I hear the satisfying plop of wet clay and then the wheel spins and spins. Each hand curves, pushes, and smooths, lifts new life from a formless muck. The past cakes underneath my fingernails; the future, slick with glaze, blazes in the kiln. I wait to greet the freshest phoenix.
Open the rusty screen door
Follow my voice through the center
of the forest with no trees
Float atop the escaping river
like a weekday problem on a Saturday afternoon
Watch the cardinals glide above
this mess of a city, careless, self-absorbed,
The drivers in their compact cars, too,
accelerating behind you to dates and games
the scattered possibilities of something better
Take solace in the abandoned
take-out bags and six-pack rings
like embedded buttons to press
along the speckled shore of Lake Michigan
Lives are being lived here—mine, yours too—
Fill your lungs with ivy
Feel each of your toes slicken with grease
and pulverized stone, the natural aftermath
of ten million people using up this world
a paragraph at a time, a paragraph
at a time when each of us yearns to write
A burnished tome
I’m writing to ask you to my wedding on the 15th. Her name is Roslyn. You don’t know her.
I don’t wish for you to receive this news as a rebuff. It is possible to be two things at once. Like you. What was that name you insist your mother gave you in that bleak time before we met? “Herve”? And yet will the Lord God judge me as a liar for calling you Harvey all these years?
Two things at once.
We dine on fresh emotion with each day
a fork, red salad plates of grief or joy
then rest on beds of flashing opal-fear
a docile pillow lost upon a plain
too late, too sure, to realize comfort won
sweet hours lost avoiding stroboscopes
by hoarding little stones in mattresses
by lording over rooms gone dim with light
His sneeze was so quiet I almost mistook it for a sigh, as if he were annoyed by something small like a poorly written scene in a TV show or a dropped piece of cookie on the gritty carpet. “Honey?” he asked. It was not a question, but a command. I stood, holding my breath. I only exhaled after I walked down the hall to the far end of our bedroom. His Rolex shined from the top of his dresser. A bowl of change sat next to his half-drunk glass of water. A half hour before I would have felt tied to those everyday things, the reassuring signs of his presence in my life. But I walked wide around them and lifted the overfull backpack from the bottom of our closet.
When I returned to the couch, his cheeks and forehead were already the color of a bruised plum. He noticed my quick pause. “Grab the ventilator.” He watched as I did what he said. Through the plastic cup over his mouth he reassured me as genuinely as he could. Nothing I hadn’t heard before. But his words in my head sounded like Darth Vader so I exaggerated my inhalations to mimic him. The smallest of smiles fidgeted on his lips. “Help me up, please.” He needed a break to catch his breath in the middle of the sentence.
We drove in silence. The unsettling flush of his face had quickly spread to his arms, below his elbows. Every time he gets sick, the speed of it surprises me. He put a plastic glove on and placed a hand gently on my thigh just below the hem of my shorts, his thumb circling in the hair. The lead singer of the Neon Trees growled and flirted from the speakers; I skipped to an Aimee Mann song. His favorite. He leaned his head against the window as he listened. I heard his wheezes getting shallower.
The clinic was squat and jammed between a chiropractor and a eyebrow threading place. I helped him out of the car after I parked. He pointed to the parking meter to remind me to pay. Other purple-faced men, women, and children met our eyes as we walked through the door. I found Doctor Juno, who put a finger up when he saw us. One minute. I nodded, even though my heart was spinning. My boyfriend dug for something at the bottom of his backpack. When the outbreak first started, the doctor had to treat me for panic attacks right after he’d administered the shot to my boyfriend. With every recurrence, I’d gotten better at coping with the idea of losing him, and, once again, I started the process of reassuring myself this wasn’t that day.
At a time when most humans have developed prehensile tails, a woman returns home from a trip to find distinct changes in her loafer of a son.
Bart didn’t hear me come into the apartment. He remained hunched over his laptop, headphones corking his ears. The brusque taxi driver plopped my enormous suitcase into the corner of the main room, snatched money out of my hand, and trotted back out. His lumpy, hairless tail yanked the door shut behind him. My son, unfazed, hawked a loogie into an almost-empty McDonald’s cup and furiously kept typing.
When I left for my Hawaiian vacation three weeks ago, Bart was lying on the floor in his boxers with his legs up on the couch. He’d read somewhere that elevating his feet would relieve the back pain he felt when he sat too long. It’d been months since he’d quit his “network security job,” whatever that was. Before I left, he spent his days either at the computer or watching Game of Thrones. Now, with Bart’s back to me, I noticed his t-shirt lacked the usual greasy spot from his long, unwashed hair. In fact, his hair had been clipped short.
I tapped on his shoulder and shouted to be heard over whatever noise he was funneling into his ears. “Bart, I’m home.”
In one swift motion, he screamed, stood up, turned around, and snatched a pair of scissors from the desk. His quick reaction surprised me because it was the most I’d seen him move since he’d quit his job.
“Jesus, Ma, why are you yelling?”
“You had your ears plugged. How else was I supposed to get your attention? Now stop threatening your mother with assault and give her a proper welcome home.”
Bart did as he was told, plodding between the kitchen island and the couch to hug me. A chemical smell struck me as we embraced, an odor whose source I would later learn was called Axe Body Spray. He quickly pulled away and returned to his computer. As he sat, his t-shirt hiked up and I could see the notch of his shorts that would, on most other humans, accommodate for a tail. The words Fuck Off were tattooed onto the pale skin over his tailbone. My son was full of surprises today.
I expected him to return to whatever computer world I pulled him from, but he clicked a few buttons and flipped the screen down. In the split second before it lay flat, I saw the Washington Monument and a large crowd of people marching.
Sure that I’d received all the welcome I was going to get, I wheeled my suitcase into my room and unpacked. When I came back down the hall, I peeked into Bart’s cavern of a bedroom. He’d replaced the video game and death metal band posters that had decorated his walls with bright red banners: NO TAIL? NO PROBLEM!, PREHISTORIC & PROUD.
Returning to the main room, I found Bart clicking through channels. Most featured the same tailed man, gray hair, eyes like marbles, speaking into the camera. The runner at the bottom of the screen said, Ryan Paul, Prehensile Freedom Committee.
“So, I can’t help but notice a few changes around here,” I said.
“Yeah, well, you’ve been gone a while,” he pouted—still a child at 19—but I kept circling my hands in the stale air between us, out with it already. “I went to a couple nonprehensile rallies with some friends and did some volunteer work for them.”
“That’s great. What friends?”
“Just some people I met in a group chat,” he said defensively. I sat down and shoulder-nudged him. “I just…I watched this documentary on the History channel about what it was like before the adaptation—how nonprehensiles ran the world—and it pissed me off. So I looked up nonprehensile groups, and their sites said some stuff that made me think.”
“Such as how ludicrous it is that we can’t drive or that we have to include our tailless status on job applications or…,” and he reached across the top of the couch and laid a finger on the seam of the cushion where a notch had been taken out to accommodate most people’s extra appendage. “This.”
“The tailcut? That’s not a big deal.”
“But it is, though. I’ve seen pictures, Ma. Of couches that didn’t have huge pieces taken out. They used to all be like that. How hard would it be to make a few for people like us? It doesn’t even make sense that they don’t, you know? And did you know that back in the 1980s they made cars without tail shifts, too? Nonprehensiles can drive just fine. There’s no fucking reason for the laws against us.”
“I know.” I put a hand on his knee. “Well, that explains the signs and your butt crack message. Listen, I think it’s great you’re getting out of the house”—he gave a half-cocked smile—“but what’s with the hair and being dressed before noon and threatening your mother with scissors?”
“Sorry. You just scared me, I guess.” He paused. “Like I said, I’ve been working for the group: going to meetings, doing some computer stuff, you know” and then his gaze returned to a commercial on the TV showing nonprehensile salon workers waxing people’s tails as their clients sipped mai tais and flipped through Us Weekly magazines.
A few hours later, after Bart had gone to a meeting and I’d decided to head out to WalMart, I found two cops standing in the hallway. I gasped, dropping my purse with a thunk. The taller cop slid his tail behind my leg to catch the door.
“You’re under arrest. You are charged with three counts of Identity Theft and one count of Unlawful Access to Stored Communications.”
The shorter cop—cold sore fuming on his lip—read me the Miranda rights as his tail slipped the cuffs on my wrists, all the time muttering under his breath that he shouldn’t have to touch me. The third, smaller cuff dangled between my hands.
THE OFFICERS ASKED ME a lot of questions and then brought me to a cell with four beds in it. I fell asleep pretty fast because of the jet lag, and because I’d already decided everything would be fine. Sometime later, the racket of an officer pushing three girls about Bart’s age into my cell woke me up; the girls all seemed tipsy.
“How you hanging, girl?” The one with the gap in her teeth said before using her tail to run a comb through her bangs.
“Not bad. You?” I sat up, and she caught my eye.
“Sharon, look. She’s tailless.” Sharon was the one wearing a Limp Bizkit t-shirt.
The third girl, brown hair with purple streaks, yelped. “They don’t like that word. They like to be called nonprehensile.”
“Whoa. I’ve never talked to one before,” Sharon said to Purple Streaks, and then she turned to me. “Can I touch it?”
Sharon shoved me forward and slid her cold finger over my tail bone. In that moment, I understood the message above my son’s butt crack. I curled up in my bed with my back to the wall.
“Oh,” she said. “It just feels like touching someone’s back.” She rejoined her friends on the other side of the cell. I laid there for a long time listening to them talk about going to the gym again to get definition in their tails. Minutes, or hours later, Gap Teeth shook me awake; it was still dark.
“Hey lady,” Sharon called over, “what’s your name?”
“Hey, Loni. We were just wondering what you were in here for?”
“Um…something to do with computers.”
“You don’t know?”
“No. They told me, but I don’t remember. All I know is I barely ever use a computer. Don’t need to with my son always on the thing.” The three of them waited for me to say more, so I told them about coming back from Hawaii, the police at my door, and the changes I’d noticed in Bart.
“Is he like you?” Gap Teeth asked.
“My son? Yeah, same eyes, same nose. People tell us we laugh the same.”
“No, I mean…” and she hooked her pointer finger and jabbed it a few times as if to say, behind you.
“Oh. Yes. Just another lottery we didn’t win, I guess.”
“What’s it like?” Purple Streaks asked.
“You know”—she turned bright red before she whispered, “not having one.”
It took me a second to come up with an answer I was willing to share.
“Lonely,” I sighed. “You know, when people were first showing signs of the adaptation, before you three were born, I had this friend, Glenda, who pulled down her pants and showed me the nub on her tailbone right in the middle of the Macy’s department store. That doesn’t seem like a big deal now with tail notches in clothes, but back then it was not okay. Calcium deposit, she’d said. All the doctors back then thought the nubs were calcium deposits. Every phone conversation with her after that was about her tail: it’s the size of Peter’s dingaling, she said—Peter was Glenda’s husband—it’s as long as a cucumber now; I could slap Gucci on it and wear it as a belt, Ronnie.
“Not long after, Glenda stopped calling me. She’d found other friends, I guess. So, I went to a geneticist, asked him when I should be expecting a Gucci belt of my own. I had Bart do a test, too. Both negative. Didn’t bother me much, but having to tell my five-year-old he’d always be different wasn’t easy.”
The girls left me alone after that. One of them woke me up vomiting. Gap Teeth, I think. And I felt the bed jiggle when someone finally got into the bunk above mine. Whoever it was kindly didn’t use the tailcut in the bed, must have slept on her side all night.
A different cop let himself in to retrieve me at eight the next morning. Walking out the door, I noticed Sharon had been the one sleeping above me. The cop told me my bail had been posted and led me to Processing where I found Bart sitting at the only table in the room. A small man with a moustache sat next to him. He sat rod straight, using the chair back as a splint almost, not the way someone with a tail would sit. They stayed where they were until the officer behind the desk told me I could go.
“Ma!” Bart walked over to hug me. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, I’m all right. Met some new friends; got a little shut-eye.” I pointedly gazed over at the man.
“This is George Halberson, Ma. Our lawyer.” The man stood and joined us.
“I didn’t know we had a lawyer. Nice to meet you, sir. Hopefully clearing all this up will be easy. Do you know that I’m not even sure what they charged me with?” Bart steered me out the door.
“Yes, well,” George’s voice came out pinched and nasal. He looked at a sheet in his hand. “It was Identity Theft and Unlawful Access to Stored Communications, Mrs. Lippincott. Some pretty serious hacking crimes. In fact, the Pro-Prehensile people have picked up on your case. They’re pretty upset.”
“But I don’t even know how one would go about stealing an identity.”
“Don’t worry. I think we have a strong argument,” Mister Halberson said.
“George and I have been talking, and we think all we have to do is show the judge you don’t know anything about computers.”
“Bart, don’t call Mister Halberson by his first name. It’s rude.”
Mister Halberson let out a puff of a laugh, his moustache barely raised.
“George is a friend, Ma. We’ve been hanging out.”
“Yes. Bart has been helping with some NPIA initiatives with which I’m afraid you’ve been entangled, Mrs. Lippincott.”
“NPIA?” There were a few nonprehensile groups: NPUSA, 2Arms, NANPA. I remembered one of them had gotten in trouble with the Pro-Prehensile groups for becoming violent at a rally.
“The Nonprehensile Initiative of America,” Bart said.
“Oh, right. The new tailless group,” I said.
“We prefer nonprehensile,” George shot back.
“Sorry. But what do you mean I’m entangled?”
“Whoever did it hacked into Ryan Paul’s personal server. Got tons of info against him. Riled up the Pro-Prehensiles. They’re calling us traitors.”
By then we were at the cab and the driver was asking us “Where to?” George said goodbye and that he’d call Bart later. In the cab, I kept trying to talk about what had happened, but Bart put a hand on my shoulder and looked meaningfully toward the driver whose tail was operating the gear shift at my feet. All the way home I thought about the night before: Bart’s reaction when I tapped him on the shoulder, his newfound purpose, George’s sudden appearance. How the internet, the phone, and the cable bills were all under my name, not Bart’s.
THE JUDGE USED HIS TAIL to pound the gavel, bringing court to order. After a while, the bailiff called the first witness. Gap Teeth walked in, chewing a wad of gum. Twelve tailed jurors watched George pace in front of the witness stand. Bart sat behind me, the smell of Axe Body Spray cloying the air.
George asked Gap Teeth a series of questions about our night in jail. How I couldn’t remember the charges, how I couldn’t use a computer. In the moments when the courtroom was quiet, we could hear the protestors outside chanting, “Lock her up!” Then it was the prosecuting attorney’s turn with Gap Teeth. His tail swished in the air behind him as he spoke.
“In your conversation with the defendant, Miss LePage, did you also ask her what it was like to be nonprehensile?”
“And what did she say?”
“She said it was lonely, that she’d lost friends because of it.”
“Did the defendant tell you a story of how she lost her friend?”
“Yeah, she,”—Gap Teeth nodded toward me—“said she was jealous of her friend for growing a tail and how she hated that she and her kid weren’t normal.”
“Thank you, Miss LePage. I have no further questions.”
I was numb through the rest of the trial. Later, Bart would tell me how a tail supremacist managed to disrupt the hearing, how Ryan Paul had called me a disgrace to democracy on national television, and how the judge used the word example to describe me in his ruling. The only thing I remember from that whole week, and I remember it vividly, was the bailiff pulling my hands behind my back and the weight of the three cuffs digging into my tailbone.
***I wrote this story for a contest. My prompts were political satire as a genre, a computer hacker as a character, and a night in jail as a conflict.***
The young man sitting next to me on the bench only stopped muttering to himself after a mewling came from the next car. A whimper, low at first, soon blazed into the telltale agony only a country doctor could rattle out of a man. The scrabble of people in the train car with me tensed at the sound.
“He’s awake then,” my neighbor said, each word a valve opening. I had taken him for a cowhand when I first eyed him, but I saw now a reddened circle around his right eye and a ledger in his hand, so I did not know what to surmise. He wore a white hat, the likes of which I’d never seen, with a low crown that rounded off at the top and a considerable amount of material—was it netting?— tied underneath the wide brim.
Muffled groans seeped out from the other car for some time, and then I noticed water sliding down my neighbor’s cheek, sluicing through the stubble of his jaw, and plopping onto the pages of his ledger. Lacy sentences, not numbers, littered the page.
“Come now, son,” I said, putting down my newspaper. “Your friend will be all right.” I did not know if what I said was true.
The young man glanced at me and immediately recoiled, a reaction to which I have had decades to grow accustomed, but one that still bit just the same.
“A fire,” I began, referring to the scales and discoloration on one side of my face. “I like to think the devil licked me and decided I was too pure for his tastes.” His gaze returned to the book. The moaning continued.
“I can’t sit here any longer,” my neighbor said, and he was off. I returned to the article about Teddy Roosevelt’s return to the city. In minutes the young man returned more agitated than before.
“The doctor won’t let me see him. He’s put up a curtain, and he’s blocking the way.”
“Quite right. Your friend is too preoccupied at present to receive guests.”
At this the young man looked me straight in the eye. “But he is my brother, sir.”
“Oh. Well then, that is something else entirely. Come. We’ll try together.” I slid the paper under my leg and began to rise, but the young man stopped me.
“Thank you, Mister…how may I call you, sir?”
“Mister Bentley, will do.”
“Thank you, Mister Bentley, but that doctor is a mule.” He scratched his ear. “I did notice an empty spot on a bench nearest the curtain. Could I persuade you to…”
“Find a way to divert the good doctor’s attention?” I kept my voice low. The young man smiled so I continued. “You were fortunate to sit next to a man who had to employ devious methods to obtain even a biscuit for dinner when he was young. Go. Take the bench near the curtain. I will come along in time to give you the opportunity to see your brother. Does my plan sound feasible?”
“Yes, sir,” the young man said, and he was off again.
I waited some time before I began to cough. A little at first, and then with gusto. I hailed a whiskered man across the aisle who aided my tramp into the next car. I saw my young man’s odd hat straightaway, peeking above the heads of the riders. I made a great show of our procession; by the time I stood before the little doctor, I held the sympathy of the entire car.
“Thank God I found you, doctor,” I said through wheezes. “I’m afraid the catarrh has returned.”
“Please sit down. I am Doctor Fairchild. And you are?”
“Trent,” I squeaked before exploding in a series of powerful outbursts. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
The doctor listened to my breathing and felt my neck. Then he stooped to fetch something from his bag, I quickly peeked through the slim gap between the curtains. In the second I had I saw my neighbor whispering to the injured man lying on a bench. My neighbor’s hand was placed delicately on the other man’s cheek, but I could not tell if the injured man was awake. It was plain to me that the man was not aware of any world beyond his friend; his face was bright. His earnestness sent a wave of heat to my face and forced my attention return to the doctor who was still searching in his bag.