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"Wrong Side of the Ice Wall" by Aaron Jacobs

Let me tell you about the time I was eight and made my big screen debut in Cannibal Family. I played Billy Barker, the youngest son of a grisly clan of people eaters. The short story is I stole every scene I was in, outshining seasoned actors. The longer version is we don’t live in a just world—the meek suffer, the wicked thrive, etc.—and scorching performances don’t often scale to lasting success, which is the easiest explanation for how yours truly, Mick O’Grady, recently ended up back in central Michigan doing a two-month residency at the Cannibal Family House Museum. Several years ago, entrepreneur and private investor, Dale Pressman, bought the three-story Tudor at a foreclosure auction and renovated and restored it to its original specs as the principle shooting location of the 1986 horror classic. Once Dr. Pressman had the place looking just like it did back in the day, he petitioned the township for historic landmark status (Approved!), threw open the doors to the public as a living tribute to the power of cult cinema, and told Afterburn Pictures, who still technically owned the rights to the movie, to take their copyright infringement lawsuit and swim home up a dirty river.

During business hours I donned adult-sized versions of my costumes and recited my ever-quotable lines for visitors, such as, “Pleased to eat you, sir,” and, “Rump roast … Again?” I regaled them with behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the film’s production and fielded questions from fans—price of admission didn’t include photos or autographs, so I had a nice little side hustle going, provided I didn’t flaunt it. I was supposed to blog about my daily experiences on the museum website, but my postings were infrequent. Every day was pretty much the same. Once I spiced up a posting with a track from my band, SK!N FLÜT, only to have Laszlo scold me. He was tasked with overseeing day-to-day operations but mostly acted like a power-tripping security guard, his managerial style showing a fascistic streak probably nurtured in whatever Eastern European country he grew up in.

“My friend, no one cares about a middle-aged man making electronica,” he said.

“It’s synth pop.”


There was a time I would have told him, via my agent, that if he didn’t like doing things the Mick O’Grady way, he could get the fuck out of the Mick O’Grady business. Those times were long over. I hadn’t had an agent in years, and I really needed this gig. Dr. Pressman’s offer came at an unbelievably welcomed time. I was in arrears rent-wise at my Orlando apartment, plus I was persona non grata at the recording studio until I settled my tab. In addition to free room and board at the museum, I received a tasty stipend that would cover my debts and allow me to finally finish the long-awaited SK!N FLÜT demo tape.

Cannibal Family had a legion of fans—Relatives, they called themselves—who trekked to Saginaw as if it were Lourdes. I’d be the first to admit that, though it jump started my career, the movie wasn’t anywhere near flawless, even by genre standards. As a kid I hadn’t noticed it, but the story was kind of a mess. It was never explained why the Barkers ate people in the first place. Were we heroes or villains? Who knew? Plot holes abounded. For example, there were three separate scenes where we ordered takeout from the same restaurant and then ate the delivery guy, but somehow the restaurant never put two and two together. What did they think kept happening to their drivers? If my onscreen father, Dexter Thorne (1945-2001), was any indication, this flick was creatively fueled by amphetamines and professionally motivated by unresolved tax liens.

But as for the fans, I guess my point was that, for whatever reason, Cannibal Family resonated. This was what I was telling Laszlo one night in our living quarters. When the museum closed at 6:00, he and I would disappear downstairs to the basement. We spent evenings drinking beer and shooting pool, or watching movies. Other times he ignored me to defend his flat earth theory online, leaving me to drink beer and shoot pool, or watch movies, all by myself.

Platoon took home the Oscar that year, but you don’t see a museum for Platoon, do you?” I said.

“There’s the National Vietnam War Museum,” he said.

“That’s not what I’m talking about.”

“Nostalgia is a powerful drug, my friend.”

“Haven’t you ever connected emotionally to a piece of art?” I said, and tossed my empty can in the blue recycling bin near the stairs.

“Give me a fucking break.”

“You’re wrong, Lasz. People love the movie.”

“How could they?” he said, straining to understand. “It is shit.”

“Whatever, man.” I got us fresh beers and passed him one. “What do you want to watch tonight?”

“You choose. I have research to do.”


Last week, after we split a case of a boozy Belgian ale, I got around to asking him to describe his working model. His concept was elaborate: Planet Earth was platter-shaped; the sun and moon were the same size and rotated around each other above us in a kind of chaste dance; gravity was an unsupported hypothesis and shit just fell for no reason; what you and I know as Antarctica was actually an ice wall that surrounded the world and acted as a barrier to hold the oceans back.

“What if the wall melts?”

“The ice is frozen to absolute zero, minus 273.15 degrees Celsius. It cannot melt,” Laszlo said.

“You know, I wrote a song called Absolute Zero.”

“Autobiography, yes?”

“Fair enough. What happens if you climb over the ice wall? You fall into space?” I asked.

“There is more land on the other side. Pristine and undamaged by humans and our sickening consumption.”

“Let’s pack a bag and go!”

He shook his head at the impossibility of it all. “NORAD guards the border. We would be vaporized inside of two kilometers. Besides, you would never survive the ascent. You can barely make it up the basement stairs.”

“How do you know all this and no one else does?”

“People have a hard time accepting they’ve been lied to their whole lives.”

He went into an explanation about how bureaucracy by nature limits a groups’ knowledge, so that millions of people had small parts of the picture, but not the whole thing. It took someone unafraid of difficult truths to pick up all the pieces and put them together. I stopped listening when he got on a rant about Jews controlling the weather.

The thing was, I knew where he was coming from. Not the part about the Chosen People’s hurricane machine, but the confusion that leads to embracing such ideas. In my twenties I’d gone deep into my very own fringe scene—direct action for an animal liberation organization. Or eco-terrorism, according to the state of Florida. I was a member of the Clearwater 5 who, while attempting to rescue a bottlenose dolphin from an aquarium, torched a food pavilion. All of this happened during a dark and nebulous period in my life. When my acting career foundered in my late-teens, I was saved by a love of music and believed my destiny held rock stardom. But then my first serious band broke up due to creative differences: My bandmates wanted a chronically hot frontman, whereas I was, if casting directors were accurate, a six. With my expulsion from T.G.I. Wednesday, I felt for the first time in my life that I had no future. And like Laszlo, I tried to make sense of the senseless.


For the a.m. crowd I usually wore my blood-spattered Little League uniform, everyone’s favorite costume. But the following morning, I spilled coffee in my lap, and had no choice but to change into my blood-spattered Transformers pajamas. I was running late but still clocked in in time to see Laszlo firing the janitor.

The janitor shouted, “I didn’t do nothing. I didn’t do nothing.”

“Shut up, interloper.” Laszlo dragged him by the collar of his coveralls and deposited him on the lawn.

Laszlo slammed the front door and called an unscheduled staff meeting. The girl who pulled double duty at the giftshop and Barker’s Bites (snack bar), Gladys the docent, and I followed him into the living room. He pointed through the window and instructed us to gaze upon our former coworker brushing grass clippings out of his hair with a look of thickening dismay on his face.

“Let that be a warning,” he said, and, drawing closed the curtains, ended the meeting.

“Jesus, Lasz. What’d he even do?” I said.

“I have reason to believe he’s a mole from Afterburn Pictures. I intercepted him stealing my trash.”

“He’s the janitor. That’s his job.”


“That’s cold.”

“You could be was too, my friend. Get to work. Whatever it is you do here.”

He took out his phone and scrolled through his messages. “Bad day for this shit,” he muttered. “Bad day, bad day.”

It didn’t seem bad to me. Seemed like every other day. I hurried to my movie bedroom and heaved myself up to the top of the bunk bed I’d shared with my older brother Freddy Barker—Corey Samuels (1968-1992). I pulled out a stack of Topps NFL football cards from under my pillow and started flipping through them.

Soon Gladys led in the first visitors.

They were a middle-aged couple. It was difficult to tell how diehard they were, but they were giving off a weird vibe indicative of Relatives, that sense they were missing something in their lives and Cannibal Family was the soil they used to backfill large excavations within themselves.

“Now, this husky young man has grown up quite a bit since you last saw him,” she said, pointing up at me. “Give a hand to the one and only Billy Barker.”

“My name is Mick O’Grady. Billy was the character.”

“Just say the line,” she said.

“The family that slays together, stays together,” I said.

“The other line.” She was a four-foot ten septuagenarian and I was a little scared of her.

“Pleased to eat you, folks!”

The couple whooped it up. I slid off the top bunk and glad-handed. The man pushed his wraparound shades to his forehead and introduced himself and his wife. I tried not staring at the charm necklace dangling betwixt her cleavage, but her face was no better a target. Her look was one I’d seen many times before, and one I always struggled to match, brought on by the awkwardness of meeting me. They detected a shadow of youthful promise in my shattered eyes and couldn’t square my current life with the one they’d projected onto me when I was but an image on a well-worn VHS tape they passed back and forth amongst their friends.

“Baby, tell him how you had the biggest crush on him back in the day,” the man said.

“Still do,” she said.

“Buddy, you must have been just pulling in the females.”

“I was in third grade,” I said.

“You’re not in third grade anymore.”

“This is true.”

“Goddamn it!” he shouted. “What the hell happened to you?”

“Oh, leave him alone,” the woman said. She pinched a few inches of my love handle, and drew me to her. “If you’re such a cannibal, how about you eat me?”

“She’s not kidding,” the man said, and threw his heavy arm around my neck.

“Come on, now, gang,” Gladys said. “If you’ll follow me, we’ll head to the kitchen where there’s a delightfully gruesome surprise in the refrigerator.”

“Two-to-one it’s the cop’s head,” the man said.

“The mayor’s head,” the woman said.

“It was the mayor’s heart.”

“Was it?”

“Let’s just have a looksie, shall we?” Gladys said. “Say goodbye to Billy.”

“It’s Mick,” I said.

“Bye, Billy,” they chanted and filed out.

I took a lap around the bedroom waiting for other visitors, running my fingers over the furniture, turning up no dust. Dr. Pressman had done a phenomenal job on the house. The details were perfect. I sat on the floor and crossed my legs and stared at the large freshwater fish tank beside the hand-me-down stereo equipment, just like I did in between scenes all those years ago. Back then I’d been obsessed with the fish, to the point that my on-set tutor had made a science project out of it for me. I still remembered some of the names: Neon blue Goby, Peppered Cory Cat, Candy Cane Tetra. I’d told my movie mom, Annabelle Clifford (1950-, lives in Culver City) that I was going to be a marine biologist when I grew up. I’ll never forget the way she looked at me, smiled, riffled my hair with her hands, and said, “How dare you?”

I fed the fish. They bubbled up to the surface to eat. An actor is always searching for his character’s motivation, the event from the past that shapes current decisions. I wondered if my tutor’s science project had influenced me then, instilled a well of empathy for sea life so that it was inevitable that I found myself at Good Ray’s Aquatic Center fifteen or so years later at dawn with four friends, friends I’d made after I was dumped from T.G.I. Wednesday and who I believed were as willing to die for me as I was for them. Or co-conspirators as they would soon be known. While they retrieved Cinderella, a ten-year-old bottlenose dolphin, I attached a cigarette to a pack of matches, then lit the cigarette and left it inside Neptune’s Original Fish Fry, which I had painted in $10.00 worth of unleaded.


It wasn’t much later I found out what was worrying Laszlo: a party of two, a man and a woman, claiming an appointment with Dr. Pressman and his representation, an odd request considering Dr. Pressman was never here. They didn’t look like Relatives. They looked important, like diplomats or funeral directors. Whoever they were, their arrival was a disturbance, a baying of coyotes far nearer to civilization than was comfortable.

Gladys had finished her tour and was next to me in the hallway. We watched Laszlo fall all over himself greeting them. “Welcome Mr. Francis and Ms. Stein, welcome to the museum. We could not have more esteemed guests, it is not possible,” he said.

“See how the little dictator act goes right out the window when someone with real juice shows up?” Gladys said.

“Who are they?” I said.

“Lawyers. From Afterburn Pictures.”

“Is that good or bad?”

She shrugged and went out back for a smoke.

“Please think of this house as your own. I’m at your disposal,” Laszlo said. He grabbed the handle of the lawyer’s rolling catalogue case and began swinging his other arm in a loose circle, inviting them in. He noticed me and said, “Get over here and help.”

Mr. Francis raised his hand like a traffic guard. “Not so fast. Why is he dressed like a child?”

“Why, that’s Billy, of course. He’s pleased to eat you,” Laszlo said.

“Billy Barker, in name and likeness, is property of Afterburn Pictures,” Mr. Francis said.

“You own my likeness?” I said.

“In perpetuity and throughout the universe.”

I looked at the woman “How can you own my likeness? Why would you even want to?”

“Merchandising,” she said.

We moved to the dining room, the location of the notorious Thanksgiving scene that got

Cannibal Family banned in Nova Scotia. My instinct was to leave immediately. I was wearing Transformers pjs for shit’s sake.

But Laszlo said, “Help me run interference till Pressman shows up.”

“I don’t know, man.”

“Here’s what I know, man. If this meeting doesn’t go right, we’re all going to be was.”

This was what I feared. No more museum meant no more stipend, which meant no more demo tape. I’d be on a Greyhound to Orlando, to the apartment with a popcorn ceiling and black mold in the bathroom, a mailbox jammed with menacing letters from creditors.

Our meeting was off to a bad start. Mr. Francis was losing his patience.

“Does your boss think our time is less valuable than his?”

“No one is taking your time for granted. Dr. Pressman is en route, I assure you,” Laszlo said.

Mr. Francis conferred with his colleague and made a call to his client. He agreed to wait a while longer.

“So, you guys work for Afterburn?” I said to Ms. Stein. “Afterburn Pictures Corporation dissolved over twenty years ago. We represent its successors and assignees.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“It’s boring. Tell me about yourself. Do you still act?”

“Not so much. Music is my passion nowadays.”

“Seriously?” she said, and frowned.

“When you think about it, music is really the soundtrack of our lives.”

She reminded me of Heather Woods, my former criminal lawyer who, only eight months after being admitted to the Florida Bar, took me to trial. Her defense was humiliating but had the added bonus of being unsuccessful. She had a psychologist testify that my brain was prone to bad influence because of my untraditional upbringing. My parents had been poor guardians, the doctor said, letting their child fend for himself in an adult business. Playacting during crucial developmental years had left me unable to discern reality from fantasy. I’d been indoctrinated into cannibalism, the last great taboo. I didn’t understand a lot of the doctor’s professional jargon, but I got the gist: I was a weak man, corruptible.

Heather said, “If not exculpatory, my client’s immaturity is a mitigating factor.”

Verdict came back guilty. I served twenty months, followed by supervised probation, mandatory counselling, and 1,200 hours of community service, nothing involving animals.

Dr. Pressman still wasn’t here. Mr. Francis was incensed.

“Does your boss not understand what is personally at stake for him?”

“I assure you, he’s coming,” Laszlo said.

“You keep saying that.”

“Because it’s true, you silly little man.”

I turned to Ms. Stein, hoping to distance myself from the rising conflict. “My band has a song called She’s So Precocious. It’s about my old lawyer. This one’s got a power-pop feel, A minor, F, C, G.” I went into my falsetto. “She’s So Precocious/ Out on the streets she’s ferocious/ Best believe she know this.

When I stopped singing and opened my eyes, she was writing on a legal pad. Half the page was filled.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m taking contemporaneous notes.”

“What for?”

“In case I have to depose you.”

“I wouldn’t mind seeing you again either.”

She smiled weakly, jotted more. I hoped to god Dr. Pressman showed up soon. The meeting was unraveling.

“If he were serious about a settlement he wouldn’t have left us here with his henchman and a washed-up child actor,” Mr. Francis said.

“Who are you talking to like that, my friend?” Laszlo said.

“Lasz, take it easy,” I said.

“I will not be degraded.”

Laszlo stood up so quickly he overturned his chair. It looked as if he were about to storm out of the dining room, but he leaped across the table at Mr. Francis and, in the most literal case of life imitating art I’d ever seen, grabbed his head by his ears and bit his face.

Ms. Stein flipped to a new page and scribbled furiously.


If you didn’t know better, you’d think Dr. Dale Pressman was just an average old white guy. He crept down the basement stairs, wearing a striped golf shirt tucked into pleated chino shorts, the collar standing up and brushing his long earlobes, boat shoes with no socks. His thin white hair was unkempt on his head, his face and throat a browned from the sun, his arms and legs bluish-white.

I was on my fifth beer.

“Well, hello there, Billy,” he said.

“Not that it really matters, but Billy was the character. I’m Mick O’Grady.”

“You certainly are.”

“I guess you heard?”

He let out a low whistle and nodded his head. “What happened here today, I hope you don’t think it reflects badly on you in any way.”

“Why would I think that?”

“That’s the spirit.” He opened the fridge and stared with his hands on his knees. “Mind if I help myself?”

“You paid for them.”

He chuckled and cracked open a can, walked to the pool table and sent the cue ball caroming off the rails. He sat with one buttock on the corner pocket and made a sound with his mouth like he was blowing bubbles.

“What’s going to happen now?” I said.

“Party’s over.”

It really broke my heart when he said that. I couldn’t begin thinking about going home to fearless palmetto bugs the size of cigar butts that scuttled over my face while I failed to sleep. I couldn’t imagine walking by the recording studio and not being allowed inside, when I knew I was so close to finishing my demo tape.

“Don’t say that, Dr. Pressman. Nothing’s over yet. You probably need a new administrator, though. Laszlo bit off that guy’s nose.”

“He sure did.” He drained the beer in one long sip, then stood up and rocked back and forth on his heels with his hands in his pockets, jingling change.

“And don’t forget, you’ve got me, Mick O’Grady. I’m not going anywhere.” The situation was bad, but not hopeless. Well, it might have been hopeless for a regular guy, or someone less than a regular guy, someone like me. But I assumed Dr. Pressman knew how to maneuver out of a jam. He was filthy rich, after all. “Remember the line, what my dad told me? ‘The family that slays together, stays together.’”

“I’m not sure I follow, but I like your energy. How about we take this conversation upstairs? I’m getting claustrophobic down here.”

In the kitchen, a team of men prowled around us, dousing the house in gasoline.

“What’s going on?” I said.

Pressman mimed striking a match and tossing it over his shoulder. “Whoosh!”

“Shit,” I said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Just because those successors and assignees were here today doesn’t mean you have to knuckle under.”

“What are you going on about?”

“Lasz said—”

“Laszlo ate a man’s face. I wouldn’t put too much stock in anything he says.”

I watched his goons dump gas over the fruit basket wallpaper, the linoleum tile squares, the brown refrigerator with alphabet magnets on the door.

“But I thought you were…a fan?” I said.

Dr. Pressman said that Cannibal Family was one of his all-time favorites. The museum, though, was nothing more than a money laundering scam. He’d paid 400 percent of what the house was worth at auction. The renovation and restoration were invoiced at exponentially more than it had really cost. From the start he’d been buying time until the museum got shut down. And now he would cash out with a sizable insurance claim. Why was he telling me this? Because it didn’t matter if I knew.

“Here’s an interesting fact,” he said, “You’re a convicted arsonist. What you probably aren’t aware of yet is that you will be held responsible for burning down my museum, which is a protected historic landmark. Why you would do this to me, after all I’ve done to help you, is a question that only you can answer.”

“I’m a fucking idiot.” I felt like crying.

“Now, Billy, don’t start throwing dirt on yourself.”

“My name is Mick O’Grady.”

“It’s not your fault you’re a snapdragon.”

“A what?”

“An early bloomer. Some of us peak early, some late. You were what, seven, in Cannibal Family?”


“A command performance. One for the ages. You should be proud.”

I felt dizzy and lurched for the kitchen sink, splashing cold water onto my face.

“If you don’t mind an observation on my part, you don’t look well,” Dr. Pressman said.

Of course, I didn’t. I straightened up and wiped water out of my eyes.

He laid a hand on my shoulder, fixed his eyes on mine. “I’ve got to take a shit,” he said. “So, in conclusion: It’s been real, Bill. Good luck with everything.”

He squeezed my shoulder and walked away. I stood there in the kitchen, where once as a boy I’d gnawed on latex replicas of human femurs with wild delight, and came to the stunning realization that this present moment felt no more like real life than the one that took place thirty years earlier. Then I ran into the purple bruise of dusk, completely unprepared for what Dr. Pressman had thrown at me. My timing was such that it seemed as if my momentum was turning on the streetlights as I raced past them down the sidewalk. I hadn’t gotten far when I smelled smoke.

I wasn’t running to anywhere but away from everything. I wanted to run until I couldn’t be found, not by police or Relatives or lawyers who owned my likeness. I ran like I could outrun my past. My breath burned in my throat and beer sloshed in my gut. I ran for my life, knowing I had no place to go. And yet knowing that I was running to nowhere didn’t stop me because a destination came to mind at last. I ran like I was within sprinting distance of the ice wall and then I was only one giant climb away from that virginal land on the other side that Laszlo revered. I would stake a claim, declare myself sovereign, and guard over the animals that flourished there, a gregarious ruler who would one day be mythologized by future citizens. I had always wanted to be gregarious.

Aaron Jacobs is the author of the novel The Abundant Life. Aaron’s second novel, Time Will Break the World, will be published in 2023. Other writing has appeared in Tin House, Alaska Quarterly Review, JMWW, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. Aaron mostly lives in the Catskills. Check out his website:


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