Alec Osthoff — “The Tomb of the Pharaoh”

Caleb’s kitchen table is covered in penises. There must be hundreds of them. Some are inked in red, some in blue, some are carved. A few notable specimens are bordered with glitter. They are almost all flaccid and uncircumcised—so crammed together they look like fish scales. No matter where you sit, there is at least one wrangling member pointed at you.

The tenants of the house claim the dicks came with the table. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, though some of these guys have the knack for sketching a quick erection on benches or bathroom stalls. My question is: who steals a table with a battalion of dicks drawn on it? These guys, apparently. Not only that, but they were willing drag this exhibit of preteen expressionism all the way from south Powderhorn. It must have been fifteen miles roundtrip. This kid, Julius, bragged that it took them two days to carry it home. They slept on it in the middle of the sidewalk so no one would steal it during the night. I asked him who could possibly want to steal the thing, and he said, “Well, we stole it. Didn’t we?”

Caleb and the rest of his friends suffer from the delusion that all the men in the world wants to be just like them. They’re convinced that every night the executives from Wells Fargo and what-have-you drive home and become restless because they’ve never thrown a brick through a window, or spray painted “GOD HATES ANTS” on the back of a bus. I’m excused from this rule because I have a uterus, which is an awfully enlightened perspective for them to take.

Julius isn’t his real name. They all go by pseudonyms. Caleb says it’s like getting a saint’s name for confirmation, except you can change it whenever you want. Currently the hard-on of the week is pointed at Ancient Rome. Caleb is going by Caligula, but I still call him Caleb because I think this nickname bullshit is fucking bananas. They all put up with me calling him by his civilian name, but when they say “Caligula” in conversation they all look at me like I’m pronouncing it wrong. I don’t know anyone else’s real name, but I refuse to call them by their aliases because I’m not in a comic book. One boy corrects me after I call him “you over there” by saying, “My name is Nero. Nero. Like the emperor who let Rome burn down.”

I say, “Hi. I’m Grace. Like Will and Grace, or a hundred thousand other people with that name.”

Nero is perched on a ladder next to a column of phonebooks. Four of these columns act as crutches for the sagging roof. The roof sags because of what must have been an orgy of destruction when they knocked down the interior walls of their house. Caleb was the only member of the crew who thought about the structural repercussions of this “elimination of needless privacy,” but he didn’t have the heart to tell them to stop. He’d already stolen all of the phonebooks in the neighborhood a month prior when the city had delivered the updated edition. He claims it’s because people should be discouraged from using the phone, but really it’s because he likes to steal shit. He always has. When we were kids he’d sometimes bring me Ziploc bags full of Steel Reserve Two-Eleven, or some other malt he’d lifted. And I’d be grateful I’d scored anything, and that I had a cool younger brother who’d help me out, but I’d also ask him why he couldn’t steal a red wine, or anything that was at least a full step up from gutter piss. He never could steal anything worth anything. He probably still can’t.

He already had the phonebooks piled in the yard soaking up rain, so it was just a matter of moving them inside. The roof more or less settled itself. They were a few feet short on phonebooks, so everyone had to donate a novel or two to the relief effort. Nero is perched on the ladder so he can read his copy of Atlas Shrugged, which is part of the southwestern crutch. Without the novel, there is a two-inch gap between the column and the ceiling. I keep imagining that the roof is going to choose this moment to buckle, that those two inches of space on the fourth pylon are what will bring the roof down on us. I take a pull from the bottle of wine on the table. The bottle belongs to what was once an expensive chardonnay, but the contents have been replaced with a much cheaper red wine, probably MD Twenty-Twenty. Generally Caleb would do without the bourgeois bottle, but he wants to make me feel at home. At a certain point he had to stop giving it to me in Ziplocs. I’m still his sister, but I’m also a guest now. I decide not to tell Caleb that chardonnay is a white wine. I’ll let him think he’s being a good host.

The handful of AA meetings I’ve gone to have taught me that one of the best cures for alcoholism is to stare at a wall until you don’t feel like drinking anymore. They call it meditating to make it sound less stupid. You just wait until you aren’t thirsty, until the party leaves, until you’re too hungry to drink. Because of this, I am unspeakably grateful that I’ll never be an alcoholic.

Every so often a series of shrill beeps cuts through the air. It’s pretty annoying, so I say, “Hey, you over there.”

He corrects me. “It’s still Nero.”

“Sure, what’s that beeping? I think it’s telling me to kill the humans.”

He waits for another clump to come along. Then he nods in recognition and says, “Monoxide detector is low on batteries.”

Now it makes sense. Somewhere in the house a potentially lifesaving device is being neglected, and it resents it. So it marches out this ponderous staccato rhythm that in Morse Code would read “s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-” like the hiss of a punctured gas pipe. I stare at my hands resting on the table, try to keep the wine out of my vision, but all I see are the dicks. They wrap around one another, forming a solid wall of proboscises. I try to see the tabletop as having a unified design, but all I can see is one penis, then another penis, then another. The detector nudges me in the ribs to remind me that I’m inhaling poisonous gas. The room gets smaller as the roof moves imperceptibly down, down, just waiting to come into our laps.

The wine doesn’t help me shake the nerves, and it’s awful stuff. The worst I’ve had since I turned sixteen.

Nero laughs, says, “This Rand chick sure is a kooky bitch,” but I don’t reply because I’m already walking out the door.

We’re having one of those Minnesotan days that make us think spring has arrived for good. The snow has almost all melted. The yard gives off the smell of churned mud. The earthy tones mix with the stink of barbequed rot pouring out of a charcoal grill in Caleb’s yard. Yesterday this kid Cassius pulled a dying carp out of the Mississippi with his bare hands, screaming “Carpe carp! Carpe carp!” and ever since it has sat under the front porch waiting for him to cook it. Now it’s laid out over the coals, unskinned and unwashed, ruining the whole neighborhood with its smell. Cassius turns the fish over with a rock and Caleb says, “You can’t eat carp, man. They’re bottom feeders. They live off shit and dead things.” But Cassius just keeps smiling, and says, “A real man can eat anything. You hear I didn’t even need a pole to catch it?”

It’s the perfect train wreck. All alcoholics should have a Cassius to watch. I hardly even notice the smell until Caleb grabs my attention. He wants me to see this book of poems he bought from one of the neighborhood punks. The first one reads:

I am an electric joke
plug me in you will laugh
ain’t a vibrator
also not a bird
buzz zoop-ba-di buzz
HAHAHAHA

“Caleb, what the fuck is this?”

He laughs the way he has always laughed, says, “Yeah, they’re out there. Pretty much all like that.”

Un-fucking-believable. “How much did you pay for that?”

He doesn’t answer me. He’s watching Cassius make a mess of his neighborhood, no longer feeling the homeowner’s instinct that should tell him to put a stop to the shenanigans. He bought the house when he was even more of a kid than he is now, and he had these big dreams about how he was going to fix it up. It’d been skirted by a massive tornado— one of those freak incidents that aren’t supposed to happen outside of the Old Testament. The pressure broke all of the windows. Most of the shingles flew off. It was in the process of being condemned when he bought it. He promised some city inspector he’d get up to code in the next sixty days. He tried at first. He replaced some of the windows, stapled plastic sheets and insulation over the ones he didn’t get to. But that was two years ago, and he’s been living on borrowed time and government negligence ever since.

He’s still smiling when he slaps me on the shoulder and says, “Wanna go grab a bite to eat?”

I nod. We start walking towards the Holiday gas station a few blocks down. I’ve been slipping off to it a few times a day since I arrived here almost a week ago for a quick meal, or so I can change my tampons without an audience. At the edge of the yard I see Constantinius II trying to teach Valens how to trick a padlock with a cut up pop can. It’s a pretty simple move, but Valens is a god damned drip, so he can’t seem to get the hang of it. I’m tempted to step in and show him how it’s done, but no one likes a showoff.

Caleb never asks me what I’m doing at his house, or in Minneapolis for that matter, either because he wants me to have my privacy or because he doesn’t care. But his home is a halfway house for fuckups and morons, so I’m sure he can put two and two together. Instead, he halfheartedly feigns a semblance of normality whenever I’m around. He doesn’t care about poetry, but he thinks I do, and he wants to trick me into thinking that his lifestyle has culture.

He puts his hand on my shoulder, massages it once. Passersby must think we’re a bizarre looking couple. There’s an alchemy symbol tattooed to his hand, a relic from when he dated Rachel (she pronounced it Raquel) who worshipped trees, and goat people, and shit like that. She said the tattoo would help him find ghosts. I don’t know if he’s ever had any success, so I ask, “Has that tattoo ever shown you anything?”

He smiles down at me. “Nah. I think you have to believe in ghosts for that to work.”

“Why’d you get it if you don’t believe in them?”

He shrugs, “Inertia.” We walk a few paces before he says, “I really just wanted to fuck something.”

I elbow him in the ribs. He’s still a scrawny punk. He hasn’t put on any muscle since he turned eleven. We’re both smiling now because we’re siblings and we’re both horny and lonely for people we aren’t related to. I say, “So if you don’t believe in ghosts, what are you looking for in those abandoned buildings?”

“Atlantis,” he says, “I’m looking for Atlantis.”

I’m glad no one is around to hear him say this. It’s hard to see why the others look up to Caleb. Sure, he’s the only one among them who can hold onto a job, but he’s far from inspirational. “Well you’re looking in the wrong spot, Mr. Caligula. Atlantis is underwater.”

He looks off down the railroad tracks as we cross them and says, “They’ve sounded the ocean, and it isn’t there. Now we have to start looking for it on land.”

I always feel bad about trivializing his stupid fantasies, so I try to turn the metaphor, and say, “I bet you’re looking for the pharaoh’s tomb.”

He winks at me. If I had a photo of him smiling and winking, I could sell it to the Walker Art Center. They’d call it ironic. He says, “I thought the pharaohs lived in Egypt.”

“They’ve found all the ones in Egypt, smartass.”

“Well, what were these long lost pharaohs doing in Minneapolis?”

I look back at the grain elevators and depots along the tracks we just crossed for inspiration. I know that Caleb has been inside them all. I draw a blank, so I rely on my go to response. “Following Mormon Jesus.”

Caleb laughs, “Right, along with wooly mammoths, Amelia Earhart, and the soulful songs of the seventies.”

“Exactly, the pharaohs just got tired and decided to stop here.”

When we enter the store Caleb asks the woman at the register to let him see one of the Hustler magazines they keep behind the counter. While her back is turned he steals three Nut Goodies from the rack. I don’t see him do this, but I know from routine that it is happening. He’s done it every day this week. We’re up to our necks in Nut Goodies.

I step into the bathroom. A woman is changing her baby boy. They’re both screaming because he is covered in his own shit again. She composes herself when I open the door, but he goes right on screaming. She says, “Don’t have kids,” and I smile because I have nothing to say to this. I sit in the stall, pants still on, just relishing the normalcy of the situation, perfectly content to see people being people without senseless destruction and make-believe notions. The stink of the bathroom brings me relief— the scent of sweet chemicals trying to combat how disgusting we humans can be; it gives the illusion of attempted cleanliness, and I’d forgotten how much I’d missed that.

When I step outside Caleb is waiting for me by the Holiday sign, listening to a bum tell him about how at the end of the world everything will turn into pillars of salt except for his hometown of Plato, Missouri. He listens with rapt attention. Bums are always telling Caleb shit, but never asking him for money. Caleb asks him if Plato is a nice town, and the bum says, “It’s a shithole, man. An absolute fucking shithole.”

I flag Caleb over, and he says, “Find any Egyptians in there?”

“Nah, just the usual.”

The bum shouts to Caleb that he should “slow down for love.” Caleb salutes him. He turns back to me and says, “Where do you think it all went? The stuff besides the pharaohs, I mean.”

I say, “It just kept going. It kept going until it found out it wasn’t anywhere anymore.”

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“Sometimes we have no way of knowing how much we mean to someone.” That’s what mom told me after Mark and I broke up. It’s one of her more choice clichés. When I told Caleb about it he laughed. Mom and Caleb don’t talk. She’s convinced that he’s a drug dealer, which he isn’t. But she’ll call me every now and again because she’s convinced I’m a screw-up.

Back at the house the boys are gearing up for war. Tiberius suggested they break into the abandoned St. Paul Island Power Station. There’s a rumor going around that some business mogul wants to convert the place into condominiums. The guys have made it their holy mission to spray-paint penises over the brickwork and smash the windows before the construction crew moves in. There’s a mad dash to pick up flashlights, lighters, lengths of rope. Tiberius grabs a hatchet and whoops like an Indian chief from a nineteen-fifties cowboy flick as he flails across the yard, missing knees and necks by a margin of inches. You wouldn’t know they were sober by looking at them.

Caleb watches this ocean of drifters ransack his house for anything that could remove a bolt or shatter a window. He smiles at them as they turn his possessions inside out. He asks me again if I’m sure I want to go with them. Breaking and entering goes on your permanent record. I say, “If I don’t go with you, you’ll keep all the pharaoh’s treasure for yourself.”

Caleb herds us onto the sixty-one crosstown bus like we’re in elementary school. We pile in with our crowbars and leather gloves, and I move towards the back of the bus in silence while trying to avoid eye contact with the other passengers. Their looks remind me that we aren’t children, that we are a nuisance, that we should have better things to do. I’m recently unemployed and living in a house with no walls. What are we doing? The sixty-one travels about as fast as I jog, so it takes us almost an hour to get to St. Paul. It gives me plenty of time to wonder whether or not Caleb put me in this position on purpose.

It’s a short walk from where the bus drops us off to the plant. Cassius leads us through the dense woods along the riverbank. The boys charge after gangs of wild turkeys in the underbrush. We tromp through homeless squats, both vacant and occupied. Sometimes the vagrants ask for cigarettes; one asks to see my tits, but we leave them all disappointed. When the plant finally comes into view, it comes as a bastion of sanity in the jungle. It comes as civilization.

The doors and windows have been boarded over with thick lumber and “No Trespassing” signs, but Nero leads us to a basement window by the riverside that he managed to saw open earlier in the week. He’d been on an expedition to spray-paint “BONER” down the length of the smokestack. We clamber into the basement one at a time. I go in last except for Caleb. By the time we’re in the others are already bored, playing with their flashlights and making ghost noises.

The basement is frigid. With the exception of the hole we crawled through, it is completely bricked in, and winter is still living here. I feel like I’m submerged in soil, breathing in the dirt as though it were oxygen. The air feels cleaner than outside, even though I know there is asbestos in it. It’s like walking on the moon, the bottom of the ocean, like nowhere I have ever been.

A flight of stairs leads up to the main floor of the plant. The boys rush to see who can get to the top first. Caleb and I wait for the others to clear out before moving up. By the time we get there Julius is already perched on a set of aging scaffolding that once held up the plant’s catwalks. The windows are only boarded up for the first twenty vertical feet, above the intact glass lets the sunset in. My childhood attendance of Catholic mass compels me to fall silent as I enter the room, which stretches for a hundred feet in every direction. Caleb’s friends have no such compulsion. They swing their crowbars against the brickwork, hoping they’ll bring the building down. Valens chases two pigeons away from the corpse of a cat. He picks it up and looks for a conspicuous place to put it, shouting something about curiosity.

Cassius finds the guts of a podium microphone and throws them up to Julius on the scaffolding, yelling, “Speech. Speech.” This becomes a chant until all of the boys are caught up in the fever, and Julius yells, “Brothers and sisters—”

I can hear the earth move. I feel the grains eroding from the brick that will bring the walls down. “A reading from Leviticus, chapter eleven, verse fifty-two.” Each boy cheers something different. Huzzah. Hallelujah. Thanks be to God. Mercy, please. “Jesus of Navarro came to the village of Judea with his disciples on the twelfth day of the ninth month.”

I’ve never been so thirsty in my life. I no longer want to be here. “It was here that he came upon an adulteress.” Lord have mercy. Crucify her. “And the elders of the village said, ‘We must throw rocks at her until she is dead, as the scripture commands.’” Thanks be to rocks.

I wasn’t even this thirsty after Mark left and I quit going to the meetings he thought were necessary. “But Jesus bent down, and started drawing figures in the dirt.” What’d he draw? Sing it brother.

Although, I was pretty thirsty then.

“So they said again, ‘Jesus of Navarro, we must throw rocks at this woman until she is dead.’” Sing it again. Keep singin’ brother. I always sympathized with the woman in this story. I’d sleep around too if I lived in the middle of the desert where there was nothing else to do.

One of the last times Mark and I had sex it felt like the sun had risen inside of me. “And Jesus said, ‘Let those of us who are without sin throw the first stone.’” Play your old stuff. I don’t remember thanking him, but I must have, because I remember him rolling over and saying, “You don’t have to thank me. Really, I like this too.” Then I must have told him that I wanted to thank him anyway, because he said, “I mean it. Don’t do that.”

“And one by one the men walked home. They saw they weren’t going to be throwing any rocks that day.” Thanks be to rocks. And sometimes, that’s all it takes. I faked it for a few weeks, but I don’t think it fooled him at all. Julius, let us see your muscles. Then he took my keys and I left Chicago. It’s just that simple.

“And Jesus bent back to the dirt, picked up a rock, and chucked it at her,” BAM! “Right in the fucking eye.” This room is getting smaller. I can feel the walls moving down, down, waiting to entomb us alive. How long until we run out of oxygen? How many years will we lie here before someone digs us up? “She never saw out of it again.” Thanks be to rocks. Marx was right. Fuck the police. “And he told her to quit sinning and grow up.” I don’t want to grow up. I stare at the concrete floor, but I can’t stop myself from thinking about how they’re going to shout until the walls come down. “Father, son, and the holy spirit,”

I’m going to die thirsty.

Ahhhh-men. Ah, fucking men.


Alec Osthoff received his MFA from the University of Wyoming. His work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Up North Lit, and as winner of the Blue Mesa Review Fiction Contest. He can be found on Twitter @AlecOsthoff.