“Does she have to be here?”
“Don’t be rude. Michelle’s done nothing wrong.” Well dear brother, that depends on your definition of the word. And it wasn’t rude. My question was a serious one though I wouldn’t deny the bitterness in my voice. Having my evening plans go askew for the third time in the span of less than an hour, I was beginning to feel like a pawn in an unholy game of snakes and ladders. One step forward, two, three, four; careful don’t slip, or it’s back to square one yet again. Not only did I feel like fate kept sending me back, but it felt like it wanted me to stay there. Progress, what’s that?
“Maybe I should go,
started to get up, “let you two have this discussion in private.
“Don’t be silly,” said Eric, waving her down. “The dirty laundry’s already been aired. No sense wasting any more time.” For once Eric, I agree with you. There was not going to be a discussion of any kind happening, now or later, here or anywhere else. One quick look in those beady eyes was all I needed to know just what sort of things he wanted to ‘discuss.’ Which of course meant me sitting down, zipping my lip, pleading a full confession of my sins and be taken back to the Demin house to face judgment. That’s what it was to me, the Demin house, in more ways than one. Home, it was clear, was an abstract idea, a pipe dream. One of those things philosophers spend many a night pondering the true meaning of. Count me in, that’s an answer I’d love to know.
“Right,” Eric said after taking a long sip from his cup. “You start.”
“Start what? A good ole heart to heart about the number of ways you’ve decided I’m wasting my life on?”
The urge to reprimand my ‘attitude’ was written plain across his face. He surprised me by showing some restraint. “Well, it would be nice to know why you haven’t been home for over a week, why Dad gets a call from the school saying you’ve not been to any classes in the last couple days, why you’ve made no effort whatsoever to reach out and let everyone know you’re alive at the very least.”
“I’m sorry. Given how our last conversation went, I’d think you understand my reluctance to come crawling back and beg forgiveness,” I said, steering the conversation away from school, cursing myself for not thinking that last part over after my abrupt departure.
“Nobody’s asking you to do anything of the sort. For goodness sake Richard, why must you be so melodramatic?” I didn’t answer. “You act as though you risk execution the second you -”
Perhaps sensing things were off to a bad start, Damien took the opportunity to slip in with a reach across the table, setting a small paper cup down in front of me, an act earning him an annoyed glance from Eric while Michelle looked somewhat relieved at the momentary interruption. God knows I appreciated it. “Sorry,” he said with a façade of politeness, giving me one of those ‘I got your back’ kinds of nods. “Don’t drink it all at once unless you want a nasty case of the jitters. Trust me, it ain’t pleasant.”
“Duly noted,” I said. “Cheers.”
“That’s alright.” He clapped me on the shoulder and went away. Lifting the cup to my lips, the intense toasty aroma of espresso blasted my nostrils. Given the last one hitting my senses was that of skunk and stale beer, this was a welcome scent. The espresso was bitter, almost causing me to pucker. I liked savory tastes, but even this was a bit much. It would do.
“You okay?” Michelle asked, raising an eyebrow. “That’s got to hurt. I can see the steam cloud breaking against your face.”
“Strong but good,” I replied. “I’ll survive.” I put the cup down, keeping my hands cupped around it. “No offense Eric but your memory seems to be slipping. Dad backhanded me - twice. Probably more if I hadn’t defended myself.”
Eric looked baffled. “Defending yourself, that’s what you call it?” His voice rose. “You know damn well his knees are weak from all the years helming those ferries. I’m telling you that was a flat out bullshit move.” He paused, flexing his hand into a fist and then relaxing. Flex and relax. Flex. “However,” the fist became a finger pointing skyward, “I can see both sides of the coin here. I didn’t like what he did to you either. It would be fair to say tempers were lost on both sides. Yes?”
I hesitated. “Fair.” He was right. We all knew it. It wasn’t like I’d thought to myself “Hey, I know. I’ll kneecap him. One quick kick, that’ll teach him.” The question was, given his own time to reflect, did Captain Bob view it in the same light? Or was he still fuelling the hellfire in which I was destined to roast for my sins against the father?
The question Michelle refused to answer still lingered. “I still want to know how you found me. I never once mentioned where Adam lives.” Then another light bulb went off and I had my answer. “Kevin. He told you, didn’t he?” remembering his unannounced appearance at The Garage and those ridiculous missing posters which felt like only yesterday and yet a million years ago at the same time. It’s fascinating how the mind processes and inter-compares even the simplest of memories. What seems so near is still so far. Recollections almost intangible, floating through a subconscious network full of treasures both fresh at the forefront and those buried deep beneath the surface like fossils.
“In fairness, no one else knew about the missing posters,” Eric said, his guard appearing to lower with each passing minute. I could tell by the way he spoke, the air of conceit weakening, fading away into the background. “I didn’t think too much of them either, though I’d never tell him. Michelle thinks they were cute.” What a sight to see my brother actually chuckle.
“They were!” Michelle said, taking on a reminiscent look, “‘He isn’t really mean, just somewhat quiet in a weird way.’ Come on, that’s darling!”
“We’ll have to agree to disagree,” I said. “But anyways. So Kevin told you where I was and that’s how you were able to find me. I’m guessing he doesn’t hold me in high regard anymore.” Okay, maybe that last part was a bit of exaggeration.
“He wasn’t happy,” said Eric after another mouthful of coffee. “You can’t really blame the poor kid though.”
“I don’t. I blame me for the way shit went down, doesn’t surprise me that I haven’t seen the missing posters around anymore. And quit looking at me like that Eric. You’re not the only one in the family capable of playing devil’s advocate.” Eric stopped the dead fish impression. “If it makes any difference, I tried to explain but - you probably know how that ended.”
“Well I’m glad to hear that, Richard. I really am.” This new tolerant side of Eric was something else. Was he only doing this because we were in public or because Michelle was with him and didn’t want to embarrass her, or himself? Or maybe the possibility existed, however remote, that the fallout from Demin the Younger v. Demin the Elder forced him to do some soul-searching of his own. “I wouldn’t worry about Kevin, he doesn’t hate you. We men all share the same stubborn chromosome, he’ll come around.” I watched Michelle fight off the obvious smirk at Eric’s last comment. “So, I guess this means you’ll be coming back home after you’re done with your friend?”
“I said no. Look Eric, it’s good to actually talk like adults for once, I’ll be the first to say it. But it doesn’t work that way, not this time.”
You could see the pleasantness evaporate from him like water droplets on a hotplate. His words were stiff, voice tight and nasally; the bare minimum of politeness. “What is so different about this time from any other? With respect, it’s not the first time Dad’s hands got the better of him, nor you turning tail and leaving the house. You always came back for breakfast, regardless whether you carried an apology at the time.”
“Past showdowns between me and Dad very rarely became physical and you know it. And I resent your implying I always run away from trouble when in fact -”
“Poor choice of words,” Eric muttered.
“When in fact...” making my annoyance at being interrupted clear, “I figured the wise thing to do was walk away, cool down, lest things go nuclear. And to answer your question, it’s simple: I did not appreciate seeing all the stuff in my room - the posters, all my shirts - scavenged, black bagged and binned like last week’s garbage. You wanna talk about bullshit moves now? Dad made just as big a one throwing all my stuff out like that. Ask yourself, did I ever once do anything along those lines to those model ships of his?”
Silence descended on the café. Thank God nobody else was in right now, the last thing I wanted or needed was a bigger audience. Michelle again looked ready to vanish, her regret at sticking around apparent by the concern in her eyes, trying to pretend she was too focused on drawing a circle on the table with her finger. “Uh... that’s not quite true,” she said in a small voice.
“She’s saying,” Eric took over, “Dad was furious all right after… the incident. But you’ve got it all wrong, he didn’t ‘scavenge’ your room as you referred to it.”
Good thing I was sitting down, lest my legs have given out from absorbing all this. “No. No, this doesn’t make sense at all. Dad hated anything to do with my metal, probably more than ever now. You could see the disgust as plain as the nose on his face whenever he came into my room. Remember the look on his face that day when I came home wearing that new Death shirt?”
“Vividly, I’m afraid. That was the most grotesque thing I’d ever seen. But!” he was quick to raise that pointed finger, “that’s not important right now. Go on.”
“If I believe you that Dad had nothing to do with it, then who did?” Michelle and Eric exchanged odd looks. Neither looked right at me. The thought struck me like a brick going upside my head while an icy needle pierced my heart. “You,” was all I could say.
“He called me that night. Told me he’d come home to find the garbage cans upset and your room door closed, and he swore it had been open that morning.” He looked stupid and deservedly so. “It didn’t take long to piece together what happened.” Eric didn’t look straight at me once the entire time he spoke. The f--king coward. “Dad had been threatening to do the same for so long, I figured after what happened he needed a helping hand to follow through.”
Oh, to say what I really wanted. Of course I knew such an utterance was apt to earn me a one-way ticket out of Contrast. Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Damien was a chill guy but he towed the line as strictly as Alan the owner, who worked the day shifts, when on shift. I respected that and went for the less outrageous “In what world do you think you can just force-feed your morals and ethics on me?”
“You’re mad. I understand.”
“No Eric, I’m afraid you still don’t. You can tell yourself that same lie all you want, it doesn’t make it anymore true. The point continues to elude you -”
Eric threw his hands in the air. “Well then enlighten me why don’t you?” He sounded tired and p-ssed off.
“How many times must I... you know what? Forget it. I’m not saying anymore. You won’t listen anyways.”
“Uh, am I interrupting?” The mood was broken by Adam’s voice. All eyes turned to him, standing there in a simple windbreaker still zipped up to his neck. He knew very well he was, and that I was sure to be thankful for it. “Even with your head start, I was sure I’d beat you here.”
“Funny how things work,” I said. “Adam, meet my brother Eric, who decided to surprise me this evening, and his girlfriend Michelle.” Somehow, I had the feeling I was doing Adam a great disservice introducing him, having a pretty good idea what the reaction would be.
“Ah, so you’re the Adam we’ve heard about.” Eric permitted the façade of a polite handshake though not without a stilted voice. Any lingering remnants of the new Eric Demin had been wiped clean from the hard drive, system reverting to old programming, stand by for input. Adam tried to smile politely, though I think he knew politeness wouldn’t get him very far with this one. “Tell me Adam, are you the one filling my little brother’s head with these ridiculous ideas of rock stardom?”
Bravo, Eric. You do me proud.
“Oh really now,” Michelle said in a hush, “is that necessary?” Further validating years of hypotheses, Eric ignored her.
Adam looked rightly offended. “I beg your pardon? If that’s your way of asking ‘am I the drummer in the band Richard and me co-formed?’ then the answer is yes.”
“And would you also be the drummer who convinced Richard here to flush his life down the toilet by ditching school for this little band?”
“Say what?” Adam didn’t look like his system would withstand another shock. “Actually no, despite your arrogant and assumptive preconceptions of me, I encouraged nothing of the kind, this is the first I’ve heard of it and it’s frankly none of my business. Richard is my best friend, but he is entitled to his privacy. Now I don’t wish to be rude - Eric, right? - but I resent your tone. If you are the older brother, I would hope you’d lead by example and show a little more courtesy towards others as opposed to shooting them right out of the gate. I’ll leave you folks to it, as I can see this is a family matter. Richard, you want I should come back in a few minutes?”
Wow. Match goes to Adam at thirty seconds via verbal knockout.
“No.” I pushed away from the table, standing and throwing my cup into the nearby metal garbage can. I didn’t want to hear anymore from my brother. “Not at all dude, we’re done here anyways. Goodbye Eric, Michelle. Adam, you wanna shoot for a while?” I motioned to the pool tables across the room.
Eric was on his feet. “You’re not going anywhere until you see sense, Richard. I may not be able to stop you from thinking silly dreams, but -”
“But nothing!” The yell came out sounding like a bomb going off in a vault, echoing across the café while those in proximity jumped out of their skin. “I didn’t say you had to leave. I said I’m done listening to you. You said I could go when my friend got here, did you not? My friend is now here, and I am going to hang with him like I planned. Let me make this crystal clear for you: I’m not coming home unless I decide it’s time, and I’m sure as shit not going back to that f--king school. I’m eighteen now, nineteen in two weeks, you have no say in what I do. Dad wants to blow a gasket and put on some stupid ‘I have no son, I have no son! ’ spiel when he hears this? Let him. You’re his favorite anyways, and you know it. No loss for either of you.”
Adam wasn’t stupid. Like most wise men, he could tell the difference between the time to talk and a time to listen. He touched my arm and said he’d have the table set up when I was ready to play and walked off. I watched Eric’s face redden, then empty of all color as though someone had pulled a drain plug. At a loss for words, the point seemed to hammer home with him soon as I took the cigarette pack from my jacket pocket and pulled one loose. With a resigned shrug, he emptied his cup, collected his briefcase, told Michelle they were leaving, and walked out the door without another word.
Michelle continued to sit for a minute, looking around with a fallen face before rising and pushing her chair in. She was halfway out the door when she looked back at me and said, “You know, you may somehow think you’re punishing Eric or your father by acting this way, but you’re the one who’s going to suffer from it, you and the younger ones. Sooner or later you’re going to have to learn it’s not all about you.” She left with that. I didn’t reply, couldn’t. What is there to say after someone brings to light an uncomfortable truth that goes upside your head.
(Yes, Richard. What about the younger ones? Are you going to hurt them too? All Kevin’s ever done is look up to you.)
Why do these lessons have to be learned the hard way? Can’t you ever be on my side?
(Nobody learns to fight for their life until the quicksand grabs hold and nearly swallows them. You can have all the revelations you want but if all you do is complain and blame others then you aren’t really learning anything.)
...Damn. I don’t think any clarity was needed with that last one.
After polishing off two cigarettes at a speed I probably shouldn’t have, trying to think just where things had gone so far off track, I began to realize the truth is a lot closer than I wanted to admit. To get my answers, I’d have to find the nearest mirror and take a good look, see what the guy on the other side has to say. Deep down, I knew what he’d say: You want out? The only way out is through the obstacle course one hurdle at a time. Start slogging.
I came back inside, parted with another tattered bill of higher denomination and, when Damien finished spinning his magic behind the steam-spewing machines, giving me a reassuring wink, took two foaming cups to the pool tables. Adam stood beside one of the tables with his back to me, racking up the balls after taking a few practice shots while I was gone. He looked surprised to see me standing there holding the two cups and was almost speechless I thrust one of them into his open hands with a quiet “Here.” He stared at the cup as though he’d never seen one before.
“What’s this? I didn’t order anything.”
“You asked for nutmeg on your latte.”
“Oh, that? I was just yanking your chain, I didn’t actually -”
“Yeah well, call it the best apology I can muster right now. Don’t have much of those big heartfelt words left in me, you understand.”
He thought about this while taking a couple of quick sips from the cup, being careful not to scorch his tongue white. Then he laughed softly through his nose. “You’re a good dude, Richard, even if you do manage to get yourself into some real humdingers.” Just like him, always trying to find the clean version of what he really wanted to say so as to spare your feelings. Who was the good dude now?
“You can say what you really mean: Shit storms. I don’t think this is a time for sugar coating.”
He shrugged. “You don’t have to apologize to me for your brother having his head up his ass about us metal folk. And I don’t think things are as bleak as you make them out to be. Even a chipped vase can be fixed with a steady hand and a little glue.”
“Maybe, but all the glue in the world won’t help if the vase has been shattered into oblivion.” Overlooking the Confucian sentiment in his words, I wanted to believe them. After a while, donning the mask of cynicism becomes habit rather than conscious decision. Some are able to recognize it, others wear it for so long it becomes a part of them, they’re unable to see, think or act any other way. I didn’t want to end up like one of those guys. The sad truth was I could see it already beginning. If I took the time to think, shut out all distractions and just went deep within to the core of my being, shone a mirror on my own heart, the signs would be there. It was frightening to think about. An involuntary shiver escaped.
“Y’alright?” asked Adam.
“Yeah, just thinking about it all, you know? All that’s gone down in the last couple months, they could make a damn T.V. show about my family.”
“I don’t know man. If it’s all the same to you, I’d much rather see Systex make a platinum album than 'The Real World: Deminology' make it to MTV.”
It was good to laugh, even at myself. “Let’s make it through the Thrash first before we even talk demos, eh?” I walked over to the nearby rack of cues, selected one with no dings or chips in it, took the little blue chalk square from off the table lip. “Break ‘em.”
We shot for the next half-hour or so without much exchange apart from annoyed grunts or excited yelps, depending on how the game went. Partway through our third game as I stared with some discouragement at the four striped balls I needed to sink before Adam could pocket the last solid, leaving the eight ball at his disposal, he took me away from my concentrated gaze with a soft “Richard.”
Adam sighed. “It’s none of my business. I know that.” Uh oh, nothing good ever came from a sentence starting off that way. “And like I said, by all means you’re allowed to your privacy but I have to ask: How come you never mentioned dropping out of Central? No offense, but that’s kind of a huge deal.”
Now it was my turn to sigh. I tried to argue the number of reasons for my walking out, the least of which being a guaranteed being beaten to a pulp if Ryan McLeay ever got his hands on me for busting his beak. At the end of it all, I admitted to feeling stupider for it. “I guess the dream got a little bigger than my reality. Being there is torture sometimes dude, you know how much they stifle the individual.”
Adam didn’t argue that, having graduated two years earlier. “What are you going to do now, though? I can’t fault you for dreaming, hoping things go our way at the Thrash, I’m right alongside you there, but we can’t become deluded into thinking we’re all that if we’ve never even put on a show before.”
“I know. I guess I’ll have to saddle up and find some burger-flipping factory to work at for now. God, the thought of spending my days asking if you want fries with that...”
“Screw that, those places are worse than school, take my word for it.” He thought for a little while, lining up a shot, sending the two-ball into the right side pocket. “Tell you what. I know a construction firm that’s framing those townhouses all across Brentwood. I pick up a few shifts here and there, in fact I’m working one tomorrow. Why don’t you come with? It’s no easy job but the pay is beautiful; makes working behind the drive-thru look like slavery in comparison. Plus the crews are good guys, and you got me, too. I’ll put in a good word for you with Big Bear.”
I almost laughed, “Who?”
“The foreman, it’s his nickname.”
“I see. I don’t know man, I don’t know jack about that stuff. Don’t I need a ton of safety equipment first?”
“Most of the gear’s supplied, you just need some steel-toe boots or you aren’t getting past the gate. Half of the guys there never finished school either.”
“Most stores are probably locked up tight now.”
(Boy, you’ll try any excuse, won’t you?)
“Come on,” he said, lining up another shot, “we can swing by Wal-Mart. They’re open twenty-four hours.”
Tired of manning the guard tower all day, I finally gave in and let the invading army cross the drawbridge. The prospect of padding my wallet was too great to overcome. “Okay, why the f--k not? I’ll give it a try. But not now, we still got a game to finish.”
“Oh I beg to differ, my friend.” With one final crack of the cue, the eight-ball shot across the felt and dropped into the left corner pocket. “Game over. I win,” he said with that cheeky smile of his.
I stared at the table. Game over for me, indeed.