Virulence by Morgan Beatty

“Let them see his gray eyes, the pinprick pupils staring into this nothing room where the lights stay on all night. It’s Leslie Whitney Gerber’s official bedtime, but, in the video, he keeps his eyes open and trained on the ceiling. He had planned to live forever, but that’s not his dream anymore.”

She sat at her mother’s computer, 1:30 a.m., chronically saving at the end of every sentence, knowing the laptop was prone to random, total failure. She would write only for her blog tonight, a virtually un-composed post, ragged, she hoped, with her unexpurgated memories.

She’d found a Leslie Gerber appreciation web site that had uploaded pirated portions of his unpublished autobiography. It proved to be thorough on Gerber’s early life. If she was going break her non-disclosure agreement with the alt-weekly paper that had given her the assignment, and publish an article on her own, quoting the manuscript didn’t seem to matter much.

An hour ago, she sat in the press and family room. It resembled a prison cell, with cinderblock walls. A two-way mirror was set in the wall before the observers, black curtains drawn back to reveal a window into an identical room beyond. Just touching five feet tall, she sat in the third and last row of folding chairs reserved for the media. The backs of the other reporters blocked her view of Gerber lying on the gurney.

She saved, then wrote, “It’s like a kid’s little, private nothing of a trick, it is not anything else, it is not a protest, and recognizing this makes him feel 14 years old again. So at 28, after double years walking the earth, he can still change his mind. His new dream is to keep his eyes open. At 14, he believed soldiers and terrorists could sleep with one eye open, and he dreamed of being one and then the other, making a choice between destroying and saving, being a hero or a martyr, killing with or without a fight.”

 

***

 

I had been running a web site for about a year when Gerber was sentenced, autopsy and crime scene photos, exit wounds, shotgun suicides, yellow flags captioning brass shell casings, 152 rounds fired at a single man in Times Square in 2011. But people didn’t come. I veered into the war, posted the few clips I could find from its edges, almost impossibly encrypted and deathly slow to download: a headless Navy lieutenant laid out on the carrier’s deck, skull removed by a helicopter’s rotor blade. Search: forensics cell phone videos, carpets leaching blood from two/three bodies, investigators’ plastic-wrapped hands dropping handguns into evidence bags. Some days, I got no hits. Daily, I posted into a void, talking to myself through satellites, undersea cables, upgraded routers, craving some response measured in seconds spent per page, the number of return visits. My graph was off. I dreamed I was walled into the dark of a cave. A search party’s flashlights passed unheedingly by.

Then, just before I retired from the EPA, Dave started emailing me videos and photos. We hadn’t even reached an acquaintanceship, had only exchanged zeroed-out glances in the parking lot, held stock still in the elevator, not speaking. But he had seen it in me, the brain rot, even down the long hall separating our cubicles.

I sat at my desk, counting the days until I could leave, toast and butter sandwich, and opened my laptop:

 

From: Dave

hey, haven’t heard from you in a while, here’s some home movies.

 

And there appeared in my morning routine a video of a woman leaping from a burning tenement window toward a rescue ladder, missing the rungs and hitting the street, six stories.

I browsed credit card ingesting sites located outside the US. I sent my information to a mainframe that exchanged dollar signs for squiggles. My money didn’t speak American anymore. I bought memberships to three web sites that uploaded death. Their pages were categorized by region, with sidebars of brief history, political-military destabilization warnings scraped from the US State Department’s web site. I downloaded a 13 second close-up of a man lying on the ground, a boot on his head and a serrated knife sawing its way through his throat. Unspeakable audio included. I spat on my palm and wrote Dave, Just hanging out, and attached the video.

 

***

 

            She thought she heard Gerber’s voice. It came from the speaker, the microphone hidden in the next room: a word, a grunt, some vocalization passing into his labored breathing at least.

The lines were in, and she knew the sedative was now passing into his veins, having done some preparatory research on Wikipedia, but going no further. She’d wanted to be semi-unprepared, meaning, wide-eyed.

Another reporter, a man more than twice her age, turned in his seat in front of her and whispered, “It’s not out of the ordinary to hear something. All of them make sounds.”

She wrote this down.

“They’re drunk on the pentobarbital,” he said. “They try to get a last little something out before sleepy time. Then, total respiratory failure.”

She mouthed, “Thanks.”

Some of the reporters seemed to be live blogging, but she couldn’t be sure that was true. She’d been told there would be no Internet here. Her laptop was still in for a repair, anyway. It wouldn’t make sound, all of a sudden.

She hadn’t interviewed any of the family members who had arrived silently, in a slow line, after the media. She didn’t trust herself to turn and face them in their sorrowful what? Blood lust? She needed to check her preconceptions, maintain a distance from her long-held opinions, meaning, her childhood opinions on the matter in front of her, if she wanted to move to a major news outlet. Still, she’d not cold-called a single victim’s mother, feeling as green as she could possibly be, and transparently inadequate. Her job interview with the weekly’s managing editor had rested on a sliver of promise the thickness of the card stock she’d ink-jetted her resume onto. So far, she’d written two restaurant reviews and an interview with an eccentric who built fiberglass sculptures of praying angels in his front yard. She reminded herself she was lucky to be here.

 

***

 

Waiting for me before our first breakfast meeting, Dave on the sidewalk: he wore black jeans and a red windbreaker that barely zipped over his gut. It was a windy February morning blowing the treetops and the trash. Downtown was a littered mess from the small gay pride parade that passed through the day before. A leaf of newspaper rose up to hug one of Dave’s legs. He didn’t seem to notice. He stood watch over the corner, his hands jammed into the tight pockets of his windbreaker, a single-parent child waiting for the school bus.

Inside the diner, whose location will remain undisclosed, sitting in our turquoise booth, Dave said, “What did you do last night?”

“I was watching the weirdest stuff on TV.”

I’d been worrying about public access television and was wondering why the shows were starting to scare me.

“It was an old couple dancing. It was going on forever, and all I could think the entire time was, When are they gonna get it? An old man and the Filipino woman he married late in life were only trying to teach me the Harlem Shake. And I’m sitting in my chair watching TV and waiting for something to kill them.”

“But nothing happened, of course,” Dave said. “Is this what early retirement is? You start watching public access?”

“It seemed like something was going to happen to them, because I’m rotting my brain,” I said.

Dave stared out the restaurant window, looking disappointed, maybe because I wasn’t talking real atrocity videos and pictures, just TV and my garden variety anxiety.

“I know what you like,” Dave said. “You like videos where something goes really wrong.”

I said, “I know you like stuff like that, too.”

“Like what? Be more specific.”

It felt like Dave had asked me about my sex life with my girlfriend. I wanted to brag but I also wanted to be circumspect.

“I can’t say,” I told him. I turned my attention to the stickiness of a syrup bottle. “You have some intense stuff.”

Dave laughed, I’m not sure: at me or with me.

“I follow your site,” he said, “Some of it’s funny, but you’re holding back.”

“What’s funny?” I said.

We were smiling at each other. I wasn’t going to tell him what I liked until he told me what he liked.

“When I came across your web site, I decided to contact you,” Dave said. “There’s no reason for you to go on like this, when there’s so much better stuff out there. We can pool our manpower, so to speak. I get the media, you maintain the site. We start out slow, like with this arm wrestling championship in Brazil, humerus bones snapping?”

“I’ve seen that.”

“Ok. This motocross wreck in Peru, twenty bystanders getting railed?”

“Okay, let’s do that one.”

Later that month, we started running a site together, closedcasket.com.

 

***

           

“Man.”

She was sure, now. It was Gerber’s voice. She’d never heard him live, so to speak, never not through a mic clipped to his clothing.

A creaking stress on his gurney, through the mono speaker.

“Move this one.” Not Gerber’s voice.

She took notes slowly, writing the words in their entirety, encapsulating them in quotation marks, having developed no personal note-taking code yet.

A long blank followed. Fifteen minutes? She’d not worn a watch since her parents gave her an expensive cell phone for her quasi-graduation, but it was in her purse now, powered off. All the other reporters had opened laptops, web sites in multiple tabs.

Later, sitting before her mother’s buggy computer, she pulled a paragraph from the AP and loosely paraphrased.

“Very publicly, loudly and messily, Gerber fired the ghostwriter of his prison autobiography, accusing him of plagiarizing psychiatric journals to prop up the argument that Gerber was and is insane. That his sentence, lethal injection, was, despite the heinous crime, unjust. That the judicial system had failed to recognize Gerber’s unbalanced mental state. But, Gerber wanted the world to know that during the bombing and subsequent shootings he had never been more soberly sane in his life. From death row he divorced his wife before she could divorce him, or before he could die still married to her. In an interview with the New York Times he called the lead lawyer on his team a liar. He was still trying to kill people.”

 

***

 

Dave used his memberships to the offshore sites. He got in contact with many of the people who were uploading. Eventually, we brought videos into the US, clips sweeping in from a disaster or the war. Dave didn’t tell me his contacts’ names or stories, only that they had access to the rare videos, the Wikileaks, the various underground whistleblowers.

One Monday, we posted an F-16 streaking a couple hundred feet above the ocean, twin fins of spray opening on either side of the plane as it parted the sea on jet fuel. Predator drone videos, the vans emptying little figures going about their day, count the seconds before they meet the white light. Footage shot through a Bradley’s scope of two guys vaporizing into red puffs as the 25mm rounds go through them. A slow day for us but, still, it was the war with something awesome working at the edges, what Dave was getting me into.

I found many of the same videos appearing on modern art museums’ web sites. But first the artists have to degrade the images by dialing the green and the blue out, distress the visuals, downgrade them into something they spiritually are not. We put out the raw images. That’s what people don’t know they want to see. Putting atrocity on display in places of culture, where people haven’t fully chosen to watch, is more outrageous than anything I’d ever do.

The videos on our site were artful, meaning crafty. Meaning, they become a part of you, they twist your tastes and cannot be unlearned. Choosing to watch is an important part of the experience. It’s the experience. You have to want to choose, then you click, then watch, each step a descent into nausea, your boredom wiped away, primal curiosity slaked. Download, delete, forward or press pause mid-way, it doesn’t matter: mind-whipped and virulent, you’ve seen it.

 

***

 

She read the pirated pages. Gerber received a letter of introduction from a big movie director he didn’t like, but didn’t actively hate. There were quite a few directors he said he actively hated. The stylists who got war wrong, who never captured the high of dispersing people with a magazine emptied into the air.

Gerber didn’t write back. But, he could confidently predict that this would be a movie one day. His eyes standing open forever. It stood to reason. She wondered, did he worry how he would end up looking, if he became stock footage? Maybe there were just too many more important letters to respond to.

She pictured the love letters he received from a woman in Germany. The woman wrote to him with several pens, each letter in each word a different color. The German, she imagined, stuck out her tongue as she labored over the letters and changed pens, a tortured, weird little soul sitting behind a jar of pens and pencils on her breakfast table in her ugly high rise in Stuttgart.

 

***

 

Photographs of the American soldiers Gerber blew up or shot, with visible faces, were very difficult to find. Dave had three pictures that got us many hits in the developing and self-destructing worlds. He deleted everything I wrote below the photos before posting them. His explanation was: you can’t caption atrocity pictures the way you’d like to caption everything else.

He seemed excited, sitting at our regular booth in the diner.

“What’s really going on?” I said.

“This guy I know who works in a dub house, digitizing surveillance camera tapes?”

“What did he steal?”

“Nothing. He has another guy, a friend who takes security classes at Tuttle Vo-Tech. His teacher goes to and from Lincoln Federal Penitentiary, where he subs for a couple of the guards. Sometimes he locks up video tapes in the vault at the end of his shift. But he fucked up. He accidentally switched a video he was using in his class with a penitentiary tape, so now this guy I know at the dub shop has a few seconds of Leslie Gerber.”

Dave and I loaded the security tape together and timed its release for two minutes after Gerber’s execution. Gerber had a nondescript face, gray eyes that roamed a little over the ceiling. His eyes shifted, but they never closed.

Two weeks later, on the eve of Gerber’s last night, I set my alarm clock for 11:45 p.m. I don’t remember the rest of the evening, whether my girlfriend and I got together or fell asleep. The next morning, I woke at 6:27 a.m. I came out of the bed in a frenzy of sheets tangled around my legs and turned on the TV without waking my girlfriend. Commercials. Gerber was dead. I turned to the clock and checked the alarm: it still said 11:45 p.m., set to the moment just before the needles would go into his veins. I thought of the volume and found the dial had been rolled down to nothing. I turned the volume up and got a commercial for the news. Gerber was dead. His eyes would be closed now, but Dave and I had posted the video that would keep them open forever. I checked our analytics: our site had received 27,000 hits that abruptly dropped to nothing. I thought something must have crashed.

I went outside to get the Houston Chronicle from our mailbox. One of Gerber’s pre-arraignment photos laid above the fold. I spread the paper out on our breakfast table and turned to the inside matter. There, running in fourteen two-by-three inch color photos reproduced from video, with scan lines, a slight moiré in the pale stubble of Gerber’s hair, and separated by time stamps and blocks of captions, was Gerber lying supine, his face looking up at the camera, his eyes open.

The paper said, A Grim Tableau: 11:58 pm — Gerber, appearing relaxed, is secured to the gurney. The photo cropped Gerber at the neck. His eyes were open, staring directly at the camera above him. The gaze was not relaxed. 12:00 a.m. — The witnesses are now gathered in the adjoining room. The gray eyes have turned slightly down and to the right, easily a still from our clip. And on and on, cascading down the page, announcements from the state, square after square of Gerber staring and the inevitable countdown of the captioning, until 12:42 a.m. — Gerber, his eyes still open, is pronounced dead.

My girlfriend had been trying to ask me what was wrong.

“Why don’t you let me see it,” she was saying.

I handed her the paper and said, “They printed him being executed.”

She scanned the section. I wanted it back in my hands. She was slow to take in what I’d already seen.

“This isn’t a big deal,” she finally said. “This looks like the clip you have. Isn’t this sort of what you wanted to happen? Everyone seeing it?”

Everyone seeing it. Not seeing it my way, but seeing it by surprise, without making the choice, opening their morning papers. It was never mine, now.

“It all looks the same, though,” she said. “See? This is weird, the last picture doesn’t look that much different from the first one. It’s a little creepy. Why don’t you calm down?”

I had a fork in my hand. I brought it down into the middle of the page until it tore, ripped the section straight down to the bottom.

 

***

 

It was, she wrote, all ultimately a matter of perspective: everything depended on where you sat in the observation room. She crossed this out. She might have written the same thing for the English master class she took last semester, “Vision and Visuality,” already a hazy memory, but a classroom buzzword, “panopticon,” hovered menacingly around her pen strokes now, ready to strike, an obscure crutch: recognize the college bullshit no one wants to hear again. She wanted to see around the blue oxford shoulders of the reporters in front of her and into the room beyond the window, to Gerber, but she felt it was too late, it would be too conspicuous to shift chairs, two neglected credits in Statistics away from her Bachelor’s.

Still: the new cell phone. She owed her parents a powerful, moving, muscular feature.

She wrote, “Get it in there.” A second voice not Gerber’s. She wrote, “Perhaps the sounds of movement are coming from the two anonymous doctors present in the other room, men who are in charge of Gerber’s IV lines.” It felt like the sentence took forever to write. “Perhaps?” She hated her habitual use of the word. Why not “Maybe?” Pretentious. Green, and pretentious.

Then, nothing. Her knees shook back and forth, up and down. She waited, the reporter’s notebook she bought the day before at the Staples near the weekly’s offices bouncing on her knees. She flexed her legs and the tremor stopped, but when she relaxed them, the tremor returned. The yellow sticker on the folded-back cover read, $2.99. “School Supplies,” she remembered, the aisle the Staples worker had gestured her toward.

 

***

 

I immediately drove to Dave’s. He opened his door, searched over my shoulder, then led me upstairs to his back room.

“Gerber’s tape must have got copied from us,” he said. “I’m getting emails from people who’ve contacted the FBI and the Department of Corrections, looking for the source of our clip. And, of course, someone took down the site.”

He sat in his computer chair.

“I’m destroying the server,” he said.

“No one’s going to come for us,” I said. “It doesn’t matter, now. I’m sure you saw the paper. We can write a letter to the editor. Where’s a pen? Where’s paper?”

I found a bundle of pens held together by a rubber band on his desk. It seemed there was the music of a marching band coming in through the windows. For the first time since I’d met him, Dave looked scared.

“I deleted the clip,” he said. He looked toward the window, probably hearing the music, too.

“We write to the Chronicle,” I said, “and tell them that what they have isn’t different from what we have. It’s public information. Gerber looks the same.”

He stood and went to the window. “I can’t believe this. Another fucking parade.”

“I’m keeping the tape,” I said. “Original source material.”

Dave remained by the window, watching whatever parade traffic was going by. He had the cassette tape in his hand.

I said, “I’ll take that tape now.”

 

***

 

Around the shoulders of the reporter who had whispered to her, she saw a handgun seller’s web site open on the man’s laptop, his cursor arrow making lazy circles across the page, browsing. She watched a variety of guns pop large and small on his screen for what seemed like a long while.

“You missed.” The first doctor’s voice, surprising her amidst the deepening silence.

She knew there were four IV lines: one in each arm, one in each leg near the groin, but she hadn’t committed to memory which where involved in the delivery of the lung-stopping drug. It was uniquely targeted, she’d read in her research, refined over years.

Having gotten that down onto her single page of notes, she waited. She started drawing in the notebook’s margins. Her doodles had never amounted to anything, never morphed into faces, houses, clouds. They were straight lines that intersected randomly, impossible mazes revealing nothing of her interior life, masculine somehow, and worrisome. Their style lay somewhere on the autistic spectrum, she thought. Perhaps.

The noises became routine, feet stepping around what she presumed was Gerber’s gurney, voices speaking to each other in whispers that got lost in the air between the men and the mic.

She wrote, “It’s taking a long time.”

She strained to hear Gerber. She heard heavy breaths. They seemed like the sound of a person in the grip of a panic attack, practicing mindfulness hard. But just. Her notepad slumped, fell, pages ruffled to the floor. She felt someone from the family section give her a hard stare, at the sound.

Gerber’s breathing became more ragged. She let her notebook remain on the floor. Gerber huffed, hoarse, like he’d been screaming.

            “Oh, man.”

The other reporters looked up from their laptops.

 

***

 

Dave was out the door with the Gerber tape. I ran after him, taking the flights two steps at a time. The parade’s band and banner bearers had just passed his apartment building, and a crowd advanced up the sidewalk. I found Dave turning and working his way through the bystanders, off the curb and into the street. Rows of women pushing baby strollers bore down on him. I danced around a toddler and was in the street as Dave broke into the spectators on the other side and was swallowed up.

Upstream of the parade, beyond the next wave of strollers, came a pickup truck tugging a white and pink float like a cake topped with a giant paper mache baby. Its arms rose toward the streetlights and the sky as though it was waiting for a mother float larger than the surrounding buildings to pick it up.

A woman said, “This is a parade.”

She steered a wide blue stroller with eight wheels and padded bumpers. She shoved a sheet of red paper at my chest. I gestured with the paper to the other side of the street, where Dave had run, to indicate that I would get out of the parade’s path by going that direction.

She said, “You need to be on the sidewalk.”

The red paper was a Xeroxed picture of an aborted fetus with a punctured and partially collapsed skull. I turned from the woman to follow Dave and clipped a stroller wheel with my heel. The stroller broke its course, tried to climb up my leg then overturned, spilling a bundle into the street. The swaddling bounced in front of me, unrolled into a white rag doll that came to rest lying face up, two stitched blue eyes looking at the sky. I picked it up, pressed the baby doll into a woman’s hands, then ran after Dave, dodging through the strollers and the crowd.

When I broke through the last of the parade watchers, I found Dave in an alley, standing by a Dumpster. He was unspooling the cassette tape with long violent jerks, stretching and ripping the plastic strips, throwing them into the trash. When he saw me running toward him a shudder of fear passed over his face and he turned to shield the tape.

“I have to do this for both of our safeties,” Dave said.

I said, “You think you have to.”

I handed him the anti-abortion flyer and told him he could scan it and use it, if he wanted. We’d been friends for a short time, but now there wasn’t anything between us. I walked away.

Now I’m looking for the Gerber clip across the sites that might have mirrored it during the few minutes it was available before the FBI, someone, took it down. Of course many are looking for it, which should only make the search easier. If someone finds it before I do, I’ll download and post it on my own, get hits without Dave. If it doesn’t show up, fine: I’ll search for things that go further. And whatever they may be, many people will make the choice to put their eyes on them, for at least a second, and I’ll have given them something they cannot forget.

 

***

 

It was nearing two in the morning. The shaking had moved from her legs up through her hips and to her shoulders. A too-large glass of red wine stood on the coffee table next to her mother’s computer. In her trembling hand, the glass shook, the wine quivered. She had decided she would reject her next assignment, covering a local rockabilly band, which would very likely mark the point of her leaving the weekly.

She would write about only what she could see and hear. She would write that this was the state’s third execution of the year and it was only April, growing warm and wet outside, but she knew she would either move or delete this sentence.

She wanted to post a photo of Gerber alongside the text, so she Googled his images, searching for photographs she’d never seen before. It felt important to show him fresh, unfamiliar, not in the orange prison jumpsuit, head shaved, or in his Marines uniform, hair cropped close to his skull. She hoped for a yearbook photo, a varsity basketball shot, but she knew these images had already appeared in the news. On the tenth page of hits the sources veered from the AP and the other news outlets that she now felt no interest, the red wine bearing down, in ever joining. She found Russian sites, Japanese sites, foreign text surrounding the word, “Gerber.” Finally, she found a link in English. She opened closedcasket.com in a new tab, met a black splash screen covered with warning statements, clicked through within seconds. Gerber’s head lying on a pillow on his bed, eyes meeting hers through the video. A download button appeared next to the clip. She chose a format she hoped her mother’s computer could handle, but the video sputtered and paused, its 15 seconds taking nearly 5 minutes to play out.

Here was Gerber before he was taken to the room adjacent to the press and family room. She guessed it was his holding cell. Nothing happened. The video faded up, Gerber stared into the camera, the video faded out. It floated free of context, nothing on the page identified the clip, no date or location. She took a screen grab of what looked like a good freeze frame, changed her mind and decided to upload the complete thing to her blog.

She would write that after hearing Gerber groan for over thirty minutes, a deep, distressed sound came from the gurney, that Gerber’s head and shoulders passed by the window into the other room. She would describe herself looking between the other reporters’ shoulders as Gerber sat up. Through the window, she could see only the curve of his back dressed in a hospital gown. Gerber raised his arms to grasp the top of his bald head. She saw the clear tubes connecting his tats to the I.V. bags.

The reporter who’d talked to her before turned back around to face her. “They’ve got the lines in wrong,” he whispered.

She wrote in her notebook, “Drug leaking into Gerber’s muscles.”

“Not unprecedented,” the reporter whispered. “It’ll reach his heart soon.”

She checked the clock in the corner of the reporter’s laptop. It had been 43 minutes.

She drained the wine glass, taking two swallows to get it down. The tremor in her legs continued. She would write that Gerber’s head passed back down past the window, a white-coated arm pressing him back onto the gurney. The unintelligible medical chatter stopped. Then Gerber, one last time.

“Oh, man,” she would write at the end of the post. “This ain’t working.”

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