I was 5.
Dad long since gone. Mom dressed to go out. Scent of jasmine perfume trailing her. Another night with Aunt Julie and her heavy pour from the green bottle. The smell, a medicinal concoction of alcohol and dust, would soon devour the sweetness from Mom.
I asked Mom what color I should use for the sun on the picture I was intensely coloring in, trying so hard to stay within the lines. “A setting sun is really yellowy red,” she said. “Why don’t you use orange?”
I didn’t want her to leave. I hugged Mom’s long legs. Smooth and comforting. It was the last time. She seemed skittish while wringing her hands and telling Aunt Julie that Roger had been on the Dating Game where she worked as assistant director. He won, but she wasn’t sure why that date never took place. He had noticed her during the pre-taping sessions. She mentioned to Aunt Julie he seemed nice enough, so she hesitantly accepted his invitation to dinner.
“Something just doesn’t seem right about him,” I remember her saying while I held onto her legs until she reached down, tossed my hair, declared she was fine, and she loved me.
He was brutally big. Shiny head, one earing, left ear. Arms that bounced out of his tight black shirt. Tattoo, devil pitchfork, poking in and out as he moved. His bull-like handshake swallowed my entire hand. A squeeze a bit too hard. A smile a bit too evil. His eyes looking straight through me. I didn’t want Mom to go.
“I’ll be fine. Now be good and mind your Aunt Julie. I love you,” as she grabbed her shawl, turned at the door, and blew me a kiss. Her last smile forever imprinted in my mind.
Aunt Julie fell asleep with her glass half full. The laughter on the TV eventually quieted to some quilt-like pattern and a low hum. I fell asleep on the floor thinking of jasmine and Mom.
I remembered being dressed in black. I remember all the tears and the veiled attempts to convince me it was God calling her, needing her. But God never answered me when I asked him why. The men in blue with holstered guns guaranteed they would find him. But they never did. Said they lost track of him somewhere in Bolivia where he became a mercenary. I never believed it. I wondered who he killed next. Nightmares haunted me every night.
Aunt Julie tried, but I became distant. Never doing much but sleeping there. Drugs entered early and took hold allowing the pain to be distracted by feelings of nothingness, or at times happiness for no reason which would soon swoon into sadness and darkness. A wooden rollercoaster clacking loudly, blinding life.
I don’t remember school. I smoked everything. I drank as much as I could steal. Failed promises to everyone. Constantly absorbed by memories of the last time. His face always close to mine as he pinched my cheek.
“I’ll take care of her,” his smelly voice played as a warped record every night for 20 years.
Relating with needy women only provided partners for the rollercoaster rides. Eventually each would walk away. The last one jumped at the very top, racing the car down to the bottom. It was then that the deep dark hole I had been stuck in seemed to finally collapse. I awoke in a hospital bed with an IV hanging from a pole to the right of my arm. I felt nothing. I only remember the stench, medicinal and dusty. Completing the circle back to that night.
I was released two days later. The bus stop bench was my support that afternoon. I entered the depressing apartment attacked by the stink of rotting garbage. I swung the backpack with my few clothes and personal items over my shoulder. Threw the key on the beat-up table and left. Not knowing where I was going, just wanted to walk, and walk. At the four corners in the small town I felt the need to stop. The big sign hanging in the front window of the store furthest to the right read, “Want a skill? Join the Army.” I entered the door and signed up.
Five years later I did not re-up. Having straightened out and cut my reliance on booze and drugs, I felt real. Free from the nightmares. Human. I applied and easily got hired as a night janitor at Mercy Hospital. At first I enjoyed the graveyard shift. Less hectic and less supervision. But the dark, dead night hours left too much time for remembering. Obsession possessed me. I wanted to find him!
Hours before the sun waking the working women, the husbandless mothers, the children needing love, I would hide in the basement hospital furnace room, sit next to the grated window and scour the internet. I read everything. All newspaper accounts of the two-year search by the local police. The bits of information gathered from online search engines and vigilante websites convinced me he was alive and still in L.A. Several unsolved murders were tied to the Russian mob that was pushing heroin from Tajikistan, the poorest post-Soviet country. Each victim had a cut on his or her upper arm in the shape of an upside down pitchfork. As widely known in street culture, this was a sign of a gang posting itself on someone else’s “territory.” But to me it meant he was alive as a killer for hire, leaving his mark.
The late-night nurses, especially Shelly, took a liking to my work ethic, thank you, Army, and taught me about diseases, treatments, IV’s, and drugs. Of course drugs. The temptation was back. I started collecting pills. Not using them, just collecting them. Helping myself to one or two from the rusty orange-colored plastic containers with those meaningless child-proof caps. No one ever seemed to miss a couple of pills as I only took from bottles containing several. I kept them segregated in tall, slim empty glass jars from the imported Italian olives that I was addicted to. The early sun tapping on the kitchen window created a delightful rainbow as it journeyed through each bottle of different colored pills. It was the “good morning” greeting me each day after a night of lonely work. Within months I had quite the warehouse of pain killers and sleeping pills. Had some nice street value. Hadn’t decided yet if I wanted to cross the bridge to supplier.
Shelly was damaged goods. But then again, aren’t we all? She loved the music of the ’60s. Raw and hard. Tempting me to drink with her as she swooned into minor key love songs from girl soul groups. I knew it was wrong, but nothing was ever really right. Least not since before I can remember. One night her tough walls fell down and she cried long. I tasted the salt of her tears as I kissed her eyes and looked into her heart. She spoke of the abuse of long ago. Of how trust was lost to her forever. How she wanted to love, but couldn’t. How she wouldn’t see me again. Numb and silent, I let her go. I sat. I stared. I too had drifted through years of my life. I searched for some conclusion to pain. Little did I know I would find it soon.
Wednesday night, July 14th, Bastille Day. Free the prisoners! Chance dealt me aces over eights, Deadman’s Hand. As I entered room 66, sixth floor, ICU unit, I looked up while emptying the trashcan next to his bed. He reached out and grabbed my arm. It was half-past 3 in the morning and his grip… his grip, it was the grip. I looked at his glassy eyes, his shiny head. He was older, but it was him. I pried my hand away and raised the sleeve on his gown. The pitchfork had collapsed but it was him.
I stared. I closed the door. So many years had passed. I saw Satan lying there. A smell of charred wood and old incense hung in the air. I prayed for God to whisper me what to do. To tell me if my thoughts were wrong. As my eyes froze on the evilness, I wondered if God had lost. If he had died. Or had simply given up and moved on to his next batch of toys. I sat and questioned if I had the strength. I drifted far away. I saw me, hugging her legs that last night. I heard her voice.
“You’ll be fine,” she softly said.
She faded away as a whiff of jasmine swelled my head. I waited. Only his labored breathing moving the stench-filled air. I removed monitor wires one by one and attached each to me. I sat for a while to see if any alarms would sound. And then I pulled his life-support plug. I sat for some time to make sure. I reconnected everything. As I moved to the door, I reached into my pocket and dropped in the waste basket the orange crayon I had carried since that last night. As I walked down the hall to the service elevator, I heard “Code Blue” over the PA system. Shelly was running towards room 66. I was smiling.
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