Across the street from where I live, there’s a picturesque little house with a clay tile roof, dark wooden-framed facade, and gracefully arching eaves in the Japanese style. This is the home of the man I’ve come to call the Screamer.
When I imagine what he looks like, I picture a sinewy older gentleman in his underwear, his hair an unkempt spray of dirty white. In my imagination, the TV’s set to the History Channel, and he ashes into a plastic TV dinner tray that’s piled high with the crooked butts of dead cigarettes.
This is all just conjecture, of course. If it’s as cold in the Screamer’s house as it is in mine, he’s probably wearing something other than just his underwear or he’d be unconscious within minutes. Venturing into the unheated hinterlands of a typical Japanese home without the proper gear in winter is like jumping into the North Atlantic in swim trucks. You’d have to be very brave or very foolish.
And maybe he’s a beer drinker, I don’t know. Judging by the hours the Screamer keeps, he’s either retired or living on the generosity of the Japanese government. He has a cigarette voice, though. That much I’m sure of.
Once he’s begun, he usually holds forth for 15 or 20 minutes, though he’s flirted with the upper thirties. This happens I guess three or four times a day on average, sometimes more. The Screamer is not on a schedule. Occasionally he starts in at midday, other times he cranks it up at midafternoon or dinnertime. Often he’s punching in at two or three in the morning, then again literally at the crack of dawn, baying to bring the roof down. I keep earplugs beside my bed for just this reason. Whatever it’s about, there’s no point in both of us losing sleep over it.
This has been going on for five months.
When the Screamer is operating on all cylinders, I’m pretty sure everyone on my block can hear him. The difference between them and me is that they can presumably understand him. They don’t have to wonder. Me, I have no idea what he’s yelling about. It sounds important. Though almost anything sounds important when it’s delivered at the top of an invisible person’s lungs in a foreign language. For all I know he’s raving about the weather. But I don’t think so.
In between sessions, I sit in my one warm room and wonder about the Screamer. What could a person find so irritating that he’s got to yell about it at top volume for 15 minutes roughly every six hours? If the street construction crew from last fall were still out there, I could maybe understand. I’d probably be doing the same thing, having by now been driven completely insane by the machine that cuts through concrete and its evil operator. But those sadists moved on months ago to another unlucky neighborhood several blocks away.
I’ve considered that maybe it’s the talking trucks. These are a small fleet of vehicles outfitted with loudspeakers on their roofs that pack the wallop of air-raid sirens. The trucks are driven at a crawl through the neighborhood while blasting impossibly loud recordings of somebody speaking Japanese in the kind of monotone usually reserved for professors of statistics and automated messaging services. The movement of the vehicles creates a Doppler effect that gives the speeches, whatever they’re about, the eerie quality of messages from Satan, if Satan were a statistics professor.
The talking trucks come through several times a week. Each time I hear one coming, I’m tempted to splash ketchup on my ears and run out into the street, frantically waving the truck away, ketchup leaking from my ears down my neck. When the truck doesn’t turn around, I’d fall to the ground in front of it, writhing in agony. I figure it’s worth a shot.
Maybe, I’ve thought, he’s a dog person who’s been forced to care for a relation’s cat for an extended period. Cats will sometimes have that effect on people. Deliberately.
I’ve eliminated the possibility that he’s a rabid sports fan whose favorite team is having the worst season in its, or any other team’s, entire history. Likewise, I’ve dismissed theories involving repeatedly stubbed toes and misplaced keys. I’m at a loss to explain it. Is it a single thing that constantly pricks at him? Or is he set off by a whole catalogue of events that happen throughout the course of each day?
Out here where I live, the dense sprawl of the city’s bland industrial center gives way to residential suburbs speckled with rice fields. The streets are narrow, without sidewalks, and the tiny houses are packed together like teeth. In front of every home, no matter how small, there’s a pocket-sized Japanese garden instead of a yard, separated from the street and the houses to either side by a low concrete wall.
Their owners obsess over these little patches of land. Were a typical American family to find itself with the same amount of yard space, they’d set about filling it with a barbecue grill, bird-shit covered plastic deck chairs, an inflatable wading pool, and a crumbling dead Christmas tree skeleton.
But the Japanese person’s relationship to this space is different. For my neighbors, a garden is an idealized representation of the living world, a microcosm of the relationship between people and nature. The result is a little like a work of art: sculpted trees and shrubs, stone lanterns, rocks and gravel, a clutch of bamboo, a little stream or waterfall with a few koi kissing the surface of a tiny pond. Each element, from the trees to the rocks and even the moss on them, has been carefully selected and arranged just so, like a painting. It’s supposed to be a place for stillness and contemplation, a little Zen zone where one can let go of worries and concerns for a little while and think about how big the universe is and how little we, and our problems, are.
In front of the Screamer’s house, the low little wall is there, but it’s empty inside, just bare dirt and dead grass. It’s like a garden waiting to happen. But it never does.
Usually the Screamer sounds angry. Sometimes I can hear him pounding on the walls. His voice jumps with rage, like bursts from a mortar. It has the tone of someone who is, say, moments away from plunging a sharp instrument repeatedly through the ribs, neck and eyeballs of another person, then dragging the bleeding carcass to a trapdoor in the living room, beneath which is a dirt pit whose depths are piled with lye-covered, rotting remains. He always seemed a little different, I’d say when they interviewed me about him. But I never thought I was living next door to a serial killer.
Other times, there’s a different quality to his tirades. The anger’s there, but it’s tinged with desperation. These are the times when I worry, despite myself. I’ve often thought about asking one of my Japanese-speaking friends to listen in on one of the extended rants and provide a translation. But a big part of me is afraid of what I’d learn. Do I, as a close neighbor, have any responsibility for the Screamer? I’ve never seen anyone enter or leave his house. I’ve never even seen him. What would I do if suddenly, one day, the shouting stopped?
When I was a kid in junior high school, I was deeply unpopular. This is not surprising. I probably would have disliked me, too, had I had several classes with me and had to share a table at lunchtime. In class pictures from elementary school, I’m easily identifiable as the shaggy-haired kid in too-small, brown plaid pants with buck teeth and an overbite so severe I could have eaten an ear of corn, as they say where I’m from, through a chain link fence. Usually my picture is slightly blurred, as if I’d been moving as the photo was snapped, which I probably was.
I was an energetic kid. Actually, I was way beyond energetic. I had a condition that in those days doctors used to call “hyperactivity” or, when they really wanted to fuck with your parents’ heads, “MBD,” which stood for “minimal brain dysfunction.” Today they’d say I suffered from an acronymic euphemism known as ADHD. Simply put, I was hyper. To the kids at Harbor View Middle School, though, I was a spaz.
In fifth grade, I arrived at school one day with braces, which back in those days looked as though someone had stripped a chainsaw of its blade and stuffed it inside your mouth. On top of this, I’d been fitted with headgear to correct my overbite. At that time, braces were accompanied by rubber bands that hooked onto specialized protrusions above and below on each side of the mouth. I still haven’t the slightest clue what purpose the rubber bands served, but the overall effect with the braces and headgear was awe-inspiring. Even today, I wonder whether the lasting psychological damage I suffered throughout childhood at the hands of my orthodontist has actually surpassed the trauma that might have come from an adult life spent with teeth that made Howdy Doody look like a male escort.
But these were relatively minor blemishes in the total picture I presented to the world. For years, I had a habit of bouncing when I walked, so that the space my head occupied at any given moment was fluid by about a foot and a half. Around this time, I was also going through a mild obsessive-compulsive stage. When walking down the sidewalk, I found it unbearable not to step on a crack so that it perfectly bisected my foot. Passing mailboxes had to fall exactly in the geometric center of the triangle created by my legs and the ground, and when flying my pencil through the air above my school desk like a spacecraft, the whine of the engines had to be pitch-perfect.
Also, I loved the sound that was made when I cupped my hands and brought them together vertically so that the air trapped between them was forced out through the small opening above the tips of my thumbs and into my mouth while I made an O shape with it. Sometimes, for variety, I hummed a single note with my teeth set just a fraction of a millimeter apart, which made them vibrate in a curious, wonderful way. I could make these sounds for hours on end without tiring of it, and frequently did. Often I enjoyed them while walking/bouncing down the corridor or just sitting on the sofa at home watching TV. For some reason I found these sounds both satisfying and irresistable. Other people, especially my schoolmates, teachers, parents and random passers-by, seemed to find them excruciating. There’s no accounting for taste, I guess.
Although both my parents had grown up in the Deep South and could hardly be called leftist radicals, neither seemed to put much stock in the value of corporate branding. The idea of shelling out a few extra bucks for Nikes instead of the K-Mart brand seemed deranged to my mother. “Just because they’re expensive doesn’t mean they’re good,” she’d say. “You’re just paying for the logo.” When I pointed out to her that it was precisely the logo that I cared about, that I didn’t give a hoot about the shoes themselves, she replied that K-Mart was a nationally recognized brand, too. “Anyway, I don’t have any coupons for Nikes,” she’d say.
My mother was the kind of woman who collected coupons with a diligence bordering on mania. She once used a coupon to purchase, through the mail, a pair of scissors to replace the exhausted coupon-cutting scissors she’d been using since I was born. My mother’s philosophy was that if it couldn’t be bought with a coupon, it probably wasn’t worth buying.
This guiding principle extended to food, school supplies, pet food, and especially to clothes, which were expected to last at least three school terms. It was always my mother’s belief that a pair of pants hadn’t been officially outgrown until the hems hung at mid-calf and shirts had become so snug on me and my sisters’ young bodies that the sleeves cut off the circulation at our armpits. We spent our formative years looking like little Hulks who’d just returned to our Bruce Banner forms after a wild rampage of coupon clipping.
It didn’t help that my feet and shoes were freakishly outsized for my preadolescent body. This caused great anxiety in my mother, who put herself through hell trying to find coupons for youth sneakers in a men’s 11 and a half. It took me many years to get the hang of using my feet correctly, which wasn’t helped by the fact that I often had to do so in a pair of men’s loafers. During those difficult years I displayed the physical dexterity of a blind person in snowshoes. I’d flap across the kitchen’s lime-green linoleum floor in my huge kicks, looking and sounding like a seal walking upright. I’d stumble around the recess field at school, trip into Sunday school, lurch into cello lessons, and totter uselessly around my lonesome corner of left field at Little League practice.
I think even my parents knew they had a preadolescent pariah on their hands. We’d all be packed into the station wagon, on the road somewhere between Charleston and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where my grandparents lived. My mother would be going out of her head with boredom; my father never let her drive because he got car sick if he wasn’t behind the wheel. Eventually, I’d start humming my note, having tired of the book I’d been reading.
“Oh Jesus, Bob, I can’t take it, not now. Please do something,” my mother would groan, cracking the window so she could light a cigarette.
“Cut it out, son,” he’d say. “Your mother’s trying to smoke.”
So I’d switch to the clapping sound, which was better anyway.
“Patrick, try not to make any noise, okay? Your mother’s cranky.”
“I’m not cranky! I’m simply going insane.”
I’d do my best, but it was hopeless. There was always an interesting noise to be made, even if I thought nobody else could hear it.
“Mom!” one of my sisters would scream. “Patrick’s making squishing sounds with his rubber bands!”
“Gross!” my other sister would scream. “There’s spit leaking out of his mouth and dripping off his headgear! It’s getting on me!”
The collective effect of these behavioral tics and the other eccentricities of my 10-year-old self was that of a young, insane, hyperactive circus clown with a mouth full of sharp metal and a neck brace. It goes without saying that this is not the kind of youth cool kids like to hang around with.
At my school, Harbor View Middle, one of the only kids who was willing to be seen talking to me was a boy named Darren Ackerman. This is because Darren was in pretty much the same boat as me. Statistically, he had nothing to lose. I was the only person who would speak to him, too. So it was a symbiotic sort of relationship; we each gained a small but measurable benefit from hanging around the other person in public: Darren and I each appeared, against all reasonable odds, to have a friend.
While most of my problems centered around the fact that I was just plain weird, Darren’s main handicap was that he was smart. Darren was just too smart for his own good, and there’s nothing cool kids hate more than a really smart kid, unless it’s a really smart kid in headgear.
I’ve never been encumbered with anything more than average intelligence, so it was hard for me to empathize with Darren. I tried, but even I sometimes found him something of a twit. He had an annoying habit of speaking louder than was necessary, so he was always drawing attention to himself. This is absolutely antithetical to the universally accepted behavior code of unpopular kids. Every junior high dweeb with half a brain (granted, some of them only have half an actual brain, but still) knows that you keep your mouth shut and your head down. Customize your personality to match the wallpaper in homeroom, and you’re a lot less likely to get picked on. This is basic stuff, right out of Junior High Survival 101.
But Darren didn’t know thing one about being inconspicuous. He laughed like a hyena, and when he talked he made sure that everyone in the room could hear him. This was traumatizing for me, because it meant that when I was around him, everybody who turned to look at him was also looking at me. Nothing good could come from that, in my opinion. But I had no choice. He was my only friend, and Darren couldn’t help himself. He also had a tendency to show off his smarts, which didn’t do him any favors.
Darren was a natural A student in any subject he tackled, one of those infuriating types who aces exams without ever studying and for whom standardized test were an enjoyable, relaxing leisure activity. He had a head for figures and an uncanny knack for grasping the complexities of abstract, number-heavy subjects which for the rest of us were impossibly perplexing, subjects like arithmetic and history.
Darren loved tossing our ambivalence for the Greeks, the Romans, the Assyrians, the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians and every other ancient civilization in our faces whenever he could. He was a terrible name-dropper. He could hardly complete a sentence without shoehorning in a superfluous reference to Alexander or Democritus or Hatshepsut. Even the teachers found it a little offputting listening to him invoke Zhu Yuanzhang’s agricultural reforms during the Ming Dynasty every time it was announced creamed corn was on the lunch menu.
Because he was less willing to fade into the scenery, Darren tended to catch more shit from fellow students than I did, which is saying a lot. He wasn’t built for the limelight, either physically or temperamentally. He knew he was was smarter than the other kids, and he unwisely tended to remind them of it. Also, he was never going to be on anyone’s list of the world’s most beautiful people. Darren had a single giant black eyebrow, enormous ears, and terrible complexion. His was the kind of skin other kids with chronic acne looked at and thought, There but for the grace of God…
The result was that Darren got pushed around a lot. By the girls. If the boys went after him, they were looking for blood. Fortunately, this didn’t take long, since in the middle of a scuffle someone would invariably rake a hand across his face and in the process burst open a half dozen ripe zits, starting them gushing like firehoses. It looked a lot worse than it really was, but it did the trick. The thugs would back off, either satisfied with the damage they’d done or simply too disgusted to continue. Darren would always pick himself up with as much dignity as he could muster, wipe his face with a tissue pulled from his pocket, and make a show of smiling as if he’d gotten the better of them.
Having finally left the section of wallpaper in the corner I’d been attempting to mimic in the interim, I’d ask if he was okay.
“It ain’t nothin’ but a thing,” he’d always say. This was not a style of vernacular that came easily to Darren, and it always sounded a little forced, like when girls try to talk about football. But I knew what he meant, and I admired him for it. Even if it didn’t sound exactly right, it was still a lot cooler than saying, “This too shall pass.”
One of Darren’s lesser-known peculiarities was an obsession with despotic world leaders, especially those who were in the news a lot when we were in junior high. The rest of us had a fairly predictable roster of bad guys we claimed as our personal archnemeses: the alien in Alien, Dracula, the Legion of Doom, Michael Myers, Satan, the Yankees, anybody who was fighting Rocky, and those hungry little Pac-Man ghosts, for example.
But Darren’s shit list was full of real names: Ayatollah Khomeini, Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Leonid Brezhnev, Nicolae Ceausescu. I didn’t know who any of those people were, but their mere mention would send Darren into fits.
Lacking anything else to do or anyone else to do it with, I used to ride my bike over to Darren’s house after school and we’d play whiffleball in his backyard. It’s a challenge to play whiffleball when you’ve only got two people from whom to choose teams. But it’s a testament to our creativity that we cobbled together a complicated set of rules that often made for exciting gameplay. Being 13 years years old made this a lot easier. Even so, pretty much any time the batter connected with the ball the result was a home run, and final scores tended to be in the high double digits.
They key to winning was to develop an arsenal of bewildering pitches that would confound your opponent and leave him swinging at empty air enough times to end his interminable home run streak and force him into the field. On paper, we each had a dozen or so physics-defying pitches: the strangulator, the phantasm, the thunderbolt, the nutcracker, the rumpelstiltzkin. In reality, they were all different names for the exact same pitch: the curve, which is really the only interesting thing a whiffleball is capable of doing.
I, however, had a secret weapon. Whenever things looked grim for my team, which is to say me, I’d wind up for a pitch and at the same moment conversationally mention one of the world’s notorious autocrats.
“You know, with your hair that way, you look a lot like Muammar al-Gadaffi,” I’d say, letting loose my predictable curve ball.
“AAAAAAAAARRRRRGHHH!” he’d yell, swinging madly and missing the ball by feet. He’d then chase me around the yard with the plastic bat until I apologized, but by that time he was completely rattled, and the rest of the inning was one easy strike after another.
Like me, Darren was a spaz, which meant that the two of us together were like a fuel-injected demolition team. Sometimes, I’m glad my mother died when she did, because if she’d lived to see the widespread use of Ritalin to treat hyperactivity just as I was leaving behind my frenetic adolescence and heading off to a comparatively calm adulthood, she would have been embittered for life.
But Darren was a good kid, if a little overzealous sometimes. He made straight As to my straight Bs, and there was no question but that he was going to achieve great things in life, as long as nobody compared him favorably to Pol Pot.
I fell out of touch with Darren once I went to college. I heard he stuck around in Charleston, but I didn’t think of him much, what with my new teeth and a bright new social world opening up to me. Eventually I forgot about him almost completely. Every once in a while I’d hear from my father that little Darren Ackerman had graduated from the College of Charleston, or that he’d gotten his M.B.A. from Duke, or that he’d married Pam Ferrier from high school. To be honest, I didn’t care that much. Darren reminded me of a kid I didn’t like to recall being. The bucktoothed spaz who kept his head down was a person I’d buried a long time ago, and I wasn’t eager to dig him up again by reminiscing over whiffleball games past. I was glad to hear that Darren had made good use of his brains, but I didn’t exactly miss him, and if we never got together for beers, that was okay by me.
Then one day a few years ago I went to see a movie at a popular cinema in Charleston. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was by myself, which is not uncommon. I’ve never liked having to haggle with a bunch of people about what movie to see; I know what movie I want to see, and I’m not going to get dragged into some Adam Sandler stinker just because other people, despite overwhelming historical precedent, think it might be funny.
I handed my ticket to the clerk at the cinema entrance without bothering to glance at the person – and then I thought I heard someone say my name. I looked up, and there was Darren Ackerman, dressed in the gaudy blue-and-gold Palmetto Grande Towne Centre uniform, handing me back my ticket stub. He was taller, but otherwise looked like I remembered him from junior high. Big beetle brow, protruding ears, face like a lunar landscape.
“It’s Darren Ackerman,” he mumbled, seeing me pause.
“Darren, yeah, wow.” I said. “Man, it’s been…”
“Junior high. Uh, huh.” He spoke as he had a mouth full of gravel and he looked like he was going to be sick. Had he been this weird when we were kids? I couldn’t remember.
“You doing okay?” I asked, and immediately regretted it. He was collecting movie tickets at Palmetto Grande Towne Centre. Of course he wasn’t doing okay. He gave an uncomfortable shrug and looked past me. There was a line of people behind me who were becoming visibly restless. I didn’t know what to do. Did he expect me to step out of line and catch up on 25 years of mutual history while he tore tickets? What in the world was he doing here? I felt a twinge of indignation. It wasn’t fair. This was my Sunday afternoon. All I’d wanted was to to sit quietly by myself in a dark cinema and eat through a cubic liter of buttered popcorn. Now I had this to deal with.
“Anyway,” he muttered, bursting the awkward bubble that had settled over us. “Good seeing you.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, you, too.”
About a month later, I was having dinner with my dad at his place. I try to do this once every couple of weeks because it’s free. Also, I can be certain that whatever my dad cooks, it’s bound to be wonderfully unhealthy. I can eat it without any guilt because I tell myself I’m only eating it for his sake. Meanwhile, he’s justifying it the same way. My father has spent a lifetime rationalizing a diet of fatty, fried, greasy food to himself. If there was a way to deep-fry butter, he’d be eating it weekly.
At some point between the crawfish etouffee and the cheesy potatoes, my dad said quietly, “Did you hear about Darren Ackerman?”
“Actually, I saw him,” I replied. “He was taking tickets at the Palmetto Grande. It was weird. What’s he doing there?”
My dad stopped eating. “When was this?”
“About a month ago.”
He put down his fork. “Did you talk?”
“I wanted to,” I lied, “but he was busy. It was kind of awkward, to be honest.”
My dad poked at his potatoes. “Darren had a stroke in May,” he said. “Pam left him afterward. So he was living with his father on Johns Island.” He paused. “Last week he took a shotgun off the wall, walked out to the end of the pier, and killed himself.”
On a shelf in my bedroom, I have a rock that I carried from a riverbed running though the Kamikochi valley in central Honshu’s Hida Mountains. It’s a piece of granite about the size and shape of my fist. It doesn’t look like anything in particular except a rock, worn smooth by the meltwater that runs off the mountains and fills the ancient riverbed each spring, just as it has for tens of millions of years. In Japanese gardens, rocks have special meaning. Like the land itself, they’re eternal, symbols of strength and endurance. But also of the mastery of man over nature, both the one outside us and the one within.
I was up early this morning. With the sun still just a wish in the eastern sky, I crept outside and across the street into the Screamer’s garden. I left the rock there, resting on the ground like a granite fist, and I quietly crept back into my house and my one warm room. It’s not a garden, but it’s a start. A small reminder that, after all, it ain’t nothin’ but a thing.