CHAPTER ONE: The Big House
(Carbondale, Illinois, 1996)
The Big House: May she stand ’til forever and forever, hallelujah, hosanna, amen.
The six of us were lucky to have her at all. The house, all three massive white stories of her, was in a disastrous condition. Each wall heater was blanketed with a sheet of raw asbestos. Dry as a bone and twice as brittle, she was, in a word, a firetrap. The fire chief made a special trip to the house to tell us, as a matter of fact. How was that for personal service? A large man, he arrived on our doorstep one cold Sunday morning with the unhappy look of a man who had to tell someone their dog had just died. “You really need to have this place, you know, looked over,” he said. “You could all wind up dead in your sleep. Aw, hell…none o’ya smoke, do ya?” Well, as it happened, some of us did. “This bitch is gonna kill ya before the cancer,” he warned. “She’s known for havin’ a mind of her own.”
And that was another thing. The Big House was always a she, like a ship, or a hurricane. And we loved her. It was not just infatuation. We were in love with that house. She was, as they say, with a sadness in their eyes, The One.
James discovered the place, through an ad in the Southern Illinoisan. Eight hundred dollars rent divided by six of us living there worked out cheaper than any apartment in town. She’d been the Phi Tau house a few years before we got inside her, and the fratboys left their indelible mark. One particularly aggressive little get-together left a hole in a downstairs wall, and the basement still reeked of raunchy beer kegs. The Phi Taus were kicked out for non-payment of rent, and the Big House sat dormant while the landlords tried to decide what to do with her. In the end they opened her up for rent again, simultaneously putting her on the market. “Fixer-upper,” the ad said, and it wasn’t kidding around. But we loved her nonetheless. It’s lucky we were the first guys to answer that ad, because I can’t imagine anyone passing her up.
My name is Mark, and I’m a geek. Time was, you could get punched for calling someone that, but this was not that time. I’m a Star Wars geek, a movie geek in general, a comic book geek, a computer geek, a music geek...and so are all my friends. And so is anyone around whom I feel comfy, with the possible exception of heterosexual women, who are all romance geeks.
In college I toyed with the idea of being a film major. It was amazing to me to realize one could share one’s wildest fantasies with others. I’m still astonished by that medium’s ability to transport us to a galaxy far, far away; but alas, I was living in Oklahoma in those days, and our school didn’t have a film department. So I did the next best thing: I became a theatre major. I fell in love with acting and directing, and that in turn led me to grad school in Illinois.
And now my geekitude brought me to a comics shop on what the residents of Carbondale refer to self-indulgently as The Strip. I waited as an insane-looking man in a Wolverine T-shirt rang up my purchases. Thank God comics and magazines are cheap, because I’m as addicted to them as if I’d been enslaved by demon heroin. I walked outside and looked north up The Strip: two bookstores, a half dozen restaurants, about that many bars. It was quiet on an unseasonably fair Saturday afternoon. A couple of skaters rolled by insulting each other, and a patchouli-scented duo of Gen-X’ers cruised the record stores. An Asian man washed the windows of the China Goddess two blocks down.
I tossed the bag of goodies onto the passenger seat of my cranky black Nissan and headed home. The journey to the Big House had that bizarro quality such trips always have when one has just moved; I couldn’t drive on autopilot, and the houses all looked wrong. The guys out working on their cars eyed me warily as I cruised past. A teenager walking her dog pulled her coat closed as my car’s shadow crossed her body. A favorite tape sounded sadder somehow, out of place. And then I was home.
I pulled up to the curb out front. As I was the last of the six to come aboard, all the others claimed space in the driveway, and this was all that remained. My nefarious roommate James Pitt kidded me about that mercilessly. “Couldn’t we pick another car to park out front?” he’d ask the others. “One that won’t try so hard to lower our property values?” From the curb, it was a pleasant walk up a grassy rise to the back door under the carport. This door opened into the stairwell. The front door, which no one ever used, provided access to one of a pair of living rooms. We only had enough furniture between us to fill one of those rooms, though, so the other was always standing wide open. The house rose above me like a bright cloud. I heard some sort of conflict in one of those vast rooms, but I decided to wait to investigate.
It was, indeed, an extremely big house. The kitchen, the dining room, and the “church room” were on this floor as well, and so was Stephen’s room. I ducked my head in to wave at Stephen; he looked up from a guitar magazine long enough to affably flip me the finger. A one-sheet poster for The Exorcist filled the wall above his head. When the guys first signed on to live in the Big House, Stephen was the first to move a load of his stuff in and spend the night. Among the items he laid out was the one-sheet, which he stapled onto a hard sheet of cardboard and stood up on his mantel. (The Big House had at least four fireplaces, none of which could ever be reliably proven to work.) But despite the fact that none of Stephen’s doors or windows were open, and that Stephen could never feel a breeze in the room, the one-sheet persisted in flying across the room to land dejectedly in a corner. After the third failed attempt at replacing it, Stephen took the incident as a sign and spent the night sleeping in his car.
She was picky, the Big House, but we loved her.
I trudged up the stairs to the second floor. This staircase was augmented with one of those sit-down kinds of elevators for the infirm. The damn thing didn’t work, but it sure made for interesting conversation, and James kept swearing he’d fix it if he ever got the time. At the top of the stairs was a landing that Bull appropriated as a gym. A decrepit punching bag, silver duct tape patching wounds in its battered hide, lay drunkenly on the floor in a corner. Various free weights were pushed haphazardly against a badly-papered wall. I beat on Ed’s door to say hi.
Several seconds passed. Then I heard Eddie swear under his breath as he stubbed his toe traversing the floor. The door opened a crack, and Ed leaned against the frame like it was giving him a hug. “Mmrmmmff?” he asked, and ran a hand over his youthfully handsome face. At three in the afternoon, Eddie Gillette had finally been jarred into waking. He was still in a tired pair of red chili boxers. “Hey,” he managed. “Are you going to the titty bar tonight?”
I did my best impression of Butt-Head’s laugh. “We’re gonna see naked people.”
“Yeah, they have those.”
“Harry’s picking me up around eleven. You wanta go?” I asked.
“Will Val be there?”
“She’ll be there.”
“Naw, that’s okay. You’ll have your hands full already,” he decided, and paused for several seconds. “Man. You should fuck her.”
“I’m trying,” I admitted, and laughed at the poet that was Ed. “Hit the showers.”
He chuckled. “Are they on yet?”
“They’ve been on for weeks, Ed.”
“Oh. I knew that.” He thought for a minute longer. “What time is it?”
“Half past lunch time, I’m afraid.“Oh. Well,” he concluded, “Good night.”
“Good night, Ed.” And the door was shut, not impolitely, in my face, so Ed could lay down for his afternoon nap. I opened what looked like a linen closet door, disclosing the cramped little stairway to my room, the attic.
I climbed past a row of ancient and desiccated rock posters, including a Stones concert ad from 1973. The posters were there when we moved in, and too cool for me to take down now. A lone crimson light shone down on me from the top of the stairs. That red bulb was also there when we moved in, and a legend surrounded it. No matter how careful I was to turn it off before I left the room, it was always shining brightly when I returned. I assumed the other guys were playing with my head, so I didn’t say anything about it. I just kept reminding myself to buy a padlock for the door, not that James wouldn’t have scaled the exterior wall to freak me out. I switched over to the regular white bulb in the center of the ceiling.
I tossed my purchases onto the attic’s built-in wet bar. I was always amazed no one else wanted this room; it was easily the coolest in the house. Way back in the early life of the Big House, previous owners, we were told, threw parties up here. The room was certainly big enough to hold them, if eerie for the purpose. A window was broken out in the unpapered wall to my left, and a patch of clear plastic flapped over my gigantic waterbed. Beyond the walls on either side of the waterbed there were huge walk-in closets. I was moving my clothes into those closets when I discovered hidden access panels to windowed compartments. What those compartments were for I never knew, but one of them contained a dusty mattress and a twenty-year-old copy of Sports Illustrated, as if it had once been home to a baseball-loving squatter.
Across from the stairs was a big door that opened onto the attic balcony. From here one could jog up onto the roof, and the view was a thing to behold. The Big House sat powerfully on the highest hill in Carbondale, a symbol of majesty like Smaug on his gold. My attic was easily twenty by forty feet big, with high wooden ceilings that met at a point over the center of the room. It was cold of an evening, with the wind moaning sadly around the plastic in the window, but I couldn’t have loved this huge attic room more if I’d built it myself. The walls were festooned with about two dozen posters for plays I’d appeared in or directed, and an old bovine skull lay in the corner by a sketch pad and some charcoals. My cheap stereo was loaded and ready. I pushed “PLAY” and the epic rock of Radiohead rolled through the room.
I finished my new Star Wars and Preacher comics, then typed a few minutes on my graduate thesis. The despicable nightmare that was grad school was dwindling to a close, and I felt as if I were graduating from boot camp for nerds. Sometimes I sat on my rooftop at night, gazing up at the stars and wondering what I was going to do after graduation. I’d been in school, off an on, for some twenty-three years. Was there life without bursar bills? I had no idea.
I know it seems too long to be in school, and you’re right, but there were extenuating circumstances. All my friends were several years older than the frat kids as well. James and Stephen were trying to work and finish their degrees, Eddie had Attention Deficit and kept flunking everything, Bull was in law school, and Ben was just Ben. I, however, had a different excuse. I could point the finger at God, or at least at his agents on earth. I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, so three years out of high school, I was still attempting to make it as one of those annoying door-to-door evangelists.
(The Witnesses frowned on college because one might learn stuff. One might learn evolution makes sense, or that the world is no worse than it’s ever been, or--God help us--that there’s a world outside the Witnesses’. I say this with only a trace of resentment, but believe me when I tell you I was never going to make it as a minister. Coincidentally, the Witnesses have since changed their policy vis-à-vis college. It seems donation coffers weren’t getting filled properly, because a third of all Jehovah’s Witnesses in America were janitors.)
I started school with the intention of pursuing a teaching certificate in math, a subject I excelled in through high school. I figured it was a subject that could get me in no trouble, because who could argue with algebra? But the theatre bug bit me hard in the butt, and I knew before I finished my second play that I was resigning the Witnesses and getting a second degree, in theatre. To earn both degrees took me an extra year. Then I spent another year working to make money, a substance I’ve only read about in any quantity to this day. And then I was ready for grad school...well, as ready as one ever gets.
Another loud crash resonated from downstairs, and I felt a tremor through the floor. Such quakings could only mean one thing in Illinois: The Bull was downstairs and in the middle of something entertaining. I saved my work and headed happily downstairs. The comic book must have boosted my aggression levels, because normally I’d keep a minimum safe distance from Derek “The Bull” Bohannon in a fighting mood.
As I reached the bottom of the stairs, James literally flew past me down the hall, bounced off the walls a few times, and sat wearily on the floor. He had the look on his face of a man who’d just discovered his own mortality. “Sparring?” I asked.
“Suffering,” he admitted, and pulled out a box of Marlboro lights. Bull Bohannon knew tae kwon do, and would spar with anyone willing to get thrown around the room. Surprisingly that category included all my roommates except Stephen, who was frail on his best days. “That moose is gonna kill me,” James moaned.
“Why do you fight him?”
“Because he’s there.”
Another loud crash emanated from the vicinity of the second living room. Apparently Ben was getting whipped in James’ absence. In Stephen’s room, a picture toppled from a nail in the wall. “Don’t make me come out there,” Stephen snarled from within, scaring no one.
James was still in his office clothes, very nice clothes he certainly couldn’t afford, especially not for a mock donnybrook with the Bull. James whipped out a chrome Zippo and lit one of his Marlboros. James smoked like Oskar Schindler, like he was living in grainy black and white. The gestures drew attention from, or perhaps made handsome, his trace of an overbite. “So how was your visit to the Geek Mart?”
“Oh, about like usual,” I said. “Some kid made me an offer on my Star Wars cards. He thinks they’ll go up once the Special Edition comes out. I ain’t selling.” I wondered if James knew his white-boy fascination with rap was as silly as my obsession with movies for twelve-year-olds. I doubted it. James wasn’t the kind of guy who lived in even occasional self-doubt.
James kicked off his shoes and stared at them past his tie-matching socks. The shoes were imported Italian, an expensive gift from some pathetic past paramour. James was always getting presents like that; it was offensive. The capacity for masochism in some women has never ceased to amaze me. “Is your curse still acting up?” James was referring to my Sentra, a purchase I must have made on a dare. I think the previous owners used it to haul concrete blocks or something, because it never ran better than okay.
“It’s running okay. I think you whipped it into shape.” That was another thing about James. He had a knack for doing wonderful things, like fixing your car, just as you hovered on the event horizon of strangling him in his sleep.
“The trick,” he remarked, and then inhaled another drag of his cigarette, “is to yell at ’em and punch ’em like Japanese bosses treat their auto workers. You know, ‘You have shamed your employer! Your cooling system has no courage!’ Stuff like that.”
The accent made me chuckle. Even when James let us have it on the subject of our mothers or their sexual fetishes, we had to admit he was funny.
He also had a way of arriving suddenly at his point. “I notice Val’s started spending the night.”
“She has. Is that okay? Stephen has Melanie over about every other night.”
“It’s fine. Of course it is. You could have a Roman orgy up there, and no one downstairs would know it was happening. Hell, I usually can’t hear our three phones when they’re ringing. That’s not my point.”
“Which is, therefore--?”
He took another drag, this time, I was sure, for effect. “I’m wondering if she’s managed to leave anything in your room.”
I must have stared at him oddly. “How the hell did you know that?”
“Mark, how much sex have you had?”
“Not nearly enough. Why?”
“I’ve had more than my share. And if there’s one thing I know about women, it’s that the more of them you meet, the more you realize they’re all the same person.” He fidgeted with his lighter. “Of course, I know many more things than that about women.”
“She left an earring in my waterbed. It pissed me off because it could’ve punctured the mattress. I couldn’t believe she could be that careless.”
“Was the earring where someone else could’ve found it, like, oh, say, another woman?”
“Well, I found it.”
“The more women I meet, the more they stay the same. She was staking a claim, Mark.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“She was staking her claim,” James repeated. “Marking her territory, like a dog makin’ liquid on a fence. If someone else came along, sniffing around in Val’s yard, the earring would show Contestant Number Two who was big dog on the lot.”
I thought about that. There was another dull thud from the battleground down the hall. Stephen turned up the stereo in his room, a master of subtlety as always. “Well,” I protested, “I put it in a drawer. No one else could have seen it.”
He shook his head sadly. “Is there anything else of hers in the drawer?”
“Well,” I repeated, “just a bra she left in the closet one night. I keep telling her to pick it up, but...” The silence hung like a black cloud of gnats in the air. I felt like an idiot.
“Congratulations,” James sighed. “Your lady has a drawer.”
All at once I felt angry at everybody. They all seemed to know more about this game than I did--or probably ever would. “So what’m I supposed to do, make her undress on the stairs and then keep her naked ’til she leaves? She isn’t a geisha.”
“More’s the pity,” he replied. “And I’m not sure that’s the worst idea you’ve ever had. But be that as it may, I suggest an alternative. Go get the stuff she left.”
“You mean all of it?”
“Well...okay…I guess...I’ll be back...” I couldn’t keep from doing it, despite the fact that I knew it would lead to something horribly unpleasant. I never had any force of will in James’ presence. I returned with the items in dispute: a size-36D brassiere, an earring, and a Johanna Lindsey novel. “Come with me,” James said, and put his expensive Italian shoes back on with a satisfied grunt.
We walked out to James’ Porsche—-another toy he couldn’t afford. This one he bought on what could, tongue in cheek, be called credit. James was notorious for playing games with his checking account. He rooted in his toolbox and found a large Craftsman hammer. “You may wish to avert your eyes,” he warned me around the cigarette stub in his teeth, and with one bold stroke smashed the earring into the surface of the driveway. I gasped as if I’d been branded. Another smash reduced the earring to minuscule pieces, which he swept into the grass with a kick. I was speechless. James mashed out his cigarette with the same shoe he’d used to sweep away the remnants of Val’s earring.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Tough love,” he explained. He lit another cigarette with the Zippo and then carefully ignited the paperback. “Hitler chose the wrong novels to burn,” James remarked, and laid the bra over the flaming bodice-ripper. Within a few seconds both were decisively aflame. My mouth was hanging open. I must have looked silly. But such was a common reaction to the ways of James Pitt.
“Do...I...can you kindly explain to me what the purpose of that was?”
“Simple,” he said. “I was standing in the way of a dangerous invasion. That woman is inching her way into the substance of your life. It’s insidious. You don’t want it. You’re getting what you want. It has to stop there.”
“Listen,” he said, gripping my shoulder. “You have to do this every time. Every time! And if she asks you what happened to her stuff, you go stupid. You never saw it. Is she absolutely sure she left it here? You just moved. That stuff could be anywhere. Do you hear me?” I was reduced to stammering aphasia. “Mark! Do you hear me?”
“I hear you,” I assured him. “I just don’t understand you. Does this not seem at all to you like overkill? Do you do this with all your conquests?”
“Mark, please,” James finished, his cigarette glowing orange like the ashes of Valerie’s claim, “I never negotiate with terrorists.” As I pondered this statement the door swung open behind me. Little Ben Waugh staggered weakly out the door and fell to his knees in the grass. We jogged over to him in alarm, the Valerie pyre temporarily forgotten, while Ben started retching and vomiting. By the looks of things, he’d had chili for lunch, and I could even take a stab at the brand name.
You know you’re really vomiting when you inadvertently say whole English words: “Black,” “dark,” “Bjork...” “Jesus Christ!” I exclaimed. “Are you okay?” Ben finished and fell onto his back in the grass a few yards from the chili.
“Holy shit,” James agreed. “The Bull killed Ben. Ah, serves him right for crashing on our couch all the time.”
“Gut...punch,” Ben managed, his voice a halting whisper.
An enormous shadow fell over me. Bull’s concern for Ben’s health didn’t stop him from laughing like he was flying on nitrous. “Hot damn,” the Bull said, “That shit connected!” He offered Ben a mighty paw up.
Even Ben started laughing. “Hell, yeah, it connected. It connected me into next week,” he admitted. “Somebody gimme a slingshot here or something. A TOW missile!”
“Mark, you wanta start sparring?” Bull asked, squeezing my unimpressive biceps.
“No, thanks,” I decided, “I’ve already volunteered as an aerospace crash dummy. I’m booked through next week.” I delivered this joke to about the altitude of Bull’s dinner-plate-sized belt buckle, a veritable brass shield with the skull of a longhorn staring out from the middle. All six feet, seven inches of Derek “The Bull” Bohannon had been hatched (painfully, I’m sure) in the only contiguous state large enough to hold him, Texas, USA. If he didn’t pass the bar, he could carve out a lucrative career as a professional wrestler. He was too slow to earn a real belt in tae kwon do, and Elvis himself looked less silly in a gi; but if Bull hit you, look out. There was only one fighting style appropriate for the Bull: One expected him to pound his opponents on the tops of their heads à la cartoon beatings, thus driving them into the ground like tent stakes.
“Y’know something?” Ben asked, surveying the Hormel-brand damage. “I’m kinda hungry. You guys up for a burger?”