by Bill Strickland
This is the first short story I ever actually completed and liked all at once. I’d submitted different forms of it to writing classes at Ball State University, and finally finished this draft in 1988. I sent it to a strange little magazine called Modern Short Stories that was neither literary nor commercial, and definitely not popular. (It’s defunct.) Rereading it now, I’d like to fix a lot of the rhythm and clunks, improve the voice, and generally make it more subtle. But there’s a lightness to it that I appreciate, and when I recently reread it, I was surprised to realize that pretty much from the start I’ve been trying to write about the power of imperfections. It’s still my favorite subject.
I must be part sperm whale. I swear to god, I really think I am. Sperm whales have a cavity in their heads filled with spermaceti — that’s what makes the sperm whales.
Their sperm cavity dominates their whole existence, controls their whole whale lives. They live and die, and are hunted and killed, because they have a hole in their head filled with sperm. So do I. Even when I was younger, my mother always told me I had a hole in my head, but I didn’t realize until a few years ago that it was filled with Sperm. In fact, I don’t think it became filled with Sperm until a few years ago, until accumulated celibacy drove the little buggers up into my brain.
They found the hole in my head, and inhabited it. They’re usually pretty happy, and stay in the cavity, but if I go awhile without, uhhhhh — monitoring my Sperm output — the level rises up into my skull again. Then the Sperms who’ve been living in the hole all along have to take the newcomers sightseeing through my cerebrum.
And, naturally, pretty soon the resident Sperms get tired of the visitors, so they sneak into my brain and take it over. They really do. They make me do stuff I normally wouldn’t, just to release some Sperm, lower the level, and get ride of the pesty guests. They make me super aggressive, or suave and charming. Funny, intelligent, athletic — you name it, they’ve done it to me.
Yesterday, they cost me $8,000.
Not on purpose, of course — it was an accident. Really. I mean an actual accident. They totaled my car. I don’t have to pay the whole $8,000, of course; the insurance company will. My premiums will go up, though…it’ll probably cost me about two hundred a year in the long run.
See, I commute. That means that every morning I choke down a piece of toast and some coffee while screaming my way to work from the teeny suburb, where I live, to the teeming city, where I work. It’s not that bad. But when I say screaming, I mean screaming. Not like going fast really-moving-the-old-car screaming, but literally screaming. At lights, at potholes, at my car, at other cars. At myself. At other selves. It’s all kind of fun in a really perverse way. When you commute, you travel the same route every day, and so do the fifty billion other commuters. So you build up a weird sort of camaraderie. Everyone knows everyone else — it’s like a fraternal organization.
You’re initiated the first day. If you don’t wreck, have a horn that can really crank, and can pass the “sonovabitch” and the “up yours too” as good as the next guy, than you’re in. They scream at you, and you scream at them, and it’s all good, clean fun. The morning radio talk-show is on, but you don’t listen, and your toast is shit. You forgot to brush your teeth.
What a ball. Rush hour, bumper to bumper, surrounded by people you see twice a day, every day, but don’t know. Yeah, civilization.
I was content. My Sperm were content — a little restless, but happy. They stayed out of my work hours, and I stayed out of their leisure time. It was sublime symbiosis, coexistence at its finest. They stayed out of my work because it bored them. Mine’s an eight-to-four job, good old manual labor. Not really manual, though. I’m a software stuffer — computer stuff. Sometimes the Sperm did use my title, though.
“Hi,” they say. “I work with computers — 1240s, the Kronos Building.” The building is this big, swanky, million-story monster I work in, the tallest building in the city. The Sperm tell all the girls that. What they never tell girls is that I work in the basement. All I really do is oversee the machines that pack the software into crates. A glorified janitor with a glorified janitor’s salary. But the job’s easy, so I don’t complain. I can nap if the Sperm were overactive the night before, because I don’t work with any people, just machines — and they haven’t told on me yet.
I stay out of the leisure hours because it scares the hell out of me. I can’t believe some of the things they get away with. Like that time with the dancer. She was cute alright, but had ankles as thick as her thighs. The Sperm wanted her, though. I didn’t know I could dance.
Life was great. I was barely past my prime, looking for love, having fun doing it. I wore my shirts untucked. I put my pants on two legs at a time on the off chance that someone, somewhere, might say that I was just like everyone else.
Then came Mucklemouth. Then came construction on the Mobias Tunnel.
I’ve always liked girls with one unusual feature, something that falls just a shade from truly ugly, making them infinitely more beautiful for their uniqueness. Classic beauties, perfect princesses, bore me. A slightly raised nosetip, freckles, a mouth slightly off kilter, a crazy look in one eye, some distinguishing element, a pea for princesses to lie on, be bruised by, and make their own.
It was sunny, but not hot, the first day Mucklemouth passed me in her red convertible Volkswagen. Her left arm hung over the edge of the door, softly slapping time in the wind, while she twisted her lips into funny shapes, singing. A big, curvy instrument case — a cello or something — was scrunched against the passenger door like a shy, balding blind date. she passed me, and brought her left arm up to the steering wheel, shifting her right to the cello’s neck, tapping out her song there. I thought about being that cello. The sun highlighted tiny hairs on her arm, and I thought how nice it would be to rub my lips across the softness of her skin for insane lengths of time.
She was less than golden, more than brown, falling somewhere deliciously in between, hair illuminated by some magic light inside her, pooled on her shoulders and spilling down her back. I turned my radio off, trying to hear the song she was singing, what words made her so astoundingly alive, but the wind drowned her voice.
That first time, that was it. She sped off, and I stayed in the slow lane, clenching the steering wheel of my faithful old Renault, contemplating what had set that mucklemouth, that delightfully wrong mucklemouth, on such a perfect human.
My Sperm hadn’t seen her, of that I was positive, because there I was, in the slow lane with Mucklemouth gone. They would have chased her caught her, had her. They would have used her, entered her and stayed, leaving me empty. Without them to do the talking, explain why I did what I did and why I couldn’t stay. I’d be a fool. The Sperm love one-night stands.
I was sick of them.
So I stayed in the slow lane, trying not to think about her, her, her. They perked up a bit at that; female pronouns always have that effect. Luckily for me — for us, Mucklemouth and me, that is — the Sperm were still recouping their losses from the previous night’s clash. Someone screamed at me, and I screamed back. Behind me, a horn honked, cracking the Mucklemouth mood that have followed her like a slipstream.
The mood wasn’t the only thing that cracked that day. So did the Mobias Tunnel. It’s this two-and-a-half-mile long sucker that goes right through a mountain into the city. It’s been there about a million years. My exit’s right from the highway, zip into the tunnel and then I’m practically right downtown. The lanes drop from eight, on the highway, down to four in the tunnel — a beautiful bottleneck.
A beautiful, old bottleneck. It was structurally weak. One lane had closed for construction on each side, making an even narrower bottleneck, pushing the irritability level way up. My fraternal commuters didn’t like breathing exhaust fumes for the extra fifteen minutes it took to get through the tunnel. I thought about poor Mucklemouth having to breathe that shit.
At work that day, I wanted to tell the machines about Mucklemouth but I wasn’t sure about the Sperm. They usually slept during work hours, but this one payroll secretary from upstairs had been — nothing had happened. Yet. Because I was really cracking down on this one. The Sperm didn’t care about my job, but I did.
Instead, I told the machines about the tunnel cracking, what it felt like to breathe car exhaust for twenty minutes, what it felt like to breathe at all. They didn’t know that. I tell them stuff like that all the time, try to explain what it’s like to live, just things like that. I’ve even told them about the sperm.
Those machines are hard workers, but lousy conversationalists.
What they might have suggested, if they’d been talkers, was what I eventually thought of myself. If Mucklemouth was commuting, I knew I’d see her again. And I didn’t want the Sperm to see her. I wanted it to be me who met her, not just me standing around while they introduced themselves. And I knew I’d been lucky, that the Sperm would see her next time, or maybe the time after that, or after that. But if I took away their afternoon rest, I plotted, they’d be fatigued during our travel times.
So it was a trade-off, a little double-dealing on our coexistence, but I gave them the payroll secretary. It was almost too easy. Even amid their usual workday napping, all I had to do was work up an image of her.
“Correcto ribbon bondage,” they suggested. The machines, true friends, reserved judgment.
Giddy with afternoon, on-the-job success, the Sperm slept during the ride home. And my mind worked overtime, free to observe Mucklemouth. No rust, no wrinkles. Black convertible top pulled back neatly into the straps. A perfect car, a perfect girl. I stayed in the slow lane, again, nervous, while she passed singing.
I began to measure time by how often I kept Mucklemouth hidden from the Sperm. She passed me again and again, twice a day. The Sperm slept, I watched. Past the fringes of the commute, life continued. Construction on the Mobias shifted from one lane to another. The machines listened and worked. The Sperm were hitting the secretary with a vengeance, had one eye cocked at some new third-floor stenographer.
But mostly it was Mucklemouth. She took in more and more life every day, became a little more golden, a little more imperfectly perfect. And a million muckly surprises waited for me. Once at the first stoplight past the Mobias she pulled behind me, and in my rearview I saw her. That crazy, wrong mouth flawing her. Spattered, fizzy brown eyes, like warm drops of Pepsi in a white sink. Another day she pulled beside me and I was too terrified to look, but smelled her, a hot washrag full of soap, wiping out the choke of exhaust.
I thought of smart things I’d say if her car ever broke down, lines the Sperm might think of: “Stick out your tongue, car, and say ahhhhh.” But when I practiced on the machines, they didn’t laugh.
And the Sperm still took me out about twice a week, but it wasn’t the same. My heart just wasn’t in it. They’d still yank me around like a puppet, but love had given me elastic strings or something. Yeah, I liked that — “elastic strings of love.” I’d giggle, and pull a little farther away from the Sperm.
That might’ve been what started everything. They were bored with the secretary anyway, and felt themselves losing control of me. They didn’t like that. I was losing control of the Mucklemouth situation, and I didn’t like that. I liked it even less when they retired the secretary.
“Guys,” I said. “She’s a good worker. Trained. Prompt. Take a few days…” And of course the secretary didn’t want to stop. She pleaded, even cried a little. Said she loved me, although she loved them. Maybe she really did, too, although she shouldn’t have. That’s what happens to people who learn shorthand.
I was grumpy tired after work that day, dreading the weekend’s debauchery, and grouchy because my life was complicated again. I couldn’t allow myself to even look at Mucklemouth.
So I kept my head down, sleepdriving through the usual double-rush Friday trash. The traffic turtled into the Mobias. Then: She was in front of me. I knew. Even without looking up, I knew it was Mucklemouth, and I knew it was over. The Sperm would see her. I could tell it was Mucklemouth from the engine — three knocks and a ping. I kept my head down, praying.
That’s when I saw the bumper-sticker. “City Symphony Orchestra — take note,” it said, crooning to me to do just that. Except I couldn’t, not then. So I signaled right, turning left onto the shoulder. Someone flipped me off and I sonovabitched him, and all was forgiven in the fraternal correctness of the moment.
I sat their feigning car trouble for awhile, long after the Sperm became impatient; they had a weekend to prepare for. I guess I’d never seen the bumper-sticker before because I’d been too busy looking at Mucklemouth. The cello I’d seen that first day and her humming and that bumper-sticker all clicked into my mind.
Then Friday was gone. Like most weekends, it was pretty much a wriggly, milky haze. I remember teaching a barful of Japanese tourists to do the bunny hop. There was that short girl with the camera. A something about a wide-angle lens, motorcycles and peanut butter. Sometime Saturday I grabbed a newspaper and confirmed my hope, that the symphony played on Sundays.
That was perfect. Weekend weary Sperm dozing through a soothing arrangement. Me watching Mucklemouth, again. I’d meet her, take her to a farm, grow corn. The Sperm might phone once in a while, bugging me like an old group of rough city friends I’d once been mixed up with and couldn’t completely ignore, but that would be it. Oh, I’d miss commuting — and the machines. But – love.
I sprung it on them Sunday afternoon. “We need some culture,” I said while they scoffed. “And you can use the rest. Relaxing music. Let that ditzy secretary fade, prepare for the stenographer. Or you can just sit around here while I go?”
The Sperm dismissed themselves to talk it over and, confident, I began dressing. A little later, they patted me on the back, straightened my tie, and we left. It was dangerous stuff, alright, contact with Mucklemouth. But they were exhausted; I’d seen to that. Even if they did wake up, there was still all that stuff about music soothing the beast.
Boy was I wrong. I never even got a chance to look at the program. We got there as the orchestra was tuning up, sounding like a Beatles album spinning backwards.
All that noise had the Sperm active, swarming at some hormonal hive. “Settle down,” I said, then excused myself over six legs, a purse and an umbrella to our seat. I sat. The Sperm remained standing.
“Who’s that?” They pointed. I never looked up.
“No one,” I said. “A musician. Sit down.” The lights dimmed.
“Haven’t we seen her? The one with the cello. She’s not bad.”
“Go to sleep!”
“Hey. Wait – we commute with her, right?” They smiled. “What a surprise.”
“That’s it.” I might have screamed — I’m not sure — and someone grabbed one of my arms. The Sperm wriggled free. Someone yelled for me to sit down. I screamed back. Onstage, a tuba honked, then another. And another. I started tripping down the aisle of seats. Behind me, the woodwinds screeched and peeled out, swerved into another octave. A cymbal crashed, jamming the entire percussion section up.
“Hey,” the Sperm said. “Go ahead. Leave. We’ll stick around.”
“Who cares?” I was definitely yelling then, shouting over the wailing siren of brass speeding off. “You’re nothing without me. I’m gonna leave. I’m gonna go and leave you here because then you can’t touch her. You need me. But I don’t need you.” I exited then, stumbling out, abandoning the Sperm, leaving them squirming nervously in the lobby.
Then I stopped. They had the car keys.
Monday morning — yesterday — I overslept. I think I hit the alarm, then went back to sleep. Or maybe the alarm didn’t go off at all. It was one of those mornings, already sticky humid and oppressive, and my head was tingly from too much sleep. I didn’t have time for a shower, and part of my hair wouldn’t lie down.
I’d waited outside the symphony hall last night, munching Sno-capped Nonpareils and wondering if I’d been right — if my Sperm did actually need me, and if I could take them in a fair fight. But neither question ever got answered. Ashamed, or embarrassed — maybe even humbled — at intermission they’d handed me back the keys.
Anyway, they didn’t say a word all morning. It was going to rain. Mucklemouth would have her top up. The rain began in pattering little splotches as I got in the car, then smacked steadily off the windshield. People were driving like idiots, like they always do when it rains, and they were in worse moods because they had to keep their windows rolled up. It’s no fun screaming at someone if they can’t hear you.
I guess I was still pretty much asleep, or preoccupied, because I didn’t see Mucklemouth until after the Sperm did. They spotted her right away as she passed, in the fast lane. We were in the slow lane. It had quit raining, but the pavement was steaming hot, wet. Life itself felt sticky. Mucklemouth’s hair was plastered against her skin, one strand trailing between those silly red lips.
The Sperm switched lanes, shifted neatly into fifth, and accelerated. Mucklemouth reached the tunnel before they did, about twenty cars up when the two lanes merged.
The tunnel stretched out forever. There were millions of vehicles packed in there, squiggling around, rumbling, roaring up into compact little groups, then splitting apart again. Some kind of unusual delay, maybe a wreck or something, was slowing things up even more. People screamed, honked, screamed. The Sperm jerked forward, slammed on the brakes, jerked forward. They weren’t getting any closer to Mucklemouth.
Frustrated — betrayed — they snapped. They twisted the wheel, clipped a barrel and drove onto the construction lane on the right. Someone followed them. Then a few others. Soon a stream of cars was pouring into the tunnel on the illegal lane.
The construction lane had been stripped away at the end of the tunnel, so we couldn’t exit there. We’d have to merge back into traffic. And no one in that bumper-to-bumper barrier was going to let us in. Mucklemouth was already out of the tunnel, so we sped up. Tremendous pressure was building behind us, cars jockeying to get back into the proper lane, cars pushing us forward, a million near-misses, all encouraged by the prickly morning heat. The Sperm sped up. It was suicide, an insane plunge into the hole at the end of the construction lane. An overheated, overcrowded death. No less than what I deserved.
But they shot the gap. When I opened my eyes, the tunnel was spitting us out onto the damp roadway, tires squealing. Mucklemouth was idling at one of the stoplights. The Sperm wriggled through three lane changes, spurting ahead of the pack. They wanted plenty of momentum.
I never really should’ve snubbed my Sperm, so I don’t really blame them for the wreck. Some things in life are thicker than water or blood. Anyway, it doesn’t matter anymore. Mucklemouth’s name and address are on the accident report. We’re calling her tonight. None of the best things in life are perfect.