Tuesday, February 26, 2019
How Bad Can Things Possibly Get?
Some time ago my travels took me to a middling New England town that was once quite a prosperous place. It had a textile mill that provided good, steady work for everyone in the area, but since then textile production moved to Pakistan. The particular house I visited was once worker housing: the worker worked at the textile mill and provided for the whole family while his wife, perhaps along with the parents and the in-laws, stayed at home, took care of the kids and perhaps grew a bit of food. Once upon a time it was a modest but house-proud dwelling dressed up in painted clapboard and a bit of lacy trim. It fronted a tree-lined street with a park or kitchen gardens on the other side, with streetcars running along it and with stagecoaches and carriages periodically clippety-clopping past on the cobblestoned roadway.
But now this house is clad in vinyl siding and festooned with satellite dishes. It stands right at the edge of a four-lane undivided thoroughfare with a steady stream of tractor-trailers thundering past, racing between traffic lights and spewing greasy soot that gives the vinyl siding a brownish-gray patina. Some of the nearby houses have burned down, leaving behind empty lots overgrown with weeds and making the block look like a denture with some teeth knocked out. Across the road, there stretches a chain-link fence that encloses a vast expanse of semi-abandoned industrial wasteland. As I parked my rental car and approached, the house looked semi-abandoned too. The windows hadn’t been washed in decades, there was a rotting pile of the local newspaper on the porch, and the flimsy metal screen door no longer fit the frame and banged about in the breeze. The door itself was partially open, as if to declare “There is nothing inside that’s worth stealing.”
I was there to visit my old acquaintance Tom who lived there with three housemates. As had become usual in those parts, people no longer lived together as families but were thrown together higgledy-piggledy, the way young, unmarried people sometimes are the world over. But there they persist in this pseudo-juvenile state until they are ready for the morgue and the crematorium. Tom either graduated or dropped out from an art school (accounts varied) and could turn out competent artwork if given careful direction, but he disliked being told what to do. Left to his own devices, he indulged in drawing cartoons that featured grotesque caricatures of himself plodding through post-apocalyptic landscapes littered with wrecks of his old cars and wandering shadows of his former girlfriends. Needless to say, this work did not sell, and so instead Tom devoted himself wholeheartedly to drinking beer (Budweiser) and smoking cigarettes (Marlboro Lights).
One of his housemates and sometime love interest whose name I cannot possibly recall and will therefore refer to generically as “Jane” was the only one in the household who had steady work. She spent her days on the phone with deadbeat debtors whom she tried to harass into making a payment. There is plenty of that sort of work: there, like clockwork, people come of age, take out loans and go broke and an entire ecosystem of bottom-feeders specializes in picking clean their bones. Her earnings kept the entire household in beer, cigarettes and pizza. After each day of her soul-destroying work she would come home and pop enough pills to completely desensitize herself, then sit around in a stupor until bedtime.
Another housemate, George, had a vicious temperament and had been in and out of jail many times. He was permanently one parole violation away from ending up back “on the inside” and had long given up any hope of getting his driver’s license back. He had been virile and fecund and had a couple of former wives who had taken out restraining orders against him and several children whom he wasn’t allowed to see. George was an avid conversationalist and could easily be prompted to hold forth on any number of subjects, although his poor grasp of the facts and numerous delusional convictions invariably caused his narratives to become mired in internal contradictions. It was a mistake to point these contradictions out to him because in response he would engage in unflattering personal characterizations and make menacing gestures.
The last, and perhaps the strangest of the housemates, Allie, was somebody’s stepdaughter from someone’s previous marriage, but nobody seemed to know or care whose it was. She was no longer a child, but adulthood seemed to escape her entirely, and she seemed trapped in a premature old age. Permanently depressed, she would spend her days watching television or doing nothing at all. Simple biological imperatives would periodically prompt her to wander into the kitchen, in search of a slice of pizza or a can of soda, or, for related reasons, into the bathroom. Sometimes she would become manic and attempt to clean the place up, mostly by picking up objects and putting them down again, being too lazy and indecisive to do much else.
The doorbell was defunct, and so I stuck my head in and yelled “Hello! Anyone home?” This wasn’t strictly speaking a question, since where else would they be? One of them could be at the corner store buying beer and cigarettes, which was a couple of blocks away and was incongruously referred to as “the spa,” or at the pizza joint a few blocks the other way, picking up a pizza, but at least one of them was highly likely to be home at any one time. Sure enough, in response I heard a vague “Yeah!” and went in.
Just inside the door there was an assortment of odd junk. I made my way past it and walked down the corridor and into the kitchen, where Tom and Jane were seated on green plastic lawn chairs on opposite sides of a kitchen table backed by a window beyond which lay a desolate backyard. Tom was drinking beer and smoking cigarettes while Jane just sat there crossing and uncrossing her eyes. In most parts of the world when an old acquaintance makes an impromptu visit this calls for a hearty handshake, perhaps even a hug, but not in those parts. There, an indifferent “Hey, what’s up?” and a limp gesture toward the only available seat—a barstool most likely stolen from an old working-class dive just down the road—would have to do. And so I put my bag down and sat down on the barstool.
Tom spoke with an air of someone whose main priority is taking care of his addictions, with little time to spare for conversation. Between the swigs of beer, the drags on a cigarette, the coughing fits and the belches from the beer, Tom was a busy man. He only managed to squeeze out short phrases: “Went to look for work yesterday… cough-cough-cough! Found a job… drag… belch! But they wanted me to work until three… swig… and I want to start drinking by… cough… one. Cough!”
At some point I realized that George was also in the room. I didn’t notice him at first because he was sitting on the floor, in the corner, slumped against a wall and partially hidden behind a stack of empty beer bottles. His legs were oddly splayed out under him, rag doll-like, and he was hunched forward, his mouth hanging open and his gaze fixed. At first he didn’t seem to be breathing, but then I noticed that he did take sporadic breaths. Also, his eyes floated around a bit. His complexion was grayish-green. There was something seriously wrong with him, but the other two paid no attention to him at all.
“George, you look dead!” I exclaimed. “Now you’ve done it!” Tom said. Jane facepalmed. As I was trying to comprehend the nature and extent of my faux pas, George stirred to life. He started emitting an odd sound, half-shriek, half-wheeze, lumbered to his feet and started shambling toward me while clawing at the air. At this, I hopped off the barstool and ran for the hallway. By the time I reached the other end of the hallway I realized that I had left my bag back in the kitchen. It contained several important items, the most important of which was my passport, without which I wouldn’t be able to run away quite as far from there as I was intending to just then. And so I turned around.
George was shambling toward me down the hallway, still clawing at the air and still making that shrieking-wheezing noise. I had to get past him and out again. I definitely didn’t want to touch George, for fear of catching whatever it was he had. Looking around at the junk piled up next to the door I noticed a shovel, and so I grabbed it and started pushing him back into the kitchen with the blade of the shovel as gently as possible. It turned out to be surprisingly easy: every time I pushed him slightly off-balance he would recover by shuffling in the intended direction. By the time I had herded him back into the kitchen his batteries seemed to have run low and he crumpled onto the floor and splayed out prone. He wheezed and clawed weakly at the floor for a minute longer. Then a shudder shot through his body and he lay still.
“This is really bad!” said Tom. Jane still had her facepalm up but I could see that she was watching me between her fingers. Just then I looked up and saw Allie. She was standing in the hallway, gazing into the kitchen, looking as blank and indifferent as ever. What specifically happened after that is far from certain, but it certainly made my skin crawl! Perhaps some ethereal emanation departed George’s body and relocated into Allie’s—but only if you believe in that sort of thing. Then Allie spun around uncharacteristically swiftly and ran down the hallway, out the front door and into the street. There was a scream and a honk, or perhaps a honk and a scream, followed by the sound of a tractor-trailer shuddering to a halt and, finally, the hiss of air brakes being let off.
Tom stubbed out a cigarette, lit the next, got up from his lawn chair and stumbled out, with Jane plodding along in his wake. Having had quite enough of that scene, I snatched up my bag, stepped over George and followed behind at a safe distance. Outside, a few people were standing just to the right of the porch, with a tractor-trailer stopped just beyond with its blinkers on. I didn’t waste any time looking in the direction of that gathering. Instead, I turned left, got into my rental car and drove off.
Experiences such as these tend to temper one’s enthusiasm for finding out just how bad things can possibly get. That’s the case with me, at least. The axiom “Things can always get worse” is a useful one, but perhaps there needs to be some reasonable cut-off point for how bad things can get before it’s time to stop paying attention to them and move on to things that aren’t quite as bad yet. The great thing about axioms is that they never need to be experimentally tested. But there is definitely a market for nonfiction that satisfies morbid curiosity, and to write that nonfiction it is necessary to do the research.