Maniac Island

by Mark Kline

Wilfred is explaining star structure while munching on Italian almond cookies. His teeth are continually exposed. Immaculate teeth. I am watching his mouth, which I feel entitled to do, as often as he eats here. He talks while chewing, and vice versa. Either he frowns like he just bit into a tarantula, or he stretches his lips into what I have acknowledged to Gina must be a smile.

He could be mistaken for an Italian. He combs his wavy black hair forward from a volcanic whorl on the back of his skull. But he is from Germany. Or as he once explained, "Actually, Schleswig, or actually the Wadden Sea, on an island full of birds flying over all the time, migrating, always migrating! A maniac island! And you can wade through the sea over to it!" An Italian would have illustrated this with his hands, but it was Wilfred's head that tilted to watch the flight of the birds, his chin that pointed the way to the island.

For supper Gina fixed smoked ham with rice flour dumplings, his favorite childhood dish. Her goal was to put him in a positive frame of mind.

"We need another outlook on this situation," she explained to me yesterday, "and you know how intelligent Wilfred is. And he's not afraid to say exactly what he thinks."

"Yeah," I said, "neither was Hitler."

So here we sit after supper, around our kitchen table. This is where Wilfred keeps us up-to-date on reality. Coffee, cookies and cold stars. I can just see Wilfred on Letterman's show. "All right, everyone in the audience who believes the universe was once the size of a beach ball, raise your hands!" Gina can't stand Letterman. He reminds her of half of the boys in the fifth-grade class she teaches. Not the better half.

She says she is concerned about my condition, very concerned, and she should be. I'm hauling in most of the bacon around here. But I know she' s hoping for more than advice. She wants an Explanation. She wants Insight. Enlightenment. And Wilfred the physics teacher has Theories that cover it all.

To tell the truth I want to hear Wilfred's spiel too -- what's he going to say about a man who for three days now has been hearing the same country song two-step through his brain, day and night, not one single pause in the action, not one variation in a solo, not one warble left unwarbled? Maybe he'll lick his teeth and tell us that one of those microscopic black holes floating around the galaxy has entered my brain and the song keeps skipping off its horizon like a stuck record. That it's sucking my brain up, too, and will continue to do so until the end of time, provided the universe stops expanding, but it doesn't appear to be, please pass the cookies.

I used to listen to country music before we were married. Gina is against it in principle -- "It's for birdbrains, minus the brains," she says. After hearing a man wail about a waitress with a ribbon in her hair a couple hundred times a day, I see her point. This song contains two chords. The electric bass plays a total of three distinguishable tones. By contrast the melody is a fountain of variety, a real gusher. The whole thing smells, no kidding. I passed through the kitchen while Gina was working on the ham and took a big whiff during the second line of the first verse. Now every time that line comes around I sense a tinge of the ham's grittiness, like salty regret, deep in my nasal passages.

And then there's the ping-pong effect. I was in the bank yesterday to finalize a loan with old man Steerman, the bank vice-president. The butterflies in my stomach went stir-crazy during the last chorus, while I pretended to understand the fine print. Then when Steerman leaned over from his side of the desk to make damn sure I signed my life away on the right line, his Old Spice hit me like a trade wind. Now the end of the song sets the butterflies to flying in my gut again; then the aroma of this morning's toilet bowl cleaner fills the short pause before the intro kicks off again, which brings on the Old Spice. The long and short of it is, now I'm skittish about walking into the bathroom. Steerman may not be in there, but try telling that to my stomach.

And this morning. When I shut the mower down I drew in a long breath of cut grass. Best smell in the world. I felt great each time the end of the first verse came around. Now that's already been obliterated by Gina's vinegar cure for mildewed shower curtains, which drives me out of the house. Out of my mind. I wish I could drive out of my mind. There's a principle at work here that I'm sure Wilfred would enjoy explaining -- why everything in the universe tends to go to hell. I could stick a clothespin on my nose.

Gina sets her coffee cup down. "There's something Paul and I would like your opinion on, Wilfred. It's a...." She smiles at me, optimistically. "Well, a unique situation, really. Tell him, Paul."

I twine my fingers together and lean forward on the table. "Wilfred, it's like this. I keep hearing this song in my head, non-stop, twenty-four hours a day."

We sit for a moment. Wilfred looks at Gina and starts to laugh. Nothing he does is ever half-ass, I'll give him that. He's the only man I know who cackles. Gina strings him along with a smile. "Come on, Paul, really! Explain it to him!"

"All right then, let me put it this way. Wilfred, I keep hearing this song in my head, twenty-four hours a day, non-stop."

He lifts his eyebrows and begins to scrape the skin just below his lip with his upper teeth. He has a heavy beard. It must sound like a distant fire to him, the kind that makes you sniff the air to detect what's burning and from which direction. It could be a garage, an old house on an empty lot. The second verse ends. Next time around I bet I'll smell smoke, a sour, smoldering rotten wood fire. My eyes will water. The song zeroes in on disaster, imagined or other­wise. Fires spread so easily anyway.

"A song," he says. "What exactly."

He pauses, frowning. Then he turns to Gina. "A song?"

Gina takes over. "It's a country song. It keeps repeating itself over and over in his head and we can't do anything to stop it." She bites her lower lip, trying to think of what to say next. "I tried the hiccup cure. You know, coming up behind him and screaming. He jumped a mile."

Wilfred cackles. "OK, this is a joke!"

"Wilfred, you know I don't play jokes like this!" This is vintage Gina-flying-off-the-handle-in-a-civilized-manner. "I am so...angry, that something like this could happen! We don't even know what it is, for God's sake!" Gina never curses. "Is Paul sick? Is someone responsible? Who's going to help?"

The following silence pulses between the lines of the last verse. The front beat turns backbeatish. It's as if I were watching a film and suddenly it began showing as a negative print.

Finally Wilfred hmmm's a few times. "What song is it?"

Gina sighs. "He's not sure. He thinks he's heard it somewhere, but I haven't heard of it before."

"You mean, you've, what -- haven't heard it?"

"Of course I haven't heard it! He told me the title, I've certainly never heard it, but we don't listen to country music, you know that. When I say I haven't heard of it," she adds, in her clarifying, Wilfred-isn't-American voice. "I mean I've never heard it on radio or anywhere; I didn't know it existed. I haven't heard it or heard of it."

"OK, then how do you know, you know, that it really is a country song?"

"You know what country songs are like, Wilfred! All those idiotic hats! Tearjerkers, fiddles -- there is a fiddle in it, isn't there, Paul?"

"Look," I say, "why don't you go get the headphones and plug them in my ear, we'll all listen together." Gina glares at me.

"How long is it you're hearing this song in your head?"

"I woke up with it three days ago."

"OK. Maybe something really strange happened to you before, or something in your sleep you're not knowing about."

"Yeah, maybe I got beamed up by a UFO, maybe they redid my brain, left a wrench in or something." Which is not so far from the truth, only the UFO -- a parasite -- came down to me. Somehow it organically recorded the song and wormed its way into my mind. It's a space parasite, obviously. Earth parasites are millennia away from this type of capability.

Gina speaks in low, crisp syllables. "I wish you wouldn't act so childish and sarcastic, when we are concerned. When someone is willing to listen and possibly even help, and you think you're being witty."

"You're the one who believes in UFO's."

"Paul." The middle of the guitar solo slides by, knife-sharp. The sustain on the guitar clears the air between us. Her eyes play every note.

"What I'm getting at is, is where there's smoke you get fire," Wilfred says. "Songs aren't just creating themselves, you know."

"Why not, the universe did," I say.

"You have heard it somewhere, maybe!" He's rocking in his chair. "Maybe you're creating it out of your mind, in your unconscious. Maybe there are problems you're not knowing about, who knows, you don't even know! Why don't you visit a psychiatrist?"

Gina holds still, staring at a point beyond Wilfred. It's a dead giveaway. Either she's been thinking the same thing all along -- I had the feeling this morning when she slid out of bed, the way she turned away from me, that she might be thinking "shrink." Or -- the thought comes to me now -- maybe she has already let Wilfred in on all this, and their strategy was that he would play dumb for a while, then toss the suggestion out.

"Really, that might not be such a bad idea, Paul. It's possible a psychiatrist will have heard of something similar to this."

"Or tinnitus!" he points out. "You don't have to be nuts to have tinnitus!"

Gina jumps in. "Nobody's talking about nuts, Paul!"

Just as I thought. I'm at the last line of the last verse, and that eerie negative-printish feeling comes over me again, everything gets turned inside out. Everybody's talking about nuts, Paul. This parasite has a wonderful sense of timing, I'll give it that.

"Who knows!" Wilfred grins. "There may be several cases of people with some guy singing, you know, in their head. This doesn't have to be so weirdo."

"I never said it was 'some guy,'" I say.

"Gina said you didn't know who was the singer."

"I don't know who was...or is, I mean. I just never -- I never said...I mean I just said that I never said..." I stop. I could laugh right here, and if I did then Wilfred would laugh, then Gina would have to laugh, too. We could all be laughing right now. We could turn this into a real swinging party. But now the intro is over, and I'm distracted by the brackish odor of bird balls from outside our window. The smell of the future.

Gina sighs and rubs her temple. "We discussed seeing Dr. Simpkins, our GP, but we're not convinced he's the type of physician who would keep an open mind on something like this."

"Definitely. Definitely keep an open mind, and I know Simpkins, one of these guys on the Medical Arts bridge team, they go with the book, you know, never take a chance, forget him! Break your arm, great. Go to him. Tell him all day you're hearing a song in your head, you know, he can't help you. OK, maybe he'll say go to a psychiatrist but you already know that."

"We considered the possibility this is some sort of sicko joke, that someone stuck one of those tiny receivers behind Paul's ear last weekend. He filled in at Boy Scout camp. Really, some of those boys need a much more structured and caring environment at home. I've had several of them in class, I should know."

It had been her idea. A crazy one, I told her, but she insisted on searching my head. It reminded me of Mom checking for ticks, Gina's fingers gently pushing, parting tufts of hair and pausing, then moving on. It had felt soothing at first. But her fingers began rustling around impatiently, spider-like, as if I were hiding something from her. She began kneading my scalp with the flats of her thumbs, first around one ear then the other, then carelessly slapping my hair down with her fingers. Finally her hands broke contact with me altogether, and I half expected to feel a whack on the side of my head; this happened at the end of the second block of solos. Now, at that point in the song, a bronze-like film of fear cases the back of my throat and runs up into my temples. It makes me shiver.

Gina sighs and scoots her chair back, she pivots and walks back to the kitchen cupboards. Her skirt swishes, like slow ribbons. The last line of the song passes. "Slow ribbons, the way I fall for you." Slow Ribbons. That's the title of the song, I'm sure of it. I can picture them now, the ribbons, I'm holding them, light in my palms, they tickle when I pour them from one hand to the other. They're faintly scented with perfume. Lilac, I think. Yes. I have to concentrate to hear them rustle against each other, a tiny sizzle. I tilt my hands and watch them trickle down. They fall in formations, slithering in crimson curlicues, covering the song.

Gina holds three cognac glasses in her hands. She butts the cupboard door shut with her head. She sets the glasses down in the middle of our beautiful round wide-grained oak table. She opens the liquor cabinet and grabs the neck of the cognac bottle and plucks it out of the array of liquor and whiskey without a single clink. I'm in awe of her, it's an amazing feat. But there's also something melancholy about it; it's like a giant thumb and finger pinching a beech sapling and pulling it straight up through a tiny gap in the forest's canopy. A silent, deserted forest. That tree's gone forever, and no one will ever know it.

She sets the bottle down, label towards Wilfred. Napoleon. She slumps in her chair. Gina never slumps. She looks like a worn-out mother. Wilfred is deep in thought, an incredibly contorted frown squares up his face, his upper lip presses down on his lower teeth. They look like the parents of a perpetually naughty child, they're wracking their brains to come up with some solution so they can get their lives back on track, so they don't have to think about the little jerk anymore.

We stare at the glasses. Their concave bases distort the wood grain, making it rise and stand out like a smattering of wild rice on the table, wild rice native to marshes and northern lakes that famished birds glide down to. The rice has a pecan-like odor while cooking, the steam licks my nose.

"I forgot," I say. "I've got to get the water started on the tomatoes." I rise and walk straight out the back door. No one says a word. No one has to.

Halfway to the garden the realization hits me like a solar wind, silent and invisible, leaving me electric. I know the singer! It's Fred Seagull, the Biggest Country Star in the World. 360 pounds. Immediately the song stops! I'm stunned -- another rush, my nerve endings whoosh from my gut to the top of my head. Then I feel the quiet. It's creepy, like suddenly I'm somewhere else but it's not somewhere else, I'm right here, the silhouettes of the trees and the clothesline posts haven't budged an inch, but right here where I'm at feels like somewhere else.

Behind me in the house one of them says something -- I can't tell who from here, Wilfred is a tenor -- when the music starts again. Ribbons of steel guitar swell then narrow, they rotate and swoop down. Strangely enough, I don't catch that it's a different song until a woman begins to sing; or a girl, rather, a teenage girl. I know this song, it's on the tip of my tongue. A man comes in on the chorus, now it's a duet, and the title of the song is a dead giveaway. It's a slow, countrified cover of "Islands in the Stream." I get it. The parasite is playing "Name That Country Tune and Singer" with me. It has a great sense of humor, I'll give it that much. I wonder how many songs it's stored up in its organic digital memory? When the other parasites touch down -- there must be millions, billions of them -- what will the one that sets up shop in Wilfred's head play? Name That Polka and Tuba Player?

I shove the hose under the mulch of wheat straw, then I turn the water on at our garden well. I crane my neck to the circles of stars and listen. I close my eyes. I feel long, strong chains of birds migrating above me, straining soundlessly. People wade across a suncovered sea towards me, singing a song. It's low tide off Maniac Island.

©2002 by Mark Kline

Mark Kline left the Flint Hills prairie of Kansas for wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen twenty-one years ago. He is a bluegrass musician and songwriter, and plays regularly for square dances in Denmark. His time is split between family, his fiction, music, and in-between he tends a mean garden.

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