Friday, September 16, 2011

On the road!

When I was a boy I lived on an island. Perhaps you've heard of it? It's called Manhattan. Yeah, I'm one of those big roughing it types. My name is Alex, and I'm nobody of interest, but I'm working on that, as I have been for seven years now. I reckon that's why I'm writing this. I love writing. It is a passion and I've got to follow my passions. Travel is another. So I'm sort of going on a journey, but I'm not going alone.

Hi, I'm Cenobia. I've got a bit of a weird name, especially compared to something like Alex, but it's not made up. Feel free to call me Cen! Alex and I have been friends since we were ten. We had a lot in common. We lived in the same apartment building,went to the same school and liked the same cartoons and music. I was such a tomboy I could keep up with him. There was something else we had in common though! Matt Dickinson.

Alex again, this is my coauthor, my friend Cenobia. Tomorrow we're going to pile into a rental car with around eight bucks worth of cheap lunch meat in a cooler and bread in a bag and and drive across the country. We're going to California to find Matt and admittedly all we have is a six year old address and his name. But I wanted to start this little blogumentary with an explanation why, and bear with me since it's not going to be a short story and I'll probably still be writing some of it when we get on the road, in between charging my battery at rest stops and such.

Cen and I grew up in an apartment in the LES. When we were about ten years old there was a boy who was about sixteen just down the hall from Cen and I (she was my neighbor.) He had a hard life and you could tell. Hell we were kids and we could tell. He had that look about him of someone who had given up and though I didn't see it so well then because I was sort of blinded by the big ball of whatever that he was, he was most definitely alcoholic. He dropped out of school that particular year and each day around noon he could be seen in Central Park with a guitar around his neck and a guitar case at his feet.

I don't think the money went toward food and I know it didn't go to his mother who would yell every night about what a lazy no good bastard he was and how his father must have been the smart one for running away and how he was the source of everything wrong in the world, not her life, the world. Yeah, she was what I would call unquestioningly a psychotic bitch. My mom tells me that she knew someone in a local clinic who more or less flat out told her that Matt's mom was literally psychotic, though in what capacity I simply couldn't tell you.

As for me, I went to school where instead of listening to my lessons I was invariably reading a comic or writing a short little story that would inevitably get buried and lost. Apparently my teacher had never heard of that Somethings Inside The Text Book That Isn't Textbook trick. A publishing agency downtown had decided to announce a contest where they would publish stories written by ten children in the area and I was determined to win the contest and get my name and my story in the book.

Most days Cen and I would catch a bus to Central Park and meet Matt at the Bethesda Fountain, in the Bethesda Arcade or at Cleopatra's Needle. Though often he was at neither of these places and we had to find him. It was actually hard to tell where he would be any given day so we got talented at finding the quickest routes between major tourist attractions. I remember I'd always bring him a bottle of water and he'd always hand me the cost right out of his case or on bad days from the leftovers of the day before whatever the situation with his mother I think he looked at us as little siblings and never tried to take advantage of us.

As that year began to progress Cen and I had I falling out early on. Just a little argument that we each blew out of proportion as kids do. But what will probably surprise you guys is that we continued to visit him together each day and we would always be met by Cen's father after he got off work. My mother was a single mother like Matt's so I guess I took to Cen's father as my own father around that time too.

Some time shortly after the start of school that year I was sitting on the wall of Bethesda Fountain with Cen and Matt as he took a break. I remember that day I had thrown away my second attempt at a story for the competition and Cen and I were still fighting.

“I think I'm just gonna stop,” I told him, referring to the contest. He had the bottle of water raised half to his mouth and he raised an eyebrow at me but was distracted immediately after as someone who had been listening to him play came up and dropped what looked to be a dollar into his case. He thanked the man who waved a hand dismissively and then walked clean away. When I looked from this man to Matt, I saw a mixed look on his face, something between relief and distaste. I don't think that what he did was easy for him but I don't know that he could come up with an alternative.

My own problems sort of paled a bit in that one second and then a moment later the look was gone and he was taking a drink as if none of it had happened. Cen immediately changed the subject. I was feeling no less down but I was immediately distracted by her words, even if I didn't intend to talk to her. Matt noticed pretty quick that we were still fighting and began redirecting the conversation to force us to interact. I don't know whether he was doing it for our own good or to mess with us.

I was upset so I didn't help his cause and neither did Cen and after a few minutes he had to go back to playing for a couple of hours more. When he did we stuck around like usual but that day something was different. I don't know what it was but there was something more to the music. He was playing things nearly everyone could recognize, albeit in acoustic versions. There was just something more to it though. Despite our arguing, I looked over at Cen and I could tell she felt it to. We stayed longer than usual and were a bit late meeting her father for the trip home.

Even right now I am completely confused as to what changed that day because the day, at least the part we had seen was of no major significance. Nothing important had happened and the thing was that this changed remained and it grew and what started out as something beautiful turned really really dark.

Cen here! I'm not too good with words like Alex but I'll go ahead and take it over while he drives. He's only got about an hour's worth of battery left before we stop and charge it up and I take a nap anyway so I'll do my best. Like Alex said, Matt started changing that day. But it didn't really effect us majorly. When we got home, he went to his apartment and dad and I went to ours. Usually we invited him over for a snack after school because his mom worked late but he didn't come that day.

Matt came back to the building about three hours after us and he smelled like you would expect a day of standing outside and sweating would make a teenager smell so the first thing he did after waving to me in the hall was get in the shower. After that he came over and talked to my father like he almost always did. I think they bonded over being musicians and, like with Alex, Matt had never had a dad. I'm glad that my dad helped him.

Matt left the apartment at one point as it was beginning to get dark and said that he was getting Alex and going down to the little basketball court next to the building. Sometimes my parents would let me go with them when they did that but only if it was early enough. So that night I really just looked out at them through the window once or twice but kept myself occupied practicing on the little violin my dad had gotten me for my birthday. I couldn't play the guitar like Matt or my dad but I liked music.

The next day I was feeling a bit guilty that Alex and I were fighting at least around Matt so on the way to school that morning I told him we should try to act like friends around Matt. Though I wasn't saying it I was stubbornly insisting that we weren't still friends. Alex sort of just agreed but didn't say anything else to me all day. I saw him in class that day I felt a bit bad because I could tell he wasn't trying to write at all. I didn't think he was serious about giving up but was starting to think otherwise.

That afternoon we went back out to Central Park and had to do a bit of searching to find Matt, he was playing near one of the northern entrances to the park so we walked a while and it was really quiet. Awkward. Matt looked about to drop when we found him and it seemed like he'd had a hell of a day. He mentioned something about a heckler and someone chasing him through the park but really didn't explain it. Alex and I tried to seem friendly enough but it was kind of rough and I think he caught on to that but he didn't say anything about it.

He sat with us for almost an hour that day, which I guess meant he was really tired because he usually just rested for about ten minutes and then went back to playing. When he looked at his watch we both sort of snapped back to reality and realized how late it was. We had been having fun talking to him like always. He was really like the big brother both of us needed and he took that seriously even if that was the only thing he took seriously.

The next day was Saturday which meant no school and as usual, no Matt. He was gone before I went out to the tiny playground and we didn't see him until Sunday night where he came back with an obvious hangover, obvious even to me. We invited him for dinner when it was clear his mom was gonna yell and scream at him all night. Since we were already eating with Alex and his mother it wasn't that big of a change. Mary, Alex's mom, brought some food over and my mom and her fixed it together while Matt and my dad talked to Alex and I about music, which was just about something that ruled their lives—my dad worked at an instrument shop, after all.

Matt acted a bit weird though and not because of the hangover. He would talk about wanting to stop playing music but not being able to. When dad asked why he'd sort of shrug the question off and say that he was just starting to have a hard time making money out at the park. Dad made some comment about the economy and Matt assured him it wasn't that. I remembered what he had said about someone chasing him around the park and thought maybe that had something to do with it.

We didn't realize it that night but that was the last time we'd have dinner with Matt

Alright, I'm back. It's getting dark now so we're stopping at a rest stop on our side of Cleveland, OH... we sort of got a late start because we'd been so excited to get going we hadn't really planned everything out right. Anyway....

That next Monday things seemed to go back to normal. At least, as normal as things could be when Cen and I were still fighting. But at least it had evolved from the not talking stage. We found Matt under the roof of the Bethesda Arcade, which was good for him since it was raining. He came and stood up against one wall with us, had a bottle of water like usual, but he wasn't talking anywhere near as much .We tried to keep things light by talking about our days, only the funny things like what kid had fallen asleep in class or who REALLY sucked at math as bad as I did.

But he seemed distracted and only nodded on the odd occasion. What was most disturbing was that again today he was resting longer than usual but he seemed to be so completely gone that he kept raising the empty bottle of water to his lips and didn't react even when nothing came out. Finally after almost an hour and a half Cen's dad came and found us. I think he was upset we were late again but the moment he saw Matt and realized what was going on he seemed to forget.

“What's up, Matt?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. I saw Matt jerk to attention and smile briefly.

“Hey Mr. A,” Matt greeted him (Cen's last name is Alvarez.) “Not much, just a bit tired. I guess we lost track of time again, huh?”

“Sure did,” he told Matt, before turning to us. “Tell ya what, we'll stick around and give Matt a ride home when he's done, alright?” I nodded quickly and Cen followed suite, glad for an excuse to hear Matt play as he picked up his guitar again. While Cen and her father were talking, I watched Matt place the strap around his neck and then he turned to me with a serious look on his face.


“Yeah?” I asked him.

“Have you ever seen a man in a suit following you and Cen through the forest?” I shook my head and emphatically told him I hadn't. “Well,” he said as he stepped away from the wall, “If you ever do, run away. If you think you're close to me, come to me, if not, run for the nearest entrance, understand?” I nodded, really worried about what he was talking about. Maybe this was the guy who had chased him? “Promise me.”

I promised.

I saw Mr. Alvarez looking over at us curiously but he didn't ask anything more and that was probably because at that point Matt went back to playing. It was the first time that Cen's father had heard him play since what Cen and I call 'The Change.” Even now Mr. Alvarez describes it as 'the addition of emotion to music.' Apparently at the time he had taken it as a sign that Matt was going to be a really good musician.

We did the exact same thing Tuesday but by Wednesday were back to our normal schedule. Matt's watch went off about twenty minutes after we got there and he told us to scat, but stopped me before I could get away and told me to remember my promise.

I was sort of scared by the way he was acting and I confused Cen looking over my shoulder the whole way to the exit.

Thursday was the same as Wednesday, there was no explanation for the way Matt was acting but he was a private person and definitely wouldn't have told us kids what was upsetting him. Friday was a half day at school. I don't know why, maybe it was just to help us get used to returning to school. Either way that meant Cen and I could spend a lot of time with Matt. That was the very last time we met Matt at the park. They let us out at noon and we walked to the nearest bus stop like always. It took a while to get through the traffic and get to an entrance to the park. I had bought a water while waiting on the bus but I also bought one for me and Cen out of my allowance.

We walked through the park like normal. Tourists and locals alike wandered through the more populated areas, some of the open lawns were full of picnickers... it was a REALLY good day for that. We were a bit irritated that it was hard to find Matt, having tried all the usual places and figured we would have to walk to Cleopatra's Needle this time. It was rather out of the way and rarely got crowds of people so it was sort of a sign that he had been beaten out by other people for the good spots.

The path we took to get there was deserted, not to mention there were a lot of trees along it. For the first time it felt spooky to me so I moved a bit quicker, making Cen complain and rush to keep up. We heard a rattling cough ahead and I hurried toward it. Another person would be a welcome sight. When I got closer to it I saw who it was. Matt was doubled over against the tree and when he coughed it was a wet, raspy cough.

“Matt,” Cen called. His head snapped up and a pair of slitted but hazy eyes met mine.

“Matt, what's going on?” I asked. He was holding his guitar case tightly.

“Go away,” he responded. “Get out of here... run for an exit.” Confused, I moved closer. “Stop,” he commanded, like an order. He never gave orders unless one of us was about to do something stupid and get hurt. Over his shoulder I saw something in the trees, a flash of something dark and then I heard something like a twig snapping.

“It's him,” he said quietly, noticing where I was looking. He walked right up to me and handed his guitar case to me. I could tell from how things rattled that there was money and his guitar in there. “You promised.” I grabbed Cen's right hand in my left and because of the look on his face, I ran like hell itself was after me.

“Don't stop writing,” Matt called after me. Which sounded like nonsense to me, but that was only because I didn't know what was coming.

Matt never came back to the apartment.

We called the police that night and I told them everything I knew and I could tell Cen was hurt that I kept it from her. Admittedly I didn't have much to tell them at all anyway. They spent two days combing through Central Park, and only now does it occur to me they were probably looking for a body. They didn't find anything and I know the search passed to friends of his and I listened to the horrible things his mom told the police about him and I made no bones about telling them she was lying, that she hurt him and that she had never been nice to him as long as I could remember. When Mr. Alverez grabbed my shoulder and stepped up beside me, agreeing, I felt really happy. Maybe they'd be able to find and help Matt.

Nothing ever turned up. About a year later I got a letter in the mail. It was short and sweet and unsigned.

I hope you're taking care of yourself and aren't fighting with Cen anymore. I'm okay Alex. Don't show anyone but Cen and one last thing: don't give up, ever.”

Under that line of text was an address in San Francisco. This was seven years ago. I showed it to Cen but we didn't need a signature to know who it was from but we knew something else as well. We were eleven and couldn't go to California.

But we remembered his advice and tried not to fight as much and as we got older it sort of evolved past a friendship to what we are now. There's not really any label we've ever put on it but we are together. We kept the address and we kept his guitar, along with the eight dollars and twenty-seven cents inside of the case. It's in the back seat now on the floor board opposite of the cooler. I haven't won any contests and the only place anything I've ever written has been displayed is in a tiny little magazine for teen writers, just one little piece about Matt. Even so I feel like I've at least not given up on writing and Cen still plays music. She's even picked up the guitar herself which has made her father happy.

So what is this blog going to be about?

We're going to find Matt and thank him because there's so much in our life that was touched by him even after he ran away or got chased away or whatever that fucked up day in the forest was about. Even if he set it all up and left... he obviously cared. He left us with that guitar he loved and a letter that had his address in it.

Now I'm going to shut my eyes for a bit... and we'll just see what happens.  

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