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Posted: October 10th, 2010 | Author: | Tags: , | 2 Comments »

 leep doesn’t come easily these days. Regrets, like wispy ghosts, float through the room as soon as the lights are turned out, and they pin me down in bed, as though I’ve been shackled to the low, iron frame. And as if they have their own agenda, they come at me, the earliest mistakes of my life first, followed by later ones and finally thoughts of my most recent sins when I have the least energy to fight them off.

Blurry around the edges like an old slide show, one of my earliest memories from grammar school involved a spelling test and a classmate wetting himself. Though I can’t remember anything else from that classroom, any pictures on the wall, whether there was a globe on the teacher’s desk or not, or even the number of rows of pupils, I remember Miss Shelton was reading us our spelling words when I noticed Ralph Shepard holding himself under his desk. With his other hand, he was trying, like me, to spell the word “harbor.” He didn’t look like he could bear it to ask to be excused. I raised my hand. “Miss Shelton?” “Not in the middle of a quiz, Arthur!” she scolded. “But Miss Shelton, Ralph is going to piddle himse—” As all eyes in the room turned toward him, it was over. Or, for Ralph, just beginning. As he was mocked at recess—wearing an old pair of gym shorts that they apparently kept at school just for boys who couldn’t control themselves—I decided that I would never, ever get myself into anyone’s personal business again. Truth be told, if Ralph still hasn’t forgiven me for that, I wouldn’t blame him.

The next salvo fired across my hippocampus—and by this point it’s not unusual to feel the cool air coming off the cement floor a foot and a half below me despite my sheets and wool blanket and a comforter I had made out of flannel scraps from old pajamas—is the fake call of a baseball announcer made up by me to narrate the final play of my short-lived career.

“It’s a one-and-one count in the bottom of the seventh”—it was little league, we didn’t play the full nine then—some cigar smoking, fedora wearing, potbellied announcer would proclaim. “Tying run on first, a feared batter at the plate. Two outs, down by one…”—of course it was! Why else would the gods have managed to get me on base?—“…the pitch! It’s in the dirt for ball two.” After that pitch, the first base coach told me to go the next time the ball got past the catcher. I was crossing my fingers for a walk, as I always did. “Two and one, the outfield creeps in, the runner takes his lead…”—which is where the announcer in my head fucks me, because at that age we couldn’t lead-off yet, and it makes you seem even slower if you have a lead and you get… well, I won’t ruin the good announcer’s story—“…the pitch. It’s in the dirt, past the catcher! The runner goes… the throw!” The short stop had the ball before I even started my slide. The pitch had hit the backstop and bounced right back to the catcher, who threw me out at second. “He’s out! He’s out! The game is over, the season is over!” My baseball career was over.

The regrets get bigger from there, like the guilt I still felt from breaking up with Ruby Franks in the eleventh grade because I didn’t like the way her father’s car smelled when we took it to the drive-in. I felt guilty because she let me slip my hand inside her bra in that car. She was a terrifically cute girl with a little gap in her two front teeth, and sweeter than warm, fresh milk straight from the cow’s teat. She read books, she sang in church, and we talked about opening a diner together. But I couldn’t get past the smell of chewing tobacco and shoe polish that the car reeked of, and I stopped talking to her. And I think she thought it was her fault.

When the darkest hours of the night eclipse the remaining memories, I move on to new haunts. I used to worry about losing my job, but I don’t need to worry about my financial wellbeing anymore. I’m well taken care of these days. All that’s left up to me is my health.

I now brush my teeth six, eight times a day: after meals, after snacks, after drinking from the fountain down the hall which probably has nasty old pipes and god-knows-what kind of contaminants in it. So everytime I chew something—pen tops, cigarettes (I don’t even smoke them anymore), toothpicks (which are s’posed to keep your teeth clean)—I find myself in front of the mirror and washbasin. Twenty strokes along the molars on the bottom right, twenty strokes across the top of my bottom front teeth, twenty strokes along the bottom left molars, repeat for the top. Then the sides of each of the teeth: twenty brushes on the molars, twenty along the front of the bottom front teeth, and twenty along the top.

I’ve got it down to a simple process. My head goes on counting, but I don’t need to watch anymore. Instead, I stare at the figure in the mirror: was my hair this curly yesterday? Have my eyes always been brown? My beard is coming in whiter and whiter every day. At what point did I become old? And then, as I count the last brush strokes, I spit into the tinny sink (it makes a familiar “tinny” noise), rinse twice, wipe my mouth on the towel, and return to the bed.

I used to sit and reflect on the image in the mirror, the way it’s changed over time, and the way I’ve changed to keep up with it. Because when you don’t feel like the person in the mirror, you need to change the way you look or the way you act. I’ve never been able to control the way I look. Haircuts grow back, and my nose still points slightly to the left, no matter what I try.

If it’s past, it’s past, and, much like a crooked nose, you can’t change it. Which means my regrets are probably a waste of time, a buildup of needless anxiety, a one-way path headed straight for a coronary. Which is maybe what I need. Maybe that’s the consequence that I’ve been waiting for. We feel guilty when we’ve come out ahead, when we know that the pendulum that keeps the world in balance needs to swing back against us in order to right itself.

Every few days, so that everyone gets his proper exercise, we’re given yard duty. We dig holes and we load the boulders we find into dump trucks to be hauled away. To me, it seems like punishment from the gods that you would read about in Dante, but they tell us that it’s productive work, and ain’t none of us John the Baptist. I’m one of the boulder-lifters, because my biggest mistake was when I worked fixing the roads.

My crew was patching potholes on one of those ungodly hot days in the middle of summer, the days when the humidity literally strangles you, actually keeps air from reaching your lungs. We had finished one site and I was gathering the men to head to the next one when one of them happily announced “Looky what I’ve got!” On the ground, a field mouse struggled to loosen its tail from under his boot. “LUNCH!” Without opening his mouth, he slid a cigarette into one of the gaps of missing teeth.

“Quit kidding around, Bill, work day’s almost over and I want to get home on time tonight.”

“Watch this,” one of the other workers said. And as he did, Bill stomped with his other foot, breaking the mouse completely, just fucking smashing it. Bill smiled and looked up at the rest of us. To this day, I can’t decide whether I wish I had already been in the truck at this point or not, because we would have just driven away without him. But I wasn’t in the truck. As it was, I was just a few paces away from him, and as I raised my shovel to my shoulder, I didn’t know what I was doing. Except that I swung that shovel harder than I ever swung a baseball bat, or anything since. He didn’t even look shocked. He just kept on smiling as he crumpled to the ground. They told me his brain stopped before his heart, and he spent most of the ride to the hospital not knowing he was in trouble. Then he just died with that stupid, shit-eating grin on his face. And because of that, the warden says I’m not allowed to use a shovel when we dig for boulders.

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2 Comments on “Boulders”

  1. 1 Don said at 8:34 am on October 11th, 2010:


  2. 2 Don said at 8:34 am on October 11th, 2010:


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