a good head
Don wanted to go out to the garage and make sure the head was o.k. He’d been afraid Karen, putting some extra wine or an extra lasagna into the outside fridge, would discover that he’d gone against her wishes and kept it anyway. She would know soon enough.
He heard a car pull up. “They’re here,” he said. He flicked off CNN. Too depressing anyway. Global warming. War in Syria. The Captain and Tennille getting divorced. He pulled the lever on his easy chair back, lowering his footrest, and stood. He knew was not a demonstrative father. He knew he’d been slow to approve of his daughter’s girlfriend, now fiancée. He knew that no one really cared anymore if he, or any fathers for that matter, didn’t approve. He’d been out of date most of his life. As a teenager in the 70s, he’d had a proclivity for the 50s. Maybe it was the fault of Happy Days. More likely, the local station that played black and white movies that made the world seem simple, lines and manners clearly drawn. Approval, parental and otherwise, had gone the way of white gloves, dressing for travel, and saying “you’re welcome.” Now it was nose rings, flip-flops on planes, and “no worries.” But still he wanted to show that he not only approved but that he cared. He wanted to welcome Mia into the family as he would any guy his daughter loved. He wanted a buddy, a “son-in-law.” He liked her well enough. She seemed steady, disciplined, and ambitious. She was a dental student, and he was a dentist. He and Mia both belonged to the American Dental Association. A solid Asian kid with a good head on her shoulders, though he knew Sara, an anthropology professor, would cringe if he said something like that. Racist, she would say.
Karen swept passed him in a pre-dinner party fluster, carrying four champagne flutes. “Get the bubbly,” she ordered.
“Did you hear? The Captain and Tennille are divorcing.”
Karen looked at Don. “You trying to tell me something?” she asked, her voice carrying all thirty-four years of their marriage. The flutes clinked against each other. Don shook his head, miffed that she could make such a joke.
“Put a little of the ice in the bucket first. Then the bottle. Then more ice,” Karen said. Don complied, relieved to have something to do to take his mind of his gift for Mia. He set the bucket next to the glasses on the credenza behind the sofa.
Don filled the glasses, following etiquette as best he knew how. Sara and Karen then Mia then himself. No one corrected him, so it seemed the evening was off to a good start. At least, he’d gotten that right. Mia’s height always surprised him. The first time he’d met her, he’d expected a body to match her name and ethnicity, something small, cute, and feminine. But she was unusually tall and wide. Her shoulders broad. She would beat him in an arm-wrestling match. He didn’t dare challenge her to one. But she had tiny hands. She was a perfect balance for a dentist.
“Cheers,” Karen said.
Sara and Karen discussed details. Best florist. Photographer. Vegan and gluten-free food options. Mia and Don nodded. He knew he should be happy, and most of him was. But something itched. He didn’t think it was because it was a gay marriage. He hoped he wasn’t that bigoted. It was the idea that his daughter was getting married in the first place. A gnawing sense that some circle had been completed. That he and Sara had fulfilled their purpose. Met their end of the deal. There was something primal about it. The perpetuation of the species, a passing of the torch, the key. The flip-side was that they were no longer needed. On the road before him waited retirement and death. He was beginning to understand why in some species males ate their offspring.
Mia finished her glass quickly. Don lifted the bottle, offering more. Mia winked, reminding Don of his Uncle Howie, the man who’d snuck him his first [clandestine] shot of whiskey. A good sign. She seemed ready to share a secret. If he could get her alone long enough, they could sneak the head out. Perhaps Karen wouldn’t have to know. Sara either.
He and Mia stood behind their chairs, waiting. They watched his daughter carry the salad and bread to the table. He noticed Mia didn’t offer to help. He wondered whether it was because she felt like a guest or whether it was a butch thing. He wondered if that’s how she thought of herself. In some ways, the gays seemed modern, but in others so old fashioned. Mia looked like a teenage boy from the fifties, from the collared, checkered button-down with a peek of undershirt at the neck and her unfaded, cuffed jeans to her hair, cut short on the sides then swept up into something like a modest pompadour. She must like the 1950s, too. Potentially, they had another thing in common. His mind kept going. He wondered what kind of underwear she wore and blushed at how inappropriate the thought was. That was too far.
“How are your classes?” Don asked.
“Good.” He wanted to show interest in Mia. He wanted her to show interest in him.
“What’s your favorite?”
She shrugged. “Don’t know.” She looked around the room, as if looking for an emergency exit.
“Hmm.” Don nodded, hoping she would say something more. Was it because she was Asian? Weren’t they known for being polite to elders? For being laconic? Or was it because she didn’t like him?
“Mine was anatomy, especially head and neck soft tissue,” Don said. The head would be the perfect accompaniment to that class. He hoped they still taught it that way. He wasn’t fudging. It really had been his favorite. He thought of the pleasure he took when he was first studying anatomy in fitting the Latin to body parts, how he noticed the movement of the mandible under the skin of Karen’s face, the heft of the masseter, the curve of the ramus, the shifting of the temporomandibular joint as she chewed a piece of gum. He hoped Mia felt some of that, too. And if she didn’t? That would make the head a terrible idea. What if he’d made a mistake? Maybe Mia wasn’t really interested in teeth. He didn’t want to admit that Karen might be right about this. It was out of her realm.
“You can sit,” Sara said, pulling out her own chair. “Since when are we so formal?” she asked her dad. She sat and helped herself to a piece of sourdough, dipping it into a dish of olive oil. Karen had picked that up from an Italian restaurant in the South End.
Karen came out of the kitchen, carrying a steaming casserole. She set it on the table, dropping the worn potholders that Sara had made for them when she was in the sixth grade next to the dish. “They’ve held up,” she said, smiling. She asked Mia to pass her plate. Karen hoisted a wide rectangle of noodles. Gooey strands of cheese stretched back down to the dish.
“What’s that?” Sara asked. Don could hear the frustration in her voice, maybe even a hint of horror.
“White lasagna. Vegetarian“ Karen said. “Your favorite.”
Sara sighed. “I’m not a vegetarian anymore, Mom—I can eat anything. And you know Mia can’t eat dairy. She’s lactose intolerant.”
Don watched Karen respond by freezing her expression, as if she hadn’t decided in which direction to move her face, toward an apologetic, acquiescent smile or an irritated scowl. He suspected his daughter was right in this instance, that there was a so-called “passive-aggressive” motive in Karen’s menu. There had been a similar, if inverse, situation when Sara first announced she was a lesbian. She told them via letter. She thought it would give them time to react, to process the news, without saying something hurtful in the moment. Karen thought it overly dramatic. Said there was nothing to react to. Don knew Karen was right about this. Of course, it was o.k. Should be o.k. But he had wanted to talk about it and was frustrated that Karen wouldn’t. He wanted to share in their denial of disappointment. When they finally saw Sara that Thanksgiving, Karen put sausage in the stuffing. Sara was a vegetarian then. Had been for years. He could still see Sara gag and spit a chunk of the sausage out onto her plate. Karen had this same expression, a flat, self-induced Botox injection.
Mia smiled wide. “It’s fine.” She lifted out of her seat to reach across and take the serving. “Really. Fine.”
Karen opened her mouth, but got no further than “I.”
“It’s not fine,” Sara continued. “I know you think you’re making an effort, Mom, but you’re so stuck in the past it actually makes me feel worse. More distant. Like when Dad sent me the unicorn calendar when I was in grad school because he knew nothing else about me but remembered that when I was eleven, I liked unicorns.” Sara laughed and stuck her tongue out at Don. He was surprised to be dragged into this conversation. One of his smaller failures tossed out on the table like a cop might toss a dime bag in a T.V. crime show or a wife a lipstick tube that wasn’t hers. He’d been proud of the unicorn calendar. Proud that he remembered. It wasn’t that he thought she was still into unicorns. It was that she was timeless. His daughter’s delayed and misplaced annoyance about the calendar made him nervous. If unicorns upset her, what about a head? But, he reminded himself, the head wasn’t for Sara. It was for Mia. He looked over at her now. She stared at the villainous lasagna steaming on her plate. He bet she was tough enough to endure a little lactose intolerance. It would be discomfort not anaphylactic shock for fuck’s sake. Probably less discomfort than she was feeling about all this fuss.
Karen went on serving the lasagna. What was done was done. Don passed the salad bowl around. Mia dove in. “Delicious,” she said. “Who are you rooting for” Mia asked Don. “The Seahawks or the Broncos?”
“The Pats,” Don said They all laughed. They talked Celtics. Red Sox. Harry Potter. Conversation went smoothly, the blade of a skate gliding smoothly over ice. Don was thrilled they, meaning he and Mia, saved the diner. It was the first thing they’d done together.
“Did you gals hear?” Don asked. They all looked at him. “The Captain and Tennille are getting divorced?”
“Who are The Captain and Tennille?” asked Mia.
“Old, bad pop,” Sara said. “You’d hate them.”
“Ah,” Mia sighed. “Still sad though. Divorce is sad.”
Don laughed louder than he meant to. There was something so childishly and delightfully simple, like a stick-figure drawing, in the description of divorce as sad. He couldn’t agree more. A few years back, he and Karen had just avoided it themselves, swerved around it as one might a squirrel that darted into the road. Karen told him she was bored. Unfulfilled. He persuaded her to wait it out. She tried volunteering. She took up horseback riding. It worked. They had stayed together, but things were different, though how was hard to say. It was like the protective plastic cover had been removed. Everything was more breakable.
“Yes. So why are we talking about it? We’re planning a wedding. Don, please.” Karen said. ”Decaf, anyone?” Karen asked. Don found his wife’s Pollyanna detour irksome. He didn’t understand her enthusiasm over the wedding. It seemed a turnaround. Of course, she was happy, as any mother would be, to see her daughter in love and getting married. But she’d always been the doubtful one, the cautious one. The one who almost left him the fall of their daughter’s sophomore year of college. The one who said to other couples at cocktail parties and PTA meetings that marriage was work. It was a phrase he’d never understood. It never felt like work to him. Work was extracting a tooth so rotted you had to scrape it exactingly all the way to its root, the smell of decay so strong you gagged. Work was draining the puss from an abscess. Marriage should be comfort. It should be mashed potatoes. It should be hot chocolate.
“The little boy’s room?” Mia asked.
“You know where it is,” Sara said. “You’ve been here at least a dozen times.” It reminded Don of something Karen would say to him, calling him out on one of his feeble attempts to be polite when no politeness was expected. It worried him. He knew he could humiliate Sara by pointing that out, but he didn’t want to do that. He simply wanted her to be nicer. Or maybe he would have to let Mia know he was there for her. Maybe she would be there for him.
“Figure of expression,” Mia said then pressed her lips together tight.
“Let’s move to the living room,” Don declared. “I’ll start a fire.” It would give him a reason to get Mia to the garage. He could ask her for help carrying in more wood. Don brought as many dishes as could balance into the kitchen, setting them down carefully into the sink. He wanted to give Mia a little breathing time. He studied the orchid stems, the ones with no flowers, Karen let him keep in the window above the sink. She was right that they looked like potted twigs. Neglected and dead. He had to remind her to be patient, to stick through their pitifulness until they bloomed.
Mia was still in the guest bath. So Don waited in the hallway. When she opened the door, she jumped. “Christ, Don. I didn’t know you were waiting.” He realized he must have looked odd. Worse, creepy, but he didn’t care. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets to reel in the excitement he felt at the opportunity of getting Mia alone. “I’ve got something for you,” he said. “Quick before they come looking.” He jutted his head to the right then started toward the garage. “We’ll say we’re getting more wood.” Mia glanced toward the kitchen then back at him. She opened her mouth but said nothing. She let her lips pucker then she shrugged. He led the way, pausing at the door to turn on the light. He looked back over his shoulder. Mia smiled.
He stood outside the fridge like a TV game-show host, awaiting the opening of the player’s chosen door. “Close your eyes,” Don said.
Mia faced him, cupping her left fist in her right hand, as if playing rock, paper, scissors, or prepping to fight. She looked around at the floor then at Don and raised her hands up in question. “Do I have to?”
Don thought women liked surprises, enjoyed the tease that lead up to them, though he realized no other gift he’d given had involved the awkwardness of a refrigerator before. “No,” he said. “I suppose not.” He opened the door and reached for the crock, its ceramic cold. It was substantial but not too heavy. For a second he wondered if she would be able to carry it with her small hands then remembered she was likely stronger than him. He turned around and held the crock in front of his belly. “Here,” he said. “For anatomy.”
“What is it?”
Don set it on his workbench. “Take a peek.”
Mia walked over. She paused next to Don and glanced at him. They shared a conspiratorial half-smile. A smirk. He knew that Mia understood this was a guy thing he was doing. Man to man. He wanted to slap her a high-five. She opened the lid. Formaldehyde fumes burned their noses and made their eyes water. The liquid was cloudy. A soft purple mass floated into view. The head. Hairless and genderless. Its skin so bloated it hardly looked human. Its eyes and mouth were swollen shut, like it died holding its breath.
Don watched Mia’s nose crinkle. She cupped her mouth with her hand and started to gag. The blood rushed from her face as she began to heave. He helped her over to the work sink. She threw up. Dairy intolerant, Don thought. He turned away and let her finish unwatched.
“Sorry,” she said. She rinsed the sink and then her mouth.
“Oh no,” Don said. “ Don’t apologize.” He had made her sick. It was the opposite of what he’d wanted to do.
She stood to look at him, her features twisted in confusion. “What is it?”
“A head,” he said, though he was a little disappointed she hadn’t recognized it. Such basic anatomy. She didn’t actually move, but her eyes retreated in. He could feel her body tense, as though she might make a run for it. “For dissection. For class,” he added. He worried that he might have committed some horrible cultural offense. He realized that he knew nothing about Korean culture.
“Oh.” She nodded and titled her head. “O.K.” Some color returned to her cheeks.
“We had to buy our own when I was in school.”
“Huh,” she said. “It’s all included now.” She was still nodding. Don started nodding, too. They must look like two of those bobble-heads people mount on dashboards, he thought. “But thanks,” she said. Don wanted to believe she sounded earnest. “No one has ever. . .” Mia didn’t finish the sentence.
“Given you a head before?” Don said. Deep, shuddering laughs flooded Don’s belly, rolled up and out through his throat and nose. He couldn’t swallow them. Mia laughed, too. She reached her hand out and laid it on Don’s shoulder to steady herself. He could feel her body quaking. Their laughter was way out of proportion to the humor of the joke, that of twelve-year old boys. Don thought about the first time Karen had given him head. It made him feel vulnerable—groin and heart exposed, ready to be clawed out. It made him feel loved.
“What are you doing?” Sara asked. “What’s that smell?”
Don and Mia, the jarred head poised on the workbench between them, looked up to see Karen and Sara at the door.
“Don, you didn’t.” Karen added. “Those fumes. Awful.” Karen pressed the button, and the wide garage door opened, letting in the cold January night.
Don felt like a caught burglar, and it pissed him off. He was in his own fucking garage. He’d gone through a lot to get this gift together. He replaced the lid. “Let’s get it to the car,” he whispered to Mia. She nodded. Either could have carried it by themselves but there was solidarity in carrying it together. They inched toward the driveway. Don half expected Karen to press the button again, trapping them inside. The car chirped. The signal lights flashed. The trunk popped open. The steam of their breath hung between them, like an empty dialog box. The jar was beaded with condensation from the fridge and Don’s fingers were achy and clumsy in the cold. As they lifted the crock toward the trunk, it slipped, crashing into the bumper then onto the ground with a firm crack as it split in two. Formaldehyde spilled everywhere. The head tumbled out and landed on the gravel with a soft thwack, rolling over onto its side, its shut eyes staring up at them.
“Oh lord,” said Karen. She and Sara rushed to join them in the driveway. “Don,” she sighed. He couldn’t tell whether she was sad for him or disappointed.
“What is that?” asked Sara.
“It’s for anatomy. For dissection of the mouth. We study them,” Mia said, as if she’d known it all along, as if she’d asked for this gift, as if she and Don had an understanding.
“Yes but I still can’t tell what it is.”
“A head,” Don said.
“Eww. What the fuck?” Sara said.
“Well, let’s get it cleaned up,” Karen said, but no one moved. They stood looking down at the head, its wet skin glistening in the floodlight streaming down from the top of the garage door. Out of the crock, the head seemed too difficult to touch, to get a handle on. As with some impossibly tall, multi-layered sandwich or a greased pig, it was hard to know where to start. “Don, get a shovel and a garbage bag,” Karen ordered.
“Oh no. Not a shovel. That’s like to tear the skin. We need another vessel. Don’t you have a crock pot?”
“You know I do. I used it to make pork loin last week, and I’m planning a roast beef tomorrow. I’m not putting the disgusting head of a human corpse in it.”
“Fine.” Don marched into the garage and found a leaf bag. “This will have to do,” he said. He leaned over, planning to gently pick it up by gripping the ears, but he couldn’t get down that far. As Mia stepped in to help him, she misjudged the distance. Her foot hit the head and sent it spinning. It rolled to the edge of the drive then down into the gulch, gaining momentum and making slurping noises as it went. They heard it settle at the bottom.
“Now what?” asked Sara.
“Let’s leave it,” said Karen.
“It’ll attract animals,” Don said, horrified Karen would suggest such a thing.
“It’ll repel them. The stench of that formaldehyde?”
“I’ll get it,” Mia said. “Is there a flashlight?”
Don nodded and fetched one. He held the light for her as they eased their way into the gulch. The poor head was misshapen now, a little caved in on the left. Leaves and twigs stuck to it. She set the bag on the ground and softly nudged the head into it with her foot. Then she rolled up the bag while it was still on the ground to lessen the bump and impact. They treaded back up the gulch carefully, trying not to fall on the slick leaves.
“The garbage is over there,” said Karen.
Mia looked in the direction Karen indicated and then looked back at Don. Then she looked at Sara, who was shaking her head. Then back at Don again. He felt for her. She was torn. “It’s O.K. We have crocks in the lab. And formaldehyde,” She said. “It’s cold. It’ll be O.K. for a night.” She set the bag inside the trunk, nestling it between folded lawn chairs and empty shopping bags. No one said anything as they went back inside.
Don concentrated on getting the fire started, crumpling old newspaper and stuffing it carefully among the spaces in a pyramid of kindling. Karen often suggested they put in gas, but he liked the skill and attention a real fire required, as well as that homey, Promethean smell of smoke. He struck a long match and watched the flames take over.
“Hey,” Mia said. She’d been perusing their old record collection. Their records had long ago become invisible to Don, like the books in the bookshelves and the jade statuettes from their trip to Japan. All were a part of the wallpaper. “Here they are.” She slid a record out of the stacks. “The Captain and Tennille.”
“Oh, God,” Karen said. “Here we go.” She sat herself down at the far edge of the couch.
“Don, how do you work this thing?” Mia asked.
Don opened the old turntable and showed Mia how to use it. “Love Will Keep Us Together” boomed through the speakers.
“Ouch. That sounds awful. It’s so warped,” Karen said, but she was laughing. Mia pulled Sara toward her and they danced, slow and off beat.
Don looked over at Karen, thinking he should make her dance with him, but she’d hidden herself in the newspaper, so he watched Sara and Mia.
“We haven’t chosen our wedding song,” Sara said. Mia paused for a minute. She seemed unsure whether Sara was kidding. Don knew she was. The record started to skip, repeating the word “whatever.” Mia rocked back and forth the rhythm of that word, like a broken robot. Sara spun away and dropped herself next to Karen.
“So, Dad. Where’d you get a head in the first place?”
“Connections,” he said, hoping he sounded vaguely Mafioso. Hoping to send a chill over them, goose-bumping their skin. He was too embarrassed to tell the real story. How he’d gotten lost at the teaching college in Boston, where he’d gone to get an actinic keratosis investigated. It was nothing, they said. Not cancer. Just a patch of dry skin. He wound up in a basement with hazardous waste and other garbage. Saw an attendant with the crock. Unsure why, he asked her what it was. She told him. He asked what was wrong with it. The attendant shrugged. He offered her 100 bucks. She raised her eyebrows, pocketed the money, and looked the other way. He peeked at it. True, it hadn’t been properly preserved for anatomy class, but it would still be fine for teeth. It was not a good head but it was a good enough head, teeth and jaw still intact. He remembered dissecting a head in dental school. He could give this to his daughter’s fiancée. He was glad that word sounded the same whether it was said of a male or female. It simplified things. He no longer felt like he’d been lost.
Mia kept going. She seemed completely at home. She was having her own little dance party.
“Make it stop,” Karen, said. “Please.”
Don turned off the music. He resisted the urge to press the needle into the record so that it made long scratching scream. He thought for a second he could still leave. If the Captain and Tennille could do it, so could they. If it came to that. If they could muster the energy.
“What are we going to do with it?” Sara asked.
“We? It’s mine, Babe. You’ll have to get your own,” Mia smiled. She didn’t miss a beat. She leaned over and kissed Sara on the cheek. He could love this girl. His mind fast-forwarded. He imagined Mia and Sara moving to the suburbs. Buying a house. Squabbling and making-up. Doing IVF or adopting. Buying their daughters unicorn posters. He could see the montage of scenes in black and white, rinsed in sepia. He exhaled, feeling spent but pleasantly molten inside, like one of those fancy chocolate cakes he indulged in on rare occasions. He wanted them to be mashed potatoes.
“We’ve got a long drive,” Mia said to Sara.
“That we do.”
“I guess you don’t want any leftovers,” Karen said.
Sara sighed and shook her head.
“I’ll have to throw it away. We can’t eat it all.”
Sara didn’t respond.
Karen hugged Mia first, kissing her on each cheek, French style.
Sara gave Don a strong hug. “Thank you,” she whispered. “It was thoughtful in a way. Super weird, creepy even, but thoughtful.” She pulled back away to get a good look at him. “I think,” she laughed.
Don crossed over to Mia, not sure whether to lean in. Mia extended her hand. He was grateful. He always preferred a firm shake. “You better get an A in anatomy,” he told her.
“Oh I will,” she nodded. “I’ve got an ace up my sleeve.”
As usual, Don got up early, before Karen, to fetch the morning paper and see what more horrible things had transpired in the world overnight. Who else was getting divorced? Who else were we bombing? He felt raw but fresh—scrubbed clean. The visit had been a failure and a success. He knew the head was probably unusable, and he was embarrassed by it. Karen would store the incident in her bank of incidents, but he doubted one more would matter much at this point. He had connected with Mia, a fragile bond, perhaps, but something. He wondered if Karen were envious. He hoped so.
As Don bent to get the paper, he saw that the garbage had been knocked over. Some animal had attacked it. A raccoon, probably, he thought. He grunted and grabbed the rake and went to clean it up. Remnants of noodles and cheese were scattered all over the ground, mixed in with lettuce, coffee grinds, and leaves. He noticed a trail in the garbage. Something had been dragged away. There it was—the yard bag, torn open. The head had been ripped out and carried off a few more feet. It lay there exposed in the morning light, an unnaturally bluish white. There were teeth marks on its ear. It had been chewed upon but not eaten. The air stuck in his throat. He thought he might keel over. He wanted to believe it was Sara’s insistence and Mia’s acquiescence, rather than Mia’s duplicity that allowed her to throw it away. But the heat rising in him said otherwise. He strode toward the head, picking up momentum. He gave it a good quick kick, imagining himself as Tom Brady facing the Broncos. He had tried. His gift wasn’t wanted. The head arched and flew out of sight. He heard it land with a hard thump, and he turned back to sweeping up the garbage. Maybe, he thought, the Captain and Tennille had been faking it all along. Clearly love didn’t keep them together. It was something else. Whatever, whatever, whatever.
kim freeman, author of Love American Style: Divorce and the American Novel 1881-1976, writes fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and literary criticism. She has published in The Long River Review, The Grub Street Free Press, New England Fiction’s Meeting House, The Bicycle Review, The Bare Root Review, and Prick of the Spindle, among other journals. She has been a resident at Ledig House, The MacDowell Colony, Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, and Lit Camp. Currently she teaches writing at the University of California at Berkeley and lives in San Francisco.