Words & Art By Kim Dallesandro
I always wear Frank’s old flannel shirt when I go out after dark. Frank being my biological father, the asshole, the bank robber, the one that made mom spit on the ground every time she said his name, that Frank. The shirt is old and worn, with a broken top button and a blood stain that won’t ever come out on the left side by the torn pocket. And that’s Frank’s fault, driving like a maniac from the police thinking he could out run them, high on meth or coke or God knows what, I can almost hear him screaming at the top of his lungs “Come on mother fuckers!” pounding the steering wheel sweat dripping from his forehead, eyes dilated, there goes my dad Frank. And when he crashed into the center divider and the car spun around he didn’t stop yelling – no, all that rage and resentment of a lifetime came oozing out of him while the car did pirouettes, delicate and smooth like a ballerina on the stage at Lincoln Center, nope, not Frank. He kept cussing and screaming and waving his fist in the air like he was desperately trying to summon some God or Devil from beyond, who knows what he was thinking during that fateful moment. And then it was all over. Flames destroyed what little he was at that moment, consuming him and most of the front seat; only thing that was left of him when the smoke cleared was this worn out old flannel shirt stuffed under a pile of garbage and the flat spare tire in the trunk.
So I wear it, like a reminder perhaps or a badge of honor. I feel protected when I venture into the night alone with this burning desire to ‘be someone’ and the controlled rage hiding behind it. And on this night I’m meeting David, the jerk from second period science class who dared me to show up behind the Center Street gas station and “get what I have coming.” So I’m on it. I’m there. And I wonder if he realizes who is really showing up tonight and what is really about to happen. And if at that moment those words spilled out of his mouth he wishes he’d have clenched his teeth tight to prevent them from escaping. And I wonder if I wish I’d have been struck deaf so I didn’t have to walk down this lonely stretch of road alone. Again.
There are times I wonder when I stepped over that proverbial line and became what I’ve become. It could have been the night mom woke me up screaming at the top of her lungs, the sounds of flesh hitting flesh, the panic I felt and realization I was powerless to help. Or maybe it was that morning when I realized there was no food, nothing but a sink full of dirty dishes and some curdled milk in a filthy refrigerator. And yes I was young at the time, but I felt an anger bigger than I was tall; I remember clenching my fists tight to my side, my face burning like it did that time I got the flu. No it burned different, same as if you had squirted lighter fluid all over my head and lit a match – it was a painful burning, best as I can describe it. And painful burning is dangerous, that much I’ve found out. It pokes at you and pushes you to rewrite the character and intention I believe God put inside all of us that wondrous day we are born. Yes, it slashes and destroys every fiber of goodness inside, leaving behind a pile of ash much like what was left of Frank after that car hit the center divider.
My shadow looked the same when the sun was starting to set and I would be walking home, exactly the same- right there, me and my shadow. But inside I was very different. You could see it in my eyes, the way I walked even the words I spoke, everything was dipped in the residue left behind by that painful burning. I don’t know when others recognized it but it’s much like a cancer, once there is cell disintegration and things inside are altered, you know it. You feel it. Nobody else can, but it’s there plain as day and you can’t escape it or deny it. Though I did for a very long time.
Until I met Mark. That would have been in middle school if I have my dates right, maybe a year or two later, but it was in school that I met him. It was that jail house tattoo he sported on the upper part of his left arm that caught my eye, nothing special about it, but he was younger than I was and it provided a certain mystery, me wondering where he got it, was it jail? or juvie? or did he just see a picture in some magazine at the dentist’s office and decided to ink himself. And then there were the jeans, the slicked back hair and a certain nonchalant gait, like he had all the time in the world to get from here to there. Mom called it arrogance, but I saw power and self-respect and all those things that people my age were just starting to come into, or not, which was the case for me. And I also saw Frank. Frank as a much younger man, but that same swagger Frank had the few times he bothered to show up and talk to me for a minute here a minute there before walking out the door into another alternate universe that did not have room for me or mom in it. So I was mesmerized with Mark, not in love like you read about in books or watch on television, but he had something I wanted and a part of me started hoping it would be possible to ‘get it’ if I stayed in close proximity to him. So I did.
I would be lying if I was to try to convince anyone that we were close friends. I stayed close to him through the years, followed him around and hung out most nights and after school. But I’ve since come to understand that if you’re pursuing something with the intention of stealing pieces that do not belong to you it is impossible to become anything but enemies, for Mark had something I wanted and I became his shadow his pursuer. I found myself watching him, his every move how he spoke and who those words were directed to and I began to mirror his essence as if I had stepped into his skin and moved aside vital organs adjusting bones and tendons to accept my body my spirit my sickness.
It was a cool July night. I remember that because the days leading up to it were wet and hot and miserable as only summer days can be in the southern states. Mark called me up or maybe I called him, that part is not important, what is important is the urgency in his voice that I heard once we began talking.
“You gotta come,now if possible, what are you doing, you gotta come now.”
“What do you mean, man, I’m busy, what’s up?”
“Listen, do you remember showing me that box of 22 shells? In that old chest of drawers in your dining room. Under those weird place mats.”
“Just grab a few, come now I’m down here by the old BBQ joint, next to the 7-11 by that wrecked car – you know where I mean…”
“Yeah, but man, what the hell is going on…”
“Just come, I’ll be here, I gotta hang up but I’m waiting, and don’t forget those shells…”
Click. And he was gone. I was left with a disconnected number on an old phone that had been brutalized through the years by angry parents and lovers and most recently me. I remember combing my hair and putting on Frank’s shirt, it was over 8 months since that catastrophe had happened, I felt good, like things were happening and I was part of it. I also felt smug, I remember thinking he called ME – now when he wants something he calls ME – not him or her them or you, ME. And it felt good, and I had that swagger now, that confidence, the same look in my eyes just like Frank and Mark and I owned it and it belonged to me and I ran down the stairs, chest puffed up and found those 22 caliber shells put them in the pocket of my jean jacket slammed the front door and left. I walked the same lonely stretch of road I’m walking now on my way to meet David, but that night there was no hesitation, no second guessing I was in command and life was racing forward to ME and I felt like I owned life- had life- could not lose my life- that’s it: invincible, I felt invincible. It pains me to recall that now. But then it felt amazing.
When I finally found Mark he was sitting on the curb arms cradling his head, head on his knees, I couldn’t tell if he was asleep or drunk, either way it wasn’t the Mark I was expecting to find, so I approached cautiously, thinking maybe this is some kind of joke or perhaps it wasn’t him, just someone that looked like him and any minute he’d pop out of the store next door or round the corner but it was him and after a few minutes, he turned his head and I saw that same burning pain I have inside of me in his eyes. It scared me.
“Did you bring them?” is all he said extending his hand. I was so caught off guard, almost dumbfounded that I just reached up and got them outta my pocket handing them to him before I fully realized I was doing it. And he just sat there and looked at them for a moment before setting them down on the pavement beside him and pulled out a small gun that I had seen before on visits to his home. Now Mark was an only child, like myself, but he came from what I thought was money; there was always food, and clothes, and STUFF, I just remember seeing a lot of stuff, new stuff nothing old and worn, broken or borrowed, it was like going to the five and dime being at his house and a few times when no one was looking I stole a thing or two taking it home just to feel like I could have these things for myself, that I was entitled, deserved them. And where at my house all you heard was angry yelling, dishes breaking and spirits collapsing, at his house there was a maddening silence that was louder than any argument I’d sat through or been a part of. His mother never looked me in the eye it was as if I became transparent, she looked right through me that first day I met her and hardly said more than “Hello.” It left me feeling disconnected, off kilter, not really understanding what was happening until I noticed she was exactly the same way with Mark. And he got as unplugged as I did, it was as if that woman somehow sucked the very energy, the very life force from both of us, we just deflated in front of her and I remember making some weak excuse or another and leaving early that’s how crazy the whole thing felt.
It was weeks later we talked about it me bringing it up and Mark side stepping the questions. It was the first time I began to see cracks in that flawless exterior, the one I’d been chasing and hoping to steal a piece of for years, big cracks as he mumbled about his unhappiness and things that had happened, never saying what, and secrets and finally admitted the only way he could bear to live there was because his father’s sister had been staying there for about 5 years due to some illness. So there I was, a thief ready to grab the diamond, and I’m being told it’s all paste and I still want to take it I’ve been preparing for this moment for years, wondering is this a lie, a truth, a game what.is.going.on.anyway? So I let it go that time, but every time I visited after that I tried to find his father’s sister, the one that provided shelter of some kind. Now I was feeling like I needed it too just being there, and several weeks into this I did just that.
Mariel was standing in the kitchen looking out the window over the sink smoking another cigarette after the one she put out. She seemed distant but present if such a state exists. I stood by the new refrigerator and waited for her to notice she was not alone in the room.
“Did he tell you?” she asked, not even bothering to look at me. Just standing there smoking her cigarette eyes fixed on some tree or bird, cloud or memory that she could.not.shake. It was more an accusation than a question now that I think hard about it, but then I just said “Tell me what.” and left it at that. She sucked that cigarette so hard I thought it would burn what was left of it and the flesh of her lips too, sucked it like a person needing oxygen – like a drowning child in the ocean pulled out at the last moment – that inhalation of precious air whoooooooooooosh deep inside that gives back life before death takes hold. And her fingers on her left hand hitting the marble counter top thump thumpthumpthumpthump thump thumpthump thump before they stopped and she turned and faced me.
“He had a sister. Did he tell you that?”
“She died. It was his fault.”
Just like that, a direct accusation, no trial no jury, boom guilty. I just stood there absorbing the whole thing, remembering the Mark I’d been shadowing for years now, the person I wanted to become and all those cracks that kept appearing over the years that I failed to see until they formed together to create cracks so large there was no hope of repair. And now this statement of fact, someone, no not someone, his sister who he never spoke about, was dead and it.was.his.fault.
“What happened? When did this happen?”
“Around the time Mark started middle school. They were playing outside near that tree over there by the rusty old wheelbarrow. You see that? Anyway, there was an old water well in that area. Sammy, Mark’s dad, my brother, covered it. Made sure it was secure, checked it every now and then. And they were playing right over there. For some reason, Mark pulled the top off that dry well hole and was running around using it like a shield, chasing her running up and down that area, see out there almost like a dog run. And he cornered her, backed her all the way across the area back there, you see: follow that wheel barrow to that old dead tree over there, just like that backed her up like a car in reverse using that well cover and she fell in straight down. Easy 100 feet or more, but there was metal down there, rebarb Sammy had used when he built that rock wall over there, he had thrown all the pieces down that hole, made that cover and walked away feeling everyone was safe. Until Mark took the top off and used it as a shield. She died down there in that hole, that lonely dark hole…”
And I just remember thinking all these things while Mark was sitting there loading that 22 caliber pistol. And I was still thinking them when I heard the blast and saw the pieces of his face fly everywhere. It never registered that he had shot himself, I was still standing there with his father’s sister looking out that window hearing about the sister he never spoke about. And it took the screams of strangers to wake me up and to see the body slump forward slowly the blood trickling down his neck and what was left of his face falling forward back to its original resting place, where it had been when I had walked up so excited and confident, so smug that he.had.finally.called.ME. And a large piece of what was his head hit Frank’s flannel shirt I was wearing on the left side by the torn pocket. I remember thinking “I’ve been hit, I’m dying” and falling to the ground.
So months have passed, and here I am walking to another location to meet another guy that wants to settle some score with me or himself, who knows. My burning pain is bigger than ever, it seldom offers even a moments relief these days, and all the things I thought I wanted that Mark had seemed stupid and trite after what I had witnessed that night “down there by the old BBQ joint, next to the 7-11 by that wrecked car – you know where I mean…” I could turn around and not show up, or I could go somewhere else, but David was firm that I be there and when I had seen him hours before he called I saw what looked to be a flame burning behind his eyes. We stared at one another then continued to walk away. I believe he needs me.