I followed a fat PP up the stairs. They were narrow and steep, with a landing halfway up, and the PP ahead of me was slow and his pants pooched out at his butt like he’d taken a dump. The two of us stepped aside to let a pair of undergraduate poetry students—I recognized them, sort of—trot down.
On the second floor the stairs went on up to the third, but the staircase was blocked with a waist-high metal gate. I guess we weren’t supposed to go up there. There were two doors facing the landing—one had a sign saying “POETRY” and the other said “AUTHORITY.” The fat PP went through the Authority door, and, after a moment, I followed him.
And—this was the Ayn Rand and Josef Stalin room. A long, wide room, maybe a ballroom for the mining oligarch who’d built the house. Long and dim like a museum, with big framed photos of Rand and Stalin and printouts of inspirational quotes and tables covered with books and knick-knacks.
I knew there were people out there in the world who liked Ayn Rand—foolish assholes, mostly. But, like I’d asked Old Earl, Who the fuck liked Stalin? And who liked both Stalin and Rand? A crazy foolish asshole, maybe.
I walked down the long room. In front of a giant poster of Rand staring madly out at the world, I saw Shawn Cudahy. He reached out and softly touched Ayn Rand on the neck, like he was checking to see if the picture—the woman in the picture?—was real. Maybe like if she had a pulse. Then looked up and saw me.
“Hi, Dr. Holt,” he said. He dropped his hand to his side. “This is my favorite room.”
I guess it was good he had a favorite room. I mean—maybe.
I asked, “You’re an Ayn Rand fan, huh?”
Shawn asked, “Have you read Atlas Shrugged?”
“Yeah…” I said. “Is there beer around here?”
“There’s a cooler down by the Stalin end,” Shawn said. His eyes were glassy—a bit drunk from the tequila shots, probably. He asked, “Don’t you think Atlas Shrugged is brilliant?”
“No,” I said. I spotted the ice chest and started walking toward the beer. The fat PP on the stairs was down there talking with another PP.
“Current politics—of course,” Shawn said. He was walking along with me. “But politicians totally distort Rand’s ideas—and it’s the ideas that are important, right? Like—the will of the creators. The will of the doers. People like us.”
“Shawn,” I said. “I do as little as fucking possible. And I advise you to do the same.”
He looked at me blankly, and then smiled, certain that I’d made a joke. Idiot.
I ducked between the PPs and pulled a Budweiser can from the ice chest. Above us was a giant photo of Young Stalin in a leather jacket, popstar-handsome. Below, a quote: “Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.”
“You like Stalin?” the fat PP asked me.
“No,” I said.
The PP frowned.
The other PP said, “You have to admit, Stalin had willpower.”
“He was the Man of Steel,” the fat PP said.
What the fuck? I looked around—there was a door behind me. A sign said MOON ROOM.
“I’ll take Trotsky,” I said. “You know?” I pointed my finger at them. “‘The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.’”
The fat PP blinked, looked at me suspiciously. “But Trotsky was a Jew, wasn’t he?”
I turned and went through a door into the Moon Room. Shawn Cudahy followed me. He whispered, “That was the mayor! He comes here a lot….”
The Moon Room was smaller than the Authority Room, and dark, with big photos of the moon—and a near life-size photo of a statue of Selene, the Moon Goddess. Or maybe it was Luna. There was a glowing moon globe, too, with five or six people—FLPs, PPs—gathered around it, talking. Four of them were holding hands—maybe they were in the cult. I went on past them into the POETRY ROOM.
Again a low-lit dark room. Big photos in there, too—Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Maxine Kumin, others I couldn’t identify. I’m not as familiar with poetry as I probably should be. There was a window looking out over the backyard. Below I could see people milling around on the deck, and the giant dogs looking up at the deck and woofing.
“Sometimes Courtney lets me feed the dogs,” Shawn said.
“I thought those dogs are trained to eat men,” I said.
“They’re okay with me—usually.” Shawn sniffed and rubbed his nose. “Yeah, at least one at a time they’re usually okay. Two or three together might be a problem.”
“You’re braver than I am,” I said.
“This room was Devon’s favorite room,” Shawn said.
That got my attention. Devon’s favorite room? I sipped my beer and looked at Shawn. A little guy, neatly-dressed for the party, drunk and a little squirrely around the eyes, with hints of tattoos on his forearms. I couldn’t tell what. Blotches.
I asked, “What was Devon ever doing over here?”
“She—” Shawn stopped and looked back at me, curious. “Well, Courtney has creative writing things over here? Like, parties? Like—a salon? Devon came a couple of times.”
“Huh,” I said. Why didn’t Devon ever say anything about coming over here?
“Yeah, Devon would come over sometimes and we’d talk about my poetry,” Shawn said. “It was really great. We’d talk about everything. This house has a good atmosphere for art.”
I looked around. I focused on the giant picture of Sylvia Plath smiling happily on a beach somewhere—it was the only non-gloomy non-creepy thing in the house. A cheerful-looking future suicide. I guess there are good days and there are bad days—for Sylvia Plath, for Devon, for anyone. I asked, “How did she stand it?”
When I got back downstairs, the poetry reading was starting.
“Everybody?” Courtney yelled. I couldn’t see her in the clots of people but her voice was sure loud. Then her round head popped up—Courtney must have climbed up on a chair or a stool. “Everybody! I need your attention!”
Of course she needed attention. She was a fucking narcissist.
“Thanks, everybody!” Courtney was smiling. Her teeth looked as big as her eyeballs. “I just want to say that I brought you all together here tonight to experience an evening of holiday affection and affirmation! I’m sharing my house with you to demonstrate true objective collective Christian togetherness and love!”
Oh, for fuck’s sake. Yet when I looked around, people were smiling at Courtney. A few people began clapping, then a few more. Courtney stood on her stool smiling and waving.
“Yes! I want to thank you for the affection you’re giving me right now!”
More clapping. More Courtney grinning.
“Thank you! And now I have a special treat to share with you—a new poem by Dr. Ted Shuey!”
For fuck’s sake. Yet some people kept on clapping.
Courtney disappeared—nice!—and after a moment, Ted’s brown hair appeared. He was shorter than Courtney and I couldn’t see his face or beard through the crush of people. And that was fine.
“Thank you, everyone!” Ted’s big voice boomed around the room. “Thank you, Courtney, for your amazing generosity!”
Bite me, I thought.
“Here’s a poem titled, ‘Heart Beat Courage.’”
I heard you breathe
Scorn my way,
A viper’s breath, not
Caring of my love
Ted began the next line, “I heard you breathe—”
But Courtney popped up beside him. “Everybody! I’m passing out hard copies of this beautiful poem! It’s a gift from me to you!”
Applause. I couldn’t see Ted’s face to see if he was pissed about getting interrupted—but maybe after working with Courtney for so long, he was used to it. A pile of poem copies came by me and I grabbed one. “Heart Beat Courage.” Oh boy.
Ted began reading again.
Though I think you
might have loved me
too, had you looked
my way, known my
heart turned towards
you always, if you only
woke to see me
Fuck. It was a sexual harassment poem. Had to be.
Woke to see me there,
Loving. But alas! You--
Alas! In a 21st Century poem!
Loving. But alas! You
Slept unknowing, still
As starlight, relaxed to
Receive my generous love
I looked from the page to the top of Ted’s head. Did he just say that he’d raped somebody? That he was maybe thinking about raping somebody? Had thought about it?
Any man, I think, could do
the one, but not the other,
a matter of convenience
not courage, to know your
damp warm sex, your cool
dry skin, your sour viper’s
breath—so too in the
It was a rape poem for sure. Jesus. A pro-rape poem. Had to be.
End, I find the difference
Between Courage and Cowardice
Is a mere heart
I squeezed out of the house without talking to anyone, and I went down the steps into the chilly night air and walked back to my car—looking back once or twice at the twinkly lights on the porch, at the video camera no doubt catching my escape. Ahead of me, to the east, to my car, I could catch quick glimpses of the top of the broken grain elevator bobbing up through the bare branches.
How the fuck did I end up in this place? With these people?
All through school—primary, secondary, undergrad, grad—I thought I’d done everything right. I came from a shitty family, but I was still a good student, and I was a good dependable worker at the jobs I’d had, and I stayed out of trouble, and I didn’t lie or cheat or steal any more than was necessary, and I more or less respected my elders, and I more or less did what I was told….
But, really—I hadn’t done anything right in my life. Nothing.
Not if I was in fucking Weirton.