During my dad’s undergraduate career at University of Iowa, he lived in a house with four other guys. One was Ken. Ken was in love with this girl Gilda Collins, who was his archaeology TA. Everyone thought she was hot, but Ken would write poems about her. Bryce, another roommate of my father’s and Ken’s, found the poems one time and he read them aloud to the entire house.
They’re longing and heartfelt and not all together bad poems. They speak of dread of her touch, fear that a single kiss would be so powerful as to catalyze Armageddon. The earth would shake and crumble in on itself. Ken would cry himself dry as paper if she were to just whisper his name.
Bryce finds these and waits until the middle of a toga party at their house to read them aloud, standing above the masses on a hand chair like a Roman orator. Ken smiled at first, knowing only that there was a joke by the hush in the room and gravitating about Bryce. Upon hearing the second line of his poem, Ken disappears into the winter street before anyone noticed his leaving. They all laughed, really considering but also joking whether he had even grabbed a coat to wear over his bed sheet.
Ken gets back at Bryce for this humiliation by propping a bucket of water on Bryce’s door so it would fall on his head when he opened it, forgetting that device only works among the creations of Misters Hanna and Barbera. Like most people do when entering a room, Bryce walks through his doorway instead of waiting in it and the bucket falls after he’s already passed it. Bryce turns and laughs to himself and makes to go out to the living room to taunt Ken for his miscarried prank, but he slips in the bucket’s puddle, falls, and cracks his head open.
They drive him to the emergency room. He gets 17 stitches, a concussion, and a stripe down the back of his head where they had to shave his hair to stitch up the cut. Of course, everyone calls him “puss-head” after. In fact, U of I alumni call him that right up until he dies on an airplane in ’99, of a stroke.
Bryce is pre-med. Late one night, drinking and doing speed alone in his room to Perry Mason reruns, he concocts a revenge plot. In one of the medical buildings on the campus is a refrigerated room full of cadavers. This, the med students call the “rumpus room” because they sometimes throw parties in it.
That day, in Bryce’s class, he and his classmates had watched their instructor perform an autopsy on a woman who had died the week before after stumbling over a wasp’s nest on her hike. Some fifty-two stings triggered an allergic reaction and her throat had swollen and closed, killing her as her fiancé carried her on his shoulder to a ranger station. The woman was a mere four foot, eleven, leaving so much of the autopsy table uncovered that Bryce’s instructor would at times hoist himself up and sit on the foot of it during his lecture.
Bryce puts a shirt on and goes to the garage, drunkenly dumps warm water and cans of beer from a cooler, onto the floor, then takes the empty cooler with him on a drive to the school. Less than an hour later, he’s back at the house but now he has to drag the cooler back behind him. Without anyone seeing, he takes this cooler up the stairs and, while Ken is out who knows where, he transfers the small dead woman who was allergic to wasps from the cooler to Ken’s office chair. Bryce turns off the light and goes downstairs to watch TV and drink beer with my dad and some other guys because he’s done with his lonely drinking for the night.
The boys get drunker watching movies and probably smoking a couple joints. Finally Ken comes in and, of course, this is the night he has finally bagged Gilda Collins. He flaunts her in front of the boys, his arm around her, grinning, having met her by chance at the library and then proceeding to get drunk off a bottle of vodka she had in her car and making out ferociously in the same car. Bryce is too fucked up to move off the couch, but his grin is just as big as Ken’s because he knows what’s waiting for him when he takes Gilda up to his room.
Ken and Gilda go up to his room, but there’s no shrieking. This bothers Bryce for about three minutes and then he passes out. Ken and Gilda fuck for two hours, falling in love more and more the whole time, and they fall asleep holding and kissing each other, dreaming of each other after they close their eyes. Of course, they never turn on the lights this whole time.
At nine in the morning, the shrieks finally kick in. Gilda has woken up and the first thing she sees is the dead miniature woman with her rib cage split apart, sitting upright in Ken’s desk chair. Instantly, she knows what’s happening: Ken, the man she has just fallen in love with, is a serial killer and he has tinkered with her heart as one would an old Volvo’s engine, just so that she would come to his house where he could murder her like he’d done to dozens of others before her.
She runs down the stairs, screaming in unmitigated terror. Bryce wakes up, still on the couch, realizes what’s happening, and stops Gilda before she leaves. At first, she can’t be reasoned with, but Bryce persists. He runs next to her down the street because she won’t stop going for the police station. Four blocks down the road, Bryce’s words finally gets through the hysteria. She stops running and falls to the ground giggling, high on adrenaline.
Ken, who’s been chasing them both, catches up and Bryce explains to him the origin of the corpse in his room, ending the story by telling him that the joke is, in reality, on himself: his plan had been to scare Ken and then return the corpse back to the rumpus room, but since the science building had already reopened while he was passed out, he can’t bring the body back, for fear of expulsion.
“Fuck,” Ken says, catching his breath on the ground next to Gilda. “So what? You got to fucking bury it now or what?”
Bryce’s eyes go wide with realization because that is exactly what he has to do. So that’s what they do.
The three of them take that poor women to a field they used to party in and they buried her six feet down. Then they all got breakfast together at a place called Hattie’s. At Gilda’s suggestion, they all split a bottle of cheap vodka. They sneak it into a Clint Eastwood movie. All the tension there is between Ken and Bryce dissipates and after that they become dear friends.
And he told me that and I spaced out. It was a long story. But it reminded me of how I knew the girl from college. She was pretty.
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