Addicts & Basements
by Robert Vaughan
Civil Coping Mechanisms, February 2014
142 pages / $13.95 Buy from Amazon
While waiting for clothes to dry in a dingy, low-maintenance laundromat—leaning beside an out-of-service soda machine was a discolored Fisher-Price Playset (in case anyone wanted to conveniently scare/scar the hell out of their kids)—I tore into Addicts & Basements, Robert Vaughan’s slim collection of brisk, tightly-constructed miracles of human endurance both humorous and sad (often beautiful), as coin machines, some entirely gutted, struggled haphazardly against insurmountable odds:
A man is mailed his ex’s pubic hair; a lonely waitress perusing personal ads becomes smitten by Bondage Man; a father kidnaps two siblings who may or may not be his kids; and a husband surfs porn sites while wearing his medicated wife’s panties.
Vaughan’s talent in handling the plights of characters many would write off as pathetic grotesques is masterful, and he does it with love and sincerity:
He decided to give it a whirl in the toilets of Grand Central Station. He stopped by Wigs and Plus on 14th Street where the owner, Sunny, would sell him a cheap piece “for his mother.” Then he’d prop himself in the furthest stall from the door every Sunday morning. Wig in place. Like a parishioner. Or a TV evangelist. Or a congressman.
When it comes to flash fiction (those brief, punchy, not-quite-prose-poems) Vaughan is an upper-level video game boss. “Gauze, A Medical Dressing, A Scrim,” with its impeccable comedic timing, might be one of the best I’ve ever read. “Neighbors,” about two suspicious pet owners, isn’t too shabby either:
He likes her smile, imagines seeing those guinea pigs ripped into shreds. He untangles the leash. “C’mon, boys.” He imagines what she looks like covered in whipped cream. Even her heels. They keep laughing.
“On the Wings of a Dove” turns the nightmare juice up to 11 with Vaughan’s haunting tribute to Matthew Wayne Shepard, a young man tortured and killed by homophobes in Wyoming:
his coma was so quiet,
one of the killers would
later say, you could almost
hear ice rattling down the canyon
In crazy-good snapshots like “What Some Boys Do” and “There’s No Place Like Home,” Vaughan voices the concerns of children growing up in whack-ass situations (rickety Fisher-Price Tragi-sets not withstanding):
And Dad, if you can call him that, he’s still screwing Tonda, our pastor’s daughter. She’s only a year older than my oldest sister. That’s gross. And then there’s my brother. He won’t leave me alone. Some nights I sleep on the garage roof just to get away from him. Even the dog is constantly horny, humping the closest leg around. So embarrassing.
Sexual discovery, especially through imprisonment and abuse, is a common theme throughout Vaughan’s work:
I was tied-up in a harmless game
of cowboys and Indians,
I discovered it was the only
way for me to
feel aroused. No, to
He goes for broke, even when shit gets creepy:
I made sure it was the same Santa as last year. Yup. The one who smelled like Crown Royal, like my Daddy used to. And I made sure I was the last one to sit on Santa’s lap. Well after the elves had all been released for the day. After Santa blew me on the present wrapping table, and wiped up.
The laundromat was mercifully closing. Addicts & Basements was finished and tucked under my arm as I went to fetch the clothes I’d hoped were dry (they weren’t). The owner rolled in a mechanized mannequin, some bizarre promotional monstrosity used to attract/scare off business, dressed in Keds and a purple wig. There was a car battery strapped to it legs. The wig was slightly askew. I couldn’t think of a better book than Addicts & Basements to have with me at that moment—amongst those pitiful machines, this deranged wonderland, that mannequin. Only Vaughan could make any damn sense of it.
Brian Alan Ellis is the author of The Mustache He’s Always Wanted but Could Never Grow, 33 Fragments of Sick-Sad Living, and King Shit (illustrated by Waylon Thornton). He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and needs a washer and dryer pronto.