This year's Halloween story:
Anyway, I was listening to Tom’s voice, turning his words into a story as well as I could—and, to be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing—when it struck me. This guy has admitted, if not to me yet then to Marcus, that he killed a guy a few blocks from here, some guy who’d harassed him one too many times, killed him and left his body to rot at the base of the concrete overlook tucked in the bend between the Main Street bridge over the Saint Mary's River and Thieme Drive, which runs along the east bank. He’s admitted to murdering someone, and here I am interviewing him for some ill-defined marketing strategy this Marcus guy hired me to implement—and I’m not turning him in.
The thought that I should probably at least consider diming on Tom came not from any sense that he was dangerous or evil or anything like that. On the contrary, I thought I should encourage him to confess because it seemed the only way to save him from the torments of his own mind. Turning him in might be the only way to save him from complete insanity. It was only after having that thought that I realized I could be in some trouble myself for letting things go on this long without saying anything. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, I’ll end up having to bring the whole story to light to save us both.
For whatever reason, though, I just kept on working on the story:
…After awaking, Tom couldn’t close his eyes again, making him wonder if he’d been sleeping with them open—and how long could that state of affairs have persisted? He sat up in bed and scanned the darkened room for the disturbance that had woken him. When he lay back down, he assured himself the condition was only a momentary dream echo, but his gaze remained locked on the ceiling and the buzzing, wobbling whirl of the dusty fan blades. He hesitated before reaching up to probe his eyes with his fingers, anticipating something awful. Postponing the discovery, he pushed one leg cautiously out from under the duvet, and then the other. Finally, he folded his body up from the bed, holding his head fixed rigidly atop a neck stiff with apprehension.
On his feet, moving forward on sturdy legs, he felt more together, leaving behind that seldom remarked feeling of vulnerability we all experience in our places of slumber. He tested the sweep of his eyes beneath the fixed-open lids. Each pass from one side to the other brought a peculiar sensation in its wake, a sort of dragging discomfort approaching the threshold of pain. Already having walked as far as the passage from his meager kitchen to the open space of his living room, he thought to try a darting glance upward, only to find it caused a strange drawing at his lower lids down to the skin atop his cheeks and a fleshy bunching up under his brows. Feeling a simultaneous poke above each eye, he halted mid-step in the corner before stepping through the bathroom doorway, quickly leveling his gaze. Now he could no longer resist examining his face with halting, trembling fingers.
Rushing toward the mirror, he realized he had to turn back for the light switch. When he finally reached a position hovering over the sink, he felt an odd calm descend on him, as if the shock of what he was seeing with his skewered eyes on the black-flecked glass somehow shattered the surface of the dream’s deception—or as if the gruesomeness, the sheer sadistic inventiveness of the procedure, painless though it was, pushed him toward some state beyond panic. He leant in to investigate the surgically precise mechanism, composed of carved slits in the upper and lower lids of each eye, forming tracks for the tiny bars vertically impaling the delicate white sacks of fluid, preventing them from any fleshly occlusion. First came the slowly widening incision of his lips into a smile. Then the chuff of a laugh.
“Now who would go and do such a thing?” he posed to the white-lit, echoing vacancy…
Aside from the baroque dreams, Tom’s was your typical haunting story: he’d killed a man, and now that man’s ghost was insisting on some type of reckoning. To be fair, Tom claimed not to know for sure that the man was dead because the crime had been committed in a hallucinatory whirl of drug-induced confusion. But it wasn’t long before he determined to settle that uncertainty once and for all by clambering down the river bank to see what he’d left to bake and putrefy in the late summer sun amid the weeds growing up through all that dried mud, reeking of decay, at the base of the crumbling, graffiti-marked monument towering over the brown, insalubrious waters of the Saint Mary's, from which would continue to emanate for a couple of months that invisible miasma, redolent of rotting fish, that only the coldest winters could cleanse from the air. But before I get into any of that I have to tell you about Marcus Friedman and why he was having me write this poor guy’s story.
Marcus found me on LinkedIn. He’d been searching for a local writer when he came across my profile. After exchanging a few emails, we ended up meeting for the first time at Old Crown, a neat little bar and coffee roaster on Anthony Blvd, one of those painted cinderblock buildings with a ceiling of exposed ductwork. I was at a quaintly light-painted wooden table, admiring a two-page spread for iPads—“The experience of a product. Will it make life better? Does it deserve to exist?”—in the previous week’s New Yorker, when I glanced up and saw this huge rugby player masquerading as a businessman making giant, energetic strides toward my small, elevated table, which was then, at an unaccustomed hour for me, set off in a dull gilded aura by the last light of the day issuing meekly through the shop’s inconspicuous row of out-of-reach windows. Surging into that light, this athlete with a Caribbean air smiled a smile that was like its own dawn competing with the gloaming preview of tomorrow’s truer version. When he reached out his hand, I was surprised to see that it was human in scale, not much larger than mine.
“Jim Conway?” he half questioned, half insisted. “I recognize you from your LinkedIn profile. Marcus Friedman.” He was already pulling back the opposite chair by the time I could gesture toward it. “God, I love this place,” he said, turning this way and that to devour the ambiance with his eyes, all the while making these big swirling and swimming gestures. “It’s so—warm—and intimate. Like we’re wrapped up in the residue of like a thousand great conversations.”
I had to smile at this, though I hadn’t yet been able to get out a single word.
Manifestly responding to my smile, he said, “Ah, but here I am throwing out metaphors to the metaphor master. Well, what do you think? What metaphor would you use for this place?” From a position leaning forward with his arms on the table, he leaned back slowly, draping his right arm over the back of his chair, authoritatively opening the exchange for my contribution. This was, after all, a job interview.
“Well, Mr. Friedman—”
“Well, Marcus, it would depend on the context and your goals. The idea of walking into a place and sensing past experiences—good times, stimulating conversations—that’s really intriguing. But if I were writing copy for Old Crown I’d stay away from the word ‘residue.’”
He smiled his aspiringly solar smile, bringing both hands out over the table, showing me his palms, simultaneously offering me something—recognition, praise—and claiming my entire person. I was torn between wanting to allow myself to be drawn in by his energy and charisma and wanting to throw all that smarm back in his face. And he seemed to embody a mass of similar contradictions. What I’d thought at first was some kind of knit hat were actually dreadlocks, but arranged in a way that was somehow much more businesslike than my own give-a-care gladiator cut. That Caribbean air—he looked to be of largely African ancestry, but his skin had this gilded, gleaming pallor against which my own Scotch-Irish sallowness was as dull as day-old dairy. And most of the salesmen I know don’t have deltoids that strain the seams of their blazers.
“This place,” I began, suddenly, inexplicably inspired, “this place is an old post-industrial warehouse where the last people on earth came together to ride out the apocalypse. Only that has been so long ago now nobody even remembers. It just feels like it’s been here forever—impossible to imagine a time when there was no Old Crown. The people who come to places like this—and there’s another one pretty similar to it just up the road here on Anthony—they don’t just want a cheap cup of coffee and an occasional beer or mixed drink. They want to try new things, like beer from some small town they’ve never heard of in Germany, or coffee made from beans grown in Papua New Guinea. The reason these coffee houses were built where they are is that our community college is only about a mile and a half from here. These people are educated—and for the first time they actually care how their goods are made. Next door is a health food shop where you can get locally grown poultry and produce. This place, unassuming as it as, represents the promise of a new economy—a sort of Capitalism 2.0. Look, right here on the wall next to us we see the work of local artists. In that room back there past the bathrooms, the one with the blue walls, book clubs meet there, writers’ groups, start-up charities, you name it. It’s not a big corporate chain like Starbucks, because we like places with local flavor. Through the exotic beers and coffees and conversation, we get this tiny window into far-flung regions of the globe. But the window’s built into the wall of what’s unmistakably our own house. We’ve been here all along, surviving the ravages of a less human, more predatory economy. The battle’s not over yet—not by a longshot. But places like this are the beginning. This place doesn’t need any metaphors, Mr. Friedman—Marcus—because this place is a symbol in its own right.”
Marcus granted me the full dazzling radiance of his too-ready smile and shook his head in faux disbelief as he brought his hands together, once, twice, three times in big sweeps of his bulked-up arms. “And you just came up with that on the spot, huh? You got a gift, Jim. God damn it, you got a gift.” To signal that the preliminaries were over and we were getting down to business, he laid his forearms parallel to each other on the table in front of him and leaned toward me. “Do you know why I like you for this job?”
“Ha! You haven’t even told me what this job is yet. You said in your emails you needed a content marketer who understood storytelling. You said you were looking for a copywriter who wanted to write novels and short stories. My response to that is you’d probably have a harder time finding one who doesn’t.”
“I definitely need someone who has an ear for noticing things like residue being a poor choice of word. And I definitely need someone who can write awesome stories. But what you have that everyone else I’ve talked to lacks is optimism. No offense, but most of your fellow English majors are a bunch of pinko commie, whining feminazi fucktards who think the world started off shitty and just keeps getting worse because too few people are pinko feminist fucktards like them.”
My failure to fully stifle the eruption of a belly laugh encouraged him to proceed. As he did, I realized he must’ve spent quite a bit of time on my blog—though I’m probably more of a pinko myself than he seemed able to glean—and that the interview had progressed from the portion in which Marcus was testing me to the one in which he would pitch me his idea.
“And why,” I asked, “is it important for you to have someone who doesn’t think we should give up on capitalism—or on letting men roam around freely without gelding them?”
“It’s not just that,” he said, leaning back to liberate his untamed hands. “I want someone who will be as excited about my business as I am, someone who’s not afraid of money, who doesn’t think it’s evil or any other ridiculous nonsense like that.”
Looking back, I realize the thought that occurred to me then—that any of my anti-capitalist collegiate colleagues would’ve made quick work of finding a way to justify taking in a little extra revenue, that I was hardly unique in that regard—should have sparked a wider suspicion. But, to retrospectively justify my own obtuseness, I was just too distracted trying to figure out what Marcus was about to try to sell me on trying to help him sell. Was he starting his own rugby league? Hosting a capoeira tournament?
“Let me ask you a question, Jim,” he said frowning. After a pause to gather his thoughts—which led me to conclude the ensuing performance was something he’d rehearsed—he locked eyes with me and asked, “What do you think scares people most?”
“For mothers of young children, it’s that their kids will come to harm. For everyone else, it’s humiliation.”
“Whoa—ha ha. Thought about this before, huh?”
I thoroughly enjoyed the brief fluster my ready answer produced in Marcus as he worked out how to segue back into his pitch.
“Interesting that you jump to little children and their mothers,” he picked up at last. “See, I believe fear falls into two categories. One of them I guess you could say includes humiliation—it’s all the practical things we’re afraid of, the fight or flight type of stuff. But there’s another type of fear, closer to the one that had us running from our bedrooms to our parents’ rooms as kids. Now, Jim, I’m curious—do you really believe all that stuff you were saying about Capitalism 2.0?”
“Well, for the most part, I do. I think the colloquial expression for what I was doing there is ‘laying it on thick.’”
“Ha ha—fair enough. Now the second part of the question—what was wrong with the first version of capitalism?”
“I suppose it was focused too exclusively on profits. Every other human concern got coopted and overridden. If 2.0 is going to work, it’ll be because we come up with ways to include other considerations in our business models—things like working conditions, environmental impacts, and consequences for local communities. Instead of subordinating everything to that one number—the profit—that number will have to incorporate a broader array of concerns.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more, Jim. Businesses today can’t just exploit people’s weaknesses and desires—”
“Well, a lot of them still do.”
“But who wants to work like that? I’ll tell you, even the most ruthless Wall Street guy, you sit him down, and even though you and I agree he’s not doing anything but exploiting people, he’ll go on and on about how what he does benefits society.”
“And how does your business benefit society?”
Marcus drew himself up, his lips stretching slowly into a proud, fatherly smile. “Well, Jim, it’s like you said. What individuals do has an impact on the broader community. I’m basically in the entertainment industry, but the trend in entertainment is toward more and more personalized, more and more individualized experiences. We don’t go to the movies anymore. We watch Netflix. We don’t go to arcades anymore. We have Xboxes. We don’t even have conversations anymore. We post status updates and tweets. A growing number of people aren’t even going to church anymore. So what’s the impact on communities? What’s the fallout?”
“Are you saying you want to scare people to bring them together, to foster a sense of community, and make money on it somehow? Please tell me you’re not asking me to help recruit people for a cult.”
“No, no, not a cult. But in your answer to my question about what scares people you forgot about those kids the mothers are afraid will come to harm. What’s it like for them? You see what the purpose of that fear is for them—it’s to get them to run to their parents’ bedroom. And that second, less practical type of fear stays with us our whole lives too. And it serves the same purpose. I notice some of the most popular posts on your blog are ghost stories. Why do you think that is?”
“Everybody enjoys a good ghost story—well, nearly everybody.”
“Yeah, but why? Why would people go out of their way to be scared? I’ll tell you, I’ve been asking that question for a long time, and no one really has a good answer for it. But then I started looking at it from a different angle. You know how every fall you start hearing people—predominantly women—talking about pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks? You know how everyone gets excited when the leaves start to change colors? Well, what the hell are they excited about? Sure, the colors are spectacular and all. But what’s the next step? The leaves fall off man. Then the tree stands there, just a big stick in the mud all winter. Fall symbolizes death. Halloween is a time for reconnecting with dead loved ones. What comes next is cold and barren winter—so why do so many people love it all so much?”
It was at this point that I acknowledged to myself I was finding what Marcus had to say really impressive. “People start thinking about death,” I answered, “and it makes them want to be closer to their loved ones, the ones who are still living. People get frightened of something that goes bump in the night and it makes them want to sleep closer to their parents or spouses. People want to tell scary stories around a campfire because it makes them all feel closer together. That’s why the guy in the movie who says ‘I’ll be right back’ always gets killed. The whole point is to huddle together. The whole point is community.”
Marcus took this opportunity to ply me with some hyperbolic flattery, something to the effect that anyone who read my work could tell I was smart but seeing my mind work in real time… etc. Then, at long last, he came to his business idea. “We used to have these big harvest celebrations, but not many of us harvest anymore. Even when we do come together for things like football games and concerts, it’s not like we even know most of people in the crowd. Now, Mr. Conway, I’m inviting you to come in on the ground floor here, though I’ve already done quite a few proof-of-concept outings. It has to start with individuals—that’s where you come in. You’re going to hook them with the stories.”
For the past six years, Marcus had been organizing camping trips to haunted houses every October for a little extra cash. It had started with a place in his hometown in Terra Haute. He and his friends had been going to this house to pitch their tents in the yard every year around Halloween going back to high school. They built campfires, rehearsed the story of the house, dared each other to go in—alone, of course—and bring something out from inside as proof. Everyone loved it. Whenever he talked about it to people outside his closest circle, they all but invariably said they would love to participate in something like that. Marcus’s eyes turned to dollar signs. First, the outings to the house in Terra Haute started getting bigger. Next, Marcus started scoping out other locations, usually no more than abandoned houses on isolated, modestly forested plots. Before long, he was planning months in advance for three separate expeditions on consecutive weekends.
“Eighty bucks a head, and I supply the location, arrange things with neighbors and law enforcement, maybe throw in someone who can play guitar or hand drums. Most important, I supply the story. Jim, this is pure word-of-mouth so far, and no matter how hard I try I still end up turning a bunch of people down every year. So I finally decided, I’ve got some money saved up, I’m going to go big with this thing. As for the impact on the community, well, it’s just a step, just a little step, but who knows? If it catches on like I think it will, think of all the variations. Every season has its stories and rituals. So you get everyone you know together and share it. And without any of the hellfire or guilt-tripping or boring shit you get at church.”
“You may run into some thorny dilemmas trying to mix commerce with what people consider sacred. But personally I think it’s a great idea. Whether it’s aboveboard or not, you’re paying for all the feast days and rituals at church too. At least this way it’s honest. You’re kind of branching the vacation industry out into the market for encounters with the supernatural—or at least the extra-mundane.”
“I need two things right now,” Marcus said, standing up from his chair. “I need new locations—I’m working on that as we speak. And I need stories—that’s where you come in. In the next couple of days, I’m going to be sending you contact info for a guy who’s had one of those encounters with the supernatural. What I want you to do—if you’re interested in partnering up with me—is talk to the guy, interview him. Bring something to record it if you need to, however you think it’ll work best. You write the story. We get it out there on social media and wherever else we can get people to listen. And then we sit back and watch this thing blow up.”
I sat watching him make a production of how urgently he needed to get back on the road, assuming it was an element of his recruitment strategy. We shook hands to seal the partnership. As he was walking toward the front door, I called to him. “Marcus, one more question. These stories—are you envisioning them as more literary writings, or more marketing oriented? Because those two styles can end up being at odds.”
His smile dawned one last time for the night. “That’s your department now. I only ask one thing—make sure it doesn’t sound cheap.”
… A human mass beside him as he eased into consciousness set Tom to channeling through his memory of recent events until he decided it must be Ashley. Immediately, under his ribs, a humming warmth began to gather and flow outward, suffusing his limbs with an airy lightness as a thousand meager but incessant doubts, which dogged him even in sleep, blinked out of existence. His consciousness pulsed piece by piece to life in the still darkened room, like an athlete shaking his limbs into readiness before an event. With this stepwise return from oblivion came the intensifying awareness that he was experiencing the very sensation he’d determined to resist, this warm buzzing hollowness and weightless elation—that this was the very feeling he’d decided was the product of a deadly intoxicant. Pure poison. And with that unspoken word poison still echoing among his mist-cloaked thoughts there came a sharp pricking deep inside his nostrils, causing him to grimace and recoil into his pillow, jerking his face to one side then the other. It wasn’t Ashley sleeping next to him. It was someone who’d just smoked a menthol.
Finding himself in the middle of the room, his hands held out to check the advance of any attacker, he glared down at the bed with its twisted sheets and undecipherable chaos of mounded folds and depressions, each heartbeat bulging under the skin of his temples, each jagged breath ruling out any hope of remaining quietly inconspicuous. He stood there long enough to calm his breathing before stepping forward and smoothing the comically disheveled sheets with his palms. What kept him from being able to reassure himself that the presence he’d sensed was no more than the remnant of a dream borne of his guilty conscience was that he couldn’t recall ever in his life having had a dream that featured a scent of any sort, much less one so recognizable and vividly real. It took him some time to fall asleep again, and when he did he had a perfectly conventional dream about being called before a court, the assembled judges looking over the tops of ridiculously tall and imposing podiums…
“I feel like whatever I do or whatever I say it’s bound to be exactly the wrong thing,” Tom said. “It’s like she wants something from me but I never know what it is. Thing is, I don’t even think she knows what it is—what she really wants is for me to figure out what she wants and give it to her as a this perfect surprise. So I’m not only supposed to read her mind—I’m supposed to be able to read it so clearly I know more about what’s going to make her happy than she does. All the while, I’m thinking, does this chick even like me? All I get from her are signs of disapproval and disappointment.” He looked down at the table, shaking his head. “I hate that I’m still talking about it in the present tense.”
Tom’s voice resonates with a soulfulness at odds with his general air of insouciance—which at times borders on impatience. He experiences his inner dramas in solitude. He’s around six foot tall, and at thirty-three still has a young athlete’s gleaming complexion. As he’s speaking, you have the sense that he’s at once minutely aware of your responses—even anticipating those you’ve yet to make—and prejudiced in favor of some other activity or exchange he could be engaged in, almost as if he’d already participated in several conversations exactly like the one you were currently having. There’s a softness to the flesh around his eyes, but his eyebrows rise outward in subtle curves that create an illusion of severe peaks. The combined effect is of a sympathetic man restraining some bound up energy, perhaps harboring some unspoken rage, one of those generally kind people you know at a glance not to get on the wrong side of. Or maybe these impressions were based on what I already knew. Even through his somewhat loose work shirt you could see his workouts went beyond the simple cardio routines he spoke of to me.
He was telling me about why he and Ashley had broken up. “We were always at loggerheads, like there was some unresolved issue keeping her from opening up to me—or like I’d done something to really piss her off. That’s what it felt like anyway. But no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t figure out what I’d done, and she wasn’t about to tell me. Once in a while, I’d get pissed off myself—I couldn’t stand her always being ready to go off, having that vague disapproval of hers hanging over my head all the time. We’d have these knockdown-drag-out arguments. I never got physical. Though she hit me and pushed me around quite a bit. For her, I kept getting the sense that it was these arguments that were the deal-breaker. They were pretty intense, and toward the end they were happening pretty often too. But I kept thinking, you know, we can’t work out whatever our issue is if we don’t talk about it, and every time we tried to talk about it we ended up arguing. It’s probably my fault. I always felt like she was just being so unfair so I ended up losing my temper and the next thing you know we’re not talking to each other.”
Tom and Ashley had been planning on moving in together, at the apartment Tom lives in now, when their final blowup occurred. They had been leaving Henry’s, a low-key old bar on Main Street known for being classier than any of the hole-in-the-wall establishments that predominate in that area, walking back to what was then Tom’s apartment, a one-bedroom on Rock Hill, when two skater kids saw fit to shout a couple of obscenities at them from across the street. “To this day, I can’t figure out why she did it,” Tom told me. “She must’ve already been really pissed off about something—but, if she was, I hadn’t noticed it. And we’d just been talking inside the bar for like an hour.” Ashley had heard the first two or three insults care of the young skaters (an honorary term, since neither had a board) and then stopped to turn toward them. “The weird thing was, I’d never seen that expression on her face before. She had this gleam—it was almost like she was smiling.”
“Hey,” she shouted back to them. “I know you two.” They stopped, turned, and took a couple of steps back to get a better look at her and hear what she was about to say. “I met these girls who pointed you guys out a while back. They said they tried to date you but you were just too horrible in bed. They said you didn’t know how to fuck.”
“Ashley, what the hell are you doing?”
“You must have the wrong guys, cunt. If you want, I’ll show you how I can fuck right now.” The taller of the two kids started walking with these clown-shoe strides toward them, leaning back with his shoulders even as he thrust his hips forward, bobbing his head, and flailing his arms to puff out his elbows. That he was so lanky and dressed in that faux unfashionable apparel that’s so fashionable now—shaved head, wife-beater undershirt, testicle compressing jeans—made it easier for Tom to reserve enough mental space to marvel at Ashley, and to wonder what could possibly have gotten into her, while all but ignoring the threat.
“Listen guys,” he started to say before Ashley began again.
“Yeah, they said it was mostly because you both have really tiny dicks. But of course it doesn’t help that you’re illiterate retards.”
The bald guy actually stopped in the middle of Main Street to look back at his friend, as if expecting to see him doubled over with laughter at the joke he was playing on his buddy. But this guy was looking straight ahead toward Ashley, taking his hands out of his pockets and moving a step forward. “What the fuck Ashley!” Tom shouted, stepping in front of her, glancing quickly at each of the skater kids’ hands to see if they were reaching for weapons.
“Yeah, Ashley, what the fuck?” the lanky one said, moving forward again. “Now we’re going to have to fuck up Tinker Bell here and have a chat to find out who’s been spreading these lies about us.”
Tom turned around to see Ashley backing away. “Even then I swear I saw her grinning.” There was nothing behind them but an empty parking lot. Turning back toward the guy in the wife-beater as he backpedaled, Tom said, “Listen man, I’m not sure why she’s trying to mess with you but there’s no reason for either of us to fuck up our lives. Broken teeth. Broken hands. I see cop cars parked here all the time.”
Now that the guy was charging toward him, Tom saw that he wasn’t sixteen, as he’d looked from across the street, but probably closer to his mid-twenties. His pocked, roughly shaved face and filthy clothes revealed him to be not the child of privilege given to slumming he’d appeared from a distance, but something closer to a skinny, drug-addled convict. “Hey, don’t worry Tinker Bell,” he said, lifting his hands. “It’s just your life we’re going to fuck up. And we’ll be long gone with Ashley here by the time any cops come around.”
Tom, halting abruptly in his retreat, stepped forward, planting his weight on his right foot before swinging his left leg around in a wide loop and burying the blade of his shin in the boy convict’s thigh, turning and folding him backward like a three-section chaise lounge caught in a torrent of wind. As he collapsed, the convict reached out the arm he’d raised to throw a punch, catching Tom’s collar and pulling him forward. Tom lunged forward, thrusting up with his right knee, blasting it into his assailant’s solar plexus and sending them both tumbling to the asphalt. Taking advantage of the convict’s panic at being struck so hard and knocked from his upright position, Tom made ready and timed a right elbow to coincide with their collision against the asphalt. He threw it with a twisting force gathered from the entire length of his body down to his toes, landing it on the guy’s temple the instant his shoulders hit the ground, feeling that sort of crisp resonating bat-on-ball crack of elbow against temple so familiar to him even though he’d never personally produced it before.
The boy convict went immediately limp, but his fingers were still wrapped in Tom’s collar. As Tom sat back, pushing the arm aside, sliding a foot into position to push himself back up to his feet, he felt the brutal ax blade of a foot wedging itself into the left side of his torso, lifting him up off his one planted knee. The shock of the blow made everything flash white. Following some vague instinct, Tom rolled onto his back and rotated his body on the asphalt to get his feet between him and this second attacker. This man, whose appearance Tom wouldn’t be able to remember at all, ended up awkwardly forfeiting the brief opening afforded him by his landed shot because, having rushed so frantically to the aid of his fallen comrade, he’d managed to upset his own balance in delivering the kick and was thus forced to scramble after the man he’d just injured in a clumsy attempt to ensure he’d sustained enough damage to render him incapable of any further defense.
“I would say I threw a triangle on him,” Tom said of the final moments of this seconds-long confrontation, “but it seemed more like he just moved right into it on his own.” As the guy crawled over Tom’s legs so he could climb atop, pin his torso to the ground and pummel him, he quickly found his own torso pinched and immobile. Tom had hooked his right leg over the man’s shoulder, his calf clamped down across the back of the guy’s neck. Reaching up with his hand, Tom tucked his right foot in the crook of his left knee, trapping the man’s head and one of his arms in the constrictive frame of his legs. “I didn’t just choke him out right away like I would have in training. I was so freaked out that these guys were actually attacking us that I wanted to make sure I did some damage. So before really sinking the choke I bloodied up his face pretty good. By then the first guy was trying to stand up on his chicken legs, and I just wanted to get Ashley the hell out of there.
“I grabbed her wrist and we ran—and I swear I heard her laughing. Once we were a few blocks away and the two skater kids—who were actually more like meth heads as far as I could tell—as soon as we had some houses and buildings between us, I couldn’t help it. I just whipped around and started yelling at her. I mean, I was fucking pissed. At first, she was looking up at me with this dazed look, like she was drunk, or high, or like she’d just been having a fucking ball. But as I explained to her that I’d just given that guy a severe concussion, plus whatever I’d done to his leg—as I’m shouting at her that we were lucky as hell to get away without me getting mauled half to death and worse happening to her, she just starts wilting before my eyes.
“Pretty soon she’s in tears and I’m starting to notice the little stabbing pain in my ribs. When we finally got to my apartment, she just went straight to her car without saying a word, got in, and drove away. I didn’t hear from her for two days. On the third day, she finally responded to a text asking her to call. She said she couldn’t move in with me, that she didn’t think it could ever work between us. She broke up with me over the phone. I wanted to plead with her to give me an explanation for why she’d done it, why she’d provoked those guys. And I wanted her to explain too what the hell it was she’d wanted that whole time, our whole relationship, that I wasn’t giving her. What had I done to piss her off so damn much? But the call was over before I could say any more. That was it. I moved in to this place by myself.”
Tom didn’t have any blood in his eye. He’d begun taking taekwondo at age thirteen from a pear-shaped, middle-aged Korean man who barely spoke English. Then at sixteen he’d transferred high schools and found a place he liked better that was closer to home. Here he learned from a diminutive blue-collar, country-music American with an amateur kickboxing record of 40-2 who’d learned karate from a grand master while stationed with the air force in Japan and Wing Chun from a Chinese man he’d partnered with in the states so they could open their own school. This was all in the 90s. When Tom and his friends saw their first Ultimate Fighting Championship toward the end of the decade, they couldn’t understand why experts in so many different styles were having such a hard time with the skinny and boyish-looking Brazilian named Royce Gracie.
Before long, they were doing whatever they could to teach themselves Brazilian jujitsu, staying after class at their kickboxing school to practice grappling and submissions, much to their teacher’s consternation. By a few months later, they’d found a guy closer to their own age who traveled around to attend seminars in jujitsu and submission wrestling, and he was looking for guys to train with. They rented a backroom usually reserved for aerobics classes and split the cost of some wrestling mats. A couple years later, they found another guy, one who taught Muay Thai, the style of Thai kickboxing that fighters had the most success with in mixed martial arts competitions, out of a rundown former office building. It had been this guy who’d first taught Tom how to throw leg kicks, knees, and elbows like the ones that would save Ashley and him from their mauling or worse outside Henry’s all those years later.
Tom discovered he had no blood in his eye after his first and only full-contact fight in the ring. He took a beating nearly the entire five minutes of the first round but landed a big head kick fifteen seconds before the bell—a blow that made his opponent go horrifically rigid before sending him toppling over like a concrete statue, his arms remaining freakishly extended in front of him even after he hit the canvas, bounced, and came to a rest. Tom stood horror-struck. He knew right then he would never step in a ring or octagon or anything else like that again. When he told Mark, one of his best friends back in his corner, that he wouldn’t be pursuing a fight career anymore, Mark responded, “Yeah, we all kind of already knew you never had any blood in your eye,” and went on to explain that was an old boxing expression for fighters who had a hard time overcoming their reluctance to hurt anyone. Tom went on to help a few of his friends prepare for fights, but over time he attended training sessions with diminishing frequency until he was done with marital arts altogether and doing more pacific exercise routines on his own.
Tom’s single venture into the ring occurred two years after he’d earned his degree in communications at IPFW, which is the affectionate acronym locals apply to the joint satellite campus for Indiana and Purdue Universities in Fort Wayne. Throughout college, he’d delivered pizzas for a place called East of Chicago. After graduating, he moved on to a local franchise called The Munchie Emporium, which had three locations in the city and a reputation for employing and serving hippies and stoners. All the servers and kitchen people Tom worked with were either in a band or had a boyfriend who was. He would go on to remark of his time there, “It was like a second education after college. Everyone was sleeping with everyone else. The whole back of the house was usually taking breaks to pass around a bowl or a joint. The whole front of the house was taking turns going to the bathrooms to do lines off the back of the toilet. So all the servers and bartenders are tweaking and all the cooks are mellowed out. I can’t say I really fit in, but I was having a fucking great time.”
After it became clear to him that he was never going to be a professional fighter and that he didn’t want to serve and bartend for the rest of his life, Tom decided to go back to IPFW and attend the MBA program that had recently been instituted there. It was as he was nearing completion of his master’s that he began an internship with the three-person marketing department at a web design and custom software company called EntSol (an abbreviation of Enterprise Solutions). Tom finished graduate school, became a project clarity specialist at EntSol, and started dating Ashley, who was working at one of the other Munchies stores across town from the one where he’d worked (though none of them were called Munchies anymore by then), all within the same two-month period. The PCS position, which had him serving as a liaison between EntSol’s tech people and the clients, didn’t really appeal to him. So he decided to take a pay cut and return to the marketing team, where he’s still working on strategy, testing, and analytics—all the stuff that drives copywriters like me a little crazy. He said Ashley was generally supportive, though she let him know she didn’t understand what he found so distasteful about the PCS gig. “You have to do what makes you happy, regardless of the money,” she’d told him. “But I think you could have given it more of a chance.”
Tom said he believed the dreams were leading up to something, or trying to tell him something. What he needed, he confided to me, was some form of penance—but then he wasn’t even sure if he’d actually committed any crime. Somehow, notwithstanding his uncertainty, he was convinced the dreams were pointing the way for him. One particular dream I wrote up would end up being of particular importance in this regard:
…Tom was on one of the nightly walks he’d started taking after moving in to his new apartment alone, whenever he felt like the walls were moving in on him, whenever he feared the heartbreak would suffocate him, whenever he got too antsy from missing workouts as his broken ribs healed. In keeping with the bizarre logic of dreams, he approached the spot on Thieme Drive as if it held no special significance whatsoever, the same spot he passed almost every night for over a month, the spot where the powdery golden light of a streetlamp was split by a thin wedge of darkness edged by an old oak tree standing a few feet away, right between the post and the sidewalk. As he was passing through the wedge, past the three square steps rising away from the tree and along a fenced-in walkway up to a house atop a rise, an aberrant blue light flashed in his periphery, bringing him to a halt. The steps form the base of a nook enclosed by a low-roofed, maroon-painted garage on the left, a wooden crosshatched fence on the right, and the always latched gate at the top. Tom had always grinned passing between the oak and the little nook it cast into almost perfect darkness, thinking it was the ideal spot for someone to hide in ambush for lonely night amblers like him.
Now he stood examining a gleaming cluster of tiny blue flowers rising up out of an orange ceramic pot positioned square in the middle of the step midway up to the gate, trying to discern the source of the illumination—though it appeared as though it was the flowers themselves giving off the glow—and wondering why anyone would leave them in the middle of this staircase. After a few moments, he could no longer resist stepping forward to examine the flowers. He lifted the pot and turned with it to bring it closer to the oak tree. Sure enough, it continued to give off the blue glow, mesmerizing him into tightly focused oblivion, until he heard a voice, vaguely familiar, demanding to know what he was doing.
Still transfixed by the flowers, he began to say he was simply appreciating the wondrous phenomenon of the blue glow—like open-air bioluminescence—when he heard the sourceless voice muttering something that sounded like a name, as if the woman—yes, it was a woman’s voice for sure—were addressing someone else, and her tone carried an unmistakable note of impatience. Tom finally broke the trance and turned one way, then the other, scanning for the woman whose voice he’d heard. Most of the house was hidden from view by the fence and a hedge running along the inside of it, but he could see that the front door, lit dimly yellow by a porch light, was sealed and inert. Hearing the muttered, indecipherable name again, he turned looking first toward the far end of the garage, and then farther up the sidewalk and the street that it ran alongside. Before his feet caught up with his side-turned eyes, a shout like an explosion of rage sent him stumbling backward. Fumbling with the flowerpot, he tripped on a sidewalk section pushed up by one of the darkening oak’s roots and began to fall.
But he didn’t land on the sidewalk. He landed in mud, which was redolent of putrescence. Now with a firm hold of the pot, he started to sit up, and he knew immediately where he was—down by the river across the street from the sidewalk, and down the steep, tree-strewn bank, two blocks up from the oak-shaded nook, at the base of the concrete overlook adjacent to the Main Street Bridge over the Saint Mary's. He knew immediately too that the bioluminescent flowers were no longer in the pot he was holding clasped to his stomach. Desperation overtook him. He had to find those flowers and return them to the pot. Setting the pot aside, he got to his feet, darting glances frantically in all directions. The blue light, he thought. Just look for the blue light. How can you possibly miss it?
As soon as he stood still for a moment, he noticed a faint glow emanating from around the curved base of the overlook. For some reason, his desperation now turned to apprehension, but he stepped forward to investigate, hoping to find the lost luminescent flowers. Rounding the base of the monument, he had no trouble seeing where they now grew. Tom saw first the light, then the myriad sprouting star-burst petals, and finally the half buried, half rotted human body whose head they were clustered about. The terror didn’t seize him instantly, but rather crept upon him as he approached. As he drew nearer to the body, he could discern the angles of the crowded, tangled stems, right down to where their roots had discovered a new source for their sustenance.
The left side of the man’s face had decayed down to the skull, but much of the flesh had been replaced by grayish mud that resembled the decomposing skin on the other side. Tom leaned down to see if it would be possible to extricate the roots without disrupting the body—without touching it—but saw that the left eye, partially caked over with mud, partially glaring back at him with that familiar black, empty-socket skull’s glare, had somehow allowed the central stem of a large cluster of glowing blue flowers to grow up from its hollowed depths. Tom had brought himself back to his full height and taken two steps back from the corpse before consciously registering the repugnance and terror which were propelling him away. His awareness of his own intensifying panic grew simultaneously with the dawning realization that he was dreaming. As he hauled himself up from the muddy riverbank and into consciousness, the brightening glow of the flowers merged with the light of the morning sun seeping in through the breaking seal of his lids.
“Blue lobelias,” he muttered as he sat up in his fully lit bedroom.