One-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying, Purple People-Pleaser

Recently, I shared an excerpt from my short story “Travis is Fired” with an English teacher at a nearby college. He gave excellent feedback, but he was also curious about the long-term stakes of the story. Where was this story going? What was Travis’s story arc? What kind of person was he, and what was he going to face?

Travis’s flaw is that he’s a people-pleaser, a man who keeps his world under control by making everyone around him happy. Or, at least, those people he deems worthy of happiness.

He also has an uncompromising sense of justice, and his expectations for others are so rigid they’re brittle. As you might guess, Travis’s personality doesn’t get along with itself.

As painful life events rain down on Travis, he devotes his energy into caging his frustration. Since he has chosen not to express his displeasure, for fear of upsetting others, his displeasure decides to express itself. It manifests as a whole other character that whispers to Travis in the dead of night.

This freakish doppelgänger, who calls himself Ralph, encourages Travis to release his rage, to say what he feels and then some. Travis realizes that this might be good for him, so he takes Ralph’s advice and lashes out at those he dislikes.

At first, this expression is therapeutic, but before long Travis is alienated. Family and friends are frightened at his transformation. Horrified that he’s hurt people he cares about, Travis becomes infuriated with himself. Ralph’s hissed suggestions turn to ceaseless berating, and Travis sinks into depression. He hits bottom in a dirt field, where he bleeds himself in the blazing summer sun.

I don’t want to go much farther into the plot. I just thought it was interesting to think about. It’s fascinating that people distort their views of the world. They need to keep it in a state that appears stable and familiar and safe, and if they can’t, they become afraid. This clamor for security, this need for comfort and steadiness, is so severe that people will go so far as to alter their behavior in irrational ways to satisfy it. They won’t even realize they’re doing it most of the time, and if they do, they won’t appreciate being called out for it.

Our minds are fragile and difficult to repair. Hopefully Travis can make it.

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Support Beam Excerpt 6

And the story closes. Thanks for reading!

6

You don’t have to tell me what you’re feeling. I’ve told it to myself, and with significant amplification. I know what you really think.

I can hear you, and I understand what you’re saying, but I know it’s not honest. You speak in hope and fear and desperation, and as I’ve learned, people aren’t completely honest in that state.

More than that, though, I want you to stop speaking because I can’t tell you to shut up. Since I know what you really mean, I need to stop hearing it. All I can do is take in the veiled chiding, the hidden disappointment, with no way to quiet it or brush it aside. I know already, believe me, I know.

It’s not a lost cause, though. I’ve created a hum in my head to drown you out. I just think of the words “I love you, too” over and over now, and it seems to help. I just wish you could hear it, so you could stop blaming yourselves and go away.

I love you too, I love you too, I love you too.

Support Beam Excerpt 5

Here’s Chapter 5.

5

Icy winds slashed the house by the time I was done cleaning it up. My final task was to clear the rain gutters. Digging out slimy leaf clumps while enduring the cold front was a hell of a job, but I got through it. I still hadn’t seen any sign of Mom. I began to wonder if she’d had a heart attack and collapsed in her clay. I knew better though.

My checklist complete, I had trouble thinking of things to do. I knew that I needed to look for a job, or for classes to enroll in, but such ventures felt irrelevant. I felt like I was exiled from all that, stuck aground while the currents rushed around me. I didn’t even know if that was by choice or not.

One afternoon I sat on the living room sofa and stared at the turned-off TV set. It was a big, black, sixty-inch HDTV that loomed over all else like an Oceanic telescreen. I never cared for television programming, but staring at the blank screen felt strangely relaxing. What a spectacular waste of money. At least Aaron got some use out of it. Mom was rarely home to watch it, but she was proud to own it anyway. It was the same with our internet service: Mom didn’t even know how to double-click, but she liked knowing the internet was there.

This train of thought lifted me from the couch and carried me to the study, where we kept the family PC. The study was once Mark’s bedroom, and there was still something Mark-ish about it, and entering it gave me the sense that I was intruding. I felt like Mark was going to jump out from somewhere and tell me to quit my snooping. I even felt that way during the hours I’d spent cleaning it.

I switched on the computer and opened the browser. Mom’s home page popped up: the website of the Jesse Altadonna gallery in San Francisco. It was where most of her art was exhibited and sold. The center of the page showed a large portrait of the gallery. Plain white walls and parquet floors. Paintings hung and sculptures posed. It reminded me of the tin-shit building where I attended sculpture class. I rested my chin on my left hand and decided to drift about the site. Smirking, I went to the Artists list and clicked the link that read “Myra Levins.”

Her page drew her out in plain text. Her bio, her curriculum vitae, her exhibits. Samples of her work included a photo of her “cage” sculpture, with the smiling man and woman. I stared at it for a long time, until my eyes unfocused and I fell into a daydream. I forced myself to blink and shook my head. Then I returned to the Artists page and scrolled around before freezing up and gaping.

Near the bottom of the page, between “Jennifer Valdez” and “Richard Werner,” I found “Evelyn Acceptance Weiss.”

It took me a minute, but I clicked it. She only had one exhibit, which had taken place the previous week. The samples showed small, cream-colored sculptures, abstract shapes arranged in a ring on a black display stand. I thought they looked like warped eggs, or river-smoothed stones that were somehow softened and squashed. There was also a diorama, a wooden box painted dark blue on the inside. Set within was a plaster hand in a black lace glove, cut off just below the wrist, with its fingers elegantly curved, as though clutching an unseen cigarette.

I took my hand from the mouse and rubbed my eyes. I realized that I’d been frowning, and there was some sort of heavy rock sitting in my stomach. I took a deep breath and went for the bio. There was only one thing I wanted to see.

And there it was, beneath her date and place of birth: “Evelyn is currently an undergraduate at California State University, Sacramento.”

It’s difficult to describe what I felt. The rock in my stomach seemed to gain mass, and then it dropped further inside me, pulling some of my guts with it. I knew that I needed to fill the cold hollow that it left inside me, and I tried to do it with heavy breaths. Then something gave in my head. It was like a strap was cut, and everything it held back spilled. I rolled my chair away from the computer and tilted forward with my face in my hands. I leaned until my elbows hit my thighs.

First it was laughter. I laughed at things so grand, gangly, and absurd that I couldn’t understand them. I saw a sky filled with weird orange tendrils. They surrounded me, enclosed me, chambered me like mosquito netting. I saw the sun beyond, shooting down on me, burning the familiar blue away with a relentless, emotionless white. I was frightened to be there, but I didn’t care enough to escape.

As you’d probably expect, the laughter rose to a high, choking wheeze, and then tipped into sobs. I dropped from the chair, flopping like a boned fish, and cried on the floor. My strength had gone from me, and I was too weak to lift my hands. Tears and snot slid down my face, and I didn’t bother to wipe them. I just let them drip into the carpet. It was pathetic, and I knew it was pathetic even as it happened.

I became angry with myself. I was pissed for breaking, pissed for crying, and more than anything, pissed for even feeling anything in the first place. I had so much. Even in failing, I had so much. I wasn’t stuck in the ghetto giving blow jobs to make rent. I wasn’t on the streets of Damascus, dodging death squads and mortar fire. I wasn’t scrabbling in the dirt for scraps to eat. I was in suburbia, glowing, green, American suburbia, surrounded with every opportunity to find fortune and pursue pleasure, and I was fucking crying.

Was I suffering? Could someone like me ever understand suffering? Could I ever earn the right to hurt, or the right to express it? Did I even deserve the comforts that graced me in childhood, and that surrounded me now? Obviously I didn’t appreciate them.

Meanwhile, I acted like I knew what was best for everyone else. It was easy for me to decide where Mark and Aaron and Acceptance belonged, so long as I didn’t have to assign a position to myself. This wasn’t because I was lost, it was because I was lazy. The valleys I saw as a child rose into mountains the moment I neared them, and I chose to run instead of rough it. It was too hard.

It was true. That floundering, weeping thing on the study floor was I. This was the person my decisions had turned me into, and this was the place where they had led me to be.

Energy surged into me again. I pushed myself from the floor and stood up. I went into the garage and hit the door opener. As the door rumbled open, I got behind the wheel of the Taurus and turned the ignition. My breathing was very deep, and my vision was very distant. My heart danced a jig inside me. I didn’t know where I going; I only knew it was far away from this house, this town, this world. I was scared of the thought, but a little excited, too.

I backed the car down the driveway, still marooned in that far-off space where my heart and lungs governed. The road beckoned me to a land free from all pains and worries.

Just before my rear wheels could touch the pavement, a stumpy gray van barged up behind me, aiming for the center of the drive. Its driver must only have spotted me at the last moment. The van stopped with a jolt, and I got three angry horn honks.

I couldn’t back the car out any further; the van hadn’t left me enough room to squeeze onto the street. I had no other choice but to put the car in drive and roll back up into the garage. The van backed up a bit, adjusted its angle, and took the free side of the driveway.

I felt that heavy, sinking sensation pouring through me again, not the drop of a single rock but a whole avalanche, that yanked on my innards until they tore. There was no ignoring her now. I got out of the car and slowly stepped out to meet her.

I had to wait a few seconds while she stashed some things in her purse. I could see the top of her gray head through the driver’s side window. Then she looked out at me. I saw my droopy eyes in her face.

“Tara? What the hell are you doing here?” she said.

“I was just leaving, Mom,” I answered.

She got out of the van and shut the door. She stood in front of me, her brow wrinkled, her eyes squinted, and her mouth hanging open. She wore a yellow Snoopy T-shirt besmirched with the paint stains of years gone by, an old work shirt. Her jeans, frayed at the knees and ankles, were similarly stained. Her clothes were very loose and baggy, and I was surprised at how skinny and tiny she looked.

She didn’t hug me or make any other effort at greeting me. She had a battery of questions first, and questions were just what I couldn’t deal with. “Are you okay? Are you hurt? What’s wrong?”

“I’m fine, Mom. I’m going to be fine, but I have to get going now.” I inched back toward the garage.

“But, how long have you been here? Were you waiting to see me? Why didn’t you call the studio?”

“It’s okay. It’s not a problem.” I don’t know why, but I started to panic. I had to get away. I continued to walk backward to the car, but she followed me and maintained the distance between us.

When I got the driver’s side door, I pulled the latch with my left hand and saw my escape just inches ahead of me. I just had to get in. Then Mom seized my right hand.

“Tara, you can’t leave me wondering like this,” she said. “Can’t you stay a little longer and talk to me?”

I was too close to back down now. My mind rocketed to a state of extreme terror, and I needed to leave. Without thinking, I drew my right arm inward, and then threw it out in a swift, jerking motion. The sudden, desperate force of it threw Mom off-balance. She stumbled backwards and crashed into a pair of easels in the corner of the garage.

Terrified that I’d injured her, I hesitated to watch her recover. When I was satisfied that she’d regained her balance, I said, “Mom, I have to go. I’m sorry.” I saw my own eyes staring at me from that corner, giant and lit with fright, and they burned an afterimage in my sight that I couldn’t clear, no matter how hard I shook my head. I slumped into the driver’s seat again, started the car, backed down the drive, and shot out of the neighborhood in one long, blurry motion.

I sped out to the edges of town, weaving through traffic and shooting past red lights. I didn’t think that Mom would try to follow me, but if she did, I wanted to be sure that there was no way her van would keep up.

I realized how keen each of my sensations had become, from the dryness of my mouth and throat, to the grip of the vinyl steering wheel in my hands. All of my nerves were active and afire, and I felt alive and lifeless at the same time. I kept driving, and I didn’t stop until I was far out of town.

Stars poked out of the violet sky. I sat in my car, on the side of the north freeway, and watched them. It was a strangely clear evening. The few clouds I could see were long, thin, and faint, and they stretched across the span of the sky, from one horizon to the other. I wanted to focus on them, to rip my attention away from the fiery memories of Mark, Aaron, and Mom, but the back of my head still ran the images in an endless filmstrip. It ticked away, making cold calculations and scary realizations. I tried to stuff each thought down with a heavy sigh, but I couldn’t make it work. As the sun slid past the round black hills of the west, the conclusion announced itself to me as a question.

You know what you have to do, don’t you?

Mom’s horrified face flashed before me to cement my answer. Yeah, I knew.

I turned the car back on.

I took the next exit that came up and then reentered the freeway going south. I watched for the sign marked “Clemens Rd.” There were some odd detours on the way because of the overpass construction, but I got back to familiar territory in time. Traffic was scarce. The sky was black. The landmark I was looking for stood proudly out from a field of flattened land. Cheap sodium lamps bathed the earth orange. I pulled over to the right edge of the street and stayed put for a while. There were no homes or stores on that side, only dirt fields and weeds. I sat and mulled one last time. I thought about the chances I’d lost, the people I’d hurt, and the people I’d continue to hurt in my bent, broken state. Would they forgive me? In the place of those people, would I forgive myself? I wondered whether living like that would be bearable.

The engine thrummed, and my last doubts crumbled. I was already on the plank, a short walk left ahead of me. What was there was ponder?

I put the Taurus in reverse, and rolled it back into the fields. As I pointed the front of the car at the pale orange spire, I found that the storm in my head was easing up. My muscles were relaxing. I began to believe that this was really the only way that my tale could end.

When I was content that my aim was true, I braked and went to drive. I felt my features harden into a grim expression, and I poured my concentration into getting this done right. Keep the safety belt on, press the gas to the floor, and hold her straight. I can do that. I launched ahead.

The engine spun to a high growl. I accelerated over the two lanes of Clemens, and then shot into the dirt. The steering wheel jerked and twitched in my hands, but my grip never faltered, and I kept the beam in front of me. For several seconds it was distant, a bright spike in a black horizon, and then all at once it filled the windshield. Shocks and tremors rumbled through the glass and metal around me, and I squeezed my eyes shut as a sharp biological spark stung me and I swung the steering wheel to the right.

I thought I heard the skid, but I didn’t hear the crash.

Support Beam Excerpt 4

Here’s Chapter 4.

4

Aaron was one of the better men. At first, his unannounced visits to the house irritated me, but I came to appreciate his company. We didn’t converse much, but just having him around was pleasant. He sat in the living room and played on his phone or watched my mom’s TV while I vacuumed the rugs and washed the walls. He felt guilty after a while, though, and insisted on helping somehow. I didn’t want him getting underfoot, so I found a good job for him.

“You can move some of the junk in the garage,” I told him. “I’d like to try and get the car dug out of there.”

He took to it. Where I was intimidated, he was motivated. He opened a decent berth about the old Taurus after just two visits. Never mind that he’d simply thrown most of the old art supplies on the side of the house; it was work that I hadn’t wanted to handle myself.

“How’d I do?” he said. His face and hair were sweaty.

“Great! Thanks, Aaron! I thought I’d never get this thing free.” I hugged him. His body jolted with surprise in my arms, and then he returned the affection. His right hand found a tight spot on my back and rubbed it. This made me a little uncomfortable, and I kindly broke the embrace.

I wanted to test the car, and I got the urge to shoo Aaron off. Of course, I thought better of that.

“Do you want to go for a drive?” I asked him.

He turned into a puppy dog at that one.

I don’t know how long the car sat buried, but it didn’t have any problems starting and running. I drove randomly, just enjoying the memories that sprung up from each road. Aaron suggested that we “hit a Taco Bell or something,” and I agreed. We didn’t want to eat in the restaurant, so we used the drive-thru and picked up a couple of burritos. Then I continued the circuit I’d made up.

Aaron was already sucking down his food. “Let’s find a shady spot so you can eat too,” he said.

We turned onto Clemens Road and saw the huge mounds of earth that had been dragged around for the new overpass.

“I can’t believe they’re doing this,” said Aaron. “They’re screwing up all the roads. My mom says she can never find the actual freeway entrance now.”

“Well how about here?” I said. I pointed to the empty space that was dug out beneath the new bridge. The road was not prepared, and everywhere it was just plain old deserts of dirt. The massive concrete support beam shot up like a monolith. Above it, a web of scaffolding cast a nice cool place to park.

“Are you sure it’s okay?” said Aaron.

“There are no crews around. Why not?”

I pulled the car off the road. The bumps we hit on the graded dirt didn’t dissuade Aaron from finishing his burrito, though he took a few saucy blows to the face for his determination. I took us underneath the infant bridge and killed the engine.

“Sorry I couldn’t wait for you,” Aaron said. “I was seriously craving this.” He turned his face out the window and let out a quick belch.

“You might want to wipe your face,” I said.

He pulled down the ceiling mirror and attended to the taco sauce on his cheeks. He reached into the bag to take some napkins, and then handed me my burrito. I unwrapped it completely, lifted it, and took a bite. I must have picked the wrong end to start from, because a sizable dollop of filling squirted out from the other side and onto my lap. Some of it got on the seat too. “Oh great,” I said. “Sour cream and everything.”

“Oh crap, man,” said Aaron. “They never fold those things right.”

I put the food back in the bag. “Let me have some of those napkins,” I told Aaron. I set to work wiping off my pants. Then I unbuckled my safety belt, opened the car door, and started scrubbing at the stain on the seat. I knew it wouldn’t come out dry, though, and I gave up. I sopped up as much taco sauce and beef bits as I could and crumpled the napkin. Then I got back in the seat and slammed the door.

“Aren’t you going to eat it?” said Aaron.

“No, I’m not hungry anymore,” I answered.

I stared out the windshield at a wisp of wind-swirled dust and listened to the cars zooming by on the freeway. We sat in silence for about a minute. Then Aaron cleared his throat.

“Have you been doing okay?” he asked. His tone was cautious.

“As best as I can be,” I said, and it was true.

“I don’t know,” he said. “You seem really edgy to me.”

I sighed and decided to let a wall fall. “I guess I haven’t been adjusting well. To life, I mean. I keep having bad dreams.”

“What about?”

“Being in other places, with other people. Cities and families I’ve never seen before. Or being a different person myself. I look in the mirror and see a different face. Sometimes I like the change, but other times it scares me.” I was a little shocked at myself for saying this, but I guess I needed to.

“Why does it scare you?”

“Sometimes I find out that I’ve changed into a man, or that all of my features have been smoothed away, like an egg.”

Aaron shifted in his seat. “Wow. What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know. Dreams are weird. It probably doesn’t mean anything.”

“Where’s your necklace?”
“My what?”

“Your necklace you used to wear.” He meant the gold cross.

“Oh, I put that away. Just didn’t feel like wearing it anymore.”

Aaron looked down at his own lap for a long time. I could tell he wanted to breach a new, sensitive subject, so I waited for him to build up his courage. “Do you…feel guilty about coming back?” he asked.

I told him the truth. “Sometimes, yes.”

“What did your mom say?”

“I haven’t spoken to her yet.”

Aaron started. “You haven’t? You mean she doesn’t even know you’re back?”

“She might know, but she’s been at her studio since I returned, so I haven’t seen her.”

“Is she working on something big?”

“She’s always working on something, and it’s always big to her.”

“Are you pissed at her?”

I thought this one over for a bit. “No. She’s just doing what she does.”

Here Aaron saw his opening. “Well,” he began, and he set his right hand on mine, “I don’t want you to feel bad about coming back.”

I didn’t withdraw from his touch, but I didn’t feel like acknowledging it either. I glanced at his eyes. I saw the same goofy kid from high school, the one who dreamed only of playing Xbox and getting laid. At the same time, though, I saw someone who loved me, and who might want to show it now and then. Especially now. I quickly looked back out the windshield.

“I thought about you a lot since you left,” he said. He spoke very carefully, choosing his words like he was stepping down a steep hill. “I figured it’d be a waste of time to patch things up over the summer, when I thought you were leaving. Now that you’re back, though, I was hoping you might want to try again or something.”

I closed my eyes, sighed through my nose, and let another wall drop. I placed my left hand on top of Aaron’s right. I opened my eyes and turned my head and he was already there. His kiss felt the same as I remembered it, eager, thoughtful, shallow. Not so shallow I couldn’t swim in it, though. I swam until I got lost. Lost was good.

I was wearing a ponytail, and I felt his left hand climb to my scrunchy and pull it loose. My hair fell about my neck and shoulders. He kept his fingers on the back of my head and stroked my scalp. I found this tremendously relaxing, so my muscles slackened and my breathing slowed. His right hand joined the other, and together they tugged at my hair very gently. This felt nice too. I thought that I would fade away and appear somewhere else, in some city or with some family where I belonged and felt happy. I even moaned a little.

Then there was a sudden pressure. Allen’s – I mean, Aaron’s – lips fell away from mine, and I realized he was pushing my head forward. Forward and down. My eyes snapped open, and I saw his rigid penis, excited and curious, stabbing up at me from his thicket of black, stringy pubic hair.

“Stop!” I yelled, and pulled my head out of his grip. I drew back as far as I could from him until my shoulder blades were flat against the driver’s side window. He stared at me with enormous, guilty eyes, and after a second’s thought, rapidly pulled up and refastened his pants.

“What the fuck are you thinking?” I said.

“I’m sorry.” He repeated it again and again.

“Just get out.”

He wouldn’t stop apologizing, so I reached past him and opened his door for him. He shut up and got out. He stood there, a timid mannequin peeking in at me through the passenger’s side window. I looked at his crotch and was glad to see that his erection was stamped dead.

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said.

I slammed his door. Then I started the car and pumped the gas, which made the engine roar. I backed out from under the bridge and pulled left. I heard rocks spew up into my wheel wells. Then I threw her in drive and swept onto Clemens Road, leaving him and his penis in the dirt.

He never came by after that.

Thinking about it now, I realize that I was probably too tough on Aaron. I really shouldn’t have expected a different outcome from that situation, and to his credit, he did stop when I told him to. Besides, I’m not certain that it was Aaron I was angry at.

There was a stupidity in him, a wiry wheel of stupidity that I saw in his face, which stood as an example of everything I knew about the world, and that’s what set me off. I guess that I sometimes hope that someone I know will put their arms out and stop that wheel from taking a grip and rolling, but every time I think that might happen, I am unceremoniously let down.

Support Beam Excerpt 3

Here’s Chapter 3.

3

The following weeks were a blur of hard work and heavy sleep. The house was in an awful state. The garage was only the beginning. After I got my things situated and put away, I noticed the windows of my room hadn’t been washed. Then I saw strands of cobweb stretching across the screens. Then I saw the layers of dirt that caked the windowsill.

My eyes went scanning like that, seeking out neglected corners and untouched moulding. Soon I was out in the hall, and then looking around the kitchen. It was bad. The light switches were grimy. I found spider webs under the stove and refrigerator, some of them still inhabited. The sink and dishpan were turning various hues of gray and orange. I saw dust collecting on the tables, and motley boot prints on the tile (Mom rarely changed clothes before she came home from the studio). I won’t even talk about the bathrooms.

So I prepared a checklist of all the tasks that needed doing, and arranged them by room. I set myself to work on one room at a time, starting with my bedroom. I took the sheets and blankets off the bed and loaded them into the washing machine. I lifted the mattress onto its side, edged it out the door, and pulled it down the hall. I moved it through the living room, and then out to the backyard to air it. I went back to my room and moved the box spring, the armoire, and the desk. I vacuumed the carpet, dusted the furniture, and washed the moulding. I wiped the light switches and cleaned any spots I found on the walls.

Then I considered the closet. I didn’t want to remove all the clothing that I’d just put in there, but I didn’t want to put off cleaning it either, so I dove in.

I never realized how much stuff I packed in there over the years. Old magazines, books, shoes, dolls, toys, board games. It all had to come out, and it did.

My energy held out for a lot longer than I expected. I kept finding new things to move, and new things to clean. What surprised me more than my endurance was my discipline: I wasn’t disheartened at the sight of these messes. I saw work that needed doing and I did it. When one room was done, I moved to the next one on my list and kept working. When tiredness did hit me, it did so suddenly, so I shuffled to the living room and slept on the couch. I woke up hours later, took a minute to remember where I was, and then got right back to work.

This was my life for a while. I don’t remember how long I kept at it. It might have been a week, it might have been more. For my meals I ate tidbits that were left in the fridge, or went and bought some cold cuts and bread from the nearest supermarket.

Mom never came home during this time, or at least, I don’t think that she did. She could have shown up when I was sleeping, but I doubt it. I never saw any sign of her having been there. She never left a note.

The phone rang now and again, usually when I was sleeping. I never answered it. Most of the messages were of the kind I told you about before, but then I got one from Allen. No, wait; it wasn’t Allen, it was Aaron. I don’t know what the problem is, but I can never get his name right the first time. He called when I was awake, and hanging up a new shower curtain in the bathroom. The last one was stippled with mildew. Anyway, when I heard his voice, I dropped the curtain and walked over to the answering machine.

“Babe, it’s me,” he said. “I heard that you came back. Just wanted to check in on you and see if you were all right.” He paused, waiting for me to answer him. I didn’t. “Well, okay, give me a call. I’m still here. You got my number. Bye.”

I stood by the machine for a while, considering the message, and my eventual response. I really didn’t want to respond. What I wanted was for Aaron and all those folks who were “hearing” about my return to keep at their own lives.

Aaron and I did reconnect, though. I knew that ignoring him would only cause him to investigate further, and rather than having to deal with a surprise visit at my house, I prepared my speech and invited him to Carl’s Jr. for lunch. The place was in a shopping center not far from our high school. His parents worked very long hours and didn’t come home until late in the evening, and so he and I would often have dinner there together after class. When I told him where to meet, he said, “Oh, you mean our Carl’s?”

Of course, he was late. I told him 12:30, and he didn’t show up until 1:15. I’d hoped that the circumstances would have lit a fire under him, but Aaron was Aaron, and I had to wait at a table, doodling on napkins.

I looked up when I heard a sudden scrunching of fallen leaves. Beyond the giant restaurant windows I saw his gawky, skinny body moving along on a little blue bicycle. He wore the same gray hoody that I first saw him in as a sophomore.

He came in and grinned the instant he saw me. “Hey,” he said. He put out his arms and I indulged him in a hug.

“Hey yourself,” I said.

He took a seat across from me and looked about nervously. He put his large, bony hands on top of the table and pattered his fingertips on it. I just smiled at him politely, awaiting his questions.

“So, you already order something?” he said. He kept his lips shut through the second syllable, so “something” always came out “some-mm.”

“No,” I answered. “I was waiting for you.”

“Oh, I’m sorry then,” he said, and scratched his head. He had short, stringy black hair that he never combed, so scratching it seemed only to mutate it rather than muss it. “Well, I’m ready when you are.” He stood up and gestured for me to lead the way.

We ordered our meals and came back to the table. He sent out his tentative probes. I decided he would make good practice for all the other curious people I’d inevitably have to fend off.

“So what happened, exactly? Did something bad happen? Did you have a breakdown or something?”

“It was a lot of things at once,” I said. “I guess I just wasn’t ready.”

“Oh. So are you going to go back?”

“I’m talking with admissions about re-applying, yes. I’m not sure when, though.”

“So, like, next semester then?”

“Possibly.”

He looked around for a couple of seconds while he planned another approach. “So were the classes just too hard or something?”

“I just don’t think the classes I was in were right for me.”

“Oh. Were the people nice? Like, the people you lived with?”

“Yes. My roommate and I barely saw each other, so that wasn’t a problem. I just didn’t feel comfortable in that setting, though.”

“Oh.”

This went on until our food arrived. Then our conversation became more familiar. We talked about Aaron’s life, and his family, and what he’d been up to since graduation. He had no interest in college, and wanted to be an auto mechanic. He loved engines and spent hours upon hours in our high school’s auto shop, but he never bought a car of his own. Not even a little jalopy for tinkering. It didn’t make sense to me.

We joked. We brought up old stories about classmates we liked and hated. I told him about Mark, who was getting out of the hospital that week. He particularly enjoyed the gruesome details of that story.

As the time passed, I noticed something peculiar. Aaron’s hands were moving across the table. He was inching them towards mine like glaciers. While speaking, he’d lift his hands from the table in an emphatic point or wave, and then bring them down a little further out than they were before. I pretended not to notice, but when I was finished eating I placed my hands on my lap and kept them there. After a few minutes he retracted his hands in the same manner that he advanced them, gesture by unnecessary gesture, and I was quite amused.

I checked my watch when he left to use the restroom. Our lunch had lasted two hours. When he returned, I told him that I needed to get going. I was cleaning up the house, and wanted to get some more work done.

“You need any help or something?” he asked, capping with “some-mm” again. “I can come with you. I don’t have anything going on.”

“No, no, that’s all right,” I said. “I’ve got it all set up the way I want it. Thank you though.”

“Well, hey, just let me know if you need anything. We should hang out again sometime.”

He gave me another big, smiling hug. We went out to our bikes, unlocked them, and rode off to our homes. It was strange: getting on my bike, saying goodbye to Aaron, and heading out that afternoon filled me with a peace and a warmth I hadn’t known in years. Every sensation of that ride, from the chugging energy in my legs as I pedaled, to the brush of the late autumn air on my face, was a joy, and I felt a directionless, profound gratitude.

When I arrived at the house, though, all passed. I collapsed on the living room sofa and slept.

Support Beam Excerpt 2

Here’s Chapter 2.

2

A dormmate of mine was kind enough to drive me home after I dropped out of the university. I was lucky that she lived nearby. I pulled my luggage into the house one piece at a time. I heard the answering machine beeping as I came through the door, and I knew that Mom was working. I hit the play button and heard my own message, telling her I was coming home.

There was the expected melange of voicemails after that. Uncle Jordan asking for money, a lady from Cedar Jones Collections asking for money, aspiring artists asking for advice, and money. For some reason Mom didn’t mind giving her home number to any schmo at a gallery who asked for it. This was the result.

I tuned out the voices and let the machine play out its queue of recordings. I rolled my luggage into my old bedroom, which was still as bare as when I left it. There was my old twin bed, and a big oak desk where I once did my homework and drawing, but nothing else. The familiarity should have been comforting, but instead it made my insides crumple. I focused on the task of unpacking, and planned my story for when Mom got home. I didn’t expect that she’d be back anytime soon, of course.

I was numbly refilling my old closet when I heard the flat, serious voice of Nurse Nguyen of Doctors Hospital. Turned out my brother Mark had been in the ICU for the past six days, thanks to a serious bacterial infection. Incredulous, I replayed the message several times. Then I ran to the garage.

Mom taught me to drive when I was eight years old. She even gave me a spare key to the family sedan. She took me out to my grade school parking lot and let me practice when no one was around. I was very tall for my age, so reaching the pedals wasn’t an issue. “As long as you only go out when it’s dark,” she told me. “So the cops can’t get a good look at you.” My grocery runs were always made at midnight.

When I pulled open the garage door, though, I couldn’t even see the car. In fact, I couldn’t see the floor or most of the walls, either. The place was packed tight with junk. I honestly couldn’t believe how much crap was in there. There were the usual cardboard boxes, each one bulging at its top, along with the detritus you might expect to see cast away in a garage: ladders, light bulbs, bottles, towels, rope, tape, cables, oil, hand tools, cleansers. But we’re also talking art scrap: dirty easels, shattered sculptures, arms and legs from fallen figures, scrapped paintings smeared with black, wrinkled tubes of oil paint, forgotten paintbrushes in coffee cans, and who knows how many rolled-up sketches and drawings.

In the weak, dusty light, I could only recognize the car as the largest mound in this peculiar graveyard. The junk had piled around it, and I’d have to dig the thing out in order to drive it anywhere. Once I completed that excavation, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop there. Messes like this always called out to me. They would cry out for my attention, and I would not be able to rest until they were completely cleared away. I sighed as I imagined the work involved in this project, and decided it would have to wait until another day.

I considered walking to the hospital for a moment, but then I saw my old bicycle hanging up on hooks near the garage door. I hit the garage door opener, and chewed on my lower lip. I  expected the items by the door to tumble into the driveway like water from a busted dam, but nothing like that happened. I walked back through the house and went out the front door. From the outside, I saw the junk by the garage door had been compacted against it, and wasn’t going anywhere on its own. I had to squeeze over and around a couple of heavy boxes and broken clay torsos, but I was able to get my bike down without too much trouble.

It was a surprisingly warm day, and I would have enjoyed the ride if I hadn’t been so worried about Mark. It didn’t help that the city was in the middle of constructing an overpass on Clemens Road, and I had to follow a series of confusing detours. When I arrived at the hospital, I was sweating like mad.

I came to the heavy double doors of the intensive care unit and read the sign mounted on them. I picked up a beige phone on the wall and told the nurse on the other end whom I was there to see.

“Um, yes, you can come in and see him,” she told me. “I believe he’s free now.”

The unit was a large rectangular room, with the nurse’s station against the entrance wall, and the patients’ rooms extending from the other three. As I peeked in one door after another, I became increasingly fearful. What nightmare had befallen my brother to land him in here?

Here was a colony of pale, shriveled beings, each one swaddled in blue blankets and white sheets. They grasped at their blankets with bony, veiny hands. They sucked on respirators and winced with the very effort of breathing. Their fluids shot through long plastic tubes and disappeared into towers of machinery that hummed, beeped, and hissed beside them. The ones that weren’t scrawny looked bloated instead. One man had covered his face with an orange pillow, as though he couldn’t bear to look at the place anymore.

A cold, bleeding sensation fell over me. I don’t really know what it was. I don’t think it was sadness, or pity. I couldn’t pity these people because I didn’t know them. If I had to guess, I’d say it was fear. I didn’t like that human beings could be allowed to exist in such agony.

As I completed my circuit, another fear bubbled up in me: I hadn’t seen my brother. I wondered if the message I’d heard was a cruel prank intended for my mom, or if I’d gotten mixed up and had arrived at the wrong hospital. The nearest nurse at the station must have noticed my anxiety, because she said, “Who you looking for, hun?”

“Mark Levins,” I said. “The nurse I talked to on the phone said he was here. Was that you?”

“Oh, Mark. Yes, he’s here all right. Room 137.”

It was the room with the man that was covering his face. For some reason it didn’t occur to me that he might have been Mark. Covering up like that just didn’t seem like the sort of thing Mark would do, no matter how sad he was. I saw it posted on the door’s side, though, very plain: LEVINS, MARCUS.

I stepped in. Mark was half-covered in blankets. IV tubes sprouted from his left hand and right inner elbow. He looked skinnier than I remembered him, even though I hadn’t been gone from home long. I saw his bare chest rising and falling under his unbuttoned gown, and it looked deathly white.

I stood there hesitating. The TV was off, and the only light in the room was a desk lamp in a corner. Aside from the steady beeping of his vital signs monitor, it was quiet. I couldn’t tell if he was asleep, and I didn’t know how to announce myself. Then I heard a low, reedy whistle. I frowned, and squinted at him, trying to see where the odd sound had come from. Then the whistle came again. A few seconds later, again. It was rhythmic, and I realized it must have been Mark’s breathing. It was far too clear, though; the pillow should have muffled it.

I decided to lift the pillow and confirm whether he was asleep or not. If he was, no big deal; at least I knew where he was, and I could come back later.

My hand was two inches from the pillow when it jolted upward and sputtered, “What? Who is it?”

I gasped and drew back. I slapped my hand over my mouth. My eyes popped and tears rushed to them, for in that instant they saw that the bulbous mass I thought was a puffy cushion was in fact my brother’s face.

It didn’t look swollen. It looked engorged. It looked like someone had injected his head with fluid until every last pocket in it was filled, and his skin could stretch no further. I would have thought that he had gigantism, or that he’d been exposed to radiation that had gravely deformed him. His face bulged and sagged in great, rolling masses. His eyes were lightless caverns, his lips were fat like sausages, and his big nose, which I used to tease him about, now looked diminutive. In the low light of the room, I perceived the color of his skin as orange, but now I saw that it was a ferocious, burning red.

He kept asking who it was, and I realized that his eyes were smashed shut. “It’s me, Mark,” I said. “It’s Tara.”

“What?” he said. I could see that it was nearly impossible for him to emote, swallow, or move his jaw. “Tara?”

“Yeah, it’s me.” Hearing his voice relaxed me a bit, and I took a couple of steps toward him.

His body relaxed too, and then his bloated lips curled. I could see his tiny teeth peering out from between the mounds of flesh. It was a smile, but a sad, grotesque one. “What the hell are you doing here?” he said. “Why aren’t you in Sac?”

“I came back,” I told him. “It wasn’t for me.”

“You dropped out,” he said, and the smile faltered.

“Yeah.”

“Now what did you go and do that for?” he mumbled. A line of drool leaked down his chin.

“I think we should be discussing your situation right now,” I said. I grabbed a chair by the wall and took a seat.

“What do you mean?”

“What do I mean. You’re in the hospital, Mark. What happened?”

Mark sat there and breathed. “I don’t really remember.”

“Did you fall unconscious? Did you have any surgery?”

“I must have. I was hanging out with Justin, and my face felt all hot. I kept feeling my cheeks and they felt all puffy. Justin said, ‘Bro, something’s wrong with your face. I think you’d better call a doctor.’ I looked in a mirror and saw how red and chubby my face was, and I called 911 right there. After that, though, I really don’t remember.”

“The nurse said it was an infection. Did you cut yourself somehow? Maybe a bug bit you?”

“No, no, nothing like that happened. I just felt my face getting really hot, and that’s how it started.”

“Are you sure nothing like that happened?”

“I’m sure I’d remember if a bug bit my face.”

“Well, still, these things don’t happen for no reason.”

“I don’t know.”

I took a deep breath and scratched my head. “Has anyone else been by to see you? I know Mom hasn’t; when I got home, the nurse’s voicemail hadn’t been played yet.”

“Nah, Mom’s not going to be here for a while. Justin and Alex came by, though. They brought me those balloons over there.” He gestured vaguely with his right arm. The mylar balloons that screamed “GET WELL SOON!” had been shuttled off to a corner where they wouldn’t get in anyone’s way.

“Well, well, I’m impressed. Usually those guys only show up when you have liquor for them.”

“Eh, they’re good guys.”

I drummed my fingers on my knees, trying to pick a thought from the brook of them that washed through my head. “So what’s the next step? What’s the plan for your treatment?”

“Uh, just antibiotics, as far as I know. Doctor Salvin said they caught the infection in time, so it didn’t spread anywhere important. They said I didn’t get sepsis, but they had to keep me sedated so they could check me out and be sure. I guess I’m out of the woods now.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “You’d better play it safe and do what the doctors tell you.”

“Why? Don’t you think I look good?”

I didn’t answer. Mark’s face turned to that warm but ugly grimace that posed as a smile, and laughed a wet, slobbery, hiss of a laugh. The lumps of his head jiggled. He looked like a rubbery jack o’ lantern. I feel guilty saying that, but it’s the first thing I thought of at that moment.

“So what are you going to tell Mom?” he said.

“Huh?”

“About why you’re home. What are you going to tell her?”

“The truth.”

“Which is?”

I sighed. I didn’t really want to talk about this. “I just felt like getting out of there,” I said. “I thought I knew what I wanted, but I was wrong.”

Mark breathed for a few seconds. “Yeah, that should be a good-enough explanation for throwing your grants away.”

“I only got that grant because of Mom. Come on. You know that.”

“I never got any grants because of Mom.”

“You didn’t want to be an artist. Mom knows people in that circle. She can get things.”

“So your dream is to dig ditches now, or what?”

He was pissing me off. “You know, I dropped everything to see you when I heard you were in here. I don’t think you’re in any shape to be giving me lectures. I bet you don’t even have health insurance right now, do you?”

Mark just breathed.

“Thought not,” I said. “When did you quit the Albertson’s?”

“Two weeks ago.”

I leaned forward in my chair. “That’s why you were hanging out with Justin. Work was getting in the way of your benders. You probably passed out and hit your head, and that’s how you got infected.”

“That’s not true.”

“Yeah, right. Maybe you got in a fight instead. Busted your eye open like you did last time. That would explain it. I’m not sure Mom has the money to cover it this time, though.”

“I’ll be all right.”

“On whose dime, again? Whose?”

“I said I’ll be all right.”

I stopped and leaned back. I listened to my breath whistling in and out of my nose, and Mark’s whistling in and out of his mouth. A couple of minutes passed.

“You still there?” Mark said.

“Yeah.”

“Then I think you’d better get out.”

I stood up. “Love you, Mark,” I said, and took off.

Mark and I fought like that a lot after I graduated from high school. Infection or no, we met right at the point where we parted.

Support Beam Excerpt

Hello. As promised, here’s an excerpt from the short story I entered in Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s Competition. Maybe you can find out where I went wrong! 🙂 Enjoy!

 

Support Beam
by Daniel Rocha

1

When I traced the thread that ended with my suicide, I found it began in an art class. Sculpture, in fact. Beginning Sculpture. Big, tin-shit studio with high ceilings and harsh fluorescent lights. It in was that ugly place that I discovered I wasn’t an artist. Yeah, the train kind of jumped the rails from there.

My mother is an artist. Born artist. By that, I mean it goes all the way down to her cells. Back in 1999, she exhibited and sold a gigantic sculpture, and she’s still famous for it. Hell, the thing is so huge, it looks more like some archaeological relic than any piece of modern art. She spent years on it. Nights, weekends. My brother and I were in high school at the time, and we had to fend for ourselves some weeks.

The first time I saw it in her studio, I thought she was walling off a new room in the corner. It’s a two-level iron cage standing twenty feet tall. On each level is a stone figure, one male and the other female. They’re exquisite. Lean and muscular, like the stuff you see when you’re studying Michelangelo. The male figure is on the bottom level, and it’s sitting on a stool, staring into space and smiling. The woman is on the top, and she’s standing with her hands on her chest. She’s looking in the opposite direction as the man, also smiling. They had to crate it up and load it on oversized pallets when they took it to the gallery.

Folks took a lot of photos of her in front of that cage. I kept the newspaper article. I can visualize her modest smile and stance. Her hands are clasped in front of her. The ends of her scarf hang from her shoulders. Her long, thick, gray hair falls around her. The sculpture looms tall and black behind her.

Colleges wanted my mom to work for them, but she despised the thought. She said it would only distract her from her real purpose here. That’s how she put it.

My mother and I look alike. It’s uncanny, really. When I see pictures of her as a teenager, with her wide hips and droopy eyes, I see myself as I am now. I enjoyed doodling and cartooning as a kid, and when my mom dropped me off at the library, I always went to the back of the children’s section to look at the Peanuts treasuries. I never created anything on the scale of my mom’s works, but my family and friends still saw an artist in me. Knowing less about myself than they did, I followed the plain trail.

A few weeks into the sculpture class, a gangly girl with thin blonde hair approached me. She had poor posture: a permanent slouch that made her ribcage sink inward. She always wore black, which accentuated her gaunt look. I imagined that hugging her felt like hugging a plant.

“You’re mom is Myra Levins, huh?” she said.

“Yeah,” I answered. I got asked this a lot.

“Oh,” said the blonde girl. She picked at one of her nails. She wore black fingerless gloves with cartoon skulls on them, and the polish on her nails was black. I was surprised she didn’t wear black sunglasses and black contact lenses. She paused after that, as though expecting some embellishment on my part. “What’s your name?” she asked.

I thought this was strange. “Tara Levins. How’d you guess who my mother is, without knowing my last name?”

“I saw the resemblance,” she said. “Your mom is amazing, you know.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m Acceptance,” she said, and held out her hand. It was cool and limp, and she didn’t put a lot of effort into the shake. “Most people just call me Cept.”

I wanted to ask how many nights she stayed up before she decided on that name. The person I am today would have said it. It was my first semester in college, though, and I didn’t have any friends, so I slid the thought away. “A pleasure,” I said.

“I like your necklace,” said Cept. She pointed at the little gold cross I used to wear. “What denomination are you?”

“Oh, I don’t really have one,” I said. “It’s kind of different from all that.”

“Yeah. It still hits me from time to time.”

I thought that she was referring to the tendency of young people to vacillate to and from God. I was never serious about God. When my mom gave me the necklace, she told me to think of it as a reminder “that there are always greater spirits around us.” That was how she put it. I never knew what greater spirit to follow, and it didn’t seem wise to me to take a random guess, so I just wore the necklace.

“I guess we all turn to religion at some point or other,” I said.

“No,” said Cept. “I mean I still get the marks. You know?” She looked at me very seriously. She had big blue eyes with heavy purple bags below them.

Of course, I didn’t know what she was talking about, and I shook my head.

Cept pulled off her right glove and presented me with the back of her hand. Her skin was pasty, and the blueness of her blood vessels leapt out at me. “See?” she asked.

I squinted at it, but no, I didn’t see. I shook my head again.

She withdrew her hand and studied it herself. She furrowed her brow and said, “Well, they usually heal pretty quickly. I wake up with wounds in my hands some mornings.”

At this point, I decided to take an interest in the block of clay I was supposed to be working on. Cept didn’t notice, though, and she kept talking. “I asked my spirit guide what it means,” she said, “but I still can’t hear him. That reminds me, I need to practice my listening again tonight.” She pulled out a small notebook (black, of course) and scribbled something in it. Then she looked back at me as I sized up my clay. “What are you going to make?” she said.

“Not sure yet,” I said. “I’ve never worked with clay before.”

Cept’s eyebrows jumped. “You haven’t? Where did you hide while you grew up? Didn’t your mom share anything with you?”

“No, she didn’t,” I said. “She was always kind of protective about that stuff. She didn’t even let us in her studio until we were teenagers.”

“Who’s us?”

“My brother and I.”

“Oh. He an artist, too?”

“No, he’s not.” My brother Mark wanted to be a policeman.

“I’ve been working in clay since I was four,” said Cept. “I made a dreidel for my Jewish friend. I wanted to surprise him with it, but I needed his help to write the Hebrew, so I couldn’t.”

“You did this when you were four?”

“Yeah. Do you ever think about getting your clit pierced?”

I blinked for a couple of seconds, computing. “Excuse me?”

“I’m thinking about getting a stud in my clit this weekend. I have a friend who can do it for me. I’m having second thoughts, though. Have you ever thought about it?”

I can’t say I was entirely shocked. My mom asked bizarre questions like this, often without prompt, and right now Cept was channeling her. “No,” I said. “Never occurred to me.”

“It’s more for my boyfriend than for me. My sister got three, and she told me she’s very happy with them. You should see the patterns she makes with her piercings. She has these amazing clusters in her ear cartilage that swirl, kind of like a nautilus. She’s also got these rivets in her back that look like the waves in an ukiyo-e painting. She got a picture of it in our magazine.”

“What magazine is that?”

“We call it Tits ‘n’ Tats. It’s about body modification. I work on it with a few friends downtown. My friend Shell does the photography, my other friend Kari writes most of the articles, and my other other friend Rad does the printing at his Dad’s shop. I’m the editor. We even have a pretty big readership here on campus. Yay!”

Yeah, Cept bounced around a lot. She wasn’t afraid to let her mouth drift, and I found that perplexing. Had no one in her life at least give her a funny look?

I still remember my first lesson in socializing. I was four or five, and we lived in a new neighborhood with about a half-dozen undeveloped lots. I spent a lot of time in the dirt and ditches, daydreaming and searching for bugs. One afternoon, I listlessly grabbed at a passing grasshopper and was shocked to feel it struggle in my grip. I was terribly excited. I ran to a couple of girls making chalk drawings on the sidewalk down the street, holding the little bug in my cupped hands. I smiled and hopped in place, squealing about my achievement. A chubby girl with clipped black hair looked up at me, unimpressed, and said, “Good for you.”

I guessed that, in all her years of floating and flailing in the river, Cept had never heard someone say “Good for you.” Or maybe she had, and she didn’t care.

All these thoughts marched through my head as Cept made her introduction. The last one made the tumblers fall into place. I heard them. The sound they made was this: artists express. They share, they shout, they scream. They think they can pierce the noise, and not just add to it. My mother expressed.

I’ve been going on about Mom a lot already, so I suppose I should talk about my father too. He died in a car crash before I could remember him, and he left my mom a hefty life insurance policy. My mom’s first act was to cash out a third of it for use in a ten-foot-tall collage. At the center of the piece is an enlarged overhead photograph of her lying naked in the dirt. Dozens upon dozens of real hundred-dollar bills surround her, pasted onto the board at mad angles. It looks like a parody of a rap album cover, though I’m sure Mom would tell you that wasn’t the point at all.