Jon lived with his family in a house on a bank along the Ohio River. His family, a mother and six brothers and sisters, made the house a place Jon always entered with a sense of dread like a man going to his hanging. He always left feeling as if he had just been hanged.
He believed he was a stranger who had walked in one day and had been trapped into staying, to be part of an experiment conducted every hour of the day. It was a mad scientist’s experiment in family drama. The experiments were Jon’s reasons for escaping into the past, not just the recent past, but a past he saw in movies, not recent movies, but old movies. He escaped into old movies as if they were his history. Those old movies were part of him and he was part of them.
From his room on the second floor Jon would look out his window and watch the Ohio River flow by. All that water, all the boats, all the debris, all the things carried by currents stronger than they were, fascinated him. From that window with blue plastic curtains tied back with his older brother’s white gym shoe laces, Jon would stare at the river and imagined he was Paul Robeson of the 1936 film version of Showboat, singing Ol’ Man River. Not that Jon could sing, which he couldn’t at all, but he could imagine he could. He had the history of Paul Robeson in his head while singing it at the window.
“Why do you always sing that lousy song?” his older brother Luke would ask from the top bunk of the bunk beds. The top bunk sagged into the space of the lower bunk where Jon slept, where Jon imagined he was James Cagney in prison. Inmates in old prison movies slept in bunk beds like layers of a two layer cake.
“I’m singing about the river so shut up,” Jon would answer and continue singing.
While staring out of his window at the river he thought a lot about why in his own house he was mostly invisible, like Claude Rains in the 1933 version of the movie, The Invisible Man. Other than Luke complaining to him, about him, Jon had become removed, and had removed himself from the numerous dramas going on outside his room, away from the television set. The dramas swirled around him like a river eddy between his siblings and between his siblings and their mother.
He had become an unseen entity, a fake ghost hanging over the daily proceedings. He was rarely spoken to, other than by Luke, and if he was, it was usually a reminder of his sole purpose in the house: to take the trash out.
“How many times do I have to tell you to take it out?” his mother would say as if everyone’s life depended on it.
His mother, who once had a husband who had the good sense to die, always spoke as if pleading was a natural way of speaking.
“I have more important things on my mind than the trash,” Jon would say. The more important things on Jon’s mind were the movies.
“I just can’t can’t relate to anything current,” he would say to his best friend at school, Paula.
Paula, also lived by the river, down the same road that Jon lived on. She stayed away from Jon’s house and Jon’s family. She had experienced Jon’s house firsthand, and couldn’t relate to any of the numerous conflicts that went on in the house.
Grant Junior High School was on a hill. From his classrooms Jon could look out of the large windows and see the river at a distance. The river looked pretty much the same up close and from further away. In school, an old school of red brick and large windows, Jon tried to think more academically about the river.
“You need to pay attention and stop looking out the windows,” Mr. Harms, the English teacher, would tell Jon.
“I am paying attention,” Jon would reply, but what he was paying attention to were the barges going up and down the river, and the flocks of geese above and in the river that came and went, and how everything connected to or were part of the river, were always in movement.
The only difference between school and home was that there were a lot more people in the school who treated him as if he was invisible.
“It’s because of you and your strange obsession with old movies,” Paula said to him. “No one even knows how to talk to you.”
“I’m James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause,” Jon said.
“Who in what?” she said, her face contorted into an expression of near exasperation.
Back at home Jon stayed in his room as much as humanly possible. When not staring out at the flotsam and jetsam on the river, Jon sat cross-legged on the floor staring at the black and white movie images flashing by on his television screen. As if specifically designed for him, several television stations were devoted solely to showing classic movies. As soon as he arrived home every day from school he rushed up to his room, ignoring his mother’s pleas for him to take out the trash, turned on his television, and sat down for his daily therapy.
“Can’t you watch something not prehistoric?” Luke would say from his bunk bed while looking at anime comics on his kindle.
“No I can’t,” Jon would answer, “so shut up.”
The only disturbance to watching the movies on his television that he permitted, or endured, were calls from Paula. The calls were usually brief and mostly centered on her angst about an upcoming test or finishing a book report. Tests and reports held the same amount of significance in Jon’s life as did taking out the trash. With his face a few feet from the television screen, book reports, tests, school, and trash could be forgotten.
He ate his meals alone in his room, in front of the television, turning up the sound to drown out the ruckus of the rest of his family eating and fighting together at about the same time every day around the dinning room table. It was as if they gathered around that table like the argumentative deliberating jurors in Twelve Angry Men to argue the guilt or innocence of his mom’s mashed potatoes: were they too lumpy or not? With his eyes glued to all things black and white, the color, the tumultuous cacophony of real-life color in his own house could be forgotten. It was while he was in his room eating his meal that the rains began.
Coincidentally, the movie that Jon was watching at the time was The Rains Came with Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy.
The rain came lightly at first. Jon looked up from the floor where he was sitting watching the television and saw the raindrops and gave the matter of the rain little thought.
In his back pocket his phone buzzed him back to the present. He took the phone out and looked at the text. It was from Paula.
“It’s raining,” the text said.
Jon quickly typed a reply. “No kidding.”
He looked up at the window again and now the rain was sliding down the glass in waves, one wave washing away the one beneath it. The sound of the rain hitting the poorly shingled roof of the house, made the same sound as when Luke shot spit wads against the walls of their bedroom. Thep. Thep. Thep. Jon put the phone back in his pocket when Paula didn’t respond. He tore himself from the deluge of rain falling on Ranchipur and further complicating the life of Myrna Loy, not to mention complicating the lives of those who would soon drown, and stood at the window and through the rain tried to see the river. Rain falling on a river, any river, not just the Ohio River, was Jon’s definition of his own lack of significance in the world. Or in his school. Or in his house.
Two nights later with the rain still pouring down, and with the football player’s weight of Luke’s sleeping body pushing the above bunk mattress and springs down into Jon’s bunk space to no more than a foot from Jon’s face, Jon lay wide awake listening to the thepping of the rain on the roof and the sharp tapping of it against the window pane.
From his years of living in that house, and living on that road alongside the river, which were all the years he had been alive, Jon knew that despite whatever improvements had been made to the road, no one along this road would be going to school in the morning. This realization only made him feel sorry for Paula who had studied so hard for a test that she wouldn’t be taking. It only reinforced his feelings that nothing should be done in haste, especially studying. From years of waiting until the last moment followed by hours of his mother’s pleading, taking out the trash was something else that shouldn’t be done in haste. He wanted to get out of bed and see what movies were on, but this idea evaporated as soon as his mother flung open the door.
“Boys, get out of bed,” she said frantically. “Water is coming in downstairs and we need to move things up to this floor.”
From out in the hall he could hear the heavy footsteps of his brothers and sisters stampeding down the hall and down the stairs, then the sloshing of their bare feet in the river water that was now forming a pond in the living room. His mother turned and left the door to join them as did Luke, who as always in moments of catastrophe wanted to join in. Jon got out of bed and made it to the hallway just in time to see his two older sisters pass by each carrying a lamp and sofa pillows, the collective worth of the lamps and pillows being equal to charity. They were followed by his younger brother and Luke carrying kitchen chairs, and his mother carrying a box that held the toaster, toaster oven, hand mixer and rice cooker.
“Please Jon, go downstairs and bring something upstairs,” she said pleadingly as she headed for his sisters’ bedroom where everything to be rescued was being deposited.
He wanted to volunteer to bring up the trash, but he tucked away the thought of rescuing the trash for future use in the event of an emergency. He put on his jeans and went out into the hallway and looked down the stairs. The water from the river had forced the front door open and was pouring into the first floor. The haze of the rain, the darkness of the water, had turned the room to darker tones already, not quite black and white, but getting there. The coffee table was bobbing up and down on all four legs in the murky pool that had once been the living room.
His brothers and sisters and mother pushed past him on their way down the stairs, picking up anything that could be carried, then pushed past him again as they carried dripping household items back up the stairs. They did this all while yelling, yelling about the coldness of the water, and yelling at each other. They didn’t yell at Jon, or to Jon, or about Jon. Even his mother went past him again and again carrying water-soaked things to his sisters’ room without saying anything to him. Invisibility occurred even during times of crisis.
At the bottom of the stairs Jon stepped into the water and looked around the pool that was the living room and saw the coffee table floating near the door. The image of the two men rowing the boat while up in the tornado in The Wizard of Oz flashed before his eyes.
Jon straddled the coffee table and reached into the water and began to paddle hard with his hands. As he drifted out the door onto the waters of the overflowing Ohio River, he thought about the sadness of never seeing Paula again and the joy of never seeing Grant Junior High School again. The trash can floated by him as he was carried away by the black currents and white foam of the Ohio River.