Authors: Lawrence Santoro
Gas clicked into the tank and its good scent filled his head. He looked over the trunk and into the glass and aluminum cashier’s booth. Three people crammed in there. Two guys, one working, the other, a buddy, with the buddy, a girl. Alex balanced: a fill-up and a rest or a fill-up and a dance? Depended. Now, Alex felt polite, soft. Now. He had no idea what the world would be like when the tank was full.
Now and then he had to go, get out. City, town, the place, wherever the place was, the walls of concrete, steel and too-bright glass, the asphalt floors or the fields of brown and green, the wide domes of blue sky, chrome sun and pointy black night, wherever it was the place would get behind Alex’s eyes and shove.
When these days came, he’d remember Miss Kerkauff and movie Wednesdays in the dark. He’d remember the ratchet chatter of the projector, the scratchy black and white flicker. He’d recall the narrator’s voice. The wooden slats of the folding chairs pinched his scrawny ass, his feet dangled from his skinny pins and made his butt go numb. On one side, fatty Stevie Hinnershitz’s wool pants rubbed Alex’s legs. On the other, Hazel Gensler’s grape-pop bubble gum breath filled his hunger. Whenever he grew hungry forevermore, he had only to breathe and there would be Hazel and grape and he would fill. In front, Frankie Rhodes’s hard white skull and damp crew cut waited. Frankie waited for the dark of the movie to turn, a bristly silhouette with knuckles. When the dark came, Frankie monkey-punched Alex’s leg, knuckles going deep into his meat and muscle.
“That hurt like fuck?” Frankie whispered.
Alex said nothing. Mouth shut.
“We’ll, s’posed to,” Frankie said. Four, five times each period. Wham. Wham. WhamWhamwham. Movie Wednesdays.
He’d watch the wrinkled screen with the brown Rorschach water stain across the middle. He’d wait for the pain and keep his fuckin’ mouth shut when it came.
Sometimes the movie was “Be clean, brush your teeth,” or “Say please, say thank you.” Sometimes it was “Work hard. Be good. Thank everyone.”
He saw the rat film once. Only once. The narrator’s voice, manly, smart. “Our world today grows ever smaller.”
Airplanes, speeding trains, liners on the sea...
“The space between people narrows.”
Cities. Traffic. Crowds.
The film told with pictures: Picture a rat in a cage. The cage is big. Picture a rat couple in this cage. Picture a rat family, a happy few, this band of rats. Sleek rats. Happy rat faces, clean bodies, scurrying, grooming whiskers. Mother rats nursing little ratties, hairless rat pups at suck. Mommy rat, baby rat, brother rats and sisters, daddy rat off to gather food. Beautiful. Home.
The picture dissolved; the narrator spoke numbers. The cage was fuller: a bustle of rat, a flow, and a marvel of rat efficiency. Roiling, busy rat paths crisscrossing, a Ratopolis, Rat Gotham. Rats carrying forth important rat tasks.
Another lap-dissolve, the narrator’s voice went darker. The cage, once spacious, friendly, home and haven, now was jam-crammed. Packed rat-jowl to rat-butt, bodies clamored, claws raked bellies. Rats burrowed into corners or sat shivering, torn, dirty, crawled on, over, snapped at, shat upon and fouled. Rat faces in close up: terror, exhaustion. Breathless. Snarling. Big rats tore at small ones. Small ones ganged on old ones. Rats stole. Rats hoarded. Rats starved, shivered, thinned, failed, falling within inches of the food they’d gathered and held. Rats killed for nothing, yet nothing was wanting in the abundance of the cage. Rats murdered in fury while others waited calmly their turn to be torn, left twitching. The place was madness, this place, this lab-made hell.
In memory, the images are of teeth, fur, bodies, blood. All Alex hears is projector chatter and the smart, warm, passionless voice. Alex doesn’t have the words, but the voice speaks of matricide, parricide, ratricide. This closing of the space between the rats has brought out the worst in ratkind, brought out the inner rat, brought forth Rat Time. There is one final image: a small rat in a corner, death around, his twitching whiskers, bloodied, his fangs dark with blood. Blood from where? Who knew? There was blood on his fur and nothing in the tiny bright eyes but patient waiting. That picture…
…flickered, and Alex’s leg ached from Frankie’s monkey punches, and the sound, the memory, the memory always was such a comfort to Alex. And Hazel’s grape breath.
He touched her mouth with the shotgun barrel. “Open,” he said warmly. The barrel tapped her tooth. “Open,” he said again, gentler still.
Tears ran down her nose and flowed onto the metal. She opened and he seated the blued hole in her mouth. “It’s not like the movies,” he said. He was careful. He didn’t want to hurt her teeth with the little red-tipped sighting bead. Her lips closed involuntarily on the steel and she gulped, trying to breathe, swallowing deep in her throat like a cheap trick.
“Aw, the heck with her, anyway,” Alex thought and said it aloud. “It’s just something I want to see.” He was awfully close to begging. A project, for criminy-sake.
Dad had been proud of his facility with science and numbers. “You’ll be an engineer, a rocket scientist. Something. Jeeze, Alexander, the space program’ll heat up again. There’s opportunity out there, son.” His dad had pointed to the workshop ceiling. “And I don’t mean the dining room.” They laughed together. Heck, Alexander knew that. Dad pointed to the stars. “There are worlds out there, chances no one knew in my day. If a guy’s got brains—and education, don’t forget that!” He tapped Alexander’s head with the screwdriver blade, then tapped his chest with his other hand. “And the guts to make something of himself, that’s the ticket. You have the guts to take the chance?”
Before he could answer, there was Mom, on the stairs to the basement, smiling at her two boys. “Dinner’s ready, you pioneers!”
Aprons and smiles was Mom. How he always remembered her, anyway.
So what for all those worlds?
Who’d want to leave here?
Then Dad swept his arm around Alexander’s shoulder and the two of them climbed the steps to Mom’s fragrant kitchen.
Alexander bent his knees so the gun pointed toward the back of the girl’s upper palate. “This is physics,” he thought and said it aloud. “Like school.” He smiled. But the girl was so gosh darned short he had to crouch, get darn-near on his knees to get it angled just so, so the wave front of expanding gases, the shot and unburned powder grains would pass at exactly the right place through her head. He never could get a decent lab partner, how the heck was he expected to...? He dipped deeper, bent to sight along the barrel, extended an imaginary line through her shaking, nodding, bobbing, gulping head. Her whole body quivered as he knelt in front of her. Kneeling, he had to say it, it felt... weird. Felt like church, like genuflecting. Fuck. Goddamn it, goddamn fuck it. For a moment, there was Father O’Donnell. For a moment, he flashed on Sister Marie George, smelled the chalk dust of her, the old spit and bad dentures. Why had the folks made him go to parochial school? God Darn, he really wanted to be in public school with his friends from up and down the street. Darn. He leaned into the kick as he squeezed both triggers at once.
As always, a shotgun blast in a small place was too loud to hear. He felt the concussion over his whole body. The tiles went red, black, and white. But he saw—YES—her eye sockets. They went empty! Empty in that fraction of a second before her head shoved, yes,
onto the barrel, then jerked back and it was over.
That was the moment for this one. The moment. The moment her eye sockets went red, black, and empty, her eyeballs yanked out by the optic nerves, the whole package sucked out by the speed of shot passing, by the vacuum left as the brain vacated the open skull at supersonic,
, speed drawing both visual—
—stems out of her so fan-A-OK-tastically fast, spreading them with the pink gray brain against the—
—back wall of the ladies’ room. Then,
, he lost her in the moment. Then the moment was over and he had to get going. Back on the road, Rat Time in recess.
That had been where? The high desert west—no, east—of Denver. He’d ditched the Greyhound, waited at the stop for two days before getting a lift and by then the rats were swarming, a pot boiling over. They calmed, crouching, as soon as he got a lift. Pretty little girl. He took the person and her Ford when she stopped for gas and a pee.
Great experiment! Thanks, partner.
He traded that Ford for another in Nebraska. North Dakota. Somewhere. He traded plates outside Minneapolis. Same year, same model, same color.
Where’d he learn that? Reform school? That long ago? The Toyota? Along I-90 in North Nowhere, Indiana, near the
College Football Hall of Fame.
He swapped the Toyota for a Volvo. Cleveland. Near the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He swapped rides and rocked someone who’d roll no more.
Boomtown Rat Time again.
He traded down to another Ford, a family wagon, in Cooperstown, New York at Baseball’s Hall of Fame. A family, Christ, bad luck for them. If he hadn’t been born in jail while his mother was waiting to take the gas for razoring his father to nothing, he might have let
of them live. Better dead than orphans. Didn’t he know that. A favor. Fuck ’em. He had no feeling, one way or other, for any capital-F-Family. Shit, he’d let the friggin’ dog live. Anyway, that family was not the poster-posers for Family-With-A-Smile! Bastards couldn’t stand one another. Kids, dad, mom, none of them. He could tell. No wonder they offered him, a stranger, a lift to a filling station. Not a second thought. Figured Alex, maybe, would be one friendly face for a couple miles.
Bad call, Dad!
On one fine roll. Bing. Bing. Bing. Bing. The whole one, two, three, four nuclear-warring family, one after one, one wonderfully squishy time. Cleaning out the gene pool. Wop-da-bop! Just outside Cooperstown, Crack! The Crowd Goes New York Nuts! Maybe he’d catch a ballgame sometime, somewhere.
A bar, maybe. Wow!
He ditched the family boat a couple miles along. This was the good old crammed-together east. One jurisdiction shoved against another, one town across the street from the last.
He stopped at Canastota, still in New York, because he saw the sign for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Amusing, this spate of museums, halls of fame.
He let an elderly lady pick him up. A Chrysler. He let her live. He hadn’t liked her that much but she’d sussed-out his story from the start. One sharp old lady. A bad boy, was she right? Like her last husband, yes? Ivy League, if she didn’t mistake the look of him. Yes?
She was good. So few people realized that Penn was even part of the League. Huh! She dropped him two blocks from her home. He waited, then strolled over, hotwired the Chrysler and slid. She was a snob but he appreciated class. Like he did. Yes.
He laughed at the sign for the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. He traded tags there—he liked that Chrysler—and tossed a goodbye wave to that Hall.
Then he was pumping gas and, oh God, it was wonderful being him. Free and on the open road, touching every museum along this highway of Halls. Didn’t cost much and he’d met so many nice people. Last couple hundred miles, he felt he didn’t even need a gun. The baseball bat he’d gotten...
Where? Yes, in Cooperstown.
The souvenir ballbat from Cooperstown was wholly adequate.
The pump nozzle was cold in his hand. The three young people in the booth looked warm, focused, slack mouthed, and tube-glued. By gosh he was glad Mom resisted getting a set. He’d complained, of course he complained. A kid’s job. All his friends laughed over last night’s shows the next day. Something to talk about. TV stuck them all together. Left him out. But Mom. She got him to read instead, encouraged him to pick up a couple musical instruments, learn a language or two. Made him, God bless her, made him want to take part in life, real life, “be part of the world!” she’d always said. To this day—and he hadn’t played in years—he’d bet he could pick out a tune or two on the piano. Trombone? Probably not. That was how long ago? He chuckled. Young people today? He looked at the two boys and the girl in the cashier’s booth. They know reality shows, soaps, sit-coms.
life, toy music. Trillions of images flicking across the night. All TV did was pile up heaps of people in rooms across America, the world, people alone or in twos and threes, but gathered by the ton. Gazillions of eyes, mouths, and armpits gathered and delivered, sold…
The pump clicked off. Tank full.
Could he go farther without Rat Time biting his butt? Should he bring it on? Now? Right here? Those wasted empty faces? God, give him the strength of character to know…
He hung up the hose, screwed on the cap. Over the trunk of the car, he saw the three faces in the booth, dead-eyed, licked by flicking TV color. They laughed.
“Huh,” said Alex. His eyelids flickered.
Five miles down the road, he saw the first sign for the Hall of Pain.
Rain. Rhode Island, he was certain, but the states flowed together so. Every town, a black cocoon of brick and wood spun around a shut-down mill.
. Dead buildings by nameless rivers.
Everybody sat down to die when the factory closed. Fuck yeah
, he knew what that was all about. He remembered Uncle Ben. Ben, who’d cared for him after Dad and Mum were killed on vacation. Little Al, what, maybe five? Life would have been…
It was still raining when he stopped. The name of the town wouldn’t stay in his head. Something-Tucket. Tucket was dark wet streets and left-over light. Tucket’s streets were narrow canyons of brick warehouses, meandering coaster rides between houses that sagged this or that way, slate or brick sidewalks. Tucket was roads, cobbled or shattered, frost-heaved concrete, veins of tar sticking it all together. That was Tucket.