Introduction by T Kira Māhealani Madden
I first experienced Tyler Barton’s work in 2016, in the submission queue of the literary magazine for which I still serve as editor-in-chief, No Tokens. Of the thousands of submissions read, at every length (we have no max word count) it was Barton’s story, “Winter Break,” at a mere 327 words, that gripped me. I recently looked back to my notes on that story from our submission meeting. My note on Barton simply read: “This here is the stuff.”
The precision of Barton’s sentences reminded me then—and reminds me still, now, with every read and reread—why I fell in love with short stories in the first place. The paratactic, or “side-by-side,” energy of Barton’s lines spark, steel to flint, with the percussive, sonic mastery of Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips, or the whimsical wild of Daniil Kharms.
The title of this week’s story, “Once Nothing, Twice Shatter,” describes the moment in which our narrator, currently going by “Todd,” swings a sledgehammer into a Toyota windshield, feeling it crumple into metallic “gum, chewed.” And the title, too, speaks to the effect of Barton’s sentences, which transform familiarity into dust. The hammer comes down. Everything goes fractal. Then, words in their new emotional, acoustic landscape. “I swung. I swung, and in a minute it was obvious that all we want is to be young again,” Barton writes.
A Tyler Barton story is the first technicolor moment of Oz, or the door opening at Dr. Frank-n-Furter’s castle. What begins as something lullingly known kicks into hallucinatory wonderland, quick. His stories all run a fever. Everyone misbehaves, but they do so seeking grace, humility. Reaching, reaching. This is yet another through line of Barton’s work: characters on the brink. Their glittering, violent, dizzy desperation. Charles Baxter has said the charismatic character can never narrate their own story because what’s needed is the outsider’s gaze. What astonishes in Barton’s work is this commitment to outsidership, a lens that balances its own charisma, vulnerability, and an unexpected splendor of the world and its tiniest details.
One can’t help but marvel at the rhymes Barton builds through imagery, gesture, and metaphor, especially in this story. In the beginning, when Todd still feels the promise of recovery and redemption, a demolition derby audience “tears a hole in the air” with their screams. Later, Todd stares right into a hole in the ceiling with stars punched through. While Barton’s characters are so often trapped, they are always allowed their moments of transcendence, new pathways, salvations, and what a gift to read the great expanse of those in-betweens. The sublime obliteration so particular to this writer’s work.
I won’t spoil the end of this story, but I will tell you this: Tyler Barton sticks the landing, in every story, every time. With each piece, we’re left in the great suspension of what might come next. What wild, bold possibility. Always, a new question. A trunk, opening.
– T Kira Māhealani Madden
Author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls
I Joined a Cult, But I Still Feel Alone
“Once Nothing, Twice Shatter” by Tyler Barton
Luther buys cars. It’s what he does, and it’s what his billboard says he does—LUTHER BUYS CARS. He bought my dad’s car. He bought the mayor’s car. He came to a surprise party for my mom’s sixty-fifth and left with her Sportage. Think back. If you lived in Gettysburg in the late aughts, Luther probably bought your car. Maybe you heard about him on TV, about what he built, and you thought, I would never sell that man my car. I’m sorry. I don’t believe it. It’s his aura—smile like the grill of a Chrysler, hair a horse’s mane. Luther glowed gold.
I was en route to leaving town, to finding peace, to ridding my life of so much me, when I crashed into the back of an Integra, transfixed by the riddle of its vanity plate—HEDIE4U. My brakes tried. Our cars veered into the cornfield. The other driver’s baby cried as we waited for the police, and it was raining, pouring, and my door wouldn’t open, and Luther appeared, bearing an umbrella and a guarantee: my Buick was totaled. Bereft. Unsound. With his big vocab, that quiet murmur, the cleft-lip scar, you just hung on to Luther’s every word. I was cold, high, and scared, but his serenity kept me from fleeing deep into the corn. Luther went shhh, and then he bought my Buick. “I’m notarized,” he said, and shook my hand with both of his—so warm. “It’s all legitimate.”
I left my eleven books on Zen in the trunk, took my hamper, and walked to Wawa. I bought so much made-to-order—enough to kill a horse, as they say. “Mozzarella sticks for pumps two through eight,” I told the cashier, sopping. Luther had made me magnanimous. I thought it was my middle-aged life turning over like an antique engine. That night I got a nose ring. Not that Luther was pierced, but his high-tier moxie made the world feel like something you could bring to heel.
Luther bought my car for three hundred dollars, but then I had nowhere to live.
After the accident, I stopped wearing the hat a fan had made me, a red mesh trucker embroidered with the words Brad the Broadcast Bandit. It’d been two years since my shock-jock radio show, and I’d been going by a slew of dumb identities—Greg, Jed, Art, Hal—any name that sounded burped. Todd. I started living in the yard behind my dealer’s double-wide. Basically it was a doomsday shelter dug by shovel and lined with ten-pound bags of rice. That’s where I slept, on rice bag beds. I cut this guy’s grass, loaded his little dishwasher on wheels, and kept his cats alive. His name was—I’ll call him Colt. I owed Colt a lot of money, and he had dirt on me too.
“Don’t just do something,” Colt would say. “Sit there.” Which meant: Do something. And then he’d hop on one of his crotch rockets and tear off into the afternoon. While he was out, I’d clean his trailer, and I’d clean his girlfriend’s trailer; I’d clean his other girlfriend’s trailer, and I’d clean her girlfriend’s trailer. I thought about a billboard that said, TODD CLEANS TRAILERS. At first I figured I might get empty this way, cleaning all day alone. What I wanted was to make my ego go quiet, to learn to think of nothing but the dish when I rinsed it. But then one morning with the radio on, I got lost in my head and snapped a porcelain plate. Then I smashed a glass. Then I whipped the squawking radio at a ceiling fan and left.
So I tried Mom again, walked all the way to her house, offered to cook and clean for a spot on the couch. She lived in an unaffordable split-level that would soon be repossessed because the loans had been written in a language the country no longer spoke. In ’09, that was the story of Adams County, the elegy of the country, really— homes being pulled out from under us like rugs.
Mom raised honeybees and wasn’t fond of taking off her aerated beekeeping veil. She looked like an outer space nun. Through the mesh, she told me my problem was that I didn’t know how to blame myself for anything. I had to start doing right.
“But I don’t want to do anything,” I said. “That’s the point. I want to want nothing.”
“You hearing this?” she said, turning to her hives. “You see what I’m talking about?” I told her I was becoming a wandering monk. I threatened to join the US Army. I gave her a hug.
“What about that nice man Luther?” she said. “I hear he’s hiring guys like you.”
Cars, yes, but it turns out Luther had also bought land, so much land, enough land to kill a horse. In May, trucks drove over to spread dirt into an oval, a track. That’s why he bought our cars—to stock a demolition derby. Even miles away, in town, you could hear vehicles collapsing into one another, and that’s when I came to Luther for a job, holding my hands out like a cup, empty.
Piles of busted rubber tires fenced the track, and I entered slowly, passing teams of men wrenching Jeeps with gusto. In his shed I sat on a red fender and told Luther to make me a driver, a derbyman, a dead-to-the-world heel on the gas. With enough impact, I’d smash the grasping clean out of my body like a pair of dumb dice through a shattered windshield. Luther rocked in his racing seat, prayer hands pressed to his marked lip, eyes shut in one long blink. He wore a white tank top you could see his dog tag necklace through. I poked at an eraser on the table between us. There wasn’t one light on, but the toolshed shone.
Finally he said, “Todd, you consume drugs, correct?”
“What can I say?” I twisted my nose ring, smelling the sour of my cartilage. “Youth.”
We laughed at that. I was forty. The hole was infected.
“Substances deliver you a kind of . . . orgasm, yes?” Luther said, every word a whisper.
I shrugged and did not say: Yes, they used to, they once helped me see all the way to god. “Todd, the goal is to be in a state of perpetual,” he said, pointing to his temple, “orgasm.” I laughed. “And that’s why we’re creating the Track.”
When he handed me a paper, I thought it was his manifesto. He told me to read aloud:
Anybody know what this place is? This is Gettysburg. This is where they fought the Battle of Gettysburg. Fifty thousand men died right here, fightin’ the same fight that we’re still fightin’ amongst ourselves today. This green field painted red, bubblin’ with the blood of young boys. Smoke and hot lead pourin’ right through their bodies. Listen to their souls. I killed my brother with malice in my heart. Hatred destroyed my family. Listen, take a lesson from the dead.
For a second, I felt heroic. I couldn’t put my finger on the film the words were from, but it felt like one where when people fall down, they keep getting back up and keep getting back up.
“I’ll employ you as my anchorman,” Luther said. “You’ll narrate the races. Remind the crowd precisely why they’re here, why they want to return.” I shook my head no. Airtime was the one drug I could not do anymore. If you’re listening to this, you know I’ve relapsed.
Remember the Titans. That was the movie. And Luther—a titan. Tycoon. A tyrant-to-be. I heard people outside the shed laughing, saws coughing into metal. Luther stood up from his cockpit, came around the table, and put his hands on my shoulders. I shivered, but it felt holy.
“Can’t I just clean the dirt?”
“You’ve got to be somebody before you can be nobody,” he said, pulling an I-9 from a glove compartment nailed to the wall. Had he been reading my old mystic books? In his words I heard Thich Nhat Hanh and bits of Be Here Now—ideas rang familiar but newly bold, glossy, like chrome. Luther handed me the form. I read it aloud, but Luther wouldn’t laugh until I signed.
Luther tore tickets. Luther sang the anthem. Luther sold snacks. Luther mopped the johns. Luther meditated alone. And for these reasons, he didn’t watch the derbies. And because he couldn’t watch, it was important to him that the story I told through the loudspeaker rocked. I used a voice other than my natural and hid in a booth made from the detached cab of a Durango. With my microphone and my Diet Mountain Dew, I said everything I saw.
The Excursion is, oh boy, turning, gunning, and the Civic doesn’t know it, but he’s about to get a RUDE wake-up. And on rude, the cars crashed. Mud flew. Every once in a while, something came on fire. I popped addies to keep my focus, E to get the crowd excited. I narrated from the perspectives of the cars everyone loved. Your Avalanches, Chargers, Colorados, and Broncos—anything sounding ripped from the West. They whooped and booed at my command. I couldn’t help it, becoming someone again. My ego ate up every noise they made.
There goes Crown Vic, America’s hero! The crowd would erupt. Lick ’em good, Vic!
One night Luther motioned for me to roll down the window and handed me a thesaurus. I started using careen, incognito, tragicomedy. I said indigent and aroused.
Admit it: when Punch Bug surrenders to the barrel roll, you feel a UNIQUE arousal.
And on unique my crowd would tear a hole through the air.
Sometimes when a part fell off a car, I’d declare a dance-off, and anyone in the audience who wanted that bumper or that mirror or that broken, melting helmet would stand up on the bleacher and shake it. Our camera guy would shoot slow across the rows until I found a dancer I couldn’t criticize. The winner got to run out on the track and pick a prize.
In the parking lot, after all was smashed and done, Luther would gather lingering fans for a last beer, gratis, and do what Luther did best. Often he’d stand on the cooler. He’d whip out this statistic I think he made up, about the average Pennsylvanian spending three hundred hours driving every year. “Each of these precious minutes is spent on a road that’s designed to take them exactly where they’ve been told to go. You comprehend?” Forceful but breezy was the way he spoke. “We’ve forgotten that we can color outside the lines.” Some listeners would stay on, join up. Our crew grew large.
There’s no denying how magnetizing it was to see your own car out there on the Track, broken and totaled but—my god—firing back up again. How the motor always, eventually, turned over. Within a month, we started running double features, Sunday specials. Eventually, Luther lent me a car, not to smash, but to use. It was a Celica, which means cosmic. I backed it up into all of Colt’s motorcycles on the day I left his place for good.
One night in July, I found Luther behind the bleachers, swinging a sledge at a wrecked RAV4.
“Go ahead and clock out, Todd.” Luther swung underhanded at the front tire, and the hammer bounced from his hands. He sat in the dirt and nursed his wrist. “Meaning farewell.”
“Mind if I take a swing?” I said, not wanting to leave. Luther shrugged.
I swung. I swung, and in a minute it was obvious that all we want is to be young again.
Luther watched me lay into the windshield—once, nothing; twice, shatter—and then asked if I would hold a second. He climbed into the back of the car and sat still in the middle seat. Legs crossed applesauce, he held his hands together at his chest. Luther let his eyelids close.
“Use the vehicle,” Luther said. “Perform your tantra, the physicality of enlightenment.” And I heaved the hammer up, a slow arc, and brought it down like a house. The back bumper cracked and a cloud of spiders poured out. Like a hangnail, that bumper hung on until I slammed it again. I swung until the thing was in pieces. Until the make and the model and the year disappeared. These were things that didn’t matter anymore: the make, the model, the year, the future, the past. Things like what we know. What mattered was the place you built to go inside your head. What mattered was your sanctuary. Not what was coming down all around you.
“But remember, it is only a vehicle,” he said. “Never become dependent on your vessel.”
My knees buckled when the Toyota looked like gum, chewed. Luther’s aura glowed louder than ever. The ceiling liner drooped down around his shoulders. A tear in the upholstery made it look like the car had swallowed his skull. I got in and sat passenger—we meditated together. You could hear the moon. Time got loose.
“What is the first of the five Yamas of Yoga?” Luther whispered. He didn’t wait because I didn’t know. “It is ahimsa, or nonkilling. Then nonstealing, nonjealousy, continence . . . and?”
The last was truthfulness.
Luther made money, so much money, but he only seemed as happy as the guy on top of a consolation trophy—always smiling with his teeth tight. My pay was decent, and I hardly protested when Colt came weekly to collect half my dough. I just gave it over like always.
You have to remember, I was trying so hard not to want anything. I helped the food crew with their gardens and tried to practice detachment: if the tomatoes ripened they ripened, and if they rotted they rotted. Some were stolen in the night, and I failed; I cared. What Luther preached was the abdication of attachment. No more clinging. I gave his weekly speeches to the crew. You must detach from your sense of morality. Without bad there is no good; all good creates all bad. There is no hippie without a cop. The goal here is to start sensing all phenomena as one—no good, no evil, just is.
Luther, my boss. Luther, something else. I didn’t want to let him down, so I helped him transform the Track into a compound. We made bleachers from bench seats, captain’s chairs, the railing cobbled together with pipes. A bus chassis became the foundation for a bunkhouse, though Luther used the term dormitory. Dozens of us worked 24/7. On shelves made of mangled doors, Luther built a library of Eastern thought, and it featured all my old books.
In a month, we had a kind of halfway home built out of automobiles. I wasn’t the only one who started sleeping there. Drivers boarded too, taking turns cooking eggs for breakfast. I’d try to get them talking about their jobs, about how it felt to destroy the body you were trapped inside. “Do you ever get the urge to take the helmet off?” I tried. But they ignored me. Maybe they hated my affinity with Luther, our intimacy, the way he touched my head during meditation? Maybe it had to do with Colt coming by and taking my money every Friday. Our security team made me meet him on the street, and as I handed over the money, you could hear them spitting. They called me Told, as in Does what he’s told.
Luther, they loved. He’d given their lives purpose—kindhearted ex-cons, crabby old men, stupid kids addicted to pills and Monster Energy, women who’d left the shelter forever. They would follow him into battle, me high up on my horse with the bullhorn, calling out Luther’s messages to our rabid audiences: How many of you lost a home? The government and the bankers—they gambled away our lives! The Track is a home. Let go of what you’re grasping for, what’s always slipping through your fingers. Show us you’re ready, sell us your car, join us tonight!
One night, during our weekly RAV4 session, a schoolteacher who’d quit her job to work at the Track came by with a question about using chunks of rubber in the children’s play area. I was cloaked in sweat from hammering the car, and Luther’s head was lost inside the drooping upholstery.
She looked shaky when she said: “Just want confirmation from you before we—”
“Excuse me,” Luther yelled into the Toyota’s ceiling. “Did you observe the two of us before you approached?” She winced. “Never interrupt when Todd and I are fellowshipping!”
It wasn’t like him to yell. The woman left, ignoring my wave goodbye. I remember thinking: Wait, we have a children’s play area? I tried to clear my head, resume concentration, but Luther’s hand grabbed my shoulder: “Who’s the man who takes your money each week?”
“The one who comes every Friday on a motorcycle. Who steals your pay and leaves.”
“Oh, he’s just someone I owe.”
“The only one you owe is you,” he said. “Tell me the truth. What have you hidden?”
The thing with Colt was kind of a shakedown. The drug debts were done, but he had a video of me from a few years back, full throttle on a mix of pills, stealing a Shetland pony from the mounted police unit at Jefferson Carnival. Officers on horses, if you can believe it. One cop had his kid there, holding the reins of this short shaggy horse, posed beside a sign that said BE SOMEBODY! During some chaos with the Gravitron, I snuck the little horse into a field and fed it tomatoes, just so many tomatoes, and by morning it died.
Colt had been there, filming, because we filmed everything back then. We thought we belonged on TV. Earlier in my life, Colt had been a wild friend who raised my temperature, plus my supplier—the means for my journey to anywhere but Gettysburg. But the day after the pony’s death, I told Colt I was done for good, and what he did was send the video to my bosses at the radio station. Now that I had left him for the Track, I knew he’d show the cops if I gave him a reason, if I stopped paying. I had a record for possession already. Theft from the cops, the murder of a horse—I could never handle prison. The word for all this was extortion, I think.
“You’re under remote control,” Luther said, eyes closed, his cleft scar trembling.
“Nah, it’s just nothing. I’m not attached to it.”
“Brother Todd,” Luther whispered. “You can’t let something go until it’s gone.”
Next weekend, Luther unleashed a new special event: DOUBLE-WIDE DEMOLITION. In the center of the track, a ramp made of recycled metal led to the front door of a local sap’s mobile home. Luther had given the guy ten large, a gig as a greeter, and a bunk in the dorm, which everyone was now calling a barracks. From the stands, the old man waved at the camera. The engines ignited. Every single onlooker lost it, screaming. You could hear us from space.
Ladies and gentlemen, I said. Prepare yourselves. But I didn’t know what for. I was terrified. Because I think we’re about to cross a line!
And on line, the Crown Vic wrecking-balled through the wall. The owner had left his pictures up, his bookshelves full. The ruined pages caught up in the dust like leaves.
That night, we had a team meeting. Drivers, grounds and food crew, construction, visitor experience, recruitment—all of us. Luther bowed, waved, smiled, and then handed me a script.
Tonight we embark on a groundbreaking drive. We’re bringing the demolition to the customer. In order to release them from their material lives, we will erase their homes. We will be the Amazon-dot- com of carnage. This customer has paid handsomely, and we need the funds to complete the transformation of this dirt lot into the temple we deserve. I need five drivers—and here, the hands went up, just so many hands—you’re going to the Viewbridge Trailer Park off Lincoln Highway, Lot 21. There is one rule, which is to make the place rubble.
I couldn’t comprehend the words I’d been fed, but the address was familiar. Soon, five drivers had their engines revving. I found Luther at the RAV4 and handed him my questions, each one boiling down to Why? and What is this? I passed the barracks and wondered why exactly we needed a barracks. Colt. It was Colt’s address. Don’t just do something. Sit there.
“Your drug dealer is stealing from the whole community,” Luther said, his head in the roof. “Do you want to waste your life being hustled, or do you want to locate peace?”
“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” I said. “You know . . . ahimsa?”
“Pain, pleasure—feelings are only chemicals,” he said. “It’s all the same thing: nothing. And, relax. Colt is not presently inside his domicile.” A muffled noise came from the trunk. I’d given Luther my car, my man-hours, my voice. For all that happened at the Track, I was guilty.
And I still am, listeners—don’t forgive me.
“Brother Todd, I understand. Colt was once your vehicle to enlightenment, and his drugs showed you, for a brief moment, the light,” Luther said. “Let all of that go. The light is inside.”
In the dirt I found the sledgehammer and put it through the back window. Screams came from the trunk. “I quit,” I said. “I want to leave. I’m leaving.”
Luther called a car, and in a minute, a Volkswagen was idling beside me. When I got in, the driver—a woman wearing a welding mask—locked the doors. I didn’t know where to tell her to take me, and I felt relieved when she chose the direction. Luther did not wave goodbye.
Minutes later, there I was, sitting shotgun in a Golf, ten headlights beaming on the home I used to clean. We were a spacecraft that, as the engines revved, was about to ascend. I didn’t try to stop it. That night, I only used my voice to scream. An old woman in curlers watched us from a next-door window, shaking her head. We passed through Colt’s weak walls like a gale force, the plastic siding and plywood shattering around us. I heard cats howl. The radio was on inside. When we reached the backyard what we did was reverse.
Colt stopped coming by the Track on Fridays. I didn’t know what happened to him. I still don’t.
By the end of August, we had a mess hall, fitness center, studios where artists made mosaics from the shards. My mom, newly evicted, kept the gardens stocked with pollinators. There was a position here for anyone. We shipped in red clay for the derby surface because dirt slowed you down. Under the new halogen lights, the slick adobe shined. Turnouts skyrocketed, standing room only. The Track was like a university, an outpost on the moon—the dust of crushed glass embedded in the clay and made everywhere we walked look like a Kingdom.
But it started to feel like a jail to me. I took long worried walks past our blooming gardens, through the junkyard, Brothers and Sisters watching and whispering in their own earthy language. Yes, there were issues with trust. To use my car, I had to ask Luther for gas, so I stopped driving. Nobody talked to me. Even Luther was a cold shoulder. Nights I could hear him fellowshipping with others, the sound of hammers on metal ringing through my sleep. I went to the library, looking for guidance, but the only book left was Sun Tzu’s Art of War.
I still narrated the derbies, though poorly. I rooted for and preached about the inner lives of the cars the crowd hated, the ones they booed—the black Bonneville, the knock-off Oscar Mayer hot dog bus that couldn’t turn, the pink VW bug doing donuts in the back. Don’t trust anyone, Punch Bug. Believe in your true essence! Crowds, kids, members of our hundred-person staff would come to the window of my booth and beat the glass. The cars went at each other like bulls, and I was hoarse-throated and high, yelling: Any place you stand at all you are vulnerable! Truly, there is nowhere to stand! To make it out of this ring, you must find a way to be formless! Oh no, the bus is gunning it. Here she comes. Unless you’ve found a way to disconnect your mind from your physical body, folks, this one’s going to hurt even you fuckers up in the nosebleeds!
The night of my last derby, the Crown Vic, fan favorite, was destroying everyone. Vic could take all manner of damage—windows busted, roof caved, bumpers barely holding on. Painted like one of those rocket popsicles, smashed like a stepped-on flag, I called the Vic French just to spite the audience. The only other car left on the track was the much-hated, all-black Pontiac #0.
Long live number zero! You’re an old soul and misunderstood! Our beautiful audience, listen to me: Go home. This is not healthy!
And the crowd chanted back: LO-SER, LO-SER, CRUSH HIM, PO-LICE CRUIS-ER.
More like, Le Cruisiér, I yelled into the microphone. You French fuck!
The cars raced, and the packed stands turned feral. Luther came to my window. I refused to roll it down. He berated me through the glass, asked who the hell I thought I was.
“If you want to leave, Lieutenant Todd,” he said, “there’s the fucking door!” But he was pointing to his forehead. And bleeding from the nose. Out on the track, the car chase ended when #0 finally drove through the black rubber boundary and escaped, but the hero still needed someone to hit. Luther signaled like a coach. Fifty yards away, Crown Vic turned toward me.
Yes, I said into the mic. Do it.
Vic came, pedal down, straight for my booth. I watched it coming. You’re still listening, so I imagine you want to know what I saw: I saw America take her helmet off.
Here comes a pancake! I narrated, gripping the dashboard. Or should I say CRÊPE!?
And on crêpe, the cop car came through the gate like a fist, but I rolled out of the booth before it went up and over, slamming down on its ceiling, my Diet Mountain Dew all over the fractured glass. Unscathed, I looked out at the crowd, their faces elated, bewildered, mouths agape, children crying, the moon above our whole scene doubled-over with laughter. Luther vanished into the crowd of bystanders. The Vic did donuts in front of the concession stands. I saw nothing sacred, no one I trusted. I heard nothing truthful. Then I saw the #0 abandoned in the corner of the ring, which is where I ran, screaming.
The #0 started right away, but the thing was, it didn’t turn left. Fans pointed and yelled as I drove in circles past the stands. When the gate opened up to let Crown Vic loose on me, and the roar of the stands reached tsunami levels, I gunned it for the exit and crashed through the gate door, knocking down half the pit crew. But I was out. I maneuvered right through the parking lot toward the exit, a break in the wall of tires. The engine rattled like a mob of neighbors knocking at your door. Above me: a hole in the ceiling I could see the stars through. The road opened, but there was still this feeling of being trapped, and I thought of Luther’s theory about how we only go where past roads lead, but when I saw the sign for Route 30, the Pennsylvania highway that’s rumored to run all the way to California, a sense of freedom filled me, and I chose it, but it was a left-hand exit, so the car kept going straight—straight through a red light, down an embankment, and end over end. My heart fell into my head, totaled my brain. Have you ever felt your karma clear? I thought I would have zeroed out. Things broke I didn’t know could break when the car landed on its windshield, obliterating the dash, raining debris—but I wasn’t free of anything.
At the police station, they asked me questions, and I asked for help.
“I think I’m in a cult,” I said, and the room was silent. “But I still feel alone.”
Detective Ulrich explained everything they already had on me— the horse, the trailer I helped demolish (the neighbor lady had ID’d me), the reckless driving, the drug possession. Apparently, she had sent a pair of officers down to the Track recently to investigate Colt’s disappearance, but they ended up selling their cars and quitting the force. Ulrich wanted me to wear a wire. Here it was, another cycle. Again I asked the question I still ask to this day: Will I ever escape a microphone? She patted my hand with hers, and if I’d been the old Todd, I might have fallen in love, followed her to war, but no, I didn’t trust her. Trust for people does not exist in me anymore, regardless of the fact that we are all waves breaking on the same shore. Her voice sounded as if it had fallen into a well, like she was speaking through a straw. I kept slipping into some space between awake and sleep, and she interpreted that as me nodding yes.
Not all heroes wear capes. This I know because Luther had started wearing one. I found him the next night out behind the bleachers, lying facedown on the hood of a Focus. At first I thought it was a red blanket draped across his back. For that second he seemed dead, my order to trick some confession out of him now pointless, the tiny microphone taped to my chest just a moot joke.
“Luther,” I said. “Captain.”
“Lieutenant Brother Todd,” he said, still as a statue, cheek squished against the windshield. “I have a new job for you.” His voice was smoothing out, like he was about to buy something of mine. But I had nothing left to sell, so I rushed into what I’d come to ask.
“Do you remember my friend Colt?” I said, sticking to the script Ulrich had given me. The car groaned as Luther rose, the red cloth Velcroed around his bulging neck. He looked dead. “Friend?” he said. He took hold of my shoulders and looked me in the eyes, his pupils almost nonexistent. “You know what I saw in the Middle East, Todd? Bedlam. Chaos. Even our regiments, our own commanders, inept. I’ve been listening to the Tao on audiobook, and you know what I hear? It’s chaos all the way down. If nothing exists, then there’s sure as hell no order. The bank took my fucking house, and I thought I had nothing. The house my father built was no longer mine. But now? Now I have a sanctuary. As do you, Brother! And the government is worried that we found it! They’re watching us, Todd! I’m seeing things, things I don’t like!”
“Are we going to be attacking any more homes?” I said, enunciating.
“Brother.” He touched my head. “I never had a friend like you. Will you do me a favor?”
His boot was untied, and I swear, some part of me tried to kneel down and knot it.
“Please,” he said. “Get into the back of the Focus.” My legs shook as I stood my ground, but Luther grabbed me by the nose ring, pulled me to the trunk. Inside, I tucked into the fetal position as he slammed the door. “Knock once if you want salvation,” Luther said. “Twice if you need hell.” And for what felt like all the years I had been alive, hail the size of hammerheads fell. The loud was so powerful that I could hear my own soul squeaking. I tucked my nose down into the collar of my T-shirt and whispered, Luther buys cars. Luther buys cars. But the codeword wasn’t working, because I didn’t hear sirens. All I heard was Luther’s sledgehammer falling hard against the trunk, the metal pinching down like teeth, pinning me in. Have you ever tried to picture all the people who love you standing shoulder to shoulder in a field? It was just an empty field. Where was Ulrich? Couldn’t she hear me? Listen: don’t forgive me. Don’t feed tomatoes to horses. Only be someone if you have a reason. Is anyone listening to this? Colt and I wept together burying that animal. Man, if you’re hearing this somehow, email me, we’ll have you on, dude, we’ll let you tell it. I say we as if it isn’t just me alone in this studio. Jesus, I hate this part.
From inside that tiny trunk, I could hear the engines of derby cars, their backfires, the footsteps from our hundred-person crew. The whole Track crept close through the quiet night. It was dark in the trunk, but light poured in when the backseat dropped forward and Luther handed me a mic. I accepted it. His script was simple, a long apology, a rant in which I begged forgiveness.
“Anybody know what this place is?” I whispered my final address. “This is Gettysburg.” And when I got to the part about the field bubbling red with the blood of brothers, I went off script and tried my best to give the police reasons to swarm. “We’re going out tonight in cars. We will demo downtown until it is rubble. Sword Store. Gun Depot. Wine and Spirits. We’re going to meet back here and wait for the rest of town to arrive. They might bring guns, but we’ll show them what to point them at. The world. The rest. The country. They might bring pitchforks, but we’ll put them to work in the fields. If they bring torches, we’ll cook s’mores. If they bring dogs, we’ll have pets.” I wondered if I was the only one who could hear the sirens.
“We built something here, a new way of living,” I said, giving it every ounce of personhood I had left. “Put your hand up if Luther bought your car. Now close your eyes. Keep that hand raised if you would sell it again.”