Jim was on a pleasant hike through a mountain pass. It felt good to breathe some fresh air. Some Tennessee air. A lazy crick ran alongside him, and there were birds in the trees. If there were seasons in Paradise, it was late summer. Everything was green and the air dangled between warm and cool.
But he didn’t have time to anchor a thought before he came to a fork in the pass. A wooden sign poked out of the ground, and neatly scrawled were four curious words:
Jim’s going this way.
The arrow pointed to the right.
Jim frowned. He didn’t like it. He preferred turning right, but the sign was a little bit pretentious. In the end he went against his inclination and took the left.
It wasn’t long before he came upon another fork and another sign:
Alright, Jim’s going THAT way.
The scrawl wasn’t as neat and it looked sour, which made Jim a little sour. Angry, if he was honest with himself. Here he was, trying to have a nice walk and clear his head, and he had to worry about stepping on the feelings of a sign? Hell, he wanted to go left. But it was with conviction this time that he went to the right.
Almost immediately there was another fork. This one had seven prongs and the sign was definitely pissed off.
Jim isn’t here. And even if he is, it’s COMPLETELY IMPOSSIBLE that he’s going THIS WAY.
The arrow pointed straight up.
“Well,” said Jim, “you win this round.”
As he walked past the sign the ground gave way and he fell. He fell for a long time. It was a dark hole and he thought he could hear the mountain laughing. A circle of light appeared under his feet and he fell down into the sky and up into the ground. The hole was gone. The mountain was behind him.
Jim sighed. So much for Tennessee air.
“Don’t worry,” a soft, creamy voice said. “Nobody ever makes it up Mount Cogito.”
Jim looked up at the damndest person he ever saw. Sexy fishnet legs disappeared into a brawny male torso. One arm looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, the other like a Barbie Doll’s. A flamingo neck balanced a pale head wearing a feathered hat.
“Nooooo,” Jim said, looking into his eyes.
“Ah-heee-hee!” A twirl and a pose. The Barbie arm presented itself. “I’m MJ.”
Jim had no idea what to do with the arm. He shook it. “Jim,” he said.
“So how do you like it here?” MJ asked. “Isn’t it great? Everything is so free here. I love it. I absolutely love it here.”
Jim couldn’t help it. He laughed. MJ snapped the Barbie arm into a girly fist, rested the Arnold arm on his hip.
“Why are you laughing?” It was a flirty whine.
Jim flailed his hands. “You’re all over the place, man.”
“Oh, this! It’s Lucy’s ball,” MJ said. “She throws one every month. She calls it the Frankenmasque. They’re always looking for fresh meat.” He winked and skipped away.
Jim stood in the entrance of a gothic mansion. There were winding stairs and chandeliers and plush carpets and oil paintings. He was here in spite of himself and having second thoughts. A young woman took his jacket and beckoned him to follow.
“So, what exactly am I getting myself into?” he said.
“Frankenmasque,” she said. She sounded Slavic.
“Which is . . .”
She stopped at a door, turned, held out her arm.
“Okay then,” Jim said.
The door closed behind him. Inside was a single chair with straps that looked ready for electrocutions, surrounded by an empty conveyor belt. Another young woman stood behind it.
“Sit,” she said. Also Slavic.
Jim stood. She smiled.
“It’s a party. You will like it. Sit.”
She patted the seat, and Jim sat down. The straps were automatic. He couldn’t move. She pushed a button and the conveyor hummed. It carried out a variety of human legs, laid out like chicken at a buffet. Before Jim could object she unstrapped his legs and popped them off.
“Well shit!” Jim said. “ Alright, it’s cool. I’m cool. That’s your job. Wow. Frankenmasque.”
She held up a milky smooth woman’s leg and looked at Jim inquisitively.
“Ah, man. Man legs, I think. I guess I prefer man legs.”
She gave him a look.
“I mean, no. Not like that. Goddammit now I’m not sure. One of each?”
She nodded. She popped on the milky white along with a blue-suited cowboy boot. The conveyor belt hummed again and carried out the legs and brought in the arms. Jim was ready this time when she popped his off.
“Alright, I need muscle in my arms. Look at me all you want, no chick sticks.”
She popped on a nice cut and ran the conveyor. It carried in the torsos.
“Now wait a minute. Just wait. Give me a second.” Jim breathed. “You’re really gonna rip out my chest?”
She smiled and ripped out his chest.
“Jesus!” He looked down at his dangling arms and legs. They weren’t even his. He’d have felt sick to his stomach but it wasn’t there anymore. All he saw on the conveyor belt was the jiggling of breasts. “Is this some kind of joke?”
“Luck of the draw,” she said.
He sighed. “Give me some perky ones.”
The conveyor rolled. Now it laid out pelvises, complete with ass and junk.
“All or nothing, sweetie.”
“Well, I’ve got enough holes. That one. No, the big one.”
He had to admit, when she made the exchange, that it felt nice to have that kind of meat swinging between his legs. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
But the conveyor belt rolled on.
“You can unstrap me now,” he said.
She didn’t say anything.
“I’m all Frankened up.”
Heads rolled in.
“Oh come on! Even Michael Jackson kept his fucking head!”
But one of them caught his eye.
“Wait a minute. Is that – is that Billy Mays?”
She grabbed Billy Mays’s head. Jim tried to object but it was too late. She popped his head off and replaced it.
And then Jim was looking at his head. She was holding it. He looked down at his cleavage, at four flaccid inches, a milky leg and a cowboy boot. He looked at his head again. He looked at the woman.
“Why am I me without my head?” he said.
Her smile was a secret.
“Are you?” she said.
The ballroom was filled with Frankenstein’s creations. They mingled, they danced. No one wore masks because their heads were all rearranged. Jim looked around for his but couldn’t find it. He grabbed a martini from a passing tray and took a sip. It was dry.
It was a sultry voice. It came from an older woman’s head, aged like wine with brunette hair. There were breasts beneath it but a bulge in the pants.
“Uh, yeah,” Jim said. “Is it obvious?”
“You’ve been standing here for ten minutes. Looking around for your head, I suppose.”
“Just don’t freak out, hon. You have to get lost first. That’s the half the point.” She smacked his milky ass and strode away.
But his beard itched. The leg was cold. His tits were strangled and the four inches wouldn’t sit right. He didn’t even know if the discomfort was his. If the thoughts were his. Were these his thoughts running around in Billy Mays’s brain? Did he have a brain? Had he ever? Was it possible to think someone else’s thoughts? Somebody was thinking in his head right now. Would it be all scummy when he got it back?
The lights went down. A balcony over the floor glowed red, the air shimmered, and Lucy appeared. She was just Lucy. Everyone was silent.
“Welcome to Frankenmasque,” she said, scanning the crowd. “So many new faces tonight!”
This was followed by laughter. Jim didn’t get it. Then he got it. He didn’t laugh.
Lucy held a pink masque up to her own face, and what followed had the flavor of ritual. She spoke with a lightness that undercut her words. Initiated pockets of the crowd replied in rote.
“Hearts of beasts and Grendel eyes, hearts that beat and wrestle whys.”
“I AM THE EGGMAN!”
“What are you wearing under all that skin? Where do you end and I begin?”
“I AM THE EGGMAN!”
“Holes that bleed, poles that breed, coals that burn with awful need.”
“I AM THE WALRUS!”
“Why are you hiding under all that skin? Open up and let me in.”
“COO COO KA-CHOO!”
The lights went up and Lucy was gone. The masque began.
Jim saw a man leaning against a big Chinese vase. He was all man, except for a nice round ass in spandex that curved out of the jeans. Regardless, he leaned with confidence, cool and observant. Jim was drawn to him.
“You looking for your head too?” Jim said.
“Both of em,” the man said.
“I take it they didn’t have any, uh . . .”
The man grimaced. “It leaks,” he said.
“Was it a woman?”
“Was it a goddamn woman that dragged you here?”
“Yeah,” Jim lied.
“I know why they do it. They think we’re insensitive. All cock and no love. They think martinis and lady parts will give us some kind of perspective. As if there isn’t enough of that going around.”
Jim shifted. “I’m just kinda freaked about my head. I thought I was my head.”
“What’s your name?”
“Well, listen Jim. Forget about it. This place is bullshit. A man isn’t the sum of his parts and he isn’t the creamy middle of himself either. And he sure as hell isn’t what a drag queen makes him out to be. A man is what he does, Jim. A man is what he does with his time and with his money and with his back and his sweat. A man is where he goes and who he fucks and what he says.”
Jim liked this guy. “What did you say your name was?”
“Ernest,” the man said. He pointed to one of the balconies. “You see that stack of meat there? That’s Hunter. He’s on point and he’s bringing down the chandelier. When he does, me, Jack London, and Clemens are going in swinging.”
“Wait, Ernest Hemingway?”
Hemingway held out a baseball bat. “You in, Jim?”
Jim took the bat.
“It’s a good old-fashioned smash’n’grab. Get in, get what’s yours, get out. We rendezvous at the main entrance. Take the west flank and wait for my signal.”
Hemingway pointed. Jim took his position and tried to look inconspicuous.
When Hunter leapt from the balcony to the chandelier the party gasped and stopped. He was wielding a saber and he shook it at the room.
“What I do,” he said, “I do for Nixon.”
He cut the rope and the chandelier crashed to the floor.
“Now!” cried Hemingway, charging with his Louisville Slugger. His first swing removed a blonde head from a veiny neck.
Jim was close behind. He swung wildly. Heads rolled and arms fell. Hunter was on his feet, punctuating his blows with “Victory!” and “Not a crook!” Past him Clemens and London were laughing as they cleaved.
The massacre was over in a minute. Jim scrambled through the wreckage and gathered up his head, and with some difficulty found his legs and arms and the rest. He followed the four authors at a run, bobbling his parts.
In the main entrance they reassembled themselves. There was an extra body. Hemingway, Clemens, Hunter, and London made short work of it.
“You in there, Fitzgerald?” Hemingway said.
Fitzgerald shook his head, looked about him, came to his senses. “You guys are insane,” he said. “What did you do to her this time?”
Hemingway pulled him to his feet. “Your wife’s a jack-fisted whore,” he said. It seemed to settle the matter. “They’re running the bulls on Cloud Seven. Vamonos!”
Jim followed them out of the mansion and down the drive. They’d forgotten all about him. As they climbed into a classic Cadillac, he waved and shouted,
“Thank you, Mr. Hemingway!”
Hemingway stood in the backseat and pumped his fist. “The world, Jim! It’s all worth fighting for!”
The Cadillac roared away. As he waved, Jim saw a birthmark on his wrist. He didn’t have a birthmark. Or at least he didn’t used to. He looked back at the mansion, at the mark, at the dwindling Cadillac. He barely considered going back for his arm. He drew up the shoulders he had and walked down the road.
“Jim’s going this way,” he said.