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Taking Home the Queen by David Rawson

My twin brother says we are drafting. Ourselves and others. In every moment. Although my brother and I are twins, our birthdays are a day apart. My brother was born healthy with pale skin. When I finally emerged, I was just a pinch darker, dark enough to matter. When the doctor held me up to slap me, my mother said, “He’s not there,” pointing to my backside. Where the anus should have been, there was nothing. For the first week, they did not give me a proper name. My father and mother had set aside their squabble about whose father to name me after, and instead called me Little Buffalo. My mother, who had spent most of her life emphasizing Corpus Christie, so that people would know she was from Texas and not Mexico, who asked my father to rub in her suntan lotion before she left the house, had named me Buffalo.
     Later I would wonder if my birth caused the sickness in her mind. Perhaps she really had seen a baby buffalo when she looked at me. In the years that followed, she would apologize to men who were not there. She would ask my father to remove all the paintings from her room, even after he insisted they were mirrors. I could show you the marble that says she died seven years later. But we would all be lying.
     Father said one should never write about crazy. “The way to kick people in the heart is to remind them of their mortality. The way to remind people of their mortality is not to focus on blood, but to make them forget for just one moment that they are mortal.” I used to try this on my mother, jumping into her bedroom with my rocket ship blanket wrapped around my head, shrieking, “You are immortal!”
     Father writes about plants as if they were people. He never writes about people. He has written a field guide entitled Being the North American Flower. The book was well-received, and he is invited to publicly read from it at least once a year by any one of many organizations dedicated to that sort of thing, but he politely refuses every time.
     When my mother lost her mind, a federal agency sent us a new mother, which did not replace the old mother, but rather took the pain away. She asked my brother and me if we could feel the sorrow in our marrow. We nodded and traced the flow through our bodies, from our heart out to our arms to our fists, from our heart to our crotches to our chubby legs. The new mother had a set of lips on every finger. She would grab me by the arm, and I would feel each set of lips bite a tiny bite, each creating a small puncture, and the lips would suck the sorrow out. Unavoidably, blood was lost, but she was careful not to drink too much.
     Todd and I watch Vertigo on the couch in the living room. When Madeleine throws herself into the bay, Todd laughs. Scottie jumps in to save her. “Could’ve saved himself a lot of trouble,” Todd says.
     Lynn is grabbing for stars. Sprawled out in the grass, horizontally crucified, she is singing a radio commercial jingle my twin brother wrote.
     When my mother lost her mind, no one said I or my brother was next.
     When my mother taught me chess, she insisted that whoever won could choose one of his opponent’s pieces to keep forever. My mother was a terrible player, and whenever I won, instead of “Checkmate,” I would say, “You are immortal.”
     Whenever Todd invites Lynn over, I hole up in the attic and flip through the textbook on horticulture my father wrote. My father’s authorial voice is too dry for me, so I usually only study the textbook’s photographs that my mother took. I pretend the muffled voices of Todd and Lynn are the primitive cries of sentient plants.
     October of last year, Todd’s ex-girlfriends died. Amy from Texas, Janet from Idaho, and that woman he met at Donald’s in Beeskow, Germany whose name always escapes him, and even Fran, his steady from eighth grade. All of the original reels from every film Alfred Hitchcock directed were being auctioned off. Amy and Fran separately and unaware of each other, traveled to bid on the reels, either for themselves or for their new boyfriends; Amy drove through a light turning red just as Fran was turning right, and both of them were died instantly. Jennifer died from cancer. Emily was killed in action in Afghanistan. Anna’s parachute never opened.
     Todd wonders of the effect one can have on one human life, the effect one can have on numerous lives, the vagueness of effect. Todd does not speak for three days. He asks his pastor to unlock the church for him, and he does not leave. His brothers bring him food from their father’s restaurant. He asks God if he is at fault for introducing Amy and Fran to Hitchcock. He asks if the others died just by knowing him, by being tethered to his past. Todd leans his head against the podium, white Styrofoam containers on every side of him.
     At the end of the third day, Todd is at peace. He no longer feels responsible. Although Todd would never say it, I know he thinks this is the work of God. This is a gift: all that weight suddenly lifted. Todd took it as a sign.
     I open the screen door. “Is he here?” She is crying, holding her daughter’s arm. Her daughter runs past me into the house. I shake my head. Lynn calls after her daughter, begins to hand me a letter, stops. “Has he said where he is going? Has he mentioned me lately?” I shake my head. The daughter asks if I will teach her chess. “Not today.”
     As I am paying Todd rent, I tell him Lynn stopped by. He says, “Do not listen to her. She is upset. She is a drunk. I am helping her. A man tried to rape her. I’m helping her into a new apartment. I have known her for a long time.”
     Lynn is grabbing for stars. Sprawled out in the grass, she says, “Four times. Todd’s broken up with me four times. He says he should have waited. He says I pressured him. He couldn’t wait. I gave him a painting based on a photograph he took of me. He won’t accept it. It’s a nude. My hair is tastefully covering everything. Just like the photograph. He told me to be quiet.”
     In the living room, ketchup from my hotdog spills onto Todd’s test papers. Todd teaches a Bible class at the Christian school his church owns. All but one student misspelled “abstinence.”
     While drinking some hard lemonades and watching Rear Window, Todd says, “Yes. Kind of. We were kind of dating.” I do not mention what I have seen through the house windows, what I have heard from the attic, what I see when I sleep. Lynn in a T-shirt and panties. Wrapped in blanketed arms. I know the true timeline, the one where Todd has been secretly dating Lynn for months, breaking up with her every few weeks. I want to ask what it means that Lynn is alive.
     Todd is talking to a new woman on the Internet. “Her name is Helen,” Todd says. “I met her at a Christian retreat six years ago. We just, I don’t know, reconnected. She clicked. We clicked.”
     This is my birthday. The day before was my brother’s, but he does not celebrate. My father cannot make it. He is in meetings all day and cannot make it. My father’s wife arrives, takes pictures of me and my friends. When I look at the photos later, everyone is so blurry. I throw away all of them except the ones in which everyone is completely still. My brother does not arrive, but instead sings to my answering machine. It being Sunday, my uncle, who is my mailman, does not deliver my mail.
     Todd begins playing the flute again. He rejoins the praise team.
     Todd is the Passiflora ‘Betty Miles Young’. Todd with his purple glove, his short stem, his dream catcher pubes. Todd droops. He should grow quickly as his seed packet indicates, but he does not. Helen is the Passiflora ‘Lady Margaret.’ The Passifloras should be reserved for women. Todd is an emasculated flower. But Helen, the delicate red fingers, her white heart surrounded by all that crimson. She hides her drops of innocence within her center, offers those below her the red personae.
     Helen visits two weeks after their reconnection. She stays with Todd’s father so as to not be “tempted.” Helen and Todd cuddle on the couch. She wears scarves in September and points out how different life is here in the Midwest from her life in California. “Why don’t you just DVR it?” she asks him. “I don’t have satellite,” he says. “It’s wholesome here. Simpler. We’ll work on you yet,” she says.
     Helen does not look directly at me. She moves behind him, in step. She surveys the microwave, the oven, the refrigerator. Remarks that if she does move here, she will bring replacement appliances. I follow the spirals of the oven top and ruminate on, “If I move here.”
     Helen’s mother visits. I walk into the living room, and Helen’s mother is anointing Todd’s head with Canola oil and praying he will remain strong. “You are chosen,” she says. “I am chosen,” he says.
     Lynn is grabbing for stars. I help her up to her apartment, and she shows me her paintings, all of them nudes of herself, all based on photographs Todd has taken. “That is what I wanted to do outside. I was going to gather supplies. I use dirt and grass in my paintings. Those eyes. I made those eyes with fine gravel. Sometimes I shake my throw rug near the canvas to see what will stick.” In one, her eyebrows are made of fat ginger ants. “It’s OK,” she said. “Everything I touch is already dead.”
     Helen does not look directly at me. She moves behind him, in step. “And how long have you lived here?” she asks me.
     Two months after contact, Helen is moving from California to be with Todd. She will live with his father because they agree they should not live together before they are married. At three in the morning, I am still awake as he takes her to his father’s house.
     There must be thirty boxes, all my height, standing end to end throughout the house. She begins unpacking, replacing his appliances with hers. Our simple black toaster is replaced with a large gold-colored one with four slots and three side knobs. She stays while Todd is not there, to unpack. Two weeks after she has moved, the boxes remain unpacked.
     Lynn is an alcoholic. I am my mother’s son.
     Todd says, “You had no right to say anything. You say anything about my future wife, and I will go into defense mode.” I call my twin brother. He says he did tell Todd what I had told him on the phone, about what Lynn had told me about their relationship. I had asked if a man like that should be telling kids to wait until marriage. He says he did not know it was a secret. Over the next few days, Todd denies a relationship with Lynn and emphasizes he had met Helen years before. A Todd army rises up and banishes me from Toddland, but I have already moved out. There is always another attic.
     Todd knows no one will believe me. I could say it is my skin, just a tone darker than most everyone’s in this town. I could blame the nebulous Midwest. I could blame the United States military for stationing a young man in Texas. But I know it was the name. Even after they named me Andrew Jackson, the result of some strange compromise, my body knew better. That first naming is the whole matter.
     When Todd tells me I am full of shit, I laugh. I laugh at colostomy bags. I laugh at asking Santa for a butt hole. I laugh at a history of bedsheets.
     Todd has told my brother that I sometimes see a woman who is not quite our mother, who I call Mother Notquite. She is dressed like Wynona Ryder from Edward Scissorhands. Her hair is grey, and her skin is pale white. She has no eyes, no ears, and no mouth. Like the blank face of a mannequin. I know she is not real, but in Todd’s telling, she becomes very real.
     If I ever make a movie, I will hide myself within a scene, and I will dare them all to find me.
     After Lynn and I make love, she tells me I did the right thing, or that I did no big thing, that of course I would vent to my brother. “Let Todd deny me,” she says. “I have you.”
     I help Lynn into her apartment. She shows me her paintings, then asks if I would like to make love. I shake my head. Her daughter is gone for the weekend. “You could teach me chess,” Lynn says. At three in the morning, I walk to the new attic with a queen souvenir.
     The king is the most powerful. You capture him, you win the game. Although in the game itself, no one ever truly takes the king. He just keeps walking, one step at a time, until he is told he has nowhere else to walk. But the queen can move just about any place she pleases, hiding in one corner, then sweeping in to curtsy to the bishops and knights and threaten murder to those who dare disturb her husband.
     If a pawn waits long enough, he can make it to the other side of the board and become any piece he wishes. If he survives the long walk across, he can become a queen. And then, well, he can travel anywhere.
     After I refuse to have sex with her, Lynn offers me a hard lemonade. She shrugs against her refrigerator, says, “I used him as much as he used me.”
     I see Lynn wriggling in the dark grass. I approach gingerly, then slip away before her eyes can focus on me. On this night, I allow myself to be blurry.
     I believe my uncle is holding my mail.
     I take Lynn out while her daughter is at her father’s. We dance to the bar band. A man in leather says to her, “Dance with a real man.” I do nothing, leave with nothing in my hands. Not even a pawn. She leans against me, shouts, “Your mother thinks you’re stupid” to a crowd of smokers. In her yard, she trips, falls, and brings me with her. We are grabbing for stars.
     If I were to write a book, I would name it the Post-Kama Sutra. Unlike my father’s book, mine would have people. Hundreds of people.
     The woman washes the same dish over and over long after it is clean. She holds the dish firmly in her right hand, her scrub rag in her left. Eventually she stands completely still, looking out the kitchen window. The man sits at the table across the room, reads the newspaper as he eats oatmeal he has microwaved for himself. The woman has presumably eaten earlier. He reads the same article twice. He sits completely still, his newspaper limp over his oatmeal bowl. See Diagram 9.3.
     The man waits until his wife appears asleep. He goes downstairs to the computer. He types all night. He sends documents to his private e-mail, deletes the files from his hard drive. He comes back to bed right before sunrise. She stirs. He sleeps. The woman goes down to the computer room, checks recently downloaded files, knows he always checks the files he has e-mailed to make sure they were sent, wonders at the cryptic file names of the files she cannot open. See Diagram 12.8.
     The man in bed leafs through the open book. The woman in the locked bathroom looks into the mirror for twenty-three minutes. He knocks. She unlocks and steps out. See Diagram 1.8.
     They go to dinner. She goes to the restroom. He orders for her. She returns, and he excuses himself to wash his hands. She orders for him. He returns, and they both wait for their drinks. Their drinks arrive along with the four meals they have ordered. They ogle at all that food. See Diagram 5.4.
     They eat all the food. They laugh at their mistake, feed each other lamb and sprouts. She says, “My word.” He laughs and asks her who says that. She laughs and defends herself. They walk to the car, his arm around her, she leaning into his shoulder, both laughing to the beat of “My word.” See Diagram 3.3.
     In the middle of the night, she rolls over, kisses his neck, and says, “I bet they’re in bed now too, just like us.” No diagram available.
David Rawson is completing his MA in fiction at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he is an educator and assistant fiction editor for Sou’wester. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mixed Fruit, The Monarch Review, and Monkeybicycle.