Sal wakes me with a hammer. A great disembodied silver hammer, it seems, for the few seconds it takes to wrap my head around what my eyes see.
Is this your dildo?
He giggles. That’s bad, I think. Sal doesn’t giggle.
No. It’s not my dildo.
I say. Not yet sure how to play this. Not yet sure if I’m talking to something inside or outside of me.
Right. I can’t believe I touched your dildo.
The silver hammer is a an oversized rubber mallet wrapped in aluminum foil. I wrapped the head with aluminum foil to create a sterile surface. To break up the sheets of rock candy and peanut brittle I spent nights making as cheap gifts for the dozen or so people I am spending Christmas with. A slight departure from the solitary confinement, box of wine, three-day bad science fiction television marathon, that has become the holiday in my middle age.
The lights in here are BE-A-U-TI-FUL.
Sal says, letting the mallet fall to the cushioned floor of the Blue Room. He sticks his face inches from a string of Christmas lights that line one wall. Like a fat seal belly to the summer sun.
I should explain.
In the corner of my sister’s house, accessible by basement, is a two car garage. In the corner of that garage is an industrial heater. When faced with a forecast of constant familial closeness, during a dense stretch of holiday times, I decided to carve out a personal space.
I curtained a 10 x 14 foot perimeter around the heater in blue tarp. Floor to ceiling, so warm air might want to stick around. I blanketed the concrete floor with the coat tails of the tarp (to lid the dust). I then covered the floor tarp with a linked puzzle of foam utility pads (home is a foot cushioned from cold). Then for mood, I lined one wall with chubby multicolored holiday lightbulbs, and unscrewed all but three (because it was too much mood).
The light from the garage windows, in the five hours of winter day, casts the room in the hazy calm of a shallow underwater Mediterranean sea. Also, the three Christmas lights I did not unscrew are the exact same shade as the wall tarps. So at night the redundancy of color square off a little fish tank in a corner of a corner of the world.
Hence the Blue Room.
I furnished the room with stuff I found in the garage. Artifacts from lost eras, the signposts from defunct life changes, and the things that the dead leave behind for others to fit in the basements and attics of their lives.
There is a re-gifted cot with a Walmart sleeping bag. There is a radio with a cassette player. There is a lamp that I used as a nightlight when I was a child who needed a nightlight. There is a 50 inch big as GOD flatscreen TV, exiled because it came to symbolize all the shit we shouldn’t care about in the twilight of our lives. There is an exercise bike, judiciously used.
There is a coffee table that my Grandfather crafted by hand, for my baby-faced newlywed parents, that my father immediately decided to drench in a stain that can only be accurately described by a sentence containing the words “shit” and “green”.
And then there is me. And there is a door that closes to the outside of me.
Now, in the months I’ve been on this cancer journey thing with my sister, when there are hospital appointments, and there are always hospital appointments, I tighten myself. I flex the authoritative muscle I was born with, and I am a presence and I am capable of navigating nuanced waters. I can make terminally ill people laugh, and people who are smarter than I am would follow my orders in an earthquake.
I have no idea why this is. It’s something I’ve always had and certainly did not earn.
At my sister’s house I cook. I sterilize. I chauffeur. I try to cushion the weight of the situation as best I can. I do these things not out of good intentions but out of selfishness. The pain of seeing someone you love go through this is only salved by utterly useless attempts to reduce that pain.
I live in quiet. To keep my soul just above the cold limbs of lonely, I work out. I throw stupid amounts of weight into space and am always a little surprised when I don’t snap under them. And I hike. I walk aimlessly into the muffled white woods until I come out on some other side.
But in between those moments I cave myself in blue.
In the Winterlands, just staying warm can fill your days. You can be exhausted from staying in bed. You have to heat your mind to heat your blood to heat your hand to brush your teeth. Beards are functional and a beer belly qualifies as a base layer. You have to remove hundreds of pounds of frozen matter to walk next door.
Outside, the white squared snow roofs patch the grey skies. I have given myself away to being buried. I sleep without framework. Sometimes two hours. Sometimes five. With no habit to where they fall. I eat ridiculous combinations of things. Dark chocolate and chardonnay salami. Aged cheddar cheese and wasabi cashews.
I spend obscene amounts of time building crappy furniture to fail at filling hyper specific destinies. My immune system goes all Woody Allen every other week. I watch television shows developed and produced by my id. I share the darkness only with my darkness.
I feel so fucking good. I never want to not feel this good.
Sal says, still bathing in blue. He delicately picks up a random roll of duct tape lying around (an essential building material for crappy furniture), and slowly wraps it around his forehead. Delighting in the maneuver as though piloting an experimental plane.
Sal you’re wrapping duct tape around your head.
I say. A brilliant negotiation maneuver.
It’s OK, it will regenerate.
Sal says. And I’m going to shut my face now. I google a quick search of symptoms to see if I can diagnose what the hell this kid got into, and what to expect.
A thought casually floats to mind that this might be how I die. And another that this would be a fitting end.
Sal is one of those kids the world welcomes with a kick to the teeth.
Born to a family that as far as I can tell, from the very start, used him mostly for profit. Whether for the government kick, or for other more damnable schemes. A self obsessed father, lost most of the time to prison. A cracked out, destined to recycle whatever cycle she grew up in mother, lost to just lost. Some siblings: some dead, some living a life not too far from it.
All any of them ever gave him was a poisoned paradigm for love.
Before reaching double digits in years, this kid had a doctorate in foster families and abuse and the millennia of ways we fuck each other to fill our own needy dark holes. I think somewhere in there pieces of himself fractured to survive. Fled on lifeboats in different directions. Landed. And built systems of habitation unique to each separate isle.
So now, as an adult really only in the eyes of the law; there is the handsome charming courageous hustler grasping to the edge of the cliff of a functioning society. There is the brooding sultry lost-boy that comes back bloodied from bars, and hooks up with a different batch of undergrads each new semester. There is the little boy soul that plays video games all day in stink ass socks, and only knows how to cook hamburgers. And then there is the scorpion that stabs as you ferry him across stream.
And then there are the faces you don’t see.
As long as I can remember my sister and her husband have been sheltering kids like Sal. Maybe just over a half dozen, by my hazy count. Giving them a bed or couch to crash on when there are no others. Sometimes for years. Picking them up from the hospital or the police station or their mother’s. Being their one telephone call. Being their safe place. Being their last chance, again and again.
Repeatedly being stung, but somehow still afloat. Still trying to make it across stream.
All of these kids are amazing. Some of them survive the nut-job teen years, and become really interesting men. Some have no hope of not sinking their own ship. But I guess how many of us are capable of that, anyway.
But my sister and her husband would hate me saying anything. So I’ll leave it there.
Do you want to go eat with me?
Sal says. His face a rainfall of joy. As if it’s the first time anyone ever considered consuming anything simply for the pleasure of it. He is slowly unwrapping the duct tape from his head. Unaware of the pieces that come off with it.
Absolutely. I absolutely do.
I say. And just like that, the air in the Blue Room settles. The words ‘I am OK with this’ land on my mind as though some skilled mason laid them simple and plain.
Sal is slathering tablespoons of mayonnaise on cuts of pork loin. This is partly my suggestion. I am serving as a concierge for a tour of foods you can only eat together in certain contexts of consciousness.
We are standing in the refrigerator and window lit, lean kitchen. We are having quiet conversation. And by we, I mean Sal and myself and every other willing participant of the senses: a recently burnt mushy candle nub, a winter coat fluffy puff of a cat, the cool smooth sea tile floor, the melodic clap and clack of wind-chimes. Every input has equivalent value. And, to borrow a phrase, that value is fucking ELEVEN, man.
I am watching the thought process rattle through this kid’s head. The product is always a bad stage actor doing an inventor’s eureka moment. Yes, bubbles in liquid are A-MAZ-ING. And television. Yes I have really, really thought about television.
What most people don’t know about small towns is that they’re cul-de-sacs for rage. Big cities – anger is a constant percentage of life, but it can flow in a million ways. At least it owns the option.
In the city, whatever you’re feeling, at least ten thousand other souls in a five-mile radius are in the exact same place. There’s a crazy uncle Bob who hates the IRS/Russians/China/Immigrants/the Senate/white rich people/himself – every square quarter-mile. He sleeps on every 14th couch or air mattress, in every apartment complex, on every block. There are seven thousand nightly calls to 911 to get him more ice for his whiskey.
In L.A. I am not surprised when a man walks down the middle of the street at midnight twirling a Ka-Bar in hand. Just give it a wide berth. Have an escape plan. Move on to the next thing.
In a small town in Upstate New York, when two old men nearly duke it out one afternoon in the grocery store, it nearly etches itself in town legend. Fewer stories have to fill more dead air.
In an urban context, when anger manifests and explodes past its bounds – a heart breaking tragedy that devastates beautiful families or dense, unique, small communities – can feel just part of the damn choir of things.
In a town where there are ten thousand souls total, the crazy is spaced, but there’s less ways for it to channel. It pools in small bodies, forms its own idea of a food chain, and waits for prey.
If you’re a late teen or an early twenty-something dude who had the hands of trauma laid on you early enough in life, so much so that ten years later you’re still not even able to begin to comprehend how it affected you – your entire existence is the management of rage.
It nudges you awake. It rolls with you through the day. It bubbles over about the same time everything in town closes down for the night.
You’re broke, because you’re not the type that can hold down a job, or really even wants to. So you steal/borrow/beg pocket-change from family or friends. You return bottles and cans to former classmates in shitty uniforms. You struggle and whine about meeting a quota you set yourself, every day.
And then you hurl yourself out doors into the wind stirred star pocked night. You search out places and ingest any offering that helps you numb the thoughts that might have been lit by day. You chase the very last thing happening until it knocks you fucking cold. You can only sleep at the bottom of the sea.
You are incapable of seeing anyone else’s side. Those that give a crap about you will drown in your long wake, and you won’t realize it until much, much later. If at all. If you survive.
A silver hammer dildo would be a fitting end for me, because I was once the kid waving it at the world. Part of me always will be waving some ridiculous thing in front of someone else, for no damn reason but a dance of pain.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to wrest from my subconscious a complete accounting of the consequence of my wake.
Sal has moved to the TV room. He is caught in a loop of passing out and texting some lady friend. Like a baby falling asleep eating an apple, waking and eating an apple, falling asleep eating an apple. It’s an entertaining little show. Though I wonder where I’d be in life if this scene were more absurd than familiar.
When a cancer treatment moves through chemo to radiation therapy, you read a ton about balanced systems. Cancer is the overreach of cells that have no cap to their ambition. They can’t get enough of themselves. They need to see their ugly names and flawed faces superimposed over every creation. They bubble out over beautiful works.
The current era of medicine treats this ridiculousness with other versions of ridiculousness. Chemo works by injecting things that attack growing things into a system that survives by making things grow. Radiation works by hiring cells that are excited beyond their normal boundaries to break the balls of cells that are excited beyond their normal boundaries.
It is literally the equivalent of two wrongs make a right. Balancing an off kilter system through unbalanced means.
And it all feels a little too cute. Like genetically engineering a poisonous wart to grow on an indigenous oyster as a means to control an unchecked population of invasive seagulls. Like electro-shocking ourselves un-depressed.
I wonder if we’re playing in the land of too clever. Giving ourselves diseases and curing them in the same bath water. Not really knowing what started it or what it all sets in motion.
If I’m honest with myself, though, that’s probably all we’ve ever done.
Still, I’d like to hear what the Future-Us will think. If the meteors or super influenzas or the black holes or the plastic bag islands or the great melting – give us a chance at perspective. A chance to study our long wake.
But for now, for cancer, for my sister, for all those I meet in small waiting rooms, it’s the right thing to do. Fry it away with hairspray, if that’s what it takes.
When I face this way there are angels, but when I turn that way there are demons.
Sal says. He has climbed back to consciousness to find himself couched between the bright primary colored glow of the television, and the dark golden tungsten of a window lit by street lamp. It’s an understandable archetype to reference, if a little dramatic.
Don’t worry, man. That’s normal.
I say softly. Sal blinks without sight in the direction of my voice, as he immediately fades back to sleep. And I know, whatever happens, I am on this kid’s side. And I am truly thankful for the mirror he has played.
‘I am OK with this,’ lays the phrase mason over the scene.
I am a middle-aged child completely in the breeze. In the land where I was raised, yet as far away as I’ve ever been from any familiar thing. Feeling hardened and clear eyed and hefting great emotional weights, all while watching the flood-mark for being lost as a functional member to society, raise above what I thought was sky.
An unbalanced system, helping balance an unbalanced system.
To the Future-Us, I concede: it may seem funny, the how of these things.
A wonderful read.