Big Head

My new girlfriend has a big head.

I can put both of my hands on the top of her head, stretch out my fingers, and they’re still not anywhere near her ears. She’s so bright she can tell me what time it is anywhere in the world at the same time she is counting the number of seconds I can stand on my head.

I’ll scream, “Time!”

She’ll scream, “Country?”

I’ll scream “Taiwan!”

She’ll scream, “4:27 and 33 seconds PM!”

After we get through a few countries, she’ll scream, “Last country?”

And I’ll scream “Me!”

And she’ll scream out, “5020 seconds!”

And she has never owned a watch. It is really crazy.

***

Some people say that I have a big flat head. I do have a flat head; that’s why standing on my head is so easy for me. Sometimes when people say to me, “Jeez, you have a big flat head,” and my girlfriend happens to be in the house, I say, “No way, if you want to see a big head, you just wait here, I have one in the other room,” and I’ll go and get her and pull her in and people go, “Hey, look at that.”

I don’t want you to think that she has a flat head like me. Hers is as round as the moon and has little bumps and craters too. She has hair too, beautiful brown hair, and sometimes she lets me put my hands on her head and explore. One time I found a banned book in there and a boomerang and silly putty in a can and a love letter addressed to someone else, and when I opened it up, it was addressed to me, and she laughed and laughed and laughed.

When she was a kid, she had really bad lice that chewed up her scalp, and her parents tried everything but they wouldn’t go away. They tried shampoos and medicines, old-fashioned hair and skin tonics and even that garden pesticide cream that you spread on your tomatoes. But no matter what they tried, it kept getting worse. After a while her entire scalp was infected.

She told me that the lice would have gone away, but she didn’t want them to. She thought they would eat away at the top of her head and make it smaller. But all that happened was that her head got bigger. Little cuts in her head made by the bugs turned into scabs and she carefully removed each and every one of them with her fingernails. And each time the scabs grew bigger and bigger until they were like little mountains different colors and shapes.

“Letting the bugs eat my head was a bad idea,” she told me.

People started taking pictures then.  First it was doctors, then it was strangers, and then it was me. If you look in medical books you can see pictures of her mountains. A lot of them look like satellite pictures of planets. Some of the little mountains have little faces.

“Faces with expression,” she told me.

Before they disappeared she became fond of them, and would spend hours with her little hand mirror backed up against the full-length mirror. She said she didn’t care what people thought. She said it never crossed her mind.

***

When I first met her I was parachuting in California and I got lost in the air, separated from everyone else in my jumping group. I looked down and saw her big head walking in a field. I landed in the sandy area about 50 feet from her. She ran up to me to see if I was hurt and I stayed down on the ground for a while, pretending to be more hurt than I was so she wouldn’t just leave me if I couldn’t impress her with my wit.

I started to cry like a baby and said it was because I think I broke my neck. But it was because I couldn’t believe how beautiful she was and couldn’t believe that a head could get to be that big. She looked at me gracefully titling her head. She looked at my long flat head covered with sand and my temples were pulsing with anticipation. She leaned down to kiss me, and I lunged up to kiss her.

When the parachute crew came to find me we were both unconscious. After some smelling salts and some water in our faces, we both woke up. I asked if she wanted to go to a water park or something and she said no, but she said she would make me some California cuisine. I said that kind of food sounded stupid, but I wouldn’t mind eating California rolls, and she thought that was a good idea but she was allergic to crab. I told her that they don’t use real crab in them anyway, and since that defining moment, when her whole head glowed with happiness, everything has been perfect.

After we finally kissed the first time she showed me one of her mountains in a medical book. She said it looked like me because its head is flat and long like a plateau.

“I’m not orange and green and black,” I told her. And she laughed and laughed and laughed.

When I first met her I couldn’t stop staring at her head and now that I am her boyfriend I still can’t stop. I don’t think I know what the rest of her body looks like. Of course there are times when I explore the rest of her and all of those times are fabulous. But whenever I am not looking at her head, I respect her privacy, and I always keep my eyes closed.

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Chris Bower writes and teaches in Chicago. He is the host of the Ray’s Tap Reading Series and you can find him at holdmyhorses.com

Hobby Store

Hobby StoreIf pressed to give directions by a co-worker, for example, or by a stranger passing on the street, Steven Pei would not be able to do so accurately. He might be able to point to a loose square of streets and corners which might or might not harbor the hobby store, but even this direction he would be hesitant to offer. No, if approached by such a stranger more than likely Steven would just wander along with him, shoulder to shoulder in lost brotherhood until they both, hopefully, stumbled across the store. And though Steven might not need to visit the hobby store that day or that week, not sensing any dire emergency in his children’s lives, no festering turmoil that would require a visit to Petreus’ Hobby Store, he would find this particular method of generalized wandering familiar, it being the daily means for finding his way through life.

***

“Dad saw you, you know.”

“What?”

“Saw you playing with that paper while you were yelling at him. Sitting here. Folding and unfolding it. That paper

“I wasn’t yelling. And so? What about it?”

“Just saying.”

“Well?”

“Just saying. Don’t be surprised if he brings something home tonight.”

***

He was bad with directions, wandering his only method, precision never entering into it, all this from a man whose professional capacity was that of head actuary for the Great American Insurance Company, a position and title that demanded exactness, accurate knowledge, and an awareness of the murky forces of life, moreso than the average soul walking the streets, certainly moreso than some wandering lost one. His office was headquartered just blocks from the frequented yet mysterious hobby store, but at lunch when he left through the big glass and brushed nickel doors of the Great American Insurance Company, Steven Pei left all precise brilliance behind him, much to the chagrin of his three children. He wandered. Increasingly as he grew older, the outer reaches of the world seemed to become more ill-defined, hazy, borderless; he sought to confine his living to an area somewhat resembling one of the postage stamps his son John collected, or in theory collected. For this reason he moved his family to the older, yet to some, more fashionable section of that university town just off to the west (at least he thought it was west) and downhill (he was sure it was downhill) of downtown, away from the new subdivision miles away across the interstate where his children had always lived. The “new” house was a much older house, much older, and more expensive and smaller, but also one which sat on a corner, a corner of easily remembered and in theory easily navigated right angles to his office. Indeed, he could see the top of the Great American Insurance Company building from his sagging front porch, and those times he felt particularly aimless, never took his eyes off it the entire walk into work. He walked on all days, to and from, so there was no longer any chance of getting lost, a frequency in the last months of living in the gated subdivision across the highway. His three children, Mary, John, and Susan, greeted the move and the first steps into the new old house with all the enthusiasm of walking into an abattoir: horror screwed to their faces, a carefulness not to brush too close to any of the old plastered walls, a poking and sniffing in its corners. But the house was also blocks from their alternative downtown schools, so there was no longer the embarrassment of their father getting lost when he drove them. They could walk. He could walk. And for all of them, they could shed the unspoken burden to maintain that figurative “light in the window” in the gated subdivisioned house for his runaway wife and their errant mother since it was clear she would never be returning home to the Midwest. By the grace of the State of Washington and a twenty-year sentence, mandatory, she would not be back.

***

“The clown thing is strange, Dad.”

“You got me there.”

“Why would she dress up as a clown to rob a bank?”

“Why would she do anything, dummy?”

“I mean, seeing a clown in line at the bank . . . that would sorta attract attention.”

“Maybe she was conflicted about the whole thing. What do you think, Dad?”

“Conflicted’s a good word . . .”

***

The oak trim of the old house, Mission-style, dark and ammonia-fumed, seemed to take a new family moving in with some alarm, popping out at various points, in random corners, at odd angles, all around the new old-house. He had never possessed a bent toward tools or handiness, his adult life lived in a world of statistics and tables and percentages. And there had been no real need to repair in the previous house, “bought fresh” by Sandra, as she put it, eight months pregnant with Mary. All that he owned was a single small hammer with a hollow metal handle in which screwdriver heads had once been stored until the end-cap vanished. He attacked a particularly troublesome popped trim that threatened to trip up anyone descending the stairs the first week, and all three children gathered behind him to watch not without some tension. But his strike was true and his heart was pure, and from that initial repair, the children came running with his tiny metal hammer whenever good trim went bad.

Mary, John, and Susan eventually bore their new old home as they seemed to bear everything – with great patience – even bearing their own plain names Steven was forced to choose by himself with his breathtaking lack of imagination when Sandra refused to even consider the task. (Neither would she breastfeed them. And with each birth cut her maternity leave shorter and shorter from her nursing home administrator job). Still, the three children seemed content with stunted childhoods, this despite a mother who did not care for them except for brilliant moments of exploitation and a father who fared no better in the everyday world than they did, most times faring worse, until there was a daily question of who led whom across the street. He asked them more than once (it was a favorite game in his own childhood, the only son of elderly but freshly immigrated parents who purposely gave him as American and as plain a name as possible) what they would change their names to if they could. Any name in the world, go on, any one. He would be very willing to start the process, file the papers, get the ball rolling . . . But they never seemed the least interested in playing his game, in not even entertaining and supposing new identities. They only wished to play their own game.

***

“So when she hijacked that truck in the Dakotas . . .”

“It was a van in Minnesota. A Meals On Wheels van.”

“. . . in Minnesota, you wonder if there was pistol-whipping.”

“How do you know about pistol-whipping?”

“There were two 70-year old volunteers driving it.”

“Still, they could have been lipping off.”

“They had their hands full of styrofoam containers. She just got in and pulled away.”

***

He worried his lack of imagination extended to them, that no flights of fancy graced their days, that the hardness of their lives, the daily turmoils that seemed so large to children, would crush them. So when a whiff of crisis was in the musk of the old house – by his nose, by the only nose that counted, the father’s nose — something just that much off to be fodder for crisis, Steven Pei would set off from his office at the Great American Insurance Company at lunch and start wandering as if into a pleasant recurring dream he wished to revisit and always in that firm four-block grid (he was certain of this much . . . he thought). And if that grid proved fruitless, he moved on to the next grid. Eventually he always found it, there on a side street he never thought of noting for future reference because it wouldn’t do him any good, behind a non-descript brick facade under a fading black and white painted sign. “Petreus” And in the window a red steady neon “Hobby Store” glowed.

“Is your son taking to philately?”

“John? Well . . . I saw him standing in his room looking down at the card table I set up for him . . .”

“I just got in a new shipment of grab bags . . . over there on the end. Twenty different countries they promise in each bag . . . That’s it. So he’s showing interest then?”

“I wouldn’t say it’s an interest. From what I could see from the landing he seemed to be holding his head in his hands. John is a very neat young man. Doesn’t like a lot of extra clutter. My guess is he was contemplating starting a fire.”

“So is that it today? Nothing else?”

“No . . .” His eyes settled on the origami books by the cash register, and he remembered Mary’s impatience with him that morning, could see her slender, elegant, though nervous hands playing with a piece of paper at the table, fingers ready, eager, to make something beautiful of the world if only she knew how, if only her father showed her the way. But then John’s hand stopped her, and they both looked at him washing the breakfast dishes at the kitchen sink and whispered to each other . . . Had they figured him out before he was even close to deciphering them?

“No, that’s it I think. For now . . .”

“Ten-fifty. I’ll eat the tax for you.”

“So we’ll see . . . I might be back tomorrow.”

He took all opportunities to foster their talents, evident and imagined, to draw them out, to expand and enrich them. At least this is what his resume as a father claimed, this is what his name tag implied. Truly, he had his doubts. He feared he was sloughing off things to Mr. Petreus and the hobby store, much like working parents slough off their children to grandparents, or the richer ones to au pairs, much as most parents do with television. He was not a good Dad: he feared this most of all. He would try harder.

***

“Do you think Mom lost her sanity?”

“Maybe. In a manner of speaking.”

“Just how? This is what I’d like to know. Just how? I read somewhere on the internet that the stuff in the water makes you go insane.”

“I don’t think so.”

“But how do you know? How do any of us know?”

“I don’t have the data on that to hold an opinion.”

“Data. You’re hung up on data, Dad.”

***

It was not always a daily exercise, this game, but occurred often enough to be considered de rigueur at dinner, and not just instigated by Susan, as youngest, but by all three. The early days of his own dread of the subject matter and of dinner itself had faded (surprisingly to him of set right-angled ways) and were replaced by a calm and a steadiness. Indeed, even how he held himself in his chair indicated a certain ease now, an aplomb even; all three children appeared to appreciate his presence; it only further spurred them on to play their game. Truly, it seemed his reactions to the questions and his measured, thoughtful responses were the children’s active motive in playing rather than the actual answers he gave. Yet they did want to know about their mother. They wanted possession of facts. And they each wanted in their own distinct ways that fit their own distinct lives, now forming and shaping in this new old-house, a clear and logical understanding of why she was the way she was, why she did those things, what sinister motives propelled her through those jagged movements that in turn transported her into legend.

“You think it was an imbalance, Dad?”

“Could very well be.”

“If so, we might want to all get checked out. Could you make us appointments?”

“Is imbalance the same as crazy? And what’s the difference between just crazy and batshit crazy?”

“Suze!”

There was a curious lack of judgment on their part during the game. But no, that wasn’t quite right: the judgment itself seemed to be a given owing to the outrageousness of Sandra’s actions. It was more a reserving of judgment for their mother, for the woman who gave them birth. Or maybe the reserving was an appreciation of those left behind, the one who suffered, the one who, like them, had become a child.

“I just think it would behoove all of us to hang on to our sanity.”

“’Behoove.’ That’s a good one. I’m going to use that word tomorrow. A lot.”

“Good luck with that. Drink your milk.”

“I’ve also read that milk is full of genetically-modified hormones.”

“Then have some water.”

“Batshit crazyjuice? No thank you to all that.”

“I need a homecoming dress, Dad.” Mary blurted the words out in a rush like a hydrant, and then sat on her hands in an act of pristine self-restraint, staring wide-eyed at Steven. He stared back, his mind automatically searching the aisles of Petreus’ Hobby Store, and everyone was still and quiet while he did so. Was there a rack in the back corner? Certainly there were sewing kits. Small looms. She could fashion her own dress. An all-consuming, multi-outletting project. He read of a girl who made her prom dress from duct tape last year. Would Mary enjoy such a project? Possibly, if he could package the kits as presents, gifts . . . But there was a jolt at the word “homecoming” and an image of Sandra pulling up at the old new-house in the subdivision in a Meals On Wheels truck, a light on in the window, the door standing wide open.

“Oh” was all he could muster.

His daughter looked across the table at him with an expectant look, an almost pleading look, maybe for him to say more, for Steven to be the adult, or at least to have the self-awareness of an adult. “Oh.” He searched the kitchen with his eyes for some other answer, some thing, bright and shiny, that he could hand her to play with and distract her as he used to when she was a baby and crying. “Well, I do still have my driver’s license, you know.” Should he take the offended route? the aggrieved? the ignorant? Mary did not blink. No use.

“Actually, I just need some money. Janey’s Mom is taking us this evening.”

She was of legal age to drive, and so was John for that matter — at least he thought so; he would have to figure out John’s actual age later — but neither had brought any pressure to bear on the matter, as if they had willingly allowed that signpost to pass them by on the road. Ambivalence or indifference? Or fear? And what fear? Of the responsibilities of age? Or of their father taking them out practicing on a county road and losing them? Or maybe it was fear of inheriting his own hideous sense of direction and driving skills (he drove – when he did drive anymore—twenty miles under the given speed limit and in the extreme right portion of the right hand lane so as to brush the sidewalls down to the threads on city curbs). But no, that was his fear: that they would end up like him. He imagined that eventually they would somehow circumvent him and obtain their licenses, doing whatever it took, and not bother him with this small detail of life, not tax an already overly-taxed soul, like some touchy but necessary old mechanism in the new old-house that wheezed and whistled along but was not to be touched or even looked at too closely so long as it functioned barely.

At a point, early on after Sandra left, enough time after her escape, that he could act with some objectivity, adopt some sort of academic distance in which to study her migratory habits, he toyed with the idea of making a trip to the hobby store for himself and getting a wall map to trace her movements by way of bits of news that filtered in, especially when he got a suspicion that she would not confine herself to the continental United States. He received word of a misdemeanor arrest and release (always a release, always her enormous charm at work, imagining her violet eyes deeper than ever) in Lubbock and then two weeks later a request for a job reference at a convenience store in International Falls. But she did not cross the borders, almost to his disappointment. No, she seemed to be using the country’s borders as walls, careening off them to gain some sort momentum toward something bigger. No, in those months that she crossed the country and only toyed with the borders (she made a mad dash first thing after leaving Michigan for Nevada; divorce papers arrived weeks later; Steven signed them, only realizing later that this was Sandra’s version of a kindness to him), the stories trickled in from the nursing home (albeit many of them dementia-fueled rumors) of patients’ personal valuables pilfered — gold watches, heirloom brushes, pendants, always those shiny valuables of obvious value — and he was never sure if these stories were emblematic of the victims’ or the accused’s special madness. And then there was a poor man – a retired auto worker and minister of some sort – who claimed his gold fillings missing, swore that it was Sandra herself (“Baphomet in the flesh!” he condemned), straddling him in the dead of the night with a pair of pliers. This accusation was treated with some humor in the newspaper during the brief flare of reported Sandra stories — Sandra, the infamous “Cancer Mom” who had fled that university town as the prosecutors mulled the likelihood of fraud charges in the recent incident involving her son — until the articles simply died away and the newspaper moved on to the next grotesqueness. But Steven could never wholly dismiss the image of Sandra skulking around the nursing home halls with dental tools.

“Was it the thing with John that made her leave, Dad?”

He paused and looked at John. John simply looked back at Steven, as they all did during the game, ungrazed, unbothered by any question.

“I think so. It certainly put her over the edge.” Did he owe it to them to be more expansive for once? To offer more than just one settling statement in response? To tell in detail of how their mother faked her own son’s cancer: shaving his head, drugging his meals, lying about doctors and tests and hospitalizations in order to fraud fundraising efforts already in motion at school and in town, and only through his own suspicions — Steven’s, the father’s – and a trip to the doctor himself (then, it seemed, he could find his way about town, could navigate across town and function like an adult when Sandra was still there) that he discovered the truth.

“I knew I was never sick,” John said matter-of-factly, and he was telling the truth, probably waiting out the mother, the mad mother, to see where this latest careen would take them.

Susan said, “There’s a board hanging loose over my bed. I think it’s going to kill me in my sleep.”

“I’ll get my hammer,” he said. And he followed her upstairs, thankful that he would be occupied when Janey’s mother came to pick up Mary and miss the mandatory sympathetic tones, another cocked head, more pitying eyes toward the noble father fending for his three children, alone.

***

In the mornings, no time ever for the game, and for this he was relieved, the regular tick of life carried them all along, a sweet regularity pushing all four of them along and around the table and out the door.

“Birthday tonight, Dad,” Mary called back over her shoulder. “So don’t forget. Don’t get lost on the way home.” The laughter of all three was still there on the sagging front porch when he walked out the front door, buoying the porch and him, and he smiled to himself. But then he stopped cold and thought, “. . .but whose birthday?”

“And you say you need birthday presents for all three? That’s quite the coincidence.”

“Well, the thing is, we like to celebrate every birthday like it was Christmas . . .,” Steven lied.

He was a big stout man, Mr. Petreus, resembling Santa Claus in fact, except though his hair was white, his beard was still bright red. He was a helpful man; like Steven Pei, Mr. Petreus was there to help. They gathered up things, new things, new avenues of expression for each child, Steven hopeful that one of the new directions would stick with one of them, open up their lives to new imagination. He steered away from more stamps, feeling guilty that he was beating that drum too loudly and daily. But he could not resist the origami at the end by the cash register for Mary. Who knew?

“Who knows, Mr. Petreus?” Steven mumbled into the air. “Who knows . . .”

“Oh, I’m not ‘Petreus’.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Oh no, I get that a lot. No, that sign’s been up forever. Half the time I forget about it. I sent a handyman up there when I first bought the place years ago, but he said it was cantilevered into the building somehow . . . I dunno. I just left it. The funny thing is, when I was a kid this place used to be a candy store – I’m an old Westender, you know – and the old man who owned it . . . well, he wasn’t ‘Petreus,’ either!”

***

“So what was Mom like when you first met?”

“Was there something wrong then? Could you tell?”

“What did you see in her then?”

“She must have been very beautiful. Why are there hardly any pictures?”

“I remember her running away at the sight of a camera. You think she had a secret before you met?”

“Yeah, maybe she had a whole history you didn’t know about.”

She would steal newspapers from driveways during their walks, otherwise quite sylvan and lovely strolls as they held hands, but she did take her opportunities when presented. At cash registers she would take all the change from the take-a-penny-leave-a-penny bowl. “Adds up,” she would state matter-of-factly on the sidewalk, counting into her palm. Grocery stores were her buffets, opened packages and crumbs left in her wake. She shoplifted endlessly, at first in a seemingly legitimate manner by forgetting to take everything from the cart, then in more obviously deceptive ways – stuffing garments within garments, removing tags – but then maybe it was just that her ways were becoming more and more obvious to him. But even this, all these things, what could they mean? and were they supposed to mean anything? and was it required of him, the spouse, the lover, to add up the incidents of the other’s days?

In the beginning, before their beginning, in classes he held in common with her at that university, he thought her very quiet and very still. Very quiet and very still and very beautiful — except for the terrifying look she always held in her eyes which he, when he first fell in love with her, took to be a characteristic of her beauty. A terrifying beauty. But after a while he suspected the terror came from a different place altogether and was a byproduct of something more strategic. A kind of weighing and waiting of all things around her. Even on their walks, he felt as if he were along as a kind of accessory, a disguise, a hat pulled down to cover her terrifying eyes. It was an early summer session – some sort of statistics class that he absorbed easily into his very breathing – and even in that room of closed-angled subject matter, the windows were thrown wide open to the birds and trees and abandon. After class as they were gathering themselves up, there was a frank exchange of looks, then an invitation (could it have been made by him, the first verbal grapple?), then walks out into that midsummer of all possibilities. And then one dusk passion erupted in a little-frequented, if-ever-known-before-that-moment, box canyon of a courtyard between three old academic buildings, seemingly only got to by a maze of an inverted “Z” (or was it a double-“Z”?) and then by inching sideways through a phalanx of boxwood. The lovemaking in the secluded courtyard was such a knock and a jar to his own regular view of the world, the steady cadence of his clock, his own staid and well-mannered upbringing by two ancient immigrants from the old world, the very old world, that he considered this gush the correct way the world revolved, this heated open-aired sex of midsummer, such an obvious cataclysmic event, that he did not for the longest time notice her regular and regularly-odd behavior.

***

“Dad, it’s your birthday, of course.”

“Well, of course . . . I knew that.”

“Liar.”

“I don’t lie.”

“He’s right. Dad never lies.”

“Then what are all these presents for us?”

“A coincidence. In some countries it’s custom to give on one’s birthday. So what do we have here? For me?”

“It’s a tool belt! And a new hammer. Your little one is a bit pathetic, we decided.”

“Served me well . . . but thank you.”

“I got it when I got my homecoming dress with Janey.”

“So you bought a homecoming dress and a tool belt?”

“That’s right.”

“Nice. Very nice. How do I look?”

***

And what was gained from this manner of lunacy? From a warm dusky passion in youth? From a moonlit evening of delicate maneuverings in a little secluded courtyard, a grassy hillock under an unknown Greek statue on a midsummer’s eve? A stranger as a lover. A stranger as a companion. A stranger as a wife and mother of children. A stranger who was very strange indeed, so much as to seem like another species. A stranger locked away on the other side of the country, assuredly and completely for years to come. The amount of effort it took in deciphering the curl of her lips alone so overwhelmed him that it used up what little adult function he ever accidently came to possess. And yet there it was. Somewhere, there it was. Somewhere, whatever answers he thought owed him, to be searched for there in a misty grid of streets and corners. There. Somewhere. But for now, here it was, this bright, shiny thing hanging from a leathern belt, presented by his children, presented to amuse and distract, presented to take in hand and seek out the jagged corners of this old house and make new.

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BD Feil has credits in Mississippi Review, New Plains Review, and Best Ohio Fiction, among others.  He lives in Michigan with quite the brood.

Two Capricorns

Two Capricorns used to live next door. The tall one’s name was Linda. The one that carried the ferret’s name was Circular Saw or something that sounded like Circular Saw. They were lovers and they had matching goats on their right ankles and they were often bandana’d.

***

I gave the Two Capricorns a streusel cake as a housewarming gift. I baked it while I watched the Texas Tech women’s volleyball team take on Baylor. A Red Raider took a spike in the face and the referee had to switch the ball out because it had noseblood all over it.

“There are toothpicks in this.”

That’s what Circular Saw said when I handed her the silver cake pan.

“Why toothpicks, if there’s no frosting?”

Linda told me that Circular Saw wasn’t trying to nitpick, that I was very sweet.

“The toothpicks prop up the saran wrap.”

Circular Saw scratched at a mosquito bite on her left leg.

“Of course they do.”

***

I was watering hydrangeas with a hose. Linda was throwing a frisbee against the side of the Two Capricorns’ garage. It kept hitting the bricks and falling into a prickly bush.

It was a hot day and when I asked Linda if she wanted to drink some hosewater, she said definitely. Then she hopped the smallish metal fence that separates our yards.

“This is, like, squeezed out of a glacier.”

That’s what Linda said when the cold hosewater hit her thin lips. She held her red hair back while she drank. I liked the way she held her red hair back while she drank.

“That’s pretty much what I thought about it.”

Linda smiled at me and it felt like my brain was waltzing.

***

Circular Saw once asked me if I’d like to join the Two Capricorns for dinner on a Thursday. I could tell there were a number of other people she would’ve rather invited. Dentists, maybe a stenographer. A golden retriever.

“I would be honoured.”

I said honored all British, did a little curtsy thing. Honoured. Linda laughed. Circular Saw did not.

“We’re gluten-free, so…”

I asked what I could bring. Cantaloupe?

“We’re gluten-free, so…”

***

Linda teaches very small children how to paint with their fingers. That’s what she told me one day while we watched Working Girl on her couch. Circular Saw wasn’t there. She was at the foundry.

“It’s more, like, shapeshifting than anything.”

That’s what Linda’s mouth said but her hands were twisting air, like she was wringing out a wet towel.

“Shapeshifting is important. Your job is important.”

We kept watching Working Girl and Tess told her boss that she wasn’t a steak, that he couldn’t just order her.

“You’re like Tess McGill.”

“You’re really thick. Like a Chipotle.”

That’s what Linda said when the movie was over and we were still on the couch and I was moving around inside her zone. I could tell she used to have red hairs around her zone but on that day, she didn’t have any hairs at all.

***

“You guys are ruled by Saturn.”

That’s what I yelled to the Two Capricorns one time, when I saw them carrying groceries up their back stoop. I also waved.

“You share an earthy demeanor with Virgo and Taurus.”

Linda waved back. Circular Saw did not.

***

On July 4, 2009, I invited the Two Capricorns over to shoot off bottle rockets. Only Linda came. Circular Saw said the explosions scared the ferret and someone needed to think about the ferret because the fucking ferret wasn’t going to think about the ferret. It was like Circular Saw shot a ferret out of a bazooka and into Linda’s face, the way she said it.

Linda and I stood in the middle of the street and held the red plastic ends of the bottle rockets until they took off through the telephone wires and blew up over the White Hen Pantry.

”Would you ever trade lives with a koala bear?”

I wanted to kiss Linda for asking but I could feel Circular Saw’s stare through their window, bazooka’ing a ferret into my face.

***

I helped the Two Capricorns move to Montana. I did so by standing lamps and bookcases on their ends in the back of a U-Haul. I also lifted two couches and boxed up a ventriloquist dummy.

Linda smelled like Big League Chew when we hugged goodbye. Her body felt sharp. My body felt full from too much meat ravioli. I don’t remember what Circular Saw smelled or felt like because she was in the cab of the U-Haul, texting.

“You should get a parakeet once you’re settled in.”

“I will miss you very, very much.”

It wasn’t a very Capricorn thing to say but I’m glad Linda said it.

“That wasn’t a very Capricorn thing to say but I’m glad you said it.”

I felt Linda’s palm against my face and it was just as sweaty as my sweaty face from all the humidity.

“You’re, like, pretty inexperienced when it comes to Capricorns.”

Linda took her palm back and put her body in the cab with the other Capricorn. I slammed the back of the U-Haul shut.

“Somewhere on Earth, a baby just farted.”

Linda nodded.

“I know.”

We watched the sun do this weird thing where it dissolved into the treeline like an orange Alka Seltzer. Then the U-Haul backfired and it made the air around us smell like an electrical fire.

————————

Thomas Mundt lives in Chicago. His new(ish) stories have appeared in places like Anobium, The Northville Review, Curbside Splendor, and Petrichor Machine. The whole megillah’s at dontdissthewizard.blogspot.com.

A Brief History of Nude Skiffle

Slap Howdy, voted by fellow seniors most likely to Burn in Hell for Eternity—the dubious distinction appearing in the yearbook, all caps, beneath a black and white photograph of him French kissing interim janitor Mrs. Boosenard—attended prom without a date at Creek Johnson High School. The year was 1958.

At the dance, Slap was enthralled by the opening band: Sweet Lou and the Lousers, a derelict collection of hillbillies who lived in an abandoned flourmill. The Lousers played two stringy songs with dime store instruments. “Skiffle,” they called their music.

After graduation, Slap and boyhood friend, Bly Harper, formed their own skiffle band and called themselves the Blue Barrel Bastards.

Skiffle: jazz deriving from blues, ragtime and folk music characterized by extremely unconventional instruments and sounds.

Slap and Bly, musically inclined since childhood, mastered the crude, organic instruments which epitomized skiffle: near-empty whiskey jug, tin frying pan, antique washboard, silver spoons, metal trash can and kazoo.

Realizing they needed a bigger sound and a ride, the boys recruited their former gym teacher—Hoke Turley, a grizzled, limping salt bag—and started playing small shows on the outskirts of town. Most of these early venues were raucous locales where booze was ladled out of wooden barrels and knife stab replaced the handshake.

Slap played the three-string banjo in the center. Bly stood barn left on the washboard, striking downward thwacks with a broken-off shotgun trigger. Hoke was positioned to the right, spitting into a kazoo, shaking a matchbox and occasionally blowing his moonshine breath into a jug.

Word spread about this odd assembly of players and the Bastards started selling out the small barns and barrelhouses outside of town. They became popular for the song, “Daddy Banged a Time Machine and Knocked Up the Future.” It was, according to Slap who wrote all the lyrics, based on a true story.

Skiffle garnered moderate popularity and other bands earned fervent followings in small towns along the Gulf Coast. Bands such as Gay Grandfather, Molest the Moon, and The Handsome Hanjobs, along with the Blue Barrel Bastards, were all considered pioneers of this organic sound.

In the spring of 1960, Slap and his Bastards went on a sold out three-city tour. All three quit their day jobs, which was the systematic avoidance of looking for day jobs, and became professional musicians.

With the money made touring, the Bastards released their first record in 1961. It was most notable for the song, “Sheriff Arrested Ma’s Ghost for Drunk and Disorderly.” It became the band’s anthem and was requested by pistol fire at all their shows. The song was, according to Slap, based on a true story. Also on that record were the sing-along songs, “Three Legged Whore Named Forgiveness” and “Kissing Aunt Jora Goodnight in the French Way.”

Cocaine became the underground drug of choice for popular musicians during the time, but the Bastards chose the drug less traveled. Hoke, who had been to Africa during the late 1940’s on one of the first documented mail order bride transactions, remembered snorting a gelatinous line of bull semen during the drunken honeymoon. The Bastards had cases of the reproductive liquid flown in and the band became addicted. The semen, taken through the nostril by way of a bendy straw, severely increased testosterone levels, caused hallucinations and spiked the body’s internal temperature by three to five degrees.

The Bastards coined the phrase “nude skiffle” and their attire followed suit; usually they wore nothing more than field hats and lace less boots during their intense performances. The band’s relevance was briefly noted by famed reviewer Thames Yorson in the Backwater Times. After seeing the Bastards play a sold out barn show in Peekalo, Thames wrote the following day: “…the old man, a former gym instructor I believe, kept eye contact with me the entire show which was uncomfortable since he was nude and erect as the microphone stand. He did offer to walk me to my car after.”

In 1965, The Bastards released a two-song holiday record. The songs, which received moderate airplay, were titled, “Santa Came Down the Chimney With a Hooker and Put His Gun in My Mouth” and “Uncle Virgil Made a Baby with the Christmas Tree.” They were, according to Slap, based on true stories.

Record sales were marginal during the late 60’s and early 70’s. The band became lost in a sea of electric instruments and artists who wore clothing in public. In 1974, the Blue Barrel Bastards called it quits after releasing what would be their last album. On it were the songs “Can’t Be My Baby if His Dick’s Bigger Than Mine” and “Who’s Gonna Make the Bull Come This Time?” True stories all, according to the album notes written by Slap.

Tragedy followed two years later when Hoke Turley, in the throes of a bull semen blackout, was killed while attempting afternoon delight with the working end of a combine harvester. He was 72.

Bly Harper was last seen in 1978 at the Quad County Municipal Airport. Witnesses claim he was boarding a Cessna headed for a remote bull farm on the southernmost acre of South America. His whereabouts are still unknown.

Slap Howdy is alive and resides in the small beach town of Sexado, SC. His last documented interview occurred on July 3rd, 2006. The following appeared in the Sexado Sentinel:

“…the musician sat rocking on his porch, 10 pounds light of embarrassing, listlessly turned opposite of me and my recorder. To his right, on a table, stood a glass cup filled with a cloudy sludge. ‘A bit of the hooch?’ I asked. ‘Can’t take it up the nose no more,’ Slap said, ‘doctor said I collapsed something.’ I asked of the Bastards last song, If Heaven Is a Whorehouse, I Hope They Take Coupons. ‘Guess the senior class at Creek Johnson was wrong about you,’ I said. ‘I sure as shit hope so,’ he said scribbling out what appeared to be homemade coupons complete with expiration date. I took leave shortly after, but forgot to ask about Bly. Fifty yards removed from the porch, I turned back, calling his name, but the old musician was gone. And that cup was empty.”

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Patrick Walczy lives in Washington, DC. He blogs pancakes with his wife and in 7th grade, he blogged his pants, twice. Also, he has no idea what blog means. Previous work can be found in Hobart.

Correspondence

Correspondence Lou GagliaDear Karen,

Life stinks! It stinks so rottenly, so wholly and pathetically that I wish mine would just end without warning or symptoms. I am too chicken to commit suicide, so I’m relying on some unknown person or event to do the job for me. I’ve contemplated walking through Central Park one midnight, wearing my only suit (although it’s a little tight along the shoulders) and pretending that I’m rich. I would carry only monopoly money (six ones and one five) so that when the mugger notices, he will kill me on the spot (especially if I laugh as soon as he looks at it). That would be the surest way to have someone end it all for me, and I’ve thought of it constantly, sometimes laughing uncontrollably at the…I don’t know, the thrill of it.

I’ve also considered making citizens arrests, maybe marching right up to a Hell’s Angels headquarters and telling them to drop their bikes and turn around and try to put their hands behind their backs. I’d be dead in seconds.

I believe I am obsessed with the thought of death, and nothing else has been able to break through these swimming images of total blackness. I believe I will surely carry out one of the above plans for ending my miserable life, and soon. But right now, I don’t think I’ll be able to, at least not until I get through this mid-term paper that I haven’t started yet. There’s also a stupid biology test and a history oral presentation coming up. I hate those, so maybe I’ll be dead already for that one.

I knew I should have faked that I was mute when I enrolled, but somebody in my history class already is, and two mutes would look too suspicious. I didn’t even believe he was mute at first, so I stepped on his foot one day (stamped on it, actually) to see if he would scream or ask me why I did that or something. But his whole face turned red and scrunched up, and a tear soon came out of his eye. Then he whacked me in the side of the head with his palm, and I cried out because it hurt a lot, and he walked away. So he could be a real mute, I still don’t know.

Anyway, the reason I’ve been so obsessed with death, I think, is because of Joann, that girl I told you about in my last letter. She’s beautiful, as I told you. She’s shy, and smart, and polite, and kind. She’s everything I’ve ever wanted in a girl. For days I followed her around campus and kept asking her out. I knew she liked me, I just knew it. It wasn’t until I asked her out the seventh time that I discovered she was engaged. You see, she had politely said, “No thank you,” each time, while holding her hand up to her mouth. So, being the psychology student that I am, I figured she was saying no but really meaning yes–that she was saying in body language what she didn’t really mean with mouth language. This is one of the universal rules of guy and girl interaction. Always believe the opposite. If a girl says no, it means yes and to pick her up at about seven that night. If she says yes, it means drop dead or go away. But this one time it was different because when I asked her out for the seventh time, I discovered the engagement ring on her ring finger, and I remembered that it had been there the other six times. What a blockhead I was to have missed it. I’m so depressed. Nothing is good on earth. She is the most beautiful girl in the entire college, and now she’s engaged. Darn.

Now you know why I am contemplating Central Park or the Hell’s Angels after the first semester (or maybe after the break). Nothing is important any more. Life has no meaning. Joann was all I lived for—for three weeks! And now she is gone, and I can’t function any more.

I hope this letter isn’t too negative, but I feel negative lately, as if the whole world will come crashing down on me (or something similar). Besides what I’ve told you, I’m doing just fine and I hope you are fine, too. Write soon.

Your pal,

Arty

***

Dear Arty,

Your letter was more positive than the one before it, so don’t be so negative. You’re positively moving in a positive direction. I’m positive about it. Be positive. There is nothing to be negative about. Negativity is like a vacuum. It positively sucks everyone around you into it as well as yourself soon after. It positively sucks. In other words, being negative is positively stupid. And if I didn’t care about you so much, I’d say that you were being a real jerk for being so negative. So be positive

As for Joann, whatever will be will be. Two letters ago you told me she had a bit of a facial tick. Go on that. Keep telling yourself, “She has a facial tick, therefore she is not worth it.” Make it your mantra. There are a million girls in the world without facial ticks. Think of all of them, maybe all together in one room, and think of that one, that one girl who will, well, squeeze herself out of that room and come to you with her tickless face. She may not be so far away. She might be very close to you already. You may be in direct contact with her right now. Think about that. And you can’t kill yourself. Who would I write to?

The world is not crashing down on you, Arty, because of one stupid girl. People care. I care. So quit being such a jerk.

Love,

Karen

***

Dear Karen,

Your letter had a strange effect on me. It made me feel like catapulting you to Nova Scotia! Don’t tell me to be positive when I don’t want to be. And don’t you dare call Joann stupid or even suggest she has a facial tick. It was you I was talking about, or don’t you read my letters carefully. You blink too fast sometimes when you get nervous, which I think qualifies as a tick, and I’ll bet any doctor would say so.

I’ve really been feeling hostile toward you lately. I just thought I’d let you know. I had a dream a few nights ago that a grand piano fell on top of you. That dream somehow reminded me of the time we were going out together. Wasn’t that a ridiculous experience?

I took your advice, though, about there being a million girls stuck in a room and the one maybe being in direct contact with me. Just as I read that line I turned around and there was a girl there. No facial tick at all. No rapidly blinking eyes. In fact, I don’t think she blinked at all as she asked me for the time. I didn’t have a watch but I told her anyway. Later I discovered that I was off by two hours and I realized I’d missed my chance with her. I became depressed again, and still am. And now that I think of it, if you’d never given me that suggestion (about the room full of girls without facial ticks), I would never have looked up, and she would never have asked for the time, and I never would have told her the wrong time, and she would never have thought I was some kind of wrong-time-giving jerk or something.

I’m not thinking of death as much as two days ago. Instead I’m thinking of running away, maybe joining a circus somewhere to get away from all girls–all of them, and never come in contact with one again. EVER!! (although I will still write to you, of course). The circus is foremost in my mind these days and it rules my thoughts. I haven’t been able to find one, though, and I have a psychology exam next week. I hate psychology. It’s neurosis this, and neurosis that. Drives me nuts!

Today in the cafeteria I had the urge to bash my forehead with my tray, but my pizza was on it and I was hungry. It’s all so frustrating.

***

Dear Arty,

I’ve been growing lately, I think, and I’m feeling more enlightened each day. I don’t know what’s come over me but I’ve been writing poetry and studying music and art and finding out how beautiful it all is. Creativity is beautiful. I’d never thought of it before, really. Of course people have said “creativity” to me and I’ve said, “Oh, yeah,” but I’d never taken it seriously until now.

I am convinced that true art is the only way to a fulfilling, meaningful life, and that love itself is the way by which art should be developed to realize that fulfillment.walk around now with a smile on my face and a song (I know it’s corny but–a song) in my heart.

I understand the anger in your last letter, but anger gets you nowhere. I know there is pressure on you with your schoolwork, and that you are not feeling well. So I understand those things you wrote. I understand that you didn’t mean them at all.

So now I would like to confess something to you. It’s hard to say, so I’ll write it instead. I’m in love with you. I’ve loved you since we were fifteen, and now, five years later, I still love you. You’ve got so much to give and I know I do. I’m confident that life exists for us, just the two of us, to make it beautiful. I want to make my part of it beautiful, and I want you to know how much I feel that you are a part of the beauty I want in my life. You’re everything to me, Arty. My God, I’ve held it inside this long, but now that it’s out I feel happy. I look at those words “I love you” (several lines up) and I am frightened, but thrilled.

I know you will understand because you are so understanding. And a nice guy, too. Please write soon, Arty, and tell me how you feel. Don’t hold back. I am very busy lately with my work at school, my job at the child center, and my poetry, but I will be awaiting your letter with open arms (and a letter opener, ha!).

By the way, I love Nova Scotia! Thank you.

Love always,

Karen

 

P.S. That was funny about the grand piano. I laughed when I read it.

***

Dear Karen,

That was the weirdest letter I’ve ever read. You have beaten your own record for weirdity, Karen. And it was a stupid letter, too. And selfish. You are one selfish girl, Karen, always thinking about who you love and never once considering who the hell I love. Your letter was filled with selfish gibberish, and so I’ve decided that when I join the circus our correspondence will be over. All that talk about poetry and art and child centers! I thought I was going to get trapped in La-La Land if I didn’t stop reading.

Anyway, enough of that junk. If it’s of any interest to you, I’ve discovered that I’m still in love with Joann. I passed her a few times on campus, and I think one of those times she glanced at me as she went by, a quick darting look before she walked faster. Probably a lot of ambivalence (psychological term you might not know). Anyway, I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy. Ambivalence is good. But at the same time, ambivalence stinks because who knows. You know?

But true love, alas, is always the most painful, and it will hurt so much when I join the circus. And, alas, she’s engaged, so that’s another alas. And when I join the circus, I will probably never see her again. So that’s a third alas, and maybe the knockout alas.

The most important thing in my whole life is Joann. If only she wasn’t getting married. My teeth are clenching, and I’m fighting back the tears, and my stomach is in knots, and my knee has been bothering me. I want to just jump off a cliff, or…if not a cliff, then a ledge, at least, or a curb (because of the knee). My only consolation is knowing that the most intelligent, most sensitive people suffer the most. Who has condemned me to this suffering? Who is responsible? I shake my fist at the sky but nothing comes of it.

You, Karen, are responsible for our ended friendship. You are yet another friend who I’m forced to break with. And so I say goodbye. Don’t write back. I probably won’t even answer. My loveless, pathetic life goes on.

Yours truly,

Arty

PS. I got an 88 on my psychology exam. So I bet I’m right about that ambivalence thing.

————————

Lou Gaglia’s fiction appears in FRiGG, JMWW, Loch Raven Review, Prick of the Spindle, Rose & Thorn Journal, The Ear Hustler, and many others. He teaches in upstate New York.