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Four Prose Pieces
by Willie Smith

One of the Very Last Dry Runs

I remember it was down in the basement. The warm, full, dry, cementfloored basement. An oil furnace occupied a corner, lightly scenting with Jurassic essence the slightly stale air. It was early '62. The Bay of Pigs still galling, the Missile Crisis as yet an unknown threat.
     A Sunday morning. Dad sober; at his workbench screwing around with knickknacks. I had come down to wank. But finding him, had decided instead to dawdle a moment - to avoid suspicion. Then drift back upstairs. Lock myself in the bathroom. Get the job done there.
     I could tell Dad was sober, due to the pallor of his cheeks. Plus he stood straight, looked serious - efficiently operating a screwdriver with quiet purpose.
     Dad was a closet drunk. Didn't so much drink as swill. I knew, because a few mornings in the past couple years he'd gotten smashed alone - slumped over the workbench, bolting from the bottle - while I sneaked around, crouched behind the furnace, observing the fastidious WASP revert to a surly, redfaced grub.
     I preferred him sober. Although it was often fun to look down on him when he was blind drunk.
     "Oh, son," he glanced up. "I was just meaning to talk to you. Come over here a second."
     I shuffled over. Halted beside the plywood bench that stood high as Dad's waist, and came almost up to my nipples. I grunted; facially implied I was ready to hear whatever.
     "I suppose you know your sister is going to have a baby..." he concentrated back down on administering the last few firm, delicate turns. "This is your mother's music box, by the way. I'm finally after all these years fixing it. Hunted all morning through my jars of odds and ends before finding the appropriate screw. Always knew these nuts, bolts, nails, washers, whatnots accumulating over the years would come in handy. Waste not want not..."
     Sure. Pregnant. Three months along. Just beginning to show. I'd read the letters. Familiar with the words. But since Sis lived with her new husband out in Fort Bliss, I'd likely miss witnessing the process. High time he fixed that stupid box Mom's been crabbing about since can't remember when.
     "I've been meaning," he tightened too far, winced, "to explain," he backed off half a twist, "exactly what's going on there."
     Down at where one of the two-by-four legs met the cement (which Mom kept spotless as the rest of the house) I gazed. What's to tell? Inside Sis was growing a baby. Replica of herself and that guy Randolph. Soldier she met at our own Army base. Married. Transferred to Texas.
     I was halfway through the Sixth Grade. I knew it all. Although the finer points mystified me a tad. Didn't seem important. Besides, I was in a hurry to hustle off and wank.
     "I want you to understand how this situation arose. The science behind it.
     Science? In some areas of that arena I knew more than Dad. Since '57 - when Sputnik caught America with her pants down - school had focused on atomic power, outer space, new ways of looking at arithmetic; like base-2 - the binary system.
     "You see: there's this fluid in Randolph's body; continually being produced. Now and then it discharges. In one way or another, a certain amount of this fluid entered your sister's body."
     Fluid? A spider stuck a leg out from behind the workbench leg. A thin brown appendage. Cautiously a feeler appeared. Then two more legs jittered out along the concrete. Despite weekly sprays with Raid, Mom seemed unable to exterminate the spiders. I had never noticed any fluid. Did he mean snot? or did you drool on 'em?
     "If you're wondering about the details of how this happens, well: your sister, like your mother, like all other females, is built like the dog, On the other hand, as you have of course observed, you, myself and all men are built like male dogs."
     Never glimpsed what the dog had. All that hair. Forever tucked away. Or else covered with her tongue.
     "So this fluid from your brother-in-law mixed inside your sister to produce a reaction causing a baby to begin to form. Particles in the fluid bond on the chemical level with what is technically an egg. Microscopes reveal secrets that prove... Son - are you listening?"
     I looked up as he looked down at where I had been staring. His sagging cheeks, wrinkled forehead and capillery-threaded schnozz reddened. Revulsion contorted his features. He reached out with a shod foot. A gooey crunch ended the intruder's life.
     "Your mother hates those damn things. Run upstairs, fetch some toilet paper, wouldja?"
     Up the steep board stairs I creaked, thinking: fluid? In all my years of selftriggered jollies, I'd never spotted fluid. But if he was telling the truth (often the case when sober...
     But the gutter insists beating off approximates sex; and sex leads to babies. Was the trick at once to urinate and wank? I'd hafta work on that.
     Hurried down the hall past Sis's old bedroom (now the tv den). Past my own. Into the bathroom. Clicked shut, carefully locked the door behind. Snapped on fan to cover noise.
     Was there time? Before he wondered what was taking so long?
     Raised the toilet seat, dropped trou. Commenced stroke.
     Sure - I once thought wetness was involved. Like you rubbed together, The sweat mixed. She swallowed some. Then for a while decided it must occur in the bath. But lately I've been thinking - probably more lodge Roger in her navel, electric finale to the wank stimulates machinery inside to start. Now the bastard drops this bomb it's wetness after all...!
     Which comes first - the relaxing or the tightening? Peeing, usually thought of nothing much. Whacking, of panties, stockings, those occasional sleazy pages in Look, Life, The Saturday Evening Post. Now all I could imagine was that smashed spider oozing on Mom's immaculate floor.
     Alive - darting up a wall, over the table... did cause the skin to thrill. But loathesome. Filthy. Possibly even a bit poisonous; nobody seemed certain.
     Phooey. Let the issue drop. Yanked up. Belted, zipped. Hit the roll, spooling off a hank. Killed fan. Headed back out.
     "That was quick," he said, after I trotted back downstairs, marched over, presented the paper.
     He scrutinized the handful. Chuckled condescendingly, "That should be enough to wipe up even the dog's biggest possible mess." Then muttered, "Stuff doesn't grow on trees, you know." Then shrugged, "Then again, guess it does. Well, let's get to work."
     His knees cracked as he stooped, floated tissue over the mangled corpse.
     We grew silent a moment - Dad eyeing the Scottie as if ascertaining nothing under it moved; me contemplating a wisp of Brylcream flocking a hair on the edge of his bald spot. At our backs, on the opposite end of the spacious basement, into action the water heater whooshed. Mom upstairs doing breakfast dishes? Late for that. Maybe just part of its normal cycle.
     "I just wonder how they get in?" he mused, "Bought this house new two years ago. Foundation fresh-poured Vinyl siding. Aluminum guttering. Roof guaranteed another five years. Storm windows. Insulation. I fail to understand."
     One way they enter is when he comes home drunk from work, neglects to close the door. But I can't point this out. Because this is Dad Sober; he's never met Dad Drunk. Instead I mumble, "So how's Mom's box work?"
     Back jerked his head. He glared up. Studied my face. Quickly the sudden anger faded from his mug.
     He looked back down, wadded up the body. "Oh, that. Well: the operation was a success. But the patient died. Some spring in the internal mechanism must've failed. Thing's at least eighty years old. Heirloom handed down from your grandmother. Here," he stood, handed me the tissue wad, smiled: "Take this up. Dispose of it properly in the toilet. I'm going to finish up down here. Bowling comes on in less than half an hour."
     Once again locked inside the can, toilet seat still up, I flipped into the bowl the contents of my fist. The tissue uncurled. Out slid the remains.
     A horrid brown arachnid coated with its own yellowish snotlike guts.
     Found myself wishing the answer would appear. I mean - what did Dad mean? Realized then I did need to urinate. Went about it. Lackadaisically held the stream on the flattened kill; half-enjoying scooting it around the bowl.
     Dad was touchy, often difficult to comprehend. Oh - he couldn't help it, He hated his job - a civilian employed on the base, involved in the production of training films. How to set charges, lay mines, blow bridges. His bosses were all colonels, captains; sometimes he even caught crap from a lieutenant. The situation drove him to vodka. Which made him touchier yet.
     A vicious circle, a downward spiral. When you got right down to it, Dad was a pretty miserable human. Better off born a snail. Stay wet all day. Carry around with him his drumtight house. Droopy antennas instead of bifocals.
     I giggled. Sprayed the rim. Splattered with yellow the beige tile.
     Squelched image. Choked giggle. Regained control. Doused thoroughly the spider, so as to sink it a good two inches.
     Why did he hafta bring this up? I was confused enough. Not at all thinking about it. Just wanted to jerk off. Then quietly go about surviving another Sunday at homes
     Of course it wasn't urine. Urine is waste. Babies don't come from waste. Babies come from... dogs (?)
     Damn his nosy butt!
     I shook off the last couple drops. The corpse bobbed back up. What - did Randolph blow his nose on her? Yuck. Sex was sick. I flushed, swirling the thing to hell.
     Well, long as I had it out (the toilet sucked down a last leg), may as well do it.
     I was almost there, in the midst of sugar time, imagining spiders running up nylons, when Dad pounded the door. Slurred he needed the crapper. Only Dad Drunk called it that.
     Sure, He sometimes chugged a pint to get his spirits up for Sunday television. Likely the Smirnoff he kept "hidden" in the toolbox. Guess the "lecture" no picnic for him either.
     "Just a minutel!" I yelled. "I'm coming!"
     Aborted launch. Played film backward till rocket repositioned onto pad. Pulled up. Zipped. Buckled.
     Waited an instant, catching breath. Smelling Pinesol, Glade, toothpaste and Mercurochrome lingering. Listening to the fan. A roar on the edge of a screech.
     Needed oil?
     Opened up.
The Hostage Transfixed
A humid afternoon in late August. Mom gone to fetch food for dinner. Sis at a matinee with her boyfriend. Dad of course away at work.
     I wasn't lonely. Had two hands, ten fingers; full complement of legs, toes, things like that; fairly entertaining brain. I wasn't bored - naked, on the toilet, reading the Bible. I was excited, learning how Onan's widow roped her father-in-law into illicit sex, the better to beget an ancestor of Jesus Christ.
     A guy called Er had been her first husband. Er was a jerk; him God slew. Er's younger brother Onan, rather than get his brother's widow with child, jerked off. God also pulled his plug for good. Next the double-widow disguised herself as a whore. Tricked her father-in-law into knocking her up.
     I wanted to imitate these folks. Draw blood, feel pain, exult in the name of God. Maybe nail something through my thing? Masturbation, you see, ruins the spine, causes blindness. And I certainly wouldn't act like that poor horny widow. But a little dingdong carpentry might be just the ticket,
     I wandered through the house in search of an appropriate skewer. Settled at length on Sis's favorite knitting needle. Returned to the sacred confines of the john. Flopped wang on sink edge. Figured I'd hammer in the needle with the Bible. One good swat oughta do it.
     Needed to avoid the tube. Smack ler in off to one side - left, I guess. Tug it halfway through. Fix it there with bandaids, Wait a few days for the flesh to snug up around it, or whatever. Maybe hafta change bandaids once a week for the rest of my life. Masking or electrical tape likely do as good.
     Quite a thing to display out on the playground. Wind it up like a propeller on a bi-plane in one of those old movies. Catch the wind right - I might be able to fly. And regardless how tight the skin grew, I could always whip it out for hand-to-hand combat.
     Not that I'm a fighter. I prefer to talk my way out of a corner. I'm no coward. Just don't wanna dirty my hands.
     But emergencies do arise - a burglar, a prowler, a creep with a knife; or some zombie sent by a priest reading scripture backwards. Wouldn't even hafta kill. Eyeball shiskabob oughta do the trick. Put in a similar position, Samson couldn't do much; till those idiot Philistines got too cocky.
     Lost on a frozen river, I could use it to chop through the ice - bend the end to catch fish. Or suppose the river held no fish, and I had to get home. Convert the thing into a compass. Drop trou to find true North. Plus other info, since it could act as an antenna tuned to broadcasts from the Lord.
     Any number of emergencies the needle could help solve. Although it might initially hurt - like yanking a tooth - this procedure would undoubtedly turn me into a better man.
     But then I reflected how weird my pants would look. Make 'em stick out like I had ape hips. Because of the bulge, I might never attend college, much less get a job. And what carries more weight - God, or making a living?
     You don't make a living, you starve to death. And if God doesn't exist - that's it. You got no insurance, no pension, no nothing. But if you keep God in the background, He's always around to help you get that raise.
     Not to mention Sis. Over the disappearance of her needle, she might raise hell.
     Oh, OK... I'd call it off. Let it be. Wasn't lack of backbone. Like I say, the pain was half the intrigue. Call it rather an investment in the future. And maybe some other day try a smaller needle a hatpin or one of Dad's tie tacks.
     Replaced the Bible in the cabinet under the sink. Slowly fell to climbing back into my duds; then quickly, as I heard out in the livingroom in the front door lock Mom's key tickle.
     Everything was going to be fine. I zipped. Fine everything would be. Buckled. Soon as my heart stopped pounding... pulled on shirt, glanced in medicine chest mirror at flushed face ... I'd exit the bathroom, yell out toward the kitchen, "Hi, Mom!" Vanish into my room. There to relax over a Batman comic. Allow an appetite for meatloaf to develop.
     Out of the corner of my eye, down in a corner of the mirror, atop the hamper (where I'd left it), I suddenly spotted the twelve-inch purple knitting needles
     Shit. Well... hide it in the Bible? Nope, too small. Medicine chest too crowded.
     She'll know I'm in here - door closed
     "Honey!" Mom called through the door. "I need to get in and empty the hamper. Gonna do a quick load before dinner - anything in your room dirty?"
     "No, Mom. You got everything yesterday in the big wash. I'll be out in, uh..." toss it in the sink, the bathtub, the shower stall...? "uh, just a minute."
     She said that was fine. Stuff in the hamper would be plenty. She'd wait outside till I was done.
     Ditch it in the hamper - she finds it right off the bat. Too long to flush - stick outta the trap. Crush it into a flushable ball - if I was Superman. Swirl down through porcelain gulch clicking underwater tinnily. Hear it disappear through pipes all the way outside the house (if I was Superman).
     Hey - stick it down my trousers! Sneak it later back into Sis's room. Make me walk a little stiff. Mom notices - explain sitting in there reading the Bible my leg cramped. Or claim too much starch on the crease. Or maybe...
     My spine tingled. Suppose jamming the needle down my trousers accidentally stabbed the juju? Or reamed the eyelet the peephole through which nightmares glimpse ecstasy? Hard to see down there possible I'd rupture the tube, break forever the sleazy charm.
     Other options?
     "I really do need to get in to empty that hamper... You are OK, aren't you honey?"
     No time to answer. Had to think. Knit one, purl two. Why is Mom such a nitwit? Like that Bible girl hellbent on getting pregnant. Think fast.
     T-shirt too flimsy for concealment. Not wearing socks. Trouser legs shrunk above ankles from too many washings. Needle stick out like a sore thumb lodged between cuff and shoe. Way too long for any pocket...
     Just walk out with it in my hand, let Mom think I'm some kind of girl?
     "Honey, are you OK? Are you conscious? I think maybe I'd better come in...
     What was it to be - run the risk of a random skewer, or have Mom fret over me playing (in the bathroom no less) with a big long girl needle? The risk of damage or the guarantee of shame?
     It became like one of those situations in math where fractions on either side of a number close in, but never get precisely to where they're going. In a fit of petulance - like maybe what God felt watching that apple chomp - my brain cramped.
     Just as I felt the pressure of Mom's hand on the knob and she said, "Honey, I'm coming in..." - I dented in the knob's button. Snicked across the jamb the bolt on the extra lock below the towel rack. Shoved the hamper against the door. Pulled down the shower curtain rod. Wedged it between the bathtub and the hamper. Ignored Mom's pleas. Her pleas, her pleas, her please!
     Well, at the outset, Mom wasn't really all that hysterical. Every ten seconds or so she rapped on the door, announced, "Honey, are you OK?" or "I need to get in. honeyl" But after five or ten minutes of this, she started yapping, "Will you for God's sake open this damn door!" rattling the knob like an exasperated timber rattler.
     As for me, I just didn't have anything to say. When you got a cramp, you don't go swimming. And now I'd bought some time. I rummaged in the medicine chest. Anacin, Midol, Bufferin, No Doz, multiple vitamins, Carter's Little Liver Pills, Popped off caps. Took several of each. Thinking they would smooth the head so I could think my way outta this mess.
     Guess she heard me shake out the pills (I know she heard the faucet run). Because that's when she got to pounding the door, shrieking incoherently. And it dawned on me she thought I was, of course, committing suicide.
     She had recently watched, you see, a special regarding the "epidemic" of teens snuffing themselves. The causes were obscure. Some on the show speculated too many movies, too many comic books, too much tv; others, not enough Bible. (She'd related this last night, while she was ironing, Dad out bowling, Sis on a date, me leafing through a Spiderman - seated in front of a Get Smart repeat.
     Possibly not such a bad idea. All these painkillers in me. I wouldn't feel anything. Bathroom a wonderful place for it: razors, scissors, pills, toilet submersion; now even a foot-long needle sturdy as a finishing nail. (Run it through my eye like pithing a frog, fall on it like a Roman on his sword, Japanese sewing machine harry karry, self-impalement Dracula style?
     But suicide makes no sense. After it's done - you're not around to exult in how you made everybody feel bad. So what's the point?
     Belly fulla pain medication, however - what better time than now to go through with the pierce?
     Picked up off the floor - where it had fallen when I slid the hamper against the door - the needle. Examined the point, thinking I'm a late pre-teen in early adolescence. Isn't it time for something; something definite, something decisive, something from which there can be no turning back?
     From use, the purple had worn off the point. Naked steel winked as I turned in my hand the shaft.
     At the door Mom screeched and clawed. Maybe I'd just open up - let ler have it. Cram the thing down her scrawny throat. But that was murder. And no matter how sensible murder seems (think of the release!) the Bible makes it impossible. Only God is allowed to kill.
     It's a good book. Keeps us within our limits. OK. Concentrate on the dick sticking. Shift back down into that gear. And what the hell if I hit the tube? Withdraw needle when I hadda go. Hold fingers over holes. Or just one below to squirt straight up. Just above if I felt like peeing between my heels.
     Thoughts of antiseptic surfaced. But there was no time, too much pressure. Later I'd hunt up the iodine; swab on same post op.
     For three reasons hanging it over the edge of the sink was smart. The height was right; the shiny porcelain made an ideal anvil; the blood would flow directly down the drain, not make a mess. Blood, yeah, blood. First real bloody business of my life. Mom out there screaming bloody murder actually makes it easier.
     This time slam it home with the heel of my palm. Hurt? Even in spite of Anacin and all that crap? you bet.
     But I was tough. Master of life and death. What being a man is all about. Abraham preparing to butcher his kid. Superman inching past a block of kryptonite. David taunting Goliath. Spiderman accidentally self-poisoned.
     Then quiet - like a broken elevator - fell.
     Poised over my unit, left fist gripped needle; trousers puddled around ankles (I'd that day skipped underwear - to fight the humidity) ...
     I peered over at the locked, barricaded door. She hadn't left. I could feel her out there breathing. This a new tactic? Had she last ditch stumbled onto the silent treatment?
     The terror no man can stand: silence. Not Abe, not Dave, not Soup, not The Hulk himself. Peace - OK. A good night's rest - sure. But... nothing?
     Or was she just blue in the face - too hoarse, for the moment, to holler? In any event, could I wait her out? I'd steeled myself to do it while she screamed. Now it seemed wrong. She'd hear the squish. Swiftly followed by the point's clack against the porcelain.
     Heroes need noise, violence, shit flying through the air. I frowned at the toilet. With lid down, it appeared to smile plastically. I'd been reading on it with the lid down, using it for a stool. Stool also means crap. Why is it words can't sit still, mean just one thing? And another thing: Why is word a word for word? Is silence the only honesty?
     Cleared from my throat the phlegm of fifteen speechless minutes: "Mom - don't try to stop me. I'm going to see this through!"
     In mid-air my fist quivered. My gaze returned to one slack prick on an altar of white. I was bluffing. (Wasn't I?) Bluffing to get her to start screaming again. And then I would not be bluffing. She thought I was talking suicide. Little did she know I was about to strike a blow for truth, justice and... communication?
     Was I being deliberately - like Onan's widow big with somebody's child - ambiguous? Torturing my own mother like some Genesis nut?
     Should I be nutted? That's what God wants - pop some balls? Make my voice squeak; but who knows what super powers? I could become Ballman, Nut Boy, Super Eggs, the Sack of Jericho...
     "That does it!" she screamed. "I'm calling the Fire Department!"
     It was almost time for the dinner that never happened, before the firemen finally jimmied, axed and jacked me outta the john; Mom all the while screaming, never having the sense to faint. And I had done with the needle exactly what you think.


Orestes in the Meat Department
Big cow of a woman leaned over the pork chops. Mousy gramps with rimless peepers eyeing the rabbit, picking over the chicken. Packages squeaking like gristle in a knacking factory. Fingers depressing transparent plastic, prodding meat packed underneath on styrofoam tray. Yellow skin, pink meat, tan pork, scarlet flesh skirted in beige fat. Blue stamps, purple tags. Organ meat - heart, liver, gizzard, brain, intestine; hog maw, boar head, beef ball. Everything but stuffed rectum and pineal gland paste.
     But no blood. Liquid leaked around muscle clumps is dye, packing ice and serous fluid.
     Phone doesn't ring. Nothing happens. Who needs blood? Have a look at this pound of ground round. Bunch of red-white worms all pinked together - mashed on styrofoam, trapped under plastic. Nothing savage here.
     The phone rings. It's Ellen again. She wants me to kill mother. Don't answer it.
     Press down on plastic, feel worms squeeze. Dollar ninety-eight. Not bad this day and - hell! - age, damn phone rings a -damn!-gain.
     Bovine woman tosses aside package of pork chops like they were hay in a disinterested needle hunt. She sidles her boxcar down to the chicken, the senile mouse having disappeared off into some corner of day-old bread.
     I didn't ask for this. Father drove truck, yeah, sure: Akron to Chicago, Chic to Ak. Yeah. Frozen meat he hauled. Eighteen wheeler. Had a honey in Akron. Family in Chicago. Mom found out. Cut him in half pointblank with a sawed-off. Any business of mine? I'd left home by then. Just Ellen back there to clean up the mess. Just Ellen...
     Looking down at the chicken, answer the phone. Ellen asks if it's me. I'm looking down at axed, bled, plucked, pre-frozen chicken - hell, I don't know...
     She goes on anyway about why don't I come up to Winnetka tonight and plant a meat cleaver in Mom's skull. Let go the package of wings, close my eyes and concentrate on her voice sitting on my innermost face...
     Mom's lover testified it was self-defence. Dad came at her with a butcher knife. Sure, they found the knife among the remains. His prints all over the handle, cut on her arm, her blood on blade. Jerry - her lover, the corporate lawyer from uptown Winnetka - stood aside and memorized the fracas like a judge. He scored it a hundrednothing Mom. And Dad had all the poor technique, the unsportsmanlike conduct. The sawed-off was his - he kept it in the back of his cab. Brought it in that night to oil - so decedent claimed, as witnessed by Mom and Jerry.
     Argument broke out, shotgun on table. Knife in dishrack closer to loser. Threatened spouse picked up gun and fired as enraged spouse charged with butcher knife upraised.
     Ellen upstairs doing her homework...
     Her voice fades. She's told me this a hundred times. I only hear the hard facts. The connective words melt into them. Scratches mercifully take over... poor connection... eyes open like Mom getting down the discharged gun, not at all like Ellen tearing down the stairs, a scream of vengeance locked in her throat before she even sees her broken daddy on the bloody kitchen floor...
     Turkey neck. Male organ of reproduction. Pick up package. Plastic squeaks. Other customers squeeze in to browse. They seem more interested in wing and thigh. I'm the only one standing puzzling over 1.44 pounds of neck. More people press up. The squeakings multiply like bats abandoning a cave at dusk.
     I can't eat a neck. I'd choke - what am I thinking?
     Drop package. Lands with a sticking noise against plastic of other packages of neck side by side and on top of each other. I glance over at the lamb. Nice greasy lamb chop might go nice. Sop it up with French bread. Big poorboy loaf the size of a baseball bat.
     The phone rings.
     Maybe I'll eat it rare. Maybe that'll appease this nagging hunger coming over me now again. It's Ellen, I'm sure. Perhaps a nice fat steak. I could eat it raw, chew delicious morsels of tenderloin, smell of blood at least lingering in the yielding flesh butchered, how many days ago? How long has this calf been dead? When, exactly, did they cut the heart out of that chicken over there?
     Answer the damn phone. It's my sister-from-hell Ellen. What a surprise. I could puke.
     Now she's giving me the line about the family. I'm her big brother. She's always looked up to me. Dad was a hero. Burly-armed truckdriver keeping the carnivores of Akron appeased. And Mom shot him down in coldblood, then lied about it under oath, with her highclass pimp of a boyfriend swearing to all her filth, so neat and tidy...
     "Blood," I say outloud to the ham, "is a chemical. Family, an accident I was lucky enough to walk away more or less intact from."
     She screeches in my ear, what am I? Some kind of Hamlet? Is that the kind of homosexual I've turned into? Don't I have any respect left for the ties of family and the duties of blood?
     "I'm a directory assistance telephone operator," I say down to the knockwurst. "All day, all week, I've been listening to the southern accents of metropolitan St. Louis jabber and squawk and demand. Your voice sits very uncomfortably on my stomach and in my ear, Sis."
     She hangs up.
     I get to looking at some cylinders of sausage named after a famous country & western singer. Male organ of reproduction. Slice it up like cutting the rims off anuses. The song of pork frying in the pan. Where are the penises? Here are the beef fries. 0
     I hold up a package of rocky mountain oysters entitled: BEEF FRIES 1.50 per lb., 0.981b., total price: 1.47. 1 process this data, remembering the fine old dirty words for the delicacy: prairie oysters, bull balls, ox sacks... but the peckers, the dingdongs, the schlangs, the bull yazoos... in vain I look around for chicken peckers and frozen mule dingdongs... all I spot is packages of beef tongue beside containers of veiny liver.
     The phone. Tickles like a low-speed drill and a lot of novocaine.
     She's talking about Hamlet and the family again. Like there was no interruption. Incessant. Only I know my head went somewhere.
     "Look," I say, perturbed, down into the turkey burger, "Hamlet is after my time. My problem is more primitive. Hamlet's was one of indecision. Mine is that I just don't want to relate. I don't see what any of this has to do with me. I'm down here in St. Louis working for the phone company. After hours I've got a life of my own to live. I wish to hell you'd leave me alone, Ellen."
     She says I have to kill this guy or else I'm not a man. Kill the woman, too; meaning our mother. Jerry's twenty years her junior. It was because she wanted to live openly with that fop that she killed Dad in the first place. Not because she was jealous of the honey in Akron. Dad was a hero, a muscleman, a provider, a prince. He was entitled to such exotica as a mistress a few hundred miles to the east. Mom was balling a punk from up the street. And Dad never laid a violent hand on her, except when she had it coming. And even then he never broke so much as a single bone in her body.
     She demands I come up to Winnetka tonight and kill Mom. Purely because she doesn't want a member of her own sex to survive such sacrilege. The murder of one's own husband is tantamount to spitting in the Face of God. Mother has defiled the marriage bed in the filthiest way. Would I want her to marry a man like MOM?
     I start laughing out loud at her last idiocy. I laugh for a good five seconds of scorn before the static comes back in and the connection has been severed. I hope she wasn't hurt by my outburst, I think to myself and then really go on a wild laughing jag. God, we're all asses: the living, the dead, the frozen...
     My nose is now down in the fish. A spinster in see-through pink babushka peers out at the squid. A teenager is making fun of the trout, tossing a package like James Dean idly flipping a blackjack. A man in a suit and tie paws through the crab. Still there is the squeaking of plastic, even way down here in the ocean, where life began and families used to be as big as whole schools. A fat Oriental bellies up to the display and grabs an armload of cod.
     A jar of oysters catches my eye. Real oysters. The juicy salty slimy kind. The kind that taste of dissolved minerals and not of bullshit like prairie sod. They don't bleed oysters. Oysters are whole; blood, guts and all. But it isn't red, and the taste of iron doesn't predominate. No, whatever it is oysters use to circulate life, it'll never do - not even in a pinch - for human blood.
     The phone. Like an ass braying inside a barn; only the barn is my skull.
     I look up over the open-air refrigerator and demand to see the butcher. Nobody out, so I climb over the frigid carnage. I'm not going to answer the damn phone.
     I'm going to get to the bottom of this personal hell if I have to kill myself trying.
     "Blood!" I scream. "I've got to have warm, fresh blood!"
     I'm in the backroom where sides of beef, pork and lamb hang from the ceiling.
     It's cold. The bright lights and Lysol and embalmed-carrion stink sting my eyes.
     "Blood...?" I say, my voice becoming disconnected as I begin to realize...
     "You think this is a slaughterhouse?"
     "No blood here, mister - this is a nationally-known corporate grocery store.
     We do everything clean so it looks nice on the family table..."
     begin to realize...
     "Mister! get back out on the other side of the counter. Leave us alone, we got work"
     "Yeah! go back out there, choose your meat, take it home and leave us alone.
     "You got a personal problem with blood - keep it to yourself!"
     to realize...
     "Hey! get outta here..."
     as they wrestle me to the floor, that even though I'm just a shrimp, even though I've spent the last five years sitting in a cubicle with a phonebook and a headset buried in my ear - I'm going to take on these butchers and tear them apart. They've got blood. About seven or eight quarts apiece, judging from the size of the swine.
     We roll around on the floor. The beefiest gets me pinned, sits on my chest while the others hold down my arms. He's bent over me grinning. I lunge and bite his nose. I get a good grip and he screams and jumps back, dragging me up with him.
     I wrench my head from side to side like a terrier with a rat. But it's no dice. My teeth are too flat - can't break the skin. Too much civilization; not enough of a savage. All that blood flowing inside the pulpy gourd and I can't get a drop of it.
     I scamper past all three of the bruisers. One - leaping for me - throws a tackle on 300 pounds of steer dangled from a hook in the ceiling.
     I hop out onto the packages of chicken. Heads bowed, people continue in their nervous quest for the mundane.
     I face the crowd. I am going to make an allout appeal for blood, for rebellion - the essence of revenge twice-removed...
     when the pigs are yanking my ankles.
     I make a dozen packages of wing and breast fly like they never did down on the farm! I squirm and plead for blood! But they finally slop me down to the floor.
     We go up the busy aisle of hungry shoppers. Everybody notices the pigs but nobody registers alarm or confusion. They go right back to their tomatos, spaghetti or lightbulbs.
     Outside, in the squadcar, the lecture heats up.
     Don't I have any pride? What am I - an epileptic? Am I the same kind of subhuman that exposes itself to little children? What did I mean by hollering for blood in the middle of a crowded grocery store? Am I one of these attention hogs? Repressed homosexual, perhaps? Or just another chickenshit little bastard?
     "Okay," I say. "Cut the talk and take me downtown. I hear voices inside my head all day, all week at work. I don't need to hear any more questions. Not while I'm on my own time."
     One pig goes dumb. The other looks glum.
     They tell me I'm not going to jail. The jail's overcrowded already. It's Friday night. There'll be beatings, murders, rapes, robberies, drunks... I'm way too small a fry to keep.
     No, they're just going to take me somewhere and drop me off. Far enough away to impress the citizens back at the grocery store. But not so far as to squander the taxpayers' money. Basically, they don't want any part of me. They're going to flip me back into the night. I can go have my fits elsewhere. And they're certainly not about to make a decent alcoholic or murderer sleep in the same cell with a deviate like me. Incidentally, what is my act? Am I a calf molester, dog buggerer or rooster boy?
     "Let me off at the Greyhound bus station." I realize the phone is ringing again. "I've got family in Chicago. I'll... go up there tonight. They need me to, uh, take care of something."
     The pigs' expressions, like the need for every human being to make more money, remain exactly the same. Sure, they'd be glad to assist me in leaving town. Always glad to do their bit toward keeping the city clean - making it a safe and sane place for families to live.
     I touch, reflectively, the plastic of the seatcover. Of course they aren't going to keep me. I'm not ready for the can. I still have blood. Blood tying me to... connecting me up with...
     The phone keeps ringing.
     "Hold on, Sis," I say outloud in the back of the cruising squadcar, "I'm coming. Don't worry."
     There are some accidents you just can't walk away from.



"There are no heroes," said the elevator operator as I got in. "What floor?"
     He was a small guy. About the size of a safety-pin stuck in a jackball. He was chewing gum that smelled like a swimmingpool in January. The smile on his face was that of a butcher about to quote his price.
     "Forty-ninth," I said.
     His finger swept over the bank of buttons and he punched the one that lit up 49 in an orange glow. The iceberg smile broke apart and floated away as he chawed his gum, joined his hands behind his back and leaned against the beige metallic wall to look me up and down. For a dink his stature, that meant mostly "up."
     "What about Orion?" I said, when I grew tired of his eyes taking my altitude. "He's real. You'll see him up there every night, once we set the clocks back."
     "Nimrod," he yawned. "A mighty hunter before the Lord. Same corpse. He's dead. Been dead so long nothing's left but stars. And then only when it don't snow. Heroes are alive. Sleep all day and come out at night. Nope, there are no heroes."
     "What about a real star," I said. "Like Ronald Reagan or Shirley Temple Black?"
     A distant thud below our feet. Stomach thrown down thighs into ankles... the lights went out. The importance of my appointment at floor 49 shrank. I stood still and said nothing. I knew it was womanish to scream or lunge during mechanical failures. The orange glow from the button marked "49" grew in intensity as my eyes accustomed to the gloom.
     "Looks like the harvest moon," chirped the invisible operator, "Rising up over a Memphis whorehouse - don't it?"      My mouth went dry. I cleared my throat. There was nothing to clear. All I did was gasp - a sound that could easily be interpreted as panic. I tried to whistle - to appear calm. My lips were dry as a dull needle stuck in a cracked record between songs.
     "We're in between floors," came the operator's runt voice somewhere in the claustrophobic neighborhood of my groin. "I don't think we're falling. You think we're falling?"
     "Gravity's an illusion," I heard myself say. I wanted to say more, explain how acceleration is equivalent to gravity, blurt out how if we dropped a book and the book hung where released, instead of falling to the floor, then we were accelerating downward and the situation was grave and we'd better pray for mercy and candycanes after our crushing like bugs caught in the cookie jar at the bottom of the shaft... but my lips were too parched from what I persisted denying was "fear" for me to say more.
     "Too dark in here to drop a book," the operator muttered. You know that old trick? It's something you only get to work once. It's not like politics or acting in the movies, where cut-throats called 'speech writers' do it for you, or you get as many takes as it takes to make the transparency say you did superhuman. But we could listen for the sound. You know that old trick about the book, Mister?"
     The little voice pounded at my groin. Irrationally, I felt my zipper was down. Would he smell the stains a mere foot from his nose? As we fell (in my imagination) to our grisly death - two unknowns in a trap lacking all trace of sweetness and light - I feared that yes-yes I was terrified, deathly afraid this greasy peon was going to smell my zipper was down!
You ever let a guy go down on you?"
     "Look," I said, moistening my lips with mucous my tongue unearthed along the eaves of my mouth. I'll take off my pants and we'll drop them - I don't have a book."
     There was the rustle of me undoing my belt buckle. I glanced up at the orange button and stepped out of my pants, then stopped dead... he was wrong...
were heroes. This was science. Gravity versus acceleration. Repugnance against attraction. Grab opposite bob. We were dying in the interest of pure science. Modern heroes.
     What my pants exposed fitted into the gap of an otherwise perfect theory. A wad of gum was pushed aside, because we could ignore that peculiar fact.
     In ecstatic devotion to the advancement of mankind and all that is not womanish, I dropped my bundled pants. The brass buckle muffled by a flop of cotton - rang on the floor like an alarmclock cut short by a hungover hand.
     I came to the conclusion we were not falling.

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