I Was There, Too
by Alex DiFrancesco
Broom into the corners, mop into the corners. Over and over, my job. I’ve made some bad decisions, I know. I guess not as bad as the guys who end up in the hole.
Matthew Miner. I first saw him when I went to clean out his cell. I’d heard about him, yeah. That guy. The one who had killed all those people. Put here, in the hole, for his own protection. From the guys like he’d been, outside, before the killings, and from the guys he’d hated outside. Nobody wanted a guy like him around.
I thought about my girlfriend, outside this pit, every time I thought about quitting. Every time I ended up mopping up shit, or puke, or, even, that one time, skin. She was pregnant. She was having our baby, which we’d decided to keep, even though. So I slid my mop over concrete floors and whatever was on them, and I thought, life could be worse. It’s been worse.
And then Matthew Miner came along.
He didn’t look like the monster you’d imagine. No swastika tattoos on his face. No glowing red eyes. Those were the kind of things in my head when I heard about him, first, when my boss told me I’d have to go mop down the floors in solitary where they were keeping him.
“Real sicko,” he sighed. “When they took him to jail he was covered in brains and blood. Eyes nowhere. Looking like he didn’t have a soul.”
That part bothered me, maybe most. No soul. It was one of those things. I still believed, a little, in the stuff I learned as a kid. Souls in bodies, keeping them human. Things you could trade away for drugs or women or a guitar at the crossroads, and die empty. Things you could hang on to, if you tried real hard, after your whole shit life. And those moving through the world without, filled with evil instead. Evil, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen men who can kill another man. Nothing there. Just like the boss man said. Eyes nowhere.
So I guess I expected that, when I went into the hole to mop. I took a deep breath, when the boss man opened the door with his keys, and thought of that little tiny something in my girlfriend’s stomach. I thought of it growing into a boy or girl with dark hair and eyes and skin somewhere between my and my girlfriend’s tones. Running around. Laughing like a crazy person at some new toy, or the new puppy I’d buy, one day. Took that breath. Walked in.
Matthew Miner didn’t say a word to me, that first time. Just watched me. Quiet. Damn near jumped from my skin when he coughed.
Broom into the corners, mop into the corners. In and out. I took a long shower when I went home that night, like his breath on me could turn me into him.
Sometimes, a lot of times, the worst things go through my head. I try not to tell them to my girlfriend. But I think about this baby, about the guys like Miner. I think about the world we’re putting this beautiful little baby into. And if it’s a boy, I think about him getting shot, just about every day. I can picture it so clear, the bullet wrecking his little-kid face. He’s never more than thirteen in my head when it happens. And life going on, without him. Yeah, I don’t tell my girlfriend.
And if it’s a girl, I picture some sick shit. All these guys, guys like I used to be once, not even guys like Miner. Saying the wrong things to her. Doing worse. And then I think about the guys like Miner. And I think for the millionth time, not into this world. Not now. Not our baby.
But the baby’s coming. We put away as much as we can of my paychecks, and try to save up our foodstamps. And I can’t quit. I can’t walk out, like I’ve done over and over in the past. And when Miner starts talking to me, that’s when I want to leave the most.
Putting the broom into the corners, and before I get to the mop, he says, “It’s real hard, once you see the truth.”
And I freeze. Broom stopped. Can’t even pretend it’s okay.
I turn towards him. The room’s dark, the lightbulb a low wattage. He’s sitting on the single bed, in the corner. It’s damp in here, not like the walls are leaking but still damp. Maybe a leaky pipe on the toilet on the side of the room I’m sweeping. Tell myself that’s why I shiver all the way down my spine.
I open my mouth, but he goes on.
“People don’t know,” he said. “They don’t know. They think you’re some fringe weirdo, some keyboard warrior — they don’t know you’re trying to help them. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes, you know? The guy’s naked? And nobody wants to say? That’s how it is when you’re one of the ones who sees the truth.”
I tried to see his eyes, there on the bed. Looked hard. Didn’t see much, in the dimness. I started mopping. He sat there, staring. Mop into the corners. Me out of the room as fast as I could.
Couldn’t sleep that night. I laid there in bed, my girlfriend’s skin warm under the blankets, me not wanting to touch her with my cold hands. Like all of me was made of ice. Kept thinking about that man sitting on that bed, about the thing he thinks is the truth. That truth would have my baby dead before it’s born. I rubbed my hands together until they were a little warmer. I kept rubbing them, trying to start a fire, almost, under the blankets. When they were finally warm, I reached over and put one on my girlfriend’s stomach. Stupid. I couldn’t feel that baby, it’s too soon. My girlfriend, sleeping, winced away from the still-cold of my hands and rolled over.
Rolled back on my back, then, thinking. The way you see the world. Your truth. How can we look at the same input, get different worlds? Big thoughts like that, I don’t care for them. I started thinking about life as computer simulations, like in that old movie. It makes sense, how far off some people get in their truth, if we were all walking around seeing what just we saw, some sort of bubble. But no. I can’t think that steep, even when my mind strolls around at night, when I should be sleeping. All the input we get, where does it come from? How does the world make the baby growing and squirming in my girlfriend, and the man in that cell? I think these thoughts until I can’t anymore, and fall asleep.
The hole got mopped, but not by me, not for a few days, a week. I couldn’t stop thinking about Matthew Miner, though. I spent a lot of time, most lunch breaks, reading articles about him on my junk phone. Not an iPhone, not by a lot. I’d known, before then, a lot of the words that followed Miner. White supremacist. Neo-Nazi. Alt-right. I’d even heard about Pale Man, some excuse he’d babbled, covered in the brains of his friends. But it wasn’t until I started looking that I found out who Pale Man was. And that’s when sleep got up and left the building for a while.
First I saw the memes that Miner had made. The original ones, ones he posted up on some website that looks pretty whackadoodle, if you know what I mean. I looked at its wonky script and early internet style on my phone, and wondered how people spent their lives there. And those people, those lives. Man. I’ve made some mistakes. But not mistakes like these guys.
Those early memes were from a contest. The rules weren’t explicit in what these people were about, but they were the judges, so all of the entries were a little off-kilter, way off-kilter, hateful, cruel. Miner’s memes had been the most hateful of all, I guess. So they won. I pictured his hands moving over a keyboard, making these images, while my hands detail-cleaned a room, the crevices, the edges. In his mom’s basement, that’s where he’d made this stuff.
The first one, the one that won the contest, was one of the old integration photos. You know, the ones with white people on one side, screaming as black kids got let into schools, or to use water fountains, to sit at lunch counters. But they weren’t historical, not after he got done. This figure was added into them. A tallish guy, dressed in a black button down and slacks. His hair was white-blonde, cut close on the sides and a little longer on top. That new Neo-Nazi style, the respectable skinhead look. The figure’s skin was so white that it obscured most of his features. Except his smile. It was more blinding white framed by a darker outline of lips. With everybody in the pictures so emotional, he looked really out of place just standing there, smiling. Underneath the picture, in big white block letters, Miner had placed the words: I WAS THERE, TOO.
That got me for a while. This guy. Skin whiter than mine, smile as full of terror as a shark’s. I wondered what kind of head you’d have to have to make him, to put him there. The other posts had come in rapid succession after that one won the contest. There was a picture from South Africa, of black people lining up to get their papers to work in the white areas. The blinding-white-skinned-shark-smiled man was in one of them, too, his face out of place. He didn’t belong, even though the photo alteration was seamless. Underneath it, Miner had put the words: I WAS THERE, TOO.
There were a few more photos from big moments. You know. Gruesome times. The camps where they’d offed the Jews, a march where the police were cracking skulls. That man, that pale ghost of a man had been stuck in all of them. And the words: I WAS THERE, TOO. It created a picture across time. Something Miner, it seemed, had been proud of. History. Heritage. Whatever words these guys put on hate.
There was something I couldn’t understand, though. The turn. Matthew Miner had been arrested after neighbors of a basement apartment called the police when they heard rapid fire, extended bursts of gunshots. Found covered in the brains and balls and blood of a gathering of Neo-Nazis. Blubbering through the blood on his lips, over and over, the words, “Pale Man.”
Next time wasn’t as hard. Mop, broom, all that, but I went in wishing he’d talk to me. Wishing he’d tell me. Knowing maybe he’d look at me and see someone he could talk to. Someone he thought might be like him.
I had questions. I didn’t ask any, not right away. Mop in the bucket, sloshing the water. It’s what I do. With my high school education, my life of mistakes, it’s the best I’ve done, the steadiest. That baby’s coming. So I mop.
I was mopping up the excess water when he looked at me. Those eyes. Couldn’t see them in the dark, except as darkness. Shadows set in his face.
I cleared my throat. “Let me ask you something,” I said. I tried to sound like people expect me to. Me with my shitty tattoos on my neck and hands. Me with my mop and broom.
“You?” he asked. “Want to ask me?”
“That Pale Man,” I said. “How the hell did you come up with something like that?”
He smiled. A little. A shadow deepened on one side of his face, that’s it.
“I’m good with photoshop,” he said. “Really good. I spend a lot of time on memes. They’re a kind of art — but not that bullshit kind that you have to go to some stupid school for.”
Memes, he said. Pictures and words. The hobby of a guy who could blow away a meeting full of his best friends.
“But that’s not the story you want to hear,” he said. He leaned forward, his face coming a bit into the light of the bare bulb hanging down. “The story you want to hear is how Pale Man took over.”
Chills up my back, up the backs of my arms. He knew. Of course he knew. I didn’t care about some meme contest on the internet. Made sense, that part. Neo-Nazi comes up with white supremacist symbol, spreads it around the hate sites. I spent longer on those sites than I cared to. Reading about how the Holocaust never happened. Reading about the struggle of the white man. Reading about men’s rights. About how the history books lied, how there was a global Jew conspiracy.
“Once I made him,” Miner was going on, “he was out of my hands. Spread like wildfire. Had a backstory that went all over the world, had videos about him, spread through the history of everything. There he was. My creation.” Miner looked me up and down. “A guy like you know anything about what I was getting at? The truth I was getting to with Pale Man?”
I stood there leaning on my mop. I said no, the talking stopped. I said yes, I was a lie. I couldn’t bring myself to lie about that hate. So I said nothing.
“The truth is a funny thing,” Miner said, nodding once. “You’ll see.”
I went out for a drink that night. Just one. Then two. I hadn’t been out drinking in weeks, not since the lines had appeared on the pregnancy test. Two lines, crossed. My whole life changed. I thought about it. I thought about what the truth was for Matthew Miner. I kept thinking. I drank another beer. Stumbled into my apartment at three am to screams and my girlfriend throwing soft things that could never hurt me in my direction. Stuffed animals we’d bought for the baby’s room, packs of tissues. It was almost a joke, but she was so mad. I was out of breath. Thought someone had been behind me for a while on the street walking home. Didn’t say anything, I didn’t want to scare her. Tried to grab her wrists, but she kept twisting away. Didn’t want to hurt her, so I just took it.
My head was pounding the next morning, and the thought of that piss-smelling mop made me want to vomit. I called off of work while she stood over me with her coffee.
“You said the drinking was over,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. My head was splitting. She didn’t know a thing about Matthew Miner, other than what we all knew, from the news. Not that I’d seen him. Not that he’d been talking to me. I wasn’t going to tell her, ever.
Pale Man got out of Miner’s hands quick. All over the internet, like a disease. I don’t use the internet much. Sometimes I repost pictures I see on Facebook. But I’d never seen Pale Man until I got to looking.
There were sites dedicated to the timeline of Pale Man. That was where I learned about the turn the meme had taken.
“When Pale Man Got Claimed by the SJWs,” a section headline on one of them read. It had an earlier meme that Miner had done, one of the originals. But instead of saying, “I WAS THERE, TOO” underneath it, it read on top, “this white-lead chapter about whiteness” and on the bottom, “is but a white flag hung out from a craven soul.” What the hell did that even mean? Site went on to say that this was when the internet had decided that Pale Man wasn’t the pride symbol that Miner had intended. Pale Man was some creature lurking on the edges of humanity. A boogeyman. Eyes with no soul behind them. Pale Man, now, was some demonic force that made the rightness in humanity go wrong.
That’s what I’d seen in Pale Man from the first image. I guess others, too. Miner and those guys, they were outnumbered by the ones who thought like us. That made me feel okay for a moment. Like the baby in my girfriend was going to be okay in this world. But then I thought about it more. Pale Man — even as a demon — was still out there.
“He gets in your head,” one story that had popped up around that time said. “He lurks at the edges. One day you see him. And you can’t unsee him, not ever again. And then he’s all you can see. Until you do the worst thing you can imagine.”
And that could happen to anybody. Even Matthew Miner, stumbling into custody with those white supremacists’ brains all over his face.
I didn’t stay out late, ever. When it got dark, I always thought someone was following me down the street, steady and slow.
I started having these thoughts, sometimes. They weren’t mine. They weren’t the things that had been in my head, ever. They were like someone else’s voice whispering in my ear. These whispers, these thoughts. Terrible things. I’d lay in bed at night with my girlfriend, that baby growing in her, and my mind flashed with all the worst things humanity could do.
I would go online to look things up. Something I’d never really done in the past, but there was so much out there. I’d start somewhere like “first trimester of pregnancy” and end up at Pale Man. Always that face, that pale face, those shark teeth. I’d start at “common birth defects” and I’d end up at Pale Man. I’d start at “interracial families” and I’d click one link then another, then another, and before I knew I’d gotten to Pale Man. It felt like he was at the end of everything. Waiting.
Meanwhile, Miner got more chatty. Liked the guy with the broom. Though he could trust me. Maybe it’s the tattoos on my neck, my hands, even though there’s no swastikas or anything marking me like him. The guys that like me in the hole, in the prison, they always seem to like those. He gets to telling me about his “cunt mother” who turned him in, about how much he hates Jews. How guys like us have to stick together. I nod, but I don’t say anything. He says enough.
One day, without asking, he was telling me about the murder. It was no secret, he’d confessed. There would be trial and all that, but he’d told the cops already what he told me that day. I just pushed the broom while he talked. Real slow and even.
“That day, I told some of the guys I had something important to tell them. That’s the last thing I remember. The rest is images, but I’m not there — I’m watching through the window or from outside the door, or somewhere.
“I walk in like always, the places where we talk the real talk, make the real plans. I see it from outside. That stuff on the internet, yeah, we spend a lot of time on it. But the real things — they happen in these basements, in these sheds out back, in places where we leave our phones outside and get away from our computers and our Alexas. I walk in like always, but when Ray hugs me, I pull out my Glock and put it to his head and then his head is gone and then the others are reaching for their guns, all my friends, all the guys who I’ve been drinking and planning and beating people with and their fingers fumble because they’re so surprised, but mine don’t because the Pale Man is guiding me, making me do the worst thing I can think of, take out the people who belong, who are the ones who I should be protecting with all my life, who I have protected, who I want to protect. First I shoot Rich in the stomach and his blood pumps, like a hole in a swimming pool. Then I shoot Marty in the arm, right below his swastika tattoo, because I miss where I aimed, and he grabs the bullet hole and looks at me and looks down at the gun he dropped and starts to cry because of the distance between him and the only thing that can save him. And I shoot him in the forehead. And James, he gets one in the balls, then the legs, because he’s last, and why not play a little, after he’s defenseless? When I finally shoot him in the face, he’s squirting blood from everywhere, and the person inside me is laughing while outside I’m wondering why I would ever kill these people. And before long I’m back in my body, and my body is covered in their brains and I’m just standing there smiling.”
He didn’t move or flinch when he said any of it. Related it like the weather. The day Pale Man came for him, made him do the worst thing he could think of. Something that maybe wasn’t so bad for the rest of us, but that’s not what Pale Man does. He gets in your head, you see, and it’s the worst you can think of. Maybe you’re a Neo-Nazi like Matthew fucking Miner, sitting there on your bed in the hole, now suddenly cry-laughing because Pale Man is real, real, real, something you made up is out there in the world. Or maybe you’re a guy like me who lays in bed at night, thinking words like “abomination” when you think of the sweet baby growing inside your girlfriend’s brown belly, a word you never thought, but you try it on, and there it is, and then there is the thought of the butcher knife in the kitchen and the thought of all that blood, pumping in their bodies, her growing one and the baby’s still-tiny one. Maybe it’s driving you crazy, keeping you up at night, maybe the sound of that broom on the ground in the hole where you stand as you hear the story of Matthew Miner’s murders is enough to set you over the edge, to make you want to scream, it’s like a howl. Maybe you throw the broom down and run out, you don’t give a fuck about this job, you can’t take one more minute of standing there with that man — the real abomination — and you run out, past your boss with his mouth open like a caught fish and you run past the time clock and you run home and you put your face on your girlfriend’s stomach, who is crying, but no one followed you home, no one followed you, you are safe, you are in yourself not standing outside, there are no shark teeth whispering in your ear, and there are bad things in the world, but they are not here, not inside you, not yet, not the way they could be, and you promise her you will find something else, quick, that you will take care of both of them and that you will never let the monster in.
Alex DiFrancesco is the author of All City (Seven Stories Press, ’19) and Psychopomps (CCM, ’19). Their work has appeared in Tin House, The Washington Post, Brevity, and The Millions.
Image original: Jason Leung/Unsplash
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