When he was eight, his parents moved his bedroom from one end of the house to the other. His baby sister was old enough to need her own room, and so she usurped his, the one closest to his parents’ bedroom, and he was exiled to the front of the house.

His new room was adjacent to the living room. In the nights that followed, he would be able to hear the “Dallas” theme song blaring on the TV after his parents had put him to bed. The room also had windows looking out onto the main road outside, past which cars would vroom and screech, and crazies would amble well past midnight shouting “Fuck You!” “NO, FUCK YOU!” back and forth to each other at increasingly large distances.

But on moving day, he sat in his new room, surrounded by the cacophony of things stacked loose in disarray, and fingered the high-pile carpeting, which was gray and scratchy, not brown and low like in his old room. The walls were brown paneling, not painted blue like in his old room. There were four windows, not two, and the ceiling was covered in white tile squares instead of stucco.

As his mother and father worked to assemble his “grown-up” bed, complete with wooden headboard and everything, he sat on the floor and pulled off strands of the strange, wormy carpet. In that moment, the awareness of the inevitability of change overcame him like a rouge wave, and he began to cry.

“What is it? What’s wrong? Do you miss your old room?” His parents scuttled over and surrounded him with anxious questions.

He looked up at them and wiped the tears from his eyes. “I don’t want to die.” He said.

There was silence. His parents stared at each other, and looking back, he would one day understand the silent conversation between them, the one that said: “Shit. We aren’t ready for THIS.”

From the back of the house, his sister’s high keen broke the silence. His mother stood abruptly, perhaps relieved at the timing, and left the room to tend to the baby. His father sat cross-legged on the floor with him and put his big hand on the boy’s knee. “You’re not going to die for a long, long time, James,” his father said. “And even when you do die, you’ll live on in the lives of the people you touch, your family and your friends, and in the work you do—I’ll live on in the lives on my students, and in you and your sister… it’s just the way of things.”

James nodded, and sniffed a string of snot back into his nose. His father’s students would die someday too, along with he and his sister, and eventually, his father would be forgotten. He didn’t say this, though. He thought about growing up, and how he would do something wonderful with his life, become famous and touch the lives of many, many people, so that the whole world might remember him long after he was dead and gone.

“Now,” his father said, rising again to his feet and pulling James up with him. “Where shall we put your dresser?”

* * *

When James was fifteen, he ate hallucinogenic mushrooms for the first time. He and his friends were holed up in Adam Parker’s the garage, which was more of a hangout place/music room than an actual place to store cars.

As the mushrooms took hold, James found himself unable to keep himself from rubbing his hands over his face. The feel of his scraggly teenage beard against his hands sent electric shivers through his palms, all the way through his body and down into his groin. “Now I know why hippies have beards, man!” he announced.

When the walls of the garage started to close in on them, they took a walk around the quiet suburban neighborhood. The night was purple and the moon was full and smiling down on them. The trees and bushes all had red auras, like their life was emanating off of them in waves.

They sat on an embankment and smoked a joint. His friend Terry disappeared for a moment and came back holding a cat in his hands. “Here,” Terry said, placing the cat gently in James’ hands. “He’s hurt.” The cat did not struggle, and as James felt it settle into his arms, he felt something else in his hands, strange and wet and grainy.

“What the fuck is wrong with this cat?” James cried. The strange substance felt like the insides of the cat spilling out all over him, and a sudden panic rose to clench at James’ throat. He threw the cat to the ground and looked at his hands. In darkness, he could see the mushy substance, dark and radiating a red aura. “What the fuck is this!?” he held his hands out to Terry.

Terry collapsed in laughter. “Dude, it’s just sand. Wet sand, man!”

James looked again and worked the stuff through his fingers. Sand. It was indeed wet sand. The cat stood dumbly at his feet, looked up at him and mewled. “You’re a fuckwad, Terry,” James said.

They walked back to the garage, James still vibrating with adrenaline. The world seemed instantaneous and unquestioning, and he thought this must be how animals feel all the time—alert, awake, and terrified. “Am I going to feel like this forever?” He said aloud. His friends all laughed.

* * *

Today is his thirtieth birthday, and James is walking home from work. It’s a crappy job with crappy pay that makes little to no use of his art degree. He will celebrate his birthday tonight with a few friends out for a small dinner at a moderately priced restaurant.

Everyone is telling him that life begins at thirty, that you finally start to have a sense of who you are and what you are doing, but James is skeptical. He remembers his eight-year-old self, sitting on the floor of his new bedroom, crying over the realization of death, and he feels just as hollow and lonely. He remembers his fifteen-old-self, holding a cat and a handful of sand, and he feels just as terrified of life and its frailty. Shouldn’t those things have changed by now?

It is a cold and damp fall afternoon, and the streets are glistening with recent rain. The cars on the street make a beautiful trailing sound as they pass, their tires singing against the wet pavement. James cuts through the park, down a path shaded by overhanging trees. He looks at his feet and he walks, his brown leather shoes darker around the toes from the water they’ve absorbed.

When he looks up he sees a feather, white and curled like an apostrophe, floating in the air before him. It arcs towards the earth in pendulum crescents, swaying from side to side like the cradle of his sister’s basinet. And then, buoyed by a sudden updraft, the feather alights higher into the air. He watches it dance, twirling and swiveling like some twined ballerina, held aloft by staging wire and the magic of imagination.

When he was eight he would dream that he could fly. They were vast, epic dreams where his feet left the ground and the air howled in his ears and the earth disappeared beneath him. When he was fifteen he would dream he was famous, a celebrity of ambiguous renown, but known enough to play beer pong with Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston at a frat party on the moon.

These days his dreams, if he remembers them at all, hardly leave the planet. He dreams he is at his job, only it isn’t really his job. Or he is at his house, only it isn’t really his house, and he is talking with his friends, only they aren’t really his friends. James doesn’t have to think too hard on what his dreams mean.

He looks again for the feather and realizes that it has fallen back to earth. It sits on the ground, stuck to the pavement, the white strands turning gray and warping as they absorb the cold surrounding moisture. The moment is over, and whatever might have happened – he missed it.


4 Responses to “8-15-30”

  1. oh, james.

  2. Familiar somehow….


  3. I had forgotten what a fantastic writer you are. Read some of your reviews at Rumpus as well… Killing some time while running the high school online program (easy money). Enjoyed the tales of james. keep dreaming wonderful dreams…you never know. Dreams are ok, but I must confess the best things in life are the things I never dreamed of: I never dreamed of being a father, husband, or uncle, great uncle (Yikes), but those are the best memories I have in life. keep writing.

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