On the Silk Road as it passes through the Hazarajat region of Afghanistan, there used to be titanic men of sandstone and plaster formed into the face of a cliff. These, the remarkable Buddhas of the Bamiyan, were dynamited by the Taliban before the war back in 2001, condemned by them as idols. Where once these cultural icons stood for centuries, only two large, empty niches remain in the rock, their conspicuous absence nearly as iconic as their former presence. The significance of this image is akin to that of a very different image closer to home, which follows.
On the American high plains where I-90 briefly runs uncharacteristically north/south, a woman takes a pull from a 40 ounce “Big Chug” plastic cup of Coca-Cola as she sits at a dining table by the blinds that cover the sliding glass door to the backyard. Also at the table there is a man in his forties with black stubble on his broad face. He is smiling and wearing plaid pajamas. He clears his throat.
“Yes, John?” says the woman, not looking away from the Sudoku puzzle in the paper.
Denise looks at him. He looks like a child, a forty-year old little boy with coarse black stubble and a twinkle in his eye.
“Can I get a pop?”
“No, John, you cannot.”
John is silent briefly, but then his voice comes back, indignant.
Denise looks at him again, across her brow, and stares a moment before answering as if waiting for him to get it.
“Well, John, what did Mandy tell you about your pops? It’s in your behavior plan, John. You can’t have pop. It’s not good for you. You can have a milk or a juice or a glass of water, something better for you. That’s what Mandy says. It’s in your behavior plan.”
John mutters something, stands and leaves the dining space through the kitchen, and after he disappears Denise hears a door slam.
“Hmph,” Denise tones, and she refocuses on the Sudoku, sipping at the Coke.
Ten minutes ago she had arrived in a flurry for her shift, and now it feels good to sit. Her colon ulcer had been flaring up and she had to go to the urgent care clinic and then to the pharmacy to get her prescription filled, and then she had to run to the bank because a check from her magazine delivery route did not get deposited into her account and the credit card people had been after her. She is a large woman with a roll of abdominal fat covering the front of her white shorts. Her sandy hair has just been styled with new highlights yesterday.
This was not her chosen line of work, not at all. Ezekiel’s Wheels was the first place to offer her a job, and she had looked high and low before she wound up with this. It is a house in a middle-class neighborhood surrounded by homes just like it. Some of them are even the same floor plan, just mirror-flipped or painted a different color. It is one of five in the Ezekiel’s Wheels mental disability housing program. There are four bedrooms, two baths. The fireplace is ornamental.
“Hey!” The shout comes from the stairs to the basement, and the shouter is out of sight, but it is clearly Dallas, one of the two younger men. Denise sighs, but she doesn’t answer right away. The voice of Dallas continues, “Wheh my, uh–my X-box?”
Dallas comes up into the living room and over to the dining area and stands a few feet from Denise and her newspaper and he begins to explain.
“I go down a-my woom an my X-box not theh, like, gone,” he says. “You not touch a-my stuff, Denise! You not do that.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Dallas,” says Denise. “If Gary took your video games I don’t know anything about it, okay?”
“Gawy not do that, he not touch a-my stuff like that.”
Dallas’ eyes are pointed upward, away from Denise. She recognizes that this happens when he’s mad, and she thinks it looks strange, especially with the almond shape that his eyes have.
“I have my X-box back a-me,” he insists.
“If Gary took it, he had a reason,” she says, returning her gaze to the puzzle. “You’ll get it back when you get it back. Until then find something else to do but sit on your butt and play games, okay?”
“You not my mom. I have my X-box back a-me.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” says Denise. “I don’t have time for your fits, Dallas. I just sat down here. I need a moment. Go throw a fit somewhere else.”
“You not have a-my X-box?”
“Oh. Wheh phone? I cah a-Gawy an like that.”
“No, Dallas,” says Denise, “stay off the phone. Mike’s mom is going to call.”
“He come a-heah tonight?”
“He come a-heah tonight?”
“Yes, Dallas. He’s coming here tonight.”
“I not like a-him. I not like Mike. He a asshoe.”
“Watch your language.”
“No, I not like a-him.”
The man pacing the living room with the close-trimmed dark hair that shows the rigid angles of his cranium, who has the hearing aid visible in his right ear and the white scar on his temple and the little ones on the side of his face, wearing his Tap-Out design tee and raggedy blue jeans, this is Mike. The color of the room changes with the television light, and Denise, Dallas, and John sit on two second-hand couches by the walls. Mike insists on standing, on pacing, and when he comes between the T.V. and someone else, that someone tends to get a little mad. Denise is done asking him to sit. There’s no use. He’s talking too, like he’s conversing with the T.V. Also he has the house watching his favorite show about a family that operates a gun shop. He identifies all the firearms before the voice-over can name them, and he raises his shaking hands to his fresh-shaven face and squeals a little bit when he gets them right. Denise has not seen him get one wrong.
“Uh, you move?” Dallas asks.
“Oh,” says Mike, “sorry, Dallas,” and he wanders in front of Denise. She’s done objecting to this. She doesn’t like the show anyway. She just wants to get through the overnight shift with everybody in one piece in the morning. Denise can’t afford to lose the job. “People think that they’re the dumb ones,” Denise thinks, “but they’re not the ones over a hundred k. in debt.”
“Can you tell Mike he needs to be quiet,” John says, leaning toward Denise.
“Mike,” says Denise, “other people are trying to watch the television too.”
She knows it does little good. Mike only says something about a firearm and does his excited hands-up gesture. He keeps pacing.
“Uh, we watch a-sumathin else?” says Dallas.
“Huh!” Mike puffs.
“Yes, Mike,” Denise says, “let’s put on something else, please.”
Mike turns to Denise, and he steps closer. “Oh boy,” she thinks. “Here it comes.” Mike is off; his mouth is going. He’s trying to distract her from the idea of changing the channel.
“At, uh, home in Gillette–you know, uh, I’m from Gillette right? That’s my hometown–at home in Gillette, I had a Browning with a scope and stand and shoulder piece and I would shoot the blackbirds, just pow-pow-pow, like that, pow-pow-pow, and I’d hit ’em from, you know, a hundred yards, just pow-pow-pow, and they’d fall–” He shows a bird diving with his hand. “–and–poof!–into the grass like that. I’d get ’em. I’d get ’em. I’d get ’em. I shot ever since I remember, always been shooting, and I’m a great shot, Denise, I’m a great fuckin’ shot, excuse my French, Denise, you know? I’d a-shoot them blackbirds right out of the sky, one hundred, two hundred yards away, and I’d get ’em, Denise, I’d get ’em. And I won a trophy, Denise–” He makes his excited gesture. “–I won that trophy for shootin’ trap. Like with a shotgun, you know? Best in contest. I got the first fuckin’ place. Best shooter. Someday, Denise, I’m gonna get a gun and shoot again. When I get myself, like, my own place, I’m gonna go down to the gun store and I’m a-gonna look for another Browning, just like the one my dad gave me, just like my dad’s Browning. I could shoot those blackbirds down with a pistol, Denise. Most can’t do that with a shotgun, Denise. I would shoot them down with a pistol at two hundred yards or more, just pow-pow-pow, zow, poof!”
“Anyone ever tell you you’re full of hot air, Mike?” says Denise.
“No one cauwz, Mike,” says Dallas.
“Huh!” Mike huffs. “I tell you, I tell you,” he says, “I’m best shooter in this room. You wanna bet, uh, Dallas? You wanna bet? ‘Cause I’m gonna get me a new gun when I get a place for myself, and I’m gonna show you.”
“Enough about guns,” says Denise. “For Christ’s sake. Enough, Mike. Just–enough.”
“Aw,” says Mike. “Huh!”
“We need to watch something else,” Denise says, and she takes the remote off the end table while Mike keeps huffing his dismay.
“Are you tryin’ to disrespect me?” Mike demands. “Are you tryin’ to disrespect me?”
“Nobody’s trying to disrespect anybody, Mike,” she says, exasperated.
Denise puts on FOX News. They’re showing something about the Presidential race and Governor Romney, and Dallas, seeing him, says, “That, uh, my guy wight theh.” Denise isn’t focusing on what they’re saying on T.V. She’s just done with the guns, that’s all.
“That my guy wight theh,” Dallas repeats.
“Mm-hm,” John agrees.
When they show a clip of President Obama, Dallas boos and says, “I not like a-him an like that.”
“Oh yeah?” Denise says.
“No,” says Dallas.
“And why don’t you like him?” she asks, a little curious.
“He a n–.”
“Watch your language, Dallas,” she says tiredly.
“Denise,” says Mike, shifting around right in front of her, “I’m missing my show. I’m missin’ my show, Denise.”
“We’re watching something else now, Mike. Other people get to watch T.V. too.”
“Huh!” Then he starts in again. “Did you see that–that, uh, yellow Winchester they were restoring? Did you see it, Denise? What a beauty, that one. I’d like to have me one of them. I’d like to have me one of them.”
“Mike, you’re too much.”
John, who has been scowling for a while, stands suddenly, muttering, “I’m going to watch T.V. in my room, then,” and he shuffles to his door and disappears behind its slam.
“Huh!” says Mike. “I’m too much? Are you trying to disrespect me?”
“For God’s sake, Mike,” says Denise.
“Yeah, Mike,” says Dallas. “Shuddup.”
“Dallas, don’t tell people to shut up,” Denise says.
“You not teh a-me what a-do,” he returns. “You not my mom.”
“No, I’m not your mom, Dallas.”
“An you not a-teh a-me what a-do an like that!”
“I’ll tell you whatever I want to tell you.”
“I not like a-you! I not like a-Mike an I not like a-you, Denise!”
“Fine and dandy,” says Denise. “Didn’t ask you to like me. If you don’t like me why don’t you go downstairs to your room then.”
“You not teh a-me what to do!” Dallas is really yelling now.
“For God’s sake, Dallas!” Denise yells back. “I can’t deal with your B.S! Either shape up or ship out!”
Mike screams. He paces around and around as if making sure his scream is sent off equally to each direction.
“Mike!” Denise yells. “Mike! E-flippin’-nough!”
“Fuck! Cunt fucking assholes!” Mike yells. “You’re all giving me a fucking headache! You’re all giving me a God-fucking headache!”
“Mike!” yells Denise. “I have had enough! You’re getting an I.R! You need to go down to your room and cool it!”
“Huh! I fuckin’ hate you all.”
“I fuckin’ hate you all!” he repeats, going downstairs.
“I hate a-you too,” Dallas chimes.
“Quiet, Dallas, or you’re gettin’ one too, bud. You are so close.”
“I sick a-Mike.”
“He’s only here for respite. He’ll be gone tomorrow.”
Denise tosses Dallas the remote and goes to the dining area. From a filing cabinet in the corner, she pulls out an incident report form. If she writes one and puts Mike’s name on it his case manager will hear about this outburst and do something, take away a privilege or add a chore. The clients dread incident reports.
Denise fills out the form and goes out onto the back porch for a smoke. It is just dark and the field lights from the nearby high school are on because it is a Friday night in the fall and there’s a game. The neighbor’s dog can be heard rummaging through leaves on the other side of the fence. The cool air is nice and relaxing and Denise reflects that she has always gotten by and she will continue to get by.
In the spare room in the basement Mike has thrown himself face-first onto the unmade bed that will be his tonight. He is sprawled out like a toy dropped on the floor. He is so mad he is clenching his fists and he makes noises into the muffling pillow. He remembers his girlfriend, who hasn’t visited him or talked to him for seven months, though to him these months are uncounted and uncountable. The bed and pillow smell like dust and damp basement. The water heater and plumbing are in the closet that has the padlock on it in the room. Whenever it turns on there is a clang and a whoosh followed by creaking noises, and it is bothersome through the long hours of the night. Sometimes a clang will cause him to leap right out of bed from dead sleep and he won’t know where he is but his heart is racing and he thinks he hears noises, and sometimes the bone in his jaw hurts.
He stays like this and drifts in and out of sleep until Denise’ yell from upstairs jolts him awake. He listens. He waits to know, as he has been trained. He stays low on the bed and waits to know what’s going on. He hears the call again.
Mike gets out of bed, swinging his legs over the edge and stands slowly, a little wobbly with sleep and his headache. It’s worse now that he slept a little but has not slept enough, throbbing with the pulse of his heart. He goes down the basement hallway and looks into the laundry room to see the Great Value brand detergent from Wal-Mart on the shelf, and something about it horrifies him, but he doesn’t know exactly why. He wants to lash out against it, he wants to throw it, but he does not. He passes by the staff desk and looks at what’s there as if gathering information on an enemy–there’s the calendar, the lamp, the black monitor…Then he trudges up the stairs into the brighter living room.
Denise waits by the cabinet in the dining area. She is already holding his pillbox.
“Take your time, why don’t ya,” she says.
She has a glass of water. Mike opens his hand and she dumps the tablet into his palm. He throws it into his mouth and swallows without the water, but he takes a drink afterward just because.
“Are we friends, Denise?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” she says. “Are we?”
He doesn’t know how to answer.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Denise. Did you…Did you write an I.R? Did you write an I.R, Denise?
“I wrote an I.R, Mike.”
“I’ll be good. Please don’t write an I.R.”
“I already wrote it, Mike. It’s done.”
“Oh Jesus,” he says. “Fuck! Help me out, Denise. Help me out.”
“It’s done, Mike.”
“Huh!” he huffs and he throws a tantrum. “Fine! Fine! Go right ahead. I wish I died in Afghanistan! There I said it. I wish I fuckin’ died. I said it. Go to hell, Denise.”
And he goes downstairs to the waiting room, to sleep or to not, down the stairs into the dark, this man who has been destroyed like the lost Buddhas of Bamiyan.