The Brothers Squimbop
The Brothers Squimbop, Jim and Joe, plied their trade in the dusty American interior of the 2070s, which, following the logic that Y2K was the Zero Hour and it was all linear reversion from there, mapped almost perfectly onto the 1930s. They rambled through the Dust Bowl in a beat-up Chevy, taking semester-long postings at forgotten, often nameless community colleges, teaching the students, such as they were, about what the nation used to be. “Addle-brained giants used to walk this land,” they would say, “picking up cities and putting them down thousands of miles to the west, as soon as confusion slowed their progress to a standstill,” or, “Overnight, all land and water in this nation traded places, such that America was once nothing but a constellation of small islands, the largest of which eventually became the Great Lakes.” The students would yawn and stare at their crackling yellow notepads, dragging their pens along the lines and then off the edge of the paper and onto the desk. Others would pull cold hocks of meat from paper bags and hold them in the air, sometimes remembering to gnaw them, other times not.
It was a dying art, that of walking into cavernous lecture halls and holding forth with the presumption of authority, despite the water damage, despite the mildew, despite the boxes of smudged documents floating in puddles, but the Brothers Squimbop were determined to keep it alive as long as they could. They sensed that its death would coincide with their own, so they took turns standing behind the podium in Tulsa, Aberdeen, and Eau Claire, careful never to be seen together so as to maintain the illusion of being one slightly inconsistent man, though no one ever pointed this inconsistency out.
Still, the idea that someone might was the source of no small degree of hilarity. Modest pleasures, the Brothers Squimbop had determined long ago, were the only pleasures within mortal reach. The confusion caused by their alternation, even if only theoretical, was a good example of this. We are, in this sense, a sort of comedy duo, they liked to tell themselves, a pair of entertainers plying our trade in the vast interior of a nation that long ago lost any claim to psychic or even geographical coherence. A nation that is now nothing but a tattered platform upon which anyone passing through can mount whatever road show accords with his (the brothers knew no women well enough to joke with) sense of humor, and, with luck, extract a few nickels before shuffling on.
They might go for whiskey and pork at a Beale Street barbeque joint on their way out of Memphis, if they’d already been fired from whatever institution they’d been teaching at, and ruminate on the nature of their journey, forcing their minds away from any speculation as to its unremembered beginning and unimaginable end.
Hovering, as they were obliged to, in the temporal and spatial middle of all things, they ribbed one another constantly and mercilessly, each claiming, as often as possible and in the lewdest possible terms, to be the other’s father. The things they claimed to have done with their ostensibly mutual mother, whom neither had ever met, nor even ever heard from, made each brother blush so heavily that it was nearly impossible to complete the boast without devolving into gusts of nervous laughter, like little boys watching pigs rut on a farm, had they been farmboys, which never of them believed he was, though perhaps they could have been, since no images whatsoever from before the age of forty existed in either of their minds.
Aside from the one-upmanship inherent in these tales of the circumstances surrounding the other’s conception, their greatest game involved devising new and increasingly salacious means of getting themselves fired from their already-tenuous teaching posts. Each delighted in returning to the Ramada Inn or the EconoLodge where the other was sprawled on the bedspread with the blackout curtains drawn at three in the afternoon, and announcing, “They’ve run us off campus again! This time I suggested that the moon was in fact the locus of all legitimate human activity, while the earth was a sort of penal colony for those too dimwitted or depraved to take part in the larger social project, and I had a whole lecture prepared on this premise” – the brothers always prepared their lectures separately, to ensure maximal disjunct as they traded off teaching duties – “but then I found myself laughing so hard I was, in short order, choking on great spicy wads of phlegm, and I had the impression that the moon itself had heard my blasphemous claim and was punishing me for it, in the manner of actual lunatics, and, anyway, I was …”
But by this point in the story the other Squimbop brother would already be packing his bags, stealing a few Douwe Egberts coffee packets if they were in a motel that provided them, and preparing to peel out of the parking lot in their ‘27 Chevy, tearing onto the abandoned highway like a couple of bank robbers, Dillinger 1 and Dillinger 2, burning rubber in high dudgeon as they put another failed venture behind them and set off for the next down the line, Me and the Devil Blues playing on repeat on the transistor radio.
These were the times when the brothers fancied themselves the only mobile entities left in the nation, elected to that position by forces residing either deep within themselves or else far off in the surrounding murk. The highways were abandoned save for the occasional unlabeled truck or caravan of gypsies, and the motels and gas stations seemed to be the only anachronisms, pointing to the existence, in the past or the future, of an era other than the 1930s. Everything else, as far as they could tell, had reverted and was perhaps reverting still, toward the medieval or even the prehistoric, not that either brother had a stable notion of what this meant. Memory and imagination, they found, had grown so intermingled that it was no longer possible even to claim a distinction between the two words, let alone to find out what it might be.
As they lurked in a strip club in New Orleans, watching men and women covered in sores circle sweaty poles in a daze, slamming into one another when the music stuttered, they considered how a smothering, smoke-smelling curtain of forgetfulness had been drawn over the country, so that now history was nothing more than whatever they said it was.
Because the saddest thing – or one of the saddest things, they thought, each brother keeping this thought to himself – is that we are never, in actuality, run out of the colleges we teach at, because no claim we make ever gets enough traction to become taboo. As there is nothing for us to clash with – each brother imagined himself lecturing to an empty room now, laying this all out in great detail – we are only run out in the sense of wanting to leave, of seeking, once again, the romance of the open road, knowing full well that any exit off the highway, chosen either at random or after painstaking deliberation, will produce the exact same result, like a die whose every face displays the same black dot.
To avoid the grim prospect of giving voice to this fact, each brother kept his die well hidden, insisting to the other that his transgressions were real, and that the consequences, if they stayed in town, would be swift and decisive. Each was thus, in the eyes of the other, a genuine outlaw, or so he told himself.
“Want to walk through the French Quarter and see if any murders are going on?” Joe Squimbop asked his brother, unfurling a few bills to pay for the beer and chicken they’d consumed, and stuffing another few under the bandage of a stripper who’d cantilevered out over their table to receive them.
Jim nodded, eager to lighten the mood, so they walked off their dinner in the French Quarter where, indeed, three people were murdered in quick succession, a knifing and two shots to the head. Though the brothers weren’t unmoved, they seemed to stand apart from it, bullets whizzing inches from their heads without grazing them, nor even seeming liable to. It’s as though we are both here and not here, they found themselves thinking in the relative private of their respective heads, present in name only.
Before the evening wilted the rest of the way into bathos, they returned to their Red Roof Inn in Metairie, cutting through alleys where ambiguously human shapes bedded down in piles of trash, their eyes shining yellow in the humid night. Others clung to doorways, backlit, their fingers merging with the soft wood surrounding them until it looked like they’d grown there.
As the brothers slipped naked into the motel hot tub, they coined a new term – mushroom-people – for these entities, though of course neither mentioned it to the other. Outwardly, it was just the two of them in a chlorine-smelling annex, laughing about the lecture series they would deliver in Arkansas as soon as they found a suitably decrepit community college to decamp at until their next scandal uprooted them yet again.
Two days later, the Brothers Squimbop had secured themselves a post – if one allows the word ‘post’ to mean ‘empty lecture hall’ – at a taxidermy school in Mountain Home, and a room in another Red Roof Inn, where they joked that the day’s journey had, in the end, consisted of no more than moving a few doors down a single ashy hallway. They seemed to be the only guests, and were most certainly the only professors in the American History Department.
At the start of a new post, the brothers drew straws to determine who would teach first. After this, they would alternate daily. This time it was Jim, so, the following morning, he showered and shaved, put on the sweaty tweed suit the two of them shared, neither quite fitting into it, and walked to campus with his empty briefcase under his arm. Standing behind the podium, facing two young women and a young man with cauliflower ears, he began by summarizing what had gone wrong with America in the last century. “Americans evolved from mushrooms,” he began, “and would have been much better off remaining such. But, around the year 1995, a torrential downpour saturated our ancestors’ systems and, unable to absorb the excess moisture, our fungal crevices became capillaries, which in turn became veins, which in turn became arteries, and, within the span of a generation, we turned into what we now are, hopelessly trying to inhabit an environment we were never built for.”
“And yet those who fared the worst,” he added, thinking back on the entities sprouting from doorways in New Orleans, “are those who stayed inside during the downpour and thus remained mushrooms, or mushroom-adjacent. A collective species-consciousness now compels them to attempt to leave their domiciles and join the larger human family, but they are stuck too tightly to the walls – indeed, they are part of those walls – to ever do so. Imagine, if you would, being left behind in such a state.”
At this point in the lecture, a wolf sauntered into the room. It stood in the middle ground between the podium and the students, swiveling its head from one side to the other. Then it yawned and sauntered out. When Jim looked back at his students, his eyes locked onto those of one of the young women, who had an animate keenness about her that unnerved him.
After class, he retired to his office, which in this case was an electrical closet on the third floor. He took his shoes off, leaned against the wall, and shocked himself on a loose wire. Jolting forward, he kicked open the door just as the young woman was standing outside, peering in.
She appeared certain that it was him, so he didn’t respond.
“Are you having office hours in here?”
There were few things in the objective world that he hated more than office hours, but he nodded and watched as she pulled a crate from a pile stacked against one wall, and sat down on it, as far away from him as the cramped space would allow.
Clearing her throat, she leaned forward and said, “I was interested in what you were saying in class. I’ve seen the mushroom-people too, up in Minneapolis where I’m from, and also … well, I was wondering, how do you know where they came from? How is it that you remember what America used to be, while no one else does?”
Jim licked the backs of his teeth, anxious to see how long he could get away with not responding.
Time ticked on, until, quivering slightly, she repeated her question verbatim.
I can tell she isn’t sure if she asked it already, Jim thought. He had half a mind to try his not-answering act a second time, but feared it would escalate the situation, and, being at heart a coward, he knew that any escalation would eventually turn out poorly for him. “How is it that I remember? I might ask the same, er, rather, the opposite, of you: how is it that you don’t?”
Another silence. He could feel the tables turning, though he wasn’t yet sure how. The horror of being taken seriously, of a student actually listening to what he’d said and acting as though it meant something, swarmed him. He started to fear that the air in this closet would soon run out.
“Are you seriously asking me that?” she asked. “Because I live in the same country as everybody else. The exact same thing that happened to them, whatever it was, happened to me. You, on the other hand … ”
Her eyes flickered with a kind of intensity he’d never seen before. The gaping stares of the zombies he’d addressed from all the podiums he’d ever lectured from now seemed benign compared to the attention she was leveraging against him.
Either she’s not really here, Jim found himself thinking, or I’m not. We can’t both be. He knew that all it would take on his part was the presence of mind to insist that he was the real one and she the interloper. But, just now, he couldn’t tell if he had it in him. He shivered as she leaned in, expecting an answer.
Isn’t this what I’ve always wanted? He wondered. A genuine conflict, a real reason to flee town? Faced with it just then, he couldn’t be sure. If he had to guess, he would guess that the answer was no.
“Why should we believe this is what happened?” she asked, making it clear she wasn’t going to simply vanish because he wished she would.
Jim shivered and wanted to cry. Why, indeed? Perhaps nothing at all happened, and this is simply how it’s always been. All my brother and I ever wanted, he wanted to tell her, was to comfort ourselves with the possibility that the truth is knowable. That something, rather than nothing, resides at the very bottom. Is that so shameful a thing to want?
Yes, he imagined her saying.
He opened his mouth, hoping that some of what he’d just thought would come out, but nothing did. He left it open until he’d forgotten what he’d wanted to confess. Then he licked his palm and grabbed the exposed wire, praying it would shock him violently enough that she’d run away, or at the very least yawn and saunter off, just as the wolf had.
One way or another, he woke up alone in the closet what felt like many hours later. His first thought was that he was dead. Then he thought that perhaps it was the other way around, that he’d been dead all this time, and now he’d shocked himself alive.
He got to his feet, falteringly, and made his way out of the building, past the damp classrooms, so empty they seemed as though they’d never been occupied, past the grim gallery of taxidermy equipment on the first floor, surrounding piles of armadillo shells under a dripping spigot, past the wolf from earlier sitting so still it looked stuffed, across the campus, up HWY-62, past a Shoney’s where a crowd was fighting in the parking lot, and back to the Red Roof Inn where, he prayed, his brother would be drunk enough to refrain from asking how the day had gone.
Bursting into the room, which smelled of chicken skin and hot sauce, he yelped, “The day went great!” Then he stripped down to his boxers, removed his journal from the nightstand, and got into bed with it. Aware that his brother’s eyes were on him, he undid the novelty lock, opened to the first blank page, and wrote:
Unutterable abyss of loneliness, deeper than the deepest, darkest depths of the ocean, wider than the widest breadth of outer space in the asteroid-choked nothingness beyond the orbit of any planet, habitable or otherwise: this is what I, in my heart of hearts, believe with absolute certainty lies at the bottom of everything that ever was, and ever will be. Student today wanted to know why I was spared the forgetting while no one else was. The answer I should’ve given: I was spared nothing at all. I remember nothing save for what I’ve made up.
I’m simply less gullible than you are.
So thank God (ha-ha!) that my brother is an imbecile and thus incapable of perceiving what I perceive. Thank God my brother lives in childlike ignorance, thereby allowing me to tag along with him for the comedy of errors that makes up our blessedly circumscribed life. This is the sole mercy that allows me to persevere.
These are the sentences that Professor Jim Squimbop wrote in his journal that night in Mountain Home, Arkansas.
“What’re you writing?” his brother Joe asked, as he finished his own writing and prepared to turn out the bedside lamp, to which Jim replied, without hesitation, “How I raw-dogged your mother in an alley behind a Denny’s in Fresno with the busboy watching, and then how you popped out two months early, so freak-looking the doc thought you were a rare hybrid of rat-lady and actual rat!”
Closing and locking his journal after pretending to read these words from it, Jim nodded off with a mixture of fear and envy at the prospect of his brother waking up to face the young woman tomorrow, while he would spend the day drinking alone in this room, fending off Housekeeping if it tried to ferret him out. Like a sow pregnant with many piglets at once, his mixed feelings went all the way to his center.
Joe Squimbop, meanwhile, smiled as he too turned off his bedside lamp. His final thoughts before sleep were: thank God my brother’s too dumb to understand what our situation here actually is, how precarious it has become, and perhaps has always been. Let him joke his life away. It spares me having to commune with someone who sees the truth as clearly as I do. Then he pulled the sweaty pillow over his head, determined to get a few hours of real sleep before it was his turn to wake up, put on the tweed suit, and head to campus in the morning.
David Leo Rice is a writer and animator from Nortampton, MA, currently living in NYC. His first novel, A Room in Dodge City, came out in 2017, and his second, Angel House, is due out in 2019. He’s online at: www.raviddice.com