Them Whom the Earth Stole
Them Whom the Earth Stole
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” –Thomas Wolfe
Alone in his brother’s house, Baron Dillar wished for a sense of nostalgia, something familiar that would calm his unsettled psyche. He gazed around the room and saw the brown couches that sat in his grandmother’s apartment for fifteen years.
They looked different. Before they had been neatly arranged in her small living room, with knickknacks placed around them on little tables, surrounded by ornate wooden boxes, crystal figurines of birds, and an old, leather bound Bible.
By now these objects had been thrown away or packed in cardboard boxes, laying in someone’s attic or basement. The couches were still the same though, and he remembered sleeping on them after school as a child. They were made of a coarse velvet that left marks on his face when he woke up.
He closed his eyes and thought about his grandmother. He pictured her younger than he had ever known her, sitting at a table with other relatives that were now gone. She was laughing, but shyly, not wanting anyone to know she was having too good a time. Baron could hear her voice, telling a story about a dog and a cat that couldn’t pull a radish out of the ground. He couldn’t remember the story anymore, but it made him smile and cry a little at the same time. He looked around at the musky unkempt house and no longer wanted to be there.
He walked outside and felt a chilling breeze hit his face and sting his nostrils as he inhaled. To him, winter was more of a feeling than an event. The masses cursed the frigid land that their forefathers had settled. Baron approached his rental car and wiped the snow off the windshield with the sleeve of his coat. He started the car and watched his breath roll around the cabin like smoke.
Most of the neighbors were shoveling their driveways. His brother’s had never been shoveled, the result of living in excess. The importance of chores had disappeared with the introduction of alcohol and drug dependency. He accelerated quickly to get over the hump of snow at the end of the driveway made by a snowplow the previous night.
He drove down the icy road wondering what life would bring him. Would it be how he hoped, or would it end the way he most feared, alone and unsuccessful, never finding love or a place in the world? He saw from example that dreams didn’t always come true. The odds of happiness were similar to those of the lottery. He knew that his life was a fleeting bird, always moving, always changing. Just a visitor on the planet for a brief moment of time, clinging to anything that felt truly genuine. He was not permanent, and no better or worse than anyone else, only in the same position.
That bothered him. He wanted to be remembered, he wanted children to look at his picture and know he was a great man. He wanted parents to teach their kids about him, and that way he would never die. He wanted the life he lived now to somehow have a greater sense of worth.
He drove to the cemetery and found the plot where he buried his grandmother’s ashes only six years earlier. Snow covered the earth and he had to search with his hands below the surface. He stood there and stared down at the grave marker. His hands were slick and turning red from the cold. The wind whistled softly through the treetops and squirrels ran around playfully, not realizing that they were being rude at a time like this. “No tact” he thought, animals had forgotten how to act with respect to humans. He waited for something that never came. He straightened his back, wiped his eyes clear and headed back towards the car. He got inside, but didn’t know where to drive. He stared at the squirrels again, and envied their lack of responsibilities.
He got back on the road and drove five miles through the small suburban streets, whose houses sparkled with the noonday sun hitting snow covered roofs and sills. Each home had a story of successes and failures. Of families raised and ones torn apart. With each new owner the dreams of the inhabitants changed with the carpet and wall color.
He drove to the house he was raised in. Someone had put a mailbox in the shape of a football helmet out front. He hated it and reminisced about the beautiful one he had built to look like a birdhouse. He put four coats of stain on it and admired it every time he returned home. Now it was gone and there was a stupid orange helmet there instead. Two small, red-haired boys walked out of the front door with a red-haired woman. They saw him parked in front and perhaps wondered why he was there; he sort of smiled and nodded, which didn’t explain anything. Baron felt embarrassed and mashed on the accelerator, which failed to do anything since the car was in park. The engine whirred alive, drawing more attention to him. The family stood looking at him and he eventually left, wondering how that moment had turned so awkward. Baron missed the closeness he felt with his family when they all still lived in that house. He wanted to see his bedroom, but knew that would be impossible. The mother would surely recognize him, and anyway, he didn’t know how to start the conversation or what to say first. This new family shouldn’t have to be faced with the decision of letting a stranger in. It was their home now and they earned the right to not be bothered. He drove, passing by the house of the first girl he kissed, and the bus stop where he broke a kid’s nose with a swinging textbook.
He pictured the insignificant moments from his childhood that now had an incredible weight and meaning to them. Everything in the neighborhood had a story and it was all flashing before him like a prismatic projection of images, sounds, and emotions. The parking lot where he broke his ankle skateboarding. The stop sign where he saw his best friend’s father drunk and trying to get his car in gear, an older dark blue Buick with faded paint, which had a slipping automatic transmission. The next day this same man would put a revolver in his mouth and blow fleshy matter across the apartment that Baron would later help his friend clean and pack through tears and bitterness.
He remembered Paul, sweet natured and polite. Friend to all, enemy of none. Baron was cutting his grass in the early fall, when the Earth was still green and the pleasant smells of grass and plants permeated throughout the Midwest atop sweet odored wind. Paul drove by as Baron filled the mower with gas. He saw Paul again as he rounded the corner of the yard with the mower, trying to get as close to his prized mailbox as possible, so that little cowlicks of grass would not stick up all around it. Each time Baron waved to him, made eye contact, but Paul would not respond. He saw that Paul was stone-faced, and his eyes seemed strange. There was an infinite look of sadness and confusion in them. He received a call later that night informing him that Paul was dead. Had died in the emergency room at around 9 pm. He had taken an entire bottle of his father’s heart medicine and drove around town for several hours before returning home and telling his parents that he didn’t want to die. That he did in fact want to keep living, and there were things that he still wanted to do. They rushed him to the hospital, but it was too late. The medicine was already in his bloodstream and no matter how many times they pumped his stomach or transfused his blood, the chemicals had slowed his heart rate enough to put him in a coma, it was too late. He never woke up.
Baron didn’t want to think anymore, the burden of memories was taking its toll. He drove towards the main strip of the small suburban town, where a few sleepy bars huddled between antiques stores, flower shops, and dog groomers. A church sat on a small hill overlooking the fire department and 2-screen movie theatre that still had an ornate marquee above the front doors. He parked across the street and jogged towards the drinking establishment as an angry wind whipped and nipped at his face and hands. He knocked the snow off his shoes and opened the door, letting in a blustery draft that turned everyone’s heads. No one reacted and they went back to their food, booze, or newspaper. A young man was standing at the bar, saying something to a waitress in a muffled, but stern voice.
“You tell Larry that if I don’t get my twenty-six dollars by Friday… I’m gonna set this whole goddamn place on fire.”
The waitress looked at him in shock and slowly inched her way backwards. The man turned around with a scowl and made his way to the door. His face was sloppily shaven, with little hairs sticking up on his chin and cheek, a whole missed section the size of a dime on his neck. He wore ratty sneakers and jeans that were torn at the cuff with strings that dangled behind him wiping the floor, and an old Chicago Bears hoodie drawn over his frame with pieces of the words flaking off. Passing by he stared at Baron intently for a moment before his eyes were enlivened, he raised his hands over his head and yelled out:
“Dillar? Is that you? What the fuck are you doin’ back in town?”
“I don’t know… ,” said Baron.
“Well what have you been up to? I haven’t seen you in forever.”
“It’s a long story bro. What about you, Merrill?”
“You know… A little bit of this, lil’ bit of that… Actually, I’m not doin shit… I came to get some money the owner owes me for washing dishes here last week.”
“That rat thinks I stole a bottle of rum from the bar… and even if I did, I still washed dishes here for a night. He owes me cash, fair and square. End of story,” replied Merrill.
“That sucks. I was going to get a drink here.”
“Yeah man for sure, but don’t give your money to this place.”
“You wanna head down to Curly’s? First round’s on me,” said Baron.
“I still can’t believe it’s you standing in front of me… Yeah, I’m down.”
They left the bar and walked a block down to the other one, not saying much, only fighting the face-numbing cold that assaulted them from all sides, slipping on the ice as they made their way down the frozen sidewalk.
Curly’s was darker, smokier, with more regulars wasting their lives away drinking at happy hour prices. Baron ordered two scotches on the rocks and they sat silently for a moment sipping the amber liquid that stung their tongues and throats, but warmed their stomachs. They both stared straight ahead, Baron searching for the right words to start the conversation. They had been great friends in times past. Something separated them now; there was no longer that feeling from high school, that they were one and the same, with similar goals and opinions.
“So how’s the old crowd doing?”
“It’s all different, depends on who you’re talking about.”
“You ever see Delito or Brooks around?”
“Yeah they’re doing okay, they both live in the city. I hear Jack Brooks is doing heroin though,” replied Merrill.
“Really? You’ve gotta be kidding me. That kid could smooth talk his way out of a minefield. I always expected him to be a government official or something.”
Merrill stared off into nothingness. Like he was thinking about something else or had an important thought in his mind.
“Yeah, he could,” Merrill muttered quietly.
He broke out of the spell and turned towards Baron sitting next to him at the bar. His face serious. As if unaware of how his words would be accepted.
“You know, David Rich just died in a car accident a few weeks ago. He was living in Colorado and crashed his Tacoma into a cement wall, killed his girlfriend and her sister too.”
Baron had known David well. They got arrested together after spray painting graffiti on a parked police car when they were fourteen. They would have gotten away, but David got his pant leg stuck on the top of a fence and yelled so loud for Baron to help him that it wasn’t hard for the cops to find them. Baron had held that against him for almost ten years, but it didn’t matter anymore. “What’s done is done”, he thought.
“That’s terrible,” replied Baron.
“I had no idea what to say to his mom when I saw her at the grocery store.” Merrill looked down at his shoes and took another sip from his glass. “Oh yeah, that bastard Derrick Merser just got out of prison.”
Baron remembered the name. He was a towering kid that had nothing to lose. Derrick had been in a grown man’s body at fifteen. His family had been notorious for breeding aggressive kids who always got into trouble. Derrick robbed a kid’s house then beat the kid with a baseball bat for calling the cops. Derrick thought he killed him, so he drove him to the stretch of train tracks that ran through the forest along a bike path. He threw the kid on the tracks and left him there to die. That was the type of person Derrick Merser was. Nothing to lose and little to gain.
“So why the hell don’t you ever call me… or anyone? You think you’re better or something? Don’t you remember all the good times? I think about that stuff a lot. I miss it, dude.” Merrill spoke with complete sincerity. The scotch may have loosened his tongue enough to let pride subside and to speak how he truly felt.
“It’s not like that. I just couldn’t stay here anymore, especially after…”
“Well shit, I’m glad your back.”
“Thanks, it’s good to see you too. You’re looking…OK.”
Merrill looked around the bar and his eyes settled on the TV screen hanging in the corner. A reporter was interviewing people that were shopping on Michigan Ave. A woman in her forties wearing a fluffy red coat was nervously speaking into the reporter’s microphone: “I love the snow, it makes everything feel like Christmas.”
Merrill lashed out at the television, “…Makes everything feel like Christmas”, he mimicked. “That bitch doesn’t know shit about shit. Yeah, merry feckin’ Christmas to you too.” He raised his glass and toasted the TV that was now showing dogs in Santa outfits.
“You remember Karen? …Blond hair, she played volleyball?” asked Baron after a long pause.
“Yeah, I remember Karen Pritchard.”
“I always had a thing for that girl. She was my date for homecoming sophomore year. Do you remember that? Where is she at?”
“We had a kid last year, Nathan, he’s a little badass.”
“That’s good… that’s real good, man.”
“It’s not all rainbows and butterflies. We broke up a few months ago. I asked her if she was gonna go screw my friends.”
“She probably wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Well she’s fucking Derrick Merser.”
“Oh”, responded Baron.
“You done with your drink? Can you give me a ride home? My van’s starter is all screwed up. Junkyard doesn’t have any, and I can’t afford a new one.”
“Sure bro, if I stay here I’ll just get sloppy… Well, how about we each have one more and then I can take you? ”
“That’s fine with me if you’re buying,” replied Merrill.
Baron ordered another round, this time choosing top shelf scotch. He owed it to his old friend to spend the four extra dollars. As if that would make up for losing all contact with someone he had been so close with. They had two more cocktails apiece and left into the dark and bitter nighttime of December.
Baron felt good as they stepped out into the street. The liquor had soaked through the lining of his stomach and made him feel optimistic for the prospects of life. They got into his car and drove through the desolate little downtown area. Merrill was reclined in the seat, listening to the radio with his eyes closed, opening his eyes and looking out the window every so often to see where they were. Baron drove around town as Paul did on the day that he died. Baron always said goodbye to everything like it was the last time, because no one knows if they will ever return to that place or person they’re saying goodbye to.
“So why did you come back?” asked Merrill.
“Every now and then people need to return to the place where their lives started.”
“That makes sense.” With that he dozed off to sleep for the few final minutes of the ride. Baron shook him awake as he pulled into the driveway.
“Instead of saying see you next time, I’m just going to say goodbye,” said Baron.
“That’s fine. Hey, take care of yourself.”
“You too. I’ll call you sometime.
“Goodnight,” said Merrill, and then he walked to the side of the house and disappeared into the backyard through a small gate.
The following night Baron returned home with the images of a carefree childhood emblazoned in his mind. When the plane touched down to Earth, he was once again remembering the place responsible for most of the memories in the young man’s head. Those times that he yearned for were infinitely lost. Life continued as it inevitably does. Yet time and struggle left few without battle scars to show for it. The sovereign freedom given to an eighteen year old may have been too tempting for those that wanted to experience life.
He had returned, and slowly learned the fates of those he grew up with. Five years was apparently enough time to die, main-lining their lives away, while mothers cried and fathers questioned their parenting. It was enough time to break someone’s arms and legs and leave them on the train tracks to perish under the steel wheels of an electric commuter train. It was enough time to smash a car into an object that would stop the breathing and flow of blood of those inside.