Tioga County landfill is where Hector, Jr., is found. Or his “remains”—battered and badly decomposed, his mouth filled with trash. He couldn’t have protested if he’d been alive, buried, as he was, in rubble and raw garbage. Overhead are shrieking birds; in the vast landfill, dump trucks and bulldozers and a search team from the Tioga County Sheriff’s Department in protective uniforms. For three weeks, Hector’s disappearance was in all the newspapers and on TV. Most of his teeth are broken at the roots, but those which remain are sufficient to identify Hector Campos, Jr., of Southfield, Michigan. Nineteen years old, a freshman engineering student at Michigan State University at Grand Rapids, reported missing by his dormitory room-mates in the late afternoon of Monday, March 27th, but said to have last been seen around 2 A.M. Saturday, March 25th, in the parking lot behind the Phi Epsilon fraternity house, on Pitt Avenue. And now, in the early morning of April 17th, Mrs. Campos answers the phone on the first ring. These terrible weeks that her son has been missing, Mrs. Campos has answered the phone many times and made many calls, as her husband has made many calls, and now the call from the Tioga County Sheriff’s Department they have been dreading. Mrs. Campos? Are you seated? Is your husband there?
Mrs. Campos is not seated but standing, barefoot and only partly clothed, shivering, with matted hair and glazed eyes, her mouth tasting of scum from the hateful medication that has not yet helped her to sleep. Mr. Campos, hurriedly descending the stairs in rumpled boxer shorts and a sweated-through undershirt, says, “Irene, what is it? Who is it?” and rudely pries her icy fingers off the receiver. The Tioga County landfill, approximately eighty miles from the Campos home: how soon can Mr. and Mrs. Campos drive to the morgue to corroborate the identification?
Of course, the body has “badly decomposed,” so Mr. Campos views it alone, through a plate-glass partition, while Mrs. Campos waits in another room. Remains! What is this strange, unfathomable word? Mrs. Campos whispers it aloud: “remains.” She seems to have stumbled into a rest room, white tiled walls, door locked behind her, and the light switch triggering a fierce overhead fan that blows freezing antiseptic air: the stark settings to which, on a weekday at 10 A.M., emergency brings us. Why is Irene Campos here? Why has this happened? Is this a public rest room? Where?
Elsewhere, Mr. Campos observes the body laid upon a table beneath glaring lights, most of it shielded by a sheet so that only the head, or what remains of the head, is exposed. How is it possible that these “remains” are Hector, Jr., who once was a hundred and seventy-five pounds of solid flesh, who was, like his father, slightly soft at the waist, short-legged, with thick thighs, a wrestler’s build (though Hector, Jr., who’d wrestled for Southfield High in his senior year, had not made the wrestling team at Grand Rapids)? What now remains of Hector, Jr., could not weigh more than ninety pounds, yet his father recognizes him at once, the shock of it like an electric current piercing his heart: the battered and mutilated and partially eaten-away face, the empty eye sockets. Oh, God, it is Hector, his son.
Mr. Campos can barely murmur “Yes,” turns away quivering with pain. “Yes, that is Hector, Jr.” Mr. Campos will never be the same again—now that he’s a man who has lost his son, his soul cauterized, telling his anxious wife, “Don’t ask, don’t speak to me, please,” even as she loses control. “Are you sure it’s our son, I want to see him, what if there’s a mistake, a tragic mistake, you know you make mistakes, why would Hector be in that terrible place, how has this happened, how has God let this happen, I want to see our son.”
On the Hill, partying begins Thursday night. Mostly, you blow off your Friday classes, which for Scoot Campos were classes he’d got into the habit of cutting, anyway: Intro Electrical Engineering, taught by a foreigner (Indian? Pakistani? whatever) who spoke a rapid, heavily accented English that baffled and offended the sensitive ears of certain Michigan-born students, including Hector Campos, Jr., whose midterm exam was returned to him with the blunt red numeral 71; and Intro Computer Technology, in which, though the course was taught by a Caucasian American male who spoke crisp English, he was pulling a C, C-minus. Probably, yes, Scoot had been drinking that night, maybe more than he could handle, not in the dorm here but over at the frat house. Most weekends he’d come back to the dorm pretty wasted, and, yes, that was kind of a problem for us. But basically Scoot was a good kid. Just maybe in over his head a little. Freshman engineering can be tough if you don’t have the math, and even if you do.
His roommates in Brest Hall reported him missing late Monday afternoon. They guessed something might be wrong, called the frat house, but there was no answer. Scoot’s things were exactly as he’d left them sometime Saturday afternoon, and it wasn’t like Scoot to stay over at the frat house on a Sunday night, or through Monday. He was only a pledge and didn’t have a bed there, and he’d missed four Monday classes.
Weeks later, Mr. and Mrs. Campos are signing forms in the Tioga County Morgue, as through the twenty-two years of their marriage they have signed so many forms—mortgage papers, homeowner’s insurance, life insurance, medical insurance, their son’s college-loan application at Midland Michigan Bank. Hector Campos, Sr., one of the most reliably high-performing salespersons at Southfield Chrysler, at least until recently, has often lain sleepless in his king-size bed in the gleaming-white, aluminum-sided Colonial at 23 Quail Circle, Whispering Woods Estates of Southfield, his thoughts racing like panicked ants, his head ringing with the crazed demand for money, always more money. Apart from the sum quoted by the university admissions office for tuition, there was room and board, textbooks, “fees” for fraternity rush, for fraternity pledging, a startlingly high fee (payable in advance, Hector, Jr., said) for fraternity initiation in May. “Send the check to me, Dad. Make it out to Phi Epsilon Fraternity, Inc., and send it to me, Dad. Please!”
Mrs. Campos, lonely since Hector, Jr., left for college, took up the campaign, excited and reproachful. She pleaded and argued on Hector’s behalf. “If you refuse Hector you will shame him in the eyes of his friends, you will break his heart. This fraternity—Pi Episom, Pi Epsilom?—this fraternity means more to him than anything else in his life right now. If you refuse him he will never forgive you, and I will never forgive you.”
Only when Mrs. Campos threatened to borrow the fifteen hundred dollars from her parents did Mr. Campos give in, disgusted, defeated—as so often through the years, if a man wishes to preserve his marriage, he gives in. Married for love—does that mean for life? Can love prevail through life?
Now, in the chilled antiseptic air of the Tioga County medical examiner’s office, Mr. and Mrs. Campos are co-signing documents in triplicate that will release the “remains” of Hector Campos, Jr., for burial (in St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Southfield) after the medical examiner has filed his final report. The police investigation has yet to determine whether Hector died in the early hours of March 25th in the steep-sided Dumpster behind the Phi Epsilon frat house—where investigators found stains and swaths of blood, as if made by wildly thrashing bloody wings—or whether he died as many as forty-eight hours later, after lying unconscious, possibly comatose from brain injuries, until Monday morning, and then being hauled away unseen beneath mounds of trash, cans, bottles, Styrofoam and cardboard packages, rancid raw garbage, stained and filthy clothing, and paper towels soaked in vomit, urine, even feces. At approximately 6:45 A.M. on March 27th, he was dumped into the rear of a thunderous Tioga County Sanitation Department truck and hauled sixteen miles north of the city to the Packard Road recycling transfer station, to be compacted and then hauled away again to the gouged, misshapen, ever-shifting landscape of the Tioga County landfill.
Carefully, the Tioga County sheriff has explained that “foul play” has not been ruled out as a possibility, though the medical examiner has determined that the “massive injuries” to the body of Hector Campos, Jr., are “compatible” with injuries that would have been caused by the trash-compacting process. A more complete autopsy may yield new information. The police investigation will continue, and the university administration will convene an investigating committee. As many as a hundred college students have been interviewed: Hector’s roommates, classmates, Phi Epsilon pledges and brothers, even Hector’s professors, who take care to speak of him in the neutral terms befitting one who has suffered a terrible but inexplicable—and blameless—fate. Jesus! You have to hope that the poor bastard died right away, smashed out of his mind, diving down the trash chute into the Dumpster and breaking his neck on contact. Only the police investigators can bring themselves to imagine that Hector Campos, Jr., may have been “compacted” while still alive.
During the strain, anxiety, and insomniac misery of the three-week search, Mrs. Campos was fierce and frantic with hope, holding prayer vigils at St. Joseph’s Church. Relatives, neighbors, and parish members lit votive candles, for God is a God of mercy as well as wrath, while she hid her face in prayer. God, let Hector return to us, send Hector back to us, Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee blessed art thou among women pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, amen.
Mrs. Campos would forever relive the shock of that call out of nowhere: a man, identifying himself as an assistant dean at the university, and Mrs. Campos saying, “Yes? Yes, I am Hector’s mother,” drawing a quick short breath. “Is something wrong?”
In weak moments, she imagined the possibility of a phone call bearing different news. The possibility of subsequent phone calls bearing different news. For it was crucial, during those days, those interminable stretches of (open-eyed, exhausted) time, to believe that Hector was alive. Our son is alive! She had only to shut her eyes to see him as he looked when he came home for a few days the previous month—his frowning smile, such a handsome boy. Mrs. Campos always had to tell him how handsome he was. Hector had hated his “fat face” since puberty, his “beak nose,” his “ape forehead, like Dad’s.” Mrs. Campos winced at such words, pulled at Hector’s hands when, unconsciously, he dug and picked at his nose. Any serious discussion between them had to be initiated by Mrs. Campos, and then only gingerly, for her son so quickly took offense. “Jesus, Mom, lighten up, will you? Must’ve missed your call—what’s the big deal, this crappy cell phone you bought me.” And Mrs. Campos cried, “But I love you! We love you,” but her words were muffled. She was sweating and thrashing in her sleep; the nightmare had not lifted. She had to keep the flame alive those terrible days, weeks.
At Easter Sunday Mass, she shut her eyes tight, but this time saw only Hector, Jr.,’s grimace—how he’d hated going to church. In recent years he’d refused altogether, even refused midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Mrs. Campos had been so ashamed, so hurt. Now she was kneeling at the Communion rail, hiding her hot-skinned face in her hands, her numbed lips moving rapidly in prayer. She was dazed and desperate, snatching at prayer as you’d snatch at something for balance. The tranquillizers she was taking had affected her balance, her sense of her (physical) self; there was a buzzing in her head. Please help us, please do not abandon us in our hour of need. She looked up as the elderly priest made his way to her, and craned her neck like a starving bird, opening her mouth to take the doughy white Communion wafer on her tongue, her dry, dry tongue. This is my body, and this is my blood.
She was half fainting then, in ill-chosen patent-leather pumps, staggering away from the Communion rail, into the aisle, all eyes fixed on the heavily made-up woman with so clearly dyed, dark-red hair, a middle-aged fleshiness to her face, bruiselike circles beneath her eyes, and quickly there came Mr. Campos to help the swaying woman back to the family pew, fingers gripping her arm at the elbow. Hector Campos, Sr.! Father of the missing boy! Swarthy-skinned, with dark wiry hair, a low forehead crisscrossed with lines, and large, oddly simian ears protruding from the sides of his head. There was a grim set to the man’s mouth, a flush of indignation or impatience, as Mrs. Campos confusedly struggled with him as if to wrench her arm out of his grip, as if he were hurting her.
In the car driving home, Mrs. Campos dissolved into hysteria, screaming, “You don’t have faith! You’ve given up faith, I hate you!” For it was crucial to believe, as Mrs. Campos believed, that, nearly three weeks after Hector, Jr., “disappeared,” he might yet be found unharmed. He might yet call his anxious parents, after so many days of (inexplicably) not calling. He might show up to surprise his parents on Easter Sunday when they returned from St. Joseph’s, might be in the kitchen, eating from the refrigerator.
Or maybe Hector had been injured and was amnesiac, or had been abducted but would escape his captor or be released. Or he had been wandering, drifting, who knew where, hitchhiking; he’d left the university without telling anyone, he was upset, had problems with a girl, a girl he’d never told his parents about, just as he’d never told them much about his personal life since sophomore year of high school, since he put on weight, grew several inches, and became so involved with weight lifting, and then with wrestling, the fanatic weight obsessions of wrestling—fasting, binge eating, fasting, binge eating. And maybe the Phi Epsilons had been putting pressure on Hector; maybe he’d been made to feel inferior among the pledges. He’d once called his mother to say how crappy he felt, never having enough money—the other guys had money, but he didn’t. He’d told her how shitty he was made to feel, and that if the fraternity dropped him, didn’t initiate him with the other pledges, he’d kill himself, he would. He swore he’d kill himself! And Mrs. Campos had pleaded, “Please don’t say such terrible things! You don’t mean what you’re saying, you’re breaking my heart.”
Mrs. Campos blamed Mr. Campos for coercing Hector into engineering. Such difficult courses, who could have excelled at such difficult courses? It was no wonder that Hector had been so lonely, away from home for the first time in his life. None of his Southfield High friends were at Grand Rapids. His classes were too large; his professors scarcely knew him. Twelve thousand undergraduates at Grand Rapids. Three hundred residents in Brest Hall, an ugly high-rise where poor Hector shared a room with two other guys—Reb and Steve—who, in Hector’s words, never went “out of their way” to be friendly to him.
In turn, Hector’s roommates spoke vaguely of him when they were interviewed by Tioga County sheriff’s deputies. Didn’t know Scoot too well, he kind of kept to himself, kind of obsessed about things, like the wrestling team last fall. He didn’t make it, but the coach encouraged him to try again, so he was hopeful. It was hard to talk to him, y’know? You had to care a lot about Scoot’s interests—that’s all he wanted to talk about, in kind of a fast, nervous way. He’d be, like, laughing, interrupting himself laughing. Fraternity rush was a crazed time for Scoot. He was really happy when he got a bid from the Phi Eps. He was so proud of his pledge pin, and he was looking forward to living in the frat house next year if his dad O.K.’d it. Because there was some money issue, maybe. Or maybe it was Scoot’s grades. He was having kind of a meltdown with Intro Electrical Engineering, also his computer course. He’d ask some of the guys on the floor for help, which was mostly O.K.—you had to feel sorry for him—but then Scoot would get kind of weird, and sarcastic, like we were trying to screw him up, telling him the wrong things. There were times Scoot wouldn’t speak to us and stayed away from the room and over at the frat house. Phi Eps are known for their keg parties—they’re kind of wild-party guys. There aren’t many engineering majors there on the Hill, not in the Phi Ep house, anyway.
No. 228 Pitt Street is a large, three-story Victorian house with peeling gunmetal-gray paint, moss growing in rain gutters, rotting turrets, and steep shingled roofs in need of repair. The Phi Epsilon house dates back to the early decades of the twentieth century, when the Hill was Grand Rapids’s most prestigious residential neighborhood. Now the Hill is known as Fraternity Row, and Phi Epsilon exudes an air that is both derelict and defiant, its enormous metallic-silver “??” above a listing portico. Scrub grass grows in the stunted front yard. Vehicles are parked in the cracked asphalt driveway, in the parking lot at the rear, in the weedy front yard, and at the curb. Often, the Dumpster at the rear of the house overflows and trash lies scattered at its base. It’s a feature of the Phi Epsilon house that, warm weather or cold, its windows are likely to be flung open to emit high-decibel rock music, particularly at night; and that, out of the flung-open windows, begrimed and frayed curtains blow in the wind.
Inside the house there’s a pervasive odor of stale beer, fried foods, and cigarette smoke. The high-ceilinged rooms are sparsely furnished with battered leather sofas and chairs, the decades-old gifts of alums. On the badly scarred hardwood floors are threadbare carpets; on the walls, torn and discolored wallpaper. Brass chandeliers have grown black with tarnish. There are rickety stairs and bannisters, gouged wood panelling, and in the dining room a long table carved with initials like fossil traces. In the basement is the enormous party room running the width of the house, with a stained linoleum floor, more battered leather furniture, leprous-green mold growing on the walls and ceiling, and more intense odors. Scattered throughout the house are filth-splotched lavatories, and in a small room beyond the party room is an ancient, rattling oil furnace.
For several years in the nineteen-nineties, Phi Epsilon fraternity was “suspended” from the university for having violated a number of campus and city ordinances: underage/illegal drinking on the premises, keg parties in the front yard, “operating a public nuisance,” sexual assaults against young women and high-school-age girls, and even, during a secret initiation ceremony in 1995, against a Phi Epsilon pledge who had to be rushed to a local emergency room with “rectal hemorrhaging.” Bankrupt from fines, lawsuits, and a dwindling membership, the fraternity had gone off campus until, in 1999, a group of aggressive alums, led by a Michigan state legislator, campaigned to have it reinstated. Still, by 2006 the fraternity hadn’t yet regained its pre-suspension numbers—it had only twenty-six active members, one-third of whom were on academic probation.
In the rush season when Hector Campos, Jr., became a pledge, the fraternity had needed at least seventeen pledges, but only nine young men accepted bids: Zwaaf, Scherer, Tickler, Tuozzolo, Vreasy, Felbush, Herker, Krampf, and Campos. Of these, only the first three were first choices of the fraternity; the others were accepted to help fill out the membership. None of the pledges knew this, of course. Although, you know how guys are when they’re drinking. It might have been, nobody can recall exactly, but it might have been the case that Herker’s “big brother,” who was pissed off at Scoot Campos for his falling-down-drunk belligerence and his all too frequent assholish behavior, told him that he wasn’t anybody’s first choice. “Fuck you, fuckhead!” the guys yelled, lurching at each other. Or maybe this never happened, or didn’t happen in this way. When interviewed by the Tioga County investigators, none of the guys could remember, exactly. First we knew Scoot was missing, it’s the dean calling. Nobody here knew he was missing. Must’ve gone back to his dorm and something happened there, or maybe he never went back. But whatever happened to him didn’t happen here.
Mrs. Campos tried to take pride in this fact: Mr. Campos brought his family from Detroit to live in the city of Southfield, in a white, four-bedroom Colonial, and no one in Irene Campos’s family had such a beautiful home—not her sisters, not her cousins—and no one in Mr. Campos’s family, either. Mr. Campos’s mother was living out her life on lower Dequindre, in mostly black Detroit, where for thirty-five years her husband, Cesar, worked for Gratiot Construction & Roofing—he squatted and stooped on roofs in the blazing sun and drove a truck for the company, hauling rubble from construction sites until his back gave out. He died of heart failure at the age of sixty-seven, and Irene Campos was terrified of seeing in her husband’s face the defeated look of the old father, resigned always to the worst—that peasant soul, bitter in resignation—dying before his time. He has given up, he has lost hope that we will see our son again. I will never forgive him. Mrs. Campos continued to have faith. How many times had she called Hector, Jr.,’s cell phone, knowing that her son’s cell phone was no longer in operation, that no one knew where it was. (In the vast Tioga County landfill amid tons of rubble, very likely. Where else? Hector, Jr., kept his cell phone in the back pocket of his jeans, and that part of his clothing had been torn from him.)
Mutations are the key to natural selection, Hector had learned in Intro to Biology, his science-requirement course—said to be the easiest of the science-requirement courses, though he hadn’t found it so easy, had barely maintained a C average. Natural selection is the key to evolution and survival, he’d written in wavering ballpoint, fighting to keep his eyelids open, so very tired, still wasted from the previous night of hanging out with the guys. He was trying to concentrate, a taste of beer and pizza dough coming up on him even now, hours later. Genes are the key to change, evolution is only possible through change, species change not by free will but blindly. No idea what this meant, what the lecturer was saying. If words were balloons, these words were floating up to bounce against the ceiling of the windowless fluorescent-lit lecture hall, colliding with one another and drifting about, stupidly. He would’ve used his laptop, except his fucking laptop wasn’t working right. No purpose, just chance. The pattern of scout ants seeking food would look to a viewer like “intelligent design” but was really the result of the random, haphazard trails of ants seeking food. Ants? No idea what the hell this guy’s droning on about, like it matters. Jesus, he’s so bored! And thirsty for a beer—his throat is parched.
He checks his cell and finds a text message: “PLEASE CALL MOM DARLING.” His heart sinks, and with a stab of annoyance he erases the message. What looks like “intelligent design” is merely random. Instinct, not intelligence. Any questions? Meant to call his mother, but, Jesus, why doesn’t that woman get a life of her own? It’s pledge-party weekend. Scoot Campos has other priorities. The girl he’d been planning to take to the party had sent an e-mail: Something’s come up. Bitch, he knew he couldn’t trust her. A girl one of the Phi Ep guys hooked him up with last time said thanks, but she’d be out of town starting Friday. Scoot is damn disappointed, depressed. What’s he going to have to do, pay for it?
Kind of earnest and boring when he was, like, sober. You got the impression Campos hadn’t a clue how totally uninterested people were in the things he’d talk about—the frat house, wrestling, his opinions on his courses, girls. Me and Steve liked him O.K. at first, it’s cool we got a Hispanic roommate, or what’s it—Latino?—that’s cool. But Campos, he’s just some guy, nothing special about him you could pick on, except he wanted to hang out with the frat guys. Thought we were weird for not signing up for rush. After he pledged, he’d start coming back to the room really late, stumbling around drunk like an asshole, mess up in here, piss on the toilet seat and the floor and next day act like it’s some goddam joke. That last weekend he didn’t come back, truth is it was great. That poor guy, you have to feel sorry for him, but we didn’t, much. It’s a shitty thing to say, can’t tell any adult, but we don’t miss Scoot. And we’re fed up answering questions about him—we told all we know. Fed up with everybody assuming we were friends of his, involved somehow, or responsible. Fuck it, we are not involved and we’re not responsible! And seeing his parents, Mrs. Campos so sad and so pathetic, trying to smile at me, hugging me, and Steve, like we were Scoot’s best friends. It’s totally weird to realize that a guy like Scoot Campos, so pathetic, a loser, is somebody that is loved by somebody.
At the party, things are going O.K. in spite of the red-haired girl ditching him first chance she has, hooking up with one of the older guys. O.K., Scoot can live with that, but later there’s some exchange of words—he’s hot-faced, trying not to show he’s pissed at the guys taunting him. Then he’s laughing to himself, crawling—where? Upstairs, where? He can’t think, his head is bombarded with deafening music, so loud you almost can’t hear it. Some kind of a joke, eager to make the guys laugh to show that he isn’t hurt by, who was it, that girl, blond girl, little-bitty tits, skinny little ass in jeans so tight it’s all you can do not to trace the crack of her ass with your forefinger. Maybe, in fact, somebody did just that, and he’s cracking up with laughter, braying belly laughter, until somebody slaps him, kicks him, and he’s on his knees, on his hands and knees crawling, needing to get to a toilet, and fast. Maybe it isn’t funny, or is it? Scoot Campos has fine-honed a reputation at the Phi Ep house as a joker, funniest goddam pledge. The other pledges are losers, but Scoot Campos is a wrestler, he’s witty and wired. And good-looking, in that swarthy Hispanic way, with dark wavy hair, a solid jawline, and a fleshy mouth. Funny like somebody on Comedy Central, except Scoot makes it up himself, improvises. A few beers, some tequila, and Scoot isn’t tongue-tied and sweating but witty and wired. By coincidence it’s Newman’s Day, the twenty-fourth of the month, named for the actor Paul Newman—Scoot doesn’t know why, nobody knows why, and the challenge is to chug twenty-four beers in some record time, and, of course, there’s tequila at the party, too. Scoot has acquired a taste for tequila! If he’d known about tequila in fucking high school, he might’ve had a goddam better time.
Now he’s trying to remember what it was, a few weeks ago—some crappy thing one of the brothers did, humiliating, hurt his feelings, right in the middle of midterms. He’d fucked up the engineering exam, he knew, so he was drinking with some of the guys over at the frat house and (somehow) fell down the stairs somewhere. He’d been puking, and sort of passed out, and somebody had dragged him into a bathroom and turned on the shower and left him, and after a while one of the guys came back and turned off the shower, and by this time Scoot had crawled out onto the floor and flopped over onto his back. The guy kicked him—Hey, Campos. Hey, man, how ya doin’?—meaning to wake him, maybe, or turn him over, but when Scoot didn’t move he left him to sleep off the drunk, soaking wet and shivering in the cold. Next morning when Scoot woke up, groggy and dazed, with a pounding headache, a taste of vomit in his mouth, and dried vomit all down his front, he’d had to admit with the cruel clarity of stone-cold sobriety: They left me here on my back to puke and choke and die, the fuckers. His friends! His fraternity brothers-to-be! And he thought, Never again. Not ever. Meaning he’d de-pledge Phi Ep, and he’d stop drinking. But, somehow, the next weekend he’d come trailing back, couldn’t stay away. These guys are his friends, his only friends.
Except tonight there’s some kind of bad feeling again, Scoot’s feelings are bruised, but, fuck, he isn’t going to show it. Of the pledge class, Scoot Campos is possibly the alums’ favorite, he’s been given to know. Ethnic diversity—an idea whose time has come for Phi Epsilon. At the top of the stairs he’s out of breath, can’t hold it back, God damn, is he pissing his pants? Can’t help it, can’t stop it. How’d this happen? If the girls downstairs learn of Scoot’s accident they’ll be totally grossed out, and who can blame them? The guys are going to be disgusted. It’s not the first time that Scoot has been too staggering drunk to lurch to a toilet, or outside to the lawn, too confused about where he is, if he’s awake or, in fact, asleep. Maybe this is a dream, one of those weird dreams, and it’s O.K. to piss, nobody will scold, it’s O.K. to piss into some receptacle or crack in the floor, that hot wet sensation spreading in his groin, soaking his underwear and down his legs, quickly turning cold.
A piss trail follows Scoot Campos up the stairs, soaking into the carpet, and he’s laughing like a deranged little kid who’s wet his diaper on purpose—hell, the carpets at the Phi Ep house are already (piss?) stained, what’s the big deal? “Fuck you,” he’s saying, defending himself against some guy, or guys, stooping over him, calling him names. Scoot Campos is wired tonight, he’s laughing in their faces, and somebody’s dragging him—where? Toward a window? Through the wide-open windows the curtains are sucked outside and flapping in the rain, and there’s a moon, a glaring-white moon like a beacon, some kind of crazy eye peering into Scoot Campos’s soul, like, How ya doin’, Scoot? Hey, man, know what? You’re O.K.
This is God’s eye, Scoot thinks. (Or maybe a street light? Outside on Pitt Avenue?) Somebody is lifting him, and he’s thrashing and flailing his arms, laughing so hard that any remaining dribble of piss leaks out, and whoever it is grabs Scoot in a hammerlock. Probably one of the older guys, one of the wrestlers, built like a tank and taut-jawed and giving off heat and the pungent smell of a male body in fighting mode. He’s cursing Scoot, calling him asshole, dickhead, fuckhead, and Scoot is being lifted, pushed into an opening in the wall—the trash chute. Or maybe the drunken pledge is crawling head first into the chute of his own volition, and one of the guys grabs his ankles to pull him back, and Scoot is kicking and yelling and laughing. At least it sounds like laughter; with this wild-wired spic anything is possible. Hey, guys? Help me? Help me, guys?
He’s kicking like crazy, so whoever has hold of his ankles has to let go—Campos is goddam dangerous when he’s been drinking—and then his thick, stocky body lurches down the trash chute. It sounds like a pig squealing, or a kid shooting down a slide in an amusement park. At the end of the pitch-black, stale-air chute there should be something soft to break his fall, except there isn’t, and with the impact of a hundred and seventy-five pounds Scoot Campos strikes the edge of the trash bin and his forehead hits its sharp metal lip.
Immediately he’s bleeding, dazed; his neck has been twisted, his spine, his legs are buckled weirdly beneath him. He’s too dazed to be panicked, not knowing what has happened or where he is. Feebly, he pleads “Hey, guys? Help me?” amid a confusion of rich, ripe, rotting smells, something rancid. He’s upside down trying to turn, to rotate his body, stunned and quivering like a mangled worm, trying to lift his head, to breathe, to open his mouth, a terrible throbbing pain in his neck, in his upper spine. Like a gasping fish he opens his mouth, but he can’t make a sound, can’t call for help. For sure the guys will check on Scoot, make their way downstairs shouting and laughing like hyenas. Craziest damn thing, this drunk pledge, smashed out of his head, slid down the trash chute. It’s not the first time a drunken pledge or active at the Phi Ep house has slid down the trash chute into the Dumpster. Anyway, at some point there was the intention to check on the pledge in the Dumpster, but amid the party noise, the swarm of people—including heavily made-up high-school girls—and the pounding music there were too many distractions.
Later, it will be claimed that a couple of guys did, in fact, check the Dumpster but Campos wasn’t there. Possibly Campos had been bleeding, but he couldn’t have been seriously hurt because evidently he’d crawled out of the Dumpster and gone away, back to the dorm maybe. Anyway, nobody was in the Dumpster when they checked, they swore. Yet the guy had a weird sense of humor—everybody would testify to Scoot Campos’s weird sense of humor—and he might’ve returned and crawled back into the Dumpster, like a little kid would do, like hide-and-seek, except he’d fallen asleep there, or he’d hurt his head and passed out, and got covered in party trash. Had to be some freak accident like that—what other explanation was there?
As Scoot’s brain is bleeding, as Scoot’s mouth is filling with trash, as Scoot’s heart beats and lurches with a frantic stubbornness, seventy miles to the east, in Whispering Woods Estates, Southfield, Irene Campos lies awake in bed uncomfortably perspiring, hot flushes in her face and in her upper chest. Her thoughts come confused and slow, and have something to do with the moon veiled by curtains, or by high scudding clouds—the full moon is a sign of good luck and happiness, or is there something disquieting about the full moon, so whitely glaring? Or is it a neighbor’s outside light? Mrs. Campos isn’t fully awake, nor is she asleep, and she is planning tomorrow to insist to Mr. Campos that they drive over to Grand Rapids to visit with Hector, Jr., who hasn’t been answering her calls. Beside her, Mr. Campos is sleeping fitfully on his back, twitching and thrashing in the smelly underwear that she’ll sometimes find kicked beneath the bed or in a corner of Mr. Campos’s closet—why? Why would a man hoard soiled underwear? And socks?
Mr. Campos snores, snorts, sounds like a drowning man, and, careful not to wake him, Mrs. Campos pokes and nudges him until he rolls off his back, now grinding his teeth but facing away, at the edge of the bed. Earlier that day, Mrs. Campos sent Hector, Jr., a pleading text message: “PLEASE CALL MOM DARLING.” But Hector, Jr., did not respond, and she has become seriously worried. Oh, if only that college hadn’t been so aggressive about recruiting students from Southfield High, sending brochures and pamphlets, even calling on the phone—not that the university was going to offer Hector, Jr., a scholarship, not a penny, his parents would be paying full tuition. If only Hector, Jr., had decided to go to Eastern Michigan University at Ypsilanti, no more than forty miles away. There’s an engineering school at Ypsilanti, too, and fraternities, and Hector, Jr., could live at home, and Mrs. Campos could take better care of him. Unconsciously caressing her left breast, holding her left breast in her right hand—how like a sac of warm water it is, or warm milk—and, on the brink of a dream of surpassing beauty and tenderness, Mrs. Campos shuts her eyes. Why does Mr. Campos never caress her breasts anymore? Why does Mr. Campos never suck her nipples anymore? Mrs. Campos runs her thumb over the large soft nipple, stirring it to hardness, like a little berry. She is driving back from the city, driving back from ugly Detroit to Whispering Woods Estates, such joy, such pride, turning into the brick-gated subdivision off Southfield Road, making her way floating along Pheasant Pass, Larkspur Drive, Bluebell Lane, and, at last, to Quail Circle, where, in the gleaming-white Colonial at No. 23, the Campos family lives.