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Signs of Life
By Selene Castrovilla
Last Syllable BooksCopyright © 2016 Selene Castrovilla
All rights reserved.
"If the writer concentrates on what he does need to be interested in, which is the truth and the human heart, he won't have much time left for anything else."
— William Faulkner, recorded at The University of Virginia, May 7, 1958
DOROTHY – NOW
They're going to kill me. Joey's not here and they're going to kill me. They say so, then they leave their feet scuffle, the door squeaks, then I'm alone with the sounds. There's the beeping sound there's the sucking sound there's a drip drip drip so faint, but louder than me. I count count count the drops to keep from going mad except maybe it's too late. How can I tell? How long has it been? I'm locked in that closet again, but worse there's no chance I'll be set free. Squeak scuffle they come in, they talk not even in a whisper, they plot my death. They're going to kill me. Joey didn't come.
JOEY – NOW
My clothes are spotted with grease and motor oil, but my hands are clean thanks to a glob of GOJO. It smells like Luden's and leaves me with this slick feeling like I've been Turtle Waxed, but hey — it does the job. I don't have time to go change before the meeting, but that's fine. Twelve steppers don't flinch at grimy jeans.
I head onto the train tracks even though the barriers are down, flashing their red lights and ding-ding-dinging. The train is like a mile away. I stop and stare into its glaring headlights. They always look like they're searching for something. Sometimes I want them to find me. Sometimes I want them to be the last thing I ever see.
But then I move on, across the tracks.
Which is what I do now. My filthy work boots clomp down on the ties.
Wouldn't want to become a smooshed, bloody corpse and skip my meeting.
Wouldn't want Pop's fellow officers presiding over my dead body. Would I be missed at the meeting, if I was struck by the Long Island Rail Road 5:22 p.m. westbound train? Doubtful. It's not like I share. I've got nothing to say. There's only one person I wanna talk with, and I ain't talked with her for almost a year.
Scratch that. Shit. Grammar is an SOB. Do I get points for substituting initials in for the words I'd normally use? Doubtful. Mrs. Baker's not cutting any breaks for stuff like that. She would say it's better for me to avoid all such terms. She would go, "Grammar is unpleasant, Joseph. I believe that is what you meant to convey."
Not go. Say. "People 'say,' Joseph." That's what Mrs. Baker would say. "They speak."
Right, Mrs. Baker. You're absolutely right. People speak.
Except when they don't.
Except when they can't.
Sometimes they "go," but it has nothing to do with speaking. Or leaving for that matter. Sometimes they go even when they're here, and that sucks.
Oh, sorry, Mrs. Baker. I mean, that is unpleasant.
But really, it sucks.
I trudge past the town hall, past the bank, past the real estate broker. They're all closed. Everyone hightails it out of their jobs at five sharp. There's no place like home.
Mrs. Baker wants me to use descriptive words. She says people never just walk. And she's right. I definitely trudge. Trudge is le mot juste for me. Still, I'd be just as happy using walk. And by that I mean, not at all. Only time I get happy is when I think of Doll. But then there's that drop, like my heart's on a roller coaster at the end of the ride.
I promised Doll I'd go to community college. I didn't think I'd get in, but she said, "Try, just try," and so I applied, and they took me. Go figure.
Mrs. Baker is my Literature Studies and Composition teacher. It's a college credit way to say English teacher, really. She's always on me to speak correctly. Once, early on, I pointed out that "speaking" did not fall into either "literature studies" or "composition." She wasn't having any of that. "Joseph," she said in her sing-song voice that's hard to get annoyed at because it's just so caring and patient, like when a mom speaks to her toddler. "We can't appreciate good writing, and certainly we can't accomplish good writing, unless we speak well. We can't do much of anything effectively unless we speak well." Our summer class ended, but I'm taking part two in the fall. It's a requirement, but tell you the truth, I'll be glad to see her again. She keeps me in line, and I like alignment. That's my favorite thing to do on cars — set them straight.
And even though she's being paid to care, it just might be that she cares on her own. Not that it matters, really.
Of all my bad grammar, Mrs. Baker hates most when I use the word "ain't." She says it makes her soul shudder. I think that's over the top, but I get it. And you know what? I wanna be like everyone else. Shit. Scratch that, too. I want to be like everyone else.
No. That's wrong, too. I sure as hell don't want to be like them. Holden Caulfield may've been a tool, but he was right about them phonies.
Those phonies, I mean. People. Most people, except Doll. And maybe Mrs. Baker ain't so bad — isn't so bad, either. She talks straight, even if it's too perfect. English teachers, they can't help being all proper.
What I meant was, I want to communicate like everyone else.
Mrs. Baker would just about faint from happiness if she knew that I used the word "communicate." I'll have to tell her, even though I only used it in my thoughts. But hey, it's a start. She says if we think the words, we can write them and speak them. She says it all starts inside our brains.
Yeah, don't I know it.
It starts in our brains, and it ends there, too.
Yes, I mean yes. Yes, I know that.
So anyway, I'm doing what I can to learn how to communicate. But really there's only one person I wanna — want — to communicate with. But I can't.
I haven't heard her voice in almost a year.
Yeah, that's it.
Haven't. I haven't.
Haven't, haven't, haven't.
I keep wondering. What if I hadn't dropped the gun?
DOROTHY – THEN
He dropped the gun Thank God, Joey dropped the gun. He let go of his dad the monster who flopped to the floor. His head hit with a thud, not as loud as the clatter the gun made but more disturbing because he's a human being, well sort of. He's a living being, maybe not so human. Joey got up. He didn't look back at the monster not even when he heard the thud I know he heard it, his body flinched. I could see it twitch, but he kept facing forward heading toward me.
JOEY – NOW
After I dropped the Glock, all I wanted was Doll. I had to get to her.
Me, I could've gone either way. I could've shot him, just as easily as not. In fact, more easily than not.
I cast a long, dark shadow down the grainy sidewalk through town. It falls over a crushed Coke can. I give it a kick across a crack. Surprised it's even here — there's so many people these days picking up cans, carting them over to the redemption center at Stop & Shop. It smells like beer and mold in there, and there's constant smashing and crushing sounds. I'm not clear on where the redemption comes in.
Mrs. Baker calls it my redemption, that I didn't shoot Pop. She pulled me aside after class one day. Her hands smelled like chalk. They're too cheap for Smart Boards at the college, I guess. She said she knew who I was, what had happened. Not a surprise — it was front page news. But she was nice about it. That was the surprise. She said I needed to separate my actions from ... everything else. She said I needed to recognize my triumph. Really, she said that.
I told her this wasn't some book.
I told her, "Redemption is the literary Santa Claus."
She was sorry I felt that way, but she liked that I used the word "literary" and that I employed a metaphor.
She left chalk dust on my sleeve.
My shadow leads the way, casting darkness over a crumpled napkin and an empty Fritos bag. Foreshadowing before I step on them.
Next comes a Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup. I dodge that one, though part of me wants to smash it.
There's no satisfaction in smashing Styrofoam. There's no crunch at all. And those little foam specks, they can't be good for the environment. That's what Doll would say, for sure. She would say, "Joey, throw the cup in the garbage."
I'm sorry, Doll. I don't wanna touch it.
I don't want to.
My memory, it's a shadow inside me.
It could've gone either way with me. With the gun.
Doll. It only went one way with her. She was good, so so good. If there was such a thing as redemption, she would be it. So when I chose that way, her way — all that mattered was splashing through that puddle.
DOROTHY – THEN
I wasn't that far, I was right there really, just a few feet away, but it seemed to take forever for him to reach me. He was in slow motion and I was suspended filled with relief so all-consuming that I couldn't make myself move. There were sirens outside, so many sirens and red lights flashing through the kitchen window, sweeping across the green linoleum and across us. And then he reached me. He was there, he grabbed me up in his arms and he said
JOEY – NOW
I say her name out loud. It just comes out sometimes, and when people are around, they look at me funny. Like I care.
There's no one here on the street. It's creepy the way this town has no pedestrians. Where is everyone? I'm next to the House of Ale, door propped wide open, music low — some suicidal country song — only a couple of customers lurking at the bar. Two wizened guys slumped on their stools, downing their Bud. I see the lines in their faces from here. It'll be a full House later. Right now, people are eating. Who knows, maybe some are heading to the meeting. They'll be here, when the music gets louder and the place sounds like a hoedown. They always come, looking for something.
Something different. Always.
This is not a put-down. It's just a statement. I could join them, but there's no point. All I got left is my sobriety. If she comes back, or I find her, I need to be sober for that.
I said it again. So there.
The shadow inside me stirs.
I remember what it was like to hold her after I dropped the gun.
DOROTHY – THEN
It should have felt good, but I was too filled with so many other emotions, too spent and then there was still his dad behind us. And there was the gun ... God, there was the gun ...
JOEY – NOW
The hairs rise on the back of my neck. I could swear someone's behind me, like they're following me ready to press a gun to the small of my back. My body tenses, but I don't even turn around because I know there's no one there. This happens all the time. They call it post-traumatic stress disorder. When everything came out about Pop, my brothers and me got sent to a shrink. Warren still goes. He's eleven. Not that beaten down yet.
Wait. Is it my brothers and I? Crap. It's I. I got sent.
I pass the library, it's next to the House of Ale. That's how it goes here in Highland Park. A book or a beer? The choice is yours.
Poor kid's got a rotten name on top of everything else. Warren was Pop's great-uncles' name from the 1800s or some sh — something like that. We all got named by Pop, like he was mentally branding us. I'm the oldest, so I got his name, which makes me ill, but "Joseph" does blend. "Warren" is high on the nerd scale. Plus, it rhymes with foreign, and you know some flag-waving, shoot-to-kill, rah rah rah a-hole is gonna make something out of that at lunch. I mentioned him in Mrs. Baker's class when we were introducing ourselves, and she smiled and said his last name should be "Peace." Whatever that means. I let that one go by. I didn't wanna look stupid on my first day. Or ever, really.
Me, I passed on regular appointments with the shrink, even though the doc said we could work on trauma, like my brain was a transmission that needed rebuilding, or there was some belt in there that needed tightening. I couldn't let him under my hood. Not after my diagnostic experience with Doll's parents. Both psychologists, and they were clueless. I'm used to the PTSD, so I deal, and anyway I think if there was someone there and he did blow me away, he'd be doing me a favor. I been doing time here for nineteen years, ain't that enough?
Godddamn grammar. You know what I meant. I can't constantly check myself, on top of everything else. Or maybe the checking myself is the thing that gets me through. Who the eff knows. Not shrinks, for sure. They're all playing mental ceelo with with our minds, that's what I think.
DOROTHY – THEN
My relief had morphed to terror. I was immobile still. I wanted to tell Joey to turn around, wanted to scream that the monster was reaching for the gun, but it was like my vocal cords were frozen, like time was frozen, we were frozen in our embrace, but the monster, he wasn't frozen. Maybe time wasn't frozen, either. Maybe it was crawling like the monster was inching toward us with the gun. If I could have found my voice I would have warned Joey, but it was gone. Joey was paying no attention, he was clinging to me like I was a float in the ocean. He was done but his dad, he didn't look done, not at all.
JOEY – NOW
I head past Mama Mia's Old Time Pizza and my mode switches from paranoid to craving. That cheesy baking smell, it practically makes me drool and I'm not even hungry. I glance at the gumball machine by the window. It's filled with the giant gumballs I used to love. You could bite them into two pieces and save half for later, but these are faded from the sun. I don't know who the hell — heck — would want to chew them, but that's the kind of town this is. Washed out.
God, I wish I had a way to shock myself or something, every time I catch myself saying something wrong. Sooner or later I'd get the message, or collapse from the voltage. I'm looking down, watching my feet carry me, which is sort of amazing — that they could bear the burden of the rest of me weighing them down and still keep going — when I spot a rubber band lying across a sidewalk seam, like it's bridging the gap. I pick it up and pull at it, then realize it's just the thing for me. I slip it around my wrist. A perfect fit! Not so tight that my wrist'll turn blue; not loose enough to slip off.
I give it a snap. Ow! Good.
It's not electro-shock, but it hurts. It'll do.
Every time I catch myself using grammar wrong, I'll snap myself.
Some people would say this is a gift from above — that I asked for help and I got it. I say a mailman was here and dropped the rubber band that was around someone's Bed Bath & Beyond coupon and their special offer for Dish Network.
You could make a case for the mailman just as easy as you could for God — no easier, if you're rational. But people always want to give credit to their higher power. I guess it makes them feel special or something. Ooh, I found a heavenly rubber band! What's next? An image of the Virgin Mary formed in the grease on my pizza?
I'm sure someone's seen her floating on a bed of anchovies.
Signs. They're like assholes. Full of shit.
DOROTHY – THEN
The monster's vein was bulging in his forehead, his eyes were bulging from their sockets, his fingers were wrapped around his gun. It tapped on the linoleum as he inched toward us, his gun was like a paddle row row row your way to blow your son away. Would he kill Joey, though Joey had spared him? Was the man capable of a rational thought, let alone gratitude or mercy? Then he was there next to us, right behind Joey, he had reached us unannounced because I couldn't say a thing, I just stood there thinking about things that wouldn't even matter soon because we'd be dead. And then I thought that if I had to die at least it would be in Joey's arms. And then I finally screamed.
JOEY – NOW
Two doors down, I get my coffee at this sketchy bodega–oops, I mean: I purchase a cup of coffee at an unsavory bodega. Not too bad a slip, but I snap myself anyway. I'm pretty sure Mrs. Baker would be okay with the word bodega because it's precise. She loves precision. I get that. I love the precision of a car engine — the feeling of knowing that everything is running just right. That's why I became a mechanic (also my choices were limited because I sucked at pretty much every subject at school.) I gotta admit — oh, snap! — her excitement about the English language sometimes revs me up, too. (Is rev a real word? If it ain't ... it should be. Snap!) Sometimes, for a few minutes, I forget about my miserable life.
Excerpted from Signs of Life by Selene Castrovilla. Copyright © 2016 Selene Castrovilla. Excerpted by permission of Last Syllable Books.
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