Cameron Thomas Snyder
Houses of the Holy
One century ended while another century began and my older brother and I found ourselves getting dragged like luggage, yet again, from one place we didn’t want to be in Kansas to some other place we didn’t want to be in Kansas. All around me things were beginning or things were ending.
We were in the family Bonneville, on our way to the Plum Tree for Mother’s Day dinner, when my stepfather fell into a fit of rage. He pulled over and told us, his stepfamily, to get out of the car. We got out and huddled together like tangled trash on the shoulder of the busy two-lane highway, wincing at the wind from every passing vehicle, while in the idling car my stepfather screamed. I knew then that we would not be wolfing down platefuls of much desired chicken-on-a-stick, nor cracking open manila-folder-colored cookies containing scraps of paper telling our future; our future had been predetermined by a human Harley with a poor sense of humor and a foul-smelling handlebar mustache.
After his anger subsided, he told us to get back in the car. We said no. He flipped us off, tossed my mother’s brown leather purse out the window, ran it over, and drove home to drink five or six bottles of Boston Lager. He sat on the back porch in his too short summer shorts, lobbing the empties into the yard like fragmentation grenades.
Home, in those years, was a traditional stick-built house that my stepfather paid to have constructed, custom to his own liking, right there alongside the same highway he would later abandon us on. “Stick-built” is a term I recently came across while researching the differences in modern residential homes; it simply means a house that is built on-site, unlike prefab housing, trailers, and mobile homes. I’d
seen plenty of mobile homes in the area, but it had never occurred to me that I might actually end up in one. We were simply not that kind of family, not those kinds of people.
My ex-stepfather stayed in his house, chugging domestics, while the three of us—my mother, my brother, and I—stumbled off down the highway that leads to Ottawa, Kansas, searching for a place to call home.
Mobile homes stopped being mobile homes in 1976, after the Department of Housing and Urban Development passed a bill requiring that all prefab homes be built in a factory setting under strict federal building codes. The designation “mobile” was then legally changed to “manufactured,” not to be confused with “modular.” The specifications that determine whether a house is manufactured or modular are so semantically similar, it’s hard to know what’s what and why it even matters. Both are prefabricated off-site in climate-controlled factories; both are constructed in sections; both look like they were prefabricated off-site in climate-controlled factories and constructed in sections. The main difference between the
two is this: the manufactured home, equipped with a chassis, can be moved once it’s attached to a foundation, while the modular home remains a permanent fixture
once attached, like the stick-built home.
Brochures will tell you that you can hardly tell the difference, aesthetically, between a stick-built home and a prefab one, and I’m telling you that’s bullshit. But as my mother and I shopped for manufactured homes in a gravel lot off Main Street, where the only real difference between one house and the next was exterior color, I tried to recall all the stupid prefab proverbs about houses I’d ever heard. “Family makes this house a home,” I told myself. “Home is where you hang your heart.”
I put my hand to my chest and couldn’t feel a beat. A house is a hollow thing.
Purchasing a manufactured home is the easy part; it’s the finding where to set it down that can be tricky.
My mother and I drove around in the Bonneville, combing seedy neighborhoods for a plot on which to plant our factory-built house, and found ourselves, naturally, in a trailer park. I sized up the cars and trucks and vans sitting in front of the houses, as if these vehicles somehow reflected the character and social worth of the people who lived in this makeshift community. A couple of jalopy Pintos and a few trucks without doors later and I was explaining to my mother that I had an image to uphold, that if she forced me to live here, I’d be—we’d be—commonly called, by others outside of this favela, “trailer trash.” She said she was sorry but you had to play the hand you were dealt.
We did find a lot, and it wasn’t in a trailer park. However, our manufactured home wouldn’t fit on the lot in the traditional position known as hamburger style, i.e., with the front door facing the street, so the house movers had to set it down hot dog style, meaning the side of our house faced the street while the front door faced the side of our neighbor’s house.
“Hi. We are the hot dogs on Hamburger Street. Very nice to meet you.”
We added on a covered porch and an uncovered deck and planted squares of hyper-green sod in the front yard, or side yard, whatever it was, and the manufactured home continued to be a manufactured home, only now it had new accessories, like a poor kid in mall clothes. When friends came over I’d say, in all sincerity, “This is a manufactured home, and by that I mean I do not live in a trailer,” expecting them to be convinced or impressed or I don’t know what.
When the name Kyle Flack appeared alongside the words “murdered four” in the headlines of the Ottawa Herald website in the spring of 2013, I convinced myself I’d gone to school with him, or at least with one of the people he murdered, if only briefly, but I couldn’t be sure. My life had become so gutted of meaning that I needed to say I knew a killer in order to feel alive.
I talked to my brother on the phone about it. He had come to a similar conclusion. “I may or may not have smoked with one of them a couple times,” he said. “But, as you know, my memory blocks out a good deal from our Ottawa years.”
Regardless of who knew who, Kyle Flack murdered three adults via shotgun at a three-bedroom “modular” home on the outskirts of Ottawa. He also shot and killed an eighteen-month-old girl and shoved or tucked or placed—depending on your news source—her body in a suitcase and tossed it into Tequa Creek near the Osage–Franklin county line.
Each newspaper article refers to the house differently, as if the reporters were all dancing around the same issue of what exactly to call the structure, although “trailer” is never used. “Trailer” connotes reckless backwoods Kansas folk and threatens to detract from the severity of a toddler’s death while bolstering the stigma of trailers and those who inhabit them. “Modular home,” “house,” “farmhouse,” and “single-story residence” can all be found in the various reports. Whatever it was, it belonged to the mother of one of the victims, who claimed to have spent more than $15,000 in repairs and had plans to add blue countertops to the kitchen that she would have carried out had the whole house not burned to the ground in a “possible” arson a year after the murders took place. The only photo of the house online was taken after the fire, and, judging by the charred cinder-block underpinning and the rusted chassis, I’d say “modular home” is semantically incorrect.
According to The Kansas City Star, Flack wrote in his journal that he wanted to “dye [sic] in a suitcase”; his therapist speculated that he might have suffered an early-childhood trauma that eventually led to this bizarre attraction to luggage. The precise brand or style of suitcase is not documented anywhere online—it is simply referred to as “a suitcase.” For a man who had an ostensible fetish about dying in one, you’d think Flack would have been more particular about the suitcase he used in the crime: Samsonite or American Tourister, modern trolley style or vintage, oxblood or black. Or maybe he couldn’t afford the model he desired and had to settle for something he had on hand, had to settle for less.
A suitcase is not a coffin until a child’s body is tucked inside it. A prefabricated box is not a home until a family fills it.
A couple of years after the murders, my mother was sent to the very same detention center where Flack had been held while he awaited his trial. After she served her time, my brother and I drove down from Kansas City and took her out to an early lunch at the Ottawa Applebee’s. Our food arrived and we sat awkwardly amid an ambient countryside sizzle. I asked what had happened.
“I was leaving Country Mart and I hit a kid in the parking lot. I didn’t see him.”
“What do you mean you didn’t see him?” my brother said.
“I mean I drove away before I could get a good look at him.”
“I believe there’s a term for that,” I said.
“And you were drunk,” my brother said.
“No. I ran out of wine and went to get some more.”
“Because you drank it all that afternoon.”
“Like I said, I ran out.”
She did three weeks in the female ward of the Franklin County Detention Center for a hit-and-run. She told us that all the other inmates were young and helpless and looked up to her as a mother. She made sure they had enough to eat and gave them her food if they didn’t. My mother, I thought, the maternal jailbird, fluttering around in her cage, distributing masticated worm-mash into the mouths of criminal baby birds I probably went to high school with. She’s always had a way of making me jealous.
I watched the family cat choke on a hairball, or what I thought was a hairball, by the washer and dryer, in a space that functioned as both the laundry room and the back entryway. His chest heaved as I attempted, out of pure misguided instinct, to perform CPR on him, and his rib cage cracked and crunched like a pine cone under a bath mat until a warm liquid began to soak the denim of my kneecaps, and I noticed then that the last of Pickles’s piss had vacated his body. When my mother got home, she scooped Pickles up, slid him into a black plastic garbage sack, and said, “Now go burry your cat.” The sack drooped in my doubled-up fists like a giant rotten teardrop and I did as I was told. A few months after this, I watched from our newly built porch as my ex-stepfather—who’d been nosing around our place lately, reeking of false forgiveness and stale beer—ran over my pug as he chased after the tires of the truck. His ragged body tumbled and flailed and fell limp in the gravel alleyway, and I ran inside to cry on the carpet, in private. I buried Pugsly next to Pickles in what was quickly becoming a pet cemetery. This small accumulation of tragedies made the manufactured home feel spiteful, not only to my reputation but to my emotional health as well. My ex-stepfather bought me a consolation pug, this one even dumber than the first, and the next thing I knew my mom was a lunch lady shopping at Walmart with EBT food stamps. To combat this death spiral of white-trash poverty, I got a job at Dairy Queen South as a fry cook the moment I turned fifteen, to make some money of my own. Then I adopted hardcore Christianity to prove myself better and holier than everyone around me, or maybe I had simply deluded myself, as a means of self-preservation, into believing I’d become better and holier than everyone else around me; it didn’t really matter which, because at the end of the day, it’s pretty much all the same in the head of the beholder.
Darren, the manager of the Dairy Queen, explained my duties to me. They were simple, he said, requiring the most minimal use of elementary human cognition: “Here’s where we keep the burgers, here’s where we keep the fries, there’s the grill, there’s the fryer, figure it out.” The charm at the end of his gold chain kept getting tangled in the triangle of his chest hair, and he plucked it out as he talked.
“What’s on your necklace?” I asked.
He fingered the charm and looked down, creating a stairway of chins. “Beauty and the Beast,” he said. “It’s my favorite movie of all fucking time.”
Darren was a squat, rotund man of forty-five. He lived in his parents’ basement on the other side of town and had been working at Dairy Queen for fifteen years. His favorite movie was indeed the animated Disney rendition of Beauty and the Beast, with Full Metal Jacket a close second. Anytime I found myself bombarded with orders—if more than six or seven food orders popped up on the screen—he’d scream “FUBAR!” and run back to the kitchen to help me fend off the assault. “I am in a world of shit, yes,” he’d whisper, drawing a pentagram with ketchup on the top portion of a burger bun. “But I am alive. And I am not afraid.”
A demented teenage demon named Hormones lived inside me and I smothered him with a throw pillow called youth group. I declared myself straightedge and marked my hands with thick, bold Xs: marks of a martyr, of a modern-day messiah ready to die not for the sins of the world but for my own. I painted quotes from Corinthians on the bottom of my skateboard and carved I SK8 4 JC into the grip tape. Meanwhile, the demon grew like a bonsai cat, his limbs contorting inside my religiously decorated shelter of being. He wanted out. I held him in.
The girls weren’t allowed to cook food. If they wanted something to eat for lunch, they asked me or one of the other guys in the kitchen to cook it for them. The girls stayed up front with the soft-serve machines and the Dilly Bars, where they acted as the “Cool Treats” the slogan advertised. This made me a “Hot Eat,” I guess, one that
could not be seen by customers unless they squinted through the heated order window and caught a glimpse of my visored head as I practiced my pentagrams.
Girls often snuck into the kitchen to poach fries from the heated dump station, of which I acted as a gatekeeper, and they did the same when we grimy kitchen cretins craved a stray turd of soft serve. When I wanted to flaunt my power as an edgy fry cook with little regard for authority, I’d allow the girls to dig around in the heated drawer where the fried chicken strips were kept, and if they caught me in a
good mood, I’d let them slather their strips with a squirt or two from the peppered gravy dispenser. This was all part of the Dairy Queen power dynamic, a primitive system of trading and bartering.
A beautiful blond girl began to visit the dump station far more than the others, and I got the feeling it wasn’t just for the french fries.
Brittany and I had gone to school together long enough for me to know that she only dated bad dudes, those who were academically stunted and, more often than not, built like military cyborgs. What attracted these sorts of men to Brittany, at least on a carnal level, was the unbelievable exquisiteness of what the boys of Dairy Queen called her “badunkadunk.” My eyes were not unaware of this phenomenon, but a good Christian boy does not objectify a woman’s body, because it is a sin to objectify a woman’s body. So when she started hanging around the dump station, which is to say, when she started hanging around me, I decided that it was my duty to protect her from unmitigated sexual harassment while remaining true to God by corking the wellspring of sexual urges that rose up in me when she was nearby. I was being good. I awaited my reward.
It is dangerous to confuse ethics with sins.
When word got around that I didn’t put out, or put in, or go all the way, the guys found it necessary to give me shit about it.
A big kid who had clearly never been laid showed me how to make an engorged vagina out of a warm washcloth.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” I said.
“Fuck it,” he said, laughing.
I dipped the oval end of a red plastic spoon into the burbling fryer, removed it, and used tongs to stretch out the melted plastic, creating a three-foot-long eating utensil, and handed it to the big kid.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” he said.
I shrugged, but the demon inside me said, “Eat another Blizzard, you fat fuck.”
I was becoming comfortable with my responsibilities at the deep fryer.
At home, things stopped dying. My mother started seeing our neighbor, who looked like a Ninja Turtle, and he tried to introduce discipline into our household. It was not welcome. He reprimanded me after I screamed at my mother for making us poor. “Don’t talk to your mama that way,” he said. I tried to laugh in his face but cried instead. He bought me new skate shoes for Christmas and smoked weed with my brother. My mother took some steps in the wrong direction, then the right direction, some steps up, some steps down. People are steps, are to be stepped on. My mother taught me this.
I flipped over one of the hot metal food dividers and skated it with my finger skateboard.
Darren’s red water-balloon face appeared on the cool side of the heated order window. “What in God’s name are you doing back there, boy?”
“I’m nose-blunting this hot metal food divider,” I said. “What does it look like?”
Skateboarding in front of girls was something that made me feel worthy of manhood; using my fingers to stunt a toy skateboard on fast-food kitchenware in front of girls—not so much. So when I heard Brittany approaching, I stowed the food divider and stuffed the finger board into my greasy black slacks.
“What was that sound?” she said.
“Uh-huh,” she said, plucking a piss-yellow fry from the dump station. “You sure it wasn’t the sound of you playing with your little toy?”
To change the subject, I cracked open the chicken-strip drawer provocatively. “Hungry for something else?”
She dug around and found what she wanted. She held the warm strip under the gravy nozzle and I gave it a half squirt. She looked me in the eye and bit off the continental tail of the chicken strip. “Don’t tell,” she said.
The demon thundered in his cage.
Every Christian boy secretly desires a bite of the forbidden fruit, the razor-blade apple, the apple bottom. No, no, do not objectify emails, I mean females. Suppress the thoughts, suffocate the demon.
I rode my skateboard to the prefab skate park next to the sewage pond and stared at the fresh graffiti scrawled in Sharpie on the back of the six-foot quarterpipe: 666 SATIN. I skated home and locked myself in my room and masturbated to the last five minutes of the E! program Wild On! Here exotic bikini girls shook their bodies on circular platforms in cerulean blue fountains. Brittany was not among them.
The day came for some serious occupational advancement. Darren sat me down in the blotchy break chair and he got serious. “The time has come for you to work up front,” he said.
“You mean like making Blizzards and taking orders at the register and working the drive-thru window and having kids from school see me wearing a visor?”
“Will I see an increase in pay?”
“Well, no. But you will gain experience.”
“So you want me to do more work for the same pay. Am I allowed to decline this advancement?”
He plucked the charm from his tuft and shook his head. “You’re killing me, boy.”
I requested an extra shift so as to reduce the number of hours I had to spend at home. A Dairy Queen is as suitable a place as any for a teenage boy to live. Darren could be my father, a whole slew of Cool Treats could be my mothers, and I’d subsist on buttered Texas toast and CheeseQuake Blizzards.
Darren offered me a Wednesday evening shift.
“Youth group,” I said.
“Oh, fuck, that’s right,” he said. “How about Sunday morning?”
To avoid workplace conflict and distract myself from my desire for Brittany, I began dating girls who worked at Dairy Queen North. One of these girls picked me up
after my closing shift at Dairy Queen South, shoved me in her Geo, and drove me along a desolate midnight highway to her house so we could make out and I could meet her dog. Her house was neither a house-house nor a manufactured house, but a full-blown pre-HUD-amendment trailer house. “Sorry if you’re disappointed,” she said. “I know trailers get a bad rap.”
I consoled her to the best of my ability. “We can only play the hand we are dealt, right?”
While we dry-humped on the edge of her bed, surrounded by soiled puppytraining pads, her dirty mophead of a dog whimpering in the corner, I began to think the unthinkable thoughts of a self-stigmatized man: I am trash, she is trash, we are trash. She drove me home with my feet on the dash, the window down, and I convinced myself I lived inside a Death Cab for Cutie song, when in fact I’d never speak to this girl again. One manufactured home between a pair of high school lovers was doable; two meant trash. I began to date out of my league, class-wise and intelligence-wise. My reputation as stuck-up religious skater kid preceded me, and this somehow worked to my advantage. I played my hand and started dating girls who lived in opulent houses with rich pantries. No longer, when I brought girls to my house, did I apologize or try to explain my circumstances. A museum needs no explanation; it only needs to be seen. This is my mother, drooling on herself at noon. That is my brother, hotboxing my pug in a cooler. Welcome to my home. Now go ahead and feel sorry for me. Please.
My car was in the shop, and everything outside was caked in sleet. People ordered ice cream, despite the cold. “What kind of idiot eats ice cream when it’s ten goddamn degrees outside?” Darren said.
A busful of high school basketball players walked in ten minutes before closing time and things got fucked up beyond all recognition. I drew so many sloppy pentagrams with ketchup on the undersides of the buns that they started to look more like Stars of David, but the orders kept coming. Not even God can produce a shower of manna bountiful enough to meet the needs of a busload of high school jocks. They wore matching windbreakers and watched Brittany’s ass like an after-school special. She played like she liked it, but I wouldn’t believe that. She
gave one of them her number, and I gave him the most rancid piece of prepared meat I could find in the holding cabinet.
The basketball team left and Brittany’s radiant face appeared like an angel’s on the other side of the order window. “Need a ride home?” she said.
We pulled up to the side of my house and sat in her warm, idling Cavalier. My house stood there like a sheepish animal, embarrassed to be caught off guard in the glow of her headlights. For the first time in months I felt self-conscious about where I lived.
“This is a manufactured home,” I said. “Not to be confused with a trailer or a mobile home.”
She laughed at me the way you laugh at a child who has dressed himself for the first time. To her, I was a straitlaced Christian boy who didn’t party or have sex—the antithesis of tough, a total square. But I felt things inside. Felt things? Yes, I could be bad too. I just had to tell her: “I have fantasized about peeling off your pants and fucking you from behind in the walk-in freezer and subsequently getting locked in and freezing, cryogenically, only to be discovered and thawed centuries later and, upon awakening, continuing to fuck you from behind in a strange and unrecognizable future world where the only thing that could possibly palliate our horrific disorientation would be to continue fucking each other in a walk-in freezer. Also, my alcoholic mother and retarded pug are home. Would you like to come in?”
She cleared her throat and wiped at the condensation forming on the windshield. My time to confess was running out. I prepared a different speech, one of truth: “The body sitting beside you is manufactured. It is a temporary structure liable to blow into bits in the event of a strong wind. The foundation is rat-ridden and dangerously unstable. The outside says nothing about what lives inside. I am no different from those I speak and think ill of. I am a gymnasium of jocks, an infatuated fry cook.”
Before I could say anything out loud, she popped the automatic locks and said, “Well, goodnight then. See you tomorrow at work.”
I got out of her car and she left. I’d seen this before.
Inside, my mother was sitting on the couch watching television. She showed me a free sample packet of CoverGirl foundation she’d gotten in the mail, and I squirted the beige paste onto the palm of my hand and smeared it in long, thick streaks up and down my face. I danced around the living room while she ate cottage cheese. She laughed like a happy witch. She laughed so hard a curd ejected from her throat and landed on her chin. We both laughed so hard I thought we’d never stop. I handed her the foil packet and sat down next to her and we watched Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? trying to guess the answers and getting them all wrong.