The Death of Little Robert
by T. Sean Steele
Devon called to say I didn’t need to worry about finding money anymore. Keeth had bailed them out. Keeth, the one who had turned them in in the first place. “He means to kill me. I know it. He got nervous I would tell on him and now he wants to shut me up.”
“Why?” I said. “It’s not like either of you did anything wrong. You didn’t murder her. You only buried her body illegally. That’s not a mortal sin. It’s just people being uptight.”
They disagreed. I was thinking about it on too large of a scale. You could make anything meaningless if you zoomed out far enough. “Zoom in to Keeth and Beeth and me. Think about it for Keeth. It’s his sister. The control of information about his sister. For him it’s mortally serious.”
“It’s not a good thing to zoom in, though,” I said. “I mean, it might not be good to zoom in too much on your own life.” What I was trying to say was that I was between apartments. Lucia’s regular roommates had returned from Europe. It was hot clothes time for me.
“Hot clothes time?”
“When you have to keep all your clothes in your car and they overheat in the sun. Hot clothes time.”
“Are you in your car right now?”
“I’m kind of doing the same thing. I’m living on the red line because I know if I go home Keeth will be there.”
“Living on the red line?”
“Well, spending hours and hours on it. Not living. I’m staying at people’s houses.”
“So not living on the red line.”
“No, I’m not living on the red line.”
I was asleep but woke up to the hairless blind boy knocking on the window of my car. How did he know it was my car, being blind? He found a new way to see, using the other senses, specifically smell and the bowels.
“The bowels aren’t one of the senses,” I said, stepping out of my car. Whoosh! Fresh air!
“They can be used as a sense. Want to know how it works? You stick your pinkie in your bunghole and then you hold it out in front of you and the smell guides you forward.”
“That doesn’t help you see.”
“It does. It tells you which way is forward.”
“Are you back at that school? Did they teach you that? You shouldn’t have gone back to that school.”
“Do you know what a bunghole is?”
I tried to yell at him more but he didn’t want to hear it. At least they had taught him a new way to see. At least they had given him a birthday. At least they had thrown him a birthday party. No one else had ever done that. That’s why he had knocked on my window. Today was his birthday party. I was invited.
“And! At least they gave me a name.”
“They gave you a name? What’s your name?”
Would I go to his birthday party with him?
We were to walk to a certain exit off the 110 where there would be a green sign directing us to Little Robert’s birthday party.
Actually, I knew that sign.
It had been up for months, tied to the guard rail.
The only reason this school named the hairless blind boy Little Robert was because there was already a sign up from months ago directing people to a Little Robert’s birthday party. This school couldn’t be bothered to make him a new sign with his own name, or even pick an original location for his party. There he was, walking ahead of me, arm extended, pinkie extended from arm. “Hey man, they’re ripping you off with this party. That sign is from forever ago.”
I explained everything but he didn’t care. “Everyone gets named something for a reason. And what’s an original location for a party? What are you even talking about?” No, he did care. His eyelids, gummed shut, began to bulge out. They were filling with tears, but the tears had no way to escape his face. The only way to do it was to press hard on the swollen eyelids. And that’s what he did. The tears spurted out of the corners of his eyes, straight from his face in thin streams.
Closer to the party. Little Robert was getting nervous. “They’ll like you,” he said. “Any friend of mine, they’ll like. They like me, so it makes sense they’ll like you, right? At least, I think they like me. No one’s ever said they like me, I guess.”
“What?” I said. “If you’re worried I’ll care if they like me or not, don’t worry. I won’t care. Even if I act like I care, in the long run I don’t care. Sometimes people react to things in ways that are deceitful even if they’re also natural. Sometimes I do that. In fact I’m convinced a person can go through their whole life with a personality that isn’t actually theirs. Of course after a whole life then they’d be wrong, though. So I guess it is theirs…uh…yeah…hnngh…” I was out of breath.
“You sound like one of the teachers.”
The party was a situation where I tried not to put together many clues about these people. Intaking almost nothing at all.
Intaking almost nothing at all, it did look like a birthday party. Little Robert had run off with some other kids. They held his hands. There were balloons attached to a picnic table and the picnic table had a bunch of pizza on it. I made my way over but was stopped halfway there.
“We need your shirt.”
This was a guy who was chewing gum and also drinking coffee out of a small white cup. He had jowls which looked hooked to his face by two long wrinkles that reached up to the corners of his eyes.
“Why my shirt?” I said.
“We want to play tug-of-war but no one brought a rope. We’re making a rope out of shirts.”
“I want to keep my shirt.”
“Then you can’t play.”
It was a fat piece of gum he was chewing.
“Little Robert says you could teach at our school.”
“No, I don’t teach.”
“We provide free room and board. Yes, we have a whole strip of houses.”
“Block. We have a whole block of houses. All in a row. The whole block. You sure you won’t teach? We have a class that needs a teacher in the winter quarter. The class is called How to Kill the Rich, Every Single One, No Exception, No Exception! It’s simple. There’s no reading list or anything. You can make one if you want, or not. Reading makes certain realities more evident, but it’s not a theory class. You can just get up there and start talking.”
“Kill the rich? Room and board?”
“Yes. With no strings attached, no oversight,” he said. “No more than usual.”
“No more than usual?”
“You know. No more than usual, usual meaning out here in the outside world. There’s not too much you can do to limit one’s exposure to oversight but we try. The easiest way is to follow someone directly in their footprints. I mean this metaphorically. Did you know this party for Little Robert already happened for someone else named Little Robert? That first party is a footprint, and this second party is us stepping directly into that footprint.” He got himself riled up with the footprint talk. He took a bite out of his foam cup. I realized it wasn’t gum he was chewing but bits of foam. “And I stepped into a footprint with my role in the school. And you’d be stepping into a footprint, too! And who knows how many people stepped into the footprints before us, and who knows how many will step in after us!”
“Uh huh, uh huh.”
Little Robert was coming back towards me. A woman was holding his hand. She wore a giant yellow windbreaker. They were jogging, and her hair in a ponytail bopped from one shoulder to the other with each step. He introduced us. This was his mom, he said. Not his mom yet actually but soon she would be. I knew what he was talking about. The immaculate conception thing. I couldn’t get away from it. They were going to stuff him inside her belly and then take him out again. “I’m older than they’d like but I’m hairless so that should make it easier,” he said.
I told him we should go look at the pizza options on the picnic table.
“But I’m not getting hurt,” said Little Robert. “It’s my mom who’s getting her belly cut open. All I have to do is slide in there.”
“I think you’re being a little facile,” I said.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Little Robert, that woman is not your mom.”
“Yes, she is. Her name is Roberta. I wouldn’t know her name if she wasn’t my mom, would I?”
I ate a third slice of pizza. On the box someone had written their mobile payment username asking for a three dollar contribution. Three bucks? I picked up the marker on the table, crossed out their name, and wrote my own. Little Robert ran off to join the tug-of-war game which was about to start. I called Devon. “It seems like it should be pretty easy to convince someone not to go to this school but I’m failing.”
“You’re failing?” Devon said. “The whole system is rigged to fail. There’s no one to help these kids. Who are you going to call for help? The freaking police? We’re on our own out here. Fucking Reagan! And he’s only part of it. People before and after him, too. So don’t worry about failing, that happened a long time ago. And, and, OK, that class they want you to teach sounds pretty good, but everyone can be a little bit right some of the time. They did a good job with that one but the rest of it, I don’t know…”
“Are you still on the red line?”
“Like, they get the overarching problem with the world but it’s also demented their worldview in unsettling ways. The bunghole thing, for instance, and the immaculate conception thing, you see that everywhere now… I guess that’s the only way forward, though. At least this school is organized. We’re not organized. We shouldn’t even talk.”
“Are you still on the red line? Where are you?”
“It might be OK to sacrifice some things as long as you’re with people who generally have the right idea.” What they were trying to say was that they were back at their old apartment in Keeth’s building. He had found them on the red line and traded them free rent in exchange for sitting in Beeth’s old rocking chair for two hours a day. “No moving whatsoever to emulate her paralysis, and if I do move, the clock resets.”
“And that’s like my situation with the school?”
“But in what way does Keeth have the right idea?”
“Free rent is the right idea. Not wanting to kill me is the right idea. Listen, don’t patronize me. You left. I’m just trying to fill in that gaping hole. And I don’t want to upset you, but what did you even leave me for? To be homeless?”
“I’m hardly homeless.”
“Hardly isn’t the same thing as not.”
The sky was cloudy. The air was getting cold. Good. No hot clothes for me tomorrow. Devon had to go because their two hours were about to start. Before they hung up I heard Keeth ask if they wanted anything to drink first.
“Do you have any beer?”
“Beer? Oh, no, I don’t drink beer. Anytime I want a beer I have a cup of hot tea instead.”
And they hung up.
Not a lot of partygoers left.
No, there they all were, walking towards the treeline. I followed them. Roberta. The cup-eater guy. They disappeared in between the trees. Dark cracks in a wall. I stopped just before the woods. Just me, alone now. A tug at my foot. I looked down. I was standing on a rope of knotted-together shirts. The rope led off into the woods.
“Tug-of-war time!” The cup-eater’s voice coming from the woods.
I took my foot off the rope. It snaked away a few inches, then stopped.
“Pick it up, let’s play!” A different voice this time. Maybe Little Robert’s?
“How about I get someone on my team,” I said. “Send out Little Robert, how about.”
“Only if you add your shirt to the rope!”
“I’m not going to do that.”
“No Little Robert for you, then.”
The rope snaked away.
“Wait!” I said. “Fine.”
I took off my shirt and knotted it to the end of the rope.
“OK, send him out.”
The plan was to take Little Robert, and not play tug-of-war at all. We would run away. I could see a future for the two of us, kind of, if you really shoe-horned it. I could take care of him, or I knew plenty of people who could take care of him, people who could teach him how to be blind without any of the butt stuff.
But they didn’t send him out.
Instead, a tremendous force, which I later understood to be everyone in the woods, pulled on that rope. My heels dragged. If I didn’t let go, I would be pulled straight between the trees. First I tried to get my shirt back but the tension on the rope made the knot impossibly tight. Goodbye, shirt. Goodbye, Little Robert.
Feeling miserable I walked to Kim’s house. She didn’t know I didn’t have a place to live anymore. She thought I was still living with Lucia Mongrove and Snoozin’ and Boozin’. So. I knew something she didn’t. Or, I had a secret from her. A rare feeling and I wondered how long I could keep it to myself.
She had her phone out, about to call someone.
“Who’s Stanislavski? Why is that name familiar?”
“He’s an acting coach or something.”
“He’s going to do my taxes.”
“Oh, yeah, you’re the one with all that tax debt,” I said.
She looked at me curiously.
“Yes,” she said. “I am the one with all that tax debt. Where is your shirt?”
“A mob of people took it from me,” I said. “Hey, can I ask you something?”
“I’m not really in a position to help anyone do anything, am I?” A dumb thing to say, I knew the answer, I didn’t even care about the question, here I was, wasting my sister’s time making disingenuous conversation.
“Oh, sure you are. Anyone can help anyone, there’s no prerequisite,” she said. “Hello? Mr. Stanislavski? Hello, yes. I have quite the case for you. Twenty thousand bucks in tax debt. Interested?”