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Man in a Barrel

Vi Khi Nao

for Taylor Swift as Books

They called him Keg, but he was closer to a tank or a drum. They didn’t call him a barrel because a barrel behaved, in its raw essence, like a round man dancing in extreme slow motion with no motion a frozen hoopla hoop around his corpulent bodice. A barrel has metal hoops and technically holds 36 imperial gallons of beer in his blood stream. When Loin walks into the bar, she smelled of fear and she kissed Keg’s lips with that fear. And, because she kissed Keg with that fear, it followed him around his days like a cloud that threatened to storm, but rarely did. It followed him into the bathroom until the fear became him, a man in a barrel. At the bottom of that barrel was sediments, erosion of his life before it slowly departed from him. As if his life had been transported by ice, particles of wind and snow, and collected protein specks and clumpy yeast cells, its beer bottom façade suspended between wheat and cloud. He did not spend his entire life or consciousness in fermentation, but somehow, he was paralyzed from a stem cell down. Inside that barrel, he was a chill haze, unfiltered, leading an unmistakably wild boring life. It was wild like wheat because he couldn’t move. Everything about his body posture was a pretzel, spineless.

Once in a while, inside that predictable barrel, his other daughter, Taylor, would visit him. She would come to the hospital in hopes to sprinkle his shapeless knot with mustard or cinnamon or pistachio particles or brown sugar and sometimes semi-dark chocolate coated with jimmies, pearl sugar, and dragées. Near his bedside, Loin, his 2nd daughter, would whisper into his left ear, I could lick you, Dad, she would threaten him, but I won’t. I just won’t. Technically he wasn’t a cat. She couldn’t just lick his hair so they stayed flat and kempt. Whenever she saw him with the nurse hovering over him, checking on his vitals, she would sigh, “Oh, Dad!” Even in a barrel, his hair would stand up straight like the Russian military men at the border of Ukraine, waiting for war to begin. Even when the US threatened of grave consequences, this hair won’t just stand down. She wanted to lick his hair down, to try to make it lie flat like fur pancakes, to show him that love between a father and daughter was a brute event filled with fauna, demon, ogre, wildlife, not the lame, conventional kind that was pink, semi-innocent, cheesy, and infantile as seen and executed in Hollywood films.

She knew better. She believed that parental love should be theiromorphic and coarse. And, its primary function was to introduce her to the animality of men: that they roam the earth on all fours, not behaving like dirty dog or swine, but like wolves at the center of their priapic economy. When you live in a barrel like this, Dad, she imparted to him with each visit, I become a beer drinker even if I don’t want to. Especially when I think sparkling wine like Egly-Ouriet is much classier. While flipping through the digital page at the hospital, Loin read somewhere that Vicki Denig and Jesse Porter had declared that “grapes grown by the same estate that makes the wine” allow “for a cohesion of terroir.” Loin didn’t know what the word “terroir” meant. She suspected that it was a very close cousin of the word “terror.” Soil, topography, climate: it didn’t matter: her father was soaked inside his own natural environment: he was a product of what he had become. A stroke led him there and the stroke left him a terror in his own barrel.

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Vi Khi Nao is the author of seven poetry collections & of the short stories collection, A Brief Alphabet of Torture (winner of the 2016 FC2's Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize), the novel, Swimming with Dead Stars. Her poetry collection, The Old Philosopher, won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014.  Her book, Suicide: the Autoimmune Disorder of the Psyche will be out of 11:11 in Spring 2023. A recipient of the 2022 Jim Duggins, PhD Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize, her work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. She was the Fall 2019 fellow at the Black Mountain Institute: