The twins who lived next door burned up in a fire. I smelled their bodies in my sleep and woke up all confused. They didnít go running around waving their arms like you see in the movies, just burned up somewhere in the house like two sacks of blackened coal. No one heard them cuss or scream, just the whoosh of fire rolling off the roof. The neighborhood gathered around the house in its underwear and bathrobes, but at least someone called the fire trucks because you could hear sirens in the distance.
When you live next to twins you wonder what makes them tick, if they put on the same-colored socks or drink the same kind of alcohol, if they have the same dreams of girls and moan in their sleep from the same open mouth. You wonder if they walk the same way and have the same thoughts, or if the differences are so small they amount to a grain of dust on the head of a pin. You keep checking off the list of sameness in every category, going over it in your mind, the same kind of haircut and the same kind of tater eating grin. Sometimes you even write the samenesses down in a chart that sprawls across your desk. Somewhere deep inside you want them to be different somehow, different in a way that sets up a tension so that they need a third party to broaden out the possibilities. Or maybe what you really want is for them to be the same in every robotic department, acting the same way in everything they do, the same kind of measured steps, turning their heads at the same time and waving goodbye like farewell is a dual message that canít be deciphered alone. Because those boys really were just about identical in every thing, especially in how they regarded the world with mutual suspicion, like they werenít about to give any ground, like their twinness was a point of pride and a bitter, ongoing debate between them that no one else could solve.
No one knows how the fire started but they had extensions chords running in and out of the house this way and that until they had to step over them just to use the john. They even had chords strung up one side of the house like the outline of a tree, each one wrapped around another till you thought they were choking all the others off. Their house was woven over with wires. The twins were probably ready to burn up by that time anyway. They were already made of flammable material. One twinís name was Rufus and the other oneís name was Chuck. Rufus was the tough one, the one who stared you down with a look. Chuck usually just stood behind Rufus, blinking his eyes. Something bad must have happened somewhere along the way because they were always getting into trouble, beating each other up and walking around with bandages on their heads. I think the sight of blood must have comforted them somehow. They dropped out of high school and drove around on twin motorcycles.
I invited them over once for a bucket of fried chicken and they both got so embarrassed their faces glowed. Itís just chicken, boys, but they must of thought I was making fun of them because they both turned around and walked straight back into the house without saying a word. All this after their mother and Mabel died, which happened at about the same time (more twinness to go with the twins, like everything they were associated with came out doubles). Mabel died in her sleep but not before she told me to look out for those two twins. ďYou look out for those two twins,Ē she said. Those are the last words she ever said to me, and I wish I hadnít of said back to her, ďYou donít have to say two twins because twins always come in twos.Ē Thatís what forty years of marriage does to you. But I got to know the twinsí habits real good. I studied them day after day when I retired from the railroad.
They werenít what youíd call friendly, and they were always carrying boxes in and out of the house, like eggs or explosives, something real fragile. Rufus was left-handed and Chuck was right. They moved through the doorway like cats on the prowl, slinking up and down unholy stairwells. They must have weighed a hundred and thirty pounds each. Later on I wondered how their skinny weight burned up in the fire, if it crackled like sticks or just kinda glowed. They kept a cow in the backyard with a bell around its neck. It ran away the night of the fire. They didnít favor company but listened to blues music all night long. Chuck had a harmonica he slapped against his knee. I liked how it went thwang. I made a secret list of their comings and goings, a ritual I grew fond of like looking at dirty pictures. The thing you need to know about twins is that theyíre always trying to outdo each other in mayhem and catastrophe so itís one act after another with no end in sight, like they want to burn eternity into your soul. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesnít. When it works itís like a door thrown open and you see a small part of Godís face, a nostril or something like that, and when it doesnít work all you see is blank, blankety, blank, blank.
Sometimes twins light up the atmosphere with their gestures and mannerisms as they crane their necks through the same window, and sometimes those same gestures fail to bring anything down to earth you can touch and see and talk about so you canít even say, I saw this burning truth and it means X or Y. You canít say that. They deepen each otherís loneliness somehow, magnifying the hurt and the rage like a telescope. I thought if I could get to know them, I might come up with a reason, but what that reason was I can no longer say, just a hunch, a feeling, a longing that spools out to darkest night. As far as twins are concerned the hunger grows inside of you like a longing thatís hard to appease.
One night I put on this hat made of feathers and snuck over to their house to see if they slept in the same-sized bed with the same bed covers and if they slept in the same way, on their backs or on their stomachs. I kept hearing Mabelís voice in the back of my head, warning me over and over, ďDonít get too close to those twins because theyíre dangerous.Ē I got halfway to their house before I turned around because the wires around their house were super-charged with humming, like they were about to explode or announce my presence. I never got to see how they slept, and if in fact they were side by side like two knife blades laying out, gleaming in the moonlight. I could only go back to my list and write up a few more details in capital letters.
The twinsí sweat smells like corn chips.My list grew magical in my mind, and I started writing down other quirks and follies that quickly ran to a dozen pages. I had to get their meaning down before something bad happened as the twins went out of their way to take risks, to inflict pain on the other and to make up for it by crying in their beers. It was a love-hate relationship bona fide in the blood that must have went back to how they struggled in their mamaís womb and maybe even before that like buds of light reaching up out of murky water. I wrote feverishly, like a judge or demon. You look at their high school year book and see that they are the same, that the sameness looks right back at you from the photographs and is the same one that drove them at each otherís throats, that they loved the sameness while at the same time hated it because it kept them from their individual selves.
They go at each other like dueling faces in a mirror.
When one coughs, the other sneezes or wipes his throat.
Rufus gets redder in the face but Chuck makes up for it
By holding his breath.
The love of martyrs will bring them down, though they
can be the martyrs and also the people that kill them.
When one twinís on the roof, the other oneís scurrying up the ladder.
They share the same woman in fucking and she does not even know it.
The fucking is solid, like two tireless oars in the water.
They love what they canít have so they steal it with
Four sets of identical eyes.
If one twin eats grapes the other will eat an apple.
Their jeans have the same creases down the side like a prism held upward in the light.
The twins are their own worst enemy and also each otherís saving grace.
You have to get used to saying each other each other because it canít be any other way when youíre talking about twins
If you had a version of yourself in the world and you didnít want to be reminded, what would you do about it?
The twins prove there are two of everything, love and its opposite, strength and weakness, the first shot followed by an echo
The twins burn eternity into your soul.
You wanted those twins to claim their differences, reach down and come up with something shiny and new that the other couldnít know about. Many times I saw one or the other (to this day I could never say which one because it always happened so fast) spill out into the yard followed by the other waving a lamp or mop handle around where theyíd commence to beat the shit of each other until I thought the other one might die. Rufus or Chuck, it didnít matter though it must have been Rufus most of the time because he was the one with the mean streak. I watched them through the sprained back of the Venetian blind, fingering the feathers of the bird hat and getting hard for a reason Iíll never understand. Mabelís face came back to me like a moon, all sorrowful, and I had to say out loud to the air that I donít control what the twins do to each other or what they do to me. The twins couldnít know how they affected other people because they were too busy beating each other up. Thatís when the wires around their house seemed to hum the loudest, like they were full of bees trapped inside optic fibers. Then the whole house seemed to go supernova for a second before it settled down to looking again like any rundown house, only wrapped up in hundreds of looping wires.
Looking back on it now, their house had to burn down with them inside it. Couldnít be any other way. You donít normally think that about other people but twins are different. I asked Rufus about it one day when I caught him off-guard, maybe the only time he ever really talked to me. I said, ďWhatís it like having a twin just like you, your same age, same face, same everything?Ē And he leaned on the shovel he was digging with, a paisley blue bandana wrapped around his scrawny neck. Youíd think I asked him how to save his own soul. Youíd think it was just the two of us stranded on an island, looking at trees like they were the only food. He thought about it for a second and spit out a response, ďHaving Chuck for a twin means I hear echoes wherever I goĒóand then he went back to digging. I watched him for a long time, letting his words sink in.
I thought of Mabel and when we were first married, how we wanted kids but werenít able to have none. I thought of late nights on the railroad, beating tramps out of empty cars, how they had the kinds of mouths where corncobs must have been. I thought of how dark it was carving up the mountains in Colorado, sheer drop off right below your feet, hanging to the side of the train like my arms were made for ladders, Mabel back at home having her quart of coffee and three cigarettes before she went to bed. We were married to each other but we were always separate, as I suppose all couples are. We didnít know that much about each other. Not like twins. The twins knew what unfairness was. They were always ready for it. They sopped it up with bread. They swam in it like a swamp and they were just lowly frogs eking out a living the best way they knew how, catching flies and croaking their blues in the dark, fearful of snakes and owls with dollar-sized eyes. I stood there a long time as Rufus dug a five-foot hole around a power line and his words burned eternity into my soul. Because what is it about twins that fills you up with sadness? Is it because theyíre doomed to always look like each other, like two freaks who will never know home? Or maybe itís because the twins are struggling against sameness, trying to get away from each other but never quite succeeding?
I went back home and drew up the shades. I took off my clothes and cranked the air conditioner up as high as it would go. I put the bird hat on and cried in the cool darkness, thinking of those two boys lost to each other and lost to themselves, as if their twinness was a sickness they couldnít shake off. And I had a crazy thought at the time that now smacks of prophecy, that their house needed to burn down, and them along with it if they were ever to have any peace. I dearly wanted them to burn like they had burned me, like they burn any one they come into contact with. Thatís why it was such a surprise the following night to wake up to that carnival of flames, the pops and sizzles of all those wires reeling around like hoses in the night. The twins were fried alive, and I wonder what their last moments were like, if they held hands before sticking a screwdriver in the socket or a wreath of sparks broke over their heads. I wonder if the last thing those twins saw were the changing quicksilver in each otherís eyes, if the inky clouds parted just enough to see the other for what he really was, a clinging, desperate twin about to be a twin no more. So while the rest of them watched the house burn down with the flames bouncing off their glasses in such a way that you couldnít know what they were thinking, I kept my hands behind my back and balled up the list I had made of them.
Then when no one was looking, I threw that list into the fire.
About the author:
My work has appeared or is forthcoming in Harper's, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, First Intensity, Massachusetts Review, Puerto del Sol, and many others.
© 2011 Word Riot