Two dozen seemingly identical chips rested atop small black stands, displayed on the shelves like treasure. James reached into the wide rosewood cabinet to inspect one of the pieces. It was the size of a thick poker chip. An almost perfect circle of bone.
He took it off its stand and ran his fingers along the edge. Felt where the chip has been meticulously, tenderly, smoothed. He clutched it tightly and suddenly heard the faint sound of strings. An abrupt rush of violins. A growing rhythm that quickly raced through his entire body. He heard notes, chord voices moving. A literal crescendo of …
James shook off the chip’s memory and placed it back on the stand. “Pretty fucking cool,” he admitted.
“I’m not at liberty, of course, to tell you which orchestra,” Zimmerman explained in his smooth, indifferent voice. “But, she chaired first violin for many years and was an associate concertmaster.” He sat on the couch directly across from the cabinet in a plush black sweater, the lines of age creeping up his fat neck into grey, neatly-slicked hair. “Some men collect cars,” he said. “Others collect pussy. I am interested in accumulating … something else. Which is why I was so very pleased to hear from you.”
James grabbed another chip of bone. Darker, greyed. Its edges weren’t as smooth; the marks of the instrument’s jagged teeth quite obvious. He didn’t care to know any more and put it back. He missed the stand and it rolled briefly on its side like a coin before bumping into the back of the cabinet and tipping. He tsked, picking it up, and set it back in its proper place. “It’s like some kind of ghost,” he said.
“Yes,” Zimmerman replied. “Something like that. The stain of a dead spirit, a soul’s echo. I don’t know. You’re the wordsmith.”
“And those?” James indicated several small piles neatly stacked in the cabinet’s lowest compartment.
“More ‘common’ pieces, if you will.” Zimmerman gave a short wave. “Most don’t even work anymore. Primarily homeless addicts and whores from when the collection began. Practice. Couldn’t tell you much more about them.”
“Their names, perhaps?”
“Names? No. Not for those.”
“I would have remembered their names,” James said, turning his gaze back to Zimmerman.
The collector grunted. “Only a few thousand dollars each for most of those. Nothing of great interest or value there, trust me. But you’re not exactly getting a few grand, are you?” He looked down at the small chest sitting beside the cabinet. An honest-to-God treasure chest. Two million dollars, composed of hundred dollar bills and gold coins. “I now pay to obtain the exact pieces I want. Only those who create, who touch the world through a true art. The writers, artists, and composers. Performers. Why, I even have a professional clown. Can you imagine?”
“A clown with a hole in his head? Yes, perfectly.”
Zimmerman sniffed, eyes intent on James. “The actual bone grows back, eventually. Fills in with new cartilage. In a year, no one would even know. A certain actor I met many years ago, who is now on a top sitcom, comes to mind.”
“I’m not what you’re looking for,” James said.
“But here you are just the same.”
James nodded and turned back to the cabinet. On the top shelf was the case. He grabbed the small walnut box. It was lighter than expected and closed, and he carefully set it on a round table next to the cabinet to get a better look. Opened, the top revealed a dim mirror built into the lid. The bottom was lined in velvet, several different tools resting serenely in their assigned case beds. The scalpel was six inches long.
“Man’s been using a trephine of some sort for more than ten thousand years.” Zimmerman stood leisurely and added several logs to the fire. “A subtle remedy for madness and demon-possession. In more recent times, a supposed quick fix for epilepsy, headaches, and syphilis. But this is something a bit more.”
“Because the patient performs the surgery himself?”
James studied a small Hey’s saw, a miniature axe with a curved saw-toothed edge, for first cuts into the skull. “Any slips?”
“Oh, yes.” Zimmerman stoked the fire, pushing the new logs into place.
James looked at him, suddenly dark eyed and dangerous. “Tell me one.”
“Very well. One of the first, one of the street punks. Ten bucks to suck, forty for everything. So, I offered him five grand to cut a hole in his own head.” He reset the fire iron. “And, the boy went too deep, that’s all. Wasn’t the last time it’s happened. It’s tough, I suppose. Knowing exactly when to stop. When to stop cutting.”
“I understand completely.”
“We’d gotten a motel room,” Zimmerman continued, “and the first cuts weren’t too bad. I’d bought him liquor, a good shot of Dolantine to take the edge off. He bled a great deal, many do, but I kept him standing naked in the bathtub, using the shower to wash the blood away. You want a memory, Truitt? I remember him laughing. Funny stuff, right? The few times he’d stopped cutting, I just kept laying out hundreds. The sink was filled with them.”
James eyed the fire, a great granite orifice casting shadow and anguish throughout the room. “And the pain?”
“The area is numb by then, the nerves already seared. In any case, he keeps turning the blade — round and round, see? — and he’s turning and I notice his laughter has become something quite extraordinary. The kind of laugh you should never truly hear. Like one of those men at the end of a good Lovecraft. He starts laughing like that, and I know he’s close. Through the skull. I’m told you can feel when it’s time to stop. Like sawing a log, you just know. But he didn’t. Maybe the booze or the Dolantine. I don’t know. He’d finished, but then turned again. It must have cut into his brain because that damned laughing stopped immediately.”
The trephine instrument itself was in two pieces. The first, a short metal rod ending in what looked like a squat socket wrench with jagged teeth. The other was a wood handle which James crossed at the top in a T and secured with the supplied grooved pin. He took hold of the handle tightly and got a feel for it in his hand. Tried his middle finger on either side, looking for the best grip.
“I shouted at him to stop. But he turned the blade again. Blood, I hoped, but something darker than blood, actually, started running out the hole. I knew he’d ruined everything. The chip was already useless. Somehow his wrist turned still again and the sound that came from his skull was nothing I’d heard before. A slurp. Some dreadful rupture of blood escaping and grey matter giving way to the alien force of steel. His naked body flopped suddenly, lunged at me. Arms flailing. Blade skittering across the floor. I pushed him backwards over the tub. Eyes still open, black sap oozing from the hole in its head. I was looking at an honest-to-god zombie and this blood-soaked thing somehow grabs my leg. So I kicked it. And kicked, and kicked. Its face … Finally, it lay in the tub, legs hanging over the edge.”
“Messy business,” James said. “How much to clean it up?”
“Cost almost nothing at all,” Zimmerman replied. “Some are born with money. Others are born with looks. Some,” he eyed James, “are blessed with something else.”
“Good hair, perhaps,” James said. “But, again, I’m not what you’re looking for.”
“My little tale didn’t frighten you, did it, Mr. Truitt?”
Holding out his other hand, James pushed the business end of the completed trephine into his palm and the serrated teeth pricked his skin. He turned clockwise, lightly, and the teeth grabbed hold, tearing away the flesh easily. He winced and pulled the tool aside to inspect his hand. A perfect jagged-edged circle was cut into the palm, the blood welling to the surface. “To tell the truth,” he said, “it may have increased my interest.”
“I’d hoped it might. And I’ve judged your talent carefully.” Zimmerman pointed to the small stack of books on the table. “I don’t make my selections frivolously.” He grabbed one of the books and squinted at the back jacket. “An ‘electrifying new spirit,’ “ he read. “ ‘Mr. Truitt achieves the heroic and ruin of man simultaneously in a voice for this age.’ ”
“The Times clearly don’t know shit either,” James said. “I was writing song lyrics. Surely, a man of your obvious means and taste is capable of acquiring the same from a more celebrated poet.”
Zimmerman reset the book. “I enjoy your work a great deal. I have two poets already in my collection, but your distinct voice is the missing piece. And, if I may remain candid?”
“I know you need the money. I know about the various menial jobs. That your wife left you. Your address has changed no less than six times in the past three years. Rotting away in that pit of a city. This offer is best received by those at a certain point in their career. The ballerina who blew out her knee. The heroin-burned pianist. The forgotten playwright. Insolvent, erstwhile.”
“The forgotten poet,” James finished the thought. “But, if you know all this, then you must also know that I no longer write.”
“Yes. And, so, imagine what you’ve stored away.”
“For you?” James set the trephine aside and ran his fingers across the last two pieces. A thin metal bone rasp to pry the now-detached chip free from the skull, and a small brush for any resultant bone dust at the end of the procedure. “I told you, I’m not a poet. I’d once hoped writing could provide the best conduit for my thoughts, my impressions, my ‘muse’ if you will.” James wiped his bloodied hand on his pants. “But, it did not. I was wrong.”
Zimmerman motioned for him to take his chair again, and James sat. “You’re an artist, Mr. Truitt, whether you write the words down, or not. That which made your work, made you, so unique. Which makes so few special. It’s still inside you.”
“What would yours show, I wonder.”
“Mine?” Zimmerman noticed for the first time that James had carried the serrated trephine blade back to his chair. “Nothing, I’m afraid, Mr. Truitt. I’ve found that most people, from the dockhand to the banker, are quite ordinary, after all.”
“Most people are fortunate in that way.”
Zimmerman leaned forward. “I won’t lie to you, Truitt. You would lose something more than bone tonight. A bit of what makes you special that will never come back.” He rang a small bell on a table next to the couch. “Of course, there’ll always be the hope that it might.”
James settled back into his chair and finished his glass of wine, the trephine blade resting in his lap, and waited for a servant to appear. Instead, a woman entered the room. Thin and younger than Zimmerman, perhaps beautiful if not for the lifeless eyes. James watched her and decided she had once been someone worth watching. But only many years before.
Zimmerman stood to kiss her cheek. “My wife, Brigitte,” he told James. “I must excuse myself for a moment. But she will be kind enough to keep you company until my return.”
The woman nodded and he exited. As soon as he’d gone, she’d disregarded James and the rest of the room to simply stare at the fire; she as ancient and dark, as dead, as anything else kept in the house.
James stood and crossed to the cabinet again, placed the trephine blade back into the case. Looked over the display of bones, picked one randomly, half-convinced it had called out to him somehow. He lifted it off its stand. It was ashen colored and cold to the touch. Grainy.
He wrapped his hand around the chip. The sensation and images came immediately. A burst of senses. Of movement. Dancing. The rhythm shifting through his ears and body. His very heart lifting to the tempo which moved through him. Or had the music moved toward him. He felt lifted, cool air rushing over his face. Strong hands locked at his hips. These hands did not attack him, didn’t bruise and hurt. These hands supported and caressed. They became one with his skin, with his movement, gentle. Strong. His body shuddered against their press, the heat of another body embraced alongside his. His own muscles taut and powerful, he slipped away from the hands, not too far, an instrument of the music. Leaping across the stage, leaping across the field. As if God himself were dancing through him, leaping beside him, celebrating life … celebrating James Truitt.
“Christ almighty,” he stammered and let go of the chip.
He stood before the cabinet, trembling. Throughout, Zimmerman’s wife had watched him. Both terror and wonder in her face. His breaths were quick and short. He thought of reaching for another chip. Tried to decide which one to grab next.
“Would you like another drink?” the woman asked suddenly, with a soft, dispirited voice. She’d fallen back into her trained routine.
“No,” James said. “Which one is yours?”
She looked directly at him, a spark of life in her eyes for the first time. “Which …”
“I was a magnificent coloratura soprano,” she said, her gaze drifting near the cabinet. “The ‘next Callas,’ some said. I performed in the world’s greatest houses.”
“And your price?” he asked.
“This,” the woman said. “All of it. Nearly a billion and … And when he’s gone …”
“I can still sing,” she said. “But that something which always made it, somehow, more than singing. That’s what sits on his shelf now.” She dared another look at the cabinet. “One day it will be mine again.”
“To hold like the others?” James said, “for brief flashes of what you once had.”
“No, no!” She glared at him, eyes wide, wild. “I thought of all that. I did! I did.” Her hand reached up and pulled aside greying hair to reveal the hole in her head. A perfect circle the size of a poker chip. It was yellowed and crusted over, the old wound filled with something, and despite his best efforts, James made a grunt of disgust.
“Wax,” the woman explained. “After … after my operation, I filled it with wax.” The grin faded and she contemplated the fire again. “That way, when this is all mine, I can put it back,” she murmured. It came out as a plea, a prayer almost. “I can put it back.”
He wondered if she’d ever truly believed such a thing were possible. “What will you —”
Zimmerman re-entered the room. “Getting along nicely then? Good. Looks like everyone is coming to know each other just fine. Did she tell you to run?”
James shook his head, watching Zimmerman’s wife. “Not yet.”
“Unexpected. Brigitte always does. But no one has yet.” He’d again grabbed one of Truitt’s books. “I sometimes suspect you might actually like Man, Mr. Truitt.”
“The ideal of, yes. And am only disappointed in the truth. It’s that disappointment I’ve always sought release from through my craft. Whatever that craft may be.” He tapped several of the chips lightly again, petting them almost. “Is that really what you want in your … Your collection?”
James turned to him. “Then I agree,” he said.
Zimmerman clapped mutely, his eyes smiling. “Wonderful.”
“A few things, first.”
“That wasn’t our agreement.” Zimmerman’s voice was cautious, bitter.
“Where’s Brigittes’ chip?”
“Her …” Zimmerman squinted at his wife and then back to James. “That’s not your —”
“Sure it is,” James crossed the room in three quick steps and took hold of the woman’s hand. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s find it.”
“Truitt!” Zimmerman raged, stomping after them.
“Sit down,” James said.
Zimmerman studied him, then took his seat. “You won’t find it.”
“Let’s see.” James reached into the case.
“Please …” the woman said.
“Please, what? It’s now or never, darling. Decisions have been made.” He’d reached to touch her head and she pulled away. James grabbed hold of her neck, from behind. It was half-gentle, as if he were going to give her their first big Hollywood kiss. She whirled back with his force and he slipped his hand up, revealing the hole.
“Don’t,” Zimmerman said quietly.
James ignored him and, holding back her hair with his four fingers, sought the hole with his thumb. He rubbed the top of it, the wax thick, stiff, but warm to touch. He stroked it, watching her, wondering what his touch might do. She froze next to him, eyes closed.
His thumb sunk deeper, pushing in a fraction. How far, he thought, how far can I press before the black stuff comes out and she’s thrashing on the floor at my feet. He made a circular motion, testing the width of the wound. He moved in his thumb as if he were moving between a woman’s legs, slow circular movements pressing deeper with each rotation. She responded. Chest lifting, the feminine indent below her back shifting inward. She breathed deeply against his probing hand. Shuddered against his prying, intrusive … and yet confident touch.
He pressed further, the wax curling over the thumb’s joint, collecting at his knuckle. It spread to his second finger, warm and tacky. His circle widened, dared to press outward. He found the edges. Edges of bone. Brigitte’s skull. He countered his swirling, the outline of the hole clear to his hand. Finally, he felt something that wasn’t wax and the woman jolted beside him.
“Truitt …” he heard Zimmerman say his name, a warning of some kind.
He pulled his hand away and she gasped. The touch broken and lost between them. She looked up at him, eyes passive and sleepy. James inspected the hole, saw for the first time what he thought was … inside her. He cleared away the remaining wax and examined the old cut. She quivered again beside him and he pulled her closer, tilted her head.
“Yes,” she said, still and languid.
He bent forward and brought his mouth to the hole.
“Truitt!” Zimmerman jumped from his seat, but didn’t move another inch. He stood rooted watching.
The kiss was short, James’s lips pressing around the edges of the hole. The tongue darted inside, flickering against her. She’d collapsed against him and his hand dropped to her waist to hold her steady as they stepped to the cabinet. “Do you know which one?”
She shook her head.
He examined the cabinet, then reached out. Selected one of the chips. “I do,” he said. He brought it up to her head and she shrank away from him again. “Brigitte,” he appealed.
She lifted her chin proudly. “Don’t you need to hold it?” she asked. “To know for sure?”
“No.” He held it to her head again. This time, she didn’t move. She stood like one of the statues in her front yard. James positioned the chip into place. Guided it carefully and it slid in, lodging easily enough. He pressed until it was wedged fully down again.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s right. I … There’s something.”
“Looks like we found it.” James looked at Zimmerman. Then back to the woman, Brigitte, looking for something in her eyes that might tell him everything was fixed again. That her plan had worked. Would she directly break into song? He expected not.
“Nothing,” she verified. “There was a flash. A brief … It was really me again. The whole me.”
“I’m happy for you.” James brushed the hair from her face.
“But only for a moment,” she muttered. “I can’t remember now.”
“I thought as much.”
“Maybe it just takes more time,” she said. “Maybe …”
“Enough of this!” Zimmerman snapped. “You apparently have what you wanted. Now I will have what was promised.”
James smiled. “My own chip in your filthy collection.”
“Filthy? You’ll be immortalized,” Zimmerman said. “That thing which makes you so special, your greatest talent, will become something real. More real than any chapbook, award or verse. You will share your true self with another human. What more could any artist want?”
“To share my true self with God? With myself.”
“Fine, fine,” said Zimmerman. “Brigitte, I …” He stumbled over his words. The woman hovered like a ghost in the corner, something lost in her eyes. James saw too she was fading. “Darling,” Zimmerman managed, and he choked on the word. He too now recognized the creature that stood across the room. “If you’ll excuse us.”
Brigitte nodded distantly and dragged toward the door. When she was halfway across the room, James moved and caught her again. His slender hands seizing her head and neck in one swift move. With another, he’d jerked his right arm and there was a terrible crack.
Her body slumped to the floor. Zimmerman had remained frozen throughout. James stood breathing heavily, looking at his own palms.
“Sit,” he said again.
Zimmerman whirled on him, staring with confused eyes. “What … What have you done?”
“I told you I wasn’t a poet.”
“You …” Zimmerman trembled, his jaw slack, the soft, full lips quivering. His legs gave, and he collapsed to the couch as ordered.
“My wife didn’t leave me,” James said. “She was the fourth. There’ve been others since. Eleven. No, twelve. Thirteen, now, I suppose.” He shrugged, glancing down at Brigitte. “I’ve tried to move. To avoid certain kinds of people, but … But I suppose my own collection has also grown over the years.”
“You’re … You … You can’t do this,” Zimmerman said weakly. “You can’t.” But still, he didn’t move.
They never did, James thought, and so he kept talking. He had time. He always did. “Art did not satisfy. Poetry did not, could not, satisfy,” he said. “So I returned to what I’d found before as a younger man.” A small smile. A memory. “To better explore a truer talent, a truer craft, once again.” His hand wrapped around Zimmerman’s throat. “I still hope that I’m wrong about this. I still like to think there’s something else, something else that makes me ‘unique.’ “
James held the scalpel again.
Zimmerman sneered, shaking beneath him. “Now what Truitt? You’ll kill me too and steal all the money. Is that it?”
“Now we operate,” James replied.
“Ten million dollars. Fifty million.”
James grabbed hold and brought the blade over Zimmerman’s head in one swift movement, running it from between his eyes to the back of his neck. Zimmerman screamed and James kept cutting. Then, across the floor to the cabinet, the case of tools. It wasn’t easy. Zimmerman was a heavier man and flailed like a child having a tantrum. James had kicked until the squirming slowed, held him to the floor. With his free hand, he’d reached back into the case for the small saw. Soon, the line had become a shallow groove.
“That looks good enough,” James had said, and Zimmerman whimpered under him. James next set the saw aside and grabbed hold of the trephine, lined up the edge, grabbed the T’d top, and turned once, turned, turned. Zimmerman lay still beneath him when James grabbed the steel rasp and slid it into the fresh ridge. Found the right spot, lifted, rotating the wrist. “Look at that,” he said, holding up the freed bone.
James didn’t know if it was the pain, the fear, or the spilling blood, but Zimmerman’s next words were sloppy, drunken and wet. “So now … now you have … my chip. Is that all—”
“I don’t want your damned chip,” James laughed. “You told me it wouldn’t show a thing. And I believe you.” He tossed the bone into the fire. “This is just practice.”
Zimmerman’s eyes widened, the blood running off his brow and down his cheeks. James pushed him back to the ground, held him still. Found another spot in the skull. And started sawing.
The first eight times, he’d done quite well. Tossing each finished cut into the slowly-dying fire; really got the hang of it. Slipped on the ninth, though. So little bone by then. Cut too deep, he guessed.
He stood quite alone in front of the cabinet again, a handful of the original chips collected from their stands into his hand.
He clutched the first off of the small stack. An instinctive burst of colors, light, shadow, smell of paint, his hand seizing the brush, the canvas, beauty …
Grabbed another. Words, empathy, moving across the stage, laughter, warm light, applause, reflection …
Another. Movement, breathing, tempo, the weight of a hand against him again, blending, dance forms structured around the nine rasas, elation …
James let the remaining chips in the stack fall from his fingers. He reached into the case of tools and took hold of the scalpel.
Looking in the mirror, he made the first incision.