Contents

Birkensnake 2 cover

Birkensnake 2

Tumor Flats

Joyelle McSweeney

I live in tumor flats, formerly known as Taco Flats for the high percentage of Latins, even more formerly Elite Tacos, now also known as The Waste Land. If you want to know how I came this low, look around, kid, everybody’s falling. I was never what you call a straight arrow but I made my way, Mercury Shoals, Muscle Flats, where I cut a record in the shower of a trailer. I wore a standup collar, fake hair, I had a velvet repel, I was shooting up life by the spoonful, but then my grind grew a rind that grew bitter and bitterer till my gears just went rust. Now I’m practically incarcerated in my recliner, glimming the smear world through a rip in my sack. But through this nick in my glass I spy the bright world, the little kids heavy with knowledge, their necks stalked, they need a constant tumor tutor to hold their throats open, check the lines that change their fluids, run their chemical baths.

But that’s the bright world: palliative care, case histories, file o’ facts. Here in Tumor Flats you got your types. There’s the occasional cute girl, though they seem to disappear at twelve and reappear at forty. There’s a harmless klepto, a celebrity. She moves amid the tumors, taking useless metal you can’t even sell: the zipper off a fetid coat, the last husk of moonshine in a cleaned-out Coke. She wears a caramel flip teased high at the crown and a claret gown cut up past the thigh, she wears slippers, she used to sing in a variety show, the money-colored curtains used to part and part for her, I remember, inside the little votive box that flickered like a penny candle, and the violins screeched high at her entrance like fat, like the streaks in her hair.

There is a tourist today amid the tumors. Spreading rumors, which are tumor cash, deprivation currency, degradation debit card, a fat-lip federal face. Fat the rumors and thin the fate. There is a philatelist who’s come in for a lick. Let him have it. There’s a slumming fatalist, but she won’t last a day among these tumors. There’s a butch fatale who is an optimist. There’s an entire olive-clad decrepit army called the Army of Life. There’s a femme arabesque in the sky above the denaturing plant. They’ve laid off all the workers like spoiled eggs but the plant just goes on making coolwhip from its own innards like a concrete goose. In the yard there’s a lot of muck that won’t burn, we tried it. In any case the air today is an outside story about an inside deal, a high-inside pitch, a false-bottomed truck, a suitcase not for the faint of heart. All is sugar and spit. Then all is drone. It’s partly my fault. I can’t hear properly, can’t make the transmission. The top part of my audibles just split like a sack of sugar, then the lower part like an ass of slacks, so I only had the middle, but I got no truck with the middle. My father had a truck garden and my mother sold eggs. That was how they got through the last dip of this merrie go-round. Then these horses got hit with the virus and froze with that whacked-out mask of fear for a face.

How I Lost My Hearing, Ending Up in Tumor Flats:

The End.

A gunshot I hear again and again. My sleep of noisesome ricochet. But my days are so plush and thick, bathed in a fluid that doesn’t care how it got started, and I never hear anything sneaking up on me, but somehow feel it and look up, like today I look up through the plastic, and I see the klepto smiling at me, and her smile is dazzling, it has black inside, and black plastic covers both her eyes, but sunlight smiles in her stiff hair, and her skin is somehow rosy like a gift where her red gown parts, and I offer her my broken watch, full of metal, and she won’t take it, but when I leave it on a sill she swipes it when we’re both not looking, and then she’s gone, and she beams munificent, after all, she bears riches, and she takes the haze with her from door to door as she tries to strip them of their bad luck charms.

The Army of Life might be a problem. They’re soldiers from way back, believe in order in some vague oppressed way, and they’re still wearing the clothes they got discharged in. No matter how many lines they did, doses they shot, scams they ran, cars they fenced, mamas they robbed, kids they beat, shit jobs they held and lost, they think the sickness comes from everyone else in the world but them. “It ain’t right, it ain’t right!” they like to whine, and then they march together in little handfuls of three or five or whatever they can muster, whoever is awake and angry and not in his tumor sleeping one off. Sometimes they form a kind of citizen’s brigade and hassle the klepto, because she’s out in plain sight, they try to get a hand in her gown and see what she’s got there. When I see that I toss a few bottles at them and they wheel like whining dogs. Then they say to me, “Slick, you ain’t law-abiding if you help that whore.” I pretend I can’t hear them, zip myself back into my wall.

There’s some fires a few nights, and on the third night someone lights up the plastic tarp that’s wrapped around my tumor, and its fumes make the walls flex and smart, but then it goes out, they must not have wanted to waste moonshine to get the fire going right. In the morning I inspect the damage: the burnt plastic has warped and then cooled in knots and shards, making for my tumor a weird and brittle shell, spiky and aggressive as a thorny crown.

But just when I’m starting to worry about the Army of Life, some cat in a suit shows up with a clipboard and fifty U.S. dollars stamped on a debit card for each patriotic sum’bitch and marches them all off from Tumor Flats, what a sad little pack of rats they make, each wearing an orange intake bracelet and all marching in a greasy, haggard line.

Then it’s quiet for the rest of the day. I’m not friendly with anyone to ask what’s going on, except the klepto, she goes everywhere and sees everything but she doesn’t talk, just goes on beaming that Jackie-O-smile like an energy source, that’s Jackie-O not Jackie-K, Jackie-O, gliding through her many mansions like a single continuous tomb, more ageless than in her brittle youth, more relaxed now that she’s seen the worst that Jackie-K was always bracing herself for. And let’s not talk about Jackie-B, French class queen. The klepto sits with me late afternoon when the sunlight settles into the greasy toxin that gilds the air like sticky pollen, and the scraps in her lap also catch the light, and we watch the tumors revamp and reformat themselves, some casting an iridescence, others growing hair or teeth or pissing an acrid metallic stream, mine bulging with a springy mass that cracks the shell to sharp pieces that dig into its slick flesh until it expands again, grows an epithelium that sheathes the plastic.

I won’t deny it: I’ve got a thing for the klepto. It’s the way she moves as if she has shocks and struts: the way she glides like she’s on whitewalls. It’s the way her belted gown draws a line at her absolute center: saw here to cut the lady in half. Her sunglasses make a stage of every outing, and she steals from us like it’s charity work, divine intervention. One night I drink a lick of moonshine — it only takes a lick in my condition to thin out my vision — till I see straight through the Flats to her tumor, which is dermoid, lined with teeth, they’re slick as car keys, and I see her in her one movie role, the flop with cops that used to run on late-night, how she fought with the killer as the klieg lights blew their shadows up three stories tall on the wall behind them, above a mob that was looking the other way, at New Jersey.

One day I greet her with a movie line:

Sweetheart, it’s time to prove you’re good for more than filling out that tight court stenographer’s get-up.

And then, because she doesn’t answer, I say her line, too:

Bud, I know I can be a good cop and I’m ready to prove it. I just need my chance. Just give me my chance.

She smiles at me like all the headlights at the drive-in, turned on me, and then she stops and fits her lips over her teeth.

Then I just want to so I lead her into my tumor and fold back her gown, work off her shell-colored panties.

Then I don’t see her for a while, and then I see her again, she’s standing at my fence with her arms hanging over into my yard, and she’s got a bunch of orange intake bracelets hanging off each wrist. Up close I can see they’re still printed with serial numbers in a grey print that’s wearing off. The orange is also cracking off the Tyvek. I kiss her neck which smells like powder. Then I follow her like a cameraman down the allée between tumors.

And as I follow her form like a flaw in the film, a bleedthrough from another scene, I’m elsewhere, I’m following a stiff lilac skirt, high ponytail and rounded white church collar down a hallway that can’t be more than ten feet, but takes a sinner’s forever as the hot dark air thickens, deep in the house, and pushes back against what we want to do. On the bedside table there’s a Bible open and a place claimed with a ribbon so red I can’t help but put a finger to it as Treesa stands in front of me and starts to lift up that good girl skirt like a miracle. Yea, like a mountain being lifted away.

Amen, saints! Amen, saints! The radio casts a call for witness as I keep one thumb on the hammer and one eye on the cashier and one eye squinted, though Treesa’s brother told me time and again to keep both eyes open, fool, keep both eyes open. And God bless the doctors may they be as sharp as they can possibly be but all healing comes from Jesus Lord I know you know that I said all healing comes from Him, Saints!

But that weren’t the bullet that took my hearing away and added it to one long reverberating crash that my brain can make in my dreams but another bullet when Treesa was with me in the showerbath where earlier we had made the record and now with everyone drunk in the front room she was here with me again it was a room with but one high flat window and when Treesa sprung away from me one bullet caught her in the belly and another one burnt the lobe of my ear as it exploded into the wall.

And now I stand with the klepto before a little grassy decline and heaped at the bottom is about two-thirds of the Army of Life mostly lying on their sides like hieroglyphics with hospital gowns licking away from their old-man limbs instead of their discharge jackets.

Their own flesh shrinks away from them like it did in life, but no more than it did in life, their hair has been shaved short so their skulls show, and some of them have shunts or buttons behind their exposed ears, and their faces are a suffocated purple and their lips are black. They don’t smell; it’s as if they’ve been freeze-dried.

Up the other side of the decline is a wall of wire diamonds turned on their axes and beyond that is the strait and beyond that is the bright world where a low chalk-white building first smiles then goes blank. In this light its doors and its windows are a plasma blonde and something glints on top like tinsel, probably concertina wire gracing the epithelial of the roof.

It’s a damn bad scene, in the middle of the afternoon, the klepto in her sweltering red robe and honey wig, the Army all lined up like the worst thing you know about yourself, repeated again and again, pinned in place, their black lips peeled back from their vicious teeth. I trade some of what I have for a bucket of moonshine, burn up the bodies that night. A chemical smell flies up like a curtain that goes up and up and into the Heaven, always rising for the scene that never starts. I stand and watch that smell rush up. When I turn around the rushing’s in my ears and the smell settles on the tumors in a light blue powder that is quickly absorbed, causing some to go parched and split, others to swell and gloss.

I carry the rushing and the smell to my own tumor and lie down in my box of rags. The next day I don’t feel so good, I feel bad. I’ve got a cloudy jug of water and a glass with desert-colored vinyl strips on its exterior. I fill the glass to the third stripe and drink it down to the first. I try to do this as slowly as I can, to spare the water and my stomach, which is smarting and bucking today like a melted motherboard. My skin is fried in the thin places, friable, and there’s an acridness between my eyelids and my eyes. My tumor is kitted out with plastic grills which house a vent that doesn’t work anymore but I stare at the grills anyway trying to pull the air with my eyes through the slots.

*

A couple of days later I guess I pull myself onto my recliner where I can see out into the lanes. I see the glinting eye of the clipboard again, the blue and white suit of the man holding it, his stack of debit cards thick in the clamp. This time the fee is twenty-five dollars a head, and despite the cut price and although word must have spread about the pit burial of the Army of Life, the line is somehow longer, composed of sallow, thin, or unnaturally swollen bodies. Their skin has no natural luster, and the sun behind them lights up not the red blood in their veins but a straw-colored viscous matter that stands like ill will in their limbs and couldn’t circulate worth nothing.

It’s like a clearance sale; the desire of people to buy the stuff rises with the sinking prices. Except here what they’re buying is their own death. Their own long visit to the pit. Even the earth won’t cover them up. Even the ground won’t have them.

As if to respond to my thoughts, one middle-aged lady in a huge faded vacation T-shirt turns to me with eyes that say, But sweetie, my death won’t make me anything if I wait for it right here, now will it?

And then she’s replaced in the hasp of my vision by the klepto, who smiles a wide smile and waits in the line with her hands clasped before her like she’s walking for the communion rail.

Now she’s taking a shuffle forward, and then a shuffle, till she’s at the head of the line, refusing a proffered debit card and a bracelet and reaching instead for the clipboard, the ballpoint pen in the man’s hand. The startled man and the klepto push their arms back and forth a few times like dancing, the clipboard pressed upright between them, until he comes to his senses and flings her to the side. She lands on her hands and knees, her dress back and her ass exposed. For a few moments she’s like an heiress groping for diamonds in the dust. He’s patting all his pockets and the front of his coat until he finds another pen and continues with the next person. As a goon gets the klepto upright and leads her off to a dusty shuttle she waves right at me like she can see inside this tissue to where I’m watching. I’m watching. The flash of the pen in her hand.