On a Friday evening in June, stoked by the awesome weather, Chip, Lee, and I were doing tequila shots on the patio of Noah’s Ark Taxidermy. Out on the blood-spattered bricks, we talked about old times—when we’d skip biology and get baked in the parking lot of Swamp Fox High.
“Back when I turned you two dorks on to metal,” said Chip.
“You got it backwards,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Lee. “Romie had that Rush tape.”
“Rush is for pussies,” said Chip.
“Rush wasn’t the only one,” I said, wanting to hash out the differences between King Crimson’s metal moments and the lameness of he-hussies like Mötley Crüe, but, as usual, I found my tongue paralyzed by weed.
“As I recall”—Chip grinned like a donkey—“old Romie was into the Moody Blues.”
When Chip started bellowing “Nights in White Satin,” we all had a decent laugh.
There we were, three bachelors of a certain age, none of us remotely successful. I was a year into my divorce, a fortyish animal stuffer, balding and childless, though pregnant with a beer belly. The heavy-metal mane I used to flaunt had dwindled to a puny ponytail. Bank of America was threatening to seize my house. AAA Financial, who’d “bought my debt,” had, just that morning, offered to “renegotiate” my payment plan. And three irked customers wanted to know when I’d have their specimens stuffed—buck head, mallard, coon—each animal currently chopped and scattered, hides in pickle baths, organs rotting in thirty-gallon Hefty SteelSaks.
Chip Watts, an ex-jock turned pothead turned drunk, had long since flunked out of Clemson and returned to Hampton to marry several festival queens (Watermelon, Okra, Cooter), divorcing one for the other before running to fat and losing his mojo. But that summer he was on Atkins. He’d lost twenty pounds. He popped testosterone supplements like Tic Tacs. Hiding his sagging gut under the pleats of his Duck Head khakis, he pranced around, bragging about how much poon he was pulling, how many ATVs he’d unloaded that week, how many touchdowns he’d scored back in high school, when his body was still a beefcake and he sported a mullet with a body wave.
Chip had always been a talker. He knew how to bait the ladies, how to floor them with tales that featured him wrestling grizzly bears, tracking wild boars over rough terrain, grabbling sixty-pound catfish from their nests and dragging the thrashing monsters to shore with his bare hands.
Lee Decker was a much chiller dude. An aspiring surrealist painter in high school who now painted houses, he was skinny and still had enough hair to show off. An inch or two of sun-streaked shag casually brushed the collar of those olive shirts he ordered from camping catalogs. His smiles came quick, without nervous tics. He slept like a NyQuil-dosed baby and never fussed much over life.
We were in high spirits that evening, just because it was June. The grass was thick, the fruit trees were starting to put out, and a million cicadas buzzed in the pines. I thought I might call my ex-wife, Helen, just to catch up, or at least whip out my phone and check her E-Live status, gawk at her latest round of photos, even though I knew she had certain settings in force to keep my nose out of her butt.
Her relationship status still taunted me: DIVORCED. She still worked at the Technomatic Quick Lab (doing mostly paternity testing, which she hated with all her soul). The girl still enjoyed swimming, moonlit walks, Art with a capital A, and deep-sea creatures (watching them on the Internet, at least). In fact, her latest profile pic was of a vampire squid blinking three thousand feet below sea level, its weird arms covered with threatening spikes. When I first saw it, I choked out a bitter laugh. That was Helen all over: too prickly to hug, sulking in the dark, making herself invisible, but then bam—a burst of light so beautiful it knocked the wind out of your lungs.
“Stop thinking about Helen,” said bastard Chip.
“What makes you think I was?”
Chip raised a wild eyebrow. That day his face seemed to droop from his sticky hairdo. Unlike me, whose hairline receded in a heart formation, exaggerating my widow’s peak with a Dracula vibe more comic than sexy, Chip had a low hairline and was balding from the crown down. His take on the comb-over involved gelling the fuck out of his auburn hair and finger-brushing the clumped bristles straight up, like Billy Idol circa 1983, but with scalp patches galore. He also sported a hick-van-dyke, the facial hair that aging country singers and motorcycle dudes often cultivate to downplay their jowls.
“Y’all ready to rumble?” said Chip, who was already walking crooked—half due to tipsiness and half to a ruptured disc. We piled into his monster Escalade, RATT blaring on the stereo—“Round and Round” mocking me with its stupid lyrics.
We were being digested by the Power Bar, sucked down into its pumping intestines, its thick press of shimmying bodies, flashing wide-screens, and vintage poker machines. The sound system was blasting the latest teen skank, that Brit with a blue beehive who yodeled through a pitch corrector to pounding synths.
Chip had cornered three data processors in day-to-night mode. Their office duds were sparked up with costume jewels. They looked hopeful. And I felt tired already.
“What do you do?” said the prettiest of the three.
“I sell dreams,” yelled Chip.
Watching Chip bellow over the music made me feel sleepier. For some reason, I craved the sunken den of my childhood, with its shag carpet the color of algae and its lumpy plaid couch that smelled of gravy, the residue from countless suppers cooked by my mother. I wanted to curl up there and watch our old TV, its rabbit ears lumpy with tinfoil. I wanted to smell country-fried-steak fumes wafting down the linoleum stairs, hear my daddy washing up in the half bath, hear my mother crooning some dreamy 1950s tune, her pitch-perfect voice full of eerie longing as she tended the sputtering beef. I wanted to slip into a nap, calmed by the pleasant feeling of having the future light-years ahead of me, not even hounded by hormones yet, penis curled in soft innocence like a dozing baby gerbil.
But I was smack-dab in a meat market, in a fantasy cave at the end of Magnolia Plaza strip mall, listening to Chip tell a dumb joke to three half-attractive ladies worn out from paper pushing and ready to call it a night. Everybody seemed run-down all of a sudden, despite the loud music and spastic light. It was like the vents oozed some sort of gas and we’d all soon collapse into a strobe-spattered heap.
“I say we repair to the VIP,” yelled Chip, pointing toward the VIP lounge, so we relocated to this over-air-conditioned nook furnished with armless couches, plastic coffee tables, and a beer clock that featured blondes in fur bikinis.
I ended up knee-to-knee with a girl named Renee—midthirties, dyed red hair, her skin freaky from too many cosmetic procedures and crusted with an inch of makeup. She had a degree in administrative office technology. She owned a blond Labrador named Ace. And I could tell by the way she narrowed her eyes that she thought taxidermy was a redneck thing, that all it took to escape her own hick origins was a slick haircut, designer footwear, and mobile uploads of her lunches at quirky “indie” joints like the Chuckling Newt Café.
Every time I spoke, Renee crinkled her nose and cast a lusty glance Chip’s way. He’d started up with his outdoorsman routine, describing the time he’d tracked a two-hundred-pound cougar through thirty miles of swamp and shot it with his bow and arrow.
“It was like an outer body experience,” said Chip, “like I was the arrow, flying through the air.”
“Thought cougars were extinct,” said Lee.
“Making a comeback,” said Chip.
“Course, it ain’t legal to shoot ’em,” I said.
“What about when a wild beast tries to kill you?” Chip bugged his eyes at me. “You got a right to protect your life.”
“Thought you chased it.” I smiled.
“That motherfucker chased me for ten miles,” said Chip, switching stories midstream, backtracking through his own bloody footprints. I pictured the cougar flying backward from its death sprawl, running in reverse through the swamp, all the way back to the pine forest where Chip had first spotted it. I saw it pounce on Chip, who’d been innocently target shooting, knocking beer cans off a hickory stump while whistling “Sweet Child o’ Mine.”
“Whatever.” I rolled my eyes.
Renee duck-faced at Chip and slipped off to the powder room. The other two women had their eyes firmly planted on the aging athlete as well. I sat sulking as Chip ordered yet another gin and tonic and amped up his courtship spiel with the prettiest of the trio. His girl inched closer. Their booze breaths mingled. Soon they’d be calling it a night: her first, in a nervous flutter; him five minutes later, his smirk unbearable, his pants crooked, his splotched cheeks the color of pepperoni.
I sighed, exhausted, suddenly, to the bone. I was hatching an escape plan when I saw Helen.
Dear Lord. She fluttered in the flashing light, not dressed in designer-slut mode as I’d feared but wearing a simple green sundress, a red zinnia tucked behind her ear. Her hair was braided in some old-timey fashion that had yet to grace this shit town. In the dimness of the Power Bar, through my beer goggles, she looked fifteen years younger. Hell, she looked almost like her high school self. I wondered if she’d hit the jackpot and hired some clever plastic surgeon who could make a woman look dewy, not pinched and raw, straining to look young, fillers and nips doing peculiar things you couldn’t quite put your finger on.
When she stepped under a strobe, I got a better look and saw the age on her, more like thirty-one than eighteen. But she still looked good. My heart was split into two pieces. One part felt certain that she was my destiny, that we’d just hit a glitch, that this woman was truly mine and would be again. The other part whispered that she was out in the world making her own life.
When I saw a man cruise up behind her and paw at her zinnia hair accessory, I drifted toward the second feeling. She was already romping in a meadow of wildflowers with this linen-pants-wearing twerp. He looked sharp and overironed, trim with a slight gut, beyond fifty for sure, his silver-blond hair blow-dried just so. He had that professional quality. At first I thought lawyer, then insurance, then entrepreneur, which could mean anything these days—pharmaceutical mogul or putt-putt profiteer.
I was ready to slither into a gash in the ground, lie in my hole and let the soil fall over me, when Helen spotted me. She looked half-horrified, half-amused. We had no choice but to wave and trudge through the crazy disco lights toward each other.
“Hey, you look great,” I said, sounding too chirpy.
“How are you?” She looked me over (brief pause, like a hiccup, as she inspected my gut).
“How’s the stuffed animal business?”
“Same old, same old.” I shrugged.
The corners of her mouth twitched downward. I recognized her pity-tainted frown from the old days.
“This is Boykin.” She turned to her friend.
Boykin? Are you serious?
“His mother was a Boykin,” Helen explained, “and a breeder of the infamous spaniel, our state dog.”
Boykin was indeed what he called an attorney, and he’d recently invested in a gallery on Azalea Street, that teeny-tiny nook of artsy-fartsiness supported by rich dabblers in this town, mostly trophy wives with liberal arts degrees. There was a lunch spot or two, a brewpub, a pet boutique, a coffee place, a designer clothing shop, a salon/day spa, and what have you. Though the establishments in this so-called historic district tended to display lame paintings of flowers, pet portraits, and the occasional “abstract” smears a monkey could paint, Hampton had yet to open a bona fide art gallery. And here was Boykin on the forefront of the art scene, looking sleepy and a bit jowly.
I didn’t feel the pain until they’d danced off into the night. I imagined them hopping into a convertible Jaguar or some other pimpin’ geezer ride. Lee was right behind me, saying, “Let me buy you a drink, buddy.” The office ladies had skedaddled. Some other party had settled into the VIP room. So Lee and I sat at the bar doing tequila shots—I can’t remember how many—until the whole joint glowed darkly like a video-game dungeon. The black lights were doing freaky things with Lee’s freckles. He grinned like a ghoulish Opie Taylor and offered me another shot. Like a fool, I took it, longing for fresh air, longing for those lazy summer nights Helen and I’d once spent on our front porch, chilling in fold-out lounge chairs, watching clouds skim over the moon. One night she told me that shadows were darker on the moon than on Earth, yet another fascinating factoid she’d pulled from the Internet, and we got lost in endless speculation, sipping Millers, our hands moving into the one-foot space between our chairs to touch idly, to punctuate the wonder we felt—for the moon and the universe and the endless casual mystery of our love.
“You got to give it a rest, Romie,” said Lee.
“Helen.” He whispered her name.
“I thought you meant the shots.” I choked out a laugh.
I was about to call it a night when in walked a girl with a panda face and a heart of gold—a sweet, maternal, somewhat flaky, slightly pudgy girl who’d once saved my ass.
Crystal Flemming was a mess. Her fake snakeskin purse rattled with pill bottles. Her bleach job had not been maintained, and dark roots sprouted from her scalp. She smoked Marlboro Reds, guzzled gin like it was Dasani, dipped generously into God-knows-what kind of pharmaceutical helpers, but somehow looked half-decent. Haggard, yes, with crow’s-feet and lines around her mouth. But her lips were still luscious, her eyes still big and dreamy and shiny as crystals. She could still rock a pair of jeans from the juniors department, despite her muffin top and bubble butt, an inch or two south of where it used to be.
I know I sound like a sexist ass. But actually, Crystal’s imperfections were what comforted me, making me less self-conscious about my potbelly and thinning hair, which I refused to cut and which I gathered into a pathetic snake of a ponytail and fastened with a cheap rubber band.
“Roman Morrison Futch,” she said, using the full name that only relatives and ex-girlfriends were in on, wagging her finger like a grandma while licking pink gloss from her lips. “What you been up to?”
“Same old, same old.”
I ordered a bourbon on the rocks. Lee flashed me a thumbs-up and stumbled out into the night. Within thirty minutes, Crystal Flemming and I were right back where we used to be: me thinking about Helen as Crystal shit-talked her ex, Chad Hutto, a former fullback nicknamed Chewbacca who had recently struck gold in the life insurance racket.
“Of course he was running around on me,” Crystal said. “You remember Chris Gooding’s little sister Carla? Dumb as mud but thinks she’s hot to trot? I used to babysit her. Changed her diaper. One night after I put her to bed, Chewy and me were making out on the couch and suddenly she was just standing there, hugging her Care Bear and watching. I think she’s had a thing for him ever since.”
“Warped,” I said.
“And if that ain’t bad enough, State Farm’s got a billboard with his face on it, right behind Kmart, which is on my way to the unemployment office. Thank you, Universe. Just in case I forget that bastard for one second, there he is, larger than life and grinning at me.”
I’d recently spotted the billboard in question on my way back from Yoda’s Toyota Salvage Yard, noting the Star Wars–themed coincidence at the time. I was hungover as usual, and the sight of Chewbacca Hutto’s puffy orange face rising like the sun over Kmart was too much to take. A fringe of chest hair peeked from his collar, hinting at the sweaty Wookiee hidden under the starched dress shirt. His green eyes still had that wolf-man glow.
“Are you friends with him on E-Live?” I asked.
“Hell no,” said Crystal. “You friends with Helen?”
“I’m a dumb-ass,” I said, and Crystal Flemming did not disagree.
I woke in a panic attack, naked and tangled in sweaty sheets. A foot above my head, crystal unicorns frolicked on a particleboard shelf. Crystal suncatchers shimmered in every window. Assorted new age crystals were set out in mystical arrangements on the dresser, right under a framed Excalibur poster. And Crystal herself, looking like Stevie Nicks in a whispery robe with batwing sleeves, fluttered into the room, an amethyst amulet dangling between her boobs. Her eyes were huge and glossy and bloodshot. She kissed my forehead and placed a Xanax on my tongue. I eased back down into a pile of satin pillows and waited for the pill to calm me.
“I had a weird feeling when I drove up to the Power Bar last night,” she said. “I was wondering what the old universe had in store. I walk in, and who do I see? Roman Morrison Futch.”
“Last night was off the chain,” I said, accepting the goblet of spiked orange juice that had magically appeared in her hand, straining to remember what, exactly, had happened.
I vaguely recalled Crystal veering into the parking lot of Druid Forest, an apartment complex on Highway 21. Vaguely recalled stumbling through a dark studio apartment that smelled of Nag Champa, crashing onto the bed, falling off several times due to an insane number of tiny, slippery pillows. And then I was washed in purple light, hunched over a three-foot Day-Glo bong, Pink Floyd on the stereo. Crystal was naked, wreathed in cigarette smoke. I had a raging erection. And then I didn’t. I think there was some rolling around at some point in between these two states.
“And I had a dream about you last week, Romie,” she said. “Dreamed we were doing acid like we did twenty years ago, except we were in a hot-air balloon, floating over the mall. Your hair looked just like Robert Plant’s, except not as blond.”
“Robert Plant now or Robert Plant way back?”
“Way back.” Crystal smiled, that small, slightly sad bending of the lips that made her look like a panda, especially when she’d gobbed on too much eye shadow. “And Helen had moved to Mexico. What do you think the universe is trying to say with that one?”
Crystal shot me a smirk. Then she grabbed a glass pipe from her wicker nightstand, stuffed a fat bud into it, took a long hit, and handed it to me.
“It’s too early for the bong.” She winked.
“What time is it?”
I took the pipe.
The Xanax was working its magic. My mad-dog heart began to chill. Shame over the general failure of my life and feelings of nameless dread melted away as Fleetwood Mac flowed from dusty stereo speakers and Crystal poured me another mimosa. Sunlight gushed through the sliding glass doors that led out to her tiny balcony, which boasted a dying geranium and overlooked the back of Patriot Self-Storage.
Three drinks and two bong hits later, I found myself entwined with her on the bed, breathing in the familiar swimming-pool smell of her hair and the Poison perfume she’d worn back in 1994, when Helen left me for an art student named Adrian and sweet Crystal had saved my life.
Crystal’s son, Sam, was off at a Surf City time-share with his daddy, so I camped at Crystal’s place, not setting foot out of her magical cave for a solid week. We smoked weed, drank booze, popped Adderall at midnight, and took Morpheus to sleep. We buffered our hangovers with Crystal’s precious Xanax, which she fed me as a mother would Skittles to a diabetic child. And then we’d repeat the whole deal the next day, starting around one.
Bands sometimes practiced down at Patriot Self-Storage. Our favorite was a cover band whose half-decent “Stairway to Heaven,” along with a half tab of Soma, soothed our stoned brains. We’d kiss, grope, stumble to her bed, with its avalanche of accent pillows. We’d fuck so lazily that sometimes I’d pass out on top of her, then I’d wake up, go to town like a jackrabbit on crank, feel myself go numb, and lose myself in a dream of Helen, at which point I’d surge back to life. I’d charge forward with tears dripping down my cheeks.
Each day at four, just as her second beer began to melt her angst about her employment situation, Crystal spoke to Sam on the phone. She’d be quiet for a spell after she hung up. Then we’d pack the bong, switch from beer to liquor, and stream something trippy on Netflix—A Clockwork Orange, The Wall.
“It’s different,” Crystal would say. “What do you think the universe is trying to tell us?”
“I can’t exactly describe it.”
“Me neither, but I know it’s something important.”
She’d look at me with those eyes. I’d note a little flower of feeling that was sweet enough, but then I’d remember Helen. Sometimes the memory would be dramatic: Helen renting a hotel room for our tenth anniversary and filling it with wisteria. But mostly I’d recall everyday moments: Helen squatting over a flower bed, yelling at me to come check out this weird beetle she’d found, smiling slyly, treasuring the brilliant blue creature like a jewel in the bowl of her palms. Just like in the old days, my feelings for Crystal would shrivel. By the time her son was due back from Surf City, I was ready to go home. I was not prepared to face life—lapsed mortgage, Visa bills, failing taxidermy business—but I did need a break from the constant partying, the hangovers that grew more bottomless each day, each trap door leading to another trap door, and so on, over and over, until my brain was free-falling at the speed of light.
So I went home, stripped the dingy sheets off my bed, and passed out on the naked mattress. With the help of two Morpheuses, I slept for twenty hours straight, the last stretch spotted with nightmares involving my mother during her final days, shrunk down to seventy-five pounds, her body wreathed in the plastic tubing that kept it going. I woke up with cotton mouth and tremors, only six pills left in my stockpile, a departing care package from sweet Crystal.
I allowed myself a half Xanax to survive that first morning, fortifying myself for a slew of voice-mail messages from the irate customers I’d ignored during my stay at Druid Forest. Timmy Dennis wanted to know where the fuck his mallards were (slumped in the fridge, skin rancidity threatening their plumage quality). Duval Elliott had finally taken his kill, a prize buck with a Boone and Crockett antler spread of 143.6, “elsewheres.” Ben Horton didn’t want to pester me much but thought he should check on the status of his coon. Though I’d finally got that sucker in just the right pose, playfully pawing the air where a varnished bream would soon be gasping for its life, I hadn’t stuffed the fish—didn’t remember what I’d done with the carcass, in fact—plus the raccoon itself had no eyes.
I made some calls, cleaned Timmy’s birds, and picked out a set of rotating glass eyeballs for Ben Horton’s coon. By the time I finished up, it was 6:00 PM. My stomach was growling. So I microwaved a burrito, sat down in front of my laptop, and settled back into the slump of my bachelor ways. I checked my e-mail (more static from irate customers), checked E-Live (twenty-seven notifications and all of them bullshit), and, idling over Helen’s profile out of mindless compulsion, nearly fell out of my chair when I saw the words IN A RELATIONSHIP.
This sent me straight to the liquor store, where I bought a pint of Jack, a forty-ounce bottle of vodka, and two cases of Schlitz with ginseng and ginkgo biloba.
By midnight I was wasted, had gobbled half my precious Xanax reserve, had wrung myself dry over YouPorn. At 1:00 AM I was still staring at the screen—eyeballs dry, dick sore, face radiation-burned. I’d hunkered down to watch “She Blinded Me with Science” on YouTube, a nostalgic jolt from my middle-school era, when I noticed an ad in the upper-right-hand corner of my screen, that spot where Google dangled bait generated by my own e-mail content and pathetic surfing habits, taunting me with taxidermy-supply sales, penis-enlargement pills, and memberships to cut-rate gyms. But this was something different.
HAVE YOU EVER DREAMED OF BEING A GENIUS?
I could almost hear Crystal’s husky voice whispering into my ear: What’s the universe trying to tell you, Romie?
I clicked and read with a crazy sense of fate:
Males between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five, without coursework or degrees from four-year colleges or universities, are invited to participate in an intelligence enhancement study at the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience in Atlanta, GA. Testing period starts on June 30 and ends on August 15. Subjects will undergo a series of pedagogical downloads via direct brain–computer interface. Subjects will receive $6,000 compensation—$4,000 upon finishing a series of bioengineered artificial intelligence transmissions and $2,000 upon completing follow-up tests. Travel expenses paid. Room and board provided. Serious inquiries only. Contact Matthew Morrow, MD, PhD, 404.879.4857, firstname.lastname@example.org.
She is currently working on a novel about Hamadryas baboons, a species she has studied as an amateur primatologist. She teaches English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where she lives with her daughter and husband. She and her spouse, John Dennis, are founding members of the music collective Grey Egg.