Jumping the Tracks

Fiction
Margo McCall


Rafe sits in an antique kitchen chair getting his head shaved. Each time Harrison takes a swipe with the clippers, it creates a new patch of cold scalp. The buzz is deafening, but not loud enough to muffle Fern’s sniffles. The fine fringes falling on the Congoleum seem like the end of something, she says.

“It’ll grow back. It always does,” Harrison assures her as he shoves the clippers forward, casually as if he’s mowing their overgrown yard.

So far in his sixteen years, Rafe’s been Bono, Marilyn Manson, Mike Ness, and Anthony Kiedis. Now he’s trying to channel Eminem and 50 Cent.

Fern’s voice trails into a sob. She’s feeling a little intense now. Soon she’ll start in with that incredible laughter.

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Harrison says. “When we were young, you had to have long hair or nothing.” Rafe hears the swish of beaded curtains as Harrison slips back into the past.

“What about the Manson family?” Rafe asks. He’s seen the Helter Skelter and Charlie clips on YouTube. Those bald girls waiting outside the courthouse. PIG splattered on a wall in blood. Right here in L.A., just a couple towns over. The Mansons got beat in the mass-murder numbers game, but nobody could match their depravity.

“You sure know your history, kid,” says Harrison, gently bending back Rafe’s ear to clear more head.

Before Fern and Harrison came along, Rafe was as lost as one of Charlie’s disciples. Now, when kids in the neighborhood ask if Fern and Harrison are his parents, Rafe just says yeah. It’s easier than explaining how Fern’s really his grandmother and Harrison his grandmother’s live-in boyfriend and how Rafe came to live with them when he was seven after the supreme screw-up that killed his sweet rocker chick mom and landed his leather-clad dad—Fern’s son, Steve—in prison for manslaughter.

None of which sounds real, more like something from a bad movie. It doesn’t feel like a lie since Fern and Harrison are better parents than his real ones. But who knows, maybe he’s blotted out some tender moments when his mom and dad took a night or two off from the Troub to change his diapers. Maybe that empty feeling of waiting at school for someone—anyone—to take him back to the apartment on Sherman Way was all made up, along with the wrenching stomach pang he gets when he remembers the chipped paint in that apartment. He has an awful image of himself gnawing lead-based paint to fill his stomach.

Most of the memories have washed away. Both good and bad. No memory of his parents shooting drugs. But also no memory of his mom stroking his hair like Fern always does—whether it’s permed, bleached, greasy, or spiked.

Rafe had wanted to spare her by going to Atila’s, where his new homey Taz Tyler went to get cropped. But Fern wanted to see the transformation herself. Rafe, being a mama’s boy or a grandma’s boy or whatever he is, acquiesced to her wishes, and Harrison, perpetually eager to be the recipient of Fern’s sparkling magic, went to the mall in search of the best clippers he could find with all the solemnity of Frodo Baggins questing for the ring in the depths of Mordor.

“Maybe after the trend passes, we can use these on the dog,” Harrison suggests.

“Get a grip, Harrison. Peace is a golden retriever, not a poodle,” Rafe reminds him.

“Yeah, I know,” Harrison says, sweeping up the piles of hair with a little broom and holding up a mirror for Rafe to see. “Well, whaddya think?”

“Bitchin,” Rafe tells him, although he’s not sure he likes the pale Kobe eyeballing him out of the looking glass, or pieces of his dad’s face plastered on top of his own. His head seems naked. Already regretting the whole thing, Rafe looks away.

Fern, her green eyes still misty, lightly touches Harrison’s arm. “Promise me you won’t get rid of this,” she says, tugging the gray braid that hangs down his back like a dirty rope.

Harrison lifts his baseball cap, revealing an assortment of stringy, gray hairs. “Actually, I’ve been thinking of shaving it off too—like that guy from REM. Michael Stoop.”

“Noo!” Fern shrieks, burying her head on Harrison’s shoulder.

“Stipe,” Rafe says. “Don’t do it, Harrison, he’s a geek.”

Up in his bedroom, Rafe practices saying “What’s up?” with hand signals in front of the mirror, and comes up with a moniker, Masser R. He feels small in the big shirt and baggy denims. And still can’t decide if the shirt looks badder buttoned to the collar or hanging open. Meanwhile, the nasty thump of Cream wafts from the downstairs stereo. Rafe laughs, thinking how Fern and Harrison have refused to make the jump to CDs and digital downloads.

He loads Grand Theft Auto into his game player. The game’s not as violent as Fern and Harrison think. Behind all the blood, no one really gets hurt. He wishes Taz—Devil T—had come over to get his ass kicked. Rafe hits the iTunes icon on his computer and buys the new Eminem single. The music makes him want to do something—he doesn’t know what—so he settles on writing a letter to his old man.

Dear Dad,

Hope they’re feeding you OK in there. Can’t be worse than your ma’s tofu glop. School’s OK—don’t worry I’m not ditching. Fern sez she’ll fly me up to visit soon. Will let you know. Been thinking about that time at Magic Mountain. Colossus is a wimp-out compared to X and the Viper. Maybe when you get out, we can check them out.

Rafe always mentions the future to keep up his dad’s spirits. But they both know he’ll be too old to go on a roller coaster by the time he’s released.

The last time Rafe visited, his dad went on and on about the time they rode Colossus together. But Rafe’s not sure it really happened. It might just be something his dad dreamed up during one of the long days lying on his bunk looking up at the ceiling.

Rafe can’t think of anything else to say, so he works on the envelope. Steven Golton, D2846-C328, c/o San Quentin. Personal Mail.

Rafe still wants answers, but doesn’t know who to ask. After he came to live with Fern in their old house—which is surrounded by so many old oaks it feels like a secret hideout—Fern took him by both wrists and said, “You can’t tell anyone about this, understand?” Yeah, she doesn’t always mope around all misty-eyed.

All Fern told him was his dad hit somebody with his motorcycle and his mom flew over the handlebars and landed on the roof of a parked car—it was a stupid mistake, involuntary manslaughter, he didn’t mean to do it. Rafe wasn’t surprised. He’d been expecting something bad to happen for a long time. He signs the letter, “Love, your son.”

The girls at school take turns rubbing his bristles. To Rafe, it feels def, like each hair is a vibrating antenna. “Excellent,” says Kelly Webb, a goth ghoul with a pierced eyebrow, a coal-black bob, and a coiled rattlesnake inked into her forearm.

“Gadowdahere,” Rafe roars, feeling his cheeks get red.

Most days, he sits through classes as though in a dream. It’s been like that all semester, words drifting through a haze. Sometimes he reaches out and catches a few, pondering what they mean. Except in math, his favorite subject. Sanchez, the math teacher, kicks ass.

Proving theorems and solving algebra equations is like a videogame without the flashing lights. Rafe got a ninety-eight on his last test. Course, he can’t tell Taz, who’s still in remedial. But that’s cool. Taz has the right ‘tude. Today, after school they’re going to go chill in Old Town.

At the end of last-period math, Sanchez calls out. “Hey my friend, still going to register for summer math camp?”

“Dunno,” says Rafe. “Might take the summer off instead.”

Sanchez looks disappointed. “Too bad, Rafe. It would look good on a college app.”

“Not sure I want to go to college right away,” Rafe tells him.

“That camp might be fun,” Sanchez says. “Better than working at Taco Bell, right?”

As he walks away, Sanchez yells after him. “Don’t forget the test tomorrow, dude.”

Outside, Rafe spots Taz leaning against the school’s brick wall, watching the kids buzz outta the place like flies. His new friend’s hard to miss, with his rubbed-raw skin and intense, beady eyes.

“So my man, we gonna just hang or what?” Rafe asks. “If we’re gonna just stand around, we might as well go inside where we won’t get soaked.”

For days, the weathercasters have been warning a big Pacific storm is on its way. And looking at the sky, Rafe sees it’s arrived. Metal-gray clouds hang over the mountains, and the air smells wet. Here in the land of eternal sunshine, it’s always a big deal when it rains.

“Nahh, Masser R, les go see wassup in Old Town.” Taz ruffles his shoulders like the VJs on Yo! MTV Raps.

Old Town’s less than a mile away from Blair High. Once upon a time, Rafe rode his bike there. He wouldn’t be caught doing that now. Next semester, it’ll be Driver’s Ed. After that, his first set of wheels.

“Bumpin’,” Rafe says as a black Nissan mini-truck with tinted windows and tiny tires bounces by on Fair Oaks, accompanied by its stereo’s boom-da-boom, boom-da-boom.

“Whossat?” asks Taz. “They got balls driving through our ‘hood with their sound up.”

“Can’t tell,” Rafe says, zipping up his purple Lakers jacket to ward off the drizzle beginning to fall. “Looks like the homeys from high school.”

The truck drives off and they both put up the hoods of their jackets to keep the moisture from their hairless heads. The wind kicks up, and Rafe’s cold for the first time in months.

Old Town’s full of kids parading around with plastic bags full of new stuff. Rafe walks with his shoulders pulled up high. This will be the ultimate test for his new vibe.

“Check out them hos,” says Taz, nudging Rafe in the ribs.

“Bodacious racks.”

Rafe gets nervous when the girls head in their direction, wading in their low-rise pants, showing off their piercings and tight abs. Once they get closer, Rafe sees it’s Autumn Karanski and her sidekick, Rosa Nichols. Autumn’s dad heads the historic preservation group Harrison used to belong to. Rosa was named after some old-time radical.

“Wassup, homeboy?” Autumn asks, maneuvering her big, black umbrella to give them all some protection.

“Me and Dev’s just hangin,” Rafe says.

Rafe feels Autumn’s eyes moving over his head, and embarrassed, puts up his hood again. “Whadja score?” he asks nervously, surprised that he summoned enough courage to make words come out of his mouth.

“Stereo adapter for my iPod.”

“Cool.”

They stand around awkwardly in the rain under Autumn’s umbrella. Then Autumn says later. “Sorry—we’ve got to get our asses over to Bliss’s pad to finish our Lifelong Understanding project.”

Rafe watches the rain create a veil between them. He wants her to look back—that’s all. He’s thought of asking her to the rave they have Friday nights at the warehouse in Azusa. But thinking about it is as far as he’s gotten.

Later, walking back through the neighborhood, Rafe’s still thinking about her. In a daze, he hears the mini-truck before he sees it, parked on South Marengo, its stereo booming Ice Cube’s “Lethal Injection.”

“Be cool, be cool,” says Taz. “They ask wassup, say nothin’s up.”

“Man, let’s get out of here,” Rafe says. The truck looks ominous, just waiting there for them.

“Ain’t no problem. T’sar street.”

Following Taz’s lead, Rafe struts forward, doing the gangsta limp. When they get closer, the tinted window lowers and a shaved head thrusts itself out. Rae sees it’s one of the seniors who got expelled for trashing the computer lab with mustard and ketchup from the cafeteria. “Yo B, wassup?” the gangsta asks, gesturing with one hand.

“Nuthin’s up,” says Devil T.

“What you little cracka kids be doing on my street?”

“We be on our own turf, white trash,” Dev says.

“Yeah, well we be holdin it down now. You tykes run home to yo mamas ‘fore ya get hurt.” He smiles, exposing a chipped front tooth, and the next time Rafe looks he’s staring into the end of a gun.

It’s been a long time since Rafe has run, not since he was on the cross-country team his first year of junior high. Even then he wasn’t any good at it.

Panting on the sidewalk in front of his house, it seems strange to see Fern’s yellow lilies still hugging the river rock, their heads bowed with the weight of the rain. The house, however, is dark.

He reads the note Fern left on the kitchen counter:

Dearest dearest,

Harrison and I got the great idea to drive to Santa Barbara to stop by Sylvia and Joe’s for some herbs. Back tomorrow afternoon. Take care of yourself. Food in fridge. We love you more than love itself, sweetness!

F & H

Rafe realizes how hard he’s breathing as he tastes blood while trying to lock the front door. The locks stick, and the door is so swollen with moisture he can barely close it. He wishes someone were home, but there’s just Peace, sprawled out in his favorite chair. There’s not a single weapon in the house. Fern and Harrison believe in talking, nonviolent resistance, hippie stuff.

He considers the bread knife. It cuts through Fern’s wheat bread, but he can’t see it doing much good if that gang wannabe comes to the door. A little jittery, he searches out Harrison’s stash box. He plucks a rolling paper from the carved wooden box and sprinkles pot on it, just like he’s seen Harrison and Fern do. Somehow, he manages to scatter weed all over the floor.

The first hit from the wobbly joint burns, and Rafe nearly chokes trying to hold it in his lungs. But in a minute, danger becomes just an idea. His hands flip idly through their old records, the album jackets feeling rough and dry compared to the smooth plastic feel of CDs and computer keys.

Their huge stereo sits hunched in the corner like one of those dinosaur models he used to have on his dresser. He pulls a Doors record from its sleeve. He’s never examined a record up close. All the grooves, round and round, like etchings in a fossil. It’s a struggle to get the needle to come down in the right place.

Suddenly it’s raining hard. Drops, droplets, gushy wet streaming down, oozing splatter of precipitation. But when he lifts the bamboo curtain, it looks like the rain has stopped. Jim Morrison’s not dead. Or maybe he’s come back from the grave to warn him: “There’s a killer on the road. His brain is hurting like a toad.” The words seem slick with deep meaning.

Rafe knows all about Jimi, Janis, and the Lizard King—has absorbed them the way he learned about Sammy Hagar, Axl Rose, and Tommy Lee from his parents’ old CDs. His grandparents don’t talk about their glory days much anymore—although Harrison still brags about the time he hitchhiked to San Francisco and got backstage for Jefferson Airplane. They carry the past inseed form—add a few drops of memory water and life blooms all over again.

And then Rafe becomes incredibly hungry. He stands looking into the fridge’s bright fluorescence a long time before spotting pumpkin-ginger muffins peeking out from behind a bottle of balsamic vinegar. He smears them with basil-honey butter and sits down on the Congoleum to eat.

The next day, Rafe can’t decide between ditching and showing up for the math test. Eventually, he walks down to Taz’s apartment complex. He has to bang on the door for a whole minute before his mom answers.

“Taz up?” he asks Mrs. Tyler, who he can barely make out through the security screen.

She turns and yells, “Taz, yer friend’s here.”

Rafe hears a muffled “OK” and sits at the bottom of the stairs to wait.

Taz gyrates down the stairs with an energetic stomp. “Hey my man, give me five.”

They slap hands. Then Taz lifts his shirt and shows him the piece.

Rafe’s feels his heart beating faster. “Get rid of that, you crazy shit.”

“Hey chill out. It’s just a forty-five.”

“You’re not bringing that to school,” Rafe says.

Taz smiles. “It’s no niner, but I’ll still show those homies.”

“And how will you get it through the metal detectors?” Rafe asks.

Taz looks confused for a minute, but then his beady eyes light up. “I know, dude. I’ll hide it in the bushes outside.”

Rafe avoids Taz at lunch by hiding in the computer lab listening to the hackers prattle on about distributed computing, Ruby on Rails, and the new Wii. He stares at the blank screen, hunching down low so nobody he used to know will see him. Once upon a time, he’d wanted to use computer generation to create movie monsters so scary they’d seem real.

He tries pressing some keys, but is denied access. “401 error,” the computer flashes. “Bad command.”

When Rafe comes out of sixth, Taz is waiting. “You ditchin’ seventh?” he asks.

“No, I’m ditchin’ you.” Rafe turns and walks away. Inside his head, the gun twists and turns as if on display. He has the feeling of being on the downside of a roller coaster, the car ready to jump its tracks. Halfway through English, a truck outside backfires and it makes him jump. A few minutes later, he decides to screw the math test and asks to be excused.

The sky outside is dark and foreboding, and Rafe has the sudden urge to go to the public library and bury his head in a book. After the accident, he stayed in his room for days, reading whatever he could get his hands on. Stories about stars and the whole universe, astronauts jetting around the planets, dumb adventures where boys end up living in old castles instead of apartments on Sherman Way.

Right now, he wants to hide so deep in the stacks no one will find him. But as he puts his foot on the first limestone step of the solid, old building, the sound of “Rafe, wait up” stings his back like buckshot.

“Man, I told you I don’t want no part of this,” Rafe yells.

If Fern and Harrison hadn’t gone up north, he could call them to pick him up. But Rafe’s on his own. Just like always.

Once this is over, things will be different. Summer math camp, college, listening to Sanchez, getting up the courage to ask Autumn out, letting his hair grow unfashionably long.

“Aww, come on Masser R,” Taz pleads. “Wassup with this?” His face looks stupid and blank. It all seems so clear now. Why didn’t he see it before?

“No, I’m going home,” Rafe tells him, stalking off without looking back.

The clouds commence to dumping their load, and Rafe lets the cold rain bounce off his skull and slither down his neck. He takes side streets he doesn’t normally take, past houses with river rock porches and lemon trees and blooming flowers and shiny front walks. But Taz trails him like some parasitic fungus. Rafe’s sick of his listening to his chant, “Come on, my man.” If Taz didn’t have the gun, maybe Rafe would think about punching him in the stomach.

The rain pummels Rafe’s back. Keeping his eyes on the cracks in the cement will make Taz disappear. Concentration. If he can just make it home, everything will be all right. But a block from his house, the boom of music explodes, and Taz warns, “Watch yo ass, it’s goin’ down.”

The same gangsta stares at them through black locs. Despite the shades, Rafe can see him clearly. He looks like a loser, like Taz will be in a few years. Like Taz is right now.

“Thought I tol’ you schoolboys to stay outta this hood,” the gangsta sneers. “Guess ahm gonna teach you something you ain’t learned in no school.”

Taz pulls himself up to his full height, raindrops falling on his face. “Watch your mouf, mothafo. Quit talkin yo trash.” The Snoop lyrics echo—Murder is the case they gave me, murder is the case they gave me—before the gangsta spits, “Yo ass is grass.”

The flash of light burns Rafe’s eyes like looking at the sun right before it sets. Deafening noise—explosions blast against his eardrums and reverberate in his stomach then there’s only rain.

Sometime later, Rafe gradually comes to understand he’s on someone’s lawn and there are sirens in the distance and Taz is nowhere in sight. He has the same dizzy feeling that he did at Magic Mountain that day. And now that Rafe is lying here with his eyes closed, it’s coming back. His father had insisted he ride the Colossus, even though Rafe really wasn’t old enough.

“It’s the biggest all-wood roller coaster on the entire West Coast,” he remembered his dad saying. “Cummon, don’t be a wimp.”

Rafe had hung onto the safety bar with all his might, and kept his eyelids clamped shut. The one time he did open his eyes, he saw the traffic-choked Golden State Freeway a long ways down and felt like he was going to throw up.

Afterward, his dad laughed at how afraid Rafe has been, calling him chickenshit for the rest of the day. His father’s face looked hollow and dead. He was clearly high. Rafe remembers hearing Fern telling Harrison one night, “Steve’s turned into a speed freak; he’s hooked.” And looking at him that day, Rafe could see it.

Rafe takes the back alleys home, stuffing his Lakers jacket in a trashcan, vaguely noticing part of the shoulder’s been blown away. The rain makes the skin on his arms look translucent, like he’s no longer real, as if someone could pass their hand right through his body. Each step toward home is a step backward in time, until he’s only a sperm and an egg joined by two kids after a Motley Crew concert one night at the Whiskey a long time ago.

Back at home, Rafe examines the round hole in his upper arm. He wraps a towel around it to absorb all the blood. It hurts more than anything has ever hurt before, but Rafe doesn’t know who to call. Instead, he curls up under the herb-drying rack, the closest thing to a cave he can find.

There are details in the leaves that he never knew existed. Some are hard and achingly sharp, others soft and round. He can see right through the veins to their centers. He reads the seed packs to stay conscious.

Chervil: delicate with a subtle celery-licorice taste. Sweet Cicely: fernlike pale leaves with a sweetly delicate anise taste. Thyme: minty, tealike flavor. Sage: musky and mentholated.

Shivers rake his body. Rafe looks at the colors in the stained-glass window. The strangest things run through his mind: how Fern will react to blood on her hardwood floors, the sensation of riding the roller coaster with his father, memories of his mom and dad together, back when they were a couple of kids just out for a good time.

There was a picture his mom kept in a drawer. “Me and Steve—Live Fast, Die Young, and Leave a Beautiful Corpse” it said on the back. His father’s white teeth flashed and long hair cascaded behind him like ribbons as he held onto the handlebars of his bike. His mother, her purple hair equally wild, clung to his waist. They looked so innocent in their tight pants and black leather jackets.

Rafe asked Fern about the picture once. All she said was, “They chose the Highway to Hell.” Her eyes were hard when she said it.

Rafe wonders about their world the same way he used to wonder about Tyrannosaurus Rex. And the Brontosaurus, made extinct by the Ice Age. The only traces are a few old CDs, torn leather jackets, and accidents that leave people dead and locked up.

Their time is gone. What they did has nothing to do with him. For the first time in a long time, Rafe wants to live. He calls out for help, waiting for an answer he knows won’t ever come. The roller coaster has jumped its tracks and he’s soaring through the air alone.

pencil

“I’m a graduate of the M.A. creative writing program at California State University Northridge and a magazine editor by day. My short stories have been featured in Pacific Review, Heliotrope, In*tense, Mind in Motion, Sidewalks, Rockhurst Review, Sunspinner and other journals. My nonfiction has appeared in Herizons, Lifeboat: A Journal of Memoir, Pilgrimage and a variety of newspapers and other publications.” E-mail: mail[at]margomccall.com

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