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Grasshopper Jungleby Andrew Smith
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Andrew Smith
I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.
We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future. But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit.
This is my history.
There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.
Just like it’s always been.
Robby Brees and I made the road the Ealing Mall is built on.
Before we outgrew our devotion to BMX bicycles, the constant back-and-forth ruts we cut through the field we named Grasshopper Jungle became the natural sweep of Kimber Drive, as though the dirt graders and street engineers who paved it couldn’t help but follow the tracks Robby and I had laid.
Robby and I were the gods of concrete rivers, and history does prove to us that wherever boys ride bicycles, paved roadways ribbon along afterward like intestinal tapeworms.
So the mall went up—built like a row of happy lower teeth— grinned for a while, and then about a year ago some of the shops there began shutting down, blackening out like cavities when people left our town for other, better places.
BMX riding was for middle-school kids.
We still had our bikes, and I believe that there were times Robby and I thought about digging them out from the cobwebbed corners of our families’ garages. But now that we were in high school—or at least in high school classes, because we’d attended Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy since kindergarten—we rode skateboards, and also managed to sneak away in Robby’s old car.
We were in tenth grade, and Robby could drive, which was very convenient for me and my girlfriend, Shann Collins.
We could always depend on Robby. And I counted on the hope—the erotic plan I fantasized over—that one night he’d drive us out along the needle-straight roads cutting through the seas of cornfields surrounding Ealing, and Robby wouldn’t say anything at all as I climbed on top of Shann and had sex with her right there on the piles of Robby’s laundry that always seemed to lie scattered and unwashed in the dirty old Ford Explorer his dad left behind.
On The Friday that ended our painfully slow first week after spring break, Robby and I took our boards and skated through the filthy back alley of Grasshopper Jungle.
Nobody cared about skaters anymore.
Well, at least nobody cared among the four remaining businesses that managed to stay open in the Ealing Mall after the McKeon plant closed down: The laundromat Robby never quite made it to, The Pancake House, and the liquor and thrift stores owned by Shann’s stepdad.
So we could skate there, and did pretty much whatever we wanted to do.
Judging from the empty beer cans, the mysterious floral sleeper sofa we were certain was infested with pubic lice, and the pungent smell of piss in the alley, it was clear everyone else in Ealing was similarly okay with the no-limits code of conduct in Grasshopper Jungle, too.
And that proved to be an unfortunate fact for me and Robby on that Friday.
We had built ramps from sagging flaps of plywood that we laid across a flight of concrete steps behind a vacant unit that used to be a foot doctor’s office.
“Bad business plan,” Robby said.
“Fixing people’s feet in a town everyone’s dying to run away from.”
Robby was so smart it hurt my head to think about how sad he could be sometimes.
“We should go into business,” I said.
“Want to have a fag?”
Robby liked calling cigarettes fags.
There was no way we’d ever sit down on that couch. We upended blue plastic milk crates and sat with forearms resting across our knees while we propped our feet on our boards and rocked them back and forth like we floated over invisible and soothing waves.
Robby was a better smoker. He could inhale thick, deep clouds of cigarette smoke and blow life-sized ghost models of both of us when he’d casually lean back and exhale.
I liked cigarettes, but I’d never smoke if Robby didn’t.
“What kind of business?” Robby said.
“I don’t know. I could write stuff. Maybe comic books.”
“And you could draw me.” Robby took a big drag from his cigarette. “I’d be like your spokes model or something.”
I have to explain.
I have that obsession with history, too.
In one corner of my closet, stacked from the floor to the middle of my thigh, sits a pile of notebooks and composition binders filled with all the dumb shit I’ve ever done. My hope was that, one day, my dumb history would serve as the source for countless fictional accounts of, well, shit.
And I drew, too. There were thousands of sketches of me, of Shann and Robby, in those books.
I consider it my job to tell the truth.
“What, exactly, does a spokes model do?”
“We speak. And look good at the same time. It’s a tough job, so I’d expect to make decent money.”
“The shit out of it, Porcupine.”
Robby called me Porcupine because of how I wore my hair. I didn’t mind. Everyone else called me Austin.
It is Polish.
Sometimes, in wonder, I can marvel at the connections that spider web through time and place; how a dying bull in Tsarist Russia may have been responsible for the end of the world in Ealing, Iowa.
It is the truth.
When he was a young man, Andrzej Szczerba, who was my great-great-great-grandfather, was exiled from his home in a small farming village called Kowale. Andrzej Szczerba had been involved in a radical movement to resist the imposition of Russian language and culture on Poles. Andrzej, like many Polish boys, hoped that one day his country, which had been treated like a sausage between the dog jaws of selfish neighboring empires, would be able to stand on its own.
It was a good idea, but it was not going to happen in Andrzej’s lifetime.
So Andrzej was forced to leave Kowale—and travel to Siberia.
He did not get very far.
The train carrying the exiled Andrzej derailed when it struck a dying bull that had collapsed on the tracks. It was a terrible accident. Andrzej was left, presumed dead, abandoned in the middle of a snowy field.
Andrzej Szczerba wore a silver medallion with an image of Saint Casimir, who was the patron saint of Poland, on a chain around his neck. He believed Saint Casimir had saved his life in the train wreck, and every day for the rest of his life, Andrzej would kiss the medal and say a prayer, thanking Saint Casimir.
It was a fortunate thing for me that Andrzej Szczerba did not die in that snowy field. Wounded, he walked for two days until he came to the town of Hrodna, where he hid from the Russians and ultimately married a Polish girl named Aniela Masulka, who was my great-great-great-grandmother.
Andrzej’s healthy Polish semen made four Catholic children with Aniela—two boys and two girls.
Only one of them, his youngest son, Krzys, would ever end up near Ealing, Iowa.
This is my history.
LOUIS ASKS A RHETORICAL QUESTION
We leaned our backs against the cinder-block wall, smoking in the cut of shade from a green rolling dumpster, and at just about the same time I talked Robby into taking his car to drive us over to Shann Collin’s new old house, I looked up and noticed the population of Grasshopper Jungle had increased uncomfortably.
Four boys from Herbert Hoover High, the public school, had been watching us while they leaned against the galvanized steel railing along the edge of the stairway we had been using for a ramp.
“Candy Cane faggots, getting ready to make out with each other in Piss Alley.”
The Candy Cane thing—that was what Hoover Boys enjoyed calling boys from Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy. Not just because it kind of rhymed. We had to wear ties to school. Whoever invented the uniform could have planned better to avoid the striped red-and-white design of them. Because when we’d wear our ties, white shirts, and blue sweaters with the little embroidered crosses inside blood red hearts, you couldn’t help but think we looked like, well, patriotic, Christian-boy candy canes.
But Robby and I weren’t big enough losers to still be wearing our uniforms while skating.
Well, we weren’t so much skating as smoking cigarettes, actually.
Robby wore a Hormel Spam T-shirt and baggy jeans with holes in them he sagged so low you could see half his citrus-motif boxers. They had oranges and lemons on them.
Citrus does not grow in Iowa.
I wore yellow-and-green basketball shorts and a black Orwells tee. So we didn’t look like candy cane boys.
The Orwells are a punk band from Illinois.
The other part—the faggot part—well, let’s just say Robby got picked on.
I only knew one of the boys: Grant Wallace. It’s hard not to know pretty much every kid in a town the size of Ealing, even if you didn’t pay too much attention to people as a rule.
However, I did know this: Grant and his friends were there for no other reason than to start crap.
It was bound to be historic, too.
And two 140-pound Candy Cane faggot sophomores with cigarettes and skateboards were not likely to stop anything four bored and corn-fed twelfth-graders from Hoover had in mind.
Robby just sat back casually against the wall, puffing away on his cigarette.
I couldn’t help but think he looked like a guy in one of those old black-and-white movies about firing squads and blindfolds and the Foreign Legion and shit like that.
One of Grant’s friends, a pudgy guy with a face full of whiteheads and only one eyebrow, took his cell phone out from his pocket and began recording video of us.
Consult history: Nothing good ever happens when cell phones are used to record video.
And I guess that was as good as Grant’s directorial cue to begin.
“Let me and Tyler borrow you guys’ skateboards for a few minutes. We’ll bring them back.”
Tyler must have been the mule-faced kid on Grant’s right, because he nodded, all excited, an encouragement for us to be cooperative Candy Cane faggots.
But Robby said no before the question was entirely out of Grant’s mouth.
The truth is—and history will back me up on this, too—that when kids like Grant ask kids like me and Robby if they can borrow stuff like skateboards, the boards are either going to get stolen, or the kids like me and Robby are going to be beaten up and then the boards are going to get stolen.
The way kids like me and Robby get beaten up first is when one of them says no.
History class is over for today.
We got beaten up by Grant Wallace, Tyler, and some other kid who smelled like he had barf on his sleeves, while the fourth kid filmed it with his cell phone.
Oh, and extra credit in history: You should never wear loose mesh basketball shorts and boxer underwear if you’re going to get kneed in the balls. Just so you know for the future.
I don’t even think either one of us made it all the way to his feet before the kicks and punches started. Robby got a bloody nose.
Grant took our boards and chucked them up onto the roof of The Pancake House.
Then the four Hoover Boys took our shoes off and threw them on the roof, too.
And if the boards didn’t make such a racket when they landed, Grant and his friends would have taken Robby’s and my pants and sent them up to shoe-and-skateboard heaven, too. But the Chinese guy named Louis who worked in the kitchen of The Pancake House stuck his face out the back door, and asked, politely, what we thought we were doing.
I do not know what I thought I was doing.
But that question, in itself, when asked by a Chinese pancake chef named Louis, was enough to make Grant and his friends call an end to their diversion.
I was curled up on my side, cupping my nuts, while the sleeve of my black Orwells T-shirt adhered to some gooey piss stain on Grasshopper Jungle’s asphalt.
Grant and the Hoover Boys left, and Louis, apparently satisfied with the lack of an answer to his rhetorical question about what we boys thought we were doing, shut the door.
For a moment, I found myself wondering, too, why guys like Grant Wallace, who called guys like me and Robby Brees faggots, always seemed to take pleasure in removing the trousers of littler guys.
That would be a good question for the books, I thought.
THERE’S BLOOD ON YOUR SPAM
“Are you hurt?”
“Balls. Knee. Boxers.”
“There’s blood on your Spam.”
GRANT WALLACE MURDERED ME
Robby felt bad, not because of his bloody nose. Because he blamed himself when things like this happened. He cried a little, and that made me sad.
History shows, after things like that, you either get up and have a cigarette, in your socks, with your bloody friend, or you don’t.
Since it wasn’t time for Robby and me to die, we decided to have a smoke.
I believe Andrzej Szczerba would have wanted a smoke when he pulled himself, bloodied, up from the wreckage in that snowy field in Poland.
There are as many theories on how to deal with a bloody nose as there are ears of corn in all the combined silos of Iowa.
Robby’s approach was artistic.
Propping himself dog-like on his hands and knees, he hung his head down, depositing thick crimson coins of blood from his nostrils and simultaneously puffing a cigarette, while he drip-drip-dripped a pointillist message on the blacktop: GRANT WALLACE MURDERED ME
I watched and smoked and wondered how our shoes and skateboards were getting along, up there on the roof.
Unfortunately, as funny as it was to both of us, Robby stopped bleeding after forming the second A, so he only got as far as GRANT WA
“Nobody’s going to know what that means,” I said.
“I should have used lowercase.”
“Lowercase does use less blood. And a smaller font. Everyone knows that.”
“Maybe you should punch me again.”
I realized I’d never punched anyone in my life.
“I don’t think so, Robby. You got any quarters on you?”
“Let’s go throw our shirts in the laundry place. You need to learn how to use those things anyway.”
So Robby and I limped around to the front of the mall and went inside Ealing Coin Wash Launderette, where, maximizing the return on our investment, we not only washed our T-shirts, but the socks we had on as well.
“This is boring,” Robby observed while we waited for the fifth dime we slotted into the dryer to magically warm the dampness and detergent from our clothes. “No wonder I never come here.”
“Doesn’t your apartment building have a laundry room?”
“Worse than this?”
“This? This is like Hawaii, Porcupine. Sitting here with you, barefoot, with no shirts on, watching socks and shit go around.”
Robby lived alone with his mom in a tiny two-bedroom at a place called the Del Vista Arms, a cheap stucco apartment building only three blocks from Grasshopper Jungle. We walked there, in our damp laundered socks and T-shirts.
Two of the apartments on Robby’s floor had Pay or Quit notices taped to their doors.
“Wait here,” he said, and he quietly snuck inside.
It meant his mother was home. Robby usually didn’t like people to come over when his mom was there. I knew that. He was just going to get the keys to the Ford and take me for a ride, anyway.
So I waited.
“The blood didn’t come out of your Spam shirt,” I said.
We drove west, down Mercantile Street toward my house, and I noticed the diffused brown splotches of post-laundered blood that dotted Robby’s chest. And he was still in his socks, too.
“I’ll loan you a pair of shoes when we get to my house,” I offered. “Then let’s go get Shann and do something.”
I glanced over my shoulder and checked out the backseat.
I wondered if I would ever not be horny, or confused about my horniness, or confused about why I got horny at stuff I wasn’t supposed to get horny at.
As history is my judge, probably not.]
“I think we should go up on the roof and get our shit back. Tonight, when no one will see us. Those were my best shoes.”
Actually, those were Robby’s only non-Lutheran-boy school shoes.
I was willing.
“I bet there’s some cool shit up on that roof,” I said.
“Oh yeah. No doubt everyone in Ealing hides their cool shit up on the roof of The Pancake House.”
“Or maybe not.”
WHAT MADE THIS COUNTRY GREAT
Robby had an older sister named Sheila.
Sheila was married and lived with her husband and Robby’s six-year-old nephew in Cedar Falls.
I had a brother named Eric.
Eric was in Afghanistan, shooting at people and shit like that.
As bad as Cedar Falls is, even the Del Vista Arms for that matter, Eric could have gone somewhere better than Afghanistan.
Both our moms took little blue pills to make them feel not so anxious. My mom took them because of Eric, and Robby’s mom needed pills because when we were in seventh grade, Robby’s dad left and didn’t come back. My dad was a history teacher at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy, and my mom was a bookkeeper at the Hy-Vee, so we had a house and a dog, and shit like that.
Hy-Vee sells groceries and shit.
My parents were predictable and ominous. They also weren’t home yet when Robby and I got there in our still-wet socks and T-shirts.
“Watch out for dog shit,” I said as we walked across the yard.
“Austin, you should mow your lawn.”
“Then it would make the dog shit too easy to see and my dad would tell me to pick it up. So I’d have to mow the lawn and pick up dog shit.”
“It’s thinking like that that made this country great,” Robby said. “You know, if they ever gave a Nobel Prize for avoiding work, every year some white guy in Iowa would get a million bucks and a trip to Sweden.”
Thinking about me and Robby going to Sweden made me horny.
SHANN’S NEW OLD HOUSE
FIRST this, naturally: We got food from the kitchen.
We also made dirt tracks on the floor because socks are notoriously effective when it comes to redistributing filth from sidewalks, lawns, the Del Vista Arms, and Robby’s untidy old Ford Explorer.
I boiled water, and we took Cups-O-Noodles and Doritos into my room.
Robby sat on my bed and ate, waiting patiently while I recorded the last little bit of the day’s history in my notebook.
“Here.” I tossed my cell phone over to the bed. “Call Shann.”
“Have you ever smelled a Dorito?”
“Mmmm . . .” I had to think about it. I wrote. “Probably not.”
“Just checking,” he said, “’Cause they smell like my nephew’s feet.”
“Why did you smell a six-year-old kid’s feet?”
As usual, Shann got mad because I had Robby call her using my phone, and when she answered, she thought it was me. This, quite naturally, made me horny. But Robby explained to her I was writing, and he told her that something terrible had happened to us. He asked if it would be okay that we came over to her new old house as soon as we finished eating.
Robby was such a suave communicator when it came to relaying messages to Shann. In fact, I believed it was the biggest component of why she was so much in love with me. Sometimes, I wished I could cut off Robby’s head and attach it to my body, but there were more than a couple things wrong with that idea: First, uncomfortably enough, it kind of made me horny to think about a hybridized Robby/Austin having sex with Shann; and, second, decapitation was a sensitive topic in Ealing.
Well, anywhere, really. But, in Ealing during the late 1960s there was this weird string of serial murders that went unsolved. And they all involved headlessness.
History is full of decapitations, and Iowa is no exception.
So, after we finished eating, I outfitted Robby with some clean socks, a Titus Andronicus T-shirt (I changed into an Animal Collective shirt—all my tees are bands), and gave him my nicest pair of Adidas.
And both of us tried to pretend we didn’t notice my dad’s truck pulling up the drive just as we took off for Shann’s.
“Perfect timing,” I said.
Robby answered by pushing in the dashboard cigarette lighter.
Besides all the head-cutting-off shit that went on fifty years ago, Ealing was also known for Dr. Grady McKeon, founder of McKeon Industries, which, up until about six months ago, employed over half the town’s labor force. Grady McKeon was some kind of scientist, and he made a fortune from defense programs during the Cold War. When the fight against Communism went south on McKeon, the factory retooled and started manufacturing sonic-pulse shower-heads and toothbrushes, which ultimately became far more profitable when made in Malaysia or somewhere like that. So the factory shut down, and that’s also why most of the Ealing strip mall was deserted, and why every time I visited Robby at the Del Vista Arms, there were more and more Pay or Quit notices hanging on doors.
And that’s a half century of an Iowa town’s history in four sentences.
Grady McKeon was gone, but his much younger brother still lived and ran businesses in Ealing. Johnny McKeon owned Tipsy Cricket Liquors and the From Attic to Seller thrift store, both of which were big crowd-pleasers at the strip mall.
Johnny, who was responsible for thinking up the names of those two establishments entirely on his own, was also Shann’s stepfather.
And Shannon Collins, whom Robby and I called Shann, her mother (the relatively brand-new Mrs. McKeon), and Johnny had just taken ownership of the McKeon House, a decrepit old wooden monstrosity that was on the registry of historic homes in Ealing.
Well, actually, it was the only historic home in Ealing.
It took Robby and me two cigarettes to get to Shann’s new old house.
It had already been a rough day.
We were going to need another pack.
GOING SOMEWHERE YOU SHOULDN’T GO
Shannon kissed me on the lips at the door of her new old house.
She kissed Robby on the lips, too.
Shann always kissed Robby on the mouth after she kissed me.
It made me horny.
I wondered what she would say if I asked her to have a threesome with us in her new old, unfurnished bedroom.
I knew what Robby would say.
I wondered if it made me homosexual to even think about having a threesome with Robby and Shann. And I hated knowing that it would be easier for me to ask Robby to do it than to ask my own girlfriend.
I felt myself turning red and starting to sweat uncomfortably in my Animal Collective shirt.
And I realized that for a good three and a half minutes, I stood there at the doorway to a big empty house that smelled like old people’s skin, thinking about three-ways involving my friends.
So I wondered if that meant I was gay.
I hadn’t been listening to anything Shann and Robby were talking about, and while I was pondering my sexuality, they were probably thinking about how I was an idiot.
I might just as well have been a blowup doll.
These are the things I don’t write down in the history books, but probably should.
I don’t think any historians ever wrote shit like that.
“You have to excuse him. He got kneed in the balls.”
Robby nudged me with his shoulder and said it again, louder, because idiots always understand English when you yell it at them: “YOU HAVE TO EXCUSE HIM. HE GOT KNEED IN THE BALLS.”
Shann put her hand flat on the side of my face, the way that real moms, who don’t take lots of drugs every day, do to little boys they think might be sick. Real moms have sensors or some kind of shit like that in their hands.
Shann’s mom, Mrs. McKeon, was a real mom. She also used to be a nurse, before she married Johnny McKeon.
“Are you okay, Austin?”
“Huh? Yeah. Oh. I’m sorry, Shann. I was kind of tripping out about something.”
Having a three-way in Sweden with Robby and her was what I was tripping out about.
But I didn’t tell her.
Shann’s room was empty.
The entire house was mostly empty, so our footsteps and voices echoed like sound effects in horror films about three kids who are going somewhere they shouldn’t go.
Thinking about things like that definitely did not make me horny. In fact, just about the only things I noticed in that musty mausoleum of a house were unopened boxes—brand-new ones—containing McKeon Pulse-O-Matic® showerheads and toothbrushes.
“The moving van’s going to be here this afternoon. They just finished at the house,” Shann explained as the three of us stood awkwardly in her empty, echoey room.
Because, in an empty bedroom with creaky old wood floors, it is a natural human response to just stand there and shift your weight from foot to foot, and think about sex.
Shann and I started going out with each other in seventh grade.
When I think about it, a lot of stuff happened to us that year. There are nine filled, double-sided-paged volumes of Austin Szerba’s Unexpurgated History of Ealing, Iowa for that year alone.
That year, Eric went into the Marines and left me at home, brotherless, with our dog named Ingrid, a rusty golden retriever with a real dynamo of an excretory tract.
People in Ealing use expressions like real dynamo whenever something moves faster than a growing stalk of corn.
It was also the same year Robby’s dad went to Guatemala to film a documentary about a volcanic eruption. Lots of stuff erupted that year, because Mr. Brees met a woman, got her pregnant, and expatriated to Guatemala.
And, just like a lot of boys in seventh grade, I started erupting quite frequently then, too.
A real dynamo.
And, that year Shannon Collins’s mom moved to Ealing, enrolled her daughter at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy (where we were all good, non-smoking, non-erupting Christians), and married Johnny McKeon, the owner of From Attic to Seller Consignment Store and Tipsy Cricket Liquors.
And I fell in love with Shann Collins.
It was a very confusing time. I didn’t realize then, in seventh grade as I was, that the time, and the eruptions, and everything else that happened to me would only keep getting more and more confusing through grades 8, 9, and 10.
I will tell you how it was I managed to get Shann Collins to fall in love with me, too: My best friend, Robby Brees, taught me how to dance.
I was infatuated with Shann from the moment I saw her. But, being the new kid at school, and new in Ealing, Shann kept pretty much to herself, especially when it came to such things as eruptive, real dynamo, horny thirteen-year-old boys.
Robby noticed how deeply smitten I was by Shann, so he selflessly taught me how to dance, just in time for the Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy End-of-Year Mixed-Gender Mixer. Normally, genders were not something that were permitted to mix at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy.
So I went over to Robby’s apartment every night for two and a half weeks, and we played vinyl records in his room and he taught me how to dance. This was just after Robby and his mother had to move out of their house and into the Del Vista Arms.
Robby was always the best dancer of any guy I ever knew, and girls like Shann love boys who can dance.
History does show that boys who dance are far more likely to pass along their genes than boys who don’t.
Boys who dance are genetic volcanoes.
It made me feel confused, though, dancing alone with Robby in his bedroom, because it was kind of, well, fun and exceptional, in the same way that smoking cigarettes made me feel horny.
Seventh grade was also when Robby and I stole a pack of cigarettes from Robby’s mom. By the time we got into tenth grade, Robby’s mom started buying them for us. She might take drugs and not have one of those sensor things in the palm of her hand like real moms do, but Mrs. Brees doesn’t mind when teenage boys smoke cigarettes in her house and dance with each other, alone in the bedroom, and that’s saying something.
That year, at the end of seventh grade, Robby confessed that he’d rather dance with me than with any girl. He didn’t just mean dance. It was very confusing to me. It made me wonder more about myself, whom I doubted, than about Robby, whom I suppose I love.
At first, I thought Robby would grow out of it—you know, start erupting like everyone else.
But there was nothing wrong with Robby’s volcano, and he never did grow out of it.
So it was at the Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy End-of-Year Mixed-Gender Mixer that Robby casually and bravely walked up to the new girl, Shann Collins, and announced to her:
“My friend Austin Szerba is shy. That’s him over there. He is good-looking, don’t you think? He’s also a nice guy, he writes poetry, he’s a really fantastic dancer. He would like very much if you would agree to dance with him.”
And everything, confusing as it was, worked out beautifully for me and Shann and Robby after that.
DOORS THAT GO SOMEWHERE;
DOORS THAT GO NOWHERE
“Okay. So, basically this house is, like, infested with demons or something,” Shann told us.
Demonic infestations have a way of making guys feel not so horny.
“It’s in the Ealing Registry of Historical Homes,” I pointed out.
“People died here.”
“You should get that kind of air freshener shit that you plug into outlets so it masks the scent of death and decay with springtime potpourri,” Robby offered.
“Look at this,” she said. “There are doors that go nowhere, and I swear I heard something ticking and rattling inside my wall a moment ago.”
Shann used words like moment.
She wasn’t from Ealing.
One of the walls in her creaky room had two doors set into it. The wall itself was kind of creepy. It had wallpaper with flowers that seemed to float like stemless clones between wide red stripes. If I pictured a room where I was going to murder someone, aside from the instruments of torture and shit like that, it would have this wallpaper. If I was on death row, awaiting electrocution, I’d be wearing pajamas with the same pattern on them.
Shann went to the door on the left and pulled it open.
When she opened it, there was only the jamb and frame of the door, and then a wall of bricks behind it.
I could only imagine what was on the other side of the bricks.
Robby, naturally, felt compelled to say something less than comforting.
“I suggest you don’t liberate whatever’s imprisoned back there,” he said.
Shann was getting angry. I knew I should intervene, but I didn’t know what to say.
“Nowadays, people spend a lot of money for distressed bricks like those,” I said.
It was probably for the best that Shann wasn’t paying attention to me.
“And look at this,” she said.
When she opened the second door, a long, narrow stairway extended down into darkness on the other side. The chasm was at least twenty feet deep, but it dead-ended at another distressed brick wall, and there were no other doorways leading off in any direction that I could see.
“What can you expect from a house this old?” I asked.
It was a good question.
Ghosts and shit like that, was what I was thinking, though. You wouldn’t expect miniature ponies and trained talking peacocks that dispensed Sugar Babies and gumballs from their asses, would you?
“I don’t want to stay in this room by myself,” Shann said.
And that made me very horny again.
I also wanted candy.
Shann, obviously stressed, looked at Robby, then at me.
“I need to talk to you, Austin,” she said, and motioned for me to go with her down the candyless staircase of death and decay.
Robby took the hint. “Uh. I need to go to the bathroom. Maybe Pulse-O-Matic® my teeth. Or take a shower. Or something.”
He made a tentative, weight-shifting creak onto one leg and I followed Shann behind door number two.
We sat beside each other on the staircase.
Our bare legs touched.
Shann had a perfect body, a Friday-after-school body that was mostly visible because she was barefoot, and wore tight, cuffed shorts with a cantaloupe-colored halter top. A boy could go insane, I thought, just being this close to Shann’s uncovered shoulders, wheat hair, and heavy breasts.
This staircase to nothing was a fitting dungeon for constantly erupting, real-dynamo sixteen-year-old boys like me.
“Why is Robby wearing your clothes, and what happened to you and him?”
While we sat there, three important things struck me about Shann: First, I realized that, like most girls I knew, Shann could ask questions in machine-gun bursts that peppered the male brain with entirely unrelated projectiles of interrogation. Second, it was often unstated, but clear by her tone, that Shann was jealous of Robby, possibly to the point of being a little curious about my sexuality. I know, maybe that was also my confusion, as well. Because, third, what was most troubling to me, was that despite all the fantasies, all the intricately structured if/then scenarios I concocted involving Shann Collins and me, whenever an opportunity to take action presented itself—like being alone with her in a nearly sealed dungeon—I became timid and restrained.
I couldn’t understand it at all.
History chews up sexually uncertain boys, and spits us out as recycled, generic greeting cards for lonely old men.
Dr. Grady McKeon was a lonely old man. I can only conclude he must have also at one time been a sexually confused, unexplainably horny teenage boy who erupted all over everything at the least opportune times. He was twenty-five years old, and well on his way to building an empire of profits when his younger brother, Johnny, was born. I once heard a tobacco-chewing hog farmer say that, in Iowa, folks liked to spread out their children like dog shit on a dance floor.
Dr. Grady McKeon would be Shann’s stepuncle, if there is such a thing, and if he weren’t dead. He was the last person to live in the historic McKeon house. He died when his private jet went down in the Gulf of Mexico. Its engines choked to death on ash from Mount Huacamochtli, the same erupting volcano in Guatemala that Robert Brees Sr. was filming a documentary on. And it also happened the same year Robby Brees and I smoked our first cigarette, danced together, and I fell in love with Shannon Collins.
Johnny McKeon never wanted to live in his dead brother’s old house. It took Shann’s mother about four years of badgering to get him to finally break down and take the place out of mothballs.
I held Shann’s hand, and we sat there in the dungeon with our legs pressed together, and I was so frustrated I felt like I could explode. But I concentrated, and methodically went through the entire account of what happened to me and Robby at Grasshopper Jungle. I told her about our plan to climb up onto the roof of the Ealing Mall to get our stuff back.
“I’m coming with you,” she decided.
“Not up on the roof,” I said, so authoritatively my voice lowered an octave.
Sounding father-like to Shann in the echoing darkness of the staircase that led nowhere made me feel horny, demons or not. I scooted closer and put my arm around her so that my fingers relaxed and splayed across the little swath of exposed skin above the waist of her shorts.
“I’ll wait in Robby’s car. I’ll be your lookout.”
“Shann?” I said.
I almost had myself convinced to ask her if didn’t she think it was time we had sex, and the thought made me feel dizzy. I would force myself to no longer have any doubt or confusion, to not wind up recycled by history.
“This staircase really is creepy.”
And just as I pushed her firmly against the distressed brick wall and put my open mouth over hers, Robby swung the door wide above us and said, “The moving van’s here.”
While Shann’s mom, the movers, and Johnny McKeon worked at unloading and organizing the houseful of furniture they’d shipped over from their old-but-much-newer house, the three of us stole away in Robby’s Ford Explorer on our mission to reclaim our shoes and skateboards.
Friday nights in Ealing, Iowa, rarely got more thrilling than climbing up on the roof of a three-quarters abandoned mall, and we were up for the excitement.
On Fridays, my curfew came at midnight, which meant that if I was quiet enough I could stay out until just before my mother served breakfast on Saturday morning.\
I had to check in with my dad and mom, so they’d know I was still alive.
I told them I was going out for pizza with Robby and Shann.
It wasn’t a lie; it was an abbreviation.
I was not concerned about going to hell.
Nobody who was born and raised in Ealing, Iowa, was afraid of hell, or Afghanistan, or living at the Del Vista Arms.
Checking in for Robby meant swinging by his two-bedroom deluxe apartment at the Del Vista Arms and asking his mom for five dollars and a fresh pack of cigarettes, while Shann and I waited in the parking lot.
Shann did not smoke.
She was smarter than Robby and me, but she didn’t complain about our habit.
STUPID PEOPLE SHOULD NEVER READ BOOKS
It took me a very long time to work up the nerve to kiss Shann Collins, who was the first and only girl I had ever kissed.
There was a possibility that I’d never have kissed her, too, because she was the one who actually initiated the kiss.
It happened nearly one full year after the Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy End-of-Year Mixed-Gender Mixer.
Like Robby explained to her: I was shy.
I was on the conveyor belt toward the paper shredder of history with countless scores of other sexually confused boys.
After the Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy End-of-Year Mixed-Gender Mixer, I tried to get Shann to pay more serious attention to me.
I tried any reasonable method I could think of. I joined the archery club when I found out she was a member, and I offered multiple times to do homework with her. Sadly, nothing seemed to result in serious progress.
At last, all I could do was let Shann Collins know that I would be there for her if she ever needed a friend or a favor. I do not believe I had any ulterior motives in telling her such a thing. Well, to be honest, I probably did.
I’d leave notes for Shann tucked inside her schoolbooks; I would complement her on her outfit. She laughed at such things. Shann knew it was a ridiculous thing to write, since all the girls at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy dressed exactly the same way. Still, history will show that patient boys with a sense of humor, who can also dance, tend to have more opportunities to participate in the evolution of the species than boys who give up and mope quietly on the sidelines.
But I began to worry. Rumors were spreading around Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy about me and Robby, even though I never heard anything directly.
Then, in the second semester of eighth grade, I was called in to the headmaster’s office for something I wrote in a book report. Even though the book I read was in Curtis Crane’s library, as well as the Ealing Public Library, apparently nobody other than kids had bothered to read the book until I wrote my report on it.
The book was called The Chocolate War, and the copy I read belonged to my brother, Eric. Mrs. Edith Mitchell, who was the eighth-grade English teacher, assumed the book was about a candy kingdom or something. She probably thought there were magical talking peacocks in the book that shot gumballs and Sugar Babies out of their asses.
But there were teenage boys in the book—Catholic boys—who masturbated.
Boys who attend Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy are not allowed to masturbate.
My father nearly lost his job because I wrote a report on a book that had Catholic boys and masturbation in it.
Pastor Roland Duff, the headmaster at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy, was very distraught.
He had the school’s only copy of The Chocolate War resting on his desk when I came to his office.
There, he counseled me about masturbation and Catholicism.
“My fear is that when boys read books such as this,” he said, “they will assume there is nothing at all wrong with masturbation, and may, out of curiosity, attempt to masturbate. In fact, Austin, it is true that masturbation has serious harmful effects. It makes boys spiritually and physically weak.”
The headmaster patted his forehead, which was damp, with a handkerchief that had the Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy logo—a black cross surrounded by a blood red heart—embroidered on its corner. I wondered if they had prepared him in his religious training for giving teenage boys talks about masturbating.
He went on, “In history, entire armies have been defeated be- cause their soldiers masturbated too frequently. It happened to the Italians in Ethiopia.”
When he said the words too frequently, I wondered if there was some number higher than once or twice per day that would get me off the hook to hell and military failure.
In any event, I hoped he was right. I hoped the bad guys in Afghanistan—where my brother, Eric, whose book got me into trouble, was fighting—were also excessive masturbators like the Italians.
Pastor Roland Duff continued, “Masturbation can also turn boys into homosexuals.”
When he said homosexuals, he waved his hands emphatically like he was shaping a big blob of dough into a homosexual so I could see what he was talking about.
That frightened me, and made me feel ashamed and confused.
Then he called my mother into the office and he talked to her about masturbation, too.
Up until that day, I was certain my mother didn’t know there was such a thing as masturbation.
As I stood there, shifting my weight awkwardly from one foot to the other, Pastor Roland Duff told my mother about the Warning Signs of Masturbation, so she could keep a better watch over me.
Then he sent me home with my mother and suspended me from classes for one day.
When I came back to school, Mrs. Edith Mitchell made all the girls leave the classroom while Pastor Roland Duff explained the guidelines for books we boys were not allowed to read at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy. We were no longer permitted to read any books that had masturbation, Catholics, or penises in them. Pastor Roland Duff gave the entire class of boys the same speech he’d given me about masturbation, weakness, and homosexuality.
Once again, he blamed masturbation for Italy losing wars.
That kind of shit never made it into history books, either.
Sometimes, during his speech, he would remark, “As I was explaining to Austin Szerba . . .”
And he would wave his hands as though he were shaping a doughy Austin Szerba in the air, so all the other boys could see what a boy who wrote a book report about masturbation and Catholics looked like.
Then he led the boys in prayer and excused us so Mrs. Edith Mitchell could have a similar talk with the girls.
Robby and I whispered outside that after all that masturbation talk, a cigarette would be nice.
It was the worst day of my life since Eric left home.
Everyone knew that I was the one to blame for all the trouble about masturbating. At Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy, you couldn’t hear the name Austin Szerba and not think about masturbating.
I didn’t speak in class again for the rest of the year.
Robby thought it was funny and told me I was brave.
Best friends do that kind of stuff.
When the boys were taken out of the room, I wondered if Mrs. Edith Mitchell was telling the girls about Austin Szerba, and how teenage boys masturbate, or if maybe she had found a book with girls who masturbated in it. Thinking about a book like that made me very horny.
The library was quieter and emptier than usual for a long time after that day.
But when the boys came back into the classroom, Shann deftly slipped a note onto my lap beneath our desks. I thought she was going to tease me about masturbating, but the note said this:
Okay, I’ll admit it, Austin Szerba, you have finally won me over. I read The Chocolate War, too. I love that book. This school is full of shit. Let’s go get a Coke after class and hang out. By the way, I like what you’re wearing today.
I was dressed exactly like every other boy at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy.
Later that day, Shann Collins and I kissed for the first time.
It happened right after I said to her, “Stupid people should never read books.”
THE DEATH-RAY GUN
At one hour before midnight, Shann and I waited inside an old Ford Explorer parked behind the Del Vista Arms. Robby Brees, dressed in a pair of my clean white socks, best Adidas skate shoes, and Titus Andronicus T-shirt, dashed into his apartment to get us more cigarettes and wave, in passing, at his mother.
Events that night were going to set in motion a disaster that would probably wipe out human life on the planet. That night, I was going to say something to Shann I had never said to anyone. I was going to do something I’d never done, and see things I could not understand and never believed existed.
This is history, and it is also the truth.
I sat in the front seat.
Robby refused to chauffeur us around like he was some kind of limo driver, he said, so either Shann or I always had to sit up front with him. This rule increased the degree of difficulty in actually fulfilling my fantasy regarding Shann Collins and Robby’s backseat.
But now, Robby was gone.
“What are you doing ?” Shann said as I shimmied my way be- tween the front seats, over the center console where there was still an assortment of cassette tapes that had belonged to Robby’s dad.
I thought what I was doing was obvious enough, so I said, “I’m looking for my death-ray gun.”
“Well, if your ray gun doesn’t look like a pair of Robby’s underwear or socks, it isn’t back here.”
Robby needed to stop accumulating so much laundry this way, but it did keep the floor of his room tidy.
My foot got stuck between the passenger seat and console. My shoe came off. I left it there.
“I’m coming back there with you till Robby comes out.”
“Robby came out in the seventh grade,” Shann said.
A lot of things happened in seventh grade.
“There.” I said, “I’ve never been back here alone with you, Shann. It’s rather sexy.”
I thought using the word rather would make me seem mature and like I was not from Ealing.
“I’ve never heard you say anything like that before, Austin,” she said.
“No. Sexy,” Shann explained. And she was right about that. I never had spoken about sex with Shann. I was too afraid to.
“Well, it is sexy,” I said. I kicked off my other shoe and scooted myself against her.
I put my arms around Shann. I leaned into her and brought my feet up onto the bench seat. I put my lips on her neck and licked her. She gasped.
“Shann, I want to tell you that I’m in love with you. I love you, Shann.”
I had never said that before, either.
“Oh, Austin. I love you.”
It was the first time Shann said it, too.
Then the dome light in the Explorer blinked on. Robby opened the driver’s door.
“You are not having sex in my car—on top of my clothes!” Robby said.
I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but the basketball shorts I’d been wearing that day were halfway down to my knees.
“Um. No. Robby. No.”
Shann coughed nervously and straightened up, while I pulled my shorts back over my hips.
“One of you,” Robby said sternly, “up front now. Let’s go get our shit.”
I squeezed my way back into the front seat.
Robby gave me an intense, scolding stare.
He shook his head and laughed at me. Robby wasn’t angry. Robby was as shocked as I was. He and I both knew what probably would have happened if he had waited about one more minute before coming back to the car.
I extracted my shoe from the center console. Somehow my socks had come off, too. I tried to find them. Clothing has a way of abandoning ship sometimes.
Then Robby dropped a pack of cigarettes in my lap and pushed in the dashboard lighter.
He started the car.
“Light one for me, Porcupine,” he said.
ROBBY COULD HAVE BEEN A PREACHER
We cased The Ealing Mall.
We sat across the street at Stan’s Pizza, where we ate and watched through the window.
Stan’s closed at midnight. Stan was visibly angry that we came in and ordered. There was nobody in the place, and Stan wanted to go home.
I ordered a large Stanpreme in an attempt to cheer Stan up.
“We’ll have a large Stanpreme, please. For here,” I said.
In the same way that Johnny McKeon was proud for coming up with the names Tipsy Cricket Liquors and From Attic to Seller Consignment Store entirely on his own, and just as Dr. Grady McKeon was considered a genius for inventing the brand Pulse-O-Matic®, Stan must have been very pleased with himself for creating the concept of the Stanpreme.
People from Ealing were very creative.
We didn’t know for certain that Stan’s real name was Stan. We never asked him.
Stan was Mexican, so probably not.
We sat, ate, and watched.
Stan watched us.
Everything was dark at the Ealing Mall across the street, except the sign over the Ealing Coin Wash Launderette. The launderette never closed. There was no need to. Between the hours of 2:00 and 6:00 a.m., it was more of a public bathroom, a hash den, or a place to have sex than a launderette, though.
Thinking about having sex on the floor of the Ealing Coin Wash Launderette suddenly made me horny.
Nobody was out there.
This was Ealing at nighttime.
Nobody ever had any reason to be out, unless they were standing on the curb watching their house burn down.
I wondered if Ollie Jungfrau had gone home. Ollie worked at Johnny McKeon’s liquor store. Tipsy Cricket closed at midnight, too, but it was already completely dark by the time Stan scooted the tin pizza disk containing his eponymous creation down on our table by the window.
That was the first time in history anyone from Ealing, Iowa, used the word eponymous. You could get beaten up in Ealing for using words like that.
Just like Robby and I got beaten up for sitting there smoking cigarettes and being queers. But I don’t know if I’m really queer. Just some people think so.
Robby asked Stan for three ice waters, please.
Stan was not a happy man.
We couldn’t finish the Stanpreme. It was too big. Stan brought us a box for the three slices we had left on his tin disk.
“Do you think we should make a plan or something?” I asked.
Robby said, “This is Ealing. There’s some kind of prohibition against making plans.”
If we didn’t hate being Lutherans so much, Robby could easily have been a preacher.
NEVER NAME A PIZZA JOINT STAN’S
Robby parked The Explorer at the end of Grasshopper Jungle.
He positioned the vehicle facing Kimber Drive, so we could make a quick getaway if we had to.
Like real dynamos.
The pretense of doing something daring and wrong made the rescue of our shoes and skateboards a more thrilling mission to us. Nobody, ultimately, would give a shit about two teenage boys who’d been embarrassed and beaten up by some assholes from Hoover, who climbed up on an insignificant strip mall to get their shoes back.
Shann waited in the backseat.
When we were about ten feet from the car, Robby got an idea.
“Wait,” he said. “We should leave our shoes in the Explorer.”
It made sense, like most of the shit Robby told me. Once we got up on the roof, it would be easier if we didn’t have to carry so much stuff back down. We could wear our roof shoes to make our descent.
It was really good that Grant Wallace and those dipshits didn’t throw our pants up there, too, I thought.
We went back to the car.
Shann was already asleep on top of Robby’s underwear and shit.
We took off our shoes and left them on the front seat.
Robby grabbed his pack of cigarettes and a book of matches and said, “Now we can do this.”
A narrow steel ladder hung about six feet down from the roof ’s edge. It was impossible to reach the bottom of it, so Robby and I rolled the heavy green dumpster across the alley and lined it up below the ladder.
Then we climbed on top of the dumpster in our socks.
I didn’t believe the garbage collectors ever emptied the thing anymore. The dumpster was sticky, and leaked a trail of dribbling fluid that smelled like piss and vomit when we rolled it away from the cinder-block wall beside the pubic-lice-infested couch.
From the top of the dumpster, we could barely reach the lowest rung on the ladder. I gave Robby a boost. His socks, which were actually my socks, felt wet and gooey in the stirrup of my palms.
I felt especially virile doing a pull-up to get myself onto the ladder after him.
Soon, we were up on the roof, where we could stand and look down at the dismal, cancerous sprawl of Ealing.
We lit cigarettes.
Robby said, “You should never name a pizza joint Stan’s.”
We stood, looking directly across Kimber Drive at the yellowed plastic lens that fronted the long fluorescent tubes illuminating the lettered sign for Stan’s Pizza.
Someone had painted an A between the S and T, so the sign read: Satan’s Pizza
People were always doing that to Stan.
They did it so many times that Stan simply gave up on cleaning the paint, and allowed the sign to say what the good people of Ealing wanted it to say:
People from Ealing had a good sense of humor, too.
“I have seen Pastor Roland Duff eating there,” I said.
“Did he order a Satanpreme?”
It was difficult to find our shoes and skateboards up on the roof at night. As I had originally theorized, there was plenty of cool shit up there, so Robby and I kept getting distracted. It didn’t matter much, since Shann had fallen asleep, anyway.
We found a plastic flamingo with a long metal spike descending from its ass, so you could stick it in your lawn and fool passersby into thinking that flamingos were indigenous to Iowa.
Robby discovered two bottles of screw-top wine, full and sealed, and he placed them on the roof beside the top of the ladder.
We theorized that maybe back in the days when Ollie was thinner, he may have climbed up here to get drunk and talk to the flamingo. Ollie Jungfrau weighed more than four hundred pounds now.
Satan’s delivered to Tipsy Cricket Liquors.
“Have you ever been drunk, Porcupine?” Robby said.
“One of these days, let’s get drunk together.”
“Okay,” I said.
Like considering most things that were against some well-intended list of rules, thinking about getting drunk for the first time with Robby made me feel horny.
We found two round aluminum canisters that had reels of 16 mm film in them. Nobody watched 16 mm movies anymore. There was an old projector at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy, but we decided not to take the films, just in case they were pornos or something.
We did want to take the flamingo, though.
Robby placed the plastic pink flamingo next to the bottles of wine.
“One of us can climb down first, then the other can toss down the bird and the wine,” Robby said.
Robby also found a Halloween mask. It was covered in fur and looked like the face of a grimacing lemur. It was the face a lemur in an electric chair would make. That had to come home with us, too, we decided.
“If you ever want to get shot in Ealing, walk through someone’s backyard at night with a lemur mask on,” Robby said.
IF YOU EVER WANT TO GET SGOT IN EALING
We finally found our shoes and put them on.
I was embarrassed to admit it, but it was kind of emotional for us being reunited with our stuff after that very long day.
I could see how Robby felt the same.
We put our skateboards down with the rest of the things we’d gathered, and then we sat beside the rooftop air ventilation unit to relax and have another cigarette.
“It feels good to have my shoes back,” Robby said.
“If we didn’t find them, I was going to let you have those Adidas of mine.”
We both exhaled smoke at the same time.
“Do you realize that today we got beaten up for being queers?”
“But you’re not a queer,” Robby offered.
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, I apologize.”
“You didn’t do anything, Rob.”
Sometimes, I called him Rob.
“I’ve never done anything,” he said. “I’ve never even been kissed or anything, but I still get beaten up.”
“Shann kisses you all the time.”
“That isn’t what I mean.”
“Well, if I’m going to get beat up for being queer, at least I’d like to know one time what it feels like to be kissed.”
“Um. I guess you deserve that. You know. Everyone deserves to not feel alone.”
“Can I kiss you, Austin?”
The air suddenly became unbreathably thin.
I thought about it. I shook my head.
“That would be too weird.”
We sat there, smoking.
Everything was shitty and confusing.
Robby felt terrible.
I said, “I guess I would kiss you, Robby.”
“Don’t feel like you have to.”
“I don’t feel that way.”
So Robby Brees, my best friend, and the guy who taught me how to dance so I could set into motion Shann Collins’s falling in love with me, scooted around with his shoulders turned toward mine.
He was nervous.
I was terrified.
I watched him swallow a couple times.
Then Robby placed his cigarette carefully down on the gravel be- side his foot. He put his hand behind my neck and kissed me.
He kissed me the way I kiss Shann, but it felt different, intense, scary.
Robby’s tongue tasted like cigarettes when he slid it inside my mouth. I liked the taste, but it made me more confused. Our teeth bumped together. It made a sound like chimes in my head. I never bumped teeth with Shann when I kissed her.
When we finished kissing, Robby pulled his face away and I watched him lick his lips and swallow.
Robby’s eyes were wet, like he was going to cry or something.
He looked away and wiped his eyes.
Robby said, “I’m sorry.”
“No. It’s okay. I said you could. I said let’s do it.”
“Is it okay?”
“I said so, Robby. It was weird. Really. Are you okay?”
“I think that was the best moment of time in my entire life, Austin.” Robby wiped his eyes and said, “Thank you. I’ve wanted to ask you to do that forever.”
“You could have asked me.”
“I didn’t want you to hate me.”
“How could I hate you?”
“For wanting to do that to you.”
“Oh. Well. I am sorry if it was clumsy. I didn’t know if I was supposed to act like the man or the woman.”
Robby picked up his cigarette.
“You weren’t supposed to act at all.”
“Good. Because I’m pretty sure I was just being . . . um . . . Porcupine.”
“You know what, Robby?”
“If you ever want to get shot in Ealing, do that in someone’s yard at night.”
We sat there without saying anything else until we’d smoked our cigarettes down.
I tried not to think about what Robby and I did.
What Robby and I just did was the only thing I could think about. If I was confused and torn before going up on the roof with Robby, I was pulp, ready to be spit out by history, after we spent a few minutes there.
I tried to think like we didn’t actually do it, but I could still taste Robby’s mouth in mine. I tried to listen for Shann moving around below us in Grasshopper Jungle, so I wouldn’t hear my mind telling me how it would be all right if Robby asked if he could kiss me again sometime.
It would be thrilling and daring.
After midnight, Ealing is quieter than a stone coffin.
Robby could tell I was confused—tripping out, we would say.
“Are you mad at me?” he said.
“Shit. I’m not mad.”
I hadn’t been looking at Robby. Until he’d said that, I didn’t even notice that I was staring at my shoelaces, tracing the zigzag path of them up, down, back, forth with the tip of my finger, like a train on a white switchback track, from one shoe to the other, over and over.
Around the loop, crossover, back and forth.
I raised my eyes.
Robby scooted through the gravel away from me.
He had lifted a square metal door in the roof, propped it open. I hadn’t even realized it was there.
“Roof access ladder,” Robby said. “It goes down into the second-hand store.”
“It was left unlocked?” I said.
“Nobody ever comes up here.”
“Up here has a watch-flamingo, and a lemur head.”
“No one wants to mess with shit like that.”
Robby lowered his face down below the rim of the trapdoor.
He said, “Do you want to go down there?”
I had already done something with Robby I never believed I would do. Climbing down inside Johnny McKeon’s secondhand store in the middle of the night was meaningless shit in comparison.
I said, “That would be cool.”
When I stood up, I was dizzy.
I was like the tip of my finger, zigging and zagging from eye to eye, following a string, making history.
Robby watched me get up. I caught his eyes looking at me. I knew we’d never look at each other the same, and I didn’t know how I felt about that. I caught him trying to see if I had an erection. I tried to pull my T-shirt down to cover it.
The basketball shorts and boxers I’d been wearing that day revealed yet another strategic flaw for the history books.
History shows that erections happen at the worst possible times, and they stick around until someone else notices them. Often, it is either a librarian or an English teacher, like Mrs. Edith Mitchell.
I went to the edge of the roof, to the top of the small ladder we’d used to get up there.
“Shann,” I said. “I just want to make sure she’s okay.”
Robby didn’t answer.
Words like okay can mean all kinds of things.
Robby knew enough that saying anything might nail down a definition of okay that wasn’t what either one of us wanted to hear.
The Explorer was dark and quiet.
Shann was still asleep.
We hadn’t been gone for more than twenty minutes, even if time seemed to slow to a crawl now.
Across the street, Satan’s Pizza winked. The fluorescent tubes inside the sign made an audible hiss like a dying wasp when it went dark.
Robby climbed down the trapdoor.
I followed him.
On weekends and over the summers I earned money doing jobs for Johnny McKeon at his From Attic to Seller Consignment Store. Johnny felt obligated to me because I was Shann’s boyfriend.
Usually, the jobs required cleaning the store.
Secondhand stores are like vacuum cleaners to the world: They suck in everybody’s shit.
History shows that, like Ealing, when towns are dying, the last things to catch the plague are the secondhand and liquor stores.
Johnny McKeon was on top of the world.
Sometimes, Johnny would receive new consignments out in Grasshopper Jungle, and then leave me to go through and sort boxes, unroll and sweep off rugs, and clean out the drawers in dressers and nightstands.
I found a lot of condoms and Bibles in them.
Johnny told me I could do whatever I wanted with those things.
I threw the Bibles in the dumpster.
Robby and I climbed down the ladder. It deposited us, like visiting aliens, into a common back room that connected Tipsy Cricket Liquors with From Attic to Seller.
The ladder was attached by metal brackets to a plasterboard wall where the electrical panel box for the store was located. I’d seen the ladder there plenty of times. I had even noticed the Roof Access ⇑ sign posted on the wall with an arrow pointing up, as though you might not know where a roof could be, direction-wise.
I never thought about going up on the roof of the mall before I went there with Robby.
On the other side of the wall was the shop’s toilet. It was such a small space that you would be looking straight across at your own face in the mirror, and could reach the soap and paper towel dispensers and wash your hands in the sink while you were sitting on the toilet.
Ollie Jungfrau could never take a shit in there.
There was a sign on the door that said: No Public Restroom
Everyone knew the public restroom was at the launderette, or between the dumpster and the couch in Grasshopper Jungle if you couldn’t hold it that far.
There was a homeless guy who’d come riding through on his rickety old bicycle about once per week or so. His bicycle was always teetering, precisely and ridiculously balanced with huge bundles and bags strapped to any available rusted crossbar. Robby and I called him Hungry Jack, but we never asked him his name.
Hungry Jack didn’t have any front teeth.
Hungry Jack fought in Vietnam.
When he came through, Hungry Jack would stop and climb into the dumpster, dig around for things.
Robby and I caught him taking a shit one time, between the dumpster and the couch.
I have read that the human memory for smells is one of the most powerful bits of data that can be etched into our brains. Although it seemed so foreign to me, being inside From Attic to Seller in the middle of the night, the smell of the place was entirely familiar. The shop had this constant, perfumed odor of sorrow, death, abandonment, condoms, and Bible verses; that was like nothing I’d ever smelled anywhere else.
I felt as at home there as you’d have to feel, lying in your own coffin.
“This way,” I whispered.
Robby had never set foot inside the secondhand store until that night. I’d told him about it enough times.
“This is rather scary,” Robby said.
Now Robby was speaking like a non-Ealingite.
“Do you want to get out?”
Robby put his hand on my shoulder so he wouldn’t trip on anything. I led him out around the back counter, which was a rectangular glass case where Johnny McKeon displayed watches, jewelry, cameras, guns, and three framed insect collections.
There were only a few things in From Attic to Seller that I favored. The insects were among my most appreciated abandoned items.
One of the frames contained only butterflies. For some reason, I always found the butterflies to be boring. But the other two frames were wonders: One displayed forty-one beetles. I counted them. There were all kinds of oddities in the frame, including beetles with horns, and some nearly as large as my clenched fist. The beetles in the center were posed so their shells were open and their glassine wings spread wide.
The last frame had fifteen bugs in it. An enormous centipede curled around the bend at one corner, and a glossy black scorpion raised its stinging tail in the other. Centered against the white backing board was a vampire bat with little beaded eyes, frozen with its mouth snarled open.
“Isn’t that the coolest shit?” I asked.
Robby said, “No.”
Robby remained attached to my shoulder and I took him along the circular path around the main floor of the store.
Johnny McKeon arranged From Attic to Seller Consignment Store so that shoppers, or even people coming in to inquire about using the toilet, would have to walk a serpentine path from the front door to the back counter. His path led past every stack of clutter Johnny offered up for sale. Tipsy Cricket was different. At the liquor store, the counter was right up front, a deterrent to booze and cigarette thieves.
Johnny McKeon was a good marketer.
“I’ve never seen so much shit in my life,” Robby said.
There were nightstands on top of end tables stacked perilously on dinner tables. And every flat surface of every item of furniture was covered in figurines, place settings, ashtrays, silverware, toys, picture frames, clocks, crucifixes, candles, rock collections, pocketknives, and too many other things for me to list.
I put the price tags on almost every one of them for Johnny, too.
Johnny McKeon made a lot of money.
As soon as one corner of the shop would empty out, it quickly filled back up again. A lot of the things came from realtors and loan agents. Some people in Ealing left behind what they couldn’t fit in the trunks and backseats of their cars when the banks took their homes.
Abandoned stuff from defeated Iowans had a way of migrating into Johnny McKeon’s hands.
Robby’s hand slipped from my shoulder.
He said, “Oops.”
Objects clinked together in the dark. Figurines fell.
“Be careful,” I said.
“Where are we going?”
“I want to see what Johnny’s hiding,” I said.
That scared Robby.
Robby grabbed my hand.
“Don’t be such a baby,” I said. “You wanted to come down here. I know where I’m going.”
Robby started to let go of my hand.
“It’s okay,” I said. I pulled Robby along by the hand like a little kid.
Johnny McKeon kept things in his private office. He never let me go in there. Johnny never let anyone go in there.
There were things Johnny wouldn’t sell. One of them was a sealed glass globe he kept on a shelf beside the office door. I was fascinated by the globe. It had been made by some of the scientists in the lab at McKeon Industries, and contained a perfectly balanced universe.
There was water, land, plants, bacteria, a species of tiny shrimp, worms, and even some translucent fish in there.
It was perfect.
It was sealed and self-sustaining.
Nothing got in and nothing got out.
My hand was wet and hot.
“You’re sweating all over me,” I said to Robby.
I turned the knob to Johnny’s office.
Of course, it was locked.
Robby bumped into me. He wasn’t paying attention and he pinned me flat against the office door with his chest.
“No go,” Robby said. “I guess we should get out of here.”
“I know where Johnny keeps the key. It isn’t very smart,” I said. Despite his creativity at naming businesses, and his eye for marketing strategies, Johnny McKeon wasn’t that careful when it came to trusting teenage boys.
History lesson: Teenage boys watch you, even when they pretend they don’t give a shit about your life.
Johnny kept the key resting flat on the lip of the molding at the top of the door.
I pulled it down and unlocked our way into Johnny McKeon’s office, where he kept his secrets.
Robby said, “I really need a cigarette.”
We stood inside Johnny McKeon’s private office.
There were no windows. It was impossible to see anything in the dark.
Robby threw the switch for the office lights. I jumped when they came on.
You don’t expect things to get all bright on you when you’re nervous about doing something you’re not supposed to be doing.
Robby shrugged apologetically.
He said, “We may as well turn on the light in here. Nobody can see us.”
My heart raced, but Robby was right: Nobody could see us. Robby shut the door to the office, which closed us in with Johnny’s things.
Johnny McKeon’s real-life horror show.
Johnny McKeon’s office smelled the same as the rest of the shop, but wasn’t nearly as cluttered. In fact, the office was rather tidy.
I said it again.
The three walls boxing the office behind the door were lined with dark wooden shelves. Johnny had salvaged the shelves from the Ealing Public Library when it was remodeled three years before: the year we were in seventh grade.
“Holy shit,” Robby said.
Here’s why he said it: Johnny McKeon’s shelves were full of ho rible, grotesque things. They were the kinds of things that no sixteen-year-old boy could tear his eyes from. And there were four sixteen-year-old-boy eyes in Johnny’s office.
One of the cases displayed another of the McKeon sealed glass globes, but this was different from the peaceful and pleasant nature-ball Johnny kept outside in the shop. The globe was about the size of a basketball, and it was propped steady atop a black lacquered stand with a brass plaque on front, as though it was some kind of trophy or shit like that. But this could not have been a trophy.
The plaque read:
MCKEON INDUSTRIES 1969
CONTAINED MI PLAGUE STRAIN 412E
Inside the globe was a festering universe.
The globe Robby and I studied held something resembling a black, folded, and coiled brain. The thing clearly was not a brain, but the wrinkled patterns on its surface made me think of one.
“This has to be like some kind of movie prop or something,” Robby said.
“Look around, Rob. All the shit in here looks real,” I said.
In fact, everything inside Johnny’s office was real, we came to find out later. It didn’t matter. Neither of us actually believed Johnny McKeon was hiding away props for horror films.
The black thing inside the globe pulsed and twitched like a beating heart. It seemed to become more animated the longer we stared at it. It was almost like a gelatinous cauliflower. Here and there on its velvet surface, a mound would rise up, like a mosquito bite, a black pimple, and then burst open at its peak.
Little volcanoes erupting.
When the pimples burst open, strands of oval globules, pale yellow pearls, coiled and twisted over the surface of the blob, then turned black and sprouted velvet hairs, dissolving back into the surface of the brain thing.
Where the glass globe with the fish, shrimp, plants, and worms outside in Johnny McKeon’s shop emanated a placid, almost hopeful aura, this thing whispered of rot and death, disease.
Robby and I could have stared at Johnny’s secret collection of things all night.
On another case was an assortment of large specimen jars.
All of them had a common etched label:
MCKEON INDUSTRIES 1969
HUMAN REPLICATION STRAND 4-VG-03
One of them contained a human head. It was a man’s head. His eyes were squinted, half open, and although they were clouded, his pupils and irises were plainly visible. He had pale blue eyes. I could even see small blood vessels in the whites of his eyes. He had a mustache. His lips were tightly pursed and frowning.
“He doesn’t look too happy,” I said.
“This has to be fake,” Robby said. “Who would keep shit like this?”
“Johnny McKeon would,” I answered. “He probably found it when the plant shut down and thought it was cool.”
“He could charge admission,” Robby said.
Another jar on the rack held a pair of human hands.
The palms were pressed together. It reminded me of the trite framed artwork depicting disembodied praying hands that hung at teenager eye level above the long urinal in the boys’ toilet at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy.
The pictures were there to remind us what good teenage boys do with their hands.
The jar beside the hands contained a penis and testicles.
The position of the jars made an artistic statement about what happened to boys who masturbate.
“That guy probably went to Curtis Crane,” Robby said.
His voice shook with nervousness.
There is nothing more deeply frightening to a sixteen-year-old boy than confronting the possibility of losing his penis.
We had to leave, but we were mesmerized.
But the thing on that particular rack that was most compelling was the jar containing a two-headed boy. It was a whole fetus, bluish in color and clay-like, tiny but fully developed.
Robby reached up and spun the jar around, making the boy pirouette for us as he floated in the zero gravity of his vacuum jar. His little legs were bowed and folded beneath him. A knotted umbilical strand corkscrewed from his round belly. One hand, its fingers so perfect, rested opened, palm up in front of the knob of his penis. The other hand was clenched in a defiant fist beside his hip. And from the boy’s shoulders sprouted two perfect heads, one tilted to the side, resting. Both mouths were open, small black caverns that exposed the ridge of gums and the small rounded mounds of the boy’s tongues. The eyes were open and hollow. Each plum-sized head was rimmed with a floating tuft of iron-colored hair.
There was something overwhelmingly sad about the boy.
I couldn’t identify what it was.
Robby said, “This isn’t right.”
I said, “I think I know exactly what it would be like to have two heads like that.”
The last wall contained specimens of bugs. But these weren’t any bugs I’d ever seen. They also floated inside sealed rectangular glass cases filled with preserving fluid. They looked almost like aquariums with alien creatures in them.
Some of the bugs in the tanks were as big as middle-school kids.
They looked like praying mantises, or grasshoppers maybe.
The larger tanks only contained parts of bugs: heads, appendages, thoraxes.
The heads were as large as mine and Robby’s.
The tanks were also labeled:
MCKEIN INDUSTRIES 1969
UNSTOPPABLE SOLDIER—STRAND 4-VG-12
“We need to get out of here,” Robby said.
It was too late, though. Robby and I were trapped in Johnny McKeon’s office. Somebody was outside, in the main room of the shop.
They weren’t making any attempt to be quiet, either.
“Oh, shit, Austin.”
“Get the light,” I whispered.
Robby flicked the switch, but Johnny McKeon’s office didn’t go dark.
The glass globe with the pulsating black shit in it wriggled and burned with a blue light. It was like writhing cobalt embers trapped inside the sphere of the glass. The thing in the sphere, whatever it was, obviously responded to light.
Hiding was our only option, but there was no place inside Johnny’s office that was very suitable. Robby pointed at the desk. We pulled Johnny’s chair out and huddled together, hugging each other in the small rectangular space below the desk.
We were just like that poor two-headed boy floating in fluid in the jar.
We didn’t even think to lock Johnny’s office door behind us.
Why would anyone have thought to do such a thing?
Because it would have been smart, I told myself.
The knob on the door squeaked and turned. There were footsteps. Someone came into the office. I put my face down on the floor and looked from under the desk. There were several sets of feet there.
Someone said, “What the crap is that?”
The shoes were positioned so whoever was inside with me and Robby was looking at the mysterious globe.
“It’s alive,” another voice concluded.
“People always said Johnny McKeon kept weird shit in here. Maybe it’s an alien or something.”
Robby’s fingers squeezed around my arm. We both knew the voice. It was Grant Wallace. He and his boys had somehow gotten into From Attic to Seller.
“Let’s take that shit,” the kid named Tyler said.
“You’re carrying it. It looks heavy,” Grant said. “I don’t want that shit. I came for the booze. Let’s go.”
The Hoover Boys apparently found their way into the back room connecting Tipsy Cricket with the secondhand store. They probably broke into the abandoned foot doctor’s office to do it.
It was a simple matter.
For all anyone knew, Grant and his boys may have been planning their theft from Tipsy Cricket for a long time. It probably had everything to do with why we ran into them in Grasshopper Jungle earlier that day.
Technically, our encounter with Grant Wallace happened the day before, since it was solidly past midnight in our time zone, which was located under the desk in Johnny McKeon’s office.
“Is that a dick?” one of the boys asked.
“It’s a dick,” another concluded.
“Johnny Mack has a dick in a bottle in his office,” Grant affirmed.
“Maybe it’s his,” one of Grant’s friends said.
“Let’s take it,” another of them said.
“I’m not touching it. It’s a jar with a dick in it.” I think Tyler said that.
“Oh yeah,” someone else said. “And balls, too.”
“That’s sick. I’m not touching it. Hang on. I’m going to take a picture of that dick in a jar with my phone,” the videographer decided.
“Text it to me.” One of the Hoover Boys laughed.
I desperately wished they’d stop talking about the penis in the jar, but Grant and his friends were like lonely parakeets in front of a mirror.
Finally, after they’d exhausted all speculation and conversational rhetoric on the topic of penises in jars, the boys stood there numbly for a moment, apparently unable to detach their eyes. I heard the sound of something heavy and solid sliding on one of the shelves.
The blue shadows in the room swirled. Tyler had lifted the globe.
It was not a good idea.
“Let’s go. I’m thirsty,” he said.
They left the door to Johnny’s office standing open.
The blue light danced away into the darkness of the back room, and then faded entirely.
I grabbed Robby’s wrist and pulled him out from our hiding place. Then I led him back through the shop and up the ladder to the roof.
Robby Brees and I had our priorities.
As soon as we closed the hatch and were outside on the roof again, we lit cigarettes.
“Shit,” Robby said.
“Shit,” I agreed.
Shit, like the word okay, can mean any number of things. In fact, in the history I recorded in my book for that one Friday in Ealing, Iowa, I believe I used the word shit in every possible context.
I will have to go back through the history and check.
Robby and I said shit—nothing else—approximately eleven more times as we smoked our cigarettes up on the roof.
“What do you think that shit in the ball was?” Robby said.
“I don’t know. You read the nameplate on it. It said Contained Plague.”
“Nothing good is ever called Plague,” Robby said.
“Maybe it was just some glow-in-the-dark experimental stuff,” I said.
“I’ve done an experiment. We made a battery out of a lemon. Remember that?” Robby asked.
“Yes. It was a good experiment,” I agreed. I nodded like a scientist would. “We knew what was supposed to happen before we even started it. And it worked.”
“But I don’t think things called Plague are the subject of the kinds of experiments we do in the lab at Curtis Crane,” Robby said.
That’s what it was—what Robby and I had done up there on the roof at Grasshopper Jungle—I thought.
It is perfectly normal for boys to experiment. I read it somewhere that was definitely not in a book at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy. Or if it was in a book, it would certainly no longer be part of Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy’s library collection. Not after the shit I did in eighth grade.
Maybe I heard some psychologist who specialized in Teen Sexuality say shit about things like Boys experimenting on one of those afternoon talk shows that are only on television for the fulfillment of depressed and lonely women.
Depressed and lonely women need to know about Teen Sexuality and how it’s normal for boys to experiment. Normal. That’s what the psychologist would say. The psychologist also would have been a slim woman with nicely trimmed hair, a sincere and calming smile, and modest jewelry.
That was bullshit.
History shows that real experiments, like the one we did with the lemon, always involve some reasonable expectation ahead of time about the outcome. About how things will work out.
Robby slid the pack of cigarettes into the back pocket on his sagging jeans and we gathered up our flamingo, wine, grimacing lemur, and skateboards. We made our way down the ladder and onto the dumpster we’d rolled across Grasshopper Jungle.
“Don’t say anything to Shann,” I cautioned.
I didn’t need to tell Robby that. It was just one of those things boys do sometimes to confirm that there are secrets that shall be protected.
Robby said, “You mean about what we saw in her stepdad’s office, or what we did up on the roof ?”
I said, “Shit.”
I imagined I had two arguing and confused heads sprouting up from my shoulders.
I felt sadness for that other boy inside the jar in Johnny McKeon’s office.
HELL BREAKS LOOSE
Shann was sleeping soundly in the backseat of Robby’s Ford Explorer when we came back to the car. She stretched out comfortably, with her head lying on some crumpled socks and a pair of Robby’s boxers that had fire trucks and Dalmatians on them.
Watching Shann sleep made me horny.
I was all messed up.
I thought I probably needed to talk to someone about how sexually confused I felt. I couldn’t talk to Robby about it, not after what we did on the roof. I thought, but only for half a second, about talking to Pastor Roland Duff. But I already felt guilty as it was.
I thought I could talk to my father.
It scared me to think about doing that, but my father would know what to tell me. He could help me sort things out. I just needed to work up the courage to start the conversation. Then everything would fall into place.
Everything always falls into place that way.
“Shann?” I whispered.
I ran my hand up her leg to wake her.
Shann opened her eyes slowly. She smiled at me.
I felt guilty and sad.
Did you and Robby already go?” she asked.
I said yes, but didn’t tell her we’d been gone for over an hour. It was nearly 2:00 a.m.
Robby opened the Explorer’s rear gate and deposited our flamingo, the grimacing lemur head, skateboards, and wine bottles.
He already held an unlit cigarette in his mouth when he got behind the wheel.
Robby passed the pack to me and started the engine. We lit both our cigarettes on the same orange coiled moon burning at the end of the car’s lighter. Our faces were so close our cheeks touched. I looked Robby straight in the eye as we leaned in to get the cigarettes going. It was awkward. I felt sad for Robby.
I turned around and reached back between the seats. I held Shann’s hand.
Behind her, I saw a glowing blue ball floating down the steps in back of the vacant podiatrist’s office. Grant and the Hoover Boys were coming out from the mall.
I glanced at Robby.
I was certain he saw the same thing in the rearview mirror. We both knew better than to say anything and have Shann turn around. She would only start asking questions. Maybe she’d want to confront those punks.
In a lot of ways, Shann was tougher than Robby and me.
Maybe the boys were already drunk. I can’t be certain of it. But something happened to cause Tyler to let go of the glass globe. I watched the circle of blue light drop like a falling moon.
Back in Grasshopper Jungle, blue light splattered everywhere.
“I’m ready to go home,” I said.
“Um. Yeah,” Robby agreed.
Robby’s hands gripped the wheel, but his eyes were pinned to the rearview mirror.
Grant and his friends were the first victims of Contained MI Plague Strain 412E.
Nobody knew anything about it.
Travis Pope and his wife, Eileen, had been hired by the association management of the Ealing Mall to clean the common areas every week. They drove through the lot Saturday mornings before sunrise, rarely doing anything about the debris that accumulated in the back alley of a soon-to-be abandoned mall.
That Saturday, Travis and Eileen stopped in Grasshopper Jungle and picked up large chunks of broken glass from the alley. Travis Pope tossed the shards into the dumpster somebody had pushed against the rear wall of The Pancake House. Travis cursed the winos and delinquent kids in the town for getting drunk and fucking in public.
Travis and Eileen Pope were the fifth and sixth victims of Contained MI Plague Strain 412E.
Nobody knew anything about it.
And later that morning, an old man Robby Brees and I called Hungry Jack, who was missing his front teeth and had served in the United States Army in Vietnam, climbed into the dumpster we rolled across Grasshopper Jungle. The dumpster had pieces of Johnny McKeon’s sick broken universe inside it.
Hungry Jack became the seventh victim of Contained MI Plague Strain 412E.
All hell had broken loose. It splattered across the piss-soaked pavement of Grasshopper Jungle.
Nobody knew anything about it.
HISTORY IS FULL OF SHIT
Every day I wrote in my books.
I drew pictures, too.
That night, I drew a plastic flamingo with a spike coming out of its ass, a grimacing lemur, bottles of wine, and a picture of me with my shorts pulled down around my knees. In my drawing, I was in the backseat of Robby’s Ford Explorer, lying on Shann Collins and some socks and a pair of my best friend’s boxers that were printed with red fire trucks and spotted Dalmatian dogs.
I drew a two-headed baby boy trapped inside a pickle jar.
That night, I sat at my desk until the sky outside began to get light.
I took off my shoes and socks, and my Orwells T-shirt, too. I always write more accurate accounts of history when wearing as little as possible.
It’s difficult to avoid the truth when you’re undressed.
My armpits reeked. I had serious B.O.
That was also true.
Ingrid, my golden retriever, was in my bedroom. She liked to lie down beneath my desk so I could keep my bare feet in her fur. Ingrid, although she could shit better than any dog I knew—a real dynamo—never barked. When she was a puppy, she had a tumor on her neck. It made it so she couldn’t bark, which helped me sneak into the house past curfew countless times.
Our house got robbed twice, too.
“You’re a good dog, Ingrid,” I said. I wriggled my toes in her fur.
Even when I tried to tell everything that happened, I knew my accounts were ultimately nothing more than an abbreviation. It’s not that I neglected to write details—I told the truth about Shann’s room, the staircase leading down to nothing, what the main ingredients of a Stanpreme pizza are. I wrote what it felt like to have my bare penis pressing upward against the cool skin of Shann Collins’s thigh.
That was also true.
I told about Robby kissing me. I described it in detail, down to the taste and feel of his tongue. I kept accurate count of the cigarettes we smoked, and described the things trapped inside the jars we found locked up in Johnny McKeon’s office.
But no historian could ever put everything that happened in a book.
The book would be as big as the universe, and it would take multiple countless lifetimes to read.
History necessarily had to be an abbreviation.
Even those first men—obsessed with recording their history— who painted on cave walls in Lascaux and Altamira, only put the important details down.
We killed this big hairy thing and that big hairy thing. And that was our day. You know what I mean.
My name is an abbreviation.
Three grandfathers back, a man named Krzys Szczerba came to the United States from Poland.
People in America did not know what to do with all those consonants and shit in Krzys Szczerba’s name. They decided to swap some out for vowels, and to take others away from Krzys Szczerba, so my three-grandfathers-back grandfather became Christopher Szerba.
I imagined. Sometimes I drew this picture: An official stone building, a repository for all the consonants and shit taken from refugees’ names when they arrived on the doorstep of the United States of America. It is piled high everywhere with the letters we don’t find useful: Cs and Zs in great heaping mounds that looked so much like the black-and-white photographs of luggage or shoes from World War 2.
History, and the United States of America, can call him Chris.
History is full of shit like that.
Krzys Szczerba came to America when he was seventeen years old.
In 1905, being seventeen years old made you a man. In 1969, when Hungry Jack fought in Vietnam, seventeen years old was a man. Now, I wasn’t so sure. My brother, Eric, who was somewhere in Afghanistan, was twenty-two.
Krzys Szczerba came across the Atlantic with his father. They planned on working and earning enough money so Krzys’s mother, brother, and two sisters could come to the United States, too. People who did that were called Bread Polacks. They came here to make money.
Krzys Szczerba’s father died on the boat in the middle of the ocean.
His body was sent down naked into the water with prayers and a medallion of Saint Casimir.
Krzys Szczerba’s family never came to their son.
Chris Szerba ended up in southern Minnesota, where he met a grocer’s daughter named Eva Nightingale. Eva had breasts like frosted cupcakes and skin the color of homemade peach ice cream. Her body was a soft and generous pillow of endless desserts. Chris Szerba’s semen found its way into Eva Nightingale’s tummy, where it produced a good, cigarette-smoking, Catholic Polish boy named Andrzej.
Sometimes when I wrote my history, I would slip in pages I drew about Krzys Szczerba and his lonely and sad life in the United States.
It was hard for me, at times, to separate out the connections that crisscrossed like intersecting highways through and around my life in Ealing.
It was the truth, and I had to get it down.
And that was our day. You know what I mean.
I took off my boxers and went to bed.
It was 6:01 a.m.
The end of the world was about four hours old. Just a baby.
Johnny McKeon was picking up two dozen donuts at that moment.
Ollie Jungfrau was waking up, trying to decide if he should masturbate or not.
It was just after three in the afternoon in Afghanistan.
Louis, the Chinese cook at The Pancake House, whose real name was Ah Wong Sing, was taking a shit in the public restroom at the Ealing Coin Wash Launderette.
History never tells about people taking shits. I can’t for a moment believe that guys like Theodore Roosevelt or Winston Churchill never took a shit. History always abbreviates out the shit-taking and excess consonants.
In about a week, the pieces started coming together.
In a week, we figured out history.
Eventually, we would learn this:
The thing inside the globe, the Contained MI Plague Strain 412E, wasn’t anything remarkable unless it came into contact with human blood.
Contained MI Plague Strain 412E really was contained and harmless inside Johnny McKeon’s glass universe.
Tyler dropped that universe directly onto the spot where earlier that day Robby Brees began spelling out GRANT WALLACE MURDERED ME in his own blood.
The Contained MI Plague Strain 412E was happy to meet Robby Brees’s blood.
Robby Brees was my best friend. He taught me how to dance. We smoked cigarettes. He kissed me. To be honest, I kissed him back. Robby was homosexual. I didn’t know if I was anything.
I wondered what I was. None of that mattered. Nobody knew anything about it except for me and Robby.
The man whose scientific company invented the Contained MI Plague Strain 412E died when his plane crashed into the ocean. The plane’s engines were destroyed by billowing plumes of caustic ash. The ash came from a volcano in Guatemala. It was called Huacamochtli. Robby Brees’s dad was filming the Huacamochtli eruption at precisely the same moment that Dr. Grady McKeon’s jet disintegrated on impact with the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.
Water is unyielding when you’re moving at 500 mph.
We were in seventh grade then. My brother, Eric Christopher Szerba, joined the United States Marines that year. At the same moment Huacamochtli was being filmed by Robby’s father and Dr. Grady McKeon’s body was being torn apart by the force of impact, my brother, Eric, was on his way to boot camp. Robby Brees’s dad never came back to Ealing, Iowa. He didn’t want to see Robby’s mom ever again.
We found this out later:
The Contained MI Plague Strain 412E said hello to Robby Brees’s blood on the asphalt in Grasshopper Jungle.
And the end of the world began at about 2:00 a.m., around three and a half feet away from a discarded floral-print sleeper sofa infested with pubic lice in Ealing, Iowa. One time, Travis Pope unfolded the sofa and fucked his wife, Eileen, on it.
Both of them had pubic lice.
It didn’t matter.
History is my compulsion.
I see the connections.
Krzys Szczerba was Catholic.
He smoked cigarettes.
Christopher Szerba was Catholic.
He did not give up smoking cigarettes when he gave up the excess consonants.
All the Szerba boys were cigarette-smoking Catholics until my father fell in love with my mother and married her. He quit smoking, converted, and as a result, his semen created two strong Lutheran sons inside her body.
Their names were Eric Christopher and Austin Andrzej Szerba.
My dad picked up some discarded consonants from the wastepile of history.
It is pronounced Uhnn-zhay.
Don’t ask me why. It’s Polish and shit.
I smoke cigarettes. I hate church. But one day, after I talk to my father about my confusing sexual impulses, I will change my name back to Szczerba.
My father’s name was Eric Andrew Szerba. My mother was Connie Kenney before she married him.
People from Iowa like vowels and rhymes.
Lutherans in Iowa like John Deere tractors and big breakfasts on Saturdays.
Usually, my dad would only have to stand outside my door and speak my name to get me out of bed for our Saturday breakfast. That morning, the morning after Robby and I went up on the roof of the Ealing Mall to find some shit, my father had to come into my room and shake my shoulder.
“You stink, Austin,” my father, whose name was Eric, told me.
“I have B.O.,” I agreed.
“Ingrid needs to shit,” my father said.
That was how we told each other good morning that day.
I sat up.
I would have gotten out of bed, but I realized I was naked under the sheet. I’d taken everything off when I finished writing, when I went to bed.
No sixteen-year-old boy wants to stand up naked in front of his father.
I thought about my decision to talk to him. I wanted to ask him if maybe he was confused about sexual attraction when he was my age. Or if maybe he was still confused about sexual attraction. Experimenting. Things falling into place. Where else would things fall, if not a place? It’s not like things are just going to float away. Gravity works. Dr. Grady McKeon certainly knew that when he was watching the Gulf of Mexico get closer and closer and closer.
Maybe the guys who painted the caves in Lascaux and Altamira were sexually confused, too.
I could not bring myself to talk to my father about sexuality while I was naked.
I decided it could wait.
Things would have to float a little while longer.
My father could tell I was naked. He watched me, like he was testing to see if I would get out from under the sheet.
But I was naked. I wasn’t going anywhere.
We watched each other, both of us caught up in eyeballing the palindrome of each other’s lives.
My mother took an antianxiety drug called Xanax. It was a little blue pill that looked like a tiny kayak. Robbie’s mother took it, too. Our moms were like Xanax sisters, except they didn’t know much more about each other than first names, who their baby boys’ best friends were, and Ealing gossip.
Kayak and Xanax are palindromes.
Robby’s mother was named Connie, too.
It was always fascinating to me how perfect things could be if you just let all the connections happen. My history showed how everything connected in Ealing, Iowa.
You could never get everything in a book.
Good books are always about everything.
My mother would take her antianxiety drug when she felt stress or panic setting in. Saturday mornings usually meant no drugs. She took her drugs in the afternoons, on holidays, and whenever we had visiting human beings at the house.
“Would you please let Ingrid outside for me so she can shit?”
“No problem, son.”
I got out of bed and pulled on some shorts.
My phone was lying on the floor, under the rumpled boxers I wore the day before. No fire trucks and dogs. They were blue plaid. Iowa was blue plaid. That is the truth.
The battery in my phone was nearly dead.
At 3:45 a.m. I received a text message from Robby. It said:
I’m sorry, Austin.
Robby and I always used punctuation and spelling in text messages. We both despised abbreviations.
I sent him a message in reply:
Don’t be dumb, Robby.
I was certain Robby was asleep at that precise moment. I felt bad for calling him dumb, like maybe he would take it the wrong way and not know if I meant dumb for asking to kiss me or dumb for being sorry, which is what I meant.
So I sent him another message:
You shouldn’t worry about me, Rob. Let’s talk and have a fag later. Ha-ha. Now relax, and come meet me at SATAN’S after I get off at 5. Bring boards.
I was so confused.
That was true.
A BATH, A SHAVE, AND MODESTY
I am Polish.
My hair is the color of potato peels and I have skin the shade of boxed oatmeal.
Food descriptions work well in Iowa.
Polish kids have natural and persistent bags under their eyes. I think we evolved through a lot of sleepless nights or shit like that. If you read the history of Poland, which I have done, you’d probably just shake your head and say, That is full of shit.
I am Krzys Szczerba’s great-great-grandson.
That is the only thing I know about myself with absolute certainty.
I think I would like to smoke a cigarette with him. I have a feeling Krzys Szczerba could cuss, had hair the color of russet potatoes, and Quaker Oats skin, just like me. I feel like I could ask him anything. He would tell me what to do.
He came to America when Theodore Roosevelt, a man who apparently never took a shit in his life, was president.
Connie, my mother, drove me to work at Johnny McKeon’s From Attic to Seller Consignment Store that morning.
I did not have a big Lutheran Saturday breakfast with my mother and father because I needed a bath more.
On Saturdays I shave.
I did not actually need to shave. It was something that boys in Iowa start doing when they are sixteen, regardless of necessity. I ran the tip of my finger around my lips before applying the shaving cream. Robby’s lips had some spiny little whiskers around them. I felt them when we kissed. I found the feeling to be a little unexpected. Also, his lips were thinner, not as heavy, as Shann’s. I never thought about it before, how maybe Shann felt spiny little whiskers around my thin, un-meaty lips when we kissed.
I was disgusted with myself.
I called Shann while the bathtub was filling and I sat on the toilet, locked inside the bathroom. My mother and father ate their big Lutheran Saturday breakfast downstairs.
I told Shann I loved her.
She said she loved me.
I was naked, so I knew I was telling the truth.
Also, Shann did not say I love you, too.
Everyone knows I love you, too does not mean I love you.
The too makes it a concession, a gesture, an instinct of politeness.
History lesson for the morning.
I turned the water off and slid into the tub. My face began to sweat.
“I am in the bathtub, Shann,” I said.
“Are you naked?” she asked.
“Well, I would be normally,” I said, “but since I knew I would be talking to you, I went out and slipped into a modest bathing suit.”
She knew I was kidding. It made me very horny to admit to her that I was, indeed, fully naked.
“I am totally naked,” I admitted.
Shann told me that she slept well, that she was not scared in her new old bedroom as she thought she would be. But, she said, at exactly 6:00 a.m. there came a ticking sound from inside her wall. Shann explained that it sounded like a typewriter.
Nobody uses typewriters anymore, I told her.
At exactly 6:01 a.m. I was taking off all my clothes and going to bed.
Johnny McKeon was buying donuts.
The Contained MI Plague Strain 412E was dying off, but managed to wriggle around on three slices of Stanpreme pizza we threw in the dumpster, where it wormed its way down the esophagus of its last initial carrier, a homeless man named Hungry Jack, who participated in the killing of an entire village of women, elderly people, and children in Vietnam.
Ollie Jungfrau was probably masturbating.
Ah Wong Sing was taking a shit.
Something was ticking inside Shann Collins’s wall.
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