EDITOR’S NOTE by Halimah Marcus
Robert Travieso’s “Here Lies Gerald” is a story about losing your mind, or the possibility of losing your mind, or never having had the mind you thought you had to begin with. It’s about brothers, about loneliness, about what it’s like to be an event planner. (“It’s like being a cop, like being a fisherman, only you don’t serve and protect, you don’t catch fish in giant nets, you plan events.”) It’s also about doughnuts and angels and strangers on a train.
Yet each of these seemingly disparate elements thrums with the same unparalleled energy. Is it fear? Is it excitement? Is it the jokes?
Watching the story change and grow has been one of the greatest joys in my very young career as an editor. In fact, it’s an experience that has spanned almost the whole thing. When “Here Lies Gerald” first came to us, three years ago (if you can believe it), I liked it immediately. It was dense, tightly packed with crackpot wisdom and wit. Certain lines, like “hope is a doughnut,” seemed as if they could be the basis of an entire, nihilistic religion. It was the summer of 2011 and we were putting the finishing touches of what would be the final issue of Electric Literature as a quarterly, a little less than a year before the first issue of Recommended Reading. So the timing wasn’t great, in fact it was terrible, but since I was already prepared to join the church of Gerald, I knew this was one I couldn’t let get away.
And thus the author and I set off on a correspondence which mostly involved me wanting more!, more!, like some kind of deranged fiction glutton, and Robert delivering, like really fucking delivering, sometimes with months passing between emails.
So here you have it, at long last. I thank Robert Travieso for his patience, praise him for his talent, and offer three cheers to Gerald: bunny, brother, and for at least the duration of this story, the readers’ patron saint.
Co-editor, Electric Literature
Here Lies Gerald
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Here Lies Gerald
by Robert Travieso, recommended by Electric Literature
My brother writes songs for Broadway. In the sense that they’re for Broadway. Like gifts, or homemade offerings — a tub of brownies, a hand-sewn sweater, a series of pen-and-ink drawings — not a job, in other words. Not something that anyone has asked for, or that anyone in particular is expecting, or that anyone — to be cruel about it — even wants, or could even want, in this world, as it is now, as if the brownies were laced with mahogany, the sweater from pure belly-button lint, and the drawings entirely of himself, knees splayed and naked in the bathtub. That word for. Like a car that’s for sale, like a rose that’s only for you, grown for you and given to you, and like all those endless envelopes that all those Broadway producers must have received and must still receive, marked in my brother’s cursive: for your consideration — and then all those curt notes, curtly returned: not for us, they must say, this piece is simply not for us.
Early encouragement. It could happen to anybody. Talent! Promise! Progress! Prospects! Little shows, little venues. On the town, playing On The Town, like a little Liberace. He was good. He was cute. He made some influential people start to cry. Summers at the county fair, semesters at the conservatory. But then the incipient rising thing. Not just that he was by now pear-shaped. Not just that he was by now known professionally as Persimmon. For a year he only ate salmon cakes. For a month he only spoke in verbs. And his songs — they got all weird. Songs about sherry vinegar. The Minnesota Vikings. Invectives set to verse, condemning the Erie Canal. And then, as if by miracle, one catchy tune, in Pocahontas II, over the credits (you can look it up), and then… nothing.
And then… fried chicken. And the years where he just lay fallow, in his bed, with his headphones on, his index fingers Italianating in mid-air, pendulating the crescendo — Adante, Adantino! Accelerando! Mosso! Mosso! — the imaginary orchestra, the imperious chin position, the garlic knots, seeping grease through the bag onto the sheets beside his pillows. Rise! Rise and begin to sing! The walking in tight circles, the talking to himself.
I’m giving you the overture.
Go, they said to him. Be. Become. But come look at your legacy now, Miss Vandeweghe, I want to say. Come look at what your little stickers have wrought. Legacy, not doing so good. Legacy, now has fatty liver. Legacy now belongs to the cognac of the month club. And legacy is maybe dying.
I, on the other hand, am an event planner. There is a very small part of me that longs to be the kind of person who says things like, Awwwwwww…Yeahhhhh!!!! But I’m not that kind of person at all. I managed my brother’s career, as it were, in the early days — setting up gigs and signing checks, soliciting studio sessions, and organizing little mini-auctions for his services — back when he was more or less thriving, before the long manic slide, my entrée to, and my exit from, the business. But here I still am, sort of. Almost. I have a tan line exactly where my little microphone extends across my face.
Oh you’re an event planner? Yes, I’m an event planner. What’s that like? It’s like being a cop, like being a fisherman, only you don’t serve and protect, you don’t catch fish in giant nets, you plan events. But what do you make, my uncle, father, mother, and especially my brother might say. Well. I make people happy.
The Feldman’s young son Jordan, jewel of the Feldman clan, is due to be married sometime just past 6:15 this evening, and the band just cancelled for the second time in two weeks. And I have nobody — I have nothing. Everyone good is booked. But I have a brother uptown who is a musical genius.
I could call him, if I had his number. I feel I could call him today. But instead I crack an egg and put on my shoes, tuck in my shirt and fold my tie, and then slide headlong into my raincoat. I stare at my golashes, there beside my door, and think, I will never wear those golashes. Lately my kettle, in the mornings, seems to contain an entire profusion of rain. That sound that rain makes, when it escalates. And then it goes into my tea. I leave without looking in the mirror. I walk to the subway at a slant, hard against the deluge of a morning summer storm.
On the phone Mr. Feldman says, ideally, in his vision of things, if they can’t have Rory Henson, then whoever I get should have perfect female legs, and the drummer should sing the harmony.
My brother can play the drums, certainly. My brother can play anything. My brother can sing the harmony. My brother could, if asked, sing the holy hell out of the harmony. He lives in Yonkers, not so far away, in the house where we both grew up. The thing is, the last time I saw my brother he was sitting in a jail in Las Vegas, wearing paper clothes. Previous to that he was walking the strip, buck naked and begging for peyote. At the time he was suspicious of flight, so we rented a car and drove straight to the Harlem River.
Halfway along the Loneliest Highway in America we picked up two teenage drifters named JustDave and Jere7emy, who sat in the back, and who wouldn’t shut up or stop arguing. Every hour or so we’d see two yellow-white lanterns bobbing from far away, hovering somewhere along the rod-straight path that stretched out before us, and we’d watch without breathing as the pair of orbs crept closer and closer and grew larger and larger and more glowing, illuminating our cabin in a horrific light as the machines that compelled them swept by only inches from our windows. Jere7emy explained between tokes that the headlights were nothing more than ethereal beasts come down from heathen heaven in the center of the desert night, charioting entire trucks along just by showing them the way, and that the scary men with the beards in the front could be alive or long dead — government employees, fags, conmen, boner-snatchers, bad ghosts, or puppets for all we knew — and I remember thinking the entire time, throughout the night and on into the day, that we ought to stop and pick up all the road kill we were passing and use it somehow, sell it maybe, boil it down into a stew, make slippers or a muff or a sleeve for a gun, or whittle the bones into sculptures for gifts, then thinking, no, That’s crazy.
Then thinking, Is it happening now? The rising thing? Is it coming for me this time around? My brother sat beside me, rocking in his seat, wearing an old afghan blanket like a robe, draped across his shoulders and cowled around his head, rocking and muttering and cursing me specifically, bent at the waist as if plagued by a stomachache, his arms wrapped tight around his belly and his knees pulled up around his chest, pressing his forehead gently against the windshield and then pushing his shoulders hard against his seat, to the ¾ beat of whatever waltz was pulsing inside his skull. What’s it like, I asked. He stood up straight, stared at me and said, It’s like having gum stuck to your antlers.
Is it happening? I thought. Will it take me? I wondered. Of course I’d foreseen it for years.
On the train, a woman sits down next to me and begins filling in dates on her pocket calendar. She’s tall and wonderfully dressed, expensively coiffed and fragrant, and I soon begin to suspect her of outright coquetry, right there next to me on the subway car. I throw her a look that says something like, Hi, how are you, I want to know everything about you, and she throws one back; a haymaker, I think it says, I want to tear you apart. I lean my head back against the windowpane and let my skull thump against the glass.
The woman crosses her legs and then pulls down gently on her disobedient skirt, which has, in its creeping, kindly revealed to me the scalloped mid-thigh abbreviations of her stockings, which seem to be made of pure steam and spun gloss. Her fingernails trace the undersides of her thighs, and I feel a great rumbling in my slacks. It’s hot in the car. It’s damn hot. I can hear her nails tugging against the fabric. I shoot her a look that says something like, You are driving me insane right now, and she gives me a coy little grin that says, I think: These stockings are expensive. I, in return, not wanting to simply mirror her smile and thus produce an endlessly refracting dead-end series of near-come-ons and retreats, give her an outright eyebrow, a furry little upside-down V that says, I will destroy you.
I want to destroy her. She wants to be destroyed.
That is the vibe that I’m getting.
The train speeds on. I close my eyes and the galaxy swirls around me. I open them again and find that she’s holding my hand. If there’s one thing in life I’ve learned thus far, it’s that nothing happens gradually. Gradual is an idea that doesn’t exist. She pricks my palm with her thumbnail and I turn and breath against her neck. She murmurs; it sounds something like, Drive; just shut up and drive. So I shut up and drive. I have a purring sound going around in my head and I take it right out and I put it in her mouth. I just drop it right in there. She sees me do it. She wants me to do it. And now she’s looking right at me. I can see two little tooth marks indented on her bottom lip. Her eyes say, Thank you. That’s exactly what I needed, and I nod and look away. I understand that kind of need.
I stare at the other people, one-by-one. Everyone else in the train car is reading. Everybody. Every single other person in the train car is reading. It’s strange. It’s disconcerting. Now her hand is tickling its way up my forearm. Her bracelets are cold against my skin. I look out the window and see the world rush by all around me. The underground world. Little twinkling lights and yellow HAZMAT signs. We haven’t hit a station for the longest time. I haven’t changed my contact lenses in weeks. Now we come to a descent and go down, down into a tunnel of darkness. I put my lips against my new friend’s neck and I can feel the little hairs arise against my mouth. I do a little thing with the tip of my tongue and she gives my hand a firm squeeze that says, Let’s do a time out.
And so we do a time out.
When I was a kid I used to imagine my brother in a cape, at the keyboard, with smoke coming out of his hands. A clangor in the deeper keys. A fancy up above. The throbbing of a ragged tone, the damping of the strings. Ragtime, barrelhouse, bossa nova. The piano was in the basement, and I watched whenever I could. He would hop from one end of the bench to the other when he played, just a little thumping shift, up to the high notes and then down, down, down to the thundering lows, and the smoke would roll from his fingertips. A wasp once flew into the basement through a crack in the housing, spiraling down into the damp of where we sat, down past the leaf-mucked window wells and the according little sliver of light, and down, down to my brother and the bench and the cheap upright piano and me on the floor, down in the dark and the dust and the damp, where it buzzed and danced to the chugging of the chords, dashing left and right, and hovering between his hands, and then zooming under the twin arches of his pitched palms, and up and under his long fingers, and up and under again, buzzing back, and forth, and back and forth, looping the loop de loop.
But why my brother, today? And then not at all for weeks on end? Why really, I wonder. Is it happening. Will it take me. If I had his number, I’d call him. I would indeed call him. I would. But then, what if he answered? What would I say? That I feared for my brain’s cohesion? That I’d run seven miles on a whim? That I’d begun to research melting? That all my fascinations had leaked out onto my face and become suction cups? What would it help, for him to know a thing like that? What good would it do, for him to know that I was blighted too? I miss him so bad sometimes I get actual bile in my throat. And then other times, I am free. Perhaps it’s just the blues, the rain, my kettle, my tea. Only now, as we ascend, I see the sun is shining.
In the light the lady releases me and then turns back to her pocket calendar in silence. I sit up straight in my seat. I put my hands in my lap. We rise slowly to the surface of the city, and then higher, and then higher, and then higher. The sun is unbearable now and I feel like a mole. I try to squint, but in fact I’m already squinting, and so I just sit there and suffer the glare. I wait for a little note, a little hint, a little sign, a little nudge, a little bump, a little hip, but nothing comes. She isn’t even breathing heavily. I don’t have the slightest idea of what to do with my boner. I put my knuckles in my mouth and bite down gently. I close my eyes and pretend to sleep, then lean over with my lids half-closed to see what she’s scribbling. We soar above the city now, zooming over a bridge. Diagonal gray bars whir past the windows on either side of the train car.
She sits there poised on the 1stof May. I wait. She knows I’m watching. I open my eyes completely and give her a little look that says, Don’t be mad, please? And I can tell, in her eyes, that she forgives me. She draws a little bunny in the box and then hands me the pen. I follow a knight’s path down to the 16thand draw a gun, just for fun, a little gun, and then a hand, holding the gun, and then a little man, attached to the hand, sitting in the corner of that Monday. She smiles. The bullet comes in a slow motion blast, up through my day and into the 9th, then into the 8th, and then into the bunny itself. She draws a little burst at the back of its head, and then I add the blood and the sinew, dribbling down into next week. She adds little smoke rings. I add little wisps, seeping out of the end of the barrel. She gives the bullet a faint contrail. I give the bullet hole some seepage. In the square of the 2ndthe bunny falls face first to the floor, and in the 3rdit’s trussed up in a spit. In the 4thit’s a pile of bones. We pass the pen back and forth and elaborate upon each other’s renderings. In the 5this a mound of fresh dirt with a sign on a stick that says, Here lies Gerald. In the 6thshe draws some flowers.
“He was a good bunny,” my new friend whispers. I nod with great solemnity, and she nods in return. Her face is filled with facets and planes. She has a divot in her chin, and in that divot, a deeper dent, descending into a dot, like a pencil tip. She actually whispers; she actually speaks. I don’t know what to do. I blush. Her voice is gravely and deep. Thickly sweet. I can feel the heat on my face. I can feel the sweat on my brow. I’m close enough to smell her makeup. She’s a man, I realize. Just a man, dressed as a woman.
“Gerald,” the man says.“Fucking Gerald, man.”
I get up and walk quietly over to the other side of the train car. The man gets up and follows. He wraps his hand around the subway pole, inches above my own, and inches from my face. No one looks up, no one stops reading. I turn and look out the window, and then down onto the city below. Now we pass over city streets and city parks, softball fields and basketball courts, an open sprinkler, a ten-car side street traffic jam, a pizza shop, a bagel shop, a wig shop, a church front, a nail salon, a bar, a pharmacy, a bank, a meter maid administering a ticket, and then we’re back underground again. The man stands beside me, silent as I am. He slides his hand down until it’s wrapped around my own, and I turn and slink back to my seat.
He follows me again. He teeters on his heels and then sits down beside me, perched on the edge of the plastic, his legs crossed carefully and one shoe dangling and swaying from his toes. I wish I had a book, I wish I had a magazine. Everybody has something to read except me. The train stops, the doors open; no one gets in or out.
“I like the way you draw a gun,” the man says. “I like the way you held my hand.”
But goddamn it, why was I weeping?
I’d been having these moments in my head where I suddenly felt like Robin Hood, and it all seemed so real. All my merry men, all my buddies, everybody hanging around the campfire getting wasted, crushing steer burgers and boar steaks, and then Marian coming over and whispering into my ear, and then we climb down into our little apartment together, down the three little steps into the base of the oak tree and make love in the heart of the shire — but I hadn’t seen any of those guys in years.
And there’d been other things too. Darker things. Scarier things. The slats between the steps. The spots on all my mirrors. And the feelings. Oh, the feelings. Hopped up, energized, shattered, ecstatic,and then blind, sort of. Seeing things that weren’t there — or not quite, or not yet, or no longer. Foes, companions, lovers, potential pets, potential best friends, whatever, wherever, all over the place. Too much reaching out, too much empathy, too much fear — it’d been striking me throughout my days, surging through me like a flash, and then washing back out of me like a riptide. It was a three-step process.
At first, I figured I was dying — I figured it was the light that rushed in right before the end. The scuba trip gone wrong, and you’re underwater in a cave, and then your tank runs dry, and you’re lost down there somewhere, and then the boat drifts away, and you suck down the bubbles, and then the nitrogen pours in, and then Jesus himself floats into view — I thought it might have been one of those things. But it’s been almost a month now — feeling this way, acting like this — and I haven’t died yet, and it hasn’t gotten worse, and so I’m just continuing to be.
Now the man grasps my chin in his hand and forces me to turn and face him. I attempt to fix my gaze upon the middle distance, but it’s no use. There’s only the man. Everywhere I look, up, down, left, right, the man. Tears still stream down my cheeks.
“Stop crying,” the man says.
“What?” I whisper. I can barely make a sound. I feel incredibly fragile. There’s something awfully familiar about his face. I think, maybe he’s an angel.
“You must stop crying,” the man says. His voice is soft, but insistent. He reaches up and delicately wipes the tears from my face. He seems aglow, a little. But I can’t tell if it’s him, or just me. “Now, now,” he says, patting me on the cheek. “There, there.”
“Are you real?” I ask. “Are you talking specifically to me?” I feel a warmth throughout my body. “Is that why you’re here? Are you here for me? Is that why you’re glowing? Are you glowing because of me?”
“My spirit animal is the goat,” the man says. “My spirit seed is the sprout, any sprout, all the sprouts of this world. My earthly avatar is Elmer Fudd. But you must know all this by now.”
“I must know all this by now? Why must I know all this by now?”
“Tell me,” the man says, “tell me, Kenneth, tell me your thoughts on Elmer Fudd.” My chin is still cupped in his palm.
I say I admire his tenacity.
“Yes,” the man says. He gives my chin a shake. “Yes.” Now he looks at me flatly, and seriously. “I believe Elmer Fudd is the patron saint of all sportsmen.”
This is a statement to which I can agree or disagree. “I can see that,” I say. “But how do you know my name?”
“Can you?” the man says. “Can you see that, Kenneth Brantley?” Now he stands and faces me, with his legs spread wide and his thighs astride my lap. “I know about you Kenneth. I know all about you. I know, for instance, about your brother.”
I feel as if an electrical prong has just been jammed into the crown of my head and strung straight through the soul of my anus.
“I know how you ache,” the angel continues. “I know how you pine, how you cry, how you shimmer, sometimes, with pride, and I know that, inside, you are majorly stressed-out.”
I lean back as far as I can go, but I can’t go very far. A part of me is terrified, a part of me is relieved. A part of me thinks, maybe, that we will now ascend into heaven.
I’m ready. I’m ready.
“Tell me,” the angel says, “tell me, Kenneth, what do you believe to be true?”
This is a test, I know. So I’m honest. “I want to be rich,” I say. “I want to be so fucking rich. I want to be rich so bad it makes my balls ache. I stay up late think — ”
“Yes, yes, but what do you believe?” the angel cries. He folds his hand into a palm-up fist, and offers it to me like a gift. “What do you believe, Kenneth Bentley? Tell me! Tell me what you believe!”
“I believe in whales!” I shout. I don’t know what else to say. “I believe in wormholes!” Nothing salient is rushing to mind. “I believe in driftwood! I believe in carpools! I believe in creamsicles!” I fear for my answers. I fear I look insipid. I fear I’ll remain unsaved. “I believe in Eddie Murray,” I say. “I believe in Eddie Fucking Murray — what else do you want me to say? I don’t have a list, Angel. I have nothing prepared. And I’m not a particularly wise man.” I turn my palms up in appeal. “What else. What else. I believe in love, I guess, I believe in life, I guess, but I believe in degradation too. Probably more than you.”
“Yes,” the angel says. “Yes. There is hope. There is hope, Kenneth Brantley. There is hope for you yet. And now you must go and change your — ”
Somehow I don’t like his tone. Somehow I don’t like him telling me what to do. Somehow an angel from heaven comes down to sit here beside me, and lo, I determine he’s an asshole.
“Hope?” I say. “Wait a minute, Angel. Don’t tell me about hope. Don’t say hope, Angel. You lost me there. Hope is a fucking doughnut, Angel. There — that’s something I believe. Hope is a doughnut. It’s a fucking doughnut. Is that what you want me to say? Is that what you came here to see? Is that why you’re here? To wrench that out of me?”
“This is my stop,” the angel says. The doors to the train hiss open.
“Wait — what??”
But he’s already getting off.
“Wait,” I cry. “Take me with you! What did I say? How did I fail? I spoke only the truth! I told you — I’m not a profound man! I’m petty! I’m incomplete! If my dreams were revealed they would disgrace me! How do you know my name?”
The angel stands there, framed by the doublewide doors of the subway car. “We went to high school together,” he says. And then he steps out onto the platform.
Little bread crumbs in my head. Little thoughts I’d already had, but hadn’t had time to notice.
By the time I manage to squeeze through the crack in the closing doors, he’s already taken off his wig. I walk toward him and he puts his hands up in defense.
“Max?” I say. “Max, is that you?”
“Look, man…” he says, backing away slowly.
“But is it — is it you? Max? Is that you?”
“Hey Kenneth,” he says. His eyes are cast groundward. His scalp is red and peeling.
“What the fuck, Max.”
“Don’t come any closer,” Max says.
“Max! What the fuck! What the fuck Max! What is this? What’s happening here?”
Max twists his wig in his hands. “I’m a conman, man.”
“You’re a conman? What’s the con?”
He traces his body with both hands. “What do you think?”
I say I don’t know what to think.
“I take people home,” he says. “Or I just take their fucking wallets. Whatever works, man. Whatever’s quickest.”
“Yes! Why? Why? Why are you doing this?”
“Drugs, man! What do you think?”
“All right,” I say. “Okay. Fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. I’m just having trouble — ”
“Here, man.” He hands me my wallet. I just sort of stare at it.
“Jesus,” I say.
“Whatever, man,” Max says. “You don’t seem so centered yourself. What do you do that’s so special? Ten minutes ago you were licking my neck. Hope is a doughnut? What the fuck man? What’s that shit about?”
I’m an event planner. I plan events. But how do you tell someone that? How do you say, Yeah, hey man, I’m an event planner. It’s going great. I love it. How do you say something like that to somebody?
I look at Max and he looks beautiful to me. So fucked up, so sad, so lonely, so skinny, so scabby, but still, so beautiful in my eyes. Still beautiful, I mean. My eyes are blurry, and my mind is bedraggled, it’s true, but still. Max. Maaaax. What good fun Max was. The Woodsman. The ultimate Woodsman. We were the Woodsmen. And he was the ultimate.
“How’s your brother?” Max says.
For a moment I’m floored, once again.
“How’s Gerald, man? He still out in Hollywood, making songs?”
He scratches his balls extravagantly, which seem to be located somewhere deep in the seat of his dress. “Tell him — hey tell him I’m proud of him, man. Pocahontas. Fucking-A. Sacajawea.”
“That was ten years ago,” I say quietly.
“Ten years?” He scratches the tip of his nose. “Doesn’t feel like it.”
Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t.
“What’s next?” I say. “What now?” There’s a part of me that can’t bear to leave. “Is this where we go get breakfast?”
Max puts his arm around me and smiles. He points to the stairs, to the tiny shaft of light pouring in from the world above, and says, “Now is where I just walk away.”
He’s right. But I’m glum. But what else could we do? I have a hall that needs waxing. There are tables to be set. I have napkins to re-order, I have vases to protect. I have the wine guy due in an hour, and he’ll be on time, and the food guy is due any minute, and he’ll be late, and so I’m fucked — even if Rory Henson hadn’t completely fucked me already, and for the second time this week. Fucking Rory Henson. He fucked me so completely.
From the stairs, Max turns and gives a little wave. In the light he looks, indeed, just like an angel, sparkling and shimmering in the bright sun of the morning, here down from heaven to change my life completely. He gives a little wink, and then turns and takes his last few sideways mincing steps, up to the city above. And then he’s gone. There are so many things I have to do. I have to go get Gerald, for one. I’ll probably have to put my shoulder into his bedroom door. He’ll need a suit. I’ll have to ask him to shave. I have to rent some drums. I have to learn some songs. He won’t go on without me.
On the road home from Vegas, Gerald turned to me and out of nowhere said in this weird, even voice, he said, “Love doesn’t wander like a cloud, Ken, it doesn’t come and go like rain and snow, like you think it does. It’s a Taser, and it comes on a wire attached to a gun. Like,” — this is what he told to me — “like if you broke my heart, I might chalk it up to science. If you broke my heart. If you did. If you left me. If you never came back. If you turned your back to me. If I never was to see you again. Like, if you stuck a fucking fork in my spine, my brother, I might drop to my knees and scream but not ask you why you’d done it. Because by then I’d already know.”
Sounded crazy at the time, but here’s how I figure it. I’m the gun and he’s the plug and there’s always a wire between us.