“Mouth Light,” a story by Ben Segal

The shape of his teeth formed a border and strangers crowded gladly. It was nice but Eric’s jaw hurt. Then darkness, bowing, handshake lines. Eric’s smile was tight-lipped but real. He’d be off again before light.

 

He traveled mostly to the boring parts, unloved towns and shacks in factory shadows, other exurban depression sinks. It helped to remember home as no sadder than elsewhere. He liked to meet the people where he went, to shed some light on their crumbling situations.

He shot in film, old fashioned celluloid he carried in reels on his back. Most days he’d rise early and begin with the least remarkable spot he could find—a very average apartment complex, a slightly molding strip mall, some unloved corner store. He’d move on from there for lawn scenes and whitewashed walls. He shot often in newish laundromats.

Eric didn’t do disaster porn or civic pride. He liked the idea of the infra-ordinary—that the everyday needed a closer look, that a kind of ‘silent majority’ obtained in the world of things.

He said also that the dull was anesthetic. Eric knew a few things about that.

 

Years back he’d had his throat torn out. It was nearly fatal, a construction accident. A stupid brutal moment. The doctors couldn’t save his voice and Eric wound up on life-support with a hole where his throat went. He could point at least. He could write things down on paper.

 

Each town Eric stopped in got a week. He’d shoot for the first few days and try not to draw attention. He had a little card that read: I’m sorry. I have a medical condition and cannot speak.

People usually read the card and kept their distance. Sometimes a person liked being kind. They’d make knowing or consoling gestures and Eric would nod back blankly. In any case, he kept his head down and filmed, then he spliced together a reel to show, advertised it, screened it and moved on.

His home was the mass of middling burgs through which he flowed. How else could someone like him retain both anonymity and continuity? The towns were similar enough, the films he made, the people. Only he was a difference in each place he entered.

 

After the injury, Eric knew things would have to change. He’d never been much for speaking, but now he couldn’t sound at all. Now there was just his chin and then a bandaged gap. Some tubing in the back routed food to his stomach, but that was all there was for filler.

Eric didn’t like to house such emptiness. He wanted something worthwhile in his throat hole. He drew his head and open neck on a sheet of hospital stationery. In the sketch, his mouth was open. A light bulb lodged where his throat was and he drew wavy lines to show it shining.

Eric showed the drawing to his doctor. The convincing was harder than the installation.

 

The cracked white wall flickered on the cracked white wall while the film strip clacked by his mouth. This town had a beer factory and pasta processing plant. The film cycled through industrial exteriors, an old grain silo, a child picking gum from the sidewalk. A dog looked happy while walking. Everything was decent and normal. The townspeople couldn’t decide between watching Eric’s mouth or the makeshift screen on the back wall of the post office. This too was normal.

Eric watched a face he wouldn’t talk to. Even if he could.

On screen a man walked into the center of the shot while the camera zoomed in on his head. He was delivering soda with a hand cart. The screen filled with him, his straight on stare from the shoulders up. Eric stopped the reel and bit down slowly. His teeth shadows swallowed the image.

Then there was clapping in the dark by the post office. The delivery man was there and laughing. Eric was happy enough until morning.

 

 

***

Ben Segal is the author of the short story collection Pool Party Trap Loop (Queen’s Ferry Press), the collective epistolary novel The Wes Letters (Outpost19), 78 Stories (No Record Press), and a co-editor of The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature (Lit Pub Books). Ben studies law at The University of Chicago and frequents the high desert in Southern California.

Image: kylejones007, morguefile.com

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