There is no greater witness than that of the soul. It seems odd to start this way, but these words are the first which come to my mind. "Twice fallen, twice failed, forever lost." Those are the words spoken to me by a man whose name I can scarcely recall, and whose face I shall never forget.
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His name was Joseph Schumaker, or Shoeman, I can never remember which. And the context of his message seemed, at the time, to be more abstract than real. It seemed an enigma, one without any real purpose or wisdom; It seemed like the end of a story to which you could never know the beginning. Yet, in life, there is no real beginning. There is only the cycle which exists for the soul purpose of existing. Easily said, the purpose of life is to live.
At eight and a half years of age, all that we know about life is to live. We know the wonders of bike rides and scraped knees. We know the feeling of a new day and no worry. At eight and a half years, we know our world, and are what we can most harmlessly sum up in one word: Free.
Freedom is, as I realize now in my old age, something not lost, but forgotten. It's there, sitting right in front of us, like that old magazine on the coffee table, sitting in front of me right now. It's been months since I've read it, never quite finishing it but meaning to, but never getting around to it. It's not that I haven't had the time. A retired man of my age finds time for all kinds of things that have nothing to do with anything. But that magazine is still there, and instead of having its pages turned as I skim through advertisements and articles, it just sits there and acts as an infrequent coaster for myself and guests. I want to read it, I really do, but I can never get my mind to remember that its just right there, under my nose.
I'm getting off topic. Some people might say that freedom is nothing more than the little bit of leg-room given to you by the restrictions that bind us, but to me that's total bullshit. I'm too old and too far along into this way of thinking to change what I say. The rules of this world only exist if you acknowledge them. A child agrees to no rules other than those he presses on himself.
Maybe, that's why this all happened. Perhaps the reason I'm writing this is because without a child's freedom, I would have never been down by the river that morning, and Brent would not have ended up this way. I just hope that by writing this, and posting it somewhere that others can read it, I will be able to stop thinking about it. Every time I look at my watch, and catch a reflection, I see his face. Shit, I can't even look through a photo album put together before 1980 without shedding a tear. My wife is fond of photo albums and scrapbooks. It keeps her busy. Personally, I liked it better when she was fond of dancing, it kept her more active and her ass a lot smaller. She's still beautiful, but that is also off topic.
I guess now I might as well start telling tales and getting this ball rolling. For the most part I've just been rambling, and I'll probably continue in this way until it's over, so get used to it. I am not much of a writer, almost became one once but my manuscript got rejected enough to humble any man.
This is it, here it goes. I doubt most of you will believe it, but that doesn't matter. I just need to get it out of my skull before my wife thinks I'm going senile(this may also be true, but is besides the point.) Just read along. Hell, you're going crazy wondering who Brent is anyway. Brent is my younger brother, and this is what happened to Alex Cole, Brent Cole, and David Reed in the summer of years long past.
I was 8, of course, and my younger brother, Brent, was 6. There were only two other children living on Bellaire Drive at that time, and David Reed was one. The other was a little girl my age named Claire, but this has nothing to do with her.
The suburbs of southern Louisiana were a nice enough place to spend my early childhood. The road fell down a hill and curved along a wide creek. We liked to race each other down the hill on our bikes, pedaling, fiercely at first, then letting our own weight catapult us towards level ground. David always won, of course. His bike, was a six speed with separate brakes for the front and back tires while mine and Brent's were the standard Wal-Mart edition: One speed, one brake.
Some days we would race, some we would play war by collecting acorns and using them as ammo in our backyard which was our battlefield. Some days we just laughed. I can never remember what about really. Kids laugh at everything; simple jokes which we don't really get anymore. We played tag, hide and seek, competed on swings to see who could fly the farthest. I would win that one. Some days we would tease Claire, simply because she was a girl and we were boys. Boys are funny that way. When we grow up, we change and love them, but girls will always be making fun of us. I guess that's one rule we all follow.
The creek was great. The water was murky, brown, and non of us really ever went swimming in it, but all along it's shore were tall, twisted trees with roots that protruded from the soil like twisted limbs. If nothing else, it was a great place for hide and seek. And when the game winded down, it was just a great place to sit, talk, and relax. I have fond memories of that creek, even though my families stay in that town now seems to map only a short piece of my life. But I suppose that's how life is, nothing ever holds as much time as it does meaning.(You can't hear me now, but I'm laughing; wondering if that last sentence even made any sense.)
I'm not a philosopher, so I guess I'll stop with the "words of wisdom."
Sometime, on that summer day, we wound up like we do most weekends: climbing the knotty trees near the water's edge. David sat up on the lowest branch, and called up to us, the white/gray moss of the cypress tree covered his head like a dense wig.
"I am the bayou banshee!" He yelled, and then let out a wild shriek."Areeeeeyarahrghhhr!"(It's impossible for me to write phonetically that exact noise, just know that his voice had a dozen edges, and contained a much more shrill sound than described.)
We laughed at this. Brent, was on the ground, digging loose large rocks to be hurled towards the bottom of the creek, where they would rest until erosion carried them off to destinations unknown. I wonder, if perhaps hundreds of thousands-maybe millions-of years from now, those same rocks, will rest on the tops of the highest mountains. Or perhaps, millions of years ago, a piece of that very rock stood upon it's mountain-top, and is now beginning it's journey back with the help of my brother. I like thinking about things like this, until I realize that a few million years from now, my remains stand as much a chance reaching the top of a mountain as that rock does. The thought of death has never rested easily with me. It's like when you lie awake at night sometimes, and you can feel your heart beating in your chest, then you roll over because your afraid you might hear it stop. Life can be a bitch like that.
While Brent was freeing a particularly large rock from it's rooted home, I sat as comfortably as I could on a higher treebranch, and was carefully picking up a few scavenging black ants and dropping them onto David's all-natural wig. Black ants are, of course, harmless and it would only result in a little fun when one of them managed to crawl down to his face.
"There are...no banshees...in...the bayou." Brent said, as he tried to finish pulling the stone from the soil.
"Yes there are. You can ask anyone. A banshee might swoop down from this tree one day and let you hear that awful scream, then you'll be her zombie slave forever." Replied David.
"That's not true. This isn't even a bayou, it's a creek." He gave the rock one last hard tug and it pulled free, revealing a few disgruntled worms hiding in the near-black soil underneath. Brent looked at them, and then put the rock back so they could enjoy their home. After all, there were always other rocks. "Alex?" He asked as he looked up at me. I had just let loose the last of the kamikaze ants.
"Could we find Banshee's in the bayou?"
"No." I replied. "Just alligators and snakes mostly." An ant had found its way onto the back of my hand. I studied it, watched its mechanical movement from the arch between my thumb and pointer to the small dimple of the knuckle for my little finger."David, your gonna get lice from that moss on your head."
"Uh-huh, my mom said so. She said lice lives in the moss and if you get it then you're gonna have to shave your head." Responded Brent
"Whatever, your mom is always saying stuff." Replied David, and then he let his body roll over the branch until he hung by just his arms, and dropped down.
Our mother was over-protective, like most mother I imagine, but whether this was some inborn characteristic or a trait learned from the events that would follow I do not know. But the lice was the truth, and a few months later, David did show up to school with a buzzed head.
Then I remember hearing something like a twig breaking or gravel shifting under something heavy, or at least I think I remember hearing that. It's odd, how I can recall that small, trivial ant which crawled about my hand, but cannot remember that single important noise which thrust my eyes upon the future.
I looked down from my perch, and saw a man standing only a few feet away from the tree. In one hand was a bible, and in the other was a small, green bottle. The suit he wore look as if it might have cost a fortune, but that would have been about a week ago, for it looked as if he had put it on last Sunday and hadn't taken it off since. His hair was ragged, but still held some skeletal structure of style, and his face had patches of stubble grown in. It was evident that even if he tried, he could not grow a full beard. It was years before I understood how facial hair could grow in certain places. At fifty-seven, my beard still doesn't connect completely around the corners of my mouth. I was never particularly fond of beards anyways.
What I will never forget, is that the entire time he stood, the entire time he talked, he was smiling. It was a god-aweful smile that was dead behind his eyes. I imagine if aliens were to come to try and blend in with us, they would all look like him: A dead businessman with religion on the right and alcohol on the left. He was a perfect parody of the American dream, and he scared the shit out of all of us.
He took a step closer, and I slid my left foot down from one branch till the other.
"Why hello there, m-my name isss Jotheph. Josseph Thhoemen."(Or Schumaker, I cannot recall.) His voice was deep but had a slight upwards ring. It also contained a slight lisp, which in writing I exaggerate. I don't know if that describes it; I don't know if I can describe it.
We just stared. Brent was still on his knees, hands dirty from the earth. David stood only a few feet from behind him, and slowly pulled the moss-wig off of his head to reveal blonde hair.
"How lucky you are! How free!" And he laughed, his mouth stretched maniacally wide across his face, until he was all teeth and sound. Then, as suddenly as that cackle had begun, it stopped, and he threw his bottle hard against a tree only twenty feet farther down from where we were.(his arm moved so sporadically that it looked like a spasm more than a deliberate act)
"Do you know w-ho I am?" Still smiling. "Do you?"
Now I had managed my way off of the tree, and Brent was standing slightly behind me. I felt a tingle on my thumb and looked down to see the ant still crawling. I brushed it off.
"H-have you ever read this book?"
I nodded slowly. I have never completely read the bible, and have never been interested in doing so, but I had heard enough in church to understand, and if none of us spoke up, then I felt that he would just keep asking questions.
"Oh, tho y-you have? And you don't know who I am! Look at me! I am forever! I could be ANYTHING." His eyes were menacing, but that smile still stayed. Somehow. even though I cannot recall him taking a single step, he had moved until his face was now only a foot from me. He stood with his knees bent and his back slightly hunched. His breathe reeked of foul liquid, something which I would become fairly familiar with, and rot. It was apparent that he hadn't brushed his teeth in at least as long as he had changed. He pulled his head back and stood up straight as he ran his fingers through that hair of his.
Brent grabbed hard on my arm, I looked down and saw his eyes were swimming. I remember saying something like: "Sir, could you please stop. Y-you're scaring my brother."
He eyes went wide, and he dropped the bible on the ground, where it's pages fanned out and hugged the earth.
"You know nothing of fear!" he said, this time his voice lacked any smoothness.
He reached out and grabbed my brother by the arm, and lifted him above his head. My brother was a small child, and to do this required little strength. He held him in such a way that struggling was useless, but still he tried.
I did not do anything. How could I have? This was too bizarre to actually be happening. I looked at David, and tears had already escaped his eyes, I realized then that I too had shed a few of my own. The man, Schumaker or Shoeman, carried my brother towards the creek, then in it, and walked until he was about waist high, nearly a third of the way, and hurled my brother into the center. All while repeating, "You know nothing!"\
We never really went swimming in the creek. Me and David, because it was too murky and dirty;Brent because he could not swim.
"BRENT!" I screamed, and tried to run out there, but my legs were slightly frozen, so I only managed a step. Then, as fast as he had made his way into the water, he was out, and his hands were on my shoulders. They burned like ice.
He looked me in the eyes, and i saw nothing. Years of life teaches you that you can learn aloft just by watching a man's eyes. If you know what to look for, you can even see their thoughts. I looked into his eyes, and saw nothing. But I can feel his eyes in my, and I knew he could see everything. Then-then he lowered on hand and grabbed my dick.
"Twice fallen, twice failed, forever lost." Is what I heard. Although I can't remember seeing his lips move, nor do I hear his lisp when the voice repeats in my mind.
I remember closing my eyes and wishing he weren't hear, wishing this was some kind of nightmare, wishing I was still safe in the tree. And I could still feel that one ant on my hand, even though I had already brushed it off. I opened my eyes when I heard coughs.
David and Brent were both on the ground, both soaking wet with water and mud, both coughing for air. The man was gone. No trace of him was left. I remember trying to look for footprints or something later, but I could find none. I could still feel his hands on my groin and my shoulder, but he was no longer here. I ran over to Brent, but he had passed out. David was still coughing.
"Is-hack! Is ugh, he gone?" He managed to say at last. While Shoeman had me, David had nearly drowned saving Brent. Me and David looked around, to see if he still might be hiding somewhere, we found nothing, then I ran home, leaving my bike next to the tree because running up would be easier than pedaling. When I got there I told my mom what had happened. What I didn't tell her was what happened while David saved Brent. Looking back, I wish I had. The police would have put more effort into a search for a pervert than they did for a drunk man who liked to scare little kids.
An ambulance took my brother to the hospital, just to be sure everything was all right. I remember sitting in a waiting room, and every man that walked by was him, every voice had a slight lisp. His face was in my dreams for years. Sometimes, I wake up in a cold sweat, and even though I don't remember the dream, I know it was him. So many years ago, yet the remnants of the scars are still visible.
It was years before my brother fully forgave me. If I had not spoken, if I hadn't told him that he was scared, none of that would have happened. And after that my brother only admitted he was afraid once more in his life, and that was on his deathbed.
When I was in my late teens, I developed an anxiety problem, and as I entered my twenties it only got worse. Eleven years after Joseph Schumaker, I learned to bury my scars with books and alcohol. I wouldn't say I was an alcoholic(an alcoholic never does), but some nights I needed more than a glass of water to put my mind at ease...some nights I needed a lot more. The answer was plain and simple, I was afraid of death. Even now, when I think about it, I guess I still am.
When I was a child, I never confronted this thought. My mind told me that children could not die, that we were invincible. After all, we were free. But adults, adults have restrictions, limitations, and death is a factor. When I turned twenty, the heavy realization set in that I could die at any time. I went days without sleep, and when night turned into early morning, as I sat on the bathroom floor with a glass of water and one of whiskey, I could hear the sound of air and my own motions transform into laughing and singing children, whose voices I could not understand. It was in these dead times of early morning, that I read. I read a lot. In a week of insomniac behavior, I could finish off seven or eight novels. most of which weren't particularly good. My girlfriend began to get worried. But how do you say 'I'm afraid?'
"Are you okay, hon?" She would always ask me. She was so beautiful then. Black hair, dark brown eyes, a smile that made you fall in love all over again. At the time we were living in a small apartment above a used bookstore somewhere in downtown Denton. We both worked and went to school. And on the time we spent together we made love, and planned out our lives after college. Looking back, despite what I write, I am happy with the results.
I was afraid to tell her, because I guess that on some level, I still felt like my brother, and that it wasn't okay to be scared, and that by telling her, I was opening the door to this nightmare for her. Instead I told her about what happened to me when I was twelve.
"You know what I did." I said. The entire time I spoke, my mind reeled.
"What is it honey? What's wrong?" She asked
I laughed. "There were these kids, by the-the creek. And I started rambling to them about how I was God. You should have seen their faces." She looked at me, eyes wide. "And then," I said, laughing hard now "I picked one up and threw him into the creek. You should have seen his face! It wasn't my fault that I didn't know he couldn't swim."
(What the hell am I saying?) My mind asked.
"Cole, what the hell are you talking about? When did this happen? Are you fucking with me?" She was both scared and angry.
(Why can't I just say it? Some crazy guy nearly killed my brother and molested me. And now I'm afraid of dying.)
"Then, I grabbed this other kid, and whispered some nonsense in his ear..." Laughter turned into sobs, and then "Maria, I'm dying. I love you, please..." was all I managed to get out.
"Oh, Baby." She grabbed me as my glass fell from my hand, and shattered on the floor. My mind flashed to a green bottle collapsing against a tree."Tell me, what's wrong. No more of this nonsense."
I managed to tell her more or less what I've already said. We both cried. Yet despite all of this, the nightmares continued, the anxiety, which had lessened as I began to cope, was still present. I still experienced nights of insomnia, although now they came less frequently, and drinking became more of a bad memory. Maria, my future wife, her father was an alcoholic, and I was determined not to end up the wretched mess he was.
My brother, on the other hand, drowned his problems in liquor, women, and drugs. when he was seventeen, he was arrested for burning down an abandoned house, but was released after only a month. When I was twenty, he disappeared for three years. The next time I saw him I didn't recognize him. I don't think my parents ever understood why he became what he did.
It seems odd for me to just hop into all of this like that, but I guess I started off in quite the unusual way also. "Twice fallen, twice failed, forever lost." Those words stayed in the back of my mind, and served as the greatest influence for whatever poetry or stories I produced in the mid-seventies. A few of which got published in magazines, but nothing too major. After all, I said my book was rejected by many a publisher, and I could take a hint.
In all this jumping around through fragments of memories, I forget to talk about what's most important, like my wife, and my son. They are my world. I remember when Gavin was six, he ran into a swing-set and now has a slight scar in his left eyebrow. It almost looks the way gangsters do it when they shave a line in their eyebrow. Now that he's grown up, it has a slight dignified look, which I like. I'm glad that my son is a handsome man, like his dad. But I can still remember that little kid he was; the one who would run around bare-ass pretending he was a cowboy.
It seems wrong to stray so much, but how can I share the bitter without the sweet? How can I talk about my tragedies, and not speak of my salvations?
My wife, Maria, was an amazing dancer in her youth. Along with skill came a dancer's body, a beautiful face, and the grace of an elephant. I swear, that woman could dance across the room in a way that would make you shit your pants, but she couldn't walk across it without tripping for the life of her. She was a goofy girl, still is--i guess that's why I love her.
I'm drifting again, but is it such a bad thing? Doesn't an old man deserve to ramble every now and then? If these younger generations actually listened to what us elder's had to say, then humanity might get somewhere. Instead, we're stuck in this stalemate of science and religion. But that is another topic entirely.
It was some time later, some years later I believe, that I was walking home from a friends house(who or why doesn't seem to matter anymore.) I had a coke in one hand, and a copy of Delany's Triton in the other. It was the first book I had ever read by Delany, and his style completely shattered everything I knew about writing. I only wish there were more writer's willing to break boundaries.
It was foggy, I remember that. I love the fog, while my wife hates it. Not then, of course, it was a few years later when we saw the movie The Fog, and it left it's mark.
"Hey! Cole, dear god is that you?"
I looked over, after removing my lips from the can, and nearly screamed. There was a man, thin and frail looking, wearing a worn out and tattered business suit, smiling at me.
(Dammit, that was years ago! No, this is someone else. How does he know my name? He-)
"Brent? Jesus man, what happened."
As he stepped closer I got a better look at his face, which had a scar which stretched from the back of his neck across his jawline, almost reaching his chin. It wasn't a thin, line scar, but a disfiguring, thick crevasse which parted his face. I was horrified to think that this person was my brother.
"Hey, man. It's really been a long time. I haven't seen you in what? A year?" He said. His voice was horridly hoarse, and there was a strong wheeze with each intake of air. It was like talking to a ghost; like speaking to an empty shell that resembled my brother.
"Heh, try three years. Where have you been? Everyone thought you were dead. Are you okay, you don't look so good?"
There was a tear in the corner of his eye, waiting to fall, but he blinked and it disappeared. He wouldn't say it, but I knew what he meant: He was scared.
"I think I need to get to a hospital. Could you, could you take me? I just, I don't want to go alone, and I spent so long trying to find you. Texas is a long way from home, man."
"Look, Jesus. Okay, my apartment is just up the street, let's get you over there, and you can lie down while I call a doctor or something."
"Okay-Courgh!" He lurched forward, and coughed up some mucus mixed with blood. "That-that sounds good."
Two blocks later, we were halfway to my apartment, when I realized he wouldn't make it. The few other's that past us along the way thought I was helping some drunk home. One man tried to help
"Hey fella', is everything okay there? Your friend there looks like he's in bad shape."
"I think we'll be fine." I said. "He just needs to get some rest." What I should have said was call an ambulance. I didn't, and for the second time, I had let my brother down. I didn't realize it, but I didn't realize it the first time. I can only thank God that he didn't realize it either.
I managed to get him down two more houses
(We move about, with freedom, and with chains.)
The fog was still thick, but even with it's obstruction, I could make out the silhouette of the building which held my bed.
(Everyday, I walked out of my house without any restrictions, and by the end of the night, all I could see was a web of entrapment.)
It didn't really matter anymore, I knew that. I think he knew that too. Maybe that's why he told me to stop, and we sat together on the curb.
(Everyday, I walked out of my house without any restrictions, and by the end of the night, all I could see was a web of entrapment.)
He let his head sag, and rested it on my shoulder.
(When we are kids, we know there is no law which can hold us, no fate that binds us.)
"You see this scar?" He asked. "This is what happens to a manwhore in Vegas when he doesn't do what he's told." He managed a faint smile. I was horrified. I kept thinking: What kind of hell has he been through? Jesus, no person deserves this. Not in the least.
(As we age, we can only hope that our destiny is determined, and that we won't have to do anything but follow a course.)
"It's okay Brent, that's all over now." I said, trying to choke back whatever screams and tears mounted in my throat.
(Freedom is a matter of choice, and being able to make free decisions is what makes us who we are.)
"No man, it isn't." He said, and tapped his head. There was a large bald spot on the top. "It lives on in here. IT always will. In this head, exists my world, our world is just up here, not out anywhere. I think that's what he meant, when he said he was god, that he could be anything. But god's aren't afraid, are they? Cole, I'm...I'm scared as hell." then he coughed, and blood trickled a bit from his nose, and onto my shoe. He was wheezing so loud that I'm sure others could hear it clearly.
(I'm sure, that before we were born, on some level, we chose to live...
"C'mon man, don't give out on me now. It's okay to be afraid, I am. I have been afraid forever. But that's part of life. Life has rules, and we have to follow." I said, trying to comfort him. I didn't know then that I was wrong.
(...and we made this decision knowing the consequence, that death would come.)
I felt him heave, and his body constricted like he was choking. I tried to sit him up, but when I got him erect, he just fell backwards. I could see the tears in his still open eyes.
(But what is life without death?)
I still wanted to scream, still wanted to cry, but there was no hope in it, no mercy.
(An endless existence would be meaningless.)
I let him go, and looked for a payfone. When I stood I almost ran into one, and cursed myself for not calling when there still was hope.
(There would be nothing to strive for, and we would truly be chained down.)
I called, and then waited for the Ambulance to arrive.
(Life is here to live, not restrict.)
That night, they told me he died from a heart attack, brought on by the coke in his system.
(Freedom is to do so, whatever the cost)
If he didn't die then, it would have been only a few weeks before the cancer in his lungs ate him alive.
(We live for the sake of living. Death is freedoms greatest weapon.)
Years later, I cough up blood, and it scares me to death. It reminds me both of my brother on the curb, his funeral, and the month I spent in an institution battling hallucinations. God save her, my wife stayed with me through all of this. She lost her mother when she was twelve, and she knew to be there when I needed her most.
It is weird, reading through this, and seeing how it starts out as some kind of coming-of-age story, and spirals into a nightmare. This whole damn story seems to be just one long nightmare. But it isn't. My life isn't that way. I was happy, hell I'm still here so I AM happy. It just seems that way when I think about my brother, I can only imagine what a wretch his life was.
"Twice fallen, twice failed, forever lost." There could always be a meaning behind that. I let my brother down, once by showing his fear, and again by hiding mine. I failed to save him both times afterwards. And now, in a way, I guess the part of him that I knew, is lost forever. That one little sentence, which spawned nightmares and stories, has no true meaning.
A man, a drunk, mumbled something into my ear, and left me horrified to interpret it on my own. It only has meaning because I let it, and I know this. But why not give it meaning? Wouldn't it be much better to think that the sentence meant something, and that this was all determined on that day by the creek all those years ago? Then I would be alleviated of this responsibility, and fate would take it's place. The choice of freedom over fate.
Last month, I went to his grave, and just sat there, in front of his headstone. On it was written: "Angel fallen, friendship lost, never forgotten." And beneath it, "In our hearts always." I don't know what I expected to find there, but I guess everyone does stuff for no reason, in the hopes that a meaning will present itself, like a writer starting a story with a few simple words, and hoping that some magnificent tale will be revealed by that small incantation.
I never liked coming-of-age stories, because they always seem to have a definite beginning and ending. One day you are a boy, and the next, by some strange event, you are a man. It took me fifty-seven years, six hundred and forty-eight novels, month in a mental institution, and the death of a brother to make me understand what being a man really was. And if I had another fifty-seven years, I would write it all down for you. But I don't.
Our life, this gamble in freedom, is precious, and god help us, it could go at any time. The thought of fate reassures that there is a predestined time for passing, but in reality, we can never know which sentence will be our
"You have confused the true and the real." -George Stanley