Here’s an excerpt story from the New York-based Joseph Ferguson’s earlier short fiction collection, Southbound. Critically acclaimed, it’s a must read. The story originally appeared in Swift Kick No. 5/6, “Death and Transformation” 1987. The author submitted the opening tale, After the Crux, which focuses on one of the main characters, Basement Man, to appear as a Book Extract, exclusively for Different Truths.
Basement Man was the strangest fuck I ever met. I mean the guy looked like he just busted outa the pen, or wandered outa the mountains somewhere. He musta stood six-two, with a big, furry, crazy-lookin beard and these wild blue eyes that looked out from all that hair like a bear’s. His hands were the size of your fuckin head.
I remember the first time I met him. We was all drinkin in this local dive near the college when Jimbo comes strollin in with this guy that’s got on these big white overalls, a hat that says Kenworth Trucks on it, and a fuckin rebel flag on the shoulder of his tee-shirt.
So they sit down an Jimbo says, “This is Basement Man. He’s stayin with me, up from the city.” The city! I say to myself, on accounta he looked like he was from anywhere but. And he sits down touchin the brim of his hat and shoots us all this evil little smile across the table.
He didn’t say nothin for a while. Just sat there drinkin his beer, sorta watchin everyone. Then this college broad, Merry, she calls herself, comes over to the table. We know some of these broads cause of Jimbo. He goes to the school but he ain’t like the other punks, he’s older’n them, and he works with us.
Anyway, Jimbo introduces this guy Basement Man an this chick asks him if he goes to school here. Christ! Ya shoulda seen them crazy eyes light up like a pinball machine, an he sorta tilts his head to one side an gives her a look that’d wilt a rock, sayin, “Do I look like I go to school here? I’m from Alabama!” Then he shakes his head like he’s puttin up with the stupidest shit in the world and downs the rest of his beer. Everyone at the table is laughin like crazy, cept, of course, this Merry broad, an Basement Man, who’s sittin there starin at the wood, shakin his head with this silly lookin smirk that’s half-frown an half-smile, an he’s sorta spinnin his beer around slowly by the handle.
Meanwhile, the bimbo’s lookin from one face to the other tryin ta figure out what’s so funny, an finally realizes the joke’s on her, an gets up an storms back to the table she come from. An I see her tellin this hippie that’s there what happened. And when he looks over at us Basement Man gives him a big toothy smile that he turns into a sneer, and the guy looks away. So, Basement Man starts yellin, “That’s right, spider, don’t EVEN mess with THE ACE, motherfucker!” makin the whole joint stop what they was doin to look at him.
After that he got more talkative. Started tellin all these crazy stories, with a straight face, like you was supposed to believe them. Like about this dog that he used to go drinkin with an could drive his car when he got too drunk to. Or the time him an this other guy is drunk an comin down a mountain with no brakes an they come to a turn that they know they ain’t gonna make so they have ta jump for it, but this other guy won’t go until he finishes the last sip of the beer he’s drinkin, and when he does he jumps out in mid-air and starts flappin his arms so that he don’t fall an he does it so fast that he actually makes it to a tree that’s hangin over the edge, an the only reason he got hurt at all was because after he was already sittin in the tree he went to pull another beer outa his pocket an dropped it, then fell outa the tree reachin for it and broke his legs.
At first, everyone was tellin stories in turn, but after awhile everbody stopped an just listened to his, cause they was so fucked up, so that when all of a sudden, he stopped talkin, everything went quiet.
No one wanted ta say anything, so we all just sorta sat there not lookin at each other.
It was real weird. I guess we all expected Basement Man to start up again. But he wasn’t sayin nothin. Just sittin there all clammed up starin inta his beer. It was funny the way he done it too, his face all serious-lookin, like he was pissed off at the world, or himself. Just watchin the bubbles in his beer race to the top, like he was watchin his life flash before him or somethin. When he sees that I’m starin at him he turns to me an says, real quiet an serious, pointin at the bubbles, “They always try to escape by gettin to the top. Otherwise there ain’t no place for them to go but down,” an he picks up the glass and pours it down his throat, lettin it spill down the sides of his face and all over his clothes.
That got me thinkin all night about what a strange fuck he was. I mean at first, I just figured he was crazy like the rest of us, only more so. But the way his moods’d change like that, all of a sudden, it seemed like there was more to it, only I couldn’t figure what. He’d always change like that. An you could never say when it was gonna happen . . . like that same night, right after he said that shit about the bubbles, he got rowdy as hell an started causin all kinds a trouble.
That was the first time I met him. After that, he’d be in the bar every night. . . an I guess all day too, cause he wasn’t workin an he’d always be in there with half a glow on when we got there after work.
But even when he wasn’t in the bar all day, he was drinkin. One day, when they let us off work early, on accounta there was nothin ta do, an we was headed for the bar ta start drinkin, he pulls up in that white Volkswagen of his, stops right in the middle of the road, blockin traffic an everything, gets out wearin that big crazy smile, with a bottle of port in one hand and a bottle of Ripple in the other. “Where you boys headed?” he says. When we tell him we’re headed for the bar ta put down some beers, he laughs at us, sayin we should drink like men an put on a foundation before goin into the bar. “Drinkin without primin is like drivin without insurance,” he tells us.
So we get into his car an head for the liquor store. He’s sittin up there drivin an sippin at his wine an goin on like some kinda philosopher or somethin, sayin that, “The prime purpose in life, boys, is to get to the top. It is therefore our duty, I repeat, DUTY, to do everything in our power to get there. This pinnacle can never be obtained by mere beer. We must prime all the time and leave the ground far behind.” Then he turns to me and points at the Ripple, “See;” he says, “bubbles again. If ya catch them just right, ya can rise up with em . . . and worry about the other half tomorrow.”
At the liquor store everyone got themselves some wine an Basement Man got himself some more. So he’s the last in line, an everybody’s waitin for him, an the lady tells him, “Three dollars.” “Not enough!” he says, shakin his head the way he does. The lady probably thought she hadn’t heard him right an asks him, “What?” “Not enough!” he yells, “I want to pay more!” He’s got his face all screwed up mean, an believe me he could look mean, an the lady’s gettin all flustered an starts wavin her hands around like she don’t know what ta do with em, an Basement Man just starin her right in the face with that crazy look of his. Then, all of a sudden, he breaks into a smile. It was a big, phony-lookin smile, like ya see crazy people have in the movies just before they kill someone with an axe or somethin, an gives her the money, sayin, “Ya’ll have a good day now, ya heah.” Then he pushes through all of us, still standin there starin at the counter, an he says, “Come on boys, we got some drinkin ta do.”
So after we was drivin around for awhile in town, lookin for broads an shit, we decided ta take a spin out ta the mountains. On the way, there was this whole shitload of dead birds splattered all over the road, an Basement Man starts pointin at em sayin, “Look at them stupid motherfuckers! Tryin ta crawl across the fuckin street like they was rats or some shit. See where it got the stupid fucks? Them cocksuckers are BIRDS! All they had ta do was fly the fuck across!” Then he stops the car right in the middle of them an rolls down the window an starts yellin, “That’ll teach ya’s ta walk, ya stupid fucking assholes!” Then he slams it into first, peelin out on the slick guts an shit, an shakes his head the way he does, like he’s try in ta figure somethin that was way beyond him.
When we got to the mountains Basement Man pulled off at one a them spots where ya can see for miles around. So everyone plants himself down on a rock or somethin an we’re all drinkin our wine, an Jimbo breaks out some joints an starts passin them around, an everybody’s just bullshittin an enjoyin the day. An Basement Man starts tellin us some shit about this car he used ta have that would never stay where he parked it an had a mind of its own, cause he’d always put it in front of this house he lived in that was at the bottom of this steep hill that was a real pain in the ass ta walk up, cept there was no reason ta walk up it anyway, cept that every time he’d come out he’d find the car way the fuck on top of the hill, and a couple of times, he said, when he started it up, he coulda swore the thing was laughin at him.
An that reminded Welfare Mike about some haunted house he said he use to live in, so he started goin on about that, but Mike don’t make much sense on accounta he messed up his brain from drinkin so much, an ya just gotta sorta nod at the right places until he gets tired of talkin. But I guess Basement Man didn’t want to put up with it at all, an he made a weird face behind Mike’s back and walked away by himself to stare at the cliffs.
It was a long time since Mike had finished babblin an gone inta a sorta trance like he does, an I noticed Basement Man is still standin by himself, starin up at the cliffs. So I walked over to him an ask what he was lookin at, an he says, “Look at that guy,” an points ta the side of the cliff. “What guy?” I say at first, but then notice him too, a speck on the side of the mountain, like a fly crawlin up the side of a house. “Holy shit!” I say, then I see there’s another one there, so I tell him, “Look, there’s two guys,” an he says, “Yeah. The other guy’s holdin the rope for him in case he falls, then when the first guy gets to the top, the other one’ll go up.” So I say they must be crazy to do somethin like that, an I figured Basement Man’id have somethin funny ta say about it cause he’s always insultin everything, but he turns to me an says, “Yeah, but look at them fuckers up there, higher than a motherfucker, an all they got is their hands an feet ta hold em an keep em goin higher.” Then Jimbo wanders over to us an sees what we’re lookin at an starts sayin that he’s got five bucks says the guy won’t make it. And it looked like a crazy bet to take, cause the guy was out on the edge of this big piece of rock that’s stickin out, an he didn’t look like he was managin too well. But Basement Man took the bet, sayin it sounded fair enough. So finally, the rest of the boys begins ta wonder what all the excitement’s about and they come over, an everybody starts talkin about whether the guy’s gonna fall or not, givin all kinds of reasons like they knew what they was talkin about. But Basement Man wasn’t sayin nothin. Just stood there watchin, not even rememberin ta take a sip outa his wine.
It seemed like forever the guy was stuck on that thing, like he was too scared ta move. But finally he starts goin and . . . bing, he’s over it, an Basement Man just clenches his fist and says, “All right motherfucker, go for it . . . you got it!” An it looked like he was gonna win his five, cause the rest of the way up looked like a piece of cake, compared to what he just done, but all of a sudden his foot slips, or somethin, and. . . whammo, the next thing ya know he’s danglin at the end of the rope. “Shit!” Ya coulda heard Basement Man cursin for miles. “The stupid motherfucker! He fuckin had it!” He’s goin, “What the fuck is the matter with him?”
So he hasta give Jimbo the five bucks an he never stops cursin an swearin for an hour or so, until we get back into the car an was headed down again. Then, when we’re comin inta this real hairy turn, an he’s downshiftin inta second, he turns his head with that Basement Man grin on his puss an says, “One thing’s for sure anyway, that motherfucker’s probably twice as pissed off as me.” Just then, as he says this, an we pull outa the turn, there’s this guy walkin down the side of the road, kinda half walkin, half hitchin. So Basement Man starts slowin down, an I figured he was gonna stop an pitch garbage at the guy, or tell him his mother’s a whore or somethin, cause it seemed like somethin he’d do, but when we get in alongside him, Basement Man tells him ta see if he can squeeze in anywhere. I’m sittin in the back seat, so I never really got a good look at the guy, but first, I see this pile of hardware an ropes an shit comin in through the door, an then this guy, who ain’t no fuckin midget, an I think, “What the fuck is Basement Man picking up this stupid fuck for? I mean it ain’t no arena back here with me an Welfare Mike.” But then, when the guy gets in, I notice somethin familiar about his clothes, an then I realize that all this crap must be for climbin, an then I know w”y Basement Man picked him up, on accounta he’s the guy him an Jimbo had the money ridin on.
So right away Basement Man starts in on him. “Ya know, I lost five bucks on you, ya cocksucker.” An I can feel the guy tense up next ta me, wonderin what the fuck he got himself into, an Basement Man looks back at him with that crazy smile of his, which I don’t think reassured the guy too much. “What the fuck happened up there? Looked like you had it made.” An the guy don’t answer nothin for awhile, I guess he couldn’t figure out what he was talkin about, but then I guess he does, cause he waves his hand like he’s disgusted an says that after he got by the crux he got too fuckin cocky an wasn’t payin no attention ta what he was doin. “What’s this crust shit?” I think to myself, but Basement Man asks him what’s it rated, an the guy tells him five tens or some such nonsense, an all the time Basement Man’s talkin with him like this, like he knows what he’s talkin about. That was another thing about him, he knew a lot of shit. Stuff ya wouldn’t figure a guy like him’d know. Jimbo said one time that he was graduated from college, but I don’t know. . . I just can’t picture it. But anyway, he sure knew what this guy was talkin about cause they start goin on ta each other about stitchin plates, an carryin beans an all kindsa other shit that didn’t make no sense. I was pretty smashed by then anyway, so it’s hard to remember exactly what they was sayin, but they both seemed ta agree that it was a bitch that he got past this crux thing so nice an then fucked up, but that was how things always went an it got boring listenin ta them anyway, so me an Jimbo started bullshittin about how we gotta go to work the next day an how that sucks an everything, when I hear the climber ask Basement Man if he climbed. “Climbs!” I felt like sayin, cause, judgin by the amounta cheap wine I seen him put away, the only thing he could climb is the wall from the DTs, so when he tells the guy that he used to when he was younger, I didn’t know if he was bullshittin or not. But how else would he have known all that shit?
Basement Man tells the guy that he’d like ta try it again but he was never really that good when he did do it, an didn’t know anyone’d take him up anyway. So this guy tells him that he’d take him up one of the easy climbs but that he ain’t gonna be around for the next coupla weeks. Basement Man starts rubbin his beard an mumblin, “Two weeks, huh?” Then he finally tells him okay, and the guy asks him if he works during the week, an Basement Man tells him no, he’s on the Gravy Train, meanin he’s collectin unemployment. So the guy says good, ta meet him up at the overlook the Tuesday after next, but that he’s gotta come early in the mornin cause he wants ta get finished an do some hard climbs in the afternoon. So they shake on it an everything, an I still couldn’t figure out if Basement Man was pullin this guy’s leg or not.
So when we finally get back into town an the climber gets out, I ask Basement Man if he’s really gonna go climb with the guy or if he’s just fuckin him over. So Basement Man smiles an looks over his shoulder at us all an downs the rest of his wine sayin, “Boys, let’s get fucked up tonight, cause tomorrow the Ace is goin on the wagon.” We all start laughin, figurin he’s shittin us, but then he says, like he was thinkin out loud an don’t even hear us all laughin at him, “Yup . . . Two weeks should be just about right ta get rid a the shakes an the little green men . . . Ain’t no way I’d go the fuck up there with the fuckin Ts.”
That night we all got fucked to shit. Basement Man and Jimbo got into a beer fight in the middle of the fuckin bar an was splashing beer over everybody in the place tryin ta get each other. So finally they’re standin in fronta the bar, circlin each other like wild animals or somethin, an they both got a full mug a beer. An Jimbo jumps up onta the bar, an Basement Man, lookin up at him, knows he’s gotta make his move now, so he heaves the beer at Jimbo, but the glass flies outa his hand. Jimbo ducks, but there’s this big motherfuckin mirror in back of the bar, an Basement Man’s face kinda drops when he sees what’s gonna happen, an he just stands there lookin in the mirror with this dumb look on his face, watchin the mug smash into his own head in the glass.
Next thing we know there’s about ten bouncers comin at us from all over the place, like they was comin outa the walls. We all make it out the door an take off in different directions. I didn’t see where no one else was goin cause I was runnin too fast, but Basement Man musta gone the same way, cause I ran inta him in this little patch a woods I was hidin in between a couple apartment buildings. Man . . . he comes strollin up ta me, an, I’ll tell ya, when I lit outa that bar I didn’t even stop ta grab my coat, but fuckin Basement Man comes walkin up ta me with a fuckin pitcher of beer in his hand, givin me that evil little smile a his sayin, “Figured all that runnin id get me thirsty so I grabbed this on the way out.”
So we sat there drinkin in the woods by this stream that Basement Man kept tryin ta piss across every time he’d get up ta take a leak. An we’re both really polluted, an he points up at this star that’s shinin through the trees an says ta me, “Looks like you could touch the sucker, don’t it?” An I say, yeah, an he asks me what I think’d happen if ya did touch it, an I say, I don’t know, an he says, “Ya’d burn the fuck up, is what.” An we both start laughin like crazy an rollin around on the ground, an I can’t stop cause I’m so fucked up I don’t even know what the fuck I’m laughin about anyway. But Basement Man stops, all of a sudden, the way he does, an says, “But if ya could grab onta it, an hung up there burnin, people could look up an see ya lightin up the whole sky, an they’d know ya made it.” Then he gives me that crazy smile, so I don’t know if he’s serious or fuckin with me, an he gets up and pisses again.
I never saw much of him for the next two weeks. I met him one day when I was sittin in the bar havin a few beers after work. He was comin down the street an I spotted him through the window, so I ran outside ta catch him. I ask him how he’s doin an what he’s been up to since the other night, an he says ta me that he’s been playin host to a bunch of demons that’s been visitin him, an when he ain’t doin that, he says, he’s been starin at his feet a lot, an tryin ta see if he can keep em still for more than five seconds at a time.
Sounds pretty bad, I tell him, but he says that he feels better now an thinks he should be ready for the big day next week. So I told him that I had ta quit the booze one time for two weeks on account a I had the clap an had ta take this medicine that they said wouldn’t do nothin if I drank with it, so I knew how bad it could get, but that the first week was the worst. “Yup,” he says, “I got it by the balls now.”
Every night Jimbo’d come in bitchin about how livin with him was like livin with a fuckin priest, sayin that all he’s doin is walkin around talkin about how he can’t believe how good he feels just from not drinkin an how he should try it sometime himself, an that he’s always fuckin workin out an takin vitamins an shit. “The way he’s fuckin actin,” he says, “ya’d think he’d been off the fuckin bottle for years and was makin’ fifty G’s a year on accounta it.”
A coupla days, while I was out workin on the roads, I saw him out runnin, wearin them shorts an everything like ya see them hippies doin, an he didn’t even stop ta say hello or nothin, an me there workin, lookin for an excuse ta stop for a minute. He just runs past an give a little nod like he hardly knows me. Christ, I think ta myself, if that’s what happens ta ya when ya sober up, then they can keep it.
It wasn’t till the next Monday night, the day before he was supposed ta go meet that climber guy, that I saw him. We was all sittin around in the bar havin a couple a beers after work, an the last person we expected ta see was him. All of a sudden he comes strollin in with this big grin on his face, like I never seen him with before, an he comes over an sits down with us. Nobody really knows what ta say ta him, an we’re all kinda lookin at each other, cause he wasn’t Basement Man no more, sittin there grinnin like a fool an not touchin a drop, talkin about how good he feels an how it wasn’t really that hard ta quit, an how he doesn’t really miss it, makin it sound like we wasn’t good enough ta hang around with him or somethin.
So finally, Jimbo, who, I guess was pretty fed up with this by now, livin with him an all, says, “I guess now that you don’t drink anymore you can’t be the Basement Man. Whata ya gonna call yourself now, Attic Man?” An Basement Man says, real obnoxious, like I never heard him talk before, “The Basement Man WAS the Addict Man, BUT, the Attic Man is the Upstairs Man,” an he points to his head.
“Well,” says Jimbo, “since the Attic Man ain’t the Addict Man no more, how about a short one for old time’s sake? . . .Otherwise, you’ll never really know,” an Jimbo smiles at him the same kinda smile ya used ta see Basement Man wearing.
Basement Man hedges, shufflin his feet an getting that lost look like he was tryin ta contemplate somethin nobody else could know about, an Jimbo says, “If you were a MAN you’d at least check it out.”
An Basement Man looks up with some of that old craziness gleamin out a them blue eyes and the dumb grin startin to twist up into its old form, “Boy,” he says, pointin his finger in Jimbo’s face, “no one challenges THE ACE.”
So he pours himself a glass an drinks it down, smackin his lips real loud. “What kinda beer is this?” he says, lookin at me. So I tell him it’s the same shit they always sell here, an I ask him, why? “It tastes good,” he tells me. So Jimbo smiles at him an tells him that it don’t taste no different ta him, an Basement Man gives him a look like he’s sayin, “Yeah?” An then says that maybe he better give it another taste cause he coulda swore it tasted good, an he gives us that old smile of his, like we was all in on some kinda joke or somethin, an I couldn’t help wonderin if he had planned this entire thing right down to Jimbo’s reaction, an Jimbo gives me a wink an Basement Man pours himself another one an starts tellin us about this game him an the boys used ta play called Brickshit, where one guy’d get in the middle of a circle blindfolded an everyone else’d throw bricks at him, an he’d have ta guess who it was that hit him, sayin that it was a man’s game and if ya couldn’t take it, ya had no business tryin ta pretend you were a man, an he kept pourin himself beers, puttin down practically a pitcher to everyone else’s glass.
So, at around eleven o’clock, we all decide ta head home on accounta we all gotta get up in the mornin for work, an I say to Basement Man that he’s gotta get up too, but he says that he don’t think he’s gonna make it anyway, so he might as well just stay an watch the show. So I ask him what show he’s talkin about, an he points to the bottom of the pitcher and follows the bubbles up with his finger, an gives me that Basement Man smile.
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Joseph Ferguson, author, poet, and journalist, appears in various publications, and wrote propaganda some 25 years. His books include short story collections – Southbound, and Shillelagh Law, and a spoof of “how-to-get-a-job” books, Dave Doolittle’s Resumes That Work, So You Don’t Have To. He is a former editor and critic for Hudson Valley, ran the Fiction Workshop for the Poughkeepsie Library, and has reviewed books for Climbing, The American Book Review, and other publications.