[img_assist|nid=4306|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=150|height=106] It’s very hot here. Hotter than I’ve ever liked. Even when I was a kid. Growing up, summer was only good for me because school was out. Swimming’s okay but I don’t go crazy for it. I like camping to get out into the woods where it’s a little bit cool, ‘cause those nights when you can’t sleep for being all sticky sweaty, that’s not for me.
What I especially don’t appreciate is being able to see the heat. Sure, back at home we had hot summer days when you could sometimes see it rising off the road – notice I said sometimes. Here, everything’s distorted by the heat every day. Yeah, there’s sand everywhere, but that’s not what gets you. It’s the asphalt. Asphalt and concrete. You go outside around here and it’s the roads that pack a real wallop. All they do is soak it up then throw it right back at you. They’re long and wide, and they melt away into heat waves long before they ever reach the horizon. And they are waves, really. The roads, the farther out you look, it’s like they move, swells at sea, rolling up and down, just a little bit, and then they’re gone. After that, it’s all desert.
This is what I think about lying on my cot every night. And every day. Not much else to do. That and pray. Yesterday, I knew something was up. Abdul – I have no idea what his name really is, we’re not on a first- or last-name basis. I just call him that ‘cause it’s better than thinking “that guy with the fucked up eye.” He should wear a patch but he doesn’t. It’s not good to look at. It’s like he was burned or something, and some of his eyelid got shriveled off and can’t quite close the whole way. And then there’s always something seeping out of it. As I said, it’s not good, so I call him Abdul. I figure that’s better than tying up his whole identity with something that probably happened in a split second and wasn’t one of his best moments.
But anyhow, Abdul, when he came to drop off my bread and water, didn’t smack me across the head as hard as he usually does. When he barked out some orders – or insults – at me, I thought I noticed a little touch of hesitancy, almost like a look of sympathy in his good eye. I tried to grab its focus for just a second. I said, “Hey, can you tell me what’s going on in the world?”
He said something then pointed at the food. That’s when I noticed a small dish of peaches – canned, in syrup. I hoped it was extra heavy. I wanted him to know I was grateful. I put my hands together in front of me, prayer-like, and gave a quick bow of my head. I thought I might have seen him give just a little nod back. Then, I couldn’t believe it, he took out a cigarette, put this down on the tray, and threw a matchbook down along with it, after showing me its one remaining match. He spoke again and this time it came out sort of like a mumble, maybe even an apology. That gave me hope. I wanted to speak with him, have him speak back to me.
“Tatakalm Alingli’zia? Sadik. Me sadik – friend. Kobry. Kobry. I build kobry.” I gestured wide with my hands trying to demonstrate a bridge, cars zooming over top of it.
Abdul looked nervously out the hallway, again said something that I didn’t understand, then began to leave.
“Telephone?” I said, louder than I had intended. I knew I sounded like I was begging, and thought maybe it was time for that. “My family – can I call my family? Usra, usra,” I yelled. That reached him.
He stepped away from the doorway, walked right up to me and shoved his face in front of mine, his bad eye an inch away from my good two. His voice, rapid but contained and intense. Well, seemingly more intense than usual – he always sounded intense to me. Then he smacked me good. The hardest one yet. I fell back against the wall and didn’t see anything for a while.
[img_assist|nid=4307|title=|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=136]The fall. My favorite season here. Joey – that’s my best friend, since second grade we go back. Him and me and the other kids on our road, we’re up on Shaeffer’s farm field. It’s perfect for football and so’s the weather. Cool, not cold. Sunny, but not blinding. Today, we cut to the field through the cow pasture. Joey has to be home early for some special dinner so we don’t go through the woods that come up on the one side. It’s longer that way but that’s how you avoid the patties. Today, though, we take the pasture because we want to get a full game in.
We do. My side wins by 16 points – two touchdowns and one safety. The safety’s courtesy of Joe. He’s almost always good for at least one per game.
We’re twelve years old. Seventh grade. Joe’s five foot eight, weighs at least 190. He always plays the line – offense or defense, because he don’t have speed but he has power. We’re winning too good to quit with the sun, so Joe has to make it home quick as possible through the pasture.
We fly down the hill. I tell him good game before I split off right up the road toward my house. Lucky for him, his is right there because he’s lumbering and puffing just from rolling down the hill. I’m still sprinting but pause a minute to yell back, “Hey, don’t forget to kick off your shoes.” He waves his hand like he hears me.
Joe’s late, by over two hours. He goes in through the back door, into the kitchen. He doesn’t turn on any lights but still sees that the dinner dishes have already been washed and put away. The only signs of life are coming from the living room, voices from the TV set. He figures he just has to make it down the hallway, past the living room, where his mom and dad are sitting, probably steaming, get up the stairs to his bedroom and he’ll be safe. Well, remember Joe’s stats – chances were pretty good he wasn’t sneaking anywhere past anyone, besides he’s still breathing hard from his downhill flight. So there he is in the hallway. He takes just a couple steps past the living room archway, and his mom’s on him, yelling, “Joe, is that you? That better not be you. I told you be home by five.”
Does Joe stop and take his punishment? No, that’s not Joe. He still thinks there’s a way out of it. So he takes off down the hall trying to get to his room as fast as he can, as if that’s some kind of sanctuary or something. He gets to the steps, does this quick pivot to launch himself up the stairs, but all of a sudden his feet fly out from under him and he goes into this massive slide. Like, what? there’s something on the floor or something? And wham! he goes down, slams his mouth against the first step, big time.
Pop! his mom turns on the lights, and there’s Joe bleeding from his mouth real bad, one of his front teeth is hanging by a thread. He starts crying. His mom, she’s ready to start yelling, but there’s blood everywhere, so she’s all worried instead. By now his dad’s up, too, all grouchy ‘cause something’s interrupting his Wheel. His dad rounds into the hallway and you hear this “What the” and he takes a slide too, but doesn’t go down, thankfully. That would have been real bad if he’d gone down, too. But anyhow, that’s when his mom sees it. First, right there beside Joe and then all the way down the hall. She marches into the kitchen and there it is, beginning at the back door. A trail of cow poop right through the house. Idiot Joe, it was all over his shoes and he didn’t kick them off outside the door, like I reminded him to. Yeah, he’s still bleeding and all but the trail of cow you-know-what is too much for Mrs. Zupanic to handle. She’s mad, real mad. She’s there yelling at him about the cow crap. His Dad’s all moaning that his back’s gone out. He’s slapping Joe upside his head, his Mom’s ranting up a storm while she’s trying to get the dentist on the phone. Buster, their dog, he’s sniffing all over the place and then starts licking it up.
Next day at lunch, kids fight to get a seat at our table, all morning whispering and wondering what happened to Joey and his front tooth, knowing that him telling about it at lunch time will be the highlight of the day, probably the week. This is one of the things that makes Joe real popular at school. He can make one story last through a whole lunch period, in between bites of sloppy joe and tater tots and the extra deserts kids give him. And it doesn’t matter he’s been grounded for a month, and that he’s going to miss that tooth until he’s old enough to get a permanent implant. He looks at anything happening – good or bad – as just another chance to be the center of attention.
So now we’re at lunch and Joe’s telling us all about it, every cow-poop covered step of the way. We howl. Me sitting on Joe’s right, Jerry on the other side, Rob and Stanley across the table from us. When he gets to the slide, I laugh so hard my chocolate milk comes squirting out my nose. I’m laughing so hard I wake up, uncomfortable for some moments with the sensation that these memories are really only a story, figments of someone else’s imagination that have somehow played themselves into my head without having any real connection to me.
I could tell it was coming on evening. Not because I had a window in my room but because I could see through the bars at the door the failing light in the hallway. My neck ached. I’d passed out crumpled against the wall, my head at a bad angle to my body. It took a few minutes to get a sense of where I was. The ache in my neck and shoulders resonated down to my empty stomach. I hadn’t had the chance to eat yet that day. The tray was still there. But not the cigarette or the single match. Then I saw the peaches, too, but they’d been thrown across the room, lay scattered about the floor. I ate them, anyway. What’s a little dirt gonna do you? The syrup was all gone, though.
As I was crawling over to the peaches, I tried to pull back those memories of Joe. I wondered why that cow poop story had come to my dreaming mind. Then I realized it was always the cow poop story that came to mind when I thought about Joe. I was reminded of it for years, every time he took out his false tooth, which he liked to do a lot especially when there were girls around.
Joe was plenty of things to me. My best friend, since the second grade. A teammate. Partner for a while when we thought we’d have a try at selling insurance. He’s plenty of things to a lot of people. A husband now, a father, businessman – he works in a car dealership, makes good money. And I’d bet he’s up to 300. A real Santa. There’re few people I’m as close to and shared as many laughs and worries with as him. In fact, he’s the guy I talked to most seriously about whether or not I should come over here. He tried to tell me that if it weren’t for his family he might have come to – the money was real good, what’s the chance something would happen? Yeah, he’s a lot to me – we go back twenty years. So why is the cow poop story the first thing I tell you about Joe? Then it occurs to me that in a person’s life, it seems like there are some stories that get attached to them more than others, and for me, that one will always be a part of Joe. I always wanted to be there for that one, ‘cause I really wish I’d seen that slide.
The peaches were good, if dry and dusty. The syrup, I guessed, had been extra heavy. I wished there’d been some left. They tasted especially good after a couple of weeks of just bread or rice and water. It didn’t give me a good feeling, though, to be eating them. With every bite, I kept getting a deepening sinking feeling that peaches and a cigarette weren’t a good sign. Why would they show kindness now? I didn’t like it. Panic started rising up off my body like the heat from the roads, but I couldn’t allow it. I knew if once I let it go, that’d be the end. If I had any self-control left, I’d have to put it to work now.
The hotter it got in the room, the more visions of Shaeffer’s farm came to me. I’d close my eyes and sometimes could almost feel the breeze coming over the field. I’d see Joe, and Jerry, Stanley, Rob. Nine years old. Then ten, twelve, into our teens. Running around up on the field, or in the woods.
Growing up in my – I can’t really say home town, because it was so spread out, just a whole bunch of roads, and houses along roads and then farms, acres and acres of farms, so I guess neighborhood is better. So, anyhow, growing up here, you tended to hang out with the guys you lived closest to. I was lucky that Joe lived right down the street. And Jerry Miller, Stanley Kukovich, Rob Belaski. We all lived on Pleasant Valley Road . In elementary school, we were walkers. Our school was just up at the far end of the road, at the top of a big hill. Sunrise Knoll Elementary School . When I found out later on in high school, or whenever it was, that “knoll” was another way of saying “small hill” I was kind of pissed off. I mean, who came up with that name? Our school was not at the top of a small hill – it was a full-fledged mountain; at least it was to a seven-year-old. I guess the guys who named it weren’t the ones who had to climb it every day. Four years of trudging up that hill – the school didn’t open until we were in the second grade – and I never once got to the top without puffing, at least a bit. At the bottom, you would get just the slightest feeling of queasiness looking up, you know, like that twinge you get at the bottom of the first hill of a rollercoaster. So there’d be like this pause and a gulp, a squaring up of your shoulders to get inside what you’d need to make it all the way to the top, then you take that first step.
That’s when Joe, Jerry, Rob and Stanley and me got to be good friends. It was funny how some days we’d do nothing but complain the whole way, but on other days – without a word between us – we’d decided that we wouldn’t show if we were having a tough time. It was always hardest for Joey – he was fat even in the second grade. You know, when I saw that Harry Potter movie with my nieces, the brother or the cousin kid, that character, he reminded me of Joe – not because Joe was ever mean like that or because he was spoiled, not by any means, but because he was fat like that and just couldn’t not eat. Especially the sweets. That kind of skewed my take on the movie. I knew I wasn’t supposed to like this fat kid, but I felt bad for him, because he reminded me of Joey.
Being heavy got Joe teased when we were younger. But once we got past gym class’s scooter soccer and tumbling and building pyramids, which Joe couldn’t stand because he was always at the bottom getting someone’s knee right in the middle of his back, once we got past that kind of stuff and got down to playing real sports, especially football, Joe was the best. All he had to do was stand there and he’d knock you down. Starting from about fifth grade on, our football games got going up on Shaeffer’s farm field. It was kind of magical how they came together. No one ever planned a thing. But after school, kids would just show up. Some of them we didn’t even know. They’d come in through the woods or over the pasture. And always enough to pull together a game; almost never too many – just the right number for a couple of teams, everybody got a chance to play.
Joe, Jerry, Stanley and Rob and me, we stayed tight right through middle school. We survived our first bouts with girls and all that stuff. And that probably came a little later for us, ‘cause we were such good friends, we didn’t need girls around.
Once we got to high school, yeah, there were some changes. Stanley , he didn’t want to be called that anymore. We were only allowed to call him Stan. He joined the band, played alto sax, and he started getting pretty weird, dying his hair and all that. You know, whenever it was just the two of us it was okay, but our crowds didn’t fit together anymore and it’s hard to get past that in high school. By junior year, all we did was say hey to each other; sometimes not even that. At a reunion today, I bet we’d still be friends. But we drifted apart back then. It was okay, I didn’t mope about it or anything, it’s just looking back you feel bad when a friendship kind of dies.
But then something real bad happened. Rob’s dad kind of wigged out and he shot his mom and then himself. He died, but Rob’s mom lived. They say it was a miracle. But Rob … I know this is a terrible thing to say but sometimes I thought it might have been better if she had died too, ‘cause then maybe he would have gone away and started over somewhere – things were never right for him again at our school. Nobody could look at him without thinking, “there’s the kid who’s dad went crazy.” And even us, me and Joey and Jerry, we tried to stay tight with Rob, but what had happened to him, that was always somewhere in our minds. You couldn’t shake it off. Even now, no matter what I remember of Rob in all the years we spent together – all the games, the camping, just walking to school every day – when I think of him, the first thing that pops into my head is when his dad shot his mom and then killed himself. The face I see of Rob is him at the funeral – dead blank, like he’d been killed, too. We went for Rob, my mom said, “because no earthly prayers could ever forgive his dad for what he’d done.” But we went to show our support for Rob, she said. He did move away a couple of years later, once his mom got back on her feet. That was a good thing, because it was never right again for him at home. He knew it, we all knew it. And it hurt him, I know, that this stood between us. So they left and started life somewhere new. I never heard from him again. I hope things worked out for him. And I guess I hope he kind of knows now how we felt back then, because of what’s happened here. He’ll have heard about it and I don’t think he’ll ever be able to think of me without this popping up in his head. Maybe he’ll know now how hard it is to put some things out of your mind.
That was the last thing I remembered thinking before falling asleep. No dreams or memories came to me that night, but still I woke up feeling good, if a little bit empty. Was it a trick of my wishful mind or had the air turned cooler? There was a quiet all around me, too, but whether this was coming from my insides or the outside, I wasn’t sure. The sun was up, as usual making its rounds, its light slowly finding its way into my cell. I pushed my brain to recall Joe, Mom and Dad, my sister Jill and her kids. Forced myself to see their faces, remember their stories.
My self-control had won. I was calm and at peace when Abdul and two other guards came to get me. They took me, not to a courtyard or somewhere outside, but to a place that seemed more like a conference room. Okay – so it’s not a firing squad. Okay, I thought, okay. There was a raised platform at the far end of the room – a stage. Lights, a camera. A podium off to the side. A dozen or so men, outfitted as soldiers, were preparing for something, looking so serious about it all – putting a microphone first here then there, moving the camera around. I half expected to see a director calling out shots, carrying a megaphone, wearing those old style puffy pants, what are they called, jodhpurs? This suddenly struck me as funny and a short snort of laughter escaped from me. That earned me the sharp butt of a gun in my back. They were leading me up to the front of the room, to the stage, and I thought how I wished I had a report prepared, something to talk about. After all, maybe they were just finally giving a nod to my expertise on bridge building, wanted to hear my thoughts on the plans for reconstruction. Slowly, though, an old but familiar queasiness came to me. I was looking up the hill leading to Sunrise Knoll Elementary School . That one step – just that one step up onto the platform was as hard as that climb had ever been.
Microphones, the camera, the panel of speakers. It’s a press conference, I thought. They’re sending a message. I’ll have to say something for them, I guessed. Lay out their demands. That’s what this is, I said to myself. And as much as that idea made sense and me trying to hold onto it as being what was really going on, my stomach knew otherwise.
It was when they pulled my hands behind my back and bound them together that I could admit to myself what was happening. A guard I had only seen a couple of times pushed me down so that I was kneeling. Then Abdul waved him aside, and knelt down to meet my eyes, my two good eyes. For once, I wanted him to really see me. I hoped that something of who I was would get through to him, through that good eye as blind to me as the other one. It could have been a lifetime that we stared at each other, but it probably wasn’t even ten seconds. I remembered the last time I had uttered the word for family, what it had got me, but I didn’t care. I said it again. “Usra,” I whispered, just to him. That was the closest Abdul and me ever came, when I dared to say the word for family one more time. His mouth relaxed a bit and he nodded – just the slightest motion, barely perceptible, but to me it felt for a brief second like a blessing. But from somewhere in the background another word was said and his eye got hard. He spat something out in Arabic, then spat on the ground in front of me. Someone else jerked a blindfold down over my eyes, tied it tight. I could feel the light of the camera, heard its quiet whirring. Words, many words were said. I knew none of them but felt their meaning. I tried to will myself back up to Shaeffer’s farm, feel the cool fall breezes, smell wood fires, see trees and rolling grass-covered fields. Hands grabbed my head and shoved down. Then something sharp and cold and silent.
I was gone, really, before I could have told you what had happened. The next thing I see is the look of anguish on Mom’s face when she finds out. Dad looks like he’s about to be sick but he keeps it together and holds Mom up, her legs giving out she’s about to fall down. Jill walks into the girls’ bedroom. They’re giggling, flipping through a teen magazine but stop cold when they look up and see her face. And Joe – he sits alone in his garage with the door closed, on a stool in the back corner and he lets it go, cries for hours, mopping his face, shaking his head no and no and no. I hear the news play in their heads. How they find out. I hear it told over and over again for days and days to friends, to strangers, to people who will never know me any other way, and all I can wonder is how is this my story? And was it told from the very beginning, even when my mother brought me into this world, held me in her arms for the first time, me all pink and defenseless? Was this always the end, mocking everything good and right that ever happened in my life? Because how will anyone ever be able to think about me and not think about this? Joe, will you ever again be able to talk about me with a laugh and a joke? Because, really, that’s what I would like you to do. No matter how hard it is for you, that’s what I’m asking. Don’t let this be what pops up first in your mind. Dig down hard and deep and remember something else. Don’t let this be my story. Kathleen Donnelly works as a writer, actress and teacher in her hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her play A Restoration Comedy, secured her a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. “How Is This My Story” was performed at InterAct Theatre’s Writing Aloud Fiction Performance series.