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Times Of Remembrance MAG
Dead, brown leaves swirl around my feet in miniature tornadoes. I walk slowly, not really looking where I'm going but watching the leaves blown by the breath of the wind.
My mother walks swiftly as if she is one of the small boys at the playground made to march by the older bullies. I can almost see Tommy Dechant running behind her yelling, "Come on! Double time! Hup, hup, hup," sometimes smacking her butt with an old bent stick.
She turns around and sees me shuffling my feet in the piles of leaves along the cracked sidewalk. "Ben-jamin!" she yells with annoyance. I know that tone in her voice and run after her, my short legs pounding the sidewalk in my new shoes.
"Where are we going?" I ask, a stray thumb finding my mouth and curving it in like a candy cane.
She promptly smacks my thumb out. "To see your grandpa," she says, walking faster.
I break into a half-jog to keep up with her. As we walk along, her dress makes a soft swishing sound like the blue drapes in our living room. The dress is the color of the wheat fields that Jonathan and I sneak into to play Army during the summertime.
My mind travels back to the word my mother used. Grandpa. A nice, soft word like the green moss on the bank by the stream where Jonathan and I swim. What is a grandpa? I wonder. Mother said "your grandpa," so it must be a relative. The only relatives I know are Auntie Nora and Cousin Lucius, who scares me by showing me Rocket, his pet lizard.
My mother halts suddenly and I run into her leg. We are standing outside a long white house surrounded by rose bushes. A wooden sign reads "Spring-vale Nursing Home." I turn to ask my mother where we are, but she is already trotting up the steps. She opens the door and steps inside.
The lobby we stand in is empty, save for a few dumpy green chairs like the ones I see in Miss Maybell's Beauty Parlor. Puzzled, I look at my mother as I hear distant moans and screams.
She grabs my hand in an iron grip and we begin walking down a long white hallway. The hallway lasts forever. Each grey door we pass seems to cry mournfully, like a beast caught in a trap. Dull yellow lights flicker overhead, giving the whole hallway the impression of a dark room during a fierce thunderstorm.
Eventually, the gray, yawning doors cease and we stand in another lobby, this time with brown dumpy chairs. An old man sits in the corner. He is bald and has brown liver spots on his head. He has a funny, half-smile on his face as if he is humming a good tune to himself. My mother, surprisingly, walks toward this man and sits next to him pulling me down with her. I am uncomfortable being so close to this thing with the yellow skin and I look at the other people in the room.
A man sits next to a window playing checkers with himself and swearing at the small round pieces of wood. A woman lays slumped over in a wheelchair, her eyes vacant and dull. Her jaw hangs slack and her lips curl around her toothless gums.
I look out the window and see a familiar willow tree. A tree my friends climbed on two months ago ...
"Look, there it is!" Thomas said in an excited whisper, pointing to a long white house. "That's the nuthouse," he told us proudly, knowing something we didn't. "My big brother Alex says if you walk by late at night, you can hear the tortured cries of the nuts as they roam around the halls catching mice and eating them for . ... supper!" We all screamed as he yelled the last word.
So that's where I am, I think with a shiver. The nuthouse. I shudder, hoping I don't see anyone eating mice.
I look around and see an old man staring at me.
I jump, surprised, because he wasn't there before.
The man's eyes are sunken so that he doesn't really have any, just dark holes in his head. He is bald except for a small fringe of white hair encircling his scalp. A twisted white scar slashes across his upper lip and up his right cheek. His skin is yellow and I stare, fascinated, at the brown liver spots on his head. The old man smiles at me, showing a mouthful of yellow, rotting teeth. He beckons me with a gnarled finger and begins shuffling down the hallway, his hands shaking.
Mother has told me not to go with strangers, but this is an old man who can do me no harm. I jump out of my chair and trot after him. I hear my mother still talking softly to the old man in the corner, and once in a while she pats his frail hand, tears glistening in her eyes.
The man is halfway down the hall. He turns around as if knowing that I'm not following him and motions for me to hurry. I begin to jog after him, but stop when I hear my mother's voice call after me. "Benjamin ... Benjamin ...."
"Benjamin ... Are you awake? It's your turn!"
A hand slaps my face and I shake my head groggily. "What? Oh, yeah." An image of a green willow forms in my mind and then fades like the picture on the television set at Jonathan's house after it's turned off. I dutifully get up and stand behind home plate.
The pitcher sneers at me; he is an eighth grader and angry that the seventh grade team is beating his in kickball.
I narrow my eyes, trying to stare the pitcher down. I hear Jonathan in the background yelling, "Go Ben! Kick it out of the playground!" As the ball rolls toward me, the smell of grass and dust and winning is strong in my nose. I rear my leg back to kick the red rubber ball but I am too soon and it goes flying over the foul line and into the street.
"I'll get it!" I yell, ignoring the guffaws of the eighth graders. I hop over the fence, look both ways, and see an old man staring at me across the street.
I stand shock still in the middle of the road with the ball in my hands. The man smiles at me, creasing a white scar on his right cheek. A cab passes between us, and he is gone.
As if from far away, I hear the persistent blare of a car horn and the whining screech of brakes as the car coming towards me tries to avoid a collision ...
The brakes screech as the bus pulls to a stop. I pick up my battered green duffel bag, which is not really mine, but my father's from the war.
My father. My father, who sits in his chair with pipe and paper and reads. Reads about what? Nothing really, just yesterday's funerals and tomorrow's tragedies.
Dad. Marble-gray, controlling the world from his brown leather armchair. Looking at me as I stand in the foyer with a green duffel bag and a thin coat thrown around my shoulders, feeling foolish as I tell him I'm going off to college and there's nothing he can do to stop me. He smirks as I tell him I'm not like him and how I want to get out of Springvale and see the world.
Looking, he says, "You think I didn't go through it. You think I didn't stand there glaring at my old man with the defiance and love and anger I see in your face? I know, you see. Eighteen years old and want to leave this town, see the world, eh? Gonna be president, king, emperor, God, right? I see it in your face. The longing, the desire. Well, son," he says self-righteously, "the world ain't yours for the changing. You see this?" he cries, waving the paper. "It's all yesterday's news. All murder and death and blight. You can't change that. All you can do is keep this stuff," he says with a rattle of the paper, "out of your life. Get rid of it, throw it in the garbage. You can't play nursemaid to the rest of the world; I've tried. The best way to save the world is by keeping your name off the front page of tomorrow's Times." He puffs on his pipe for a while. "Come on, son, I'll help you unpack."
So I left, I think to myself. I walked out and left the old man with his pipe filled with Mail Pouch hanging loosely from his jaw. He infuriates me, really. With that quiet calm of his, always knowing he's right, smiling confidently as if he's won a battle of some sort. He's probably sitting in his chair, puffing on his pipe and saying "He'll come back. Yes sir, they always do." Then opening up the paper and grimacing at the bloody headlines that he yells at but does nothing about. I won't be like him, I tell myself, glance down at the street filled with memories one last time and resolutely board the bus.
I give my money to the driver and find a seat near the back of the bus, throwing my duffel bag in the seat next to me.
The bus starts slowly, reminding me of Farmer Dawson's horse Mule who plods along, straining at the plow harness. As I head out of Springvale, memories flick by like the black and white films at the movie house on Saturdays. A stream here, a willow tree there, a red barn in a beige field of wheat ... all provide snatches from my childhood spent growing up, running and tumbling with friends in the dirt and heat.
Suddenly, instead of seeing the happy fields I played in as a child, an old man's face is reflected back at me.
It is a face I know well, one that has haunted me in the dead of the night. A face that caused me to wake up sweating, unable to fall back into forgetful slumber. A twisted white scar lies across his right cheek.
I turn from the window, and in the previously vacant seat, the Nightmare Man sits placidly. "Hello," he says as if tasting the words for the first time. "I see in your face that you know me."
"Nights I have sat up waiting," I say shakily, "my feet sweating under the covers, blue darkness enveloping the room, until you come and sit with me to tell tales of the future, my future; tales of regret, despair, and forgetfulness. The jagged scar on your face standing out like a brand, you disappear and leave me with shouting the quiet of night alone."
"A brand," the old man says quietly, stroking the scar. "Perhaps we are not so different, we two."
I turn to the window in anger, hating this man who shares my thoughts. When I turn back, he is gone, gone to where the night time shadows go at daybreak, again leaving me tormented and confused like those nights so long ago.
"Next stop," the bus driver calls, "Oakvine, Maryland. Oakvine, Mary- ..."
"Mary!" I cry as I wake up suddenly from a fitless slumber, drenched in sweat.
My wife stirs beside me. "What is it, Ben?" she says groggily, laying a hand on my arm. "My God, you're soaked through! Did you have a nightmare?" she croons softly, stroking a hand across my forehead.
I nod my head shakily, images flickering in and out of my mind like scenery from a train window. "I haven't had this dream for years," I say, half to myself.
"What dream?" Mary asks.
"AThick black soot coats midnight clocks, while nightmare men shriek from the docks.' I remember reading that in a poem somewhere, a long time ago. When I was a child, I used to have the same dream every night. An old man with yellow skin and a white scar would come and tell me stories of despair, hopelessness, and a stagnating mind. Stories of my future. I always called him the Nightmare Man, because after he left, I'd wake up sweating and unable to sleep." I pause and laugh softly. "Why don't you go back to bed, Mary. I'm going to make some hot chocolate and forget about these silly, childish dreams." I kiss her forehead and slowly creak down the stairs to the kitchen.
On the way, I see a picture of my daughter Lucy in the foyer and smile. I remember how I taught her how to ride a bike, climb a tree and drive a car. I see her going to kindergarten, graduating high school and leaving for college, green duffel bag tucked under her arm. I pass a mirror and see a yellow face with sunken eyes and a twisted, white scar.
I look again. The face is still there, smiling sadly at me.
Suddenly I am angry, angry at this thing that has tormented me all my life. I raise my hand to strike it from the glass but stop. The Nightmare Man has always come at times of remembrance. Perhaps that is how I can face him now.
I walk into the living room and throw a few logs on the dying fire. I sit in a frumpy brown leather chair and stare at the crackling fire. As I search my middle-aged mind for an appropriate memory, my hand absently begins stroking a twisted scar on my right cheek ...
"Come on, Benny baby, don't be a chicken!" All the older boys laugh as Tommy Dechant starts walking around in a circle, flapping his arms and clucking madly.
I look out over the gorge. A small wooden sign next to the bridge says "Danger: No Trespassing." I square my shoulders and take a shaky step onto the rotting railway ties of the bridge. Pleasant Stream can be seen fifty feet below.
I am halfway across the bridge, spurred on by the catcalls of the older boys. Then I make the mistake of looking down.
As I pause on the bridge, my weight suddenly becomes apparent to the old railway ties. I hear a faint crumbling sound and look in horror at Tommy Dechant and the others. I think to myself, I've never seen Tommy look so scared ...
And then the wood I am standing on crumbles and I fall through the gap.
I fall forever, slicing my cheek open on a twisted, rusting piece of metal jutting out from the bridge girders, drops of blood spiraling into the muddy stream below ...
"It is rather like a brand, isn't it," the old man says, a shaking hand slowly stroking his right cheek.
I let my hand drop, startled that he is pantomiming me ... or is he?
"A brand," the Nightmare Man repeats, "but not like on Old Farmer Dawson's cows. Oh no, this is a brand of remembrance. Believe you me, in many years when you've forgotten everything else, you'll still remember how you got that twisted white scar on your cheek. Perhaps also a brand of weakness ..." he muses to himself.
"You are the Nightmare Man," I say triumphantly, my voice shaking a little, "not solid; just attic dust and mothballs and yesterday's yellow newspaper clippings. Return to the shadows and leave me in peace.
"Where does the snow go in summertime? Where does the rain go after it dries up?" he says in a sing-song voice. "I'll tell you where, my boy. In here," he whispers, tapping his liver-spotted skull. "In this great cracked attic trunk we call a brain. You have it backwards," he says, his voice as soft as dandelions floating on the wind. "It is you who are dependent on me. You are merely my past, tangible, but only changeable in the mind. I am your future, my present, soon the past."
"No!" I cry desperately. "You are a dream! I am in the present! See! I feel myself, solid and alive!"
"Well," the old man says, infuriatingly quiet. "I grow tired; I think it is time to move on."
"Please! I want to see my daughter grow old, have children!"
"Yes, yes," he says to himself, "dusk has fallen; the porch swing is creaking vacantly. I should be getting along now."
"Wait!" I yell, struggling not to sink into darkness, "I want to see my daughter! Lucy! Lu ..."
"...Lucy. It's your daughter, Lucy." The pretty woman says, patting my hand. Her eyes are wet for some reason. I don't know who she is, but I like the sound of her voice so I smile, the twisted white scar on my cheek crinkling ever so slightly. I like this pretty woman and the nice dress she has on; it is the color of the fields Jonathan and I used to play in. The woman's voice slowly fades away into silence, even though her lips are still moving. She is pretty, but not important right now. What is important is the past, and beautiful memories of swimming in streams and climbing in willow trees and Mary (but who is Mary) flicker through my mind like images seen from a bus window ...
Dead, brown leaves swirl around my feet in miniature tornadoes. I walk slowly, not really looking where I'm going but watching the leaves blown by the breath of the wind ...