck at the garage, I was bawling like a drunken moose.
The mechanic was looking at me funny, so I asked to use the restroom, and spent a few minutes cleaning myself up and trying to pull it together. When I could act like a normal human being again, I asked the mechanic to take the radio and CD player out of the car when he fixed the tailpipe. He looked at me funny again and set a grimy-looking telephone on the counter and told me I could call someone to come and get me.
I didn’t want to bother Callie again, but I couldn’t get my brother on the phone, and I really didn’t want to try explaining things to him. He’s kind of a snot and I knew he’d say it was the weed even though it was perfectly obvious to me that this was something bigger than that. So I called Callie, and she came to fetch me, and very kindly didn’t play any music in her car on the way home. She suggested that I get some rest, and if this continued, I should probably see a doctor about it. “I’ll take you,” she promised. “It’ll be OK.”
The thought of having a doctor examine me wasn’t very appealing, but when it persisted for several more days, I realized she was right. I needed help. I’d been mostly all right at home, but when music triggers a bizarre, uncontrollable reaction in your brain, you begin to notice just how ubiquitous music is in public places. I guess it’s supposed to make things relaxing and pleasant, but the grocery store, for one, was a nightmare. After spending half an hour with their “Soft Sounds of the ’80s” in my head, which prompted me to fall in love with the produce manager and later propose marriage to a cashier, I was escorted out of the store. I’m not sure I’m allowed to go back there again.
Noise-canceling headphones, strictly speaking, don’t cancel all noise, but they did prove helpful. They muted the music sufficiently to allow me to ignore it when I had to go to Wal-Mart to purchase socks and underwear. I was doing just fine until the cashier got huffy with me. I removed one earpiece long enough to see what she wanted, and inadvertently caught a snippet of Lynyrd Skynyrd on their sound system. Then I was standing on the register area’s conveyor belt, flapping my arms and trying to fly away just as the lyrics insisted I should. I certainly wanted to fly away, but I wasn’t quite as free as a bird, and I still needed to pay for my socks. Being Wal-Mart, this behavior went more or less unnoticed, with the cashier merely sighing and muttering, “I’m gonna have to ask you to get down from there. Your total is $27.92.” I adjusted my headphones so the world became silent again, climbed down, and swiped my card so I could get out of there.
When Callie took me to the doctor, a guy in the elevator was listening to Aerosmith on his iPod, loudly enough that I could hear it. Callie had to whack me in the jaw to get me to stop humping her leg, but there were no hard feelings. Fortunately, the waiting room was devoid of music. There was a TV set in the corner, but Callie clamped her hands over my ears when the peppy little jingle for the erectile dysfunction drug came on the screen, and we avoided any further embarrassment.
The doctor, as expected, ran a bunch of tests (including drug screening, I’m sure), and couldn’t figure out what was going on, which clearly annoyed him. He seemed to think I was making it up, and when no simple answers came from the test results, I was pretty sure he didn’t believe me at all. There was some shouting when Callie overheard him drop the word “hypochondriac” to his assistant.
He referred me to a neurologist named Dr. Baggett, who did some more exams and scans, and also couldn’t quite figure out what was going on, but rather than get testy about it, he seemed curious and fascinated. He had me come back a few times, and he did some research, and had me try some different medications (which didn’t help and made me depressed) and tried some meditation exercises (which didn’t help either but made me feel like it was all going to be OK).
It stumped Dr. Baggett, which I think is probably pretty hard to do. His best guess was that it might have been a very unique combination of head injury, neurochemistry, and drug use. He cautioned me that because we didn’t know exactly what set it off, I should avoid recreational drugs for the time being. “Some people really shouldn’t take drugs,” he shrugged. “Everything’s fine and then one day they get a batch of something just slightly different, and their neurotransmitters go wacko. You may be one of them.”
I wore my headphones everywhere I went, trying to prevent further incidents. I declined offers to go out for drinks, regretfully sidestepped my cousin’s wedding invitation (earphones would’ve been frowned upon, and I was sure that wedding music would be a disaster, in light of my condition), and tried to get used to a quiet life.
I did occasionally listen to Yes or the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd. If I couldn’t enjoy a joint now and then, I could get stoned without the aid of chemical assistance just by listening to Dark Side of the Moon.
Needless to say, my musical aspirations were pretty much over. My guitar sat in the closet until I gave it to Callie so it wouldn’t feel unloved. She gave it a good home.
Gradually, through experimentation in the safety of my home, I learned that I could listen to certain specific kinds of non-lyrical music without incident. I’d never been a fan of classical music, but I grew to enjoy Bach and Schumann, although Liszt and Beethoven were too unpredictable and dramatic and I didn’t trust myself to have that sort of thing going on in my brain.
I tried checking out some music with non-English lyrics, but it seemed to have a similar effect. Even if I didn’t understand what they were singing about, my emotions ran amok. My mother was convinced that I’d miraculously found religion when I accompanied her to a Christmas cantata by a German choir and had to leave because tears were streaming down my face.
One day Dr. Baggett’s office phoned and asked me to come in for an appointment. When I arrived, he was very excited, and said he’d read about something that he thought could help. “It’s a drug that’s been used to control seizures,” he explained. “There are some off-label uses, but it’s mainly an anticonvulsant. That’s not why I think it could help. We don’t need the effect that the drug is used for; we want a particular side effect. It’s not a common one, but it’s significant enough among certain patient populations – and I think it might help.”
“You want me to take a drug just to get one of the side effects?”
“Yes! That’s it, exactly,” he beamed.
“What kind of side effect?” I asked.
“It seems to cause loss of perfect pitch in people who had perfect pitch before they started on the medication. I’m thinking it might disrupt the effect you get from music.”
I thought about it, listened to him explain the potential issues and benefits, and finally agreed to give it a try. I was pretty sure I’d never had perfect pitch, so I really didn’t have much to lose. The other possible side effects – nausea, headaches – somehow didn’t seem as worrisome as the possibility of having something much more than a feeling if I accidentally heard an old Boston song on someone’s car radio.
Did it work? Oddly enough, yes, it did. As Dr. Baggett had suspected it might, it disrupted the harmonics of the music enough to stop the strange hallucinatory effects.
And it had an unforeseen plus. You’d think that if everything sounds off-key, it would make horribly discordant noise out of whatever you listen to, but it doesn’t.
Everything just sounds like jazz.
© Copyright 2015 by Patrick Redding.
Header art via Pixabay.
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This Week at Gatewood: July 19–25, 2015
by Frasier MacKenzie
Hello, and thanks for stopping in!
Here are our features for the week of July 19–25:
Thursday: “Aspie Boy,” short story by Phil Mayhew
Remember, the Friday photo can be downloaded for free as a meditation card for your phone, tablet or computer. Share, print, ponder… enjoy!
Our Special Assistant brought us some fun this week:
Be sure to follow @docnicholas on Twitter for daily updates on Journal posts as well as all sorts of humor, animal pics and rescues, and other tidbits of interest.
You can also subscribe to Gatewood Journal and receive a monthly newsletter with all our features for the month. Like a weekly wrap-up, only monthly, because we don’t want to overload your e-mail box. Like a magazine, only digital, because we love trees.
That’s it for the Gatewood Weekend Wrap-Up for the week of July 19–25, 2015. Enjoy your weekend, and visit us again soon!
Photo via MorgueFile.
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by Phil Mayhew
I am sitting in my mother’s car in the Dollar Store parking lot, and the sun coming through the windshield is getting hot. She’s left the keys, but I’m trying to wait as long as I can stand it before I put down the windows or turn on the air conditioning. This, to her, would be additional evidence that I am defective; any boy should be able to stand a little sunshine. Children are supposed to enjoy being outdoors in the sun.
A rattle-trap truck pulls in beside me and shudders to a stop. It’s splotchy with mauve paint that I’m sure was red at one time, as red as the shiny Confederate flag stickers that border the back window. No one in this town would paint a truck mauve. I smell smoke as a woman with hair dyed the color of coal hauls herself out of the driver’s seat, taking a last huff from her cigarette before she scuffs it out underfoot with her flip-flop. She gives the door a hard slam, adjusts her grubby orange shorts, and strides into the store.
I look at the truck more closely, now that she’s gone. The seat is patched with brown duct tape, and the dashboard is messy with mail and crumpled cellophane wrappers, but there’s a newish black steering wheel cover with bright yellow snakes curling around the wheel. There’s also a pair of shotguns on the gun rack in the back window. The truck windows are down; anyone could reach in and take the guns. We could have a shooting right here in the Dollar Store parking lot. But there’s no one else around right now, and I don’t like guns. They’re loud – startling, up close – and that makes me nervous. (This is further evidence that I am defective, says my grandfather.) The ones in the truck window are just something else for me to worry about while my mother is in the store.
To try not to think about this, I start a game in my head. My new teacher taught it to me; it distracts me from whatever’s making me upset by getting me to focus on something I know – like letters and words – and pairing them with something I don’t know as well, like math or geography. Sometimes I take a word I see – like “Ford,” on that car over there – and give all the letters a number and then add them up. F=6, O=15, R=18, D=4. 6+15+18+4=43. That was kind of hard, for me, because I think it ought to equal 615,184. The game I like best uses the alphabet and you go through it thinking of names of places. Africa, Belgium, Canada – like that. Denmark. England. France. Germany…
The dashboard clock reads 12:34 now, and I tap my fingers on my leg ten times, as I do every time I see a digital clock that says 12:34. Not 12:43 – the numbers have to be in order. I try to remember what time my mother went into the store. I have no idea. Nor do I have any idea how much time a person would reasonably spend in the Dollar Store. It’s hot. I reach over and flip the keys, hesitating while I consider whether to start the car or just put down the windows. I don’t really want to have an open window between me and the mauve truck, in case the coal-haired woman returns soon – open windows invite people to talk – but maybe putting down the windows will make me less defective than starting the car. I put down the windows.
The coal-haired woman comes back to the truck, throws her bags inside, and climbs in. She lights a cigarette before revving up the motor and pulling out of the parking lot, and now I’m torn. Do I leave the windows down and try not to smell the smoke (which almost never works), or do I put the windows up and start the car and risk being thought more defective? My mother will complain if the car smells like smoke. She already thinks I’m defective. I start the car and turn on the air conditioner. Maybe I can run it just long enough to cool off and then turn it back off before she comes out.
I watch as several more people come to the store, get what they need, and leave again. None pull in beside me like the truck did. None are remarkable, except for the woman who is nicely-dressed enough to be noticeably not from around here. Her hair and dress give her the appearance of someone who works in an office, and I wonder how she came to be shopping in the Dollar Store of an out-of-the-way town of 1,500 people. Maybe someone died. (This occurs to me because I notice some cars parked at the funeral home next door.) Sometimes people who don’t live here come for the funeral if a relative who lived here has died. I can’t imagine any other reason why someone would be here if they didn’t have to be. I try to recall if her face looked sad. I don’t know.
I’m not very good with knowing how people feel from their facial expressions. My mother smiles sometimes when she’s really mad at me. People hide it sometimes when they’re sad. It’s very hard for me to tell from their faces.
Eventually I see my mother coming outside with her shopping cart. I’ve forgotten, while I was wondering about the nicely-dressed lady, to turn the engine back off, but it’s too late now. I get a glare from my mother, and this makes me very nervous, so I jump out of the car to collect the bags from the cart for her. I feel incredibly anxious but I don’t know how to remove the glare from her face. I think about the phrase non-glare glasses that I heard the last time we were at the optometrist’s office, and my train of thought goes off into imagining that non-glare glasses would keep you from being stared at the way my mother is staring at me now, as though I haven’t any sense. I don’t know how long I’ve been thinking about this when I feel my arm being yanked sharply as she bends down and hisses in my ear that I’m being an embarrassment, and orders me back into the car.
Then we’re in the car, creeping through town toward the grocery store. My mother is grumbling about the price of something in the Dollar Store being too high, and this, I gather, is why we must go to the grocery store as well, even though the Dollar Store has groceries. As we approach the post office, I remember that she had a letter to mail, and I point, tentatively, not wanting to get yelled at for interrupting her rant. At the last minute, she veers into the post office parking lot.
“Why can’t you speak up?” she scolds. “Am I supposed to be a mind reader?” I’m not sure if this is one of those questions I’m supposed to answer or not, so I don’t say anything, but then realize that she’s complaining about me not saying anything, and I become incredibly anxious and feel sick because I don’t know what to do. “Go put this in the slot,” she says, handing me the letter. The stamp is upside down, and this bothers me, but I know better than to say anything about that. I’ve done that before. The post office doesn’t care. My mother cares, but not in a way that’s going to make her fix the stamp. More likely I’ll be yelled at or belted for it, so I don’t say anything, and try not to look at the letter as I go into the post office.
The post office building is old, and it smells kind of like school and kind of like the doctor’s office my mother used to take me to when I was younger. That was before my father went to live in the place with the ten trains. I’ve counted them, of course; going over the bridges to get to the house where he lives with his sister, there are exactly ten sets of railroad tracks. He’s an engineer, but not the kind who works on a train. My mother took great pains to make this clear to me when she took me to see him the first time. My father said it was probably so I wouldn’t get excited about visiting him. He didn’t say that to me. He was talking to his sister, and I probably wasn’t supposed to hear it. I’m thinking about this so that I don’t notice the smell so much in the post office. The smell makes me feel sick. I hurry and drop the letter in the slot, and run back out to the car.
Then we’re nearly to the grocery store. I wish I’d brought a book to read. If my mother spends as much time in the grocery store as she did in the Dollar Store, I may feel sick enough to throw up. She says she won’t be long, but her idea of a long time is very different from mine.
She’s been gone only a few minutes when the sun comes back out and the car gets hot, and I realize that she didn’t leave the keys in the car this time. I could open the door, but there are more people at the grocery store, and opening the door would be like inviting them over to talk, and I don’t want to do that. I try not to think about how warm it’s getting. I try to think of a plan in case I feel like I’m going to throw up. I could use one of the bags from the Dollar Store to catch it. They never completely fill the bags. This is wasteful; this usually bothers me, but today it doesn’t bother me as much because I can shift the contents of one bag to another and use the empty one for a sick bag, if I have to.
Having a plan makes me feel a little less sick, so I sit and look at things, since I don’t have my book. There are signs in the front windows to let everyone know that watermelons, baked beans, ice cream, and carckers are on sale. The sign about “carckers” makes me notice a funny taste coming into my mouth – something like metal. I know it means crackers, but knowing doesn’t keep the taste from happening. I shift my view away from the front windows.
I notice the sandwich shop down the sidewalk from the grocery store, where there are several older men gathered on the sidewalk, spitting and hitching up their pants and talking about old men things. I can’t hear what they’re saying, because the outdoor loudspeaker is blaring Johnny Cash, but I’ve seen enough old men do this around town that I know they are probably talking about the weather and their gardens and who got laid off at the factory. If they’re there a long time, they may move on to complaining about the government and how the Braves need better pitching.
Johnny Cash is singing about shooting a man just to watch him die, which I’m pretty sure is something he just made up for a song. The sick feeling I’m getting makes me think the old men really would shoot a man just to watch him die, especially if he were too different from them in some way. I wonder if there are any trucks in the parking lot with open windows and gun racks. I think there probably are. I look away from the old men and try to be invisible, try not to let my defects show, though it’s not like I have any control over it, not really.
I notice that there are dark streaks running down the concrete wall under the letters that spell out GROCERY – DELI. There are tiny birds’ nests in the G, O, and C, and a sparrow peers out from the G. I hope the old men haven’t seen the sparrow. I don’t think they have.
Then I notice that the light fixtures are full of dead bugs. There is a strip of three-inch packing tape, about a foot long, hanging between the two light fixtures nearest the sandwich shop. The tape is covered with dead bugs. This doesn’t seem very sanitary, to be so close to the sandwich shop, but neither does the group of old men spitting on the sidewalk. I stop looking at things outside the car.
Alphabetical geography, world cities: Aberdeen, Beijing, Calcutta, Damascus…
After I finish a game of this, I feel calmer, so I go back to noticing things, but not outside the car. Things outside the car are too unsettling.
In the console between the seats is a jumble of things that belong to my mother: a notepad from some church organization, many pairs of sunglasses, nearly as many tissues with lipstick blots on them, breath mints and cough drops, pieces of a phone charger, a pen. The funny taste in my mouth has developed into something like metallic lemons, so I open one of the breath mints and chomp on it. It’s peppermint. After a minute, my mouth tastes like minty metallic lemons and I start feeling sick again, so I spit the mint into its wrapper and drop it into the trash bag hanging from the gear shift.
The notepad catches my eye next, and by the time my mother returns to the car, I’ve drawn ten squares in four rows on the corner of one page, crossing them, then crossing them again at a ninety-degree angle to the first cross, then connecting them. I quickly snatch this page off the pad, crumple it tightly, and drop it into the trash bag, replacing the pad and pen in the console so my mother won’t know I’ve been drawing and yell at me. I get out and carry the grocery bags from the cart to the trunk.
“Oh,” says my mother, “did I forget to leave the keys in the car?”
I nod, glad to have the air conditioner running again.
“Why didn’t you come inside and get them?” she asks.
I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a taunt; there’s something in her voice that makes me think of the boys at school, just before they attack someone. It must be a taunt. The entire reason I’ve stayed in the car while she shopped today is because of the scene it caused the last time she dragged me along into the Dollar Store. I know she hasn’t forgotten about that. She will never let me forget how I embarrassed her when I got so upset about being hemmed in between two groups of shoppers in the narrow aisle. I got so jittery and shaky inside that I couldn’t breathe and fell down on the floor. All the Dollar Store workers and customers were gathered around, staring at me when I woke up, and they were too close, all their strange smells and the feel of their hands, rough and sweaty and nicotine-stained, and I couldn’t stop screaming and crying. They kept whispering about calling an ambulance and my mother yanked me up by the arm and dragged me out to the car, telling the store workers how sorry she was. “There’s something wrong with him,” she told them, her face red. “He’s sick. I’ve got his medicine at home.”
But there wasn’t any medicine at home, just my mother screaming at me about how embarrassed she was. There wasn’t any medicine to make me better. I was “defective,” she said. Like when you get a pen that doesn’t work, no matter how you scribble or bang on it or take it apart, piece by piece. “You showed yourself, and now you have to take your medicine,” she said, whacking me over and over as I cowered in a corner of the kitchen, trying in vain to draw myself into a small enough ball to roll away out of sight.
We had been to see the new doctor earlier that day, the one whose office was near the city of ten trains. My parents rarely did anything together anymore, but they had both taken me for the appointment. They had both been in the office when the doctor talked with them about Asperger’s syndrome and anxiety disorders. They had both been at the kitchen table later that afternoon when my father’s sister talked with my mother about the testing she’d done with me. She works at schools, and this is her job. She asks children about numbers and words and has them look at pictures and do block puzzles. I did very well on the puzzles and quizzes, and for this, I was sent to a doctor.
No – that’s not right. That’s what I thought, but my father explained it differently. I was sent to a doctor because the people at school thought there was something wrong, because I don’t speak in class, because I don’t play with other children at recess, because I pay more attention to what’s going on in my head than what’s going on in class. I made 100s on all my language arts tests, but my teacher thought I was cheating because I didn’t pass anything else; that’s why my father asked his sister to give me tests. I don’t cheat. He told my teacher this, and she said I needed to see a doctor, not the kind you see when you’re sick, the kind that looks at brains. I was sent to a doctor because I don’t act like other children, and they think something’s wrong with you if you don’t act like them.
I had been nervous about the doctor, but his office was very clean and neat, and he didn’t smell like alcohol or have needles lying on a table nearby like the doctor at the old hospital did. He was calm and asked very clear questions that were easy to answer, not hard questions like the ones my mother yells at me when she gets angry. I remember feeling waves of relief, that finally someone understood the fear and uncertainty that lived in my head and took over my body all the time. The relief didn’t last long; my mother refused to let me see a doctor for “bad nerves,” as she called it. It didn’t stop her from informing the school that I had been diagnosed with a form of autism, which I don’t think was true but also wasn’t exactly a lie. No one seemed to doubt her.
Since she’d done that, I’d been put into a different classroom with a teacher who never slapped my desk with a yardstick or threw books across the room like the other teacher did. This new teacher spent most of her time coaxing the alphabet and numbers out of the five other children in the room, but I was allowed to read my textbooks however I liked, as well as other books, and every afternoon she spent an hour going over my work with me while the others colored or played Snakes and Ladders. Once a week I took a test for her, filling in dots with a number 2 pencil. If I did well, she brought me a New York Times crossword puzzle book. When I finished my textbooks and passed tests on them, I got the next set. I had been moved from a fourth-grade class, and now I had seventh-grade textbooks for language arts, a fifth-grade textbook for science, and third-grade textbooks for math and social studies. We did not have gym. We had yoga stretching, and breathing exercises.
My face stings suddenly, and I realize my mother has just smacked me while I was thinking about something else. “I asked you a question!” she shouts. “Listen to me when I’m talking to you!” I was right; she was taunting me when she asked why I didn’t come into the store to get her keys. Knowing this doesn’t help me know how to answer her question, which wasn’t really a question so much as a way to make me feel defective. “There really is something wrong with you,” she grunts. “Something bad wrong with you, Aspie Boy.”
I don’t like it when she calls me that. It’s different when my father calls me that; he smiles when he says it, and I know he means it in a good way, like a fun nickname you get when people like you – Buzz or Ace or Flash – something like that. When my mother says it, she always has a taunting tone, something angry and disgusted and snarling in her voice.
This makes me very nervous and upset and I start to rock in my seat so I won’t cry, which will surely set her off again. “Stop that damn rocking!” she yells, swatting at my chest. I grip the seat tightly, trying to make myself stop, but it keeps going, just smaller movements, and I pull inside myself until I can’t tell whether my body is really rocking or if I just feel the motion. I flail around wildly, in my mind, grasping for something to focus on, something to take me away from what’s happening right now. I feel too anxious for doing math in my head right now, so I go to alphabetical geography, U.S. cities and towns. Albany, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Edmonton – no, that’s in Canada. El Paso. Fresno. Green Bay. Houston. Indianapolis. Jacksonville. Kansas City. L…
When I finish my game and look out again, the car is parked diagonally in front of a shop on Main Street where my mother goes to get her cosmetics. They’re cheaper at the drug store, but she says this shop has “a more personal touch.” I can see her now through the window, holding out her hand as the lady tries a new nail polish color on her.
I feel calmer now, alone in the car. It’s not too hot since the sky is now overcast. I look at the signs around the shop window. They don’t just sell cosmetics. They also repair computers, and you can buy the latest Halo game here. If you don’t like video games, you can rent a movie from their DVD library. They don’t have Blu-Ray yet. You can also call them if you need locksmith services, or if you need to have your car towed. The wrecker is parked right beside me, a hulking black truck; from my seat in the car, I am looking straight into the center of its hubcaps. Its hood is higher than the top of our car. I look into the shiny silver hubcaps, wondering if my defectiveness is something that shows on my face.
I wonder if I started over at another school, a bigger school in a larger town, if it would be the same – if the teachers in the classes for “normal kids” would stalk around the classroom, bellowing at children who’ve made mistakes on their papers and refusing to let them go to the restrooms. Would kids who don’t know me think there’s something wrong with me, or would there be others like me – enough that we would just be different, not defective? I don’t know. I’m okay in my class at school now, since it’s quiet and I can study by myself and just ask my teacher when I have questions or need things. I still get taunted and threatened and roughed up on the bus, but that would happen anywhere, wouldn’t it? They’d know, just like my mother says she always knew there was something wrong with me.
My mother returns to the car, looking happier now that she has a bag of new things to make herself feel pretty. She even smiles. I don’t trust her smile, but I think I might be safe until my father comes at six o’clock to pick me up for the weekend. I’ll be okay as long as I don’t do anything stupid or embarrassing or strange. As long as I don’t show myself. Can I manage to not seem defective for – I look at the clock on the dashboard – four hours and thirty-six minutes? That seems like a really long time to manage something I can’t control.
Atlanta. Birmingham. Cleveland. Dallas….
© Copyright 2015 by Phil Mayhew.
Header art via Pixabay.
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Photograph via Pixabay.
by K.C. Collins
When I was ten years old, my family moved from Manassas, in northern Virginia, to a tiny town called Alkadel. Manassas is not exactly the center of the universe or anything all that wonderful, mind you, but it’s a stone’s throw away from D.C. Even when I was a small child it was not uncommon for Dad to drop me off under the supposedly watchful eye of an older sibling to spend the day at the library or the Smithsonian. (This was the 1960’s and the crime rate then was not the concern it is now; parents might worry about the White House being burned down or picketed, but the thought that their baby might be picked up and carried away or fed illegal substances by strangers had not yet entered their heads.) Alkadel, by contrast, was a flyspeck on the map, and that only if it happened to be a really detailed map. The nearest art museum (if it could be called that) was perhaps a two-hour drive away. There was a local library. It was a one-room affair which shared space with the tax assessor; sometimes it was even open, when they could find an old lady willing to sit there all day and wait for the droves of readers who never came. Usually this was a retired school teacher who frankly couldn’t care less if anyone came in or not; no patrons meant she could spend the afternoon reading or napping in peace.
Now, Manassas is a town of some history; there are markers around to commemorate various civil war events, and the occasional costumed contingent of confederates in a holiday parade or something. But the members of the town council of Alkadel had somewhere along the line become possessed of the idea that their hamlet was of singular historical significance, as there had been a salt works there during the American Civil War, as well as allegedly having been home to various little-known historical personages–or, rather, relatives of said individuals. In back of the Methodist Church there was a cabin, widely believed among Alkadelians to have been the birthplace of the sister of the mother-in-law of General J.E.B. Stuart’s aide-de-camp. They had “restored” it (meaning they had plastered new cement into the cracks between the rotting boards) and they had erected a sign in front of it not only to attest to the veracity of this tale but also in order that the tourists might find it easily when they arrived. Never mind that there were no tourists, other than those lost souls who ventured into the mountains every year, or the few college students who still returned to visit families now and then. The tourists would come; Alkadel was “gonna be a boomtown” – or so said honorary mayor-for-life Vern Griggs, a pudgy gentleman with the facial expression of an overexcited bulldog.
By 1974, when we moved there, this prediction had not proven true, needless to say, nor did it appear likely to happen during my lifetime. Still, my father was optimistic (though not quite as delusionally so as Mr. Griggs), and there he planted us. The move was occasioned by my father’s forced resignation from the school where he taught; the community college near Alkadel seemed one of the few places in the state which had not heard of the allegations of my father’s involvement with the communist party. Or perhaps they had heard but simply could not believe that anyone not born in the Soviet Union would choose communism over good old American capitalism, and thus disregarded the rumors as so much nonsense.
My sister Claire, fifteen years my senior and a piano teacher, was welcomed with open arms by the music-lovers in the area; it was to her that they sent their darling children in the hope that one day little Susie might grow up to be on the Grand Ole Opry (locally considered the epitome of musical success), or, at least, become the regular church organist. I think my sister took a truly demented sort of satisfaction in drilling these children on nothing but scales until she grew bored herself, and then propping a book of Bach in front of them, assigning the same piece over and over and over until Mom snarled that she was going to have a seizure if she heard that Burnette kid mangle that concerto one more time.
Mom did not adjust well to the move. Always high-strung, never what one might consider a socialite anyway, she held out as long as she felt reasonable. Then she went to the youngest of the three local doctors (the only one who did not have the reputation for giving penicillin shots for everything from appendicitis to yellow jaundice), and demanded the Valium which, under the circumstances, she considered her inalienable right. He agreed, and my memory of Mom during the next few years consists of a silhouetted figure blowing smoke at the television in the den, the curtain drawn aside just enough to make sure nothing horrible was happening in the backyard.
It was my brother Rob who became my ally and partner in crime at this time. Rob was ten years older than me, and had spent a year at college before deciding that he didn’t know why he was there and agreeing with Dad that it would be better if he figured this out before he tried it again. Since leaving school he had worked at a variety of jobs (which is a tactful way of saying he was fond of calling in sick to go to concerts). My favorite of the ones he’d had in Manassas had been his job as an Eastman Kodak film sales rep; it had been his job to go to stores and collect outdated film, which he was supposed to deposit at a recycling facility. Often he brought rolls of this black and white film home for me to try out in my Brownie Hawkeye camera which I’d been given by an uncle, and which I often used to distance myself from the events around me in which I did not care to become involved–holidays, family outings, moving to small backwoods towns–things of that nature. Thanks to Rob, I had enough film stashed away from the six months he’d worked there to keep things at a safe distance from me for several more years. (I had also learned from him that you could store it in the refrigerator indefinitely, a tidbit of information my mother certainly wished I’d never received, as she had to dig past stacks of little yellow boxes of salvaged film whenever she needed the mustard or mayonnaise.)
Currently, Rob was working at the funeral home down the street from our new house. He didn’t have to do much; he washed and waxed the hearse once a week, swept the garage, and drove the van to pick up the dead bodies. Most of the time he spent sitting in the back room, reading and waiting for calls. I often went with him to work, and when I was there we usually listened to the radio and played poker (which he’d taught me when I was seven). He was the one generally charged with “baby-sitting” since my sister had piano students at the house for whom she was responsible and therefore could not be expected to keep an eye on me as effectively as she otherwise would have. This was fine with me, since when my sister had been issued baby-sitting duty, her idea of a good time had been for me to watch her at her dresser experimenting with new lipstick. Rob, however, found interesting things to do, even if it was doing nothing; at least it was done somewhere other than our own house.
Since arriving in town Rob had made two new friends named Lucas and Shakespeare. Lucas was a soft-spoken, anemic-looking fellow who wore an army jacket year ’round with a confederate flag patch on one sleeve, a Led Zeppelin patch on the other sleeve, and pockets that bulged from the little plastic packets he carried; he was the local drug connection, I learned. “Shakespeare” was thus nicknamed, I discovered, because he carried with him a small pocket notebook in which he could often be seen scribbling. I asked him once what he was writing and he retreated nervously into his wall of lank, dark hair. Rob told me later that he had peeked into the notebook once when Shakespeare had passed out from drinking too much Boone’s Farm; it had been full of poetry, quotes from Nietzsche, Pink Floyd lyrics, and cubistic caricatures of the locals.
I was with these three when Rob decided to take acid for the first time. I was twelve years old. The idea of “dropping acid” was somewhat alarming to me at first until it was shown to me and I saw that it was not like the hydrochloric acid we had in science class at school (which would, I figured, eat your insides out). We had gone out to a rock quarry where there was a deep though not very wide lake. This was where the locals often deposited new cars that couldn’t be paid for, or so I had heard; I imagined a veritable mountain of cars rusting deep beneath the surface of that placid green water. This, too, was where some of the more eccentric locals would gather early in the morning on certain holidays and re-enact civil war battles, complete with costumes, horses and period firearms. Occasionally, after a night of drinking, one or two of them would wander over to the quarry at two in the morning and take target practice with those same period firearms and their empty beer bottles, until the sheriff would come out in his pajamas and confiscate their weapons and argue with them over their constitutional right to bear arms, usually winning out in the end by pointing out that while the constitution may give them the right to bear arms, it does not necessarily give them the right to shoot them.
I considered it my responsibility, then, whenever we came out to the quarry, to be the lookout against these characters. Instinctively, I knew that they would probably just as soon shoot at my brother and his friends as beer bottles–and I knew, as well, that I was probably the only one there who wasn’t too stoned to notice if we had company. Already I had once been given the wheel of Shakespeare’s car when they had felt the need to go and find food but felt themselves incapable of driving. I had carefully parked unseen in back of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store where Rob proceeded to spend the next twenty minutes gazing up at the revolving yellow smiling pig atop the front entrance while Lucas intoned “Piggly… Wiggly…” over and over to himself as though extracting some heavy-duty enlightenment out of the words. I’d finally given up on them and taken money out of Lucas’s pocket, leading Shakespeare into the store with me to collect munchies.
The first time Rob did acid, however, they had managed to have their wits about them a little more than usual. It was a warm spring day, and the water in the quarry was a deep blue-green, shimmering in the late afternoon sun. I watched with interest for the first thirty minutes or so, as my brother and his friends were usually pretty entertaining when they smoked pot, but this time he did little more than sit there with an absent look in his eyes. Actually, he looked a little depressed. Lucas was talking to him periodically, mostly, “Hey, you ok?” and getting little or no response. I was bored, so I got my camera from the back seat and began to wander around the quarry, taking shots of this and that, figuring if things got interesting I’d hear them easily. I’d just begun to use color film recently, and I wanted to get some shots of the water, deep aquamarine, glittering in the remaining light. After awhile I got hot and tired, and I walked into the woods to sit and cool off. Shakespeare wasn’t far away; I could see him sitting on a rock overhanging the water, hunched over his notebook. I couldn’t see Rob or Lucas but I could hear Rob’s voice rising periodically in annoyance as though he wanted to be left in peace to mull over whatever was happening in his head. Mostly, though, it was quiet. In fact, the air seemed so still around me, it was almost eerie. I was getting jumpy; the sun was going down and I was getting startled over the slightest sound. Something just felt weird. I lit up a cigarette I’d gotten from Lucas earlier and paced around the little clearing to shake off the strange feeling, then marched back out to see what was going on with Rob. I saw him sitting on the ground in front of the car, holding his head and rocking back and forth.
“Rob!” I said sharply. “What’s going on?”
He slowed down and peered up at me. “Mom…” his voice trailed off.
“No, dumbass, it’s not Mom, it’s me. What are you doing?”
He took my hand solemnly. “Mom’s going to see the dead confederates.”
“Uh-huh. You’re not making any sense,” I muttered, starting to walk away.
“No!” he shouted. “Listen! We need to get a ouija board, so we can talk to her. She’s going with the general.”
Lucas was chuckling, pouring some peach wine into a plastic cup over by the car. “You’re out there, man. You’re talking some shit.”
Rob gazed into my eyes, his own as glassy as the surface of the water below. It felt weird, like it had out in the clearing a few minutes ago. I looked at my camera, saw that I had a couple of shots left, and put a bulb into the flash socket. I squatted low in front of Rob, waited until he looked up, and snapped the shutter. The flash bulb exploded in a brilliant blue-white flare. Rob’s eyes widened in horror, then amazement, and he reached out, touching air. “Look,” he pointed, “she’s disintegrating… it’s like millions of little specks of glitter… why aren’t the dead confederates all sparkly like that?”
“I dunno, Rob, maybe because Mom’s not dead?” I suggested, getting a little irritated with him. This was getting old fast, I thought. Rob stared at me wonderingly, as though he had to individually process each word I’d said for a whole minute. I popped out the burnt flash bulb and flung it far away, watching it smash on the rocks. Shakespeare actually lifted his head to see what it was, and even chuckled. But most of the evening was a total bust, from my point of view. Rob sat around staring and occasionally muttering something unintelligible about the soldiers, and Lucas babysat him, talking him through whatever catharsis he seemed to be having. Shakespeare wrote in his notebook. I crawled into the back seat of the car and fell asleep after awhile.
I woke when I heard the car crunching onto the gravel of our driveway. It was just after eleven, I saw, looking at my watch in the dim glow of Lucas’s lighter I’d pocketed. Rob was half-asleep; I had to keep grabbing at his arm to get him into the house. Once inside the house, I noticed that the television was still glowing in the den; Mom was probably watching the news, I figured, so I tried to slip quietly past the door and into my room, thinking Rob would follow suit. Rob, however, was drawn to the doorway like a moth to a porch light. I heard low voices as he and Mom talked; I left him to fend for himself, and collapsed into my bed.
A little later I was awakened by someone shaking my shoulder insistently. “Wake up,” Rob was whispering loudly. “I gotta talk to you. Wake up.”
“I’m awake,” I yawned, sitting up, wondering what time it was. “What is it?”
“Mom was watching TV while we were out,” he said.
“So?” Mom watched TV day in and day out now; it was a rarity to see her do anything else.
“No, listen… guess what she was watching,” he persisted.
“Dead confederates,” he hissed. “There was some movie on about the civil war and that’s what she was watching tonight. Just like I saw. Isn’t that weird?” he marveled.
“Weird… yeah,” I agreed, intrigued despite how sleepy I sounded.
That night I had the most amazing dreams; it was as though I had taken on my brother’s trip, he having tired out and fallen asleep. I dreamed in translucent double-exposures, dreams of railcars full of coffins, bursting with flowers… soldiers who marched off into nothingness, leaving behind only their spooky shouts and the smell of gunpowder… and I dreamed I watched as Shakespeare duly recorded everything into his notebook, the ink flowing out of his pen in iridescent silver lines like something out of a sci-fi flick. I heard the world fall dark and silent, as quiet as I imagined outer space would be. And then the train reappeared, an ancient, sepia thing of insubstantial iron. It braked just ahead of me; the conductor, looking vaguely like Lucas, stepped off and looked for me. I hesitated only for an instant before I swung into the car and settled into my seat for a ride that shot straight into the technicolor sunrise.
© Copyright 1999 by K.C. Collins. Republished 2013, 2015.
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This Week at Gatewood: Weekend Wrap-Up for February 23-28
Photo courtesy of MorgueFile.com.
by Frasier MacKenzie
Hello, and thanks for stopping in! We had some really good stuff going on this week, including poetry from Hugh Mitchell and a piece of short fiction by Patrick Redding that I really don’t know quite how to describe. They’re both surreal, and of course Patrick’s is very funny. You’ll just have to read for yourself.
Here are our features from the week of February 23-28, 2015.
Monday: “Choose Your Path,” photography by Boris Brdja
Tuesday: “Dimension Dementia,” poetry by Hugh Mitchell with “Going Swimmingly,” artwork by Zengael
Wednesday: “How to Cook a Piano,” short fiction by Patrick Redding
Thursday: “Three Things Thursday,” post by Johanna Rigby, part of the gratitude/appreciation event started by NerdintheBrain.com. It happens weekly, and it’s open to all, so if you have a blog and want to join in, please do! If you’re on Twitter, the hashtag is #threethingsthursday (with the number spelled out).
This Friday our photographer P.L. Miller tried out a new twist on a regular feature we’ve been doing each week; we’ve usually posted a photo with a quote as a sort of meditative exercise as we go into the weekend. The difference this week is that they’re incorporated together into one JPG file that you can download for your phone (or tablet – we haven’t tried that yet, but the resolution should be fine). If you like, you can print it as a regular 4×6 photo.
Here are some fun memes posted this week by our Special Assistant @docnicholas:
For more fun and the latest updates, follow @docnicholas on Twitter. If you’re on Twitter, say hello and give him a star or RT. You’ll get the purring without the hair on your clothes!
Speaking of Doc Nicholas, he informed me this week that the top search terms typed in by people when they find our site are “sex,” “tears,” and “religion.” We both thought that was just a little bizarre. I’m not sure what’s going on with that but I hope you’re not terribly disappointed if you were looking for one of those things!
That’s it for the Weekend Wrap-Up for February 23-28. Have a great week!
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And Make Up Stories
by Patrick Redding
I wake at six o’clock, too early to get up, too dark. My head aches, wakes up the little bird who reminds me to take some more pills. They never run out all at the same time. Always I’m left with one lingering symptom or another, nothing ever coming out even. Everything coming out odd. I take more pills to complement the ones still in my system, go back to bed and hope everything comes out right the next time I wake. It doesn’t; the ones I took merely slowed down the release of the others, so I wake up stoned.
We talk about the movie we saw yesterday, a surreal wash of free-associating forms that slipped from one reality to another as easily as a dream. A shared vision, a way of seeing invisible things, a lucid dream extending beyond the rectangle of canvas, encroaching so subtly that my own reality shifts and becomes questionable. Hubcaps become dinner plates. A birthday candle, cloned and copied, becomes a torchlight parade. The boundaries of reality are mostly imaginary anyway, cosmic longitude and latitude lines. We keep them there for comfort.
Suppose everyone is an artist, capable of altering the focus, shifting the view, in such a way that the viewer will question their own perceptions for months, years, afterward. Suppose we are all simultaneously artist and viewer, audience and participant.
Not everyone would be cut out for such an art show, of course; some would go mad, blathering on about angels and fire, having to be sedated, medicated, quarantined before they infected the others. Some would be disappointed because they expected a picture of melting watches and instead got their own house full of clocks mangled into shapes so bizarre they’ll never be able to explain to the cleaning lady. They’ll require plastic surgery to remove the dripping Timex from their arm. None of them will ever be able to tell time again, and why would they want to?
I have no idea what time it is. Time for breakfast, she says, listening to the yowling of my stomach. Wasn’t it sick last night? Was that where all this started? It’s empty now. The sun is out, and I’m warm, and there is a sparrow nesting in the bed beside me but we must get up, get dressed. Was I supposed to be at work today? No? No school either? Then let us nest, let us rest awhile longer. Let us lie among the fresh white sheets and make up stories and flirt with words.
But the growling drives us out, and she forages in the kitchen and comes flittering through the hallway with bottles of juice and cherry cheese bear claws. She comments on a preview we saw at the movies, something with Donald Sutherland. She isn’t talking about the preview itself so much as about Donald Sutherland, who, she informs me, is incredibly hot, now that he’s old enough to be interesting. She isn’t old enough to have seen him when he was younger except in late-night movies rerun on Channel 17 when she was in grade school. This is how she entertains me while I brush my teeth and take inventory of my bones and do a system check to see which joints might function properly today and which ones won’t.
I’m stuck at the sink; my head feels fine but my back feels twice its age (done got old, can’t do the things I used to do, at least not without help straightening out the next morning) so she slathers it in menthol and pops it back into a standing position so I don’t feel quite so much like Darwin’s unmentioned ape-cousin. It will stick again when I sit down in the study, but as the day grows older my bones grow younger and by late afternoon I’ll be doing things I ought to know better than doing again.
She reads my scribbled notes from a dream in the middle of the night and promptly diagnoses it as unresolved frustration with my mother. “How very Freudian,” I remark, watching her drain the last drop of juice from my bottle. She shrugs, grins, elaborates as she reads my notes aloud: I received a text message on my phone but it was in the form of a crossword puzzle; it was from Mrs. Pitts, an elderly lady who lived across the way when I lived on the other side of town, and Mrs. Pitts wanted me to call so she could tell me all about the terrible things going on in the neighborhood.
Cross words from an old lady, the little bird chirps, perching on the arm of my chair. She dissects the pun of Mrs. Pitts; her name a sardonic metaphor for a peach of a woman, the hard, bitter, poisonous core hidden under fuzzy, saccharine platitudes. My mother always calls to tell me who’s sick or dying or dead back home, bless their hearts. I don’t know most of them; I moved away more than half a lifetime ago. The roll call of the dead never ends. It’s a small town; you’d think they’d eventually run out of people. The implication is that it’s all my fault, that none of these terrible things would ever have happened if I hadn’t left.
Displaced guilt, the little bird coos, grooming my disheveled hair. Don’t let them impose their reality on yours. The sun is out and the sky is blue – let us lie in the cool green grass and burrow in the colored leaves and formulate a theory of clouds as continents in some other more mutable reality. Let us adopt some acorns as our children and give them the names of gods and watch them grow and stretch their roots in the good, dark earth and wave their branches in the air – conductors of a magnificent neo-transcendental symphony.
The little bird flits away and I hear her tinkering with the stereo, putting on a Randy Newman song I haven’t heard in years, “In Germany Before the War.” I don’t have this on disc – or on tape or vinyl or anything, for that matter; I lost it years ago and never got around to replacing it. But realities blur and bend and fold themselves over, sometimes they do, and she plays the song straight from the memory in my head (an unreliable media, to be sure – not nearly as secure as a CD and far less convenient than a USB drive). “We lie beneath the autumn sky, my little golden girl and I.” Forlorn piano, haunting voice. “I’m looking at the river but I’m thinking of the sea.” Thinking of the sea. Thinking of the sea. Thinking I can see.
I close my eyes and we are lying on the crunchy frost-bitten heather of the bald on Ragged Mountain, underneath the wide open sky. A huge white bird circles overhead, sweeping spirals as its feathers catch the sunlight, shifting from white to silver and gray, back to white. It circles, predatory, waiting. Could it pick me up, bear me away like so much carrion? I feel her clasp my hand. No – it couldn’t. It doesn’t even look real, I think. As I watch, it flies higher and higher until it disappears. Out of sight, out of mind. Out of mind, out of being. What is real? The afternoon sun is warm, and my bones breathe fire and drink electricity. That is real. I half-close my eyes and drift into shimmering dreams of golden birds. I am born again, a new man. Let us lie here awhile and make up stories.
© Copyright 2005 by Patrick Redding. Republished 2011, 2015.
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