by Jason Arias
Benny kept babbling, kept saying, “Man, I’m breaking apart. Man, I’m breaking apart.” And I wanted to tell him to fucking chill. To just let the hallucinogens do their thing. Just ease in to this shit, man.
But I couldn’t, because I’d already said all those things, and he was right, pieces of him were falling off, or at least appeared to be.
I already had bits of Benny’s sloughed-off scalp and fallen knuckles and fingernails and ear fragments—which all added up to some kind of grotesque Mr. Potato Head super pack—shoved in a plastic Safeway sack wrapped around my wrist. I had one of Benny’s kneecaps in my front pocket. I had Benny (semi-whole), and other pieces of Benny, piled into the rusty yellow wheelbarrow that my parents once kept leaned up against the blue shed in their backyard.
I had picked up Benny’s freshly detached right hand from the sidewalk, and made him hold it with his still attached left hand, because it seemed like a kind of prayer that he should be making for both of us. I didn’t tell Benny to pray, I just said, “Hold this.”
Benny said, “I don’t want to hold this,” and started crying a little.
“Dude, it’s your hand,” I said. “Look, can you just keep it warm, or cold, or whatever you’re supposed to do until it gets reattached?”
Giving him something to focus on seemed to do the trick. He stopped crying a little. He just needed direction, that’s all.
The inflatable wheelbarrow tire bounced off the curb, and I picked up speed the width of the street to make it up the next one. When the tire hit the vertical of the adjacent curb, Benny’s arms flailed around. He said, “Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Aw, man.” As he lost grip of the hand he was holding, and it ricocheted off the lip of the barrow and landed, palm down, in the already burnt summer grass of a vanity strip.
I bent down to retrieve Benny’s appendage. In the dark, his hand looked like it could have been a Halloween prop.
His voice sounded resolved as he said, “You know what? Forget about it.” He sounded surprisingly positive saying, “It’s amazing the things we think we need, isn’t it?”
I looked up at Benny, and he smiled for the first time in the last however-long-it-had-been. He howled at a lit overhead streetlight. He spit a loogie high into the air and started laughing as the spit spiraled into the brightness of the light, disappeared into the darkness, and then came back down and bounced off his chest onto the sidewalk. I realized that loogie must have actually been a tooth. And just like that, Benny’s lack of caring about the spontaneous shedding of his body parts had managed to put a smile on what was left of his face. The wet skull of where his hairline used to be shone like a crescent moon too close to Earth. He began laughing.
“Oh, shut up,” I said throwing his hand in his lap.
The Safeway bag around my wrist still felt heavy with the smaller anatomy that I knew would get lost in the wheelbarrow. The low hung tree branches of the neighborhood scraped at the sleeves of my flannel. The branches felt like the fingers of some brittle-bone swamp witch. I pushed quicker. I had to get out of my head. My mouth tasted like over-chewed drinking straws. The stars were falling from the sky and crashing into buildings somewhere—probably—(I didn’t know where) I just had a strong feeling that it was happening. Maybe it wasn’t happening. Maybe none of this was happening. That was always the best case scenario with a bad trip: that all your senses were only temporarily short circuited, that they’d be back online and fully functional in ten to twelve hours, tops. Because the only other options were that either we were going to permanently be stuck in a forever nightmare, or (even worse) that the nightmare was reality. Not just Benny and my own nightmare reality, but a universally shared nightmare reality. Like the 2016 election coupled with some early 2000’s end-of-the-world-nature-apocalypse movie coupled with leprosy.
I focused on the way the wheelbarrow was still slightly buoyant with Benny inside it. I gripped left hand tight and slid my hand down the old wooden handle hard. “Ahh, shit!” I said at the splinters now sticking out of my fingers. But it was good. The barrow was real. The pain was real.
“What?” Benny said.
“Nothing. Shut up.”
But Benny’s face was still smiling as he looked back. It looked like the face of a five year old on Christmas morning, missing teeth and all. But the rest of him looked like a twenty-five year-old fleshy Jenga puzzle threatening to spill out at every unevenness in the sidewalk.
I started feeling bad about everything. Why was I being a dick here? Benny was a five year old Christmas kid again, and in the condition he was in, I was going to have to be his father. And I was being a shitty father.
“Benny,” I said, “can you clap for me?” because that would help unify a reality for both of us, establish a safe landing strip for when our cerebral circuitry came back online. If he was feeling better about this trip, I wanted to feel better, too. If both of his hands were actually attached to his wrists,
I wanted to know.
But the sloppy sound of him slapping his detached hand against his its own wrist nub was not the reassurance I was looking for.
“It sounds bloody, Benny. But it’s not really bloody, right?”
“Oh, it’s bloody, dude,” Benny said. “I don’t even know how I’m still alive.”
“Benny, stop fucking with me. I know I’m just tripping hard. I know you’re not really in pieces. That’s why you’re so chill right now. I need you not to fuck with me here. Alright, stand up. I’m sitting in there. You’re pushing me now.”
When I sat the two back legs of the wheelbarrow down Benny’s torso and head started jerking around like Johnny doing Morse code from the S.O.S. scene in that Johnny Got his Gun movie. You know, the one in that Metallica video. Benny accidentally knocked his left arm nub and the lower half of his left leg onto the sidewalk and kept jerking.
“Come on, buddy,” I said. “Stand up.”
“No can do, man,” Benny said, still shaking. “Just dump me out.”
“It still looks like you’re in pieces to me.”
Benny stopped shaking and cracked his neck so hard to the right that I thought he’d broken it. But he hadn’t, it just sounded horrible. “Are you still worried about that, dude?”
“Benny, you look crazy bloody right now.”
“I know. Just do what you told me to do, man. That shit works.”
“What did I tell you to do?”
“You just need something to hold.”
“You’re in fucking pieces!” I said, because now I wanted Benny to freak out, too. I needed him to freak out so that I would be forced to be the calm one again. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I wanted to cry. But I knew that if I started, I wouldn’t be able to stop crying until all the pieces I hid inside were pushed outside. “You. Are. In. Pieces. Benny!”
“Yeah, man, we’ve established that. It’s cool.” He winked with the one eye that was still in his head, or maybe it was a blink—who can tell when there’s only one eye. “You’re concern is cute, man,” he said. “It’s cute,” he winked, or blinked, again, “but unnecessary.”
I sat on the sidewalk next to the rusty yellow wheelbarrow with Benny all up in it. There were missiles streaking the sky again. The roadway was a river of unknown liquid flowing so smoothly. Every so often a fish or sheep head would break the surface. The sidewalk ahead of us was upriver. The outlines of houses were heat waves dancing in the shadows of night.
“That a boy,” Benny said. “Just give in to all this shit. Hey dude, do this.” He held his detached hand, clasped in his still attached hand, over the side of the barrow. “It fucking helps.”
“You want me to hold your hand?”
“Just hold your own hand then. Don’t you feel the calm? Can you hear it?” Benny said from inside the barrow.
Either Benny or the barrow reeked like a Folger’s can of old pennies.
I reached my hand to Benny’s detached hand and held two of the fingers in my fist. I was the child, and he was the crumpled father.
Blue and yellow fish with pink stripes and kissy lips were jumping out of the river street and winking in midair. Some paused while others leapt past them. Their kissy lips formed words that were badly—kung-fu movie—dubbed in with a long-dead language that only I could understand was a language. I saw it all and understood it all and gave into it all.
“That a boy,” Benny said. “Just gotta keep pushing that fucking barrow, brother.”
I turned from the river (that was once a road) and the sequin kissy fish and grasped the wooden handles of the wheelbarrow. I took the fishes language with me. I would be their river. Benny started slapping his hand against his nub. I nodded my head to his rhythm. All of my pores sang in unison with Benny’s bloody clapping.
Benny wasn’t falling apart, he was evolving.
I wasn’t crazy, the world was.
Reality wasn’t directing me, I was writing it.
I said, “We got this, man.” And Benny threw his disembodied hand high above us in celebration.
And the night grew longer and darker and looming and bright again. And we outlived it and awoke and kept awaking on a daily basis. And Benny eventually faded into a marriage with children and their stories. And the wheelbarrow rusted out; its weathered handles alchemy-ed into tiny stilts by the neighbor kids. And some of the things I held dear became less dear and the less dear things became more dear. And the sun became so bright that the world was forced to watch televisions instead of sunsets. And the water became so pure that it poisoned us. And we found ourselves all in one bookstore not recognizing each other anymore and calling it progress, or hiding the parts we did recognize with stories held not as close to our bodies.
And we acknowledged the moments of creation we were letting slip between us. We acknowledged each other. And we held our hands out. We accepted one another’s hands. And we closed our eyes and heard that long-dead language. The language that we once feared would tear us apart. And we grew ears. And it grew dark. And darker.
Jason Arias’ debut short story collection Momentary Illumination of Objects In Motion was recently published by Black Bomb Books. His writing has appeared in NAILED Magazine, The Nashville Review, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Perceptions Magazine, and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Misfit’s Manifesto as well as other places. To find more of Jason’s writing and readings visit JasonAriasAuthor.com.