I have a storyline in my head, a short story - not even quite enough for a novella - about this old timer who lives alone a few miles from a flyspeck town somewhere in Nevada or Arizona. The desert, way the hell out in the sticks.
It's still somewhat nebulous in my mind, but definitely does not involve any kind of huge, melodramatic plot, more like a slice of life kind of thing. A simple character study depicting a few days in the timeline of this old fart and the little life he has carved out for himself over the years, in a who-knows-where patch of sand and scrubgrass. Let's call him "old Ray". I picture him on a tiny ranch he's cobbled together (something hardly more than a shack, along with a small barn), where he spends his days and nights alone, but with the critter companionship of a goat, a scruffy old mutt, plus a cat or two (he likes "creatures").
Following along, we also observe him visiting a lonesome-looking grave (always bringing colorful, plastic flowers), as well as chatting with a few of the other local characters on his brief trips into town for food and various other provisions. The days pass slowly for old Ray, a fair amount of his time being devoted to wrenching on his worn out Land Rover, which serves, along with the mutt, and the goat, and cats, as something of a sidekick. As I mentioned, his is a little life, and one spent somewhat delicately at the perimeters.
One more thing regarding his situation: buried under the barn, a few inches down in the dust, are the remains of a shiny, broken spaceship. Ray's ship. We learn that a little over a half-century earlier (our time), alien-astronaut Ray crashed his ship onto an unfamiliar orb of sand and sea, in a strange galaxy, light years away from his home planet, and was hopelessly marooned. Here. As weeks stretched into months and then months into years, old Ray accepted the fact that, alien or not, he'd be living out his years in a place about which he knew precious little, and amongst a people he had only the vaguest understanding of. Worst of all, and most worrisome, he possesses no powers here.
By the way - and I hope i'm giving away too much when I say this - the concept is somewhat autobiographical.
I'm not joking. I may not have had green skin and hairy antennae, but for a good percentage of the people I met in my early life, just having grown up in in a town named Sedro-Woolley would qualify me, if not for being pretty damned peculiar, at the very least highly suspect. "The Nuthouse?"
If you were additonally unfortunate enough to have had either of your parents (or in my case, both) locked up, er.... patients, in that place, then matters were only that much worse. As that unique sub-class of being, you no longer required odd glances or whispers to confirm your creepiness, you already knew it, from the inside out. Not that folks weren't happy as heck to remind you, just in case it occasionally accidentally slipped your (unsound) mind.
Modern kiddie self-help books seem to champion the notion that loony eccentricity can often be a creative and inspiring kind of thing. I can personally vouch that this kind of diversity was as uplifting, spiritually speaking, as a diagnosis of ringworm. Both having very similar effects on your upward social mobility, not to mention your place in the lunch line. Few things serve to cool a relationship quicker, new or old alike, than having a bonafide lunatic in your family. The only thing worse was having one in the house with you. Trying to kill you.
Lucky for me I didn't have far to look to find a surrogate tribe: TV. I gorged myself on a childhood of Leave It to Beaver, Twilight Zone, and Ozzie and Harriet, convinced theirs was the real world, and my mine merely a temporary misunderstanding, like the stork who delivered the baby pig to pair of confused and disappointed baboons. As a result, my adolescent re-entry was a rockier one than some, and fueled with a hunger for life as 30-minute episodes, all which came with a interesting beginning and middle, and pleasant end. Drugs helped in the pursuit of the quixotic, and while that intermission lasted, I simply was TV.
Fortunately in my case, unlike old Ray, there were other aliens stuck out in that desert besides just me. My friend Bruce was a first-string player on that team, and from an extremely early age, as anyone reading this blog has already surmised. And there were others out there, lost and found - or discarded - along the way.
So, in case I may have invoked your sympathies, here is the story of but one: I bumped into Philip on a noontime recess during my first few weeks at a new grade school in Bellingham, Washington. Right off the bat, we clicked.
Turned out it was Philips' first year at Columbia Elementary as well. The more we spoke and exchanged info, the more we seemed to share a remarkable degree of common interests, on and off the playground.
Philip appeared to be about my same age, and a very keeno kinda guy, even if he didn't have the same home room as I did, of which Columbia fifth graders there were three. We still lucked into sharing the same recess, however, and used that time to bear down each other with increasing mutual enthusiasm, cheerfully sharing stories, portions of our brown sack lunches and tales about other kids at the school that we both hated or feared.
We'd been hanging out like this for a few days when I had him over to my house after school - I lived a scant two blocks away - in a two bedroom rental kitty corner from a local mom and pop market. Over ice cream cup sundaes we pondered the finer points of James Bond's new super weapons and the latest jokes from MAD magazine. We snuck a long peek into one of my brother numerous editions of Playboy, and showed off my clunky selection of plastic WWII bombers and fighters. Philip totally got me, and I him. When he left my house that afternoon just before suppertime, he carried under his arm a library loan-out composed of the pride and joy of my private collections: a stack of my favorite issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland, Archie and Dennis the Menace. My best, as it were.
Philip seemed too good to be true, even then, so it is strange to me now that I can recall so very little about how he actually looked, or even dressed. Were his eyes were blue or brown (?), I'm clueless. Despite my great affection for him at the time, the single trait I can recall is a round and perfectly white patch of hair, about the size of a silver dollar, that stood dead-center at the top of his otherwise solid-brown head of hair.
It must have been only a short while later that same week that things changed. For some reason, my attention had been drawn to the fact that Philip did not appear to be in any of the 5th grade classes at Columbia, at least so far as I could observe. The more I looked into it, the more perplexed I became. It was with the vaguest of suspicions that I continued to casually investigate the puzzle, and only by complete accident that I discovered that he was, in fact, in the Special Education class.
The revelation went through me like a bolt lightning.
Special Ed. Holy Shit.
As a footnote, it bears mentioning that this was the tail end of a sad era for Special Education in public schools, a time when it was perceived to be - often correctly - as an under-funded collection of unfortunate children huddled under a single umbrella, whose personal issues ranged wildly, from grievous deformities and other physical handicaps, to mentally retardation, to children who were perfectly normally (perhaps even gifted) but were confined to a wheelchair. Toss in a handful of kids with ADD (long before that diagnosis officially existed), one or two who might be genuinely emotionally disturbed - or just have problems fitting in - and you just about have it. Sometimes things even got a little rough, physically. It was not an enlightened time. "Mainstream" was still a concept yet to invented.
Although at the time I was not sure exactly how he quite fit into it, it was obvious I had learned Philip's secret. Here was the boy that I had believed was remarkably just like me - or was he?
I will save you any guesswork regarding my reaction: I completely shunned him, beginning at that very moment. If I could saw he was out in the playground, I avoided it. If I glimpsed him in a hallway or staircase, I turned on my heel and ducked him. Lunchroom: the same. Day in, day out. I don't recall ever having confronted him directly, or he me, only that I made every effort - successfully - to make certain we we would not cross paths ever again.
The innocent boy, whose oh-so tender heart had once sank upon hearing a cheap whisper of The Nuthouse, was not such an innocent after all. And while I may have neglected or failed at most of my homework on humanity, I obviously had at least one lesson down-pat: how to behave like a complete heel.
One image I can still recall, with with crystal clarity. It is the day, some time later, when I returned home alone after school and found all my magazines and comics waiting on the doorstep, stacked ever-so neatly, as perfect as the day they had been lended. A note was attached, which stated simply "Thank you."
Over the years I have often wondered how my betrayal may have scarred him, as well as what great friends we might have eventually become, had I shown even one shred of courage, not to mention decency. My imaginings drift also to his parents: did they hearten and share his happiness when told of his new-found chum, only left to wonder when their son so soon appeared saddened, the new friend missing? I'll never know. I never saw or heard from Philip again, or if I did, I blocked it out of my mind. I guess I thought I was too good for him.
This, mind you, from a fifth grade boy who stayed in during his lunch hour to cut nazi armbands out of colored butcher paper.
Quite the bunch.