A few weeks later, my mom called. I stepped off the ladder and set down my brush, “Hey.”
“Hi honey, how’s packing going?”
I looked at the half painted walls and the boxes stacked in the center of the room, “I’m getting there.”
“Good. I emptied out the trailer so we’ll have plenty of room for all your things.” My mother had a trailer packed full of trade show equipment for her Multi-Pure booth. Most weekends she hauled it to various craft fairs and stock shows and sold water filters to unsuspecting gawkers. Now she was going to use it to move me over the mountains. It would be the perfect ending to my book. “Do you think you’ll set up in Noelle’s old room or the guest bedroom?”
“Noelle’s room,” I had always enjoyed the shade from the willow trees in my mother’s back yard. “What time do you think you’ll roll in?”
“That’s what I was calling to discuss,” the tone of her voice changed. It was the sort of sound a boss uses to fire an employee. “I went to church for counseling the other day, and after several hours of prayer I realized that I’m not comfortable with you playing Magic or Dungeons and Dragons while you’re under my roof.”
The camera panned in and zoomed out at the same time, a disorienting, queasy feeling. “What?”
“While you’re living here,” she explained, “you will not be allowed to play those games.”
When I was a kid my parents used to search my room. They weren’t looking for drugs or alcohol. They were looking for comic books, fantasy novels, Magic cards, and Dungeons and Dragons manuals. When they inevitably found them, I had to burn the items and sing worship songs over the ashes; then they forced me to write Bible verses in pencil to cleanse my mind. The fear was that stories and images of magic and violence attracted demons and that, once invited into our home, those demons would cause problems, influencing the behavior of my family. The penance was designed to exorcise Satan’s forces. From a very young age my mother accused me of demonic possession. It was painful, one of my worst memories.
“Are you joking?” My limbs went numb. I began to shake, adolescent wounds torn open once again. “I’m moving home for you.”
“That includes on line versions of those games.”
I could hear the piety in her voice. She was helping me. It was for my own good.
“Mom,” the rage began to boil, “you can’t do this. You can’t change the rules at the last second.”
“You’re moving into my home. You will live by my rules.”
A terrified, moaning roar welled up inside. “Fuuuuuuuuuuck.” And suddenly I was a helpless; little kid, unable to defend himself, subjected to the tyranny of his parents’ beliefs. I threw my phone across the room. The plastic casing popped and the battery fell out. I shoved the ladder against the wall, then kicked a box full of books. “She did it again,” I said to the half-painted walls, and cleaning supplies. “She did it again.”
I put my phone back together. It was a cheap piece of crap, which meant you could throw it or drop it without doing much damage.
“I broke my lease!” I yelled when my mom picked up. “I spent $100 that I don’t have on paint, and I’ve been cleaning for days!”
“Nathan,” my mother’s voice was cold and uncaring, “I will not have those things in my house.”
“You have to tell me that before now!” I shouted. “You have to tell me that when I’m picking apples in a tree in North Dakota.”
“Nathan, I never—”
“—What the fuck is wrong with you!” Thirty two years we’d been together and still she was punishing me. My book— the perfect ending to my book— ruined because my mom was afraid of fallen angels.
“Nathan, if you’ll just—”
“—Fuck you!” I shouted. “Fuck you forever. We are done, you worthless cunt.”
Gollum jumped around, giggling, and gleeful. “Kill her!” He hissed. “Kill her with your words.”
“I hope you die!” I yelled into the phone. “On the operating table, naked and alone.” But she was invincible. I had seen her turn aside the armies of her entire family, pressing on despite their scorn, bolstered by righteousness. She would never understand how bad it hurt. Comic books, Magic cards, Dungeons and Dragons: these things were more than toys. They were me. I slammed my phone into the ground, again and again until the battery fell out and the signal disconnected.
“Are you alright?” There was a knock on the door, and a head popped in. It was Christine, my neighbor with the big tits. I looked up, shirtless, covered in paint, my face contorted in rage. “What happened?” She stepped inside.
“My mom,” I shook my head. How can you explain the past? “She went to counseling and they told her I can’t live with her if I play Magic.” It sounded petty, the words and my reaction.
Christine came in to the middle of the room and sat on my bed. “How did she get that from counseling?”
“Christian counseling,” I tried to explain. “They think it attracts demons.”
Christine laughed, “I’m sorry,” she covered her mouth. It was OK. The entire situation was ridiculous. “Is there anything I can do?”
I moved from my knees to my butt and began putting my phone back together. “Do you own property in Grand Junction?”
“I own 5 properties,” she smiled sarcastically, “and three of them happen to be in Grand Junction.”
I laughed. All summer Christine had been there, helping in any way she could. When I was watching my grandma die she collected my mail. When I was crazy she made me dinner. More recently, she had been helping me clean and paint. The poor girl was in love, and there was nothing either of us could do about it.
“What do I do?” I looked around at the boxes and cleaning supplies.
“I don’t know,” Christine crossed her legs, “you’ll think of something.”
I snapped the casing into place and turned my phone on, letting it cycle through the start up melody. When the signal tower hit full bars, I called Marcus.
“Good news,” my big friend answered, “I’m looking at a dog.” Marcus was always happy when animals were around.
“My mom kicked me out,” I said miserably.
He laughed his booming laugh, “That was fast. I always figured you’d move in with me.”
“I don’t have any money,” I stared at the ground, embarrassed to admit such a thing in front of Christine.
“I thought you were teaching art at the college,” Marcus snapped his fingers, “C’mere boy! C’mere! That’s a good boy!”
“Girl,” someone corrected him on the other end.
“That’s a good girl.”
“I don’t start until fall,” the situation was bleak. My mom had really fucked me.
“Don’t worry about it,” his voice was easy and smooth. “I’ve got you.”
“What’s wrong with that woman?” I wondered out loud.
“She’s a behemoth,” Marcus answered my rhetorical question.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I hung up and looked at Christine, “Still feel like painting?”
I cut in the edges and Christine rolled the walls. We talked about nothing and everything, listening to music as we worked our way around the room. “Hey,” she shut off the music. I turned and looked down from my place atop the ladder. She was standing next to a stretch of unpainted wall. She had scrawled I like you in giant white letters over the blue. I didn’t know how to respond to the hopeful look in her eye. All summer she had helped, lending me books, introducing me to Bukowski, driving me around, playing Catan; and I, in my selfishness, had manipulated her love, had used it for my benefit, knowing that this moment would come.
I stared at her for a beat, my head almost touching the ceiling, up on that ladder, “I like you, too.” Then I turned and continued painting.
Love is a tightrope, stretched across an ocean that’s filled with lava and sharks. Most people try to cross it. Few survive. Christine hit play on the stereo and painted over the words she’d written on my wall.
• • •
In the morning, my mom drove her trailer across the mountains and helped me move. I guess she felt bad about the way things went down. Robbie and Christine showed up to haul boxes and then we said goodbye, hugging awkwardly in the alley behind my apartment. My mother and I drove across the mountains in separate cars. When we got to Grand Junction, Marcus was waiting in front of his apartment.
“How was the drive?” He smiled as my mom opened the trailer doors.
I didn’t answer. I was too angry to speak in front of the woman who had given me birth. The two of us made short work of the contents of the trailer. My mom stood nearby watching us work, the outcast once again. When the trailer was unloaded she left without saying goodbye.
“You gonna forgive her?” Marcus sat down on his couch.
“Never,” I shook my head, anger burning like murder.
“Good.” He’d been around for awhile, and seen my mom do similar things before.
“Why is life so terrible?” I sat down, the stack of boxes sagging under my weight.
“It’s not,” Marcus was an optimist. We made quite the team.
“You’re going to die,” my shoulders slumped, “and the worms will eat you and everyone you know, and along the way you’ll be cold and hungry and afraid, and then darkness forever.”
Marcus looked at me, at his tragic friend riddled with Crohn’s disease and sadness. “Go Broncos,” he smiled.
“Go Broncos.” I held up my fist.
We both began to laugh.
• • •
My new room was too small for all my things and the carpet was stained from years of use. Sadly, it was still the nicest place I’d ever lived. The corners of the walls were rounded instead of sharp and the tile in the bathroom was clean and unbroken. There was even a big window with a nice ledge for Scott.
“Ach!” The brave little bonsai spread his branches as I centered him in his new home. “This’ll be a fine place to die!”
I petted his little leaves, the last of my bonsai, a true survivor.
“How do you like your new home?” I asked MP. I’d set him up in the bathroom. Normally I connected his hose to the kitchen sink, but the faucet in this place was fancy with a swivel arm that had several modes and I didn’t want him getting in the way.
“It’s pretty nice,” the old cowboy looked at the clean bathtub and large mirror. “The chrome’s as bright as can be and the sink’s got a real nice drain.
“She sure does,” I laughed.
“Where you heading?” The water filter asked as I turned off the lights.
“To Jeromy’s. He said I can store the rest of my things in his basement.”
“What a nice feller,” MP smiled.
That night, I went for a walk. My steps took me down sleepy streets and along the highway, eventually climbing the steep slope towards the Mesa. As the terrain changed from pavement to rock, my appearance began to shift. My eyes turned red with bloodshot pupils. My skin grew pale as fallen snow. Runes traced scars across meridians of energy and my clothes tore as muscles bulged beneath the fabric. A red blade appeared in my hand. I drug it absently along the ground, leaving a trail of scorched earth behind. The path became a dry stream bed with a sandy bottom and the sword’s furrow changed to molten liquid that cooled to black obsidian. My enemy was here. I’d seen it when they placed my grandma in the ground. He was waiting for me, for our final confrontation.
The wind picked up as I paused beside a gnarled tree. In the distance a narrow stone spire pierced the velvet sky. Rocky mesas loomed around me, giant tables of stone that rose at disorienting angles, as if the world itself was lurching drunken and insane. I walked towards the tower, towards that needle of rock that jutted above the brush and snakes and sleeping lizards. It was flat on top, ending abruptly as if God’s toenail clippers had snipped it clean. I wound my way through dark canyons until I reached the base, then climbed it quickly, as if every movement was part of a story. The wind began to howl, currents of air swirling around me like banshees in the night. I reached the top. The moon hung low and bright, a lazy bloated thing.
“Sauron!” I yelled, and the wind stopped, obeying my unspoken command. The word echoed off the rocks, amplified, distorted and fading. “Stand and face me, coward!” I raised my magic blade, its surface burning with vile intent.
But Sauron did not come.
“Do you remember what you said?” I turned, searching the sky, pivoting on that narrow circle. “In the bathroom as I lay dying; do you remember? You said you wanted to live.” My words barked furious. “Show yourself!”
The blade pulsed— bright then dim— in time with my breath, as if my heart were connected to the flames. But Sauron did not appear.
“It ends tonight!” I slashed the air with my sword, daring the sorcerer to show himself. “You need me,” I smiled maniacally. “To help you live. Why else keep me alive?” Madness glinted in my eyes. “You need me.” Then, because I knew that it was true, I stepped off the edge.
The all-seeing eye appeared, hovering in the darkness, his flames as bright as any sun.
I looked up at the creature, my fall arrested at the last possible instant.
“I am here.”
I had come to kill him, to leap from the cliff and stab my blade, destroying both of us forever. Instead, a tear traced a single line down my ragged cheek. “Why?” I whispered.
“To make something more,” his voice was deep and old, as old as time itself.
“You took everything,” the blade continued to pulse, “my health, sanity, family— even my mom. I have nothing left.”
“No.” The orb hovered stately, beginning to pulse in time with my sword. “I gave you everything.”
I looked down at my body, at the metaphor of the thing I had become. “Who are you?”
“Pain.” The word was final and certain. “I am the storm in the mountains, the death of a child, the hunger in your belly, and the lonesome ache in the heart of the creator.”
“Why?” I asked again, but I was no longer talking about myself.
“So that bridges and houses, airplanes and wine, poems with music, and endless sacks of grain. So that universes with stars, and the deep creatures buried in your cells, all of it desperately trying to escape my grasp. The fire burns and creation howls and in this struggle new ideas come screaming into existence.”
And in that moment I realized that I had already brought Sauron to life. He lived inside my story. You’re reading about him now. “I will destroy you,” I pointed my sword at him. “I will burn my memoir and cast it into darkness. No one will read these words.”
“Why?” The creature asked. “You have turned your pain into something beautiful. Destroying it will only make me stronger.”
“There has to be another way.”
“From sickness, pain, and death, your book was born. It is the same with everything. All of creation toils endlessly for comfort, and in this desperate flight from me, the universe discovers life and joy and meaning.” The being that existed before all things paused a moment to let his words sink in. “Even God was not content and in His loneliness separated day from night.”
“My story is…” I began to understand.
“Another piece,” the fiery orb dipped lower. “As are trains and banks, paintings, doorbells, and guns. And I will have it all. Every story, innovation, family, and song; every desperate attempt to ease life’s suffering.”
“Why?” I shook my head, not wanting it to be true.
“So that some day, dear child,” Sauron began to fade, the heat of his form diminishing, “beings you cannot imagine will unlock the secret shape of everything, and in that moment of total understanding, give birth to something new.”
He disappeared, the dark made discontent, and I, on my knees on a spire made of stone, continued to play my part.