There was a pounding on my door that didn’t wake me from my stupor. Its suddenness, its violence didn’t alarm me or cause me to jump. I took it as easy as the next breath. And though the pounding on my door was oppressive and angry, it was almost as if I had been expecting it. When my mother’s fists raged against the cheap wood of my door to my bedroom my senior year of high school, I smiled.
I pulled on a shirt but I didn’t really want to, and I opened the door. Rose was standing outside, fury on her face, tempered with confusion, disappointment, more confusion, and self-disgust. As soon as I looked at her face, it came to be perfectly clear what had happened.
“There is a girl here. She says she wants to see you.” Rose blinked. She stared, blinked again, still blocking the way. I would have to push to get past her. She glared at me, angry, and cloaked in self-loathing, and said, “There’s a girl.”
There had always been a girl. Since Grr, since Jazz, since the dark bath tub, I had learned to speak to girls better, with more heart and honesty, than the boys in my life. Women brought out a chord in me, reached a core. They made me find something in myself that brought me better in tune with the world.
There had always been a girl. They came to our house all the time, friends mostly. But this girl, whoever she was, had rocked Rose’s foundation. This girl, whoever she was, had caused a storm in my mother’s mind, a blistering, flaying to ripple across her emotions. This girl had, in some way, broken Rose just by knocking, just by asking for me.
“I told her to wait outside. I didn’t… It’s not that… I told her to wait outside. And she’s black.”
“Well, are you gonna let me by?”
“You can have ten minutes, but then I need you to work on some of these chores.”
There were no chores. Chores were the last bastion of her control over me. The last hope she had of denying me anything. Because when it had really mattered, in the end, Rose had gone. In our big fight, she had lost.
To understand the girl at the door, you have to learn a little bit about the final dress rehearsals for To Kill A Mockingbird, because the heart of Shadow lies in the telling of this.
To Kill A Mockingbird was an intense production. There were times when over thirty cast members were on the stage at the same time. There were so many moving parts, from glances, to lines, to actions, blocking had to be just right. Our director was a raging beast of a man who teetered on the edge of perfect discipline and complete loss of control every day that I knew him. In the final dress rehearsals of To Kill A Mockingbird, he lost his mind so many times. So many chairs were thrown. He cursed, he liked to yell at the top of his lungs, “High school!” Said that in his profession, it was the most insulting thing that could be said about a production. “Your production was high school.” He said the term came with an attitude of unprofessionalism, apathy towards the craft, and disrespect. He howled at the top of his lungs, “This will not be a high school production! This story is more important than that!” And then he threw a few more chairs.
There are two great dress rehearsals before opening night in the Waynesville High School drama department. The first dress rehearsal takes forever. Everybody has to come out in their costumes. Everybody has to be examined. Every nuance has to be checked for its distracting qualities. The dresses all have to fit. The pants all have to fit. Nothing can be out of place for the time period. The first dress rehearsal is a nightmare, and as the first dress rehearsal wrapped up, it was after eleven o’clock at night. I got home, but I was so keyed up, the delicacies and intricacies of all the moving pieces rotating around in my brain halted sleep. And when I finally did fall asleep, I woke up late. This was the greatest crime that could be committed, for this meant I had to wake up my mother. She yelled and screamed the entire way to school about how I was not taking my education seriously. She shouldn’t have to take her kid to school. I was irresponsible. It was time to grow up.
I took it all like a blow to the chin. I could handle it. She’d been raging at me all my life. It was my junior year, I was almost out of the house.
Second dress rehearsal, and another late one. I cursed when I woke up the next day after missing the bus a second time in a row.
I dressed, showered, shaved, all the things. Then I woke up Rose. And she was raging. In the past she’d made me walk the five miles to school. But if I didn’t make it early in the day, I could lose my acting privileges during the production. There were rules. Things had to be maintained. Like every after-school activity, there were laws to these things. She had to give me a ride, and I had never seen her this mad before.
She got in the car and blazed away. She was saying the worst words her Christian mouth would allow, curving every phrase with the most wicked barb. And it finally hit her, like a wave of inspiration. She turned to me and stabbed out with her finger, “You’re done.”
“Done with what?”
“You’re quitting school.”
I was stunned. Couldn’t form words. I just stared at her, and I saw bliss in her face. True happiness. She had won.
Dropping out of school was a tradition in our family. As far back as you could trace, no one on my mom’s side of the family had ever graduated high school. It was never far from Rose’s mind that I had promised myself I would graduate. And it always itched, that spot in her mind that told her I would get my diploma while she would never have hers.
She had formed a plan earlier that year. She would take correspondence high school classes so she could graduate before me, so she could be the first to have graduated, but the algebra was too hard. She asked friends of mine to help her, and they had agreed, until it became clear to them that the only reason she was studying algebra was to beat her son over the line. They had gotten too busy, and the tutoring had stopped. Now, in this car, blazing down the highway, I saw the joy on her face, pure happiness at the thought of my failure.
I can see that face now as I sit here in this room at this computer. I can see the look in her eyes when she thought she had me, when she thought she could force this on me. I call that glean to mind every now and then to remind myself why I do not let that woman in my life.
“We’re gonna drive straight up to that school, we’re gonna march into that office, and you are quitting school. Missed the bus two days in a row, no sir! You obviously aren’t taking your education seriously. You’re gonna quit. Start taking more hours at Pizza Hut. Hit the job force. It’s exactly what you need.”
“What do you mean, no? This is going to happen.”
“Let me tell you what’s going to happen. I want you to pay close attention, because this is exactly what’s going to happen. You’re going to drive right up to that school, we’re going to march into that office, you’re going to set them down in front of that desk, you’re gonna look at them and say, ‘He wants to quit school.’ And they’re gonna look at me and ask me if I’m sure. And I’m gonna tell them absolutely not. I wanna graduate. I will not be dropping out of school.”
“Oh no, absolutely not. You seem to forget I am The Mom. What I say goes. Liechen didn’t want to fail you, but I told him to fail you. He had to. I’m in control. I say how things go. And you are quitting school today.”
“I am eighteen years old. When you look at them and tell them that I want to quit school, and I tell them you’re wrong, they’re going to laugh in your face. Just because you’re my mother does not give you the right to deny me an education.”
“This is going to happen. If you want to live under my roof—”
I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t take it anymore. I yelled, “Then I won’t live under your roof! I can move in with Robert. He has an extra room in his trailer. I can take on more hours at Pizza Hut and pay my way. Finish my education, get my diploma. It’s happening. I will be graduating high school. And you are powerless to stop me.”
We pulled up to the front of the school and she slammed on the breaks. The tires squealed for her.
“Decide, before I get home today, if you want me to move out or not,” I said. “If you do, I’ll be gone. If not, then never mention this again.”
When I stepped out of the car and I closed that door, I had won the first of my victories against Rose. I could feel X’s toothy smile stretch itself across my face. All the rage, all the hate, I could feel it in my body, primal and cold coursing through my veins like ice.
So when I stepped out of the door of that room, to go and face whatever girl had broken my mother, she stepped back. She got out of my way.
“I told her to wait outside.”
When I opened the door, and I saw Poet on my doorstep, I stepped out and closed the door behind me.
“Where have you been? You just vanished. Where have you been?”
“I couldn’t stay,” she said. Her eyes were shy. They were for the world around me, drinking just sips, just wetting her lips on the sights of my face, on my mouth as it worked. “I just couldn’t watch you kill yourself with that girl.”
“Draconic is bad but—”
“Draconic is a drug and you’re a junky. You were always going to be attracted to girls like her. It’s part of the reason you love me. And make no mistake about it, Jesse, you do love me. I’m not talking about Draconic. I’m talking about Mary. When I saw you take her in, the way her banality draped itself across your shoulders, you just couldn’t ask me to stay and watch that.” She turned and walked with her body off my porch and into my driveway. It was the clothes she wore, it was the way they swayed, dangled, hung and dropped as she moved. She was like a gypsy, and a belly dancer, and a stripper all at the same time. So many things I wanted to say. So many things rose up in my mind, questions and apprehensions and truths. Daring, hungry truths.
I stepped out into the driveway and she stood looking at her car. I can tell you it was Poet’s car. That’s all I remember of it. The details are fuzzy. Maybe it was a Nova, sleek and tan with a bit of a growl and a heavy sway. Maybe it was a Camaro, black and waxed, gleaming. A racecar, a Jeep, it could have been a Tempest. I don’t know. My mind can’t create it for me. All I know is when I got inside that car, it was like climbing inside that girl. Things hung, they hung from mirrors and knobs. I remember fries in the cupholder. Taco Bell food. And it occurred to me that Poet actually ate. Somehow, I had never thought about that before, that she would need anything to keep her body moving except her sheer will.
We pulled out of that driveway. She took me off into the world.
I know this guy. He puts two thin deli sliced pieces of turkey on his sandwich with one slice of American cheese between two pieces of bread, cuts it diagonally, and that’s his meal. I know this other guy, tells the deli to shave the turkey as fine as they possibly can, shave it fine, can you get it so he can see through it? Shave that turkey as fine as you possibly can. And then this man piles fistfuls of paper-thin turkey onto his sandwich, one big knot of fine, thin-shaved turkey. That’s his sandwich.
When the Disney movie Hercules came out, there was the three-patty cheeseburger, the Hercules burger. I thought it was gross. It was a lot of meat and a lot of grease. There were people lined out the door for that shit.
I guess what I’m saying is a lot can be said about a man or woman, or even a child, in the way they eat and the things they eat. Watch somebody make a sandwich for themselves and you can learn something about them. This is what I can tell you about Poet. She got in that mystery car of hers and drove me to Subway. She was hungry, I was not. I was still overwhelmed by her. By her appearance and the suddenness of it, by having her back and knowing it would only be a fleeting moment before she was gone again. She ordered herself a turkey on wheat with American cheese. Six-inch. They scooted the sandwich down to the toppings, looked up at her and said, “Would you like anything else?”
She smiled with those beautiful, thick lips of hers and said, “I want everything. I want every topping you have.” She took the spinach and the lettuce, the green peppers, the jalapeno peppers, and the banana peppers. They used to have green olives, she took those, too, and the black olives. Tomatoes, white onions, and red onions. She took every single vegetable they had available. And the whole time the guy is putting the sandwich together, he keeps looking up at her. He’s scared, looking at her as though she’s forcing him to build a bomb, and he’s afraid the wires will touch, afraid this whole thing will come apart in front of him.
“Would you like any sauces?”
She smiled. At that moment, it looked like she should have been popping some gum, and she said, “I want all of them.”
“Mayonnaise, and the light mayonnaise. Mustard, and the spicy mustard.”
“Oil and vinegar?”
“Oil and vinegar.”
“Did you want the salt?”
“Yes, and the pepper.”
I stood wide-eyed, staring as they built this monstrous masterpiece. They wrapped it up the best they could and handed it to her. It was almost the size of her face. I couldn’t stop staring at her. This couldn’t be real. Who does this? The works on a pizza, maybe. But never six different sauces. The lunacy of mayonnaise and light mayonnaise on a single sandwich. The lunacy of it was raw. It was bucking. Clicking its heels, flipping the bird, and smoking a cigar.
She sat down and I watched her eat that sandwich. It was one of the sexiest, most artistic, raw, and emotional experiences of my life.
“Where have you been?” I asked again.
“Oh love, I’ve been in college. I dropped out halfway through junior year, when you took up with that girl. Took my GED, signed up for college, took every test they put in front of me, and they accepted me. I’m studying poetry. Literature. I wanna be around writers. Come with me.”
She took another bite of her sandwich and I wanted to go. I wanted to get in that car and leave that entire town behind, everybody I knew, everybody I loved. At this point, I was two months away from graduation and I wanted to walk away. I was coming to realize there were goals beyond graduation. There was a life coming that I had not been planning for. There were so many things to run away from, but mostly I just wanted to run to Poet.
She saved the last bite for me. She held it out between two perfectly painted fingernails. I opened my mouth, and she placed it delicately on my tongue. I don’t remember the ride home. I don’t remember saying goodbye to her. I know I stared when she pulled out of my driveway with that car of hers, but I don’t remember that. I don’t remember sobbing in the driveway, although I know I did that. But I do remember that one last bite. And I could taste the salt and the pepper.
This chapter is from Reality of the Unreal Mind, Vol. 1: Teardrop Road, available on Amazon.