The day after I finished my first semester of college, I drove up to Utica to house-sit for my aunt and uncle. Having nearly failed out of my computer science program three times in less than a year, I decided to ditch the city for the summer to clear my head.
By the time I arrived at the house, my aunt and uncle were long gone. For the past few months they’d been dabbling around with the VanLife fad, and now that they’d finished customizing their 2016 Mercedes Sprinter, they wouldn’t be back here for weeks.
So I lugged my bags inside and settled into the master bedroom. Once finished, I trudged down to the basement where all the food was stored. I’d been driving for the past three hours, and I hadn’t stopped to eat since leaving the city.
In the basement I found a thirty year-old man pacing around inside a large glass case. Sealed shut on all sides, the case stood eight feet tall and eight feet wide. Clusters of dime-sized air holes peered out from the top and sides of the case. Shoulder-length blond hair sprouted from the man’s skull. Gray flannel pajamas hung from his thin body. In the back corner of the case, I saw a fold-out wooden table; atop this table sat an open laptop whose power cable snaked through a nearby air hole and plugged into the wall outlet a few feet away. To the right of the case stood a trio of tripods supporting a Canon SLR, a Motorola smartphone, and an LED ring light.
Seeing all this, I dropped my unopened bag of Doritos and backed toward the stairs. Hearing the noise of the chips hitting the floor, the man in the glass case looked in my direction and smiled. He waved in excitement and began speaking rapidly in German.
“What the hell is all this?” I said. “Who are you?”
The man continued speaking very quickly in German. The words tumbled from his mouth like sharp rocks. Moments later he gestured at the air holes before him, and the video equipment on his right.
Without another word I bounded up the staircase and slammed the door behind me. I wedged a chair under the doorknob. I called my aunt and uncle until they finally picked up the phone.
When I finished telling them about the strange man in the glass case in the basement, they laughed for a long time.
“Oh, that’s just Dieter,” my aunt said. “Don’t worry about him. Feel free to go about your business as if he’s not even there.”
“Who the hell is he?” I said.
“Oh, he’s one of those new-fangled internet people you kids are obsessed with. He travels across America and lives his entire life inside that box while random people watch him over the internet.”
I rubbed my eyes and sighed.
“Okay, but why is he here, in your basement of all places?”
“There’s ten thousand good reasons for why he’s down there, fella!” My uncle bellowed from the background of the call.
“Wait, so this random German guy paid you ten grand to use your basement for his weird livestream? Why?”
“We haven’t the foggiest, Jeffy,” my aunt said. “He just showed up at our door one day and handed us a piece of paper that explained everything. Dale tried to chase him off the porch at first, but when that man reached into his bag and showed us the money, your uncle started singing a different tune right quick.”
“And the rest, as they say, old boy, is history!” my uncle yelled through the phone, before exploding into boisterous laughter. “So you two have fun! And don’t forget to feed Tammy. She gets one dead mouse per week.”
“Wait, but what about—” I started to say, but the line went dead.
Later that night, I lay in my aunt and uncle’s giant bed and tried to fall asleep, but I couldn’t. My mind churned in endless circles about the strange guy in the basement, and my dire situation with school. By now it was clear I wouldn’t make it in computer science. My brain just couldn’t handle all that math at that pace. But since video game design was the only career I’d ever dreamed of, I had no idea what I could do with my life now that I’d failed.
So I climbed out of bed and padded into the kitchen. Sitting at the table, I squinted through the gloom and studied the chair blocking the door to the basement. For the next few minutes I listened to the leathery buzz of the cicadas, the soft whirl of the midnight breeze, the muffled murmur of Dieter’s voice. Soon my stomach grumbled an angry complaint. So I stood up and pressed my ear to the basement door. Dieter continued speaking rapidly in German. He clapped three times and laughed with child-like glee. He motormouthed a long sentence with the words New York, New York stuffed in the middle.
Quietly cursing myself for not bringing any food up here, I slid the chair from under the doorknob and trudged downstairs.
The moment I stepped into the basement, Dieter jumped in the air and waved at me in excitement. He spoke very rapidly into the camera and gestured in my direction. While all this was going on, I bent down and picked up the bag of Cool Ranch Doritos I had dropped on the floor earlier in the day. Before tearing open the bag, I offered it to him, in case there was some hidden way to get food inside his glass case. But he shook his head, beamed a wide smile, patted his stomach, and gave me a thumbs up.
I nodded and felt a small smile sprout on my lips. I had no idea how he moved this case from location to location or how he went to the bathroom in there, but those things didn’t matter right now. I just wished I had the guts to try something as weird and interesting as this in my own life.
With these thoughts in mind, I sat on the floor and opened my bag of Doritos. Dieter sat on the floor inside his case and watched me. After crunching away in silence for a few moments, I cleared my throat and looked up at him.
“So you’re Dieter, right?” I said, pointing at him as I spoke his name.
“Ja, ja” he said, grinning and nodding. Then he pointed at me and said something in German.
“I have no idea what you just said, but I’m Jeff,” I said, pointing at my chest. “And I’m going to be honest. I’m a fucking loser, Dieter.”
“Ja, Jeff, ja,” Dieter said, nodding and smiling.
He said my name a few more times and spoke into his camera for another minute. Then he waved me over and pointed at his smartphone. Chomping down on my last Dorito, I brushed my hands together and walked over to his glass case. I looked down at him for a few seconds. He pointed at his smartphone again and nodded. But from where I stood I couldn’t see the screen. In order to read what was there, I’d have to step into the view of the camera.
I glanced at Dieter and shook my head. In response, he yelped something in German, grinned at me in friendship, and began walking around on his hands. As he did this, he hummed the theme song to Jurassic Park. After about a minute, he effortlessly flipped backward, landed on his feet, and raised his arms above his head like an Olympic gymnast.
He held this pose for thirty seconds, grinning at me the entire time. When he finally relaxed, he pointed at his phone and then at me, as if to say: now it’s your turn.
I looked down at my bare feet and massaged my throbbing temples.
“Jesus,” I said to myself with a quiet laugh. “This is so silly.”
Dieter said something in German and shrugged his shoulders. He shook his head and smiled at me.
“Okay, okay,” I said, holding up my hands in surrender and giving him a begrudging nod. “You’re right. You’re a hundred percent right.”
So I drew a deep breath and stepped in front of the camera. I glanced at Dieter’s phone and watched the Twitch chat zooming past. I introduced myself to the viewers and asked them what to do next.
Steve Gergley is the author of the short story collection, A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair (LEFTOVER Books ’22), and the novel, Skyscraper (West Vine Press ’23). His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in X‑R-A‑Y Literary Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Maudlin House, Rejection Letters, Barren Magazine, New World Writing, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. He tweets @GergleySteve. His fiction can be found at: https://stevegergleyauthor.wordpress.com/