Haunted Passages: David Leo Rice
After crossing a vast inland sea in an ark called ANGEL HOUSE, Professor Squimbop docks on a distant shore. As soon as his anchor makes purchase, a town sprouts up that may or may not encapsulate all of existence. At the behest of some distant master, he embarks into this town to teach the children about death, a concept they’ve never encountered before. What follows is a surreal epic about friendship, childhood, solitude, creation, and the darkest realms of obsessive nostalgia. Both tender and depraved, familiar and bizarre, it is an utterly original coming-of-age story that questions how we can establish a shared reality when meaning was, is, and will always be malleable.
This scene occurs early in the novel, on the eve of a town-wide Reunion, when a character known as The Mayor emerges from a private sexual session inside a realm known as “The Orchard,” which he accesses by walking through his television screen while it’s playing videos of his hometown as it used to be, during his childhood. Here, we see him undergo a ritual humiliation at the hands of a mass of angry, half-human bears.
It hurt to leave the Orchard like this. Fear and shame clotted over him as he crawled back through the screen and into his basement.
He put his robe on, yawning, and switched off the TV, tossing the remote onto the couch, where it sank into the well-worn cushion. When he pressed Eject on the VCR, the tape emerged ashy and spent. He pulled out the hot plastic and squished it back into its box, to be returned to the Movie Store after the Reunion.
Then he climbed the stairs out of the basement, passing a gamut of bear eyes arrayed in his backyard, where they’d congregated to keep him moving toward his station wagon.
In the garage, he got in the driver’s seat and sat there for a moment before shifting into neutral. He thought, as he often did at this point in the ritual, how close he was to full dominion over the night, how close to self-sufficient his world in the basement could be.
And yet the Blind Spot gaped open. Although he could resist for hours, creeping into secret compartments in the night, the bears would push closer and closer, right up to his flesh, eventually forcing their way down his throat and into his brain, furring his whole system.
Awful totems, the bears wouldn’t rest until they’d dragged him out, back into nightly confrontation with his tininess. This was their duty, and the Mayor took a strange comfort in acknowledging it.
And now my last Movie is gone, he remembered, as if things hadn’t been bad enough already.
He looked in the rearview mirror and saw that the bears had come into his garage, as they often did when he sat too long behind the wheel. So he honked angrily and switched into neutral, beginning to roll down his driveway, around the cul-de-sac, and into the dark of the town.
He drifted all the way to the Blind Spot in neutral, hands in his lap, watching the wheel steer itself in grim parody of a kiddie ride at a fun fair, the kind that used to arrive in the Meadow every August.
He passed the rock quarries behind his house, from which, as far as anyone knew, all the raw materials of the town had been sourced by previous generations. From here, he continued along the lonely, untraveled back roads, the ones without streetlights, or even names.
Like a tree that only blossomed one day a year, he could smell the Reunion through his cracked windows. It made his eyes water in a reaction part sentimental, part allergic. Everything he rolled past was reverting, taking on the guise of what it had been, pretending that the lost world everyone was forever striving to return to was not lost. And how could it be? The air whispered. It’s all right here.
A Home Built of Past, he thought, looking at the dark houses, quoting a standard Reunion line that was back in the air tonight, finding its way into people’s throats to be uttered at the School this Saturday, when everything was set up and everyone was there to remember when they’d all been in that same building as much younger people, crawling along newer, less stained carpets.
Passing through open territory now, his station wagon crushing the weeds that had overgrown the train tracks, he opened his body further to the roving spirit of the Reunion, and began to revisit the trips he took out here with Ben and James in high school, when they were seventeen and eighteen, before nineteen came and News City fractured their trio.
It all came back to him now, through the station wagon’s windows, as easily as the car’s progress in neutral along the edges of the Outskirts, which he could hear creaking open like a giant vault, coming unsealed as they prepared to release their hordes for the Reunion.
He could picture the nights when he and Ben and James would drink and smoke in the cul-de-sac at the end of his driveway and then walk all the way out here, to stand on ridges and gaze up at the Mountain at whose foot the town sprawled, in terror or worship, or both. If they walked onward in a certain direction, they could see the deep ravines of the quarry that stretched all the way to the woods behind the Mayor’s house, where the rusted over tractors and backhoes that had been used to build the town were parked.
Often, they’d stand on one of the ledges and look back at the sporadic lights of the town, and imagine the skyline swelling up into spires, minarets, obelisks, citadels.
They saw themselves as explorers, mutineers from a larger expedition, breaking away from the open road and the march of progress to discover a mammoth, abandoned city, free for the taking.
Let’s settle here, they’d think. And live for Movies like we’ve always wanted to. No longer refusing to grow up because growing up will no longer mean giving in.
Many nights, the fantasy spun on and on, into dreams of prosperity and power, of turning the town physically into all that it had become in their minds, filling with matter all the blank spaces they’d so far filled only with fantasy. This, they’d thought then, is the only righteous segue into real life. Not the putting-behind of childish things, but the imposition of those things, forcibly if need be, brutally even, onto the postlapsarian things of adults.
Eyes misting over, the Mayor enjoyed this spell of unabashed Reunion thinking, incarnating the three of them at seventeen, looking out at the skyline that had no towers except those they dreamed of building.
But, with a smell of burning plastic, the image twisted into now, twenty-nine, alone in his car, surrounded by bears, wrapped in a robe sticky with brownie batter.
“It’s impossible to be in two places at once, but one is always in many times,” he whispered, quoting another Reunion classic as the bears pressed close to the car to read his lips.
He was at the Blind Spot now, preparing to face the pit, the pure, unrendered space, the hole in the heart of the town. Perhaps the gateway to hell. He was losing his wherewithal, lapsing into Death-think. Soon he’d be barely human, a husk with glazed eyes riveted on nothingness.
But first, one more flurry of memory.
He could see three figures in the distance, framed by his windshield and glowing orange, like the inner part of a forest burning while the outer part waited its turn. This could be the opening scene in the massive Movie he would commission from James. He pictured himself naked in his basement, watching it on his TV, where the scene would be less fleeting and thus more real.
He knew the figures were himself, Ben, and James, and knew they could feel themselves being watched, because he remembered it from when he was on the other side, all times being equal within the Psychogeography.
The three of them weren’t so powerful they could reach across the intervening decade and touch him, and neither could he touch them, but he could tell they knew he was here, and that their spines were quivering with the possibility of contact.
The thrill and discomfort were mutual, the watching himself as a younger man and the being watched by himself now, obese and older. He became aroused but suppressed it as best he could, adjusting his robe, knowing that to let sex out of his basement would be to contaminate the entire town.
From his current remove, all he could recall from that moment was that the three of them had come very close to seeing the Blind Spot for what it was.
The truth had been there back then, as they wobbled before it in their shorts and sandals with their long puffy hair and barely grown-in beards and teeth scummy with pot smoke.
But they’d written it off, and then Ben and James had applied to college and gone to News City to become professionals, as if that escape route were real.
They’d attributed the vision back then to drugs and drink and being teenagers, full of impulse and empty of context and training. The Mayor knew there’d always been a part of Ben and James that yearned to give up the Pretend Movie and become artists-in-the-world, paid real money and written up in magazines for the delectation of strangers.
The reality of the Blind Spot could only mock them for this.
If the three of us, then, had accepted that the Blind Spot is real, the Mayor heard himself thinking now, I wouldn’t be here alone tonight. We’d all three be emperors, and the town would be our paradise.
They would have known never to leave.
He could see the bears grimacing, growing bored. A speck of strength within his blubber tried to hold out, but the rest of him said, Obey.
He sighed, closed his eyes, and opened his mouth, letting the Blind Spot speak through him as the last of his vision dissipated. His headlights illuminated only the pit now. “I am nothing, I am nothing, I am less than nothing,” he heard himself confess, like a radio tuned to a private channel, meant solely for the bears that had thronged his station wagon.
“I am nothing, and the town is nothing,” he told them. “We are all just blips, abandoned and marooned in the vastness of the world, a world we will never know because we aren’t strong enough to take it in. The town as it was is the town as it is and the town as it is is nothing.”
Satisfied, the bears descended into the pit to sleep, and the Mayor put his station wagon in drive, no longer compelled to drift in neutral, though he was so spent and shaky he found he could barely remember the way home.
Excerpt from ANGEL HOUSE
David Leo Rice is a writer and animator from Northampton, Massachusetts, currently living in NYC. His first novel, A Room in Dodge City, came out in 2017, and his second, ANGEL HOUSE, came out in June 2019. His stories and essays have appeared in The Believer, Catapult, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Cosmonauts Avenue, Black Clock, Lit Hub, and elsewhere. He’s online at: raviddice.com.