Terrible Century

12 minute read.

AI-generated image of a dark and abandoned house, covered in debris and squalor.

In the year two thousand, I wore baggy jeans, smoked Parliaments and felt that the grunge rock and rap music I listened to defined me. Also, Tim and I were on heroin.

I remember July was hot and miserably humid and one night, when Tim and I had no money to score with, we drove to the house my older brother, Cole, was renting, with AC blasting in the car, to drink beer. We arrived bearing no gifts, with only our wiry nerves and our teenaged thirst.

Cole’s friends, Sean and Felix, had stopped at Blockbuster and as we drank, we watched The Sixth Sense and Fight Club on the flat screen in the basement living room. Both seemed the pinnacle of filmmaking, though they were hard to enjoy at the time.

Sean, Felix and Cole commented on the plots of the movies and performances of the actors, but Tim and I were quiet, chewing the insides of our cheeks, clinging to the stories like lifelines.

We watched The Sixth Sense first and did not see it coming.

With Fight Club we took the ride, hung on every word. As soon as I put my hand on one knee to stop the bouncing, the other would start up again.

At the end, with Ed Norton and Helena Bonham Carter high up in the empty office building, after the demolition starts and the Pixies song, “Where is My Mind?” comes on, when he takes her hand and she turns to him and he says, “You met me at a very strange time in my life,” I felt I was at a turning point too. Soon my life would drastically change. At any moment some cataclysmic event would crash through my world and set me on a different path.

I practically held my breath.

As the credits rolled, Sean, Felix and Cole joked about starting their own fight club. They called each other wusses and pussies and argued about who’d fight who and in what order, but this didn’t interest me. I had the idea to spend the night in an abandoned house on the other side of town. It so happened that I knew of one.

Cole and I were paid to clean the house out by a friend of the family that spring so I knew it was a decrepit old building with boarded up windows and doors and fire damage on the second floor. I knew it sat on a dark street cut off from its neighbors by a patch of cedar trees. And just like Tyler Durden’s dilapidated house on Paper Street, it seemed the perfect place to kickstart my next chapter, whatever that was.

Out on the porch to have a smoke, I told Tim about the house. We faced the street and stared out at the dim streetlight.

“It’s this great big, creepy place,” I said. “I don’t know if people died there or what, but there was a fire upstairs and the basement is grimy and gloomy, like a medieval dungeon or something.”

Tim made no response. His face was deadpan as he took a long drag off his Marlboro, like all future eventualities bored him to tears.

“Anyway, my plan is this,” I said. “Let’s sleep there tonight. It’s basically just like Tyler Durden’s rundown place on Paper Street. We’ll rough it—turn our backs on society. Who needs it, you know?”

Tim flicked ashes from his cigarette and looked right through me. He went on staring so long I wondered if I was a ghost.

Maybe it was a stupid idea anyway. What would it prove? I might as well sleep on my brother’s couch, with the working bathroom down the hall, wake up rested and try to escape society tomorrow, in the light of day. But just before I forgot the whole thing and went inside to snag another beer to slowly nurse the jitters of withdrawal, Tim said, “Sure. Fuck it. Let’s go.”

And suddenly, it was a fresh new century. The air tasted like crack cocaine and other exciting chemicals. Unique opportunities waited for people bold enough to reach out and grab them. We said goodbye to the older boys, who thought us crazy, filled our pockets with cans of Coors Light and stepped out into the muggy summer night.

Folding ourselves into the ‘87 Hyundai hatchback with dented paneling I inherited from Cole, we headed west. The drive down Route 30 was quiet. After midnight, most businesses were closed, most people’s house lights shut off. Twenty miles east of the lights of Atlantic City, the stars had space to shine but I kept my bleary eyes on the line of road reflectors, trying to hypnotize myself out of feeling sick.

Tim was temporarily staying with me at my parents’ house, and since we both worked part-time at U-Haul, we were always together. “Running partners,” was the term we used. Sometimes we didn’t talk for hours. We almost always craved a fix but there was nothing to be done, so why pick at the scab? Anyway, I was pretty sure I could imagine what we were both thinking as we rolled past an all-night convenience store we couldn’t afford to stop at.

I tuned the radio to the local college’s station and Tim lazily scratched at his ribs. The band that played sounded like a cheap imitation of The Smiths. After the third nearly identical song, we arrived at the house. More shingles had blown off the roof and some boards that’d I’d tacked over the windows had fallen down.

“Here we are,” I said. “Home sweet home.”

I cut the headlights and pulled into the short gravel driveway.

“That’s a nice stuffed chair on the porch,” Tim said sarcastically.

“It’s yours,” I said.

We crept around back and pried open the plywood over the door, silently complicit. Compared to copping our drugs in front of the string of apartments down the street, the act felt innocent, like taking a free historical tour. I half-expected a guide with a little hat to appear and introduce herself. She’d have a clipboard and a headset mic. She’d say, “Believe it or not, this house is even older than it looks.”

Somebody had spent some time inside because there were empty cans of beans on the floor and fresh graffiti on the wall. Torn pages from a People magazine were strewn about. A wad of soiled underwear had been tossed in one corner.

I made myself comfortable on the dusty floor, put on a brave face and said, with all the assurance in the world, “So what do you think of the place?” as if I were welcoming Tim to a large colonial mansion I’d inherited.

“Like you said. It’s creepy. But I’ve passed the time in worse places.”

I bet you have, I thought.

We took stock, pooled out resources. We had eleven cigarettes. Four beers and three-quarters of a Kiwi Strawberry Snapple. If rationed correctly, our supplies would last till morning. But we weren’t ones for rationing and I foresaw a long sleepless night laying on warped floor boards and felt foolish for coming.

Tim sat against a wall with torn yellowish wallpaper. He popped open one of the cans of beer.

“So this is your big plan, huh?”

He was sullen. I could tell he was in a bad mood because he’d ripped the filter off his cigarette and in between drags he chewed on secret candy or else his own tongue.

“I guess I thought something would happen,” I said. “Like a breakthrough, or what have you.”

“A breakthrough?”

“Yeah, you know, like in the beginning of Fight Club when Ed Norton’s character went to support groups to cry into Meat Loaf’s man tits.”

Tim choked on his beer. He scoffed, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“You thought we’d find our spirit animals?” he said.

“Yeah, kind of.”

He laughed until he started coughing.

“You’re so weird,” he managed to say through choked gasps.

Cross-legged in the center of the room, I smoked and ashed onto a piece of ripped cardboard torn from an old pizza box. A crack in the boards over the window let in light from the moon and I made a neat pile of ash. Time seemed to drip by.

After a while I said, “What did Brad Pitt say to Ed Norton before he moved into the house on Paper Street? Why did it seem like a good idea?”

It sounded like the beginning of a joke, but I was in earnest.

Tim fiddled with his hemp necklace that had a single puka shell. He said, “I don’t remember,” then tilted his head back and belched.

Not only did he not remember, Tim didn’t care. He had the air of someone who showed up to the party only because it was raining and he had nowhere else to go.

“I’d like to rewatch that scene,” I said.

“He might not have said anything,” Tim offered, rolling the sleeves of his T-shirt up around his shoulders. “They just beat the piss out of each other in that parking lot. Norton was probably concussed—not thinking clear.”

I thought Tim had missed the spirit of the film, the crux of our situation. At 19, we were already hopeless. What did he not get?

I decided he’d never have a spirit animal—one that matched his sour consciousness didn’t exist. I looked at his pale arms hung like overcooked noodles from the sides of his collarbones and was annoyed. Because of those noodles a cop would peg us as a couple of junky runaways for sure.

“I do know one thing,” said Tim. “Living in a shithole is generally a lot cheaper. Squalor is affordable. At least, my uncle doesn’t seem to work very hard in the trailer park.”

“Huh? Good point,” I said.

And it was. Something to consider. Something to keep in mind. But I was distracted by the complete and total quiet in the house.

I felt wind should’ve been howling outside and I’d have preferred noise, sirens or creaking walls and floors. I’d also have preferred absolute darkness, so I wouldn’t have had to look at the crumminess of the room or Tim’s morose face. The moon was so bright I could even see the small V-shaped scar under Tim’s eye where he’d been snagged by a fishhook.

I stubbed my cigarette out on the floor next to the pile of ash and something from high school surfaced. The smug history teacher with his new beard after winter break. Something he’d taught us.

I said, “Mr. Kazinkski told us about one of the Stoic philosophers from back in the day. I forget his name, or where he was from—probably Rome, I guess—but he’d sometimes sleep on the stone floor just so he’d remember to appreciate his bed.”

Tim picked at his chipped tooth.

“I like beds fine already. What’s not to like?”

“Sure, but you have to admit the logic is sound. Like maybe if you live in a shithole awhile, afterwards you’ll be happier for it.”

“Yeah maybe,” said Tim, still testing his tooth’s sharpness. “At least, going awhile without a fix makes me appreciate a fix when I get one.”

Huh. The words spread into the corners of the room, leaked down torn wallpaper and seeped in between cracks in the floor. A fix, a fix. Jesus Christ. Tim had a way of stating things the bleakest possible way, reminding me of the things I tried to forget. What a miserable fuck. Sometimes I didn’t believe he had a girlfriend like he claimed. “Steph” likely didn’t exist. Why would anyone want to be around him if they didn’t have to?

Tim resembled a sad, stray dog, I thought, as he examined the injection site in the crook of his left arm where there was a purple, infected-looking bruise. He was absorbed in the inspection, pressing down gingerly with the tips of his fingers like his arm was a wounded animal he didn’t want to disturb.

“And besides,” Tim said from what felt like out of nowhere, “I’ve been sleeping on the floor in your bedroom every night for the past two months.”

If he was making a point, I wasn’t aware.


“So if you want to try out Stoic philosophy, and remind yourself how nice your bed is, the next time we sleep at your house we should swap places. I’ll take the bed and you take the floor.”

I tried to imagine looking up at Tim sleeping comfortably in my bed from a place on the floor, but couldn’t get my head around it. He had the troubled home life—the mom who kicked him out, the absentee father—not me.

“What do you think?” he insisted. “Not a bad idea, right? You get to be philosophical and I get to be comfortable. It’s a win-win.”

I said I’d think about it.

Tim sucked his chipped tooth.

“Well don’t think too long. My back is in bad shape and my neck is worse. Soon I’ll be like an old man creaking down the sidewalk behind one of those walkers with plastic wheels.”

This was not the kind of meaningful conversation I was hoping to have as I soaked up the squalor. I’d wanted to be transported and I blamed Tim for the experience falling short. He complained more about his health, about pressure in his ears, about a hangnail on one of his toes, and finally having enough, I said, “Dude, cry me a river.”

“Fuck you!” he said, ripping the filter off another Marlboro while mean mugging me.  

I said, “I don’t want to hear about your petty little problems. Do some stretches or something. Take up yoga.”

“Don’t be an asshole! Why are you always such an asshole?”

I tried to stay calm.

“I’m an asshole?” I said. “In what way?”

“I don’t know. Try giving a shit!”

“I give plenty of shit,” I said, actually a little hurt.

Tim flipped out his hands.

“You’re out of touch, man. Why would you want to turn away from society? Your whole life has been a cakewalk. Society fucking loves you!”

I sat up straighter on the floor, tucked in my jaw.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “Look around! We’re in the same fucking boat!”

“Oh, sure. Six months addicted to heroin and one night in an abandoned house, like that’ll change anything. You can’t compare your life to mine. Have you seen my house? Plus that free car from your brother?”

“I’m working that off,” I said.

“Yeah, right! And you won’t even let me borrow it to see Steph! You’re a spoiled brat!”

It was too much that he brought up his fictitious girlfriend. I finally shouted, shattering whatever calm resided inside the broken house.

“Kiss my ass!” I said.“And shut your mouth or I’ll leave you here! Seriously, dude! Maybe next time you fill the tank you can go see Steph! If she even fucking exists!”

It felt good to raise my voice, like cobwebs fell from some part of my brain. Afterwards, there was a hollow quality to the darkness in the room. The house was like a vacuum, I thought, sucking life from us. That’s what houses did—that’s why they were eventually abandoned.

A few seconds passed as I considered other insults. Something about Tim’s fish-like face, his stupid gold hoop earring, or how he always had white paste in the corners of his mouth from eating powdered donuts everyday. But before I had the chance, as sardonic as ever, Tim said, “Yeah, fuck you too.”

I looked at his dry grin and sighed. As much as I hated him, my anger dissolved. The vacuum shut off. Dust particles hovered in moonbeams.

I felt odd. I felt like how you feel when you finally resign yourself to the doctor’s orders, when you begrudgingly vow to give up grapefruit, or direct sunlight, or whatever it is that’s hurting your body. To calmly say “fuck you too” was the perfect response and Tim used hardly a shred of inflection. His seemed an enlightened point of view. I’m fucked, so, naturally, fuck you too. If only for the moment, I felt Zen-like, balanced, stoical.

I’d thought the house would be bursting with clues, like an Escape Room that to escape from would mean earning an easy life, but I didn’t see any clues lying around. There was only more rusty nails, crumbling sheet rock, dirt and bits of trash.

“Well, I learned one thing from this little field trip,” I said.“I don’t want to live in squalor. I can’t stand the grime.”

“No. Squalor isn’t much fun,” Tim agreed.

“I guess Brad Pitt wasn’t the hero of Fight Club,” I said.

Tim brought a hand up and scratched the acne scars on his sallow cheeks.

“Brad Pitt never should have declared war against society,” he said. “That was his mistake.”

I took a gulp of beer.

“What do you mean?”

“Picture a passenger train with six billion people on it speeding down the tracks. Imagine the momentum. Now imagine trying to stop it or alter its course. No, for better or worse, society is taking us to the end of the line.”

Tim hocked a loogie into the corner with the underwear and it splatted against the wall. That weird mind-meld thing happened, and with Tim’s phlegm sliding toward the floor, I knew the question in both our thoughts was, Would things get better or would they keep getting worse and worse?

We didn’t sleep in the house but we didn’t leave right away either. I hugged my knees to my chest for another hour or so, picturing a college degree and a series of wives. I saw myself off drugs, in different cities, different countries—I saw self-driving cars and predicted the rise of Amazon. But of all the optimistic and fantastic futures I imagined, I couldn’t envision a single world in which I gave Tim my bed and slept on the floor. Not a one. Not even for a night.


Pete Able’s stories have appeared in Philadelphia Stories, The Fiction Pool, and HASH Journal, among others. He lives in southern New Jersey.

Pete Able’s stories have appeared in Philadelphia Stories, The Fiction Pool, and HASH Journal, among others. He lives in southern New Jersey.

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