UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Heracles vs. the Lion
The hostess guided Henry to a booth and asked if he’d ever been to Applebee’s before.
“I’ve never even been to Iowa before,” he said.
“Applebee’s isn’t from Iowa,” she said. “We’re global.”
“I’ve never been,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“It’s something they make us say.”
She handed him a menu. She told him to enjoy his meal. She reclaimed her podium by the door.
The men at the restaurant’s bar were Henry’s age. They were separated by three stools on each side, and they stared at their drinks while muted TVs showed a close-captioned remake of A Christmas Carol.
A woman came to Henry’s table and asked if he was ready to order; he couldn’t tell if she was the hostess or someone new. She had the same black slacks and white polo shirt. She had the same distant gaze, and the same pretty, complicated hair.
Henry ordered the Applejack Crisper and a Coke. “Yum,” she said. She scooped up his menu and left.
There was a family sitting behind him. He could see their reflection in the mirrored beer sign by his table. A woman in a homemade denim dress. Her husband. They had a daughter in her early-teens. A sheet of stiff, multi-colored hair covered her eyes. She wore plastic jewelry and an artificially-aged Thundercats T-shirt.
A woman placed a sizzling skillet on his table.
“Wow,” he said. He looked like he was trying not to sneeze.
Henry couldn’t tell if she was the hostess, or his waitress, or someone altogether different. She had the same triple-ear-piercing, and she left behind the same lingering smell of fake-fruit and cigarette smoke.
He worked on his food for a few minutes and then a waitress, either one of the employees he’d encountered before or not, asked him if he was enjoying his food.
“Unbelievably good,” he lied. “But there is one thing.”
“What can I do?” she asked.
She listened patiently as Henry told her that he’d been offered a job on the other side of the country. For the past twelve hours, he’d been driving towards the town where the company was.
Henry said that his new employer had instructed him to stop in this town, at a motel where they’d arranged a room, but, when he got to the motel, they claimed to have never heard of the company, or of him. On top of all that, they claimed to have no vacancy at all.
“So I was wondering,” said Henry, “if you had a phonebook I could use. So I could find somewhere to stay.”
“You won’t,” she said.
“Use a phonebook?”
“Find somewhere to stay. There’s a motorcycle rally in town. Every room is filled.”
“I haven’t seen a single motorcycle,” he said.
“Everything is booked. But let me see what I can do.”
She disappeared, and, soon after, someone who was or wasn’t her came to his table.
“You can stay here tonight. The family behind you? They’re staying too. They ran into the same situation you did. Nobody expected this rally to be so big.”
“I haven’t seen a single motorcycle,” Henry repeated.
“We have sheets and pillows, if you don’t have your own. You’ll have to sleep on the floor, of course. And, like I said, you won’t be alone.”
“That’s a nice offer,” said Henry. “Thank you.”
“Welcome to Applebee’s,” she said. “Can I get you a beer?”
“How about another Coke.”
“A refill?” she said.
And she took his glass and went to the bar, where she filled it and brought it back to his table.
Henry finished his second Coke and headed to the bathroom. One of the faucets had a broken motion detector, and a beam of steaming water hissed from its jammed-open mouth. A cover-version of Bob Sieger’s “Old Fashioned Rock and Roll” blared through hidden speakers. The vocals were too clean. The guitars too twangy. There was a drum-machine instead of drums.
He heard the chirp of a lighter from one of the stalls. He smelled pot-smoke as he washed his hands.
He stuck his hands under the blow-dryer. The pot-smoker said, “Hello?”
It was as if he’d been greeted by the dryer itself.
“Come here for a sec?”
The stall door swung open, revealing the teenaged girl who he’d seen sitting in the booth behind him. She sat on the toilet, cupping a glass pipe in her palms, as if it was fragile and barely alive. Then Henry realized that she was actually a boy, and that he was much older than he’d previously guessed. He must have been 17 years old.
He offered the pipe to Henry. Its contents tasted like fresh-cut grass and apples.
“You sleeping here tonight?”
Henry said that he was.
“Us too.” The music stopped, and the first few bars of “Old Fashioned Rock and Roll” started playing again. Something, somewhere, was stuck.
The kid said that his name was Kyle. Henry said that his name was Henry. They shook hands like people who just agreed to invest in a new 7-11 on the corner of Lincoln and Main.
Henry said he was heading east. Kyle said they were driving towards Nebraska, where his parents planned on dropping him off at a Christian summer camp. He would work as a camp counselor for the summer. He said that his parents were the kind of people who carried a Bible in their glove compartment.
“It sounds like camp isn’t your idea,” said Henry.
“It’s the only solution.”
Then Kyle told Henry about his older brother Chuck.
Kyle and Chuck had always shared a complicated relationship. “He always told me that he’d do anything for me,” Kyle said, squeezing his words through a throat-full of smoke. “I was never sure what he meant by ‘anything.’ He always chose to do it in such strange ways.”
Chuck, who was much older than Kyle, had been a bad influence, even by Kyle’s admission. At an early age, he’d introduced Kyle to alcohol and drugs and music with anti-social lyrics. On multiple occasions, Chuck had encouraged Kyle to run away from home, and once he kidnapped him against his will. By the time Kyle was in high school, there were regular fistfights between Chuck and his father on their front lawn, where the neighbors had gathered in bathrobes and begged them to stop until the police arrived.
“My parents always thought he’d change,” said Kyle. “But he’s thirty now, and he’s worse than ever. Two weeks ago he gave me heroin.”
“Did you want heroin?”
“I don’t know. Kind of,” said Kyle. “But now they’re taking me out to Nebraska because they think he won’t find me there. And that’s the problem,” said Kyle. “He’s following us.”
“How do you know?”
“He texted me. He said he’s going to save me from getting saved.”
“That’s heavy,” said Henry, who hadn’t described anything as “heavy” since he was fifteen years old.
“I don’t want to be brainwashed like my parents. But I don’t want Chuck to wreck everything, either.”
The bathroom door opened. Henry closed the stall and locked it. Kyle pulled his feet onto the toilet, and Henry turned around so that his toes pointed towards the door.
They packed another bowl and smoked it without speaking. They listened to someone urinate and then leave without washing his hands.
“Here’s,” Kyle said, “what I need you to do.”
Kyle said that Chuck wouldn’t wait for Nebraska. Chuck was coming here. To Applebee’s. To confront his parents and to take Kyle away.
“Talk to him when he gets here. Tell him that I’ll make my own decision, and, once I’ve resolved everything with my parents, everything will be great.”
Kyle was trying not to cry.
“Why don’t you tell him yourself?”
“Because he lies. That’s where he gets his power from. At one point, he says, ‘Eat this, it’s good for you.’ And I do, and it is. Then he’s says, ‘Stick this in your arm. It’s good,’ and I do, and it’s good and bad at the same time. So he says, ‘Next time, stick it between your toes… I get confused.”
“Sure,” said Henry.
“You’ll do it?”
Henry said sure again. Mostly because saying no seemed like so much work.
“Thanks,” said Kyle. “Just remember. He's a fucking snake. Everything he says is a lie. Remember that and you’ll be fine.”
“Sure,” said Henry.
“Let’s get out of here before my parents think we’re doing each other in the butt.”
Henry went to his car to get his backpack. A man on a motorcycle pulled into the spot next to his. The rider wore a bomber jacket and black jeans. No helmet. A crew cut. Eyelashes so long that Henry could make them out in the dark. It was Chuck.
Henry watched him walk inside, and then he went inside, too.
Chuck was sitting at the bar, holding a five dollar bill out to a bartender that wasn’t there. Henry sat down three stools away. He said, “What’s up?”
“Nothing,” said Chuck. “What’s up with you?”
“Nothing,” said Henry. He took out a five dollar bill and held it out, too.
Chuck ordered a bottle of beer. Henry asked for a Mountain Dew. An employee brought both drinks and disappeared.
Henry asked Chuck if he was in town for the big rally. “What rally?” asked Chuck.
“The big bike rally in town. They’ve got all the hotel rooms booked for it.”
“Hey bro?” asked Chuck.
“What’s your name?”
Henry told him.
“And I bet you know that I’m Chuck. And it’s cool that you’re trying to help my little brother out. That’s why I’m talking to you right now as an equal. As a man.”
“Thank you,” said Henry, who had never been called a “man” in quite that way before.
“There was a great author whose name I forget, but he said something beautiful, and I think it applies to how I feel about you right now. Do you want to hear what he said?”
“Of course,” said Henry.
“He said, ‘Never drown a generous impulse.”
“That’s heavy,” said Henry.
“Well, it’s true. And if you live your life like that, you’ll leave the world a better place than when you got here.”
“That’s all I want to do,” said Henry.
“That’s why it’s so hard for me say that, in this specific situation, you’re just wrong.” He reached in his pocket and took out a cigarette. He stuck it behind his ear. “But it’s not your fault. Kevin can be a very persuasive person.”
“You mean Kyle.”
“Whatever he was calling himself, I bet he told you a story about how I was tracking him across the country. Am I right?”
Henry nodded. Chuck leaned forward. He said, “That’s not exactly the case.” Chuck said that, a few hours ago, he was enjoying a quiet night at home. Then he got a text message from his brother.
Chuck said that he read the message, and he read the series of messages that followed, and they said that Kyle’s parents had teamed up with some cult-leader. The text messages described an incident in the bathroom at this Applebee's, where the cult-leader in question had cornered Kyle and offered him heroin. “And the physical description of this cult-pervert,” said Chuck, “fits you perfectly.”
Henry stammered. He half-stood in his stool. He tried to explain.
“No worries,” said Chuck. “One time, Kevin told me he was being rushed to a Freemason boarding school. Another time, it was a Satanic commune disguised as a pig farm. What was it this time? Forced labor on a Scientology cruise ship? Christian camp? Eco-terrorism? I don’t even care. I’m always the bad guy, tracking him across the country.”
“It was the Christian camp,” said Henry. “You nailed it.”
“Congratulations to me,” said Chuck, rolling his eyes. “Do you want to know the truth? My brother and I grew up in this town. My parents eat at this Applebee's almost every night.”
“They eat here?” asked Henry, suddenly remembering his Applejack Sizzler. “But the food is so bad.”
“Every. Fucking. Night,” said Chuck. He rolled his eyes again.
Henry felt friendly towards Chuck. He looked over his shoulder, where Kyle’s parents sat emptying sugar packets onto the table and drawing designs in the sparkly mess. Kyle was nowhere in sight.
“Anyway, I told the kid that I’d ask you to back off. I don’t know why.”
“My brother can be incredibly difficult to deal with. He lies all the time. That’s where he gets his power from.”
“That can be frustrating,” said Henry. He almost added that he, as an only child, had no experience with that kind of relationship. But he didn’t. Here’s what he said instead: “I know the feeling.”
“He’s got this crazy ability to make people think he’s just like them. He sort of turns himself into a mirror, so the people he manipulates think that they’re looking at a person they like, when all they’re looking at is a flattering image of themselves.”
Henry looked at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Crew cut. Bomber jacket. Eyelashes so long you could see them in the dark. He grinned.
“I’m not normally a generous man,” he said, “but I used to have a brother, and Kyle reminds me of him.”
“He’d be Kyle’s age. I bet you and I are the same age too.”
Henry and Chuck compared ages. It turned out that they’d only been born a few days apart.
“My brother used to pull the same kind of shit,” said Henry. He said, after he’d moved out of their childhood home, his brother began sending him emails that accused their stepfather of punching him, and that described how their stepfather had lied to their mother about finding French ticklers and vibrators and date-rape drugs in Joel’s room, when in fact, according to Joel’s claims, they were the same French ticklers and vibrators and date-rape drugs that their step-father used on their mom.
“I’d scream at our stepfather, and he’d scream back.” Henry described fistfights between him and his stepfather; he described the way their neighbors formed limp, pajama-clad circles around them until the cops broke it up.
Henry said that, on one night, Joel called him to say that their stepfather had planted naked pictures of their mother in Joel’s room, for their mother to find.
“And then Joel said, ‘I don’t want to live anymore. I want to die.’”
“I knew he was lying,” said Henry. “I told him to fuck off. He said he didn’t know how he’d react, and I told him that he should react by fucking the fuck off. And you know what?”
“What?” said Chuck.
Henry said that Joel committed suicide that night.
“What if I’d never entertained Joel’s lies?”
“It wasn’t your fault,” said Chuck.
“I wish it wasn’t,” said Henry, and by this point he was pretending to cry. “I think that there’s very little good in this world, and if your little brother didn’t remind me so much of Joel, I wouldn’t have taken the time to warn you now. When Kyle texts you, ignore it. When he calls you, don’t answer. When he knocks on your door, turn off the lights and pretend that you’re not home.”
Chuck finished his beer and stood up. “Dude,” he said.
Henry shook his head. “Don’t” he said. “Just leave your little brother alone.”
After Chuck left, Henry sat at the bar for a long time, staring at the ice as it melted into his Mountain Dew. He’d never realized that he wanted a brother so badly.
He looked at Kyle’s table. Kyle was sitting alone, a half-drank beer in front of him. He nodded at Henry and smiled. The wrinkles on the backs of his hand gave him away. Kyle wasn’t close to Henry’s age—he was a decade older, at least.
The waitress, or the hostess, or the bartender, or somebody new, walked up. She said, “Do you want another Dew?”
Henry said no. He said that he had drunk enough dew to last him years.
She said, “Kevin needs to talk to you. Meet us in the kitchen in fifteen minutes.”
Henry said he would.
“I promise,” he said.
He sat at the bar for another minute. Then he scooped up his backpack and walked out the door.
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