Something fractured inside me, and my visions relayed only darkness, emptiness, and cold. I was unable to find any pieces, never able to fix myself. In my head, the young man at the work bench sits, screaming even now; a breathy, shrieking call of rage emitted for all my life.
The shop went silent. No one spoke or moved. It was not customary for the mechanics to support each other in crisis—only provocation underpinned our tenuous camaraderie.
Once my external scream exhausted, an internal one erupted, and I left the shop and walked to the bus stop without speaking to anyone. I boarded the first bus that arrived, and rode it for two hours, until it finished its route at the fueling yard. The driver yelled at me, told me I had to get off the bus, even shook my shoulder. This was the first contact I'd had since I left Brad's office, and it provided no comfort. Instead, I felt the hand like one simply pushing me forward towards a direction that was not predetermined, not chosen, but a matter of course, a path that one takes because there is a path available.
I recall now the indifference of the hand, and how easily I moved out of the bus, out into the yard, down the nearest sidewalk towards nothing I knew. Since I'd met Jeff, I'd evolved into a person with direction, associations, and even though these were not the participants of my future life, the life you all know, they were the skeleton of the former me, and I could not fathom returning to my ignorant, formless shape.
I wandered the streets for hours, mired in a fantasy of depletion, unaware that my spiraling course would lead me directly to the hospital. The bleating of a siren roused me from my introspection, and cued me to the cluster of buildings that make up the University of California hospital system. Back then, it was a mall of despair, a dense collection of silod treatment and research facilities. It's difficult to imagine now, in the age of holistic cloning, approaching your health with a city of medical units, each clamoring for funding and strategic positioning.
I ambled into the biggest building in the group, assuming that this would be where they kept the bulk of their patients. The automatic doors swept open for me and I was suddenly washed in an antiseptic air. Aside from a few memorable shots and a set of stitches I received once after falling from my bicycle, I had little experience with doctors and had never been in a hospital. I waited in line at the registration desk, observing the nurses buzzing around in whimsical scrubs, and the doctors who donned plain scrubs and lab coats moving at a slightly slower pace.
A spark flashed in my mind, but I could not discern its meaning. I noted it, though, and wondered if I was already too late. It pulsed and faded, leaving me no indication of its purpose. Looking back, I believe my vision was trying to break through the darkness but failing.
At the front of the line, I asked for Jeff. I pretended to be his brother, even acted distraught, yet I could only truly summon more indifference. I found an elevator. I found the ward. I pressed a button.
I made my way through more nurses and doctors who appeared more severe, more elegant, than the others in the lobby. This was the intensive care unit, a place where balances were held only for a moment, where success and failure truly had no middle ground. Even after hours of observation and consulting in ICUs, I can still say that, in my mind, a truly stable patient is one that has expired. Death holds the only real improved condition.
I walked down the hallway and found the door to Jeff's room. My hand pressed against the heavy door, big enough to slide a gurney through. It pressed back. My strength was gone. I had come as close as I could, and now I would turn away from it, go back to work, fix a car, mop the floor, go home, smoke a bowl, listen to my stereo and wait for Jeff to call, wait for the rest of my life for that phone to ring, wait because he told me to, because I was calling him too much.
The door fell open under my hand. Jeff's mom, Tina, was there, her face puffy and wet. She hugged me instantly, and I let her. Tina was divorced, and still relatively young for having a full grown son. She attired herself in a manner meant to attract men, younger men, but the effect was lost on me. She was the opposite of Jeff in every way. His serious, driven demeanor was either genetically acquired from his estranged father or hammered into his psychology by his own self-preservation. Tina was effusive and flighty, constantly losing her keys and unable to manage a relationship. However, if she had one trophy on an otherwise bare, dusty mantle, it was her son.
I put my arms around her and held her for a moment. Even though I wanted to comfort her, I wanted more to flee the hospital, to rewind my journey and go back to before the phone rang. I could barely hold her.
"Hi Tina," I said weakly into her hair.
"You're trembling, Charlie," she said. She held me tighter, no doubt enjoying the sudden opportunity to mother me. I relaxed into the embrace and let her have the moment.
"How is he," I asked.
She didn't respond. Instead, she pulled away from me and looked at me.
"It's going to be okay. Just go in and talk to him."
"Okay." She smiled at me and moved out into the hallway, looking for some form of distraction strong enough to keep her on her feet.
I entered the room and the door shut behind me. A curtain prevented me from seeing anything except the glow from the window on the other side of the room. I smelled blood, slightly detectable under the strong layer of antiseptics and freshly dispensed bandages.
I sliced the separation between the curtains with my hand, still lined with grease and dirt from the shop. I closed my eyes and passed through the barrier into the inner chamber.
"You can look."
Jeff was lying there with his left arm and leg suspended in bandages. His head was partially wrapped in gauze, round dots of brown-edged crimson pooled under them, also on the left. With his right hand, he held a juice box, which he sipped on as he glared at me.
"You're not dead."
"Neither are you," he replied, the morphine deepening his voice.
"I thought you were. I was sure."
"No, not this time. I just, I don't know. I just felt like you were dead."
"You look disappointed," he said, smiling. His pale, blue eyes were nearly grey in the hospital light, like tiny cups of water used by a child to clean a paint brush.
"No. I'm not disappointed," I said, returning his grin. Even though I experienced a sense of relief, it was minor. Seeing Jeff alive and lucid simply couldn't drive away the confusion and despair caused by the betrayal of my visions. His death still felt real.
"You may get your wish yet." He pulled the rest of the juice from the box and set it down.
"What do you mean?"
"I took a turn too fast, hit the curb and popped up onto the sidewalk, eventually hit a gas station sign, and was tossed out of the car. We should probably fix the seatbelts."
"What do you mean, I may get my wish."
"I don't have any serious internal injuries, but one scan did detect a mass in my right lung. Everyone is fairly upset."
"What kind of mass?"
"Not the religious kind. Well, not really religious, although I have begun praying to it."
Jeff's discourse confused me. Normally, he was focused, serious, playful within limits. The Jeff I found at the hospital was grinning, elusive, caustic.
"What are you talking about?" I demanded.
"Probably cancer, maybe nothing more than a benign gob."
"Cancer? How can you have cancer?"
"I asked the same thing. I'm still waiting for the answer. They've been telling me not to worry, but I already know what it is. It's like someone finally lifted the cover off of it."
I sat in a nearby chair. From that first call from my mother to finding Jeff alive to now, I had entertained so many possibilities; I couldn't tell if what Jeff was saying to me made any real difference to me.
"Yeah," I said.
"Quit fucking around."
"You can't you fix me?"
I met his grey eyes, full of focus, intensity, trapping me inside of that question. I'm no fool. I understand psychology and the fallibility of human memory, and have wondered many times if he truly asked this question. It makes sense that he would. I freely discussed my visions with him, bragged about my ability to fix anything. However, I sense that his new disposition, even his remarkable clarity, might be something I applied over the many years since the event occurred. The true conversation matters little, though, as the particulars are both documented and accurate.
"I don't know what you mean."
"No visions for me now, Charlie?"
"No," I answered. I only possessed feelings at the moment, and none of them were helpful.
"Let me know, okay? I'm open to any kind of miracle, right now."
I visited Jeff everyday during the time he lived at the hospital. He never asked me not too, never said I came by too much. The confirmed cancer growing inside changed him, made him need me. Girls didn't come by, friends didn't come by, co-workers of his didn't come by. Just his mother and me.
I brought music tapes, magazines and books. Jeff listened to his Walkman and read. He read with an appetite I hadn't seen first hand. In my innocence, I thought he derived it as I acquired the visions, by some sort of magic!
The healing of his wounds, a small victory for him, occurred swiftly and without incident. The doctors decided his tumor, malignant and of a particularly nasty variety, must wait for his body to heal before being addressed.
While he was incapacitated, I acquired Jeff's wrecked car from a police impound yard and brought it to the shop. I asked Brad for a few days off and the use of my bay. He allowed me to work on Jeff's car as long as I still mopped the floors at night. Every moment I wasn't at school or the hospital or home sleeping, I was in the shop, tearing apart the twisted heap of Jeff's car.
"That's his friend's car. His friend has cancer. His friend is dying."
I heard these words, and they irritated me. I wanted to believe I was just fixing a car that needed fixing. However, the favors that the sentiment provided were immense. Carlos called his cousin who owned a wrecking yard, so I acquired many of the parts for free, and access to the vast network of junkyard owners across the nation. Between his call and calls made by the other mechanics, I had access to any tool, part, and advice I needed.
I finished repairing the mechanical problems and made plans to repair and repaint the body of the car. I asked the other mechanics if they knew anyone with a body shop where I could complete the task.
Randy approached me. He was the saltiest of the crew, a man who said little that wasn't an insult. He was the put-down king of the shop and was personally responsible for the majority of my early nicknames. No one was safe from his jabs, not even Brad, whom Randy would besmirch directly, and in front of others. I never wondered why Brad tolerated it, when he'd quickly clamp down on anyone else who showed a similar temperament.
Randy told me to meet him early on the following Monday morning at the shop. I was nervous, wondering if he meant only to give me grief, but when I arrived, he was there with a tow truck. We loaded up the car and drove it across town to a body shop owned by his ex brother-in-law named Tony, a heavily mustached, quiet man.
We unloaded the car and rolled it into the open bay. I hadn't done any body work before, but I had a good sense on how to proceed.
"Tony, do you mind if I borrow your tools?" I asked.
"Oh," I said, surprised by his reply. I had assumed he knew I came with only the car.
One of Tony's guys walked around the car, inspecting the body.
The man nodded at Tony and whistled. Two of the other employees who were leaning on a workbench came over and set upon the car, pushing it into position and getting it prepped for dismantling.
"You're going to do it?" I asked.
"Miquel is going to do it. Him and Teddy and Frank."
I looked at Miquel. He was already under the hood, poking around.
"I know, kid. I told him to charge the shit out of you."
Tony smiled. "I ought to charge the shit out of you for selling my boat."
"You shouldn't have left it in my driveway." Randy replied.
"You borrowed it, asshole!"
"Bullshit. You needed a place to put it."
They smiled at each other and shook hands.
"Should be done in a couple weeks," Tony said. He winked at me and walked back into his office.
"Let's go," Randy said. "I need to get to work, and you need to get to school."
"Why did you do this?" I asked.
He put his hand on my shoulder.
"Cancer made me a widow. It's a fucking curse. Let's go."
This is the longest chapter of my life, a time when the visions disappeared and the principles of fate staged a coup over determinism. My choices, my very voice, served as little more than a defensive gesture to the cancer that consumed Jeff.
The cancer would take him, effectively kill itself, and leave me a carrier of two dead creatures. I never asked questions about cancer back then, never wondered why or how it came to be. Those around Jeff asked, over and over, to themselves, to each other, the why and the how. I learned to nod or shake my head depending on the tone of the inquiry. Perhaps my indifference was merely a signal to the coming change, or a regression on my part, back to a state of innocence, back to what I knew before I met him.
Three months after the accident, Jeff was released from the hospital, his clutter of casts and bandages receding to a simple set of two modest braces and a rib-guard, the once-stitched wounds on his head now small, thick scabs glossy with antiseptics. I drove Jeff and his mother home in her car, both of them looking out opposite windows in the back seat.
Jeff possessed a queer smile, something between happiness and surrender. I said nothing of it. I said nothing at all.
We had not talked about what was waiting for him. I know he knew. Newspapers were running special features on my progress, on Jeff's accident and cancer, on our friendship. I'd been seen on television after being caught by a band of reporters on my way into the hospital to visit Jeff.
"Is it true you met in therapy?"
"How did you learn to fix cars?"
"How do you feel about your friend being charged with a DWI after he's released from the hospital?"
"Do you or your friend have any interest in Satanic worship?"
"Are you high right now?"
"When do you think the car will be done?"
I was the poster boy for Jeff's illness, for his accident, for every good and bad view of teenagers of that era. On television, you might see me with a halo or with horns, depending on the perspective of the story's producer. Little did they know! Such masterful foreshadowing would not be possible even in fiction!
Later in my life, the television spots recorded during this time would appear again and again, taking on the slant of present day opinion.
"Dr. Fleischman's dedication to the human race was evident even as a young man."
"Dr. Fleshman's early use of drugs and interest in dark music are a precursor to the horrors he would go on to create."
The architecture of fame is nebulous, and if you believe you have control over the fabrication of your notoriety, I wish you well. It will always have a perilous foundation, and when the walls crumble around you, no measure of will can reseat them.
When I reflect on my profound lack of confidence while talking to reporters, I do feel a rush of sentimentality—a deep, surprising desire to return to my former self. On returning from such reverie, I always consider the life that occurred after these interviews, and I feel nothing. No lingering sentimentality, no desire to return, but no real regrets. Honestly, I may have some misgivings, but they are of a personal nature, and have little relation to my overall development.
As we pulled down Jeff's street, I watched him in the rearview mirror. I could already detect the bright orange ahead of me, but I wanted to see when Jeff would notice it. We were less than two houses away when he turned his head towards the house. His serene smile disappeared, replaced by an open mouth of disbelief.
On the driveway sat his car, fully restored. Tony's crew hadn't just repaired the body, they transformed it into an exact replica of the General Lee. Bright orange paint, Confederate flag, the white-bordered black number 01 on the door, Jeff's name meticulously scripted next to the side view mirror; they hadn't missed any detail. A roll cage was mounted in the interior and a bumper guard on the front. The only difference between Jeff's car and the original was the decision to leave the doors useable rather than welded shut.
"What the fuck did you do?" I could hear his voice tremble, nearing collapse.
"I fixed your car."
I pulled up slowly to the curb, so we could all take a long look. As I stopped the car, I looked again in the rear view mirror. I saw Tina's head buried into her son's shoulder, and I saw Jeff, tear-stains lacing his cheeks.
We made eye contact through the mirror.
"Jesus, Charlie," he mumbled.
"Want to go for a ride." I said, feeling my own eyes water for the first time since I was a child.
The day I entered high school, I had friends, I had a pot-habit, and I had a predefined scene to fling myself into.
I had vision.
The day I left, I had lost it all. Every day after Jeff's accident, more and more of my group became less and less interested in me. I held no malice towards them. I was no longer interested in getting high all day, or discussing the latest hybrid metal from Seattle. When plans were made to buy concert tickets or attend a party, I always declined on account of my commitment to be with Jeff. They all sympathized with me, especially the girls, but sympathy is often a pat on the shoulder that comes arms-length.
With this loss of interest from one group came a gain of popularity with another. The ambitious kids, the intellectuals, the student government, the hyper-nerds—they read about me in the paper, about the restoration of Jeff's car, about my ability to fix any vehicle—and they began engaging me. Smiles in the hall transformed into small talk before class, people to sit with during lunches, and ultimately, my first kiss.
Her name was Beth Madden, a comely girl with a clear complexion, sandy blond hair forever tied up in a pony-tail, vintage eyeglasses, and a very high IQ. Aside from Jeff, she was the first young person I encountered who acted surprised that anyone might not want to go to college. Initially, her interest in me reflected her own need to achieve, to fix things, as she treated me as one might treat a salvageable project. Our initial conversations often took on this tone.
"What kind of treatment is he receiving?"
"I don't know. Some chemotherapy."
"You don't know? You should find out." She smiled as she said this, as if stunned by my ignorance.
"No, you really should. He needs an advocate."
"Someone who makes sure things are done right! Jeez, Charlie! You know that."
"I guess I do." I really did, but when I spoke with Beth, I seem to behave like I first did with Jeff. I let her guide me, tell me what I already knew. Even though I was Jeff's advocate, I wasn't in the way she suggested. I only provided him with companionship, and he and I rarely even spoke of his illness.
After several lunches at school and walks to classes, I asked Beth if she'd like to "hang out" with me.
"I think so?" I raised my hand to my face, as if I could somehow hide the scars and leftover acne that covered my cheeks and neck. She picked up on the gesture and touched my hand with just enough pressure that I let it fall.
"You think so?" She said with a warm smile. I smiled back, relieved by her concession.
"I do. Yes. I really do."
"Sure. Why not?"
"Yes!" I exclaimed excitedly, and then quickly morphed into what I thought was an appropriate level of enthusiasm. "Right on."
The following Friday evening, after mopping the floors of the shop, I rushed home, cleaned up and drove my mother's car to Beth's house. Her father answered the door, a short, muscular man with a shaved head and a stern crease across his brow.
"Hello, Mr. Madden?"
"That's me. Nice to meet you, sir."
"Come on in."
He made just enough space for me to pass, and I did. Inside the house, one not unlike the house my family used to occupy, I found Beth's mother sitting on the couch, reading a magazine. She was an older, thinner and taller version of Beth. Her beauty had not departed her even in middle age, and she had the posture of a chiropractor. She put the magazine down in her lap as I walked in.
"You must be Charlie," she said without any emotion. I was being assessed, and she wanted me to know it.
"Yes. I assume you are Mrs. Madden."
"The one and only. Beth will be down in a moment. Please, have a seat."
I did, on the chair across from her. Mr. Madden took a seat next to his wife and folded his arms across his chest.
"Do you believe your long hair will help?" he asked. Although I had cut it when I began working at the shop, my hair was still long by traditional standards.
"Yes, will it help you fight off this?" He pointed at his bald head.
"Um. I don't know?"
"Tom," Mrs. Madden spoke. "The boy doesn't give two hoots about balding."
"Seen any hair in the shower drain? That'll be it. That's when you'll know."
"I haven't really looked," I nervously replied.
"Uh-huh," he muttered, squinting his eyes at me.
"Just ignore him. Once upon a lifetime, Tom had a magnificent mane of red hair. When I first saw him, it looked like his head was on fire."
"Like a god," he said.
"Yes, he was god-like."
"I can tell," I said, not really knowing why.
"Hmm…" Mr. Madden cracked a smile. "So, what college are you going to attend?"
"I'm going to get ASE certified after I graduate. I fix cars at Malone Honda right now."
"Beth has already been accepted to Berkeley. She wants to teach, though." Mrs. Madden forced a smile as she relayed this information.
"Yes, got in without a problem. Even nailed a scholarship," Mr. Madden added. "Although I'm still holding out for her to find something besides teaching."
"I know. She's very smart," I replied.
"Not many Berkeley girls dating mechanics, you know," Mr. Madden stated, any trace of a smile gone.
"I suppose not," I returned, glancing over to the staircase to see if Beth was coming to rescue me.
"Well, we're all entitled to have a little fun, right?" Mrs. Madden interjected. "Just as long as everyone realizes that it's just for fun, what's the harm?"
"None that I can see, yet," answered Mr. Madden.
I looked up the staircase again.
"She'll be down as soon as we call her," Mrs. Madden said.
"Do you smoke pot?" Mr. Madden asked. "I've read about your friend in the paper. Apparently, he was high as a kite when he slammed into the Chevron."
"I don't. Not anymore."
"But you did?"
"Yes, I did. I haven't since Jeff's accident."
"I don't know. I just haven't." I hadn't consciously stopped, although Jeff provided me with most of my supply. I had his connection. I could have gotten more for myself at any time.
"Interesting," Mr. Madden returned. "I can assume that no pot will be offered to Beth."
"Beth wouldn't take it if I did." I realized immediately that this was the reply they wanted.
"To be sure," Mrs. Madden started. "However, our job is to protect her…"
"Our job," continued Mr. Madden, a sneer erupting over his lip, "is to keep her on the straight and narrow. She's smart, but she's still a kid. We do whatever it takes to keep her away from drugs and other mischief that could ruin her future."
"I understand. I will not be using pot, nor will I be offering any to Beth."
"Okay," Mr. Madden grumbled, letting go of his sneer. The crease over his brow remained. "Anything else, Mary?"
"No," Mrs. Madden answered. "I think he's had enough."
"Beth!" Mr. Madden called.
Immediately, Beth came rushing down the stairs, wide-eyed and smiling. Her presence diffused any tension that remained. She looked gorgeous, every bit the prodigy of her mother. Gone were the vintage glasses and pony tail, the sweater vest and collared shirt, the dowdy jeans and patchwork knapsack.
The purple, crushed velvet dress clung to every curve of her, and her curled hair bounced as she descended each step on the staircase.
"My god," I whispered.
"Careful," said Mr. Madden.
"You look incredible," I said, realizing just how dour my shirt and bolo tie, black pants and black jacket made me look.
"Thanks!" She said. "Now that mom and dad are done with the interrogation, how about we get out of here?"
I looked towards Mr. and Mrs. Madden.
"Go on, kids," Mrs. Madden allowed. "Have a nice time."
We did. At least, I felt we did. After a quick spaghetti dinner, a movie about a dead man and pottery-making wife, and a trip to the ice cream parlor, I returned Beth home to a house with a light on inside the living room. No doubt Tom Madden was still sitting on the couch, arms crossed. Her curfew was 11:00 PM, but we arrive back at 10:35.
Sitting in the car, without an agenda or a movie to guide us, I realized I had no idea what to do with her. It's not that my sexual drive was inactive—believe me, it wasn't—I just had no experience in romance, no clue how to proceed. With Mr. Madden's warnings lingering in my thoughts, I began to wonder why she would date me at all.
Even though the night proved to be a dating success, any confidence I had in our connection was washed away by thoughts of my horrible skin, my lackluster future, my allegiance to Jeff. Not only did I not know how to make a sexual advance, I didn't know how to make an emotional one. I complimented her again on her transformation.
"I still can't believe you're the same girl. You look so plain at school."
"Thanks a lot, Charlie," she said, sarcastically.
"No, that didn't come out right."
"I mean, you seem like such a student at school." It was getting worse.
"You don't say?"
"Crap. I'm not very good at this."
"No, you aren't, but that's okay. I didn't agree to go out with you because of your charisma."
The deflation I already experienced doubled.
"Why did you? Agree, that is."
She smiled and tilted her head.
"There's goodness in you, Charlie. You seem like you're from another planet, for sure, but the way you care about your friend, it inspires me. I hope to have someone care for me like that."
I didn't care like that. I wanted to, but I just could not distinguish between my feelings and sexual desires for her. I tried to force a lie out, to tell her that now she had me, but my previous introspection only led to doubt, even about my devotion to Jeff. Did I really care about him, or did I just need him to guide me? Could I care about Beth? She didn't want to guide me, so I would have to participate more in the relationship. I hadn't had a vision in months! I didn't know if I'd ever have another one again. I only asked Beth out because Jeff suggested it to after I mentioned her!
"Me, too." The words were honest, but hollow. No comfort could be found in my tone or delivery. I served them to Beth like someone placing five dollars into the basket at church, a donation out of obligation rather than spirit or desire.
Beth eased back in her chair, aware that I had opened a gulf between us.
"Is it my parents?"
"The interrogation—did they scare you?"
"No, it's not that. There's a lot you don't know about me, Beth. A lot of things that you might not like, or understand. It's taken me a long time to know this."
"And you think that makes you special? Do you think you know everything about me?"
"I don't mean to suggest anything, only that I've been a little lost lately. I have no vision."
"You're going to be a mechanic, right? That's what you told my parents."
"You were listening?"
"Well, duh! Of course I was!" She laughed. I did, too.
"I sounded like a real dunce, eh?"
"No, not entirely."
She slapped my shoulder.
"You should really just kiss me. It'll make everything better, you'll see."
I leaned over. She leaned over. She closed her eyes. I did not.
I put my hand on her cheek, cupping it the way I'd seen Jeff do with many girls.
I angled my face just enough so our noses wouldn't collide. I leaned closer.
A few centimeters before our mouths touched, I closed my eyes.
When I opened them, Beth was there, sitting back in her seat, staring incredulously at me.
"What the hell, Charlie?"
"I can explain."
"Maybe later. I need to go." She opened the door and exited the car without another word. There would not be a later. I knew that then.
I knew everything then.
My vision had returned.