Every rusted double-wide in our trailer park had a story: meth lab explosion, first-cousin inbreeding, factory worker who lost his genitals in an auto-erotic punch press “accident.” Four lots down from our aging Skyline lived Dougie Berger, a kid born with an exoskeleton, a solid shell of cartilage like some kind of mollusk or insect. Massive birth defects weren’t unusual in Bighikistan; my kindergarten class of 32 had seven cases of Proteus syndrome, a couple of kids with neurofibromatosis, a set of conjoined triplets, and one of the first diagnosed cases of Kaufman oculocerebrofacial syndrome, which is characterized by extreme microcephaly and rampant mental retardation. When you dump millions of gallons of toxic PCBs into the water table, these things tend to happen. But Dougie’s congenital disorder was one of the most extreme anyone in our town had ever seen. This guy made Rocky Dennis look like someone with a bad haircut that would grow out in a week.
Dougie’s parents had a hell of a time finding the poor bastard any school clothes. Most of your typical Toughskins/Garanimals gear came in standard children’s sizes, which didn’t work out for him; a 6X with a chest size of 25 1/2 inches didn’t fit a large crustacean shell that measured two yards around. His mom, a tragic Hell’s Angels widow with a chronic gambling addiction, shoplifted Dickies work clothes at the Farm and Fleet and kit-bashed in pieces of army-surplus tents and wool blankets to construct something that resembled a costume from a low-budget Italian goblin monster movie. Our classmates in grade school would beat him accordingly, throwing sticks of butter at the alleged lobster boy while wearing plastic restaurant bibs from Captain Jack’s, the local seafood restaurant.
I had my own social problems as a child, stemming from my mom’s insistence that I was allergic to gluten, lactose, latex, and crayon wax. I spent the first three years of school quarantined in the library, cutting chunks out of old illustrated Leo Tolstoy comic books, pasting together a Spiderman versus Ivan Ilyich fanzine, where Peter Ivanovich was really the Green Goblin, and New York bore a strange similarity to a late 19th-century St. Petersburg. This was long before Marvel started their new business model of selling out en masse to Hollywood, when any idiot could make a couple of bucks writing a hack a script based on an obscure Marvel comic. (Seriously, who was really going to see that Peter Porker movie last summer?) Fortunately, grade schools hadn’t switched to the non-toxic variety of rubber cement, so my little scrapbooking project got me crazy high on the fumes.
In high school, I transferred all of my antagonism on to the Berger kid, spending fourth-hour social studies class in my freshman year trying to damage the shell around his neckline by smacking it with a nutcracker set I stole from home. Our Jesus freak vice-principal thought that all edible legumes and seeds were Satanic and/or Communistic and regularly swept everyone’s lockers with special kernel-sniffing dogs. He seized my shell-splitting tools and Butthole Surfers albums, and forced me to spend six Saturdays with a bunch of truants, stoners, and metalheads, digging slit latrines for his illegal backwater Jesus camp just outside of town.
(Legume originates from the Latin word legumen, which comes from the verb legere, which means “to gather,” and a gathering is synonymous with a salon, a collection of people meeting for intellectual enlightenment, which in the eyes of vice-principal Shitbag surely meant some kind of Socialist or anti-church fifth-column subversive activity.)
I forgot about crab boy completely, until twenty years later. My medical tech writing career fell apart (I got fired for accidentally sending pictures of my penis to a Cooking Lite email distribution list — who the hell sets their mailing list to “reply to everyone” in the 21st century anyway?) I couldn’t make it selling fiction about sex with vomit anymore, and wrote crap news articles for this pay-per-word SEO content mill. My article trawling led me to start researching the Navy’s trained arthropod/human hybrid squads used to defuse smart mines off the Iranian coast. (There are more mutants around than you’d think, mostly from that depleted uranium cock ring fad in the mid-90s.) Turns out Berger was in charge of some Krill Underwater Demolition Team, so I filled out the paperwork on the DoD web site to request an interview, expecting the usual form letter saying they wouldn’t help someone who graduated from an abortion technician vocational school.
After sending the request, I went for a two-hour lunch at the cattle mutilation-themed restaurant on the edge of town, a place where waiters dressed up as grey aliens and carved sides of beef with industrial lasers. The food’s not much better than Sizzler, but sometimes during the week, a chick with three tits like the one in Total Recall works there, and she tends to bend over a lot. It’s a good place to avoid work, enjoy a ten-drink lunch, and reflect on why your life has fallen apart. Given the state of the world, they do swift business these days during the lunch shift.
When I returned to the office, I got a call from Berger. “I’ll talk,” he said, “if you can tell me what really happened to my Six Million Dollar Man action figure back in the second grade.”
“Shit man, you still obsessed with that doll? I wasn’t there, but I heard Shawn Hill stole it out of your locker and smashed it with a sledgehammer.”
“Son of a bitch,” he said. “What happened to that glue-sniffing little fuck?”
“His dad was a DEA informant. Some paroled meth addicts found out, blew up his house in junior high,” I said. “Look Doug, I’m trying to write this article about the K-UDT teams. Can you tell me anything about Iran?”
“They eat yogurt with every meal,” he said. “I don’t know what you want from me. I can’t exactly tell reporters we’re sneaking nukes onto foreign soil with giant krill soldiers, and I’m pretty pissed about this bionic man thing. It had the karate chop arm and everything. Look, can I call you back?”
“Sure, whatever.” I hung up. “Douche.”
GIANT SHRIMP ARMS TRAFFICKING? I typed, the headline for my piece. I don’t give a fuck if I start a world war, I thought. I’m getting paid by the word here.
Jon Konrath writes absurdist/bizarro fiction and runs Paragraph Line. This is an excerpt from his latest book, Sleep Has No Master. He is obsessed with time travel, Star Wars pornography, and medical press releases. Go to rumored.com to find out more.