Hey, kids! It’s now just under a MONTH to the publication of METRO, my new novel about killers, comic books and film nerds. My fictional characters live in a real place, and the real place was a house in Austin called The Kingdom. I lived there for 13 years. Many people lived there with me. I’d like to introduce you to one of them. His name is Bryan Geer and he is also a writer. My novel “Resurrection Express” was dedicated to him. He has a rather amusing story to share with you from the early days of my tenure as a resident at The Kingdom. What accompanies his story are actual images from the place. (You can see Bryan and Scott in the photo below; Bryan’s the one on his knees, Scott is next to him wearing the red shirt and black suit, smiling at PHANTASM guitar man Reggie Bannister at one of the legendary Kingdom jams.) Enjoy!
There were times during my tenure at the Kingdom—and mind you, as a Charter Member I was there during the early days, before things got too crazy—there were long stretches when I slept at night with a getaway bag near my bed. The getaway bag contained my birth certificate, passport, college diploma, checkbook, a photograph of my mother, clean socks and underwear, and (usually) a couple hundred bucks in cash. That bag was near my bed in case one of my dumb-ass roommates did something stupid in the middle of the night which might require us to get the hell out of there in one bezoomny mad scramble, presumably only seconds before the police and/or the fire department showed up. No time to pack, Bry—just grab your bag and jump out the bedroom window!
Happily, the getaway bag was never needed in its official capacity, and to be fair, I was a dumb-ass too. I was a very important dumb-ass: I was the designated Nervous Guy.
There’s one in every gang of idiots. The worrier. The guy who’s always saying, “Slow down!” Or, “Not so loud!” Be careful! That was me. Every party needs a pooper, and I had inherited the title. Stephen was a genius for coming up with crazy ideas, while Scott had a car and some money and a stepfather with an awesome set of tools. Scott was Stephen’s enabler. They’d blow up the world if nobody stopped them. So that was my job: saving the world. It’s a big responsibility.
And what that means is that pretty much every damn-fool crazy-ass stunt the boys pulled in those early days had, at some point in its developmental phase, received my official seal of approval. (God help us all.) Stephen and Scott would cook up something outlandish, and then they would ask me what I thought about it. After all, I was the smart one; I was the responsible one. Sometimes I had to be the bad guy and put the kibosh on the fun, but other times, well… boys just gotta HAVE fun, you know?
Such as, for example, the Burning of the Log.
We had cut down a large oak tree. It had been dead a few years already, and it was encroaching on the front porch, wrapping fully a third of the roof in gnarled branches. The tree was a troublemaker and it had to go! The landlord, Moose, a drug-sniffing good-old-boy and one of our partners in crime, agreed to cut us some slack on the rent if we got rid of that pain-in-the-ass oak tree for him. As luck would have it, Scott’s stepfather had a big-ass chainsaw we could borrow.
It was around Thanksgiving. Give three young men a chainsaw and carte blanche to declare war on the trees, and you’ve got a whole day of fun right there. Stephen was channeling Leatherface, needless to say. We massacred trees until it was too dark to see anymore. In typical Bry-Guy fashion, I was the one who finally called a halt to the chainsaw festivities: “Let’s knock off for the night, Stephen, before someone gets his leg chopped off.”
We ended the day with a huge stack of oak logs filling the front porch, probably enough wood to last normal people for a whole winter of normal winter fires. Plus, we still had the big log: the trunk or torso of the tree, about two feet in diameter and some ten feet long. It was far too big and heavy to move, so it just stayed on the ground next to the house. Until it was time.
That time came sooner that I imagined, but I could not have predicted the scale of the blistering blue blazes which Stephen built in our fireplace. It was a pretty good-sized fireplace, and Stephen and Scott literally packed it to the flue with oak wood. This was not a typical pile of logs, not at all: this was a furnace full of fuel capable of powering the boilers on a steamship (or a starship). To sit a comfortable distance away meant to be in another room. The fire was tended by a sweating daredevil (usually Stephen, but we all took turns) dressed in heavy protective clothing including asbestos gloves and a welding helmet. Our thermal signature was probably visible from orbit.
It was at about this time that I first conceived of the need for a getaway bag.
In a matter of weeks, we began running low on wood. “I cannot believe,” I said, “that you guys have burned up an entire oak tree in just a few short weeks!”
“Not the entire tree,” said Stephen. “Not the trunk.”
“Yeah, but there’s no way we can cut that trunk up into pieces small enough to fit into the fireplace. We don’t have the chainsaw any more, and even if we rent one it would be a shitload of hard work.” I was in full-on Wet Blanket mode. “Forget about it.”
“But do we really need to cut it up? Can’t we just jam one end into the fireplace, and burn it from end to end? It would last for weeks!”
“A burning log in the middle of the living room?! Are you INSANE?!”
“It’s not like the whole log would catch on fire, whoosh, all at once. Only the part that’s actually in the fireplace will be on fire. It’ll burn down slowly, like a gigantic cigar. That’s how it works, right?” Stephen looked to Scott for reinforcement.
“That’s right,” said Scott. “Like the Yule Log from olden days. One big-ass log, burns for the whole goddamn Christmas season… and it’s almost Christmas!”
They looked at me, eager and expectant: would I be Santa, or would I be Scrooge?
“Hmmm….” I considered everything I knew about the combustibility of oak wood (a subject we had all learned much about in recent weeks), as well as fire safety, home construction, and the history, tradition, practicality and functionality of Yule logs. “Your idea is crazy,” I declared (and this really was how I talked back then); “so crazy that it just might work!”
It turned out that the main body of the tree was only too heavy to move if there was no good reason to move it. But now we were motivated! Three strong young men were able to roll that bastard out of the yard and onto the driveway and then, inch by laborious inch, to lever it onto the porch and through the front door and into the living room. We hoisted one end onto Stephen’s stoutly-constructed and indestructible coffee table, and the other end took over our sofa. This raised the whole wooden beast to hearth height.
We built the fire up into the biggest blaze yet: it was going to have to ignite a solid oaken log two feet thick, and halfway measures clearly wouldn’t cut it. Dressed like Apollo astronauts, Scott and Stephen fanned the flames until the entire Kingdom was glowing red-hot, shimmering like a special effect in a Steven Spielberg flick. Then, slowly and gently and carefully, we crammed the monster log into place: one end in the fireplace, and ten feet of tree sticking out into the living room.
Embers crunched. Sparks danced and disappeared. We shoved again, a little further, then we watched and waited. Gradually it became clear that the operation was a success: the enormous oak log had ignited and was burning on one end. It was a real-live Yule Log.
We drank beer and wine, and we sang Christmas songs. Friends came over and we watched Die Hard again and again. Several times each day we would give the log a shove and move it another inch into the inferno. It burned and burned, and it lasted for weeks, and it was the best Christmas ever, amen.
And as for the Christmases that followed?
Well, the next year, realizing with abject horror that we’d all been narrowly spared some sort of horrible burning midnight demise, Scott decided to permanently “Yule proof” the house, by placing our giant old school “console television” inside the fireplace proper. This was no small feat, because back then a giant TV like that was a really heavy item, full of glass and plastic and a big damn tube full of deadly gas that exploded if you dropped it—but Stephen was game because it was such a weird idea. And yet again, I was pressed into service, on another harebrained mission to Valhalla. We grunted that big motherfucker into the fireplace, where it remained for 15 years, long after Scott and I left Stephen to be master and commander of The Kingdom.
There was never a fire again in that house.
Not literally anyway.
But they watched Die Hard a lot where the Yule Log once burned.
The fireplace of the Kingdom, sealed for all eternity . . .
NEXT WEEK: Another wild tale of the Kingdom from founding member Joe Fay, in which he discusses dope, friendship and LIVE FUCKIN’ ZOMBIES. Until then, be cool as a fool, trubelievers, and remember—you only ever think you need a fast getaway because you probably do! Rock on.