Tommy Tinder loses it. It’s hard to say when exactly he loses it, when the barely hinged look in his eyes becomes unhinged entirely, but I first notice it around the time his inheritance hits the bottom of the bucket. When he’s scraping at nothing.
I seem to remember one overheard conversation that placed his remaining funds at $1100. Then later on, an overheard argument placing it just under $300. This was about four weeks ago. Theoretically, it should still be hanging around this number, given his food and lodging come from us. Even without a job, this should be enough. But it wasn’t. The tattoos on his arms and back grow more fierce, more bloody, the mosaic sprawls and stretches across his skin.
How much money he had to begin with, how much his dead mom left him, I don’t know, but it’s gone now. He’s squandered it all on body art and beer. I wonder if it’s his way of coping, his way of remembering her, but I don’t see how this could be. Not one of the tattoos seem to have anything to do with her: the decapitated rat, the devil sloth with wings, the snake coiling around his forearm, it all seems too meaningless, and maybe that’s the message.
None of this means anything. Maybe he learned this from his dead mom, probably he learned it from Brian. Brian has that way about him that brings meaninglessness into the lives of those around him.
Given Brian’s socialist nature, you would think that Tommy hitting the bottom of the bucket wouldn’t bother him, but it’s hard to ignore that this is when much of their fighting starts. Bruises in places there weren’t usually bruises, places that can’t mean kinky sexuality. The side of Tommy’s head, for example, a dark purpley red cloud.
I have to wonder if it’s not Tommy being broke that bothers Brian, but the meaning that Tommy being broke allows. It’s clear that Brian really does love Tommy, but what’s also clear is that Brian begins to doubt Tommy’s love for him. Under what circumstances does Tommy love Brian? If Tommy had a home, if he had any steady income, would Tommy still hang around?
Brian pressures Tommy into getting a job, not because they need the money, but because Brian needs proof that Tommy’s love is more than that of a dog who loves its master—the love that relies on food and tummy (Tommy?) rubs.
“I’ve never had a job where I haven’t wanted to kill myself,” Tommy says, and having said that, he finds a job taking care of some horses in Fernburg for $11 an hour. He doesn’t make it two weeks before he stops showing up. He doesn’t even show up for his paycheck.
I’ve already discussed with you Tommy’s desire for Brian to quit his job so the two of them can hit the road as tramps, selling trinkets or whatever is necessary to survive. Though Brian doesn’t relent easily, he does eventually relent. I believe this is his way of proving to himself that Tommy will still love him when he can no longer feed Tommy, nor shelter him.
He gives the bookstore his one month notice. I find this out from a coworker. Brian doesn’t even look me in the eye when I ask him if it’s true.
“It’s true,” he says.
And so my worst fear comes to pass: Brian has finally decided to leave me. He’s already left me emotionally, but I had hoped it was only a phase, a temporary passing.
It doesn’t help that our landlord finds out “we’ve” been harboring a bum on his property out past the pond. He pulls Brian aside one night and tells him that this will not stand, this must come to an end, Brian must tell Tommy that he can no longer stay there. Though at first I understand where our landlord is coming from, even I grow to resent the man. At night, when Tommy pulls down the drive to drop Brian off, our landlord comes outside with his dog and coffee and stands there on the porch in his bare feet and stares at Tommy until Tommy drives away. Only when he can no longer see Tommy’s break lights does our landlord raise his coffee to his lips, turn around, and go inside.
Brian isn’t the same and I see this, I feel this. Even with Tommy no longer at the cottage, living instead out of his car on the backstreets of Bellingham, Brian doesn’t talk to me the way he used to. We’ve forgotten how to be friends, or worse—we’re no longer friends at all. We’re a shell of what we once were, the last tie between us being that we live in this cottage together, and in a month’s time even this tie will break.
Though the end is near, we keep wearing the shell that we’ve become. I’m not sure if you’d call it a double date, but the four of us—Brian, Tommy, Jane and myself—find ourselves at Locust Beach and wading out into the low tide. When the tide is low here, you can walk more than a mile out, the mud sucking at your bare feet. It’s a wasteland out there, all kinds of sea creatures stranded, wondering where the water went. We’re pretty silent for four people together. I hold Jane’s hand and she holds mine, while Brian and Tommy walk with their hands buried in their pockets. The sky is far too overcast to watch the sun set over the islands. The sky simply goes from gray to darker gray to a blue that’s about to turn black.
There’s a significant tension coming from Brian and Tommy, and Jane notices this too. It’s one of those post fight tensions. These days they always seem to be in a state of post fight. I can tell Jane is uncomfortable but she’s too polite to say anything. I don’t say anything either.
Because even a mile out from shore, I feel his presence. His dark figure lurks on the beach. Constantly I’m looking over my shoulder.
“You okay, bud?” Brian asks me.
Brian glances to where I’ve been glancing, and I wonder if Brian sees him too.
Back on the beach, we gather around an old fire pit. We all watch Tommy. He stacks rocks into a tower, as high as he can make it without the tower toppling, and then he takes a larger rock and throws it down upon the tower’s crown. Some of the rocks shatter. He does it again. He does it again. He creates the tower again only to destroy it.
“I have an idea,” Tommy says.
“What?” we all seem to say.
“I know some people who owe me money.”
The next thing I know, we’re all in Tommy’s car, driving up Hannegan toward Lynberg and listening to static on the radio. The closer we get to Lynberg, the more frequent the Bible verse signs, the anti-abortion signs, the MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN signs. And then there is the smell. This rancid rot that clings inside you, just behind the eyes.
There are lights behind us. I look out the back and make out the dark outline of that blue Honda, though really it’s impossible to tell the color. The lights are too bright, the night is too blue.
We roll into a flatness of farmland that feels more midwest than Washington. The small shadow of Lynberg approaches. Nobody is on the road but us and the lights that follow. And still there’s that smell.
We pull up before a house, one house of a long line of houses, all identical, all cut from the past. Though they all look the same, I recognize this house. I’ve never been here, but this house is exactly how I had pictured it. This here is the house of Mother and Father Tinder, the people who aren’t really the Mother and Father of Tommy Tinder at all. This is the house where Tommy lived after the death of his real mother, these are the people who took him in, only to pocket his advance rent when they kicked him out.
“Are you sure they’re home?” Brian asks Tommy.
Tommy turns off the headlights, shuts off the car. “Where else would they be?”
The two of them get out of the car, but Jane and myself stay in the backseat. Tommy takes something out of the trunk but I can’t see what it is. Brian peeks into the back and tells us both to stay put, to keep watch.
“Keep watch for what?” I ask.
Brian disappears with Tommy though the side gate, making their way behind the house. “KEEP WATCH FOR WHAT?”
But I already know. I don’t know if Jane is scared or bored next to me. I can’t hear her breathing.
I try to listen for any noise coming from inside the house, watch for any movement behind the drawn shades. And still there’s that smell. I feel it rotting the meat behind my eyes.
“Do you smell that?” I ask Jane.
I can’t see her in the dark, but I think she shakes her head. Or she nods. It’s really impossible to tell.
A car passes us from behind. And then it’s gone. A car passes us from ahead, then it’s gone. It might’ve been the same car.
My mind is spinning from the stench. I’m lightheaded and empty. Where are we again? All the houses look the same. An old song starts playing in my head— I’d Rather Die Young by The Hilltoppers. Once again that feeling I’ve been here before.
“What was that?” Jane asks.
“Did I say something?”
“I don’t know.”
They’ve been gone so long. I don’t know what they’re doing but they’ve been gone too long. Something must’ve gone wrong.
“I’ll be right back,” I whisper to Jane.
“What? Where are you going?”
I step outside into the street. It feels like an old movie. The light flickers like black and white film.
Still that music— I’D RATHER DIE YOUNG THAN GROW OLD WITHOUT YOU, SO DON’T EVER LEAVE ME WHATEVER YOU DO…
Still that smell.
I shut out the music. I follow the smell. It’s rotting everything I have left.
The same car passes on the night road, and this time I see his eyes, I see his hood.
I push through the unlatched gate, make my way into the backyard. The backyard is far too big for one suburban house. It has the feel of a farm, endless farmland. This line of houses shrouds this other world behind. Fields and cows and a sleeping moon, a far horizon. There are no clouds in Lynberg tonight.
There’s a red truck in the grass. The rancid smell is unbearable now. I would faint but I’m too lightheaded to fall.
A ringing reaches my ears and it’s coming from the bed of the truck. I stare at the bed of the truck a long time before I realize what I’m staring at, what’s staring at me. It’s the corpse of a baby cow. Black eyes piercing through me. The night is warm, too warm for a corpse to keep. So it doesn’t. It’s hard to tell where the corpse ends and the truck bed begins. The bloodless corpse, the bloody truck.
The stench floods through me. Everything is so One. I am One. I am the One. The One.
“Jesus, what is he doing?”
I am the One.
“Hey!” someone screams at me.
I am the One to save you.
The dead cow looks into me. “But you didn’t,” it seems to say. “You couldn’t save me.”
A hand grabs my shoulder and turns me. I see Brian’s eyes, my own eyes reflected in them. In my eyes in his eyes I see the eyes of the dead baby cow, a fly perched on its pupil.
“What are you doing? Let’s go!”
Brian has to pull me back to the car. I don’t remember much else. I vaguely remember the flicking on of porch lights, the black rubber skid of a car.
The screech wakes me. The warmth of Jane’s hand.
It seems there’s a church on every corner. Crosses loom over us, follow us into the country, but they’re just power lines.
“Why the cow?” I ask anyone.
“Cows die,” Brian says.
“But why put it in the back of a truck?”
In the rearview mirror, Tommy’s eyes meet mine. “Where else would you put a cow after it dies?”
I don’t know, I don’t say. I don’t have an answer to anything.
A billboard on the side of the road— MARK 1:3: THE VOICE OF ONE CALLING IN THE WILDERNESS, PREPARE YE THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT.
This doesn’t sit well in my stomach, it doesn’t sit well with my mind.
Apparently in Lynberg, dead baby cows in the backs of trucks are a common occurrence. Before I lose consciousness, all I can think about are these cows, how many of them dead there must be.
Over the coming weeks, back at the cottage, I have trouble eating, I can’t sleep through the cold sweats. Those dreams again. I see her approach me, those eyes, that black hair floating like seaweed in green water.
“Annie?” I say.
“No. Who’s Annie?”
Brian places a bowl of soup to my lips. The broth is hot but I drink it.
Annie is no one.
I’m not sure how long it takes, how much work I miss but my strength comes back. Though my body has taken a hit, emaciated limbs, I feel fit for the world.
“The full beard is a good look,” Brian says.
“She thinks you have the flu.”
“And what do you think?”
Brian shrugs. He watches me carefully.
“Who’s the man in the hood?” he asks.
“Have you seen him?”
“Who is he?”
“How much do you know?”
My fingers are ghosts of what they once were, and they weren’t much. They tremble as they pick up the tea that Brian has made for me.
“You talk in your sleep,” he says.
“What have I been saying?”
“You’re at the center of everything, aren’t you?”
Brian nods too. He doesn’t nod out of having nothing to say, out of not knowing what to do, he nods because he knows. He knows exactly what it feels like to be at the very center. To feel like you’re responsible.
“What do you have to do?” he asks.
“I don’t know.”
“Is Annie part of this?”
“She has to be.”
“Who is she?”
“Can you tell me about her?”
I shake my head. I don’t have it in me. I don’t know why he’s taken such an interest in me, or in Annie. Only Brian knows that over the past weeks, my tongue has slipped, in my delirium I’ve been calling him Annie.
The only thing that keeps me afloat is writing. This blog, this investigative journal that used to be about Tinder, that still is about Tinder (you just don’t know it yet), is the only thing that keeps me sane, attached to this world of things. But on the side I’m working on something else. It’s a story I wrote before I started this blog, a story that doesn’t have an ending.
I make an ending up. I write it so the memory feels complete, like it means something. But worlds collide and it’s hard to keep things separate. The stories seep into each other and I really wanted to keep this one clean, keep that one unrelated, but they’re bleeding into each other like the decomposing cow and the truck.
With Tommy always gone, sleeping and living out of his car, Brian and I find ourselves sitting in silences growing once again comfortable—Brian reading, me writing an ending to a memory that needs an ending. Then it’s over.
The end is here.
“Brian,” I say, “you want to know about Annie?”
“Yes,” he says.
So I give it to him, I give him the story about Annie. I introduce him to a story that’s really about him.
join man next week for journal #26 (in which said man gives Brian his origin story)