Friday, April 17, 2015

An Unexpected Burden

Little Timmy O'Malley walked into Ms. Kelvin's 8th Grade Reading & Language Arts class and sat down at the desk in the middle of the third row with his name taped to the top on a laminated index card.  He pulled out his mechanical pencil, with the large eraser attached to the back, and marked another tally on the desk below his name.

17 down, 163 to go.


It's not that he was in a hurry to get to the end of the school year or anything.  He just liked keeping the proper perspective.  It was also nearly a ritual at this point, and he liked making a small, yet noticeable and consistent change to his environment every day.

The late bell rang as the last few students rushed in before Ms. Kelvin could close the door.  One of them was Brad Easterly, who sat in the second row at the desk right next to Timmy's.  Brad rushed over to his desk, tossed a pile of abused textbooks and loose crumpled paper onto the desk as he sat down, and exhaled audibly.

He leaned toward Timmy, and said "Can you believe she's making us read 30 pages a night?! Give me a break Hitler, geez."

Timmy smiled and chuckled a little, then shrugged his shoulders as if to say I know man, but what can you do?

"Alright, good morning class.  I want to discuss what you read last night in Lord of the Flies and what the conch symbolizes for these young boys.  Why do you all think the conch is important?  What purpose does it serve in the story?  Tell me some of your thoughts," said Ms. Kelvin as the rest of the late arrivals settled into their seats.

Timmy didn't want Brad to know that he actually loved reading--so much so that he had read 50 pages ahead last because he was so interested in the story.  The only reason he didn't read any further is because his mom forced him to turn off the lights at 11.  He was hoping he could finish the book tonight if he ate an early dinner and finished all of his homework on the bus ride home.  Brad was one of the popular kids and Timmy knew that Brad favored him.  If he let Brad know that he loved reading, he'd ruin his social life for the rest of the year--maybe even all of high school too.

So he sat there quietly and listened to Melissa Perkins ramble on about how the conch was the only way to make a loud noise on the island without losing your voice and it was really important to be able to make loud noises in case someone saw a boar and needed help spearing it for food because they were all hungry and food was important and they were tired of eating fruit all the time and yadda yadda yadda...

No, you idiot.  The conch is a metaphor for structure and society.  It's the only thing standing between them being civilized boys lost on an island and being rampaging savage animals with no sense of reason.

Timmy felt bad for Melissa (even though she was clearly vying for teacher's pet) because she was wasting all of her energy just to hear herself talk.  She wasn't taking the time to actually sit there and think about the characters and their situation.  All of the answers aren't on the surface and they're not all spelled out for you.

He also felt sorry for Brad.  He couldn't understand how anyone could hate reading so much.  Even though Brad put on a cool exterior and seemed to have it all together, all of his answers weren't on the surface either.  Timmy could see Brad's face when Brad thought no one was watching him.  So much stress, pain, anxiety, and depression on a such a young boy.  Timmy had spent the night at Brad's house a few weeks back, but he never told his parents what he saw there.  It wasn't even so much of what he saw as what was implied.  It's like going into someone's house who has a dog but has no business owning a dog.  They can give one look to the dog, and there's no way for an abused pup to hide the instant fear in their eyes that can only be created by years of physical and psychological torture, not to mention neglect.  Brad desperately needed an escape from reality; the sort that only a book could give him.  That wasn't Brad's escape though.  No, his escape was to play it cool and pick on nerds.  

Tired of being distracted by all of these random worries, Timmy opened his book up to the beginning of Chapter Five where Ralph has an existential epiphany before walking up to the platform for the meeting he called.  Quickly, he found himself lost on the island with all of the boys, and the world of the classroom with intellectually inferior classmates and a bored teacher faded beneath the surface.

"Timmy!" Ms. Kelvin was sitting in the desk in front of him, turned around to look at him.  The class was empty.  He never noticed the bell ringing and everyone leaving around him.  "Do you often find yourself lost in a book?"

"Yeah, sorry.  I really zone out sometimes."

"That's okay.  It means you're really reading.  If you're so into the book Timmy, why don't you speak up in class when we talk about it?"

Timmy shrugged his shoulders and avoided making eye contact.  "I dunno.  I don't want people to think I'm a know-it-all I guess."

Ms. Kelvin's face darkened with sadness and frustration.  "If there's anything you should never be afraid of, it's letting people know how smart you are.  I want you to feel free to let that out.  Why do you hide it?"

Timmy just looked down at the ground, unsure of how to respond.

"Look Tim, I don't want to force you into an uncomfortable position, but I can see how bright you are and how alive your face looks when you're reading.  I've read your reading journals too  Those aren't just for show.  I actually care about what you guys are thinking while reading.  You're making observations that students usually don't understand until eleventh or twelfth grade.  Have you thought about writing stories or some poems?  You'd probably be very good at it.  I could--"

Timmy cut her off, "--sorry, I have to go.  I'm gonna be late for algebra."  He grabbed his things and hurried out of there.  He knew she meant well and all, but he just didn't like being put on the spot like that.  Sure, he wanted to write, but he ended up throwing everything away that he ever wrote.  It was never good enough.  It didn't sound like the books he liked reading.  It sounded like some dumb middle schooler whose head was too big.  



*****Five Years Later*****



"Alright ladies and gentleman, we're in the final stretch of the course now.  I know you're all probably already looking forward to Senior Week and going to the beach or whatever.  But please don't get too distracted.  I want you all to finish strong.  You should be almost done revising your papers.  All you have to do now is partner up for peer review, and write a final draft.  Make sure you have your partner's contact information and set a time this weekend to meetup.  We'll start writing our final drafts on Monday when you come back.  We've got a few minutes left, so do any of you have any questions for me?"

That was Mr. Sonder, Timmy's 12th Grade AP English teacher at Creekview High.  He was a 40-something year old bachelor, who always wore old khakis with flannel, and had a perpetual 5-day stubble and shaggy chin-length hair.  Even though he was a pretentious douche most of the time, you could still tell that he was one of the few teachers who actually cared about his students.  When he put his hand on your shoulder as you entered his class each day--and looked you in the eye with slightly raised eyebrows and said "how are you doing?"--you could tell that he wasn't faking it to seem nice.  He actually wanted to know how you were doing.  And if you were doing bad, he really wanted to take time out of his planning period to sit and talk with you to make sure you had everything you needed.  That was Mr. Sonder--the douche with a heart of gold.

"Well if none of you want to ask any questions, I'll just make it awkward and talk until the bell rings. Have any of you thought about what's going to happen after you graduate and go your separate ways?  I'm not trying to scare you or anything, but I want you to think about each other and the times you've had here during high school.  Before you realize it, you're all going to be off doing your own things.  Some of you will stick around here for life, and that's fine.  But others might go off and backpack through Europe, or teach English in Malaysia, or join the military, or relocate to the West coast.  

You'll meet new people, get exposed to new ideas and cultures, and ten years from now, your future selves won't even recognize your present selves.  So think about that in terms of the relationships and friendships that you've made here.  You're going to lose touch with most of the people in your life right now.  That's just a fact.  But of the few that you think matter--like objectively, really matter and add value to your life; they're there for you no matter what, and you always reciprocate--make sure that you don't become just a minor background character in their story.  You're going to be an 'extra' if you will, in millions of stories.  The person in front of you in line at Starbucks who's a quarter short on her drink and forgot her debit card--you're the nice stranger who gives her the right change.  That's great, but that's the end of your role in her story.  

Think about your best friends right now.  The ones who matter.  Who actually give a shit.  Or think about that friend that you maybe used to have, but have fallen out of touch with throughout high school.  Is that person okay?  Do you see him or her in the hall and wonder how they're doing?  Maybe try to rekindle that friendship while you have a chance.  You never know.  Major characters become background characters.  You've all read Harry Potter.  Do you even hear about the Dursleys in the 6th or 7th books?  Not really; they're just fluff.  But they had huge roles in the first book.  Maybe that's a bad analogy.  But you get what I mean.  It's never too late to increase your role in someone else's story.  You never know--you coming back into their life might be the thing that saves it."  Bell Rings.  "Alright, have a great weekend and work on those peer reviews." 

Timmy walked out of Mr. Sonder's class and down the hall toward the cafeteria.  Something about what Sonder said stuck with him.  He was just a minor character in everyone's life.  He couldn't think of a single person he could call a close friend.  Most people just annoyed him.  Even the girls he found attractive were usually too dull or worried about going to the mall all the time.  He used to be close with some friends back in middle school, but Creekview funneled four different middle schools into one high school.  All of the friends he had from middle school found better, more interesting friends than Timmy O'Malley.  

Even though the school day was over, the cafe still sold premade chicken sandwiches until 3pm.  He usually spent his entire lunch period reading--he worked for six hours everyday after school and barely had enough time to do his homework before passing out at night--so it had become a ritual for him to pick up a chicken sandwich on his way out of school in the afternoon.  He walked up to the heating lamp and felt a few packages before grabbing the least crunchy feeling sandwich, and turned to go to the cashier's station.  When he turned around, another boy was standing in front of him.  This kid had bags under his eyes, greasy unwashed hair, and torn jeans--the kind that are really torn from being worn for too many years, not that crap American Eagle sells for $60.  Timmy also noticed the kid's bloodshot eyes and twitching fingers.

"Hey Brad, what's up?  You okay?" Timmy asked.

"Yeah man, listen, I really need some cash.  I know we haven't talked in forever and I wouldn't ask if it wasn't a big deal.  I'm in a tight situation.  Can I borrow like $100?  I swear I'll pay you back in a couple weeks!" said Brad Easterly.

Normally Timmy would try to deflect or somehow get out of the situation, but it was just the two of them in the cafe, and the cashier about twenty feet away playing Angry Birds on her cell phone.  Also, he had no idea what Brad was capable of right now; the guy looked deranged and desperate.  More than that though, Timmy felt bad for him and wanted to help.  Brad had really gone off the deep end after they got to Creekview.  He fell in with a bad crowd and everyone knew that group was always skipping school to get high...probably meth.  A few of them had been arrested last year for trying to sell it near the laundromat just outside of town.  The cops couldn't prove anything because none of the kids would fess up to it, but they were almost certain that all of these kids' parents were running a lab somewhere.  Timmy saw Brad now and then in the hallway.  Accompanying the usual signs of a tweaker, Brad also sported fresh shiners and regular limps.  Timmy didn't even want to think about what would happen to Brad if went home without the money he needed.  

"Sure Brad," he said as he pulled out his wallet.  "Here," he handed him five $20 bills.

"Thanks bro.  I'll pay you back ASAP.  Trust me!"

"Don't worry about it.  Consider it a gift."

They held eye contact for a few brief moments, and moisture was beginning to well up in Brad's bloodshot eyes.  "Yeah..."was all he said before turning to pace out of the cafeteria, scratching his neck as he walked away.

Timmy knew he was never going to see that money again, the same way he didn't think he would ever see the real Brad again.  It was sad to think about the kid that used to sit next to him in Ms. Kelvin's class, and how he had become a full blown meth addict before even graduating high school.  If only there was some way to get through to him and somehow get him out of that situation.   How can I become a major character again? 

He paid for his sandwich, even though his appetite was gone, and put it in his backpack before walking out to the sidewalk that wrapped around to the student parking lot.  It was nice outside; 70 and sunny with a light breeze.  He had to walk by the cheerleaders who practiced in the grass near the common area every day after school.  They probably didn't think much about him, but he kept his eyes down as he passed them anyway just to make sure they didn't think he was being a creep.  There were few things more disgusting than looking at the face of a pubescent teenage boy gawking shamelessly at girls, no matter how uncomfortable they looked.  As he passed their huddle, he heard some footsteps run up behind him.  When he glanced over his shoulder, a girl with a long blonde ponytail, wearing black soffe shorts, a yellow crew neck, and white sneakers was running up to him.

"Hey, Tim!" she said a little too loudly as she caught up to him.

Timmy nodded his head as he turned to face her.

"I just wanted to let you know, we're all renting a beach house for Senior Week.  There's still room for another three or four people, so if you'd like to come, that'd be cool.  Do you have any plans?"

This was awkward.  Timmy didn't really care about Senior Week and had planned on spending his summer finding a solid job at the BMW plant--not this "sandwich artist" crap at Subway--and maybe reading some Tolstoy or Steinbeck.  Besides, since when did Melissa Perkins care about him?  She was probably just asking because she knew he was quiet and wouldn't bother anyone, and they all didn't want to pay $200 each if they could invite a few more people and get off cheaper.  "Yeah, sorry.  I don't really have the money to go, and I'm no fun at the beach anyway.  I burn way too easily.  You guys have fun though, and thanks for the invite!"  He smiled quickly and walked away before Melissa had a chance to respond.

That's one story I am totally fine with watching from the background. 


*****Five Years Later*****


Timmy sat in his four-by-four foot shack that had a wooden stool and a small piece of plywood fixed to the wall with just enough space for a small laptop and some papers.  This was his place of work for twelve hours a day; four on, three off.  Being a security guard at an obscure chemical processing plant in the middle of bum-fuck-nowhere didn't pay well, but it paid enough for him to keep a one-bed/one-bath seven-hundred square foot apartment for him and his adopted cat, Felix.  He didn't need much more than that, so he was satisfied.  It was also almost guaranteed that every twelve hour shift he pulled would consist of about one total hour of work and eleven total hours of remaining alert--which to him, meant eleven hours of reading.

He still didn't write.  He always wanted to but every time he sat down it felt forced.  He was terrified of sounding fake, and never felt like he had anything significant to add that hadn't already been written.  

Mr. Sonder--or Jeff, as he had been told to call him after graduating--still emailed him regularly.  They were in a local book club together and had similar tastes in literature, though that was probably just a result of Timmy having taken his classes and listened to his rants for three semesters.  Though he wasn't overbearing or annoying about it, Jeff would randomly ask if Timmy was writing.  Timmy always explained his reasons as best as he could, but even he was having a hard time believing them anymore.  

Instead of pressing too much, Jeff would just offer some advice.  "I can understand that.  A narrative voice is important; it's your identity.  So if you don't feel like you have your own identity, that can easily scare you away from writing.  The material is also important.  You have to feel compelled to say something.  For some that just comes as a matter of watching the world around them.  But for others, they need a more powerful nudge.  Usually, that involves something tragic.  Have you thought about almost dying in a car accident or contracting a deadly virus?" Jeff had 'jokes.'  

Timmy just decided to let the nudge come whenever it wanted.  Until then, he would take advantage of this opportunity to read voraciously.  It took him five strings of shifts to read through all of Shakespeare's complete works.  Though, after finishing the set of classics he was given by his grandfather after graduating high school, he didn't even care what he was reading, only that he was reading.  He stopped caring about genres and time periods a long time ago.  As long as it was in English, he was willing to anything ten or fifteen pages. 

He liked to go down to the local thrift store every six months and see how far a twenty dollar bill would get him.  They had all sorts of random shit in there, and judging by how excited the manager had increasingly become after seeing Timmy walk in, he bet that he was probably their only customer to every look at their Books section.  Two years ago, Timmy bought five Norton Anthologies from them for a dollar each, in not-too-bad condition at that.  Some bored English major had doodled in some of the margins, but he could still read all of the texts, and the spines were holding together well enough.

It was a particularly slow Sunday day at work, and Timmy had just finished Robert Jordan's first volume to the Wheel of Time series.  There were still thirty minutes left in his shift before turnover and he didn't have the second volume with him.  (He hated to mix series together; if he was reading a particular series, and it was intriguing, that's what he was reading until it was done).  Not knowing what to do, he remembered that the security manager always put a copy of the most current Sunday Paper in a plastic sleeve on the back wall of the hut.

He grabbed the paper from the sleeve and started to thumb through it casually.  It was mostly random tidbits about everything he didn't care about--a new Wal-Mart opening in the next town; scores from last Friday's high school football game against Central, as well as updated division standings for the post-season; the local community center was hosting another Saturday luncheon next week to talk about the new sidewalk expansion on main street.  Even though he didn't care about any of it, it was still nice to have something to look at to make the time pass.

He was flipping through the third page when he saw headline with the photo of a mostly empty bedroom below it...


------


Dennis Caffey ran a less-than-desirable apartment complex about a mile south of City Hall.  He was used to residents being a month or two late on their rent, but he was trying to crack down on delinquent payments.  He wanted an excuse to kick the moochers out so he could hopefully replace them with someone who could make rent.  With enough new residents, he might be able to afford to renovate the appliances and make this into a descent residence.  But all of that started with him getting the balls up to start kicking people out who he knew would never make rent.  First on his list, apartment 427.  

Dennis knocked and banged and hollered at 427's door for over an hour.  He would have used his master key to go in, but the bastard of a tenant had changed the locks on him.  Well, at least that idiot violated the lease as well as skipped payments; no way to wiggle out of this eviction.  He had called a locksmith.  They could both hear loud heavy metal playing from deep inside the apartment.

When the locksmith opened the door, Dennis started walking through the filthy apartment.  There was no point in yelling out; he could barely hear himself think with how loud the music was blaring.  There were empty bottles, pizza crusts, unopened envelopes, and dirty clothes all strewn about on the floor.  What looked like an entire high school chemistry lab was cluttered all over the kitchen counter.  There was a strong stench of mildew, urine, and feces that dominated as soon as you walked in.  He couldn't believe how disgusting this place was.  It was sad.

Annoyed with the inability to think, Dennis finally found the source of the loud music in the bedroom past the kitchen.  It was coming from an iPhone plugged into a Bose stereo system that was in the back corner of the bedroom.  It was streaming an Avenged Sevenfold station on Pandora.  

Other than the stereo, there wasn't much else on the floor of the bedroom.  A mattress absent a bed frame on it's side leaned up against one of the walls.  A ceiling fan beside the mattress with loose wires sticking out like it had been carelessly ripped out of a ceiling.  A knocked over step ladder near the middle of the room.  Dried urine and feces stains in the center of the room.  A pair of feet, motionless, dangling above the stains, connected to the naked body of Brad Easterly.  He had apparently hanged himself with a six-foot HDMI cable tied to the wooden beam visible through the vacant hole in the ceiling.

There was also a sharpie on the floor next the left wall.  On the wall, in a disjointed and hurried script, read "Fuck tweaking, fuck family, and fuck Tim and his perfect goddamn life.  I'm done." 


------

Timmy read the report five times.  Brad Easterly had committed suicide, and in his final dark moments had scribbled Timmy into his suicide note.  But why?  

"Hey man, you okay?  Look like you seen a ghost." 

Timmy's replacement had arrived and he didn't even see him walk up to the booth.  He quickly wiped the few tears away from his cheeks and tucked the paper under his arm as he got up and grabbed his duffle bag.  "Yeah, I'm fine.  Nothing happened."  He nudged past his replacement and started running to his car.

"Well fuck me for wanting to read the paper, right?!" his replacement yelled out as Timmy ran away.

When he got home, Timmy threw his keys, wallet, and phone on the floor, along with his duffle bag and jacket.  Newspaper in hand, he went to the desk in the corner of his living room--the desk he had bought a few years ago when he thought he was going to magically become a famous writer--and sat down.  He read the article about Brad a few more times, then tossed it on the floor as well.  He sat there in silence, without moving, barely breathing, barely thinking.  It could have been five minutes or two hours.  He couldn't tell.  

Suddenly becoming aware of the steady stream of tears flowing down his cheeks and along the sides of his nostrils, he opened a blank word document, saved it as "My Perfect Goddamn Life" and started typing...

What are we to say of the accumulation of our every waking moment--each infinitely important in its respective present, yet casually dismissed with the arrival of its respective successor?  We call the cumulative and coagulative sum of these individual moments "life."  Yet it moves, adding still another, and another, and another individual moment into the whole, which perpetually resists stasis.  Impermanence.  Anicca.  

Death, then, is permanence.  It is the antithesis of change.  It is the cessation of the flow of moments for a given life.  A lamp extinguished.  A sudden tiny flash in the constellations of a clear night sky, followed by a subtle sense of increased darkness, however nebulous.  Although the extinguished light is relieved of it's burden to illuminate the dark, that burden itself is not gone.  Those who sought a reprieve from the dark and regularly found it in the now extinguished light still need comfort.  So the burden formerly fulfilled still remains, and is distributed out to the other lights in accordance with their proximity to their extinguished neighbor.  This burden implores them, for the sake of keeping the darkness at bay, not only to account for what light has been lost, but also to shine even brighter, with renewed vigor and determination, so as to remind the darkness of the collective power of their ever growing illumination. 

Brad extinguished his light.  Suddenly, violently, painfully, and without warning.  I don't know what exactly was causing him to be in such pain.  Perhaps it wasn't just one thing or one moment.  Perhaps it was cumulative sum of all of his moments, and too many of them were dark.  Maybe I was one of the dark ones, when I should have been a light.  Maybe I was too content with my background role in his story.  I was too content.  Though I can't reverse time and demand a leading role, I can assume my share of the burden left in his wake.  His burden now falls on me.  His burden now falls on all of us.  We cannot allow the darkness to encroach anymore.  Lights once dim, must glow brighter.  They can no longer complacently illuminate the faint background.  We must carry his burden as we carry his memory, and honor both by showering the darkness in the torrential vigor of our collective illumination.  Only through continuous growth and a shared burden can we overcome the dark.