This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue playboy magazine.
For the past 28 years, students have competed for the honor of winning playboy’s College Fiction Contest. This year, Nolan Turner of the University of California, Irvine wins for his story Something Ancient Welling Up. Students of Marshall Arisman at the School of Visual Arts in New York also compete to illustrate the fiction. Daniel Zender’s winning entry is shown above.
Max was having yet another uneventful day at his roadside tourist trap. Then the mysterious metal box arrived.
The shack was silent except for the hum and flicker of the neon sign that lured delirious drivers off the highway. I was next to the till inside the Dino Hut, fighting with a can of fruit cocktail and working up a sweat, when I decided to go outside and smoke a joint. My only customer in three days had just left angry. He’d paid the $5 admission to see the velociraptor, which apparently left him too underwhelmed to spring for the Dino Bites, our repackaged turkey jerky that pushed the profit train. The raptor came from a McDonald’s Jurassic Park promotion in 1993 and looked realistic from a distance.
The morning sun was full and dripping in the sky like a canned pear packed in syrup—all sloshing around. The two-lane strip that connected Brigham City to the myriad bays of the northern Salt Lake was dry and cracked. I leaned against the front of the shack and took a long drag, listening to the warble of the telephone wires shaking in the wind. I’d come to live with Tommy Pitts, my father-in-law, two months ago in an effort to get my head on straight. He’d purchased the property—six acres of dry and yellowed farmland close enough to taste the pucker of the Great Salt Lake—a few years prior off an old-timer who’d been taken to the cleaners by one of those over-the-phone scams. The agreement was room and board in exchange for running his tourist trap.
An old pickup rumbled down the road, hauling a large metal box behind it. It turned onto the road that led to the Pitts household next door, stopping in front to unhitch. Oliver Cromwell, Tommy’s chocolate Lab named for a long-shot Thoroughbred that had once won him six figures, darted across the field, barking at the truck. The load it carried was the size of a U-Haul that you’d use to move into a two-bedroom town house. Oliver barked and barked, making quick laps around the box, and I whistled for him and he came running. Up in the sky, a plane owned by the Mormon Church specifically used to skywrite scripture whizzed by, spelling out the spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form in paper-white exhaust. Oliver and I headed for the house.
Inside, Tommy was hunched over the kitchen counter, watching tennis on one of those eight-inch portable TVs. It was eight A.M. and he filled two highballs with Sailor Jerry and pineapple juice. He unscrewed a bottle of sloe gin and gave each glass a splash and then handed one over. Sunlight bent in through the kitchen window. Tommy had charred a slab of bacon. He looked like he hadn’t slept, and judging from the yelling I’d heard the night before, it was safe to say he hadn’t. Sloe gin drained down the highball.
“Breakfast is ruined,” he said. Smoke came from the skillet and Tommy sat down beside me.
“You’re riding solo on that one.”
“You’re back on the sauce,” I said.
“Fall off one wagon and you fall off them all,” he said. “I believe it was Gandhi who said that.”
Jerusha’s cowboy hat, the one with the imitation turquoise lodged in the center, was missing from the hook by the fridge. Tommy lit a menthol and tried to play it cool. “She has rented a room at the Tabernacle Inn,” he said. “Indefinitely.”
“Oh,” he said, “the best.”
The dog made tight circles next to the oven and whined. Tommy stood up and tossed him a rock of bacon. I took a drink. “Mind if I ask what it was?”
Tommy sighed and adjusted the rabbit ears of the set. “I found my way into a hot tip about the Alabama-Rice game. Had it on good authority that Bama’s QB was in the middle of a spiritual awakening and couldn’t complete a pass to Jesus Christ.”
“Rice won that game,” I said. “The payout must have been big.”
“Old Testament big,” Tommy said. “That’s the issue. I think Jerusha would’ve been happier if I lost. Can you imagine? Looks like it’ll just be us boys for a while.” The dog sat on his stomach and gnawed on the bacon. The television fuzzed and cracked through the tennis match, and Tommy watched. He took a long swig.
“So,” I said, “there’s a metal box out front. Big one. Looks like it could hold a pack of horses.”
“The box—yeah, the box. That’s something worth talking about. Why don’t we go and rustle up some breakfast?”
The phone rang and Tommy answered it. I imagine it was Sheila, as Tommy had a certain way of speaking to his daughter. He left the room. It had been six months since I had been unfaithful to Sheila with the dishy woman who did our taxes and wore too much perfume. I went in for a consultation and she told me that an audit wouldn’t be out of the question, given the shady state of the numbers, and things went hazy. I asked her out and she said okay, fine, but if your marriage goes up on account of this, don’t think you’re staying with me. Sheila found out when I came home smelling like copy paper and rosewater and told me that I was no longer welcome around the house. She liked what Utah had done for Tommy and thought that maybe I could sober up spiritually if I joined him.
Tommy walked back into the kitchen and stubbed his cigarette. “Let’s head into town,” he said. “Moroni’s Strumpet has a brunch buffet that hasn’t killed me yet.”
“Did Sheila want a word with me?”
“I hope Sapphire is working today.”
“Damn it, Tom, did she ask about me? I’m going to call her.”
“You know she spooks easy,” he said. “I’d hold off on that. Let’s go for a ride.”
We got our stuff together and walked through the house. In the living room were the taxidermied heads of animals Tommy said he had killed through the years—an eight-point buck, a gorilla, a white rhino. They hung on the walls next to the TV and stared. Outside, Oliver Cromwell rushed back to the box and gave it another round of sniffs.
“This box is going to turn a couple of things in my favor,” Tommy said. “Sure as hell going to allow me to cut my losses on that old junk shack you’ve been running.”
“What’s in it?”
“Can’t tell you yet,” he said. “Gotta get a few things lined up first.”
“I think I’m going to stick around,” I said. “Man the Hut for a little.”
Tommy got into his car and wished me luck. The jagged ridges in the distance cut a long and messy shadow across the plains.
He made sports bets with the kind of clarity with which a heart surgeon might dissect a frog.
I didn’t meet Tommy Pitts until three years after Sheila and I got hitched. On our wedding day, she had an old college professor give her away and she told me he was her father. I shook his hand and offered to buy him a drink. The real Tommy Pitts, I found out, was slinking around the Midwest. He made sports bets with the kind of clarity with which a heart surgeon might dissect a frog. He made a killing by betting on the Red Sox to win the 2004 ALCS after going down three games to zip and started living the high life. Sheila was through and cut off all contact. Up until recently, Tommy had been clean and bet-free for four solid years, and Jerusha kept him honest.
Oliver Cromwell and I walked back through the house, and I took another beer. I settled out on the back patio and dropped a few splashes of Bud into Oliver’s water dish. He slurped away as the sun shot lightning bolts of heat across the open field. I took my phone and I dialed. Sheila picked up.
“Hello, Miss,” I said. “I’m calling on behalf of the Dino Hut. It’s about a few unpaid visits to the velociraptor.”
“I haven’t a clue what you mean, sir. I’ll have you know I am very close friends with the owner of your establishment. We go back three decades. I could have you fired.”
“It’s good to hear your voice.”
“Go and fetch Tommy Pitts,” she said. “He’ll straighten you out.”
“Cut it out for a sec, Sheila.”
She sighed into the receiver. “You sound so spry,” she said. “You sound 10 years younger.”
“It’s all this fresh salty air. I’m becoming a new man.”
“Sounds like an improvement.”
A group of northern harriers sliced up and across the horizon, making a large and messy net through the sky on their way to the water. “I wanted to tell you,” I said, “I’ve been thinking about coming home for the Fourth of July. I’d like to spend it out there, with you.”
“The Fourth of July? When have we ever cared about that?”
“It was a thought,” I said.
“There aren’t any kids, Max. There aren’t any karate demonstrations or PTA meetings you can use as fake-ass reasons to come back.”
“Well, I’d like to come back all the same.”
She sighed into the receiver again. Longer this time. “I need more time. I’ve got some emotional unpacking left to do. I think this time apart is helping us.”
“Can we get a time frame here? A ballpark?”
“I’ve got to go,” Sheila said. “Take care of yourself, Max.”
I capped the Budweiser and tossed the bottle out into the brush. Up above, the Mormon plane was at it again, this time circling around to spell for behold, i have refined thee, i have chosen thee in the furnance of affliction*.
Things got fishy after I went through the house for a fresh brew and came out to the front yard with Oliver Cromwell on my tail. There was that box, big and metal as ever, only the door in the front was swung wide open. I found a Maglite and went through the door. The place stank in a way I couldn’t have imagined. There was a cot and a nightstand in one corner and a punching bag in the other. I took a step and heard the tinning of empty aluminum and brought the light to the ground. Dozens of empty cans of Red Bull. I went across to the bed, and on the nightstand was an issue of playboy from the 1980s with Kim Basinger on the cover, along with a copy of The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene. I took the paperback into my hands. I heard heavy breathing coming from behind me. I turned around.
Now, I’ll be pretty quick with the particulars here. What was standing in front of me was, without question, half man and half bull. The bull half was the head and the neck, with the human half being almost everything else. The penis seemed to be somewhere in between, because it was there and it was big. “That’s my stuff,” the bull said.
“Shit,” I said. “I didn’t—I mean, the door was open. This box was here. I wasn’t trying to steal your book.”
Don’t worry about it,” the bull said, motioning to the paperback. “You ever read that?”
“My wife and I read it for a book club once,” I said. “I didn’t get far.”
“Kinda preachy,” the bull said. “Not bad overall. You got a cigarette?”
I patted my empty shirt pocket and shrugged.
“For the best.”
The bull stuck out his giant hand. We shook. He told me that his name was Rocky Molatova and that he had been minding his business in the outer forest of a cranberry bog in west Jersey when he was tased to hell and thrown into that box.
I asked, “So who was it that stuffed you in the box?”
“They didn’t bother to introduce themselves,” Rocky said.
“Wonder why they decided to drop you off here.”
“That’s another question,” Rocky said. “Where exactly is ‘here’?”
“Northern Utah,” I said. “Just off the lake.”
“Christ,” he said. “Mormon?”
I shook my head.
“Thank God,” he said. “I don’t go in for any of that magic hat shit.”
Rocky and I stepped out of the box and into the sunlight. Rocky’s tail swept back and forth across the caked dirt, and the long, black horns attached to his bull head reflected light like a mirror.
“Sounds like you might be out here awhile,” Rocky said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, based on that phone call I heard. That was you, right? On the phone out back? Well, based on that, it sounds like you’re going through a bit of a domestic spat.”
“Hell,” I said. “Once you’ve seen a nosy Minotaur, I believe you can safely say that you’ve seen it all.”
“Not being nosy,” Rocky said. “You’re a loud talker.”
“I am not necessarily out here in the Beehive State by choice, no.”
“So your little lady kicked you to the curb.”
“I’m out here with my father-in-law,” I said. “Operating a couple of business ventures.”
“Now that’s what I’m talking about, brother! Capitalism at its finest!”
I asked Rocky if he’d like a beer and he said hell yeah. I fetched a few from inside, and when I came out he was sitting on the dried-out soil with Oliver Cromwell plopped beside him. We got to drinking as the sun shifted through the sky and our shadows stretched wide across the earth.
After we had nearly polished off a 24-pack, Rocky started going on about his life. About how he managed to rise up from the swamp of his youth to eke out a living on the fringe. He told me the real reason he’d been locked up had to do with his befriending a lonely woman who ran a roller rink. She wasn’t afraid of him, and he would sneak in at night. They would skate together in the dimmed light, the only sound coming from their wheels and the Street Fighter II machine grunting in the corner. Then one night as they sat back listening to Bon Jovi over the PA system, a janitor came in and called the cops. Everybody showed up and made wild allegations, and next thing Rocky knew he was locked up and beaten. Then the box.
Rocky finished his story and smashed a bottle against one of his horns. Oliver Cromwell sat up and rushed into the house as the molasses-colored shards splintered like glass hornets bursting from a nest and into the air. Rocky got up and went around to the corner to unload himself, and I caught sight of Tommy’s truck kicking dust across the road. He pulled up next to me and jumped out.
“You missed it, kid,” he said. “They got this new girl, man. Brazilian, maybe. Tits like Kilimanjaro!” I held a beer in my hand and blew into the mouth. I didn’t know what to say. Rocky came around the corner, shaking his penis. He said, “Oh, sorry. Is this not cool?”
“What in the holy hell,” Tommy said.
“This is Rocky,” I said. “He was in the box.”
“This isn’t right. This isn’t right at all. Those goddamn scoundrels. I ordered a fucking mermaid, not a fucking centaur.”
“Great,” Rocky said. “A goddamn racist.”
I stood up to get in between the two. “Rocky’s a Minotaur, Tommy.”
“What’s the difference? What in the hell am I going to do with a Minotaur?”
“What in the hell were you going to do with a mermaid?”
Tommy laughed. “Build her a tank! Build her a tank and charge these yokels 10 bucks a gander. It would’ve put the Dino Hut to shame. I’ve gotta get on the horn—no way a Minotaur costs as much as a mermaid.”
Rocky reached into the pack for a fresh bottle. He lifted it high above his head and popped the cap off with his horn. “You know those twist off,” Tommy said.
I explained Rocky’s predicament and tried to get Tommy to understand. Be reasonable, I said. Tommy had a spotty track record with being reasonable, but I was banking on the idea that his split with Jerusha had left him a little out of sorts. I was right.
We were all slightly to the right of drunk. Things were rolling along. Tommy had been mixing drinks and describing the girls he had found at Moroni’s Strumpet, and I had given Rocky a pair of BYU sweatpants to cover up his penis. Rocky related his story about the roller rink and the lonely proprietor to Tommy, who absolutely ate it up.
“This is such good fun,” Rocky said. “If I was going to be locked in a box and stranded anywhere, I’m glad it was here.”
Tommy let a highball dangle from his hand like puppet strings. “Be honest, Rocky. Did you love that woman? The one with the roller rink?”
“That’s a tough one,” Rocky said. “I was happy that I didn’t scare her. I was happy she wanted me around. Somebody not running off is the closest thing I imagine I’ll ever get to love.”
“Goddamn it,” Tommy said, “this whole thing is breaking my heart. Listen, friend, you’re fine to stay here as long as you want. Carve out a place for yourself with people who get it.”
“I’ll run to the store to get Rocky supplies,” I said. “I need a few things myself. I’ll get you more of that Red Bull shit.”
I took Tommy’s truck and headed out, hugging the curved hips of the Great Salt Lake. Outside, full, whipped-cream clouds expanding throughout the sky and sagging into the ragged biscuit ridges of Box Elder Peak hid the reality of the heat. I came into Ogden, deep white and choked with steeples, and navigated the SUVs and the hordes of clean-cut kids on their way home from school. I pulled into the parking lot of a Harmons, and I found the stash of cigarettes that Tommy always kept beneath his seat. I smoked one up against the truck and crushed it down into the asphalt.
Inside, I had to ask one of the dudes in a smock about the back-room availability of Red Bull. He said that he’d have to check, because nobody ever really asked about it. I grabbed a couple of brands of cigarettes because I didn’t know what Rocky smoked, and I went down the aisle.
I saw a large cowboy hat with a bright green stone in the center bobbing up and down above the tops of olive oil bottles. I reached over the aisle and flicked it. “You almost got your bell rung,” Jerusha said. I went around the aisle and gave her a hug.
“Just getting a few things,” she said. “I haven’t cooked for one in years. They’ve got all these frozen meals meant for just one person. It’s depressing.”
“Sorry about the split,” I said.
“It happens,” she said. “That man was bound to drive me off sooner or later.”
“He’s falling into some old habits.”
Jerusha looked inside my cart. I wasn’t sure what to get for Rocky, so the cart was full of Hot Pockets and string cheese. “You feeding a group of eight-year-olds?”
“It’s a long story,” I said. “Rather not get into the specifics.”
“Before you go and defend him and say, ‘Oh well, Jerusha, it was only one game,’ you gotta know that he’s been fooling around on me. You know that woman that runs the titty bar outside of town? They’ve been going around on the sly for months.”
“Hell,” I said, “I had no idea about that. I thought Tommy was straightened out.”
“You can only keep a man like that straight for so long, you know? I’d have left earlier, but he gets real weepy when we fight. Real fucking dramatic.”
The smock guy came back wheeling three cases of Red Bull and loaded them into my cart. A bell went off, and a man came on over the PA and announced that the patron who’d tied their horse to the gum-ball machine out front needed to untie it immediately, as Harmons was not a horse-friendly establishment. “So you’re gone for good,” I said.
Jerusha removed her hat and slicked back her hair. “Listen, Max. I hope things with you and Sheila work out. I think you two were meant to work out. I also think that some other folks weren’t meant to work out, you know?”
Tommy called my cell. Jerusha waved and rolled her cart back down the aisle, toward the meat department that glowed red in the artificial light.
Tommy said, “Fuck, Max. You’ve gotta come back here. That bull friend of yours, Max, fuck, I went inside for a second—a goddamn second—and I hear all sorts of noises, and I go outside and that piece of shit is ripping into Oliver Cromwell. He’s hunched over him and there’s blood absolutely everywhere. That freak killed my dog, Max.”
“Slow down,” I said. “Where is he now?”
“He was drunk, right? I grabbed a rock and I got the jump on him. Clocked him as best I could. I managed to tie him up, and I rolled him back into the box and locked it up.”
I hung up on Tommy and paid for the groceries. Outside, the sunset was a forest fire of green and orange as the sun eased beneath the hilltops. I opened a pack of Parliaments because I had a pretty good idea that Rocky wasn’t a menthol kind of guy and eased through the traffic and onto the highway.
Tommy was in the living room. The fireplace was roaring and the rhino head mounted to the wall sent a black and swelling shadow creeping across the hardwood. There was a burlap sack in the corner.
“I wanted to wait for you,” Tommy said. “I’m a little wobbly right now, to be frank. Plus, I know how much you admired the Old Ironsides.”
We dug the hole out back. We dug and dug, and Tommy set the burlap sack down into the hole, and he said a few words.
Tommy said, “I’ve got a whale of an idea, see. The Dino Hut isn’t going to cut it, right? Well, listen. I’ll take the money I had set aside for a mermaid tank and we’re going to buy brick and mortar. We’ll build a maze and charge folks 10 bucks a head to come and tame the Maze of the Minotaur. It works for everyone, on account of a maze being the Minotaur’s natural habitat.”
“Fuck, Tommy, that’s labyrinths, not mazes.”
“I don’t see the distinction.”
“A maze has multiple paths—a few ways in and a few ways out,” I said. “A labyrinth has one way in: It’s made to get you to that center point and face whatever comes before you.”
“I don’t have time for semantics, Max. The lousy sack kills my dog and I give him a maze. I’d say I’m being downright generous. And how exactly would you propose we build a labyrinth? It’s a maze or it’s nothing.”
I went inside for the bag of supplies and headed for the box. The key was hung on the outside and I opened it. Tommy had left a lantern inside that threw a large, yellow globe of light against the back wall. Rocky was on the bed with his hands bound against his back. “This is most uncool,” he said.
I flashed the smokes. “Didn’t know your brand.”
“Like a light from heaven,” Rocky said. “The no-filter Pall Malls.”
“I’ll untie you,” I said.
The top of Rocky’s head was matted with blood, and one of his horns was chipped. He waved me off with his head. “Don’t bother, man. He didn’t need to do any of this. He told me the plan, and I’m on board. I’ll play along. I’ll take it on the chin.”
“You want to live in a maze?”
“I wasn’t up-front about some stuff,” Rocky said. “That bit I told you earlier, it was horseshit. The thing with the woman and the roller rink? Well, I saw a woman one night, but she wasn’t as cool as I said. She saw me and freaked, and before I knew it she was dead. Dead, man. Just like Oliver Cromwell. I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. Something ancient welled up inside of me. It was like programming, you know?”
I smoked a cigarette and watched the balled light flicker against the metal.
“I think I’m better off out there in some maze,” Rocky said. “I think everybody is better off.”
I untied Rocky and left him alone in the box. I heard the crack of an aluminum tab as I walked back toward the house. I saw Tommy out in the field, carving lines in the dried-out dirt with a spade. Three rings and then a man picked up.
“Who’s this?” I asked.
“This is Phil,” he said. “Who’s this?”
“Hey, buddy,” Phil said. “What’s the word?”
“Doing my thing out here. Why are you in my house?”
“Sheila needed some help with a plumbing thing,” he said.
“Weird, considering I redid the plumbing not even a year ago.”
“Don’t know what to say,” Phil said. “Maybe you were distracted.”
I told Phil to put Sheila on the line. She sounded the way she sounds after smoking a cigarette that nobody knew she had smoked. “Hey,” she said. “How’s it going out there?”
“Oh, it’s a dream,” I said. “Didn’t I tell you? We struck gold. Now everything around here is caviar and full-body massages. We’re getting a stable put in because we bought too many horses. Why don’t you tell me exactly why in the hell Phil is over at my house.”
Sheila told me that she didn’t feel as if she owed me any kind of an explanation, and that was tough to dispute. She said that I had done some things that were going to be difficult to smooth over and that she had a lot of emotional unpacking left to do. She said that a man with my inherent instabilities may not have been a wise marital decision and that she had realized her deepest fear was continuing a pattern of destructive males in her life. She said these things as if she had written them down like a grocery list on the fridge and each one represented money that she wasn’t willing to spend. Despite the heat, listening to her gave me a chill.
All I could get out was “I think you’re being downright unfair to Tommy. He’s doing his goddamn best.”
“Just you wait,” she said. “Just you wait and see how his best turns out.”
After Sheila hung up, I went back and grabbed Rocky. Tommy had gone back inside, and we walked out to the cleared-out space that Tommy had been working on. I asked him to run around to see how it felt. He said it felt good. I sat down and cracked two beers and handed one over.
“I’m sorry about all this,” I said.
Rocky chugged the beer and burped. “It’s for the best.”
“You were free,” I said. “You were out in the open and now you’re not.”
“I wasn’t doing anybody any favors out there. Myself included.”
The sun was about gone, but I could still make out the wavy lines of heat bouncing against the range. “I finished The Heart of the Matter,” Rocky said.
I took a swig and held the beer between my cheeks before swallowing. “How’d you like it?”
“You know that part, down at the end? When Scobie is about to kill himself?”
“I didn’t read it.”
“He’s about to kill himself and then we go inside his head. The line is ‘It isn’t beauty that we love, he thought, it’s failure—the failure to stay young forever, the failure of nerves, the failure of the body. Beauty is like success: We can’t love it for long. I am going to protect her from myself forever.’ What a bummer, right?”
“I told you I didn’t read it.”
“Just as well,” Rocky said. “The whole thing is a little much. I bet Graham Greene would have been awful to have a drink with.”
Rocky tossed his bottle into the air and I heard the small shatter of glass in the distance. I took up the spade that Tommy had left and I dug a small hole in the center. I threw my phone in and covered it up. The Mormon plane made its way back across the sky, but it was too dark to make out the message.