The morning William woke up missing his left ear, the sky was overcast. The gray day made him drowsy and kept him unconscious well past his usual waking time. He lifted his head reluctantly from the pillow, aching to drift back into slumber but knowing he ought to get up. With one gritty eye, he squinted at the clock.
Past ten on a Sunday morning.
He had already missed several of his favorite TV shows.
When the side of his head hit the pillow again, William startled awake. The pillow was wet. He reeled away from the wetness, scrambling to the lower half of the bed. Frowning, he focused on the pillow.
William tried to comprehend the substance there. A yellowish liquid oozed in sappy rivulets down the pillowcase.
Did that come out of me?
He shook his head, waiting for the sense of something wrong, a wet sting or a twinge of pain. Nothing.
Then he noticed an imbalance in his hearing. He forced a yawn, waiting for his eardrum to pop. Nothing. Instinctively, he brought a finger up to dig in his ear and encountered only the thick, warm fluid.
Maneuvering himself off the bed, William headed for the bathroom. He clicked on the light and went directly to the mirror, head and heart pounding.
At first, he murmured laughter, because what he saw struck him as funny. Where his left ear had been was a smooth patch of skin splattered with yellow pus. There wasn’t even a hole. Nothing torn or bitten off. His ear hadn’t been removed; it had disappeared, and his flesh had healed over the spot.
He stared at his remaining ear, at the way it now threw his entire head off balance. “What’s going on?” he whispered. An involuntary swallow cut his words short.
He rolled a copious amount of toilet paper around his hand and tentatively wiped at the side of his head. The pus came away easily, revealing fresh, pale skin, unblemished as a baby’s. William dampened a washcloth, and rubbed soap into it. He washed the new skin, feeling no pain. He also felt no give, as if beneath the surface a plate of bone had spread. He dropped the cloth into the sink and dried off with more toilet paper. With his index finger, William tickled the area delicately. A fine down lay upon the skin.
Irritated at not being able to understand what had happened to him, he glowered at his reflection, his hand poking and prodding, inflaming the strangely barren patch of skin behind his left sideburn. Red and sore, the skin throbbed defiance at his curious fingers. He memorized the curve of bone that began at his upper jaw and swept up toward his temple without interruption.
It was as if his ear had never been.
Jerking his head back and forth in hopes of restoring his full hearing, he left the bathroom and paused in the corridor. The TV was on, quietly mumbling an advertisement. He slumped onto the couch and grabbed the remote control. He found an old episode of The Twilight Zone, one of his favorites, about a beautiful woman undergoing cosmetic surgery to become ugly in an ugly world. The doctors and nurses had small, cauliflower ears. He acknowledged the weird irony of stumbling upon this show, this morning. He found that he was turning his head slightly to the left, in order to hear better.
Later in the day, he chanced upon a gangster movie in which a thug’s ear gets cut off with a large knife. A lot of the commercials seemed to focus on ears, too.
* * * * *
When he went to bed, he found his pillowcase crusted with dried pus. He had forgotten to change his sheets. He picked at the snot-like residue, remembering the fresh blob of fluid that morning. After wiping the dried flakes away, he let his head fall to the pillow.
He dreamt he was a torso. His head was a perfectly smooth sphere, devoid of features, like a mannequin’s head. Except, the skin moved in flushed rhythms, angrily, as if something beneath the flesh struggled to free itself. There was a sound, like a moan from a mouth taped shut.
His arms, short featureless stalks of flesh extending to rubbery nubs, writhed and beat upon his hairless chest.
* * * * *
“What’s up with your head, buddy?”
William glanced at the janitor and entered the elevator without responding. The man always felt the need to engage in meaningless chatter at eight in the morning. William was most certainly not this man’s “buddy.”
Alone in the lift, he stepped up to the small mirror and adjusted the bandage that covered his anomaly. He had wadded up some cotton and snugged it under there, where his ear should have been. Now it looked as though he had simply had an accident—as if his ear remained but was perhaps injured. He admired his work.
He imagined her in the reflection, too. Standing behind him, waiting for her floor. Her lips moving around a barely audible song. In his imagination, and in his memory, her wavy brown hair cascaded in a liquid gloss as she swayed to the tune she hummed.
Before he had lost his ear, he had determined that today he would make contact. He had mapped out the scenario. Like he did every noontime, he would watch her from the south end of the cafeteria as he ate. She would laugh and blush with her friends, coworkers from the fifth floor. When they were done eating, he would follow them back to the elevators. He would slip inside behind her and offer to press button number 5 for her. This part made his heart beat faster in anticipation. The exchange of words. He would ask, cleverly alluding to her own description of their workplace, “Which prison level, Miss?” and she would smile brightly, and laugh, and reply, “Fifth, thanks.”
But now he looked like a freak.
No, he told himself, I look vulnerable. Vulnerable guys always get the girl on TV.
He shook himself from his reverie and faced the doors. As his ascent slowed, he glanced at his pocket watch. Eight o’clock exactly. At the fourteenth floor, he exited the elevator into a cavernous chamber full of cubicles. At the far end of the room he found his desk and sat down to stare at the computer a moment before turning it on.
(Feels like prison, don’t it?)
In his dim reflection on the monitor he saw the bandages disguising the loss of his ear. He reached up again to touch the spot, felt the hidden cotton, could imagine that the ear had returned or that it had never left him.
He turned on his computer and began working.
* * * * *
William marched to the elevators with the noon lunch crowd. It took him a few minutes to refocus his vision, which had locked as usual into computer-monitor mode. He wanted his sight to be healthy during lunch, when he would watch her.
In the cafeteria, he purchased meatloaf and pudding and sat alone at a good vantage point. He noticed several people glancing twice at his bandages; he shrugged as if to say, “Accidents happen.” He ate without looking at his plate.
She was seated with her friends, laughing hysterically about something. Eyes shut tight, hand to her forehead, she rocked back and forth in her chair. He could just hear her from where he sat. It was a full-bodied laugh, hearty and infectious. William found himself smiling.
She stood apart from the others as if she had been forged from brighter stuff. As if God had, for William’s benefit, spat something into her mix before breathing life into her. She was clearer to him than the rest of the women, who sat around her in murky shadow.
He remembered the first time he had seen her. It was November 13, nine months previous. He had trudged down to lunch, like every day, and had attached himself to the tail end of the food line. Enduring the slow shuffle toward sustenance, he drew a tray and a plate and silverware from the great, steaming bin. Just as he shoved a serving spoon into a mound of mashed potatoes, she whispered into his left ear.
Feels like prison, don’t it?
He had jerked, had flung the potatoes into a pool of creamed corn. He looked at her, bewildered, then tried hastily to wipe up his mess. An annoyed attendant shooed him away and replaced the creamed-corn dish with a new one. William had moved stiffly forward to pay the cashier and had shuffled off to the end of the room. Beneath an embarrassed brow, he watched her laugh with the cashier—probably about him!—and lope over to a table occupied by a large group of laughing women.
William had sat stunned over his food. He could still feel the warmth of her breath against his ear, and would feel it—rapturous fever on the side of his head—long into that night.
The memory brought an ache to his chest, and his fingers to his left ear, or to where his left ear had been. He could summon the memory of her sultry breath as easily as he could taste the food before him.
He looked down at his plate and found that he had finished his meatloaf. Meticulously, he peeled the cellophane from his chocolate pudding and began slowly spooning it into his mouth. He could time his meals to hers so that they finished at the same time. It was a game. Sometimes she ordered dessert, sometimes not. Often, she chose to end her meal with an apple, which she always sliced into four triangular chunks. He liked the sense of routine in the small ritual. But the apple took more time, so William, to compensate, would slow his own eating.
From where he sat, he couldn’t determine what she had chosen today. He ate his pudding at a hesitant pace, wondering what she might do.
She stood up.
William almost choked. He pushed his chair back, producing a loud scraping sound. Lunchers around him turned and stared. William made an apologetic gesture and looked back at her. She was smiling and exchanging goodbyes with her friends. What was going on? Was she leaving for the day?
He stood, trying not to appear nervous, and walked to the trash can, where he dumped his barely touched pudding and his empty plate. She was heading back toward the elevators. He swallowed, feeling sweat prickle the side of his face beneath the bandage. He followed her. When he passed her table, he glanced at the women, none of whom acknowledged him.
He grew excited. This could be the perfect moment. Were she to enter the elevator alone, and he step in behind her, he would later fall to his knees at his cubicle and mumble his thanks to God for the remainder of his shift.
In sight of the elevators, he watched her head straight toward them. Unobtrusively he picked up his pace until he was ten steps behind her and an open elevator loomed ahead.
Which prison level, Miss? Which prison level, Miss? Which prison—
She entered the elevator and turned to face the button console.
Nervous to the point of near-spastic tremors, William entered the elevator and found himself alone with her. He felt stupid and awkward. On his lips teetered the innocent, jokey question he had imagined asking—
Which prison level, Miss?
—but he could not, now, imagine initiating such an exchange in a trillion years. And now the possibility he would utter his query today was forever gone, as he watched her deftly jab button 5. William felt that he could easily break down into wracking sobs.
As the lift began to ascend, he watched her peripherally. She leaned comfortably against the wall, looking contentedly down at her shoes and lightly humming.
He swallowed, trying to dislodge the lump in his throat. He felt coated with sweat, immersed in a thick sludge of emotional ineptitude. The feeling enraged him, made him want to lash out. The rage, he realized with blunt shock, was directed toward her. Abruptly, he calmed, closing his eyes.
That’s when he felt it. Felt it again. Her mouth at his right ear, his good ear this time. Her whisper against the side of his face.
You’ll never have me, she told him, her breath fogging his skin with perfumed mist.
He staggered back to the rear of the elevator, but encountered no resistance where he expected to find a wall. He kept falling backward in the rising room, which became dark and dank and cavernous. He flailed backward with his arms—and found he had no arms. He was the torso from his dream, suddenly weightless, floating in the center of the vast room. The elevator slowed its rise, came to a pause, and began to descend with increasing speed. He tried to scream but could emit nothing from his sealed mouth. His squirming body rose, and finally was mashed against the ceiling by centrifugal force as the elevator plunged downward. Despite his blindness, he saw the little numbers above the door blip into negative integers.
His face rippled with the force of the meteoric fall.
You’ll never have me, she repeated, stepping to the doors at the far side of the elevator. She yanked down a large, antique lever, and the cables above them screeched. William slammed to the floor.
She stepped out of the elevator and the doors closed, leaving him alone.
* * * * *
The next morning found William in a pensive mood. Before opening his eyes to the new day, he pondered his dreams. He had been the torso again, within several settings. In one, he had been falling helplessly through water, feeling the impending implosion of his lungs. In another, he had simply been lying here, on his bed, face down and still. He had been able to scrutinize, from above, his torso’s backside and had recognized the birthmark beneath his left shoulderblade. As he looked at it, somehow comforted by its presence, its burned-in essence, the mark faded, blending into the smooth skin surrounding it. In the dream he wailed and whimpered. But his dreamscape had not been characterized utterly by despair. There had been a final dream, the dream from which he now lazily woke. Inside it, he had been whole. He had burst wetly from the confines of the stifling torso like a moth from its pupa. He was in the elevator and she was there with him, looking down on him. He rose from syrupy birth fluid and approached her without hesitation.
I will have you, he told her, and took her in his arms.
William opened his eyes to the blare of dawn and knew immediately that something was amiss. His tongue found the aberration: Ten or twelve of his back teeth were gone, and in their wake lay disturbingly long, smooth expanses of gum tissue. A foul taste pervaded his mouth, bitter and slimy.
He rose from his bed and entered the bathroom, where he spat yellow-tinged saliva into the sink. He looked at himself in the mirror. He noticed wisps of hair on the shoulders of his pajamas; he brushed at them and they whispered to the floor.
The TV blurbled away in the next room. The night before, it had glowed with romantic love. He had watched a string of dramas about beautiful young people totally in love with each other and with each others’ bodies. There had been soft, sultry music and dim lighting and elated sighs. The television programs had provided the only light in William’s world; the room had flickered about him and he had watched with tears in his eyes.
He pulled his pajama top over his head and searched his reflection. His gaze stopped at his navel, which had vanished. He poked at his belly, feeling only the unobtrusive roll of fat; no indent, no impression of hollowness beneath the flesh; no net of sensitive nerve endings marking the umbilical port. His belly button had sealed over as if it had never existed.
I have to do it today, came the thought. I have to do it today.
He showered and dressed, then went to the television, reached to click it off. His attention caught briefly at a commercial—“Next on PBS, the Miracle of Birth”—then he pushed the button and the large box went silent.
* * * * *
At least he hadn’t needed additional bandages. Had he been forced to enter his workplace looking like a burn patient, he would have lost all credibility, and he doubted she would give him half a glance, let alone a reply, at the moment of his kind gesture.
Which prison level, Miss?
He laughed fleetingly at the image of himself, mummified, offering with bandaged index finger to press button 5.
William’s computer beeped twice, telling him it was lunch time. He jerked at the sound but rose dutifully, seeing the heads of his coworkers rising simultaneously. Footfalls toward the elevator were almost in sync. As he entered the elevator, he nervously probed his smooth gumline with his tongue. At least she couldn’t see that, and he could still speak normally. He had practiced in front of his bathroom mirror that morning, watching his opening and closing mouth for a view of the new gaps.
He stole a glance at the mirror in the corner of the ceiling and sighed. Still the head bandages.
At the cafeteria he searched for her. He saw her group of friends, but he couldn’t see her. He frowned as he joined the line for food, and, as he placed cottage cheese and soup and Jell-O onto his tray, he repeatedly peeked over his shoulder at her table. He paid for his meal sullenly.
William finally caught sight of her while he was walking to his usual table. He almost fell over. His limbs went abruptly stiff and his tray nearly tumbled to the floor.
She was giggling and shrugging, approaching her friends. A commotion arose at the table; they were all looking at her, throwing questions at her.
William only stared.
She was wearing a bandage on the side of her face. A small, but quite noticeable square bandage covered her left ear. He could see how it concealed something, as if she had stuffed cotton beneath it to hide the fact that something was missing.
William’s heart thudded.
And when she finally left her table, amidst her friends, he could only stare limply over his tray of untouched food. It was as if a sun had supernovaed in his chest.
* * * * *
He dreamt of a torso.
She was on his bed, moving languidly, her smooth, featureless head making a sensuous indentation in his pillow. He watched her from beside the bed. The TV had moved into the bedroom with them, and it was casting colors over them liquidly.
He rolled himself onto the bed and knew the warmth of her flesh.
* * * * *
William, dwindling, watched her from across the cafeteria.
That morning he had found that, during the night, during his dreams, he had lost three fingernails, four toes, a portion of his tongue, and—this had elicited a cry of alarm upon waking—when he probed at his temple with his fingers, he found that a segment of skullplate had disappeared, leaving only a fragile membrane. The skin there pushed in effortlessly upon ridged brain matter. When he pressed one finger too forcefully against the usually well-protected organ, his vision went black and his jaw cramped shut for six terrifying minutes.
When those last had returned to normal, William resolved to speak to the woman later that day.
Now the moment rapidly approached.
Still sporting her diminutive bandage, she laughed and talked with her friends as if nothing had happened to her. He wished he could be like her. He wished he could ignore the changes and get on with his life.
Perhaps she would teach him. Perhaps after he spoke with her, after she responded to his kindness, she would share her personality with him. She would show him how to adapt, how to live with his diminishing. Clearly, she was the kind of person who took such things in stride.
Fate smiled on him.
She rose from the table, alone once more. Happily waving, she deposited her trash and started for the elevators. William calmly stood and followed.
He strode behind her in a daze, watching her walk, watching her torso’s subtle twist. She entered the lift and William hurried in behind her.
The words came out of him before he had a chance to gulp them down again.
“Which prison level, Miss?”
She laughed suddenly, in a delighted way, and met his gaze. The reaction astounded and exhilarated him. He tried to rein in his urge to joyously fidget.
“Deliver me to the fifth, sir,” she said, mock-serious. Her demeanor told him she would welcome a further exchange of words.
He tried a smile, but inside he choked. He had thought of no further words. Behind what he hoped was a pleasant facade, he scrambled for witty conversation, searched his memory banks for sound bytes from favorite TV shows.
The elevator doors closed and they were alone.
She stared at him.
“Fifth, please,” she repeated.
William reached over to press button 5—watched his finger make the short journey, the journey he had dreamed about—but something inside him, something down deep, detached from the rest of him.
“What—” he began, hearing the words escape his mouth but not feeling his lips move, “what was it like for you?”
“I’m sorry?” she asked.
She didn’t say anything.
“Was it just . . . gone . . . in the morning?”
“I don’t know what—”
“I’m losing other things, too. Yesterday morning I woke up and my back teeth were gone. And my belly button. Like I never had one. I think it might have something to do with the TV. And this morning, a part of my head.”
He looked down vertiginously at the floor, which seemed to be falling into the abyss of the elevator shaft. But he stayed, buoyed up with her near the doors.
William mustered the courage to bring his gaze to hers. She was frowning slightly.
“So what happened to you?” he asked her gently.
Still, she was quiet. He waited for her to tell him how she had lost her ear, how she had awakened the previous morning to the discovery of imbalance. He wished she might disclose to him the contents of her dreamscape, that lately her unconscious mind depicted her as a torso, inside of which she was trapped.
He wanted her to tell him that, despite her dreams, she felt hope.
She opened her mouth to speak, and William found himself leaning in toward her.
“I . . . I had a . . . small mole removed yesterday morning.”
He stared at her, not comprehending.
She swallowed. “Doctor took it right off with a laser.” The elevator pinged. She looked at him sadly. “Thanks for—” She shrugged. “—for pressing my button.”
The doors closed and he was alone.
* * * * *
He dreamt he was a torso again. He lay on his bed, face up, his featureless head directed toward the ceiling. Watching himself from above, he was happy with what he saw. He could discern no inner struggle. He seemed to be at peace. His sleeping mind calmed. The other torso lay in the bed next to him, her skin touching his, her nubby arms reaching across his chest.
He woke missing several parts of himself. His right hand was gone; his arm ended in a smooth nub. At work he would have to type with his left hand. His output would suffer. Perhaps he would have to stay late.
A large portion of his left thigh was missing. It looked as if something had taken a bite out of it, except that the flesh, again, was smooth, not ravaged by teeth or other harm. He felt no pain, but, as he found when he stood from his bed, he would walk with a pronounced limp. No way around that.
He scrutinized the rest of himself, with his eyes, with his fingers, with his tongue. At the back of his mouth he felt an abscess in his upper palate; he felt as if he could, with his searching tongue, reach up to lick the back of his eye. With his fingers he found deep impressions in his back and in his buttocks.
He yawned, heard with his good ear the babbling of the television in the front room. He had watched it from the moment he had arrived home until three o’clock in the morning. The images frenzied in his mind now, a square of blurry color having burned into his retinas. Slivered memories of the previous night’s programs flickered before him: medical dramas and cartoon violence, prime-time soaps and real-life cop shows. A distinct memory, of one TV character receiving a shotgun blast to his back, came to him and then was gone. Then there were the commercials—spokespersons screaming about their products, from breakfast cereals to desserts, from toothpaste to baldness cures.
He walked into the bathroom and found that his hair was gone. William nodded. He felt as if he was looking at himself, detached, like in the dream. He rubbed the fingers of his left hand over his hairless pate, suddenly feeling panic. Now she would really think him a freak! His smooth head and his missing ear made him look like one of those aliens on that weird TV show.
He could hide his new baldness, however, beneath the bandages for his ear.
He could still go to work and see her.
After showering and dressing, he walked out into the front room. The television was strangely quiet. He approached it, and upon closer inspection could discern murmured voices. A cable problem? He fiddled with the volume knob. The sound wouldn’t go any louder.
Then he focused on the picture.
It was the cafeteria. It was his view of her at her table. There was dim commotion all around, but the brightest image was her.
William sat in his comfortable chair and stared.
After a while, the woman with the small bandage on the left side of her head stood from the table and glanced at him. She said goodbye to the rest of the women at her table and strode toward him. William found himself leaning back in his chair. She came right up to him and gave him a knowing smile.
She looked to the left, then to the right.
Taunting him, she removed her blouse and showed him the blunt smoothness of her chest. She brought up her arms for him to see; they ended in stumps. When he glanced back up he watched the flesh of her face swallow her smile. Her head, a fleshy ovoid, jerked back and forth with the laughter inside it.
William fell to the floor and scrambled to the screen. He put his good hand to the sparking warmth and shut his eyes. He could feel her there. He smiled, and pressed his head against her smooth chest. He could almost hear her heartbeat.
“I have you,” William whispered.