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“Trouble is a wittily demented and off-beat collection of stories about the peculiar joys and perversions of the ordinary lives of an eclectic group of boys and men. . . . Wildly entertaining and remarkably funny. . . . Reminiscent of such great, dark storytellers as T.C. Boyle and even Ray Carver.” —Artvoice
“Trouble is a great collection of stories, full of the true adventures of life and what it means to be a man.” —Hannah Tinti, author of Animal Crackers
“These gorgeous stories, written with wit and precision, are energized by Patrick Somerville’s improvisational humor and the authentic sympathy he brings to the tempest of ordinary lives. It is hard to think of another book quite like this one. Every story is provocative, revelatory, and satisfying.” —Stephanie Vaughn, author of Sweet Talk
“Wonderful. Here are stories packed with big-hearted humor, serious compassion, and plenty of loopy narrative thrust to keep you turning the pages. Patrick Somerville’s characters exist in a modern world where love and cruelty are indistinguishable, and he imbues their struggle with real grace. Oddly tender, dementedly funny, this book is a pleasure to read.” —Gabe Hudson, author of Dear Mr. President
Brandon's father, Ralph, is worried. Just last Tuesday he caught Brandon measuring his penis in the work shed with his new one-hundred-foot Stanley measuring tape. Brandon was embarrassed and surprised, but not nearly so embarrassed and surprised as Ralph would have liked. Instead of addressing the implications of Brandon's investigation, and instead of saying a word about the notebook Ralph saw on the workbench or the pencil-drawn graph Ralph saw on the first page of the notebook, he tried to explain to Brandon how to use the Stanley measuring tape responsibly, how to use the safety lock to make sure the tape did not recoil at dangerous speeds. Afterward Ralph patted his son on the head and said, "Do you understand?"
"I get it," Brandon said, and went into the house with his notebook.
Ralph has other reasons to be worried, and cannot spend too much time worrying about Brandon. His hair, for example, is almost gone. And yet new hair keeps magically appearing on his shoulders and inside of his asshole. Usually Ralph appreciates intellectual paradoxes and inverted meanings; he sometimes even gets out of bed to find a pen to mark particularly ironic passages in novels. Yet for some reason the redistribution of hair across his body does not register in Ralph's mind as ironic. Tragic is the word. All through his twenties and thirties and even a good part of his forties, Ralph's hair remained prominent and thick and intimidating atop his head. No longer. Now he feels as though he is losing some important and deeply personal battle with his mind; with each poor life decision an important neuronal hook detaches from the bottom of a hair follicle and one more strand drops away; there is a sense that beyond what they say about your mother's father and your levels of testosterone there is in fact a causal mechanism to hair loss, perhaps even to aging itself, something having to do with free will, choice, and personal responsibility. Ralph believes that he is losing an important existential battle to a dark, nameless knight who has arisen from the swamp of his own middle-aged and slightly malfunctioning subconscious, a red-eyed knight who stalks his dreams and lurks in caverns below his waking thoughts, manipulating, infuriating, and making a mess: shattering peace. The knight's power source is Ralph's increasingly frequent and detached appraisals of his own life: his job is meaningless; his relationship with his wife, once new and alive and fulfilling, has become a heartbreaking and guilt-ridden burden; his son is strange and secretive, which makes Ralph paranoid and suspicious; both of his own parents have dropped into a semivegetative world orbiting the five o'clock news, kept alive only by rabid criticisms of the new kinds of coffee that have infiltrated American society; and the house, the nexus of his family's life for fourteen years, has started to leak a rusty brown liquid that no plumber is familiar with. So the dark knight, dormant for many years, imprisoned in the ice of Ralph's former happiness, has now thawed and grown strong. The knight never speaks, he only stalks and stares his red stare, but if he did speak, his voice would be deep, and he would say something like: you are an embarrassment to consciousness.
Last night Brandon beat the greatest video game in the universe. The game was called The Warriors of Ice Castle, and he had been playing it for four to seven hours every day for the last sixteen weeks. In the game, Brandon's avatar--his personally designed protagonist--was a highly intelligent wizard named Gooligan capable of summoning devastating fireballs at a moment's notice and even seeing into the future during meditative trances. He was also physically strong, unusual for a wizard but not unacceptable to the game's electronic administration. Brandon and Gooligan had traveled thousands of miles together since he first slid the hard plastic rectangle into the console; there was the bugbear incident near the Copse of Psychosis, when Gooligan was reduced to only three hit points and very nearly made into a harlequin slave. There was the exhausting battle of magical abilities with the archmage Cladivaxos, Gooligan's longtime nemesis, so bloody and horrifying that Brandon had been forced to turn his head many times and pause the game to catch his breath; and of course there was the finale with Lord Egelbund, the feudal master of Kendrathiel, whose charmed armor could reject all but the most powerful of Gooligan's spells, who wielded two war hammers as though they were plastic baseball bats, who called out humiliating jeers about Gooligan's orphaned past and diminutive manhood as Gooligan hid in the closets and hallways of Egelbund's notorious Ice Castle, shivering. In the end, Brandon and Gooligan had outwitted him by learning the layout of the castle and engaging in a kind of drawn-out guerrilla war, using secret passages and arrow slits to take potshots and then running away to regroup. It was the way of the weaker combatant. It was intelligent and nuanced. And over time, it had been too much for Lord Egelbund to resist. In his dying moments, the fallen demon reached out a charred hand and asked for forgiveness, which Gooligan and Brandon condescendingly granted.
The problem is that Brandon has nothing to do anymore. Gooligan protected him from free time--he has a lot of free time--and now he must field the long evenings alone. During dinner Ralph asks him how things are going with the video game, and Brandon tells him that he's finished it. His father nods as though he cares. His mother remembers aloud how Brandon designed his own game, how he was so creative even in kindergarten, and Brandon shovels rice into his mouth. He wants to tell her that it's been a lie, all this talk about the value of creativity. He's heard it his whole life, and has only recently realized that his parents have doomed him to irrelevance by forcing him to care about the wrong things. He sees now that it would have been much wiser to concentrate on sports and swear words growing up, that these are the true loci of power. As a retort to his mother's musings he asks to be excused to go out to the driveway and work on his basketball-dribbling skills. He knows that this will upset her.
It is September, and still warm, and the giant moon lights the concrete driveway in white. Brandon runs back and forth with the basketball, tentatively dribbling, watching the ball rise up to his hand with every bounce. He can't dribble without looking, but his goal is to be able to do precisely that within two weeks. Tomorrow the basketball unit is starting in gym class, and he is going to do something spectacular, something that will raise eyebrows and usher in an age of respect--two or three months, it's all he needs--and this age of respect will protect him until puberty takes over. After some attempts at between-the-leg crossovers, Brandon takes a few shots at the basket Ralph installed above the garage two summers ago. At the time, Brandon thought it was so stupid. That was back when he was into art. Now he is happy to have it. After he finally makes a layup, he dribbles to the center of the driveway and looks at the house. His parents are both still at the kitchen table. They're not arguing, but something is happening. Ralph has moved closer to Shelly and is rubbing her shoulder, saying something. Shelly looks angry and sad at the same time. She looks like she does when she's standing in front of one of her paintings, alone and upset with herself, shaken by not having gotten it right. She has been trying desperately to be a painter for the last three years. Even Brandon knows that she's no good.
She stands up suddenly and starts clearing the table. Brandon dribbles around in a circle and then walks into the street, bouncing the ball, listening to the strange hollow high-pitched echo that seems to emerge from the inner sphere of static air sealed within the rubber. He is going to dribble all the way around the block without looking at the ball. That is the plan.
Things don't go according to the plan, but that's okay, this is practice, and no one is watching. When he dribbles off his foot, he can chase the ball down the street with no self-consciousness. He can slow it down and concentrate. He can find out exactly what went wrong. For fifteen feet he doesn't look once, but he's so scared to mess things up he stops, just to keep the streak perfect--accumulation of self-esteem is incremental and delicate. As he turns right at the corner, ball cradled under his arm, a few cars roll by. Someone calls out "Homo" from a silver Nissan Pulsar. Brandon starts to dribble again.
He turns right at a street parallel to his own, a dark street called Terracotta that he has always loved, and he decides that he will run at top speed while dribbling, just to see if it works. He allows himself to watch this time, since running makes it so much harder.
For a while things go okay, but then the bounces get too high, he loses control, and he dribbles down onto the curb, and the ball shoots off diagonally. Brandon chases it over freshly cut grass. When he looks up at the house in front of him he sees, in a glowing window on the second floor, a naked woman stretching her arms above her head. Two weeks ago Gooligan was frozen in a giant block of ice by the magic breath of an angry swamp troll, and now, mouth open, Brandon feels exactly the same; he knows what Gooligan went through, how hard it was to look at that dreadful terrible truth straight on and not be able to turn away, how at certain moments, certain critical moments, you seize instead of act, how time itself stops working in the right way. The naked woman is now brushing her hair in front of a mirror. Gooligan escaped by dropping into a meditative trance for the night, a religious stasis that slowed down the heart and put him in touch with the astral plane. When the sun came up, the ice block melted, and the troll had fallen asleep. Gooligan brained him with his Mace +4. Some would have called it a cowardly attack, but Brandon and Gooligan had learned that morality must be temporarily suspended when dealing with a greater power. The woman sits down at a desk and leans over a piece of paper with a pencil in her hand. She looks like she is writing a letter, but naked. Brandon climbs a maple tree.
From the Trade Paperback edition.