An excerpt from “Sailors Taking Girls Upstairs Must Pay Here First” by Kevin O’Cuinn

When he opens his eyes, it’s to a room without windows or doors. Everything’s white—the table, the phone on the table. He lifts the receiver and a voice begins—Why don’t you just—whereupon his ears loosen and flap free from his head. He stands and grasps but they stay beyond reach and settle on the ceiling. Could he still hear, he’d be awed by the volume of laughter.

He touches where his ears used to sit, expects a wound but finds fresh scab and stitches. The light in the room smells of morning, a twelve-point stag on the scent of an ovulating doe. He closes his eyes, same light.

When he opens his eyes, there is a snow globe on the table. He shakes it and snow falls around him in the room. In the globe he sees himself as a boy, locked inside a soap bubble. He shakes the globe but cannot burst the bubble.

The snow starts to thaw. He never liked snow, how it stings, how it is always the end of something. Hair has grown where his ears used to be.

In this same place, at some other time, he stands at the helm of a ship in a bottle. The bottle spins, stops, and he kisses the wind. The bottle spins, rests and waits for him to kiss city streets and cannonball thunder. It waits for him to kiss the mane of The Sphinx. The bottle waits.

When he opens his eyes, there are eggs in a pan. He turns one and the yolk breaks; an atom splits the day and a sun implodes. He mops the plate with a hunk of bread, washes it down with sweaty tea.

In his breast pocket, on a sheet of folded notepaper, the combination to the universe in eighteen characters—perhaps an alphabet, or sheet music from a faraway star. Each character different in size and shading, each a different font. When he opens his eyes, he is at a championship golf course. Night circles and he carves a different character into each of the eighteen greens. He waits for light and the sprinklers, then watches his work turn to muck. Above, clouds laud the unlocking of the universe.

When he opens his eyes, it is to a flurry—horde—of photographers and mathematicians armed with stencils and graph paper and 18-year-old Armagnac. They are enamored with questions about the combination to the universe, but he does not hear any of them and touches where his ears used to sit, and shrugs. Snow starts to fall again, each flake a molecule of laughter.

He cannot see where the floor ends and the walls start. He sits, arms akimbo, legs akimbo, all of him so: each joint separates from its neighbor, and tarsals and carpals gravitate into ancient constellations, then tango back together.

He opens his eyes and he’s at the track. Small women in big- assed frocks hide, whisper behind parasols. Their eyes suck his skin and a voice calls Cover that man; thick stewards crowd him. He cuts through them, Beowulf at his side. They wrestle their way to Radio City. Inside, The Rockettes do their thing. When he opens his eyes, he’s buried in empty and almost feels relief.

On the table: a mirror, a framed picture, a fast-running river. He sees himself reflected in each, different long-since-archived selves. He steps into the river and is greeted with kisses from a thousand minnows. Each kiss extracts a memory that makes each minnow bloat, then explode. He swims into a current and is ejected into a night.

He finds a path and walks.

The path is a crowded commuter train of AM cologne and PM sweat. He squeezes between crashed curves and fallen sinew.

The path is a doctor’s waiting room. The doctor is out—he is on a call, on vacation, at a conference, at a funeral. The doctor is done, out, the doctor has had enough and is not coming back anytime ever. He kicks over chairs and sucks on a dry butt from an ashtray. The inside of his mouth tastes of burnt steak.

The path is the line for medication. He is hoping for two pinks and a Fuck Everything Blue. He recognizes the pajamas as institution-issue, shuffles forward, sees himself in a window. When he opens his eyes, he is in the room.

The path leads to the hollowed teeth of former homes. The walls rot and crumble, make for dusty wind. He shields his eyes and waits.

It’s him and the sky, the latter scattered with bright nail clippings that might grow up to be moons.

The path takes him to the slurry heap of everything he ever did or thought or felt or said. He squints, and the edges of his mouth rise as if smiling. From a mountain of slack, the voices of kin down the ages, with him now, along for one last ride.


Read the rest of “Sailors Taking Girls Upstairs Must Pay Here First” in apt‘s fourth print annual, available here.

Kevin O’Cuinn was raised in Ireland but now lives in Frankfurt, Germany, where he teaches English and tries to keep his nose clean.


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