The first thing I noticed was the guy’s mirthless laugh; I’m talking one hundred percent mirth-free, the most totally and completely prickish laugh I’ve ever heard in real life. A sound designed to make you doubt yourself but also to be angry about it, which is probably a sound that only a teenager can make. This dude was wrapped in a moth-eaten cardigan and his hair hung lank and greasy around his ears. A little girl’s haircut, on an adolescent free-for-all of ill will and constipated facial expressions. He came into the kitchen just long enough for us all to get a good look at him, and to tell us we were dicks, before flipping through a pile of mail and shuffling back down to the basement.
The house was huge. A Frank-Lloyd-Wright layout with big back windows looking out onto stones and trees, a creek full of little frogs. Just enough forest that a serial killer could at any moment appear; from those back window-walls you couldn’t even see the road. It all looked wild, inescapable. The living room was full of stacks of folded shirts, fresh laundry for—we assumed—that little rat bastard who laughed at us like that, so mean. The fridge was full of prepared meals waiting for him to reheat them, a little bland to suit his tastes. We didn’t ever venture down into the basement.
Let me back up. I was at a friend’s house—we all were. A friend from college who also liked Metallica and Continental Philosophy and PBR, which, if you don’t know, is a surprisingly great combination. My friend wasn’t exactly un-greasy himself, which makes sense, since that creep was his brother. Apple, tree, etc. Or, I don’t know if that phrase exactly applies with brothers, but you get the idea. Fruit of a single loom. My friend liked to take pictures of himself pointing off into the distance at nothing, pretending he was an old-timey sea captain or maybe just imagining he was blowing all our minds. But okay, he meant it in good fun, and he often bought the beer, too. When he invited us to spend spring break at his house he told us his brother would be there, and we were like, Whatever, we have to finish our final papers on Lévi-Strauss before the library closes. So he said it again, extra meaningful this time, but how were we supposed to know what he meant? Whatever, we said. Very sincerely. Whatever.
His parents were out of town at some pseudo-spiritual retreat in, I think, Nantucket; anything to get out of Nebraska. I’d have gone somewhere like that too if I had money to burn—popped collar, what-ho old boy—but the house was big and empty, and one of our buddies had a car, so this was it for the great vacation. Six hours from campus, not even that bad of a drive if you get a bunch of fountain soda and cheese Combos. We were planning to watch movies, smoke a little weed, maybe go into town and check out the local bars where everyone was a regular and living a life of quiet desperation. I wanted to see some guys in cowboy hats, some guys in really bad ties drinking white wine spritzers and pretending they weren’t going to go home and shoot up meth. I guess I just wanted to relax. But now my friend’s brother was here, and he was a complete weirdo. Who calls a bunch of strangers dicks? Only dicks do, right?
Here’s the thing: I wouldn’t even have been there, except my mom was going into the hospital that week, and she made a big deal about me not coming home, saying it would be boring and she wanted me to relax and blah blah. It was true that she’d spend most of the time playing Sudoku with an IV in her arm, and the rest of the time sleeping or getting blood drawn by psycho nurses who did their rounds at 3 a.m., but I still would’ve gone if she hadn’t insisted a thousand times that there was zero fun to be had in our house. Eventually I believed her.
I did go back the first time she got sick, during Thanksgiving my freshman year. At that point the doctors were still falling all over themselves to say how her tumor was going to be easy to treat, this stupid tiny lump on her lung which they assured us was the good kind of lump for a person so healthy and strong and—whatever. She looked terrible. Which I know everyone says about people in hospitals, right? But she did. Her skin was practically translucent, so I could see all her blood vessels. Like one of those Bodyworks exhibits where they artificially stripped some poor dude down to just the muscles or bones in a position of flight, running or jumping to show the magnificent and grotesque human form. There was some controversy, I think, about maybe they were the victims of grave robbing, but the tickets still sold out. People want what they want. They don’t think about the consequences all the time. Some of my high school friends and I were going to pre-order tickets and scalp them, but we didn’t end up having the start-up capital because we spent it on a high-class batch of mushrooms which were supposed to be mentally transformative.
But, okay, my mom. It was Thanksgiving, which seemed like a mean time to notice that the chemo drugs were making her fat and totally bald, since the rest of us were all busy stuffing ourselves, but I couldn’t help it. Not just because she was less pretty, but because she didn’t look like herself. She has really big eyes—apparently when I was a baby I was, like, fascinated by them—and now they were somehow farther away. Her face was all wrong, mushy and stretched out at the same time, which is what happens when someone puts poison in your body on purpose. She was never hungry unless she was on steroids, and then she ate everything. My dad said she stayed up all night on Internet message boards, which explained why she was always tired, and why she sometimes sent me emails at weird hours. I was only there for a little while, and I wanted to do something to help her relax, like take her to the movies—my treat. But she would’ve had to wear a hospital mask to cut down on the risk of incidental infection, so she wouldn’t go. When I asked what the big deal was, she said that if people saw her as a sick person they’d remember her that way for the rest of her life. No matter how healthy she got, they’d always see that bloated chemo ghost hovering just around the edges. Which—she wasn’t wrong.
So when my mom told me not to come home this time, because it was just a little spot on the scan, just a precautionary round of treatment, I said alright, and went to Nebraska instead. At the time, it seemed better than glancing over at her on the couch and suddenly seeing that half her eyebrow was missing because it fell out when she scratched an itch.
We drove all night to get to my friend’s house, after a late start. We figured it was vacation, so who cared? We could sleep in the next day. We stopped at the Kum-n-Go for gas and snacks, and then we took turns behind the wheel vs. navigating vs. chilling in the back seat, blasting a CD we made of our own band, which is a little lame, I admit, but we wanted to hear how it sounded. Pretty good, I thought. When we got tired of that we switched to The Smiths. Driving through Iowa seems like it would be really boring, especially when the farms haven’t quite come back to life for spring yet—it was still cold in March, a little snow. But it was actually cool. There are all these endless hills, and with the moon out all the clouds were backlit and kind of silver, and the empty fields looked as if something major had been abandoned. We saw a car parked on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, and it turned out they were just out of gas and needed a tow truck. It was like two in the morning. No street lights, just one dark house maybe half a mile away. Three guys and three girls crammed into this tiny hatchback. I heard coyotes crying, who knows where. We let the girls use one of our cell phones to call AAA—“Man,” my friend said. “We thought you were teenagers. We thought you wanted beer.” After they called we kept going, which we all felt kind of weird about but what were we supposed to do? Sit there in the dark, with these strangers? For who knows how long? It got cold fast when you turned the engine off. You could see your breath and it just kind of hovered in front of you.
We hit Nebraska at 4 a.m., maybe 4:30. Pulled up to my friend’s house, down his dark-ass driveway which is, like I said, surrounded by trees. Big nighttime shadows, stretched at what seemed like all the wrong angles, but that’s just how it is with the moon. We didn’t have the energy to argue over bedrooms so we crashed on couches, mostly, and my friend slept in his own room, and none of us woke up before 11 a.m. the next day, so that’s when we saw all the signs of his brother laying around. The stacks of shirts. Laundromat clean, crisp folds, all that. Sitting on top of the stereo and on the stairs, as if the kid’s parents had figured out that he only crawled up out of the basement every so often so they had to leave things out for him like crumbs for a really picky mouse. Like maybe he’d randomly walk up to a pile of clean shirts and smell it, and maybe take a shower by accident and get a haircut and join the military. Or whatever. Put on one of the shirts at least, and eat the boring rigatoni that had HIS NAME printed on it in Sharpie in CAPITAL LETTERS over the cellophane. Individual servings on microwave-size plates, though I didn’t ever see him bother to use the microwave.
My mom never left me food like that. She always wanted us to sit down for meals together, and when we didn’t have time I made myself a box of mac and cheese or went to get a burrito or something, since all the leftovers she kept for herself in the fridge were yoga food: lemons squeezed over kale, a lot of tahini, nothing that an actual hungry person wants. Then she got sick and even that stuff disappeared since she wasn’t allowed to eat it anymore. Every new doctor had new rules: too much iron messed with her blood thinners, and if she didn’t have blood thinners she’d get clots in her arm, which could just dislodge and go to her brain and stroke her out. Not super likely, but still possible. Every normal cracker or piece of fruit or bite of cheese was suddenly suspicious, which is enough to drive anyone nuts. I sometimes wondered what would happen if I brought her the wrong sandwich by accident. The wrong cup of tea.
But whatever. In Nebraska, we wandered around my friend’s house, and some things seemed totally off, knowing him, but some of it was like yeah, that makes sense. Like, I wouldn’t have pictured him growing up around all those trees, or ever going outside, really. But I could see him sitting on the ugly plaid sofa—which I’m one hundred percent sure was Scotch-guarded, hand to god—and looking at the trees and thinking no way man, and then reading some Salinger like the sullen motherfucker that he is. I could see him having nice parents, and also weird parents. The kind of people who would be really proud when you placed third in the science fair (and let me tell you, I saw the ribbon), and just kind of gloss over the fact that your project was figuring out how to make mustard gas from common home chemicals and “speculating” about the effects of them on the human body. I said I bet the judges were too creeped out to give him first, and he laughed and said, Totally. Knowing my friend, I’m sure that was the point. Freaking people out. Making them wonder about him. Deep down, though, there isn’t much to wonder about. He’s just a guy, sort of weird and sort of smart. I think his parents were probably right not to make a big deal about the mustard gas, because look at him now: Mr. Normal College Person, if you get right down to it, even if he wears really skinny jeans and likes to take those sea captain pictures.
I wonder if they thought that my friend’s brother would smooth out, too, if they just gave him space and made sure to keep him in ironed shirts and cold pasta. Go to not-quite-an-Ivy. Find a girl. Before I actually met him, when he was theoretical, I would’ve said yeah, for sure he will. After all, I was my own kind of nut job in high school: I loved Iron Maiden and I was way too proud of myself for reading Ayn Rand, like I’d discovered the secret to the universe—everything seemed like it might possibly be the key to everything else. I’d freak out for days about a line in a movie, or because I’d figured out how to pick a lock and now maybe I could be a spymaster. It wasn’t till I got older that I figured out there are a million important things, and you can’t freak out about all of them. Just the right ones.
When we stumbled in at 4:30 a.m., we didn’t notice the pile of mail in the front hallway, and I don’t think I even really paid attention to it until sometime in the middle of the next day, and only then because there were a bunch of magazine deliveries in shielded envelopes, which pretty much makes you think porn. They weren’t addressed to my friend’s parents, either; they were for his brother, who we still hadn’t seen. There were also some padded envelopes with, like, videocassettes in them, which, who even has those? So I took one of the magazines and one of the cassettes, just as a joke, and later when his brother stumbled upstairs and grabbed the ones I hadn’t touched, I was happy I’d done it, because jesus, that guy. Before I quite got what he was like I asked him if he wanted some of the pizza we were ordering, and he said, “I don’t put that kind of toxic shit in my body,” and then he laughed, but he was eating pasta and what’s the difference? I don’t know. He’s a creep, and even creeps have their standards. But why was he laughing?
I stashed the envelopes under my stuff and more or less forgot they were there for the next few days—we were always busy or hungry or hungover enough that they didn’t seem important. We also had a bunch of reading to do for final papers, Deleuze and Guattari, psychoanalysis. Stuff like that. So many books that I’m pretty sure the combined weight messed with the gas mileage in the car, but once we arrived, no one really looked at them. Instead my friend dug out a few old BB guns, which we took into the woods to blow up empty bottles even though it was so cold in the shade that we all started shivering and couldn’t shoot straight. You’d think, wear coats, you idiots. But I had one, and that wasn’t enough. It was like the trees were still living in winter, like they didn’t get the memo. After a while we got bored and went inside to eat soup.
No shock, but after half a week of sleeping till noon and listening to my friend’s parents’ old LPs—not good ones even, more Beatles than Leonard Cohen—the fun was starting to wear off, and we were all getting kind of angry at him for bringing us to his middle-of-nowhere suburban palace. We’d also seen more of the brother. He had all these piles of clean shirts but he always seemed to be wearing the same one, and look, I’m a dude. I know the things dudes do, but that shirt was gross. It was torn in a kind of cool Cobain-era grunge way but it just looked sad on him, like even the shirt had given up and wasn’t ripped on purpose but just starting to fall apart. Like, what. Entropy. It was reverting back to molecules and bumblefuck. It made me kind of want to take him aside and say hey buddy, is everything alright? His parents had left him all this stuff, and his brother was here, but no one was like, taking care of him. No one even seemed to be paying attention.
One night we went to a townie bar and my friend—not the friend whose house it was; this other guy, Ethan—got into a fight with someone. We’d been sitting there for an hour drinking cheap beers and the whole time the jukebox had been playing Stevie Wonder and Garth Goddamn Brooks, which, either one in isolation, okay, but as a combo it was unfuckingbearable. So Ethan gets some change and goes up to the jukebox, and he finds the one totally implausible Elvis Costello track on the whole machine, or maybe in the whole state—which, yeah, it was honkytonk, but we still felt like we were pulling a sword out of a really intense stone, and were about to be crowned the kings of Narnia. I’m not sure what we wanted from that place, in retrospect. Or any place, come to think of it. Maybe we really thought someone would recognize us for how great we were, how smart. We had to wait through like three tracks that were already paid for, but finally our song came up, and we were cheers-ing our glasses and generally feeling good about stuff, when the song just cuts out, and we realize that one of the regulars knew the bartender, and got him to change it. So yeah, we had to pull Ethan off him. He’s a passionate guy.
We probably shouldn’t have driven home. But I don’t think there was a single cab in that town, and anyway we weren’t drunk drunk, just sort of ready to rumble. So we peel into the driveway, scree-eech, and go into the house where all the lights are off and we assume that Brother Ghoul is downstairs in his lair, sacrificing virgins or whatever, but we go into the kitchen to mix some celebration rum and Cokes and see him just sitting on the counter, in the dark, eating cold lasagna with his hands. As soon as we turn on the light, he blinks at us, and just hops off the counter and walks downstairs, as if that was what he was planning to do all along, and we stare at each other like, what, but there isn’t really anything to say, so we make the rum & Cokes and go on with our night.
Now, this kid is a creep. Right? He’s a creep. But I don’t know, I was a little worried about him. I kept thinking about how, before my mom got diagnosed, she made jokes about how crappy she felt and we all just laughed at them for the longest time. So I said hey, I know it’s not cool, but I sort of palmed a couple of your brother’s secret packages? And maybe we should look inside to just, see what he’s up to? Because who knows. Maybe he’s watching My Little Pony and just doesn’t want anyone to know, but maybe he needs some serious therapy, and wouldn’t it be better to be sure? Plus, it was very possibly porn, and I wasn’t against that as an option.
There was a tape player in my friend’s parents’ bedroom upstairs; they had one of those old TVs with a VCR built in that was the height of technology in like 1974, so we went up there. I kind of couldn’t believe they hadn’t replaced it with a flat screen, but the house was like that, the sort of place someone put a lot of effort into maybe twenty years ago and then just never worried about again. It was clean, but it was, like, old.
Of course their questionable taste was perfect in this situation, because I don’t even know if you can rent a VCR anymore. Where would you do it? But my friend’s weirdo parents had one just sitting there, with a remote control and everything. We sat on the bed, all crowded around those two packages, and I admit that my feelings were not exactly “help this poor lost lamb” but more “hell yeah, what kind of crazy shit is about to go down.” Like maybe seventy/thirty “hell yeah”/”lamb.” Eighty/twenty. I don’t really know what we expected to find. My friends and I have always been like that, though; we come up with a plan and get really excited about it, ignoring all the screaming red flags, and when it turns out badly we’re all somehow surprised. I thought, like, piss porn. Maybe child porn? I definitely did not guess correctly, and I was guessing dark.
We opened the magazine first, and just found an old comic book from maybe the 50s, which was disturbing enough in its own way: half-full of realistically drawn people and half-full of cartoon-looking weirdoes from outer space. But at least we felt better about putting in the tape. After the comic, I thought it would be old episodes of Deep Space Nine. We were all laughing. A little bit of Coke bubbled up my nose and dripped onto my friend’s parents’ duvet, but I wiped it off with my sleeve and I don’t think anyone noticed. And then—listen. We wouldn’t have watched it all the way through except that we had no idea what it was. The production quality was terrible, like some video your dad took at your sixth birthday party in a Chuck-E-Cheese. Low lighting, grainy footage, not something I personally would pay top dollar for. I mean, obviously.
There was a dark-ish room with a chair and a bed, sort of Spartan, like a convent maybe, and we thought, yeah, bring on the naughty nuns. But instead an old man walked into the shot, and sat down in the chair and looked straight into the camera.
“My name is Henry,” he said. He had those big old-man ears and really thin white hair, and barely any lips left. His skin kind of reminded me of my mom’s when she’s doing her treatment, except wrinkled all to hell. Of course that made me feel guilty; I knew she’d be pissed if I said that to her. I still moisturize, kid, she would tell me. Thank you very much for noticing. So now we’re all quieting down, because we’re confused and, honestly, a little bit drunk. The bed was really soft, and Henry’s voice was nice, grandpa nice. Pipe-in-the-evening, scotch-before-bed nice, the kind of voice that would tell you a story before you fell asleep and help you have good dreams. He was talking about his life, the fact that he’d been in the war, how he’d had a best girl at home but when he got back they just couldn’t make it work. He said he had a good life, and you could see how it might be true, even though it wasn’t clear why he was in this empty, tiny room talking to a camera and somehow, through the transitive Henry-camera-video-tape-player property, talking to us. Who the fuck were we?
When I was little my mom and I used to build blanket forts in the living room and huddle under them on weekend afternoons with the light all gone pink, because the top one was a baby blanket that my Nona made for me back when she was hoping I’d be born a girl. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a soft cloth covered in rosettes that she turned into a kind of quilt, and when we weren’t using it for a fort my mom kept it on the end of her and dad’s bed. I knew she had it in the hospital with her, too—not to use as a blanket; they give you blankets, but she said it was just nice to have something from home. Inside the fort we’d tell each other secrets, and I could never remember them later. The secrets weren’t important; it was the way it felt to tell them. Half the time, I think I just told her my dreams.
Henry was talking in that same sort of way, only now he’d begun to cry. His shoulders shaking. Tears just streaming down his cheeks. Getting all stuck in the wrinkles like water in a topographical map. God, what a face. He was really old. By this point I was more awake again, wondering what were we watching; maybe I knew, then. Looking back, it feels like I knew.
I started getting nervous, as if something in the room was really wrong, and we were doing something wrong by being there. I got this urge to call home. But the other guys were quiet, just sipping and watching, eyes half open, while Henry cried on camera in this home movie from the twilight zone that my friend’s little brother ordered from a mysterious address in Idaho. I thought about the hills we drove over on our way to Nebraska, how they were all grey and brown with winter, and how they’d been pretty in this blasted-out, empty way that I really wanted to tell my mom about, but I hadn’t called all week and calling now, while I was drunk and tired, would be too weird. Her phone was probably off for the night anyway.
Then it happened, really fast. A pair of hands came on screen—most of the body was hidden, and definitely the face, but the hands were there—and grabbed Henry by the collar, and jerked him forward. He was crying and crying, and saying wait, this was a mistake, but the hands had a knife and they cut his throat like some disembodied vengeance, but against what? Against Henry? I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t like a normal movie; you could see him coughing up blood, and the blood coming out of his neck, and most importantly you could see the moment his eyes filmed over and became something different, just useless marbles. You could see him die.
There’s something Foucault says—I took a seminar—which basically means that everything you do is dangerous and has its own power, and you can’t predict what the outcome of anything will be. He’s talking about politics, like if you work hard and get The Citizens to vote for something good, you don’t know it won’t cause a backlash, you don’t know the law won’t be abused and turned into something worse, you just never know. And in his writing, you can see it’s this huge problem, because then how do you ever choose to do anything? But in his life, he was actually like, activist to the max. You gotta do the best you can do. Which begs the question: but what if you aren’t?
So there’s Henry, being murdered on this cassette, and it’s not like I knew him, but I felt like somehow just by being in this room I’d reached backwards in time and killed him with my own hands. The tape went black. “No way,” one of my friends said. And then another said, “That was fucked up,” and we all agreed about the general upward direction of its fuckedness, but still I was privately starting to hyperventilate, even though I wasn’t completely sure why. I mean, it was my friend’s brother. His brother’s tape. We just watched it, and we did that in, like, innocence, right? I had thought Deep Space Nine. Maybe old BBC cuts of Doctor Who. But I was the one who picked up the envelope. And I was the one who was sort of mad at his brother for being weird, for not wanting our pizza and for walking around in this house of ironed shirts and laughing for who knows how many days before we arrived, like it was a shrine to the life his parents hoped they were giving him, and he just found that hilarious.
With a chill, we realized he was still downstairs, in the basement, in that very house, where he’d been since we got there the very first night. He’d been there while we were sleeping on the couches, and we were supposed to sleep there tonight, too, while he was padding through, back and forth for all we knew, walking into the kitchen to stare into the cold light of the refrigerator and see what might be there for him to eat. Watching movies like this; there were so many envelopes. So many tapes. Back home my mom was probably losing her hair again, sitting propped up in bed with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, watching the news and wondering what she had left in her life, and I was here, with a crazy person. And just as I realized this my phone rang and I saw it was my dad calling, much too late for a normal call, and there was a noise in the doorway and we all looked up, and there was my friend’s brother, smiling. Just watching us, and smiling the same smile he’d had from the beginning.
Rumpus original art by Trisha Previte.