play dead by Jason Neese
At age nine, Vonn Gilmore began barking like a domesticated dog stuck behind a closed door. Short, slapping bursts. Anything could spark an event. This wasn’t arbitrary behavior, it was learned. A newly minted plastic world had softened life’s edges, turning children into very confused things. The parents operated as bafflers.
Vonn’s mother was no different. She was like every other parent in the world throughout time. One day after watching a special, Linda Gilmore always watched specials, she decided to velcro little Vonn’s left wrist with a nylon cuff attached to a cord that led to a cuff on her right wrist. It was shortly after this security measure that Vonn started acting like man’s best friend.
One evening the whole thing came to a nasty head when Vonn popped open a water bottle in aisle six at a Kmart in Blacksburg, Virginia, pouring its contents onto the tiled floor. He lapped at it with slack eyes and minimal movement of the head, as to capture the characteristics of an alert dog skeptical of the safety of its situation.
Mrs Gilmore was horrified, “What are you doing?”
Vonn looked up, his knees soaked through in glacier-filtered water.
Vonn nuzzled the back of his neck up to the hem of Mrs. Gilmore’s skirt to receive a good petting. It was terrible for Linda. She scooped Vonn up and spanked him precisely three times to remove this bad habit like a nasty dream, and like an efficiently trained pup, Vonn moved on to other ways of expressing himself.
He took up the piano after being prescribed lessons by his father, Noel Gilmore. It was inside the wild-fingered universe of a sonata that Vonn found a song to sing. But that melody lost focus inside Vonn’s imagination. His father smiled less after Vonn gave up on the piano.
Vonn had been many things by his 15th year. The first thing he decided to really be, was a false prophet. It came around age sixteen. While the more compassionate pastor at his church bestowed the virtues of the New Testament, the visiting speakers, in for “tent revivals,” focused on other components of the faith. It was here, listening to outdoor sermons from traveling preachers about the soul’s innate desire to burn eternally in hell that had helped Vonn appreciate the somber effect of public rituals, and how they assisted in educating an audience to the inherent sin installed into their souls, and how to flush it out. The audience gently forced to slaughter their offenses away inside the quilted tents with the canned buzz of music from cassette tapes in their ringing ears, it all ending in sweaty faces prone in religious ecstasy. These terrifying images would stay with Vonn for life. He was inspired by this method to completely retool the presentation for a more user-friendly experience.
At school, Vonn gathered his flock. It was mainly a group of early teens startled in life. Recognizing this, and using tricks he saw on TV by the crying televangelists of the 80’s, Vonn started comforting his pock-faced classmates. Between classes he would have many conversations at once that sounded like this,
“Vonn, did you change your name?”
“Please, don’t persecute me. I just want to help.”
“How many fingers do I have up behind my back?”
“You’re not ready yet, Andy.”
“I feel empty.”
“You’re a freshman. This has a lot to do with it. The rest can be read about in the first edition booklet I’m having printed.”
At this point no one really knew what the specifics of Vonn’s beliefs were. He took pointers from the best, and at first kept things infused with formless positivity while coming up with more tactile pillars later. He knew he wanted to feature beautiful things in his vision. The world already had enough darkness.
Vonn only had a few rules. He made sure no one he talked with was older than him, or more importantly, was a friend outside of the ministry. Ignoring the former would be the downfall of his organization.
He was printing and folding small pamphlets with his theology on them one night after dinner, when he decided on a rudimentary mix of Christianity, Buddhism, and a fond desire to achieve with girls on a social level. The blend of Buddhism came from a lonely weekend spent in the public library reading Siddhartha by Hesse. He took the soft corners of that, tucked them over the hard edges of the Baptist faith, and finally incorporated the modern exercises found in self-help books. All this mixed together provided Vonn with a surprisingly copacetic act.
He was inadvertently one of the first New Agers.
At lunch, Vonn would receive offerings of money and food with wet-stained eyes and a contrite smile that only deified him further.
“Vonn, I don’t feel like my parents are going to make it.”
“I’m not a psychic Michael, just a conduit between the aesthetic and the ethical.”
“I know… I was just wondering.”
“The resistance we have to the future is often times because of the past.”
Vonn quietly stated non-sequitors that had tiny bits of general truth in them which linked things back to the question in a vague way that seemed like an answer.
Michael stared hard, his mouth filled with pizza,
“They are totally going to divorce.”
Michael walked away and another replaced him.
Vonn didn’t excel at sports or collect baseball cards or any of that. Instead, he created a religion with over 43 followers. He worked through budgets and auxiliary funds that would help him maintain his ministry. At moments he felt like he’d transcended through this plane and was operating on a higher level of consciousness. It was a sugar high without the sugar, and for the first time in Vonn’s life he felt needed.
At a Sadie Hawkins dance during the fall of his sophomore year, his date was bawling by the end of the second dance when Vonn explained to her that, much like Santa Claus, Satan was not physically real, but a concept to keep people in check.
“That’s not right,” she squeaked.
“I’m not trying to upset you.”
The idea of no bad place to go if you were evil upset her greatly.
No checks or balances for illicit behavior made this girl’s mascara run down her tanned face, and collect on her chin. She didn’t know what to do with a world that had no consequences. By the third dance she was asking a teacher to call her parents for early pick up. Vonn sat on the bleachers and spoke with the unfortunate boys who had no dates. The boys with no dates always listened to Vonn.
At home, he stood in front of the bathroom mirror wiping expressions off his face in calculated ways to show instant empathy, or sterilized judgment, or forlorn sadness over the outcome of your soul. Practicing daily, he never used more than the reflection in the glass. To Vonn this was representative of the soul reflecting through your facial gestures. He would put spoons in each side of his mouth to practice a detached, yet permanent, smile that could be used during sessions. Vonn didn’t want to refer to them as sermons. He wanted his ministry to have a modern slant on its purpose. A slack-eyed schoolmate of his once said he’d felt a small fire in his belly after one of Vonn’s sessions behind the school gym.
His ministry lasted four months. He accrued roughly $542 in tithing. The pinnacle came one humid evening at the Farmington Drag Way. Earlier, at the dinner table, Mr. Gilmore was trying to be more present in his son’s life, and started a conversation that went like this:
“How are you?”
“What are your plans for tonight?”
Vonn knew well that his father made the house a quiet zone after dinner every night. This meant no yelling, music or TV were permitted inside the house at all. Door slamming could lead to further restrictions. No gratuitous coughing or unrestrained sneezing. Vonn once tried to explain that curtailing your sneeze could lead to brain trauma. Mr. Gilmore responded to this by sending Vonn out to find three pennies on the sidewalk.
“My plans? I’ll be in my room?”
“No, you will not. We are going out.”
“Oh. The Farmington Dragway?”
“That’s right. Would you like that?”
Mr. Gilmore went back to shoveling tater tots and chicken fried chicken into his mouth, a smile somewhere under there.
Mrs. Gilmore secretly wanted to go with the boys but knew she wasn’t invited, so she took the opportunity to continue an easygoing affair she’d been carrying on with the mailman for the past 11 months. It was a sexual affair she only needed as a replacement to the emotional affair she was not having with her husband. The mailman would push Mrs. Gilmore over Mr. Gilmore’s work desk, per her quiet instruction, and take her from behind. He was young, and usually only lasted a few minutes. He would then hand her the family’s mail and walk out the front door without saying a word. It wouldn’t happen for another three months.
The mail was mainly coupon ads for Food Lion.
Tonight the humidity could be captured in jars and studied it was so thick.
Farmington was an exit off Interstate 40, a few miles outside of Winston Salem in the foothills of North Carolina. Passersby wouldn’t notice it existed if it weren’t for the locally famous commercials the drag strip put on television featuring mock races, inappropriate southernisms and Indian costumes. Dragway officials in charge of the video spots would use the cheapest tape they could buy, unintentionally giving their commercials the look of 70’s snuff films.
All around the outer grounds were dense clusters of Pine and Dogwood. The track was two miles off the main road, in the cut, but the races were legendary. Even more famous, were the constant brawls that broke out on the bleachers, a country cult of classic excitement.
Vonn and Mr. Gilmore arrived as the sonic boom of two dragsters burned layers of rubber off thick monster tires in a squeal. Stadium bleachers were filled with locals taking in the sight like Southern Florida natives would, watching the space shuttle Challenger burst from its socket at Cape Canaveral.
“Can I look around?” Vonn inquired skeptically.
As he said this, Mr. Gilmore turned his back to Vonn like a wink and made a show of watching the next race. Vonn considered asking his father if he’d been diagnosed with some sort of fatal disease. This type of behavior was not synonymous with Noel Gilmore, and it made Vonn very nervous. He walked off a little confused.
Dying poplars, grey pines and a variety of stunted bushes encased the actual dragway and its surrounding fields like a secret garden. Two metal skeletons, grounded like dinosaur bones in a museum, acted as bleachers. Skid marks streaked the pavement underneath Vonn’s feet as he walked around the different observing areas. He saw two boys holding one girl’s hand. She looked comfortable. They looked crowded. The majority of the crowd here would leave this earth in a panic, riding the wave of dismembered fast food lunches chemically bonded to their arteries.
Vonn walked behind the bleachers then slid between the shiny bars until he was under the scaffolding of seats. He looked up and saw dozens of asses squirming about, readjusting and getting comfortable, over and over. Vonn peered down on hundreds of cigarette butts, wrappers and beer cans in a graveyard of trash that formed a coat on the concrete beneath.
He stretched his neck back up, a wet crack going off under his collarbone, and saw a set of stern eyes that almost shook in their optic roots. Vonn stared at those eyes and then realized, it wasn’t his father, nor was it a set of eyes. There was no voice calling after Vonn.
Beyond the bleachers, by a hawker who twirled his greased mustache over and over while serving sausages and chili to morbidly obese women, Vonn noticed the demolition derby going on, or rather the evidence of it, in clouds of dirt bursting up over the bleachers like constantly exploding bombs. He headed in that direction.
Small groups of men huddled, smoking tobacco with hands in their pockets, faces that begged for forgiveness, cheeks that wanted to suck right back into their brains, untellable secrets tucked in wrinkles. Heavy bags hung under their eyes like the weight of the world stuffed into overfilled Christmas stockings waiting to rip at the bottom. Inside a large, rusted cylinder next to the derby take off, a whole pig steamed and sizzled and cooked. Vonn imagined the pig’s stony eyes going gelatinous before popping as the heat softened its bones and its meat.
Vonn stepped up beside the men, looking at their faces. He felt all his work come back to him. The prophet inside him relit like the switch on a pilot had been flipped. He couldn’t resist,
“I can help you!”
Two of the men looked over to Vonn.
“What, you need some work? I got three tobacco fields that need handling. You ain’t cheaper than them Mexicans coming up here, but I bet ur better.”
A distinct deviance seemed to live inside that statement, but Vonn ignored it.
“Not that kind of help.”
The other one adjusted a massive belt buckle that featured the entire history of Texas inside its plastic borders.
“Can you bring that back over here later? Ur helpful attitude? We’re tryin to see some cars here.”
Vonn’s father had seen his son talking to the grown men from the bleachers and quietly walked over. Now he was standing behind Vonn, his stomach turning over itself. He kept quiet.
“I saw a situation where unfortunate looking men were subtly asking for my help. I don’t mean that as an insult, but rather an observation. I’ve never been to the dragway. This seems like a place for the lonely.”
The two men were amused.
“Well aren’t you a fucking poet.”
“I’m not a poet, but I do see poetry in life.”
Vonn didn’t know why he was pushing so hard.
“I sensed a justified emptiness in your eyes and just thought I would offer my help.”
The one with a belt buckle the size of America, looking confused, pulled out a not-so-discreet flask and took a pull from it, his watering eyes locked on Vonn. Noel Gilmore observed that everything about this man was big,
“Son. What are you doing?”
Vonn flipped around and went quiet.
“I think your son might have some head problems,” Belt Buckle said.
Vonn saw something in his father’s eyes he’d never seen before.
Noel lowered his head and unconsciously took a few steps back.
For a quick instance, Vonn saw his father as his younger self, a teen being constantly heckled by horn-rimmed-spectacle-wearing Buddy Hollie’s, their loud snorting mouths and empty eyes mocking everything in their paths, including young Noel Gilmore.
“That your father? I think he took a wrong turn.”
“That is my father.”
“I think I remember bangin out ur pop’s mom back in the day. In fact, I might be your grand pops."
The two men chuckled meanly.
Vonn stepped right up to Belt Buckle, balled up his fist, and pushed it quickly into the man’s nose. It ran like a movie strip. Vonn was watching outside of himself. He felt his fist connect with the nose. He’d never hit anyone in his life. The nose gave away, the cartilage and the knuckle sliding off each other. Soon a spray of blood exploded out of the man’s face. It saturated his shirt and dripped off that shiny belt buckle. The smell of metal hit the air.
Vonn was shaking. The men were older than him. He knew his religion was dead.
Right after his fist pulled back from the guy’s nose he felt a delayed pop and looked down, quickly realizing that in his passion he’d stuffed his thumb behind his fingers, breaking his thumb. The circumstance behind the break would leave Vonn with a permanent click every time he thumbed it for a renegade ride on the road.
Noel Gilmore’s face turned soft, almost like a smile that instead became a reflective pout so stern that Vonn thought his body might crack right down the middle, all his organs and muscles rushing out in a flood of blood and guts.