THE RECLAMATION OF ART RANDALL
BY: SCOT URQUHART
Art Randall was old, and getting older. That much he knew. He could feel the constant challenge of existence every morning when he opened his eyes, and wondered every night when he went to sleep, whether he would face the same struggle tomorrow.
It won’t be for much longer, he thought.
Arthur Declan Randall, was 82 years old, and alone in the world. He’d divorced forty years ago and never remarried. His ex was now dead, and his kids hated him. What “friends” he’d had were all connected to a lifetime of work as the owner and operator of a successful, wholesale distributing company. Lots of opportunity to screw both buyers and sellers there, and from time to time, Arthur had.
Also lots of opportunity to screw female employees, sales reps, convention delegates, and lonely bar-flys in non-descript motels across the country. He’d done that too.
He didn’t blame his wife for leaving him when she finally confirmed what she’d somehow known all along.
Hell, Art would have done the same thing. In a way, he felt that he had left himself. The battered old man in the mirror with the deep lines of sadness, and care carved into his face, couldn’t possibly be him. He was much younger, and happier than that guy.
What has two arms, two legs, and hangs on a wall?, he said to himself. Art!
What a stupid name. Art.
Well, this one was no masterpiece, that was for sure.
That was the thing about life. millions of moments of decision and indecision, and each one could lead to triumph or catastrophe. Triumphs come and go, he thought, but catastrophes remain for a lifetime. The mistakes, the missteps, the foolish things done in selfishness, anger and arrogance. Sure, you could apologize, but you could never undo them. Never take them back. And because you couldn’t, you carried them with you for a lifetime. They were always available at a moment’s notice to rue, and reconsider. To feel the weight of regret that seemed heavier with each passing year, as those moments piled up. You could seek the forgiveness of others, but rarely, could you forgive yourself.
At one point in his life, Arthur had tried to pray about that. He prayed to feel the burden lifted from his soul. It never worked. Not for him. When he was younger he’d been told to pray for things like patience, and strength, but he soon learned the downside of those prayers. To gain strength, you need to be made weak, and then survive. And, only a severe test of patience, could give you more. So Art quit praying for those things. He just couldn’t take the punishment that went with them. Instead, he began to pray for absolution, and to this point, he was still waiting. Maybe absolution didn’t come until the end. Maybe there were things that happened, right up until the moment of death, that might need to be forgiven. That would make sense, thought Art. That’ll probably be the case for me. If there’s a way to fuck things up on my deathbed, I’ll find it.
The only time Art could ever remember shedding a tear in his life, was soon after his wife left.
He hadn’t realized how much revolved around her, and how much of a steadying influence she’d been in his life. When it was too late, and he actually came to understand what he’d thrown away, Art found himself bawling like a little kid in the office of a therapist who cost too much, but listened well.
“What Art? What is it?” she asked.
“ I just don’t want to hurt anyone, anymore.” huffed a ragged, broken voice, that Art somehow knew was his own.
The only useful thing that had come out of his working career, and personal loneliness, was a facility with the internet. Between learning to read Excel spreadsheets, and surfing for inappropriate images at home, Art had obtained a reasonable degree of keyboard literacy that many adults his age, did not share. It had taken him to some strange corners of the internet, many of which were not in the least appealing. He had however, developed a strange fixation on the website for intimate confidences, known as “TheCrib”.
TheCrib, was an anonymous wailing wall and confessional, floating in cyberspace. It ripped the societal dressing off the raw wound of life, and laid it bare.
Art could see, right from the start, that the demographic on the site was far younger than his own. That didn’t mean however, that he had nothing in common with those whose souls stood virtually naked, scantily covered by forty words of prose, or less. The wide scope of humanity was on full display here. Good, and bad.
Many of the posts were shallow and stupid. Some were pitiful displays of naked attention seeking. The odd one was clever, or funny. But most of them dealt with the every day problems of being. Living and breathing and functioning in a world that so often seemed pre-programmed to dole out anguish, and misery. That’s how Art, in his online alias as “tiredolddog”, met “Wonderguy”.
Billy Kasun was 14, and scared. Not that he recognized the fact. All that Billy knew was that elementary school was over, and in two months he’d be entering the adolescent nightmare of high school. The general anxiety and sense of unease he felt, was something that he was trying to ignore. You can’t be anxious, and uncertain in high school, if you want to be cool. And Billy, wanted to be cool.
That’s why, at the moment, he was desperately trying to change his name. Billy, was not a cool name; it was childish. Not the kind of name you wanted to carry through high school. He was shooting for Will, which was only slightly better, but so far he was having little success convincing his fellow grade eight graduates, to buy in.
“Fuck you, Billy.” , was the auto-reply from his buddies to almost any request, and in this case, it was “Fuck you” in spades.
“ Will !” exclaimed his best friend Jake, trying to contain his laughter. “ Oh ya! Will you suck my balls, you mean?”
It was the kind of callow response that was standard practice and, at that moment, Billy hated Jake for it, but laughed anyway. To do anything else, would have opened the door to a charge of “being a pussy”, which was worse.
Kasun was a Serbian name. Supposedly it meant someone with authority, and respect. It came from his Dad’s side of the family; although no one in his patronymic line had ever lived up to its substance, as far as Billy knew. On the other hand, he was all too familiar with his father’s attempts to command authority at home, having felt the business end of a leather belt, on more than one occasion.
When he thought about it at all, Billy reverted to a private, inside joke about his surname. He found much amusement in thinking it should have been “Kučkavic” which, loosely translated, meant son-of-a-bitch. That would have suited the old man perfectly.
The ‘Billy’ part came from his Mom. Kind of a stupid compromise to honour her dad, an Englishman, who’d gotten himself killed by drowning in a West Yorkshire coal mine in 1973; the same year that she was born. Billy’s father had lobbied hard for “Dragan” , but thankfully his mother won out on the sympathy vote. He shuddered at the thought of dealing with “Dragan” as a first name, but Billy, was only a marginal improvement. Why couldn’t he be like Jake?
At least his parents had had the good sense to name him Jake. Jake, not Jack. You could “Jack off” all kinds of things, but you couldn’t “Jake off” anything. Jake was a cool name. Billy, wasn’t.
His name on “TheCrib” was “Wonderguy”. That wasn’t cool either, but he didn’t choose it. It was auto-generated when he couldn’t think of a good alias for himself. It didn’t matter. He still got to post stuff, and comment, and try to hook into chats with other anonymous names that sounded like they could be female, and a little bit older than him. Occasionally he’d even worked up the courage to ask for a revealing selfie, or two. So far, he was O-fer-that-effort, but hey, you never know. He did have one respondent ask him for a “dick-pic” first, but he bailed on that pretty quickly for two reasons. One: he wasn’t sure whether the “equipment” was adequate, and two: what if it was a guy that was asking? That would be weird. And humiliating.
As the first day of school rolled closer and closer on the calendar, Billy found himself more worried than ever. Everything that he’d heard or read anywhere, or seen on TheCrib, made high school sound like a daily round trip to hell and back. His mother, in her typical mom fashion, seemed to divine that he was anxious and tried to reassure him.
“ Oh honey, “ she said, “ It’ll be fine. There will be lots of new people there for you to make friends with.”
That was not reassuring. Billy was having enough trouble hanging on to the friends he did have. As the days of summer wore on, he and Jake seemed to be drifting farther and farther apart. Jake seeming to decide, that Billy wasn’t as cool as he should be, and Billy deciding that Jake, was a bit of a prick. He really needed someone to talk to about this stuff, but the options were slim. He had no friends that had been there. No siblings, except his eight year old sister. Mom was only going to tell him how much fun he was going to have, and his Dad? Well, fuck that!
That conversation would last about thirty seconds. Then Dad would lose it, and start shouting that he wasn’t going to school to make friends, he was going to high school, to get high marks!
To get a job to earn some money!
That’s all he needed to worry about!
Billy knew that he needed more than good marks and money at the moment, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to get any of it, from his Dad.
Finally, with only a few weeks to go, Billy fired a desperate emergency flare, into the cybersphere. Posting a picture of a school bus on TheCrib, he typed: “Going to H/S soon. Does anyone older have some good advice? Serious.”
Bored and unable to sleep, Art was flipping through the posts on TheCrib, getting his usual serving of humour, horror, and utter bafflement, when he hit upon “Wonderguy’s” pathetic plea.
His first thought was; “ That kid’s screwed.”
If he was asking stuff like that, and looking outside his peer group for answers, he obviously wasn’t prepared for the shit-storm that was high school.
Art shook his head, and skipped on through another few posts, but somehow “Wonderguy”, had a hook in him, and he couldn’t shake free.
“ Is this kid serious?”, Art wondered.
That would be rare. Most of the stuff posted like that, was bait thrown out by internet trolls just waiting for some unsuspecting sucker to latch on. Once you did, you were in for a punishing deluge of ridicule and abuse designed to clearly illustrate your inferiority as a participant in TheCrib community. Art didn’t need that. If he wanted ridicule, punishment and abuse, a few minutes alone with his thoughts would be more than adequate.
But something about the plea seemed to be so utterly lacking in guile, that Art found himself drawn back to it, and sat staring at the simple request.
“ Hell.” thought Art. “ What if this kid is actually looking for help?”
Art thought back to his own high school days, and how completely divergent his experience would have been, from what was going on today.
“Not even close.” he muttered to himself.
Still, surely there were some things about high school that never changed. Art began to wonder, if he had to do it over again, what would he have done differently?
And then, he decided to test the water.
Billy lay in bed until about one-thirty in the morning, checking his phone every few minutes. Each time there was no response to his post, he felt a little more frustrated, and angry. Why wouldn’t anyone answer? He just wanted a little bit of help. What a bunch of jerks! Although he didn’t spend long dwelling on it, the feeling of being totally ignored made him even more anxious about high school.
“Is this what it’s like?”, he wondered.
Phone in hand, and feeling a little bit sorry for himself, he finally fell asleep.
When he woke up, and saw the notification symbol, and his heart jumped. He was almost afraid to open the reply, but when he did, he immediately felt disappointment. The missive was short, and completely lacking in anything resembling helpful advice.
It said: “Two things. One: get involved in something. Anything. And two: Don’t be a dick!”
Billy knew what the first one meant, but: “Don’t be a dick?” That could mean anything!
He was tempted to just give up and ignore the whole thing, but somehow, faint hope seemed better than none at all. So he sent another message, as equally short as the reply: “ Ok. What do you mean?”
Art had been intentionally terse in his first response, figuring that if the post was actually troll bait, he’d give them a minimum amount to work with. So it was with some surprise that he opened Billy’s reply and discovered that yes, there was a sincere, and somewhat desperate kid, actually looking for advice.
“ Well, okay.” , he thought, “Fair enough.”
Art spent a lot of time on his reply to Wonderguy. He clicked on the private message icon, and began to haltingly pick his way through his years of waste, and underachievement, as his high school’s one-time, leading wastrel. After several false starts, Art decided that there was no value in trying to dissemble. Wonderguy wanted some straight shooting, and he felt compelled to oblige. So he stripped the sugar-coating from “Art’s Commandments”, and laid things out as plainly as he could. He wrote:
Let’s start with this. Do something. Four years is a long time, especially if there’s nothing to encourage you to get out of bed every morning. Find something. A club, an activity, a sport, anything. And if the first one doesn’t work, try something else. If you have a reason to go to school, other than that you have to, it’s a lot easier to deal with. It also chews up a lot of hours that you would probably spend on stuff you shouldn’t do. Even if you’re just a glorified bench-warmer on the junior hockey team, you still belong to something. There are guys sitting beside you that are going through the same shit as you. There is comfort, and strength in that.
I am willing to bet that you will find one or two really good, and interesting teachers before high school is over. Listen to them. Let them remind you that there are lots of really cool things in the world; you just haven’t gotten to them yet. Go find them.
High school is boring. Get over it. Boredom is a part of life; learn to deal with it. Some of your teachers will put you to sleep, and that’s ok. Better that, than stirring up shit, and acting like a jerk, just for something to do. Remember, your teacher is just some poor schlep trying to make it through the day with as little crap as possible. Just like you. So, don’t be the crap.
Treat girls decently. I didn’t, and it’s led to nothing but pain, expense and loneliness. Be the nice guy. Don’t try to grope them, or make them take their clothes off. They’re just as horny as you are, but they’re expected to be good. They’ve got it twice as hard as you. Respect that. It may not get you far in high school, but it will pay big dividends later, and there’s more ‘later’ in your life, than there is high school, by far.
Don’t make fun of people. We’ve all got stuff. Some of it’s on the inside; some of it’s on the outside. Those things are personal, raw and tender. If you leave it alone for someone else, they may leave it alone for you. On such acceptance, friendships are built.
That’s about it.
You may be wondering why you should take advice from a guy who never did any of those things. What do I know? Let me tell you that I’ve had a lot of time to think about the things that I could have done differently. If anyone tells you that; ‘mistakes are really the best way to learn”, they are full of shit. I’ve made just about all of the major ones, and what it’s taught me is this: I wish someone had come along to give me better advice. Mistakes hurt. They set you back in almost every way you can think of. Financially, mentally, socially, even physically. Mistakes suck. Look for good advice, and avoid as many mistakes as you can.
It took Billy some time to decide whether this guy was for real, or not. In the end he decided that there didn’t seem to be any reason to think that this was bullshit. So he read it again and, on the third time through, he sent a brief reply back to “tiredolddog”.
With no other plan to work from, Billy decided to follow the advice he had.
He liked to take pictures, so he tried the photography club, and hated it.
When the auditions for the school play came around, he joined a group of guys from his phys-ed class who were going to try out on a dare. He left before they even called his name.
Computer club? Too geeky.
Music club? Tone deaf.
Chess club? You’re kidding, right?
Eventually, however, try-outs for the junior soccer team were announced.
Billy had been kicking a soccer ball around since before he could walk. Serbian-English heritage. What choice did he have? To his surprise, he made the team, and while he spent a good portion of the season on the bench, “tiredolddog” was right: soccer chewed up a lot of hours, kept him fit and occupied, and gave him a peer group with which he had something in common.
In what became a high-light moment of his high school career, ( although he didn’t know it until years later ) Billy actually managed to score a goal in one of his rare appearances on the field. Not only that, but it proved to be the winner in a one-nil match. In his post-game comments, Billy’s coach likened it to Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal, saying that the miracle in this case, was that Billy was anywhere near the net at all.
Billy laughed with the rest of them, and didn’t even care. It was a good moment.
The rest of the “tiredolddog” plan, met with mixed success.
Billy struggled with the boredom, but tried not to be a jerk about it.
He hadn’t found a really “good” teacher yet, but it was only first year and he still had time.
The biggest challenge, was trying not to heap scorn and ridicule on fellow students, who were victims of nothing more than an unfortunate misstep, or social gaffe, along the way.
“Chirping”, was an art form among the guys on the soccer team, and to his surprise, Billy was pretty good at it. Random insults and put-downs were a part of the camaraderie and team-building experience, but to Billy’s occasional chagrin, chirping didn’t always translate well in other areas of the school.
He promised himself to make a better effort in picking his shots.
And, while he wasn’t exactly knee-deep in smitten females, the “Don’t Be A Dick” mantra seemed to be working in his favour.
Dallas Enwright, from his history class, would actually seek him out on occasion, and didn’t freak out when he accidentally caught her changing in the garage, at Rico D’Agostino’s season ending, soccer team pool party.
Instead, she locked on his eyes, turned her bare back to him and whispered in exasperation; “Close the door!”
Billy, being Billy, hastily stepped out instead of in, before he closed the door.
No matter, it seemed to serve him well in the end, as Dallas ( she of the enormous, dark eyes, and auburn hair ) had even let him make out with her once or twice since. Billy, mindfully, didn’t even try to grope.
Billy was smiling to himself, and savouring the memory, as he lay staring at the ceiling in his bedroom. Yeah, all things considered, it had been a pretty good year. “Tiredolddog”, had steered him straight. B-plus, decided Billy.
“I owe you one, Dog.” he thought.
Inspired, he grabbed his phone, hit the app for TheCrib and, posting a picture of a grizzled old dog, he texted: “ Thanks Tiredolddog, from Wonderguy”.
Art, never saw it.
Just a few days before it was posted, a sudden, stabbing pain in his gut had sent him to the floor. He managed to dial 911 before he passed out, and was lucky he had. The paramedics did a scoop and run when they found him, and stabilized his shallow breathing enough to get him to Emergency. Surgery followed immediately, and it was enough to keep the internal bleeding from killing him, but the good news ended there.
Now, Art lay in a hospital bed, waiting for his ravaged liver to kill him. He couldn’t complain, or even feel angry about it. It was self-inflicted . Years of abuse, in good times and bad, had inevitably taken their fatal toll. It wasn’t just cirrhosis, it was end stage cancer too. Yes sir Art, you did it up real good.
The last week of Art Randall’s life was like a gallery of distorted, fun house mirrors, without the fun. Slipping in and out of the haze of Dilaudid, Art would suddenly come to, in a brief moment of lucidity. During one of those periods, Art had a lengthy conversation with a rabbi who was acting as spiritual counsellor for the terminally ill, that week. Art had been raised a “hell and damnation” Presbyterian, and hadn’t set foot inside a place of worship in more than thirty years, and so it was a very strange conversation indeed. The gist of it involved the nature of remorse and forgiveness and, in the end, Art felt strangely comforted, although he didn’t really know why.
At other times he wasn’t even certain that the conversation had occurred at all, as his sense of time and place began to slip away.
He awoke with a start not knowing whether it was night or day at one point, only to find his daughter at his bedside. It was surreal, and he was in so much pain that his only recollection of the moment, was of crying shamelessly, and repeating; “ I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”, over and over again.
The worst part of this cycle of straddling two worlds, however, was the alarming sense that something else had taken up residence in his room. Something dark and ancient that sat, oozing malice, from the foot of the bed. When Art was aware of the presence, he was truly terrified.
“ I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.” whispered the keening voice.
“ I’m not going with you.”
But even Art could barely recognize the dry, cackling that he’d coughed into the air, as a serious protest.
“ I know. Everyone says that. But you, Arthur – you should know better.”
And Arthur did.
This went on for hours, perhaps days, until the moment came when Art knew he was at the end, and he could feel the ghastly presence, once more.
“ No one knows about you now, Art, and no one cares except me.” There was a hint of possessive glee in the words that called him to eternity.
“ Fuck off.” whispered Art, through the tears of shame that glistened in his eyes. “ Someone cares.” The soft puff of a laugh that came in reply dismissed even that faint hope, and Art prepared to submit to his last earthly breath.
But as his eye-lids fluttered toward eternal darkness, he suddenly found them squeezing painfully against a brilliant light.
“ Go from here.” said the new Voice. “This is not your place.”
And a hiss of fury replied; “ Of course it is! There is no one to speak for him! No one!”
“ There is one!” There was no debate in the tone, and the new Voice repeated softly. “ Indeed. There is one.”
And for the first, and last time in his life, Art Randall, knew pure joy.