Driver’s Side Airbag #44

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by Ron Gibson, Jr.

The night splintered when my brother Ethan left home in search of truth, like Silas Marner or Doonesbury. Dad mumbled whenever he spoke his name afterwards. It sounded like E-hymn - stress on E and muddled on hymn. I would go into his empty bedroom and sit with his posters of Che Guevara and the Beatles' Abbey Road and a laughing Christ crucifix. After long suspicious looks they became my friends. I could never win an argument with Christ. He always brought up dying for me and constantly made me feel guilty. Paul McCartney, in his bare feet, became Ethan because I thought he looked a little like him. I'd ask questions and plead for his return home, but he always remained silent, afraid words would cause him to walk outside the line. Che was a caged tiger, always talking about creating multiple Vietnams and calling Americans imperialist dogs, but in such a nice voice, the voice of an artist. John Lennon once said, after one of Che's speeches, "Right on, Brotha. But let's start a revolution on an intellectual level, man." After some arguing, Che ended with, "In revolution one wins or dies (if it is a real one)."

School was a foreign country. At recess, I threw dodge balls at windows and hoped the bouncing rubber echo would shatter the glass. Hours were spent facing a wall; kids laughing behind my back, calling me crazy. I wrote stories about a boy sorcerer that put hexes on his schoolmates. In one story, the boy sorcerer hexed a boy so that whenever the weather turned cold the boy's room would smell like rancid piss. My teacher sent a scolding note home with me concerning the story that I folded into a little raft and floated down a rain-swollen ditch. It wasn't until those first flakes of snow fell in November that Mrs. Hofstadter realized the odor coming from the vicinity of the boy's room was no hex and no story and only reality.

Ethan once stood in front of his bookshelf full of yellowing thrift store books, like trophies, and said reality and truth were relative. So I concluded from his farewell letter, he was in search of his truth in his reality. Later I decided if reality and truth were relatives then my invisible brother was hate.

A fat man named Mr. Ashbury reviewed my case after I marched across the playground waving a reflective-orange Stop flag that I stole from the patrols after I'd stripped to my underwear and declared Che instructed me to free them all. When the story was relayed to my parents they couldn't deny I talked to Ethan's posters. It wasn't actually Che that told me though, it was a chapter in one of Ethan's crumbling history books about Joan of Arc. I thought people might think I was crazy if I were a messenger of God. Especially after the episode when I flipped the laughing Christ upside down and drove a nail through his chest after he kept trying to make me feel guilty about his death. I curled up into Ethan's bed, covered my ears and cried, trying to block out Christ's moaning.

But the gaping mouth of time swallowed my fire and scattered blue pills over me like propaganda literature raining from the skies. And when I walked away from the iron gates, into the sun, I had only my notebooks of microscopically printed pages and a manila envelope with orange and purple Uruguayan postage I received from Ethan as evidence that in my particular reality years had passed.

The world moved differently. Before it was like a well-oiled clockwork mechanism. Now it was left of center, wobbling like a lopsided basketball spinning in the air. When I was introduced to the factory foreman, Mr. Davidson, by the fat Mr. Ashbury's son - a deed done to help kickstart my life, to become that holier-than-thou citizen that pays taxes and votes Republican - all I noticed was how the clock double-hitched before it actually moved to the next number. Like my footsteps on this plane, indecisive, wondering if the next step will be the one that finds nothing but an ill-placed void. The clock would click and hitch and hitch and then jump. By the twelfth jump, Mr. Davidson called for my attention and said, "Be here at 7 a.m. sharp." And that was my jump, without jumping.

Seconds turned into minutes and minutes into hours and hours into days and days into months and months into years and years into death and then death turned into some transcendentalist's wet dream and it began all over again.

My co-workers were zombies. Eyes blank with submission or Zen wisdom. Hands unconsciously moving in precise continuum. We manufactured dolls. Connecting their heads, their arms, their legs to the heart of the being: the prepubescent torso and shiny smooth crotch. It was like a jigsaw puzzle. Once I shed the pupil afterbirth, I sat alongside them, hands moving in monastery silence.

Often my thoughts drifted from work - my hands, plastic amputations, whirring fans, pungent body odor - to the manila envelope with orange and purple Uruguayan postage. When I first received it I was in a place inside myself that was as far away from the thought of Ethan as Ethan ever must've traveled. I opened it expecting to find a long letter, cryptic like my notebooks I hid under my pillow when I had a bout of aphasia. They shoved my head into a tunnel to scan. The expert's money was on brain lesion. Instead they discovered I just didn't feel like talking.

Apparently neither did Ethan. Inside the envelope was a series of photos. No letter, no dates, no explanations, just a silent stack of seemingly random black and white images. But knowing Ethan nothing was random. He once said, quoting some book, "Nothing under the sun is accidental." So I concluded that everything under the moon was accidental: his departure, my inception, rising crime rates, wrinkled progeria kids, extramarital affairs, ritual suicides, schizophrenia, head-on collisions, sickle cell anemia, biblical floods, gangland murders, broken-voiced relatives bringing news of death, beach erosion, AIDS, foot fetishes, writer's block, gravity, and cold toilet seats - all shadows cast by a careless moon.

Outside the workplace, my co-workers looked like marionettes strung along by some celestial puppeteer. When the dirty blonde walked across the oil-stained factory parking lot, it appeared the long hours of sitting seeped into her hips until she hitched like the indecisive minute hand. Out of the shadows, under a parking lamp, she flashed a horse-toothed, Nancy Kerrigan smile, and asked if I wanted a ride home. She said she noticed that I waited for the bus on the moonlit bench each night.

I looked away to the shadowy bench, the deserted street, the gritty laughter of factory men telling dirty jokes in circles before driving home, and turned back around and said ok.

That big horsey smile never wavered and she pointed to her hatchback and said, "Alright. I'm over here."

The way a parking lamp struck her hair it reminded me of one of Ethan's pictures of a woman walking down a cobblestone street with a streetlight halo hanging above her.

She unlocked the passenger side door, when I asked, "Who are you?"


"I mean, what's your name?"

She smiled toothily and said, with a bounce, "Tammy."

I looked blankly and said, "And what's my name?"

She laughed and said I was silly.

I lifted the door latch and got in. She turned on some best of the 60's and 70's rock station until I told her to turn off the main arterial onto my dingy, quiet street littered with stray dogs and oily-engine-block front yards.

She pulled the car off the street and stopped onto a gravel patch next to my small apartment building. We both were silent. A silence that doesn't translate into language.

"You want to come in for a beer or something?" I asked, not sure why I offered.

"Sure.Why not? It's been a long day, huh?" she said, smiling again.

We walked up the cracked stone stairs in the dark. I fiddled with the keys in the doorknob and opened it. Flicked on a light switch and closed the door behind us.

The apartment was sparse. It consisted of books, TV, fridge, microwave, couch, and bed. She mentioned she never saw a man's apartment look so in order.

I returned with a couple beers. She sat on the edge of the bed looking at Che, Christ, and the Beatles on the wall. Che was ripped on the edges and Christ had a band-aid across his chest, but the Beatles still looked young and determined to cross Abbey Road in a mock evolutionary line.

"Who is that?" she asked, pointing at Che.

"A friend."

She laughed and said I was silly, again.

I took a swig of beer and looked at the manila envelope across the room on the bookshelf. She was telling me the summary of her life in a rush of words that left little pause for air. She didn't seem to mind or notice that I was only half-listening. She continued, and I stared at the envelope, catching parts of a story about when she was a little girl and she rushed to the cellar because a tornado was coming.

When Ethan was sixteen he published a story about tornadoes in a little known Sci-Fi magazine. He wrote that tornadoes were vortexes telekinetically manifested by an ancient society of pygmies that lived under the sands of Libya. The vortexes swooped down, sucked people up, and transported them to other dimensions where they became slaves to the pygmies' gigantic astral projections. I thought it sounded like the Wizard of Oz and imagined upside down cloud dimensions with flying monkeys and dancing scarecrows. When I told Ethan about my vision he cited some math book about flatlands. He said dimensions were stacked, sort of like slices of bread, and everybody looked like geometric figures from space, but inside their dimension, they looked like lines or dots to one another. He said God was a lone dot that talked to itself and didn't listen to anyone else. That night I went to sleep without praying.

"I walked out onto the stage and forgot my lines!" she said, a story about a high school drama production gone wrong.

Her words faded and my eyes unfocused. Images leaked from the manila envelope seams into the room. Crows pecking a dead possum's eyes out. A little girl leaning on the handhold of a merry-go-round. A graveyard tightly knit with standing gravestones. Expanses of shadow-stained water. Baby socks hanging on a barbed wire fence to dry. A stoic man covered with splatters of grease, like a Rorschach test. A deserted road running through the seized heart of a forgotten town. A countryside road sign pointing to a town named Heaven. Two naked women kissing on a sex-torn bed littered with beer bottles and Mardi Gras beads. The woman walking down a cobblestone street with a streetlight halo. The woman walking down a cobblestone street with a streetlight halo. The woman walking down a cobblestone street with a streetlight halo.

She stooped down close to my face, the ceiling light captured behind her hair like a halo, and asked if I was ok.

I lied. (I nodded yes.)

She asked if she should go.

I lied. (I nodded yes.)

She lingered with concern or disappointment.

After a few moments, she hitched towards the door like the minute hand erasing life, and said, "Ok. Get some rest and I'll see you tomorrow, Ethan."

I lied. (I nodded yes.)

A writer lies, Ethan once said, to get closer to the truth.

She closed the door on the splintered night, leaving me with a rambling dot in a dimension that doesn't listen, an invisible brother named hate, a revolutionary, a pariah and his bandmates, a bandaged Messiah, and the lonely truth. Good company to have while waiting to jump, without jumping.

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