THIRD PLACE: Honky Babel
By Benjamin White
Molly turns up with a dildo in one hand and a bottle of King Louis in the other. Formally dressed, she squirms. A plastic tiara slips rebelliously from her crown. She’s been to a wedding, been pumpkin smashing. Her gait is her fingerprint. A bleak math asserts itself from vagina to instep. She jokes about the heft and hollow crash of the suburban tee lit jack-o’-lanterns that line my neighbor’s walkway. The two thousand dollar bottle of brandy must be subterfuge.
I once tried to sell my cock to her as if it were a used Cadillac. I figured she had the heart of a whore, one that pumps semen, one that pulls runs on and distributes throughout her circulatory system oxygen rendered from the corpses of dead sperm. I no longer wonder at abstractions of her heart. She has taught me that there are no whores, only carnality, vertigo. She inserts creative profanities into discussions about Masonry or the combustion engine. She likes to be in control without assuming power. She recognizes the word douchebag as the white man’s epithet, the perfect mouthful of sputtering machismo for her would-be suitors, the flat brimmed, tattooed, gauge-eared monsters that skate and stumble along Bardstown Road.
She’s sexual, but sex has many frequencies, and if you tune Molly’s dial with fat fingers and no dissemination, you tune only eroticism, you miss what makes her exceptional, the being behind the sex, or as she says, “The meat and hackles of my present incarnation.”
I met Molly several years ago at a bar. The only customers were construction workers on break. Like them, I was there for a greasy plate lunch, a pitcher of beer and a shot or so. She chipped her fingernail polish off into a napkin with her keys while we watched the news: someone scored a touchdown, The President did something, a dog saved its owner from suicide by pawing at a telephone.
We exchanged anxious small talk, the kind you bring in the door, the kind someone else delivers in a waiting room. We smelled each other like dogs in a kitchen, beasts in a church.
She told me Tupac and Gary Busey were our finest poets. That’s when the charade broke and my curiosity hardened. I snorted an awkward laugh that sounded like a toot from a kazoo and a snot bubble popped out of my right nostril — not because what she said was ridiculous, but because I was caught off-guard; I agreed. She laughed and then checked herself. Her face exploded like a gavel: grotesque silliness, psychosomatic pomp, generic bigot. I scrambled and spoke circles. I made her understand that I was a functioning alcoholic and a malcontent, but no bigot, no misogynist.
“I’m a white person who hates white people indiscriminately. I’m the proper definition of a honky, a closet atheist who reacts to a pretend holocaust, that’s what I am.”
She stole one of my cigarettes then shit on me to see what kind of toilet I was. “You’re the worst kind. That’s what’s ironic about you jackasses, if just one of you had the gumption to tell me you wanted to freeze me doggy style in liquid nitrogen, chain me to a coffee table, have me lap milk from a dish, or just fuck me in a trashcan, ha, I’d go dig out my dildo. But you’re all just a bunch of sperm and eggs bumping into each other, the dead fuckin’ the dead.”
“No need for that,” I said. “I don’t want to chain you to anything.”
That was years ago. Now we seek each other out after an obligatory occasion, detached day or epiphany.
She comes in, sets the dildo and the bottle down at my kitchen table. She slips off one white silk glove, slaps me in the face with it and in her best British accent challenges me, “I propose a duel-shots.”
I go to the kitchen and fish through the dishwasher for a couple of rocks glasses, “You can’t take shots of King Louis, that would be barbaric.”
“You’re a restaurant manager, you defend the sanctity of what ... labor dollars? You buy your mutt culture from Target, don’t play at class. You’ll drop it in Red Bull, if I say so. Besides, I’m wearing an evening gown with no panties, and gloves. It’s improper to say no to a lady who’s wearin’ gloves.”
I pour out two glasses and take one last corpuscle-slaughtering smell of the thing before spilling half of it into my bottom jaw. She hears me swallow and groan, flairs her nostrils at me in triumph. Realizing she’s brought an addict to temporary surfeit, she giggles. We shut the fuck up for two minutes. She knows my liver is goulash. She is warm with compunction.
“Gimme a truth,” she says.
We’ve played this game before; it’s one of her favorites. A session can last two hours or more before it devolves into something baser.
“My freshman year of high school, I fucked the family couch between the cushions in a fit of masturbation, smeared my cum into its upholstery. I told the wrong person about it and everyone heard. It ruined me for the next three years, no girl would touch me. Guess nobody loves a couch fucker. How ’bout you?”
“I paid for an abortion with my stimulus check.”
She puckers her lips, “Is that what they had in mind when they legislated that? Think of all the stuff it would have bought: cars, fake rubber vomit, storage units. Hell, it probably would have stayed in Louisville, would have turned into one of those kids you say I love so well. It might’ve invested in more money, fuck, what it would’ve spent on fashion or charity alone.”
I’m peaked, but in the wrong way, “Here’s a fuckin’ thing. One time I went out to my car during lunch break and drank a bottle of cologne.”
She can’t decide to laugh.
She breaks the silence, “OK, I know we’re not supposed to qualify these things, but don’t judge me. Sometimes, when I’m cycling through another depression and I’ve been in bed for like four days and can’t force down any more shit food, or watch any more crap TV, or take another fuckin’ bath, after I’ve rubbed my shit raw ... I’ll eat a booger as it gives me one last crumb of peace. But I don’t just swallow it. I like to gnash it between my pointy teeth, the ones that touch first, the vampire lookin’ ones.”
“I think they’re called canines.”
“Yeah, those. Anyway, I grind it to a sticky paste, ’til it binds my mouth shut.”
We laugh and drink some more. We look away and choke on some old truths in silence together. I realize it’s my turn again.
“When I’m alone, I like to sit on the floor and hold in a big turd. It makes me feel peaceful, meditative, like I’m a spy sneaking around my own thoughts. It makes me wanna look through peepholes, yet I feel wholesome.”
She makes a fart noise with her mouth. I want her to laugh instead.
“Don’t you ever feel completely cut off from the world when you’re taking a shit, like you’re not a part of the collective? You’re in your little apartment, tiny little fuckin’ room, no magazines, no netbook, just a sensation, a fever that never quite breaks into a sweat when before you know it, surrounded by strangers in their tiny little fuckin’ apartments, you leave the minutia of freedom, break free of its inertia, and just be with yourself? Tell yourself a goddamned joke?”
I’m boring her. She yawns. It agitates me.
“I’ve got another one. I never told you ’bout my older brother. He was a good kid, not precocious, liked to play in the dirt, make mud balls. I remember watching him from the porch, couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11, he was only a few years off from me. It was dusk and he was in the front yard swattin’ fireflies with a wiffleball bat. It rained. He cocked his head back and opened his mouth to see if he could catch a few drops on his tongue. A thin white bolt of lightning struck down his throat. It blasted him out of his shoes, broke his leg in two places, killed him. Something swallowed his ass, Molly. I’ve never really liked anything since that.”
She clears her throat, “OK. I shafted myself in a Frisch’s Big Boy.”
“And why did that hurt, because you ate at Frisch’s?”
“Because it was Mother’s Day.”
I feel a tugging in my groin, “And what sloppy-assed tiara did you wear that day? The one that says, ‘notice me,’ or the one that says, ‘pity my damaged heart’?”
“The same one my mother wore later, dead in a box.”
“Did it say, ‘dead in a box’ on it?”
I mock her heart and it makes her soul cum. She raises her right arm mesmerizingly like she’s distracting a housecat. I track it. Leaving her chair, she stands over me. I look upward. Bowing from a standing position, power in the waist, she brings her forehead smashing into my face. The plastic jewels of the tiara rip into the smirk I left sitting at the table. The force of the head butt folds in a couple of teeth and my grill bursts open.
Confused, reeling, digging through the bloody flap of skin inside my mouth (my tongue deep into a fresh pocket of words), I balk. I grab the only thing close to me and throw it into her face.
Me, laughing, “Fuck?”
She’s all wet, radiating, “It’s just ... you talked me into killing her. And at the funeral, you told me you saw everything in the casket just as I did. You assured me I wasn’t seein’ shit. Fuck! I want you to tell me, right now, what you remember.”
“OK. Let me take a shot and pour another,” I say buying time.
She sticks a finger in my mouth; I let it sit there.
“If one thing you say strikes me as shit, I’ll poison you. I’ll poison one of your drinks you pathetic hangover junkie.”
‘Hangover junkie’ she calls me.
She’s more than a murderess, knows what to say, knows I don’t give a fuck about dying. But the drink, I have: gut to mouth, mouth to head, head to arm, arm to dumb amber vessel and from dumb amber vessel back to gut again. Her threat proposes a bastard thought between every sip and swallow, a hiccup in the chain, a little mealy-eyed synapse that would crush the purity of my addiction, so I speak with care. Besides, she had an episode at the funeral, a type of reckoning people sometimes experience when they view their dead. For Molly, you see, motherhood can have no flesh.
I redirect, change the pitch of my voice and take a more poignant tack, “I like being a hangover junky. A good hangover knocks the pageantry out of a funeral and turns a 10-cent hushpuppy into ambrosia. I was hung over that day, so I remember it clearly. Your mother, Penny, laid out in the casket, preserved. I was staring at the fake purple velvet lining when you came over. You placed your hand on my shoulder. We never touch. I reached into the pocket of my raincoat and clutched my flask for comfort; it was warm and greasy when I’d hoped to find it cool and dry. Some blasted country song lilted in the background. You laid the back of your other hand against her jowl, whispered to her, ‘Whose handiwork are you admiring? The carpenter’s? The undertaker’s? God’s?’”
“I pulled in close to her thrown-away face, smelled it. She smelled like nothing, no perfume or lilac, no preservatives, not even talcum powder. I blew free from your palm a scab that had strayed the mortician’s wax. You, too, were scentless and breathless and raw-an expression burned into the ether. You’d the face of a coalminer who’s just discovered a lost race of gods through a fossilized bauble sifted from a pile of shale. You shook my shoulder with your palm. Your eyes welled. I feared one of us would ruin the whole thing by talking. I turned back towards your mother. I wondered if beneath her blouse there might not be some bellybutton lent. Does stardust settle sometimes into a disk of stray threads and skin in the teeth of a dead woman’s umbilical? But you backed away, probably sensing some guilt in me. I felt nothing, Molly. I was just staring at that one printed rose on her blouse, wondering what nothingness lay beneath it. Something real but negative, like a meal in the belly of a dead junky orbiting the moon. I think you can no more care for the dead than you can guess at the instinct of love.”
For comfort, Molly clutched her mother’s crucifix shaped heirloom.