I open the back door and the dog pushes its way out past my legs and runs into the woods at the back of our house. It’s already dark outside and I’m so hungover that I realize only then what the animal’s intending to do. And before I run after the old black Labrador to make sure he doesn’t eat our vomit yet again, I call back to my brother in the house to ask if this time he bothered to dig a hole before emptying the bucket. And although I already know the answer, I listen to my brother, who first moans and then shouts back from inside the house, from under his blankets: “Just let that animal eat our vomit if he wants to!” He shouts: “Just let him die!” And then I run into the woods in my socks and my underpants. After the dog.
It’s because of the pills we always take at the end of the night that our dog has almost died three times already. The Pethidine and sometimes Vicodin that we take to cushion our landing back on earth after the ketamine. The pills in our stomachs are often not even half digested by the time our bodies have had enough of the rum and the beer and the Ritalin and the ketamine and make us vomit into the red bucket with a lid, the bucket we bought specially after the dog had already almost overdosed on Pethidine three times by eating our vomit. The bucket that was supposed to protect the dog, if my brother would only dig a hole before emptying it.
My brother and I, there, in the house on wheels at the edge of the woods—it all started as a vacation. But after five months, and given the fact that my brother and I both found work here, you could hardly call it that any more. Vacation. We still used the word if we wanted to end an argument. Or as the ultimate excuse, so we could go ahead and make the wrong decision. And neither of us wanted to tell the other, really, that the vacation was long over. That it wasn’t our vacation we were fucking up but simply our lives.
It’s been dark again for a long time when my brother finally comes out of the house and uses the wooden ladder to climb onto the roof, where I’m lying waiting on one of the two sofas for the Pethidine I’ve taken to really start working and for my headache to pass. My headache like a sort of extra heart, pumping in my head. The local radio that’s on, next to the oil lamp that’s burning, keeps talking about Jesus and the hot weather.
My brother steps onto the roof and I ask: “Have you had breakfast?” And he turns to the empty sofa, leans forward and grabs the back of it with his left hand and the arm of it with his right. As he holds himself steady he turns himself around and first sits and then lies down. And I think: Pethidine. Just like me. But three or four of them. Or Vicodin. With rum. Enough rum.
The only proof we have that the sun has been shining all day is the fact that the bottle of rum we left on the roof is still warm. But apart from the rum and, much later, daybreak we often have only the moon that tries from time to time to prove to us that somewhere else the sun really is shining. It does however feel like something positive only ever to see the sun rise and never to see it set.
And lying on the sofas on top of our house, it’s then that my brother suddenly starts talking and tells me that the moon’s orbit around the earth is slowly widening. And that the thing there above us in the sky is an object that’s very slowly bidding us good-bye. He says that’s the best kind of good-bye. The kind of good-bye that goes so slowly you barely notice it. The pain so spread out that you don’t even feel it. He says: “It’s like taking a vacation and never coming back.” And then I pick up the forms and say to my brother: “Time for work.”
Work, this week, is filling in a form every day for a week with questions about how my brother feels; my brother, just back from a week of taking pills in a medical testing center an hour away by bus from the village. This time he took pills intended to alleviate pain during chemotherapy. That’s what my brother does for money. Work as a guinea pig. My brother says it’s the best job he’s ever done, because at least it doesn’t mean lying about the fact that he prostitutes himself.
The time before he did the pill testing, he came back from the testing center after three days and told me they’d put a balloon up his ass every day and kept blowing it up and deflating it and he’d had to write down a number between one and ten on a piece of paper to indicate how badly it made him want to go to the toilet. He got three hundred for that.
The time before that they made him inhale helium and they put sensors in his veins to see what it did. And I think it could have killed him, because he got five hundred for just one day that time.
In the testing center my brother met Ed, who works there. And it’s Ed who sells us the cheap ketamine. And Ritalin. Vocodin. Pethidine. Laughing gas.
My brother squeezes the sofa he’s lying on hard and rhythmically with both hands and stares at the dark sky. And it’s then that I think: ketamine. Just ketamine again. My brother. Definitely ketamine. With the pen in my hand I ask the first question on the medical testing center form: “Did you experience any side effects today?” And my brother, squeezing the sofa, says to the dark sky: “Today I see hope in every little star.”
And on the form, next to that question, I write “none” because I think that’s what they want to hear, so that my brother can keep his job.
And waiting until my brother comes around again, I snort a bit of ketamine myself and then I’m reminded of the canned laughter in a sitcom, the flashes and mushrooms of a nuclear attack (always in daytime), malignant birthmarks, birds that eat meat, the Heimlich maneuver, solar eclipses, immortality, and spaceships.
Our mother is the reason we’re here, in this house on wheels, in the middle of nowhere. The closest village is fifteen minutes away by car, but since my brother lost at cards it’s forty minutes on foot. Our mother, who we dropped there in that village because she made us promise to bury her in the place where she was born.
Our mother loved clichés. Like she loved red roses and big expensive granite gravestones. The money she left was enough for the trip and the funeral, and the roses and the expensive granite grave. And even enough for a little vacation.
And that’s why we’re here. And not somewhere else.
When our mother was still lying in the open coffin with the refrigeration unit underneath cooling away at full blast so that she wouldn’t decompose too quickly, my brother often stood next to the coffin. He stood there almost every time the cooler started to make the noise that meant it was about to switch itself off and make the coffin shake and make our mother’s head shake with it and make the dead head of our mother say “no” to us all. And each time the cooler was about to switch off my brother would ask my mother: “Mom, if there’s a heaven, do you think you’re going there?” Or he’d ask: “Mom, did you enjoy having sex with Dad?”
And after our mother answered him he always looked at me while he almost fell on the floor laughing.
I wake up after the first ketamine and my brother is kneeling down next to the sofa I’m lying on and talking to me. Very softly I hear him say: “. . . just for once in my life . . .” And then he notices my open eyes and stands up and goes to sit on the other sofa again.
It’s since my brother’s last return from the testing center that he’s been behaving differently.
The day before yesterday he’d bought paper and a pencil in the village and he spent the whole night drawing stairs in perspective. Something like forty drawings of stairs in one night. And this is the third time already that I’ve woken up to find him kneeling next to me and talking to me. I called the testing center from the phone in the village to ask what they’d given him the last time, and on the phone they first had me listen to music for a long time and then they told me they’d given my brother a placebo this time.
The dog climbs the wooden ladder after wandering in the woods for a long time searching for vomit or whatever, and then he climbs onto the sofa I’m lying on and lies down between my legs. We got the old animal a month after our arrival. A neighbor who lived some distance away came to our house on wheels with it and said he’d got a job in town and couldn’t take the dog with him. He said that if we didn’t take the dog he was going to kill it and he even offered us some money for the first few months to care for it. It was my brother who eventually said “yes” and our plan was to take the money and kill the animal ourselves. But for the first few weeks we postponed its execution every day and after that we postponed it even more, until we simply didn’t talk about it any longer. Because in the end you always start to care about the things you see every day.
My brother starts crushing the Ritalin on a breadboard in his lap with the back of a spoon. As a supply for tonight and to have some to snort to counteract the aftereffects of the ketamine and make the walk to the village a bit more bearable. And it’s then that he asks: “Why do I have all these bruises on my legs?” He asks: “Why do I have bruises on my chest and back?” He asks: “And why do I have scratches on my arms?” And I really have no idea, but I point to the ladder and say: “You fell off the ladder.” I say: “Twice.”
That’s what we do, when we wake up. We listen to local radio to hear if there’s any news from the night before. And with each news item we ask ourselves if it’s about us. We examine our bodies for injuries. We examine our faces for the little burst blood vessels that tell us whether or not we’ve vomited. We look in the red bucket with the lid. And after that we tell each other the lies we need to hear to make our lives complete again. Bearable lies to fill the gaps. Because the only downside to forgetting things is that you begin to ask yourself what you’ve forgotten. And when we’re complete again, everything starts over right from the beginning.
What we really ought to do, instead of forgetting things every night and then making things up for each other, is finish our studies and look for jobs. Build a life. But it’s not that we’re running away from that. It’s more that we can’t find a good reason to go back to it. And then my brother hands me the breadboard with the powdered Ritalin and I put the Ritalin into a small, resealable plastic bag and I sniff what’s left on the breadboard deep into my nose. Then I put two bags of ketamine in my pockets. And then it’s time to walk.
Through the windows of Mandy’s pub I can already see that Mandy herself is behind the bar, so today must be a Tuesday or a Friday. And I feel that the ketamine I took at the end of the walk is starting to take effect already, so I don’t go inside with my brother and the dog but instead lie down on the wooden bench next to the door of the pub. And before my brother goes inside with the dog I say to him: “Maybe we should eat something.” And after they’ve gone into Mandy’s I shout: “Don’t try to swap the dog for free drinks again!”
And then the ketamine dream begins, and I look down and see birds of prey circling around my legs. And just before I completely lose control of my thoughts, I think about the birds of prey and I think maybe that’s the reason why I’m here with my brother. And for one brief moment everything is completely logical. And after that there are dinosaurs.
I wake up and I’m still lying in front of Mandy’s and then I wake up again and I’m in a moving car. I look around and ask my brother, who is at the wheel: “Why are we in Mandy’s jeep and where are we going?”
And to wake up a bit more I get the bag of powdered Ritalin out of my pocket and snort a little of it. The darkness outside has turned the window next to me into a mirror and I see a boy. Not a man. And the first thing I think before I recognize myself is: “What the hell are you looking at?” And after that I think: “Asshole.”
And then my brother starts talking to me. He says he was only trying to win back the car. He says it was just that he needed something valuable to bet. That he had really good cards. He says: “Seriously. Really good cards.”
And I gather all my thoughts together and ask my brother: “What are you talking about?”
And then my brother says: “I’ve lost Mom’s grave at cards.”
Our mother’s grave is in five parts. And the first things we put into the car are the four granite slabs that border the four sides of the grave. Two short and two long slabs, and we only have to dig down a little to get our hands under them, to be able to simply lift them out of the sand. And all this while my brother says again and again: “Nobody’s going to get my mother’s grave.”
We have to dig for a while to uncover the base of the large stone that sticks up out of the ground with our mother’s name on it. And my brother gets a pickax out of the back of the jeep and starts to hack the headstone free from its cheap little brick foundation.
The plan is to take the grave away so that we know it’s safe, and then drive to our house on wheels and take our supply of ketamine with us and go to a party in another village. A party in some abandoned building. To sell the ketamine there and pay off my brother’s gambling debt and then lay the grave back safely on top of our mother.
The selling of the ketamine is usually my job out here, in the middle of nowhere. My little extra income every week. My customers—mainly just Mandy’s customers.
And my brother is standing there in the middle of the night in a half ketamine dream, in the jeep’s headlights, hacking away at our mother’s grave with a pickax.
And underneath all of this our dead mother lies in her coffin shaking her head and saying “no” to us all.
I wake standing upright and in front of me is a dancing crowd. And I can’t remember how I got here. And I wonder what lies my brother will make up if I ask him.
Then there’s a woman who comes out of the crowd toward me, and she takes my hand. She leads me to the middle of the dance floor and her brown hair is in a ponytail that sits high on the back of her head. She has a long smooth neck. A tight dress covers her body and at the same time lets everyone see it. Her dancing body—slightly out of time with the music—makes even the music feel guilty, because it can’t keep up with her. And the only thing I want is to put my face to her neck and disappear completely. Then she comes close and kisses me on the lips. And then she starts to dance again. And I dance. We dance. We.
Then suddenly we’re standing in a dark room with burning candles. She puts her arms behind her back and the tight dress loses its grip on her body and falls off her. And her breasts hang there, and, without touching them, I know they are softer than her lips. And I want to press my stomach to her naked stomach and for our stomachs to melt together.
She steps back, onto a mattress. I look past her and the mattress is covered in men. Naked men. They’re touching her legs. I look at her face and she looks at me. I shake my head and my eyes say: “Please, don’t.” And somehow I know she can hear me. And her eyes say: “I’m sorry.” And then she falls backward. Arms and legs catch her and she disappears into that great mountain of male bodies.
I wake up and I’m sitting in Mandy’s car and next to me is a girl with short platinum-blonde hair and next to the girl my brother is sitting at the wheel. I quickly look round to see if we’ve still got the dog, because my first logical thought is that my brother has swapped the dog for the girl. But in the small space behind the seat the dog is lying asleep. And my head is about to explode so I look for the Pethidine in my pockets and thank god I find one. And I wash it down with some rum. Enough rum.
And I ask my brother: “Do we have money?”
And my brother says: “I’d like to introduce you to Veronica.”
I look round again and our mother’s grave is still in the back of the jeep and I ask my brother again: “Do we have money?”
My brother stares through the windscreen and I wonder what he sees and he answers: “Not enough for Mom.”
I look at the girl and it’s only then that I realize it’s the girl from my dream. The same face, the same body, only now she has short platinum-blonde hair. Her eyes are half closed and I wonder if she sees the same things as my brother sees. And I want to ask my brother whether it’s her, or whether I danced with her, kissed her, but I hold my tongue and snort a bit more ketamine.
Then my brother says: “We have to put the grave somewhere safe until we have the money.”
He says softly: “No one gets my mother’s grave.”
We drive back to the village, and we drive past Mandy’s, which is closed again, and we drive with our mother’s grave to our house on wheels. And halfway there we swap places, because while driving through the dark night my brother starts saying how hot the sun is that’s shining on him and that he can’t stand it any longer.
And by moonlight and in the light of the car’s headlamps we bury our mother’s grave in a shallow hole, just big enough for a person, in the woods not far from our house on wheels. And then we listen to local radio until the car battery is dead and then we snort some Ritalin and push the car along the road a little so that no one will find our mother’s grave. And then we walk home.
I wake up and hear my brother talking and I keep my eyes shut and don’t move. I have a sour taste in my mouth, which means I’ve already vomited. I can feel that I’m lying in my bed, in our house on wheels, and my brother is sitting close to me, probably kneeling on the floor next to my bed, and I hear him say softly: “. . . just so terribly tired . . . so tired that I’ve stopped complaining about it . . .”
And he says: “. . . tired because every time I find new things I’m going to care about . . . tired because every time there are new things I’m afraid of losing . . . tired that I’m not good enough for the things I love . . . and I’m too tired to complain about it all the time . . . about that feeling . . . and every time I’m afraid I’m going to lose . . .”
He says: “. . . tired of feeling all that homesickness in my stomach all the time . . . wherever I am . . .”
He says: “. . . I’ve just stopped complaining about it . . .”
He says: “. . . I thought that if I came here it would go away . . . I’m sorry, little brother . . . I’m so terribly sorry . . . that I brought you here with me . . .”
He says: “. . . and I’m so afraid of the thoughts that I have when I close my eyes . . . and I’m so disgusted with myself . . . I’m so disgusted with myself for not having more original feelings . . .”
He says: “. . . the worst thing is that they make us look at ourselves all the time . . .”
I open my eyes and my brother and I look at each other. He stays there kneeling next to me and we’re alone, the two of us, in our house on wheels and I ask: “Where’s the girl?” And in my thoughts we’re sitting on the roof again and listening to the radio that’s broadcasting messages about the disappeared girl. I dig through my dark memories and dreams and my brother says: “We dropped her off in a village.” He says: “She was frightened by Mom’s grave and by the way you kept calling her the woman of your dreams.” I lie there and I can’t remember and I hope so desperately that my brother isn’t lying to me about the girl and I say: “Oh . . . yes . . . that . . . sorry about that.”
My brother is kneeling next to my bed and he picks up a bag of what I think is ketamine and not Ritalin and empties it onto the breadboard on the edge of my bed. Way too much ketamine. He says: “This is my goddamn vacation.” And then he snorts most of the ketamine off the breadboard. He stands up and says: “I’m just going out to look for a railway line where I can walk to nowhere between the rails.” He starts to laugh and walks out of our house on wheels. Through the doorway I see him kick over the red bucket with the lid and then he runs into the woods in his socks and underpants.
The dog immediately walks outside as well and starts eating the vomit that’s pouring from the bucket. I shout at the dog and get out of bed, and in my underpants and socks I run outside to stop him eating all the vomit. But when I get to the dog the bucket is already almost empty and then the dog runs into the woods too, after my brother. And I can’t think of anything to do but go back into the house and snort all the ketamine that’s left on the breadboard. And then I run after my brother and the dog, into the woods.
And running through the woods I can’t see either my brother or the dog any longer and then I wonder who I’m really running after. And how long it will be before the sun comes up. I’m running for the thousandth time in my underpants and socks through the woods. Beneath the moon and the hot summer stars. And then, at last, I feel the ketamine enter my blood.
"Ketamine" © Thijs de Boer. By arrangement with Nieuw Amsterdam. Translation © 2014 by Liz Waters. All rights reserved.