On every previous occasion when Erika returned home from doing errands, Jocko greeted her with excitement, eager to hear of her experiences at the supermarket and the dry cleaner, as if they were epic and magical adventures. Sometimes he read poems he had written or performed songs he had composed while she was out.
The silence alarmed her. She raised her voice and called out again: “Jocko?”
From nearby came his muffled reply: “Who are you?”
“Who do you think? It’s me, of course.”
“Me? Me who? Me who, who, WHO?” Jocko demanded.
Head cocked to the left, then to the right, Erika made her way around the kitchen, trying to pinpoint his location.
“Me, Erika. Where are you?”
“Erika went out. For an hour. One hour. She never came back. Something terrible happened. To Erika. Terrible. Terrible.”
He was in the pantry.
At that closed door, Erika said, “I’m back now.” She didn’t want to tell him about Victor just yet. He wouldn’t handle the news well. “Everything took longer than I thought.”
“Erika would call if she was late. Erika never called. You aren’t Erika.”
“Don’t I sound like Erika?”
“Your voice is strange.”
“My voice isn’t strange. I sound like I always do.”
“No. No, no, no. Jocko knows Erika’s voice. Jocko loves Erika’s voice. Your voice is muffled. Muffled and strange and muffled.”
“It’s muffled because I’m talking to you through a door.”
Jocko was silent, perhaps thinking about what she said.
She tried the door but it wouldn’t open. The pantry had no lock.
“Are you holding the door shut, Jocko?”
“Talk to Jocko through the keyhole. Then your voice won’t be muffled and strange and muffled. If you’re really Erika.”
She said, “That might be a good plan—”
“It’s an excellent plan!” Jocko declared.
“—if this door had a keyhole.”
“What happened? Where’s the keyhole? Where’d it go?”
“It’s a pantry. Doesn’t need a lock. It never had a keyhole.”
“It had a keyhole!” Jocko insisted.
“No, little one. It never did.”
“Without a keyhole Jocko would suffocate. Did Jocko suffocate?” His voice quivered. “Is Jocko dead? Is he dead? Is Jocko in Hell?”
“You have to listen to me, sweetie. Listen closely.”
“Jocko’s in Hell,” he sobbed.
“Take a deep breath.”
“Jocko’s rotting in Hell.”
“Can you take a deep breath? A big deep breath. Do it for me, sweetie. Come on.”
Through the door, she heard him breathe deeply
“Very good. My good boy.”
“Jocko’s dead in Hell,” he said miserably but with less panic.
“Take another deep breath, sweetie.” After he had taken three, she said, “Now look around. Do you see boxes of macaroni? Spaghetti? Cookies?”
“Ummmm … macaroni … spaghetti … cookies. Yeah.”
“Do you think there’s macaroni, spaghetti, and cookies in Hell?”
She changed tactics. “I’m sorry, Jocko. I apologize. I should have called. I just didn’t realize how much time went by.”
“Three cans of lima beans,” Jocko said. “Three big cans.”
“That doesn’t prove you’re in Hell.”
“Yes, it does. It’s proof.”
“I like lima beans—remember? That’s why you see three cans. Not because it’s Hell in there. Know what else I like besides lima beans? Cinnamon rolls from Jim James Bakery. And I just put a dozen of them on the kitchen table.”
Jocko was silent. Then the door cracked open, and Erika stepped back, and the door swung wide, and the little guy peered out at her.
Because his butt was nearly flat, he wore blue jeans that Erika had altered to prevent them from sagging in the seat. On his T-shirt was a photo of one of World Wrestling Entertainment’s current stars, Buster Steelhammer. Because his arms were three inches longer than those of any child his size, because they were thin, and because they were creepier than a loving mother would openly acknowledge, Erika had added material to extend the sleeves to his hands.
He blinked at her. “It’s you.”
“Yes,” she said, “it’s me.”
“Jocko’s not really dead.”
“You’re really not.”
“I thought you were.”
“I’m not dead either.”
Stepping out of the closet, he said, “Jim James cinnamons?”
“Six each,” she confirmed.
He grinned at her.
When she’d first known Jocko, she recoiled from his grin, which contorted his already unfortunate face into a fright mask that gave pause even to the wife of Victor Frankenstein. During the past two years, however, she grew to love this disastrous expression because his delight so touched and pleased her.
He had suffered much. He deserved some happiness.
Motherly love made beautiful what the rest of the world found grotesque and abhorrent. Well, perhaps not beautiful, but at least picturesque.
Jocko scampered to the kitchen table, clambered into a chair, and clapped his hands at the sight of the white pastry box.
“Wait until I get dishes and napkins,” Erika warned. “And what do you want to drink?”
“Cream,” said Jocko.
“I think I’ll have cream, too.”
Victor was responsible for untold horrors and disasters, but perhaps the one thing he got right was the metabolism he designed for his creations. They could have consumed nothing but butter and molasses while remaining in good health and without gaining an ounce.
Erika set out two plates and forks, and he said, “Can Jocko eat one now?”
“No, you have to wait.”
As Erika put napkins and two drinking glasses on the table, he said, “Now can Jocko have one?”
“Not yet. Behave yourself. You’re not a pig.”
“Jocko might be pig. Part pig. Who knows? Lots of weird DNA in the mix. Maybe it’s natural for Jocko to hog down Jim James cinnamons right now and oink like a pig.”
“If you eat one right now, then you’ll only get one, not six,” she said as she put two quarts of cream on the table.
As Erika filled a glass from her quart and then filled a glass from his quart, Jocko watched her, smacking the flaps that were his equivalent of lips. She took a plump, glistening roll from the box and put it on her plate, and then put another on his plate.
He began to make snorting noises.
“Don’t you dare.” She sat across the table from him, opened her napkin, smoothed it across her lap, and regarded him expectantly.
Jocko tucked one point of the napkin under the neck of his Buster Steelhammer T-shirt, smoothed it across the wrestler’s face, and sat up straight in his chair, clearly proud of himself.
“Very good,” Erika said. “Very nice.”
“You’re a good mother,” he said.
“Thank you, sweetie.”
“You taught Jocko manners.”
“And why are manners important?”
“They show we have respect for other people.”
“That’s correct. They show that you respect your mother.”
“And they teach us self-control.”
As Erika used her fork to cut a piece from her cinnamon roll, Jocko snatched his off the plate and crammed the whole thing into his mouth at once.
In proportion to his body, his curiously shaped head was bigger than that of any human being, and in proportion to his unfortunate head, his mouth was bigger than Nature would ever have made it, but Nature had no hand in Jocko’s creation. All eight or ten ounces of the big Jim James roll disappeared into his mouth without leaving a trace of icing on his lip flaps.
But then the trouble began.
The roll pretty much occupied all the space from bulging cheek to bulging cheek, from his palate to his tongue, solidly occupied it, making it impossible for Jocko to chew with his mouth closed. If he opened his mouth, however, mastication would force at least a third of the mass forward, and it would fall onto the table or the floor.
In part to discourage such exhibitions of gluttony as this, Erika strictly enforced a rule forbidding the reintroduction to the mouth of anything that dropped onto the table or the floor.
Acutely aware of this rule, Jocko was determined not to be denied such a significant part of the pastry. He sat for a moment, wide-eyed, contemplating his dilemma, breathing so noisily and forcefully through his peculiar asymmetrical nose that had a fly been in the kitchen, he might have inhaled it.
His eerie, arresting yellow eyes began to water as if his entire head had filled up with saliva. Perhaps he thought the roll had become so saturated that it would dissolve into sweet cascades as it went down his gullet, for his throat flexed as he tried to swallow.
Evidently a portion of the cinnamony mass moved backward into the pharynx but not as far as the esophagus. Stuck there, it forced his epiglottis partially shut, so that he had difficulty breathing.
Of course, that was only Erika’s best guess about what was happening, because Jocko’s insides were almost certainly as oddly arranged as his exterior features. She had once tried to administer the Heimlich maneuver, but instead of causing him to cough up the obstruction, her efforts forced it all the way down his esophagus, caused a strange but fortunately odorless green fluid to squirt from his right ear, and left him talking in unknown languages for over an hour before he recovered his ability to speak English.
Experience taught her not to be unduly alarmed in moments like this. Jocko knew better than anyone what he must do to set himself right. As she ate her cinnamon roll, Erika watched him as she might have contemplated the gestures and movements of a mime who had some meaning to convey.
As his breathing remained inhibited, he scrambled off his chair, and stood with his head tipped back to better align his stuffed mouth and blocked throat with his esophagus. He began to jump up and down vigorously in place in an attempt to dislodge the half-concretized sweet roll and send it splashing into his stomach.
Erika could not tell if this action had some positive effect or none at all when, after half a minute, Jocko stopped jumping and instead staggered wildly to a utility drawer near the refrigerator. From the utensils therein, he extracted a rubber spatula with a plastic handle and pressed it between his lip flaps. He seemed bent upon forcing the Jim James cinnamon roll to the back of his mouth, past his obstructed trachea, and down his throat.
As he pulled the spatula from his mouth and tossed it into the sink with evident frustration, his every exhalation was a high-pitched whistle and his every inhalation a kind of shriek that caused his nostrils to flutter. He opened another drawer and fished from it two wine-bottle stoppers, plastic corks fitted with stainless-steel caps and ring pulls for easy extraction. Frantically, he twisted one cork into his left ear, the other into his right.
Standing beside a large Shrek cookie jar was an aerosol can of compressed gas intended primarily for blasting dust and crumbs out of computer keyboards and other hard-to-clean equipment. In this house, it was used also for an array of problems that Jocko reliably created for himself.
Directions on the can warned against inhaling the pressurized gas or getting it in the eyes or on the skin because it could come out of the nozzle cold enough to cause frostbite. This had never been a problem for Jocko.
Ears stoppered with plastic corks, throat blocked with a nearly asphyxiating mass of cinnamon roll, Jocko inserted the long thin nozzle of the aerosol can into his right nostril, pinched his nose shut around it, and triggered the gas. His eyes, already as wide as Erika had ever seen them, grew wider still and seemed to turn even a brighter yellow than usual. A peculiar sound arose from Jocko’s head, perhaps from his sinus cavities, a sound that would have been alarming and even terrifying if it had come from anyone else’s head, but which seemed to be music to Jocko, who began to dance in place. The horrific sound grew increasingly shrill until the corks popped out of Jocko’s ears and ricocheted off the kitchen cabinets.
Erika heard a wet sucking noise as the glutinous wad of sweet roll came loose in Jocko’s throat and then a sound like a recording of regurgitation played in reverse as the mass slid all the way down his esophagus.
Gasping in great lungfuls of air, Jocko returned the aerosol can to its proper place beside the cookie jar. Shuddering violently, he dragged his stepstool to the sink, climbed onto it, turned on the cold water, and stuck his head under the spout.
When he turned off the water, he began to sneeze. He tore a few paper towels from the dispenser and buried his face in them. After twenty-two explosive sneezes, Jocko threw the paper towels in the trash can and stood breathing deeply but slowly for almost a minute.
At last he returned to his chair at the table.
Erika said, “How was the cinnamon roll?”
“I suggest eating the next one with a fork.”
“Jocko was thinking the same thing.”
While they progressed through the box of rolls, Erika told him about her trip into town. The pleasant drive. The colorful sunrise. The way the red-brick buildings of Rainbow Falls seemed to glow in the morning light.
She told him about the cowboy, Addison Hawk, who opened doors for her and was unusually courteous. Jocko agreed that the encounter had some meaning in addition to being a howdy-do moment with one of the townsfolk, but the cowboy’s deeper intention eluded him, too.
By the time the little guy was eating his fifth pastry, Erika decided that he had settled enough to be able to handle the bad news. She told him about seeing Victor.
Jocko passed out facedown in his cinnamon roll.
He sweated considerably during the night. The sheets were still damp and didn’t smell fresh, but no one would change them.
The water in his bedside carafe was tepid. Nurses and nurses’ aides promised to fill it with fresh ice, but they forgot to do so.
Although he didn’t want antianxiety medication, he knew that he was supposed to receive it, but no one brought the pills.
Breakfast proved filling and palatable. But his dirty dishes had been on the tray table for hours, awaiting collection.
Bryce Walker had never been a curmudgeon, but for many months, life had seemed to be steering him along that road. This morning, the staff of Rainbow Falls Memorial Hospital appeared to be determined to lay the pavement ahead of him.