The Blaze-orange Freak Tag

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Sean Hig­gins

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.

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