the short story project


Karen Brennan | from:English


Photo: Edu Lauton

I was on my way to the bus stop when I saw the headless man. At first I thought it was a trick of the eye: I was wearing big dark glasses, possibly the head had been camouflaged by the dark trees behind the man. Surely, he couldn’t be headless. As I approached, however, I saw that he was indeed headless. There was scar tissue on his stump of neck and a little tube sticking out—for eating or breathing or both, I figured. He was wearing an orange tee shirt and he was tending the university grounds with a weed whacker. Geez, I thought. A headless man.

It was very hot that day. I was walking along without a water bottle and it’s likely that I missed the bus—I had no schedule—and would have to wait. I distracted myself from these concerns by wondering about the headless man. How had it happened? He was either born that way (poor mother) or it was an accident. I shuddered to think of the accident that might have befallen the headless man. How was it that he was able to live without a head, without a brain, eyes, ears, nose, mouth? How did he communicate? Possibly the headless man talks out of his ass—I chuckled to myself at the idea of a deep, articulate rumble coming from the headless man’s ass. At any rate, he was gainfully employed. Without a head, he was managing to do a nice job on the flower borders. His body was well-toned, muscular, youngish; the orange tee shirt was well worn but clean, likewise the sport shoes. I’d had a good look.

I waited for a long while at the bus stop, as predicted. I was really parched. I imagined asking someone for a drink of water, but no one was there. How would it be to ask a stranger for a drink of water? I decided that if someone came with a water bottle I’d ask them to dribble a little on my tongue. I’d really do that, I was that thirsty. I thought I would faint.

Then two people did come, one was a young woman without a visible water bottle and the other was the headless man, who sat next to me, and who had a water bottle. What a dilemma! He squirted water on each of his arms, first one, then the other, and he rubbed the water into his tanned skin. I wanted to lick his arm. He also smacked some water on his neck stump. This headless man had water to burn.

Finally the 3 came and all of us got on. I took a seat beside the young woman who was a grad student in biology. All day she worked in the lab. No summers off for us, she said. Then she opened a book and our conversation stopped. The headless man settled himself near the driver in the space reserved for disabled people. Well, he was disabled, after all. He had no head and who knows how he did anything useful in life.

During this time I had a boyfriend called Mitchell. He was a nice enough guy but I couldn’t seem to muster up any real passion for him. God knows I tried. We had been dating for ten years and we did the things couples do—dinners, movies, sex—but deep inside I was unmoved. It was as if my heart were a block of ice or a hill covered with thorns. From time to time I fretted about this situation with Mitchell, but mostly I ignored it. Who has the right to be blissfully happy? Certainly not me.

Now the headless man and I happened to exit at the same stop. Amazingly, he pulled the cord before I did. I followed him out. He walked across the street, which happened to be the way I was going, so I kept following. He was very resolute in his walk which I like in a man. I had forgotten all about my thirst. I tried to keep up with the headless man, but he took two steps for every one of mine, he was walking that fast. He raced to the curb to avoid a car whereas the same car almost hit me. I felt like a fool.

That night Mitchell and I had plans to see a movie but as usual we couldn’t decide which one. In this, as in everything, we were on different pages. He enjoyed a rollicking comedy whereas I was partial to the art film. He liked sci fi stories about silly-looking creatures invading a human person’s bathroom mid-shave, whereas I liked movies about confused people trying to find their ways out of the morose hands that had been dealt to them, the kind of movie in which everyone is doomed. Mitchell and I were built differently, on different premises. The premise Mitchell was built on involved a double-wide barge plowing through a roiling ocean, whereas my premise involved the shadows of trees that were about to be felled.

We went to a comedy because, as usual, Mitchell gets his way. If he doesn’t he pouts. He has a very beautiful mouth and so the pout is not as annoying as you might think. Still, it’s a bore to be with someone who pouts, beautiful mouth or no, so I gave in to the comedy which would surely irritate me. I am that way with comedies. Something about someone trying to make me laugh: I resist. Mid-movie, I go to the concessions and buy more Junior Mints. There I see the headless man. It was too much; he was walking away from the concession stand with his popcorn and I would have given anything to have been behind him on line.

The funny thing is that no one seemed to pay much attention to the headless man. You’d think they would. Headless! It was as if this movie-going crowd had seen headless men every day of their lives. It was as if the headless man was no more unusual than, say, a woman with long blond hair. He was making his way to Theater 8 and on impulse I decided to go into that theater too. I was bored with the comedy. Mitchell laughed very loudly and occasionally slapped my leg, god knows what was so funny. The movie had been about two men who were friends and who got into trouble. The trouble was supposed to make you laugh. One man kept hurting himself. When I left the theater for the Junior Mints, that man was all bandaged up which was also supposed to be funny. But here was the headless man headed into Theater 8 which featured just my kind of movie, one in which two women sit on a bed and talk for hours and in between talking they try on clothes.

I sat directly behind the headless man and so of course I had a good view of the film. I noticed the little tube that protruded from his scar-knotted neck had been replaced with a larger transparent funnel and into this funnel the man fed kernels of popcorn. Very strange. The film was not sad so much as enigmatic. Who were these women and why did they pass their time so fruitlessly? was the question the film posed.

I had quite a time locating Mitchell in the parking lot after the movie. He was angry I had left the comedy and told me that, as usual, I had been rude. I told him all about the headless man because I thought he would be interested. I told him about the jagged neck stump and the funnel and the weed whacking job. Once I began talking I couldn’t stop. All my theories about the headless man poured forth. He must have a brain located somewhere since he is obviously functioning like a human. Perhaps he uses sign language. Maybe his brain was taken out of his body and frozen until they could transplant it some other place, like his thigh. He was really quite handsome otherwise, I said.

Stop, said Mitchell. You are talking nonstop so I will forget your bad manners. I don’t care about this so-called headless man. You don’t find it intriguing? I said. Mitchell opened the car door. Why would I? There are all kinds of freaks in this world, what’s one more? Unbelievable, I thought as Mitchell started the car by doing this annoying thing he does which is to rev the engine very loudly three times. Then he backed out and hit a car that was driving by. Son of a bitch, yelled Mitchell, leaping out of the drivers door and shaking his fist. Honestly, Mitchell was such a stereotype.

I decided to remain in the car so as not to be humiliated by Mitchell’s behavior. I turned on the radio and listened to the jazz station. Coltrane in the middle of playing My Favorite Things, which is very long, if you know the cut. Then Mitchell stopped yelling and Coltrane stopped playing. I decided to get out of the car and there, believe it or not, was the headless man. He was writing something on a pad of white paper and he jerked his neck toward me in a kind of friendly acknowledgment.

I swear to god, I think he remembered me from the afternoon bus stop. I smiled at his neck. Mitchell was still fuming, but he was fuming silently. The car was not so damaged—a broken taillight was all. The headless man resumed his writing, then put his hands together in a prayer-like gesture and bowed very respectfully to Mitchell. Mitchell scowled. There’s not much you can do when a headless man bows respectfully to you.

The headless man had written his name, phone number, license number and the name and number of his insurance company. After all the writing he’d drawn a happy face. It was very neatly executed. He’s obviously a gentleman, I said. What would you know about it? Said Mitchell. I must say these comedies do nothing to put you in a good mood, I remarked, which was a mistake, because Mitchell drove very fast which he knows makes me nervous. I was clutching the piece of paper the headless man had written on and by the time we got home it was all crumpled and damp from my nerves.

At home, I got to thinking: the headless man had left a phone number, but what does he do if someone actually calls? I asked Mitchell who rolled his eyes, which I could have predicted, and cracked open a beer. Then he surfed the channels in order to find another rollicking comedy. What’s the use? I said out loud, which was a mistake because Mitchell then said, What have I done now, what’s my latest infraction? I went into the bedroom and tried to read a magazine. But in the back of my mind, I was still wondering what would happen if a person telephoned the headless man. In the middle of an article about why men stray, I wondered what would happen if I telephoned the headless man.

I took the piece of paper from the dresser top and smoothed it out. The man’s name was Russ McCormack. Hello Russ, I imagined saying.

That night I dreamt about the headless man. In the dream he had a well-shaped, perfect head only it was made of stone, like the head of a famous statue by Michelangelo. Thus, he still couldn’t talk or make eye contact. He was weed whacking and I sat in the grass nearby looking at the sky which was filled with more heads, all sizes and shapes, a great variety of expressions on the faces—sad, angry, bored, sly, frightened, you name it. Then I woke up. Mitchell had already showered and was fixing his shirt collar in our mirror.

I spent most of the morning at my desk picking up the phone, dialing, then hanging up. In between I tried to write a poem which began the headless man’s head is in the clouds, but my heart wasn’t in it. It was so quiet. We’d turned the AC off and there were no dogs barking outside, no cars driving by, no mourning doves going cu-roo, cu-roo, nothing. I dialed the headless man’s number again, just to liven things up. The phone rang twice, then there was a soft click. I said, Russ? Russ are you there? I could hear the silence of his room at the other end of the phone, hear it turning over and beginning again. I listened for a long time. That silence went right to my soul. When I hung up, I could still hear it.

That night I ended it with Mitchell. I said what they tell you to say which is: This isn’t working for me. Mitchell looked stunned. He cracked open a beer and shook his head. Women are such fickle cunts, he said. He doesn’t usually talk like this, but he was mad, I understood that. The next day I left.

Funnily, I never encountered the headless man again. Once I thought I saw him in the grocery store, perusing the veggies, but this man’s head really was camouflaged against the red cabbages he was leaning over. I looked for him on the U grounds for a while, but then I thought, wait a minute, am I really thinking of having a relationship with a headless man? I don’t think so. So I stopped looking and that was that.



*Karen Brennan, “Headless” from Monsters. Copyright © date by Author. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books,