The Southside of Paradise
Class #1- We All Meet to Tell Our Stories in Fresno
"I was always scared."
The question had taken us all by surprise and stunned us into silence. The group had been discussing Claire Robino's short story about escaping from an abusive marriage to a alcoholic construction worker. Claire was the only person who I knew who had been ran over by a car and lived to write about it.
Normally, she was the most joyous person I knew, but when you got her talking about her past, she grew melancholy, most of us did. For such a happy person, Claire had a knack for describing deep seated pain, the kind that you have wrestle back into the hole and sit on to keep it from ruining your now.
Out of nowhere, Professor Connors had asked the question, "What do you remember most about being young?"
The chatter in the room stopped immediately, and it was silent for at least five minutes as we all dropped back inside ourselves in search of an honest answer.
Before I did, I looked around the room and took in the sight of the twelve of us, people who cared enough about their future to sacrifice their present by driving to Fresno every Thursday from seven to ten, yet who were now intently rummaging through their mental photographs of their past. Was the word ironic? I wasn't sure, but that's where I filed it anyway.
My name is Danny Wilson, and I'm sixty-six years old and a recent retiree of the public school system where I had taught both Language Arts and basketball for better than thirty-one years. My wife, my ex-wife really, died two years before, and I had been lying around feeling sorry for myself ever since.
I was sitting slightly behind and to the right of Dr. Conners, and she could barely see me out of the corner of her eye. I glanced at my reflection in the darkened window to my right. A wrinkled, pink, old man in a black John Prine T-shirt with long grey hair and wire-rimmed glasses winked back. Then I joined the others and slipped back into the thick mists of time.
I enrolled in Dr. Conner's class to try and wake up. A friend recommended it. He was therapist, but one who understood my own aversion to seeking therapy. If I was going to tell my stories to anyone, I wanted them to be more like the art that life really is instead of a victim's litany of regret.
Emotions quickly welled up inside of me as I envisioned an image of myself when I was young and restless and dressed in velvet bell bottoms, an embroidered western shirt with hummingbirds like Gram Parsons used to wear, and a pair of brown calf high boots zipped in the back.
My dark brown hair was shoulder length, and I had a scraggly mustache of which I was very proud. But the the thing that made me tear up were the eyes. Back then, I had dark, thick eyebrows and sun darkened skin, and that made the blueness of my eyes stand out. The eyes were both curious and furtive, but mainly, they hid the workings of a fevered brain and wounded heart from public view.
The few tears that leaked out came from somewhere deep inside of me, someplace buried past the bottoms of my feet. An enormous wave of sadness rose up and washed across my chest and shoulders because I and only I knew all the secrets that young man was hiding.
And from the somewhat elevated view of a 66 year-old retired person, I could see and feel not only what he was seeing and feeling back then but also knew the dark and dangerous roads that he was bound to travel, the dark forests and jungles he would have to hack a trail through, and the many rickety old bridges he would have to cross.
I knew the times where he would have to stand along side some dusty, rutted, potholed covered road and decide which piece of himself he was going to have to leave behind. I knew that there were so many dead-ends coming where he would run at high speeds, smack-dab headfirst into into sheer granite outcroppings, breaking his nose, his ribs, and his forearms as well as a heart grown weary from the constant effort of repairing itself as if that was all it ever had to do.
And I knew of all the times when everything he ever loved, hoped for, or dreamed about would carefully withdraw a suitcase from beneath the bed and slip out silently into the dark night without leaving so much as a note. And I also knew just how painful it would be to wake-up the following morning and, while sitting in newly minted sunlight, arrive at the belief that the promise of the new born day was just another of the endless lies they fed you.
That kind of pain goes well past the ability of a mother's boo-boo kiss to heal. You have to swap out iodine for alcohol and band-aids for either therapy or drugs depending if you want to heal up right or only stop hurting for a moment.
Dr. Conners surveyed each of our faces slowly, occasionally stopping to herd a stray wisp of her long blonde hair back behind her ear. When she got to Lisa Bush, or Lisa the Kiss Ass Bush, as she was known in class, Lisa's hand was sticking up in the air like always, and she blurted out her forward leaning words, "I remember feeling so sad because of all of the poor people I knew, and I always felt like I needed, no I was compelled, to help them."
She looked around with a pouty expression, expecting praise and getting none. Some of the looks she received merely said, "Oh please," but others stated clearly, "Would you just shut the fuck up!" Riley Dale rolled his eyes backwards and sneezed loudly.
Earlier in class, we had had a long discussion about how each of us were so damn tired of the constant virtue signaling of modern culture as everybody was always tripping all over themselves trying to outdo the others. Lisa apparently had not been listening.
Dr. Conners's class norms said that we had to be civil. Riley and I argued that we didn't think that would be such a good idea in a creative writing class, but we were overruled by the people who felt too tired to fight.
Some of the others answered the question too. Riley said he had felt fat his whole life and when Dr. Conners tried to pull out more emotions associated with that feeling, Riley rebuffed her with, "Nope, just fat. If you've ever been fat, you'd know what I am talking about." She ignored the gentle reminder that he knew things about which she was only guessing.
"How about you, Daniel?" She turned her piercing gray eyes upon me. I first had to fight off the urge to complement her eyes as I've always had this thing for intelligent looking women wearing glasses. They cause my circuit board to short out sometimes. But as we live in a post modern world where men complimenting women, much less their professors, on their eyes is frowned upon, I just said,
"I was always scared."
I answered slowly, my voice a little louder than a whisper. I looked around at faces of the others. They all nodded and lowered their eyes.