Frankenstein’s Monster

He could have been Frankenstein’s monster from any horror film or regional theater production, no makeup, no latex required, she thought. He was only missing a tattered 19th-century frock coat to solidify the look. 

She first saw him three months ago at the tail-end of the horrible summer. The manager and the stocker used to stand in the walk-in freezer on their off-time while she stood behind the register in the faint breeze of the window-unit, sweating through her red polo shirt that had once belonged to her father. The stranger was nearly seven-feet tall and had to crouch beneath the threshold as he entered the store. He bought standard poor-people things, staples: cans of beans, single pounds of only the discount ground beef, butter, milk, hot sauce, brown sugar, steel-cut oatmeal, eggs, and chocolate. He might have purchased beer, but Johnny’s didn’t have the cooler space for alcohol.

He had a genuine smile that revealed a massive congenital gap in his front teeth, a visible depression on the right side of his shaved scalp, moon-shaped scars under his eye sockets and a large ridge on the left side of his face where a skin graft was evident. He came in close to every week since that first visit. She knew why. Despite the chain stores half a mile down the road killing their already meager business, Johnny’s was never crowded. That meant no one was ever there long enough besides the three employees to stare at him. Wal-Mart must have been a nightmare for someone who looked like him.

He was a true stranger, not a trucker passing through or a lost tourist on their way to the beach. He had come to stay.  He spoke with a Northern cadence, even punctuated his speech with ‘eh’ and ‘ya know.’ She didn’t ask if he was foreign. He was not necessarily Canadian. He could have been from Wisconsin or Montana. She knew that much.

“The weather’s gettin’ real nice, eh?” he said, placing his things on the counter.

“It won’t last.”

“Nothin’ ever does. It ever get cold down here?”

“Off and on through January and February,” she said, running the cans across the weak scanner.

“How long you been here?”

“All my life.”

“I meant the store.”

“Long, long time,” she said.

“You work here all your life too?”

Being a checkout clerk at Johnny’s was not the kind of job you applied for. It was the kind of position you inherited through obligation. Murry, the owner, had bought the store from an ex-pat Cuban-Chinese family in the late 70s with the life insurance money from his late wife. Forty years ago, his vision was to create a chain from the ground up like Publix. His current vision was to bulldoze the shack and sell the lot to a gas station. At first, Mickey (her name was actually Michaela, but she hated her name) had worked part-time throughout high school as a punishment for smoking weed in her bathroom. Her mother knew Murry’s sister from a Christian book club and struck a deal. After losing her scholarship and dropping out of college, she returned to town and kept on working at Johnny’s.

Who was Johnny? There was no Johnny, she thought. There was never a Johnny.

 She had locked up for the evening about ten minutes early. Dale and Murry were long gone and already drunk. With her black apron still on, she sat on the wooden front steps and lit a cigarette. The sound of heavy footfalls on loose gravel inched toward her and she saw Frankenstein’s monster emerge from the wild bamboo and rhododendrons in the dusk afterglow. She took a drag on the cigarette, half startled.

“We’re closed,” she said.

“That’s fine. I don’t really need anything.”

He was about to turn around.

“Hey,” she said. “Where are you from?”

“Where am I from?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m from Ontario.”

“You’re Canadian?”

“Yep.”

“What are you doing down here?”

He chuckled.

“Stuff,” he said.

***

That night, she headed west on the single-lane road to the abandoned elementary grounds where her favorite redbrick courtyard was hidden in bushels of dying elephant grass and gates of twisted iron. Raccoons moved through the canopy of dense palmetto leaves above the clustered trees, scrapping the gutter that lined the edge of the ancient rooftop. There was some graffiti around the shattered windows. It was old and faded. Blast marks from New Year’s mortars spread across the corroded brick in opaque dream-like patterns. Tera used to meet her here with a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice and a blunt. But Tera was long gone; a different college, a different life. Knowing her, she was probably drowning in pussy;  hairy hippie cunts that capture their moisture just right beneath those peasant skirts she had once thought about wearing. Her life was probably full of magic mushrooms and chakras and tantric threesomes in the Appalachian wilderness. And Mickey was still here. No more clandestine fingerings in the dead of night. No more half-enlightened discussions on feminism. What was she gonna do in this town? She had a chance at a small college on the coast thirty minutes away, but she blew it. Years from now, Tera will start commuting to her creative job in a metropolitan city center, and Mickey will be a fat old dyke who sacks groceries for a living.

She sat down by the dried-up fountain. A thick, black rat snake slithered between her feet toward the bushes. She smoked a cigarette and listened to the chattering of the raccoons. 

***

She liked to watch internet videos of monkeys grooming one another before she fell asleep. That or a video of a British ergonomist explaining the correct posture for sitting at the computer. She speaks softly but the audio is sensitive enough it almost picks up the saliva building upon her tongue, between her teeth. The young woman in running clothes that she uses as a model sits and stands, lets her caress her back as she talks about her spine, and pivots her neck as she places her fingers on the hinges of her jaw. It’s all vaguely sapphic. The monkeys were just monkeys. Monkeys were funny to her. She also felt comforted by the insinuation of their sophisticated social order.

She fell asleep in her childhood bed flanked on both sides by fixtures of a life she had tried and failed to escape: a cross on the far wall and her old dresser with her baby changing station built into a folding compartment on top.

She woke up in the middle of the night and heard rustling downstairs. The floorboards squealed. Plates crashed into one another. It didn’t sound like her mother. Her mother was a ghost. She got out of bed and took the Winchester off the wall mount in the hallway. It was always empty, but it looked intimidating. She walked down the carpeted steps. The noises were getting louder: the sound of a bag being torn open followed by chewing. Turning the corner, she aimed the barrel in front of her and racked the lever to indicate she had chambered a cartridge. The possum stared back at her with its beady eyes as it nibbled on the dried bread crust from the open garbage bag. She lowered the rifle and sighed. Her mother had left the window open above the sink to save on AC, and the little bastard had exploited a minor tear in the screen. She opened the back door and swept him away with the stock, poking at his patchy gray fur as he waddled down the steps into the bull thistles.

“Be free,” she said, “Be free, you fearless beast.”

The hefty critter scaled the aluminum fence across the field and raced along the knuckled selvage to a low-hanging oak branch. He was gone.

She closed the window and set the loose dishes the possum had miraculously not shattered back into the sink the locked the back door. The moon was low in a strange clear sky. She set the Winchester in the corner and crouched to her knees to clean up the wadded napkins and bits of food strewn across the floor.

***

She used to help her mother hand out religious comics at Halloween instead of candy. Most kids didn’t have a problem with that in this town. The trick-or-treaters around here were members of the same church. Halloween candy wasn’t something she nor her peers longed for. The high-fat, high-sodium, high-sugar diet of frequent church potlucks was enough. Gluttony didn’t strike her as a Baptist sin. She supposed (and she could only infer this from movies and a cursory knowledge of the Northeast) it was the same for Catholics and drinking. She didn’t know what a eucharist was until she went to an Episcopal church near the college campus. And she only went one Sunday in October because of the pride flags hanging from the columns of the portico. One year, right at the eve of her adolescence, she handed out some Jack Chick cartoons to a group of kids she hadn’t seen before at school or church. Their house was egged later that night. The next day she was cleaning the yard and hosing down the vinyl siding when she saw the rectangular booklets tossed into the bushes. She fished them out from under the loquat and, sitting in the yard with the running hose by her side, gave the cartoons an honest read. A strange thing happened. She laughed. She laughed her ass off. These stupid comics she had been handing out for so long weren’t teaching anyone anything. They weren’t changing minds or helping to assuage doubt. They weren’t even kind. These little booklets of black and white illustrated scenarios were just awful. She laughed. She had to laugh. She laughed at the gay guys converting the world’s male population to gayness; the Muslim extremist who accepts Allah is just moon-god trickster and converts two pages later; the theologian who burns in hell for admitting other religions have merit. She threw them in the garbage with the eggshells.

In the morning, she walked into the kitchen and her mother was opening a fresh box of church fliers and Jack Chick comics for the upcoming fundraiser.

“Why was the air-conditioning on all night long?”

“Because it’s hot,” she said, grabbing a cold bottle of water from the fridge.

“Why weren’t the windows open?”

“They were, and then I closed them. A possum got inside the kitchen and opened up our trash.”

“Oh, you’re so full of it. You know I have to pay for that air-conditioning. Leave it on all night and it racks the bill up like crazy. We’re in winter now. It gets cold at night.”

“It doesn’t get cold here, Mom. It never gets cold here.”

“I’m sure you think it’s some kind of global warming BS.”

She drank half the bottle of ice-cold water and sat down at the table. She said nothing.

Her mother stuffed an equal amount of fliers and Chick tracts into a series of manilla envelopes labeled with the volunteer’s names.

“Mom?” Mickey said, breaking a long silence.

“What?”

“Why did you bother to write everyone’s name down if each packet has the same stuff?”

She paused.

“They’re not all the same,” she said.

“They look the same.”

“Well, they’re not.”

She finished her water.

Her mother stuffed the last envelope and moved the giant stack over to a plastic bin by the sink. She noticed the possum-sized gash in the window screen and sighed.

“Oh, Mickey. I’m sorry. You weren’t kidding, were you?”

Mickey shook her head in silence.

“Now I feel bad. I’ll have to replace that now. Shit!”

“Life is life, eh?” she said, mimicking a Canadian accent.

Her mother froze.

“What did you say?”

“Life is life.”

“Are you tryin’ to lose your accent now?”

“I’m just having fun. You know this guy’s been shopping at Johnny’s a lot lately. He’s from Canada.”

“Canada? What the hell is he doing down here?”

Mickey laughed.

“Stuff,” she said.

***

Frankenstein’s monster did not appear for an entire week. Their business was slow enough that his absence was noticeable. They had their regulars: an old guy in a cowboy hat who loaded his truck with sacks of cornmeal, another even older guy who sat and drank Ne-Hi grape soda on the porch for hours, and a group of Mexican road workers who bought supplies for lunch as well as the long drive home further inland.

The next week, her mom had to take the car for an evening church function. She dropped her off at Johnny’s and the idea was for her to walk home.

“That’s how young girls go missing, Mom.”

“Don’t you make me feel bad about this.”

She locked up early again (there wouldn’t be any customers after five-thirty) when Murry and Dale split for the local bar. She sat on the porch in the evening breeze with a Coca-cola she hadn’t paid for and ignited a joint instead of a cigarette. She smoked and sipped the drink. The wind rustled the rhododendron leaves and swayed the thin pines. Their trunks groaned like tightening rope. The palmettos were unmoving except for their tassel-shaped leaves juxtaposed against the red horizon like mutated dandelions.

“This place sucks,” she said out loud.

“I don’t know. I kind of like it.”

She jumped two feet to the left and spilled part of the Coca-cola.

The Canadian was standing beneath her on the porch, his hand on the two-by-four railing, watching the sun get low.

“The hell, dude?”

“Sorry, I thought you saw me.”

“No!”

“Sorry. Are you guys closing early now?”

She caught her breath.

“Yeah, no. Kind of. What do you need?”

He sniffed the air.

“You smokin’ weed?”

“No, it’s a cigarette.”

“Can I get a hit?”

She hesitated.

“Yeah, just don’t tell nobody.”

She passed him the joint.

He took a small hit and immediately started coughing.

“It’s been a while,” he said, passing it back.

“It’s not great stuff.”

“It’ll do.”

“I can open up the register if you need to grab something right quick.”

“I don’t really need anything,” he said, “What do you do for fun around here?”

She raised up the burning joint as the remnants of a stem sizzled on the ember like a sprig of dry sassafras.

“We make our own fun.”

“You folks don’t have a movie theater or a steakhouse…”

“Nearest movie theater is a half-hour away on the island.”

“Yeah, but what else do people do, you know?”

“They go to church, or they develop a drinking problem.”

He laughed.

“Where I come from the two aren’t mutually exclusive, eh.”

She took a drag on the joint and blew into the wind, letting it carry the smell away.

“Where exactly are you from? I mean like in Ontario.”

“Oh, you remember me telling you that.”

 He shifted his feet as he leaned against the rail.

“Truth be told,” he said, “I’m from Norway House, Manitoba. But I grew up and lived all my life in London, Ontario.”

“Ontario has a London?”

“Yep,” he said.

“Why are you in the States now? And why not Ohio or somewhere nicer.”

“You don’t like it here?”

“Of course, I don’t.”

“I don’t mind it here. It doesn’t get cold.”

“What do you do for a living?”

“Nothing right now,” he said.

“You don’t work?”

“I live off a settlement. Employer negligence. That’s why my face is like this.”

“What happened?”

“Industrial accident. I worked in a sugar factory. Things weren’t up to code. I don’t like to relive it.”

“That’s fine,” she said, offering him the joint.

He took another hit, deeper this time, and exhaled an even stream of white smoke.

 “Why don’t you go down to the beach to spend your settlement money? What’s so great about this little town anyway?”

“There’s nothing particularly special about this town. I’ve just been looking for somebody and they happen to live here.”

She stamped out the joint on a nearby beam and set what was left in her cigarette pack.

“Who’s that?”

 “My daughter.”

“Really?”

He nodded.

“What’s her name?”

“Michaela. But she goes by Mickey.”

“That’s not funny.”

“I’m not trying to be funny.”

“You’re not my dad,” she said.

“I’m pretty sure I am. I left Eleanor back in 1992. That’d make you 19 years old?”

“I’m 20.”

“I wasn’t that far off then.”

“Fuck off, asshole.”

She jumped down the wooden steps and started down the road toward her house.

***

He didn’t follow her. He stood there in the ankle-high crabgrass and watched her slowly disappear around the lone bend on the country road. He shook his head. The sun crashed into the treeline as shadows stretched over Johnny’s. The air chilled. He turned back toward the bamboo and walked along the trail. Surrounded by forest, he crossed the leafy gulch and took long, practiced strides to avoid the razor-like brambles. His tent was covered in a blue tarp and, on the same string tied between two lines, his clothes dried in the salty air. He had his portable gas stove, his pot, and pan, an enameled coffee pot. He sat down on the fibrous, coarse palmetto stump and rubbed his knees. He sat until dark and then crawled back inside his tent.

Connor de Bruler is a previous contributor to Litbreak with “Return of the Death God.” He lives in South Carolina.