By Dustin M. Hoffman
Darrell has two choices, one good choice and one bad choice. We cannot be sure which is which, however, perhaps because we are only as human as Darrell, which is to say, seven-eighths human and one-eighth alien. We know the human chunk—ours and Darrell’s—creates the indecision, but identifying indecision does not improve our confidence. Indecision is complicated, and we try to understand, thirst for explanations. But we avoid obsession, which is difficult when our nonhuman eighth, different from Darrell’s, spins spider webs of our thoughts and makes our veins glow purple, especially the veins behind our eyes, which are always bloodshot, streaked, crisscrossing behind our eyelids into cranial darkness, where we cannot see but wish we could.
Darrell’s choices are as follows: go to the punk rock show tonight, or watch his friend take too many pills and die.
Darrell’s alien eighth stems from a heritage only we know, a race of tree sloths with intelligent thought, who moseyed to this planet in their spaceship that looked like a tree and moved much slower than the speed of light, but faster, too, because of wormholes. Without wormholes, they never would have made it to Earth in their lifetime, as they are just as lethargic as Earth’s tree sloths, though much smarter—they read Descartes while hanging upside down. Without wormholes, they would have chosen their dog-eared Descartes hardcovers over impregnating Darrell’s grandma, Peggy Sue, with invisible photon bullets coated in sloth sperm at the same time as she was making love with Darrell’s grandpa, Willis. And Willis wouldn’t have married Peggy Sue if he didn’t think he was the father of Darrell’s mom, but instead would’ve followed his dream of piloting biplanes from Quito to the Galapagos. Willis would’ve eventually flown too close to a waved albatross that would crash through his windshield. Its giant wings would wrap his face, blind his trajectory, and neither specimen would ever fly again. But there are wormholes, so there is Darrell with his rich and unique heritage that he’ll never fully appreciate.
In front of the mirror, Darrell snaps spiked bracelets on his wrists. He teases his curly brown hair into spikes, hands sticky with styling gel. Earlier today, he tried to dye his hair blue, but it came out greenish, and he is displeased. Really, he’s never looked closer to his sloth ancestors, as their fur is tinted greenish from the symbiotic algae clinging to the long, lazy strands. One alga that lived on Darrell’s ancestors was named Unk, and he was the bluest alga in his neighborhood, which meant he was smart and virile and full of potential. In his middle age, Unk invented the heartworm pill. But he was too small, his handwriting too tiny, for the patent office to notice his request. When the patent office received his paperwork, they mistook it for a fleck of torn napkin fallen from their mustaches after lunch and brushed it into the trash with an embarrassed flick. Thusly, Unk does not own the patent on heartworm pills, though we know it should rightfully be his. So many great minds are cursed with tiny handwriting and microscopic voices.
Darrell’s handwriting is large and sloppy. He writes a short letter to his friend, an act of avoiding Woody’s brown eyes, eyes that love Darrell in a way he fears. This is what the letter says: Sorry, dude. Can’t take pills tonight. I’m in love with Edie, and nothing can stop me. When he folds the letter, one crease down the middle, it clings to his sticky fingers. This could be just physics, just certain molecules bonding to other certain molecules. But we’re not sure. It could also be a tiny race of bacteria in the hair gel that really don’t want Darrell to deliver this letter, that cling hopelessly because they either don’t like Edie or don’t want Woody to die alone. We can’t say for sure. Some things we can’t see. Some life is beyond our understanding.
On his way to the show, Darrell drops by Woody’s apartment. He squats at Woody’s door, observes yellow light slicing through the cracks, and then slides his note under the door. Darrell has made his choice. But we need to see more, so we peer through the north wall of Woody’s apartment. Pink strips of fiberglass have slumped into a pile between the joists, because only seven staples secured each strip of insulation, and they have broken free. Past the insulation, Woody pops another pill while he watches Darrell’s note slip through his door. He knows all about Edie and what Darrell fears, why he will not choose to watch Woody die tonight. This surprises us, how much he knows. We thought Woody was just here to take pills and die alone. We were wrong. We deserve forgiveness, as oversights are part of being seven-eighths human. We pat each other on the back, sympathize with our inability to know everything, which is the job for a being with a lesser portion of human, perhaps three-eighths.
Woody doesn’t read the note. He refuses the existence of Darrell’s choice. He kicks open the door, hoping it will crash into Darrell, who is already back in his car, turning the key. Woody spots the red Ford Fiesta from the balcony. He bolts inside his apartment, skids the toilet from its base, which he disconnected yesterday instead of calling the landlord to fix a leak that wouldn’t bother him much longer anyway. He drags the toilet to the balcony and heaves it over. The toilet smashes into 427 porcelain shards in the space Darrell’s bumper occupied a moment before. Darrell is already pulling away. He doesn’t see and doesn’t hear because a cassette of Edie’s favorite band, The Imperial Coronaries, blares through his speakers. Darrell hopes the excessive decibels will inject this music into his brain, transform him into whatever Edie loves so much. The cassette blares so loud that four of the tiny hair cells inside Darrell’s ears lay flat, never to rise again. He drives into the night. After a few miles, he shuts off the cassette to listen to the wind through his window but only hears ringing. Darrell will no longer be able to hear these high-pitched notes again after the ringing stops. These notes will be gone forever.
And that’s too bad, because Unk’s language operated in these lost notes. If Unk had a longer lifespan and Darrell had a full range of hearing, he would’ve been able to hear his algae cries, publish Unk’s patents, make him jealous or proud, depending on the depth of his symbiotic relationship with his sloth partner. We ponder the ownership of sperm, whose tails wiggle with life. We squint to determine if these flailing rudders have motivation or just an involuntary obsession to move forward. There is potential for self comparison, but we must trust our instincts, our glowing sight, and push on.
Hundreds of years in the future, anthropologists will excavate 423 shards of Woody’s smashed toilet. This discovery will incite a renewed interest in the culture of man in the twenty-first century. The scientists will piece the toilet back together and debate the purpose of a seat with a hole in it. They will eventually choose to define this seat with a hole as a device once used to extract human souls, since it is so foreign to their current bathroom technology, which consists of a plastic bag inserted into the intestine to capture feces. Feces are valued as a potent fuel in the future and are termed “gold” because no one has ever seen gold, but from historical accounts they understand gold to be a valuable material which feces now is. In their eyes, the owner of the soul extractor, Woody, must have been a king, a president, at least a duke, in order to own something so amazing and have the luxury of being able to smash it.
But Woody is just Woody, a lonely guy with a lot of pills and only one friend, Darrell. They grew up together in a cul-de-sac called Bison Run. Neither of them ever saw any bison and no one ever ran, except Darrell and Woody on some nights. They ran to the city and rode the el, but were always too afraid to get off and just rode in circles all night, until Darrell’s head slumped onto Woody’s shoulder.
Darrell’s ears ring as he pulls into the parking lot of the bar where the punk rock band will play. Inside, the band roars, already halfway through their set. The volume of their music instantly crushes another one of Darrell’s inner ear hairs, and ten more notes will be forever gone from Darrell’s range by the end of the night. Darrell pushes through the music, through the crowd pulsing to the Imperial Coronaries’ song, “My Robot Got Cancer.” His progress stops when he runs into a punk that looks like Woody: shoulder-length brown hair, soft brown eyes, a thin frame. Darrell shoves past him after a brief pause. He tells himself this fellow does not in fact look like Woody, but looks like a hippie, looks out of place, and is a poser in the crowd. The Woody-looking fellow forgives Darrell’s abrasive shoulder after it slams him out of the way. Many people push in the crowd, and surely he didn’t mean malice. No reason to get upset about it. Each choice is precious, and the Woody-fellow wouldn’t waste his time transforming one harsh shoulder into sour grapes.
Edie clings to a metal rail in front of the stage. Bodies bash into her back in waves. She is short and beautiful, and her ass has been groped eleven times already tonight, but she refuses to give up her spot at the rail. When the next person presses into her back, their hot crotch mashing against the small of her back, she thrusts an elbow. The pit is no place for romance to Edie, and even if it were, shoving crotches and groping hands are poor equivalents to boxes of chocolates and roses, which she would find too predictable anyway.
Darrell grips his belly, winces, but also still tries to keep his head bobbing so no one knows he has been rejected by Edie. He doesn’t know Edie didn’t know she elbowed him. Only we know that. And only we know Darrell possesses what drives most human women wild: pheromones released by especially virile algae, like Darrell’s symbiotic ancestor Unk, who snuck onto the sloth’s photon sperm bullets so he might escape the slothful sloth planet, where inventors receive no patents. On the sloth planet, no one cares about ownership. When he tried to establish his right to heartworm treatment, the sloths were like, “Relax, man. Let’s all just share the heartworm pills. It’s a far-out idea, and why would you want to limit its use? Let’s chill with some Descartes.” But patenting didn’t go so smoothly for Unk on this planet either. Algae dreams are denigrated on almost every planet. Poor Unk. A long life with no acknowledgement.
Edie wishes she wouldn’t have worn a skirt to the show. Another hand flutters the hem, creeps up her thigh. She readies another elbow thrust, looks behind her, but a vacuum has opened up. For the first time tonight, there is space behind her, and she can concentrate on the guitar player in the band, Too Bad Ventricle. Too Bad is short and beautiful like Edie. Edie hopes she likes girls in skirts, hopes she likes girls, because Edie loves Too Bad, even without any algae pheromones, which is true love. Maybe. We can’t make claims to define love when Unk abandoned his family to make their lives better, only to fail. We do know Edie likes the way Too Bad’s dreadlocks swish to the beat, how sweat glistens off her cleavage.
Poor Darrell. He doesn’t know he has the wrong genitals, doesn’t know Edie would never fall in love with him even with all the algae pheromones in the universe. Not just because Edie loves Too Bad, but because Darrell makes poor choices. At the exact moment the vacuum behind Edie opened up like a sigh, Darrell was involved in another poor choice. He caught the twelfth man to try to grope Edie’s ass and now drags him by the neck of his T-shirt to the lobby. Darrell is not a fighter, hasn’t thrown a punch since fourth grade when Billy Morrow yanked the tail off the class’ pet iguana. He throws a punch, but it rolls slowly off the twelfth groper’s shoulder. The attempted groper, Trevor, also owns the wrong genitals to win Edie’s favor and is much smaller than Darrell, but his last fight was Wednesday when he head-butted another much larger man, who told him his red mohawk made him look like a fag, outside a convenience store. This comment led Trevor to groping. He had something to prove, even if no one was watching, except us, who he is unaware of, and of course Darrell. And now Trevor easily ducks Darrell’s slow punch and kicks Darrell in the crotch, followed by a knee to his jaw. He calls Darrell a fag and sinks back into the pit.
Darrell writhes on the lobby floor, feeling like a bowling ball slipped into his lower intestine and sniffing twenty years of spilled beer crusted into the carpet. He thinks about this word, fag. It makes his face flush, makes the faces of those around him seem to stare. The word fills him more than the kick to the groin. We are surprised these three letters mean so much, pass from one person to another, grow into dangerous parasites. These three letters make Darrell mad at Woody.
One week ago, Woody said, “I love you, Darrell,” then swallowed a pill, hiding his eyes behind a black mug.
“Okay, man.” Darrell rolled his pill between his fingers. “I guess I love you, too.”
“No you don’t. Not like I mean it.”
Darrell put the pill in his mouth, bitter between his molars, and then spit it back into his hand.
“You don’t have to say anything,” Woody said, and Darrell was relieved.
But now he is mad. He doesn’t want to own the word coughed onto him, the word he now thinks he should have coughed onto Woody.
We find this tragic. Darrell owns the right genitals for Woody and the wrong ones for Edie. But Edie isn’t thinking about genitals, more interested in dreadlocks and guitars and a fantasy where Too Bad stage dives into her arms. And, really, genitals are not the first things on Darrell’s or Woody’s minds. We seem to have revealed a personal focus on genitals, and we are embarrassed. Sometimes we need to simplify our interpretations for the sake of conciseness. But simplicity fails, and conciseness is impossible when there is Unk and a sloth planet and soul extractors and waved albatrosses—and Woody, who will die anyway.
Darrell limps to the exit. He looks back to the stage, the crowd, one last time. Edie spots him over the scattered dance floor. Too Bad and The Imperial Coronaries have left the stage. Edie bites her lip, trying to share some of the blood dripping from Darrell’s nose. But Darrell misses this mercy, because his vision blurs. He just sees faces, still imagines them staring. Only two faces matter, Darrell’s and Edie’s, and the line between them ruffles carbon monoxide molecules enough to open a wormhole. The room could fill with sloths in a nano-second. They’d hang from the rafters, the drum set, the merchandise tables, but they won’t appear. Darrell doesn’t see Edie, and the sloths are too involved in contemplating Descartes’ Latin, cogito ergo sum.
Edie knows why Darrell is here. She knows he’s loved her since fourth grade, when she tried to rubber cement the iguana’s tail back in place. He has been sweet to Edie, buying her Twinkies when Sabrina called her fat in high school. He drove her to night nursing classes when her car broke down, waiting outside until class let out. They watched a meteor shower on Wednesday, the same time Trevor was fighting a word, and Darrell cried when the last rock burned yellow across the sky. For all of his sweetness, Edie will never love Darrell the way he wants her to.
Darrell is defeated. His ears ring and knots fill his belly. He punches the steering wheel on his way to Woody’s apartment. He slides over a curb at one point, because he is angry and his vision is blurred. The curb cracks, crushing dirt underneath, which bends a buried tin can full of 1878 twenty-cent pieces featuring a seated Lady Liberty, worth enough to send Woody to the Galapagos where he’d forget about pills while watching the waved albatross clap sky with its giant wings. This is the closest anyone will get to this treasure until the anthropologists excavate Woody’s toilet shards and also find this tin can. They are less impressed with the coins, which don’t tell them anything they don’t already know. They still have money in the future. There is still fuel and money and science, an absence of toilets, and a severe longing to understand the soul.
His Fiesta in park, radio silent, ears ringing, Darrell watches the stairs to Woody’s apartment. No more watching. He stomps four pieces of parking lot porcelain shards into dust. He climbs the stairs. He has come to confront Woody, to let him confess his love for Darrell, so that Darrell has reason to transfer the word he carries. Perhaps he will stomp Darrell like porcelain shards. This is one choice. He also considers letting Woody feed him pills until his eyes blur completely, until he can’t feel bowling balls in his stomach or his throbbing forehead or his incorrect genitals. If he took enough pills, he could let Woody love him. Stubbly mouths pressing, chest to chest, two sets of genitals that don’t fit together, two humans not minding they don’t fit. Then what could a word do to him? It wouldn’t be right or wrong, it would just be a choice.
But these thoughts of Darrell’s are why Woody is dead. Woody does not want Darrell to love numbly. So Woody chewed up every last pill, even a broken one he found under the fridge he couldn’t identify, which was actually a heartworm pill for a dog that lived in his apartment three years ago. Woody’s heart is protected from worms who would love to tunnel through his most precious tissue, but his most precious tissue has stopped working. Woody is dead. This is no surprise. We’ve prepared ourselves, and we’ve come to terms with Darrell and his choices. He is human, at least seven-eighths so, and he has a right to all his choices, Woody too.
What we had not prepared ourselves for was the dog dying, the Labrador retriever and Akita mix, a labrakita, whose pill Woody ate just before he died, when his eyes could hardly stay open and his skin felt like a million needles, not pressing into him, but skin as needles. The dog didn’t die of heartworm. It died from the fender of a Dodge truck, and it had been starving before because its owners set it free when they were tired of him, set him free in a park that was not freedom but fear, loneliness.
We didn’t know Woody’s death would reveal the labrakita death, and we are afraid. The labrakita’s rib cage forks from a drainage ditch, flesh pecked by crows, bones brown with bacteria and algae lacking inventive ambition. There is stillness. Bones and silence. We turn to our mirrors and see our eyes, as purple and variegated and glowing as ever, trailing nowhere—into our eyelids. We ignore the bags under our eyes and retrace Galapagos flight patterns, examine waved albatross feathers, scour Descartes. Somewhere between Unk’s patent and Woody’s involuntarily emptied bowels, we find reason to reconsider the sloth. Maybe lethargy is not the best description. Highly evolved is better. They conserve energy by limiting movement, choices, decisions to return to the earth, where there is so much danger. With backs dangling from the treetops, there is much less chance of becoming roadkill, or of surprising us.
We hope Darrell will grow into his ancestry, contemplate choices more slowly. We try to explain this to him. We tap Morse code through the pine door Darrell presses his ear against, but Woody’s slumped body also presses and muffles our tapping. Darrell hears nothing.
Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA from Bowling Green State University and his PhD from Western Michigan University. His stories have recently appeared in Pleiades, Smokelong Quarterly, Juked, Cimarron Review, Witness, and The Threepenny Review. He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. You can visit his site here: dustinmhoffman.com
“Seven-Eighths” was originally published in 2011 by Artifice Magazine.