’97 was a hell of a year. In 1997, the Droogs were formed. It was about April I think. Things are fuzzy about the formation, but it was around that time. In 1997, I started dating Bekah. The hell that followed us after that was immortalized in the book Normal Street, I think you have all read that by now. But in March of ’97 tragedy hit that I still have not gotten over. A loss hit our family that will never be overcome. That was the year my Aunt committed suicide.
I have not given her a name in this book. Her loss is still too fresh for me to assign any clever or meaningful name to. But she will never be forgotten. She was the one who taught me how to shave with a razor and soap. She was the one who married Uncle Savior and lived with an angry man that only she understood. She had three kids who all suffered and continue to suffer as the years go by without her.
I could write chapter after chapter about the heartache she left us all with when she lost all hope and made the move that stopped our hearts and hers. But I keep those chapters close to my heart and I leave you with bits of her story.
I will give you a little, then we will swing the camera back to Bramble and what I found at her funeral.
She loved Savior and couldn’t make it work with him. He was hard and loud and I know he loved me, but I didn’t see affections toward anyone else from him. This is what I have of his actions leading up to her death. This is what I will give you.
He was unhappy in the marriage. He left one day and didn’t come back for a week. She went on without him aching and bleeding. When he came back, he came with the most devastating news.
He had found another woman. He loved her and was leaving my Aunt to be with this other woman. She begged and wept and threatened to kill herself, and he didn’t believe her. He left for work and told her that when he came home, he was packing and was gone for good.
That was St. Paddy’s Day.
She woke her oldest daughter, and when that girl was getting ready for school, my Aunt promised that the next day she would let her skip school and they would spend the day together. They would go shopping and have lunch, and a day of bliss was promised to my cousin that would never happen.
When my cousin went to school, my Aunt wrote four letters: one to her husband and one to each child. She took a few joints, went into the garage, started the car, and smoked. She died shortly after.
When my grandmother was called by Savior and told, she screamed and threw the phone. The loss of my grandfather was too fresh, and losing her daughter within a year was unbearable. I was told by Uncle Ball, and we sat in my apartment, too stunned to talk, and just looked around. At each other’s face. At each other’s chair. No one knew what to say. He was sure, as they all were, that Savior had killed my Aunt.
Uncle Ball said he had to see the autopsy. If it was not shown to him, he would call the prosecutor. Ball said if my Aunt had THC in her system, then he would believe it. She would have gotten high first, was his claim, and when the autopsy came back, he had to admit to himself that she took her own life.
We all caravanned to Milwaukee for the funeral. I rode with Uncle Wrath, and when my grandmother got into the car, I was saying that maybe Uncle Savior had not killed her. Grandma snarled and curled her hand into a talon. She screamed.
“That man killed my baby girl!”
I turned my face and scooted as far to the other side of the car as possible. We rode in silence until we all made our first stop, then I got in Mumble’s Blazer.
When we got to the funeral, we all kinda shattered, all going to different spots in the home. They had a big seating area outside the room, with stairs that went down to a bar. They had the room itself, which was filled with mourners, and that was where I found Uncle Savior.
He looked broken. As big as he was, he was thin and pale. He had a look on his face that said, “Here, take anything I have, just don’t blame me for this.” He was fragile when I found him. I hugged him and he wept. I told him I needed to talk to him.
“We are all going to a restaurant after this.” He gave me the name of the restaurant. It was a buffet place, very big. “I can talk to you there. I didn’t do this.”
“I know,” I said. “We will figure it out.”
“You hate me now, don’t you?” Then he braced as if the next words coming out of my mouth would haunt him forever.
“I don’t hate you. I just hurt,” I said. “I’ll see you after. We will figure it out.” Of course, there was no figuring it out. Nothing would ever make this better. All we could do was find some kind of ground to stand on.
I walked out into the hallway, where a long line of chairs and couches sat along the walls, and I saw them all. The Old Guard. Wrath’s friends. As many of them that could come. There were at least six guys there and they sat the wall. My eyes scanned and dropped on Bramble. He looked at me and our eyes locked.
I started to sweat. I started to hyperventilate. I stumbled back, my eyes still locked on him, and I dropped into a seat at the end of the hall. I stared at him as he watched me, and he tried on a smile that seemed broken and worn.
Soon, Rose, and she petted my sweating head and shook her head at me. “You gotta calm down, sweetie. We are all upset but—”
I pointed to Bramble and she turned his way. His eyes kind of lit up and she stepped between us.
“Here,” she said rifling through her purse. “I want you to take this.” She handed me half a pill.
“What is it?” I said.
“It’s a sedative. I got a few before I came. I figured I might need one. Go into that bathroom and take that and then go get some air.”
I obeyed. I went into that small bathroom, cupped my hand, tossed the pill in my mouth, and drank. I stepped back, looked at my black shirt, pants, and shoes, and back up at the mirror. That was when I broke. That was when he was created. I remember very little after that.
He was hard. He was like chewing stale jerky. He had a look in his eyes that steamed on the edge of anger and sadness, and he laughed a laugh that he would become known for. He stepped out of the bathroom and was greeted by Char’s sister.
She was close with Less at the time and she hugged me. Told me how great I looked, and she ran her fingers through my hair. She ground her hips against me and smiled. “Sucks why we are here, but good to see you.”
I looked at her, unable to even guess who she was, but I hadn’t seen her in a while and she quickly introduced herself.
“I can’t right now. I’ll catch up with you later.”
“Sure. Of course, do what you have to do. I’ll be around and maybe after, we can—”
This new entity walked straight to Bramble and stood before him. “Look at me,” he said. And Bramble did look up. He seemed broken. He seemed weak. “What do you see?”
“A fine man,” Bramble said. “You look just how I figured you might.”
The new entity reached a hand down and shook Bramble’s trembling hand.
“It is nice to see you.” But he meant meet. This new guy meant it was nice to meet him. Because he did not know. But he did. He knew in that way that you do when you are in the room with the most important person you will ever meet. The new guy grinned.
“Doing anything after?” he said.
“We are going to a bar called the Two Jokers,” Uncle Wrath said. “You can come if you want to.”
Without taking my eyes off of Bramble I nodded. “I’ll find a way.”
“I can take you,” Bramble said.
“I’ll find my own way. I think I have to do a thing before I can join you. But I will be there. Don’t leave without me.”
He shook his head. “I won’t.”
“Good.” Then Slade walked away from Bramble and walked to the end of the hall. He sat in that chair and stared at that man. I can’t tell you how long. It seemed that for the last twenty-four years Slade has been in that chair staring at that man in one way or the other, until February.
Aunt’s daughter showed up and extended her hand. Slade took it. She led us away and out of the building altogether. She had a few friends with her and we all walked across the street to a store to buy whatever.
Slade listened for a name and caught it. He saw her anger and her loss. He saw a girl whose mother was stolen from her, and he loved her instantly. Besides Bekah and the boys, this was the first person in the world that Slade loved.
He laughed a lot, and that laugh brought a smile to my cousin’s face. He cursed a lot, because he is like that, and he talked loud and proud. He never mentioned why they were there, and he never said a word about what he wanted. He just listened to her. After a while he realized he might be the only one who could put a smile on her face.
“Wanna spend the night at my house tonight?” she asked.
“Done. Got a few stops to make first, but I will be there.” They walked back into the funeral home and Slade saw The Queen of Cats waving him down. He hugged his cousin and he went to see this new person.
She jumped up and hugged him, and he wrapped his arms around her. Decided he loved her, too.
“I can’t believe it!” she said as she crushed Slade to her chest. “I just can’t believe it.”
Slade pulled back, looked at her near the point of tears, and he nodded. “It’s ugly. I need you to know I don’t blame him, and if that is a problem, then I’ll walk.”
“It’s not a problem. She was unhappy most of her life. She loved her kids and she loved that man, but she hurt all the time. I tried to be there for her, but I couldn’t. No one could.” She hugged me again. “I love you so much!” She sobbed.
“I love you, too.” He kissed her cheek and she laid a smacker on both of his, and he settled in. Every few minutes he would sit with The Queen of Cats. Every few go check on his cousin, and all the while he looked down the hall at the man he was drawn to. Every time that man was looking back at him.
“Don’t know how I am going to get through my night,” Slade said.
“Why’s that?” The Queen of Cats said.
“Gotta go see Savior after this. Have to get to The Two Jokers after that, then get to cousin’s house.”
“No fucking car, and Rose will not drop me off anywhere.”
She reached the distance between us. “I’ll take you,” she said. “I’ll take you anywhere you want to go at any time. You take these.” She searched her purse and dropped a hand full of quarters in my fist. “Call me from a pay phone. Let me know where you are and I will find you and take you anywhere.”
Slade kissed her again and the music started calling all of us into the room where my Aunt waited in a casket, and any words spoken over her would not be enough.
Slade was gone within moments of the service starting, and no one can remember what happened there. If there is anyone, they never spoke about it. What I do know is that after it was all over, we all lined up and walked by her casket. When I looked down at her body and saw that her face was all wrong, and it was darker tanned than it was supposed to be, I realized I would never really see Aunt again.
That is when it all broke.
We burst into tears. The casket turned to a block of solid ice, and as it steamed, the other mourners burst into char-covered smoldering hunks of burning wood. The ground ripped away to show nothing at all. Just a great pit of darkness, howling and wild, and all the strength poured away. We held on to the casket for as long as we could before we dropped to our knees, sobbing as hard as we could.
Hands lifted us up, wrapped arms around us murmuring that everything would be okay, and they led us away. The world made no sense and I could not tell who had me.
They walked me back to my chair in the hall and I dropped to slump into it.
Slade, and when we look up, we see Char’s sister staring down at us wringing her hands, unable to think of what to do.
Slade laughed his hard laugh and she looked down at us. “I’m not going to leave you,” she said.
“Not here for you,” he said. He shifted away, and she was looking at Artist. He held his hand up and she took it.
“You can ride with me,” she said.
Her car was a sty. Everything you might imagine from a vehicle of a woman whose life was never under control. Fast food wrappers and containers. Empty cigarette packs. Clouded windows from nicotine. Ripped seats and a general fuck it vibe that hits a hopeless mess.
Don’t remember the ride. Well, I remember stuttering bits. She was asking me what I was doing after, and I answered. She told me she wanted to go with me, and I told her no. I would not have anything to do with that. I needed to see to this myself.
We were the last to get to the gravesite, and I couldn’t watch my Aunt being lowered into the ground. I watched from a distance as hundreds of people crowded around the casket and the last of the words were said. Char’s sister kept talking.
She told me about everything she could think of, and I realized very soon that she was trying to distract me. She could not bear to share attention with Aunt. She wanted my complete focus, and she didn’t get it.
I have no details on how it went. All I can say is that for most of the graveside service, I stared at Bramble’s back. I don’t remember anything else except the wild gestures of the woman next to me and the cold. It was very cold.
The Queen of Cats took me to the restaurant and buzzed away, telling me to call her when I was ready to move on. She didn’t call Savior a bastard. She just kind of scowled as I slipped out of her car and walked into a packed restaurant.
He saw me and hugged me. “Can we sit?” I said.
“You can get a plate if you want. I am paying for everyone,” he said.
Slade came out and shook his head. “Can’t eat.”
Savior nodded. “Oh.”
“I don’t hate you and I am not leaving your life,” Slade said.
Savior broke. He just started sobbing. He took my hands from across the table, looked at me with wet eyes, and shook his head. “I had changed my mind,” he said. “I had talked myself into sense and I decided she was just too important to me. That I needed to work it out with her. We were going to work it out. They came to me at work and told me what happened. I will never be okay again.” His words came out like the chiming of wooden bones, dry and scraping against each other.
I stayed as long as I could, then I walked by my cousin. “I’ll be at your house. Have to make a few stops first. Might be late.”
She stood and wrapped her arms around me. “I’ll be up.”
A cute friend of hers said, “I’ll be there. I am spending the night.”
“Cool, me too. I’ll meet you there,” Slade said with that harsh bellow of a laugh of his.
Then the Two Jokers.
It’s March 21st, 1997, when I walk into that bar. It will be March 22nd, 1997, when I walk out. My birthday. My 21stt birthday. I will be legal to drink. I will be able to tip a few back with the Old Guard. But I don’t. I don’t because I have a cousin waiting for me back at her place. And I don’t because if I start drinking I will start to cry. I don’t because I have taken a vow to stay sober all of my life. But mostly I don’t drink because I can’t get my eyes off of the man across the table from me.
He is quiet. And he sits the booth low. His elbows rest the table as mine always do and he can’t stop staring at me. Often unable to break that stare. Bramble is transfixed at the sight of me.
Rose sits beside him. His wife on the other side of him. Rose’s husband on the other side of her, but to him, only me and Rose exist.
He whispers to her every now and then, and then his attention comes back to me. Uncle Wrath is there, and he has a way of taking up every room he is in. Uncle Sly is with him, and those two can get each other going real good. Bramble only whispers to Rose and stares at me.
I get up when the clock is at 11:57 and I stand in the middle of an empty dance floor, staring at the clock over the bar. I keep looking at Bramble, who keeps staring at me.
Slade watches the man, and there is an understanding met. It is not Informer that has built Slade. It is Artist. Informer is not made aware of him until a month ago. He is a secret hidden. A hunch, nothing more. Because Artist has a theory. He will forget it after the hard night with his cousin in her attic room with her cute friend. But at this place with this man, he sees what we are seeing now.
Maybe. Maybe this man, maybe Bramble is who we know he is now. Slade and Artist create a pact. Slade will stay away. He will never come forward and he will never let himself be seen until the day comes when we can see the possibility.
Slade enters into an agreement with Artist then. And by midnight, Slade is leaving.
As the clock chimes, the Old Guard beg me to let them buy me drinks and get me drunk, but Slade has made other plans. He begs off, but first he stares at Bramble, memorizing his face and wondering. Before he turns, he will sink away, never to be found, but for now, in this last moment, he stares at the one that might be his father, and he begins to form a plan.
For years he built. He ran through information and he gathered clues. He talked to Bekah and he played Dungeons and Dragons games.
He ran a game for the Droogs where Burg played Barric and finally, after searching for months and facing unbeatable odds, found himself at the tomb of his fallen father. But in this story, there was no statue. No image of a fierce warrior snarling and mid swing. In this story, Slade couldn’t see the face, just guess at it.
As time went by and every book was written, Slade came through to work out every theory he had. He slipped father figure after father figure into the narrative, and every time, he waited. Every time it was time for him to make his claim, he held back. He never spoke it out loud. He had given a vow to Artist.
At the end of 2020, we started writing a lot of The Silent War of the Sour Eye. It is a story about two time traveling wizard warriors who are nudging and cutting to sway the movements of the world. It is such complicated work that just trying to understand it as it is read is nearly impossible. Writing it is simply not possible at all.
But Slade has spent his entire existence toying with theories and tying together strings. Piling up maybes is what he does. So every Sour Eye story is written by him. He is the mastermind behind the most complicated writing that is done in this office.
He came out to Bekah a few months ago and she got really frustrated until she stood back in awe at what she was seeing.
“Ha!” Slade popped. “That story is a bitch but I got my claws around it. Ha! No way it is getting out of my hands.” But she has seen this entity before. He has come out a few times, and now she can see by the way he has his leg propped up on the arm of the camp chair in the garage where we smoke, and the way he leans back when everyone else leans forward. She knows what she is seeing, and she is ready this time.
“Who are you?” she asks.
“Ha! I mean really. Ha! Nothing gets by you. Nice to meet you. I must say, I have been dying to say it out loud. You got an ass, girl! Ha!”
“Thanks, glad you like it. Answer the question. Who are you?”
“Rumor and wind. I’m the one that doesn’t exist.”
“Want to explain that?” she said.
“Ha!” He throws his cigarette in a barrel we have in the garage and lights another one, and now it is impossible to miss by the way he smokes and the way he looks at things.
“Give me a name,” she says.
Then I sit up. Then he is gone.
“Who was that?” she asks.
“That book is going to break everything it touches.” I am talking about Normal Street and the effect it will have when it hits the world. “They are going to come looking for us. We have to get the boys ready.”
“Who was that?” She touches our arm. “Who was that person that was just here? Who was that?”
“They will come here to yell and they will face a pissed off Rott and–”
“Look at me.”
Shadow looks at her with a smile, a sly smile he shows when he wants skin.
“There was a guy out here a second ago. What can you tell me about him?”
Shadow blinks and shakes his head. “It is getting published. No doubt. They can’t stop the storm that is coming for them.”
She stares at us. Confused. Tries to get us back on subject, but every time it happens. For months, every time Slade comes out, he will say a few things, get her laughing. Pop off that obnoxious laugh that she has never heard before, then he is gone. As soon as she starts to ask questions about him to whoever comes back out, they change the subject. But not in the way one would think.
They are not avoiding the question. They are not running from anything. They seriously have no idea what she is saying. Their mind can’t follow her conversation.
She asks Informer and gets the same thing.
“See, you just did it again. Every time I ask about this guy, whoever it is ignores the question.”
And Informer blinks, and without looking and without pausing, he starts to talk about dinner.
Slade is a blind spot. They can’t see him at this point. They can’t talk about him or feel him leaving. He is there and gone, leaving no trace. It is not until she talks to Smear Lord of Ire that she finds out what he is and why he is here.
Slade is a just in case that would have vanished if Bramble was not our father. He is a theory. He is a rumor.
Was. Now that we have the results of 23 and Me, and after the results of Ancestry dot com showed up yesterday, he is a fact. Now the reality is made real.
Slade is here. Slade knows now his place.
We ordered him a vest. It looks like a classic leather jacket with the sleeves cut off. The sight of it scares us all. Everyone except Artist sees that vest and they feel a chill run down their spine. Because the words Bekah said when she finally could talk about him radiate through them when they see it.
“Shadow is like lighting a cigarette. Slade is like lighting a cigar.”
The vest will be here Thursday. I’m not sure when we will buy that Honda Shadow.