Austin R. Pick
A Survey of Minor Disfigurements

Short fiction first published in Tahoma Literary Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, Summer 2014

Our elders, in my experience, are no longer reliable fonts of wisdom. A week or so before my visit to the home of the Reverend Ron Rodgers, for instance, Rebecca's grandparents came to town. They are unnaturally active for their age, and take great piles of supplements at meal times. She brought them to my apartment; I don’t know why. Perhaps to see that though we claim each other, we live apart. Perhaps to take pleasure in their sense of displacement.

Some time before we met, Rebecca lived for a month in a primitive shelter in the pine barrens of New Jersey, learning to attune to her surroundings, learning to become, she says, uncivilized. She is a great believer in people experiencing places and situations where they are not comfortable. Displacement, she calls it.

She has a theory, which she attempts to explain with a glass of water and some object retrieved from my table. Old cassettes. Stolen office supplies. Newly painted chessmen. A hand grenade. "See," she says with a splash, "the contained environment" —she means the water, a portion of which is now wrinkling the pages of various manuscripts and leaflets— "has by the flow of displacement gone beyond its confines. It has expanded, become more than it was. And through the glass we see stuff differently, enlarged and clarified."

"Yes," I say, knowing that she considers this a good and spiritual thing, "but part three of the Gorsky lectures" (on tape) "is now ruined." I say this every time, tirelessly, inserting whatever item of mine has been doused. Except the hand grenade, which is a merely a paperweight, and thus can’t be much affected. I concede this point. Regardless, Rebecca shakes her head dismissively and despite my reservations leads me away from her example and on to her next project of displacement—to clean, well-lit spaces where we do not belong: hospital gift shops, scenic overlooks, city council meetings, shopping malls, convention centers. When we go to such places Rebecca likes to act “normal”—that is the other part of her game. To pretend that she is not unkempt and that I am not slovenly. To stroll about and admire things in soft, well-modulated tones. To keep our hands to ourselves. Our presence, she says, is enough. Once she took me to a military air show. I do not trust her.

Her grandparents were not at ease, in my apartment. They were not comfortable. There is no furniture to sit on, for one thing. They stood near the door. Papered with pages torn from my notebooks, the ragged walls seemed to intimidate them, and in the dead air of our stunted conversation they nudged with their boots at the books and things lying around. I inquired about their matching outfits. "Why are you wearing matching outfits?" I said.

"Because we're the Haffenbargers!" they said in stereo, smiling for the first time and hustling their fisted forearms with geriatric enthusiasm. "So come along pardner, and hear a real mountain tale!" They threw their heads back and laughed together, loudly, the practiced laughter of old times and fun fun fun. I eyed them narrowly. Rebecca explained that they perform mountain tales and mountain songs for children. I was afraid they were about to demonstrate, but with their hands flapping they hastened to provide a breathless account of all the hand puppets, ukuleles and amusing hats they require to “get into character.”

Apparently just casual wear, their buckles and bolo ties. They were in town for an annual “roundup,” they elucidated, but couldn’t obtain passes for the two of us, despite Rebecca’s persistent interest. I produced a dirty look when she inquired again, knowing what she was thinking. Perceiving an absence of childlike wonder in my vicinity, her grandparents began to gasp and chuckle effusively, waggling their heads and eyeing my hand grenade warily.

I imagine them in their home, surrounded by an assortment of timid plants and blanched watercolor prints. Wood paneling. Candy dishes. A small, sympathetic dog. I imagine them working on new material, crafting their facial expressions, perfecting their timing. I imagine her murmuring tunelessly while she cooks. He comes up behind and tenderly grips her waist. She turns, and catches his cowboy hat in the forehead. I imagine him waking to find his matching outfit laid out, descending the stairs to a wholesome breakfast and a rodeo of skittering pills. The new day looms, his wife already plotting. Their routine is fortified against the intrusion of unpleasant realities, a confederacy of two. It is perplexing how they tolerate themselves.

Rebecca, with that gleam of hers, told them I was considering finishing the degree I’d dropped a few years ago and perhaps pursuing graduate studies, which is not true. "Well I graduated from the school of hard knocks in 1949!" Grandpa Jim said, his big face beaming. Grandma Sallie rapped at the air, eyes wide and mouth thrown open with campy pizzazz, clicking in time with her raptor-like tongue. I picked up a lighter and with it singed a few idle hairs on my hand. Then we went to lunch.

Youth too seems a dubious repository for our aspirations. I’m beginning, for instance, to grow suspicious of my neighbor. He keeps odd hours, that’s the first thing. I too keep odd hours, which is often necessary for unusual behavior. You have to keep them guessing, the ones who may be watching you. Also he is a young man of cheerful outlook. Too cheerful, if you ask me. His motivations are mysterious. People of sunny disposition have their secrets. Often they are engaged in activities that one is wise to be suspicious of. He comes and goes, jingling keys, untangling wires and earphones, always tapping at the screen of some gadget or device. He is a teaching assistant at the university, he tells me. He teaches computers, he says.

Teaches computers what, I wonder? Does he instruct them to perform music of their own composition? To construct sentences, to think? To dazzle with elaborate prognostications of the future, complete with charts and graphs? I often learn about various projects of this kind through my reading, in libraries. Beginning with the newspapers I proceed slowly, absorbing the deleterious stirrings of the world, the turmoil and unrest. The news media can’t be trusted, of course, but one must start someplace. They say that print is dying, that the future is online. But the internet is forever in flux, subject to revision. I read surreptitiously, holding the pages close.

I scrutinize the fine print, cross-referencing the names of board members and substantial shareholders. I leave notes in the margins, urgent underlinings for the benefit of other readers. Budget allocations. Research and development. Automated processes. Defense contractors are frequently involved, extending their reach, diversifying their accountability. Their precise motivations remain obscure. But I can infer them. They have already taught computers to watch us. They have cameras in the corners of rooms, grids of surveillance along the sidewalks, microphones on the undersides of chairs. You have to keep your voice down.

He often seems preoccupied, my neighbor. I am not too preoccupied to notice. I notice many things. His laughter, for instance. I can hear it in the hallway, echoing inside his room. It is not the laughter of casual conversation. He must know as well as I do that all communications are being observed. They have enacted legislation, which is encrypted against understanding. They maintain public records in archives where the public, in my experience, is not permitted. They have databases, in banks of servers far underground. Watchful machines. Monitors. His laughter bursts forth in packets of amusement that tumble over one another. I turn the locks.

My neighbor has many associates, but never admits visitors. They wait for him downstairs, propping up their bicycles and standing in the sun, forever stretching their limbs. I can see them when I crack the blinds, young and radiant with good feeling. It is unnerving. They are evidently unaware of the sinister privileges of the central banking system, and the hazards of accelerating ozone depletion. Or else they are deliberately oblivious, busy with their exertions.

My neighbor cultivates an active lifestyle, always going out. He is one of the smoothie people. I can hear him in there, in the early morning, blending at high speeds. The walls are thin and I sleep fitfully, the sounds complicating my dreaming. I hear clattering spoons, glopping yogurts and swishing powders, fruit crudely chopped. Sometimes, there is humming.

Such people are tantalized by natural flavors, mingling in various combinations. One sees them in the windows of fitness centers, gripping water bottles, droplets flailing as their hairless legs bark at the glass. The kind of people who yearn for island vacations, spacious suburban homes, heated affairs with coworkers. They appear to be under the impression that everyone is improving themselves with equal gusto. They are compelled to concoct smoothies, to lick their lips with satisfaction. It strikes me as an excessive amount of effort, simply to avoid chewing.

I achieve the same result by swallowing my food whole, bisected occasionally with the snapping of teeth. The stomach is a powerful organ, a cauldron of insurrections. I wince and keel as it performs its machinations, setting my chest aflame. I am not interested in improving myself. I wish to limp and grumble, to celebrate the revelation of my various deficiencies. The body oozes and excretes, itches and squirms, clenches and curses, seldom keeping to itself. But it produces solid results. One moves here and there, maintaining a watchful eye.

My neighbor cannot seem to sit still. This has given me the idea for an article, which I’ve sent to one of the alternative lifestyle magazines. Entitled “Smooth Sailing with Blended Breakfasts,” it is an informative piece in which I casually insinuate a correlation between breakfast shakes and digestive dissatisfaction. Incontinence would be too strong a word, even here. Mine is a subtle art, convoluted and canny.

I am a visitor at the Revelation Auditorium. It isn’t a church, exactly, but it has a reverend. The Reverend Ron Rodgers has some interesting things to say about the impending collapse of civilization. I attend his presentations regularly, though not regularly enough to be considered regular. Rebecca is unaware of these visits. There are many things she does not know.

The Reverend Ron Rodgers doesn’t outwardly refer to the breakdown of society. You have to infer his intent. You have to understand the message in a certain light. It remains acceptable to speak openly in religious terms, especially when one appears eccentric, even apprehensive. This is particularly effective, I’ve learned, when it is possible to observe the speaker in person, to witness the movements of the facial muscles, the beading of sweat, the fervent glimmerings of the eyes. The Reverend Ron Rodgers blinks meaningfully. Messages are conveyed.

Of course there is also the internet, linking computers between brain stems. It expands in self-referential spasms, overflowing with ensnaring affinities and countervailing ideologies. Uninformed opinions. Individuals with assumed identities, and agencies with assumed individuals. Personal profiles. Doctored images. It is difficult to determine who can be trusted. They have methods for monitoring every inquiry, every keystroke and impulsive click. I avoid it whenever possible. I activate multiple accounts, and mask my fingertips with adhesive tape, in libraries. Still it bleeds through the walls, bends around membranes, cascades across radio frequencies. You have to sequester your thoughts. You have to filter them, mentally.

Despite certain risks, it remains preferable to encounter one another “in the flesh.” This is an expression the Reverend Ron Rodgers uses often at the Revelation Auditorium, speaking figuratively, I believe. Such presentations are not being watched so closely. Things can slip through, information can be passed along. Certain words and numbers, emphasized repeatedly. The significance of economic and political events. Signs, portents, distractions to be avoided. I am not fearful, merely attentive. The Reverend Ron Rodgers is a great inspiration for me.

When I’m writing my articles for the magazines I apply myself in the same way. I write between the lines. The editors do not know, or they understand completely. It makes no difference to me. I have readers, that’s the thing. Concerned citizens. Gardening enthusiasts. Admirers of sports cars and recreational watercraft. Young adults. Active retirees. I write articles on a wide range of subjects, for several marginally popular publications, under a host of excessively ordinary pseudonyms. Kenneth Morgan: "Killer Instincts: An Interpersonal Insight." Tom Larkin: "Evict Aphids with an All-Natural Application." Molly Andrews: "Where My Mascara Runs, I Follow." I am not especially knowledgeable about any of these things. I do little or no research—what's important, after all, is the content. I write on the internet as well, posting authoritatively in forums, referencing nonexistent sources. I edit encyclopedias, online.

I don’t read any of my articles in print. Newspapers I can endure, but the glossy ads in magazines too often distract me, their assertions infiltrating the integrity of my own impulses. I often see other people, however, reading on trains and buses, in libraries. When Rebecca reads my articles, she asks questions I can’t answer. She suspects my intentions. She occasionally says things that mystify me, such as: "You haven’t been acting yourself today." Such as: "You didn’t write this." Perhaps she can’t yet grasp the nature of my subterfuge. I have often wondered if the Reverend Ron Rodgers has ever read any of them. I have reason to believe that he has.

Following him home was easier than I expected. It was very casual. One evening after a presentation he was conversing with several of the regulars. I never converse with the others. It would be too forward, too overt. We express our mutual understanding through deliberate avoidance of one another. We know that we know. That is enough. One must not forget that we may be watched, even in unwatched places. I sit in the back of the Auditorium, which is a converted automotive maintenance center. I sit near the quart-oil display, which is now a rack for Bibles. The overhead projector flickers temperamentally, lending an ominous overtone. This does not appear to be inadvertent.

The Reverend Ron Rodgers is calculating and subtle. He is a great inspiration for me. He subtly invited me to dinner at his home. He did this by inviting the others while I was standing nearby, deliberately avoiding them. I noted the date and the time, and later, by following him from an agreeable distance, discerned the address. I noted the way the regulars held their Bibles before them, modestly. I copied this procedure while I stood looking at the ceiling tiles, deliberately not listening to their every word.

Rebecca maintains that I cultivate various compulsions and curious patterns of thought. Folding her hands placidly, she admits that this intrigues her. I raise objections, indicating the soundness of my methods and the conclusiveness of the available evidence. “There,” she will say each time, squinting decisively, “you’re doing it again.” We proceed in this way, exhausting ourselves with argumentation, furtively satisfied. I do not reveal that our courtship constitutes my first significant involvement. Relationship would be too strong a word, at this juncture.

She asks about my past, and I respond by inventing a series of extravagant liaisons and licentious entanglements. Sitting with her legs splayed amidst the ruin of my apartment floor, Rebecca listens raptly, alert and indulgent. She detects certain themes that interest her. Habits and inclinations. She often speaks of my character as if it were something separate from myself, something that could be measured by submersion in water, with definite shape and contour. She tells me that she enjoys my company, and I remind her that I am not a business owner. She grins and fidgets. There are times when I can almost hear her thinking.

Rebecca busies herself with a handful of developing theories about social behavior, which she contrives while pursuing obscure errands and odd jobs around town. Returning forgotten items, for instance, or following railroad tracks. As an anthropology student, Rebecca has a lot of free time. She has theories about her own behavior as well. Once while watching TV as a child, she was exposed to a commercial for a packaged food product that claimed to be “made from scraps.” This is what she heard, and her grandparents were not present at the time to correct her. She believes the experience was formative. She believes it molded her early views.

I have educated her about the consolidation of conventional power structures, and the malfeasance of modern agribusiness. To my surprise, she is not overmuch surprised. Such information corresponds with her basic conception of lopsidedness in the world. Resources mismanaged. Priorities warped. Neurochemicals imbalanced. Rebecca tests the theories she is developing by changing her behavior to influence various situations, encouraging awkward interactions. Gauging responses. Assessing impressions. When acting on one of her schemes she is glib and impish, eyes flashing behind her thick glasses. She is not very attractive, Rebecca, but she does exude a certain piquant charm. She visits me often. I’ve begun to suspect that I am the subject of several ongoing experiments.

“Masturbation,” Rebecca conjectures matter-of-factly, straightening her frock, “is probably the most common therapy in history. Talk about relieving stress. It might even be the original form of self-help.” This idea pleases her. She describes herself alone in her own apartment, recounting with sufficient detail how she rubs and gushes, plunges and roils. “Vigorously,” she adds. This is one of her favorite descriptive terms. She questions me vigorously. I perspire and percolate. We have been involved in this way, talking excessively, for several months. She always excuses herself to the bathroom at this juncture, and I am left to my own devices.

I did not tell Rebecca that I was going to the home of the Reverend Ron Rodgers for dinner. I did not momentarily entertain the idea of inviting her along, as a project of displacement. That would only encourage her. She had, she informed me, recently taken a job as a phone surveyor. "You’re helping them triangulate cell towers?" I asked. "Are there any unexplained or mysterious wires? Are government agencies involved?" No, she clarified, with what I detected as a hint of exasperation, government agencies are not involved. "To your knowledge," I added.

"No, to my knowledge government agencies are not involved," she said. "It’s a call center, so I call people," she continued, enunciating very carefully, "and conduct surveys, which consist of a series of questions about various issues. We collect people's responses."

"Hmm," I said, thinking it over. "And who receives this information?"

"Not government agencies," she said quickly. She often anticipates the things I mean to say. She is not very intelligent, Rebecca, but she does possess mild powers of inference. Apparently, from the way I turned my back to her and invested my attention in a book about satellites, she inferred that the conversation was over and that I preferred to be alone. After she left I clutched a Bible and went to the home of the Reverend Ron Rodgers, for dinner.

In order to avoid suspicion, one must behave in a way that is neither overtly unusual nor suspiciously ordinary. On the way to the home of the Reverend Ron Rodgers, I did not dodge streetlights, or make my route a circuitous and confusing one. Nor did I wear a dinner jacket, or smoke a pipe. Instead I simply walked at a moderate pace, clutching a Bible and making an effort to subdue the severity of my scowl, the belligerent tumult of my stride. As I crept along the leafy streets, I attempted to adopt an air of basic neighborliness. My shoelaces and ill-fitting garments seemed to snag on every reaching tree branch and trimmed hedge, however, complicating my efforts to appear at ease. Such a charade, I thought reluctantly, muttering under my breath, would be difficult to maintain. I do not look the part at all.

Perhaps I will have to begin shaving. I have never liked to shave, though I cannot grow a proper beard either. It is patchy and shriveled at best, a rangy and tangled warren. Rebecca says that I look as if I were abandoned by wolves, though my eyes peer out of the thicket, shining and inquisitive. This, she says with a sidelong smile, is my single redeeming feature. She is curious to know what I look like, she tells me. I assume it is another of her investigations.

I didn’t learn to shave from my father, as one is supposed to. There were intimations that he would teach me, but his presence was usually muted. Instead I learned through several hours of cautious experimentation, after having seen a movie. Lethal Ambition 2 or 3, or was it Deadly Diffidence? I can’t remember which. At any rate there is a scene where the rough and tumble street cop shares a touching and instructive moment with his precocious young son just minutes before there are a series of especially fiery explosions outside the window. Even strokes. Steady hand. Never go against the grain. I cut myself a dozen times, my face scalded by aftershave and pasted with tiny toilet paper bulletins. I haven’t shaved a single hair since.

The home of the Reverend Ron Rodgers appeared to be a bastion against suspicion. It was a rancher, very square and symmetrical. A little sparsely furnished, perhaps. I let the screen door hiss shut with a little slam, to indicate my arrival. There was potpourri. A betta fish in a bowl. A basket of familiar periodicals in the bathroom. I noticed several articles I had written. Tim Harris: "Spring Cleaning for Songbirds," in which I allude, obliquely, to the assassination of a senator. Janet Evans: "A Glass of Wine a Day…,” in which I suggest, stealthily, that headache medications are agents of mind control. For the benefit of his wife, I imagine, the Reverend seemed surprised to see me. His wife was as old as she looked. There was spaghetti, and garlic bread. "How about some wine?" I asked, bread in my mouth. It was a joke. To my great satisfaction, the others did not laugh. Even there, in the home of the Reverend Ron Rodgers, they were excellent at avoiding eye contact.

"Eh…" the Reverend said to me, motioning.

"Tim," I said, winking. ‘Janet’ would have perhaps been too brash.

"Yes, Tim. Well, since we have you here now, perhaps you could share with us how you came to your commitment in Christ?" I immediately apprehended his meaning.

"Well you might say that a certain understanding has fostered within me a commitment to the… understanding that underscores many of our observations about the movements of certain organizations and various 'natural disasters'" —I provided quotations with my fingers— "in the global situation. On Earth."

"Hmm," the Reverend murmured, pausing reflectively. Choosing his words. He always chooses his words carefully. He is a great inspiration for me. "Tim," he said. This was my name, I remembered. "Tim you strike me as a thoughtful young man, and I’d like to ask you what kind of importance the second coming of Christ holds for you, personally?" He was referring to the death of capitalism and the nihilism of the State. He does this often.

"I believe that it presents several opportunities for people, for new forms of expression. I think I may write a book of 'scripture'" —I didn’t provide quotations, the intonation was enough— "afterwards, I mean." The room was very still. I found it interesting that the Reverend had taken such an interest in me.

"I'll just go get the dessert," his wife said. The Reverend nodded.

"Tim before you arrived we were discussing how we can better prepare ourselves for the second coming of the Lamb of God. Mary Ann here was suggesting that we can—"

"Build a bunker?" I said. Another joke. It was ignored.

"That we can reflect on the revelations of scripture, and strive to recognize God's grace as it manifests in our everyday lives. Would you like to say something about God's grace, Brian?" An indistinct man at the corner of the table cleared his throat.

"Well first of all I'm mighty thankful for your wife's fine cooking this evening." Everyone chuckled. There was blushing, and gelatin in little dishes, with whipped cream.

"What about the time of the beast?" I asked, leaning forward. "The seven visions of the dragon?" I had much anticipated having an opportunity to inquire about the seven visions of the dragon. I had inferred that the Reverend could be speaking about nuclear hegemony. The slight girl to my right, Mary Ann, stopped in mid-chew, a small cross dangling from her neck. She appeared to be staring at the holes in my t-shirt.

"Yes, Tim. These are some of the mysteries of God's revelation to us poor mortals," the Reverend said calmly. "They are images which help us comprehend God's plan and purpose for Creation. Visions like these offer us glimpses of the magnitude of the End Times. They are guiding lights in a world of darkness."

"Amen," said the others. The room was very still again.

"Mary Ann, please," the Reverend said, smiling deferentially. Mary Ann resumed chewing. The Reverend waited patiently, his gaze unwavering. She corrected her posture. "Tim, do you agree that we inhabit a world of darkness?" he questioned, returning his attention to me with eyes intent on finding mine.

"We could only pretend that it were otherwise," I said, hanging my head heavily and adopting a somber tone. It seemed I had earned the Reverend's confidence. He waited, resting upon clasped hands. “However, we must pretend… otherwise. Otherwise," —I lowered my voice— "they may begin to suspect that we’re developing,” my voice fell to a whisper, “suspicions…"

The Reverend regarded me severely. He reclined, crumpling his mouth in contemplation, and shifted his weight to cross one leg over the other. There was a tension in the room that rippled around us with the creaking of his old wooden chair, stifling all other sound. He appeared disappointed, somehow. Perhaps I had been too obtuse.

"Bear in mind,” he replied after a moment, drawing in a deep breath and sighting me along the sharp line of his nose, “that the Seven Churches of Asia were admonished to steadfastly maintain their commitment to the revelation of Christ, despite their isolation. They were even called upon to endure persecution for their beliefs."

"Amen," said the others. There was a clattering of cookware. His wife had begun stacking the dishes, but the Reverend extended a judicious hand, and she returned herself to her seat.

"Tim, are you willing to suffer persecution for your commitment to our beliefs?"

"Which ones?" I asked, shrinking a little. "I’m still unclear about the visions of the dragon."

"Maybe he should come along to one of our other meetings," Brian said helpfully. The room was preternaturally quiet. Mary Ann coughed, lowered her eyes. The Reverend ran a hand over his jowls and down the length of his tie. Choosing his words carefully.

"Scripture tells us that in the End Times there will be war, and famine, and pestilence, and disease. There will be wave after wave of sorrow." I could tell that his mouth was dry. But he did not take a drink of water. He must know as well as I do about fluoride. "Events have already begun to unfold. Our first responsibility is the security of our families."

"Amen," said his wife, into her lap.

"And floods," I added. "There will be floods. If global warming goes accordingly." The Reverend looked tired. He spun a fork idly, with latent malice. I did not feel at ease. Suspecting that I had not been entirely tactful, I excused myself and politely found the way out on my own, through the front door, the way I came in.

Despite Rebecca’s various explanations, I remain unconvinced about the benefits of displacement. Things often seem disturbed in such interactions, minds jettisoned from their habitual areas of comfort. It is unsettling. A little too shifty, if you ask me. The outcomes are ambiguous. Referencing someone named Lévi-Strauss—of no relation to the multinational clothing corporation, she assures me—Rebecca says that anthropologists are the astrologers of the social sciences. It is her secret hope, she tells me, to help people perceive the stars.

If she is being literal then we may have to leave the city. The air here is hazy with effluvium from the local dog food factory, and frequently reeks of simmering viscera. One grows accustomed to it over time, salivating liberally during sleep. I haven’t left the city in years, content as I am to observe nature’s urban resilience. Tree roots buckling concrete. Ivy quietly smothering houses. Squirrels foraging for cigarette butts, their tails twitching peevishly.

Nature programs often show seedlings bursting forth in little tremors of time-lapse growth, and Rebecca claims that this can actually be observed. She claims to have seen it herself, while living alone in the wilderness of New Jersey. You must remain absolutely still, she says, and concentrate on a single area. She would often sit in the forest for hours, her back inflamed and her haunches numb, absorbed in the animate entirety. She feels that the experience was transformative for her. I suggest that she may, at that point, have been hallucinating. But she insists it’s possible to see any situation in the same way, by becoming quiet inside.

Civilization, she says, is an epidemic of noise and confusion. She seems to intuit that progress emerges out of turmoil and unrest, confrontation and struggle. Teeth tearing at tissue. Wailing, and the wriggling of little limbs. It is instructive to accompany Rebecca in the park. But I do not inform her of the impending honeybee scarcity, or the calculated resurgence of smallpox. That would only incite her. She is already too easily excited by her own ideas.

“Hello sir, my name is Chastity, and if you have a few minutes, perhaps you’d like to participate in a survey with me.” It is not a question.

“Chastity?” I ask. Rebecca giggles. We are seated back-to-back, legs buckled, on my apartment floor. Rebecca wishes to survey me. It is her newest experiment.

“Let’s get started. Are you the head of the household, sir?”

“Who is this? How did you get this number?”

“Stay in character!” Rebecca yelps, pushing against me.

“I am in character,” I say. Something is stirring in me. I feel light headed, almost giddy. Our closeness is exhilarating. “And yes, I suppose I am the head of this household.”

“Great. Okay, next question. How many family members are currently ambidextrous?”

“With the hands or the feet?” I reply, cleverly.

“Oh, that’s good.” Rebecca says, making a note. “Let’s go with hands, for now.”

“In that case, there was a rumor about an uncle of mine, but nothing I can confirm.”

“That’s fine. Now then, how many scars or imperfectly healed wounds do you possess, and how did you obtain them?”

“What kind of questionnaire is this, young lady?” I bark, striving to sound indignant. Rebecca sighs delightedly, bubbling over.

“It’s a survey of minor disfigurements and unusual abilities. I wrote it myself. I also have questions about sunspots, warts, protuberant moles, lazy eyes, oddly shaped toes and extra teeth. A lot of people have them.”

“Which ones?”

“I’ve started slipping the questions in during other surveys. It’s really interesting what people will divulge. I often tell them stuff about me too, as I go along. Candor makes them comfortable. I’m collecting all the statistics. And if it’s going well then I always ask if they have an innie or an outie. That’s one of my favorites.”

“Which one constitutes a disfigurement?” I ask, sliding a hand to my belly.

“Well, neither. It’s just interesting. So far innies are much more common. I’m wondering if there’s a correlation to personality type, but it’s sort of a work in progress.”

“Do you inquire about psychic powers?” I have certain concerns about psychic powers.

“No,” Rebecca says, “but I test for it by thinking of a number, and then asking people to name one randomly!”

“23,” I say hurriedly.

“Oh, wait. Hold on. Okay, now try.”

In this way we’ve created a new experiment, which has been occupying us for some time. Our accuracy is incrementally improving, and I’ve even begun to respond without inventing answers. Something is stirring, and I feel awkwardly expansive, like a bloated membrane of warbling pores, unctuous and effusive. Recently I’ve developed hiccups several times from suppressing sudden fits of laughter. I’m beginning to suspect that my neighbor may suffer from a similar sensation, resulting in the overflow of mirth I often hear, my ear pressed to the wall.

Rebecca has given me ideas for a new kind of writing. In it I will be forthright; I will convey my thoughts directly. Probably no one will believe me anyway. Probably they will present it as fiction, in magazines. The possibilities surround me from every angle. I will adopt new pseudonyms, expanding my subterfuge and referencing various little known facts. Veracity, cloaked in anonymity, is inebriating. My brain sloshes to and fro, afloat in its humid juices.

I have not returned to the home of the Reverend Ron Rodgers. Nor have I attended his presentations with any more regularity, though he continues to loom robustly. His approach, while mysterious and compelling, seems to have certain deficiencies. He is a great inspiration, but his specific intentions elude me. I am intrigued, but uncertain. As humans our deficiencies are various and manifold, giving us shape and dimension, providing the outline of our individual insufficiency. I am beginning to observe the entanglement of my flaws, the conspiracy of my contradictions. My perception wavers in a diffuse new terrain, dizzying and inconstant. Perhaps the moon is in a curious orbit, tugging at my nerve endings.

I wish to embrace Rebecca. I wish to express my predilection for her presence, to thrill her with various theories we can test together. To achieve displacement, even. To turn both shoulders warmly toward, extending appendages and removing her thick glasses at last.

I’ve exchanged my moth-eaten shirt for one merely wrinkled and coffee-stained. The windows are covered with fresh newspaper, the takeout containers arranged in an artful midden. Soon I will begin shaving, scouring vigorously against the grain, cutting closely.

Between aimless youth and decrepit old age, we will investigate our idiosyncrasies.

We will wait until we’re sure we are alone, until the surrounding laughter subsides.

Rebecca will enjoy this game.


TLR Issue 1

First published in Tahoma Literary Review, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Summer 2014).

The full issue is available in printPDF, EPub and Kindle formats. Read more about TLR's commitment to transparency in publishing here.