DEER SKULL ISLAND
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
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
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
I think, "Gaudy," but the diver
says, "Oh, baby."
On a four-post bed we tug at our clingy
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
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
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,
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