No Place Like Home

Luis Bermudez Ham, of Mexico, examines what it’s like to lose a sense of home. He also likes turtles.

Visual art by Jing Li

People have a tendency to forget things. They forget things they learn, they forget things they say, and they forget the friends they’ve made. In a world where materialism is the norm, the more we have, the easier it is to forget.

Lately this thought had been rambling around my head a lot. It’s funny, how when you think about something for a long time you start seeing it everywhere you go. In reality, that something has always been there, but it’s not until you think about it that you actually start acknowledging its existence.

Lately I have been noticing people forget. Sometimes they forget who they are, or where they come from. They forget about their true friends and end up abandoning them. Other times they forget about a nonsensical love, or a broken heart. A myriad of people have told me about the feeling one gets when one finally forgets someone who has caused pain, of someone who has harmed. They said they had finally realized how idiotic they were, how, if given the choice somehow, they would never repeat their actions. I nod and agree; only really interested in the landscape passing by the window. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy stories passionately, but after a while of hearing the same things over and over again, even the most interesting fables can turn into tedious sermons. People, for some reason, have a tendency to trust me, which I do not understand. Is it that they pity me? Is my face a trustworthy one? I don’t know. All I know is I’ve been a runaway for about 5 months now. I have hitchhiked about 1,200 miles, and every time I get into a car, or van, or truck, I have had to listen to someone’s story. I haven’t shaved, but thanks to my wondrous age of 15, my facial hair can easily be mistaken for the dirt on my face. I guess people aren’t used to seeing someone as young as me hitchhiking, so they feel sorry for me. I believe they use pity as an excuse to unburden themselves onto someone, anyone, even this dirty 15-year-old kid.

This last ride has left me in the middle of a highway right before a road division, somewhere in the state of Nevada. The sun’s heat has made me regret taking my fur-lined leather jacket. But it has served me well. After all, when I left Milwaukee it was still winter, and the snow and cold would have been a problem if it hadn’t been for this jacket. And to be honest, it wasn’t like I had any other type of clothing I could have packed. But now my long-sleeved shirt smells of sweat, and I finally decide to take it off, not giving much importance to sunburn.

A car drives by, the driver ignoring my signal for him to pick me up. As I walk, I think about the last person that let me hop in.

She was a middle aged woman, with skin as white as milk, like an angel. She drove a green pick-up and spoke with a beautiful southern accent. If I hadn’t been in a different place mentally, I could have had a crush on her. She told me the story of her life, of how her two boys grew tired of her and abandoned her. She told me, with light in her eyes, how she used to play with them when they were younger and all the fun they had. She told me how on stormy days, they would stay inside watching movies, putting quilts over the windows, making forts out of pillows, pretending they were in a theatre. But it all changed when her husband left them. He had grown tired of his daily routine. He thought that if he managed to escape his boring life, he would be happier. She told me how later she would walk with them to the town square in a futile effort to forget what had happened, and she began crying when she remembered how they could escape their reality on those afternoons as they ate ice cream on Main Street. But her boys had grown up to be very independent and had moved away. Although they had kept in touch with her for a while, they eventually stopped talking to her. According to her sons, she was the reason their father had left. She would never be forgiven. But something had come up, and her first son had called her. She was ecstatic to hear her son’s voice, but the happiness didn’t last long. Her smaller boy was in the hospital, and from what she told me, it was really bad. Pneumonia or something like that. Real sad. I had a cousin who once died of pneumonia. Her death shocked me; I had never had anyone close to me die.

     A sudden breeze of cool air snaps me back from my wandering thoughts. Drivers keep passing me by, but my arm aches so I stop making signs. As if they would actually stop to pick me up again. As if anyone really cares I am here. As if anyone really cares for me. Is that reason enough to run away? I don’t know. It was for me, but someone else might swallow it and learn to live with it. But I refuse. I want to live somewhere where people care. Where they care about what happens to me. I want to matter. I wanted to matter. To make a difference. I don’t care now. Things change, people forget, people forgive, and people die. People find a way, or they lose themselves. People have a way of making things different.

My friends all vanished, disappeared under a thin veil of nothingness. Some found a passion in underage drinking. The adrenaline of being above the law combined with alcohol filled them with euphoria. Others moved. They wanted to become rock stars and photographers, but I knew, as everyone did, that it was just a waste of time and that their trip to Hollywood was nothing but misused money. My dad vanished too. He got a promotion, and stopped coming home for weeks at a time. Since it was just me at home, I had to survive on Mac ‘n Cheese and Cocoa Puffs. I started skipping school, and the more I got away with it, the more I enjoyed my new freedom. My mom died when I was very young. I can’t quite remember her, but my dad used to say she was wonderful, so I just believed him. Suddenly, I wished I had known her. A feeling of loneliness began to soak me, but the paradoxical thought that this might get me attention from someone somehow, made me not want to dry it off. After a while I grew tired of this, and figured that if I could make it here, without a father, I could make it anywhere else. And I had made it all the way to this hot, wild, tomb-like desert.

The heat is overbearing. Sweat falls to the road and quickly disappears. Cars do not pass by anymore. Or at least that’s what I think. I have stopped paying attention to the road. The rock I was sitting by lent me her shadow, but it’s noon, and all the shade is gone. I put my sweaty shirt over my head, hoping it will ease my heat. My shoes are destroyed. The only reason I have kept them is because the ground would cook my feet. “Oh well, I’ll take them off when I’m hungry.” I say out loud, and surprise myself. Am I really going crazy? I must be. I must find a car. I have lost the strength to get up, and honestly I don’t think I would get picked up anyway. Maybe I should put my shirt back on. I traveled 1,200 miles with my shirt on. But the heat is suffocating, so I decide I’ll put it on later. For now, I’ll just stay here, next to this rock. A loud car passes by, it’s roaring engine driving my attention back to the road. But the more attention that I give the driver, the more he seems to ignore me. Drivers probably think I’m dead by now. Abandonment. The story of the milk-skinned woman hits me, and I suddenly realize my situation. The human body can only stand a number of days without water. My sweating like a pig will only make dehydration quicker. I only hope death will be brief.  All motionless, all beat up. I made it all the way to this desert but what has changed? Why has luck suddenly flown away from me? Or have these past six months been only a dream? Could this be just a nightmare? I wish it were. I wish I were still home, with the people I loved. What have I done?

People have a tendency to forget things. We forget things we learn, we forget things we say, and we forget friends we’ve make. We forget the love others feel for us, and we forget the love we feel for others. We forget the good times, but we keep the bad times, as if they were an excuse to justify our actions. People forget. I forgot. I forgot all the warmth of my home. I forgot about my dad, and how he always called me when he was away. I forgot my friends, how they phoned me worried when I skipped school and how they cried when they had to move.  I forgot how they wrote home every day. I forgot about all the parties I attended myself. All the fun I had had with my friends. I forgot about my place on earth, and now it’s too late. I forgot about home. I forgot that there’s no place like home.

Boyd Fortin

Tabriz Mohsenin, a Senior from Woodside, CA, tells the story of a boy who kills rattlesnakes and vehemently unearths fate. She plans on pursuing her love of experimental films, integrating visual art and writing.

When I own a gun I can shoot the snakes right off the ground. Pick them off when they slither out of the grasses, collect their bodies and sling them over my shoulders like belts of ammo. I’ve been in Texas forever, collecting rattlesnakes like clues, but they’ve never told me anything. Creeping up on them where the grass grows high, jump on their backs and slice off their heads before they can twist around and bite you. Stick the knife in and rip through the scales, direct as silver, though you’re only using steel. I carry them home in the red dusk, when it’s too dark to see the snakes flicker in the grass. More likely they get you than you them if you’re killing in the dark.

When I was six, my dad bought me a plastic toy gun. Orange-tipped, with rounds of caps like plastic flowers. He bought it at the hardware store, and whenever he went back for replacement drill bits, he’d buy another pack of caps. I’d shoot almost all of them, until I had one round left, which I’d save until he bought another set or left for good.

I’ve killed a lot of rattlesnakes. I don’t know how many. I started when I was eight and haven’t stopped since. I’m thirteen now. You can’t see them when you look out at the grass from the porch. It looks like a wasteland, flat and lifeless. But I haven’t run out of snakes in five years. I don’t even have to walk far to find them, behind my mother’s house where their thick bodies coil in the dust. I thought they would be gone eventually. I thought if I just killed enough of them I could wipe out the species. Or at least scare the rest of them out of Texas. But I guess I should know by now that you can’t make anything go away. Things leave if they want and stay if they don’t. Doesn’t matter what you do.

My dad left when I was seven and three quarters. Nearly two years after he bought me that cap gun. Nearly two years of saving the last round, but it was only a precaution, really. I never thought I wouldn’t get any more. But then he packed his worn-out shirts and jeans in two plastic drugstore bags, the red Thank Yous gleaming absurdly down the bulging sides as he slammed out the front door, screaming “Fuck you!”

The first time I killed a snake was at the 1974 Rattlesnake Round-Up. Everyone in Sweetwater goes to it. A hundred some people in white aprons with dark purple blood smeared across their cheeks, hands clutching the limp carcasses of snakes like ice cream cones. I killed my first snake, sliced its head clean off and gutted it with the same knife. Tore its body straight down the middle the way the barber from Main Street instructed, as he stood over the cooler of beer and 7Up, cleaning the dried blood out from under his nails with a toothpick.

After my dad left, my mom lost about half her body weight. Looked like a stork with her skinny legs and a throat that always looked too tired to eat even if she tried. Flaps of skin hanging from her chin to the tendons in her neck, which always seemed over-stretched, like it might collapse, crushing her windpipe till she gasped like a fish out of water and died contorted on the floor with her face mottled blue. I dream that a lot. My mom dying like a fish.

I can’t imagine dying though I’ve tried till it made my chest ache. The closest I came was the summer of 1978, when a snake bit me on the inside of my arm. It was the only time I got bit. Jumped on its back, but my grip on the knife was loose, and the snake swung its head round at me before I could cut it off. I screamed till my voice cracked and cried though I was twleve years old. My mother came running ‘cause I was only a few yards out from the back porch and got me to the hospital in my dad’s old pick-up truck, so I never saw my life flash before my eyes like they say you do. Or maybe I did, and I just couldn’t tell the difference between the grass plains and red dust sliding past the car windows and that lightning synopsis of my life, since they’re really just the same thing.

My parents moved to Texas from Nevada, where my dad worked at a hotel in Las Vegas. He said it was no place to raise a kid, so they went to Lubbock while my mother was pregnant, then Sweetwater once I was born, though she didn’t want to. I think about how the Texas dust is ingrained in my skin in a way that soap and water can’t wash off and how the desert has curled up inside me with the other things that eat me from the inside out. But my parents aren’t even from here, and still the place is in my DNA as much as they are. No one ends up where they were born, but somehow I don’t think I’ll ever get out.

When I was bit, I had to stay in the hospital four days. Rolling Plains Medical Center, second floor. I mostly just remember it being dark and feeling like I was in a movie. People think of hospitals as white, but this one was a disappointing beige, with blankets the sick yellow of pus. It was the same hospital I was born in, and I thought it would be symbolic to die there too, but I didn’t. I wrote my name on the bed post, ‘Boyd Fortin’ in silver Sharpie, then wished I hadn’t. I didn’t want to trap myself in there. Maybe I had a premonition of my return without realizing, and that’s why I wrote it. But when I went back a year later it was gone.

I found my old cap gun the night before I left in my closet. I wrapped it in the apron from my first Round-Up, the one I wore every time I killed snakes, but didn’t need anymore. I wanted to do something symbolic, burn or bury it like a corpse, but those things are always meaningless. I look for symbols everywhere, but mostly I just believe in chaos. Everything’s a mess, spinning in space towards a black hole, a great empty cavity like the one in my liver that forced me back to this hospital. And the whole universe is moving so fast, the earth spinning and the cells disintegrating in my guts, but you wouldn’t know it, in this cinderblock room where everything seems still. They repainted the walls. Still beige.

They found the tapeworm three months ago, a few days before my thirteenth birthday, which I spent in an X-ray machine. I’d been nauseous for weeks, living on ginger ale and children’s Tylenol ‘cause my stomach hurt too bad for anything else. At the time, I thought it felt like needles stabbing my side, but now I imagine tiny teeth chewing at my liver. There’s a hole there, and lots of pus. The doctor showed me the slides. Gray smudges of organs around a skinny white slash that dictated my future. That’s the worm, he said, watching my face as I nodded.

If everything really is pointless, and I think it is, I wonder why the snakes are still here. If I look carefully, I can see them out the window from my hospital bed. It hurts, propping myself up on my elbows enough to look over the sill, but if I’m sick anyway, it hardly matters. They blend in with the dust, but I’ve learned what to look for. Flickers of sunlight on the scales, slight stirs of grass. And if they’re out there, alive, and I’m in here, dying, I could prove that the world is ruled by chaos, ‘cause I could kill them. I could slice their heads off and gut them. I could if I could only lift myself from this bed. But sometimes, I think that worms and snakes aren’t so different, and then I wonder if there is such a thing as fate.