Thomas Denis Gibney






The Visit



THEY SAY so many American adults take antidepressants for a mood disorder or a neurosis that you can find trace elements of SSRIs in the drinking waters of every major U.S. city. Dave says the United States’ yearly expenditure on pharmaceuticals per capita approaches the $1,000 mark. There’s about 80 pharmacists per 100,000 of the population, he goes. A pharmacy gets robbed every 12 hours in the United States.

[Grass, left:] “Who would wanna rob a pharmacy?”

Sawaad bin Aleph Waziri has probably never heard of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. If he has, he isn’t showing it, cause Dave is going on about them in his trademark medicalese and Grass is frankly indulging it and Sawaad is just sitting there, smoking cigarettes, while Rogerio plucks some plaintive baile-folk from his hammock near the porch.

“And you know what else?” Dave is on a tear. “It’s estimated something like one in three U.S. adults will be diagnosed with some form of depression or anxiety in their lifetimes. One in three.”

Kaylee’s keeping her mouth shut. It’s not that she has something to hide; it’s more that there’s just no reason to divulge how much she knows about the topic.

Rogerio stops strumming to throw in his two cents. “This diagnóstico—you know what is this? You hear a problem, you know the problem exist. You know the problem, yea, then you want the diagnóstico—you follow?”

“What he’s saying is the chiropractor phenomenon,” says the fifteen-year-old Grass. “The more chiropractors in a place, the more people you got coming outta the woodwork complaining of back problems.”

“Well,” Dave huffs, “well, of course we wouldn’t know, would we? The directionality? I mean you’d have to design a randomized trial, right, and work out who’d go to the place without the chiropractors and who’d go to the place with the chiropractors, right, and you’d have to achieve statistical equivalency—that’s when your people, if you don’t know, when your participants are equal on every measure except the back part, I mean, whether they have a back problem or not, which we’d supposedly pre-test, if you don’t know.”

“Like chicken and egg? Is that what you call it?” offers a smoke-shrouded Sawaad.

Rogerio nods in a “we foreigners are on the same page” kind of way and returns his attention, satisfied, to his B7s and F# minors.

“Call it what you want,” Dave huffs with a wave of his hand.

Sawaad bin Aleph Waziri has a problem. A phobia, one could say. He’s convinced himself that his father is watching him from afar—at this very instant—from his alabaster-white cupola over in Jordan. There he is right now: like a craven Saruman in his plume of whitest robes, his keffiyeh situated like a halo, eyes slanted in unholy judgment. It’s disquieting, this. It’s like the only place Sawaad can hide is under this porch, on this chair, beneath the terrible trellis of the tomato vines.

“Ok,” Kaylee cuts in, momentarily forgetting to check her speech vis-à-vis the impediment. “Ok, we get it—people are messed up. They want to be happy like everyone else, and they’re so willing they’ll even comvince themselves they’re messed up when it happens that maybe, they’re, not.”

Dave seizes on her logic. “And so they take one medicine and it ‘cures’ them—and then what? Another ailment comes along. And so they take another medicine. And another. And another.”

“Maybe some of that stuff really works for people,” Grass suggests.

[Dave, flustered] “It’s not natural, man. All that shit is just chemicals put together by some scientists in a factory. Chem-i-cals!” [gesticulating loomingly for effect]

[Sawaad now] “And this is bad, this? These scientists? With their chemicals?”

Dave is looking smug. “Two words, my friend: homeo. pathy.” Sawaad looks genuinely confused.

[Grass] “I mean, when I was younger, right, my folks used to leave home. Sometimes for, you know, five, eight days at a time.” Her clear-like eyes betray a frown. “But it was always when their medicine cabinet was empty. Which I know cause the medicine cabinet was the pantry, and I would get hungry sometimes.”

The rest of the group is silent for a moment. “Shit,” goes Sawaad, invoking the word he’s learned Americans use for this kind of mood. “We are all so out of place, here.”

It’s afternoon at the chez. The pond looks zapped of life. Even Florida is capable of appearing dreadful in February. On the austere chair in which Kaylee slumps, a layer of booger-green mold has crept its way up the gnawpocked woodwork. The withered paint looks to be making way for it with its unchecked peeling.

Sawaad’s comment has taken on the weight of a downed hot air balloon that lingers now in the open field of their conversation. The five of them shift about, the isolation of the place seeming to settle over them in a faint, wistful kind of way.

“Yeah, well,” Dave intones above the silence. “So is everyone else.”

A pause. [Grass] “Only everyone else…”

[Sawaad] “…Just seems to go along with it.”

Weekly chores at the chez go like this: a corkboard in the kitchen, a matrix of activities scrawled on 4 x 6-in. notecards, some goofy photos of the tenants hastily assembled in half-thought-out rotation. The predictable squabbling over who gets to do what. The squabble predictably degenerating into a wholly unrelated topic. Beneath the columns indicating disparate chores, feathered darts protrude from the board, nailing into place the photos of all the characters on the commune roster: Zoë, dishes; Zeb and Grass, dinners; Dave, waste management, vermicomposting, various ill-defined salvaging efforts; Rogerio, grounds maintenance; Sawaad, house cleaning; June, discretionary repairs; Kaylee, regular sweeping and tidying; Carolyn, foraging, procurement; Beaux, [extended exemption]. Beaux’s been busy with his own horticultural projects, though Kaylee’s never seen them. But it seems a truism here that Beaux should be excepted from the weekly rotation of intentional living responsibilities. [“He’s the manager, the one who makes it all work,” Zoë explained to Kaylee last week. “He has things to do.”]

All of a sudden, Kaylee springs from her seat. “I forgot! My new job!” Before anyone can ask, she bounds around the corner, ducks in the house and sprints upstairs to her room, leaving the others under the long arm of an afternoon cloud. The clock shows a languid 2:39 clicking to a :40 as she passes. In the dresser drawer, which she nearly yanks out of its socket in her haste, she snatches after a loose pair of underwear, uncovering the orange plastic bottles hidden there – mary katherine prince – zoloft 200mg – take 2 tablets every night with water – adderall 30mg – take 1 each morning with water – vyvanse 70mg – take 1 each morning before lunch – ambien 20mg – take 1 each night at bedtime – and the stash goes on. The same bottles she’s had here since day 1, some month and change ago—still untouched. She jerks her eyes away from it, throws the ridiculous purple panties back over. As though that will hide this, this that she’s become.

As if in response, she’s seized on the spot. For several moments all she can feel is a sharp, tingling, electric-like pulse, and she lets out a stiff, stifled cry. It’s another brain shiver, rippling through her skull. Not now, she pleads. They’re still there: the zaps. Less frequent since December, but still there, in the background, slinking, erratic—and that’s precisely what worries her. Unlike the first couple weeks after she stopped taking her medicine, when she would get the zaps all the time, it’s now like a bunch of loose cables up there rolling around on the deck, shocking at will. That snake in the membrane, zipping through.

She’s left staring at the mirror. But you rally, Kaylee affirms to herself, inspecting her tired countenance, that exhausted look in her eyes. Cause that’s what you do. She looks around the room. For a moment all she can do is stand there, vulnerable and sickened with herself. Her eyes fall on the gloomy curtains, the clothes strewn around. This is not how you get better, chides the self-esteemless version of herself that hangs in her head. A second later and she’s peeling back the curtains, gathering all the clothes she can fit into a bearhug and pushing them into one corner. The effort feels mildly cathartic. But of course that just couldn’t be the end of it. But of course no sooner has she thrust all her bras and tanks and sweaty socks into one big, lint-swarmed, odorous ball than the feeling begins to creep up her belly again: the feeling of her disarray amassing grotesque proportions before her eyes; the feeling that starts with an achiness, but skips in a matter of seconds over her pulse. And then it’s in gallop, her pulse, and she stands paralyzed before the ball of clothes, incapable of moving—knowing she has to leave, she has to, and yet terrified at leaving her disheveled state untended—that heap like a giant stack of eyeballs, blinking at her…this feeling has suddenly assumed the most urgent and the most cataclysmic of stakes compared to any and everything else vying for her attention at the moment. With great effort, Kaylee pries herself away from the scene. She recovers her composure, grabs the billfold and the hair tie moored on the dresser. “One thing at a time,” she utters against the window, “one thing at a time.” Is all you can do. She turns on her heel. She puts the room behind her as the clock clicks over to 2:44.

Downstairs, Sawaad is there dangling the keys. His toothy smile hangs like a crooked picture frame on his lips. “Where to, my love?” he recites, just like he’s seen in American movies.



February: the semester only a month in, and the texts and referrals were pouring in with importunity. John spent his nights laboring in the graveyards of the library, deep down in those stacks where the blue light of the i-Cloud could trick his frontal portions into thinking it was daytime, to keep the wiring running just a little bit longer. The scope of his expertise had undoubtedly grown this semester [{Why calorie-counting is a misguided paradigm in the nutrition sciences}, {The phenological irregularities observed in the relaxing of EPA carbon emissions restrictions}]—and it was growing because of one salient factor.

“Johnny Dangerous. Just the man I wanted to see.” Benny Branagh is at the door of the Organo-Chem 102 auditorium to tell him why.

John doesn’t slow his wheelchair. “What, you’re tailing me to my classes now?”

Your classes?” Benny looks appalled, then looks away. “—Dear me, is that a female I spy?”

“I’m dropping in,” John explains. “I’ll have to take this midterm, if you recall.” It was true: he was on contract for a lazy junior pre-med who wasn’t ready to outgrow 8-balls and beer pong on weekday nights just yet. So John had to at least make an effort to learn the material. In the big lecture halls, he could rather insinuate himself into the back without disruption. Not that he didn’t stand out in his wheelchair; surprisingly, most assistant professors in those massive weed-out classes just squinted at him without expecting to recognize him. As weed-out classes went, Penn did a rather effective job of culling the wheat. 100-level professors didn’t bother with memorizing the faces of the imminently departing. For major assignments, it wasn’t unusual for John Dunn to drop in a lecture midway through the term, if it meant he could pick up a tidbit or two about the professor’s expectations. He knew it wouldn’t be the professors who actually graded the work, of course—that would be up to the teaching assistants—but give him an hour in that classroom, and he would have his assiduous thumb all over what he needed to do to pass.

“We have to talk,” Benny goes.

John’s still holding out on Benny’s capstone project; Benny insists it’s not about that, though.

“As your financial executor and, erm, agent. I feel,” he goes, “a professional obligation to apprise you of. Your portfolio.”

“What is it now, Benny?”

He puts his foot down in front of the wheel and looks John head-on. “You’re growing. We—you. This whole thing.”

“Is this conversation really happening in the bio building?”

Benny lowers his voice. “John. I can’t even respond to these texts fast enough.”

John looks at Benny with as much seriousness as he can muster for the task.

“It’s like I put it down for a shower, or a shit, or something, and I come back and bitches are blowing me up like it’s New Year’s Eve.”

John regards the little saucers of snowflakes pirouetting past the window.

“…John? Are you hearing me?”

He spins the wheelchair doorwise. “Let’s go to the office.”


“I know you don’t want to be involved in the operations,” Benny says, back at the Hostettler House dorm room. “But to be honest, I’m kind of thin on capacity here.”

John fingers the stack of papers on his desk, turns a glazed look over the email he’s received from the provost that same afternoon. -Calling all seniors! Graduation is around the corner!- the header reads.

“Now you can either outsource…”


“…or you can man up and get your hands dirty here.”

Without missing a beat, Benny flips open his i-Palm. Pulls up a spreadsheet app. John knew what was coming: he was watching him with that familiar feeling of guilt laced with a kind of… well, thrill—thrill at the pure, illicit status of their enterprise. All his life, John Dunn had been the conformist. The saint. And now, that life behind him, he feels that what’s left of him isn’t left to become the kind of noble fool that populates the textbooks of intro history courses and the posturing of university tributes to endowment benefactors.

“There. Have a look yourself.” Benny hands him the sweaty Palm.

The document fans out in a matrix of names, deadlines, courses, assignments, and what might be called a balance sheet. There are columns for down payments. Columns for accounts receivable. Accounts.

“Damn,” John manages. “For all your laziness, Benny, you have a future in corporate America.”

“I’ve prioritized by due date but also by client. Here—this one—Lee-Hong Yuk—goes by Hilda, if you can believe it—she was late on her payments last time. And we offered her Model UN Club teammates a group discount. So I’ve slated you to turn that one in a day late.”

“A day late?”

“Put some fire under her feet.” Benny winks the most cheekily awful wink. “She won’t mess up again.”

“I don’t like it.” John is shaking his head. “I don’t like it at all. We’ve been doing this for three years now—but where’s the line, man? How can you be sure that she—anyone—that they won’t trace it back to us?”

John.” Benny regards him like a lame child with whom he must reason laboriously in order to communicate the simplest of truths. “This is why you have me. Moi. The front man. No one has a fucking clue who you are.”

“Except that I roll around campus in a wheelchair. I don’t exactly blend in.”

“So? You’re not exactly the silver stallion in the…erm, social scene either. Bud.”

John stares.

“…And besides, what does a gimp in a wheelchair have to do with a university-wide cheating enterprise? Erm…an admittedly very buff gimp? Who rows on the Schuylkill every morning at five a.m.?”


“We’ve got this down to a science, man. As you can see.”

“It’s making me fucking nervous, is what it is.”

“Need I remind you of how talented you are at this, John Dunn?”

…Just then, the thought-valve goes off in John Dunn’s substantial noggin. Bourgey voices swim in and out. —What are they going to say?   —What would they say to you now—if they found out?   …—What if you get caught?   He imagined himself on trial then, a huge vivid scene blowing up before his eyelids. He imagined all the jurors with brown paper sacks over their heads. Not even the eyeholes were cut out—the sacks just stared at him, little Sharpie circles of eyes drawn on, but drawn on with the hand of a child, all loose and wavy. Yet it was clear just who they were looking at.

—Yes, that’s right. Get a good look at them. Bet you wish you were on the other side of that barrier, huh?

John Dunn waves off the voice. I’m not here to judge, he counters—but as soon as he thought it, he was already doubting.

—Ok, but you’d do anything to be in their shoes, right? If it came down to them or you?

What do you know about it?

—And then there’s the spectators…is that your mother over there, the one in the turquoise sequins?

Sequins? Really? You can’t do any better than that?

—Just think…isn’t it something she would wear to your trial? Something not too muted, not too brash? It’s just kind of…her style, isn’t it?

John pictured her first in the ridiculous turquoise sequins, which he simultaneously conceded to himself was precisely what his mother would wear to such an occasion—and then in a blink of the mind’s eye she was suddenly decked in all black, a sieve-thick, Victorian birdcage veil shuttering her features from view.

What the fuck, he thought.

—Yes, John Dunn, said the voice—precisely what I was thinking: ‘What the fuck?’

Benny’s staring. “Er…so…in sum, sir…dude. You don’t have a fucking thing to worry about. Not! A! Fucking! Thing!” Benny’s smile practically catapults from his mouth.

“What are you asking me again?”

He leans uncomfortably close, grasping the handles of the wheelchair, nosing right up into John’s grille. His pupils are Adderall-sized. “You want to close out your last semester handsomely, you need to step it up, my friend.”

“Blown your nose lately, Benzo?”

“Am I even talking to a human being here??”

“Calm down—Jesus. I hear you.” He pushes him away. Benny staggers for a second and reflects on the purple amoebas swimming in his foreground. “Good God, if you weren’t so good at what you do, I would turn you in to the fucking psych ward.”

“Likewise, mate,” Benny chirps in faux Jordie. “Stole the words from me mouth.”

“Just tell me what’s on your mind.”

“Ahem. Tap that next page. If you will.”

He does. His eyes fall on the five-figure number.

“Your projected earnings,” Benny continues, retrieving a small vial reminiscent of a bitters dropper from his breast pocket. He waits for John’s reaction; his silence is enough. “I’ve been networking,” Benny says.

“Who…are all these people?”

“Not just Penn, brotha.” He uncaps the vial ever so coolly. “This is a college town, my friend.”

“…Why would you go to all the trouble?”

He has a tiny salt spoon in his hand and he’s going in for a pink crystal mound; he pauses as it hovers, glinting, just below his nostril.

“Well that’s easy,” Benny explains. “You need the money, and you’re one credit shy.” John watches as Benny huffs the glittering pink mound with a violent seizing of the jugular. Presently he composes himself: “That bottom cell there? That’s what you get when you look beyond the pearly Penn gates.”

“I can’t write that many papers, dude.”

“Oh you don’t have to. That number represents the same amount of work you’ve been doing—only, that’s what happens when we send it out to the right candidates. In every relevant college classroom in the metro Pennsylvania area.”

“Fuck off,” John goes. But his pulse was picking up.

Benny’s digging in the vial again. “Do you know how many freshmen are taking expository writing in this city? To say nothing of all those poor community college drifters.”

He watches as Benny guides the next addie bump toward John’s own nostril. “So. Are you in, or are you fucking in, brotha?”

“What’s in it for you?” He was eyeing the crystal mound.

“I’m not here to swindle you, my man. [A predictably theatrical pause.] All I ask is that one of those papers be mine.”

“I knew it.”

“You’re a smart cookie. And that’s why you run the most successful cheating enterprise in the contemporary college era.”

“Look. Dude. You’re my friend, nominally. And despite the fact that your transcript would indicate you are…for all intents and purposes…a John Belusci of the most egregious order—”

Benny hurls the spoon against the wall with a craze that even John hasn’t seen from him. He thrusts his face in John’s with renewed urgency. “What is it you think about me, man? What kind of self-righteous opinion you got about me? Huh?” His breath is manic upon John’s own. “I wanna get out of here just as much as you do, motherfucker. You think I don’t? Is that what you think?”

John is holding his red-eyed stare. “I know. I know you do,” he says.

“I’m not like you. This academic shit? It’s second nature to you. People like me—doesn’t come so easy. You have all these gifts and you don’t even realize it. You think I haven’t felt stupid all my life around people like you? You’re fucking brilliant—and you sit there pouting to yourself like the world owes you a big apology. And look at me. We all know why I’m here, don’t we? Your fun-loving, broken moral compass of a suitemate?” John’s listening. “Go ahead, say it. I got in this school cause I’m rich. I’m a legacy, I’m rolling in credit cards, I’m all that. I don’t deny that for a second. Don’t you see you have what someone like me would kill for?”

As if the Adderall’s bored straight through his pupils and revealed the fleshy, quaking layer of him beneath, Benny’s complexion has acquired—for the first time, John observes—the desperate contours of a kid just as vulnerable as John himself.

“You genius-types—I don’t belong with you,” he concludes. “I’m tryin a catch the fast train outta that world, you see? Skip the whole work-till-you-drop portion and go straight—straight, I say!—to the part with the whiskey and Mad Men girls. You know what part I’m talkin about?”

“I do,” John Dunn concedes.

“Let’s work together—” [Benny’s face is a spittle’s length away from his now] “—and fuck this fake meritocracy with fucking Zeus dicks.”

John’s will is withering before his eyes. That black-thick veil is peering at him through a crowd of Sharpied paper sacks—but the eyes are hidden behind the curtain. He admits to himself the inevitable: that not only was Benny right about their mutual interest, on some fucked-up, nihilistic level—but he was right about the nature of their fundamental kinship. They weren’t in it for the afterlife.

Meanwhile Benny is pawing the carpet in search of the holy spoon. At last he emerges from the dust, hand outstretched, triumphant.

“The floor!” he exclaims, spittle flying. “The! Floor! All along!

John eyes him with the same disheveled red that colors his friend’s. The veil is jettisoned into the farthest reaches of his mind now. “Give me that bump already.”

Benny’s already digging in the vial. “I thought you’d never ask,” he says, eyes wet with a soft joy.



“On behalf of everyone here in the HR department, I’d like to say welcome to Americans’ Motor Club.”

It’s the same woman who interviewed Kaylee several weeks ago. Tall, concertedly bronzed, statuesque—looking poised to fist her way through a glass ceiling any moment now.

“I’m Mia Durrow,” she announces, amply satisfied. Over the requisite clipboard, she flashes her brilliant teeth toward the six of them assembled here in the Americans’ Motor Club training room. Kaylee steals a glance around. It’s a ragtag bunch. With their grateful, expectant smiles, they all of them appear, on this dullish afternoon, slightly more gainfully employed than they were an hour ago. Kaylee’s chest warms a bit upon seeing the older woman she’d encountered before the interview—in her same pressed suit, the tobacco-brown dye in her hair now reapplied with newly invigorated hope. Her age and the still-intact dignity of her chosen dress code remind Kaylee of her own mother for just a moment, and she thinks of how scattered her family is now, how far and how naturally they’ve grown apart.

“We received many applications,” Mia goes on, “and we’re all just thrilled to have the six of you on our team. You’ll find that you’ll be working in a dynamic environment here at AMC—as we affectionately call ourselves!—with the potential to grow personally and professionally on your own great road trips through life.”

The whole script makes Kaylee want to puke.

“Now we’re a little old-fashioned here. We don’t have a fancy lizard for a mascot, and we don’t spend millions on ad campaigns to promote our brand. We’re a family company. Our customers are American families, just like us, who want the assurance of a great partner at their side, a partner who shares their great American values, as they pass each of life’s mile markers along the way.” She pauses for effect. “Honeymoons. Family reunions. That first visit to college. The first time those children leave the nest—off on their own great, life-changing journeys. Americans’ Motor Club is there to see them on their way.

“And before we introduce you to your fellow travelers…a quick quiz to get our engines revving this afternoon: who can tell me, in a sentence, the AMC pledge? Yes—Miss…Meyers?”

A voice from the back: “It’s like, to protect the ’merican traveler in all of life’s journey’s, sorta.”

“Yes!” Mia enthuses. “Anyone want to add to what Miss Meyers—Lacy? Can we call you Lacy? Anyone want to add to Lacy’s contribution?”

“We’re like your personal navigator.”

“Help you when you’ve made a wrong turn.”

“We provide in-shore-ance for the road ahead.”

“Good—Mr. Solomon—good. But remember, we don’t use that word here. We’re not an insurance company. That’s a—and you’ll learn this—that’s a ‘No’ word. As in: not allowed. As in: not in the script. Who else?”

“‘We pledge to provide comprehensive assistance in all the fifty states, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so you’re never left without your roadmap.’”

“EXCELLENT!” exclaims Mia in such an enthused way. “Right from the script. Miguel, excellent. I can already tell your rubber’s hitting the road!

[Miguel, back-left, beaming under his gelled-black hair.]

“Now,” Mia proceeds, “we’ve got just a thrilling orientation for you today. You’ll get to familiarize yourself with the team norms—that’s the way we operate here—our little internal speedometer keeping us on pace!—and we’ll get Trisch in HR to go over compensation, get your direct deposit up and running, all that. Then we’re going to take you out on the floor. You’ll actually get the chance to sit in on some calls today—how about that!”

“Like, the floor-floor?” a nervous voice asks.

Mia is smiling so very vigorously. “You betcha, Sam. You’ll be riding shotgun for the first week on the job—get you acclimated to fielding real calls, in real time, with real clients all across the network.”

“Are we…ready for that?”

“I’m so glad you asked that, um…Sherry. Sherry, you’re now part of a can-do team. And as I look at all of you today, as I look at the energy and enthusiasm and the just, the real…horsepower you’re bringing to this team, I am just convinced that you’re going to excel here at AMC, zero to sixty in no time flat, I’m sure of it. …Miss Prince? You’ve been quiet. Anything you’d like to add for the good of the group today?”

Kaylee snaps-to. “Oh no, ma’am, I’m—I’m really excited. Am just, really, really excited.”

Wonderful. That is just what I expected to hear. Now are we ready, team? Are we ready to put the pedal to the metal here?”

Kaylee hears a psst onomatopoeia toward her ear. The one named Miguel has his head cocked her way. “Crazy, huh?” he says in a low voice.

“Scuse me?”

“The ‘floor’”—he almost giggles—“sounds like some kind of cult, doesn’t it?”

“Sure. Um…what was your name?”

He perks into smile as if that was the question he was fishing for. “Miguel.” He extends a hand.

“Kaylee,” she whispers in return.

“Where do you think they’re taking us now? To get programmed?”


“I mean, look at those people.” He gestures toward ‘the floor.’ “Just plug ’em in, wind ’em up, feed ’em the script, and poof!” His mushroom-cloud gesture makes Kaylee jump.

“Just kidding,” he says with a wink. “You don’t look like the kind of girl who gets brainwashed.”

“‘Kind of girl’?

“Anyway. Let’s hope they spare us our imaginations at least!” Turns out Miguel has an apparent menagerie of facial expressions to throw out at will. He gulps in a mock cutthroating pose before hopping to his feet, following the rest of the group into the hall.

Kaylee peers beyond them, where ‘the floor’ is visible through the sparkly glass. The cubicles are humming with a kind of soft, resigned industry. Kaylee’s always hated public speaking. Even the various medicines over the years hadn’t completely succeeded in eradicating her self-consciousness. But maybe being invisible, hidden behind the vicarious voodoo of a telephone, talking to absolute strangers whom she’d never encounter again…maybe that would be enough to vault her through the stammerings of her speech impediment to at least a tolerable level of self-consciousness.


Later rather than sooner, Kaylee’s walking out the vault-like doors of the Americans’ Motor Club building. No Aunt Carrie this time to shepherd her with her particular brand of whimsy; Kaylee’s left to ride the bus alone back to the chez. Patiently, night settles on the bay. The orange globes of streetlights line the marina, the wind wafts off the palm trees. Dusk is slowly acquiescing to evening: the murmurings of a drowsy coastal city capping off another day.

Ten minutes later the bus has put it all behind and steered into the outskirts of the Amish neighborhood. The most noticeable difference is the light. Even in a thrillless, snowbirding town like Sarasota, city-light has a kind of aliveness to it at night. Dull though it may be, it’s still there, in the background, attracting white noise like so many moths. Not so in the Amish neighborhood; it’s all a big tub of black here, swathed at one end by the encroaching stillness of the trees, speckling the sides of inconspicuous houses, then gathering into the clumps of copses and woods. The bus doesn’t venture too far into this seemingly feral silva—it glides to a halt at the corner of Bahia Vista, and Kaylee alights, turning down the street that disappears into the quiet gulley of the neighborhood.

At length Chez Denouement looms at the far end of the cul-de-sac where Beersheba Drive peters into the stubbly gravel. The overgrown gate at the end speaks more to a state of municipal indifference than unchecked sylvan sprawl, but the effect is forbidding nonetheless. The porch side of the house is ringing with the usual cheer. Kaylee elects to circumvent the party and trek in through the kitchen. Zeb and Grass are arguing furiously over the eggplant.

“That’s not how you do it.”

“Well if you’re so good at it, why don’t you do it?”

“I will.”


“I need the knife, dweeb.”


“This a breadknife. A breadknife. See? Serrated. You see?”

“This is stupid. I’m going to my room.”

Kaylee tiptoes past them without notice. Safely shuttered in her own bedroom, she sinks against the door and feels the cool air sweep across her face. Seeing the window open, situated right above the porch, she moves to close it and drown out the revelry below.

When she turns around, the shriek escapes from her mouth without warning.

A figure steps out of the shadow. Kaylee flattens herself against the window. Another step, and the figure holds up two fingers in an inscrutable gesture. The light from the bonfire dances through the window, illuminating his craggy face.

“Kaylee,” rumbles a low, flat voice.

Heart racing, she watches his bulky frame take shape in the light. He’s imposing, he’s decked in all sorts of dark and swaddling garb—his face is rendered with pockmarks...

“...Don’t you remember me?”

...There’s some sort of pirate patch type-thing over his eye.

“It’s your Uncle Erskine,” the figure intones. In an instant, his lips break into smile. “Bet you don’t recognize me, huh?”

For a moment, she twisted with the sensation that the zaps had flushed her eyes with hallucinations again. But little by little the light was working its touch on the dim shape before her. It was indisputable: standing here was the very flesh-and-blood Uncle Erskine she’d last seen some too-distance childhood ago.

“What the...what the hell are you doing in my room??” she bursts out, fists clinched and testing a menacing step forward as though she might hit him.

For a truly ugly uncle, he had a prizewinning smile.

“You have really grown, haven’t you,” he says, and Kaylee detects a tone of admiration in his voice. “You know when the last time was that I saw you?”

“No, no, no,” she cuts in. “Nope. Sorry. Sorry, but you don’t get to just—emerge from the shadows or something like you’re in some Russian novel and—and—ask me how I’m—”

The smile has a touch of, well, avuncular warmth to it. This despite his tenebrous presence, the mood of intrigue around him. The eye patch—goggle?—isn’t helping.

“…I mean, what the hell are you doing here??”

“I’m sorry to scare you like this,” Uncle Erskine responds, without any seeming sorriness. “Under these circumstances.”

“…How long have you been here?”

“Standing here creepily in the shadows? Not that long.” Seeing her expression, he adds, “I guess I should cut to the chase.”

“This is just…super weird, is all. I haven’t seen you in, like…well it’s been a while.”

He takes in an exceptionally calm breath through his rhinophymic nose. “I’m sorry to barge in on your life like this, after all these years. But I’ve been closer than you think.”


“You might be in danger here.”

Kaylee stares.

“You’re not in immediate danger, mind you. But I’m here to warn you. I don’t trust anyone else.”

Oh. Oh, well thank God. Cause for a second there, I thought someone might be like, hiding under my bed, with like, an ax, and a goggle over his eye—I mean, what the fuck, man?”

“Shhh. Your Aunt Carrie—she can’t know I’m here.” Kaylee watches him suspiciously. “I’ve had my eye on this place. Ever since dad.”

“You mind, uh, elabornating here?”

Erskine moves another commanding step toward her. “Come here.”

He approaches the window, guiding her wrist with the lightest of force. He looked like some kind of ridiculous magician. She follows his gaze out the window, but instead of pointing to the muffled din below, he directs her attention to the right, across the creek, up the smallish hill toward the light-bespattered Bi-Rite and the gloom-sagged Mermaid Motel. The memories of her Uncle Erskine were coming back to her. But when she searched her memory, she strained to find an impression that hadn’t been shaped by someone else. He was the crazy uncle, the one who disappeared like his father and generally wasn’t to be trusted. Somewhere deep in the fog, a different version of him was competing with these epithets: that memory portrayed him as the reserved uncle, the one who was odd, sure, but gentle. She remembered him sitting across from her at the beach house, his pimple-strafed nose dug into a book, budging only to turn the page. She was startled to discover that this memory existed all along and yet had been lost to her until this very moment.

“Ever seen that truck there before?”

“I don’t know what you’re telling me to look at,” Kaylee says.

“That.” He nods toward a silver shape parked at the just-discernible edge of the Mermaid Motel.

“What about it?”

“You’ve never seen that truck before?”

“It’s like, pits-black outside.”

“Someone’s watching this place.”

Kaylee gulps.

“They followed you to work today.”

Did she feel the slightest of brain shivers then? A quick-like snake, darting across?

“I have so much to tell you—” Erskine begins... Just then, audible beneath the floorboards, the door to the porch opens and the whole troupe of housemates come carousing in.

[Rogerio, below] “Diiiiiinnnnaaaar, ladies and gentlemen!

Erskine spins to face Kaylee. “I can’t stay. You’re safe for now, but I want you to promise me something.”

“This is extremely umsettling, um, Uncle Erskine, and I am kind of uncomforted with what is happening in this conversation now.”

“Will you promise me something?”

Kaylee shoots him a depleted look.

“Keep an eye on that truck. I’ll be back to see you soon.” Footsteps were already thundering upstairs. “They’re not after you.” He gestures toward the window again. “It’s him that they want.”

She follows his eyes back out the window—not to the right this time, but in the opposite direction, the direction of the trees, the conspicuous mound clumped at the foot of the live oak, just visible on the border of the yard. The headstone, though small from way up here, was glinting in the moonlight.

“…You mean, Peepaw?”

Footsteps rustled just outside the door. “Kaylee?” came Zoë’s throaty voice. “Kaylee, it’s dinner time.”

“Coming!” She bolts for the door, afraid it’ll swing open to reveal this begoggled character pow-wowing with her in the dark. But when she turned back around, her Uncle Erskine was gone. The window was open again. The slightest of breezes trickled from the aperture he left.



It was late at night before John finally gave up trying to fall asleep. He didn’t know what else to do, so he ushered himself from the bed and rolled the wheelchair to a stop before the bench and began assembling weights on the barbell. The others were all out—it was a Tuesday, what else—and he was left to the bewitching stillness of the Hostettler House. Exhaustion tunneled through his eyes, carved achy blue rings like fault lines beneath. His first set began with a leisurely 16 reps of 25’s: just the warm-up set. He stretched his triceps over his head and wrapped his arms around his torso, shaking out the stiffness at length. Exhaustion would never catch him, he decreed—he couldn’t let it—he was arms up on the pull-up bar and hoisting chin to padded cornice with military discipline. The superset then began. He returned to the bench, loading 45’s in place of the puny 25’s, then set himself back down, his insensate legs dragging, and began pumping the bar up and down over his chest again. After 14 of these repetitions he reached once more for the pull-up bar, and he resumed his 25 pull-ups, this time taking a wider grip to work the lats and the thick trapezii. He was beginning to feel something again. The burn was settling in.

He especially liked the view from up here: with his legs suspended and feelingless, they’d finally, truly become of no use to him: they were superfluous appendages in this realm, having no earth to tread: they were like wisdom teeth or the bemusing spleen: artifacts of evolution, holdovers from a more primitive era: merely physiological stepping stones whose worth had long been extinguished by natural selection.

And with hardly a pause he was on the bench again, 180 pounds now distributed across the bar, pumping and pushing at the air with renewed lust. 12 reps turned into 20 more pull-ups in an underhand grip. 20 more pull-ups launched into 10 pained bench presses at 230. His muscles heaving now, he reached for the pull-up bar for not the last time. 15 quivering, vein-seizing pull-ups at an angle resembling that of an Inquisition torture rack buckled into 6 last desperate heaves of the barbell, now laden with a punishing 270 lbs. Showered in sweat, his arms fatted and splintered with veins, he reached for the final time with quick, shallow breaths into the obtuse grip of a pull-up meant to isolate the forearms, and after seven arduous rebuffs of gravity…no, eight…now not quite nine…and finally…his chin just not able…just barely kissing the padding…incapable of abiding the pain any further…he crumples onto the glistening bench, and rolls onto his side, and then onto his pelvis, fanning out and forward his two trembling arms like an outstretched dog, insensate knees on bench, declining himself 45 degrees into his final five… six… can he manage sev…sev…seven push-ups, uncontrollably gasping. When at last he can overwhelm gravity no more, he collapses in a spectacular heap of sweat and pulsing muscle, heaving like that selfsame dog at the inadequate air. The superset is already a memory, folded into the cool floor against his cheek. Spots fractal before his eyes. His biceps and his back and his pecs rise and fall in the dark. He has succeeded in the breakage. He’s ripped himself from limb to limb.

John gets up and rolls to the kitchen. The overhead stove light on, the light beneath the fridge inviting. He opens it. He retrieves the carton of cold milk. His hands are shaking with a calm, familiar violence. He retrieves the clean blender. He shunts the milk in as he struggles to hold the carton up, so racked are his arms. He retrieves the industrial box of protein powder. He unscrews the lid and retrieves the goliath spoon nestled in its sands which is specially designed to extract said powder. He dumps two mountainous heaps of the stuff—Rob Kerry’s Max-o Protein Galore!—into the centrifuge of milk and ice and bloodthirsty blades and caps the lid and presses BLEND – CHOP – PUREE. He retrieves the same glass he used earlier that same day, post-Schuylkill. The foamy liquid [and yet, at the same time, a liquid as viscous as the innards of a Cadbury egg] churns and gargles around the bottom of the glass. It settles in a foamy brown halo at the top. John Dunn’s trembling hand is trembling less and less. He tilts back his head and gulps the viscous liquid down. It is tastelessly and somehow routinely satisfying. As if the body were craving just this precise potion, the liquid hits the taste buds and, to their utter acquiescence, they find no real objection. In thirty seconds he’s downed it and the glass is stamped with viscous legs of chocolate-brown oozing down it, clinging glutinousfully. John slams glass on counter. He’s opened the kitchen door again. Now the real eating begins.

The game of punishment and reward is an insidious one. Two hard-boiled eggs later, a can of ultra-red Beet-Sugar later, the microwaved leftovers of a pork chop duly slicked with apple butter… a tubful of cookie dough ice cream, five squirts of whipped cream can into voracious mouth…[except, he couldn’t stop on an odd number (clearly), so had to dispense a sixth shot of the oily sugary foam…]  then craving the savory stuff again: a dive into a bowl of multigrain penne regatta sluiced with plump tomatoes and slaloming asparagus… one more dulce de leche cookie sandwich later… and maybe at last, one enormous doggy bowl of Captain Crunch Oops! All Berries, milked to the absolute brim… and he falls backward on the bed, bloated beyond repair—at least for the next six hours.

It was a miserable life, a life of protein powders and Gum-Goo balls, energy bars laced with dodecasyllabic ingredients and interminable hours of feeling sore all the time—feeling so fucking sore all the time—and the special loneliness of self-led stretches, calisthenics, stretches. And then this. The loneliness that settles after a binge never quite feels good, but there’s an almost gruesome comfort to it. The blanket of white noise outside, stippling the air…the stars splayed out like some God’s huge snot rocket. On the bed, John can see out the window and into the starry gusto beyond. Looking at stars doesn’t make you feel small, John thinks. They make you feel important. Like they’ve been placed there just for you.

The golden-bronzed i-Palm chirrups beside the pillow. But it was only a false alarm—some breaking news about a bomb threat at a marathon.

I should call Kaylee, he thinks aloud to the stars.

The glittery i-Palm fits perfectly in his—you guessed it—and is designed that way, as all i-Palms are, these days. Uniquely shaped to each unique user’s grip, every i-Cloud Palm is customized to slide into the contours of the user’s skin and fit like an extension of the body, a techno-appendage: a half-cosmetic, half-functional accessory, debatably less invasive than an implant. When John’d gone in for his latest fitting, they took the measurements and made the neat microincisions at the Me Bar in the time it takes to wolf down a doughnut. The Me Bar is the slick, colorless counter at the back of every i-Cloud store where you take your newly minted i-Palm after purchase and get your fingerprints taken and the measurements and all. He’s using that same whorled ID now to unlock the Palm and retrieve the hovering avatar – Kayles – from his Cloud-stored address book.

All too quickly, it was ringing.

At the other end, Kaylee is splayed across the chez’s splayed rooftop, mouth slanted at the late night sky. She feels the pulse of her own dinosaurically dated Palm that her parents purchased for her some birthday ago. “Donna’s Cosmetics and Taxidermy,” she says, not bothered to look at the name.

“Oh. Good. I was looking for something dead and painted.”

Kaylee could pick her brother’s sedate voice out of an opera house. “You done come to the right place, partner,” came her faux-Western reply.

“This is…my sister I’m talking to, right?”

On the other side of the house, Rogerio was at it again. Sawaad had his drums out and was playing boozily along. Dave was howling something incoherent and keyless over the musings of the bonfire.

“Alive and in the flesh,” Kaylee goes. “How’s the cold and godless north?”

“Freezing. Glacial. I’m practically shitless with cold.”


“So how’s it…going over there?”

She rolls on her side, faces the pond and its lava lamp of mottled starlight. “Oh. You know. Life on the range.”

“Life on the commune, huh.”

“You know what’s funny about communes?”

“What’s that.”

“I don’t think it’s like we thought they were. Were going to be.”

“Oh yeah?”

Yeah. I have to say, I’m a little…distillusioned.”


Kaylee ignored him; John felt bad for correcting her. “It’s like no one knows what they’re…what they’ve got in, common.”

The fake, glowed-out stars on the ceiling of his bedroom and the real, too-far stars on the outskirts of the window are like circus-show parodies of each other, neither one of them convincing when viewed beside the other. “Maybe that’s the point,” he goes.

“Anyway. I’m talking again, and you’re the one who called. What time is it?”

“Sorry. I couldn’t sleep.”

“Um, you’re talking to the all-time imsomniac of the century, here.”

“I feel like I only ever call you when I’m sleepless, or.”

“Ah, quit beatin yourself up, big bro. Not like I’m gonna sink into the earth over here, am I.”

After a short quiet, he ventured, “How you doing?”

 “Tired,” Kaylee entertained.

“Uh huh.”


“Uh huh.”

“Thin on ideas and capacity.”

“I meant that for real.”

“But I did start a new job today.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I work in a call center.”

“I’m actually genuinely interested, is why I’m, you know.”

“It’s a big old place—couple floors and an elevator. But total cubicle-landia.”

“You? In a cubicle?” He chuckles.

“Oh yeah. Like a honeycomb of them. A whole hive.”

“You think you’ll make it in there? In cubicle-land?”

“Still figuring that one out. But dude, I need this job. I’m kind of going crazy here. I don’t remember the Denouements’ being this weird when we were young.”

John thought about that. “What is this company, anyway? Are you selling something?”

“Ehh. Technically not. We’re not supposed to say the word insurance.”

“But you’re an insurance company?”

“Nah. It’s more like emergency roadside assistance. Like if you get a flat tire or something. There’s this whole creepy cult type mindset at the office. You have to read off a script.”

“Like that company with the gecko.”

She thought of their lizard-catching game they played as children. “No geckos here, I’m afraid.”

The reference was lost on him. But he couldn’t hold back his curiosity anymore. “What do you mean, the Denouements’ is weird?”

Kaylee took a moment to glance over the roof at the drunken chorus blathering below. Then she seemed to lose interest. Beyond them, the woods were dark and spooky as ever. “I dunno. Just a weird vibe, like.”

“Seriously, though,” John presses, suddenly interested. “What do you mean?”

Kaylee thinks on it. “You know when you’re young? When things seem normal? Or even if you suspect they’re not normal, they kind of—at least it seems—you don’t know anything different?”

“Why do I get the feeling this is a casually-veiled critique of our family?”

“You say that like you don’t agree.”

“Come on. Me of all people—you know I’m the harshest critic of them all.”

Kaylee felt her mouth turn up in a frown. “You’re making me sad, John. You’re talking like you’re not even part of this family anymore.”

Us all,” he corrects himself. “Us all, is what I meant.”

Kaylee went quiet. John pictured the sine waves of her quiet firing into some satellite above them, in that same patchwork of stars, and thundering back down into his eardrum, filling a hollow, muted space there.

“I’m sorry,” he offers. “I didn’t mean it. We’ve always known our family is…well… different, Kayles. Not just our cousins. We all have our share of intrigue spread around this family tree, that’s for sure.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Kayles.” He decides to just say it. “I’ve been doing some research.”


“About Peepaw.”

Here we go. “I thought you were gonna let that lie.”

John shifts about on the bed, his bulky muscles protesting. “Do you want to hear?”

She thinks immediately of how evasive her Aunt Carrie had been when she asked her how her grandfather had died. How the whole topic seemed to be shrouded in a dense air of mystery around here. How no one, it seemed, wanted to talk to her about it at all.

“I’m listening.”

John takes a deep breath. “You remember when he was first starting to go a little crazy? Started blowing up shit in the microwave, stuff like that?”

“Locking his car doors eight hundred times.”

“Like, he’d put food in the microwave and nuke it to death cause he was afraid it wouldn’t get cooked.”

“Remember when we found him passed out with that bee helmet on?”

“Yeah, the whole tulle veil and everything. That was weird.”

“Totally weird.” Nothing could get the two of them going in a conversation quicker than recounting the family’s idiosyncrasies.

“Well,” John goes on, “remember then that he was talking about how he was going down to Florida to buy some more of his bees? Like he had some sort of vendor down there or something?”

“I guess.”

“I’ve been thinking about it. It doesn’t make sense. First of all, why did he have to go to Florida to buy bees?”

“Cause they were all like, vamnishing. The bees.”

“Right—but bees everywhere are dying. Including in Florida. No one knows why. At least, that’s what Peepaw would tell us. But then he would be gone for like, months. Drop off the face of the earth.” He paused. “What was he doing? It’s not like he was out ho-humming his way through the swamps, catching bees one by one with his hands.”

“Yeah, but it was always like that.” Kaylee finds herself defending her Peepaw, as if to do otherwise would assault the special kinship she’d always felt between them, for as long as she could remember. “Peepaw was never around. And when he was around, he’d disappear again without warming. He’d just…show up when he showed up.”

“Which, we always thought he was going on benders.”

I didn’t think that.”

“He was a raging alcoholic, Kaylee. Pleasant, but hammered.”

On this point, she conceded that her brother was right.

“…Are you saying he was doing something else instead of lying piss-drunk in a ditch somewhere?”

“I don’t think he was drinking anymore,” John explains. “I think he was trying to get help.”

“Uh huh. How do you reckon that?”

He’s quiet for a second, as if a shiver has run through the invisible string of their Palm-to-Palm. “I read some exposé online the other day.”

“Ugh.” Kaylee’s disgust isn’t anywhere near subtle. “You know mom told us not to look at that stuff. The Internet’s full of gossip.”

“I know. But this one was different.” He pulls the page up on his i-Palm as he talks. “It’s by some investigative reporter. She’s saying how gramps was living in this secret Amish neighborhood—where you are, in other words.”

“I mean, I don’t know if he was living here, technally. I mean, Aunt Carrie was saying he would come down, would spend some time here—but I just figured it was one of those ‘Hey, just passing through while I get my bees’ kinda thing—”

“Kaylee. Can we really trust what Aunt Carrie has to say? That woman is on her own planet half the time.”

“Um, I’m sorry?” she objects, her tone rising. “What’s going on here? What are you getting at?”

“Just listen. This writer lady—her name is Liza Mumson—turns out she has this whole obsessive backlog of writings about Peepaw. Like, she’s a bona fide groupie. It’s weird.”

“He’s like the most imfanous American novelist since the fifties, dude. He’s got a few fans.”

“Well I started reading some of her stuff. She has these crazy theories about his work—hidden symbols, and like. She’s convinced there’s this grand motif that runs through his later writings. That have to do with South American shamanism and animal spirits and stuff like that.”

Kaylee stares into the gusto for a bit.

“I wouldn’t think anything of it, but this woman is just certifiably nuts. She has like, essays and essays about it on this blog of hers. Goes back a while. So I picked up that last book of stories from him.”

“The one with the flying nuns and the vine people?”

“And it’s the weirdest thing. What this woman’s saying…I mean…it actually makes sense.”

“Oh God.” Kaylee can’t help but burst out laughing. She surprises herself with the spontaneous effort. When was the last time I did that?

“I’m serious,” John claims. “It’s uncanny. The part with the snake that’s living in the girl’s head—”

“Okay, okay. You’re starting to sound like you’re the obsessive-compulsive one of the family.” Though she knew they’d all gotten that gene. There was just simply no denying that one.

“Look, think what you want, but you got me interested when you mentioned the Denouements. …What did you mean when you said they were weird?”

“Oh Jeez, man—I dunno? You’re wearin me out here, bro. It’s just—it’s like they’re all on some weird Kool-Aid, know what I mean? Forget about it. You’re probably right—they’ve just been weird this whole time.”

“Remember when I told you, back…well…back when you had your…thing?”

Kaylee’s voice dons its familiar defensive shell. “Well don’t sugarcoat it, Sherlock. I had a nervous breakdown. Repeat after me: ner-vous break-down.”

“Sorry—anyway—remember, I was telling you, there were lawyers we’d never met? Debt collectors? Serious shit.”

With the slightest of shudders, Kaylee is reminded immediately of what her Uncle Erskine had told her just earlier this evening. She decided that would only stoke John’s tendency toward conspiratorial theories, if she brought that up. Maybe once she found out more...

“...Well, I don’t know what’s up with that, but this reporter-groupie-lady reckons he had a major breakdown when he was trying to write that last novel. The one he never finished.”

“Guess it runs in the family.”

“And tried to get better. To stop drinking. To like…heal himself. By going there. To the Denouements’.”

“Sounds familiar,” Kaylee goes. “Can’t say the progress is exactly earth-shattering, though. If I’m being honest here.”

“I just don’t think we know the full story.”

“Yeah, man, we don’t. And maybe we never will. Maybe no one knows, ever think about that?”

John sighs, fatigue finally coming over him, if only for a while. “I’m just saying.”

“Why don’t you come down here and visit me? You can come inspect the burial ground! He’s right in the backyard! I can—wait a sec—yep, I can see him from here!”

“You know it’s hard for me to travel.”

“I’m just kidding.” But after she said it, she realized how much she missed having John around.

“I guess I worry about you, Kaylee.” For his part, he had scarcely been so affectionate with her; not since they were young. For a moment, it frightened him to be reminded of the affection he was capable of. That long-lost, sibling-kind of affection: which distance and time and the small heartbreaks of adulthood had conspired to subdue.

“Well thanks, John,” is all she knows to say.

“Look after yourself, okay? And if you find out anything about Peepaw…”

“Like what?”

“I dunno. Anything. Anything out of the ordinary.”

“You’re starting to freak me out, man.”

He was looking out the window again. “Just if you find out anything weird, k?”

Kaylee laughed for the second time now. “What exactly comstitutes ‘weird’ at Chez Denouement?”

John had to laugh too. “You’re right. Weird is a completely relative term on your side of the world, sis.”


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