I could feel the ancient spirit of my irrevocably Catholic grandmother’s glare penetrating through my devastated consciousness with the fury of the Inquisition—my father’s nurturing mother, a widow for half a century who never remarried after a drunk driver sent my grandfather to his untimely death, my religiously and patriotically fervent, wizened, matriarchal grandmother whose eat-all-your-peas passion was more than strong enough to guarantee to even the worst skeptic that the goodness of the Holy Spirit will invariably defeat Evil every single time, my eternal-hugging yet stern-disciplining grandmother, from beyond her grave, gave me that crushed mothering look of bitter disappointment that shattered my soul into supernumerary shards of foreboding shame. I had just bitterly shred her heart into illimitable pieces at the complete irreversible understanding that I, her very first grandchild, had casually squandered away my eternal salvation.
A silent tear rolled down her cheek, condemning my soul, and as she slowly evanesced into the misty horizon, I called out.
“But I didn’t do it. He did! I wasn’t even there!”
I knew, however, deep within the most inaccessible regions of my viscera that, although he was on the verge of doing something unconscionable and potentially fatal long before I had met up with him that fateful dusty afternoon, I had more than helped him to leap over the line that separates good decisions from those that morph reckless and chaotic impulses into aggressively questionable actions from which there is no return. His lifeless body hung motionlessly from a rafter in the ceiling, a macabre human piñata filled with volatile visceral chemicals, a motionless, slightly bloated corpse with wide bulging eyes, looking as if it were eager to explode into a sinewy sebaceous, chaotically connected network of web-like filaments at the slightest prick of a sewing needle, the darkened bluish-gray, gravity-defying ashen mortal coil dangling from a hempen cord through dancing dust-laden, pallid morning sun-rays, and I knew that in some post-modern, Faulknerian, unregenerate Southern way, I was responsible for his suicide.
At the novelty store, I hand the clerk a shot glass, and he runs off to the back.
“He’s going to have someone etch the year on it. Won’t take long. Gonna give it to Andy.”
“You might wanna change the year,” Jasmine muses. “It ain’t like y’all just started drinking this year. Y’all been at it for a while.”
“It’s for graduation.”
She smiles wanly.
“You sure look great,” I say.
Again she smiles a soft smile, sincerely, but something’s on her mind. I become hopeful as we stroll the aisles chatting, looking at the various items for sale, trying hard not to show my excitement. The clerk returns with the shot glass. After I pay him, Jasmine tells me, “We gotta talk.”
Unintentionally, I quicken my pace. It seems like an eternity as I sit and excitedly wait for her on a bench just outside the store in a small courtyard, but I can still smell her lingering perfume playfully wrecking pleasant havoc on my sensibilities. I take the shot glass out of its bag and look at it admiringly as she shuffles toward me.
“My friend hasn’t come this month,” she whispers.
I abandon the shot glass to the wooden ledge of a planter next to us, and I look at her, my eyes earnestly imploring for help. Noticing my complete befuddlement, she says more sharply, still trying to whisper, “My period!”
Suddenly surreal, everything around me slowly melts, a deliquescent shifting of my perception and sensibilities, the entire mall thumping rhythmically into the visual vicissitude of Capitalistic images in varying shapes and sizes and colors all mocking my pain. I see her at the prom in that beautiful red gown, radiating with the ecstasy of Midas at the initial understanding of his gift, that exuberant giddiness that precedes the realization that happiness is fleeting, that total immersion into a self-absorption that seems to belie reality for an eternity, that anticipatory signing over the soul to Satan to learn what the blues really mean. I lucidly recall when she had told me that she was going to the prom with Warren and my heart’s sudden destruction as when the two-mile wide meteor slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula. I stared at her numbly as her voice shot through me into the outer reaches of the universe. I didn’t even take a date to the prom, just hung out with my best friend Andy and an amber bottle containing a sweet splash of liquor that kicked me like a mule until I puked on a chaperon and was unconsciously escorted home to face the wrath of my father and a purgatory of accusations I could in no way deny. It was so clear. How could I have not seen it? A few months later it was obvious how far she let him penetrate her pudendal bastion. He had planted his seed into her fecund field, never considering the possibility of fruition. Then left her.
I had been wistfully dreaming about hopping a freight train to nowhere since first grade, more of a whim really, a romantic adolescent fantasy churning in my crayola-infused imagination as I listened in my bed at twilight to the coupling of boxcars slamming together in preparation for epic journeys out, away from my house through the most remote places on the planet that harbored magical kingdoms and fire-breathing adventures. Trains regularly wove through the tapestry of my hometown Columbus, Georgia. Wearily laid tracks sinuously slithered down the center of 9th Street towards Phenix City, Alabama, heading west towards every sunset, crawling over the Chattahoochee River that, itself, sinuously slithers endlessly, southerly, towards Apalachicola, Florida then into the Gulf of Mexico. I knew that one day I’d hop that train just to discover its pulsing potential. Even as I hopped inside a slowly moving boxcar, it felt like a childhood dream.
I had been in the boxcar for a few days or so, passing time any way I could: hitting my pipe of weed, humming, whistling, dreaming, dangling my legs from the opened portal during star-sated nights that obligingly reached for infinity from my solitary space in the universe, listening to the almost incessant clickety-clack of the track’s humming rhythm along the rickety tracks, feeling the landscape jostle my bones.
I doggedly climbed into another brooding freight car after the train I had previously boarded came to rest in a small hissing train-yard somewhere in the continental United States; we had been traveling mostly northwest, so I figured I was in America’s heartland, somewhere in beef country. Slowly, rhythmically, the landscape morphed from small town urban chaos into a more bucolic serenity, and I stared at the far wall of the acrid boxcar I had indifferently chosen, an amorphous amalgamation of refuse I couldn’t quite make out but vaguely resembled varying cardboard boxes strewn alongside distant hills of burlap, old clothes, driftwood, dust and ashes, the likely remnants of vagabond survival, but as I stared at the darkened mountainous silhouette, it seemed to quicken, breathing a steady rhythmic ebb and flow as if it were a mass of heavy energy, darkly foreboding, startled into an impending puissance, roiled into an existence created exclusively for my destruction. A heavy-hanging, billowy cloud drifted from under the sun suddenly releasing a steady stream of sun-rays that blasted into the littered boxcar and revealed two mendicants, desperate, ashamed, and angry that I had violated their personal asylum.
They took all my money (which wasn’t that much), my shoes, and my sweater; they left my shirt and jeans and a ragged sock, the only articles of clothing I was allowed to keep. After pummeling me to semi-consciousness, they threw me out of the boxcar. That’s all I remember. When I awoke, I was in a bright room, silver and stainless steel flashing at me monitored by a sterilized person wrapped in white cotton strips of cloth that covered everything save a pair of intense, dark eyes. Another set of eyes popped before me followed by a dark oxygen mask coming toward my face at incomprehensible reality. Everything went black.
Instantly back, I heard the various whirs and bleeps of electronics, and I knew I was in a hospital’s intensive care unit, where I think I spent the next few days. Since I had no insurance, I was released almost immediately, roaming the streets of Gallows, Montana. The pain killers were quickly wearing off, and I needed an anodyne immediately when I saw a sign that slightly brightened my spirit: Longbranch Saloon, just like back home, but as I passed through the door, I was roughly bumped into by a patron who was leaving. With an audible grunt, I went down on one knee, the thud rocking the foundation of the Rockies, sending crashing waves throughout my body then out my wrenched shoulders, tears flowing like mountain waters, which caused a fairly sizable ruckus for the half-dozen people who invisibly sat scattered around me.
“Oh my God! Isaiah? Is that you?
There was no mistaken it. I had come to loathe that voice. It was Warren, son of Colonel Daniel Hardsock. The weasel that left the only woman I would ever love, crying endlessly eternal. The soambitch who got her pregnant. Then left like a coward in the night. But I was in too much pain to lash out at him.
“You look horrible. What happened?”
He could tell even before he started to speak that I could not effectively communicate.
“Here. Let me get you a drink.”
I couldn’t count how many shots it took, but after an eternity of the most unforgiving pain I had ever experienced, I started to slowly crawl out of the cave lined with broken glass and rusted barbed wire into a soothing relief from the pain’s violent sharpness. Warren’s emotions then flowed like pyroclastic effluvium from Vesuvius as I slowly misplaced the anguish of my contorting agony.
“I can’t believe it’s you… you…”
He went on and on ad nauseam as my lips anxiously reached for more relief from an empty shot glass, my tongue desperately searching for the magic of more anesthesia, my desire to kill the pain by which I was embraced matched only by my desire to choke Warren until his eyes burst out of his fucking head, to kill him deader than any other man had ever died. After a while, his hysteria decreased, and he slowed down, tears still falling, voice still quivering, body still rapidly shaking.
“Is she all right?”
At that instant, I saw my revenge. He still cared for her. I almost yelled with delight, yet somehow I maintained control. Complete, wicked, control.
“She killed herself.”
His anguish was delicious, the totally defeated moan of an invincible warrior who realizes with his last breath that everything he had ever held sacred was irrevocably wrong. His soul cried out to my utter delight.
A lonesome train’s whistle slowly surges west, its moaning echo in low tones throughout the bar like a weeping willow’s humming the blues of Billie Holiday. I’ve been sittin’ at the Longbranch Saloon back in my hometown since eight o’clock, steadily nursing shot after shot with my head down, slumping over alcohol stained wood, fingering the lip of the glass that Joe keeps refilling, both of us silent, absorbed by the thick air that hovers over Georgian red clay like the breath of an ancient dragon awaiting its final suspiration.
Ten o’clock in the morning, and it’s already hot and humid enough to make the sun itself dream of Arctic coolness as the rusted door to the darkened bar opens wide, aggressively flashing intense light in rectangular brightness that overwhelms her silhouette until she steps further in, banishing the aggressive rays outside. As the door to the dilapidated lounge closes, my eyes adjust, and she slowly steps into focus, an illuminated angel appearing before rural simplicity as my pursed lips reach for assurance from an empty shot glass.
“Morning, Joe,” she says to the portly bartender.
“Jasmine,” he returns. “Want anything?”
“No, just stopped in to… Isaac? Is that you?” She shifts her 18-month child to her other hip. “Excuse me a sec, Joe; it’s my… Isaac!” she says as she turns to address me with an enthusiastic passion that makes my soul bleed.
“My Lord, son. Where’ve you been? Does your mother know you’re home? Where have you been? What have you been doing?”
She walks over to sit at a table adjacent to the bar, adjusting her child on her lap, talking a mile a minute, which seems like the incessant chugging of the locomotive heading to Elysium, an all too familiar eternal drone languidly begging me to stay, helplessly imploring me to go. I sidle to an awaiting chair and plop down.
“What’s the matter Isaac?” she asks, looking at her gurgling child, “You look kinda down. You thinkin’ ‘bout something serious. Is that Southern Comfort?”
I pause. An infinity of silence before I almost whisper, “I found him.”
She’s speechless. I see her eyes dazzle briefly, but in that same instance, just before I continue, her understanding becomes complete.
Russell (Rusty) Allen Taylor