April 12: “Fair & Square” by Aaron Burch

Raise your hand if you’ve heard this story, more of an urban legend: This family goes on vacation, comes back a week later, only to find out their house has been robbed. Their TV is gone, their VCR (this is an old story, but you can modernize it) is gone, and so is all their jewelry, art, and silverware. They are devastated, as they feel violated, unsafe, and betrayed by their fellow man. They call the police, then realize that maybe they’re not alone, that the robbers might still be there, so they get back into their car, lock the doors, and wait for the cops. Later, they still don’t feel good about things, so they stay that nigh tor two in a hotel, grabbing only the things they need, clothes, toothbrushes, the kids’ teddy bears. Eventually, though, they calm down, realize that the robbers only wanted things, probably to sell for drug money, and hurting anyone was never on their minds. That’s why they waited until the people were on vacation, so nobody would wake up, come home early, surprise them, initiate a confrontation. The people ease back into their house, their lives, the insurance covering the losses, getting them a better TV. They still feel violated, but now they’ve beefed up security, are safer than before, and can watch picture-in-picture. It’s something they’ve survived.

Then, after a week or two, a video tape comes in the mail, in an unmarked padded evelope. They have a new VCR—Panasonic, which has more features than their Sony—so they put the tape in the VCR, curious. When the tape starts, there’s fuzz, then blank screen, then all of a sudden, a man’s bare ass. Just an ass, standing there. The people don’t know what to do, but they pause and tell the kids to go into their rooms, to shut the door. Then hit play again and the man’s ass is just there, for nearly a minute, until a hand—the man’s hand—reaches back with a toothbrush. One of their toothbrushes. Then the hand proceeds to put the toothbrush his ass, moving it around, pulling it out. The task is repeated with the rest of the toothbrushes, even the kids’, the Barney and the Spider-man. After that, some spoons (no forks or knives, though). Then a few pencils and pens, all from the desk in the foyer. Then the tape ends and that’s it. The people throw up all the floor, all over each other. They run to the bathroom, and, eyeing their filthy toothbrushes, rinse their mouths with mouthwash. Then they spit it out, realizing nothing is safe, nothing is clean—who knows what tape they’ll get in the mail next? They throw out everything: Everything. And that’s the end of that story.

My sister and brother-in-law got robbed over twenty years ago now and my brother-in-law told me that story and I laughed for like ten minutes. To be clear, the ass tape wasn’t sent to their house—he was just relaying the myth, explaining why they had to throw everything out, empty the fridge, even the freezer, because, you know, who knows where those Popsicles have been?

And really, I don’t know if this ass tape story has ever happened, or if it is just indeed a myth. But now all of you reading this have heard this story, too. Thank you, Story 366!

While reading Aaron Burch’s “Fair & Square,” I thought about the ass tape story pretty much the whole time, the first time I’ve thought of that story in years, since the last time someone I knew got robbed. I relayed the story to them, too, not to gross them out or make them laugh, but because I didn’t want anyone I knew or cared about drinking someone’s piss in their orange juice. They thought I was gross, but appreciated the heads up after they thought about it. Part of me thinks it’s the toothbrush people—Reach or Colgate or Dr. Scholl’s or whoever—who concocted this story, just to sell more toothbrushes. Probably not, but yeah, maybe.

In any case, there’s some breaking and entering going on in Burch’s story, one of the fine tales found in his book Backswing, out from Queen’s Ferry Press (which is becoming one of my favorite small presses, putting out Burch’s book, plus others by Michael Nye, Phong Nguyen, and most recently, Sherrie Flick). The few other stories I read from Backswing were great, solid stories about guys fucking up in relationships, something I’m fond of. But then I read “Fair & Square” and I knew I had my subject for today’s post.

“Fair & Square” is the shortest story in Backswing, and from what I can tell, its most unconventional. It’s about a guy who breaks into people’s houses—you get my inspiration—and does things. His motto, fair and square, means that he damages nothing, doesn’t leave a mess, no trace that he and his partner, Kart, were there. Kart’s not as committed to this motto, and one time, he takes a huge dump on a carpet, for no apparent reason. But our protagonist—a “you,” as this is a second-person story—just wants things he can take over, things that allow him to become his victim: prescriptions, books, journal entries, CDs. He doesn’t want to get rich, but wants to steal a small part of someone’s identity, take their pills, read their entries, write some of his own. Only in the frontstory of “Fair & Square,” he breaks his pattern. Suddenly, he needs to overload on batshit, DNA-leaving craziness, engaging both Q-Tips and ice cubes in a strange and inexplicable way. A trace, this time, he will leave, before Kart has to (wait for it …) cart him out of there.

In a lot of ways, that’s the story, but there’s more, which I won’t go into so as to not give everything away. A main backstory sequence explains, or maybe builds on, his fetish with touching people’s things, invading them, leaving his mark. He’s a complex psyche, something that’s been building for a while, the perfect hero in a perfectly odd story. I love, love, LOVE this story.

Aaron Burch is another one of those solid literary citizens in our world. In addition to writing, he edits the fantastic journal HOBART and teaches and hosts literary events like readings and release parties and writer visits. He gives out whiskey like he sweats it. He’s one of the good ones. You should get to know Aaron Burch.

Aaron Burch