The Man Who Built Hell by Benjamin Schachtman
The Man Who Built Hell
The man who built hell is five-foot-six. His hair is graying and cut very short, covering his scalp like a dense patch of steel wool. His nose is bony and asymmetrical, broken in childhood—and several times since—and never quite set straight. His skin is light. His lips are thin and pale. His eyes, on government documents, are ‘hazel’ but on any given day they might be the blue-grey of wet slate, the amber-flecked aquamarine of unpolished sapphire, or the spectral purples and reds of oil-slick iridescence. Starting behind his ear and traveling in a smooth arc to the nape of his neck is a ridge of melted pink candle wax, scar tissue that—on humid days in late summer—swells faintly and darkens.
The man who built hell has a style that is indistinct—best described as ‘polite’—in such a way that, in rural areas, he is assumed to be from the city and, in the city, he is assumed to be a tourist. He has been dressing this way for most of his adult life, except for a brief period—which he rarely comments on—during which he was provided clothes to wear. In a file, buried deep in the bureaucratic stacks, there is a note: once, when the man was young, a child of three or four, his father dressed him as a girl for several months. The father’s motives are not recorded. The file notes that the man remembers the experience only vaguely, to the extent that he found women’s clothing no more or less comfortable than men’s clothing.
The man who built hell was born in Camden, New Jersey. There is nothing in his file to indicate that his particular birthplace had anything to do with his adult behavior. It is worth noting that despite the current state of Camden—socio-economic collapse buttressed only partially by martial law—it was, at the time of the man’s birth, a culturally vibrant place about which he has only positive, albeit nostalgic, things to say.
The man who built hell is the object of study for a small, loosely organized group. The official status of the group has changed many times over the years, but the essential dynamic has remained the same. There is nothing, specifically, to be done about the man who built hell—there is certainly no compelling evidence that hell can be disassembled, so to speak—but the issue cannot simply be ignored. Over the years it has been suggested, only partially in jest, that the group seek out corporate partnership, in the hopes that business-minded leadership might be more proactive about the situation. But, of course, this is impossible. Thus, the dynamic remains: the group cannot do anything but they cannot do nothing—a familiar double bind for those in government—and so they document.
The man who built hell, by the numbers:
Age: 72 (approx.)
Weight: 70 kg (est.)
Credit Rating: 240
Assets: $6,743.12 (liquid), $23,109 (inv.)
Debt: $290,001.84 (including accrued interest on Federal loans)
# of Sexual Partners: 7 (confirmed), 5 (suggested)
Children: 1 (confirmed), 1 (pending DNA sample/analysis)
The man who built hell has, periodically, demonstrated addictive behavior. For several years, he abused barbiturates, developing such an astonishingly high tolerance that continued use became logistically impractical. He switched to alcohol and, owing to a happy accident of body chemistry, avoided the lethal withdrawal symptoms. The man has never abused any other drug, excepting brief usage—categorized as ‘experimental’—of a few assorted organic hallucinogens. In his file, it is noted that the man was ‘profoundly disappointed’ by these drugs. It is also noted that he found the vivid and prolonged ‘memories’ triggered by hallucinogens to be ‘extremely unpleasant.’ The man declined to comment further on the nature of these ‘memories.’
The man who built hell is very good at poker.
The man who built hell appears on several video recordings, answering questions in a relaxed and soft-spoken manner. On matters of his personal history, ideological beliefs, and future aspirations, he is forthright but somewhat terse. On the topic of human sexuality, however, he becomes expansive and philosophical. Viewing these records, not every group members is able to maintain the proper objective detachment. ‘Horror’ is in most cases an overstatement, but several group members have threatened to resign rather than subject themselves to some portions of the recordings. These threats are bureaucratically nonsensical—group membership is by definition permanent—but they’re also intellectually specious. Very few things are likely to be as interesting—as challenging and complicated—as the group’s research. It is well known that, in the few rare cases where a member—because of illness, age, or extreme duress—has been allowed to leave the group, they have routinely expressed a sense of despondency. One such member described the experience, in a somewhat florid manner, as ‘stepping out of the sunshine into a room, which most people would describe as well-lit, but which you can barely make out in the swimming darkness.’
The man who built hell was home-schooled. According to the man, his father was profoundly distrustful of the government, including New Jersey’s Department of Education and Camden’s School Board. At age eighteen, the man was allowed by his father to attend Rutgers University, where for three semesters he reportedly worked diligently before transferring to Yale, where he graduated with degrees in biochemistry and English literature. It is not clear how, exactly, he secured this transfer, although the man suggests that a ‘close personal friend’ at Yale may have facilitated it. The man attended graduate school at Harvard, but never submitted a proposal for the doctoral thesis. His comments about this period in his life are notably laconic.
The man who built hell is the father of at least one child, as noted in his files: Donovan Culpepper, born the 28th of July 1981, in Savannah, Georgia (male; weight: 2.9 kg). Donovan was undocumented until early December of 2002 (an internal review of the oversight, along with a summary of accountability and reprimands, is on file), when certain biological markers were detected after he donated blood to a state-run blood bank in South Carolina. A limited amount of information about Donovan’s early life is available, and has dutifully been filed. Donovan’s mother, Maxine Culpepper, raised Donovan alone, working as a bartender, hotel maid, and—for several years—a blackjack and poker dealer for a seasonal riverboat gambling operation out of Charleston, the same place where, it is defensibly argued, she met Donovan’s father. Records indicate that Maxine and Donovan’s father lived together in Charleston for eighteen months until Maxine became pregnant, at which point he left her and made no further contact. When interviewed, Maxine described Donovan’s father as ‘normal—reserved, level-headed’ and, although she at one point referred to him as a ‘kind of a deadbeat,’ she voiced no particular ill-will towards him. Currently, Donovan is documented as thoroughly as the group’s resources will allow. Several rejected proposals have been put forward concerning more aggressive approaches to Donovan. One particular proposal—of note because it came the closest to winning the necessary unanimous vote (7:2; 3 abstaining)—outlined a plan to bring Donovan into the group’s facility, both for testing and to offer Donovan the opportunity to join the group. One dissenter held out on account of the potential for violence and loss of life. The other dissented on Donovan’s account, pleading for the record, ‘We might perhaps be less concerned with what we might learn, and more concerned with what he would learn.’ As for Donovan’s potential half-brother, he has meticulously avoided governmental, financial and communications networks, and he has apparently, like Donovan, never required medical attention. It has been difficult to track him, even with the group’s considerable resources.
The man who built hell is what might be called a ‘serial monogamist’ and shows no particular preference for race, gender or morphology. He has, on several occasions, voiced extreme distaste for the Catholic Church, but at least two of his confirmed sexual partners were Roman Catholic Hispanics (one of them, a male, was obviously lapsed to some degree). On two unsubstantiated occasions, he had sexual intercourse with minors outside of a ‘relationship.’ The first, with a fifteen-year-old female in Phoenix, Arizona, allegedly occurred in the bathroom of a bar where the female had gained entry using false identification. She disappeared—presumed drowned in a flash-flood near a camp-site where she was registered—before she could be questioned. The second was allegedly with a thirteen-year-old male in Bozeman, Montana, who suffers from a moderate autism-spectrum disorder—misdiagnosed, in the group’s opinion, as ‘high-functioning’ Asperger’s—and who, when questioned, gave inconclusive and possibly confabulated testimony about their relationship.
The man who built hell is of more interest to the group than the hell he built. This has, historically, been a matter of mission—it is the job the group does, a consuming job, which edges out, eventually, all other things: friends, family, romantic entanglements. These things already sacrificed, few group members make time for moral questioning, for staring into the void. When a new member is inducted, of course, they are briefed. They learn about the man and, to do so, they learn about what he has done, about what we have come to call his ‘accomplishment.’ Each new member takes a good look, at the thing itself. But after that the work concerns the man. Most members say one good look is sufficient.
The man who built hell is standing on a street corner in midtown Manhattan (SW; East 53rd and 3rd Ave.), waiting for the traffic light to change. Standing next to him is an attractive young blonde, in a tight pencil skirt and sleeveless blouse, clutching a binder of files to her chest. The light changes. The woman steps into the street. The man stands on the curb and watches as a cab runs a light and clips her leg out from under her. Her head collides with the side of the cab and she falls back against the curb, skull split, eyes rolling up into their sockets, body jerking in death-spasms. There is no sound on the recording, but you can see that some people are screaming. Other people are staring in shock. Some are rushing away from the scene. Across the street, mounted approximately three meters up on a metal post, is a traffic camera, trained on the intersection. The man looks up at the camera aperture with a faint grin. He is smiling at us, in essence, though we won’t see this footage until later in the day when it is rushed to us by an associate at the Department of Justice office in New York.
The man who built hell is not immortal, although such mythological murmurings are heard in the late-night hours from time to time, the product of overworked and overtired minds. He is, however, resistant to several strains of rhinovirus—the ‘common’ cold—as well as to several more exotic retroviruses, both naturally occurring and engineered. This phenomenon is behind both the group’s dreams of corporate partnership and their inability to pursue those dreams. Still, there is always the hope that those government bodies to whom, at present, the group answers will lose interest with the man and, thus, the group as well. Every month, when the group files its report, there is always the hope that it will be their last—that they will be thanked, debriefed, pensioned and set free—or that their report will simply go unanswered—which would amount to the same thing. There are rumors, unsubstantiated but tantalizing, that there are other men—other women, even children perhaps—and other groups. There are rumors that, in some cases, these groups have escaped the doubled binds of government for the free market. There are, in the most salacious of these rumors, intimations that several leading R&D firms are, in fact, former groups. These are the kinds of things a member of the group dreams of: an end to the dull secrecy of classified research, freedom from musty basements, stuffy offices filled with rusted file-cabinets and outdated equipment. A group member dreams of an office with a window, earning a healthy but discrete salary, and vacationing somewhere tropical. But, after years in the group, it is difficult to ignore the psychodynamics of this behavior: a dream is always a fetish, a screen for the nightmare. If there are other groups then there are other men. If there are other men then there are other hells, and one is already too many.
© Benjamin Schachtman
Benjamin Schachtman is a NYC ex-pat, living on the Carolina coast. He’s a fiction editor and contributor at Anobium Literary; his work has appeared in print in the Dig Boston, Anobium, The Conium Review and the Bad Version, and online at Slush Pile Magazine, Pif Magazine, Foundling Review, and others.
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