Ross Barkan

Tad would come to each town and try to work. That was the idea as he passed through one-story motels or rentals near trailer parks, apartments with brown water in the tubs, toilets that did not flush and never would. He worked in three different Walmarts, each more gargantuan than the last, stores that could swallow societies, all with the acre of parking. He did his best thinking walking across these lots, to his car parked far from wherever he may have to utter words to another living person.

Each year, he felt less of himself, a shadow replacing a limb, his breath disappearing inside of him. There were days he was sure he didn’t exist. In one town off I-80 in Ohio, he shot heroin in an apartment without running water, the fogged windows facing an abandoned train depot. The rush was undeniable, his breath like fire on his lips. He dreamed of new needles puncturing skin, wild for his next fix, unable to understand why his dealer only carried so much.

The habit could die because his resources limited him. He had no fondness for food or liquids but he was not ready to die. Shivering, crying, he spent six days beneath the covers he had draped over the air mattress he deflated and inflated in each new town. His fingernails crushed skin. In his careening dreams, he could meet them all: his mother and sister and father. At the needle’s tip, just before waking, he saw Long Island.

When he was well, he drove west.

He wrote letters when he couldn’t imagine what else to do with his day. They always went to Lenore. He waited tables at a Friendly’s in Indiana, absorbing orders without the need of a notepad, assigning meals and patrons to little empty rooms in his mind. He stayed there for a year, the hunger receding. He didn’t need to inject himself. He could drink or do nothing. Withdrawal was an assault on his body, aching and retching, and he couldn’t be sure why he made it through until he did. There was an older waitress he had sex with, a woman who wanted to nurture him back somewhere. He didn’t tell her when he left town, no phone call, no note.

Helloes and goodbyes, he could not abide.

The last decade of the twentieth century only met him at odd hours. Mopping the floors of a Sears in Missouri, he first heard a couple, in hushed tones, talking about O.J. Simpson. He remembered the Buffalo Bills running back. Two nights later, on a bar TV, he learned of a trial, an alleged murder that took the country by the neck and did not let go.

It was on stray newspapers underfoot, in a Dollar General and a Walmart, that he learned about a bombing at the World Trade Center and another in Oklahoma City two years later. Both beneath his sneakers, the very same pair of New Balances, headlines peeking out from under the peeling sole.

He sensed he had escaped the drug too swiftly, that it would call to his body again. He sensed these years, now that he was free from that hotel room and the nights that tore him open, were too easy. He was making money and free.

Wherever he went, he was Tad Glass. He carried his name with him. There were opportunities to invent an alias, to forge documents or start calling himself by whatever he dreamed. A gas station, a Sears, or even a Walmart didn’t care too much about who he had been, what he had done. Could he stand upright and perform the task? Could he smile at check out? In the newspapers that drifted before him, he learned of the economy’s strength, prosperity with no end point. It was like being told God was healthy. He couldn’t see God or hear God so why would His health matter? One year became the next. His wage rarely changed.

He drove to rural Michigan, north, near the Upper Peninsula. The cabin he found didn’t have heat. Snowfalls came in April. Sunshine, hail, nighttime chills to bring him to his knees, his lips blue. The woman who owned it told him all he had to do was pay her $75 in cash every month. The toilet backed up and the pipes froze.

Sometimes he thought about his father’s child.

In the depths of night, his back creaking on the cot, he could weigh the purpose of his flight. The last time he saw his father he was driving behind him, on the way to the hospital. Parts of his life gained light, gained sense: his father’s absences, the inattentiveness at dinners, the slapdash attempts at connection. His father loved from a distance. It wasn’t until that moment, racing from the hospital to his car, that he realized he wanted a father at all. Other friends had drunks for fathers, fathers who beat them or beat their mothers, fathers that divorced and left altogether. Long Island was awash with lonely young boys and girls with mothers and fathers parenting in separate homes, initiating strained conversations over parallel dinners, how is school and are your friends nice? He had a father. His father never hit him. His father never told him he was stupid.

The cot in the cabin was too small. They all were.

Saul Glass was always choosing elsewhere. Whatever Tad offered, it wouldn’t be enough. So maybe Tad chose elsewhere too. That was it, he figured: he was where he was meant to be, in the darkness of a hidden cabin, his bones at a steady ache. He would be nowhere else. When he died, in an unfathomable number of years—even minutes from now were hard to imagine—he could only be here, in his pit without light. Where else did he deserve to be but here?

He told Lenore he couldn’t promise a letter would be returned. He may be gone by then.

Time only moved with heat. The growing sunlight told him it was summer. Small black insects swarmed his eyes. He found a lake heavy with algae, the waters thickly green. Sitting on the bank, smoking the occasional cigarette, he remembered he used to shoot heroin and this memory triggered a hunger that wouldn’t be satiated until he made a score but there were no scores to make on the shore of an unnamed lake in an unnamed woodland, the sky so naked and empty of clouds. When the longing was deepest, he could forget his name. Tad Glass meant nothing against it. The memory of the high: a world beyond death, the extradimensional force that could take hold of him and never let go. Later, in the hours and days when the drug exited him, he could vomit and shit and sweat so hard he was blinded, the nausea choking him. Sometimes it was gone in a day. Sometimes it took weeks.

In the mirror, his pupils could be as large as almonds. He retched over the bowl-shaped sink, his insides crackling. The paleness of his skin could unsettle him, make him think that he had died already and was watching a replay of his life from a coffin deep underground, the memories a loose static in the hollow of his skull.

In the summer, he felt better. He spent a lot of time by the lake. Occasionally, a rowboat would make its way across the stagnant water. On the opposite shore was some kind of campsite where civilization continued. Bodies as small as gnats flitted on the shoreline. More boats began to come, even one with a motor. They never quite made it to him. His lake, he came to understand, was the outlet of a much larger sister lake, and he was living somewhere beyond their acceptable boundary. He was outside of time and place. There were no other cabins on his side of the lake. He imagined the cabin’s architect, some thickset man of the midcentury, his jowls dark and loose, his fingers calloused, his nails yellowed. Sometimes he expected the ghosts of Indians to ambush him. At night, there was a howling he couldn’t place.

There was no way to send or receive letters here, the post office fifteen miles away, so he wrote letters to himself and tore them to pieces. Whenever a memory creeped, he wrote it down and destroyed it. Saul Glass, Felicia Glass, Lenore Glass. Father, mother, sister. A family unit among billions, one data point soon to be erased and forgotten. He forgave Lenore. Her name could stay.

In his last trip to the nearest town, he bought a spiral notebook. His hand trembled, clenching a 50-cent pen from a dollar store. In the semi-dark of daytime in the cabin, he sat on the edge of his mattress and conceived language to negate. A writer created history. A writer lived outside of history. He would never be a writer in the sense of how the role was understood at the end of the twentieth century, but he could live beyond history too; the last man next to a lake with no name. He could alone make symbols on his white paper. If he stared hard enough, his eyes trying to cut open shadow, the symbols could leave the page. They could float to the lake and disappear.

He was sure he spoke to no one that summer. In the dollar store, his mouth remained closed. If a cashier attempted conversation, he nodded and walked away. Had the town had enough people, he would have attracted suspicion. The human voice, he believed, was a distraction. He merely had to disappear. Once he stopped hungering, he began to focus on that. A body, no body, had to exist.

The heat held the cabin. It surprised him, up here, how one August day could confront him and not let go. There was no relief. The shoreline’s dust was exhausted on his sneakers. When he touched the water, he only felt sun. Bottles of water, purchased in town, were finished in minutes. Out back, he gazed down the well and found the darkness hot and empty. Day and night, he sweated. This was raw, native heat, the kind that came at history’s edge, the crust molten, fire deluging lakes and canyons. He could lay on his back, naked on a bed of leaves and sticks, and imagine there was no summer, no fall, the heat sucked back into the desolate blue.

His skin reddened and darkened. At the close of August, he walked the lip of the lake and circled beyond the shoreline into raging thickets and bushes untamed for any human body. The branches cut at him. He didn’t know where he was going or why, other than that he needed to walk and he was sick of boiling potatoes and swallowing black beans from cans.

At a clearing, he saw a tent. There would be someone inside. He was thrown into his past, when he shaved and tucked in his shirts and combed his hair in a dorm room mirror, applying light gel. He couldn’t understand why this self-consciousness was returning. He had no self to be conscious of anymore. Perhaps it was simply the chance encounter with another person. Even now, he wanted to present, to act. There were no mirrors in the cabin. His beard, a dark cloud hanging off his thin cheeks, would be his first identifiable trait to the stranger, a way to define him against the canopy and sky. He would be the man with the beard.

He walked toward the tent. The brush thickened at his feet, slowing his approach. A small robin fled a branch above and nearly flew into his face. He had forgotten, at least, how hot he had been. The sweat was drying. As he came closer, he saw the tent was a mossy green, like something the military would pitch. He had never camped as a child. It wasn’t something New York Jews did. There was a lunar quality to it that had repelled him, his younger self unwilling to suffer on a foreign landscape for recreation. Now, he was effectively doing it, though he couldn’t consider his existence on those terms. Camping implied an impermanence, an eventual return to civilizational affluence. Camping would transition to a state of non-camping, an automobile in the driveway, ravioli in the microwave, the TV tuned to the NFL. He could not see what came after this, the flies hanging fat and hungry above his eyelids.

He could not see what else there was other than his body in motion toward the stillness of the tent. Another robin escaped the brush and he wished he could reach out and catch it, cradle the bird before letting it join the sky. His steps seemed louder as he approached, even though he was trying to go softly on the leaves.

All he wanted was for someone to talk to him.

But what of disappearing? He couldn’t do that if he heard a voice and spoke with his own and validated his flesh-and-blood existence, the body always getting in the way of the mind, the mind poisoning the body. Both had failed him. Neither worked in union. His palms were damp, his chest tight. He stooped down to open the flap of the tent.

There would need to be a voice. There would have to be a voice. He remembered his one semester of Latin, in ninth grade. Vox. He wished English had simply ripped the word from Latin, not polluted it with the i and c and e. All the meaning was there. A civilization, maybe a better one, had invested in it already, lent it the necessary power. He didn’t need pygmy words.

A sound, music. He heard it, but it was only inside of him, a tune of memory. Jangle-pop of the late 1960s, the Byrds or one of those shaggy bands, his father’s rock. There was a record player in his childhood living room. He was there now, twenty years peeled away, the vinyl at his fingertips. The ghost of cigarette smoke drifted overhead.

He smelled, in the present, something awful.

The tent was not empty. Wrapped in several filthy blankets, smeared a dark brown, was a body. He couldn’t see the face because it was turned away from him, staring out into the other end of the tent. Dark, wild hair sprung from the skull. Even in the most wretched dens, a needle in his flesh, he never smelled a body like this.

“Hello,” he said, knowing the body couldn’t answer.

He reached out and turned it over, shoving blankets until he could see. He was surprised by how light the body was, almost like a child’s. In the face he saw a man not much older than himself, the thin skin drained of color, the jaw sagging to reveal rotted teeth. Flies dipped in and out of the strands of hair. He saw a flicker of tongue, pale red, in the crumbling mouth.

The eyes were still open.

Dried blood was below him, all over, a continental drift that began at the sheets wrapped around the body and continue to the tent’s floor, darkening the nylon. He struggled away, back to the flap. The scent seemed to worsen, enlarge itself, take hold of the entirety of his body. A tooth from the mouth had fallen and lay, like a withered seed, on the blanket.

Now the tears came. Each drop inched out and rolled down his cheek, one and two and three.

Was the open mouth smiling at him?

Back in the light, he threw both hands on his knees and heaved out the beans he had eaten for lunch. After the mess, he pushed out acidic saliva and bile, his heart slamming his chest so hard he was sure that his bones would break. His tongue burning, he fell back against a tree trunk. He was tired, more tired than he had been in weeks, a crashing on par with a withdrawal. If not the same physical symptoms, then the terror. He slid down the tree, unable to move.

The body had been there days, maybe a week, stewing in the hot tent, the blood drying in the fabric.

This person was killed there or killed elsewhere. He imagined a band of boys ferrying the body out to the most remote point in their Michigan town, three or four sandy-haired children with sun-scorched muscle, death in their hearts. The image wouldn’t shake.  He saw them laughing about football and girls, blood dried in their fingernails. He saw them going home, joking about the tent and the filthy sheets, how they were able to defy to God. No one saw them. No one knew.

Tad started back, hoping to find these boys. They wore varsity jackets. Red felt, script letters, All-American blood. He was shaking despite the heat, a thunder bolt chill in his chest. A branch slashed at his leg and he stumbled, staying upright just enough to keep moving, his breath short and broken. Sweat crusted in his eyes. Their names—the boys all had names. Buddy and Chet and Richie. They all had sweethearts back home. The sweethearts knew too, were turned on by it, begged, gasping, to hear the story again. Tell me how you did it. Buddy and Chet and Richie draped their varsity jackets on their sweethearts’ supple shoulders. Blood dried on the lettering.

Tell me how you did it.

At the cabin, he collapsed.


Ross Barkan

Ross Barkan is a journalist and author. He is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and has published three books, including the 2022 novel The Night Burns Bright.

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Ross Barkan