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THE BALLAD OF BOBBLEHEAD LERN by Anthony Sabourin

I

Lern Dobronski woke up to find that his head had grown gigantic overnight. He could feel the weight of it. As he touched it with his hands, surprised fingers prodding the growth, he panicked. He had to almost fully extend his arms in order to feel the hair on top of his head. It was like one of those cheap rubber toys that soaked in water and doubled or tripled in size, except it wasn’t a toy, it was Lern’s head. He scrambled towards his bathroom to get to a mirror, hyperventilating with big-headed panic.

He used to look at his reflection in that mirror, pushing his hair back and inspecting his hairline, wondering if it was receding. He’d really study it, worrying over imperceptible changes, afraid of one day waking up bald. He looked in the mirror now and saw his oversized head, which had grown in proportion to itself but not his body, and thought, I didn’t know I had to worry about this too.

He decided that he should go to the hospital, but tiny humiliations kept getting in the way. He went to put on a shirt but nothing would fit over his big head. He had to resort to this wrinkled oxford button-down, his one dress shirt, stained red with tomato sauce. While scrounging around for change for the bus, he kept bumping into things in his apartment that he had never before considered. The new geometry of his head made ducking under desks and tables very difficult. He started crying as he ate his cereal, realizing that he would have to go out in public to get to the hospital. The weight of his head threw him off-balance as he tossed back the last sip of his morning coffee. He decided to cover up his head before going outside. This was how Lern ended up riding the bus with his head in a pillow case. He had cut eye and mouth holes into the pillow case for the occasion, and people gave Lern a wide berth.

On the bus he imagined good news. A doctor saying this happens all of the time, just a routine case of head gigantism. He would poke Lern’s head with a needle and air would rush out in a big fart, his head deflating to its normal size. Or the doctor would talk about twenty-four hour giant syndrome and give Lern a fast-acting pill so that his body would grow in size to match his head. For a day he would be able to pick up cars over his head, juggle his enemies, or open any jar in the world. This is great, Lern thought. Some jars are super hard to open.

He entered the hospital and was directed to the emergency room. He could hear the room go silent, nurses looking up at him wide-eyed, a guy with a skate sticking out of his head looked at Lern with an expression of deep concern, but overall Lern was optimistic about his potential diagnosis.

This optimism was unfounded.

Dr. Paschek was an old woman with an unworried face. She took measurements of the diameter of Lern’s head and subjected him to x-rays. Many other doctors gathered around to look at the x-rays.

“We don’t know what this is,” they said about Lern’s head.

“Yeah, it looks okay in there though,” said a doctor with a clipboard.

“Is it because I’ve been eating too much sodium?” Lern asked, trying to be helpful.

“No probably not.”

“Oh.” Lern paused. He was sitting on a hospital bed holding the weight of his head in his hands, wearing a crinkly paper robe. He felt dumb.

“Hey, if my head is so big, does that mean I’m smarter?”

“Lord no,” Dr. Paschek said, answering very quickly. Man, Lern thought, that was a really immediate answer. “Hey,” she said, “We could try running you through our Big Metal Machine.” The other doctors started murmuring in positive tones about the Big Metal Machine. They strapped him into the Big Metal Machine and spun it around a few times but it did not yield further answers. Eight hours later they were ready to send Lern home.

“Yeah, it’s fine,” Dr. Paschek was saying.

“Will I ever get better?” Lern asked.

“Who’s to say what’s better?” the doctor said, making air quotes with her fingers as she said the word ‘better’.

“I mean some of us have regular heads though,” Lern said. “Is there any medicine you can give me?”

The doctor narrowed her eyes into an expression that looked thoughtful and reached into the pocket of her white doctor coat and handed Lern a plastic baggy full of thick gelatinous multicoloured blobs.

“What are these?” Lern asked.

“Oh, these are jujubes. They are a tasty snack, except for the black ones. Eat them as a special treat.”

“That’s it?”

“Oh, and this pamphlet of neck exercises. You should do neck exercises.”

Lern took the pamphlet and left for home.

The journey home did not go well. Lern lost his pillow case in the hospital, and sitting on the bus he felt exposed. People loved staring at a giant head. It was like seeing a normal-sized head, but way bigger. He could feel the attention of everyone on the bus, and could no longer entertain himself with notions of his head being shrunk by modern pharmaceuticals. Instead he was thinking about the carnival. Elephant shit and popcorn and gape-mouthed plastic horses with wild eyes spinning in circles. He was specifically thinking about the freaks at the carnival – the mutants, the bearded ladies, strong-men, cyclopses, the chicken-head-eating geeks, and of course the big-headed Lern Dobronski’s. He’d have to ride in a convoy of trucks with de-constructed and rusty carnival rides from city to podunk city. They’d arrive in a new town and he’d have to set up his own cage; have to endure the gawking of strangers before returning to the temporary reprieve of the companionship of his new freak friends.

But maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe society would be accepting of his new deformity. He looked around at the people on the bus and saw a young family with a sleeping infant, an elderly couple holding hands, two teenagers tagging their seat with permanent marker, two more awkwardly trying to kiss, groups of university students and coworkers, an old man reading a book – why couldn’t Lern fit in amongst all of this mundane life? Lern sat back and felt at peace. Then a kid with wiry red hair and freckles pointed at Lern and shouted out “Bobblehead!” The bus erupted with the sounds of laughter.

It was at this moment that Lern decided to commit suicide.

II

Lern had to figure out how to tie a knot. Then he had to figure out where to hang it. He was worried about the weight of his head being too great. He could picture the noose giving way, and then he’d just be a guy who jumped from a chair to the floor with a piece of rope around his neck. Once he was satisfied with the rope situation, he moved on to writing his suicide note. He would start to write, “I love you all,” and then he would stop and crumple up the note and start again. Something about the note felt more real than the rope. All told it was two in the morning and Lern was still writing when his suicide attempt was interrupted by the physicists.  

They opened the door to his apartment and found Lern sitting at a desk with a noose in his arms, looking over a stack of papers. Lern looked up from his desk and saw three thin bald men in lab coats. They looked like variations on the same person. Lern said “I’m busy right now.”

“You must stop,” said the first physicist.

“Please, listen to us,” said the second physicist.

“We are physicists,” said the third physicist. They all had the same voice. Lern hated the physicists.

“Ugh, how did you guys even get in here?” Lern said.

“The universe is this big hologram so doors don’t really exist,” said the first physicist.

“If you can understand the math it’s actually pretty trivial to travel without boundaries through this plane of reality,” said the second physicist.

“You left your door unlocked too,” said the third physicist. “But we have pressing matters to discuss with you, regarding your new giant head.”

Lern made fists with his hands around the noose. “What, can you guys fix it?”

“Hahaha, oh, of course not,” said the first physicist. “No we can’t and we wouldn’t want to.”

“Lern,” said the second physicist, “We intercepted hospital readings from the Big Metal Machine, and we believe that your head now houses a potential space-time singularity.”

“A what?” Lern said.

“A singularity,” said the third physicist. “You know? The start of the Big Bang? The inside of a black hole?”

“Singularities,” said the first physicist, “Could be really good or really bad.”

“We’ve done all of the calculations and we still don’t know,” said the second physicist. “This is so exciting!”

“I mean, we know everything,” said the third physicist, “So having a new unknown is really great. The inside of your head could house the secret to the infinite!”

Lern could picture the physicists looking at his head and seeing nothing but a giant italicized x of a math equation. He tried to remember high school physics but all he could picture was the smell of weed and the cover to Dark Side of the Moon. “What do you narcs even want?” he said.

“To run tests, of course,” said the first physicist.

“Yes, and to activate the singularity,” said the second physicist.

“We have to know what happens,” said the third physicist.

Lern crumpled up his note and threw the rope on the floor. He stood up and told the physicists “GET OUT OF HERE YOU BUMS! NOBODY UNDERSTANDS WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT ANYWAY. HOLOGRAMS?? SINGUWHATEVERS?? YOU’RE JUST A BUNCH OF FAKE MATH PHILOSOPHERS!”

The physicists stood quiet and dumbfounded at the entrance of Lern’s apartment. Their faces reflected a look of hurt, but also defiance. It didn’t look like they were leaving so Lern kept on shouting “OUT! GET OUT YOU GODDAMN QUANTUM NOBODIES!”

A neighbour’s voice came muffled through the wall: “Is everything okay in there?”

“NO HAL, I GOT PHYSICISTS IN MY APARTMENT.”

“Those cockroaches,” said the neighbour through the wall. “Stay right there, I’m getting my shotgun.”

The physicists hurried to leave, dodging a shoe thrown by Lern as they left. Word had spread quickly throughout the apartment building, and they were heckled and pelted with fruits and vegetables as they ran through the street.

Lern looked out his window at a particular flying zucchini and felt ashamed that moments earlier he had been trying to end his life. He took his noose and walked to his floor’s garbage chute. He placed the rope inside and closed the chute. The sound of the rope clattering down the chute was pleasing to Lern.

That night he dreamt of the cosmos.

III

In the morning Lern woke up and did not go to work. It was hard to go to work when your head was gigantic and your couch was comfortable. There was so much he was not ready to do. He didn’t want to tell his mom or his dad, or any of his three sisters. He ate cereal until it turned soggy and watched TV until there was nothing but infomercials. Eventually he forced himself to go for a walk outside. Walking through his building’s hallways, with their oatmeal coloured walls and ticking fluorescent lights, felt like leaving the comfort of hibernation. The street outside was covered with smeared produce. He looked up at the sun and it felt like a spotlight. He knew where he wanted to go, and took deserted side streets to get to a small, nondescript rectangle of sand nestled amongst a busy road and a heavily polluted stretch of river. It was his favourite beach.

It was early afternoon when Lern arrived, and everyone on the sparsely populated beach turned and looked at him. Lern tried to ignore this and found a solitary spot of sand where he could sit alone. He sheepishly took off his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants, and sat cross-legged, looking out at the water and people. Eventually they looked away. Lern felt hot but not from the sun. More people arrived at the beach as the day stretched on, and Lern continued to sit in the sand, getting used to the activity, getting used to the glares of people, and getting sunburnt.  

He noticed two teenage girls approaching, one with her face obscured by sunglasses and another forcefully chewing gum. They were talking and looking at their phones. They stopped short of Lern and snapped open a towel and Lern could feel the air. He winced and felt his eyes water. He didn’t want the company, but the two girls sat next to him. “Hey wow, you look like a big red baby,” said the girl with the gum.

“Lisa, Jesus you can’t just fucking say that,” said the girl with the sunglasses.

“Ugh, why? Hey dude, what happened to your head?”

Lern rubbed his eyes and said “I woke up like this yesterday,”

“No way.”

“Yeah it just happened. The doctor’s don’t know why and some physicists said maybe there’s a thing in my head. I hate physicists, who can understand them.”

“Man, physicists gets on my nerves,” Lisa said. “Like if you are so good at physics why don’t you just do straight math. Hey, do you want sunscreen for your big red baby head? I’m Lisa by the way.” Lisa held out the sunscreen. Lern reached out a hand.

“I’m Lern.”

“I’m Deborah,” said Deborah.

“Hi Deborah,” said Lern.

“Well Lern, we are going to eat sandwiches and listen to music in your general area so I hope that’s cool. Don’t worry about your head, Deborah has a peanut-shaped one and we all still like her.”

“Lisa that is big talk for someone with an outie bellybutton.”

“Ahh! Ahh! How can you even see that with your lazy eye?!”

It didn’t look to Lern like Deborah had a lazy eye, and Lern continued to listen to Lisa and Deborah pick apart real and imagined imperfections until they both burst into laughter. Lern laughed too, in spite of himself, his whole head lolling back and forth.

“You are the first people I’ve talked to all day,” he told them.  

Lern decided to stay at the beach. Lisa took Deborah’s phone and put on a song that sounded to Lern like a colourful and apocalyptic future. The girls broke out sandwiches but decided they weren’t hungry, so they fed them to gathering seagulls, in willful ignorance of the ‘DO NOT FEED THE BIRDS’ signs posted nearby. A seagull grabbed a piece of sandwich bigger than its head and choked it down in big gulps. It turned towards the rolling tide and started screeching. A second gull landed, stood beside the first one, and started screeching too. It made sense to Lern. He thanked the girls for the sunscreen and left as the birds continued to shriek by the incoming waves of brown water and garbage.

As Lern was walking home, he caught the glint of an alto saxophone in a shop window, dying sunlight reflecting off of polished brass, and he bought it on sight. The neck strap didn’t fit, and the cashier tried to talk him out of it, but Lern couldn’t be helped. He smiled the whole walk home.

In his apartment Lern took the saxophone out of its case. He set up the reed and mouthpiece, attaching them together with the ligature, which took a couple of tries to get right. When it was done he attached it to the neck of the saxophone, and attached the neck to the body. He said “What am I going to do with a saxophone?” out loud to the empty room. He set it on the chair across from his at the kitchen table and looked at it while he ate spaghetti. He laughed at himself. The saxophone made the rest of his apartment look dull.

Now that there was nothing else to do but play the saxophone, Lern found that he could not. He thought of blowing into the saxophone with all of his strength, red-faced, neck muscles bulging, and no sound coming out. He pictured the saxophone falling apart in his arms. The failure felt too big to imagine. He sighed, did his neck exercises, and fell asleep in his bed while the saxophone sat in the kitchen.

In his dream, Lern was a big red baby, floating lost through empty space. Suddenly, he was engulfed in a bright light—

Lern’s eyes snapped open and, still in his boxers, he grabbed the saxophone and left for the roof of the apartment building. Lern ducked his head under the door and was met with open air and the quiet of a sleeping city. He wedged the door open and set foot on the gravel surface of the roof. He looked out towards the grey brutalism of the new government buildings, then past them towards the gothic revival style of older government buildings, which were in turn surrounded by modest downtown skyscrapers. He held the saxophone steady and placed his hands over the keys. He took a deep breath. He felt ready.

He blew into the instrument and no sound came out.

The calm of the city was indifferent.

Then Lern remembered embouchure, the way the guy at the music store said you needed to shape your mouth to direct the tunnel of air from your lungs to the saxophone. He tried again, resting his upper teeth on the mouthpiece while the reed rested on his bottom lip, which was curled over his lower teeth.

He took another deep breath and closed his eyes.

He felt his swollen head spinning in the pressure of the Big Metal Machine.

A crowd of people leering at him and chanting bobblehead.

A crumpled note next to a thick knot.

He blew into the saxophone and felt the instrument vibrate, heard a noise disturb the air.

IV

As his fingers started moving with unknown purpose along the keys, a huge, immense sound emptied itself out of Lern. Screeching, mournful wailing – geese squeaking at the earth as they fell like bowling pins out of the sky; dive-bombing in straight lines out of immense grey clouds.

As Lern continued to play, his body powering a deep thrum of squawking bellows, he saw the white light of his dream; he saw infinity, a nothingness beyond comprehension. Out of that void came a sensation like the colour red, and out of that sensation Lern could see the red expand into the solid brick walls of a tiny bar, vibrating to the music of a group of thrashing punks. He saw a man with his oversized head bobbing at the back of the club, singing along with the refrain of a song that goes:

You will always, be a loser!

You will always, be a loser!

The man with the big head collides into a tall woman with striking black hair – spilt drinks and future laundry. They make eye contact as the singer continues:

Aaand that’s Okay!

They find themselves singing along, and they start to laugh. They eat pizza slices in the cold November air after the show.

Lern’s whole body shifted with the saxophone, as he continued to burst forth with sound and vision. He saw the inky blackness of stars spit out of a black hole. He saw dark hair flowing out the window of a rented camper van driving through the desert. The man with the large head lies in the back of the van. They set up camp and eat hotdogs that split and curl over themselves in the heat of an open fire. They sit by copper gorges of earth cut down by water that doesn’t exist anymore, watch the sky dance and the sun set over the dessert. Stars swirling like water circling a drain around the density of a blue giant.

A jubilant cacophony ripped through the air above the street and Lern saw everything at once: a gurney ripping through hospital hallways. The milky way in an expanding whorl. A hand gripping his. The woman with the dark hair screaming as she gives birth. Crowning. A cold dead sun suddenly flaring. The woman with the dark hair holding new life – an infant crying as she learns to breathe. Planets spat back into orbit. A tiny life swathed in cotton.

More and more in a torrent Lern can’t control – hands and feet clambering over his head as the child treats her father as an obstacle course. Living in the basement of an old box home given to veterans after the war. First steps and first words. The weary feeling of parenting, stealing sleep by the glow of televisions, in front of open books, the comforting feeling of that head of dark hair fitting like a puzzle piece in the crook of Lern’s neck. A wealth of seasons – rain, heat, autumn leaves and white snow. Planets circled a vibrant sun. Pencil marks along the edge of a wall as an infant ran screaming, the marks creeping upwards as she turns into a three year old. These marks twinned by another child. Colouring crayons and a tiny blue dress. Soccer balls and dance shoes. A calm and even universe. The man with the big head and his saxophone settled into an exuberant groove but there is still more.

Faster and faster – images that Lern can’t make sense of – stars losing sense of themselves and turning into primordial clouds, boxes of pamphlets, city council signs with giant heads on them, hand shaking, so many strange faces, so many loved ones, sleek black caskets and dead parents, new nieces, new nephews, new cousins, clouds shedding atoms, and a frantic tone on the saxophone now. And more and too much; dark hair turning grey beautifully, gracefully; a house of textbooks, dumb boys, okay ones, scratched cars and university tours, canoes like matchsticks in a great river, atoms falling apart, subatomic particles freezing, a cold beyond imagining. An elegiac saxophone slows as Lern sees the end – a cabin, a still lake, grandchildren by a gnarled willow tree – and stops playing, a wetness on his face drying in the warm glow of morning.

V

An old man with a giant head drifts slowly away from the laughter in the cabin. A young voice calls for him so he waves a hand. In the darkness, the man walks along a dirt path from the cabin to a great undisturbed lake. He finds comfort in the stillness, the stars, the vast geography. He sits at the base of a tall, gnarled tree and takes a last look at the cabin, its happy sounds and warm glow. The man closes his eyes and rests.

When his head splits open, the stunning light of the infinite bursts out.

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