The Blaze-orange Freak Tag
Yes, he’s fat. Wide as a beef steer. The kind of fat that befuddles wheelchaired old ladies at Walmart, catches puzzled stares from open-mouthed toddlers. Medically obese. He stutters, too— hammers and flubs through his words in violent little fits, whole-body flummox-heaves. It’s tough to listen to him—bank tellers finish his sentences out of pity and to keep the line moving. These are all issues, yes. But when Arthur sees the one-armed woman on his porch, lunging at the front door like a SWAT cop, a new affliction takes over: his feet go numb. Everything south of the knees is flash-frozen, ghosted out. This is a new thing. Arthur pinches at the living room blinds to get a better look. Lady One-arm is theatrical, whooping it up. She smacks at the door, and the windows rattle. “I see you in there, asshole.” She cracks her neck, leans at the door again. The hinges wheeze. The stutter is already working at Arthur’s throat, viscous and warm, coating his mouth in honey. He moves his fingers—chubby as Vienna sausages—to his temples. There’s a mantra for these situations; he can’t remember what it is. “Last chance before I bust in,” the woman says. She’s coiled up—a nose tackle at the line of scrimmage. Arthur opens the door. “So you’re the bastard,” she says, out of breath. She’s in her mid-thirties and dressed for a day at the beach: floppy straw sun hat, sunglasses as big as beer coasters. Her right arm isn’t missing; it’s deformed, a stub jutting from her baggy sleeve like a chicken wing. A mass of flesh knobs out at the end: racquetball-sized hand, little candy-corn nubs for fingers. She smells like coconut sunscreen. “Five hundred dollars,” she says, pointing with her normal, unaffected hand at a Toyota sedan crowding the skinny driveway next door. On the windshield, in giant, blaze-orange letters, the word “FREAK” is spraypainted over the glass. A finger of wet paint trails off onto the driver’s side window, where a crude outline of a penis and balls coats the entire pane. “That’s how much they quoted me for the removal. Half a grand.” Arthur licks his lips. Shakes his head. “I-I’M sorry?” “You’re sorry? You owe me five hundred dollars.”
Arthur’s neck seizes up. His lips curl. This is what happens when he forgets his mantras. He’s always struggled with his speech, sputtering through long sentences, fumbling over glottal stops. The mantras have helped. He finds them online—mantras for power and confidence, for optimism and joy. He’s even found mantras that are said to increase the flow of testosterone. “You think that was me?” he finally manages. “Th-that wasn’t me.” The woman nods at the plastic trash bin on the other end of Arthur’s porch. A canister of spray paint—sticky, orange acrylic gumming up the nozzle—is settled on top of a garbage bag. “Explain that,” she says. Om shanti om. That’s the mantra: Om shanti om. It’s a serenity chant said to promote absolute, inner peace: Cumulus clouds. The sound of rain. Water lilies. “Rock-a-bye Baby.” Om shanti om. “There are spirits in the air,” the woman says. “Can you see them?” Arthur looks from side to side, as if crossing the street. “They can see you.” She pads across the yard and taps the glass on the Toyota with her knuckles. “Five hundred bucks. I’ll give you a week.” Om shanti om. The words run together and fill up Arthur’s head like pancake batter.
Arthur is unemployed, living off the government checks he’s been collecting since the tech startup—a “big data” firm headquartered in downtown Ann Arbor—laid him off a month ago. The whole process was settled amicably, mercifully. His young, tattooed manager cited the company’s plans to file for an IPO. “We need to nip out some extra costs,” he had said. “Nip out,” as if trimming the ratty hem of an old curtain. Arthur knew the real reason for the termination: his spasmodic, conversation-ending stutter. It was a distraction. His exquisite obesity—382 pounds at his last weigh-in—only added to the spectacle he presented to his mostly vegan, nerd-chic coworkers. He was like a circus bear trudging through the conference rooms. Now, with all of this free time, Arthur listens to the Detroit classical music station in the mornings and drinks Sleepytime tea to muffle his nerves. He watches Seinfeld reruns at night and falls asleep on the couch. His house—an old brick cottage left to him in his dead parents’ will— is paid off. Right now it’s important to collect himself, to watch the hummingbirds dip at the feeder in the dining room window—to learn to breathe. He practices his mantras while the polyphonies of Gaspar Fernandes or the scherzos of Shostakovich slide from the small, hissy radio on the kitchen counter.
The best part of unemployment, Arthur thinks, is that he gets to be alone. He studies the pajama bear on the front of the Sleepytime tea box, its eyes closed in an eternal heroin nod. He’ll get around to finding a job. No rush.
Arthur figured that the one-armed woman was his new neighbor when he had spotted her a week ago through the curtainless kitchen window of the modest Tudor next door. Completely naked—her half-arm extended at her side like a sea lion flipper—she leaned against the fridge and gulped red wine from a bottle. Arthur had heard the moving truck rumble up to the curb a few days prior; he watched a team of men hustle a spare dining set across the yard. But until he saw this woman slugging wine, undressed in the window like a Hopper painting, it hadn’t occurred to him that anyone had actually settled in. He stood by his mailbox, anesthetized. The sight of female nudity set off some sort of primal override in his body: he couldn’t move his legs. The woman wiped at her mouth with her one good arm, set the bottle on a counter, and ambled up to the window. Arthur lifted his hand—a polite aloha—and shook out a little wave. After a moment of consideration, the woman raised her middle finger and turned away, the sun sharp on her backside. She snatched the wine from the counter and disappeared around a corner.
The morning after the confrontation on the porch, the one-armed woman is in her backyard, shearing the hair off of her head with a buzzy set of black clippers. Long, stringy chunks of auburn pile up in the ankle-deep grass around her feet. She bends over, stretching for a patch of hair still lingering on the back of her neck. Arthur watches her across the fenceless yard from his kitchen window, a hot mug of Sleepytime in his hands. There is something new growing inside of him, a pocket of some unidentifiable emotion. He sets down his tea and unbolts the glass door that opens out to his lawn. “Everything okay over there?” he half yells over the tight drone of a nearby lawnmower. “I could use some help,” the woman says, patting at the arch of her neck with the clippers. “I can’t reach this back spot.” Arthur steps across the backyard in his bare feet, careful to avoid appearing too eager. The woman waits with her good hand on her hip, the chunks of remaining hair budding mange-like from her head. She tosses the clippers at Arthur when he steps over an orange extension cord and into her yard.
“Demons can manifest in hair,” the woman says. “Any evil spirit, really. They can seep in through the tips of each strand. Did you know that?” “I-I can’t say that I’ve thought about it.” Arthur takes the clippers and flicks them on and off. A quick test. “The hair is the first place a wise demon finds purchase,” she says, as if quoting a medieval tract on alchemy. “There’s been a lot of malignant spirits in the area. I need to prepare myself.” “That is something.” “There’s angels, too, thankfully,” the woman says. “Like up on your roof. You see him there? He has a crossbow.” She points at Arthur’s house and waves. “I’m afraid I don’t.” The sound of heavy bass from a passing car thumps at Arthur’s guts. Nausea creeps up his neck. The woman shrugs. “Some people don’t have the gift. Want to work on this hair?” Arthur rakes the clippers over the woman’s head with a light touch, like shaving a balloon. As he works, she continues her discussion of demons and their travel habits: how they can be kept dormant in sealed Pringles cans; how they’ve learned to rendezvous, in clusters of six or seven, inside of old television sets and in paintings of children. “What’s your name?” the woman asks into her chest as Arthur runs the clipper blades through the final chunk of hair. He tells her. “My name is Barb,” she says. “Barb Brozek.” She whisks hair clippings from her neck and produces a handheld mirror from a nearby patio table, holding it in front of her face. She’s as bald as she’s going to get: a weedier, tanner version of Sinéad O’connor. “Thank you.” She glances at Arthur in the mirror. “But you still owe me five hundred dollars.” “I didn’t—i didn’t spray-paint your—” “You can go now.” She collects the clippers and the mirror and makes for her house. “Six days until I call the cops.” She slams the back door, and the knob locks with a crisp click.
Arthur plucks the can of spray paint from the garbage—using his index finger and thumb only, like it’s a dead pigeon—and drops it in a plastic bag. It’s too much to just carry the thing out in the open: it’s contraband, responsible for a crime. He holds the bag in front of his body and makes his way across the street, to the Rat House. He calls it the “Rat House” because, for the past two years at least, a faded flag bearing the illustration of a cartoon rodent—maybe a squir-
rel or a woodchuck, it’s hard to tell—has fluttered from a beam on the front porch. Sometimes he’ll see a middle-aged man in the yard watering dogwood bushes with a brown hose: rangy, shirtless, tattoos on his fingers. Usually, though, the only occupant he’s noticed around the Rat House is a freckled boy, thirteen or fourteen, smoking cigarettes on the front porch and glaring at passing cars. The yard and the porch are empty as Arthur approaches. He’s been working on a new mantra, an incantation that, according to a dour yogi on Youtube, will make him courageous, strong: Om hanumate namah. The words pool up in his head as he knocks on the front door. A gas station dream catcher hangs in a window, and a stack of soggy Wheeler Dealers is pushed up against a worn spot in the siding. The rat flag is out. Arthur wonders what the rat is supposed to represent. A sports team? Some sort of union protest? He decides that the rat might actually be a hamster. As he waits, Arthur hears the light commotion of laughter bubbling in from around the back of the house, chirpy and high-pitched. Multiple voices, a backyard get-together. A strange desire for justice claws at Arthur’s insides—it’s a physical sensation, a type of hunger. The giggling scratches at his ears. He steps down from the porch and follows the prim dogwood bushes around the house. A brood of young teens is clustered in lawn chairs around a dry fire pit in the center of the wide backyard. None of them notices Arthur walk up with his bag: they are all jostle and elbow, high-top and cigarette. The freckled kid is off to the side—detached, aristocratic even. A boy pharaoh. There’s a girl on his lap, and his hand is pushed down the back of her jeans. She’s the giggler. Om hanumate namah. “E-excuse me,” Arthur clears his throat. “Excuse me.” Freckles looks up. They all look up. Three-hundred-eighty-pound Arthur. Pink, sweaty, stammering Arthur. Out of nowhere, Giggle Girl screams. “Is this yours?” Arthur pinches the spray paint can from the bag and lifts it high. “It was on my porch.” Freckles tucks the bottle of Coors Light he was holding behind his chair, out of view. He scoots Giggle Girl from his lap and stands. “What makes you think that’s mine?” “I-I had a hunch,” Arthur says. The teens are still and silent now, a congregation of Methodists. Freckles has been challenged.
“You got me,” Freckles says. He snatches the can from Arthur’s hand and holds it up for his friends. “See everyone? Inspector Tubbs is on to me.” “M-my name is—” “Why don’t you keep it?” Freckles drops the can back into Arthur’s plastic bag. “I don’t want it.” Arthur has met Freckles before. Not Freckles in particular, but boys just like him. For most of his life, Arthur has served as the fat, soft-spoken foil to their alpha posturing: on the dusty playgrounds of elementary school, in the hormone-damp locker rooms of senior high. He’s learned to keep his head down, to back away when one of them starts getting into it, to submit. “You sprayed my neighbor’s car,” Arthur says. “She thinks I did it.” Freckles turns back to his friends, flashes a lizard smile. “You should own up to this,” Arthur says. “The woman is sick. She doesn’t deserve this.” “What if I said no?” Freckles cocks back and forth like a welterweight. “What would you do about it?” Arthur recognizes the look on his face: that old playground mask. “Nothing to say?” Freckles asks. With a snapping motion, he reaches around Arthur’s stretchy sweatpants and yanks them down around his ankles. The teens detonate with laughter. “Look at him jiggle,” one kid calls out. Giggle Girl mock-vomits into the fire pit. “What do you think, guys?” Freckles lifts a smartphone from his pocket and snaps off a photo. “Should we call the police, report this guy for exposing himself to middle-schoolers?” It isn’t easy for Arthur to bend over to hook at the drawstring. He loses his footing and topples to the grass, his sweatpants still balled up at his ankles. The teens are rejoicing, slapping their knees, shrieking. They all have their phones out now. “Get the hell out of my yard,” Freckles says. “Pretend this didn’t happen.”
The supermarket on Carpenter Road—fluorescent and grungy—is open twenty-four hours a day, like an emergency room or a police station. Just before midnight, Arthur pulls up in his little gray Volkswagen Golf and slides a rattly cart from its corral. He pushes it through the narrow aisles, filling the basket with frozen pizzas and bags of potato chips, trays of cookies and tubs of ice cream. The usual cast of late-night shoppers totters and bumbles past the shelves: stoned college students and caffeine-eyed factory workers.
A pair of cops laughs at a private joke in the pharmaceutical section. Arthur pauses in front of the wall of teas, lifting a box of Sleepytime from the shelf. He puts the box down and moves on to the liquor aisle where he opts for a half-gallon of Five O’clock vodka instead. At the register, the cashier folds a stick of gum into her mouth. “Got some sort of party coming up?” She bends out a smile, sniffs out a chuckle. “Lots of pizza here.” “I’m holing up,” Arthur says without stuttering. “Locking myself inside of the house.” The clerk nods and floats a sweaty carton of Chubby Hubby past the scanner. She’s unfazed. Whack jobs are just part of working the midnight shift: push through the crazies until the dawn arrives with its polite, chatty elderly and their morning pastries.
When he was in sixth grade, a group of classmates locked Arthur in a cramped janitor’s closet one morning after the first warning bell rang. “Think he’ll go hungry?” one of the boys snickered. “Nah, he probably keeps tater tots in his underwear.” As Arthur sat in the tiny, dark space, inhaling chalk dust and ammonia fumes, he discovered something strange about himself: he enjoyed being trapped. Propped up on an upside-down mop bucket, absorbing the thick darkness like a piece of gauze, Arthur kept his eyes closed and pretended that he was locked away forever in a tomb. He only got up once to pee into a sink. When the ancient school librarian—on the hunt for a spare power strip—discovered him after the lunch hour had passed, he didn’t want to leave. He wanted to stay captive, immobile in the dark. Since that event, Arthur has fostered an unconventional affinity for dark, cramped spaces, shutting himself away in coat closets or half bathrooms whenever he faces an uncomfortable situation. After his parents both died in an RV accident, he stayed wedged between the water heater and the washer for three days straight, his massive body crammed into the awkward, damp space like an overweight cat caught in a shoebox. By the time he pried himself free, Arthur was done mourning. He could move on with his life—stabilize. Back at home, Arthur double-locks all of the doors and spreads the curtains over each window. Even though it’s dark, it will be light soon, and he doesn’t want any sunlight on his face. He pours vodka into a tea mug and takes it into the bathroom. With the lights off, he feels his way into the bathtub and slides all the way back, the vodka mug balanced on the soap tray next to him. Maybe—in the dank, lightless bathroom— Arthur can decide what to do next.
After two days have passed, Arthur finds his checkbook tucked under a pile of This Old House magazines still being sent to his dead parents. He scratches out a check for five hundred dollars and folds it into an envelope. It is raining as he trudges across the yard to Barb’s house. Before he knocks on her door, Barb pokes her head out from one of the upstairs windows—a bug-eyed, buzz-cut jack-in-the-box. “I can’t get out,” she says. “I’m trapped up here. The front door is unlocked. Please come help.” The interior of Barb’s house is Spartan—moving boxes are pushed to the center of each room in little islands, and dozens of paper towel rolls are scattered and propped up along the walls. No decorative effects. No curtains. Even though she has just moved in, Arthur has the impression that Barb intends to keep her house in this unfinished, unpacked state indefinitely. When he finds her upstairs, she is huddled at the end of a long hallway, a hot-pink beach towel wrapped around her body and head. “They won’t let me leave,” she says when she sees Arthur at the top of the stairwell. “They’ve kept me up here since last night.” “Who? I don’t see anyone else here.” “They’re in there.” Barb points to a door on the opposite end of the hallway. “They haven’t left me alone.” Arthur walks up to the door and nudges it open with a soft push. “Can you see them?” Barb asks. “Can you see the demons now?” Arthur looks around the tiny room. It is slightly bigger than a walkin closet, and a panel window lets in a bit of light onto the hardwood floors. The words “Freak” and “Whore” and “Scum” are dashed across the walls in enormous scribbled ribbons of orange paint. A spray can— much like the one left in Arthur’s garbage—wobbles on its side, dribbles of neon collecting in a carrot-shaped splotch on the floor below the nozzle. Arthur walks to the end of the hallway and crouches against the wall beside Barb. “I guess we’re trapped up here,” he says. “I have the money.” Barb loops her arm around Arthur’s shoulders. Her bald head—stubbly from a few days’ worth of growth—rests against his arm. Not counting his mother, no woman has ever been this physically close to Arthur. He lifts his arm and brings her in closer.