Read an Excerpt
Apathy and Other Small Victories
By Neilan, Paul
St. Martin's Press
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
I was stealing saltshakers again. Ten, sometimes twelve a night, shoving them in my pockets, hiding them up my sleeves, smuggling them out of bars and diners and anywhere else I could find them. In the morning, wherever I woke up, I was always covered in salt. I was cured meat. I had become beef jerky. Even as a small, small child, I knew it would one day come to this.
That Sunday I could feel my head pounding even before I opened my eyes. I might have kept them shut all day if there hadn't been two men standing over my bed.
"All right partyboy, time to get up," one of them said in a gruff, weary voice.
I blinked a few times. I was very confused. I didn't know who either of them were, or what the fuck they were doing in my apartment. They both had their shirts tucked in and the older one, the one with the gruff voice, had a low hairline that started just above his eyebrows and a drooping mustache that hung along his sagging jowls. He looked like a walrus. The younger one had slicked-back hair and squared shoulders and perfect posture. He was smirking like he couldn't wait to show me how cocky he was. He looked like every cop that had ever given me a ticket.
"Smells like criminal intent in here," he said, glaring at me.
"What?" I said.
"Iwas gonna ask you the same thing," he said, challenging me in a way that I did not understand.
The older guy looked annoyed at both of us.
"I'm Detective Brooks," he said, "and this is Detective Sikes. We're here to ask you a few questions."
"Don't you need a warrant or something? How did you get in here?" I couldn't think of anything I'd done that would get me arrested. If stealing a few saltshakers was wrong I didn't want to be right.
"Your door was wide open so we came in, just to make sure you were okay. And we don't need a warrant to ask you a couple of questions. We just want to talk."
"Oh." I had my bedsheet pulled up to my chin and I was clenching it with both fists for some reason. It must have been the goddamn vampires again.
"Why don't you sit up like a big boy and talk to us," Sikes said.
"No thanks, I'm very comfortable."
"Where are your manners," he said, smirking. "Rise and shine fancy pants!" and he grabbed the bottom of my sheet and yanked it away from me like my father used to do with my blanky when I was very small, but this time I didn't cry. And I knew that I was finally a man.
I was still wearing my shoes and the same clothes I'd been fired in on Friday, except now everything was covered in salt. There was a pile of it on my bed, and I was buried underneath it like the sleeping dad on the beach who wakes up to find that his mischievous asshole children have played a joke on him with their buckets of sand and their cruelty. But these men were not my children, and there were no saltshakers anywhere. Where had it all come from? How had this happened? I had no idea. I have never been able to explain myself.
"Bling bling. Looks like somebody had themselves a little fiesta," Sikes said. "What've we got here, coke? H? Mexican chimmy hat?" He stuck his pinky into his mouth and then dipped it in the salt. "You're going away for a long time señor," he said as he jammed his salt-speckled finger up his nostril.
"Sergeant that doesn't look like--" Brooks started to say, but Sikes was already snorting. His eyes watered and he started coughing and sneezing in short fast fits like a dog. He blew his nose into his hands and rushed to the bathroom, slamming the door behind him. The faucet was on for a long time and he was coughing and spitting and crying.
Brooks looked at me strange.
"You sleep in salt?" he said.
"Good for your back?"
"It's all right."
"You famous or something?"
"Not really," I said.
He considered the possibilities, then decided I was guilty of some undetermined perversion and shook his head. We both listened as Detective Sikes heaved into my sink. I wished the guy in the apartment above me would start fucking his guinea pig again, just to give us something else to listen to, but he did not. Those kinds of wishes almost never come true.
When the cocky prick finally came out of the bathroom his face was raw and smeared, his eyes puffy from all the crying. He looked like a burn victim, one who'd been through numerous successful surgeries but still wasn't fully healed. It's tough to ever really recover after your face has been on fire. I stared at him pretty fucking bemused but he wouldn't look at me.
"Now that you've cracked the case," I said, smiling at Sikes and his chafed red nose, "I really would like to get back to sleep. I bid you both good morning."
"It's two in the afternoon," Brooks said.
"Like I said, we have a few questions for you."
"All right," I said, and sighed.
I was still foggy and my head was throbbing, but I could play vice squad with these two for a few minutes. It would make them feel like they were being useful, and it would be an interesting start to my day. I just hoped I hadn't done anything stupid the night before. I didn't remember anything illegal. I didn't remember anything really.
"Where were you last night, around 10 p.m.?"
"Probably at a bar."
"The one down the street."
"What's the name of it?"
"What's this about?"
"How well do you know Marlene Burton?"
"The assistant at Dr. Weinhardt's office. Your dentist."
"Oh, deaf Marlene."
"She had a last name." Sikes broke his shame-induced silence. "She wasn't defined by her disability. She was a person too you know."
I know, fuckhead, I signed in response, working my hands slow for emphasis. I waited for him to react. I wanted to slap away the cockiness that was already creeping back into his blotchy, running face. When it was clear that he had no idea I'd called him a fuckhead in sign language I said, "What about her?"
"Marlene Burton was found dead last night."
My dentist's name was Dr. Weinhardt but I called him Doug. Doug had episodes. He'd flip out and have to lie down and monitor his pulse and breathe slow and in rhythm like a pregnant woman or else he'd faint, which he usually did anyway. He thought iced tea helped, so he kept a pitcher of it in his back office on a table beside his fainting couch, and he carried a monogrammed flask with him wherever he went. The monogram was D.W.I. Douglas Weinhardt the First.
"But D.W.I. are the initials for Driving While Intoxicated! And it's a flask but there's no alcohol, it's only iced tea. Get it? And I don't even drive! I take the bus every day! That's funny, right?"
He thought his episodes were being caused by a series of brutal attacks he'd suffered recently. This is how he explained it to me:
"About three months ago I was getting off a bus downtown when all of a sudden--Psshew!" He smacked both his hands against his ears. "The big folding accordion door closed right on my head! And then there must have been a malfunction or something because it just went Wham! Wham! Wham!" He pressed the air around both sides of his head three times fast with his palms, spreading his fingers and holding his elbows high, like some New Wave dance that was so embarrassing no one even joked about it anymore. "It kept slamming into my head until I fell out into the street. When I woke up there was a crowd of people standing around me and a man was snapping his fingers in my face. The bus driver said he'd never seen anything like it. I couldn't stand up without falling down again. I had to ride home in the back of an ambulance. And then a few weeks later, on a different bus with a different driver, it happened again! It's happened six more times since. I don't even call the ambulance anymore. I just crawl around until my equilibrium comes back."
"Christ Doug. Maybe you should see a doctor."
"I am a doctor," he said.
It would have sounded smug if he hadn't just finished telling a story about getting his head jackhammered by a bus door. It's real hard to come off as even slightly superior when you're living a Tom and Jerry episode.
Doug had a dental assistant named Marlene. My first appointment I was reclined in the chair and Doug was gouging my teeth and gums with something he called the sharpo. "Just cleaning the plaque out of the gutters," he said as blood drained into the back of my throat.
There was a bright light hovering above me like the ones aliens and angels use to trick people into not running away and I was breathing hard through my nose and panicking because I was choking to death on my own blood. Then I heard someone else come into the room, their shoes softly padding the floor. The light steps sounded like a woman's.
"Oh there she is. Just in time. Can you hand me the pro-ber?" Doug said.
He was speaking very slowly and louder than a normal person should. A woman's hand passed between me and the light. I saw red nails, and I was very impressed with myself. I had always been perceptive. I could've been a detective. I could've been blind and still been able to solve crimes and mysteries. I was almost like a superhero sometimes.
"No no, the pr-o-ber," he said way too deliberately, adding an unnecessary syllable. I figured she was either six years old or retarded. If she was that young she shouldn't be wearing nail polish. And if she was retarded she'd better not be allowed to play with the drills.
"Thank you. Now can I get some suc-tion? Suc-tion?"
She put the thin vacuum tube in my mouth and it sucked and slurped the blood from the back of my throat as Doug kept hacking away. I could breathe again. This woman had saved my life. I would probably marry her, even if she was six years old and retarded. We would have a strange life together.
"Oh gosh, you two haven't even met! If someone's putting their hands in your mouth you should at least know their name," Doug said. "Shane, this is my assistant, Marlene."
A head leaned over close to me, eclipsing the tricky, paranormal light. There was a serene halo of blond hair lit up all around her face. Single strands hung down like icicles. It was beautiful.
"HI NICE TO MEET YOU!" she shouted atonally into my gaping mouth.
I saw this documentary once that had black and white footage of a man in goggles and baggy clothes. He looked vaguely German, or like someone the Germans would've taken prisoner back when everything was black and white. He was pale and skinny and his head was shaved bald. His legs were in stiff, clunky iron boots and his arms were shackled and pulled straight down at his sides by taut chains bolted to the floor. He looked very nervous.
Then shit started flying all over the place. He was standing in a wind tunnel. The force of the wind blew his baggy shirt and pants tight against his skinny body and the fabric flapped and rippled behind him frantically as his arms shook in the shackles, but the iron ski boots kept him from blowing away. The goggles protected his eyes but his mouth was wide open and his lips were pulled back exposing his teeth like a horse on one of those hillbilly postcards. He looked like he was screaming but the only sound was the whir of turbines and the rushing wind. That's where the footage ended, but I'm pretty sure his head got blown off soon after. I think it was some kind of experiment.
And that's how I felt. Like a vaguely German prisoner in leg irons and chains whose scream could not be heard above the deaf girl wailing in my face. Soon my head would be gone too.
Later, as Marlene was putting away the sharpo and the prober and humming loud and off-key to herself, Doug leaned towards me and said, "She's deaf you know." But he said it under his breath, discreetly, so she wouldn't hear.
I spit more blood into the sink.
Doug spent most of his time freaking out in his back office, so that's how I got to know deaf Marlene.
I'd never actually talked to a deaf person before but I'd been swimming and gotten water stuck in my ears lots of times, felt that underwater silence as I shook my head and watched people's mouths moving without hearing the words, so I knew what it was like for her. I could empathize. And I always used to watch reruns of The Facts of Life when I came home from school and I had vivid, uncomfortable memories of those episodes where Blair's stand up comedian cousin would mock herself to get laughs and teach tolerance to Mrs. Garrett and the rest of the girls. She had cerebral palsy but she talked like a deaf person, so the lesson was the same. I could sympathize, and pity.
"Hey so how long have you worked in this place?" I said.
She was standing right next to me looking at a dental chart, and of course she couldn't hear a goddamn word I was saying. I barely resisted the impulse to clap or snap my fingers.
"Hey So How Long Have You Worked In This Place?" I said again, because sometimes it is hard to remember not to be an ass.
Marlene glanced up in mid-sentence and saw that my mouth was moving, and when it stopped she smiled and nodded her head and laughed quietly and politely, just like hearing people do when they don't know what the fuck you just said. Blair's cousin was right. We are all the same.
We stared at each other and it was so awkward I considered murdering myself or giving her the finger just for something to do, but instead I made a fist and stuck out my thumb and screwed it into my cheek. I saw a monkey do it on Sesame Street once. It means apple in sign language.
"APPLE! LIKE THE MONKEY!" she shouted, genuinely excited. Deaf girls love Sesame Street. We both laughed for as long as we could, which was for much longer than it was funny.
She had too many teeth going in different directions. Her hair was a frizzy mess, like she was three weeks past a bad perm, and the blond dye kit was obviously cheap and self-applied. But still, she pretty much looked like anybody else. She didn't look especially deaf. But she was. She was.
There was the kind of silence you can only have when it's high noon, or when one of you is deaf.
I pointed at her, then pinched my nose closed.
She narrowed her eyes, confused, then shouted, "I'M NOT STINK!"
And we laughed about that for a long time.
When the detective told me she was dead there was a pause in my head where I thought of absolutely nothing, a hitch where nothing happened, just before the engine caught. When it did I wanted to make myself scream "No!" and start crying, but I knew that I couldn't, even under the circumstances, and that fact had a better chance of bringing me to tears than Marlene's death. I almost said "No shit," which would have been my natural reaction, but this was no time for natural reactions.
"Jesus," I said quietly, and lowered my head like I was thinking, which I was.
"We'd like you to come down to the station, answer a couple of questions," Brooks said.
"It's nothing personal, we're talking to everybody she had any contact with. Just gathering information."
"Why can't you just ask me here? Why do we have to go down to the station?"
"We also need a sample."
"Semen was found on the body."
"What, you don't like semen?" Sikes said, challenging me again.
"All right, you want to do this the easy way?" Brooks broke in. "Come on down to the station."
"Am I being arrested?"
"No, we're just going to ask you a few questions."
"Do I need a lawyer?"
The trick is to be like Robinson Crusoe. Wherever you find yourself shipwrecked you build a temporary home out of palm leaves and sticks. You use hollowed out coconuts for lemonade glasses or to make string bikinis that you will never ever wear. You use sand and water. You make mud for no reason. Whatever's lying around, you use it. But the trick is you build everything so flimsy that it has to fall apart. And when it does it looks like an accident, like unfortunate circumstances, or bad luck or timing. And that's your way out. Then you go get shipwrecked somewhere else and start building again. Wash, rinse, repeat. Why these are the tricks, I do not know.
I would've gotten out long before Marlene was murdered if it hadn't been for Gwen. I couldn't just walk away after knowing Gwen. Literally. I was incapacitated. Sometimes for days at a time. But it was more than that. Gwen was what hysterics think of marijuana. She led to crack and giving handjobs for a dollar on the street. Or their moral equivalents at least.
I fought my way out of her ghetto--I got thrown out actually--but I was stuck there just long enough that I fell right into a bigger, much worse pile of shit when I left. I suppose I could blame myself for how it turned out, but I've never been comfortable with that sort of thing.
It was before I'd started stealing saltshakers. I'd just gotten into town so I didn't know anything yet. I was alone in a trendy bar that had overpriced drinks and a doorman who'd called me "Boss" when he asked for my ID, then said, "Thanks guy" when he gave it back. I had the hiccups pretty bad. I had to keep my sentences short so people wouldn't think I was epileptic. This made everything I said sound very wise.
"Hi, I'm Gwendolyn," she said, standing beside me at the bar. She had a round face and straight hair down to her square shoulders. I had been drinking scotch to impress any strangers who might have been watching me, and I was so drunk I could only see geometry.
"Hello Gwendolyn," I said in the quiet time between hiccups.
"Please, call me Gwen. Only my grandmother calls me Gwendolyn."
Then why the fuck did you introduce yourself as Gwendolyn, I wanted to ask, but that was way too many words in a row.
"Yeah," I said instead.
Gwen worked at a big insurance company where she made important decisions. She was very decisive, but she would've liked the opportunity to be even more so.
"It's hard sometimes because things can be so structured, and it feels like seniority gets rewarded over how much work you actually put in. I don't want to disrupt the dynamic of the team--we all work so well together--but then I don't want to get pigeonholed and wind up stuck in the same position two years from now either."
"Labels are terrible things," I said.
"That's so true."
We were connecting.
Then we were on the front steps of her apartment and she was bashing the inside of my mouth with her tongue. My dental work was crumbling like the moon does in movies when it's the end of the world.
"Maybe we shouldn't," she said, and pulled back. Before I could agree she was mauling me again.
"Mmm, I don't know," and she pressed the side of her head against mine like we were about to Greco-Roman wrestle.
"I also don't know," I said, but then both of her hands were on the back of my head and she was stuffing me in her mouth like that little Japanese guy who eats all the hot dogs. It is a strange sensation, being devoured.
"This could be trouble," she said.
She was right. If not for her brute strength propping me up I would've gone headfirst down the concrete steps and broken my beautiful face on the sidewalk. Then she had me pinned up against the wall. It felt glorious to lean. Far, far below me, the ground spun.
"This isn't a good idea," she said.
"There are no good ideas anymore," I said, and then a hiccup rocked my entire body and rolled my head like I'd been shot. "Just be happy we thought of something."
I think it's a line from an old John Cusack movie. If it's not then it should be.
I shouldn't have said it. That's obvious now, and it probably was then too. But I really didn't have a choice. I needed to either lie down or throw up, and to do one or probably both on her front steps would have been tacky. And I had to go to the bathroom. And I really had nothing else to do that night anyway. In my scotch-soaked estimation, spending the night with a deceptively powerful stranger didn't seem like such a bad idea. I had already mistakenly kneed her in the crotch when we first started making out, so I knew she wasn't a man. That seemed like enough of an endorsement. And I'd always wanted to play a John Cusack role. For a line or two at least.
One line was all she needed. She kicked the door open and flung me inside. I fell over something and broke my ankle, but the alcohol made the swelling seem funny.
And that was it for me. My already tattered memory was done. Thank you and good night.
When I woke up the next morning the room reeked of latex and chlorine.
My ankle wasn't broken but it hurt real bad, and so did my head. My whole body hurt really, and I didn't know why. I didn't remember getting hit by a truck or beaten with a lead pipe.
She had to go to work but she said she'd give me a ride home.
"Where did you say you worked again?" she said after we'd ridden in silence for a long, long minute.
"I just moved here. I don't have a job yet," I said.
The already awkward scene turned full-blown excruciating. Her face went red as she focused on the road and kept her hands in a rigid 10-and-2 grip on the wheel, and I turned on the radio to keep from opening the door and throwing myself out of the car. At twenty-five maybe, but she was already going thirty and still accelerating. I would've gotten all messed up.
A commercial said the circus was coming to town, so to ease the shame and the silence I pretended to be afraid of clowns. Everybody's afraid of clowns, so I thought maybe that could be something intimate between us that we could share forever, like the drunken sex I didn't remember from the night before. I of course wasn't afraid of clowns, but I figured she had some story about getting kidnapped at a circus or sodomized at a rodeo or something. Anything. And sure enough, a rodeo clown had fucked her in the ass when she was seven years old. Actually it was more like, "I've always been afraid of Ronald McDonald. I think it's all the makeup." It was harrowing in its own way.
My story was about how they had big shoes and noses but drove such little cars.
"It's more a fear of incongruity than clowns I suppose."
The conversation was riveting.
"Right up here's good," I said.
We were fourteen blocks from my apartment but I had nothing left. The inanity and the awkwardness was just too much to bear.
"Hey thanks for the ride."
"You're welcome," she said. "I gave you my number, right?"
"Yeah," I said.
But she was waiting for something else. The silence that followed was unmistakably uncomfortable, almost crippling. She was waiting for some kind of decision, some explanation. Or at least a hint.
I looked at her and tried to think of what I could possibly say next. Her eyelashes were stubby and not long enough to curl. This made her eyes look bigger than they actually were. She did have a round face, but she really wasn't as sharply geometrical as she'd seemed the night before. I could see why I'd thought so though. And still my head was empty.
Her right hand twitched on the steering wheel and I had the panicked thought that she might try to put the car in park, so I grabbed the door handle and jumped the fuck out. "Thanks again," I said, leaning in before I slammed the door. And I waved to her as I went up the steps of an apartment building that was not my own.
She pulled away slowly, and as she drove off I threw up all over someone's front door.
I have always been vaguely and uselessly talented. I can hop on one foot longer than anyone I have ever met. For the period from 1983 to 1991 I can name every player and their position just by looking at the picture on the front of their baseball card. I can do cartwheels even though I've had no formal gymnastic training. I can touch my tongue to the tip of my nose and lick my nostrils. I can hug myself so tightly that from behind it looks like someone is slow dancing with me. I did it at my senior prom and when I inched my hands down my back to grab my own ass the assistant principal said he'd send me home if I didn't stop "being weird." No one ever had to teach me how to drive a stick shift. Somehow I just knew. My fourth-grade teacher said I had the finest penmanship she'd ever seen from a boy. She urged me to take up calligraphy, but I did not. Still, the beatings on the playground were savage. I can whistle, I can juggle, and if I'm drunk enough I can and will wrap both my legs behind my head and play my ass like bongos. I would have dominated the Renaissance. But I was born much later, so instead I was sitting in Doug's dentist chair sketching deaf Marlene.
I'd started bringing a bag whenever I went in for an appointment. Magazines, music, pornography, a sketchbook, a journal, some snacks. It was like the bag my mother used to bring to church for me when I was little, full of toys and distractions so I wouldn't start crying and interrupt mass and piss off the priest. Because if I did, he'd tell God to make us die in a car crash on the way home.
"Can't we just wear our seat belts?"
"Seat belts are no match for God," said my mother.
I played with my GI Joe figures and learned how to be quiet and afraid.
Marlene stood by the window with her hands on her hips, her jaw set like a Roman emperor. I had her lift her chin so the light caught her badly dyed hair and made it shimmer like wet, dirty straw. She was a fascinating subject. I could've spent hours on her straw hair alone. It was much more than a bad perm I realized. It looked like a vitamin deficiency. Maybe she was using the wrong shampoo.
After a half hour I was done. I signed my name, perfectly legible but with an elaborate renaissance flourish, and handed her the portrait.
"HEY! THAT'S NOT ME!" she shouted.
I'd drawn her head huge, a caricature with horse teeth and Alfred E. Newman ears and pockmarked dimples on her basketball-sized cheeks. Her eyes were bulging and had two X's instead of pupils, like she was drunk or had just been hit over the head with a mallet, and her tongue was hanging out. Her tiny body was squeezed into a string bikini, her legs crossed at the ankles, and she was sitting on a pile of garbage. Squiggly stench lines rose all around her like shitty apparitions. Her hair looked nice though. My art was not true but I was a good person, and kind.
Asshole! Why didn't you draw me right? she signed.
Yes, I signed. My vocabulary was not big.
I am genius.
You're an asshole!
GENIUS!! I signed again.
To say genius in sign language you hold your thumb and forefinger like you're measuring an inch on each hand, then you put one against your forehead and hold the other about six inches away and jiggle both slightly for emphasis. The way I did it I looked like I was having a migraine seizure on a cable car during a catastrophic earthquake. My whole body shook and my inch-measuring hands flailed and slammed against my forehead and flew around like I was in a rapture or getting riddled with bullets. Sign language is very dramatic. It's like being in a silent movie. Sometimes you have to overact and look ridiculous just to get your point across.
Why didn't you draw me good, weirdo? She was laughing at my genius.
Because you stink.
"I'M NOT STINK!" she shouted. And I don't have big ears!
No. You have a tiny head.
Shut up! she signed, but she still took the picture.
On the ride downtown the two detectives explained that while I was certainly entitled to have a lawyer present during my questioning, it would be easier on everyone and much quicker if I waived my right to counsel. If I hadn't done anything wrong I really wouldn't need a lawyer, would I? And since I didn't seem like the kind of guy who had his own attorney on retainer that would be a few hundred dollars I'd have to shell out just to get someone to sit there and hold my hand. Did I really need someone to hold my hand while I talked to the big bad detectives? Maybe I needed someone to hold my dick for me while I pissed too. And maybe they knew a few guys in lockup who'd be happy to do it for me. How about that?
I could have a lawyer provided for me of course, but that would take time, and those lawyers were young and overworked and they weren't any good anyway. Why would I want to make things difficult for everybody? Life was hard enough without intentionally making it harder on yourself, wasn't it?
To anyone who'd ever watched cop shows on TV the insinuation was obvious. I knew what they were suggesting. So I decided to forgo legal representation, just as I decided to forgo being sodomized with a splintered baton in a backroom of the station later that night.
They left me sitting alone in a small room with a long table. I was on one side, three empty chairs were on the other. There was a tinted rectangular window by the door and the light overhead was a few shades brighter than it should have been. This was where they would break me.
I had decided to mostly tell the truth. I had almost nothing to hide. Not about Marlene being dead anyway. But I still didn't know what was going on and what part they thought I had in it, and I didn't want to give away too much before I did. They didn't know that I didn't know anything, and I was hoping to use that to my advantage. The only thing I had going for me was my ignorance. This was the story of my life.
Copyright 2006 by Paul Neilan
Excerpted from Apathy and Other Small Victories
by Neilan, Paul
Copyright © 2006 by Neilan, Paul.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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