“Sloth” by Don Jolly
Rick put his nose to the window, feeling a little drop of heat where flesh met glass. He breathed; close, steady. Outside, blue shadows shifted on the gravel drive, restricting the golden autumn sunlight to ragged bands that fell across Rick’s father’s truck and the figure behind the wheel. Rick watched, hunkered, in the second-floor study, dogs whining at the door below. The tires had crunched their arrival twenty minutes ago, but still Rick’s father stayed in the cab, unmoving, an indefinable expression on his face. In the trees, birds answered their own questions with alien ululation. The wind was drowned by the humming of central air.
Rick felt like he was part of something, watching his father sit in the truck. He felt like the scene had two sets of shadows, one cool and cobalt, the reassuring shade of home and autumn, and the other? Rick couldn’t put his finger on it. It wasn’t hiding in his father’s eyes; those were dim and glassy. It wasn’t in the waving bulks of leaves or the texture of the dusty pebbles in the drive. It wasn’t in the birdsong, or the heat of the window. But still, Rick felt that a deep stillness, the color of unlit night, was hiding somewhere in the limited vista of that yard. He watched until his father left the car.
That evening, Rick’s mother patiently explained that his dad had been fired.
At first Carl, Rick’s father, saw the firing as an opportunity. He’d been planning an addition to the house, and the newfound free time would allow him to do the work himself, rather than hire some contractor and go to all the trouble of cataloging his mistakes. He faced those first few sunny days with vigor, threw the padlock off the ivy-grown garage, and spent his hours slicing butter-yellow wood. He smelled sawdust, heard the whine of drills and the throaty rumble of electric saws. A skeleton erected itself on the south side of the house, a potential new room for a boy grown moody and introverted. Carl took his lunches in the kitchen, savoring the sweat that salted his bread, the thirst that kept him gulping frigid air, even after a half-hour’s sit-down. Rick returned from school at four or so. Once his son’s door creaked shut, sealing him in with his glowing screen and blaring speakers, Carl packed it in, shut the garage, stowed the tools. It was a glass of wine and television on the classics until dinner, which came on in the flash of his wife’s headlights, just after the sun fell. Leftovers from big weekend meals. Sometimes pizza.
He wasn’t sure how it happened, at first. Maybe it was the rain. Carl had woken late, the bed empty, a beige comforter packed snugly about his body. The blinds were open and the sun was up, but the room stayed dark. Outside, the usual birds protested, spare beneath a light pattering of rain. Can’t work in the wet, Carl shrugged, enjoying the warmth of his bed, the smell of the wet air, alive and earthen. He drifted in and out of sleep for hours, finally rousing around noon. Maybe it was the upset in his schedule or the effects of oversleeping, but Carl just couldn’t get up the drive to finish his sanding for the day. He got up, made a sandwich, ate in his underwear, staring out at the impossible brightness of the day beyond the big kitchen windows. The rain had long since passed; Carl never even saw it. The day was hot, and clear. He spent it watching television, then showered and dressed in a panic to meet Carl home from school. The next day he set back to work, and squashed the little guilt he felt at having wasted the day. I’ve worked hard for years, he thought, I’ve earned a little break.
The next week, he took two days. Three, the following. Soon the garage was locked again, and the partially muscled carcass of the addition was left to rot beneath winter skies, un-tarpaulined in the freezing rains of late November.
“Any luck today?” Patricia, Carl’s wife, asked as she sat down in the living room chair opposite his, a wind coaxing slow thunder from the trees beyond the window. They were eating lentils that she had made.
“I sent out a few resumes,” answered her husband.
He shrugged. “System analyst, Information Director. I dunno.”
“Have you heard of this mentor program at Rick’s school?”
“No,” Carl said, half listening, half lip-reading the muted television. Orson Welles had just boarded the Ferris wheel.
“Basically, they get people from the neighborhood to come in, talk to the kids. Help out one or two that really need a positive role model.”
“This is a job you think I should have?”
“It’s volunteer. I just thought you’d be interested.”
Carl chewed, eyes still on the television. A siren howled like a mechanical wolf on the edge of the neighborhood, its volume weaving up and down.
“You know who does that stuff. We went to public school.”
“And who ‘does that stuff,’ Carl?”
“I dunno. Losers and deadbeats and yuppie egomaniacs.”
“Tom is a Big Brother,” Patricia said indignantly, referring to her brother.
“Pat, Tom is a loser yuppie. And an egomaniac.” He paused, chewing. “And a deadbeat.”
“Why are you being like this?”
“Because I’m tired,” Carl said, turning to his wife for the first time in the conversation, seeing her steely, aging face outlined by the wavering glow of the television. “I’m tired of everybody telling me to ‘stay busy, keep going, put your nose to the grindstone.’ All this…all this puritan garbage. I had that job for eight years, and I worked hard. And, and, before that, in Dallas, I worked. Hard. I was editor of the yearbook in college, captain of the swim team in high school. I have been ‘staying busy’ since I was Rick’s age, almost. And you know what? It doesn’t make me any happier. I wake up every day with a slug in my guts, this reminder of everything I promised to do. And if I’m lucky, after meetings and mailings and hobbies and talking to you, I can go to sleep without that weight in the pit of my stomach. But even then, even on the best day, I know it’ll be back. No matter what I do. It’ll be here tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and the day after that and the day after that.”
Carl didn’t yell; no hardness entered his voice. He argued with Patricia like he was telling a joke, or explaining something humorously to a class of college freshmen. He continued:
“Six months’ severance. Time to find a job? Sure. But I think it’s something else, too. Some time to drift, rest my arms. Just… chill. Remember why I’m swimming.”
Patricia glared at her husband, furious for his tone. “You swim to not drown,” she said.
“Cute.” Carl chuckled to himself. “That was cute, Pat!”
Patricia stalked to the kitchen, her dishes clattering in the sink. Carl wheedled the television’s volume until dialogue eclipsed the stomping up the stairs.
“Rick, how do you feel about your father?” The question came smoothly from the fat man’s lips, followed by a humming pause, as silence once again had lease across the cluttered office, its piled papers pinstriped by sunlight through the blinds. Rick preferred this question to the others the fat man usually asked. He was seated opposite his interrogator, a messy desk between them, still as a statue. The boy picked at a hard spot on his T-shirt.
“I dunno,” he said. “Dad’s all right.”
“Do you remember what it was like when your mom and dad lived together? Do you miss it?” The fat man’s eyes narrowed. They were a sunken shade of green, like moss in an aquarium, and held, for Rick, this kind of poison pride: the fat man thought he was so goddamn smart.
“I dunno,” Rick answered.
“Do you talk to your father?”
“Not on the phone?”
“I dunno. Like, a couple of times. Look, I don’t hate my dad.”
The green eyes widened, and the fat man leaned forward to write something on his ratty, bent-paged notebook. “Who said you hate your father?”
“I said I didn’t,” Rick clarified.
“Slow down. Let’s think about the ‘why,'” the fat man said. This was one of his little catchphrases. “Why would you assume that you need to be defensive? Who thinks you hate your father?”
Rick stared at the man. “I like my dad,” he said.
“But do you see what I’m saying? Why would you take a position that…” Rick tuned out, watching the fat lips move beneath a scraggly growth of gray-flecked beard. After a long haranguing, the man shut up. He sighed, paused, and began again:
“Let’s try something different. Have you thought about the boy you hurt?”
Rick stayed silent. This was the other avenue of his discussions with the fat man. For the remainder of his time in the office, Rick stared his opponent directly in the sea-green eyes, never blinking, never moving, never responding when prompted. What was the point? The fat man always just twisted it around, changed it, tried to get Rick to admit he was some kind of retard asshole psycho, some kind of filth, something that you didn’t talk to like a human being. Rick kept quiet.
At least he got to skip school. After the appointment, Rick’s mother, sharp in her shoulder-padded business suit, pearls glimmering on her throat, stopped at a sandwich restaurant they liked. They ate outside with the fall shivering through the auburn leaves above them. The bread was hot on their sandwiches, toasty on the outside. But the meat was wet and cold.
“How did it go?” Rick’s mother asked.
“I dunno,” he said, taking a big bite of his salami club. “He talked about Dad a lot.”
“They told me,” she said. The sentence bothered Rick.
“When we were talking, Dr. Grimes said you really seem to miss your dad. Is that true? Do you miss him?” His mom’s tone was sweet, neutral, but her eyes had a bit of the pity that the fat man’s did.
“Yeah,” Rick said. “I miss Dad. I liked living with him. He didn’t make me go to sessions.”
“You have to go to sessions,” said his mother.
“Dad didn’t make me.”
She closed her eyes, breathed deep, collected herself. “Well, the doctor and I were talking. And he thinks it might be a good idea if you were to live with your father, at least for a couple of months. You could go to your old school in the Spring, take a break.”
“Really?” Rick asked.
“If you want to,” said his mother.
Rick finished chewing a particularly large mouthful of fries, bloody with ketchup. “Yeah,” he said, swallowing. “I wanna go live with Dad.”
“You’ll still have to go to sessions,” his mother cautioned.
“That’s okay,” he said. “I won’t have to see you, anyway.”
The house was changed; Rick could see that immediately. His mother’s car pulled into the gravel drive. It was tangled with fallen sticks and leaves, surrounded by a yard that reached and bristled with uncontrolled verdure.
“We’re here,” his mother said, with finality, taking her hands off the wheel.
Rick hopped out, listening to the trilling of cicadas which had begun to vibrate from the overgrowth. They were louder here than anywhere. The sky above was a stricken violet, the deep color of early evening.
His dad was fatter, and balder. His eyes darted when he spoke to Rick‘ mother, moving nervously from her to the bowl of brown bananas in the center of the kitchen table.
His mom was laying out, in her careful, infuriating way, the behavior she expected from Carl over the next four months, and the methods she would be using to assess him. Rick sat, scowling, at the end of the table, nursing a glass of ice water. Occasionally his father would look over at him and crack a tentative sort of smile, a stolen smile, in long stretches of his mom’s explanation. Rick never returned them. He just looked down at the table, trying to push all expression from his face.
The glass that held his water and its tinkling, wedge-shaped chunks of ice was one of the old ones. Rick remembered it as an object from a time when objects still held wonder. Smaller hands than his had moved it slowly, holding the glass with its banded pattern of daisies between fresh eyes and humming fluorescents. A mouth, untrained, had whoosed and popped, describing the cracking, blazing, flowing pattern of the light through that textured glass. It had become a swirling cylinder of energy, a prison for little plastic men who defied the will of all-powerful monsters, secret organizations with bases built in blanket-mountains. His father tried to sneak another smile at Rick, and Rick snapped his head downward, to his drink. It was just a cup. Big deal. Kids are retarded.
“Right,” Carl repeated, nodding his unkempt head. His scraggly beard was now streaked with gray, falling in bird’s-nest confusion over a black T-shirt, stained by reflective hardnesses. “I mean, you told me all about it on the phone. He’ll be fine.”
Patricia nodded, looking at Rick, who was determined to avoid eye contact with either parent. She looked at the clock built in to the oven: flashing indigo read 7:09 – hours from accurate.
“Rick, sweetie, Mom’s going to leave now,” she said. “I have to be at work in the morning.”
She stood up, hefting her massive purse onto one strained shoulder. Her son looked up briefly, his eyes dull. Carl stood, too, his new-grown gut bulging hideously as he moved.
“Ricky, hug your mother before she leaves,” Carl said, as if he was making a fun suggestion.
“You do it,” Rick shot back.
“Rick,” his mother said, voice rising, growing harder. Before she could say more, ropy arms slung over her neck and the new, disgusting gut was pressing into her own gym-born thinness. Carl’s beard fell across her shoulder, scratching like a metal pad that he not used to clean the oven. Patricia looked at the sunken, yellow eyes that belonged to her former husband. He walked her to the door. Rick stayed in the kitchen, distractedly swirling a finger in his glass, making a tiny whirlpool.
In the shadowy, dust-choked hall that had once been theirs, Carl opened the door for Patricia. Outside, the old trees waved, branches bare, like the applause of fleshless hands.
“He’s thirteen,” Carl said, “Let him be an asshole.”
They talked for another thirty seconds, maybe a minute. For a moment, as she started the car, she felt no fear in leaving, but then the drive receded and her headlights caught the street. She inched up the quiet hill, and left.
Rick woke with a start on the first day of school. Fluid rushed behind his eyes, red fluid, hot fluid, a ferocious energy that set him tearing at the blankets, fighting, snarling and panting as he slid to the floor of the guest bedroom that was built into a maze by stacks of cardboard boxes. His dad was doing some internet thing for money, or at least that’s what his mom said, and so he couldn’t afford to run the air conditioner. January was unseasonably warm, and so Rick found himself sweating, breathing tangy, itchy air, every breath pregnant with disturbed dust. The light beyond the windows, shining in diagonal beams like fallen columns, revealed the truth of this assessment: each one swirled thick with motes, making the room look like a sea monkey tank. Relaxing, Rick sat down on the edge of the bed, trying to collect his thoughts. Once his senses recovered from the initial violence of waking, he felt a slight compression on his forehead: the now familiar tug of a small adhesive strip. The boy pulled it down.
It was a purple-colored sticky note, sealed onto his forehead by his father, in a practice that had become remarkably common. He left the house, or something, before Rick got up. So he wrote little notes with messages or instruction, and stuck them to his son’s sweat-beaded skull. On the first day of school, the red ink proclaimed: “School is at 9 a.m., five bucks for lunch on counter, have a GOOD ONE!”
Rick wadded up the little bit of paper, enjoying the feeling of its smooth texture collapsing into an angular sphere. “Jerk,” he spat, throwing the note behind the boxes. Actually, he liked the notes. They meant he’d have a morning to himself before school. Rick microwaved some simple tacos, eating them in front of the television, which he found already tuned to a channel full of soft-focus and bare breasts. He drank orange juice from the cup with daisies on it.
It wasn’t long before he started skipping school, which wasn’t difficult. His father expected him to walk the several blocks, but, even on mornings when he was around, he had no way of knowing which way Rick turned at the top of the hill. It was seventy-five cents for a bus downtown, and since his dad’s truck never left the house (that Rick could tell), staying in the neighborhood was reasonably secure. One sticky-note morning, when the gray sky reached the grass in a clinging mist and windless chill, Rick simply walked the opposite way along his street: down the hill rather than up, away from school rather than toward.
Houses followed houses, two stories, one, in different shades of pale yellow, blue and white. Lawn ornaments leered strangely out of the fog: fountains and orbs of alien glass, plastic gnomes, trees still strung with the dull nipples of unlit Christmas lights. Boring. Rick hopped a fence, about three blocks away, and started working his way through backyards. This held richer rewards. Lawn furniture in disarray, glass doors affording shadowy glimpses of lives left stagnant until evening. He crept, when he could, shimmying over even tall fences, moving from yard to yard. Above him, lost in the clouds, neighborhood birds squawked their mournful squawks, the sound falling off into silence.
In one yard, where a massive pool yawned beneath a sagging, puddle-filled tarp of electric blue, Rick noticed movement. He shrunk behind a small outcropping of bamboo, pressed against the fence. The house, three-story, massive, loomed dimly in the atmosphere, its back porch solid wood, dark and smelling like a wet playground. In the shadows of that enclosure, through the bamboo, Rick found the thing that moved: bluish wisps of smoke, curling into the air.
She sat on a porch swing, but not swinging. A little older than Rick, but not too much. Not a teacher. Not a mom. Brown hair hung above her freckled skin in a bob, her big eyes half-lidded, her dress muted, woven of brown, orange, and red. And there was the cigarette, and the way she held it: straight, white, smelling acrid and real. Her hand moved deftly, weightlessly, as it brought the gold-banded filter to her lips. Once, twice. Each puff added cobalt to the miasma of the day.
Rick stayed concealed in the chutes, the first time he saw Madison. When a cold wind snapped in from the north, scattering her smoke and ruffling her skirt, the boy instinctively brought his hands close in for warmth. He didn’t dare rub them, fearful she would hear and call the cops. Instead, he pulled his arms inside his T-shirt, embracing his chest tightly. Eventually, she went inside. Rick snuck to the front yard, noted the number, and came back the next day. And the next.
A few weeks later, Rick snuck out after dark. His dad had been absent all day, the morning’s sticky note simply pointed to an envelope of money and held the number for pizza delivery. Rick crept through the gold-lit ink of the hill at night, moving confidently after he passed the block where his house lingered in green decay. He was headed down the street, for Madison’s, to try and see her in the dark, undressed or undressing. He kept his eyes on the dark asphalt, the importance of his mission beating a cold power into his legs.
She was on the front porch, and before Rick could see her, she spotted him. A wind was dancing down the street, causing the branches to groan and the fallen leaves to rustle, sending a slow shiver through even the massive lights that arched their necks above the neighborhood. Rick was walking, eyes furtively on the three-story house, feet on the grass that ran opposite it: a little sward that fell into a weed-choked, trash-strewn creek, now a simple darkness in the earth.
“It’s after curfew!” A voice called from the porch. Rick strained his eyes, found a single glowing ember, a puff of blue smoke hanging in the darkness. Silently, he stepped out of the shadowed growth, into the spotlight which hung above the street.
“Hey, kid, I said it’s after curfew.” Madison smiled. Her lips were painted a deep red, her teeth slightly yellow beneath them. Her eyes remained steady, luminous, green as sea foam.
“Gimme a cigarette,” Rick said with a little nod, trying to give his eyes a fraction of her conviction.
She laughed a little airy laugh, an enunciated “ha,” drifting off into the hum of cicadas on the breeze.
“Sure, partner,” she said.
She stood and walked forward, the porch swing she’d occupied casting a barred shadow on the wall behind. As she descended the front steps, Rick stepped out of the light. They met beneath the shadows of two trees.
“How old are you, man?” she asked, pulling a cigarette from her pack and offering it between two alabaster fingers.
“I’m sixteen,” Rick lied. She lit it for him, chuckling. Rick took the heat, the smoke, into his lungs and held it until his throat burned and his stomach threatened to crawl out of his chest cavity. Soon they were friends.
His dad was sleeping in the front room, the black-and-white movie channel thundering from the television. All around him, magazines moldered, pizza boxes buzzed with flies. Cockroaches crawled from the dust-strewn darknesses beneath the furniture. It was Saturday morning, raining, with a roll of thunder beyond the pattering windows.
Rick shook his father’s arm. “Dad. Dad!” The older man roused, opening his eyes, and lolled his head over to look at his son. He said nothing.
“I need some money,” Rick said. His father’s eyes narrowed.
“What for?” His bearded mouth slurred.
“Hanging out. With friends and stuff.”
“Oh.” Half-asleep, his dad nodded. He snapped the recliner’s lever, shifting the back upward, collapsing the footrest. Dust flew from the material as the chair was violently reinvented. “How much?”
His dad scrambled through a stack of papers, muttering. “Here,” he said. There was a salt-smelling stain of brown coating one end of the bill. Other than that, it was perfect.
“Cool, thanks, Dad,” Rick said.
“Sure,” coughed his father, staggering back to the recliner. “Love you.” He flopped down, unfolded the mechanism. Rick was already out the door.
None of the teenagers liked having him around, except Madison. She laughed when Rick talked, delighted in each cigarette he smoked, each beer he guzzled. The others — Cindy, Brian, long-haired Wilcox — they hated him. They thought he was an idiot. But Rick was fine by that. He hated them right back.
“Shit, who brought the kid?” Cindy said, throwing down the last word like a curse. Rick was walking up the trail of circular stones suspended in the afternoon’s mud.
“C’mon, Madison, again?” Brian was sitting next to Cindy, his gangly features slouched, folded inward.
“Lay off, guys,” Madison responded, scooting over on her bench to allow Rick a space. “Rick’s cool.”
Rick took up his position, feeling a jolt when his hand came to rest on a bit of spare material hanging off of Madison’s cream-colored skirt.
Wilcox was at the edge of the porch, his army-surplus coat hung over his shoulders, taking a screwdriver to a skateboard. It was his house, his back porch, his yard of neatly trimmed grass and a single rusted utility shed. All around the teenagers, as they sat, were Wilcox’s mother’s potted plants. Through the glass doors that led outside, his father could be seen in the blue flickering of a television, taking in a soccer game.
The first topic of conversation was what to do, interspersed with bits of high-school gossip Rick failed to understand. It was hard to figure a good plan of action, given the rain. Movies were suggested, then dismissed. Wilcox wanted to skate, but admitted it would be “a pain in the ass.” Madison suggested a coffee shop, but nobody wanted to take the bus. Brian looked backwards, at Wilcox’s father, and then turned surreptitiously to his fellows. He produced a plastic bag of crumpled plant matter, smelling thin and aromatic.
“If you got a place,” he said, to Wilcox. The long-haired boy shrugged.
“We could do it in the shed, I guess,” he said.
Rick was confused, but kept quiet. He could tell, however, that they were looking for a place free from adults. “My dad’s passed out,” he said. “And we have, like, a separate garage.”
The party stared at Rick for a moment. His eyes grew hard, his hands balling into fists. “I’m not lying,” he said, without a quaver.
Cindy snorted. “I’m not smoking with him, okay? It’s just…Yeah.”
Brian nodded. “I’m out.”
Wilcox was intrigued. “Your dad’s passed out? Like, drunk or what?”
Rick shrugged. “I dunno. But he sleeps like, all day sometimes.”
Madison, wordlessly, put her hand around Rick’s shoulder, pulled him close. With a catch in his breath, a thunderclap hit Rick’s left side: he could feel not only the gauzy material of her dress, but the warm flesh inside it. The back of his head was tucked into the perfect angle of her armpit. His head swam in sensation.
“No way,” Cindy shook her head. “No way.”
“We could go to, like, prison,” Brian said, tone grave.
“No,” Madison answered. “How could we go to prison?”
“It’s, like, a corruption charge.”
“That’s not real,” Madison said, looking down, as she explained, very patiently, the intricacies of marijuana law to the lanky boy beside her. When she was finished, Brian snorted.
“Whatever,” he said. The word was short, evil. He said it like she was stupid, like she was lying. Like she never should have talked at all. Rick didn’t understand what she was saying either, but beneath the blanket of her body, he flamed with rage. Brian didn’t seem to notice.
“I think it might be cool,” Wilcox said. “I just wanna get blazed, and there’s no light in the shed.”
“We could use my phone,” Cindy suggested. Wilcox made a face and shook his head.
“No, that sucks,” he said.
They went back and forth a few more rounds, but finally everybody agreed. Wilcox made some excuse to his mom, and the party ventured out of the backyard, through the oozing muck of the front, and the wet pavement beyond. The rain was still pouring, and nobody had raincoats. The older kids walked, singing songs, trading stories. Madison added touches of color, but did not sing. She walked ahead, with Rick, who was silent, his eyes cast down.
“My mom,” Madison began, filling the air before her with the scent of marijuana. “My mom is really, like, distant. Kind of evil.” She passed the pipe to Wilcox, who snapped the lighter several times before it released its blazing tongue. The garage was large and dimly lit, a single light bulb hanging from bare wires above a tangle of power tools and mountainous ridges of tarpaulin, in emergency blue and snake-skin black. The kids sat in a rough circle on the gritty floor. Rick was feeling, really feeling, sawdust through his fingers. Weed had frozen each part of each moment, preserving them for museum display. Rick languidly turned his attention from the wood shavings to Madison, who spoke with eyes downcast to Brian’s measured nodding. Above them, the tin roof clanged with rainfall.
“She keeps trying to get me to go back to therapy. She acts like being sad is this big problem. Like it’s my fault. She keeps saying ‘you’re sick’ and I keep saying, like, I’m a person. She made me go to the same therapist as her. Seriously. The same one. And I swear she used him to keep tabs on me. She really liked Whitey until I started talking to my therapist about him, and then she was, like…totally against him.”
“Isn’t there supposed to be confidentiality?” Brian asked. The lick of fire snapped on and off before his mouth, settling into a pattern of smoldering ash as he sucked smoke from the glass. “Like, with therapists.”
“Supposed to be,” laughed Madison. “She told me last night that I was a thug. She said I was a stupid little thug, that I was going to jail, that I was never going to be anything…” The pipe passed to her. She took it, lit it, exhaled, and passed it on. Madison’s eyes were glassy, her thoughts derailed.
“What a bitch,” Cindy said.
“Yeah,” echoed Brian.
They sat in the darkness, listening to the plunking of water on the roof, the shimmering of the trees shaking in the downpour. Thunder rumbled by like a mail-truck. Rick had discussed Madison’s mother before, in more intimate settings. The fact that it was being aired for public consumption offended him, but not as much as Brian’s nod of uncomprehending sympathy. What did he know?
“Hey, little man,” Brian said, suddenly all smiles. “Where’s the bathroom?”
“Just go in the yard, dude,” chided Wilcox.
Rick looked the lanky teen over, taking in each element of his face, each slow curve of his request through the time-warp of the drug. “It’s okay,” he found himself answering. “My dad’s upstairs. I’ll show you.”
Rick led Brian through the overgrown backyard, past a reclaimed lawnmower, vines creeping up its red body, coiling around its black-metal grip, now rusted. The mower was the center of the yard: right of it, the rich, tall grass reached the waist; left of it, the tangle tickled the armpits. Rick slid open the kitchen door, ushered him inside, and showed him the bathroom.
“I’ll be quiet,” Brian said, as he slid the door closed.
Rick stood inside for a moment or two, breathing oddly. It was always a challenge, getting it to start, and being stoned didn’t help matters. Finally, he felt the heaviness in his eyes, the shudder in his throat. Looking at the pile of blackness erupting from the sink, Rick felt the first gasps begin, the first hot tears streak down his face. By the time he ran back to the garage, he was crying uncontrollably, his lungs near-bursting from the titan scale of his inhalations, his face pained by the grotesque mask it wore. All the kids stood as he staggered inside, but only Madison’s arms wrapped around him. Only Madison asked what happened.
Between sobs, Rick explained: “Brian – he – he took down his pants – and he held me – and he took out his dick – and he made me – he made me -” He let the tears do most of the work.
Soon, the door creaked open, and Rick saw the skeletal shape of Brian silhouetted by the incandescent white of the rainy afternoon.
“Sick freak,” Wilcox muttered, coming to his feet.
The long-haired boy chased Brian into the driveway, pelting him with swift-thrown fists.
In Madison’s arms, Rick stilled his tears, drinking her heat and the texture of her clothes. Her breasts, locked behind some firm material, pressed their beginning to his forehead. She stayed with him all day.
“Rick,” the voice came from downstairs, echoing, a firmness in it all-too familiar. Rick stomped down the stairs. His father was standing in the hall, dark portals on all sides, his bathrobe cinched tightly but still stained by mustard and other rainbow mysteries.
“I got a call from the school today,” Rick’s father began. “They tell me that you haven’t gone to class in four weeks?”
Rick shrugged. He was still halfway down the stairs, with his father at the bottom. He didn’t like it. It made him feel trapped. For a tense moment, nobody moved. It was night, and the cicadas filled the silence. Finally, his dad’s posture relaxed.
“Come down here,” he sighed.
Rick followed him into the kitchen, where he snapped on the light and cleared the table with an arm, sending paper and plastic clattering to the tile in greasy confusion.
“Sit,” his dad suggested, taking up a chair himself. “You know what your mother would say if she knew about this?”
“She’d freak out,” Rick suggested.
“Right,” answered his father. “So…Why no school? What’s wrong?”
“It’s stupid,” Rick said.
“It’s not…well, okay, middle school is pretty stupid,” Rick’s father allowed, jokingly. “Don’t you have friends and stuff?”
“Older kids,” Rick said.
“You guys aren’t, like, smoking pot are you?” Rick opened his mouth, but his dad cut him off. “No – don’t answer that,” his father said. “Listen, your mother can’t know about this. I mean, don’t tell anybody. And you have to…you have to go back to school.” The tone reached plaintive.
“No,” Rick said.
“You have to.”
“No,” Rick said. “It’s stupid. I don’t learn anything or…I don’t need to go. I don’t want to do anything.”
This registered for Rick’s father. His features shifted from one emotion to another: pause and pain and joy, at once and in sequence.
“Okay,” Rick’s father said. “Let’s try this. Do you know what I do all day?”
“Sleep?” Rick suggested. His dad shook his head.
“No. Although it’s sort of like sleep. I don’t know if there’s a word for it, honestly. When I told your mother about it…” His dad leaned forward in his chair, the legs squealing on the tile. “When I told your mother, she divorced me. So maybe, let’s keep this between us, okay?”
“Is it perverted?” Rick was a shade away from interested. Just one more trick to get him back to school.
“No. Or, at least I don’t think it is.”
Rick stared for a long moment. “So, what is it?”
“It’s easier if…I’ll show you.”
The second-floor study that once held a desk with cold, metal legs was now completely clear, the carpet as dark as spilled tea. It smelled sweet inside, like honey, and Rick was surprised to see the place so clean. The morning was shining through the window across the hall, still and sapphire.
“You sit in a room?” Rick asked, a sneer in his throat. The shadow of his father moved along the far wall.
“Lie down, actually,” he said. “I discovered it by accident, years ago. Your mother never did it with me. Now, lie back, face the ceiling fan.”
“Why?” Rick remained standing.
“You’ll see. That was the deal. You do this with me, I let you skip school.” His dad lay down on the carpet, in an indentation that fit his newly corpulent frame.
“I would’ve skipped anyway,” Rick spat. This whole thing was getting too weird.
“Rick, please, lie down. You’ll see it when you see it.”
“This is stupid,” Rick pouted, lying next to his father. Above him, the ceiling was pure white, ridged with the shadowy bumps of drywall texture. The ceiling fan was eaten by dust, an inactive light in its center like a mouth exclaiming surprise.
“Oh, right,” laughed his father. Rick felt the floor shift as the older man got up, a shuffling in the carpet as he stepped to the door. The fan swung to life, the bulb burning like a sun behind its frosted globe of glass.
“Watch the light,” his dad commanded as he resumed his place. Above them, the fan hummed.
Rick thought of Madison as he stared up. It had been four days since he’d last seen her, and he had no means of contact. She was either on the porch or she wasn’t, walking home or not, and recent luck had been bad. Rick thought of her midsection snaking against his head as she consoled him, of the hot wetness his tears had left in her jacket. He imagined richer rewards, felt himself flush. But fantasy can last only so long. His father remained staring for one hour, two. Rick stayed on, next to him. Both were deathly quiet.
Eventually Rick ran out of internal games to play. He thought about Brian being pummeled in the rain, of his mother breaking down and begging forgiveness. He imagined the look on his mom’s face when he told her about the ceiling fan, about what a retard his father was. But these thoughts spanned minutes. They failed, gave out, abandoned Rick – leaving him alone with the whorl of the blades and the searing, unblinking globe of fire.
At first it felt like nothing, and it moved so slowly that Rick barely noticed. The coarse texture of the carpet curled into a cool blankness, a support without feeling. One moment, Rick was lying down in a room he knew, in a house he knew, in a ruined yard at the bottom of the hill. In the same moment, with no transition, he was floating on currents of force, cold and weightless. Above him, the fan kept pace.
The sound alerted him as it shifted from explainable, oscillating whine and took on a deeper cadence. It grew and changed until Rick felt it with his skull, with the shaking of his ribs. It was a chant; a dirge, a scream in the mazy passages of nerves and sinew. Rick was surrounded by the sound, and the howl passed through him. The fan kept pace.
What changed was Rick’s perspective. Adrift, filled with thunder, he saw that there were no blades above him. No bulb, no ceiling. The surrounding expanse of light and shadow was a ceiling, yes, but a ceiling beyond sight, a roof of the world, and the circular vortex at its center was a white jaw, stretched wide. From it, slithering shapes emerged.
Rick screamed and tossed his head, rolling on the carpet. In an instant, the world returned: floor underfoot, fan-sound as background noise. The sun was setting across the hall, giving crimson background to the bare and gnarled branches beyond the window. Rick screamed and kept screaming, intercutting his cry with a stream of profanity. As he ran out of the room, he saw his father staring upwards, insensate and sweating, his glassy eyes locked on some point in the ceiling. Rick fell as he rushed down the stairs, landing at the bottom in a drift of wet garbage. He picked himself up and kept running, outside, down the street, halfway to Madison’s house before the failing beam of his father’s single headlight found him panting.
They talked in the truck.
“It’s another kind of people,” his father explained. “In there. Another kind. But they’re alive. I talk to them.”
Rick stared morosely out the window at the illuminated porches gliding by.
“Do you understand how important it is to talk to them? Rick? It’s a whole new thing. I discovered it.”
Rick kept staring. They were headed up the hill, out of the neighborhood. “Where are we going?” Rick asked.
“I thought we’d get some food,” his dad answered. “Do you understand how important it is?”
The highway exploded out of the darksome tree line, lamps and signs for fast food blazing above the earth in falling stars of white and red and gold. “Yes,” Rick said. “Can we get Pizza Hut?”
The restaurant was a cave of wood grain, lit by crimson light in crisscrossed pattern. The food was hot, floppy, dripping with blood-orange grease. “Nothing happens there,” his dad explained, through a mouthful of pizza.
Rick chewed sullenly.
“This is – this is hard to explain, Rick. It might take a few tries. Stuff…things…like, events. They occur out here. Something can change. It can go from one state to another.”
“Like, you used to be not-crazy,” Rick responded, not looking up. His father snorted, sharply, amused.
“Right,” the bearded man said. “Like, I was one thing: I had a job, I was married. That was, like, one state. Then I got fired and I changed. I wasn’t always like this.”
Rick shrugged and grabbed another slice.
“Okay, so…you see, right? Things can change here. They have to. It’s how they work. Your mother loves me, now she doesn’t. I had a job, now I don’t. Maybe in the future I’ll, I dunno…I’ll get another job, or I’ll get a new wife.”
“Just saying. Things change here. You got it?”
“In there…beyond that hole, where the new people live, things don’t…it doesn’t work like that. It’s not that things don’t happen, it’s that there’s no change, no, like, shifting from one state to another. Everything is happening and has happened. Events aren’t spread out in time…I mean, I don’t know if I even understand it, really. But I don’t think they have time. Not like we do. They have something else.”
Rick’s father looked up at him, over his plate of gnawed crusts. “Something better,” he said.
Rick was making something behind the eatery, beyond the erratic words of his father’s explanation. He was constructing, piece by piece, the exact series of expressions his mother would wear when he told her about his dad’s new obsession, her exact sequence of actions following the confession. He imagined it as a casual joke, shared to ease some tense car ride. He imagined it as a tearful confession, the kind of thing that would send heels clacking over hardwood and summon lawyers from their downtown perches. He imagined it as a sad statement of fact, related through the therapist. He imagined growing angry, red in the face, as he said, “I saw them too!”
Outside of Rick’s skull, the meal continued and, finally, the truck returned to the leafy darkness of the hill. “I know it’s a lot to take in,” his father said as he and Rick exited the vehicle, the gloomy house towering above them. “But thanks for understanding, Ricky.”
Lying in bed, Rick was careful to bury his face in the yellow, lumpy pillow. The alternative was waking up to see a ceiling, and the shadow of its attendant fan.
Rick saw Madison walking with two girls he didn’t know, laughing, on a cloudless day. He was walking home from the nearest gas station, a plastic bag of junk food hanging ripe and colorful in his left hand. Madison’s group was headed the opposite direction: up the hill, out of the neighborhood.
“Rick!” she yelled across the street between them. “Hey Rick!” She ran over and hugged him, lifting his tiny body against the frizzy material of her blouse. She was wearing a maroon purse, old looking, which Rick had never seen her with before. “Where have you been, man?” Madison asked. The other girls approached with measured stride.
“My dad is making me do this…he’s making me do this thing with him,” Rick said. Madison let go of him, and he gave her a look that said the exact nature of this thing was meant for her ears only.
As the shadows of her two friends fell across the couple, Madison smiled sadly, turned, and introduced everyone. “Rick, this is Diane and Leah. Diane and Leah, this is my friend Rick.”
The two girls exchanged an ugly look. Something black boiled in Rick. “He lives down my street,” Madison explained. She turned to Rick again. “So, what’re you up to?”
Rick held up his bag. “Lunch,” he said. “My dad sent me.”
“Aw,” Madison said, looking at the neon colors bound by white plastic. “That’s no kind of lunch…”
“Maddy,” Diane or Leah said, impatiently, glaring at a cell phone. “We’re going to miss the bus.”
“Oh, okay,” Madison said. “Gotta run,” she grinned at Rick. “But tell you what, it’s my birthday on Friday, and I’m having some people over like, Thursday night. You should come, man.”
Rick nodded, hurriedly. “Happy birthday,” he mumbled.
“Thanks,” said Madison. She hugged him once more, her minuscule breasts pressing against his warm T-shirt and the flesh beyond it. Soon she was a giggling shadow on the blue horizon, walking down a corridor of blackly swaying trees. “One of my favorite people,” her voice said, drifting on a sudden snap of freezing air.
Rick ran down the hill, once she was out of sight. He moved to breathe in gasps, moved to feel sweat stand coldly on his brow. When he reached home, he bounded up the creaking, worm-eaten front steps two at a time, and inside, he leapt the staircase leading to the room of his father’s meditation.
Forget those girls, and her friends, and his dad. He tossed the sack of chips and candy bars into the room, not caring where it fell. Rick jumped down the stairs again, out into the yard, onto the street. The sun burned on his forehead, his nose, the tops of his arms. No cars were on the street, no blockage for his speed. He ran until he fell, panting, in a wild patch beside a cul-de-sac. The unblinking sun above him, Rick screamed at the top of his lungs, his high register echoing up the hill and down again. He imagined himself leader of a chorus. It was Monday, the day he saw Madison, the day without clouds.
After Thursday, he knew, everything would be different.
His dad had not left his mediation for days, and Rick used the opportunity to prepare. He could still smell the cologne on himself, old and acrid, as he moved down the unlit avenue. He walked quickly, turned the last corner, and found himself walking down Madison’s street, hands in his pockets, quaver in his step. The music was a muted thunder. Giants talking on the other side of the moon.
The lights blazed and, in them, dark shapes swirled. The three-story place was overrun, smoking, the sounds of bass and idle chatter blasting from it in waves. Rick watched for a moment, from the ditch opposite, his sneakers planted among the dewy green. Borne up by wind, he entered, taking each creaking porch step confidently, with purpose. Yellow light glanced through a cloud of smoke, sending his stilt-legged shadow dancing on the lawn.
“Holy shit!” an unfamiliar man in an army coat cackled from one end of the porch.
“He’s Maddy’s friend,” Wilcox’s voice answered, from some other invisible province. It was too dark for faces, too dark for anything but shadows layered on shadows: ducking heads, gesticulating arms, streaming cigarettes, gleaming in unseen hands. Rick pressed inside.
Here the music was louder, and every flat surface seemed crowded with a red growth: plastic cups, some toppled, some shredded, most half-filled with beer, gold and fizzing. The people inside were in clusters: laughing, talking, drinking, kissing. The floor was slick with mud, the patterns of it curved by footprints. Rick examined one room, then another.
“Hey,” a voice slurred beside him, as he examined a dim hallway, where all doors stood closed.
Cindy was squatting at Rick’s back, a blank expression on her face and a red cup in her hands.
“She’s upstairs,” the girl said, her voice longer, heavier than usual.
Rick saw the curl in her mouth, suspected he was being made fun of. He glared, bunched his fists.
“Madison,” Cindy explained. “She’s upstairs. She wants to see you.”
An unfamiliar voice called from deeper in the throbbing house.
“Coming!” Cindy squeaked, loping off on legs unsteady.
Rick found the stairs: carpeted, straight, terminating in a shadowy hall. Looking back, with anger, at the crowd of idiots, he climbed. Cindy thought — they all thought — he was some kind of retard.
The upstairs was quieter, the darkness interrupted by the hanging reflections of family pictures, just above Rick’s eye level. From below, their subjects seemed gigantic: Madison playing a complicated brass instrument, Madison as a cowgirl, a young boy Rick didn’t know, holding up some kind of award. The music dulled sufficiently to let some manner of stillness creep into the place, some manner of slow-time. Rick heard, finally, the sound of the wind on the hill. One door was ajar, its light cutting a razor’s path over the carpet, the ceiling, the wall. Rick pressed it inward.
“Hey man,” Madison said. She was lying, face up, on the bed. The room around her was a bright disaster, packed with papers and books, wallpapered by posters of dangerous men. A window leered darkly in the far wall. Madison was in a dress. Eyes half-lidded, she smiled.
“Did you meet everyone?” she asked, lackadaisical.
“They don’t like me,” Rick said. He closed the door. Madison rolled over, sat up, patted the bed next to her.
“Sure they like you,” she said.
Rick sat on the bedspread. There was a burning angled stick on Madison’s dresser, a source of curly, silver smoke. The room smelled like a combination of hard cider and birthday candles. Rick looked over at Madison. She was stoned, perfect, smiling at him. Their sides were brushing together.
“It doesn’t feel like they do,” Rick said. He didn’t have to work at it. A few puffs, in and out, and his face was crimson. Hot tears followed, and Madison’s arms followed that. Rick meant for the tears to be short, but he lost control. Soon he was shuddering into the dark material that bunched against Madison’s body, coughing as he wept, gripping her tightly, fingers gnarled into her back. Madison was quiet for a long time. She let him finish.
“I’m sorry,” she said, softly, her lips beside his ear. “I know it sucks right now.”
Rick was off-balance, sniffling. He held Madison in a stricken grasp. “My — My — My -” He hiccupped as he spoke. “My dad is going crazy,” he said, dissolving into sobs again.
“Shhh,” Madison breathed. “Shhh.”
“And my mom says I’m – I’m – I’m – she thinks I’m, like, a bad person.”
“And I saw them. I saw things in the fan!” Heaving cries eclipsed Rick’s speech.
“Shhh,” Madison said, rocking him back and forth. “I’m sorry.”
A slow song melted through the floor. When Rick again regained control, the stick on the dresser was withered to a crinkled ashen tube. The smell hung thick in the air. Eventually, Madison pulled back. She looked at the boy, a sweetness in her expression, a lightness in the ending of her cheeks.
“I know it sucks right now,” she said, eyes emerald and alert. Piano tinkled up the hall. “I know it all seems bad…but there’s good people out there. Friends, y’know? People who will really, really care about you.”
Rick breathed heavy, drinking in the room. Beyond the window, mute branches threw themselves in an electric spasm against the streetlamps. Madison was facing Rick, leaning forward on two straight and freckled arms. Rick’s torso was twisted in her direction, one leg folded on the blanket. He dove in, clasped his arms around her lower back, and brought his lips to hers.
She kept her mouth closed and gently pushed him off. The sad song ended. Silence echoed up the icy steps and the glassy hall beyond. Rick was in stasis, still leaning forward. Madison stood, beside the bed, the sweetness not departed.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Explanation followed, and the playing of a record, a few beers and a joint with Wilcox. Madison spent most of the night with Rick, assuring him that it would be okay, talking to him about his parents, and gamely avoiding discussion of his probing lips, his hungry tongue. Rick was a ghost. His body did these things, his ears heard them. But he was empty, cleaned out, cold and stainless. A pitcher without liquid.
The night ended with a hug, a mockery of all the hugs it followed, and a frozen street, jostled by wind.
It took Rick a moment to distinguish between waking and sleeping. Was light through the shades a feature of one, or the other? Was the heat of sunlight on bare skin? To which world did the slow oscillation of the fan belong? He didn’t move, although he could feel the itching of his sweaty boxer shorts, the disarray of his hair crammed into the pillow. There was a weight on him that would not move, something that had been there since the party, since Madison, since Rick had lost himself in that pathetic fit. He stared at the rotten place where the glass met the sill, behind the shadow of the blind. He absorbed each slather of off-white paint, each fleck of insect stuck on top of the day before. It looked like noon outside.
The weight kept him close to home. He’d stomp down the stairs, pour cereal, and spend the day in front of the television, playing with himself when the mood struck, stewing when it didn’t. His hands, which he’d lately taken to sniffing, had an oily, poison reek that comes from grasping at sweaty regions. His dad hadn’t spoken in a while. He was mostly a shuffling in the upstairs, and Rick was fine with that. He imagined, as his days slid by, his father trying to talk, his mother, Madison, and in his own mind Rick tore off the weight and screamed. Red-faced, foaming at the mouth, he raged at these phantoms. He broke them down. Made them cry. He made them cry until they heaved, with no tears left. Outside of his head, however, Rick just sat. Eating. Pawing through the trash for money, ordering pizzas with the hallway phone. He ignored several calls from his mother.
Soon, it became unclear how long, exactly, Rick had passed in this way. Television was no help, his father non-existent. Each day started with the immobile confusion between sleep and its opposite, and ended the same way. Were closed eyes and darkness a feature of sleep, or of waking? Was a clear mind? In the moment of slipping from consciousness, in that moment alone, Rick felt himself dive airily out from under the weight. Free, for a time, his laughing ghost luxuriated in dreams. He took what was his. He made all the assholes eat themselves.
The last morning began like the first, like all others in-between. Rick opened his eyes and tried to categorize things into the worlds of dream and not-a-dream, place features of light and shadow, heat and cold. Was the glowing golden ray, alive with motes, of sleep or waking? Waking. The sag of the bed, soaked in sweat? Waking. The dreamy paralysis, the bubbling in his head? Sleep, more or less. Rick turned over, crawling in the wetness the un-air-conditioned night had left him. What was the odd mix of shadows, slithering across the floor, catching the sunlight in irregular, patterned streaks and pools? Sleep, definitely. Rick closed his eyes, deciding he had the fortitude to return.
There was little sound in the room. Just the vum-vum-vum of the fan’s rotation, the alien ululation of birds as they called to each other in the branches that encircled the second story. And a sloshing sound, slow and cold, the sound of slime dragging itself over obstacles of paper and torn plastic. At first, it was soothing. But something in the volume made Rick open his eyes again. It looked like a glass slug, an amorphous transparent blob, the sunlight dancing on its melting contours. And it moved: As Rick watched, seized by a nauseous fear, it stuck to the edge of the bed. With horror, Rick realized it was a thing of the waking world.
He whimpered, scrambling into a knot on the far end of the bed, as far from the thing as possible. He watched it slither up the side, snake in dripping patterns over the sheets. Rick tried to scream, but found himself merely breathing – his vocal chords refusing to engage.
It pooled at his feet, and Rick pulled back, his breath coming quick and terrified. From inside the unspeakable thing, a tendril emerged, moving slow, growing, from the main bulk, reflecting the window’s light like a melting ice sickle. On its tip, it had something flat and purple.
Rick closed his eyes, expecting something grim. He imagined death, having trouble with the particulars. He played the old game. What was different between death and sleeping? Death and waking, for that matter? The boy found himself at a loss. When the light pressure, the little drop of cold, pressed on his nose, Rick felt a strange peace, a strange resentment, flow from that spot, filling the rest of his body.
He opened his eyes in time to see the thing retreating down the hall, its bulk more difficult to see in that unlit province. It had left a slimy trail on the bed, down the side, among the hills of trash and piles of boxes that occupied the room. Rick pulled something from his nose, feeling the familiar sting of light adhesive: it was a sticky note.
“I FEEL GREAT,” it read.
Rick got up, took a shower, and that afternoon put a tearful call in to his mother, describing the physical, psychological, and sexual abuses heaped on him in his father’s house. He explained he was being kept away from the phone, that his dad was “crazy,” and wouldn’t even let Rick go to school. He described the lecherous games of the girl down the street, only sixteen, who was his dad’s new consort. His mother’s voice grew thin on the other line.
“Rick, honey, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Are you safe now?”
“He’s gone,” Rick sobbed.
“Just wait there, sweetie. Mom will be there. You need to wait for me. I’m going to call 911.”
Rick heaved his assent, promised to hide, and cried harder to the shocked, angry silence that radiated over the line. She was reluctant to hang up, but Rick silenced himself for a moment, eyes darting towards the front door, even though his mom couldn’t see him. He let the quiet hold.
“Rick? Rick sweetie? Are you okay?” His mother’s voice stretched to the breaking point.
“I think he’s coming home,” Rick said, in a whisper, and hung up the phone.
It was morning; the birds were conversing overhead. The living room was shadow, banded with gold. Rick took a single breath, dried his eyes, and turned on the television. Placidly, he waited for his mother and the police.
|Don Jolly is a religious scholar, focusing on renaissance magic and early Jewish mysticism. Currently, he is pursuing a graduate degree at New York University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He is also a visual artist, known primarily as one half of Don And Max’s Incredible Art Show, an underground artist’s showcase held from 2008 to 2011 in Austin, Texas. His current comic strip, Zayo: The Rabbit with no Reason to Live, may be found here.|