Michael Schiavone is a widely published, award winning short story writer and novelist living in Gloucester, MA. His debut novel, Call Me When You Land, will be released in September, 2011.
My half-brother sleeps with guns. Before last year he hadn't so much as fired a BB, yet now he shares his bed with artillery. These days he won't answer the door unarmed, can't sit on the toilet without packing heat. Even when the phone rings, Chad grabs his Glock before the receiver. To accommodate his holsters he wears baggy pants and loose tops, a forty-five-year-old man dressed in hip-hop clothes. My girlfriend, Wendy, calls him a nut job, crazy with credentials. She says guns are just a symptom of his psychoses, but she's never met Chad, hasn't heard his apocalyptic sermons. Me, I worry my brother's onto something, that an all out resource war is nigh.
When I show at noon Chad's out back scooping poop. His Oreo-colored pug, Princess Leia, follows his progress, peeing over the fresh spots where her droppings once covered the grass. I'm here for a shooting lesson, to get over my fear of bullets, my aversion to combat. Chad said a few hours spent with him and I'd have a “new willingness. ”Wendy thinks I'm playing thirty-six holes at the Charles River Golf Club, doesn't know I drove three hours on a Sunday morning to see what my brother sees.
“Christ, where's the security around here?” I ask. “I could've snuck up on you, taken you out.”
“Nonsense,” he says, waving to me. “I heard you coming a half mile away. ”He yanks off his green latex gloves, chucks them by the empty rain barrel. “My ears have gone bionic since moving up here.”
We exchange a quick hug, the shoulder of his tee-shirt damp against my chin, the gun strapped to his waist prodding my ribs. Up close his eyes are red with hay fever.
“Man, what reeks out here?” I ask, fanning my nose.
He points to a square black container with three white exclamation points spray-painted on the side. “A season's worth of Leia's refuse almost fills that compost bin.”
“So you're collecting dog-doo now?”
Chad picks up a rusty pitchfork, stabs it upright into the soil. “Out in California they extract the methane,” he explains. “That box of turds can power your stove for months, heat your house. Brown gold.”
“I think I'll stick with oil.”
“Then you'll go down with the ship.”
My half-brother's Good Will Hunting smart and then some. So damn smart he can't hold a job or keep any friends. You'd never guess we're related. He's a pasty six-foot-two beanpole with a Cheeto-orange mane of hair. Me, I'm tan from the sun lamps, short and mildly obese, a slick 80's Wall Street inspired coif. His mother, Patty, was a hippie, a psychedelic potter who died during an acid trek through the Himalayas. My mom was a bully, a diminutive criminal defense attorney with fangs. Lawyers Weekly once called her Boston's black widow. Uterine cancer claimed her on 9/11. All Chad and I have in common is our old man, a cranky Italian slumlord with a Hollywood-handsome face. My father only wanted one kid, but thirteen years after Chad was born I was conceived during “one of your mother's sponge mishaps,” a memory which always made him grit his teeth.
As a kid, I worshipped Chad simply because he was older, my only sibling. I wish like hell we could've grown up together—shared a bunk bed, played guns, pegged cars, but thirteen years is a galaxy between brothers. Back then I envied his style in front of adults, his uncanny confidence, the way he intimidated parents, how he could upset a holly-laced Christmas table by speaking terribly truths. I remember one Thanksgiving during dessert when Chad brought up the infamous Kinsey Scale to our neighbor, Mrs. Hendrickson, who's husband had just left her for another man. Me, whenever I told the grownups a story I eased them to sleep, bored them to tears; I wanted Chad's venom. That night I prayed I'd be half the menace once I reached college.
Chad finished MIT while I lied and cheated my way through UConn, yet here I am ten years later making almost six figures selling debt securities, laying a girl I have no business laying as Chad drives a shuttle bus part-time transporting the elderly to grocery stores and doctors' appointments. Every year he finds a new job, back and forth between the white collar underground and immigrant slave labor. He's cracked encryption codes for software companies and bagged litter for the department of sanitation. Now as I observe my brother admiring his prized dog shit collection—the thirty year-old scars on his wrists gleaming white under the sun—you bet I'm glad to be dumb.
“Should we get moving?” I ask.
“The gun range doesn't open until one on Sundays.” He lights an American Spirit. “You look fatter.”
“What do you want? I've been working sixteen hour days. I'm seldom upright.”
“You should find a more practical trade.”
“Like driving invalids around?”
He gives me the finger. “If you came here more often you'd be in shape.”
“I'd visit regularly if you didn't live up here amongst the mountain goats.” A garter snake slithers out of the pachysandra; I curl my toes, wishing I'd worn boots instead of flip-flops. “Three hours it took me to get here this morning.”
“Imagine how long it will take on a bicycle.”
“Because cars are going the way of dinosaurs. There won't be enough fuel to sustain them.”
“So I'll get a hybrid once they're not so ugly,” I say, watching the last of the snake disappear into Chad's cabin. “We'll all just have to drive less I guess.”
“I'm not talking about driving.” Chad slips off his silly yellow Crocs and hoses them down; his toenails are black. “The construction alone of the average car consumes the energy equivalent of twenty barrels of oil,” he continues. “That's 840 gallons. Not to mention the 120,000 gallons of fresh water required for just one car's production, yet another natural resource on the brink.”
“Fine, I'll get a Schwinn.”
He tightens the spigot, wrapping the hose around his shoulder. “What people like you don't get is that the issue is not one of running out so much as it's not having enough to keep our economy running.”
I kick a chewed up baseball across the yard: Princess Leia chases it down. “They'll figure something out.”
Inside, Chad sets his weapon the crooked chipboard counter, the gun black and compact like a policeman's. I take a seat in the rocking chair that allegedly belonged to our great grandfather, Luigi. Legend has it he lugged that chair all the way from Italy to Ellis Island in 1895, that our grandfather Joe was in fact conceived on its wooden slats, but this story came from our father who was born full of shit.
“I love what you've done with the place,” I say, pointing at the leaning tower of filthy solar panels stacked in the corner.
He turns on the burner for tea. “You think feng shui will save you?”
Chad's cabin is only two rooms, not including the toilet, which is more like a glorified outhouse. The place is a kit, real life Lincoln Logs, a hermit's home. No one roams here but animals, the closest human five, six miles away at the Drawbridge Saloon. This is only my second visit to the Kaczynski compound, but like last time it's chilly inside, bare bones lonely. There's only one window, a round piece of cruddy glass above the sink the size of a manhole. As Chad sets a pair of steaming mugs on the marble table, I remember the garter snake, wondering where he might be coiled up in here.
“Do you have any Splenda?” I ask. “Sweet and Low?”
“This isn't Lipton,” he says. “Dandelion root is best straight up.”
“I don't suppose you have any Mountain Dew around.”
“Soon I'll harvest bees,” he says. “Next time you can ruin your tea with honey.”
“So you don't like soda anymore?”
He picks up Leia, probes her jowls for ticks. “This is all I drink now,” he says.
Neither one of us drinks liquor. Not anymore. Booze killed our father, not directly perhaps, but no sober man would think it a good idea to run his cigarette boat at wide open throttle during dead low tide. Chad and I graduated from the same Arizona rehab, him the class of '95, me seven years later. He went from half-brother to brother the morning I called him from the Atlantic City Super 8 where I woke up with a coke-stuffed nose and bite marks on my neck—like the nibbles kids put on pencils. I couldn't explain the fat Goth chick passed out in the tub, the party hats and streamers, my tender tailbone. Total blackout. Back then I really didn't know Chad from Adam (I had to dial 411 for his number), but I felt compelled to call on kin for this kind of help, blood that had also been through the same ringer.
Shivering beneath the crummy motel sheets, I twisted the phone cord round and round my finger, the tip swollen red. “I'm down for the count,” I announced. “Out of options.”
“This will happen again,” he told me. “Over and over.”
“I can't fucking do this anymore.”
“It's a progressive disease,” Chad warned. “It only gets worse.”
“I'm crazy addled.”
“There's another way,” he promised. “You don't have to feel this way ever again.”
“Can you come get me? There's no way I can drive.”
“Do you want my help?”
“What do you think?”
“Say it then,” he said. “Say you want my help.”
Right then I heard the Goth chick giggle, that awful bathtub echo. I ducked under the covers. “Jesus Christ,” I whispered, “I want your help!”
So thanks to Chad I found myself reading the Big Book in the Sonoran Desert a week after my Atlantic City bottom, learning how “the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot. ”No one had ever told me about the peculiar mental twist, the phenomenon of craving, the allergy of body and mind; I just thought I liked to party. Anyway, three years ago Chad asked me to present him with his ten-year medallion, which was the glowing moment of my life. See, I'm the kind of clown who can laugh through movies like Terms of Endearment and Sophie's Choice, but AA moments always bring the tears.
“Are the guns in there?” I ask, brushing a fingertip over the grey metal suitcase by the stove.
“They don't bite,” he says.
“Which one am I gonna use today?”
“The one that chooses you.”
“What does that mean?”
“It's intimate; the right one will have a feel.”
“God, all I have at home is a Swiss Army Knife, minus the toothpick and tweezers. No intimacy there.”
“Do you plan on whittling down your aggressors?”
“I make love, not war,” I declare, flashing a peace sign. “Guns aren't the answer, Chad. Didn't you see Bowling for Columbine?”
“I did, and it was very cute, but I deal in macroeconomics, not limousine liberal drivel.”
If you Google my brother's name you'll find he's leading panic blogs all over the internet, alarming your friends and neighbors worldwide over the imminent energy crisis. Two years ago there wasn't a gun in my brother's life, not one can of pepper spray in his man purse, but he's since gone drastic over peak oil. He used to channel so much of himself into recovery—serenity retreats, commitment exchanges, sober cruises, writing essays for Grapevine. Then he discovered the Hubbert peak theory and Chad was off, running.
He left me hyper, rambling messages, asking me how I'd drive to work without gas, what I'd drink when the water well ran dry, where I'd make my living once the stock market busted. How I planned to defend myself from the bandits. For weeks to come I politely listened to his diatribes on self-sufficient living-windmills, triple pane windows, heat pumps, storable food reserves and, of course, solar power. He even sent me the late Doctor Hubbert's fifty-seven page article, “Nuclear Energy and Fossil Fuels. I couldn't get past the title page.
Bottom line is Chad's always been extreme when it comes to hobbies, a real zealot for the cause, and remembering his past periods of compulsion helps keep my concern at bay. A year from now he might be obsessing over tree frogs or Haiti's food crisis, peak oil just another snapshot from the fleeting scrapbook. After all, four summers ago it was all about woodworking, pouring all his cash into band saws and biscuit joiners. After that it was about trading Vertigo comics on Ebay. Once upon a time he collected antique calligraphy pens. The switch between fixations has always been abrupt, the segues nonsensical, but I guess the difference with peak oil has been its relevance, the place it holds above all else. Chad's even eschewed women (not that he'd ever been a charmer), claiming he'd rather jerk off than waste time on lust. We haven't had a conversation in ages, not one real exchange. He rants; I hold the line.
Last fall he buried himself deep in the central Connecticut woods where he could “cultivate organic gardens and eventually raise meat,” transferring his meager life's savings “into the ground,” believing that property would be the only viable investment after the crash. When I asked what he expected to gain from the boonies, he encouraged me to study combat, saying he was training in Krav Maga, the self-defense fight system employed by the Israeli Security Forces. If I asked him what day it was, he'd extol the virtues of algae butanol, the promises of plankton.
Then came the guns.
Soon he stopped going to AA altogether, passing off his sponsees to others, telling me there was “too much else to learn if he was going to survive the terminal illness of industrial civilization.” Without recovery in common, my brother and I just aren't moored, and I miss him.
Me, I've had to double, even triple up on my meetings since Chad's stark shift in consciousness, his doomsday lectures hardly conducive to my sobriety. His tirades have me wanting to say fuck it more and more. My poor sponsor's working overtime to remind me where fuck it has brought me in the past, places like the Atlantic City Super 8.Enough said. Believe me, I wish Chad were crazy, but the truth is I believe he's on another level than the rest of us.
Standing up from the rocking chair, I open the ice box to grab some cubes. My wisdom teeth go numb as I crunch down. I spot the garter snake behind the fridge; he looks dead. Upon closer inspection I realize it's just an electric cord. “Let's get going,” I say. “I need to be home by nightfall.”
“What's more pressing than getting to know a gun?”
“I'm cooking Wendy dinner, which means I should get a piece, which is quite pressing actually.”
“Is Wendy also imprisoned by petroleum?”
“The fuck if I know, Chad. All I care is that she looks great in a bikini. You need to get laid, forget about the goddam world for a while. Maybe if you used your dick you wouldn't need all these guns.”
Chad's smile is sympathetic and condescending, a grin that says he can forgive my ignorance because we're related. He reaches for a badly bruised apple from the wicker basket where he keeps all his keys. “I wish it were so,” he says wistfully, “but I know the truth now.”
Curled in my lap, Princess Leia eats baby carrots as Chad drives my newly leased Beemer to the gun club, riding the Z4's clutch like an idiot teenager. The way he's handling the car will have me in the repair shop Monday morning, three months before my first scheduled service. I jam my mouth full of gum just to keep quiet. Before we left he was adamant about taking the wheel, insisting it'd be easier than giving me directions, that “the ride to Naugatuck could be screwy.” As he merges onto route 17, he steadies his speed, finally releasing his heavy foot from the clutch.
“What if you're wrong about all this, Chad?” I ask, thumbing through an emphatically underlined copy of Preparedness NOW I took from his kitchen. “They can find more fuel somewhere. The whole earth hasn't been dug up yet. What about Alaska? And didn't I hear they found a ton of oil off the Gulf of Mexico?”
Using his Glock's pointy front sight, he itches the tip of his nose, the muzzle of the gun probing his right nostril.
“Is that fucking thing loaded?”
“Of course,” he says dismissively, returning the gun to its waist holster. “Now, as for the so-called answer in the Gulf of Mexico they've named 'Jack 2.' That test field perfectly illustrates just how desperate big oil companies are to replace their rapidly dwindling reserves.” He pauses to catch his breath. “There's simply no reason to look for oil 270 miles off the coast and six miles below the ocean's surface unless cheaper and easier to extract sources have already been exhausted.”
“You don't have to be so set on disaster is all.”
Chad reaches over the arm rest, holds my hand. Survivalism has toughened his skin. “Once the peak is reached, oil will still be available, yes. But only at a tremendous energetic and financial cost. Translation,” he says, squeezing my fingers into a cone, “massive, unprecedented, socioeconomic collapse.”
“Upshift,” I tell him, slapping the stick. “You can't go sixty in second gear.”
He misses third, shifts right into fourth. The engine groans, the transmission struggling to keep up.
“This is a finesse vehicle,” I explain. “Let it drive you.”
“I think your clutch is fouled,” he says. “It's slipping.”
“Bullshit. The car's brand new.”
He veers into the left lane without signaling. “Anyway,” he says, “we're almost there.”
I roll down my window, thirsty for air. “Why bother with the gun club anyway?” I ask. “We could've set up targets right on your property.”
“The deer hunters would complain. They only like the sound of rifles.”
A bug splats yellow across the windshield; Chad clicks on the wipers. Forever's passed since we've seen another car.
“Will there be other people there?” I ask, madly lint-rolling Leia's fur from the matte black interior.
“At the gun club.”
He snorts, then spits twice out the window. “We're getting low on fuel,” he says, tapping the gauge. “I'm gonna pull off.”
I undo my seatbelt and stick my head out the window. The car tires spray gravel in my face. The roof of the car is green with pollen. “There's no gas station around here,” I shout.
He brakes hard, keys off the ignition. “Of course not,” he says.
“Would you cut the crap already? It's getting late.”
“Exactly,” he says solemnly.
“For Christ's sake, Chad.”
I get out of the car, trampling ant-hills in my stormy wake. Chad remains inside, his seat belt still fastened. Before me are fields of brown, dead land in all directions, the kind of spot my mother (God rest her soul) took me to launch model rockets during my astronaut phase. She'd always clap once the parachute opened. I don't think anyone ever clapped for Chad.
Aside from the stripped radio tower standing behind me, the area is desolate, free from the usual teenage party litter and homeless campsites. A river probably ran through here at one point, a time before our lives. With Princess Leia cradled in his arms, Chad steps out of the car. He sets her on the ground, lights a cigarette. The dog scurries toward the back of the car and pees on the right rear tire. I flip open my cell, hold it towards the sky, but there's no service out here.
Chad gets out of the car, slams the door shut. “Life makes sense when you're high up,” he says, eying the radio tower's apex. “I bet even you could see Hubbert's Peak from the top there.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
He clasps his hands as if in church. “If you read the article I sent you'd know that production starts at zero, that it rises to a peak which can never be surpassed. Hubbert warned us that once the peak has been reached, production declines until the resource is depleted.” I cringe as Chad grinds his cigarette out on my rear fender. “Peak oil is not a fad,” he continues. “It's an absolute, a mathematical inevitability.”
“So where's the gun club already?” I ask, tip-toeing toward the silver tower. “Am I warm or cold?”
“No gun club will have me,” he says. “Too many rules I can't follow.”
“So what am I doing here?”
“You came because you believe me.”
“Whatever.” Deep in my pocket I find an old Kleenex; I rub the sticky tobacco ash from my fender. In the glossy chrome reflection I watch Chad remove the Glock from its red leather holster. My blood races. “Okay, I believe you,” I say.
“You're in or you're out, Todd,” he says, opening the pistol slide. “Here today, gone tomorrow.”
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“You chose to put down the drink,” he says. “You can choose again.”
“That was life or death. Now calm down!”
“This is also life or death,” he says, inserting the magazine into the gun. “The professors, the academics, the men and women who live in theory on college campuses, they're all screwed. The phrase 'can't do, teach' will take on new meaning. Even the mighty stockbroker will have very little value.”
“You need help, man.”
He points the gun at me. Without being asked I throw my arms up in surrender. He steps closer, dragging the heels of his Crocs through the sand. I back hard into the radio tower, the gong of old aluminum. He's so close I can smell the gun oil, the barrel only inches from my chest. My stomach free falls.
“You came because I rescued you once before,” he says, rapping the gun against my collar bone. “You came because you know only I can save you again.”
I wince in the face of the muzzle. “Come on, Chad.”
He digs the pistol into my neck hollow. I shut my eyes, thankful it's not stuffed in my mouth. “I'll save you,” he says.
“You gotta be kidding me,” I mumble, the gun cinching my esophagus.
“I'll spare you, brother.”
I exhale; he fires—POW.
Then fires again, a fiery flash like liftoff.
Princess Leia's howling at the radio tower, her curly tail scared straight. I'm still standing, hands over my package, flip-flops cemented to the ground. Pins and needles raise my skin off the bone. Even my toes are breathing. When I swallow I taste sulfur, an ache like strep throat. I wonder if I'm gone, somewhere beyond, but I don't think I'd be this calm if I were dead.
Chad's shouting blanks, blanks, blanks. From the ground he picks up an empty bullet casing, holds it in front of my face like an answer.
“Blanks?” I ask, my voice low and strange.
“Blanks,” he says.
My bladder swells. How I didn't wet my pants in the face of extinction is a mystery.
“No harm, no blood,” he says, flicking the shell toward the tower.
When I try and speak again my hearing shuts down—the zoom of a vacuum—the instant deflation of eardrums. Chad's talking, but I can't detect a word, not one sound, not even that ringing. He's blushing, an alien look of embarrassment bleeding from my brother's eyes. His mouth's wide open—begging, pleading for me to understand, but I'm a universe away, my thinking unusually pronounced, startlingly loud, and I wish for only in this moment he could join me.
Chad hands me the gun, closes his eyes and smirks, like an eager child counting down for a game of hide and seek. As if shaking on a business deal, I reach for the black handle and squeeze. The Glock's much lighter than I imagined, more toy pistol than heart stopper. And though I've never held a real gun, the Glock's familiar in my fist, an extension of what's already inside me.
“You sure?” I ask.
Chad waves me on.
I raise the gun, the trigger still warm from my brother's finger. He flicks open his right eye.“No peeking,” I say.
I aim for the center of his brain and fire.