Tuesday, September 18, 2007

I Remember Wesley

He’d been frightened, plenty of times. He’d been stuck on lost before but had always managed, one way or the other, to get found before lost became a permanent address. And when the dust had settled, he was moving again. He rarely knew where he was going, he just knew that he was moving and that if there was time left, he might end up somewhere; but he knew it was all about time and an awful lot of people never got to where they wanted to go because they ran out of time. He imagined Mr. Time as a real hard case - not inclined to granting favors.

Sometimes it was hard to tell whether he’d become a victim and naturally fit into the role of lost soul, or if he owned lost and it was his world where everyone in it stumbled through each day begging to be let out. Or maybe it was him, silently begging to come in from the shadows that seemed to surround him and close in at times, making everything seem impossible – even breathing. Then he was frightened each day more and more because he knew he was running as far away as he could get, to leave behind everything from a past so ugly, in his child-like mind, even he knew it was best to let it all go. So he risked being lost until he could understand that maybe lost was the best place to end up in, if it allowed him to bury the past, along with every painful day he’d tried to break away from all the scary monsters – his mother, her boyfriend, his sister, his brothers, the gangs on the corner, the hate, the evil and the lonely sad – the whole world as he knew it. The west side.

The more frightened he became, the more he could forget, until one day the only memories he could conjure up were a week, maybe as far back as a month. All else became another place where he’d never return to – another man’s life, not his own; until he had successfully forgotten it all and only then was he able to concentrate on the living, on himself, - because everything that had hurt him and tied him to guilt and remorse and worry had been left behind in a place he’d never be able to find his way back to – even if he tried.

He remembered where he lived, he remembered what he liked to eat, he remembered what he loved, he remembered recent events and faces and places he had painted and drawn – he remembered all life’s experiences from as far back as a month. That was it, this was all he felt he needed and although he couldn’t explain why this all was, somehow he was satisfied that he’d been able to do something truly great in his life by throwing out the garbage that was his past. And somehow he knew that this was how he was able to concentrate and paint what he was looking at as if his eyes were a camera. Because he had no life but today and what he understood of tomorrow.

It must have been after the fright had left and the madness of a child had taken over, that Wesley began his all day, all night smile. As he moved along the streets he painted, his smile rested on top a wide chin and under a broad flat nose. It was only at night, as he slept, that the smile retreated into his mouth and his face relaxed enough to allow tears to fall freely from under closed eye-lids. Wesley didn’t dream. And when he woke up, once again he would not know where he was going or where he’d end up but he knew he was in a race and his opponent in this race was “Mr. Time.”, and no matter what happened during his day, his job was to keep working, keep drawing, keep painting, because like movement itself, the momentum would keep him up-right, and in the race and when the race was over, then he knew he would fall and then he could rest. He knew it was all about time. As long as you knew this, he reasoned with a clarity only a six-year old boy would have, then you could get yourself unstuck from lost. Wesley knew that if all the birds one day had disappeared, “Then all dare would be left was sky.” And when you had this kind of wisdom, Wesley also knew, then you could afford to smile the entire day. When Wesley woke up his first morning at Sal’s place, he woke up smiling, and he could hardly believe his luck. “Ah’s got me a real frien, not a make it up in my head – Ah got me dis time, a frien.”

If Wesley could remember growing up in his Mother’s house on Kildare, he’d remember that he’d been deemed too slow to go to a regular grade school after the third grade, and although his Mother received money from the government for his schooling and upkeep – at that time in the 70’s, it was somewhere around four hundred dollars per child, - she had seven with another on the way, the money coming in did not necessarily go towards Wesley, other than to sometimes feed him, and to buy the chains which kept him stuck close to his steel bed-frame – kept him unable to move much, unable to avoid daily beatings.

If Wesley could remember growing up in the crack house, he would remember crying every day when food only came once or twice a week. He would remember playing with cockroaches – sometimes eating them, sometimes talking to them. If Wesley could remember growing up he’d remember putting his large hands around Clem, his Mother’s boyfriend’s neck, and strangling him until Clem was dead. If Wesley hadn’t stopped remembering, he’d never sleep, because the nightmares were worse and worse after he was released from the youth camp in St. Charles after he turned eighteen, for the involuntary manslaughter of Clem, even though a court appointed lawyer had tried to make the court understand that Clem had kept Wesley chained to his bed like an animal, and when Wesley was free and had the chance, something in his eggshell fragile mind had frazzled to over-load. He’d strangled Clem, and then snapped his neck like it was a chicken bone. Wesley still loved to eat chicken.

If Wesley could remember he would have to remember how his brother’s stole his Social Security money each month and gave him little or nothing, forcing Wesley to roam the streets collecting cans and talking to himself until one day he found some magic markers - an unused set of fine-points, multi-colored. He sat by the trash can in the alley and after half of the day, as the sun was just setting, he was finishing his first piece of alley art with just enough time to include the colors of the sky over the scene he’d just drawn on the steel garbage can.

If Wesley could remember the last day he walked alone, pushing a shopping cart loaded to the sky with aluminum cans and assorted scraps of copper and brass, crying all the way to the recycle yard on Cicero Avenue, he would have been proud of himself, because that was the last day he would walk alone, crying out loud to the voices in his head, tears running down his cheeks. The next day he woke up with the markers clutched in his hands and a smile on his face that stretched across his entire world. If Wesley could remember that day, he would remember that this was the day he allowed his fright at what this world could do to him to also make him afraid enough to stop the world for long enough to forget it had ever – like him, existed in the first place. That next day, full of sunshine and a freedom that only the lost have ever felt, Wesley began to draw on garbage cans, then brick walls, then broken-up cardboard boxes, then…

Wesley knew that first he’d get lost, until he found his way out and could move past all the evils that he had put distance between. If he was lost, he figured, then how could the evil’s find him? And once he was far away from what had hurt him in the past, he could take in everything around him and keep it familiar – own it. That’s what his eyes started to do for him. They started to own everything he saw and then they captured it until it all could be released in a painting or a simple line drawing. For him, this new world that had nothing to do with where he’d come from, would be his new address. From this moment on, if he could remember, he would remember never being lost like that again.

Brian Murphy

No comments: