Listen to author
[audio:https://killauthor.com/audio/issuetwelve/caleb_j_ross.mp3|titles=Evenson’s Tongue|artists=Caleb J Ross]

Ark steps from the theatre, swollen with rejuvenated passion. Just two hours prior he had entered the building, dismayed by his latest failure: a murdered school teacher gone unavenged, her case termed “The Plagiarist Case” by Ark’s boss, this due to the copycat nature of the crime. Now, having watched the latest Evenson film, a three-act biographical detective drama called Evenson’s Tongue, Ark feels once again as he did when fresh from the academy. Passion greases his arteries.

Having been reprimanded just days before for his inability to solve The Plagiarist Case, Ark is in no mood to fuel further ridicule. Other detectives embrace his depressed demeanor as permission to unload insults, attacking his weight, his height, his status as a single man in his forties, and even his headline-worthy family history: Boy interrupts mother’s attempt at infidelity. Teenage boy blamed for father’s attempted suicide. Middle-aged man confronts demons; fails miserably, onlookers say.

Now filled with 1 hour 43 minutes of silver screen Hollywood motivation, Ark has decided to regain a quiet station hallway gauntlet.

His first step is to happen upon a solvable crime.

Ark finds a body atop a park bench, tucked beneath tattered newspapers and the corpse’s own dried fluids. Such a Hollywood cliché—a poor man dying alone on a bench, homeless, friendless, destroyed—but Ark adopts the opportunity. Clichés have long defined his life; for instance, he joined the academy with intentions to help. Conveniences like an unclaimed body, however, occur too sporadically to be ignored.

Unfortunately for Ark, understanding the circumstances of nameless bodies found dead upon park benches does not garner much praise. “Above and beyond” is a lost compliment in the case of these rigor mortis eyesores. So Ark removes the head using a wooden plank from the bench seatback and carries the part with him to his flat, where he anticipates discarding it with the week’s trash. Once home, however, he considers the need for future evidence and instead stores the head in his kitchen pantry, adjacent an open bag of potato crisps.

That night he drags his boss out to the park bench and reveals the decapitated remains. “What do you think?”

His boss, a bloated man of fifty years with two children whose faces and birth dates have been expunged by alcohol and disregard, shrugs, says, “We’ll call in Jaspers on this one.”

“No,” Ark says. “Let me have it.”

Swayed by alcohol, perhaps by pity, his boss agrees. His only warning comes by way of a reminder. “You’re lucky I’m doing this. Remember The Plagiarist Case?”

Ark nods, frothing inside, as The Plagiarist Case was far from his responsibility alone. “This won’t be like The Plagiarist Case,” Ark assures his wavering superior.

“And to ensure that,” his boss says, “I’m partnering you with Rhanke.”

Ark knows that to dismiss Rhanke’s help would be dismissing his boss. Rhanke is the boss’s incompetent stepson, a young man with jagged and violent teeth, decorating his mouth as though during an especially dark bout of dental pain he had attempted relief with pliers. The boss does not comment on the actual cause of the disfiguration because, some say, it could incriminate him. “Heads don’t just disappear. They don’t just reappear either.”

Ark agrees, reluctant to embrace the burden but smart enough to appear otherwise.

“He’ll meet you here tomorrow morning.” The boss waddles off, leaving footprints in the blood Ark spilled for just such clues.

At home Ark arranges crime-scene photographs on his kitchen table. The open bag of potato crisps has already begun smelling of cadaverine and putrescine. The taste is no different. Crumbs pile upon the photographs; the crunch soundtracks pulsing fly larvae.

He organizes the photographs like a detective of his five and one-quarter years might. Chronologically, then sequentially, ultimately funneling them by level of detail, beginning with an establishing shot of the park at night, ending with a close shot of the neck vomiting its own esophagus. The sleeve of neck skin hangs bruised and torn, the tattered edge constructed by Ark’s wood-plank saw.

Drunk college students in the background look on with eyes dyed crimson by the camera’s flash. Any one of these doomed voyeurs—heads already filling with tales of this night—could be, should be, a suspect. Ark circles their faces with a red print-marking pen. One boy in particular strikes Ark, paler skinned than all the rest, with dark enough eyes to satisfy any jury hunting for its demon. He wears an apron embroidered with the name of the Stanza Café behind him.

All anyone really knows of Rhanke is that his real father, a man with three fingers—two on the left hand, one on the right—taught him how to count. To this day Rhanke goes for his toes when counting to four. When Ark approaches Rhanke at the park bench, the young man stands with his shoes off and his head facing the ground.

“Five bullet holes,” he says, pointing. He hides his disfigured teeth with stretched lips when he talks.

Ark kneels to the ground and fingers one of the holes. “Snake holes,” he says. His knees crack as he stands.

Rhanke swaggers like his own skin burdens his shoulders. “How long you been out here, Rhanke?”

“A while. But the beginning time shouldn’t count. I couldn’t see anything in the night, anyway.”

The air holds a dense, grease-trap odor, wafting from the cross-park Stanza Café. “Let’s get something to eat,” Ark suggests. They plant footprints among the crime scene as they depart.

The dark-eyed boy from yesterday’s photograph places the detectives at a high table near the front window. Ark snaps on a pair of latex gloves, coaxing the dark-eyed boy closer. “You guys in town for that dead man?” the boy asks. He motions toward the adjacent park with his pen.

Rhanke begins to nod, but Ark interrupts. “We live here. How’d you know it was a man?”

“I didn’t,” the dark-eyed boy says. “There’re only two sexes. Fifty-fifty.”

“Watch it,” Ark warns and orders for both he and Rhanke. Coffees.

“I was hoping fow food,” Rhanke says once the dark-eyed boy leaves.

“I was hoping for a solo mission.”

The dark-eyed boy delivers two coffees, cream on the side, setting the bill between the two men. He places his pen on the bill and leaves for a table of two women.

Rhanke wraps his warped teeth under his mug’s lip, takes in a short sip, and returns the cup to the table, puzzling it into the same wet ring from which he lifted it. “Who do you think did it?” he asks.

“I’ve got ideas,” Ark replies. He takes his own sip and deliberately sets his cup away from its original wet ring. The two circles resemble eyes, lost among the napkins and silverware and so many other intrusions.

“Nobody likes my stepdad,” Rhanke says, unprovoked.

“My eyes are on that café boy,” Ark says. “You could smell his sweat.”

Rhanke nods. “But what about Muwiel, though.” With his disfigured gums and dangerous teeth the name Muriel falls out sans the R.

Ark hadn’t heard his boss’s first name so casually spilled since an office birthday party six years ago. The room fell silent then, forever-on heavy with potential eruption. Other office personnel toting names with a leading ‘M’ adapted to curb confrontation. Megan became Egan. Michael became Ichael. “No,” Ark says.

“How do you know?”

“We’ll find clues. I can feel it.”

“Muwiel. Nobody likes him. He has wage issues.”

“Which is why he makes such a good detective. People don’t mind telling the truth around him.” Ark signs the bill and stands from his stool.

His twuth,” Rhanke says softly, his tongue snaking through a large gap between two displaced teeth.

Ark kneels next to the park bench, sliding the Stanza Café pen from his pocket. He forces the instrument into a snake hole within the crime scene.

“He closely fits the descwiption of that missing man from Milledge,” Rhanke says, standing behind the bench, examining a stack of photographs.

“Describe him.” Ark dusts his hands.

Silent for a moment. “He’s about 5’6”.”

“You’re forgetting the head,” Ark says, nodding toward the dried blood where the homeless man’s head once rested. “He’s probably closer to 6’3”.”

“What if he has a shwunken head, like those Jivawoes do, fwom the jungle?”

“That happens after the victim is killed.”

“This guy is dead.”

“You’re an idiot,” Ark says.

At home Ark destroys the potato crisps, slathering each bite in sucrose and saliva; he sips a cola between swallows.

You’re the idiot,” the severed head croaks.

Ark dismisses the insult. He spreads the crime scene photos over his living room carpet. He marks the location of the planted Stanza Café pen with red ink.

What would Evenson do? he ponders, caught within his own directional ambiguity, outside the logic of his silver screen hero.

“He’d shit if he knew a waste like you called him a mentor.”

“I’ll feed you to the dogs,” Ark yells. Feral animals—dogs, cats, homeless families—claim nooks throughout his neighborhood.

“You won’t.”

Ark steals the head’s left ear and tosses it into the darkness.

“Please, take my other ear, too. To drown your incessant whining.”

“I’ll make it silence for you,” Ark warns.

Outside, discarded pets and dismissed family members fight over the ear. Hard swallows echo in the night.

The following morning Ark wakes with a pulse beating bruises into his forehead. His brain claims cabin fever, to which the dead man’s decapitated head responds, “I know the feeling.”

“Quiet,” Ark says. “I have a headache.”

The Stanza Café pen waits, tucked inside the snake hole, for its time to shine as evidence. Ark salivates, wipes his mouth with his tie, and grabs a handful of rancid potato crisps before leaving with a pocketful of film. The Plagiarist Case will be nothing but an abused memory after today, he says to himself.

Outside, the homeless strangers from the previous night walk, wearing suits and shined shoes on their way to job interviews. The feral animals have learned to sit, roll-over, and speak. “Thank you for the delicious ear, sir,” one of the suits yells, offering a wave.

“Of course,” Ark returns, confused.

Rhanke kneels next to the decapitated man’s outline, massaging his gums the way pondering clichés wearing fedoras scratch their chins. He is deep into the context of this dead man, his own suspicions of the murder buzz to the rhythm of the surrounding flies; the bugs whisper conspiracies. Ark steps from behind Rhanke, scares a breath from the bomb-jawed man. “How long have you been here?” Ark asks.

“A while. But the beginning time shouldn’t count. I couldn’t see anything in the night, anyway.”

“Why didn’t you sleep in this morning?” Ark asks. “Any clues we haven’t found yet are likely buried by now.”

“Muwiel wanted me out of the house. He’s taking the day off. His fist aches.”

“A good man like that needs a break every once in a while,” Ark says, then kneels next to his temporary partner. “Find anything new?”

Rhanke shakes his head.

“Did you look over there, near the snake holes? I can smell something. That’s a detective’s nose for you.”

“No,” Rhanke says, “but I think I can smell it now, too.”

Ark offers a knowing wink, already considering the slightly younger Rhanke a protégé. He slides his finger into the guilty snake hole and pulls out, not a Stanza Café pen, but a rolled slip of paper. He opens the sheet, asking “What’s this?” to the grinning Rhanke.

“It looks like Muwiel’s desk paper. A clue.”

“There was a pen here?”

“How did you know?”

“The nose,” Ark manages quickly. “I told you about the nose.”

“No pen,” Rhanke says. “But we still have a suspect.”

Ark crushes his boss’s stationary and stuffs the ball into his pocket. “Stick to the case,” he says to the frowning Rhanke. “And I want the pen back.”

“It’s gone,” Rhanke says.

Ark watches his failing protégé from within the claustrophobic Stanza Café. He occupies the same table as yesterday, only today without Rhanke’s counterweight. The dark coffee traps the window light, swirling residual rainbow grease hopped from hot egg skillets and bubbling gravy. Ark tastes cholesterol in the black liquid.

The flat window pane promotes the world outside as a simple stage play, Rhanke the hero, desperately digging into the dirt for roots. Evenson, should he be living this scene, would find a second head in the dirt, would make the entire park a communal graveyard; it would be news only to the uninformed Ark and Rhanke, just a way of life to the citizens. This is the magic of an Evenson biopic: the world already knows what the viewer is only learning.

Rhanke pulls more of his stepfather’s letterhead from his pocket and fills the surrounding snake holes.

“What’s with your friend’s face?” The dark-eyed Stanza Café boy intrudes, rousing Ark from his daze. “Your partner?”

Ark nods toward his half-full cup.

The boy fills. “Your friend’s jaw, it’s crooked or something.”

“Yeah,” Ark says. “Family stuff.”

“I guess we all have bruises we want to blame on family,” the boy says, and turns to a table full of portly women wearing purple dresses.

Ark pulls him back. “Check? And can I get a pen? I forgot mine.”

“Sure,” the boy says and releases the bill along with a generic, ten-to-a-pack type pen found in grocery store impulse-buy aisles.

“This pen’s out of ink,” Ark says without trying it. “Can I get another?”

The boy obliges, smiles, and produces another generic pen.

Ark refuses. “A Stanza Café pen, do you have one of those?”

“No,” the boy says. “We’re out. We have these, and they work all the same.”

I’d bury you and forget you, Ark says to himself.

With the dark-eyed boy away, Ark scans the café for monogrammed merchandise which might easily be concealed beneath his overcoat. He slides a menu into his inner pocket. A few unique articles of silverware that might point investigators back to this café. Single coffee creamers he rolls in Stanza Café grime.

I’d bury you.

At home Ark spends the evening ignoring the dead man’s head.

“Rhanke will win this one,” it says.

“Rhanke has vicious demons,” it says. “Yours are merely persistent.”

“Who’s left to promote you with your boss in prison?” it says.

“Rhanke will find your clues. He will replace them with his own.”

“How long have you been here?” Ark asks. The early dawn insulates their conspiracies from hovering eyes.

“A while. But the beginning time shouldn’t count. I couldn’t see anything in the night, anyway.”

All around them, new mounds of dirt fill new holes, none the shape of his Stanza Café artifacts.

I’d bury you, too.

…break-in at…code ten on channel one…

Ark’s overcoat swells with stolen Stanza Café artifacts and sweat. Once home, isolated from the eyes and spotlights, he unloads his pockets. He pulls his dead man’s head from its shelf and sets it onto the kitchen counter. He takes his open bag of potato crisps, too, and chews.

“They’ll find you,” the head says.

“Quiet,” Ark dusts the head with salivated crumbs. “I’ll eat you, too.”

Ark crafts genius. He fills the dead man’s head with pin holes, foreign blood from his deceased cat, and other random appurtenance, creating a riddle to be solved only by honest, hard-nosed detective work. He stuffs the mouth with Stanza Café napkins, the hair he lathers in stolen grease, its one remaining ear he fills with a shredded coupon flyer.

The head mumbles incoherence.

“No you won’t,” Ark says.

“…”

“Only if I want you to.”

“…”

He grabs the head’s tongue, slices with a stolen plastic knife. “For later,” he tells the head.

Ark gathers the decorated head and leaves his warm home for the cold park.

He digs through the night. Buries through the night. He wipes sweat from his forehead with a wrist stained red by the saturated mud. The head attempts screams, fighting and moving.

Like a root stretching for a final drop of moisture, a torso, arms, legs sprout. Hands too, grab at Ark’s coat, dig through his pockets for an anchor. Slowly, the dirt fills all the head’s crevasses, all sounds dwindle. The night hides any remorse.

At home Ark savors the head’s tongue, swallowing the final bite just as his telephone rings. “Get down here, Ark,” his boss says over a frail phone connection. “Something’s happened to Rhanke.”