Fall arrived, and Alex loaded his gear into the truck for what would probably be his last camping trip of the year. The days were sunny and the nights were cold, and the leaves had started to change color. This time, Cindy was coming with him; he was going to pick her up and then head for Raccoon Creek State Park.
On the way to Cindy's, he checked his post office box. There was a slip of paper inside, informing him that he had registered mail waiting for him at the desk. The name scribbled on the slip was "Michael Dawes".
It was the worst possible timing. He was tempted to stick the notice in his glove box and deal with it when he got back from his trip, but he knew he wouldn't be able to relax until he found out what it was about.
The clerk handed him a small parcel, and he signed for it and took it out to the truck to open it. The package contained a check and a copy of Poison My Control's new album, "Pizza In Hell". There was no note, but his brother had never been much of a letter writer.
The check was quite a surprise; Alex hadn't expected to start getting his money back this soon. He didn't recognize the name of the bank it had been drawn on, and he briefly wondered if it would bounce. He put the check in his wallet and slid the CD into a case with several others. Camping was officially "quiet time" for him, and music of any kind, especially the noise that Michael's band generated, was off-limits.
He deposited the check, bought a new tarp to use for a ground cloth, and topped off his gas tank. With all his errands out of the way, he drove to Cindy's house. She was waiting for him, with her bike and a neat bundle of camping gear. The two of them bought a few groceries and headed for the hills. They spent the next three days biking, fishing, and chatting with other campers. On Monday evening they packed up and left, because both of them had to work the next day.
As soon as he got home, Alex took a long, hot shower, and then he felt ready to listen to his brother's latest masterpiece. He took a good look at the artwork on the cover of the CD; it wasn't nearly as cheesy as the pictures on their first two albums had been. It was obvious that Michael had hired a real artist this time.
Smiling at the change in his brother's fortune, Alex turned the case over to look at the song list on the back. There was something about the titles of the songs that disturbed him, so he read through the list again. Then he opened the case and studied the lyrics. And what he found was so incredible that he stood in awe of the sheer brass balls that it had taken.
His brother hadn't pilfered his poetry notebook so he could use it as a guide for a better outlook on life. What he had done was use it as inspiration for his lyrics. A round dozen of the poems had been mangled and twisted, like a bad car wreck, and then set to the band's black metal cacophony. The songs had such outrageous titles as "God Took All My Stuff" and "Piss On The Flowers".
Alex dropped the CD on the table and stared out the window while he tried to come to terms with what he had just seen. "Oh, my brother, you've gone too far, too far . . . " he muttered. It was bad enough that all those wonderful poems had been defiled; the worst part was that several of them had been composed by Alex himself. His name was written quite clearly below each one. There was no doubt in his mind that Michael had known exactly what he was doing. The CD had even been sent by registered mail, along with the check, to ensure that Alex would receive it. It was the kind of psychological rape that his brother had repeatedly inflicted upon him in the past. This time, however, Michael had even gone so far as to violate his sanctum sanctorum, the one place of refuge he had always fled to when things went wrong.
And Alex's soul felt even more soiled by the fact that the whole situation was the result of his own beneficence. I gave him a leg up, and he kicked me in the teeth, Alex thought bitterly.
It was past dinnertime, but he no longer had any appetite. He sat at the table and idly leafed through his notebook while sipping ginger ale to settle his stomach. None of the poems seemed to speak to him. It was almost as if they were written in a foreign language. He scanned poem after poem, and one called "Chipping Away" finally caught his eye:
Chipping away and shattering
so much old hardened self.
This is death to the old self,
yet it is Life for the living heart.
Shed the veils of self,
reveal the glorious open heart.
For some it takes gentle persuasion,
for others it must be a shattering.
Oh so many ways
to discover the One.
Alex sat and thought about that poem for a long time. When he was a child, the "gentle persuasion" of the Empire of the Dead had been sufficient to get him interested in the higher aspects of existence. His brother was going to be a bit more difficult to reach. Michael had taken poems, similar to this one, and stomped the life right out of them.
Pacing around the house, Alex mulled over the poem while he tried to figure out what to do. He had given his brother everything he had ever asked for, like a parent indulging a spoiled child, and in return he had been betrayed in the worst possible way. A direct confrontation with Michael would be as unwise as diving head-first into a wood chipper, so he would have to approach the problem from another angle. Alex possessed his own brand of cleverness, and it wasn't long before he found a solution.
Michael would have to be shattered.
Throughout the winter, Alex received checks on a regular basis for his share of the profits that "Pizza In Hell" generated. The album had worked its way up the charts and was doing very well. Not one of the checks bounced, although he suspected that it was simply because he had taken the car as a hostage.
Poison My Control had its own website, which allowed Alex to keep track of all their doings. Michael's narcissism, and his tendency to run off at the keyboard, ensured that every detail of the band members' lives was put on display for the whole world to see. As their popularity continued to grow, Alex began to formulate a plan. He wanted the band to achieve a certain level of success, because it would increase the impact of his actions.
On a rainy day in late April, Michael knocked on the door. One of his friends had dropped him off at the end of Alex's driveway. He had brought a certified check for the remaining balance of the loan, and more pre-notarized paperwork so he could get his car back. Alex signed the papers and then he unlocked the garage so his brother could take the Mustang out and make sure it hadn't been damaged. While he inspected the car, Michael talked about his band's upcoming tour. For the most part, they were getting better venues than they had before, and in a couple of places they were even going to be the main act rather than the supporting one. Alex was already familiar with most of the information, since it was all over their website, but one new tidbit caught his attention and he made a mental note of it.
Michael was in a hurry to go, and he wouldn't even hang around for a cup of coffee. He jumped in his car and took off. Alex went to the garage and moved several large items into the space where the Mustang had been parked. The chill in the air soon drove him back into the house, and he made half a pot of coffee for himself. He held the mug in his hands to warm them while he contemplated the corrective course he had chosen for his brother. The course now had three parts, and they would all have to occur very close to each other. One of the benefits of living an honest life, he realized, was that it would put him completely above suspicion when things started to happen.
Alex continued to monitor the band's website for a favorable juxtaposition of events. Finally, towards the end of May, he learned that one of his brother's "river romps" was going to happen shortly before their first tour date. Michael was almost as fond of his speedboat as he was of his Mustang, and his megalomania saw to it that every outing was announced on his site and the details posted afterward in excruciating and shameless detail. This was exactly the situation that Alex had been waiting for, and it was time for him to make his first move.
Alex had continued to study his poems, but his way of interpreting them had changed. He no longer found comfort and instruction in them; instead, he used them to support his idea of poetic justice. The first lesson he had selected for Michael's education had been inspired by a verse called "The Essence Of All Sciences":
If you know the value of every article of
but you don't know the value of your own soul,
it will all have been pointless.
You've come to know the fortunate
and the inauspicious stars,
but you don't know whether you yourself
are fortunate or unlucky.
This, this is the essence of all sciences --
that you should know who you will be
when the Day of Reckoning arrives.
Merchandise was Michael's biggest priority, and his sole purpose in life was to make more money so he could buy more stuff. He wanted to have a whole fleet of Mustangs, and a bigger boat, and a bigger house, and even, somewhere down the line, an airplane. People didn't matter to him, except as tools to be used and discarded.
Having finally grown weary of being one of those tools, Alex was going to help his brother to rearrange his priorities and loosen his materialistic grip on the world. And then, perhaps, Michael would begin to know the value of his own soul, as well as the souls of everyone he had mercilessly abused and taken advantage of.
The following Saturday, Michael took his boat out for a cruise. He was accompanied by his drummer and a couple of girls. Alex waited until evening, and then he rented a small fishing boat from the outfitter he usually did business with. He put his gear in the little boat, shoved off, and headed down the river to look for his brother. He had brought a spotting scope so he could observe without being observed.
Michael's boat was anchored at one of his favorite party spots, in a section of the river that had relatively light traffic. Alex dropped his own anchor in a place where he could fish and observe his brother's boat at the same time. As long as he was there, he might as well use his idle time to try to catch tomorrow's dinner. He put two lines in the water and then settled in to watch the partygoers through the scope.
Alex was glad that he had deliberately slept late that morning, because Michael and his friends were up until well after midnight. When all visible activity on the speedboat finally ceased, and the four revelers had presumably either fallen asleep or passed out, Alex reeled in his lines and got everything stowed for a hasty departure. There was a quarter moon to navigate with, and just enough chop on the water to serve as a cover for his movements without hindering him. He stripped down to a pair of swim trunks and stuffed his hair under a cap. Then he clipped a home-made tool to a loop on his shorts and slid over the stern into the water.
Keeping an eye out for traffic, Alex struck out toward Michael's boat. He was a strong swimmer, and he swam as fast as he could to keep warm in the chilly water. As he approached the boat he began to move slowly and quietly, even though there was no sign that anyone was awake. His brother was a light sleeper, even when he was zonked. Especially when he was zonked. If he woke up before Alex could get away, the situation would become awkward and unpleasant.
When he reached the stern, he unclipped the special tool he had brought. The strange-looking device worked somewhat like a reverse corkscrew. He inserted it into the boat's drain hole, clamped it, and twisted a small handle. The tool pushed the drain plug out, and water started to flow into the boat.
Alex had to move quickly before the water woke his brother. He unclamped his plug-pusher, made sure it was securely fastened to his trunks, and swam back to his boat. He hurriedly dried, dressed, pulled up anchor, and took off for a distant part of the river to resume his fishing. Along the way, he tossed his makeshift tool overboard.
An expert fisherman, Alex rarely went home empty-handed. He stayed out until sunrise and returned to the dock with several days' worth of fish dinners. The owner of the rental place was already there. As Alex put his gear in his truck, the man walked over to him and said, "Hey, are you related to that guy on the news?"
"What guy?" Alex asked, as if he'd merely been fishing all night.
It hadn't occurred to Alex that his clandestine act might turn into a news event. "He's my brother. Is he okay?"
"Yeah, he's okay. A helicopter got 'em out. They got drunk and one of 'em pulled the plug, and right in the middle of the damn river. You shoulda seen it!"
With a stoic expression, Alex said, "I didn't have to. I grew up with it."
The man laughed and walked away.
As soon as he got home, Alex cleaned the fish, put them in the fridge, and stood under a hot shower for a few minutes to soak the chill out of his bones. Then he took a short nap on the couch. Later in the day, he saw the footage of his brother's "mishap" for himself; it turned up on a segment of the local news called "Don't Be That Guy!" The video had been taken from the helicopter. It showed Michael and his friends wearing life jackets and waiting to be hoisted out of the wallowing, waterlogged boat in the middle of the night. Michael looked furious, his drummer looked befuddled, and the two ladies didn't seem to be enjoying themselves at all.
Taking advantage of the unexpected publicity, Michael posted the video on the band's website. He had been shrewd enough to spin the whole episode in such a way that it became one more jewel in their crown of notoriety. Alex scanned the video's "comments" section; their fans had loved it, and were eagerly waiting to see what the band's next act would be.
Alex already knew. A poem, "Permission To Destroy", had shown it to him:
He alone has the right to break,
for He alone has the power to mend.
He that knows how to sew together,
knows how to tear apart:
whatever He sells,
He buys something better in exchange.
He lays the house in ruins;
then in a moment He makes it
more livable than before.
With Tyler's assistance, Alex planned to lay his brother's house in ruins. Literally.
Reluctant to discuss matters on the phone, Alex went to Tyler's house to talk to him in person. Tyler got twitchy when there were people hanging around his place, because he had a pile of expensive electronic equipment, the tools of his trade, in his basement. He also had jammers and scramblers attached to everything, so Alex felt confident that any conversation within the house would be totally safe.
Tyler made coffee while Alex explained why he had come for a visit.
"You want to what?" Tyler said incredulously, and he looked at Alex as if the gentle poet had totally lost his mind.
Alex repeated what he had just said. "I want to knock my brother's house down."
With the empty coffee pot in his hand and the faucet running behind him, Tyler said, "And just how the hell do you plan to do that?"
"I need your help for this one."
Tyler took note of the phrase "this one". It implied a series, and he wondered what else his inexplicably loony friend had been up to. "Exactly what kind of help would that be?"
Alex handed him a page that he had torn from a phone book. He had circled several ads for companies that did demolition work, and printed Michael's address in the margin along with a date.
"If you can get into the computer system of one of these companies," Alex explained, "put his address on their list. He lives in a part of the city where stuff gets knocked down all the time. I've been there, and half the neighborhood is empty lots already." He deliberately withheld one critical fact: Michael had never bought homeowner's insurance, because he thought it was a waste of money.
Tyler shook his head as he looked at the ads. "Michael must have been a bad boy." It wasn't in his nature to pry, especially since he had taken such pains to keep his own business private. And Tyler himself had been a bad boy, years ago, until he had hacked into the wrong place and been caught. Sometimes a guy just needed a kick in the ass to set him straight.
Alex gazed at him calmly. "Can you do it?"
"Of course I can do it." Tyler leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment. "Those kinds of businesses can be pretty sloppy with their systems." He held up the page and pointed at one of the ads. "I worked on theirs a couple of years ago. It's the biggest demo company around, and they're probably too busy to notice one little addition to their list."
"And your fee will be . . . ?" Alex asked him as he reached for his checkbook.
Tyler held up a hand. "Nada. I gave them exactly what they paid for, and what they paid for still has some holes in it." He looked at the page again. "Is that the date you want it done?"
"The two weeks after that date are clear," Alex said. "That's the first leg of their summer tour, and the house will be empty."
"You want it, you got it," Tyler said as he poured two cups of coffee.
A week and a half later, a wrecking crew arrived at the address that was printed on their next work order. Operating on the assumption that the utilities had been shut off, they set to work with brisk efficiency.
They were caught by surprise when the house exploded.
Later, after the fire had been put out and the firemen were poking through the rubble and looking for hotspots, a reporter interviewed the demolition crew. Their mortified foreman insisted that his men had a flawless safety record. He waved the work order at the cameras and made it plain that the fault lay somewhere in the main office.
The police finally identified the owner of the property, and Michael flew in from Philadelphia so he could inspect the smoking remains of his house. A local news crew was lying in wait for him, and they got a memorable interview that was liberally sprinkled with the words "negligence", "reckless", and "lawsuit", in addition to plenty of other words that had to be beeped out. Once again, Michael made the "Don't Be That Guy!" segment of the evening news.
It wasn't the first time that a building had been knocked down by mistake. Combined with the speedboat incident, however, it gave Poison My Control a reputation for being one of those "jinxed" bands that suffer an unlikely series of accidents. They continued to attract more fans as Michael skillfully spun his latest misfortune into additional sales.
Alex patiently watched the drama unfold. He was glad that his brother was so proficient at making lemonade out of lemons, because it meant that Michael would hit the ground that much harder when he finally fell off his pedestal. The next lesson that Alex had planned would probably be enough to do it. Once again, a poem, "The Absolute Works With Nothing", had shown the way:
The Absolute works with nothing.
The workshop, the materials
are what does not exist.
Try and be a sheet of paper with nothing on it.
Be a spot of ground where nothing is growing,
where something might be planted,
a seed, possibly, from the Absolute.
Alex intended to reduce his brother's bank account to "a sheet of paper with nothing on it", so that Michael might become a spot of ground where basic human decency, if nothing else, might start to grow.
Concluded next week ...