by Geoff Schutt
Air the texture of cotton is difficult to breathe. I made it outside before the walls caved in and what I noticed first was my incredible inability to breathe. The cotton balls, I mean. I stumbled forward, lurching onto the grass, and then there were these godawful people, running toward me from all directions I swear, as if I were turning to dust instead of my house and everything I owned. But it wasn’t my house anyway, I was only renting, and you have to figure that something like this was bound to happen, sooner or later. You just can’t rent to college kids, not a fire trap like that house. Kids are going to throw parties, that’s an understood. They’ll smoke their cigarettes and let the ashes fall like rain wherever. These college kids have a complete disregard for personal property, as well as personal safety. You know how long cigarette ashes can smolder, for hours and hours. I decided as I lay there on the grass, my body smoking like my precious belongings, I decided to tell the rental agency everything. It’s those damned college kids again. You go talk to them. You go get their story because it’ll be a good one, I’m sure. But don’t you forget about my deposit, all $800 of it, plus this month’s rent (it’s only the third and I should not have to pay for days I can’t use because my house doesn’t exist anymore). I hate dark colors, and you know how dark burnt stuff looks. Give me some pastels and a new place to live. I won’t press charges. But let’s get our responsibilities clear.
I shut my eyes and soon I was racing away in the back of some emergency vehicle. I tried to lift my head but somebody rudely pushed me back. I’m a country person, really. I was born to live outdoors. See what you get for putting me into a house?
That sorry episode was two years before Isis, the goddess. I’d grown tremendously in these two years. I started wearing black and developed an aversion to pastels. And I began to develop theoretical thinking. I developed a theory, for example, that we’re all related in some way, that events which happen to us are also related. I know this must sound like a familiar theory, but that just goes to prove its point. That everything going on is meant to be and nothing or nobody has much control over anything. Sometimes my thoughts are so clear I think it would be in my best interest to compose advertising jingles.
Isis and I met in line at the IGA. She had a bag of oranges and a gallon of distilled water. I had a six pack of cheap beer and a bag of corn chips. She had the straightest, blackest hair I had ever seen. Her face was ghost-white and her lips were, I swear, just as red as red M & Ms, which is the reason we met, not because of the corn chips or oranges, but because I was staring at her face and at the candy rack and in that second you think you’re between sanity and something else, I picked up a package of M & Ms, tore it open and sprinkled a few of the chocolates into my palm, holding up my hand. She told me her name and she invited me home with her.
“Not many people know this,” she said, “but I have powers.” And that’s when she told me she was a goddess, and I should treat her as such.
We sat on the porch that night and I popped the tabs on the cans of beers, lined them right up along the ledge, one after the next. She opened her jug of distilled water and began splashing it on her face as she held her head back. “I must have pure water to wash with,” she said. She peeled one of her oranges and we swung back and forth on her porch swing. We watched as the neighbors’ houses went quiet and dark.
Isis took care of the rent. She let me walk the city while she worked, and when she returned home just before dark, we would enjoy a nice meal together on the porch, like a couple of newlyweds. I was welcome to stay as many days as I wished, even months, she said, under the one condition she made very clear, that I was to eat my meals with her on the porch in the evening. During the day, I was free to do as I pleased. I asked her what she did during the day and she answered, “I sell insurance to people who don’t believe in gods. I give them faith in a system.” She smiled. “Even a goddess needs a day job,” she said.
After a month, I decided to find myself a vocation of my own. And it came to me like a revelation, my vocation: I would rewrite books and make them even better. Theoretically speaking (of course), if people become famous for writing the books in the first place, imagine how famous I would become for rewriting them. Of course, I would focus on best-sellers. And I wanted my rewrites to be pure in their creation, so I decided to use old-fashioned pen and paper. But I was missing a best-seller, so I took a road trip to the library.
The library was just five blocks away, which is about how far anywhere is in a small town. But five blocks in a small town seems like six or seven miles, because distance is only relative of course. A person from a big city would think this to be just a hop or a skip, but to a small-towner, you almost always have to drive the five blocks. Nevertheless, I preferred to walk. In fact, I took frequent walks, from one edge of the town to the other. I even fashioned myself a walking stick and used this to lean on when I grew tired. The funny thing that happened when I grew tired and leaned on my walking stick was that cars would stop and I would be offered a ride, even if I looked peaceful as could be leaning on my stick. These kinds of good-natured people drove me absolutely nuts. They didn’t understand I needed to walk. Fact was, I needed to walk up a good story to tell Isis when she arrived home for dinner because she always had a story to tell me. In this small way, I could feel like her equal. Crazy thinking, I know. Not theoretical at all.
I made it to the library without too many stops to rest. I found a book with a bright glow-in-the-dark cover. I turned the book one way and then upside-down, because it was a glow-in-the-dark hologram. A crowd of bloody headless people were racing toward me, which was frightening but realistic, I thought, with all of the crime we have in the world. This one, I thought, will do just fine. But when I got the book home and sat down to write, I realized I was doing this all wrong. I had to innovate, because nobody likes a copycat unless he brings something new to the equation, however small. So I went back out, to the local version of Wal-Mart, which was called Happy-Mart. I had to look for a while, but I found myself a dusty tape recorder on one of the top shelves and blank cassette tapes too, which were just about as old-fashioned as pen and paper.
Here was my system, once I got started. I opened up to a page, somewhere close to the middle, or near enough at least that I could put the book open on my lap without the pages flapping shut. I read the passage to myself and then closed my eyes. I tried to get inside the head of the character, like really right into his mind. When I was ready, I turned on the tape recorder and began to recite. And even as they streamed from my lips, I knew my words were beautiful, and that this was more beautiful than anything I ever before had attempted to accomplish.
I was making headway, but the work was exhausting. I worked on my first best-seller for a couple of weeks. I tried to condense it to fit on one 90-minute cassette tape. I realized the short attention spans many people had, and besides, I was not trying to create art. I am not a god. I’m only human. I wanted to be entertaining. That would be reward enough, a real kick, you know, to be able to bring a smile to somebody’s face.
When I completed my book, I played the tape for Isis. She listened very politely, which I took to mean she was interested and entertained, for the full 90 minutes. When the tape was at the end, I asked her for her opinion.
“It’s good,” she said, “but it’s so familiar.”
We went into the bedroom and Isis stared at me, a complete body stare – up and down, slowly. “You are different now,” she said. And so I was. I felt almost, well – superhuman.
The following day, I took my cassette tape to the local newspaper and asked to speak with the books editor, who happened to be a sports reporter as well. I handed him my tape and asked him to please listen and consider it for a review in the books section, which was always in the Sunday edition.
“What do I do with this again?” he said, turning the tape over in his hands.
“Everybody loves a best-seller,” I said.
For three straight Sundays I went nervously to the drugstore to buy myself a newspaper and for three straight Sundays I was disappointed. The books section had tiny capsule reviews of books I never heard of, but which, I assume, were more great books worthy to be rewritten someday.
On the Monday following the third Sunday, I returned to the newspaper and asked to see the reporter to find out what was going on with my best-seller. The receptionist wouldn’t allow me to see him, or perhaps he was busy. Point being, there was nothing more I could do about it. My welcome in this town was drawing to a close, this much was fairly obvious. You can use up towns the same way you can use of people. There was Isis, of course, and after dinner, I tried talking with her.
“I’ve been thinking,” I said.
“Yes?” she said.
“My heart is heavy,” I said. “Nothing seems to be working.” I knew I was being vague, but I also remembered as I said the words that Isis was a goddess and therefore probably needed less to go on than mere mortals.
“Oh, nothing ever works out,” she said quietly. “That’s the myth. The fun is in the trying. You keep trying to reach some level of perfection, realizing the entire time it’s useless.”
I just stared at her as she sucked on an orange.
“Let me tell you a secret,” she said. “Do you want to know what my real name is?”
I shook my head, because I did not, but she told me anyway.
“Rhonda,” she said.
“Rhonda?” I said.
I had something to tell her, too, of course. It had been on my mind for some time.
“Two years ago,” I said, “my house burned down.” I stopped and had to start again. “It wasn’t exactly my house. I was renting. And I didn’t exactly have the entire house to myself. I lived upstairs and these college students lived downstairs. You know the kind, parties and girls every night. They drove me crazy. I didn’t want to hear their voices and their laughter and I certainly didn’t want to have to listen to their music, which you can imagine was quite horrible.” I reached for the single can of beer still sitting on the ledge.
“This was before I started taking walks, before I could be clear-headed about things. I had to sit by myself in my living room while the walls closed in around me. I kept praying for morning, because they were quiet then, from dawn until noon, my only moments of rest.”
I went on: “One night I made a deal with myself. I told myself if those college kids were going to keep being so noisy, I was going to have to do something. I know that doesn’t sound like making a deal with myself, but that was my thinking, my cloudy thinking. I decided I’d cut a hole in the floor. It’d be a little round hole, right above the stereo, and when they played their music I could pour something sticky down there and kill the damn thing. Without music, they’d have to leave. But I would drip the sticky stuff slowly, so they’d think it was a leak or something and not from me and the hole I cut in the floor. If they got smart and moved the stereo – or used a different stereo, I’d make a new hole, and I would just keep on making holes until all of the stereos were dead. Persistence drives a man like me and it kills a college student. We have these different mentalities, see?
“My problem was, how to make the hole. I couldn’t very well use a saw, or even a large carving knife. It’d be hard work and if I messed up, they’d be on to me in a second. College kids don’t listen to reason either, and they would be quick to act, I’m sure. So for days, every morning while they slept, I took a miniature torch I made from a kebob skewer with a rag tied around the tip. I lit the rag and pointed this at the floor and began to burn a hole, little bit by little bit. When the torch went out, I’d stop. I didn’t want to draw attention. At night, it would be the same old thing. I bought some earplugs, you know, but earplugs don’t drown out college students when they invite girls over and play their awful music.
“I reached my breaking point on a Friday night. There was nothing more I could do. I tried covering my head in pillows. I even tried stomping my feet on the floor to get their attention so they’d notice I was having a fit, but I swear to you they were even louder just to spite me. I decided right then I couldn’t wait another day to finish the hole. I had to kill that stereo dead. That stereo was like the devil. I didn’t even care how large or obvious the hole would be. I needed relief. So I went to the closet and found my old baseball bat and I wrapped a couple of T-shirts around it and sprayed on some lighter fluid and struck a match. The flames shot up faster than I expected it to, and I dropped the bat onto the floor. I didn’t mean to drop it, of course, and I couldn’t move at first. The flames were spreading everywhere. I tried opening a window to let in some fresh air, but that just made it worse. There was black smoke, and I could not breathe.
“There was soon banging on my door and lots of commotion, but I still wanted that stereo. I had to see it destroyed. But the air was soon too thick and I closed my eyes and made a dash for it. I don’t remember getting down the stairs or outside, just the feeling of running and of being outside. People were running at me from all directions. I fell to my knees and I passed out.”
I waited for Isis to react. But she did not react. She actually sat waiting, I think, waiting as if there was more to the story. Her eyes were bigger, suddenly, than I remembered them being, and in fact, her face, once the face of a goddess with those radiant red M & M lips, was now decidedly, well, average.
She said finally, “It was a nice story, but it’s been a long day and I’m tired.” She stood. “You really have changed, haven’t you?” she said.
“I have not changed,” I insisted.
“I wanted a simple man. I didn’t ask for much.”
“I am a simple man.”
“Our life together has become complicated.”
“How?” I said.
“You wanted to believe in a goddess. Now you believe I’m human.”
“You told me your real name,” I said. It was, after all, her fault.
But she was right about one thing, because the law of theoretical thinking as I know it goes like this. You never know how close you are to losing everything. I stepped off the porch and began to walk. I couldn’t help recalling, however, Isis in that first pure moment, in the checkout line, her gallon of distilled water and her bag of oranges. But I did not wish to become a romantic, and I did not turn to look back.
Geoff Schutt’s short fiction has appeared in The Quarterly (edited by Gordon Lish for Vintage Books/Random House), The Best of Writers at Work, The Wastelands Review and The Laurel Review, among others. He has received three artist grants for his fiction-as-performance art from The Arts Commission of Greater Toledo. After living in Ohio for many years, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area, where he has completed his first novel, which is represented by James McGinniss of James McGinniss Literary Associates, New York City. More about Geoff Schutt is available at his blog, “This Side of Paradise,” at http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com