Growing out of adolescence was like emerging from a dense fog.
You breathe better, the things around you become easier to identify. You retain the shape of things in your mind, their smell and their significance. They don’t run through your fingers after leaving your direct sight, but adhere to the walls of your skull like nicotine stains. You don’t know their significance until after the fact, because you’re able to replay the imagery by picking off the residue left behind. Everything leaves a trail inside you. Every experience becomes a part of you. It’s new and exciting and terrifying to be so intertwined with the world outside of your mind.
What happened was like a traumatic brain injury, they said. It damages you. It leaves you unable to retain the moments before and after as well. They’re deemed collateral byproduct of being within proximity to the event. The moment that is submerged by the brain becomes a sinkhole that changes the landscape of everything absorbed nearby. Years are lost, compartmentalized into solitary, abstract shards that are forced to encapsulate the entire developmental period. Childhood becomes a fractured bone that was never set, and so healed improperly. Which is to say, it never healed at all.
The brain is malleable. The brain rewires itself. The brain finds a way to ensure survival. What disappears is what must disappear. These are necessary martyrs to keep the event at the bottom of the sinkhole. The brain knows most of all that it must survive. The threat to that survival must stay submerged, as deep as possible. It doesn’t matter what else drowns with it as long as the event can’t resurface for air.
From that moment forward, the brain’s mission is to encourage anything that will keep the event from getting oxygen. Collateral damage is inevitable.
Everything must go.
* * *
I looked again at the piece of torn paper. It was the right house; I accepted that.
I had no preconception as to its appearance, but still what I saw felt wrong and alien. It was a small, modest home, painted an unattractive white that had turned yellow with age, gnarled and peeling like the pages of an old book left out in the rain. The lawn was manicured and watered, maintained to a degree that didn’t match the surrounding neighborhood. It was late afternoon and the streetlights had yet to turn on, the setting sun dousing the street with an amber glow. There were no children out playing, but through the windows I could see televisions blaring.
The curtains on his house were drawn. Through his windows I could see nothing.
I stepped onto the porch and the old wood sighed and creaked beneath my feet. My mind was muddled, and all I could tell it was that there was still time. There was time to leave or to wait, and after that it said nothing. My lungs convulsed, and air was hard to find, and my legs had no strength to give, so I sat down on the rocking chair as if it were my own. There was still time, it said to me. And I agreed. There’s still time, I replied.
I reached into my coat pocket, removed the clear plastic bottle, disregarding the cold and solid object nestled beside it, and drank more while watching the sunset as the amber turned to gold-lined silhouettes. My lungs inflated with air, and my legs found strength, and I rocked back and forth for a while, understanding that quiet was the eye of the storm. There’s still time, I said. There’s still all the time in the world.
* * *
From the moment I discovered its efficacy, drinking alcohol became a balancing act. You drink enough and the swords in your chest dislodge, and the fear melts into the floor, and you are content. Euphoric, even—a sensation so foreign that at times you understand why the Mesopotamians saw beer as a gift from the gods. Nothing works like alcohol; no mixture of pills, sex, violence or apathy comes close to the respite provided by that magical potion. But as you continue to drink—and you always will—you inevitably lose your balance and fall into the very same pit that the drink had levitated you out from. Though in your absence, shovels had been taken to the earth, and the pit you now exist within is miles deeper. It’s at this point that the images you poisoned your liver to banish return to the forefront of your mind like nightmarish ayahuasca visions. The sinkhole your subconscious so diligently created begins to vomit up the imprisoned event in fragments. They are the Titans breaking free from the depths of Tartarus. They rearrange before your eyes to become the silenced memory and it plays in flashes, something unknown to you but painfully familiar. It’s like self-inflicted déjà vu; a wormhole carved into the fabric of the universe to bring you an alternate reality that cannot be yours, but is.
That’s when I see his face. I see it in great detail. I know who he is, and I know what he’s doing, his movements, and it can’t be true—my brain tells me it isn’t. But it can no longer be trusted. I’ve torn down the heavy walls, and the brain lacks its defenses. It’s like staring into the sun. The pain is too real for what created it not to be. The atmosphere has been destroyed, and the radiation becomes me.
In the morning I will forget.
* * *
I placed the empty bottle on the porch, stood up, and knocked on the door.
An older woman answered, the chain lock allowing only a sliver of her face to be visible through the crack. “We don’t want it,” she said. But she didn’t close the door. A single blue-gray eye stared at me.
“I’m not selling anything, ma’am.” I let the alcohol pull a friendly smile across my face. “I was looking for Ray. Is he home?”
“Raymond? He’s not expecting any visitors. What do you want?”
I answered reflexively: “Counsel. We used to know each other, he and I.”
The woman scanned me up and down, the blue-gray eye shimmering as it stopped to focus on my face. “You’re not even half his age. He’s not practicing anymore. Raymond’s retired.”
“Is he?” I said, feigning sincerity. “He always had time to help when I was younger. I’ve come a long way, ma’am, would it hurt to let me in at least? A glass of water maybe?”
She continued staring through the crack in the door, but her face relaxed. It showed her age: her wrinkles, her liver spots.
When it became clear she wasn’t going to respond, I pushed again: “I don’t mean to be a nuisance. I just came a long way is all. He may remember me.”
The door closed. I heard the fumbling of metal. The woman appeared again, the doorway open. She was short and plump, in a hand-stitched sweater. Her hair matched her eyes, stopping short of her chin. “What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t. It’s Martin—Marty. He may remember me as Marty.”
“From where?” she asked, but I had already walked inside.
The living room smelled of heavy cleaner and mothballs. Like an assisted care facility. Like old age. The air was thick with the smell of the elderly. Atop the fireplace was a large, wooden crucifix. There were no photos, no animals, nothing personal on display. It felt empty. I was glad there were no pets. It would be much harder if there were pets.
The woman retreated to the kitchen, poured a glass of water and handed it to me. “He’s just resting,” she said. “Let me go check on him and see if he can talk. He’s not in the best of health these days.”
I nodded and waited for the woman to disappear down a hallway. She opened a door and slid inside before closing it softly behind her. The glass in my hand had little flowers painted on the outside, their details chipping off from years of use and cleanings. The water tasted like copper.
A group of orange pill bottles sat on the kitchen counter. I walked closer and began picking them up, eyeing the information for any words I may have recognized: Hydroxyurea, methotrexate, Afinitor, cyclophosphamide, hydroxydaunorubicin, Oncovin, prednisone. These were meaningless to me, of no use. But also in the cache were three I did know: OxyContin, Demerol, and Hydrocodone. Beautiful, colorful little pills.
I leaned out into the hallway and heard low murmurs between two people coming from inside the room. The man’s voice was slurred and irritable.
Six oxys, one Demerol, and three Hydrocodone slid down my throat with a gulp of water. I would have liked to crush and snort them, but was glad I hadn’t when the woman returned as soon as I put the bottles back in their place.
“He’s tired,” she started. “But he doesn’t get many visitors so he’d like to see you. Raymond says he’s sorry he doesn’t remember you. You can follow me, but you need to keep it short. He’s in and out these days. Be patient with him.”
The woman urged me towards the hall and directed me inside. The stench of putrefaction struck the moment I stepped through the doorway. It was a unique scent, one I’d only encountered once before.
I’d been working at a restaurant years earlier when a large family came in to sit down. One of them was very old. Immediately, a noxious miasma that I’d never experienced began floating in the air, attaching to every molecule of that area of the room. Each time I had to go over to that section the smell was overpowering and horrible. No one said anything, but quietly, some of the customers asked their servers if they could be moved to a different table. We all smelled it, we all tried not to breathe, as if a chemical weapon had been released, but no one spoke of it. It wasn’t until the family had paid and left, that one server who was a new hire began bussing the table. I didn’t want to join her but it was clear that none of the other staff were going to submit themselves to the stink that still wafted over the room like an aimless, exorcised demon. When I reluctantly came to help, she began talking about the thing that no one else would. Happily, she talked about it. I always remembered that, how odd it was. She seemed chipper to get the opportunity to explain to someone what she knew.
This server had worked for many years at a cancer ward. She had experienced that exact, specific stench many times before. That old man is dying, she told me. He’s at the very end of his life. That’s when they begin to smell like that. It’s the smell of their own body rotting on the inside. It’s the effluvia emitted during the process of death. There were other people who probably recognized it too, she told me, but people don’t like to acknowledge that kind of reality. The reality of what comes with an expiring body, an expiring human life. She said this all with a smile, cleaning off the bits of food that had dribbled onto the table from the old man’s quivering lips, piling up the dishes before walking away. That smell stayed wafting across the restaurant for a full two days after the old man had left. As if he had left us with a piece of his extinguishing soul. Wherever he went, dropping breadcrumbs leading back to what would inevitably be a bloated corpse.
I didn’t need to understand what the names of those pills meant. The stench in Raymond’s room told me everything.
He sat in the corner, a blanket covering his legs. His face was gaunt and flushed red, the salt and pepper goatee still there. A flash of hidden memory erupted before my eyes, superimposed over the real man. Movements—the lurching, back and forth. Soft eyes. Focused eyes. Unfeeling in every facial feature but the eyes. Even their color escaped me inside the memory. He was already an older man when I knew him, and the progression of age had done him no favors. It’s difficult to get a read on the true size of a man when you’re just a child. The whole world is large and frightening. He felt like a large man then, his robes adding layers of weight to his frame. He was a presence that inspired comfort until he didn’t. A bear of a man. But sitting now across the room, he was frail, skeletal. I didn’t know if I was supposed to feel fear, or dread, or confliction, but I felt nothing. Not even anger. He was the empty hole, a blip of static in a stream of uneven recollection. He was the ghost of a cavity.
I sat down at the desk across from Raymond. It had been thoroughly cleaned and the smell that mixed with what came from within the old man made me dizzy. There was a single tome atop the desk next to a pair of readers, and it was opened to a bookmarked page: The Book of Acts. Verse 2:38 was unevenly underlined with black marker ink. The words blended and shifted on top of one another. I blinked hard and directed my eyes back towards Raymond.
“Hi, Ray,” I said.
He looked at me for a long time before answering, his eyes pockets within black circles. The only evidence that he was still alive was the rattling, hoarse whine that escaped his lips each time he exhaled. The woman watched us both from the open doorway.
“Hello,” he said. “I’ve met you. Have I met you?”
There were no photographs on the walls. A single bookshelf stood beside the old man, filled with hardcovers that smelled like sour pine.
“Yes,” I said. “A long time ago. If you don’t remember me that’s okay.”
He wore a heavy, knitted sweater. With the blanket beneath, it looked like a straightjacket pinned to his body.
“No one calls me that anymore.”
“Ray?” I answered. “That’s how I knew you then. Would you like me to call you Raymond?”
“Doesn’t matter.” Bitterness masked by distant nostalgia coated his words like poison on an arrow.
“You don’t wear the collar anymore. Do you still have it? Did they let you keep it?”
“They don’t let you keep anything. They took everything.”
“That must have been difficult.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said again. “What do you want?”
The woman caught the spite injected into his response and cut in: “Raymond isn’t used to visitors, don’t take it to—”
“You don’t need to talk for me,” he interrupted. “I can talk how I want. So what do you want?”
“I just wanted to ask some questions. I’d like some guidance, Father. Do I still call you Father?”
Raymond’s face froze and the rattling ceased, before whatever that word had brought into his mind again vanished. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “What’s your name again? How do you know me? I don’t know you.”
I wished the woman would just leave. She was making this harder. Words were becoming slippery in my head, harder to grasp before forming on my tongue. I took too many. You’re not supposed to take that many. I couldn’t remember how much I drank. I couldn’t remember much at all. The light was getting dim. There was no easy way around this.
“I went to school at St. Anthony’s. Do you remember St. Anthony’s, Father? …Ray?”
His face erupted with emotion, and for a moment I saw what existed in the pockets of my subconscious. The entirety of his flickering life force stoked a fire of terror inside his eyes. I thought that would make me feel good. I felt nothing.
The woman, who no doubt had been anticipating this, moved from the doorway to stand between Raymond and me. “You need to leave. Now. My brother’s done his time. He’s done his penance. There’s double jeopardy—I looked it up—so there’s nothing more you can do now. You wanna sue? He doesn’t have a thing left to his name. He’s an old man, what more do you all want from him? Shame on you. Get out.”
The woman stood tall and rigid, pointing her finger towards the exit like an old schoolmarm directing me to detention. Like it was going to make a difference.
I pulled out the pistol from my coat pocket and rested it on my lap.
“Listen,”—I vigorously shook my head, trying to dissolve the fog between my ears, and used the barrel of the gun to scratch my temple—“I just have some questions, ma’am. I’m gonna ask them, and then I’m gonna be on my way. Why don’t you sit down?”
She reached into her pocket—a really bold thing to do under the circumstances—and I pointed the weapon at her chest. “I need you to drop that. Right there on the floor, ma’am. Please.”
The cell phone slid from her hand and she held her palms out. “Don’t hurt me.”
“I’m not here to hurt anybody. I just wanna talk.” Keeping the pistol trained on the woman, I looked back towards Raymond, who hadn’t moved or reacted at all. “I just wanna ask some questions.”
There were two of the old man in front of me now, but a single voice came out: “You go ahead and shoot me.”
“No, no, look—no.” I lowered the gun. “I don’t know what you did. To those kids. I don’t hate you. I don’t feel much of anything. But there’s been…this shadow hanging over me my whole life. I just need to know if it’s you.”
Raymond sat up as much as he could—as if he were feeding off what little power he felt he had over me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure,” I said. “Sure.”
Something was draining out from my body; not what was fed to Raymond, but something more substantial. I could feel it pooling at my feet, taking with it any warmth and strength that remained. I’d taken too many. I made a mistake. I’d taken too many.
“I remember some of it. I remember the parish house across the street from the church. I remember the basement. I remember you, Father Ray.”
Beads of sweat began forming at my hairline. My hands were clammy and damp. Sick, I felt sick.
“You read what everyone else read in the newspaper. You can’t fool me. You’re not the first to come here with lies…slander. Hungry for attention.”
I stood and pressed the barrel of the pistol against his cheek. My legs felt like splintering sticks. “I’ve done…bad things, Father. I’ve done awful things in my life. I am not here to force out your guilt. Please, just tell me what happened. It’s this…hole in me, this black hole. It’s sucked up everything good in the world, pulled it all from out my hands—and I can’t even see what’s inside it. All I know, at the very bottom…”—I pulled back the hammer and pushed the metal deeper into his rubbery flesh—“is your face.
“And you can lie and lie and lie until a bullet finds your skull, or that cancer rots through your organs, but I won’t live like that. I know what’s in that book over there. You all burned it into me for years, the words on that page. So don’t you pretend that you don’t know. Don’t do that to me. Absolve me, Father. I can’t be bothered with your guilt. Your anguish. Tell me you caused this. Tell me you ruined me, so I can know, and I can pull this weight off my chest. You owe me that much.”
The woman then snapped, her whole body trembling, her face red as a sunrise: “For God’s sake, Raymond, tell him the truth! Give him what he wants before he kills us!”
Maybe an answer was going to come. If I had a moment longer.
My heart skipped a beat. It skipped a beat, and I waited for the next, but it never came. My lungs refused air. I heard myself choke. As if I were standing beside myself, I heard it. The face in the sinkhole, the face before me, darkened, and the room narrowed, and the white ceiling became my view, and I heard the thump of a body hitting the carpeted floor, and the gun on the carpet beside it, and I saw the old man, the face in the sinkhole, pick up the gun without a word or hesitation, and press it against his temple, and I saw the flash, and I heard the woman scream, and I saw the blood and matter spray the ceiling, and the world went quiet and black.
A life flashed before me. A short and uneven road, unpaved but well traveled. It wasn’t until just after, in those timeless milliseconds, I passed the abyss of memory, that I realized how many were still left to cross. How many I had dug myself. What a difficult road it was that I’d created. It would have taken another lifetime to fill them all.
I hope he goes to Heaven. Then I’ll know there’s a place for me too.