The New and Improved Romie Futch

For Eva

By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.

—
DONNA HARAWAY
,
Simians, Cyborgs,
and Women: The Reinvention of Nature

PART ONE

ONE

On a Friday evening in June, stoked by the awesome weather, Chip, Lee, and I were doing tequila shots on the patio of Noah's Ark Taxidermy. Out on the blood-spattered bricks, we talked about old times—when we'd skip biology and get baked in the parking lot of Swamp Fox High.

“Back when I turned you two dorks on to metal,” said Chip.

“You got it backwards,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Lee. “Romie had that Rush tape.”

“Rush is for pussies,” said Chip.

“Rush wasn't the only one,” I said, wanting to hash out the differences between King Crimson's metal moments and the lameness of he-hussies like Mötley Crüe, but, as usual, I found my tongue paralyzed by weed.

“As I recall”—Chip grinned like a donkey—“old Romie was into the Moody Blues.”

When Chip started bellowing “Nights in White Satin,” we all had a decent laugh.

There we were, three bachelors of a certain age, none of us remotely successful. I was a year into my divorce, a fortyish animal
stuffer, balding and childless, though pregnant with a beer belly. The heavy-metal mane I used to flaunt had dwindled to a puny ponytail. Bank of America was threatening to seize my house. AAA Financial, who'd “bought my debt,” had, just that morning, offered to “renegotiate” my payment plan. And three irked customers wanted to know when I'd have their specimens stuffed—buck head, mallard, coon—each animal currently chopped and scattered, hides in pickle baths, organs rotting in thirty-gallon Hefty SteelSaks.

Chip Watts, an ex-jock turned pothead turned drunk, had long since flunked out of Clemson and returned to Hampton to marry several festival queens (Watermelon, Okra, Cooter), divorcing one for the other before running to fat and losing his mojo. But that summer he was on Atkins. He'd lost twenty pounds. He popped testosterone supplements like Tic Tacs. Hiding his sagging gut under the pleats of his Duck Head khakis, he pranced around, bragging about how much poon he was pulling, how many ATVs he'd unloaded that week, how many touchdowns he'd scored back in high school, when his body was still a beefcake and he sported a mullet with a body wave.

Chip had always been a talker. He knew how to bait the ladies, how to floor them with tales that featured him wrestling grizzly bears, tracking wild boars over rough terrain, grabbling sixty-pound catfish from their nests and dragging the thrashing monsters to shore with his bare hands.

Lee Decker was a much chiller dude. An aspiring surrealist painter in high school who now painted houses, he was skinny and still had enough hair to show off. An inch or two of sun-streaked shag casually brushed the collar of those olive shirts he ordered from camping catalogs. His smiles came quick, without nervous tics. He slept like a NyQuil-dosed baby and never fussed much over life.

We were in high spirits that evening, just because it was June. The grass was thick, the fruit trees were starting to put out, and a million cicadas buzzed in the pines. I thought I might call my ex-wife, Helen, just to catch up, or at least whip out my phone and check her E-Live status, gawk at her latest round of photos, even though I knew she had certain settings in force to keep my nose out of her butt.

Her relationship status still taunted me: DIVORCED. She still worked at the Technomatic Quick Lab (doing mostly paternity testing, which she hated with all her soul). The girl still enjoyed swimming, moonlit walks, Art with a capital
A
, and deep-sea creatures (watching them on the Internet, at least). In fact, her latest profile pic was of a vampire squid blinking three thousand feet below sea level, its weird arms covered with threatening spikes. When I first saw it, I choked out a bitter laugh. That was Helen all over: too prickly to hug, sulking in the dark, making herself invisible, but then
bam
—a burst of light so beautiful it knocked the wind out of your lungs.

“Stop thinking about Helen,” said bastard Chip.

“What makes you think I was?”

Chip raised a wild eyebrow. That day his face seemed to droop from his sticky hairdo. Unlike me, whose hairline receded in a heart formation, exaggerating my widow's peak with a Dracula vibe more comic than sexy, Chip had a low hairline and was balding from the crown down. His take on the comb-over involved gelling the fuck out of his auburn hair and finger-brushing the clumped bristles straight up, like Billy Idol circa 1983, but with scalp patches galore. He also sported a hick-van-dyke, the facial hair that aging country singers and motorcycle dudes often cultivate to downplay their jowls.

“Y'all ready to rumble?” said Chip, who was already walking crooked—half due to tipsiness and half to a ruptured disc. We
piled into his monster Escalade, RATT blaring on the stereo—“Round and Round” mocking me with its stupid lyrics.

•  •

We were being digested by the Power Bar, sucked down into its pumping intestines, its thick press of shimmying bodies, flashing wide-screens, and vintage poker machines. The sound system was blasting the latest teen skank, that Brit with a blue beehive who yodeled through a pitch corrector to pounding synths.

Chip had cornered three data processors in day-to-night mode. Their office duds were sparked up with costume jewels. They looked hopeful. And I felt tired already.

“What do you do?” said the prettiest of the three.

“I sell dreams,” yelled Chip.

Watching Chip bellow over the music made me feel sleepier. For some reason, I craved the sunken den of my childhood, with its shag carpet the color of algae and its lumpy plaid couch that smelled of gravy, the residue from countless suppers cooked by my mother. I wanted to curl up there and watch our old TV, its rabbit ears lumpy with tinfoil. I wanted to smell country-fried-steak fumes wafting down the linoleum stairs, hear my daddy washing up in the half bath, hear my mother crooning some dreamy 1950s tune, her pitch-perfect voice full of eerie longing as she tended the sputtering beef. I wanted to slip into a nap, calmed by the pleasant feeling of having
the future
light-years ahead of me, not even hounded by hormones yet, penis curled in soft innocence like a dozing baby gerbil.

But I was smack-dab in a meat market, in a fantasy cave at the end of Magnolia Plaza strip mall, listening to Chip tell a dumb joke to three half-attractive ladies worn out from paper pushing
and ready to call it a night. Everybody seemed run-down all of a sudden, despite the loud music and spastic light. It was like the vents oozed some sort of gas and we'd all soon collapse into a strobe-spattered heap.

“I say we repair to the VIP,” yelled Chip, pointing toward the VIP lounge, so we relocated to this over-air-conditioned nook furnished with armless couches, plastic coffee tables, and a beer clock that featured blondes in fur bikinis.

I ended up knee-to-knee with a girl named Renee—midthirties, dyed red hair, her skin freaky from too many cosmetic procedures and crusted with an inch of makeup. She had a degree in administrative office technology. She owned a blond Labrador named Ace. And I could tell by the way she narrowed her eyes that she thought taxidermy was a redneck thing, that all it took to escape her own hick origins was a slick haircut, designer footwear, and mobile uploads of her lunches at quirky “indie” joints like the Chuckling Newt Café.

Every time I spoke, Renee crinkled her nose and cast a lusty glance Chip's way. He'd started up with his outdoorsman routine, describing the time he'd tracked a two-hundred-pound cougar through thirty miles of swamp and shot it with his bow and arrow.

“It was like an outer body experience,” said Chip, “like
I
was the arrow, flying through the air.”

“Thought cougars were extinct,” said Lee.

“Making a comeback,” said Chip.

“Course, it ain't legal to shoot 'em,” I said.

“What about when a wild beast tries to
kill you
?” Chip bugged his eyes at me. “You got a right to protect your life.”

“Thought you chased it.” I smiled.

“That motherfucker
chased me
for ten miles,” said Chip, switching stories midstream, backtracking through his own bloody footprints. I pictured the cougar flying backward from its death sprawl,
running in reverse through the swamp, all the way back to the pine forest where Chip had first spotted it. I saw it pounce on Chip, who'd been innocently target shooting, knocking beer cans off a hickory stump while whistling “Sweet Child o' Mine.”

“Whatever.” I rolled my eyes.

Renee duck-faced at Chip and slipped off to the powder room. The other two women had their eyes firmly planted on the aging athlete as well. I sat sulking as Chip ordered yet another gin and tonic and amped up his courtship spiel with the prettiest of the trio. His girl inched closer. Their booze breaths mingled. Soon they'd be calling it a night: her first, in a nervous flutter; him five minutes later, his smirk unbearable, his pants crooked, his splotched cheeks the color of pepperoni.

I sighed, exhausted, suddenly, to the bone. I was hatching an escape plan when I saw Helen.

Dear Lord. She fluttered in the flashing light, not dressed in designer-slut mode as I'd feared but wearing a simple green sundress, a red zinnia tucked behind her ear. Her hair was braided in some old-timey fashion that had yet to grace this shit town. In the dimness of the Power Bar, through my beer goggles, she looked fifteen years younger. Hell, she looked almost like her high school self. I wondered if she'd hit the jackpot and hired some clever plastic surgeon who could make a woman look dewy, not pinched and raw, straining to look young, fillers and nips doing peculiar things you couldn't quite put your finger on.

When she stepped under a strobe, I got a better look and saw the age on her, more like thirty-one than eighteen. But she still looked good. My heart was split into two pieces. One part felt certain that she was my destiny, that we'd just hit a glitch, that this woman was truly mine and would be again. The other part whispered that she was out in the world making her own life.

When I saw a man cruise up behind her and paw at her zinnia hair accessory, I drifted toward the second feeling. She was already romping in a meadow of wildflowers with this linen-pants-wearing twerp. He looked sharp and overironed, trim with a slight gut, beyond fifty for sure, his silver-blond hair blow-dried just so. He had that
professional
quality. At first I thought
lawyer
, then
insurance
, then
entrepreneur
, which could mean anything these days—pharmaceutical mogul or putt-putt profiteer.

I was ready to slither into a gash in the ground, lie in my hole and let the soil fall over me, when Helen spotted me. She looked half-horrified, half-amused. We had no choice but to wave and trudge through the crazy disco lights toward each other.

“Hey, you look great,” I said, sounding too chirpy.

“How are you?” She looked me over (brief pause, like a hiccup, as she inspected my gut).

“Fine.”

“How's the stuffed animal business?”

“Same old, same old.” I shrugged.

The corners of her mouth twitched downward. I recognized her pity-tainted frown from the old days.

“This is Boykin.” She turned to her friend.

Boykin? Are you serious?

“His mother was a Boykin,” Helen explained, “and a breeder of the infamous spaniel, our state dog.”

Boykin was indeed what he called an
attorney
, and he'd recently
invested in
a gallery on Azalea Street, that teeny-tiny nook of artsy-fartsiness supported by rich dabblers in this town, mostly trophy wives with liberal arts degrees. There was a lunch spot or two, a brewpub, a pet boutique, a coffee place, a designer clothing shop, a salon/day spa, and what have you. Though the establishments in this so-called historic district tended to display lame paintings of flowers,
pet portraits, and the occasional “abstract” smears a monkey could paint, Hampton had yet to open a bona fide art gallery. And here was Boykin on the forefront of the art scene, looking sleepy and a bit jowly.

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