Timothy’s Severed Head
I. Who gets the severed head and what it looks like
Whoever’s suffered the most receives the severed head. We agree degrees of suffering are subjective, so it’s unfair. Still, we’re not surprised when the package shows for Timothy. When the doorbell rings, he goes outside and finds it, sits on the stoop, puts his chin in his hands, package beside him like a pet. The sun changes position in the sky.
We arrive at the apartment from our jobs at different hours. Me, my girlfriend Eunice, and Timothy’s ex Mary, join Timothy on the stoop, semicircle him and the boxed severed head. We sit and put our chins in our hands too. We try to imagine what the severed head looks like, but our ideas are fuzzy, imprecise. In our mind, it looks like our own heads, but dead and bodiless.
Mary puts a hand on Timothy’s shoulder, says, “Don’t leave us all hanging,” so Timothy takes his key, tracks along the center of the packing tape. As he reaches in to unload the severed head, we hope Timothy will feel some relief. We hope the gravity of the severed head will help ease the weight of all his suffering.
Timothy fists its hair and pulls it out, holds the severed head close to his own face like he’s holding the head of a lover, tender and immense. We feel weird watching such an intimate moment, so we go inside. Mary spies through the blinds and we join her, watch what Timothy’s hands do to the severed head. Mary sighs, looks a little sad and leaves Eunice and me with our good view. We were right. It looks like a version of us, but dead and bodiless.
II. What we would do with the severed head
Timothy will do the right thing with the severed head, eventually. For now, he wedges it snugly between his old boots and box of childhood toys on the floor of his messy closet. It is Timothy’s right to manage the head how he will, nightly take it down, let his suffering speak to it in a ravaged tongue only they share. He collects the severed head’s fallen hairs, twists them around his finger. He presses his fingers to the lids and pulls them down. Then they spring up and show two whitewashed eyes. Sometimes I hear Timothy whispering, whimpering. Sometimes I hear him laugh.
As much as we want to know more about the severed head, as roommates and friends we respect Timothy’s privacy, laze around the living room table, while Timothy has his head time. I sit on the love seat, Eunice cuddled close. Mary’s on the floor making her cat bat a piece of string. We go around and say what we might do had the severed head come for us instead.
Eunice: take a photograph of the head and Photoshop it onto different bodies. The bodies of celebrities: man-headed Taylor Swifts. The bodies of animals: man-headed whales, caribou. The man-headed body of a baby like ours, our baby who never got born. Eunice would make an army of hybrid bodies, protecting her from pain. Print them, tape them to the walls. Her own suffering would go away, then. It would be trapped inside an army of discarded heads.
Mary: take care of the severed head, like a husband. Wake it up in the morning, brush its teeth, bathe it. Make it coffee, fry it eggs and butter toast. Comb its hair, pack its briefcase. Pin a tie to its neck hole. Tell it the morning news, tell it a joke. Wonder what the severed head is thinking.
He’s so quiet these days. Wonder if the severed head is growing bored. Wonder if she has sacrificed her dreams so the severed head could achieve its own. Wonder if this life with the severed head will be worth it in the end. But she loves the severed head. It needs her.
Kiss the severed head on the cheek. Find its car keys, winter hat. Wave goodbye to the severed head from the doorway. Fold last night’s laundry, put it in the drawers. Think about taking up karate, to get some excitement in her life. Wait for the severed head to call on its lunch break, chin in hands. Shower, then put back on her makeup. When the severed head comes home, say, “How was your day?”
See how tired the severed head is? See how little it eats? Give it two Ibuprofen and two Tums. How heavily it hits the pillow, how soundlessly it sleeps? Sleep next it but imagine a different severed head lying next to her. Imagine holding its nonexistent hand.
Me: do not tell what I would do with the severed head. Can’t explain it. Can’t explain what I do with my suffering either. Truth told, I’m not sure I would do the right thing. I’m not sure I do the right thing with my suffering now.
Eunice looks at me like: Toby, that’s not fair. We all told, why can’t you? But we’re high school sweethearts, so she loves me too much to be angry with my silence for long. She settles her head back on my chest.
III. How the severed head changes Timothy
Wakes up earlier.
Listens to experimental jazz in the shower.
Replaces unprescribed Klonopin and Adderall and alcohol with cigarettes.
Loses ten pounds.
Replaces the cigarettes with coffee.
Runs twice a week.
Buys a pair of running pants.
The tight kind that show his junk.
Eats when he’s hungry, stops when he’s full.
Loses two more pounds.
Donates small amounts of money (a dollar each) to good causes.
The animal shelter. Public radio.
Fixes the shifters on his bike, oils the chain.
Makes plans to pedal to Portland, just for fun.
Remembers liking Portland as a kid.
We don’t know if he’ll actually do it. That’s a long-ass way.
Drives his box of childhood toys to the Salvation Army.
Only after asking if we want any.
I want the Matchbox cars. Don’t know why.
Hums or sings throughout the day.
Opens the blinds in the apartment.
Comes into our rooms to open our blinds without asking, just assuming it’s what we want.
It’s annoying, but we’re happy he’s feeling better.
We close them when he leaves.
Buys a plant.
Asks Mary to teach him how to care for it.
Sometimes feeds Mary’s cat for her.
I bet he’s taking good care of the head too.
Brushing its hair, spraying it down.
Visits his mother Dawn’s grave and his grandmother’s grave.
They were both suicides.
His mother had schizophrenia,
was a sometimes-prostitute.
A meth addict.
I don’t know anything about his grandmother.
Visits his older brother, Jeff.
He’ll be out and at the halfway house soon.
Applies for a managerial position in the Shop N’ Save fish department.
Gets the job.
Tells us he’s been thinking a lot about suffering.
Necessary vs. unnecessary suffering.
When he gets overwhelmed or anxious, thinks about death.
Not in a morbid way, in a way that calms.
Like, one day, he will be dead.
And then what will any of this suffering matter?
So what should it really matter now?
IV. Where the severed head came from
TIMOTHY and TOBY talk while eating breakfast in the kitchen. The severed head is propped up on its own seat.
Toby: It’s weird that the severed head can help a person. Like, it’s more useful now as a head than it could have been as a complete head-and-body.
Timothy: Part worth more than the sum of all parts.
Where would you guess it came from?
Toby: Sometimes I think it just materialized. Never had a body in the first place. It’s from another dimension where all the people are just severed heads floating, or like swimming around. Yours is one of the dead ones. It wrote in its will that after it dies it wants to be sent to a sufferer in our dimension.
Timothy: I like that.
Toby: Like it donated itself to faith.
Timothy: That’s close.
Toby: Or maybe it’s the head of some journalist who terrorists decapitated in the Middle East. Or it’s a Chinese P.O.W.
Timothy: If you look really close, it has tiny wings sprouting in back near the neck hole. I thought the flaps were just the skin peeling off, but it’s an angel. One of those head cherubs, only a deformed one.
Toby: A dead cherub. A stillborn?
TIMOTHY rises, walks, put his bowl in the pile of dirty dishes, takes the head.
Timothy: Still an angel, though. Still my angel.
TIMOTHY exits. TOBY sits alone.
Toby: Maybe Eunice is my angel.
V. Thieves come for the severed head
Saturday, about ten in the morning, awake in bed. Our bed’s a mattress on the floor. Eunice keeps saying she wants to get a box spring, a frame, join the land of adults like it’s such a good land where everyone’s happy.
“And anyways,” she keeps saying, “it hurts my back. I have all these lumps.”
When I feel her back there may be lumps, but I don’t say. My back hurts too, a manageable hurt you get used to.
Eunice has practice on Saturdays, so I’m in bed alone, scribbling out my play script. In high school I was voted class writer, she won class dancer. I wrote three one-act plays the drama club performed. She would dance every day. Ballet, hip hop, you name it. She’s got long legs, a dancer’s body, banging in a leotard and tights. But she’s also a really good dancer: backup dancer for a pop star good.
When we got pregnant we decided not to keep it. Then, her parents kicked her out and cut her off. Now she only dances on Saturdays with some girls, pitches in to pay a guy for an empty, unheated room. They’ve done a show at the mall, at a nursing home. She says those make her depressed, because she sees her future. One day, she’ll dance on real stages, and we’ll have a kid for real.
I look at the ceiling crack, roll, look at the dust bunnies, the cobwebs in the corner. Timothy’s closet is on the other side of the wall. It’s possible the severed head’s staring straight at me, sending me good vibes.
“Hey head,” I say, and wonder if he’s named it. “I hope you’re enjoying your stay.” I put down my pad and paper. Downstairs, I hear Mary making coffee in the kitchen, and getting going the Easy Mac she eats each morning. Mary’s gone distant in the past few days, only really talks to Eunice. The front door opens and Eunice drops her gym bag. I hear them talking, so I get out of bed, change my boxers.
Eunice’s got that glow, a mix of sweat and gentle euphoria, like she’s spent two hours in a forgetful trance where the real world doesn’t factor. She’s wearing her leotard, sitting at the table, straddling a backwards chair. Mary’s in pajamas perched on the counter, looks like she hasn’t slept in days. When they see me they shut up.
“Hi,” Eunice says, spoons herself noodles.
“Morning,” I say, kiss her on the cheek. “Any more of that Easy Mac for me?”
Eunice says I can have a bite of hers, holds her bowl out, but frowns like she doesn’t really want to share. I probe the fridge for whatever else, stop before I find it. Then there’s a sound like someone’s failing at working the front door lock. Footsteps, shuffling, metallic scratching. After a moment, things go silent. Two shadows scroll across the side window blinds. Mary goes squirrelly, flashes out of the room.
Someone knocks on the back door, and I don’t know why I answer. Two guys in beanies barge in. One bounces my head off the wall so hard I kiss the linoleum floor, pass out for a second but come to. One of the guys slides past us, out the kitchen, up the stairs. Eunice starts screaming like a foghorn in our ears.
“Stop screaming,” the guy who stays says, pushes Eunice up to the counter, throws a hand over her mouth, holds his other in his pocket like he’s packing. From my spot on the floor, this guy looks familiar: sad green eyes, brown beard. Crinkly skin that looks older than the person it’s on.
“Listen,” I say. “We don’t have a severed head. None of us are that lucky. Clearly.”
“Shut the feck up,” he says and I ask, “Jeff?”
His voice has me years back, to the night before Timothy found his mother, Dawn, dead. I am sleeping over at his house, reading fishing magazines, top bunk, with Timothy. His brother Jeff’s on the bottom playing Final Fantasy VII. It’s late night, when we startle, smell smoke coming in through the window, and Dawn calls for us to join them in the backyard.
Outside, she’s alone and waltzing as though hand-in-hand, swaying, laying her head against someone’s chest, acting as though she’s being twirled. She dances around a kitchen chair brought outside, lit ablaze and burning to the grass.
“We have company,” she says, and nods towards someone we can’t see. “This is Prince Edward. Say hello, boys.”
Jeff looks at us like play along, so we squeak out greetings to Prince Edward. Then Dawn takes Jeff’s hands, commands him to dance, spins him around like a toy boy, until she stops abruptly. She freezes, frowns, lets out a laugh. Then her face goes catatonic. Timothy starts to cry.
Upstairs, a gun fires. The second guy runs back to the kitchen. Mary’s in the doorway pointing her gun at him.
“Get out!” Mary yells, and away the robbers go.
“It stinks up there,” she says.
VI. Reasons a thief might want the severed head
Sell it on the black market so some dealer will sell it to some museum.
Use the money to:
Buy a car.
Buy an actual gun.
The severed head deserves museum status anyways.
Trying to write a play, desperately needing inspiration.
Pack it in a box, send it to a family in Syria, Sudan.
We’re the ones who need the severed head?
Upside down: a planter.
Give the head: a gift to a suffering loved one.
A dying mother, unable to feed herself or go to the bathroom alone. Her body so thin that her bones ache whenever she’s touched.
“Leave me alone,” the mother growls.
She used to be so sweet.
A brother with PTSD.
Show him he’s still alive.
Eat the brains.
World Anthropology Magazine: some tribal peoples consume the brains of their spiritual leaders to transfer their wisdom.
Get high. Kick the severed head around a parking lot, then just trash it.
Protect and preserve.
Love the severed head.
Absorb its love.
The thief has suffered too long, too deeply.
He needs some relief.
VII: Timothy reflects on the severed head
TIMOTHY sits at the foot of his bed, looking front. RESPECTFUL, AFFECTIONATE, EMPATHETIC, AMBITIOUS, FAMILY-ORIENTED, INTELLECTUALLY CHALLENGING, KINDHEARTED, CONFIDENT, HUMBLE WOMAN sleeps on one side of his bed. She wears a nose clip and is breathing audibly through her mouth.
Timothy: When things go to shit, it’s easy to get sucked into this abyss. This pit and you think, how’m I ever going to get out of this? There’s just—
I have this memory, me and Mary, on the first true-warm day in spring. We were walking in the park, and I was trying so hard to pretend. She was telling me about something she learned in class or heard on the radio. I don’t remember the exacts because I couldn’t pay attention. I kept thinking: how can she find anything interesting enough to waste energy telling it to someone else? We sat on a grassy hill. She was smiling, happy. People kept jogging by with their dogs, their baby strollers. People chatting in groups, throwing Frisbees. I thought, why are they doing any of it? My mother committed suicide. I will one day, too. Some nights, I lay in bed and imagined myself hanging. I hung either from a rope tied around my closet bar, or from any random tree in any woods. I never imagined suicide by gun or a mess of pills. I just liked the idea of swaying, my head separated from my body by something thick and solid.
What has the severed head showed me? Do you know how important people are? How good? How they matter, even after they are dead? What Mary and the others did to protect the head. There’s so much good in people, and in me too. I want to make it grow.
TIMOTHY walks to a mirror hanging on the wall, talks to his reflection.
The severed head is changing. Its colors have shifted from pinkish to ashen. The blood is almost fully drained. Haven’t sopped the puddle in two days.
He assesses his face and body, tries out various poses and facial expressions.
Its eyes’ve gone cloudy translucent, two puddles of oil. I tried to brush its hair the other day but it came out worse than a shedding dog.
He runs his hand through his hair, winks at himself, sniffs the air, puts on a nose clip.
It smells warm in here, and rotting, like the earth.
As TIMOTHY undresses, MARY pokes her head in to enter, but stops herself and watches from the doorway, unnoticed by TIMOTHY. He runs a hand down his chest, lifts an arm and flexes, goes to the bed and reaches under the covers. He runs his hands over RESPECTFUL, AFFECTIONATE, EMPATHETIC, AMBITIOUS, FAMILY-ORIENTED, INTELLECTUALLY CHALLENGING, KINDHEARTED, CONFIDENT, HUMBLE WOMAN’s body.
I know what’s going to happen in the end.
RESPECTFUL, AFFECTIONATE, EMPATHETIC, AMBITIOUS, FAMILY-ORIENTED, INTELLECTUALLY CHALLENGING, KINDHEARTED, CONFIDENT, HUMBLE WOMAN moans.
Let me love you.
VIII. Things that remind us of the severed head
Toby: Eunice. I tell her, “You’re my severed head.” The first time I say it she kisses me, calls me sweet. Now she just smirks a little and says, “Yup.”
Mary: When she was a kid, there was this really bad car accident by her house. Some guy’s body lay out on the pavement with just a smashed slit at end of his neck, no head. The cops searched and searched the woods by the road for the head, even brought the dogs. Now she keeps wondering about that guy from the car accident. Did they ever find the head? Did they bury him without it? The service couldn’t have been open casket. Sometimes she pictures the unstable, stumbling body scouring the earth for his severed head.
Eunice: It’s not so much what reminds her of the severed head, but what the severed head reminds her.
IX. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, even when it comes to severed heads
By now, we’re wearing nose clips most of the time inside. I’m on the porch where the air’s good. Mary’s inside sulking on the couch, hasn’t gone out in three days, silences the phone when her work calls. She torpedoes her hand into a chip bag, looks like she’s packed on Timothy’s shed pounds. When Eunice comes in the room, asks Mary to talk, she doesn’t see me through the tilted blinds. The window’s up, so I take out my earbuds, try to get some insight into Eunice’s recent withdrawal.
“What’s up?” Mary asks.
“I’m moving out at the end of the month,” Eunice says.
Mary sits straight. “Really?”
“This is my only life. All this nothing I’ve been doing, and it’s going to be over soon. Like, I don’t want to waste it anymore.” She stands up, starts pacing the room like an animal stuck in a circus train cage.
“What About Toby?” Mary asks.
“He wants a baby I don’t want with him. He still thinks he’s a playwright.”
I get up, sit down, get back up. I contemplate yelling, “What is this, Eunice!” Can’t bring myself to speak.
“I was there for all of Timothy’s shit,” Mary says. “His depression. His suicide shit. I’m the one who pulled the gun on Jeff last week.”
“He’s really changed,” Eunice says. “I’m not saying I’d do him or marry him or anything, but I would definitely do a guy like him. His new girlfriend’s really hot.”
“It’s like everything I did for him doesn’t even count.”
My vision tunnels and I feel queasy sick. I think to just start walking down the road, but Timothy pulls up the drive.
“Hey buddy,” he says, and gets out of his car.
He swings a clear bag full of some kind of meat, unties it, pulls out a fish.
“Dinner,” he says, smiling like a fool. “Chopped the heads off myself.”
X: What Timothy doesn’t do with the severed head
Offer it to Mary as a gift for loving him so well.
Like an engagement ring, but more sincere.
Taxidermy and mount it.
Keep it forever.
It came for him. Why not?
Give it to Jeff.
Degrees of suffering are subjective, but Jeff’s right up there with Timothy, for sure.
At any rate, it might prevent a second burglary.
Donate it to an art school.
The medical illustration majors can draw it.
Eat the brains.
World Anthropology Magazine: some tribal peoples consume the brains of their spiritual leaders to transfer their wisdom.
Give it to me.
Leave it in the park so a stranger can find it.
Put it in a box with a stamp.
Send it to a stranger.
Turn their life around.
Twist it onto a stake.
Stick the stake in the front yard.
Let everyone get a look at it.
Take out an ad in the local newspaper.
Found: severed head.
Brown hair, green eyes, about ten pounds.
Useful and effective, but looks a little scared.
XI. What Timothy does with the severed head
We call the girls, leave voicemails. Email. Timothy goes so far as to send “you’re invited” cards in the mail. I miss Eunice. Her long legs, her sad smile. I keep imagining a baby that has both of our faces. I miss the way she loved me. Now I don’t know who to talk to to feel better. If I got the head, I’d have showed Eunice, made her want to stay. We might not have the right numbers and addresses, hear back nothing.
The sky is elephant grey. It’s summer, hot in a comfortable way it hasn’t been yet. When the rain slows, Timothy and I take to the woods behind the apartment. I carry a spade. He’s got the bagged head slung over his shoulder like a snack. We sweat, peel our sweatshirts off, walk a little further. He says, “Here’s good,” and his digging’s rhythmic. A bird crows a song. I haven’t spent this much time in the forest since I was a little kid. It’s good, fresh, alive. The rain has amplified all the earthy scents. I like the way the world smells, the air feels, the trees sway.
“Trees don’t look anything like us,” I say, “except in some ways they do.”
“They have bodies,” he says. “They’re alive.”
When the digging’s done, Timothy uncovers the head, places it in the hole, then takes the spade and tosses in some soil.
“I feel like I should make a speech,” he says, but doesn’t.
We stand around a couple minutes, then we head back home.