Long Trip Home
By Israfel Sivad
Sun slipped through every cracked opening of the concrete structure to outline a solitary, homeless body lying on the hard cement. Haloing his head and tracing his feet and legs, pieces of broken glass shimmered reflected light into the parking garage’s somewhat enclosed air. Within the barely illuminated darkness, the sounds of an engine rumbled through the amplified silence to wake that sleeping dreamer whose head rested on his blue sweatshirt. Attempting to clarify his surroundings, Eric looked up from his rigid bed to watch a black Nissan pull into a space a few places down from where he had collapsed the night before. A man stepped out, shook his uncovered legs, pulled slightly on his tee shirt, closed the door, and pressed something on his key ring. A sharp “beep, beep” echoed in answer from the machine to that magic wand as the locks clicked closed. Eric scratched the shaven scraggles of his once blond hair. That tiny motion of his scratching hand pulled the middle aged man’s attention away from his beautiful property to look in the waking boy’s direction. Eric yawned and stretched. A look of disgust that his polished sunglasses couldn’t hide sneered through the distant man’s lips as he noticed, for a brief second, that tired youth.
They stared at each other for only a moment. Eric smacked his tongue against his mouth and sleepily wondered where that guy thought he was going. The man rubbed his hands together as if washing grime from his palms, then dropped his hands to his sides and shook his head as he turned his back on the boy to walk into California’s blinding light.
“Whatever, man,” Eric whispered to nobody. He grabbed his pillow, slipped it over his head, and stood up without any intentions of following the path the man had blazed across the white lines painted by someone else a long time ago for cars that hadn’t yet arrived.
Tired and circling aimlessly on the black concrete, the nineteen year old was trying to figure out if he could sleep in that environment for any longer. He shuffled his feet as he examined the barely lit darkness consuming that huge garage. “What am I doin’ here?” he whispered to the silent air… I don’t remember, he answered himself. “How’d I get here?” he yawned between slight shuffles of his feet. But the only answer was that he was there and he had nowhere else to go. Using both of his hands to rub his face, Eric knew that soon more and more people like that last guy would park their cars and stare from between unapproving brows at his disheveled appearance. “I gotta get outta this place.” Disoriented, he put one tennis shoe in front of the other, walked past the black Nissan, and soon exited that structure from the same entrance through which the man had just left.
Out of the garage onto a thick street. Squinting beneath the bright sun, Eric’s shadow silently followed every step its master took on his plunge towards the beach. His tired thoughts simply wanted to see somebody he knew, someone he could speak to. So Eric was heading towards the only place where he could be certain people existed. As he shuffled past a short, quickly disappearing block, each step brought Main Street’s noise closer and louder. The electricity of all the people who walked down a road that ended at a pier dropping into the ocean sucked the silence from the still, waiting winds. Eric rounded a corner and faced the realities of life.
Flesh and freaks assaulted his eyes as Eric stepped onto that sun drenched strip. Conversations, honking horns, and whirring engines exploded through the air. Pulling up his sweatshirt’s hood to hide his face from the wandering eyes, Eric blinked and stared at tattoos, piercings, and bikinied bodies that walked bare foot through that atmosphere of retro trash. Everybody was silently shouting, “Look at me!” but nobody looked at anybody other than themselves even though their invisible clamor added to the din of the already noisy streets.
Blinded by the screaming echoes of the unnoticed voices, Eric barely escaped a guy whose biceps blocked the sun and felt that gave him the right not to move his shoulders. Stepping to the side and tripping off the walkway, Eric almost bumped into two girls who seemed to want you to notice their young bodies as they leaned forward with their blond hair and black bikinis to giggle into the window of a car stopped in the traffic. “Sorry,” Eric whispered, but the two Beach Barbies neither heard nor noticed him. As he stepped back onto the sidewalk, some kids who were skating skillfully through the flood of humanity – their baggy pants and loose tee shirts fluttering in the breeze their speed created – nearly ran into him. Shocked by the near collisions, Eric placed his hand on his forehead to cup his shaking thoughts between his fingers. He took another step then stopped. Bewildered by the afternoon commotion during his still early morning, he rested for a second beside an outdoor café where teen-agers chatted and laughed about what they would do that night. The talk of their high school lives nauseated their slightly older peer. Why dontcha try ta be me? Eric silently asked before he continued to walk with downcast eyes amid the surfers who wandered in and out of the shops that sold their style.
There were so many people, too many people to notice, but Eric kept moving towards the beach with the hope that he might recognize some face that sweat beneath bleached hair. He wanted to tell someone about last night and that guy who woke him up. He wanted to tell someone how tired he was. He wanted to tell someone how much he hated all these people who hid themselves by being so conspicuous. He just wanted to talk to someone who was homeless like he was. Maybe then he would remember why he could never go home.
After crossing the startling traffic that sped along Pacific Coast Highway amid a mass of people who moved only when a little, green figure appeared on a sign before them, Eric stepped off the sidewalk past the pier and felt his shoes melt into the sand that swirled around other people’s toes. Out of place in his thick clothing, Eric stared at the sweat refracting a reflection of an endless, oiled tarmac of bodies. He pulled the hood tighter around his face, and he continued searching for one of his few acquaintances.
As Eric tripped through the thick, uneven ground, stumbled awkwardly between the sun bathing couples and surfboards, and searched the beach and the sea, finally, in the water in the distance, a familiar figure bobbed between the crashing waves. Eric strolled heavily through the remaining terrain of human sand and took a seat on a tiny dune that protruded near where the closest thing he had to a friend played in the ocean.
Silent, thinking, Eric pulled his legs up near his chest. The sun shined hot, baking through his clothes. The waves rushed their crashing sounds up from the screaming sands. The gulls squawked displeasure at each other while they fought for scraps of food. Kinda like us, Eric thought as he watched them make tiny, three toed prints on the soft sand before the water sucked those remnants of their existence out to sea. A drop of sweat dripped down his armpit to cool his unexposed ribs. Some young girls behind him were pointing and laughing at that guy who was sitting on their beach in a sweatshirt and jeans, but Eric couldn’t hear them. He simply stared forward at the eternal sea and another young face that hadn’t yet noticed him.
“It goes on forever,” he whispered aloud, mesmerized by the two shades of blue that met to create a horizon. “Man, if I could lose myself in that forever, I could get outta here…” His head fell down to his knees. “I wanna go home,” he almost cried.
“Hey Eric!” a distant voice yelled, disappearing in the sea’s shouts. Eric lifted his head as tiny tears began to lose themselves in the sweat on his face.
Rising up and down with the currents, a hand waved semicircles above its head in a greeting that seemed farther away than it actually was. “What’s up!” Eric called out as he tried inconspicuously to wipe the tears from his face.
“Why dontcha come out here, bro, play in the waves for a while.”
“Don’t have any shorts,” Eric responded, and he could barely see a slight disappointment cross the Trash-Boy’s face before he turned back around to confront a set that was silently rolling in. A smile’s slithering signs crossed Eric’s lips.
Eric had just shown up in that beach city and was moving slowly along the nighttime streets when he first saw a boy of medium height with a thick build asking, “Can you contribute to the Trash’s anti-sobriety fund?” A few people stopped (mostly college kids and young adults), laughed, and handed over some of what they had; most simply looked violated and continued strolling. Eric was walking with his face towards the ground when he crossed into the streetlight that Trash occupied. The spare changer’s cadence broke his lonely thoughts of loss and Eric whispered shyly, “Man, you probably got more than I do,” before he continued to walk along. A strong, callused hand caught him by the arm. Locking his fists, turning to see if this was another fight… “Call myself the Trash-Boy,” the words seeped out from between thick, unshaven whiskers covering a young countenance, “Cuz I was thrown out like all the other trash.” Eric stood still. The pressure loosened on his arm. He was mesmerized by the cracked, sun burnt face that seemed to know what it meant to live in the modern world. Relaxing his broken knuckles and fingers but still unsure as to what significance lay in this encounter, Eric stared into blue eyes that looked so much softer than their words. The throaty voice continued, “But I’ll tell ya what, trash loves streets… It gets kicked around, stepped on, spit on, but every once in a while, a pretty girl might see somethin’ she likes and pick it up ta take home.” With a wink, the blond beard and mustache stretched into a wild grin…
Eric watched him now, fighting the ocean’s nature. A wave rolled in; Trash ducked and disappeared. Then, his long hair shot back up. He shook the water from his locks, and suddenly, unexpected white foam exploded around his head to suck him back down to the depths. The ocean’s face calmed, but beneath that smooth façade, Trash’s body twirled in an underwater prison before its jailer allowed it the respite of returning to breathable air.
A shout of momentary triumph exploded from that soldier who struggled against a powerful adversary. He turned, paddled a few strokes, then caught a ride from his enemy and came tumbling back to land. Trash stood up and pulled seaweed off his naked shoulders. Lost in those stringy remnants of his experience, he stepped slowly towards Eric. “Ya got a smoke, bro?” he asked while sitting down slowly and flinging away the last reminders of his struggle.
Some sand that Eric held between his fingers trickled away to return home. “Naw, man… I woke up in some garage today, and I ain’t got nothin’.”
“Ya know, that one down there… right off Main Street…” Eric pointed back behind his head.
“Oh yeah, I slept there the other night.” Trash wiped his gritty palms across the cut-off, camouflage pants whose wandering, straying strings fell down to his knees. “Whydja stay there? That place gets cold as hell at night.”
Eric stared across the ocean’s distance. He wanted to fly away to whatever lay on the other side. “I don’t know, man… I was talkin’ to this old guy last night, some old fat guy. Said he’d go get me some beer, and he did,” Eric paused to pick up more sand and let it scatter, “So I drank one and then got all like light-headed and stuff.” He slowly shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, “Kinda felt like I’d pass out, man… off one beer… ya know he put somethin’ in that.” Trash nodded. “So I got all light-headed, and I was like, ‘Man, I gotta go,’ but he just smiled, and he was all like, ‘Ya sure ya don’t wanna go for a ride or somethin’… I got a car right over there,’ and I was just like, ‘Naw, I gotta go…’” Eric paused to turn his head and look around at all those bodies of people stretching out beneath the sun that they didn’t care was silently killing them. When he continued, his voice had a quiet edge hidden in it, “So this fat guy’s just talkin’, he’s like pleadin’ with me, he’s all like, ‘Come on, dontcha wanna go for a ride or somethin’, we could go ta L.A. I’ll take ya ta a couple clubs.’ And man, that drink was makin’ me feel weirder and weirder every second. So I just said, ‘Naw, I don’t think so, man… I gotta go…’ So I split and was kinda like stumblin’ like I was all drunk and stuff, and he yelled somethin’ about knowin’ I wasn’t goin’ home cuz I didn’t have a home, but I kept walkin’, and then the next thing I know, I wake up in that garage.” Eric dropped his head, shook it slightly, and whispered, “I just don’t go for stuff like that, ya know.”
Trash was bouncing his head to the side, letting water drip from his ears, but he managed to respond, “Yeah bro, I know…”
“So then I wake up today,” Eric inhaled quickly through his nostrils as if it had been a mistake to make these thoughts real, and now, he wanted to pull the words back into himself, “And there’s this old guy wearin’ some shiny sunglasses, and he’s just like starin’ at me, ya know… He’s just starin’ and shakin’ his head like I’m some kinda freak or like I’m some kinda disease…”
Trash stopped bobbing his head. “Naw man, just trash… Just trash like everyone else, and nobody else wants ta know they’re trash so they don’t wanna see you cuz, see, they look at you and they see themselves, and they don’t wanna see that… They wanna stare through shiny sunglasses at their shiny car and pretend like they ain’t some homeless kid that doesn’t know where he’s at cuz some freak just put somethin’ in his drink.” Trash laughed a soft, serious laugh. He turned towards Eric. “And then, man, if they see you, they’re gonna throw you out, turn their back on you and run, bro. That’s just the way it is… That’s just the way we are…”
“I don’t know, man,” Eric turned back towards the eternal stretch of blue, wishing some sort of reassurance could float in from out there on the whistling winds that cooled his hot body. “I’m just sick of all this, man. I’m just tired…” He was tired, been tired a long time. “I just wanna go home…” (maybe a cloud could carry me to some home across the sea… but there’s no clouds in the California sky) “Wherever that is. Whatever that is.”
Trash clapped his hand onto Eric’s blue sweatshirt. He laughed. “Man, ya gotta lighten up… It’s just life. It doesn’t matter. See me, bro,” he pointed a finger at his quickly drying chest, “I know I’m trash. So I just wait around and watch all of ‘em, let ‘em kick me if they wanna, but since I know I’m trash, when they ain’t lookin’ or when they ain’t thinkin’, since I don’t care anymore, I can take what I can get… That’s all you’ll ever get.”
Trash’s words didn’t seem right. It didn’t feel like they could be true. That’s not all ya can get, Eric thought silently as he picked up a small shell and threw it towards the water. My dad had more than that. He dropped his eyes from their sea view. The sweatshirt’s hood darkened his view. The sand stretched out to meet its maker. Lying placidly on the ground, it looked so soft. Eric wanted to bury himself in it, stare at it until it cut his eyes, plug its grains into his ears, swallow it as it filled his lungs, let it seep into all his senses and suffocate them.
Trash broke the sand’s soft, silent spell, “Come on, bro, let’s go to the pier and see if we can get some smokes from someone… We can take a look at all the ladies.” He grinned, stood up, and strutted off towards the people that Eric needed to escape.
As Eric stood once again on a sidewalk, staring at the traffic on the Coast Highway, Trash took a seat on a concrete ledge running next to the pier. Aren’t ya sick of all these bodies? Eric wanted to ask his acquaintance. Aren’t ya sick of all these people starin’ at themselves and what they got? But Trash simply appeared lost in the scenery until some cute high school girls walked by smoking, and he jumped down from his perch to ask them for a cigarette. “Sure,” one who looked about 15 said, and she took a pack out of her tight, short shorts to hand a cigarette to the begging, homeless kid. Trash asked if she would give him another for his friend. Her fingers flipped back inside the pack, but Eric waved his hand in front of himself to indicate that he didn’t want anything she had to offer. Ya don’t get it, he thought as he shook his head and kicked a loose piece of concrete. I’m not trash, and I’m sick of beggin’ for whatever I can get.
The girls walked away while Trash waved a slight goodbye and told them how beautiful they were, didn’t they want to hang out for a little while… just a little while? Their figures faded down the pier. Unsure how to respond, they simply giggled and turned their attention back to each other.
“Man… those girls looked good.”
Eric didn’t say anything. The kids on the skateboards, the ones who’d almost run into Eric when he’d walked down the street, were kicking and flipping those little pieces of plastic and painted wood against and over the opposite concrete embankment. Crash, smash, plastic thud, and then a whirring grind as the kids skated away simply to get speed for their return. I used ta be able ta do that, Eric said to himself. I used ta do that all the time, beneath his blue hood, he smiled. Man, that was fun, his smile broadened. When I was a little kid, when I had a home, that was fun.
“Didn’t those girls look good, bro…”
Eric’s lips inverted, and his smile disappeared. He turned back to Trash. “They looked like everybody else.”
“Aw, whatever bro, they looked good.” Trash’s face stretched into a crazy smile, “Everybody looks good.”
The light on the Highway turned red, that little, green figure appeared again, and a large group of people crossed from Main Street to the pier while staying tightly confined between little, white lines. Pieces of conversations floated through the sweltering air. Laughter lit the world in brief bursts. The group of nobodys who didn’t know each other reached Eric, and the homeless kid could smell their thick scent of suntan lotion. One skinny figure broke away from the crowd to approach Eric and Trash.
“Hey, you two guys wanna come over here for a second,” the words came out of a thin face wrinkled by too much sun that spoke from between a frame of long, stringy, brown hair. An arm, extending from a tie-dyed tee shirt, motioned slowly in the direction its body was going. Looking at each other for a brief moment, but knowing that they had nothing better to do, the two drifters followed that worn out legacy.
A slight distance away from the human traffic, the man stopped. The two homeless kids faced his back. Neither spoke; they turned their necks slightly to look at the other’s lost expressions. Cars sped past on the Highway; occasional bathing suits paraded in every direction; a sea gull spoke overhead. But on that tiny patch of faded concrete, the man those two kids had followed turned to face them. The pungent stench of patchouli’s gripping tendrils invaded their nostrils. With his long nails, the man wiped wisps of hair from in front of his vision. With a giggle, the refugee from 1968 dribbled forth words, “So you guys don’t know me, but, ya see, I just pulled up in town… ya can see my van parked down there…” he pointed towards Main Street, but neither Eric nor Trash looked, “And ya see (I’m hopin’ I can trust ya guys), but ya see,” with a short sniff, his wandering fingers brushed beneath his nose, “I’m just walkin’ along here, and I see you two guys, and I’m thinkin’, ‘See, there’s some kids that’re hip, ya know…’” Not wanting to be hip, Eric pursed his lips and looked towards the traffic. Trash leaned closer to his possible benefactor, not caring what he was so long as he got something for being it, “So I’m sayin’ to myself, ‘Marty, Marty, man,’” – softly stifled giggle – “‘Ya got all this stuff ta unload, man,’” his wasted body shrugged with a knowledgeable nod, “‘And there’s the two that can help ya,’” Marty looked around. He whispered, “Ya see what I’m sayin’?”
Trash cocked his head to the side. He narrowed his eyes slightly. His lips’ grins and grimaces quickly exchanged places, “What’re you talkin’ about?”
The man laughed as deep a laugh as his thin frame could muster. Then, he turned that farce into a dry cough, “If ya don’t know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout, then ya ain’t the one I’m lookin’ for.”
Eric turned to the ground. He reached up to pull the hood tightly around his head. “Whatcha got?” he whispered amid the cars screaming past.
From the depths of Marty’s face, a heavy eye turned on him, “Everything, man, everything.”
Leaning forward, even closer to the oily odor dripping through his nose hairs, Trash looked around. His breath tripped out, “So you’re lookin’ for us ta getchou connections?”
Another laugh, “Whaddaya think I’m talkin’ ‘bout?”
Disgusted with another presentation of everything he didn’t want to be, Eric shook his head back and forth. The grizzled laughter stopped. “I don’t get it,” Eric whispered, almost to himself, “Whydja pick us?”
Marty frowned, “Ya look the part, man. Ya look like ya ain’t got a thing other than what I can give ya. Whaddaya want me ta say, man, ‘You’re just like me,’?” Marty quickly ran a bony finger through his greasy hair. One of his legs started vibrating rapidly, “Look, do ya want to or not?”
“Yeah, man… definitely,” Trash said as he stood solidly and crossed his arms, satisfied with what he could get.
Eric stayed silent. I don’t wanna be here, he said to himself since nobody else would have listened. I’m sick of bodies… sick of trash… sick of people bein’ disgusted by me… sick of people tellin’ me I ain’t got a home… sick of people offerin’ to help me forget… I’m sick of bein’ like you… a sob echoed inside his lonely head, I was never like any of you. He closed his eyes upon that vision of the world because his own darkness seemed like the only thing that wouldn’t reflect reality’s blinding sun. At a slight distance, the sounds of those kids skating could still be heard. Trash and Marty talked at each other, but Eric didn’t hear their cluttering chatter. He listened to the skateboards and to himself, That’s what I wanna do, man. I wanna be a kid. I wanna be a kid, have my dad take care of me and keep me away from all of you.
As the sun’s rays penetrated his clothes and the echoes of an unwanted business deal filtered through his hooded ears, something clicked inside Eric’s brain. The skateboards churned, and that lost refugee from American culture turned his back on the cross-generational conversation to walk towards childhood. I can go back, not home, but I can be a kid, and that’s close enough.
Marty lifted his gaze to watch his disciple leave. “Where’s your buddy goin’?” his non-existent lips accusingly questioned Trash.
“Hm… What?” Trash briefly wrested himself from a counter cultural fantasy to watch his alter ego escape. “I don’t know, man… Eric!” No response from the back of Eric’s blank sweatshirt. Trash took a step towards the bright body, “Eric!” No response from Eric’s covered head. Trash turned back towards Marty, laughing, “Whatever, man. If he doesn’t want whatchou got… let him suffer,” and Trash grinned his insane grin one more time.
Eric slowly approached the four kids on skateboards. Just let me be a kid again… please let me be a kid… let me go home, I wanna go home. The pavement slid back beneath his feet. People walked past to block the view of the skaters who undulated in and out of sight. Whir, slap, crash – the skateboards continued moving. Eric closed his eyes. Let me be a kid. He opened his eyes. A board slammed against the embankment. Its twelve year old owner cursed then turned. Eric spoke aloud, “What’s up?”
“What’s up?” The younger kid kicked down to lift the board into his hand.
“Could… um… could I… uh,” just ask him, “Could I see your board for a second?”
With his white tee shirt flapping loosely around his skinny arms, the kid whose chin had never been shaved narrowed his eyes. “Whatcha want it for?”
“I just wanna skate for a little bit,” I need ta skate forever, “Used ta skate all the time, and I just wanna see if I can still do it.”
The kid looked at his friends. All three of them shrugged their emaciated shoulders in the sun. “Alright, man. Just don’t break it… it’s all I got.”
Eric nodded. “Don’t worry, man. I know,” and convinced, trusting, young hands set the board on the ground. The kid’s worn shoes kicked the board over to his homeless peer who used to be just like him. The tips on one side of Eric’s lips turned up. A pure smile slid across his whole mouth to caress his eyes and pull them into the emotion as well.
Eric placed his right foot on the board. With his left foot, he pushed slightly on the ground, and he felt himself move. The sun still baked the earth. People still wanted people to notice what they never would. But Eric’s entire world seemed different as soon as the hard, plastic wheels turned across the cement. The borrowed piece of wood slid, and Eric felt like he was in a cul-de-sac a long way from Southern California. For a second, he thought he might hear his dad yell for him to get home before dinner. “I’m skatin’, and I’m never comin’ back,” he’d say… not realizing that soon he would never be able to skate home.
Lost in those dreams of an earlier life, Eric kicked his hind foot down. The board’s tail struck the cement. Suddenly, Eric’s whole body was in the air with the instrument of his forgotten ecstasy still attached to his feet. I can do a trick¸ Eric congratulated himself, I haven’t forgotten. His smile stretched greater than it had in nearly three years. He dropped back to the earth. The board’s nose slammed hard against the concrete. Eric’s smile immediately disappeared. His equilibrium shifted. One foot fell off the board, and the board flew clear of its rider. Guesss ya can’t go back, his suddenly frightened mind thought for a second as his body fell and scraped a hole through the sweatshirt’s elbow while ripping off a tiny piece of flesh. His nerves burned. His bones ached. Then, Eric opened his eyes to see the board drop off the curb and fly into the Highway’s confused traffic.
First, there was a screech, followed by a dull, metallic thud as one car slammed into the other that crunched the skateboard. Before Eric could blink, he saw the driver of the second car lift out of her seat and slam her fragile face into the glass of the now shattered and bleeding windshield. With that act of violence, the body stopped its ascent. The driver of the first car wrapped his hand around the back of his neck and set his head on the steering wheel. Eric closed his eyes; he had seen a mirror of home in the red, broken glass that reflected the beginnings of violence in that seemingly final scene, and now, he prayed that the beach’s sand would come and tear out his vision. Another car swerved… another screech. The traffic tried coming to a halt, tried to avoid the accident. “Oh my God… oh my God,” was all Eric could say. The whole world had suddenly ceased to spin as violence cranked between its gears. Everybody had finally escaped themselves. They stared at him – the one person who never wanted anybody to see him. The kid whose skateboard was now destroyed, a couple that had been kissing, waiting for the light to change, some surfers who were telling each other stories of the waves they rode last summer, as the seagulls settled onto the cement and sand beneath a sun that never ceased to shine, everybody stared at him… at the accident… at everything other than themselves.
“Run, Eric! Run, bro!” and he did. He scrambled onto his feet, hurled towards the highway, churned his legs between the ceasing traffic, and ran down Main Street. “Run!” Trash’s voice still shouted from somewhere behind him, but the words were fading as Eric rounded the corner to fly past the garage he had slept in last night.
With his flailing hands, he pulled the sweatshirt off and threw it on the porch of a home he passed in the hope that nobody would recognize him when he showed his unhidden face. “Jesus Christ… Jesus Christ… Oh my God… Jesus Christ…” he panted between pumps of his arms. He rounded another corner. He didn’t slow down. “Oh my God.” He rounded another corner. He was trying to get as far away as he could. “Oh God, ya can’t go back.” He rounded another corner and suddenly crashed into a bare chest that consumed the full spectrum of the sun’s rays.
“Whatcha doin’, kid!” a thick voice shouted as Eric stumbled backwards to fall onto his already bruised frame. Sitting, he heaved with his breath. His face had sweat off what little color it had. The other voice spoke again, “I asked ya whatcha was doin’.”
Eric pushed down on the cement and flung himself upright. He went to run, but a strong, black fist grappled itself around his skinny, white arm. “Whatcha runnin’ from, kid?” With a lunge, Eric tried to pull free, but the grip only tightened like a prepared trap.
“I… I’m not sure,” as if that’s any sort of answer.
“Yeah ya are, but it don’t matter.” The blurry, black head surveyed the area and tipped slightly to the side as a wailing siren cried sharply in the distance. “Ya just need a place ta hide for a while.” The head leaned closer to Eric. “Every homeless kid needs a place ta hide… I know that.” Eric glanced quickly in every direction while thinking that this guy could never know. “Follow me, I got a place… just till whatever trouble ya gotchorself into passes… then you’re on your own again. I don’t play no kid’s games… Get it?”
“Yeah, man, whatever.”
“Whatever,” the thick lips repeated with a frown. Then, the hand was removed and strong shoulders brushed past Eric. “Ya gonna follow or ya gonna wait for those sirens ta catch ya?”
Eric stood still. His thoughts bleated tiny tears to emptiness. Oh my God… what happened… I couldn’t do it… that kid’s board is ruined… I just, I just killed someone… oh my God… oh my God… ya can’t go back. He could feel his own tears building somewhere beneath his eyes. All I wanna do is go home. I don’t wanna be like Trash, takin’ what I can get. I don’t wanna be like that guy in the sunglasses, just starin’ at whatever I got that’s shiny. I don’t wanna be like Marty. I don’t wanna be like that guy last night. I just wanna go home… but I can’t. The sirens still screamed their wailing song. Eric followed the offer of respite.
The walk to the black man’s home was short, but Eric’s legs could barely support him across the entire distance. The man and the boy stepped up two long steps, opened a screen, unlocked the door to the house, and went inside its dark atmosphere. “Grab a seat on that couch, kid… Ya want somethin’ ta drink?” Eric shook his head and stumbled – his body shaken by adrenalin – past the one armchair to sit on a worn, torn, brown couch that caught the light coming in from the window above. The man flicked the switch on a lamp that rested on a table beside the chair Eric didn’t sit in. “My name’s Henry.”
“Eric,” but the words meant nothing since his thoughts could focus on nothing other than their own horror and fear. What am I doin’ here? Eric asked himself. He turned his head in every possible direction, trying to see as much of his environment as he could, but there remained very little beyond the illumination shining in from the window and out from the lamp onto the green, 70s style carpeting. I’m stuck… I’m so trapped, and I don’t know what this guy wants, but he wants somethin’ cuz everybody wants somethin’. His blubbering mind tried to stay alert for signs of violence, but in betrayal, it continued tripping back into the past to try and make sense out of what happened today.
“Nice ta meetcha, Eric…” Henry sat in the oversized chair. His body was thin, his face like an inverted triangle, his nose flat, his hair short and curly. With his full, dark lips, he breathed a heavy sigh, and with his stark voice, he continued, “I seen ya spare changin’ on these streets for a while now, and I’d been thinkin’ ‘bout sayin’ somethin’ ta ya before, but I never knew if ya was scared ‘bout how you was livin’. So when I seen ya just now, I’m wonderin’ ta myself whatchor runnin’ from.” He stopped speaking, and he played with the lampshade. “So whatcha runnin’ from, kid?”
Eric shrugged his tiny shoulders, and Henry responded, “Ya don’t know… Yeah, ya probably don’t. Someone told ya ta run, and ya did, right?” Eric nodded. His attention still shifted between fear of the present and nausea at the past. Henry leaned forward, dropped his arms between his legs. “I know whatchor runnin’ from. See, ya don’t wanna think it, but I know you, man. All ya see is I’m black and you’re white, and you can’t see you’re just like me.”
Reality was flooding Eric’s conscience, and he could barely focus. Life itself felt like the pieces called last night and today, and he wanted it all to end. He wanted this guy to leave him alone so he could go back and let the beach bury him beneath its soft sand. “Whatever, man.”
“Yeah right… Whatever,” Henry laughed cynically. He leaned back into the arms of his seat, and he crossed his legs at the knees. “Ya don’t wanna believe it, but I’m just like you. In fact, most those people out there thatcha probably hate so much are probably just like you.”
The guy from last night, the guy from this morning, Trash in the ocean, the girl with the cigarettes, Marty, the kids with the skateboards, the accident, all the violence, embarrassment and disgust from two and a half years on the streets quickly projected itself across the screen of Eric’s thoughts. He whispered to the stale air, “Ya don’t know me. You’re nothin’ like me and neither is anybody else.”
“Don’t think you’re so unique, kid. I seen ya hidin’ behind that sweatshirt just like everybody else hides behind their own thing. So I’ll tell ya what… there’s a lot ya don’t know ‘bout this world we live in.”
Eric twirled the bottom of his tee shirt. “I don’t live anywhere.”
“Yeah ya do… ya live on the streets of America: land of the lost and home of the slave, and since ya white boys ain’t never been slaves, I’m gonna guess you’re just lost.”
“Whatever, man…” and with those words, Eric stood up quickly. His head spun from the sensations of his mind and his body, but he managed to curl his face into a defense of disgust. “I don’t need some whacked out line from you, man. I got my own stuff ta deal with,” and he moved towards the door.
“Ain’t whacked out, just true.” Henry brushed his hand towards the couch. “Sit back down cuz ya ain’t got no home ta go to, and those sirens gonna catch ya and arrest ya whether you’re a criminal or a victim. They don’t care. So just sit back down cuz ya made the mistake of runnin’ away inta somebody who wants ta talk to ya.” Startled by the tone of Henry’s words, embarrassed by the accusations, confused by the statements, Eric returned to his seat as his attention finally began to focus on the words filling that dark house. “When’s the last time somebody wanted ta talk to ya, huh? Must’ve been a long time cuz if things ain’t changed – and they never do – don’t nobody care ‘bout no homeless piece of trash.”
Eric shook his shaved head. He narrowed his eyes to slits. He remembered when he woke up that he’d wanted to talk to someone, but his trust had vanished years ago in a blur of trash that had whipped across everybody’s property. All Eric could say was, “Whatever, man.”
A quick flash of anger flooded Henry’s face. He snorted the words back at Eric, “‘Whatever, man,’ that all ya gonna say? Cuz I told ya I don’t play no kid’s games, and if ya wanna, then getchorself back on those streets, man, and keep runnin’. How long ya been on those streets?”
Huddled down, Eric seemed to think for a second. He was wondering what to say. He wanted to reach out from himself and finally tell somebody what he felt, but the only answer that tumbled through the thoughts that scorched his mind was, “Too long, man, way too long,” and with those words, Eric felt like he might cry tears that had been waiting to see the day for years.
Henry relaxed his posture, but his voice sounded stern and quiet, “Why dontcha go home, then… Ain’t no reason for anybody ta feel like they’re trash whether they are or not. And I know ya feel like trash, I can see it in your eyes. Your eyes’ll never lie, kid. So why dontcha getchorself off these streets and make your life worth somethin’ again.”
“Ain’t got no home ta go to.” And tears began to fill the hole that the accident’s mangled face had created.
“That true? Lemme tell ya somethin’,” Henry leaned forward as far as his chair would allow; he pointed his index finger at Eric, “Wherever ya are, man, that’s your home,” and he leaned back again.
“What do you know, man?” (Don’t let me cry, please don’t let me cry) Eric sucked his breath in hard, pulling anger in with it, hoping that would suffocate the tears.
“I know a lot, man.”
And the anger flew forward in a final attempt to spit out the water filling the holes behind his eyelids: “WHAT DO YOU KNOW!”
The room stayed silent. Slowly, Henry breathed in and out. He breathed in… and out. “I know I used ta be just like you. All ya see is skin. All ya see is I’m different. All ya see in everybody’s that they’re different, and that’s why you’re just like them. Well, check it out, ain’t no more slaves in America, kid…” Henry stretched his arms out from his body in what was meant to be an expression of exasperation, but to Eric, it looked like a sacrifice. “So I been as lost as you are.”
The white boy’s head fell into his fists, every thought vanished in the face of this confrontation, and tears of frustrated pain and terror choked his words, “What’s that s’posed ta mean?”
“Means I used ta be a homeless, little kid, and I ain’t that way anymore. Now you the homeless kid. So I’ll tell ya what, if ya take a look at me, maybe you’d have an idea what ta do with yourself.”
The room wallowed in brief silence as Eric’s breath shook his thin body sitting awkwardly on the couch. Henry leaned forward again. “Home’s a long way away, kid… at least for all of us it is. That’s why ya gotta live where ya are.”
Eric’s bloodshot eyes looked up from his palms. With the back of his dirty hand, he wiped his nose. He sniffled. “I don’t know how ta live anywhere. So I just wanna go some place that I know is home.”
“Yeah? Then go, man.”
“I told ya, I can’t.”
“Whydja decide that, huh? What happened in your life?”
He’d never told anybody. He’d even tried to make himself forget, but the memory would never leave. It always surfaced to erode conscious thoughts and visions. It made him tired. No matter how much he slept, it made him tired; no matter what he did to forget, some memory always woke up to chase him. Today, the body in that second car had reflected that deepest, most personal secret, but even worse, it made his fears live. Reality was too real, and there was nowhere left for Eric to run or to hide. Trapped, he answered Henry, “Never knew my mom, and my dad was killed by some drunk driver ‘bout three years ago. He was killed by someone who didn’t even know what he was doin’, someone who was too lost in himself ta realize he’d destroy someone else’s life.” (now I’m that person, and I never wanted ta be like any of you) “The state gave me ta some family but it wasn’t home. No matter what they tried ta tell me, no state could make anything a home. So I split, man. Cut all my ties and ran.”
Henry shook his head. When he spoke, his voice had softened, “That’s hard, man. That’s hard, but it don’t make ya special.” His cheeks and his lips turned back into the rocks they’d been earlier. “Tell ya what, man, this is reality, and it ain’t pretty. My dad went ta prison when I was a baby, never knew him. We lived up in L.A.” Henry clicked his tongue. “My moms was all strung out. Just me and my brother, ya know. That’s all the family I had.” He closed his dark lids on his darker eyes. “I watched him die ‘bout ten years after the state took my pops away. He got shot in the head outside a store. I sat on the concrete, held him in my arms, watched his arms and legs spasm, listened ta his breath rattle, and he died.” This was the truth. This was what made everybody wear their shiny sunglasses and stare at their shiny cars if nobody could make them forget. Stories like this were buried under all the trash in America. “I started runnin’ and didn’t stop for a long time.” For a second, Henry scowled. Then, he whispered, “But ya can only run so long ‘fore the violence catches up and it turns inta ya. Ya think you’re the only one who’s had it hard? Everybody does, man. That’s reality. That’s the way it is.” Eric stayed silent because he knew this was the truth. Henry licked his lips and stared at the ceiling as if the answer were floating down from there. “Tell ya what. Life don’t owe ya a thing. And if ya keep runnin’, you’ll wind up like all those people that walk ‘round on this beach that I’m sure ya tell yourself ya hate.”
“Yeah, I know.” And he did know. He never would have known it before today, but the tape of a skateboard flying into the middle of the street wound itself around his thoughts, and those thoughts had to agree with reality’s accusations. “But I don’t know how ta be anything else. So I guess I just gotta take what I can get cuz that’s all I’ll ever get.”
“Naw, man,” Henry said. He pursed his lips, scrunched up his nose and his eyes. “I only did that when I was a beggin’ little kid. Ya gotta live, man, cuz you’re here. Ya ain’t got a choice. Ya ain’t a kid no more. That changed for ya a while ago, and once ya know ya can’t go back, then ya gotta go forward ‘stead of wastin’ your life just takin’ whatcha can get.”
Eric turned his head to the side. He closed his eyes, and his teeth and tongue felt numb as he spoke, “I don’t know how ta do anything else.”
“Neither did I, but like I said, ya ain’t got a choice. Otherwise, ya gonna stay trash. And whether ya got somethin’ shiny ta look at or not, trash is still trash. I’m sure ya seen that on the streets.”
“Yeah… Yeah I have.”
“See, I don’t know whatcha did, but I know whatchor runnin’ from. You’re runnin’ from everything that makes ya you. And if ya wanna live, ya better stop runnin’ cuz some day ya gonna become the violence thatcha hate so much.”
“Yeah… I know.”
Henry looked around and stood up. The sirens had stopped yelling at the audience that existed so far away. “Look, I’m sick of seein’ ya beggin’, man – that’s the only reason I broughtcha here. That ain’t no way for anyone ta live, but if ya wanna keep bein’ the way you’re bein’, then stay the way ya are. If not, ya better realze that this is all ya got whether it’s whatcha want or not.”
Eric exhaled heavily. He drooped his shaved head back on his neck to let it rest on the couch. A splotch of sunlight streaked across his right eye so he closed both of them. He finally told somebody who would listen what he’d wanted to say that morning, “I don’t wanna be how I am. I been livin’ this way too long, and I’m tired. I’m sick of beggin’, and I’m sick of not havin’ a home. I just wanna bed where I can really sleep cuz I’m everything I never expected to be.”
“I’ll tell ya what, man, if you’re tired, ya can stay here and sleep. Just put the shade down and sleep on that couch. I ain’t got no answers for whatcha oughta do, every man’s different, but I’ll give ya a place ta rest for today, and tomorrow ya gonna have ta start gettin’ your life together. Don’t know how ya gonna do that, but ya gotta start.” Henry turned to walk into the darker parts of his home, but before he left, in an afterthought, he faced Eric again, “Just don’t think ‘bout takin’ nothin’ from me cuz all this stuff is mine. Ain’t that shiny (don’t need nothin’ shiny), but it’s what I got ta make myself a home. Get it?”
“I know, man.” Eric watched Henry recede down the shadowed hall. “Ya know what, man?”
“I been waitin’ a long time for someone ta wanna talk ta me.”
“I know… cuz I did too.”
Eric pulled down the shade to finally block the blinding sun. Stretching out on that comfortable couch, he closed his swollen eyes, and he let his thoughts take him away from all the destruction of life in Southern California to a world where everything seemed like it was.
Beyond the shores of sleep, Eric found himself waist deep in a midnight ocean. The scent of salt slivered into his imagined nostrils. The crashing waves broke across his face. The moon had taken the place of the world’s sun. A strong current attacked his tired legs, but he fought hard to maintain some semblance of a sea-drenched balance. A wave crashed over his dreamed head. The water choked his lungs, but Eric escaped before they burst. The ocean calmed for a moment, and something hard bumped into Eric’s back. He moved slightly to the left, and a face wearing shiny sunglasses floated past as the tides dragged its dead body out to the ocean’s deepest depths. Another wave broke across Eric’s face, and he went below the water.
Choking and coughing, he fought back to the surface, and he turned his aching face in the direction of the land. Like a starving demon, Marty stood there. His skinny arms held tightly onto a twelve year old boy clutching a broken skateboard and who never struggled as that murderer threw him down into the water’s depths. Marty, with his aged countenance of a slightly earlier America, turned away from the ocean to look at a fat man pouring a drink down the throat of a girl wearing short shorts whose left hand held a cigarette pack. Eric tried screaming in outrage in the hope that he could save an endless line of children who waited in the darkness behind the little girl, but another wave attacked him before the sounds became audible.
Back to the surface – “Ain’t it a blast, bro!” Trash shouted from somewhere to Eric’s left. “Ain’t it a blast!” he yelled again. Eric was going to say, No, but the ocean’s towering arms embraced them both in a surge as Trash loudly laughed his crazy laugh for the last time. As he struggled up from the clinging seaweed, water burned Eric’s nostrils and eyes. He’d been dragged out even farther. “Help me,” he gurgled as his neck thrust his lips above the surface. “Help me,” but he was alone now; Trash never returned from the ocean’s floor.
Another wave, and Eric didn’t know if he was strong enough to fight any longer, but somehow, the air greeted his lungs. Above the water again, he looked desperately to his right. Henry stood there. The water broke against his powerful chest, and he didn’t move. The drowning, homeless kid wanted to shout for help, but he knew that Henry had the strength to support himself… no one else. Eric fell down beneath the water’s force one more time.
It was as if he lived beneath the ocean for an eternity, but when the blackness let him rise to the top again, he felt the moon’s bright glare upon his face. “Help me,” he whispered to that beacon in the night as the sea’s foamy hands muffled his cry. “Help me.” The moon turned the color of blood as the man on its surface, the one who people tell children stories about, suddenly existed. Eric’s dreaming eyes opened wide in surprise with the recognition that the face resembled an older version of his own. “Help me. Help me,” he whispered as one final wall of salty water swelled up to destroy his dreamed reality forever. Eric closed his eyes on a darkness denser than the night, but before the water encircled him completely, a hand of air reached down in the sea’s clinging mass to grab Eric’s tired, barely struggling body and set it above the terrifying waves.
From Israfel Sivad’s collection of short stories Notes from the Idle Mind available here.