We were watching Larry fire off that pellet gun in his backyard next door when Pat told me about a story he’d been working on. It was about this guy, around 30 years old, white, and tall, with small features, who lived with all different families most of his life. Not like a foster child or some romantic shit like that. This guy would pay the families, just show up at their doorstep with a checkbook, and they would take him in for the night. That’s all it ever was too, just a night. Pat said it wasn’t about the fresh cooked food or the warm shower or the soft bed. The guy just wanted to move through lives. He thought it was like moving through time or something close to that, changing everything so drastically, what religion he was, what his diet looked like, where he worked, when he lost his virginity, who he voted for. He never wanted to be any one thing. Pat said this guy wanted to be everything.
“Would he pretend to be their brother or uncle or what?” I asked.
It would change every time, but he wouldn’t pretend or act. When he was with a family, he became one of them, like it was completely normal. He just told them to be friendly and treat him like family. And he’d pay them for it, whatever they asked for.”
“How’d he get the money?”
“I haven’t figured that out yet. Maybe his family died, and he keeps getting life insurance checks or something. But I don’t want it to be sitcom-y. I don’t want it to be fucking Oliver either.”
“What happens to him?”
“One night, after he’s already stayed with thousands of families, like he’s already been doing it for years, he’ll stay with an Irish family somewhere outside Philadelphia. The guy will fall in love with that family’s fifteen year old daughter, and he’ll fuck her.”
“The fifteen year old?”
“Yeah, I know, it’s fucked up right? But they love each other. It’s real love, like this explosive, hideous, decimating love that they both can’t shake. This kind of love that burrows underneath their fingernails, shoots up their veins, and fills out their bodies, making them always feel like everything might burst, like the frames imposed on them won’t last. So he can’t leave, and they become dependent on each other like a drug, like a real potent, destructive drug. And their teeth start falling out and their skin peels and they age quicker than everyone else. The family just lets it happen because of the money. He keeps paying them, and the girl drops out of high school. By the end they’re both just these two violently dependent addicts, two skeletons fucking and crying and praying that they die before the other one. They have kids and move out into an apartment in the city.”
“Who dies first?”
“Neither. One day it just stops. They just don’t feel it anymore, that awful love. So he leaves, and somehow they both recover completely. She gives up the kids and goes back to school. He moves out to L.A. and works in production. She calls herself Karen, and he goes by Steve. They make up new stories. Everything about them becomes plain, but it’s comfortable. It fits them the way it could never have before. They won’t see each other again but will also never feel anything like that rupturing love. So they sit lighter, always, and both die on the same day, December 11th, two years apart.”
I noticed that Larry had hit something. A rabbit limped from his backyard, small stripes of blood streaking down its leg, parting white fur as they moved. Larry hadn’t reacted. He always seemed like he was waiting for the animals to scream back at him, to let him know what he’d done. The pellet gun sat still in his lap, aimed towards the area of fence-less perimeter that had been pulled apart a couple of months ago during Irene. When his brother had come over after the storm with a truck full of supplies, offering to put another stretch of fence up to keep the garden enclosed from the fields of wild grass that stretched for miles behind it, Larry kept his eyes on the recently revealed horizon and muttered, “Ah, I don’t mind.”
A few weeks later, Larry’s brother came by again. He heard his brother had just been sitting out there, shooting at these animals, and the cops were finding all kinds of corpses along the roads out of town. Rabbits, raccoons, groundhogs, their infected wounds smelling horribly, the rotting bodies unable to fully decompose on the pavement. Larry’s brother said he’d smelled them, too, the dead animals, and the foulness of it all still lingered in his car. It was a staining smell, he said, something that you just couldn’t get to go away no matter what you did. So he just started fixing the fence anyway, assuming it would put a stop to everything: the dead animals, Larry’s stare, all the questions, but when he started digging out the foundation, Larry took a shot, hitting the dirt next to his brother.
“Fucking prick,” his brother yelled across the garden. “Put the fucking gun down.”
Larry didn’t move, just stared at his brother, eyes sunken, hiding from the peripheries he couldn’t imagine. Ever since the accident, everything Larry saw, everything that sunk in, was straight ahead, on a line segment, slowly moving, nothing could be connected, each shard of the world standing on its own. When he stared at something, he’d focus until he destroyed it, till he stripped away what it could have been and knew what was it was in totality.
His brother tried to go back to digging, but Larry shot at him again, grazing the exposed skin on his lower leg. Twitching quickly, and charging through a bed of azaleas, leaves tearing under his boots, Larry’s brother howled, “You’re lucky you ain’t right, cocksucker, or I’d break your neck right now. Shooting that gun at me? Shooting me in the fucking leg?”
“I don’t want a fence.”
“You’re getting a fucking fence,” he was in Larry’s face now, but still didn’t have his brother’s full attention. “You can sit there the rest of your life, it won’t bother me none, but I’m not hearing about you killing those animals anymore. I’m done hearing about you being a sorry son of a bitch.” He started back through the azaleas.
“I’ll take it down. If you put one up, I’ll take it down.” Larry began to shake, never moving his eyes from his brother
“With what? You can’t shoot down a fence with a pellet gun.”
“I’ll take it down,” Larry’s body moved in fits like something inside was trying to make itself known. His head looked like it might roll from his neck,. “I’ll take it d…”
His brother took a swing, landing it on the corner of Larry’s right eye. The chair tipped, and he hit the ground, letting out a whimper that sounded like something a dog might yell at night. His brother looked around, making sure no one was watching and, missing me standing at my kitchen window, he gave Larry a few kicks to the chest. Pat was out for a bike ride when it happened. Larry ended up sprawled on the ground, silently quivering, arms slumped weakly over his eyes, blocking out his brother’s shadow.
“The town wants to put you away, I’m not fighting ‘em now. I done it for too long. You ain’t in there no more. There ain’t no person in that body.”
I waited for his brother’s truck to fade from the driveway, and I brought a towel over to help Larry clean up. There was already a small swell of fluid forming under his eye that looked like some sort of insect larvae, and a few inadvertent tears rolled along the wrinkles lining his face.
“I’ll take it down,” he let go in a hoarse yell. “Put one up, I’ll take it down.”
I helped Larry to his feet, but he pushed away from me, shuffling up the back stairs and into his house, his weaker leg always dragging a little behind.
Larry fell out of that pick-up truck on a Friday about ten years ago. He’d been drinking and playing poker with some other townies who all soak up dust, like old trophies, in a bar on Chestnut. Some kids were messing with powders on the pool table next to them, and Larry threw a punch, breaking off the top corner of one kid’s tooth. They said he was standing in a townie’s truck bed driving away from the bar and singing a Bob Dylan song when he was thrown into a guard rail, his head suffering initial impact. The paramedics found a piece of his skull on the pavement. It took him three weeks to come out of the coma.
A few months later, Larry’s wife found him with a shotgun in his mouth. It was around then that she left, citing that particular incident, but Larry held that she felt like she was living with a ghost. “She wasn’t even talking before she left,” he said one night when Pat and I had him over for dinner. “I’d just move around the house, saying things to her, always waiting for a response.”
Larry came over for dinner almost every night back then, before he got worse. When Pat and I had Rebecca, she grew up calling him, “Uncle Larry”, like the title might heal him. He never held her, but he did love to look at Rebecca back when she couldn’t really move. When she started crawling, he’d follow her around the living room, dragging his feet behind her, both of them silent and curious.
Then, earlier this summer, around the day Rebecca ended her first year of school, Larry heard that his wife had died down in Florida. She’d drowned in a resort pool one night after taking a handful of Oleptro and trying to swim off her feelings, a therapy method she’d picked up after jumping around from counselor to counselor and failing to find any use in her sessions. I was with Larry unloading groceries when he got the call explaining all that had happened. I could feel him trying to focus on it, to destroy it, but he couldn’t. That was the last night he ate dinner with us. The next morning he was in the garden.
The garden was something his wife had kept, a small plot behind their house, covered with different breeds of flowers laid out in rows. She wore a white hat when she worked back there, almost everyday, that had a small brownish ring around the top, residue from dedicated labor. When she left, Larry let it go untended, but most of the flowers still bloomed, and he would pull out a chair every spring to sit and stare into the buds. On those nights, when he would come over for dinner, his face was freckled with pollen.
After his wife died, he spent everyday in the garden, watching the plants, which were now being lost amongst opportunistic weeds, sway in the wind. He lost weight rapidly, his once friendly beer gut receding, leaving all his shirts with plenty of stretched, unused fabric hanging down below his crotch. By the time Irene hit, Larry was more shirt than man. I could barely make him out under it all.
During the storm Pat kept talking about religion in the future, when the ocean starts to eat our cities. “People won’t have these shells anymore, the ones we wear under our skin, these conglomerations of muscle and fat that keep heat in. They won’t look like us. They’ll soak through. They’ll be all water, all ocean.”
“They’ll be starving?”
“No, they’ll want to be closer to God, and they’ll realize that He’s in the ocean.
“Why the ocean?”
“They’ll have no reason to believe that He’s not in the ocean. It’s the one thing on earth that we can’t control, this force that is always moving, waves crashing into land. To a certain distance, the tide will pull you back in, but past that, past where we can see, it pulls you away and down until you sink, without resistance, into absolute darkness. That’s what most of the ocean is, a place where we would exist only as a consciousness, where shape and color doesn’t matter.
“So God is a collection of our consciousness?”
“No, God is the ability to isolate our consciousness from our body.”
“Then why not worship the blackest corner of space? Couldn’t God be there, in that darkness? Shouldn’t we worship that?”
“What’s the difference?”
“We can touch the ocean.”
Later on, on that night we saw Larry shoot the rabbit, I sat up watching him with only the moon interfering. The night before, a couple of cops had come to our door asking about our relationship with Larry. They wanted to know if we’d ever seen him fire on animals that were outside his yard. “Now a man has a right to protect his land,” the younger, more interested officer had said, “but once he fires on animals on protected lands, like those fields behind his and your house there, well, we have to take action.”
The men didn’t say it, but we could tell they were canvassing to put Larry away. When they didn’t find willing participants in Pat and I, they moved on. I knew the rest of our neighborhood would not be so kind. By now, most had heard about Larry firing on his brother, and all it took was one mention of that story and they’d have him. Larry was not long for this town, for civilization.
As I watched over him, considering the days out in front, seeing each path and its end point, like green signs lining the highway, a lithe shadow slunk through the fractured fence. It moved on four legs in smooth, direct strides, finding its way to the barrel of Larry’s gun. When it came under the moon’s reach, I was unable to recognize what exactly the creature was. Its sharply muscled and thinly furred legs were fragmented with sturdy, rounded feet that sprouted what looked like curled talons. Next to Larry’s gaunt frame, the creature seemed large, though its own protruding ribs betrayed this intimidation. More than anything, I could sense that the creature was starving. He had this aggressive hunger, like the type of hunger you imagine during late night infomercials set in poverty, the type of feeling that makes you want to eat everything you could possibly consume so that you will never have to feel that way, so that you will never have to feel your insides shrinking deeper into themselves.
Larry broke his gaze from beyond the fence and brought his eyes to the animal in front of him. Their breathing patterns matched up, and the creature showed Larry his teeth. Caked in dried blood and with holes rotted through the sides, the long rows of kniving enamel came to abrupt, sharpened ends, and a small snarl snuck through the slight gaps where they were unable to overlap. Upon seeing the teeth, Larry dropped his gun, dropping his hands to the side. I screamed for Pat, and Larry turned to spot me at my kitchen window, the veins in his forehead trying to cleave their way out. The creature lunged, and I dropped below the windowpane, my head hiding between clunky knees. I could hear the sound of bones breaking in the distance.