As a new day began, I was awakened by the subtlety of raindrops hitting the sheet metal roof like a ballet dancer building up to her final move. Tap…tap…tap, tap, tap. The sun attempted to break through the dense fog but instead lit an eerie morning of doubt. Wearily I half opened my eyes, still at the crossroads between dream and reality. As blurred images faded from delight to depression, I knew my day had begun. Sitting up I looked upon the all too familiar room I called home. The uneven floors, the scoliosis walls and my lump of a bed.
As I climbed out of bed, my breath rose before me, stolen and replaced with arctic air. The floorboards groaned in agony as I dragged my feet to the bathroom. In my filthy state, I knew I had to wash up, but was already too cold. The water flowed to my surprise like a warm summer’s day and stung like a summer’s bee. Trembling I raced through my all too familiar morning motions. Soap here, scrub there, clean this and that. By the end, I could not have been further away from sleep and already ached for its loving embrace.
As the quiet morning filled with talk outside my window, I picked from my collection of abused clothing and dressed. With a slice of bread in my hand, I turned the key to my room and was gone. As a real-life checkerboard, the people of the street gathered in the spots of sunlight. While the blackened spots that the sun could not touch remained alone in solitude.
The bread in my mouth transformed into porous rock as I attempted to persuade it into submission as I chewed. As I neared the sea, the air changed into a thick and dense warning. The waves splashed with anger against the docks in an unrelenting pursuit. Trying to find familiar faces in this fog was nearly impossible, I was better going off of smell. Men of my nature have a natural fragrance that reveals their cloaked location.
Finally, I met up with Jim Smith, a well-known dock worker. He was the man you needed to know to get your hands dirty. There was a ship coming into the port which had a variety of crates to be unloaded. They paid us by both the size and the number of containers carried off the boat. Jim warned me that sometimes a higher quantity of smaller crates was a better bet than tackling a few large ones. Some of the abused boxes already claimed broken bones before sailing. To the young and agile, or the desperate, size and sheer volume were perused. To the experienced, numbers are preferred over size.
While the sun fought off the dew, it illuminated a massive ship. As the men yelled to one another, I scrambled to get myself out of the way as ropes dropped and planks slammed the docks. In the bitter cold, I moved slowly; I was fragile, and I took my time. I took a break from the heavy boxes when possible and gladly accepted a chance to sit. Curiously enough, throughout my labor Jim was always hidden, but in my time of rest, he was ever-present. It did not matter however; we have worked on many ships together, and he knows my strategy.
I watched as the boxes were raised from the bowels of the beast to the top deck where we delivered them to specific locations on the dock. Some boxes required many men in which case the profit was split. Some crates were small enough to move by oneself. The more dense crates were easily identifiable to the trained eye. They were reinforced and had obtained scars in their journey from chains. Some containers even had traces of blood. Those boxes, the younger men threw upon their backs while the rest of us hunted for smaller ones. Like a rat in a maze, we found our ideal box and hurried on.
At the day’s end the men around me, strangers to both myself and Jim, were paid for their labor. Jim handed me a few bills, yet before I could count them, he told me he didn’t require my help anymore. His excuse was that time costs money, and I cost time. I was confused: I worked hard. But it did not matter, Jim was Jim and business was business.
As the sun sank low, my shadow ahead of me forecasted sullen feelings. As I walked it gleamed over bump and rut growing longer and thin; Almost as a forecast of the man I am to be, sulking and solemn. As the night drew near and fierce, so did the ideas and thoughts in my head. How could Jim leave me jobless? Is it my fault my parents left me alone and broke? Is it my fault I must move slowly because I am sore from hard labor? No, it is not my fault; I am a product of my circumstance. That is discrimination and tomorrow I will confront Jim. He can’t tell me I’m working too slow. You try to work on an empty stomach, Jim!
Through the night my thoughts kept me warm like an internal fire burning bright and fierce. As I lay in bed, I perfected my argument with stunning and flawless remarks. The situation etched itself in my mind. I filled libraries with statements and true insight sure to change Jim’s mind. Lying in bed, I wrapped the blanket around myself and pretended its perforated body kept me warm.
Snickering, tossing, and turning, my thoughts consumed me. I knew only my dreams would help me conquer my daily trials. Like having a jury and judge on my side, this battle was already won. But who needs a judge and jury when you’re the law and the law is always right. Like the law, I too would be firm, fierce, and respected. Respected through fear, the most potent motivator there is. What I am not given I will take! Thoughts such as these continued until I dreamt. And so, my first meaningful dream since my parents passing finally began. It was the dream that would forever change my life.
I awoke to the sound of my alarm clock, a nagging ring. First subtle then, as it began to grow bold, the volume increased along with the frequency until my hand struck it to silence. The day started the same as any other. With a cold shiver, I threw my blanket off and waddled to the bathroom. The floor moaned as I thrust one foot after another. The bathroom tile startled me as the sharp broken shards punched awakening jolts into my feet. As I turned the knob for ice water to flow, I noticed that my once yellow tub was no longer stained with mold.
After my brief bath, I brushed my aching teeth with bristles so worn they retreated with every stroke. Oh, the clean feeling of freshly massaged teeth coated in a fine layer of blood. I walked back to my room with the beat of a now awakened person moving with conviction and determination.
The morning bus was rarely on time, yet today I waited, and on other days I chased it. I was surrounded by “family,” as I called them. Men and women of all ages who appeared as me—the same complexion, demeanor, and outlook. Like them, I grew up with nothing to my name besides disgust. I had no friends, and now no parents. Most of us go through life accomplishing little more than moving the dirt it takes to bury us.
I began to think that perhaps I could adjust my body, live off the land, and become self-sufficient. I tried to eat mud and leaves, even ate tree bark, but that only caused me ill health. It was like glass moving through my system. First down my throat in a slow motion, then gradual cuts to my stomach, and eventually passing through. I was in extreme pain for days after that meal. Curled in a ball on a street corner, I could only whimper in agonizing pain. Food is supposed to digest within the day, yet this pain, with varying levels, lasted for weeks. In those times I needed the most comfort and care from another person, yet it was when I received it the least.
Not a single person felt sympathy for me. They all laughed and walked on. Some slowed their pace as sadness reflected in their eyes, but those were just thoughts. Thoughts to help them, not me, feel better. It was at that point in which I dug a hole with my hand. I grabbed some grass nearby and attempted to send all my emotions into that handful of grass. Anger began the first round of therapy, resentment for being ignored and allowed to suffer, and anxiety from pain and neglect. Then those feelings slowly transitioned to sadness for my life wasting away and sorrow for my parents whom I missed dearly, then came sorrow for myself and my circumstance. After some hours I sat drained of all energy and passion, I took that grass and buried it. From that day forward, I promised to feel no regret, and to steal what I needed.
I grew tired of contemplating my past. Every day as the bus drove further from my home I saw homes I one day wished to own but knew I never would. These people owned property and had green grass, they had so much more than they needed, I wanted that life, and I deserved that life. Thoughts like these grew and consumed me. It fed on the anger. Eventually it turned into jealously which soon bred revenge. I played scenarios over and over in my head. I was covering every angle, every confrontation. Memorizing lies until it became the only truth I knew. Preparing myself for my first theft was my first step.
On one night I took a different bus home, one that stopped just outside where the wealthy lived. As I walked about, I saw families eating dinner, some talking and some in silence. Every house was lit up, almost as if to show one another the money they wasted. I chose my house. It was on a new stretch of property with empty frames of homes surrounding it. I knew how to kick in doors; I had to do it to my door a few times when I lost my keys. After walking the block a few times, I was confident in my plan. No cars were driving the streets, which left this house isolated. I noticed kid’s toys littered the yard, so I knew there was money somewhere. The initial hesitation began to grow quiet and turned my scowl into a smile.
Focusing on my anger, I repeated “You got this; you got this” continually repeating the phrase louder and louder until my thoughts drowned. The words enraged me like a shot of adrenaline and my mindset snapped into position. I was now closer to a robot than a human. With a given order to steal, that was now my only focus. My feet walked swiftly over the grass. My once sweaty palms were now numb.
Without thought, I raised my hood and began to sprint. I ran up to the rear door and kicked it in. With my heart racing, I wandered through the house as members of the family came towards me. The father raced towards the door with a curious look that soon became terror. His eyes widened as his jaw slightly dropped. In pure reflex, his hands outstretched to protect his family behind him. He spoke, but I couldn’t hear any words that he muttered to me.
I stood motionless for what seemed minutes. The looks on their faces gave me more strength and power than I could have ever imagined. I fed off of their fear as my strength grew to the point at which it could not be contained. Blood began to course through my veins, much as to a dam breaking and unleashing the raw fury of water held back for years. All that energy finally released. I demanded money. I yelled and yelled with my hand outstretched. “Money, Money, MONEY!”
The family crowded into a small corner of the room. They were holding onto one another in dread. The children’s heads bowed in a surrender as the father’s protective instinct remained resolute to his frail frame.
The man grabbed his wallet near the table. Slowly inching toward the table as his outstretched hand clenched onto his family behind him. The children’s white knuckles forced his cotton shirt to become one with their fists. In a seamless motion, as the father moved so did the children in perfect synchronization. Arriving at the table, he ripped open his wallet and handed me some money which I shoved into my pockets. I continued to yell “more!” as I grabbed a knife from my back pocket and swung it in blind fury.
In utter confusion, the father and family backed once again into the corner. The man’s head shook back and forth as his hands rose above his head with disgust at himself. Sweat flowed from his pores. “I have nothing more to offer,” he pleaded. At that exact moment, my rage subdued and pure silence followed. My heart raced so hard I could see my shirt move like the tide in a storm. All the while my breathing matched that of a runner as I stood still. My hands began to tremble, and my face started to sweat. The emotional dam I had built collapsed. My feelings surged back into me.
I looked on in complete shock as this family quivered. I was in control; it was my time to show them how fragile they were. A smile crept to my face as I once again enjoyed this power rush, but in a moment of clarity I knew it was time to leave; I had been here far too long. Then I began to hear sounds; I thought I saw people looking at me. In fear, I stumbled back out of the house then turned and ran. I don’t even remember deciding to run. I only remember feeling like I needed to. I ran for quite some time and eventually, far down the road, I slowed to a walking pace as I dug into my pockets and pulled out the money along with a picture of his family that must have been in his wallet.
Now with my wits about me, I laughingly cast the picture to the ground and put the money into my back pocket. As I quickened my pace, I began to flinch as cars passed me. Nervous, curious, and on edge all at once. A bus pulled ahead to a stop. I walked briskly to that bus and before long I was once again surrounded by “family.” I exited the bus at my usual stop and walked to my apartment which, as always, refused to welcome me home with its grim attitude and age broken character. That night I laid restless, tossing and turning on my old mattress. Sleep eluded me as night welcomed day. I hid the cash in a crack in the wall and, satisfied with my days’ work, I continued this new routine.
Much the same as before, I practiced my lines during the day and drilled them into myself at night. I dedicated time to physical fitness and meditation. These would play crucial roles in my future jobs, I told myself. Just as a mechanic requires advanced tools for advanced tasks, so shall I. As my new practice formed into a routine, my process eventually etched itself into stone. My next target was an elderly couple who gave me little cash but compensated with earrings. Later on, I received more money, and eventually, for my efforts, I found gold. I did not care what form the payment came in as long as it happened. As my fortunes grew, so did my notoriety.
Eventually, I surrounded myself with upscale items. My life had finally taken a turn for the better since I decided to do something about my circumstance. I had already begun to reflect this change. Slowly in my demeanor and look but eventually in my character as well. Old friends were replaced by those who reflected my new circumstances. I was better than my “family” now. My taste in food graduated, and my barren apartment was filled, which subdued the echoes of creaks and moans of emptiness. A new radio now kept me company.
As the eve of the year since I changed neared, I realized that this apartment no longer fit my standards. I also became apprehensive that my notoriety left an impression on the news that would not soon be forgotten. The Midnight Bandit they called me. Although I laughed at the sound, my familiarity was my downfall. I decided to leave town. I headed to a denser, more populated area. The big city was to be my playground.
The trip was long and drained me in every aspect. I knew I would need to find a home soon and work long hours to recover my losses. So, after unpacking and settling, I did just that. However, the large city life was not what I expected. Although there were more people here, they were far less intimidated, and thus each job yielded less cash. The look of shock I used to once feed off of was replaced with annoyance and slight anger. Some even laughed and handed me a few dollars as if payment for entertainment. This unforeseen trouble did not stop me though. It was a challenge that meant I had to evolve yet again. And so as with new territory so too came new rules.
While I prepared for another night, I made sure to bring my brand-new “friend” to help convince people their lives were worth more than the money in their pockets. As per my routine, I got into my zone and spoiled my brain with false emotions to guide me through the night. The streets here were much more crowded; the yelling technique adapted to letting my cold partner silently do the talking.
I began the night by breaking into a nice-looking apartment through the window on the fire escape. This entrance provided easy access to anyone and a quick means of escape into a dark alleyway. However, I wasn’t the only one invited to this party; there was already a burglary in progress unbeknownst to me. So, as I crawled through the white curtain, I found three men with guns pointed at my face. I froze while they threw me to the ground, face up. Without hesitation or thought, two of the men gathered the valuables as one stayed with a gun barrel pressed to my neck, making every breath a struggle.
The cold barrel subdued me with little effort. I began to shake uncontrollably. Tremblings took over my body as sweat and tears mixed into my clothing. The longer I lay there, the longer I contemplated how this could end. Even though I was fixated on the man, I could hear his partners yelling to him. They said I had seen too much, so with a swift kick and a punch I was turned over, face down. I couldn’t see the man’s face as my stomach met to the floor, but I could feel the gun trace a circle on my head as a taunt that he was watching and ready.
Slowly I turned my head so I could see them. In hindsight this was a horrible idea. The men set about their tasks, every step with unmistakable purpose. Every motion was keyed to a goal, every word served a purpose. All of time seemed to stand at their restraint. In minutes that felt like hours, they were done. I felt every heartbeat hoping it would not be my last.
The men finished their job and took me with them. Unsure what to do with me they yelled to one another until I was confronted. I was punched with what felt like a bullet to the head then another in the stomach. They lifted me from the ground and turned me around as my eyes met a man standing there with fist still clenched. He gripped my hair firmly with one hand as he struck me with the other. At the first few blows there was significant pain, but eventually the pain left and was followed by an almost anesthesia effect that occurs when your bodies pain threshold is surpassed. All the while the light flirted with shadows and danced upon me as it gave way to its darkened allure.
I awoke sometime later to brief strips of light passing through a mesh cloth, as if in a hospital cart being raced down the halls. While the lights danced in my face, the pain returned like an old friend. In an all awakening jolt I realized my body was being dragged across the floor and up some stairs. My shins slammed into every step as I was pulled upstairs. There must have been a man behind me kicking my foot every now and again as to make up for any lacking amount of pain. At the last stair, the pain was replaced by a warming embrace which pooled in my shoes, warming my once cold feet.
Finally, I was dropped to the floor and my head bounced twice before resting. The bag was removed from my face as four shadows took the shape of men standing around smiling, pointing, and laughing at me. They appeared as orbed giants from my grounded point of view. The men questioned why I was at that apartment, who I worked for, and who I was. I came clean with nothing but the truth yet I was still beaten to ensure it was the whole truth. I was asked the same questions over and over in different wording, yet my answers remained the same. Eventually, as their hands grew tired and the floor became painted in sticky blood, I was let go. They threw me from the building but not before imparting on me a message; a promise to kill me if I was ever seen again.
I headed home that night in a slow, mournful pace. I wanted to run but couldn’t; I don’t know how I was even able to walk. After arriving home, I dug through my boxes and found an envelope buried deep down. Written on it were the words “Cost of Change.” Opening the envelope carefully I saw the small picture at the bottom along with some artifacts. The image was from the first house I robbed. I saved it in case one day I regretted my decision. Now I knew how that nameless family felt as they stood helpless while I laughed.
My anger cooled as I painted their picture with pity, regret, remorse, and most of all, a new-found appreciation and commitment to return to an honest day’s labor for an honest day’s pay. The following days matured into months and finally years as I embraced the roots of my “family.” I quickly learned that it takes mortar and brick to build a foundation. Over the years my mortar once consisting solely of water now became rich and thick. As a glue it held together brick upon brick as my foundation of sand was far surpassed. I then learned that greatness is built at a steady pace.
Suddenly I awoke, laying in bed. I realized that my life as a burglar was nothing more than a vivid dream. With a sigh of relief, I lifted a crushing weight off my conscience. I thought I honestly had become that man. However, my parents would have rolled over in their graves, risen from the dead and glared into my soul with shame and disgust. That’s how they were; they would never hit me or scream. Instead, they opted to stare at me long enough to induce the overwhelming feeling of shame.
These dreams of mine become too real at times. They encapsulate me like a bubble that traps air within it, providing no escape. I guess that is their strength as well as their weakness. From it, I do not merely learn a lesson; instead, I become the lesson and the associated experience. I live the dream as reality yet not always as the main character. Sometimes as an omnipresent being but forever leaving as omniscient. With this knowledge, I tackle my life.
So, with this and every future morning I rose with a smile and wide eyes. I was no longer ashamed to hide my soul from the world. The world shall learn who Nelson Philips is. Imagination and reality can coincide when imagination drives reality. Every day intends to form a foundation strong enough to bear today’s load and build to tomorrow’s ambition. After waking from my bed, my entire disposition had changed as if a cloak was lifted and my thoughts were filtered. In an awe-struck silence, I thanked my father for his reminder to allow myself to answer my questions without bias. In my moment of clarity I cast away the feelings I harbored against Jim. Today was the first day since my parents had passed that I woke up refreshed, determined to improve myself and build the life I so desired.
To mark this moment I wrote myself a reminder on a used piece of paper. I titled it “Remembering to Never Forget.” It reads as follows:
All I can remember from my parent’s death is extreme pain, lots of tears, and heart-stained anguish. I will never be able to clean that stain, and that’s how it should be; some things aren’t made to be given to grandfather time. Live and learn right? Well, what’s the point in living if no knowledge is gained? Every day we follow the structure and pattern of our path left unfinished. But sometimes we don’t have quite enough time to learn that lesson. Sometimes new obstacles come into our path, and that’s when we’re given a choice. We can either incorporate that obstacle or cast it away and lose a part that belongs to us. I don’t think there is a reason for why things happen, but I do believe that it only makes us stronger.
Many times, paths cross, patterns intertwine, and people live and learn together. Children learn which template to follow and which to cast aside from their parents. Some tracks stay this way for many years, while others diverge very shortly after their meeting. There is nothing we can do about this. Those choices that we do make are our patterns; they are our lives, they are us.
Think of it this way. Every time a hardship befalls you, you create a specific pattern in your web. That pattern catches that exact problem and stops it from damaging your life. So the more hardships, the more complex and elegant your web becomes, until it eventually is the most beautiful thing, incorporating every color and design, weaving patterns beyond human nature. Then, on the other hand, you have a person who has everything made, their hardships don’t compare to yours, so their web is ugly, all black and white. Well, eventually a misfortune will confront them and blast through their web. That is where you can show them the proper pattern to follow and the appropriate colors to use to avoid such disasters. That’s where your path crosses with theirs and where they become a part of you as much as you are a part of them.
Unfortunately, grandfather time doesn’t always work like this; he doesn’t follow the same schedule we do. So, webs don’t get finished, paths don’t greet their intended destination, and parts of us become lost. But is it better to live, give, share, and sometimes lose? Or rather deny yourself all those things so that while you surrender the small stuff, you don’t take hard hits? Nobody likes to lose, but everybody loves a good game, and good games involve a certain level of risk. To risk something though, you have to gamble. But as with every game, in the end, the house always wins. Given a chance would you do it over again? Would you want to remember the good times and forget the bad, or have never experienced it at all? You have a choice, will your path become dusty and old only stained with your footprints, or will it become a thruway, always in use and never forgotten?
So out of bed, I rose with this note hanging above my mattress. With motivation, I set myself to the bathroom to clean up. Although the water was just as cold as yesterday, it affected me less today. Making sure to scrub myself to perfection, I left the bathroom a better man. I gathered my best clothes and headed out the door determined to find the job. Not just a job, but a job I can appreciate and use to develop myself further. Something steady and consistent.