Jeff and Laura stood in the graveyard with their Irish Setters, Ginger Rogers and Freud Austere, the bitches steaming after a long trot down, then back up Hathorne Hill, on a late autumn afternoon in Danvers, the dying trees full of majestic color exploded all around them, carping. Always carping and carrying on, scratching-and-sniffing at each other all day long, like they couldn’t wait to get to The Seven Year Itch, the anticipated scent of new feral moans seemingly driving them forward together and apart. They were in year six of their marriage, the same age as their twin daughters, Laura (I), named after her mother, and Anne, named after their Dad’s paternal grandmother. And therein was the Rub: Who would get the kids in the split up ahead? Laura wanted Jeff to take them; Jeff preferred the traditional alimony and child support route instead. They were discussing this situation now.
“You’re so selfish sometimes, Jeff,” said Laura, haughty from the left. “Why can’t you take them? I’m so busy. You work from home. You can have the house if you keep the kids.”
“Busy? You spend your time protesting and occupying and giving the finger to The Man,” he replied. “Couldn’t you do that at home with kids? You know, Zoom?”
“Fuck you, Jeff.”
“Fuck you, too.”
The couple were in the pauper’s grave out back of Avalon Apartments, the converted Danvers Lunatic Asylum (a.k.a., Danvers State Hospital), where they lived in a massive condo. Ginger and Freud, as though inured to the riffs of their masters, were facing each other on separate graves, straining shits that came out, as it seemed to Jeff, like soft serve pyramids at McDonald’s at the base of numbered, nameless graves. Today, Grace was honoring 521, while Freud composted at 32. Reminders of the days before the great deinstitutionalization of lost souls, when humans were belted down and gurneyed in to the Gothic horror house of psychiatric screams and left to languish forever, their stories mere compiled files in a folder never re-read, except by the occasional nursing student from nearby Salem State College looking to amp up a thesis with some grisly case studies of madness and neglect, only seen in street people now. Laura called the simple grave obelisks “the unread pages of history,” lefty bloviant which made Jeff cringe (he’d made a gag gesture the first time he heard it) and ache for the new start ahead.
Laura knelt beside a willow tree where she’d planted some magic mushrooms.”Did you know willow trees is where we get aspirin from?” she asked, just making convo.
“Who gives a shit?” he snipped. Ginger and Freud were frolicking in some wind-whisked leaves. “Why don’t we each take one? And by the way, what are you doing dealing drugs?”
“Oh, Jeff, grow up. It’s just some magic mushroom. I do sell some, and I could grow more and sell more, but I’m mostly after helping people achieve –”
“–fuck!” went Jeff, looking down at his heel full of dog turd. “Fuck. fuck.” You could tell he was smelling it.
“Ha-ha, maybe you should try a hallucinogen,” she laughed. She harvested some shrooms, placing them into a ziploc baggie, and got up and began strolling toward the apartments. “You always were so wound up tight. Even in Troy–”
“Don’t bring up Troy,” he convo-interrupted. “Do you grow those things in shit?”
“Loamiest loam When in loam do as the Lomans do,” she tootled.
“I hate your little sayings,” he said, catching up to her. “Do as the Lomans do? What the fuck does that mean? You realize –”
“– Well, Loman was in the shit wasn’t he?” He looked at her with a grimace, like some gargoyle just overhearing a Sunday parishioner make a really bad joke and restraining himself against an urge to swoop.
“You know, back in Troy, you had just-right tits. Then you went and got implants. Even one of your girlfriends referred to your new cleavage as “Silicon Valley.”
“Krista should talk.” Ginger and Freud were panting happily, driblets of saliva and foam accentuating their good humor. “Hi,” Laura said to Mortimer, the live-in gardener out on a pre-dinner jog. “You used to come to see me all the time in Troy. Remember all the poems you wrote that addressed me as Helen? Naked, too. Remember the sonnet, ‘Paris When He Sizzles’?”
Jeff groaned. “Here we go. You know, if you don’t take the kids, I could have a talk with someone about your drug dealing.”
“Do you want to go down that road?”
Jeff and Laura had met when they were undergraduates at schools in Troy, NY. He was a computer engineering student at the august RPI. She was at the equally luminous Russell Sage, a girl’s college. RPI’s frat boys often met up with Sage’s soro swans on the weekends to tap kegs and pull corks. Laura was not part of that party enterprise. She had to work. And she worked the stage at Molly’s, spinning her hind legs around a pole in a strobe stream, Jeff ogling her every move. Learning her schedule, he was often there to see her strip for at least $25 an hour (his, plus whoever else contributed to her booty busker), and this was his initial meeting, their eyes locking in the showroom darkness, her all practiced coy, him half shitfaced. She rarely partied, but that’s where they met, at a BB King concert held at the Student Lounge, the tables put together to form a stage. He moseyed over to her keen smile in the corner. They looked at each other, off duty — and clothed — her allure was overwhelming. She became his Helen of Troy. Even after he learned her name was Laura, he called her Helen. Phew, talk about pressure.
“He’s something, isn’t he?” he hollered over the ageless, quick-fingered bluesman, riffing wildly amidst the all-white crowd.
“Un-huh,” she nodded, and dropped down some Jack. She accidentally bumped him, while gyrating her hips, but didn’t try to move away.
They came around to the front of Avalon Apartments. They paused, as “good girl” Grace whizzed one last time, on the hedgerow, before heading in. Freud was cool. Jeff looked up at the exterior of the building. A postmod facade, he thought. He recalled the first time at RPI when he went to the Print Center to retrieve an essay printout, confused on arrival at the Center, to see the school church, all churlishly gothic and settling somehow (like a feng shui aura), but the sign said it was the Print Center. Jeff went in and was blown away: the innards had been gutted, a wide-opened space housed a huge printing apparatus that seemed to Jeff like a newspaper set up. Only the retained stained glass windows, still telling their pilgrim’s progress story, kept him sane. He forgot why he’d come there. He immediately condemned the postmod mask-making as fascist, pointing at such facades, in his mind, like a crazed Donald Sutherland pointed to the last human at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
“You alright?” Laura asked Jeff, who seemed lost deep in thought to her.
The dogs and their masters ascended the granite steps and entered the gutted asylum, its stories snuffed by reassigned space, plasterboard calling the shots on form and function.
Inside the condo, the girls were noising it up in the den on the smart TV. Jeff threw his keys into a dish. Laura moved toward the kitchen to begin prepping for dinner.
“Jesus, they’re playing that goddamn game again,” said Jeff, making a cup of tea, Constant Comment, lemongrass pizzazz.
“What game?” asked Laura.
“G.O.D.. Jr,” he said. “God On Demand. They’ve actually put out a kiddie version of it. Can you believe it?”
“Of course I can believe it. I bought it. What the fuck is your problem: It’s harmless.”
“Playing God?” He was exasperated. “They have new modules now. Taunt the Target. Bonus points if he or she gets a heart attack.”
“Are you serious?” she laughed. “How do they do that?”
“They have ‘agent provocateurs’ who antagonize and taunt for points. And if they get the blood pressure of their target up to the red zone they get a new level.”
“Okay, Jeff, if you say so,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m gonna make dinner. I think you take that stuff too seriously.”
“Ed Snowden said such games are our future. They’ll find a way to criminalize something you did. Dissenters, of course. He said the Facebook timeline is dangerous.”
“You’re fucking daft.” She began pulling tupperware containers out of the fridge. “You okay with the lasagna leftovers?”
“You gonna be all about leftovers when you have the kids?”
“Fuck you,” she said, “You’re taking the kids.”
In the den, little Laura and Anne sat on the couch playing the “horrid” video game. When Jeff looked in on them, despite his better intentions pleading within him, he likened, in the moment, his girls to the twins from The Shining. “Hello, Danny,” their expressions seemed to say. They didn’t look at him. On the smart TV screen he saw that they were in a part of the game called Pit and Pendulum, where goombahs, headed by Torque MaMa, a woman with a leash on a Doberman, barked orders to agents who waterboarded or forced a target into a tub freezing water (not unlike what he’s heard happened at the asylum back in the day), and they screamed until their voices broke into poetry. Mucho pointos.
“You girls should probably get ready for dinner now.” Crickets. To him, anyway. He was a computer engineer, with an MCSE and a CCNA, like Ed Snowden, who designed networks for a living, mostly from the comfort of his home, assisted by Zoom. A gig’s a gig, and he more than one, and was not short of work. But as with the RPI Print Center, he was totally with Tim Berners-Lee in concluding that the world wide web had been molested by dark forces that had pimped out its purity of purpose. When he thought about it overly much, as he was wont to do, he was like DeNiro in Taxi Driver wanting to “talk” with the feather-hatted pimp who’d done it all. What kind of men would force a young Jodie Foster to her knees so early in her career? And, also, how come she had a Yale accent in that film? It always bothered Jeff.
After dinner, during which the girls played with the icky lasagne, stabbing at with their forks, like a scene out of Grand Theft Auto, or made faces to show their disapproval in such an unpleasant way, to Jeff, that he cast a spell on them with wishful thinking, seeing them badgering and girly belching their way through the best years of Laura’s life, he mentally deserted them. While they ate, Laura led a discussion on what to sites to visit in Salem in the morning. Anne wanted to visit the witches’ memorial. Little Laura told her sister she would lock her in the stocks.
“Will not,” said Anne.
“Will too,” replied Laura.
They weren’t bad kids, thought Jeff, neither was any kind of Linda Blair from The Exorcist or anything, and certainly he loved them, and would miss them, but he knew that, in this day and age, friends online would keep each other buoyed and effervescent, their precious little thoughts — on all manner of things — liked prodigiously.
“Will not,” said Anne again.
“Will too,” replied Laura again.
He may not have a Walter Mitty life ahead, but Nortel had offered him a job overseas, fixing networks, and he’d strategically neglected to tell Laura. He’d probably be like Jim Carrey in the Cable Guy, gap-toothy and oversprung, but he’d be damned if he’d spend his life dealing with people addicted to the Internet and social media, the girls signed on already to Facebook and Twitter, their neurons already belonging to the MIC Man.
While Laura and the girls carried on in the den, letting out the oohs and ahhs of boffo gods in competition to see who could antagonize a virtual victim in a G.O.D. module called Poltergeist, where points were had for gaslighting and anteing up promised punishments, with a view to producing a game-winning heart attack, Jeff putzed around with a Cisco app that allowed him build and configure networks. He worked for a while constructing a Metro Area Network (MAN) he had in mind for his trip to Shanghai. You had to hand it to the Chinese.
When he got tired of that, he read the Avalon Apartments Reddit feeds. There were always people grousing about something — especially the thinness of the gypsum used for the walls. It was true: if folks got a bit animated in the privacy of their own homes, you could hear their threats and epithets to each other clearly. The Reddit feeds filled in the details of each others lives — residents who ‘dobbed’ to management, parking space thieves, threats of violence (the cops had shot a resident just a couple of years back, like Avalon was some common housing project), a textual cacophony of gripes and conceits, like some Democracy without any checks or balances on communication. He couldn’t believe the persona; infpramtion people shared, nor was he happy with the expletives and near-threats of harm. After a while, it got quiet in the den, and Jeff tip-toed in to check up. Laura and the girls had gone to bed. He turned off the light. He crept into bed, next to Laura, spooning her, until she moved away slightly, as if to say fork you.
Salem was just a stone’s throw from Danvers. After breakfast, Jeff took the mutts out to extrude and wizz, and then the family left the puling dogs behind and hopped in the 4×4 and made their way to Salem. Jeff was sure that had the Danvers Lunatic Asylum existed back in the witch hunt days, half the town would have been committed, either with white witch syndrome or black witch syndrome — separate wards of course. Little Laura and Anne counted cars by color, Anne red cars and Laura white, the winner, Mom agreed, would get two scoops of ice cream in the cone that would be handed to them after lunch. Jeff looked over at Laura, who looked back and smiled, the apparent snubbing of the evening before resolved in an ecstasy of a morning quickie.
“I won,” said Anne, as they pulled up in front of the House of Seven Gables, the manse named after the Nathaniel Hawthorne tale of the same name. (Nathaniel added a “w” to his surname to distance himself from the fact that his great grandfather was a principal judge in witch trials and had condemned women to die needlessly.)
“Did not,” said Little Laura, although, in fact, she’d lost and would have to endure the humiliation of one scoop of ice cream, while her sister rubbed it in her face, figuratively speaking.
The four of them sized up the gables, carefully counting, to be sure they weren’t being jipped.
“I only count six,” said Little Laura, her countenance all pout of Shirley Temple,
“Are not,” said Anne. We all looked at her.
Inside the girls went rifling through the gift shop section, proverbial little bulls in the China shop, making Jeff nervous at their energy, fearing cross encounters with the old proprietor dressed as an elder. Books were fanned needlessly, knick-knacky things (probably from China, maybe even some re-education camp there), and just jibber-jabbering.
“Lighten up,” said Laura, watching Jeff get rally-cap flustered, his hands all delirium tremens. “They’re just excited.”
“I know,” he said, “but if they break something I might end up in the stocks. By the way, did you bring your wallet? I left mine at home.” She flashed her credit card, with a smile.
“I brought some gorp,” she said. “Do you want to try some?” He eyes the baggie full of nuts and seeds and raisins and chocolate bits and tiny marshmallows and other stuff that looked what they called “organic.”
“Sure,” he said, grabbing a large pinch, more to be agreeable than anything else. She was nudging in such a way that. And she smelled good.
They bought postcards featuring the witch hunt era. Today, accused witches would have been waterboarded, to save fishing them out of the river. Jeff could picture all the finger pointing going on in the parochial little town full of Jesus slaves. Sinners casting stones at one another like stones were going out of style. There was even a collection of asylum postcards from all over the country in pleasant sepia. It reminded Jeff of trading cards of lynchings the KKK had put out. Jeff hated to think there had been so much evil in the world once, and the sale of postcards didn’t make him feel good either. Little Laura brought a snow globe featuring Salem in the winter, some miscreant in the stocks. They were a severe culture. They bought some postcards and the globe (Anne looked bored and bought nothing). They also purchased a ticket into the House that would allow them follow a touring line painted on the floor and included the featured walk up the Secret Staircase. They had that kind of shit back then, thought Jeff.
“The staircase reminds me of “The Cask of the Amontillado,” said Laura.
“Does not,” said Jeff.
“Does so,” replied Laura.
“Laura, the cask story was fro a later century.”
“What, you don’t think the Puritans filled up their wall sockets with people sometimes?”
“Shit,” said Jeff. “What was in that gorp? I’m having flashes of stuff.”
“Shrooms. I threw in some shrooms,” she said.
“Oh, fuck,” he replied. jerking his head around at a shadow flitting by.
When the girls started getting aggressive to move ahead, Jeff told the three of them to go ahead with the tour, and he’d sit in the coffee shop, spinning his wheels, as it were. But though she laughed, and the girls giggled, in a way that upset Jeff’s equilibrium, she was worried enough that she brought the girls to the Secret Staircase and told them to “have an adventure,” to which they oohed and aahed. She opened the secret hatch door, where indicated, and gestured them into the rickety-looking stairwell. The door closed in her face with a slam. She could hear the girls giggling and went to be with Jeff, taking a small snuff of the gorp herself. A little dab’ll do ya. It gave her clarity. Almost everyone had gorp at the Occupies. Abbie Hoffman went to the White House once, in a tuxedo, and shorn hair, with the intention of spiking Tricky Dick’s cocktail. But he got “made” by the secret service and …evicted, Laura would tell her fellow activists, keen on changing the world.
Speaking of doors, Jeff could feel the Huxley-an doors of perception open wide. Or something. He wasn’t a regular imbiber of the Goodness, as Laura called it. She sat next to him, and when she touched his knee he felt a closeness to her he couldn’t put a finger on. She’d said he’d feel euphoric, but he’s been angry and depressed, and he had to settle for feeling chipper. But there was something else happening. Aural hallucinations?
“What was that?” Jeff asked, hearing voices from above him, and seemingly around him, through him.
“It’s the girls on the stairs,” she said. “They’re just having fun.”
“Why did you put mushrooms in the gorp?” he asked, not feeling well at all. He was feeling panicky and paranoid, his normal condition, enhanced by the drug, it seemed. “Anything else?” He’d had shrooms before, but this went one stereo beyond. He felt as if he opened his eyes he’d see Rod Serling standing there with a smoking doobie in his hand explaining what was happening to him, Rod high, noddy.
“Help! Help!” cried Little Laura and Anne, back at the door, unable to get out. “Help! Help!”
Laura laughed, “They’re okay, Jeff. The door’s stuck or locked. I’ll get the guy to open it. Come on, I’ll bring you out to the courtyard for some fresh air.” She led him out like blind man’s guide (no symbolism intended). “Just stay here, I’ll come back with girls.”
Jeff wobbled a bit — whatever extra she’d put in the gorp, it was a doozy. He could smell smoke, the kind that brings screaming sirens and hosemen. Across from him a group of young dressed in period Salem costumes were smoking ciggies (Salem?). But that wasn’t the source of his increasing worry. He looked over at the young ladies again, eyeing them more carefully this time, one of them returning his gaze, mean girl anti-perv look, but what he was interested in wasn’t lassie curvatures: on their foreheads — the whole lot of them — someone had scrawled the letter A. Such bright red lipstick on the blonde. Laura came running out. The smoke he smelled had grown seriously acrid. He was losing it, his heart raced wildly, he was forced to lie on the ground. Now.
“What’s going on?” he said, he could feel the flat world spinning.
“The girls started a fire in the stairwell.”
“They were smoking –”
“What the fuck?! They’re six!” He remembered reading that marijuana smoking could make you age super fast, and for a moment he had a terror vision of Little Laura and Anne coming out of the House of Seven Gables looking like Benjamin Button, all old and wrinkly. It was crazy but Laura actually had shown them how to smoke weed. Laura herself had started at 10, her ancient hippie parents post grads from the Summer of Love. But six! She could keep the kids. He wasn’t going to have to raise drug addicts or bring in a deprogrammer after school. Then he felt a boom in his chest and he passed out.
A fire engulfed the House of Seven Gables. In fact, there were already only five gables left. When Laura came out tugging Laura and Anne behind her, the girls wearing freshly purchased Good Witch of Salem Rainbow Magic Witch Hats. Jeff was laid out on the ground, like Ali had come off a rope-a-dope — and pow. Hester Prynnes all around him, like Revlon referees. The fire raged. Pandemonium was had in the village that hate built. Fire trucks arrived, hoses were pulled, water sprayed, but the Gable — she went down like the House of Usher where the Nuclear Family used to live. Then came the local press, and community TV, the gaffer wearing a puritan hat. Then came the Boston media, live breaking news was aired regionally. Then curiosity brought rubbernecks. Then crazies and zanies. The local chapter of QAnon poured in looking like the Hekawis from F Troop, asking about the secret staircase where the children had disappeared.
Laura explained, as best she could, what happened to Daddy. An ambulance came; Jeff was pronounced dead at the scene; he was taken away. The crowd was dispersed by cops in riot gear, their new normal look. Terror could kiss their ass. Laura and the girls weeping, drove home.
Jeff had been months buried when the graveside memorial service was held at the pauper’s grave out back of Avalon Apartments. The roses were sprung and you could smell the freedom of their petals wafting in the warm morning air. Photographers and other enthusiasts came from miles around to have pictures snapped in front of the bushes made vibrant by the loamy loam of dog shit. Jeff’s ashes had been put in a special ceramic container for the burial. His gravestone bore his name; he retained that dignity at least. It had taken weeks to contact all of Jeff’s relatives, workmates and Troy associates, RPI buddies and pole girls they both knew from Molly’s. A few unimportant speeches were made — one interrupted by muffled laughter as a mourner scraped his shoe of shit. Laura and the girls all wore black dresses, and looked divine. And after all the hugs and words of solemn solace had been dispensed, and everyone had gone away, Laura and the girls returned to their condominium in the former nuthouse and played G.O.D. together. The video game had a new module — a kind of minotaur’s maze where the victim of human conditions was chased relentlessly by some deus ex machina out on a lark, megapoints involved. Laura was stuck with the kids after all, and sitting there on the couch, all of them holding joysticks, she felt like the luckiest woman in the world. “Look,” said Anne, pointing at the terrified figure chased by the tau. “He looks like Daddy,” and they all laughed, and waited for the Domino’s pizza to arrive.