The Art of Disappearing

Image courtesy of http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/

Uncle Jack was an unusual man. He was never quite the same after returning from duty in Vietnam. You would look into his eyes and feel the horror seething out, the undeniable regret, the pain, the dark secrets that he carried around with him on a daily basis.

He never much talked about Vietnam, but you knew that it was all he could think about. The experience raped him. He couldn’t have the life of an average citizen and had a hard time reintegrating into a society of people oblivious to the horrors of war. He used to say, “Ignorance is bliss”.

Before he disappeared I remember asking him “why didn’t you get married Uncle Jack? Didn’t you ever fall in love?”

He looked at me and sneered “Heh… me fall in love? Who the hell could love someone like me!”

It wasn’t his answer that was heartbreaking, but the fact that he actually believed it.

“Everyone deserves to be loved” I said naively.

“Look sweetie… Why don’t you go play with your Barbie’s. I’d like to say you’ll understand one day, but the truth is no one does.”

I was eighteen. Barbie’s were long over for me. I was into boys, smoking, and record players. What was he thinking?

The last time I saw him he was alone in my grandparent’s basement. He sat on the couch staring blankly at the television in a dimly lit room, chain smoking. It was my job to get him to come up and join the rest of the family for dinner. It was also when I took my last photograph of him.

“No thanks” he said “I don’t have the stomach for that. Get that damn camera out of my face too will ya.”

What did he mean? The stomach for us? For dinner? For having to communicate with his family?

I was angry. “It’s time you forgot Vietnam Uncle Jack… You’re sinking like a submarine. What kind of a life is this?”

I stormed upstairs and felt his stare cut into my spine.

Uncle Jack never came upstairs that evening. Never came up to say hello, to make small talk, or even to pretend that he wanted to be around us.

The next day my grandparents called in a panic. He was gone. His room cleared out, nothing but his dog tags left sitting on the dresser.

For the first few years we thought he just needed some breathing space… but when my grandparents died and he didn’t show up to either of their funerals, we feared the worst. The mystery became even more frustrating.

One afternoon I went to the vegetable market in Chinatown. I could have sworn I saw an older Uncle Jack. I waded through the crowds of people towards a man sitting on the steps of an electronics discount store. I got pushed and swayed around in the crowd, my vision occasionally blocked by people, hands, or signs.

When I got there he was gone.

Did I really see that? I didn’t know if I was imagining him, or if it in fact could have been him.

The mystery of Uncle Jack had tormented me for years. I felt like my comment pushed him over the edge. How stupid of me to think that somebody could just “forget” about war. I was one of those oblivious people he spoke so spitefully about. I was no different than the others.

In my late twenties I landed an installation with some old photographs I had been working on revamping. It was a series of photographs I had taken of Uncle Jack. Black & White images mostly. There were images of him staring off into another realm while blowing smoke from the corner of his mouth, others of him sitting in a solitary chair, or sitting on the edge of his bed…waiting, for relief from his mental anguish. His eyes told horrible truths.

The installation helped me get to a place of understanding. Going back and looking at the images allowed me to peer into his eyes one last time. For once I actually saw the truth.

He could have never led a normal life. It was unfair of anybody to expect that from him. Especially when they didn’t see the carnage, death, and tragedy that he lived for years.

His eyes were void of a soul. For once I felt happy for him, wherever he was. It was better than here. I knew that now.

 

Some Demons Don’t Die

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I found him in his walk in closet. Door closed, naked, holding a shotgun. I could tell by looking at him that he’d been there a while. He had all of his paraphernalia beside him, and remnants of his compulsions littered the floor.

“Dude… I’ve been worried about you.”

“Shut the door. Hurry up and get in here. They’re out there.”

I shut the closet door behind me, sat on the floor cross-legged and put my hand on his leg. He was twitchy and so far gone I barely knew how to relate. He’d been slicing up his arms and legs something awful. The words “HELP ME” sliced into his Right forearm in blood, the words “I HATE THIS” sliced into one of his legs, and a big “X” on his belly.

“God Jay… This isn’t healthy. I can’t watch you spiral down like this”

“Shhh did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“They’re fucking in here, I know they are.”

He clutched the gun closer. I knew it was probably loaded.

“Jay. I just got here remember? I broke in through the back door. Maybe you’re mistaking me for them? I walked through your house. Nobody is in here I swear.”

“They wouldn’t have showed themselves to you. It’s me they want.”

I didn’t bother asking who “they” were, since I was pretty sure that “they” were a fictitious drug-induced form of psychosis. You just can’t rationalize with a crackhead.

He looked like shit, stunk too. Probably hadn’t showered in weeks. It always amazed me how someone who used to be so talented and good-looking could just slide down into hell so easily and become part of the underworld of society. When you’re partying with your friends and everyone’s high and having fun, you don’t think that this is gonna happen to any of you. And when it does, it’s a reality check.

None of our friends came around anymore. I was the last one. Everyone else had been accused of theft, lying, and conspiring against him. He was so fucking paranoid it defied logic. Even the dealers didn’t like coming around. But he was a consistent customer, so they had to.

I put my hand on the shaft of the gun. “Do you want me to take the gun and go look around for you?”

“No… I can’t give it to you.”

“Okay, well do you want me to go look around unarmed? Because I will.”

“Fine. But make sure you look in the backyard and the basement. Be careful.”

I agreed and made my way downstairs into the destroyed house that used to once be filled with friends and life.
Dishes that had been there for weeks collected mold in the sink. Old pizza boxes littered the floor, some still with food in them.  The living room was a graveyard of beer bottles, cans, bottles and cigarette buts. At least two cigarettes had burned down to the end by being left and forgotten on the table or floor.

After a good ten-minute inspection of his filthy house, I went back upstairs to report my findings and to bring him some tea.

“Here, drink this. There’s no one down there. You’re just really high.” I sighed. “Listen… Why don’t you come with me to my house for a few days? Get away from this shit hole. You’re in a mental prison here by yourself, and you keep getting high thinking that it’ll make you feel better, but all it does is make you more psychotic. You need to give up the drugs dude. How much worse can things get?”

“I know, I know. I did too much. I bough enough for a two month supply and used it all the past two weeks. It’s all gone. And now I’m too fucking high to go get more and I’m gonna get sick.”

My throat had a lump in it and tears began to sting my eyes “Dude look at you. You’re fucking cut and bleeding everywhere, you’re paranoid as fuck, you don’t have a grasp of reality anymore. You quit the band, you don’t play anymore… You’re spending all your money. A lot of our friends can’t deal with you. You need help.”

“I know” he said

I opened the closet door, stood up and reached down for his hand. He stood to his feet and walked out into his bedroom, squinting at the sunlight coming in through the window.

“Give me the gun Jay. And here, put these on.”

He handed it over and I went downstairs in the basement to hide it while he got dressed.

When I got back upstairs he was lying on his bed shivering.

“Come on, you’re coming with me.”

He didn’t put much of a fight up. I brought him back to my apartment and put him in my bed. Listened to him scream, shout, throw things, cry, and moan in agony for a week. All I did was take him tea, soup, water, vitamins, and T3s.  He begged to use my phone, begged me to take him to his dealer, tried to sneak out onto my balcony but realized it was too high, and eventually… gave up.

On the 8th day he emerged from my bedroom wrapped in my pink robe. He came and sat beside me on my couch while I worked.

“Hey” he said “Thanks for giving a shit.”

“If I didn’t, nobody else would” I said “I wasn’t about to watch you kill yourself”

“So, what now?” he asked

“Well you’re not going back to that depressing hell hole you call a home I’ll tell you that much. We’re gonna pack that place up and sell it. You can stay here with me until it sells. You can’t go back there. You’ll just start using again.”

A few weeks later Jay moved into a new apartment, conveniently close to mine. I hosted a BBQ for him and invited all of our old friends who’d abandoned him or who just couldn’t deal with him anymore. Everyone was so surprised to see a clean and socially capable Jay. Girls hit on him again, his old band mates hugged him, and he felt good about himself for the first time in a long time.

Things were going really well… He stayed clean, got a new job in a sound studio and even had a cute girlfriend. I was so proud of him and felt like a parent releasing their child into the world after college graduation.

Then one day I got a phone call.

It was the phone call I always knew could come, but hoped wouldn’t.

It was Jay’s mom.

He was dead.