Based roughly on real events, this fictional account follows its oblique protagonist as he moves through the loitering subculture found within public toilets and pornographic arcades, and, in the process, finds himself losing everything he values, including his own grip on reality.
A mystery of both memory and mistaken identity, Undersurface is a starkly written, haunting novel about double lives, compulsion, and human sexuality, where secret desires lead to devastating circumstances.
As the carefully crafted plot twists in ever suspenseful directions, we are drawn toward a startling, possibly unavoidable conclusion, one that resonates long after the book has been set aside.
Complemented by the richly evocative imagery of artist Peter I. Chang, Mitch Cullin has once again written a subtly detailed, affecting, provocative story that explores the sometimes harsh days of a man on the run, the enigmatic pull of the taboo, and the nature of transient life amongst a growing suburban culture.
|Publisher:||The Permanent Press|
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A Novel of Suspense
By Mitch Cullin
The Permanent PressCopyright © 2000 Mitch Cullin
All rights reserved.
This man sits upright and, for a brief time, is bemused by the fact that there are people hiding beneath the streets, moving underneath the earth. He knows these subterraneans are glimpsed on occasion, spotted as they emerge into daylight—eyes squinting, so pale even during summertime, visibly uncomfortable below the hard blue sky—as if their vagabond bodies had at last found a homeland within the curves of drainage tunnels, the dank and pitch of concrete intestines: that trickling water, that incessant drip drip drip. Some have spent years migrating from tunnel to tunnel, staking out new territory, venturing above ground only when necessary, growing old while navigating those manmade caverns; others visit the tunnels briefly, never going too far in, remaining until better weather arrives or until whatever trouble hounding them passes—tourists, they are sometimes called by more committed underd-wellers.
Tourist—how the word is spoken with such contempt, uttered by men and women who, concealed amongst shadowy environs, gaze reluctantly toward light. Tourist: the one silhouetted in the tunnel's bright mouth, peering at the darkness before cautiously stepping inside with his or her backpack. Like most tourists, these visitors soon treat the tunnels as their own, creating messes, often talking louder than anyone else; they are usually restless souls, discontent, belonging elsewhere but impelled underground.
For example, take this same man—unwashed and foul smelling, bearded, possessing almost nothing from his recent past; a slender, balding man whose body won't settle into the winter night, whose mind can't rest. Nearby, a camp fire ravages kindling, sounding like fall leaves crushed by boots, and Tobias, his elderly companion, snores from a flimsy Lion King sleeping bag. Still, the man is awake, pondering once again the circumstances which have brought him here.
He thinks: I've slept on clean sheets, on a wide mattress, in my own house.
Now unable to slumber, he finally leaves his orange sleeping bag and skirts the fire, abandoning the warmth and escaping Tobias' voluminous breathing. He wanders out along the quiet arroyo, inhaling dry desert air while stargazing, exhaling steam as the heavens flicker.
Then for a moment—when catching sight of a shooting star, a greenish meteor streaking overhead before disappearing altogether—he feels elated, forgetting his waywardness, or that he is being hunted; he forgets where he's been and what he's done—disregards the opening in the earth behind him, that circular shaft winding miles beneath the surface.
But the man isn't alone in that solitary place. Besides himself and Tobias, at least three others occupy the tunnel—a woman of indeterminate age, adorned by scarves and a red bandanna; a Mexican wino, pockets crammed with half-empty pint bottles, whispering continually as he leaves in the afternoon to panhandle for change; a sullen drifter named Tom, his forearms an elaborate display of light-blue tattoos (swastikas, blazing skulls, Virgin Marys); all inhabiting deeper recesses. Like him, they wish to be unbothered, to roam freely, no questions asked.
Sometimes the woman yells inexplicably (her incomprehensible protests traveling and echoing along the shaft walls), or Tom calmly whistles "Lovesick Blues" as if it is his personal invocation during the peaceful moments following sunrise. Though usually he hears very little down here, except the tenor of Tobias' elaborate snoring, the distant rumble of rush hour vehicles zooming about on the highway up above, the campfire pops and crackles, the crickets and infrequent coyote yip yaps.
Camping at the tunnel's entrance, beyond which stretches sand and gravel, he has grown accustomed to the others stepping over his sleeping bag at all hours, journeying outside to rummage through dumpsters behind fast food chains, hoping for sacks of unsold hamburgers or Hefty bags containing stale bagels and moldy bread. As for him, he finds meals at Safeway, in the evening when the store is crowded. Lately, he's become quite deft at slipping cans of Campbell's into his overcoat pockets, a master at shoving sacks of fresh tortillas underneath his shirt, snug against his waistline. Twice a week he strolls those busy aisles—casually maneuvering between shopping carts, grim housewives and complaining children—his fingers reaching here and there, darting like a viper's tongue from long sleeves. He always returns to the tunnel well supplied.
"The foodman cometh," Tobias said yesterday, rising from where he sat crosslegged. "Whatcha got for us, buddy? Whatcha carrying there?"
Soups, tortillas, candy bars, cheese slices—materializing like magic, appearing from pockets, shaken from pants legs.
"And just for you, my friend—"
A shiny Granny Smith apple, held in a palm, extended toward Tobias' grinning face.
"Now ain't that somethin'—ain't that the damnedest thing—you're a keeper, buddy, you really are—"
With missing front teeth, a jaw displaying blackened molars, Tobias would need to cut the apple into manageable slices, eventually sucking each one until the meat was soft enough to chew—a time-consuming process. Nevertheless, the old guy proudly rubbed the apple against his shirt, sniffed it, then licked at the waxy skin and grinned.
"The details of a thing, buddy—the stuff we ignore is what matters, ain't that right?"
The man nodded, shrugging his shoulders.
Tobias' gaze stayed on him, as if a more appropriate response was expected.
"Ain't that right, huh?"
"Ain't it though?"
Tobias, his rusty can opener hanging off a silver chain around his neck, is rarely unpleasant. He never complains much, seems glad for whatever companionship and food gets offered, is clearly pleased with their arrangement; he lets the man use his extra sleeping bag, allows him to sip from his gallon water jug, shares the warmth of his fires—in exchange, the man brings him nourishment, none of it dug from trash bins.
"Good eats," Tobias says again and again, drops of tomato soup glistening throughout his curly gray beard. "Good good eats in the age of Gotam, and the starvation of American cattle, that's for sure, you know what I'm sayin'—"
Of course, Tobias is mentally unstable, although kind and harmless; the man immediately realized this about him the afternoon they met in Papago Park. The old guy didn't have to speak a single word, or explain his idea of breeding cows with massive zippers sewn along their sides ("Buddy, they can't die—go unzip them, get all the meat you want, zip her back up—not a single soul starves. The government is workin' on it—on makin' fresh meat grow back in livin' Herefords—genetic engineerin'—they're doin' it in Brazil right now, ha!"). No, a quick glance at the mumbling vagrant could have told him everything—two baseball caps on his head, one on top of the other, barefoot, frayed jean cuffs rolled to scabby knees.
When Tobias first approached the man, he was searching for a dog named Tina. "She's my bitch, you know. You can call a dog a bitch, as long as it's a bitch, right? It's okay doing that. I mean, don't go callin' anyone else that, especially a bitch that ain't a dog. Christ, that'll rain a heap of trouble on your head if you go and do that—I ain't kiddin'." The man asked what the dog looked like, what breed—and Tobias' face became puzzled when he replied: "Can't really say—she ran off in Phoenix a while back, maybe Tempe. Sort of a little happy dog, pretty eyes, real energetic. Boy, she ran fast, that little dog—that bitch."
You're insane, the man thought. You're nuts.
Except now the nut case is his only comrade, and he's thankful for his odd company: "Buddy, ain't a soul breathing who don't require some form of kinship—don't have to be a big deal, maybe an animal, a tree would work—'cept I think another human voice helps, don't you?" Furthermore, if Tobias hadn't shown him the tunnel ("Plenty warm down there, fairly cozy, you'll see"), hadn't loaned him his other sleeping bag ("Mi bag es your bag, got it?"), he'd still be hiding in the park somewhere, shuddering all night beneath his overcoat, praying for sleep on a bench, using his hands as a pillow.
Yet Tobias' generosity betrays a greater loneliness; the man sensed this soon after moving into the tunnel. Whenever he leaves to steal their groceries, Tobias invariably asks him, "Say, you'll be comin' back, won't you?"
Upon his return, Tobias often leaps toward him with arms outstretched: "Got worried, buddy, I did—you been gone a spell."
In quieter moments, as the two sit around the fire sipping coffee, the man has glanced at Tobias' forlorn expression; he has seen the inwardness, the fear and solitude barely hidden by those watery gray eyes.
What pain brought you here? the man has wondered. What damaged you so?
No apparent answers were forthcoming, nothing really learned regarding the old vagrant's history—just this: "Since a kid I've valued my human connections. Mother was like that too. She'd bring folks inside our house, them lacking homes, headed from someplace to someplace else—gave 'em a dinner, a towel for their face. She'd tell me, 'Son, we ain't no different, all of us is connected, you give kindness to a lost soul and you're givin' it to yourself—could easily be you blowin' along the road needin' comfort sometime.'
"See, the way I figure it—a man wants someone close, someone to let him know he's alive, right? A friend, a pal. Buddy, I've had me lots, tons of friends. They'll stay a day or two, sometimes a week. I get 'em down here, get food in 'em, and we don't got to talk a whole bunch. Shit, we don't got to talk at all—so long as I can see his face, he can see mine. Makes a difference, you know. It sure does. A life gets pretty bleak without your friends, ain't that true? Ain't it?"
Then last week Tobias introduced a new friend to the tunnel: a teenager named Mike—left eyebrow pierced, black hair bleached white, sixteen, almost as tall as a college basketball player, although far too skinny for good health. His parents had kicked him out because, the boy claimed, they were sick of his shit (his shit being truancy, petty theft, and a minor drug problem involving weed and drinks pilfered from his dad's wet bar). Tobias found him shivering on a park bench, and, after promising food and a warmer refuge, persuaded Mike to come with him.
"Was worried at first that Tobias was a faggot," Mike later told the man while they foraged for kindling. "Thought he'd try sucking my dick or something else creepy—but he's all right, I guess."
"He's fine—a little weird sometimes. He means well though."
They had paused beside a lightning-charred saguaro, where the boy squatted and blew breath between his cupped hands. Beyond them, the desert—scattered with ocotillos and creosote bushes and stately saguaros—sloped upward to the Tucson mountains. Several miles behind them, a haze of chimney smoke hung over the city, which, like the boy's breath, was faint and gauze-like.
"Fuck, dude, it's cold."
The man too was blowing into his own hands, rubbing them together. And even though the sun was hot on their necks, neither produced a drop of sweat or felt his skin burning.
"How does Tobias do it?" said Mike, shaking his head. "How does he survive and not freeze to death? I'd die if I lived like this very long."
"Well, I don't think he's stupid," the man said, turning away. "I mean, we're the ones doing the dirty work and he's still sleeping. I think he's got it all worked out somehow—he'd have to." He ambled forward, scanning the earth for anything worth collecting—dry grass, bark, newspaper blown from the city to the desert.
"That's true," Mike said, standing upright and following. "Like you say, he probably isn't stupid. You know, I bet he's hardly crazy either. I bet it's mostly an act and he's like all smart and shit. Like maybe he's one of those physicist guys who flipped and decided it's better getting back to basics. Seriously, he looks smart—in a messed up, goofy kind of way—"
But the man wasn't listening anymore. Instead, while reaching for a rotting piece of ironwood, he began pondering Mike's disposition. As a high school English teacher, he had dealt regularly with troubled, moody boys like him—kids who were, for the most part, decent yet contrary, gentle in their own ways.
In Mike's case, he saw through the adolescent swagger, the crass language, the insecure bluster—underneath it all existed a benevolent and sensitive nature that, on occasion, became obvious: a day earlier, when ants invaded their stash of Heath bars, the boy meticulously fashioned a thin trail of honey, leading the hungry swarm into the arroyo; more than once, the man awoke to what he first discerned as the boy giggling, only to realize Mike was crying quietly near the diminishing camp fire. And if the boy had been his child, his teenager, he would never have thrown him so carelessly into the world. No, he would have discussed things with him, weighing their problems, searching for productive and less harsh solutions. That's what he always did with his own boy, he discussed things.
"David, there's not a problem we can't manage," he'd often told his eight-year-old son when some minor drama erupted (a broken window, baseball cards stolen from the grocery store, a goldfish put inside the microwave). "There's nothing you can't tell me or ask me, okay?"
"Okay," David would say, nodding assuredly, comforted in his father's hugging arms.
The man suspected that Mike's dad was quite different, probably reluctant to wrap his arms around his son's narrow body, or to sit him down at a garage worktable, showing him how to build an airplane from scrap lumber. He was positive Mike rarely heard those essential words spoken by his father's lips, that heartfelt whispering: "I love you, you mean everything to me."
Too bad, he thought. A shame.
"So what's your story?" Mike asked the man, stepping alongside him, watching as he stomped the branches of a fallen mesquite tree.
"Don't have one, sorry."
The man gave the boy an askance glance and smiled.
"Come on, that's not true. Everyone does."
"Everyone," the man said, short of breath, "except me." His left boot paused amongst the splintered gray branches. He inhaled tiredly, patting Mike on the shoulder. "Mind helping me do this?"
"Yeah, I don't mind."
Then they both started stomping, splintering limbs, pounding the tree apart—delighting in the havoc, the crack and snap and crushing of brittle wood.
Like father and son, the man imagined. Like two of a kind. And, he believed, it didn't matter what had been reported about him (pervert, killer, monster of the worst kind), because no one could ever regard him as a bad father—not his wife, his son or his daughter, or even the police.
Additionally, he was a selfless educator, an involved teacher who, every Monday and Wednesday, had read about each of his students; their bi-weekly journal entries usually revealing much more than was expected (fear of failing grades, sexual interests, sudden desperation, fathomless angst). They could write with complete impunity, it was promised, and he acted as an eager sounding board for their ruminations. In this manner his students valued him, depended on him. He was a lot more than Mr. Connor; he was an ally to their fantasies and desires. He had gradually earned their trust—and, in time, he would surely gain Mike's trust. By next week, the man reasoned, you and I will be simpatico—you'll share your worries and regrets, perhaps I'll confide mine.
Except it wasn't meant to happen: the boy stayed for four nights and three days—then he vanished at dawn, stealing a few Twinkies and a loaf of bread and the man's wallet.
"Here yesterday," said Tobias, "bye today."
Excerpted from UnderSurface by Mitch Cullin. Copyright © 2000 Mitch Cullin. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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