He was 29 and he liked to watch people shoot drugs into their arms on YouTube while he ate the Safeway version of Cheerios. He believed this had something to do with being afraid of, but interested in, death. He’d never done heroin. He was a coward.
Photos by Bryan Schutmaat
Despite his huge talent as an essayist and fiction writer, Theodore McDermott is a humble guy. When we asked him to write a biographical sketch to introduce his fantastic short story “The Minor Outsider,” which we’re proud to publish here, he hemmed and hawed, and when he finally sent it in, he prefaced it with this apologetic note: “My life hasn’t been very interesting, and I’m not that accomplished, so a 200-word biography was a stretch. But I did my best!” So we took matters into our own hands because his best includes a slew of brilliant essays for the Believer on the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, the underappreciated Chicago alt-country band Souled American, and the actor and filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait. He’s also published short fiction in some quality literary journals like the Portland Review, and, as he so helpfully wrote in his note to us, Theodore “was nominated for the Essay Prize. He didn’t win.”
These days, Theodore lives in Missoula, Montana, where, until recently, he worked as a baker. He wrote “The Minor Outsider” after he’d gotten his hand mangled by an industrial mixer and was laid up for weeks, taking painkillers and receiving workers’ comp. The story has grown into a novel, which we expect, once he finishes it, to be as lonely and harrowing and great as this story, which recounts the tale of a young pregnant couple, a seedy mermaid bar, and a depressing one-night stand.
We’ve paired this story with new work from Bryan Schutmaat. These photographs were taken during his extensive travels in Montana and in other cold, northern, and sometimes sad places, and we feel they are a perfect match for Theodore’s story. Bryan’s recent series, Grays the Mountain Sends, was released to great praise late last year.
Before sunrise, while he waited until it was time to leave for work, he watched a documentary about heroin addicts. He watched the movie on mute because he was afraid he was going deaf and worried that in order to hear it, he’d have to turn the volume up to a level that would wake up his girlfriend, who was still asleep in the other room. Cameras filmed people sneaking into buildings, shooting up in laundry rooms, negotiating with johns, eating at Sbarro, walking down the street, loitering in stairwells, visiting their forlorn parents. The documentary kept stalling because he was watching it online, and they stole internet from the Holiday Inn across the street, which meant their connection was tenuous.
He was 29 and he liked to watch people shoot drugs into their arms on YouTube while he ate the Safeway version of Cheerios. He believed this had something to do with being afraid of, but interested in, death. He’d never done heroin. He was a coward.
Despite his efforts, the bedroom door opened, and his girlfriend came out wearing only striped underwear and a green tank top. I was having a dream, she told him. She looked like she was still having it. She was blond and small, and her eyes were almost closed. She elicited compassion. She was pregnant, but it didn’t show. It had only been a week or two.
It was from when I was, like, seven or something. It was a dream but it was true. It was when we lived in the desert and my dad told me that someone had built this huge water-park place a couple hours away. Near Vegas or something. Her eyes saw only what was inside her brain. And so my family, we drove across all this sand and it was so hot and then we got there and saw that the whole thing had been abandoned before it was even finished. She’d told him this story before. She was always telling him stories like this, stories that had no point but were loaded with indecipherable meaning. There were all of these huge poured-concrete pools that were empty. Dry. And there were sections of bright, sun-bleached waterslide pipe snaking across the sand. It sounded like she was mumbling but he knew she wasn’t. And I was just standing at a chain-link fence in the middle of the desert in my bikini while these big guard dogs barked at me.
Go back to sleep, he said, getting up from his computer, taking her hand. It was warm and relaxed and blood pumped through it. Come here. She was unconscious enough to be obedient. He led her back to the bedroom, to the bed.
She sat on the edge and said, I love you.
I love you, too, he assured her.
Then she got back under the covers and curled up and turned away from him. It was weird, she said. She flipped her long hair away from her neck and above her head, as though she expected him to curl up behind her and hold her. He wasn’t going to. He loved her compulsively and so his feelings for her felt coerced and he guarded his affection, rationed it. It was scary, she said.
He was definitely scared. He had an extremely rare condition that caused benign, egg-shaped tumors to grow on his nerves. Later that afternoon he had an appointment to have his brain scanned to determine whether or not tumors had begun to grow inside his head, on his cranial nerves. He believed they had after learning that the primary symptom of their presence inside his head was hearing loss. For months now a hiss of static in his ears made other people’s speech sound mumbled and he was always turning the music up too loud at work and he couldn’t make out most of the dialogue in the new Roman Polanski movie he and his girlfriend had seen in the theater. He had been trying to read lips to compensate for all this, but he couldn’t decipher how mouths made sounds. He got up from the bed.
Where are you going? she asked, still turned away from him.
I have work.
His girlfriend knew he had the condition—she’d gone with him to Boston to see the specialist who’d made the diagnosis—but not about his hearing loss or about his upcoming appointment. He couldn’t tell her. If he had brain tumors, according to the specialist, then he would be diagnosed with a more serious variety of the condition. A variety that would cause him to lose his hearing and probably his memory and maybe more of his brain function, which could result in dementia or some other mental illness. And his child—their child—could inherit his condition and his brain tumors and his hearing and memory loss and his child’s life would be hard and it would be his fault. His girlfriend was beautiful, but her child would be flawed and difficult and deaf, and it would be because of him.
Go back to sleep, he said. He wanted to get back in bed with her but knew he couldn’t. Dream about me.
Then he went out into the cold winter morning and sat in his car while it warmed up. He packed his one-hitter, which looked like a cigarette, and took two hits. It made the world a little less like it was. He drove through the tidy downtown of the small mountain city in Montana where they lived. Then he drove past mountains and rivers before arriving at the Lolo strip mall where he worked. He went in and put a pot of water on a hot plate while he removed his jacket, sweatpants, gloves, and hat. Then he stuffed his clothes into his locker. Having a locker made him feel like he’d never fully finished high school and also like he was an actual blue-collar worker. He baked and cooked for a coffee bar named an untranslatable French phrase. He’d spent a lot of time using his mostly forgotten high school French trying to decode it, before deciding that “the Minor Outsider” was the best he could do.
He changed from his tennis shoes into a pair of clogs that he’d bought at the mall. When the water boiled, he made a cup of coffee with it. Then he carried his mug through the bakery and said good morning to the coffee roaster, who was writing in a notebook, and he said good morning to the middle-aged Christian lady who packed the beans. It was quiet in the warehouse, and his concerns were far away and so this, he decided, would be his favorite part of the day. He did his best to remain in this quiet moment, with coffee and silence and extremely high ceilings and an open loading-dock door that revealed green trees and the back of an apartment building and a sky that was starting to blush blue with the sunrise.
The technician placed a heavy metal mask over his face. The mask was cold and indifferent and crushing his ability to breathe. It felt like he was being suffocated by a machine.
He tried to convince himself that everything was fine, that he had to relax, that these people knew what they were doing, that he wouldn’t asphyxiate inside the tight MRI tube, that he wouldn’t die with this metal smothering his face. But there was some separate, autonomous entity inside him—his soul?—that had to get out and that overcame his brain’s rationale for remaining. He made a frustrated sound and felt tears crawling out of his eyes and managed to say, No, stop please.
The technician removed the mask and said, It’s OK. It’s OK.
He sat up, breathed, and apologized. I’m sorry, he said. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t—
It’s OK, the technician told him. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.
No, he said. I know. It’s just, I wasn’t prepared for that. I didn’t know. I think I maybe need some of the stronger—the stronger drugs.
We can do that.
The technician smiled and he noticed that the technician had braces and he felt sorry for the balding, middle-aged man. The technician helped him up and led him out of the room, back to the kind nurse who smelled like Werther’s Originals and who had already given him some Vicodin. They talked. She asked him if he was OK, what he was feeling. She was thin and had perfect skin and wore a gold necklace that glittered, and he wished she were his mother. She told him that neither she nor the technician knew anything about him or his condition; they only knew that the neurologist had ordered certain scans of his brain. She asked him what had happened, why he was there.
Tell me, she said. It’s OK. There’s no rush.
He tried to explain. Two years ago, he told her, a tumor appeared as a lump the size and shape of a bird’s egg in his bicep. For more than a year, he’d pretended it wasn’t there and avoided doctors and didn’t look at his arm. It was like children starving in Africa: he could deal with it only by refusing to confront it. This was a dumb comparison, he knew, but he’d made it. Then he’d started dating his girlfriend, and she’d noticed it and had forced him to go to a doctor. The doctor was alarmed. He had surgery and it was excised and a few years after that, he told her, another tumor had appeared in his ankle.
Then there was one in his neck. Then there was one in his thigh. It was dangerous to remove them: the surgery could damage his nerves and impair motor function. The specialist in Boston had explained that there were two varieties of his extremely rare condition and about the correlation between hearing loss and brain tumors. And lately, he told the nurse, over the past six months or so, his hearing had started to deteriorate, and he felt like he was giving himself brain tumors by failing to understand sound. He wondered if his failure was the fault of his ears or of his mind or of his brain, though he couldn’t delineate the difference between these things. The only way to confirm the presence of tumors in his head was to undergo an MRI scan of his brain. So that’s why I’m here, he said. I have to get this over with. I have to find out.
I’m sorry, she said, then explained his options and put an IV in his arm. This will help.
He felt lost and catatonic and as if he was being treated like a robot, but the reason he was here—his brain—was not a computer. He couldn’t process everything. The nurse put her hand on his wrist to take his pulse. Her skin was cold like metal.
As she led him back out to the MRI machine, his brain was far enough outside his body that he followed and obeyed and lay down where she indicated. This time, when the technician placed the metal mask on his face, his panic eventually wore itself out and turned into a general, humiliated resignation that allowed him to sleep through the hammering, mechanical sounds that echoed inside the white tube as if a machine were trying to chisel into his skull, crack it open, see inside.
He awoke as the technician removed the mask from his face. The technician looked frightened.
What? he said. You saw them? I have them, don’t I?
I’m sorry, the technician mumbled, and he noticed that the technician no longer had braces. His teeth were perfectly aligned. It felt like maybe he’d been in the MRI for a year, long enough for the orthodontics to do their work. I’m not allowed to say, the technician said. I’m not a doctor.
That means I do, doesn’t it?
Here, the technician said, helping him up. It’s OK.
When they gave him the painkillers, he had to sign a form vowing that he wouldn’t drive home. But he went to his car and started it and sat there, with his hands gripping the steering wheel, lost in a hydrocodone haze. The world seemed far away, too far away to manipulate, and he couldn’t fathom going home and dealing with his girlfriend, who would want to know why he was acting so detached, like he was high, like he was in one of her dreams. He couldn’t see her and love her and tell her what he now knew—or thought he knew, what the technician hadn’t quite told him. If he told her, she would cry. She always cried but even now he’d be suspicious of her sadness, want it all for himself, and doubt would distance them and distrust would seep in and something would keep growing inside his brain, something hard and smooth and white and egg shaped. Inside the tumor was something black, as dark as heroin tar, and it was going to hatch inside his brain, where it would live, overtaking it, devastating it.
He sat in his car for a long time. It was fall and the days were mostly nights now and it was already getting dark. It frightened him and he had to escape. He headed for the highway, for a road that led him away, elsewhere, through a beautiful landscape that had been erased by night and silence. Three hours later, he arrived on the other side of the Rockies, in a small city called Great Falls.
All he knew about Great Falls was what everyone knows about Great Falls: there’s a bar with mermaids there. He stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. The bar, it turned out, was in a motel. He arrived and gave his ID to a steroid-swollen bouncer perched on a stool. He went inside, and the place felt as false and sinister as a plastic Halloween mask. It had a sort of twilight Polynesian theme. A roof of fake reeds extended over the bar and the booths in the back. There were no windows, and the carpet looked as black as a still lake at night.
In a booth with waist-high walls decorated with more imitation reeds, an old woman who reminded him of the skeleton from the opening credits of Tales from the Crypt played covers of classic country songs on an elaborate keyboard setup. Homemade backing tracks approximated the beats, and everything she played had a circus sound. Her voice wavered and cracked. She wore braces on both of her wrists. She played “Brown Eyed Girl” and a medley of Johnny Cash songs and “Fortunate Son” and she made every song sound the same, like they were all part of one endless, upbeat lament.
Behind the bar, girls swam behind glass, in a tank that looked like the deep end of a swimming pool. They wore goggles and orange earplugs and clips that pinched their noses and mermaid costumes that bound their legs. They waved to everyone and swam up for air and their hair spread out slow and followed them reluctantly. He had an impulse to go outside and call his girlfriend to tell her about it, but he knew he couldn’t explain that this was real, that he was here, somewhere more exotic than her dreams.
Two men sat on stools and faced away from the mermaids so they could watch an Ultimate Fighting Championship match on a flatscreen that hung above the keyboard-playing lady. He sat down beside them and ordered a whiskey on the rocks and thought, What sad weirdos come here on a Wednesday night, before realizing that he was one of them—him and these UFC guys and a woman whose red hair was held back with a pink scrunchie and a man with a mayonnaise stain on the collar of his Air Force uniform and a party of 11 women, all drinking piña coladas with orange umbrellas, and a waitress carrying a tray of fishbowl-like glasses filled with an icy blue drink and a man who dropped his pants all the way to his ankles at a urinal in the men’s room.
Then an Indian girl came in. She sat at the other end of the bar and started writing things on napkins, then pressing her messages against the tank glass for one of the mermaids to read. When she dropped one of her messages on the dark carpet, he surreptitiously picked it up on his way to the bathroom and read it in the safety of a stall. It said, Everything will be fine. It could be a clue. He put it in his pocket. Plot, he thought, is just coincidence.
When he returned, she was gone. A coaster covered the top of her full glass, and he felt like he’d allowed the world to get too far away from him, like he had to pull it back. He went outside and found her standing in the parking lot, surrounded by the hotel, smoking a cigarette. He apologetically asked to bum one. She held her battered pack out to him and said, Go for it.
She seemed younger than him, around 24, around the age he thought of himself as still being. She wore an American Eagle hoodie and jeans and worn-down high-top basketball shoes and she was so thin that he already imagined that her hips were hard and skeletal and she had acne scars stitching her skin near her hairline but her hair was dark and full and cut into a neat bob and she had tight, high cheeks and eyes that shied away from everything. Yet she was still somehow compelling, and so her flaws were paradoxical and added to her attractiveness instead of diminishing it. A wisp of eyeliner extended the line of her eyelash.
I feel like I’ve seen you before, he said. The cigarette quadrupled his drunkenness. In Missoula. He felt like he was telling a fortune.
Maybe, she said. I’ve been there, but I live here. Like other Indians he’d met, her accent was defined by its absence. It made her sound unaffected and authoritative. She pointed behind him, toward the bar. That’s my cousin. The mermaid. But she gets bored in there so I write her notes. Talk to her.
He imagined being buried in liquid silence, communicating by napkin. He imagined the future. He looked at the girl and saw her eyes for the first time. He saw that there was a whole human inside her, dying to get out. There was one inside him too. They could help each other escape.
He wanted to say something but he didn’t know what, so he said, I was reading this thing online about how there’s all these missile silos around here. Hundreds of them. For nukes, you know. For the Russians. In the Cold War. You could’ve ended the whole world from right here. If you just knew where the button was.
It’s true, she said. They’re all over, east of here.
He thought of her cousin swimming in silence.
Then she asked, Do you want to leave here?
Maybe if he went with her, he thought, desire could become something. With his girlfriend, it had only consumed him. Sure, he said. Yeah.
He followed her to the street, around the corner and into a decommissioned police cruiser. Everything seemed arbitrarily sinister because it was inherently strange. He sat in the passenger side of the front bench seat. A white cat roamed around in the back, behind the Plexiglas. It was a big cage, but it was still a cage. Criminals had been in there. Along the dashboard there were empty spaces where equipment—a radio, a laptop, a radar gun—had once been. He complimented her car.
Thanks, she said. Yeah. It’s nice, huh? It was my dad’s. He was a cop here forever. But then, you know, he just had a heart attack and that was it. But the department gave me the car as a gift. Even though he didn’t even die in the line of duty. Just to be nice, you know. To remember him by. It was nice.
He believed she was making it all up—the decommissioned car and the mermaid cousin and the cop dad and the trapped cat—but he couldn’t find a way to dispute it, so he said nothing while she drove. The town was spread out and thin and it was hard to tell where it ended, but he knew they were outside it when she turned down a dirt road and onto another and then came to a stop. Her headlights lit up a small cabin that was spare and wooden and symmetrical.
Here, she said. Then she got out, slammed her door and let the cat out into the night, like she’d given it a ride out here to nowhere and was dropping it off. Then he got out, too, like she’d done the same for him. It was snowing and the snow somehow impregnated the sky and the ground with dull light.
What is this? he asked, though he knew the answer.
It’s my grandparents’, she said. They never come out here. She looked like she was dreaming. No one does.
He felt her hand take his. It was cold like metal.
She took a key from under a worn mat and opened the sliding-glass door. She led him in and flipped a switch. A bare bulb hanging on a chain from the ceiling lit up the space, which was, as he’d imagined, as spare as a Puritan chapel. The walls and floor and ceiling were all made of worn, hewn wood. A bed, just a mattress on a box spring, sat in a back corner. A black wood stove stood in the middle of the room, its chimney running straight through the ceiling. His breath made a brief ghost. He thought, I could stay in here forever, away from everything.
Come on, she said. It’s freezing in here.
They went out back, and she led him to a stack of wood, where he found a hatchet resting on the snow like a murder weapon, like another clue. They gathered some logs, and he watched her build a fire in the wood stove while he sat in a chair in his hat and jacket and gloves and waited for the room to warm up. The darkness made the windows mirrors, so he looked at the wood floor. A sluggish bug crawled across it. A fly. He didn’t kill it. Then he saw another. Then another crawled by, slightly faster this time. He heard another one of them buzzing. She passed him a bottle of whiskey that he hadn’t noticed. A new fly crawled across the sliding-glass door.
There’s flies in here, he said.
It’s warmer under the covers, she said and crawled in, fully clothed.
She looked like she needed him but he knew he didn’t need her, so he took off his shoes and got in with her and lay on his back and looked at the ceiling. She cuddled close to him and had somehow removed her pants without him noticing, and he now felt the skin of her leg, which she’d laid over him, and he felt the skin of her thigh and stomach press against his body. He’d been deceived into intimacy. She was warm, but he was warmer. He put his arm under her head and she put her head on his shoulder and she kissed his neck and he felt her ribs through her skin and she was a human who he could have without giving her anything, which was good because he had nothing to give, so they had sex and he came on her stomach. It looked disgusting.
The cabin grew warmer still as they lay beside each other, and she said, We could live in here. Or maybe she said, I could. He couldn’t be sure. The static in his ears had swelled. Away from everything, she said.
Let’s go to sleep, he said. Sleep was the only way to escape. He was here with this girl who was looking for something she’d lost, and the elderly keyboard player from the mermaid bar was across town, asleep in her twin bed, in a nightgown as soft as snow, and the bartender was watching reruns of regular-season football games on channel 430-something, and the bouncer was working his second job, unloading boxes at the airport, and the men who’d been watching UFC were alone in the motel now, and heroin addicts were passed out in parking garages, but his girlfriend lived outside his imagination, beyond his brain, inside her dreams. And here he was, burrowed away. This, he thought, is what the inside of the earth looks like: a hell you built for yourself. This, he thought, is a place to be dead. Goodnight, he said.
She whispered to him for a while, but he couldn’t make it out. Then he felt her twitch and go slack, and he knew she was asleep. The cabin was still cold, and it was silent besides a few flies flying around. He got up and sat in one of the chairs, with his back to the bed, and drank whiskey and fed the fire and went outside to get more wood. Over the course of the next hour, as the cabin warmed up, an entire civilization of flies awakened from their slumber. Spring had come for them within the hour, and he had made it happen.
The glass of the cabin was lined thickly with them. It was like being inside a hive. And the buzzing accumulated, swelled, only added to the static inside his head. It seemed cruel to kill them after they’d been resurrected, but the sound never reached a crescendo. It grew hungrily, unceasingly, like bacteria. He took some scrap newspaper that was meant for the fire and slapped at the windows. After the thud, bodies clattered to the floor. He saw at least ten of them squirming on their backs, kicking their broken legs. He felt guilty, and it seemed like something that would happen in a quaint poem about New England. He slapped at them again. The same thing happened but to fewer flies. Then again—and again, to fewer. And so on. As he killed them, they became harder to kill. They were evermore alert and elusive, but he was persistent and he killed hundreds of them.
Eventually he stopped and swept up their little carcasses and saw them in the metal dustpan and threw them out into the night. He thought of the Holocaust and knew it was wrong to think about this. He tried to stop killing and to stop thinking, but it didn’t work. The alcohol wasn’t working either, so he sat down and did his best to ignore the flies. He failed. He killed more. There were maybe 50 left at this point. The 50 hardest to kill. It had something to do with evolution, maybe. He kept trying and trying, and he managed to kill a few more, before he gave up and stopped.
He lay on the floor, near the stove, and closed his eyes and urged himself to sleep, but the buzzing irritated him awake once again. He wanted to scream. The buzzing continued. His hearing came and went and seemed to return only when it was inconvenient or annoying. He laughed even though it wasn’t funny. He sat up and swatted at the flies again and killed a few more, but the buzzing continued. He put his shoes on and went outside and stood in front of the cabin and turned on his phone. The screen said it was searching for service.
His pregnant girlfriend was asleep on the other side of the mountains, and his phone couldn’t find a signal, so he decided to sit there all night and wait for morning, until the girl he’d just slept with woke up and gave him a ride back to his car. He would drive back to his life and do better. Until then, he would sit there.
So he sat there, leaned against the sliding-glass door, in the middle of the enormous Montana night. His child was inside his girlfriend, and his girlfriend was in bed, dreaming of him. Or so he dreamed, while flies buzzed against the other side of the glass, attempting an impossible escape.
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