Uncle Nate’s Storytime #3: Bring the Pain, Chapter One
Tusk editor Nate Waggoner– that’s me– has gone mad with power and started posting original new fiction as a regular feature on here. This is the beginning of something. It takes place in San Jerome, CA, which is somewhere between Berkeley and Marin, both geologically and philosophically speaking.
A purebred Golden Retriever named Lovecraft, whose toast-colored fur is often matted or unevenly cut, barks at his owner, nineteen-year-old Joey Roch. Joey has a long, slender face and big blue eyes and a scratchy little beard and perfect teeth and he works out, and Berkeley sorority girls go fucking wild for him. He wears hoodies and gym shorts and long socks and Nikes unless he is at a wedding or a funeral, in which case he’ll wear a loose-fitting mango yellow suit he’s had since middle school graduation. All his friends are black, more black friends than any of the rest of the family combined. Fewer gay friends. Not that anyone’s keeping score. Joey loves weed and hip-hop and disdains most academic learning: Lovecraft is named after a DJ you might have heard of. After our parents’ divorce, the fire, and the fallout over our brother Richard’s memoir, he ended up living with our grandmother, who is banging on the door now.
“For Chrissakes, Joey, take the fucking dog out, PLEASE.” She opens the door and leans into Joey’s room, the floor of which is covered in boxers, socks, wifebeaters, issues of Sports Illustrated, glasses, moldy mugs, plates, utensils, tissues, and dog toys, and the walls of which are covered with Biggie and Jay-Z and Lil Wayne and Kanye and Colin Kaepernick and Buster Posey and Chrissy Teigen and Kate Upton and Beyonce and Emily Ratajkowski. Grandma is draped in a rainbow shawl and her hair is uniformly the color of graphite.
“Fuuuuuck you, Grandma,” mutters Joey, without moving his eyes from World Star.
Lovecraft says, “Browrowwrowwroe!”
“You people and your goddam dogs,” Grandma proceeds, as if she didn’t hear his reply. “I cannot imagine such a luxury. I cannot imagine allowing into your house a living thing made of fat and meat that must be fed more fat and meat every day. I used to wake up with frost on my sheets. I didn’t own shoes until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. That was the happiest day of my life, because even as a kid I understood that war was good for the economy and therefore my family would soon be able to afford shoes for me, and I would freeze just slightly less every day, and I would bleed just slightly less every day. We would have eaten a dog if we could find one, but back then even dogs were scarce. You can boil dog meat, you can fry it with onions, a little lemon, garlic, some olive oil—so, given the fact that you need all those ingredients to make it palatable, dog was actually more of a luxury item in those days… Anyways, goodnight.”
Grandma walks off. As she descends the stairs, she hollers, “Flee from the wrath to come, boy, flee from the wrath to come!”
He ties his shoes and ruffles Lovecraft’s fur and says, “That’s right! That’s right!” Lovecraft rolls over and Joey pets his tummy. Joey throws on a hoodie and gets the bag of bacon treats and the leash and heads downstairs, and Lovecraft follows. Joey walks down the street, using his arms to clutch his own frame against the wind, the dog trotting happily ahead, his paws smacking against the sidewalk. He stops at Paradise Liquors and ties the dog to a No Parking Fire Zone sign. Lovecraft doesn’t stop smiling and panting and looking emptily hopeful, but occasionally flinches at harsh gusts. Inside, a drunk in ratty all-black clothes, dirt all over, with a large backpack, is shouting at the owner.
The drunk says, “Fuck you, man! Y’know, everyone here thinks you’re so great. Everyone worships you, but you’re a fuckin’ asshole. You’re worthless. You don’t do anything for anybody. You sit there up on your fuckin’ throne and you’re a dick.”
The owner is a trout-shaped old Arab with a white beard, perpetual frown and big, round glasses. He sits on a stool. He has been there forever. He seems to be the only employee, although there are two other manager names on the wall. Most of his work is to sit and look passively out on the town, and to cast people out of the store, more even than to provide the community with wine, but I can’t imagine he likes it that way. He bellows to the drunk, “You get the fuck out. You try to steal from me, you have to leave. You insult me, you get the fuck out. Fuck you.”
The drunk makes like he’s going to knock over a display bottle of Salvation Vodka, but instead just holds his arm aloft like that, glares at the unimpressed-looking owner, then storms out. Joey grabs a six-pack of Sierra Nevada, and hands the man his fake ID. Where I, and maybe you too, might awkwardly try to make a, hey-what-was-up-with-that-guy smirk and eye-roll and scoff, Joey doesn’t really do that kind of thing, which is good because the owner wouldn’t respond to it anyway. The transaction is solemn and polite: “You have good one.” “Okay, you too, bruh.”
I don’t know what Joey is thinking about before that lightning bolt hits him. I know he is in the dugout of a baseball diamond across the street, and the six-pack tells me he is resigned to spending the rest of the evening sitting in the field, watching the dog run around aimlessly. All his friends are in college now: mostly local schools, commuter situations, but maybe tonight nobody can be bothered to hang. We’ll find out later that Sierra, the girl he had been seeing, had to work late at the Verizon store. Maybe he actually for once looks deep inside himself and sees how far he has to go before he is a full human being, how much existing he has to do, and maybe that fills him with joy. He has never been to a foreign country or even the East Coast, never lived with a partner, never read The Sound and the Fury, never worked. Never had a conversation in a foreign language, never felt his bones settle into the couch of a home he’s paid for, or had a partner say, “How was your day?” and kiss him on the mouth and adjust his shirt.
Or maybe he feels dread. He has never been robbed before, or kidnapped in a gypsy cab and driven around winding mountains, pissing himself, terrified, praying, until the driver finally decides to let him go for whatever reason. He’s never had a long-term relationship end, never had to readjust from sleeping next to the same radiating body night after night, never even been stood up. He’s never gotten fat, never had his body fail him even the least bit, never been embarrassed because of his appearance. He’s never had to read The Sound and the Fury. He’s never had to get up at six in the morning to go to a job where it was completely unambiguous that everyone fucking hated him, and that they knew he hated them too, and they didn’t even try to hide their disdain for him, and so Joey never left every day feeling defeated and lost.
All I know is he drank out of glass bottles, and that the dog’s leash, whether or not it was even in his hand at that moment, was made of 100% cruelty-free cotton, and his little cross necklace was made of faux-gilded plastic; he won it in a game on the Santa Cruz boardwalk.
Nonetheless, a bright white finger slices through him in that instant, and his whole left side is burned up, and he bleeds from his mouth and smokes rises off him. The owner of Paradise sees this and does nothing; a neighbor hears Lovecraft howling and calls animal control, and an hour later the guy from animal control, bald with a goatee, stoned to kingdom come, pulls up in a van, gasps, begins hyperventilating, mutters to himself for several minutes straight, then calls 9-1-1. Joey wheezes as they pile him into the ambulance. That’s not the start of all the shit that happens, but it’s what brings the past back into the present.
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