Some of Them Involve Rope
Judd Hampton

I don’t have to tell you that our kitchen table, like everything in that house, is warped, and that the laminate top is cracked and peeling back like a tin of sardines. I don’t have to tell you, because you already know that I and George have peeled back many other things trying to understand what lies beneath. It’s our obsession, really. Our peeled table is held together, like many things in that house, with string. George is the fixer. I’m deathly afraid of string or rope, anything that lashes. So our table is held together with string, like a pot roast. Except you can’t eat this pot roast. George tried to eat this pot roast. His teeth broke in half like Jonathan’s fingers.

Jonathan was sitting opposite us that day, his cereal bowl leaning on a swollen corner of that table, and he plunged his spoon and slopped milk over the rim, and old George—he was never one to tolerate slovenliness—simply detonated, and he wedged Jonathan’s fingers between the table slats and beat those smart little fingers with a meat tenderizer until they just flopped there like baggy sausages. George, he felt bad, of course, which is why he tried to eat the table. Which is why he broke his teeth.

You’re always asking “How does that make you feel?” What do my feelings have to do with anything? Talk to George. He’s the interesting one. He’s the one you want to hook up to those machines you’ve got in that room back there, he’s the one you want to use your technology on. There’s nothing to me. George is the one you have to figure out.

Such as it is.

* * *

Oh, you know, Jonathan was one of those runaway kids. Hooked on dope or something; something that turned his skin blue and stiff, like cooked meat; something that caused him to spontaneously sob; sob or rage. He was often quite irritable. I and George found him one day in a dumpster. He was trying to swallow his tongue. We brought him home like a puppy and fed him bowls of cereal.

He liked Cheerios best. I wanted to buy him the kind with nuts and honey, but George wouldn’t hear of it, he said they were too fancy. Anyway, Jonathan stayed.

He didn’t talk much. He wasn’t much of a communicator. Our conversations went something like this: “What is it that you do in your room all day?” says I, bored and meddlesome.

“Building,” says Jonathan, all mysterious, concentrating on his cereal.

“Seems a dull thing to be doing,” says I, troubled.

“What do you know of it?” "Nothing, really,” says I, lovingly.

“All right, then,” says Jonathan, inexplicably crazed.

And it went on like that, him irritable and leaning over his cereal bowl like a sunflower, as if his head were too heavy for his narrow little stalk to hold. George said that we should try to push our fingers into Jonathan’s cereal bowl while he was eating, so that Jonathan could get used to people being around. It seemed like such an arbitrary thing to do, like why not pour a bag of marbles into his mattress and put vinegar in his eye drops?

Those were things people might do. Anyway, it was real arbitrary. Jonathan was a good-looking kid, though. After a while, his blue tint faded and his skin became elastic again. He didn’t sleep much, though. Couldn’t or didn’t want to. His long splintery hair always puffed out in every direction as if he were forever being electrocuted. And he was always restless, too, moaning and throwing himself against the walls. “Whoaaahh, thump,thud,” etc. And he chanted while he moaned, and he moaned odd, senseless words. The things he did were so arbitrary.

I and George were always curious what made him tick. Who wouldn’t be curious, if you think about it? I guess that’s why we peeled him, you know, to get to the bottom of it.

We wanted to understand.

* * *

Childhood friends? Yeah, the old gang: Marcello and Coty, Sean and Grant, Christy. We tore up the town, us kids. They weren’t allowed to play at my house. I had to play at their houses. We never did anything interesting.

George? Long ago—what is it with you people and the past anyway?—longer than I can remember. I don’t remember where we met. My earliest memory of George is when I cracked his skull with a wooden toy train. I remember feeling such rage toward him as I swung that toy train by its decorative little string, and then such regret when George began shrieking and all that blood kept spurting out of his head. They made solid toys in those days, out of hardwood, not like today. Everything’s plastic today. I don’t recall what I was angry about.

I always remembered that toy train and its pretty little string. It was such an arbitrary thing, that string, yet it induced all the force, all the momentum of that horrible blow.

That’s where my fear of rope began, I suppose.

We patched things up, of course, I and George. We play together. Musically, I mean. We’re in a group. I play guitar and sing—the voice of an angel on heroin, Jonathan told me—and George plays the drums. He’s my rhythm keeper, an extravagant metronome—don‚t tell him I said that. We’re really very good. We don’t play gigs because of George’s agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is basically the fear of everything. Can you imagine being afraid of everything? How would you breathe if you were too afraid to breathe? Doctors have fabulous names for everything, don’t they? One of my favourites is triskaidekaphobia. That’s the fear of the number 13. There are pills to fix everything, nowadays. But then you’d know that. Remember those pills they prescribed teenagers who suffered from terrible acne, and how depression and suicide were among the side effects? Those teenagers were dermatological masterpieces lying in their caskets. Such as it is. George’s agoraphobia meant we didn’t leave the house much. George doesn’t trust pills.

* * *

My brother? Yeah, I don’t see good old Richard too often. His wife can’t stand me. She’s never said as much, but you know you just get that feeling from a person sometimes, like you’re not fit to breathe the same air. There are indications: quick, furtive glances; the narrow, tight-lipped way she talks, as if it takes everything she’s got not to fall off the deep end while she’s saying, “Hello, Darien, how are you?” on her way to the bedroom to lock herself inside until you leave. Such as it is. Richard checks in on me at home now and then. Our conversations go something like this:

“You’ve got some kind of transient living in your house?” says Richard, all concerned and well fed. “What are you doing, Darien? Seriously?”

“I can’t see Dick,” says I, covering my eyes.

“Stop it, Darien. I’m serious.”

“I am serious,” says I, stumbling around. “I can’t see Dick.”

George thinks this game is a scream.

Yeah, good old Dick is doing all right, though. He’s got three kids, a charming house, two new cars and all. There’s a television in every room. He sends me money. He’s like my father that way. They pay me to stay away. I do pretty well.

What did you say?

If you want to know about my father, fine. Say what you like. But leave my mother out of this. My mother was a saint. You’re a bunch of heartless bastards bringing up my mother that way. George? Where’s George? What the hell have you done with George?

* * *

I know what you’re up to.

* * *

A man swinging a sledgehammer at concrete blocks for eight hours a day experiences less pain than a similar man at rest who happens to be starving to death. Pain is a motivational force. That’s why people prefer to work, rather than starve. My father is a hard worker, worked hard all his life. I and George don’t work, never have. It’s my father’s fault, surely. He was nothing but kindness to us—no furious words spat in impotent rage followed by slobbering repentance, no fists thrown at our noses in a blind drunkenness—and without complaint or nary even a sour mood, he provided us everything: everything except a reason to live. We lacked motivation. When I was a boy, our conversations went something like this:

“I love you, son,” says father, furnishing me with gifts.

“Why did you bring me into this world?” says I, apathetic and morally insolvent.

“Because I could,” says he, puzzled. “Because I wanted to.”

“I really don’t feel like living anymore,” says I, fed up and bored.

“How much will it take to make you happy, son?” says he, flipping open his chequebook.

People who are in control use pain to motivate the people who are under their control. That’s why people torture other people when they want to know things those other people know, or simply when those first people don’t like the look of the second people’s kind and they want to see those other people’s kind wiped out. There are many interesting ways to be tortured. Some of them involve rope. Such as it is. Pain is a vulgar coercer, I suppose. I and George prefer to use guilt. Guilt is rather powerful, we’ve found. When I speak to my father, our telephone conversations go something like this:

“How are you, Darien?” says he, noncommittally.

“Fine,” says I. “Except for the cold and the terrible hunger, of course. How are you?”

* * *

After George broke Jonathan’s fingers, Jonathan crawled up the stairs and into his room, and strange sounds echoed from up there, like the watery bleating of dolphins—dolphins, they’re good communicators—and I and George stood craning our necks, listening, trying to figure it out. And there would be construction sounds, you know, like sawing and hammering. We didn’t own those kind of tools. We couldn’t imagine what that boy was doing in his room. He didn’t come downstairs much, though he was free to come and go. During meals, he kept his head low, eyes to the table. The boy was broken, broken like a dog that would cower and piss itself when you raised your hand. George would raise his hand just for the fun of it, like a surprise—at meals, in the shower, at serene moments—just to watch Jonathan cower. I hate George for that. I loved that boy.

Such as it is.

* * *

Did I tell you about art school? I and George went to art school because my father wanted to find some kind of rationale for our lives. He didn’t understand that we were deconstructionists, that creating works of art stood contrary to our ideological being. He’d already bored us to tears with drama, interpretive dance and piano, the latter we exchanged for guitar—we never did learn how to read music. But art school was something other. Everyone was so intellectual. George thought they were overcompensating because they’d chosen a life of crayons. In my mind, art school was a barefaced confusion all about sex. Naked people kept appearing and posing themselves on canvas podiums, thrusting their bare, syphilitic genitals into your face until you were so dizzy you could draw nothing but dicks and cunts, and then everyone would get all crazy because your drawings were objectifying women. You know, real arbitrary, their objections. So George came up with the idea that we should take and peel one of those burlap-sack-wearing art school liberalists to try to get to the bottom of it all, which made sense, since we were deconstructionists and all that.

* * *

Our house is old and crooked and it has seen more than any reasonable house should. It leans this way and that as if it’s drunk, because it is almost a living thing, this house. Our furniture lies buried under piles of folded clothes—tiny shirts, pants, miniature dresses, for pets or dolls—that I cannot bring myself to remove. Other treasures grow over the carpet like weeds—children’s toys, cellular phones and purses, cameras, sunglasses, wallets, old newspapers and coffee cups, loose change, and lipstick tubes—and I shovel paths through it all like snow. George won’t lend a hand. George calls them trophies and he doesn’t like the trophies to be disturbed. He’s real particular sometimes.

We were on our backs, I and George, that day, staring up at the ceiling fans as they spun. I was topping off with prescription drugs, gathered from our collection: bottles belonging to people with names like Zechariah F. Tuggs and Dobranksi Vanderhueagen. I was trying to pronounce their names using foreign accents—y’noo, da ting bout dat guy, Van-door Hay-goon—a thing that always made George snigger toothily, like a filthy joke. I liked making George laugh. He hadn’t been laughing much lately. So there we were on the floor staring up, you know, the usual. I was thumping piles of clothes and watching the dust burst and glimmer in the sunshine like as many stars, and George goes and gets all heavy. Our conversation went something like this:

“What is it with you?” says George, accusingly.

“Who knows?” says I, rapt by the stars and dreaming.

“You goddamn-well know,” says George, incredulously angry.

“Is this about the dog?” says I, somewhat perplexed.

Jonathan was “our dog,” according to George, and George had grown weary of him. George detested the connection I and Jonathan shared, and George reviled whatever thing Jonathan was building in his room upstairs because it was a present, Jonathan said, to me, for my kindness. Jonathan kept that thing well hidden from George. So, I says to George:

“You’re jealous.”

“The hell I am!” says George, snarling. “Don’t you see that he’s threatening our way of life?”

“Don’t be stupid,” says I.

“Stupid, eh?’ says George, looking thrown. “Well, then, tell me this: when was the last time we spent a night alone? Hmmmmmm? When did we last do some peeling?”

I couldn't remember.

“And you call yourself a deconstructionist.”

I stared up at the ceiling fans, sick to my stomach, imagining terrible things churning inside me: pork fat and toenail clippings, Styrofoam cups and clumps of drain hair, motor oil and stringy pieces of meat that may or may not have belonged to Christy, that girl from the old gang I once knew. I vomited on the floor and good old George, my unsurpassed George, he stroked my hair until the sickness passed, until all the craziness migrated to places unknown, and I was left lucid and sober, sorely conscious of my neglect toward George. Good old George. At a young age, I and George acquired our peeling habit, learned with things dear—transistor radios, Barbie dolls, hobby horses, those real-looking babies that needed changing because they had the ability to piddle, dead birds—in an effort to try to understand how they worked. We were always inquisitive. Just a couple of old deconstructionists, we were that day, lying around and staring at the ceiling, trying to make sense of the world.

* * *

You’re trying to peel me, aren’t you?

* * *

When I was the little boy who had everything except a reason for being, I was prone to nosebleeds. It had to do with altitude and relative humidity. A humidifier whirred quietly in the corner of my bedroom, because I had everything, even a body that spontaneously erupted with blood. And when the bleeding started, my stepmother would make repugnant clacking noises with her tongue and flutter her eyeballs. Our conversations would go something like this:

“Tilt your head back, Darien,” says stepmother, all exasperated.

“It leaks down my throat if I do,” says I, uncooperative.

“You’re dripping on the carpet,” says she, unmoved.

“Glug, glug,” says I, like always.

Such as it is.

But when those nosebleeds eventually coagulated—that’s a fine word, coagulated—I was always left with a clot of blood that reached far back into my head, and I would carefully extract that clot, pulling methodically that long, red sack through one nostril, until it would gather its own momentum and then slide out of my nose like a wet snake. The sucking sensation it caused inside my head made it feel as if my brain were unraveling and abandoning my head, like a starved tapeworm, groping its way toward fresh air and light, the hope of a better life.

One of my treasured toys is a creature named Acura, a futuristic combatant, replete with breastplate and shield, and a fighting staff of unknown power. He is all gears, rods, and spikes, this creature: part of a race of intelligent machines known as the Bionicle. As imposing as this warrior appears, when threatened, he ejects his brain. It is a highly specialized defence mechanism. We could learn much from this, I suppose.

I thought of that blood clot from my nose as a snake embryo aborted from its mother (I knew the method by which babies were fashioned, yet, ironically, I had no clue that snakes came from eggs) and I kept that clot in a bowl, nudging it around like fish guts. And when my stepmother noticed my fascination, our conversation went something like this:

“Goodness, Darien!” says stepmother, face aghast, her makeup thick and creamy.

“I know,” says I, rapt and jubilant.

“Flush that thing down the toilet before you mess up your clean clothes,” says she, body rupturing with gooseflesh.

“But he’s a part of me,” says I, defiant. “He’s my friend.”

“What is it with you?” says she, brooding.

“I won’t do it,” says I, mutinous.

“Do I have to get the rope again?”

Such as it is. Stepmother still sends me a tin of Macadamian nuts every year at Christmas, but I don’t hear from the old neighbourhood gang: Marcello and Coty, Sean and Grant, or Christy. They grew up, but they never did anything interesting. They never became interesting people.

* * *

The day Jonathan finished building his gift, I and George were lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling, reminiscing about old times. Jonathan emerged from the darkness, light falling upon him in small, deliberate sections; his nose and cheekbones, the deep sockets of his tired eyes, his bony, stooped shoulders and the load he was carrying on his back: a large wooden cross, plain but beautiful. He seemed overjoyed by his burden and he smiled (something he’d never done) as he shrugged the cross from his shoulders and leaned that cross against the wall. Our conversation went something like this:

“I’m here to deliver you, Darien,” says Jonathan, all proud and glowing.

“From what?” says I, bemused.

“From Evil, of course,” says Jonathan, equally bemused by my bemusement.

“What Evil?” says I.

“I have some pamphlets,” says he, hopeful.

I was following a path of wickedness and sin, he said, and that it would not end well for me because creation was valued above all else, and there was much joy to be harvested in this world, but only for those who followed the true path. I explained to him what he already knew, that we were deconstructionists and as such we reviled creationists, but he only shook his head and leaned against that large wooden cross, arms resting open, head bowed, and feet crossed. A hollow sensation burst into my chest, as if my heart and lungs had been sucked from me. My body weighed a thousand pounds and my head pounded like a thousand rocks slamming against a thousand concrete blocks. I was utterly betrayed. And so I moped. I moped while good old George lashed that boy to his cross (I couldn’t even look at those ropes). Our final conversation went something like this:

“You don’t have to do this,” says Jonathan, all saintly calm and radiant.

“I want to understand,” says I, in disarray. “I’m trying to understand.”

“You’ll never learn anything by doing this,” says he, serene.

“Go get the side-cutters,” says I to George, resolute.

“There is no George,” says Jonathan, eyes closed, content. “There is only you.”

* * *

And, of course, you know the rest. People are always trying to change you, I suppose. Someone always thinks that they know better: people like you. But what I’m saying is, Jonathan couldn’t be what he wasn’t, just as I can’t be what I’m not. Such as it is. So I’m telling you right now, and you better listen: there is a George. There is always a George.

“The idea for ‘Some of Them Involve Rope’ began with a visit to our sister-in-law’s house, a six-hour drive from where we live. Her family moved into a strange old house. The place was so crammed with stuff that despite three levels and umpteen bedrooms, there was nowhere to sleep or even sit down. And it rained and rained. We were trapped like Darien in that house, sitting on the floor, watching the ceiling fans spin (there was no television). I began imagining a person stuck in that house. What would he do? What would he be like? How would he survive? I’d also been challenged to write a story involving string. Somehow it all fit together.

“When I first wrote the story it was originally titled ‘I and George’ and it was a dismal failure. Subsequent rewrites proved futile. I placed the story aside for more than a year. And then one day I found it in a dusty corner of my computer and suddenly Darien’s voice emerged. That was the missing piece. I had to wait for Darien to announce himself, I guess. Even after the final draft, I still titled it ‘I and George,’ but the story had new life and it no longer seemed right. I kept being drawn back to the line ‘some of them involve rope,’ and I realized that that, more than anything, was what Darien’s story was about; his fear of rope, the abuse he’d suffered by it and the pain he’d caused with it.

“The way Darien says ‘I and George’ backwards, instead of ‘George and I,’ comes from a guy I once worked with. I think he thought that that was proper English and that he sounded educated when he said it.”

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