Burn Your Life Down

Fiction
Kevin P. Keating


Photo credit: Viewminder/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

1.

Professor Maura Deepmere, standing alone under the great sandstone arch at the entrance to the riverfront memorial park, reaches for the forbidden pack of cigarettes in the pocket of her pilled wool overcoat, a lingering habit from her “experimental phase” with Juliana. Deepmere is convinced the nicotine helps her to relax, but when she goes to strike the match, she is surprised to find that her hands are trembling. After taking those first few guilty puffs, she leans against the arch and listens for the gentle trill of a screech owl. Though she isn’t superstitious, she imagines she hears above the swiftly flowing current the low moans of the restless spirits rumored to haunt the river’s muddy embankments. Five years ago, a riverboat casino christened the Miss Bordereau sank near the oxbow bend after colliding with a barge that carried in its massive hold twelve tons of iron ore. Some of the bodies were never recovered, and on nights like this, when the smoky October air stirs the leaves, Deepmere thinks she can hear the dead as they place their final bets and lay their losing hands on the card tables.

From the corner of her eye she senses movement. Across the street a well-fed possum clambers from a sewer and plunges head-first into an overturned trash can. Deepmere shudders. Suddenly the cigarette tastes quite foul to her and she flicks it to the ground. After crushing the butt under the wide heel of one black boot, she begins walking back to her office on campus. Whenever she has trouble working, she takes long contemplative strolls through the empty streets of Sloperville, Ohio, a small college town in the Appalachian foothills. At this time of night, the greasy spoons and dive bars along Prest Street have all gone dark, and even the rowdiest of undergraduates has returned with vampiric gloom to the dorms to await the dreaded sunrise.

An hour ago, while sipping her customary cup of herbal tea, Deepmere put the finishing touches on “International Episodes: The Real and Surreal in the ‘High’ Middle Period,” an exhaustively researched essay in which she argues that an uninspired Henry James, under his older brother’s medical supervision, had regularly used nitrous oxide. One of these “treatments” resulted in The Aspern Papers, James’s indisputable masterpiece. Penned between uncontrollable fits of laughter and tears, the tale concerns the misadventures of a “publishing scoundrel” who sets off on a doomed quest to Venice to unearth the private letters of a lecherous dead poet. In his underhanded attempts to obtain the letters, the protagonist deliberately misleads a virtuous young woman. But the young woman, with dubious designs of her own, may not be as innocent as she seems.

This essay, like many others Deepmere has published, is sure to generate controversy when it appears in the next issue of Conclusions & Completeness, the leading journal of Gilded Age Studies. This time, however, Deepmere anticipates not only sharp criticism but open ridicule and vehement demands that she retract her paper. Last spring, at a prestigious academic conference, an especially hostile critic, motivated more by professional jealousy than ideological zeal, took to the podium to publicly denounce her work. “I think we can all agree, can’t we, that the professor’s highly speculative claims and maddening baroque style border on self-parody, hallmarks of a decadent, self-indulgent culture that once pervaded our liberal arts departments and damaged so many students.”

Although it’s something to which she would never admit, Deepmere rather enjoys the notoriety that comes from being such a polarizing figure. Thanks to her prolific output and regular appearances on public radio, there is a small but dedicated coterie of Deepmere enthusiasts who continue to cite her work in their own seldom read scholarly papers and who treat the appearance of a new Deepmere essay as a kind of literary event, no small feat in an age when serious scholarship is on the wane. “The important thing,” Juliana used to remind her, “is not to allow success to go to that great big head of yours.”

Even now, five years after Juliana gathered up her secret stash of blue chips and stormed a final time from their house, Deepmere continues to resent her for her constant hectoring, lack of encouragement, and sheer ingratitude. Hard experience has taught her that the best cure for an inflated ego is to spend more time staring at the empty pages of a notebook or the blinking cursor on a blank computer screen. Writing is one of the few activities that fills her with a sense of existential dread, and on lonely nights like this, when the campus is completely deserted, she is convinced she will never again have anything original and interesting to say. The startling thunderclap of inspiration can no longer be heard above the deafening screams of self-doubt, but because she has nowhere else to go, she chooses to listen to the screams and climbs the steps in Clairmont Hall.

She returns to her third-floor office and begins brainstorming ideas for a new project. At her desk she listens to the rhythmic clatter of branches against the windowpane and contemplates the crescent moon shining through the trees. Grateful she has a view of the dark hills and not the river with its somber arch and the campus quad with its imposing wrought iron gates, she leans back in her chair and wonders if Henry James did his best work after midnight. It would certainly seem so, judging from the malevolent specters that disturb his characters. With mildly chewed pencil in hand, she rests her heavy eyes and, within a few minutes, falls into a deep and dreamless sleep.

2.

At two in the morning, according to the wildly inaccurate mantel clock on her shelf, Deepmere comes awake with a start. From behind her closed door, she hears the jovial murmur of male voices and catches the unmistakable scent of marijuana. Her left foot has gone totally numb, and when she tries to stand her knees crack sharply in the empty office. Like some medieval dungeon keeper, she drags her leg across the room and cracks open the door. A feeble light is burning in an office at the opposite end of the corridor. Over the summer the office served as a kind of storage room and temporary shelter for adjunct faculty, but this semester it belongs to the new writer-in-residence, a man Deepmere has met only once at a painfully polite faculty party. She makes it a point never to mingle with the creative writing staff. Their prose is appalling and their insights into human nature embarrassingly trivial. But then few writers possess the style and subtlety of a master like Henry James.

She cocks her head and listens.

“No, really, you should write a book about my life. Okay, so I’ve never been hunted down by a redneck cartel, but I have been chased by a bunch of wasted frat boys. Believe me, you don’t want to piss off a two-hundred-pound meathead with whiskey on his breath and a baseball bat in his hand.”

“Kid, in your line of work you must encounter all kinds of interesting characters.”

“My line of work? Oh, well, hey, this isn’t exactly a full-time job, you know. I prefer to think of it as a side hustle.”

“But you do provide a service.”

“Well, sure. I mean, I sell to family, friends, acquaintances. Some students, too. But only the ones I can trust to be cool about it. I never sell to faculty members. So far you’re the only exception. But, come on, how many badass authors will I get to meet in my lifetime?”

“Don’t confuse the persona with the real man. By the way, kid, this is some terrific shit.”

“Third generation sinsemilla. I call it Mellow Fruitfulness. In honor of the season.”

“The season?”

“John Keats. You read poetry, right?”

“Sure, kid. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed.”

“I’d like to pick your brain one day, but I have to take off. Believe it or not, I’m the only medicine man in town who makes house calls this late at night. And business always picks up after the bars close.”

“Makes sense.”

“Hey, enjoy the rest of your night. And like I said, my weed is pretty mellow but I’d advise you not to drink any of that tea tonight. I know you’re no amateur or anything, but with this stuff you need to start off slow. Take a few modest sips until the desired effect is achieved. Took me a whole year to get the nutrients in the soil just right.”

“Potent, huh?”

“One of my buddies, a theoretical physics major, totally lost his shit after drinking a cup. He sat in the corner of my apartment and sucked his thumb for almost an hour. Then he convinced himself that the world was nothing more than a hypnotic lightshow, that all of existence was like a film flickering through a movie projector. Good a guess as any, I suppose. To tell you the truth, I’ve always considered shrooms a sentient life form.”

“Well, in that case, I better keep this fancy tin right here in my desk drawer. If I bring it home with me, I might be tempted to sample some before I hit the hay.”

“Guaranteed to provide loads of inspiration. A beautiful example of how art and science can come together in meaningful dialogue.”

“I suppose that makes you my collaborator, doesn’t it? Tell you what, kid. If this stuff is as good as you say it is, I’ll be sure to acknowledge you in my next novel.”

“Are you serious?”

“Perfectly serious.”

“No fucking way! Oh, shit, thanks, Mr. Ryker.”

“Malachi. And thank you for coming to my office at such a late hour.”

“No worries, Malachi.”

“Drive carefully.”

Deepmere slides behind her door and spies a young man slouching down the hallway. His blonde beard grows in patches around his cheeks and neck and his jeans hang loosely around his hips. Deepmere knows the type only too well, a pale and underfed commuter kid who survives on a steady diet of Ramen noodles, bong hits, and big bottles of soda and spends endless hours playing violent video games in his trailer. Juliana introduced her to the manners and customs of the people who live in these misty hollers and hills. A sharp-tongued townie with a taste for bourbon lemonade, late night poker tournaments and middle-aged women, Juliana enrolled in Deepmere’s seminar on heteronormativity in nineteenth-century American literature. Though crude in class with her off-the-cuff pronouncements, she showed remarkable promise as an undergraduate. She just needed some guidance, that’s all, a little refinement, and before the semester had ended, they’d begun to see each other socially.

Now, adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses on the bridge of his acne-speckled nose, the boy approaches the stairs and suddenly stops. “Almost forgot!” He reaches into his duffel bag and hurries back to the corner office. “Would you mind signing a book for me?”

“My pleasure, kid. What’s the last name again?”

“Archer. Iggie Archer. Guess you need to know that if you’re going to put my name in the acknowledgements page of your next novel.”

“To my favorite botany major…”

“Wow, I can’t believe this. Mad Malachi Ryker. In the flesh. Smoking my weed and signing my favorite book. Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading your stories, Mr. Ryker, it’s never to underestimate the power of meaningful coincidences.”

“A keen observation, kid. Yes, a keen observation.”

3.

Thirty minutes later, after retrieving the master key from the department secretary’s office, Deepmere creeps along the corridor. Taped to Malachi Ryker’s door is a life-sized poster of an unshaven middle-aged man wearing a pork pie hat and mirrored sunglasses. He looks, at least in her estimation, like a deranged Buster Keaton. In his arms he cradles a .50 caliber double-barrel shotgun, and with a smug smile he leans against a white 1957 Plymouth Fury, a bloated beached whale of an automobile. Above his head a bold-faced caption reads: “Burglars, please carry ID so I can notify next of kin.”

A number of campus activists, outraged by the poster, have demanded the dean amend the university’s code of conduct to include language that expressly forbids faculty members from “promoting any message that valorizes firearms.” The dean, an obsequious little fellow with a nervous twitch in his left eye, has agreed to these changes but says the new rules cannot go into effect until next year. Deepmere shakes her head. In her day someone would have ripped the damned thing down and burned it in effigy.

Worried she might find Ryker slumped over his desk, she presses her ear to the door and gently knocks. When no one answers, she slides the master key into the lock and cautiously opens the door. His office smells like a smoke-filled pool hall. Mounted to the wall above his desk is an elk skull with a lethal pair of antlers. Aside from a dirty ashtray and a manual typewriter, the office is empty. There is no comfy ottoman draped with a crocheted blanket, as Deepmere has in her own office. No teapot or individually wrapped mints in a glass bowl at the corner of the desk. No framed lithographs by John Singer Sargent or custom shelves lined with treasured first editions arranged alphabetically by author’s last name. No degrees or awards or commendations of any kind.

Deepmere flicks on the light and, taking care not to disturb anything, steps inside. She goes to his desk and opens the drawers one at a time. Ryker seems like the kind of man who, just for fun, might place a mousetrap at the bottom of a drawer, and she delicately lifts his notebooks and three-ring binders. In the lower left-hand drawer she finds a small silver tea tin. She lifts the tin, pops the lid, and takes an experimental sniff. It smells damp and earthy, like the forest floor after a steady rain. She waves it under her nose and turns her head to let out an explosive sneeze.

She places the tin on the desktop and searches for a tissue. In another drawer, she finds a tidy stack of paperbacks. Burn Your Life Down: A Novel. The front cover depicts a ferocious one-armed woman with a wild mop of red hair and a bloody meat cleaver in her hand. After wiping her nose with her sleeve, Deepmere reads the description on the back cover and wonders how anything so vulgar, so contrived could garner universal acclaim from reviewers. By some strange chance, the plot concerns a young woman named Juliana, its one redeeming quality, and Deepmere finds herself turning the pages almost against her will.

This is the story, at least in part, of how my older sister Juliana lost her right arm during third shift at Lambert & Sons Rendering Plant. She was just twenty years old when the high-speed belt of a transit bin ripped the arm clean from its socket and whisked it away, along with a pile of animal entrails, to a steaming kettle at the end of the line. My sister, evidently in shock, simply stood there and watched her own hand wave goodbye as it sank slowly into the percolating sludge.

Linus Lambert, the owner’s son and heir apparent, blamed her for the mishap. “Gross negligence,” he called it. He docked her wages for the day and managed to cheat her out of a substantial financial settlement. She’d been drinking on the job and had fallen asleep at her station. This was an incontestable fact. Blood tests revealed alcohol in her system, and a co-worker confessed to sharing a flask with her. But what human being could stay sober working in an environment like that? So, one hot summer night, with my older brothers as accomplices, she decided to make the Lambert family pay dearly for its grievous sins.

As the youngest of four siblings, I’ve had to piece together her story from a variety of sources, including police reports, court records, newspaper clippings, and late-night conversations with cousins and neighbors. Some people were reluctant to talk about the past. They may never admit to it, but they still fear my sister’s wrath even though she’s been dead and buried now these twenty-five years.

Some of the details are pure speculation on my part, but mainly I tried to stick to the facts, tried to tell the truth of how Juliana Jefferies, the Terror of Touchett, Ohio, and the woman who raised me, operated a brutally efficient criminal syndicate out of our clapboard house on Stackpole Lane and how, for a few years, she became the most feared citizen of our forsaken county.

Deepmere finds herself chuckling at the sporadic decapitations and spectacular shootouts. Pure trash, but she is so captivated by the narrative that she doesn’t immediately notice the sound of creaking floorboards outside Ryker’s office. She freezes. For an instant she thinks she hears a muffled cough and the heavy breathing of someone who has just climbed three flights of stairs. In a panic she bolts across the room and switches off the light. With her back pressed against the door, she listens for footsteps.

Except for the steady hiss and occasional clank of the old radiator, all is quiet.

Silently berating herself for her recklessness, she shoves Ryker’s novel in her pocket and grabs the tin from the desk. She looks around the room to make sure everything is in its proper place and, her heart racing, hurries to the secretary’s office to return the key.

4.

Early the next morning an idea for a sensational new essay strikes Professor Deepmere with almost physical force, and she spends a very productive day at her desk. She intends to show how on a rainy Parisian afternoon in 1875, at a fashionable cafe on the Rue de Bretagne, a young Henry James, then drafting his debut novel Roderick Hudson, met and became fast friends with internationally acclaimed fantasy writer Jules Verne. Over the next few years, Verne would exert a profound influence on James’s creative output, particularly his “romances” and ghost stories. The evidence for this theory is flimsy, but Deepmere is so convinced of its essential truth that she furiously scribbles down her thoughts until her aching hand is stained with blue ink.

When she finally decides to take a break, she looks up from her desk and is startled to find that night has fallen. She has been in her office now for close to twenty-four hours and has neglected to cancel her classes for the day. She vaguely recalls hearing a knock at the door and the phone ringing on the corner of her desk.

“Never have I… Never have I…”

She swivels in her chair and catches her distorted reflection in the dark window. She needs to go home, take a scalding shower, write an apologetic email to her students for her unexpected absence. She pushes aside a pile of papers, but before leaving her office she swallows down the cold and bitter dregs from the bottom of her teapot.

A few minutes later she finds herself walking through the bustling town. She is sensitive to noise, to crowds, to loud music, but tonight she actually enjoys the tumult all around her. It’s an unusually warm Friday night in late October, and the streets are teaming with students gathering outside the bars and pizza parlors. It all feels strangely tutorial, the bright neon signs in the windows and the live music pouring from the open doors, as if each kaleidoscopic display of color and virtuosic guitar riff has something unique and meaningful to teach her. At an intersection she stops beside a lamppost to light a cigarette, and for just a second, she feels a little envious of those sweetly intoxicated sorority sisters walking hand in hand and calling to the cute boys standing on the opposite corner. Juliana used to bully her into going out for a drink, a smoke. “Loosen up, relax, stop being so self-conscious.” These were her sacred commandments, and up until their final night together Deepmere always obeyed.

For old time’s sake she considers going into their favorite bar and ordering a bourbon lemonade. But then she sees the giant Plymouth Fury floating toward her like an alien spacecraft, its professionally polished bone-white finish reflecting and magnifying the lights on the strip. In an asphyxiating cloud of blue exhaust, the Fury pulls to the curb. A middle-aged man wearing a pork pie hat leans across the front seat and lowers the passenger side window. He smiles at her, and the green dashboard lights make him look less like Buster Keaton and more like Boris Karloff.

“Hello there, Doc. Need a lift?”

“Thank you for the offer, Mr. Ryker, but I believe I’ll walk.”

“I’ve been looking for you. Where’ve you been?”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

“Maybe you should hop in. You don’t look well, if you’ll forgive my saying so. ”

“I feel perfectly fine, Mr. Ryker. I haven’t walked this strip on a Friday night in years. I find it… enlightening.”

He stares hard into her eyes and frowns. “Jesus, Doc, how much of that tea did you drink?”

“Is that an accusation, Mr. Ryker?”

“Would you like me to call someone? A friend? Your spouse?”

She lets her cigarette fall from her fingertips and approaches the car. “Oh, now I think I understand. You’re looking for new material, aren’t you? A funny story for your fanboys? The unfailingly sedate professor having a bad trip? I read your latest novel, Mr. Ryker, and I must say, you certainly are an imaginative storyteller. Albeit one with a rather twisted sense of humor. Some might even argue a decidedly sick sense of humor.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Your novel is deeply offensive. You turned the people of these mountains into an appalling mass of faceless stereotypes. At times it felt as though you were taking the reader on a guided tour of some demented roadside attraction, a freak show crawling with babbling lunatics and serial killers”

As she continues speaking, she is forced to raise her voice. It’s karaoke night, and inside the bar someone growls an obscene version of an old-fashioned love song. Behind her a small group of students stops to listen. Not sure if they’re listening to her or to that awful singer, Deepmere spins on her heels and glares. In the Fury’s red taillights their glowing faces look like brightly painted masks with large empty eyes and wide mocking grins. They’re impostors, not students, she’s sure of it. Spies sent from the dean’s office to observe her behavior and write a detailed report. She’s been reprimanded already for her inappropriate relationships with students.

Deepmere, sensing trouble, backs slowly toward the car. She opens the passenger door and climbs inside.

Ryker says nothing.

In silence they drive along Prest Street, braking occasionally for the masked figures shambling from the smoke shops and seedy taverns. Deepmere stares in fascination and tries to make sense of what she is seeing. She is so entranced by the sights and sounds that she doesn’t immediately notice Iggie Archer staring at her from the Fury’s enormous backseat. He blinks bug-like from behind the smudged lenses of his glasses.

“What is the meaning of this?” she says.

Ryker shakes his head. “I think you know.”

“No, actually, I don’t. Perhaps you’d care to explain.”

“Something went missing from my office last night.”

In her sternest professorial voice she says, “We are not having this conversation, Mr. Ryker. Not in this vehicle. And most certainly not with a student present.”

“He’s as much a part of this as I am.”

“Yes,” says Deepmere, “and he’s going to pay a price for it.”

Iggie smirks. “What exactly do you mean by that?”

“What I mean, Mr. Archer, is that according to the Ohio criminal code, the penalty for growing and selling hallucinogenic mushrooms carries a minimum of one year in state prison. And I’m quite certain that a college tribunal, once it finishes a thorough investigation into this matter, will recommend immediate expulsion. You can, of course, avoid all of this trouble if you simply drop out now. Hmm, yes, I believe I should give you that option.”

Ryker sighs and says, “No one is going anywhere, Doc.”

He spins the wheel hard to the left, and they turn down an alley where the loose bricks clatter like bones beneath the tires.

“You are in no position, Mr. Ryker, to dictate the terms of an agreement. I told you that I didn’t want to have this conversation. But since you’ve insisted on taking things this far, you should hear the rest of my demands. You need to make a public confession. Tonight I’d like you to go home and write a letter to the editor of the college newspaper, explaining how you purchased illegal drugs from a student. And just for good measure, I’d like you to send copies to your editor and literary agent.”

Iggie thrusts his head forward. “You hypocrite, who the hell are you to speak this way?”

“Cool it, kid, let me handle this.” Ryker turns the wheel again and mutters, “This place is a maze.”

Spittle flies from Iggie’s lips. “Do you know how much college costs these days?”

Deepmere shrugs. “Not my concern, Mr. Archer.”

“I have loans.”

“Then I suggest you scrub dishes or wait tables. Or are those jobs too menial for you?”

“Growing shrooms and weed is hard work. There’s a lot of chemistry involved. There’s commerce, too. Books to keep. At least I’m making practical use of the bullshit courses I take at this second-rate college.”

“What did you just say?” With shocking agility, Deepmere turns and grabs Iggie by the ear. “What did you say about this institution?”

She twists his ear and squeezes until the boy’s face turns red and then a rather lovely shade of purple. Wine, maybe. A rich, satiny Pinot Noir. At first he smiles defiantly and then he tries in desperation to yank his head away.

“You’re not hearing me. I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to save you from years of trouble. You silly fool, look what you’re doing right now. Peddling dope and driving around town with a part-time instructor. I don’t think you realize the serious danger you’re in. Students develop complicated feelings for their mentors, and the relationship can spiral quickly out of control. Yes, you might learn some new and wonderful things, but like everything else in this world, the relationship will evolve, sometimes in ways you cannot possibly anticipate. One day you may find that your mentor, just to keep the doomed relationship going, has become your enabler.”

By the time the car comes to a screeching stop, Deepmere has grabbed a handful of hair and is shouting, “Isn’t that right, Juliana? Isn’t that right? Answer me!”

The passenger door flies open, and before she can raise an objection, she feels a pair of powerful hands pulling her from the vehicle.

“Crazy bitch,” Ryker snarls.

She is being assaulted, profaned, but no one hears her screams. She slaps and scratches and kicks her assailant, and when she finally frees herself from his grip, she runs over to the great sandstone arch. She pulls the collar of her wool coat tight around her throat and looks back to see if she is being pursued. A lovely white mist rises all around her, and she notices how everything seems eerily still.

“Wait a minute,” she whispers. “What are we doing here? Are you giving a reading, Mr. Ryker? Is this some kind of avant-garde literary event?”

In a kind of trance, she touches the arch and with one unvarnished finger traces the familiar names engraved there for all time.

“I need to work, to write. You must take me back to my office.”

But she has already forgotten the brilliant idea that, only a short time ago, had taken complete possession of her. She crosses the memorial park, and at the river’s edge she searches her coat pockets for her cigarettes. Once again, her hands are trembling, but this time she fumbles the matchbook and drops it to the ground. “So clumsy of me. So stupid. You’ll wait for me, won’t you, Juliana? Please don’t go gambling tonight.”

She kneels in the wet grass and whimpers, but the giant white Fury has already rumbled away into the misty night.

pencil

My first novel, The Natural Order of Things (Vintage 2013), was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes/First Fiction award and received starred review from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. My second novel, The Captive Condition (Pantheon 2015), was launched at the San Diego Comic Con International and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Email: kevinpkeating[at]hotmail.com

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