It inhabits an unheated unit at Clutters Last Stand, an inexpensive storage facility near the airport. It burrows among the boxes and suitcases and rolled up carpets. It befriends the spiders. It waits patiently through the long winter for Brad’s annual summer visit. The scrape of the corrugated metal door. The influx of light. Brad brings more bulging boxes and an occasional piece of furniture and, one year, a broken music stand. Summer temperatures inside can reach a hundred and forty.
Brad squats for a few minutes, catching his breath, gazing around curiously, as if he will finally see It. He never does. It knows his resistance will eventually crumble.
Surprisingly for a person of his size and weight, Brad does not mind hot weather. He slathers sunblock on his broad forehead and neck. He sports natty summer suits. The neighbors on his cul-de-sac gossip about his many noon hours poolside. Brad drives home from his clothing store to eat lunch in his lounger. The neighbors also remark on how little time he actually spends in the water. No one has ever seen him swimming. They notice him cleaning the pool and testing the chlorine levels and ritualistically performing other maintenance tasks. But never swimming.
Amber, his chubby daughter, swims. She visits every other weekend from Terre Haute. She bobs and splashes and does cannon-balls, while he cooks burgers on the grill. They argue about getting a dog. Brad promises maybe when she’s twelve. Later, she practices the cello for a full hour exactly. Her teacher, Professor Mertz, uses the Suzuki method. Brad participates by singing along and conducting from the couch and making cassette-tape recordings. He is very proud of his daughter’s musicianship and leaves the patio door ajar so the simple melodies from her half-size cello waft into the neighbors’ yards. After he drops her off at his ex’s apartment, he hums tunes from Amber’s repertoire – ‘Hunters Song’ and ‘Rigadoon’. They feel eerily familiar.
It can hear him humming. Like a bat with echolocation. It can hear the chatter from inside the boxes, and inside a buried half-size violin case. Stacks of report cards with teachers’ comments in red ink. “If Brad would only apply himself…” Little League trophies going over and over the same games. “If that grounder hadn’t taken such a crazy hop…” It detects sniggering among the comic books and guffaws in the duffel bag full of geodes. It wants him to see the crystal innards of the rocks. Brad’s position on the geodes is: “I don’t want to smash them open. I want to find them whole and keep the crystal a secret.” Like sound traveling easily through water, any such statement registers from close or far away. It picks up the low-frequency growth of plaque inside his carotid artery.
“I’m a pretty laid-back guy actually,” Brad informs his latest dating prospect from Attraction.com, “but lemme tell you, when a sack of steroids in an officer’s uniform orders you out of the house NOW because the river has crested, it creates a certain pucker factor.”
They agree to meet for coffee downtown. She wears a baseball cap, which is encouraging. She wants to talk about their temperament profiles. She’s an Explorer primary and Connector secondary and Explorers usually go for other Explorers, according to the Attraction.com handbook, but Brad is a Builder primary and she’s concerned about that, so asks if she can talk to his ex-wife.
“Um, can’t – dead,” he lies.
“Oh, my goodness, you didn’t check ‘widower’ on your profile.”
Brad shrugs, “I didn’t want to seem be going for the sympathy factor.”
A line fatal for any future with this woman, because of his daughter’s existence, but a line that, nonetheless, Brad thinks sounds pretty good. In subsequent days, he finds himself repeating it – into the mirror while he’s shaving, out the window of his car while stuck in traffic: “I didn’t want to seem to be going for the sympathy factor.”
The truth is that his ex-wife, Cindy, would be happy to supply a positive reference, especially regarding Brad’s ‘explorer’ qualities. “He’s got this thing about traffic jams. He can’t stand them. And it’s a mess on I-70 and I-65 these days. At the first sign of a slowdown, he bails off the interstate and takes long back roads excursions – only a vague idea of where he’s going. Me and my daughter moan and groan about it, but we usually end up finding somewhere great to eat, like Weenie World over in New Castle. If you haven’t been to Weenie World – well, Brad is your man.”
Cindy, a recent graduate from paralegal school, has offered to draw up a document, notarized and official, testifying to her personal belief that Brad is a 100% heterosexual good guy who would never cheat on a woman.
Brad refuses all such goodwill from her. He’s not as bad as some losers who deliberately mess up to make the ex feel guilty. It’s more that he fears Cindy’s notarized guarantee could be confusing to a new girlfriend. Her explanation for the end of their marriage is still profoundly confusing to him. Cindy’s decision to divorce had nothing to do with him, she claims. She said that she married Brad for a way of life and that he totally delivered on providing that lifestyle and that really, he was a perfect spouse, but after her first husband turned out to be gay, she didn’t understand the nature of rebounds. “Hunh?” Brad thinks.
It, of course, knows about rebounds. It is very athletic. Any true jock automatically understands the nature of rebounds – get in position and block out. It wonders why, with Cindy gone, Brad leaves all his personal stuff in Clutter’s Last Stand? She was the one who rented the unit, after months of shunning his man-room. It longs for the smells. Potato chip crumbs and beer in the carpet on game days. Poker nights with the sales staff from the store – exactly what that little girl, Amber, needs to see in her father.
But Brad thinks such gatherings would scare the kid. When Amber asks why he doesn’t ever swim in his pool, he answers with grumpy honesty: “I lived at the public park pool when I was your age. We moved around a lot, different coal towns, and, thank goodness, every one of them had a public park pool and I was always there. But when the lifeguards blew their whistles at kids roughhousing in the water, for some reason – that whistle – I immediately assumed it was being blown at me – that I was doing something wrong, even though I wasn’t – so one day I decided that I would still enjoy going to the pool, but I wasn’t going to get in the water, because that way, when the lifeguard’s whistle blew, I knew it couldn’t be aimed at me.”
These days Brad is the one wearing a whistle, along with every member of his staff – a motivational sales technique at Brad’s Big N’ Tall Menswear Store.
Brad, a longtime employee (he started in the stock room), bought the business from the late owner’s estate. Brad’s divorce lawyer, Ernie, was a regular customer. Brad met Ernie after he’d moved to the tailoring department. Ernie appreciated Brad’s attention to crotch tucks. Inspired by Ernie’s motto – “spending well is the best revenge” – Brad made the move to management, securing a sizeable commercial loan with a line of credit that he parlayed into a trade up to the townhouse and an appropriate car for a CEO – a black Escalade.
Brad’s neighbors, aware that many of his store’s customers are professional athletes, corral him at the back fence and ask for the latest gossip on the Colts and the Pacers. Brad likes the attention, and hints that, yes, he is in possession of insider information on the latest injury report, and then makes a zipper gesture across his lips.
It occasionally sneaks out in public to tell ‘Brad’ anecdotes. It manifests in the form of an aw-shucks-missed-my-flight business traveler at the airport bar. It brags about the time he rescued toddler Amber from a spinning teacup ride gone berserk at the State Fair. And don’t forget the third-grade sleepover when he discovered the kids’ latest cop-a-buzz fad – grinding Cheetohs into orange dust hoovered up through CrazyStraws. It plays the sappiest songs on the jukebox and always tells the same joke about the lady on safari in Africa who is abducted by a great ape – she is finally rescued after several months. She returns home to Indianapolis and when a friend asks how she’s doing, she answers: “Awful. He never calls. He never writes.”
Depending on the audience, the stories from It can veer toward Brad’s Big Mistakes – Cindy, of course, and his assumption that Big N’ Tall Menswear is a recession-proof business. It welcomes the economic downturn.
The Escalade is first to go. Brad downgrades to a Cavalier, which has barely enough room for Amber and her pillow and stuffed animals and cello. Cindy’s employer cuts back on overtime and soon there’s a question about how to continue paying for Amber’s cello lessons. Brad offers to accompany her to the next one and negotiate a temporary price reduction with Professor Mertz, an elderly cellist, recently retired from the symphony.
The smell of the practice room is strangely searing – musty rosin. Brad repeatedly clears his throat. In salesman mode, he launches into some chummy talk about the Colts’ playoff hopes. The Professor ignores the sports talk and offers him a chair. Crash! As every large person has experienced at least once – the wooden chair collapses under him. Fortunately, Professor Mertz is equally embarrassed. Amber helps her daddy up off the floor.
She says, “And you’ve been telling me to lose weight.”
Brad brushes off his trousers and changes the subject. He tells the mustachioed Professor about a recent alert from Clutter’s Last Stand concerning a roof leak and possible water damage to storage contents, and, believe it or not, when he went to examine his belongings, he found a sheaf of violin recital performance certificates from the second grade.
“Can you imagine? I used to play the violin – and I forgot completely about it,” Brad chuckles.
“Perhaps she inherited her talent from you,” the Professor remarks politely.
“Oh, I doubt that,” Brad says, “I must have sucked if I don’t remember ever playing.”
“Maybe you just got interested in other things,” Amber suggests.
The Professor begins her lesson with a game, a variation on Simon Says:
“Suzuki says pick up the bow with your right hand.”
“Suzuki says point to the bridge.”
“Suzuki says put your left thumb in position.”
Amber follows along obediently. The game is suddenly too familiar for Brad. He experiences a “flashback” (as he is later informed). An old man with a clipped mustache pulling the same routine with a second grade boy in a nameless coal town that leads from “touch your left hand to your scroll” to “tickle my instrument with your tickle fingers” and no wonder it all gets “repressed” (as he is later informed) and thus “triggers” (as he is later informed) an assault on the defenseless old cellist.
Threatening to hurt him if he ever touches his daughter. Brad surfaces from his raging black-out pinned to the wall by security. Amber sobs in his ex-wife’s arms, while Cindy tries to explain to a cop how much Brad hates being stuck in traffic.
Luckily, Professor Mertz agrees not to prosecute, if Brad goes to counseling.
“Which of your parents picked you up from your lessons?” the therapist says.
“I don’t know,” Brad shrugs, “I probably walked.”
“Tell him about being out in the yard,” It suggests.
“What was the name of the town you living in during second grade?” the therapist says.
“I don’t know,” Brad shrugs, “we moved a lot.”
“Tell him about being out in the yard and getting hungry,” It suggests.
“Do you remember any other violin students in your class?” the therapist asks.
“I don’t know,” Brad shrugs, “when will I get to see Amber again?”
“Tell him about being out in the yard and getting hungry and being afraid to go inside.”
“Have you ever experienced any other sudden rages?” the therapist asks.
“Only at Ernie, my lawyer,” Brad sighs, “Why can’t I see my daughter?”
“Tell him about being out in the yard and getting hungry and being scared to go inside and eating the dogfood.”
Cindy’s lawyer advises a change in the divorce decree. Brad’s visits with Amber must now be supervised. Brad doesn’t have the money for a legal fight. He is furious with Ernie for not cutting him a deal. He is furious with everybody, himself included, for his worsening financial troubles. He gives up trying to see Amber. He stops waving to her outside school. He sells the Cavalier and squeezes into an Echo. The store defaults on its lease. Suppliers balk and a filing looms. Chapter 7. Inventory is seized, along with Brad’s townhouse. He packs what he can in his car. Through the fall, the neighbors watch his pool slowly fill with leaves.
The corrugated door scrapes open. The influx of light. It greets him with open arms. Brad drags in his suitbags. He sets up a cot. It thinks now he will finally notice. Brad yanks down the door and gingerly eases himself down onto the cot. “At least I’m not sleeping in a dumpster,” he mutters. It waits eagerly. It hovers and amasses and plots. Brad naps most of the time, or stares at the ceiling. Groaning. Mumbling. Scratching his beard. Making plans for his comeback in a Winnebago that can’t be repossessed because the bank won’t be able to find him. He uses the bathroom in Clutter’s Last Stand reception room and eats from the vending machines. In a particularly bad moment, he ties a noose from a stained bedsheet. He unties the noose and rips the sheet into shreds. He gives himself a haircut.
On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving – oh, what a great day that used to be at the store – a tentative knocking at the corrugated door reverberates inside the cell. Brad rolls over and tries to go back to sleep.
“Daddy, are you in there?” Amber’s voice calls.
Brad pulls himself up to a sitting position.
Cindy’s crackly voice sounds. “I’m sorry, dear. It was just a shot in the dark. I’m sorry. Maybe he went back to Coalville.”
“ARE YOU IN THERE!” Amber calls again.
Brad glances around in the gloom. It surges to a critical mass. Brad blinks at the report cards, the trophies, the geode collection. Groggy, he stands and reaches for the wall switch to the bare forty watt overhead. His elbow brushes a rickety storage cabinet, shifting the biggest geode to the edge of the top shelf. It falls and hits Brad sharply on the shoulder, bounces off the music stand and cracks open on the concrete floor, revealing the sparkle of crystal within. It communicates, without having to speak, that utter silence is mandatory. It refuses to be denied and demands full obeisance. Brad will not be going out anytime soon.