by Dusty McGowan
Night One-12:25 a.m.
Well, this should be quite a challenge; attempting to write at a time of night when I usually can't form a coherent thought. I have already struggled with the perfect beginning for this makeshift journal I bought at the flea market today. The crisp, yet final sounding sentiment to say: "Welcome to my life." Who I am kidding? I have never kept a diary before. I thought "diaries" in general were reserved for melodramatic sixteen-year-old girls. This is the person who can't wait to spill the contents of her heart on the paper like so much fresh blood. I can't even admit to having a heart. If I do, it has been so long since I used it, that it probably resembles a huge piece of Antarctic ice. Oh, a horrible metaphor just came to mind: this pen I use now is like an ice pick, chipping, chipping away…
Only teasing, I don't have a heart and this isn't much of a diary. No, this is a notebook with a generic painting of ducks on the cover. The sort of industrial art you might find in a cheap motel (covering up a glory hole, most likely). A motel designed to make you do the one thing I can't quite achieve: sleep through the night.
Nothing about my current situation is comfortable at the moment.
I thought my eyelids were growing heavier after the last passage was written. The truth has turned out to be that the lighting I was writing under was bad. That made me decide to leave the crap box apartment I live in and head down to the all night diner. This is a place that I go quite a bit; though, thankfully, no one recognizes me. (I majored in Sociology in college. I always like to make a mental note of how exactly I become "alone in a crowd." That's about the extent to which I use my college degree). What is nagging at me about continuing this sick little process?
I suppose that I want to start telling you (dear dairy, ahem) about how I came to acquire you. This happened about three weeks ago at the local (and seemingly endless) flea market. This is one of my favorite destinations to go and practice a bit of self-restraint. I used to be completely powerless. My apartment is filled from wall to wall with an endless array of possessions that pushed past that self-restraint. As I write this, I am thinking about the dummy at the edge of my bed. He is supposed to resemble a particularly terrifying mascot from an ill-fated series of Pizza Place commercials. He stares at me (and the rest of the room) menacingly in his orange Spandex clown suit and pancake make up. There is no logical reason for a full grown adult to own this piece of bizarre memorabilia.
Speaking of intruders: I have a giant wrench by my door I bought at a booth called "The Tool Shed." The thing is rusted over and probably not much good. Still, I can't deny its awesome bulk. I don't live in the best neighborhood. I suppose the thing is buying me some security.
Where was I going with this? Right, where I got this notebook was the topic for a through-line. Self-restraint was the over arching theme…right…
I attend the same flea market almost weekly. I see many so-called vendors come and then vanish. I always have the sense that they are somehow finally engulfed and consumed by the junk they sell. There is only one glaring exemption; the son and mother who always occupy the farthest reach of the grounds. All of the other vendors like to specialize in their needless junk. They rehab thrown out furniture and call it "antique." They pack binders with discarded baseball cards and charge twice what the cards are worth. The mother-son team doesn't even try to hide the con game. Every item looks like it has been picked out of the trash (and it probably has). The only variation on this charade is that the nature of junk changes. One week the pair might have used videotapes overflowing onto the asphalt. The next week it will be old, moth eaten clothes. The son even makes a vague attempt at modeling the clothes as if to say: "these aren't as bad as they look."
As far as I can tell, they never remember me from visit to visit. The son is always (to use an expression) "half in the bag" for most of the day. He doesn't do much to hide his stereotypical intoxication. I have even known him to go as far as to carry the classic, telltale brown bag. Nosey bastard that I am, there was no way I wasn't going to ask the obvious question. "Cough syrup," was the instant answer that we both knew was a lie. The son is one hell of an accomplished drunk. There is nothing even remotely sloppy about him. The words out of his mouth are almost always coherent. I have even witnessed him push way past drunkenness into a poetic, reckless eloquence. He once delivered a soliloquy about the "humble nature of trash" that almost brought a tear to my eye. (I say that as someone who is a fellow trash connoisseur. I also admitted to almost crying…but my heart is still a block of ice. Don't worry).
The mother is a different case from her drunken son. I think most of the passersby hardly notice her. She usually sits motionlessly in the corner of the booth. She is in a wheelchair, but you would hardly notice it. That is because she is cloaked in a blanket that is so old I can't tell if it was originally black or gray. This blanket is often seasonably inappropriate. I have seen her hide under it during the hottest of summer days and watched it get soaked by rain. The blanket matches the equally old pair of sunglasses she always wears. My first instinct was to believe that she was totally blind. Then I started to feel the eyes on me; asking uncomfortable questions I don't have the answers to yet. This woman was most certainly not blind. I also have a tough time believing that she is mute. The knowledge that I have never heard her talk might prove otherwise. That's exactly what bothers me about these two. There is no tangible evidence to explain the existence of this mother/son duo. They live completely outside of logic and their relationship (or lack of one) is a total mystery.
The only reason I would ever own a duck colored notebook is because I frequent the flea market. Last week, the drunken son and mother were trying to refashion themselves as stationary merchants. The son still didn't remember me and his mother was as mute as ever. I came to the flea market that day to practice my self-restraint. I had walked through the entire area chanting: "I don't need any of this." What was it about the mother/son duo and this notebook that broke me? What were the answers to my many questions I thought I would receive?
I forgot one crucial detail about the mother/son duo. They identify themselves professionally as "Little Jimmy's Shack of Joy." I have always assumed that the aforementioned "Little Jimmy" is the cough syrup guzzling beast under the tent. I can't picture him being a "little" anything. There is one other "Little Jimmy" I know of who had an obscure novelty hit decades ago. I tried to broach this topic with the "Little Jimmy" at the flea market.
"You wouldn't happen to be the same Little Jimmy?" I asked.
There was a bit of a pause before I got the gruff: "Never heard of the bastard." The "Little Jimmy" I know and hate then gave me a defensive wave to get lost out of his tent. I suppose the lesson there is never to associate a current acquaintance with a past failure (even if he's not the same guy). I heard the novelty singing "Little Jimmy" had done such a thorough job of vanishing that no one knew where he went or who he actually was.
I just got home from the all-night diner. Everything was fine until a group of rowdy college kids pushed their way into the both next to me. I was scribbling madly trying to ignore them. The obvious ringleader noticed me and began to make what I can only imagine were demeaning comments. I stood right up and looked him in the eye and walked out past him. I then turned around and faced him before I exited.
"You could very easily be dead," I told him.
A still and empty quiet came over the table as I shut the door behind me. I'm now sitting here alone surveying my junk collection. This is about the time of night my favorite radio show comes on. The one that is hosted by a new age quack whom never fails to have new recipes for getting to sleep. There is something about this man's hypnotic voice that always puts me out to drift. I like to pretend that he is speaking only to me with all his wisdom about being self-sufficient and happy.
Well, I surrender to you, Beast Insomnia; not a wink for over two weeks now. I just got out of bed and put the coffee on. Here is another paradox in my behavior. I don't drink coffee and the only reason I brew it is for the smell.
Night Two-12:00 a.m.
Hello again, duck covered notebook. After last night, I deemed my career as diarist to be over. What brought me back? Obviously, it's midnight and I am restless. There is more than that for me tonight, though. I have to relate a sight I came across today that I couldn't seem to reconcile for myself. What would that be?
I went to go visit the flea market this morning during an "off day." (Today is Tuesday, and the more rational part of civilization is out finding something monetarily supportive to do). As far as I know, the Market doesn't ever quite close. There are always a few stray vendors who are brave enough to rough out the elements. I know all of this to be true. Still, I had never gone by to witness it myself.
I need to back up and talk to you about my motivation for doing such a thing. I was in the mood to mark a bit of an occasion. I had received my monthly check that comes from the estate of a dead relative. The relative in question is my deceased Uncle Ted. Ted made his living in the candy business and was given the somewhat insulting nickname "The Lollipop King." He has stumbled onto a formula in his youth that created an extra long lasting lollipop.
Ted was the jovial sort of guy who could be the star in his own television commercials. Ted's presence suggested that he was somewhere between Santa Clause and a genuinely tortured artist. I hadn't known him that well in life. Still, he recognized me as the only other eccentric in the family. That might have been why the lollipop king had chosen me as an heir. (There were rumors about other children the King might have sired; all of them unsubstantiated. There may have very easily been another darker chapter to my uncle's existence that he never told us about.)
The only tangible things I know are that he had me in his will and he had choked to death. That happened after he had made his final elixir (the very perfect lollipop solution). The man had taken a bite out of his own creation and it got lodged in his airway. This had happened in the place that most accidents happen: the home. My uncle had built a small mansion on the top of a hill for himself. That is where he spent the majority of his time alone. Every once in while, he would go down to the candy factory he owned and check up on things. I would like to think he had died with a smile on his face after tasting the perfect candy.
I usually use the money to pay off the essentials like rent, food, and clothing. There was something that felt different today. I used some of the money to put gas in my ancient jeep and I drove out to the flea market grounds. That is where I discovered what I could only describe as a graveyard. I could see the indentations in the ground from the tent poles and witness where the heaviest foot traffic had been. I started to find the eerie quiet disconcerting and was about to leave when I saw the mother and son. They were not selling anything and didn't occupy their regular post. They just skirted the edge of the grounds as the son pushed the mother in her chair. I dropped behind them at what I thought was a respectful distance and then followed.
The son pushed his mother towards the edge of a low-income housing community. I had driven past this place numerous times and have often thought: "What if I ended up here?" Sadly, the area portrays the stereotypical idea of "no-man's land." There isn't any grass to speak of and most of the trees are dead. The houses are all uncomfortably sandwiched next to each other in duplexes and triplexes. I have always imagined that the walls are as thin as paper.
I followed the dynamic duo at a distance past a variety of dismal looking places. The only obvious difference with their place was that it had a large picture window. I could see just about every detail of what they were doing once the son turned on the light. I even watched as he pushed his mother into a solitary corner and then placed a dinner tray on her lap. The two of them quickly became comatose in front of a prehistoric looking TV. I can't even tell you why this little tableau was so shocking to me. Still, I had the same sting of disappointment that a child feels when he finds out Santa Claus is a myth. I was even more unnerved when the son left the room and his mother was alone. Not a single word had passed between them.
Clearly, this nocturnal writing project isn't helping me stave off insomnia. I am still lying awake thinking about a topic I tried to write about last night; my extraordinary lack of self-restraint. I haven't let another human being into my place in quite some time (you can feel free to read that as "years"). They probably wouldn't be able to navigate their way through the maze of what I humbly call "my collection." I have everything; vintage road signs, shelves of obscure horror comic books, and even an old record player. The analog radio I have by my bedside is even more dated than it has to be. I have every corner of the apartment covered except for one.
While I was rearranging yesterday, I noticed the empty spot by my tiny kitchen window. (I never exactly do what you might call cleaning. I simply rearrange and look for any new mess that might be happening under my junk). The first impression I had was that it was big enough to hide a small human being. If I had a toddler, this is exactly what I where I would put it in "time out." The emptiness became even more unsettling the longer I looked at it. I couldn't quite make sense of the hole it appeared to leave in my dwelling.
Before midnight, I had started to drift off and dream about the space growing like a black hole. All of my cherished possessions were being erased one by one. Then without warning, I was whisked away into the house of the mother/son duo. They couldn't see me; but I could most definitely see them. They were sitting at a kitchen table eating in silence. I couldn't seem to move any closer to them, nor could I look away. The son was shoveling food in his mouth at almost sickening pace. The mother sat in her usual motionless silence. That was until she turned her head and looked directly at me. That was when I bolted awake and couldn't sleep for the rest of the night.
Here's a final note for tonight. The new age host is doing an entire segment right now on abuse of the elderly. The man clearly did his research; he is covering everything from nursing home neglect to abuse at the hands of a caretaker. Now he is talking about negligence being "almost as bad as abuse." Is the older woman I have this non-existent relationship with a victim of neglect? That's another problem to ponder while I try to get some sleep.
That last section clearly wasn't a final note. Four o'clock is the hour of the morning that causes me to give up. When I was still working, I would always make a silent vow to not let my total exhaustion control me. I would blame insomnia for the bulk of my last decade of unemployment. The stories themselves are boring and inconsequential. Just imagine me being constantly caught by my supervisor sleeping at a desk, nodding off at a customer service booth, or having the occasional excuse of oversleeping.
Did I mention the dreams yet? (Looking back through this sloppy collection of handwriting; yes, indeed I did). They happen mostly during the day when I doze off. The one that is primarily in my head has to do with the mother at the flea market. This dream occurred at three o'clock in the afternoon yesterday. I had inadvertently sat down in my overstuffed easy chair to take a break from my cataloguing project. (For this entry, I would spare you the gory details of that sad mess). I thought I only needed a quick break, but it turned into a full-blown siesta.
In the dream, I found myself in my apartment with only a slight variation on reality. The empty space from the last dream had been filled with the presence of the mother. She looked at me in her usual silent manner but I somehow sensed she was happier. I waved to her and that is when a flood of water burst through my front door. I was struck with a sort of paralysis as the flood filled the whole apartment. I could see the mother drifting away but I couldn't reach her. The last image in my mind is of her floating away. The actual parameter of my apartment had grown exponentially and was now the size of a small ocean. The mother started to move her arms in a vague attempt to swim. The wheelchair pulled her down into unforeseeable depths as I floated upwards. The ending of this dream was perhaps the most finite conclusion I had ever had while I was asleep.
I was being drawn up to the surface of the water. I was going to be the one who survived all of this. I woke up in my overstuffed chair gasping for air. I eventually was able to sputter and cough my way back to full consciousness. Then I had what various therapists of mine had called an insight: the old woman might need a rescuer. I sputtered one more time and an image appeared in my head. I saw myself dressed in the costume of a make shift (and nameless) superhero. The sputtering turned into hoarse laughter as I went about the business of my day.
The coffee is brewing now and the smell fills my apartment. I watch the pot that will go unconsumed fill up. I feel like I'm straining for metaphor in the cold light of day. I've been a bit like an unconsumed coffee pot; endless hot potential left out to cool and be underused. I start thinking about myself in spandex again. Who am I kidding? I don't have a heroic bone in my body. I can't even create a decent metaphor.
One hour later: I have decided to enrich the previous awkward metaphor. I picked up the unconsumed coffee pot and smashed it on my tiny kitchen floor. I am now watching the glass and coffee float off onto the carpet from the tile. There are now Miniature Rivers of coffee; they are complicating the metaphor.
I'm not a metaphor…no; I am more like a mess. May I please fall asleep now?
I've developed a new hobby that I don't wish to classify as "stalking." No, it is more like "paying watchful attention" to the circumstances of the unfortunate. There is a dirt lot that is situated directly across from the mother/son duo's house. I can peer into the picture window without being noticed. Even if someone spies me in the lot, I would like to believe they don't think much of it. The pair eats their dinner in silence and then parks in front of the TV. The most upsetting thing I saw tonight was the son leaving the living room. He sat down at the kitchen table and polished off about a quart of what I assumed to be vodka. (I couldn't see the bottle's label, and that drove me crazy).
The mother just sat in the TV room being illuminated by screen like a ghost. Then she began to have a coughing spell that her son didn't appear to hear or care about. I honestly thought she was about to gag to death. What could I do? I couldn't bang on the door without giving my entire act away. There was even the off chance that the son might recognize me as one of the freaks from the flea market. I also don't have psychic abilities (that I know of). I couldn't just shoot magical lazars out of my eyeballs and stop the woman from choking. I could just stand by in silent futility and watch for the woman's demise. (I could also anonymously call the police. That option didn't quite float into my mind because of what you might call shock).
At the very last second, the son stumbled into the room and thumped his mother on the back. She spit out some kind of unidentifiable food (or possibly phlegm) from her throat. The two acted so blasé about the incident that I could only assume it was a fairly regular occurrence. The son then shut off the TV and wheeled the mother off to another part of the house hidden from my vision. I felt myself straining my eyes to see if I could detect anything. I went the extra length and walked towards the house to take one last look.
I never suspected that my cover was about to be blown an instant later. A very burly man with an uncomfortable amount of body hair opened the door to his house.
"Hey buddy," he yelled, waving nastily at me "You lost or something?"
"No," I whimpered.
"Then maybe you better get lost."
I had no choice to follow the man's directions and get lost.
I spent the last hour from 1:00 to 2:00 stretching out on my bed and praying for some kind of sleep. I thought the prayer would help erase the image of that woman choking in front of her TV set out of my mind. I don't know what I object to more. The fact that she is still living for no apparent purpose or that she was suffering with no end in sight. I suppose the fact that I will never know the full extent of her misery is a vague consolation.
The sun is going to come up in an hour and sleep still hasn't come. I have decided to stop ruminating about the mother/son duo and go back to my cataloging process. This consists of entering all of the items of my junk heap into a spreadsheet. This has turned out to be laborious because there seems to be no easy way to do it. The most recent approach I have settled on is by "category." The last section of the spreadsheet I have been diligently working on is "novelty records." I see the title of the last one cataloged: "The Saddest Little Boy in the World." Just looking at the title makes me want to pull the record out and listen to it.
Remember Little Jimmy that I mentioned earlier? I'll clarify that: the novelty singer and not the junk merchant. "The Saddest Little Boy in the World" is the one and only recording by him. The sources I have consulted constantly contrast on the fact of how old he was when he recorded the single. Some of them say he was as young as ten or as old as fifteen. There is only one known photograph of Little Jimmy the singer; he wears the costume of a court jester and has what can only be called a guilty smile on his face. The sort of grimace that too many drunken drivers have had in mug shots. You get the sense that this so-called Little Jimmy knows an awful secret. That is only one possibility, but he also might be embarrassed by the get up he is wearing. I couldn't venture a guess on his much-disputed age by looking at the cover.
You might ask the only question that would be logical at a time like this. How's the record? The best way I can think to describe it is "unsettling." The first minute and a half is sickeningly sweet. Little Jimmy sings in a baby like falsetto as he is accompanied by what sounds like a music box. The baby falsetto tells you a story about getting lost at "the market.' Then Little Jimmy gets right to the chorus and starts a horribly authentic sounding crying session. All during the crying, he sobs out: "And now I've lost my mommy…" I can only imagine that this was someone's ill-advised attempt at comedy. The first time I heard it on the radio (as a kid of about eleven) I was absolutely horrified. This was around the same time my own mother had died in a freak skiing accident…so make of that what you will.
I have listened to this record so many times that the novelty has worn off. I now listen to it because I seldom cry myself. There are many things about my current situation that might strike the normal guy on the street as: "sad." I do whatever I can to numb out that reality on a day-by-day basis. I go to flea markets, search discontentedly for all manners of old junk, and stay up all night suffocating in loneliness. As you know, dear diary, I have also started peering into the lives of other miscreants in an attempt to…what? I suppose I'm trying to find some kind of sick solace in the misspent moments of others. I probably have a whole river dammed up in my tear ducts. That doesn't mean that I want to do to dislodge it.
I find it so much easier to let someone else do my crying for me. That's the only reason I've held onto this slab of junk record for so long. Maybe I needed to buy this journal to finally admit that sad and obscure little truth.
All I can see in that last sentence are the words "sad" and "obscure." That is a very adequate description of yours truly. I couldn't be any more "sad" and "obscure" if I tried. The mother and son are also sad and obscure. The moron who inflicted the Planet Earth with "The Saddest Little Boy in the World" is the very definition of "sad and obscure." The only people who remember him are even doubly "sad" and "obscure." Remember Uncle Ted the "Lollipop King"? He's another victim of "sad obscurity."
I just picked up the wrench by my door. I found myself doing some kind of careless dance with it. The wrench knocks against one pile of junk and demolishes it. Another moment later, the wrench delivers another stack of debris to the heavenly graveyard of trash. I then somehow managed to inadvertently trip and slam the wrench into my cardboard thin wall. I managed to recover my balance and look at the damage. I saw what had been hidden from me for the last several years. There was nothing but wires and insulation; I was never as protected as I assumed.
I started looking at the wrench (which was still in my hand). I had a fleeting thought: What could this thing do to a human head?
Dear Diary, my old friend…my old pal…I'm heading out the door. I can get to the incredible mother-son duo's house in just a few minutes. I have put on an old overcoat and the wrench is pressing uncomfortably into my side. Not quite spandex, but it'll do. This might be the last time we have a chance to talk.
I'm the Saddest Little Boy in the World.
I'm the Saddest Little Boy in the World.
And I've lost my mommy…
Dusty McGowan is a writer and professional therapist living in Santa Fe, NM. His work has previously appeared in the journals Penumbra and Trickster. He continues to happily explore where tragedy and comedy meet face to face.