Cliche Horror (creative nonfiction)

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He must have seen me in the crowd after the hockey game, but by being fixated on the players that were making their exits and signing autographs for kids, I hadn’t noticed him. Distracted, I missed anyone taking a special interest in me. Being alone, I certainly didn’t do anything to draw attention to myself. Completely amused by a group of grown men geeking out like teenaged girls, giggling and bouncing around while taking turns getting their pictures taken with the visiting team captain, I wasn’t on guard.

I left the arena late. I was that lone woman walking toward her car in an empty parking garage that sent a chill up my spine. Looking over my shoulder, my steps echoed against the concrete. Nothing was there, except the fluorescent lights overhead. Only a few steps to the sanctuary of my car, parked near the elevators, I quicken my pace. But, if horror flicks have proven anything over the years, it’s that the inside of a car provides only the illusion of safety. Once inside, just to quiet my inner paranoia, I glanced into the backseat. All clear. My relief brought with it a sigh and, then, a nervous giggle. Since when was I so high strung? I chalked it up to my imagination. That was a classic bad horror movie mistake. So, I started the car and drove up the spiral center ramp of the arena garage and washed it all out of my mind in seconds. Another misstep.

Ten seconds later, two levels up, and just inside my peripheral vision, I saw the figure of a guy coming toward me. White t-shirt. Red shorts. I had plenty of time to make it by him. The fact that he was out there registered, but I didn’t really focus on it. But, then he sped up. He practically jumped out in front of my car. I slammed on my brakes. He threw his hands onto the hood and the crash sent a jolt straight to the core of my bones. Our eyes met. I knew I hadn’t hit him, but just barely. The look on his face was blank, but I got the feeling he wanted to talk.

He looked like he recognized me. He looked down at me and started to make his way from the front of my car to the driver’s side window, holding my gaze.  With his motive unknown, in the few precious moments I had left before he reached my door, my mind went into fight or flight overdrive. But, something different about this encounter stood out. I wanted to roll down the window and ask him if he was alright. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. But what about the bad horror movies?

Now, face-to-face with possibly a deranged, kamikaze stranger in a deserted parking garage, I felt trapped.

I held his gaze, watching for the second his body stepped past the hood of my car. The moment he did, I gunned the throttle. The car whisked by him and up the next concrete ramp. I clipped his wrist with my driver’s side mirror. As I reached the top of the ramp, I glanced into my rear-view mirror expecting him to be gone because everything about this was creepy. To my surprise, he was standing at the bottom of the ramp with his hands thrown up into the air. I stopped, again. I still wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Yet, I couldn’t risk an open confrontation and drove off. I wasn’t about to die in some sort of awful parking garage horror flick cliché. Perhaps, I overreacted. If it hadn’t been his intention to frighten me, he realized a moment too late. It all went wrong. I escaped and no one followed me out of the garage.

I can’t remember the face of the man who jumped out in front of me that night. But, driving home, I thought that, perhaps, the man was actually a stranded fan. Chances are his car battery just needed a jump. Under the examination of that possibility, I suddenly felt ridiculous for my hysterical reaction.

But, then, again, maybe that was the set-up. Cliché horror movie murder averted.

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Day Labor (creative nonfiction)

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A friend suggested that I go down to the job pool, which pays daily, even if only minimum wage. I arrive at a rundown warehouse on the wrong side of town at about 4:30 this morning where the black of night still prevails because of burnt out street lights and potholes. The large structure reflects the gray in these days. It bustles with activity. You would never know it’s this early in the morning. I have to register along with my fellow laborers looking for work today at a wooden counter which appears taller than necessary. The man behind the counter has a bald head and also appears taller than usual. I wouldn’t usually notice except I don’t have to look down at him, which is the norm for someone our height. His voice booms over the intercom as he calls out the names of the individuals who registered before I arrived. I fill out the application and take a seat.

Work comes in and the workers shuffle their way out. Have I come too late? Yet, the room still crawls with new arrivals entering through the thick, shabby, metal door. The news, which I find too peppy for mornings, bounces in the background on a TV that hangs in a rusty cage. Wooden and metal chairs riddle the vast space inside the dim, dingy warehouse. I sit watching the news. I’m a first-timer here and it took all the humility I could muster to show up. The longer I sit and wait the more my humility simply turns into pure humiliation.

I once thought, I am better than this. I am better than people who have to find work this way. I am not anymore. I have no one to blame but myself for where I am. As I try to reclaim some small scope of dignity the tall, bald man calls out my name. I am one of the lucky ones because I got on a job today.

Six of us are called to the same job site, but not everybody has a car. Fortunately, I do. Unfortunately, that makes me the designated driver. I pack the rest of my new crew into my red, beat-up car. We head off to the subdivision to work new construction. I feel the stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots in this particular moment of life. Of my five passengers, by far the most vocal is a woman by the name of Gina in the front seat. She’s a heavyset black woman with braided hair and full of bubbly personality. I can’t help but wonder where that bubbly personality comes from this day. I resist the urge to ask her how she keeps herself together. Perhaps joy fills her life. Perhaps she finds satisfaction in her daily work. Perhaps the morning news isn’t too peppy for her. She doesn’t even bother hitting on me. This is one of the worst days of my life and I have one of the happiest people I’ve ever met sitting next to me giving me directions to the job site. This day feels long already.

Upon arrival we receive our instructions from the foreman running the subdivision construction site. He issues us each a wheelbarrow, broom and shovel. They represent the tools of my trade now. If I stay with it, I might get to trade in my broom for a hammer. Being on a skilled crew pays more, but I don’t know a thing about carpentry.

I just want to keep my head down and stay silent. I don’t want to share the normal niceties that accompany polite conversation with the individuals I’ve just met. I don’t want to be rude, but some days it takes all the energy I have just to remain focused on the task in front of me. Some days it takes all I have just to remain sane. Worlds away I reminisce on the life that could have been mine. It evaporated into the aether, permanently. The best I can hope for is a short-term memory of that life, that life that must’ve been only a dream. How I wish I could go back to sleep. How I wish I could be satisfied going back to sleep and never waking up. I’m not many steps away from that kind of sleep. It’s all I can do to hold onto this waking reality, this new reality that I find myself within today. What have I done to myself? These futile thoughts certainly won’t get any of my work finished so I lay them to rest in the back of my mind, locked far and deep away so that I can live this day without the overwhelming desire to kill myself off.

The sun cannot penetrate the gray of my day. Finished homes are for the upper-class built with only the finest materials for multiple stories. Plastic sheets still cover the newly installed imported tile kitchen floors and marble counter-tops. Each bedroom has a private seating bay window, walk-in closet and bathroom. Cedar floors throughout make it smell of fresh spice. Working within this neighborhood I see all that I have never attained for myself, comfort being the most apparent. Coming off a nervous breakdown isn’t the most comforting of experiences. Today I want to keep my head down, shovel debris and sweep the unfinished floors. I don’t want to talk to anybody, but Gina is quite the chatterbox. When I speak I fear all my shame will fall out in between my teeth, my tongue incapable of preventing it.

The hardened concrete sends out echoes from under the broom bristles in a disagreeing, repetitive, scratching noise. Plywood, electrical wiring, exposed framing and insulation speckle the subdivision. Sweeping up the debris after the new construction can be a daunting task. This dust is the gray, fine remnants of drywall that manage to escape my best attempts to rally it. I make pass after pass and still I am unsatisfied. Then, Gina gently informs me to slow down and ease up on the perfectionism. After all, if we get all of our work done today then there will be no reason for the foreman to request our crew tomorrow. I didn’t know he could do that. She has a point and I don’t argue.

As we take a break in the back corner of an unfinished home to smoke a cigarette and waste some time Gina gathers all the crew together and reiterates the importance of our work pace. “We all got selected in the order we showed up today. But now that we’re here, the crew chief can request us specifically for tomorrow so we won’t have to wait in the pool again. This job, if we time it right, could take all week.”

And so it did.

I never thought I’d find myself malingering here today, but I have to eat. Pride can empty any stomach. I’ve starved before and have no intention of trying it again. I imagine the feeling remains the same. The agony of it stays with me to this day.

Am I so different from Gina? I fear I may become her; I’ve never been a masculine man. I don’t want her experience. I don’t want this minimum wage life cleaning up before the privileged move into their new gated community. I must have too much pride, still, and this my penance realized.

Gina is quick to share her amusement about the Mexicans working. She calls them ‘scatterbugs’. Whenever immigration service shows up to the site they disappear like magicians. Gina so amuses herself that she can’t keep her chuckles concealed. She tells stories about watching grown men dive into bushes or into the back of flatbed pickup trucks to cover themselves with tarps and two by fours. Others just run. And while I smile along as she tells her stories I can’t help but relate to them on some level.

These are everyday men and women who are just trying to feed their families. Their goal here today is no different than mine. If my family appears on the job site I might find myself in some obscure nook trying to prevent discovery. I know this shame is not justified. I know that I should be proud of the fact that I take care of my responsibilities and feed myself. I can’t see the shame in that, yet I can’t help but feel the shame in that. At least I’m not running from immigration services, too. I wonder if the stock broker moving in next month feels the same way? After all, all this work is for him. We eat today because he decided to buy a sparkling new home. That’s opportunity cost and that’s capitalism. That’s the system. It’s as simple as that.

I tried and the system ate me up. Now look at me. Stupid enough to try again. It takes more than hunger to make it in this life. While others strive, some skate on by. It’s a bullshit system rigged for the rich, yet dumbed downed so the “educated” can waste their energies pursuing their pop culture civil agendas. They don’t see the prize is a dollar sign, not a protest sign. The honest workers carry the burdens of the rich floating heads because they fall for it. Does that make it their fault? I was an economist and I’d rather push this broom than try to weasel through any more of their secret funckin’ handshakes. The blackmarket isn’t any better. My fingers don’t bend in enough intricate designs to get my beat in for gang money either. One hand greases the other and I’m sick of the sludge. I’d rather breathe in this gray dust. Maybe I shouldn’t even bother with that anymore since I cannot catch mesothelioma. Pity. I would go that way. I’m not picky. I fantasize about cement trucks with their rolling bellies running me down at high speeds. That would do it.

Upon returning to the warehouse we receive our checks. I am, again, designated to take the majority of our crew to the check cashing establishment literally across a set of railroad tracks. It’s not too far from where the job pool headquarters is located. Even in this microcosm almost everyone gets their cut. No one chips in for gas.

Gina has taken a liking to me and tells everyone in the car to look out for me. Sometimes people are robbed as they exit the building with their cash. It’s emasculating, but I haven’t the energy left for a fight anyhow. I have my reservations about trusting her intentions, but what choice do I have? I am in the same boat as my new found day labor buddies. But they did keep an eye out for me, the only white boy in sight without tracks or tats to cover them. Once we all have our cash, two of my passengers say their goodbyes and head across the street to the liquor store. Gina offers to hook me up with some weed to take her home. I have a feeling the quality will be less than I’m accustomed to, but we smoke a pinner on the way and I drop her off at her place. My body slumps in the worn driver’s seat on the ride back to my trailer. I had it all and then I lost it. I lost my mind. I lost my friends. I lost hope and hate the word.

All I know for sure is that I can’t show up for another week of day labor. I think there’s only one true solution to my problems: I have to join the Army. I’m half crazy but they won’t even notice at the recruiting station. There are two wars on and they need another warm body for now. People are coming home every day in body bags or wooden coffins covered by American flags, still concealed from the lenses of an inquiring press corps. I cannot bring myself to kill this body, but I can certainly live just long enough to earn my plywood and flag. At least there is a ring of Honor in that. I tried to join the day after dropping Gina off.

I thought I would show up and then ship out. To my dismay, it’s quite the process. There’s aptitude testing, medical testing and fitness testing. I had to choose a job. I could have been an officer with my advanced degree, but that would leave me insulated. What is the most likely job to get me killed? The answer is easy. I am a male and want to be at the frontline. I join the infantry and after basic training I get assigned to a special operations unit. I ship out in May.

I don’t expect anyone will ever understand. I am too ashamed to work at the day labor pool. Who do I think I am? I am too cowardly to end my life on my own so I decide to attempt suicide by enemy fire. I am no hero. I can’t even call myself a mercenary. I am completely selfish. I don’t believe in anything.

I guess all I can hope for is a rouge grenade to pounce upon. Otherwise, I will stick it out. As twisted as my reasons are for joining the Army, the structure actually brings me some unexpected peace. Not the most inspiring story I realize, but the longer I stay in the Army the more I realize that stable and balanced are rare characteristics, particularly among Soldiers. After all, we’re trained killers or willing, able, locked and loaded.

Maybe it’s best to just keep the truth to myself. I’ve never claimed to be a patriot. This realization is my most striking, yet not the most grotesque. Unlike day labor, I finally made it onto a skilled crew.

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Dream Walker (creative nonfiction)

boy-447701_640As I nestled within my white, four-post bed it was just like any other night in the Florida winter. Non-natives always underestimate our winters. They don’t realize that the high humidity at forty degrees can cut through the thickest layers of clothes straight to the marrow of your bones. My mom gave me a plush, heated blanket, which I turned to the highest setting. My room was a mishmash of construction projects gone by. The carpet was a knotted, burnt orange, no doubt the original carpet from the 1970s built home. The carpet had long been replaced by another that was deep blue throughout the rest of the house, expect the bedrooms. Each, including mine, kept their rusty orange matted naps from years of wear with a well defined dividing line clearly cut out at the door jam.

Half-heartedly, my parents attempted to make my room more feminine by adding frosty pink wallpaper covered with minuscule white dots. Water damage from a brutal hurricane season warped the end wall, the largest wall of my room by far. They nailed up thin wood paneling of a sky blue and gray faux marbling on that wall alone to hide the brown, dried water stains that seemed to bleed from atop the ceiling. The clash of colors and design was epic.

I always slept with my simple white ceiling fan on. It had two speeds: off and ready-for-take-off. It kept the room as cold as a walk-in freezer. I sometimes stayed awake at night trying to see my breathe while looking up at that fan. Its rapid gyration brought with it both a soothing whoosh of white noise from the jet stream of downward air, while simultaneously creating the ever-present risk that it may come crashing down on me at full speed, as it wobbled too and fro in its hectic pace, chopping me to even smaller child-sized bits. Every night before I drifted off to sleep I wondered if that would be the night.

I clutched the stuffed monkey my grandparents gave me while my brother was in the hospital recovering from yet another surgery on his legs and hips. I was too young to understand why he always received so many presents when it wasn’t his birthday or Christmas. My monkey was a consolation prize that I held firmly by the neck every night. I snuggled under my pile of blankets and pulled them over my entire body, warm and cozy, protected from the cold on the other side, except for my nose and forehead. I had to breathe. I wrapped the comforter tight and fell into a sleep that must have been a close cousin to death.

I’ve always been a hard sleeper never stirring for fire alarms, gun shots or sonic booms. I occasionally slept in my brother’s room on his top bunk, but, somehow, always woke up the next morning on the floor feeling as rested as ever. The fall never woke me. My father finally felt the need to nail a long two-by-four to the top bunk as a makeshift railing to keep me firmly in place. Since learning to speak I’ve also chatted the night away in gibberish, more often than not. My family was rather used to the occasional stray call from my room at night regarding the elephants caught in the strawberry patch, of which I had neither.

Before this night I may have mumbled some, randomly kicked at my sheets and turned clockwise in my bed, but I always stayed in bed. However, this night, whether from the cold exterior of my room or from the sauna created under my covers by the new electric blanket, this night I got out of bed in hysteria.

I ran towards the hall leading to my parents’ room at the other end of the house, but stopped immediately short, right at the door jam. I just couldn’t make the transition from my rustic orange carpeting to the brilliant blue of the hallway that seemed to ebb and flow like an ocean before my feet. My perspective slowly narrowed so that the kitchen in the middle of the house looked like a mirage miles away from me.

“Buddy!” I shouted through my brother’s open door, which was adjacent to mine.

“Buddy!” His name is not Buddy; it’s Richard after my father, but I call him Buddy to this day, a privilege he allows only family members and our remaining childhood friends. Finally, Buddy appeared in his doorway and stopped at the door frame, which he held onto for balance. He’d learned to walk four times now. It would require another two times before his surgeries were complete.

“What?” he replied sleepy and annoyed.

“Go get Dad!” I screamed at the top of my lungs.

“What is it?” My sudden alarm brought his senses out of the night.

“Look!” I screamed pointing down at the newish blue hallway carpet.

“What?” He looked in the direction I was pointing confused.

“I can’t…” I began to say as I lifted one foot and kept it in the air, hovering at the door jam. I jerked my foot back to my side.

“What is it?” Buddy asked examining the hallway with more intent.

“Don’t you see? Go get Dad!”

“You go get Dad,” he retorted in a more probing fashion than an antagonistic one.

“I can’t!” I shouted looking down the daunting hallway in front of me as the walls collapsed and reconfigured as if at once breathing while daring me to try to make a run for it.

It was at this point that my older brother, smarter than I ever gave him credit, realized that I wasn’t fully awake, a favorite time of his. He held countless conversations with me in the night through our wall while he was in body casts up to his chest that were entirely lost to me the next day. Sometimes I wonder what he confided in me while I was sleeping.

We went back and forth as my brother tried to coax me out of my room and into the hallway. I tried sliding my feet slowly, but that didn’t work. I jumped in circles, jogging in place at the junction of that dividing line of carpeting. I tried getting a running start, but always lost my courage. He managed to get me to hang my body over the hallway carpeting like a maiden carved into the front of an ancient ship, but I couldn’t command my feet forward. He almost persuaded me to jump, except that I realized I would then be completely engulfed by blue and there was no way I was doing that.

“Nothing there,” he laughed, holding onto his door frame more from laughter than for balance.

“Nothing there, again,” he continued with each of my failed attempts to rally myself to this seemingly insurmountable task. I wasn’t stepping foot on that carpet. His laughter brought him sliding down the door frame as his body no longer had the strength or will to hold itself up any longer.

His laughter horrified me as ferociously as the hallway with its mishmash of mismatched carpet preventing me from moving my body pass the break in color continuity. Our exchanges went on in an alternating chorus of shrills and laughter until my brother collapsed to the floor holding his tummy full of giggles no longer willing to try to stand back up.

Finally, my father, surely poked awake by my mother from all the commotion, came barreling from their room toward our end of the house. Before he left the safe confines of the kitchen linoleum I held my palms out screaming, “Stop!” He did right where the linoleum met the blue carpeting. I watched his feet intently protesting loudly anytime they neared the threshold of the hallway. If my father tried to start down the hallway I would shout, “Nooooo,” so emphatically it would stop him in his tracks every time until he was marooned on that linoleum island. I felt that it was my daughterly duty to save him from taking that one, last, unseen step off a formidable cliff face into the churning blue abyss below.

“Buddy, what did you do to your sister?” my dad barked as debacles such as this were usually his fault anyway. My brother couldn’t breathe in any orderly fashion to present his defense, still writhing on the floor, face red and contorted from his attempts to stifle his laughter now directed at my father for complying with my demands in the first place.

“Look!” I began again.

“Look at what?” my father’s head and body bobbed and weaved, turning in all directions as if dodging a killer bee. This only made my brother burst out again, though he finally managed to get the words out:

“Dad! She’s still asleep!”

“What,” my father exclaimed. “Are you serious? This is not funny, young lady!”

“Yes…it…is,” was all my brother could muster in-between gasps for air.

In that moment my father realized that as sure as I was standing there, screaming at him with eyes wide open I was, in fact, asleep.

Being cut from the same cloth as my brother, the entire “conversation” began again, yet this time it included the curiosity of my father. He walked straight to us down the hallway leaving me dismayed by his escaped from the confines of the island kitchen. His bravery awed me silent. Determined to find a rational explanation for my agitation he started with logic. He asked me arithmetic questions, which I answered correctly. He asked what day it was, but that one stumped me. It was then that a mischievous smirk started across his face finally acknowledging my brother out of the corner of his eye as the master detective.

This time, as a team, my brother and father tried to convince me out of my rusty room. My father offered to carry me back and forth down the hallway to prove that I was imagining things, but my eyes and mind never met his. I was far too consumed by the pastel flower vines growing out of the wallpaper on either side of him. He sat down Indian-style next to my brother, now resting his back against the door frame. I got down on my hands and knees to examine the carpeting closer convinced they were both floating there just waiting for me to plunge head first into nonexistence. They stared at me. I stared at the magic they somehow possessed.

They would be satisfied if even a single toe touched the deep blue carpeting of the hallway; but none would be satisfied that night. I no longer had any reason to go down the hallway as my father had somehow made it safely to me. Finally, after all their efforts of reasoning and mutual enjoyment, my father sent my brother back into his room, both now laughing at their utter defeat. He simply turned to me and said, “Honey, go back to bed. And for God’s sake, turn off that blanket. You’re fried.”

And so I did.

I don’t remember the trip back to bed and it’s likely my father turned off the blanket himself, but I woke the next morning to the bright sunshine and ever-present whirl of my ceiling fan. As I walked toward the kitchen, pass my brother’s room, he jumped out at me with an, “Ah ha!” I looked at him like he’d lost his mind and kept walking without thought or consequence of carpeting, linoleum and wallpaper. He must have been waiting there all morning for that moment. His laughter after I passed could have echoed around the world.

I never slept with an electric blanket again. I can only wonder in the thirty years that have passed, living alone for most of them, how many door jams in the mishmash of life I’ve stood at, toes halted at the dividing line, in false fear or hallucination.

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