THE QUARTERING ACT
“This law does not make any sense,” my dad said, hitting his fist on the steering wheel. But even I knew that sense had nothing to do with what governed us.
I’d just started high school, and so this fact was obvious to me. I mean, to begin with, in the previous few years my body had transformed so dramatically that everything familiar now seemed absurd. The rest of the world followed suit. In my town, for example, a kid could know everything about 9th Grade U.S. History, but if he was absent from school six times (just six times! That’s less than a week!), the administration felt perfectly okay giving that kid the same grade as some doofus who failed every test and didn’t know Jefferson from his elbow. Like most kids my age, I seethed with the imbalance between what I felt was inside of me and what the world would officially recognize. They’d say, “it’s about learning responsibility and self-discipline,” but no matter how many times I went over the course description or scoured the textbooks, I couldn’t find evidence that either of those things were among the content standards. When I pointed this out, Mr. Tedeski lowered my grade even further, as if to make a point, but what exactly that point was supposed to be I had no idea. It was only years later that I would come to understand that this very inconsistency was perhaps in fact the real point: it didn’t make sense and never needed to make sense because what was happening to me was going to happen anyway, regardless of my protests or appeals to reason or inability to form coherent sentences.
And so, no, I was not surprised by the new Quartering Act, created in response to the boom in prison population and lack of adequate living arrangements for the incarcerated. The act stated that ordinary homes like my family’s would now be required to help house the overflow of convicts in any spare bedroom, attic, basement, or garage, and that owners of eligible residences should expect to be matched with a felon within six weeks.
“You know this law doesn’t make any sense, right?” my dad said to the magistrate before filling out the mandatory paperwork.
“It just doesn’t add up,” my dad said, watching the construction crew retrofit my baby brother’s old room with bars and alarms.
“I don’t understand,” my dad said, face in his hands, as three guards swapped out Aaron’s empty crib and dresser, and all of the clothes and toys still in their gift bags, for Jerry, a middle-aged man serving a ten year sentence, officially our new roommate.
My dad was right, of course; it really didn’t make sense (I mean, you know how the Quartering Act ended—there were riots, people died, it was terrible), but when I reflect now on what it’s like to be a teenager, or even consider what my parents must have been going through (how they could barely touch each other, not out of any specific disharmony or animus but more from a kind of mutual fatigue, a circumstance which took me an impossibly long time to comprehend, because it is only with repetition that we understand how hard it is to keep being in this world, even as an adult, or especially as an adult, let alone to do so alongside another person, a circumstance which I’d always been told would make it easier, by the very same people who could barely describe their days to one another over dinner), then yeah, I can see that maybe it does make sense that our house became a prison. I mean, yeah.
At any rate, I’ve heard it said that 90% of American movies are about repairing the family, even if the films outwardly focus on zombies or dinosaurs or disasters. Always, there’s a broken or imperiled family at the center, and their fate is the real crux of the plot. Now, I can’t say if that theory holds up to scrutiny, but I do know it’s true of this story at least, and terribly so.
As for Jerry, our new resident convict, I should probably explain how I came to find myself peeking through a door and spying on his most private and intimate moments.
Yes, let me back up here and provide a little context.
Jerry settled in quickly. He didn’t bring much in way of belongings (a few books and clothes mostly) and spent his time watching TV or taking immaculate care of his long beard. To my surprise, Jerry wasn’t confined to Aaron’s old room, either, but instead had the lay of the place, restrained by a kind of electronic ankle-bracelet that zapped him good if he stepped outside. Jerry seemed perfectly content lumbering from room to room and relaxing in different places. I guess he’d been pretty cooped up before now (duh), and so all of this space and relative privacy was a novelty. A few times a day, our neighborhood prison guard, Rick, stopped by to see how things were going.
And, largely, things were going fine! As it turned out, much like the original Quartering Act, our arrangement wasn’t necessarily as bad as the reports made it out to be. For example, I knew from my 9th grade U.S. history class that forcing British troops en masse into colonial homes was largely a myth; rather, the 1765 law provided that troops would be quartered in empty barns and mills and public spaces. But—random facts from the test I totally aced aside (ahem, Mr. Tedeski)—this only meant that our new Quartering Act was in fact exactly as bad as the worst mythos of the original (womp womp): now the State really was demanding people let strangers into their private lives. But, again, it wasn’t the nightmare scenario that the 24-hour news cycle would have us believe. I mean, it was fine. Not great by any stretch, obviously (what teenager wants to share space with some old beardy schlub?), but the convicts sanctioned for suburban incarceration were not murderers or sex offenders (these folks remained in the standard overcrowded prisons, for whatever that’s worth), and basically our “lodgers” were just sad, tired people with nowhere else to go. I never found out what Jerry was doing time for (he did a lot of moping and was frankly pretty boring at first, so I didn’t talk to him a lot), but I got the sense that it was something like bounced checks or wire fraud. Again, not great, but I also wasn’t up at night wondering if Jerry would suddenly snap, sneak into my room and then—gasp!—“mislead” me. From the vantage point of this particular fourteen-year-old, everybody was misleading me about pretty much everything, so I didn’t give too much thought to the prospect of some depressed guy named Jerry doing so as well. Frankly, I’d have been more surprised if he didn’t.
And, like I said, our situation with Jerry proved far more pleasant, or at least more mundane, than I think any of us could have expected. For example, Jerry loved movie night. I loved movie night. My parents loved movie night. Perfect match. Sometimes Officer Rick, who also loved movie night, would hang out and catch a few scenes of whatever flick we were streaming that evening, too. It was quaint. My parents got pretty into it. They enjoyed buying Jerry clothes and lavishing him with praise. My dad said it was a kind of informal protest against the absurdity of the law, but I don’t know about that. I can still picture him eagerly watching Jerry open a gift-wrapped pair of sneakers or sunglasses, and well… the look on my dad’s face—simultaneously adoring and somehow helpless—hardly conjured The Resistance. Were my parents really “sticking it to the man” when they refused the prison-grade food rations and instead cooked delicious pot roasts for Jerry? I mean, maybe. But not by much. Still, I can’t begrudge my parents their tiny joys. I’d rarely seen them so enthralled. For both of them, our family was a kind of do-over, and it was already a bit of a non-starter. They each had kids from previous marriages, but there was only a loose thread connecting anybody to anyone else now. Some of my most prominent memories from back then are of my dad sitting at the kitchen table, phone still in hand, smoking a cigarette after his annual three-second conversation with David, his first son, and waiting for something to happen. I was always fascinated with how he would splay his hand out flat on the table, stretching his fingers as far from one another as possible. My dad would always clean the bathroom for hours after those calls.
And now, here was Jerry, ready for gifts and movie night. I couldn’t help but think that maybe it was sort of perfect. Maybe we needed each other. There was a podcast back then about a similar (albeit voluntary) initiative in some small European town. In this particular community, rather than stick mentally unstable folks in austere asylums or hospitals, families would welcome patients who might otherwise be locked away into their homes, sometimes for years or even decades. For them, it was all bicycles and pies and green grass. The podcast painted the entire thing as wholesome and healthy, and opined how these troubled people, normally marginalized and forgotten, could have dignity and normalcy if just afforded the care and attention of a supportive, open-minded community. I couldn’t help but think of Jerry, obviously, and wonder if he wasn’t unlike the warm-hearted schizophrenics in the story. I didn’t know what was inside of this strange man in my house, nor how much all of that might differ from the narrative written for him by the law. Maybe he’d aced his own U.S. history class once upon a time too, you know?
The host families in the podcast seemed to be changed for the better by the community program as well. And I think I wanted that for my parents. I mean, I don’t know if I totally registered at the time the weight that they were holding onto, but I did grasp that something in their lives could be alleviated. I didn’t exactly know what they needed a reprieve from, just that they deserved one. I remember, for example, thinking about a “contrast”—that’s the best way I can describe how I understood it then—a contrast regarding my dad. He had a joke for every circumstance and could cut through social norms as if he’d never truly been privy to them in the first place, and I adored this about him, and still do. But at the same time, he worked these twelve-hour days, for basically nothing, at a restaurant, and struggled to maintain a sense of dignity or pride about his life. I mean, I can see why he was always joking. It’s not because he didn’t have anything of merit or worth to offer. It’s because he in fact had so much to give—but so rarely had that fact reflected back at him by the world; nobody took him seriously, and he didn’t know where to even begin from the vantage point of his job or his long list of personal and professional failures. I don’t think I’ve ever had a real conversation with the man, or talked with him for longer than a few minutes. Maybe I could have done more. But now, again, here was Jerry, ready to mirror and accept and accentuate some long-forgotten goodness in my family, and I was pretty prepared to start seeing our arrangement as halfway to idyllic—until the night I heard violent banging and muffled whimpers coming from upstairs. From Jerry’s room.
I’m not sure what I expected to find as I climbed upwards to investigate.
My parents were both out for the evening, and I didn’t know how I might confront the cause of this violent commotion were I to reveal its source. Yet I was determined, and quietly continued my slow ascent toward the pounding and banging.
Before I could process or discover what was happening, however, the sounds stopped (Why? Perhaps Jerry was attacked? And he’d just now been subdued by his assailant? The possibility hadn’t occurred to me before, but what an insane loophole: sure, Jerry couldn’t get out, but other people could get in. Was he safe? What kind of grudges had followed him here from upstate? Every iteration of makeshift shiv and shank ran through my mind). And then Jerry appeared, smiling, coming down the stairs, as if nothing had happened. “Oh, hey,” he said, sort of shocked to see me as he came around the corner. “I didn’t think you were home.”
Jerry grabbed himself some hummus and vegetables from the fridge and plopped his body comfortably down on the couch. I watched as he flipped through the channels, chewing absently, and I caught myself gawking before he did. Like an idiot, I started whistling as I made my way toward the kitchen, looking up and around at the ceiling and walls, before making a quick u-turn and stumbling back up the stairs, but Jerry was already too conked-out to notice my ridiculous pantomime of ease and leisure. I took a glance back down toward the living room to make sure it was safe, then shoved my head into Jerry’s room. Nothing. Just his usual mess of a life settled obscenely atop where my little brother’s world used to be. Whistling again, and quite embarrassed at having invaded Jerry’s privacy, I closed the door and sidled back downstairs toward the kitchen.
I slumped at the table and thought about the sounds. They were already beginning to obscure and fog over. I second-guessed myself. Perhaps Jerry was just engaged in some especially strenuous aerobic routines leftover from his prison yard days? Or maybe he had a punching bag installed in the room, and I just hadn’t noticed? The possibilities really were endless, and I wasn’t sure why I jumped immediately to an improbable fight with some phantom stranger who couldn’t possibly be in the house. I peeked through the kitchen archway and saw Jerry snoring into his chest, a piece of celery dangling from his half-open hand, hummus dripping toward the carpet.
“Hey, leave the guy alone,” a voice said. I whipped around to see my dad standing there by the fridge, his shirt untucked and wrinkled.
“Holy crap, Dad, I didn’t hear you come in, sorry.”
“Didn’t mean to scare ya, kid. But also, don’t stare at Jerry. He’s a guest. Or part of the family, really. Maybe. I don’t know. Just don’t stare. It’s not right. It’s not right.” He sipped at an empty bottle of orange juice and then added, mostly to himself, “I know it’s not right.” His pants were stained with grease, as usual, and I could smell the twelve hours of sliced meat and garbage wafting off his body from across the room. He leaned back against the counter and sipped pointlessly from his empty bottle. He put his hands in his pocket. It was an iteration of my father that I often forgot about, one that occupied only this brief space between his job and the rest of his life: Gloaming Dad. One part of him was done for the day, but the other part had not arrived for its shift yet, and between the changing of the guards, an empty room opened up in his life, waiting to be filled. He stood by the counter in the kitchen, unsure of what or how to be. In some ways it was sad, this sort of confused dance between one world and the next, but it reminded me more than anything else of great open places, like a field or calm body of water. Pure possibility. It was at times like these that I felt I might be best able to slip somewhere into my dad’s mind, into his thoughts and feelings, as if that room inside his body, unoccupied by the usual sentries of his existence, might welcome me. Plus, being absent even of himself, my dad looked especially alone on those evenings, and so I wanted to say something to him, something that might fill that empty space, but all I could think of were the violent pounding and slamming noises from upstairs, and I just looked at the window and the clock and the table until he walked away to clean the hummus from the carpet and take Jerry’s shoes off, ever so gently.
Maybe I couldn’t find the words to say in order to show who I was and what I felt, but I could at least try to do something nice for the guy, to deliver something that might bring comfort to that strange empty room.
I heard it again on a Thursday afternoon, just a few weeks later. I’d come home early, not feeling well, skipping my usual after-school club. I thought I might use the quiet time in the late afternoon and early evening to brainstorm about what simple surprise my dad would most appreciate, but I wasn’t in the door more than a few minutes when I heard the first crack. A sound somehow both wet and brittle. Like something snapping inside a piece of meat. I nearly dropped my glass of water. Then came a steady parade of blunt concussions and pained whimpers, all emanating again from upstairs, unmistakably Jerry’s room.
I made my way toward the second floor.
The intensity of my purpose brought into focus details of the house that I normally failed to register: the worn edges of the wooden steps, threatening to make me lose traction and tumble loudly to my knees; the creaking boards underfoot that now seemed deafeningly loud and sure to give me away; the framed photos of my family which suddenly appeared precariously placed, dangling upon rickety hooks and nails, ready to careen downward in a crashing tumult, etc. As I crested the landing, barely allowing myself to breathe, I thought how apt it was that, in all of our photos, my mom, dad, and I were never once caught looking at one another.
Stepping closer to Jerry’s room, the sound became unmistakable.
Someone was being hurt, and badly.
I could see that his door was slightly ajar, and I moved toward it, careful not to broadcast my presence. Figurines on a hallway end table rocked with the force of each distant impact. Whatever I was about to find, I tried to imagine how the little European townspeople might respond. With love and comfort? With some audacious form of giving? The pounding intensified, as did the whimpering. I’d recently read The Scarlet Letter for class and thought I might find Jerry alone, lashing himself in some kind of misguided penance.
This theory proved to be simultaneously 100% wrong and quite accurate.
That is, when I peeked through the open door, here’s what I saw: Jerry, raising and dropping his fist on a body on the floor, a body that was absolutely separate from his own, but which also appeared to be him, or something exactly like him.
Or, not exactly. The body was more an approximation, like a fuzzy picture just coming into focus.
But still unmistakably Jerry. The beard. The lines around his eyes. The bald spot. Faded tattoos.
The body lay on its back, entirely naked, with “real” Jerry leaning over, fists hammering down. I watched as Jerry punched at the ribs and kidneys of this body, then slapped it about the face. The body clearly did not appreciate these circumstances, but did not make a move to stop it either. Occasionally, it made to protect its face with tired hands, but only half-heartedly or perhaps reflexively. I watched in awe, unsure of what to do. I took momentary solace in the fact that even the gentle villagers probably wouldn’t have had easy answers. If Jerry had been in a clearer kind of trouble, attacked by some stranger, I might have mustered the courage to bust into the room in his defense, or if Jerry had been the obvious perpetrator, hurting not “himself” but instead some poor victim lured who-knows-how to our house, then I might have had the wherewithal to intervene or at least call Officer Rick, but the situation before me presented such an uncanny valley of violence that I was frozen in confusion. Before I could reach any sort of decision in my mind about what action to take, Jerry unceremoniously halted his beating and slid the weird mirror version of himself into the closet under some blankets and winter coats. I slinked back down the stairs, out of the house, down the street, past the intersection, all the way to the lake. I don’t know how long I sat there staring at its great, rippling edge.
In the coming days, I didn’t mention what I’d seen to Jerry or to anyone else. What could be said? My parents no doubt would think I was insane, or worse: jealous. Their habit of treating Jerry like some kind of golden child did eclipse the comfort and praise they offered me, by a long shot, but I actually wasn’t bothered by this fact at all. Like I said, I’d even come to appreciate it as a kind of blessing. As they went about their gift-giving and smiling and wistful gazing, a patina of normalcy began to crust over everything again. School. Dinner. Silence. Convicted-felon-as-dead-child-surrogate. Movie night. I tried to let myself float atop the gentle sea of that routine, but an undercurrent of guilt kept dragging me under. Something had happened to me. Something unexplainable. I wanted to tell my mom. I remember watching her gather papers in the morning, and I wanted to say something to her right then and there. “Something happened to me,” I could say. But something was still happening to me. And, in still happening, it was impossible to communicate or share. That is, there was something inside of me now that could not be drawn out, and I sensed that familiar mismatch between interior and exterior worlds that had so defined my first year of high school thus far (and would come to define so much of the remainder—goddamn, you, Mr. Tedeski), but I felt it more acutely and perfectly now than I had ever thought possible. Had this thing really happened? Did I really see what I thought I’d seen? How could I know? Would I believe myself? The world was becoming a collection of symbols and signs that I could not trust my mind to decipher—my mother’s papers, her hair in disarray, the cut on my father’s hand, the smell of alcohol in the car, so many elements on some alien periodic table, forming categories, columns, and groups beyond my comprehension—and I began to feel unmoored from any sense of safety. Everything in this world, I felt, was now policed in some way—except for interior lives, and I longed for anything to bring order to this crap inside of me. Instead, I drifted out to sea.
I want to say that this disorientation is why I started skipping school more often, but that would not be entirely true.
No, I wanted to see Jerry happen to Jerry again. I can admit this.
I began regularly slinking back home after my parents had gone to work, then quietly ascending the stairs, and watching through a crack in the door as Jerry beat a naked replica of himself.
It became a kind of compulsion.
I did it every week, and then—once summer vacation arrived—every day. This impulsivity did not help clarify anything and really only exacerbated my guilt. I felt sick. The only thing I can compare the feeling to would be those sort of cloudy early childhood bouts of nascent eroticism, times when I found myself unmistakably shaken by something physical but could not yet identify it as sexuality, and my stomach would churn and my scalp would tingle. Those early moments eventually built toward me discovering what I could do to my body, and—it turns out—these sessions of watching Jerry were in fact building toward something significant as well.
That same summer is also when the Quartering Act riots began. They started as protests, then counter-protests, and finally full-on clashes with police and infrastructure. At the time, I couldn’t understand what any of the demonstrators actually wanted, but the spectacle transfixed me anyway. People died. Buildings exploded. I think the Quartering Act became a kind of conduit through which anyone could channel their grievances, however disparate, and come together as one large mass of anger and contempt. What did the country want to say to itself? I don’t think it knew or could know. I was watching the news on my phone, trying uselessly to read the tea leaves of American politics and entertainment, when Jerry sat down next to me and said, “I can show you how to do it.”
I put down my phone and looked at him.
He appeared, more than anything else, quite tired.
I didn’t say anything.
He repeated himself: “I can show you how to do it, if you want.”
I looked at the rug.
And so began my lessons.
By the beginning of the next school year, I had a second version of me wrapped up in my closet that I could hurt.
Jerry taught me what to do, how to draw out this true thing from within me and into the world. Jerry didn’t understand the physics of it himself, so it would be useless to try and explain the process in any kind of meaningful or practical detail. He told me to think of it as not unlike the Quartering Act itself: something drawn out from an overcrowded and overtaxed interior, to be placed and detained in the new confines of my home. The comparison seemed like a stretch to me, but so did each of the things being compared, to be honest, and so maybe it added up. Either way, I can attest that the moment of arrival was at once convoluted, painful, embarrassing, and ultimately liberating.
And then there was a new me, naked and quivering on the floor by my bed.
The more important question, of course, was: what should I do with this thing now that I had it?
Jerry said that I would know exactly what to do with it when the time arrived.
And I did. I knew immediately, though I hated to admit that fact.
I think it’s important to note that I could never knowingly bring myself to hurt someone. I was what you would probably call a wimp. I opened windows for flies, and ferried spiders in cups to the safety of the yard. I felt enormous guilt and embarrassment if I ever tarnished another person’s feelings, even accidentally, and took great pains to make amends.
But myself? Oh, I’d always known I was comfortable hurting myself.
In my room, late in the evening, I took a rare break from movie night. Outside, the last dregs of heat and humidity sloshed around the bottom of summer’s barrel. I looked at the new me on the floor. Hello. The new me on the floor looked at me. Posters for bands I barely liked anymore hung on the wall. I removed a small exacto blade from my art supply set. A kind of sea or tide moved within my abdomen. I sat down next to myself on the carpet. A wet heat rose up through my chest. I put the blade onto the skin of my other belly. Waves lapped slowly within my stomach. I pushed and moved the metal edge toward my mirror ribs. Churning. I knew exactly what to do. There is an ocean made especially for each one of us. The other body bled. Miles of open water. We both watched. I sank into it and could feel the doing and the being-done-to. One of us cried a little, and then a lot. Eventually, the blade dulled. And then I put myself carefully away in the closet and crawled back to shore.
“Hi, is this David?” I asked.
The person on the other end said yes and asked who was calling.
“Hey there, we don’t know each other that well, David, hi, but I’m your brother, er, your step-brother, that’s crazy right, I mean, your dad is, uh, our dad is, well, we’ve met, at Aunt Andrea’s, you remember, and so—”
“Okay, sure, yeah, what’s up, is something going on with my father?”
“Well, yeah, the thing is,” I said, “that’s just it, and why I’m calling, and I’m sorry to disturb you, right, okay, but I think our Dad is a little depressed, or, that’s not right exactly, maybe just not totally himself, or I mean, he is himself, how can he not be, ha, so it’s nothing serious, he’s just a little run down maybe?” I heard a prolonged sigh, followed by what I think was a sort of snort.
“Oh yeah?” David said.
“Yes, and so, maybe this is weird, but I know how much he looks forward to talking to you on your birthday, so I thought maybe, even though it’s a little out of the ordinary, you might give him a call sometime soon, maybe say what’s up.”
“Yeah, that’s a great idea. I see what you mean. In fact, how about I get us all tickets to go catch a game, and we can grab some ice cream after or play mini-golf or go kayaking or something, and then we can take turns riding whatever rainbow bullshit you’ve been smoking all the way to fucking happy town. Or maybe you can leave me and my mom the fuck alone.”
I looked at my closet. The mirror person remained completely docile during the day; once put away, it rested quietly until needed again. I started to think that I might be needing it again. The amazing part is that you could feel the lingering effects of what you’d done to your other self in the following days as if you’d done them to yourself—because you had. Nothing showed physically, but a kind of ache and burning and softness took hold in all of the places that mattered.
“So, you’re saying you’re not—”
“No. Have a good night.”
That evening, like most evenings, I dragged my extra self out into the open and pretended like I didn’t know what I was going to do, and then lied to myself, thinking that even if I did know, I didn’t want to do what I knew I was going to do, but then I was doing it and liking it while also not liking it—and even more so liking the not liking it. Even though there were two of me in the room, one standing up, the other on the floor, it also felt like there was another pair, housed right inside of my body.
Throughout class that fall, I was often distracted by the dizzying simultaneity of my thoughts and memories: of hurt and hurting, inflicted and inflicting. My grades continued to suffer as a result of my ever sparser attendance, and Mr. Tedeski’s terrible opinions of me soon spread to other teachers and staff as well. The Quartering Act Riots intensified, turning into urban encampments and makeshift occupations. My dad, while he didn’t say anything, was furious at me for calling David. Or not furious, but something else. Something quiet. His ex-wife had phoned and basically chewed us all out. I had crossed some invisible and unspoken line. Activists and abolitionists began orchestrating suburban prison-breaks, yanking not just convicts but whole families from their homes. I wondered if a similar operation would be the only way for me to change. Pull me out of the lake. That is, I didn’t want to be happening to myself anymore, or I don’t think I wanted to. Each evening, I said it would be the last. That I would finally gather myself back into myself, just as Jerry had described that I could if necessary. And it felt necessary. What was I doing? Something had to change. Yet, as the days grew colder, I entered an irresistible pattern of failing to express myself accurately to family, friends, and teachers, only to reluctantly run toward the comfort, deep water, and impeccable precision of what a sharp edge can do to skin. One more time, I would think, one more time. Before doing it ten more times. Or: you deserve it, you idiot. It has taken me a long time to understand that I didn’t deserve this or anything else. Regardless, I made a long list of things I didn’t want to happen to me, and then I did them to me, and I just kept happening to myself, and I didn’t know if I was allowed to feel bad about it, because there was nobody else to blame.
It was hard for me to reconcile whether or not this was the one thing in life that I knew I could control (me happening to me, a circumstance which nobody can take away) or the one thing in this world that I could never hope to change, however desperately I might want to (me happening to me, no matter what, wherever you go, there you are, etc). I started to suspect that something in between these two poles was the actual truth, and that the purest version of myself was not me, or even the me drawn out finally from inside, but something shared between the two, a third form that existed in the space where doing and being done intersect. I thought of my father coming home from work and of that open place between here and there. Emptiness. Perhaps I could lure this phantom out from its psychic waiting room if I just kept going. Or perhaps this third me would allow myself into that secret space only if I stopped—to receive whatever it is a phantom can so patiently await.
Either way, I kept it all hidden, of course. I avoided Jerry as best I could. By all accounts, I was just going about my routine as I might normally. School, home, friends, etc. Maybe I was a bit sullen at times, or weirdly energized at others, but nothing too out of the ordinary for a teenager. In many ways, it was all happening to someone else. My parents continued to float strangely around the house and each other like a pair of week-old birthday balloons sagging at the end of a driveway, vaguely melancholy and totally harmless. Jerry continued to enjoy his regular parade of gifts and adoration. Officer Rick laughed over sips of coffee and snippets of old movies, his visits growing longer and less official. He didn’t say it, but I knew he was afraid to be on the streets alone too long; other guards had been attacked. Autumn engulfed the town in a burst of color and cold. My dad called David and nobody answered. He sang “Happy Birthday” into a voicemail, but the mailbox was full. That night, the bathroom had never been cleaner. I looked at those crisp tiles and that shining faucet and those perfectly arranged towels, and I just knew I had to stop.
I had to stop.
I didn’t stop.
Instead, I was witness to even more starting.
That is, I discovered that Jerry also taught my parents how to do this, and that they were doing it, too.
I had a knack for being home when I was not supposed to be, much to the chagrin of my teachers and really everyone. One afternoon, I overheard, and then spotted, my father furiously tickling, to the point of exhaustion and near-asphyxiation, a blurry mirror of himself in the shed. I did not see a trace of that ethereal empty space within him, but instead just the clutter of things stashed away and forgotten. I listened from my bedroom as my mom berated some unknown person, and then spied her sort of holding a naked simulacrum, breathlessly wrapped around its ghostly figure as she lowered it slowly, shivering, into a shallow pool of bath water, the significance of which was not lost on me, and I’m sure not her, as it gasped for breath. On days I skipped school, I began to spend them down by the lake, shaken by it all. Nobody said anything. In fact, everything was somewhat pleasant. Movie nights kept coming. That idyllic vision I’d had early on? In some twisted way, it appeared to have materialized. Our lives became that distant village, a vague and pleasant place of fields and quiet. Until we each inevitably snuck away to our own privacies, desperately fueling whatever strange tranquility we were making together. I knew from history class and elsewhere that any kind of peace that hinged upon a hidden network of detained figures was not at all unusual. Perhaps Jerry was right about the comparison. The world continued to transform around us. The trees lost their leaves. Officer Rick was beaten badly in the street. Targeted by this or that faction in a political divide I still couldn’t quite fathom. Did protestors care about the prisoners or disdain them? I was steadily losing track of the signs and signals that might help a person draw a clear line between the two possibilities.
At the lake’s edge again, I wondered if, were he still around, my baby brother would have been able to make a mirror version of himself—and what he might have thought to do with it at such a young age. I imagined what he could need it for, if anything, and where that need might come from. I tried to skip a rock across the surface of the lake, but it sank after two graceless jumps. It was evening, and the lights of homes across the water flicked on one by one. A couple walked their child in a stroller, quietly absorbing the end of the day.
I was supposed to meet my parents at the cineplex. And Jerry, too! In a kind of concession or compromise during the Quartering Act controversy, Jerry (and other convicts like him) had been granted varying allotments of supervised time outside. I’m not sure what it meant, or if it mattered, but our usual movie night was taking advantage of the change, with a limping Officer Rick in tow.
But, as I stepped away from the lake, I couldn’t bring myself to walk toward town. Instead, I began the trek back home. I told myself it was because there would be a test tomorrow, in Mr. Tesdeski’s class, a mid-term covering the origins of the American Civil War, and that I needed badly to study if I wanted to prove him wrong about me. But I knew why I was headed back home alone that evening and exactly what it would feel like. Come on.
Or, at least I thought I knew.
When I walked up the hill from the lake, through our backyard, and toward the kitchen door, I spotted them, clear as day. My mom, my dad, and me, all seated around the dining room table.
They were nude, bruised, blurry, and beaten, but laughing. And eating.
My father leaned in to kiss my mother, then pinched her side, both of them overflowing with gentle humor. I watched as I helped myself to something in a small casserole dish, talking through mouthfuls of salad.
My mom gesticulated rhythmically, pantomiming a character from some story, and then everyone chimed in, calling over each other. They had a kind of comfort about them and easy rhythm that told me right away this was something they had often done, that they knew their way around the kitchen and the whole house.
I edged closer to the window, wondering like an idiot if these phantoms would take me in, if they would welcome me to their small European village. More than anything else, however, I got closer—and pressed my ear to the glass—because I wanted so badly to know what they were talking about, what they could possibly have to say to one another.
Dolan Morgan is a writer and illustrator living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He is the author of two story collections: That’s When the Knives Come Down (A|P, 2014) and Insignificana (CCM, 2016). His work can be found in The Believer, at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, on NPR, in a comic series on The Rumpus, and in the trash. Look for him online at dolanmorgan.com and on twitter, @dolanmorgan.