The Better Head

The Better Head sits above my desk’s window. Transistors hum as its eyes stare numb. Though the Better Head has no lungs by which to speak to me, it seems to be asking, “Why for?” or, “ What from?”

It’s dusk outside. An unknown animal bellows in the distance. Arctic wind whistles through desiccated leaves, as winter’s breath carries the season’s first snow flurries. I sip my coffee. I haven’t slept in what must be approaching 3 days and I’ve been washing my face often. Meanwhile, floating in a soup of electrolyte formaldehyde, the Better Head will wrinkle its nose, bare its teeth and mouths vulgarities. Its contempt for me is beginning to show.

I rub my eyes then give it the finger. I laugh heartily, genuinely, at its inability to return the gesture. I get more coffee. I laugh some more.

There have been times in the last couple of nights—times when I’ve been in the kitchen, say, getting more coffee, or running to the closet to get more pencils—times in which I think I hear it crying. That’s impossible, though. I know. I made it so. I return quickly, so as to catch it in the act, coffee sloshing, pencil behind my ear. But when I get back, the Better Head just bobs, water reflecting green wave patterns across my walls, the unmade bed, my stacks of books. If I didn’t know any better, I would think it’s having some fun with me. But there’s real work to be done, no more nonsense. I sit down to drink my coffee, continue our work, and begin to take notes. At this stage in the project, work mostly consists of my asking it questions like, “Can you drink coffee? Can you take notes?” I write down its answers in a journal on my desk that I don’t remember ever buying. The journal, that is. The desk was a gift from an uncle.

We’ve worked out means of communication (I’m terrible at reading lips): one blink for “yes,” two blinks for “no.”   Three blinks means it is calling me an idiot. We can’t agree on what four blinks should evoke. I’ve suggested four blinks be a means of giving the other some sort of accolade, a gesture of goodwill, but the Better Head is not having it.

So far, most of its answers have been, “No.” But, I assure you a subtler pattern of discourse is beginning to emerge from what at first glance must seem like meager data to the casual observer. Simply put: the Better Head is plotting to kill me. It plans on stealing my body, and escaping from our little hideaway cabin, clumsily running through those woods on unfamiliar legs, through that fresh snow. I have purposely not told it about my bum knee. My bum knee will hinder its escape, certainly aiding the local authorities in the rogue head’s capture. The Better Head knows as well as I do that it’s only a matter of time.

 

***

Research, 12:47 a.m., 12/18/04:

Q: Are you hungry?

A: No.

Q: Do you know where you are?

A: No.

Q: Can you drink coffee? Can you take notes?

A: No. No.

Q: Were you just crying?

A: No.

Q: Are you sure?

A: Yes.

I think its motives are clear. But what you may find more noticeable, perhaps even strikingly so, are the questions I have so far avoided. I’ll be frank: I hate to know what’s left of its memory. Like, does it know of its origin and home? Does it remember my trespass against it when introducing baseball bat to its skull? What about when I hooked up its neurons to car-batteries, or replaced blood with Vaseline and motor-oil? Or my sewing up the signs of my severing with hacksaw, from arms and legs and heart and body and all? Such remembrances would certainly give the head some motive in its designs against my person, but somehow…somehow, I don’t think that’s it. There’s something else. Something I used to know. It may well be that the Better Head has simply never liked me, him exhibiting an a priori distaste for my company. But I’ve never been one for guesswork.

 

***

The wind shoulders relentlessly against the north side of the cabin, lamp lights flicker. I grab another blanket from the oak chest at the foot of the bed. The head looks warm and docile, bobbing leisurely in its vitamin enriched froth. When I close my eyes it looks like there’s a blizzard against the back of my eyelids, and I’m starting to lose entire minutes to the tiniest of blinks. I should go get more supplies.   We’re almost out of chowder. Unless. Unless that’s exactly what it wants.

My coffee has grown cold; I should make another pot. I pour the remains of my cup into the Better Head’s jar. It looks like it could use a pick me up.

The lantern in the kitchen has gone out. Tree branches squeal and scrape together outside as I fumble with the matches just long enough to give up lighting them. I can make coffee in the dark, I decide. I blink and the clock on the microwave advances 10 minutes. Changing my mind, I push the minute cook button on the microwave so as to provide some light. I have to push it twice because, as it turns out, it takes me two minutes to make coffee. I blink again. This time 20 minutes pass. I’m still standing here, empty coffee mug hanging tenuously from my curled fingers.

There it is! I swear it’s crying! My bum knee throbs as I hustle back into the bedroom, but when I get there—ha! I’ll catch you in the act yet!—when I get there, the Better Head looks at me severely and blinks three times. I give it the finger and drink my coffee. Damn it, I forgot to fill up my mug. I ask anyway, I ask, “Can you give me the finger? Can you drink coffee?” The Better Head blinks three times. It mouths what could be interpreted as, “up yours.” Cloudy tendrils of what was once my coffee swirl into the back of its mouth, and out again through its nostrils. The Better Head has outsmarted me again.

 

***

Here is what we know of the Better Head. These are our axioms, if you will, our premises:

1. The Better Head is smarter.

2. The Better Head thinks harder.

3. The Better Head does not have the ability to participate in many, if not most, normal, everyday, human endeavors, resulting in more time for 2, to thereby achieve 1.

4. The Better Head is ruthless.

(a) The Better Head is plotting to kill me.

(b) The Better Head plans on stealing my body, and using it to escape this cabin,  effectively destroying everything we have worked towards together.

5. The Better Head will achieve 4b by means of 1, 2, and 4a.

The house shakes, the winter wind screams, and I ask, I dare ask: “Do you remember?” The Better Head answers, blinks four times. I think perhaps it is accusing me of begging the question in line 5. I’ll have to review the data.

 

***

There’s a blizzard behind my eyes, and when I open them, an hour has passed, maybe two. I can tell because of how the light in the room has changed, by how my left foot has gone numb. I remember. I remember when I used to call him, “colleague,” and how he always bristled in my presence. I remember his storming into my lab unannounced one night, and his discovery of my late night work. I remember how his chest swelled with moral outrage, how his breathing became labored. I remember the way his index finger shook as he threatened to destroy my career and how his fat fist pounded my desk when he uttered the words, “federal prison.” I remember his back as he turned in contempt to walk away.

But. So. Now.

Well, now he’s just a fucking head in a jar.

 

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[Illustration by Tony Fleecs]

Note: The Better Head is also a song by Americans UK, and this short story was originally published in Americans UK: Rocktronic Mixtape 1. The Featured Image at the top of this post is from a gig poster designed by Mike Reddy.

Just Super 4 – How the Gentleman Gets His Mask Back

Just Super is a series of vignettes about super-people reimagined as yet another wave of gentrification in the big city, co-created by me and artist ZEES. This fourth episode was illustrated by Ben Rosen, and originally published on the now defunct Trip City, an online arts magazine.

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After the villains, come the artists. After the artists, come the bars. Then the coffee shops and boutique stores. Once the boutique stores arrive, here come the heroes! Capes and cowls are just another wave of gentrification here in Zap City, jewel of the Meta East Coast. Think you’ve got problems? My landlord was bitten by something radioactive on the subway, and has since gained the proportional strength and stench of a rat! Just super.

 

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[“Le Girl” character design by ZEES.]

Just Super 3 – The Tragic Air of Miss Chiff

Just Super is a series of vignettes about super-people reimagined as yet another wave of gentrification in the big city, co-created by me and artist ZEES. This third episode was illustrated by James O. Smith, a bit darker than the rest, and originally published on the now defunct Trip City, an online arts magazine. (Note: I had to cut up James’ amazing two-page spread so that it’s legible within the format of this blog; I have posted the original layout at the end of this entry).

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After the villains, come the artists. After the artists, come the bars. Then the coffee shops and boutique stores. Once the boutique stores arrive, here come the heroes! Capes and cowls are just another wave of gentrification here in Zap City, jewel of the Meta East Coast. Think you’ve got problems? My landlord was bitten by something radioactive on the subway, and has since gained the proportional strength and stench of a rat! Just super.

 

[Character Designs by ZEES]

 

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[Original 2-page spread by James O. Smith.]

 

Just Super 2 – Bibbin’s Bodega

Just Super is a series of vignettes about super-people reimagined as yet another wave of gentrification in the big city, co-created by me and artist ZEES. This second episode was originally published on the now defunct Trip City, an online arts magazine.Just-Super_2_02-1Just-Super_2_02-2Just-Super_2_02-3

After the villains, come the artists. After the artists, come the bars. Then the coffee shops and boutique stores. Once the boutique stores arrive, here come the heroes! Capes and cowls are just another wave of gentrification here in Zap City, jewel of the Meta East Coast. Think you’ve got problems? My landlord was bitten by something radioactive on the subway, and has since gained the proportional strength and stench of a rat! Just super.

 

Just Super 1 – The Gentleman No More

Just Super is a series of vignettes about super-people reimagined as yet another wave of gentrification in the big city, co-created by me and artist ZEES. This first episode was self-published by me in my anthology series Americans UK: Rocktronic Mixtape 1Just-Super_01_6_20_2011-1Just-Super_01_6_20_2011-2Just-Super_01_6_20_2011-3Just-Super_01_6_20_2011-4Just-Super_01_6_20_2011-5Just-Super_01_6_20_2011-6Just-Super_01_6_20_2011-7

After the villains, come the artists. After the artists, come the bars. Then the coffee shops and boutique stores. Once the boutique stores arrive, here come the heroes! Capes and cowls are just another wave of gentrification here in Zap City, jewel of the Meta East Coast. Think you’ve got problems? My landlord was bitten by something radioactive on the subway, and has since gained the proportional strength and stench of a rat! Just super.

[“Classy Lass” pin-up by Scott Forbes + “The Gentleman” pin-up by Terry Taylor]

Adventures In Tasteful Living

My first published comics work was a special promotion for Amstel Light that ran serially in Details Magazine for 3 months in 2006, drawn by Terry Taylor, and developed by then Promotion Director Kristin Joker. Interesting note: the pitch that got me the job became Just Super 1, but Amstel or Details or both didn’t want to go with supes.

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Bibi & Cass

Illustration by Aaron Florian

Illustration by Aaron Florian

Bibi was already pretty old on the day she saved me. In the wild, gorillas can live as long as 35 to 40 years, and Bibi had just turned 45. I was 8 and leaning over the railing of the Gorilla Pitt at the New Jersey Zoo, excited by the dark, hairy creatures below, adolescent males galloping on their knuckles up and down the grassy slope, charging one another and wrestling playfully as their elders sat serenely, a mother preoccupied with the black, fuzzy newborn hanging from her neck. This mother was Bibi, I would later learn, and that baby gorilla was the cutest, most amazing thing I had ever seen. I struggled to get a better view, and as I pulled against the grip of my father holding me by the sewn-in belt of my gingham dress, the stitching snapped and I tumbled over the railing, falling 15 feet down into the pitt.

I press my face into her fur, nuzzling her neck, breathing in her musky odor that smells of animal strength, and outdoors, and motherhood. I place my cheek against her chest, and feel my head rise and fall with her breath, her heart beating beneath that breast that has nursed her many children—her children taken from her and sent to zoos around the world. I hold her hand and look into her all too human eyes, and she looks tired.

You’ve possibly seen the videos on YouTube. The gorillas below, I stretch into view from the periphery before falling fully into frame, crossing that sheer, concrete wall distance that divides we great apes from those, my head knocking against the cement gutter below, my body twisting in an unlikely position against that unforgiving ground. Zoo patrons gasp, my mother screams, children cry, a pool of blood spreading from a gash in my head as the camera zooms in on me unconscious. The gorillas are immediately curious about my presence, and the adolescent males approach my limp form. My father already has a leg over the railing to jump down when Bibi scoops me up under an arm, and drags me up onto the lawn, away from the other apes, her own child clinging to her back. The crowd gasps louder at this, my mother screams again, this time my name, “Cass!!”

I wake up and begin to wail. Bibi releases me, backs off, unsure. You can hear my mother panicked, pleading, “Cass, please baby, you need to be quiet.” The camera pans and you can see the other gorillas spooked by my wailing, some lumbering sidelong towards their pens. My father has now jumped into the pit, and another man follows him down, asking him to stop, this one with the zoo. The camera finds me again and zooms in on my face: I’m absolutely bawling, face red with fear and blood. Someone yells, “look, look,” and the growing crowd frets in unison, a lone woman announcing, “oh no.” The camera refocuses, pulls back, and takes in the scene. The most aggressive of the adolescents has emerged on the lawn—his name is Kigoma. The man from the zoo picks up a stick with one hand and tries to push my father back with his other, just as Kigoma charges towards me.

Dr. Madsen enters the small, tidy room. It’s difficult to read his expression, but then, I can’t look at him for long without losing it, and my only care should be for Bibi. My tears fall, quickly absorbed by Bibi’s hair. I caress her face and begin to whisper, over and over in a singsong voice, occasionally cracked by a sob, “Just rest, sweet girl. Sweet old lady. Just rest. That’s right, just rest, it’s time to sleep, sweet Bibi, just rest.” I can’t help but notice, out of the corner of my eye, the hypodermic needle that Dr. Madsen carries with him.

Knuckles pound the ground, and the gorilla Kigoma grunts, as he fast approaches to rip my head off. My father hollers, my mother cries, and Bibi the momma ape hurries back to my side, putting herself between Kigoma and me. The adolescent changes his trajectory to avoid colliding with the barking Bibi, her baby still clinging to her back. Bibi scoops me up again, and I faint from fright, my form limp under her arm. Voices from the crowd say, “look, look,” or “it’s saving her,” and the camera pans briefly to my mother with her hands cupped over her mouth. Hooting at the others as though to say, “stay away,” Bibi drags me further up the hill, and drops me in front of the zookeeper entrance, before trotting away with her baby. Eager human arms grab for me, take me inside. Hungry for resolution, the camera finds my father being lifted out of the pitt by an emergency crew as the zookeeper stands guard with his stick. A stranger hugs my mother.

I don’t remember any of it. One moment I was leaning over the gorilla pit, the next I’m waking up in a hospital. A couple years ago we hit the ten-year anniversary of my tumble, and so several news outlets reran the story. With me entering college at the time, the story had a nice little bow tied on the end: I intended to become a gorilla researcher. I’m sure most children would have never wanted to see a gorilla again, but I became obsessed, watching the video—then taped from a local news channel—over and over, countless times until the tape became worn and unwatchable. I would insist on visiting Bibi at the zoo, taking the train by myself once I was old enough. I invented a call for her, singing, “Biiii-biiii,” and I swear to you she recognized my voice and would come to the front of the pitt, purse her lips and kiss the air in reply. I truly and deeply loved her, and from that love grew a great passion for all gorillas. So here I am.

I was packing to go to Africa for the summer to advance my studies when Dr. Madsen called. I caught the first flight home from my small college town back to New Jersey, and rushed from the airport, directly to the zoo. At 57, Bibi is the oldest living gorilla in the entire world, and she was now dying from an aggressive form of lymphoma ravaging her body. They would soon put her to sleep. My studies had brought me closer into the network of primate specialists who worked at Bibi’s zoo, purchasing for me this last goodbye and thank you. Bibi not only saved my life, but gave it purpose, and because of that, I have the honor of being with her as she exits her own. I will miss her more than I can now imagine.

Bibi rests, sedated. I sing her name quietly, as on my many visits, and pray my presence brings her comfort as I stroke her face lovingly. Dr. Madsen holds the i.v. port that keeps her hydrated between thumb and forefinger, whispering, “it’s time,” and pushes the hypodermic needle through the rubber seal. Bibi’s pupils dilate as the fluid stops her heart, and I say out loud between sobs, “I love you, sweet girl, I love you—just rest, just rest,” stroking her gently even after Dr. Madsen announces she’s passed. The world is worse for her absence.

***

 [Note: an earlier version of this story appeared in Panels For Primates available from Monkey Brain Comics, and edited by Troy Wilson, which you should really check out, because it has a lot of cool, ape-based stories from creators like Stan Lee, Dean Haspiel, Fred Van Lente, Colleen Coover, and so many more.]