by Tad Bartlett
Before John Flip grew up, became an accountant, had his brains eaten by maggots, and died, he was an only child in a house with no porch. The house was next door to the town sawmill. Log trucks rumbled day and night, punctuated by the clanging bite of metal blades into wood, the throaty tumble of fresh boards onto the conveyor belts to the train yard, and three times a day the shift-change whistle. But his parents were quiet, and so John was quiet, and the inside of the house was dark and filled only with the routine of the sawmill noise.
On family drives, John was a carsick child. The doctors had diagnosed him with a malformed inner ear, and the old Buick smelled of mildewed upholstery and his parents’ occasional cigarettes. John would sit limp in the corner between the back seat and the rear car door, his head resting against the window, the world passing by, falling-down country houses with porches he wanted to sit on where he could be still and away from the car—a cool breeze or a stray warm ray of sunshine. Sometimes John saw families gathered on those porches, talking, laughing, their hands engaged in something like shelling peas or folding sheets or cleaning guns.
John’s family had no porch on which to gather, and the space inside his house was stifled and mute. “Mother,” John said one Saturday at home, “why don’t we have a porch?”
“Why would we need a porch?” she asked, looking up from her book.
“To sit on when we’re together like this,” John said. “Like people do.”
John’s mom smiled, then shook her head. “Oh John, but we wouldn’t gather on it. It’s loud outside, and it can be either too hot or too cold. It would serve no purpose.” With that the subject was closed, and she returned to her book.
When John was a teenager, for a short time he believed he wanted that noise, that loudness outside. He went to a punk rock show at an abandoned steel furnace, concrete floors, rusted steel girders, corrugated metal walls and roof, sound waves assaulting him from all directions, echoed and magnified. Leaning next to a speaker stack, he felt the noise begin to eat him from the inside out, and he loved it, right until the moment when the thrashing distortion turned into a constant piercing whine. He clutched his head and made his way through the crowd and out the back door.
“Pierced eardrum,” the doctor said the next day.
“Is there anything we can do for him?” John’s mom asked.
“It might heal itself,” the doctor said, “or it might not. Time will tell, but it will always be scarred and fragile. John should avoid any more loud situations like that one, or it could get much worse.”
John’s mom turned to John, pursed her lips, and said, “Didn’t I tell you?”
“Yes, Mother.” John then committed himself to logic, to controllable environments, to calculable outcomes.
One afternoon when John was in college, the day after one of his many successive but unsuccessful roommates had moved out, taking the large stereo system and his smells of body odor and sweaty sneakers and crusted-over Chinese take-out with him, John was sitting at his desk in his dorm room. An accounting textbook was open before him on one side, and an open notebook on the other, marked with John’s neat, tight handwriting. The textbook and notebook were arranged perfectly in square with the desk top, the edges of the books parallel to the edges of the desk, an equal amount of space all around, balanced, proportional. Around him, John noticed that everything mirrored this order, everything in balance with everything else, nothing purposeless. In that moment John Flip was happy. This space he had created was his, solitary, undisturbed, unchaotic.
John graduated with a degree in economics and proceeded through the steps in his career toward a certification as an accountant and then to an ordered life as a tax strategist. He progressed with a quick and consistent cadence, like a swift yet silent marching band. He surrounded himself with purposeful space. John lived in a ground floor apartment in a complex of buildings very much like the buildings in the other complexes running many blocks down his suburban street from the lakefront to the main commercial strip. John heard that commercial strip, a broad and anonymous boulevard of big boxes and car dealerships, described as “cluttered,” but he didn’t see clutter there or in the progression of residential buildings on his street. He saw the order, the economic logic, the tax credits, the deductions, the depreciations, the capital outlays, and the budget short-falls.
As the apartment and condo complexes got closer to the main drag, John knew the adjusted gross income of their occupants decreased, and as the complexes stretched toward the lakeshore, John knew the units switched over from rented apartments to owned condominiums, appreciating assets, mortgage deductions belonging to higher-adjusted-gross-income occupants, many of them able to afford children, themselves handsome credits and deductions. The apartments were porch-less, but the condos, especially closer to the lake, had porches, shielded by flowering bushes from the street. The closer to the lake, the larger the porches. This was not square-footage that could have been included in the calculation for home office space deductions.
John lived in one of the units without a porch, and sometimes he felt his ordered universe rip momentarily, at a corner, and admit a chaotic mish-mash of aspirations and desires, non-deductible, inarticulable. But John could easily repair the rip, close his eyes and envision the spectra of incomes, credits, deductions, worksheets, investments, schedules, and plans of his street, and the radiating spectra of his suburb and his city. He indexed them. He categorized them. He confined them to forms.
But the rip was persistent. If John let his guard down, the unclassifiable world would intrude.
One day, John was in his car heading down his street past the cheaper apartments when he saw a woman in the parking lot in front of a building, struggling with the keys to her car. Her hair was disheveled. Bags over both her shoulders were slipping and pulling her jacket at an awkward angle. He thought he caught the flash of a deep green eye from under dark bangs as she saw him driving by. John felt the rip. Something about this woman refused to fit into his schematics, but he couldn’t place it.
John found himself hoping to see her again every time he drove down the street, driving slower and slower. Months passed with no sighting. He assumed she moved down the street, perhaps from the 1040EZ stretch of buildings to the regular Form 1040 complexes, though occasionally he saw what may have been the same car she was struggling with that day, still in the lot of the same complex. It was a depreciating asset.
He saw her again, finally, almost a year later. She was outside the door of one of the apartments in the building nearest the parking lot that ran on the street-side of the complex. Convenient, but noisier and cheaper. Perhaps she was practical and didn’t mind the noise. Perhaps her financial plan demanded it, some long-term aspiration of her own. As with the first time John saw her, she was fighting a number of bags, perhaps her groceries for the week, or a project brought home from work. John wondered then if maybe she were an accountant, too, and how lovely it might be to sit with her and do taxes together. Maybe she admired the logic of the tax code the way he did. John didn’t know if these thoughts were another rip in the fabric, or if they were an unexpected but perfectly enmeshed gear in his precise machinery. John filed away the number on the door where she stood—2B.
John determined that he needed to address the uncertainty of the woman in apartment 2B, so that he could place her in the appropriate category, know if and how she should fit in. A month after he saw her at her door, John Flip wrote a letter and mailed it to her:
Dear Woman in Apartment 2B,
I’m afraid that I have been rude. I have noticed you having trouble with your keys, and with transporting all of your bags between your apartment and your car. I’ve been remiss in not offering to help, but in not knowing you, it may have been presumptuous for me to have done so. So I should like to introduce myself to you so that I may stop by and help you the next time you are having trouble. I am not a dangerous freak. I am an accountant from down the street.
John hoped the letter conveyed a light heart and a possibility of friendship. John smiled just for a moment as he put a stamp on the envelope, then he drove to the mailbox on the corner and dropped it in. He would have to wait three days. He knew that the mail in his town must travel one hundred miles away to a central processing center, which would sort the envelopes to send them to all the other towns, in this case, back to his town, and back to his street, where it would find its way to the mailbox in the center of her complex. 2B.
John was patient. Then, on the third day, he woke to feel a rip again, something like hope or fear at the thought that she had received his note. John drove slowly by her apartment on his way to work. His car windows were down. Sure enough, there she was, struggling with her keys outside her car door. He stopped. She looked up.
“I’m Delilah,” she said. “Are you John?”
“Yes, I am. Delilah,” John replied, not so much to her but just to say something and to taste her name on his tongue.
“It’s very nice of you to offer to help,” she said, “and to send the letter.”
John got out of his car and stepped across the curb up to the parking lot. He kept a respectful distance. “Well, I wasn’t sure, it might seem weird, some stranger just offering to take your bags for you. But then the letter might have been stranger, but it seemed best to tell you who I am. An introduction.” John smiled, and hoped, aware that there was a struggle going on inside him, a tension between the rip and the schematics.
“No,” Delilah said, “it was cute. I laughed.”
“Well, I see you’ve got it under control today, your bags,” John said.
“Yes, this time. Thanks.” And they waved, little waves like for neighbors, and John stepped lightly back to his car.
That night, in the space between his planful thoughts for the next day and sleep, Delilah appeared as an image before him. “Delilah,” he said, his eyes closed, a smile turning up his lips. As he drifted off, the image of Delilah was joined by an image of him next to her, holding her hand, the two of them together on a porch swing, her head resting on his shoulder.
A common house fly meanders down from the ceiling and lands on John Flip’s ear lobe. John, asleep with thoughts of a swinging Delilah, a kissing Delilah, a dress-strap-slipping-off-one-shoulder Delilah, can’t be bothered to do more than flutter a hand in the general direction of his ear, which only causes the fly to walk a few steps closer to the entrance to John’s ear canal. After washing its front feet fastidiously, the fly crawls toward the warm darkness inside John’s ear, squeezes through a hole in his ear drum. The fly carefully works its way over to a depression next to John’s auditory nerve, where it lays 4,237 eggs before making its way back out of John’s ear and flying up to the ceiling to die.
John awakes, refreshed but perplexed by the night’s dreams. He feels an odd tickle in an unidentifiable portion of his head. “Hmm, damned sinuses,” he thinks aloud.
With his breakfast, John takes two and a half antihistamine pills, the precise dose his experience has informed him will clear any pressure from his sinus cavities while still allowing him the clear-headedness to drive to work and complete financial reports and tax forms for his clients. After brushing his teeth and taking his shower, then shaving and putting on the pants from his charcoal gray suit, the one he wears on Thursdays, and a white undershirt, the antihistamines still haven’t done the trick of eliminating his head tickle. Indeed, John feels even worse, not just the pressure in his head, but a disorientation, a feeling of dread, the feeling of the rip but without any specific cause of disorder showing itself.
John decides it is best he not go into work. He has 4.75 sick days remaining for the year. These are disappearing assets, if not consumed. John picks up his cell phone from his nightstand to call the office.
John dials the direct number for his secretary. She picks up after two rings, but all he hears on the other end of the line is a gnawing buzz, like his secretary has swallowed a tiny sawmill. When his head is clear and he’s feeling better, he will say something to her about her phone voice, but certainly not now. He hangs up and walks into the kitchen, wondering if he should double up on his vitamin C intake for the day with another glass of orange juice.
He feels something in his hand, vibrating, prickly, incessant. He stares down and sees he’s still clutching his cell phone. More accurately, from the evidence of his sight, he is clutching his cell phones in his hand. His vision splits and blurs. The tickling in his head turns into a persistent itching and squirming pressure behind his frontal sinus cavities. John decides it is time to call his doctor. Carefully, John picks out the numbers for his doctor’s office on the phones he holds in his hands. But the receptionist asking his information to make the appointment speaks with the same incomprehensible tiny sawmill buzz as had his secretary.
“Stop it!” John screams into the phone. “Speak right! Stop it!”
All he hears in response is more buzzing, more agitated than before. John takes the phones from his ear and stares at them in disbelief, then throws them on the floor and watches them break into a hundred pieces. John fills with something like anger, not an emotion with much purpose in his ordered approach to life. John needs to repair this rip once and for all. Of course, he thinks, maybe this oddness, this anger, this is all because of Delilah. Maybe. She is unanticipated. I don’t know, he thinks, what her purpose is here, how she fits in. And then John thinks, maybe this is no sinus infection at all. Maybe, he thinks, this is love or hate or ambivalence. And then he wonders if the rip can ever be repaired. He can’t summon up an image of a chart, a list, or a set of categories. He can’t find order.
His only images are a confusion of sitting alone in his childhood bedroom, of his parents’ unspeaking faces, of Delilah, smiling. John Flip pukes into the kitchen sink, or at least he hopes it’s the kitchen sink because he can’t really be sure where he’s aiming. His sight splits again, and the kitchen glares back at him, luminescent. The contents of the sink, or perhaps it’s a stack of dishes on the counter, or a pot on the stove—again, he can’t really be sure—glows a soothing orange, as if lit from within by a beachside sunset. John hears the waves roaring on the shore, a childhood vacation, his parents asleep in the motel room behind him, an infinity of water by his untrained youthful calculations ahead of him.
“Roaring on the shoring, roaring on the shoring,” he mutters, wiping drool from his chin. John knows he must get out of his kitchen, out of his apartment, that he must find Delilah.
“Delilah, Delilah, how you make me smilah,” he says as he trips over his shoes and lunges for one of the doorknobs rotating about his front door. He misses, crashing instead through the window beside the door and landing in the box shrub outside.
John brushes glass and grass and leaves and twigs from his hair and his clothes and begins to stalk barefooted, cut and bleeding, down the sidewalk in the direction of the main drag and Delilah’s apartment complex. “Delilah-lilah, only half a mile-ah,” he says.
John’s head feels like it’s growing. He feels his feet lift from the ground, like flight. His eyes fix on nothing until he finds himself banging on each of the sets of doors at Delilah’s apartment building.
“2B,” he says to whoever opens each door.
“Not 2B,” they say back, doors slamming.
John still bleeds from the cuts on his arms and feet. Finally, the letters and numbers swirling in front of him are 2s and Bs, and the doors are hers, and the faces that appear when the doors open are hers and not confused lonely men peering from pale faces. The Delilahs in his arms are hot and stiff as he embraces her. The light grows dim as her apartment walls bring him in.
He mutters, slobbers, fumbles, shrieks, everything to stop the buzzing coming out of her mouth, including kissing her, yes, kissing her, for real, not in dream, until she pushes him away and buzzes at him again, and to stop her he yells even louder, “I love Delilah, Delilah, she makes me smilah, lilah, excuse me, amuse me for a moment while I have a go-go at your jo-jo,” and then he runs deeper into her apartment, turning corners and bumping into walls until he is fairly sure he’s in her bathroom and the door is locked behind him and he is sweating and horrified at what the electric light bulbs are doing and so he turns them off and hopes he’s puking into the toilet and not onto her makeup table, and it won’t end, the puking, it just keeps coming like a Schedule K partnership report.
And when it does stop, finally, John breathes deeply. His heart rate slows down. He keeps his eyelids clenched tight. The world quiets. There’s a knock on the door.
“John? John, are you okay?” It’s Delilah. She isn’t buzzing. Had he kissed her? Had he professed his love for her? Had he really done these things?
John opens his eyes. He stares into the mirror, one mirror, at one of him looking back with puke crusted on his chin and splattered on his shirt. “Shit,” he whispers.
“What? John?” calls Delilah.
John opens the door. “Delilah, I’m in trouble.”
“You’re a mess. We have to get you to a hospital. You’re bleeding on the floor, John, and where are your shoes? My god, what’s that sme—?”
“Yes, a doctor. A doctor.” And John passes out, the world going dark, Delilah slipping up into purple, a sky not nighttime and not daytime, but of some peaceful chaos, maybe space, but no stars, just Delilah, and pleasant, seductive, Delilah, and buzzing, and scents, and purple, and purple, and purple, and rolling, then yelling, then nothing, nothing but more purple, and then erotic dream flashbacks, secretary, IRS forms, bosoms, mom, horrified, dad, home late from work which for him is on time, fake wood paneled insides of his head, nudie calendars stuck on June, lilac blooms of perfume, Delilah kissing him, Delilah whispering to him, Delilah buzzing, secretary buzzing, purple buzzing, mom buzzing, black buzzing, buzzing, sawmills, gnawing, wooden decomposing rot, hot childhood car backseat puke bags, the one dog little Johnny isn’t allergic to, licking his face and it won’t stop, the licking, the tongue, not until it’s dead, the flies crawling around its eyes where he and dad find the damned thing half-flat on the roadside before bringing it back to bury behind their porch-less house, and then black. Nothing. John’s eyes open.
There is Delilah, or rather, there are Delilahs, eight of her, rotating around the periphery of his vision, while in the center are eight nurses. All the faces’ mouths open together, and all the mouths emit the loudest possible buzz.
“What? What are you saying?” John asks, or at least he thinks he asks, as he only hears the buzzing louder, feels it in his chest and in his throat. “Saying-braying, moating-throating,” John thinks he might say to them, but he doesn’t know what he actually says. John grabs at his arms, feels plastic tubing, tape, metal needles, blood red-warm and juicy sliding into the crevices of his fingernails. He pulls, he scrapes, he hits out at cautious hands. He sees the faces, the Delilah faces and the nurse faces, retreat, disappear from his vision, and he is free and alone. He feels his feet on cold floors, end result of a violent industrial process cleaving off into perfectly neat twelve-inch-by-twelve-inch squares, passing now beneath John’s feet, his legs and pelvis and belly and chest and jowls barely registering the pounding that repeats up into his brain as he runs, ricocheting off of a wall or a doorway or a doctor, kicking something out of his way, an oxygen cart or an old lady or a dog or a bowl of oranges, citrus fresh with sun from California or Brazil, where the beaches are filled with oilcan grills topped with chicken on wooden skewers, unreported income.
John is lost. He stands still for a moment, just one moment, a brief eyeflash, a fly-flash, then he darts in a direction ninety degrees perpendicular to the line he’s been traversing, and this time there is nothing grabbing at him or percussing into him and he forgets to pay much mind to his sense of touch, like for a moment his skin has hardened, a protective exoskeleton, and he dives into his other senses.
The world is loud. Through a cacophony of squeals and beeps and engine growls, more buzzing and the little pitter-patter of insect steps, John tries to locate, to fixate on anything identifiable, discrete, tries to hone in on something familiar. Regaining his sense of touch, John feels the slipperiness of linoleum give way to rough concrete, feels heat against his hair. Knowing that if he continues flailing forward in a straight line, he will eventually walk out into traffic, and that the same might happen if he flails left or right, John sits down.
The heat still hits him hard on top of his head, but the concrete of the sidewalk is cool on his butt and on the cuts on his legs. John tries not to panic. He inventories his situation. A world of sinus problems, the buzzing talk of everyone he meets, skin slashed from glass and punctured by needles and hospital tubes, one drafty hospital gown, one hot head, one cold butt, an apartment he doesn’t know how to get to, a stomach full of something vile, and Delilah. Delilah. That’s it.
“Delilah, Delilah, how you make me smilah!” John shouts. Nothing happens. He yells again, louder, “Delilah, Delilah, how you make me smilah!” He hears a noise separating from the general roar—a louder set of footsteps, running, sirens. John yells louder, “Delilah, Delilah, how you make me smilah!” And then the footsteps transform into a great buzzing, concern and love, warmth without heat, embarrassment, he knows it all in an instant, his emotional senses strengthening already to make up for the deficit in his physical senses. He yells again, “Delilah, Delilah, how you make me smilah!” and then smooth, small hands close around his arms, pull him, lift him, shove him, pinch him, caress him, buzz of sweet angry somethings into his ears, push him, manhandle him, womanhandle him, and then softness against his body, upholstery, a summer-heat smell of car and wet dog, the loudest slam of cardoor slammings he has ever known, and then quiet. Sweet quiet.
He wants to hear her say “John, oh John, we have to get you somewhere safe, somewhere warm, somewhere where I can hold you and you can hold me, and we can drink wine, and we can make love, and we can be married on a mountainside pathed with snow and overlooking a beach with a sky of tropical birds and waves topped with surfers gliding godlike and effortless over a reef with the most magnificent tropical fish, and you will say ‘I do,’ and I will say ‘I do,’ and we will, John, we will,” but all he hears from her is more of that buzzing, that same buzzing that comes from everyone and everything, and he wants to look at her and see her smile at him, but when he looks in the direction of her buzzing he sees nothing, and when he tries to wipe the nothing from his vision, he only comes up with hands full of something sticky and oozing and, he is sure, vile-smelling, and then, just for a brief moment he wishes he were not living.
But he is so glad to be in a car with her, and to imagine what she might be saying to him, and then he says it back to her: “Delilah-smilah, how I love you, too, and blue, and blue, and when you let me make love, we move when we love, we move when we love, Delilah-lilah, how you make me smilah-lilah, you do.” And in an instant he knows it isn’t true, that they have not made love, though he also knows it is true, that he does love her, and that perhaps she could love him, too. And so it comes to be that John no longer wishes he were not living, but instead wishes that he were not dying, because, as wonderful and chaotic and confusing as it would be for John to continue down this path oblivious to the true state of his health, it is unfortunately true that he now knows there could be no other ending for him.
“Delilah, lilah,” he says, “in the end of friends and amends. You know, do you know? Snow?” he asks, followed, smiling through it all, by, “And beach and fish, wish, that’s it, Lilah, wish wish wish wish, and smilah, lilah.”
And then John begins to feel it, not a rip, but a tension and a pop. First one small pop, like a tiny rubber band, those rubber bands kids wear on their braces, stretching taut inside his head, behind his eyeballs, so taut that it can no longer stretch, and then stretching more before giving way and popping back on itself, and then more bands and stretching and popping, distinctly popping, increasing in volume and repetition like popcorn kernels going in the boiling oil of the pan, and just like that, until John feels that his head is going to pop off, just like the lid of that pan, overfilled with happiness and realization and bile and life and death, and then, right when his head does not pop off, the popping begins to subside, until John knows nothing but the waiting between pops, the silence, the spent energy, and then one final pulling, tautness forever, impossible that it could stretch this big, stretching out longer than his head, larger than this car that he might still be in, larger than John’s universe of knowing, never giving way, never reaching that last point where the band can stretch no further.
Maybe it’s the waiting that kills him, or the silence, or the fact of having reached that Southern-front-porch-creaky-porch-swing-on-a-summer-night-with-bourbon-and-cigarettes point of being fulfilled, of having figured it all out, all of it, right down to the point where you know and he knows and she knows and we all know there is nothing more, and so there shall be none.