The first novel by Matthew McIntosh
[ Shortly before I turned eighteen, my dad drove me across the country to begin a college career in fisheries at a less than half-rate school in Nebraska; fisheries being a field that at the time I believed to be the source of all true knowledge. No matter what the true source was, or is, I wasn’t having any luck getting into four-year schools, and, not too long before graduation, I received a letter in the mail offering me the opportunity to enroll. I didn’t remember applying, actually. In fact, I don’t think I did. But things had not been going well for me at all, and when this school said that they wanted me to come and, yes, they did offer classes in fisheries, I thought that someone in this world of sorrow had finally been born with good sense and that I’d better go.
I hadn’t seen the old man for a long time before our drive because there’d been a night when the girl he’d been sleeping with had shown up on our front porch with a suitcase in her hand and nowhere to go. There was a big and very loud row, during which my mother—a woman who honestly hadn’t been in her right mind for a long time—was, in spirit at least, wounded mortally. She was doped up on a mixture of Valium and alcohol and this probably should have served to deflect the brunt of the wound, but when she answered the door and that girl started talking, I think something inside of her broke, whatever that string is that holds a person together, it snapped. She came to life for a second and screamed her head off—she made a very high-pitched shrieking sound that I could hear from my younger brother’s room—and then she stopped; she stopped yelling, then stopped talking, and wouldn’t start again. My dad left us that night and disappeared for a long time and my mother upped her intake, spending all her time in front of the television or shuffling around the house, holding on to pieces of furniture or my brother’s head to keep herself steady. It was heartbreaking, really.
This wasn’t the only reason I was troubled that year, or the reason I ended up where I did, but it did tend to complicate things. There were other significant components. For one thing, I had developed an obsessive preoccupation with a girl at school two years younger than me named Emily Swanson. Also significant, I was suffering from an irrational but very real fear of paralysis that had developed over the course of my adolescence. I was afraid I might cross the street one day and something crippling would happen—a car would come barreling around the corner, say, and send me into orbit. Maybe something would fall on me—a block of ice from the wing of a plane—and shatter my spine. Or I’d be forced into a situation where it would be the heroic thing to do to throw myself in front of a runaway train to save a girl, always a particular girl, from harm. And when, in my imagination, the train would break from the tracks, headed, at a speed of more than a hundred miles an hour, straight for that particular girl, who was usually sitting in a patch of grass with her legs tucked neatly beneath her, reading or dozing under the afternoon sun—when, with the roar of crunching metal and battered earth, the train would be almost upon her and she’d look up from her book or open her eyes from her nap—when the shadow would fall across her face and I, close by, would ponder: Should I throw myself in harm’s way for her?—when in my imagination I would hold off the train, stopping it for a moment in its tracks to give me more time to decide (and I could only hold it off for so long)—Could I save her? Should I save her?—when this situation would unfold in my mind, the girl on the grass was, ten times out of ten, Emily Swanson.
My dad and I drove straight through and arrived on a Monday. There wasn’t much to the town. Just a few stores down the main strip, a bank, a movie theater showing two films that had come and gone from my town months before, a grocery store, a car wash, a gleaming Masonic Temple, various statues and monuments. No one was around. There was a ghost-town feel to the place that unsettled me. My dad smiled and pointed. What he wouldn’t give to be able to live in a rustic place like this one. This is how life used to be, Will. You don’t see this anymore.
We found my apartment a few blocks away. I’d taken it sight unseen—the basement of a run down pre-Industrial era house. We walked through piles of leaves, down the stairs at the side and into what was going to be, from here on in, my new home. I took one look and my heart flipped around and sank quietly into my stomach.
“What do you think?” my dad said.
It was essentially one large room with a kitchen against one wall to the right as you walked in, a thin strip of windows facing the kitchen, and a couch and an alcove with a bed to the left. The paint on the walls was peeling and dingy, the tile floor had dips and little holes in it, the low ceiling was made worse by a network of forehead-level pipes, and the kitchen reminded me—down to the huge metal sinks—of the old moldy kitchens where I would wash dishes with the ladies at sixth-grade camp. To put it bluntly, we were standing in the middle of a piece of crap shithole.
“It’s crap,” I said. “It’s a piece of crap shithole.” And then I ducked my way into the bathroom, locked the door behind me, and stayed there, staring at the red painted floor while my dad unloaded the car.
And my dad, who was a good guy really—a good guy who had become fed up with his family, with his life, and had decided to make a break for it—spent the next five days fixing up the place. He cleaned and painted the walls and doors. He bought me blankets, tablecloths to cover what scant furniture there was, matching towels and dish sets, rugs to cover the floor, fans to combat the heat, a new bed; he filled the refrigerator with food, redid the wiring, bought three stand-up lamps, and handed me two hundred bucks to start a bank account. He set up my fishtank, an old thirty-gallon number I’d found in our garage the previous year, on a small coffee table that he bought at a department store and to make it feel more like home, he used heavy-duty hooks and wires to position a mirror above my bed at an angle so that I could lie on my back and watch the reflection of the tank, close my eyes and fall asleep without moving a muscle. All this he did during the days, whistling away happily while I read comic books or watched my portable television or wrote down my thoughts in the small hand-sized notepad I carried around. And at night, after taking me out to an enormous dinner, he would insist I take the bed and he would take a blanket and a pillow, lie down on a rug next to the kitchen table and go to sleep, bad back, frozen arm and all.
After five days, when he was finally convinced that he had done all he could and I was as happy with the place as I was going to be, he packed up his things into his duffel bag and sat down next to me on the bed. He put his hand on my shoulder and I knew he was about to get at something.
“I’m sorry, Will,” he said. “I’m sorry about what happened. It wasn’t fair on you boys. It’s just—goddamn it,” he said. “I’m really lonely, Will.” And then he started to cry.
I sat and watched in amazement until, after about a minute, he blew his nose into his handkerchief, wiped his eyes and said, in a weary and dejected tone, “Your mother’s not well, Will. She’s not.”
This struck me as a departure. “She’s all right,” I said.
“No,” he said. “She’s not. I’m sorry but she’s not. She needs help.”
“She’s fine,” I said. “You’re the one who’s not fine, Dad.”
The truth was my mother was far from fine and hadn’t been fine for a long time. She had tried, when I was younger, to understand the circumstances of what she had felt had always been wrong with her but could never quite put her finger on. She read books. She bought tapes. She sought professionals and listened to them. They took her back to the source. That is to say, she came to understand herself perfectly, and over the next few years she began to sink deeper into pills and alcohol as a means of coping with that understanding. By the time I left for Nebraska, she’d very nearly lost her mind.
“You’re the one who needs help, Dad,” I said. And then I told him some things I would regret. I told him I didn’t care about anything, not about him, not about my mother, not what he did to my apartment or where he slept or how many girls he fucked. I said I didn’t care that he had disappeared for so long. I didn’t care that he hadn’t called, or visited, or checked on us. I said I was glad I hadn’t had to see his face. I told him that I really didn’t give a crap about any of it and I’d had a shitty time driving to Nebraska with him and I wished he’d disappear again and leave me alone, let me get the hell on with my life. I could tell it hurt him tremendously. He told me he was very sorry I felt that way and then he picked up his bag and left.
When I heard his car drive away, I walked outside, up the stairs and onto the front lawn. It was evening and the sun was gone and the stars were beginning to show up for the night. The sky was dark blue behind me, and lighter, tinged with pink in front of me and I watched his taillights get smaller as he drove back down that road, back toward Washington and his apartment by the airport. I watched those lights for as long as I could, but then they went down something and disappeared. I poked at the enormous cold sore that had attached itself to my mouth as we’d driven into town. I cleared my throat a few times. I spit a big loogy onto the grass and walked back downstairs.
I picked up my notepad and wrote: The O.M. started bawling. Drove away back home. Good riddance. I lay on my bed and stared up at my fishtank. My angelfish hovered off to one side staring out of the glass, making gasping motions with her mouth, and my four remaining goldfish swam awkwardly on the other side. Occasionally one would hover over the ceramic castle, or float near the bottom, skin’s width away from the rocks. This made me feel terrible for some reason. I went into the bathroom and put some Neosporin and a Band-Aid on the corner of my mouth. I took the Band-Aid off and put it over the whole length of my mouth and looked at myself in the mirror. Then I lay down on my bed again and closed my eyes.
I’d always had an overactive imagination, but during the time I’m talking about this trait became something like a proof to me that I was on the way to losing my mind. It was an issue that concerned me more and more. It was obvious, the way my parents lived their lives, that insanity ran in the family and I, at that point, had done some questionable things myself. But as I was lying on my bed with the Band-Aid over my mouth, I heard something very real, something that had nothing to do with imagination. First leaves crackling. Then slow and heavy footsteps from the stairway outside my door. I turned my ear. My fish turned toward the door. The footsteps—whoever was making them—clopped their way down and stopped at the bottom. For a few moments nothing happened. I could hear myself breathing, the fishtank bubbling. We waited for what might happen next.
The door exploded. A white light filled the room, then a yellow light, then a red light, and a sonic boom, followed by a series of high-pitched screeching sounds. From the opening in the doorway, a long red flame burst in and split the room in half. A tall man walked in. Dressed in a black bodysuit and a gold fireman’s mask. He held a shiny gold flamethrower. He walked around my apartment and, slowly, methodically, began to light everything on fire. He opened the refrigerator and stepped back. He pulled the trigger and with a roar the inside went up in flames. He walked into the bathroom, there was a whooshing sound, I saw a glow. Then he came back in, walked across the carpet, and stood in front of me. He spoke words, deep and thunderous but unintelligible behind the fireman’s mask. Then he turned back to the rest of the apartment and fired again. The drapes went up and the walls and then the floor, and the fire raged to the ceiling.
I was terrified—I was trembling with fear. When I made up my mind to move—and what I was going to do, I have no idea—flee, most probably—I’m sure if I could have I would have dashed through the flames, ducked beneath the burning doorframe and run off into the fields—when I made up my mind to move, I couldn’t. It was as if someone had tied me to the bed, or given my entire body a case of lockjaw. I could only stare up at the mirror. I watched, petrified, as the man in black walked over to my fishtank and sprayed it with flame—whoosh!—the water boiled and my fish burst their seams. The water turned red. I closed my eyes. He came over to the bed and opened them. Shook an angry finger at me. I closed my eyes again, and when I opened them a few seconds later, his monstrous back was passing slowly through the doorway. The flames trailed him like the train of a robe.
The light on the other side of the door went out. The room became very quiet, slightly chilly—no trace of what had just happened, no fire, no smoke, only me on my bed staring up at my fishtank, scratching at my cold sore through the Band-Aid.
continues . . . ]