A Study in Misunderstanding
Rudy refused to clean his ears. This went on for ages, gunk clogging up the canals, reducing the sounds outside his head to mere whispers. The wax grew so thick it lumped from his earholes, crusty plugs the color of morning smog. The plugs gave off a smell like rotten peaches. This sucked for Rudy in his teens, when he was mocked and ostracized, though he rarely heard the worst of the insults. Needless to say, Rudy never had a girlfriend.
He got older and found work that suited him. On the tarmac at the airport. Operating jackhammers. Overseeing the kids’ play area at Ikea. It was during this last gig at Småland that the flowers sprouted, a batch of bright daisies from his left ear and asters from the right. For the first time, people looked at Rudy’s ears with something other than disgust.
One day, a boy emerged from the Småland ball pit and pointed up at the flowers. Rudy crouched down and urged the boy to speak louder. The boy pinched one stem on each side of Rudy’s head and made to pluck them, but the roots ran deep and held firm. The boy gathered up all the stems, one bunch in each pink-knuckled fist. The flowers tugged free and with their roots came a lifetime of earwax, two clumpy worms that seemed far too long to have been contained inside the head of a person.
A hundred sounds assaulted Rudy all at once. Children crying, the clunk of his coworker’s coffee mug, every spoken word like a shout. The nearby escalator cranked out a ratchety drone. Småland expanded with each sound and contracted in spots of quiet. One moment the boy with the flowers seemed right by Rudy’s side, the next far, far away. Rudy’s mind swam and he stumbled into the ball pit, his whole body sinking below the surface. Plastic balls thumped around him with such a racket that he thought his skull would burst. The rest of his body went numb and weightless.
Rudy clawed his way back to the edge of the pit. The boy stood over him, a bouquet of daisies and asters clutched in one hand. The weighted ends of the stems swayed like a pendulum on the type of clock you might find in a furniture store other than Ikea.
Taking one knee, the boy passed the bouquet to Rudy. A muddied voice rang out from the entrance, a parent calling a name. The boy turned heel and hustled out the door. Rudy would remember the slap of the boy’s shoes on the rubberized floor. He asked the boy’s name, but the boy was already too far away to hear anything.
Long after they had withered to near nothing, the flowers still occupied a Sockerärt vase on Rudy’s bathroom counter. Beside them, a cup full of cotton swabs.
Zach Powers splits his time between Fairfax, Virginia and Savannah, Georgia. His debut story collection, Gravity Changes, won the BOA Short Fiction Prize and was published earlier this year. His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, PANK, the Tin House blog, and elsewhere. He is the co-founder of the literary arts nonprofit Seersucker Live (SeersuckerLive.com). He led the writers’ workshop at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home for eight years. His writing for television won an Emmy. Get to know him at ZachPowers.com.
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