Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 11 • Fall 2004 • Fiction

Your Whole Life Ahead of You

Brian Pera

from the novel-in-progress Wall of Sound

What happened was, I knew I was in trouble and I didn't know what to do, so I stopped in the living room for a second, just to catch my breath. I was looking out at the ocean through the open window, telling myself, Relax, Don't panic, because it was like on a boat in there, everything was bobbing up and down, I might float out into the middle of nowhere if I didn't try hard to hold on. The water was a straight stretch of glittery forever and the shadows of the palms were spinning saws on the ground. The waves were peaking -- and breaking -- and I swear, I could hear the surf crashing in my ears. I couldn't think of an alibi but I had to get out of there sooner or later, so I turned the corner. That's when I heard them talking, two tiny voices under the sound of the wind and the gulls and the water and a girl laughing out on the street. I stopped outside the door to their bedroom.

"I don't understand what the draw is," the Missus was going. "He's not exactly a dreamboat, that mug -- and those eyes. Almost, but not quite, aren't they? And when it comes to intellect..."

"Don't give me that look," said Fancy-Pants. "You bring home plenty of trash yourself. Do I bat an eye? I don't say a thing. He's an okay kid. It's almost twenty-four hours he's missing now. This is serious, no doubt. No doubt something horrible has happened to him."

"We can only hope for the best..."

"The things you've brought home, and you sit here talking. What about that marine from Seattle?"

"God, was he lush. A perfect specimen. Thighs like redwoods. Where did all those pictures ever get to?"

"Very funny," goes Fancy-Pants. "A perfect specimen -- and a pathological liar as well. As usual, I was the one to clean up the mess. He cost us more than anything I've ever asked you to tolerate. I don't care what he looked like, it wasn't worth the trouble, the scene he caused."

"You thought so at the time, if I remember. If I recall, you had your fill. He was perfectly manageable at the time. May I remind you where you met this one..."

"There's no need for you to feel threatened --"

"...practically panhandling outside that hotel in Miami..."

I could picture the Missus sitting there, arms crossed, I could picture that look on his face. "Listen, I think you should know a few things. I had this boy checked out. He's practically feral. "

"What do you mean -- checked out?"

"His background, just listen to me: Did you know he was hospitalized several years ago, for violent outbursts-"

"You mean to tell me you hired someone --"

"He once threw a steak knife at his own mother -- and this was at the ripe old age of four, love. You know of course about her suicide attempts. There's a record for hot checks and credit card fraud. A non-stop stream of abusive men in and out of the house. The mobile home. He was raised in a trailer park, by a revolving, probably revolting series of layabouts. A rap sheet a mile long. A hustler. He's really just a common hustler -- you know that as well as I do. Before us it was petty thievery. Car-jacking, misdemeanors, shoplifting..."

...sulky, uncooperative, disrespectful, impulsive, indifferent, and prone to rage is what the teachers told my mom. "Your child needs psychological help." So off I went to the quacks, and all those tests. I want you to look at this picture. Can you tell me what you see? Is it this, or is it that? One thing or another? Can you tell me why you think maybe you lash out? Can you tell me why you think maybe you'd want to hurt people? Why don't you take a seat in the hall, and I'll have a talk with your mother. "Abusing animals, shredding his own clothes, ripping up the furniture: This boy's headed for trouble," he told her. I heard it through the door. "Already he's attacked a classmate. He has difficulty putting things together. Angers quickly. He bites himself. The prospect of separating mother and son is a sad one but I recommend a residential facility, a hospital --"

"I don't want to hear anymore," goes Fancy-Pants. "It doesn't matter."

"It does matter, love. I know this is something you feel very strongly about -- right now -- but it's a passing phase. At some point you'll be done with it. I'm just concerned that by then it will be too late. Perhaps it is already. This is a colored boy from the backwoods of Florida. We're talking cinder block buildings and unpaved roads, high school drop-outs, barefoot and pregnant. You're in over your head. I suggest we divest of this situation before we find ourselves involved in something quite irreversibly hairy. May I remind you of Marcus and his tents?"

"You leave that out of it. This has nothing to do with him."

"Another trick that ended badly. Another Pygmalion fantasy gone awry. You try to rescue these boys, you get in so deep you can't walk away --"

"Marcus hasn't harmed anyone. He's more a threat to himself."

"I chalk this all up to your father."

"-- and don't drag my family into this."

"If your father hadn't been a municipal gardener..."

That wavy black hair of his, those dark eyes -- like shadows, like holes -- in my head I could see him, the Missus, he had it in for me from the beginning, mean as a snake underneath, he was waiting for me to slip up to shed his skin. I tried to think of something to say. I could burst into the room, put my two cents in, stand up for myself, I'd tell him -- I'd tell the both of them to fuck off. I got all worked up, I was outside the stupid quack's office ready to pounce through the door and tear things up, I was here and there at the same time, I was everywhere, about to put people through walls, but when I looked at my feet, they were backing down the hall.

"...What does he want, really?" went the Missus.

"I don't know. I don't think even he knows. To be a model. An actor? The trouble, the problem is --"

"Yes. He's just short of spectacularly untalented. A little slow, isn't he?"

Then I was in the spare room, staring at the walls. The sound of their voices came through the plaster and suddenly kids were screaming bloody murder in Spanish. It was full, the big courtyard outside the apartment building where the rear-ends of all the high rises look out at each other and all the neighbor children play. The brick soaked all of it up and threw it around. Those brats seemed to multiply. Bouncing balls and whistles and hoots like machine gun fire. I could hear everybody in the world at once. Even the windows rattled.

I stared at the ceiling trying to think what to do next. "Bedtime, morning, mealtime, riding in the car and various other social situations are a problem. I recommend keeping him on the Tofranil, and prescribe, in addition, five milligrams of Ritalin twice a day." ...Mandrax, quaaludes, GHB, Xanax, Demerol, Diazepam, Vicodin, Toradol... Sulky, uncooperative, just short of spectacularly untalented. Miami, Los Angeles, Barcelona, a nonstop stream, revolving, revolting. This boy has trouble putting things together. This boy is headed for trouble. They were wrong. All of them were. I'd show them. I started connecting the dots, I mapped it all out on the plaster -- but the noise got me so screwed up I couldn't see straight. Whenever I got one thing hooked up to another everything jumped, and all I saw was white.


But it was so dark, the next thing I knew, except for the big lamp from the courtyard, shining through the window in the spare room like the light at the end of a tunnel. I woke up in a dream, pulled my shit together, and walked out into the apartment. I could still feel the sand between my toes, and there was Fancy-Pants, sitting in front of the window, quiet as a mouse. He was looking out, but he jumped. He must of seen my reflection. Instantly his eyes teared up. He was scalded red from the sun -- so shiny -- and shaking, which threw me. I forgot where I was.

"What time is it?" I go, wiping my eyes.

"My God, Little One. Where the hell have you been?"

I couldn't remember -- how long I was out, or where we were. L.A.? Barcelona, maybe. I was RIP Van Winkle. My whole life passed by while I was asleep. Revolving? Revolting. I pointed behind me at the hallway and the spare room. "In there." That's as far back as I could think. "Sleeping..."

He was like a spring. He jumped out of his seat, flew at me and -- boing -- stopped a couple of inches from my nose. I could see every pore on his face -- those bloodshot eyes and a vein thumping hard on his forehead. He brought his hands up like to throttle my neck, then dropped them, like flying across the room took everything out of him. "That's rich," he goes. "Very rich. We've got people out looking for you in three different languages, and you saunter in for a nap. I can't -- I don't know what you're thinking -- you've got explaining -- some talking to do." The Missus just went to the police, he said. The Missus was worried sick.

It was like somebody'd died in there. He was scaring me, I was confused, he caught me off guard. I looked through the window and saw the moon on the water. It burned a path straight to where we were. So we were -- in Barcelona -- and I'd been sleeping -- for how long? Talking was like trying to spit my teeth out. My brain wasn't working. Things were duking it out up there.

"I'm hungry," I said, yawning.

He hauled off and slapped me across the face, before I even got my mouth shut. He kept slapping me. The man wouldn't stop. I was on the floor, doubled over, and he kept at me, until I pulled a cushion off the nearest chair and covered my back with it. Even then he kicked my ribs. I couldn't understand a word he was saying.

When he let off and walked back to his own corner of the ring there on the other side of the room, I got up and put the cushion back. I stood there gripping one hand with the other, until my knuckles went white. There was a circle of sand around my feet. "I got lost," I said. "That's all. The Gothic Quarter, those twisty streets, I was turned around, I couldn't find my ass from my face in there. I had no phone number. You didn't give me one, I didn't know who to call, where to go, everyone was talking to me at once out on the street -- someone squirted water at me, some street clown -- they were all laughing --"

"I did," says Fancy-Pants. "I most certainly did too. You've got my pager, for fuck's sake. Little One, you DO know my phone number. What are you talking about? Where have you been all this time?"

"You've got so many numbers I can't keep them straight," I said. "The number of numbers you've given me since we met. The phones -- are funny over here, I was -- I couldn't figure that shit out -- the operator speaks Spanish -- I didn't know, dial what first and what comes next, how much money -- pesetas or whatever -- we've been so many places I get them all mixed up. When I came in you two were talking, 'like bringing sand to the beach,' he said, he had me checked out -- he had me followed or something -- he's trying to get rid of me --"

"No one's had you followed. Calm down, Little One. There are gaps in your story. I'm trying to understand. I'm on your side. You have to stop treating me like an enemy. You got lost. You were wandering around. Then what?"

"That's right," I said. "I was lost."

"You found your way back."


He threw his hands up, and I flinched. "How, Little One. How did you find your way back?"

I did, I told him, that's all, and here I am. I had a night, what a time -- scared out of my mind -- I had a few drinks, in some bars. Got chased. "I don't like it here, when do we go home? Please take me back."

He blew air out in one long whistle and sat down on his chair by the window. Looking at him made me sea-sick, with the water behind him like that. Cool calm and collected, tip-top, he was Mr. I can take care of everything everywhere in the world without half trying again. I moved over to him. "Well you can't go around like you do," he goes. "You won't get anywhere treating people this way. You've had us both out of our minds with worry all night, all afternoon. It's no way to treat people --"

Out of nowhere he grabbed me, and pulled me in, he was hugging me so tight I couldn't breathe. He started crying into my stomach. The man was shaking, sobbing like a baby. It was getting on my shirt.

"You won't get anywhere this way. You won't. I want to help you, you're so young, you're going to have plenty of opportunities -- plenty -- but work with me, I'm on your side. Please settle down --"

"Okay," I said.

He talked into my gut like counting off on his fingers. "People get ahead by honoring their commitments, following things through, being responsible, you see what I mean? I want to help you, Little One, I do. I can teach you how to take care of yourself -- this is no way to behave -- you have so much growing up to do --"

"You're hurting me."

He let me go but he hid his face for a second, and I stood there pretending not to look down on him while he dried his eyes and sniffled. "We're going to have to come up with a better story than the one you've just given me," he goes, when he was done. "There are certain things to consider. There are other people's feelings to think about. You have to learn how things work here." Fine -- I got lost, he said. I spent the night in a police station on the other side of town -- no ID, they couldn't place me, I couldn't understand them, they couldn't understand me. I said something about the park before I left the day before, to Fancy-Pants, he forgot, then he remembered, he took the train over and -- sure enough -- there I was. I was there all along. That's what we're going to tell the Missus, he said.

A newspaper with Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover sat next to him on the table. His smile looked like a sneer from where I was. Leo this, the caption said. Leo that. Inside was a page of pictures: Leo and his oversized chiclets at a premiere, his face full of flash; schoolgirl fans in Japan, screaming, crying, thirty-thousand or whatever, "a stampede of braces and tears marks his arrival;" Leo as a kid, as a baby, last year, three minutes ago, ain't there a special someone in his life and when's he going to pop the question, what's his favorite flavor ice cream, what's the first word he spoke out the womb. I sat down and took a pen from a jar there while Fancy-Pants went over the story again. I drew a mustache on the face, blacked out the eyes and gave him girly lashes.

"That's very childish, Little One," goes Fancy-Pants.

"It's true: I was lost," I told him, still stuck on that. I scribbled so hard the pen tore through the page. "It could happen to anybody in there. I'm telling you, something ain't right, I feel funny --"

"Isn't -- something isn't right -- and nonsense, you're in perfect health."

"My head's always racing. I can't think straight. I think I got a cold out there, I think I need some Robitussin. You said you'd get me go-sees. What are we doing here? I want to go back to L.A. --"

He rubbed my head and slid the newspaper away from me. "There's nothing wrong with you that the steadying influence of love can't cure. Besides which, it just so happens I have -- lined you up another go-see. A movie this time. A bit part, an extra, but you have to start somewhere. It's several months away. Until then --"

"I need it now. Why don't you do one of those -- like a press release thing. You could make an announcement."

"Announcing what, Little One?"

"We'll put our heads together. We'll think of something."

"I don't think you understand how these things work," he goes. "You have to be patient."

"I ain't getting any younger --"

"To the contrary," he laughs. "The trouble with you is, you look even younger than you are, you're so small and helpless looking, you are -- you're like a little boy lost. You've got your whole life ahead of you. Slow down. Everything will be better when we get to the Caribbean. You'll see. It's going to relax you. It's going to take your mind off things. Everything there is out of this world."

Brian Pera is the author of Troublemaker and the editor of Low Blue Flame. "Your Whole Life Ahead of You" is an excerpt from Wall of Sound, a novel in progress. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.

Go To: Issue 11 or Lodestar Quarterly home page