Hell is truth seen too late.
— Thomas Hobbes
He knew they were doomed as any couple in the history of rotten love. He’d known it long before, actually, and yet he’d driven out here anyway, to this land of barbequed ribs and noxious air, and magicians and cretins and drunks.
The same imbecilic logic of old had held for them, as well: if they ran fast enough, they figured, if they put distance enough between them and their filth, they might still have a chance at life.
But though they’d only dragged their filth along, it wasn’t till the moment he appeared before her in his tee shirt stained with gravy and cheese, his face painted blue and teeth all black—a 240-pound fiend covered in tattoos—that the extent of their imbecility had obtained in full, the repulsion in her eyes, had he somehow doubted, its awful confirmation.
She was in the bathroom, turning herself into a “sexy gothic Martian.”
Her own face was green, her eyes in smoky blacks and grays. She’d donned the same red wig she wore the night they met at The Divey Room, when he fell in love with her. On top of this was a barrette with wires for antennae at whose ends dangled Ping-Pong balls, orange. Past these, she wore just her panties and brassiere, the black ones with lace on the fringes he’d bought her back in Y.
“I’ve decided,” he said, as he watched her face contract, “to come to the party after all.”
“But it’s Halloween,” she said, and began to pick her lip.
She knew he knew the day. The last she’d said what she meant or meant what she’d said, he thought, was never. Perpetual code, really—ceaseless inquiry, boundless confusion, hesitation, scrutiny, dread—this was the game they’d been at, both of them, in fact, for years.
“You don’t dig my getup?” he said.
“Slackbelcher’s going to be there,” she said.
“So I thought you said you wouldn’t go anyplace you might see him.”
Slackbelcher was the jerk that had snubbed him, whose ass he’d told his wife he’d kick round the block if the jerk so much as looked his way. A year had passed since then. Now he merely despised the jerk—with his epigone’s prose so chockfull of cool pop trivia, and irony, and satire, and distance—as pathetic.
“You know Halloween’s my favorite holiday,” his wife said, suggesting, inexplicably, a connection between this fact and his contempt for the jerk. She’d been picking at her lip like down inside she might find a chunk of gold. It was bleeding something rotten. “I really want to have fun tonight,” she said. “You know?”
“You just call Mr. Slackbelcher up and say I’ll be there. Chickenshit’ll stay home for sure.”
“But what if I don’t want to?”
Never had his wife used words so clear. And yet, he thought, given the difference between them, now, the wreck he’d become, who could blame her?
She was just twenty-two when they met in the autumn of ’96, rooming with some burnouts in a shithole near the cinema. That was her first time without mom, and while the house had been a pit, the night she brought him to her space, she was like a kid showing off a pony.
He took a photo of her then, in her fake-fur coat, smiling from the bed with her things about her—a beat guitar, the album of pix, the wrought-iron chair and its velvet seat, a Jesus candle, a retro-pic of that girl in the window, cupping her cheeks with white-gloved hands, the snapshot of an ex in blackface—what had made Rice think, Huh?—then, yes, one of herself in a wig.
Five years later, spurned by every school but one, she jetted out to Y to scope the scene and get a pad. She raved when she returned about the flat she’d taken, swearing it a gem.
But the flat was not a gem, as he found, but a shithole shittier than the hole she’d left.
None of this, in the end, really mattered—not her choices, not her lies, and certainly not her sweetness or beauty or smarts or charm.
His wife, he knew, could’ve been the clichéd paragon of excellence, chaste as a bird. He was a man prone to fits of suicidal/homicidal dreams, capable in seconds of a drinking binge that, once started, could as quickly find him rubbing his dode on a stranger’s cup as throwing some kid off a wharf for picking his ugly toes.
He’d become a menace, in short, for whom such nightmares were routine. And none of this was pretend. The day they left Y, just three weeks had passed between him and his breakdown, the fourth in as many years.
He became a Morlock out of H.G. Wells, shuffling between his old-town craphole and the cubicle he spent his days in describing things from Microsoft.
His wife, meantime, after carousing away her nights with the pack of jerks she claimed “colleagues” and “friends,” rose each noon to write stories with such lines as, “I’m being hunted by two men—one has a bone, the other a bat named Eugène.”
Then he was felled by kidney stones. He underwent the first procedure a month before 9/11 and the second six weeks later, still conscious, no less, during which a tiny claw was crammed up his penis to remove a stent. From the start of his illness to its end, whacked out on so many drugs his doctor refused him more for fear she’d kill him, he ate nothing but root beer floats.
“If I want to go,” he said to his wife, “there’s nothing you can do.”
“It’s Vanya’s house,” she said through the smoke in her mouth. “I’ll just tell her to tell you you’re not getting in.”
Fucking Vanya. This was a woman who’d married a man the month before she came to Y, all because, as she confessed, she was “afraid to do it alone.” But once she arrived and found her husband “cramping her style,” she started banging a kid from school. Obviously, when her drone of a cuckold, Rick, found out, the man was fit to die. Rice knew. It was through Rick he’d got his job at the cubicle farm. Working with the kid, or rather sharing the same space—since after his evisceration by Vanya’s claws Rick never did work that he could see—was how he’d learned most of what he knew about the couple’s grimy saga. More than anything, good old Rick just withered away the months he lingered on. It got especially bad once Vanya shacked up with her new fuckbuddy, a runt of a man named, appropriately, Brian Teany. Poor, poor Rick. The slob did little more than toke on his bong and cry. If ever a woman was vile, he thought, if ever a human was vile, Vanya was, to the deepest marrow.
He told his wife what he thought of Miss Vanya, nothing he’d not said before, and then he told his wife what he thought of her, for having dumped him there in that sub-tropic hell, for so shamelessly lying about the contents of her manic brain, for stringing him along with her fake adoration, blinding him for years to the truth she was.
They swapped obscenities enough to miff a bum till at last he saw that none of this would turn out well and slipped off to buy two quarts of bourbon and a twelver of beer, his hopes for sobriety—three months this round, incredible—flushed away again.
By the time he’d made it through most of the beer and half of that first quart, just under two hours later, his wife was ready to bail.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going like that?” he said.
She had on a baby doll dress with the panties and bra, so sheer you could see the panties and bra.
And that was when it hit him, the knowledge, like the memory of an icky dream: if his wife hadn’t been doing it with someone else, she was making plans to do so soon. Never in her life had she worn an outfit so plainly scuzzy. Honestly, he thought, it was the outfit of a whore. She looked like an alien that fucks for money, or, more basically, like an alien that wants to fuck.
“I’m not leaving yet,” she said.
He laughed. “Just practicing, then, I suppose. Seeing what your purse will look like once you sweat on it.”
“You’re disgusting. You make me want to slit my throat.”
He strode past her, to block the door, and saw she was afraid. “I just sharpened the knives,” he said. “You know where they are.”
“I was going to make a call,” she said, and reached into the purse for the phone she never answered, the phone she turned off once she’d decided to leave for the night, in spite of her vows to be home soon, by ten, or twelve, or three—whatever time she’d said.
“Your new boyfriend, huh?”
“I hate you so much,” she said. “You fat fuck.”
Again and again he’d shamed himself, but never with such ease. She’d hinted at his new lard, the way one half does when it’s clear the other’s lit the fuse, stuff like, “Those floats are really bad for you, honey,” and, “How many times a day can a man eat pie?”
But now, like him, she’d abandoned even those respects. It was true. Their kindness had been smashed. Nothing remained but, scarcely pulsing, a spot of the dream they were. From the day they met, despite their moments of tenderness, they’d been busy with destruction. They might have been a type of soul- consuming cannibal, he thought. They’d glutted themselves at the expense of themselves, and now there was nothing left. His wife was an alien whore, and he an old fat fuck.
He didn’t know how long he’d stared at that knot in the floor, nothing but that his wife had put a slip beneath her dress and was talking on the phone.
“I don’t care what you say,” he told her. “I’m coming.”
“No,” she said, clapping shut the phone, “you’re not.”
He snatched a pillow and stuffed it beneath his shirt, around the shoulder. “Quasimodo doesn’t take no for answers.”
“You fat, fat fuck,” she said, and opened the door.
Goddamn. Perfection of evil that she was, Vanya had appeared from a crack in the sky.
“What do you want?” he said.
“Dude, you need to leave her be.”
“Eat yourself, why don’t you?”
“Watch me,” Vanya said, and led his wife away.
He followed them into that sweltering mess, but felt at once he’d been cast to the bottom of a poison sea. His chest was filled with poison, his eyes stripped of light. A swoon engulfed him, then, and he moaned.
“Wait, please, wait . . .”
“Look at you,” Vanya said. “You’re shitfaced. You’re filthy. You stink. Get a freaking clue. Nobody wants you.”
That would’ve done, but then Vanya sneered with more hateful pity than he could’ve conjured at his worst.
“Do yourself a favor,” she said. “Go home.”
Forty-five minutes later, he stood by the house where the bash would soon begin, spraying white gas on the hedge that lined its yard. He’d expected a fire to appear when he flicked his lighter, for sure. What he’d not expected was the entire hedge to rise in psycho flames. But things could never have been different. He was under a spell—not of the fire, but the fire that longed to be.
Dusk hadn’t fallen, yet already packs of kiddies had taken to the streets. As if from hidden pods, a duo emerged across the way, a clutch up the block, a gaggle more on a nearby porch—bunny rabbits, super heroes, angels, and clowns, the whole prancing bit. More amazingly, he thought, not one of these sprites had noticed his work, much less him. The fire was huge, a wall of flames ten feet high and fifty long, black smoke pouring out like water from a busted pipe, and no one had so much as turned their costumed head.
The dreamlike nature of the moment was more than he could bear.
The absence of guilt—the absence of fear—the perfection of fulfillment—the sense of inviolate sway. It was simultaneously thrilling and horrific, too much and too little both.
Once again he took stock, and once again saw what he’d seen: mommies and daddies and kiddies in costumes, innocence on the rage . . .
And then he reached the flat, and then the sirens began, two at first, then three and four, rushing toward his columns of smoke . . .
Later—bottle in hand—he made his way back through the dark, this time to the lot across the street, where, ironically, a house had once burned down.
A split-rail fence had been swallowed by the honeysuckle there. He sat on the log behind it to wait for a sign to show him what to do, the party swelling as he glared through the vines, the music going on—U2, Pavement, KC and the Sunshine Band, James Brown, James Brown, James Brown . . .
Those southern nights were entities all their own, changed with the sun, but somehow ever the same. They pressed against you, those nights, they squeezed you and tore you and licked at you, too, even as they swept you away, just out there, into black predictions. The world smelled of memory, then, of the vastness of space and primordial ooze. Jasmine mingled with moss and mud—endless entropy, endless life, the fern on its putrid stump. And birdcall and catcall fused with the buzz of cricket and cicada. And armies of moths ran beams of light, and geckos hiked fences like phantoms of stone, and centipedes wriggled, and spiders crawled, wherever you looked, they were there . . .
Any moment, he knew, she’d step from the dark in the arms of some man, some pompous twerp, rather, and he’d be free to make Iago’s work into something out of Dr. Seuss. But that didn’t happen, however much he willed it.
His thoughts wandered, his brain hummed, he fell to evil dreams . . .
He was dead in a field with proverbs, and eyeballs loony with flies . . .
He was nasty on the street with multiple wounds, a note round his neck that said, simply, PLEASE?
So be it, he thought, and drank. If his wife wouldn’t come to him, he’d go to her . . .
Smoke and light became one, as did faces, blurred to a mask of terror.
A feeling had welled up in the thing that was him, of power and despair. He’d reached the plains of madness, now. No one knew him any longer to laugh at or hurt or jeer. And who guessed what could happen, truly, when the laws had fallen and all that remained was terror?
He saw her.
She’d formed a circle with three boys and a girl, their private galaxy of phoniness and booze. She’d ditched the slip, as he’d foretold, and resumed the guise of an alien whore.
And then she saw him, too, and her voice disappeared, the whole of her collapsed when he pressed in—mumbles all about of arsonist and maniac and madman and dick—and his hand, as if its own, shot out to slap those balls bouncing round her head.
In one moment she was an alien whore, the next a girl with a crooked wig. Then destitution took her, and she began to weep . . .
He found himself in darkness scored by planks of light filled with bugs. A window appeared, to the room he’d left, his wife still in it, surrounded by a fresh gang of jerks. She’d restored her wig, but her eyes were ugly with mascara, she couldn’t change that, and her makeup was grotesque . . .
He made his way round the house, holding his knife, weirdly enough, then crawled down the drive, on the far side of the two cars in it. He could feel the knife, he knew he was holding his knife, but like a man asleep was powerless. He saw a tire. He saw the knife open and stab the tire. He saw another tire and the knife stab it . . .
The image of his bottle appeared overhead, a beacon to lurch toward, beyond the party’s arc of light . . .
Peels of laughter danced his way, a burst of giggles, a rumpus of shock, the shit-faced bawling of some forlorn kid . . .
Far overhead a satellite drizzled, somewhere close a child sprang her tantrum . . .
He came to on the floor, one leg beneath him, the other on the bed. His wife had been wailing for some time, he sensed. He’d heard it gathering, louder and louder, till at last he opened his eyes.
He didn’t know where he was or why his wife was screaming. He couldn’t understand her, either, though with dawning apprehension he saw it was day, and knew he’d gone too far the night before—much, much further than he’d remembered going.
From what he could make of his wife’s assault, after setting the yard on fire and storming the party and slapping her wig and slashing the tires of Vanya’s car, he’d returned home to piss all over her effects, her jewelry and papers and computer and books.
They were finished. Through his confusion, even, that was clear.
Little did he know, however, that in three weeks, stripped of his health and pride and most of his mind, he’d board a bus full of fantasists and cons, bound for the home of his father in the mountains of Y.
And neither could he know as he laid on the floor beneath his raging wife that this long ride would mark the beginning of a journey that epitomized forever, from Y, to Y, to Y, to Y, to Y, to Y, and on . . .
Once upon a long ago time, the notion of home had held all he thought true and dear. Become a nowhere man, now, come from nowhere, bound for the same, home had slipped into the bitterness of schemes gone bad, and nothing, not the notion that home was where he lay his head, would help him to see that beneath his hopelessness the world was in order and that, someday, perhaps, his mind would be restored, and he would be okay . . .
She was still wailing, cursing the hoax by which they’d been lured to this demonic town.
He rolled to his side and saw the Glock his uncle had given him for “protection” against the goons in the swamps, the weapon’s slide retracted to show an empty chamber.
His urine was everywhere. The house smelled like a cage. As for his wife’s machine, both monitor and tower were missing, and this was the source of her distress. Her novel was on the hard drive. So were her stories and the rest.
He had destroyed it all.
His wife knew he’d destroyed it because he’d told her he’d destroyed it, apparently by way of Zigor, yet another in the line of schmucks from the local hipster bar. He never doubted Zigor’s motive for befriending “them.” Zigor wanted to fuck his wife. Zigor, too, was a “good friend” to his wife. Zigor “understood” his wife, Zigor “helped” his wife when she was “down.” It was his jealously, said his wife, that drove him to leave Zigor a message from his blackout, announcing his intent to “annihilate”—the very word she said Zigor had said he’d used—her machine. And now that the machine was gone, his wife had no reason not to believe he’d done precisely that.
And sure enough, among the palmettos and slime of their ragged yard, they found the missing gear. The tower was destroyed, blasted full of holes and chopped up with a hatchet. The monitor, too, had suffered, but across its screen he’d taped a printout of his beaming face. There were holes through his mouth and both of his eyes.
“I always knew you could do such things,” his wife said. He saw no mercy in her face, no tenderness, not a crummy speck of love. “I just never thought you would.”
She left that evening with the beat up valise she’d used to move into his joint after their elopement in Y, two weeks to the day from their first date. They’d been inseparable then. Nothing, then, was dull—scraping a spatula, standing a line at the DMV, plucking an ingrown hair—nothing was dull, all of it was a rocket to D’Qar.
While boredom was that other world’s drag, his wife used to say, the world for them was “the playground of a mermaid”—that, too, she’d said—he remembered it like the loss of his virginity—as she climbed from bed at noon with her pack of smokes, headed to the kitchen for a wake-up shot of gin. He’d seen her first when she was another dude’s girl, and he some other girl’s guy. But once he lost that girl, the way he lost all his girls, he went stumbling through the wasteland of one-night affairs—again—with girls whose names he never asked.
Finally, six months later, lone-wolfing The Divey, as had become his wont, he saw her playing pool without knowing who she was. He’d been stricken by her—that was what he knew—this weird girl in the bright red wig, the cue above the table jaunty in her hands, that and bazillions more, the smiling gleaming mouth, for sure, he could never keep from kissing once he’d been cursed with its taste.
The girl had been a butterfly on a gator’s tongue. She’d been sunshine in a storm, silver on tar, the center of a Tootsie Pop fresh off the belt.
And now she was gone, #149 in The Gone Girl Game, and he was alone among the moss and murk of this demonic town, alone as ever, #149 in The Shithead Game, the ducats in his pocket—from the dole he was on after the fall of the cubicle farm—cutting through the howl in his head—as ever, once he’d started drinking again—weeping and bawling for another bottle and case of beer.
His life was a travesty of déjà vu.
He was a caricature of his own cliché.
Nothing was fresh, because everything he did, the bulk of it catastrophic, had been born of loathing and hate, enforced by the hand in his mind, to which he’d been a slave since way back when, a hand he held that had never done more than hold him down.
This bore no resemblance to a joke, either. He’d once believed, like so many teens who flipped their wigs when they heard it, the mad German’s dictum that God was dead, but this “truth,” too, had grown stale as the old shoes in his closet.
Life, he well knew by now, was not a hoax, or a joke, or some wicked play enacted on the world’s stage, its players stupidly playing their stupid parts doomed to end in mute stupidity, as the Bard had said, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans all.
Life was life.
There was nothing else, just life, and to think otherwise, he knew—through the foggy lens of metaphor, for instance, worn by so many to ease the truth that life had nothing to do with coming and going but with knowing that where you come from is to know where you are and will always be—was no more or less than a piece of the trick that tricked you to think other. Life was life, and he’d spoiled it from the start. He had, like a jerk, done scarcely more than spit his beer in its face, thinking himself some dare-all rebel—how pathetic, what a jerk.
At the ABC he nabbed his fix from the guy he’d nabbed it from the day before, a skinny old geez with yellow teeth and yellow eyes and hair slicked up with a tin of Murray’s pomade, the same Winston dangling from his mouth as the day before. Rice could scarcely comprehend the man, his drawl so thick, and doubted it would matter had the geez used time to retrieve his smoke so he could move his splintered lips.
Then again, who cared? He had his stuff. He was going to pour his stuff into him and head to his tryst with old Queen Oblivion, to dance with her his lousy dance, same old, same old.
He’d be back later, doubtless, and the geez would stare at him like he was staring now, another of the dirty Yanks that came and went each year with the calendar at school. The geez, Rice was sure, would sell him his booze anyway. Rice and his kind were the geez’s train of gravy and gold.
But, yeah, so what, and who the fuck cared about that anymore than they did the guy who’d made that day’s obit page? What the geez did past selling Rice his stuff could as well be the dream of Schrödinger’s cat as the sucking of a pickled egg.
The spare room at their flat he and his wife had made into a study. He spent a good deal of time there, writing, doubtless, but reading and researching, too, and sometimes, like now, during the days and nights he was alone after he’d ceased to be for his wife what he’d once been, he sat at the desk, a bottle of whiskey and many of beer before him, smoking his smokes as he muddled through his perverse dreams, of throttling her dead like a boob from a Johnny Cash song or of very simply packing a bag, as he’d packed so many bags in the years till now, and hitting the road for another girl, the smell of whose hair he’d use to wash out the smell of the last.
Once he was there with his smokes and his booze, the rest became unreal.
The door was shut.
He had his machine.
He had his books.
He had himself a goddamned gun.
People weren’t people. People didn’t exist, even, to be people or anything else.
The world was his head, and his head the world, and so long as that head stayed on his body and his body in this room with its locked-shut door, the world was anything he said, even, if he wanted, a baboon’s stage.
Some hours passed.
She didn’t call.
Not that he’d expected she would, given she never had. That, however, hadn’t kept him from looking at his phone.
He did this now and then, flipped the gizmo open to see if she’d somehow buzzed while he was on the toilet, but she hadn’t.
No one had called.
She hadn’t called, and wasn’t going to.
She was gone.
And now his booze was near gone, as well, now he’d have to trudge back to the geez to suffer his watery stare and listen to his drawl, slow as molasses from a bottle, as he’d heard some locals brag.
Then, searching through the tin of coins he kept on the desk, picking out the quarters and dimes, he bumped the mouse to his computer and triggered its screen.
Outlook, for Christ’s sake, what a shitty program, he was still using the thing, there it was up front, the inbox blinking, at the top of whose list—he looked away and back and blinked and looked away again, addled with disbelief—glowed an email from his wife, its subject line, thanks lunatic now go fuck someone bigger than you.
He clicked the message.
The message opened.
Her words, in pixels, appeared on the screen.
He double-clicked a word to see it truly colored, to see it was an actual word in an actual note, which, still, to his abiding incredulity, it somehow was.
Shit on a stick, he thought, it was really so, here was an honest-to-God message, from his wife, no less, he’d not been confused, with just a few short lines, albeit, telling him that while it was a good thing before he wrecked her machine he’d thought to send her a message with her stories and book, that didn’t change a thing.
He, she said, was still the psychopath he’d been and would always be.
He, she said, was the most diabolical human she had ever known.
He, she said, had mind-fucked her harder than a victim in a Hitchcock flick.
He, she said, made Caligula look like Gandhi.
But at least she had her stories, she said, at least she had her book, and that was something.
“Don’t for second,” she concluded, “think to get your hopes up, you fucking prick. And whatever you do, don’t you dare call me, not until I call you, if ever I get low enough to do something so clearly insane.”
He fell back like an asthmatic under siege, unbreathing, yet somehow clear—as in clear like mountain-stream clear—gobsmacked by the implications of the note on the screen.
After a time, he couldn’t say what, he scrolled through the thread to see she hadn’t lied.
How could she, now, after all, with a thing of such magnitude?
It was so.
He’d sent her an email to which, as his wife had declared, he’d attached a folder of her work.
He could burn property and slash tires and terrorize his wife and piss on her things to little result, but never in years, he’d seen through the rage of his black-out, could he escape the sentence he was sure to call down—what he and she both, really, had believed he’d called down—were he to destroy her writings.
Before he smashed her machine, commanded somehow by the weensy speck of goodness he had left, the spot of love for his wife that yet remained, he’d attached her work to an email and sent it.
But the note to his wife didn’t contain merely the stories and books he’d attached, but as well a letter to her, of the dreariest sort, really, angry and sulking and remorseful by turns, in which he’d also pasted, by way of picking at the guilt that against all probability she might harbor, the note she’d written five or six days back.
I don’t know why, but I feel very unfocused, very muddle-headed, and, in a way, lost. I just don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. I know it’s “typical.” I know I should try to investigate some options. I guess I just need to ride this out for a few days. Please know that I love you very much and feel bad that you’re in any way affected by this mood of mine. I really think it’s best for me not to be around you, as I will only bring you down too. Please be patient with me?
His letter went on, more of the same, but it was what he’d written at the end, in bolded caps, that broke him. “SOMETIMES,” he wrote, “DREAMS CAN REALLY STINK.”
D. Foy is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, Made to Break, and the novel, Patricide (forthcoming October 2016). His work has appeared in Guernica, Salon, Hazlitt, Post Road, Electric Literature, BOMB, The Literary Review, Midnight Breakfast, The Scofield, and The Georgia Review, among others, and has been included in the books Laundromat and Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial.
This excerpt is reprinted with the permission of Stalking Horse Press from Patricide by D. Foy. Copyright © 2016 D. Foy.