portion of the artwork for Brandon Wells' fiction
What Rough Beast
Brandon Wells

It was the same dream—a great plague makes everyone go away quietly and the lighthouse keeper turns and whispers that the ships have stopped coming in. The Boy drank from the jug of water he always kept beside his bed and spent the rest of the afternoon waiting to become operational again. Outside the sun was out and a lawn mower made the neighborhood loud. He heard the sigh of industrial breaks. More traffic. They were coming. They were bringing in new materials for the new houses. In his head, snapshots of the previous night’s intemperance kept appearing and disappearing—kids with knives, then something else, then something else, always refusing to be orderly or tidy or encouraging and the sun was always high and wrathful whenever you really needed everything to be really gray and rainy and brooding and English.

His grandmother was in the kitchen.

She was pulling things out of ovens and washing things in sinks. He liked his grandmother immensely even though she was now staying with them and wore her big bossy pants a little too frequently for his tastes. There was something earthbound and tenacious about his grandmother. She was one of those people you read about in the newspapers who deliver babies during natural disasters and never call in sick to work for thirty-seven years. She was built to last.

“I’m making pasta with a nice salad tonight for dinner. We are all going to sit down like civilized people and eat dinner together,” his grandmother told him. “Do you want to go ahead and wash up?”

“Where’s Mom?”


There was a television set on in the background. The Boy’s grandmother always kept the news on when she cooked. The older she got the less she liked silence, any kind of sustained absence of noise and sound, especially of the human variety. She hated being quiet so much that she only slept about three hours a night. Silence was the soundtrack for a movie she would be in soon enough and she didn’t exactly have a healthy appreciation for the previews.

Today’s big story …

A famous comedian had just passed. It was listed as prescription drug overdose—but everyone knew what really happened. The one-time Harvard Law graduate, known for his incredible sharp wit. (Most famously his “you-might-be-a-Bolshevik” shtick. If you like democratic centralism … you … might … be … a … Bolshevik.) The famous comedian watched his career rise and then even out after not that much rise, while lesser talents who pandered to the lowest common denominator sold out million-dollar venues each night. Eager-beaver idealism was gradually supplanted by the weight gains, divorce, embittered rejection of the industry, and, lastly, growing fame on the insult-comic circuit, which was the porno equivalent of a barbwire tattoo and jar of peanut butter.

“Grandma?” The Boy was looking out one of the windows. “There’s—a hobbity-hob hobbit doing push-ups in our driveway. Come over here. You got to see this. This fool is training for the Special Shire Olympics.”

She cocked her head towards him and leveled her eyebrows. “Oh, HUSH!”

Her eyebrows were famously gray, two battleships miniaturized in distant profile, arcing up and back, separated by the bridge of her nose, a nose that didn't protrude, but was always pointing down in quiet, sober, aquiline dignitas. Then her face. A face that always looked like it should have been painted on the side of a vase, the vase displayed and heavily guarded over in a museum somewhere, or even better, lying cold and deep in the ocean with other sunken artifacts that were guaranteed to last longer than anyone reading this sentence.


“Don’t you Grandma me!”

The bespectacled halfling had been showing up at the house for the past few months. He worked at the hospital with The Boy’s mother. The visits were gaining an alarming regularity to them.

“Basically, um, Grandma, you only like him because he’s a doctor. But—spoiler alert—only the worst people become doctors. It’s the only way they can keep everyone else from finding out what horrible people they are. They become doctors. I know, I’ve been to a lot of doctors. Tons.”

“Robert’s a very hard worker,” she said, adding the sugar to a jar of tea that had been simmering the last several hours. “Stop being so cynical all the time.”

“But Grandma …”

“You’re just like your grandfather.”

“He’s a hobbit. I feel awkward whenever he has to pass through a regular-sized door. He’s as tall as you are.”

“Glass houses.”


The Boy’s grandmother had her hand over her mouth. “Such lovely manners, too. You could learn something from Robert’s manners.”

“You know who had nice manners? Hitler.”

“Did he?”

“Probably. Short, too.”

“Just go wash up!” said his grandmother, trying not to laugh.

The Boy went upstairs to download some instrumental tracks on his laptop so that he could practice his freestyling techniques. (Note to old people: What are you doing reading this story? Who put you up to this? Don’t you have anything better to do? I mean, it’s not like you’re infested with time, is it? Sorry, don’t listen to me. It’s this late hour. I always get so cranky around midnight—which is about 4:15 p.m., your time. So what’s this freestyling thing all about? Freestyling usually means this: to rap, to spit hot fire, to use rhyming word patterns that frequently and poignantly describe scenarios where you shoot cops, acquire substantial wealth, get all the finest ladies, and do all the drugs. Sorry, old people, I’m not trying to call you out or anything, I just want you to keep up with the narrative. I’m pretty sure a lot of you won’t even buy my book, but in case you do, I don’t want you hitting your head against the wall for the rest of the day as you try to unravel all these newfangled locutions. Anyway, I love old people. I think old people are fucking awesome! Old people: you are the bee’s knees! Fuck, yeah, old people!) When The Boy finished his freestyling—it was about old people—he returned to find Hobbit Bob sitting at the dinner table with a towel around his neck.

“There he is!" said Hobbit Bob, who could always be depended upon when you needed someone to let you know when you were there. “Can you believe this weather we’re getting?”


“How’s the new school, chief?”

“It’s good,” said chief, pulling the chair out. “A lot of great opportunities.”

“Good, good,” said Hobbit Bob, always such a sucker for a display of youthful can-do and go-getterism. “Sophomore, right?”

Senior,” he gritted through his teeth.

“Have you figured out what you want to be when you grow up?”

“Ah, have yoo—?” The Boy stopped. “I want to go into the ring business.”

“Ahh … jewelry, huh. You kids and your bling,” Hobbit Bob said, raising his voice now to make sure that everyone could hear his grasp of youthful parlance. “Ha, bet you didn’t know I knew about all of that?”

The Boy’s grandmother shook her head and tittered from the kitchen.

Hobbit Bob continued, “Just stay away from those blood diamonds, eh, promise me that, awful business, over there. Just read a book about all that stuff.”

“Me, too. Kinda. It was a trilogy.”

“She’ll be down in a minute,” said his grandmother, entering the dining room again. She set the pasta down next to a giant bowl of salad and returned on the second trip with the garlic bread. “We should go ahead and eat. Everyone can just get their own plate. Would anyone like water, pepsi coke, or sweet tea, Robert?”

Moscow finally arrived.

Moscow was a great taker of baths and naps and was therefore usually successful in being late to dinner tables. He waited for everyone to admire his stylish walk before crossing the room in unhurried fashion. The Boy could tell there was something special about Moscow. He knew it. A fortune teller at the state fair once informed him that Moscow was indeed the scion of a high-ranking family in ancient Egypt and that in one of his earlier lives he had died after chasing a rare moth into the desert.

“Get out of here,” said The Boy’s grandmother, shooing the pussycat down from the table, “you old beast! Down! Down down down!”

“Murr-eoow!” said Moscow.

(Tr. What’s all this talk of beastly beasts? I’m an Eton tabby.)

The ancient pussycat jumped down from the chair and turned to hiss at Hobbit Bob one last time before retiring to the living room.

Hobbit Bob had impaled one of the meatballs onto his fork and was examining it closely, as if it was the first spaghetti meatball he’d ever come across in the field and he intended to write and publish a very dumb paper about it.

“What’s wrong, did you eat already?” asked The Boy’s grandmother.

“I’m sorry, I should have said something before. I’m a vegetarian now.”

The old lady raised an eyebrow. People were just getting so weird these days. The women were wearing trousers to work and the men were giving up meat and going on daytime television to talk about their feelings.

“Oh, Robert, what are we going to do with you?” asked his grandmother.

After dinner, standing in the kitchen again, she called out to her grandson, “Also, I need you to take a little ride with me after we clean up.”

“Where?” said The Boy unenthusiastically, but getting up and following the voice anyway. It was already dark enough outside for him to see a fairly detailed reflection in the kitchen window. With his grandmother reaching for something in the pantry, he sucked his stomach in and flexed his chest muscles and spread his wings out to the length and breadth of their full glory. He rested. He threw up two biceps, then turned thoughtfully, side to side, admiring the flush of brilliant colors behind him as the ridges along the scales produced iridescent and even some metallic hues. His wings were full of light today. They were so very bright.

“The airport,” said his grandmother, turning back.


She started with the utensils first, dropping them with clangor into the flatware tray hiding in one of the top island drawers. “We’re going to pick Emma Fae up from the airport.”

“Who?” asked The Boy. “Anyway, isn’t she going to—” He named one of those small, leafy colleges up north that only a very small amount of people in the country are smart enough to be impressed by.

“I told you that already. Her daddy’s in India and took Enid with him this time, too,” his grandmother said, shaking a spatula over the sink full of water and bubbles and dirty dishes. “Emma’s just … she’s going to spend a little time with us, that’s all, take herself a little break.”

“Is she depressed or something?”

“What—whatever you want to call it. She’s just Emma.”

“Well, Grandma,” said The Boy. “I’d really love to go and help you pick up our little bell jar belle from the airport. But I can’t … I … I have to stay home and update the drivers on my computer.”

She had her back to him while talking. “Sometimes you can be too smart for your own intelligence.”

Grandma, I’m not feeling well. I don’t really want to go.”

“Tough titty, said the kitty.”

“Really?” he said, but not in the fun and expectant way.

“It won’t kill nobody. We’ll be back and gone before you know it.”

“I have to stay at home and memorize passages from the Bible, Grandma.”

“I’m turning this channel, too, so I hope nobody has a problem with that,” said The Boy’s grandmother, shaking her head at a television screen full of pregnant, cursing sixteen-year-olds. “This isn’t fit to watch.”

He mindlessly picked up the trash bag next to the refrigerator and took it with him towards the garage door, but managed to call over his shoulder, “I’ll be outside!”

The air was thick and buggy still. The garage door was open. He closed the trash lid as far as it would go before walking around the garage, making dilatory gestures with the broom, before giving up completely to focus on the crepuscular MILF scene as two healthy blondes jogged by in matching blue suits. The sun was nearly gone. The nighttime things were coming out to play. At this moment, he was happy for no reason. Some days, like today, at certain times, he felt most alive and he felt most connected with everything and everybody around him. He hoped that nothing bad would ever happen to anyone who lived on his street. Even the old people. Especially the old people. But then the light-switch euphoria would turn off. The fugitive feelings gone. And there was only darkness and doubt and more doubt. Old people—he was sitting in the dark recesses of the garage now, drinking name-brand soda, and he was starting to doubt whether he would ever join their trill squad one day. He was starting to get his Hamlet on.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 36 | Spring 2012