If we score, I’m supposed to pull the lever inside my foam suit to operate the plastic backhoe arm/bucket on my head. Coach Hoke (who he let his ghost off the leash for two minutes from sleep apnea, which is why players are wearing (so I’m told) black ribbon decals on their helmets), describes the backhoe as a “limp-wristed taunt.” Amused, his whole respiratory system chokes and shudders like he’s got a bad air actuator intake valve. I knew about the valve from when Pops babysat me during shifts at the Midas. It’d been Prof Helms’s car idling rough like Coach Hoke’s lungs in the faculty parking lot after school, him peeking under the hood to diagnose, when I snuck over and honked the horn. Prof Helms yelped, fell, hit his head on the bumper; been cupping his ears for weeks to collect sound, wearing what people tell me is a gold and silver ribbon tie clip. When asked about it, he’ll point to his ears, sign a tapping salute against his forehead, and say too loudly, “Awareness!”
Why? is what Principal Vern wanted to know.
“Expel me!” I said.
Instead, Vern sentenced me to mascotting because Nick Revis is sick with swine flu (Vern’s lapel ribbon, he’s explained, is appropriately red) and because he thinks I need to possess an age-old kindred pizzazz. Here’s your kindred: players step on my tail so it unVelcros, and I have to unzip the front to reattach it, breaking character.
I’m the Land-Eater: a bipedal brachiosaurus with a backhoe head. Indiana is home to sauropod fossils and limestone quarries. The backhoe is labeled A&M Depot and holds coupons. The knees are stretched out. The foam liner stinks of vinegar and virginity. Vern says it’s my insurgency sweating off. Moms says it’s golden opportunity. Uncle Ned says it’s probably thirty years of unwashed scrote. I march with the band, out of step. Cheerleaders lash me with their pom-poms, their violent solace. I sweat into the liner and wonder if Nick Revis will whiff the slow burn of my atrocity. When I wore the costume for Moms, she looked around, brushing cig ash off her nightgown. “Where’s Larb?” she said, “Where did Larb go?”
In his office, Vern demonstrates ways to reattach the Land-Eater tail without breaking character: a constipated tromp, a pantomime of unzipping the costume and, robotically, yet, oddly reptilianly, fastening the imaginary tail back into place.
“See?” he says. “It’s not rocket science. God help us if it were.”
Today, a dark ribbon is also pinned to his lapel.
“Color’s that one?”
“Coach Hoke die of sleep apnea again last night?”
“It actually means several things, Mr. Larbert.” And he lists them: “…melanoma, black lung, hate crimes, Coach Hoke’s sleep apnea—of which he did not die of again, smarty pants—Wiccan and/or Pagan rights, and also mourning.”
“Breakfast of grief?” I ask with a gum-chomping smirk.
“I’m here,” Vern says, placing his hand just under his nose. “And spit the gum in the trash. What does this look like? Denny’s? Are you going to ask how I take my eggs and serve me orange juice in an unclean carafe? Spit out the gum.”
I spit out the gum.
“Is this your aspiration? To be a societal malefactor, malefactoring? What happened?”
But he knows what.
At home, Uncle Ned’s reading the paper, wearing an orange wristband for democracy. “DeWalt and Bostitch are selling new-old stock to Hostile EurAsian Territories!” he says, shaking his head. Moms sighs and flees the room, unable to deal. She’s counting down to my 26th birthday—too old for selective service—an eight-year calendar taking up the whole side of the fridge. She gets twitches, called Hypnic Jerks, worse since Pops, plus anxiety over a potential draft. She’ll be half-asleep then start boxing. Pops once had to explain a fat lip to his supervisor who offered him a black wristband, which also stands for violence against men, and a hotline number. Moms also has a black wristband for the sleep disorder.
“What I wouldn’t give,” Moms sometimes says, “to not-on-purpose sock him again!”
Uncle Ned peeks under his placemat and says, “Can anyone tell me what the F happened to my America? When I was little the neighbor pinned animal crackers to our clothesline. These days, someone does that and it’s borderline pedophilia!” Ned points his thumb over his shoulder. “Because some schmuck, some Hostile, stuck a razor blade in a kid’s toffee apple? We got to run magnets over Halloween candy just to make sure it’s safe!”
I check on Moms in the living room. She’s watching Springer. “It’s a rerun,” she tells me. “The daughter’s sleeping with the stepfather.” She blushes and mutes the television. “Gosh darn, I shouldn’t be watching such filth around you.”
“I ain’t a little kid no more, Moms,” I say with an eye roll.
“Only according to the selective service,” she says. “Except if you’re ineligible to them you still got some time left. So how’s about we cut off a bit of pinky, or whichever one’s the trigger finger? Won’t you stay little for me, Larby?”
She gestures a chomping pair of scissors and winks.
“You’re going to give yourself a concussion worrying about those dumb things.”
“Loving my firstborn and only is never dumb! Oh!” she says. “This conversation is making my myoclonus act up!” Her forearm flexes, fist clenches. It all spontaneously punches, elbowing the armrest, knocking the remote onto the carpet.
“Larb,” Ned scolds from the kitchen, “don’t make your mother involuntarily twitch.”
“Let’s change the subject, kiddo,” she says. “How was Land-Eating?”
“I’m so excited for your first game!” Moms clasps her hands and spasms joyfully. “Bet those boys are so thankful they got their good luck charm back! You know mascots are good luck? It’s about time we got some around here…”
This is the kind of spasm I hate to see: Moms full on welterweight contending. Because it only happens when she thinks about Pops.
You learn things with age or accident. Midas wasn’t enough. Moms bagging groceries part-time because of her slipped disc, not enough. Not enough for a new microwave. Not enough, not enough. So Pops brings home a flyer posted at work: the local cosmetics company is paying for product testers. Moms asks: Is it safe? And Pops says he’s had enough. He wants more than this for all of us. Plus, what’s the worst that could happen? Worst was he went and never came back. Comatose—an allergic reaction, maybe. Moms threatened to sue and the company forked over a settlement so she doesn’t got to work. Got the disc unslipped for good, hasn’t washed her hair in months and has seen every Springer at least twice.
Uncle Ned stops by to eat cold leftovers and make sure nobody does nothing rash.
Too late, fucklet, I’d love to tell him.
What I learned by accident: dodge the knee-jerk jab, rope-a-dope the hook, and find the thin wrists of your Moms and hold them as they fight without her consent and she cries until she runs out of breath and her hands give and fall at her sides.
Pick up the remote, turn up Springer, go do homework and think of new detentions.
“This ribbon?” Vern says. “It’s dark blue.” He lists: “For arthritis, child abuse, and, why I’m donning it, thanks to you, Water Accident and Safety.”
What I did was dump the undissected biology frogs into the pool. Ms. Daniels freaked, cried plague, fainted and fractured her tibia. I got a week of ISS plus lunches with Counselor Wilkie who bites his tuna sandwich, smacks his lips, and asks, like, “Do you think these ‘Larbs,’ might have something to do with a recent traumatic loss?”
To which I gum-chomp: “The Land-Eaters haven’t even played a game yet.”
To which he tuna-smacks: “Interesting; projecting; deflecting; archetypical.”
Vern teaches me spirited/inspiring mascot gestures. I try to imitate them but lack the spirit. Vern shakes his head, “It’s as if you’re aspiring to unsuspend the patrons’ disbelief!” He hands me a ribbon. “Red and blue,” he says. “Pulmonary fibrosis, Noonan Syndrome and Congenital Heart Defect. But for you it’s Oolitic High Land-Eater School Spirit. And this,” Vern gives me another, “is for the loss of a brother, son, or…father. Look.” And Vern pulls one of the drawers right out of his desk. “There’s lots of suffering in the world, Mr. Larbert. More than colors.” He shows me the drawer full of hundreds of ribbons, thousands of meanings, and he explains some of them, though I’m not sure which ribbon he’s designating what awareness: “…Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, congenital diaphragmatic hernia, MRSA, Medullary sponge kidney, atheist solidarity, stalking, tsunamis, aging, malnutrition…”
“Why do you got these?” I ask.
“Why do I have these?” he says. “Because solidarity is the weapon of choice.”
“Against anything and everything ugly in the world.”
He applies some Belle Cosmetics DermaGloss lotion. The squelching of his hands, like Counselor Wilkie’s smacking lips, like oil in the shocks: the noise air makes when liquid enters and exits. What Wilkie is smacking to hear: the meat under my skin has spoiled. Ribbons of it turned black from too much awareness. What is ever enough? Tell Pops: Enough. All of it may be frayed or busting or busted but it’s ours and it’s enough.
Also, maybe: Goddamn you. Goddamn you for doing this to me and Moms.
After practice, I detour through town. Moms thinks practice is an hour longer than it is. For the love of Christ she still keeps Pops’s robe hung in the bathroom and his disposable razor in the mug by the sink, a whisker of surrender left in it.
Across from the Sam’s Club is Belle Cosmetics. The perimeter is fenced off, barbed wire spiraled at the top. Inside: all parking lots and warehouses and glass buildings and forklifts whirring around, skywalks overlapping skywalks. We call it Silicone Valley. There’s a white dome with smokestacks surrounded by another fence and guards in camouflage, its side painted with me, the mascot, word-bubbled: GO LAND-EATERS!
I try to punch out a car window or factory pane. I’ve dinged a few doors, left scatterings of rocks beneath the drivers’ sides, like pathetic Stonehenges. These rocks, the buckshot casings of my opened druid heart. Once I got chased by a security guard. I hid behind a stack of damp pallets and bricks. We practiced pyramids today so my arms are pasta. I pin Vern’s second awareness ribbon to the fence because I can’t bear to explain it to Moms.
“Give a hand?”
In the Sam’s Club parking lot a guy holds a long box out the back of his station wagon. I help him wedge it between the front seats. “Thanks,” he says, wiping his forehead. “Want a tip?” I don’t respond, but he replies, “Don’t have kids!” He laughs. “I got to have this swing set assembled by the barbecue tomorrow. Plus weed the garden? If the good Lord blessed me with one thing it sure was the gift of procrastination!” He wipes his forehead again, taking in my costume and the mural on the white dome. “Land-Eater, huh? Can I get your autograph?” He laughs again. “Got to be plenty warm in that thing.”
Of course I don’t respond. Mascots don’t talk.
He squints at the fence, “What’s that you were doing over there?”
Of course I don’t respond.
“Not much of a talker.” He shuts the trunk and gets behind the wheel. “You’d be breaking character, I guess. Good to see you kids committing to something.” He starts the car. “Smell eggs? Shouldn’t smell like that.” He thumbs back toward the exhaust. “Shouldn’t be looking like that. You ever see smoke that color before?”
“I’m colorblind,” I say, breaking character. But I’m anonymous. I lean into this as hard as I can. I add, “Which isn’t even the half of it.”
“No kidding,” he says. “I’m a synesthete. Well, technically it’s called color-graphemic synesthesia. Meaning, I see too much color. Numbers and words look dyed.” I quiz him: Six? Looks orange. January? Cabernet. The letter D? Turquoise. The entire alphabet is Lemon. Moms is Royal Blue, and Pops is a Fresh Deep Bruise.
“Black and blue?” I say, glancing at the ribbon pinned to the fence.
The man follows, his face loses color: gray to white. “More purple,” he says.
My throat aches, eyes wet and hot. He can’t see this. “Think we’ll run out of them?”
“Colors? I see new ones every day.”
I sigh. Right there in the left lung rattle: asthma or a cluster of mothballed childhoods.
“I bet your awareness ribbon looks cool. All those colors swirled together.”
“We don’t have a ribbon. But if we did it’d be black. Mix every color you get black.”
“Can’t be black,” I tell him. “Blacks full.”
Of course I don’t respond.
The man swallows, Adam’s apple like a grenade. “That the other half of it?”
Of course I don’t respond.
“Smoke’s blue,” he says after raking his neck a few times.
“Blue means phosphorus. Eggs means sulfur. You got a bad catalytic converter is what. My Pops worked at the Midas. Used to babysit me there. It’s got to do with poisoning. Sulfur in the MMT additive. Phosphorus in the engine oil.”
The man goes gray in the cheeks. He clears his throat.
“You’re breaking character.”
“I was already broken,” I say.
He asks if I’m all right, if I need a ride. I take off running, hide behind a stack of wood pallets again but he doesn’t follow. I catch my breath then go home. In the driveway are hues of oil stains: monochrome rainbows in the sunlight. Old changes.
Uncle Ned’s driving and Moms keeps sighing because he won’t shut his trap about the goddamn HEAT war. “That’s why the fricking song,” he explains, “is called ‘America The Beautiful?’ Do you know any songs called, like, ‘The Transylvanian Kingdom The Tolerant,’ or ‘The Burmese Gap, Home of The Unbelievably Democratic and Open-Minded?’” He swerves to avoid roadkill and my backhoe headpiece tips on the backseat beside me. “Course not. Because they believe in Hostilism/anti-Freedom, which ain’t attractive.”
“You might want to bite your tongue when talking about beauty in this family,” I say.
Uncle Ned coughs and Moms spars with the glovebox. Ned sets his hand on her knee.
“Easy, sis. You’re going to set off the airbag with those haymakers.”
“He just can’t go over there,” Moms whispers. “He can’t.”
“Who? Larb? Says he is? We ain’t even at war.”
“When someone else is at war that means we’re at war,” Moms says. She turns to me, “I can’t lose you, too, kiddo. You’re all I got left of him. You’re all I got left of you.” Her fist clenches and I figure she’s about to not-on-purpose sock Ned.
“Moms,” I say, “when we get home tonight how about we lop off the trigger finger?”
And, like hell, her hand unclenches.
“You excited for your debut?” she says, turning to light a cig.
I shrug. She hears it.
“Oh, come now.” The cigarette bobs. “Busy hands ain’t idle hands ain’t drafted hands ain’t grenade-chucking hands getting grenades chucked back. You got jazz hands. What you got is ten—soon to be nine—good luck rabbits’ feet.”
“What I have are ten—soon to be nine—good luck rabbits’ feet,” I say.
“That’s what I said,” she says.
In the parking lot, Moms kisses me on the cheek and wishes me good luck.
Halftime, I wedge into the Porta-John. People knock and knock. “Occupied,” I respond, gasping. I heave, pressure on my lungs, dizzy. Probably dehydration. I slow my breath and peek out the vents. The teams run from the locker rooms and take the field. The bleachers erupt with applause. But I stay put. If solidarity is the weapon of choice, consider me the Alamo of ammo. Kickoff, all is fine. Nobody notices me missing. First down, second down, no problem. Third down it begins. The disbelief unsuspends. A player on the sideline lifts his leg to step on my tail, which isn’t there. When he goes into the game, he fumbles. The cheerleaders, without me to pom-pom lash, dance out of sync. One trips, scrapes her knee. The crowd looks around, baffled, sweaty. Patrons reach to pluck coupons from a backhoe but only pinch air. Popcorn spills, soda stains, somebody collapses. Vern’s the first to understand and scans the sidelines. Prof Helms is there, cupping his ears, head bandaged, oblivious.
For a moment I am thinking that this is good. Look what I can control with absence. Look what happens when turns turtle, when abruption smashes up against sequence. When routines are interrupted, formations abandoned. Look what changes by withdrawing sheer presence. And maybe this will be enough for Vern to expel me. I won’t graduate. I can stay little longer. How pleased Moms will be by this! She’ll never lose me and I’ll never lose her. Because she’s all I got left of him. She’s all I got left of her.
I locate Moms in the bleachers: hands clenching; Ned beside her, instinctively flinching. She’s searching, too, but terrified. The game means more to her. Lose, and she’ll convulse indefinitely, me not the good luck she’d hoped for. Maybe I feel it there, glittering in my heart, as I watch her knuckles whiten. Lose the luck and she’s back to nothing, not enough. Times I’ve laid in bed, thinking why can’t I be let off the leash, too? I goad God, pleading, just don’t let me wake, as if to prove to myself he doesn’t exist when I do the next morning. Then I wonder if maybe I’m not let off the leash because I’m important, I must go on to do something and maybe that thing is to not break my Moms heart any more than it already is.
So I exit the Porta-John.
And Vern shouts: “Better truant than never!”
Despite the home defeat, Moms says it’s time we get a new microwave. I’m tired and she’s tired and we’re both tired of eating lukewarm food if we’re too hungry to wait for the oven to preheat. I drive. She doesn’t because of the slipped disc. Too tired to find a new excuse. But the truth is she got her license revoked due to the myoclonus.
“Use your blinker.” “Slow down.” “Watch your speed.” “Check your mirror.”
“Okay, okay. Let me do it.”
Three turns later and she knows were I’m going.
“Stop,” she says, clutching the dashboard. Her shoulder jumps. “We can’t go there.”
“Microwaves are on sale at Sam’s Club, Moms. And it’s close.”
“Money ain’t the issue, Larb. And it’s too close.” She sits on her leaping hands.
Hang on, Moms, I think. We’ll put those catapults to good use.
I’m tired. All the mascotting, I haven’t put solid damage or haunt beyond the barbed wire fence in a week. I’m lacking homage, eulogy, frittering spirit. Pops would be shaking his head, like when I got Cs. They do not equal degrees, Larb. But Moms could throw a rock twice as far with the Hypnic Jerks. Break a window, find us some symmetry in the square void. We’ll run Belle out of business in repairs. We’ll show them cost.
Revenge or mother/son quality time? Potāto, potâto.
At Sam’s Club, Moms is shaking her head, eyes shut, saying, “No, no, no.” She tries to light a cig and throws her lighter out the window over two cars. I grab her wrists again and hold on and say, “Moms, Moms,” until she looks at me and calms.
I point across the parking lot to explain why we’re here. I gasp, she gasps.
“Moms!” I say. “Look!” But she already is, of course.
Against the fence, around where I pinned the ribbon, a good six feet long, taking up the entire sidewalk width, are hundreds of flowers. Some potted, many looking as if they were yanked out of a garden: gnarled roots clumped with dirt. Ribbons threaded through the chain-links, wreaths, candles burned down to stumps. Colors and colors and colors. Not just for Pops. For any and all of whoever, anonymous, and therefore singular. All that ugly in all that color. I ache to see them. Moms’s eyes have gone to fresh glass.
“Will you look at that,” she says.
“Wait here,” I say. I go behind the Sam’s Club to the wood pallets and take armfuls of bricks. “Let’s build Stonehenge,” I tell her. She follows me to the fence, tiptoeing, small steps, as if approaching the edge of a cliff. When she looks up at the factories, the wind slashes her hair across her face like a pulled hamstring. She moves up against it, laces her tremoring fingers through the chain-links. The fence jingles, the ribbons flutter. I set pairs of bricks upright on their ends in a horseshoe and lie more across their coupled tops.
“Why?” she asks, looking out over the skywalks and forklifts and smoking smokestacks.
“Because it’s supposed to be a place of healing,” I say.
Though, I know, that’s not what she’s asking.
Zachary Tyler Vickers is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where he was the Provost’s Fellow. He is the recipient of the Richard Yates Prize and The Clark Fisher Ansley Prize, and his work has appeared in The American Reader, Hobart, Waccamaw, McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies, and previously in KGB Bar Lit Journal. His story, “Karst,” has been optioned for feature film. He can be reached via email or twitter through his website: ztvickers.com.