Sad-Looking Inflatable Stick People
by Andrew Battershill
The fact that Sylvia, the only woman he’d ever really loved (not just in a – you’re actually letting me near you – sort of way), was happily married to someone else was just one of a number of things that Harold Swim said was totally fine with him.
His forehead pressed heavily against the thick plastic of the window, Harold began to empathize, distantly but respectfully, with the cars parked along the side of the road. They had to sit there, quiet and cold and sad, until someone opened them up and stuck a key in them and expected them to start. And if (after all the days and weeks and months of sitting by the side of the road quietly and coldly and sadly), they weren’t ready to start or just didn’t feel like it, the person would bang the steering wheel and curse and grind the key into the ignition several more times.
A few more of the number of things that Harold Swim said were totally fine with him: the long-impending coastally devastating earthquake, mosquito bites, consumer capitalism, taking vitamins, a demyelinating spinal lesion on his C7 vertebrae, the fact that he’d been sexually molested by a man who worked at the comic shop seventeen years prior, haircuts, pickles, and having to shave and floss every day.
After he got off the street car, Harold was careful to kick whatever pebbles he saw in at least the vague direction of the sea, still harboring a vague childhood belief that rocks really love water.
He arrived at the market and saw Sylvia sitting by the entrance reading a paperback Penguin Classic. She was wearing a bland-colored sweater with long, loose sleeves. The wind played happily through her wide-open sleeves and was glad at the chance to tenderly move the thin, white hairs of her upper arm.
“Haroooold!” Sylvia looked up from her book and ran to hug him, incautiously leaving her purse resting against a leg of the bench.
An important fact about Sylvia: every once in a while, when she was happy or excited, she would – with only a gentle movement of her neck and a hushed “bleh” sound – vomit several dry, shiny, stylized tinfoil hearts into her hands.
The two of them talked easily and wittily as they walked through the market. The booths were packed tightly together, each underneath a dark green overhanging rain-shield. The street was half-full of people, and they moved around with a sort of organic order that charmed Harold, who hadn’t been to a street market in years. Occasionally a booth would catch Sylvia’s eye, and they would stop and she would bend over the table, touching the items with only her index finger while complimenting the vendors. Harold would stand slightly back and try not to look at her legs or rear.
Sylvia replaced the lid on her water bottle and allowed three drops of water to fall on the sidewalk, which the pavement joyfully mistook the drops for the beginning of rain. She then got back to supporting her point that bad things can happen if you love craft supplies too much: “When I was a kid, and I mean a kid, like five or six or seven or eight, I used to really love the sound scissors made when they cut hair, y’know?” She made exactly the sound scissors make when they cut hair, using her lungs, lips, and teeth. “And I knew that my mom would be so mad at me if I cut my hair, or even my bangs, so I just cut off my eyebrows—both of them.”
“Was it worth it?”
“It did sound amazing the whole time. And my mom had to draw on my eyebrows every morning for a while, but they grew back,” she rubbed along the length of her eyebrow. “People tell you they don’t, but that’s bullshit. And, yeah man, it just sounded awesome.”
The night before Harold had a long, slow dream that went as follows:
You, you, you, maple bacon, you, you, you, you, fresh cranberries, you, you, you, you, baby commando platoon, you, you, you, you, impossibly huge Boston Terrier chewing a tug-boat, you, you, beautiful woman falling gracefully into the sea, you, you, the ripples in the water, you, you, you (me).
The dream had been talking to Sylvia.
On a related note, there was a small but significant part of Harold that couldn’t help believing that he should weigh more with an erection, no matter how many times he’d woken up, stepped on his scale, and been proven wrong.
They walked forward a little more. Harold almost bought a hand carved wooden pipe that was shaped like a beluga whale, and then he didn’t because he was supposed to be quitting smoking, and just switching to a better-smelling delivery system probably didn’t count. As he turned around, Sylvia was twisting the toe of her shoe into the ground like a very ineffective corkscrew.
“So, I had an ulterior motive for bringing you here today.”
“Ulterior to what?”
“Don’t laugh at me, but be on the lookout for a two-headed sweater, if you know what those are. I’ve been after one for years. And I got some intel that one might be here at this exact market.” She narrowed her eyes suspiciously and swept them across the row of booths.
Harold made a dismissive gesture with his left hand as his heartbeat accelerated. “To whom do you think you’re speaking? Of course I know what a two-headed
“Of course, who wouldn’t?”
“Everyone! Everybody I’ve told about two-headed sweaters has called me a crazy person, and….”
“They’re not available on the internet.”
“Yeah man! Google told me I was stupid and crazy.”
“ ‘Did you mean two-headed dragon?’ No, I fucking didn’t, Google, I meant tandem sweater, or conjoined sweater, maybe, if you want to get term-correctey about it.”
“Oh thank God, I knew if anybody would get it…but yeah, I’m going to buy one in secret and make Gordon wear it with me.”
Harold remembered how, when he met Sylvia at that conference, he told her about the man who’d sat down on the same subway bench as him and started masturbating under his blue housecoat. Harold had thought it would be rude to leave because the public masturbator would know Harold was leaving because of him. And he remembered sitting with her on the street outside the bar that night, the cobblestones cold under his hands, reassuring her that she hadn’t been leading anyone on, even though she didn’t believe in wedding rings. And he remembered the six and a half foot tall economist whose name he could never pronounce stumbling out of the bar and leaning against a street sign, and the way the sign moved stiffly back and forth against the line of the sky. He remembered the sound of her quick gathering of breath before she stood.
The cement underneath the flea market was more than a little bored as Harold spoke, hoping to stop himself from remembering so many things at the same time. “Yeah, the two-headed sweater is also a sex act. I don’t know if you knew that.”
“Is it? Pray tell.” She hurried her pace a little and caught up to him, their hands not touching but hanging close together.
“Well, once you have all the components together it’s pretty basic, but the ingredients are very specific. Sort of a special occasioner, is the two-headed sweater. So, first up, you need a very small, very dark, very hot room, then you need an unusually wide-set woman and two men, and it really helps if one of the dudes has an exceptionally small, exceptionally well shaved head. Then you need a healthy glug of olive oil, now when I say glug….”
She had stopped walking and was silent-laughing and waving her hands in front of her. “Stop it, stop... bleh.” And she vomited a half-dozen lovely looking tin-foil hearts into her cupped hands. She then stood up straight and finished laughing and threw the hearts in Harold’s face; they bounced off him and spread out on the ground around his feet.
She shrugged and wiped her mouth and three, quick, uneven steps later she was standing over a table making friends with the lecherous older gentleman behind the booth.
Harold decided to be slightly more pro-active in his futile and ongoing effort not to leer at Sylvia, and he walked over to the next booth. The stand seemed abandoned, with no customers and no vendor. When he got closer he saw an old woman sitting in a camping chair that seemed absurdly low compared to the table. The woman was wearing a knit sweater that was far too thick for the day, and she was so thin that the sweater seemed empty. The dents where her thumbs met the rest of her hand were so deep that they reminded both Harold and the pavement of manholes. She was knitting with two incredibly long needles, and as he approached, she looked up at him and nodded but didn’t say anything.
Clouds were just starting to gather in the sky, and the pavement’s desire was slowly stirring.
The table had a tall, disorganized pile of knitting on it. There were small, hand-drawn price tags hanging from ridiculously long strings on everything. None of the items were knit with only a single colour, and they all showed their consistent and totally tasteless patterns. Harold reached into the pile and began to push through, not really distinguishing between items but enjoying the feel of the wool. As his hands reached the bottom he felt the head-hole of a sweater and he stopped, closed his eyes, and pulled it out. The rest of the pile spread out enthusiastically over the table. The sweater seemed impossibly large, and Harold stretched it out to its full width, laughed, and put the sweater and his hands down on the table.
It was a two-headed sweater: a good old-fashioned, pink and yellow and green and mostly red, two-headed sweater. Harold moved the sweater aside and roughly re-grouped the knitting pile he’d destroyed. The old woman had still not looked up, with her sad brown eyes and the giant swollen bags underneath them, and Harold briefly considered asking the price before emptying the one hundred and eighty dollars in his wallet onto the table.
During the eleven steps it took to reach Sylvia, Harold remembered how a week after the conference she’d come to his house for coffee in the afternoon, and how they’d just kept talking until she’d wanted to go for a walk down to the sea-wall. He remembered that he’d only worn a tee-shirt, and he remembered fighting the shivers, the hair of his arms standing up, and the way she was using her left hand to hold her right elbow, and the sort of sad way she’d talked about turning a certain age and loving babies for the first time. What he remembered most of all was reaching the end of the sea-wall and sitting with her and how there had been a light above them and how all he could see was their feet dangling over the edge and bouncing off the concrete. It had been so dark that the sky and ocean were indistinct, both just a part of the stretching darkness. He remembered hearing the waves, and the way she’d let her shoe slip half-off and get pushed back into place by the concrete, and the way her smile had seemed crooked, and how close together their legs had been, and he remembered the small, black knot at the toe of her shoe.
She was just putting her wallet away and saying goodbye to the vendor as Harold grabbed the tips of both sleeves and hoped that his arms were long enough to show the full breadth of the sweater. They were not. The sweater sagged appreciably in the middle, and the second head hole caved tragically in on itself, but Sylvia still understood, and before he could say anything she had wrapped her arms around the both the sweater and Harold’s waist.
“Oh my goodness, it’s everything I thought it would be! Harold, let’s try it on, let’s try it on now. What a find!”
They re-positioned themselves side-by-side and pulled the sweater over both of their heads, and Harold emerged from his head hole slightly before she did, and he could see her smile broaden as her head popped out the top, the sweater gaping slightly at the neck.
“Yay! High five! Thank you so much Harold.” And they slapped hands across their shared front.
Inside the sweater their hands, and whole arms, were touching, and Harold could feel her torso listing slightly from side to side with excitement. They walked in tandem towards a bench between the booths and sat down. Sylvia used her free hand to scratch the side of her head, and they both laughed. Then Harold rested his closed fist on her knee.
“Here, have a thought.”
She nodded seriously, consciously wrinkled her brow, and placed her chin neatly on his fist in the thinker’s pose. They sat in that way for a time, and then Harold told her where he’d found it, and she thanked him again seven times before she looked at her watch (she was occupying the left sleeve) and said that she needed to get home.
Sylvia pulled out of the sweater first, and as she left her head brushed against the point of his hip. She emerged from the bottom and hopped in place twice, bringing her hands together as if to clap and instead stopping them soundlessly as they touched. Both Harold and the lonely tree planted in the pavement next to her found it objectively charming.
“Isn’t it great?!”
Harold paused after the sweater was over his head, and the world seemed very small, and it was coloured a sort of translucent red and smelled like Sylvia. After he felt himself hoist the sweater over his shoulders and hand it, loose and large and unfolded, back to her, he remembered suddenly how big and blue-grey and full of loose, random air the world usually was.
“Oh Harold, isn’t it wonderful? I just, oh, I’m just so glad you were here. There’s nothing sadder than an ecstatic woman with an empty head hole in her sweater.”
“Nothing sadder.” He put his arm around her shoulders and kissed the top of her head, and she leaned back into him and used one hand to squeeze the sweater to her chest, and the other to grab a firm hold on his armpit.
Sylvia rocked her weight from one foot to the other before stopping and turning her back to him slightly, her hands jumping quickly and gingerly to her face.
“Excuse me… bleh.” She kept the tin foil hearts in her hand and smiled at him sheepishly. “Well, I would be embarrassed, but you’re here, you see this two-…bleh.” The second volley of hearts exploded from her mouth, and some of them bounced discretely off her hands onto the sidewalk. Harold stepped forward and took the sweater from her, and she thanked him with her eyes as she crouched down to the ground and made a more concerted effort to catch the small, glinting hearts. “Well, I never…bleh bleh bleh bleh bleh bleh.” The tin-foil hearts continued to come, piling up in her hands until her hands were full, and then the hearts just flowed off the top of her hands and fell to the sidewalk, and the only other sounds she made were breathy laughs between her soft, rocking spasms.
Harold took a step closer, crouched down beside her and rubbed her back with his palm. And with one last, gentle “bleh” and the slight, familiar tilt forward of her jaw, a large, non-stylized heart (the shape of the muscle) rolled out of her mouth. It had long, shiny veins snaking around the outside and a truncated aorta rising up from the top.
The two stared at it for a second before they stood. Sylvia kicked the heart into the gutter, and Harold reached vainly forward as it skipped twice along the concrete and fell into the grate.
“Hey! That was really cool. Why’d you throw it away?”
Sylvia shoved the top of his shoulder and took back the sweater. She looked at him with an affectionate and quizzical tilt of her head. “You didn’t want that, did you? I puked it, that’s so gross!”
Harold looked at the grate for a second more, then back to Sylvia, and he felt his sadness slowly dissipate as he caught sight of a tiny bead of sweat rolling gently down her temple and along the smooth, slow curve of her cheek. “Yes. Yeah, totally. Gross.”
She wiped her dry, lovely, somewhat chapped mouth and dipped her shoulder into his chest with an instinctive laugh.
Harold tucked his hands into his pockets and walked with her out of the market, determined as ever to keep the small, hopeless room he occupied in the house of her happiness tidy and cheerful.
Back to Issue 18
Back to Issue 18