Authors: S.R. Grey
I readied a colored pencil and asked for clarification, “Okay, a tree house, right?”
“No-o-o.” Will shook his little head vociferously. “A house that
a twee, Chasey.”
“Aha, got it,” I said.
And I did. I drew Will a tree house shaped exactly like a tree, big, sturdy, loaded down with bushy branches. The leaves I shaded in the color of my brother’s eyes. I sketched a door at the base of the trunk, then drew a Will-sized truck and parked it under a low-lying branch. After I finished with some final shading, I held the drawing up for my brother to see.
Will’s house looked like one of those tree houses in the commercials with the elves and the cookies, only this one I’d drawn was far better. There was a lot more detail, and I’d drawn the tree in 2-D. In among the branches and the leaves all the rooms were in cross-section, done up in varying shades of blue, Will’s favorite color. I also made certain every last blue-shaded 2D-room overflowed with toys.
Will threw his arms around my neck and told me he loved his
. Then, he leaned back and told me he loved
He gave me a kiss on my cheek. That shit always touched my heart, choked me up a little. “I love you too, buddy,” was about all I could say as I held on to a little boy who meant the world to me.
Things are never bad when love is abundant. I thought it would stay that way forever, I did. A home filled with love, a happy family, just a good and easy life.
Man, was I ever wrong.
Shortly after I turned seventeen my world began to crumble. The bottom fell out of the housing market. The wave everyone was riding touched the surf and crashed. My dad’s business was one of the first to fail. He had overextended himself; all our assets were mortgaged. He made ridiculous deals, attempting to keep us afloat, but his efforts proved futile. We sunk faster than a stone.
I sold the fancy architect software on eBay, the drafting table too. I gave the money to my parents, but it was merely a drop in the bucket compared to what we owed. I watched my once-vibrant dad turn into a shadow of the man he once was. My mom, always so young-looking and pretty, developed dark circles under her eyes—from crying, worrying, not being able to sleep. She even tried her hand at the casinos, we were that fucking desperate. But everyone knows gambling is a loser’s game. The house always wins in the end.
One night, my mom was at one of those casinos. It wasn’t the first time she’d spent hours and hours away, trying to win back what we’d lost. She came out ahead a little here and there, but it was never enough, never enough.
Will had fallen asleep early that night, so my dad and I were more or less alone. He asked me if I was hungry. When I nodded slowly, reluctant to reveal just how ravenous I really was and cause my father any additional undue guilt, he sighed, picked up the phone, and ordered a bunch of Chinese take-out.
I swear I smelled that food before the delivery man even pulled up to the house. Beef Chow Mein, General Tso’s chicken, hot and sour soup, and eggrolls, the first real meal I’d eaten in weeks. And even though my dad and I had to sit on the floor—our furniture had been repossessed days earlier—I savored every fucking bite.
Afterward, my dad said he had somewhere to go. There was something he had to do. Would I keep an eye on Will?
“Sure,” I told him while shoving white take-out cartons with little metal handles— leftovers I’d saved for Will and Mom—into the fridge.
With my father gone, I had nothing to do. Our TVs were gone, the stereos too. Video games? Forget it. Those were the first things to go. So, I wandered around the house barefoot, padding around on neglected hardwood floors. I trudged from one empty room to the next.
Then I took a minute to look in on Will.
My little brother slept on an air mattress in the middle of his now-barren room. The
sketch, the only thing left on his four stark walls, had fallen. It lay abandoned on the floor, close to Will’s hand, close to where his little arm was dangling off the side of the mattress. To me, it looked as if my brother was subconsciously reaching for the drawing. Three years had passed since I’d drawn Will’s tree house—and I’d sketched hundreds of other things for him since that sunny day—but that particular piece of made-with-love art was still my brother’s favorite. I think to him it symbolized something more. He’d once said my sketch gave him hope. I guess it reminded him of when things were good.
I stepped into his dark room and picked up Will’s hope. I kissed the top of his head and gently placed his
next to his sleeping form. I made my way back down to the living room, feeling solemn and too fucking worn for seventeen. Tears welled in my eyes, but I refused to let them fall.
Hell with that shit.
The paper bag that had held the Chinese food was still on the floor. Frustrated, I kicked it out of my way. A fortune cookie shot out and landed at my feet. I picked the projectile up, ripped the plastic covering off, and slid a tiny piece of paper from the confines of the cookie.
The fortune stayed in my hand, the cookie ended up in my mouth.
Truthfully, I was still hungry. Crunching away and savoring sugary goodness, I read the words on the little slip of paper I held between my fingers.
As I stand before you, judge me not
It sounded a little hokey and I almost threw the fortune away. But there was something about those words that made me hesitate, something almost prescient. I ended up folding the little piece of paper in half and tucking it in to my pocket. Maybe I needed some symbol of hope just like my brother. I knew the things happening in my life would eventually define my future, and I guess I hoped no matter what occurred those things wouldn’t ultimately define me.
My mom came back later that night, but my dad never did.
Jack Gartner had gotten on route 160, heading west to California. But he never made it out of Nevada. His car was found at the bottom of a ravine, below what the officers who came to our door to break the news termed
a treacherous curve
Killed on impact, we were told.
Did he lose control, or drive off the road on purpose? Maybe his plan all along had been to leave us and start a new life in California. That’s what my mom believed at the time. Still does, in fact.
I, however, am not so sure. My father didn’t pack a thing. Sixty dollars and a cancelled credit card, that’s all he had on him. I think my dad just gave up. He quit on us, and that was the way he chose to end it. My mom can delude herself all she wants, but I know in my heart that I’m the one who’s got it right.
Anyway, the bank took the house soon after my father’s death. My mom sold off what little was left. For awhile, we became nomads in the desert. We lived in the only big-ticket item that hadn’t been repossessed, a white minivan. The Honda Odyssey was home…until Mom won enough money gambling to move us into a cheap apartment. Our new residence was a dump, but at least it had running water. And it was furnished. Kind of.
When we first stepped across the threshold and Mom caught me scowling at the rusty fixtures, the water-stained ceiling, the musty olive-green carpeting, she tried hard to convince me our new place had its good points.
“Like what?” I asked.
“It’s close to The Strip. That’ll be convenient.”
“Convenient for who?” I sniped. “You?”
“Chase,” she said pointedly, “it’s better than living in a minivan.”
She had a point there, so we moved in the next day. Will’s first reaction was to run straight to one of the two back bedrooms and hang up his tattered
sketch. I followed him and watched as he stood on a soiled mattress on the floor—in a shoebox of a room we were going to have to share—and pinned hope on a wall.
After we were settled, time, as it does, marched on. Will and I attended school, while my mom—still fevered and sick with the gambling virus—spent her days in the casinos.
I turned eighteen that April. But no one really noticed. Well, Will did. Not much got by that kid.
He stuck a candle he found in the back of a drawer in the kitchen on a stale snack cake. He made me sit on the only kitchen chair that didn’t rock when you shifted, and then he placed the snack cake on a card table we used as a kitchen table.
Will sang me the most beautiful off-key and from-the-heart rendition of “Happy Birthday” that I have ever heard, before or since. When he was done, I leaned forward to blow out the candle. Will stopped me and told me to make a wish first, so I did. And then I blew out the candle. Will clapped and cheered. He asked me what I wished for and I told him it was a secret. I didn’t want to tell him I wished for him to be given a better life than what we were, at the time, living. My brother and I split the snack cake in two, dinner for the night, and ate in contemplative silence.
Summer arrived that year and I somehow managed to graduate. But—with my trust fund long gone—college was no longer on the table. With no real guidance, and a lot of pent-up frustration, my downward slide took hold. I was angry all the time, and ended up getting into too many fights to count. The places in Vegas where I’d started hanging were tough. Early on, I got my ass kicked…often.
But then something happened.
I learned how to use my strength, my quickness,
my anger. I started to win. I had a real knack for fighting and rapidly turned into a badass nobody messed with. I earned street cred. All that really meant was guys started showing me respect and girls suddenly wanted to have sex with me. I happily obliged more than a few of the latter.
But all that shit meant nothing, I was empty inside. I had no one to talk to about the mixed-up emotions I didn’t know how to deal with. Like, why was I so angry all the time? Why did I like to fight so much? Why did it feel so good to make someone else hurt?
But mostly I wondered why I missed my dad so much.
I missed talking to my father, seeing his face everyday. I had relied on him, I still needed him. But he was gone. He took his own life. Why couldn’t I just accept what had happened and forget him?
But I couldn’t, and, worse yet, I longed for answers.
Every day, for a while, in my quest for enlightenment, I’d grab the bus outside our apartment and visit my father. Well, I’d visit his grave. At the head of where my father rested eternally, I’d sit under a big stone angel kneeling by his grave—thankful for the little bit of shade she offered under the hot, beating sun of the desert.
Sweaty and lost, I’d ask her if she could tell me why my dad wasn’t still alive. Why had God allowed Dad to take himself away? Why did my father choose to leave me? Why would he leave Mom and Will too? Was our love not enough for him? Did he regret his decision when he realized there was no going back?
Of course, the stone angel had no answers, and one day I just quit going. No more sitting in the shadow of the angel, no more hot and beating sun. No more asking questions that could never be answered.
My trips to the cemetery were over, but that didn’t mean I wanted to forget that
—even though he’d left—had once believed in me. Despite everything, I still loved my father and part of me yearned to be just like him.
So, July of that year, I had his angel’s likeness—the stone one at his grave—inked in profile on the middle of my upper back, between my shoulder blades.
I shift in the passenger seat now.
I can almost feel her back there, watching over me, like my dad’s angel watches over him. And like his angel, mine is kneeling. The edges of her heavy robe lie in a puddle of fabric around her. Her wings are folded against her back. Her hair is long, obscuring the side of her face. And her head is bowed. In supplication or in shame, I haven’t decided which. But if she’s been watching the shit I’ve been doing these past two years, it’s probably in shame.
After the angel tat healed, Mom hit for more money. I successfully talked her into paying for another tattoo, guilted her into it really. In any case, I ended up with big, intricately detailed wings inked up and over my shoulder blades. The top feathers curve onto my shoulders, while the wings dip down the sides of my back, effectively framing the angel.
But the angel and the wings weren’t enough. I wanted something more to remember my father, something to remind me always of that final night, when it was just him and me, eating Chinese food on the floor of an empty home, a last supper shared.
I kept coming back to the cookie, the fortune inside, the hope it symbolized.
As I stand before you, judge me not.
Words printed on a piece of paper, but really they were so much more. So I had those words inked—in concise and script letters—around my left bicep.
My tats were but temporal attempts to heal my soul, as my heart remained an open wound. There was no solace to be had at home. In fact, things were getting worse. I started to drink and do drugs to ease the pain and fill the void. I hated what had happened to our family. Seeing Will transformed from an energetic little boy to a sullen nine-year-old left me sad and frustrated. And watching my mother try to heal her fractured heart with gambling—and eventually men—just pissed me the fuck off.
But at least Mom wasn’t indulging in one-night stands like I’d been doing. Nope, Abby actually went out on dates. Still, her attempt at dating led to a revolving door of boyfriends. Some lasted a week or two, some a little longer, but the one common denominator they all shared was that not a single one liked me.
Mom told me to try harder, give these guys a chance for her sake. I laughed and told Abby her men could blow me. “Chase, don’t be crude,” was her response.
By the end of the summer Mom hooked up with what turned out to be steady boyfriend number three. I was no fool; I immediately sensed my days were numbered. I would’ve had to have been blind not to see the writing on the wall, a wall I didn’t realize I was hurtling toward. But it wasn’t just Abby’s lame new boyfriend disliking me that was a problem. There was something else, something she’d never admit to. There was no escaping it though, not really.