Excerpt: Fat Man and Little Boy
Little Boy makes Fat Man clean him. The way he does this is he lets himself get more and more dirty until the widow asks Fat Man why he doesn't make Matthew bathe. That night Fat Man rolls up his shirt sleeves to his elbows, strips down Little Boy, and scrubs him raw. Pours buckets and buckets over Little Boy's head. He has to hold up his smaller brother with one arm under his armpits or Little Boy will slide under.
He pushes Little Boy beneath the water, ostensibly to clean him. He keeps Little Boy down there a while. Little Boy likes it, and anyway the rule is he cannot help himself.
Fat Man pulls up Little Boy by his hair, by the roots, and Little Boy's scalp burns, and he cries. He shouts, "WAAAAH."
Fat Man shouts back at him and splashes his face with buckets and buckets of water.
They continue in this way a while.
Fat Man takes to making Little Boy wear a big white cloth diaper, safety-pinned at the corners so Little Boy fouls nothing else when he fouls himself.
Some nights Little Boy gets hungry, or wets himself, and then he cries and cries, sometimes for hours on end. WAAAAH. WAAAAH. WAAAAH. He doesn't kick or thrash, doesn't roll around on the floor, is otherwise perfectly still. After a little while Fat Man will lose his patience, will get up in his face and start to scream back. He kneels over Little Boy, on all fours, and puts his face in Little Boy's, all his bulk hanging over all Little Boy's slight, and screams and screams. Little Boy cries, and Fat Man screams, WAAAAH, AAAAAH, WAAAAH, AAAAAH, and so on, all night, until their throats are raw and their faces are beaded with spit and tears.
The next day Fat Man gives Little Boy banana mash mixed with milk and sugar, which he thinks is Little Boy's favorite.
Little Boy does like it.
One night, while Fat Man and Little Boy sit at the table, Fat Man says, "You'll never believe what I found. Look. It's a little picture book." A small sheaf of papers with holes punched in the left margin, red yarn threaded through the holes.
"There's Mickey Mouse inside it. He comes to Camp Gurs."
Little Boy lets his head slump onto the book, pinning it to the table. Fat Man yanks up his brother's head by the hair and pulls the book loose.
"I found it in the playhouse. One of the Jews made it. See, in this cartoon, Mickey is a Jew. They tell him so. He doesn't know about it until they told him, just as they told us who we really are."
Little Boy's nose-down on the table now, but Fat Man keeps turning the pages as if he were reading along.
"Things were very unfair for them. They had to ask the commandant of the prison for everything, the way we have to ask Rosie. It was worse for them of course. I don't mean to compare. They had to be smart or people would take their food. They had eggs, but not many. They had bread. They had to make their own clothes. You can see how badly Mickey wants to be free." Fat Man turns another page. "Isn't the art wonderful? In the end, Mickey remembers he's a cartoon, and so he erases himself. Then he's free. He goes to America."
Fat Man tears up. It's on his voice the way whiskey stink is on a drunk, the way syrup smells on pancakes, the way cyanide smells of almonds. "I don't know why anyone would want to go to America."
He jerks up Little Boy's head. A string of droop dangles from his lips, the only thing that keeps Fat Man from shoving the book in Little Boy's face. "This is important," Fat Man snarls. "This is probably the most important thing that ever happened. You know what happened to the man who drew this? They loaded him up on a train, with all his friends, and they took him away to die. It was awful. It was the worst thing that ever happened and it started here. There's nothing to compare in all of human history."
He holds Little Boy's head by the chin and his hair so that they're facing one another. Little Boy's eyes are rolled down in his head, looking now at the open book on its last page, a picture of what seems to be New York, the lines wavy and childish, bustling against each other, elbowing for room. Fat Man looms at the top of his vision like a big fish bobbing for air. Little Boy sees that Fat Man has dressed himself in new clothing, and he understands that it was borrowed from the Jews that used to live here. Fat Man's stretching the fabric thin—Little Boy can see his flesh through his white cotton shirt, and his gut peeks out at the bottom like a pale orange wedge.
Fat Man says, "Do you want to know where you live or don't you? Do you care about anything but yourself? You can live and die inside your body, hard and cold and meaningless as a bomb that never went off, a yolk asleep inside a shell, or you can listen to me when I speak, hear what I'm saying, and live in other people, too, and feel for them and know them. Or you can live in ignorance. You can rest your head on the table and drool. You can be nobody if you want. You can be a vegetable."
But Little Boy isn't any of those things. He's a baby. He wants to know if people scream at babies for their lack of politics. Do they shout at a yolk to make it a chicken? Little Boy is runny and yellow inside.
"You're a coward! Lay about all day. Least I'm up and moving. You'll never see me stand still long. When you grow up you'll see you can't be a lump, not if you want to eat. You'll see you've got to work. You know how hard the Jews worked? Just for an egg?"
Fat Man wipes sweat from his brow with a dead Jew's sleeve. He leaves a stain like a caterpillar coiled on a leaf.
"I tell myself I won't hit you anymore. I tell you I won't, but you're so selfish. Living in a graveyard and you won't take time to look at the monuments, won't read the epitaphs. The prisoners carved them themselves. Maintained the grounds too. The way I do. It was part of their work."
He scoots back his chair from the table and scoops up his brother. Whenever Fat Man holds him, Little Boy knows that Fat Man knows he is a baby. Sometimes he even coos. Not tonight, Fat Man is going to hurt him, he knows it, and the goo goo ga ga shit will only make it worse—he might throw Little Boy in the creek.
He carries Little Boy to a faraway cabin. He brings him through the threshold like a bride or a cripple. There are one thousand pieces of junk: rulers, cups, shoes, coats, hats, folded laundry, bowls, spoons. There is a woman in the bed, surrounded by the baubles, certain watercolor paintings, and costume jewelry. She reminds Little Boy of things he's never seen, stories that he's never heard. A queen buried with her treasures.
The queen is very thin, her skin filthy. Her hair is stiff curls, stinking out at every angle, a wispy crown, colorless and many-colored—brown becoming gray, never really being brown, never really being gray, becoming blonde, not blonde, becoming white, not white, not black, nothing. Nothing becoming nothing, and becoming, and becoming nothing.
Then there are her eyes. She looks at the brothers, and Little Boy can only assume she sees.
"Look at her there, lying like a dead bird. Do you want to be like that?"
She closes her eyes.
"I feed her too. I feed her and then I come home and I feed you. I've been thinking, maybe I should leave you here. It would be more convenient. Do you want that? Do you want to lie here like a dead bird too?"
Fat Man sets down Little Boy on the floor, beside the bed, like an offering.
"When I come back tomorrow morning, maybe you'll have made a good decision."
He takes a hat from the rack on his way out. A black hat with a wide brim. He closes the door. Now Little Boy's alone with her. He hears her shifting in the sheets.
It turns cold. He stays still, feeling his soft shell all around him like a cathedral, echoing with him. As long as he's back on the floor when Fat Man returns it will be like he never moved.
He finds his feet and climbs up in the bed. His body is small again. He wraps himself in the blanket with the woman. In doing so he pulls a little from her, revealing naked arms and the drape of her shirt. The tops of her arms bristle with grass. There is a mass beneath her shirt as well, more grass. Out of her shirt's torn collar, a growing flower winds toward the ceiling. The blossom blooms. Red petals like ruby quartz. Her eyes are open. She's looking at the flower. He can only assume she sees. Leaves budding, and thorns. Not a rose. Clover on the collar bone.
Fat Man finds her that way the next morning. Still alive. He prunes the flower, trims the grass, and pulls loose the bloodied-red roots where he can. Little Boy's on the floor the way he was left. Still awake, becoming a cathedral.
What a little boy needs is a mother. What a fat man wants is a wife. What a homeless woman needs is a home. What this one needs is a warm place to die. What this one needs is a bath and a bed.
One night Fat Man bathes her.
One night she dies.
Does not become a mother or a wife.
No queen, but a body.
The brothers watch, transfixed, as her body becomes hair. Becomes mold. Becomes maggots. Becomes bones. Becomes spiders. Becomes flowers.
Becomes a seed.
See the brothers through the secret cabin's thick blue window like a square of still water. See the strange light she casts on the brothers. See the way they watch her. See the way their hair stands on end. See that Little Boy is standing up: sitting like a little boy.
See how calm their bodies. The slow and steady of their breathing.
As if there is some weight, some heat, leaving them.
It goes dark.
In the dark they are whispering. The cabin's door opens.
Glints of motion. Sound of shoes on thin grass and bald mud.
The ease of digging in soft earth, even for such a large seed.
What a seed wants is a hole.
Little Boy helps his brother make the hole.
A seed wants a place to grow.
is the author of Fat Man and Little Boy
(Black Balloon Publishing
, 2014). His fiction has been published in Best American Short Stories 2012, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, The Collagist, Hobart, Hayden's Ferry Review
and many others. He operates Uncanny Valley Press
with his wife, Tracy Rae Bowling.
Thanks to Black Balloon Publishing
for their kind permission to reprint this excerpt.