SPRING BREAKERS is a Triumph of Cinema

sbfranco

 Spring Breakers is a tough, brilliant, and devastatingly powerful chameleon of a movie. It occupies opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum, simultaneously challenging and beautiful in its simplicity. Writer/director Harmony Korine has given us perhaps the most artful inspection of our current times, a steadfast yet nonjudgmental gaze into the abyss of contemporary youth culture and the sandblasted remains of the American Dream.

Like most great ringmasters, Mr. Korine populates his stage with grand spectacle, enlisting the help of DP Benoît Debie (frequent partner of auteur Gaspar Noé) to paint a stunning portrait of the world of contradictions Korine’s teenagers inhabit. The visual landscape of Spring Breakers is at once alluring and terrifying, poignant and meaningless, dream-like and nightmarish (much as I’m loathe to admit it, Skrillex also provides a spot-on original score). The sun-bleached hedonism on display pulls us back and forth over the line that separates longing from revulsion, patiently reeling the audience into a seemingly idyllic pleasure island that hides darker undercurrents.

To this same end, Korine has selected four actresses who themselves are products of America’s obsession with the duality of youthful innocence and titillating sexuality. Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine (the director’s wife) are breathing representations of the transition between youthful naïveté and the wholesale rejection of morality in the pursuit of happiness. All are serviceable, but special praise should be reserved for Hudgens and Gomez, who, as alumni of the Disney school of teen princesses, are as likely to be condemned rather than praised for embracing what are sure to be controversial roles in a film that is guaranteed to be dismissed, if not outright rejected by most of their fanbase and professional contacts.

The undisputed show-stealer award, however, must go to James Franco. What are we to make of his character, Alien, rapper, hedonist, and unrepentant criminal? In the hands of a lesser director, Alien might be presented as a tragic figure, but Korine refuses to make pronouncements about any of his characters’ places in the moral tapestry. Rather, Alien, and by a lesser extent, his cadre of female followers, are neutral players in a long race to what’s perceived as the bottom, but, in the context of a culture ripped of any meaning and true creative enterprise, becomes the apex of success. It’s no mistake that, in a scene sure to be quoted by cult followers for years to come, Franco cavorts around his bedroom, MTV Cribs style, showing off bundles of cash, designer clothing, assault weapons, and, in the most obvious satirizing of the consumer-takes-all attitude celebrated and engendered by shows like Cribs and the stars that inhabit them, “Scarface on motherfuckin’ repeat”.

At first glance it might be easy to mistake Alien as a latter-day minstrel show exhibit; a clownish buffoon whose organic obsession with the trappings of hip hop culture makes him ripe for ridicule. However, the takeaway from the whole of Spring Breakers is not an indictment of a subculture that eschews things of true value in favor of empty materialism, but rather a supposition: when a society strips itself of meaning, is there any true measure of success, and by extension, fulfillment beyond the systematic destruction of established values? As Alien tells the girls when relating his life story, “I just wanted to be bad.” When every opportunity to be good has withered away, after all, what’s left?

This nihilistic approach to a life that can know no other achievements runs parallel to the one taken by our quartet of co-eds, who earlier in the film have unflinchingly robbed a restaurant in order to finance their trip to Florida. Candy, Brit, and Cotty have no hesitations about embracing crime in order to escape the drab trappings and tedious partying of their Kentucky college town, and Faith (Gomez) shows only the slightest hesitation at joining the escapades. From there, it’s a non-stop orgy of beach, booze, drugs, nudity, and non-stop partying, broken up only by arriving police who temporarily place a damper on all the fairy-tale good times and bouts of supposed self-discovery (those young enough to remember their own Spring Break days in high school and/or college might recall the feeling of connection and rightness that accompanied those first forays into excess).

Alien comes to the rescue and bails the girls out, briefly giving them the highlights of his life story and then acts as a tour guide for a trip deeper into the party pits of South Florida, which “good Christian” girl Faith immediately balks at. She hops on a bus back home and the rest of the crew goes about their merry way. From here, the plot blossoms into full on fable mode, complete with a mysterious feud between former best friends Alien and Archie (played with appropriate dumb menace by Gucci Mane) that snatches another of the group away until only the wildest of the bunch, Brit and Candy, are left to help Alien with his last-ditch run at glory in a climactic storm on Archie’s estate.

When the smoke clears and the bullets are all spent, we’re left with an appropriately anticlimactic ending. The destination of all the drama, seediness, dark murmurings, and brash proclamations comes down to nothing more than a few dead bodies on a cool Florida night, with nowhere else to go but somewhere far away. Brit and Candy, who have spent most of the film trapped in various throes of malicious glee, leave the land of St. Petersburg Florida as conquerors, accompanied only by the low hum of Archie’s stolen sports car as they speed off into the night.

As the credits roll, we ponder the grotesque, beautiful savagery of the film we just sat through, and what it says to our generation, mired in every possible incarnation of sound and fury we could think to cloak ourselves with. Spring Breakers is not an empty echo chamber for the rattlings of youth gone wild on excess, nor is it a ham-fisted morality play about the dangers and tragedy of a world stripped of meaning and goals. Rather, Korine seeks to draw us into the world that’s sprung up so gradually around us we might not recognize it at first glance. In that same scene of celebration and self-affirmation, Alien jumps around his bedroom demanding that the girls (and by extension, the audience) “Look at my shit!” What goals and values do we have left, and what physical manifestations are held up as tokens of success? It’s a question Spring Breakers asks of the audience, but steadfastly refuses to answer, perhaps because there is no satisfactory response as of the time of this writing.

Spring Breakers is a tour de force of beauty, tragedy, horror, comedy, and the grand illusion of happiness. It’s easy to dismiss Korine’s film as snide and ironic lip service to a generation going down the toilet, but closer inspection reveals a comedian hinting at very real fallout with very damaging results. As he proudly casts an eye (wrapped in mirrored sunglasses) over his worldly kingdom, Alien, in one of his more lucid moments, proclaims “This is the American dream,” a line that produces as many shudders as it does laughter. Do we need to tremble for what might be, or should we weep for what already is?

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Rambling Thoughts: JUGGALOS

ARE JUGGALOS THE NEW HELL’S ANGELS?

 

Hear me out, people.

 

Yes, I have been re-reading Hunter S. Thompson’s incredible book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga for what must be the 18th time, but I’ve been thinking about juggalos since long before that. I realize that Insane Clown Posse and their fans, aka juggalos, have gone through such a strange rollercoaster of public opinion (nobody, really famous, nobody, really famous for being universally mocked, and now occupy some weird space that can only be summed up by the phrase ‘I hated juggalos before hating juggalos was cool’) that everyone’s pretty much sick of hearing about them, but I can’t stop.

 

There’s something so incredibly wonderful and compelling about Insane Clown Posse and their bizarre, sprawling fan-base/subculture. I’m not sure if a more viciously derided group of music fans has ever existed outside of white supremacist rock, but even that tends to mostly be ignored. To be fair and allow for 100% accountability, juggalos are eminently mockable for the following reasons (disclaimer: I realize these are huge generalizations):

 

*They listen to music that most people agree is terrible (but is it really that much worse than other stuff that won’t get you treated like a social pariah if you admit to liking it?)

 

*They look strange. (You’d think this was no longer a socially acceptable reason to mock people, but what do you know.)

 

*They possess a certain sneering contempt for normalcy that seems sadly reminiscent of the attitude 14-year-old goth kids have. (In other words, they seem obsessed with how much people hate them.)

 

*Their ethos of their movement seems to be based around the idea of doing whatever you want, but for most, that seems to boil down to listening to Psychopathic Records (ICP’s label) artists, getting fucked up, and not much else.

 

I should state for the record that I’m not sure if I’ve ever even seen a juggalo in real life, so all of this speculation comes from secondhand source material. I do remember knowing people who had ICP albums when I was in middle school, but that seemed tied up in the general “rebel against your parents by listening to weird music” phase, and also included artists like KoRn and Limp Bizkit.. It wasn’t until Insane Clown Posse re-entered the public consciousness sometime around 2009 with their song and music video “Miracles” that people really began to try and pour gas on the fire.

 

Like juggalos themselves, the lyrics and video for “Miracles” were very easy to make fun of, but the vicious outpouring of snide comedy that followed should raise a few eyebrows about the current cultural climate we’re in. For all their faults (and believe me, there are many), I don’t think many people would question ICP/juggalos sincerity. “Miracles” seems to be a fairly mediocre song about how cool life and the universe is, and why it shouldn’t be taken for granted. I’m not saying Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope are visionaries for writing a typical song about how cool stuff is, but the song, coupled with the knowledge that ICP were totally into God led many a hipster to go and on about how ICP thought magnets were evidence of the almighty (a claim that’s hard to cast aside with lyrics like “I don’t want to talk to a scientist/Y’all motherfuckers lying/And getting me pissed”).

 

The entire debacle made me wonder if there’s something more to the juggalo lifestyle than meets the eye, but as with any maligned subculture, things aren’t that simple. All juggalos who appear on camera or in print are quick to talk about how all-inclusive the subculture is: anybody can be a juggalo, in theory. You just have to accept people for who they are and not judge. Hippie-dippie as this philosophy might sound for a band and fanbase that are so obsessed with a violent fantasy world, it’s further confused by the fact that juggalos might be the most sealed-off subculture that exists today. Nearly every journalist who has attended the Gathering of the Juggalos makes at least a passing reference to how suspiciously they were viewed, presumably for not looking, talking, and acting like the other thousands of juggalos attending the event.

 

This is what got me thinking about the Hell’s Angels. While there are plenty (PLENTY) of difference between the two groups, there are too many similarities to ignore. Both are universally maligned in their day. Both are viewed as the dregs of society and have turned that into their own badge of pride. Both go out of their way to wig out “normal” people by behavior, dress, and general commitment to the notion of “doing whatever the fuck I want”—which as said before, usually entails copious amounts of booze, drugs, and sex.

 

The biggest difference, of course, is that there was always something romantic and alluring about outlaw motorcycles, and there’s clearly nothing romantic and alluring (to outsiders) about juggalos, aside from their value as walking punchlines. In short, the Hell’s Angels were fascinating enough for a zonked-out reporter to write an entire book about them and their history, whereas all media coverage of juggalos has thus far been limited to snide and admittedly biased speculation like this essay. To date, the most objective writing about juggalos can probably be found on Wikipedia.

 

Like the Hell’s Angels, juggalos are leery of outsiders, to the point that even thinking about a serious, meticulously researched book on the subculture and its history seems nearly impossible. Unlike the Angels, juggalos, or at least, Insane Clown Posse, exist in a state of near-total independence: they run their own events, sell their own merchandise, run their own record label…the list goes on and on. We might never see a serious journalist get access to ICP and their fanbase long enough to write something truly informative simply because they don’t really need publicity.

In another odd twist of fate, bikers and juggalos now occupy close to the same cultural space. Nobody really fears roving bands of outlaw Harley-riders anymore, in fact, they’ve been parodied on South Park, which is as close to a universal “not controversial anymore” stamp as exists in popular culture. If given a choice, most people would probably choose to fight a band of juggalos over a band of bikers, but in terms of how much mockery they produce in private, both subcultures are probably equal.

 

I’m convinced that there’s a lot of information to mine here, I’m just not sure if anybody can get to it. Something as quintessentially American as juggalos (could this subculture even exist without the underclass of the Midwestern diaspora? Is juggalodom the ultimate melting pot of all other subcultures?) demands to be inspected as the relevant thing that it is in our society, hidden from view and mired in confusion though it may be. So far, I’ve been given only two real inspections of the phenomenon. There’s Vice magazine’s “In the Land of the Juggalos”, which, while wildly entertaining, is so full of snarky asides and peering-down-the-bridge-of-the-glasses superiority, it kind of makes you identify more with the juggalos. Much better is the half hour mini-documentary American Juggalo, which is available streaming for free online, and desperately needs to be turned into a full-length movie (the director wisely went the route of no commentary, the whole thing is nothing but talking-head juggalo interviews). If someone could get enough access to write a fair and accurate history of the country’s most peculiar set of outcasts, I could die a happy man.

Karaoke Good Times

Karaoke may be the last pure art form left.

True, we could sit here and debate whether or not singing your own untrained vocals over a canned version of a hit song really qualifies as “art”, but it’s one of the few low-risk ventures for those folks out there looking for the thrill of performance.

It requires little (or no) money.

Anybody can do it.

You won’t feel like you’re risking your personal reputation by doing it (versus a stand-up comedy open mic, bugging your friends to see your band, or trying to get people to come to your poetry reading).

“But John,” you say, “I can’t sing!” Have no fear. Karaoke is one of the few art forms left where success in the medium isn’t heavily weighted by who has the best skill set going in. That being said, if you really and truly can’t carry a tune in any way shape or form, maybe you’d be better off backing someone up. STILL, with that caveat, here are the keys to making sure your time on the karaoke stage is successful.

1. Play against Expectations

I was recently at one of my favorite karaoke spots in the country, Ego’s Bar             on Congress in Austin, TX. The reigning king of Ego’s is the honorable             Reverend Barry Willie Black, an older bearded cowboy of a gentleman who wears all black leather, a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and has arms covered in Texas-themed tattoos. A small sample of his usual selections: “OMG” by Black Eyed Peas, “Call me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen, and “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5. Two friends of mine, Murphey and Michael (both white dudes in their mid-20s), sang a flawless version of “It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy. A heavyset black woman sang “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi, and a clean-cut fratty looking guy sang a Fiona Apple song. If you go outside of your comfort zone and a little bit into comedy, the audience will be with you from the start, no matter how off-key you are.

2. Pick a song with good dynamics

This isn’t all that hard, since the most popular karaoke songs tend to follow this formula, but a song that uses the same level of intensity throughout is less likely to be a smash hit than one that alternates. Even if you’re not the most gifted singer in the world, audiences will be impressed that you had the balls to pick a song that has moments of OOMPH in them. The most common layout is a song that has a normal level verse, and then a belting chorus or bridge.

3. Commitment is Key

This really should have been number one. You have to stick to your guns, and like a fun, over-the-top movie, never laugh at yourself or give up or look nervous or believe that you are anything less than the star-studded rock god/goddess you know you are. It’s all about the attitude.

THE FLOOD (new short story)

I fell in love with the devil last week. She was laid out on the sidewalk in front of Ernie’s pizzeria, bleeding to death. At least, that’s what I thought. I’m not sure now if it’s really possible for her to die. I hope so. That’s the only hope I have left.

She was lying out on the sidewalk, all wet and shivering. At first she looked like a pile of garbage bags, but then I saw the long red hair splayed out over the concrete, and when I turned her over, it matched the blood caked around her face, like stained porcelain. She was beautiful, even underneath all the grime and flesh pulpy with broken bones. I think it hit me the moment I saw her eyes flutter open, a glimmer of sapphire in the light of the street lamp. I asked what happened, who she was and where she had come from, but she couldn’t say anything but ‘water’, so I got it for her from inside.

Ernie wanted to know what the hell was going on, but I could only tell him that I knew as much as he did. He called 9-1-1 while I brought her the water. I held it to her mouth but she refused to drink it, pursing her lips against the wax coca-cola cup. When two black vans pulled up, I was confused, and then I knew for certain they weren’t paramedics. They were big guys, dressed in all black, looking like more pumped-up versions of the Russian wannabe gangsters that hang out in midtown. They asked me a few questions that I couldn’t answer and then they pulled her into one of the vans and they drove off. I thought that was the last I had seen of her.

Then she kept appearing again and again, all over the city. I saw someone fall into the subway tracks, and it was her. I spread out on the platform on my belly and yanked her up just before the train came crashing through, but she ran off before I could get up and talk to her. Then she was in the park, smashing her head against the side of a rocky outcropping, behind one of those flimsy-ass fences that says “preserve the environment”. Then she was walking down Broadway, not on the sidewalk, but in the middle of the street, traffic screaming around her with angry horns blaring. I pushed her out of the way and tried to talk to her again, to just spill my guts and say that I thought she was the most maddeningly beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life, but she only screamed for me to leave her alone, and she ran again. I followed her around the corner, but once I was there, she was nowhere to be found in either direction.

The big guys in black came to visit me again. They showed up at my work, when I was sitting on a stool outside a bar in Green Point. They said that I needed to come with them, and I told them that I was working, but they said I wouldn’t be missed, and then the biggest one, who had horse teeth, said “Promise,” with a grin. I went with them because I didn’t know what else to do. They put me in a car, a big one with tinted windows, and we drove out of the city and kept driving for what seemed like hours, before we came to a building on the edge of the road, surrounded by nothing but grass and a wooden fence. Inside there was a little man in a blue suit, and he smiled and shook my hand and said that I had been very bad, that I needed to mind my own business. He said he knew how beautiful she was, but that I couldn’t keep doing this, that it wouldn’t be good for me, or for anyone else.

I asked who the hell he was and what he was talking about, but he didn’t explain, he only told me that I needed to stop, and to mind my own business, and he just knew that I would do great things. Then the big guys in black, led by Horseface came back and put me in the car again. We got back to the city late, and they dropped me at my apartment, even though I hadn’t told them where I lived. I went inside and called the bar, but before I could even explain what happened, the guy who answered said I needed to come in right away, because there was a red-haired crazy lady demanding to see the owner. I asked why he called me then, and he only said “very funny,” as he hung up the phone. I went back to the bar and walked in, and everything was cleaner and more put-together than it had ever been the entire time I’d been working there. Lynn, one of the waitresses, walked by and asked if she could take tomorrow night off, and I said it wasn’t up to me, and she looked at me with this weird look, so I kept walking to the bar. Ronnie was on the other end, and his arms were folded across his chest as a lady with red hair, beautiful alabaster skin, and twinkling blue eyes screamed at him for the owner. It was her, and she was drunk.

Ronnie saw me walking up and told the lady to turn around, and she did, almost falling over. “Who do you think you are,” she screamed, slurring her words. “D’you know what you’ve done?” I said that I had no idea, and then she started to cry, and Ronnie asked if I wanted her out. “Don’t fucking touch me again,” she screamed, but the two other bounces who appeared didn’t listen, and they each took an arm for a split second before they let her go, hollering and clutching at their palms. I looked at one of the guys’ hands, watched it smolder and smoke like plastic held up against a desk lamp. “Get out of here,” I told them, and they went.

We drank at the bar, and nobody else bothered us, while she told me through tears that they had been keeping her, and making her produce for them. I asked what she was producing, and she threw back another shot, and said “sorrow”, and then she glared at me as I laughed. She said that now they had gotten to me, because I kept interfering with the plan. I asked what the plan was and she said that she kept trying to escape, to make sure she couldn’t produce for them anymore, but that I kept saving her, and they didn’t like that, even though it kept them in business. None of it made any sense to me, but I still listened. She said that now they had given me this, and gestured to the bar we were sitting at, and told me that they were going to catch me up in it too, now. And make sure that I paid for meddling. They always made sure they got paid, she said, and then she vomited all over the bar. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, hoping that any of it would make sense by the time I got out, but when I returned she had crawled behind the bar and was guzzling form a bottle of scotch. Ronnie and I got it away from her, and we carried her out to a cab while she was screaming that we didn’t understand. I told the driver to take her wherever she wanted, and he didn’t leave until I had given him almost fifty bucks.

The next day it rained like it never does in the city. It was sheets of slashing Midwestern rain with lightning and thunder that only happens in wide open spaces. It rained and it kept raining and raining until the water began to creep up over the sidewalks and the parks and cars started to float out into the ocean. I saw the girl with the red hair again. She was kneeling at the edge of the Hudson greenway, shoving her head underneath the water as it swallowed all the earth in its path, and I pulled her out from beneath the bench she had tangled herself in. She screamed and kicked and bit at me, telling her I didn’t understand, that I had to let her go, but I had never wanted anybody so badly in all my life, and I told her so. She cried, and continued to cry as I walked her back to my apartment on the 10th floor, and she cried when I undressed her and put her in the tub and she cried while she bathed and after she got out and came into the living room naked, still dripping wet. We made love on the couch, and she still cried, and her nails felt like fire raking into my back, and I felt hot tears running down my shoulders as she said “you’re never going to understand” over and over and over.

I fell asleep to the sounds of her sniffling, and I dreamt that the man in the blue suit and Horseface were there in my apartment, and that they had tied me to the towel rack in my bathroom while the other big guys in black pressed a brand against my skin. When I woke up, my face was burning and itching, and I ran to the bathroom and looked in the mirror to see my flesh crawling with disease, sores opening and closing like mouths in the middle of a soundless scream. She appeared behind me, and wiped the tears from her eyes before she blubbered “I knew it would happen, I’m sorry, I knew it would happen,” and then she ran out of the room.

I followed her, and found her throwing herself at the windows. This high up they didn’t open, and she was trying to break the glass. I tried to stop her, to wrap her up in a bear hug but she kept breaking free and charging the glass, telling me she had to go, that I had to let her go, but I didn’t understand. I pressed her against the glass, trying to keep her from backing up for another charge, and I could see out the window and down to the street, see the whirling tide pool of the city coming up little by little, the cars and people and park benches and dogs and newsstands all floating by as the water came up and up and up. She threw me aside and charged the window again, and this time it broke, and the rain began to pour in as the water outside rose. I caught her by the waist as she tried to slither out through the broken window, and her hand slipped around the frame of the window on the broken glass, the blood sluicing out of her hand and running down the wall and into the water as it slowly filled the apartment. “You have to let me go,” she cried, digging into my hands around her waist with her nails like fire. “You have to let me go.” The water began to crest over the window, and bits of broken glass and grass and newspaper began to flood into the apartment.

I held on tighter, and I kissed her face, then her mouth, and I heard her whimper again as the water began to pool around us on the floor. “Please,” she said. “You don’t understand.”

I did. I finally did. But I held on tighter.

LAST EXIT (new short story)

He had moved every summer since he left his parent’s house at eighteen. He wanted to say it was a relief to be done, but he couldn’t. Not when a thin film of sweat hung around his body like a glistening second skin, soaking through his tee-shirt and making him painfully aware of his flabby chest. The moisture never stopped moving. It crept down the back of his neck and pooled in the sunken hollow of his diaphragm. Most disgusting of all, it turned his nether regions into a steaming, slippery mass of flesh, so irritated and foul he was sure he could feel a case of jock itch coming on. Still, this was the last time.

He didn’t know for certain what pushed him over the edge, but his Grandmother had certainly helped. The old girl had left him and each one of her grandchildren a hefty inheritance. Really, it was a small fortune, and he had been surprised when he discovered the full amount. It didn’t catapult him into the realm of lottery winners or the Hollywood Elite, but it was more than he had ever known someone his age to have. At least, someone he knew personally.

This silver lining only came after she had been diagnosed, and then suffered through a blessedly short battle with colon cancer, a time that had been hard on the entire extended family, but had struck him as mostly surreal, like some sort of Lynchian nightmare. Everything about her last week was so strange and wrong that he hadn’t the presence of mind to cry until her memorial service, when he very suddenly burst into tears, as he sat in the second pew behind his mother and father. He felt as though all eyes in the church had turned to look at him, but he couldn’t stop, and was too ashamed to lift his head up. Instead, he bawled through most of the homily, only able to control his quavering wails when his cousin laid her own trembling hand across the nape of his neck.

He had passed most of his nights back home with mindless indulgence, staying out until the bars closed every night and then frantically calling each girl he still knew in the city until he was certain he had no choice but to return to his own bed. Actually, it was the guest bed now. His own childhood room remained untouched, but he had long since outgrown the tiny twin mattress and now slept in his older brother’s repurposed quarters, that existed in some strange purgatory between a memorial and a replacement. The walls had been repainted, and all the posters taken down, but there was still amateur artwork everywhere, most of it now framed by their mother. The dresser was still full of clothes, all of it made for the whippet-thin kids they had been in high school. Half of the memories of his sibling had been erased, but that only made what was left stand out in stark relief against the scrubbed sterility of the Guest Room makeover. It only served to remind him of exactly what he was in his parents’ home; a family member and a loved one to be sure, but a guest above all else.

He wondered now, hauling in the last of the boxes from the U-haul parked outside, if that had spurred his seemingly rash decision. It had only been three months since he first saw the ad, though he had been idly searching the Internet since he had left his hometown for his apartment on the coast. He always knew he wanted to own a house one day. Being the youngest child in a family of means had left him spoiled and expectant of space and comfort, but his own father’s miserly tendencies had been passed down to him, and thus he was never quite comfortable with ponying up the cash he needed to rent an apartment that suited his desires. Once he had been back on the job for a week (his employers had generously given him a full week with his family), he found himself paging through real estate listings more and more often. At first, it was a method of motivation, a reminder of what he might someday get to if he kept working and kept his thoughts in check. Then he had quickly realized that he had no knowledge whatsoever of housing markets, and that decent, and even better than decent homes were cheaper than he thought. He began expanding his search outside of the coast, and drifted back to the town of his Alma Mater, where he had spent most of his adult life and where many of his closest friends still resided. He had allowed himself to daydream and rationalize, all of it kept safe with the knowledge that he could never afford such an extravagance as home ownership, or at lest, not for a while.

Then the letter from the executor of his grandmother’s estate had come, and once it had been opened, it remained lying on his coffee table while he sat a safe distance away, eyeing it with suspicion while he downed half a pack of cigarettes. He was suddenly a wealthy man, and he was just as suddenly faced with the realization that at least one thing he wanted was firmly within his grasp. He deliberated a few hours longer, and then made a decision.

Now he was here, back in the steamy town of his not-so-long-forgotten youth, and he had just put the last box inside the front door of the house. His house. The U-haul was open, but he didn’t want to go back out in that oppressive heat, with humidity so crushing he felt as though the air were digesting him. He quickly reasoned that nobody would want to steal a dolly and two rubber floor mats, and locked the front door. The clack of the tumblers echoed through the empty space, bouncing off the hardwood and mingling with the noise of his footsteps as he walked across the expanse of he living room floor to flop down on the couch. Interior decoration could wait until tomorrow, he thought, and drifted off to sleep.

 

He awoke some time later. The familiar sound of cicadas hummed softly on the other side of the windows, and Dave smiled to himself, briefly confident that he had made the right choice to return. He twisted on the couch, contorting his enormous frame into a more comfortable position. A yawn stretched his mouth and brought water to his eyes, and when he brushed it away, he felt instantaneously refreshed and optimistic. The living room was darker, with a few trace amounts of withered grey light filtering in through the curtainless windows. Dave stood up on creaking bones and hobbled across the room, pleased with how easily the window opened. He stuck his head outside and found the air had cooled rapidly since he fell asleep, with ominous storm clouds beginning to roll in from the West. He knelt on the floor, propping himself up on the sill of the window with his elbows, and hung his chin outside, enjoying the breeze as he cast a lazy eye around his new neighborhood.

There was a large, mud-spattered pickup parked at the end of the gravel drive directly across the street from his. Some unknown person shuttled between the bed of the truck and the yard, unloading a series of objects wrapped in blue tarps. A middle-aged man and a little girl walked briskly down the sidewalk closest to Dave’s house, the little girl prattling on in a breathless voice while the man nodded and smiled. Dave smiled as the girl suddenly noticed him watching and broke into a gap-toothed grin, followed by maniacal waving. He returned her wave, and her father’s polite nod. They continued down the sidewalk, shuffling a little faster as thunder growled in the distance. The two trees out front rustled against the wind, and Dave felt the first few drops of moisture tickle his face. He straightened up, shut the door, and walked back across the great expanse of hardwood to the front door, his steps booming in the unfurnished room.

He unlocked the front door and crunched across the gravel drive to the open U-haul, noting with a small hint of dismay that the dolly and floor mats were nowhere to be found. Some things never change, he thought as he yanked the rolling door down by its strap, recalling more than one night passed by a series of drunken petty larcenies (anything that wasn’t nailed down to a front porch was fair game). The door finally gave way and clattered down, and Dave removed his padlock, managing to beat a hasty retreat to the front door moments before the first sheets of rain came slashing down.

He shut the door behind him, feeling exhilarated. He was long overdue for a good thunderstorm: it never rained out on the coast, something he had always found curious. Many children were scared of the thunder, but Dave had always loved it. He still fondly recalled a family trip to New Mexico when they had crossed a great expanse of open plains during a torrential downpour, and each jagged lightning strike had lit up entire sections of the black clouds draped overhead. The peals of thunder that followed had been terrible and magnificent, the aftershocks seeming to roll out forever across the endless prairie that zipped by the window. Dave’s brother had been scared, though tried not to show it, peppering their bleary-eyed mother and father with questions as Dave sat up in his seat, nose pressed tightly against the glass.

There was a bounce in his step as he crossed the living room once again, weaving through the islands of the kitchen to the back wall of the breakfast nook, where a small staircase was tucked inconspicuously into the corner. The property was set into a slight hillside in such a way that the “ground floor” of the house gave way in the rear to a screened-in porch with a walkway that led down to a sunken backyard, with a small spare room tucked into the side of the hill below. Dave thumped down the linoleum covered stairs, making a mental note to figure out how much it would cost him to have those redone, and shivered as he landed at the bottom. The room that he planned to furnish into a study was cold, the floors done up in brick and the walls thin against the howling wind. Still, it was the perfect size for what he had in mind, and it even came equipped with a working fireplace on the exterior wall, all the better for lounging around during days like these. He pushed and pulled some boxes out of the way until he could reach his leather recliner chair, which he shoved over to a corner by the window, situating it just so. Dave sighed as he settled into the chair, the rain beginning to patter against the glass pane inches from his face as the thunder gave off a muted, soothing boom. Things were looking ok. He wondered if it was an inherent backwardness in his soul that made him feel at peace and serene when the weather raged, but deep down, he knew that he had made the right choice, that perhaps a little grounding was all he needed to get his life on track.

Dave sank deeper into the recliner and closed his eyes, feeling the steady drum of the rain begin to lull him into dozing once again. A blister of thunder pulled him out of his reverie, and then a close, ear-splitting shockwave followed, forcing him from the chair in a near-euphoric display of enthusiasm.

“Let the heavens fall!” he shouted at the low ceiling. Upstairs, a door slammed.

His eyes slowly drifted upwards. Was he hearing things? He turned to look at the narrow staircase leading back upstairs and felt his heart thud hollowly against his breastplate. There was no flicker of shadows, no approaching footsteps. Cautiously, he went over to the stairs and poked his head around the shaky banister, craning his neck at an awkward angle to see if he could get a look into the kitchen.

Nothing. The rain smacked loudly against the windows and the last ounces of daylight cast strange liquid shadows on the wall, but no one was there. Dave exhaled softly, and mounted the steps two at a time. Once his feet were firmly planted on the tile of the kitchen he felt more comfortable. More on dry land. Perhaps he had only been imagining it, or mistook a sound from outside for the front door. A few waves of uneasiness still sloshed around in the pit of his stomach but he tried to ignore them.

Dave had already decided that he was too tired to unpack all the boxes now, but he would need to at least find where he had stored his bedding. Kitchen utensils could wait until later; he would order in from that awesome wing place he and his friends had frequented during college. The thought of food brought an involuntary moistness to his lips, for he had been on the road for nearly 6 hours and then unpacking for another 3 without much more than gas station junk food to satiate him. First thing was first, though. He pushed through weariness and hunger towards the pile of cardboard boxes stacked three high in his living room, and then felt something squelch underneath his foot.

He looked down and saw mud, black as tar, creeping out from under his sneaker. They ran from just shy of the kitchen’s threshold all the way back to the front door: a series of muddy boot prints, two by two up to where he was standing and then the same back to the door. Panic-stricken, Dave dashed through the rest of the house, flinging open the doors to both bedrooms and the bathroom, only giving the most cursory glance into each blank, darkened chamber before moving on. His head swam with possibilities and wild accusations, and he whirled around in place, trying to think of something to do. The adrenaline began to taper off again, and his instinct to fight gave way to creeping dread as he racked his brain for some sort of solution. He stomped over to the window and pressed his face to the glass, but everyone had retreated indoors, away from the storm. He went to turn away, but then something caught his eye.

The mud-spattered track was still there, across the street. The bed was nearly empty now, but a few of the blue tarps flapped against the wind, their color brilliant against the grayscale of the storm. Dave scanned his view from the window for any other movement, but there was none. Then, a person (the same from before?) emerged from the side of the house, and began to pull the wrapped objects from the back of the vehicle. It was a man, Dave could see that now. He was dressed in a pair of ratty, paint-spattered jeans and a puffy vest that resembled a life preserver, worn over a grey hooded sweatshirt that obscured his face. The bed dipped and bounced under the man’s weight, and Dave watched, mesmerized, as he disappeared each of the wrapped objects, of varying dimensions, around the corner of the house. The man came back for the final load, hopped onto the bed, and hoisted the cargo onto his shoulder. He then carefully made his way to the edge of the truck and hopped down, pausing to reposition the bundle seconds before he turned and looked at Dave. Dave reached for curtains that weren’t there, feeling the coldness of the man’s gaze reaching out from underneath the shadow of his hood. The man stood stock still, staring through the slashing rain as it slowly darkened the grey of his sweatshirt. Without thinking, Dave’s hand slowly came up and waved limply back and forth. The man turned and tromped off into his backyard. His boots were splattered with mud.

 

He had wasted no time in calling the police, but they proved to be unhelpful. While the responding officer was polite and expressed and appropriate amount of concern over the strange footprints in his house, he also, somewhat apologetically, explained that if Dave hadn’t seen anybody enter his home, they really had nothing to go on.

“Are you at least going to go question him?” Dave asked, indignant. The officer again apologized, but said that the man who lived across the street was not at home, and once again, given the circumstances, they did not have cause to search his property. He did, after some convincing, agree to go over and have a look. Dave leaned against the frame of his front door while the officer walked across the street, hitching his belt up in a universal code that he really didn’t want to be doing what he was doing. Dave saw the officer walk leisurely around the driveway, running his flashlight over the bed of the truck and inside the cab. The storm had petered out to a light misting of drizzle, and Dave watched the officer wipe beads of water from his brow as he sauntered over to the fence line, flicking his flashlight beam up and down the yard. Given his nonchalant walk back to the house, Dave could only assume that there was nothing incriminating anywhere, and the officer said as much once he had returned.

“Listen, if you’re really concerned about this my advice is to lock your doors. I know this is a safe neighborhood but you can never be too careful, OK? If you want us to, we’ll send a unit to do a drive-by later on in the evening and make sure everything’s all right.” Dave mustered as much enthusiasm in his thanks and said that would be great. The officer left with a curt nod and Dave watched, swearing under his breath when he was sure the cruiser was well on its way. Some help the police had been. The cop, who couldn’t have been a year older than Dave himself, had even had the gall to suggest that Dave might have tracked the mud inside by himself and forgotten about it (preposterous as it was, Dave had checked his shoes carefully and found nothing). In a flash, he made a decision, and craned his neck until he could just make out the car’s taillights rounding the corner at the end of the block. Then, with determination, he tromped across the street to the neighbor’s house.

Out of sheer force of habit, Dave rapped three times on the little glass window of the front door. No one came, of course. He peered into the dark room through cupped hands, but it was no use. He tried the door, and found it locked. His feet crunched in the gravel driveway, and he found himself unreasonably irritated at the way his shoes were sinking into the soft earth underneath. He passed by the mud-spattered pickup truck and glance inside: there was nothing except for a few scraps of burlap and bits of crumpled up tarp. He moved on, groping his way towards the fence as his eyes slowly adjusted to the dark. He blindly clawed his way towards the gate and reached over to find the latch. It clicked up on the first try, and the hinges let out a groan as he eased the gate open. He paused, waiting with ears pricked for some voices or dog’s barks to ring out across the yard, but there was nothing. He stumbled through the threadbare yard, and climbed up the back steps.

There was a dim light coming from some part of the house, but whatever room the back door led into was also dark. Dave yanked on the handle. The door shuddered but did not move. A flash of anger shot through Dave’s head, and all of the fear roiling away in the pit of his stomach suddenly gave way to a fierce and blinding rage. He resolved that instant that he wouldn’t have his chance at finally getting his life on track snatched away by whatever sick games his neighbor was playing, and he wasn’t going to be conscripted into believing everything was fine by some failed quarterback who had no fallout plans after a blown-out knee. He backed up to the edge of the tiny cement porch, reared back, and sent a kick straight to the wood just adjacent to the door’s lock and handle. The wood splintered with a satisfying crunch, and two more kicks dislodged the wood entirely from the frame. Dave reached in and snapped the deadbolt back, and the door swung open in the wind that remained from the storm.

The inside of the house reminded Dave of all the hovels he had bounced to and from in his undergraduate years: old newspapers and pizza boxes were piled in corners, and the furniture, what little of it there was, looked old and dilapidated. In another room, there was a TV tuned to a scrambled cable signal, and the shapes on the screen undulated beneath a cascading wave of static. Dave shot a glance out the front windows each chance he got, growing paranoid about when the man in the gray sweatshirt would return. He began to sweat. The sensation of his skin growing warm underneath his slightly sodden clothes was so disgusting it made him retch, but he kept it under wraps, and moved from room to room, becoming disoriented, forgetting which ones he had already looked in. They all seemed the same, piled with garbage, and cloaked in uniform darkness.

Finally, he stumbled into a room that was blank, on the exterior of the house. The scent of his own stale sweat broke, and a pungent stench crept into his nostrils and seemed to coated the air with a thick, sticky quality. His eyes began at the blank ceiling and then traveled down to rest on the top of a pyramid, blue and shiny. The tarped objects had been piled in the corner of the room that was otherwise bare. The floor was coated with a viscous, dark fluid that crept out from the base of the terrible monument and rippled slowly under the hum of the ceiling fan. Dave’s felt hot tears spring to his eyes, and he slowly backed away from the black puddle that crept closer and closer across the floor as the fan droned on. Before he could decide what to do next, he heard the front door locks tumble in the door, and the man in the grey sweatshirt’s frame slouched inside. His bulk obscured the light form the front porch, and he seemed to hesitate. A plastic bag dangling at his side hissed as he shifted his weight from foot to foot, and Dave took the moment to bolt, slamming into his neighbor with all of his weight, managing to shoulder him out of the way just enough to stumble down the front steps and out into the yard. He ran, his feet slowing to a torturous plod in the gravel walk, and then finding new freedom as they hate the pavement of the street. Dave felt the adrenaline slam through every muscle in his body as his legs and arms pumped, the cramps in his side flared, and his breathing came in shallow, ragged gasps. He ran, in no direction but away.