Sometimes, especially now, memories of Handsome seem hallucinatory. But it was just ordinary Handsome: badly frayed and torn around the edges. It all bleeds together like a crayon drawing. Sometimes I see it all: the nuances of the brittle sidewalks, the tumbledown storefronts. A step-by-step walking tour of what has been lost. It scares me and shames me.
It fades like a dream, a colorless, odorless vapor. I can almost feel the phantom residue of sidewalk dust scuttling up my pant cuffs. And then it’s gone. I miss it, I hate it, and I long for it. All that is left is this lonely, ferocious desire to hold onto something, to comfort what is long dead.
Awake and aware, I am lost in this plain room, sweating, bleeding, tears blistering the skin under my eyes. An old man with sagging and shredded flesh, folded into in a steel-framed bed.
I need to get out of here. I need to try.
Knowing Joe Kellogg, he’s probably wandering around the great wastelands of Minnesota, looking for a place to set down his boots. He oftentimes threatened to do just that: reach out for the Great American Dream and stroke her hair. Sometimes he said he’d go one better and join up with a cult of Canadian organic farmers and spend the rest of his days adoring free range chickens, though, more than likely, he’d be adoring the young daughter of one of the stoned-to-the-parka farmers, wallowing naked around a loose-leaf bundle of smoldering marijuana leaves.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Joe. We had a lot of good times together, him and me, if you don’t count that stint in a Peyote, New Mexico jail cell, and even that wasn’t too bad. But Joe’s always had a habit of getting out while the getting was good, and sometimes when it wasn’t so good. Married four times, left five times, his women all scratching their heads at the end of the day wondering what the hell happened. But he charmed, them, brother; he charmed them like no other.
Got a call from Joe’s oldest, Mike I think it is, or Mitch, a moody little two-by-four of a fella, about a month-and-a-half ago, asking me if I knew where Joe was this time. Seems Joe bought a bus ticket in Reno for someplace unknown, scratched the message off his answering machine, and left no forwarding. That ain’t unusual. What makes it strange is that no one remembers seeing him board a Greyhound, and he’s always had a way of getting folks to remember him. That was almost two weeks ago.
Joe’s never been one to stay in touch if he didn’t have to. He’d go on his journeys and it’d be rare to hear from him for two or three months at a stretch. Such is Joe. And Mike-or-Mitch knows that. Two weeks ain’t much time to be ringing the bell for him to crawl on home. But he always left a message on the kitchen table whenever his leaving boots started bumping together. Not a Dear Jane, exactly; more like an affectionate fare-thee-well: “I left a hundred dollars in the pantry for you to buy groceries for the week, I’ll keep in touch as soon as I get settled.” That kind of thing. You either have to admire him for his moxie or curse the man for being so ill-suited for any kind of female companionship.
And Jilly, his latest, was a cutie. Not so much in the brains department, but Joe never wasted his time looking at a girl’s I.Q. sheet. But she was sweet. Now, an outsider isn’t always privy to the blueprints of someone else’s marriage. I only saw them together four or five times, but they seemed compatible to me: he had the charm, she had the D-cups. To give him credit, he was with her for longer than the odds-makers gave them… almost four years this time. Why he left her – why he ever left anyone but his second – is a genuine mystery. Some men, I guess, are born leavers. They leave when things look like there’s no other choice. A few men carry that gene, but Joe Kellogg seemed to keep a vial of the stuff in his shirt pocket.
Me and Joe go back a ways. It’s hard to recall a time when we didn’t know each other… way back to when the Cowsills were popular and “Hair” was practically our mantra. I never understood the leaving part of his nature. It was, as always, just Joe being Joe. He never lied about it, far as I know, but it was always hard to watch. Cruel, even, in a way that that word can be separated from just plain meanness. Still, though, people have to pay for the pain they create.
Just spent an hour on a so-called free site to help me promote “Ordinary Handsome”. I really should know better than to believe anything is free. A discouraging Monday. Time to watch “Walking Dead”.
This was a short story I wrote early last year for a competition. I didn’t win, but I was commended for my strange imagination.
All right, I admit it. When Dwayne first suggested the hike, I dove right in. The invitation was both touching and absurd. Listen, he said: brand new Salomon hiking boots (Kiwi Green), $250; bottled Norwegian ijsberg water, $5 a pop; spending the day with your boy: priceless. I said yes before I even thought about it.
The warm and fuzzies didn’t last long. Even before he hung up I started thinking about the logistics. I really wasn’t prepared to handle a hike of any distance. Sure, even five years ago, I might have considered it. But I was seeing the crispy side of sixty and…
“Come on, Bim, it’ll be good for you,” he said. “You need to stop doing old-man stuff and start spending time with your kid.”
“And hiking’s the best thing you could come up with? What’s wrong with –?”
“Too late, you’ve committed,” he said, and hung up. Just like that.
He didn’t even tell me when this alleged adventure was going to take place, so I figured he’d forget about it, or get so caught up in his research at the university that he’d put me on the backburner again. Stuff happens. That was one of the reasons we hadn’t seen each other for almost two years. Stuff happens. Though it might kill me, backing out really wasn’t an option for me. The old man needed to spend some time with his son. Dwayne made that abundantly clear. It was either hike or give up.
Dwayne was always full of piss and swagger, even as a boy. He did little-kid things when he was young, but he always did them with attitude. Bravado, even. When he got old enough, he started calling me Bim instead of Dad. It was grating the first few times, but it came to fit us both after awhile. It suggested a closeness that really wasn’t there.
So when he followed through a couple days later, I was surprised. I was on the verge of forgetting about it. Stuff happens.
“In the mood for a hike, Bim?” he asked. No intro, just jump right in, that’s my boy.
“What? When… you don’t mean today, do you? Jeeze, Dwayne, a little heads-up?”
“It’s not far,” he said. “I’ll pick you up in an hour.”
“I—“ And he hung up. Just like that.
As promised, he brought me hiking boots. They really were kiwi green, and they really were ugly. Nothing you’d want to be seen wearing anywhere other than the great outdoors. What must the forest animals think, and would they laugh? Probably. I wanted to balk, but Dwayne looked harried, like he was about to be audited. There was no warm hello-hug, no arm’s-length examination of how much we’d changed over the past couple of years. He just shoved the shoebox in my hands when I opened the door.
He saw I was wearing my favorite worn-out jeans, and shook his head like I just straggled out of transvestite bar. “Nothing fancy, Bim,” he said. “Get as comfortable as you can. Could be a long trip.” He smiled in a way that made him look like a complete stranger.
I never considered my old Levis fancy, but shrugged it off. Hiking, apparently, had become nouveau and I didn’t have the fashion sense of a… well, a kiwi. “Your sweat pants will be fine,” he said, exasperated with me for no good reason. “Sweat pants and an old tee.” Hiking, I suppose, had changed a lot since I was a kid.
How could a kid as smart as Dwayne not know the difference between west and east? My boy is smart in every other way. Did I ever know that, or had I forgotten?
I don’t remember the drive to… wherever. I remember lacing up those hideous boots and then… well, then, we were at the edge of a forest. Only it didn’t look like a regular forest. It looked like some garish Disney wilderness, with old Walt done up on Jack and blow, trying to color between the blurred lines. It was just a little too… beautifully weird.
“I’ll meet you west of that hanging rock,” said Dwayne. “Or maybe east.” I heard him, but didn’t see him, and I had no idea what hanging rock he was talking about. I didn’t even know what a hanging rock was, other than a place where they might string up horse thieves in old Westerns.
“I thought we were going to spend time together,” I said. “Where are you going?”
“West,” he said. “Or east. You’ll know it when you find it.”
“Find what? Dwayne, where are we?”
“Admire the scenery, Bim,” he said, and disappeared. Literally. Just faded like a shadow in a dark room.
I saw a path uncoil towards the woods ahead. As I walked closer to the forest, I noticed the trees. I have never seen breezes in trees such as these, thought my inner Seuss. Towering, spiral, translucent, fragile. And as real as rain. I rapped my knuckles against a seedling that was at least twice my height and girth. I could feel the rough bark scrape the back of my fingers.
“I’m here,” he said, and now I was the one who didn’t know his east from west. The sound carried long, and he could have been behind me or ten miles ahead.
“I can’t see you. Where are you?” I tried to rein in my panic. I was afraid of being in such a strange place without him.
“Keep looking,” he said. “Just keep looking, Bim.”
I looked down and saw I wasn’t wearing any pants.
“Dwayne? Where are you? I think one of us is lost, and I think it’s me. Or I mixed my meds and I’m floating around in Butt Nibble Forest, naked and alone, and don’t have the sense to wake up.”
“You’re not lost,” he said, and I looked behind and noticed the owl. It was speaking with Dwayne’s voice. “Touch the leaves,” said Dwayne/Owl.
Obediently, I stretched my arms and tugged at the low-lying tree limbs, grabbing fistfuls of leaves. Yep, they were real. Oak and maple and others I couldn’t identify. But real. I felt them. I could smell them: earthy and damp, the smell of greenness and fertility.
“Where are we? Where are you?” I studied the owl, hoping for an answer, but the owl had apparently gone mute. “Where are you, son?”
“I’m right here,” he said. I looked down again and saw that not only was I still not wearing pants, I was no longer wearing any legs. And it wasn’t as disturbing as you might think. Dwayne was looking up at me from the ground, his face a perfect circle that was bordered by orange daisies.
“This is weird, kid,” I said.
He laughed, and it was the most genuine gesture I’d seen from him in… well, a couple of years. “Yeah, daddy-o,” he said.
“Where are we, Dwayne?”
“Does it matter? We’re spending time together, Bim.”
“Why aren’t I wearing my legs?”
“Of all the things you see, you’re worried about your legs?”
“Well, yeah, kind of.”
“My face is a shape on the ground and it’s surrounded by daisies, and that doesn’t bother you?”
“A little, yeah.”
“And you’re naked from the waist down.”
“If I had a waist.”
“You do, it’s just not here at the moment. Look again.”
I did, and I was back intact.
“Were we killed in a car crash on the way to the hike?” I asked. “Is this, you know, heaven? Or hell? Either one, it ain’t what I expected.”
“Even better. We’re inside your shoes.”
And with that, I shut up.
Dwayne let me think things through, and I admit I had to plod my way through the dense underbrush that contained my thoughts. I reached down and cupped my hands around my calves. Okay, they were real. I could feel the flabby old muscles beneath the skin and it was all me, right down to the old dimples and scars. I looked at my feet and saw I wasn’t even wearing the shoes. My legs and feet were bare. And, much more distressing, I no longer had any genitals.
“You don’t need that equipment here, Bim,” said Dwayne as if reading my mind. “And really, I don’t need to see your junk.”
A trio of black crows flew overhead, and all of them had Dwayne’s face on them.
“We are the Counting Crows….”
“The Sheryl Crows….”
“The Texas Rose….”
“Okay, Dwayne. This is getting stranger than your mother. Where are you?”
He laughed again, and he was standing right next to me, smiling his sunny, open smile. His hand fell on my shoulder.
“I’m right here, Bim. The whole time.”
“’We are the Sheryl Crows’? What the hell, son?”
“You needed to get shook up, that’s all.”
“Like a soda pop, Pop. So I brought you the shoes. For the hike. Get it?”
“For the hike,” I said.
“I wasn’t sure they’d work.”
“And they do, right? They work?”
“Yes sir, they sure do. Man, trying to get you to do anything with me anymore is like pulling the skin off a crocodile. You’re so planted in your ways. You were busy getting old even when I was a kid. I figured a hike was what you needed. A good old-fashioned kick—“
“— in the junk?”
He laughed. It was good to hear my boy laugh. It had been such a long time. Always excuses, always other things going on. I didn’t realize how much of it was my doing.
“We gotta laugh, old man. From time to time, we gotta laugh.”
“So can I please have my legs back? And my, you know, equipment? Feels kind of strange not, uh, having any.”
And then we were back in my apartment, standing in front of the doorway, as if we hadn’t traveled at all. Dwayne still had the shoebox in his hands. He didn’t look so harried.
“Was that real?” I asked. “What just happened?”
“As real as trees.”
“Were we really there?”
He rubbed his forehead, and I noticed for the first time how far his hairline was receding. He really did take after his mother in that regard. “We were somewhere,” he said, a little elusively.
“Was it the shoes?”
He smiled and, for the first time, I realized my boy was getting older. I could see the fine mesh of lines around his eyes as he tried to clarify his thoughts.
“Sometimes, you know, a good pair of shoes will take you places your feet can’t go.” He shook his head, dissatisfied. “I know that doesn’t make sense, but that’s the best I can do. For now.”
I held out my hands. “Do I get to keep them?”
“If you want. If you think you need them.”
“Do I?” I thought about it, and, though only a few seconds had passed, it felt like I had considered the question for a long time. “Is that what it’s going to take? You know, for us to spend time together? A pair of ugly shoes?”
He shrugged. “Maybe we both need a pair,” he said. “But they’re so damned expensive.”
All right, I admit it. When Dwayne first suggested the shoes, I hesitated. The offer was both touching and genuine. Listen, he said: brand new Salomon hiking boots (Kiwi Green), $250; bottled Norwegian ijsberg water, $5 a pop; spending the day with your boy: priceless.
Neither of us really needed those shoes, ugly as they were. And really, it was never about the shoes.