Read my latest on Splice Today, a response to Alex Perez’s piece on the not-so-lost art of “dirty realism”: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/dirty-realist-protests-too-much
Let’s say you’ve labored long in the fields of creative writing and the People Who Know (or maybe just the people who’ve noticed) have appreciated your talent. Some have appreciated it loudly and publicly, some quietly to friends in ways that eventually come back to you, some through amazing feats of jealousy, and others through an unrelenting aggressive competitiveness that beggars belief. The lower the stakes, the higher the vitriol is an axiom of creative culture.
Let’s also say that for the first decade of writing and submitting short stories to magazines with names like Lost Nose Quarterly, Barbaric Yawp, and Bitch Review, the feedback of the 25-year-old readers working on these magazines mattered. Susie Lillywhite, the fiction editor at Uncommon Snuff, writes you a personalized rejection, praising your “humorous story of cis-het men behaving badly,” and your ever-present grinding self-doubt abates for ten full minutes; though, on minute 11, you wonder how Susie writes dialogue (“Hello, Mister Cisgendered Heteronormative Male. How are you today?” / “Hello, Thinly Veiled Proxy For Susie Designed To Signpost Authorial Identity And Abate Criticism. I am fine.”).
You get the inevitable raft of rejections and a few acceptances. In time, your acceptance average goes up. You know this because you obsessively gamify your submission process on a spreadsheet like fantasy baseball. Maybe your box scores show progress. Maybe all this effort means something—if not anything tangible in your day-to-day existence, then perhaps in a kind of working-fiction-writer sabermetrics that suggests your chosen life direction hasn’t been a horrible mistake. Maybe the 500 hypothetical readers of Dogwater International are upping your short story RBI. It’s possible. Don’t say it isn’t.
You’ve got a novel in progress. This goes without saying. Everyone has a novel in progress. Your screenwriter friend, Gaurangi, tells you she has two novels in progress, a poetry chapbook in progress, and a book of essays in progress. Yet, she’s miserable and hates her life. “Is that because you’re still assistant manager at KFC and can’t break through the glass ceiling?” “No,” she says, “it’s because you’re a fucking asshole.” You’ve been friends for 15 years. Her name means “giver of happiness.”
There is no joy like mine, you think. I am a cherry blossom adrift in the infinite cosmos. The form email from GOAT Bomb sits in your inbox. You can see that it begins, “Dear Valued Author, thank you for submitting to GOAT Bomb . . .” but you’ve been meditating. And if zazen has taught you anything, it’s that impersonal form rejections are naught but the transcendent meanderings of The Great Vehicle. The rejections aren’t depressing you. It must be something else.
So let’s say you’ve also learned how to save money as an effective freelance survival tactic. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’ve managed to eke out an existence as a ghost writer and a copyeditor. Let’s say, also for the sake of argument, that your cousin, who thought college was stupid, now makes low six figures as a construction manager and thinks you’re hilarious. You see him at Christmas dinner, a rosy-cheeked beer-drinking construction Santa with a twinkle in his eye. And he asks you the same thing he asked you last year: “Are you a mental midget?” He finds the question hilarious. “No,” you say. “I mentally fidget.” He can’t stop laughing. “With your digits!” In this family, we come together through spontaneous and combustive rhyming. You don’t take it personally.
But you don’t follow baseball. Thus, your spreadsheet submission game perpetually teeters on the edge of something else, deep and dark, eldritch and unspeakable, an existential abyss. Why do you do it? How does publishing another story in The East Punjabi Fiction Annual (that took you six months of sustained before-dawn writing sessions and seven painful drafts) matter in the construction management food-on-the-table sense? You joke, but there are no rhymes for it, at least none that would entertain your cousin.
The fact is, you are a mental midget. You must be if you still have to worry about putting ten more dollars on the credit card for a sandwich at Safeway—which isn’t Joe Biden’s fault. So don’t start. The supply chain is effed-up, yes. Covid is ineffable, yes. The pandemic shooed you out of Bangkok one step ahead of the Thai quarantine police, yes, and now you’re living in a Hawaiian jungle, but that has nothing to do with anything. Here you are. The feral rooster outside goes, “KEEEEE-YAAAAW-KOOOOO!” And the great world turns with its comings and goings.
Smoke three cigarettes with Gaurangi in her Kia in the parking lot of KFC. It’s midnight and she is off work. You drove into Hilo just for this because it’s a miracle that you both now live in the same place and she texted you: come smoke a cigarette with me so I can cope with the fact that I manage idiots. She won’t smoke at home because she has a two-year-old daughter and cigarettes are poison. “I should move back to L.A.” she says. “The fucking Big Island’s getting me nowhere.” “You married a Hawaiian.” She looks at you, drags deeply, and smiles. “Yes. That probably has something to do with why I’m here.”
One manages a KFC in Los Angeles if one wants to be a screenwriter, a whole different fantasy ballgame. One brings one’s Hawaiian husband to a bungalow in Glendale. Maybe one sells the script for She’s Gotta Have It 2, earning $135,000 for the original screenplay, including treatment, and suddenly it’s all cheddar. One writes one’s friend in the jungle: I don’t hate L.A. now. It is what it is. Now one can calm down and finish that poetry chapbook in peace.
You’re drinking too much coffee and you read a lot of news. Some nut writing for The Conversation says Covid and climate change are going to turn coffee into a rare luxury item like Kobe beef or Cristal. But the enormous tin of Safeway Select on top of your refrigerator suggests otherwise. You wonder how much the writer got paid to cook up a pandemic scare piece on coffee. What if you pitched something similar about a thing everybody wants being unceremoniously taken away by forces beyond one’s control? What about cheese: “Is Cheese Systemically Racist? Biden Might be Coming for Your Gruyere.” Or sex: “The Death of Intimacy: Gen Z Prefers Online Porn to Sex and Who Can Blame Them?” Or healthcare: “The GOP Thinks Letting Grandpa Die is Good for the Economy.” You write these ideas down and fire up the laptop. There’s rent to be made.
At this point, there are many possibilities. You’ve moneyballed your way into 30, 40 magazine publications. You have three published story collections and a multitude of columns, articles, and essays floating through the aetheric digitalia. But you still live in the jungle. You’ve got a neighbor up the dirt road who deals with his emotions by smoking crack and shooting cats with his Marlin 60. You’re still getting rejections from 25-year-olds and machines that go, “While we appreciate your interest in Dark Pissoir . . . “
Occasionally, some acquaintance on social media will pay attention to you for more than 30 seconds and wonder how you exist. How do you make a living (or How can you possibly make a living?)? You say as best you can. There are 25-year-olds publishing novels with Random House. There are 25-year-olds managing construction sites and getting welding certificates and buying their kids $900 gaming consoles. And there’s a fine line of termite dust along the base of your hovel’s north wall. Are you discouraged? What does that mean, exactly?
Twenty years ago, she might have lit a cigarette. That would have been better. Twenty years and people still didn’t know what to do with their hands. Now they looked at each other and waited.
“I love him. Is that what you want to hear?”
“I don’t really care about that, Mrs. Sorrel. Not what I’m asking.”
“You don’t care? That’s a little cold.” She balanced her silver purse on her thigh, then turned it slightly. “And it’s Barbara.”
“What I mean is were you home that night?”
“Instead of with a friend?”
“Yes. Instead of with a friend.”
“Let me put it to you this way, Mr. Gaffney, after ten years of marriage to Ivan, my friends don’t come around much anymore.”
People waited patiently through what used to be lighting-up-and-smoking pauses. They looked at each other with blank expressions. They used the spaces to figure out what they wanted to say next. In this way, modern conversations were formed. Women used to listen more than men. Now nobody listened. Now people addressed themselves in the presence of others and called it talk.
“I think we should start over, Barbara. I have to ask because it helps me get an idea of what went on. Any little thing, you know?”
He smiled, went over to the pot of stale coffee by the window. Nobody liked it when you handed them a Styrofoam cup of office coffee, but everybody took it and then felt like they owed you something. This Stan Gaffney knew like he knew the time or the traffic five floors down on 32nd Street. Small things to keep in mind. Small things that made up large things.
She said thank you, took the coffee, and set it on the edge of his desk, far enough away without seeming impolite. Then she turned her purse on her thigh again, unzipped it, looked inside. No answers in there. She zipped it back up. “Alright. Sure. I was home. I was asleep.”
“At 8:00 in the evening?”
“I drink. Can I call you Stan?”
“You were drunk? Passed out?”
“If you want to put it like that.”
“What were you drinking?”
When she came in, she’d set her phone on the other wooden chair facing his desk: Mrs. Barbara Sorrel and companion, Mr. iPhone. Now she checked it, tapped it with her thumb, trying not to seem like she was stalling. Maybe the cell phone was the new cigarette.
His question put her off. Why did the type of booze matter? It didn’t. What mattered was the amount of time it took her to think up a brand. Back in the day, she’d have just taken out another smoke. Blonde, late 30s or early 40s, good skin, she’d have been nervous, an upscale woman like her with a missing husband, sitting Gaffney’s dusty office on the fifth floor of the old Martindale Agricultural Building. She wouldn’t come in wearing a pinstriped blazer over a designer T-shirt with yoga love in gold cursive and long-pleated cream pants. She wouldn’t look like she’d just had her hair done. She’d have been—or at least would have pretended to be—distraught. Too bad she wasn’t.
“It was Camitz.”
“How many bottles?”
“What do you take me for, Mr. Gaffney? Not even a whole one. I was hardly drinking, actually, just very sleepy.”
“Not that night.”
“Okay,” he said. “Thank you. I guess that’s it. Anything else you think I should know?”
“There’s a lot I think you should know. Like, where’s my husband?”
“We’ll get to that.”
“You better for what I’m paying you.”
Now they both smiled together, hard, perfunctory. They’d been talking for 90 minutes. She wanted to find out what became of her husband after his birthday party four nights earlier, an event attended by about a hundred people, the part of Kansas City that still had money.
Stan wanted to know what was so special about the orientation of the purse on her thigh, why she kept turning it, why she talked tough but couldn’t make eye contact, why she’d walked into his office smelling like high-end Baccarat Rouge, why she’d lied about passing out drunk, why she’d come to him at all. Small things that turned into large things. Little pieces that fell out of a puzzle. Put them back in and you saw the picture.
On her way out, Mrs. Sorrel turned, holding her silver purse in front of her like some society matron in a stiff vanity portrait, the sort of thing people hung in the foyers of tasteless mansions. “You’re probably going to discover that Ivan has a long-term girlfriend named Cheryl O’Neil. I can get you her address.”
“You’ve been aware of her for a while?”
She nodded at the carpet. “Even came to our wedding, if you can believe that. I didn’t know her name at the time. I found out later.”
“But you were suspicious even then?”
“You want to stay married to a man like my husband, Mr. Gaffney, you don’t get suspicious. You get realistic.”
Barbara Sorrel had enough money to get as realistic as she wanted. When she came in, Stan gave her his highest rate and she cut the check then and there like it was nothing. But maybe all that realism meant she couldn’t trust the usual cadre of flunkies and stool grooms attendant on a man like Ivan. Maybe she couldn’t put her faith in anyone she knew. Maybe she felt that finding her missing husband meant she had to drive out to central Missouri to a little town named Hauberk and hire a private investigator nobody ever heard of.
“Well,” he said. “I’ll be in touch. And Mrs. Sorrel? Have a better day.”
She laughed, nodded, and the door closed softly behind her.
Professional writers and artists sometimes forget that they are human beings. In the immense pressure to monetize their work, develop personal commercial brands, and get recognized as professionals (because without such things, capitalist culture regards an artist as a hobbyist at best), they can forget that their art is only one part of who they are. It might be a very large, dominant part, but they exist as multifaceted, complex beings who cannot be wholly defined by what they produce for others to consume.
Forgetting their humanity leads creative people into a lot of pain and self-torment, especially during those inevitable times when they’re not producing a lot of work and they feel like they don’t matter and might not even really exist.
That’s when it’s important to remember that it’s not how often or how much you produce that makes you real. It’s how committed you are inside—knowing that you will return to the work in time and putting your faith in the creative impulse to guide you. Inspiration will return. And so will you.
In the meantime, make the other parts of your life as deep and as excellent as you can, which is a neverending practice you owe to yourself and to those who have nurtured you along the way, crucial to your wellbeing. You are not a content machine. You are a channel for something greater than your anxious everyday personality. Remembering that, honor who you are.
There are a number of things Victoria won’t do. And the trouble with that is I’m paying her to get up off her skinny ass every fifteen minutes and look down at the street. And that’s exactly one of the things she won’t do. She won’t do it because I want her to. She won’t do it because she likes to get something for nothing. Maybe she won’t do it because in our miniature thimble food stamp life, it amuses her to see the pissed-off look on my face all the time.
“Go,” I say. “Go.”
And I raise my hand like she can talk to the palm if she wants to argue. But Victoria doesn’t argue. She never talks to the palm. She dyes her hair blond every month and lets it go dark at the roots. She eats us out of house and home. She disrespects me on a daily basis. She lives in a different universe than most other normal people.
Still, sometimes I say go and she does. Sometimes, I think she actually does what I’m paying her to do just to keep me guessing. That’s another thing. I never know what’s wrong with her. But there is something definitely always wrong with her. And I’m always on the receiving end of it and guessing about it and how it’s going to screw up my life next.
I’ve been guessing for over ten years of marriage to the woman. And I still have to pay her minimum wage. We got married long enough ago for me to have forgiven myself for the period of temporary insanity—compounded by horniness and rapid decision making—that led up to the wedding. In short: I’m a victim of the human condition. And that’s something at least I don’t have to guess about. But: capitalism. She’s got to get paid or she don’t go.
She comes back from the window and just stands there.
“Nothing,” she says. “Linda doing her whore thing. That Hoffman kid’s sitting on top of his car. There’s a dog. Nothing for you down there.”
Then she stops and smirks. She’s waiting for the punch line, the second shoe, the moment I look disgusted or angry or depressed or even like I don’t care anymore. So she can laugh at me and say something sarcastic and go back to her crossword puzzle.
And she goes: “I’m sure you’re going to make it down the stairs in time before Linda gets a customer. I’m sure.”
“You don’t know a goddamn thing.”
“Oh, I know a thing or two,” she says raising her eyebrows at where my legs should be. Instead of a thing or two, I’ve got a stump or two. But I’ve got all kinds of moves. It’s like she doesn’t even see the guide ropes down the stairs or the pulley system I put in. I’ve got a lot of time. What did she think I was doing up here with the hammer? I’ve told her, but the words just bounce right off her crossword-doing brain.
Victoria’s done every crossword book published in the last 50 years by Simon and Schuster. She has stacks of them. I asked her one time does she want to just stick to the ones in the Herald because they’re free and she tells me they’re way too easy. So she’s like this crossword puzzle Jedi master. And she’ll throw words out on me, too. Like: lugubrious.
I’ll be sitting here, drawing something—what I usually do every day—like trying to get the line of Linda’s calf just right or the expression when one of her customers looks up and thinks he sees me watching but he’s too busy getting his money’s worth to keep thinking about it—and Victoria will just come out with lugubrious. Just spontaneously like that and completely blow my mind.
“Where do you think all these drawings come from if I can’t make it down the stairs in time? I’m even faster now than when I could walk.”
“You keep on telling yourself that,” she says to the crossword book. “Mmm-hmm, you keep on believing.”
And if she busts out with a word like lugubrious, I’ll usually say something like, “Lugubrious? Get the fuck out of here with your lugubrious. I don’t even know what that means. That’s not even a word.”
But it won’t do any good. She’ll just nod like Buddha and take another sip of coffee like she’s doing right now. And I’ll know it’s a word because I’ll definitely go look it up in her crossword puzzle dictionary. And then the joke will be on me. Always. But I never back down over a word.
“Look, I’m paying you too much to keep an eye out for me, in that case, if you don’t even think I can get down there in time.”
“It’s your money.”
“Damn right it is,” I say, wheeling myself over to the shelf where I keep my sketch book and backpack. “I’m going to go do my art. With my money that you’re stealing by not doing your job.”
“Keep your money,” Victoria says. “I’m going on strike.”
She isn’t going on strike. We’ve been married a decade. My wife doesn’t strike. Even when, for example, I get really pissed-off and use a word like lugubrious in every other sentence to drive her crazy. I might say something like, “I’m not trying to be all lugubrious about it, but I think we’re running out of coffee” or “Those kangaroos on the show were really lugubrious the way they ran around like that. Don’t you think?” That sort of thing used to get to Victoria. But now she just laughs at me. She doesn’t even bother defining the words for me anymore.
The rope and pulley system gets me down to the landing and then out the front door of the building in less than a minute. It works like this: I’ve got a pair of really smooth electrician’s gloves. It took me forever to work them down so the rubber wasn’t sticky. Now they slide on the ropes like no tomorrow and I can glide down the stairs hand-over-hand. I’m using a double-braided Mammut Supersafe 10.2mm climbing rope threaded through a system of 12 extra-large anodized aluminum pulleys nailed to the wall of the stairwell. I cinch up the seatbelt on my wheelchair, kick off from the top step outside our door, and let gravity and expert hand coordination do the rest.
Whenever I get to a pulley, I have switch hand positions. I’ll admit I missed a switch once and wound up on the landing after taking a dozen stairs upside my face. But since then, I got professional at it, and I cross-train with 10 lb. weights for those times when I have to carry something heavy down in my lap. It’s all in the biceps.
So that’s what I do to get down, and today I’m actually out on the sidewalk as the guy gets out of his car and follows Linda into her apartment building across the street. Why she takes her customers up to her own residence I will never understand. But I don’t ask questions because we’ve got a good thing going. Her building has an old-fashioned Otis traction elevator inside with an expandable iron gate. By the time I wheel myself up the ramp and go into the lobby, the elevator is coming right back down for me.
The lobby’s all brown marble and decaying sofas, and if you’re moving fast in a wheelchair, you really have to be careful you don’t turn too sharp. Marble’s slippery and it hurts your face when you fall.
Ever since getting blindsided by a drunk child in an SUV in the winter of 1994, I’ve learned new things about all kinds of surfaces. I was on the crew resurfacing the part of upper 47th street that runs down to the water when the girl’s fender pinned me against our truck. That day, my life changed in just about every way. No legs, no more job at the DOT.
Now I read a lot more, and I’m compiling my own set of words like a Sith master getting ready to pull one on the Jedi. I even went back and got my AA degree. Recently, I’ve earned certificates in painting and drawing from The Odessa Institute Online—not cheap, but what the hell am I going to use my money for now? Just to pay Victoria to be my lookout?
I was about to retire so we could move out of the city. Instead, now I’m an artist. That’s what I do. And my subject is, and always will be, Linda.
A new story published in The Nonconformist Magazine. Read it here: https://nonconformist-mag.com/the-ashes-of-the-trumpocene/
(Part of a long story in progress.)
It was around this time that the dreams began. Looking back, it seems remarkable that they hadn’t begun sooner in all of us. But, even if they had, we probably wouldn’t have known. We wouldn’t have talked about it.
Tyler would have belched and blamed the beer or the Eagles or the general stupidity of Carling. Greg would have gone along with him, regardless whether he secretly harbored some superstitions or otherwise fanciful beliefs about the provenance of dreams. And Lindsey, perhaps the smartest and most insightful of us all, would have left it open. “Maybe it all means something,” she’d say. “Or maybe not.” Then she’d ask, again, about the bonfire.
To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I would have been more forthcoming than Lindsey. Someone who has a hard time talking about love wouldn’t be able to easily broach the subject of dreams—which supersede love and, in that sense, seem to grant access to an even more private, deeper vulnerability. It was better for all of us not to ever speak about dreams or love, as was our custom. But the dreams were real, as real as dreams can be. And there was no escape, no respite, no bright simple explanation for how they seemed to dovetail with our thoughts, our anxieties.
In the shadows of my dreams, I saw the lighthouse at Beacon Point. And the vision struck me like the resonance of a deep temple bell, though when I woke I could not say exactly how or why. The lingering impression of something incongruous and dense just beneath the surface of the very mundane lighthouse made me doubt my mind.
Dreams of water and rain, of a dark rusted hospital ship drifting toward the rocks. Waking to thunder and lightning outside my bedroom window. It had been storming just off Beacon Point for days, never moving too far inland, just enough to cover Carling and the beach. How much had I slept? Three hours? Two? I went into the kitchen and started some coffee.
Dreams and the fragments of dreams. Echoes and reflections of a mind untethered. I didn’t like it when I dreamed, the loss of control, the stillborn sense that I’d been somewhere else, leading a wholly different life. The residue of those feelings and the fragments that sometimes returned throughout the day: the lighthouse illuminated from behind by an unknown source, its tiny circular windows dark and still, the rain coming down hard but completely silent. Such images would come back to me like memories.
In my mind’s eye, I’d recall the surf crashing noiselessly against the rocks, arms of white water raised in a voiceless paean. And the dead hospital ship making its way inexorably toward the land. It would crash against the shipways. The destruction would be incredible. Enormous. In my dream, I felt desperate to tell someone. But I was always alone.
The coffee maker beeped. I leaned against the sink, looking out through the little window far above the apartment lot, the space tinged green by sodium floods. And watched the sheets of rain glitter pale emerald against the night.
News this good doesn’t arrive every day.
My third collection of stories, Living the Dream, just got accepted by Terror House for publication in 2021. I will be updating my websites when I have more information.
Thanks to everyone for following my writing. It matters.
A story about volunteers.
Of all the things I’d hoped to accomplish that fall, digging a six-foot-deep moat around the family house wasn’t one of them. But the governor decided to end all Covid restrictions in the middle of the pandemic, causing the state’s heavily armed population to take it as a sign and go berserk. When that happens, you dig a moat. So I couldn’t argue with Uncle Red’s decision to fortify the premises. Nevertheless, there were problems.
My own troubles started a week before I moved in. Hauberk College cancelled its spring semester in the interests of social distancing and good hygiene. So instead of moving into the dorms the second half of my freshman year like I’d planned, I found myself staying at the house my mother once described as “a ramshackle pit” and trying to spend as little money as possible. I was supposed to have received a dining hall meal plan along with my freshman year scholarship. Given my Aunt Phoebe’s cooking, I think losing that meal plan depressed me the most.
“Put your back into it,” Uncle Red said, “or I’ll make you mask up!”
I nodded and tried to approximate what “putting your back into it” looked like, but I was tired. I’d been shoveling my assigned section of moat since morning, my back hurt, and I’d gotten blisters on my hands. This, I thought, is no way to start an adult life. If I’d wanted to dig moats for a living, I could have joined the Peace Corps like my brother.
In my uncle’s view, masking up was the ultimate dunce cap, fit only for democrats, Marxists, social justice activists, and professors. In this branch of my family, wearing a mask to protect against Covid was a sign of weakness, wrong thinking, unworthiness, and shame. I had a pack of five N95 masks in my suitcase, but I hadn’t taken them out.
It was enough that everyone knew I was attempting college. Anything more and I felt the generosity of my relatives would become strained beyond the bounds of credulity. As Uncle Marty liked to say, I’d be just another “freak peckerhead.” And nobody wants that. More importantly, I’d also be out on the street.
“That’s hardpan you’re digging!” yelled Aunt Phoebe from the porch. “Too hard for you!”
“No doubt about it!” yelled Uncle Marty.
“You got that right!” yelled Uncle Red.
I said nothing and kept trying to look like I was putting my back into it.
Uncle Red was called “Red” because his first name was “Redding.” There was a story behind it that no one ever talked about. He was short, had a beer belly, small eyes, and a round face. He was also completely bald and never had anything close to red hair. Uncle Marty looked completely different: tall, muscled, with blue eyes and a thick blond goatee that made you think of King Arthur.
Aunt Phoebe, on the other hand, was completely gray and starting to develop a stoop from osteoporosis. She liked to say her bones were getting smaller along with her brain. None of them looked like each other. And none of them looked like me. I sometimes wondered whether any of us were actually related.
The moat was wide enough for two grown men to stand on the bottom shoulder to shoulder. We knew this because that’s exactly what my uncles did. They checked the depth with a wooden yardstick as we progressed. We dug our way clockwise around the house; past the corner of the porch; past the enormous red-brick chimney that started at the base of the foundation and went up six feet above the roof; past the completely rusted propane tank, which everyone agreed would someday explode; past the back porch and the far corner of the house, gray and disintegrating like the old barns you saw from the highway; and back around to the front. It didn’t dig like hardpan. The ground was relatively soft. Still, it was an enormous project to attempt in one day.
When we found our way back to the front yard, the ouroboros could almost bite its tail. So we broke for dinner. It was ham and cheese sandwiches, brought out by Aunt Phoebe on her Franklin Mint 2016 commemorative platter, featuring Donald Trump and Abraham Lincoln healing the sick of Bombay. Above them, the good Lord smiled down from his golden throne in the clouds. Aunt Phoebe liked to joke about it, but I also noticed she kept the platter on a decorative stand by her boom box over the sink.
My uncles and I sat on the edge of the moat, our feet dangling down like kids at swim class taking a break. There was a festive air, a certain delight that Uncle Red and Uncle Marty never seemed to show. But when they looked at what we accomplished they smiled and high-fived each other.
Back on the porch, Aunt Phoebe turned and yelled, “Eat up, boys, but don’t take too long!”
“Not a chance!” yelled Uncle Red.
“We’re on it!” yelled Uncle Marty.
Then the three of them looked at me. I raised my fist in solidarity and took another bite.
Uncle Red, Aunt Phoebe, and Uncle Marty, lived together in the house about 40 miles northeast of Hauberk, Missouri. It was a two-story Coronado foursquare build by the Louis Company for my great-grandfather in 1912. He moved there from Kansas City with the expectation that the town of Hauberk would eventually grow along the railroad in his direction, raising the value of the land. That proved, however, to be a precipitous assumption. The property was the last bit of an unproductive patch, which before the Great Depression had been optimistically designated as farmland, but which was now just a flat plain of grass and birch trees with dry creeks and too many crows.
The house had been going to seed for the last 80 years, just like our family, and was known to be an area where you might get threatened with a .410 for trespassing. Still, Uncle Red, Aunt Phoebe, and Uncle Marty, having survived their respective spouses, retired together to the old house in the late 1990s. Since then, they seemed to have given themselves over to the kind of melancholy one feels when the good old days are unquestionably gone forever.
When they weren’t digging moats, they were a fairly morose bunch and they were avoided at all costs by the rest of the family. I’d learned that the feeling was generally mutual; though, the three of them maintained a reverence for our grandfather and his property that bordered on religion.
They did not keep the place up, but they did admire it greatly, if only in the abstract and usually in the evenings after a certain amount of alcohol. The house signified the last good, common, family thing in their lives. They were not well off, but they treated the old homestead not unlike one of the great estates of a lost European nobility, a sad reminder of a grander, more glorious age.
“You’re never gonna get it done!” Aunt Phoebe yelled.
“I know!” yelled Uncle Marty.
“Damn shame!” yelled Uncle Red, pitching his crumpled can of Bud into the open leaf bag in the center of the front lawn.
I looked at the remaining distance we had to cover, maybe about 15 feet, and realized that Aunt Phoebe would have said that even if we’d only had one shovelful left. That was just her style, the same way that my uncles agreed with her no matter what she said. I was a guest in the house, yes, but I was also a spectator.
When the George Floyd protests came to Hauberk and someone tried to burn down the Walmart Megastore a block west of the college, Uncle Red, Aunt Phoebe, and Uncle Marty defaulted to the fatalistic, medieval siege mentality that had been lurking in their DNA all their lives. They ran up their credit cards at the gun shop and patronized whichever local box stores were still open in order to prepare for the worst. They figured the End Times had finally arrived. It cheered them immensely.
All Hauberk was on edge. Everyone was talking about what had recently happened in Nirvana, just over the Arkansas line, where an anti-police brutality protest turned brutal and an entire strip mall went up in flames, including a bank, a nail salon, a Mongolian restaurant, and a storefront sculpture gallery featuring Remington reproductions and assorted objects of rodeo art.
Though the editors of the Hauberk Gazette condemned the violence in the strongest possible terms, stressing the need for dialogue and down-home midwestern tolerance, there was an abiding sense that anything could happen. One worried that the civil unrest, which had so recently and shockingly boiled through the country on the coattails of the pandemic, might rush inward from the coasts once again, burning everything in its path, until it all coagulated in the center of Hauberk’s main drag.
“Knees! Dig from the knees!” yelled Aunt Phoebe.
“That’s what I keep telling him!” yelled Uncle Marty.
“Absolutely!” yelled Uncle Red as he tossed another can of Bud into the bag.
Unfortunately, the moat had not been dug from the knees and it was decidedly not watertight. The 50 gallons of bituminous tar specified for that purpose in Uncle Marty’s Medieval Siegecraft for the Modern Home was not obtainable from Amazon Prime in less than a month, the local Home Depot having sold out of it two weeks earlier. We weren’t the only ones digging moats.
Things got more difficult when Aunt Phoebe strained her back boiling crab apples in an enormous cast iron cauldron behind the house. This took most of the joie de vivre out of the moat digging experience, seeing that she then parked herself on the front porch swing with a Mason jar full of ice water so she could critique Uncle Red’s and Uncle Marty’s shovel technique.
“The knees!” she yelled. “It’s all in the knees! If you don’t hurry it up, you won’t get finished before sundown! And then what?”
“I know!” yelled Uncle Marty.
“Dig like you got a pair!” yelled Uncle Red—I think to me, since he had his back to Marty and it wouldn’t have made sense had he been addressing Aunt Phoebe. But I’d learned to take nothing for granted while staying at the house. And though we hadn’t talked about it, I think we’d all seen enough zombie movies to know what happens after dark when moats are only half-dug.
Mercifully, Aunt Phoebe left me alone. Yes, I had bad shovel form. I knew it. At 19, I’d already developed what some might call “rickety knees,” which ended all career paths involving well digging, trench maintenance, basement retrofitting, pool resurfacing, and freelance latrine management well before I could investigate those brochures at the Hauberk Job Center.
Sometimes, Uncle Red called me, “boy” or “the kid,” not in a condescending way but because, to the three of them, that’s what I was and probably what I’d always be. Uncle Red often said, “A man busts his ass.” By that calculus, I was just a kid with an unbusted ass and weak knees, who’d therefore gone to college to study Marxism and smoke dope.
“You’re hopeless!” yelled Aunt Phoebe.
“Truth!” yelled Uncle Marty.
“No kidding!” yelled Uncle Red.
I did my best to put my back into it and dig like I had a pair. I shoveled as fast as I could, thinking we’d have to engineer some sort of pit trap or at least a deadfall with broken rocks and shards of glass at the bottom to stop the house-invading hordes of liberals my aunt and uncles expected any time now. In case we didn’t get the tar, my Uncle Red said they had a backup plan; though, none of them felt inclined to share it with me just yet. And I knew better than to attempt to pry it out of them. They had their secrets, jointly and severally, to be sure.
Still, in spite of the fact that none of us pleased Aunt Phoebe with our shovelry and my uncles took regular piss breaks, constantly bringing more Bud Light out from the pantry, we completed the moat by nightfall. They completely filled the plastic yard bag with their empty cans. By the end, they were, as Aunt Phoebe put it, “drunk as two otters.” Nevertheless, it was a magnificent moat, yawning, black and ominous as a skull in the dark.
I felt we would all sleep well that night—my uncles from an abundance of beer, me from physical exhaustion, Aunt Phoebe from her nightly Halcion crushed up and taken with warm milk. In the upstairs hallway, she grabbed me by the arm as we passed each other on the way to our rooms. It was dark, but we paused in a slant of light from the circular window over the stairs. Fingers digging into my arm, she warned me not to go outside if I woke up before dawn.
“Cause you don’t know what’s out here,” she whispered. “You never know.”
I thought Aunt Phoebe was going to caution me against falling into the moat, but I couldn’t imagine what caused her to think I might be wandering out there in the middle of the night.
“Ain’t no bears in Missouri,” she said. “Leastways not around here.”
She sighed, frowned at me, then let go of my arm and shuffled down to her room at the end of the hall. One day, Aunt Phoebe would tire of my sarcasm. Then there would be hell to pay. Until then, it would be either liberals or bears or perhaps liberal bears, and hell could wait.
It was a big house, two stories up on a high footprint. The wood and flagstone front porch was painted dull clay red on a gray concrete foundation about six feet off the ground. The top floor—four bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a solarium full of cardboard boxes and miscellaneous dusty junk—felt more like a third story.
I opened the bedroom window and felt the night air on my face. The window was more like a set of narrow doors with yellow glass panels. It had little French handles made of pewter and, when it was fully open, it framed my body from mid-shin. No screen. You turned both handles at once, swung both sides inward, and then it was just you and the night sky. No one, to my knowledge, had ever fallen out and broken his neck, but it was the first thing I thought of as I stood there listening to Uncle Red snoring two rooms away.
The flat blue-gray plain of dead farmland stretched out under the moon. Here and there a black copse of birch broke the monotony. Uncle Red called them “volunteers,” because the birds had dropped the seeds. The saplings grew tall and thin together like groups of people mingling at a party. My uncles were too superstitious to cut them down. When I asked, Uncle Marty just said, “You don’t fuck with the land.” And that was that.
I looked for the moat, but I could only see the edge of it if I leaned way out, which scared me when I did it. I’m not afraid of heights and old creaky houses, but there was something about how the stands of trees cast long shadows in the moonlight that made me think no one would ever notice me out there if I fell and broke something.
The room smelled like they hadn’t vacuumed since the Kennedy Administration and I wondered how many people had slept in the lumpy queen bed over the years, what their lives had been like, and how many of them might have stood at the window on a moonlit night and watched those dark stands of trees sway in the wind.
In the morning, I came down to the kitchen, feeling groggy and sore from the previous day’s agricultural labor, all that putting of my back into it and digging like I had a pair. Aunt Phoebe set out a bowl of Cream of Wheat for me with a slab of butter in the middle like a tiny radiant sun. She was in a good mood, doing the dishes, whistling, had the local conservative radio show going full blast from her ancient boom box over the sink.
I noticed she’d washed and replaced the Franklin Mint platter beside the radio. After I’d been sitting at the table for a minute, Aunt Phoebe fell back into her unconscious habit of answering the show under her breath—“Right” or “Not a chance” or “That’s for damn sure” as she moved around the kitchen. I thought it was a holy roller radio service at first. But it was just an agitated republican.
“We’re pretty much stocked up,” she said. “Nothing can touch us now!”
“What about the crab apples, though?”
Aunt Phoebe gave me a sour look. “I dumped ’em. Too much work. And I was short on jars. The squirrels’ll get ’em all before the end of the week anyhow. You’ll see.”
The speaker on the radio had a feverish, almost breathless way of spitting out his words, as if each one were a bullet. The question under debate was what the violent liberal rioters were going to do when Trump won again. A group of illiberal Marxist dissidents was supposed to be holding a sit in that evening in downtown Saint Joseph and the local militia was set to come out and prevent various statues from getting beheaded. The speaker paused, then asked with great intensity: “Will they burn YOUR town next?”
“Not this damn town,” muttered Aunt Phoebe; though it was unclear which town she meant. It was all a bit hard to take with a bowl of greasy porridge after a day of engaging in medieval siegecraft.
The moat, as I have already mentioned, was lacking a sealant, at least one appropriate for a crusader stronghold. But the backup plan was sound and had already been put in motion. My uncles returned in Marty’s Dodge Ram just as I was forcing myself to swallow the last spoonful of breakfast. Roped steady in the truck bed was a 50-gallon drum of self-hardening fiberglass resin they’d bought that morning at Complete Building Materials over in Columbia.
Uncle Red explained the plan as we looked down into the moat. “This turns to stone and it’s watertight. When we have to, you know, pour Greek fire in there and light it up, it won’t burn extra hot like with the tar, but it’ll keep it going.”
Uncle Red lit a cigarette, squinted, gestured at the moat with his smoking hand. “An incendiary weapon first used in Byzantine warfare in the seventh century, Anno Domini. What’d they teach you at school?”
“Napalm,” Uncle Marty said and grinned. “They never expect napalm.”
“Isn’t that against the Geneva Convention?”
Later, we sloshed the self-hardening resin around the entire inside of the moat, got harangued from the porch by Aunt Phoebe for sloshing it wastefully and not bending our knees (“I know!” yelled Uncle Red. “Yeah! Exactly!” yelled Uncle Marty.), and got dizzy from the fumes. Then Uncle Marty took me out to see his cattery.
Two things are always true in this existence of toil and servitude, no matter who you are and no matter what you do for a living: one never expects napalm and visiting a cattery will change you. The former is true because napalm, like moats, is something out of myth and legend, something we only see on TV. No one says, “It’s looking like rain tomorrow, Bob. We better roll out the napalm.” It just doesn’t happen.
The latter is true because feral cats are sons and daughters of the goddess, Bastet, and therefore inherently divine. And 38 furry divine beings peering at you from the roof and through the slats of an ancient collapsing barn will deliver such pagan grace as to make you rethink certain fundamental assumptions and generally reconsider your life. Uncle Marty explained this to me when we got there, which also made me reconsider Uncle Marty.
He had a large black cat statue, which he’d positioned at the edge of the roof overlooking the broken side door. “Soon as I put the statue up,” he said, “they started coming. They told their friends. I’m well known.”
“You’re a cat celebrity.”
“Don’t joke.” He nodded at the Bast statue, which had been carved so artfully that the black cat sitting next to it looked identical. “She’s a goddess. She’s kind. But she’s got her dignity. You know?”
I didn’t. I also didn’t know whether he meant the black cat sitting next to the statue or Bastet herself. When we got out of the truck, the cats started meowing.
“Ancient Egypt’s always called to me. I got a ton of books on it. Started having these dreams. Then one day, I came out here to shoot some cans and I saw a cat sitting right over there.”
He pointed to a cement block sticking up about a hundred feet away, part of an old house’s foundation, what they used to call a “ghost basement.” The house got torn down and all that was left were concrete basement walls sunk into the earth. But the barn had remained, slowly listing until a tornado or maybe just age and termites caused it to definitively collapse sideways. From the look of it, one more bit of harsh weather might do it in completely.
Uncle Marty opened up five large tins of cat food and positioned them around the doorway. He talked as he washed out and refilled two aluminium water dishes of the sort the local farmers used for goats and alpacas. “I followed the cat inside here but it was gone. Then, about a week after that, I had a dream of cats in a golden temple and I knew.” He straightened up and gave me his King Arthur smile as if the rest of the story should have been self-evident.
A large crowd of cats had now formed around my uncle, some taking sips of water, some rubbing against his jeans, or nibbling at the food. A row of them looked down from the edge of the roof like vultures. Pairs of eyes stared at us from spaces in the wood. The meowing was prodigious and incessant. I’d never seen feral cats act like this. Then again, I’d never seen an ancient Egyptian cattery barn dedicated to a goddess before, either.
“You knew what?”
“I knew I touched on the infinite.”
In the evening, Uncle Red got drunk up in the attic, watching C-SPAN on the house computer. Uncle Marty disappeared to his room. And Aunt Phoebe put on the AM ballroom station, twirling around the kitchen like an ingénue of the early cinema. Contrary to what one might initially think, this was their usual routine.
It was also why I hadn’t asked Uncle Marty to explain what touching the infinite meant. After many nights of watching my aunt bow to an invisible dance partner, whom she referred to as “Mr. Godfrey,” and listening to Uncle Red have heated drunken arguments in the attic with his dead wife (Aunt Paula—I met her once when I was very young), an Egyptian cat shrine in backwoods Missouri didn’t seem unreasonable.
Aunt Phoebe and my uncles weren’t stupid. They weren’t insane. They were simply ingrown, weird, haunted by people or things long gone, by memories or regrets or fantasies. And to watch them in their evening pursuits, to pass judgement on them, even silently, seemed indecent, made me feel as though their loneliness could add to mine. So I gave them as much room as I could in that dusty old house, retreating to my bedroom after dinner to read.
My great-grandfather’s bookcases were still in the basement, preserved under dusty drop cloths and I liberated the complete Dickens in hardback, the stories of Guy de Maupassant, an illustrated Moby Dick. I kept a diary on my laptop; though, I was often uninspired and only tapped out a few lines. And that was the circumference of my nights when I wasn’t recovering from digging like I had a pair. I’d hoped to study English at Hauberk College, since reading was the only thing I ever truly enjoyed, but given a long enough timeline in that house, I felt I, too, would be holding seances, talking to ancient cat goddesses, and sharing a Coke with Mr. Godfrey.
I’d never been normal, if normal meant barbeques and baseball games. I wasn’t fond of team sports, wasn’t voted most likely to succeed at anything. Toward the end of my senior year, as I was getting ready to go away for college, after noting loudly and critically that I didn’t have a girlfriend, my mother pronounced me too smart to be normal and cast her own form of divination, part curse, part prophecy.
I would, she said, be lonely and miserable in the years to come. But there would be a time when the tables would turn and all those kids who seemed to be having fun now would despise themselves and their lives. Then it would be my turn as long as I studied very, very hard. She had that angry righteous light in her eyes when she said it. But she never foretold that a virus would sweep the world or that I’d wind up living in “the ramshackle pit” instead of taking British Literature at Hauberk College. My parents hadn’t returned my last three calls. I could only assume that they didn’t want me coming home so soon. Maybe they thought some moat digging would be good for me.
We were about ten miles out from the house on a dirt road without a name. I asked Uncle Marty if the barn was part of the family property, but he just smiled and shook his head.
“Somebody owns it,” he said. “Or nobody does.”
“Maybe the cats.”
Uncle Marty laughed, nodded. Maybe so.
A new story in Terror House Magazine. Click here and read it on their site: https://terrorhousemag.com/two-women/