Denigrating David by Kristi Petersen Schoonover
I love booze. A little too much. A little face-down-in-a-garbage-pile-outside-a-Fells-Point-bar-with-the-word “eye”-in-its-name much. It’s not a bad thing, really. I mean, loving the drink. I guess even being in the garbage. Because you smell things in that pile, moldy coffee grinds, rancid yogurt, and spoiled fish, and it’s forty times stronger than anything else you’ve ever smelled in your life, sure, but man you smell it and you know at least you’re not dead. Then the world spins and you add to this potpourri, and before you lose consciousness, you hear people down the street speculating about that guy who’s twitching in a really weird way and maybe there’s something wrong with him.
That guy who’s twitching would be me, David A. Durkins, famous horror story writer, infamous Baltimore barfly. The two sort of go together. You see, I’m not a million-copy-bestseller because my stories are any good, you understand, but because in them the people who hurt me end up as the most gruesome characters you can imagine. The fiancée who hurled the engagement ring into the harbor because she said—well, it doesn’t matter what she said about how my writing would never amount to anything and why didn’t I get a real job so she could buy more shoes now, does it?—the cousin who stole my beloved Transformer toys so he could sell them, the neighbor who wasn’t the least bit remorseful about crushing my puppy Begso under his tires when I was seven—they each become that one undesirable asshole in every reader’s life, the someone he’s never forgiven.
Trouble is I really have to be drunk enough to go that far.
It’s a pretty gray day, one of those days in late October when the sun is a watery eye, misty and ethereal. I pick my head up out of the trash heap and look around. The breeze kisses the vomit that’s still on my cheek. By rights I should be exceptionally hung over, the pounding head, the light-headedness, the zombie-eyes, but at the moment I’m not feeling it, which means that if I stir it’ll start in and be pretty awful tackling what comes next—hauling myself up out of the heap in defiance of the creaking and soreness of my legs and knees. So I decide to keep it all still. Down the street, a guy wearing dirty tennis shoes and a ripped coat is waving down a passing car, screaming something about the man is keeping us all down.
“You might want to pick yourself up out of the pile,” a female voice coos. “Jesus, you look worse than I’ve ever seen you, and that’s certainly saying something, isn’t it?”
I lift my head a little bit and the first thing I spot are high heels—mauve lizard-skin with pointed toes and ankle straps. I force myself to lift my head higher. There’s a woman whose hair spills down either side of her off-white nightgown. The white milky eye of the sun crowns her. She looks like one of the Christ pictures my grandmother used to have hanging over the back of her toilet. It’s so bright I revert to the dark garbage bags in front of me. “You think it’s wise for you to be out here on this side of town dressed like that?”
Nearby, a roust of seagulls flutters into the air.
“That was something else what you pulled last night,” she says. “Pretty pathetic.”
Bile’s coming up my throat, but I take a deep breath and manage to quell it. “You always prowl the streets at dawn looking for guys down on their luck?”
“Oh, please. Like you’re down on your luck.” She stretches out a hand to me, and it’s unnaturally thin and gray. Almost like a turkey leg bone. “I’m here to pick you up because you’re the winner.”
Now my head starts to pound, that kind you can see in your eyes, throbbing light/dark, light/dark. A few blocks down at the Horse—one of my other haunts—a shop keeper throws open the door and sweeps out clouds of dust. “Are you…a fan of my work?”
I hear her laugh. “Oh, the biggest one.”
Nightie Gal doesn’t wait for me to accept her hand-up. She seizes my wrist, and her skin feels…slick and cold, like the expired bologna my mother used to make my sandwiches—she always insisted it wasn’t expired, just like she always insisted the toilet was clean and those candy wrappers were part of a collection, so never, ever throw them away…
Before I know it, I’m on my feet. She’s hauled me up—she’s got some strength in her. I want to get a better look at her face now, but she turns away.
“Thanks for the lift,” I say.
“Let’s go. The car’s over there.”
I’m about to protest, but realize that now that I’m upright I’ve probably got nothing left for cab fare and oh, God, is it a long trek to my apartment.
She starts walking. She has a funny hitch in her walk, almost like her knees don’t bend.
We work our way up the street, and I’m surprised at how difficult it is not to trip over the cobblestones. I’ve hobbled over these stones countless times when heavily under the influence and never tripped before.
A man in a Ravens cap and a paper under his arm whistles cheerfully as he ambles past. He almost brushes arms with Nightie Gal, but neither of them acknowledges it. Her long hair is whisked aside in the wind, revealing a string of lacy black tattoos around her neck. They’re in a pattern close to the one on the wrought-iron candle holders on the bar. The reality of yesterday returns. How I’d gotten the call from my brother Ray, telling me that Dad was dead, and that I was a no-good drunk. That’s not why I hate Ray. I hate Ray because I was the one who got saddled with Dad, checking in on him at the nursing home every fucking day, monitoring to make sure the nurses weren’t neglecting him. Ray had only gone to visit him because he’d wanted to ensure the will had gotten signed before the man gasped his last, and I know that because the only asset Dad owned was a piece of land in Boca Raton that Ray and his gold-digging wife want so they can build a goddamn vacation home on it.
So I went to the bar, downed a few beers and shots and yes, I think a bottle of Amontillado or maybe two, and I got a story cookin’ and made Ray a villain. How did it go? Oh, yes. It started in a lighthouse. A big, white lighthouse with a bloody eye at the top, only you don’t find out that it’s a bloody eye and not a light until…until the end. And…and what else? Oh, I made Ray really fat and gave him halitosis. Yeah. And in my version, he wasn’t a banker but a scholar. A scholar with a penchant for inkwells. Only the inkwells used were full of the blood of his victims, the ones he scraped off the rocks—
The thought of all that blood makes my stomach wrench. Getting in a car is a bad idea.
“How much further we got to walk? I could probably go the rest of the way by myself. I’ve come this far.”
“The car is right here.”
Sure enough, it is. It’s a nice car, too. I wonder who pays her and what she gets paid for? It’s shiny and red and mint—except for a spatter of seagull shit on the roof. A fly lands near it, skirts its splotchy edge, and then lifts off and flies away. “Dammit,” I hear her say. “Cursed birds. You’d think they would do something about them. Spreading disease.”
She turns her head. It’s then I see the features, the cut cheekbones. A bright purple blotch, almost like a starburst, under her left eye. And nose hairs. God, she has long-ass nose hairs. Her lips are stained dark, like she’s been drinking…I dunno, prune juice. The thought of that makes me queasy.
That’s when she leans down and pulls open the door, and then she turns to face me. “After you.” She motions with her hand, and that’s when I notice…
…her mouth hadn’t moved when she said that.
“Your mouth.” I take a step back, because now the prune-juice stain on her thin lips is…creeping. Creeping toward her chin.
She raises her eyebrows. “What about my mouth?”
Again, her lips don’t move. “It’s…it doesn’t move.”
“It moves,” she answered. “I’m just…not ready to show you anything yet. Get in.”
I glance about the street. I am desperate to see someone. Anyone. The bum on the corner who’s holding out not a bucket or a hat but a velvet bag in which to accept donations. Ladies of the evening, whom I don’t normally like because I always waste a lot of money on them even though I know it’s usually the booze that does it. The booze makes me do a lot of things.
Like climbing into the passenger seat of this woman’s car despite my better judgment.
She looks down at me, and her eyes lock with mine. “Open your mouth.”
The whole thing makes my spine shudder, a movement which shimmies all the way up to the base of my neck. “Why?”
“Do it.” She lifts up her waxen arms and in the light I see her nails, long corkscrews, squiggly and wrapped about her knuckles. “Or I’ll just open it for you.”
I glance desperately around me, out the front windshield of the car, and all that appears in the vacant streets is what’s hanging from her rear-view: a silver mirror and a small plastic box. Odd. I’m used to the tree-shaped air fresheners. I slacken my jaw.
She leans down and squints to look in mouth. “Nice work,” I hear her say. “Dental, that is. Only a couple of rotted ones. That’s not bad.”
I close my eyes because I see her lean in closer, and I feel the gentle scrape and poke of those squiggly nails against the enamel in my teeth. My toes curl in my shoes, the same thing that happens when someone takes a knife and cuts on nice clean china plates. Then she slams the door and I think about bolting. I could do it. This minute. While she’s limping around the back of the car. I could get out and run, and with that gait, she’d never catch up to me.
Instead, I turn and watch her. A gray shadow leeches through the shroud of her nightgown.
She gets in the driver’s seat. “You need to put your seatbelt on.”
I realize she must be one of those people that works with puppets. Like that guy Jeff Dunham. That’s it: FAMOUS HORROR AUTHOR CAPTURED BY CRAZED VENTRILOQUIST. She starts the engine, a loud rip-roar, and we’re racing over the cobblestone streets.
She turns a corner near some aging bookstores. The neighborhoods go downhill. At a stop light next to a diner that has a toilet and bathtub outside overflowing with greenery, I notice the streets are just too eerie-quiet. I look at her. She doesn’t return the gaze. Her eyes are focused on something ahead.
We pass a liquor store that says WE DON’T SELL SHERRY on a sign in red marker. The sign is crooked and its bottom corner brushes against some bottles that haven’t been dusted in as many years as the cabinet of curios that contained my mother’s huge collection of broken Faberge eggs.
The car lurches to the right. I grab the Jesus handles.
“What’s—what’s going on here?” I finally ask.
“You’re delirious right now.”
She downshifts and the car lurches. I smell something like dirty birds, but I can’t tell where it’s coming from. An empty can of Coors Light on the passenger floor hits my shoe.
It hits me that this is all a scenario from my own drunken pen. A-ha! “Look, this is a joke, right? Somebody put you up to this? My editor?”
She smiles with the knowing gaze of a Victorian chick in one of those oval portraits.
“This is ridiculous.” I’m only unsettled by her damn mouth. I wish she’d open it. It’s like riding with a cadaver. There was one wake I went to, once, and the place had done a rush-job, I think, because the glue they used to hold the guy’s lips together leeched from the outside like small hardened bubbles of beer. “Okay, I get the point. Open the door, let me out, and stop doing your late-night comedy club routine.”
She sighs as we run through a red light. “Not yet.”
Now we’re deep in East Baltimore, where all the abandoned row houses are. We pass a strip and two or three in the middle are burned out, one on the end nothing but a pile of toppled bricks and wooden beams. I’ve been in this area a few times, I think on Ashland Street, when I was trying to score a free bottle. Yes, from the bums. I’ll admit it. I have no shame. I once pried a bottle of bourbon from a frozen dead man’s sooty fingers. “You know,” I say, “I’d like some closure on my own death at least.”
The car screeches to a halt, so sharply the seatbelt restrains me.
Here is an abandoned row house with a gray stone façade that has that familiar orange ‘marked for demolition’ sign tacked on its door.
We ascend its once-gleaming, cracked and molded-over marble stoop and she pushes open the front door. In the corner there’s a tipped-over toilet with a broken seat, and next to that, a pile of dusty gray clothes. At the base of the stairs, there are some chalk drawings—three, to be precise—in the shapes of human bodies. The wall to my left is guarded by a disintegrating couch. From somewhere upstairs, there is a drip falling into what sounds like a metal bucket. In the back of the house, where I know a dining room would usually be, there’s a broken mirror on the wall. The other shards of it lay like swords on the filthy floor. “In,” she says. “He won’t come out if there isn’t total darkness.”
Her squiggled nails dig through my shirt as she pushes me inside. Below us, down in the basement, I hear shuffling.
I suspect it is not a rat.
She closes the door behind us. Except for the daylight pinning through the shoddy, collapsing blinds, the room is very dark. Upstairs, a shaft of light from another window spills on the top stair. The thud, swish/thud, swish and something else, the creak of someone gripping an aging banister, curdles my stomach.
“On your knees,” Nightie Gal hisses, pushing me down. I’m reminded of her uncanny strength. “Now! And touch your nose to the floor. He doesn’t wish to be stared at.”
The floor smells like piss. Or garbage. Hell, whatever smell it is, I, sadly, am familiar with it. I also smell something else: my own clothes. My own breath. My own stench.
The most pain-inflicted moan, like the wail of the ship horns I hear in the harbor, drifts from below. When my visitor arrives next to me, he speaks and his voice has no variation—it’s all one flat tone. “Are you the torturer? Are you, sir, he?”
I swallow and start to lift my head, but Nightie Gal’s shoe pressures my skull. “I said, keep your head down. He doesn’t like to be seen.”
I do as I’m told. What the hell else would I do, right? Then I feel it: a drop. On the back of my neck. Like cold liquid tar. I try to turn my head.
Nightie Gal’s lizard-heeled shoe presses harder, stops me.
“You don’t recognize me,” says Monotone Man. “What you did to me. I’m stuck this way.”
Another drop on my neck. “I don’t know you. How could I do anything to you?”
“When you made me you were angrier than Zeus at Prometheus and you flayed my skin and fed me to the dogs.”
I feel the bile coming up the back of my throat. When hungover, it’s always best to eat grease. Obviously, I haven’t had my grease yet. Or any coffee. But I know that this bile has nothing to do with that. This bile is a result of the absolute horror of knowing that although I’m still not quite sure what the gig is, I am in a lot of trouble with—somehow—products from my own imagination. This is the man who ran over my dog Begso when I was seven. Only I named him Victor, I think, some cheese-bang old-fashioned name like that, and I gave him a compulsion for eating the flesh of dogs. As punishment for his crimes, his skin melted off the more dog flesh he ate.
Which means the drops on my neck are his rotting flesh.
I scream, but it comes out as the dry heaves. Grossest thing ever, the dry heaves.
“See how it feels to smell your own rot,” says Victor.
“Enough.” Nightie Gal lets her foot up and kicks me in the side. “Get up, loser.”
I just lay there for a second. I smell something else: incense? Almost like opium smoke, sweet opium smoke, and I hear another set of footsteps.
“I said, get up.”
I sit up, knowing if I look to the left I’m doomed to be staring at soup-faced Victor, so I twist my aching neck the other way and face Nightie Gal. And she’s opened her mouth. She’s opened her mouth and there’s nothing in it.
There are no teeth, it’s just a smelly, blackened, crusted hole and it’s—
She throws back her head and laughs. “Recognize me now, dirtbag?”
Ginny. Or the woman I made Ginny, my fiancée who tossed my engagement ring away like it was worth as much as one of those prizes you get in a Walmart claw machine while she bitched about her shoes, and what I did to her, in the story, I had a crazed murderer hack out every tooth in her mouth. With her own high-heeled mauve lizard-skin ankle-strapped shoe. When her lover went to kiss her, he was cut by the one jagged nub of broken tooth in her mouth. One that cut his lip, and his blood dribbled down his chin like a fat earthworm.
There are footsteps on the stairs now, not heavy ones, light, like a small man. “Oh, goodness, Ginny! You mustn’t do that to him because I can hear every single thud against his flesh! I can hear every soft cell in his body absorbing the blow and it’s positively disgusting!”
Now that guy, I know. That’s what I did to the cousin who sold my Transformers. Since he prided himself on being a bully, I turned him into Roger the effeminate fashion designer who developed such sensitivity he could hear even the slightest internal bodily noise, food digesting, earwax breaking up, even, his runway models made while he dressed them.
Okay. So there’s three of them. What they want, I still don’t know. But I’m already thinking about what I’m going to do because there are more. There are so. Many. More. God help me if any of the other ones show up, former bosses or Christ almighty please not the dude from the IRS who audited me two years ago because the thing I turned him into was capable of snapping my spine like a peapod.
Are they all waiting for me, upstairs? Are they waiting to—
Roger swoons. “I say, I have been made to live with this terrible, crippling, maddening disease! I can’t even stand to hear the stoplights turning! I can hear them, you know, click/clack, very soft but oh-so-distinct and like pins sticking into the core of my very existence! And if you don’t stop I shall be sick all over my beautiful garments and have to sell something to replace them, and that will just break my fragile heart!”
His words stab with a long-forgotten but familiar acuteness.
It comes back to me then. That day my Transformers were gone. I’d come home from school, into that smelling pit-dive of a house where I had to keep the fan on so I wouldn’t hear the cockroaches crawling in what was supposed to be my room but was just a heap of garbage, unopened bags of clothes and Christmas stuff my mother got on sale, broken crayons, dirty dishes because there was no table to eat on. All I did was live to play with them, shiny and clean that I kept in a box so nothing could tarnish them. And I raced home and clambered as best I could over the reeking mountains to get to what served as a bed, a sleeping bag in the back corner under the leaking window, and I reached for the box and—
These fuckers deserved everything I had done to them.
I finally struggle to my feet. “You know what? This is ridiculous! Roger, I didn’t do a damn thing to you. You did it to yourself! You stole my Transformers! You knew how much those meant to me because they were the only thing in that pit of a house that I had that was decent! That were my friends because I wasn’t allowed to have anyone else in the house but you and God knows I couldn’t stand you!”
Roger blinks and cranes his head back. Like an ostrich. Big, wide-eyed, blinking, skinny-necked ostrich.
I don’t let it stop me. “And Victor, you creep, you killed my dog! I watched you do it, you hated that dog, you always bitched, and when you saw him run in back of your car you stepped on that gas pedal! And Ginny, you—”
“Shhhtop it!” Ginny shrieks. “Did you ever shhhhtop to think that it ishhhn’t all about you?”
Oh, my God. Her lips moved. She’s talking.
“You left me,” I say, “because I couldn’t buy you expensive shoes!”
Her black hole of a mouth falls open in surprise. “Ish that what you think?”
“You deliberately made me feel like a piece of shit. ‘You can’t provide for me’ and ‘why don’t you get a real job’.”
She takes a faulty step backwards. I hear another drop of Victor’s flesh fall on the floor. I look at Roger. He’s standing there with his hand over his mouth like he’s just seen a car wreck happen in front of him.
“I left becaush I wash lasht. It wash alwaysh thish pershon did thish and thish pershon did that and I’m a victim and I’m going to be a famoush writer and show them all and everyone will love me!” Ginny closes her mouth in a pout, and then swallows. “The only pershon who needed to love you was right there, but you didn’t shee her. You didn’t shee that maybe she needed fixing, too from all thosh people who broke her heart.” She turns her back to me. “You dishgusht me.”
Victor grunts in approval. “That dog ate my prized bird that day. The one I kept in the yard in a cage. I saw your stupid dog do it. He ate the only thing that I loved!”
Roger bursts into tears. “I took the Transformers because I needed lunch money!”
Lunch money. I had begged my parents for that so many times, anything so I wouldn’t have to eat the rancid food that came out of that festering refrigerator—
I look at these three pathetic souls in front of me and suddenly it occurs to me that I never did really know what any of them thought. Or why they did what they did. Or that I even cared. “I’m—sorry.”
“It’sh too late for that,” says Ginny.
Something unsaid and ominous settles over the room—the knowledge that I’d better one-up it. “Listen, I made you…I made you all immortal. You’ll live forever. I’m famous. My stories are famous. You’re famous. You’ll never be forgotten.”
“You must be punished,” Victor insists. There is the soft splash of his melting skin on the floor.
“This is what we have to live with for all eternity. You did this to us. You have to pay!” Ginny whirls around and kicks me again in the knees.
I collapse. “What…what are you going to do with me?”
“That’s just it,” says Ginny. She’s communicating without moving her lips again. “We haven’t actually discussed it.” She folds her arms in front of her breasts, their nipples the size of sesame seeds.
Roger has recomposed himself and continues to work his way down the stairs. He’s got something in his hands.
He’s merrily poking them into his shoddy red velvet smoking jacket sleeve. “Oh,” he sings merrily, “I say we stuff his ears with hot wax! Stuff his ears with hot wax so that he can still hear, of course, but oh, he’ll only get to hear the sounds of things going on inside his body! Imagine!” He slides the rest of the way down the banister and perches on his pig-like feet. “The thrum, thrum of your heart!” He approaches me. “The whoosh of your breathing!” I notice the toes thrusting from ragged holes in his socks. He smacks his hands together. His eyes are like a cat’s. “Oh, my! How grand!”
“I say we knock his teeth out,” Ginny says. “While he’s awake. But I want to make out with him first.” She kicks me again, and now, my hands bound behind my back, I am rolled over to face her. Something black drips from the corner of her mouth. “I want him to feel what it’s like to make out with a woman who has no teeth.”
Upstairs, there’s a flutter.
Pigeons. Or seagulls. Yes. There must be holes in the roof.
“No, no. Remember, we were the elected on behalf of the others. We must choose a suitable punishment which will satisfy us all,” says Victor. “Immortal. There is something about that which gives me inspiration.”
Roger stops dancing. “Like what? He’s going to still be famous no matter what we do.”
Ginny walks to the broken bay window and moves the blinds; a sliver of sun spotlights a dead bird on the floor. Ginny kicks it with her shoe. It ricochets against the wall and feathers drift to the floor. She watches them. The room is silent. Then she says, “Dreams.”
Victor looks up. A piece of flesh that’s about to fall to the floor hits his shirt instead.
Roger sets his hands on his hips. “What?”
“Victor is right. We have the power to curse him in any way we wish,” Ginny says. “He has made us immortal. Immortal, but suffering. So we should do the same to him.”
“What if.” Ginny turns and eyes Roger. “What if we were to make it so that he is remembered forever because of the mysterious way in which he dies? Nobody finds out how he dies, why he dies, what he was doing in the days preceding his death.”
Roger gasps with glee. “It’s perfect! Just perfect! They’ll remember his stories, but they’ll remember more that he was abusive! I can see it now!” He vaults up a couple of stairs again and spreads his arms. “DURKINS DIES MYSTERIOUS DEATH! And in future, ‘WAS DURKINS A DRUNK OR DID HE HAVE RABIES?’ Oh I can see it now and it’s so pretty! So, so pretty!”
Ginny laughs. “What do you think, Victor.”
“It doesn’t seem like enough,” he says. “What if we have his bones buried near a train yard, and then they don’t all get moved? Desecration. Desecration for one who denigrates without remorse.”
Ginny thinks for a moment. “I like that.”
I’m so horrified I can barely eek out anything in my own defense. “But…”
“Shut up! Okay, swine.” She kicks me again. “Get up. I’m taking you back to the pile.”
She leads me back to the car. As we tear through the streets of Baltimore, she says nothing.
We pull up in front of the very heap of garbage I had landed in earlier.
“I’m dropping you here,” she says.
My body’s still there. Funny how cock-eyed my arm is, bent back at the elbow. I didn’t think arms could be bent that way. “What—”
“Someone will be along for you shortly.”
I push open the door, afraid to ask who the hell that someone might be, and step onto the street. There still aren’t any people around; there’s just wrappers and garbage, blowing into the pile where my body is. I look so…alone, and I think of my mother, who was lying dead in my old bedroom for days under a pile of her junk before anyone found her.
I turn back and look at Ginny, but she and the car are gone in a hail of dirt and leaves behind her speeding tires.
This story was born on 95-North outside of Baltimore—I’d been there for the annual Poe Birthday Celebration. Sticky bar floors, a half-buried trash bag, a burned-out row house, the sight of real 19th-century dentistry tools, and my fiance’s comment about things coming back to bite you in the ass formed “Denigrating David.”
Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s short fiction has appeared in Carpe Articulum, The Adirondack Review, Barbaric Yawp, The Illuminata, Morpheus Tales, New Witch Magazine, Toasted Cheese, and others, including several anthologies. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, is the recipient of two Norman Mailer Writers Colony Winter Residencies, and is an editor for Read Short Fiction. Her most recent work, Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole—Tales from Haunted Disney World, is a collection of ghost stories set in Disney Parks, and her horror novel, Bad Apple, is forthcoming from Vagabondage Books in 2011. Her website is www.kristipetersenschoonover.com