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Authors: Michael Marano

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Stories From the Plague Years (10 page)

BOOK: Stories From the Plague Years
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—And later in college, I saw a film in Education class about the plight of the neglected child. What teachers can do to spot one and report the neglect. That fifteen-minute movie could have been taken from my life. It showed a kid of about six waking up in a dirty room and putting on dirty clothes lying by his bed. The kid had no toothbrush, and didn’t wash before going to school. He had a glass of Coke for breakfast, because there was no food in the house. And that was . . .
, God-damnit! That was my life as a kid. The realization . . .

I couldn’t say any more of this canted Truth, that I’d learned of while netted within an audience, beholding the performance of a child who played what I’d been. My first hypocrite twin. The strength granted by my saint faltered, became bitter as the air of a church thick with the cigars-and-old-lady-perfume stink of its dying parishioners.

—And you became angry with your parents then.


—Why didn’t you kill them?

—They were honest when I confronted them. They offered no apologies. No crocodile tears. I let them live.

—How would you have killed them?

—Air pushed into their hearts with a hypo. I liked the idea of a hollowness in their hearts stopping them from beating.

Doctor Johansson struck a pose like Rodin’s
The Thinker
, still holding his pipe. Over his hand, he asked, —How did you feel when your father died?

The ghost of the clean smell of the newsprint as my court-appointed lawyer set the paper detailing my father’s death before me rose up. The smell was more visceral and real than the sight of the paper, and what was printed on it.

—I pitied him. His son, such as he understood the term, being a monster was too much of a variable in his life. I was shocked he had the gumption to off himself. Maybe he was mortally insulted by my being individuated from him.

Exhaustion flooded me, as if I were an urn submerged in a cold pool. The emotions I rode on this small stage were taking their toll. My illness was part of that exhaustion. There have been times recently that I’ve walked to the corner shop, and my ruined stamina would fold when I got home, and I’d sleep for two hours. How long had it been since this Second Act began? It had been around ten when I was ushered in here, my chains clanking like some Victorian apparition’s. To judge by the gilded October glow leaking through the small windows, it was now mid-afternoon. Despite the sword-sharp danger of the theatre we enacted, I felt safe in his office, away from the gibbering lunatics, the sewer smells, the shrieks and cold bars of the rest of the facility, which seemed as cruel in its Bedlam-legacy as I had been powerful as the embodiment of a myth. This office was an island of sanity, maybe made safe by the incongruity of the grand wooden desk separating me from my Confessor.

A look walked through Doctor Johansson’s eyes, like that of a watch-maker restoring an antique.

—Does it bother you that you can’t resolve things with your father? By killing him, or talking to him?

—I knew after I confronted my parents I’d never see or speak to them again. I’d get killed or caught. They’d never visit their son in a place like this.

—Can your resentment toward them ever be resolved?

A pressure on my shackled feet, a living weight. As if something heavy rested on them, with flesh like the brow of a feverish child. The thing squirmed as if to get comfortable. The hairs on my legs rose, and chills coursed under my skin like spilled mercury. My heart felt full of spun glass, and my genitals drew up inside me. The thing across my feet breathed with a shifting of its weight, as if its lungs didn’t draw air, but thick fluid.

—What’s wrong, Dean?

—Just a bad feeling, like someone walking over my grave.

A little laugh. Like a bark. (Can’t he hear it?) And the weight heaved itself off my feet. I can relax now. But it has never
me before; it has never been real to me, save in the blood-lit world that had retreated from our stage.

Doctor Johansson frowned, sensing, because he’s no fool, I lied to him.

—How did you deal with your anger when you were young?

—Before I started killing people?


—I killed things.

In his furrowed brow, I read where his thoughts traveled. I was angry with myself for goading him by accident, for letting that which had dared to touch me fluster me so that I set his clinical alarms ringing.

—I killed
, Doctor. Just bugs. I never hurt anything higher on the evolutionary scale than a spider.

The glassy-clear reality that had burned away the dusk-red shadows . . . I sensed now what it was: the hard light of my fellow actor’s clinical training imposing itself on the poetry that had given me strength, power, and the will to use them. I spoke, as if to crack that reality, to free myself from its oppression, lest it take all trace of that power from me.

—I never killed
. And I didn’t wet the bed or start fires, as the literature says all serial killers must. I could never enjoy killing animals.

Oh, but I
taste rapture killing insects. I enjoyed compensating for powerlessness. And hopelessness. I still savour the child’s thrill of hurling a black beetle atop a hill of red ants, watching them churn like angry breakers over the larger beast, rending past the thing’s armour. Its huge jaws clamped, unable to close on the small foes that so efficiently killed it. And there were the centipedes I poured hot candle wax over, entombing them, force-feeding them the paralysis and claustrophobia that had been life in my parents’ house.

But what I loved to kill most were the great, black carpenter ants. They were tough bastards, true warriors. It pleased me that despite their strength and fury, I could kill them without a thought.

Though I did
about killing them, always writing new scenarios, new premises, with which to punish them for being so insolently strong and pure. I thought of needles to drive through their heads (there was such pleasure when the point pressed against their chitinous shells, and the shells
with a faint pop as the metal shaft went through . . . they lived through that, for a while). I thought of matches, vivisections to be done with the scissors of my pocketknife, and drops of fine motor oil that suffocated them so very quickly.

What I especially loved were the Games, the gladiatorial contests I arranged that so beautifully expressed the feelings that defined my little life. The Games were fictions for which I was creator and audience, a semi-divine reaper of lives who found peace in witnessing death. I took up Godlike power, because God didn’t bother to do the job, having abandoned the world in which I’d been abandoned.

Behind my house near the rear porch, I’d draw a chalk circle on the summer-hot concrete. Two carpenter ants from different colonies would be thrown into this ring. If they did not notice each other, I grabbed one in each hand, their powerful jaws would snap in silent rage, dripping formic acid that smelled so slightly of maple. Then I’d bring them together in an awful embrace, their jaws clamping down on each other.

Then I’d set them in the chalk arena, with the Rule in mind that if either one disengaged and left the Circle, I would crush it with my thumb. If their struggle took them out of the Circle, I’d knock them back in. The battles could last hours. And it pleased me no end that they fought and were in pain for reasons they couldn’t understand, under laws they couldn’t understand. Sometimes, when the struggle went too long, I’d change the odds by ripping off a leg or snipping an antenna.

And if one ant proved itself worthy, if one ant followed my unknowable laws and killed the other, I crushed it anyway, happy to make another entity suffer as I’d known helplessness, following the oppressive rules of my parents, and receiving for it no love or acceptance or freedom or power.

It was good to kill the victor. I’d walk away from the chalk circle feeling wonderfully clean, and no longer angry.

Doctor Johansson packed his pipe with another bowlful of tobacco as fictional as the dreams I’d used as weapons.

—Would you describe yourself a serial killer if it would help your defense? To cop an insanity plea?

No, I am an avatar.

—I wouldn’t. Besides, I’m not going to see the inside of a courthouse. I’ll see the inside of a cheap coffin, first.

He began puffing, and my mind saw the bowl glow red. A blue-grey fog formed around him like a halo.

—There must have been times when killing insects wasn’t enough. What did you do then? Or when there were no bugs around, in the winter?

I was transfixed by the blue-orange will-o’-wisp glow of his pipe. I didn’t want to answer his question, even as my body answered it, with memories of blossoming pain echoing beneath my skin.

I’m seven years old. I’ve locked myself in a bathroom, and I’m punching myself. There’s joy to venting anger and frustration, joy in damaging myself, making real and feelable the rage that stabs me from within with ghost-blades too dishonest to draw blood, or to leave scars that offer the consolation of watching them heal. I can’t remember why I’m so enraged . . . some comment from my father has roiled me into this frenzy, or some accusation of my mother’s has bewitched me with a fury that must be released somehow, even against myself. All I can recall is the passionate need to hit and hurt and
someone, anyone, anything. Saints have known this pain through hair-shirt self-martyrdoms that let them feel the love of the Divine Father and see the Light of Heaven, not through rage that stains shadows the color of dying scabs.

In my ecstasy of loathing, amid the blows I smashed against my brow and the back of my head, I looked up and saw my red, wrath-twisted face in the mirror . . . my little boy’s mouth fixed in a grimace, veins bulging at my temples, and bruises spreading like wine spilled on satin.

I stood there, my small fists stopped in mid-blow, panting like a wolf over a steaming kill, thinking perhaps I could reach through the mirror and kill the boy who inspired such pity and contempt in me, hoping to travel through the Looking Glass to the fantasy world where a weak little boy could die by my hand as he deserved to.

Instead of reaching through the unyielding and cruelly solid glass, I reached instead into my child’s mind and pulled forth a screaming, pleading surrogate: a thing to punish besides my own face, yet that still bore my face.

After several minutes of pantomimed blows against another, non-existent thing that cowered in the corner where two sheets of ugly vinyl wallpaper met, my rage subsided.

In the mirror, it seemed as if my bruises—for which I was often rewarded with extra food at dinner for sparing my parents the bother of inflicting them—faded. I washed my throbbing face with cold water and left the room with a soothing emptiness in my chest, knowing that what I had done was a ritual that offered me salvation.

I decided to tell him.

—Most children have imaginary playmates. I had an imaginary victim.

—I . . . don’t understa . . .

—I didn’t
with my imaginary friend. I beat the shit out of it. It was smaller than me and weaker and I could pummel it and bully it. I made it pay for the unspoken crimes I committed. It was my little pal. My coping mechanism.


—Yes. It.

—It wasn’t a child, then? Another boy or girl?

I know where the little shit came from, now. I’ve witnessed his birth twice. When I was older, just going to college, I’d sprained my knee. For two weeks, I walked using an elastic brace. Late one night, while getting ice water, I was too tired to put on the brace. My knee buckled. My arms flailed as I grabbed hold of a chair.

And I saw myself ghosted in the night-black glass of the window over the sink, a mass of palsied movements, jerking limbs, reflected as on a pool of oil. A ridiculous caricature of who I am. The distorting glass made me look squat and twisted, like pictures I’d seen of the hunchback in Poe’s “Hop Frog.”

What happened next was more than memory. It was a snapping of my mind through time that drowned my senses. Years collapsed, cracking into the moment in which I now stood on a burst knee, my arms trembling to support my weight.

I’m five years old. My body remembers its weakness, its smallness. Even my mouth recalls the old set of my jaws before the loss of my milk teeth. I’m running through melting snow in my parents’ back yard. It’s warm for a winter’s day, spring-like. Despite this, my mother has packed me into a snowsuit too large for me, filling the space my body does not with layers of sweaters and pajama bottoms. Because it’s still winter out, no matter how warm and sunny and bright it is, no matter that the snow melts and drops from the branches . . . and to go to the yard in winter is how little shitty ungrateful boys catch cold and die, and that is how they show they don’t love their mothers, because their mothers have to worry all the time and if little boys really loved their mothers . . .

So I wear the snowsuit and the layers and I’m miserably hot, because I also wear a hat and scarf. The drawstring of the hood is knotted to press against the underside of my chin: punishment tied by my mother’s sharp-nailed and rose-scented fingers for my wanting to step out into the air. I feel stupid and silly and angry. My movements are weighted, as if the air were thick as stale honey. The outfit is a prison I’ve been forced to wear, a prison like the loveless home I live in. I’m enraged that my body is co-opted as part of my prison. That I’m forced to be as weak and useless as my parents wish me to be.

I try to run, as any child would, through the snow that glistens brilliantly, the only way I can: by holding my arms out almost to their sides and throwing my legs in front of me one at a time. I look up and see myself reflected against the windows of the house. They warp me like fun-house mirrors. I look like a twisted fat little goblin in a storybook, a troll creeping from under a bridge. Something rips inside me, tearing away like a strip of skin. The pain offers a kind of relief from the oppressive heat.

BOOK: Stories From the Plague Years
10.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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