Their house was the last one on the block, and their block was the last one in town. On the other side, a space lay, a pockmarked lot of derelict industry. Sometimes some black kids would be playing out there, biting each other, what have you, and the Jaspers would look away in shame, listening to the buzzing.
My cousin had seen Mike Jasper in school, lots of times. He never played sports, and when my cousin would see him, he’d usually be looking for a lost pencil around his locker or something, or trying to ignore a nagging bully who made fun of his shoes.
I remember my cousin talking about when he offered to walk home with Mike. Mike had a similar route home, though it was a little longer, and he’d always be walking by himself. Ok, said Mike. So the two walked together one day, after school. My cousin was asking him like what sorts of video games he played, and the only ones he had were the really old ones that bored the hell out of my cousin. My cousin would see a girl who liked him, he’d smile and wave, and Mike would just frown and look at the ground, not knowing what to do. Just bottled up by life, wishing he could fight with his tiny fists, wishing he could take control over the moving beings he saw around him every day.
My cousin noticed Mike looking with special care at this one house, a tiny light blue house in the middle of a block about halfway home.
“You know the people who live there?” my cousin asked.
“That’s where my grandma lived,” he said. “She passed away 11 and a half months ago.”
“Right around this time o’ year, eh?”
“Man. Yeah I go to my grandma’s sometimes, you know. Just for eggs and coffee. Just to mooch off her, hehe.”
He couldn’t get a chuckle out of Mike.
It was time for my cousin’s turn-away, so he said, “Alright, man, I’ll see ya in school tomorrow.”
My cousin had a girlfriend to call for when he went home. Then he figured he’d go out and shoot some baskets, even though it was really too cold too, by solid convention.
I’d see Mike’s older sister Maggie at the punk shows sometimes. I’d always just kinda nod, just wanting to make a good impression, you know. Wasn’t looking for any conquest. I was just trying to think of a way, or a reason, not to get too drunk all the time. I too wasn’t really a fighter, had small hands, a naturally small frame, so I figured, I better figure out some way to use my brain to make in this world. As long as I’m in the world, I thought.
School ended, and I went off to college. While I was gone, my cousin got called to go over to Iraq. He was a little more the physical type, but wasn’t sure what to do with his brain.
I’d go over and see my other cousin, and sometimes I’d see Mike driving by. Something about him made me jealous, actually. Of course, I was made jealous by pretty much everyone, at least in a way. And then I was scared by pretty much everyone, at least in a way.
My mom would constantly ask me what I was doing with my life. I dunno, I’d answer. That’s all I’d ever say, I dunno. I went through four different collegiate majors in my first 12 months in school. All I heard on the news was lies, all I saw on the faces of people were defensiveness and fear, all the misplaced. I was misplaced.
As bad as that was, it was always a dread going back and seeing my mom. She’d sit there quietly, melancholy. Anything was better than her melancholy, when she’d be preparing the broccoli, cheese and rice casserole. Empty food for empty people, that’s how it felt.
We didn’t have any God stuff up on our walls, no Jesus, it was all a sort of angular, culturally unorthodox palette.
Sometimes I’d get really drunk, just to break up the malaise. My mom knew it.
When my cousin came back from the war, he’d drink himself into a damned frenzy. There was part of his eyes I couldn’t see. They’d just focus down intensely onto the river, like he was focusing on the deep and dark, the dank, like he was seeing someone who’d already entered the next life, whatever that next life might bring.
I liked going into the city, a little to the south. It was my aunt on the other side of my family, and she was always chipper, always had stuff to say, was interested in what I was doing. I’d just tell her my test scores on various required tests, and that always kept the mood up. My mom always seemed to be holding back, amidst all that lavish fineness in my mom’s apartment. The counter in there was broad and curved, marble, and there were these swords standing in the corner by the fireplace. Each of these iron swords was a little different, each one had a different coat of arms hewn into it. My uncle was always away on business, military, usually in San Diego, but they kept in touch, sometimes he’d call while we were there, and he’d hold the phone out to the beach. I’d glance over at my aunt, and she’d always be smiling at me, waiting for my eyes. Eventually we’d leave her place, back for the smaller town, plummeting back into the reality of who we were.
When I was younger, I remember always wanting to stop for ice cream on the way back, but the older we got, I just hoped we all made it. My dad already got a government tip, and my mom was always changing jobs, and none of them paid that great. I’d just end up talking to my girl cousin, the sister of the one who was in the military, but there’s only so much you can talk with that kind of type with, she’s obviously never fought, and she’d just get a scared look in her eyes if she talked with me for long enough, no matter what about.
Nothing gave me pride than putting forward a good face to the world, and situations like these were always cleansing, but I still felt always on a quest to look further, because I knew there was always something I didn’t know.
Mike Jasper, I’d heard, had gone to jail. A local meth lab got busted, and they took everyone in, although he didn’t strike me as the dealing type. Nothing he did was for his own benefit, at least that’s how it seemed to me.
All the other kids who got busted, as far as I knew, were pretty much fat and missing teeth, so it’s funny, Mike looked so normal. Was it just the world that was fallen?
I’d nothing to do this one day, had done playing pickup basketball, and thankfully there was some black kids there to make it interesting, there wasn’t much going on in town, so I thought I’d take a trip over to the Jaspers, to see how they were doing. I’d heard Mike had got released from jail after just a couple days. Just thought they might need a little pick-me-up. I knew them all remotely from my cousin playing baseball with him, and I knew his sister Maggie from the punk shows.
The sun was shining down, even though the leaves were fallen from the trees, and I ended up getting kind of warm in my big jacket I’d worn, sweating under the pits. I saw this kid walking out of his house in just a tee shirt, and he seemed fine. He just kept his head to the ground, and, if he didn’t have something transcendent to do within the next hour or two at hand, he sure faked it well. I just walked along, rolling up my sleeves, getting my hands dirty, I thought.
As I rounded the last turn for the Jaspers’ house, I suddenly longed for the bigger town. I wondered what my aunt would say, she was always about something wild. Maybe I’ll give her a call later, I thought. I’ll just stay a while at the Jaspers, not for too long.
I got up close to the Jaspers house, and I saw the cable blaring. Maggie saw me, I saw, looking out of the blinds, and put a hand through her hair, sitting up a little straighter. Good, I thought, I’m not disrupting anything.
She answered the door, and she had a striking uniformity of visage throughout all situations. She was always self-conscious and a little full of anxiety, smiling a punctiliously observant smile at her surroundings.
“Is Mike here?” I asked.
“Yeah!” she said in a really high voice. “Mike!” she yelled, in a way big sisters have of doing.
“What,” I heard in a surly tone.
Mike didn’t say anything back. I knocked on his door slightly.
“Mike,” I said. “It’s Sean Persimmon. Just wanted to say what’s up man.”
“Come in,” I heard him say, with a touch of gratitude, I could tell.
I said thanks to Maggie and opened the wooden, decaying door. I all of a sudden got a self-conscious feeling about me. I mean, I’d just been doing normal stuff, you know — I mean, good enough, lot of basketball, singing karaoke at the local dive, watching the world collapse around me, but suddenly, all of a sudden, I knew that I’d be astonished by the sight of Mike, the look in his eyes, and this is something that hadn’t ever happened before, not with him.
Sure enough, I looked at him, and he was sitting over in the corner, distant, glaring with a strange authority.
“Mind if I sit down?” I asked.
He was smoking a cig and playing a game on his phone. He kept looking down at the phone, not at me.
“I heard you went to jail,” I said.
He nodded. I noticed a strange scar on the side of his head, but I didn’t ask what it was. This moment was driving him. What I wanted, too, and what I didn’t.
“May I ask what you’re doing later?” I asked.
He just shrugged his shoulders.
“Man,” I said, “I saw the craziest comedian on TV the other day. He was this loud Irish dude I think, he was making fun of people who didn’t smoke, you would’ve liked him. Talking about a runner getting hit by a bus driver who smoked three packs a day, or something.”
Mike laughed, I could tell, courteously. The sun was shining outside but he seemed entirely indifferent to it. He was at that age. His brain was a drug-shorn quandary.
“Well I’m glad you’re out,” I said.
“Tss,” he said. He seemed to be laughing at me, to be mocking at reality, completely indifferent as to whether he were in or out.
“Do you think you’ll ever go back?” I asked.
Again, he just shrugged. He never got offended, this was something I knew, even at the most ridiculous questions. The healthy mind would have become offended at that question.
I got the sudden feeling a spirit inhabiting the room, another cognitive nucleus residing in the next quadrant over, back toward the door. I looked back at Mike’s smooth face, as it focused on his phone game. I didn’t ask what it was he was playing. I didn’t ask about his sister either, but not because I didn’t care.
“My cousin’s a freakin’ raging alcoholic now,” I said.
“You make me sick,” said Mike, all of a sudden, right into my face.
“What?” I asked, not scared of him.
“You fu**in’ make me sick!” he said, louder. I knew Maggie could hear him, so I didn’t really say anything, just sat still, although I wasn’t scared of him, still.
I knew I was looking at nothing. And I knew that I was nothing. Outside, I heard Maggie get a call on her cell phone.