by Jori Sackin
Stuck in line at the grocery store, you look at the magazines on the metal racks by the counter. There is one for crossword puzzles, sudoku, soap operas, a magazine for housekeeping and then there is Cosmo. The management has placed a rectangular piece of thin black plastic over the Cosmo, so you can't see the body of the woman or the suggestive headlines surrounding her, though you can still see the name of the magazine and the top of the word "Sex" peeking out above the crisp line of plastic. For a moment you wonder whether they meant to put it there. Maybe it was an accident and the plastic is supposed to be behind the magazines. A lazy or inattentive stocker perhaps. But it's only the Cosmo. You shift the weight in your heels as you take one step toward the register.
The woman's eyes printed clean and flat on the shiny cover follow you as you shuffle in line. They are dark, her makeup dark, what your friends jokingly refer to as "raccoon eyes". You can see the beginnings of two red spaghetti straps, two thin red lines, moving down her shoulders. Her blond hair is slicked back as if she's just got out of a pool, but from the four inches of cover you can see, there is no pool around. She appears to be standing in a white colonial looking room, a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling behind her. You look down to the rows of bubble gum, over to the breath mints and then back up to her head floating in that white room, her body severed by the flat black plane.
You realize you've been staring for a uncomfortable amount of time, look over your shoulder, reach for the more modest Housekeeping that sits next to it and blindly flip through the pages until you stop on a big spread about gardening. The article begins with a glossy photo of a young couple, the woman kneeling, cupping a seedling in her hands, about to place it in the earth. There is the word "Gardening" written in swirly old timey cursive that sprawls across the trees above them. She is looking at the little seedling in her hands, which leans in such away that sends your gaze back up to the man, who is looking down at the woman. Your eyes repeat this cycle of movement a few times before you turn the page.
Back at the house you rummage through a small metal box that you keep by the front door. Hats and scarves and other seasonal items get tossed in there throughout the year. The gardening gloves are on the bottom, turned inside out, from the last time you used them. They are especially stiff as you put them on. The palms are covered in a thin grey rubber that's hardened over the last year. You push your hands into them and hear the slight cracking of material. It feels odd putting them on, uncomfortable, as if you are pulling someone else's hands over your own. The gloves are a bit too small. A bit too old. But not too small or too old to send you to the store to buy another pair.
Outside you stand in front of the garden hose coiled around one of those metal things that hangs on the sides of houses. Is there a name for them? You think about going inside and getting your phone to look it up. It's a half metal circle with two prongs that stick out, holding the hose there. You are supposed to coil it neatly, turning as you circle it around, or at least that's how you imagine other people doing it. Your hose hangs in a tangled mess, so tangled you can't figure out where it begins and where it ends, and so, instead of uncoiling, you put both hands around, lift it up, and with a slight grunt, dump it on the ground.
As you turn the spigot, it makes a high pitched scream, spurting and dripping out the sides. The water forces its way through, as you walk toward the backyard holding the twisty brass nozzle, occasionally looking back as you watch the tangled mess snake itself into a slightly smaller mess. The water shoots out as you spray down the plants soaking everything in front of you. You adjust the nozzle and it changes to a narrow stream. Hits the dirt hard, flattening the weeds, forcing the mulch away, knocking back the soil and exposing the roots. You drown the plants, change it to a fine mist and walk around spraying things indiscriminately.
It suddenly dawns on you that maybe watering is not the first thing you should be doing. What few beds you have are full of weeds. You turn the hose off, find a trowel and sit down next to a particularly thick bed and start digging. The dirt is wet and heavy now though you still manage to excavate a perfect square of ground, dig a little deeper, keep digging. The action is so satisfying. Pushing the trowel into the earth, shoveling out the dirt and tossing it to your right. You stop after you hit something hard, even out the sides with the trowel until it's a perfect circle, kneel over it and peer inside. Roots stick out the walls like frail little fingers and there is some gravel at the bottom from the old driveway that used to be there. You were hoping for some buried treasure, a jar full of gold coins, a long lost wedding ring, at the very least, a couple of marbles.
The dirt is wet and dark, dark like the woman's eyes. You imagine her head down there, that disembodied floating head, down in the carved out dirt. You see it there, sitting motionless, eyes closed. No more colonial white room. No more chandelier. Her hair still wet. Her makeup flawless. Not the tiniest fleck on her. She is not so much resting in the hole, but hovering in it, waiting. Her eyes open. She looks up at you. She rises. Rises until she is floating in the air, not quite head level, but not so high as to run into the low hanging electrical wires that sweep across your yard in a hard diagonal line. She has the same cool ambivalent stare that looks past you, past the 6 foot tall cherry wood privacy fence, past the hedges that your neighbor works so hard to maintain, to a distant point, somewhere you will never know, never see with your own eyes.
You continue your work. Get a red plastic bucket and start to fill it up with weeds and saplings that you pull from the ground. Her head floats behind you, following, but never looking, never acknowledging you are there. You clear out one bed then move to the other. She floats to the bird bath, her wet blond hair dripping in the sunlight, her dark eyes silently piercing the walnut tree by the garage. You get the bucket, dump it into a paper refuse bag and walk it to the front of the house. The woman's eyes smolder as she follows, disgusted, disappointed. Every step you take, you somehow fail to impress her, each action seems a colossal waste of her time. After dropping the bag by the curb and stuffing it closed, you walk back to the yard. Even a simple thing as walking makes you feel boring, unimportant, that somehow you are doing it wrong, that somewhere, someone is walking to their backyard so much better, doing it with more complexity, more intensity, with more personality than you.
Picking up the hose and with a particularly hard narrow stream, you spray her, watch the water go straight through. She turns her face away, as if this is exactly the kind of thing she would expect. You continue to spray, until you realize the arc of your stream is falling into your neighbors yard directly on their plastic patio set. You quickly turn it off and drop it in the grass. Decide to call it a day. Wind up the hose and throw it back near where its supposed to go. Leave the tools in the yard. Go inside. Stand in the kitchen. Look out the window, out to the red bucket lying in the grass. When you bought the house the woman that owned it had a beautiful garden. You remember seeing it that first year as the realtor walked you around the empty rooms. You were standing in the kitchen, right in the spot you are now, your hands resting on the cool ceramic sink, as you gazed outside to the blooms of all those plants you will never know the names of.
You make some tea. Take a few careful sips. The floating head is next to the refrigerator staring at your drawings that you've hung with little cat magnets. She is not impressed, not impressed with the drawings, with the magnets, with your kitchen. Her gaze penetrates past the white metallic door of the fridge, into the half empty glass cabinets, the gallon of 2% milk, pineapple, bubbly water and carrots. "Those carrots are not organic", she seems to be thinking. "This is bullshit." You take a few more sips of tea before you head upstairs.
In the bathroom you pull your pants down, sit on the toilet and stare at her hovering over the tub. She seems to be getting bigger. You weren't sure before. You thought you'd noticed small shifts in size but in the confines of the tiny bathroom, you can definitely see she is growing, about four times the size of a normal head now. She is not so much looking at you, but staring deeply into the white subway tile that is right behind you. You flush the toilet. Look in the mirror. Smile like you always smile at yourself. You see her in the reflection behind you. Her expression doesn't change. Every once in a while the corners of her mouth will turn down, her gaze will harden, and she will stare more intensely, but that's about it. You open the medicine cabinet, pop a few ibuprofen and go to the living room, lie down with your laptop and search, "floating head" which leads you quickly to "floating demon head" which brings up all sorts of stuff.
"Penanggalan" is the first wiki link you click on. It is a Malaysian floating head. Usually a woman. They detach from their body, the entrails still hanging, attack and prey on women, mostly pregnant or young girls, by drinking their blood. Back home they store their body in a big vat of vinegar so as to preserve it while their head is gone. Supposedly you can see them flying at night, their entrails sparkling in the moonlight. You look behind to examine your floating head. She is reading over your shoulder. It is the first time she has shown interest in anything. She has no entrails. No sparkles of any kind. You read further. "The most common remedy prescribed to protect against an attack is to scatter the thorny leaves of a Mengkuang, which would either trap or injure the exposed lungs, stomach and intestines as it flies in search of its prey. Once trapped, a Penanggalan who attacks the house can then be killed with a machete."
You click on a few other wikipedia links, which leads you to a few other evil demon floating heads from different cultures. There's the Rokurokubi from Japan, the Leyak from Bali, and the Manananggal from the Philippines, who is not so much a floating head but a woman that can detach half of her body. She has a large pair of batwings and a long thin tongue that she uses to drink people's blood, usually the blood left over from pregnancy. All of them are women, cursing people, making them sick, drinking their blood with the same long skinny tube-like tongues, often at night while sleeping in bed. Your floating head does not seem to be doing any of these things. She is calmly reading the internet with you on the couch, floating over your shoulder, her large eyes transfixed by the glow of your tiny screen.
You light some candles, put your reading glasses on, get a glass of water and set it next to the kitchen knife and pineapple you have on your nightstand. It is the closest thing to a Mengkuang that you could find on such short notice. You lie down and pick up a book you've been reading on and off. Flip through a few pages and look up. She is gazing out the window, out to your neighbor Michael's house. His wife won't let him smoke inside, so often at night he sits on the porch. From your window you can usually see the tiny red cherry glowing in the darkness, but not tonight, because her head takes up the entire bay window. All you can see is the back of her slick translucent blond hair. It seems long, but kind of fades away as it trails further down. Just disappears. Your gaze falls back to the book, then over to the pineapple, the kitchen knife laying next to it. "She just doesn't seem very interested in sucking my blood," you think. "She doesn't seem very interested in anything I do." You read another page, put your bookmark inside, blow out the candle and go to sleep.
In the morning you wake suddenly to the alarm. Eyes open. Arm flails out to turn it off. Eyes close. Try to get back to that warm place that's rapidly fading. You lie there awhile, not wanting to get up, but too antsy to stay in bed. Open your eyes again. Stare up at the light fixture and then over to the floating head. She has grown quite large overnight. About as big as a minivan. You have to get out of bed and flatten yourself against the wall to avoid her. Awkwardly pull open your dresser with your left hand and grab a pair of pants and a shirt. You dress in the hallway then go downstairs for a bowl of cereal. She floats through the walls, through the house with ease. She does not seem to mind objects though you are still wary of touching her.
Her head is quite translucent now. As you eat your cereal, you can see her face, but also the painting hanging behind her. You take another bite. "I can't just keep calling her, the floating head," you think. "She needs a name. Something like, Deborah?" You look to see if her face makes any expression. It does not. "Sandy? Vivian?" You finish your bowl, put your shoes on and prepare to go to work. "Samantha? Silvia? Elizabeth?" She floats into the living room with you, stares at the rug you bought at Target and then follows you out the door.
In the car you drive through some light early morning traffic. For some reason you brought the pineapple with you. It bobbles around in the passenger seat as you twist and turn your way through the city. "Megan? Melissa? Maybe you're more of a Denise?" As you drive, the head hovers directly over the top of the car as if they are connected by some magical interlocking force. When you take a right, she takes a right, completely in sync with the movement of the wheel. You pull alongside a truck, two men smoking, windows up, radio blaring. They look over to you. They do not seem to be able to see the floating head, or they act like it's no big deal to be driving to work in the morning with a floating head hovering above you, staring deeply into the oncoming traffic, looking so painfully bored to have to be floating above a 1995 Toyota Civic. "Why can't I be floating above a real car," she seems to be thinking. "With real people." You shift into gear and lurch forward.
You decide on Deborah. It was the first one you thought of and she seems indifferent to anything you call her, "So Deborah from now on," you say as you walk through the parking lot. Deborah trails leisurely behind as you swing open the door to the building and step inside. You work in the classified department of The Kansas City Star. It's stuffed awkwardly into an old bank building from the 1930's, sliced up and subdivided into grey cubicles. There is still some leftover architectural glory though. Some of the columns are hand painted. The ceiling is pressed tin and soars forty feet high. There is a chandelier in the middle of the room. They don't turn it on anymore. Hard to change the light bulbs. Deborah floats near the chandelier as you sit at your desk and check your email.
It's funny. You can almost hear her voice in your head now, hear her comment on little things, like your messy desk, the kid's cereal you eat for breakfast, the way you stop at stop signs. Deborah does not like it. "Why can't you get yourself organized," your hear her say. "Why don't you eat adult cereal? You're not 13 anymore. Why do you have to hit the brakes so hard? Gentle!" For awhile you thought it was your thoughts, your inner voice, but now that you examine it, this is a different tone, a different feeling. It slips in underneath, like a low frequency hum, one that for the longest time you don't know is there, until you hear it, then you can't stop hearing it, then it's all you hear.
Even when she's not around, even when she's floating up by the ceiling, forty feet in the air, you still hear her voice. "What a shitty job. I can't believe this is what you do for a living. You can barely type. Look how many mistakes you're making. And you're slouching. Sit up straight! You're going to be one of those old men whose back curves so badly, all he can do is look at his feet. Is that what you want? You don't even know what you want. You don't even know the names of the people you work with. Quick, who is that guy walking by you right now? What's his name? Derrick? Dennis? He's worked her for six years. Walked by you everyday. Last week he told you his wife was in the hospital. Do you remember why? Cancer? A broken leg? You don't listen when people talk to you. What are you paying attention to? What's so god damn important that you can't listen to people when they talk?"
You stop the voice. For a moment. Feel constricted. Pulsing. Like a trapped animal. You get up and drink some coffee, but the voice trails after you. "Look at you using a styrofoam cup just so you can drink your burnt coffee in the morning, coffee you don't even want to be drinking and then you're going to throw it in the trash and its going to be hauled out to some landfill and its going to sit there forever. Generations of men and women will be born, live and die and that cup will be sitting there because of you." You shut your eyes hard, then reopen them, sip the black liquid, put two sugar cubes in and walk back to your desk. Continue to slouch in your chair. Continue to make mistakes as you type. After you finish, you drop the cup in the trash. Look at it sitting there in the shiny black plastic.
Your heart thumps. For six solid hours you are overwhelmed with work, with tasks, with the joys and terrors of checklists. There are moments when you forget about Deborah, that you forget her voice, that you dissolve into your responsibilities, into the frantic pace, the sheer exhilaration of having a purpose, however small. Walking back to the car, Deborah has shrunk a bit, but her voice is still strong. You feel it sharply as you open the car door, see the piece of interior mauve plastic that's fallen on your floor mat. It appeared there a few weeks ago. You are sure it's come from your car as it's the same color, but you haven't figured out where it goes. "You said you were going to fix that two weeks ago," she says as you kick it underneath the seat and turn the key. "You graduated from college and you can't figure out how to put a piece of plastic back on a car?"
It is these simple things that give you the most trouble. Your porch light burn out. Three months ago. All you need to do is go to the store and buy a light bulb. But for some reason you can't. You just can't find time. But at night, going to sleep, you feel like you haven't done anything all day. You lie there and think, "What did I do with myself? Tomorrow I'll make time to fix the light bulb. I'll figure out where that mysterious piece of plastic came from," but then you are in your car again driving to work, and then it's over and you are kicking it underneath the seat, driving back home. You are opening your door and flicking on the light and remembering it doesn't work. You are in bed, staring up at the light fixture, telling yourself the same thing all over again.
The next morning you decide to call in sick for work. You go into the backyard and fill in the hole with dirt. Deborah watches with a slight bit of interest. She at least has come outside. Lately she hasn't been following as closely as she used to. Sometimes you'll move from one room to the other and she'll just stay where she is. You'll have to walk back in and try and get her attention. Make more of a production about it. You're not sure why you do this. But for some reason it pisses you off. You tamp the dirt with your shovel, thinking this might get rid of her. In some ways, you like her here though. You like her, but are starting to make plans on how to get rid of her. It's complicated. You look over to see her floating above the red bucket. Filling the hole seemed to do nothing. You can't tell if her expression actually changes or if you just imagine it does, but she almost looks amused. Just a hint of a smile on her lips.
You decide you need to get away from the house. Drive out to a park you used to go to as a child. Sit in the grass. Make sure not to get too close to the other people that are there, lying around, smoking weed, eating lunch. You stake out a spot and sit. Close your eyes. Maybe if you concentrate hard enough, Deborah will disappear. You try this but all you can think of is Deborah. It makes it worse. Her voice becomes loud. You slow down your breath. Listen closely. Concentrate. You watch as this strange internal voice speaks to you, "What are you doing? Do you think this is really going to work? This is stupid. People are looking at you. They're gong to think your weird. Do something! Don't just sit here! What a waste of time!" This is Deborah's voice. But Deborah is just floating there.
"I imagine Deborah," you think. "I take her perspective. I become her so I can look at myself. But maybe this isn't what she's thinking? Maybe she's trapped. Maybe she's the helpless one. Maybe she's lost and has come to me for help? Why do I have this image of her as being so critical? Where did that come from? She doesn't say anything." You try to concentrate on that voice, that voice you have ascribed to Deborah which after careful attention you decide is your own. Your mind is furiously churning now. You feel internal walls closing in on you. You can't help but open your eyes, get up, move your body, flail your arms around, run in place, something, anything to get this pulsating energy out of your body.
You stop for a moment and look. For the first time Deborah has stopped moving and is staring at you. Her eyes are large and glassy, as large as fishbowls. You walk over to her. Stand facing each other. You hear the wind rustle the leaves. You hear people throwing a baseball back and forth in the distance. A couple talking, murmuring. The rustle of food wrapped in plastic. You hear your own breath. At first you think of it as an interruption. Your breath is getting in the way of hearing the things around you. But the more you listen, the more you question why you think that.
You sit down again and focus. Really concentrate and listen. When you open your eyes Deborah is smaller, about the size of a bowling ball. You focus on your breath the whole way home. In the car you drive listening to the sound your breath makes with the engine, with the tires on the street, with the honking of the cars. In the parking lot, you listen to your breath with the sound of the grocery carts rattling down a hill, with pigeons on the sidewalk, with the mechanical doors opening as you step toward them. In the store you listen to your breath with the buzz of the fluorescent lights, with the beeping of the registers, with the laughing of a woman as you walk past.
You stop at the metal rack and pull the Cosmo out from behind the black plastic square that covers it. You listen to your breath with the sound that your thumb makes turning the glossy pages, with the sounds of your footsteps as you walk to the backyard, with the sounds of your shovel as you dig out the hole in the flower bed. You place the magazine in the hole. Kneel before it. Deborah is as big as a matchbook now, and she is locked in a dead stare directly in front of you. You close your eyes and listen harder. As hard as you've ever listened to anything before.
You hear the birds chirping, the squirrels squawking, thousands of insects calling to each other in languages you will never understand. You listen to the dog in your neighbors yard barking, a metal fence opening and closing, a police siren going off in the distance. And then, gradually, all these sounds become one sound. There is no more squirrel sound. No more dog sound. There is just sound. And your breath is part of that. It's not interrupting. It's just another instrument. You are part of this one long symphonic piece of music that never stops, that plays continuously without an audience, without anyone being able to exist outside of the performance.
You throw some dirt down on the Cosmo as you imagine someone might do at a funeral. The black flecks fall onto the woman's face, onto her dress, onto the white colonial room, the chandelier suspended in the background. Soon the dirt covers her body. Soon you can't see her face, or the room she's in, or the red straps of her dress. And soon the magazine is gone and there is just a lump of black dirt that you stand over and pat with your shovel. There is a quiet you feel that lasts only an instant, but it's all you need.
You look around the yard. Deborah has gone. You don't know whether she has really left or if she is just so small you can no longer see her. You go inside. Clean yourself up. You do miss her though. Going to bed you find your kitchen knife sitting on the bedside table and you smile and think of her, and you think of the pineapple that still sits in your passenger seat that rolls around while you drive, and you stand at your bay window and look out, out past the fragile panes of glass, out to the darkness of the world, to your neighbor smoking his cigarette in the cold night air, to the tiny ember of light, the bright red cherry that glows with each and every breath.