Signs of Life
By Selene Castrovilla
I ain’t talked with her for almost a year.
Scratch that. Shit. Grammar is a biatch. Do I get points for substituting ‘biatch’ in for the word I’d normally use? Doubtful. Mrs. Baker’s not cutting any breaks for stuff like that. She would say it would be better for me to avoid all such terms. She would go, “Grammar is unpleasant, Joseph. I believe that is what you meant to convey.”
Not go. Say. “People ‘say,’ Joseph.” That's what Mrs. Baker would say. “They speak.”
Right, Mrs. Baker. You're absolutely right. People speak.
Except when they don’t.
Except when they can’t.
Sometimes they ‘go,’ but it has nothing to do with speaking. Or leaving for that matter. Sometimes they go even when they’re here, and that sucks.
Oh, sorry Mrs. Baker. I mean, that is unpleasant.
But really, it sucks.
I promised her I’d graduate, and go to community college. Not Mrs. Baker. Doll. I promised Doll. I didn’t think I’d get in to the college, but she said “Try, just try,” and so I applied, and they took me. Go figure.
Mrs. Baker is my Literature Studies and Composition teacher. It’s a college credit way to say “English” teacher, really. She’s always on me to speak correctly. Once, early on, I pointed out that “speaking” did not fall into either “literature studies” or “composition.” She wasn’t having any of that. “Joseph,” she said in her sing-song voice that’s hard to get annoyed at because it’s just so pleasant, “We can’t appreciate good writing, and certainly we can’t accomplish good writing, unless we speak well. We can’t do much of anything effectively unless we speak well.” Our summer class ended, but I'm taking part II in the fall. It's a requirement, but tell you the truth, I'll be glad to see her again. She keeps me in line, and I like alignment. That's my favorite thing to do on cars—set them straight.
Of all my bad grammar, Mrs. Baker hates most when I use the word ‘ain’t.’ She says it makes her soul shudder. I think that’s over the top, but I get it. And you know what? I wanna be like everyone else. Shit. Scratch that, too. I want to be like everyone else.
No, I that’s wrong, too. I sure as hell don't want to be like them. Holden Caulfield may've been a tool but he was right about them phonies.
Those phonies, I mean. People. Most people, except Doll. And maybe Mrs. Baker ain't so bad – isn't so bad, either. She talks straight, even if it's too perfect. English teachers, they can't help being all proper.
What I meant was, I want to communicate like everyone else.
Mrs. Baker would just about faint from happiness if she knew that I used the word “communicate.” I’ll have to tell her, even though I only used it in my thoughts. But hey, it’s a start. She says if we think the words, we can write them and speak them. She says it all starts inside our brains.
Yeah, don’t I know it.
It starts in our brains, and it ends there, too.
Yes, I mean yes. Yes I know that.
So anyway, I’m doing what I can to learn how to communicate. But really there’s only one person I wanna – want – to communicate with. But I can’t.
I haven’t heard her voice in almost a year.
Yeah, that’s it.
Haven’t. I haven’t.
Haven’t, haven’t, haven’t.
I keep wondering. What if I hadn’t dropped the gun?
He dropped the
gun thank god Joey
He let go of his dad who
flopped to the floor his head
hit with a
thud not as
loud as the
but more disturbing because he’s a human being well
He's a living being, maybe
up he didn’t look
back at his
dad not even when he
I know he heard it his body
flinched I could see it
twitch but he kept facing
I wasn’t that far, I was right there really just a
away but it seemed to take
for him to
me he was in slow
motion and I was suspended,
filled with relief so
all-consuming that I couldn't
There were sirens
outside, so many
sirens and red
lights flashing through the kitchen
window, sweeping across the
green linoleum and across
And then he
me, he was
in his arms and he said,
and he squeezed. It should have felt
good but I was too
filled with all the other emotions too
spent and then there was still his
And there was the gun...
The hairs rise on the back of my neck. I could swear someone’s behind me, like they’re following me ready to put a gun to small of my back. My body tenses but I don’t even turn around because I know there’s no one there. This happens all the time. They call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. When everything went down with Pop, my brothers and I got sent to a shrink. Warren still goes. He's eleven. Not that beaten down yet.
Me, I passed on regular appointments, even though the doc said we could work on it. I got a bad taste in my mouth from Doll's parents. Both psychologists, and they were clueless. I'm used to the PTSD, I deal, and anyway I think if there was someone there and he did blow me away, he’d be doing me a favor. I been doing time here for nineteen years, ain't that enough?
Godddamn grammar. You know what I meant. I can't constantly check myself, on top of everything else. Or maybe the checking myself is the thing that gets me through. Who the f knows. Not shrinks, for sure. They're all playing mental craps with with our minds, that's what I think.
But still, I'm glad Warren goes. Poor kid's got a rotten name on top of everything else. It was Pop's great-uncles's from the 1800's or some sh—something like that. We all got named by Pop, like he was mentally branding us. I'm named after Pop which makes me ill, but “Joseph” does blend. “Warren” is high on the nerd scale. Plus, it ryhmes with foreign, and you know some flag-waving, shoot-to-kill rah rah rah a-hole is gonna make something out of that at lunch. I mentioned him in Mrs. Baker's class when we were introducing ourselves, and she smiled and said his last name should be “Peace.” Whatever that means. I let that one go by. I didn't wanna look stupid on my first day. Or ever, really.
I head past the pizzeria and my mode switches from paranoid to craving. That baking smell it practically makes me salivate and I’m not even hungry. I glance at the gumball machine by the window. It’s filled with the giant gumballs I used to love you could bite them into two pieces and save half for later, but these are faded from the sun. I don’t know who the hell—heck—would want to chew them but that’s the kind of town this is. Washed-out.
God I wish I had a way to shock myself or something, every time I catch myself saying something wrong. Sooner or later I’d get the message, or collapse from the voltage. I’m looking down, watching my feet carry me which sort of amazes me— they could bear the brunt of the rest of me weighing them down and still keep going— when I spot a rubber band laying across a sidewalk seam, like it’s bridging the gap. I pick it up and pull at it, then realize it’s the perfect thing for me. I slip it around my wrist and give it a snap. Ow! Good.
It’s not electro-shock, but it hurts. It’ll do.
Every time I catch myself using grammar wrong, I’ll snap myself.
I slip it on. It’s a perfect fit! Not so tight that my wrist’ll turn blue; not loose enough to slip off.
Some people would say this is a gift from above - that I asked for help and I got it. I say a mailman was here and dropped the rubber band that was around someone’s junk mail.
You could make a case for the mailman just as easy as you could for God— no easier, if you’re rational. But people always want to give credit to their higher power. I guess t makes them feel special or something. Ooh, I found a heavenly rubber band! What’s next?An image of The Virgin Mary formed in the grease on my pizza?
I’m sure someone’s seen her floating on a bed of anchovies.
Signs. They’re like assholes. Full of shit.
Two doors down, I get my coffee at this sketchy bodega –oops, I mean: I purchase a cup of coffee at an unsavory bodega. Not too bad a slip, but I snap myself anyway. I’m pretty sure Mrs. Baker would be okay with the word bodega because it’s precise. She loves precision. I get that. I love the precision of a car engine – the feeling of knowing that everything is running just right. That’s why I became a mechanic (also my choices were limited because I sucked at pretty much every subject at schoolI gotta admit – oh, snap!— her excitement about the English language sometimes revs me up, too. (Is rev a real word? If it ain't...it should be. Snap!) Sometimes, for a few minutes, I forget about my miserable life. Our last day of class, she was telling us about the book we're reading for next semester, recommending highly that we read it over semester break so we have time to “digest it properly” without our other classes weighing us down, and some girl in the third row who always wears a big bow in her hair (what's that about?) complained that it looked depressing. Mrs. Baker said yes, it is depressing. Then she said that one point of a book is so you can forget your own crummy life and read about someone else's. She didn't say it like that, but that's what basically what she said.
My question is, what good is that, really? What good is an escape when you're gonna – when you're going to – get caught and locked right back up in your cell?
I gotta admit...no, I've got to admit, that book really does have some messed up shit going on. Make that, unfortunate circumstances. It's called As I lay Dying.
But reading about other peoples' problems don't help mine.
Doesn't help mine.
Also, the title…God, I can’t even go there. Not if I wanna keep functioning. Snap!
I want to keep functioning.
Will I ever learn?
I don’t even want to keep functioning – but a promise is a promise. And that’s all I have left. Maybe one day she’ll know about all I’ve been doing, and she’ll be proud of me. And she’ll hug me. I’ll get to hold her in my arms…
But Doll would say that she’s beside the point. She’d say that virtue is its own reward. She always said stuff like that. She was like a self-empowerment speaker, but not full of it. (See, Mrs. Baker? I avoided the word ‘shit’ twice!)
Me, I say there is no reward. I say we’re all damned. And from the way things turned out, I don’t see how Doll could argue that one.
Though I’d give anything to hear her try.
Doll, she would’ve believing the rubber band was a gift. But she would’ve said that I manifested it myself, by wishing for it. She said that we’re each our own God. Really, she did. It was one of the last things she said to me, and I argued with her about it. Well, not argued. I told her I didn’t agree. If I could do it over, I’d tell her she was right. Even though she wasn’t. But I’d wanna make her feel good.
Everything we say to people we love should make them feel good.
I got my unsavory coffee (it smells like it was sitting on the burner for about three days, and it looked more like engine oil then coffee when I poured it) cradled in my left hand with a wad of napkins separating my fingers from the cup because it's one of those thin paper ones. I'd like to know what sadist invented them, the temperature of the coffee comes searing through every goddamn time.
Snap! Sorry. I gotta remember not to curse.
I must remember not to curse.
Also, I must remember to say “I’ve.” Snap!
I've got my unsavory coffee.
I've got my unsavory coffee.
God, I hate grammar. What's the point? But Doll thinks there's a point...she thought there was a point. It was another of the last things she said to me, besides the thing about being our own gods. She made me promise to be the best person I can be. What else I can I do? Grammar is something to hold onto in this sea I'm lost at...so at least I don't sink and drown.
I'm trying to hold on…
But now I have something else, besides the grammar. I have this rubber band, It’s like the world’s smallest, shittiest life preserver.
I snap myself, but I also laugh, just for a second. I laugh because Doll would laugh at how stupid a thought that was. Like the end of Titanic. We used to make fun of that girl saying “I’ll never let go!”
Guess what. She let go.
World’s filled with hypocrites. But Doll, she never promised me nothing. It was a given that got taken away.
She got taken away.
Sweet, beautiful Doll. Will she come back for me?
I can't think about that because I don't wanna cry at the meeting.
I don't want to cry at the meeting.
Enough's enough already.
Snap! Snap! Snap! That outta— ought to cover everything.
Anyway, I'm grateful for this lousy coffee, despite it's being lousy. Because no matter what it tastes like, it'll keep me going. I need to keep going.
And because bad bodega coffee is better than going in Dunkin' Donuts.
Ain't nothing worth that trip.
Oops. Make that: Nothing is worth that trip. There's no reason to go down memory lane. Ain't nothing but a dead-end.
The sting, it feels good.
I haven’t felt in so long.
I get to the church – is that right? Can you get somewhere? Or do you reach it? That sounds so fancy, like something Doll might say – would've said, anyway, and from her it would be okay. Cause she's fancy – my bad, because she's fancy – but not in a snotty way, just in her Doll way. But I can't pull off reach, and arrive is even worse. I arrive at the church. No, I don't think so. I have my limits, and no one talks like that unless they're a suit.
I ain't no suit.
Correction: I'm not a person who wears a suit.
Ties make my neck feel like it's in a loose.
Also, suits make me think of court, which makes me think of jail. Hence, no suit.
I think Mrs. Baker would really dig me using the word “hence!”
I get to the church and low and behold there's a new message on it’s sign. The messages outside this church make my soul shudder, like Mrs. Baker’s does when I say ‘ain’t.’ I try not to look at it, but then I always do. It’s like an accident on the side of the road. A really bad accident, where there’s nothing you can do to help – and there you are, staring. Helpless.
I think of this sign like an especially bad therapy session. Like it’s a shrink bringing up shit – no, topics you don’t want to think about. But this sign is even worse, because it’s not just about me. It’s about all of us – and there ain’t a thing I can do about it.
There’s not a thing I can do about it.
I don’t know what’s up with this church always making people feel bad before they walk in – or maybe they’re trying to guilt you to come in and pray, to try and do something to ease the pain.
Maybe religion’s just another drug.
Tonight the sign says, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Ain't that a bitch.
I mean, Isn't that a bitch. I refuse to change the word 'bitch' to anything else weaker, because 'bitch' is totally needed here.
Sometimes vulgarity is called for.
Even Mrs. Baker would have to agree, because it's in books. Sparingly, as she says. But still, it is.
Bottom line: The church sign is right.
Makes you wonder what's up with God, causing all this grief.
But I still go to meetings and I still surrender. What else can I do? And anyway, I don't have the the strength to fight anymore.
Never thought I'd see that day.
I salute 'ole Jesus still nailed up on that cross and head inside. Poor Jesus. If he had no chance, what's gonna happen to the rest of us?
What's going to happen...
What's going to happen...
Dorothy – Then
What's going to
I couldn't get
My relief had morphed to
terror. I was immobile
I wanted to tell Joey to
scream that his
dad was reaching for the
gun but it was like my vocal
frozen, like time was
frozen, we were
frozen in our
embrace but Joey's dad,
Maybe time wasn't frozen, either. Maybe it was
crawling like Joey's
dad was inching
us with the
gun if I could have
I would have warned Joey but was
Joey was paying no
attention he was
clinging to me like I was a
float in the ocean he was
done but his
dad he didn't look
done not at all.
dad's vein was
bulging in his forehead his eyes were
bulging from their sockets his fingers were
wrapped around his
tapped on the
linoleum as he
inched toward us his
gun was like a paddle row row row
way to blow your
away. Would he kill
Joey, though Joey had spared
him? Was the man capable of a rational
thought, let alone gratitude
Then he was there
us right behind Joey he had reached us
unannounced because I couldn't say a
thing I just stood there thinking about
things that wouldn't even
soon because we'd be
And then I thought that if I had
die at least it would be in Joey's
I finally screamed.