I READ SOMEWHERE that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.
We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future.
But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit.
This is my history.
There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.
Just like it’s always been.
ROBBY BREES AND I made the road the Ealing Mall is built on.
Before we outgrew our devotion to BMX bicycles, the constant back-and-forth ruts we cut through the field we named Grasshopper Jungle became the natural sweep of Kimber Drive, as though the dirt graders and street engineers who paved it couldn’t help but follow the tracks Robby and I had laid.
Robby and I were the gods of concrete rivers, and history does prove to us that wherever boys ride bicycles, paved roadways ribbon along afterward like intestinal tapeworms.
So the mall went up—built like a row of happy lower teeth—grinned for a while, and then about a year ago some of the shops there began shutting down, blackening out like cavities when people left our town for other, better places.
BMX riding was for middle-school kids.
We still had our bikes, and I believe that there were times Robby and I thought about digging them out from the cobwebbed corners of our families’ garages. But now that we were in high school—or at least in high school classes, because we’d attended Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy since kindergarten—we rode skateboards, and also managed to sneak away in Robby’s old car.
We were in tenth grade, and Robby could drive, which was very convenient for me and my girlfriend, Shann Collins.
We could always depend on Robby. And I counted on the hope—the erotic plan I fantasized over—that one night he’d drive us out along the needle-straight roads cutting through the seas of cornfields surrounding Ealing, and Robby wouldn’t say anything at all as I climbed on top of Shann and had sex with her right there on the piles of Robby’s laundry that always seemed to lie scattered and unwashed in the dirty old Ford Explorer his dad left behind.
ON THE FRIDAY that ended our painfully slow first week after spring break, Robby and I took our boards and skated through the filthy back alley of Grasshopper Jungle.
Nobody cared about skaters anymore.
Well, at least nobody cared among the four remaining businesses that managed to stay open in the Ealing Mall after the McKeon plant closed down: The laundromat Robby never quite made it to, The Pancake House, and the liquor and thrift stores owned by Shann’s stepdad.
So we could skate there, and did pretty much whatever we wanted to do.
Judging from the empty beer cans, the mysterious floral sleeper sofa we were certain was infested with pubic lice, and the pungent smell of piss in the alley, it was clear everyone else in Ealing was similarly okay with the no-limits code of conduct in Grasshopper Jungle, too.
And that proved to be an unfortunate fact for me and Robby on that Friday.
We had built ramps from sagging flaps of plywood that we laid across a flight of concrete steps behind a vacant unit that used to be a foot doctor’s office.
“Bad business plan,” Robby said.
“Fixing people’s feet in a town everyone’s dying to run away from.”
Robby was so smart it hurt my head to think about how sad he could be sometimes.
“We should go into business,” I said.
“Want to have a fag?”
Robby liked calling cigarettes fags.
There was no way we’d ever sit down on that couch. We upended blue plastic milk crates and sat with forearms resting across our knees while we propped our feet on our boards and rocked them back and forth like we floated over invisible and soothing waves.
Robby was a better smoker. He could inhale thick, deep clouds of cigarette smoke and blow life-sized ghost models of both of us when he’d casually lean back and exhale.
I liked cigarettes, but I’d never smoke if Robby didn’t.
“What kind of business?” Robby said.
“I don’t know. I could write stuff. Maybe comic books.”
“And you could draw me.” Robby took a big drag from his cigarette. “I’d be like your spokesmodel or something.”
I have to explain.
I have that obsession with history, too.
In one corner of my closet, stacked from the floor to the middle of my thigh, sits a pile of notebooks and composition binders filled with all the dumb shit I’ve ever done. My hope was that, one day, my dumb history would serve as the source for countless fictional accounts of, well, shit.
And I drew, too. There were thousands of sketches of me, of Shann and Robby, in those books.
I consider it my job to tell the truth.
“What, exactly, does a spokesmodel do?”
“We speak. And look good at the same time. It’s a tough job, so I’d expect to make decent money.”
“The shit out of it, Porcupine.”
Robby called me Porcupine because of how I wore my hair. I didn’t mind. Everyone else called me Austin.
It is Polish.
Sometimes, in wonder, I can marvel at the connections that spiderweb through time and place; how a dying bull in Tsarist Russia may have been responsible for the end of the world in Ealing, Iowa.
It is the truth.
When he was a young man, Andrzej Szczerba, who was my great-great-great-grandfather, was exiled from his home in a small farming village called Kowale. Andrzej Szczerba had been involved in a radical movement to resist the imposition of Russian language and culture on Poles. Andrzej, like many Polish boys, hoped that one day his country, which had been treated like a sausage between the dog jaws of selfish neighboring empires, would be able to stand on its own.
It was a good idea, but it was not going to happen in Andrzej’s lifetime.
So Andrzej was forced to leave Kowale—and travel to Siberia.
He did not get very far.
The train carrying the exiled Andrzej derailed when it struck a dying bull that had collapsed on the tracks. It was a terrible accident. Andrzej was left, presumed dead, abandoned in the middle of a snowy field.
Andrzej Szczerba wore a silver medallion with an image of Saint Casimir, who was the patron saint of Poland, on a chain around his neck. He believed Saint Casimir had saved his life in the train wreck, and every day for the rest of his life, Andrzej would kiss the medal and say a prayer, thanking Saint Casimir.
It was a fortunate thing for me that Andrzej Szczerba did not die in that snowy field. Wounded, he walked for two days until he came to the town of Hrodna, where he hid from the Russians and ultimately married a Polish girl named Aniela Masulka, who was my great-great-great-grandmother.
Andrzej’s healthy Polish semen made four Catholic children with Aniela—two boys and two girls.
Only one of them, his youngest son, Krzys, would ever end up near Ealing, Iowa.
This is my history.
WE LEANED OUR backs against the cinder-block wall, smoking in the cut of shade from a green rolling dumpster, and at just about the same time I talked Robby into taking his car to drive us over to Shann Collin’s new old house, I looked up and noticed the population of Grasshopper Jungle had increased uncomfortably.
Four boys from Herbert Hoover High, the public school, had been watching us while they leaned against the galvanized steel railing along the edge of the stairway we had been using for a ramp.
“Candy Cane faggots, getting ready to make out with each other in Piss Alley.”
The Candy Cane thing—that was what Hoover Boys enjoyed calling boys from Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy. Not just because it kind of rhymed. We had to wear ties to school. Whoever invented the uniform could have planned better to avoid the striped red-and-white design of them. Because when we’d wear our ties, white shirts, and blue sweaters with the little embroidered crosses inside bloodred hearts, you couldn’t help but think we looked like, well, patriotic, Christian-boy candy canes.
But Robby and I weren’t big enough losers to still be wearing our uniforms while skating.
Well, we weren’t so much skating as smoking cigarettes, actually.
Robby wore a Hormel Spam T-shirt and baggy jeans with holes in them he sagged so low you could see half his citrus-motif boxers. They had oranges and lemons on them.
Citrus does not grow in Iowa.
I wore yellow-and-green basketball shorts and a black Orwells tee. So we didn’t look like candy cane boys.
The Orwells are a punk band from Illinois.
The other part—the faggot part—well, let’s just say Robby got picked on.
I only knew one of the boys: Grant Wallace. It’s hard not to know pretty much every kid in a town the size of Ealing, even if you didn’t pay too much attention to people as a rule.
However, I did know this: Grant and his friends were there for no other reason than to start crap.
It was bound to be historic, too.
And two 140-pound Candy Cane faggot sophomores with cigarettes and skateboards were not likely to stop anything four bored and corn-fed twelfth-graders from Hoover had in mind.
Robby just sat back casually against the wall, puffing away on his cigarette.
I couldn’t help but think he looked like a guy in one of those old black-and-white movies about firing squads and blindfolds and the Foreign Legion and shit like that.
One of Grant’s friends, a pudgy guy with a face full of whiteheads and only one eyebrow, took his cell phone out from his pocket and began recording video of us.
Consult history: Nothing good ever happens when cell phones are used to record video.
And I guess that was as good as Grant’s directorial cue to begin.
“Let me and Tyler borrow you guys’ skateboards for a few minutes. We’ll bring them back.”
Tyler must have been the mule-faced kid on Grant’s right, because he nodded, all excited, an encouragement for us to be cooperative Candy Cane faggots.
But Robby said no before the question was entirely out of Grant’s mouth.
The truth is—and history will back me up on this, too—that when kids like Grant ask kids like me and Robby if they can borrow stuff like skateboards, the boards are either going to get stolen, or the kids like me and Robby are going to be beaten up and then the boards are going to get stolen.
The way kids like me and Robby get beaten up first is when one of them says no.
History class is over for today.
We got beaten up by Grant Wallace, Tyler, and some other kid who smelled like he had barf on his sleeves, while the fourth kid filmed it with his cell phone.
Oh, and extra credit in history: You should never wear loose mesh basketball shorts and boxer underwear if you’re going to get kneed in the balls. Just so you know for the future.
I don’t even think either one of us made it all the way to his feet before the kicks and punches started. Robby got a bloody nose.
Grant took our boards and chucked them up onto the roof of The Pancake House.
Then the four Hoover Boys took our shoes off and threw them on the roof, too.
And if the boards didn’t make such a racket when they landed, Grant and his friends would have taken Robby’s and my pants and sent them up to shoe-and-skateboard heaven, too. But the Chinese guy named Louis who worked in the kitchen of The Pancake House stuck his face out the back door, and asked, politely, what we thought we were doing.
I do not know what I thought I was doing.
But that question, in itself, when asked by a Chinese pancake chef named Louis, was enough to make Grant and his friends call an end to their diversion.
I was curled up on my side, cupping my nuts, while the sleeve of my black Orwells T-shirt adhered to some gooey piss stain on Grasshopper Jungle’s asphalt.
Grant and the Hoover Boys left, and Louis, apparently satisfied with the lack of an answer to his rhetorical question about what we boys thought we were doing, shut the door.
For a moment, I found myself wondering, too, why guys like Grant Wallace, who called guys like me and Robby Brees faggots, always seemed to take pleasure in removing the trousers of littler guys.
That would be a good question for the books, I thought.
“ARE YOU HURT?”
“Balls. Knee. Boxers.”
“There’s blood on your Spam.”
ROBBY FELT BAD, not because of his bloody nose. Because he blamed himself when things like this happened. He cried a little, and that made me sad.
History shows, after things like that, you either get up and have a cigarette, in your socks, with your bloody friend, or you don’t.
Since it wasn’t time for Robby and me to die, we decided to have a smoke.
I believe Andrzej Szczerba would have wanted a smoke when he pulled himself, bloodied, up from the wreckage in that snowy field in Poland.
There are as many theories on how to deal with a bloody nose as there are ears of corn in all the combined silos of Iowa.
Robby’s approach was artistic.
Propping himself dog-like on his hands and knees, he hung his head down, depositing thick crimson coins of blood from his nostrils and simultaneously puffing a cigarette, while he drip-drip-dripped a pointillist message on the blacktop: GRANT WALLACE MURDERED ME
I watched and smoked and wondered how our shoes and skateboards were getting along, up there on the roof.
Unfortunately, as funny as it was to both of us, Robby stopped bleeding after forming the second A, so he only got as far as GRANT WA
“Nobody’s going to know what that means,” I said.
“I should have used lowercase.”
“Lowercase does use less blood. And a smaller font. Everyone knows that.”
“Maybe you should punch me again.”
I realized I’d never punched anyone in my life.
“I don’t think so, Robby. You got any quarters on you?”
“Let’s go throw our shirts in the laundry place. You need to learn how to use those things anyway.”
So Robby and I limped around to the front of the mall and went inside Ealing Coin Wash Launderette, where, maximizing the return on our investment, we not only washed our T-shirts, but the socks we had on as well.
“This is boring,” Robby observed while we waited for the fifth dime we slotted into the dryer to magically warm the dampness and detergent from our clothes. “No wonder I never come here.”
“Doesn’t your apartment building have a laundry room?”
“Worse than this?”
“This? This is like Hawaii, Porcupine. Sitting here with you, barefoot, with no shirts on, watching socks and shit go around.”
Robby lived alone with his mom in a tiny two-bedroom at a place called the Del Vista Arms, a cheap stucco apartment building only three blocks from Grasshopper Jungle. We walked there, in our damp laundered socks and T-shirts.
Two of the apartments on Robby’s floor had Pay or Quit notices taped to their doors.
“Wait here,” he said, and he quietly snuck inside.
It meant his mother was home. Robby usually didn’t like people to come over when his mom was there. I knew that. He was just going to get the keys to the Ford and take me for a ride, anyway.
So I waited.
“The blood didn’t come out of your Spam shirt,” I said.
We drove west, down Mercantile Street toward my house, and I noticed the diffused brown splotches of post-laundered blood that dotted Robby’s chest. And he was still in his socks, too.
“I’ll loan you a pair of shoes when we get to my house,” I offered. “Then let’s go get Shann and do something.”
I glanced over my shoulder and checked out the backseat.
I wondered if I would ever not be horny, or confused about my horniness, or confused about why I got horny at stuff I wasn’t supposed to get horny at.
As history is my judge, probably not.
“I think we should go up on the roof and get our shit back. Tonight, when no one will see us. Those were my best shoes.”
Actually, those were Robby’s only non-Lutheran-boy school shoes.
I was willing.
“I bet there’s some cool shit up on that roof,” I said.
“Oh yeah. No doubt everyone in Ealing hides their cool shit up on the roof of The Pancake House.”
“Or maybe not.”
ROBBY HAD AN older sister named Sheila.
Sheila was married and lived with her husband and Robby’s six-year-old nephew in Cedar Falls.
I had a brother named Eric.
Eric was in Afghanistan, shooting at people and shit like that.
As bad as Cedar Falls is, even the Del Vista Arms for that matter, Eric could have gone somewhere better than Afghanistan.
Both our moms took little blue pills to make them feel not so anxious. My mom took them because of Eric, and Robby’s mom needed pills because when we were in seventh grade, Robby’s dad left and didn’t come back. My dad was a history teacher at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy, and my mom was a bookkeeper at the Hy-Vee, so we had a house and a dog, and shit like that.
Hy-Vee sells groceries and shit.
My parents were predictable and ominous. They also weren’t home yet when Robby and I got there in our still-wet socks and T-shirts.
“Watch out for dog shit,” I said as we walked across the yard.
“Austin, you should mow your lawn.”
“Then it would make the dog shit too easy to see and my dad would tell me to pick it up. So I’d have to mow the lawn and pick up dog shit.”
“It’s thinking like that that made this country great,” Robby said. “You know, if they ever gave a Nobel Prize for avoiding work, every year some white guy in Iowa would get a million bucks and a trip to Sweden.”
Thinking about me and Robby going to Sweden made me horny.
FIRST THING, NATURALLY: We got food from the kitchen.
We also made dirt tracks on the floor because socks are notoriously effective when it comes to redistributing filth from sidewalks, lawns, the Del Vista Arms, and Robby’s untidy old Ford Explorer.
I boiled water, and we took Cups-O-Noodles and Doritos into my room.
Robby sat on my bed and ate, waiting patiently while I recorded the last little bit of the day’s history in my notebook.
“Here.” I tossed my cell phone over to the bed. “Call Shann.”
“Have you ever smelled a Dorito?”
“Mmmm . . .” I had to think about it. I wrote. “Probably not.”
“Just checking,” he said, “’Cause they smell like my nephew’s feet.”
“Why did you smell a six-year-old kid’s feet?”
As usual, Shann got mad because I had Robby call her using my phone, and when she answered, she thought it was me. This, quite naturally, made me horny. But Robby explained to her I was writing, and he told her that something terrible had happened to us. He asked if it would be okay that we came over to her new old house as soon as we finished eating.
Robby was such a suave communicator when it came to relaying messages to Shann. In fact, I believed it was the biggest component of why she was so much in love with me. Sometimes, I wished I could cut off Robby’s head and attach it to my body, but there were more than a couple things wrong with that idea: First, uncomfortably enough, it kind of made me horny to think about a hybridized Robby/Austin having sex with Shann; and, second, decapitation was a sensitive topic in Ealing.
Well, anywhere, really. But, in Ealing during the late 1960s there was this weird string of serial murders that went unsolved. And they all involved headlessness.
History is full of decapitations, and Iowa is no exception.
So, after we finished eating, I outfitted Robby with some clean socks, a Titus Andronicus T-shirt (I changed into an Animal Collective shirt—all my tees are bands), and gave him my nicest pair of Adidas.
And both of us tried to pretend we didn’t notice my dad’s truck pulling up the drive just as we took off for Shann’s.
“Perfect timing,” I said.
Robby answered by pushing in the dashboard cigarette lighter.
Besides all the head-cutting-off shit that went on fifty years ago, Ealing was also known for Dr. Grady McKeon, founder of McKeon Industries, which, up until about six months ago, employed over half the town’s labor force. Grady McKeon was some kind of scientist, and he made a fortune from defense programs during the Cold War. When the fight against Communism went south on McKeon, the factory retooled and started manufacturing sonic-pulse shower-heads and toothbrushes, which ultimately became far more profitable when made in Malaysia or somewhere like that. So the factory shut down, and that’s also why most of the Ealing strip mall was deserted, and why every time I visited Robby at the Del Vista Arms, there were more and more Pay or Quit notices hanging on doors.
And that’s a half century of an Iowa town’s history in four sentences.
Grady McKeon was gone, but his much younger brother still lived and ran businesses in Ealing. Johnny McKeon owned Tipsy Cricket Liquors and the From Attic to Seller thrift store, both of which were big crowd-pleasers at the strip mall.
Johnny, who was responsible for thinking up the names of those two establishments entirely on his own, was also Shann’s stepfather.
And Shannon Collins, whom Robby and I called Shann, her mother (the relatively brand-new Mrs. McKeon), and Johnny had just taken ownership of the McKeon House, a decrepit old wooden monstrosity that was on the registry of historic homes in Ealing.
Well, actually, it was the only historic home in Ealing.
It took Robby and me two cigarettes to get to Shann’s new old house.
It had already been a rough day.
We were going to need another pack.
SHANNON KISSED ME on the lips at the door of her new old house.
She kissed Robby on the lips, too.
Shann always kissed Robby on the mouth after she kissed me.
It made me horny.
I wondered what she would say if I asked her to have a threesome with us in her new old, unfurnished bedroom.
I knew what Robby would say.
I wondered if it made me homosexual to even think about having a threesome with Robby and Shann. And I hated knowing that it would be easier for me to ask Robby to do it than to ask my own girlfriend.
I felt myself turning red and starting to sweat uncomfortably in my Animal Collective shirt.
And I realized that for a good three and a half minutes, I stood there at the doorway to a big empty house that smelled like old people’s skin, thinking about three-ways involving my friends.
So I wondered if that meant I was gay.
I hadn’t been listening to anything Shann and Robby were talking about, and while I was pondering my sexuality, they were probably thinking about how I was an idiot.
I might just as well have been a blowup doll.
These are the things I don’t write down in the history books, but probably should.
I don’t think any historians ever wrote shit like that.
“You have to excuse him. He got kneed in the balls.”
Robby nudged me with his shoulder and said it again, louder, because idiots always understand English when you yell it at them: “YOU HAVE TO EXCUSE HIM. HE GOT KNEED IN THE BALLS.”
Shann put her hand flat on the side of my face, the way that real moms, who don’t take lots of drugs every day, do to little boys they think might be sick. Real moms have sensors or some kind of shit like that in their hands.
Shann’s mom, Mrs. McKeon, was a real mom. She also used to be a nurse, before she married Johnny McKeon.
“Are you okay, Austin?”
“Huh? Yeah. Oh. I’m sorry, Shann. I was kind of tripping out about something.”
Having a three-way in Sweden with Robby and her was what I was tripping out about.
But I didn’t tell her.
Shann’s room was empty.
The entire house was mostly empty, so our footsteps and voices echoed like sound effects in horror films about three kids who are going somewhere they shouldn’t go.
Thinking about things like that definitely did not make me horny.
In fact, just about the only things I noticed in that musty mausoleum of a house were unopened boxes—brand-new ones—containing McKeon Pulse-O-Matic® showerheads and toothbrushes.
“The moving van’s going to be here this afternoon. They just finished at the house,” Shann explained as the three of us stood awkwardly in her empty, echoey room.
Because, in an empty bedroom with creaky old wood floors, it is a natural human response to just stand there and shift your weight from foot to foot, and think about sex.
SHANN AND I started going out with each other in seventh grade.
When I think about it, a lot of stuff happened to us that year.
There are nine filled, double-sided-paged volumes of Austin Szerba’s Unexpurgated History of Ealing, Iowa for that year alone.
That year, Eric went into the Marines and left me at home, brotherless, with our dog named Ingrid, a rusty golden retriever with a real dynamo of an excretory tract.
People in Ealing use expressions like real dynamo whenever something moves faster than a growing stalk of corn.
It was also the same year Robby’s dad went to Guatemala to film a documentary about a volcanic eruption. Lots of stuff erupted that year, because Mr. Brees met a woman, got her pregnant, and expatriated to Guatemala.
And, just like a lot of boys in seventh grade, I started erupting quite frequently then, too.
A real dynamo.
And, that year Shannon Collins’s mom moved to Ealing, enrolled her daughter at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy (where we were all good, non-smoking, non-erupting Christians), and married Johnny McKeon, the owner of From Attic to Seller Consignment Store and Tipsy Cricket Liquors.
And I fell in love with Shann Collins.
It was a very confusing time. I didn’t realize then, in seventh grade as I was, that the time, and the eruptions, and everything else that happened to me would only keep getting more and more confusing through grades 8, 9, and 10.
I will tell you how it was I managed to get Shann Collins to fall in love with me, too: My best friend, Robby Brees, taught me how to dance.
I was infatuated with Shann from the moment I saw her. But, being the new kid at school, and new in Ealing, Shann kept pretty much to herself, especially when it came to such things as eruptive, real dynamo, horny thirteen-year-old boys.
Robby noticed how deeply smitten I was by Shann, so he selflessly taught me how to dance, just in time for the Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy End-of-Year Mixed-Gender Mixer. Normally, genders were not something that were permitted to mix at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy.
So I went over to Robby’s apartment every night for two and a half weeks, and we played vinyl records in his room and he taught me how to dance. This was just after Robby and his mother had to move out of their house and into the Del Vista Arms.
Robby was always the best dancer of any guy I ever knew, and girls like Shann love boys who can dance.
History does show that boys who dance are far more likely to pass along their genes than boys who don’t.
Boys who dance are genetic volcanoes.
It made me feel confused, though, dancing alone with Robby in his bedroom, because it was kind of, well, fun and exceptional, in the same way that smoking cigarettes made me feel horny.
Seventh grade was also when Robby and I stole a pack of cigarettes from Robby’s mom. By the time we got into tenth grade, Robby’s mom started buying them for us. She might take drugs and not have one of those sensor things in the palm of her hand like real moms do, but Mrs. Brees doesn’t mind when teenage boys smoke cigarettes in her house and dance with each other, alone in the bedroom, and that’s saying something.
That year, at the end of seventh grade, Robby confessed that he’d rather dance with me than with any girl. He didn’t just mean dance. It was very confusing to me. It made me wonder more about myself, whom I doubted, than about Robby, whom I suppose I love.
At first, I thought Robby would grow out of it—you know, start erupting like everyone else.
But there was nothing wrong with Robby’s volcano, and he never did grow out of it.
So it was at the Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy End-of-Year Mixed-Gender Mixer that Robby casually and bravely walked up to the new girl, Shann Collins, and announced to her:
“My friend Austin Szerba is shy. That’s him over there. He is good-looking, don’t you think? He’s also a nice guy, he writes poetry, he’s a really fantastic dancer. He would like very much if you would agree to dance with him.”
And everything, confusing as it was, worked out beautifully for me and Shann and Robby after that.