portion of the artwork for Billy Middleton's story

Billy Middleton

I’d heard rumors, but this is my first time seeing the neighbor kid’s horn. Small like a baby’s thumb, gray like tree bark, it grows out of the upper left corner of his forehead. He’s listening to a learn-French-fast CD, the neighbor kid, with his bedroom window open. I’ve always wanted to go to France. I’ve always wanted to go anywhere, but the closest I’ve come is the time I took Kim and Ralph to Epcot a few years back. We walked around the World Showcase, sampling Americanized versions of foreign cuisine. That was before my son and I became two different kinds of people.

I take a break from the hedges, stab my trimming shears into the lawn, and move closer to the low brick wall—vandalized by chalk drawings of stick people sixty-nining—that separates our yards. The neighbor kid’s room is plastered with garish anime posters, the writing all in Japanese. He stands in front of his dresser mirror, face so close his lips almost touch the glass.

The male narrator on the learn-French-fast CD asks him his name. “Je m’appelle Joshua,” he says, moving his lips in an exaggerated manner that makes his accent sound affected. At least he looks like a Frenchman, slender, dressed all in black. Dark hair slicked back, making the horn seem longer, more prominent.

I call his name and he turns toward the window. I expect him to be self-conscious about the horn, but he doesn’t seem to be. He pauses the CD player and comes closer. “Mr. Sibley,” he says, “need your lawn mowed again?”

“It’s Peter. And I think Kim wants me to do it myself from now on.” I rub my paunch, which stretches the fabric of my striped polo.

Joshua and his mother moved in at the beginning of summer. She teaches computer programming at the community college over in Raymond, and Joshua mows lawns for extra money. He mowed our lawn a few weeks back, wearing a Pink Floyd baseball cap and too-short jean shorts. He made perfect rows, didn’t miss a spot, raked the grass into white plastic garbage bags, which he carried down to the edge of the road and stacked in a pyramid. I thought he did a good job, but Kim wouldn’t let him do it anymore. “He cuts it too short,” she said. Then she made me get up and come to the living room window. “Look at it, Peter. It’s like a fourth of an inch tall.”

“Honestly, I should probably be making Ralph mow the grass,” I say. “When I was sixteen I had a hell of a work ethic.” I lean against the brick wall, the rough mortar pressing into my elbows. “You know what he does all day? He sits in his room listening to Viking music and playing with troll dolls.”

Ralph has a thing for troll dolls. Not the cute, puffy-haired kind that were all the rage a few years back. He likes the trolls from Scandinavian legend. The green-skinned kind that eat your flesh and suck the marrow from your bones. He started collecting them after I bought him this nutcracker troll at the Norway exhibit at Epcot. I picked it up in the souvenir shop, held it up to Ralph, and opened and closed its mouth. “Trolls eat their young,” I said. He was pretty taken with that troll doll.

“That’s him there, isn’t it?” Joshua says, pointing past me.

I turn around and there’s Ralph, looking out of mine and Kim’s bedroom window, watching me talk to Joshua. He’s tall and thin like his mom, with her pale skin, hair so blond it’s almost white, long and braided down his back. He can be a good-looking kid when he tries, which is almost never. He’s trying to grow a beard, but all he’s managed so far is a few patches of curly whiskers. He sees me looking and pushes his glasses back up the bridge of his narrow nose. Stands there a few seconds longer and then retreats into the room and lets the curtain fall back into place.

I turn back around, ready to comment on how weird my son is, but I’m distracted by the pinprick of blood that has welled up at the base of Joshua’s horn. It beads like a red pearl, and then it begins to trickle down. I wipe at my forehead with the back of my hand.

“What’s the French for?” I ask, trying to keep my eyes on his face.

“Ivory Coast. Mission trip to convert the animists.”

The rough mortar presses into the skin of my elbows, so I stand upright. “I would’ve killed to’ve traveled the world when I was your age,” I say, stretching my arms. “Had to go to work for my Uncle Taylor.”

“Sibley Cleanup and Renovation,” Joshua says, looking past me, reading the name on the side of my yellow work van. The blood, thick and black, is halfway down his forehead, approaching his brow. “What do you clean up and renovate?” he asks.

“We used to do asbestos removal, until Uncle Taylor started coughing up blood.” I wipe my brow again. “Now we do office buildings and stuff. We’re working on emptying all the trash out of this old barbershop down on Washington Street. Should’ve seen the nasty stuff in there. Mold on everything, these yellow and black spiders the size of my fist, glass bottles with mummified rats in them.” It’s pooling above his brow now, and I can’t take it anymore. “Your thing is bleeding,” I say.

He touches his forehead and looks at the blood on his fingertips. Then he disappears into his bathroom, comes back a few seconds later, toilet paper pressed above his brow.

“Sorry about that,” he says. “Does that sometimes.”

Kim zips around the corner in her Cherokee, almost taking out a mailbox shaped like a rooster. She turns into our driveway, jerks to a stop in the garage. The hedges are unfinished. Today is my day off and she asked me this morning to trim them. She comes out of the garage, wearing a tan blouse and a matching skirt shorter than what a lawyer should wear, sees the rusty shears with one blade plunged into the earth and the other out at an angle like a dancer, pulls them up. “That kills the grass, Peter,” she says. She lays the shears across the top of the hedges, turns and gives me a kiss hello. Strands of blonde hair glue themselves to my lips.

“Groceries,” she says. Then she disappears back into the garage, and a moment later there’s the rustling of plastic bags.

“Guess you better go,” Joshua says.

“Would you like to go to work with me one day this week?” I ask. “Try it out? Might be a good part-time job.”

“Sure,” he says. “Beats sweating like a pig behind a lawn mower all day.”

We say goodbye, and as I go into the garage and gather the last of the bags out of the Jeep, the CD player starts again. The narrator says repeat after me and begins reciting numbers. Quatre-vingt-sept, quatre-vingt-huit, quatre-vingt-neuf.

I come into the kitchen and Kim meets me in the doorway, looks great in her blouse, with the top button undone. Even the small circles of sweat under her arms look somehow sexy as she takes the bags from me and sets them on the long island in the center of the kitchen, which she’s styled like a Mediterranean villa. Wallpaper made to look like crumbling terracotta bricks, wrought iron hinges on the cabinet doors, a braid of garlic hanging from the wall near the windows.

“Has Ralph come out of his room at all today?” she asks as she tries to find a place to fit a Stouffer’s frozen lasagna in the freezer. I tell her he hasn’t, and she says, “I’m worried about him.”

“Maybe he needs a part-time job,” I say. “Talked with the neighbor kid today. He’s going to work with me one day this week. Ralph could come along.”

“Lawnmower Guy?” she says. “You know they say all kinds of things about him.” She gives up on the lasagna, tosses it onto the counter.

“I think he’s a stand-up guy,” I say. “Does mission work.”

“That’s what I love about you, Peter. You think everyone’s a stand-up guy.”

I cross the kitchen, place my hands on either side of her shoulders, pinning her. “I don’t think you’re a stand-up guy.”

“I’m not any kind of guy,” she says.

Ralph walks into the kitchen. I step away from Kim, and he stands there looking at us. He gets this vacant stare sometimes, a slack-jawed expression, the same one he wore while watching Joshua and me, and it freaks me out.

When he was younger Kim and I worried if something was the matter with him. He’s always struggled to comprehend his homework, has always gotten bad grades, has a horrible temper. No friends, no girlfriends. When I was his age I wasn’t exactly Mr. Popular, but I had a decent circle of friends. I dated. At least I could relate to other people, real people. Sometimes I walk into his room and find him sitting, staring at the shelves of troll dolls lining his walls as if they’re family members. When he was younger we had his I.Q. tested, and it came back a 128, not genius level, but well above average. His guidance counselor suggested a child psychiatrist, who said that clinically speaking, he’s not sick, but he seems to possess an unhealthy disdain for others.

“Hey, son,” I say.

He opens the refrigerator door and gets a Mountain Dew. “Have a good chat with the neighbor kid?” he says, and then before I can answer he turns and walks out.

Kim watches him go. “Maybe you’re right,” she says. “Maybe a part-time job would be healthy for him.” Then she hands me the lasagna, tells me to get supper started while she changes. She walks out of the room, and as she disappears around the corner, she says, “And put on some coffee, too. You’ll need your energy later.”

* * *

That night we eat dinner in the living room while watching a Discovery Channel show about supervolcanoes. Ralph stays in his room as usual. I want to make him come eat with the family, but Kim says to leave him be. After dinner I take him a plate.

He’s sitting at his desk, his Viking music playing. The room is dimly lit, and trolls watch me from the shelves lining the walls. A row of them, his favorites I suppose, stand on the windowsill next to his desk. Or doesn’t sunlight turn trolls into stone? So maybe they’re the ones he doesn’t like.

Ralph is bent over some thick tome, squinting. He has reading glasses, but he refuses to wear them, thinks they make him look like a nerd. I set the plate on his desk and a strand of melted cheese flops off, lands perilously close to the edge of his book, leaves a grease trail.

“Dad, we need plates food will actually fit on,” he says.

I ask what he’s reading and he holds up the book. Automobile Repair for the Beginner. On the cover is a picture of a red classic Mustang, a pair of khaki-covered legs emerging from beneath it. A teenaged boy in a beige shirt stands over the legs, looking down at them. It’s a book that’s sat for years on the top shelf of my closet.

“Was thinking of maybe getting a job,” he says. “Saving up for a car.” I figure he must have been listening in on Kim and I in the kitchen, must have heard us discussing part-time jobs for him.

“Maybe you’d like to go to work with me one day this week?”

He shuts the book—slams it, actually—and dust billows up from the cover. He looks at the ceiling, thinking. We don’t do things together. We go days at a time without seeing each other. I’m certain he’s going to turn down the offer, and I’m about to retract it when he says, “Is there room for both of us?”

“Both of you?”

“Yeah. Me and the neighbor kid. Joshua,” he says. “It’s a little creepy, don’t you think?”

“What’s a little creepy?” I ask.

“If I didn’t know better, the way you look at him, I’d think things,” he says. “But of course I do know better.”

He and I look at each other for a while, each challenging the other to speak first. He shouldn’t have me on the defensive. I have nothing to be defensive about, but it feels like if I reply to his accusation, it would validate it. And it feels like if I don’t, that’s validating it, too. It’s like the old “Do you still beat your wife?” question. There’s no right answer.

“Fine,” he says. “I’ll go.”

“Sounds good,” I say, and then I backpedal towards the door, hoping to leave on a good note.

He leans back and puts his feet on the desk, crosses them at the ankles. He’s wearing Kim’s Snoopy slippers, also from our closet. She and Ralph have the same size feet. On Kim, they’re cute and petite. On him, they’re small and weird.

“Those are your mom’s slippers,” I say. “Have you been in our room?”

He sighs and removes his feet from the desk, kicks the slippers off. They land in the middle of the floor between us. He takes the plate and with his fork scrapes the lasagna into the wastebasket next to his desk. He holds the plate out for me and says, “Thanks, I’m not really hungry.”

We will not fight. We will not fight. I snatch the plate from him, force myself to smile, a gesture he doesn’t return. As I pull the door shut, he turns up his Viking music. The hallway is filled with the sounds of drums pounding and men growling. I stand there for what must be close to a minute.

Later that night, I sit on the edge of the bed while Kim gets ready in the bathroom. I ask her, “Did you give Ralph that car book from the closet?”

“What book?” she says, lathering her face with anti-aging soap as she speaks. She’s wearing a silky negligee with a frayed hem. “I haven’t given him any book.”

“Then he’s been going through our stuff again.”

“Boys snoop,” she says. “It’s natural. Caught you checking my text messages.” She turns on the water and bends down close to the sink. The negligee rides up in the back, almost enough for me to see something.

I get up and move to the window, which we keep open during the summers, look out at the night, lit by an almost full moon. The neighborhood still looks and sounds lively, lights on in windows, dogs barking, the rubbery, almost metallic sound of a basketball. Joshua’s bedroom window, almost right across from ours, is open, too, his light on.

“That’s different,” I say. “I have to find out what your boyfriends are saying to you.”

“And what have you found out?” she asks.

I have to crane my neck at a certain awkward angle, pressing my forehead against the mesh of the screen to see into Joshua’s window. He’s standing at his dresser, like earlier, and all I can see is his back. He’s dressed in a black t-shirt, pale blue pajama bottoms. That’s all I can make out.

“Nothing yet,” I say. “But I’m hopeful.”

He goes and sits on the edge of his bed and I can see him now, can see the horn, although it’s little more than an angular dot from this distance. You could mistake it for a birthmark or a large scab. He starts doing mouth exercises, stretching his lips as wide as they’ll go, puckering them, repeating the process.

“What are you looking at?” Kim says behind me.

I whirl to face her. “Nothing,” I say. “Thought I saw those kids coming to draw on the dividing wall again.”

“It’s just chalk,” she says. “The rain’ll wash it off.”

She looks out the window, looks for a long time, and I’m certain she knows what I was really doing. She turns back around and says, “Peter.” Then she takes my hands. “You still want this?” she asks. She guides me to the bed, where I pull the negligee off over her head. We have weeknight sex, fast and urgent.

* * *

On Thursday Ralph wakes me. Kim’s already up, the bathroom door closed, the shower going. “Should I wear this?” he asks, holding up a striped tie. He’s dressed in nice slacks and a button-down shirt.

“Ralph,” I say, “we’re going to dig through garbage. Wear something you don’t give a shit about.”

“Oh,” he says. He disappears back around the corner.

Later, he comes to breakfast wearing jeans and an American Idol t-shirt. Breakfast is a bowl of Cocoa Puffs for him and a granola bar for me. Then we go out and get in the van, Ralph in the back so Joshua can have the front. It’s a rainy day, and each time lightning cracks, the radio emits a burst of static, the only sound it’ll make these days. We drive next door, and Joshua answers almost as soon as I knock. He’s wearing black slacks like the kind I told Ralph not to wear, a long white t-shirt, and a checkered flannel cap that makes me think of Sherlock Holmes.

His mother appears in the doorway behind him. She’s still dressed in her morning bathrobe, loose at the neck, revealing skin that is an unnatural bronze, tight and wrinkled. Her body is many strange colors: purple lipstick, thinning maroon hair, eyes a pale lavender that can only be achieved through cosmetic lenses.

“I’m Mrs. Morrow,” she says. “Joshua’s mother.”

“Peter,” I say. “And this is my son, Ralph.”

Joshua steps out onto the porch, and she says, “Be careful today, baby doll.”

His cheeks color. He says, “I’m going to work, Mom, not Beirut.”

We get in the van, and as I’m pulling out I glance back at their house. His mom stands in the living room window, watching us go, bathrobe cinched tight around her. Then we’re out of the driveway, around the corner, and on our way.

“Glad you’re letting me tag along,” Joshua says. “Since Dad died I don’t get to do this sort of thing too often.”

“Your dad is dead?” Ralph asks.

“We went parasailing in Mexico and an updraft of warm air folded up his chute. I watched him hit the ground.” He holds one hand palm up and slaps the other against it hard.

“God, that’s horrible,” I say.

“You’re bleeding,” Ralph says.

I turn to look at Joshua, and a trickle of blood has begun to leak from beneath the edge of his cap. One hand still on the wheel, I lean past him, aware of how close I am to him, wondering what Ralph might think, and hit the latch on the glove compartment. It falls open, almost dumping dozens of faded yellow work orders and invoices into Joshua’s lap. Folded in among them are several Dairy Queen napkins, which I dig out and hand to him. He wads them up and takes off the cap, presses the napkins against the base of his horn.

“They say cuckolds grow horns,” Ralph says.

“Son, don’t be a dick.”

For a while after that, we don’t talk, just concentrate on what we’re doing, me on the road, Ralph on staring out the window, Joshua on bleeding. Eventually I say, “Teach me something in French.”

Joshua thinks for a bit, then says, “Nous sommes tous enfants de Dieu.” He says it fast, showing off. I try to repeat the words, not bothering to ask him what it means, but I keep stumbling over the last part, getting tongue-tied. “Not dah doo,” he says. “Duh dee-you.” We keep working at it, but no matter how many times he repeats it, and no matter how many times I try to say it, I can’t get it quite right. My accent is fucking everything up; I sound like a French redneck. I give up when we reach the faded blue storefront, pull up alongside the curb, and parallel park behind the rusty white pickup belonging to my employees, the West brothers. The building is only a few blocks from the Mississippi River, which is visible in the gaps between parking garages and buildings. Storm clouds gather above the water.

We get out of the van, and as we converge on the sidewalk in front of the building, Ralph says, “Nous sommes tous enfants de Dieu.” His accent is flawless. “Means ‘We’re all God’s children,’” he says. “I’ve taken three years of French, Dad.” I feel my face turning red, cover by telling him I knew that, which is a lie, and then I hurry inside.

The interior of the shop smells of mildew. The windows are coated with grime, and the dark blue and black tiles make the place seem even darker. We’ve been working on it almost a week now, and have mostly cleared the front room, but a few larger pieces of debris remain. Battered old barber chairs, dented sinks stacked bottom up, scuffed countertops, and busted mirrors waiting to be taken down. An old-fashioned Coke machine, the kind with a narrow window in the front next to the coin slot, stands in one corner, empty, the glass smashed out.

The West brothers are seated on two overturned gray buckets in the center of the front room. They are Gabriel and Winston West, a pair of rail-thin black men with matching beards, except that Winston can’t grow facial hair well, so his is sparse and patchy. I’d gone to school with them, played football with them, both were damn fine wide receivers. When I suggested hiring them to Uncle Taylor he made some racist comments, and then hired them anyway. They’ve always been hard workers, though Uncle Taylor never gives them the credit they deserve.

“These your young ’uns?” Gabriel says, standing up. He shakes hands first with Ralph, and then with Joshua.

“One of them is,” I say. Gabriel asks which, and I say, “Guess.”

Winston stands up and pats Ralph on the back. He says, “I remember when you was two feet tall. Still got that hair. We used to joke you must be an albino or something.”

I introduce the West brothers to Joshua—“The neighbor kid,” I say—and they shake hands with him. Then Gabriel lifts one of the buckets to reveal a stack of folded coveralls and plastic facemasks. Joshua slips into his coveralls and takes off his cap so he can pull the hoodie up over his head. When he does, the West brothers stare at the horn, don’t even try to hide it. They’ve seen a lot, they have stories to tell, but they’ve clearly never seen anything like this.

“Would you look at that thing?” Winston says. I’m about to tell them to stop, to leave the kid alone, but he seems to be happy to have the attention.

“It’s something, isn’t it?” Joshua says.

We get to work, start by prying the counters from the walls. The mirrors are easier; we just take a hammer to them, pick up the pieces, dump them in the buckets. We have to carry the stuff out to a rented dumpster we keep behind the building. The back room is a maze, a single narrow path cleared through the stacks of crates containing ancient newspapers and sporting magazines, moldy white smocks. Ralph bumps one of the stacks, causing it and all its neighbors to teeter, and we all stop and hold our breath until everything’s safe again.

The old Coke machine is the last thing we move. I get one side and Joshua gets the other, and Ralph stands at the door of the back room to direct us through when we get there. These old-fashioned machines are smaller than their modern cousins, but they’re still plenty heavy. Joshua and I slowly slide it away from the wall, across the floor, our feet slipping in the dust that coats the tiles.

“What’s that?” Ralph says.

In the wall behind the Coke machine is a low, narrow door with a rusted knob. I tell him it’s probably a supply closet. Joshua reaches for the knob, and I expect it to be stuck, but it turns smoothly, and the door opens. For a moment, there’s only darkness inside, and then something falls out, sprawls upon the tiles. At first my brain refuses to accept it: the skeleton of a child. We all stand there for god knows how long, staring.

“Who is she?” Joshua finally says. She still has long hair, maybe blonde at some point, but now so coated with dust and grit that it’s the same gray as the rotting dress she wears. Before anyone can answer his question, Joshua bends down, turns her skull to look up at him. He stares into her empty sockets.

Once the shaking in my fingers subsides, I dial the police on my cell phone. I’m put on hold, and when the dispatcher finally gets on, I tell her my story, expecting shock and outrage. Instead, she says they’ll send someone out. “You’d be surprised how often these things happen,” she says.

I have to peel Joshua away from the body, ask him if he’d like to go sit in the van and wait, but he insists he’s fine. I set the two buckets back up in the center of the room, make him take a seat on one. He rests there, staring at the back of his hands. Gabriel and Winston have gone outside, where they lean against the side of their truck, talking and laughing nervously, puffing on cigarettes. I can see their hands shaking even through the grimy windows. Ralph, standing in the shop’s open doorway, watches as I take a seat on the other bucket next to Joshua.

“You know they never find out who these people are,” Joshua says. “That’s a myth propagated by CSI.”

He looks devastated, and without even realizing it I’ve got my arm around his shoulders. Ralph stares. Eyes shiny and bloodshot from the dust and threads of insulation that dance suspended in the air. “It’s OK, son,” I say, but I’m not talking to Ralph.

Ralph snaps. “Hands off, Dad!” he says. He comes over and grabs Joshua by the shoulders of his yellow coveralls, yanks him to his feet. Ralph is face to face with Joshua, the tips of their noses practically touching.

“And you,” he says. “You meddler.” As he says this, he jabs a finger into Joshua’s chest, poking with each name he utters. “Unicorn boy. Rhinoceros face. Fucking narwhal.”

I jump up and grab Joshua, pull him away from Ralph, who says, more calmly now, “You nymphette. You father fucker.”

A feeling like vertigo washes over me, and I put my hand in the center of Joshua’s back and guide him out the door, but really I’m guiding myself out the door, away from my son. Gabriel and Winston look at us as we come out, and I examine their faces for signs that they heard what went on inside. Smiling? Not smiling? I can’t tell, but better safe than sorry.

“You’re both fired.”

They’re certainly not smiling now. I open the van’s passenger door for Joshua, and behind me I hear Ralph telling them not to worry, I can’t actually fire them. Wrongful termination. Racial discrimination. I go around the van and get in, crank it up, pull away from the curb. I look in the driver’s side mirror, watching Ralph standing between the West brothers, mouth moving nonstop, angrily pounding his fist into his palm. I plan to drive around downtown until the cops arrive.

Lightning flashes beyond the buildings, out over the Mississippi, and the radio crackles. We drive for a couple of minutes, and then Joshua says, “My dad’s not really dead.” He fiddles with the radio knob for a bit, trying to get it to work. “I lied. He lives in Japan with a Japanese wife and some half-Japanese kids. Sometimes he sends me weird Japanese stuff. Wasabi gumballs, chocolate with seaweed in the middle, these creepy little robots that turn themselves on and walk around. Kind of funny, isn’t it?”

I turn on my blinker and hang a right down a wide boulevard with magnolia trees in the median, past the old courthouse, tall gray columns, white domed tower. A historic marker stands out front, and this is the first time I’ve noticed it, as many times as I’ve driven past. I’ve never read it, and suddenly I wonder what it says. I pull into the parking area and find a space.

He turns and looks at me and I can’t help but stare at the horn. Up close it looks fake, like part of a Halloween costume. The skin around it is wrinkled and grayish-purple, like a bruise.

“It’s a kind of tumor,” he says. “Benign.”

“Why didn’t you have it removed?” I ask.

“Mom wouldn’t have let me. She would’ve said it’s the way God made me,” he says. “Besides, I kind of like it. It makes me unique.” He pauses for a moment, watches me stare at the horn. “You can touch it,” he says.

For I don’t know how long, I just look at it, and when I finally reach for it, I tell myself I’m only being polite. It feels cool and surprisingly smooth, like a polished fingernail. Then I realize what I’m doing and what Ralph would say if he saw this, and I yank my hand away. The suddenness of the move surprises Joshua and he jerks his head back from my hand hard enough to thump his head against the passenger side window. I wipe the sweat from my forehead and say, “Let’s go look around.” And then I get out and go around and open his door and together, still wearing our yellow coveralls, we walk up the steps to see what the historic marker says.

* * *

The cops show up before we get back. Pulling up, I expect to see yellow crime scene tape and forensic investigators with fingerprint dust, tweezers, little plastic evidence baggies, but the cops have already loaded up the skeleton and left. One lone officer hangs around to take statements from Ralph and Gabriel and Winston. When we walk up, he questions us, too. Joshua hasn’t put his cap back on, and the cop is trying hard not to stare, failing. He speeds through his questioning, and then he says he’ll let us know if he finds out anything, and then he leaves. Ralph won’t even look at us, just leans against the back of Gabriel and Winston’s truck, staring at his feet.

I tell the West brothers I’m sorry, tell them I overreacted. They smile and say everything’s cool. “Hell, after today, I’d almost wish you did fire me,” Gabriel says. Then he says, “Not really.”

I keep looking at Ralph, leaning against the back of the truck, kicking at the curb with his heavy work boot. His face is red and sweaty, his mouth twisted up in a frown.

“Joshua,” I say, “I think I’m going to let you ride home with Winston and Gabriel, if that’s OK. Ralph and I need to talk.”

Joshua says that’s fine, and Winston asks him if he’d like to hit the Baskin Robbins down by the Pemberton Square Mall before they head home. Butterscotch sundaes for all.

I get in the van and honk the horn, watching Ralph in the passenger side mirror. At first I don’t think he’s going to move, but then he does. He gets in and I pull away from the curb. “My work’s not usually this eventful,” I say.

He just looks out the window. We have to go through a poor neighborhood to get home, and he watches the people. Foreheads glistening in the heat, they stand in front of falling-down houses with little fenced-in yards.

“Looks-wise you may take after your mom,” I say, “but you sure do got my temper.” I don’t actually have a temper; I just want us to have something in common.

He continues staring out the window, watches a gray-bearded black man walking an apricot poodle on a leash. We’re driving slowly enough on this narrow street that the man catches him looking and waves.

This neighborhood fades into a nicer neighborhood, which fades into an even nicer one, and eventually we’re back in the suburbs, turning onto our street. We get home and Kim, in the living room, says, “Hey, boys,” as we come in, but we both sail past her without a word. He goes down the hall to his room and I follow. He tries to slam the door on me, but I catch it with my forearm. He sits down at his desk and says, “Get out.”

“Son, we need to talk.”

He grabs the automotive repair book, which is still sitting on his desk, and throws it past my head. The corner of it hits the wall and leaves a dent. I take a step towards him, and he grabs the next nearest thing, one of the windowsill trolls, and he throws that, too. It hits the edge of the door with a loud crack, falls to the floor, and we both look at it. The arm has broken off, lies next to the doll’s head, the hand reaching out towards the natty black hair.

“Great,” I say. “Look what you’ve done.” I reach down and pick up the doll.

He says, “Drop it. I don’t want you touching my shit.”

So I let the broken doll slip through my fingers. It hits the floor and the tip of its pointy nose splinters off. I slam the door as I leave.

Kim is stretched out on the living room couch in a pair of pink sweatpants, reading a home decorating magazine and sipping a cup of coffee. “What’s going on with you two?” she asks.

“The neighbor kid made me touch his horn,” I say.

“I told you he’s weird,” she says.

“Plus, he and Ralph got in a fight.”

“Oh. Well, they’ll get over it. Boys do.”

“Plus we found a skeleton.”

“Did it dance? Was it a dancing skeleton?”

She thinks I’m fucking with her, and that’s OK. Retelling the story would be more than I could handle right now.

That evening Kim and I cook dinner, stir-fry chicken, and half-watch CNN as we eat. Anderson Cooper looks more smug than usual. I can’t pay attention, can’t enjoy my food. I keep glancing back at the hallway that leads to the bedrooms. Kim can sense my distraction. “Come with me,” she says. “Take your shirt off. You need one of mama’s special massages.”

We go to the bedroom, and the first thing I see is that our closet door is open, not enough that you’d normally notice—Kim doesn’t, in fact—but it’s something I’m on the lookout for. I turn on the closet light and look to see if anything’s missing, but nothing’s conspicuous.

“Ralph’s been in our closet again,” I say.

“Let it go, Peter,” Kim says, but I’m already out the door and heading down the hall to his room.

Sometimes he falls asleep with his desk lamp on, and tonight is one of those nights. He’s bundled up, the covers pulled over his head, the Viking music playing quietly. The lamp shines down on the broken troll doll on his desk, looking so pathetic that I associate it with Ralph and find myself feeling sorry for him. Next to the doll is a flattened tube of Krazy Glue, the top off, a rivulet of fluid leaking from the tip, sticking to the desk.

I tiptoe over to the side of Ralph’s bed, intending to wake him and ask him about the glue, the troll’s arm, intending to try to explain to him that he’s my son and I love him and I don’t love the neighbor kid and never will. I nudge his shoulder and say, “Wake up, Ralph.” He rolls over and shoves back the covers and looks up at me, and glued to his forehead, in the same spot as Joshua’s horn, is the arm of the troll doll.

Growing up, I had a friend with parents who were basically just older versions of us.  Their house contained the most wonderful things:  a library of bizarre foreign films we were probably too young to watch; an almost complete set of Reid Fleming, the World’s Toughest Milkman comic books; and a vast collection of ’70s progressive rock albums, usually with swords and sorcery album covers more interesting than the music itself.  Among these treasures was an assortment of troll dolls:  both the cute, puffy-haired kind and those more akin to the Scandinavian man-eaters Ralph is so fond of in this story.  Many of my best childhood memories are of going over there and immersing myself in all that delightful kitsch.

As for the idea of the horn, I stumbled upon an article on a Web site discussing strange medical conditions, one of which was cornu cutaneum, or the growth in humans of cutaneous horns.  My first inclination was to make Joshua ashamed of his horn, constantly trying to hide it, but in later drafts I realized that a character who actually thought it was a nice icebreaker at parties would be more interesting, and a perfect foil for the socially awkward, introverted Ralph. 

These ideas combined into one of the oddest, and hopefully most interesting, stories I’ve ever written.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 29 | Summer 2010