Art by Mario Tauchi
Excerpted from the novel Glory Hole
In Iowa, Philip’s just missed the shooter’s funeral. At the far end of a windy church parking lot, the shooter’s widow and the son are just climbing into the back seat of a maroon sedan, then disappearing down one of these crooked roads with their police escort. A sheriff’s deputy is perched nearby in a jeep, keeping watch over the shooter’s grave.
The dirt in the cemetery is spongy and dry. There are no flowers at the unmarked grave, no clues, nothing to interpret but some anonymous, freshly scratched earth.
Philip knows already that there is no story here, but only mute horror, a fable that’s buried itself in a hole, inside a barn or a hologram. Dust motes flit through the trapezoidal sunbeams that filter through cracks in the barn’s façade or the hologram’s warping edge.
Dead children. Puzzles that will never be solved, or that have already been solved. He was a shy little boy and cried every morning when it was time to go to school.
The rental car smells like formaldehyde. Philip can’t make sense of the roads, none of which run in straight lines. He drives past the schoolhouse and the lingering crowds of tourists and then turns onto a road that veers through some trees, splits a couple of times, zigzags around and expels him onto a straightaway, with the ghastly, abandoned structure of the East Liberty Home for Boys shimmering in the distance.
The Amish themselves have been hiding out from the press. It’s too early or too late. Philip doesn’t yet have addresses for the grieving families—New York is working on it. Meanwhile, he finds just one Amish man who will speak to him, the owner of the lantern store.
They chat across the counter of the store as the Amish man trims his fingernails with a small pocketknife. The conversation blurs around the edges, and Philip enters a timeless state in which this conversation is simply a continuation of every other conversation he has ever had with Amish men. The same conversation with a kind of hive-mind on the other end. Chores and theology and punishing gossip. God forbid you do something to get the people talking.
Soon it will be dark. Philip drives. The ruined orphanage always hovers there on the horizon.
The murder’s aftermath is an agricultural and geometrical puzzle. Gold and crimson and beige fields. The solution will only emerge if he drives these nonsensical roads in exactly the right order. It isn’t a mystery, but he’s a detective. It’s a biblical proverb, written in blood; that’s the consensus.
A woman wearing an Amish bonnet and carrying a bucket is walking across a particularly beige field, toward the structure or mirage of the East Liberty Home for Boys.
Perhaps she’s the mother of a murdered child.
Philip drives back the way he came, thinking he can circle around and head her off, if he keeps turning to the right. But once he’s back into the trees, he loses sight of the faceless woman, and when the road splits, the right turn just leads down past a marshy zone, a spiffy non-Amish home with an SUV in the driveway, crosses a large creek or a small river, and back out into the daylight, but now the woman’s nowhere in sight. The orphanage itself actually seems farther away. The road descends through another stand of trees, around a sharp curve in the wrong direction and then up onto a hill from which the ruined structure now appears impossibly backward. The Amish woman is still walking directly away.
The entire landscape is an optical illusion. The mounds of hay are Van Gogh hallucinations. Philip parks the car on the shoulder, hops the measly barbed wire fence.
Slick muddy patches and actual puddles stand in depressed sections of the field. Philip’s shoes cake with mud, as he lumbers across it, dodging the cow patties. The brittle, stumpy remains of some crop poke aggressively out of the soggy earth, with dying wild flowers and clover in between the hard, broken stalks of whatever it was, creating an arabesque of burnished golds and reds intertwining the variegated earth tones, overlaid with the geometrical patterns of sowing and of reaping, and with hoof prints and boot prints.
It isn’t the mud on his shoes or the smell of shit everywhere, but the way that he’s suddenly reliving parts of his childhood he’d just as soon forget.
Years ago Philip read a book by a German, or maybe an Austrian, about an old man who wrote everything down, all the facts he wanted to remember. He covered all the walls of his home with these notes, clinging to the random arrangement of historical, biological, and geological facts. He lived alone and Philip’s pretty sure he was dying. He’s pretty sure the old man wandered off his property into a misty wood, following a path, maybe in the dark, down one side of a ravine and up the other. The walk was certainly catastrophic. Yes, the old man was dying, and he remembered descending a mountain once with his brother, getting stuck on a snowy ledge. The descent was impossible. He forgot why he’d ever wanted to keep track of the facts on his wall.
Memory is over-rated, as far as Philip’s concerned.
At the edge of the field is another barbed wire fence and then a thicket of briars and weeds. Do Not Enter and No Trespassing signs. There’s a kind of a path that leads into the darkness and toward the ruined structure beyond, blocked by a chain and a prominent Trespassers Will Be Persecuted sign.
Soon it will be night. Philip knows that he will enter, because he always has. Or because it feels like this is the path that belongs to him. It is a path; people have created it. Entering is an essential aspect of Philip’s mind, of his history, of his future, and this equation feels correct. Time and death, solve for x.
Maybe fifty yards through the brush, and he emerges into the fading light, revealing a kind of junkyard or sculpture garden in the clearing around the ruined structure. The rotting chassis of what may once have been an ambulance, with a variety of flags and graffiti stickers attached to it, toys and pieces of rusty metal soldered on for no discernible reason. There are springs and deflated tires in the yard, doll parts and machine parts configured into the shape of a robot corpse, its leg caught in a spiked metal trap. There’s still a sign over the gap where the front door once stood: East Liberty Home For Boys, and underneath somebody has scrawled “abandon hope all yee who enter here” in paint the color of a moldy brick.
Inside, it’s room after room covered with frayed wallpaper faded into inscrutable textures, crumbling walls, and once-beautiful wood floors now riddled with gaps. The floors are covered with broken beer bottles, rodent feces, cigarette butts, the abandoned nest of some animal, beer cans, condoms, shattered cell phone components, all the debris of the wayward youth who must now find shelter here. The vast Gothic structure has been gutted, more-or-less, but retains just enough of its institutional infrastructure—weird, chipped linoleum the color of rotted bones, fake wood paneling, popcorn ceilings—to be chilling. A brick fireplace is more or less intact and full of ashes and partially melted aluminum cans. It’s like the site of a Sustiva nightmare Philip once had.
Or something dreamed up by some East European or Latin American novelist in the latter half of the 20th century. Agota Kristof or Gombrowicz. Fuentes, Donoso, or Rulfo. The novelist who came closest to imagining this haunted ruin was surely Antonio Garay Redozo, author of the lesser known but most fully realized gas-giant of them all, the 1200 page monstrosity This Hideously Twirling Planet. An orphanage on the Paraguayan-Brazilian border, deep in the jungle, where dozens of little boys are housed whose parents have been killed by one government or the other, with just one little girl, a blind albino who believes that she’s a boy. After the orphanage burns down and the orphans flee into the jungle, they begin a series of strange transformations into animals, plants, and mermaids of the swampy rivers. The graffiti scrawled on the walls here, in chalky and neon layers, seems to form a kind of visual map of that novel, in fact, bestial figures, strange composite beings from genetically engineered futures, floating brains and stick-figures in flames and letters from alphabets that only rarely form coherent words. Why are the children of darkness, the children of this world, more cunning than the children of light?
A scratching noise comes from the next room. The dusty room leads to a back door, the rectangular gap glowing with daylight. Scrawled on the wall, a crowned cartoon figure that seems to be composed of foreign alphabets and bones, radiating like Aboriginal x-ray art, neither human or not. Because they have the magical root of the original essence manifest in them.
A haggard looking boy in a gray hoodie is scratching some kind of message into the plaster of one wall with a small knife. He looks like he hasn’t slept in days. He startles when he sees Philip and makes a move like he’s about to run. It’s okay, said Philip. I was looking for someone else. I just thought you were somebody else.
Whatever he was trying to inscribe is barely legible.
Are you okay? asks Philip.
Leave me alone.
Whatever you want, says Philip and peers out into the fading daylight. The woman with the bucket is nowhere to be seen. The large creek or small river is just back behind another stand of trees, and he can see why there’s no road that leads here directly—a bridge used to connect the compound to the main road, but the bridge itself is in ruins.
After finishing his monstrous novel, Garay Redozo renounced literature and remembering and made his escape into a dismal Paraguayan hospital, where he worked as a nurse, tending the sick and the dying, until he too faded into oblivion. He’d wanted his writing to destroy itself as it pointed back toward the equally fictitious reality that provoked it, but it failed to live up to his expectations. As had, one imagines, life itself.
The boy is wearing black pants and hard shoes and a black shirt underneath his hoodie. He glares at Philip and then puts his hood up.
Philip wanders upstairs and back down, into the basement and down long hallways to vast other wings that have been partially demolished. The orphanage was once bequeathed vast sums of money, which they used for ambitious expansion projects, including a swimming pool down below that now resembles a tomb—until they were bankrupted by the wave of lawsuits from a stream of molested boys.
Up a rickety stairway is what was once an attic, but now, without a roof or two of its walls, is more like a deck. Philip takes a deep breath. Good Midwestern air, he thinks, although it feels just as modern as San Francisco air, just as greasy and irradiated, but warmer and with a smell of rotting dead leaves that would take him back to odd, detached moments from his own childhood, if he was willing to go.
From up here the landscape is variegated in the dusk, full of trees and color. This landscape suggests the presence of complex minds. Perhaps love hasn’t died.
A clearing between the orphanage and the next farm over is actually a small cemetery. In San Francisco, they bury their dead in Colma, or burn them.
Maybe there’s never been human love.
Everything that has happened here is still present. History is visible in the landscape now only as these ruins, these chicken scratches on the walls.
Philip wonders if there are places where the only authentically “human” activity is to hide. That is, the only authentic humans in such places must be hiding. Hiding from the rest of us, from themselves, from each other?
Philip’s grandmother left behind a written record of her life, condensed from diaries. This record was over 100 pages long and incredibly detailed about trips to the east coast, people visited, beets canned; a lifetime of toil and hard times interspersed with fires, illnesses, childbirth, and delirium. At one point three years pass in a single paragraph that begins, “In the summer of 1945 I had a nervous breakdown.” Philip’s father didn't remember much about his mother’s nervous breakdown. She’d probably been given some tranquilizers, he said.
Philip’s grandmother’s funeral was held in the middle of winter in a freezing barn. An Amish funeral, the sermons were given in Pennsylvania Dutch, a language that Philip didn’t understand. Occasionally, however, an English phrase would pop up, and jolt Philip out of his daydreams. Victim of circumstance, the minister said at one point. Shortly afterward, he said it again: victim of circumstance.
Something walks from the cemetery into the trees, toward the ruined bridge.
The woman in the bonnet. Philip hurries down the steps and through the room where the boy was scratching his message, now empty. Out the front door, he can’t make anything out in the trees. It’s difficult to find his way in the gloom, but a thin trail leads in the general direction of the bridge.
When he gets to the river or creek, however, there’s nothing there. Rustling noises seem to come from all around, but the sound of the water confuses everything. And the echoes. He steps out onto the bridge. Most of the planks are sturdy enough, you just don’t want to get too close to the edge. The water is cold and deep.
It occurs to him that this is a trap.
What happens is that two creatures start across the bridge, but only one makes it to the other side. It’s an old story; it can be interpreted in any number of ways. In some versions they are swimming or floating on a raft.
The wind travels everywhere. But here, it is absolutely still, as if a circle around the old ruin defines a magical zone where the wind can’t penetrate. Something gray is moving through the trees in the distance.
He moves toward it, back toward the clearing, but can’t get any closer. It’s just a shape, maintaining its distance. In front of the ruin, the boy in the hoodie leans against the wall, lights a cigarette. He smokes in silence for a few moments. He smokes quite naturally, as if he’s been doing it for years. He doesn’t look up as Philip emerges from the trees, but flicks his ash.
Is that a Russian flag? the boy asks.
He points at a little flag on the former ambulance, striped vertically red, white and blue, next to a skull and crossbones.
I don’t know, says Philip. It could be.
I don’t think so, says the boy. I saw a Russian flag and I think it was different.
I’m gonna get me a Russian flag, the boy says.
Philip asks what’s so special about a Russian flag.
Because they were cool and they were fighting against the Nazis like we were, says the boy.
He stubs out his cigarette.
Who are you?
Who am I?
Are you the news?
The boy’s skin is perfectly smooth and ghostly white and unblemished, with pale freckles.
Why do you say that?
I saw you before, the boy says.
Right, says Philip.
There is nothing interesting about the boy’s face, except its haggardness. Probably his feelings are more complicated than the look on his face.
Kind of, he says. Kind of I’m the news.
But my dad grew up here.
The East Liberty Home for Boys?
No, not here here, says Philip.
The boy looks around, as if there might be somewhere else.
I mean the area, says Philip. I used to visit my grandma and grandpa around here.
The boy doesn’t seem impressed. He’s probably lived his whole life here—nothing Philip imagines could make himself belong.
As if he’d even want to—belong.
I’m writing a story, he says.
A story about the shooter, says the boy.
The idea of belonging oppressed Philip as a child. He’d thought he wanted to belong, but didn’t, until he eventually realized that he’d just rather not.
A story about the kids, he says. A story about the Amish.
The boy spits.
I live in California now, Philip says.
Like on that show, the boy says.
Like a lot of shows. But not very much.
The boy looks at him directly for the first time.
You ever write shows?
No, not shows.
The boy looks away, and it seems as if he’s thinking about something else, practicing a smile for a different occasion, or preparing to change his smile to a grimace at the appropriate time.
I was looking for an Amish woman, Philip says. Did you see her wandering around here?
Amish women don’t come here, the boy says. It was probably a ghost.
This place is haunted?
The boy shrugs.
You ever write about a suicide? he asks.
You know somebody who killed themselves?
He’s thinking about that.
Or maybe two.
Two, that’s a lot, says Philip. For somebody your age.
I think it’s a lot for anyone.
The boy wants to impress him. Or maybe he really wants to talk about something that’s bugging him. Philip tries to remember what you can say to a kid like this. It seems like he knew, once upon a time, or at least he thought he did.
You’re right, he says. It’s too much.
He can see something floating back toward the bridge.
Was it your family? Or friends?
Standing in the middle of the ruined bridge is the boy in the hoodie. Or a different boy in the same hoodie, since this one hasn’t budged.
You can’t marry a ghost, the boy says. Can you marry a ghost?
I don’t know. If the ghost was into it, probably you could.
The boy on the bridge looks like a monk, with his hood up, gazing down at the surface of the small river or large creek as if in prayer.
I’d do it with a ghost.
You’re just a kid. What are you, fifteen?
They could take over and change everything, the boy says.
The other one’s perfectly still, gazing down at the water.
A lot of people wander around this place, the boy says. It’s trouble if you don’t be careful. I don’t think all of them are real.
I’ll be careful. You be careful too. Of the real ones, especially.
I’m not scared.
The night has swallowed up everything. Philip doesn’t have a flashlight.
You should be scared, the boy says.
Why me more than you?
You don’t wanna die.
The thin trail, the path: the weeds are worn down by whatever has trampled on them to create a pale shimmer.
You don’t either.
Maybe I’m a ghost, the boy says.
You don’t look like a ghost.
Sometimes people can’t tell. Sometimes ghosts can’t tell.
Philip keeps his eye on the boy. He doesn’t want to look at the bridge.
If I was a ghost what would you do? the boy asks.
Same thing I’m doing now, I suppose.
You wouldn’t try to catch me?
No, of course not.
Children like to run away, Philip remembers. They like to run away and to hide and to get found and to get caught.
You could make a lot of money from me.
I don’t know about that.
If I was a ghost, I wouldn’t let you marry me, the boy says.
Now there’s nobody on the bridge.
You aren’t old enough to get married, Philip says. Even if you’re really dead.
The boy snorts. He seems to find that funny.
You like Wrath of God?
Wrath of God?
That band made of ex-Amish. He compares them to someone or something that Philip has never heard of. At first he thinks it must be another band, but then suspects it’s actually a kind of game, as the boy describes a kind of disintegration that seems to happen when an atomizing weapon is used to its full potential.
You know some Amish? Philip asks. Friends or family?
I know some, the boy says. I used to.
You didn’t know any of those boys.
Not those boys. Other ones.
In This Hideously Twirling Planet, the blind girl could see the future, but not the past. She had no long-term memory, the price she’d paid for a prophetic vision she didn’t really want.
Who did you know, Philip says. The suicide.
The boy flinches like he’s about to be smacked and then he says, Enjoy your visit, sir, and hurries down the path through the trees and over the bridge.
Philip says, Wait a second.
In the dark, through the trees, it looks like there’s two of them out there. For a second, but there’s only one. And Philip lets that one disappear.
Inside, Philip lights a match and examines the boy’s scratch marks. It looks like Ftn blu LEGIT or maybe Ein bim LEGIT. It’s surrounded by graffiti dating back years, maybe decades, some of it surely scrawled by the orphans who were raised here. Skulls and owls.
In any case, forgetting is just as good. Why not forget this, for example, this farmhouse? It’s out of the family now, so there’s no risk he’ll be recognized. A dog barks in the distance. He isn’t sure what he’s feeling; “nothing” most likely.
But it must be a deep sadness and a kind of resentment, he supposes, because he finds himself imagining a library composed only of the books that would have been written by those writers who died of AIDS, all those gay men and junkies and the rest, the ones who died in their 20s and 30s and 40s. The existential detective novel that would have been written by David Wojnarowicz, full of clues in burnt out warehouses and cruisy truck stops; the epic of social realism that Bo Huston would have written, a work so dark and strange that nobody would actually understand it as realism; Reinaldo Arenas, without the perfect ending of AIDS to wrap his bitterness around, would have befriended Johnny Depp and written a surreal biography that critics would have hailed as the discovery of a new form; Severo Sarduy would have written a novel that Tony would never read, as a matter of principle, called Mango, Guayabana, Cyanide; Herve’ Guibert would have written a novel called The Unfinished that would have opened, When the dead are well cared for, they enter the earth and are happy; Dambudzo Marechera would have perfected his attempt to make himself into a skeleton in his own cupboard; Yvonne Vera would have written a novel consisting of one 350-page sentence without a subject, about the rape and murder of a teenage girl in Zimbabwe; Nestor Perlongher would have fused his esoteric interests with the political radicalism of his earlier period to forge an entirely unprecedented approach to sexual identity and mystical masochism in a book of poems called Rabid; Bruce Chatwin would have written a memoir about his love affair with an imaginary gypsy in Antarctica; Sony Labou Tansi would have written a satirical novel about an African dictatorship ruled by an AIDS ghost; Essex Hemphill would have written a collection of sonnets about the life of racist poet Jim O’Bannon; Rick Jacobsen would have written a novel narrated collectively by all the boys Michael Jackson ever loved; Jamaica Kincaid’s brother would have written his own memoir in which his sister barely figured; Steve Abbott would have written a sequel to Holy Terror; Sam D’Allessandro would have rewritten Pinnochio; Melvin Dixon would have rewritten The Juniper Tree; and what about Thomas Avena? Is Thomas still alive? Philip used to run into him every couple of years, on Polk Street or the edges of the Tenderloin, hobbling along on his cane, talking up the nutrient value of fried fish, plotting to escape from his rent-controlled Tenderloin studio once and for all for Mount Shasta or some foggy residence on the coast, talking shit about AIDS meds, accompanying Philip to the latest showing of Jerome Caja’s paintings. But it’s been years now and Philip fears the worst. He’d like to believe that Thomas finally made it to Mount Shasta, finally found a drug regimen he could stick to, but in October in the Midwest on a cold night, surrounded by the ghosts of Amish children and gazing up at the Gothic farmhouse where his father grew up, it just doesn’t seem plausible. And what about all those gay and bisexual men, junkies and hemophiliacs who died, still prematurely, in their fifties, sixties, and seventies? Michel Foucault would have turned away from social theory and written a novella set in a gay dungeon; Isaac Asimov would have written a book of philosophy/psychology, the only category he was missing in the Dewey Decimal System, in which he would have formulated a rationalist and atheistic theory of knowledge as a sequence of tightly enclosed spaces harboring smaller and more tightly enclosed spaces, and the progression of the human mind deeper and deeper into these spaces as a descent into more and more sublime pleasures; James Merrill would have begun receiving transmissions directly from the future evolutionary forms hidden inside an active volcano and rendered their message in a poem in which each line represented a codon for one of the amino acids of the DNA, the poem itself forming a map for the crucial DNA mutation of a future form of life fluctuating in other dimensions as pure potential and trying desperately to emerge from human history, so as to give human history some sort of rationale, as prologue. A poor, distorted memory of pain, hunger, toil, loss, a kind of nonsensical yearning that could never be satisfied but that had continually tricked itself into believing it could. In the poem, this yearning itself would be a kind of transmission from the nonexistent forms pressing into the imaginal realms from the volcano, so that our dumb suffering forms would create a kind of culture. A chaotic soup, a bloody uncontrollable mess, out of which They would emerge and their luminous garden of eternal play and shadow; Arturo Islas, meanwhile, would have not only finished the third book of his trilogy, but would have written a novel in iambic pentameter (the sound of a limping man walking, or a young boy crippled by polio walking, himself walking), in which he would have imagined himself as an incarnation of the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca or Smoking Mirror, Lord of the Near and the Nigh, Night Wind, the Youth, the Enemy of Both Sides, Possessor of the Sky and Earth, the Keeper of Men, He by Whom We Live, He Whose Slaves We Are etc.; Harold Brodkey would have written a 900-page book of “short shorts” about his homosexual love affairs; Thom Gunn would have written a collection of rhyming couplets about the old bar South of Market called Good-bye Hole-In-The-Wall; Waylon McClatchy would have composed a new translation of Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre that would give off sparks and then disintegrate as it was being read. And why stop with the AIDS kids? This vast, Borgesian library could contain all the phantom manuscripts of the prematurely dead. Philip starts the rental car and pulls back onto the road. Had Joy Carter not been downed by the hormones or by the mysterious virus from New Guinea, she’d have become a student of dying languages and created an epic poem written in a particular dialect with no living speakers, not even herself. Raymond’s father might have returned to poetry and written a book of haiku about China and nanotechnology. One of the dead Amish boys might have composed a hallucinated act of Amish terrorism in prose. There was some budding poet scrabbling for his dinner in some shanty-town beneath a garbage dump in Manila, killed at the age of eight when the mounds of garbage tumbled onto his entire community and wiped them out. The next Rimbaud joined up with the Shining Path at the age of twelve and died of cholera at the age of thirteen. One of the first great Afghani modernist poets was wiped out during his sister’s wedding ceremony by an errant American missile. And what about Dania Dominguez, he wonders, as he drives back through the little town where his grandmother lived with her oldest daughter, after Philip’s grandfather died. Dania Dominguez was a Dominican TG whose only published short story Philip had discovered in the back pages of a short-lived web journal that culled its material from the writing workshops of Bay Area prisons, juvenile detention centers, and homeless shelters. Philip didn’t much read that sort of thing anymore, with the predictable hard luck stories and celebrations of outlaw romance. He’d only chanced upon Dania’s story when it showed up for a mistyped web search. A baroque outpouring of the most beautifully ungrammatical sentences, a sort of stutter of clauses piled upon clauses, a collision of descriptions of drug highs and drug lows, elaborately tortured phrases about impossible family hells abandoned in the sub-tropical sun and about books stolen from the shelves of social service agencies. They were all Houses: Huckleberry House, Hospitality House, Guerrero House. The story ended ambiguously, with all of the plots dissipating or becoming utterly meaningless in the face of a clearly doomed escape attempt from a nameless House by a character who’d only but appeared in the next-to-last paragraph, but whose trajectory perfectly contained that of every other character in the story. Philip had already begun creating anthologies in his mind that he might labor over for years and that would serve as forums in which he could publish the work of Dania Dominguez next to that of Ascher/Straus, Stacey Levine, Alvin Lu, and Brendan Pelt, that lyrical diaper fetishist who used to date Ted. He was imagining elaborate scenarios in which he would liberate Dania Dominguez from her stunted literary halfway house and deliver her into the world of under-appreciated geniuses, when he went to her Bio and discovered that she had died at the age of twenty-three, before her story was even published. The anthology fantasy quickly morphed into one of discovering the lost journals of Dania Dominguez, scouring the storage shelves of various Houses where her duffel bag might still be sitting, to discover a heap of black-speckled notebooks, a mishmash of diary entries, unsent love letters, Spanish and English slang all jumbled together and just enough brilliant little stories and monologues and prose poems to piece together a slim collection that would glow, radioactive, in the slush pile of every editor and agent in the world, catch fire and burn a hole in their cold literary hearts with its incandescent joy and despair and naïve formal brilliance. It was just around that time that Philip was invited to attend the first Huey Beauregard reading by Ted, or maybe Todd, or maybe both Ted and Todd. It must have been Todd, whose ex, Benton Archer, had given Huey Beauregard his entrée into the literary world.