McSweeney’s Internet Tendency editor-at-large, John Warner, has a new collection out this week from LSU Press, Tough Day for the Army, which includes “Notes from a Neighborhood War” previously published on the site, and the story below, debuting today.
Tough Day for the Army is available now at the bookseller of your choice.
Here we are in the house weight room, though it is not really the weight room because it is the boiler room, the place where the boiler is, the boiler that heats the house we live in together as brothers.
It is an old house. And at night, in the cold months, the boiler clangs and clanks, which tells us that it is working at least.
It is a fraternity house, not a frat house. Do you call your mother a “mutt?” Your country a… you get the idea.
Everyone who has ever lived in the house, living or dead, is a brother. This is how it has worked, always.
The boiler room is where we also decided to lift weights because there was room for benches and barbells and it’s important to exercise so we look good. We don’t say virile because if we said that word it would sound gay, but that’s essentially what’s going on. We have an image to maintain, after all, a good one. Masculine virtue, emphasis on the masculine. When you say our letters there are associations, positive ones, and there’s a certain duty to nurture what our other brothers before us have built.
Schmitty is the obvious choice for what we have planned, the reason we are in the weight room/boiler room. And what we have planned is to waterboard Schmitty.
We can’t remember whose idea it was. Inside the house we are either alone or in packs of three or more, never two, because if two of us are seen coming out of a room together, we will say something like, What were you two faggots up to in there?
We always laugh at that. To react otherwise means we were definitely up to some shit, because why would we be so pissed if we weren’t 69-ing each other like a couple of complete homos? Which is to say we were in a group of at least three and more likely five or more when we said, You know what we should do? We should do that waterboarding shit. To the pledges.
And then, after a couple seconds’ thought, we replied, That really would be badass, waterboarding our pledges.
We shared a chorus of yeah and totally, and we took out our phones and googled waterboarding videos, and as we watched them we realized that this idea was even better than first thought because that shit is really badass. We wouldn’t even need to have rush anymore because waterboarding sells itself. Everyone will know that we are the fraternity so badass that people are willing to be waterboarded to belong.
That is so fucked up, we said. And also fuckingtabulously badass.
We knew that someone had to try it first, to make sure we knew how to do it, because experience tells us the quickest way to shut down a chapter is to kill a pledge.
We decided on Schmitty, who is just now complaining a little about the ropes lashing him to the decline weight bench being too tight. We decided on Schmitty because Schmitty is tough, and also loves the house. Schmitty already has our letters branded on his ass, which is cool, not faggoty, even though all of us were staring at Schmitty’s naked, rather muscular butt when it happened.
The branding was way badass. It was the kind of thing we talked about doing all the time, but Schmitty was the only one who agreed to it, and not only did Schmitty go through with it, but even as a couple of us blew chunks at the smell of Schmitty’s ass flesh burning, Schmitty just growled like a motherfucking animal until it was done, and sometimes during chapter meetings—which are secret, so we’re not supposed to tell this—when we say something that Schmitty agrees with, he drops his pants and flashes the brand and the debate is ended.
Schmitty was the obvious choice for those reasons, and also because he was already in the weight room on the very decline bench to which he is now strapped. The bench is in the decline position in order for Schmitty to work the lower portion of his pectoral muscles, and also because when you waterboard someone you place a cloth over their nose and mouth and then pour water over them to simulate drowning, and if you don’t place them in a decline position, the water does not run over the nostrils in sufficient volume to simulate drowning.
This is what we emphasize to Schmitty, that the drowning is simulated, not actual, because he’s starting to alternate between looking anxious and angry, pulling harder and harder on the ropes as we drape an old gym towel over his face. We’re not really going to kill you, dumbass, we say. We’re pretty sure Schmitty agreed to this, but in the end it doesn’t matter, because we’ve decided that this is what needs doing.
There is very little light in the weight/boiler room, just a sixty-watt bulb dangling from a single fixture. The sweat on Schmitty’s pectorals shines in this light. Schmitty can bench 305 for 12 reps, which is impressive. The floor is concrete slab with long cracks running through it, some of them patched. Schmitty is trying to blow the towel off his face, thrashing his head around, but we remedy this by grabbing the towel ends and pinning Schmitty’s head to the bench. The tendons in his neck flex memorably.
It is hot in the boiler room because it is the boiler room. Generations of water stains that look like Rorschach blots mar the brick walls.
We only have enough rope to tie Schmitty’s arms, so we decide to sit on his legs, which had been thrashing around like he is treading water, which we recognize is not an example of irony.
Schmitty is making noises underneath the towel.
Is that crying? we ask, and then decide no way because Schmitty would not cry.
We ask ourselves How much water? We shrug because we figure that Schmitty’s reaction will tell us how much is enough, and how much is too much.
It’s important to note that in this moment, we love Schmitty. We love each other. We love ourselves, but most of all we love Schmitty because he is one of us. We are brothers, all. We would never do anything to hurt Schmitty because that would be like cutting off our own legs. In fact, we maybe have never loved each other more. That we are
waterboarding Schmitty is the proof.
Under the cloth held over his face, Schmitty gags and retches. We pour the water in intervals, five seconds on, five seconds off. This, says the Internet, is how it must be done to avoid consequences like the subject being waterboarded passing out, which defeats the purpose of waterboarding them. Soon, Schmitty stops trying to kick us off his legs and no longer pulls at the ropes. He’s only gurgling now. His limbs are slack. The towel, taut over his face, is sucked into his mouth with his breath. His wrists are raw. They may scar, but no worse than a brand, for sure.
We waterboard Schmitty until it is no longer interesting to waterboard Schmitty, until we know what there is to know about waterboarding, which is astoundingly simple and doesn’t take all that much time, it turns out. We remove the towel from Schmitty’s face, and for a moment we worry that maybe we did it wrong, that we killed Schmitty, because his eyes are—how can we put this?—absent. They are open, but no one is present, like this is a life-sized Schmitty doll in front of us, eyes black and staring and lifeless, except we know Schmitty is not dead because his chest rises and falls.
We say his name, Schmitty! Schmitty! We slap his cheeks and say his name, Schmitty! Schmitty! Some of us in the back giggle nervously. Holy fuck, we say.
And then Schmitty returns, except that clearly it is Not Schmitty. It is Schmitty’s body and Schmitty’s face, but we know it is Not Schmitty because Not Schmitty raises his head up and looks us in the eyes and says: You motherfuckers better leave me tied up because if I ever get loose I’m going to kill every single one of you.
Schmitty would never say that.
We do the smart thing, the only thing, and leave Not Schmitty in the boiler room, lashed to the bench. We turn off the lights and shut the door and we go upstairs to our rooms; we brace a chair under the knob and we listen hard for the approach of Not Schmitty, because we’re assuming that like Schmitty, Not Schmitty can also bench 305 pounds for 12 reps, and unlike Schmitty, Not Schmitty has vowed to kill every one of us.
We sit upright in our beds and consider how Not Schmitty might kill us. Bare hands is an option, Not Schmitty gripping our throats, squeezing. Or the ropes we used to tether him to the decline weight bench wound around our necks until our heads practically pop off our bodies. That’s a possibility. Not Schmitty could knock on our doors, and when we answer, he could bring a twenty-five-pound barbell down on our heads. He could get one of the large butcher’s knives from the kitchen and he could slip up behind us and ram the blade between our ribs into an organ like the spleen that will let loose our blood inside our bodies until there is not enough blood left for our hearts to continue pumping. We have one sleepless night, then another. When the boiler kicks in we listen for the clanks and clangs in the radiators and wonder if there is a rhythm to them, if Not Schmitty is tapping out a message of our dooms. We stop thinking about Not Schmitty so we can think more about ourselves, our vulnerable selves.
Eventually, life has to go on. We emerge from our rooms, blinking, seeing everything as it was, and we wonder if maybe it was a dream, if maybe we never decided to waterboard Schmitty, and therefore there is no Not Schmitty still tied to the decline bench in the weight/boiler room.
We do not go to look for ourselves, no. We put up plastic sheeting in front of the stairwell, and a sign warning of asbestos.
We do not go to look because it is easier to move forward rather than to examine the past, if indeed the past even happened. We miss Schmitty for sure, but Schmitty remains in our hearts, so it is not like Schmitty is entirely gone. Remember that time Schmitty bet us he could gain twenty pounds in a day and he ate and ate and ate, spaghetti and stir-fry and chocolate pudding, and he actually did it, and we said, How about that fucking Schmitty?
Of course we remember.
But we move on. We go to class. We party. We go to more class. We wear shirts with the collars popped and boat shoes even though we don’t have boats, yet. We party. We graduate. We party. We get jobs. We start lives in apartments. We go to work. We participate in March Madness pools. We meet girls, whom we know enough to call women to their faces. We fall in love. We deny falling in love because being in love is kind of gay, even if it’s with a girl (woman). We know we are in love because when we say disgusting things about our girlfriends to our brothers, we feel regret. We go to work. We save money for a ring. We go to work. We propose. We have weddings at which we deny crying during the ceremony, after which we get shitty via open bars.
We have families. We buy homes. We buy homes and have families of tiny, vulnerable children who grow into small, vulnerable children, and then slightly less small, but still vulnerable children. With the children, we fear Not Schmitty is everywhere, for example driving the car in front of us, waiting for an opportunity to stop short, causing us to rear-end him, which will launch our small, vulnerable children in their improperly secured car seats through the windshield.
Not Schmitty could be anywhere. When we are in the office bathroom, solo in a stall taking a dump, and the bathroom door swings open and we hear footsteps, we think of Not Schmitty and his doll’s eyes and we wait for a shotgun blast through the stall door that will splatter us across the tile.
After we make love to the girl (woman) we love and fall asleep—because the lovemaking is like a very strenuous sport—we awake with a start, thrashing our arms, certain Not Schmitty has come with a pillow meant for our faces. Even as we draw back our titanium driver, ready to send a laser down the fairway, we are certain that Not Schmitty is behind us with a nine iron, waiting to cave in our skulls.
We miss the days we lived with our brothers, when we were young and strong and not vulnerable, but invulnerable.
We grow older. We buy boats. We buy boats we don’t use all that often, and we complain that boats are just bottomless holes you pour money into, which tells people that we not only own boats, but also have wealth enough not to worry about pouring money into them. Our guts grow past our ability to suck them in. Our bench press maxes drop toward the double digits. The more money we make, the less work we seem to do. Sixty-five percent of us vote Republican; the rest of us must be gay or poor or something. Recessions happen in which we’re barely touched. We see our children graduate high school and then college, things they achieve despite our suspicion that some of them are dumb or defective, though we love them anyway, which is an astounding thing. Our wives spread in places we wish they wouldn’t. We achieve all the trappings of success. We are helpful to each other in innumerable ways at this, business referrals, stock tips, sales leads, stock tips, football tickets, stock tips. This is what we were promised so many years ago by the brotherhood, and it has come true.
When the kids leave the house for good we go to Europe.
Why Europe? We don’t know. It’s just something we’re supposed to do. Some people it is Disneyland, others go to all-inclusive resorts in the Bahamas, we are supposed to go to Europe. It is as though we are trapped by this need, even though we have limited desire to go to Europe and are even a little afraid to go to Europe, the language barrier and all. When we go to Europe, in Europe in those European eyes we become what we know ourselves to be: rich, tacky, successful, fat.
We have the trips of our lives, obviously, but are nonetheless happy to come home. It is evening, and the motion sensor snaps the light on as we approach, which always makes us freeze for a moment, like we are stealing our own luggage. There are ten steps from the flagstone walk to the portico, so that the house may loom over the yard, making its statement. Once inside, we have that sensation that someone has been here in our absence. The air-conditioning is too high. We smell popcorn. We whistle for the dog and then remember he is at the kennel until morning. Our wives go upstairs for a bath and we consider the possibility of joining them, something done in the past, but that past is awfully distant, and there is the matter of logistics in terms of fitting inside the tub, and so we discard the notion and feel sad that we can’t figure out how to make it work.
We drink a whisky. It is expensive and bitter. The house is large, so our bathing wives can’t even be heard. These are the times when we listen to the creak of the wood floors for Not Schmitty’s approach. We hold ourselves upright, hands pressed to the kitchen granite and refuse to turn around. Perhaps Not Schmitty has already made short work of our wives, their blood pinking the bath mat, which is what we would do if we were Not Schmitty, if we wanted to deliver maximum hurt. Once we picture our wives’ blood swirling through the bath water we can’t stop this vision, but we resist rushing upstairs because what if Not Schmitty is there, waiting? What if he is waitwaiting, holding an ax with a chip in the blade from use?
What if he holds an ax above his head, an ax that glints in the blue light through the parted curtains and he will use it to smite us in two and there’s nothing we can do about it?
But he’s not here, is he?