Fiction, Hyssop and Hermetics, Eros and Thanatos

Nocturnal Anomalies
a short fiction by George Ochoa

The summer before Joe Wraca turned thirteen, 2001: A Space Odyssey played in Queens for a dollar, and his father reluctantly took him to see it. It had been out for five years already and Joe had given up hope, but Mom thought Pop should “do something to spend time with your son” and 2001 was closer than the alternativethe rodeo at Madison Square Garden. The movie ran 139 minutes and seemed to Pop to run four times that; the slow rotation of spaceships only made him think about the shower he had to grout for the upstairs tenant and the backlog of shipping reports he had to fill out Monday morning. But Joe loved the movie and tried excitedly in the men’s room afterward to tell Pop what it meant. They stood side by side at the urinals, with Joe averting his eyes from the large shadowy place under his father’s belt, and Joe said, “Maybe we really are evolving into higher life-forms. Maybe there’s hope for our species after all.”

Pop grunted. “The only thing I hope is that I never have to see that movie again.” He zipped himself; Joe felt nicked by the zipper’s teeth. “Let’s get out of here, Joey.”

During the silent car ride home, Joe decided it was his destiny to help mankind reach a higher stage of evolution. If man couldn’t become something pure and noble like the dazzling embryonic starchild in 2001, what hope was there?

To that end, Joe started writing a novel, The Supreme Species, a biting satire in which alien scientists from Sagittarius visit earth without realizing that humans are intelligent. Spying on people like Joe’s parents, who sat in their matching brown vinyl recliners watching TV from eight to eleven every night, the Sagittarians assume that people are animals, incapable of rational thought.

One night in September, after staying up too late writing the novel, Joe got into bed and thought about Susan Hummel. The tall, skinny blonde with the gap between her front teeth had been the smartest girl in Joe’s eighth-grade class last year, and Joe had been deeply in love with her. Naturally, he had never said anything about it; he never would, now that he was in an all-boys Catholic high school and would never see her again. But every night she occupied his fantasies, and, lately, one fantasy in particular.

The fantasy went like this. It was night, Joe’s parents were away, and Susan came over to his house to study. The Sagittarians orbiting over Queens decided they needed a sample of terrestrial clothing. Susan rang the doorbell; Joe put his hand on the doorknob. The aliens turned on a transporter beam that whisked his pants away. As the door opened, Joe’s legs became naked, his white briefs visible. Susan stared astonished.

The implausible part of the story was that Susan would ever come over to study. No girl had ever come to his house, and certainly not to study; his grades were too good for him to need help. That was why he had skipped ahead to be the youngest in his freshman class. But the fantasy was so enjoyable he kept returning to it. The image reception always grew fuzzy as Susan stared at him in his underwear—he couldn’t seem to focus better—but even the snowy outlines made him weirdly glad, and calm enough to fall asleep.

Tonight, though, something was wrong. Instead of growing calmer as he imagined Susan looking at his legs, he grew agitated. Lying prone, his face warm against the pillow, he rocked his hips up and down, as if driven by some kind of electric current. He felt a mounting pressure in his groin, a hot itch that felt bizarrely pleasing. Susan stared at his white briefs and bare legs—the pleasure climbed—it reached a dramatic peak, like the first taste of chocolate inside a Tootsie Pop—and he was spurting fluid! He was wetting his bed! The pleasure receded, his lungs labored. His pajamas smelled of ammonia. They were sticky to the touch, stained with something like glue.

From the kitchen two rooms away he heard the crunch of his father eating crackers before bed, the adult laughter of Johnny Carson’s studio audience. What in the world had happened?

~

For some time, Mom had been after Pop to talk to Joe about the facts of life. “He’ll be thirteen in November,” she argued, after the boy was safely in bed. “You’re his father.” Pop assured her he would get to it, but he had a lot of other things to do. The basement tenant skipped out without paying and left the place full of burnt eggs and cockroaches. The upstairs shower started leaking through their bathroom ceiling. His boss was threatening to fire him if he didn’t pick up the pace. Also the boy was hard to talk to—he seemed to think himself superior to his parents, saying little at dinner and disappearing afterward into his room to do God knew what. Anyway, Pop reasoned, this was the 1970s; sex was all over the TV shows, practically wiggling in the streets. Pop himself had been able to order Dr. Reuben’s book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask through the mail without fear of prosecution. The boy wasn’t stupid. He must have already picked up the information somewhere.

~

Trying to explain what was happening to him at night, Joe turned to 2001. In that movie, the black oblong artifact dug up from the moon is code-named the Tycho Magnetic Anomaly, or TMA-1. This mysterious monolith turned out to be a radio transmitter left ages ago by extraterrestrials hoping to advance human evolution. On that model, Joe called his unexplained episodes Nocturnal Somatic Anomalies, or NSAs. Their origin and purpose were still a total mystery, but he hoped through research to make sense of them.

By October, he had had dozens of NSAs, about one a day. The name turned out to be a misnomer, for NSAs could take place in daylight, a fact he discovered lying prone and fully dressed on his parents’ bed while watching an afternoon rerun of “I Dream of Jeannie.” The episodes left a crusty, dun-colored residue on pajamas, underwear, and sheets. He worried that his mother would notice and comment on the stains, but so far she had not.

The episodes always occurred when Joe was thinking about girls. More specifically, they happened when Joe imagined himself in his underwear around girls. The Sagittarians might zap his pants away, or his pants could fall apart at a party because of a tailor’s error, or a girl would walk into the locker room while he was changing. One way or another, attractive girls caught him with his pants down, and shrieeeek—another NSA sent a piercing signal into the night.

After one episode, Joe turned on the bedside lamp and inspected the locus of the NSA. The gluey substance, which he christened NSA-serum, was still leaking from its emission site, the same orifice from which he urinated. Could it be a form of urine, perhaps concentrated? It didn’t look or feel like urine—it was syrupy, gray, translucent. On drying, it turned crisp and crystalline, like mucus on a day-old handkerchief. Perhaps it was mucus.

He looked in his Compton’s Encyclopedia under “Human Anatomy”: no clues there. He wasn’t even sure what the pink, tubular emitting organ was called. According to the cluttered diagram, it was a urethra or maybe a prostate.

One day after school he took a pH strip from his Young Scientist Chemistry Kit, cooked up an NSA, and discovered the substance was basic rather than acidic. Another day he snuck into the back-porch office where his father moonlighted as a tax preparer, and thumbed through the ten-year-old Family Medical Handbook. Under urological diseases, Joe learned about the dangers of prostate cancer. Possibly he had come down with this. His prostate, if that was what it was, had definitely altered its shape—altered even from moment to moment, varying from small and withered to long and rock-hard. Was this how a tumor looked?

Sitting alone in his room that night, while his parents watched TV in the living room, Joe realized he would have to talk to Pop. Cancer was a serious matter. He might need to have his prostate amputated; he might even die. He would have to show the organ to Pop—a disgusting idea; Pop would probably laugh. “The only thing I hope is that I never have to see that thing again.”

Joe paused at the edge of his room, which had a folding accordion door like the ones in “Lost in Space.” From down the hall came the music and laughter of an unspecified variety show. Should he go now? Should he just walk up to Pop and—

A crash from the bathroom. A loud, many-layered crash, almost an explosion. The big, shadowy, gray-headed form of his father lumbered by Joe’s door, followed by the round, worried shape of his mother, scurrying in her housedress and slippers. Joe followed their trail.

The bathroom ceiling had caved in. Pop looked up at the hole, gritting his teeth. “Oh, brother,” he said. “Oh, brother.”

~

Pop’s grouting job had not stopped the leak from the upstairs shower. He spent the night cleaning up waterlogged sheetrock and rotten wood. During the next three nights, he brought in a carpenter, a plumber, and a tile guy to gape into the hole. Everyone agreed the only solution was to rip up the floor of the upstairs shower, repair whatever was leaking, build a new floor, and repair the ceiling of the downstairs bathroom. The job would cost $700 and, because of the workmen’s schedules, couldn’t be completed for two weeks. In the meantime, the upstairs tenant, a Spanish guy named Martinez, would have to take his showers in the basement apartment, which still hadn’t been rented and was losing an additional $150 a month. “Oh, brother,” said Pop.

After approving all the estimates, Pop relaxed in the kitchen with his crackers and Johnny Carson. Mom picked this moment to ask, “Have you talked to Joey yet about—?”

“About what?”

“The talk you were going to have.”

He groaned. “Do you have to ask me about this now?”

Mom felt she did, though she was reluctant to say why. For some time, she had been noticing strange, crusty, dun-colored stains on Joey’s pajamas and linens. Possibly it was paint or lacquer—he was after all an artistic type, always working on some project—but she had a suspicion it was something else. “I think it may be time.”

“Don’t they get sex education in school?”

“I think so, but—”

“Talk to him yourself if you’re so worried about it.”

She stiffened. “You’re his father.”

Pop worked at his teeth with a toothpick. “I’ll get to it. Right now I have other things to worry about.”

~

Pop was right: Joe had gotten sex education in school. The nuns and brothers had explained ever since seventh grade that life resulted from love and from the union of a man’s sperm cell with a woman’s egg cell. Each year, Joe’s understanding of the process—meiosis, mitosis, blastocyst, fetus, placenta, umbilical cord, abortionist—became clearer. The only fuzzy issue was how the sperm got from the man to the woman. He assumed it drifted invisibly through his clothes and she caught it, like a cold.

As far as he knew, such matters had nothing to do with NSAs, which were starting to obsess him. He gave up working on his novel and spent each night imagining more baroque fantasies of exposure in front of girls, rubbing furiously against his bed, trying to understand the mystery of the pleasure that felt better than any other pleasure and the warm syrup that turned slowly cold on his thighs. Was it cancer? Then why did it feel good?

The beginning of an answer came from a strange place: Brother Mark’s religion class. Brother Mark, a young man with a wide tie and an early-Beatles mop top, liked to engage the class in real-life ethical discussions. He asked one day, “Does anyone here masturbate?”

The class erupted into laughter and hooting. “He does, he does!” they shouted, pointing at each other. “I don’t have to, man,” said Scampone, a cool boy with a tie the colors of a mandrill’s snout. Joe laughed and hooted also, because that seemed the thing to do and he didn’t know what masturbating was. Maybe it had to do with shooting heroin.

“Is there anything wrong with masturbation?” asked Brother Mark.

“Makes you go blind,” yelled Scampone.

“Makes your dick fall off,” yelled someone else.

Brother Mark smiled benignly. “There’s nothing wrong with masturbation. It’s natural. And, as we all know, it feels great—better than anything, actually, except maybe sex.”

“Have you, like, compared them?” yelled Scampone to more laughter. Joe didn’t laugh. He sat open-mouthed, stunned. Better than anything. The anomaly of the NSA had just begun to come clear.

~

NSAs were not a sign of cancer and NSA-serum was not mucus. NSA-serum was sperm, and the message the NSA was shrieking was how to get the sperm into a female. Take off your pants in front of a girl, the NSA said. Rub up against her and squirt this stuff and it will feel better than anything.

This couldn’t be right. Men and women never took their clothes off in front of each other unless they were married or actors in a comedy. What if he took off his pants with a girl and it turned out his theory was wrong? Boy, would he look ridiculous. But what other explanation was there?

More than ever he wanted to talk to Pop. The conversation didn’t have to take long. He would say, “I know about sex, you don’t have to explain it, there’s just one thing: do you have to take off your clothes?” But even this seemed too much. Pop was busy getting the shower and ceiling repaired. He came home from work growling and gritted his teeth whenever Mom asked him anything. He sat tensely every night in his vinyl recliner, as if ready to bite anyone who tried to take away his television. Joe Wraca was on his own.

One day, looking through his father’s shelves in the back-porch office, he found the help he needed. Pop had tried to hide it by shelving it backward, with the spine concealed against the wall, but Joe was too thorough for him. The book was called Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask.

~

The workmen rebuilt the upstairs shower and repaired the downstairs ceiling without creating any new leaks. A new, clean-looking tenant moved into the basement and Pop settled into only mild anxiety about the future. Joe’s high school tuition payments were hurting them more than expected. Cracked masonry around the side of the house would need replacing in the spring. Each night in December, Pop worked late in his back-porch office, issuing postcards to remind his clients to come to him for tax preparation right after the New Year.

Mom tried a couple of times to prod her husband into having that talk with Joe, but he couldn’t see the point. The boy had turned thirteen last month; he must have figured things out by now. Plus the boy had gotten even harder to talk to. He glared into his soup at dinner. He snapped at his mother when she asked him anything. He virtually slammed his accordion door shut—if it were possible to slam it; at best he could click it loudly.

Curled over his child’s desk inside his room, Joe tried vainly to work on his novel. Why bother? Instead he threw himself facedown on the bed and pushed and rubbed and creaked until he lit up the sky with another NSA. Fifteen minutes later he went at it again, assaulting his bed as if it were a hated enemy, and after that NSA he produced another one. Why not? What difference did it make?

It was all a joke. Dr. Reuben’s book had explained and now he saw—it was a grand cosmic joke, played on him. He understood what sex was, knew the terms penis and orgasm and climax, understood how men’s and women’s naked parts fitted together, understood how he and his NSAs served the blind stupid purposes of sex. To think, they had all kept it from him—his parents, his teachers, everyone. Big joke to hear the little boy lecture his parents on evolution into higher forms. The NSAs pointed not to evolution but devolution, his inevitable reduction into an animal driven by instinct.

The worst of it was that he saw no way out. He realized now that girls were attractive. He wanted them, ached at the sight of them. But he had no idea where to meet a girl, how to talk to her, how to persuade her to take her clothes off and join him in sexual intercourse. All he knew how to do were NSAs, and these he did frantically all night in his room, buried alive with them as if in a crater on the moon.

He didn’t even do them right, Dr. Reuben informed him. The standard way to jerk off, he learned, was face-up, holding your dick (now at last he knew what these words meant) in your hand. Joe’s method was facedown, rubbing himself violently against the bed. He was weird in every respect. Most American boys were circumcised; Joe was not. Another little detail Pop had forgotten.

Dr. Reuben had not quite explained everything. One night in mid-December, as Joe Wraca strained half-naked against the mattress, striving forward in the dark like the Jupiter mission in 2001, he crossed a frontier even Dr. Reuben had not foreseen. As he pushed against the bed, his body shrieked with pain.

It was as if a hand inside the mattress had struck into his groin with a pair of scissors. He sat up, sheets flying, and turned on his bedside lamp. Where the slick of NSA-serum should have been was a dark, spreading slick of blood. His genitals were drenched in blood. He had done it. The boys had been right: Masturbation made your dick fall off.

Think, he told himself. Figure it out. The sweat dripping into his eyes made it hard to see. There was only one cut, he realized—one little rip in the thread of skin that connected his foreskin to the head of his penis. A new entry for Dr. Reuben’s book: Can an uncircumcised guy hurt himself if he beats his meat too hard against the bed?

Blood flowed. His little hands were garishly red, as if painted by a specialist in the wounds of plaster martyrs. What now, what now? He could let himself bleed to death. He could try to sneak his way to the Family Medical Handbook and learn how to tie a tourniquet. Blood got in his eyes when he tried to wipe the sweat away. His vision became pink. There was no solution but the most humiliating one. He had nowhere else to turn.

~

Pop was deep in his vinyl recliner, enjoying the “Mac Davis Christmas Special” with Mom. A small voice came from the living room door: “Pop?”

It was the boy, sweating profusely. His shirt and pants, normally neat, had been put on askew. “Can I see you a minute, Pop?”

Pop stared, dumbfounded. Joey had never in his life asked to see him alone about anything. Pop squeezed the recliner footrest shut and lumbered behind the boy to the bathroom. Once inside, Joey unzipped his pants and said, “I’ve had a kind of accident.”

The old man gaped. The boy’s penis was covered in blood. Some of it had already clotted, but fresh blood was still seeping from a cut somewhere. Pop had never seen anything like it. “How—how did this happen?”

“I was scratching it. I must have scratched too hard.”

Pop looked away from the wound and into his son’s eyes. They were the eyes of a little boy afraid of getting yelled at. But the fear seemed more complicated, rife with adult anxieties and recriminations. The boy had been masturbating, though how exactly that would lead to this injury Pop wasn’t sure. He wished now that he had talked to the boy about sex. He wished he could have stopped the injury from happening. Pop felt all this as a kind of inward punch, as if someone had struck him down hard. Joe looked into Pop’s eyes and saw it—saw his father leveled but still standing, as if standing in a crater. He felt a keen jab of pity. His father was not going to snap or laugh at him. His father had troubles of his own.

“What should I do?” asked Joe.

Pop looked back at the wound. The sight of a concrete problem seemed to revive him. “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it.”

Pop was good at repairs. His big hands applied cold compresses of wet gauze that stopped the bleeding. He soaked cotton in hydrogen peroxide and used it to cleanse the wound and the surrounding area. The adhesive tape fell clattering from his hand to the tile floor, but beyond that he showed no nervousness as he fashioned a tiny bandage, one that left room for the boy to urinate. By the time Joe zipped up his pants the pain had stopped. “Change the bandage everyday,” said his father. “If you need help, I can help you.”

“I can do it.”

“Okay, whatever. It should be better soon.”

Their eyes met again. Joe saw that his father had not believed the scratching story but would not embarrass him by saying so. Joe thought of breaking the silence himself—telling him the truth—but the old man seemed to hope he wouldn’t. Joe saw his hope and stayed silent. Pop saw that he saw and was grateful.

“Let’s get out of here, Joe,” said his father.

~

Joe foresaw months of bandages, gangrene, surgery, amputation. But his young body healed with remarkable speed. Within two days the wound was closed. Within a week the only sign of injury was a square millimeter of extra skin known only to Joe.

Pop told Mom that their son had hurt himself scratching. This seemed implausible but she accepted it, broaching the subject only to ask the boy if he needed a nail clipper, which he did not. Joe expected never to masturbate again, but about two weeks later he figured out how to do it supine, the way Dr. Reuben said. The no longer anomalous activity became a safe and regular part of his life.

As winter turned to spring, Mom tried to get Pop to spend time with his son, but neither of them bothered. Pop was busy doing taxes and fixing a new leak that had sprung from a basement pipe. Joe had given up his satire and was writing a romance, Paradisia’s People, about an astronaut who discovers a wise race of apelike creatures living under the lunar surface. Working on it after school, he paused periodically to gaze through his window at the local girls who flashed at him like beacons, revealing more and more of their dazzling young skin as the weather turned warm.

  

© 2001 George Ochoa

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