Headstory by Heidi Sadler
Mammo’s told me a thousand times about way back in the twenty-teens when Headshows could make the police come. Everyone was super-duper correct-o back then, and there wasn’t nothing but scraps of TV left to show folks what freaks was. Now we’re everywhere no thanks to the skeeter disease that turned most kiddos into pinheads even though I ain’t supposed to call myself that. My grandma, Mammo, tells me everything I need to know about whatever, and she’s the bestest storyteller and knows all the facts about pretty much everything.
Mammo always says the “God’s honest,” and why shouldn’t I believe her? Ever since the bigwigs in the House of Phoney-baloneys put themselves in charge, the world’s been whacked to the gills. Mammo says before she was even born what we did at the freakshows was pretty terrific-o magnific-o until the hippies made everyone so sensitive about everything. Then the Phonies said it was okay again cause we all needed money and something weird and freaked out to make everyone forget that the whole world was getting flushed down the pot. Now no one knows what the rules are anymore, and until three days ago I didn’t much care ‘cept when my head was crackalacking awful bad. But Mammo says this shit-pardon-me we’ve been doing to get by don’t even matter anymore, and it’s got me wondering after we’re far away from Hollis Allen’s Tent of Pointy-Headed Wonders if a Head like me could maybe work at the Walmart like Mammo said we could in the PC-teens. I bet I’d be okay at that. Mammo says I’m very responsible, and someone’s always got to bring home the bacon.
I know all about history and herstory because Mammo showed me videos on her cell phone about what it was like before the virus-days and the Head-age when Mammo lived in a real house with my real mama instead of with me and the other Heads in the travel tents. I always stay up too late asking Mammo questions and watching videos when I should be sleeping, but she knows my head hurts especially at night, so she usually just lets it go. I love Mammo, and I always will, even when we’re worm food, which could be in ten years or tomorrow.
Hollis Allen’s wasn’t so terrible ‘cept we moved around all year long even to places where it snows high up in the mountains during summer, which can bring on a headache strong as a rhino. Some Heads work in Hollywood and don’t have to keep moving all the time, but Mammo said we needed to be with the ones that needed the most love. Mammo said Hollywood Heads are spoiled like rats in a garbage can and told me flat out no way are we ever moving there and that we were doing more good just were we was.
“Who’d put the washcloths on your head when it was almost splittin’ open?” Mammo said. “Who’d make sure you always got one rest each day and never did a show on Sunday? Who’d check you wasn’t getting ripped off on all those papers they make you sign? Mammo that’s who.”
“Lovin’s better than having, Luce,” she says all the time, and I believe her mostly cause it feels right and maybe I don’t know no better.
Even though I know we probably won’t ever go to Hollywood, that night three days ago I still hoped she was over in The Big Kahuna’s tent working out our way there. I’m sick of the smell of fried dough and hot dogs. I want to smell the ocean.
My real mama didn’t agree with Mammo, which is why she skeedaddled. I asked Mammo what they disagreed on, but she said life and death and nothing more, so I dropped it and figured mama must have wanted to go to Hollywood too. I don’t cry about it like some of the other Heads cry about their mamas cause I got all I need don’t I know it, and I’m a good-as-gold kinda girl.
There was a big piece of canvas in front of our show painted to look fake-old that tells the Hollis Allen version of our Headstory. It starts with, “Once upon a time when the whole world thought magic was dead, a little bug brought it back to life.” I keep thinking about it but don’t know why. Mammo called it BS, and I know exactly what she meant by that. She never even read it all the way through out loud cause every time she started she couldn’t make it past the word magic before calling bull and switching back to my story, which no matter how many times she told it always started with, “Back before Luce was even a dream in my head.” It’s nice thinking about being a dream.
It’s hard for me to explain what Hollis Allen calls the magic work cause Mammo’s so p.o.-ed about it most of the time, but ever since they stopped making rules anyone can do whatever and some guys thought it would be good to collect all the Heads they could find and make us into circuses and TV specials that Mammo said made more moolah than God could ever spend. Some of us do gymnastics, some sing and dance, and some just lay around in cages being gross cause they can’t do much else. Mammo don’t think I know about it, but some Heads wiggle around naked after dark, and there are even Heads who looked real bad and small who died and are in glass jars and stuff in a special tent that you need to pay extra to see. I’m not telling who told me cause Mammo would split a lip, and I’m not upset about it like she said I’d be.
I may not be one hundred percent about much, but Mammo made sure I know our story so well that sometimes when I’m thinking about other things or watching videos it writes itself everywhere so that I’m not sure it’s ever not being told. Mammo’s voice bosses the story-words, and it starts just like this:
“I used to live in a big, chalk-blue Victorian house just like a doll house with a turreted roof and a weathervane shaped like a rooster on top. The house was my daddy’s and then it was mine, and I shared it with your granddaddy, Fred, until he died God-rest-his-soul from a heart attack over the bills. Then it was just me and your mama, Agnes-good-for-nothing, who I loved until she went crazy and stole all the neighbors’ pills. Not that I blame her. It was hard times. Lots of kids went like Agnes, but that didn’t make it right. When the bleeding bug hit they told us all to stay off the planes, so we did. And when the vomits came round twenty-five times in one winter they said no more eating out. But when the skeeter virus made it all the way stateside they said no more having babies because they started coming out with upside-down strawberry heads three sizes too small, and that’s when people really lost their minds including your mama who did exactly what she wasn’t supposed to and got herself knocked up. There were some girls who made it through a-okay, and maybe Good-for could have too if it wasn’t for them damned pills that made her pass out every night on the front porch high as stars, covered in bites the size of Nilla wafers, and that’s all the hell you need to know about that.”
When we first got to Hollis Allen’s, some Heads didn’t even know what was wrong with them, but Mammo did a real good job explaining. AMI is what the skeeters had in their prickers that got into our mamas when we was in their bellies growing near to their hearts. AMI’s a nickname for what we got, American-Micro-something, but I can’t remember exactly. In a regular mama, AMI sneaks on just like a cold, but when a mama has a baby inside her it gets AMI something wicked. AMI doesn’t seem to like much else about babies but their heads, and so when you’re born everything grows up and out except for where AMI stays put in your melon. Mammo said when a head stays small it just can’t keep up with the rest of your growing and gets real confused. That’s why it’s so hard to think sometimes, and read, and remember our manners, and why we all get crackadoodle headaches. Some Heads have to wear diapers, but I don’t, not me, even though most nights I wet the bed, but that’s just me and Mammo’s secret. Sometimes the other Heads cry when they hear about AMI, and some others don’t know better to cry so they just say her stupid name real soft and slow, over and over until is sounds like a different word you never heard before. Mammo doesn’t like to see anyone get upset, so she hushes the criers and the mummers by saying, “That’s why God put our hearts in our chest,” as she hands out hugs and kisses.
Everything felt the same until three days ago when a real smart doctor came on the boob tube and told everybody he found out how to kill AMI using fermented goat milk smoothies. Mammo said he sounded like a crazyman, but everyone I watched on Mammo’s phone seemed to agree, and there were lots of videos of mamas and about-to-be mamas lining up at hospitals, police, and fire stations to get the smoothies. Everyone was saying that within weeks the nightmare would be over and that finally God, Mohammed, Jesus, and everything else that’s good was on our side. I’ve seen Mammo get real mad before, but she was a dragon-Mammo after hearing the word nightmare and nearly knocked me over jumping up from her chair.
“Those rat-faced, wig-wearing bastards,” Mammo shouted. “Whose nightmare do they think this is? I just can’t imagine it’s been too tough for them in their big houses covered in nets bought and paid for by the same shit that probably caused this whole thing in the first place.”
“Mammo stop shouting,” I said. “You’re hurting my head.”
“I’m sorry baby,” she said, not lowering her voice at all, “but you know how I feel about this, honeybanana. First they take all my money just to help you see the best doctors, then they take my house cause I can’t afford it no more.”
“I know, I know, Mammo,” I said, covering my ears.
“I’d like to tell them about my nightmare, goddamnit, and just because I couldn’t afford no fancy Head-care for you we ended up here like monkeys at the zoo with Heads making everyone money ‘cept themselves serving this ruined country a cheap-ass way to feel better. Now that the fear’s run out, what good are we gonna be anymore?”
“I don’t know, Mammo,” I said.
“I wouldn’t put it past those mother-you-know-whats to send us all over to some dry shithole part of God-knows-where and leave us to starve,” she shouted. “And while we’re busy grabbing our hungry bellies they’ll be nearby digging pits and laughing cause they know something we don’t.”
“I don’t understand, Mammo,” I said.
“What about Hollywood?”
“That’ll be where they stick their shovels in first, mark my words,” she said.
It was getting near bedtime, and I know cause that’s about when the bangbanging starts at the tippy top of my head. Mammo usually lays me down on my cot, puts a cool cloth on my head, and rubs me behind the ears and on my neck where she knows I like it. Instead, she rumbled over to the trunk by the front flap of our tent and pulled out one of her big leather boots. I watched her reach deep inside the toe part, tug out a big wad of cash-ola, and stuff it in her bra.
“Luce, you know you are Mammo’s truest love, right?”
“I know, Mammo.”
“And if it’s till tomorrow or if it’s forever, I’m gonna take good care of you.”
“Mammo’s got a weird feeling about the way things might be, and I gotta go use my last favor,” she said. “Stay here, put yourself to bed, and I’ll be back.”
It was gonna take three days for Mammo to get what she needed, she said, and boy did time snail on with her coming in and out again and again until her boot was empty and she got so mad she threw it across the tent. I’d never been so bored. Mammo said camp was a ghost town, but I didn’t see ghosts anywhere when I peeked my eyes outside, just Heads of all kinds lying around in their diapers, practicing juggling, or playing in the dirt. Even the fryalators shut down, which was kind of nice because the stink always oils everything up. Outside, I smelled dead grass cooking in the sunshine.
Mammo said even she didn’t think the norms would stop coming so fast. “Must have all just lost the address at the same time,” she said. She told me to pack, and I put my favorite clothes inside the duffel she left out. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, but I stuffed my favorite purple costume with the gold fringe on it inside too, just in case I might need to make some dough wherever we ended up. The rest of the time I waited for Mammo to say the word and watched videos on her phone.
There was one I watched probably twenty-hundred times called, “Victory Over AMI Shuts Down New York City.” I memorized it cause I had to have Mammo help me start it again and again cause for some reason or whatever the damn-effin thing wouldn’t load. It started with blurry sign-lights and showed what must have been a kabillion people singing and screaming in the streets. Some were holding baby dolls on sticks high over their heads and others wore t-shirts Mammo said read, “make love AND babies.” The singing sounded like church I guess, and everyone was smiling ‘cept some geezers from a for-real church holding signs that I could see when the video went higher up and showed me what the whole thing looked like below. I know what the word Kill looks like, cause for some reason that one’s easy to read, and Mammo read me the rest, “All Heads,” before she got super-duper p.o.-ed again and walked out.
It wasn’t till the afternoon on the third day Mammo came back in and told me it was finally time to move it.
“Get the bag, darlingbean. I got wheels to take us away,” she said and took my hand.
I was surprised when I saw the rust-brown van outside wasn’t just wheels, and normally I would have said so to Mammo, and she’d laugh about me being such a silly pumpkin, but I just shut up. At first I didn’t see so, but when I got in every seat behind me was full of Heads who gave their own versions of hello.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Mammo said and started driving. The van squeaked bumpy over the hay-lanes toward the exit until Mammo saw Hollis Allen, The Big Kahuna himself, step in front of her way. Mammo put her head out the window.
“Outta the way, Hollis,” she shouted.
“Where you going, Mammo?” he said. “What you think you gonna find?”
“Don’t know, don’t care, now move your ass.”
“Bert told me what you were up to.”
“Bert’s an asshole,” Mammo said.
“You got some of my property back there.”
“They’re children, not property,” Mammo said.
“Maybe, maybe not.”
“As far as I can see, they ain’t worth nothing no more, so move your fool body, or I’ll run you down.”
“C’mon, Mammo, there’s still money to be made here. I can make it worth it for you.”
“No you can’t,” she yelled and beeped the horn.
“I’ll call the cops on you, old lady,” Hollis shouted.
“Do it. Those oinkers don’t give a shit and neither do you. I gave you ten years here so Luce and me could have a roof, so she could get pills and see one of those state docs they send around once in a blue moon. Meanwhile, I’ve kept some of these babies back here from starving, kept their melons from earthquaking right open, and held almost all of ‘em in my arms like they was my own. And I learned something too about the way life works and how your heart don’t care if a soul’s cased in gold or shit. If there’s a good place left to go in this world, I’m off to find it with these babies even if we only make it twenty feet outside this camp.”
Hollis Allen spat on the ground and laughed at Mammo, but he moved out of our way, and Mammo floored it so hard she left a dirt tornado behind us.
And now we’re just driving.
The vibration of the van on the road calms me. We drove past the Grandest Canyon yesterday, and I imagine there’s a great big jagged crack growing just like it right on my skull, up to no good. Mammo says she don’t like the look of anyplace we stop, and we all seem to like the road fine. We’re just moving with the hum of the wheels on the highway and those of us that aren’t sleeping yet will be soon.
The only thing left to do is look out the window, and we are everywhere now.
Heads on the highway trying to hitch a ride.
Heads in dumpsters searching for mango peels.
Heads at rest stops with their arms outstretched.
Heads shriveling up like prunes under the sun.
Heads everywhere you look ‘cept on the boob tubes and billboards where we used to be.
Heads froze-up like statues.
Heads stiff-dead in the woods.
I think it’s a good thing we don’t live too long, cause I don’t know what’s worse, being dead or just being forgotten. Mammo’s still the sweetest and my very best thing. I love her so much and tell so until the words don’t matter, and she just gives me her Mammo-eyes, saying, I know, Luce, you don’t even need to say it. Mammo says we’re making it somewhere before I go, and every Head I pass on the side of the road feels like another blood-beat closer to my light switching off for good. I haven’t said any of this to Mammo. I can’t explain it, not with a head like mine, shaped like an almond with the point up top, chin for a head and all mixed up in a world that wants to forget me just as soon as they can. Death can be a reward even if there ain’t no heaven, Mammo said, and I bet it’s peaceful and the good kind of lonely like when you try and think way back to before you were born into a not-so-scary nighttime that felt like either nothing or something might happen.
© Heidi Sadler
Heidi Sadler enjoys writing fiction tinted by the grotesque and feather dusted by fear. She has an M.A. in English Literature from The University of Vermont that helps her remember when certain books were written and an M.F.A. from Goddard College that reminds her why they were written in the first place. When she’s not feather dusting, she teaches literature and writing classes on the supernatural in popular culture at Stonehill College.
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