He was savagely independent, having lived in the small, rugged, mountain community for more than a decade of self-imposed isolation and breathtaking loneliness. His earthly abode stretched a thousand meager yards from the nearest neighbor, who he avoided like diseased rats.
The term neighbor implied a false familiarity, an acknowledgment of another’s existence, of weight upon the earth. The tenants who filtered through the adjoining rental property quickly learned to not ask questions or “nose around.” It didn’t take long until they treated him as part of the landscape, like a dried clump of gray-white bird droppings splattered over decaying leaves.
His makeshift home was a fading, moldy red barn, built in the late forties. It had gaping holes covered with black, dirty, torn plastic that had been nailed on in a haphazard frenzy of urgent necessity. There was no intention or inclination to give a damn about its looks. An outhouse supplied the necessary hole for elimination. An old, creaky, barely functional water tower kept his body and wrinkled clothes free of grit and grime.
To reach his dwelling involved a precarious path through an obstacle course of poison oak, prickly blackberry bushes and a six-foot deep, quarter mile fissure of eroded, hard red clay.
His only contact with beings human was a weekly visit to Frank and Stella’s Market, after having cashed his check at the bank. When he’d first arrived in town, Frank and his wife Stella, had inquired about his line of work. Their questions had been met with forceful silence and a souring scowl. Alice, who worked at Community Bank, told Stella that even she, “If anybody should know, it would be me.” didn’t have a clue about where he was from or what he did. All she knew was that the check he cashed was made out to Mark Keeler.
Mark Keeler didn’t know if he was fifty yet. He hadn’t thought much about it since his wife had thrown the mother of all surprise parties when he’d turned thirty-five. Old school mates, employees, best friends and beautiful seven-year-old daughter, all yelled “Happy Birthday!” showering him with flowers and popcorn as he’d walked in the front door.
His wife, Charlene, had kept it under wraps for a month of delicious anticipation. She, with her short auburn hair, teased and permed for the occasion, was wearing his favorite dress – the long, light blue, lotus-patterned one they’d bought in Bali on their honeymoon. Her grin had stretched with satisfied pleasure, from one soft earlobe to the other, as the party progressed.
Yes indeed, she’d pulled out all the stops! Pictures of him as a kid, pants half down, in his cowboy suit; tales from his father about his son’s “wild” days; and “secret” information thrown in from friends like Kurt Frazier, who recalled the time he and Mark were found in the girl’s bathroom in junior high, sabotaging the toilets. His daughter, Jasmine, who had been allowed to stay up past her bedtime, smothered herself with laughter when hearing of her father’s exploits. “Daddy was in the girl’s bathroom?!” She was flabbergasted. Her reaction sent the whole room into a crescendo of chuckles and belly laughs.
“Yes indeed, that was a hell of a party,” Mark recalled, as he put away the groceries he’d picked up at the market. “When was that . . . fifteen . . . sixteen years?” he wondered.
His callused, once long and smooth hands put the last box of chemical free, organic cereal on the top shelf. He pushed up his thick-lensed, dark-framed glasses and glanced at the label on the soy milk carton sitting next to the cereal. It read, “Safe to drink until Jan. 2012.”
“Safe my ass!” he blurted. “Nothing’s safe.”
Looking past the carton, between the warped wallboard’s, he saw the ageless trees shifting their feet. He reached up with his hand and scratched the flaky scalp which had been tauntingly gaining ground on his receding hairline. After drifting from one rambling boxcar of thought to another, he disengaged his overloaded, freight train brain and finished stocking the sparse cupboard with his weekly supplies.
Locking the cupboard and turning to go relieve his bladder, he carelessly stepped on his sleeping mat and allowed his eyes to glimpse the muted, color photograph permanently placed on the orange crate he’d transformed into a nightstand. Barking orders at his mind to disregard the sudden, splitting images of brutality and butchery that appeared without invitation, he wrestled himself out the door and collapsed. He looked at the bright, blue canopy and saw only a soiled sky of torn memories and violent dreams. The fluids that pumped through his veins turned into a slimy run-off of emotional grease and sludge, making his heart wince and stutter like a clogged drain.
He tried to forget by building miles of paths, stone walls and chopping wood until his hands’ were an ocean of draining blisters. Once he thought he’d lost his marbles and ran wild through the woods, growling and panting like a rabid dog, but even the comfort of sweet insanity had eluded his grasp.
That afternoon, as he lay on the decomposing earth, remembering the unmemorable, something inside churned and twisted with nauseating persistence. His gut belched with inquisition.
“No!” he said out loud. “I can’t!”
“You must!” his conscience protested.
His hands clamped tightly on to his contorted face, pushing his square glasses into his round eye sockets.
“No!” he screamed.
A belligerent typhoon of insistence rocked him from head to toe. His body shook with involuntary seizures of dread. He gasped then sighed as his tear-drenched palms fell away. A small clear hole of light broke through the blood stained clouds.
Late that afternoon the sun caught him breathing heavily and glared questioningly into his fearful eyes just before he disappeared into the woods towards town. He carried all he owned in a small leather shoulder bag flapping loosely against his spine.
Instead of going to the bank or store, as was his custom, he found himself standing precariously at the edge of the sultry blacktop being lured by an invisible seductress called hope. When the occasional car or truck sliced through the air with its metallic precision, he reluctantly lifted his thumb skyward. He wasn’t sure if he could be seen. He felt invisible.
The town’s eyes glistened with surprise, from Jesse down at the corner gas station, to Stella at the store, who promptly hollered at Frank to come outside, “and see for your self!”
Mark heard their thoughts rattle and hum before he saw them staring. Their investigations crawled up his hairy legs and under his cotton shirt like a voyeuristic spider. He slowly turned counter-clockwise and took in the town and its’ citizens, as if he had just arrived from Mars.
Frank waved. Jesse nodded. Mark noted their movements and felt his barrel chest rise and fall. His glasses slid down his sweaty nose, as his eyelids drooped and his bones sunk into his earthbound feet. The receiving instruments in his ears vibrated with the trees’ caution. “Don’t go! They’re animals . . . human animals . . . savages . . . whores of power.”
A silver Honda Civic had slowed and come to a stop about a meter from Mark’s khaki pants before he sensed its presence and opened his far-sighted eyes. His pupils adjusted to the light bouncing off the chrome fender as he realized the car was waiting for him to acknowledge its existence. Warily, he moved towards the open window on the passenger side, bent his knobby knees and slightly bulging waist and peered in to the interior.
“Hey, Mr. Keeler, where you headed?” The blurry face came into focus. “Don’t remember me, do ya?”
Mark’s head wobbled side to side acknowledging the correctness of the man’s assumption.
“Yosh, Yoshi Matsuma. My sister and I moved in just a ways down from your place last August, remember?” Again Mark’s head motioned his ignorance. “I’m going to the city if you want a ride. You are wanting a ride, right?”
Mark forced his haggard face to nod a meager yes, opened the door stealthily and willed his body to sit. He reached out with his sunburned and peeling arm, grabbed the plastic door handle and slammed it shut with a dull thud. As the mechanical convenience accelerated a renegade breeze blew in the open window. The stoic, composed redwoods cried a warning, their limbs rustling with nervous jitters and ancient fears.
Five minutes into the ride Yosh opened the curtain of silence. “We’ve fixed the place up pretty good; a little paint, some elbow grease and voila!” Mark’s tongue remained frozen. Yosh thought he saw his passenger’s eyebrow ascend slightly but couldn’t take his eyes of the road. “Of course my sister, Janey, added all the nice touches. You know, flowered curtains, pictures, table cloth, that kind of thing.” No reply. “Yes indeed, she’s made it quite livable.”
Yosh sipped his coffee from a lidded cup below the dashboard. “Like something to drink?” Replacing his cup he reached behind the seat, grabbed a bottle of Geyser Natural and offered it to his guest.
Yosh flinched at the sound of Mark’s voice, which had crept from his face like a toddler peeking out from behind their mother’s skirt. “If you change your mind just help yourself.”
The car left the winding mountain fortress and glided along the golden, rolling hills of brown and yellow grasses.
Yosh took a deep breath and felt the knots in his shoulders sigh with relief. “Always happens,” he said. “I never realize how uptight I am driving that part of the road until it’s over.” He took another sip of coffee. “We’re buying you know. No more money down the drain renting. It’s our place now. We’re going to be neighbors for a long time.” He looked at Mark’s backpack in the rearview mirror. “That is, if you’re coming back.” Mark looked out the window at the receding mountains. “Are you?” Yosh reiterated.
It took Mark a moment to realize he was being asked a question.
“What?” he said, looking out the windshield.
“Are you leaving for good or just going on vacation or something?”
He looked casually at the man who had been speaking. Yoshi Matsuma was a young, dark-haired man, without a wrinkle or hint of severity or judgment in his friendly face.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, it’s none of my business really, but you seem a little, I don’t know, a little out there.”
Mark’s mouth contorted into a grin, shocking them both. “You could say that.”
Yosh, surprised and encouraged with the sudden reply, gently pushed the boundaries, “I hope you come back.”
“You barely know me.”
Yosh slowed for a long curve. “There’s something . . . I don’t know . . .” He rounded the corner and let the wheel straighten itself out. “Just something about you I trust.”
“Trust! What does he know about trust?” he started to say, but Yosh interrupted.
“Look, I’ll tell you the truth.”
“Oh my God,” thought Mark, “not the truth.”
“Janey isn’t my sister, she’s my fiancée.”
Mark tried acting surprised, but wasn’t good at faking indifference.
“I know,” Yosh persisted, “it sounds stupid, but we weren’t sure how people in town felt about these things, so we thought we’d play it safe.”
The words rolled around in Mark’s head like a lead marble in a pinball machine. “Play it safe. Play at safety. Safe at play.”
“We plan on getting married, but our parents kind of freaked out about it. She’s not Japanese and my folks are real traditional about this stuff, you know?”
Mark nodded, he knew about prejudice. He knew how hate could consume your soul like fire, brand your hide and leave permanent shrouds of black ash lodged in your heart.
“You won’t tell anyone, will you?” Yosh pleaded. Mark sat encased in his private inferno. “Mr. Keeler. Mr. Keeler!”
“This is between us, right?”
“Janey and me.”
The sigh of a man who’d just been pardoned escaped from Yosh’s wound-up body, as they drove towards the concrete encampment. Over a hundred minutes of dead time ticked methodically on the dashboard clock until the cities outstretched fingers, delicately referred to as suburbs, fondled them with their manicured yards of caged nature.
Mark sensed the turnoff for Enterprise Estates before the green and white sign flashed into view. “Enterprise Estates,” he said out loud. “This is it.”
“You sure Mr. Keeler? These places are pretty ritzy, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes,” he replied, “I know.”
The exit overtook them quickly as Yosh veered right and turned into the walled subdivision. He slowed for the speed bumps and kept his eye on his hitchhiking friend. Mr. Keeler was trembling like someone with Parkinson’s.
“You sure about this?” Yosh said with concern. Mark nodded stiffly.
Yosh drove slowly along the squeaky-clean street until they passed a large, white, Mediterranean style home with blue fabric awnings and a long, brick driveway which stood out like a parading peacock.
Their small, Japanese model transport hesitantly crept up the wide u-shaped drive. Mark felt each indentation between the bricks thump, vibrate and spread to the soles of his feet from the rubber tree tires below. They came to a smooth stop in front of the extravagantly landscaped walk, which was lined with red and yellow roses, pink carnations and purple Mexican Sage.
Mark opened the car door gingerly and stepped into the external atmosphere of opulence. His knees buckled. He quickly recovered, grabbing the door and slapping his right cheek until it turned bright pink, then headed like a kamikaze pilot towards the front entrance.
Yosh watched in bewildered silence as Mark fought his way upstream, like a battered, dazed salmon, trying to jump one last time over the dammed waterway. He saw him floundering in unseen rapids then make a courageous ascent towards the pearly gates of luxury.
Mark reached the massive, brown, mahogany door, his chest heaving, as if he was preparing to give birth. His hand reached out between contractions, started to knock and froze in mid air. Whirling around like a drunk, he swayed towards the path, collapsed on the steps and screamed like a lanced bull. His glasses fell to the ground, cracking the right lens.
Yosh ran to his side at the same moment the monstrous door cracked open. A tiny woman in her early sixties, no taller than five feet and wearing a double-breasted blazer of black satin, stood her ground with a mixture of unabashed fear and annoyance. “What’s going on?”
Yosh answered nervously, not sure himself, “It’s um . . . it’s OK. He’ll be OK.”
She stared at these strange companions sprawled on her doorstep. “What do you want?!”
“We’re ah . . .,” Yosh stuttered. “It was a mistake; wrong house. Sorry. We’ll be going.” He tried to lift Mr. Keeler, whose head was buried between his knees.
“How . . . long . . . has she . . . lived here?” Mr. Keeler said between sobs. Yosh turned and asked.
The woman hesitated then replied, “About fourteen, fifteen years.”
Mr. Keeler lifted his throbbing head, wiped the liquids streaking his face and asked, “Who were the previous owners?”
“Wheeler or Bueller . . . something like that.”
“Why’d they sale?!” Mark shouted. “Where’d they go?!”
“How should I know? Listen, if you’re OK you better go or I’ll have to call . . .”
Mark raised his arms, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re going.” He began to rise and faltered. Yosh reached for his arm but had it pushed away. “Leave me alone.”
“Sorry. I just . . .” Mark was already half way down the path. Yosh turned and said, “Sorry to have caused you any trouble.”
By the time he picked up Mr. Keeler’s glasses and made it back to the car Mark was slumped in the front seat looking like a crushed can.
The can spoke, “Sorry about that.”
“No problem. Here’s your specks.”
Mark put on his glasses without noticing the damage. “I thought it would help. You know . . . face your fears . . . that kind of stuff.”
“You’re the Wheeler she was talking about, right?” Mark nodded. “You lived in this place alone?”
“No,” Mark whispered. “Can we go now?”
Yosh pulled out of the driveway with an unintended lurch and headed downtown. When he passed 89th Ave. Mr. Keeler looked up.
“Have we passed 89th. yet?”
“Yeah, just now.”
“Damn! I’m sorry. Do you mind back tracking and taking 89th West?”
“No, I don’t mind. I’ve got a couple hours to kill.” He took the next exit, turned back North and veered off at 89th. “Where we headed Mr. Keeler?”
“You mean the graveyard?”
“Yes, the graveyard; the yard of graves; the grave . . .”
After a few bends and turns they arrived. The metal plated sign over the brass gate read JASPER MEMORIAL PARK – LAND OF REST.
Yosh didn’t feel very rested. “What the hell am I doing here?!” he wondered. “I hate these places.” The last time he’d been to a funeral was his grandfathers. They dressed up in ironed pressed suits on a sweltering hot summer day and listened to a bunch of Shinto Priests in stupid hats talking gibberish for over an hour. It had been unbearable.
Mark looked like a hunter scanning the horizon for prey. “There, by that big white cross!”
“Which one; they’re everywhere?”
“That one; next to the hedge of oleander.”
They parked, turned off the engine and disembarked.
“Please, wait here,” Mark said.
Yosh went back to the car, leaned against the side door and watched Mr. Keeler venture towards the hedge with his arms wrapped around his tightly packaged body, as if he was holding a large pillow to cushion some sudden charge or blow.
Mark was not aware of his spineless body heading towards oblivion. His mind swam with familiar fears as his gut plunged like a boulder falling over a waterfall towards sharp rocks below. His eyes were awash in a salt marsh of tears. He almost fell over Charlene’s headstone, bruising his knee. He knelt on the soft bosom of grass and begged to not see . . . to not see the blood . . . the mutilated bodies . . . the horror. He pleaded to view them before . . . before the insanity . . . before his nerves were injected with a murderous rage . . . before he became a walking corpse of memory. He reached out and felt the cold smooth stone of the adjoining marker. Through the blur he saw Jasmine’s name, as clean and fresh as if the engraver had just laid down their chisel.
“My sweet child . . . I’m so sorry.” The wildfire in his heart burned more acreage, jumping between his ventricles and valves like a flaming jackrabbit. A sudden snap and he swore a two-ton elephant had jumped on his chest. He keeled over, clutching at his lungs, gasping for oxygen and space.
Yosh sprinted to his side with the speed of the young.
“Mr. Keeler! Mr. Keeler!”
Mark squinted and felt air rushing back in to his lungs like a long lost child. He gulped in relief and languished in the momentary freedom from pain.
“You need a doctor!”
“I never felt better.”
“Mr. Keeler I . . .”
“OK, Mark. Don’t fool around. You need medical attention and . . .”
“Look Yosh . . . it is Yosh?” Yosh nodded; shocked that Mr. Keeler remembered his name. “It’s just a little heart attack. Believe me, it’s nothing.”
“Nothing?! Look here Mr. . . . I mean Mark, this could be serious!”
“It would be a blessing. I’ve never had the guts to do it myself.”
This man once had everything he’d dreamed of. How could he talk about suicide? Then he saw the headstones and read, “Charlene Keeler. May 18, 1952 – February 10th, 1984. Beloved wife, mother, daughter and friend.” He turned and recited the eulogy on the matching stone. “Jasmine Keeler. November 27, 1977 – February 10th, 1984. Beloved Angel Child.”
Mark heard the words “Angel Child” and looked at Yosh’s clean-shaven face. His stunned silence begged an explanation. Mark swallowed, felt his Adam’s apple rise and fall, took hold of any remaining capacities within his possession and ran zigzag through the mind field of his memory.
“I got home from work around six in the evening.”
“I was vice-president of research at Lupin Technology.”
“Lupin? Oh yeah, satellites and stuff, right?”
“I got home around six, threw my bag on the chair and called out for Jasmine. She usually hid behind the sofa or curtain, waiting to pounce. She never thought I could hear her or see where she was. When she couldn’t stand waiting and jumped out, I always acted surprised. Then she’d throw her arms around my neck, give me a big hug and kiss and tell me all about her day. That evening I waited and waited, but nothing happened. No giggles, no movement, no sound. I called again, ‘Jasmine! Charlene!’ Nothing. Charlene’s Audi was in the driveway so I knew they were home. Then the adrenaline kicked in. I looked more closely and saw open drawers and broken glass. We’d been robbed. ‘OK,’ I thought, big deal, we’ve got insurance.’
I figured they must be in the back calling the police. I went to the kitchen, stepped on to the marble-colored tile floor and smelled Charlene’s perfume. It was a mixture of rose and sandalwood. She got it special made from some fragrance shop or aromatherapy place. Of course, when she wore the stuff it didn’t smell anything like it did from the bottle. It was sort of like . . .” his voice drifted off.
Yosh listened, as his composure crumbled like the wall of Jericho.
“I looked out the window, to see if they were in the garden, then went around the chopping block and stubbed my toe. I looked down and saw I was standing in a pool of blood.” Mark’s hands twitched. He stared through Yosh as if he was a cloud of vaporous gas. “It was Charlene. Her neck was cut in half. I moved backwards running into the wall, leaving a trail of bright red foot prints.”
Yosh sat down, as Mark’s description leveled his belief in humanity like a wrecking ball. “My God.”
“Then I saw Jasmine. Her skirt covered her pretty head, like she was trying to hide. I slipped on the blood, crawled to her side and uncovered her face, half-expecting her to yell ‘Surprise!’ Her eyes were plastered open in fright. I tried to lift her up and felt something warm and wet oozing from her chest. Her last ounce of blood covered my hands. I grabbed her arm, which was nearly severed and hung like a piece of string cheese.
“Please!” Yosh interjected. “That’s enough!”
“I must have screamed or yelled. Someone called the police. Somebody’s hands were pulling me away from Jasmine’s drenched little body. It was like being sick on a broken down carousel that kept going round and round and I couldn’t get off.
They caught the guy. There was a trial. He was sentenced. I asked a friend to sell the house and send my checks to my uncle’s old place in the mountains. I’ve been there since.”
Neither man moved. Shadows fell upon their faces and slithered into the undergrowth that covered hundreds of souls.
“Let’s go,” Yosh finally said. He helped Mark to his jellyfish feet.
“Where are we going?”
“To the doctor,” Yosh said, walking towards the car, their arms draped around one another like old war buddies.
“No thanks. Let’s go home.”
“You know; that old place next to Mr. Matsuma and his sister,” Mark winked.
Yosh helped Mark into the silver Civic. Mark looked out the window, across the recently cut grass, his family’s death bed. A breeze drifted through the window carrying his dreams to their graves of dirt and dust. He kissed his palm and blew his heart in their direction. “If only the living was as easy as the dying,” he whispered.
Yosh turned onto the highway and headed towards the sanctuary of living trees and solid mountains of iron and granite. His city business could wait. He had to deliver Mr. Keeler, Mark, back to the woods . . . back to safety . . . back to his shattered life of fierce independence . . . of living out his days without interference, threat or judgment. He thought of his fiancée, Rosita, of how he would hold her, protect her and care for her with a new found fierceness she would never understand.