Philadelphia by Eel C. Jesus
Some hopes and dreams are like trees. Across our seasons, they blossom, sway, lose all their leaves, and stand bare, lacking – something. Yet for the most part they are sturdy; deeply rooted within that quiet purity I’ve held so tightly, the innocence we’ve lost but try desperately to touch again. Meanwhile, other hopes and dreams are like breaths. We bring them in and for a short time, they give us reasons to strive, to achieve a greater meaning, even an answer to the question of “Why do I want to be more than what life’s given me?” But we can’t hold these types of hopes and dreams for long, and like breaths, we let them go. They enter the world, either gone, lost, but mostly, not realized – not known, except to us alone. Perhaps, most of our hopes and dreams were never truly meant for us. Instead, their purposes are meant to serve others.
“The nights are never pitch black here.” Eel whispers to himself. He wants to hide from the world, but not the type of hiding that he’s been doing this far. His hiding behind half-smiles and pleasantries have gotten tiresome. He’s tired. He longs to disappear, to exist in a space and time where all his feelings stop, but the lamp on the walkway shines too bright on his reality. He’s had about 60 minutes of sleep in the past forty-eight hours, and he’s convinced that the worst part of being human is feeling.
Pictures are playing themselves through Eel’s thoughts again. Old hopes, current dreams, worries – all scrambled black and white, each an inkspot atop the other. He feels the heaviness of them pull at him. Now, he’s focused on an inkspot, a smudge in time – frozen beautifully. It’s him, it’s Cuttle, it’s that treehouse, it’s a brother’s love, and it’s perfect. He wishes he could live there, but he’s here, and Cuttle, Cuttle’s where people go after. Eel’s eyes water and their wetness grounds him in his present. He knows he’s teetering on the edge of something – someplace he doesn’t want to be. He’s scared.
He hears himself breathing. His ears have been full of himself lately. His hands are trembling, so he reaches into the shelf and pulls out the source of his anxiety, an envelope. Inside are a letter and a photograph. The letter gives a date, July 4th, and information about the people in the picture. The photo is of a family: a man, his wife, and two boys. Eel things the picture was taken within the past year. The family is standing in front of what looks to be their home. They are smiling, but the redness of their eyes tells a different story. He can’t look at them anymore.
Eel hasn’t looked forward to today and he hasn’t wanted today to come, nonetheless, today is here. The family from the photograph will be here soon. They want to know him, but not like how potential friends want to know one another. They want to know him as how Cuttle knew him. He’s scared all over. His stomach hurts. He wants to throw-up, he almost throws-up; he wins this time. He splashes water on his face, rinses out his mouth, splashes water on his face again before he reads the mirror’s thoughts.
Today’s going to happen, so put on your great half-smile, give them some gentle words, and they’ll go away.
He truly believes they will.
The man from the photograph’s name is Dolph Finnigan, his wife is Dora. Dolph is a Lieutenant in the military, Cuttle’s Lieutenant, and Dora is a school teacher. They are fortyish. The boys, Marlin and Seth, are young. Marlin is eight years old going on nine. He just completed the fourth grade and is vocal and outgoing. Seth turned eleven two months ago. He’s shy, loves music and reads a lot. Seth’s parents are worried about him because they don’t think that his quietness is a phase. Eel roughly runs the palm of his left hand over his forehead several times. He’s trying to push Cuttle out; Cuttle always gets in his head and he never comes in alone.
The Finnigan’s arrive. It takes Eel a while before he can find the courage to watch them from the window. They look exactly like their photograph except that Dolph is broader in the shoulders than Eel expected, and Seth seems smaller. He realizes too late, that he shouldn’t have agreed to meet them. He wants to back out, but he quietly rehearses how he’ll greet them and runs through a few different hello’s.
“Dad! Dad! Look at him, Dad. He has the same chin, and his eyes, Dad, they’re Cuttles’. Look at him Dad, Look! He’s just smaller, like I’m small” the little one, Marlin, drags Eel out of his daze. Eel is embarrassed, he failed to greet them properly and now struggles even to make eye contact.
“Hello.” Eel says. This family was a part of his brother’s life, and now, they’ve come to be a part of his. Eel doesn’t want them because he breaks things, that’s his M.O., but these people are already slightly broken. He remembers the picture, and he can see the redness of their eyes spoke the loudest truth. Eel is a mix of emotions and can’t find words for fear he’ll cry. He’s going to cry.
“Don’t start, please, we’ve only just stopped ourselves,” Dora says as she reaches out to touch Eel. Eel stiffens.
“Hello Eel, this here is my family, Dora, Seth, and Marlin.” Dolph gestures toward each.
Eel shakes his head slightly and blinks four times rapidly to clear his head. Pointing to the other side of the table, he says, “Let’s sit down. You all have to sit on that side. I have to sit over here, it’s policy. Thank you for coming. I’m grateful to meet you all.” It’s the truth he hears, and he’s relieved. He lingers a bit, just enough to let the truth soak up the sourness on his lips.
“You’re here, that speaks to the love you have… This isn’t an easy place to come…” Eel’s words softly fall off their trail as he sees his room clearly for the first time. It’s a living room and it doesn’t belong here. It’s a living room, in that, it reminds those here of what’s worth living for it’s a living room, but it’s full of everything everyone is living without. He can’t stand this room.
“Coming here isn’t a hassle, I want you to know that,” Dolph says with conviction. “We-“
“Lt., can – can you tell me how it happened?” Eel doesn’t want condolences or sentimentalities. He’s sick of waiting. He wants to know how because the how’s have been exhausting his imagination.
“What do you know” Dolph replies. “How much do you know?”
With as much steel as he can muster to mask his irritation, Eel answers, “Our family’s still grieving, so we haven’t sat down together to talk. Angelo, he’s one of your guys, right?” Dolph nods, “Well, he came to see me two weeks ago, but he still couldn’t talk about it. He’s only where he can tell me how the weather was. Plus, he just wanted to hear about a conversation Cuttle and I had. I think he needed that.”
“Me and my family want to hear about the same conversation. Your brother was who he was because of it. You must know that by now. I asked Cuttle, once, how did he get to be the way he was? If my boys turn out like Cuttle, I know I’ve been a good father. Anyway, he looked up to you. He asked me to come with him to see you, said that you’d tell me. I realize now that I should have come then.” Dolph says with eyes glazed in memory and a voice full of could-haves.
Eel hates that tone, but the look is worse. The look is what haunts. It’s the reason behind him putting on a new face every day.
“You’re here now. I feel like I’ve known you all for some time. Cuttle talked about Marlin and Seth all the time when he came. Your boys were his life. I’ve known them since they were babies.” Eel allows himself a quick glance at the boys, but he doesn’t make eye contact. He doesn’t linger. He can’t let his face crumble; it’s his last one.
Marlin barely lets Eel finish before he says, “I’ve known you too, since I was smaller. I’ll be nine soon and ten after that. Cuttle even built me a treehouse like the one you two built. It’s even half-way up the tree…”
The image of that treehouse pulls Eel away. For a moment, he’s fourteen again, the world and life is less complicated. One of the Finnigans is talking in the background. He’s unable to make out the words. Right now, he’s content with hammering nails into the oak tree in his father’s backyard. He knows he can’t stay there and forces himself to leave.
“Eel, Eel, I can send you pictures of my treehouse if you’d like. Would you like that?”
Marlin asks in the manner of a kid who isn’t used to being ignored.
“Yeah, yeah little buddy, that’ll be great. I can’t wait to see it,” Eel says. Marlin is smiling, and it’s a real smile. Eel wonders how long has it been since this little boy last smiled and meant it. Eel’s heart sinks with realization because he knows the exact date and time like he knows his own name and birthday. A piece of his face falls to the floor. The sound of it crashing fills the place and he watches, silently, as the tile floor drinks that part of him. Silence.
Dolph, uneasy with a hint of panic, fills the space. “Eel, I really want to tell you what happened, I really do, but my boys, they only know the basics, and I remember everything so clearly. Can I tell you another time, when it’s just you and me? I can come back tomorrow while the boys are visiting your mother. Is that okay with you?”
Eel nods in agreement outwardly. He tells himself that the Lt. has his reasons, but he can’t help but feel cheated. They’ve all come to hear about a conversation between two brothers. They’ve come one after the other, and they leave with a piece of Eel, but none of them has left a piece of Cuttle behind.
Eel looks at the clock on the wall. The hands read 1:08 p.m. and he wonders how much time has passed in silence. He remains quiet; gathers himself, and lets his eyes search for a spot on the floor. It’s better if he doesn’t look at them. He sees that there’s a crack in the tile; it’s filled with grime. He’s found a place to start and he jumps in.
“I was nineteen, and Cuttle was fifteen. He came with our dad to see me. At the time, I’d only been here three years. Growing up here is different, sometimes you only have yourself as a friend and parent. Because of that, there’s a lot of introspection, but growing up alone, as Cuttle had to do, is its own struggle.
“He had questions he needed answered and believed that I could give them to him. He’s always been like that. You all know him to be like that – driven, yet thoughtful. He said to me, never could he have imagined that I would be here, caged. He said that I had a free and open spirit and that this was not a place for me, it wasn’t a place for him. My first thought was that he was going to tell me he wouldn’t come see me anymore. Instead, he said that he looked up to me and wanted to be like me, not the acts I’ve done or who I pretended to be on the streets, but the person I am for him and my family.
“I think he was scared because, one, he didn’t want to end up like me, and two, he couldn’t understand why I could, would, or want to live behind two such opposite identities. Maybe, this was a point in his life where he was lost in-between who he wanted to be and what others wanted. Whatever his reasons for being scared, he found himself at a young age which is amazing. Anyway, he asked me, why or what did I believe was the cause for my being here?
“That’s a heavy question for a fifteen year old, but the nature of our relationship was that I would give him the truth, and the truth was the least I could give for abandoning him.
“Cuttle’s question, it’s the one I live with every day and I told him as much. But to answer his question, I said, when I look at myself, I can honestly say that I have never been satisfied with myself. I didn’t believe that who I was, was enough. So. I couldn’t see all that I had – all that I am. I couldn’t grow my potential or open my mind to possibilities.
“I could see that he was a little off balance with where my explanation was going. So, I told him that to have a relationship on a truly honest level, both parties had to share an openness and willingness to accept the truth about one another, and this meant putting scars, secrets, and even insecurities out in the open.
“Cuttle told me, sometime later, that this was when he realized that acceptance had nothing to do with making sense of someone or something. That’s another story.
“I told him, my not having a place within myself that I could love is why I questioned myself constantly. I felt broken and didn’t know how to fix myself. Yet, the years isolated from the world lets a person piece themselves together. When I got down to the few pieces that I couldn’t understand or maybe didn’t want to understand. I realized that my patter was that I found fault in everything.
“We are all on the same timeline – one timeline, I told him. We’re given one precious life, just one. One to live, one to give, one to experience, and one should be, is enough. We should be enough, if not enough for others, at least enough for ourselves. This is a hard lesson that I’ve forced Cuttle and others to learn alongside me. And although I never told him outright, my wish for Cuttle was that I didn’t want him to ever know these places within ones’ self. Even at fifteen, he still had that boyish innocence. I didn’t think I could protect him. So, I could only tell him that these ugly places exist and to be aware of them.
“I told him that today, when I look at people out in the world, I say to myself, I really admire those who can have and see the value of one because they truly know how precious one life is. My hope, my one dream, I told him, was to be one of those people who can truly see the value in one.
“The rest of our conversation was Cuttle asking me about how he should deal with doubt and uncertainty, all of which, I didn’t have an answer for, but he also asked me, how would he know when one was enough? I said that I didn’t know myself because I only knew that one should have been enough when I lost the one of almost everything I was given, and by then, it was too late for me. He said then that he would find a way to know and he’d share it with me someday. One would always be enough for him was his promise because one is a whole and one can sustain. So, yes. He was always like that – a man grown at fifteen, maybe younger. He had to be.
“From fifteen till what happened in the Kandahar Province is a blur. Cuttle chose a career, dedicated himself to that life, and we saw each other less and less. Four times a year until he turned eighteen, then once or twice a year when he was on leave, but we wrote one another. His life became lines on paper.”
Eel finally hands the table over to silence and notices that the Finnigans are crying. He sees Cuttle’s life in every tear, each sniffle, and wipe; their conversation, so long ago, displayed across each face. His brother had found a way to know when one was enough and this family along with every person before them, are the result. Eel finds himself back in the place he doesn’t want to be, he doesn’t want to be human right now.
Eel put one hope…
“Your brother, Cuttle, found his was Eel. His friends, his extended families, we all loved him for it. He could drink one beer. He could own one car. He loved one woman, but he didn’t have just one life. He was a part of all of our lives. He was our lives…” Dolph’s voice fades away as Eel phases in and out of reality.
…one dream into the world…
“Your brother was so special, so gentle. He gave everything – himself, he gave us that too. That’s why we’re here Eel. He gave us you. The someday Cuttle talked about sharing with you is here, with us. You see that right? Right?…” Dora is trying to hold Eel in the present, but she’s losing ground.
…and Cuttle caught it, nurtured it, lived it, and now, that one hope – that one dream, Cuttle has returned it.
Eel C. Jesus lives and writes in Northern California.