Storyglossia Issue 36, October 2009.


by Tracy Bowling


The sun that slept below Japan rose boiling, oily against the window. Lump sat in it like a statue of the Buddha, tracing his fat finger along the quilting of his hotel bedspread, clothed in his underwear and socks.

Lump was awake since five. He always woke at five, or a little earlier, or a touch later—only a minute or two, if he was especially worn. The girls on the forums told Lump that he was a waif, a pasty angel or ghoul, writing his songs in the dead of night under a heaven of lamplight. Lump wrote in the afternoon, after sandwiches. At night he slept and then, just before five, he had nightmares, and then—he woke up.

Soon after the sun exploded against his hotel window, the telephone rang at his bedside. Lump hated the phone, and let it ring through.

There was a pod of French Roast in the miniature coffeemaker at his bedside. Lump listened to his coffee heave and gargle into the little pot. He bent over, gut spilling over his briefs and into his lap; he reached for his toes with one hand. He reached with the other. Again, again. Again. Sweat poured and his coffee made a click to tell him it was done. He wiped his eyes dry and grabbed his towel from the floor to dab at his back. He sniffed at his boiled coffee, looked at the sun screaming red outside his window—like their flag, he thought—and lay back against the bedspread with his towel as intermediary, socked feet extending off the edge of the bed. The girls on the forums were awake somewhere in the world, and in their minds he was naked; in their minds he slept naked, wrote the songs naked, and they had posted his lyrics on the Internet and written papers for their English classes, interpreting him, that he must be very comfortable with his body, that he must belong to the new school of rock that felt all bodies were beautiful. Some of the girls, though, he knew, were fat as him, and how often were they naked, even alone?

He wasn't sure what kinds of songs he was writing. He supposed they were about love, or honesty. Sometimes he wrote about a weird way of being happy, like the kind little kids get when they eat a baseball hot dog, or the kind of happy that comes with wearing a cape and pretending to be a swordfighter, but no one liked those songs, no one quoted their lyrics. He guessed he wrote for the girls. He guessed he wrote to make them happy about being so sad.

The telephone rang again. Lump sat up with a struggle and picked up the receiver. "Hello?" he said, revolted by his tinny nasal voice.

The line went dead. Lump hung up too.

Lump decided he didn't want his coffee. He turned the coffeepot off. He didn't ever drink coffee, because he didn't like to fight sleep, but he had wanted to try this time, had wanted to last all day until he reached the stage. The good acts now were panicked hamster-men, they were taut and nervous and something in Japanese that sounded like a wolf's cry, orooro, which the skinny bobbed college boy at the desk had said meant "shaken up." Lump had figured he could shake. He could shake almost everywhere if he wanted. But he didn't think that was what it meant. The Japanese hated nervousness, didn't they? Orooro was a word meant for the thin, sweet Japanese margaritas at the hotel bar—for a soda that had exploded in a car. Lump was not liquid, not fizz. He was sweat, half water, half grease, lying with his legs spread in the hotel air conditioning to ventilate his groin.

Lump had a weird way of being happy, and he was happy now. Happy was something like being alone and unoccupied. Happy was something like having nothing to do and just not thinking very carefully.

So he thought not very carefully about his act. He thought that if he managed to perform tonight, he would like to be one of the musicians that stood catatonically still. As a child, happy had been standing up against the wall of his bedroom for as long as it took his shoulder muscles to stiffen. The other kids seemed to enjoy running, and this was utterly weird to Lump. Pleasure was in holding taut the muscles in the small of your back and keeping your legs from going numb. Pleasure was in control.

The girls on the forums said that Lump was a hedonist.

Lump plunged his hand down his briefs and tried another way of being happy. It was traditional, and he heard cello strings plunking with each tug, like he was investigating doorways in a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

Sometimes Lump heard the things he did, or tasted the words he said. "Green" tasted like grass clippings. "Shit" tasted like shit. It wasn't always associative. No one on the forums knew about this, though one of them had said in her English paper that he used the word "bruise" a lot. It wasn't that Lump liked "bruise," but that "bruise" tasted like red rock candy.

Lump lay sweating, fist pumping beneath his waistband, trying to think of the girls on the forums, trying to think of what they thought of him. Sometimes they were good writers, vivid, kinky. They would use delicious words about what they wanted to do to him or about what they thought he would ask to do to them. And tasting those words one by one was the second part of the day, of every day before he had a show. He would sit in the rolling chair in his hotel room before each stillborn show and he would let the girls on the forums turn him on.

And his cello line was still plunking somewhere far away, down the hallway of Lump's brain. Lump tasted keys turning. Lump hated Sherlock Holmes and hated his penis. Like usual, this was what made him nervous enough to come.

The word "penis" tasted like asparagus covered in garlic butter.

Lump cleaned up with the hotel towel. He had used to feel bad about this. He had used to stand in the bathroom against the wall and pass wet tissues into the toilet and let the air vents blow him dry. He felt a kinship with the foreign cleaning ladies and didn't want his room to disappoint them. The cleaning ladies were foreign in Japan, too, although most of them had roughly the same color of skin. Everywhere, everywhere he went put its foreign people in front of those carts, and it was always a foreign voice that called to him through the door in the morning.

Lump was waiting for the third part of his day, the part where he knew that he wouldn't go onstage. This usually occurred after the cleaning lady.

Lump was waiting for the cleaning lady.

Lump was good at languages and would know in an instant where the lady was from. The college boy at the desk had been impressed at the way he'd said orooro, how Lump had hid the r's under his tongue. Sometimes, in the second part of the day, when Lump lay on his hotel bed thinking not very carefully about his show, he would plan to rap in foreign, Spanish, just to make his audience quiet, just to give them something they couldn't sing to for a while. He imagined them jumping and running into each other a lot during the Spanish. The couples among them would make out. He would laugh at them, and chew his song at them. A lot of the words in Spanish tasted like bubble gum.

The name for what Lump had was synesthesia. He would tell people about it just before he died, he would tell them his disease, and then people would buy his albums. Lump wasn't sure who the money would go to. His parents, perhaps. Lump just wanted to be bought.

Lump chewed on a stale rice cracker from the bag he'd bought the night before. It tasted dusty, but synesthesia did not make food sound like words. It didn't work that way. Lump waited for the voice of the foreign cleaning lady through his door. He hoped in Japan the lady would be polite and would speak before she knocked. Knocks did not trigger taste, but the word "knock," if he thought or said it, tasted revoltingly like egg.

Lump had once gone on an all-egg diet. He had lost ten pounds and, after a week, started vomiting the eggs. He couldn't eat eggs anymore, and couldn't say "knock," but because food didn't sound like words, he could say "egg" all he wanted. It tasted like marshmallow.

Lump waited for the cleaning lady.

He thought of all the girls on the forums, of all the Japanese girls running to their computers at midnight after getting off their buses, telling all the American girls that no, no, he hadn't come, he hadn't come again. They had waited, they thought it might be some sort of statement, some artistic trick, and maybe they would be the ones to see him, but he had never shown. They had waited so long they had to catch the midnight bus back to their apartments. The American girls would find out when they woke up. Some of them would wake extra early.

Lump knew himself and he knew that until the cleaning lady came, until the third part of his day, he would lie backwards on the bed and practice for the show. He sang, his throat bent over the edge of the bedspread, his feet propped against the headboard. Singing gave words flavor. When Lump sang, it tasted like sun in his mouth. Singing "bruise" tasted like the syrup rock candy came from. Singing "shit" tasted like shit fried to flakes in the sun. Lump tried not to sing "shit" except for when it was really, really important.

Lump thought too carefully, then, about his show and his voice broke. He closed his eyes and tried to block out the flat, black image of the cape he'd packed. He could never decide whether to wear it. There was so much he wasn't sure he could get away with.

And it wasn't like the girls hadn't been presented with information that he was fat. It wasn't like he hadn't said. He'd put a picture of himself, an unflattering one, inside the cover of his first album. He'd worn a plus-size women's swimsuit and a children's cowboy hat and a one-size-fits-all eyepatch. They'd decided it wasn't him. He'd thought they'd have known by the eyepatch. What musician would use a picture of some other fatso in an eyepatch? What would he gain from that?

It wasn't like they couldn't change their minds.

Lump waited for the knock of the cleaning lady. He waited for her foreign voice. He waited to pick her province and to finally cancel his show.

Until she came, he'd sing in Spanish. He'd handle the crowds with Spanish.

He wouldn't wear his cape.

Now Lump was weeping, migrainous, thinking of his cape, and this always happened before the cleaning lady too, before the last part of his day would come. He wept his songs out, striving to practice, throat gone scratchy. He wept in Spanish when he could.

Footsteps whispered outside his door. "Whisper" tasted like a cotton ball torn in half, pulled thin and dotted with makeup remover. That one was associative and probably came from his mother. He waited.

"Sir?" came the voice. English.

Lump placed it to Seattle. LA. He was thrown off by the English but he supposed some kid teaching abroad after college could have gotten stuck with no work and no choice but a hotel.

Then came the knock. Lump didn't have to think about the word, but there it was all the same, and he tasted eggs. His stomach heaved.

"Mr. Gage?" the voice said. "Robbie?"

"Yes?" he said. And he heard the tinny voice shredded by his crying and felt the bile rising and he knew he wasn't going onstage. It happened like that.

Lump lay corpse-still on the bed.

"I'm a fan," said the girl from Seattle, or LA, behind the door. The word "fan" tasted like Bing cherries.

"Hold on," said Lump. He stuffed his soiled towel in the drawer beside the bed, between the Bible and the phone book. "Hold on," he said again. He put his cookie dough arms through his shirtsleeves and buttoned, one at a time, shuffling over to the door. He leaned his bulk against it and looked through the peephole.

His fan was about one-fifth his size, thinner in every direction. Her face was small and surrounded by red hair, teased or frizzed, he could never tell the difference. "I'm busy now," he said through the door. "I just woke up."

"I'm sorry," said the fan. Then, "Can I come in?"

Lump felt his knees lock. "Lock" tasted like bitter orange peel. "Can I meet you backstage? I'll write your name down for the guy and he'll give you a pass."

"You won't be at the concert."

He watched her through the peephole. She was wringing her hands.

"I just want to talk to you," she said. "I'm writing a paper."

"No one flies to Japan to write a paper," said Lump.

She laughed, and he saw her teeth, white and sharp, through the peephole. "I knew you'd know better."

Lump floundered. "You can ask a few questions if you want."

"Can't I come in?"

He dipped away from the peephole to rub dry the backs of his knees.


"I'm naked," he said finally to the door, face in his breasts.

"Oh," she said. Then, "Let me see."

Some organ was pulsing against his lower ribs. It might have been his liver. He was very aware of where his bones were and how sharp they would be if they were to break.

"Please?" said his fan, muffled. "I just want to see you in person. Then I'll go away."

"You can see me at the show," he protested.

"You won't be at the show."

"I'll sing to you through the door," he said.

She waited for him.

He unbolted the door. He didn't open it. He went over to the bed and sat.

The fan worked the knob, crept inside and shut the door behind her. She sat down beside him on the bed. She stared. She was pretty but with freckles. They, other fans, had sent him lots of pictures, and Lump was studied in finding their ugly spots.

"So this is you," she said, hands clasped in her lap. "I asked at the desk, and I knew your voice on the phone." Then, "You're not quite naked."

Lump's shirt collar tickled at his neck. "Yeah."

"I'm just really nervous," she said. "Sorry."

"You don't need to be."

"Has this happened before?" she asked.

"Not really, no."

"Are you nervous?"

Lump squeezed his thighs together as best he could.

"I'm twenty," she said. "So don't worry."

"I," said Lump. "I didn't."

"My God," she said, "you're Lump. I'm next to Lump." Her palm was on his chest.

"Yeah." Lump let her lay him back across the bed.

"Lump," said the fan. She said his name in a way that tickled at his throat. She fiddled with his shirt buttons. "You're all about this," she said. "Just relax."

Lump tasted acid in the back of his throat. He swallowed and tried not to think of how small she was. How small she must be everywhere. He lay with his arms down flat as she stroked his belly and chest. The skin made a sound like pencil on paper. Lump went stiff all over. He let her touch him wherever her hand landed, did not move to touch her back. The fan eased down the elastic on his briefs. He stayed still for her, stiffer and stiffer.

"Wow," she said, hair floating just above his belly, face disappeared between his massive legs. "I wondered." She licked at him like a kitten. Like something curious and soft and snappable.

"I don't want," came his broken voice. "Want" had a fat, rich taste like dumplings smothered in gravy. It was why he tried not to want things. He knew he would never stop.

"I do want," she said. "So it's okay." She propped herself up beside his heavy body and lay a kiss on his mouth. Her lips were small and dry.

But she was wrong, Lump thought, even though want was in his throat and warming his belly; hurt was what he would do to her, hurt was what lived inside of him, inside all of the parts he hated. He did not want to hurt her and that was why she'd be working on him for an hour.

She looked up at him from his crotch, petted him on his wide, pasty hip. "Lump," she said, and his name the way she said it now tasted like hot chocolate glaze.

"I don't want you to," he said, pleading.

She took her hands and reached down and let her head full of hair sink into the flesh of his hip. She petted from his chalky toenails to his ragged heels, up to the sweat at the seams of his knees, between the dimples of his ass, over the desert of his belly, through the hairs at his flabby chest, up the line of his ribbed, talented throat. Lump swallowed beneath her fingers. "You're lovely," she said from his hip. "Just be still," and she took him into her mouth.

Lump obeyed. For an hour she tasted his body for him; for an hour he tasted "still." "Still" tasted like nothing at all and his tongue became quiet, quenched.

It gave him peace to think. He thought about how he would go onto the stage. He would wrap himself tight in his cape and sing in his pretty voice one-sixteenth his size—first a song about bruises, but then a song about teeth. He would sing the song about shit and shake a little, orooro. He would hurt the whole time; his tongue would overrun with offal and bitter gum-blood, but the fans would sing the words over top of him, and theirs echoed back to him would taste better than his. He would wrap himself tight in his cape; he would lift the edges and show the girls the ravages of his body, and he would hurt and they would, but they would take it home with them to the forums, they would find the words to call it beautiful. And he would read the words in the morning; he would taste all the kindness they'd done.

The fan left him with a cherry chapstick kiss, saying "See you tonight."

She was right. The forums were right about everything.

Copyright©2009 Tracy Bowling

Tracy Bowling is studying for her MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University. She has a story in the November 2009 online issue of PANK.

Interview with Tracy Bowling