Saturday night I hauled myself over to Courtney’s Thanksgiving party. It was a colder evening, with low foggy clouds, and the upper floors and turrets of Courtney’s house disappeared up into the vague darkness, though the lower floors were awash in holiday light—purple and white strings of light were wrapped about the porch posts and strings of blue and gold lights hung from the trees in her yard. None of this had been up Wednesday night for the cult meeting. How did Courtney get all that done in three days? As far as I knew she lived alone—well, I guess, with those dogs—but as far as I’d ever heard, or seen on Facebook, she had no unfortunate husband or lover or partner or even friend. Maybe the cultists helped her set everything up.
Closer to the house I could hear low furious barking coming from the back yard, behind the tall fence. I guess the big dogs were penned up back there. Nobody—nothing—on the front porch, just shadows from the twinkling lights. Through the windows, through the curtains, I could see vague shapes of people moving around.
I knocked on the door. No answer. I could hear voices inside. I pushed the doorbell button. Nothing happened. So, finally, what the fuck—I just opened the door and went on in, and stepped into the middle of a throng—a crowd, a corps—of people I didn’t think I’d ever seen before. Weirton, remember, is a small town, you see the same people every day, and yet almost all these people at the party were strangers to me—friends of Courtney, I guess, FOCs, nicely-dressed FLPs and PPs milling around and eating and drinking and talking loudly over bland generic-sounding Christmas music. Then I spotted Sally, standing by the staircase, smiling back at me. I went over to her.
“You look uncomfortable,” she said.
“Well,” I said. Laughed, sort of. “Yeah—I am!”
A tall pallid bald-headed FLP pushed between us and clomped up the stairs. These people creeped me out. It was Courtney’s house—of course I was uncomfortable.
“Cheer up,” Sally said. “C’mon, let’s get a drink.”
I followed Sally through a living room and through a dining room—the table loaded down under a load of dips and celery sticks and chips and various snacks all vile-looking and half-congealed and poisonous, a listeria buffet, and there were three PP women standing around, grazing, one of them almost fat enough for a FLP, winding a stick of celery down her throat—and into the kitchen, where bottles of cheap booze were lined up along a counter that ran between a microwave and the fridge. Shawn Cudahy and another Gulag grad student were standing there knocking back tequila shots—Shawn nodded at me, swallowed, winced.
Shawn gasped, “Hi, Dr. Holt. How are you tonight?”
“A drink?” Sally asked me. “Wine? Beer?”
“Beer,” I said.
Sally took me by the wrist and led me through some more PPs and into the laundry room. There were a pair of beer kegs nestled between the washer and dryer, and some students standing around, drinking from red Solo cups. Sally got me a cup and began filling it. I stood there feeling—awkward.
A hand clapped me on the shoulder. A voice said, “Our departmental recluse!”
Fred Van Buskirk. Standing in the shadows with that unlit stupid pipe in his mouth.
Conspiracy for… Fred.
Sally handed me the beer and stood looking at Fred.
“Did Sally make you come?” Fred asked, grinning around the pipe. “Heh.”
Sally scowled and pushed out of the room, back to the kitchen. I started after her but Fred grabbed my shoulder again.
“I say, that girl’s got a temper, huh?”
I said, “Fred—”
“And a tight round ass, too,” Fred said.
I looked at Fred. He grinned back at me—a big man, three or four inches taller than me, grimy coffee-stained teeth dark in his face.
“Fred,” I said. “Cut it the fuck out.”
“Oh, ho!” Fred said. He took out the pipe and waved it at me. “I guess you’re still sensitive about—women.”
The undergraduate boys stood there giggling. A couple of them I recognized—pale waxy-skinned English majors with short dark hair and dark eyes and tattoos peeping out at their shirt cuffs. Poets. Admirers of Courtney, they were at all the literary events. I spotted a door on the other side of the laundry room, leading out to what looked like a deck. I took a step toward the door.
Fred said, “Gay men are often like that, I hear.”
The beer boys giggled.
I turned around. “What did you say?”
“Just making an observation about the world, my boy.” Fred—drunk, wobbling a little, took a gulp of his beer and then stuck the pipe back in his face. The beer boys were all smiling. “Gay men are often—you know, fond—of women.”
And, you know, I never liked Fred. Rude, overbearing, over-personal, vulgar—and that was at work. I’d never been around him in a social setting. Jesus. Give the guy a few drinks and he turns from asshole to piece of shit.
“Fuck you, Fred,” I said. “Go home before you piss yourself.”
“Oh, ho!” Fred said. “I guess I touched a nerve!”
I pushed past the beer boys and stepped out onto the deck. It was suspended about six feet or so above the yard, and a few people were clustered at the railing looking down at Courtney’s barking dogs—and I saw that one of them was Courtney herself. She looked up and saw me.
“Tom! I’m so glad you finally made it to my house!”
“It’s really something,” I said.
Courtney looked up into the darkness, turrets disappearing into the gloom. She said, “Yeah, I’ve worked a lot of years for this.”
Courtney looked—blissed, somehow. Happy. I wondered again how someone making $58,000 a year could afford a monstrosity like this house. Shadows over Courtney’s face and I could still see her sort-of bucked teeth. Beaver teeth, rodent teeth—no, prairie dog teeth! Of course. I smiled—all this time I’d been thinking of her as a beaver, and here she was really a prairie dog.
“Good to see you finally smiling,” Courtney said. “You should’ve stopped by last night when you were walking by.”
I stopped smiling. She’d seen me? Must have security cameras on the house. She was letting me know, for some reason.
In the yard below us the dogs kept barking.
“Who was that you were with? Your new girlfriend?”
“Uh, Lynne Carson,” I said. It wasn’t a secret that we were friends, I didn’t think. Lynnie had been over to my office in Reeb a lot of times. “She’s in the History Department.”
“Oh—yeah, I think I know who she is,” Courtney said. “You’re really seeing her? She seems kinda scary.”
“Yeah, she’s actually very scary,” I said. “What’s the deal with those dogs?”
“The girls!” Courtney said. Green Christmas lights flashed off her glasses. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
Courtney led me over to the deck’s railing. Several misshapen FLPs I didn’t know were staring down and grinning. Below, down in the yard, were five massive broad-shouldered big-headed brindled dogs—true monsters, ravenous-looking, all five barking deep-throated woofs up at us.
“Aren’t they majestic?” Courtney asked. “I usually keep two on the front porch, one inside, and two out back.”
“Wow,” I said. The dogs were—huge. “Do the neighbors complain about the barking?”
“Naw,” an old pale gray FLP woman next to me said. “They keep the blacks away.”
I flinched. “What?”
“The gangs,” Courtney said quickly. “She means they keep all those gang members out of the neighborhood—you’ve heard about that, right?”
The gang stories. Sure. Allegedly, gang members—young black men—would drive down from Kansas City and beat up white Wiertonites as some sort of initiation. I never believed it. Drive two hours down shitty Kansas country roads just to beat up some old white FLP and then drive two hours back? When there were plenty of white people in Kansas City or its suburbs to beat up? Way too much trouble.
“Annie—” Courtney pointed at the biggest dog, just below us “—she’s a Presa Canario. And Sylvia and Hilda are boerbals. And Mary and Jorie are Presa-boerbal mixes.”
The big dogs kept woofing and woofing and woofing, a deep steady bass.
“Boerbals are from South Africa,” Courtney said. “They’re trained to attack terrorists.”
South Africa—terrorists. Weirton—gangs. Both meant black, I guess.
“Courtney’s got ‘em trained up to attack men,” the old FLP next to me cackled.
“Well, bad men,” Courtney said. “Actually, Fred arranges for the training—that’s where I got them, from Fred. He runs a kennel out at his farm—he raises boutique cattle and guard dogs. He found a student who was a dog handler in the Marines to do the training.”
“Damn,” I said.
“C’mon,” Courtney said. “Let’s go back in the house. It’s almost time for the poetry reading!”
Courtney followed me into the laundry room. Fred was still standing by the keg, the front of his shirt wet with drool and spilled beer. His followers were still standing around, too, and when we entered the room they all stopped talking and—looked—at us.
“Oh, ho!” Fred said. “There they are!”
Courtney said, “Fred, I think you need to tap that other keg.”
“I’ll find somebody to tap my keg,” Fred said. “Maybe Tom?”
I was almost into the kitchen. I stopped and turned around. I asked, “What?”
“Tom Hornblower,” Fred said. “My favorite gay male porn star. I’ve always thought you look a lot like him.”
The boys all giggled.
“C’mon,” Courtney plucked at my elbow.
I said, “Fuck you, Fred.”
“Exactly,” Fred said. “Except I bet his dick is bigger than yours—he’d do a better job.”
The boys giggled some more.
“Go to hell,” I said. I went on into the kitchen.
“Don’t mind Fred,” Courtney whispered. “He’s always been like that. He won’t even remember this in the morning.”
I said, “I will.”
In the kitchen I found Nancy and Tee standing by the refrigerator, talking. When they noticed me, they stopped and stared.
“Hey, colleagues,” I said.
“What’re you doing here?” Nancy asked.
“Getting a bit of the holiday spirit,” I said.
“I just want to say that I’m glad Tom’s here,” Courtney said. “I think he’s finally coming out of his shell.”
Tee looked a little disgusted. She asked, “Really?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I might go back in it.” I spotted Sally in a corner of the dining room, leaning back as an old FLP man tried to put the moves on her or something. She looked disgusted, too. I went over to her.
“You know the starting torque on a locomotive like that?” the old FLP asked. “It’s over twelve-thousand foot-pounds!”
Fucking locomotives? Did all the men here talk about their dicks? I said to Sally, “This place is really kinda crazy.”
Sally said, “Yeah….”
“Girl, that torque is a whole heck of a lot of foot-pound force!”
Sally slid past the old man and stood behind me. The FLP turned and looked at me. Watery bulging pale blue eyes, gray skin, brown teeth. He tilted his head and took a half-step forward and for a quick moment I thought he was going to kiss me. But I guess he was just drunk, trying to keep his balance.
“Listen,” Sally hissed into my ear. “Let’s go someplace and talk.”
“Sure,” I said. I drained the last of my warm beer and sat the red cup on a table.
“I been working on trains,” the FLP said, and paused to think. “Now, forty-eight years!”
“Let’s go,” I said. I started for the door but Sally tugged me aside.
“We can’t leave together,” Sally whispered.
I asked, “Huh?”
“All kinds of trains!” the FLP said.
“People will talk,” Sally said. She looked at me like I was a dumbass. “Meet me at the Walmart in an hour, okay?” She took a step toward the door, then turned around. “Go upstairs and look around first—you’ll freak.”
“The SD90-MAC, that’s the locomotive I was telling that gal about,” the FLP said to me. “Man, she’s sure got one nice butt.”
I thought, People will talk. Gossip? Of course people will talk. But these alleged people were all idiots—who cared if they talked? I left the torque guy in the dining room and went on into the living room. Sally was standing by the door, putting on her jacket. She pointed up the stairs and nodded at me, and then ducked away out the door and was gone.