Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Concrete Man by R. Scott Whitley

Reggie Whitley is a wonderful guy I met on Twitter. I saw his name constantly on Josh Hewitt's thread and the things he said cracked me up. He has dry, sardonic wit and a head of hair that rivals Little Orphan Annie's locks, exchange the red for brown. 
He is now someone I look forward to interacting with. Someone who makes me laugh. And someone who copyrights EVERYTHING. ;) As a matter of fact, I love him so much, right now he would tell me to "get a room." ©
When I read his story for Josh's World's End series and it blew me away. For real. This man, who can crack an insult like he's King of the Roast, has the darkest, twistiest, strangest storytelling imaginable. In a good way though. A VERY good way. He's the Stephen King of Twitter. And I'm not even lying. He was one of the very first people I asked to do this project. When he said he was in, I was super excited. So, I gave him a very special picture. One very near and dear to me. I was SO curious what he would do for it. I expected dark. I expected scary. I expected to be dragged down the rabbit hole of Creepville. Reggie did NOT disappoint. So, for my birthday, I give you…R. Scott Whitley's The Concrete Man*.

The Memory Project (continued)
Both Jesse and I turned the page together. There were no less than twenty pictures. All of the same thing. What that thing was, exactly, we had no idea. A man. But not real. Not a statue. Not like anything I'd ever seen.
(to be continued…)

The Concrete Man 
Reggie S. Whitley
He looked so small in that little box they were shutting him in.  It is the biggest thing I remember, how small he was.  There wasn’t a way to leave casket open because he had so much trauma to his little face that they thought it might be too much for people.
                So we put him in his pajamas.  My mom wanted him in this little suit she bought, but Beth and I thought he would be comfortable in his little superman pajamas.  He would be happy in those.  Staring down at him now, for the last time I tried to remember his little blonde hair, those chubby little boy cheeks.  I wanted to remember them without the purple and brown marks that marred them now.  The funeral home had done all they could but they were still there.
                They mirrored my face.
                No matter what I did, I couldn’t shield myself from what I’d done.
                “His mother would like to come in,” the funeral home director said from the door to the right.  “She asked that she be able to be alone with him.”
                Beth, his mother, and I been split since he was thirteen months old.  Of course she wouldn’t want me there.
                I looked at him, tried to say something.  That first part didn’t make any sense, but the last part was ‘ok’.  I turned and walked back out into the man sanctuary of the facility.  I sat down in a pew and put my face down in my hands.
                As much as I tried to remember what he looked like as this perfect little boy that he’d been, all I could see was the little tiny body they had pulled up from the well.  He was limp and cold, already yellowing with tiny blue lips…
                That was all I could see now.
                It was my fault he was down there, but I couldn’t cry.  I hadn’t then, and I couldn’t now.
                No matter how much I loved him, no matter how much my throat felt like it would pull itself down into my chest to choke out my heart, no matter how much all that hurt, I hated myself so much that I couldn’t get past it to cry.  My eyes would get hot, they would be on fire about to burst forth with gushing tears.  I wanted them to.  I really wanted them to because that was what should be happening.  Dad should be crying with his little boy lying cold in the other room.
                But it wouldn’t happen.
                People’s eyes were boring into me because of it too.  A man without tears is a man who doesn’t care.  It meant the man was guilty of something.
                “Are you ok?” the director asked me closing the doors behind me.
                I nodded.
                The room was quiet.
                And in the quiet of the sanctuary I could hear the quiet that had been in the backyard two days ago.  I could hear how he wasn’t out there.  There weren’t sounds of playing, no talking to the little bugs on the ground, or chasing ‘hoppy toads’.  That’s what my mom had called them and he called them that because of her.  He liked to talk to them when he was chasing them, telling them not to run, that he didn’t want to hurt them.  He didn’t hurt them either – they were always safe in his gentle little hands.
                He was too young to be out there by himself.  I knew that when I let him out there.
                But she had come over, and she wanted me and I wanted her more than I wanted my son’s safety.  She only had twenty minutes before she had to leave for work, just enough time to get out of our clothes and get into each other.
                Then she had smelled of this perfume or spray or something that was like a pear or some fake fruit.  Then it smelled so good, so sexual.  Now the thought of it made me want to vomit.
                “Go out and play,” I’d told him opening the screen door to the backyard.  We lived way out in the country and the neighbors were home, he would be safe I had told myself.  No reason to worry about anything going wrong.  And it was only for twenty minutes, he would stay busy that long, I would ‘get in and get her out’, and he could come back in.
                I was sweating in the heat while I was with her.  Curtains were blowing from a breeze from outside.  I had told her to be quiet so he wouldn’t hear.  I could hear her panting in my ear, her lips on my ear lobe.
                Bile burned my throat to the point that I jumped up from the pew to look for the bathroom.  I tried to get control of my breathing so that I didn’t vomit all over the floor.
                Still no tears.
                The worst of it?  I’d realized I didn’t hear him those last few minutes with her.  I knew he wasn’t making any sounds and I kept making excuses for why.  As his father I knew that little boy, a little boy who talked to all the little things in the yard, a little boy who was gentle and sweet… I knew I couldn’t hear him but I continued with her.
                I knew.
                And when we were done… I still lay there with her.
                We hadn’t even gone out really.  She wasn’t even a girlfriend.  She was just a girl.  The girl who would call, I would pick up the phone and she would tell me she was coming over.  Never ‘can I come over?’, always ‘I’m coming over.’
                With my little boy in that box in the back she sounded like such whore now.
                And I’d heard nothing from her since this happened.
                When I went out I knew immediately where he was.  The well cover had been cracked for probably two years, even back to when Beth had lived here.  She’d complained about it then.
                ‘He’s going to get hurt on that thing,’ she had said more times than I could count.  I always made the excuse that she was from the city.  She didn’t know how things were in the country.  That girl didn’t know how things weren’t a danger out here.  Not that kind of stuff.  That cover was just a thing.  That old well didn’t work so there wasn’t a need to cover it.  We didn’t drink that water anymore.
                Never ‘he’ll be safe.’  I never said that.
                His mom was a photographer.  She took lots of pictures in the country, particularly of the backyard.  Every time the well cover was in the picture she would point it out.  She had almost as many pictures of the backyard and that well cover as she had that man…
                The creepy concrete sculpture.
                Concrete like that broken well cover, but he was whole.  He was massive and he had occupied such a place in our life together.
                The evil thing that never quite fit with who she was.
                It was the one part of her that had never made sense to me.  She’d brought those pictures with her from the city when she’d moved.  They had been in my house.  I never liked them, but she did.  There were more than 500 of them, maybe a lot more.  She wouldn’t talk about them.  She would just arrange them on the floor of our backroom, take a photograph and then pick them back up.
                I’d seen several of those pictures she’d taken of the collage of photos before.  The collage made of the photos of the concrete man.  They never looked like anything until she captured them in her view finder and placed them on film.
                Colors and shapes, darks and lights, over exposure and underexposure – they were all nothing until she froze them through her lens.
                On the film faces appeared.
                The individual photographs could no longer be seen at all, in their place there would be these faces…creepy, lifeless faces.  Not lifeless as in ‘they are from a collage’ but lifeless as in the faces were dead.  Corpse faces.
                “Sir, would you like to come back in before we close the lid?” the director was standing right behind me.  I hadn’t heard him approach.
                “Um… yes,” I said, eyes hot.  “Yes, please.”

                Beth stood there staring at the casket and didn’t look at me.  Her eyes wouldn’t leave him, but I couldn’t help but look at her.  She didn’t know that the woman had been at the house, but she knew I wasn’t with our son.  He was alone when he fell.
                I heard them working with the lid and looked back at his tiny face as the shadow of the lid started to move over his little broken face.  She broke out into loud sobs, collapsing to her knees on the floor.
                Standing there I just watched our little boy disappear under the lid of the box.
                But as the lid closed I thought I spotted something that was under his hands.
                It was a photograph.
                One of those photographs.
                The stone man.
                And he was staring mockingly at me.
                My son wouldn’t be alone in that box.
                That man would be in there.
                “Stop,” I said.
                The morticians looked at me, the lid closed already.
                She looked up at me, her face wet with tears, her eyes crushed in pain.  Beth wasn’t angry, I’d seen her angry many times, this was different.  She was swallowed in that moment and the world was engulfing her.
                “Sir, we shouldn’t…”
                “Why’s… why is that photo…”
                “No,” Beth said jumping to her feet, “NO!”
                I turned and stood my ground as she ran at me, her palms up, plowing into my chest.  They hit me hard and I stumbled backward towards the wall behind me.
                I choked back a grunt.
                “YOU DON’T GET TO DO THAT…” she growled at me.  “You can’t stop that…”
                I just looked at her because she was right.
                My sin had been committed.  He was in there because of me and the whore who smelled nauseatingly like a false fruit.  I had no say in this anymore.
                No matter how much I wanted to.
                She chose to seal him with a photograph, I had to swallow that.  I couldn’t make that choice anymore.  I’d lost that.
                “No…” I said, and tears started running down…
                He would not be buried with that thing.

                It was late on Saturday when the graveside service had finished.  The tiny box looked so small set up for burial in the back corner of the cemetery.  It was the only plot they had left.  His mother had chosen it.  He would be buried with her family, even if it meant he wouldn’t be buried with her.
                All the people had already left taking their tears and sadness with them.  I had been bathed in this wash of sorrow.  ‘I’m so sorry…’  ‘He was so young…’  On and on.
                All I could think about was that picture in the box with him.
                I’d lost that fight.
                They had to remove me from the funeral home.  I’d lost.
                That concrete man was with my son and his little broken body, his little pajamas, and his bare feet with their perfect little toes.  The concrete man who made faces in the camera.  The concrete man who my son’s mother had some agreement with.
                “Come on,” my mom said to me.  I hadn’t even realized she was still there.  I guess she had been in the car or somewhere away. 
                “I just need to say goodbye,” I had said to her.
                Beth was back to my right, tissue in hand, and she watched me.  She was no longer covered in hurt, now she was a mirror of me.  Hate and loathing covered her face, set her brow, made her jaw sharp, her eyes bloodshot-red but crisp.
                Touching the box one last time, I placed my hand flat on it, imagining he was sleeping inside, hoping something peaceful for him.
I turned and walked towards my car.
The thought of him trying to sleep with that picture inside made me sick.
I nearly turned back to tell them to get it out.
I looked around.
His mother was gone.
I walked away to leave the funeral home folks to bury my boy in the ground.

“Let me get you a plate,” my mother had said probably twenty-five times.  People kept bringing food like feeding the emptiness where my son had been would help.  I’d told her I ‘don’t want that shit all over my house’.  It was the first time my mom had ever done anything I asked her to.
She had all the people bring food to her house.
That’s why she constantly insisted on making me a plate.  Then when I said no, she wanted to make one to send home with me.
“No mom,” I told her.
People were all over her house.  Like cockroaches waiting to feed on sorrow.  They morbidly liked the idea of sitting around and waiting to rub raw the nerves that were sitting exposed.  It made them feel good to be part of that intimate moment.  Because he was a child that made them want to be there for support.  To ‘make sure we were ok’.
“I’m getting the fuck out,” I told my mom, and got up and walked away from lots of folks who wanted to take care of me.  Mow my grass.  Wash my car.  Take me to church.
To fucking church.
I sat down in my car and stared at the steering wheel.  I had driven the same Corolla for years, but today I sat trying to catch my breath, and stared at the Toyota ‘T’ in the center of my steering wheel and I couldn’t make it be a ‘T’.  Actually, it had stopped looking like anything at all, stopped making any sense to me.  The more I stared at it the more it started harden and dull, the leathery look of my steering wheel had shifted to dull, gray rock.  It had begun to morph and twist into the concrete man.
He looked at me.  Looked directly at me.  I knew his face like I knew my own.  Like I had known my son’s.  Like I had known Beth’s.
But not like I knew the whore who had been in my bed when I let my son die.
I couldn’t see her face at all.  If I had to pick her out of a crowd I couldn’t.  I could smell that fucking pear fruit on her, but not see her.  I could smell my sweat on her.  It was dead silent.
The concrete man stared at me.  He never smiled.  He never moved.  He just watched me.
He was there waiting for me to turn my eyes.
No… he had been there waiting for me to sin, then he would step in and swallow whole my world and leave me with blood on my hands.  That’s what he did.  He was a cold thing.  He felt nothing at all.  Maybe that’s what it was about.  Maybe he wanted our feelings.  He swallowed them up taking bits of our lives so that he could feel alive himself.
But all he ever was was hard, cold, porous concrete.
False stone.
I cranked my car and drove towards my house.
The sorrow from my mom’s house followed behind me.  My car felt like it was pulling the weight of ten souls behind it.  Souls that were heavier than anything that had ever existed in all of the realms of all of the sorrow of life.  I pulled them behind my small car, pulling them to a house that I had forced my son from.
When I pulled up into my driveway and stopped, they almost swallowed me.
And I almost let them.
I pulled up the parking brake and it was piercingly loud in my ears.  The silence around my home was deafening.  It was mocking me, saying ‘you see how quiet I can be?’  My hands shook and I hid my eyes from the cracked concrete cover that had been pulled from the well when they had pulled my son’s little cold body out of that hole.
That shattered concrete was like the man.
And it was like me.  Shattered.
I got my keys together, barely able to find the right key to open my door.
But the door was unlocked.
I pushed it open.  With all that had happened it was possible I had left the door unlocked.  Anything was possible today. 
“Hello?” I pushed inside.  I wondered if my Dad was over.  Maybe he had decided to pull himself up from the rat hole he lived in to come and prey on my pain.  He liked that too.  Everything and everybody in my life was porous and dry.  Empty, lifeless concrete.  Pour pain on it and it sucked it up.
No one answered. 
I walked into my kitchen and on the table there was a line of photographs.  They were perfectly arranged in a straight, perfect line.  Each photograph was of a face.  Each photograph had been taken by her, and each face was arranged from the photographs of the concrete man.
Through the camera lens though, the face was clear.  It was clearer than the images of the stone man.  I’d only seen a couple of her photographs of the collages.  Not all these.  The faces were dead faces.  I’d always said they were dead.
They were images of dead men and women.
Not arranged faces that ‘looked like they’d fallen asleep’.  These were instead images of slack jaws, dry lips.  Eyes open.  Eyes slack.  These were the faces of the dead.  They were faces before they were touched.
I felt sick.
I walked out of my kitchen into the living room.
And I stared at the face of my little boy.  It might not be there for other people.  They might see just color of a collage as large as the room.  They might even lose focus on the photos themselves and if they blurred their eyes a bit, they might make out something else.  They might see that there were eyes, and a chin.  Maybe he was young.  Other people wouldn’t see what I saw.
I saw it like it was through the camera lens, others could see him this.
But he stared up at me.  His eyes were open, his jaw hung limp, broken in two places, his baby teeth showing up from dark gums.  It was his face.  It was his broken face.
She had arranged them – not hundreds of photographs, but thousands.  Thousands of photographs of this concrete man.  I squatted down and looked at them.  They all nearly looked the same, but they weren’t.  The photos caught him from slightly different angles, in different sunlight, in different seasons.  In some he was slightly damp from rain.  One had snow in a corner.  In all the photos the concrete man was crawling free from the man-made world around him.  He was clawing free, he wanted out.
And he wanted out thousands of times.
My son’s mother had taken all of these photos.
A chill ran up his spine.
“There you are,” I heard quietly.
There was a single shutter click.
Beth was standing in the hallways to my right.
She lowered the camera down slowly not looking at me.
While I looked at her cold face I realized that he had her.  These concrete man had her.  He was clawing at her like he was at the world.  He shattered her like he shattered that well cover.  He pulled her down into his world.  His world that sucked at the life we have.
She was burdened with his need.
Burdened with capturing the last images of death.
He might even be drawing death to her.
It was the last thought I would ever have as she traded her camera for a revolver.
A tiny black revolver.
She blamed me for our little boy’s death, and rightfully so.  That wasn’t why I was dying today though.  I died because the concrete man needed my life.  He needed me to claw further into the world.
The bullet hit my face and I fell into the false man’s image of my son and there, blood leaving my face, he drank up my soul.

* PS. The picture I gave Reggie is a famous landmark here in Seattle. The Fremont Troll. It's a two or three story tall sculpture made under Seattle's Aurora Bridge. In his hand, is an actual VW Beetle, to give you a sense of the size. It was an artistic rendering of the Troll in the Billy Goat's Gruff.  :) If you are ever in Seattle, you have to see it. It's pretty cool. 

You can find Reggie on twitter here: @_RScottWhitley_

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