The radio is running soft static, the television is flashing hues, smoke is wafting through the air, and our hands are clasping tightly at our knees. Both Jonie and I are smiling ear to ear. Our lips upturned and as precise as clownish paint in an attempt at reassurance. We both know we’re somewhere uncomfortable, somewhere we aren’t meant to be.
We’re sitting in the house behind the Big Lots by the school. It used to be Amelia Earhart’s house, but the old man lives here now along with several juicy cockroaches. Since he’s been fiddling in the other room in search of his rifle, a handful have scurried around and across the coffee table without the slightest concern, as if this was their natural habitat. As if the owner of the property had never made any attempt at pest control. The wriggle and writhe of their antenna as they nibble at crumbs is enough to make me uneasy, but Jonie appears nonplused.
She’s brought us here for research purposes. She’s a photographer — or on her way to becoming one. Our final group portfolio project for high school involves creating a presentation board that details some aspect of local history. We’ve chosen Amelia Earhart as our focal point. To Jonie, taking unseemly photos of freaks in the style of Diane Arbus serves as a way of illustrating how Earhart’s neighborhood has transformed since her disappearance, hence the old man. This is the perfect afternoon for this sort of thing, mostly cloudy, dull, and dreary with a splash of sunlight. The subtle shine of this midday light seeps through the ceiling, falling squarely on the AM radio on the end table by the couch, as if by divine intent. The radio space is divinely picturesque and Jonie, driven either by her affinity for spiritual hocus-pocus or out of general discomfort, has been staring at it since we got here.
I, meanwhile, have been carefully studying the living room, my observations sometimes hijacked by Jonie’s legs. Of all the days to wear stockings and a sundress, she chose this one. The guys at school say that when a girl does this on a first date, it’s a sign that she’s interested. But is this really a date? The sour marijuana smoke blended with the rot of the bookshelves suggests no, no it isn’t. Same with the soaked rug my feet are resting on and the sloshing sound it makes when I press at it with my toe. The wetness of the rug, what comes out of it when I press, is clear but pungent, like cheese brine. When agitated it ascends into the room, blending with the other smells and somehow making the dirty bowls stacked unevenly in the far corner more appropriate to the atmosphere.
We hear the old man grunting and tossing things around in the other room. Then he stops and shortly after, the door swings open and the old man appears wearing exactly what he wore when he let us in. The metal and plaster brace mounted around his neck undoubtably makes it difficult to put on t-shirts or turn one’s head, but a button-up would have been nice. Instead, we are treated to more of his exposed body. His white chest hair flattens as he presses the vintage rifle against himself, examining the barrel.
“Yep, she’s a beauty,” he says. “This is the real deal, doublya-doublya-two, Gramps brought it back straight from the front lines. Take a look!”
He eagerly hands the rifle to me and I’m surprised by its weight and smooth texture. A gun is the most direct means of extracting the truth, or so I’ve heard in a movie once. I aim down the sights briefly before the old man slaps the barrel of the gun down and takes the weapon away.
“Woah! Never aim a gun straight ahead. This thing could be loaded! Always aim at the floor. That’s rule number one, kid.” The old man says with a wink.
My face feels flushed and I hope my cheeks aren’t pink. I glance at Jonie’s reaction, but find her attention fixed on the old man.
“Nice place you got,” she says. “How long have you lived here?”
The old man reaches over to the radio and dials up the static. He inches closer, standing right next to Jonie as he fiddles with the knobs.
“A man doesn’t really belong anywhere,” the old man says. “It’s a trip if you think about it. There are two sides to everyone, body and soul,” he pounds the radio, stuttering the static, causing it to blare louder than before. “The soul is the permanent bit,” he talks over the noise. “It’s the body that’s rented, you know? We all just squat and when we gotta fly, we fly!”
“Right on,” Jonie nods. “I feel that.”
The old man slaps the radio onto the floor, rendering the illuminated side table empty.
“Ah, damn it to hell!” he says, resting the rifle against his shoulder as he pulls up a chair and sits across the coffee table. I call him old, but he has no trouble moving. His lean and limber body is muscular and if his head wasn’t full of white strands hanging like thin wires from his scalp, he could be mistaken for someone in his forties.
Jonie inches closer toward the table, keeping her legs tight together.
“Everyone at our school calls you Murry, is that your real name?”
“Well,” the old man props the rifle on the ground like a walking stick, examining the barrel. “My name might as well be that. It doesn’t bother me. Could be Kevin, or Frankie, or Flanny — whatever. I come and go as I please and I’m not beholden to anyone, I like that.”
I turn and see Jonie cycling through the pictures on her camera screen. Her face has turned red at Murry’s response and her body is more bunched, tighter into itself.
“You look like a future politician.”
Murry’s words don’t register at first, but when I look up, I see the old man staring straight at me with a kind of stable dissatisfaction.
“Look kid, I’ve been around a while. Been all over the country and worked at least twelve jobs in LA. I can tell you’re trying to snake your way up and into somethin’. You here under false pretenses?”
“You know ‘what,’ man. Get real. I’ve played the game you’re playing before and I gotta tell you, it ain’t gonna work out like you hope.”
I feign ignorance, but find myself picking at my fingers, as I do when at a loss for words and desperately in need of a distraction.
“What is your last name though?” Jonie asks and now all eyes have turned toward her again.
“I forget. Smith, or Jones, or Cruz. What’s it to you?” Murry says.
Jonie hesitates for a moment and then presents the old man with her camera, its screen displaying an image, the substance of which I fail to catch. Whatever it is, it causes Murry to frown momentarily. He hands the camera back and rests his chin against the barrel of the gun.
“You’re pretty good, eh?” he says. “We gonna get this show on the road or what?”
Jonie nods and the two stand up and walk to the other room. I stand up to follow them, but the old man places his hand on my chest, ushering me back down.
“Sorry, buddy. Invitation only,” he winks.
“We’ll only be a moment,” Jonie says and the two leave me alone on the sofa.
As the minutes pass, the light shining through the blinds and ceiling hole wane and dim. The sky takes on a grim darkness, blank as a distant ocean stretched upon a flat plateau. I eventually rise, having forgotten how long it’s been and head down the short hallway to the bedroom where the photoshoot is taking place.
I place my ear against the door first and hear nothing. I turn the knob, but the door doesn’t give. I knock, then again, and finally the old man’s voice comes muffled through the wood.
“It’s locked,” I say.
“No, it’s not, just come in,” says Murry.
I turn the knob and press against the door, but it won’t budge. The full gravity of the situation dawns and all at once I feel the bits of unease, each part of the apartment that told me to leave, piling atop one another. I’m panting, slamming my shoulder against the door. Each heave cracks with a flat tone, muffled and unalarming. As I brace for my third attempt, the door swings open and Murry catches me in his arms, my face pressing firmly against the white hairs on his chest.
“Guess I must’ve locked it! My bad!” the old man laughs.
I pull away and he lets go without resistance, amused. Past him, I see Jonie sitting on the futon bed in the middle of the disorderly room. She is looking dejectedly at the floor.
“That’s our cue, I think. Your boy here is starting to get riled up!” Murry says.
At this, Jonie quietly stands up and walks past us and into the living room.
“Hey,” Murry points at her. “We’ll talk again later, kid.”
We head down a couple of blocks after passing the school and turn the corner into the small street that Jonie lives on. The neighborhood is quiet, with seldom sounds of distant airplanes cutting through the thick stillness of night. In the black of our unlit street, not a noise radiates, nor a smell rises aside from these momentary reprieves of jet engines and the nib of evening cold.
Jonie and I are walking close together. Neither of us has said anything the whole time. I guess at what to say to break the silence and do my best to control my shivers. I wonder how she manages to keep her body so still and strong in the cold. How it remains so perfectly unaffected and sturdy. I turn to find her clutching the camera to her chest and staring blankly at the sky. This is the perfect moment to ask my question. I open my mouth, but Jonie speaks first.
“It’s a full moon tonight,” she points up. “It’s so big too.”
“Oh, yeah I guess,” I say.
“The full moon makes people crazy. It’s a sign.”
“A sign of what?”
“Just a sign,” she shrugs. “You know. Just people acting crazy.”
In the near distance, the poorly kept front yard of Jonie’s house is visible. We crunch the yellow grass along the sidewalk upon approaching her short chain link fence. The house’s decaying shingled roof and the aroma of dog shit in the neighborhood do Jonie no justice. She’s prim and poised, even as she feebly stumbles with the latch on the gate. Finally, she raises it, pauses, turns, and breaks the silence between us again.
“It makes sense that Murry wouldn’t answer my questions. It’s the moon, he must have been on edge today.”
“What did you ask him?” I say, hoping my irritation doesn’t come through.
“He’s my dad, I think. See?” She eagerly presents her camera to me. On the screen is a photo of an old polaroid. I can make out a family of three.
“See? It looks just like him,” she says.
I pause and a breathless “okay” escapes before I can formulate a better response. I face her, trying to register any signs of annoyance on her face, but her expression appears blank.
“I want to go back tomorrow and get to know him, will you come with me?” She says.
Another long day, with no payoff. The guys at school say that if you don’t seal the deal about a month into knowing a girl then all prospects of a relationship are lost. I consider how safe I am then, having spent the last two weeks texting Jonie and now having agreed to spend a second day with her, without properly asking her out.
I gauge the stance, the way she looks at me, and try to understand what she’s thinking. I’m trying to decide what I’m thinking when she places her hand on my arm and smiles. Our eyes meet and in her, I see the moon reflected — the one aspect of the night I hadn’t noticed.
“Thank you,” she says.
“Hold on,” I say, stopping her as she pushes the front door open. I try to come up with an excuse to let myself in, but the dread of making a misstep wins over.
“Have a good night, okay?” I smile.
Over the course of the week, Jonie and I make several excursions to Murry’s house. At every occasion, the two retire to the back room, leaving me alone with the coffee table roaches. I question Jonie’s desire to connect with the man, her desperate attempts to create a relationship with him. If by some chance he is her father, she owes him nothing, he owes her the world. For his part, Murry makes an elaborate show of our every arrival, attempting to entertain us with some trinket or piece of war memorabilia. His focus always seems to be on playing the part of a street-wise historian, someone with an eager desire to educate, but no resources or real value to share.
At each visit, I also question how long this song and dance will continue. I stress at my ongoing involvement and what possible motivation Jonie must have to string me along like this. The wasted time and each lost opportunity for closeness is like another layer of brick cementing our separation. However, every time doubt about Jonie arises, I’m given another reason to continue my pursuit.
On the second day, Jonie hooks her arm around mine. The action leaving me stunned and stiff, unable to react. The day after, she seems friendlier, talking all the while en route from the school yard to the old, battered house. The way she approaches me changes noticeably. She becomes much more vibrant, smiling at the sight of me and even waving whenever nearby. She tells me she’s happy with the way things are going with the old man, happy that I’ve been a friend to her through this process. At first, I feel a genuine closeness growing and this makes me optimistic. But, the thought of becoming too much of a friend occurs to me and so by the end of the week I feel a strong need to pull back, lest I ruin everything I’ve worked for.
Friday is a particularly long day, being the first day of spring that marks the slow approach of break. We are walking down Jonie’s street after our visit to Murry’s. The heat radiating from the asphalt and the pungent smell of hot lavender flowers engulfs my senses. Between us is silence unlike what I experienced that first night. The lack of conversation is strange, but not unwelcome. I haven’t tried to create distance yet, but the distance has sprung up and I am reluctant to explore its cause. Indeed, I think it might be better to feed this further, so I keep my mouth shut as we walk. When we reached Jonie’s fence, she pauses and signals for me to wait.
“Thanks for coming with me,” she says, clasping her hands together.
“You didn’t have to do that. Do you want to come in?”
This question bolts straight into my gut, forcing its way upward and deep into my throat. I gulp and a million questions, guesses, and statements stampede through my body at full gallop, culminating in a meager “yes,” that escapes oddly in falsetto.
Jonie simply smiles and leads the confused mess of me through her front door and into the living room where her mom is lounging on a sofa. I greet her with an awkward wave and a meek “hello.”
“Hi,” she smiles and returns to her aviation magazine.
“Come on upstairs,” Jonie beckons and I comply.
Jonie’s room is full of knitted wide-eyed plushies and plastic dolls in elaborate Victorian dresses. Every inch of space, from the porcelain figurines lining her bookshelf to the Native American rug spread along the floor, is vibrant and erupting with jubilation. The colors are disorienting, and the air is stuffy, smelling of heat and old clothing. I feel a strong urge to leave.
“I’m a bit of a grandma,” Jonie says, aware of my observation.
“It’s a nice room, I like it,” I lie.
“Thanks! Do you want a drink, can I get you something? Maybe fruit?”
Jonie goes downstairs, somehow furthering my panic and indecision with her absence. What is the decorum for this sort of thing? What is the expectation? The guys at school say that when a girl invites you into her bedroom, that’s a definite sign that she wants it. But despite this security, this glaring exclamation point giving me the “all clear,” I can’t shake the possibility of failure, the gravity of a misstep. Do I really dare upset the universe with a single decisive moment? Can I even stomach it amid the suffocating smell and the rows of beady, plastic eyes watching me from every nook and corner?
Jonie returns with a full plate of diced strawberries, kiwis, watermelon, and apples. She holds the plate out to me, and I reluctantly grab the smallest bit, a strawberry, and pop it into my mouth. The fruit tastes like wall paste, but I chew and swallow as Jonie takes a seat on her bed. She motions for me to sit beside her and I do, brushing my hand against the knitted orange blanket covering the sheets.
“The more we head to the house, the more convinced I am, but he won’t admit it,” she says.
“Who?” I focus on the softness of the cover, petting it like a cat to relieve the pounding in my chest.
“Murry. Why would he keep talking to me if it wasn’t him?”
“Did you ask your mom?” I say the first thing that comes to mind.
“No, she wouldn’t be happy about it.”
The guys at school say that the best thing to do is to look for an opening. This is the proper setup, by all accounts, but still no opening appears. I fish for a phrase or utterance that will spark something, anything. A magic syntactical formula to shift the topic away from the old man and toward me. The more thoughts come to my mind, the more discomfort I feel. My gut is fraught with indecision, and to qualm this feeling I let the fatal words escape intuitively almost like a coil propelling outward from the application of uneven pressure.
“What if you’re wrong?”
She stops mid-sentence, apparently in the middle of something I’ve completely missed.
“Yeah, what if you’re wrong? I mean, do you actually think he’s your dad? Do you know how crazy that is?”
“Well, I —”
“Why do you need this guy anyway? You’re strong enough to act on your own. You don’t need his advice or anything. Even if he is your dad, what’s he supposed to do for you?”
Jonie’s attention drifts and she says nothing, apparently upset at what I’ve said. I continue, unable to stop.
“You don’t owe this guy anything. No one owes anyone anything. You should just leave it alone and live your life.”
A thought dawns on me amidst the awkward silence that follows. What if there was never an opportunity at all? What if this has all just been a game to her, an attempt at using me like she’s used Murry. An attempt at attention or to use me as a creature of comfort, a body to string along and dump her burdens on. Perhaps there could have been some prospects for a relationship, but she got the situation and my desires wrong. The truth dawns on me, I’m not that important, and with this thought I feel a sense of ease wash over, having rid myself of any and all obligation to her.
“I have to go,” I say abruptly.
“Yeah, gotta go home, sorry,” I reiterate.
“That’s okay. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have been talking so much. It’s getting late,” she stands up and leads me downstairs where her mother is still reclining on the couch. As I bid Jonie goodbye under the doorframe, her mother waves absently without looking up.
In 1965 a banker living in New York City, Irene Bolman, was believed to be Amelia Earhart. Despite her denial of the numerous claims and documented evidence to the contrary, the rumor of Earhart taking on a new identity as Bolman grew widespread and generated several books on the topic. Some people cling to their own delusion and defend it for fear of being proven wrong.
I reflect on this bit of history while sitting on my bedroom floor and piecing together the photographs Jonie took of Earhart’s house. Within the stack of black-and-white polaroids are shots of Murry in different poses. I examine them one by one, searching for any similarity between Murry and the photo of the man Jonie showed me. With each image I become more convinced that it’s best not to fuel Jonie’s delusion any further.
I stick the images of the house onto the board with tacky glue, carefully angling each one to be in line with the paper I’ve written and included in the center. If Jonie had just taken the time to think about the situation more clearly, she could have been here helping me with the project. I squeeze too much glue out of the bottle, covering a polaroid of the old man sitting on his bed with the rifle. I attempt to wipe it, but quickly become frustrated and toss it into the trash bin by my desk.
Returning to my solitary group project, I notice a familiar face in the stack of polaroids. The picture is of me, taken en route to the decrepit house after school. I shuffle through the pile and find more impromptu photos of myself. A particularly striking shot has me standing in profile, staring at something off camera. The sunlight is directly in my eyes and yet they appear wide open, mesmerized by something now mysterious and incomprehensible. I turn the photograph around and find a small heart that Jonie has drawn with a red sharpie.
I had pegged the old man as a late riser, so finding him occupied outside Amelia Earhart’s house before school hours took me by surprise. The sun slowly rises above him, illuminating the old RV that Murry is loading up with trinkets and other, larger furnishings. Through the air flows the smell of fresh cut grass and the remnants of early morning fog, but as I approach the RV, the atmosphere changes. Closer and closer the vehicle obscures the sunlight, and the familiar smells of marijuana and rot become ever prominent.
Murry has his back turned and for a moment, I hope he doesn’t notice me. In truth, I don’t know what to say to him, how to lead him to a confession. I feel though, that I must move forward.
“Hey,” I say, but the old man doesn’t notice.
“What?” The brace still firmly mounted on his shoulders makes it so he has to turn his entire body to speak to me.
“Ah! It’s the future president! How you doing?”
“Are you Jonie’s dad or not?” The words escape abruptly, but Murry doesn’t appear phased at all. He puts his hand on his chin and considers the question before speaking again.
“Well, you know, a man — especially a drifting man like me — is like a universal force. He travels, spreading his good tidings —”
“Are you or not?” I demand. “We’ve been coming to see you every day for a week now — you owe us the truth. We’ve earned it.”
Murry smiles smugly, as if he had finally caught me in a corner.
“You know, seriously, you should run for public office someday, kid. You have a good way of spinning wrong into right and right into wrong.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“What do you want exactly?”
The question tenses my body tremendously. I hadn’t noticed, but I’ve been picking at my fingers and a mild unease in my stomach is now beginning to culminate into a terrible ache.
“I just want to know if you’re her dad or not.”
“Nah, kid. You don’t want that. Listen, I’ve played the game you’re playing. It doesn’t lead anywhere, nowhere you think.”
I stay silent, waiting for Murry to elaborate. Instead, he reaches down into the stack of boxes he has beside him and pulls out the WWII rifle.
“You know,” he aims down the sights in the direction of the house. “I’ve never fired this thing, not sure if it even works”
“Why don’t you try it?” I say.
“Got nothin’ to shoot and no desire to shoot nothin’. I’ve lived a good life without pullin’ triggers, why start now?” He turns and places the rifle inside the RV.
“About the girl,” he continues, reaching into his slacks and pulling out a folded piece of paper, “I gotta leave this house. Squatter’s life — the need for change never changes! But give her this from me, will you?”
I take the paper and pocket it.
“Don’t look at it, you’re not gonna find what you want there. Just give it to her, she needs it,” Murry says as if pleading with someone down on their luck.
“I’ll give it to her.”
“Good. Now, I gotta clear out before the cops show up and tell me to clear out faster. Think about the public office thing, really. It would suit you,” he climbs into the RV, starts the engine, and drives away, leaving me alone under the heat of the rising sun.
Large groups of my peers are shuffling through the front gate when I finally reach the school grounds. The scene is something akin to a breadline, each person pausing at the table set up by the administrative staff beside the entrance. The staffer sitting at the table checks everyone’s clothing, making sure we’re all in uniform. After he gives me the all-clear, I scan the masses for shades of vibrant color, easily finding Jonie lounging on a stairway far out in the distance.
I take Murry’s note out of my pocket and walk intently toward her. She hasn’t noticed me yet and, as I approach, I became increasingly aware of the reason. She’s smiling, laughing at something a boy beside the stairway is telling her. He comes closer and up the stairs to meet her. Tall, fair-skinned, bigger than me, the boy’s brown hair takes on an almost golden appearance under the light striking the stairs. He lunges, two steps at a time until reaching her and sitting down. She welcomes the company with a warm hug.
Despite my initial intention, I notice that my legs had stopped moving. I stand still and though closer in distance, I’m somehow much further than I had been before. A fire erupts in my belly at the sight of them, sitting side by side. The flame carries upward and once again I feel a deep aching. I look down at the note, partially ajar and crumpled in my fist. Though the letters in the note are legible and the words they form are totally comprehensible, I don’t register them. The note is complete gibberish, inconsequential now.
Jonie stands up at the sound of the bell and finally looks in my direction. She waves, but I’m not sure who the wave is meant for, likely someone else. I turn away, taking an alternate route up to the first floor and toward my homeroom. As I come closer to the classroom, I think about all the things I can do after school. Perhaps take a walk, or play video games, or watch something fun on my laptop.
My homeroom teacher smiles as I walk in. I smile back, tossing the moist paper crumpled in my hand into the trashcan. I make my way to my desk, pause, consider fishing the note out. Its words burn in my mind, I try to make better sense of them, but Murry appears instead. The need for change never changes! He echoes through my psyche, the need for change. The second bell rings, I take my seat, and daydream of the approaching break, reveling in the freedom and stillness soon to come.
Samvel Aleksanyan (Sam Aleks) is an Armenian-born, American artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California. Sam earned a Master’s Degree in English from California State University, Northridge in 2018. His writing has been featured in The Northridge Review, Spring 2014 issue and the July issue of Pif Magazine. His artwork was featured in the Canyon Voices, Winter 2018 issue and displayed in the Northridge Annual Student Art Exhibit, Spring 2014 as well as in The NOVA Frame and Art Gallery, Fall 2014.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter: @samaleksart