Tall at 6’3″, dark featured, hair uncombed, Tatsuo liked to frighten people at the grocery store. He would turn a corner very quickly and quietly into an aisle and surprise shorter people standing there with peanut butter or pop tarts in their hands. Jars smashed at their feet. Cartons of eggs. Wine spread like blood over the waxed floor. Never had a single man caused so many calls for “clean up on aisle four”.
Schadenfreude was his forte, you could say…
Not long ago, Tatsuo burst in to Tuba’s living room to announce he had learned to juggle in just one night.
“Yeah, sure you have,” Max had said sarcastically.
Max, Tuba’s friend, was sitting on one end of a ragged couch with Tuba’s other friend, Stacy. Tuba had the love seat to himself.
Stacy said, “No one learns to juggle in one night.”
“Bring me three eggs and a tomato.”
Tatsuo stood in the middle of the living room, between the television and the couch where Max and Stacy sat. They paused the movie they were watching and now watched Tatsuo, He looked very tall and far away in the middle of the room, like the visual trick of a mountain.
Tuba returned from the kitchen with two eggs and a tomato, “This is all I’ve got.”
“That will be fine, sir. Thank you, sir,” said Tatsuo in a stage voice.
He then proceeded to raise one foot off the ground, put it down softly, raise the other, lower it too, then he did the same thing with each hand, raising and lowering them slowly, calmly. All the while he looked up at the ceiling, apparently recalling his juggling epiphany from the previous night.
For a moment, he stuck his tongue out of the side of his mouth and fixed it in his teeth in a gesture of concentration. With a deep breath he said, “Ok.”
Then he threw the two eggs up out of one hand and the tomato out of the other. The tomato hit an egg in mid-flight. Both dropped straight down and burst on the wooden floor of the living room. Yolk and tomato pulp spread radially from the point of explosion on the floor near Stacy and Max’s feet. Tatsuo managed to catch the second egg, and bowed.
“I thank you for your kind attention,” he said and bowed again with a straight face to Stacy and Max.
Their mouths hung open. Some egg had gotten onto Stacy’s pants. Max looked over at Tuba to see what he would do.
Standing in the door to the kitchen, Tuba held out his hand for the unbroken egg. He didn’t laugh, no one did, and he didn’t say anything, no one did.
Tatsuo tossed the egg from his hand high into the air so it nearly hit the ceiling. With all eyes watching the egg, Tatsuo swiftly stepped to the door, opened it and went out, closing it behind him just as Tuba caught the last juggling prop.
“He must be incredibly bored,” Max said.
On a whim, Tuba wrote a piece of fiction and, because he had to show it to someone, decided to show it to Tatsuo.
Tatsuo came to his front door wearing a trademark old brown bathrobe, blue jeans sticking out at the bottom, his long legs like thin blue beams.
“Hey. You’re a professional writer, right?” Tuba began.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tatsuo laughed at himself, thinking that was the best question Tuba had ever asked him.
“Nothing. Nothing. But I’ve got this book. It’s a conceptual novel. I’d like you to read it and tell me what you think.”
“Who wrote it?”
“I did,” Tuba said emphatically, adding, “last night.”
“Oh, I see,” Tatsuo said, laughing again.
“So you wrote a novel in one night?” Tatsuo asked.
“What is this, an interrogation?”
Tuba stood, rocking on his feet, moving his hands uncontrollably, holding the paper package of his manuscript as if he would throw it at Tatsuo any second. He was eager and nervous.
“Ok. I’ll read it,” Tatsuo said.
Tuba handed over the package. Tatsuo turned and shut the door. Tuba stood on the doorstep for a while.
When he realized he was standing there for no reason, Tuba went back to his own house, got a chair from the garage and put it in the driveway. He sat and waited for Tatsuo to come back outside, watching the front door. Tuba wasn’t working today. He was a free man. Free to wait for as long necessary. It wouldn’t be long.
The book he had written was two hundred and twenty-five pages. Here is the text in its entirety:
A breeze was blowing through the park, tree tops moving like dancers. My collar stayed down.
It was always like this. Beautiful places as the scene for our fights. We walked along the path, Karen five feet ahead of me, her anger quaking and shivering in her neck.
I could feel my own anger laying itself down. The battery that drove it had lost the imbalance that was its chemical engine. Equilibrium was nearing. I watched the trees sway. Karen’s neck grew bright red and she turned with her finger pointed at me.
Beginning to smile, I was suddenly hit with a hammer blow on my spine. I tried to turn around to see who hit me, but my face was in the dirt.
Lying down I felt all power drain out of me in an instant. Karen’s voice came from somewhere inside my head. “Billy! Billy!” the voice was saying.
A surge of blood and life filled me. I turned over and saw Karen hovering over me. I tried to say, “Angel,” because that was my pet name for her. But no words came.
There was blood trickling from a small hole in my chest. I had been shot.
My mind was going on its own, again like a battery, winding down, racing toward equilibrium, riding on disconnected phrases : I have no enemies. I have no enemies. I don’t want to die. I’m not angry anymore. I was never really angry. My mother was a good mother though I left her. I have no enemies. I don’t want to die.
Then there were two hundred and twenty-three blank pages followed by the last page, page 225, with this phrase:
I wanted to believe in heaven once then I stopped and died.
Tatsuo read the first page and the last page and drew a few lewd images on the interim pages. A choice comment or two about Tuba’s mother was thrown in for good measure.
This time of day happened to be Tatsuo’s own time for writing, so he switched gears after defacing Tuba’s manuscript and wrote for two hours about elephant carcasses in the story he was working on. Three elephants were hung within three huge ceremonial metal rings, somewhat reminiscent of the traditional representation of Shiva. They were hung as a charm, as magic meant to ward off the apocalypse. In his futuristic-nihilistic tale of twin American brother’s who are separated at birth and discover one another at an oracle in Cleveland, the elephant carcasses dangle from the huge rings thirty feet from the ground so that they can be seen and, more importantly, smelled from exactly one mile away.
As the American brothers discover (while making their way through, of course, India) this is the final mile of the world. A hole will soon open and through it will come Nothing, which is to say, the hole will swallow the earth in darkness, which will be unlike the dark of an equatorial night and more like the dark of an Alaskan summer night, not quite dark, not quite light. It will be Other.
He wrapped up the morning session with a line about how the elephants could be cut down and resuscitated and ridden to the city to avoid Armageddon, but they would need the help of an Indian prince.
It was all just a farce, a lark, but it was fun and the Indian pulp publisher, Land of Hope, would certainly buy it.
Feeling good and still attached to the world of his story, Tatsuo stepped onto his front step and stretched his arms toward the sky, yawned.
Tuba was watching him from the driveway.
“Hey,” Tatsuo said.
Tatsuo laughed. This was a very funny day so far.
“Well, it’s conceptual alright, if the concept is not making sense. Or if the concept is making an avant garde toilet for real sh## to go into, because you did that quite well. I mean there’s plenty of space for more sh## to go in.”
He laughed at the absolute dejection on Tuba’s face.
“Don’t feel bad,” Tatsuo said, “You’ve got the rest of your life to learn to write something that makes sense.”
He thought of his own story and felt a pang of irony, not far from hypocrisy. “Don’t feel bad,” he said again.
“Maybe you didn’t get it,” Tuba said with a hopefulness that made them both sad.
“Shove it, friend,” Tatsuo said with a big grin.
The insult had its intended effect. Tuba stopped feeling sorry for himself long enough to get mad.
“You’re not sensitive to the arts are you, Tatsuo. This, here,” he said pointing in the air as if the book existed there, abstracted, in the ether above his finger, “this is a piece of real literature. It’s art.”
“Now if you’re talking about the art of bullshit, I know exactly what you mean.”
Tuba looked at Tatsuo across the distance from his chair to Tatsuo’s front door. They were shouting from yard to yard and they weren’t about to move closer to one another.
Waiting for Tuba to provide more ammunition to be blown back at him, Tatsuo stood leaning against his door, taking in the late morning sun. He was enjoying the moment. He looked at Tuba with a mock sympathy that would have been convincing if they hadn’t been neighbors for over a year and gotten to know each other.
Tuba didn’t say anything. He just sat there with the sun pouring over him which made him look doughy, his light hair nearly transparent. He could have been a hundred years old judging by this transparency and stillness. Tatsuo turned his head toward the sun and tried to forget Tuba was there.
After a few minutes, with Tuba watching, Tatsuo went back into his house, ten seconds later emerged with Tuba’s manuscript. He held a roll of duct tape in one hand.
With expert dexterity Tatsuo held the manuscript in one hand and the tape in the other and in three quick movements bound the 225 pages in tape. Then he put the tape in a pocket of his bathrobe, and took the book in his right hand. He threw the manuscript toward Tuba, who jumped up from the chair to grab it. The bundle flew over his head and over a low fence into the lawn of the next neighbor.
The sprinklers were on in the neighbor’s yard.
Tuba stared at the manuscript getting soaked on the grass. He looked back at Tatsuo, who, of course, was not holding back his laughter. He actually bent over double laughing when Tuba looked at him. Success.
Tatsuo went laughing back into his house.
This was a fun day so far, it really was.
Full of the idea of his trip to California, Tuba had a hard time sitting at home. Max and Stacy were both sick with a summer cold and Tuba had no one else to call. The weather was warm but overcast. Tuba heard voices next door at Tatsuo’s house and peeked his head over the wall to see what was going on.
A beer can came flying at his head. He ducked. When he peered over again, Tatsuo was there giving him the finger, sitting on a cooler in the back yard. Tuba heard voices still, but couldn’t see anyone. There was no opportunity for looking around either. He had to keep an eye on Tatsuo in case another beer was launched his way.
Taking Tatsuo’s gesture as an invitation, Tuba walked around the fence and into Tatsuo’s back yard.
When he got there his attention was drawn to a gigantic metal hoop that hung from a pole attached to the roof of Tatsuo’s house. It was as wide as the house and almost as tall, made of what looked like tin-foil.
Awestruck and confused by the thirty foot hoop, Tuba said, “No wonder you don’t have a girlfriend.”
“First of all Tuba,” Tatsuo said handing Tuba a beer a placing an arm around Tuba’s shoulder, “I’d like to say, (expletive) you. Secondly, I want to congratulate you on coming to terms with your situation. I imagine it’s not easy to be a eunuch. But your comments tell me that you’ve finally gotten used to the Mickey Mouse voice, the constant, private humiliation, and the anger you must have felt toward your father.”
“What? But I -“
“You must have been very surprised when Santa Claus came into your room that Christmas when you were a child and chopped off your thingy. Santa was supposed to give, not to take. What were you to think?”
Tatsuo heaved a deep breath of sympathy for Tuba, who shook his head slowly at what he believed to be the contents of Tatsuo’s soul.
Good old Tatsuo.
Then to more directly riposte to Tuba’s jab about girlfriends, Tatsuo pointed to the fire pit at the edge of the yard, where six foot flames illuminated a group of young laughing women.
“See them? They’re from my water-color class.”
“You take water-colors?”
“A man, Tuba, with gonads, mind you, has to enrich his sensibilities; has to develop himself to reach his full potential.”
“Do those girls have anything to do with your potential?” Tuba snickered.
Tatsuo directed Tuba’s attention to a window looking into the house, through a twisted mess of scaffolding from Tatsuo’s ever ongoing projects, Tuba saw the kitchen where another group of young women sat and stood, smiling and talking.
“They are from my lit. class at the art center.”
“You take a literature class? I didn’t know that.”
“You give yourself away, Tuba. There’s so much you don’t know. Just because you don’t have a penis doesn’t mean you should be an idiot. I teach the class.”
Tuba smiled awkwardly while Tatsuo smiled a bitter smile. In all their arguing and one-sided ridicule, Tuba had never before seen any pain in Tatsuo.
They swigged from the beers in their hands.
A light rain began to fall. The girls around the fire hurried over to Tatsuo, giggling, and thanked him for the good time. They had to run.
He nodded at them and didn’t watch them leave. Tuba watched them.
“Too bad,” he said, “so much potential.”
He smiled into Tatsuo’s contempt.
Tatsuo grabbed another beer for himself from the cooler under the window and climbed onto the giant metal ring. Its lowest point was about five feet off the ground. Tatsuo hoisted himself up with motion that seemed practiced.
The ring held his weight without a problem, swinging gently and massively from the pole on the roof.
“When did you make this thing?” Tuba asked.
Tatsuo didn’t say anything. He was watching the fire at the back of the yard snap in the drizzling rain. The sun was beginning to go down.
“When did you build this hoop?” Tuba repeated, “Tatsuo?”
“Ok,” Tuba said to himself.
He looked into the kitchen again and all the girls were gone.
“They’re gone,” he told Tatsuo, who just stared at the fire, not taking his eyes away as he opened his beer and took a long drink.
The ring began to sway again, like the metal rim of an epic tire-swing. Tatsuo moved his legs in slow, small circles.
This was how it would be.
His family was all there, two brothers, mom; dad. It was Christmas season and they all came to visit him at college in Bloomington and took him out to ChilliPops for dinner. They were a close family and they had fun together.
Tatsuo’s father was in the middle of a raucous story about a golf outing that included a clown and a woman in a squirrel costume – or part of a squirrel costume, as it turned out. He was making his way to the climax, saying something about how the golf cart had run over something furry – a part of the woman’s costume – and they were going back to investigate.
At this moment, Tatsuo’s fiancé appeared in the front door of the restaurant.
Expecting her almost an hour ago, Tatsuo had been watching the door. He started to get up then noticed that she wasn’t alone. She was pulling a young man, Tatsuo’s age, by the hand, wobbling and weaving her way to the bar.
Tatsuo’s father saw the change come over his son, who sat there now cold to the bone, shaking imperceptibly, his toes curling in his shoes. Tatsuo’s father stopped telling the story to ask, “What is it? You look like you’ve seen a ghost and you owe him money…Are you sick?”
Tatsuo tried not to look at his fiancé, Alice, but he couldn’t help it. She took a seat at the bar, the last one, and the man she was with stood behind her with a hand on her shoulder.
In unison, Tatsuo’s whole family turned to see what he was looking at. The youngest brother said, “Oh…sh#%!” And would have said more, but there was too much riding on this moment, so he just repeated himself and watched Tatsuo, who put down his fork and knife deliberately. His knuckles white. His face blank.
He put his napkin onto his plate and slowly made his way over to the bar, hands at his sides, walking with his head up, a tall, hollow figure crossing the crowded.
At the bar he tapped the man behind Alice on his shoulder, “Excuse me.”
The man turned and gave Tatsuo a friendly look, “Yes?”
“I’d like to speak to Alice for a second.”
Alice recognized the voice and turned for a quick glance at his face, then turned to her drink and guffawed into her cocktail.
The man between them stood aside and Tatsuo spoke into Alice’s ear, “Why are you doing this?”
She laughed again, incredulous, mocking.
“So it’s over?” he said.
Mumbling an affirmative, she faced Tatsuo. Her mascara was smeared and her eyes were tired. She was very drunk, but with confidence she reached out her right hand for a handshake. No gesture could have been more tragic.
He left the hand in the air, turned to walk away and added a “good luck, buddy” to the man and walked out of the restaurant.
The family had anticipated this and was already in the process of paying the bill, plates half-full abandoned on the table.
Tatsuo’s older brother was outside with Tatsuo’s coat. The air was frigid so Tatsuo accepted the coat but didn’t hear what his brother said and just started walking, not yet able to feel the depth of his humiliation. He was aware only of the first stage of a change, as if the doctor had told him, “you have a disease, son” and was waiting to find out what it was and whether or not it was curable.
He often thought back to that moment later, watching Alice drunkenly enter the restaurant where she knew he would be with his parents and family.
When he moved in next door to Tuba, after college, he was still bitter about the way things had gone, especially that night. The whole thing was dropped, just like that, like making a decision to get pizza instead of sushi. Tatsuo had changed his name to Tatsuo soon after that night and started writing for an Indian publishing house.
Of course, for Tatsuo, there was no telling anyone the story. If they didn’t already know, he said nothing. If they did already know, there was no point in saying anything about it. He tried to make new friends, which translated into losing his old friends but not really picking up any replacements.
He wouldn’t waste anytime over the episode though, growing the bitterness. There were things you had to let go. This was one of them.
“You don’t have to come, you know.”
“Stop saying that, Tuba. Just drive.”
They were about an hour into the road trip and Tuba hadn’t stopped trying to gauge Tatsuo’s dedication. Talking him into going along was too easy. Tuba kept thinking that there was a joke that he was missing.
He watched Tatsuo as much as he watched the road until they crossed the state line into Iowa. Tuba began to relax and he started talking about himself.
“You don’t really need to tell me all this, you know,” Tatsuo said. “We don’t need to bond. We’re not two girls out for a stroll. This is a road trip. I don’t need to know about how you feel when you leave the prison. Besides, it’s your choice to work there.”
“It’s not that easy to get a job these days.”
“Why don’t you try to sell your experimental novel?”
“You think…do you know any publishers that would print it? You’re a professional writer, right?”
“Will you stop asking me that?”
“You know someone! I just felt like I was getting started, but you think you could contact someone to read my manuscript?!”
“Don’t go haywire and start humping my leg here, man. Yes – I am a writer. Not yes – you can get that piece of sh## you found floating in your toilet published.”
“But, you must not get it, still. I’m coming from a whole new place. This fiction is theoretical.”
The road was flat and straight and the white dashed lines flashed past steadily. Corn grew on both sides of the road in fields that stretched back to dilapidated barns, which sometimes leaned in their age, sliding down to the barnyard like the chickens who once lived there would have leaned down to peck for grains in the dirt.
A flat shallow sky was poked with clouds and seemed to stand still above the car. Tatsuo ran through the dial on the truck radio, finding nothing.
“It’s hard to believe this all came from a speck of stardust, isn’t it?” Tuba said.
“It’s hard, yes. Because it makes no sense. What you are seeing didn’t come from any speck of stardust. I think you misunderstand the big bang concept.”
Tatsuo, of course, spoke in a tone of supreme mockery. Tuba didn’t seem to notice Tatsuo had said anything as he continued.
“The fact that this corn and this car are made of the same stuff and that that stuff came from space…it’s amazing to me. I can’t get my mind around the idea. It’s like, the details are clear to me and the larger picture is clear but the connection and the road in between is a mystery.”
“How could a star turn into this?” Tatsuo asked sarcastically. He indicated the bright green corn and the shallow blue sky with a tilt of his head.
“Exactly,” Tuba said, ignoring the sarcasm. “You’re not as stupid as you pretend to be.”
“And you’re not as smart as your kindergarten teacher told you you are.”
For a short moment Tatsuo was at a loss for words. This terse, juvenile come-back was all he could muster. The conversation oppressed him as much as the scene around them. Though the air conditioning was on, he imagined he felt the humidity of the air seeping up from the earth beneath the corn. The new green of the corn next to the worn-down barns was depressing.
The paint on the barns had long ago faded and washed away, leaving raw rain-soaked slats of wood exposed to the sun to warp and decay. The people that had raised them were gone. The era was dead. That world.
In a few miles maybe they would come across his giant metal hoops bearing the three dead elephants.
The image was vivid in his mind. He could almost smell them as they dangled in the breeze. Their dead odor enhanced by the humidity. Corn growing up to the base of the hoops.
He hadn’t written in almost a week. All he could do was picture these metal hoops, like the one he’d built in his own yard. Every time he sat down to write, instead of the characters in the story he would think about the elephants and the apocalypse they were supposed to fend off.
He imagined the Nothing that was to be the end of the world in this story. It appeared in his vision as a tiny hole just above the head of one of the elephants, growing by slow degree, two dimensional, widening and widening so slowly the mind asked itself if there were some trick involved, if this wasn’t a double imagining, a dream inside a dream.
With his eyes closed, Tatsuo leaned his head against the window and felt the vibrations of the truck.
Tuba was talking again. “It’s a damn mystery.”
“The reason you don’t understand the connection is you don’t know where you came from. Everyone who knows both his parents has pretty good understanding of the creative act,” Tatsuo said.
Tuba didn’t respond or look at Tatsuo. He closed his mouth and set his jaw.
“Everything in the universe came from something else just like it. Don’t you see?”
Tuba stared ahead at the road but didn’t seem to see anything there.
“What’s the matter? Don’t get sappy now, we’re almost there,” Tatsuo yelled.
“Almost there?” Now Tuba looked at him with tears in his eyes, “We’re in Iowa. We’ve only driven two hundred miles, man. And you’re saying we’re almost there?”
“Watch out!” Tatsuo shouted, pointing at the road and pushing himself up against the passenger seat, bracing for impact.
Tuba slammed on the brakes before he could see what Tatsuo was pointing at and the car heaved violently, swerving into the opposite lane of traffic, which was empty. The road was empty for miles.
“What was it?” Tuba asked.
“I thought I saw something out there, a goat or a bear, or something.”
“What?” Tuba pressed the gas.
Tuba was looking at Tatsuo again, instead of the road.
“Look out!” Tatsuo yelled as he went into the same histrionics as a moment ago.
Speeding up and still looking at Tatsuo, Tuba said, “Shut up, Tatsuo. Stop messing with – “
Before he could finish his sentence the car slammed into something that went soft under the wheels after a loud, hard THUNK.
“What the hell was that?”
“It looked like a dog.”
“You’re shi##ing me.”
“Take a look.”
Tuba slowed the car and looked through the rearview mirror for the possible-dog, but he could only see the outline of a dark, static lump in the road. He turned the car around.
As they approached the lump Tuba had a feeling in his stomach like a ball of string sinking and tightening and growing with the pulse of his heartbeat. He wished that it was not a dog. Vaguely, he believed that dogs were sacred creatures. They were too much like people to treat just like any other animal.
His lips must have been moving, because Tatsuo said, “What? Are you praying? Are you going to bring this little doggy back to life?”
For an instant, Tatsuo roared with laughter.
As abruptly as he began, he stopped.
Tuba closed his mouth tightly and, with the car stopped in the road, got out to examine the shaggy lump that lay there dead.
It was a dog. Mangy. Flies circled the corpse, landing and launching at random. There would have been more flies if the dog had been dead for a long time. But there would have been no flies had Tuba actually killed the dog.
The dog was already dead when he hit it. A relief.
When the sensation reached his toes, the relief became the anger and embarrassment an innocent person always feels upon standing accused.
“If you hadn’t distracted me, I would have avoided the dog.”
Tatsuo repeated Tuba’s words in a sarcastic high pitched voice then added, “I told you it was there!”
Tatsuo watched Tuba again, the evil merriness twinkling in his eyes, waiting for the balloon of Tuba’s temper to burst. Into what? He didn’t know.
This story is taken from a long-form piece of fiction of the same title.
More fiction by Eric M Martin on Associated Content:
She Was My Mother
Going Om: Prose Pieces & Strange Birds