Thursday, November 30, 2006

excerpt from "Spy Vs. Spy": a non-fiction

*[this story published in "Epic", Spring 2007]

You and your childhood friend could not have any less in common; Asa, the conservative, volunteered for the infantry in the summer following his graduation from Midway High School, and constantly pressures you to drink. Your friendship, you reason, was borne out of a lack of friends to be had in sleepy Cleveland, Missouri, population five-hundred-something, and maintained by a mutual affection for videogames and complaining about there being no girls where you live.

You didn’t speak much after he left for basic training, and you were okay with that.

But Asa has been leaving a lot of voicemails recently, wondering when your spring break is. You don’t call back. Then your plans for a trip to California fall through. You will be home for spring break. Asa comes home to Cleveland one day and sees your car in the driveway across the street from his parents’ house. He calls you on the house phone. It doesn’t have caller ID. You pick up. He makes you promise, promise you will hang out with him while you’re home. He tells you he knows you’ve been avoiding him. You promise. You tell him Thursday.

Thursday evening comes and you drive to Asa’s apartment back in Warrensburg. The sky is overcast. Asa told you he had a new videogame that you have to try. He was going to make you try it. You park your car next to his Corvette, which is sitting alone in its corner of the small apartment parking lot. You walk up to the door. It’s locked. You knock.

Asa answers; he looks terrible. He tells you he’s sick. He invites you in. All of the lights are off in the living room and it’s near dark outside. No one else is home. He locks the front door as you flip the light switches. Traditionally college apartments have whitewashed walls and used (abused) furniture, the decorations consisting of empty alcohol bottles in rows and Jessica Simpson posters heroically trying to fill the empty wall space; but in this apartment, the Jessica Simpson is replaced by an Army ROTC poster, and the alcohol bottles are on the table, only recently empty, standing like tombstones among a smattering of nine-millimeter bullets. The room is filthy. Clothes lay on a mound in the corner. Guns are all around you, rifles and shotguns sitting on chairs. A hunting bow is leaned up in the corner.

Asa tells you he’s taken a lot of Nyquil. He pours himself a tall glass of a bright yellow alcohol from a still-full bottle on the table with a snake on it. You sit down on the couch facing the TV and he turns it on, along with the Playstation. He turns off the lights. He plays a role playing game for a short while, a sequel to a favorite you both had back in grade school. You watch his cartoony doppelganger smash monsters with a mallet. He reaches a jumping puzzle that he can’t beat. You watch him struggle with the puzzle for ten minutes before he gives up. He turns off the Playstation and goes to the kitchen. You get up and turn on the lights.

He comes back with a bowl of noodles from a stew he made yesterday. You sit back down on the couch. He tells you to pick up the shotgun that’s laying on the coffee table. You pick it up. It’s heavy. It’s a twelve-gauge. He eats a forkful of day-old noodles. He tells you to charge it. He mimics a pumping motion with his fork and his bowl. You are not sure if it is loaded. Shells are on the table. You slowly cock it. The noise is intimidating. Just like in the movies. He tells you how this shotgun is modified, how it can hold more shells. You think that’s illegal.

You set it down on the table, laying the barrel down between empty bottles of the snake-labeled alcohol. Asa gets up and walks around the couch to pick up the rifle that’s leaned against the chair next to you. You don’t have to have shot a gun to know what an AK-47 is. He tells you it’s Egyptian-made; something to do with the altered stock. He hands it to you; also heavy. You are holding the most popular assault rifle in the world. You quickly set it back against the chair.

You notice he has almost finished his glass of alcohol already. You didn’t even notice him drinking it. He puts his bowl of noodles down. You see his face darken before your eyes, eyelids droop, lips purse. He says that Sheila isn’t going out with him anymore. He says she’s going back to an ex-boyfriend. From the little you had talked to Asa over the winter, you know that he had been trying to do the most romantic things possible with her; taking her to nice restaurants, going on carriage rides, sweet-talking her. Asa says he will miss her little kid from her old relationship with the ex-boyfriend, whom Asa thinks is worthless. He utters a threat to fuck the ex up, something he has threatened to do to many since junior high. His voice cracks as he talks about how special Sheila is. He pauses. His eyebrows relax. He says whatever. He wants to show you the game he’s been talking about.

It’s a music game where the main character aspires to be a rock star. The controller looks like a guitar, only with buttons; you’re supposed to play the guitar-controller along with the music. Asa thinks you will be good at it because you play guitar. You remember how Asa has never liked the kind of music you play. You are good at the game, but not because you play guitar; you are good at it because you spent your childhood playing videogames instead of sports. Asa begins talking about Sheila again and how much he’ll miss her. He’s getting emotional. You are playing the game as he watches. He says he just wants her to be happy. His speech begins slowing down, like it does when he is getting dramatic. He pours himself another glass from the snake bottle. You beat the level and excuse yourself to the bathroom.

You walk up the stairs and into the bathroom. You shut the door and lock it. You do not wonder about the last time it has been cleaned or even think of the last time you were in it and Asa was so drunk he was catatonic. You sit on top of the toilet seat and pull out your cell phone. You text message a friend, a girl:

please. need u to call and pretend u want 2 go on a date 2nite. emergency!

You see your cell phone confirm the message being sent. You take a deep breath. You are getting nervous. Your anxiety is flaring up.

You give a fake flush of the toilet and go back downstairs. Asa has turned off the lights again. You notice. He is struggling with the game. It relies on the player to be in rhythm with the music, and Asa is sluggish from drinking. You watch him play for a while, and he begins to start failing levels. He hits pause.

Everything is quiet. You want to get up and turn on the lights, but Asa has turned towards you. He’s preparing to speak.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” he says. You look down.

“Don’t patronize me,” he continues. “I just want to… I just want to…

“I just want her to be happy. But… I’ve seen so much death in the world. Matt… I’ve seen death.”

Time begins to slow down, it seems. You’ve heard this conversation before.

“You’re so gentle, Matt. But you need to get ready. The world is not meant for us. You don’t know what I’ve seen. Do you know the truth of this world? Do you know the truth?

You know now, that, given your luck, your phone will not be ringing to save you.

“What are you so afraid of? Tell me,” he says. “Tell me. What are you afraid of?”

He was always strange as a kid, always wearing black sweats, always energetic. Always dark. But he’s been so much darker since he killed the man that shot him in the groin over in South Korea. Your mind assesses the situation. Though you both sit on the same couch you are barely in the same room as him. You tell him you are scared of death. He gives a strongly disapproving look.

“Do you know what happens… when you die?”

You shake your head.

“What do you think happens when you die?”

You don’t tell him about the philosophy you’ve read. You don’t give him a guess about God. You say you don’t know.

“Do not be afraid, Matt.”

He grabs your hand. It’s a deliberate gesture. You never touch each other.

“But I’m scared, Matt. You don’t know the things I’ve seen.

“Once,” he says, and his grip on your hand tightens, “I saw the truth. I saw millions of people dying. Do you know what that’s like?”

You shake your head. Right now, every single one of your reactions is measured. Asa grabs your other hand. He grabs your left hand with his left, and your right with his right: he has your arms crossed. You’re vulnerable. He’s gotten considerably more muscular since leaving Cleveland for basic training. Your pulse quickens.

“It’s like this,” he says.

He tears your hands apart from each other and begins pulling strongly away from himself. Your muscles fire, and resist. Your arms are crossed in front of your chest. He is still pulling. You are keeping him from yanking your arms from their sockets.

“The truth,” he says, and pulls harder, “I saw a demon. And it was flying over the people.

“It had six arms. Six arms. It was swallowing everyone.” His arms begin shaking. Yours, too. Your hands are sweaty.

“And I saw its face,” he says. And then his voice drops lower than you’ve ever remembered hearing.

“Its face was mine.”

No time to go into panic: in a matter of moments everything is sized up. You know you’re all alone, so you don’t count on help. Asa is sitting between you and the front door, which is locked; you don’t consider going for a back door that may be through the kitchen, because you haven’t seen it. He knows at minimum eleven ways to kill with his bare hands. You specifically prepare yourself for an attempt to break your nose at an upward angle, which would lodge it into your brain and result in instant death. You know that you can’t get into hand-to-hand combat with him. At six-feet-one and a hundred and ninety pounds, you would think you could handle yourself, but Asa is no longer the fragile asthmatic you grew up with; you may only have twenty pounds on him, comparable in strength, and he is simply too experienced. Then if you get through the locked door, Asa’s car is sitting next to yours. If you get in a chase, you know that his Corvette easily outmuscles your coupe, and though you are a competent behind the wheel, he is a much more practiced aggressive driver. He used to give you rides to school before you got your license.

You mentally survey the guns in an instant. The Gewehr 43 sits across the room on top of a chair, the Nazi rifle he’s showed you time and again. You doubt the likelihood of it being loaded, since it’s an antique. The AK-47 is leaned against the armchair next to you, which is now at your back. You thank playing first-person shooters for showing you how they work. You remember the banana clip being in it, but you don’t know if it contained live rounds—and even if you got to it, you’re not sure if you could load it before Asa got to you. That left the twelve-gauge on the table. You could operate it, but you didn’t know if it had a safety that was switched on. And you would have to load it, since when you charged it you saw that it was empty. You discount the handguns you know are upstairs, and give a hopeful estimation that there are no pistols or knives in the living room that are out of view.

But you know that you can’t touch one of those weapons. Asa is drunk, and perhaps something worse; if you escalate the situation by grabbing the shotgun, Asa will automatically reciprocate by getting another gun, one that he really knows how to use. You know him. And then you can’t count on his rational decision-making to keep him from killing you. You begin to prepare yourself for being shot to death. You try to grasp the immediacy of being murdered. These might be your last moments and you want to be ready.

Asa’s grip loosens, and you feel his muscles relax. He drops his head.

“I don’t know what to do,” he says, voice breaking. “You need to help me.”

You ask him what he needs. He doesn’t respond. He then looks up. In the dark light of the room, his expression is murderous.

You think you can help him?” Asa’s voice drops to an extreme low.

You don’t understand the question.

You know you understand us. You can’t help Asa.”

Your heartbeat accelerates. You are just short of full panic.

We are death.”

His grip tightens again. He begins to mildly thrash. You worry now that he will get a hand free. You manage to keep steady as you grapple, both still sitting on the couch facing each other. You are instantly gracious Asa introduced you to lifting weights years ago, something you’ve been doing at college.

Asa’s grip relaxes, his head drops again. You understand what is happening now. You let his hands free. You need to find a way to the door. You need to talk your way out.

Asa is crying. His voice gains a childlike inflection.

“I need you to help me—why aren’t you helping me?”

He puts a hand on your shoulder. It still seems forced. He is such an actor. You tell him you don’t know what to do. You tell him you are here for him. You are pretending to be sincere, looking him in the eyes as you visualize the door. His face tightens, voice drops.


You feel his hand start to tighten on your shoulder again. You grab his wrist. He elevates his other hand. You think he is going for your neck. You catch him by other wrist before you find out for sure.

You are reminded of doing the same thing years ago, grappling with your hands on the bus as the two of you rode to grade school. Except that was play. And as you sit face-to-face, you feel like you are missing something. Like you are not really in the moment. And then you realize it. You are not prepared to die. You do not truly believe that he is going to kill you. You wrestle, and you try to imagine him with the AK-47, forcing you on yours knees, putting the muzzle to the back of your head as you wait for the trigger pull, bang!-black. But you still feel like you are missing the immediacy. You can only imagine yourself as a newspaper headline, as someone else being dead. You are not ready to die. You wish you believed in God, because you are scared to death at the knowledge of the loneliness of being totally in control.

You tell him to stop. You lock eyes with him. He growls. You sense that he wants to dominate you. You’ve seen the same look from big wild dogs. You are willing to tuck your tail in exchange for an exit from this dark room. You tell him that he is hurting you. He thrashes again. You loosen your grip a little. And then he slumps.

“Matt,” he says, child-like, “why won’t you help me?”

Both of you drop your hands. He puts his head down again, and starts crying again. You tell him, come on, if he wants you to help him, the both of you need to get out of this room. You’re not sure how your voice is so calm as you feel like you are exploding from the inside. He puts his head on your shoulder, and anger seeps into your fear. You see his melodramatics. You see his little play. His sympathies remain someone else’s, and his split personality, his demon, all a cliché. Your insecurity about impending death is clouded by a doubt of real, actual danger. And it makes you even more uncomfortable. You feel unable to really defend yourself because you feel like he is not taking ending your life seriously enough.

You tell him to put his shoes on, that you should go for a walk. A moment passes. He nods, says okay. As you rise from the couch, you see your odds of escaping safely multiply, and it feels as though the weight of the world falls off your shoulders; and then you realize that the world is exactly the weight falling off of your shoulders when you remember you had spent the last half twenty minutes preparing yourself to no longer be a part of it.

You walk over to the switch by the door, and turn the lights on. You see Asa squirming into his shoes, and from his body language you see that his is acting himself. You don’t understand what is wrong with him, but are now concerning yourself with unlocking the front door. You fumble with the lock. You can’t get the handle to turn. You become nervous, thinking of what could have happened if you would have gotten into trouble and counted on being able to make it out the door quickly. Asa tells you the lock is sticky. He tells you how to work it. You need to get outside before he swings again. The lock turns, and you get the door open. He gets up. You now think that a walk would do you good. But deep down, you also know that if you walk, you are in a populated area and you could attract help if you got into trouble. You still focus on getting to your car without him following.

You step outside. The temperature has dropped considerably as the clouds have thickened and darkness approaches. You see your car. It is thirty yards away, not enough to make a break for it and make it. You see a light on inside the apartment next to Asa’s.

“Stop,” Asa says, and you turn around. He leans forward with the return of his other personality. You are standing about eight feet apart. He takes a step and you lower yourself instinctively. Things have escalated. Body language and situation is nature’s unmistakable form of communication, transcending words and ideas; the eight feet between you, filled with fear and antagonism, precipitates violent confrontation. He raises his arms up parallel to his shoulders, his fists balled. He looks ridiculous; it can’t be a military-trained fighting stance. He begins to advance on you. You are stuck in a no-man’s-land of fist-fighting for your life or standing down because he is not a true threat. You are an English major and you are critiquing him like he’s a plot to a pulp fiction; you wish you had been a football player instead. You have to make a choice now.

You cut out of the way of his advance and run over to the lit window of the neighboring apartment. You pound on the glass. You look at Asa. The demon in his eyes stares you down but is confused at what you are doing. You are still pounding. You turn and see someone moving around inside, a man. He comes to the door and opens it.

“Can I help you?” he asks. He is muscular and has a flat-top. One of Asa’s ROTC brethren.

“Um, yeah,” you say. “I’m a friend of Asa’s.” You turn around. Asa is gone. The door to his apartment is open. You see him staring at you from the dark inside, sitting in the living room armchair.

“Okay?” the man says. “Can I help you?”

“I’m just seeing what’s up,” you say.

“What’s up,” you hear Asa give a friendly call from inside of his apartment. The ROTC guy steps outside of his apartment and looks through Asa’s door.

“How’s it going, Asa,” he waves. He looks back at you. “What do you need, again?”

You begin to get frustrated as he does not pick up on the look of severe distress on your face.

“Nothing,” you say, still within earshot of Asa. “Just seeing what’s up.” You regret that you have nothing useful to say in this situation. The ROTC guy has no idea what is going on. Then you notice you are now out of Asa’s sight and you begin walking to your car, nodding at the neighbor to follow you.

“I think he’s going crazy,” you whisper, getting your keys out. “I think he is schizophrenic or something.”

“What do you mean?” the cadet asks, walking beside you.

“He’s losing his mind.”

“Has he been drinking?”

“Yeah,” you say.

“He gets crazy when he drinks.”

You stop at your car door and look at him; if he knows, why doesn’t someone do something about it? These are the people that live with him, work with him.

“It’s not just the drinking,” you say. “You need to get him help.”

You don’t stop to think about what it was you could have done six months ago—you get into your car, overjoyed, exhilarated by the tangibility of escape, unaware of the looming guilt that will tell you that you didn’t know how much danger you were really in, that you weren’t much of a man, that you couldn’t have broken his neck as he reached for yours.


Jess Adams said...

Matt, that was absolutely amazing!

moohappy said...

Scary (i.e. successful).