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Portrait of the Artist as an Octopussy

Peter Fernbach

Sheltered from a sub-zero morning in the Rust Belt, Stick-Figure-Rich pulled out two chairs at a corner table in Bellhop Bagels, eyeing his coke-svelte companion for steadiness. She scissor-kicked into the seat unbuttoning her Catgirl trench coat and nearly fell out of the scarlet-sado-bodice she’d worn for the show. Her movements were more coordinated now and those aqua cosplay cat eyes focused on one thing at a time, so he let his mind wax oceanic and wander through the tessellated frost of the windowpane to the snowy half-moon visible over a decommissioned axle factory across the parking lot. He sensed the baby-kicks of lyrics about the glowing lunar pearl that makes crazy, but that butterfly flew as he mistook the cracked headlights of a little Kia for a cop’s spotlight.

“No more pukies?”

“Meh. Up and down.” Flashing suddenly overhead was that packed rainbow pill tray that rattled when they’d smash potholes in the van.

Her slumped post-gymnast frame perked and shaky lips lifted in an after-party rendition of the Joker smile triggered by a fresh target. “That girl is exactamundo my typo,” Her crosshairs were trained on the so-tagged Oxytocin O’Connor, now prone over a steaming fresh batch of bagel-holes. “Wanna get mass destruction way up inside that spirity cheerleader. Hit that red fucking button—POW!” Glittering eyes exploded manga-wide and jazz hands shimmered with the rocket’s red glare.

“Think you’ll sleep on the way to Chicago?”

An avocado slice wheedled down her chin and tinked in the crinkly wrapper. She wagged her head like a kid in a high chair. “Can’t. Gotta finish the film score. Film score. Film score. Film score!” Hand wave. “Director Sucks-a-Dick sends me bitchy texts like every five nanoseconds! Euphora, what are you screwing someone?! Euphora, where’s my score?!” Lightning shot from her eyes to her white-knuckled phone. She stabbed it in his face. “Three more already!”

The phone was smashed down judge-style and forgotten instantly. “Look at that girl move.” She purred with gin-gravel, zeroing in on the baby-blue crest of a bikini bottom receding into the jet black of flossing hips. “We’re gonna do shock and awe on that slut and drop her sloppy for the school bell hahaha!”

The inky laughter cascading through the place got squelched as a budding family of three issued in the chill accompanied by whirls of melting snowflakes.

Cloud of whiskey and reverb nearly smothered, Euphora bravely persisted. “Think she’s as flexible as Iyyyam?”

He looked at his watch, smarming. “She’s what, 17, and working at a bagel shop at 5:37 A.M. for car insurance? I don’t think she’s had the advantages or training you did, dear.”

She batted those eyelashes like the starlet he knew she was. “Yeah, so thankful daddy insisted upon gymnastics with the feeder team, Kung Fu with the Shaolin, and piano lessons at the conservatory for all his little girls.”

The three bundled customers waddled toward the counter with daddy-bundle putting down the small kaleidoscopically clad girl-bundle to toddle sea-legged on her own.

“Oh God-damnit don’t stand there. Awww… not there!” Her voice accelerated with panic as The Bundles eclipsed the guileless smiles of the golden bunned, cap-brimmed target. “And the solid citizens block the view!” she announced. The sleepless marionette lines around her glossy lips quivered in pain. “Antagonist!”

Teeth-rattling metallic shockwaves wobbled the windows followed by ceramic fractures and goopy gurgles. The target shrieked and howled to the back. “Goddammit Macie, stop jerking off and get your lazy ass up here!”

“Shit, that sucked,” Euphora had lost some predatorial edge, rubbing circles into the squiggly lines of her forehead. “Fucking frying pan to the prefrontal.” Her voice trilled with the irony of one who’d slayed all night on electric violin and drank liquor till 5.

Both hands squeezing poison out of her head, she corkscrewed and squeaked like she’d choked down botulism with Spaghetti-Ohs. “Why does this happen to me?!”

“What’s going on?”

She ran her hands through her baby-fine raven’s hair. “Dopamine nosedive. Hot vomit. I’m missing part of my head!” Beads dewed on her corpse-blue forehead and her eyes wandered around in the sockets. “What am I gonna do?!” Her shoulders incaved like a pouty doll.

“Last time sex helped…”

He rubbed her knee, calculating how long this attack might last.

In the morning gauze of their mission, The Bundles drowsily pored over options until one uproarious croak triggered the daddy’s searchlight. His piqued boilerplate face confessed in a blink the blur of high school parties that left him Livin’ on a Prayer with buyer’s remorse. An orbicular belly pointed toward alimentary pleasures and bloodless slitty eyes darted in Daedalean despair. The stiff haired Mommy-bundle grasped the daddy’s forearm and pointed to his now limited menu options.

“You’re right,” she cried. “I need you inside me or I’m gonna fucking die.” She diked avocado-vomit in her throat and gripped his arm under the table, jamming him up her skirt. “You know what to do.”

He did.

Her topography morphed with competing palpations of pleasure and pain. “Oh fuck that’s a little better. Oh fuck. Push up. Push up you fucker.”

He did.

“Oh shit, I got it. Keep going.”

Her face spread with lift from the riot below. Breath steadied, she fiddled with her black satchel. “Oh thank god. Thought I left it in the van.” She held up a not insignificant vial of brainfreeze for the whole world to see and poured the contents into her hand. An Olympic inhalation later, she shivered like the newly winged shirking a dripping chrysalis. Blood flooded her highland cheekbones and the sloppy job left her looking like a nipper who’d taken a faceplant in a dandelion patch.

“Damn.” The songbird warble had fluttered back to her voice and she took a pull from a flashy flask. “And don’t you fucking worry.” She sixth-sensed his anxiety. “These shits can’t see anything with these plastic tablecloths. Just do it.”

He did.

She grasped at him nails and all under the table. He couldn’t quite sync with her rhythm though, catching the eyes of the cagey Bundles approaching with plastic breakfast trays. The daddy unzipped revealing a collared shirt and a glossy nametag from a retail electronics outlet. He emitted investigative verve from ratty eyes.

“Oh fuck” she exclaimed in non-sequitur thinky tone. “That’s it! You hear that!”

His face said no, half upturned, half downsagged.

The Bundles smiled with the warmth of fresh bread, closing the investigation of a bright young girl who was obviously having a morning epiphany before heading off to the college orchestra after coming back from Comic-con or something. She dusted off her shoulder as he made a wet exit.

“F# minor add thirteen. Gimme a pen!” She found it herself in the satchel and scrawled a private script on whatever. “Yeah, that’s the whole second movement.” She hand-collaborated with an invisible friend, fingers flying over keys that were but were not there. “Yeah, right, with a little of that Batalamenti shit for distraction then, boom!” Chord changes were pounded out in thin air and shimmering runs were channeled onto a brownish recycled napkin.

“Wipe yer face.”

She did and continued oscillating madly between air keys and scorched napkins.

The Bundles selected the table directly behind the musicians to loaf and gaze at lightening skies.

“Would you grab the bottle, darling?!” Mama-Bundle’s bony finger indicated the duffle bag of kid stuff as stiffly as her tone indicated that she was not asking. Daddy-Bundle quibbled pointing at a waxy cup but Mama-Bundle opposed that nonsense and stared through the retail worker.

“Hi baby!” Euphora sensed the gaze of the swaying little Bundle sponging her surroundings and mirrored back that shining smile with maximum tongue. “Hey Puddle Stomper!” she said, totally ignoring the adults. “How’s your Monday?! I’m writing. Do you like music?! I’m a musician, see?!” She held up multiple napkins to the curious toddler who beamed perplexed delight. “That’s Music! It, like, banishes all your suffering!” She blew a messy raspberry—plew!—and got a giggle. The little girl held up her prized Cicada shell.

The Parent-Bundles dutifully draped their parkas round chairs and situated Kid-Bundle next to Mama. Shaking off her restraints, her arms windmilled, hoodie exclaiming in mirror sequins—Explode Every Day! She pulled her pig tails with anticipation and licked her lips at the eight-layer german torte on deck, humming a favorite cartoon jingle. The spectacle the child created buzzsawing through the multiple layers of sponge cake and buttercream with gremlin chortles magnetized and monopolized the sensory milieu of the place. Even the angels of harmony were silenced as the girl sucked hard on her lips like a late-in-the-shake straw pull. Finishing, her physiology bent sour. Then came a noise, squishy and grindy.

“Oh mama. Oh mama.”

Everyone knew, but Mama persisted. “What happened, lovey?”

“Oh Mama, I did a baddy in my panties” her angelic lilt slurred into a siren of loathing.

The Bundles whirred into emergency procedure. “Honey, Daddy’s gonna change you.”


Hot angst burnt the Mama’s shaking face. She drilled pain into the daddy. Synchronically, the musicians knew there’d be a murder. But with tombstone palor on carving board face, the mama shouldered the bag and the child and headed to the restroom with soldier stomps.

Deflated, the daddy tapped his hollow head, groaning a lament to no one and everyone.

“‘Nother day in Paradise, Buster?!” offered Euphora, thrown from her cloud.

The daddy arched his back slowly grinding his coppery teeth. Defiantly, he pulled on his jacket and went out into the cold to light a cigarette. He upturned his collar in James Dean imitation and kicked his oxfords a little in the snow.

“I hate that guy” said Euphora, loud enough for him to hear. She shifted around, agitated, distracted, having lost the seraphic frequency. “Fuck, it’s gone. What’s the third movement now,” her voice buttery but despondent. “I got nothing. Nothing. It’s. His. Fault. Guy’s a black hole. People like that suck everything out of me. Hey, what's that smell?”

Mopping the last splotch of chipotle mayonnaise, Rich did notice an acrid formaldehyde-like vapor twirling into his nostrils.

“No way. You don’t think?!”

The Daddy-Bundle started hopping around like a prize fighter.

“Oh my god, that guy’s an upright fucking suicide. A pussy fucking ghost just hovering through and spreading the decomposing stink. He’s smoking meth on his way to sell TV’s haha!” She snorted then got real composed and thinky, purring again. “You know, sometimes the torturer’s joy is the greatest. Mnemonics of pain and all that. Watch me exact a pound of flesh hahaha!”

The Daddy-Bundle extracted from the oversized jacket a toothbrush, mouthwash, and hand sanitizer, using each in turn in a private cleansing ritual.

“Too. Fucking. Easy.” She mouthed with flying saucer eyes.

Daddy-Bundle came right back in and sat back down in his assigned seat, a spry schoolboy ready for a lesson.

“Hey Buster, wifey like that you’re a meth head?!”

Evermore shrunken and evacuated, the daddy turned back to face his executioner.

“I’m gonna rip that shit outta your pocket and burn it in front of your wife if you don’t follow orders, fraud.”

She sprung from her chair performing a half-windmill body twist, gagging him in a leather headlock with her left arm and locking his arms to his body with a wraparound embrace. Her nails dug into the crook of his left arm for paralyzing nerve pain, Y vein pistoning out of his head. Trapped, he croaked an arid “Why?”

“Cuz after they cut your throat open to slice out a tumor that’s curling around your tongue, the only real question is why not.”

Without mercy, she dug into screaming nerves, palsying his left side.

“It’s not all bad though, pawn. I’m the wettest nightmare you’ll ever have.”

She felt his oily tongue squirm against her leather.

“I want you to cum in my hand so I can spread it on breakfast. I’d rather eat you alive, but this’ll do. All you have to do to get out of this disgrace is to say ‘Yes Queen. Thank you, Queen.’”

He did so, slobberingly bit-tongued. She eased her grip, monitoring for a twitch of dissension.

“Good dog.” She said looking down at the broken. Happy pitter-patter came from the restroom hallway. “We gotta hustle now, Champ. And if you don’t cum I’m still gonna burn you alive in front of the fam.”

Sensing full compliance in the abstracted eyes and submissively hung head, she administered three cannon blows to his obliques sending around the region preemptive erotic shocks. She liberated coccyx constraints and recovered appearances, slipping back into her chair just as cheery footfalls criss-crossed the room.

“Wifey can’t see shit, Chief,” she whispered to the window. “Just relax and enjoy your lucky day. I’m a pro.”

Wrapping her arm around his right side to cup the caballero, she found herself pleasantly surprised with the distended response.

“Thanks for your help,” said the wife, dropping the bag hard. “You haven’t eaten anything?”

The girl sat and poked her little digits at stray choco shreds, sipping the bottle, bopping like a buoy.

The world of appearances unfolding above, Euphora’s secret tendrils explored the bristling thicket of her victim’s concealed skin. She squeaked like a party favor as a familiar warmth folded into her spongy palisades and coursed straight to the base of her shivering spine.

The counter girls scanned the place for tasks, having finally cleared the mess.

“Something wrong, Gerald? You don’t look right. You been dreaming about woofers for the El Camino again?!”

Her fingers plotted a course up his muscularity over the cavernous artery and straight to the mountaintop where she was greeted by a pearl of pre-paradise. The graphic novelty of the three-bodied beast set her whole surface to emanating waves of paresthetic white caps and she felt herself expanding as an infinitely-limbed creature of pitchless depths.

Macie and Oxy played deckhands if-onlying a spot to scrub.

“You message another Bumble slut so you can lie to me about ‘working’?!”

Tablecloth trembling from accusational force, her dewy palm worked hard on the crenulated washboard of his extended self. The rowing motion inside her kindled a glowing illumination that circulated gulf stream currents through her ocean’s depths.

Soon her deep wells of corpuscular pleasure sang in choric joy, joining theirselves into a single organism of I melting with us dissolving with you synthesizing all the gems of my insides screaming to burst forth.

Oxy tipped her cap to Macie in agreement.

“Seriously?! You’re just going to drool like a mad man and not say a god-damn word?!”

Her innermost bulb now pulsated with the heat of a supernova bathing her and the whole underwater stratospheric everywhere-self in medicinal waves of healing colorlight. In delirium, the whole pulsating thing rocketed toward a celestial daisychain of everlinked space-time belting out in one originary forevernow.

Flung into this choral joy with all-things, she barely noticed the base of his bliss give that tell-tale tremor.

Oxy traversed the place in her matter-of-fact kicks to squeak out a smudge on a windowpane.

“What’s that smell?! No. No you didn’t. One heart attack isn’t enough for you, asshole? For God’s sake say something!”

Caught between worlds, spittering, sputtering he did. “I. Love. My. Apple. Fritter.”

Paradise poured forth. The surprise spattering brought her back. Resigned again to assuming the responsibility of her limbs, she withdrew. Oddly, the whole body still shook.

Washcloth and squirt bottle in hand, the sleepless teenager upsucked the entire quanta of air in the room into her vigorous pink lungs and belted forth the alarm. “Pervert! Guy’s got his dick out! Macie call the cops!” She hopped the counter for the phone.

The accused issued a string of blurred sounds ending in a garbled broken sentence.“I’m sick. Oh, god I’m sick.” Choking on fragmentary phonemes, he struggled to sit up. His hands grabbed at his head like it was imploding with the decompositional force of termites tunneling around his insides. He slowly slumped down the chair to collapse in an epilepsy.

“His heart! His fucking heart gave out!” The mother cleared the table and hammered his chest. “Not your fucking heart again, Gerald!’”

A nebulous violet-black blob spread around his head. “Bitch,” cried Euphora. “That’s no heart attack. That’s an aneurysm!”

“His tongue!” shouted the schoolgirl. She dropped the phone, hurdling the counter. “Grab his tongue!”

Rich ran to the little girl falling off her high chair, failing to save her from a hard knock on the linoleum. Through a squirming jungle mist of tears and punches, he propped her against a drink cooler. The three women pushed, pulled, and breathed into the man. Flashing lights outside were followed by a flood of flak-jacketed EMS responders. The whir of a gurney and buzz of the two-ways drowned everything and blanketed the place in official interest. Two mommish cops took custody of the girl, checking her head for wounds.

He disappeared down a hallway that faded in and out, warping in shape and shifting in shadow. Then he found himself staring at that little neglected ring of shit in the men’s room toilet as blood-red chunks thumped the porcelain. Then appeared Officer Oslo and his absurd eraserless pen in his ham hand looming over him, scribbling a translation of events on an equally preposterous tiny yellow pad. He fired a battery of questions from behind his badge. “Did you know the man?,” “Did the man say anything to you?,” “Did you see any illicit drug use?,” “Why might there be bruises on his abdomen?,” “Did you witness indecent exposure?” By the time the man and his family had been sped to Mercy hospital and the cops and girls were closing Bellhop with police tape, he’d unconsciously signed off on a report that chalked up P3 and P4 as innocent bystanders of a sex crime and witnesses of the untimely collapse of the perp with P4 incorrectly identifying a stroke an aneurysm but in which neither P3 nor P4 played any more substantial role.

Once the crime scene was cleared of all but two steaming cop cars and the girls were recovering themselves in the restroom, Rich kicked a lonely path in the snow with his worn out boots in the numbing air and gripped the wheel like one suspended over a precipice. She shambled out, locking eyes with him the whole time and creaked open the passenger door, foundering for a moment on the running board.

“J’ya bang ‘er on the sink?”

“Not funny.” She expostulated exhaustedly. “Go.”

He pulled the cargo van out into a labyrinth of teetering warehouses surrounded by gleaming fences topped with shimmering barbed wire. A pastiche of plywood building patches zipped by. The chic angles of broken window glass glinted. An occasional CONDEMNED sign added a colorful streak. The world’s formerly finest steel foundry struggled against the upgrowth dragging it earthward.

“Aw shit!” she shot out. He slowed, expecting the need for a further deposition at the precinct.

“I haven’t taken any meds since Friday!”

She hopped the console and gophered through heaped bags. Landing back in the passenger seat, she shook the prismatic pillbox packed with unnameable mystery synthetics like it was hand percussion. “Well no fucking wonder I’m acting like a maniac! Haven’t taken my brainkillers!”

He piloted the creaking vehicle up a windy Interstate onramp as she gulped down a psychoactive stew with a howeverold half frozen bottle of Gatorade. Moments later, her eyes were fluttering with inner visions and her head hung lapward performing half-orbits on visible neck tendons. Not ten minutes into a smooth sleigh ride, rubbernecking motorists forced a sudden brake at a black ice catastrophe, jerking her awake.

“Careful mister! Not my time yet. Let’s get a room and snugz. Tell the guys we’ll meet ‘em tomorrow.”

“Can’t. We’d never make it.” he gestured to the rearview where a blacktide rolled over the landscape, looming over the lake and bookending the horizon.

“Hmph,” she half-looked and huffed, sulky. “I’ll never understand how you drive after a show.”

“Just riding the wave. Neurochemistry’s all abuzz, you know?”

“Mmmmmhhhhmmmmm.” She cooed in a sleepy cocoon. “So that’s why you always taste better in the hours after stepping offstage.”

The broadside of a brainlessly piloted tractor trailer threatened to knock on his door and the van crossed the white line into untread ice piles.

“How you feeling?”

“Bout what?!”

“The guy. The cops. The morning. The girl. Fuck, I dunno. Everything.”

“Meh. Pain is the best teacher I ever had. Somebody learned something.”

“What if he lives and, like, says something?”

“Oh, he’ll live. But he won’t say anything. I’d cry and accuse him of molesting me. Imagine how stupid his story would sound given the evidence. And no one’s gonna press charges on him after that. They’ll all be glad he’s alive.”

A series of caravanned vehicles took an exit, unveiling a straightaway to the forward-moving horizon.

“You got that third movement?”

“Oh that son of a bitch! Yeah, sorta.”

Her senses were absorbed in the blank glory of enveloping whiteness.

“It’s like a piece I did in college. Winds transpose a gypsy scale over harmonic minor strings. Erratic descending microtones from the hornies gives you this kinda jellyfish floating to the bottom of the ocean feel. Has to get dark. You know, plot. Arrows fly, arrows fall.”

The tires sped through exhaust-blackened slush in perfect peace.

“Know what I really hate about this film?”

That chipotle mayonnaise crept back up his throat.

“Girl gets railed by her dad.”

Infinitesimal flakes cascaded over the windshield in braided, merging helixes.

“I don’t give a fuck about that. But, like, have some originality. Lotsa awful things happen to little girls for fuck’s sake. Be an original fucking human.”

The whiteness of the snowglobe world washed over her and she was soon sailing the calm seas of the innocent. Snowy backyards with their accompanying cozy cottages and swirls of hearthsmoke unfolded mile by mile straight through the first signs for Toledo when she morning-sprawled and traded contacts for those oversized violet-tinged glasses she loved. Pen in hand, she gingerly organized the victimized napkins from the bagel shop, and for a timeless two hours, conducted the chamber orchestra in her head with all the sunbeam-riding serenity he’d felt in her telling of the little girl’s wide-eyed experience of her first time with the philharmonic’s first violin and the initiation into the colors of sounds and the textures of harmonies and that dizzying premonitory throb of pleasures to unfold for a lifetime after finally finding the key to transmuting fatal flesh into a channel for magic: a horizonless plane into which she was immersed and was committed to dispersing long before that same little girl would find what men like and are like and find the need to  transmute that into something other.

“Done!” she spat as the signs for Chicago assumed only double digits and the frozen sun was showing signs of falling under the horizon. “Play time!” She clicked the pen closed for the day and excavated the chemical accessories that were rarely out of reach.

Sounding almost like an entirely different person than moments ago, she teased with an erotic riddle. “Betcha can’t guess which next week’s birthday girl gets to have her tonsils tickled before gliding into Chi-Raq?!”

“Ohhhh.” His descent from tenor to baritone straight down to bass signaled an unexpected disappointment. “I was actually kinda hoping for something else.”

“Oh you were, criminal?!”

“And I quote…” His eyes assumed an anarchic gleam. “Tis a joy forever to fuck a farting woman, all those merry pops and cracks… or something like that.”

“You’re such a fucking pervert, you gross me out sometimes, you know.” She fake-hid her face against the window.

“But you like meeting new people and trying new things, don’t you?”

She full stopped her razzy act, slithering back in his direction. Her hand kittled up his leg, creeping crotchward. “You might have to buy me a drink, but I want you to turn me inside out and lick the slick out of my thrumming, humming heart and drink from my nacreous liver, you sick reflection of my de-mon-strous self.”

When her hand finally disinterred his most sensitive flesh, peels of black laughter concussed the space.

“Wait. Wait. Wait. What was it that Sergeant Standard-brain said about the cause of the catastrophic brain bleed?”

“Something about stress, guilt, amphetamines, blood pressure, prior history…”

“No, after that. Right as we left.”

“Oh, yeah.” He laughed in remembrance. “He said the answer was pretty simple.” Rich mimed the confident head nod of the Sergeant who looked ready to file this one away in the archives and head off to a fresh disaster.

“Well that’s just fucking classic isn’t it?! This his cell, right?” She held up the austere little rectangle with the police department seal. “Just gonna shoot Dude a little wink emoji before we get the party started.”

⬡ ⬡ ⬡

Peter Fernbach is a Creative Writing teacher at SUNY Adirondack and Ph.D. candidate at SUNY Albany. He is the author of The Blooming Void (BlazeVox Books) and his work has appeared or in Identity Theory, English Journal, and Fiction War Magazine.