The brightness of the sun filled every crevice of the street and its homes with a false sense of warmth. The early morning, on this, the 28th of September, eased into its own as all of its predecessors had. But slowly born, this new day came with company, as a wind with fall’s first chill crept in with the morning light. It scattered the crinkled and browned leaves that lay dead of old age and slowly worked its way through the window and under the bed covers of Frank Hicks, who lay on the back end of his customary drunken repose. The morning chill seemed to do him some good, as it made some of his limbs twitch a little, giving sign of life.
Having met the cold first, his feet flexed, and then eased, and his toes curled as his knees retreated into his chest. While his body reacted to the cold, his eyes turned and wavered wildly under their lids, immersed in the dreams created just behind them. His heart paced steadily, save the occasional break, mirroring the soft breathing that released his whiskey breath into the air: a scent that the bed corner opposite the bedroom door was so accustomed to. As the goose bumps from the chill paved cobblestones on his arms, giving them and his back the appearance of a long colonial street, his fingers fluttered in their position off the bed. They moved from his limp hand, which hung a hair’s width away from a bottle standing upright on the carpeted floor, surrounded by a few crumbs. The bottle was short and made of thick glass. The label on it was red, with some non-distinct text, and was empty, save a few remaining drops.
His moving fingers met the brim of the bottle, and his eyes, still fluttering, shot open. He wormed a little forward from his position, to see what his hand was touching. From his head’s placement directly above the bottle, he could see directly through it and to the bottom. He squinted his eyes to see what was down there a little better. When he did, his eyes unstressed and closed again, and he smiled- almost laughed. His eyes stopped moving and his fingers became as limp as the rest of his hand. He closed his eyes shut. And he was dead.
It is the cool evening on the 27th of September, and Frank is a picture of revelry. He jumps in drunken exuberance at the sight of every familiar face, and speaks every word with a distinction of eminence. His face is matted and worn from cigarette smoking, fist fights with his father, and now the constant laughing; a fairly recent phenomenon, his smile didn't quite match his face: his cheeks showed much resistance to rising, and his bare teeth gave the impression of a snarl. The lightness and fluff of the expressions around him seemed much more practiced, but whatever potholes there were in his fitting in are filled and patched with alcohol: the base coat of preliminary beers, the major fill-ins of rum with coke upon rum with coke, and to be sure that there weren't any doubts, he threw back liquor shot, after shot, after shot. He found comfort in the numbness he felt in waves through his body. The familiarity of the subtle changes in perception hit him with particular potency this night. But there was definite comfort in this familiarity. He felt he had done this before, perhaps on another night in the past few weeks. He would often go out with these people, under similar conditions, to consummate their friendship.
By eleven o'clock, it would seem that Frank had grown up in a happy home, with a happy dog that barked and wagged its tail in a happy way. He seemed to have had a happy dad, who would say things like “buck up, son, you'll get 'em next time” and “anyone home?” every time he came home from work. He could very well have had a happy mother who made sure he eased into his dreams with a cup of warm milk and a gentle pat on his forehead. And yes, he may have even had a happy older brother, who'd call him 'sport' and 'little bro,' and would play-wrestle with him on a few special Saturday afternoons. They would probably have all lived in a happy house, surrounded by an unchipped white fence and very green grass.
But this disguise only really suffices for moments captured in the pictures taken, or for immediate glances at him. Frank couldn’t really play their role completely, because their scripts weren’t the same. And every time he tried to read one of their lines, it sounded forced and disingenuous. The rest of them shared what they felt, and related to one another. They all looked at each other and reveled in the privacy of the little world they created for themselves. He watched them from his own space. Listening to them, he liked to think that he was on an island in their world. So he laughed when they laughed, shook his head when they shook their heads, and shared in the moments of silence, thinking of something to talk about next. But he never really did talk; he just quietly smoked another cigarette, taking each drag with as much a semblance of dignity as he could muster, always mimicking their movements a moment late.
Yet he was not completely invisible to them.
“Those last few shots were tough to get down,” someone said, in Frank’s direction.
“Totally,” said Frank, interjecting after a slight hesitation. He extended the o to add some sort of emphasis. He even raised his eyebrows and stood on his toes slightly to add more emotion. There was a momentary silence in which Frank saw Kevin’s eyes look at him with judgment, attuned to a sense that everyone around Frank shared but he. This sense afforded them with the knowledge that Frank did not really belong there, that he was a crooked portion of an otherwise smooth circle.
And as those eyes of Kevin began to turn, Frank felt the familiar comfort hit him again, but as the strongest feeling of déjà vu.
And he saw himself as a child, lying to his friends about scrapes and bruises, so-called run-ins with doors and clumsiness. He felt the distance between the other children, wanting to be a part of them, but not knowing how, or if he could. He heard the gravelly voice of a man who looked much like Frank does now, shouting through the otherwise calm night.
You good for nothing!
And in that same instance, the familiar pain overcame Frank, and he became aware of how different he sounded from Kevin and the others, and his self consciousness began to sink in.
“Totally- what a stupid response,” he thought to himself. But just as he made to speak once more, the voice rang in his head.
And Frank retracted, and decided he had had enough for the evening, and that maybe it was time for him to go to bed. So he left, once again overcome with déjà vu.
The train stampeded along, altogether seemingly motionless, save the gentle left-to-right rhythmic bobbing. With every sway of the car, Frank felt his weight shift, and with every ding noise came a disinterested declaration. Frank’s hands and feet were a bit numb still, and he couldn’t really hear anything. He hadn’t eaten all day, so the alcohol was not agreeable with his system and the left-to-right bobbing threatened his throwing up. A few people sat around him. There was a small group of female friends, all Asian and young, who looked like they had been talking for a while now. A pink-toned man sat behind them, stewing about something, clutching his cell phone in hand, murmuring to himself.
Frank slipped in and out of consciousness. It wasn’t as easy a transition as sleep usually is, where you only know you slept once you’ve woken up. Frank could tell when sleep was being forced on him. The train seemed emptier now, a little quieter. The 3 Asian friends stopped talking. One girl, the one with the black coat and pretty hair, slept with her glasses on, and her mouth slightly ajar. She looked a bit like Ray Charles in mid song, Frank thought. Another, the prettiest one, who had a few acne scars, had her head against the window, so that you could see her large, attractive eyes come through the hurrying underground scenery outside. The third girl, the plumpest of the three, had the misfortune of being both awake and restless. Her hefty knees jumped up and down in restless anticipation. There throbbed behind them a swelling anger, emanating from the pinkish man, now in the middle of a telephone call. In an argument, apparently, he strained with much difficulty to keep his voice down, emphasizing the middle word when he said, ‘you don’t know,’ and ‘you are yelling.’ It must be difficult, Frank thought, to balance anger with having courtesy for the other people on the train. The struggle gently shook the fat around the man’s neck.
Frank saw all of them, and watched with envy. How easy it was for them, Frank thought, to just be and to share what was in their head, and not come across as unusual.
The stains on the window were shown on the seat opposite him. The moving pipes and decades-old graffiti on the outside cut the light, so the empty seat blinked at him. The bench seat was occupied by copper pennies, a shirt tag wedged between the seat, and an old, disgruntled looking man; they all looked well travelled and unwanted, but more so the man. His stone face looked matted and worn. It was etched with many lines that showed his age, like the inside of a tree. He had bags under his eyes, and seemed to not have shaven for a few days, but his eyes seemed very focused and concentrated. His hair was thinning a bit around the top of his head, but it did not at all lose its color. Frank knew he shouldn’t have, but he couldn’t help but stare at the man, who though shabby-looking as far as facial upkeep is concerned, wore a suit. The material was silky smooth, with an almost profound blackness that gave it the depth of deep space, and allowed for the red tie he was wearing to pop with added brilliance. He finally looked at Frank.
Frank read from his friends’ script:
“Nice night out.” He gave the man a very stupid looking smile, through almost red eyes, and a sideways mouth.
The man said nothing.
He merely looked at Frank for another few seconds, before pulling a short bottle out of his inner coat pocket. The label on it matched the man’s tie almost perfectly. The thickness of the glass magnified the golden contents of the bottle swirling around with the bobbing train. Frank was enamored by the color and the movement. The man saw his interest and looked pleased, so he gave him the bottle.
Frank cracked the seal open as he twisted the cap. The man looked at him with an expression of complete disinterest, but spoke with a clear voice that did not match his appearance.
“You know it’s much easier to change an ending than it is to go back and fix the beginning.” Frank looked a bit puzzled. “But then, there’s a much simpler solution than all that.” He wheezed a little, sounding almost as if he whispered a sob, and looked down by his knees before looking back up at Frank. “You take care of yourself.” And Frank nodded off to sleep.
Frank woke up at the last stop, where he gets off, and found a fortune cookie in the seat next to where the old man was sitting. The package was unopened, so he took the cookie for the walk home, and also found the bottle in his inside pocket.
The walk home was as familiar as the rest of the night had been. But what seemed like a laid out path before Frank was disrupted by the man’s words. So Frank began to aberrate from his usual route, and he walked off towards the pier to sit down. He considered all of the drinking he had done, and why he felt both required and entitled to it. And the clear voice of the old man cut through his thoughts: “…Change an ending…”
And all at once the nagging feelings of déjà vu suddenly departed. Everything seemed fresh; this cloud was alleviated and he saw avenues before him, possibilities that never existed before.
The gravelly voice interrupted once more. Its loud, overbearing tone filled Frank’s head, drowning out the clear voice that had only a second ago resonated so well, and leaving room for little else. His thoughts became foggier once more, and the voice began now to ring, bringing back more pictures of childhood. And as the avenues began to close, and the possibilities became more and more estranged, all Frank saw before him was his route home. And so, needing an out from the still ringing voice that reverberated off of the many walls in the many chambers of his mind, he grabbed at the bottle the old man had given him, and the cookie that he found, and opened the seal.
The last of the golden drops that did not remain in the bottle fell from his lips, as he turned to see what his fingers touched. His dangling arm had fallen asleep from being under his torso, and so he found it difficult to pull himself over. He was directly over the bottle, which stood on top of a small, white piece of paper. The glass is thick, and so it enlarged the small type, so that Frank only needed to strain his eyes for a bit to read it.
“The fortune you seek is in another cookie.”
What an odd message, he thought, as he closed his eyes once more.
Hello, my name is Sibu. And, by and large, I was raised by a television.
It wasn’t by design, or through any mode of logic; it was mere happenstance. My parents worked often, and so I spent much of my time in front of the television, hearing the voices that came from it more so than anything else. This went on from early on in life through middle school. I didn’t have any friends whom I saw after school let out, and with the absence of my parents and my sister’s remaining in her room for the entirety of the day, I’d accept the images from the T.V. and movies as my company. And so I continued through life in a similar manner: a spectator that watched, engaged by what passed before me.
Along with the moving pictures, I found that my solitary play times provided much of my company. I knew the toys that I had at the time much longer than I knew many people. And so as I occupied those Saturday afternoons with my toys under the sunlight that shown through my window, I felt some semblance of kinship. It was the same way whenever I drew. Quite often, during and after class, between or during television shows, I drew. I drew what I saw on the television, extensions of story-lines from programs I watched, and scenes that I created in my head. I would only learn later on that it was my early need to tell stories and to be active in the stories I saw. From my solitude, I always wanted to connect with actual people through what I knew: stories.
Though horridly obese, and often dusty, the Panasonic acted as a very accommodating surrogate. If I didn’t like what I saw, it would change. If the voices were too loud, I could lower the volume. I even had a device to control these things remotely. My actual parents weren’t as understanding. In the early portion of my life, my father had a problem with alcohol. He often shouted after he drank, and he drank often. He cursed at my- more or less- 6 year old person, and every word he shouted fell down as punches. It could have been worse. But with what he wanted to release in himself, he succeeded in distancing me from him. There became a dense, unspoken air of fear, where I was afraid to speak lest I enrage him. And it was here that I really began to spend time in front of the television, quietly, seeing the backs of the people I lived with as they passed through the hallways to leave the house.
So, yes, socially, I began a little later in life than others. I had friends in school, but once 3 o’clock came around, I was suddenly the only boy in Yonkers. I believe that a personality is only truly formed in the midst of a bombardment with those around them; I didn’t have any sort of stronghold on who I was as an individual. That process came much, much later than it should have. But before that time, I wanted to be Urkel. I wanted to be Cory Matthews, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. They are an eclectic group, but early in my life, they all kept me company. They were the performers and actors around whom the shows were based. I drew something from these images of people. I gave them a heart that beat behind their pixilated chests. And so with my admiration of their presence and bravado, they gained much greater weight than any image probably should have. But to me they were real, and I wanted to be like them. I wanted an applause of recognition when I entered the room. I wanted to be noticed and to have a tangible effect on people, whether it was joy or admiration, or, most notably, laughter.
I began to try my hardest to make people in class laugh. I wasn’t as brave as Stone Cold Steve Austin, my favorite professional wrestler, but I could be an Urkel-esque sort of silly. And so, at the little six-desk island where we sat, I made faces at those in my immediate area and did imitations of the pointing face of Michael A., a student at the tables by the door who would cry to get Mrs. Gamboli’s attention but would be otherwise rude to the rest of us. I imitated people from the T.V. that we all knew, and relished in our shared knowledge.
Towards the end of elementary school, I began to take notice of the demeanor of the actors I watched, namely older men in film. It’s a weird thing. I said early that I wanted to be younger guys in sitcoms, like Ben Savage(Cory) and Will Smith (Fresh…), but it was more so the love that they received as characters, and the outgoing nature of their actions. And so through humor, I tried to fit in with the kids around me and as such gain the same sort of love. But although I vied for their attention through silliness, there was something about the quiet dignity and suave attitudes of the older actors. When I saw the Godfather for the first time, Marlon Brando’s performance changed my 8-year old feeling about myself. I was usually very reserved and quiet, save the moments I tried to get a laugh in the one-on-one situations. But when there were more eyes to scrutinize me, I spoke softer and used smaller gestures, speaking slower, thinking before I spoke. Seeing the reverence Brando received both on and off screen, I found that to be a viable option. I didn’t have to jump around to be liked. I didn’t have to stub my toe and fall down a flight of steps like Jaleel White (Urkel) to get people to laugh. I began to idolize the suave Sean Connery as James Bond- I can’t express how many times I’d cut my cheek trying to shave after a shower before I had any facial hair.
I never lost interest in what held my attention early in life. My passion for making people laugh manifested largely from my admiration for the characters whom I watched in lieu of having actual human contact. I wanted to tell stories and I wanted to be around people, to learn about myself through my interaction with them, and to engage in some sort of reciprocity.
Now in high school, I began to read short works of fiction, as well as longer prose. I began to write scenes that I would see in my head, situations for characters who materialized in my mind that spoke to me. For the lengthy periods of time that existed as voids during the day, I considered what I could talk about and what people would want to hear me say. I considered what I myself wanted to say and if I had anything to say at all. This is something that is still in the works. I wanted to tell the purest form of story: the truth. I took greater relish in the works of the classics which I now appreciate as the proper vehicles for this: Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Hughes, Twain, and whatever else the Yonkers Public Schools system privileged us.
I continued to draw. Now in my mid=teenage years, having never really pursued my artistic abilities, my talent caught up with my age. In Arnold M. Ludwig’s “Living Backwards,” Ludwig writes:
Even though your cultural mythology supplies you with the major elements and themes for your personal story, the story you eventually enter isn’t always clearly articulated.
So, I began to gravitate towards things that I felt were more acceptable, culturally- especially in the eyes of my parents. And for some time, I repressed my innate urge to express myself through my art, in lieu of engineering and mathematics. Growing up, I showed my mother pictures that I drew that I was particularly fond of. Although she showed some positivity towards drawings I did for projects, there wasn’t any encouragement in art as a whole. When I moved to show her words I had drawn on the side, she ignored them. The pressing issue for her, because, I believe, of the ‘cultural mythology’ that Ludwig speaks of, was mathematics and sciences. And so with my imposed priorities, my talents waned; I was no longer better than my age would suggest: something my teachers would tell me in elementary school. And so at the start of high school I drew less as a medium of connecting with things, and more as a novelty to make those around me laugh; I would, whenever I witnessed an injustice in class that involved my teacher shouting at a friend, draw a caricature of said teacher in a compromising position. Thankfully, I was never caught or, else the teacher’s indifference outweighed my cleverness, but, yes, I steered a bit away from my original authentic needs.
At the same time, during my early teenage years, I began to shift gears a bit in what I saw as a role model. I began to admire older actors, as I had, much more than I had. Namely because of their craft, which provides that they tell stories through their bodies. That is, they display emotions and attitudes and literally embody their passion. I began to see this as a great form of honesty, of truth- something that, to me, is very admirable. To depict scenes and to imbue scenarios and dialogues effectively, they must open themselves up, for good or ill, to the public. They must tap into something that is inside of them in order to reach something authentic for a role. And so with older actors, I saw a genuine mark of this. I saw a truth being told with their performances. And I saw within me the need to comment on things honestly, to be a story teller and to inform others of a perspective they would not have previously considered or been able to fathom, or even known existed. I also saw this with stand-up comedians.
Stand-up comedy, to me, has always been a very noble profession; for an individual to stand in front of an audience of strangers, essentially, and try to make them laugh- there are very few jobs that are as exposing for both parties. What the artist says to incite a laugh is the catalyst for this exposition. A laugh, much like a sneeze, is a gut-reaction, an instantaneous happening; to restrain it requires much energy. And so what a comedian says to tap into a certain area that lets this emotion and action loose tells much about not only the comedian’s prowess, but of what the audience member can laugh at. I have always felt a kinship towards comedians, having worked as a very, very low-level one for most of my life. And upon watching stand-up performances, I began to gauge whom I felt that kinship towards. And much as with the actors, with comedians it was whoever put themselves most in their act. Those who exposed their frailties and short-comings, those who held nothing back, and who spoke for the sake of honest discourse are whom I admired most. They are the comedians I admire deeply, as people. The first time I heard Richard Pryor talk about his life, and then saw Chris Rock and Louis C.K. and all of these great stand-ups talk about their lives openly, I sensed the greatest closeness for anyone that I had ever sensed. And I treasure their honesty as a discourse that is lost in our society.
The kinship I feel with these comedians and actors and writers seems to come from our similar pedigree. Though from different walks of life, and at different points in our respective lives, whatever we do comes from the same birth: the need to tell a story and to be heard. Whether on stage in front of strangers, or voiced through writing that is now held by someone who is now listening, or shown through a drawing or painting, the scripts that have informed my life have come from a lineage of individuals that have something to say and thirst for an audience to hear it.
Now in my twenties, I have come a long way from where I started in life. I have realized that my early viewing of things as the third party created for me the ability to be a commentator, to speak on things, and so my connection to the stories I gravitated towards created my need to tell some of my own. And now, over a decade later, I have realized that although my surrogate Panasonic had provided me with much company, many of the lessons I learned about work ethic and perseverance and sacrifice, were instilled in me through watching my parents. Whatever disconnect existed between us led to my becoming an observer, and as such, my observation was not lost to their example. I watched them from the distance that I watched the X-Men. So I suppose it’s possible to have three parents. And, I suppose that with the kinship I feel towards the figures that I have witnessed in my life comes the realization that I may not be as unadjusted a person as I had initially thought. That perhaps to venture into truth and claim honest discourse as the only form of communication may suggest that I may possibly, maybe have a little, tiny bit more confidence than I did back in ’96 in front of the T.V. And I suppose I should thank Bill Burr for that.