Chuck Augello lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, three cats, and several
unnamed birds that inhabit the back yard. He once spent the...read more night in a haunted
house and had a brief conversation with the ghost of a 19th century New England
librarian. It may have been a dream, but who knows?
DETERMINED TO get back in shape Parker ran five miles every morning, his route circling the old Quaker cemetery across from his house. During these treks it depressed him how much garbage he’d find at the side of the road. Crushed empty beer cans, used prophylactics, a platoon of smoked-down cigarette butts, discarded socks, the occasional stray pair of underpants, a half-eaten roast beef sandwich, it seemed like the world’s trash congregated on Parker’s road, his precise runner’s stride jolted by the constant dodging of debris. In his mind he raged against the selfish indolence of his fellow citizens. How much effort did it take to find a garbage can? His burgeoning disgust at what the world had become kicked up his adrenaline and fueled his morning runs.
If one more kid throws one more Taco Bell wrapper out his goddamn car window, Parker thought, it might spur him to break the four-minute mile.
His wife Debbie told him he was crazy for letting it bother him so much.
“You’re right, people are lazy, but that’s life,” she said. “You can’t control it so why get so upset?”
“They should enforce the law! The cops will harass you if you drive two miles over the limit, but where are they when some punk gets his rocks off and throws his rubber out the window?”
“It’s an imperfect world.”
“It’s a wretched world.”
One morning Parker decided to take action. After his run he put on an old pair of gardener’s gloves, grabbed a Hefty bag from below the sink, and retraced his path, picking up trash along the way. It was the usual assortment of paper and plastic, most of it recyclable. When it came to the condoms Parker used a stick to snag them and drop them in his bag. He supposed he should have been grateful to see birth control in use, the world’s swelling population being what it was, yet it seemed so contemptuous to toss one’s fluid to the side of the road. What was next? Would people start flinging their toilet paper from open car windows?
The world is going to Hell, Parker thought. No—the world is Hell.
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When he saw the plastic bag wedged at the top of the sewer grate Parker felt a tinge of optimism. Most likely stuffed with empty beer cans, the bag indicated effort, some vague sense of responsibility toward the need to gather one’s trash. Parker grabbed the bag, which was heavier than expected, and was about to toss it into the Hefty when he saw what looked like blood dripping from a seam in the plastic.
He lifted the bag, expecting the worst (dead kittens?) as he untied the bag’s knotted handles and peered inside.
Inside the bag was a severed human head.
He screamed and dropped the bag, the head sliding out toward Parker’s feet as it rolled free from the plastic and lodged against his sneakers face up. Its eyes were open and seemingly alert, its mouth curved into a serene smile.
Parker’s hands shook as he studied the head and thought, God, no, it can’t be.
He recognized the face.
It was Parker’s face—his own severed head face up at the side of the road.
Instinctively he reached for his neck, felt the smooth plane of skin connecting his head and torso. He was still intact, but then what was his head doing in a bag gathering dirt in the gutter with the rest of the trash?
As Parker knelt for a closer look, a car swerved down the road, stereo throbbing as the driver flung a can of Mountain Dew out the window. The can clanged against the pavement as it bounced toward Parker’s feet.
“It’s probably just a teenager,” a voice said. “We’re all a bit careless at that age.”
Parker pulled back. The head smiled.
“You need to relax,” the head told him.
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Debbie was still asleep when Parker returned home. He set the head on the kitchen table and cleaned it with a rag before hustling upstairs for a quick shower. As the hot spray washed away the sweat and grime Parker assumed he’d imagined the whole thing. He was tired, on edge, and the mind could do some funky things, ha-ha. But when he went back into the kitchen the head was still there, propped against a vase at the center of the table, Debbie seated across from it sipping her morning tea.
“It was a little sappy but I liked it,” Parker heard his wife say. “And the ending was just so beautiful.”
“I almost cried,” the head said. “When I realized that the old couple and the young couple were the same people, I just felt so warm inside.”
Parker stood in the hallway, eavesdropping. Were they talking about that dreadful film from last night? It had been like reading a Hallmark card for two hours. Arms crossed, Parker had seethed on the couch until it was over, too annoyed by the plot’s cheesy sentimentality to notice Debbie trying to hold his hand for the film’s last twenty minutes.
“I love all his films,” the head said. “His movies are a celebration of the human spirit.”
Parker felt dizzy. Was such treacle really coming from his mouth?
Debbie finished her tea and rinsed the mug in the sink as Parker approached, offering her cheek for a good morning peck. Parker saw the coffee maker and scowled.
“You didn’t make coffee.”
“I don’t drink coffee.”
“Too much caffeine makes you irritable,” the head said. “You really should cut down.”
“I cleaned up a bunch of crap from the side of the road,” Parker told his wife. “How much do you want to bet it’ll all be back tomorrow?”
“It sucks to be you,” Debbie said.
“Sometimes the effort alone is its own reward,” the head said.
“Shut up,” Parker said.
Debbie shoved past him, scooped the head from the table, and hurried out of the room.
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Parker stood at the stove, stirring the red sauce while the sausage sizzled in the pan. A vegetarian, Parker resented having to cook the flesh of animals murdered for their meat, but he did it anyway, Debbie and her family being dedicated carnivores oblivious to the pain and suffering inherent in their diet. Debbie’s sister Holly and her blowhard husband Mike were expected for dinner with their two ill-behaved kids. Eager to avoid them, Parker had volunteered to cook; better to hide in the kitchen than listen to Holly droning about her real estate job or suffer through Mike’s arrogant bloviating, his brother-in-law incapable of any opinion that hadn’t first been vetted by the right wing nabobs on Fox News. Parker felt irritated before they’d even arrived. He grabbed the cayenne pepper and dumped a full tablespoon over the frying sausage. Let it burn their tongues off, he thought. It would serve them right for the cruelty of their plates.
The head sat on the counter, frowning as Parker sprinkled a second tablespoon of cayenne over the meat.
“That passive-aggressive behavior is terrible for your blood pressure,” the head said.
“The world is terrible for my blood pressure.”
“I’m worried about you.”
Parker speared a sausage and flipped it in the pan.
When the doorbell rang Debbie greeted each guest with a hug, taking their jackets as she welcomed them inside. Parker popped out for a quick hello—there’d be hell to pay if he didn’t—then retreated to the kitchen. Sure enough, within five minutes he heard his brother-in-law making cracks about big government persecuting the “job creators” and climate change being a hoax.
“There’s not a single peer-reviewed scientific study denying human impact on the climate,” Parker mumbled. “Not a single one!”
“Why don’t you suggest a few good sources of information?” the head asked.
Parker lifted the lid of the saucepan and sized up the head, wondering if it would fit inside the pan.
Debbie leaned into the kitchen. “I know what you’re doing. You can’t hide in here all afternoon.”
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“Okay, okay,” Parker said. He lowered the flame on the stove and went upstairs to change his shirt. When he came down he found everyone gathered in the living room, the kids quietly engrossed in a coloring book, Debbie and Holly discussing vacation plans, Mike sprawled on the couch next to the head.
“You’ve got a point,” Mike told the head. “I never thought of it that way but what you’re saying makes a lot of sense to me.”
“It’s all about creating dialogues,” the head said.
Parker stomped his way upstairs, waited for Debbie to fetch him, to chew him out for his unsociable bent.
But she never came.
By the time Parker vacated his room the guests had left and Debbie was in the kitchen loading the dishwasher. The head sat on the counter, its voice warm and soothing.
“How about an African safari?” the head asked. “I know it’s extravagant but we’ve got the money saved up, and well, why not go for it? It’ll be an amazing trip we’ll always cherish.”
“Are you sure?” Debbie said, beaming.
“Absolutely,” the head said. “It’s your dream trip, and my dream is to make you happy.”
Parker almost exploded. An African safari? It would cost fifteen grand easy, and while they did have the money saved, Parker had earmarked the money for…suddenly he couldn’t remember. Still, a safari was out of the question. Yet his wife looked blissful as she kissed the head on the lips and reached for her iPad, eager to start planning her dream trip.
Parker trudged toward the garage to sort the recyclables.
That night Parker walked into the bedroom and found Debbie naked on the bed, the head bobbing up and down between her legs.
“Yes! Oh God, yes!”
Parker shut the door and slumped his way to the guest bedroom. That goddamn head, he thought.
By the end of the week he’d never seen his wife happier, and Parker had never been more miserable.
“We need to talk,” he told the head.
A plastic shopping bag sat on the table. “It was a mistake bringing you here. I should have left you on the side of the road.”
“You’re an unhappy man, aren’t you?”
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“I really don’t know what to do,” Parker said. “Everything is so overwhelming, and there’s so much carelessness in the world. Our species is on a suicidal path and we do nothing except go shopping.”
Parker’s brain throbbed just thinking about it. Looking at the head was like looking in a mirror, only the head returned a more gentle reflection that the clenched grimace that usually greeted him.
The head smiled. “I have a suggestion.”
It took less than a minute. With both hands Parker reached under his jawbone and yanked off his head. He put it on the table, picked up the other head, and carefully lowered it onto his neck. Muscles merged as skin cells linked and bones fused; Parker rocked his neck back and forth, testing it.
“I feel better already,” Parker said. “Today is the first day of the rest of my life!”
On the table Parker’s old head scowled. What an asshole, the old head thought.
With his new head Parker grabbed the old one and stuffed it in the plastic bag. He knew just the place to bring it. He picked up the bag and began to stretch.
“Time to go running,” he said.
Sure, it was littering, but with all of the beer cans and old Big Mac wrappers and used prophylactics scattered around, would anyone really notice one more bag of trash?
As he jogged past the cemetery, Parker flung the bag toward the side of the road and watched it roll into a ditch. He thought he heard a voice shouting from inside the bag, a frightened bleating of bitterness and rage, but he couldn’t make out the words and didn’t want to hear it anyway.
Determined to stay in shape, Parker skipped over an old soda can, exhaled, and sprinted his way back home.