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Authors: Matthew Stokoe

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Empty Mile

BOOK: Empty Mile
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More Critical Praise for Matthew Stokoe

High Life

High Life
is perhaps the greatest neglected masterpiece of true noir. I’ve never read anything like it before or since.”

Ken Bruen
, author of
The Guards

“One of the most unstinting, imaginative, brutal, and original contemporary novels ever written about the punishments that come with the prioritization of fame … The fact that
High Life
isn’t regularly mentioned in the same breath with classic, transgressive social satires like
American Psycho
Fight Club
is a mystery and an injustice …”

Dennis Cooper
, author of
Ugly Man

“Stokoe’s in-your-face prose and raw, unnerving scenes give way to a skillfully plotted tale that will keep readers glued to the page.”

Publishers Weekly

“Soaked in such graphic detail that the pages smell, Matthew Stokoe’s
High Life
is the sickest revision of the California crime novel, ever.”

—Paper Magazine

(Akashic Books reissue forthcoming in 2011)

“The word is out that
is every bit as dark and deranged as Iain Bank’s classic
The Wasp Factory
. It’s not: it’s even more so. Possibly the most visceral novel ever written.”


This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to real events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published by Akashic Books
©2010 by Matthew Stokoe

ePUB ISBN-13: 978-1-936-07083-1

ISBN-13: ISBN-13: 978-1-936070-12-1
Library of Congress Control Number: 2009939082

Akashic Books
PO Box 1456
New York, NY 10009
[email protected]

For my son, Zane.
You were in my thoughts through
all the long writing of this book.


ight years. And now I was back. Back on my street. Back in my town. The house was still two hundred yards away, but I pulled over and killed the engine. From London to San Francisco, from San Francisco to this basin-shaped valley in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the anxiety of my return had grown like some ravening tumor until now, with so little left between me and my past, I could no longer stand the tightening cage of the pickup’s cabin.

I got out and started walking. Fast along the sidewalk. Past houses I had seen a thousand times before. But it wasn’t enough. This last distance, this final minute between me and my homecoming was a pain that threatened to blow apart my soul. So I ran. I ran with my arms pumping and my head thrown back. If I had had the breath I would have screamed.

Finally, in front of the house. Finally. Panting, pushing through the low gate, running the short path to the front door, and the front door opening, opening as I approached, swinging back into the house and Stan standing there, shaking his hands and running on the spot in his excitement. My brother Stan, eight years older and bigger, but still everything I remembered.


My name leaping from him like it was alive.


In that one word, in that snapshot frame of him shaking and running in the doorway, there was everything I needed to tell me that what I had done in leaving Oakridge was irredeemably, indisputably, wrong.

He danced backwards in front of me all the way along the hall, lunging in to hug me over and over, hanging on so tight we almost fell, yelling questions a million miles an hour, faster and faster, gulping for breath until the things he wanted to say outstripped his mouth and all he could manage was “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny …” clapping his hands and smiling so hard I thought his lips would tear.

And then he stepped close and held me, hung on with his arms and pressed his forehead against the side of my neck … and in doing so tore open the memory by which I was most haunted—Stan in my room on the night I left Oakridge all those years ago, his face pressed against my chest as I hugged him goodbye, the silence drawing out around us, around my awful inability to make my leaving even slightly less catastrophic an event for him, hating the pain I was causing and hating myself because of it.

And the sound that had echoed through all my days afterwards, the only sound he had made against me—a single dreadful sob, bitten down on as soon as it was out. And as we stepped back from each other, seeing that he had forced himself not to cry so that I might not feel any worse than I already did. So that I could go and do what I had to do without the weight of his unhappiness holding me back.

Now, Stan pulled away and he was smiling.

“Hey, I want to see who’s tallest.”

We stood back-to-back and he ran the flat of his hand across his head to feel where it hit mine. He was much taller than he had been and his body, which had begun to soften in the years after his accident, had grown bulky and curved. I wanted him to be small again, to be the boy I towered over and my arms fit around, but he outweighed me now by forty pounds.

“You’re still bigger than me, Johnny, but I’m almost there.”

It seemed to me that morning that so much needed to be explained to him, to be made right, to be excused. But all I could do was say lamely, “I’m sorry I stayed away so long.” Stan laughed.

“But you’re back now! Dad’ll be here tonight.”

“He couldn’t take time off?”

Stan shrugged. “Do you have a car?”

“A pickup.”

“I’m not allowed to drive. Look, I’m wearing your jacket.”

In my early twenties I’d lived in a black leather biker jacket. I’d given it to him as a going-away present. At twenty-three it fit him now, though tightly. Under it he wore a pale blue bowling shirt with his name embroidered on the left breast. With his dark hair slicked back and his square black-framed glasses he looked like some chubby ’50s garage attendant.

“I like the look, Stan.”

“Yeah, it’s sharp.”

We went out into the back garden. It was long and narrow and from our position on the northern slope of the Oakridge basin it gave a view back across the town. Beds of flowers and small shrubs had been newly planted against the enclosing wooden fence. They were tidy and well cared for. Stan saw me looking at them and puffed up.

“I do the garden.”


“I’ve got green fingers.”

He fluttered his fingers in front of my face and began to point out his work.

“These are blue pearl. They flower in spring and summer and they like the sun. This one here is a peace lily, you have to give it a lot of water.”

“How do you know all this stuff?”

Stan tried to hold it in but couldn’t. “It’s my job.”

“You got a job?”

“At the garden center. I catch the bus. I’ve been working all year.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“So it was a surprise.”

Below us on the floor of the valley, Old Town—Oakridge’s original Gold Rush heart of 1800s wooden buildings—glowed whitely at the center of town. In the distance, further south, a thin curve of the Swallow River glittered.

“Stan, do you ever see Marla around?”


“How does she look?”

“She looks good.”

“Does she ever say anything about me?”

“Of course she does, Johnny. She always asks how you are.”

Later, I walked up the street and showed Stan my pickup and moved it closer to the house. I carried my things inside and went upstairs. I’d been traveling solidly for a day and a half and I was tired.

Despite the sunlight that fell dustily through the windows, my bedroom was cold. When I was twenty-one I’d moved out of the house to live with Marla and my father had stripped it bare. It had been empty ever since and on the day of my return all I could find of the time I had spent there was a set of grubby outlines on the cream walls where my posters had been. A single bed had been placed under one of the windows and there was a small table beside it. There was nothing else.

I had not expected a magically reconstructed teenage cocoon, but the barrenness of the room was dispiriting. Like my father not being there to meet me.

I sat on the edge of the bed. Outside, I could hear a bird singing and further away the occasional distant grinding of an engine as someone drove up the slope from town. The scent of the carpet, the walls, the dusty air … All of it closed about me and for a moment I was able to force a sense of belonging. But it wouldn’t hold and I was left with what the room most meant to me—sitting, like this, every night when I was eighteen and nineteen and twenty, staring at nothing, wishing that I had not left Stan alone the day we went up to Tunney Lake.

I lay down on the bed and after a while I fell asleep.


n the late afternoon I went downstairs and my father was home. There was a smell of Chinese food in the house and in the dining room the table was set with plates and chopsticks and cartons of takeout. My father had just finished lighting a single candle on a cake that had the words
Welcome Home John
iced across it.

Stan made a trumpeting sound when he saw me and clapped his hands and yelled, “Heeeeere’s Johnny!”

My father hugged me and made a big show of me being home, but I could hear his throat constrict as he told me how good it was to see me again.

I had memories of him being loving, of being swung up onto his shoulders and spun around. But that was a long way back when I was a child and still too young to demand much of his emotions. What I remembered more was his withdrawal of affection as I’d grown older, how the small badges of encouragement and pride and worth had disappeared one by one.

Later, no doubt, there were reasons for him to be disappointed. I worked only when I felt like it, I drank too much. And, of course, there was Stan and Tunney Lake. But before this, what can a boy in the first years of adolescence do that turns his father away from him? It took me until I was an adult and had had time to observe him with other people to realize this distance between us stemmed not from any transgression I was guilty of but rather from the fact that he was simply incapable of being close to

The day of my return, though, we sat and ate and talked, and it felt good to be with him and Stan again, to be in that house, to be part of the small bedrock pleasures that bind a family—food, conversation, sharing time …

After dinner Stan went into the living room to watch a Spider-Man DVD and my father stood over the sink in the kitchen with his sleeves rolled and washed the dishes. He wouldn’t let me help so I sat at the kitchen table and watched him—a man in his late fifties wearing office clothes, working his way through a chore that in most other families someone else would be doing.

He spoke as he worked, about conditions at the office, the state of the housing market, various properties he was pushing. This was one of the few subjects he ever showed much interest in and to me it had always seemed faintly hilarious. Oakridge was a town that had seen constant growth. He sold real estate. Any other man in his position would have grown rich, but our family had only ever just scraped by and it had taken a small life insurance payout when my mother died to get anywhere close to paying off the house.

“Stanley has a job now, you know.”

“Yeah, he told me.”

“Makes him feel worthwhile.”

“I think he feels that way anyhow, Dad.”

“I mean in a community sense. Work is the oil that allows the wheels of life to turn, John. What are your plans, now that you’re back?”

“To spend time with Stan. And you. I haven’t thought beyond that.”

“And a job? I can’t support you, you know.”

“I’ll be okay for a while. I saved some money in the UK. I want to see Marla too.”

My father frowned. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”

“Why not?”

“You’ve been away a long time.”

“Well, I have to at least say hello, don’t you think? I’m bound to run into her sooner or later.”

“Have you considered that it might be better for her if you didn’t go stirring up the past? You need to be careful not to be too selfish, John.”

Stan ran into the kitchen then, smelling of toothpaste, wearing pajamas with pictures of Batman on them. He hugged me tightly.

“Sorry, Johnny, I was going to come back in but I forgot because of the TV. Can you drive me to work in your car tomorrow?”


“Awesome. All right, pardner, I gotta hit the hay.”

He turned abruptly and galloped from the room. At the foot of the stairs he yelled, “Yee Har!” then thundered on up to bed.

My father made small talk after he’d gone, papering over the cracks of our last exchange. But both of us, I think, were saddened by the fact that after so long apart it seemed that nothing had changed between us. In the end he went into the living room to watch the late news.

When I got up the next day I found Stan pacing quickly back and forth along the upstairs landing. He was wearing a full Superman costume and was trying to get the cape to billow out behind him.

“Hiya, Johnny. Dad already went to work.”

“Nice suit.”

Stan stopped and looked down at himself. He ran his hands over the blue material that covered his bulging stomach.

“Dad doesn’t like them … But I paid with money from my job, so it’s okay. I’m not allowed to wear them outside, though. One of the neighbors saw me in the backyard and told Dad I was weird.”


Stan beckoned me into his bedroom at the far end of the landing. He slid open the door of a large built-in ward-robe, reached into a rack of hanging clothes, and pulled out a black and gray outfit.


He put it back and pulled out another.

“Captain America. Sometimes it’s good to be someone different.”

“Tell me about it.”

“You can feel the power more too.”

“Superhero power?”

Stan looked a little at a loss and shrugged.

Later that morning I drove him to work. The road took us through Back Town, Oakridge’s business and commercial district, and as we passed the shops there Stan stared dreamily out of the window.

“You think it would be fun having a shop, Johnny? Or a business? Doing stuff around town?”

“Be better than working for someone else, that’s for sure.”

“I think it would be great. People would come and ask you things and you’d tell them what was right and what they should have. And they’d know you were the guy for what they wanted.”

Bill Prentice’s garden center was a ten-minute drive along the Oakridge Loop once you got out of town. It was a large fieldstone building built high off the ground and set fifty yards back from the road. It had a lovely view over the Swallow River and one side of it had been converted into a café. A large pressed-metal warehouse connected to the rear of the building and out front there was an ornamental garden with a birdbath and a fountain. A hundred yards to the east there was another, smaller warehouse that looked unused.

I parked in a white gravel lot on the café side of the building. As Stan and I got out of the pickup he pointed to a silver-blue BMW SUV.

“That’s Bill’s. He’s a businessman. I’m going to introduce you.”

Inside the garden center Stan put on a full-length apron and left me in the café while he went to find Bill Prentice. I ordered an espresso and wandered over to a window that looked down into the parking lot. An old Jeep Cherokee had parked next to my pickup. Several spaces further along, a man crouched beside the front wheel of Bill Prentice’s SUV, pressing something against its tire. While I watched he lurched forward slightly as whatever he had in his hand punctured the rubber sidewall.

The man stood and looked quickly around. As he did so his gaze passed across the café window. For a moment his eyes held mine without recognition, then a grin spread across his face and he waved rapidly and pointed several times to the Jeep. I turned away from the window and went back into the garden center.

Stan was beside a display of potted plants, talking to a thin woman in her mid-fifties. She was well-dressed and smoking a cigarette despite a sign on the wall. When Stan saw me he hustled over, grabbed my arm, and dragged me to meet her.

“Sorry, Johnny, I was looking for Bill but then Pat came in and we had to have a chat. Pat, this is my brother Johnny.”

We said hi and made small talk for a minute or two. I knew who she was. If you were married to Bill Prentice you would have to be a recluse not to attract at least a small measure of attention from the town. And on two occasions back when I was living in Oakridge she’d attracted a little more than that. She’d used a different method each time. First she’d tried to cut her wrists, then a couple of years later she’d tried pills. The outcome had been the same each time—an ambulance ride to the medical center in town and a quick save by the staff there.

These suicide attempts weren’t splashed across the front of the local paper, in fact they weren’t reported at all. But word gets around when the person involved is married to a town councilor and is also, independently, the richest woman in town. I didn’t know if she’d made any more attempts while I was away, but from the flat look in her eyes and the deep lines across her forehead I wouldn’t have bet much money that her emotional state had improved over the last eight years.

Toward the end of our brief exchange Bill Prentice appeared. He was a fit-looking man around the same age as his wife with prematurely white hair and a square, ruddy face. He’d been a man around town ever since I was old enough to know what that meant and after he’d secured his place on the town council he’d made a name for himself as a proponent of growth through investment in infrastructure. Less publicly trumpeted were the rumors that he was a bit of a pervert.

He clapped Stan on the shoulder. “Stan the man! This the brother?”

Pat whispered “Jesus” just loud enough for him to hear.

Bill looked tiredly at his wife. “I didn’t know you were coming in.”

Pat held up the butt of her cigarette. “Don’t you have any fucking ashtrays in this place?”

Stan looked wide-eyed at me and tried to pull his head into his shoulders. Bill took the cigarette and put it out in an empty flowerpot, then he held his hand out and we shook. As he let go he ran his eyes over me and I had the uncomfortable feeling he was assessing my sexual potential. For a moment there was silence between us, then he thought of something to say.

“Stan’s doing very well here. We’re lucky to have him working with us.”

Pat’s lighter snapped as she lit another cigarette. Bill looked irritated and fanned the smoke away.

“Do you need to see me?” When she didn’t answer he stepped close to her and put his hand on her forearm. “I’m not busy.”

“Since when did that make a difference?” For a moment she looked emptily at him, then sighed and shook her head and said, “I’ll see you tonight.”

Bill watched her as she left the garden center, then turned and walked into the warehouse without saying anything else.

Stan led me out to the front steps. Pat had just turned onto the Oakridge Loop. She was in an olive Mercedes and she drove with her forearms against the steering wheel, leaning forward in her seat like she didn’t have the strength to hold herself upright. She was still smoking.

The day was warm and the display garden hummed in the sunshine. The mix of fragrances from the flowers made the air feel clean. Stan took a deep breath and let it out in a rush.

“Pat says plants know we’re here. They’ve done tests on them and everything. Like if you go to cut their leaves off they get scared, and they like it when you talk to them.”

I was about to leave when he grabbed my sleeve.

“Oh, Johnny, I forgot. I finish early on Tuesdays. Can you take me to my dance lesson?”

“Dance lesson?”

“Yeah, dance lesson. Be here at two o’clock, okay?”

I promised I’d be there, then walked around the corner of the building to the parking lot where the man who had once been my best friend waited for me.

BOOK: Empty Mile
2.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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