The Scream Artist.
This was a while ago — at least thirty or forty years back, when me and Ronnie were still in high school. We lived over in Evergreen, a dull beige town encircled by bright-white towns in the winter and yellow-green towns in the summer. It might’a been that no one, not even the weather, wanted to visit Evergreen — and it wasn’t until I left that I understood why, but that’s a story for another time, or, maybe after this, I mean, if you got the time. No? Gott’a get home? Ah, I understand, no, say no more. Ust’a have a wife of my own, I know how it can be.
I lived in Evergreen. Not with my parents, who died when I was young, or my aunt and uncle, who lived in a house so sensitive that the mere presence of an adolescent would uproot and destroy it entirely, but with a good friend of my mother’s and her husband. William and Trudy. Trudy worked in a dress shop that wasn’t too far away from the house but William was gone for days on end — a commercial trucker, and a damned good one — and I think having someone else in that house made Trudy feel a bit more at-ease.
The woman was a walking nerve. Did I forget to turn the stove off? Gott’a go back home, just in case, lest the whole house burn down. Did I forget to tell Mrs. Peters thank you for her help the other day? Well, now she hates me. How am I ever going to face her again? Those sorts of thing were common thoughts she would think and sometimes say and oftentimes repeat. She tried to have me grow up a neurotic but I must’a missed that train by a few inches ’cause I don’t care about much. ‘Least, I don’t care about the sorts of things she wanted me to care about. Hell, I don’t even lock my door half-the-time when I’m going out.
I’d met Ronnie before, a few years before, when I’d visited Trudy with my mother, but I was young and he was young and when you’re that young there’s only three choices: be friends, be a bully, or be bullied. Ronnie and I didn’t have a mean bone in our bodies so we became friends quick. I didn’t see him much when I moved in with Trudy but when school started up he recognized my last name and we got pretty close pretty fast. He was a lot like Trudy: always worryin’. I think we got along well because he’d worry about the things I’d should’a been worrying about and I didn’t worry about the things he shouldn’t’a been worrying about. We mixed well with each other, like simple sugar and whiskey.
Me and Ron were always gettin’ into trouble, but I ain’t gonna tell you none’a that — you still gott’a get home to your wife, right? Ah, yeah, no, say no more, say no more, I get it, I understand completely — but I will tell you about one of the more interestin’ characters we knew.
His name was Peter but he didn’t go to our school. There were a few kids who knew him who said he wasn’t too bright and that there’s something a little wrong with him — and, you know, I believe it. The kid wasn’t all right. He was a little off, you know, the way that you try to put a top back on a bottle that ain’t fit for it, and it doesn’t quite screw in the right way but gets the job done — I mean to say, he seemed like he would fit in, but then he would say somethin’ outlandish and he’d just think it was the most normal thing in the world and Ron and I would stand there sayin’ uh-huh, uh-huh but thinkin’ to ourselves that this is the craziest son’bitch we ever met. One time he said somethin’ along the lines of, “If I can’t have the blueprints to my body, then nobody’s gonna got’em.” and he’d just repeat it over and over for a few minutes while we were all at the park. You’d think to yourself, this kid’s got an active imagination, but somethin’ is unsettlin’ about it. Back in those days we didn’t have the fancy psychology you got now’days; you were either strange or you weren’t; you were either dangerous or you weren’t. And he was strange, sure’nuff, but he wasn’t dangerous.
In mid-December, we met up with him on our walk home from school — we had to walk past his house on our way to school and sometimes he’d be outside rantin’ and ravin’ about something — and he told us he wanted to show us something. We said we needed to go but he seemed like he really wanted to show us so we said okay and went into his house.
The unusual thing about his house was that he had two basements. Well, not quite two basements, but he had a small crawlspace that was under part of his basement. I think his parents had it build in the war. It couldn’ta been bigger than than twenty feet by twenty feet, and it couldn’t’a been higher than four feet. But we went down all the same into it with him and he showed us the cans of food on the walls.
All of a sudden, he lets out this yell — this scream that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I thought he was dyin’, honest, and I thought we were gonna get in trouble not only for bein’ in this crawlspace but for killin’ Peter. Ronnie turns to me with wide eyes and then we both turn and look at Peter, who was slumping against a wall. He started draggin’ his body down, cans falling to his left and right on the floor, makin’ loud clanking and clanging sounds. All of a sudden he stops and looks up and me and Ronnie. And, god’s honest truth, the kid just says, “So…?” We look at him dumbfounded and it was Ronnie that replied, “So what?” “How was it?” “How was what?”
“I’m practicing to be a scream artist.”
“You know, in movies and things like that they got characters that just are around for dyin’, you know? You know. And those characters, they give the most blood-curdlin’ screams you could imagine. They make you think they’re actually dyin’, you know? You know. And I want to do that. I want that to be my art. I want to be able to scream so well that people will think I’m dyin’, you know. You know.”
But was he really? I dunno. Ronnie had a lot of talkin’ to do about that later, and he thought it wasn’t much different than people practicing lines for a play. And he was right, a lot of movies at the time had people dyin’ left and right and, even if you didn’t think of it, you knew which one was best at actin’ at it by the way they screamed as they died. And so, Peter became the Scream Artist of Evergreen.
Because he practiced in the bunker you’d almost never hear him from the streets. When I told Trudy, her only response was, “How do his parents stand that noise?” but I dunno that they could even hear it. Once a week, usually on a Thursday or Friday, he would coax Ronnie and me to come into the bunker and listen to a new composition.
It might sound strange to you because, you know, a scream’s a scream, right? But it wasn’t like that at all. Or, maybe, it was for the first few times. After listening to him for a few months we became scream connoisseurs. You know how some people can taste chocolate and coffee in wine? We could hear little elements like that in screams. We could hear a hoarse rip in one scream, his belly churning in another. We could tell the difference between a scream from a stabbing, a scream from a shooting, and a scream from falling. We could tell subtle differences between stab-screams, even: Ronnie would sometimes guess, “This is with a big knife then? In the back?” and he’d be right more times than not. I guess if you haven’t heard it before you might not believe me, but that’s how it was.
You know, I’d be lying to you if I said me and Ronnie didn’t go over to the middle of the lake and just let a few screams loose sometimes. They weren’t anything like Peter’s. We weren’t screaming from our hearts, we were just trying to scream for the sake of screaming. For the sake of pretending we knew how to scream. “Big knife, in the back?” “No, gunshot.” “No way, gunshot is more surprised, like this…” and we’d go back and forth. Neither one of us were all that good at it. It was something that we never knew we weren’t good at. It was something that most people won’t know they’re good or bad at until a certain time in their life when it becomes necessary to let a scream or two out. But by then it might be too late to do anythin’ with it.
We went to college, me an’ Ron, and I cut out half-way to go into the mili’try. After a few years, we met back in Evergreen — Ron lived a long ways away but kept in contact by letter, and I lived an hour or so away from Evergreen. When I was to visit Trudy I told him to come along, just for old time’s sake. After getting a few drinks at the bar one night we see, who else, but Peter standin’ by his doorway. He tells us it’s too late now but to come back tomorrow. And we did.
I can’t describe it, honestly. He told us to pick a weapon, he told us to pick man or woman, he told us to pick the age and weight of the person, and he told us to pick “fast or slow”. Every single one of them was spot-on. Every single one of them was a masterpiece.
It’s a silly skill to have maybe — especially because, as far as Ronnie or I know, there is no such thing as work for a scream artist— but I think that might be okay. Some artists make their works for a world that ain’t ready for it, and I think the scream artist might be one of them. I just hope that when he dies he doesn’t just fade into sickness and sleep. I hope he gets murdered. I hope he get shot or stabbed. For his sake, I hope that his last scream is heard around the world. At the very least, he deserves that.