"Homunculus" by John Duncan Talbird

Categories: ISSUE 03: Edgar

Homunculus
I’d paid, I’d signed a contract. I thought, Cut my losses, cancel. Keep your money. Who was I to criticize a web designer? I’m an old fart. The internet seems like mumbo jumbo to me anyway—it’s hard to believe that cyberspace is real, that anyone can make something happen there. Where is “there” anyway?

It was just a little thing: A couple hundred bucks to join other local businesses on a website. Chandra was a charmer and I admit I wanted her to like me. If I had known how the site would look though, I’d have said no. The lime-green border, baffling design (I had to Google my own business the first time I visited), all those exclamation points she added to my text: “Beautiful things that grow!!!” “Jackknife Florist has it all!” And that weird photo she took of the front window, the sunlit glare reflecting buildings across the street that had never seemed so tenement-like before.

There’s something about Chandra that makes me not want to disappoint her. She has Mary Tyler Moore’s good looks and pep. Her brown eyes spark at me like we share a joke or maybe something more crucial. If I tell her I want to cancel, she’ll want to know why.

I’m afraid of strong women. My mother was weak, a woman who pretended to wash dishes when Pop pulled off his belt and swung, sometimes hitting with the buckle, the prong once catching me on the cheek: Ma holding out a warm washcloth, eyes down. “Dinner will be ready soon,” she whispered, breath against my forehead. Rivulets of blood and warm water between my fingers and in the porcelain sink.

The nuns were strong. I’ve got a dent on the knuckles of my left hand where Sister Eleanor brought the ruler down one too many times. That perfect line of blood rising in skin that turns briefly white. “Go to the bathroom. Wash up,” she said brusquely.

Her eyes were furtive and frightened, though, when she saw me stumbling out of the sacristy behind Father Notting weeks later. I didn’t realize at first—until going down the stairs to the F train—that my zipper was still down. Sister Eleanor never hit me again, but I had lost the heart to cut up. Although I paid no more attention in Catechism class than ever, she no longer looked on me with anger, nor any emotion.

I would later see that lack of emotion in John Paul II’s face on TV when he said he was “deeply grieved by the fact that priests and the religious have themselves caused such suffering and scandal among the young.” The scandal seemed to be the thing. “Scandal,” with its hard ‘c’ stands out, “suffering” with a soft “uff” fading into the background. I’ve always doubted people’s sympathy about my suffering, or suffering in general. There are always others who have had it worse.

Though when, even fifty years later, I awake soaked with sweat in the middle of the night from that reoccurring dream—Father Notting coming toward me, feet clanking like pots, grinning jowls opening like an umbrella, loins breaching, cleaving, a chest full of secret, dusty things revealing themselves—it’s hard not to wonder if anyone in the world suffers as much as I do.

“Jackknife Florist,” I realize, is a strangely masculine name for a flower store. I know, too, it’s suspect for a man to be a florist, although I’m not gay. More asexual than anything. My mother wanted me to be a priest.

I’ve never gotten rich from selling roses and daisies and pansies and baby’s breath and mums, carnations and the like. I’ve earned enough to purchase an apartment in a co-op, maintain my little Volkswagen, buy the high-end bottle of Cab when I’m feeling like it. The one connection I have with my mother, the one thing she seemed to be able to teach me. How to coax flowers to blossom, and then to achieve that balance; removing buds right before they open so that a bush thrives and is aesthetically pleasing, while at the same time nudging it to yield its prizes for the dinner table, or a loved one, or a grave.

There were three red Gerber daisies in the blue vase (I always thought this was Ma’s strangest container: clay, vaguely asymmetrical like a hand reaching up through the table). Two red carnations. A spray of baby’s breath. A dogwood blossom dipped to the left of the bouquet, silhouette like a diving dove. A large, round, green leaf hung over the vase’s lip. A single cluster of yellow foxtail—on a stalk so thin it was invisible in dusk light—hovered over the whole like a comet. A red rose poked up through the center of the flowers, petals just opened.

Pop orated like an Old Testament prophet: “…and bless our family, fortunate to eat this bountiful feast…”

He paused, open mouth, eyes closing. Ma and I closed our eyes with him, knowing the force of his sneezes, the way a foot would rise and fall, the way we’d feel it in our own soles when his work shoe hit the floorboards.

“I want to quit Catechism,” I said just as he sneezed, a sneeze so thunderous a clump of petals flew off the bouquet and landed on the tablecloth with a plop. When I opened my eyes, Ma was staring at me, brown hair pulled back from her face with a white barrette. (If I closed one eye, the one white candle on the table would be directly between us and her face would be consumed.)

“What’d you say, boy?” Pop said, mouth stuffed with a buttered roll.

Ma slowly shook her head, mouth tight.

And months later, my ninth birthday, I sat on the cracked tile of the kitchen floor, digging into the chocolate cake with my fingers. Ma always hid candy inside and I wanted to find it, since Pop, drunk after work, had eaten the candy off the top, leaving only dented chocolate icing. In fact, that might have been what he was choking on in the next room, breath sweet with whiskey and candy, saliva bubbling on his fleshy lip, eyes glassy and bulging. I could hear the back of his head slamming the wall as he tried to dislodge whatever was clogging his windpipe, heels drumming the floor.

The radio was loud: Scar Tarrington performing a tracheotomy on his loyal sidekick, Billy, after a nasty fall in the Rockies. We kids would be urged later in the show to send in wrappers of Ovaltine and fifty cents to get a real-life version of Scar’s jackknife. Our parents, at some point, would be urged to buy war bonds in support of our boys “over there.” (It would be years before we’d see the landfills of emaciated bodies, the survivors walking like human skeletons, before we could imagine such a thing.)

I was just home from Catechism class and Father Notting, for the ninth time, had taken down my pants and fondled my penis, bunching his vestments at the crotch between hairy knuckles, hoarsely whispering something that might have been the Lord’s Prayer if not for the random obscenity.

I dug through cake, chocolate beneath fingernails. It was like soil and my mouth watered as I thought of candy, even as my stomach lurched. At any moment my fingers would touch night crawlers or centipedes, perhaps a tree frog or toad. Instead, my hands came up against an object which I raised to my mouth, though I knew before I bit that it wasn’t candy. A toy—rubber, hunchbacked, a little man caked with chocolate. I tossed it skittering across the floor and dug in again although I knew there was nothing else.

Every day after the store closes, I go across the street and drink a beer or two in Virtu. The bartender and owner, Rebecca, a young girl in her thirties, wipes the counter and whistles softly, now and then looking up at the closed-captioned news on the TV over the bar. Today, there is a noisy crowd of rowdy college kids in the back playing darts. Treacly popular music comes from the jukebox. A chubby Chinese fellow, a cab driver who lives in the neighborhood and sometimes comes in to buy flowers for his wife (“In doghouse,” he’ll smile), drinks his earnings. “Another,” he shouts, hand in the air.

“You’ve still got some, Peter,” Rebecca says, nodding to the half-full pint of Grolsch in front of him, ceramic stopper hanging. He nods once at the bottle, at the little beer glass, foam lacing its interior, then pours directly over the center, the head rising to the lip.

“What do you think of the site?” I ask as a serious, very pretty newscaster seems to tell us something about a liquor store shooting.

“I think it’s butt-ugly,” Rebecca says, popping gum, scratching her hip. She lifts a glass of cola from behind the counter and sips on a straw.

“What are you going to do?”

“I called and told her.”

“In those words?”

She shrugs. “Chandra said they’re working out the bugs.”

I drink my stout, gingerly touch the stem of the single red rose in the vase. I always bring her something: daisies, carnations, a mixed bouquet. I thought this rose was about perfect and knew it wouldn’t be tomorrow. It has a drop of water hanging on a lower petal. When the kids come from the back to refill their pitchers, I can see the drop vibrate in time with their steps.

--Story by John Duncan Talbird