A while back, I mentioned having a story published in the most recent issue of LEMON, an amazingly artful magazine from editors Kevin Grady and Colin Metcalf. Much to my surprise, I recently discovered that said story, “The Jackson Six,” was included in the 2012 Notable Reads in the back of The Best American Non-Required Reading 2013, edited by Dave Eggers. Needless to say, I was absolutely delighted. The only downside is that LEMON can be a little difficult to find, so if you’re not inclined to buy it online (though I do suggest it, because it’s downright gorgeous, more of a coffee table book than a magazine and filled with some amazing photos and a bunch of other excellent short fiction thanks to fiction editor Micah Nathan), I’ve finally gotten around to posting my story below. Happy New Year!
"The Jackson Six"
There’s no moon to speak of, but fuck how he howls. The sound makes the insides of my brain rattle and chill, like sinking your teeth into a Popsicle.
“Let’s follow it,” Janet says, pulling on my hand.
We’re walking home from the movie theater where I’m too old to work but do anyway, and yeah, it’s pretty much what you’d expect: a half-priced, second-string situation with greasy dorks behind the counter and stale vintage candy. The only saving grace is the old tabletop Ms. Pac Man in the lobby. Before I knew her, Janet used to come in every night at ten-thirty, stack four quarters on the game, and play till they were gone. Not once did she see a movie. My idiot co-workers used to say things like, “Hey, Brandon, here comes your Miss 1984,” or “Someone should play hide and seek with that bitch’s curling iron, like, while it’s on,” but what the hell do they know? They’re kids. One night something took hold of me and I walked over to Janet and stuck my key in the machine. Her quarters had run out, but this made it free. She asked if I’d like to be her second player, and I sat down and lay one finger to the button. A week or so later, she moved in.
The howling stops, and we pause in our tracks like it’s the noise that’s moving us. “What if it’s a werewolf,” she whispers. “Or like a zombie or something. Wouldn’t that be neat?”
“Rule number six, ladycakes.”
She rolls her eyes. “I know, I know. Zombies must never speak.”
I’ve been writing a book about horror for longer than I care to tell you, and Janet’s the only person I’ve ever let read the damn thing. She sat curled in our bed for an entire day while I pretended to watch TV in the next room, listening through the wall for her sounds. I fell asleep. Later I woke to her standing in the doorway, looking down at me with those wide moose eyes.
“I’ve just got to see a movie,” she said.
I remember it was a Thursday. She was wearing a Michael Jackson T-shirt and pink little kid underwear lined with the word Tuesday. I knew that I loved her right then.
The howling is back, and my stomach cramps like a hand grabbing me from within. “Come on,” I say, “I’ll take you home.”
She kisses me on the cheek and skips ahead. She’s wearing that jacket I like, denim with blue leopard print, and her curled black hair is shiny in the street lamps. Her jeans are tight and stop just under the knee, like the ones my sister Molly used to wear before she disappeared. Her high heels click on the sidewalk, slicing the silence of the defunct factories and fog that make up our neighborhood.
“What a shit town,” I say.
“Stop pooping on my fun,” she sings.
We follow the noise to a cemetery, and it’s there that we find the dog, a big mutt who seems half German Shepherd and half twelve other things. He noses around at a grave freshly tilled, then lifts his snout into the air and howls. I look up too, and damn, there’s the moon.
“This must be his owner,” Janet says.
The headstone is blank, but it’s a pinkish color, and those don’t come cheap. A bouquet of supermarket flowers lay against it, the price tag still on the plastic.
“Maybe he’s just smelling a squirrel or something.”
“He has no tags.”
“Are we really going to take in another one?”
“Come on, Bran,” she says in her cute voice, letting the octaves climb. She thinks it’s her pitch that gets me to give in, but really it’s the nickname itself. Bran. It makes me feel thoroughly unfun, like a bowl of high-fiber cereal.
“All right,” I say.
She crouches down and looks at the dog’s face. She doesn’t whistle or make any ridiculous kissing noises or talk to the thing like it’s a baby. She just gets herself to the animal’s level, holds out the back of her hand, and waits. I charge any man to resist loving a woman like that.
But the truth is I know very little about Janet. When she moved in, she brought a suitcase of clothes and an old poodle named Gary who takes naps in the tub after I shower. She carried a guitar on her back too, though I haven’t seen it since. Not only does she adopt dogs at the rate most women buy shoes, but she makes minimum wage in the kitchen of a homeless shelter downtown, where eight hours in a hairnet doesn’t mess a strand of her poof. The girl’s a giver. When we climb into bed at night, she tells me stories about the people she feeds—the lady who pissed herself during macaroni time, the guy evicted from the thrift store bedroom he managed to set up in a subway car, the woman who arrived from Florida with a freakishly clear handprint on her arm so it always looked like someone was grabbing her. That was how I learned Janet was from Florida in the first place. “I love you enough to follow you anywhere,” she said that night, “to any of the forty-nine states.” When I pointed out her mistake, she rolled away from me to face the wall. “Florida is dead to me,” she said.
“Where do you want to be buried?” I ask Janet now.
“Me? No. No, no, no.” She stands, her heels sinking in the grass. She watches the dog where he’s gone to sniff at something twenty graves away, and I know we’ll wait as long as it takes for him to come back. “You think I want to get eaten by bugs, become one with the plants? No, no, no, baby, that’s sick.”
“So what then?”
“First, I want you to shave my head and send it to those people who make wigs for bald kids.”
I put a hand through her curls to touch her scalp. “You mean cancer?”
She nods. “And then I want you to donate my body to science.”
“I hate when people say that.”
“What is it with people and their obligation toward science? It was my worst subject in school. I don’t owe it a thing.”
“But wouldn’t you want to help another person live, like, if you could?”
“Sure, except you know, these days they use most cadavers as crash test dummies, see how real bodies stand up in a wreck.”
“What’s so bad about that?”
“I’m just saying, it’s not exactly science.”
She crosses her arms and shivers a little, and for reasons unknown to me I don’t try to warm her.
“And anyway,” I continue, “what if I want a place where I could come visit you, come tell you the things that you missed?”
She looks away from the dog and at me, her eyebrows raised under her bangs. “What makes you so sure I’ll go first?”
I smile. “Touché.”
I take a stroll around, reading names off the stones. Elizabeth Screws. Billie Jean Lawlor. Diana Best. Towering crosses bear etchings of angels or the same three or four quotes from the Bible. You never see verses that talk about how people really are, the ones that defend slavery or argue that women should be subordinate to their men. It’s always just the junk about everlasting life. For Molly, my mother pored over King James for hours, finally settling on some bullshit about the pure at heart seeing God. She wrote it out on a scrap of paper and tucked it into the pocket of my father’s suit coat before he went down to the home. At the burial, my mother wept at his choices: a narrow granite square that stood a foot off the ground and reminded me of the ant farm I had in first grade, the face of the stone blank save Molly’s full name and the appropriate years. He said he decided on simplicity, but I knew he went with what was cheapest for fear she’d come back.
The pain sears my stomach, and I double over, staggering back to Janet. “Fuck!”
“What’s the matter, baby?” she calls out.
The dog barrels toward me, snarling.
“Get it away!”
“Did you eat another burrito from Ranchero’s? I told you to stop going there.”
“Shut him up!”
The dog understands. He quiets, looks me right in the face, and goes straight to her hand.
“Janet,” I cry, but she turns toward the animal, choosing him.
I lie down on the dirt and pull my knees to my chest. It feels instinctual, like pregnant women who walk around for hours, then get down on all fours to give birth. Sometimes the body just knows. I didn’t eat a burrito, but I feel like a big bean now, curled up in the fetal position in a cemetery where we buried an empty casket we pretended was my sister. Even if she had come back, my father wouldn’t have known, as he left soon after.
My stomach is moving now, swelling, like John Hurt’s in Alien. Janet’s back is still to me, and I open my mouth to say something, to tell her that something is wrong, something is happening, something is coming that can’t be stopped. If I die right here, someone tell her I want to be cremated. Spread the ashes someplace nice and then go eat a sandwich. It just seems easiest that way, stripped of it all.
“We’ll call you Zombie,” I hear her say, and by the time she turns around for me it’s too late.
Where I wake, everything is white. Sunlight blares through the open blinds, illuminating the two items that stand on the sill: the bouquet of flowers from the pink grave, free from their plastic but wilted, and a jar holding what looks to be the pig fetus I once dissected in high school biology. My stomach turns and aches, and I lift the sheet to see my entire torso wrapped in bandages. I return to the jar. Maybe it’s jam. Maybe my mother heard where I am and sent it along from her Indiana cellar, even though we haven’t spoken in more than twenty years. The television on the wall plays an old Michael Jackson video on mute. This reminds me of Janet’s T-shirt, of the way her boobs hang beneath it without a bra. I wonder where she is.
A nurse glides in, and I pretend to sleep. She lifts my wrist, then lets it drop, making a noise of satisfaction. “Come on in,” she says to the doorway, “he’s sedated.”
I lift my eyelids just enough to see the gaggle of interns shuffle to the windowsill. They lean toward the jar, taking turns with observation.
“I’ve never seen one so developed.”
“Look at the face. It’s eerie.”
“It looks just like him.”
“And the hand, it’s a claw.”
“I can’t believe it has lips.”
The nurse lifts it further into the light. I don’t know what the hell it is, but I’ll tell you right now it ain’t jam.
One of the interns, a kid with Brillo pad hair and glasses, starts to swing his hips. “Cause this is thriller! Thriller night! No one is gonna save you from the beast about to strike! Cause this is thriller!”
The group giggles, and I open my eyes all the way. “I can hear you,” I say, and the whole mess of them spin around and stare.
“Fetus in fetu,” my doctor explains. “When one egg fertilizes inside another, cells of the less dominant fetus can develop inside the dominant child.”
I point to the windowsill, where the thing sits in what I now understand is formaldehyde. “You’re telling me those are parts of my brother or sister?”
“It looks male.”
“Can I see it?”
He crosses the room to retrieve the specimen. His comb-over stretches sideways across his scalp, defying gravity. I think of Janet’s long hair, the way I find strands of it all over the house—across pillows and blankets, sure, but also dangling from electrical outlets, or inside a banana just peeled.
“Think of it as a tumor.” He hands me the jar. “Cells.”
I see the hand first. It floats freely sans wrist or arm, but its fingernails are gnarled and pointed. It does look like a claw. I rotate the glass to see what can only be described as a tiny half-a-face: sunken eye socket, weird pinched nose, part of what is clearly a lip. I thought the intern was saying that it looked like me, but now I understand what all the fuss was about. This so-called tumor might only be five inches by three, half of some hideous infant face, but it only takes a heartbeat to see that it’s a dead-fucking-ringer for Michael Jackson.
“Jesus Christ. This came out of me?”
“It happens quite often in third-world countries, but first? Rarely. That’s why everyone’s so excited around here.” He wipes the sweat from his upper lip. “Plus, you know, because of the timing.”
He gestures to the television, but it’s off. “Yes, of course, you’ve been sleeping.” He looks down at his hands. “Well, Michael Jackson passed away yesterday. Cardiac arrest, though foul play is suspected.”
“I’m not much for pop music, but who doesn’t love the Jackson Five? Did you know that Marlon had a twin brother named Brandon who died at birth? Stillborn. Elvis had one too, though I’m not sure if they named him.” He takes the jar back, shaking his head. “To think, they could’ve been the Jackson Six.”
“I had a twin sister named Molly, but she died when we were kids.”
“Twins are very common in cases of fetus in fetu,” he says. “The fertilization of multiple eggs.”
“Well, she didn’t die exactly. She just disappeared. We were thirteen, joking around in the woods near our house. One second she was right there, and the next she was gone.”
“It’s all very surreal, isn’t it?” He stares at my brother, then shakes him like a happy fist. “But I’ll tell you what, my friend, these are the cases you live for.”
I watch the hand and face sway, then settle, like the snow globe of some serial killer. My stomach aches. My mouth goes dry. What if they didn’t get it all out somehow? What if there’s an ear in there listening to us? A pair of tiny feet doing the moonwalk?
“Doc,” I say, my voice cracking on the word, “have you seen my girlfriend? I think she brought me in here. Curly hair? Clothes from the eighties? Maybe a dog named Zombie?”
His eyebrows raise. “I haven’t, but I can ask at the nurses’ station for you. What’s her name?”
I gulp. “Janet.”
On the day I am released, the real King of Pop gets memorialized on television, and one billion people tune in. I’ve been a patient here for nearly two weeks, and not even Janet has shown. I stand in the hallway with my jar and a couple of nurses who are nice enough to see me off. One in cupcake scrubs tells the story of my arrival for the umpteenth time, and somehow it feels like a eulogy. How she watched me stagger in to the emergency room in the middle of the night, shirtless and alone, clutching my pale belly like a gorilla. From the way she hams it up for her coworkers, I can tell they all think Janet’s a sham.
I wave goodbye and walk away, and Doc appears to escort me to the lobby. “Are you sure you won’t leave it behind?” he asks a final time.
“Yes, but I really do find that people get much reward in donating what they can to science.” He leans forward to press the illuminated button, and I imagine hitting him over the head with this thing, watching the formaldehyde singe what’s left of his hair. He turns back to me and smiles. “Please,” he says, “just take a moment.”
The elevator doors open, and I see my taxi idling outside. There’s a part of me that does want to leave all this behind. Go back to the sticky floors of the movie theater and my book that will never be written and the little girl underwear Janet unfailingly wears on the wrong day. Forget about warped children growing inside other warped children and instead hear Janet tell stories about homeless people that make us feel better about ourselves. The sound of film whipping around a reel. And that strange little symphony the dogs make when they hear her climbing out of bed in the mornings.
“Holy shit,” I say, “the dogs.”
“There were six, I think, maybe seven.”
“I don’t understand.”
But I do. There are only two options: either they’ve gone twelve days without water, food, and sun, or else she’s taken them all, leaving only their dog smells and empty bowls on the floor. No part of me wants to know which is true. I hug the jar to my chest and ignore Doc’s pleas as I walk out the sliding glass doors and into the stale cushion of the taxi’s backseat. I give the driver an address outside the city. On the way there, we pass the cornfields I remember, and I hold my brother to the window so he can see their blond hair.
She doesn’t seem surprised to see me. She just stands from the rocker on the porch and steps into the house, the chair still swaying in her absence. “I have a stew on,” she says, and I can tell by the way her teeth click that they’re fake.
Inside, nothing’s changed, from the flowered drapes to the family photos on the wall: a black and white of she and my father on their wedding day, their lips in placid smiles; my father’s service portrait, his uniform bearing the crease of her iron; that shot of my sister and I from junior high, just days before it happened. We pose together on the front lawn, Molly in her cheerleading uniform, showing off her perfect ankles and knees, and me in a flannel, chubby and lost, my hands grasping a trumpet.
“Which one are you looking at?” she asks from her place over the stove.
“Me and Molly in the yard.”
“Funny. I don’t remember you playing the trumpet.” She stirs whatever’s in the pot, ten times clockwise, ten times counter, just like she did when we were kids. “Molly had all the musical talent. That girl and her guitar.”
I walk into the room and take a seat at the table, think of putting the jar down in the basement with everything else that still needs gestating. Cucumbers become pickles. Potatoes become vodka. Stomachaches become brothers. I set the jar down with a thud.
“Thank you for the preserves,” she says to the wall, and it’s at that moment I realize she’s blind.
After dinner, we sit out on the front porch, saying very little until after dark. The cicadas are out this year, hissing in the distance, and I remember Molly and I collecting their husks in tin cans when we were small.
“You okay for money?” I ask her.
“I still get your father’s pension.”
“I guess that means he’s alive.”
“I suppose so.” She rocks back and forth on her slippers, the muscles moving in her spiderwebbed calves. “Why, you come here to give me some?”
“No,” I admit.
She laughs, and it makes her sound young. I get a flash of the woman she was before Molly disappeared, sitting at her sewing machine, taking up one of Molly’s hems or out another pair of my pants. She liked to sing while she sewed, loudly too, and right in front of the open window on the second floor. She didn’t give a care who might hear.
“I have a girlfriend now. Her name’s Janet.”
“Is that right?”
“She’s nice too, and pretty. A lover of dogs.”
“Well, next time you bring her along.”
Next time, I think, and the words seem to bloom in my chest. “I would have today, but I just got out of the hospital, and she had somewhere to go. Florida.”
“Hospital? For what?”
“They had to remove something from my stomach.”
“Dorothy had kidney stones. She wanted them out, but the doctor told her she had to sit tight and wait for them to pass natural.”
“This was different. It was something that grew in me.”
She stops rocking. “You mean cancer?”
“No, Ma. It’s hard to explain.” I look out into the blue-gray night. Bats swoop overhead. The land is flat for miles. “The doctor says you could’ve had triplets.”
She cocks her head like a dog, listening to me in a way I don’t think she ever has. “But what?”
“The doctor says I could’ve had triplets, but what?”
“But sometimes there’s a dominant egg, and it kind of like, eats the other.”
“And that’s you?”
I go inside and get the jar off the table. I want her to be able to see it with her hands, to know his strange features in her fingertips, but to her it just feels like a jar. She nods once, sets it on the flat porch railing.
“It has a face like Michael Jackson,” I tell her.
“We all have our troubles.”
“I’m not saying any of this right.”
“I listened to his service on the radio. You should have heard all that beautiful singing. They say each of his brothers wore one white glove.”
I think of her standing over that empty casket, the lace gloves on her hands I’d watched her mend the night before. “I don’t know what happened to her, Ma.”
“I know that,” she says, then picks up my brother and cradles him in her arms.
After a while, she dozes off. I stare out into the front yard, where that photo of me and Molly was snapped. It’s funny how a picture can capture a moment, but how that moment can be so much bigger than the image itself. Anyone can see a brother and sister, standing together on the lawn, but only I can see what cannot fit within the frame. The trumpet isn’t mine. It belongs to my next-door neighbor, a little band shrimp named Trent whose stuff I like to steal. My mother crouches on the steps, yelling at us to get closer, and Trent stands a few feet to her right, big fat tears streaming down his cheeks. Molly inches toward me, grinning with the white teeth that will always be straighter than mine because they could only afford braces for one of us. “Don’t touch me,” she hisses.
But now there is another element, a tiny little ally growing in my stomach. Maybe if there had been three of us, things would have turned out differently. Or maybe if I’d just known he was there all along, he could have given me the strength I needed to find in other ways. Maybe I wouldn’t have spent so much time in the woods back then, first playing, then hiding, then looking, for her.
“What’s that?” my mother cries, sitting up straight in her chair.
“Huh?” I look down and see Molly’s guitar in my lap, the one she got for turning thirteen. It’s pale brown and acoustic, with a tie-dyed strap hanging from its flank. I’ve never played an instrument before, but my fingers gently pluck the strings. “I got it from inside,” I say, though I have no recollection of having done so.
“Play me something.”
“I don’t think Janet’s coming back, Ma.”
She reaches over to pat my arm. “Let’s not talk about that now. Just play.”
“I don’t know how,” I say, but my left hand slides up and down the neck, and my right hand starts to strum. My mother opens her mouth and sings. There are no words, just a sort of primal sound that comes out of her throat like a hand grabbing at the air around her. She rocks Michael back and forth in her lap, and I close my eyes and let myself be lulled. I can’t help but remember when he was a little angel on stage with our brothers, his smooth brown skin and big smile, his round little afro and tambourine. Before the evil in this world got to him and made him into something he never wanted to be. Before it all happened, he was perfect.