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The Beast

by Anne-E Wood


Dear Janine:

You think I don’t listen, but it’s not true. Tonight I listened. I went to the bathroom and sat on the toilet. I put my ear to the wall. He felt me listening. I listened to him feel me listening. In his room, lying on his bed. He didn’t shout at me or hit the wall with his fist. He didn’t ignore me and try to fall asleep. He sighed loudly. If I stayed out there all night he’d sigh like that every ten minutes until the sun came up, and what do you think that would do? I listened to the sound of his feet pacing his room, his body flopping back onto the mattress. To his restlessness, his heaviness. I listened to him breathing and reading. I held my breath so he wouldn’t hear me listening. But he hears everything. The kid’s like me, he never sleeps. All he does is read.


Dear Paul:

If you have something to say to me, why don’t you say it to my face? I’ve had enough of this ludicrous behavior. I am sick of you moping around this house like some sort of anguished wounded elephant. How do you think your mother feels, watching you act this way? She’s at a total loss. Her sadness is unbearable and I have to sleep next to it every night. What is wrong with you? Why don’t you get a summer job? It’s the middle of July already. Anything, anything will do. Sling coffee, sell shoes, mow a goddamn lawn. You’re eighteen and that’s too old for this goofing around.  Is it that you can’t handle the world? It’s too big and makes you sad? It makes me sad too. It’s a big sad world and we live in it. But for now let’s not dwell on unpleasant things. Let’s not act like morons. Let’s talk for once in our lives.

How many times have I told you to see if your uncle will hire you for the summer? It doesn’t have to be for the rest of your life. Tell me how many times I’ve asked you. It’s time you shape up your act or find your own place. Why don’t you talk to your sister when she comes home– if she ever comes home? She seems to know what she’s doing. Also, there is a reason God invented doorknobs.


Dear Ruth:

Why don’t you give us a call? It’s terrible that you never call home. How do we know you haven’t been abducted? I understand your pathological desire to live in the eye of the storm, but I’ll tell you what’s been happening at home since you’ve been away in Swaziland. Afghanistan. Wherever it is you are now. Your brother has grown into an elephant. I don’t mean he’s become fat, although he has—I mean he’s big with sadness. He’s driving us all completely out of our minds. He’s reading Les Chants de Maldoror. The homicidal flying beast, the thirsty demon who carries hearts in his mouth while sobbing his sorrowful dirge. Tonight I stole the book from him and I’ve been trying to read it myself. This creature carries brains around on his beard and rapes children and spouts ideas about the universe. And all of that is not supposed to make him weird? I don’t mind the moping. I mind the secret boiling behind his forehead. He read at the dinner table tonight, chewing his meatballs in small mouthfuls, not once looking up from the page. I watched the trouble in his eyes for almost an hour. Your mother watched me watching him.

He also has a habit of smoking on the roof and throwing his cigarette butts onto the lawn. Your mother and I have raised a pig. A pig who smokes.


Dear Janine:

I’m tired of hearing about your illnesses. Nobody is healthier than you. Real people are suffering, real pain exists. Don’t you read the paper or care about anybody but yourself? What about our daughter who is living in the middle of it, surrounded by detonating corpses this week, beheadings that week, entire villages of parentless children the next week? And I have to hear about your anxious paranoid hallucinations of sickness. The way you talk to me, it’s as though I’m not really here–it’s as though I’ve died and you're walking around like some insane widow, talking to my ghost. 


Dear Paul:

What do I find every morning before work? Cigarette butts, ashes on my lawn. Thrown off the roof by whom? This is the thanks I get for allowing you to eat my food and pace my hallways. A boy of your girth shouldn’t be smoking. A smoker shouldn’t be so fat. If you’re interested in morbidity, you should know what’s bad for your health.


Dear Ruth:

Your mother may have a serious illness. I think it’s just migraines, but who knows? How would you feel if a scan came back and a giant tumor was growing in her brain? What would you do then? Would you lecture us on the wrongness of war? Would you send us another joke about the president? What kind of daughter lets her parents and little brother die? You think you’re some sort of ethical genius, but you’ve never learned responsibility. And stop sending us those horrific photographs. We’ve stopped reading the paper for a reason. We’re through with politics. We hate the world. We’ve had enough of it. Here is a fact: you hate the president more than you love us. That’s the only thing in the world that’s certain. I don’t want to hear about the people you’ve met. You might as well have murdered us, the way you pretend we don’t exist. I’m ashamed of you. I hope you never come home. Call us immediately or we’ll call the embassy.
 

Dear Janine:

I don’t want to hear your voice. We have a serious issue on our hands: our son. What about all those shootings they keep talking about on the radio? Have you been into his room? Have you ever wondered what you’d do if you found something under his bed? A gun, or something worse? Don’t you know he may be dying in that little room of his?  Don’t you think maybe his sadness isn’t all that normal? I wonder if tonight will be the night I find him in a bath full of blood, his brains all over the side of the tub. Or if he’ll jump off the roof. Or take pills that make his heart stop. In the morning, I will read the note he‘ll have left. I will look at it and not be able to read. I will never read anything ever again. Not the paper, not street signs. He doesn’t get it from me, I can tell you that much. The Andersons have never been melancholy people. We are fighters; we have been fighters since the pioneer era. You think my ancestors had time to mope around about nothing, with kids to feed and Minnesota Februaries eating their feet? The reason you’re like this is you don’t have enough to do.

I honestly don’t know what you’ve been up to for the past fifteen years. Sleeping, probably.


Dear Paul:

It’s not that we don’t love Ruth, it’s just that I don’t understand why she feels the need to go to these places, acting like she’s an action hero. And why does she fall in love with crazy people like that? I have no problem with the fact that she loves women. I have a problem with the nasty people she chooses for her lovers. If I had lovers like that, I’d run to the other side of the planet too. Why does she love them?

Dear Janine:

If only our lives were like the movies. After he’d had enough of hearing me spy on him, he would open the door slowly. He would look at me, and I would look at him, and after a pause he would offer me a cigarette, and we would go up the hallway ladder to the roof to smoke. We’d smoke up there, watching the green line of sunrise. After crying over the planet, he’d tell me about his real problems: a girl he loves, some gangly thing that is crushing his heart, that’s chewing him into pulpy bits and spitting him out through her teeth, and I would offer my sleeve for his tears. I’d say, There’s only one thing you need to know about girls…and I would know the secret and I would whisper it and he would look at me, changed.

Or maybe we would fight like men. I’d kick down that door and bust into the room I haven’t entered in years. I’d throw a few punches at the memory of acne on his face. He’d kick my stomach. I’d wrestle him to the floor. He’d spit. I’d beat his forehead. This is my hand. This is life. It stinks like blood and burning hearts. It doesn’t care if you’re sad. Live or die and it’s still there. Get used to it. Nothing changes for a thousand years.


Dear Ruth:

I can’t sleep. I toss in my sheets for hours, staring at the molding on the ceiling. There is a pale giant moon outside our window, and it floods the room with too much light. The night crickets are slowly driving me nuts. Your mother is asleep and I don’t want to wake her. Why is it none of this crosses my mind during the day? I go to work, sit in the park with my coffee at lunch, I eat dinner without thinking, then when it’s time to turn in, all this stupidity rushes in. It is so hot this summer. Dogs are dehydrating in Harlem apartments. The air conditioner is broken.


Dear Self:

Stop worrying, Crazy. Stop thinking about what isn’t. He is who he is. He feels what he feels. Let him feel it by himself.  If he wants to tell you, he’ll tell you. When he’s ready, he’ll tell you. Tell what? His heart’s broken. The air conditioner’s broken. The whole world is broken. He doesn’t know what he wants.


Dear Paul:

What do you want? I wish I could hit you, hold your head to the toilet. I wish I could hang you upside down from the roof and shake some life into you. There was a time when I held you back with my hands. Look, I said. Look at the glass you broke. Look at the boy you hurt. Look at the dumbness in this math homework. Does that look like a seven to you? Open your eyes. Does that look like two thirds? Look at your knees, for Christ’s sake. Look at your cage of a room. You live in this slop? A gorilla couldn’t live here.


Dear Paul:

I have nothing new to say to you. Don’t think I don’t know how maddening the world is. I think about it every night before I go to bed. If you think I haven’t thought about checking out a little early myself, you’re absolutely wrong. I once had the urge to jump off the George Washington Bridge. I slowed down traffic, I looked down at the boats from the window, but I didn’t have the guts to get out of the car.

Your sister has guts but she can’t stay in one place. I wonder sometimes if she stayed what she would feel. If she sat and watched instead of sending those photos out into the night. If she looked at them and saw them.


Dear Janine:

Not just night. During the day sometimes. Not his voice, but the sound of him.


Dear Paul:

It’s because we were too hard on you when you were young and too easy on you later. My father was the same way with me. If you have a son, you’ll be the same way with him.


Dear Janine:

What am I supposed to make of the monster in this book? Sometimes I feel like he’s watching me read his words. He’s outside the window, peering into the bedroom. He hangs from the roof by his feet. He tries to be quiet, but how can something that enormous be quiet? What does he think of me and why does he care? Am I supposed to feel sorry for him for killing those people?


Dear Janine:

My concern is that I’ve somehow lost track, that at a certain point I stopped knowing her. And that now she is on a global search for hell. Undoubtedly she’s found it everywhere she’s gone. But finding it isn’t enough. She must live there, in the center of it, until she's part of the flames.

Dear Ruth:

Talk to your little brother when you come home. Tell him something. Talk to him about what you do. That eventually you did something and now you are fine, or at least that you are looking for something. Make him understand life doesn’t just happen, doesn’t just descend on you, that you have to stand up at some point, stand up and do something. You don’t understand how serious it is. He’s reading Maldoror, and you know you have your mother to blame for that. He’s spending ridiculous amounts of time in his room. It isn’t just one thing, it’s a thousand things. A universe of things. Whatever it is, I don’t know what it is, it doesn’t have a name. Whatever it is, it’s terrible and he won’t talk to me. He won’t talk to your mother. He should be out getting laid, or at least talking to people.  I don’t even know what to say to him. It’s terrible to worry like this. It’s not good for my heart. I’m not young anymore. You’ll have to face that soon. The fact I’m not young anymore is just one more of life’s horrible realities.

When you come home, teach your little brother to turn the doorknob when he closes the door.


Dear Janine:

I could write him a letter, but what would I say? I want to tell him a secret, ask him a question, give him some good advice. I want to write the letter on thick paper and fold it carefully and put it in an envelope and I want to lick that envelope and slip it under the door so that later he will sit in a quiet place and hold the words in his hands and speak them as he reads. And when he is done reading the letter, he will fold it into a tiny square and put it in his pocket with his keys, his knives, his Chapstick, whatever he keeps in his pocket. Before he falls asleep, he will read my words again in bed, and again in the morning with his coffee. This will be a beautiful letter. I’ll write it with a fountain pen.


Dear Ruth:

We don’t have any fountain pens in this house. Only blue ballpoint pens, chewed on the ends, stuffed in the Mike’s Pipe Yard mug that’s been sitting on that desk since the beginning of time. None of those pens write anymore, but your mother keeps them around to hold us under the illusion that there are pens in this house that work.


Dear Mug:

You and everything I’d love to throw out this window. If only my hands were big enough to hold all the things I’d love to hurl off the rooftop into the night. Our coat racks, our lampshades, our toothbrushes, the iron, the candles, the spoons, the jar of cashews, the milk, the violin, the television, the boots, the air conditioner, the figurines above the fireplace, the maps, the board games, the humidifier, the books, the plastic folding chairs, the breakfast table, the roller skates, the glue gun, the juggling balls, the rabbit cages, the sock drawers, the maple syrup, the ashtrays, the photo frames, the sheet music, the dog dishes, the erasers, the sponges, the potted midnight fichus, the refrigerator magnets, the tuxedo, the striped apron, the wolf mask, the Q-tips, the hammer, the dental floss, her yellow evening dress, the bracelets, the swimming goggles, the paperclips, the sea monkeys, the stockings, the clocks, the bean bags, the frozen meat, the cotton, the newspaper, our bathrobes, the pennies, the aspirin, the dishrags, the cans of tomato juice, the old rug in the hallway, the cords, the shoelaces, the guitar strings, the doorknobs, the eggs, the cigarettes, the hair bands, the records, the soaps, the cutting board, the bags of salt in the basement, the champagne corks, and all the broken useless pens sticking up inside of you.


Dear Paul:

Your mother is naked right now. She never slept naked when she was beautiful. When she was beautiful she hid herself in saggy pajamas with horrible things like penguins on them. Now one giant alabaster leg crosses over the other, so pale it’s almost blue. A fly rests on her forehead, but she doesn’t lift a finger to scratch it. I listen to her sleep and dream. Listen to her breathe. Our bodies are close, but we don’t touch in this heat. I’m jealous of sleep like hers. Her head hits the pillow and she’s gone. When she wakes up in the morning, she wants to talk to me about nonsense. How she hurts, but there’s nothing hurting her. A spot on her hand makes her head spin. She’s getting old, it’s true, but her head’s getting old the quickest. I remember when she loved the world.  She doesn’t read the paper anymore. She says she can’t read it.  She reads only novels and talks about her dreams. She doesn’t want to talk about anything important. She leaves the teakettle on, leaves her keys at work every other day, leaves the bathroom a mess with her hairs.


Dear Ruth:

Yesterday she said I‘m the one who’s lost my mind, the one who doesn’t want to look at anything. She speaks to me sometimes like she’s seven years old, doing the dishes barefoot, watering the driveway flowers. I answer her like an adult. Don’t talk to me about all that, I tell her. The past may as well be a dream. But she goes on about it. She asks me to remember. She isn’t a parent. She lets him get away with murder. Lets him read at the dinner table and stay out at all hours. What does he do out there? He doesn’t have any friends.


Dear Paul:

Is it the world you’re afraid of? Why do you spend so many nights awake? Why can’t you close your eyes and dream? You think maybe it would be nice not to carry all that around, just to let yourself go?


Dear Janine:

It’s time to talk now. It’s time to say, Tell me what’s new. Or What the hell’s wrong with us, why aren’t we sleeping? Who came in here and stole our sleep? But it’s quiet and almost morning. Another scorcher. This is the summer that never ends.  I’d give anything to have night again. To have the whole night to sleep.


Dear Ruth:

I don’t have to tell him. His gut already knows.

You must come home. But when you come home, you must stop falling in love with these maniacs.


Dear Paul:

It’s one thing to worry about yourself. But what about when it’s someone else’s worry that has you dragging your feet and goes into your head and keeps you up at night? I’ll get over my own worries, like the fact that in thirty years I’ll probably be dead. Can you imagine what it would feel like to watch all your friends die? But this kind of worry isn’t good for my health. There’s nothing I can do about it. I have to teach you the worst lesson, but I don’t  know how to teach it to you, or even what it is. How do I tell you anything?


Dear Janine:

All of it’s my fault. If I had been kinder to him. If I had talked to her. If I had your sweetness. Why are you so wonderful? How have you put up with me all these years?  I’m a terrible, terrible person. I wouldn’t blame you if you decided to leave.


Dear Paul:

Why do you take things so seriously all the time? Why not go out and have a little fun? When I was young, all I wanted to do was hang out in coffee shops and talk to girls. Why don’t you join a band? I was in a band. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you that. We were really good. We were The Snow Angels and I played the saxophone. You wouldn’t have recognized your old man. Believe me, I know what it’s like to be young. Your head spins, you can’t sleep, you think this moment is so important, that it’s the only moment you’ll ever live.  You think you’re going to be fifteen forever. You think everyone’s full of it and sad. And the people who aren’t sad and full of it, you think you’re madly in love with them. But the thing is, Paul, not everyone is sad and not everyone is full of it. People are good, most of them. They’re not that different from you. That’s what you realize when you get a little bit older, that we’re all just trying our best. And those people you think you’re in love with? You’re not really in love with them. Most of them are using you for something, so they tell you you’re special. They like your hair. They tell you you’re a cool cat, you’re one of the few people who really “gets” it. But you’re not that special, Paul. Nobody is.

Dear Ruth:

Did I ever tell you I was in a band? We were called The Snow Angels and I played the saxophone.


Dear Janine:

Do you remember The Snow Angels? I never should have quit. If I hadn’t quit The Snow Angels, who knows where I’d be. I’d probably be famous now and living in a big house out west. Stretched out by a pool somewhere without a thought in my head.


Dear Ruth:

We were very good. You wouldn’t have recognized your old man. But you know where those guys are now? I haven’t heard from them in a thousand years. The guitarist, Garth Applegate, never made it. I think he got a heroin addiction and was living in Tucson with a stripper. But that was back in the seventies. And the other guys? Vanished. Could even be dead, who knows. My point is you never know where you’re going to end up. My point is that just because you think you’re on top of the world now, with all these humanitarian jobs, with all this travel everywhere, and you think you’re out there really making a difference, really changing the world, that doesn’t mean you’re not going to be down and out some day, not going to be lonely and up all night wishing you had kept in better touch with your folks, wishing you’d taken better care of your little brother because now you need him and he’s nowhere to be found.


Dear Janine:

I understand reading is reading and you’d rather have him reading about this nutjob than smoking pot or jacking off too much or building bombs in the basement.  But I just don’t feel sorry for this monster and I don’t understand what’s wrong with Mark Twain. Dickens. Christ, Edgar Allen Poe would be better than this sociopath. Doesn’t anyone read On the Road anymore? Now there was a book.


Dear Paul:

I thought you might like this book by Jack Kerouac. It’s about a guy who takes a road trip. Tell me what you think about this idea: a father-son road trip. Just a couple of weeks. We go out west, take the small roads, just you and your Dad. I bet the farthest west you’ve been is Philadelphia. Well the country’s big, Paul. It’s huge. There’s a lot to see. It’s an amazing country, it really is. We’re lucky we live here. Your sister doesn’t understand what she’s missing, living abroad. We’d have all this time to just drive, listen to some good old music, and talk. We could talk for hours, really get to understand each other. There are all these things I want to tell you, about my life, about who I was and who I am, and there are all these things I want to ask you, and I never feel like there’s enough time.


Dear Janine:

This night won’t end. It’s just going to be night forever.


Dear Ruth:

How about when you come home, you and your brother go on a road trip? You wouldn’t have to go very far, maybe just take the car and go up to Maine to visit your Uncle George? That way you and Paul could bond a little, you could tell him about your life and your adventures and all the amazing things you’ve been doing. I’m a little worried that he doesn’t have a grip on his life and that pretty soon he’s going to find himself all grown up and all over the place.


Dear Janine:

You know who I was just thinking of? Garth Applegate. Remember Garth Applegate? I always hated him a little. I mean, at the time I really thought he was something, that he was going to be the next Keith Richards. But it turned out he was a loser. When I think my life hasn’t gone anywhere, when I think things are really bad, that our children are the most miserable creatures ever to walk on the planet, that our marriage has hit the skids, and I’m up all night and can’t sleep and I’m spinning around in circles, I think, well, it could be worse. I could be Garth Applegate.


Dear Paul:

What are we are supposed to feel for him? He gives these long explanations, these long hypotheses, these tirades, these meanderings, these lists, but what are we supposed to feel? In the end he’s just a monster, isn’t he? He doesn’t have the ability to reason so, how can we take his “reasons” seriously for three hundred pages? Why are you reading this stuff? Don’t you have anything better to read?


Dear Beast:

What are we supposed to do, feel sorry for you? Your explanations and philosophies and theoretical ramblings are a waste of my time. You think you’re some sort of artist? Not one soul is moved by your work. You have the right to feel lonely. Not one person empathizes. The night hates you, my family hates you, the moon hates you, the ink of this pen hates you, the streets and the houses and all the crickets hate you. You are not even worth the paper this tiny letter is written on. And who writes letters with pens and paper anymore? Who sits and reads shaky handwriting? What is the point in even trying to explain anything? The person who’s reading this is probably salvaging paper from the recycling bin at the edge of the driveway. Murder is one thing, but look what you’ve done to my lawn. How can I look out my window? Paper all over. Cigarette butts. Not even the birds will eat them. Nobody will send these idiotic letters. Nobody will read them. And who will have to clean up that mess in the morning? I will, you son of a bitch—the paper, the ashes, the pens, the brains, the hearts, all by myself before work, the whole fucking mess.

 

Anne-E Wood’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, New Letters, Chicago Quarterly Review, The Cream City Review, Fourteen Hills, Fiction Attic, Other Voices, Beloit Fiction Journal, The Licking River Review, and others. She has an MFA in fiction from San Francisco State University, where she received the 2006 Michael Rubin Award. She lives in New York and teaches writing at Rutgers University and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. (7/2008)


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