The lunatic peeks over the bong, smiles like he shit his pants, and through a curtain of shaggy blond bangs says: “When chimpanzees are in full rage, they want to rip a man’s eyeballs out, to pluck the arms away like chicken wings. That’s just something to think about, should you find yourself in a hostile zoo takeover.”
As usual, Freddy has no response. Sitting on a couch within stabbing distance of the lunatic makes him uneasy. He digs into a pocket of his Dockers, exhumes his extraordinary new smart phone, and pretends to receive the text message to end all text messages.
“That’s great, man,” Freddy says, poking the ultra-thin device. “No more quotes, okay. Just watch football and try to be—how’d the doctor say it?”
“Yes, exactly,” Freddy says. “Be placid over there.”
Freddy knew his brother, Lancaster, had gone bat-shit a long time ago, maybe seven months back, when the ramblings started, but he wasn’t convinced it was sanitarium-bad until he found the notebook. The tattered thing lay forgotten on a coffee table one day, and Freddy started reading. Scrawled in orange ink on the opening page, this:
“Sometimes you have to curl up in an empty bathtub, repeat the phrase ‘Susan Really Likes Me’ ad infinitum, and slather Neapolitan ice cream all over your face.”
Freddy dropped the notebook that day like it was diseased. Like schizophrenia was contagious. Doing that made him feel weak. He wondered what lay deeper in the notebook but didn’t touch it again.
Today, the brothers share a bag of sourdough pretzels and laugh at NFL pregame knuckleheads. Lancaster swipes his brother’s smart phone from the table and dabbles in its touch-screen sorcery. The gusts of a bleak November morning rattle the windows behind them.
“The gas company can’t be more than five days from cutting off your essentials,” Freddy says. “Winter’s coming.”
“So?” Lancaster says, tossing the phone back to Freddy. It ricochets off a pillow and lands on the couch.
“So scrawling on those notebook pages won’t pay the bills,” Freddy says. “We have to do something. You have to do something.”
“Just shut up …”
Freddy throws up his arms, exasperated. “That’s typical,” he says. “You push the world out the door and sit on your ass.”
In the same manner he’d ditched undergrad art studies, Lancaster quit his job at the paint store last summer, having hocked enough Glidden to semi-gloss the Taj Mahal. Last month he donated his wardrobe to the Salvation Army. He’s twenty-five and handsome as early Gregory Peck, only blonder. He liked to smoke weed in sweet vanilla blunts to quiet the chatter in his brain, but he recently switched to more economical bong hits.
Freddy, meanwhile, is a study in stability. Freshly minted in the warm dream of fatherhood, he works for an architecture group that specializes in massive structural implosions. He predicts defective interior collapses, and he’s good. On Sundays, he peels himself from familial obligations to camp out at his brother’s place, basically guarding him from sharp objects.
“They can’t help me,” Lancaster says, out of nowhere. “I won’t go back. Sooner or later, those bastards won’t let me leave.”
Freddy’s mind jolts back to the doctor’s face, the rheumy eyes, the words “Indiana Mental Health Institute” inscribed on his coat. He flinches at the thought. “Don’t worry about that now,” he says. “Be placid.”
“Go home to your family,” Lancaster says.
“Not just yet,” says Freddy. “The wife knows what I’m up to.”
* * *
“Lancaster’s awfully young to exhibit symptoms this severe,” the doctor told Freddy and his mother, the three of them seated around the waiting-room aquarium. “You have to stay on top of this. I’ve seen it backfire on skeptical families.”
“What do you mean?” Freddy said.
“He’s capable of making the news,” the doctor said. “His delusions will progress unless his medication is regimented. We see this from time to time. A woman in Carmel thought her mother was trying to poison her, so she doused her in gasoline, lit her on fire. Another guy in Greenwood, this military type, swore his neighbor was communicating with aliens on his cell phone, so he shot the poor guy in the face. Mowing the lawn, going about his chores, a bullet in the face—”
“Okay,” Freddy said, “enough.”
* * *
Freddy gives his brother a hang-loose gesture and cranks up the television. For several hours they watch the Colts pummel some hapless AFC opponent. Lancaster feverishly scrawls in the notebook, the $1 variety with geometric collisions on the cover.
“What’re you doing over there?” Freddy finally inquires.
Freddy cracks his knuckles. “Listen,” he says, sounding too much like his father, the college professor whose new wife, the brothers agree, is doable. “We need to devise a monitoring system. I want to be sure you’re taking all the meds, at the right times.”
Lancaster drops his pen. “Can’t you just come here, divvy them out for me, watch me swallow, and leave?”
“I have a family, man.”
“So did I.”
“Don’t be an asshole about it,” Freddy says. “I can’t be chained here forever.”
“Ask me again.”
“Ask you what?”
“What I’m drawing.”
Freddy tosses the clicker aside and yawns. “Okay, Rembrandt,” he says. “What’s going on over there?”
Lancaster smiles and holds the notebook at arm’s length, exhibiting a dead-on rendering of Freddy’s wife—naked.
Freddy can hardly breathe. It’s all there, with mathematical exactitude: her drastic curves and crevasses, the thin pubic trail, even her tiny scorpion tattoo, hidden so well the skimpiest bikini couldn’t divulge it. Freddy jumps up, balls his left hand to a fist, and stands over his brother. “Schizo or not, I don’t give a shit,” he says. “You don’t spy on a man’s wife.”
Lancaster winces but doesn’t respond.
“Speak up, bitch,” Freddy says.
“I’ve known some things for a while,” Lancaster says. “If I get taken away, there’s some things you’ll want to know.”
Freddy rips the notebook from his brother’s hands for closer examination. He tears the page out, folds it, and deposits it in his Dockers. “Start talking.”
Lancaster says his brother’s wife, Minnie, used to be a stripper, before either of them knew her, in a town an hour away. He says she dallied at the lowest dive in the Midwest, Seventh Street Dancers, where the talent dons spider-web tattoos where hookers in France wear lace.
Still wincing, Lancaster shrugs his shoulders. “Listen, there’s striptease Barbie dolls, and there’s downright pole serpents,” he says. “Your wife was the latter.”
Freddy cocks his fist, thrusts, and breaks his brother’s nose. The cartilage gives way and cracks, twists, a lightning bolt between the eyes. Blood spills in two heavy streams, but Lancaster smiles.
“You’re one sick son-of-a-bitch,” Freddy says, backing away. “You think I’ll give up another Sunday to be treated like this?”
Lancaster stands, his smile gone and teeth gritted in pain. He lifts a plate with the remnants of his breakfast off the coffee table. A butter-knife slides off the plate, but Lancaster catches it. Freddy charges his brother, kicking him in the stomach and knees, pummeling him to the baby blue carpet that’s peppered with stains.
Freddy shifts his weight to his brother’s forearm and tugs the knife away.
“Jesus,” Lancaster says, clutching his bloody face. “Who’s really the paranoid one?”
Freddy hustles to the kitchen, kicks open the backdoor, and launches the knife into the yard. “Tomorrow,” he yells back into the house, walking away. “Be ready tomorrow, because we’re taking you up there.”
Freddy blasts the heat in his Volvo, his breath condensing on the frigid windows. He feels the first pangs of remorse but he’s glad he acted quickly. He turns left down Broad Ripple Avenue and tiny raindrops dot the windshield. His automatic wipers kick in.
In Freddy’s pocket, the smart phone vibrates, a text message from his wife:
Though he fears the statistics and hates doing it, Freddy takes his eyes off the road and plunks a much shorter, simpler message in response: “?????”
Raindrops slap the roof and windshield. Holiday shoppers huddle beneath overhangs. Freddy, at a red light, checks the phone again. Another message from Minnie:
“See your gallery (wink).”
Freddy opens the photos marked “checked” and finds one titled: “Your Big 30th!” He clicks it and there stands his wife, posing before their antique bedroom mirror, her own smart phone in hand. Naked, she smiles, her pelvic scorpion dancing in the late-afternoon light.
Wrapped up with his brother, Freddy forgot his own birthday. He balls a fist, the knuckles still pink with impact, and lightly punches himself in the jaw, sickened. The traffic light turns green but he’s too numb to react. He examines the photo and fights the urge to either laugh or cry. “Bastard’s got talent,” he says, his foot easing on the gas. He grips the Volvo’s steering wheel, readying himself for an illegal U-turn, for the subsequent shame.