Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pariah

I bumped into a girl today I haven't seen since high school. Her name is Sarah. What follows is a brief retelling of an incident we shared way back in the sixth grade:


As a student of the largely unremarkable Vanilla Wafer Academy, there were few things worth looking forward to more than Jonathon Wolff's birthday. As far as our little corner of K-12 was concerned, Wolff was king. He was champ. He was the flagship poster boy for the sixth grade class--the most popular, the most charismatic, by far the most athletic, and, as these things go, he also had the richest parents. So when Jonathon Wolff had a birthday party, you made damn sure you were going to be there.

And to top it all off, it was going to be a pool party. With girls.



I arrived at the House of Wolff to find a spectacular sight: table stands decked out with name brand potato chips and actual takeout pizza boxes, frosty cool cans of sweet root beer, ice chests swelling to the hilt with creamy mounds of soft, homemade vanilla like miniature softballs, and, at the end of this delectable cornucopia, the most amazingly blue inground pool my eyes have ever laid witness to; the thing was seriously immaculate.


It wasn't long before I met up with my small circle of friends, and we began debating which tactics would be most effective in approaching a girl. One friend recalled feigning color-blindness in a bizarre attempt at gaining a girl's sympathy, hoping she would then proceed to go out with him. Neither was accomplished.


As we carried on, a most peculiar thing occurred--every one of the popular kids, the "jocks," were tossing and pushing the girls into the pool. And, most surprisingly, they seemed to actually enjoy it! The girls laughed and screamed playfully as they fell one-by-one into the water. Was that it? Would this minor transgression on my part propel me from diffident wallflower to middle school Casanova? Now in junior high, I figured myself to have matured greatly from the awkward, timid youth of elementary school, and I was going to prove it.

I scouted through the raucous antics of the backyard for a target. And there, standing idly by at the other end of the pool, was Sarah--a pretty-enough blonde to catch my attention, but not popular enough so as to arouse deep-seated anxiety at the mere thought of approaching her. I made my way to her side of the pool.

"Hey, Sarah!"

As she turned to face me, I thrusted my hands forward with gusto, watching triumphantly as her body fell into the majestic waters of Wolff's pool.

I did it! I actually did it, I thought to myself. The exhilaration felt at that moment was palpable, and it seemed as though time, itself, had stopped. I imagined everyone at a standstill with their eyes fixated upon me, admiring my feat.

But time had not come to a stop, and everyone was staring at me. The mistaken look of admiration was, in fact, shock, as poor Sarah flailed about in the now markedly grim blue body of water, and screaming at a level of volume I previously thought incapable by human vocal cords. Rather than being seen as joining the ranks amongst the popular, sixth grade elite, I was, instead, viewed as the mean, menacing, still awkward, bully who had almost killed the girl with asthma.



After the ambulance had arrived and transported our deeply distressed classmate to the ICU, I was left alone to pass the time whilst waiting anxiously for my angry and disappointed parents to come and pick me up. My brain kept the incident on a sadistic loop like a bowdlerized "Clockwork Orange." While Jonathon Wolff's party had been a bust, it was far from forgotten; family and classmates made certain of that...


Neither one of us brought up the pool party during our brief run-in this afternoon, though. I gave her my life's post-high school highlights, mentioned plans for the future; Sarah reciprocated. And as she directed the conversation to the shiny new ornament around her finger (congrats!), I couldn't help but think of that stupid pool party and how much I hated pushing her, even before I knew anything was wrong. Truthfully, my mind replays that night far more frequently (and in no less vivid detail) than I'd care to admit; it's become a sorta, kinda, almost, slightly quasi-defining moment in my life. Aside from the very obvious recognition that I was not apart of the "cool" clique, throughout the years I gradually became more and more aware of the importance of understanding your own identity. Experimenting and testing one's limits shouldn't be avoided, but if you find yourself upsetting the crux of your character, then you'll just end up a pariah.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Child's Plaything

     Her hair is a horde of messy wire strewn across the dirt, fingers stiff like dried bubblegum. A hot, yellow light drains the water from her skin, leaving it chalky and coarse. Torn pieces of cloth from her skirt twist and writhe in the wind, lying against the barren terrain and atop bushels of prickly pears. A pair of broken sandals, once emitting an ardent cream, slumps beneath the heavy sunlight, coated with tie-dye splotches of golden brown and crimson. A cushy, purple bow scurries through blankets of dust, carried by an arid breeze, tumbling over crowds of tiny rocks and silica like some pomegranate tumbleweed. It slithers and sloops, brushes and skirmishes, before colliding into the sole of the shoe of a precocious child.
     Isabelle reaches down and takes the dusty, purple bow into her hand. The ribbon has a peculiar weight about it as tiny specks of earth crumble in her palm. She crouches against a giant ponderosa pine, her stout body encompassed within its shadow, her tiny digits pressing against the veinous stratum of its bark. Slowly, the young girl peers from behind the tree’s massive trunk, and observes the taut body in the distance.
     “Hey!” the child yawps.
     The corpse remains a permanent fixture of the dry landscape, a twisted, crumpled heap of flesh and bone fossilized in twigs and dirt.
     Isabelle turns back to the bow trapped between her fingertips. She plays with its flexibility while drawing circles in the dirt. Her fingers skate along the heavy terrain, planting crisscrosses and figure-eights in the earth. Her tiny nails form tiny trenches along the roots of the tree before coming to a halt at its base. The child springs to her feet, and reels her hand to her chest. With fingertips encased in an earthy gunk, she spreads the grainy brown across the yellow of her blouse.
     She peers once more from behind the giant tree. Puzzled by the peculiarity of her environment, Isabelle bounds from its sizable shadow, and marches slowly towards the body.
     A petite pair of feet propels the languid trek towards the corpse, legs moving like some lost member of a chain gang. She shuffles with head hung low and fingers gently typing away upon the purple ribbon held aloof within her tiny grasp.
     “Hey.”
     Her body towers over the deceased, cascading a conifer-sized shadow of her own. The child’s head becomes an eclipse, an expressionless, sun-eating dragon, lingering a mere four feet above the corpse.
     “Hey, you!”
     Isabelle lowers her gaze to the bow twisting in her hands, her feet scuffling nervously upon a patch of dead leaves and broken twigs. Her body wiggles and squirms, her neck twirls and twines, her lower lip becomes a ruffled pillow between her teeth. Though unaware of the macabre truth behind the situation, the young girl nevertheless experiences something resembling dread. She nervously clings to the purple bow like a stressball; the accessory oddly begins to resemble a refurbished heart as it palpitates by the beat of the girl's fingertips.
     “I think this is yours,” she shyly asserts, extending the dead child’s bow.
     The young girl makes a tiny step forward, kneeling to the ground and squatting beside the body. She observes the misshaped pools of yellow scattered on its skin, the dark clouds of purple and blue strung across the neck, and an outstretched arm with curled fingers like the legs of a lifeless arachnid. With bow held firm, she reaches slowly for the corpse’s hand.
     Isabelle’s intentions are quickly cut short amidst a loud, blistering wail from an approaching siren. The cacophonous signal intensifies; the young girl stumbles to her feet. Frantically, she leaps across the body, away from her meticulous designs in the dirt, and out from under the ephemeral grasp of the colossal evergreen.

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     “The victim is a four-year-old white female. She weighed roughly thirty-six pounds and measured an approximate height of thirty-eight inches. She’s light build with shoulder-length brown hair and hazel eyes. No formal identification has been established.”
     The investigator sips from his glass of water before continuing into the recorder.
     “Victim was discovered lying face up, head turned to its right. The left arm lay stretched out, right arm contiguous to victim’s side, legs bent to the right with feet diagonally oriented at about forty-five degrees. Heavy bruising around the neck indicates strong likelihood of death from asphyxia. Small, thin cuts, roughly one and a half centimeters in length, appear sporadically about the victim; wounds unlikely inflicted by the culprit, probably environmental. Victim’s [condition of clothing] does not indicate sexual assault. Fingernails are filled with surrounding dirt, the nails slightly eroded. Abrasions on heel and plantar fascia of both feet appear to be result of consistent bare exposure to the rough terrain.”
     “Body is still warm. Markedly stiff limbs, probably at or near peak of rigor mortis, suggesting the corpse is between twelve and fourteen hours since death. Medics on the scene, arriving at 1323 hours, reported no pulse from the victim. Crime was called in anonymously at 1311 hours.”
     “Victim is wearing a blue dress with white platter collar. Five buttons line the midsection, none appearing unbuttoned. A pair of sandals, belonging to the victim, were found approximately nineteen yards and twenty-one yards from the body, both encrusted with specks of blood, also likely belonging to the victim. A small set of footprints, not believed to be from that of the victim or the assailant, trail to and fro the body.”
     The old inspector switches off the recorder and drains the final drops of water from his glass.

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     “So what ya think?” Emerson asks, bringing the blade to the woman’s forehead.
     “Get it done.” Her reply drips with a strong-willed assuredness.
     A gaunt atmosphere clouds the pallid walls. Faint remnants of the past, vague traces of the entities that have passed, billions of codes of DNA scattered on the floor, all infinitesimal footprints that will never be observed. The air is thick, an acrid ravaging of the senses. Sounds of a muffled buzzsaw hack through empty spaces, ripples in the air like drops on water. And the bitter cadence between prattle and calumny run paramount within these secluded walls.
     “Martha!” pipes an elderly voice. “Oh my goodness, Martha, you are goin’ to love it!”
      Emerson continues a steady hand along Martha’s dwindling bangs. Hundreds of slender, dyed-blonde hairs fall to the floor in clusters.
      “Oh, I dunno. You really think so?” Martha eyes her reflection in one of the salon’s old, musty mirrors; she actively hunts for imperfections. “It’s a little-”
     “Oh nonsense!” beams Ruby, a spritely and spirited older woman three chairs to Martha’s left.
     “You are gonna look great, girl--that folically-independent husband of yours is gonna fall right on his ass when he sees you!” A hoary laughter erupts inside the parlor.
      Further down the room, an aged television set plagued with bulbous dials and a thick, smoky-gray screen rests upon the countertop at the entrance of Emerson’s Beauty Salon. Its channels are a continuing victim by repeat offenders: poor reception and trichromaticity. Additionally, the TV set remains permanently tuned to the perennial daytime “stories," as per request of Emerson’s elderly patrons. But in between segments of poor dialogue and even worse acting, local updates of breaking news (e.g. lemonade-stand scandals, runaway pets, Sunday Mass absentees) interrupt the regularly scheduled programming. On this particular day, however, a significantly grimmer headline crept across the screen.
     “That poor child!” exclaims Emerson. A collective gasp of sighs and soughs pervade the salon.
     “Who in the God’s world…” Ruby injects before reeling back. Her initial shock soon turns truculent.
     “That sonuvabitch better hope to God he doesn’t cross my way. I’d beat the everliving shit out of him so fast he wouldn’t know what to think.” Her words fire like a shotgun, but go unnoticed as quickly as they came.
     The women continue their fixed gaze upon the television set. Their bodies alternate between shaking heads out of disbelief and smacking lips in awe with every passing detail delivered by the ABQY news crew.
     Slowly, the salon door opens, signaled by the chime of an old, rusty bell knotted to its hinges. A familiar pattern of footsteps, a cross between the slow plodding of a horse and a chugging locomotive, traipse along the floor. The tiny pair of feet snake across the tiles, cruising behind the counter, and approach the entranced group of women.
     “Isabelle!” shouts Martha at the child’s dirty reflection in the mirror. “You come over here right now, missy!”
     The young girl darts towards her mother. A light, purple accessory jostles around her neck as she runs.
     Martha swivels ‘round to her approaching child, seemingly unaware of the beautician’s shears snipping at her temple.
     “Where have you been?” she asks, her hands struggling to make the best of her daughter’s disheveled appearance.
     Isabelle responds with her typical nonresponse.
     “And what is this?” Martha continues, addressing the smeared smudges of dirt on her daughter’s once yellow blouse.
     “Oh, Martha,” butts in Ruby. “Leave the little woman alone. Don’t you know she’s just a youngin’?”
     Martha shoots her friend a mock dirty look before exposing the sly smile underneath.
     “You really ought to mind where you run off to, Izzy.” She brushes the girl’s hair behind her ears, and wets the dirty blouse with some spittle from her mouth. “And these are such nice clothes, too... Your father would throw an absolute fit if he saw what you done to this outfit.”
     Martha eyes her daughter’s slovenly appearance from head to toe--the unkempt pair of tennis shoes, the fresh coat of dirt spread across her knees and ankles, and the peculiar bowled clasp at her waist. Isabelle extends her grip. With trepidation, she unearths the purple bow buried in her hands.
     “Can you put this in my hair?” The child's tender speech pours softly into the room like a voice ensconced with fresh marinade.
     Martha reaches for the bow dangling like a hangman from the pinched noose of her daughter's fingertips. She grabs the tangled piece of ribbon.
     "Where in heaven’s name did you pick up this dirty thing?” the woman implores.
     “I dunno.”
     "What do you mean, 'you don't know?'"
     Isabelle's equivocation was not intentional as she struggled to find a fitting response. 
     "Well?" her mother continues, agitated.
     Feeling the silence become increasingly bitter as the empty moments began to stack, Isabelle readies an answer she finds closest to the truth.
     “Somebody gave it to me.”
     "Gave it to you?" Martha darts back with a reflexive vocal. "What do you--Who gave it to you, Isabelle?"
     “A girl.”
     “What girl?”
     The child feels her body contract, her thoughts taciturn. Though she could not explain the unease which had so swiftly come over her, she nevertheless understood its source to have sprung from the little girl lying still in the sun, the progenitor of Isabelle's now purple bow.
     “For god’s sake, Martha, it’s prob’ly one of her little friends from school,” Ruby, again, interjects. “I’m sure the little woman is very popular with her classmates.” The senior glances at Isabelle, and smiles supportively.
     The child non-responds, turning her gaze to the parlor floor’s grime-tinged tiles and stares.
     “Did a classmate give you this raggedy thing, Izzy?”
     Isabelle nods, and Martha ties the ribbon reluctantly into a cheap bow which she then fastens to her daughter’s golden-brown hair.
     “Thank you,” the child mutters as she turns and slowly plods towards an empty corner in the parlor.
     “Yes, indeed!” pipes Ruby. “That sure is a gorgeous bow, Izzy. You are just about the prettiest little woman!” Martha scowls at her friend's flagrant approval of the bow.
     “Oh!” shouts one of the patrons, much to everyone else's surprise and alarm. “Wasn’t Anthony going to propose to Marlena today?”
     “That’s right!” chimes in another. “You know, Norma, I had completely forgotten about that! I sure hope this one treats her better than the last three.”
     “Well quit your yappin', and change the damn channel, already!” demands Ruby.
     As the patrons of Emerson’s Beauty Salon fumble desperately for the television remote, Isabelle climbs into an empty styling chair at the other end of the parlor. She finds herself observing the women bicker and argue over how to operate the television remote, moan and groan at how the events of their program unfolded, and tease and compliment one another's new 'dos.
     Eventually, the young girl's fixation on the adults starts to wane, and she slouches deep into her chair and out of view. Gently, Isabelle strokes the purple bow in her hair, her face red and puffy from a bout of unexpected and heavy tears.
     “It isn’t raggedy.”

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     The dead girl’s body, a once functioning system of organs interlaced with biological highways of blood vessels and pulmonary veins, rests a silent victim upon the cold, marble slab of the mortician’s operating table. He stands near the faucet while a steady stream of icy water rushes over his hands before slipping on a pair of thin, plastic gloves.
     Kent strolls over to the corpse, and removes a long, slender blade from a metallic pan. With careful precision, he cuts a thick hole into the child’s carotid artery. Small pools of blood flow from the incision like carbonation. The mortician thrusts a slender tube through the gaping wound, and clears the red from the body’s thyroid cartilage.
     Carefully, Kent mats down the child’s eyelids with a thin adhesive; an eye cup is placed over them to secure their position. The mouth is stuffed with cotton and similarly laced with epoxy, but it refuses to shut. The mortician repeatedly pinches the lips together while the jaw continues to slack. Grabbing a needle and ligature, he threads a thin, metaled wire through the body’s plush gums, twisting the ends into a rigid knot. Quickly, he applies a second layer of adhesive.
     The various cuts decorating the body’s face are coated with a heavy cloud of thick, pink makeup. Kent softens various creams over the dead girl's skin, filling the pores and dried-blood trenches, giving the corpse a warm, rosy complexion. He clips the nails and scrapes the dirt buried deep within its fingertips. The body’s hair is washed and styled appropriately. The mortician now runs a soaked sponge back and forth gently across the corpse's flesh, a vain attempt to rub away the remnants of the little girl's cruel, final hours.
     Kent places his tools aside and leans back into the chair of his dimly lit chamber. He stares at the innocent, young victim, and tries to imagine the dead child as anything other than the heap of decaying flesh and brittle bones that lay before him. He ponders countless histories and numerous futures for the child, but finding none of them satisfying. Discontented with his mind's hollow fantasies, the mortician instead takes note the beauty he has restored to the child, wondering how close his work comes to what once was.

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     A grave sun pours hot upon the old structure, filtering its heavy light through stained-glass d├ęcor while an organ’s sustained reverb bellows through the thick, crickety walls of North Valley Baptist Church. A choir of few sings its tired songs of faith and healing to the pews flexing under the weight of teary-eyed adults and restless youths. An old priest slouches solemnly in his chair, hands in his lap, feet to the floor, and eyes weighing shut next to a tiny, nondescript casket. The music fades. Slowly, the priest rises from his seat and trembles towards the podium. Exhaling into the microphone, he speaks.
     “Lord, our God; You are the source of life. In You we live and move…” The words drift from his mouth at a tepid pace; rows of women and men nod their heads in respect, the children mimicking their gestures as the old priest continues his invocation. “Keep us in life and death in Your love, and, by Your grace, lead us to Your Kingdom, through Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
     The pastor lowers his head as a collective “amen” fills the prayer hall.
     He continues, “Let us now listen to the words of Holy Scripture that assures us of God’s safe-keeping in life and death.” The man flips to a marked page within his heavily adorned Bible, the holy book dressed up like a decorated soldier, and begins to read.
     Sitting idly by at the far end of a distant pew, Isabelle remains nestled between her mother and father. The young girl observes the small casket with a curious expression, her gaze shifting occasionally to the bereaved. She bites at a fingernail and scratches with her shoes, and soon feels the arm of her mother wrapping around her shoulder. As the choir resumes, the child begins to still.
     Six pallbearers take hold of an all-too-tragically tiny coffin, and begin a slow and plodding trek through the haggard cemetery before coming to a stop at the edge of the lot and beside a small burial plot.
     “From dust you came, to dust you shall return,” the priest pronounces just as an arid breeze begins blowing through God’s acre. “Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life.”
     “Amen.”
     Isabelle watches from the cemetery gates while fists of earth fall down upon the diminutive casket. The bereaved share hands and offer shoulders, tears swelling the eyes behind pairs of thick lenses.
     The young girl plods a tedious pace toward the foot of the burial plot. She rubs her hand across the tombstone, tracing the engravings with a pair of taut fingertips. As the sun casts a deep shadow of the child across the grave, she digs into her hair and unties the purple bow from its dirty-blonde cage. Toying briefly, silently, with the plush accessory, Isabelle tosses the bow forward, a streak of purple descent as the ribbon spirals down into its eternal place of internment.