Q starts life a wiry blond with a heart murmur. For years, he plays unnoticed in diapers in the backyard’s mud and from room to room in his dilapidated home. A sagging barn and pigpen frame Q’s house on a patch of dry land, and the skeleton of a red tractor colors the otherwise wooden landscape. Tobacco fields flank the home in warmer months, rows of humped clay in the winter. The soil is dense and cold and prone to rot. Beyond Q’s house, at the end of a slope of razor grass and weeds, two ponds float pea-ish scums. There they wait like maws for something to devour.
Every morning, Q’s family breakfasts on meats. To Q, his father has no face. He is a pink amorphous blob in torn white underwear. When his father speaks, his voice vines from his mouth and rakes the air. It is a siccative substance parching Q’s ears. “Eat that goddamned fat,” his father says. Q holds up a strip of bacon like the tail of a dead skunk. The meat is scab-red and white, a flatworm of enormous width and length. Q works the fat between his baby teeth. Swallows the cold grease. Breaks down the tissue with a tired jaw. Q stares at the checkerboard floor of black and white. Every tile is tinged with crud, and there is a universe trapped in every crack between each and every square.
In the grayness of dim dawns, Q’s father is a silhouette leaving for work. He drives a car made of steel with doors that scream with age. He is a slaughterhouse man. Not the killing-floor kind. He is not soaked in blood and squeals. He is the spidery sort stuck in a high corner, a man behind wire-rimmed glasses and a desk. He sits in a white-white office with three red pencils forever sharp and aligned. A single black binder punctuates the desk’s middle. Inside are documents on the slaying of hogs, the efficacy and efficiency of one method over another.
At night, Q’s father is the smiling tips of shoes beneath Q’s bedroom door. The shoes are shiny, black, and aware. They delight in facing Q for an uncomfortable stretch of time. When the shoes finish glaring, the weight of his father’s oddness bends the floorboards into unnerving creaks. In the room next door, Q hears the clacking of a hundred buckles. It is his father’s closet contraption of belts which hang like sleeping serpents, and Q has felt the bite of each one.
Q’s mother is the devil of country goodness, an alien curvature filling space. She has milk for eyes and her skin is stitched in denim from neck to ankle. She glides through the house behind her tent of fabric, an automaton on wheels. From the waste up, she is the mannequinistic movements of a head and two arms. Her face is drawn poorly from the uncanny valley, and she is always with child.
“A little Q is growing in my stomach,” she says.
When Q hears this, he stalks his mother, cat-like and paranoid. He links an ear to her belly, hears gurgles and growls, fluid and a labored wheeze. He asks what little Q eats.
“He steals my food,” his mother says. “He steals my food and he kicks me.”
At the age of four, Q tires of diapers and clothes himself. He finds a black trash bag in a hall closet and kneels before it. He is stickish and bony. He maps the bag’s lumpy contour with his hands. When he rips into its plastic membrane, a body of girls’ pajamas blooms around him. He smells cedar, smoke, and must, the inside of mother’s purse. Q scoops the clothes into his arms and carries them to his room. He drops them into a pile, a collage of childish design. There are patterns of puppies, hearts, and otherworldly unknowns. He spreads out the clothes, flattens them into a gathering of human figures, places socks at the ankles of each body. A tattered blue blanket is in the bag. He holds it by its corners and drapes it over the nearest human form. He chooses for himself a wizard shirt and pair of unicorn pants. The shirt is covered in sparkling wands, pointy hats with stars. He wriggles his legs into the pant holes, forces his head through the shirt’s neck. He scratches the itchy splotches underneath the elastic wrist and ankle bands.
Q explores the expanse of the house, yard, and barn. He systematically investigates the contents of a milk crate next to the tractor. There is a carburetor, mask, two clothespins, a leather dog collar, and a trowel. The mask is hard and translucent. Q slides it over his face. He picks up the carburetor and learns it. He becomes engrossed with the dissection of machines. A toy robot, mother’s electrical can opener, father’s radio transceiver. He untangles the lattice work of their innards, smells the wires, glides his fingers over the sharp topographies of their circuitous boards, licks the oil off tiny cylindrical motors. He sorts the screws, nuts, and bolts, not by size, but as counter-top constellations the way he recalls the pieces in their native space.
For anatomizing the electrical can opener, Q’s mother calls him an idiot. Q is six, and the foulness of her tone slices Q open for days. The event is small and not small. The word impregnates the base of Q’s brain. It is a black stain scaling the wall of Q’s medulla oblongata. It feeds on the axon terminals and dendrites of his mind. After the word engorges itself, it exits through a fontanelle porta of its own making, an amoebic sac attached to the back of Q’s skull by an umbilical filament of parasitic design. There, it stays forever.
For opening the transceiver, Q’s father locks him out of the house for a week. Q sleeps between the tractor and the pigpen. It is summertime. Dew and sweat soak through Q’s pajamas. The clothes, once tight, now sag against his limbs. To pass the time, he squats between a wall of cattails to fish a scummy pond. When the sun peaks, Q is the gutted catfish nailed to his own cutting board. He withers in mosquito song and humidity. At night, he is the last nightcrawler in the bait cup writhing in a black clump mucus of his own bilious concoction.
When Q returns home, he bathes himself. He eats a raw onion and a block of yellow cheese. He retreats to his room. He hears his father drag a kitchen chair across the floor. His father places the chair at the foot of Q’s bed and sits. In his father’s hand is a book, a ledger. In the ledger, Q’s father records the deeds of others. It is his father’s favorite book. Mother’s name is there. The names of strangers. Q is there. Little Q will be there. He opens the ledger and reads aloud. Before turning a page, he presses his thumb into his tongue and wriggles it like a stamp. He reads it cover to cover. When Q falls asleep, his father kicks the bed. Once his father finishes, he prays aloud and reads it again.
Time passes. Q forgets his parent’s disgust but still feels empty. He swallows a melange of mechanical parts. A small spring. Four plastic cogs. A metal plate from an old vacuum cleaner. He vomits red. The mess is unforgivable. Q’s mother bakes him into the background, and he walks in the amniotic fluidity of the wallpaper’s ever-shifting patterns, sleeps in the ceiling’s textured drip-plaster, moves between the walls with the fleas and the mice and the ghosts.
To be seen again, Q feeds on canned biscuits and corn syrup, on the sweets his mother makes. She likes this. She jams candy into his pockets, puts brownies on his lunch plates, stacks oatmeal and peanut butter cookies in his hands so he must balance them on his forearms. She feeds him birthday cakes, then canned spaghetti, then pickles, then gooseberry cobblers. She watches his chubby hand disappear into plastic tubs of ice cream. She eyes him and she smiles. She tells him to clench his spoon with his whole fist, and he digs mindlessly into vats of sticky sweetness, a fat toddler of seven.
Q balloons into his clothes. He reverts to wearing underwear only. He has turnip skin and pimples. His eyebrows and eyelashes are missing. He plucks them when no one is looking. He no longer sits but stuffs his body into the fold of the couch. There, his brain idles to a cacophony of cartoons that zoink and zing and whiz. The TV strobes in his eyes. It feeds him worlds of hilarious destruction, and he learns he likes to laugh at the pain of others. He tricks his little brother who is now two. “Don’t move,” Q tells him. “There’s a giant centipede on your head.” His brother freezes. Q’s fingers cut trails through his brother’s hair, parting the waves one way then another. When little brother is calm, Q plucks a tuft of hair from his head and force-feeds it to him. “Zonk,” Q says, then drops the fleshy mallet of his fist onto his his brother’s skull.
Q follows his brother everywhere. He studies him, examines the tilt of innocence in his cranium, the cunning cuteness of his messy hair. He looks for little brother’s fontanelle porta, for a parasitic word scaling the stem of his brother’s brain. He finds none. There is no idiot-sac attached to his head. When Q learns this, he lumbers to the barn to retrieve their father’s toolbox. He returns and finds little brother cross-legged before the television. He investigates the hind part of his brother’s brain again, but there is still no opening. When Q sees this, he raises the toolbox ceremoniously, holds it like a vessel of holy relics over his brother’s head and counts to himself – three, two, one – then lets the toolbox fall. “Kaplowy,” he says and waits for his little brother’s cries.
Father’s air rifle calls to Q at the age of twelve. He hunts the gun down and claims it. He eats with the gun, sleeps with the gun, lays the gun across his pimpled lap when shitting. He wounds a starling with it. Kills a female cardinal, then its colorful mate. His father likes this. He buys Q a .22 and three boxes of bullets. When Q begins to drive, his father gives him a 12 gauge. Q wraps the guns in blankets and cradles them to the car. He lowers them into the trunk like a newborn. People listen to music, so Q listens to music. He feeds the tape deck a tape, then turns down the volume. On a dumbly-covered stretch of once-strip-mined land, he shoots yellow hillsides of dead grass, mud puddles the color of corn flower. He tosses the .22 aside, a silly toy. He prefers the way the shotgun’s butt fucks the corner of his shoulder on recoil.
The next time Q goes shooting, he brings targets. He brings little brother. He brings an aerosol container of mother’s hairspray, cans of creamed corn, a gallon of milk, a catfish he’s been nursing in a bucket. He puts the shotgun in his brother’s hands, then rubs the fish across his brother’s lips. His brother wipes his mouth and spits.
“Get ready,” Q says, then throws the fish into the air.
Little brother panics. He whips the gun up and shoots. The catfish splatters against the sky, a spray of black and red. The pieces fall to the ground in a meaningless display of flesh. Q’s brother returns the gun to Q. He stares at the dots of meat on the ground and asks, “How do we put it back together, Q?” When little brother looks up, Q stares him down with the shotgun, four eyes of hollow curiosity.
“Hello, little brother,” Q says. Then, “Goodbye, little brother.”
Q winks into the crevice between the barrels. He holds the wink, then holds it some more.
“Always point your gun to the ground,” Q says, then lowers the weapon.
A year later, an Army recruiter asks Q, “Do you have flat feet?”
“I don’t think so,” Q says.
“Do-you-or-did-you-ever have a serious medical condition?”
Q says he had a heart murmur as a boy.
“Let me ask the question again,” the recruiter says. “Do-you-or-did-you-ever have a serious medical condition?”
Q says just the heart murmur.
“I don’t think you’re understanding the question. Do-you-or-did-you-ever have a serious medical condition?”
“No,” he says, “never.”
Q learns he likes to lie. He practices.
“I’m just a country bumpkin,” Q says, “but I have perfect vision and I’m a damned good shot.”
The Army sends a white van to collect Q.
“Eat well,” his mother says.
Q kicks the van’s tire twice.
His father pens something in his ledger.
The van’s driver neither moves nor emotes. He is a dummy staring into the nothingness of space. Q turns his back, and his little brother waves a pudgy hand goodbye. When Q steps aboard, the van sinks to the ground and screaks. Q assumes a poor posture and shuffles to the last seat. When he sits, the van drives away. From behind, Q is the bald profile of a head in a window, an ill-formed potato framed in glass and floating away.
A drill sergeant asks Q, “Do you love me?”
Q says nothing.
The sergeant asks again, “I said, ‘Do you love me?’”
Q says no.
“Then why the fuck are you staring at me like you love me?”
The sergeant clutches Q’s brain-base and neck, makes him do push-ups. Q labors to his knees and tables his back. He angles his body into a lumpy line against gravity. His breathing is rusty and mechanical. When he lowers his body to the ground, his arm meat quivers. When he pushes up, his whole body shakes. The sergeant gets on all fours to yell in Q’s face, calls him a sad-sack of pig-shit and waste of human flesh.
“Sweet crippled Christ, your head looks like a fat-loaf,” the sergeant says. “Did your mother cry when she held that ugly meat-head of yours? Good God, that poor woman, giving birth to a Christmas ham like that.”
Q stops and tries a one-armed push-up but fails. He flumps into the dirt, a camouflaged bag of dough.
“Jesus, Mary, and Jehovah, what in tar-fucking-nation was that? Did you just try to do a one-armed push-up?”
The sergeant screams into a line of uniformed men, “Listen up, you unholy maggots. Lard-Nuts here is going to successfully complete thirty one-armed push-ups or every last one of you pansy-ass morons runs ten miles”
The men hate Q. They ghost him.
“Do you hear something?” they say. “I think I hear someone.”
“Must be that fat ghost,” they say.
“Yeah, I’ve seen that ghost. A real ugly turd.”
Q’s body wanes. He is sunken-eyed and thin-flabby. At night he creeps into a bed wet with the men’s urine. He sleeps with food they’ve left under his blanket. The cold meats he expels with his foot, but he lets his toes play with the eyes of old potatoes. Q’s parasitic sac begins to itch. He runs his fingers across the back of his skull searching for the thread. When he finds it, he yanks it out. He examines the ghostly blob, rubs its fibrous tail between his forefinger and thumb. “Idiot,” he says. But the root remains in Q’s brain, and another will grow in its place.
To become seeable again, Q catalogs the men. He notes their first and last names, their backgrounds and natures. He scratches each man’s face into his brain. Once classified, he chooses a man who barks, howls, and yelps, a soldier who overpowers the others for fun, who chokes them to sleep in unbreakable holds. He is a jackal the men tolerate because of his keg-sized chest and cinder-block jaw.
Q waits until nighttime, just before lights out. He walks toward the man in baggy underwear, his flat feet slapping against the floor. Q touches the tip of his nose to the jackal’s nose, meets his hyperactive eyes. The men’s particles resonate into quantum uncertainty.
“I am going to crush your throat now,” Q says. “Are you ready?” And when the jackal says, “What?” Q steps back and strikes the apple of his throat. He does this with a v-shaped hand, the trachea snugly caught between Q’s thumb and fingers. Q watches the man deflate to the ground, watches him crawl a random pattern across the floor. He observes the man’s saucer-eyes looking for a sliver of air in the air, searching for his voice in the cracks of linoleum.
The other soldiers corral the jackal like a crab at the beach.
“Is he okay?” they ask. “Can he breathe? I hope he can’t breathe.”
Q deserts. A bus drops him six miles from home. His flabby body has turned thin. He walks like a man wearing the skin of another man. The clear sky lays the summer sun bare, which burns Q’s scalp. Q passes cows, tobacco fields, the occasional farm house and granary. He leans against a fence post to rest until the general cicada song churns his brain into a bellicose madness and he leaves.
When he reaches his home, he waits at the tobacco field’s edge. He waits for night. The house looks kinder from the outside, the window-squares of orange light soft against the darkness. If he goes inside, he will breathe the air of his own disappointment. He looks up and the night suggests evil and rain. The clouds hang like ghosts over a baby’s crib. Q has seen this sky before – in utero. His father’s twisted seed dead against the wall of his mother’s womb. Q lays down and sleeps under the nightmarish sky, under the ghoulish watch of his life’s first moments.
A hysteria of bird calls wakes Q. The sky is a wave of grackles. He rises to a blue dawn softer than dusk. He is damp. The house looks dead. He finds a can of oil in the barn to coat the door’s hinges. He cracks his driver’s license between the doorknob and frame. The kitchen smells of sugar and grease, and the floor dips where tiles have splintered. Q pockets a bundle of keys from a hook, then his father’s wallet from the kitchen table. He walks across the living room, down the hall, into his old room. He collects his shotgun from under his bed. Shells from his closet.
He lingers in his brother’s doorway. His brother is fourteen now and sleeping corpse-like in a casket of blankets. His body looks hungry. His pajamas are two sizes too small, and his eyebrows are gone. His eyelashes are gone. His head is patchy, and his hands are duct-taped in oven mitts to stop his hair pulling.
When Q turns to leave, the hallway becomes a narrowing tunnel. Q’s father stands at its mouth, a composition of geometry, a parallelogram of a man. He walks toward Q on rectangular legs. Under him, the house moans in its substructure. A buzz of cicadas sifts through Qs’ brain telling him to shoot. When he does, he shoots his father’s knee. The kneecap opens like a flower, and the splintered bone and folds-of-flesh resemble a salmon bloom with teeth. His father’s screams are disorganized, and Q is neither sorry nor glad. Broken mind. Broken body.
Q walks outside. He sees his brother in the window. His face and shoulders are the melted top of a candle. His brother lifts an oven-mitted hand and waves goodbye. The gesture is a motionless one. Q lifts the shotgun and points it at him. It is the closet thing they have to an inside joke, the only way Q knows how to say goodbye. Q speaks without speaking, and his brother listens. “We are the same,” Q expresses, “Made from the same rotten clay. Baked in the same unforgiving flames.” As Q drives away, he sees his brother stuck in that window forever, the fragmented panes of a Gothic stained glass.
A police officer stops Q on the interstate’s shoulder.
“What are you doing with that gun, son?”
Q remembers a cartoon phrase. “Hunting rabbit.”
“Do you have a license?”
Q says he does not.
“It don’t matter. You shouldn’t drive so fast. It’s dangerous. Could cause an accident, make a mess. I don’t like messes. Go on now. Git. Git on home.”
“Yes, sir. Right away, sir.”
Q salutes the officer and drives to the next exit ramp. The cop follows him for a while, then gives up. Q drives for hours. He drives through fields and over train tracks. He passes six water towers and a city skyline. Out of gas, he abandons the car in a ditch. He says goodbye to the gun and walks to a town where everyone smells of cherry pie and gasoline. Across the street from an abandoned bank, he finds an old school house. It is three stories tall and red brick but no longer a school. It is a place for housing townspeople. The landlord is an elderly woman occupying the principal’s office.
“I’m looking for work,” Q says.
“What kind of work?”
“I can do whatever needs doing. Fix whatever needs fixing.”
“Can you repair a commode?”
Q lies and says he can.
“Are you a Methodist?”
Q says no.
The landlord tells him that an atheist is a person who says there’s no God even though he knows better.
“Do you believe in God?” she asks.
Q says he does not know.
“Well, as long as you’re not a Methodist, I suppose we’ll be okay,” she says.
That night, Q lies naked on a cot and stares at the boiler room’s ceiling. He stares so long he sees shapes in the plaster’s stalactites. There is a fetal pig and a moth. A carburetor. A belt. The smiling face of a donkey. Eyeballs. Lots of eyeballs. Maybe he sees God in those eyeballs. Maybe not. Maybe those are his mother’s eyeballs. Maybe his mother sees all, is God. He tries his hand at prayer, the way his father used to pray:
God is a plaster
of wet eyeballs
baked into the ceiling
of every room.
God sees everyone
on every world
and every moon.
Q rises and looks in a stained mirror above the sink. He has the face of a bat, or catfish, or batfish. He studies his body. It is melted marshmallow, clownish and sickly. He puts his underwear on. Then his shirt. Then his pants. He flattens himself onto the bed. Never sleeps naked again. Never sleeps on his back again. He hears God’s eyeballs blinking, watching, feels his wet penetrating gaze, cold as rope. He fears God is an evil he will never shake, and he hates the landlord for philosophizing.
When he sees his father at the foot of his cot, ledger in hand, he scratches his idiot-sac. He considers the possibility God is not real, not someone out there, but an idea-fish swimming in his brain. A ghostly eel. Electric. The forever currents of his past. He asks the ceiling a question without speaking. “Am I alone?” He watches the question pass through the plaster, sees it tumble through space. It bounces off Mars, then Ganymede, the rings of Saturn, Pluto. It ricochets off trillions of space-dead prayers. When Q receives no answer, he becomes bored. He rests his eyes and welcomes the world of old cartoons. An anvil falls from the sky, a barrel of TNT explodes, and a hunter shoots his own head off with an elephant gun. My god, Q calculates, my god.