My mom was forty-two years old when I was born, and my dad was forty-nine. They were unequipped parents and did not sign me up for sports or activities, which assured my status as interloper from a very young age. One time, when I was twelve, I destroyed the backyard garden in a fit of nameless rage and they didn’t say a word about it.
Most nights my dad sat in his office reading and chewing on his pipe stem. When he spoke it was slow and clear. He seemed depressed and I wondered how much of it had to do with aging. My mom, on the other hand, never seemed happy or unhappy, and always wore a look of slight confusion. One time Dad told me that Mom had the worst memory in the world—she was like a permanent amnesiac—and that’s why her temperament was so consistently tranquil.
I had only one friend. His name was Sean Carrigan, and he lived with his dad, an Episcopal Priest, and his older brother, Nelson. In the searing Mississippi summer, Sean and I would ride our bikes down to the river where we would goof around on a rope swing, or walk on the railroad tracks and throw rocks at cars passing on the nearby highway. Or we would ride to Devil’s Tower which was a just an abandoned grain silo covered in graffiti. Devil’s heads and cuss words. We were on the lookout for any devil worshippers, wanting to get our fix of fear. In the fall we tried to make a haunted house for some neighborhood kids. We painted our faces in black and red, fake blood and everything, and when we looked in the mirror we were both kind of scared. We didn’t go through with the haunted house. Though we did not admit it to each other, we both wondered if, by dressing up as demons, we were inviting pain and terror into our lives.
Unlike my quiet home, something was always going on at Sean’s, and it usually involved Sean fighting with Nelson. One morning I rode my bike over to Sean’s, and when I got there Sean was lying on his back in the front yard. Nelson and his friend Dominic were leaning over and talking to Sean.
“Hey Stake,” Nelson said. “Stake” was a nickname Nelson had given me; it was short for “Mistake,” which is what he claimed I was since my parents were so old.
Sean rolled on to his side and squinted and groaned. He had grass clippings in his hair and stuck to his face. He tried to take deep breaths.
“See, you got your wind back,” Nelson said. “He just got the wind knocked out of him. Been laying there for twenty minutes to make it more dramatic,” he said to me.
“He pushed me off the roof,” Sean said.
“I didn’t push you, you lost your footing. I wouldn’t push somebody off a roof,” Nelson said.
I looked at Dominic but he didn’t offer any more explanation, just put his hands on his hips.
“He fell off the roof?” I said, looking at the one-story house. The foundation of the house was not raised, but it seemed like he could have broken something.
“The bush softened his fall,” Nelson said. He pointed at a camellia bush that was split with cracked branches making the core of the bush visible. “He’s fine.”
“I’m telling Dad,” Sean said.
This threat did not sit well and the two brothers argued. Their dad was, like my parents, hands-off, but he could get very angry in the right circumstances. He certainly would make Nelson pay for pushing his brother off the roof, accident or not. Though he was a priest, he didn’t seem religious. He didn’t pray before meals.
“What do you want from me? You want to go somewhere. Don’t say a word and you can hang out with me and Dominic. How’s that?” Nelson said.
“I don’t want to hang out with you,” Sean said, still lying on his back. I didn’t believe him because Nelson was all he ever talked about. “Take us to a movie,” Sean said. “Your treat.”
We wanted to see The Crow. Sean had the soundtrack and we had read magazine articles about how the movie’s star, Brandon Lee, had died in real life while filming. Nelson and Dominic brought us to the theater in Nelson’s Jetta, and he went up to the counter—he knew a guy who worked there—and got us two tickets to the R rated movie. He said to Sean, “I just broke a fifty dollar bill for you, punk.”
In the movie, of course, a loving young couple gets murdered—the woman gets raped first—and then the man comes back to life as a superhero to have his revenge. I felt sick when they raped the girl, tingling with frustration and anger, and I was glad to see the hero get his revenge in such extreme fashion, but something didn’t sit right. How did he come back to life? What force was behind this return from the dead? Was it all due to a magic crow? Where did the magic crow come from? I understood the viewer had to be kept in the dark on this to some extent, but the revenge plot seemed insignificant when compared to issues of immortality and God, or whatever was supposed to make this supernatural event possible. Still, we left the theater saying we loved the movie.
The thing was, Sean and I were both in love with the same girl at school. Her name was Jill, and after the movie I knew Sean was doing the same thing I was doing—picturing some variation on the story with Jill as the victim and himself as the hero. Thinking about eternal union with his beloved. It made me jealous that we were both thinking the same way about Jill, and that there was nothing that made my fantasy scenario any more likely than his. We were picturing the same pitch black night, rescuing her from torture.
After the movie we had to wait two hours for Nelson and Dominic to come pick us up. We sat on the front steps and watched crowds come and go from the theater, both wondering if somehow Jill would be among them, which she was not.
The Jetta pulled up at almost six o’clock and we got in the car. “You and Stake like that movie?” Nelson asked. Sean nodded.
Nelson said we were going to hang out with him tonight. “Another special treat,” he said. He must have still felt guilty about pushing Sean off the roof and felt like he had not bribed him enough quite yet. He said we were going to the midget house. During the drive there he turned up the music and rolled down the windows so that the wind blew through. I thought about the four of us in the car. I thought about our relationship to the higher power, about what we believed. In Mississippi everyone knows what church someone goes to, and many people feel the need to explain their affiliation. Your church was part of your casual biography. Though I rarely went to church, I was a Baptist and believed in God in a typical way. Sean said he believed in God but not the same way his dad did. He believed God was somehow involved with outer space and aliens in ways that Christianity wouldn’t condone. Dominic was Catholic—he never spoke about it—but I had seen him cross himself before eating. And I didn’t know about Nelson. He didn’t seem like he could care one way or the other. It was strange to me that we could all believe slightly or very different things and be in the same world, the same town, the same car.
The midget house was an abandoned dwelling on a narrow road off 40th Avenue. It was in the woods behind a strip mall that was empty except for a prosthetic limb manufacturer that was closed on weekends. The house was by itself with no neighboring structures, and it was easy to imagine the dwarf owner or owners, some years ago, deliberately isolating themselves in the woods to avoid attention. The small front yard had gone back to nature, weeds having taken over the grass and vines running up all sides of the house.
It was literally a miniature house, with everything half the size of a normal house. The counters came up to my knees, cabinets and ceilings were low, and I had to duck to walk inside and through the kitchen where the linoleum on the floor was bubbled up and curling in the corners of the room. In all parts of the house the floor was beginning to give, the wood softening, and there were plenty of signs of decay, enough that even some teenagers refused to walk inside. The two bedrooms were empty other than random trash like fast food bags in the corners. In the den area the ceiling was higher, and there was a short ladder leading up to a second floor loft that was more like a crawl space. I never figured out what the loft was supposed to be. There had been a miniature side table and TV stand in the den, but both had been burned in a bonfire behind the house during a New Year’s Eve party last year. I had been here plenty of times before, but never at night. There were plenty of ghost rumors, and we all wanted to believe them.
The knob was broken off the front door. We followed Nelson and Dominic ducking through the kitchen into the den. All the windows were broken out but the house still smelled musty like rotting wood. An evening breeze swept through the den, and there were people behind the house yelling and laughing.
In the den there were two guys and a girl sitting on the floor smoking cigarettes. It was dusk and there was just enough light for those of us inside the house to see. The people said hey to Nelson and Dominic asked if there was beer. There wasn’t. Nelson and Dominic immediately joined a card game the people were playing. Sean and I were not introduced to them, and the people on the floor didn’t seem to take any notice of us. We walked around.
Something had happened since I’d been here last. The ceiling below the loft was starting to cave in. Somebody had probably gone up there to be funny and stomped around too much. Or maybe they had sex and the weight of two teenager bodies was too much for the dying structure.
We heard a sudden scream come from the backyard—a teenage boy’s sandpaper scream—the voice rising and cracking in fear. The seated people dropped their cards and got up to look out the window. Nelson immediately went for the back door; Sean and I followed, not yet aware what was happening. Outside, in the backyard, next to a make-shift fire pit that was inactive on this pleasant spring night, a guy was kneeling down one knee and had what looked like a knife at another guy’s throat. A group of people—ten or so—were standing around watching this like it was a play. I knew the guys’ names. The one with the knife was named Carl Gordon and the other one was Daniel Therry. Daniel Therry had scoliosis and was an atheist. I knew he had scoliosis because my mother was a nurse and had taken care of him in the hospital, and also he had slight curve of his upper spine that was only noticeable if you looked closely. And I knew he was an atheist because he always told people. His father, an Accounting professor at the local university, often wrote letters to the newspaper editor criticizing religion. Being an atheist made Daniel different than everyone else and made him seem dangerous, which is what he wanted.
“I could kill you right now, cousin,” Carl Gordon said.
“Man, no. Man. Listen. What happened?” Daniel Therry’s voice was cracking again.
Looking back, I know that Carl Gordon had no intention of cutting him. He was making a statement about himself that had very little to do with Daniel Therry.
“Get off him,” Dominic said.
“Get the fuck off him, Carl,” Nelson said, trying to strengthen Dominic’s plea. He tried to sound casual at the same time, but there was fear in his voice that he couldn’t hide.
When Carl finally brought the knife away from Daniel’s throat, someone in the crowd said, “You’re losing it, buddy.” Carl stood up, still looking down like Daniel was a deer he had killed, making a scene out of it. He folded the knife and put it in his pocket.
In my life I have seen many things that have surprised me. But what Sean did next may be the most unexpected event I have ever witnessed. The moment after Carl put the knife in his pocket, Sean ran and jumped on him, wrapped his arm around Carl’s neck and started choking him like a pro wrestler. Sean was not an aggressive person, but here he was attacking a guy four years older and twice his size. I knew this attack was partly due to the movie we had seen and something about the older people present, the pressure to be a part of something. For a moment, everyone seemed frozen in disbelief. Carl fell down to his knees and very quickly unfastened Sean from his neck and dropped him on the ground and pummeled him. Nelson and Dominic had jumped in and were trying to break them up. Nelson got some licks in on Carl. Daniel Therry had gotten up and was stumbling away. It quickly turned into a scrum, and I couldn’t tell who was fighting who. Dust rose from their feet and knees. Sean stood up and then fell back down. Then Nelson had Sean under his arms and pulled him away, pulled him all the way to the car with Sean screaming.
Around the time of the fight, back at my house—for some reason I imagine it happened right at the moment when Carl took the knife away from Daniel Therry’s throat—an embolus from my dad's heart became large enough to block the flow of blood in his artery wall and he suffered a stroke. He lay on the office floor, unresponsive, though his left eye remained open. My mother discovered him and called an ambulance. She tried to get some kind of response from Dad.
Driving away from the midget house, Nelson told us the knife to the throat was because Daniel had kissed Carl’s girlfriend, but we later found out that Daniel had stolen Carl’s wallet at a baseball game a few months before, and that Carl had just found out about it.
When I got home it was dark. The house was empty, and there was no sign of my parents’ whereabouts. It was not like them to leave in the evening, and certainly not without a note explaining where they were and a phone number to reach them. I walked around the house, walked in each room, and called for them. I imagined them gone forever, disappeared from the earth, and I felt terrified and free. In my rational mind I knew they were not gone forever. They had probably stepped out for a moment on some ordinary chore, and they would be back any second. Still, I convinced myself they were gone. After the midget house, my house felt so huge. Every room was overwhelming.
I went into my parents’ bedroom where the light was off. I went into the dark closet and sat on the carpeted floor. In darkness I felt the silence that ruled so much of the universe. In a weird way it felt like the silence was alive.
When my mother got home and told me what had happened to dad, I could not face it. Even when I went to the hospital to see him—he had survived the stroke and was in stable condition, though he could not yet speak—I denied that his pain had anything to do with me. These people were my parents, but what did that really mean? They would be gone one day and I would be alone, so why wrap myself in the world of their decline? I retreated to thoughts about the movie and about Jill.
Monday at school Jill looked beautiful. Her hair was shiny and she wore a blue jean jacket. It was a bright, cool day outside, and our classroom was lit with cold fluorescent light. The world wasn’t dark and rainy and ominous like in the movie.
Still, it seemed possible that somehow, by chance, I might one day save her from something so bad she would be forced to love me. For that to happen, I would have to save her from suffering and pain. She would have to face terrible violence, like the woman in the movie. Could a fantasy so dependent on pain and terror be born out of love? It didn’t seem right. Yet there it was again, running through my mind.
Everything was cold and clean. I had done nothing to win Jill’s love and there were no magic birds. She and I would never meet in the dark.