the red headed pilgrim 

Wendy and I had sex 20 or 30 times, and then I developed chronic tonsillitis from smoking 20-plus cigarettes a day, outside, in subarctic temperatures. I called my parents to find out if I had health insurance. It turned out I did. While I’d been gallivanting across America, leading nature hikes and sleeping in cow pastures, my dad had been going to work every day, making payments on the house, and providing health insurance to his long-haired prodigal son.

I went to urgent care and asked what was wrong with me.

The doctor looked down my throat and made a disgusted face.

“You don’t smoke, do you?” he asked. “A little,” I lied.
“Okay, wow.”
“What?” I asked.

“Well—in a healthy individual, tonsils are soft masses of lymphatic tissue that help the body fight off foreign pathogens. Yours are stinky Hot Pockets full of pus and bacteria.”

The doctor recommended immediate surgery. When I told my parents, they suggested I fly home to Oregon for the operation so I could recover in a temperate climate that didn’t try to kill me every time I walked out the door.

It happened quickly. I remember the airplane landing and the doctor looking into my mouth, saying, “Yeah, let’s get rid of those stupid things.”

Then I was lying on a gurney under a bright light. The surgeon said, “Count down from 10.”

I opened my mouth to say, “Ten,” and accidentally swallowed a mouthful of darkness.

When I woke up, I was in the guest bedroom in my parents’ house, high on Percocet. My head felt like a helium balloon. If I didn’t concentrate on my surroundings, it floated up to the ceiling, and I had to yank the string to pull it back down.

I tried to distract myself with television, but when I clicked the button on the remote control, my face fell off. I looked around for my face and found it on the TV screen, only Billy Crystal was wearing it.

I didn’t understand. I seemed to be in a movie. Meg Ryan and I were in love, but we couldn’t get along. We kept screwing up our relationship in funny ways that made everyone in the world laugh.

The movie kept going and going. It was amazing. Not amazing, important. I remember thinking, “Has Dostoyevsky seen this?”

When the movie ended, I was pretty sure I’d gone insane.

There was a knock on my door. It was my mom. She said I had a phone call.

I picked up the receiver. It was silent. I waited and waited, but nothing happened.

After a while I heard breathing. I couldn’t understand what it meant.

Then I realized I hadn’t said hello.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hey, this is Wendy! How’d your surgery go?”

I listened but nothing happened. It was a prank call. I’d done the same thing when I was a teenager, calling numbers at ran- dom, listening to strangers speak into the void, their peaceful nights ruined by the silence of what they must’ve presumed was a serial killer.

“Kevin?” said my tormentor.

That name! It used to be mine! What a funny time. I was over it.

I hung up the phone and stared at the ceiling. The popcorn spackle laughed at me. My head started floating. I yanked the cord, and then my mom who gave birth to me in 1976 brought me a cherry-flavored popsicle.

Kevin Maloney is the author of The Red-Headed Pilgrim (Two Dollar Radio), Cult of Loretta (Lazy Fascist), and the forthcoming story collection Horse Girl Fever (CLASH Books). His fiction has appeared in FENCE, Barrelhouse, Green Mountains Review, and a number of other journals and anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Aubrey.

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