My dogs strain at the yoked leash I was so clever to buy. I dream of a free hand for my phone or a coffee cup, to wave at neighbors, flip off speeding teens. A stinky bush next to me suggests skunk. I scan for the varmint, but instead find a stain on the asphalt, not unlike the hundred other oil puddles in my driveway. I peer closer. It’s dark red.
I look over my shoulder for a neighbor I could call witness to this sticky offense. My dogs jerk me forward, but the yanking doesn’t distract me from what’s in my periphery: There’s a head perched on the cab of my pickup. It sits tilted left, tongue out, one oozy eye open, the other squeezed close in a gross, flirtatious wink.
Last October, I was met with a month of specters of jazz musicians. They were off-key, off-beat. They stayed up all night, and so did I because of it. Buddy Rich on my porch. Jelly Roll Morton in my tub. Lady Day across from me at breakfast.
The year before, nothing but bugs: bugs in my bed, bugs in my shoes, bugs in my Rice Chex. But nothing has topped a decade ago when I woke every night with a series of prairie children in bonnets or suspenders squeezing my hand, cold fingers slipping from my clammy ones as they whispered, “Protect your family.”
I guess this year it’s severed heads.
Something about that one on my truck right now seems familiar. Is it the nose? I run down a list of celebrities, imagining each face distorted into a pus-filled mess on top of my truck. No matches. But, still—it’s downright familiar.
Someone calls my name, and my attention turns from the nasty noggin to the origin of the voice. Shit. I’d recognize that cackle anywhere. It’s my landlady, Skinny Lynnie, her shrill nasal tone an accusation in itself.
I keep walking. That’s how much I hate Skinny Lynnie; avoiding her is more urgent than investigating the dead head on my pickup.
The dogs huff. I break into a jog for two blocks. We enter the park, heading to our usual weather-worn bench by the scummy pond. My heart slows. I unclip the dogs’ leashes, and they race to the water.
Daisy swims out as far as she usually does and then does a few dolphin dives while Fat Sam paddles in circles closer to shore. Daisy the Deep-Diver is down there a good long while. Too long. I’m about to get up and go in after her when she breaks the surface. Her teeth clutch a large, sopping sphere.
Both dogs paddle back to shore. Fat Sam paces the waterline, shaking off fish-stinking droplets into a shaft of sunlight, catching an inverted rainbow.
Daisy brings it to me, dropping the gift at my feet with a thunk.
Though now waterlogged and blue, I’d recognize it anywhere: the same gruesome orb from on top of my truck. Pond water leaks from a puncture below the gift’s eye socket, and I lurch. Daisy barks at me, then at the head.
Through the swelling, I take note of the nose and finally place the familiar face: Ross Fucking Perot, Presidential Candidate, 1992.
Fat Sam wanders over and slurps at the dead man’s swollen ear. Ross Perot’s eye snaps open. “Will you stop that?” His wrinkly stare darts to me. “Hey. You. Tell your dog to quit it.”
I call Daisy to my side. Ross Perot’s head sighs in relief, and mechanically starts reciting his script: “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to tell you about my plan for an electronic direct democracy, you see—”
I edge away slowly, whistling for the dogs to follow.
“Hey there,” Ross Perot calls as I walk away. “Let me finish. Let me finish.”
Back at the apartment, I pull out my keys. The dogs whimper at the door. I hear my name and startle. It’s Skinny Lynnie, standing there in her matted bathrobe. She rants about a broken pipe and tenant responsibility. As she turns to leave, she jerks her thumb over her shoulder, and says, “There’s a man in there for you. Says he’s your brother.”
I open the door, and the dogs scurry inside. There on my couch sits Bill Clinton. But not svelte, global ambassador Bill Clinton. This is red-faced, puffy, 1992-Arkansas-Governor Bill Clinton.
“If there’s a theme for the day,” I say, tossing my keys on the dining room table, “then you’re in the wrong place. You’re not dead yet.”
“But I am.” says a voice from under the table.
A fully zombified George H.W. Bush crawls into view. Bill helps him to his feet and brushes dust off the shoulders of his decayed suit.
Then, from behind me: “Ma’am, you didn’t let me finish.” Oh, that wet whine. I roll my eyes, turn, and see Ross Perot’s head held aloft by Skinny Lynnie, who’s wearing a pointy black hat and a witch’s sabbath smile. Smoke billows from her mouth. I breathe in the ghost of electoral politics past.
Bill sidles over, doing his thumbs-up-for-emphasis thing, says in Lynnie’s voice, “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
Finally, someone making a play for my cicada shell soul.
I’d pictured more build-up. I wanted to be offered butter or a pretty dress, to hedge, pigeon-toe, lash flutter. I wanted to trip through a leafless forest, the sky pinned up by thumbtack stars. A silver moon. The smell of rust on a rattling breeze. A hot belly full of rollercoaster fear.
But what do I get? Politicians.
Bill Clinton flashes a Good & Plenty smile. Daisy pisses on the rug. Skinny Lynnie’s bathrobe gapes. I guess this’ll do.
“Yes, yes. A thousand times yes.”
They hold me to it. George and Ross’s heads roll over to me. Bill rubs his belly, and it’s time. They take me, and I hold the heads in my arms. Bill and Lynnie sing to me. Chant to me. Like I’m the only one.
Holding the heads is heavy work, but to sing and be sung to is more than enough. Tepid water spills onto the floor. Daisy growls. I call her name, but my mouth is full of words I don’t know—
To live deliciously is to take what isn’t yours.