• Fearsome Critters

Leaving the Tall Society — Pearse Anderson

Updated: Mar 14, 2019

*TOP CONTRIBUTOR IN FICTION, VOLUME ONE, 2018*

The First Hurt:


My cousin and I started wrestling when we knew we wanted to become men, but we didn’t know how. He was nine and I wasn’t much older. His hair was rough and firm like the bristles of a brush. We wrestled in the center of our grandparents’ big bedroom where the skins of two animals we had never seen alive lay. Sometimes in our chaotic motions I accidentally felt their fur, but I always knew it wasn’t his: he was always drier. Maan was his name, though he would later change it.


Maan’s sister and my sister sat out the fights. They would join us soon enough since we all slept on the floor like rugrats. We ate up the glory of the bedroom, usually in the dark, usually without talking. The size of it! The size of the house! The size of Long Island, which seemed to stretch forever. We never stayed over at our grandparents’ long enough to understand its systems, but enough to remember the smell of the carpets long after we left, the cousins retreating to Manhattan and us up the Hudson.


Here’s how the fights went: our sisters would move the bags, and then we’d all pick up this massive buffalo skull that Maan’s sister always had nightmares of, and move it through hallways until it was far enough away and we could rest peacefully. Maan and I would form starting positions in the center of the bedroom, and someone would clap for us to go. I kept eye contact because it felt more unnerving not to. I pushed Maan around. He gripped into me like I was a ladder. Sometimes we feared our heads would smack against the buffalo skull, and sometimes we would remember that it was gone. Maan always hit too hard, but it was rarely intentional. I bled just the same and looked up at his stubby legs, wondering what animal birthed this cannonball of a son. We tied our arms together. We turned each other red. We did not learn from our mistakes, of course.



The First Break:


One morning, we lugged our rugburnt bodies to the little space behind our grandparents’ garage. We had only been there once before, the previous day, drawn by boredom and a need to map the unknowns of Long Island.


“We should expand this,” Maan said, fingering the border of the hole he had made the previous day. He had punched through the picket fence, which was easy because it was all moldy and brown, but the motion was amazing, too.


“Let me look,” I said, and he let me. Peeping through the hole, I saw two fences that ran parallel to each other, close enough to create a tunnel fit for child-sized travel from our backyard to our distant neighbor’s. It was a hidden no-man’s land.


“I don’t think we should make a hole,” I said as I really wanted to explore the fence tunnel.


“We already made a hole. It’s gonna be a hole. We should just make it bigger so we can crawl through it.”


It was good enough for me. “Who lives two doors down?”


“I think it’s the Mainards,” he said, looking through the hole. The Mainards had a pool. The Mainards always shaved their children’s heads even if they said no. The risk of baldness was worth it for Maan. He began plucking the pickets apart like pulled pork.


We knew the Mainards and that was something. The town had become more and more Hasidic, and Maan grew paranoid of our neighbors. He recognized fewer faces from our walks around the block and my grandparents’ Passover dinners. Eventually, the Mainards were almost the only ones left. Neither of us were ready to be around that many strangers, so that day Maan dug and I sorted the rotted wood into piles. Our hands smelled and turned brown. Not knowing what to do come dinnertime, we tossed the picket-pieces into the coal chute on the side of our grandparents’ house. That night we wrestled, I think, or I dreamed that we did. The hole was still too small for access. When his father collected the family to leave the next morning, he found Maan behind the garage, still picking away. He made Maan promise to stop. Then we all packed our sleepover clothes and drove west and said until next time! to ever applicable person.



The Last Religious Experience:


By the time I was thirteen, religiosity had grown tasteless and political, but I still prepped for my bar mitzvah in our small conservative temple. My rabbi was a tall Israeli who understood my reasons for the event: I would have two nice dinners and a country club party, and people would be happy, at the very least. The Hasidim who came to our temple never got that social side of it.


“A bar mitzvah is for God and family,” one told me in the lobby. “Both will be watching and both will be together.”


“I don’t want my family to get together.”


“It will be in celebration of you!”


“My family is weird. My uncle only learned how to read when he was twenty, but he thinks some T.V. Emmys he won make up for it. And my cousin talks to me in his sleep and doesn’t read books except for bird guides.”


“Seems like they taught you a lot, just about what you don’t want to be.”


“Sure.”


“Then thank them for that when you thank your family members.”


I didn’t really understand what that person was saying, so I didn’t write it into my speech. I instead tried to imagine Maan as older than I had last seen him, as a matured soul. After my haftorah reading, I scanned the crowd. They were all half-strangers, and Maan wasn’t there, or if he was, I didn’t recognize him.


When service was over, I found Maan and a family friend in the building, toward the balcony seating. Clumped together, doing their best in suits and yamakas, they looked like one mass—they were on top of each other. I came toward them and they shifted. One was being strangled. His sky-blue tie tightening around his neck until another world formed. Maan’s hands were around this boy’s shoulders.


I think they were having fun the way we used to have fun. But it was too dark, even for me, even for that place. I couldn’t tear them away, but I told an adult and they stopped the fight. This was my day, not Maan’s. But all these years later, I don’t remember my haftorah, just that boy’s throat. When I see Maan’s face in photobooks, I see that sky-blue. I keep expecting birds or other winged animals to pass through the sky, but it’s just there, filling and cloudless. What did I expect? It was like fate.



The Last Time She Was Healthy:


The family stayed weird, and it dropped in number: two distant cousins died. Our grandmother fell ill. My sister and I were tasked with seeing her before things got worse. By that point, their world was alien to us. When asked where in Long Island they lived, I lacked the words and even sometimes the memory to spark the words. I knew the place had spiked into ultra-Orthodoxy and the Mainards were still holding on, but that was it. I knew every way the Italian ices tasted at Ralph’s, a Long Island place we used to frequent on family get-togethers, a place now a carpet store with an ice-cream-themed carpet in the window, but that was where my knowledge cut short. We took the train out from Peekskill, transferring at Grand Central.


“When were we last out here?” I asked, almost accidentally, spacing out as we trailed eastward.


“Probably the time that dog died,” my sister said. Oh, yeah. Some patriarch had run it over when they tried to back out of our grandparents’ driveway. Was it our uncle? Our grandfather? Some neighbor?


“The dog was sick, though,” I said as some kind of consolation. “I remember being told that it was sick and even though it was sad that it got squished it was better than the alternative.”


“It was pretty sad still.”


After that dog thing, my grandmother asked the buffalo skull in her room to be put away. As we rolled into her train stop, I couldn’t help but think of finding it again as we went through all the back rooms and cardboard boxes in the eventual estate sale after the eventual funeral.


There was an ambulance and some rail security van when we got off the train. I had no idea what to think. Apparently, a young man had been jumping turnstiles and avoiding ticket collectors from 81st Street all the way to Long Island. He was riding between cars, running around, refusing to listen.


“Metro authority got his wallet,” a witness was saying as we passed police-types. “He had an unlimited pass. I don’t understand.”


“Did you see this too?” someone said.


“Yeah. It’s like he doesn’t want to be caught. Even if he’s doing the right thing, he doesn’t want to be caught.”


The boy was fined a hundred dollars and his school was informed. We found him later on the curb of our grandparents’ house, waiting for us. Then we went in, all of us together for tea.



The Last View of the Atlantic:


Both the school and the fine required Maan to show up in court for a day. Just some preliminary bullshit to cover everyone’s bases. No. Instead, Maan took his unlimited pass and went east again. He took it all out to Montauk where the fly fishermen were and surfboard kitsch and all the Dutch graveyards. After talking to a homeless man he found deep in alleyway, Maan decided to get food and maybe bring some back for the guy. He stopped in the best pie shop in New York State and bought two slices, both apple, and couldn’t stop telling the waitress about his life.


“They’re saying the fine will double if I’m not there”—he checked his watch—“in twenty minutes. Isn’t that funny?”


“And what will the school do?” she asked, squeezing the tip of the whipped cream can until he said stop. It was rocketing out.


“You’re a good thinker. I do not know. I just feel like it’s so easy to feel out of control these days.”


“Yeah, I understand.”


“How do you feel, this close to the beach? With all the driftwood and people you don’t know?”


“It’s nice. I collect wood actually, but only pieces that look like my family.”


Maan thought that was amazing. He could never do that with his family. The closest he could do was find driftwood the hard shape of his father’s Emmys or the knot of his newly converted cousin’s payots.


After his two slices, Maan explained to her how she was the last person that week he’d talk to. Really talk to. He was headed west, only a bit, only to an old house. Only to pull apart a few more pickets and toss them in a pool. He just wanted to widen it all until he had a chance at crawling through it. And so with wood on his mind he went to that old fence. Maan wasn’t still that small boy, but God he tried. He wanted in no matter the confines of that tunnel.


Afterward, Maan went back to Manhattan and got suspended, which was okay for everyone involved except for Maan’s mother, but she also had lupus so that could’ve been it. No one in my family was ever great at identifying crying, but they made decisions around tears just the same. The disappearance thing happened a few more times. Maan drifting through unreasonable streets at unreasonable hours. Hiding away no matter what outs he was given. After a while, Maan’s father just sent him off. The thought process, as I best understood, was: Maan likes breaking the rules and running away, so if the rules encourage him to leave, wouldn’t Maan want to break them and come home? His parents were vague about it, pushing him to get his energy out across some large field. Travel around a bit, learn about real consequences. Soon, before the birds came back in the spring, he’d return to normal. Wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t he rejoin this tall society of hidden diseases and three-piece suits?



The Last Hour in the Apartment:


So he packed it up. His muscles were still clawing and shaped from sport and play-fighting and gym. Our grandmother was in hospice and he left. My uncle bended the rules and Maan stepped across them like a new bridge. Maan took his knife collection and his three paperback copies of Cujo and put them in the bottom of his gym bag. He took a balaclava, but he wrapped it in socks to douse suspicion. He took shelled pistachios and three pairs of basketball shoes and half his mother’s lupus medication. It made sense that they expected Maan to return like he had done before. If they knew what would happen, I think they would’ve made more of a significant goodbye than a gruff see you later and a wave. His father had two Emmys prominently displayed in the main hallway and Maan thought of taking one or both. He carried the oldest one out of the apartment, but it was so heavy, Maan gave it to the doorman as a tip, and later heard from his sister it was never recovered.



He went west this time.


I wish I knew if Maan ever used that tunnel he opened up and, if he did, by the time he finished it if he was too large for its enclosures.

I remember that Maan was promised a grandfather-grandchild trip after his bar mitzvah, as we all were, but that he was the last, since he was the youngest, and never got his. I want to know where he would have gone so that one day I could send him a postcard. Or maybe he already went. He probably doesn’t have an address.


When I think about lupus, the disease stirs images of Maan’s mother turning into a werewolf. I think of her swallowing the doorman who took the Emmy, and then her daughter who dropped out of college, and then sniffing Maan’s old gym socks to get his scent, to track him down across America. She is massive. Nothing can contain her force. Does Maan have that same fantasy?


When he stole her medication, did he think he was hurrying this transformation process? Was he happy that he was building himself a worthy antagonist?


Months after he left, I discovered I somehow had one of his bird guides in my possession: he had written in the margins of it constantly, scrawling notes about Montauk and dreams and a female named Red he used to meet under a nearby bridge and talk to. I had no idea if Red was a creature or a human. I put it away after a while and forgot about it. The book didn’t solve any questions I had. It’s not like there were rules to this, or real ways of locating answers.



The Last View of Maan:


Right before I started visiting colleges, my mother tripped on a snake and broke her ankle. She couldn’t operate vehicles or heavy machinery, so she gave me some hundreds and said I should bus myself around the Tri-State Area looking for places to apply to. I was dumbfounded by how far a few hundreds could take me in Pennsylvania. I stopped in Scranton. Its bus station was a little meth lab of a place that only sold Hostess products out of a vending machine, so I walked to a coffee shop before my next bus.


On the walk from the Starbucks back to the bus station, my luggage handle broke and before I could desperately snatch it up, it slid down the sidewalk and into a grassy bank. Shrubs ate the dark-gray case and I crawled down and had to weedwack through the riverside looking for where it might have gone. The handle was always weak. I should have expected the break. I came to an opening in the slope where a giant pipe had been installed to funnel the river underneath the sidewalk and road. There, where the lip of the pipe met the mud, I found my now-handleless case. I grabbed it, unsure how I would carry such a thing, but that thought swung out of me when I saw out of the corner of my eye a figure inside the wet pipe. There was twisted wood and loud frogs in there, but a few feet from the lip there was Maan or whatever his name now was. He was in all khakis with lightning-blue hair. His body was ragged, his breath stable. He had a piece of luggage beside him too, but after all was said and done, I looked for him around the station and when I was boarding my bus and I couldn’t catch sight. Looking back, I have trouble believing he was going anywhere. If he wanted to leave, he would have been gone already.