the muse apprentice guild
--expanding the canon into the 21st century




WORK
BY ANNA MICHELE

OWEN

  Owen appeared, suddenly, in the shower.
Dennis wasnąt wearing his contact lenses and, peering through the steam, all he could see was a roundish lump of flesh and hair near the drain on the floor. It was roughly the size and shape of a testicle. Blinking water out of his eyes, Dennis kept staring while he checked his balls with one hand. Both were still there.
  Then the little blob began to move, not rolling as Dennis might have expected but gliding across the tile. He bent quickly, hitting his head on the tiled wall, and scooped the thing up by its hairs. The shower faucet got bent in the process so it rained against the plastic sliding doorĐa steady, plocking sound, like automatic gunfire shot into a pillow. Underneath the din came a high, reedy squawk.
  Dennis got out of the shower without shutting it off. Inside his hand, the thing was warm and squirming. It had to be a rodent of some kind, though he couldnąt feel a tail. Dennis tried not to think about other possibilities puffed-up hairy slug, for instanceĐwhile he pawed through the medicine chest with his other hand. He pulled out an old black pair of horn rimmed glasses that made him look like Buddy Holly might have at 42, dark and skinny but dough-faced, put them on, and slowly opened his fist as if it were a mouth so he could peak in.
  "Hey!" the creature yelped and Dennis nearly slipped, reeling backward on the wet floor.
  It wasnąt a man, exactly. But there was a face, a nose-ish protrusion, something brown and seaweed-like for hair that grew all over the egg of a body and stopped where ankles might have been. Dennis saw it did have arms and they were waving, each one matchstick-length, plump.
  No big deal, he told himself. Whenever problems arose, Dennis breathed and tried to reason. It was a strategy that had worked well for him with a few exceptions, one of those being his entire marriage. Iąll just find out what it wants.
  "What do you want?" he asked.
  "I want ye to put me down!" The voice had a tinny, speaker box sound. Dennis raised it up to see if there were any wires or dials on the bottom side. "Christ, Dennis! I didnąt tell you to look up my ass. Put me down."
  The thing knew his name. Now that was odd. Dennis lowered it to the sink and opened his hand, rolling its contents gently onto the porcelain, next to his toothbrush and comb. Briefly, he considered getting back in the shower; still soapy, he knew later he would begin to itch.
  Then Dennis looked down. The fur ball was leaning against the hot water handle. It had pulled a hair out of the comb and appeared to sucking it up like a piece of spaghetti. Eating it. Watching this made Dennisąs stomach slide. He bent away so he wouldnąt have to look and used a towel to blot himself, soap and all. "Who the hell are you?" he asked, leaning down to dry his knees.
  "Owen."
  "Excuse me?" Dennis had abandoned the glasses, was nosed up to the mirror, putting in his contacts.
  "OWEN. O-U. No, no. O-A-W. No, thatąs not right." Dennis had one lens in now, so he was only half blind. The thing was rocking a little. If Dennis stood back, it looked magical: like a hairy, pinkish golf ball moving under its own power. "Ah, fuck. OWEN. Like OH-WHEN. Oh, when did you get home. . .like that. Get it?"
  "Owen." Dennis nodded. Now they were getting somewhere. The second lens was in. Everything was clearer. He put on the clean underwear heąd brought into the bathroom before his shower. Kept his voice casual. "And what were you doing in my shower? Where did you come from?"
  Owen laughed, a false sound in his faraway voice. "Iąll tell ye. But yer not going to like it, Buddy. I know ye."
  
  Owen agreed to ride in Dennisąs coat pocket, but only after Dennis pulled a snarl of hair from his comb and put it inside with Owen, for him to snack on. The idea made Dennis shiver with nausea, but he had an appointment with a new client and hated being late.
  They were in the car, stuck on I-64. Dennis checked his watch, though the car clock was right in front of him. "How is this possible?" he asked. "Itąs nearly ten. There shouldnąt be so much traffic."
  Owen had climbed up, opening the pocket flap enough to stick his head out. He glared at Dennis, a wet strand of grayish-brownish hair trailing from his mouth. "Traffic? Ye got some guy who fell out of yer colon in yer pocket, and yer futziną about the traffic?" Owen chuckled, a sinister rattle. "Man, that is exactly like ye."
  Dennis had been inching the car ahead. He braked hard and jerked the gear shift up. "Fell out of my what?"
  "Yer colon, yer large intestines. Basically, yer ass. And donąt think it was an easy trip. Ye seen The Shawshank Redemption? Well, sure, we saw that together. Like that tunnel Tim Robbins crawled through at the end. With all the shit in it. Thatąs. . ."
  "Wait! We watched a movie together?" Dennis interrupted. Heąd forgotten about the traffic until the car behind him honked. Dennis eased forward. At the same time, he lifted Owen out of his pocket on one finger, as he might have done with a finch, and set him on the dashboard.
  "Last year. Remember? Ye were still with Alicia and ye rented the movie and drank that rotgut Merlot. Blood-colored pus. But it worked. May be the last time ye nailed the old lady before she ditched ye."
  How did this little piece of dander know about when he last made love with his wife? Dennis prickled at the temples. It was true. Watching Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins in prison suits and Alicia had pulled Dennis down on top of her right there on the living room couch. He never knew which one sheąd been thinking about while they squished about on the cushions, but Alicia had proven since to be a woman of such exotic tastes, it could have been either of them. Or, for that matter, Rita Hayworth.
  In the ten months since she packed and left, Alicia had been through five phases: high stiletto fuck-me, thinking-about-grad-school, neophyte lesbian, hippie community worker, and nowĐmost demeaning to DennisĐsuccessful entrepreneur. Stages two, three and four had run together in quick succession; he wasnąt absolutely sure there were divisions between them (she could have been simultaneously a hippie-future grad student-lesbian), but this is the way Dennis classified them.
  "She is a piece, ainąt she?" Owen cocked his whole orb of a body. At this point, it didnąt even occur to Dennis to wonder how the thing knew exactly what he was thinking. Instead, he was remembering the last time heąd seen Alicia, when she came back to get the vacuum cleaner and her kick boxing shoes. How heąd asked what heąd done wrong and sheąd paused and gazed out the window, then said in a flat voice, "I guess you just got too boring" and walked out.
  Traffic began to stream forward, for no clear reason. Dennis drove with both hands. "So?" he asked, ignoring both Owenąs leer and the hair he kept sucking. "What were you doing in my. . .ah. . .?"
  "Ass? I was workiną, of course."
  Dennis steered smoothly onto an exit ramp. "Working at?"
  "Shoveliną shit. Litąrally. Since ‘98. And itąs yer fault. Ye know why?"
  Dennis shook his head. Was he just imagining it, or was Owen tapping a foot/hoof/claw?
  "August ring any bells with ye?" Owen paused, but didnąt wait for an answer. "Thatąs when ye put me out of a great job. After thirteen years."
  "And that job was?" Dennis glanced at Owen, even though it meant taking his eyes off the road.
  "Lung work!" When he shouted, Owen stepped forward and sent out a little puff of shampoo breath. "Every day I scraped the lungs. Tar. Mmmmm. . . .like old, soft gum, kinda black and taffy-like. Came off in curls. So tasty. But then, ye fucked it all up."
  "I quit smoking." Dennis nodded, understanding now, done driving, parked in the lot by his building. No longer worried about the time. He was, in fact, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel, experiencing his first nicotine craving in years.
  "Yeah!" The little man was hopping now. "I was in my prime. Iąd built a life. Not like I was a heart worker. But, Christ, I liked my career and I was good. Fast as you could smoke ‘em, Iąd scrape. But then ye screwed me: my position was "eliminated" and I got shipped down to the colon, where all the losers go."
  Dennis canąt tell for sure, due to the roundness, but it seems Owen has slumped forward. "Iąm sorry. My doctor said. . ." He reached toward Owen, but the ball skittered away from Dennisąs hand.
  "I know what he said. But I would have took care of ye. I was doiną a good job."
  Dennisąs throat tightened with remorse. He reached out again, and Owen let himself be picked up this time. Began talking faster, his words hiccuping into the warmth of Dennisąs curved palm. "Then later, ye started. What was that stuff ye kept eatiną? With all the sticks and bumps?"
  "Bran?" Dennis guessed.
  "Probąly. Nasty stuff. The other boys, they said ye didnąt used to be like this; colon work used ta be clean and easy but Bam! Soon as I got there ye were eatiną this branchy stuff that got so goddamn heavy. It was like liftiną rocks. Most oą the others quit, transferred out." Owen rolled onto his rounded back and rocked a little. "Bosses said they couldnąt replace ‘em due ta some shortage oą workers. But Iąm jusą not as young as I used to be. Just. Couldnąt. Do it any more." Then Owen wound down like a toy with a dying battery. Dennis panicked, but when he shook his hand a bit, Owen stirred and snorted.
  Dennis knew what he had to do. He started the car and drove across the street to a convenience store. He laid Owen on the passenger seat and went inside to buy a pack of Marlboros, a jelly doughnut, and a mocha cappuccino that spurted from a plastic machine. Including the time it took him to pay, he was gone for two minutes, tops. But when he crouched to get into the car, cigarettes and coffee cup in one hand, keys in the other, doughnut clenched in his teeth, he was alone. Dennis searched but found not a trace of Owen.
  Dennis lit a cigarette and stared out the window. Heąd missed his morning meeting, almost certainly lost his client. He took a long drag of tar, sipped synthetic coffee, and gave birth to a thought.
  In his pocket, it was still there: the dark snarl. He fingered it, nearly put a strand in his mouth but took another drag instead. "This is for you," he muttered. Dennis closed his eyes and opened his mouth and took a round, Owen-sized bite of doughnut. He adjusted the rearview mirror so he could see his own reflection. Looking back was a manąs leering face, white as a shelled, hardboiled egg, haloed in gray smoke, a blood-red drop of jelly hanging from his front tooth.
Just under the surface of his skin, Dennisąs blood sizzled. "Do a good job for me, now." He picked up his cell phone. "Alicia." he said when she picked up. "Itąs me."