“For each fire is all fires, the first fire and the last ever to be.”
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
The car makes three rights and a left and goes the wrong way up Doyers Street, into Chinatown. It comes to a stop under twin marquee signs, which hang vertically from the sides of neighboring buildings. The first rays of the risen sun are caught in the bulbs that encircle the signs and look ghostly and strange. The driver has put the car into park but doesn’t shut off then engine. He lifts a large duffle bag out of the back seat and kicks open the door and hefts himself out. The passenger opens his door and steps out and stands. Both walk to the back of the car and look up the street then down. The driver elbows the passenger once then points at the trunktop. The passenger nods and opens it, but then jumps back and flails before composing.
There, shivering in a mixture of sweat, blood and vomit is a boy whom the passenger knows. He met him some months ago and the look of contemptuousness that the boy wore on that night is gone, replaced now by a terrible and pleading madness. The driver lifts the boy out by the shoulders and throws him down on the street. He throws the duffle bag down too and unzips it and removes a length of elastic rope. This he ties around the boy’s neck like a lease. He jerks the free end to get his attention.
“Where?” The driver says in a growl.
The boy points without hesitation.
They find themselves passing through a gap between two buildings. They move like figures in a dream: shimmering, ill defined and separate from what has come before them and, perhaps, from what will come next. The gap opens to an inner courtyard set with grim and ruined folding chairs, plastic tables, ashtrays filled with smoked things. A strange clubhouse of filth.
“Where?” The drive says again but this time the boy doesn’t answer.
The driver snorts and tugs the lease then leans in close to the boy’s ear, so close that the hairs of the driver’s beard brush against the cartilage of his prisoner’s ear and the passenger sees now that the skin of boy’s lobe is red and abused, almost torn off. He—the passenger—has come in late to this drama.
“Where?” The driver whispers.
The boy promptly vomits on the driver’s workboots and the driver kicks him and the boy raises his finger and points again, this time to a neatly stacked pile of oil drums.
“There,” he says. “It’s fake.”
“Hold him.” And the driver hands the leash to the passenger and walks to the drums and searches around the edges. He finds the switch and switches it and pulls the barrels back in masse, rolling them away on the invisible wheels they rest upon. As they come away, they reveal a huge door of green-painted steel.
“Yes,” the driver says to himself. “Yes.”
The door is like the door of a submarine and, at its center, a huge lever and the driver clasps both hands around it and pulls down, using his whole weight, whole strength. The door comes slowly open, now swinging, out and free. Beyond it, a deep cavernous opening, the yawning mouth of a terrible, expectant beast.
He unslings the duffle bag from his shoulder and dips a hand into it again, extracting a long, shearling topcoat. He unfolds it and holds it for a moment in both hands then, even though the heat of this summer morning is already thick and sticky, he slides his hands into the armholes and jumps the coat over his shoulders.
The passenger turns away and looks down at two pebbles that sit side-by-side in the dusty floor of this place. Three beats pass. A fourth. He looks up. The driver is standing in front of him. His face is hard and dead and he places his hands on either of the passenger’s cheeks, looking him directly in his eyes.
“This, brother me brother. This.”
The driver’s eyes are a deep, veiny red, his features strange and flickering. He releases the passenger and takes the leash and pulls his prisoner to his feet and clasps his thick left arm around the boy’s neck and places his right on the green door. He turns back to the passenger, the raised collar of his coat half-obstructing his face, so that only his eyes can be seen. He nods for him to follow, to descend with him through this cavernous mouth, down into the smoking and stinking bowels of New York City.
Here, here it is. Here it is at last.
The house is dark, so dark that perhaps it has never held any light. A skinny New England colonial, two-and-a-half stories, identical the other houses of the development except for its pealed paint and yellow lawn. It sits on the last street of a development in a suburb outside of Boston, built on marshy ground that runs off and down into a stretch of swamp. At the front of the house, there is a little asphalt pathway that leads up from the street to an entryway, which is the size of a coffin stood upright. On the left, an asphalt driveway wrapping around the side of the house to a one-car garage with a sunken cornice. On the right, another pathway around to the back. There are no plantings or trees in the front yard, only the yellowed grass and dark windows and a foreboding sense of decay and, as Devin Harden sees the house through the window of the taxi—terrible and very real—he thinks to not get out. He tries to think of words to say to the driver, words that will lead him elsewhere, but they’ve already been sitting here for five minutes and the money is paid and the driver is insistent and Devin finds himself kneeing open the car door, retrieving his backpack and single suitcase from the trunk and hefting them up to the front door.
He ascends the cement steps, setting the bags there and unzipping the backpack, crouching over it to search its main compartment for the keys. His hand fumbles more than he thought it would. He begins to take things out and place them on the bricks of the stairs. Finally, the keys find his fingers. He unlocks the door and turns the nob. The door sticks and he places an arm on the doorframe for leverage. It opens and he swings it wide, stepping through the entry coffin into the dark foyer.
Before him, a narrow staircase, a narrow hallway. To his left and right, archways to the living and dining rooms, respectively. He walks down the hallway, leaving the door open, and comes into the kitchen. As he passes a hand over the Formica counter, his fingers carve two lines through the patina of dust there. Like ATV tracks through mud. He rubs the tips of his fingers together, smells them. He toggles the switch on the wall of the breakfast nook and the bulb in its fruit bowl shade sputters on, illuminating the tables and chairs below. There is a clear plastic tarp draped over them and its corners flutter strangely in the light. He dings, with his forefinger, the glass of the fruit bowl shade, as if touching it will make it less real, but this is not how it works.
He doesn’t know what he’s looking for and he turns back towards the front of the house and closes the front door slowly then lifts again his suitcase, lugging it bouncing up the carpeted stairs. The second floor is a hallway off which lie three rooms. The first his parents’ bedroom; the second a bathroom; the third the room he shared with Hunt when they were young boys and which became, after his brother began puberty, Hunt’s room. He passes these closed doors and continues up a second flight of stairs and comes into the semi-finished attic, which is his room. He pulls the string that turns on the bulb and pale florescence fills the room. At either end, set in triangular walls, are double-hung windows with plastic shades. The floor is beige carpet, stained by messy, teenage eating. A couch with sunken cushions. There are a wooden set of drawer and wooden desk with chair, both stacked full with books, novels—the kind that teenage boys read, full of adventure and accomplishment, honor and bravery, and things going right, in the end. All the room is arranged in the same haphazard way as he left it. Devin sets the suitcase down at the foot of the bed and unzips it. He removes clothes but instead of putting them into the set of drawers, he arranges them on the carpet next to it. He sits and inhales. Familiar musk, a mix of old plaster and insulation. He coughs and curses himself.
It has been four years since he has sat on this bed, four years since he has been in this house. It had been rainless on the day he left, a perfect August morning and as he had lowered himself into that day’s taxi, he had thought to look back at the house one last time but he hadn’t. Instead, he had turned his head away from it all and the car had driven through the gathering light, through town and into the neighboring one then onto Route-2 and then the Mass Pike and to North Station, where the bus that he was to take up to his New Hampshire college was waiting. The semesters had rolled through, classes taken and passed, requirements fulfilled. He had stayed on campus during vacations, had done independent studies for extra credit. Had stayed summers, worked the camps as a counselor and the cafeteria as a short order cook. He had even stayed after graduation, doing the same, delaying the inevitable. But finally, the new freshman had begun to arrive and it had been explained to him that his room in the dorms was needed and he had been kicked out. So he had made this reverse journey, returned to this house and come to sit, once more, on this bed. Now, he curses and stands.
As he goes back down the attic stairs, he begins again to walk past the closed doors of the second floor, but then he stops. He squints his eyes then widens them then wheels around and approaches Hunt’s door. Inside, the room is empty. No furniture, no window trimmings, nothing, only a pervasive gloom. The only light is two solitary bands of yellow, cast through the windows by the streetlight at front of the house. The smell here is of sawdust and exposed wood and Devin walks to the center of the floor, running his hand through the bands of light and the dust that swirls there. He follows the light with his eyes to where it falls on the left-hand wall. There, the only evidence that a life was lived in this room: a human-sized hole connecting Hunt’s room to their parents’ closet. Over the hole, another tarp hangs, secured on the edges by metal staples, all of it gleaming yellow. Devin approaches, placing a hand to the plastic. It ripples and shimmers. Without thinking, he sinks his fingers into it, grasps, pulls and the plastic comes away. Yellow light rushes through the hole, filling the closet but seeming to die at the doorway into the room proper. Devin breathes, exhales then passes through the hole.
Inside, the air seems musty, heavy and the darkness around him unreal and strange and dreamlike. He has gone through the closet doorway and his eyes have difficulty refocusing but he knows what is before him—or should be. He reaches out a hand and grasps one of the corners of the four-post bed. It’s a massive piece of furniture, hewn from oak, and Devin runs his hands up the deep grooves that spiral around the post. It was a gift from his grandmother to his mother, given in the hopes that it would bring her as much marriage luck as it had her. Devin runs his hands up the deep grooves that spiral around the posts. The bed is finished with a thick veneer, so thick that the wood feels not like organic matter that once lived but liquid plastic flowing down from a spout at their top. To his mind now, a memory: he and Hunt running their fingers through the grooves of the posts, imagining the groves as an endless series of granite canyons and their fingers a great flood that swept away all things in its path.
A cold tightness has risen in his chest and he feels suddenly unsteady and retracts his hand from the post. He goes forward through the room, to the drawn curtains and fumbles with the rope mechanism on the side. They come apart but no light comes in. There is just the backyard below, sitting in darkness. Then something moves through the yard, triggering the automatic floodlights. Spoiled grass, yellower even than in the front. A line of perfectly placed stumps forming a boarder around the yard. At the center of the grass, another stump, this one larger than those in the line, and next to this, the remains of a garden. Devin stands at the window scanning the yard until the floodlights click off again. He imagines how many times over the years these lights have illuminated the yard for no one.
You are an idiot, he says to himself. His vision narrows and clouds and he turns away from the window.
He goes into the bathroom and finds towels and goes upstairs and gets his toiletries and comes back down and takes a shower. He puts on clean clothes and finds a rag in the kitchen and works at the dust. He turns on the two end table lights in the living and the overhead lights in the dining room then goes and sits at the breakfast table. He uses his cellphone to order a pizza and a salad from the old place but when they arrive, he doesn’t eat. Instead, he wanders around the house, picking up objects, inspecting them, putting them down. He does this for a long time.
Later, he is lying on the couch in the living room when the phone rings. It sounds, as it echoes through the silent house, like a shriek in a cave and Devin startles upright and looks around. He rubs his eyes and stands and goes into the kitchen and looks down at the phone. It gives another vacillating chirp. It is still connected. He lets it go twice more then snatches the phone from where it sits upright in its base.
There is crackle and a cough.
“Yep.” A pause. “How are we?”
Devin doesn’t answer. The brothers haven’t spoken in two years.
“How was graduation?”
“It was fine.”
“Good.” Another pause. “How’s the house? Still standing?”
“More or less. Dark.”
“Would be dark.”
“And the old town? Same too?”
“Seems that way.”
A third pause. Devin lowers the phone from his ear and raises his thumb to the talk button. He doesn’t press but holds it hovering there until more grumbling comes through the receiver.
“I got a thing for you,” his brother his saying. “I’ve got a thing for you down here in New York. You remember that’s where I am now?”
The last communication between brothers had been in the form of two text messages, sent from older to younger. The first had read, “Dev, I’m out. Leaving. Got me a gig down in New York. Demolition. Pays well.” And the second, much later: “There’s nothing left for me here.”
Hunt is still talking: “So, this thing. It’s a job. A real, full-blown, benefits paying job.” He holds for reaction.
“Well, they don’t give those things out anymore, jobs. It’s internships first then later, after they milk you a little and see if you’re worth the teat, they pay you. But this is different, paid from the start. Like the olden days.”
“Who’s it with?”
“It’s an architecture company.”
“But what’s the name?”
“Warren and Associates. You remember I’m working demolition?”
“Well, this gentleman I know from Warren, I’ve been working with him and he has a spot opened up and he offered that spot to me to offer to you.”
“I studied journalism.”
“Yeah, and I don’t know why you did that. But he doesn’t care.”
“What would I be doing?”
“You’d stay with me.”
“And what would I be doing for your friend?”
“Whatever you want.”
“Whatever I want?”
Devin bites his lip. He holds the phone down again and replaces his thumb over the talk button. But again, he doesn’t press.
“You there, brother?”
Devin says, yeah then explains that how he’s just gotten back, that he can’t just tramp off to New York, that “I’m going to try to figure this out here.”
For a long time, Hunt says nothing then he says, “Did you go into mom’s room?”
Devin looks up at the section of the ceiling, above which is their parents’ room. “Yeah.”
“And what’s there?”
“A bunch of stuff. Her stuff. Like always.”
“I’m saying what’s there?”
His brother laughs. “Ok. Well, think about it. It’s a good job. And you stay with me, for free. And get to explore New York, where you’ve never been. And you get paid. Best offer you’re gunna get, you so young and tender and without experience. And. And it would be good to have you, having you here. Anyway, call me with what you decide.”
The phone clicks and Devin returns it to its base and places his arms spread on the counter and leans there, his head hanging. He curses.
The stairs, as he climbs them again, seem to sag below him. The hallway boards do the same. The air in his room is light and oxygenless and, as he picks up his backpack and extracts his computer, he sits down heavily. He presses keys to bring the screen to life. He does a search on Warren and Associates.
At first, he reads articles about the company’s new work, of which there is a surprising amount. He clicks into a picture search. The company’s buildings are all of a similar style: modules stacked or arranged to form buildings or complexes. The modules are very much like shipping containers, except walled in white plaster rather than corrugated steel. Also, there are windows. Devin clicks through high-rise apartment buildings and sprawling houses and a museum that snakes through a forest and another that spans a gorge in Arizona like a bridge. And Devin, though he can’t explain why, finds himself liking these boxes laced into buildings.
It is when he clicks into a last series of pictures that he understands. The pictures are from a project, a house, built in what looks like rural Connecticut. The setting is a wheat field, open and rolling, and the house is placed in the center of this field, on a rise. The first floor is a single, over-sized module, set at irregular intervals with square panes of glass. Above this, three more modules are cantilevered so that they hang over a back porch. Devin clicks on pictures of the interior. A stark set of forms, no un-useful detailing, no ornamentation, a living space devoid of all clutter, all confusion. Then, as he arrives at the last picture in the set, he understands. The picture is taken from far off and was meant to show the house interacting with the wheat field around it. But in the corner of the picture, down by the tree line, stands another home. This house is a colonial, sprawling and opulent but still not unlike the house in which Devin sits, and it is the seeing of these two houses together that makes Devin understand what he likes about them: there is a historylessness to the buildings of Warren and Associates, a way in which they forget what has come before them and step outside of history and are wholly new. And, because Devin hates history, and no history more than his own, this it is this that Devin likes about the buildings of Warren and Associates.
He closes the computer and throws it down onto the flannel bedspread. He shakes his head. He looks around the room, the books of his childhood, the furniture of his childhood, the carpet, the bed, the couch…
He picks up the computer again and opens it and clicks on the “Join Us” page but he doesn’t see any jobs on offer, or internships. He closes the computer and stands and goes through his room, descends through the house. He comes to the sliding glass doors in the kitchen that lead out onto the furnitureless brick patio, eerie in its nakedness, and unlocks the little latch and slides the door free. He steps out. The dead grass crunches under his sneakers and he comes to stand in the rectangle of dirt next to the large stump. He breathes the cooling air and stands and tries not to think of Hunt or why he had called him on the housephone instead of his cell or about this job offer or about the house behind him or the swamp before him. He tries only to breath, to taste what should be the fragrant air of the late summer, air that should be thick with growth and life and vibrancy. But this is not the taste of the air around him. The air he tastes is cold and metallic and he looks down at his feet, at the gray dirt rectangle surrounding him, and the darkness surrounding that.
These are the first thirteen pages of Brian’s completed, 90,050-word fiction manuscript, The Beast and His Artwork.