New on The Talking Book Podcast. Joseph Rathgeber reads an excerpt from his new book Mixedbloods. Get it now from Fomite Press. The Ramapough Lenape, a destabilized people—origins uncertain, debated and mythologized—are struggling to survive in the face of an ecological devastation visited upon them by the neighboring Ford plant, which has dumped paint sludge in abandoned mines for decades. Mixedbloods is a story of identity, of a cultural history under attack, and of destructive—often violent—behavior.
Excerpt from Mixedbloods (Fomite, 2019)
Zike and Elsie lived in a 1960s Rollohome ten-wide trailer with broad, horizontal stripes on the exterior—pastel pink, blue, and white. A giveaway NY Jets flag was roped to the hitch, and a slide-out awning provided some cover for the steps where Elsie grew thyme, spearmint, and basil in buckets. Zike’s roached out, 4-stroke Honda dirt bike was leaned against the rear of the trailer. Its chain and sprockets were oxidized orange, and the seat fairing had a graphic of the Blessed Virgin aureoled with blue acetylene flames. She was crowned with a Wu-Tang “W” decal, and the Misfits’ crimson ghost skull logo was stuck where her mons pubis would be.
Exley DeGroat made a rattly knock on the door but pulled it open to let himself in. The TV was on—a game show rerun—and, aside from the shrieks of a winning contestant, the place was silent.
The bedroom was full of light; there were no window treatments. Zike was asleep in bed, sheeted toes to chin. The sheet was tucked under his sides like a mummy. An issue of X-Force had fallen open at his side, the bag and backing board on the lid of a long storage box dragged within an arm’s length of his box spring. The comforter had been thrown back, and Exley could see the underside was imbrued with brown bloodstains. A helmet of dun, ‘fro-like hair obscured his brother’s face.
This wasn’t the man-child who everyone said could deaden a horse with a fist blow. This wasn’t the mongrel who it was rumored could jump in and out of a waist-high, 55-gallon barrel without ever touching the sides. This wasn’t the Satan worshipper or the kitten sacrificer or the legendary water fountain killer. That man never existed, which was something Exley had become increasingly sure of over the past several years.
Ex was still studying the stains when Zike stirred and started talking.
“I’m cold, bro. It’s cold, ain’t it?”
“It’s like a hundred degrees in here, Zike.” Exley sat on the edge of the bed. “We’re in the middle of a heat wave.”
Zike sat up slowly, folding back the sheet. He wore boxers and nothing else. His body had become the disposal sites that had done this to him—the landfills, the mines, the sludge heaps. He was crater-chested with a coppiced torso, hairless where so much skin had been carved away in swaths. Zike was both baleful and beautiful, in the way a civil war would be to a historiographer. He really hadn’t aged or matured—not as a social being, anyway—since he was stricken with sickness and the surgeries started. He was diagnosed in April of his senior year, expelled in June, and on the OR slab in August. And he was stunted. His interests were the same as when he was a youngblood—motocross, comics, and heavy metal. Elsie too, of course. Everyone thought her to be superhuman, having stayed with Zike—her high school sweetheart—through all the hardship.
“I thought I’d stop by to check on you,” Ex explained.
“You should. You’re my li’l bro.”
“Here.” Exley handed Zike three rolls of gauze. “I come bearing gifts.”
Zike stashed the gauze into his dresser drawer. He pulled out a pair of sweatpants and Exley helped him get them on.
“I need you to help me get clean while you’re here, too.”
Ex avoided eye contact. Zike cracked his knuckles, pressing down on the chunky skull rings he always wore, sterling silver ones Unky Orrin made for him. The cracking helped him control the tremors in his hands.
Zike walked to the kitchen, bowlegged to prevent his thighs from rubbing and enflaming his already swollen groin. His colostomy bag hung like a holster over the waistline of his sweatpants. He rummaged his hands in the kitchen sink, empty whiskey bottles clinking. He foraged the cabinets and the pantry.
“You need me to do a liquor run?”
“Nah, nah, nah,” Zike said, disappearing into the bathroom. Ex heard something fall, and Zike emerged guzzling green from the family-size Listerine. He plopped down into an armchair. “Unky Orrin’s been on me about taking the teetotal pledge. Like he’s one to talk, right?”
Exley sat across from him on the sofa. Zike kept guzzling, wincing after each draft. He raised his arm and sniffed his pit. Ex got a clear view of the tawny carbuncles.
“So where’s Elsie?”
“She was in A.C. for the weekend. Now she’s visiting with Sandra.”
“Where’s she live?”
“Neptune.” Zike sniffed himself again. “I stink.”
Exley inventoried the items on the top shelf of the entertainment center: a semicircle of picture frames, an air freshener, a stack of CD jewel cases, a gaudy bowl of potpourri, a pedestaled crucifix.
Zike leaned forward. Exley watched the colostomy bag crease.
“Alright, let’s do this, heh?”
Zike finished off the Listerine and flung the bottle into the kitchen.
He staggered to the shower stall so full of ire that Exley had to do the undressing. He tried to be gentle, stretching the elastic as wide as would allow, careful not to graze his brother’s maculate flesh. There were wens and boils and striated strips—he was a body full of pus. Whole sections seemed flakily scalded. He’d been cut, excised, whittled down. His body was the rough draft of a horror story, and there was more to be deleted, but—Exley thought—with so much gone, what’s left to take?
It was ablution by sponge bath. Exley pointed the showerhead away from Zike’s body and the weak water pressure cascaded down the tiles. Exley ragged him down, tentatively. Zike groaned and braced himself with both hands on the frame of the shower door. His sweat glands were prone to infection, and that accounted for most of his surgeries. Exley gently went over the grafts with the washrag. He skimmed over wrinkly tissue.
“I’m sorry, bro,” Zike said, beginning to cry.
The smell was overpowering. Exley had to turn his face away from the shower stall every few seconds.
“I’m good, bro. Don’t worry about it,” Exley said, closing his mouth and pushing the air out his nostrils.
The pus running out of Zike’s body was a slurry spiraling down the drain, like the Freon, the battery acid, the radiator fluids streaming through the valleys of the Ramapos. Zike began to sob.
“I stink, bro. I fucking stink.” Zike’s chest heaved, and Exley rinsed the soap off him. “Elsie can’t sleep with me in the same bed, man. My wife—my own wife—won’t even fuck me. I ooze, Ex. I’m feest of myself. I disgust her. I disgust me. I reek, bro. I’m fucking gross. She’s afraid to even touch me.”
Exley remembered when they were kids—the shared tub, bathing in the same basin of grime and skin cells as his elder brother. He remembered how Zike’s long legs lined the tub, his knees slightly bent and emerging from the surface, the wet hairs: wooded hilltops. Exley—always a shorter version of his brother—would sit between those legs, meditatively folding the washrag into a smaller and smaller square until Zike held up his shriveled fingers, retching in a hoarse and trembling voice—a monster.
Exley would clamber out of the tub—afraid as he ever was—and run into his parents’ bedroom, leaving a trail of bubbly water behind him. “Stop scaring your brother!” Hannah would holler. Their da would hear the rapid footsteps, the splashing, and call from the living room: “That wood’s gonna get waterlogged and rot, Hanny!” She’d answer, “Get off your keister and come clean it then, Norval.”
And then they’d hear Exley slip and crash into the wall and they’d all roar.
“Let’s get out of here,” Ex said, turning off the water, grabbing a ratty towel. He held Zike’s elbow. “C’mon. Step.”
Exley patted him dry. Pat pat pat around the puckering fistulas. The craterous moonscape of his broad back—pat pat. Zike was sterile. He was unmanned. Exley moved him into the bedroom and searched through a hamper for clean clothes.
There was a cheval-glass facing the corner wall. Zike approached it, mother-naked, and turned the mirror around. He wanted to behold his body in full. He assessed the totality of the damage done unto him. The geology of his body—the way the skin grafts bulged or depressed in thrust faults: he marveled at it. How couldn’t he? What other way was there to interpret the quicksilver pus that pushed through his body and pooled in a surface abscess? He tilted back the cheval-glass and leaned forward, filled with a naïve hope of falling inward—into another dimension or an alternate universe or even into a shattered oval of reflective glass that would cut open his veins and drain him completely. He stood there before his own image and held it in the hollow of his hands.
“C’mon, Zike. Sit down.”
Zike followed his brother’s lead and sat on the edge of the bed. Exley began dressing him, stretching and applying gauze. Zike opened the nightstand drawer for a prescription bottle and tapped out morphine tablets. Exley pinched the ends of a thin paper pouch and smoothed a fentanyl patch onto Zike’s meaty arm, completing the rite.
Falling back onto the bed, Zike said something.
“What?” Exley asked.
“You been ballin’?” Zike mumbled.
Sometimes it was a struggle for him to speak. The surplus of cankersores lining the interior of his mouth—his fleshy cheeks, his geographic tongue, not to mention the booze—made for a muddled talk. A court transcript would indicate garbled in square brackets. It was nothing short of speaking in tongues, at times. But Zike was beyond religion and beyond saving.
“Here and there,” Ex answered.
“Here and there? Why? Is your knee still injured?”
“It’s feeling better lately, stronger. I don’t know if I’m gonna go out next year, though.”
“Fuck you’re not!” Zike shouted, slurring the words together. “Why the hell not? Senior year, bro. You’ll be starting varsity, no?”
“I don’t know, maybe.” Ex collected the paper wrappings of the fentanyl patch and crumpled them in his fist. “We’ll see.”
Orange light filtered into the trailer, altering it. Zike was out. Exley lifted his brother’s treetrunk legs onto the bed. He switched out the stained comforter for a fresh one and folded it at the foot of the bed. He clicked on a tower fan.
Entering the living room, Exley felt the ghostliness of the space. He removed a picture frame from the entertainment center. It was taken on a Halloween afternoon. His da is on his knees between him and Zike wearing an elaborate headdress of polyester plumage. Their moeder is in the background, looking on disapprovingly. She stands behind the open passenger door of their station wagon. Their parents would drive them to the Cragmere or Rio Vista sections of Mahwah, because those families gave out king-size candy to trick-or-treaters.
That image of his da—Exley realized how proud he appeared in it. Not of his heritage, but of his two sons, one under each arm—Exley, a pirate with a burnt cork beard; Zike, a zombie. They each held a pillowcase. And their da was a noble savage. Exley remembered him waving to the Rio Vista residents from the car, his headdress like a wing affixed to the driver’s side window.
Exley replaced the picture frame and pushed in the lock button on the doorknob as he left his brother’s trailer.