John E. Branseum
Two months before his thirteenth birthday, he went through a period of insomnia where his heart beat too wildly for him to fall asleep. In a sleepless haze, he opened the refrigerator one night and, illuminated by its garish orange glow, clawed his fingers into hamburger casseroles and stuffed his mouth with icy potatoes and clots of congealed beef. Then, not satisfied, he pressed his face against the damp kitchen windowpane.

Staring out, he saw the broken hulk of the tin-roof shed, the pen of pugs sleeping in little heaps; mist wafting from the cowpond and the barn cats slipping neat as needles in and out of the mist. His face rubbed side-to-side on the cool windowglass, and his blood ran so fiercely warm with restlessness he walked down the long white hallway, his footfalls furtive on the mouse-colored carpeting, and stopped breathing outside his parents’ door. His father snoring, his mother still; and while they lay there he saw his mother’s spirit rise like steam curling off a radiator.

Naked, gossamer, her limbs tapering into fine points, her mouth open needleteeth; he watched the spirit float from the bed, twirling dancing as it passed coldly through him. As cold now as he was hot before, he followed it.

It dragged its fingertips along the walls, leaving faint oily smears, and unknowingly led him outside. There, the spirit squatted and grunted, emptying its bowels of a glimmering heap, as bright yellow as antifreeze, which hissed and sank into the earth. He watched until other spirits came, backlit against the sky like burning pieces of paper.

Heedless of the noise he made, he ran inside and threw himself on his bed, leaned over the side, vomited brown dribble on a Spiderman comic book and wiped his mouth on his pillow, burying his eyes as deeply as he could. Never again did he get up when he shouldn’t nor was he hugged by his mother without some nervousness.

His mother died, a year after his father’s third and final heart-attack. In that year he was by her side the entire time, and indeed there in the last hour. Not once did he see her spirit slip out again. He tried to lose himself in work: steel factory worker, auto mechanic, warehouse clerk. He tightened valves, changed oil pans, and forklifted boxes as if caging himself in. During this time and before and after, he had a series of lovers. While they slept, he would stare at them in fascinated, desiring horror --- Their lidded eyes so turpentine clear when awake that he wondered if they could be like his mother and was sure they were not.

He was haunted by the violent grace of the creature he had seen, the moth and kerosene scent of it. When he folded a shirt, he would remember it squatting, the flex of its muscles like the lapping of the material. Or he would trace a crevice in a stone and see it, the mother not-mother that had not seen him --- Which had been unaware of anything but its own terrible self and desire, that had vented its watery bowels and thrown its head back in a silent howl, its transparent sugar-cup skull and the hot blue flame sputtering inside.

Even if it had hurt him, he had wanted it to see him. Then he met the woman with whom he did not tire of talking. She was soft just right and had rootbeer colored eyes and liked to laugh. On their wedding night, he lay there and listened to her sleep, put his ear to her forehead and belly, against her thighs, and after a time he felt her spirit rise though he did not see it. This time the spirit called his name, clicked off the syllables, and said, “Come here.”

John Branseum studied fiction and poetry at the University of Houston and the University of Louisville. His work has been published in the Connecticut Review, Happy, and other journals, and is forthcoming in the North American Review, 3rd Bed, and the Micro2 Anthology.


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