Tuesday
Jul282015

Slab

By Selah Saterstrom


Coffee House Press
August 2015
978-1566893954


 

The "uncanny valley" is a term from robotics. When a robot is not human enough, it is disappointing, but when it is too human, it is unnerving. The uncanny valley is a phrase that describes this phenomenon.

Yes, I said, that is scary.

We were driving through rural Kansas.

A couple of days before, I had driven to the Mexican border town where Ricky and Suzy lived. Ricky and I made a point to celebrate our wedding anniversary even though we’d been divorced for a while at that point. Suzy ran a brothel under the flimsy auspice of a private club and Ricky kept the property and the books in exchange for a room and outbuilding, which he used for a sculpture studio because that’s the kind of guy Ricky was, patching it together with more or less innocuous outlaws. When I arrived, he was halfway through a project in which Suzy would take photographs of the prostitutes and, working from the pictures, Ricky would make sculptures. He had just finished one he called Hooker Bath. Suzy laughed while pouring the whiskey. Hell, she said, where I come from we call that a "University of Arizona bath." Suzy had once studied interior decorating at the University of Arizona.

Anyway, Ricky said, that science fiction shit is not about the future, it’s about right now.

On either side of the car, endless fields of corn. It was well after midnight. While visiting Ricky and Suzy in Mexico, I got a call from my sister about Charlie Boy. He had not answered the telephone for a couple of weeks and then the telephone was cut off. Unemployed, I decided to drive from Mexico to Beau Repose to check out the situation, and Ricky was along for the ride. We had sixteen hours before hitting the Mississippi border. Ricky passed me the joint.
You know what else is scary? I said. Corn.

Yes, he said, agriculture. Agriculture is frightening.

Thus the film, I said.

Yes, he said, thus the film.

Do you know what else is scary? I said. Dolls.
Oh Jesus, he said, hell yeah.

I used to think, I said, the scariest possible line was,
On the way to the county fair there was an accident.

Yes, he said, I remember. The fragility of the threads that hold it all together.

Yes, I said. It’s like everything is fine and then: boom!

Some people are in a car, driving, he said.
They are on a secluded road.

Like this one, I said.

Just like, he said. And then everything flips. There has been a very bad accident.

But what caused the accident?

Something that scampered from the dense woods lining the isolated road, he said, so you know it’s not good.

And now the people are utterly alone. Except for the scampering thing, out of view—it was a pin that popped the bubble and led the people deeper into the real doom. They are alone in the sense that they are outside of the recognizable narrative.

Yep, he said, hitting the joint, you got that right.

It seems like, I said, the problem is the accident.

Yes, he said. That’s how it seems. But what seems like the problem is really the least of the problems.

And that is scary, I said.
Yes, he said, it is.

 

THE LIVING ROOM had the usual four walls, but one was made of sliding glass doors. The doors led outside to oil- stained, crumbling concrete chunks. The awning that covered what had been, at one time, a patio, had unhinged and lay as a rusted tangle in the yard. Plumb center in the waist-high grass, a cracked birdbath, two empty Budweiser cans wading in dirty rainwater.

Above the drab couch opposite the sliding glass doors, a picture of a .357. The frame was blue plastic dollar store, the picture cut from a catalog. Above that, a Confederate flag stapled to fake wood paneling. The flag was made of a slick, cheap material.

Left of the couch, a double entry, one door led to a bathroom, one to a bedroom. Right of the couch, a door opened into a small kitchen. Above the kitchen door, a 1970s centerfold secured with a thumbtack. In the picture, a woman wore a fur coat in a field of wheat. She held the coat open, her legs parted. A golden light, a soft focus.

 

In the kitchen, the icebox was broken. A pancreas-shape of maggots fell from its lower shelf and out of the partially opened door and landed in a succulent plop. Somewhere, a bottle of bleach was uncapped. In its burning work of rendering the rancid smell less, it roasted out that which was most sweet. I turned the kitchen sink faucet knob and cockroaches came out of the spigot. Wings coated and sticky. The wings not gooed together, fluttered. I guessed the water had been cut off for a while.

From the living room you could see into the kitchen. You could also see into the bedroom and bathroom. In the bed, feces in a rut, outlining the shape where a man used to be. In the bathroom, bloody handprints on the mirror.

 

I keep meaning to clean up the place, Charlie Boy said. He was sitting on the couch wearing a blue T-shirt, naked from the waist down. His hands were shaking from DTs. He ashed in his beard when he inhaled his cigarette.

I have you on a wait-list for the state asylum, I said. They have a treatment program. It’s a nine-month wait for a bed. But I have you on the list. The woman at the county clerk’s office said it’s a really good program.

Well that’s just fine, Charlie Boy said.

How did the blood get in the bathroom? I said. There are handprints on the mirror.

Looters, he said. You know how it is up in this poorhouse. Somebody hears something and here they come. I guess they made a mess and tried to wash up before realizing there was no water.

What here is valuable? I asked.
The guns, he said.

Did they get them?
All but the one, he said, and pointed to the .357 in his lap.

 

 

Who, Ricky said, are you talking to?
What? I said.

Who?

 

Don’t move, Ricky said, look directly at me. He approached in slow, calculated steps. Do not move. He said it like they say it in the movies.

What’s that sound? I said. Keep your eyes on me, he said. What is that sound? I said. Ricky stopped, his hand outstretched. Look at me, he said. I looked down. Blood was seeping between my toes in my flip-flops. What is that sound? I said. Grab my hand, Ricky said. My slick knuckles balled his palm. Don’t look behind you, he said. What is behind me? I asked. It is the place, Ricky said, where Charlie Boy used to be.

Is he not there anymore? I asked. He’s different now, Ricky said. Why? I asked. He’s dead, Ricky said. He’s been dead a couple of days, at least. Don’t turn around. But I did turn around.
Yellow light through the filthy sliding glass doors, urine light. What is that sound? I said. There is no sound, Ricky said. But there was.

 

 

Barbara Walters: Astonishing.

Tiger: Well, I’ll tell you, Barbara, it was a little like this: Standing on a hill at night, holding a piece of damaged paper. And letting it go. Watching it disappear into the inky depths of night. And you think, That’s not good. You think, There it goes, language.
 


STAGE NOTE:
IF SHE PUTS HER FINGER UNDER HER TONGUE AND PUSHES BACK, SHE FEELS AN OVAL-SHAPED SCAB. IN THE MOIST SANCTUM, SHE FEELS ITS SURFACE.

SHE DOES NOT KNOW WHEN SHE WILL ENCOUNTER HELP, MUCH LESS A DOCTOR. WHATEVER THE ISSUE, IT WOULD HAVE TO WAIT.

SHE POKES WITH HER FINGER, TRYING TO GET A SENSE OF IT. AND THEN HER FINGER GOES IN.

JUST ITS TIP. INTO A SMALL CAVITY. THE CAVITY WALLS HAVE THE TEXTURE OF TONGUE, FIRM BUT SPONGY. THEN SHE REALIZES IT IS A TONGUE. A SMALL ONE, AND WHEN SHE EXTRACTS HER FINGER FROM THE TINY OPENING NOT ONLY DOES HER FINGER POP OUT, THE TINY TONGUE DOES TOO.

SHE HAS NO MUSCLE MEMORY OF IT NOW OR EVER AND SHE CANNOT MAKE IT MOVE. THE SCAB LINING THE OPENING IS ITCHY. SHE FINGERS THE RAGGED SCAB, THEN PUSHES THE TONGUE BACK INTO ITS HOLE. AND IT POPS OUT AGAIN.

 

"Tiger Hears a Who" is reprinted by permission from Slab (Coffee House Press, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Selah Saterstrom.