Stapled to the Sleeve, by Ankur Razdan
My penis is coming apart from the middle outward. That means all the parts are in a circle, or more than one circle and the circles are wrapped around each other. The circles can come apart and float in space so that you can poke your hand in and examine the inward structure. There is a very rubbery tube of beige, and then some red-veined material like foam padding, and then some yellow subcutaneous fat, and then some skin. And all of these parts are floating, in the same structure, with only the distances between them increasing or decreasing. But mostly increasing, which is what worries me the most.
When it’s expanding, these component parts don’t get their directions mixed up at all, no matter how far gone it gets. But when that does eventually happen, when the directions of their relationships get mixed up, that is when I’ll be in trouble, as far as my penis goes.
This disintegration or floating only happens when I’m on the bus going down Last Night with Regina Road. As we pass the hospital, the speaker system comes on (which the bus driver can’t use to communicate to passengers; they can only shout, if they need to) and plays the advertisement for the hospital. I ride that bus every weekday. It used to be that when the ad would come on, I would think things like, isn’t it funny for a hospital to feel the need to advertise, because when you’re not in need of a hospital it’s really the furthest thing from your mind, and when you are in need, then geography is just about the only consideration, isn’t it? But now I don’t think any such thoughts. I don’t think, I BEHOLD. My penis is floating and disintegrating there right in my lap, and every time that bus turns down Regina Road, and we pass the hospital, and the ad comes on, the worse it gets (only ever on the bus, never in a car or walking by, I don’t know why). One day it’s all going to fly apart and, worse than mere expansion, become incongruent and mixed up in each other—twisted up like a pretzel made of garden hose material.
It’s all coming apart and floating there for all the other passengers to see. But nobody ever comments or is even beholding. But perhaps they are. Many hospital staff get on and off at the stop. They might be taking notes on how their disintegration beams are working. Or maybe the hospital has such great faith in their beams that they don’t need to check and are just waiting to pick up the scraps when the deal finally goes down. I feel like I have to wait and see until my penis blows up and they come around to scrounge for me, to know what they are really up to.
And besides, how else am I supposed to get to work? I’ve told my boss and everybody about it in detail (i.e. clients, co-workers, the HVAC repairmen who come down every two weeks to declare that the heater needs to be replaced and that the next time they feel the stirrings of new love in their life they’ll order the parts). My boss tells me that he believes that my penis is disintegrating, although not necessarily that it has anything to do with the hospital, or that anything bad is necessarily happening. But he says he believes that I believe it, so we’ve signed a new contract that says that when and if my penis explodes on the way to or from work, I’ll get worker’s comp and he’ll slap his child around more, which wasn’t a stipulation I asked for, but I guess will stand up in court.
Now every time I get on the bus on the way to work, I try to get into an argument with the bus driver. I don’t keep any money on my metro card so that when I scan, it squawks. But sometimes that’s not enough for a fight because they wave me on anyways, and I have to provoke them some other way, such as challenging them to a duel before I’m allowed within their domain. People hate it when you talk like that. I also have equipment. Last Christmas, my girlfriend’s dad gave me an honest-to-goodness bullwhip for her and me to lash each other with, which we sometimes do, and whipping the whip in such a confined space like the bus is such a cumbersome and bothersome thing to do, that you can bet it starts a fight. And people are very touchy about this sort of thing. Because sometimes when you best a person in a duel (i.e. the bus driver), they comport with the prior terms and allow you on, but sometimes they take it personally and kick you off. The worst is when I lose the fight and they still let me ride, to show me how magnanimous they are to people they don’t know and don’t really like, and I come to work all bruised and cut up. But when it so happens that I’m kicked off the bus—then I get to stay home. I just text my boss that I was kicked off the bus that day, and he accepts that. I’m pretty sure that every morning he waits with his chips and cold soda and laptop at his desk to hear whether I’m coming in or not. For him, it really is a good situation, because if I come in, I can do my work, but if I don’t, then that means one of his workers remains intact for another day.
“It’s very good,” Jarvis said, handing back the piece of paper and then scratching at his beard, “The only thing I’d say is, they probably would prefer it if you told them all this in person, and not just have them read it over. If they see you’re going the extra mile to explain your perspective, that should be good for two weeks of groceries and maybe, maybe an iced coffee or something, instead of just a week and a half’s.”
“Instead of what,” asked Roy, who accepted his work back with his free hand. He had stuck the index and middle fingers of the other one into the socket on the side of the kitchen island for accepting friendly criticism; it had worked a little too well, and he hadn’t properly heard everything said to him. But Jarvis couldn’t be reached anymore, either. He had retreated to the corner of the room where he could most often be found, having almost tripped to death over a pile of canned tomatoes spilling out of the pantry door to get there. In that corner was a small, circular, very subtly raised, almost nonexistent dais upon which he stood, and above his head was an overhanging or outcropping, or better yet an overcropping, of circular white plaster.
“Like the plus-side and minus-side of a battery,” Louisa liked to remark, in that precise way of hers. She was smarter than anyone else in the house (she would insist: more empathetic, too), and knew things (“I know things,” she would explain, to amazed mouths), and was constantly showing off her deep pool of inscrutable jargon, which could be snapped out upon her command. In the house, she was considered an authority on car tires (“Needs more air—have any copper we can expose it to?”), the thermostat (“The small circle is for degrees. The F? Fahrenheit”), and adapters (“Have you ever looked at an outlet? I mean, really looked? It’s funny what people miss. This one has three holes. But if you go really, really far over there, they might have two, or they might still have three, but in different arrangements”).
“That’s not true, that’s not true, there is no downside! There is no downside!” Jarvis had insisted once in a huff at just such a comment, slapping his jowls rhythmically out of either self-hatred or a desire to get himself working.
He was much calmer as he stood there now, upon the faint dais and beneath the circular overcropping of plaster. Stroking his facial hair, which was shaved into the shape of a star, he brooded. The corner was in fine working order today, and he was getting all sorts of insights.
The star of his beard, as he liked to point out, represented to him his uncertainty over whether anybody would ever adore him or not. Invariably, he would get into an argument with a waiter or a cashier, or a woman on the street, if they happened to be wearing a pin with a decorative star on it, or if the store had a star in its logo, or if she had a small astral tattoo on one of the sensitive parts of her skin. Asking, how dare they advertise so flagrantly his shameful yet beautiful desire. Using words like preen and pontificate and gallivant almost correctly, but not quite. And of course, to the woman on the street, it would represent how her uncle had molested her or something, and then he would have to listen patiently to the whole story, or the cashier would explain how it represented to the owner of the store the time he accidentally ran over a little kid’s dog and drove away without being caught, and they would laugh about that and be friends, which was the shop cashier’s right as an employee and Jarvis’s as a consumer. He lost a lot of money and time that way.
It was very convenient that this house had come furnished with a spot to brood. At his last place, where the landlord asked for her monthly conversation about TV shows at least before the tenth of the month (but of course, she was very chill if you were only able to get a word in a few days after that), there was no such spot, and Jarvis had felt the need to run his personal property through the dishwasher twice monthly. Souvenir mugs from vacations, the much-decomposed pulp of love letters, statuettes of his favorite memories (his assist in the high school championship-winning play, the first masturbation, horse rides with his parents). Otherwise, how could he grasp anything? How would he cage the thoughts that needed caging?
With Jarvis in the corner, my perceptions hummed into focus as I became more sure that nobody was watching me for errors. This can be a frighteningly real state of being. The chants from downstairs were not helping. Luckily, Louise had just gotten home and was loudly announcing that I had developed a lung condition, even before she actually saw me.
Roy was ignoring his lung condition really horribly, but I had no time to get into it with him. Fiorina already had the congregation ablaze like bloody murder downstairs. It’s terrible how she gets them whipped up, really it’s criminal. And of course, Jarvis’s response was to hit the corner. I know Jarvis hates these meetings because he told me so. He thinks they make Fiorina into somebody who’s too good for all of us. Which Roy and I don’t think, and we tell him that. She hasn’t changed; she’s the same Fiorina she always was. That doesn’t stop Jarvis from pulling out a level from the drawer whenever he’s in a certain mood. He goes up to her and holds the level between them at about waist level, like it was an umbilical cord connecting them, and asks her to read it. And she can’t read it and be measured by it at the same time, obviously, so she contorts herself. Then Jarvis can say:
“How polite of you to condescend to us down here so low on the ground….”
And Fiorina will respond sharply with one of those cutting remarks which she likes to brag come so naturally to her, like that the level doesn’t measure what he thinks it does but instead weighs every time he ever said something ugly about someone else just trying to be kind against every time he did something good for someone else only by accident, and it looks level to her.
I scraped past Jarvis on my way downstairs, in the hope of subtly knocking him out of his spot. I was frightfully ready to be overburdened with the knowledge of how Fiorina was doing. But the reason I felt the condition in Roy’s lungs as if it was ripping through my own was that I was in the hospital today because I couldn’t remember where the book was that my favorite father had given me. It contained the instructions, among other things, on how to remember all the different ways he loved me and always wanted to take care of me. I had lost it because I had started reading it too much. It’s only if I ignore it that it always ends up safely in the same place, namely, my nightstand. I explained all of this to my doctor, but he wasn’t listening, which was okay, because he had told me right when we met that he was not a good listener. Viciously honest, just like that. Instead, at the time, he was berating the nurse. He was doing the usual things you do when you’re really teed off at someone, like flicking her earlobes, fingering the pocket she kept her wallet in and repeating back the stories she had casually told him of her worst boyfriends and girlfriends. Then he asked her to write a prescription on his prescription pad, but she couldn’t do it. Then he asked her to make some recommendations to the chief of medicine, and to think up new rules for all the other nurses under his supervision to follow, and to persuade the night guard to take a demotion. She actually tried to execute some of these orders, she said, but none of these people would listen to her. He got so frustrated by her inability to bop off anything from her to-do list that he turned to me and said: can youstick this IV into your artery? And so I grabbed the needle from him and without hesitation stuck it into my thigh (I put gloves on first, of course, that’s what you do in medicine, but I put them on without hesitation, too). It hurt so bad it made me rethink every time I stomped a mouse with a brick or ate ground meat or watched a violent movie. And he asked me where did you stick it? And I said very confidently that I had stuck it in my carotid artery, and he accepted that.
Louise and Jarvis came downstairs and joined us. It was perfect timing because everyone was progressing so well. Their heads were almost the right shade of green, and they were running around casting their hands everywhere with such enthusiasm—it was just beautiful. Of course, they couldn’t move too well with their legs tied together, but they were basically capable of running around. Jarvis and Louise are my roommates, not my acolytes, so I wasn’t about to cut everything off and spoil everyone’s fun just for their sake, but I would for my own sake, so I decided to call a break.
I passed by the two of them on the stairs and leaned over to Louise so I could whisper something in her ear:
“I remembered your birthday. It’s June 27th. How many days is that from now?”
And I went upstairs to see if I could bully Roy at all.
You can consider me unimpressed. I know for a fact the only reason Fiorina remembered Louise’s birthday was that once her father had pretended to forget her mother’s birthday all the way up till 4:42 p.m. when he pulled out flowers and a cake decorated with the faces of everyone who had ever made either of them jealous. She told me all about it once when she was hopped up on caffeine pills.
But it really did something to Louise. She retreated from the acolytes, who were still smiling and tripping over themselves. They had grass growing out of their heads instead of hair—grass like grass from a lawn grass, mostly crabgrass sprouting up from behind the ears. Fiorina says when the time comes for them to tackle real-life, they won’t be tripping over themselves, but I have my doubts.
I caught Louise on the stairs. She was shaken, and her eyes couldn’t focus anywhere as she spoke to me. I could tell that what she was saying had more to do with letting it out than getting it over to me.
“I just can’t believe she remembered that; I can’t believe it. What kind of a person is she? I mean, for all her faults, and she can be so caustic sometimes, but then she does something like that, and I can’t believe the sweetness that lies deep inside of her…”
It was so ridiculous it astounded me. Fiorina has this amazing knack for turning other people into what they’re not. I was concerned for Louise and also not very comfortable because I have hay fever, or whatever else you call an allergy to grass, bits of which were flying around and around. Shouldn’t Fiorina consider the possibility that some people might be allergic to grass before she has her acolytes start growing it out of their heads? But some people don’t possess the sensitivity to anticipate other people’s allergies.
So I let Louise’s eyes kind of wander purposelessly. I have that power. Yes, that’s a good thing to say.
“I have the power to make your eyes wander wherever I want them to,” I said to her. This snapped her back to reality.
She nodded and said, “It’s really amazing what she manages to do here with just a couple of schmucks whose parents never taught them how to tell people what they dreamt about the night before.”
I expressed my agreement, with caveats, mostly because I wanted to get out of the stairway.
“Let’s go upstairs, or let’s go downstairs,” I said, and she picked upstairs.
Back in the kitchen, we found Fiorina and Roy in squealing conversation. She had put on her jacket knitted together from print-outs of ancient insincere valentines. When he caught sight of us, Roy tried to get up from the table.
But Fiorina reminded him sharply: “There are leash laws in this city, darling, for a reason.”
He looked spook-eyed. I hung back to cook an egg or two into the shape of learning French and letting your environment affect you too much. The first egg I was pretty sure about, but the egg that might have been, I really couldn’t decide on till the very last second. Roy had picked it up from the store, so it tasted like too much sex in one position and a voice that was easy to hear; I prefer an atmosphere of decaying puritanism, or maybe the zest of an attempt at oneness with all existence. Roy tells me my tastes are horrendously overdeveloped and that’s why I buy my groceries at Second Marriage, Second Business, At Least One Has to Succeed, as opposed to putting something down on my combination fantasy lease-share/friendship debt/posthumous legacy nest egg.
Fiorina was telling Roy that, while what he had written was very accurate and well-worded, and it would certainly be accepted in lieu of unfashionable and dehumanizing cash payment at many establishments, he shouldn’t expect very much for his labors.
“It’s not that a lot of people have these kinds of paranoid delusions, but those few that do always go to the same places; the market is oversaturated. Trust me, I used to have a mental disorder as well,” she was saying. This was strictly, absolutely, not true. Fiorina had always had a high level of sanity. However, she had once watched a documentary about people suffering from mental illness, which played under an unceasing monologue by the director about how he only talked to good-looking people, people who had helped him before, people who might help him in the future, or people who appeared to possess a strength where he had a fault.
Besides, she had once been promised to have her anxieties recognized at a very deep level by a very understanding person as part of a Nissan sweepstakes, and despite taking the trouble of entering, did not win. It was only fair that she tempered Roy’s expectations.
“Roy, don’t let Fiorina tell you all those things. She’s just trying to hollow you out so she can fill you up with herself,” said Louise from the stove, which was shooting off egg-shaped fireworks.
“I have to find somebody to love!” shouted Fiorina. She waved her hands in the air in a way that made Louise pull her hair from the ends in distress. “You can be so inconvenient sometimes, Lou. I’ll be at the grocery store if you need me. I’m going to go buy some tomato paste. Give me that. I’m going to get you so many cans with this thing.”
She yoinked the papers out of Roy’s hand, got up, grabbed her purse, and headed for the door, picturing in her mind’s eye the same brand of canned tomatoes that an old college bestie of years gone by had always bought whenever (not ifever) she flunked an exam.
“What about some plums instead…?” said Roy meekly. But she was already gone.
“Jarvis, please don’t do that—it’s not good for you,” said Louise when she caught him sidling toward his habitual place on the dais while everybody else was preoccupied. “Come up to the attic with me. Both of you.”
The attic had been designed for serious conversations. It was so small and so cramped, with such oddly convexed boxes of wall, that people had to bend over and essentially fit themselves into place within it, their arms outstretched in a glove of house and their heads bent awkwardly up into a helmet of wood-beam. Their discomfort was mollified by a fluffy abundance of asbestos insulation, whose poisonous embrace ensured that the householders would only utilize the room when unquestionably necessary. Per federal housing regulations, the space fit just one less than the total number of occupants in the household.
“Just don’t waste my time, please,” said Jarvis as he blew a cloud of flying pink threads away from his face. They tended to stick to his beard, dappling each cheek with a pale rose. “I have a lot of thinking to get through.”
Roy fit himself silently into place.
“That’s fine, I understand,” said Louise.
“What’s up, Louise?” asked Roy.
“It’s Fi. Something’s going on with her.”
“I agree,” said Roy.
“What do you mean?” asked Jarvis.
Louise pricked her ears.
“I hope those people have started to go home by now. They must realize she’s not here anymore. And I hope none of them have forgotten where home is…”
All three rolled their eyes at thatone, a hunk of clay which seemed to proffer everybody a jewel.
“I think they’re still here,” said Jarvis. “Don’t you hate how they tell her everything they overhear?”
Louise ignored this question but continued with her point in a distinctly softer register.
“Fiorina is the best roommate I ever had. She feels such impressive feelings. But I think she hasn’t been herself for a while now. And then the other day, she said something to me that was really strange.”
“She said something? What did she say?” asked Jarvis with genuine confusion. “I’ve never known her to say anything at all.”
“Well, we were out shopping downtown. We’d bought some hotdogs and were crushing them on the sidewalk beneath our feet—there’s a hobo who lives on Fifth Child Street who always asks us to do that, and we’d rather do that than give him money he’s just going to spend on jokes. It was really fun, Fiorina and I were laughing and laughing. But then she stopped short and said: Lou, all these acolytes think they know all about me. And you think so, too. But not one of you knows I’ve got three thousand, three hundred, and twenty-nine dollars in my checking account, or that I double-majored in communications and accounting.”
Jarvis looked up in surprise and then winced as the movement dislodged a small, loose section of metal piping that had been sitting on a ledge. It crashed down to the floor somewhere beyond reach.
“You’re sure that’s what she said?”
“I don’t remember exactly, but something like that. She wasn’t making much sense.”
He nodded with his eyes far off, and his lips pursed like a giant clam with a sin-wave mouth.
“She told me something like that, too,” said Roy quietly.
The other two tried to turn to face him, but it wasn’t feasible.
“What do you mean? What did she say to you? When?” asked Louise, with the air of a blind but reluctant oracle, asbestos-filaments cross-hatching her eyelashes.
“You guys were out one night. And Jarvis said he didn’t mind if I used his brooding spot.”
Jarvis’s face became indistinguishable from the asbestos.
“It’s everyone’s spot. It’s not my spot. It’s for everybody in the house to use when they want to use it. And you can do a lot more than just brood there, it’s useful in lots of other ways—”
From downstairs filtered up the bitter scuffling sounds of disillusioned congregants filing out the door like tired smoke. They were not discreet in their discussions of which items they intended to loot from the house to bequeath to their children as mementos of their disappointment.
“She’ll get new followers soon,” said Louise, and Jarvis chuckled.
“She came home,” Roy continued, “and she grabbed me out of the spot and told me not to do that. You know, like you’re always doing to Jarvis. She never does that to him. I just wanted to reflect a little on my penis. Because of how on the bus route that goes down Last Night wi—”
“We know, baby,” said Louise. “We know. You should worry about your lungs, instead.”
“I try, Lou,” breathing in deeply, “Anyways, she looked unwell. Upset. Red in the skin, like she’d been running, or crying, you know?”
“And what did she say to you?” Jarvis and Louise chanted in unison.
Roy’s voice chimed in hushed, lucid tones, as he cavorted naked before a gigantic eye and banged on the door of an enormous ear.
“She didn’t want to listen at all about the expansion that’s been going on. Just talking about herself. She disclosed to me, uh, that she’s an accountant. She said she spent a semester abroad in Japan, and that she’s nearly done paying off her student loans. And she used to know how to play the fiddle. Not the violin, she said, but the fiddle. She…she makes fifty thousand dollars a year. She used to drive a motorcycle, and she still knows how. And you know how she disappears every other night? Apparently, she likes to jog around the park. For her cardiovascular fitness, she said. I’m not making this up, this isn’t another one of my episodes. And remember when we all moved in, that first summer, how she was never around on the weekends? She was working part-time at a bookstore. She told me she still gets a discount there if I ever wanted to buy a book. I think she felt guilty for talking about herself so much, and that was all she could think to say. I felt bad for her. It was like she was lining up all these little baubles on a bookshelf for me to look at. And what else did she say? She said she knows how to repair engines—motorcycles, and cars, too—and that was a rinky-dink on the shelf, and she said she likes cooking Mexican food, and that was another one. Did you guys ever realize that was what she was doing with all of those beans and tortillas and ground beef in the kitchen?”
“She must have been really upset to have been dredging all that stuff up with you,” said Louise. “But I’m not surprised she told you. Everybody thinks you’re non-judgmental because you’re incapable of anything consequential.”
Roy shrugged in basic agreement.
“See? I was right about Fiorina. She’s got all those acolytes, but she hasn’t got any friends. I mean, we’re her friends. We need to help her because she’s my friend, and I don’t want the functioning of this household to be disrupted.”
“I want to help her because she’s my friend, and I also think one day she’ll want to have sex with me,” said Jarvis.
“Can we get out of here?” asked Roy. “It’s not good for my condition to be in a bent-over position like this.”
“We’ll stay till we’re done. Did she say anything else, Roy?”
Louise’s sharpness disturbed Roy. Usually, she acquiesced to any suggested appeasement of his conditions. He shook his head no but added: “I didn’t like what I saw. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, I guess, but I didn’t like the way she showed it to me.”
“We know that’s not how it actually is,” said Jarvis solemnly, as if he were quoting somebody else. But he wasn’t quoting anybody else.
They unbent themselves and slipped downstairs, feeling the years that had left their lives in their wrists that they rubbed. Roy asked Jarvis if he wanted to go out back and help bleed him a little bit, because he had been feeling guilty about a little girl he had touched inappropriately, ever so slightly, when he was eight. Jarvis agreed and followed him outside, but with some stretched-out eyes sent at Louise. He would have preferred to get validation for his existence from her by finally figuring out something she didn’t know, but at the moment, would settle for basic recognition of shared suspicions. He didn’t get it. Louise ignored him, preferring to peck at her cold eggs at the kitchen island as she pondered the planks that stretched under the medium-great weight between her right hand, with which she waved at people her sexual speculations, and her left, with which she wiped away her fears of being left out, of not being listened to, and of having what was rightfully hers taken away.
Ankur Razdan grew up and attended college in Arizona, lived abroad for a time in India and Russia, and is now writing in Washington, D.C.
Interview with Ankur Razdan
- I have been writing stories since I was sixteen or so.
- Not yet. Currently, I am a writer living in a receptionist’s body.
- I had a dream about a rowboat that was also a bookshelf standing on-end on a beach, stuck in the sand.
- I really feel a kinship with Brian O’Nolan AKA Flann O’Brien. I also draw much of my inspiration from music.
- You can find my work on Rabbit Hole Mag, where I recently became a Fiction Contributor.
- If you’re stuck, try something different and surprise yourself.