Carson Lutzer was the engine, such as it was, of Trappin Station. A lot of people came and went through the place — many were relatives, some were long-term guests, some seemed to legitimately live there, some camped out, some worked in the auto body shop or just spent time banging on vehicles in a less purposeful way. But if anyone “ran” the place, it was Carson — he made up lists, figured out what needed to be bought or repaired. He tried to delegate but since everyone else there was always drunk, strung out or just plain lazy, it usually fell to him. Part of it was his constitution: He liked things tidy and orderly and so he was on a constant losing battle with the slop and entropy of a biker den. Part of it was his pedigree, or lacking thereof. Carson wanted to be a Lutzer, badly. He wanted to be big and thick and mean and drive a Harley and wear the gang colors on a leather jacket. He had grown up hanging around the place, accepted as a sidekick of Maggie’s father (who had been the real deal), and when Maggie’s father had moved away, Carson had hoped to fill up the empty space. But since he was small and nervous and had red hair, he didn’t begin to fill the empty space and if anything his status diminished.
Carson was persistent, however, and he proved himself useful. It hadn’t been that long ago when there had been nobody to take responsibility at all and Trappin Station had begun to resemble the inside of an old pizza box — strings of sticky substance stretched between the walls, interspersed with spots of reddish fuzzy mold. Now Carson cleaned up; he kept food and booze stocked. Plus he did pretty much anything else they asked him to. Begrudgingly, slowly, he became one of them and even began to take his spot as a leader of sorts, mostly by default since there were no other leaders. Sort of. Lately, associated with land-rights and the interstate road project, things had been heating up at Trappin Station, causing increased strain. A dark car had been idling down the road a ways, in the evenings and in the nighttime, just sitting there, watchful. A couple of Trappin Station patrons had tumbled into the main room late one recent afternoon, babbling about reflected sun flashes from a neighboring ridge: sure post-Vietnam indications of a surveillance lens, either binocular or rifle scope, they weren’t sure which.
All this added increased tension to everything that went on there, like a steady high-pitched whistle you couldn’t quite hear amid the other clatter and clamor, but was irritating nonetheless. To drown it out, or counteract it, the parties went louder and more drunken. And amid all this festivity, occasionally, somebody would remember Carson, how he looked different, how in some way he was probably to blame for their lamentable circumstances, and someone would throw an empty beer can at his head and someone else would bellow a string of drunken, sloppy, epithets in his direction, and others would take up the cause, until he was getting pelted and yelled at from all angles, running in circles, trying to duck, trying to pick it all up.
All of which, according to Maggie, made Carson bitter. He was smarter than most of the others, that much was abundantly clear. And he cared about the Lutzer name, and what it stood for (freedom, individuality, America!) in ways that they didn’t even recognize. And he had ambition; he and Maxwell had their eye on the ball. Most of the others didn’t even know there was a ball. They would have let the house get yanked away by “them gov’ment” months ago if it wasn’t for Carson. He had found the sympathetic lawyer. Or maybe Maxwell had found the lawyer…. the two of them hashed over details on so many occasions down in Maxwell’s basement lair that sometimes the technicality of who came up with what part of which idea became a bit blurred. But he (Carson) had made the call to the lawyer, that much was certain.
There were a few old-timers who had questioned outright the wisdom of resistance, pointing out that there was good money to be made in relinquishing the land; maybe they should consider a regime change; hell, they could all retire peacefully on the proceeds, grandchildren included. But these were doddering old fools, the oldest of the old Lutzers, barely able to emerge each morning, the painful squeak of their walkers progressing down the upstairs hall evidence enough of how ridiculous they were. It was easy to shout over their feeble objections. Besides, regime change sounded an awful lot like communism, didn’t it? And retiring? What was that! Lutzers didn’t retire, because they didn’t get old! The sound of a frail intermittent piss stream hitting the toilet overhead (or the floor near the toilet, or the wall beside the toilet…), all this not withstanding: Lutzers didn’t get old! They went out in a flame of glory, if possible on a Hawg, Jack drunk, dick hard, and fifth gear into a bridge abutment, that’s how a Lutzer did it, right? Right?! At this point Carson would be spitting like Hitler and waving at the window where they could all see, if they just looked down through the trees, the orange glowing ravine, the timber planks, the parked machinery… It might look peaceable now, covered over, in winter, but make no mistake: An army was amassing against them.
And if this sort of impassioned appeal didn’t get quite the response that he hoped for, none of that mattered because Carson, now, had a plan. It began, as many great plans do, by random chance, when he came across the article about Maggie and her science award in the newspaper. Not that Carson read the newspaper much, but on this day there it had been, folded neatly to the exact right page, and sitting by the big pot where he stirred the coffee each morning. Serendipity. That’s what Maxwell called it when things happened randomly for a reason. There were a lot of things you could say about Maxwell, most of them curses, but he had a mighty vocabulary. He could put words to things that Carson could barely think about. And he had formidable recall. After Carson had spent sometimes hours walking around the dim basement room, letting his creative imagination unwind, Maxwell could repeat back to him everything he had said, verbatim. Actually better than verbatim, because he could do it in an abbreviated, particular way, picking out the important details and summarizing them in a way that always made Carson impressed with his own intelligence.
So on this day, of course, Carson hurried down to share the article with Maxwell, maybe get the boy’s opinion on it all. He didn’t especially like going down to the sub-basement room where Maxwell “lived,” if you could call it that. The basement itself of Trappin Station had never been “finished” and this room was even less finished yet. It was a small square excavation beyond the furnace room. It was creepy, literally. There were things down there that creeped. It wasn’t big, but that was okay because it wasn’t lit well either. It was dank. It had clammy cement walls except for the furthest one back that was made out of stacked stone and clay with roots sticking through like bony remnants of something buried back there. It had a heavy metal door several inches thick sunk into the concrete and hung on twin massive rusted hinges. Sometimes when Carson was leaving, after spending time down there with Maxwell, he had the insane urge to lock the door from the outside, wedge it closed, pile things in front of it, never say a word to anyone. The idea made him sweat. He would never do it of course. Maxwell was a pain in the ass and strange, even by Lutzer standards, but he was also the only one that treated Carson like he was worth something, he called Carson “Mr. Carson,” which was nice, and he helped Carson sort through his ideas. And, notably, he had stood up for Carson, with the others, in his high-pitched highfalutin way. And they tended to listen to him, or at least not argue with him. Nobody really wanted to engage with the boy. On good days, Carson let himself imagine that Maxwell might prove useful someday. Besides, regardless how thick the cement, how countersunk the hinges into stone, how buried the room in general, every time Carson imagined locking Maxwell down there he had a contrary vision of the boy appearing again, in the kitchen, as if nothing had happened.
On this day he found Maxwell in his usual spot, in the darkest corner of that back basement room, suspended upside down with his big wings hanging loose on either side of his head, the veined parchment skin between the bones so thin you could see candle light passing through it and even strings of blood (or whatever fed his system) pulsing through the tiny black veins.
“Wait a sec… wings?” At this point, Luke couldn’t help himself, he had to interject. It wasn’t the first time he had heard the story, or a close variation thereof. And it wasn’t really the bizarre, somewhat chilling, description of the basement room or of Maxwell, or even the veering away from what, to that point, might have been based in reality. It was more the way Maggie’s tone shifted, dropping an octave as she described Maxwell, and becoming throaty as if in respect to the macabre setting of that damp cement room, or like she was channeling a part of his creepiness into herself. Luke felt like she was slipping away from him, into a shadowy nether realm where people had wings, and he wanted to give her something to hold on to, some way to get back.
Now she poked her head out from behind her big tablet of drawing paper and tipped her chin back to peer at him through her glasses that had slipped down her nose. “What’s the matter, Luke?”
“Oh, just… you said something about wings. Didn’t you?”
“You said he was hanging upside down with big transparent wings.”
Maggie continued to gaze at him blankly. Then, just for a fraction, her eyes flicked off to the side, and back. “He was hanging upside down,” she said. “Sure. There’s this water pipe down there that he uses for an exercise bar. He hangs on it from his knees and does upside-down exercises. He says he wants to get big and strong like Carson, which is ridiculous because Carson is scrawny. I don’t know about wings though. That sounds a little crazy, Luke.” She snorted but continued to study Luke, puzzled or concerned.
“Oh. Yeah. Exercises, I get it. Wings? That’s totally weird. I don’t know where I got that from.” Luke took a breath and shifted in his seat to shake off the lingering impression of an upside-down, bat-like Maxwell, then looked around, getting his bearings. They were in the treehouse at Trappin Station. It was another brilliant, clear frosty day outside, but Maggie had fired up the miniature pot-bellied stove and inside was warm and toasty. Even hot, it might be said. Luke had shed his jean jacket and unzipped his sweatshirt, but his skin on that side felt flushed from the radiant warmth. Across from him, Maggie was working on a portrait of Luke for her art class and had arranged him on a stool in the corner by the window as her subject, while she straddled one of the benches, half hidden by a big tablet of paper, humming and singing snatches of pop songs as she selected various grades of charcoal from her art box, occasionally comparing Luke to the composition before swooping in to apply more furious shading to the paper.
“So what happened then?” he asked.
“Well, after Carson saw the article in the paper? What happened next?”
“Well then they came and kidnapped me and brought me back here.” Out came her head and she smiled at him. “You know that.”
Luke liked the spot in the corner, well enough; he was comfortable there, or as comfortable as he could be anywhere at Trappin Station these days. He liked being the unrivaled focus of Maggie’s attention even if it was in this objectified, slightly invisible way. Also, from that position, he was allowed to look right back at her and study her in return, something he did not generally feel allowed to do. From that perch he could keep an eye on the trapdoor, keep an eye on Maggie and, if he felt the urge, turn his head to check the view outside: the brilliant sunshine, the snow, the trees, the ravine, the hills and fields of Haverson stretching away toward to the limitless distance, to remind himself that there was a full world out there, separate from the tree-house, from Maggie, from any of it, that was reassuring and familiar.
“Your brother came by my locker yesterday,” said Maggie.
“Justin? What did he want?”
“He was asking all kinds of questions about Maxwell’s lab, the antidote. He told me to stay away from you.”
“From me? Why?”
“He said you were a player and a heartbreaker and I’d just end up getting hurt.” Out popped her head. “Is that true?”
“What! No. I mean, maybe I’m a player but — “
“Then he said it didn’t matter anyway because you’re going away next year to some prissy private school in Providence. Is that true?”
“Then he punched the locker next to mine really hard. I think he broke the door. Then he laughed like a maniac and left. Your brother is gruesome.”
If Marcus’s concern with Luke’s education was puzzling, Justin’s involvement was downright bizarre. Getting Luke the backpack, pestering him about his schoolwork, ratting on his truancy to Marcus, visiting Maggie at her locker… these things belonged in another galaxy, far far away. Recently he had come across Luke skipping class with Maggie and some others, getting high in a car on the far edge of the junior high parking lot, and he had totally flipped out, yanking Luke out of the car and pushing him violently back toward the school. The guy who owned the car was a legitimate badass, respected throughout the community. His name was Skeeter because he supposedly had access to Liquid Skyve and the equipment that went with it. He belonged to the inner circle of Justin’s Gateway Gang and routinely kept his sleeve rolled up to display the honorific brand on his forearm. Being there, in his company, with Maggie and some other older, tough kids… Luke had felt like he was finally getting somewhere, finally becoming the scrappy player that Justin had always wanted him to be. Which made it all the more confusing and traumatic to be summarily yanked from his mellow reveries and spun around several times before being released, still spinning, into a snow bank. It made no sense! Justin was terribly high on something himself, Luke quickly realized: his skin flushed and trailing condensation, his pupils enormous, cackling crazily as he pursued Luke across the parking lot — but it didn’t explain the intensity of his reaction, the way he grabbed Luke again by the collar and escorted him, stumbling, up the walkway toward the school.
“It’s only a freaking study hall!” objected Luke, the unfairness of it all lending a surge of anger and courage as he wrenched himself free and stood facing Justin, panting. “What the fuck, J?!”
“I don’t care if it’s shove-a-book-up-your-ass class.” Justin remained some paces away, swaying unsteadily, snickering at Luke and his feeble fighter’s stance. “Get thee inside, Dink!”
Perhaps it was how wasted Justin was or the way Justin was laughing at him, perhaps it was the cold snow sluicing down his neck; more than anything, at that moment, Luke felt betrayed. “But, why?” he managed to ask.
Justin was generally not one to explain himself, preferring to clarify with a smack to the head. Now, however, something cut through his spastic synapses, for he made an obvious effort to collect himself, rubbed his face with both palms, cracked his neck from side to side. Finally he leaned closer and poked Luke in the chest, his tone lowered and menacing with a bitter truth meant for Luke alone. “Because you’re so. damn. bad at it.” He jabbed Luke’s chest with each word. Without pulling away, he gestured back at the car, at Skeeter and the other kids gathered in the parking lot watching the show, the cars, the snowy football field rutted with tire tracks and footprints. The general way he wagged his arm, he might have been gesturing at the whole damned town of Haverson. “You suck at all of it Luke. Really.”
— Mathew Lebowitz has published stories in Press, Pequod, William and Mary Review, Madison Review, Confrontation, Literal Latte, The Baffler, and other literary magazines. “Carson Lutzer” is an excerpt from “Shredding,” a novel-in-progress.