This is my first submission to Retro Junk. I know all the authors here have a very personal connection with their work, because I know very well the feeling that drives such an endeavor. And with most articles on this site, the reader can feel a personal connection as well given the universal nature of that feeling. A desire to rediscover the wavelength of an immature brain without the inherent consequences to our adult lives. An impossible dream of returning to those days when life was a wondrous thing and we felt so small in comparison to everything around us. To us, visiting this site and reading the work of it's authors is as close to a time machine as we could hope to come.
This article is different in that you may not feel a personal connection with it since it is primarily based on personal experiences and events rather than common things like products or media. But it is also a running commentary on the philosophy of childhood viewed from an innocent perspective. I have always retained those immature wavelengths despite the advancing of time and my own personal growth, and I have tried to tap into those patterns while writing this story.
Society views holding on to that emotional state as a sickness, but I view it as a source of great strength. All things pass away in life, but as long as you can hold the memories of those friends and events close to your heart, they will always be on hand to see you through the trying times and the pain of adulthood. And if you recognize the magic of that state of mind, you can pass it on to future generations to ensure that the wonder of childhood won't be subverted or shortened by today's unstoppable flow of information. Without further preambling...
Sometimes the memories rush upon me like a hurricane, drowning out the present in it's torrential waters. Like a flood, washing me away. No, not a flood. A river. A black river swollen with floodwater of a more tangible kind, ushered in by a storm in the real world. I can see that river flowing angrily, it's vital current pumping foamy caramel coffee under the bridge. I can see it every time I close my eyes and every time I open them. I see him, a child one second and a blurry-faced grown man the next, struggling with the current as it carried him rapidly away. And I can hear his voice, oh God. In my dreams I hear his panicked voice, screaming and accusing, fading into the laughter of the rushing water. I've seen all this an incalculable number of times. I have killed him time and time again. The dreams have begun to encroach upon my conscious mind to whittle dangerously at my sanity. How long has it been? Time for me has lost most of it's identifying features. Something like twenty years, perhaps. My memories are brutally persistent, driving like nails into my defenses. What have they tried to tell me? Did I see him again, even after his death? Somewhere in this labyrinth of memories is an image of him, staring sadly into me with dead eyes in white sockets, standing on the opposite bank of a calm river. But where did the memory come from? It must have been the sorrow in his lifeless eyes that cut through the dense void of swirling remembrance to haunt me forevermore. Or perhaps it was the tattered ruin of his clothes, ruined in a murderous pattern, or the unnatural gray tone of his skin. That is, if flesh was indeed what I was seeing. Did I really see him? I don't want to remember, but the flood waters do not recede. The memories keep coming, piecing themselves together, not at my command but at my expense.
In 1992, We Saw The First Days of Change
or Even Children Win Wars
Summer's always the best time of year for a ten year old. Well I suppose it's really the best time of year for anyone. That is, except for those who work outdoors all day, unless you're one of those Herculean types. Incidentally, my brother was one of those types in those days, and that summer in 1992 we learned a word together that reshaped our perceptions of ourselves permanently. We learned that sometimes you have to die just to survive, and that sometimes when you die it takes awhile before you ever realize it.
Outside the room the everlasting drizzle gave way to a torrential downpour. I gazed into the black sky through the scratchy bedroom window, the image intersected by the imitation cherry wood posts of the bunk bed. I loved this kind of weather. Hell, I still do, except of course for the memories it brings. My brother Brad was talking to me, but I couldn't really hear what he was saying. I had already escaped. He was back home, and I was in foreign lands dreaming of some unknown but important quest. I couldn't completely immerse myself from inside my bedroom, however, which is why none of my limbs sat at rest during my window gaze.
As I grew more and more restless, the foreign lands became more and more distant, until they were completely replaced with my brother's swaggering voice. I just needed something to save.
"What?" I asked, annoyance surely written across my face.
"Did you hear a word I was saying?" His annoyance was rising to eclipse my own, in a prime example of most aspects of our relationship. "I've been talking for ten minutes!"
He scowled and punched my shoulder. A bruise formed within seconds. "Go see if Mom's asleep."
My face lit up. I knew what that meant. Entering stealth mode, I slipped off the bunk and touched down on the floor without a sound. Rubbing my throbbing shoulder, I carefully crept around my sister's bed, my hands forming an axis where they gripped the cold, gilded spheres that crowned each of the bedposts. Crossing over it was out of the question since she kept the plastic on the mattress for some unknown reason. Sometimes sharing a room sucked.
I opened the whiny bedroom door quickly to minimize the damage. Surveying the shadows in the dark, I made my way carefully into the kitchen and listened for signs of snoring. After confirming that Mom was asleep, I slowly tiptoed to the couch. I reached for her purse.
Closing the door with my back, I leaned against it and exhaled heavily. My heart still racing, I opened my hand to check it's contents: two whole cigarettes. With a grin I reported back to Brad and handed him the stolen goods. He studied them carefully, no doubt preparing for the dramatic ritual we made of smoking cigarettes. We had to be the coolest kids in Great Bay. Well, at least the coolest in the Castle school district. We were the word.
Sometimes when I look back on that night, I don't see the back door flying open and the two brothers bouncing out into the black, dashing through the rain and between the sparsely placed trees for the tool shed. I can't hear the laughter as they dodge the puddles and challenge the torrent to outrun them. I don't see Axl the doberman bring taut his chain with wagging tail and sagging coat in a futile attempt to join the fun. And sometimes I don't see the chain of events that started here and spanned the course of my life thereafter. And on those times when I look back and see things differently, wondering what else might have been, I thank God for peer pressure. And I thank God for decadence, that greatest of human sins.
When the sun finally emerged from the underground, I was sitting on the bus, headed for school. The first thing I thought of when I woke up that morning was the other cigarette. We had reached the shed last night to find that one of them had been soaked by the rain. It had happened to be the one I was carrying, so my brother generously smoked his without me. It was my fault, he had told me. Why should he pay for my mistakes? So I stowed it in my backpack to dry while I slept.
The bus came to a stop outside the school. Mrs. Brahall's flabby arm jiggled exaggeratedly as she yanked on the lever that opened the doors. I stepped off the bus and onto the sidewalk where the teachers all stood in careful vigilance.
I turned toward the cafeteria entrance and collided into my best friend and fellow geek, the lanky Chris Ford. His sloppy pile of books flew from his hands, the loose leaves of notebook paper leaping from between the pages and sailing slowly and unpredictably toward the dewy grass.
He yelped in surprise but quickly began to gather his belongings, taking swipes in the air to recover the pages before they reached the turf. "Watch where you're going," he wheezed.
Chris looked up, brushing his blonde hair from behind owly glasses. His magnified eyes studied me dispassionately.
"I keep telling you to get a backpack like the rest of us!" I retorted. I knelt down and helped him with his books. Standing, we once again faced the cafeteria and made our way there. I pulled the door ajar and turned for one last look at the bus and Brad, who had remained aboard for the short trip to the high school. Seeing him there sent that familiar wave of jealousy through me. He was always one step ahead of me, and I never really appreciated that at all. He grinned and waved as the bus took off, rubbing it in my face again.
Communication is a funny thing. Truly it is. The more we communicate, the more knowledge we gain. The unfortunate disadvantage of the spread of information is that one of the opposites of knowledge is innocence. So what then is the opposite of innocence?
I stepped into the cafeteria, and as usual was overcome by the wave of chattering created by the student body. Few sounds were more confusing than the unbridled mingling of a hundred shrill conversations, each trying it's best to be heard over the others. But the bridle was coming, in the form of the shift from green to yellow of the traffic light that hung on the wall and controlled conversational volumes. In retrospect, the Nazis come to mind.
I took the opportunity of the sudden decrease in volume to greet my friends, who sat at our usual table near the door to the courtyard.
"Last day," I said, vaguely. Everyone understood what I meant.
"Yes!" Chris half-shouted.
"Did everyone pass?" Tanya asked, batting her eyelashes in her prom queen act again.
"I hope so," I said. "I ignored my homework again all year."
It was true. Every year in school I'd come out of the gate on fire, but two months into the school year without fail I'd get bored and cease my concern.
I looked outside of our little circle, my attention diverted by peripheral movement, and saw the lines of children forming with their respective teachers at the head. The others, seeing such as well, began hurriedly gathering their trays and book bags. We said our farewells, and thus ended our encounter.
Now, in the interest of good storytelling, I don't plan on going into too much detail regarding events that proceeded as a matter of course in my life. I mean, who wants to sit through paragraphs reminiscing about being ordered to sing John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt aloud while the zealous, grandma-pad-wearing teacher bounces around the room with all the gracefulness of a rolling football? And I doubt very much that you need a comprehensive recollection of the antics of the school bully, though he may happen to be a recurring element of this drama. And what kind of drama sees itself interrupted by it's own author with supplements of inane, rambling monologues?
The day proceeded like any other final day of a school year. A day when everyone wore perpetual smiles but hid dreamy sadnesses and laments. In that day of a human being's life we say goodbye and shake hands with those whom we know well and love. And when we next see that someone, we find that they're nothing like the people we remembered, and then that perpetual smile returns with it's wistful counterpart. The only real difference about the last day of school that year was the somber haze that seemed to cloud both my vision and my mind. I'd begun to feel the effects of it by the time the physical ed teachers arrived at the classroom after lunch to escort us down the hill and past the tire-lined quartermile to the old, pockmarked basketball court.
It was a moderately long trek to that court, during which Chris Ford invariably maintained a close proximity to me. The usual banter proceeded between us â€“ cartoons, Nintendo, and little else. After arriving at the court and enduring the usual exercise routine and pep-talk from Mrs. Corns and Ms. Levees, we soon were released of our own recognizance to pursue the activity of our choosing. So, naturally, we chose to do nothing.
Chris and I took to our usual place; a shady and minimally populated area of the grounds southeast of the track. The fence ran through this area with it's rusty chain links and emerald vines both strong and prevalent. Chris often remarked on those vines and how they only seemed to grow on that section of the fence.
We knelt down into the grass beneath the tremendous oak tree a few feet from the fence.
Before we continue with this tale, let's take a moment to discuss my closest friend of the age, the lanky Chris Ford. During those days, the only time I ever really saw him was within the confines of our daily prison, elementary school. Despite our miserable surroundings his attitude was constantly bubbly and positive. Whenever I was feeling sad or down, his crazy and timely antics never ceased to diminish the weight of my troubles.
Chris was an interesting sight, alright. His bright blond hair always had the appearance of sleep about it, as though he was forever just getting out of bed. His eyes were a harsh sky blue projected onto the surface of his glasses, which covered most of the upper half of his face. There was a perpetual stream of snot running from his nose that never seemed to dry, and during the cold seasons his lips shone a bright crimson red in stark contrast against his porcelain skin. All of these things may seem exaggerated, I realize. What you might perceive as mere embellishment I assure you is in the most accurate of detail. On that day, as we took our places upon the ground by the tree Chris sat in a way he proudly called "hook style". He was seated firmly upon the ground with his legs hooked out to his sides and his knees flattened down in front of him. The cute name he gave it was appropriate, for it indeed did look like a double fishhook. It was also the most uncomfortable thing I've ever seen in my life, before or since!
We whiled the time away babbling about the things children find important. The discussion was a lazy one, and ultimately had no meaning, but I mention it in detail because it was one of the last normal conversations Chris and I ever had. I had just finished a long-winded review of a particular heavy metal song, and Chris had opened his mouth to comment on it, but he stopped short and his words emerged as crippled vowel sounds. I might have seen it in the reflection of his glasses had I looked hard enough, but I didn't need to. I knew what it was by the look on his face. It wouldn't have been the last day of school without a war.
"Hey, you little faggots," I heard a whiny voice say behind me. I spun around and met face to face with Matthew Halcher, our requisite antagonist for the day. He looked meaner than ever.
"What do you want, Matthew?" I asked, impatiently. I wasn't afraid of him in the least, because we frequently had these types of encounters and the results were always the same. And still, he always challenged me to fight him. My question was mostly rhetorical, because I knew what he wanted. He hated Chris in a most passionate way. He would stop at nothing to destroy him if he could. I never really knew the reason behind it, so I always assumed he just hated the way Chris looked. As Chris's best friend I had taken it upon myself to defend him from Matthew's hatred as best I could. This and most of my encounters with him proceeded in comic book fashion, thanks mostly to Matthew's sense of dramatic villainy.
"What do I want?" He sneered the question. He hooked a finger at Chris. "Why don't you get out of my way so I can pulverize this little shit?"
In addition to his rage for Chris, Matthew targeted me because I had found favor in the eyes of Tanya, my aforementioned friend and sweetheart. My gaze upon him became malevolent, as was my demeanor whenever he provoked me.
"I'm not going anywhere."
Matthew shifted uncomfortably as his anger grew. His blue eyes narrowed in their studies and his lips rolled up as the corners of his mouth turned downward in a most hideous display. He took a step towards me, half confident, half timid. Something in his eyes suggested a surprise; some sort of secret advantage he had discovered to finally defeat me. I did not back down.
Chris had shrunk back into the great looming tree, peering out from the cavity sunken into the face of its trunk. He was actually quite safe from Matthew in the belly of the oak, as long as I was present to stand between the predator and his prey.
The three of us stood frozen in position like still-life, breathless, wondering what the other would do as the hanging oak limbs waved in the wind, their leaves dancing peacefully above the battle. Matthew's eyes were locked on mine, fierce and sharp as razors. Remembering that day now, it occurs to me to marvel at the amount determination I saw in his eyes. When you're a child you don't recognize those things, and therefore many truths and concepts in life are lost upon you. I think maybe he saw that we were all on the verge of changing who we were with another summer's absence, and wanted desperately to win just once before we all lost interest in the fight.
Matthew turned away abruptly, muttering curses under his breath. He strode away haughtily, his dusty red hair bouncing on top of his head.
I stood watching as Matthew shrunk into the distance slowly, making his way down the long hill that crossed the entire yard, periodically disappearing and emerging from behind neon play equipment and never faltering in the purpose with which he walked. Chris drew himself from the mouth of the oak tree and shambled up beside me, moving slowly and deliberately like a scorned dog.
"Thank you," he sniffled.
My anger dissolved immediately, though my eyes remained fixed upon Matthew. "Don't mention it."
Suddenly the shrill sound of Mrs. Levees' whistle erupted into alarm, and finally my attention faltered. I looked across the grounds from my vantage point and saw the groups of children migrating slowly toward the basketball court where Mrs. Levees waited patiently for them. Wordlessly, Chris and I joined the procession, our speed assisted and effort reduced dramatically by the favorable inclination of the ground.
A few hours later we were saying our goodbyes in front of the school, mixed emotions running high and promises of correspondence echoing off the rumbling, sputtering buses. As we stepped aboard our respective shuttles a curtain was closing forever upon the world we knew, and in some dark place we did not yet fathom another was rising in it's stead.
My Brother, the Ghost
Illumination was scarce as was my will. Terrified; trembling and beside myself with uncertainty I pushed through the thick, black air. The light I projected was hindered by the air, it's alkaline-powered beam struggling to pierce the soupy darkness. I could almost see the light straining as it cut a short, tapered path through the nothing ahead. I could make out the floor beneath me, it's organized grid scrolling past, colorless for the white light. I could glimpse the walls, painted cinder block with occasional doorways that yawned black and empty as they passed. Rusty tan pipes revealed themselves above as the beam crossed them. A dripping sound was becoming audible and multiplying. A door materialized from the darkness ahead, and suddenly I could hear a low, faint pounding sound from somewhere in the distance. I stepped through the doorway and shined the torch in examination. The darkness here was thicker still, and
though it devoured most of the light before it left the flashlight, I could still make out my surroundings. The walls were made of old gray concrete, their surfaces carved by age and imperfection. Cracks ran across the walls in all directions. As I spun to check behind me I realized that there had never been a door there, a discovery that began as a terrifying suspicion but which was quickly confirmed by tactile inspection. The wall felt cold and damp, and the smell of mold began to register in my senses. Turning around again my light shone upon a concrete stair that descended beyond the struggling beam. The pounding sound was growing more rapid by the minute and seemed to be drawing closer all the time. I was propelled forward by a frantic feeling of pure fear, of what I could not even begin to imagine. I started down the stairwell, desperately brandishing the light, scanning for whatever would surely bring my death. I felt something beyond that, beyond death. I knew with despair and certainty that the stakes here were much higher than mere death. Several landings later and the stairs were still reaching below, and I continued down. As I descended, my light illuminated the declining surroundings. The concrete walls appeared older and more ragged with each passing level, as though the building had been built floor by floor in fifty-year increments. The mold smell was growing thicker as well, and I began to wonder where I was headed. Suddenly I became aware of something in the stairwell with me. It was shuffling down the stairs a few levels above. My heart seized in my chest as a primal terror swept over me. My feet began carrying me down the stairs involuntarily, at twice the speed I had been descending before. I heard the thing above me screaming, a blood-curdling scream that had a hint of sadness somewhere in it's frequency. It was gaining on me quickly, and the sound of the thing's feet patted on the concrete stairs with horrifying rapidity. The stair ended mid-flight and I was met quite suddenly with a wet concrete wall I could not see, because down there in the depths of that stair the light from my torch was extinguished within an inch of the lens. The dull pounding sound had reached me and I finally realized it was coming from my chest. I looked up and saw a pattern of organized light descending upon me in a rectangular motion. I heard the screams of the thing above me plummeting with the light, coming for me. It rounded the last stair and came at me with terrible speed, drowning the inky darkness in light, and for one brief second I saw it in its own ample illumination: a shrieking, choking humanoid figure with a hollowed out face from which protruded a familiar but black light. The thing's skin was milk white, sparsely covered with filthy, tattered cloth, and though it's feet never
touched the ground I could hear it's footsteps clearly. It filled the room with the stench of rot and death as it drew closer and I heard it's voice- a low, monotonous drone. It knew my name and spoke it, with the same kind of pain stricken vibrato of one about to vomit violently while struggling to resist it. I heard it's gurgling voice, and I knew it's name. I knew what it was. I knew everything all at once and then it disappeared, all of it. It's last gravelly word to me before I woke screaming was "You."
In latent slumber rests the key to the riddle, spun immobile within the cobwebs that cheerlessly decorate those unused areas of the brain. The answer to a hundred million questions as yet unasked is there, in a singular word. A few syllables, innocuous enough only to those ignorant of it's meaning. Just a few strokes of the tongue, a bite of the lip, and a vibration from within. To those who know, it is the language of God. - Dr. Christopher D. Ford
I opened my eyes on a fateful morning around ten o'clock and saw the ceiling, it's familiar speckled patterns obscured by slashes of intolerable light across my vision. I listened to the morning chatter of blue jays as I cleared my eyes, blinking and rubbing for a time. When I could see clearly I gripped the wooden side of my bunk and pulled myself down a bit to see if Brad was still sleeping. Not surprisingly he was not, and less surprising were his bedsheets; left unmade in a lumpy, ghostly pile. Forgoing the ladder, I spun my legs around and dropped lightly to the tiled plywood floor. I slid across my sister's neatly made bed. The covers lay unnaturally creased by the comparatively rigid layer of plastic that crinkled beneath them. My feet rejoined the floor and carried me out of the room and down the hall.
Our home was a tangerine green two bedroom trailer with a single bathroom that stank like rotten eggs whenever it rained. My mother and stepfather slept in what passed off as the master bedroom, which was connected to the living room whose floor space was mostly taken up by a tattered brown couch and a low coffee table. Next to the living room was the kitchen, and down the hall from the kitchen were our room and the bathroom, which I passed by in a hurry that morning as I thought of breakfast.
No one was in the living room, and this was the first sign of trouble because my mother always slept on the couch when my stepfather was out of town. Thoughts of food already forgotten, I crossed the floor of the living room, my hand already reaching for the door to
mom's room. When I touched the cheap plastic doorknob the door popped open an inch with a snap, and I heard Rod Roddy shouting excitedly over bristling, obnoxiously upbeat elevator jazz. â€œCome on down! You're the next contestant on The Price Is Right!â€ The television was on, and I felt at that moment a certain dread arise in me. I did not know why my emotions were running so strong. I only knew it had nothing to do with Rod Roddy.
Hearing no objections from behind the flimsy particleboard door, I gave it a push with my outstretched middle finger. It swung open quietly as though creaking were some expensive luxury we couldn't afford. I peered inside. The bed was vacant, the blanket and sheets in crumpled disarray. I turned around and crossed the living room again, this time going to the window. I parted the blinds with two crooked fingers and planted my face into it. Outside I saw only the oyster-cobbled driveway stretching into the distance along the splintered wooden fence that surrounded the Jackson's little horse pasture. Our driveway wasn't terribly long, but that fence made it look much longer, provided the horses weren't also in your field of view. Mom's pickup was gone, and this realization brought the dread on again though it was tempered by that childhood perception of invulnerability to consequence. I walked across the room a little more briskly this time and cracked the blinds on another window. The shed appeared to be closed and locked, and there was no sign of Brad anywhere in the backyard. Axl the dog was scratching his rusty ear with a flailing paw, and it flopped about humorously as he worked.
Part of the reason I felt worried was because my mother never left me home alone. I would surely burn the house down, or commit crimes of the sort children commit. And if she did have to leave without us, she would always leave Brad in charge. He was very responsible for a twelve year old boy, and Mom trusted him immensely with those kinds of responsibilities. Rightfully so, for if I ever really had a father it was Brad, although he was only two years older than me.
I opened the front door, bathing momentarily in an almost blinding flood of warm sunlight, and stepped outside into the summer morning. The smell of pine needles floated thick in the air. The sky overhead was blue and cloudless, but the horizon was speckled with dark gray cirrus clouds which seemed to be slowly approaching. I descended the porch stairs and walked around the trailer to the backyard.
Brad! I called, the crackle of recent sleep lending an unusual weight to my voice. I cleared my throat and called again, reasonably approximating my regular voice. I began walking slowly down the driveway that went through our backyard and out to my stepfather's shed, calling my brother's name unanswered. A serene breeze kicked up as I reached the shed, stepping off the driveway and into the thick, ankle-high grass that stood undefeated by Dan's lawn mowing equipment.
Bradley! I shouted once more, using what should have been, but wasn't, his full name. The blue jays answered me with their soothing recorder song. I gazed down the path that led into the woods. The trail was a thin ribbon of dirt winding snakelike through the emerald grass and down the hill which started at the treeline and descended past our plywood tree house to the creek. I thought Brad must have abandoned his duties and plunged into the greenwood without me. Annoyed, I started down the path and toward the tree house.
I climbed the ladder of scrapped two-by-fours to the back door and looked inside. No one sat upon the ancient azure pickup truck seat that served as our couch. I climbed back down again and rejoined the path to the creek.
I hope you have enjoyed this little piece of my mind. I wanted to capture the feeling of childhood in these words. This may not be your typical Retro Junk article, but I thought this was the perfect site to post this work-in-progress since my motivation for writing it was specifically nostalgic. I welcome any and all criticism regarding any aspect of this article.