Rocky Mount, NC, July 2007
People are complex.
Gideon Metzler sat on his porch, legs crossed beneath him, head tilted lopsidedly against the railing on the front stairs, thinking these words so hard he was practically mouthing them. “Pee-pul are com-puh-lex.” They felt sticky and tired in his brain, the newest in an endless series of phrases that would come and go, or sometimes not go, in and out of it like passengers on the subway downtown. They’d get stuck in his head, and his brain would pinch and prod and pulverize them until all intrinsic value was lost, leaving only the sounds they make when you say them out loud. People are complex. He didn’t like this one, wanted it out. It felt trite, obvious. Well, of course they are.
It was something Lydia Metzler, in all her Marlboro Gold, holy water wisdom, had said in passing nearly a week ago now, something she probably didn’t even remember saying. They’d been sat at the kitchen table discussing RJ DeLuca, Lydia dragging a cigarette, dull hazel eyes absently trailing her son’s hands as they picked at an apple cinnamon muffin from the Harris Teeter down the road, Gideon trying to decide whether or not to just toss it in the trash. Lydia had bought the muffins days ago and they were hard as rocks. Between bites of stale middle and crumbly topping, Gideon listened to Lydia talk about RJ. He’d been in Gideon’s brother Abe’s class, had graduated high school two years before Gideon with honors and several awards. Lydia was sure of this, because she’d remembered sitting at the ceremony and thinking how unfair it was that preppy little RJ DeLuca, all smug and faggoty, could get three different awards, and Abraham Metzler, esquire, the fruit of her blessed womb, could get none. Well, bless her soul, she figured that the school ought to put more thought into who they go around giving multiple awards to, as she’d seen on the morning news that one Raymond James DeLuca Jr. was wanted on suspicion of robbing a Shell gas station at gunpoint the previous night. That’s when she’d said it, blowing out a ghostly mist of gray smoke, still eyeing the muffin in Gideon’s hand like a starving dog:
“People are complex, Gidge.”
PEOPLE ARE COMPLEX, GIDGE.
This one was a real nuisance. It was lodged in deep, lurking in Gideon’s everyday thoughts the way the moon creeps into the afternoon sky in the summertime, unwanted, a dismal reminder that no day, regardless of how sunny, could last forever. He’d be at the store, in the shower, trying to get some fucking sleep, and it would be there, pressing, urgent, tapping incessantly against his consciousness, unwilling to be ignored. The worst part was, it didn’t even make any sense. Sometimes, he could understand why things got jammed in his head. Once, he’d been stuck with the words “back door” for a month after his father had reminded him one too many times to make sure the back door was locked before he left for school. That, he could understand. “Back door” had once been important. Another time, his eleventh grade English teacher had made him stand up and read an excerpt from a Langston Hughes poem and he’d fucked up the second line, stuttering and stumbling over it while his classmates looked away in secondhand embarrassment, avoiding his helpless, bulge-eyed staring. “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” had rotated through his head constantly for almost six weeks afterward, and sometimes still cropped out every now and then. But that, that made sense, at least. But “people are complex”. PEOPLE ARE COMPLEX. No matter how he spun it, it didn’t make any sense why it had stuck to him so stubbornly.
He had been supposed to go into work, but the heavy, swollen clouds hovering over North Carolina had prompted a call from his boss, all “god damn weather” and “no one’s coming to the fucking fair in this shit”. Mr. Elmer Coolidge – no relation to Calvin, Gideon had inquired – had been running the Rocky Mount Fair for decades. As he’d brought up countless times, he’d employed Gidge’s dad when he’d been Gidge’s age and Mr. Coolidge had been a younger, sprier man. To the subject, he’d always attach a critique of some kind. “Stevie was always a goon, like you,” or “Stevie gave away prizes to all the girls when he ran the ring toss booth,” or “Stevie couldn’t sweep up cow shit to save his life.” While these comments had seemed to bother Abe during his own time continuing the Metzler Family Legacy of working at the fair under Mr. Coolidge, Gideon found them amusing. He could picture his dad shoved into the same starchy, red and white uniform he was commissioned to wear, half-assing the big push broom through the stalls where the dairy cows were kept, or leaning over and whispering to giggling, red-faced girls that all they needed to do in order to win a teddy bear was toss the rings – it’s the name of the game, after all.
Set free by the rain of having to inhabit such daydreams, Gideon found himself faced by eight empty hours ahead of him, each of them brimming with the same three words that had been pounding a migraine into his head all week: people are complex.
Since he was little, Gideon had been quite prone to migraines. He could remember his first one in graphic detail – the kind of exaggerated, horrifying memory you have of something bad happening to you a long, long time ago, as foggy and fickle as the remnants of a nightmare you had two nights ago. He’d been on the swings in his backyard, going up as high as he could and watching the sun turn his sneakers into shadows before his eyes, twin silhouettes framed by endless October blue. The word “tangerine” had been lingering in his head ever since his Aunt Meg had used it to describe the color of a sweater he’d worn to lunch at her house, and he could remember repeating it to himself over and over again like a prayer, taking turns saying it as quickly as he could and then drawing out the syllables into long, yawning sounds. Then suddenly, as if pushed off by some malicious force, he’d been on his back in the dirt, gasping for breath, still halfway through the word “tangerine”, and his head hurt so bad he was sure he’d busted it open.
Even now, Gideon couldn’t recall falling. Only swinging and then being on the ground, half-blinded by the migraine, seeing solely a nauseating orange blur – tangerine, a god damned tangerine blur. The moment he’d gotten his breath back, he’d cried in huge, baby wails, and Abe had come running from the sandbox, dropping to his knees in the grass beside Gideon.
“What happened, Gidge?” Even then, Abe had been mature. Unnaturally so, if you asked Gideon, but it had been a benefit to crisis situations like that one, in which Abe perfectly replicated Steven Metzler’s favorite facial expression – concern, portrayed via a firm straightness of the mouth paired with a deep divot perfectly betwixt the eyebrows – and placed a hand, soft and comforting, on his brother’s shoulder.
“I’m bleeeeding,” Gideon had sobbed, flailing both hands toward his head.
“Where?” With the professionalism of a miniature doctor, Abe had inspected Gideon’s head for any sign of blood. Finding none, he’d retrieved Lydia from her kitchen outpost, leaving a chicken potpie, Abe’s favorite, half-filled on the countertop.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, there being no visible wound on Gideon other than a scraped elbow, Lydia had opted to load him, still sobbing uncontrollably, writhing in pain, into the back of the family’s 1988 Chevrolet Astro, hunter green, and had taken the beltway to the nearest Patient First, her cigarette leaving a trail of smoke in tow like a train, rickety and swerving and speeding, TANGERINETANGERINETANGERINE, and Abe had been entrusted with the sacred task of finishing dinner. From what Gideon could remember, the potpie had somehow turned out even better than usual.
What followed this frustrating, fruitless trip to the doctor were countless others, to the point where a jarring proportion of Gidge’s childhood memories were composed of sitting in the front seat of the Astro on the way to the doctor – the only times he was ever indulged the luxury of the front seat – with his mother, weaving down back roads and highways on a conquest for some new specialist, a recommendation from whatever previous one had been run dry of possible explanations. The migraines themselves could be explained with agonizing ease. Though, yes, he was on the younger side of the average sufferer of chronic migraines, it was far from unheard of and comparatively unobtrusive to manage moving forward. Inconveniently, this was where the diagnosis ceased being easy. Simple chronic migraines couldn’t be blamed for the fatigue – from the moment he woke up to the moment his head hit the pillow, he was so tired he could fall asleep standing up, and Abe had never been that way, Abe was energetic, charismatic, never cried in public for no good reason or hid his face when people spoke to him, Abe was a good boy – or the occasional fainting spell. It also didn’t account for the repetition problem. The horrible, horrible Repetition Problem.
When faced with the task of describing the Repetition Problem to a new doctor, Lydia Metzler would repeat herself with uncanny precision. Sit up straight as a pin in her chair, clasp veiny hands tightly in her lap, clench her jaw so hard that Gideon could see the outline of her skull pressing against her skin like a butterfly trying to hatch from its cocoon, and speak in a voice that was undertaker grave: “My God, he never stops.”
It was true. Before Gideon had learned to guard the things that stuck within the confines of his head, he’d narrate them endlessly like a clueless field reporter reading off a broken teleprompter, stretching and splicing every word until it was unrecognizable, driving Lydia to the brink of seeking her own prescription of chronic migraine pills. And, God help her, she’d tried everything. Bribing him with cookies so he’d shut his mouth at least while he was chewing, shooting him with the spray bottle they used to train the cat until he stopped talking for a minute or two, giving him new toys, confiscating his toys, nothing worked. She’d even resorted to the unthinkable – at this part of her homily, she would screw her eyes up and ball her hands over them, as if expelling horrific visions of her own words – and snapped one night, after a particularly hard day of working at the office of St. John the Baptist church, the only Catholic church within a twenty mile radius of the Metzler residence, the cesspool of sin and corruption Rocky Mount was. She’d beaten Gideon so bad his nose bled, and he still hadn’t stopped repeating “mommy, wow! I’m a big kid now”, a slogan he’d lifted from a Huggie’s commercial three days before, with tears in his eyes and blood running down into his mouth. No, chronic migraines couldn’t explain that. Lydia was sure of it.
Consequently, Gideon Metzler became a collector of rare and interesting diagnoses ranging from Asperger’s Syndrome to fibromyalgia to having suffered a previous pediatric stroke. This entailed a litany of medications and treatments and therapists, and while many of them left impressions and side effects, it was Gideon himself who inevitably stumbled upon the coveted cure to the Repetition Problem, the one that had evaded many of North Carolina’s best medical minds for so many months: stop doing it so Mommy won’t be angry anymore.
It took vigorous training and a level of self-discipline that was difficult to maintain, but Gidge manually installed a mental filter after nearly a year of Lydia crying every night, audibly praying to God that Gideon was alright, inaudibly praying to God that if he really was sick with something he would just start to die already and drop all the suspense, because the medical bills were piling up and her nerves were shot. Gideon could practically see the anguish in her, sharp and yellow and heavy, as physical as her hands or her teeth.
Among the endless list of things left wounded by the Repetition Problem, Gideon would realize in hindsight, was his parents’ marriage. Steven Metzler was not an easily frazzled man. In fact, Gideon couldn’t recall a time he’d seen his father get anywhere near as upset as his mother seemed to on a daily basis, not even when his own father, Jeb Metzler, had died of cancer and left everything he had to his firstborn daughter, Gidge’s Aunt Meg, leaving his three other children to simply be melancholy and move on, as was the Metzler way. The matter of his son’s mysterious illness was no different. While Lydia was busy crying and praying and spraying Gideon with the god damn cat bottle, Steve was seeking richer entertainment in the bowels of the seven news stations the TV in the living room got – eight, if you counted the communists over at Channel 5 – or within the dry, safe confines of the morning paper, unphased entirely by the chaos erupting in his own home. It would’ve been more than enough tension to make the ordinary man crack, but Steven Metzler was no ordinary man.
Taking after Jeb’s example, this sereneness, this general sense of calm was something Steven passed onto only one of his children. Abe was patient, even-tempered, complacent, all traits that Lydia praised relentlessly in her son but openly resented in her husband.
One morning, in the wake of a particularly rough night of Lydia staying awake, red-eyed and staring at the TV, Gideon planted facedown on the floor and murmuring the words “fish food isn’t person food” into the tweed carpeting, Lydia caught herself staring at Steven. Not only glancing or resting her eyes on him, but full-on staring, her eyes absorbing every wrinkle, scar, pore and hair follicle, her mouth twisted in a snarl. For the first time since she’d met Stevie Metzler at the Rocky Mount Fair in the spring of ’79, Lydia could see nothing attractive in his face. His skin was worn and shadowed by the first signs of liver spots, his mouth weak and feminine, his eyes – those eyes, that had once glittered like tiny mirrors reflecting the murky, starry blues of the night sky in June and the dizzy fluorescent lights of the ring toss booth, sparking at Lydia from under a mop of sandy hair – now looked dull and off-putting, like two dated old sconces that clashed heinously with the plaster wall behind them.
“He’s been doing that all night,” she’d said, louder than necessary, hoping to shatter the tranquil ugliness plastered over her husband’s face like a papier-mâché mask. It didn’t budge. Steve didn’t even look at her when he responded. Instead, he paused for a moment to listen to Gideon, as if only just then noticing him, and said:
“Well, he’s right, isn’t he?”
Lydia burst into tears.
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