Mastodon Merthiolate (and Other Futile Antiseptics) by Robert C. Hardin

Merthiolate (and Other Futile Antiseptics)


After failing to kill myself for the eighteenth time, I decided to be more positive. Why focus on failure? I thought. Why not appreciate the character added by damage to my once-perfect body? But despite the pep talk, I still couldn’t examine myself without cringing. It was like being a vintage car fanatic and finding bullet-spray patterns on the hood of a cherry Stingray. I was twenty years old. I hadn’t even been out of the warehouse. Now it seemed there were worse things than having flawless skin and a case of insomnia. Tattered eyelids, for example. Scalloped hollows in place of areolae.

For weeks, I stared at the rifle wounds and the diminishing slashes on the backs of my hands. They took on a shimmering orange glow like Merthiolate applied over glitter tattoos. Whenever I slunk into a booth at the back of Cool Beans and tugged off the strangler gloves, my stitch-marked wrists gleamed like medicinal showroom dragsters. That seemed a bit too precious for the neighborhood. You didn’t want to be some bookwormy hair boy in Denton County and go around gleaming.

I thought I’d feel less out of place at some garish public event. The monster ambulance show I read about in the Observer, for example, in which vehicles were supposed to look like burn victims with a platinum sparkle undercoat. So that, when shattered by some oncoming sadist, paint layers of metalflake and transparent blue or coral – coral, the color of cough syrup, diluted blood and curare tincture – would parody the wounds of glitter bomb casualties.

I liked the idea of erupted car flesh because I wanted to stop being human. I wanted to be Merthiolate instead. I listed at the thought like a newborn; glistened like a flame-painted cherry ride. Watching myself heal, I imagined coating a racing car with a red-death cast, pocked and speckled as if for Ed Poe’s final showroom. I tried to embed the axis of a miniature flywheel into the design, but it kept falling out. Keloid formations grew so elaborate I knew the custom work was permanent. Other scars assumed the texture of serrated valve covers: still noticeable but less florid, less obscene.

I liked looking at my scars in private, but they made me feel vulnerable in public. Turns out there are worse things than being conspicuous.

He pondered such questions while awaiting sporadic chore reassignment from Pellucid Specificity Processing Development Systems, the start-up best suited to “turn customers’ outrage into real-time resignation.”

Everywhere I went, people lost interest in me as soon as they paid attention. I told myself they were just intimidated, that they secretly craved my company but felt slightly overwhelmed. That wasn’t it. Riding the A-train from Medpark in one of those insular pockets within a crowd – in which the faces of strangers upset and provoked me at the same time, so that I couldn’t stop noticing them but wanted to look away – I took solace in the physicality of those brittle human clusters, lurching and tilting in our car as if in a swaying necklace of tin capsules. Outside tunnels unsheathed us and then, through the window, sunlight exposed a kinetic flat expanse. The space surrounded a dented sanctuary that rotated as it passed, the reversible image surrounding it described by trees slanting and stiffening in mid-gesture. These swept by, too, until, tinged by bluish windowglass, starker trees converged behind a metal fence: an emergency-corralled forest of frozen horses.

My irises, too, are stained glass, I thought to myself, batting my trashers at strangers assumed to be enticed by my Mishima torso. In my mind, I painted Modigliani eye-smiles on my Roman observers’ eggshell blanks. I didn’t realize I’d misinterpreted. The train jumped forward, then stopped completely at the Trinity Mills Station. Men I’d taken for antique cruisers disembarked the capsule impatiently, heels slippery with secondhand rain, thumbprints in grime swirling beneath their running shoes.

I tint your eggshell eyes my favorite color and you don’t even notice!, I thought-screamed at the bastards. You carry that home with you now. My cuts will discolor your dreams.

Yes, I obsessed over the changes in myself. I did it for months – I admit it – savoring the seasons of red, blue and black and the hand-distressed effect. But I wasn’t being narcissistic. Solipsistically speaking, I had taken a vow of chastity: Avoiding self-scrutiny during sessions of pelvic pottery-jollying, I found the restraint to focus on other people right when I came. The trick was to observe the slashes in passing and, later, to study myself with an eye to clinical solutions. To apply my newfound sense of texture to everything I drew instead of myself: to the doll-sculptures that guarded my imaginary Romanesque water castles; to the Cathedral-Port Morgue as I saw it two thousand years from now – as isolate as a water castle. Disengaging from myself made me feel safe enough to reproduce what I observed like any monk. To align the process with a just-glimpsed spiritual grid: An intuited symmetry, an absolute form that could only be sensed.

I watched my wounds dry to a flattering and nondescript color. I could still finger-trace the arabesques they formed. The topmost flurry of new cuts described a chiseling hammer, perhaps intended to destroy the sacred design below it, a design to which, I realized, my disrupted sleep patterns had always adhered. The totality of the damage depicted some dizzying coherence, some structure so vast I knew I could never conceive of it, let alone, render it correctly.

Sometimes I tired of looking. I let my head slump forward on its stalk, closed my eyes and felt the tension slide down my mask of bone. Suppressed energy poured from me, spilling out and forming sketches of interior landscapes in lightning. I wanted to withdraw from everything then, into some sunless fortress beneath the earth and moss. But I couldn’t do that yet. I had to depict every pattern, every correspondence.

In those sketches began the idea for my newest house-doll, Beatrix, a Norman anatomy of arches and extremities that did not compromise my detachment; did not contradict my fealty to balance; did not contradict my “faith”, as I called it – strike that – called Her ruefully. Yet the unity of her design, like that of my damage, couldn’t be held in the imagination as a single thing

But Faith’s response was unconscious. The wind from the fan drew a swirl in the air. An entanglement of charm bracelets floated above me jingling: babbling tragicomedy masks, sibilant flutes and coughing Scotties. My fingers traced the shift of Faith’s shadowy hem. It was time to prove myself to Her by drawing her accurately – my house-doll – and not me.

Afterward, I counted twenty-three new star-shaped scars on my left wrist. Even that constellation will vanish eventually, I thought. Like a crib mobile turning and dissolving in adolescent dreams of change.


photograph by Tim Beckett

Cavewater Cuisine

Tilting her hand slightly over the darkened aquarium, Phyllis the fish mutterer sifted silver-flecked feed-dust through her fingers (“a ludicrous refinement,” she thought aloud). Albino minnows followed the cloud-fall of edible dust, diving and rising in pursuit, and their mouths – pluvial, translucent – trembled like the talking fists of homeless ventriloquists. Until finally, with hoary manila flecks gleaming through their viscera, the minnows drifted downward. Each dropped to some lower vantage only to recover in the cleft between coral branches, staring vacantly into the blackness beyond the glass.

Like an Egyptian Bas Relief, only Shorter and from China

She possessed the shoulders of a molting Griffin buzzard and that’s why I wanted her. In the provoking years of her decrepitude, her wrists felt as exquisitely crinkled as the eyelids of some comely sun-dried granny during the climax of Rigoletto. Whenever she performed Tai Chi exercises with the other Chinese senior citizens, or lowered herself into a hospital wheelchair, or flailed the air during a neurasthenic spell, her limbs creaked delicately like wicker armrests. Nights, when we lay in bed together pelvis-to-knee, she would roll toward me in a crisis of fatigue. In those moments, she looked so delectable it was all I could do not to steal her wooden teeth and bury them in my sacred landfill.

My rag-heap, I would croak tenderly as she pretended to be awake. My disintegrating mummy. My crumpled-bandage map.

The Papaya’s Floating over the Blackboard, Mrs. Sveltermam

For Biff, the ambiguity of rifle barrels was a constant annoyance. Why were there two barrels, anyway? Was one not enough? Had people been hunting some new stereoscopic animal? Or were they simply gun-drunk klutzes who needed simultaneous shots to make a kill?

He pondered such questions while awaiting sporadic chore reassignment from Pellucid Specificity Processing Development Systems, the start-up best suited to “turn customers’ outrage into real-time resignation.” Then Tracy was poking him in the shoulder-blade and asking questions of her own.

“What was that goiter they used to have on the eighteenth floor? The one with the elevator we used to share and the little beard we liked – remember that? What about that guy who brought in palaver tongs right before the Frug Standard and Samantha got martyred and the rest of them drove away to the Emerald Tickle? No one ever explained that crimp up in the swamp loft, not even Old Grub, so I’ve always kind of wondered: What were those things?”

Probably Not an Actual Dream

Last night, I was interviewing a medical graffiti artist for a feature article in a skater magazine and asked a question that must have offended him, because he sliced off the top of my skull, grabbed a bottle of bathtub vodka from the liquor cabinet in my toilet and doused my exposed right hemisphere with the contents. Later, having been dragged to the hospital by a rescue lemur with a barrel of asphalt lubricant around its neck, I recited the catechism as congenitally blurry surgeons laced together my new skull. The operation was largely successful, though I experienced partial memory loss and had no recollection of my assailant’s face. All I could picture was the Frontside Ollie Tonsillectomy Diagram he’d spray-painted for the magazine’s cover. Even the name of the publication eluded me while giggling to itself.

I had to pick out the cover from a magazine lineup arranged at a cigar store for spies that was going out of business because no one could see the merchandise through its mirrored windows. I wanted to help the owner by standing outside in carnival clothes and inviting strangers to enjoy what I intended to call the Furtive Nicotine Funhouse, but an agile paraplegic wriggled over and confiscated my pointer with his teeth.

Saturday, the Elderly Pleasured Themselves

(A Senile Homunculus Mystery)

Late in the day when the larvae arrived and the rhythm of sleep had overtaken the passive-aggressive hours, Miasmike found himself chanting syllables that seemed to mean nothing to anyone, least of all him. Late-and-eight, late-and-eight, he repeated to the freshening presences, his own echo returning to immerse him like drool in wind.

His gaze settled on something fuzzy and remote. The tongue buddies had opened the front door to his flat and yet he could only stare at them through the snowfall diorama of his defective vision. The pain between his temples reassured him like tinny music in an imposing place, which probably made him appear thoughtful to the buddies as his head rested intensely on his fist, though in fact he was rapt in a moment of idiocy – a feeling of mental excision which had as its accompaniment some half-remembered electric rocking horse ostinato, some pattern of pitches a mechanical horse might have seemed to sing to him during his infancy, the vibrating mane and gurgling motor fading as buddy fingers lifted him from apathy’s saddle. From outside came the rumbling of the boardwalk and the dervish-whirl of young men in black dresses barricaded in a club where the buddies had taken him once on the night of his eighty-second birthday, though he’d shut it all out and concentrated instead on the woman who leaned beside him, offering him a gape at the bit of knee revealed by her split-seam body-length hospital bib.

— Robert C. Hardin


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