by Christopher Ahart
Crenshaw woke up with a splitting head.
It began the night before as a tiny, almost unnoticeable fracture, but as his brain burbled and churned through frenzied dreams, the fracture turned to a fissure and, ultimately, a split.
Crenshaw felt only the slightest pain, an itch really, before his pillow was besotted with cranial fluids and tallow. He felt the stirrings of alarm upon waking and rushed to the bathroom to assess the damage. Holding a small mirror behind his splitting head, he was vaguely horrified to see a breach in his skull measuring almost an inch wide at its apex. The hair around the opening was moist and matted, and in some places the fluids had begun to cake and crystallize. Crenshaw scratched at an uncracked part of his head and wondered what to do. He was due at the office in forty-three minutes.
He turned a wary eye at the shower and thought of skipping it altogether, but he’d had six Scotch and sodas the night before while thumbing through some briefs and memos. Surely the reek of liquor was on him like over-cooked rice.
He bolted to the hall closet and pulled down his box of sporting goods. He tore into it and tossed an old deflated football this way and an unraveling tennis racket that way. He stumbled on a fencing trophy from his college days. He smiled and sighed and thought of when he was illuminated and sporty. His splitting head itched anew and he pulled out a bathing cap from his days as an amateur diver. He pulled the bathing cap gingerly over his skull. The taut latex pulled the crack closed.
Crenshaw scurried to the shower and lathered himself vigorously. He sang snatches of “All Shook Up” while he scrubbed at his armpits, torso, and nether regions.
Showered, Crenshaw chose his brown suit, beige shirt, and pumpkin tie. He still wore the bathing cap.
He tied his leather oxfords and returned to the hall closet. “No one wears hats anymore,” he thought, “but I’m caught in a pickle here.” (He wasn’t aware that people had long since stopped using the phrase “in a pickle.”) His church hosted a yard sale a few years before, and he wasn’t sure if he’d offered up his derby or not. Finally, he rested his clammy hand upon a crumpled felt object behind his bowling ball bag.
After much unrumpling and remolding, and after a thorough go-over with a lint brush, the hat was presentable. Crenshaw pulled the bathing cap from his head in one quick jerk, the way one might remove a hair-bound band-aid. He sat the hat upon his head and tilted it back, Bing Crosby style, to cover the crack in the back of his skull. He appraised himself in a full-length mirror and was resolutely pleased. As an afterthought, he grabbed a cane. Smartly assembled, he heaved a heavy sigh and stepped out of his apartment to make his way to the office, looking like he’d just strolled out of a James Thurber narrative, with the exception of the slow trickle of fluid seeping out of his skull under his derby hat, making its way to his beige shirt collar.
. . .
Crenshaw was on his lunch break. He sat in a diner on 47th and Camellia sipping black coffee from a dingy ceramic mug. His club sandwich sat untouched on a plate with some cold, picked-over fried potatoes. A woman with a large mole on her left temple sat at the table adjacent to his, working fitfully over a crossword puzzle. She was using a fountain pen, and both the puzzle and her fingers were blotted with blue ink. Occasionally she looked up from the bruised puzzle to summon the waitress to refill her coffee cup.
Crenshaw lit an unfiltered cigarette and took a tentative drag. He instantly heard his dead mother’s voice echoing in his (cracked) head. Those things’ll kill ya. I didn’t think I raised a complete numbskull. Keep it up, and those things’ll put you into an early grave.
In answer to his mother’s diatribe, he absent-mindedly uttered, “If I love them, they can’t hurt me.”
He thought the same about his wife and children, but they’d been gone for over a year. He’d arrived home from the office one dreary night to find a note from his wife. “I’ve taken the children back to Des Moines. We will live with my parents until I can find a decent job. If you love your children, you’ll make no attempt to contact them.”
He pulled deeply on his cigarette and held the smoke in his lungs for a few long seconds. When he released the gray-white plume through his pursed lips, he did so with remorse. He watched the cloud of smoke sail stoically to the ceiling fans, where it was assailed and spliced and dissipated with brute force. His breath caught in his throat, and he let out a little groan as though he had just witnessed an infant being mauled by starving tigers. He took notice of how diminished the shaft of the cigarette already was, and he hesitated to take another drag. It anguished his heart to watch the red-hot tip eating its way through the tender white paper, working hungrily toward his yellowed fingers. He took another deep drag and his slate-grey eyes brimmed with tears. The lump in his throat ached like a stiff joint, and he knew he would have to smoke this cigarette to its completion, until the cherry greedily ate white lightning into his fingers and his trembling lips.
He took his ketchup-stained napkin and surreptitiously dabbed at the nape of his neck, where the split in his skull had begun to weep.
. . .
On his way back to the office, Crenshaw stopped into a bar for a quick libation.
The jukebox played “Moon River.” The establishment was dimly lit and so short on patrons that Crenshaw could almost hear the buzz of the neon beer logos mingling with the ghostly music of Henry Mancini. He stepped up to the bar and perched upon a creaky stool.
The bartender was working halfheartedly on a crossword puzzle at the other end of the bar. He was busily cramming two or three letters into one blank square when he realized he had a customer. He tossed his ballpoint pen onto the tortured puzzle and ambled over to Crenshaw’s side of the bar. “What can I get for ya, bud?”
To Crenshaw, the man appeared to be constructed of knuckles, calluses, and potted meat. He had an ugly scar coursing through his right eyebrow that, to Crenshaw, looked strikingly like a fault line, or a crack. “I’d like a Scotch and soda,” he answered.
Wordlessly, the bartender went to work making Crenshaw’s drink. Crenshaw grew a little nervous as he watched the man pouring the single malt over the ice cubes. The Scotch was rising impetuously in the highball glass, and Crenshaw nibbled at his lower lip in trepidation. The liquor rose to the summit of the ice. The bartender poured half an ounce of club soda over the top of the Scotch and carried the drink to his patron. He rested the glass on a new cocktail napkin and retired to his crossword puzzle.
Crenshaw stared at the drink as though it was the severed head of an infant prince. He heard the sizzling and cracking of ice in the glass, and his heart grew cold, crystallizing his blood. After a few moments, the bartender took a bored glance at his customer. Seeing that Crenshaw hadn’t touched the beverage, he hollered, “Well, are ya gonna drink it or not?”
“I—I’m afraid it’s, um, not right,” Crenshaw stammered.
“Whadda ya mean it’s not right? It’s a Scotch and soda, isn’t it?” The calloused heap of a man walked solidly over to Crenshaw.
“Well, you see,” answered Crenshaw, “I like for it to be the color of boiled sugar, just before it turns to caramel.” Crenshaw’s mother used to make the most delectable hard caramel when he was a child. She put a pot of sugar water on the stove every Sunday after church and simmered it until it turned to bubbling gold. At the last moment, she swirled ribbons of melted butter into the sweet, hot lava and poured it over a greased sheet pan. The candy went into the freezer to harden and crack.
The bartender was glaring menacingly at Crenshaw. The split in Crenshaw’s skull began to throb and perspire.
“Whadda ya want me to do about it?” the bartender finally growled.
“Could you just pour it into a larger glass and add a little more soda?”
The man snatched the highball and slopped its contents into a large water glass. He threw a few more ice cubes over the top and added another ounce of soda. He stirred the drink recklessly with a long spoon and thrust the new glass in front of his solitary client. “Is that better?”
“It’s perfect, thanks,” Crenshaw responded nervously.
“I don’t know why ya don’t just go home and make your own damn drink,” the bartender mumbled. He shuffled away fuming and returned to his crossword.
Crenshaw sipped his drink and glanced at the television hanging over the bar. In the upper right-hand corner, he could just barely discern a small fracture in the screen. It may have been his imagination, but he was sure there was something—some liquid ozone or Technicolor ooze—seeping from the fracture and trickling down the dusty surface. He fought the urge to climb up on the bar and dab away at the seepage with his cocktail napkin. Instead, he tucked the damp swatch of paper under his derby hat and drained his glass of boiled sugar.
. . .
That night, Crenshaw’s sleep was wracked with nightmares. One dream was so vivid that he remembered it in great detail when he awoke.
He was standing naked in a field of old wrecked cars and motorboats. He could hear several car alarms in the distance, but they were bereft of the intensity that made them alarming. Crenshaw closed his eyes and soaked in the music of incessant, yet somehow muted, horns and sirens. Somewhere a dilapidated ambulance was trapped nose-first in a sand dune. The stifled caterwaul of its siren fell upon dead ears, as none of these immobile vehicles was about to defer to the land-ensconced emergency vehicle.
The symphony of sirens was interrupted by the rather ominous growl of a six-cylinder engine. Crenshaw opened his eyes to see a large Buick sedan deftly snaking its way through piles of automotive carnage. The Buick was approaching him head on, yet Crenshaw could not see anyone operating the vehicle. The car came to an abrupt stop within an inch of Crenshaw’s knobby knees, and the driver’s side door swung open with a creak and a crunch. In the space beneath the door, Crenshaw watched as two tiny feet swung to the side, as though the world’s smallest jockey was dismounting his steed. But these feet were encased in a pair of red Mary Janes. The tiny feet hit the ground, and the driver of the Buick stood up. Crenshaw could see just the top of the driver’s head through the window of the car door. There was a tight part in the honey-blond hair. A pudgy pink hand reached around the car door and slammed it shut, exposing the driver of the beastly Buick in full profile.
“Hi, Daddy,” Dooley said proudly as she dusted off the seat of her red corduroy jumper. Crenshaw’s six-year-old daughter stood before him, swinging her arms and shaking her pristine pigtails.
“Hello, Dooley,” he answered, choked with profound emotion. “How are you, honey?”
“I’m good, Daddy. I miss you terribly, though,” the little girl responded. Her expression was so earnest and pure, yet her tone was matter-of-fact, almost deadpan.
“I miss you too, Dooley. I miss you so much it hurts.” By now, there were tears streaming down Crenshaw’s cheeks and dripping soundlessly into his chest hair.
“I know it hurts, Daddy,” she responded blankly. “I can see your boo-boo.”
Crenshaw reached up to touch his cracked skull, but he found that the breach was gone. He frantically combed the back of his head with both of his hands, whimpering as though he’d lost his car keys.
“Your boo-boo isn’t there anymore, silly,” his daughter chided. “It’s been relocated.” Crenshaw looked up to see his daughter pointing soundlessly at the center of his bare chest.
Crenshaw stopped searching his skull and caught his breath. He tentatively moved his gaze to where his daughter was pointing. There, coursing up the center of his chest, was a crevice spanning eight inches or more. He was split open through the sternum, and he could see his heart muscle working laboriously against all odds. He felt a dull mixture of fascination and fear.
“It’s alright, Daddy. It doesn’t hurt,” his daughter assured him. He thought she was referring to the crack in his chest, but when he looked up at the little girl, he was horrified to see that the perfect part in her hair had become an ugly crack in her skull. Crenshaw gaped in fright.
“What’s happened to you, Dooley?” he asked. He wanted to inspect her wound more closely, but he found his feet were frozen to the earth.
“It’s simple genetics, Daddy,” she answered. “You’ve passed it on.”
Crenshaw began wailing in abject misery, reaching for his daughter in vain. She had already opened the door to the Buick. The door slammed shut and he could no longer see his little girl. The engine coughed and sputtered and raced into life. The Buick was working its way back through the infinite piles of junk, and Crenshaw stood naked, screaming and crying, wishing he had some garments to rend.
He awoke in a panic and peeled his head from his pillowcase. He stealthily reached the back of his skull and found that the crack remained. He ran to the bathroom and surveyed his image in the mirror. He grimaced at his haggard appearance and immediately noticed a great change in his yellow teeth. His canines, bicuspids and molars were run through with a map work of tiny cracks and fractures. One of his large front teeth was chipped where a fragment had seceded and sailed across the tundra of his tongue to the contracting channel of his esophagus.
In his bedroom, on his nightstand, his alarm clock began blaring.
Crenshaw sighed and grabbed his bathing cap, preparing for his shower.
. . .
Crenshaw sat in the diner on 47th and Camellia.
The woman with the mole on her temple was at a different table than last time, but Crenshaw could see she was fussing over a crossword again. She wore a ludicrous straw hat with a stuffed bird perched on the crown and a wreath of laurels around the brim. The bird bobbed back and forth with the woman’s efforts. Her fountain pen scratched out messy block letters, and the indigo ink soiled her fingertips and even the backs of her hands. She paused momentarily to order a slice of key lime pie, and Crenshaw could see a blue thumb print on her left cheek.
Crenshaw sat in his booth, remembering. He hated to remember, because remembering caused his brain to swell and expand beyond its borders. Today however, he felt he was on the verge of something, and remembering was his only mode of preparation. He ordered a cup of coffee and lit a cigarette and allowed the first glimmers of memory to trickle to the forefront. His brain trembled into life and began to pulsate like some kind of breathing apparatus. The crack in his skull dilated and recessed with each labored breath. Within a few moments, Crenshaw was inundated with the past, and he was somewhere else entirely. The din at the diner faded to muffled murmurings, and the murmurings became the voices on a talk radio program. The men on the radio were discussing the rise in oil prices and the climate in Afghanistan. Crenshaw wasn’t listening. He never listened to the radio when he was driving.
He was on his way to pick up the kids from school. He was twenty minutes late because he had sat at a stop sign daydreaming, waiting for the stop sign to turn green.
He pulled up to Herbert Hoover Elementary School and his children were sitting on the front steps, waiting patiently. Charlotte, the oldest, was clearly in charge. Dooley and Toby sat one step down from her. The three looked like they were posing for a photograph. Dooley’s pigtails were so symmetrical that Crenshaw gasped with emotion. Toby, the youngest, was wearing his aviator’s helmet, but the faceplate was up so that Crenshaw could see his son’s rosy cheeks and his tiny pug nose. Charlotte looked like a schoolmarm, although she was only nine. She was straight-backed and stern just like her mother, but beautiful nonetheless. Crenshaw jumped from the car and ran to meet his children on the steps. He hugged each of them, ending with Charlotte. She looked at him disparagingly, and said, “Daddy, your hair is an absolute mess!” She motioned for him to lower his head, and she began flattening his hair with the palms of her lovely hands.
“Of course it’s a mess,” Crenshaw responded. “What do you expect, when I’ve just flown in on a comet?” He gestured toward his rusted Ford Taurus, and the younger kids giggled with delight. Charlotte looked at him suspiciously. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you found particles of moon dust in my hair,” he exclaimed. His oldest child scrutinized her hands with a raised eyebrow. Dooley and Toby were already caught up in the game.
“I want to ride the comet,” shouted Toby.
“Me too, me too,” Dooley bellowed.
Crenshaw looked at Charlotte. She eyed him warily, silently pleading with him to cease and desist in whatever scheme was about to unfold.
“Alright,” Crenshaw responded, “let’s take an interplanetary trip on my celestial showboat!”
They all ran to the car, with the exception of Charlotte, whose steps were heavy with dread.
“All aboard,” Crenshaw called. “Now the seats may be a little hot. You pick up a lot of friction at eight-million miles an hour!”
Dooley jumped into the front passenger seat, where she always sat, and Charlotte and Toby climbed into the back. They all buckled their safety belts and looked eagerly ahead while Crenshaw pulled the Taurus onto Greeley Street, heading into town. The younger children shouted with joy, even though this interstellar voyage was punctuated with stop signs and traffic lights. Crenshaw worried that his kids would lose interest, so he turned onto Broad Street and headed for the first interstate exit. “Daddy,” Charlotte called, competing with her younger siblings. “Daddy, this is not the way home!”
“I know, honey,” he called back. “I’ve got to get this puppy out where we can really get up some speed!” Charlotte nibbled at her lower lip.
Before long, the Taurus was sailing down I-71 at around fifty-seven miles per hour. (The old car didn’t go much faster than that.) Toby and Dooley squealed with glee, but after three minutes or so, Crenshaw felt their interest was beginning to wane. He abruptly veered off onto an exit ramp and found himself on a country road, where the speed limit was marked thirty-five. He was coasting at about fifty miles per hour when a local sheriff’s deputy passed in the opposite direction. The deputy made a U-turn and headed for the tail of Crenshaw’s comet.
Charlotte fretted in the back seat. The Taurus flew past an old farm house where an enormously fat woman was watering her azalea bushes. The hose was wrapped loosely around the woman like a hula hoop. “Look, Daddy,” Dooley said, pointing to the woman. “It’s Saturn!” Crenshaw laughed heartily, beaming with pride at his clever daughter. By now, the deputy’s cruiser had caught up to the Taurus, and the siren began to wail. Charlotte looked back in terror and shouted, “Daddy, it’s the police! You have to pull over!”
“It’s not the police, honey,” her father reassured. “It’s only a meteorite! We’d better get out of its way!” Crenshaw cut the wheel sharply to the right and the car bumped off into a field of dead corn stalks. Dooley looked back with excitement. “Daddy, the meteorite is following us,” she warned.
“Don’t worry, Dooley,” Crenshaw said. “It won’t be with us for long.”
Up ahead, just over a small hill, was a man-made pond. Crenshaw spotted the little body of water and was moderately alarmed. The deputy was in hot pursuit, and Crenshaw knew it was all about to end. He couldn’t allow it to end. For his beautiful children, he wouldn’t allow it to end. Now Charlotte could see the pond, and she was struck with a new terror.
“Daddy, please stop! We’ll crash into the water! Please stop!”
“Charlotte,” he answered, “meteorites crash! Comets sail!” Charlotte saw her father’s wide eyes in the rear view mirror, and her flesh grew cold. She knew he wasn’t going to stop. Toby began banging his helmeted head against the half-open window. Dooley’s head was oscillating vigorously, her pigtails cutting the air like propeller blades. Charlotte wept silently. Crenshaw looked determinedly ahead, preparing to sail weightlessly over the black water.
The Taurus hit the water hard and immediately began to sink. Cold, stagnant water came seeping in through the dashboard and the cracks in the doors. It poured in through the windows, soaking Crenshaw and his children, snapping them back to reality. The car’s tires settled heavily upon the muddy floor of the pond. The pond was shallow enough that all of their heads, including Toby’s, were above water. Toby began to cry and announced that he had peed his pants. Charlotte was still weeping. Crenshaw looked at Dooley, and she was smiling peacefully at her father, although her bottom lip had begun trembling with the cold.
The sheriff’s deputy had called for backup. The little hill above the pond was illuminated with flashing blue lights.
A few hours later, they were all home, freshly bathed and wearing dry clothes. They sat around the dinner table, silently picking at meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Crenshaw’s wife hadn’t eaten a bite. Her full plate sat before her, and she stared blankly at the display of silk flowers at the center of the table. Her lips were pressed tightly in anger. Crenshaw hazarded a glance at her, and she made eye contact with him. Finally she spoke.
“You told me this would never happen again. Last time, you said you’d never do something so careless and stupid again. Now you’ve gone even further. What could you have possibly been thinking?”
Charlotte was using her fork to line up her peas like infantry on her plate. Toby was wearing his Spider Man pajamas. He ate his peas one at a time. Dooley had no peas. She refused to eat anything green. Ever since she was an infant, nothing green had crossed the threshold of her lips.
“Speak to me!” his wife shouted.
“I don’t know what I was thinking! I don’t know why I did it! I thought the kids would like to have a little fun, and I just got it into my head to take them on a little drive. My head just gets so full, and I don’t know what to do, and sometimes I just don’t do anything. It just gets so very full, that sometimes I think it might burst. And sometimes I wish it would burst, because then everything would be out in the open where I could see it, and I could maybe make heads or tails of it all. As it is, I can’t make heads or tails of it, and it takes over and I lose myself. But I’ll try harder. I’ll do my best. I promise, I’ll do my best to make sure I don’t do anything like this again.” He looked at his wife in desperation. She looked back with no apparent emotion. He couldn’t read her like he used to.
“Oh, I know you won’t do anything like this again. This time I’m going to see to it,” she said.
“What do you mean,” Crenshaw asked. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know yet, but you can be sure I’m going to do something. I have to protect my children.”
Crenshaw looked fearfully at his children. Toby was still munching peas. Charlotte had moved on to her potatoes, where she was attempting to fashion a pyramid. He looked at Dooley, and she was looking back with a reassuring smile. Although she had had a bath, Crenshaw could still see traces of moon dust in her pigtails.
The next evening, his wife and children were gone.
. . .
Crenshaw was back in his booth at the diner.
He was sobbing loudly, and inky tears poured down his cheeks. His cigarette was burning blisters into his fingers, but he felt no pain there. He had removed his hat and was clutching at his head, wailing with bitter remorse and banging his forehead against the table. The silverware rattled noisily on his uneaten plate of food. The other patrons in the diner began to take notice of the disheveled gentleman crying like a distraught child in the booth by the window. A waitress got the manager and they were whispering about how to diffuse the situation. The woman in the bird hat turned in her seat and stared openly at Crenshaw in bewilderment and frustration. (She was forced to give up on her crossword puzzle because her fountain pen had cracked open and spilled its indigo entrails across the Formica table top.)
All conversations in the diner ceased. The cooks in the back kitchen had left their posts to come witness the spectacle. No one was chewing. Few were breathing. All were watching and listening to the misery of the lonely man in the brown suit and pumpkin tie. Snatches of “Moon River” drifted from the jukebox in the corner and mingled with the man’s sorrow.
Crenshaw looked up to meet this sea of eyes. He mistook their confusion for horror, and it was then that he realized that they must all see the split in his skull. He scanned the booth for his hat, but it was nowhere to be seen. (It had slipped to the floor and rested on an empty ketchup packet and some fingernail clippings.) Just as the manager began to approach him to try to kindly remove him from the diner, Crenshaw jumped from the booth and panned the clientele. He gave up looking for his hat, for all of these people had already seen the crevice in his pate. He turned and locked eyes with the bird perched on the woman’s straw hat. The bird’s glass eyes were run through with cracks, and they registered a keen sympathy for Crenshaw. He smiled at the bird and whispered a sincere thank you. Then he rushed to the front of the diner and pushed his way out onto the sidewalk.
The sky was clouded over, but the sun peeked through a small slit in the black thunderhead. A beam of light descended upon the length of Camellia Street, and Crenshaw knew what was coming. His throbbing brain knew what was coming as well, for it pulsated eagerly, spewing cranial fluids from his skull. He heard a quiet rumbling, but it wasn’t coming from the clouds above. It was below him. It was only a sound at first, but it became a dull vibration. The vibrations worked into Crenshaw’s feet, cracking and crumbling his loafers. His knees grew numb and his thighs grew weak. His belly turned over and over and his heart began to quake. He looked around him at the buildings on either side of the street, and he saw that they were similarly affected. Their foundations were littered with little cracks, and the storefront windows began to pop and split into channels of fissures. The rumbling in the ground grew exponentially until Crenshaw felt the earth undulating like waves in a great storm.
Crenshaw looked on in pure exhilaration as a long crack appeared in the center of Camellia Street. The crack descended down the block until Crenshaw saw it disappear over a hill. The crack opened up like a gaping mouth and a bicyclist rode right into the center of it. A Subaru wagon tilted on its side and, driver and all, fell into the crevice. Crenshaw could see down into the depths, where groups of people were waiting for the Northbound subway to take them into the city. The Subaru hit the subway tracks with a crunch, and no one seemed to take notice. The crack in the earth had widened to nearly ten feet, and up ahead, at the crosswalk, Crenshaw could see two nuns leading a group of school children straight for the opening. He watched as the first nun stepped into the crevice and fell soundlessly into the abyss. The next nun followed, her robes flapping on the way down. The entire line of children descended into the darkness, one by one.
His brain was throbbing now, and with each throb he temporarily lost vision. He was suddenly seeing the world in a series of flashing frames of life and light, alternating with inky blackness.
A little girl with a blue balloon walked into the crevice.
The balloon sailed up out of the crack in the earth and ascended toward the dark thunderhead above.
A dog barked after its owner, who had just walked off the edge of the opening.
The dog jumped in after its owner.
Two young boys clasped hands and jumped into the gaping earth.
Dooley stood before Crenshaw. Her pigtails were tight and symmetrical. She beamed at her father with love and pride.
Dooley was gone. Crenshaw felt himself falling backwards. He felt no fear, as he was sure there would be a great plume of grey-white smoke to catch him. He smiled peacefully, and then…