An excerpt from Cheeseland, a novel by Randy Richardson
Coming May 29, 2012, from Eckhartz Press
December 28, 1979
Naked. That’s how Marty’s mother found him.
Hanging from a rope in his bedroom.
Feet dangling like fish on a line.
The thought of it turns my stomach, and I rush to the toilet and try to retch out the pain, the anguish, and the guilt, but all that I see in the water are chunks of last night’s nachos.
I catch my reflection in the mirror as I lift myself back to my feet. My eyes are puffy and red, the manifestation of crying all night long, so I splash cold water on my face. After drying off with a hand towel, I look again, shake my head, and hand-comb my hair before making my way to the closet, where I grab off a hanger the only suit coat I own. It is tattered and at least a size too small for me. My mom had given me money to get a new suit, but I pocketed it instead, thinking that it could be better spent and knowing that Marty couldn’t care less what I wore to his funeral.
I make my way outside into the crisp winter air that’s about as clear as it ever gets here in Dolton, a blue-collar town sandwiched between factories to the north in Chicago and to the east in Indiana. Dolts. That’s the obvious and unflattering nickname given to residents here. You can see why I have a poor self-image. Look at me, I’m a Dolt. I sure felt like one when I got held back a year in the fourth grade because I wasn’t, in the elementary school’s view, progressing. The teachers, administrators, and counselors diagnosed me dyslexic, which probably isn’t what you think. I don't read or write words backward; I'm just unusually slow and make mistakes because I can’t see the words the same way others my age see them. I’m not cured, never will be, but I’ve learned how to live with it and correct for it.
Being left behind a year, being separated from the friends I’d had for four years or longer, didn’t help my self-esteem. I became withdrawn and socially isolated from other kids, who saw me as this extraordinarily shy kid with long bangs. The crueler ones called me mute. I didn’t start to come out of the shell I’d built for myself until freshman year, when I first met Lance.
The ground, the bushes, and the trees are freshly coated with a light dusting of snow that fell overnight, but the pavement is dry except for a few patches of ice. There in the driveway sits my pride and joy, a 1973 red Charger SE with white pinstripes. The Cherry Bomb stands out against the suburban landscape like a sore thumb. That’s one of the reasons all the neighbors despise it, and why I like it so much.
I plop into the driver’s seat, take a deep breath, and scan the eight-tracks before settling on Led Zeppelin IV. Skipping past the first three songs, I stop at track four, “Stairway to Heaven.” The ache in Robert Plant’s crackly voice soothes me and I turn the ignition.
A few blocks away, I stop at Lance’s house. Lance is my best friend—my only friend now that Marty’s gone. He’s standing outside wearing an unzipped navy blue parka over his busboy uniform—white dress shirt and black cords. The best outfit he owns.
Lance hops in the passenger seat and grabs the eight-track case. After a quick scan, he pushes the eject button on Led Zeppelin IV and replaces it with Rush 2112. Lance never accepts my choice of music, which I not only understand but appreciate. He knows music—feels music—like no one else I know. Before I met Lance, music played only in the background. He made it run through my veins.
After he cranks the volume an extra couple of notches, Lance lights up a joint and takes an extended hit before passing it to me. In addition to being my rock ‘n’ roll mentor, Lance is my unlicensed doctor. Unlike any other of the physicians and mental health professionals who have treated me in the past, Lance has an uncanny ability to know what’s ailing me and how to cure it. And at that very moment, as I drive past the street where Marty lived and died, that joint is the best possible medicine.
As a tribute to Marty, we make a detour to Curley’s, a hot dog stand on 142nd Street next to a private lake where the three of us spent many a night partying. After I order two dogs (Chicago style, as always) Lance pulls out of his coat pockets two icy cold cans of Old Style. Leaning against the car and looking out over the frozen lake and barren trees, I say, “I feel guilty.”
“Don’t,” Lance shoots back.
“But we—I—could have done something.”
“It’s not your fault, man. Marty did this, not you.”
“I really hate him.”
Lance looks at me. “Marty?”
“No.” I chug the beer and belch. “His father.”
Lance nods. “Me too.”
“What do we do about it?”
“I don’t know.”
We arrive, stoned, at the funeral and take seats in the back pews of the cavernous Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church. The church has a peculiar musty odor to it, like an old wet shoe. This is the first time I have ever set foot in a Catholic church, and I feel awkward, uncomfortable, out of place. It strikes me that Marty would have hated his own funeral. It’s exactly the kind of thing that he always shunned because he couldn’t tolerate hypocrisy. All these people who stayed at least an arm’s distance away when he was alive coming out to see him when he’s dead. I imagine him sitting next to me, shaking his head in disgust while begging for the pipe-organ music to end.
I see things that I don’t think others see. Like the crack in the stained-glass window. There’s a statue of Jesus and I swear it’s staring at me. Did its lips just move?
I feel like I don’t belong here. I don’t know when to stand, or sit, or kneel. I don’t know what to say. I can’t even understand half of what’s being said.
Lance gives up. Five minutes into the funeral, he’s looking at his watch. After fifteen minutes, his head is bobbing. Twenty-five minutes in and his head is down for the count. An elderly man wearing a toupee turns around and glares because Lance is snoring. I act like I don’t notice.
Forty-five minutes into the funeral, Marty’s father stands from the first row. I nudge Lance from his slumber. He looks at me with an annoyed glare. I sense he doesn’t know where he is, and I motion toward the lectern.
At a muscular six-foot-three and close to two hundred forty pounds, Marty’s father commands attention. Just about everyone in town knows Don Torlikson. He’s led the boys’ high school basketball team downstate three times and brought home the crown once, in 1970. For that, the town worships him. The room falls silent as he clears his throat. After he appears to choke back tears, he begins his eulogy for his only son.
“Most of you know me only as Coach. I wish that there were more here who knew me for being a father. Yes, I take pride in my basketball teams. But I loved my son. He always came first. He always—”
After Lance glances my way and gives the signal nod, the two of us rise from our seats. Marty’s father doesn’t trip on his words or halt them. But as we walk out of the church, I feel his gaze burning on my back.
At that same moment, I see an image of Marty, standing on the steps outside the church, a Sox cap over his curly hair, smiling, braces gleaming in the sunlight. I pause and stare.
Lance brushes by me. “Come on,” he says, “I’m thirsty.”
I smile back and then jog to catch up with Lance.