“You’re not holding it in long enough,” Mark said.
We had just crawled through an open window into his mother’s rental house, a sun-bleached colonial with moss clinging to the foundation, greening the cracks between the brick steps. We were in his mom’s girlfriend’s stepson’s stepbrother’s bedroom.
Mark had threatened his mom a few days before, said-not seriously, but said nonetheless – that he wanted her dead, was going to save his allowance to hire a hit man. He didn’t know how to hire a hit man, obviously. But his mom had stopped taking his late-night phone calls. She had also made Bill take back Mark’s key to her house. So Mark had said, “She doesn’t want me there? Fuck her. Let’s break in.”
“I’m trying,” I said now, holding the woodshop-carved pot pipe, sitting on the stepson’s stepbrother’s skateboard, moving it back and forth on the thick, dull-green carpet, my back against the fake wood paneling of the room.
Mark grabbed the pipe, disappointed in me, and lit it with a yellow Bic, circling the flame around the edges of the foil covering the bowl as he sucked the end. It was ditch weed, dry and harsh, like inhaling near a campfire. His cheeks inflated; his eyes reddened. Seeds sparked and popped.
I coughed. My throat felt scraped. I shut tight my eyes, and little blue flecks went spinning in the deep darkness of my eyelids.
A few minutes later, I noticed my tongue, the size and shape of it. It was drying out and inflating, becoming a salted slug.
Mark was giddy, distant. “Dude,” he laughed.
I laughed, too, couldn’t stop myself, mostly at the laughing itself, which was all over the place, like something spilled.
The house hummed. Houses were machines, with wires and switches. I couldn’t stop laughing.
A dull ache bloomed behind my eyes.
I thought, for a very long time I thought, of when Gerry H. put his thumb on my eyelid when I was eight and said, “I could pop it and probably kill you.” I thought, for a very long time I thought, of how some bigger kids in the neighborhood who did not hate me but did hate Gerry H. held him by his wrists and ankles, facing down, so that his bare stomach was just inches from a new pile of dog shit, how the whole episode was like a masterfully devised torture system in which the tortured had to keep wriggling with an increasingly tired back and arms and legs to avoid having fresh, smelly feces spread across his belly, how when the fresh smelly feces was finally smeared across the tortured one’s body it was not, of course, the fault of the torturers but simply a failure of fortitude and rightness on the part of the one being tortured.
My heartbeat was jumpy. I waited, trying to make it slow down. I tried to remember what I was waiting for a minute later, why I was concentrating on something having to do with my body. I worked hard to remember my lost thought until finally I remembered that maybe I hadn’t lost a thought but was instead getting stuck in the feeling, the sort of mentally sick feeling, of a thought lost and needing to be tracked down again. This was something that sometimes happened to me when I took drugs: a feeling of increasing negativity and dislocation from self that seemed to slowly expand until I was near panic.
I looked around: dirty socks and T-shirts and jeans on the floor; on the walls were posters of Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, the glistening bodies of women in bikinis, one with beer foam dripping, thick and white, down her large, shining chest. She was looking down, looking at me, smiling. She wouldn’t leave me alone. She kept looking, kept staring. Who could talk to a woman like that? My face would lock, my jaw would rust tight, my bloated tongue wouldn’t have an inch of wiggle room inside my mouth and I’d choke. Please, lady. I looked at a Budweiser ad – horses, huge hairy-footed Clydesdales – on the back of the fist-imprinted door. Over there: Stroh’s. And Old Milwaukee. I lingered over a chipped, flesh-colored ashtray on the green bedspread in the shape of a pleading, open hand. I felt the way my mouth tasted-radiated, I wanted to say. Irradiated. Earradiated. Hereradiated. Hairradiated.
Mark put on a record. He was still here. Who knew? We listened to one of the stepson’s stepbrother’s albums. It was satanic, suicidal-and I just kept growing away from myself.
I closed my eyes. Just for a second. I opened my eyes. The music had stopped.
Empty room. Mark was gone.
The door was open. I stood up and walked out of the room. “Mark,” I said, but not loudly, afraid now that we weren’t alone. In a whispered half-hiss: “Mark.”
I walked slowly down a brown-carpeted hallway with more fake wood-paneled walls. On these walls were pictures of families at Christmas, elderly couples leaning their heads toward each other and smiling, babies sitting amid blocks and rattles, happy, in that captured instant, to be having their picture taken. It occurred to me that one of these babies was probably Mark. I couldn’t guess which one, though. They just looked like babies, round and rosy and bald. Little humans. Weird creatures locked up in frames. I had a thought about babies and God, but it escaped through my eyes. The last picture frame in the hallway was crooked and empty, the particle board backing visible.
I went out into a main room, where a card table was set up, papers stacked neatly on top of it. A TV rested on a metal rolling table covered in a rash of rust. A couple of lamps. Boxes around the table. The girlfriend must have been an accountant, or a bookkeeper. Mark’s mom – I think I remember – was a nurse in a kid’s ward.
My lips stuck together. I unsealed them. “Mark,” I said again, still not very loudly, heading into a dark den with red carpet and missing light-switch covers and shafts of slanting sunlight cutting diagonally through. The room was filled with more boxes of papers-phone records, bills, receipts, tax forms, the recorded history of perhaps hundreds and hundreds of people. Facts, facts, facts and no sense to be found. I felt my insignificance like a breeze. I walked slowly around the room, looking in the boxes, then out the window into the bright day, at a dog in a neighbor’s yard panting, a rusting grill inside of an oil-stained carport across the street, an old pickup parked along the curb of the house.
At the other side of the room, I could see through an open door, into a blue-tiled bathroom. The translucent shower curtain was half-open, exposing the faucet and showerhead, soap scum and shampoo bottles, a little window high in the wall, black mold on the metal frame. I stopped at the doorway, thinking of the movie The Shining, which I had just seen for the first time, the scene where the beautiful naked woman turns into an old woman with rotting skin and the soundtrack rises up into a synthetic and shrill crescendo of horror, and I was able to see now that Mark had gone through the medicine cabinet, leaving the mirrored door half open, and I felt my stomach, just then, seize and a faintness pass over me like the shadow of an airplane.
The house smelled of mildew and bodies and cardboard and soap and recently cooked food. It contained information about people-records, receipts, evidence. I recognized everything – it was my world, I knew that-but it looked and smelled foreign, unknown. I was walking through the edge of Mark’s daydream, through senselessness, through a feeling I wanted to called sickness.
I thought I have to get out of here hard enough that it escaped my mouth as words. I saw myself handcuffed, being put into the back of a squad car, ducking my head as people took pictures of me in my moment of shame: KID ROBBER CAUGHT! WHAT’S HAPPENED TO AMERICAN KIDS? I saw my mother and father as they signed papers about me at the station. I saw my father’s teeth-clenched face, his anger face, saw him hitting me with his belt as he held me by the back of the shirt and I ran useless circles inside my small bedroom.
I headed through the kitchen, toward a door that went out into the backyard, where I could jump a fence and disappear into the woods.
I caught something at the periphery of my vision. On the refrigerator were several magnets holding up notes. I walked nearer. One magnet, I noticed, was holding up a crimped and crinkled picture of an eight- or nine-year-old Mark wearing a baseball uniform, posing as if about to field a grounder. I stared for a moment before I started to understand what I was looking at – the picture from the hallway’s empty frame. In small black, block letters across the figure of the young Mark it said:
i love you but you don’t love me
you love me but i don’t love you
i love me but you love you
you love you but i love me
Staring at the note in that empty kitchen, in that humming house, I heard, or thought I heard, a car out on the street, a door slam, the faint sound of voices.
I moved quickly, heart sprinting, out the back door, through the backyard, ducking under a low-slung clothesline.
I jumped a fence out behind an old, leaning shed, landing on the edge of a wooded lot, running and running and running through trees and brush, stepping over beer and soda cans, scraps of paper, until I came to a sidewalk along a far-off main road, where I put my hands in my pockets, walked coolly as the warm traffic fanned past, smelling of rubber and asphalt and gas.
Hours later I woke up in a flimsy lawn chair in the far corner of my vacationing neighbors’ backyard-queasy, tired, with a brain-blanking headache.
I daydreamed, from my rickety seat, about walking inside my house. My mom was cooking, her back to me so that I couldn’t see her face as I entered the room. Looking out the window, looking at her own reflection, speaking to it as if speaking to me, she said: “What have you been up to, Sugar?”
“Nothing,” I said, which is what I always said, but today I needed this lie, and I would need this lie from then on, for the rest of my life, because I understood, or thought I understood, that if a mother had any idea of what her son’s life was like, what his thoughts were like, what he was like, he might kill her by breaking her heart. With my eyes open I dreamed that there was a way to murder someone you loved and still leave a body intact to move about in the world, to take pictures and pay bills and take pills and park a car along a weather-spotted curb at the end of a day of work. It happened all the time, every day, in houses up and down these blocks.
Greg Bottoms is the author of six books, including the memoir Angelhead (U. of Chicago Press), the recent essay collection Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art and Faith (Counterpoint Press), and Pitiful Criminals (Counterpoint Press), a graphic collection of memoirs and stories, with drawings by artist W. David Powell. He teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, where he is Professor of English.