Read The Two-Headed Man: Short Story Online

Authors: Barbara Gowdy

Tags: #Fantasy

The Two-Headed Man: Short Story

The Two-Headed Man

Barbara Gowdy

The Two-Headed Man

y memory is photographic, in living colour. I’m flooded with memories, mostly images from dreams I’ve had. A leather jacket with four tulips, eating blueberries half blind and having blueberries scattered on the ground, growing limbs that turn out to be tree limbs, useless.

I remember all my nightmares, they come back twice as horrible. My heart stops.

My heart stops at the back of my throat. Anger hits me above my left ear, there’s a pressure there, like a finger pushing. Fear is between the eyes. Instead of my guts turning over I feel a popping at the bridge of my nose. After a few seconds the sensation, whatever it is, turns into a burning sensation, a slow smouldering that can last up to five minutes. Sometimes I’ve got half a dozen of these fires going on at once, all over, overlapping.

What’s happening is that my brain messages aren’t getting through. My brain works like anybody else’s, it sends out messages to the body. But in my case the messages hit a roadblock at Samuel’s collarbone. They are all fuelled up for a long trip, and then they have to reverse into my head and park with their engines idling until they burn themselves out.

Inside I’m a mess of burn tissue. Scientists can’t wait for me to die so they can open me up and get a good look. Just a couple of days ago a woman researcher wrote me, asking would I donate myself to her lab. I thought of writing back, “Anytime you want me to give you head.” I had Samuel write her and ask for an eight-by-ten. If she looks anything like Jill St. John, I’m hers.

An entire week, and not a word from Karen. I suppose I attributed to her a courage she never had. I have always known that I was meant for unhappiness, and yet the human heart yearns. Did not the Son of God yearn? And did He not weep to be forsaken?

It occurs to me that the physical agony Christ suffered on the cross served to distract Him from the more terrible agony of abandonment. God’s subtle mercies … with which man interferes! I am offered excruciating pain by God, and a painkiller by the nurse. A painkiller! I have thought of saying to her, “If it were that easy, do you think I’d have used a saw?”

My lawyer has warned me about my wry sense of humour. She has urged me to list all the ways Simon persecuted me. So far I’ve written:

—Biting my ear, provoking numerous chronic infections. Also yelling into that ear, eventually causing deafness.

—Regularly assailing me and everyone around us with the most despicable imprecations.

—Depriving me of sleep. Waking me in the middle of the night with his howling.

—Depriving me of love by tormenting my beloved.

—Libelling me. Telling people that I stuck him with pins, punched him and burned his eyes with Javex.

Nobody believed Simon’s lies. If I caused him pain, it was never intentional, our mother having instilled in me a conviction that he was my cross to bear. It was not until our mother died that I understood God’s intention was not that I should bear him but that I should cast him off. And even then I
thought of “casting off” only in its figurative sense—ridding him of his power to hurt or influence me. At that point I was naive enough, pompous enough, to imagine that I could subdue him. For the first time in our lives I raised my voice at him, and for the first time (in spite of what he claimed) I gagged him in order to compel him to listen.

Sure, Samuel’s going to waste me. I’ve always known that. The question is, how. And when. When is soon, now that the old lady has kicked the bucket. How? I’ll tell you one thing, it won’t be poison.

Everything I eat or drink, he siphons off. I used to have the old lady spike my coffee. It was hilarious. I’m guzzling gin and coffee, feeling nothing except maybe a nice sweet shimmer, and Samuel’s sliding off his chair.

The way I look at it, you’ve got a brain, you’ve got all the power you need. Doctors will tell you I can’t do fuck all, it’s Samuel who’s the whole man with the limbs and organs, and I’m nothing but this turd he carries around on his shoulder. But what the doctors don’t know, what even Samuel doesn’t know, is that I’ve developed my brain to the point that I’m a master of extrasensory manipulation.

There have been a couple of times I’ve played Samuel like remote control. One night I was really cooking. He was on his way to a fellowship meeting, and I think, “Hang a left,” and suddenly he turns left. I think, “Cross the road,” he crosses. “Now go right,” he goes right. I had him turning on a dime that night. We went to the pool hall, took in a movie. I tried to get him into a massage parlour, the one at the corner of First and King, but no dice—sex is one area where I can’t get through. It kills me. Women are always coming on to us so they can say, I made it with the two-headed man. But Samuel doesn’t believe in premarital sex. And his taste in women, it’s enough to turn you into a fag.

A couple of years ago he got the hots for a dental hygienist. Six foot two, skinny, no chin, glasses. She’s cleaning our teeth, acting like there’s nothing unusual going on, and if there’s one thing that burns my ass, it’s people pretending there’s nothing unusual going on. I mean, we’ve got two heads here! We’ve got show time!

Samuel’s heart starts pumping. It makes me sweat. What does he see in her? I don’t know. I don’t care, either, because he’s never asked anyone out. But fuck me if he doesn’t invite her to a fellowship meeting!

I’m sweet as sugar. Give him the impression I like her. I’ve decided I want to see what happens. He buys a new suit, blue.

What happens is nothing. They go to the meeting, walk home, talk about the meeting, sit on the porch. She keeps trying to draw me into the conversation. It starts up that pressure above my left ear. Finally I tell her. “Show us your skinny tits or shut up.”

“I beg your pardon?” she says.

“Samuel’s getting hard,” I say. “Samuel wants to fuck you in the ass.”

She grabs her purse and runs off. Know something funny? From the back she reminds me of Jill St. John.

For most of my life I considered Simon inseparable from myself—my cross to bear, as I’ve said. And yet I had faith that one day the cross wouldn’t weigh down so heavily. Foolishly I believed that Simon would come to accept his lot, as I had accepted mine.

He fed this belief. By remaining virtually silent and submissive for days, sometimes weeks, he would raise my hopes and nurture in me a feeling of profound pity. Our mother thought that he entered visionary dreams during these silences. In her mind he was a temperamental genius, and despite knowing
that “temperamental” was much too benign a word to ascribe to his tantrums and crude outbursts, I made an effort, while she was alive, to see him through her eyes.

It was very difficult. I witnessed far more than she did. I saw that he lied to her face. I saw that the control he exercised in her company was entirely self-serving. Never would it have occurred to him that she was capable of loving him even at his most vile.

She was a true martyr, our mother, and in her gentle way she encouraged me to be one, too. When she cooked chili for him, I was meant to suffer in silence the inevitable heartburn. Until she died I never had to feed or groom him—she was devoted to these tasks—but it was understood that I would always serve his whims. I endeavoured to do so, taking my strength from her. There was no one more patient and humble.

Except, I regret to say, when she drank. Then, she was another person, Simon’s confederate. The change in her personality was truly frightening. But I do not sit in judgement. I have read that alcoholism is a disease, and in any event her resistance was constantly under siege. He stormed at her to get out the bottle. He damaged my liver.

I have just added that to the list: “Drinking in excess, damaging my liver.” Having spent most of my life ignoring Simon’s incitements, I find it hard to call every one of them to mind. I am often distracted by pain. And by the silence. The silence is very strange, very foreign to me. I must confess that, blessed as his absence is, it will take some getting used to. Imagine my life. Imagine a head two inches away from your own, a head that, at its natural angle, faced into your right ear. Imagine feeling the heat of every breath the head took, smelling the odours of the mouth, suffering a permanent rash on your shoulder as a consequence of the mouth’s drooling. Imagine the weight of the head, the strain to your neck and spine. Imagine not a moment’s solitude.

And then, suddenly, solitude by the hour. In thirteen days I
have seen my lawyer twice and the surgeon once, nobody else. I see nurses, of course, but they come and go quickly, they can scarcely be counted as visitors. For the most part, and for the first time in my life, I am alone. In this amazingly quiet room. The phone seems to be disconnected. Yesterday I held it to my deaf ear, purely for the sensation of being able to hold a phone up to that side of my head. When my shoulder has healed, I will see how it is to sleep on that side.

I wonder why the policeman outside my door never comes in. Perhaps he’s afraid of appearing like one of the thrill-seekers he’s been charged with keeping away. He has a smoker’s cough. As do I, and there’s something else for the list: “Chain smoking. Blackening my lungs and raising my blood pressure.”

Occasionally the policeman whistles. I must have one of the nurses ask him to stop, for under the influence of painkillers I have imagined it to be Simon. Simon was a remarkably accomplished whistler, and as a rule I am partial to tuneful whistling, but when I hear the policeman I am overcome with an irrational terror that it is Simon growing back. He hated life, and you’d think he’d be glad to be gone from it, but he loved himself.

To my surprise I have been reflecting rather calmly upon love these past few days. I have been approaching the subject from an intellectual angle, asking myself such questions as, What is love? What does the Bible mean by love? What kind of love is sanctified? I called our mother a true martyr because she loved Simon unreservedly, and yet I cannot help but think that loving anything so evil must be wrong. Love fosters and sustains its subject. Love is dangerously blind, pathetically vulnerable.

Simon knew all about that. For his own selfish purposes he courted love. In my case he was caught between wanting me to love him so that I would be ignorant of his machinations, and wanting me to love him so that he might hurt me all the more deeply. By the time we were teenagers I was onto his games, and in any event he was tired of playing them. Before then,
however, I occasionally succumbed to his charms. He had a knack in those days of divining my thoughts and expressing them with a beautiful simplicity that moved me to tears.

I remember one occasion, one night when I was nine, ten. I woke up from a dream that our mother had given me a leather jacket like Elvis Presley’s. I was an ardent fan of Elvis’s. Seems odd to me now.

The jacket in my dream was marvellous. It was decorated with two flowers on each shoulder. I woke up terribly depressed, because much as my mother doted on me, she would never be able to afford such a treasure.

I lay in bed for quite a while, expecting any minute to hear Simon complain that he wanted breakfast. But he said nothing until I was getting dressed, and then he said in a voice so wistful, a voice absolutely devoid of ridicule, “A leather jacket with four tulips was mine.’’

He can’t even look me in the eye any more. He’s shaving me, brushing my teeth, and our eyes meet in the mirror, he looks away.

Sure, it’s guilt. The guilt of a Christian, nothing like it, nothing bigger and more off-base. Jesus Christ, I hate Christians. Always praying for something for themselves. When we were kids, Samuel would pray—out loud so I heard—that I wouldn’t be there in the morning.

A real saint, Samuel. Carries around a Bible, suffers in silence. But let me tell you something. The saint around here is me. Hands down.

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