DEER SKULL ISLAND
Forgive me if I sound sentimental, but my son and I are tossing the football in the street on a winter Sunday afternoon, and you should see him all bundled up—his red nose under his pulled down hat, the weird orange and blue scarf my mother in-law knit for him. How he grunts when he brings the ball back over his shoulder. A growing boy, for the first time he throws it over my head. I turn and run, watching the ball spiral under the gray sky. Is it in slow motion? I can't be sure exactly, because my understanding of time and of a lot of things goes away here as my body slips on the ice and staggers into a quiet intersection that becomes loud with the screech of tires and a horn, and the screech of tires again as the driver peels away.
I passed a kidney stone three years ago, and it was so small you couldn't see it, but it felt like I was squeezing a basketball through my peehole—this is a common sentiment, said the doctor, who also said that passing a kidney stone is comparable to giving birth, pain wise. This comparison did not impress my beautiful wife, the mother of both my son and my stepdaughter. The point is that, over time and experience, real pain must grow exponentially to maintain the same intensity. Often, it does not. Things that are supposed to hurt real bad can sometimes feel close to painless, because of what has come before.
So the asphalt must be cold on my scraped face, the slight poking sensation in my chest could be broken ribs, my legs are splayed in unnatural angles. But the pain is not bad, considering the foremost thought in my mind is that the car could have killed me: all it amounts to is a static feeling, my skin the black and white dots on a vacant television channel. And then, just like a television, something turns off, something big, something important to me being who I am. I am disconnected from myself.
I don't know where I am. I'm in the right field grandstand at some baseball stadium. There are these things that look like big pinwheels ornamenting the top of the scoreboard in center field. The White Sox emblem is painted under the clock on the scoreboard. Okay: Comiskey Park, Chicago. I have been to Chicago twice in my life, and I have been to Wrigley Field, not Comiskey. A ballplayer in a red cap is warming up in right field, tossing the ball to the centerfielder. I am yelling at him. I am vicious. I feel swear words and absurd and deranged, sex-oriented epithets swelling up in my chest like phlegm, so I can't breathe, so I have to spit it all out.
It is bad enough to tell the right fielder that last night I introduced his wife to twenty-seven sexual maneuvers, and that she is pregnant with my baby, but the insults leaving my mouth continue and continue, reaching levels of profanity and creativity that should suggest to everyone around me that I am a very sick person. Though the words are directed at the right fielder, they come from me, and the people scooting away from me are more likely to believe that I fellate pigs and then sodomize them with my infected organ, rather than a franchise athlete with a million-dollar salary. A beer in each hand, I move across my row and down concrete stairs to the front row and lean over the railing. I go on. I accuse the right fielder of using electricity to torture kidnapped children. I yell that he wipes his behind with the American flag.
Then, I cross the line.
I threaten to flatten his family with a steamroller. That steamrollers are slow and easy to elude is beside the point, because this is not me. This is someone else. I do not drink alcohol. I do not swear. The woman tugging at my shirt, urging me to stop is not my wife. She has stringy, dirty blond hair, a bent nose. She wears an oversized t-shirt that says "Button Your Fly," and it hangs over her shorts so that it looks like she could be naked underneath. Her breath reeks of alcohol. Through bleary eyes I look down at her with heavy disdain. I do not like this—needing to answer her pleading eyes, eyes that will do anything for me, with unmitigated scorn.
The right fielder, not fifty yards away, whirls around, hops, steps, and rifles a fastball at me. He hits the pleading woman instead. The ball hits her in the shoulder and she falls over. She howls on the ground, holding her shoulder with her functional arm, dragging her hair through a puddle of spilled Coke and popcorn. I pick up the ball still spinning in the row behind me, wind up, ready to throw the ball back at the right fielder, but a strong hand grabs my wrist, yanks both arms behind me, handcuffs me. A medic attends to the woman. Several police officers attend to me, escort me out of the stadium. I wobble on my feet. I leave my feet when one officer throws me against his squad car, jarring me out of the drunken heckler, and back into my body in the cold intersection of Butler and Shepherd Street, our quiet corner of suburban Minneapolis.
My son is kneeling beside me, shaking me and whispering something, putting his hands over his eyes and peeking through his fingers, coughing, shaking me again. I think of my brain blinking red lights in Morse code to parts of my body, so that my body will communicate with my son.
Brain, make my mouth say, Buddy you go on inside and I'll be up in a second. Just let me lie here and rest some. Then I'll be fine, I promise.
Who is that man standing over you?
Standing over my son, not so much looking at me as it seems like he is appraising me, thinking of a price, is a man underdressed for this kind of cold, wearing a beer-stained t-shirt, stroking his hairy arm like it is his favorite pet. He's wearing a White Sox cap. I start piecing things together, I think. I must have seen this man before I lost consciousness, and then pretended to be him in my imagination. I must have had a little spell of some sort. Before I can put enough things together, the static feeling returns, very real. I can describe it better this time: it's like my entire skeleton is made of funny bones, and each bone has been struck by a swinging door.
Bright white lights bathe my face. The lights are warm. I am not alone. An extraordinarily beautiful woman's face is facing mine. Her hair is gold and curly and long. Her eyes are doing something inside of my eyes, looking around in there. We're kneeling in some kind of giant bowl or saucepan, up to our waists in a lukewarm stew. It smells like tomatoes and meat. Violins fade in all around us and she bursts into an operatic soprano. The words she sings are totally absurd. She sings that she never knew the meaning of desire until she tasted Superdelicious Brand Chili, available at your local grocery. A mighty tenor voice rolls from my chest, out of my mouth. I roar that I thought I knew what love was until I tried new Extra Bold Style Superdelicious Chili. The orchestra crescendos, the woman and I join voices. We both want to make sweet chili together forever.
And then we reach down, slop handfuls of chili over each other's face, and lock lips.
"Cut." A voice yells.
The curly haired woman pulls away but I lean forward, kissing her neck. With an open palm she swats the top of my head many times, hard. I lean back, arms propped up on the rim of the giant pot, positioned the way I would be if I were relaxing in a Jacuzzi. I watch her lift her chili-soiled dress and I watch her step out of the pot. My eyes stay on her. She asks a bald guy with a goatee something. He tugs at his turtleneck and nods in a reassuring manner. This man says to me, "Okay, that's a rap, Kevin."
My real name is Benji.
Later I approach her, belly full of chili. Loops of black hair hang over everything I see. In a dark corner of the studio behind some canvas curtain, she is bent forward, raking chili out of her hair with both hands, a lit cigarette in her mouth. I reach out and touch her hair. She jerks upright, spits the cigarette from her mouth and screams and slaps. I grab her arms, hold them in place, look into her eyes. She holds still, stops struggling. My grip and my clenched jaw and my squinting eyes have won for a split-second, during which she must acknowledge my strength. My strength is ultimately irrelevant, because the cigarette she spat has landed inside of my shirt, and the lit end makes contact with the skin on my belly. It takes a crazy dance of shaking arms and legs to free the cigarette. The last thing I see out of Kevin is the beautiful woman laughing at me, the last thing I feel is murderously pathetic.
Light snow falls on my face. My son backs slowly away from me and then turns and runs toward the house, screaming for help. I cannot move my head but I can move my eyes. In the corners of them I see the White Sox fan and a dark, curly-haired, flashy gentlemen in a silk shirt and pleated pants—presumably Kevin from the chili commercial—slugging it out in the middle of the street. The Sox fan grabs Kevin by the collar and hurls him at a parked minivan, but Kevin reels right through it. I mean, he literally passes through the minivan, through actual matter, and comes out on the other side. Yet when he gets up from the sidewalk and punches the Sox fan in the face, his fist connects, it does not go through the Sox fan's head, it makes a clapping noise against his jaw.
When I am old and gray and my time finally comes, I would like my own life to pass before me. On that day, I certainly will not let vagrant ghosts invade my body so that they can visit random moments in their pasts and then disappear into whatever comes next. If I could relive just one thing, it would be Mindy and I wading through the reeds, dragging a canoe through a creek connecting innumerable lakes in northern Wisconsin. By sunset we were lost, we had to look at a map before it got too dark because we had no flashlight. The rocks at the bottom of the creek were sharp and Mindy sliced her heel open. We found a tiny island of sand in the middle of a tiny lake, paddled to the island and dragged the canoe onto the sand. The island was maybe forty feet in diameter, and the only thing there besides us was a sun-bleached deer skull. I took off my shirt and wrapped up Mindy's injured foot. We looked at the map and identified the path home, but we did not memorize the path, and we let it get too dark to look at the map again, lying on our backs with our legs tangled, for a long time. Once it was dark, the stars and the moon were all we could see. Except we could see each other's face up close. In the middle of the night there was light rain so we turned the canoe upside-down and slept beneath it. I remember that Mindy's foot hurt quite badly, and that I shivered throughout the night. I also remember that we were stranded together on a desert island we didn't want to leave.
The Sox fan tries to karate kick Kevin, but it is an uncoordinated, lethargic kick, and Kevin grabs his leg, so that the Sox fan starts hopping with his other leg in order to keep his balance. Kevin gives the leg a good yank, the Sox fan falls down, and then Kevin body slams him. They lie there in the street for a moment. At first I think both men are looking at me, and then I see that they are looking past me, so I move my eyes again and see, walking toward me from the other end of the street, a tall man wearing goggles and a long jacket, hood over his head. His bare legs are hairy. As he gets closer I can see his very white teeth smile. His flip-flops flip and flop. I can feel the inside of me curl its lips and snarl, though I know the outside is slack and useless. The main objective now, the most important thing, is to find a new way to navigate the part of me that is not my crippled body. Once I learn that, I will think of how to get these jerks to scram, leave me alone until the doctors fix me. Meanwhile I must hold on tight, let no one jump inside.
The newcomer approaching doesn't jump; he dives in. He bends his knees, leaps above me and swan dives the static feeling back into me. I know now what this feeling means.
First there is just the blazing sun in a sky that is everywhere. I lower my head and look down the length of an athletic, toned body, past my black Speedo, and my unmanicured toes curling over the edge of the high dive, down into the blue water below. As the diver, I am unafraid of heights for the first time ever. With the sun in my eyes I can make out only some of the sunbather at the other end of the pool, but it is enough for me to think of a melting candy bar, her suntan-oiled skin glistening. Her black bob and her sunglasses give her face the unconcern of a runway model, or a movie star who has trained herself not to blink at a million cameras flashing. I turn around, my back to the pool. Over large hedges I see rooftops and glinting skylights in hills and canyons. My back straightens. Arms extend and then rest at my sides again. A sudden bend at the knees and I am launched, airborne. An invisible hand under me arches my back, pushes my stomach into the sky. I feel like a new shape, an undiscovered truth of geometry, twisting and slowly spinning end over end, a corkscrew finally cutting sharply, smoothly into cool blue.
I open my eyes underwater and I am standing on a drain. Slowly I rise, body relaxed, dead man's float, and then I peer over the surface, crocodile-like. Like a prehistoric predator I swim to the shallow end, in no hurry, knowing the thing I am after cannot escape. Close up I see her two-piece bathing suit, the orange and yellow candy stripes, and I can see her poise ready to crumble. New-age music seems to be coming from the garden behind her—marimbas, electric tympani, and dolphin calls. She moves slow and deliberate, pulling the shades from her eyes: the green in them puts a stirring in my Speedo. She leads me through French doors. We sip tropical drinks cluttered with cherries impaled on tiny spears. She leads me by my middle and ring fingers to her studio and shows me an oil painting of a diver in flames with an anaconda between his legs.
I think, "Gaudy," but the diver says, "Oh, baby."
On a four-post bed we tug at our clingy suits.
Would I be lying if I said this woman was gorgeous? No, gorgeous she is. Does the diver feel true love for her? I only know what that feels like with Mindy. Feeling this woman's body fold around the diver, his lips on her neck, I experience a mild pang of guilt, but I do not feel like I am cheating on Mindy as much as I feel like I am being cheated. We did not spend enough time together after our son was born. I got too busy or lazy or comfortable. I could say it was my job, I could list a number of distractions, make a lot of excuses, but to avoid kidding myself I will always have to admit that I never tried to make the time. Time to do what the diver is doing right now, with his anaconda, the woman rolling her head and sighing beneath us. I can distinguish the diver's lust from the urgency shooting through me, and focusing on my growing panic and regret, I learn to pound on the walls of his chest and head, punching, punching, jumping up and down as the woman's moans increase in pitch and frequency, until I am jumping up and down in the middle of the intersection, beside my own body.
I stop. I take a good look. It's bad. Real bad.
One of my ears is almost gone. One of my shoes is missing, too, my sock bloody at the bottom of a leg bent in too many directions. I fall down and try to cradle my body in my arms. It is no use, my hands go right through. I lay down inside of my body, feel my heart still beating, but nothing else will move. The shock has worn off and everything hurts much worse now: I feel like I have been hit by a car. I have been hit by a car.
The diver is on the ground too, unsuccessfully attempting to grapple the corner lamppost, groaning as Kevin and the Sox fan kick him hard. He is clearly the strongest and fittest of the three, though, and after he head butts the Sox fan in the groin, he gets to his feet and pins Kevin against the lamppost and slaps him repeatedly.
I wonder: Where is she? Calling the ambulance. Oh hurry up, Mindy.
Eyes watering, I try to beat myself into action, writhing and punching from the inside, but I inadvertently roll out of my body and I am standing over me again. This time I do not wince at the sight of myself. I understand now why the fighting ghosts think I am going to die. But why would they want to die, to use my body as a vehicle to get to the other side, I cannot fathom. Because I am terrified of the possibility of becoming nothing at all. Even worse is the concept of never knowing what will happen while I am gone, which will be forever.
I run toward my house. At a certain speed my feet lift off the ground. Kicking in the air, I fly through my bedroom window and find my newly adolescent stepdaughter trying on her mother's jewelry. I hear my son tripping around the house, screaming for his mom. I am just as hysterical as my son, if not more. I scream for his mom, too, flying through walls from room to room. Here she is, in the office, reclining in a desk chair in her bathrobe, untying her bathrobe, opening it, then running her hands over her body which, since I met her, I always thought of as partly mine, and mine is hers—for a moment I forget that snow is falling on it and that it is shutting down. She is looking hungrily at me in a way she has not for some time. I call her name. I say, Mindy I am going to make it up to you. The robe falls beside her, I move to her, I walk through. I cannot touch her. My son's shrieks rise up the stairs, Mindy jumps to her feet and ties her robe, crying "What, what?" in response to the kid fists hammering at the door.
She holds his face in her hands, interprets enough from his crying and gagging to know to call an ambulance. Even my stepdaughter has abandoned her smugness for true concern and alarm. I watch over them all, vowing revenge on patches of ice and automobiles. Dead or alive I will not leave my family. I will attend my own funeral, I will watch my kids graduate. If ghosts want to steal my body, they can have it. When Mindy's time comes, I will crawl into the space inside of her that she has always kept for me and we can go together.
I am about to follow them out of the room and down the stairs, when I glimpse the computer screen. What I see on the screen recasts what I used to think of as pain into something totally inert. What I feel is more painful than passing kidney stones the size of boulders for all of eternity. Everything changes.
On the computer screen I see TV's Ted Danson, of Cheers fame, naked except for a towel over one shoulder, posing on a large rock, on the shore of some tropical beach. Upon closer inspection I see that the image has been photoshopped—Danson's body is far too muscular it seems, and the skin-tone on his body much darker than that of his face. In her spare time, Mindy, that deceitful...that so-and-so, has painstakingly assembled this perversion and saved it in a folder labeled, "recipes."
This recipe should be called "Danson Surprise." The main ingredient, heartbreak.
No, I would take heartbreak over this in an instant. This torment deserves its own classification apart from anything a living person can register. All of me is a mouth of broken teeth exposed to the icy wind. There is only one way to make it stop. I somersault through the window, unravel across the front lawn, into the street.
They're coming from every direction. From each end of the street come more invaders. An old lady wheels her wheelchair faster than she should, brittle elbows pumping. A WWII fighter pilot is regal, marching with patience and confidence. A clown on stilts. A voluptuous teenager with Ann Margaret hair, on a skateboard. A black cheerleader. The Sox fan, Kevin, the diver, brawl with dozens of other ghosts. I push aside a Pilgrim and a flapper, pick up the naked baby crawling toward my corpse and throw him to the curb. I lie down in my body, trying to hold on, and thank heavens I am only aching on the outside now, I am only bleeding everywhere, the new ends of my broken bones breathing fire.
Mindy's scared yelling face moves toward mine. Over her shoulders appear the faces of my kids, and the hate scalding within me tapers. In my missing ear is the sound of the ocean. And here comes the familiar static feeling. I am going, going.
The rain pelting the canoe is loud. We are huddled beneath it, holding each other on Deer Skull Island. I pretend that no one has ever been here before. Mindy rubs down the goosebumps on my arms; there is not much I can do about her foot. I tell her that I love her. This never means the same thing twice. Her grasp around me tightens and she smiles. She says she loves me, too. She says that her foot stopped hurting when I made love to her. She wants to spend the rest of her life with me. When she looks at other men, she says, their heads turn to worms.
In the junk heap of the American unconscious are the faces of B list—or lower—celebrities, familiar faces no longer publicly relevant. I am interested in the uncanny effect they create as half-formed, peripheral characters. This story also nods to an unrealized ambition of mine, to write and produce a musical entitled, "Chili!" Note the exclamation point. This musical would be about delicious chili.