Samantha Neugebauer
VILLAINS

Back then it was impossible to do anything with my mother sleeping. In the evenings, we watched Prancer and ate turkey clubs; in the mornings, we drank coffee, then Bloody Marys. It was when I worked in the afternoons that she liked to sleep, so I schemed to thwart her efforts (although I did celebrate her condition in the abstract). I’d give her small tasks; send her out for a forever stamp, or to Dunkin’ Donuts, or to pick up her prescriptions, things like that. My bank account had become anorexic, so we kept our overhead low.

It was a transitional time for both of us. My mother, sixty, had recently gone on disability after an injury at her job. I, thirty, had moved back after working abroad for ten years, although no one was interested, so I tried not to think about it.

In general, my mother was more maudlin than me, while I was more calculated. What my mother saw as human nature, I saw as flaws in a design. I couldn’t help it, I’d gone to college. She was a size twelve and I, a sixteen, although we could wear each other’s clothes—sizes, like everything, had become so negotiable. Every day we missed my father, and my brother, and her parents, also Walter, my best friend from high school, and Byron and Flake, our family dogs (miniature Border Collies), and Agnes, her childhood cat, and less so, my father’s parents, her sister, the aunts and uncles, and the parakeets, not because we didn’t love them, but we had to draw the line somewhere.

We lived in Philadelphia, in the town where she’d grown up, the place I’d always considered “my grandmom’s house” and she’d considered “home.” The town had seen better days, but so had everything. The neighborhood, Burholme, was sliding off into the suburbs though we were technically still part of the city. On certain blocks, the downtown was visible, thumb-sized. The mail came every day, and the trash was collected once a week. The trash collectors were angels (everyone said it) because they made the boxes disappear. There was an epidemic of boxes—big, small, very little, boxes everywhere all of the time. Nobody liked it, but we all loved shopping online. The old neighbors criticized the young neighbors for not collapsing their boxes, while the young neighbors blamed the old neighbors for still being alive. The old said the young didn’t know how to do anything. The young said the old had never taught them anything. The cure, I insisted to anyone around, was that the companies themselves ought to recollect the boxes! Some neighbors agreed with me, others threw up their hands. I became a broken record. An old neighbor hissed that my idea wouldn’t change a damn thing. Still, my mother and I would run outside, and give the trash collectors Gatorades or water bottles whenever we heard their trucks.

Nothing changed. Nothing happened.

I never told anyone about us watching Prancer or our afternoon Bloody Marys or my mother’s long conversations with the dead while she slept. I didn’t want anyone thinking I was trying to be quirky or unique. That was the last thing I wanted, although there were years when I had wanted that more than anything; my years between eleven and twenty-nine to be exact, which I can’t help but know are the ages of Jesus’ lost years too.

Quirky is to surreal what anxiety is to leprosy. “I really hope,” my mother liked to say during or just after Prancer when we would have a cigarette on the back porch, “that people from the way future watch this movie, so they know we weren’t all airbrushed and self-interested, that we had double-chins and buck teeth and wondrous instincts.”

Instincts. I had one. That winter I had become obsessed with the villanelle. I’d convinced myself that if I could write one good villanelle, I could be happy forever. That was the work I was trying to do in the afternoons while my bank account dwindled and my mother rolled around on her bed.

I had the younger neighbors to thank for this obsession. They were rowdy and gloom-struck. They wore their clothes tightly, their weight like some stubborn disappointment. They congregated at the Red Rooster after work, smelling of Old Bay seasoning and Little Trees car fresheners. Many were married. Some had children. Cashiers, managers, and teachers, they were, yet they were not the same boys and girls I’d gone to elementary school with, only a similar variant.

From my grandmother’s house, the Red Rooster was a short, L-shaped walk, which I took almost every day as the sun set. I turned off my block to Dungan Road, a steep street, which began with nice trees and houses and descended into brick apartments and no trees at the bottom. At the very end was the Red Rooster on one side, in the middle of a small strip mall, and on the other side, a rather large and ostentatious old folks’ home, although the old folks were rarely seen since the mall’s grocery store had transformed into a Dollar Tree.

One Thursday in November, I sloped down Dungan Road, fighting my authoritarian streak as usual. I admired the houses, even the iron dragonflies staked in their bushes and the polyester garden flags, which said ‘welcome, we’re human, God bless’ in various manners. These weren’t the kind of doodads my mother and I liked, but I no longer wanted to mock them. Outside the apartments, drug doings and domestic disputes transpired. Heavy music pounded, and a man emptied the plastic trash from his car into the gutter. If only there were trees, I thought, if only the apartments were nice and tidy. If only, if only. I had all the answers. All the solutions. I liked to blame this streak on college, but it has something to do with the Gateway Hypothesis too, a concept introduced to me as a child during D.A.R.E. in my inner-city elementary classroom. If there were seemingly harmless Gateway Drugs to worse things, I supposed, there had to be seemingly innocuous Gateways to better things, too. Trees are to godliness what weed is to opioid euphoria, or something.

The sky turned a murderous pink, then the buildings shone redder and grayer. Behind me, the pines and oaks shivered. I loved the color, the whole feel of it. I thought of a line from somewhere—“What do I love when I love my God?”—it was a question I considered often though I’d been a follower of atheism for some time. I regularly switched around the words: What do I love when I love the sky and leaves? What do I love when I love my poem? My old dog? I had no idea. Was it just the thing or was it something within it? If it was something within it, I feared all I loved was nostalgia and myself and art that didn’t harm me.

Between the apartments and the old folks’ home was a grassy strait owned by PECO, the electric company, for giant pylons. The black pylons stretched endlessly around the city, turning slightly, like disciplined sentries heading to a cosmic battle, or illustrations of sentries in a children’s flipbook, except not a flipbook with a beginning and end, but one encircling as if on a metal ring. My mother and grandparents would always say it was lucky to live in front or behind land PECO owned because it would never be developed, but it was already developed in a way, of course. I wanted the pylons in my poem, only I didn’t know what for and where to put them; they seemed so useful and steady where they were already.

Inside, the Red Rooster was thick with attitude and history, the way I liked places to be. I couldn’t find places like this in the cool neighborhoods where my college peers from the suburbs moved after school. Those suburb kids never learned how to blend and invest. From what I’d witnessed, they kept to themselves and considered their transactions at restaurants and bodegas as their neighborly interactions. Also, I was bitter because I could never be them, and I could never be the old me again either. Nostalgia makes you old prematurely. One of my mother’s doctors told me that. I’m not sure if she was a real doctor, but I liked her a lot. The poem is to help me with my bitterness. So is the walking and drinking.

I sat down at a table across from the bar. There were a dozen adults, more or less, and two children. To borrow from Mark Twain and Lorrie Moore, as I had been taught to do, they were men with hammers and women with hairbrushes. One child was leaning over the bar stealing maraschino cherries from a foggy box. The other child napped in a sack on a man’s hunched back. Mona, the waitress, ferried over my dirty martini and my extra cup of olives. With her high cerulean eyeshadow, she came toward me like an eel in a dark cave. Mona was definitely in my poem.

I opened my notebook and sipped my cocktail. My notebook was filled with doodles and notes like: I am peasant stock and to peasant stock I shall return. The doodles were nothing special, mostly lines and houses forming my grandmother’s neighborhood and my childhood neighborhood. I tagged each house with the name of the family who lived there or had lived there. On other pages, I drew little squares representing desks in the various classrooms I’d learned inside; I tried to remember the names of people in those desks and mark them too. A neighborhood is to a classroom what a handbag is to a wallet. Only some people don’t carry handbags anymore.

Mona brought me my third martini. Game after game blared on the TV screens. The lights dimmed more, or so it seemed. It was too difficult to see my notebook. I put my notebook away and began to feel young. I wanted to be touched and noticed. In the dark back, a group of men had begun a game of pool. I sauntered over and introduced myself—Liz. “Well, Liz,” they said. Their names, like mine, had all belonged to saints first.

In the morning, I woke up in a rowhouse closer to the downtown than to my grandmother’s town. The man, a nice one, left me a note “to help myself” to a box of Cheerios. I took the box with me and Ubered home. My mother didn’t ask too many questions, yet she did remind me twice how she hated waking up alone. It rained for hours, then it was too hot for a jacket. Our day, otherwise, was the same.

Why the villanelle? It started after I repatriated. In my online dictionary, I’d gone to look for the Italian word for peasant, and an etymological rabbit hole revealed itself to me. Villano and villana were the old words for peasant and peasantess. In time, the word inspired the English word villain because then, like now, the people who lived outside of the city centers (the downtowns), the rough people without the right clothing, manners, and speech were the villains. The first villanelles were their peasant songs.

I’m not sure any of this is true, but I’m choosing to believe it. Belief is to knowledge what cake is to torta. If I checked my online bank account before working on my poem, I couldn’t work on my poem at all. I would get lost in worries of how the abroad money was running out, how I would need to get a job soon, how in three months I wouldn’t have enough to pay my student loan bill.

The next few evenings, my mother fell asleep during Prancer. I continued to watch it alone while my mother laughed and chattered. I couldn’t make out the words, but they sounded like happy ones.

The following night at the Red Rooster, I found myself telling Mona about the villanelle. I told her how the old peasant songs weren’t very structured. The rhymey-ness and formalness came later as the educated French and English and Americans took the song over. The original songs were longer, messier, more improvised. I don’t care about meter or rhyme, I told her. I wanted the five stanzas and the closing quatrain. I wanted to capture the pastoral, or what was left of it. I wanted the song to be small, like me, so that if anyone ever read it, they would know that I knew what I was. That even though I’d gotten too big for my britches, I’d found my way back. “That’s great hon,” Mona said, “that’s real great.”

Most of all, I was interested in the repeated refrain. I wanted to create a refrain that would extract more meaning each time it reappeared, creating a theme that built in intensity.

“Hey,” a bearded man said as he slid over and sat down across from me at my table. “I’m Manuel.” He was handsome, younger than me, or he looked like it.

“Liz.”

“Elizabeth, I overheard what you were saying.”

“Yeah?” I was interested.

“And I got to tell you, you’re wrong. Your bitches are shredded.” He drank from my glass. “Your britches.”

I danced my fingers on my notebook.

“Listen,” he said. “I know because I know.”

I had a fantasy of him and me together.

“Another!” I called to Mona, then to him, “You listen…” I lost my train of thought.

“I had a professor once tell me that repetition in verse works best when what’s repeated isn’t quite the thing repeated,” he said.

“I can do that.”

“Is this doing that?”

I had no answer.

“Let me show you something.” His eyes glinted like the whiskey bottles behind the bar.

“Please,” I said, rolling my shoulder.

“Not like that.” He sighed. He held up his hand. “I’m married.”

“Oh.”

We paid our tabs and walked across the lamplit street and into the PECO strait. “I’ve never walked through here,” I said. The grass fronds were spiky and sharp. Manuel was wearing a maroon sweatshirt and black joggers that were tight around his calves. My legs were exposed and cold. I wished I had on his joggers. “Humans are getting to a smarter space,” he was saying. “We can appreciate the acausal now even if we don’t like it…” Crazy is to drunk as chongkukjang is to legumes. I’d worked awhile in Japan and sometimes I vacationed in Korea.

Fermented drunkenness. “You can’t talk yourself up into somewhere, and you can’t talk yourself down into nowhere either…” Manuel continued explaining.

“Listen,” I said finally, “I’m sick of new wisdom, and also old ideas.”

“Okay. Come on,” he said. He opened a back door to the old folks’ home, and I followed him inside. “I work here.”

Maybe, I thought, he’ll let me work here too. I was beginning to sober. “How’s your job security?” I asked. “Is it a good place to work?”

“They’re not hiring,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“I have a job.”

“Alright.”

“But maybe there are sometimes volunteering opportunities?” College career websites always advised volunteering as the train to opportunity.

“Possibly,” Manuel said.

We entered the elevator. It had a gold handrail on every side. There was hay all over the floor. “What’s with the hay?”

“I been meaning to pick that up.” He reached down and began collecting the hay, and I followed suit until the elevator stopped with a jolt. In the hallway, the lights were low. A dank and fertile smell suffused the corridor.

“I’m pivoting to animals,” Manuel said. He took the hay from my hands and bunched it with that in his own hand. “Look here,” he said, and I followed him to a door with a window on it. I looked inside, and on a queen mattress, I saw a pair of foxes curled in bed together.

“What the hell…”

“Shh…” he said.

I ran to each window, checking the occupants: bats, dogs, cats, deer, coyotes, squirrels, moles, rabbits, raccoons, voles, egrets, and wolverines. “Where are the people?”

“I’ve got them all on the bottom floor.”

“And they let you do this?”

“Nobody let me. I took over.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“Follow me,” he said, and I followed him down a flight of steps to the next floor. These rooms had bars on their doors. “Meet Bear,” he said, leading me to the bear’s room. It was an American black bear. I sobered. “Where is Bear’s partner?”

“I could only save one at a time.” He nodded at me as if he trusted that I was understanding him. “My next paycheck, we got to buy the girls, my daughters, new winter coats, then I’ll go get Bear’s partner.”

I clasped my hands around the bars. The bed had buckled and Bear was sleeping on it. His coat was thick and lovely, like nothing I’d ever imagined. He snored too, like my father.

“I’ve got otters in the pool in the exercise therapy room.”

“I see.” I turned to him.

“Do you?”

“How has no one noticed?” I asked.

“No one pays attention to old people.”

“You know I did notice they weren’t around so much…”

“Don’t get defensive.”

“Okay.”

“Aren’t they squished all on one floor?”

“They like it. They don’t mind. They believe in the project.”

“Really?”

“Well, some of them don’t understand it, but they don’t understand much anymore, so it’s no better or worse for them.”

“My mind hurts,” I said.

He smiled widely. “That’s the thing, isn’t it? My mind doesn’t hurt anymore.”

“Aren’t you worried you’ll get caught?”

“Sure, sometimes. I’m human.”

I wondered if I had entered a dreamworld like my mother, if my intellect had forced my senses to infuse people and events from the past with things from the present. Was I talking to Noah? Or was it something else, something new?

“Would you like to see the otters?” Manuel asked me.

I imagined the otters, slippery and playful. “Yes,” I said, letting go of Bear’s bars. It was true. I wanted to see the otters. I wanted Manuel to show me a new way, even if it felt a little unreal and somewhat repetitive.


Samantha Neugebauer is a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, a senior editor for Painted Bride Quarterly, and a podcaster for Slush Pile. She is also a 2022-23 D.C. Arts Fellow with Day Eight through which she is writing for the Washington Independent Review of Books. At the moment, she lives in Baltimore with her husband, their two cats, and books, etc. Visit her website.

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