Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Growing Pains

Stephen lives in the garage, in the way back, what my grandfather and the rest of the family call the rumpus room. The space is comfortable, at least in size, but if we are what our immediate surroundings suggest, Stephen is, on the inside, a terrible mess. I saw Stephen some years ago, I must have been nineteen or twenty. He was small, timid, soft-voiced, half here, and half there. His beard clung to his face like a little warm hug; he has a sort of teddy-bear softness to him. But, that was years ago. When I saw Stephen the other month, he was much different than what I remember. I saw him and started to put together the pieces of every story Aaron or Marguerite told me about him. Aaron said he had buckets of feces and urine on the floor, everywhere. Marguerite said he filled up the garage with trash and junk. Aaron said that he was a weirdo, as he acted out a stubborn charades of the man. Marguerite hung her head, swinging back and forth in shame as the burning end of her blunt crept closer to her fingers, the smoke playing around her nostrils. My Mother, Stephens sister, swears by him. She knows that behind, beneath, and around all that crazy, there is a man; her little brother. Now, before I heard about the strange behavior, the hoarding, the unhealthy living, the fear of telephones, I knew another fantasy of Stephen. My Mother told be how athletic he was, that he was a baseball player, and a really good one. In fact, he was this close to making it on the Giants team. Edmund, his brother was also a notably good athlete, with an immense knowledge of every baseball player and his stats. Arron told me that you could ask him about any player, on any team, on any baseball card, and he could tell you his stats. This, of course was before the "frequencies" that currently corrupt his mind. I'm not sure about Alvin, my other unlce. All I'm told about Alvin is that he went to the Navy and he came back insane. I remember his size more than anything. He's a big guy. I remember only one conversation, about how every time he came up with an idea, not too soon after he would see his idea produced and ready for the public. His example of this was The Phantom. Apparently, it was his idea before it hit the public cinema - he seemed a bit bothered by it. I was a young boy when that conversation happened. Now Alvin lives in San Jose, he is the only brother that did not end up on the street. Jimmy, my late uncle, was alright. He was tall, slim, awkward, and I later learned, gay. His over-sized glasses sat on his nose, yellowing from the constant stream of cigarette smoke. He called me little Bean Picker. Or perhaps he called my sister that. I remember him more than any other uncle - he was around the most. But his fate was ill. His death blurred over me the way fresh paint smears over more wet paint. He had cancer, a real bad type. And, according to myth and legend, after the doctor diagnosed him, he died within the week. Marguerite says the fear must of killed him. Or maybe it was my Mother who said that. After Grandpa died, the family went into chaos. This, I have gathered, was a pivotal moment for my entire family on my Mothers side. This is where everything went spiraling out of control. I remember that day. I was maybe five or six. I wore a green sweater and played superhero. My family was gathered in dinning room of the upstairs house, the house where all nine of Grandpas kids grew up, where he kept his wife inside, refusing to let her live a life outside of the house, a dynamic that can easily be linked to how and why her mind decayed the way it did, but this was after my Grandfather died. All of these people, some other people, my sister and I, and probably some other people, were together, grieving in our own way. I was playing in the hall by the stairs, my favorite place to play, where I would throw my action figures down into abysmal pits and imagine them climbing unending mountains, when my Mother came crying, kneeling, telling me he was gone. "I can bring him back Mama." I said, casting a spell, throwing magic, exercising my little super powers. Maybe it was a smile she gave me, or maybe her lips were still bent around her sobs. Either way, I could feel her sinking, so I hugged her with my little arms. I learned something new that day - that one day, all things come to an end. And this is the way of life as we know it. Happiness and sadness became forever intertwined as this sparkly new knowledge sank into me like a set of permanent teeth. And isn't life quite like a tooth? Or like a seed? And is not the result of our life much like the choices we make with our teeth? A much disciplined man will brush every day, floss, avoid sugar and coffee. A wild animal will eat what he will, when he wants, and chew off the bristles of the brush until his gums bleed. Either you have a gleaming mouth of wonderful white, or a choking yellow swamp of cavities. Then there is the unexpected - disease. Which can fell any man of various dental natures. Disease crawls, creeps, and breeds from man to man, Mother to Mother. This, I think, is Stephens case. He is a diseased tooth, terribly yellow by terrible default. So when my Mother and I were summoned to the Family House for the second time to clean out the garage, and when I learned Stephen was going to be there, I had a vague image of what to expect: a small man with a pack rat complex who smells bad. What I got wasn't far off, but was met with infinite intrigue and a paralleling sobering sadness. Stephen is tall, almost as tall as me, muscular, and he doesn't smell that bad. But he is a pack rat and is painfully hard to work with at times. After all, the reason the family got together to clean out the garage again was because after we cleaned it up the first time, after twenty years of neglect, Stephen moved in from the Tenderloin and filled it back up with junk. From wall to wall the garage was full of old clothes, dishware, dingy furniture, and much nostalgia from many different lives. This is Stephens den, this is where he sleeps, eats, breathes, shits, pisses, and wakes up. It is his only real home. Probably the only real home he has ever known. This tall old house is my first home, the place where I spent my first eight years as a boy before moving to Oakland. I feel a looming sadness when I visit this house, usually accompanied by an overwhelming array of frustrations and confusion. Stephen communicates clearly. He can speak and be spoken to with little indication of his symptoms, but this only last a little while. Before long, he'll go off into a tangent of paranoia, fear, conspiracy, and anxiety. When it comes to his junk, he is, like most hoarders, almost unreasonable. As the team filled bags with up trash , Stephen would go back into the bags and dig out any desired treasure. This drove Marguerite, who wants to permanently remove Stephen from the house, mad. The madness cut deep into me, I did my best not to show any cracking emotions other than pride. And that held until Stephen went through one of the bags I filled. He picked out used containers and dirty cloth, claiming to be able to use them. He dug, and dug, and dug until he had just about taken everything in the bag right back out. The level of counter-productivity is what caused my emotions to cave. I felt defeated. Like I had built something moderately fantastic and it had been taken apart against my will within seconds of its completion, too soon to be admired. This, I imagine, must be the way Stephen feels about the content of his hoard. This has been my growing anxiety lately. I often wonder how alike Stephen and I are, or  how alike I am to the rest of my damaged uncles and aunts, or my Father, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young man. Who will I become as the years go on? Will I be enveloped by that swallowing sickness, forever buried beneath a discarnate hoard, or will fate allow me to bypass this tragedy and live a life with a clear mind, in a clean room, with a neat bed, and a cat? These are the crossroads I hear so much about in the stories of the deep South. A young man at the center of two or four directions - this way, or that way. It is choices like this that flood popular entertainment culture, giving blood to the body of a black and white world, where things are this way or the other. But if I were to find myself in the deep South, actually standing at a crossroad, I'm sure I'll see more than "this way or that way." There will always be more to see, more to experience. If the crossroads aren't my thing, I'll simply get off the track, and head for the highway. 

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