Chapter 8: Escape from Spine & Arp
In which I plunge into an ominous cartoon on a pirate channel from the 80s, attempt a dangerous journey across the ruined BerkshireArts campus, and... end up back where I belong?
Phew, I’m finally myself again… again… again.
The phrase echoes and expands throughout the room where Spine & Arp sit side by side on a grease-stained couch, watching cartoons. I hover in the space between them, uncertain of my own size and shape, and watch them watch the screen, where a duo of similar dimension occupies a house much like the one they occupy, but flimsier, more pasted-together—a house in a cartoon.
In this cartoon house, rendered sometimes on construction paper with crude crayon drawings, and sometimes as a three-dimensional diorama, with puppets that lurch back and forth in great trembling strides, I watch a montage of Spine & Arp going about their business: sleeping in matching cots in a dim attic, waking to eat sparkly cellophane from tiny plastic bowls, then bursting into rooms that seem to have been stapled together an instant before they arrived, while laughter crackles in the background.
As I put a hand to my mouth to be sure it isn’t coming from me, a distant memory begins to surface.
I begin to remember, or to believe I remember, watching this show in the dead of night during college. I can picture myself—or a self, as the memory portrays nothing but a pair of shoulders and the back of a head, munching a burger in a red plastic tray—clicking the remote at the TV in the suite of rooms where I lived during my junior and senior year, surrounded by inert roommates, tuning in to a broadcast between established channels. A pirate channel from the 80s, I’d thought then, and so think again now, letting the memory fill out whatever I’ve become.
It pulls me back to the common room of that dorm suite at three in the morning, the empty husks of my roommates slipping off the couches and chairs they’d passed out on after drinking and smoking all they could handle. I sit alone among them, the only sentient being left, while the TV broadcasts another episode of Spine & Arp, which I only ever come across when I’m alone like this. I’ve never mentioned it to anyone else, nor ever found myself returning to it during daylight. It seems to leave no imprint in memory until it next appears, when, like now, it triggers a flood of familiarity.
I let this flood wash me back to the long, deep nights of college spent alone in this room, watching Spine & Arp on the very screen I’m watching it on now, either ten years later or, as is starting to seem more probable, during the very same time period I’m trying to remember, so that, perhaps, no time has passed and it is still my junior or senior year at Berk, the future nothing but a disturbance in a cloudy corner of my young mind.
The screen shows the puppet Spine and the puppet Arp strolling from room to room in the house that I begin to picture as lying on the edge of campus, where the cozy enclave of BerkshireArts gives way to the primordial forestland beyond, site of the sprawling, ominous grounds of the Pale Oaks, “about which legends breed,” as Arp once told me, in the same house I’m now watching him stroll through, “like mosquitoes on the banks of Lake Victoria.”
Done with my burger, I lie against the couch, my skin itchy and loose, like a shawl I’ve thrown around my shivering frame, and watch Spine & Arp prepare to leave the cardboard version of the house I remember so well, putting on felt hats and tiny leather jackets, then stooping beneath the matchstick doorframe and out into….
Dread fills the common room as I watch Spine & Arp stroll into a desiccated, rotting version of the Berk campus. The air is yellow and hazy, a thick scrim between the characters and the screen, and the buildings they pass puff out and sag like loaves of bread left underwater.
I try to rouse my passed-out roommates to bear witness, but they prove unresponsive, so I lean in closer, staring at the screen while Spine & Arp trample wilted, blackened grass in front of the sinking library with translucent holes in its sides and wet, bloated books leaking out. They pass trees that have split down the middle, the two halves falling away from each other like the peels of a banana, and I begin to smell sulfur and mulch as they approach the room where, I tell myself, I’m merely watching this scene in the dead of night, just as I did all through college, when it surfaced through a hole between channels for me alone.
I gag and watch my roommates bloat, their skin cracking and splitting to reveal spongy, pink foam inside, and I can tell that if I don’t tear myself away from Spine & Arp, the show will leave me in the same condition.
So, itching skin I can still barely feel, like a deep dose of anesthesia has just begun to wear off—or, I think, just begun to kick in—I exhale as much of the gas as I can, waving it away as it billows from the screen, where Spine & Arp are now entering the stairwell that leads to my floor.
I rise to my feet, feeling my new spine squirm in my back, as if I’d startled it by moving. Then I throw open the door and, trembling with the effort to keep my breath shallow, hurry to the elevator, hoping to avoid a confrontation with Spine & Arp in the stairwell, if, as I suspect, I have not succeeded in exiting the show’s sphere of influence, but merely entered another chamber in its potentially colossal backstage apparatus. As the elevator rattles from floor to floor, it fills with rhythmic clicking, the sound of two puppets being expertly manipulated up a series of stairwells, jerking their articulated limbs as they approach the dorm suite where, surely, they’d hoped to ambush me.
When the elevator lets me out in the lobby, it’s clear that the real Berk has not been spared the fate it suffered in the show. Either that or, as I believe I posited earlier, the show has extended to encompass my confused attempt to escape from it. Perhaps this is even its main source narrative of intrigue.
The yellow gas fills the empty space, turning the metal grate over the hamburger grill window into grey putty, dripping onto the counter where I ordered a thousand late-night meals, trembling with inebriated hunger while I struggled to count out five or six dollars in cash.
I stand there now, swooning in the yellow murk, remembering those nights, the air equally hazy back then, full of the grease of burgers and fries, the cool whir of the milkshake machine, my teeth gnawing in stoned anticipation, the comfort of having no bedtime, nowhere to be in the morning, nothing to do but load up on junk food and hurry upstairs to spread it out on the couch, turn on the TV, and sink into a new episode of Spine & Arp.
Like the train I tried to take out of Berkshire, this memory deposits me back where I began, but even more rattled this time, less sure of myself, more fearful of what Berk’s become. I turn from the molten metal slats, spit onto the wet, crumbling tiles, and force my way out of the lobby and onto the campus.
The same imagery I saw as Spine & Arp made their way toward my suite surrounds me here, and I have the sense that they’re on my couch now, watching me run toward the house they abandoned, falling into the dark mist of their own memories of having watched this very show—a low-budget Running Man knockoff—in the depths of the night during their own long-lost college years.
I run through the bog of rotting books in front of the library, past the freshman dining hall, collapsed like a spongecake doused in coffee, and begin to feel my own legs sinking into the terrain, the yellow gas in the air merging with a greener cloud that my struggling legs kick up from depths I can no longer see.
I turn toward the quad, where I remember sprawling out on spring afternoons with an iced coffee and a library edition of Absalom, Absalom! Now the grass ripples in the heavy wind, its green surface clotted with lily-pads and algae, and I have to reach down and grab my legs behind the knee and hoist them up to keep moving forward, puppeting myself toward the house on the edge of campus where I remember visiting Arp on Sunday nights during my junior and senior year of….
The gas penetrates deeper into my sinuses and the image of the two of us on the couch in that house, watching a Czech or Hungarian film, begins to feel no more substantial than my memories of watching Spine & Arp alone in the common room of my dorm suite. I can picture the iconic opening scene, where the two puppets sit on the couch watching a Czech or Hungarian film, pantomiming a deep and engaged conversation about art, but, as I grope in the yellow air, struggling with ever less traction to pull my legs out of the muck, I can’t internalize the memories as anything more than images I once saw on a rented screen in the dead of a New England night.
I picture the two puppets up in the common room right now, watching me struggle in this bog on the same screen where I watched them struggle, and I reach out beyond the edges of my vision, as if praying that an offscreen puppeteer might catch me, which… is exactly what happens.
“Found him,” a gruff voice calls, as a pair of calloused hands grabs me around the elbow, which seems to compress and soften under the pressure. I watch my feet come free of the muck and carve rippling trails in the quad as they float toward the edge of campus, beyond which, I remember, only the dense forestland of the Pale Oaks remains.
Even before I hear the gruff voice say the words, I know this is where we’re headed. It’s almost like I remember it, though I maintain—something in me splits here, into a Spine-component and an Arp-component, each striving to shout the other down—that I am not an inmate there, and must oppose any narrative to the contrary.
Still, as I’d known they would, the calloused hands with the gruff voice drag me into the forestland, through cool, dewy ferns, and then up the cobbled front walk of the sanatorium.
Another pair of hands hoists open the iron doors, and then the ground beneath me turns hard just as suddenly as the Berk campus turned soft. “Got out again… how’d he get out again?” I hear a female voice ask, as a third pair of hands grabs my feet and I feel my rear end rise from the floor as they carry me the rest of the way into what I suppose I’m meant to take as my room.
I feel the crunchy firmness of a plastic-covered mattress beneath me, and the sharp, sudden pain of a needle entering my inner arm, and then the slithery rush of my blood turning narcotic. Then I see a distant screen light up, with two puppets staring back at me from a grease-stained couch.
Phew, I’m finally myself again… again… again, I think, or hear the show think, and then I close my eyes and fall into a dream about a thirtysomething animator in a studio apartment in New York City, undertaking his first feature-length film, in which he’ll consign his one-time mentor to a slow, painful death of medicated insanity in a windowless room in the heart of the Pale Oaks, a grim but necessary sacrifice, the completion of which, as Arp, I have no choice but to oppose.
Indeed, I think, as I sink deeper into Arp’s vacant shell, I will do all I can to punish Spine for what he’s tried to turn me into, believing there would be no consequences for leaving me here.