[An excerpt from THE GREAT AMERICAN SUCTION, forthcoming from Tyrant Books on Feb. 26]
Once a month, the Brothers Tully host militia training maneuvers in and around the thirty-odd acres that entrench their house. Since Shaker owes the Brothers approximately a full week’s labor for use of their truck, he has been conscripted into service this Sunday afternoon. The game is paintball, and he joins the angry secessionists and meth mummies and paroled vagrants who have also been coaxed through assorted Tully-related obligation. Shaker is kitted up in camouflage and fourthhand hockey pads, humping things into position. Thanks to the dearth in available head armor, he can see a few exposed faces that he recognizes. Stool slouchers from the Regal Beagle, grocery stockers, an alderman, a Shriner. Even Bob Mossenfeld, who managed the only used auto lot in town and sold Shaker his old van before he was fired for lagging odometers. The Minnesotan sits with a shotgun cracked open on its hinge. He’s trying to huff the paint cartridge inside. Hunkered on another tree stump is Bitters McCaulky. The reverend’s face is clamped with concentration as he velcros on his body-molded shin guards and aluminum crotch shield. He’s suiting up for some serious castle siege. Shaker hurriedly crams his head into his ski mask. Then he straightens his bullet belt and thermal gloves, his night-vision goggles although it is not night. Fully pieced together, he walks up and holds his gun point-blank to McCaulky’s cheek and gives the trigger a dainty pinch. A loud lisp of compressed air. The man’s head jerks. Red paint decorates all immediate parties. Shaker thinks he can read in the spatter the cryptic intimations of his own existential liberation. It more or less resembles red velvet cake.
“Bombs away,” Shaker says and returns to his team of junky addicts and lonely stalkers and school board members. A Tully blows a bullhorn.
The skirmish can now officially begin.
Shaker’s coworkers Thin and Munk and Roderick Bartholomew are on their knees and hunched forward so their bald craniums bulge in the sunlight as they weed the overstuffed gutters. Their attention keeps getting diverted by Shaker, on his riding mower, whorling around the property at unsafe speeds, attempting to outrun their hard glares. He has forgotten to wear his gun-range earmuffs today, and the mower noise is creating dubious euphonies in his head that Shaker tries to outrun, too. He downshifts the machine and accidentally stalls. The warm fumes updraft around him. His ears are ringing violently, not just from engine noise but also the blood swishing through his clenched ventricles, miles of pointless tubing, heavy mortar in all his holes. Shaker is stranded in the middle of the yard, some distance beyond himself. For several hours, his supervisor—Hob Brock—has been pruning a copse of weeping willows with what look to be barbershop clippers. Hob rests his clippers and searches Shaker for a sign. Shaker steps off the machine, circles around, and stabs a finger skyward without looking.
“That seem like rain to anybody else?”
The sky is a pure, blissful, detergent-hued blue.
Shaker pretends not to notice Hob waving him over. Instead, he turns and straps in, and with a debonair flourish he restarts the machine.
After the unkempt grassland has been satisfactorily conquered, the other men huddle at their truck, shunning Shaker, who is angling for a ride home. He moseys towards them with a sheepish look.
Hob Brock stops him halfway.
“This ain’t a rodeo, Shaker.”
“I guess it’s not,” Shaker replies.
“You looked like a madman out there.”
“Out there?” Shaker shades his forehead with his hand, poker visor-like, and surveys the neat, green yard. He can only see span, distance. Far-tapered edges. “I was expediting.”
“You’re gonna expedite yourself right out of a job.”
“I’d hate to do that.”
“Me too. You’re the only clean beak here.” Hob thumbs his nostril. Shaker can almost glean his point. “Even if that wasn’t always the case.”
Shaker is shucking his hard-rubber soles into the earth, embarrassed but also feeling a mite bit haughty. Then he turns his head and realizes the coworkers’ truck has just rumbled off. Only Hob and Shaker remain.
And then Hob leaves, too.
Shaker spends his night alone on the duplex patio, serenaded by the baying of mongrel dogs. As much as he enjoys the dogs’ company, the animals have always been too afraid to approach him. Shaker is bundled in gabardine against the high breezes, pretending the footsteps he hears indoors are only his neighbors, the Hooster woman and girl, kicking with agitation over the most recent news. Their radio is dialed to a local station running breathless coverage of a string of recent B&E violations in which the homeowners were found bound with bungee rope and bent over sofas, socks stuffed in mouth, cucumbers wedged in their nether territories. There are rumors of lubrication trails, surveillance traps, psychic crime-solvers trekking in from downstate. Shaker has no firsthand knowledge of these incidents, but he feels confident he could play the role of “flummoxed bystander interviewed by regional cable TV affiliate” if given the opportunity. He has only made one significant media appearance over the years. The weekly pennysaver ran a photo of Shaker performing on stage at a county fair with his ex-wife’s band. He had a vicious lip sneer, his legs fixed in classic rock-and-roll straddle, his instrument very visibly unplugged. Who’s On First Bass? ran the headline. Shaker clipped the photo anyway and keeps it in a manila envelope taped to the bottom of his futon mattress.
He has no such documentation, however, of the mysterious sleepwalking sprees that were his other public humiliation in that era. Shaker would fall asleep in his bed like any other semi-lucid civilian, only to regain consciousness hours later—ten or fifteen miles from his house—standing barefoot in convenience store aisles, fast-food drive-thrus, the garages of startled residents. These long somnambular jaunts would leave his mental faculties a little moiled and his shanks sore for days. But Shaker’s foremost regret is he never learned where he was trying to go, if he had any coherent destination at all.
He rises from his beach chair to raid his secret vodka reserve in the refrigerator meat drawer, but he can’t quite see the meat drawer, not exactly, not with all this fresh fluid suddenly rising into his eyes. Some galactic compression is squeezing the drunk and sentimental juices right out of him. So Shaker swings into the bathroom and fumbles for the faucet, hoping cold water will shock the sadness away. The water will only run hot. So hot it scalds. He checks the showerhead, the kitchen faucet, the spigot outside. Same and same and same.
Someone has sabotaged his plumbing.
“Bombs away,” he mutters at the mirror, the steamy splotch that once was his sweet, innocent face.
The mower is overturned in the yard with its grass-gunked underbelly exposed while Shaker prepares to replace the five-foot-long machete that is the machine’s rotary blade. The old blade is dinged badly and cuts uneven, a result of Shaker skimming a water sprinkler that stubbornly had not retracted into its hole. Shaker whips the bad blade sideward like a scythe, hooking weeds and hacking them, and then he stabs it in the dirt and starts tearing the replacement out of its plastic sheath.
The orange cottage and its fence and shed are the only structures mounted on this small hill, and the wind rams them at all angles. The sky appears to rain pebbles and grit. Black stockings ripple and kick like ghostly showgirls on a clothesline. There is a herd of feral cats under the porch, and their eyes are gleaming through the scrim of darkness like polished nickels.
Shaker’s surgery on the machine progresses slowly. He smells ripe in all this toil and sunlight. For three days, he has been unable to shower at home, and the reek is untenable. He holds his shirt over his nose as he works. He reminds himself that in Europe natural stink is the fashion. After the blade is replaced and the shrapnel cleaned up, Shaker approaches the cottage at a casual saunter. Thin and Hob Brock and a heavyset migrant named Mach Whatever are assailing an invasive stack of hedges on the side yard. The migrant’s radio is broadcasting reggae rock. The song is mild and rubber-limbed and makes the afternoon labor feel leisurely and festive. Shaker strolls onto the porch. He knocks, listens, knocks again, and with a blasé shrug he rears back on his heels. Nobody is watching him. Even the cats are quiet. The door pushes open easily. It wasn’t locked at all. Shaker gives one last look over his shoulder before slinking inside.
In another week, Hob Brock pulls him off his machine shortly after lunch. Shaker has half the new lawn cut in crop circle patterns and nonsensical symbols, an enigmatic mess he intended to fully raze on a second pass, but he grew too maudlin about his patterns, too devotional. Now the mower is shut off, and the grass remains mystifyingly butchered. Shaker is only marginally abashed. Hob takes him by the elbow and walks him to some nearby shade.
“Sit with me, Shaker.”
Shaker sits with him.
“Ms. Blaudin.” Hob points at the clapboard cottage. “That woman’s been living here ninety-three years. I know because when I was a punk kid we used to harass this house, roll it with toilet paper, pelt it with rotten eggs, crap on its porch, blare our stupid music. The shit kids do, Shaker. It disgusts me at my age, but I understand it. And I bet Ms. Blaudin understands it as well. That woman has seen a lot of dimwitted history in her tenure. She’s been bombarded. But I’m willing to bet in all her years in that adorable orange cottage, she’s never had a yard boy waltz through the front door and soak himself in her claw-foot tub during his lunch break.”
Shaker turns quizzical.
“The tub had claw feet?” he asks.
Hob has an arm around Shaker. The man’s spicy musk is mingling with the gasoline Shaker has been harboring in his lungs all week. He may have ruptured a fuel line on that sprinkler nozzle. But it does feel good to be bathing daily again.
Hob gives Shaker a brotherly squeeze and says, “How about after we finish this yard, you and me go have a drink in honor of our good friend Shaker’s early retirement.”
The sun is slanting through the trees, the tree shadows slanting in tandem. Shaker is overwhelmed by the urge to lean along with them, but he knows the sun and shadows have already cut him free, too. He turns back to Hob.
“My synapses are a little loose.”
“They look loose,” Hob replies.
Shaker’s leg feels the high winds coming. That limb, and Shaker with it, had been run over and improperly repaired the previous year, and now, in his only clairvoyant talent, it can gauge the approach of inclement weather. Six pins in all. He had been hazed on drink and muscle relaxants that night and was waiting in front of the Regal Beagle for his cousin to bring around the car. Darb overshot the sidewalk, accelerated backwards too hastily, and ran Shaker down. For more than an hour, Shaker was trapped under the rust-clung Skylark, his leg mangled, a steady stream of antifreeze piddling in his face as the drugs slowly rubbed off. That’s when Shaker, gazing up into a stretch of dark hose, had the thought. He envisioned himself stranded under the vehicle for weeks and months, centuries and millennia, as teenage delivery boys continued to bring him emergency pizzas, his magazine subscriptions got rerouted, his sex organ shriveled, and a platoon of comely dental hygienists paid him periodic visits. And just how alluring that all sounded.
Today, the wind catches him at the right angle. Sensation runs up his leg and disperses across the tiny rods and nuts that scaffold his kneecap. And Shaker can’t help it, the thought returns, solid and unmovable, colonizing all that deserted real estate in his mind.
Accident or not, a man’s ability to abide could be his own undoing.