OLIVER by Kevin Maloney

I was sitting in a McDonald’s in Elkhart, Indiana, eating a Big Mac, crying and swallowing. The beef, or whatever gray rubber they wedge between the white bread and Thousand Island, was foul and made my stomach churn, but under my disgust was the pleasure of my unshackling. In Burlington, Vermont, the communist outpost where until 13 hours ago I’d lived in unhappy matrimony, everybody was vegetarian or vegan. Somehow, I’d gotten sucked into that nonsense; for eleven years, I’d subsisted primarily on kale, a leafy green that tastes the way doilies look. It was my wife’s doing. She wanted to save the world. Meat was bad for the earth, she claimed. It killed animals. Cows! Think about them. So pretty. Now imagine a bolt jamming deep into their brains.

I hadn’t set foot in a fast food joint since. I was overdue. When I noticed the angelic yellow M floating above the interstate, I put on my blinker.

I kept chewing and chewing, but the meat didn’t go anywhere. I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t food. It didn’t matter. The joy wasn’t in masticating, but in picturing Karen’s face. How mad she would be if she knew. The sensuous way her lips pouted when she was angry. I imagined her hitting me, then feeling bad for hitting me. Kissing the places she hit. All the places I wanted to kiss her back. Face. Breasts. The space between her legs, like a red crayon melted on a fur coat. Now some other man was doing God knows what to her. Boning. 69. Back door. All of it. It made me sick. Chewing, I tried to swallow, but I couldn’t. I spit out the meat, wrapped my burger in paper, and took sips from my chocolate milkshake.

I was about to clear my plate when I gazed out the window into the glass enclosed playstructure and noticed a lone child playing in a sea of primary-colored plastic balls. “Playing” is the wrong word. The boy just sat there, completely motionless. He looked dead. I liked him immediately. In appearance, he bore a strong resemblance to Cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch. It was the haircut. I’d seen dogs pull off that look, but never a human. What kind of mother does that to her son? With a haircut like that, you’re basically saying, “Athletic boys will punch you for fun at recess, and you won’t kiss a girl until you’re 23, but every month I save $13 using a salad bowl and a pair of scissors.”

I looked around the McDonald’s for the sadistic barber. She wasn’t hard to find. She was eating a hamburger and drinking vodka out of a Nalgene bottle. I decided to tell her what I thought of the cruel experiment she was performing on her child’s skull.

“Hey, Lady,” I said, lightly touching her arm.

She didn’t flinch. A look of recognition came over her face, and she started crying. “It’s about time,” she said.

She reached into her purse and pulled out two $20 bills, crisp and new from the ATM machine. She handed them to me.

“What’s this for?” I asked.

“The stuff,” she said.

“What stuff?”

“Jesus,” she whispered. “Tell me you brought the stuff.”

What at first I had mistaken for a normal mother I now recognized as a sick one. Hypothalamus, basal ganglia, cerebellum, hippocampus—all had been rendered inept in this woman by a single crushing need. I wanted to give it to her, whatever it was. Grind pills into powder, arrange it on a mirror, sit before her as she got her fix and watch Lazarus rise from death. But I didn’t have any drugs. Just a chocolate shake and a half-chewed burger.

“I’m sorry,” I said, returning her money. “I’m not who you think I am.”

“Liar!” she screamed. “Give me my fucking shit!” She reached for a salt shaker and brandished it like a weapon.

I apologized and backed away. Eventually, I found myself at the entrance to the glassenclosed play structure. I opened the door and climbed into the pit of plastic balls with the lifeless child. He opened only one eye.

“Hey kid,” I said. “Is your name Oliver?”

He shook his head, but just barely.

“It doesn’t matter.”

I offered him half a chocolate shake. He accepted it and slurped without speaking.

“Do kids beat you up in school?” I inquired.

He nodded.

“I thought so.”

The boy had a bloody Band-Aid on his chin. He smelled strongly of shit. I would have beat him up if I was his age. He was the weakest link. On the playground, if you don’t gang up on a kid like that—punch him in the kidneys, make him eat sand and small rocks—then it was somebody above you, punching your head, making you eat the earth. It was the law of the wild, the sinister truth Jack London wrote about, telling stories of sled dogs fighting to death under the northern lights.

But I wasn’t in grade school. I was an adult with the power to change this child’s life. In many ways, I resembled a saint with my broken heart and my schizophrenic visions brought on by my unfaithful wife. So I did what Mother Theresa or St. Francis of Assisi would have done in a situation like this. I borrowed a pair of scissors from the McDonald’s manager and went to town on the boy’s hair.

The way I figured it, he wasn’t going to make it as a “normal,” so I decided to give him a mullet. I trimmed the mop from his ears, cut it close on the sides, and took an inch off the top.

The back I left loose and wild.

When I was finished, I took a picture on my cellphone and showed it to him. He smiled. His teeth were brown. I realized I should have skipped the haircut and taught him the importance of brushing his teeth every night before bed.

Just then the boy’s mother appeared in the play structure. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Your son had a horrible haircut,” I said. “He has low self-esteem. His friends beat him up in school. I fixed it. I gave him a mullet. It rules.”

“He’s not in school,” said the mother.

“What? Why not?”

“He’s just a little boy. He’s two years old!”

I looked at him. Christ, she was right. He was just a baby. He was probably still in diapers.

“How dare you!” she screamed, hitting me with her purse.

“I didn’t know!” I said. “I thought you hated him.”

The child burst into tears.

The mother kept hitting me.

The manager came for his scissors and wanted to know why there was a bunch of hair in the play structure.

I started feeling uncomfortable. The world has always been harsh on its geniuses, and I was one of them. It was time for my punishment. I was going to burn like Joan of Arc or be crucified like Jesus, or more likely die alone from complications of alcoholism like all of my heroes.

I was about to tell these sadists that the world wasn’t what they thought it was, that this was just one level of consciousness, and that if you meditated long enough you became aware of other, more sublime realities. But when I opened my mouth to speak, I vomited. Then I vomited again. I couldn’t stop vomiting. It was a scene. Nervous about the flavor of meat (being so long unacquainted with that gray matter), I’d lathered my burger in a heroic quantity of ketchup. What came pouring out of me, therefore, was red ooze, which may have given the impression that I was throwing up blood.

Whether it was that or something else, those ungrateful freaks backed away from me.

The manager told me to keep the scissors.

The mother said that, on second thought, I’d done a pretty good job. Her boy looked handsome.

“You wouldn’t recognize Mozart if he dined among your rotten souls!” I cried, rushing out of the restaurant.

I stomped on the gas and headed west on Interstate 90. The sun rose and fell and rose again. America, seen from an automobile, is a vast, stupid country with little more between oceans than corn and cows standing around, waiting to die. With every bovine I passed, I felt that beef wiggling around in my intestines. Burping, I saw a heifer with big black eyes flirting with me. Karen, that witch, had cast a spell on me. I was a city slicker with weak bones. My spirit animal was a dead child in a sea of plastic balls. I drove over the Rocky Mountains into the land of cowboys, yearning for root vegetables and the hairy-legged wonders of the woman I loved.

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