Haunted Passages: David Leo Rice
I drove all night in the truck I’d found parked in front of the house on Cielo Drive, windows open so the last of the names Jim and Joe could flow out, leaving me in a purified state that I chose to call the Brothers Squimbop, though I knew I was alone. I drove through lowlands and highlands, dabs of city here and there, beyond the edges of the Los Angeles simulacrum we’d been mired in too long, the bond between us fraying by the hour. I reminded myself that I was seeking the ocean, and that, once I found it, I would peel off my soiled uniform and immerse my body in the black waves at the edge of the continent and wash off the last of the dead flesh clinging to my side at the site where my Brother had been sliced away, and then the Brothers Squimbop would refer to me alone.
A me and an us all in one, I thought, as I pulled off the road behind a row of dunes fringed in spiky grass, a being strong and cogent enough to embark upon a brand-new escapade, now that Hollywood lies in ruin behind us …
I cut the engine, yanked up the emergency brake even though the ground was level here, and strode, head held high, toward the lapping edge of the ocean, squinting as if I hoped to make out Japan in the distance. When I reached the surf, I kicked off my shoes, then pulled off my pants, shirt, and undergarments, scratching at the hardened flesh on my left side, the skin slick and scarred, and, though I yearned to wash myself clean, I found that I could not. Perhaps it was simply that the water was too cold—far colder than I’d imagined on my triumphant drive out here, and even on my triumphant walk across the beach—or else some residual memory of my Brother clung to my side more firmly than the me part of us could overcome. It felt as though part of my mind was in my head and part was on my side, trembling in the Pacific pre-dawn, and only when both were in agreement could any action be accomplished.
The two minds repelled one another in the cold, so we turned back to shore to watch the sun rise over the bluffs as the new day’s first surfers, clad in wetsuits and swimming caps, raced like crabs across the sand and into the water, taking to the waves without seeming to notice us where we stood.
The flesh on our side trembled and burrowed inward, clustering more densely between our ribs, and we could hear it whisper, time to go. The water is theirs now.
So I turned, again resolving to use I for the sake of my sanity—our sanity, we thought—and said farewell to Japan, which did seem nearly visible now that the sun had risen, and I returned, naked, to the beach. I watched the surfers glide up and over the waves as I pulled my old clothing over my wet body, sand and salt bonding with the fabric and ensuring that I’d stink like an old fishing net until I found a new costume or a freshwater means of washing.
Thus attired, I returned to the truck, eased it out between the wide vans of the surfers, and took to the highway again, heading north, the brightening ocean to my left. I drove for another hour or two, rolling the dial between AM stations, half of them covering harbor conditions and the other half covering extraterrestrial conspiracies, until hunger and thirst overwhelmed me and I turned off the road in the next beach town I saw.
I pulled into the lot of a diner near the exit ramp, took a few crispy bills from the glove compartment, jerked the parking brake in what I’d begun to see as one of my signature moves, and went inside, eagerly inhaling the scent of brewing coffee and frying onions. A waitress in white jeans and a Shelter Cove sweatshirt brought me water in a ribbed plastic Coca-Cola cup, and nodded without writing anything down when I ordered pancakes, bacon, and coffee. As I waited, I looked to the only other occupied table, where a man who appeared to be in his sixties sat at a booth with three small children.
As I sipped coffee and waited for my food, I studied his behavior with his young companions, trying to determine the nature of their relationship. I did this to force myself to focus on the buzzing area between him and the children, rather than on his face, which reminded me of something, or someone, that I didn’t want to remember until the very last moment of the new escapade that I could now sense was well underway.
There was something forced in how he looked at them, an element of threatened and hence threatening insecurity, like he was warning them with his eyes not to try to escape. I heard one of the children ask if he could use the bathroom, and the man snapped, “No!” in such a way that, had I been a child, I would’ve gone in my pants.
I jumped when the waitress brought my pancakes and bacon, which made her jump, too. She stood back from the table and looked me over like she’d formed an initial idea of who she was dealing with as soon as I walked through the door, but now she’d been forced to revise it. We locked eyes; then we both looked at the table, where, it appeared, my coffee had splashed out of its mug. We watched it run around the edges of my pancake platter, transfixed. Then she said, “Lemme get you a placemat.”
When she disappeared into the back, my gaze returned to the man with the children, whom I was now certain he’d kidnapped. I itched the cold, sandy flesh under my shirt, and ruminated on how that man had gotten those children—I saw him lurking behind a rest stop bathroom in the dead of night, waiting until they went into the Women’s side with their mother—and why, and where he was taking them. My mind drifted down my torso, into the flesh that sometimes still struck me as a remnant of my Brother. This remnant pulled us further down, past our side, past our waist, under the table, and through the floor, into a chamber of hooks and chains dangling over a bathtub in which something humanoid floated with an expectant grin. We could see it clearly, as if it were located directly beneath the diner, rendering the space were now sitting in no more than a surface for what really mattered. My Brother, or the part of me that was my Brother, thrilled at the notion, and began to picture the man leading the children down there after breakfast and beginning, very calmly, to disembowel them while an unseen audience clapped and laughed in the shadows, relieved to see that the old routine had not perished from the Earth.
We only left that chamber when the waitress returned with a rolled-up paper placemat under her arm. She lingered by the side of the table, as if she expected us to remind her why she’d come back. When we did no such thing, she sighed, picked up the plate and half-empty coffee cup, spread the placemat underneath it, then put everything back on top.
We looked at the plate, determined to eat what had turned up there, though the sight of that man with those children had sapped our appetite, and our head had begun to throb with what felt like two brains clogging a space meant for one. But which one to jettison?? We goofed, inwardly, hoping the routine might make contact with the raw nerve at the root of all comedy.
I forced myself back to singularity and picked my fork and knife off the placemat and noticed that it was covered with ads in rectangular boxes. MORT’S DRYWALL, SUSY & ANNA’S FISH & CHIPS, LAYNE’S BANG & BROW SALON, and, in a smaller box under the shadow of my plate, THE BROTHERS SQUIMBOP WAX MUSEUM.
In pantomime of another kind of man, a businessman perhaps, someone with a fixed nature and a fixed schedule, I checked my wrist. Seeing nothing but salt-crusted hairs—it’s my Brother that’s got the watch there, I heard myself think—I held it aloft a moment longer, then picked up my silverware and ate my soggy pancakes as quickly as I could. When they were gone, I called the waitress over, settled the bill, and asked directions to the Wax Museum. She appeared about to answer when the man with the children got everyone up from their booth and forced them out of the diner, right past our table. He locked eyes with us and we looked away from the horrible denouement we could see coming.
I swallowed, once again forcing my Brother, who’d grown overexcited at the prospect of what was about to happen, back to my side, but I could tell that it would only grow harder to resist his influence as the escapade wore on. The Brothers Squimbop, I thought, will always be us, never just me, no matter how few bodies we inhabit.
And yet, I added, as the man and the children dinged the door on their way out, I am here and he is not. That’s got to count for something. When they were gone, the waitress, half-traumatized for reasons she likely couldn’t have explained, looked back at me and said, “What was the question again?”
After she told me where the Museum was, I got back in the truck and drove over there. It was so close I could’ve walked, but I’d already decided that the truck, and especially the yanking of the parking brake, was an essential part of my flair for as long as this escapade lasted. The Brothers Squimbop roam the Northern California coast in a beat-up truck, I narrated, as I drove, picking up drifters and slaughtering them in rented rooms, feeding their remains into a bathtub full of …
We almost crashed into the Wax Museum, so intent had we become on seeing, or hearing, what was in the tub. I had to jerk the truck to a halt and exhale into my fist behind the wheel, scratching the flesh on my side until my breathing stabilized. In time Brother, in time, I thought, or heard the flesh think through me. Step by step … by step. The effort to remain singular winded me, then sent a surge of adrenaline through my system, so that, when I climbed out of the truck and beheld the façade of the Wax Museum, emblazoned with crude renditions of our two faces, I felt both exhausted and charged up, like I’d spent the night sleeplessly pacing between the door and the TV in a rented room on the edge of this town, where I’d come for the express purpose of visiting the legendary Brothers Squimbop Wax Museum, and now, thank God, here I was.
“You here for the ten o’clock tour?” A pudgy man in a yellow flannel shirt popped out and swept the parking lot before pausing his attention on me. I nodded, and hurried inside when he motioned me in.
A small group had congregated in the lobby, composed of a trio of twentysomething women and the man and children from the diner. The host popped back out to sweep the parking lot, then returned and sighed, “Well, looks like it’s just us. Okaaay … let’s get started then, you can settle up in the gift shop on your way out.”
He turned without waiting for assent and wandered through a low doorway into a dim hall, flanked by wax sculptures. I kneaded my side, easing my Brother to sleep for the time being, and entered along with the rest of the group. We passed sculptures of the Brothers in all their iconic escapades, which the host narrated in an elliptical, breathless style. “Here, we see them, ah … they’re on their teaching stint here,” he said, pointing at a diorama of one of the Brothers—I tried to stop myself from thinking me, though I, or my Brother, did think it—in a damp lecture hall, leaning against a podium with an empty briefcase open beside him. On the floor between us and the exhibit was a wax wolf, which the guide claimed, “turned up, I’m sure you remember, just as that escapade was getting to the juicy part.”
A few of the women laughed, but only enough to show that they thought it was meant as a joke, or a reminder of a funnier time. The hall was open and cluttered so that everything was visible at once, and we might’ve been happier wandering freely, but the host insisted on leading us from one exhibit to the next, shuffling across the carpeting in a pair of green foam sandals, as if we could only see what he was describing. “Here, we have the Brothers relaxing on a motel bed,” he told us, pointing at what we could clearly see was the Brothers relaxing on a motel bed. “The conceit of this escapade was that they’d both appear to teach at a community college, but only ever alone, obscuring the fact that there were two of them, even though—and here’s the real genius of it—they were by no means identical.”
He looked right at me here, and I shuddered to consider that he could see my Brother clustered on my side. And here, I imagined him saying, turning the group’s attention on me, we have the Brothers in a new escapade where they’ve merged into a single body and turned themselves loose on the backroads of Northern California, enacting a killing spree that will go down in American history as one of the …
“Please don’t fall behind,” he called, and I had to hurry over to where he was describing a diorama that showed the Brothers holding forth upon a platform in the heart of what he called, “A backward village in deep, deep Upper Austria, where the Brothers terrorized Old Europe with tales of demonism and witchcraft.”
For the moment, I felt free of the group’s attention, though I’d grown preoccupied with trying to remember how I looked, and whether, from the group’s point of view, my face was iconic enough to raise suspicion. I couldn’t decide whether I hoped that it was.
“And here,” the guide said, glaring as I fell behind again, “we have my personal favorite, The Brothers Squimbop in Hollywood … we, ah, see them on the Spahn Movie Ranch, before a gallows where, depending on whom you ask,” he grinned here, making it clear that this was his favorite line in the tour, “they either hung or pretended to hang a gypsy they found in a parking lot off Hollywood Boulevard. Heavy stuff … sir, you might want to,” he looked to the man with the three children, evincing concern as they blanched before the sight of the hung gypsy, but quickly turned back to the exhibit when the man glared back, menacingly enough to brook any intervention.
“Well, um,” the guide stammered, thrown off script, “er, here we have the Brothers overseeing the murder of a child.” He couldn’t help looking at the man again. “This piece is, understandably, our most controversial, because, well, you see, some say the Brothers were separated here, that is, each went his own way in a sort of Primal Scene, or Reverse Primal Scene, ending the Era of the Brothers Squimbop, while others, and that includes yours truly, hee-hee, believe we haven’t seen the last of them yet. No sir, not by a long shot.”
He looked straight at me, and I felt my Brother squirm, waking from the nap he’d fallen into. I felt sure that some confrontation was nearly at hand, but the guide preempted it by asking, “So, um, are there any questions?” He scratched his nose, then reached back to hike up his sagging jeans.
The children had fanned out, their gaze roving between the waxworks and the face of their captor, while the three women looked at me, in unison, then at the guide. One of them said, “Well, yes. First of all, it’s great to be here. We’ve been to three of these so far, two in Oregon and one in Mendocino, and, well, this is one of the best. So cheers on that.” She paused, then said, lowering her voice, “What I wanted to ask, if you don’t mind, and I ask this everywhere because I’m writing my dissertation on it, is what do you think about Squimbop Fever?”
The guide leaned against a wax model of the truck I’d parked in the lot—good thing the parking brake’s on! I mugged—sighed, looked at his slipper-clad feet on the carpeting, and said, “What do I think about it? Do I believe that individuals all over the country have been driven to murder in order to effect mystical reunion with their supposedly long-lost Brothers? Do I believe the endless proliferation of Brothers Squimbop impersonators,” here he looked at me, and I looked away, “is anything but yet another manifestation of the ancient American propensity toward graft and rip-off artistry in every corner where breathable air still manages to flow?”
“But surely you’ll admit,” the woman cut in, “that the face is strikingly similar. I mean, look at him,” everyone turned toward me, “you must get one on every tour. Look at that face, then look at the sculptures. You’re seriously telling me that nothing neurological is afoot? Nothing morphological, just a garden variety, as you say, rip-off artist plying his trade? To what end? Does it look fun to be like him?”
Everyone swiveled their gaze between me and the nearest sculpture of me, and I couldn’t decide whether to reveal my identity or keep it hidden, if such a thing were possible. I wanted to mine this dilemma for laughs, but feared drawing any more attention to myself.
“You’re right about one thing,” the guide said, his voice turning sharp, “I do get one of these bozos on every tour. Every damn time, let me tell you. But let me tell you something else, too. Since you’re all here. The Brothers Squimbop are singular. There is only one True Duo. Only ever has been, only ever will be. So whatever Fever may or may not be afoot, let me just say, and then I need to let my eleven o’clock’s in, the Brothers Squimbop will be back. When they are, we’ll know it. Until then, it’s just bozos having a laugh. Put that in your damn dissertation.”
The woman nodded, rolling her eyes like she’d heard this many times before. “I will,” she said, and motioned to her friends, who’d clearly accompanied her for moral support, well aware that this moment would come.
I followed them out. In the gift shop, I rifled through a rack of Brothers Squimbop sweatshirts, not intending to buy one until the woman at the desk—a variant on the tour guide—said, “admission’s free with a purchase of $15 or above.”
Buy one, I heard my Brother say, from up near my armpit. I’m cold. I nodded, took one off the rack, brought it to the checkout counter, where the woman stood back, seemingly shocked to see me up close.
“What?” I asked, beginning to blush and scramble for a cover story that I’d been led to believe I wouldn’t need.
“Nothing,” she said, ringing up the sweatshirt. “Just, you got it bad, is all.”
I turned to see the graduate students in line behind me, leaning in to hear the exchange play out. “Got what?” I asked, though I knew what she was about to say.
She merely shrugged and handed me the sweatshirt without a bag, as if she could tell I was planning to put it on right away.
I pulled it over my head, a cartoon image of my face over my right nipple, my Brother’s over my left.
“So, you believe it then?” the woman who was writing her dissertation asked.
I turned, pulling the sweatshirt close for warmth, and was about to answer when the woman at the checkout counter said, “Excuse me, could you folks, um …” She motioned for us to clear the area, as if a line of people were waiting behind us.
We decided to play along and walked together out to the parking lot. Her two friends had dispersed so, for the moment, it was just me and her.
“You really do look like them,” she said, leaning close to my face, “more than anyone I’ve seen. Would you be willing to talk to me about it, for my research? I’ll buy you lunch.”
Though I wanted to check into a room on the harbor and wait till dark—I glanced at the doors of the Wax Museum, picturing how I’d let myself back in—I was hungry enough to nod when she asked a second time. Then I got in my truck and followed her sporty Nissan to a Mexican restaurant in what looked like the historic center of whatever town this was.
Inside, she ordered margaritas and chips and dip for the table, then took out a notepad and said, “Do you mind?”
I wanted to reach under my sweatshirt and ask my Brother, but I could feel that he was sleeping again. The long, hectic night we’d both been through seemed to be taking a heavier toll on him, whereas I was left punchy and buzzing, all the more so once I began to sip my blue-green margarita and chew iridescent crystals of salt. Alone for the time being, I indicated that I wouldn’t stop her from taking notes.
“Thanks,” she said. “Do you want, like, real food? My treat, like I said. Or if I didn’t, I meant to.”
She ordered us steak fajitas when the waitress came back. Then she asked, “When did you first suspect you had it?”
I yawned, exhaustion beginning to rise from beneath the surface of manic energy. Something in her attentiveness, the way she hovered her pen over her notepad, the pride she clearly took in being able to treat me to lunch in service of the dissertation that she showed no sign of doubting would one day be a document of genuine significance … something in all of this made me smile. Her flair, I thought. The routine she’s been assigned. Hoping to preempt a laugh, I clamped my lips onto the rim of my cocktail glass.
“Sorry,” she said, dipping a chip, then sitting back to eat it with her other hand underneath, guarding against runoff. “I know it’s a touchy subject. Ha, I ought to know, after all the interviews I’ve done!” She laughed, so I did too, less and less certain of where in this scene my center of gravity was to be found. I felt my eyes begin to water, so I cleared my throat and took a chip, guarding it in the same way she had.
“Look,” she said. “It’s not just you. Squimbop Fever is sweeping the nation. Has been for years, no matter what they say.” She nodded out the window, perhaps in the direction of the Wax Museum and its skeptical proprietor. “I mean, ask yourself … how long since the actual Brothers were seen? And what became of them? Where’d they go? Why are there so many tribute acts, so many impersonators, so many,” she looked at me with compassion, and I felt terror and rage grind together, almost audibly, “so many people who look like them, and are growing to look more like them with time, and yet remain alone, always one half of a duo they can never put back together, except as an obvious rip-off? Explain that to me in language other than that of viral spread. Thanks, yep, uh-huh, looks great,” she said, as our fajitas arrived, steaming up the space between us.
We ate in silence until we each grew visible again. Then she reached into her purse and placed a brochure on my napkin. “Take a look.” She chewed the rest of the steak in her mouth, then added, “Sorry, I just get excited. I know a lot of people with it. I’ve lost people to it. That man, with those kids on the tour today … the way he looked at the waxworks? The way he looked like the waxworks? He has an early case, just beginning to show symptoms, whereas you …” She looked up, and there must’ve been something off in my face to make her cut short whatever she’d been about to add.
“How many pseudo-duos do you think there are today?” She asked, trying to cool the conversation once again. She nodded at the brochure, and I picked it up. The Brothers Squimbop West Coast Tour, its cover said, with a hazy photo of a duo that looked something like my Brother and me, wearing tuxes and top hats on a stage much like the one I’d pictured while filming the worst of the footage in the house on Cielo Drive.
I gagged on the memory, spitting out the steak in my mouth and wrapping the mush in a napkin. “I’ve been up all night and it’s starting to get to me. Is there a decent motel in this town, do you know?”
She hesitated, as if weighing whether to try one last time to get me to say whatever she needed to hear. Then her face dimmed and she nodded and signaled for the check. “Sure,” she said, disappointed but diplomatic. “I’m staying right by the marina. I’ll take you there. See you at the show later, maybe?”
I got back in the truck and followed her to an L-shaped motel fringing the marina, sunfish and motorboats bobbing outside the windows. The proprietor, a youngish Indian man in sneakers and overalls, showed me a room, which he claimed was the, “Best for single men between here and Ukiah.” He winked in such a way that it seemed like he wanted to appear to be implying something without letting on quite what it was. I felt my side squish and swirl, and said, “No, I need one with a big tub.”
“Big tub?” he asked, startled, like he’d gotten lost in thought as soon as he opened the door, certain that his work was done.
I pointed out the window, at the bobbing waves, and coughed to muffle the sound of my squirming Brother. “Big tub,” I said again.
This time, he seemed to understand, or to admit that he understood. “Very well, my friend,” he said, and showed me into another room, identical but for a big tub in the bathroom. My side squirmed again, whether in fear of or longing for the water, I couldn’t yet say. The proprietor froze again, sinking back into the realm he’d sunk into before, and for a moment I couldn’t bear to rouse him, as I began to see what would happen later tonight, what he’d be left with and would then, perhaps, be called upon to explain. Better to let him enjoy it now, I figured, as he looked out the window at the bobbing waves, where, I realized, he’d surely been looking for years, perhaps dreaming of India.
I too began to dream. I closed my eyes and drifted back to the house that my Brother and I had shared on the Spahn Movie Ranch, the half-finished wooden mansion that had been our headquarters in what I now considered the Heyday of the Brothers Squimbop. As I slipped deeper into reverie, I looked out the window and saw the house floating in the harbor, a mansion that was also an ark, about to dock after centuries at sea. I watched it draw near, filling in the hazy horizon until the open harbor turned into a lake, and then I looked over at the proprietor and let my dream sync up with his, so that now together we watched the ark arrive after a journey around the world, all the way from India. We shared the relief of its arrival, the sense that all was at last well in the world, all painful separation finally mended, all dualities fused into one.
The reverie came to an end as the ark clanged against the edge of the motel, its window against the window of the room we were standing in. “Well,” he said, wiping his eyes, “this room is better for you?”
I nodded, wiping my eyes too, and then I was alone, the door closed and locked, the water running in the tub. I stood in the gathering steam, removed my clothes for the second time today, and, for the second time, prepared to submerge myself and, at last, wash the extra flesh clean and emerge into whatever new being I had still only halfway become. I breathed in the cloudy chlorine smell that emanated from the tap, and felt the image I’d conjured a moment ago disappear. You will step into this steam, a voice informed me, with your head full of soft, creamy Lecture, which has been pooling inside you all day. You will stay under until it has turned firm and shapely, the cream churned to butter.
I squeezed my side, beginning likewise to churn what I found there, irritating and kneading the skin as, once again, I failed to submerge my sandy, salty body. I stood at the edge of the tub, listening to the voice, which seemed to travel on the steam the way other voices travel on the radio. You will sail the globe in the ark whose arrival you’ve just witnessed, which from now on will be your home, just as it once was ours, on the Spahn Movie Ranch, before you fled. Before your cowardice ended the Heyday of the Brothers Squimbop and inaugurated the Age of Imposters. Now, apostate, it falls to you to sail in ANGEL HOUSE, preaching the Lectures I will write. This is the only escapade that remains. I am gone from you, away in the Totally Other Place, never to be heard from again outside of steam, and all the duos you see and hear and meet from now on are, like you, nothing but imposters, wax sculptures driven mad by Fever, pretending that what’s lost can be still found.
I leaned against the sink and tried to purge the voice from the steam, blocking out the pseudo-Squimbop that seemed ready to come between me and my Brother, but I grew weaker the longer I leaned there, until I fell into a dream in which I was the one made of wax.
Just before full paralysis set in, I wrenched myself awake, coughed red foam into the sink, turned off the tub that had begun to overflow, dumped all the towels from the rack above the door onto the spill and, for the second time today, pulled my clothes back over my unwashed and unrested body, though thankfully this time I had my souvenir sweatshirt to keep me warm.
I sat down on the bed, running my hands through my hair and trying to remember why I’d come here, and what I might do now that I’d arrived. I couldn’t tell if my plan was going right or going wrong. All I knew, or decided that I must know, was that the time to return to the Wax Museum had come.
So I pulled the sweatshirt tighter, relishing the pain in my side, picked up the keys to the room and the truck, and let myself out into the cool evening.
I drove through growing excitement in the harborside town, traffic backed up along the main street in the direction of the historic center, beneath banners proclaiming “BROTHERS SQUIMBOP BIG-TOP SHOW, TONIGHT 7PM.” I sped up in the opposite direction and let myself indulge the thought that I could just keep driving, all the way down the coast and through the ruin of Los Angeles and back into the Hills, where I’d stop on the gravel path of the Spahn Ranch and find my Brother waiting for me in the house where we …
I jerked to a halt in front of the Wax Museum, killed the headlights, and sat behind the wheel, trying to focus on the task at hand. I pictured how I’d let myself in, retracing my steps from this morning, how I’d creep over to the waxwork display of the two of us filming the hanging scene on the Ranch, me behind the camera and my Brother off to the side, directing the action with a murderous smirk on his lips. Then I’d load him into the back, cover him with the blue tarp, and bring him to the big tub.
A scuttling in the lot startled me, and I looked up to see the man from this morning, with the three children by his side, dragging another sculpture into the bed of his own truck and covering it with a blue tarp of his own. For a moment, the lot filled with identical trucks, Squimbop-faced loners sneaking away with wax sculptures under their arms … and then I was among them, weaving through the foot traffic in the parking lot and in through the smashed doors, past the ransacked gift shop and into the main hall, where some of the lights were on and some were broken, and most of the sculptures were gone. I passed tableaus of us on that steamer to Europe, and on the dusty roadside in the high mountains where we met the witch, and then the deep German woods where she birthed us again, so as to send us … here.
As if some Providence were looking down on me through the sprinkler system, recognizing me as one half of the True Squimbop, alone among so many imposters, the tableau of the Murders at Cielo Drive, where the division between my Brother and me had first insinuated itself, was still intact. I fell to my knees and kissed the glass-strewn carpeting, vowing to do whatever it took to restore us to that moment, even if it turned the nation into a charnel house. If it ends up that my Brother and I are the last beings left alive on this planet, then that will be as it should, I thought, or heard the voice I’d heard in the bathroom think, though I tried not to consider what it might mean if this thought itself were a message sent by that apostate.
I rose to my feet, made my way to the Spahn Ranch, uprooted my Brother where he stood, and carried him through the wreckage and back to the parking lot just as a fleet of cruisers closed in. I paid them no mind as I loaded him into the back, covered him with the blue tarp, disengaged the parking brake with a flourish, and pulled out, past the cruisers that warned me over and over again to stop where I was.
We tore down the main street in a hail of gunfire, the Brothers Squimbop reunited in a thrilling new escapade, heavy metal blaring on the AM radio, and I felt better than I had since leaving the house on Cielo Drive. We swerved around roadblocks and up onto curbs, speeding up as the audience clapped and stomped, egging us on, until we crashed to a halt under another “BROTHERS SQUIMBOP BIG-TOP SHOW, TONIGHT 7PM” banner, and got out, dodging gunfire as we ducked around dozens of identical pickup trucks, with identical blue tarps in back.
I worked my way into the crowd, easily slipping past the distracted ticket-takers and under the big-top, where a shameless impersonator duo in tuxes and top-hats stomped a wooden stage with a ladder between them, one holding it aloft while the other tried to climb it, taking turns climbing faster and faster while the audience, crammed full of men in the early or middle stages of Squimbop Fever—looking at them together like this, there was no denying what the student had told me—clapped along, their eyes hollow and swimmy, wax pooling on their cheeks as their tears dried.
I could see them sinking into their own private memory theaters, where, like me, they sat in the cheap seats with their Brothers on a gloomy Sunday afternoon, watching the Brothers Squimbop tap dance and do ladder tricks, hatch doves and fan out decks of cards and don and doff top-hats and mince about in ill-fitting dresses and high heels, pink lipstick smeared over their chins and mustaches, making it seem, for a while, that life was a lark you could prance through with ease, provided you had a light-enough touch and didn’t mind stumbling around in triple-height rhinestone stilettos or floppy rubber clown shoes. The right mix of focus and dreaminess to keep it from turning heavy, to keep the ship from drifting into harbor, its windows flush with those of our room …
I swooned against the Squimbop behind me, breaking the spell he’d fallen into, and causing him to roar with the pain of it. He clobbered me in the temple and would have again had I not stumbled in such a way that his next blow hit the Squimbop in front of where I’d been standing. A moment later, the crowd teetered and almost collapsed in a hundred-headed pratfall.
I ducked out of the crowd while the duo onstage began to play a kazoo duet and sing one of our classics, from the days when we simply went town to town, in big-tops like this one, yodeling the nights away.
Back in the parking lot, where the police where still lined up, I began to search for my truck, wondering what, if anything, might distinguish it from the others. As I roamed from one to the next, verifying that each had the same lump beneath the same blue tarp in back, I ended up on the far edge of the fairgrounds, out by the dumpsters and porta-potties, where a few men stood smoking and waiting to pee.
I passed them by, intrigued now not by the line of trucks but by a whimpering I could hear from even deeper in the fields, out of reach of the spotlights. As I approached, I could see a standing sculpture, and, as I drew closer, four bodies, three of them prone, one of them kneeling. As I drew closer still, I saw, as I knew I would, the man from this morning rocking on his knees before a blood-soaked Squimbop sculpture, the three children sliced from throat to groin in the grass beside him.
“Just, please, come back to life,” he moaned. “Just make it be funny again. I’m sorry I left you. I’m sorry. I know you think I was the cowardly one, and that you had what it took, but look what I’ve done. Look at me, here. Look what I did for you.” He gazed up at the sculpture’s face, and begged again, louder this time, perhaps performing for me, if he could sense that I’d drawn close behind him. “Please,” he almost shouted, pressing his lips against the sculpture’s pedestal, “please, let us be the Real Brothers Squimbop again. Enough with the impersonators, the waxworks, the reenactments … let’s get back out there and do what only we can!”
He broke down, shedding gore as he shivered and sobbed in his souvenir sweatshirt. I put my arms around him and held him close and, for a long, strange interval, it was like he and I were the Brothers Squimbop, reunited at last, our battles behind us and the open road—the dense, heady Inland Circuit, where there were still suckers aplenty, waiting to hand us their grubby cash—just up ahead. He leaned into my arms and I held him in that empty field in the dead of night, beside the children he’d slain, and then, when it was time, I helped him to his feet, and we walked together back to the lot where, thankfully, all the other Squimbops had left, leaving only his pickup and mine.
“I’m staying at the motel on the harbor,” I said. “Would you like to go there with me?”
He stood back and looked into my eyes, Fever boiling across his face as his tears turned to wax, and he nodded with such gratitude I had to look away. “I just wanted it to be funny again,” he muttered, though he must’ve known I required no explanation. “I just needed it to be funny again somehow. And to stop hearing the voice that said I’d be on my own from now on.”
I took out the keys, motioned him into the passenger’s seat as my Brother had once motioned me, got into the driver’s seat, depressed the parking brake with a flourish, and pulled out of the lot, past the lone pickup still remaining, the big top deflating on the other side of the turnstiles.
We drove through the deserted historic center, the streetlights blinking yellow and a pair of streetsweepers making the rounds. The banners hung limply from their posts, tangled in branches and drooping over the awnings of shuttered stores.
Back at the motel, I parked by the harbor and walked around to the passenger’s side to let the man out, though I knew he wasn’t exactly incapacitated. He leaned on my shoulder as I walked him to the door and propped him against it. Then I went back to the truck to retrieve the sculpture.
When I’d gotten both inside, I put the man on the bed and took the sculpture into the bathroom, where I found the tub still full of water. I eased the sculpture down into it, spilling more onto my shoes, and watched as it sank to the bottom and then began to bob, a smile appearing on its lips. Soon, I thought, again picturing our abandoned house sailing toward us from out at sea. Soon we’ll be on our way again.
I went back to the bed and sat down next to the man, rubbing his shoulders and letting him rest his hand on my thigh, where it hung like something he couldn’t have retracted even if I’d told him to. We sat like that for a long time, looking at our reflection in the empty TV screen, and at the harbor out the window, where motorboats and sunfish bobbed in the moonlight.
“I just …” he began.
“I know,” I replied. “I know how it is. We all do.”
He sighed and leaned against me, accepting, I think, that what I’d said was true.
Then, when I sensed we’d reached the point of diminishing returns, I stood and held out my hand. He took it, and let me lead him, like a nervous bride, into the bathroom. I leaned him against the sink and went back to the bedroom for the butter knife I’d taken from the diner this morning, wrapped in my napkin. It was dull and flimsy, but it would work, because it had to.
When I came back, he was still leaning on the sink, but had turned to regard the sculpture as it began to decompose in the bathwater. “It’s not going to work,” he said. “It can’t. it didn’t for me.”
“I know,” I said again, suddenly unable to pretend otherwise. “But, like you, I have to try.”
I dragged the serrations back and forth along his throat and he let me do it without complaint, wincing and gurgling and then giving out all at once, blood pouring against the tiles and into the tub, soaking my Brother where he lay. I emptied the body into the tub without looking, almost bored with the act, like I was emptying my suitcase onto the bed. I knew that nothing would happen, but I finished what I’d promised to do, raining down plasma onto my Brother, where he could drink it and grow strong again, if he so chose, if any possibility remained that the Heyday of the Brothers Squimbop hadn’t ended in the Hollywood Hills. I pictured him rising from the tub, the chaos on his side smoothed over, so that he’d emerge the mended one and I would become him, finally ceasing to be myself.
When the last of the man had been decanted, I folded his husk beside the toilet and returned to the bed, where I sat, shaking and soaked in my souvenir sweatshirt, my fingers trembling so badly I dropped the remote three times before I succeeded in turning on the TV.
When it came alive, I leaned back, wrapping myself in the bedspread, and watched while the student who’d taken me to lunch spoke at the site of the ransacked Wax Museum. “It’s mayhem,” she said, as ambulances and cruisers sped by in the background. “I’ve been saying, for years now, that this was going to happen.
“That Squimbop Fever was spreading and it was only a matter of time before it crossed the latency threshold to become an undeniable mass phenomenon. Too many men in this country—and, seriously, I can’t stress how long I’ve been saying this—have convinced themselves, or have been convinced, and I know how this sounds, by forces outside our understanding, that they were once half of the iconic Brothers Squimbop duo and that, if only enough radical violence could be enacted, a profound enough sacrifice, then that duo could be resurrected and a new Age of Authentic Comedy inaugurated, instead of … of …. Well, I wish someone had listened. Literally for years, I’ve been saying—”
I changed the channel. On the next one, the student was at the fairgrounds where tonight’s show had taken place, stomping around the deflated big-top in a pair of knee-high leather boots. She seemed happier here, deeper into her role, excited to see that it was catching on, that she was being deemed an Expert. “For years, I’ve been saying that a Squimbop Night of Wrath was coming, a spectacle of mass sacrifice in which no one at all would be safe. The monomaniacal drive of those with Squimbop Fever to, as they put it, puncture the veil, and reconnect with the real world on the other side, the world of Authentic Comedy, through any means possible, is a force greater than any other in our universe. Nothing can stop them now. From now on, we live in the Age of Squimbop Fever and we are subject to its …”
I turned it off, said farewell to what remained of my Brother in the tub, got back in the pickup truck, depressed the parking brake with an enervated flourish, and drove away, out of that town and back onto the coast road, further north, the radio once again whispering about the awful secrets known only to those whose origins were not on this planet.
Night after night and day after day, the same events recurred. I pulled off in whatever town I happened to have arrived in at dawn, ate at the local diner, visited the Brothers Squimbop Wax Museum—every town had one—boiled off the day in my room, and then, at night, stole another sculpture of my Brother, immersed him in the big tub, and found another man—it didn’t matter who, just any man, they were all riddled with Fever—brought him back, sat with him on the bed for a while, cried with him if he wanted to cry, then emptied him into the water, still praying that my Brother would take what was offered and reciprocate by rising to his feet, drying himself off, and leading me by the hand into our next escapade.
News spread faster than I could keep up with, that same student in an ever-evolving array of wigs, glasses, and prostheses on every channel on every TV in every room I rented. My will to resist watching diminished so that, before long, I’d spend the whole night, after my work was done, sitting wrapped in the bedspread, watching her track the Fever’s course. “All across the country, to say nothing of the world,” she said, “men claiming to be Squimbops are killing other men and sacrificing them to wax Squimbop sculptures. All, of course, claiming to be half of the One True Squimbop, desperate to purge the world of impersonators and at last—this phrase never changes, no matter how far the Fever spreads—puncture the veil and inaugurate the Age of Authentic Comedy, born of sacrifice beyond imagining.”
I turned off the TV at dawn in some salmon town in Alaska and walked down to the frozen harbor to watch the horizon and wait for our lost mansion to come sailing in, lower its gangplank, and invite me aboard. Because if it didn’t, I could now see, I would keep doing what I’d been doing until no one on Earth remained, rendering myself utterly alone in the effort to avoid that very fate. If there’d been any way of stopping me, I would’ve found it long ago.
Exhausted beyond all description, I turned back toward the frigid town center when it was clear the ark wasn’t coming, and walked into the only diner that was open, and ordered coffee and pancakes at the counter, smiling at the waitress when she asked if I’d had a good night, then staring at my butter knife, already planning how I’d wrap it in my napkin and take it back to my room.
More BROTHERS SQUIMBOP
“The Brothers Squimbop” at FANZINE
“The Brothers Squimbop in Europe” at The Rupture
“The Brothers Squimbop in Hollywood” at Heavy Feather Review
David Leo Rice is a writer and animator from Northampton, MA, currently living in NYC. His novels include A Room in Dodge City, A Room in Dodge City: Vol. 2, and ANGEL HOUSE. His debut story collection, Drifter, is coming in June 2021. He’s online at: raviddice.com.
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