When I split open the curtains to my mother’s bedroom, I found Vaseline by the bedside table. A small plastic jar with a lid. Took off the lid and smelled it. Not much smell. Just that strange nearly odorless gel.
They find it near oil drilling. I check the Vaseline every time I go in there, but they use it very slowly. There always seems to be a fair bit left.
2. The Writer in the Family
In a family, somebody has to play each role. I am the clown, the funny man, the fall guy. If someone did wrong, they blame me so fast their head spins. I’ve been blamed for things that happened while I was asleep, at school, out of the country. I can guarantee you this, if I die, they’ll say, he did it. Someone will say, How could he have done it, he’s dead! And someone else will say, Trust me, he did it with his bare skeletal hands. His skeletal feet ran away and hid in his coffin.
My sister is the angel. My step dad is like God. Ready to provide loaves and fishes. Angry when you do evil. Not fixing the world. Just watching. My mother is the writer in the family. But she may have messed these things up. She may blame me for things I didn’t even know about.
3. Zuma Beach
My mother fell in love with a man whose hands shook. She told me about
this while we drove to the beach. I asked her about being in love. Nothing I really understand. Because I love them all. I really do. So I
asked her. Because it was a perfect beach day. Southern California. One of many perfect beach days. I asked Mother about love, and she told me about the man who loved her so much that when he walked her around his garden, his hands shook. She thought this was the great love of her life. Then what? I ask, and she says, Well, he came over for dinner and afterward we played Jenga and I realized that his hands just shook like that. He was like an old man. He had shaky hands. So it had nothing to do with me. Or love. The beach sunlight is almost white. I almost can’t see the girls who I know are spread out all over it like music you could walk into. All their legs, their high pitched laughter sailing out across the water, the way they reach and reach.
For what? You don’t know with girls. They’re always reaching.
We pull up and I say, What happened to Jenga man?
Mother says, He turned out to be just a man whose hands shook. Not the great love at all.
Is there a great love? I ask.
Yes, she says, there is. But it’s too big to talk about.
Bigger than the ocean?
She puts on her sunglasses then. She smiles like she has a secret. We
walk down to Zuma Beach. Girls everywhere. In the sunlight.
Zuma. Zuma. I say to myself. I may name my first child that.
Especially if the child happens here. Anything is possible. I am fifteen.
4. Zebra Porn
My high school has every conceivable kind of person. There are stoners
and metal heads, punk rockers and the endless wannabee rappers. Not too
many real rappers. There is no cool group, no popular group. We are many. There are four thousand of us wrapped around the school mascot.
The campus security see us as the faceless many, as predators, as trouble. We are the prisoners, they the guards. They are virgins all of them. Their faces very clean; they smell of soap, they walk outside the chain linked fence, eat food that is not slop. They peer in on the packed halls, the throngs at lunch time like birds of prey, eyes hungry and yellow, heads cocked sideways. Reptiles and birds of prey have that sideways look. Campus security too. At food breaks, the rush of humans looks like a circus. The freaks, the Asians, the Armenians, the football players, the tall Black girls in their tight jeans, the cheerleaders, crowds of dark haired girls, so many nationalities piled so close together, you wouldn’t know which was which, the Pacific Islanders, the Middle Easterners, the Filipinos, Latinos, and the endless mixed race students with names like Javier Yan, Osama Covarrubias. My sister and I are in the small minority of Whites, but I will not adapt. I wear my Iron Maiden, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath close to me. I walk the talk, I listen to music, I am the street, the sound, the dirt, the hooded head, the low torn sweatshirt, the sagging pants, I am over six feet and I am every security person’s nightmare. I laugh out loud in class. I make the class laugh by just looking at them. I am the cool pants they always wanted to have, the girls waiting for me outside class are their girls.
Campus security were once people in another life. But in this one, they were born little zombies and all their school life, they smelled like zombies, looked like zombies, kissed like zombies, their mouths tasted like zombies. Their girls didn’t demand to be on top, didn’t scream at the top of their lungs. Their girls were zombiettes. They smelled like powder; they never walked around the house naked. They never used handcuffs for recreational purposes. They cooked scrambled eggs for the zombies and served them with orange juice. Campus security have their orange juice wives and their clicking pens and their mouths tasting like old mint. On weekends, when they’re feeling frisky, they watch zebra porn.
After a weekend of zebra porn, one found me. With my hood up. Violation of school rules. Called for a backpack search. As he began the unloading, I knew it was going to be bad. I’d been camping that weekend and I’d taken every conceivable thing to impress my two friends. Spence was about to be sent away to drug rehab for teenagers.
He had his hair dyed jet black, he’d sniffed glue, tried jabbing himself with needles. My friend Scott wanted to be Spicoli. Spicoli, stoned since the third grade; he was Scott’s hero. Scott claimed to have tried heroin. At fifteen in the San Fernando Valley that takes some doing. Heroin isn’t lying around. Heroin! Who was I? I had to go the whole way. I stole/borrowed my father’s switchblade and added in a butterfly knife I’d gotten for my birthday. The knives were wicked and would get me some play. But I needed more. I brought two pipes, two lighters, my stash. By the time this zebra porn watcher was unloading my backpack, the stash consisted of 1/3 of a gram of mj. He laid it all out in an orderly way on his desk smacking his orange juice lips.
He called in a cop. They began taking pictures, taking notes. They were busy. I was texting. The cop pulled out my journal, a gift from my mother, a fine thing in a green leather case. He sat down at the desk and read it. I texted and began to pray. Not that I believed in prayer, but there wasn’t much else to do. The typewriters were marching. I could hear their tiny keys in my ears and under my skin.
Maybe Mother wouldn’t have taken it so badly if they hadn’t shoved me against the wall and handcuffed me. She was doing pretty well up till then. She’d arrived quietly in a short dress and sandals. She had just gotten back from running and I could tell she was faint as the zombies began showing her the pages they’d typed up. The lists. The pictures.
She held on to the desk to balance herself, readjusted her sunglasses.
My father is better in situations like this. He isn’t afraid. I know the voices that tap inside my mother’s head tell her she’s going to be beaten, I’m going to be beaten. We’re all going to be beaten. My father has never been beaten. He thinks he’s going to beat someone. My father couldn’t get away from work; my mother was home. And would my father have come? I don’t know. He might have let the zombies eat me.
He and my stepfather understand the world to be an orderly place in which I need to find my position. I need to learn to walk in line. My mother and I live outside the lines. Her makeup is smudged, and her hair drifts around her shoulders like a cloud. The cop takes her outside, but I hear them.
I read his journal. He is sexually active. This is like clockwork for this boy. As if my mother doesn’t understand.
I know my mother would not have believed the journal even if she’d read it. She and I live in the world of our imaginations. She would have thought I was writing my fantasies. But she would never have read the journal.
You should read this journal, the cop tells her. You must read this.
He shows her the rest of the evidence. He speaks slowly as if she is slow. My mother can think circles around this zombie, but I know she is giving him her look, the vacant stare which looks like she is taking in nothing, but means really that she cannot feel herself in the world.
That she feels like a cardboard cutout in the wind. She cannot stand. I see her hands moving through air and I wish very much that I had not made her stand here like this. The day is perfect. The California air steams yellow.
At the police station when the cop returns everything that is not deemed evidence, he hands my mother the journal. Read it, he tells her.
You’ll see what I mean. He says the words slowly and distinctly.
As if my mother may not understand how evil this is. I know for a fact that zombies don’t get sex. I’ve researched their lives and habits enough to know that. They get weekly sex until they turn forty, then monthly until they’re fifty, and then their only pleasure is zebra porn and orange juice.
6. Man Against Zombie
My mother is leaving for another run and I am lying on her bed talking with her while she pulls her hair into a ponytail. She is telling me what to read while she is gone, and I’m trying to concentrate, but I notice something. She rubs Vaseline on her arms and legs.
What’s that for? I ask. Casual.
The Vaseline? It’s to prevent rub burns from running in the heat.
What did you think it was for?
No. We don’t use Vaseline. I don’t know. Maybe some people do. I hadn’t heard of that.
That’s why the policeman wanted me to read your journal. He could tell I needed to learn something. But I didn’t read it.
I know. Does life ever go back to normal?
It never does. She laces up her shoes carefully.
What do you do?
I don’t know what you do. I run.
Maybe something good will come of all this, I say.
Yeah, it will. We don’t know yet. We won’t know ’til later.
Maybe, I say. You’ll write about this in a story or a poem. The conflict will be man against zombie.
Or man against himself, she says.
We don’t know yet, do we? The story isn’t over.
Does the story, if it’s good enough, make it all worth it?
No, she says. Very definitely. Remember Guernica?
My life is hardly the Spanish Civil War, I say. And she’s just staring at me. I know she needs to go out running to sort her thoughts that are tossing in that blender mind. And I say, Write it from my point of view.
And she says, Sure, but remember.
I will, I say. I’ll remember Guernica. She goes out the door. I hear it close behind her and I start my reading. I’m half way through Fight Club and it’s just getting better and better. They never taught this in school.
7. Shadows and Mirrors
Even if you are a real person there’s nothing you can do about a haunting. Once you’ve been exorcised, all that is left is your ghost self. And what do you with yourself if you feel you’re only haunting the place where your life used to be? You are somebody who lives in music, who can change the music and the song and the lyrics and the clothes. Who can sky dive and play out tunes in your head. Who can run through more comedy skits in an hour than most people can in their whole life.
But you can be cut out of the picture by zombies. You can be left on the hill hanging there alone, even the two thieves you came with still talking, still real. You outside. Even if your mother loves you, she’s just one person, and the mirror is broken. You look down into it and what you see is long shadowy shards of your self. But there’s no whole you. And mirrors can’t be fixed. The sun is setting off the California coast. Your girlfriend has moved to Arkansas so you don’t even have that. You wonder if you cast a shadow any more. If you’re invisible.
You wonder if your father was right. You have to walk in line before you can break out of line. You wonder if you went way out on the ocean to where the sky touches, if you could become part of the sky. Would you be a seagull then? Or a cloud? Could you soar inland, over the vast landscape until you saw the tiny prison school and from up there, the tiny zombies thumping their chests? From up there, would human beings look ridiculous? You hear the music playing. Next week you’re going to a play. You love theatre because in that tiny world somebody is controlling the strings and you get it. You get that the curtain goes up. It goes up and it comes down. That play is over. Another begins.
Someone just needs to write the play. You will never attend high school again. You fucked up. Your mother’s music is playing. It’s Lisa Germano’s Geek the Girl.
They say she got just what she wanted, Lisa sings. And you don’t know.
Maybe she’s right. You can’t take a hit any more, so you drink a Diet Coke. You read Chuck and you keep Eddie Murphy on in the background.
That’s what you want. A foreground. A middle ground. A background. The elements of a real story. A real life.