The End of the Book

They called him Grover. Navigating middle-school hallways, ducking beneath the moribund glare of fluorescent cylinders, his rickety-thin body yawing under the strain of textbooks: Hey Grover, you need some help? He does need help, in the worst way, and an entire platoon of interchangeable tormentors—Todd Abrams, Seth Bergen, Derek Jones—are available to assist his progress through the dank and petty corridors of puberty. A classic: over comes the tormentor, down go the books. Grover, you gotta be more careful. The jagged laughter of boys, the brackish stink of first-batch testosterone. Grover on his knees. Grover in the dust. Grover reassembling the crooked notes, the loose pages, the arcane tomes of an antediluvian pedagogy. Late to class, Mr. Lowen reading the roll: “Nice of you to join us, Mr. Henson.” Snicker snicker, hee hee hee. Acne-pocked humans unleashing fresh cruelty upon the aged face of earth. Worst of all: the laughter of girls, mean as a whipping. Stale air, windows closed, the sunlight an emetic poured through the blackness of space. Eyes down, notebook out, an erection he does not understand straining against his patched denim. Hey Grover, can I borrow a pencil?

Throwing a football after school with his father, the ball a spearhead cutting light, Jesus Jimmy, don’t be afraid of the goddamned thing. He steels himself against the projectile’s next arrival, plants his too-big feet in one of the thousands of potholes that quantify his subdivision’s obsolescence. He sucks fear into his black bowels. The ball arrives and he stands his ground but his too-big hands are too slow in closing or else the ball’s velocity parts them like a shim. His nose throbs with pain and oh brother here come the tears. For Christ’s sake Jimmy. Two boys ride by on ten-speeds. Schoolmates and sports enthusiasts. Young devourers of the Life Project. Nice catch Grover, one sneers, and with a snap of the head his pretty blond hair flips into magazine-spread readiness. The two cyclists look at the father who only rolls his eyes in apology, expressing his solidarity with these burgeoning men, these adolescent heirs to his musky rage. Apologizing for the oaf with the bloody nose, the accidental scion.

(The carpet’s fibers dig into his cheek. The sliding glass doors frame the darkness outside. Nothing is out there; everything is out there. Wetness from the skull-box, hissing gases escape. The Native American chieftains look scornfully down upon the prone blue boy. One leg is bent 90 degrees at the knee so that the sole of one dingy white sneaker forms a diving platform. The wetness and the heat—a heat that cools—and the shot glass with the final undrunk portion of the evening’s festivities full of what appears to be amber and glowing magically in this frozen space at the end of the book. “Jimmy? We’re home! Jimmy? Where are you Jimmy?”)

The librarian, Ms. Sniffen, speaks to them as they sit cross-legged on the carpeted oasis at the center of the dusty labyrinth of untouched books. He wants to love the books. He has a feeling that the books might be the answer to a question he doesn’t yet know how to ask. Derek Jones and a dark-haired girl with bright teeth named Anna Hattemer are seated nearby and he feels their eyes on him, knows instinctively that their muted laughter is Grover-related. He feigns ignorance, sets his eyes on Ms. Sniffen, applies corkscrew concentration to her face and her voice. Her makeup is an exercise in desperation: the way it cracks when she smiles, the way it collects in the fissures around her eyes. “Do you know what John Steinbeck said about monsters?” she’s asking. She takes the vacant-eyed murmuring as a confirmation of their collective ignorance. “He said that an ocean without monsters would be like a completely dreamless sleep. It’s the monsters, the idea of monsters, that keeps us alive.” His sweaty palm twitches. He looks down, notices again the weirdly blue hair growing there. The deadpan Derek Jones finally leans over. Grover, he hisses, you really stink. Like, you need to shower tonight. More muted laughter in a variety of colors and flavors. He is a connoisseur of torment, an anthropologist of pain. This feeling, the balloon in his chest, the stone in his throat, the valves opened in his heart and pouring liquid distress into his scabrous veins: how (the anthropologist asks) can this be what they call life? And if it is what they call life, why would anyone think life was good?

I don’t need it, he tells his mother. Turn it off. Take it away. The nightlight—a glowing Spider Man visage that has filled his bedroom with its ocher glow since his earliest days—possesses a human sort of weight. He cares what it thinks and is ashamed of his own betrayal. But he’s 14 now and far too old for a nightlight. Isn’t he? The branches outside his bedroom lean bayonet-like toward his window. The yellow moon is a capsized boat. Please, he thinks, please don’t take it from me Mommy. He tries to project these true words into her; he fashions the sentence into an arrow and fires it through milky space, aiming for her soft brain. “Okay Jimmy,” she says with a sigh. “I guess you’re not a kid anymore.” A swift motion, a thump, and Spidey’s in her fist, the light—the soul—gone dead, his oldest friend summarily executed via his executive order. She leans beside his bed and bends lower to kiss his cheek but he snaps his head away and she barely grazes his ear. He can smell her makeup. Fecund and dark-smelling, like flowers grown in tar. His heart swells. His heart is a wet, throbbing stone in a basket. Now he is immersed in the black ink of unmitigated night. A completely dreamless sleep. If only it were. Because here come the dreams . . .

“Jimmy! We’re home! Jimmy? Where are you Jimmy?”

The hot cramped schoolbus, an ontology all its own, the green seats slashed through by pens and pocketknives, each gash a crooked mouth breathing a miasma of anger and rust into this workaday perdition. Drawings of dicks spaced at intervals suggestive of code-making. And it is loud, so loud. He doesn’t know what an earthquake sounds like, or a wildfire, or a battlefield, but he would gladly volunteer for reassignment to any of these idioms. The paean of early-onset adolescence: a searing treble, a sinus-awl. He places his forehead against the window glass, wills himself to meld with its silky surface. His seat partner today is another outcast, a boy named Oscar who he hopes is earmarked for today’s sacrifice. It’s every freak for himself out here. Hey Grover, Todd Abrams screams suddenly from two rows back, opposite aisle, is that your new boyfriend? Then as if on cue, as if rehearsed-for-weeks, the population of this mobile laboratory breaks into song: Grover and Oscar sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G . . . He smiles, laughs, rolls his eyes, ignores a sharp stabbing pain at the base of his spine. I’m one of you, he tries to say with his facial expression, and I totally get it. The bus rumbles across pocked asphalt in an ongoing expression of self-loathing, descending ever deeper into Monday’s kettle-black maw.

“Remember,” his father says. “Squeeze it.” The earmuffs—plastic, yellow, greasy—are enormous and they trap the beating blood in the deep canals of his skull. He sees the scene from above: the boy in the plywood booth, the targets—metal discs suspended by wire between wooden poles—arranged at various distances, the clouds a low seasick ceiling, the gun in the boy’s hand like a T-square. He squints, aims, and gently (so gently), he squeezes. A satisfying ‘ping’ cleaves the thick air. “Hey,” says the father, “You hit one Jimmy!” He pats the boy’s shoulder, nearly knocks the weapon free. “Do it again son,” he says. And he does. And again and again. Nice job Grover, thinks Grover. There’s a good Grover. Later there is soft ice cream and hard affection and a gleam of some bastard kind of love in the old man’s tiny black eyes.

The library, again: on the orange rug whose fibers are wretched with the accumulation of hormones, a fetid salivary kind of scum. The fibers . . . why do the fibers seem so important? Ms. Sniffen has closed the cover on The Grapes of Wrath and now she’s testifying. “Our lives are like books,” she says. “There’s the opening, where anything is still possible. The middle, where choices are made and have consequences. And the end, where we seek closure, finality.” What if you stop turning the pages? That’s what Grover wants to know. What if you tie the pages shut with nautical-grade hemp? What if you erect an intratextual wall? What if you refuse to make choices or to suffer their consequences? The fluorescent lights flicker. They don’t seem to emit light so much as time. Time is trembling all around them. Hey Grover, Todd Abrams whispers, your life is the worst book I ever saw. We should burn it. He wonders: is there a last book? And what’s at the end of that?

And for all the torment, for all the meanness, the endless creativity in their verbal and physical assaults . . . do they not notice? Do they not see that he is quite literally turning blue? His palms, behind his knees, his armpits, his chest: strange blue fibers sprouting from his skin, spore-like in their delicacy.

The parental quarters: deep red-brown curtains molten with sunlight; a bed large enough to launch to sea; furniture the color of thoroughbreds; two closets facing one another and flanking the hallway between master bed and master bath. Her closet a perfumed shadowland where dresses are whispered into existence, sequins blinking from within a forbidden nebula of desire. He has dipped his hand into the liquid depth of these hanging effigies, shocked at their materiality. And in the other closet? That’s where his father keeps it. He knows because he’s watched him from the bathroom, crouched low with one eye fixed to the sliver between door and jamb. Behind the hanging suits (one navy, one gray pinstripe), beneath the two-tiered shoe rack, in the white metal box with the metal clasp. Down there in the low place the object throbs. Sometimes he can feel it glowing even from his own bedroom, or else what he feels is the object’s afterimage pulsing in another locked box, the one that contains his gray-green brain. The box of pain. Somewhere in that skull-pith is the code that makes him himself, and part of that code is most definitely it, the object in the white metal box, the keys to which, he knows, are in his father’s underwear drawer. That sad repository of gray threadbare linen. Of all places!

Homework at the kitchen table. Geometry proofs. Angles. Lengths. Givens. Sunlight blasting through the slats of the vertical blinds to imprison the boy’s gangly body in a grid of shadow. Q.E.D. “Jimmy,” his mother says. “What is this?” He knows what it is even before she unfolds the page: his manifesto, illustrated. At the center a self-portrait, blue hairy skinny monster-freak smiling insanely (or stupidly) with bright blood pouring from holes shot or slashed in its carcass. Grover as Schoolbus Seat. And then in tiny print that traces the page’s perimeter in ever-constricting boxes, print so clear and legible as to seem machine-generated, the words repeat without punctuation: there is a monster at the end of this book there is a monster at the end of this book there is a monster at the end of this book . . . His mother stares aghast into the depths of this exegesis. Maybe there are tears forming in her eyes, a supposition he refuses to verify. “What is going on inside you?” she asks in a whisper, knitting her brows. “You can talk to me Jimmy,” she says. “You know how much I love you.” His mommy. She used to hold him on her lap, read him to sleep, tuck him in, covers to his chin, her soft lips to his (hairless) cheek. He wants her body to be quicksand so that he might sink into her, live his life within the bright sweet-smelling world of her deep interior. Instead he shrugs, takes a peanut from a red ceramic bowl, places it on his tongue where it stings like sunrise. “Mom,” he says, affecting annoyance, “that’s nothing. Just some dumb thing we did in art.” He can see her wanting to believe it. Just a drawing, not a scream; her boy is fine. He’s a good boy, loving and sweet and sensitive. He sees these calculations in her face. What would it be like, he wonders suddenly and without intent, to be beheaded? For how long would the head go on thinking? His mother goes to the refrigerator, withdraws milk, goes to the counter, withdraws a glass. Milk into glass, glass delivered to boy, milk into boy. Milk pouring from all the holes bored and cut and driven into the boy, all the openings between his sacred inside world and the outer world of craggy desolation. The boy in the shadow-prison, bleeding milk. Q.E.D.

Don’t tell anyone, the note says, but I think you’re really cute. Then her name, Anna, preceded by a little heart that he initially mistakes for an arrowhead. He stands at the door of his locker, awash in its effluvia, stale food and mildew and the rank breath of the ancient school itself. He is terrified of Anna’s note. What should he do? She wants to meet him. She wants to talk to him. What is the protocol of normal boys and girls? If you receive a note, you return a note. But what would he say to pretty Anna Hattemer, with her silky black hair and her mischievous smile and her long legs and her dark eyes? He stands at his locker, withdraws a pen from somewhere therein, swiftly scribbles, I think you’re cute too! in a penmanship that is anything but machine-like. He waits for the hallways to clear, then takes it to her locker, slips it through the slats, one of the long blue hairs on the back of his hand catching painfully on a chad of rust. He feels a thousand eyes on him. Is that your girlfriend, Grover? He doesn’t know what’s real any more. Or no: he never knew. He has no idea what is happening to him or to anyone on this strange planet. The fibers on his face itch.

Later that day, in the library, he finds what he’s looking for. Alone during study period, safely caged in a cubicle abutting a dusty brick wall, he pages through the Manual of Rare and Genetic Diseases beneath a humming fluorescent tube’s ice-blue light. Morgellons. A disorder characterized by the “fixed belief that colorful fibers are embedded in or extruded from the skin.” But wait: scientists and dermatologists had yet to find any conclusive evidence of these fibers in any of the thousands of examinees who had self-diagnosed the disease. “Morgellons is thus viewed as the equivalent of delusional parasitosis, a psychosomatic disorder in the same class as other infestation-delusions but having the unique characteristic of being spread like a meme from patient to patient. That is, Morgellons could not exist without previous reports of its existence, which are bundled by the patient into preexisting psychological abnormalities.” As he reads he watches the deep blue threads emerging from the backs of his hands, rustling with his movement, a tiny forest containing his alienness. But he’d never heard of Morgellons until just now. How could he be “bundling it” into anything? Good question Grover. Why don’t you ask your girlfriend? He turns but no one is there. It’s just him and himself. His brain sizzles in its casing, alive and willful, its gases escaping.

“The boy’s a goddamn sniper,” his father says. They’re in the wood-paneled den, beneath the two oil paintings of Native American chieftains, one young and one old, who have critically surveyed the boy’s harried progress through puberty, and who now look down at this uncommon event—a party thrown at their house, adults moving through an environment previously tested only for loneliness and insularity—with something well short of approval. His father is behind the bar, playing mixologist for the first time in the boy’s memory, the bar itself and the two swivel-stools and the little lamp on whose spherical shade the word BAR glows in brilliant black all purchased optimistically at the outset of the Family Experiment and stocked with exotic liqueurs in Technicolor variety that have since aged to pure syrup. Adults with their wicked laughter, adults with darkness streaming from their eyes. His father reaches across the bar to where the boy sits on a stool, musses his hair. “You shoulda seen him Ralph. Brought him out to the range, let him shoot the .22. He couldn’t miss.” Ralph—a walking moustache in a plaid shirt—purses his lips and nods. “That so? I got some in-laws I’d like him to meet.” His father laughs his worst, most raspy laugh. “Hey Jimmy,” he says, his body stiffening as if electrically prodded, his mouth briefly suspended in an O, “have you ever tasted whiskey?”

In the bathroom. That’s where he does it. The glare bouncing across the silvery, floral-print wallpaper. Seated on the blue throw-rug, pants around his ankles. He pulls at it until it vomits up its viscous light. It is a terrible kind of pleasure made more awesome by its total unavailability to the pre-pubescent boy he was a mere two years earlier. But he was a prescient monster. He knew that a day would come when there was nothing else left to imagine, when all the pleasures had been discovered; then they could be taken from him, one by one by one. Adulthood: a state sculpted from soft clay and then indurated in the white-hot kiln of experience. The dark master spoke in the eternal night of his skull box, and it was saying: We have no choice. And the fibers on his cheek, on one cheek especially, were digging into him like white-cold wires.

The boy alone in a clearing in the woods behind the school. The sun low in the sky, a cool orange dye dumped into its center. The thin rustle of foliage, the distant Doppler of a train. He holds the crumpled note in his moist, furry palm. Meet me in the meadow behind the track. Don’t tell anyone! He affects the demeanor of a boy—or no, of a man—walking leisurely through the woods without worry or intent. He hums to himself, speaks to a sparrow as it squirms through a bed of fallen leaves, cleaning itself maybe or else losing its tiny avian mind. He crouches down, extends one hand to the bird. It starts as a gesture of solidarity, but then he decides to hold the pose so that when Anna rounds the bend (if she does round the bend) he will appear both masculine and tender. A Naturalist in His Element. He hears her before he sees her. The bird takes off with a tiny scream and he rises in a panic. She’s coming up the path! He does not know how to act or what to say. He re-molds his face into his best and most adult smile (never mind the crooked teeth untouched by orthodontists, never mind the too-big lips or the blue hairs collecting at their corners) and turns the face toward Anna just as she breaks into view. Her eyes: scar-like slits in her brown face. Her hands: raised as if to say, Hold it right there, mister. “Jimmy,” she says, her voice trembling with what he initially takes to be fear. Her face burns with sunlight but the eye-slits are black as outer space. “I’m so sorry,” she says. “They made me.” Then he hears the snickering that defines his time among the humans. They emerge one by one. Hidden in the trees all along, witnesses to his charade. “Oh Grover,” Todd Abrams swoons in falsetto, “I love you sooooo much. Give me a kiss you stinky-ass freak!” What to do? Can’t run. Can’t fight. Derek Jones approaches, one fist beating the air as if it were a snare drum. The boy’s brain fires a chemical cocktail into his flaming bloodstream and he is lifted from his blue body; he watches the scene unfold from above the treetops, the skinny boy down there raising his fists in an absurd pantomime of resistance. What an unlikely protagonist! Don’t turn the page, the voyeur thinks. But the pages, they keep turning.

“Jesus Christ,” his father prays, “what the fuck is wrong with you?” It’s not him, Grover, on the receiving end of this inquiry. It’s the boy’s mother. And she is not easily cowed. “You think you’re making him a man?” she screams. “Whiskey? Guns?” She lifts a glass from the kitchen table and hurls it impressively toward her husband. The glass shatters inches from his head and sprays its shrapnel across the gray tile. The patriarch smiles: Now we’re having fun. From his spot in the adjacent wood-paneled den (having just entered through the sliding glass doors), the boy is, for the moment, invisible. Now mother lifts a second glass—perhaps they were enjoying refreshments just prior to his ingress—and fires away. This time she misses badly and the glass plays a sadder set of notes toward the keyboard’s upper range. “Ohhhh,” his father says, wide-eyed. “So you wanna break shit?” He goes to the faux-walnut cabinet, opens it and peers into the vault. One by one the ceramic dishes emerge like LPs in his rough red hands. “You wanna break shit?” he repeats. Everyone is screaming now, including (it must be said) the boy himself, though his screams occur somewhere deep within his (rib)cage. The dishes crash and shatter. It’s a fugue, a dark sonata scored on flash paper and performed exactly once. He watches it, rubbing his blue-furred face, the scream worming its way deeper into his innards.

He has a song on “repeat.” A reverb-drenched liquid-spooled melancholia. I am sinking, croons the crooner. I am sinking. He pours another dollop of his father’s bourbon into his father’s shot glass and he forces it down and summons up a few tears, resisting the all-out bawling that would render him unattractive to the chronicler hovering above the scene and recording his noble suffering for posterity. “Grover,” he says aloud with a forced sneer. “You really stink Grover, you know that. You need a fucking shower Grover.” He closes his eyes and swivels in the swivel-chair. Nausea like a bee-swarm in his belly. He holds his hand aloft, the white light of the BAR lamp creating the impression that the blue threads growing there—the “parasitotic delusion” of his hideousness—are lit from within like fiber-optic cable. He smells onions. The sliding glass doors frame the darkness without. He lifts the gun again, holds it against his temple. “Bang!” he shouts, and laughs insanely. For the camera, of course, for Anna Hattemer, who’ll watch it all later and cry and cry. Grover, you gotta be more careful. The Native American chieftains stare down at him. What are they so pissed about? “Fuck you guys!” he yells, and laughs and laughs. “Jimmy? We’re home! Jimmy? Where are you Jimmy?”

Anna finds him at his locker. The cacophonous hive-mind madness saturates the space between class periods. A war dance flanked by boredom. The hormones swim almost visibly through the heavy green air. He is working the lock, screwing the combination into place so as to access (with extreme prejudice) his private storage of class notes and marble composition pads and textbooks that function primarily as bludgeoning tools. “Jimmy,” she says quietly, looking left and right to apparently ensure this confab’s privacy. “I really am sorry. They made me do it.” He keeps his head down, stares deep into the combination-lock, imagines it drilling a horizontal well through space-time to expose the reality to which he was supposed to belong, a universe erected from something other than his fear. Don’t look at her, he tells himself. He feels a wisp of blue hair dangling around his eyes. “C’mon Jimmy,” she says. “Please. I’m so so so so sorry.” He imagines her lips touching his. Their tongues brushing each other. He imagines her doing something with her legs, her thighs, he’s not even sure how it all works but his erection is instant and it throbs painfully. He wants to be strong, for the camera. The between-period rush is beginning to recede, students swept into whatever warzone next requires their participation. Anna is still here at his locker. Anna is waiting. Finally he looks up, sweeps the hair from his face, and smiles his saddest and strongest smile. “Okay,” he says. “I forgive you.” Anna’s soft features harden, her lip curls, her black eyes narrow to inky seeds. She laughs. The fluorescent light quivers. “Oh my God,” she says. She turns her head to shout down the hall. Her profile is shaped like the state of California. “You guys were right! He’ll believe anything!” He won’t look where she’s looking but he hears them guffawing, hears the exchange of high fives. Anna smells like strawberries. His heart is trying to leap to its death in the deep interior of his chest. “Grover,” she spits. “Don’t ever look at me that way again, you freak.” He smiles. The laughter soars.

Tattered monster, blue as ink, blue as the Caribbean, blue as the deepest bruise. “Finish the book,” he says. He does not recognize his own voice. The others are assembled on the filthy fibrous oval of the reading rug. They stare silent and aghast. Now they see him as he sees himself. A page turns: shht. Ms. Sniffen is speaking to him in honeyed tones. “Jimmy,” she coos, “it’s okay. Nobody is going to hurt you.” He raises the T-square, points it at her forehead. “I said finish the fucking book!” he growls, and he pivots and fires one hot bullet into the stacks. They scream in unison but aside from the flinching no one moves, no one leaves the rug, they’re going to see what’s at the end of this book. They are, he realizes, like insects in a cage. And they are slowing down. They are sinking. Shht. Next page: a child is on the rug bleeding from a tidy hole in his temple. Shht. Wait, wrong direction, he’s growling again, “Finish the fucking book! There’s a monster at the end!” Shht. The sliding glass doors frame the darkness outside and the chieftains scowl at the mess the boy has made. Shht. Shht. Ms. Sniffen holds the final page between index and thumb. The boy’s tormentors lie in a twisted heap of half-decomposed bodies. A vulture steps gingerly among them, unable to choose between items in this smorgasbord. Shht. “Go ahead Ms. Sniffen,” he says, holding the T-square to her head. Or no. To his head. No. The boy on the carpet, the fibers pressed to his cheek. His hairless adolescent cheek. “Bang!” The boy’s brain hissing from the hole, the bullet embedded in the wood-paneled wall, in the space directly between the chieftains. They have all walked this path together and they honor the path, for they will not walk it again. Ms. Sniffen? Ms. Sniffen are you there? “Jimmy, we’re home!” She turns the final page.  

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