He was young. His posture was strong and proud, his leg muscles pronounced under the creased trousers he wore while strutting down the street with a gal on his arm. His dark mocha skin was smooth and tight. He had a thick, full head of dark curly hair and his manhood, which bulged slightly in his pants, could make this young thing clinging to his hard bicep scream for hours. He felt alive and full of hope. He was a young man in charge of his destiny. He had an appetite for food, drink and sex. He had regular bowel movements and constant erections.
He was, of course, asleep.
Why am I always so fucking young in my dreams?
Cory shot upright in his single bed. His thin bare feet felt for the uneven floorboards of the bedroom he shared with his books. He felt his way to the hallway and listened for the labored breathing of his Grandpa in the next room. He heard only silence. Cory moved quickly down the hallway relying on the yellow shards of the nightlight’s glow crisscrossed on the floors. He reached his Grandfather’s bedroom door and hesitated, straining to hear something, anything. He did not want to upset him but the “feeling” was happening again. The warm, liquid softness relaxed his body and spread from the base of his spine to the top of his skull. He stopped for a moment and listened to his blood. It was restless and racing, telling him that something was wrong, he had to go into the room where his Grandfather slept. The doorknob was cold and smooth; the bronze had worn down into softness years before he had taken his first breath. It smelled like metal, deep and dark and iron like. That knob had seen more hands than Cory had touched in his entire life, his mother had touched that knob and others, others who were speaking to him now, forcing his hand to turn that knob. He wrapped his hand around it, twisted to the right and slowly opened the door. The room smelled of cedar and what Corey had come to think of as death. It wasn’t unlike the smell of the little hole he had dug to bury his rabbit Pierre back in March, dead leaves, old dirt and a wet mossy smell, which wasn’t very good nor was it very bad, just old. Grandpa had given up on a regular bath for sometime but he didn’t stink like some people who were dirty stank, he just smelled like he had come out of the bed after a very long sleep.
He pushed the door open, careful not to make any noise, and crept in. He could taste copper pennies in the back of his throat, the taste of Grandpa’s sickness. His Grandpa’s back was to him. The yellowing cotton t-shirt was thin from so many washings and hung from his bony frame. Cory could see his spine stick out like a giant caterpillar creeping down his back. He rubbed his palms together and closed his eyes. Standing over his Grandpa’s bed he moved his palms over his sleeping form and immediately knew where the poison had moved to; it was right under the withered grayish right arm, which was lying across the old man’s chest.
Cory stayed in that position for a long time feeling his hands getting hot, he knew his Grandpa was getting hot too. The old man’s eyelids moved erratically like he was watching a fast movie behind those closed lids. Suddenly his eyes flew open and he stared right at Cory. Cory jumped away from the old man who’s eyes were bloodshot and serious like a hound’s “leave me be” he said and Cory did.
The old man lifted himself onto his elbow and stared out the window as he searched for the jelly glass of water he kept on the night stand a few inches away. He took a long drink and felt the staid water reach his gut and spread out to his dehydrated cells. He needed to drink more water the doctor had said and he wasn’t a fool, one look in the mirror could tell him that he was dry like an old dandelion with all the color sucked out.
The kid had something in his hands, must be something God wouldn’t want him to have. That’s what scared him. It wasn’t natural like. The kid was a decent enough boy. Not an athlete but built wiry and kind of like a jockey or an outfielder he had thought hopefully. But no, the kid only liked to sit in his room and listen to records and read books. Much of the time the kid did something called meditation, which the old man thought was a polite word for masturbation but it turned out that meditation, involved very little if no wrist action. The old man was not stupid, he had served in the Korean War and he had been a helicopter gunner, not a job for the weak. Still, when the kid laid his hands on him he felt dumb, things changed, things really changed. The tough part was the light and the hope; did he want it to work? Did he believe in it? At the end of the day the old thoughts came in and spelt out the truth; you are meant to go when you are meant to go and neither magic nor fairy dust is going to bring you back.
The old man was ready to die. Life had brought forth a whole bastion of ill feelings and tides of ungratefulness, disappointment and loss. What was the point at this point? He would look at his head with the thinning gray hair and his chicken- chested weakness would simply amplify the truth; getting old sucked and somehow this little kid was trying
to keep him alive. He knew he had a sickness that nothing could cure and that was just fine with him. He knew he breathed in shit that had killed a lot of his mates a long time ago yet he was still here, taking up good oxygen for no real purpose. He disliked waste, always did. He thought back to the good times over the last few months, the kid played a decent game of gin rummy and made a mean gumbo. Even though he was just a tiny boy he wanted to please, to cook, to make the beds, feminine behavior and not suited for the old man’s taste. He tried to be a father figure but at the end of the day it was all about his routine. Pick up the check, buy the necessities, go home, turn on the game or open the paper and zone. That was his life and he chose that life. He had spent 40 plus years doing what the white man said to do and fuck it if he wasn’t gonna do what this black man wanted to do now. He had money and money was respect, he had enough for this little white boy to grow up and be a lawyer or whatever the hell he decided he wanted to be. Sixty thousand dollars was in the local bank, every penny he saved from odd jobs, disability checks and government apologies. “Sorry for taking your youth Mr. Elliot”, “Sorry for taking your good arm, buddy.” This man was set and he could do what he wanted to do and what he wanted to do was die, check out, adios.
Problem was, that little boy wouldn’t let him.
If he stroked his old comforter just so, he could bring up the honey colored silky skin with so much clarity he could see My Ling sitting on the edge of his bed with her flat smooth bottom and her delicate bones barely covered by a skin so tightly stretched it made him feel like it was about to burst apart if he pulled too tight. Her little brown nipples were hard no matter what the weather, they were simply made that way. Jet-black long, straight hair that she wore in a demure style except when they did it, then it would tickle parts of his body as she moved on top of him. The Andrew Sister’s song Rum and Coca Cola was always playing at the bars in Pyongyang and he would drink up the same and realize he was a man possessed, chasing that yellow skinned witch. This woman had made a fool of him, made him believe that she could become a lady and a wife, not just the woman he occasionally bore down on and got his way with. That scared him. So he broke it off.
He fell in to the regular ways of a man, the ins and outs that make up the life of an old man who had done right by society. Yes, he could pull some sympathy now; he was after all a war hero, a man well beyond retiring age who was stuck with his daughter’s son. She of the “ I’ll be back as soon as I have a few grand saved up Daddy” verbal massages. Next thing you know he’s got a boy there, born of that daughter from that year with My Ling, half black and half Asian his daughter, claiming him as her Daddy, giving him a white kid who’s in his bachelor’s shack, in his face 24/7. Sometimes he felt like takin’ that bottle of fancy pain pills they been givin’ him since he come back from Korea and slinging them down his throat with a bottle of dark rum for old time’s sake. He thought about that a lot.
His shoulder was blown half off by a fellow US soldier, a panicky white fellow with an itchy trigger finger who denied the entire incident to anyone and everyone who would hear him out. The bullet matched, but no one made much of a fuss about it. They stuck the arm back on so now it was like some puppet’s appendage, a marionette like he saw in Tokyo when he was there on leave for two whopping paid days and he laid a gal from England who was there with her military Daddy. Those were supposed to be ”the days” but they were not.
He used to be Theo, the old man who lived alone down the end of the road. He was Grandpa now, no more and no less, Grandpa with the one useless arm. He reached far back into his mind to grab hold of those first days when he got back from the war. Shaving, eating, writing, wiping himself, hell even waving was a chore. He was a cripple and it never got better. Folks in the hospital would say “oh you’ll get used to it, you’ll become a lefty” but the brain knows you as a righty and you’re a righty for life and the fad of being a lefty just never quite caught on in his body.
The buzzing sound that followed the kid on his nocturnal visits was slowly fading into the regular sounds of the morning, cicadas and grasshoppers, flies and bees wandering about the tiny bit of land the kid so optimistically had named “the garden.” Nothing would grow there and nothing had ever grown. It was just a bit of green meant to make the black man think that he was part of the neighborhood. A gentleman farmer, he chuckled at the thought. Time to die old man. He felt it and he wanted it, welcomed it, and embraced it for fuck’s sake but that kid wouldn’t let it come. God only knew what he held in those skinny little hands but God also knew that this man had had enough. It was time to reclaim what little life he had left and time to claim the death that he wanted.
Cory did the meditation twice this time, just in case. Grandpa seemed really angry and Cory needed to reassure himself that he was right again. He must be right. Why would anyone want to die if they could live? Life was breath and the cell connection he felt but could not explain, that was life. Life was when he laid his hands on something, which was cold but underneath he felt the warm, rich blood course towards his palms, reaching and begging out for one more chance. He didn’t get there in time for Pierre. He came home from school to find the little gray rabbit out of his cage and lying in the corner with his mouth open wide. Cory had lifted the light body and tried to feel where the sickness was but Pierre was already gone, a Lego piece stuck in his throat. He knew he could make people live longer, a few months, a few more days and what was wrong with that? A gift was what it was, that was what he believed, that’s what they told him and using that gift was why he was put here, plain and simple. It wasn’t like he had a choice in the matter. Not helping people would be like not scratching a horrible itch.
Theo stood up. The feeling of being exposed to the frigid bedroom air shocked like a bucket of cold water. He was cold, half naked and his old body stiff as the tin man. The bedroom where the little boy slept was quiet. He made his way softly to the kitchen and was thankful that he had set the little coffee pot up for action. One little press of a switch meant the sweet smell of coffee beans rose up from the little white filter. Mr. Coffee. The man who invented this contraption must have a lot more than sixty thousand bucks in the bank, he thought as he shuffled around readying cream and sugar. Today he would tell the kid to stop it, he had to, he knew himself and he knew that he had reached his limit. His Father had taken a switch to him from morning to night for any slight infraction and sometimes-just cause the drink got him to it. These days you were expected to talk about things, explain your feelings. Hell, feelings died when you were twenty-five years old and had a rifle as long as your leg strapped to you in some country you had never even heard of a month before, killin’ people who had never done you no harm. People who looked as scared as you were but didn’t speak the same lingo so you couldn’t even reason with them. ”Hey buddy, we’re both young, no one can see us so let’s just walk away and say we never saw each other.” But that’s not the way it worked in neither Europe nor Asia nor in any other hellhole where young men dropped like flies for reasons their parents could hardly even explain afterwards in their all-alone grief.
Cory smelled coffee and knew that his grandpa was up and around. He also knew that he was not welcome here anymore and that he might get whopped. He didn’t want to get whopped, he was frightened of getting a beating and had managed to avoid one for his entire 9 years simply by being good. What Grandpa didn’t understand was that it wasn’t just him who made the sickness go away. He was told to go lay hands on people and he couldn’t refuse that command, it was not his choice, the voices scared him much more than Grandpa or anyone else did.
The old man sat down on his kitchen chair and drank his coffee while making his plan. The time had come. He wasn’t going to talk to the kid. That was fruitless. He figured he could take the pills when the boy left for school then he could go out walking into the woods and be done with it. He’d leave a note and all of the banking information with his postman and his neighbor, Ellen, just to be safe. The boy would be taken care of and he would be free. He contemplated his plan and realized that he felt no fear, just relief. “Life is what you make of it”, his Father used to say. Well, neither one of them had made much of their lives so it must be genetic, he thought. He never had much of a taste for buddies and friendship nor love really so what was the point? Just takin’ up space is what the young folks said of old folks and they were right. You stop giving to society or contributing to the world and you are nothin’ but a waste. “A winning ticket in a dead man’s hand” his Father used to say ’bout losers.
The phone startled him and his coffee spilled. He couldn’t recall the last time it had rung. “Hello” he croaked into the phone.
“Hey Daddy, it’s me. Listen, I want to pick up Cory…I’m ready to take care of him, I’ve put some money aside and I’m…”
Theo didn’t even hear the rest; his head was spinning like the teacup ride at Disneyland. Here was the answer to everything! It was meant to be. He somehow made arrangements for his daughter to come that Sunday to get the kid and hung up a changed man. He had a date now; his plan was set.
Cory wondered why Grandpa was so happy after being so cross at him. He had set out a bowl of cereal for him and even poured his orange juice with a smile. Something was terribly wrong, he thought. “Well Cory, boy, I have some good news for you. Your Momma’s comin’ Sunday to pick you up…ain’t that a treat ?” Theo bit into his toast with relish, toast had not tasted this good since he was a little boy himself. He looked at Cory expectantly. “So, aren’t you happy? You got somethin’ to say?”
Cory swallowed some juice and asked, “You mean for good? She’s coming to take me for good?” .
“As far as I know that’s what she has in mind. Seems she got herself some work in a nice hotel up near Hampton and an apartment for the two of you, doesn’t that sound nice?”
“Who’s gonna take care of you?” Cory dropped his spoon into his bowl and stared at his Grandpa waiting for him to answer.
Theo took one look at that earnest little mug and lost it, he laughed until his eyes were watering. “Cory my boy, I’m an old man, I been takin’ care of me my whole life. I ain’t had no wife, no kids livin’ with me until you came along and I seemed to be just fine and I’ll continue to be just fine thank you very much.”
Theo shook his head, amazed at the kid’s heart. He felt so good about all of this that he suddenly had the desire to be generous. “Hey kid, I’ll tell you what we’re gonna do. You and me are gonna take a little drive to Fairbanks and buy us some fancy steaks for Saturday night, our last dinner together..”
Cory looked alarmed. “What do you mean last dinner Grandpa?”
“I meant last dinner for awhile ‘til I can come up to Hampton and make a visit, that’s all I meant.”
Cory relaxed and allowed himself to think about his Mother. He had understood when she dropped him off, she told him all about her plan to get work and money and a place for them to live and all she asked from him was that he believed in her and was patient and a good boy to Grandpa and he had done all three of those things for nearly a whole year. Maybe Grandpa would be okay for a few weeks if he wasn’t here to lay hands on him but he couldn’t stay away longer than that, Cory knew that would be fatal.
Theo got up from the table and rustled Cory’s straight, white boy’s hair. Not an ounce of black or Korean blood seemed to be in that boy, just his Daddy’s blond hair-blue eyed-Swedish genes…maybe they were real strong or something. That Swede man had knocked his daughter up and headed back to Sweden on the next plane, punk. She thought she was too old to get pregnant but low and behold she was not. Theo had read somewhere that color skipped a generation and hoped that Cory would marry a white gal someday and that she would pop out a black baby and a little yellow one! Maybe even twins like that; yellow and black like a bumblebee! Now that would be somthin’ else. “I’m gonna shower up now, I’ll pick you up from school and we’ll go to Fairbanks, okay?” Cory just nodded and watched his Grandpa walk to his bedroom on lighter feet.
Sunday morning the doorbell rang around noon, Cory heard Grandpa answer it and his Mother’s excited chatter. He grabbed his suitcase and began to drag it towards the living room when he suddenly started to feel the wooze. The copper-metal taste was so strong in his mouth he could hardly stop from throwing up. He was sweating and nauseous, so dizzy he had to sit down on his bed and catch his breath. He heard his Mother’s voice calling for him. “I’m coming!” he cried. He stood up and went to greet her.
He could smell the sickness before he even saw her. It was in her bra area, girl place, left side. He slowly walked towards her, taking in the dark eyes and pale lips then suddenly she was hugging him up against the sickness and he was squirming to get away from it which just made her squeeze harder “hey, you’re gonna choke him to death Amy!” Grandpa was laughing. She let go of him and took a long look “My goodness are you handsome or what? What have you been feeding him, Daddy, handsome pills?” Cory smiled as best he could and realized the obvious truth. She had come because he had to heal her. He felt exhausted thinking about the work that was ahead of him. She had more sickness in her than Grandpa did, a much stronger sick. He would never sleep again for the rest of his life that he knew for a fact. He looked at his Mother’s tired beige face and wondered why she didn’t know she was so sick. As they drove away from Grandpa’s house he wondered how he could touch her in such a private place without her knowing, was she a light sleeper? He couldn’t recall it had been so long since he watched her sleep. His mind was cloudy and unsure of much, he was sure he was supposed to be happy to be going home with her but he felt as light and empty as a peanut shell and so very tired. He leaned against the window and fell into a dead sleep.
Theo pulled long and hard on that bottle of rum. He let the glass hit his front teeth and rested the opening there feeling the brown liquid pass through his teeth and into his mouth, he breathed the strong alcohol into his throat feeling that sweet burn. He had bought the fancy stuff and intended to drink the whole damned thing. A bottle of Coke stood on the table waiting for it’s turn as the sweet, effervescent chaser to make a perfect puddle in his gullet .His affairs were in order, he had eaten a good meal of chicken and biscuits and for dessert; an entire bottle of sleeping pills. He sat comfortably in his favorite chair, watching the birds make nests and feed their young ones. It was spring, a perfect time to leave this world and begin a new life with the stars. He had always loved the night sky, especially when the air was warm with the smells of grass and sleepy flowers. He pictured himself zooming through that velvet sky, past the moon and unto the heavens. He had made many boyish wishes that last night before his final sleep. He had wished to have two arms again and he had wished to be able to tell My Ling the one thing he had never said to a single human being in his entire life: I’m sorry.
He was beginning to feel drowsy in a pleasant way. He saw his daughter in his mind’s eye, then the kid, then himself. He thought he heard My Ling say, “I still love you.”
He was young and handsome, strong and fit. He could run a mile in 4 minutes, shoot any kind of gun and lift twice his weight. His legs were long and well shaped, his arms hard and many a woman had commented on his fine buttocks. He was breathing clear strong breaths, eating with relish and fucking like a rabbit
He was young.
He was, of course, asleep.