September 21, 2016
I had a normal childhood until Pop lost his job and took up the bottle. Mom became depressed soon after. My brother Zack and I would arrive home from school to find her lying glumly on the couch watching TV in her nightgown, too blue to greet us. Still, I got good grades, made the junior high varsity baseball team, was popular enough. Though nothing compared to my brother Zachariah: two years older, first in the state in the 440 yard dash, class president, ladies’ man. Zack was still big brotherly in those days; he showed me the correct way to slide into base, advised me on my swing, helped me with algebra. He seemed to know everything, born like a computer with many gigabytes of information pre-stored in his brain.
Pop’s fall and Mom’s depression were my first lesson in life’s vagaries. I’d been indoctrinated, like every American kid, to believe that life is a rock climb: you secure hold after hold until you reach the top. But I soon learned that our fate often arrives like a pizza we haven’t ordered. Suddenly it’s just there, and we must pay for it. Perhaps you have heard it said that when bad luck comes good luck is sure to follow. I believed this once myself, and still struggle to believe it. However, I have learned that the only certain thing about life is its uncertainty.
“It can happen to anyone,” Dr. Napier told me after my first episode at age twelve. “It afflicted Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Handel, van Gogh and Flaubert. So you’re in good company, Tommy. These names may mean little to you now, but they will bring you comfort as you grow older.” So I had it in my mind from early on that I would be famous.
I still wasn’t fully conscious after experiencing my first spell the night before, still in a twilight zone between sleep and waking. Dr. Napier’s words echoed in my head as if in a cathedral; they clung to white walls of the examining room and slid down in thick yellow streaks like egg yolk. Yolky talk! But they made an impression on me. After all, I had just awakened from death as some do on the operating table, and was—on a certain level—keenly alert. Everything seemed new and clean. I had never before noticed how people’s lips shape the words that emerge from their mouths. Dr. Napier was saying mine wasn’t a “disease” at all but rather a “neurological condition.”
Mom, Pop, and Zack were totally freaked out by my spell at the dinner table the night before, against which I cracked my head as I fell to the floor. They slid me uneasy looks for days after and reached out their hands to help me walk, when I could walk fine on my own. Mom spoke to me in a hushed voice as if in church. She took me aside in the kitchen after school and whispered in my face that it was all her fault. When I moved away, she stepped closer, talking rapidly, head turned sharply to the side as if she couldn’t bear to look at me; her breath stank of coffee. She insisted her “weak genes” had triggered it. “Your great-grandfather Seymour was schizoid, you realize, and Uncle Sam had fits, his wife Millie was slow. And your Dad’s father, Grandpa Aristophanos, is peculiar. Mental illness runs in the family, don’t you see? On both sides! I’ve expected it to show up in you boys one day.” She looked at me then, eyes brimming with tears and something like dread, whispering how awfully sorry she was in a hushed, imploring voice that scared me more than the spell had.
“I’m not mentally ill,” I whispered back, “only ‘neurologically impaired.’ That’s what Dr. Napier says.” I didn’t know what he meant, but I liked the sound of it.
I didn’t actually experience that first one. I never do; I am unconscious throughout. “It is a loss of muscular control and consciousness,” Dr. Napier told me. “Thank God for that.” I do recall far-off music, like a pipe organ playing inside my head just before it hit the table. Bees swarmed in my belly and came buzzing up my esophagus into my brain. Now, whenever I hear bees buzzing around flowering olives, I hunker down, expecting a spell.
I couldn’t recall what we’d had for dinner that night or what we had studied in school that day. Didn’t remember that I’d hit two home runs in our game against Whitethorne. How excited my family was. “So you gone brain dead or what?” Zack asked me next morning. “Real pisser, huh? So like what day is it, Dick For Brains?” I wasn’t sure. A slice had been cut out of my life, leaving an empty space. “Tuesday maybe,” I ventured. Zack pounded fists against his stomach. “It’s freaky Friday, dipshit. The day after fairy day. Remember? Hey, I got a dipshit space case for a brother. Just beautiful”
He regularly called me Dick For Brains, but he’d never called me “dipshit” before; it hurt.
“You think my brain got scrambled, Zack?”
Zack shook his head as he left the room. “I think it was already scrambled, like Mom’s. Just didn’t show up until now.” My big brother wrote me off as a loser that day (maybe I did, too). That hurt more than anything else I can remember from my childhood.
Volt Cambridge Hoffstatter (V.C.) was known as a lady’s man in high school, as well as a wrestler, debater, and football star. He fucked half the rally squad and the football coach’s daughter, then his wife. He balled the wife of the Episcopal priest at the church the Hoffstatters occasionally attended. She had eyed him from down the pew, and after services they screwed in the backseat of Volt’s Mustang in the church parking lot. He took her panties as a memento and tucked them away in his “nooky drawer.”
He knew that women are attracted to two kinds of men: Alpha-male winners and men-boys who make them laugh. He was clearly the first type. Years later in New York, he confessed to a fellow executive that he had screwed over 3,000 women in his life. “I lost track years ago. I don’t have time to do as much of that anymore.”
Once, in the semi-final round of the state’s high school debate championships, he tussled with his opponents over the definition of morality. “Take war, for example,” he said. “I would submit that war is moral if we define morality as ‘the greatest good for the greatest number of people.’ War is not only good for the victor’s economy—it ended the Great Depression, after all—but it also eliminates large numbers of one’s enemy and culls the weak from among the victor’s population, since it is a law of nature that the weak shall fall and the strong prevail. So it’s ironic that Hitler made Social Darwinism the pillar of his Teutonic church, only to fall on his own sword. Pitiful loser!”
V.C. didn’t notice the judges leaning forward over their score cards, trying to decide if he was being facetious.
“War strengthens character,” he continued. “It shows us what we are made of. It has advanced science more than any other discipline. Without wars, we would still be in the stone age. Men would not know how to be men without testing their manhood in battle, and women would not know how to love them.”
The captain of the opposing team, a tall boy with red hair and a protuberant Adam’s apple, whom V.C. immediately pegged as a Bible thumper, was outraged. “What of our age-old moral texts, the Holy Bible, the Pentateuch, the Koran, the Upanishads?” he demanded. “All prohibit killing as a cardinal sin. So you just dismiss them with your bogus definition of morality? That is a total red herring.”
“Herrings stink and so does your logic.” Volt said dismissively. “Those ‘moral texts,’ as you call them, are the superstitious speculations of ancient cultures that were ignorant of science and psychology.”
Though Volt clearly won the debate, the judges awarded the contest to the other team. It was one of the few defeats in his young life, and V.C. was enraged at the injustice of it. So much so that he would mention it to his friend Stephenson Jeffers thirty years later. “Bad luck!” Jeffers said dismissively. Volt upbraided him. “You know, Jeffers, ‘luck’ is secular superstition, along with ‘fate,’ ‘destiny,’ ‘fortune,’ and all the other deceits of the gullible. I don’t believe in it anymore than I believe in God.”
So why not take up residence in an abandoned house? There are hundreds of them now in the valley, which might be dubbed “The Valley of Failure.” Houses are subject to intrusion by thieves, itinerants, and deputy sheriffs with eviction notices. Tucked away here in a derelict olive grove, I feel secure. I harvest fat black olives and cure them, sit out under the stars and contemplate my life…or lack of one.
Felony Fred and I used to salvage copper wire from abandoned houses and sell it for scrap; made enough one year to keep me eating. Never did know what crime Fred committed to land him in prison; he didn’t talk about it. Hardly talked at all. We would bust Sheetrock walls open with a sledge hammer and snake the wiring out from inside. Totally fucked places up.
I knew it was wrong to trash houses that belonged to someone else—even megabanks. I’m not a moral imbecile. But I had my reasons. I needed to eat. Look at it this way: you own a subdivision which you’ve turned people out of, foreclosed on them because they are underwater on subprime mortgages that were dicey to begin with, and for the-devil-knows-what reason you refuse to adjust owners’ payments so they can stay in their homes, won’t even consider renting to them—or anyone else—but let the houses sit empty; you don’t maintain or resell or even guard them, just let them decompose in the desert sun like monuments to lizardish despair (or Ozymandias)…maybe, just maybe, you deserve to have them trashed.
“This one’s gonna be a sonuvabitch, Freddy. We got to bust through Sheetrock and snake wiring out of the studs they ran it through. One of us will to have to climb up into the attic.”
Freddy just looked at me.
“There’s bound to be scorpions and black widows up there.”
Freddy looked pointedly down at his bowling ball belly as if to say, “You fucking kidding me!”
“Okay, I’ll do her. But you handle the sledge.”
No need to coax Freddy there. He went at those walls like he held a personal grudge against them, like whatever it was had fucked up his life lived in those walls. It was the pounding and Freddy’s roars that got us busted—cops pouring in from every direction, sirens blaring, a helicopter circling overhead like we were empty-house terrorists. I told the cops we were within our legal rights to salvage material from abandoned houses. They laughed and charged us with malicious mischief, grand larceny, trespass, and resisting arrest. I spent a year at Vacaville, but that’s a story I don’t care to tell. What can you say about prison? A long nightmare in lockdown loneliness and fear, bullying and boredom. Spells every other day since they refused me my meds. Actually, the spells helped me get through it, since they filled me with compassion for my fellow prisoners, even the nastiest Aryan Brotherhood skinheads and Mexican mafiosos. Besides, my spells terrified them, so even the psychos avoided me like I was a leper. Still, I gave them my grub in the mess hall, said I wasn’t hungry, sat down with them and told stories. At first they chased me off. “Don’t eat his food, homey. I seen him spit in it.” Eventually, they accepted me, would call to me across the mess hall, “Come tell us a story, Scavenger.” We are all suckers for a good story. Mine were mostly borrowed from the great novels.
I reread every book I’d not properly read in school and a couple hundred more. I was on Dickens’ Bleak House when they let me out. End of my salvaging days, beginning of dumpster diving. Like I say, I was already far into the phase of disbelieving that good luck follows bad. No, sir. Bad luck breeds bad luck and good luck breeds good. Both are existential traps. When I get down enough about it all, I sit at my laptop and peck at the keys.
V.C. Hoffstatter is having an atypically bad day. Wan Thiu has outdone him on the biology final: the results posted on Dr. Shannon’s office door for all to see. V.C. Hoffstatter in second place! He stands at the door muttering to himself. “It won’t do, just won’t.” When a trio of chatting girls walks by with books clutched to chests in those pre-iPhone days, he swivels around to confront them. “What are you gawking at? I will never place second again,” he insists.
The professor emerges from his office just then with a startled smile. “Second in what?”
“Anything,” Volt barks back.
“That’s a mighty tall order.”
“For the second-rate maybe.”
The professor tilts his head back as if trying to decide whether he should take offense. He decides not to.
My mother was offended when I told her I wasn’t mentally ill…or ill at all. My brain was only a bit different from other people’s. “So is mine,” she cried. “Do you think I want to be like this? Do you think I have any choice?”
“I just…I don’t believe either one of us is crazy,” I said.
“Believe what you like, Tommy. It runs in the family, like it or not.” Her eyes puffed up when she got agitated, orange hair a limp mop over her head. “Something is wrong in my mind. I am the first to admit it,” she said. “Still, we’re not the same, you and me, even though I am your mother. Mine is a vitamin deficiency, not mental illness. Yours…” she hesitated. “Still, it’s my own fault that you are ill.”
“Dr. Napier says it isn’t an illness. It’s a condition.”
Mom shrugged. “It’s brain sickness nonetheless.”
Other spells followed. Not daily, thank goodness, not even weekly. My condition was mostly controlled by meds. Still, they came at inconvenient times. I would be cramming for a history exam, stuffing information about the Civil War into my head, and suddenly a fog would descend over the mental battlefield like the fog of war in The Red Badge of Courage. I would hear far-off gunshots and a rumbling of drums or canons, and was filled with dread, wanting to flee the battlefield like that coward Henry Fleming. But there is no escaping a battle raging in your own brain.
I take a bullet, sense myself going down—see myself falling from across the room, eyes turning up in my head. Wake up in bed. Pop is trying to hold me down, though I need desperately to get up and pee. I can’t make him understand. My words pop before leaving my mouth. They are cartoon words: I watch them expand out of my mouth in elongated bubbles. I can hardly keep my eyes open. A hot wetness flows over my belly and down my legs. Pop leaps away. “You pissed my hand, for crissake. Jes’christ, Tommy, you wet the gawdamned bed. Can’t you go to the toilet normal if you got to piss?” Pop retreats from the room, shaking his head in disgust and muttering, “Never thought we’d have a damn retard in the family.”
“It’s part of his mental ailment, Hector,” Mom calls after him. “The boy can’t help it.”
“Disgusting,” Brother Zack pipes in.
Mom cleans me up. Vaguely, I remember that I have a history test tomorrow…or lit test. Or maybe that was last week. I don’t remember a thing I am supposed to know, can’t even remember if I’ve studied.
Still, my spells don’t much impact my grades. I am accepted by the first three colleges I apply to. I ace the personal essay. I’m proud of my writing ability. About all I have to be proud of. I can’t even do the rope climb in gym class—me or Tubby Martin. Tubs gets maybe two handholds up the rope then comes crashing down on his fat ass. I get half way up, the ceiling still miles off, using my arms to lift all of my weight since I can’t figure out how to grip the rope with my feet, which hang limply down. All the guys hooting. “Get your legs into it, Tommy. Tear it up.” Finally, I come sizzling back down the rope, burning hell out of my hands.
But I only have two spells at school, one in a restroom so nobody knows about it. The other more public. Plus the time I am out on a date with Carmella Ortiz, hottest girl in my class. “How did you score such a hot chick, dipstick?” Brother Zack asks me. “You getting any?” I shrug and say she likes my writing. In our creative writing class, Carmella leans her head back and closes her eyes when I workshop a story. I read solely to her. If she looks dreamily at me when I’ve finished, I know I’ve hit a homer. It’s Carmella who suggests we go out. My first date and my last until college.
It’s like Carmella has it all planned, like in one of my stories. She slides a hand up my leg in the movie theater, and I nearly shoot my wad right then, but can’t bring myself to touch more than the top of her stockings, slick and cool under her skirt. Afterwards, in Pop’s Chevy, she pulls out a doobie. Smoking it, I drift off into an organ-music fog, the smoke smells like blackberries and gets tangled in her hair, her lips nibble mine, she puts my hand on her bare tit, then slides down in the seat and gives me a blow job. It feels like she is pulling my whole body into her mouth. My head swells toward bursting, I hear the mosquito whine of tiny angel’s wings in my ears, pins and needles work up my arms…I know what’s coming. Goddamn it to hell! I try to shove her head away and claw for the door handle. Too late! I hear her scream. When I wake up in that aftermath daze, Carmella is gone. I’ve wet my pants. Or maybe it’s cum. My mouth is bitten up. Later, I wonder whether it was tension or excitement that set me off. After all, Carmella is a woman, while I am still a boy. She must have gone screeching down the street. She never acknowledges me again. But at least she doesn’t tell anyone.
WILLIAM LUVAAS is the author of four books, nominated for The National Book Award, the Pen/Faulkner Award, The National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and praised in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, Newsday, Newsweek, and Publishers Weekly. His fifth book, a novel titled Beneath the Coyote Hills will be published September 2016 by Spuyten Duyvil Press. His sixth book, the novel Welcome to Saint Angel, is slated for publication June 2017 by Anaphora Literary Press. Luvaas has traveled widely and has lived in England, Israel, and Spain, and for a year in a primitive shelter he built in a giant stump in the Mendocino County redwoods. He now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Lucinda, a painter and filmmaker. For more information, visit his website.
Adapted from Beneath the Coyote Hills, by William Luvaas, Copyright © 2016 by William Luvaas. With the permission of the publisher, Spuyten Duyvil Press.