Read the introduction by guest editor Claire Vaye Watkins.

 


 

Speed Bumps

 

          Mark was living with us in that house on Coleman even before my old man split, when I was in the second grade. But it wasn't always like that. When he's not around, sometimes my mom will tell me about Mark before he moved into Coleman. She talks about it like she's remembering another person, not the Mark that's been living with us since before I can remember. Instead of waiting to pick up a disability check twice a month for some bogus injury, he taught math at Clayton Middle School over on Kings Row, she says. When she talks this way, she even makes him look like a different person—handsome, she says. She uses other words sometimes, too, like "strong," or "successful," or "handy," when she's talking about this Mark that I don't remember. But she never forgets to use that word, "handsome." It's pretty hard to picture it when you look at him now, knowing the asshole he used to be, and the way he wanders around with all his crazy new ways. But every once in a while you catch him asleep in a chair on the back patio, and you think, Handsome. Maybe so

          But the stories my mom tells, that's not the whole truth either. From what I pick up from my aunt Lena, even back in those days neither Mark or his old wife Sherri were much for staying sober, and that's what landed him at the Coleman house with me and my mom. Mark used to have two kids of his own, if you can imagine it. Two little girls. Lena says that the night of the accident Mark was driving the family home from Shakey's Pizza on Fifth. He was so drunk that he put his car straight into the back end of a garbage truck, and since he and Sherri had both been drinking, Child Protective Services came and took the girls straight from the hospital. They both made a go at getting the kids back, but he and Sherri couldn't ever pass a piss test for CPS and now those kids' daddy is the State of Nevada.

          It'd been tough getting by ever since my old man left, and it wasn't ever easier with Mark living at the house and not working. We were always right on the border. I was in the free-breakfast crowd before school, and no one ever accused me of being rich after Alex fucking Stoker caught me wearing a sweatshirt that he gave to Goodwill the year before. But we were never broke broke. We had the same house we're in now, even if the lawn's been dead for ten years and Mark never fixed the hole he kicked in the back fence, so that we have to keep the dog tied to the locust tree. Back before his revelation, it wasn't hardly fair for that black dog. Mark would get into one of his moods, and he'd kick the dog around the tree like we used to do with a tether ball at school, and the dog'd get the rope wound up to the point where he couldn't run any more and would have to sit there against the tree and take his beating. I felt sorry for the old dog, but better him than me.

          My mom never forgot that she was his big sister. She's better than both of us in that way. Family or not, I couldn't have given a damn what happened to Mark, and I'd guess he'd have said the same about me. But family was more important for her. She told everyone that she was grateful to have a man around the house, but really I think she just felt sorry for him. Every once in a while he'd steal her purse for her tip money, or one time when she wouldn't go to the store to buy him a bottle he broke all the windows in the living room. But mostly he left her alone. Mostly he liked to fuck with the dog. The dog and me.

          The first time I brought a girl over was in the eighth grade, when I got Melinda Stevens to ditch cross-country practice for me. I knew that my mom would still be at work, and Mark had been gone for a couple of days, so I figured I was golden. That whole afternoon before school let out, all I had was pussy on the brain. When we got in the house Mark was in the back yard sitting against the tree, passed out with the dog in his lap. He was about ten feet away from the slider in the living room, but fuck it, I thought, and so I threw on Raiders of the Lost Ark and got Melinda over onto the couch. She was a little weirded out by Mark in the back yard, but she forgot about it by the time I started kissing on her neck. I'd been staring at Melinda's tits since the first day of junior high, so when I started working at the back of her bra I felt like Indiana Jones switching that bag of sand for the gold statue.

          Most guys in middle school look at a bra strap like it's the Pythagorean Theorem, but I'd been getting ready for this for a while now. When nobody was home, I'd take one of the bras out of the bottom drawers of my mom's dresser and strap it to a pillow to practice taking off the hook. I'd got to the point where I could undo it with one hand with my eyes closed, but it's a whole lot trickier with somebody inside the bra. When I opened my eyes to take a peek at the goddamn bra hook the first thing I saw was Mark still sitting against the tree, staring at me through the slider.

          It was like he'd been waiting for me to see him, and when I did he stood straight up and walked over to the slider. I barely had time to say shit before he opened the door and was after me. I heard Melinda yell something, but I couldn't understand any of the words. I took a swing at Mark, just to make a show of if for Melinda, but a second later he had me down, pushing my face into the rug. After it was all over and Melinda had run out the front door, he sat on my chest and pinned my arms to the floor. He got his face right up next to mine, and said that thirteen was too damn young to knock somebody up. I still don't know if he actually cared about me, or if he just couldn't handle seeing me happy for five minutes. But he never did tell my mom. That was something.

 

          Just about the only peace we had in the time since Mark moved in was the three years he did in Elko on a possession charge, but I'd have even given that up if I'd known he'd just come back ten times meaner.

          By the time he got out, I was one of only two guys selling weed at Reno High. All the tennis team and ski team kids would use their gas money or the money from their tennis lessons to get high. We'd meet in the bathroom at school or in the Jack-in-the-Box parking lot and I'd charge them forty, sixty bucks for a dime bag. The kids that I knew didn't have a ton of money—the free-lunch crowd and some of the Mexican kids that didn't even get free lunch because they're illegal immigrants—I'd charge them regular prices. Social justice, right?

          When Mark came back from prison, it took him about two seconds to find the stash in the shoebox under my bed. That fucker was like a goddamn bloodhound. Back then I was only selling an ounce or two broken up into about five hundred baggies, so it's not like it was huge money when he took it all. But still, a couple hundred bucks is a couple hundred bucks. And there wasn't exactly much I could do when I came home and found the shoebox empty. Mark would be at the kitchen table with that smug-as-shit look on his face, all I could do was say, "what's up, fucker?" and go to my room.

          We got into this routine where, no matter where I hid it, he'd raid my stash every couple weeks. It got so that I had to build the weed Mark took into my prices, which no one was too happy about. Around then I was just starting to move in some serious weight. No more ounces—pounds, man. I'd sort of teamed up with Isaiah Hernandez, the other guy selling at Reno High, and once a month we'd make the five-hour drive over the hill to Mendocino to pick up from three burned out hippies with a five-acre plantation in the mountains. I'm not the dumbest guy in the world, though, and pretty soon I came up with a system to cut down on my losses to Mark: I'd still put a quarter or so in the shoebox, like a sacrifice I'd leave on the altar for that fucker. I figured that if I left this little bit he'd think he had everything I was good for, and wouldn't tear the house apart looking for the rest. And sure as the fucking sun rising, every ten days or so it'd be gone.

          There was a skinny little crawl space under the back of the house, and when nobody was around I'd get down and crawl back in there with the earwigs and black widows and hide my real stash. I crawled my ass back there so many times that I started to like it, actually. I'd lie there on my back, my nose almost touching the joists, and I'd turn off the flashlight and listen to the floorboards and the television going in the living room.

          After a while I started noticing other things missing from my room—an X-Box game one day, a pocket knife another time—and I started to worry about leaving my important stuff in a place where Mark could get to it. So I took anything that was worth a damn and I put it down in the crawlspace under the living room. I took down the little binder of basketball cards that I'd had since I was a kid, and a couple of notes I'd kept from a girl that had moved away a few months before, and an old silver belt buckle that had a chunk of turquoise on it the size of a tater tot. It was the only thing that my dad left behind for me when he jumped ship. Or that's what my mom said, anyway, the day she gave it to me when I was old enough to hold onto it myself.

 

          Things were always the worst when Mark had his hands on some crystal. You'd know he was on a runner because he'd be gone for a few days, then would come home and tear the shit out of the place looking for something to sell. All the change I kept in a bottle on my dresser would be gone, and he'd take some strange damn thing like the alarm clock or the blender. When he did show up he'd be bug-eyed and grinding his jaw like he was chewing on a bike tire. Me and my mom would just clear out when he was like that. We'd head down to the Pioneer Casino back before they tore it down to put in a parking lot, and we'd sit at the diner counter and have about forty cups of coffee and wait for Mark to do whatever he was going to do. A couple times, if it was late, she'd call my aunt Lena and we'd stay with her and Lou. Lena's not my real aunt—she's just a Mexican woman that's been my mom's best friend since I don't know when. But I'd pick them for family over Mark in a heartbeat.

          By this time I wasn't just some sad-sack kid anymore, and Mark was getting older and slower and more dried up. He was only probably forty-five, and my mom still called him Baby Brother, but he looked like he was heading toward sixty. After school Isaiah and I would go to the busted-ass excuse for a gym that we'd made in his mom's back yard and curl five-gallon buckets filled with dirt and talk about our next run to Mendo or how much ass we were going to pull that weekend, so that by the time high school was done I looked like the white version of Floyd Mayweather. Anymore, it wasn't Mark that was beating on me so much as we'd beat up on each other. A couple times a month we'd trash the place pushing each other around, then we'd sit down on the at same sofa and split an eighteener and a bowl and we'd be all right for a couple weeks again.

          After I started to stick up for myself a little, things weren't half bad. I'd still leave the baggies for Mark in the shoebox, and there was a sort of peace that came over the house. My mom noticed it too. I could tell by how happy she looked when she came home and me and Mark would be sitting next to each other on the back stoop, smoking cigarettes and shooting pebbles at the coffee can on the other side of the yard. She didn't ever ask why me and Mark were so friendly all of a sudden, if that's what you want to call it. She was probably afraid she'd jinx it by saying it out loud.

          I'm not going to act like the only reason Mark was easier to get along with was because I whipped his ass once or twice. It was the fact that all the crystal in town had dried up after the feds made it damn near impossible for the cookers up in the North Valleys to buy the allergy medicine they needed to make their bathtub meth.

          When the cookers got put out of business it took a few months for the new batches to start coming up from Mexico. And boy, you can be sure Mark was at the front of the line for that rodeo. Mom and I didn't even have to say anything when he showed back up at the house after six days gone. We just drove straight down to the Pioneer. If you haven't been around someone on a runner—and I'm talking about someone on a good, solid two-week runner, now—things have a way of going from bad to worse in a hurry. I've seen normal folks go half-crazy in a couple days. And people like Mark that are half-crazy to begin with—well—you can figure. When mom and I went back to the house after a couple days at Lena and Lou's, of course the baggie that I'd left in the shoebox was gone, along with my DVD's and all the framed-up family pictures we had of me and my mom and my old man from before he split. I can't imagine what crazy-assed idea he had for turning those pictures into cash. That's tweaker logic for you. Chances are they were just sitting in a dumpster behind a pawnshop.

          My mom put her purse down on the couch and started to cry. I knew it was because of the pictures, and because she knew she'd have to spend the rest of her life with a son-of-a-bitch brother around. Then something occurred to me, and I went out the slider to the back yard. That dog was still tied to the tree, but he had that sort of shell-shocked look like Isaiah had for a couple days after that Salvadorian stuck a gun in his face on Sutro outside the roller rink. I shouldn't have been surprised by what I saw next, but I was. The little piece of plywood that was propped over the hole to the crawlspace was leaning up against a busted flowerpot, and a one-by-six piece of fence planking was sticking out from under the house.

          You have to give the tweakers their ingenuity. You've got to say that much. When I pulled back on the plank there was something heavy on the other side, and I could see where Mark had tacked a couple nails to attach it to the next plank. At the end of the second plank he'd nailed a big hook he'd made from a couple coat hangers. When I went back to the kitchen for a flashlight I was shaking like I'd just been in a fight. My mom was still on the couch pinching between her eyes. I went back outside and got on my stomach and shimmied under the house. I didn't want to see what he'd left behind, and when I got back to the spot under the living room where I'd kept it all, I damn near started to cry. The only thing left was the book of basketball cards, which I guess he couldn't hook since it was stuck behind a four-by-four. I'm not the type to pray to God, but I guess I'd been praying that he hadn't hooked that belt buckle. When I aimed the flashlight around the spiders' nests and joists and all I saw was dirt and tarpaper, I felt like I just lost everything I had in the world. I rolled on my back and turned off the flashlight. Through the floor I could hear my mom in the living room right above me, hear the sound of her crying.

          I don't know how long I stayed under the house, but I started to get calm down there in the dark, and pretty soon I knew what I'd do next. I got out from under the house and called Isaiah to put in the order for a gram and a half of crystal. I walked down to the 7-Eleven at the corner of Fifth and Keystone and bought a Gatorade and some chips and waited for Isaiah. When he finally showed I gave him all the money I had in my pockets—almost a hundred bucks—and walked back up to the house. My mom was on the front step smoking. I didn't think she could have known about the stuff under the house, but when I came up all she said was, "Sorry, baby."

          I made sure that my mom was still out on the front step, then I dumped the crystal out of the baggie and onto the kitchen counter. It was already pretty fine, but I took out my driver's license and cut and ground it up a little more. Then I went into the garage and had a look around. There was an open box of powdered weed killer and a jar of dry detergent on the shelf above the washer, and I figured those were close enough. I dumped out about the same amount of weed killer and detergent as there was crystal, and I began to cut and chop and mix the two with my license, so that pretty soon I had about three grams of powder. I scooped it all back into the baggie. Then I went back to my room and put the baggie into the shoebox in the back of my closet.

 

          It took another two days for Mark to show back up at the house. He looked like he'd gotten into a hornet nest—his arms were covered in scabs from where he'd been scratching at himself. Me and Lou used to call them "speed bumps." Meth heads are always covered with them. His eyes were bloodshot, and the corners of his elbows were all bruises and puss, and that's when I knew for sure that he was shooting up.

          He was edgy as hell that first afternoon. He spent half the time looking at the walls like the house was about to fall in on him, and the other half chain smoking cigarettes on the front step. When my mom asked him about the pictures, said she just wanted to go buy them back out of hock, he turned to her and twisted his head and said, "I don't know what the fuck you're talking about, and I don't like the fucking way you're talking about it." He was walking at her, and had her backed up into a corner of the room by the time he stopped talking. I almost said something back, but I kept my mouth shut and walked back down the street for another Gatorade.

          When I checked up on the shoebox the next day the baggie was gone. Mark was still upright, being his usual asshole self, and I started to worry he'd sold off the stuff to some tweaker friend of his, or that he'd maybe even figured out what I was up to. But then the next day shit went down in a hurry.

          Lou and I had just got high as hell in his car downtown, and we went back to my house for some of the green bean casserole my mom had made the night before. When we pulled up, Mark was in his usual spot on the porch, except his face was this weird sort of white like when you leave the cream cheese out on the counter overnight. He was leaned up against the house and was holding a wad of Kleenex up to his mouth. Lou asked what the fuck was wrong, and Mark perked right up to call Lou a half-Spic, except that when he said it he pulled the Kleenex away for a second and we could see that his gums were bleeding pretty bad. I knew for sure that he hadn't sold off the crystal I'd left in the box, and I started to get jumpy.

          I was in it now. Lou tried to get me to go to a kickback with his family down by Ralston Park, but I said I didn't want to go to any Mexican quinceañera if I didn't have to. It sounded a little meaner than I meant it to, but Lou just laughed and said he'd call later.

          For the next couple hours it was like watching a motor run out of gas. It got to be so when Mark walked out to the front step for a smoke it was like he'd run a mile in quicksand. He'd sit on the couch and stare at his toes like he was afraid they'd float off if he stopped watching them. I wish I could tell you that I felt as cool as I had when I was chopping up that plant killer, but I was starting to get really nervous. It was just after three and my mom would be back from work around seven, but there wasn't a damn thing to do except wait for him to fall over. I had it all figured out—if I called the cops when he was just about dead, everyone'd assume he'd got hold of some bad speed. Case closed. But by the time Mark started staggering and heaving all over the house screaming that he was dying, that plan didn't sound so hot. Every time I asked him something, or told him to quiet down, he would just look at me with these crooked eyes that looked like they were tired and scared at the same time.

          Like I said before, I'm not someone that asks for a whole lot from God. But my mom would be home in about forty minutes, and I made a promise to God or whoever hears this sort of nonsense that if Mark stayed conscious until she got home I'd call the hospital and tell them everything. I just didn't want to be alone with him in that house anymore. But whoever I was praying to must not have been listening, because about ten seconds later I looked over and he was unconscious on the couch in front of the TV. There was this string of blood and snot about a foot long, hanging out of his nose like a red shoelace.

          Well, I don't know what kind of mess I expected to go down after I'd put enough tree poison in that bag of crystal to kill a forest, but all I wanted was to be out of there. Just to run. But I couldn't bring myself to just leave him alone on the couch like that. So what I did was grab him by the shoulders and sort of shake him. By then I was a mess. I was crying and shaking him and begging him not to die. I was half-crazy with being so scared, and all I remember was asking him what he did with the belt buckle. It was a stupid thing, but that's what I remember saying, over and over.

          The funny thing was, when I started to shake him he did come around a bit. He didn't open his eyes, but he coughed out that red shoelace, and then he was sort of shivering and hiccupping at the same time. So I left him there on the couch for a second, and ran to the kitchen and called 9-1-1.

 

          St. Mary's Hospital is only a few blocks away, and the paramedics were knocking at the front door in about twenty seconds. Even then I remember thinking it was strange that they'd knocked.

          As soon as they got in the house, one of the paramedics, this Arab kid that looked younger than me, took out a pair of scissors and cut open Mark's shirt right across where it said 2001 NFC Champs. The other medic, a butch-lesbian in her forties, started strapping wires and needles to Mark. If he'd woke up to see an Arab and a bull lesbian standing over him he'd of thought he'd died and gone straight to hell. But at the time, I wasn't thinking about anything funny like that. If you want to know, I wasn't even thinking of Mark that much. Mostly, I was thinking that my mom would be getting off her shift in five minutes, and that it'd just about kill her to come home and find her baby brother all wired up and half-dead on the living room floor.

          But then the kid said something into the radio on his shoulder and they popped Mark onto a gurney and the next thing you know I was alone in the house. I picked up all the little plastic tabs and bits of gauze off the floor and worried about how I was going to tell my mom. But when she came through the door it was pretty easy. She looked tired, like she always did at the end of her work week, and I hated to put any more on her but before she could say anything I just said, "Mark OD'd. They took him to the hospital."

           She didn't even seem surprised. I mean, sure, she was worried. But she wasn't surprised.

 

          She slept down in the lobby at the ICU for the next few days, but I steered clear. She was trying her best to be there for her baby brother, and I was trying my best to stay home and keep high as hell. I didn't want to think about what'd happen if Mark woke up and pointed the finger at me for trying to kill him with bad cut, or if the cops figured it out on their own and turned me into a prison bitch for the rest of my life.

          After four days, my mom called to say that Mark was "out of the woods." But just because you're out of the woods doesn't mean you're any place good. I knew something was up when my mom said they were moving him straight from the ICU to the psych ward, and I started to worry that maybe I'd retarded him or something. It had never occurred to me that there might be something worse than having that son-of-a-bitch around.

 

          Well, I don't know if "retarded" is the word for it, but something had sure happened to that old boy's already fucked-up brain. The way my mom tells it, since it was a Catholic hospital the only thing they had around in Mark's room on the psych ward was a book, and that book happened to be the Book. My mom said that in those first few days when his brain was unmelting he didn't say a word, just kept dipping a finger somewhere in the middle of the Bible and staring at the page like he was reading it.

          When he started to talk about a week later, it was pretty clear that the weed killer and detergent had done something with the old Mark and that he wouldn't be back. All the old Mark's piss and vinegar had been swapped out for something else. About ten days later he finally came home. His head was shaved clear down to his bumpy skull, and all he had with him was a sack with the clothes they'd took him to Saint Mary's in. They even put in that old St. Louis Rams shirt they'd cut down the middle. It was the first time I'd seen him in almost three weeks and I damn near didn't recognize him. It wasn't that he looked so different. It was more that this new Mark carried himself differently than old Mark had. More softly.

          When the new Mark came back home from St. Mary's, he said hello to me as if he'd just got back from vacation, asked how I'd been. It's been like that ever since. The new Mark isn't the asshole that the old one was, but he creeps the hell out of me anyway. Lou won't even come around the house hardly. Lou says that he preferred the old Mark who'd hit him upside the head and tell him to swim back to Mexico.

          I know what he means, too. Now, instead of calling Lou a wetback and bumming a smoke, the new Mark will start in on sections of Revelations that got mashed into that wet concrete of a brain when he was in the hospital. I don't blame Lou for not wanting to be around, either. I catch myself looking back on the old Mark the same way my mom did when she used to talk about him before his accident, when she used to call him "handsome." Just about the only person who likes the new Mark is that broken-down old dog. Now, instead of running around the tree to get away from a beating, he'll sit on the new Mark's lap against the locust tree and listen to Mark tell him, "for true and righteous are his judgments, for he hath judged the great white whore, which did corrupt the earth with her fornication."

          That's not the end of his craziness, either. He's started this bit where he'll spell things out to you, like you're a four-year-old that can't read. He'll tell me, "Will, you don't know it, but you are a S-I-N-N-E-R and you will be P-U-N-I-S-H-E-D." Usually I just ignore it, or tell him, "Mark, you ought to S-H-U-T-T-H-E-F-U-C-K-U-P," but it spooks me, all his weird new ways. Three times in that first month he was back from the hospital I woke up with the new Mark touching me. Just had a finger on my ear or in my hair or something like that. When it first happened I thought it was the old Mark come back for me, but when I jumped up out of bed and was standing in my boxers with my fists up, ready to throw down, it was just that empty new Mark.

          One day this spring Lou and I were passing a spliff on the back porch when Mark walked by, calm as hell, and said, "And that woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth," and walked off. Lou laughed his ass off when he heard that, but I couldn't get myself to laugh with him. Instead, I was thinking of the old Mark, the one that pinned me down in front of Melinda Stevens. How he was so close I could see the hairs in his nose and the broken veins in his cheeks, and I wondered what was different between that Mark and me. I thought about that turquoise belt buckle, and my mom back at work, and Mark's two little girls out there somewhere with their new foster family. I listened to Lou laughing at the new Mark, who was walking over to pet the dog tied up to the tree, and I couldn't see how we were much different at all.

 

 


Gabriel Urza worked as a public defender for several years in Reno, Nevada, before earning his MFA in fiction at the Ohio State University. His first novel, All That Followed, will be published by Henry Holt and Co. in spring of 2015.

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