Love Song for the Headless

Maria had been waiting for an hour in the Pain Management Clinic waiting room, eager for a refill, hopeful for a higher dose, still bundled in her coat, scarf, gloves and hat because it was minus forty degrees in Wisconsin, which meant every time someone came shuffling or rolling or crawling through the door, the polar vortex smacked the bull’s-eye painted on her face, and she cursed them. If she had to wait much longer, she’d have to strangle someone. Was chronic pain the leading cause of crime? She didn’t want to go to prison. She had a five-year-old son to take care of and a sick husband to nurse back to health and a shit-job to avoid being fired from, all while cringing from back spasms that made her want to murder anyone who said (or looked like they could say) something agreeable about any of the stupid political leaders who advocated for increased stupidity. Her incompetent doctor said she should simply learn to live with pain. So she got a second opinion. And here she was, in this waiting room that resembled the purgatory she was no doubt headed toward. 

From the wall-mounted television, giggling newscasters from Fox News tortured her. Beneath the TV, a two-year-old screamed her little lungs out like a tormented Joplin (Janis, not Scott), while standing on her mother’s lap, flapping her arms as if her diaper were on fire. Maria wanted to get in before the kid. She’d arrived first. Were her pain less excruciating—were she not on a time-crunch to pick up Miles—she’d say, “No, please, let the child in ahead of me; I’m happy to suffer longer for her sake.” But no, she wanted in first. 

An older man sat two seats away, wearing an orange duck-hunting hat, flaps over ears, beard drooping to his chest, newspaper two inches from his eyes. He grunted when he turned the pages. Because they were too heavy? Two elderly women sat across from him wearing matching Green Bay Packer Jackets, both eating from bags of popcorn they’d scooped from the machine next to the empty fish tank, talking of yesterday’s playoff collapse and dumbass coaches. They’d come in together, sisters probably, twins maybe, faces blank as tombstones. They kept looking at the screaming baby, kept saying, “Poor baby.” The poor baby’s mother kept rocking the poor baby; dark eyes set in a ghostly face. Closer to the door, a skinny guy, mid-twenties, couldn’t keep still—clenched jaw, bouncing knees. He scratched his face with one hand, held his phone in front of his eyes with the other, squeezed it as if had insulted him. 

Maria thought of her mother in Jacksonville, Florida, who one month ago had undergone what was supposed to be a simple kidney procedure to remove a benign tumor—so simple her mother insisted that Maria didn’t need to come home. So she didn’t. Her mother had said, “Don’t worry about me, honey, you have enough to worry about. If you need to feel guilty, feel guilty about some of the other things in your life. You need to take care of yourself.” 

So she didn’t go. She focused her guilt on being a bad mom and bad wife, a failing teacher and cold colleague, an apathetic neighbor, passive citizen, and pill addict. And sure, she also felt guilty for being a selfish only child who couldn’t fly home to hold her mother’s hand before she went into surgery—to say comforting things and assure her that she’d be there to see her when they wheeled her back out. 

Today, she’d canceled her afternoon music class, then felt guilty for feeling good about it. She hated the gen-ed students who hated the music they were required to appreciate, and she hated herself for being mean to them for hating it. She wanted to stop her colleagues in the hall, explain that her back pain made it difficult to smile these days, ask them what sort of pain they were living with and how did they manage? Her mother told her last month, via telephone, to “offer it up,” which was what she’d told Maria in her youth every time she fell out of a tree, or off a bike, or got whacked in the head with a softball she was supposed to catch. Marty too had been saying, “Please. Find a therapist.” And just this morning, finally, to herself, she’d said, okay, okay, yes. Following her Pain Management appointment, she’d step next door and make an appointment with Dr. R. Angle, PhD., certified psychologist. 

But it was already 4:30, and she had to pick up Miles from his new preschool before five and didn’t want to embarrass him by being late. He’d gotten kicked out of his last preschool for punching three other kids on three separate days, allegedly unprovoked, and with no explanation afterward from Miles, which led to weekly appointments with a child therapist who was having no better luck getting him to talk than Maria and Marty were having. Potential medications were being discussed, debated, fought over.  

 The bearded man said, “Fake news,” turned a page, grunted.

 The baby’s screams were operatic, amplified, off key. One of the Packer sisters said, again, “Poor baby.”

It’d be easier to live with pain if she still lived in Florida, away from a landlocked state and its bland food and grey skies. She’d prefer an occasional hurricane over living inside a freezer. And she’d prefer not to summarize her life every time she said hello and revealed her accent and got the inevitable “Where are you from?” 

Over the screaming baby, one Packer sister told the other, “Ted Stein has been brain-dead for a month yet after slipping on the ice, still hooked to the machines, poor thing, and his children never call him.”

“Poor thing,” her sister said.

With a dose of stronger meds, Maria might manage a good night’s sleep. She might wake up restored, might return to the treadmill for a mile, might enter the campus-wide meeting addressing budget cuts and layoffs without a sense of panic, even as she knew the music department would be the first to go. And following that meeting, she might very well find the old spring in her step and waltz, as she once did, into the auditorium to greet one hundred hearing-impaired sophomores whose collective angst was difficult to pierce, even last week when she veered from the syllabus and played Hendrix playing the Star-Spangled Banner, at which point students grimaced and poked fingers into their ears. One said, “But wasn’t he on drugs?” And just like that, she veered again, suggesting they try drugs. Then she riffed through a lecture on the history of psychedelic music, played a sample of the fifth movement of Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique (1830), written while Hector enjoyed opium, then she sped through the heroin-infused jazz of the ’20’s, trying, before class ended, to reach the Beatles, then the Merry Pranksters and the cultural conditions of those times that fed the music and fueled rebellion. The students grew sleepy, despite all the Red Bull in the room. After an hour, and still with twenty minutes to go, she said, “Fuck it,” and let them go, which cued the cacophonous unzipping and re-zipping of backpacks, sounds that made Maria’s brain dance with apoplectic rage.  

The office phone kept ringing, an old-timey bell-ringing rotary phone, circa 1976, that bounced off the hollow walls, which, even on a good day, would give Maria a migraine. At the first meeting with the pain management specialist, she’d said, “I also have chronic misophonia.” He typed that into his records, said, “What’s that?” She explained it was a strong sensitivity to certain sounds that might, if severe enough, trigger a desire to kill whatever’s making the noise. When Miles attacked his cereal bowl with his spoon, for example, or when people ate popcorn with their mouths open, or men grunted while reading newspapers, or kids shook the walls because they bounced their heels, or loud-mouth pedantic pundits praised a racist devil, making babies scream. She looked at her phone again. Nothing. She inhaled deeply. She closed her eyes.

She’d hurt her back shoveling too much snow too fast because she was late for work and needed to dig out her car. Since then, a year ago, she’d twice fallen on ice, spraining her back. She hated to think she’d grow old while walking over ice, breaking arms, hips, necks. Marty kept saying, “It could be worse.” Before he got exhausted from being sick, he stayed exhausted from mediating conflicts with parents and children, foster parents and bureaucrats, removing children from their homes and placing them with strangers. When Maria complained about her job, he said, “What do you do again? Listen to music? Talk about music?”  

Worse than the ringing phone was the overly-chipper tone-deaf receptionist just home from the set of Fargo with her vowels that pierced her script like ice picks: “It’s A beau-tee-ful more-ning at Weee-Care pAIn clinic, how can we ease your pain today?”   

The baby screamed. The baby’s mother looked toward the ringing phone. A Packer sister said, “Sounds like she’s being tortured, poor thing.” 

The bearded man flapped his paper. “Torture?” he said. “You want to talk about torture?” 

Maria didn’t want to talk about torture. She stared at her silent phone, looking through it all the way to her mother’s incision.  

“I’ll tell you about torture,” said the man. He lowered his paper, looked at Maria as if she’d made the comment. “Every six weeks, I get a shot in each eye because I got doused with napalm in Vietnam. I’ve had a headache since 1965. But them’s the breaks when you fight for freedom. I knew what I was signing up for.” 

Maria laughed, a reflex as quick as a hammer to the knee. She had pictured him carrying a machine gun through a Vietnamese jungle while wearing his orange duck-hunting hat. The man looked at her, and she looked away. She knew engaging him would lead to greater pain, a kind of torture. She knew better than to engage him. 

“Aren’t you angry,” she said, “that you were sent into an unwinnable war?” 

“The media lost that war,” he said, and flapped his small-town daily to illustrate what the media looked like. He looked at the Packer sisters for affirmation, and they nodded while chewing, though Maria wasn’t sure they’d heard him over the screaming baby. She wanted to yank the newspaper out of his hands and rip it into shreds. She decided to say nothing else. Anything else would create more tension that would escalate, turn hostile. She stared through the front glass door and into the freezer outside that waited for her.  

She wanted to call Marty, say, “I’m sorry.” She wanted to call her dead father in purgatory, say, “Sorry I didn’t call you more often. See you soon.” She wanted to call her mother, say, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” one thousand times in a row.

A worker in white stepped out with a clipboard. She was in her twenties, but prematurely old, more exhausted and dead-eyed than anyone in the waiting room. For one second Maria saw the toll it took to deal with people in pain, and she wanted to apologize to her too. 

The worker called the mother with the screaming baby.

“I was here first,” Maria said, more of a mumble, really. 

“Here’s what I want to know,” the bearded man announced. “What with all the beheadings going on over there, what are we doing for the people who have had their heads cut off?” 

Maria laughed again, more explosively.  

The man stared at her, like, “What’s wrong with you?” The Packer sisters looked curious too. She wanted to ask whether first aid for the headless had ever done much. She wanted to ask if he knew the success rates for head-reattachment procedures.

The man said, “You’re not from around here are you? Got you an accent, sounds like.” He narrowed his eyes to get a better look at the affliction around Maria’s mouth. Sometimes it was a harmless “Where are you from?” conversation-starter. Other times, the passive aggressive MO of the Midwest announced itself like the shadow of a shark fin and all Maria heard was: “You’re not one of us.” She’d heard it from real estate agents, neighbors, bankers, dentists, even professors. Professors sneered, sometimes, with smug assumptions about every individual who resided in a red state. 

 Maria said, “You have an accent too.” 

He cocked his head like a confused chicken. The Packer sisters watched, awaiting escalation. Maria needed to retreat, soften up, disarm, or the teaching moment was lost. 

“I’m from a small town in Florida,” she said. “I came here for work five years ago. It’s a pretty place.” To pacify a native anywhere, Maria knew, compliment their home. The office phone went off again and the receptionist recited her script. Maria cringed.

“You people,” the man said. “You’re still fighting the Civil War down there.”        

The Packer sisters eyed Maria, looking for her musket. The guy in the corner looked up too, in case the musket was concealed. And the truth—the sad truth, (a truth she’d confess to Dr. R. Angle, certified) was this: she wanted to retrieve the hatchet-handle she kept beneath her driver’s seat. She’d learned this from her grandfather, who kept a handle beneath his truck seat, which he called his n-word knocker, a phrase that nauseated her then and filled her with great shame now. But he was indiscriminate—he waved it at anyone who pulled too far past red lights or stop signs. She’d lifted her own handle only once, while cursing a driver who rolled through a four way stop. Miles had been with her, so she made it a teaching moment. “Be courteous of other drivers,” she had said. “Be kind,” she said. 

The bearded man said “You people never surrendered.”

Maria imagined waving her hatchet-handle around the waiting room, first at the man, then at the receptionist and her phone. But she surrendered. She leaned forward, stretched her back, closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. 

“I went to Disney World thirty years ago,” the man said. “Stopped at a gas station in Georgia, confederate flags waving everywhere, then I went inside, saw these old men standing around talking, so I said hello and they asked me, said did I know the difference between a damned yankee and a goddamned yankee, and they told me, said it’s one who’s visiting versus one who’s staying. So I said to my wife, so much for that southern hospitality you hear about.” 

The Packer sisters looked at Maria so she could answer for this crime, maybe make reparations. And she wanted to apologize, to say that unkindness wasn’t right there or anywhere. Instead, she retaliated with her own story, said, “Last Sunday, I was shoveling snow, and this guy stopped by with a snow-blower, offered to do my sidewalk for ten bucks. I asked him if he wouldn’t rather be watching the Packers, and he said, ‘No, I don’t care nothing about watching a bunch of—and then he used the n-word. I told him to leave.” This wasn’t completely true. She’d waited for him to finish the sidewalk, gave him ten bucks, and spent a sleepless night preparing the lengthy lecture she would excoriate him with next time. 

“You know what the guy said?” Maria said. “He said, ‘You’re not from around here are you?’” That part was true.

 “Was he driving a green truck?” the man said. 

 “He didn’t care about the Packers?” one woman said. 

 “If it was a green truck, it was Karl. He’s not hitting on all cylinders.”

 The office phone rang. 

 “I wish he’d come by our house,” her sister said. 

 “Not if he’s a Bears fan,” the other said.  

 The phone rang again. 

The worker in white stepped out and called the guy in the corner who limped across the room, head down. 

“Here first,” Maria mumbled. 

“Karl’s from Missouri,” the man said. “A southern state.” 

It’s a beautiful morning

“Isn’t Missouri in the Midwest?” one woman said. 

 at We-care Pain Management clinic.

“Missouri’s the south,” the man said. “They owned slaves there. Ask Mark Twain.”

How can we ease your pain today?

“Missouri’s in the Southeastern Conference,” the other woman said. “With Alabama, Florida, Georgia. Teams like that.”

“But,” her sister said, “that arch-looking thing in St. Louis—you’re supposed to go through that thing to head west—what’s it called?” 

“Excuse me,” Maria said. She stood and stepped toward the door. Was she really going to fetch her hatchet? The worker in white stepped out again and called the bearded man. He got up slowly, made a show of shaking his head (some people, his head said) while he gathered his coat, grimaced and grunted and left Maria alone with the Packer sisters, who looked away. It was 4:45. The TV talking heads talked more loudly about the dangerous things inside the heads of pro-immigrant people. 

“The arch,” a Packer-sister said. “It’s called the arch. In St. Louis.”

“That’s right,” her sister said. “You go through that to go west.” 

The worker in white came back, called the name of one woman, so both women rose and went in together, one for support, no doubt, a good listener who was going to take notes, a team, which suddenly made Maria deeply sad and jealous. She turned off the TV.

A minute later, the mother came out carrying her baby, who wasn’t crying. The baby’s head was propped on her mother’s shoulder, eyes closed, having gotten a shot of the good stuff. They went through the door, letting in cold air. The younger guy came out, stared at his phone while marching toward the door and through it, letting in cold air. It was 4:55. The bearded man came out, limped to the door without acknowledging Maria, face like cement, and went through the door, letting in cold air. To her aunt: everybody ok? The Packer sisters came next, zipped their coats and walked out, talking of their efficient visit. The receptionist turned off the lights. 

“Hey,” Maria said. 

She turned the lights back on.

“Oh,” she said. “Didn’t see you there.” 

Maria approached the window, gave her name. “I was here at 3:30, for my 3:30 appointment that was scheduled today for 3:30.”

The lady looked at her calendar. “Did you check in?” 

She hadn’t checked in. 

“I’m sorry,” the lady said. “There must’ve been a mix up.” 

“Yes, obviously, there was a mix-up.” Clearly their mix-up. 

She flipped a page. “I see you here, one week from today at four o’clock.” 

That couldn’t be right. She was out of pills. “I’m out of pills,” she said. 

“I’m sorry. I’ll leave a note and we can—”   

“Can we call—I’m sure you have a cell number for someone.”

“No,” she said. “I can’t do that.” She’d replaced her chipper telephone voice with the disciplinarian-voice she must’ve once used on her children. She stared at Maria with jail-warden eyes. Maria squeezed the ledge outside the lady’s window. She wanted to release the ledge and grab a chair she could throw. She’d thrown lots of things in her mother’s house while she went through high school, and her mother came home to find her house in shambles, a single mom working her ass off at jobs she hated to pay for a house Maria wanted to destroy. Dr. R. Angle said, Is that where your guilt begins? and Maria said, Shut up. R. Angle said, Where was your father? Tell me about your father, and Maria said, shut up.      

She’d have to get through the night with something else, call first thing in the morning. Her brain made a strange noise. She smelled mold, or mildew, or swamp gas. Her stomach lining burned. She turned away, went out into the dark night and let the cold air punch her face. Her car was a cold casket. But there were seat warmers, and she’d have Miles’ seat warm for him before he climbed in. She’d gone in debt for seat warmers. She’d bought a new SUV to get through unplowed alleys, her first-ever new car, which she felt guilty for admiring. She inspected it daily to make sure the doors weren’t dinged. 

It was 5:11. Miles stood outside, waiting. They’d locked the doors at five, he said, and left because he’d sworn his mother was coming. 

“Those assholes couldn’t wait with you for five minutes?” He’d stop shivering soon, she knew—the car was warm, his seat was warm. 

Miles slumped and sulked, deepened his silent treatment. Once they got to the grocery store, she’d tell him to get whatever he wanted. Another pizza for dinner? More beer for her? She called her mother. 

The car ahead of her stopped so a hundred-year-old man could hobble by. Another car sat on her bumper, waiting for her and the car ahead. Her mother’s phone was ringing. Miles said, “Uh-O.” To their right, moving backwards out of a parking space toward Miles’s door: a Buick. Maria tapped her horn. The person ahead of her raised a middle finger. Her mother’s phone was still ringing. The Buick kept coming. Maria held her horn for a four count, loud enough for a deaf person in the next county to hear. The Buick was going to hit her new car. She was going to have to stand in the cold and argue over blame, wait for a cop. She held the horn. Miles scooted toward the middle to escape injury. 

The Buick hit Miles’ door and made a thunk louder than Maria had expected. Miles yelped like a little girl and Maria hung up her phone, turned off her car, reached beneath her seat for her hatchet-handle. It wasn’t there. All at once, she put it together—Miles had told his father about it, and he’d taken it, put it in his divorce file. This pissed her off more than the deaf Buick driver. She reached behind her for Miles’ big plastic bat. It’d been there for six months, the fat end of it big as a cartoon bat, which made it hard to miss a ball, though Miles managed to miss every time, and the last time they’d gone to the park, Maria had grown impatient at Miles’ consistent whiffs from five feet until Miles finally said, “I hate you.” 

She grabbed the bat and went out and around her car, through the headlights of the car behind her. She raised the bat over her head with both hands and slammed it on the Buick’s trunk six consecutive times, feeling no pain. So she did it again. Then again. Then she carried it to the driver’s door, waiting for it to open so she could start swinging. She crouched into the batter’s stance of a right-handed power-hitter, teeth clinched, ready to send a human head as far as she could send a softball. Behind Maria, the car that had been on her bumper sped away. When the Buick door opened, finally, slowly, the tip of a cane came poking out. A skinny leg followed it. A second skinny leg followed the first, two skinny legs now straddling the skinny cane held by a 90 year-old woman. 

Maria lowered her bat, feeling sick to her stomach. An elderly woman pulled herself out of the car and leaned on her cane. She was the height of Maria’s mother, who was 5’-1. They had the same grey hair—a short tight perm her mother got done every Wednesday at nine a.m. The parking spot the woman had tried to pull back into was a handicapped space she’d missed again. The woman looked into Maria’s eyes. She didn’t mention the terrible noise Maria had made on her trunk. She didn’t mention how her car had backed into Maria’s. Her eyes were milky grey, like Maria’s mother’s eyes when she was tired. The old woman didn’t acknowledge Maria’s bat or ask what she planned to do with it. She pointed toward her open door.  

“It’s my husband’s car,” she said. “Do you know how to raise those seats? He died last month and I’m out of bologna.”

“I’m so sorry,” Maria said, thinking of what she had come so close to doing. 

 “He was older than Methuselah. One must go on though, mustn’t one?”    

She wanted to hug the old lady, to cry into her shoulder, to ask forgiveness, to take her home, to help her in some small way. She sat in the lady’s car, fiddled with the manual adjustments, moved the seat backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, but not up. There was no way to move it up. She tried until her hands grew too cold to work. She got out and faced her, still holding her bat. She said, “I’m sorry. I can’t—I don’t know.” 

“My daughter will fix it,” the woman said. “She stops by every day after work to check on me. Such a good girl.” Then she walked away, leaving her car door open. Maria closed it for her, returned to her car, placed the bat in the back seat. Miles was deeply silent. Maria knew he would forever remember the time he watched his mother behave like a deranged lunatic. Maybe he’d grow up to repeat the story to therapists and friends: “The day my mother almost killed an elderly woman.” She imagined then a scenario where the driver had been a man with a gun who would’ve shoot her dead while Miles watched. Her back hurt now, more than it had all day, and her hands were dumb blocks of wood, shaking. She rested her forehead on the wheel, and tried to start the car. Miles reached over, held her hand and helped her turn the keys. 

“We’re okay,” she said. “I’m sorry. I just need to call Grandma.” She was crying now as she stopped to wave one car ahead of her. She said, “Siri, call Mom.” 

“Mom?” Miles said. 

She felt Miles staring at her. She kept driving and didn’t wipe her face. Her mother’s phone was ringing. Maria would quit the pills cold-turkey. She’d learn to live with pain, like her first doctor said she should. She’d offer it up, as her mother said she should. 

“We’re okay,” she told Miles.

New snow had started falling, which she hated to see, because it meant more shoveling. She waited for her mother to answer.

“Mom,” Miles said. “But Gramma died last month.” 

She looked at Miles to see how serious he was. He seemed to know. She remembered then, and laughed while crying. She laughed at the logic of forgetting. She saw herself sitting in the front row of her mother’s ancient church, Miles next to her, too young for a funeral, Marty on her other side, squeezing her hand. It was the church where Maria had received her first communion, given her first (and last) confession, had been confirmed in. She saw them sitting in the first pew, facing the ten-foot wax figure of Jesus stretched out on real wood, thorny crown-capped head hanging to one side, sword-wound to the ribs, naked but for a skinny towel, knobby knees and all, hanging there front and center as a favor for the visually (and spiritually) impaired. She remembered the old organ in the balcony hitting fat chords that floated over the church and hummed inside her bones.

She was crying so hard now she had to stop at the edge of the parking lot. She cried until five year-old Miles said what he said next.  

“Would you like me to drive?” he said. 

He found a Kleenex and passed it to her. She laughed and cried. She said, “Yes. Yes, I would like you to drive.” 

She moved slowly through the falling snow toward home, thinking she’d warm some soup for dinner, take a bowl to Marty and place it outside his door. She turned up the Berlioz softly now, and drove slowly, both hands on the wheel, eyes fixed where her headlights stopped. She heard something new in the final movement then, as if an eleven-fingered pianist were reaching new ghost notes, as feint as wind from a conductor’s wand, as necessary as the tiny space between heartbeats. 

“Listen to that,” Maria told Miles. 

He was listening. 

She knew he could hear it too. 

They listened together. 


  • Matt Cashion's story collection Last Words of the Holy Ghost (UNT Press) won the 2015 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for short fiction, judged by Lee K. Abbott, and his novel Our Thirteenth Divorce (Livingston) won the 2017 Edna Ferber Book Prize, judged by Robert Boswell. Other work has appeared in The Sun, Willow Springs, Grist: A Journal for Writers, Carolina Quarterly, Moon City Review, Passages North, The Writer’s Chronicle, and elsewhere. Born in North Carolina and raised in Georgia, he worked for two years as a reporter before earning an MFA at the University of Oregon. He works now as Professor of English at the U. of Wisconsin-La Crosse, teaching Creative Writing, Literature, and First Year Seminars, and is the faculty advisor for the student-run literary journal Steam Ticket.

  • Halloween Postcards from the collection of the New York Public Library.