“Charlie! You’re bleeding!”
The voice wakes me up from my boredom-induced daze and I look down. The brown paper bag is smeared with blood, and I slowly raise my left hand to my face. The side of my finger has a small red gash across it, scarlet fluid leaks slowly out of my body and onto the customer’s egg carton. I stare at it dumbly, fascinated.
“Charlie!” Martina, the checker at my station, is giving me the “move it!” look, so I mumble that I’m going to go clean up and rush to the bathroom.
I stare at my finger under the harsh white lights. The bleeding has mostly stopped, but I can feel a dull pain moving down my finger and into my arm. I turn on the faucet and run my wound under the frigid metallic water. Of course, there’s no soap. There’s never any soap in the men’s bathroom. I have to run over to the women’s bathroom and pump out a handful of syrupy yellow goo. The soap stings a bit as it fills the cut, but I smile. The pain seems to be the only real thing I’ve felt today. It is almost comforting, as though I am letting some pressure out of my overworked body by opening this hole in my skin.
It’s my third year as Head Bagger at the Quick-O-Market and my life revolves around a little black treadmill at Station 12. I have nothing to look forward to except days filled with paper bags. Bags filled with frozen food, bags filled with produce, bags filled with milk, meat, and coffee. The little whirring treadmill will continue to spit out various food products. The stupid flickering bulb over the register will continue to flicker, flicker, flicker, causing my eyes to constantly readjust and blur.
I rub my eyes and look at my distorted reflection in the metal mirror in front of me. I can barely make out a red scrawled obscenity on the scratched surface, much less my face. Parts of the “c” and “k” are erased, but I still get the meaning. There is an acrid smell of musk and urine mixing with the air and biting my nose. But even the stench is background noise, buzzing in the back of my mind. I finally get the wound respectably clean, and put it under the “sanitary drier” machine. It is supposed to be better than using paper, but I don’t believe it. It just pushes the water into droplets on my hands and I get splashes of moisture all over my shoes. I wipe my hands on my hair before leaving the bathroom, slicking it back and behind my ears.
‘If only I could find a meaning,’ I think, ‘A meaning for my life.’
As my shift ends, the sky has gone charcoal gray. The sun has set just enough so that I cannot see it, but the night hasn’t yet won its space in the sky. The chill wind causes me to shove my hands deeply into my pockets, but it doesn’t do much to fight the goosebumps on my arms; the sweatshirt is thin and worn after years of laundry cycles.
A few newspapers are being tossed in a mockery of a merry-go-round by the wind, the only movement on the street as I walk. Beside myself, only the blowing leaves of print are real: everything else is painted background, inky black shadow paints slung over suburban houses and strip malls. One of the papers catches my shoes, and I pause to look at the heading on the page.
Trepanning? The odd word sounds like gibberish to my brain. I pick up the twitching paper, and it goes still in my hand like a dead thing. Trepanning, hmm, it says that it’s a common practice by many cultures, where one drills a hole in-I pause, shocked and dumbfounded and reread it aloud- “where one drills a hole in one’s head.” I scan the rest of the article, soaking everything in, fascinated. The hole is drilled in order to let there be open communication between the individual and the spiritual world. Many supporters of trepanning report that this hole releases the pressure in their lives.
Pressure…My eyes catch the word and stick there. And suddenly, it doesn’t seem as crazy of a concept. The cut on my finger-I stare at it, and remember the release that came with the pain. I look at the bottom of the article. There is a toll free information number at the bottom.
I fold up the crinkled paper and nestle it in my pocket. My fingers play over the creases and battered edges. Should I call? Should I not? I feel like a pimply teen mustering up the nerve to ask the cheerleader on a date.
“It’s not like I’m going to live forever,” I say aloud to the deserted pavement.
My voice hits the pavement and rebounds, a harsh and throaty echo. The word “forever” continues to rebound in my skull, bouncing off of memories of days where I would be slick with sweat, pulling apart a reluctant bag and shoving sticky food into its yawning maw. The air conditioning is always broken in the summer. By the time someone comes to fix it, it is almost winter. The air conditioning blasts over me every day, even though the leaves are orange and red and falling and the air is sweet with the smell of rot and bitter with the scent of frost.
I reach home and throw my sweatshirt up against the coat rack. Pathetic, that’s me! Still living with the parents. At least I have a job, though; I get home too late for them to give me those looks of disgust.
But instead of heading to my room and collapsing onto my bed like I normally do, I head into the garage. Down the stairs, and ducking under the unused tool belt with the hammer sticking out the side, I finally reach the garage and my father’s “workshop corner.” Even though I’m the only son that my parents have, I’ve never been one for the hard manual labor involved in working on cars and plumbing and circuitry in the house.
“Let Dad fix it,” I would always say, and slump back into my computer chair so I could continue shooting at pixilated monsters with my joystick.
But now, as I look at those silvery pliers and drill bits glinting in the half-light from the kitchen, they seem to glow with a new significance. I need supplies to make this thing work. Got to have careful planning, do everything just so. Can’t risk drilling a hole in only enough to scramble the brains and drain my IQ down to vegetable level. Dying isn’t the fear, here, I know. It’s staying alive and shitting in your pants and smiling about it as they wheel you away. I shudder as I clumsily paw through all of the drawers. Drill takes awhile to find; Dad’s got it buried under some papers and fishing reels. He’ll never miss it. It’s the electric type, which is good. I won’t need any electrical plugs to do it. Hell, I could even sell tickets. There’ve got to be some sick fucks out there in suburbia that would be willing to pay to see it.
The drill bits are a bit more confusing. What size should I get? How deep do I need to go into my head? The questions mount as I grab more and more supplies. I pocket some rubber gloves (“always be cleanly to avoid contamination” pops into my head from my 10th grade biology labs) and the big staple gun (stainless steel staples, just like the kind they use in the hospital.) As an afterthought, I shove a roll of duct tape into my back pocket. Hell, it’s supposed to fix everything. I can always use it if I make a mistake. On the way past the bathroom, I stop to get the bottle of rubbing alcohol that Mom uses to disinfect her jewelry. Cotton swabs sit next to the bottle in a little pink box, and I grab a handful of them too, fluffy balls sticking out through my knuckles.
Finally, in the sanctuary of my room, I assemble all the materials on my bed. I only know some preliminary details about this, but it seems safe to assume that a drill will be involved. The drill sits between the duct tape and the alcohol, and I turn it on to test the batteries. Whirr. Whirr. The drill head spins around and around and my eyes try to keep up with it.
Just then, though, I hear the padded footsteps of someone coming down the hall. Quickly, I throw my comforter over everything, and pretend to be asleep. It’s Mom, her pink fluffy slippers lightly brushing against the bottom of my door as she cracks it open to check on me. Her hair is frizzy, like she’s been sleeping, and her eyes are shadowed in the near dark of my room.
“Charlie?” She whispers, as though she’s talking to some other Charlie in the room and is trying not to wake me.
I groan like I’m being disturbed in my sleep, and snort, rolling over to my side as though asleep. I’ve had years to perfect this particular fake sleeping and she falls for it, pulling the door closed and getting her slipper stuck under the doorjamb. I laugh quietly as she curses softly in the hallway, and there’s a soft scraping sound as the slipper breaks free. The steps fade, and I listen for her door to close before I resume my inventory.
I pull out the paper and look at it again. The number (“toll free!” it says) is 1 (800) DRI-LLME. Drill me? What a stupid acronym. I snicker at the stupidity of the ad, and think, why call? I’m sure that they’re not going to give me any advice that I don’t already know. Drilling a hole in your head is easy. Don’t need to take a class to know that. All I need is a drill and a head. And I got my head, so all I really need to do is get the right drill bit and I’m in business.
I scan the paper for some information. There’s a website too, hidden on top of the success stories and testimonies. I type in the URL. Not found. 404. I curse. Of course the number isn’t found. It’s never found on the fucking net. But I’m not to be discouraged. I use a search engine, type in the website, and I’m redirected, neurons flashing in my computer as it sends me information from that huge brain: the Net. I get over five thousand hits for “Trepanning” and “Trepanation.” Some of them are repeat sites, but it’s all at my fingertips, and I absorb page after page. One of the most helpful is “Trepan-Nation” which has color photos of an actual trepanation. My eyes soak in each picture, each detail. My mind is more alive than it’s been for months. Those neurons fire in my brain faster and faster, like they’re charging back up after centuries of sluggish sleep.
I find a great recipe for some “X-tra strength pain reliever!!1!!!111!!1!” Someone had put so many exclamation points on the end that they had left some of them as ones. But I write down the recipe. It’s free, and most of the ingredients are household products that I’ll be able to get, no problem. I guess it’s a given that it’ll hurt like hell, but the release is like a balloon flying out of your head, or so they say. There are testimonies after testimonies talking about the blood flow benefits and how it helps you to be so much more enlightened, but all I care about is getting rid of this feeling of yawning stagnation. Drilling a hole straight through my brains would be more productive.
But I need to sleep, to think it over, so I take off my pants and throw the covers over myself. I don’t even have time to jack off; I’m so tired. But my brain is humming in a knowledge afterglow better than any orgasm.
I dream that I’m in a chair that’s attached to this conveyer belt like at the Quick O Mart. Everyone is standing around the sides of the belt, with huge smiles on their faces. The smiles are like balloons, and their teeth inflate, large and white. They are pumped full with good intentions. My head is open, with one of those hinges in the back that keeps the top of my head attached like in the cartoons. My brains stick out the top, and I know they’re all cartoonie and pink, even though real brains are whitish yellow on account of the brain mostly consisting of fat. Everyone is sticking things into my brain. I don’t know how they do it, but they’re in an endless line. My parents are there, with a gigantic college diploma, shoving away. My Aunt Geraldine is there, shoving in petunias and carrot cake. Even the car salesman from those stupid Sunday afternoon commercials is there, with a chartreuse station wagon, trying to fit the back tires and tailpipe in against my yielding flesh.
Every face I can remember and ones that I can vaguely place are sitting there, grinning monstrously, and pushing things into the bubblegum flesh of my mind. I scream as the fit gets tighter, but they smile wider, their teeth engulfing their faces. I can’t even see their pupils. Just white, white all around, boring into my skull and flashing in my eyes so they can’t properly adjust. It’s that halogen light. Stupid fucking thing. I flail my arms up at it wildly. But the light gets bigger and bigger and farther away, focusing on me. And suddenly, there’s this huge whirring sound and the sound of glass shattering. The light dies, but not without a fight. It flickers wildly, buzzing and crackling, and I feel the electricity searing into my brain like a hot poker. The dark is a cool relief.
And then I hear it from far away. A whirring that comes closer and closer. It must be a racecar, I think, but it’s not a racecar. Maybe a blender? No. The electric drill comes rolling up to me, its head shining like it’s been blessed. I hand it a drill bit- how long have I been holding it? -and it clicks into place, whirring with the drill head. The drill comes down, down towards me, and I hold out my hands like a child who tries to grab his birthday candles because they look pretty, not hot. The drill pierces my head, and I can feel this huge thing coming out of me, like the drill is starting my brain hatching. Out of the hole comes this huge bulbous slug, lumbering amorphously over my shoulder and onto the floor. It is the color of mucous and I can see things sloshing around inside of it. They are flashing memories, distorted by the yellow green slime. And just as I touch the slug’s side, it finishes pulling out of my head, and I feel a wet sliding sound as it breaks free.
Things are coming into my head, but it doesn’t hurt. It is like a giant plug has been pulled, and I ride the wave of knowledge in ecstasy. The world knows my name, and I can call out the first name of the Earth. In unwritten languages I call out to gods that have sounds for names. I am falling towards a dark light, a warm light, and it is saying something profound if only I’ll listen and I try to listen but—
“Charlie?! What are you still doing here?” It is my mother, pulling aside the curtains.
I groan, and realize I’m late for work. Oh well. I just want to sleep. But I drag myself out of bed, pull on my shirt again, and trudge back to work. I barely look at the faces and bag food mechanically. My mind is in stasis, cryogenically frozen. I’ve encased it in stone, in ice, and I’m chipping away at it again, just slowly enough so that it lasts the whole workday. Churning food, circular food, the treadmill spits it out over and over, into my waiting hands and out the door.
“You need a girlfriend,” Martina says on her smoke break.
I don’t smoke, but I use this time to rest, to keep my brain from dissolving into treadmill-induced hysteria.
“I need a girlfriend like I need a hole in the head,” I say, laughing.
Martina stares at me like I’m crazy. She doesn’t understand that it’s not sexual tension I need to release. It’s intellectual. 100% gray matter. Ah, but it doesn’t matter to her.
“Really,” I say, “I’m crazy. I go crazier every day. Those halogen bulbs are going to give me seizures, just like on those stupid Japanese shows then have on late night TV.”
“Charlie, don’t get too down on yourself,” she’s sympathetic, patting my arm with an ashy hand, “I’m sure you’ll find someone who really understands you. Who knows? She might be right under your nose.”
She coughs as she inhales the smoke again, and the cloud puffs out around us both, cloaking us in poison.
“It’s ok,” I say, although it really isn’t.
“Yeah, back to work then,” she says as she rubs out the smoldering part of the cigarette and drops it unceremoniously in the ashtray.
That night, I get everything together, including a squirt bottle filled with “X-tra strength pain reliever!!1!!!111!!1!” I’ve tried some on my finger, and it’s like I’ve chopped it off. There’s not even a ghost pang or a sandy, gritty finger like it’s asleep.
I take off my shirt again. Wouldn’t do to get blood on it. I have to do this in the mirror, so it’s tricky. I have the drill mounted on my father’s workbench. Luckily for me, I found the mount under the desk. The directions showed me how to hook it up to the vice, so I got myself a pretty good little set up. At least I’m not like that crazy European guy who trepanned himself by holding the drill in his feet.
I find the place where I would like to drill, and put on the gloves, marking the area with a few squirts of the pain stuff. In seconds, my head feels like someone’s cut off a slice but without the pain. It just doesn’t feel like it’s there. I wonder if the blood flow is completely gone. I check the door. It’s closed, and I’ve used the little latch lock to close it from the inside. Dad always used to joke that it was for when he was not to be disturbed, and I didn’t want to be disturbed so it seemed only fitting.
I turn on the drill, and it whines in the quiet air. Do it! Do it! It plaintively calls out to me. I take one last look at myself in the mirror, and I slowly bring my head down so it’s level to the spinning head. The drill bit isn’t too wide, but it’s long, so I have to be careful. The initial impact surprises me; I can feel skin and flesh tearing under the spinning bit, but there is no pain. Under that, the nerves burst, and there is blood, but not as much as most would have thought. The brain is one of the least bloody organs in an adult. It’s mostly fat, you know?
Still onward, I can feel it starting to bore into bare bone, ripping and tearing away at it. The bit gets warm and warmer still, heat traveling down the bit and into the drill, as I hold it with steady hands. I can feel a dull ache around the painless area, and there are small sparks jumping off of the drill and onto my skin. The skull is hard, and difficult to penetrate, but I am patient. I put more pressure into it, and feel the bone yielding under metal. The drill moves through quicker, now that it’s past the initial layer, and digs deeper and deeper towards my brain, my cable of nerves, snaking in a sullen sleep and waiting eagerly to wake.
I’m nearly there. I can feel the vibrations of the drill inside of my skull. It tickles my brain, if such a thing can happen. It tickles me and I giggle, pulling it closer. It doesn’t matter that the blood is flowing freely over my eyes, or that I can feel the drill bit biting and churning into something soft and yielding.
I can feel that slug of everyday life; of car commercials and fast food, crawling out of me. I am the shell of this grotesque creature, this cruel mockery of a butterfly hatched from my head, and I don’t care. I am laughing and laughing, even as everything around me begins to flicker like that damned halogen light. It can’t break up my mood now. It doesn’t know that I’m free of it. Free of the light, the churning monotony of name brands and price checks. The world is opening its dark arms to me, and I fall into them gladly, finally away from the halogen madness of humanity.