American Standard

Early afternoon, earlier than usual. Returning to his walk-up carrying a half-full grocery bag. Tossing his car keys to the kitchen table, heaving his street shoes onto a rubber mat on the floor and then stubbing a little toe on the edge of the counter molding, causing it to come off and roll like a superball across the floor and under the refrigerator against the opposite wall--he is not having a good day. This is not a good day. This is not a good century. He belongs to another.

It's the last straw. He drops the grocery bag onto the countertop and twists off the top third of his head, like a segment of Rubik's cube, and throws it onto the counter beside the sink where it lands like a ham. He takes a flat box out of the bag, pulls a ribbed tab across one end and removes the frozen pizza. He sets it to bake in the laser cooker.

In the bathroom he sits on the toilet, his elbows on his knees and the two-thirds remainder of his head in his hands. Into the bowl splash the hammy halves of his posterior, first one and then the other. If he'd been born in the twentieth, even the twenty first century, but here in this time, made up like this, he didn't see it, never had. He takes a shower, declining to whistle. He tries whistling a little of some old sad song or other, but he realizes the song he has in mind is a TV theme song and ends up leaving his lips on the soap tray. He thinks he hears the phone ringing, so he shuts off the water and waits, but he reminds himself that he has taken lately to hearing his phone ringing when it isn't, imagining friends calling when he has no friends. After he's toweled off and his feet are in a pair of slippers, he screws his ears off and shoves them in a pocket of his robe.

He stands there awhile in a daze, getting used to the silence of nothing to hear. It's lovely and then it's strange and then it's lovely again. At first it seems he is staring into absence at nothing at all, but soon he realizes he is staring at the words American Standard printed in light blue on the armature of the open toilet lid. He is thinking about that phrase when the laser-cooker timer goes bing.

The pizza is done. Eating without his lips is easier than he expected. He eats standing at the counter, his robe falling open. His penis is a responsibility he's never fully grown into. It's easier than he thinks: all it takes to dislodge it is a bump forward at the hips, both bat and balls hit linoleum with a dull, flat sound. He kicks the contraption over onto its back with a slipper. He licks the tomato sauce off his fingers. One piece of pizza remains on the cooking tile. He leaves it on the table for the flies.

He thinks about his sister, who will never be happy. He thinks about his father, who has forgotten about happiness. He considers for some time the not unusual case of his brother, many miles away, who with all his business cannot be expected to make time for happiness. Once as boys they smothered a garbage rat to death. Held its furry body under in a discarded fishtank in the rear alley of their building until it stopped wriggling, and left the dirty body floating there. Afterward, they went up to their apartment as if nothing had happened. He often thought about what that must have been like.

In his bed he sits reading the cracks in the ceiling until he falls asleep.

He wakes thirsty several hours later, panicking for a drink of water, and in the light of the refrigerator he recalls the dream that woke him: he was chained to a manhole cover on a busy street; nothing was on the street but digitrucks without trailers--zooming unethically fast; the manhole cover was the old kind, all iron, there was no budging from his unfortunate spot; you didn't even hope for help in a situation like that, so dangerous.

Without lips, water proves much more difficult than pizza. He dribbles all down the front of himself.

From the grocery bag he extracts another smaller pharmacy bag, and shakes it. Sound of pills in a plastic vial. The psychologist insisted there was nothing wrong with treating his sense of dissociation with pills by explaining that dissociated people are living their lives in parts, and that drugs can help connect the parts. But it was a thin justification.

It is almost two a.m. and he thinks there might be stars if the city glare has dimmed enough. He slides the glass door aside and steps out, his bare feet tracking spilled water all the way. He rams his shin into a set of stacked plastic patio chairs. Angrily he kicks the chairs off the narrow platform into the landscaping below, and then he kicks off his feet as well. They tumble into the shrubbery like flip-flops.

He leans against the half-railing and massages his throbbing shin with the stumps of both arms. He'd been wrong about the stars.

In the living room in front of the television, he watches only for the pictures and settles at last on a rerun of a beauty pageant. They don't have them anymore, now that they build people to order, now that everything is parts. He watches carefully, the twist of those bodies, natural beauties they called them, products of pure genetic chance. When he is too disgusted to watch any more, he turns it off and unsockets his hands, using each hand to turn the other a turn at a time until one comes off. The other only needs a nudge against the coffee table top to make it fall over like a thick slice of heavy bread. He leaves his hands almost folded atop one another in a posture of contentment beside the remote.

He thinks he hears his phone ringing again until he realizes that that's impossible. And now he really is tired, tired of his whole self, all of it. Almost drunkenly, he stands and shakes off the rest of his head, shimmies out of his backside. He drops his heavy arms into the magazine bin, and then twists lightly at the groin to dislodge his legs from one another, all within the space of a few sweet irreversible moments.

The only awkward thing's his eyes. He's neglected to extract them, and now they lie in the forepart of his head, lodged against a leg of the table where the head fell, staring helplessly into a half glass of water on the floor. He put it there to feed a gaunt stray cat which followed him into his apartment last night but didn't stay.

It doesn't bother him too terribly, actually. Soon he will be oblivious and besides, even if this is the image that accompanies him into eternity, isn't there something vaguely appropriate about it? Evaporation is still a naturally occurring phenomenon, there are still a few of those left. A liquid coming apart by its molecules. There is weight and mass and volume, and isn't water the universal solvent?

Of course, in his condition he isn't thinking too clearly. Nonetheless, he is mildly soothed by these ideas. He takes further comfort in the thought that the building too (the whole block probably, at some point in the near future) will be leveled to make way for better. Brick by brick, it will all come to pieces, and there will be no physical past here anymore.

His phone rings, but there is no way for him to know it. Plaintive noise, middle of the night like that. It rings and rings. A wrong number, most likely.

He falls into unconsciousness wondering about something he learned once about water, but which he has forgotten.

About the author:

Todd Ryan Boss is working on a collection of stories about people who go to extremes.