If he had found the bowl on the first visit, would he have known to take off? It had been a near thing as it was. Clothes lay in tangles across the floor like the guts of an eviscerated animal. A stereo pulsed on the dresser with a screeching beat. Pokémon sheets hung from wooden posts at the bed’s corners. A four-foot stack of sci-fi paperbacks rose monolithically from the center of the mess. The smell of sweat hung in the air like a fog.
Considering, Geoff thought he took it rather calmly.
“It looks like someone still lives here,” he said, trying to smile. His back twinged again in anticipation of another motel bed. This morning it had taken him almost an hour of yoga to straighten out the pain, another in his unbroken streak of bad nights since returning from China a month ago. How strange—how infuriating!—that something as simple as your friends taking a house without you could trigger a health crisis in the middle of the richest country in the world. He eyed the thick, bare mattress.
His would-be roommates exchanged a glance. “He moved out yesterday,” said the shirtless, long-haired one whose name Geoff had already forgotten, dubbing him “Dirty Jesus” instead.
“We can move this stuff for you,” the balding one added. “It’ll all be clean when you want to move in. And, I mean, that can be this afternoon if you want.”
Geoff stepped into the room, feeling like a burglar. He wove his way through the clothes and switched the stereo off. Seen in silence, the room already looked more livable. He sat down on the bed, bounced, pushed down with his hand. Firm, yet giving; strong springs, cushioned with the thick padding that mattress makers call “pillow top.” Whoever the previous occupant had been, he had known how to shop for back support.
The tall girl with the shaved head smiled at him, laying a possessive hand on Dirty Jesus’s shoulder. “You can keep that mattress if you want,” she said. None of them had entered the room.
“Is it OK if I try it?” Geoff slipped his sandals off and lay back. The springs gripped his spine inch by inch like the fingers of a masseuse. He sighed, stretched, turned on his side, his stomach, again to his back, closed his eyes, reopened them, and saw the slash marks in the ceiling: long tracks that he mistook for twenty or thirty concentric circles, plaster dust still fresh around them. After studying them for a long moment, he realized that they formed a long, tight spiral, like the groove of a record.
“What is that?” he asked, watching their reactions as he pointed. The roommates raised their eyes to the damage and winced.
“The guy who lived here before was a little strange,” Dirty Magdalene finally answered, and this time he caught a whiff of Mississippi in her accent. “He did some damage, he left, he stiffed us on the rent. We could really use you here.”
Just go, he thought. Don’t move into this dumb situation for a mattress. There will be something else. But there hadn’t been—not since he had screamed it out with his shamefaced ex-boyfriend and the others, hopped in his Camry and drove the 2,398 miles to San Diego, so lovingly described by a Shanghai colleague.
Every ad asked him to pay too much, or wait too long, or commit too long. Everything except this. He wriggled so that his back settled further in against the springs.
When Geoff returned that night with his things—five small boxes that hardly needed Dirty Jesus’s help to lug up the narrow stairs—the room had a fresh sterility that he associated with hotels, or Mafia hits. He lit some incense and began to unpack.
Adam of the receding hairline placed a call for a celebratory pizza, and they feasted. Dirty Magdalene’s name, Geoff realized later in a pleased haze, was in fact Mary, which also jibed well with the Mary Jane she shared out among the roommates. Dirty Jesus/Carter sat close to Geoff throughout the evening, still shirtless, as he explained was his rule inside the house. Geoff had more time now to notice the muscularity of his chest and
arms, and the strength in his features that counteracted even the slackness from the pot. The conversation traveled from San Diego (“you’d expect this to be a better biking town, wouldn’t you?”) to Shanghai (“for those kids, a foreign teacher is just recess”) to Carter’s painting (“I just want to teach people how to see again”) to the War on Drugs (“I’ll tell you what the real crime is”) until they looked about them in delighted, dawn-lit exhaustion and declared the evening a success. Carter and Mary withdrew to a bedroom, Adam dozed off
before a televised shark attack, and Geoff collapsed on his new mattress in triumph.
So it wasn’t until well into the next day, reaching for a dropped quarter, that Geoff found the doggie bowl tucked back under the dresser. He slipped it out and held it, confused—a shiny red plastic bowl, covered with permanent marker in a jagged, child’s handwriting. HENRY. The sentiment reiterated itself over every possible inch of the bowl’s surface. Stale pizza crusts filled the inside like discarded chicken bones. Three slash marks
notched the inner rim.
Geoff left the bowl on the kitchen table next to a stack of Adam’s Dungeons & Dragons manuals. When he went back down for some bananas an hour later, the bowl was gone. No one said a word about it.
The first month slipped by like a deadbeat husband sneaking out the back door, he wrote later in his weblog. Of course, the blog itself was half the problem—the hours of Internet research on the War on Drugs, on the carnage that followed in its wake, on the hypocrisy of the involved officials; the hours he invested in the writing itself; the hours he spent adding side columns about life, love, men, and what it means to be a human. Yet in China he had maintained the blog without ever taking away from his teaching. Here, he lost time on all sides, until he could hardly believe that there were still twenty-four hours in his day. Yoga, meditation, studying Chinese, e-mailing, jogging, blogging—all productive, yet every night he found himself no closer to applying for either the environmental investigation position in Bangladesh or the English teacher/manager slot at that Beijing hotel.
He began to roleplay with Adam and his friends twice a week. (“Not Dungeons & Dragons,” Adam said to him, opening another Pabst. “I have nothing but the fondest love for Gary Gygax, but there’s no imagination in it anymore. Elves and wizards have been done to death. Star Assassins is where the real action is.”) Geoff found the interplay of dice and mutually-created story more fascinating than he cared to admit to his blog readers. He found himself studying the rule books between sessions, even planning out the future crimes of his character, Gilgapod, a 7th-rank Octoroid Smuggler who battled the Nazdorian Hordes with a vibro-axe in each of six prehensile tentacles. Sometimes Carter and Mary smoked and watched, Carter with pleasure, Mary with a good-natured contempt.
Geoff saw his bank balance, already hit hard by plane fare from China, dropping like the fuel gauge of his car. He had to make a decision. He had to find a job. He read the first chapter of a Henry James novel. He set himself to mastering an off-road biking video game. He masturbated constantly.
Adam offered him a dishwasher position at the Italian restaurant where he managed, leaving Geoff angry at him for having even suggested it, and disgusted with himself for having found nothing better. He considered the plausibility of living without health insurance, scoliosis or no scoliosis. He wondered how many of his blog’s 627 unique visitors would contribute a dollar a month to keep him up and running. Very few, he suspected.
One night as Adam closed Vicelli’s and Mary slept off a stomach bug, Geoff poured it all out to the perpetually-unemployed Carter.
“How do you do it?” he finally asked, passing a joint back across the couch to him. “The zero income bit?”
Carter shrugged, scratching a hairy nipple. “Mary,” he said. They looked at each other for a long moment and burst out laughing. When Carter leaned into a kiss only a moment later, Geoff wasn’t the least surprised.
It was through Carter that Geoff finally learned about Henry, in the long, naked hours while Mary delivered sandwiches on her scooter. Their third night together, Carter led Geoff out to the giant trampoline in the back yard and blew him on top of it. After, they stayed there, staring at the moon, lying naked in the chilly night air, the netting bouncing with every shift of their bodies.
“The guy who had that room before you practically jumped over the house on this thing,” Carter finally said. Geoff looked at the squat two-story house, then back at Carter skeptically. Carter laughed. “Fine, don’t believe me. But we all saw it. It was after things started to get bad with him.”
“What happened?” Geoff felt the sway as Carter rolled on his side to face him. Above, he watched the dark blur of a bat swooping in and out of the house lights after insects.
“His girlfriend dumped him, then he got fired from that TV job and he had some kind of breakdown. He locked himself in his room and didn’t come out for a while. We worried, I guess, but we didn’t know what we could really do for him. Mary tried to talk to him through the door a few times, but he never answered. One night Adam left a six-pack of Pabst outside the door as a test, and in the morning it was gone, so we figured he must
be ok.” Carter broke off for a moment as the neighbor’s dog began to bark.
“Yeah, fuck you, too,” he finally said, continuing over the noise. “So one day I’m walking by his door and I hear this scratching, like a cat trying to get out of a closet, and when I step closer this demon voice starts up: Henry is hungry. Henry wants food. Over and over like that. Everybody else was at work and I thought he was going to kill me or something. Henry is hungry. Henry wants food. But I remembered there was some pizza in the fridge so I brought that up, like some kind of a sacrifice. But no—Henry wants a doggie bowl. I tried asking him how he was doing, if I could eat with him, if he wanted any pot to chill him out, but all I got was a closed door and Henry wants a doggie bowl. Now, we had a dog about five months ago that Henry and I really loved, this stray we named Neoptolemus, after Agamemnon’s son in the Iliad, you know, but it got hit by a car, so I went to get its old bowl and washed it out and gave him the pizza in that. He must have known I was serious this time because he opened the door far enough to let me hand it in. I could only see his hand, but at least I knew it was him, and not, you know, Satan.”
“Crazy,” Geoff whispered. Carter laughed. The dog had stopped barking, and now his voice filled the night unopposed.
“We’re just getting started. He kept making us feed him in a dog bowl for like three days, always talking in that fucking demon voice. Then Mary comes running to grab me and says he’s out on the trampoline. He was getting twenty, thirty feet in the air.” Carter gestured up toward the stars. “I’m talking superhuman strength. Finally he gets tired and heads back into the house. Adam and Mary want to stay clear of him and I can’t blame them, but I figure I’ll try and talk to him. But he just blows right past me with these glowing red eyes.”
“Red eyes? Come on.”
“Fine, don’t believe me, but this guy was fucking nuts. That night Mary locked our door because we could hear him walking around the house growling and scratching on the walls. We didn’t know he had a knife in his room until you showed us that fucked-up hieroglyph he made on the ceiling, or else we would have called the cops right away. In the end, I mean…” He shifted on the trampoline, then shifted again. “We had to call them. We had a meeting, and we did. Or I did. But, everyone agreed.”
“So where is he now?”
“A state mental hospital. The social worker who came said something about disassociative disorder, or schizophrenia, or… whatever the fuck.”
“Have you been to visit him?”
Carter shrugged. “We never really knew him in the first place.”
David Yost is a former Peace Corps Volunteer who recently received an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His fiction has previously appeared in Mid-American Review, Flyway, Iconoclast, Emergency Almanac, South Carolina Review, Lake Effect, and Red Rock Review.