John Older was his name, but I always just called him Older. He proposed that we move in together. I was tired of living in the dorms. I wanted some autonomy, and Older was cool, for a 24-old way too into the Moody Blues, but that I could scoff away as rudimentary hippieness. What convinced me—though instinct should’ve told me that it wasn’t a good idea—was the promise of proximity to the drugs I purchased from him: mostly weed, but a good bit of acid, too. The guy stockpiled LSD. It was merely convenient that he was, in fact, a couple years older than me (so his name was fitting) and his current roommate, whose name had graced the lease on the apartment they shared, was moving out of town.
We discovered a duplex east of the university on a desolate but homey road cornered on one side by the rodeo grounds and on the other by the freeway. Probably for these reasons the rent for our two-bedroom proved cheap, that and the fact that this was Reno, where renters eek out their lives because—well, it’s Reno. Johnny Cash didn’t sing about shooting people here because it’s nice.
As we unloaded pickup truckloads of our stuff—boxes of books and CDs, mattresses, our couch—Older produced a bottle of Jack from which we chugged by and by. By afternoon the bottle had mostly emptied itself and my head elevated into air that only sleep might dissipate. Before I lapsed into blackness on my mattress—no box springs, no sheets, cubes of clothing piled, the cold blocks of my cardboard castle—Older planted the empty bottle in the earth of our front yard, alongside the path that led to our front door.
I attended summer class. I don’t know what Older did with his hours, didn’t ask. Now that we cohabitated, ours was a relationship beyond the dealer-customer thing we’d endured. In other words, it was obvious that I liked Older for the access to his drugs, and I haven’t a clue what he liked me for, other than someone to sell drugs to and do them with, because we ended up doing that a lot.
By fall we’d planted twelve more half-gallon whiskey bottles into the earth beside the walkway that bordered the barren dirt of our front yard. I had been present at each shot poured, such that the burden of emptying a bottle fell equally onto our shoulders, as did the procuring of said whiskey. When one bottle that Older bought burbled down our gullets, there I was, fresh bottle in-hand, uncapped.
A cat family made an ill-advised move into the crawl space beneath our duplex, and nested, unfortunately, directly below Older’s bedroom. The cat and her kittens constantly mewed, the sound leaking up through the duplex floorboards. For a while, Older tried to drown it out, and I suffered extended bouts of “Nights in White Satin” played on repeat for hours. But when that failed, Older resorted to a cat-family genocide. Older described, in excruciating detail, how he hefted a shovel and snuck to the rear of the house where the entrance to the crawlspace sat in the backyard. In this way, he caught the cat family cavorting in the yard, seemingly un-predated, until Older withdrew himself from around the corner and hurled his shovel like a javelin. He killed the cats off one at a time—except for boasting of killing two kittens with a single shovel-toss. The mother had a litter of five. It was but a week before the family had been eradicated—kittens, mother, all, and I did not want to know if he’d managed to kill the mother before the kittens—the bodies all buried (with the same shovel, of course) beneath the earth of the front yard, the yard which was slowly being enclosed by our emptied whiskey bottles.
Older decided he needed a garden. Now I understood the whiskey bottles. Older was making with them a little fence. By this time—November—there were 30 in number, all half-gallons, and they lined the border between the concrete path and the dirt yard.
In lieu of a hose or sprinkler, Older dug irrigation canals into the earth from the spigot on the side of the house. From the hardware store he had purchased packets of seeds: tomatoes, yellow squash, cucumbers, jalapeños, cantaloupe. He flooded the front yard daily and soon the sprouts pushed up out of the soil, showing their little green yearnings. I don’t remember if the cantaloupe ever grew, but we had so much of the other stuff that we made very spicy (the jalapeños) spaghetti sauce constantly, and we ate that with ramen noodles and drank 32-ounce bottles of Miller High Life that we purchased at the Sak n’ Save on Oddie Boulevard.
Older got weird with the tomato worms. He’d find these enormous green caterpillars gorging themselves on his tomato plants. They bore the same color as the plants and blended in perfectly, but ate so much and got so big they were easily distinguishable. One time Older yelled, Come here and look at how much this fucker ate! The worm had indeed devoured the topmost part of the plant, about which I couldn’t care, for I had sickened at this point by the idea of more garden spaghetti.
Infuriated, Older removed the worm from his plant gingerly, the way a father gathers a child and sweeps her away from some deadly precipice or the edge of a busy road. Then he laid the worm in the middle of the driveway, and from the lockbox on his GMC he produced an aerosol can of ether and with his cigarette lighter he torched the worm while screaming: Take that you fucker you fucking shit you fucking worm that’s what you get for eating my tomatoes you fuck! After some time and many tomato worms, the driveway was scarred blotchy with scorched goo.
But the plants largely survived, the earth in which they grew fertilized by the decomposed cats Older had buried, and this food sustained us through the spring and into the summer.
What Older did was, he loaded his telemark skis into the bed of his GMC stepside and he drove into the snowy mountains surrounding Reno. And he took a bunch of liquid LSD—retained in an old Visine dropper—then he tromped all over the Sierra, tripping balls.
I didn’t really care what Older did with his free time. I was selling suits at The Suit Warehouse and hooking up with a hot little Panamanian I’d met in one of my classes. That and I sucked down beers at house parties.
One time, just to fuck with me, Older took everything out of the refrigerator—which was perhaps a beer or two, some ketchup and soy sauce packets, and the shelving—and he waited for me to come home. When he saw that I had pulled up, he sequestered himself inside the refrigerator. I walked inside and took off my suit jacket and my tie and I went to the fridge for a beer and when I opened it there was Older, clumped inside the thing like a dead body.
I stood there, aghast at the awkwardly angled body kinked into the narrow confines, with the sick yellow refrigerator light pouring over it. It must have been not even a second that passed. Then Older sprang and grabbed me about the throat, pushing me against the kitchen cupboards.
I sputtered and gasped then Older let go and bent over, his hands upon his knees, and he howled. I stood there in my dress shirt and trousers, my hands dumb and numb at my sides. I finally found that I too could laugh and did so awkwardly, while I rubbed my neck where Older’s grip had left red welts.
One day I had the Panamanian over and I thought we had the house to ourselves, so we were busy doing our thing. Later that afternoon, after we’d emerged from my bedroom and the Panamanian left for work, I retrieved a beer and Older appeared out of nowhere. Apparently he’d been home, ensconced in his bedroom the entire time. He said, If I didn’t have to listen to you and her getting it on all the time: ooh, yeah, oh, Dave, yes Dave, yes!
I didn’t know what to say, so I twisted my High Life open and said, Shit, sorry dude.
Older waved a hand. It’s all right, he said. It was pretty damn entertaining. I sat in bed listening to you two go at it.
Older had pulled a beer of his own from the fridge, and I was sick to my stomach.
I said, I thought you weren’t home.
It never came up again, Older listen to me having sex, and before I knew it we were back at our thing of drinking together, whiskey cocktails going down so fast that we no longer needed the bottles to wall in our garden, so we stacked them next to the garbage can in the kitchen. We’d long since tired of emptying the little plastic kitchen-sized trash bin and instead had wheeled inside the big city garbage bin from the street. It was filled with fast food bags and wrappers and bottles of High Life and Jack Daniels, and next to this our stacked bottles, the pile nearly as high as the trash bin itself.
I managed to make it to class. I couldn’t tell you about Older. I mean, he was an art major, so who knows what all he had to do for his classes. But me, I sat around reading Marx and Weber and a book about Mao and Stalin, and the millions of dead Chinese and Ukranians. I imagined wasted countrysides, fields of dead forage, emaciated bodies lining rows of grey plant matter, crows pecking at what flesh remained.
The party seemed never to stop and one day Older and I found ourselves drunk early in the afternoon. We watched the garden grow—the tomatoes, jalapeños, and squash we’d long since picked and their stalks had withered, but the cucumbers were still coming. The garden was a strange mashup of dead brown and gray of rot and desert soil and the sharp green of the still-living.
You want some cocaine? Older asked. I’d never had cocaine before. The decision was much like that I’d made to move in with Older in the first place. Older upended a rust-colored pill bottle on a CD case. With a credit card he chopped up lines for us and we snorted them with a rolled up dollar bill.
I don’t remember feeling anything. All I can tell you is that Older and I played one-on-one basketball on the church court across the street. We tossed ill-formed shots, haphazard layups, chased the ball around. The sun arced over the sky while the ball sailed toward the basket and our shadows spread across the concrete.
When we took some acid, Older made me kneel on our living room carpet and spread my arms like some penitent before a priest, then he dropped the LSD onto my tongue.
We poured fresh cocktails and returned to the garden and by this time the sun was disappearing over the mountains, and sparse clouds drifted above the valley and the sun’s deep red and pink and purple rays glowed off these clouds and colored the sides of the downtown buildings, and this, along with the glow of the casinos’ neon, was our spectacle.
When the storm clouds marched over the mountains, they did so in this infernal light, and when they reached the lowlands lightning forked to the ground in blue sprigs. The memory of this—the orange sky, the grey clouds, the warm wind on my face, the lightning, the euphoria flowing through me from the many substances—carved into my brain such that even if it was not real, for me it always will be.
Older said, You haven’t paid me for any of these drugs.
Guilt overwhelmed the good feelings. But what guilt? What had I done? Older offered and I accepted, like gifts, or so I thought.
Older continued: I let you take and take and take and you don’t pay for anything, do you? You think that you can get what you want whenever you want.
I felt that if I said anything at all it would just make matters worse.
Older waved his hand the way he did, as if brushing a cobweb from his face. He shook his head. He said, It don’t matter. You’ll get yours. That’s the way it works. It always does.
Then Older left the garden and slammed his bedroom door closed and I neither saw nor heard from Older till dawn. Darkness crept in and the lights on the street came up and I kept thinking I saw kittens walking out of the garden to my ankles, but every time I swatted one away there was nothing but air. I went inside, where “Nights in White Satin” boomed, though muffled, from behind Older’s closed bedroom door. Once in my own bedroom I closed the door and lay on my mattress. I watched the ceiling breathe and I worried that Older might invade my bedroom and wrap his fingers around my windpipe and silence the wind there.
I woke to the chemical stench of ether and pressure on my legs. Older straddled me and his face hovered above mine and he waved some objects back and forth: the can of ether and his lighter—like I was one of the worms he torched on the driveway. Older shrieked, Karma!
I bucked and thrashed and, although Older was not a small man, I managed to thrust him over the side of my mattress. Older lay on the carpet and he laughed and laughed. He said, Boy, you strong. I gotta remember that.
His artistic medium was sculpture. What he made, I called it The Altar.
I’m certain that I have told you about the cat killings, and that those cat killings were made possible by a shovel? My memory’s not too great. Anyway, it was with this shovel, same shovel Older murdered the cats and buried them with, same shovel that transformed the yard into the garden, Older turned this into a work of art.
I suppose you could call it a work of art. Older welded a bunch of piping together and made a kind of table, or grill with legs. It looked almost exactly like a larger version of a barbecue grill, without the container to hold the charcoal and ashes and only the grill part. Then he took the infamous shovel and separated the shovel part from the wooden handle. He then welded a new handle—metal, and much longer—to the shovel head. This he then planted in the middle of his metal grill at a tilt, so that the shovel angled out of the grill. The shovel head stood a good 10 feet high. He polished the piece up with a dremel tool before spray painting it blood red.
By this time the “garden” was nothing but grey remains decomposing into the yard.
All of this I didn’t think about until I wrote this. I spied Older kneeling at The Altar’s base, his arms spread, how I had spread my own arms and tilted back my head and stuck out my tongue when Older christened me with LSD.
I’ll tell you why I tell you these things: they culminated in my leaving, and I shudder to think what might have happened had I not left.
I returned home from work one evening to an empty house. Older’s truck wasn’t in the driveway, and his bedroom door was propped open, and there sat his mattress and some scattered clothing, but no Older. I changed and in the fridge I found a solitary bottle of High Life, which I drank in the now-early-summer warmth on the steps before The Altar while the dusk turned from pink to purple and the casinos’ neons winked off the spraypainted shovel.
The Panamanian wondered if I would accompany her to a party. We had a fine time cavorting with friends, beers flowing, the stars in the sky, and after the mingling I took the Panamanian in my truck into the desert hills where we congressed.
When I returned home I found the house trashed. The couch and coffee table had been flipped onto their sides. The stand that had once held the television was shattered. The television itself was nowhere to be found. Honestly, I was surprised that even the lights worked. There were holes in the walls. The kitchen table and the garbage bin were overturned, trash spilled everywhere. The stack of whiskey bottles had been upset and glass sparkled in the yellow light. I moved through the wreckage to my bedroom, which—much to my relief—remained intact, for what it was.
In the morning I found Older sitting sullenly beneath The Altar. He sipped coffee and didn’t acknowledge me until I said, What the fuck happened in the house?
Older simply said, One beer. That’s all I had was one beer. You had to take that too, didn’t you?
At first I didn’t know what he was talking about and I stuttered, trying to say that I didn’t understand. Older interrupted me.
He said, Yesterday I went skiing and I dropped a shit-ton of acid and as I was telemarking out there all I could think about was that Miller High Life waiting for me at home and how good it was going to taste. And I kept skiing and skiing and thinking about that beer. And I thought about that beer all the drive back from the mountains, and guess what I found when I got home? He paused as if I might answer. No beer, Older said. I found the empty bottle, though.
I started to say that it was only one beer and an 88-cent beer at that, but Older interrupted me.
That’s not the goddamn point, he said. I knew that I had that one beer, and that’s all I wanted and you fucking drank it. You don’t drink a man’s last beer.
I apologized, but my heart wasn’t in it. I thought about all the fucked up shit that had happened over the year. The dead cats, Older’s threatening me, this Altar, his monument to his craziness. I thought how the damn Sak n’ Save was less than a mile away holding coolers-full of innumerable chilled High Life bottles, all less than a dollar each. Was I that selfish? Of course I was.
I offered to buy Older a bottle of whiskey, and I gathered up my wallet and keys and set out to make things right.
When I returned home, Older was straightening up the mess he’d made and I left a fresh half gallon of Bushmills on the kitchen table next to a six pack of Guinness. This pleased Older, as he procured the shot glasses and offered me a beer.
Though I drank with Older that morning, by the afternoon I had found a new abode in the neighboring neighborhood. I packed my things, and Older brooded under The Altar, and he drank from the Bushmills and Guinness both while I loaded my meager belongings then trucked myself away from Older forever.
I haven’t thought of Older for many years, not until I wrote this. I do not recall what became of Older, other than that I saw him one time after I moved out. It was in a dingy old saloon off of Wells Avenue. It was dim and smoky in the bar and at first I didn’t recognize Older when he sat next to me and ordered a Bud. Buy you a beer? he said.
I tilted what remained in the bottle in my hands in a salute and I saw that it was he. I remember some odd feeling of happiness for a free one, and fear at who was buying it. It was as if I knew that I’d owe him somehow forever. We talked through that beer and caught up a bit, but I don’t recall any of the details of Older’s life at the time, other than that he’d had to move out of our duplex shortly after I’d left, since he couldn’t afford the rent. When he finished his one Bud he stood to leave and he clapped my shoulder. I nodded to acknowledge his leaving, and that was that.
Today I came home from my meeting to my empty apartment in this city where I know no one. My assignment is to write what I remember of my past, to try to make amends, etcetera. I don’t know if I have done that, but I try. Tomorrow there is more work to be done. I take each day as it comes.
Jamie Iredell is the author of four books, the most recent of which is Last Mass.