By David Nutt - Feb 26, 2019
The following excerpt is from THE GREAT AMERICAN SUCTION, David Nutt’s debut novel, available now from Tyrant Books.
A long day on his yard machine has reduced Shaker to a genteel cast. He feels slack and accommodating as he ramps the mower and straps it on the flatbed with bungee rope, a canvas tarp. Hob and Munk and Arnold and Flander are gathering the hacksaws and pruning shears from their triage area around a sick elm. The pill-and-pipe addict, Thin, who also has a special fondness for chinchillas and mixed martial arts, unbuckles himself from his Weed Eater and bags the lengthy contraption in a duffel that’s almost his own height. His custom is to stand around most mowing sites with one hand hooked on his belt loop, the other shakily harvesting snot crust from his nostril. He wears the sloughed-off expression of a meatloaf drooping under too many watts. A month ago, Shaker saw the man rove his Weed Eater over his own sneaker, ventilating the toe tip. And the expression on Thin’s face when it happened, a bored expression, unimpressed.
Now Shaker watches him stealthily while pretending to double-check the flatbed fasteners, the knots and pulleys and locks. After Thin has dragged the sacked contraption onto the flatbed and weighted it in place with another duffel full of tools, he catches Shaker staring. Each of Thin’s nostrils gives a rabid twitch, like a rodent deranged on pharmaceuticals. One of his precious chinchillas, perhaps.
“Something crawl up your ass and bivouac there?” Thin asks.
“I am in top form.”
“Just like that jungle gym.”
Thin points to the titanium skeleton that Shaker accidentally strafed with his side bumper not one hour ago. The play equipment now leans too prominently to the left.
“I’m seeing contrails,” whispers Thin.
“Everywhere, man. Streaks and halos. Sunsets and controlled burns. I’m popping pills by the fistful, and I’m still weed-whacking my shit straight.”
“You are that good.”
Thin has his thumbs hooked over his trouser waistband, deputy style. He takes a lazy yawn and arches an eyebrow. “You partying tonight?”
Shaker has been invited to similar soirees in the past but always declines because his life is not exactly lacking in blackouts, hangovers, bleak palls, and bleaker depressions. But Shaker is feeling genteel, after all, and lately the furniture in his duplex seems to be crawling away from him.
Shaker mimics the yawn and says, “Maybe.”
“Well, the maybe truck is gassed to the maybe brim and about to pull the maybe fuck out,” Thin replies, but Shaker is already scrambling into the middle seat.
The party site is not a ramshackle cabin or doublewide trailer as Shaker expects, but rather a two-story Greek Revival with garage and porch and tire-swing in the backyard. Shaker follows Thin and Munk into a cathedral foyer that culminates in an arched window of stained glass, kaleidoscopic colors filtered around the staircase and walls. Shaker shambles along, dazed by the surreal palette. He enters the kitchen where Roderick Bartholomew is already at work, breaking apart a brown brick.
“Cap’n Bartholomew took a personal day,” Thin tells Shaker. “Prep time, you understand? Plus expenses.”
Thin’s hand is extended in anticipation. Shaker self-consciously inspects his own hands, noting a fine crescent of black gunk under each fingernail. Then he realizes he’s being solicited. He tweezes a twenty from his wallet and tries not to visibly wince as he forks it over. A whole week in grocery funds.
“Danke,” says Thin. “Make yourself at home.”
“Where’s the pisser in this place?” Shaker asks.
Thin spins around the kitchen, innocently perplexed, like a young tourist who has strayed too far from his hostel. “Anybody know where el baño is at?”
“Negative,” Roderick murmurs as he sorts through a collection of razor blades fanned across the granite countertop. He selects one, tests it on his thumb cuticle, and begins slicing the brown mound in surgical increments. “Minnesotan is locked in the attic. Dude was spooking me so much I couldn’t concentrate on Sargent Rock here.”
Thin looks at Shaker and shrugs. “Happy hunting.”
Shaker wanders back to the foyer and ascends the staircase, blinking at all the wild peacock colors, and tours the unfurnished upstairs. Bathroom, bedrooms, closets, all empty. The only indication of human life is the footfalls and squashy thumps from the attic. The Minnesotan—who is, in fact, a seventh-generation Ohioan—has long maintained a fabled reputation among the local community of huffers, snuffers, dullards, and ne’er-do-wells. Shaker has witnessed the man stumble through a rich array of social milieus and wilt rather splendidly in each of them. But Shaker can’t remember ever once seeing him open his mouth and actually speak.
Shaker finds no papers to rummage, no trunks to ransack. He enters a nice, wide room and urinates in the middle of it. He hops over the briny lake of effluent, already starting to stink, and inscribes his initials in a dusty windowpane, then heads down the staircase. Munk meets him in the foyer, squinting up through the religious sunlight, a sack of kitty litter under each arm.
“Hey, new guy,” says Munk. “Gimme a hand.”
Shaker grabs a bag. “I’ve been on that machine all summer. What’s new about that?”
“New guy always gets put on the machine. Working with clippers and rakes and spades, those are professional hallmarks.”
“Hallmarks,” Shaker nods.
“Look at me, son. I am an artisan with an artisan’s hands. Touch them.”
Shaker looks at the hands. Plenty of black gunk. Shaker hefts his bag as if it’s lighter than it really is and carries it past the kitchen to an alcove in the darkened den, where the drug squatters have relocated. Thin and Roderick and Flander and two people Shaker doesn’t recognize are hunched around a table. On the table is a fish. The two strangers are operating a large bicycle pump/bong hybrid, one pumping it, the other inserting its transparent tube into the fish’s mouth. The fish is spiny, zebra-colored, and it inflates to light-bulb size.
“Okay,” one says. “Quick quick quick.”
Thin, sliding on a pair of robust metalworker gloves, grabs the fish and holds it at nipple level, tilts down his head, and he simultaneously squeezes the sea creature and sucks its smoky, juicy output. His pale face is clenched, his arm shaking. The men all unleash a festive football cheer while Shaker stares, his own stomach in a grotesque torque.
“Well?” Thin gasps, his face brick red, handing the fish and glove to Shaker. “You partying or not?”
Two days later, Shaker is still trying to get home, schlepping the same strip of churned gravel again and again, facial muscles in frantic conniption, searching for his shoes and socks. The undersides of his feet are blistered and inscrutable as artichokes. The black gunk is prevailing. His shoes and his socks are somewhere along this dark and dirty road. He knows they are.
His teeth will not stop humming.
When Shaker was a schoolboy and first asked for a dog, his mother sighed theatrically, set her perennial wineglass aside, and sat her son on her knee. “I asked for a puppy, too, when I was your age,” she told him. “A boxy-faced Schnauzer that was uniquely coarse-haired and spritely and even in its best moments carried a strong smell of liverwurst. The first day out of the crate, it ran off the porch and bit the milkman. We had milkmen in those days, dear. Real bastions of civic integrity. The milkman sued us for the dog bite, and my parents countersued because he wasn’t technically our milkman, he was our neighbor’s milkman. We may have also sued the neighbor. The municipality got involved because the puppy wasn’t licensed, and the code-enforcement gestapo intervened because half our land fell outside the city line and was only zoned for livestock and poultry. At some point, my parents hired a private investigator, although for the life of me I can’t remember why. There’s no happy ending to this story. The boy wants a puppy, he will have a puppy.” She pinched a small piece of Shaker’s young cheek. “But the moment you take your eyes off that dog, I will let it off its leash, open the front gate, sit back, and watch the fireworks unfold. Because life is all about the little lessons.”
This morning, Shaker takes his time in the bathroom, gargling mouthwash and salt water and dribbling most of it on the floor. Then he enjoys a modest breakfast of stale cereal and three slices of wheat toast charred so horrifically unrecognizable they require forensic identification. He scarfs down his breakfast while standing in his front room, looking through the window at his own paltry yard, long unmowed, shaggy and pointless, an elegy to all the unruliness Shaker cannot cull or calm or quarantine in his own life.
There is only one choice of pet store. Avalon Animals is a dark, unsymmetrical affront to retail architecture; there’s nothing boxy or bright or antiseptic about it. The fluorescent lights and air conditioning are turned off, yet the store is open. Inside, Shaker wanders the long aisles. He tries not to get too distracted by the caged toucans and hermit crab colonies and ferrets siesta’ing in their nylon hammocks, not when what he really wants to visit are the tanked fish. He shuffles up to the wide glass, which is layered with his own ghastly reflection. He pinches his lower lip. Licks his hair into stead. The tank is fishless. Just brackish water and a set of car keys sunk among the bottom pebbles. Shaker approaches the bland, pretty cashier to query her about special orders, baked brains, lost socks. The woman has a loose-hanging face and creamy complexion, her cheek skin so slack a person could basket apples in it. Something about the woman perturbs him. Shaker nods and smiles and rushes out the door without saying anything at all.
At least he is able to competently navigate himself home. Rather than park at the duplex, however, he continues to circle his neighborhood, loop upon loop upon loop, like a recent parolee awed by the restless, golden fields of freedom, looking for something warm and familiar to burgle.
This house is a rustic colonial on a county route placed far back among pines and nettles so that, seen from a distance, only the house’s gambled rooftop is announced from the green. The men are in the backyard patio area, gathered around a sand-filled bocce ball court. Silently, they stare at the sand, a pensive brood. Some recently smoked puffer fish rests in a swirl of brown juices on the grill. The men, six of them, are utterly transfixed, as if worshiping an ancient and enigmatic shrine.
Shaker has slunk into a hypnotic trance of his own. He’s settled among the luau-themed patio equipment, feeling oddly tender as he surveys the scene. Behind a shrub wall, the Minnesotan is spread-eagle on the grass, his face planted in a patch of poison oak. A many-tentacled bicycle-pump bong is coiled like a sea monster on a patio table alongside some blackened glass. Everything seems narcotized and inert in a shoebox diorama type of way. Shaker takes a sip from his canteen and reclines his bamboo-stick chair. Soon he is submerged in a dream terrain of impenetrable suburban fortresses built entirely from PVC conduit and torched Pyrex.
When Shaker wakes, his throat is parched and his canteen has vanished. The sun is declining. A boom box blares a dubbed cassette of high-velocity power thrash sung in garbled Paraguayan, and someone has taken a malicious piss in the bocce sand. The urinater possessed both remarkable volume and trajectory, resulting in a dark stain six feet in diameter, a spiral vortex design. Shaker inspects the stain in genuine puzzlement and decides to seek inspiration elsewhere. He looks through the window into the colonial’s kitchen. The supply table is collaged with knives and skillet and skin and aquatic guts. Munk is taking deep hits from a plastic pen pressed to a puffer wrapped in tinfoil. Flander assists with the flame. The lit fish changes colors, turquoise-striped to speckled yellow.
Back on the patio, Thin is spazzing his limbs in crazy windmill arcs, unable to dance coherently to the rampaging music. Shaker retracts his legs onto his chair and realizes his feet are naked and cold. His new boots are gone. There is also, vaguely, a tweeze in his arm. Shaker holds up the arm and sees a spiny fish stuck in the soft meat of his elbow. His mouth is numb, his voice box, his face. None of it can yell. Shaker stumbles off the chair, barefoot and terrified, trying to shake off the freaky thing. Only by utilizing a pair of barbecue tongs is he able to successfully detach himself.
The other men are too rapt with their own stupors to commiserate. Shaker returns to his seat, kicks his bare feet back up, and notices a second and third fish dangling from the flab of each thigh. Defeated, he reattaches the original fish to his swollen artery, which he guesses is an aorta of some sort.
After a while, Shaker can’t resist. He raises the arm, rotates it slowly in the low tiki light, admiring his new appendage, and that’s how he catches sight of the female clerk from the pet store. She is standing in the kitchen, passing a basketful of spiky fish—all of them bagged in gleaming water, like prizes from a boardwalk game—to Roderick, who in turn trades her a clam of cash. The woman recedes from view.
Shaker is already on his feet and stumbling around the side of the house, but he gets snarled in some pine branches. By the time he extracts himself from the foliage and glimpses the woman again, she is disappearing into the passenger side of a damaged hatchback. The calico vehicle’s fender is secured via rope and electrician tape, and there is a Caution: Student Driver placard in the rear window. An unfamiliar man, slump shouldered, menacing in size, looms at the steering wheel. The car backs down the driveway, going a little crooked across the yard and grazing the curb. And then it is gone.
Roderick is still in the kitchen straining some foul-smelling seawater through a Rube Goldberg filtration system, convoluted tubes and fizzing funnels, all jury-rigged together.
“That piss smells delicious,” Shaker says in a slur, still unable to feel his mouth.
“You do not interrupt Michelangelo when he is lying on his back with his private parts mashed against the ceiling, paint oozing in his face.”
“I guess not.” Shaker gagging on the nautical stench. “Unless you are offering a bribe.”
He points to the Tupperware tub of spiky, new deliveries. He tucks a twenty into Roderick’s chest pocket.
“You got an aquarium at home?”
“Yes,” Shaker says.
Roderick removes the surgical mask from his mouth. “Take the runt. Give it a good home. Do not give it a name. Trust me, man. Never name the thing you plan to someday smoke.”
Shaker grabs the runtiest bagged fish and holds it in his cupped hands, peering down at it like a Magic 8-Ball.
“Good morning, Junior Shaker,” he says, making googly eyes at the purple fish.
The pet store is closed and the parking lot empty, and Shaker still insists on occupying the sole handicap spot. He can’t explain his compulsion to drive back here. Maybe some simpatico toxin is still working its way around his bloodstream. Maybe he just needs a quiet place to rest. He sets Junior Shaker on the dashboard and watches the fish twirl in its big bag. Then he watches the homeless men and women across the highway. There is a whole encampment of them established on this flat parcel of rural roadside: sheets hung from tree limbs, fire pits, cardboard slabs tilted into huts. Shaker is fascinated by the industrious nomads who are not beholden. They have rearticulated the lie at the root of the frontier myth. Shaker thinks about visiting their shantytown for a few hours, sharing the homemade libations they have concocted from stale fruit and crusted gym socks, roasting varmint meat on sticks. But he just watches the show instead. His knee judders on the lifeless stereo console. He talks sporadically to his fish. Sleep comes in fits and starts and the starts of fits.
When he wakes the next morning, the sun is sautéing him through the windshield and the truck’s temperature has risen to near-volcanic levels. Shaker, slantwise on the rear seat, finds his cheek is adhered to the hot vinyl with a clump of dried drool. He digs under the cushion and discovers an expired credit card that he uses to chisel his face free. Simultaneously, a random idea is jostled loose: Shaker doesn’t own an aquarium at home. He has no large container or backyard pond—not even a decent-size pretzel bowl—to lodge the fish. But it doesn’t matter. Shaker cranks down the window to let in some ambient breeze. He fans the air with his hands to no effect. Junior Shaker is still resting on the dashboard in his shiny plastic bag, magnified in hellish sunlight, and no longer purple.
The puffer is not only dead. The blameless little guy has been poached white as an egg.
Shaker tries not to think about it. This time he uses the bunk credit card to scrape the skin off the pale corpse. At first, the scales peel easily, but Shaker is too zealous with his technique, and soon he is frantically grating the puffer like a hunk of Parmesan cheese. Shaker stuffs the skin shreds in the ashtray and plops the meat in his mouth. He swallows the evidence in a single, dutiful gulp.
“That wasn’t so awful,” he tells the reflection in the rearview mirror, a sweat-frazzled and disheveled man, lacking imagination and moral authority, who does not seem to believe him.
Read more about THE GREAT AMERICAN SUCTION, available now from Tyrant Books.