William Michaelian

Poems, Notes, and Drawings

Among the Living

Story #1, Among the Living and Other Stories, 2000

Appeared previously in Armenian translation in Grakan Tert,
a periodical newspaper publication of the Writers Union of Armenia.

 

One thing that bugs me is that at the end of the day, they go home and I stay here. I’m not saying it should be the other way around. I know I’m not ready to leave. In fact, the thought scares me. I just think it might be helpful if they were to spend a few nights here and get the feel of the place. Some of the night orderlies, they know. I swear to God, I think half of them have been through what I’m going through. Most of them are in pretty good shape, too. I can’t believe the muscles on these guys. Well, that’s all right. That’s good. With some of the loons we’ve got in here, we need a few football players to keep things in order. Oh. I was talking about something. I was saying I don’t like being part of someone’s job, and being a name on a stupid behavioral chart. I don’t like people walking out of here at five o’clock and going home and eating macaroni and fish sticks and watching videos and playing games on their computers and going to bed with their wives and husbands and boyfriends and girlfriends while I sit here and rot. Of course they say one of my problems is that I’m too quick to judge. Maybe so. But that doesn’t mean I’m stupid. It doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on in the world, or that I’ve forgotten what people do out there. I was out there too, once. The trouble is I got covered with mud when I was out one night and tried to walk home in a ditch. But it’s not my fault. I thought the ditch was dry. I forgot there could still be a little water at the bottom. That’s how I got to be such a mess. It started out with just my shoes, but then I tripped on a rock or something and landed on my face. What a work of art. I was covered with grime and had moss and polliwogs in my teeth. I got up, and I kept walking, but every time I tried to climb out of the ditch I slid and fell back into the water. So finally I gave up and stayed down there and started walking home. I walked all night. But the more I walked, the more I didn’t get home. I saw the Producer’s cotton gin and I knew I was in trouble. I kept out of sight and hid under a bridge with frogs and boards and old shoes and dirty diapers and bottles and cans and broken pieces of glass. I thought the cotton gin was a prison, but I couldn’t remember if I had to go in or go out to escape. And I needed a cigarette really bad. I had a few, but they were soaked. I unwrapped one and ate the tobacco. That was pretty bad. Anyway, I didn’t have matches. My dad was yelling at me about how stupid I was. That’s why I went out and got lost in the first place. He said to me, you’re an idiot, all you do is piss around pushing a broom at that god-damned cannery, and when you’re not you’re eating tacos — you got nothing better to do than eat tacos? I said, I like tacos, what’s the matter with that? I said, what’s the matter with you? Just because you live in this nice big house doesn’t mean you’re perfect. You’ve got no right to pick on my tacos. And he said, god damn you, you’re twenty-eight years old, you should be out on your own by now. You should be married and have kids. I can’t believe a son of mine is so god-damned worthless. And so I slammed the door in his face and left. But before I went out to the road I snuck around to my mom’s room and looked in her window so I could say good-bye. She was on her bed, staring at the ceiling, and her eyes were big and glassy and red because she was crying. I knew she’d heard everything because my dad and I had been yelling really loud. Her door was closed. It was dark outside and I could see in, but she couldn’t see out. I tapped on the window and waved. She looked at the window. I was so close I was making steam on the glass through the screen. She got up and came to the window. I said, Mom, and she put her fingers on the spot where I was making the steam. I said, Mom, and I started crying because all I ever did was make her miserable. Then I turned around and ran. Damn it, I know I should do better. I know I haven’t made anything of myself. I am ashamed of who I am and what I am. I’ve let everybody down, all my life. When I was a kid I didn’t hit home runs, and I couldn’t make baskets, because my muscles were stupid and didn’t work. I couldn’t even run. I used to have dreams about running, and the harder I’d try to run, the slower I’d go. And there was always someone after me. That’s something I’ll never forget. What a feeling. I was always trapped in long hallways, or in tall buildings, or under cities in sewers full of rats and with people chained to the walls. I took off, and left my mom at the window, and that’s the last time I’ve seen her. I don’t even know if she’s alive. But my dad is alive. I know, because he’s too mean to die. He came here only once and he didn’t even look at me. Lock him up and throw away the key, that was the only thing on his mind. Get rid of the son of a bitch. Keep him out of my house, that’s all I know. I was looking up at the shadow of the cotton gin thinking, in or out, in or out — which way do I go? I waited for the search light to come, but it never did. I waited for the dogs to start barking and come after me, but they never did. I waited for the part of me inside that’s a spark of joy and laughter to come out, but it never did. And so I cried. Then I reached down into the water and scooped up a dead crawdad and I said, dear God, we are hiding out under bridges all over the world and we need your help. Have mercy, I said. Have mercy on your poor, diseased creatures. You’ve got to come down and help us. You’ve got to set things right. And God spoke to me. In that moment, I heard His voice moving in the dead weeds on the ditch bank. He said, I would if I could, but I can’t. He said, the power is gone. He said, forgive me. So I stood up. God damn you, I said. God damn you. Then I heard God weeping, and His tears fell and it started to rain. On my hands and knees, I crawled out of the ditch. There was nobody at the cotton gin. I was alone, standing on the road, at least ten miles from home. Well, it isn’t right to damn God, whether or not He exists. And it isn’t right to damn your own flesh-and-blood father, whether or not he exists. It just isn’t right. This business of damning is no good. It’s unhealthy. No one has the right to damn anyone else, and no one has the right to damn even himself. These people in here are trying to help me. I know it’s just a job, but they have to eat. Without the money they take from this place they’d starve. I know some of them don’t care. So what? I care. I care about them. In my own way, I try to help them feel better. Even if I have to be crazy, I’ll do whatever it takes. All night, sitting in this room, without a sound, without the voice of a cricket or a cow mooing in the distance, and no moonlight, only walls, and outside the world of leaves and grass and music and noise and picnics and dances and old men and women holding hands in the mall and little kids looking at butterflies, outside, I think, I would love to be there and to walk again among the living, but if now is not the time, then now is not the time. That’s just the way life is. Things happen in their own way. I yelled at my father and took a walk in the mud and that means I’m crazy. I’m just glad I saw my mom before I ran away. I hope she hasn’t forgotten me. Someday, I will tell her how much I love her. Someday, I will tell her that I remember the time we were at the grocery store after she took me to the dentist and she left me have a candy bar. I remember the way you winked at me, Mom. You were a beautiful woman, and you still are. And all the other things she’s done for me, taking care of me, feeding me when I was a baby, cleaning me and changing me and taking me for walks and later on for piano lessons and listening to me pound on the keys while she did the dishes and baked cookies and pies and cleaned the top of the stove whether it needed it or not and mopped the floor and wrote letters and sent out Christmas cards to friends all over the country that she hadn’t seen for years and would never see again. In a room like this, you think about things. You get mad sometimes and they have to tie you to your bed, but then later you calm down and you begin to count your blessings. And you learn to dream, and to float away on fluffy wings that nobody else can see, and that’s when you realize how lucky you are, even if you are a prisoner, because, really, that’s what they think, but this place of more of a prison for people who think they’re normal, in the sense that normal is superior, and that’s why I feel sorry for some people who work here, because they’re so scared underneath that it shows in their faces and in the scratchy sound of their voices, as if their throats are laced with frozen spider webs that splinter and crack when lies blow through smelling sour like hot wind from the county dump. I was walking home when a sheriff’s car stopped and a deputy got out and pointed a gun at me. It was just the two of us under the stars. A few miles to the west there were the lights winking on and off on a row of radio towers. I laughed. The deputy laughed. But he didn’t put away his gun. All right, he said. All right. You’re a god-damned mess. What the hell happened to you? When I told him I was lost and that I’d been walking in the ditch, he said, Jesus Christ, what a circus. Then he told me to get in the car. I got into the car and sat in the back seat next to a big German Shepherd. The deputy shook his head and put the car in gear. This is the damnedest thing, he said. What’re you doing, out wandering around in the middle of the night? It’s almost three a.m. I told the deputy again that I was lost. Oh, yeah, he said. Lost. Where do you live? With your folks, isn’t it? Over on your dad’s place on 43? Next to all them walnuts? That’s right, isn’t it? I told the deputy he was right. Then how come you’re lost? he said, if you know where you live? And I said, I’ve always been lost. I’ve been lost since I was born. For a long time, the deputy was quiet. Well, he said finally, I’ll drive you home. Your old man will take care of things from there. When we got there, my dad was waiting in the driveway with a cup of coffee. He smiled at the deputy when he parked the car and said, okay, Ted. Thanks. Sorry about the wild goose chase. Then he looked at me in the back seat and said, this is the end of the line for you, boy. This is the end of the line. Then I watched him turn and spit on the ground.

Categories: Among the Living and Other Stories

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