Illustration by artist Dan Gale.

Illustration by artist Dan Gale.

by James Hannah

Virgil Ploughright—plumber, football fan, Tea Party activist—awoke one morning with a lump on his neck. The lump was soft, red, and fuzzy—like a plum that had been left too long in the refrigerator. Panicked, Virgil phoned his doctor and arranged for an immediate visit.

An hour later, Virgil—dressed in a white cotton gown—was sitting on a table in the consultation room. “Is it malignant?” he asked.

The doctor hesitated, a long pregnant pause that made Virgil’s heart pound. “No,” he said finally. “It isn’t malignant.”

“Can you remove it?”

The doctor stood silently, as though he were waiting to catch a bus. When he spoke, it was like a judge pronouncing sentence. “No, I cannot remove it.”

“Why not?!”

The doctor handed Virgil a mirror. “Look closely, Mr. Ploughright. You are growing another head.”

Virgil studied the lump on his neck. Although the mirror kept shaking in his hands, he could make out a tiny mouth, a pair of eye slits, a nose no bigger than a button. “It looks like a shrunken head.”

“For now, Mr. Ploughright—only for now. It will grow. In a week, it will be as large as an orange. In a month, it will be the size of a cantaloupe. Soon after that, it will show signs of human intelligence.”

“What’s wrong with the head I have?”

“You have a fine head, Mr. Ploughright. It fills out your Raiders cap nicely.”

“Then cut that thing off.”

“I can’t, Mr. Ploughright. That would be murder.”

“Who’s going to know?”

The doctor sighed and folded his arms. “I’m going to let you in on the secret. This is not an isolated case. It’s happening in other parts of the country.”

“Like some A-rab plot?!”

The doctor scratched his chin. His voice dropped an octave. “We don’t know what’s causing it.”

Virgil studied the little head in the mirror. He tilted the mirror back and forth, appraising it from different angles. “It don’t look intelligent to me. Cut it off.”

“I can’t cut it off.”

“I got insurance.”

“Insurance does not cover murder.”

“I got rights.”

“You don’t have the right to take life.”

“What about the gooks I shot in Nam? And those towel heads we’re killing in Iraq?“

“This is innocent life, Mr. Ploughright. It is practically newborn.”

“It don’t look innocent to me. It looks like a goddamn A-rab.”

“Maybe so, Mr. Ploughright. But I cannot remove it—not without a court’s permission, I can’t.”

Virgil slammed the table with his fist. His fear was turning into rage. “Who says so—the government?”

“Read the Constitution, Mr. Ploughright.”

“What about my constitution?”

“You’re in good enough health. You’re just a little thick around the stomach.”

“If I was dying, would you cut it off?”

“But you’re not.”

“So ’cause I’m healthy, I gotta wear this monkey’s head?”

“If you want to put it that way—yes. I’m sorry.”

Virgil could take it no longer. His stomach was churning and he felt a huge belch coming on. The doctor’s smugness, his breezy self-righteousness, his probable allegiance with that foreigner in the Oval Office—all required the loudest of rebuttals.

Virgil slammed the table again. “Sarah Palin’s gonna hear about this.”

* * *

Virgil’s heart was still pounding when he entered his home—a red brick duplex with a foreclosure notice on the door. He was sweating so profusely that he barely felt the cool caress of the air conditioner in his living room. His girlfriend, Trixie—a tall fading blonde—was sitting on the couch watching Jeopardy and painting her perfect toenails.

“What are mummies?” she said.

“That’s not funny,” snapped Virgil.

“But it answers the question, Virgie.”

“It doesn’t answer my question.”

Trixie put the cap back on the nail polish bottle. “So what did the doctor tell you?”

“He said I’m growing another head.”

“That’s so odd, Virgie. What’s wrong with the head you got?”

Nothing. The doctor said it’s a fine head.”

Trixie rose from the couch and hobbled towards him, careful of the cotton between her toes. Sweeping her platinum bangs from her eyes, she examined the little head. “It is kinda cute. It looks like a gummy bear—only bigger.”

“Don’t get attached to it, Trix.”

“It’s you who’s attached to it, Virgie.”

“I won’t be for much longer. Not after I hire a lawyer.” His voice turned into a growl. “I swear, Trix. Give up an inch these days and you’re gonna lose a yard.”

Trixie tittered seductively. “Atta boy, Virgie. You need every inch you’ve got.” She stroked the little head. “But it is kinda cute. I’m gonna name it Alf.”

“I’m serious about this, Trix.”

“I know you are, Virgie. But you’re serious about a lot of things. You’re even serious about football.”

Football matters.”

“If it matters, maybe you oughtn’t be a Raiders fan.”

Virgil puffed out his chest and glowered. He suddenly wished that he loved her less. “Watch your mouth, woman, or I’ll ring your chimes good.”

Trixie laughed throatily. “Promises, promises. Careful there, hombre, or I’m gonna hold you to it.”

Virgil felt his temples start to pound. Across the room, in the center of the living room mirror, the little head seemed to watch him. “The doctor says it’s human. I say it’s a monkey’s head.”

Trixie arched her eyebrows. “You oughta know the difference, Virgie—you of all people. You picketed that abortion clinic just last week.”

“I shoulda burned it down.”

“They got sprinklers in there.”

“So what?”

“So you installed them yourself.”

“In these hard times, Trix, I gotta take work where I find it.”

“Well, you ain’t that good a plumber, Virgie. If those sprinklers don’t work, you could get yourself sued.”

She pecked him on the cheek and returned to the couch. Virgil felt his ulcer start to dig. What entitled her to her attitude? She stayed home all day, she drank his good beer, and she didn’t even cook. And yet he loved her—loved her ever since he had first noticed her in that sports bar two years ago.

What is Lake Erie? came a voice from the television. Virgil glanced at the screen. It was “Final Jeopardy!” and a contestant had just lost big.

Virgil slumped his shoulders. If he lost the house, would he lose his girlfriend too? And would that be a bad thing? “So why do you stay with me, Trix?”

She laughed. “I don’t know, Virgie. You’re little and I don’t like little men. And you’re old and I don’t like old men. I guess you’re just my little ol’ puddin’.”

Virgil sighed. Her remarks always caught him off guard. But now was not the time for hesitation. Now was the time to take action.

“I’m gonna write Sarah Palin,” he snapped.

* * *

A week later, Virgil received an official-looking letter in the mail. His new head, which was now the size of a baseball, smacked its lips sloppily as he tore the envelope open. Virgil trembled as he read.

April 1, 2011

Dear Mr. Ploughright:

Thank you for supporting Palin Productions. These are indeed troubled times. Our country is under attack, not only from foreign zealots, but also from a domestic conspiracy—a conspiracy that has laid siege to our jobs, our institutions of government, and our most cherished values. America—the America we know and love—is being stolen right before our eyes.

If your voice is no longer being heard, if your bankroll is rapidly shrinking, if you cannot keep up with your bills, take hope. Our products are guaranteed, one hundred percent, to resurrect your assets and put the zest back into your life.

This is the lay of the land, my friend. Rise up and take notice.

The letter included a 3” by 5” photo of Sarah Palin—or a remarkable lookalike—clad in a red-white-and-blue bikini and waiving a semiautomatic rifle above her head. An enlargement of the photo was available to him for a mere $39.95. Also available were a dozen other likenesses of Sarah.

Furious, Virgil tossed the letter into the trash. “It’s a fake,” he cried. “The carpetbaggers are everywhere.”

Trixie muted the television. “Didn’t Sarah answer your letter?” she asked.

“This isn’t from Sarah at all. It’s from a porn site. The Internet gave me the wrong address.”

“You sent your letter to a porn site?”


Trixie stretched lazily and giggled. “Maybe that’s just as well. I don’t think Sarah believes in abortion.”

“I told you this is a monkey’s head.”

“Then why does it look like Robert Downey, Jr.?”

Virgil lifted the pocket mirror, which he now kept permanently in his pants. For the tenth time that day, he captured the reflection of the head. Its greasy skin, unkempt hair, and glazed unintelligent eyes did not remind him in the least of Robert Downey, Jr. It was more like a plant than a human: all it did was stare blankly into space and drool—drool so incessantly that he now carried a towel everywhere he went.

“It’s coming off, Trix—I promise you that. I’ve seen turnips with better sense.”

“But it snores so cutely when it sleeps.”

“Its snoring keeps waking me up. That’s just another reason to cut it off.”

“Won’t it hurt?”

Let it hurt.”

“Not you, Virgie. Won’t it hurt Alf?”

Fuck Alf. I don’t give a damn about Alf.”

Virgil put away the mirror and picked up his toolbox. Since the appearance of the head, his business had improved significantly. This was not due to his skill as a plumber, but to the presence of Alf on his shoulder. A lot of housewives in Oakland wanted to pat the little head.

He glared at Trixie. “I’ll be back at six. Make sure there’s something on the table.”

* * *

When Virgil returned from work, the television was on full blast. A reporter from Fox News was interviewing a bespectacled scientist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A thousand cases of Supernumerary Cranial Syndrome, otherwise known as Second Headitis, had been reported—so many cases that that the government could no longer keep the story under wraps.

We believe it’s being caused by our water,” the scientist said.

Our water? the reporter exclaimed.

Too much mercury in our oceans. Too many pesticides in our tablelands. Too much leakage from our nuclear waste dumps. These chemicals have been in our water so long that they’re having a mutational effect on some of our populace. This was bound to happen sooner or later.

Is there anything we can do about it?

The first thing to do is not to panic. Remember, this is only happening to a tiny portion of our population. Less than a thousandth of one percent. Simply be alert as to what’s going on. And it wouldn’t hurt to start drinking bottled water. That comes from mountain springs, so it cannot hurt you.

“It’s in our water,” cried Virgil.

Trixie turned the program off. “That don’t affect you, Virgie. All you drink is Budweiser.

“But it’s still an epidemic. Now they gotta cut it off.”

“The president is gonna make a statement tonight.”

“Why? So he can raise our water inspection rates?”

Trixie smiled. “Why don’t you sell water filters, Virgie? You could take them along with you when you’re on a job.”

Water filters? Water filters are not gonna stop a plague. I’d feel like a scumbag doing that.”

“You’d soon be a rich scumbag.”

Virgil shook his head. His stomach was empty, his ulcer was kicking, and—contrary to the order he had given her—there was nothing to eat on the table. “Where’s my dinner, woman?”

“All we got is frozen pizza. That and six cases of Bud. Now if you sold water filters, you could afford to take me out.”

Virgil suppressed a belch. He hated the betrayal in her voice, her all-too-common assumption that honest labor was for suckers. What would the plumbers’ union think if he profited from a government ploy—a sham to keep on bleeding the workingman? Worse yet, what would Sarah Palin think?

Virgil banged his fist off the wall. “Woman, that ain’t my cup of tea.”

* * *

Later that evening, the president addressed the nation. Sitting in the Oval Office, dressed in a dark blue suit, he looked personably into the teleprompter as he spoke.

My fellow Americans. An oath of office is a precarious thing. When taken during prosperous times, it can sanctify all that is good. When taken during troubled times, it can incense and divide. And today a cloud hangs over our nation—a cloud that threatens to drive us apart. And this cloud has been made all the darker by this malady we call Supernumerary Cranial Syndrome.

Because today, for no apparent reason, thousands of Americans are growing auxiliary heads. But this is not the work of saboteurs and it is not an experiment gone awry. Simply put, it is a phenomenon for which we have yet to find an explanation.

But there is reason to take heart. My scientists have assured me these heads mean us no harm. On the contrary, they are simple-hearted creatures with a fondness for cheese. So let us not look at them through the veils of rumor and innuendo. Instead, let us extend to them the protection of our Constitution and our tradition of benevolence to the woebegone. With a little nurturing, I am confident these creatures will mature into fine and upstanding citizens.

My fellow Americans, good night. And may God bless America.

Virgil belched like a cannon. “Does that mean they won’t cut it off?”

Trixie nodded. “I think that’s what he means, Virgie.”

Virgil grabbed the remote and began surfing channels. “I still wanna hear what Sarah Palin’s got to say.”

Virgil’s heart sank as he combed through the networks. There was no public response from Sarah Palin. But there were responses. On CNN, a wild-eyed member of The American Gospel Party was shaking his fist at the cameraman. “Our chickens have come home to roost,” he blurted. “Oh yes. Oh yes. Our chickens have come home to roost. The slaughtered—the multitudes upon whose blood we have built this nation—are returning from their graves. They sit upon our shoulders now—a God-sent reminder of our crimes.”

On NBC, a somber member of The Minutemen—a homespun militia from backwoods Wisconsin—was reading a prepared speech. “Don’t trust them,” he mumbled. “Maybe they like cheese and all, but don’t trust them. Look at their dark skin, their black bushy hair, their watchful eyes. They gotta be foreign nationals sent to spy upon us. If we don’t exterminate them immediately, the Arabs are gonna know every move we make.”

And on Fox News, a gang of Tea Partiers was gathered near the Lincoln Memorial. “Isn’t it enough,” their spokesman shouted, “that we are being taxed into extinction—that we are forced to support spongers when we can’t afford children of our own? Now, they are attaching the parasites directly to our necks. Are we gonna stand for this? NO.

The head tensed up and then sneezed. Virgil grabbed it, giving it a jerk. When he removed his hand, his fingers were smeared with orange paste.

“I told you to quit feeding it, Trixie,” he snapped. “You’re making it drool even more.”

Trixie closed the bag of Cheetos. “But it’s hungry, Virgie.”

“It’s hungry because I’m hungry. Isn’t it time you got my dinner?”

“Alf doesn’t like pizza. I gave him some last night when you were asleep. He made a face and spat it out.”

“But it’s my stomach. Why are you feeding Alf?”

“’Cause I’m bored and he’s cute. Virgie, I need a change. I want to go somewhere I’ve never been. I want do something I’ve never done.”

“Why don’t you try the kitchen?”

“Why don’t you take me out now and then? Or at least you could get me that poodle I been asking for.”

Vergil put his hands on his hips. Wasn’t it enough that freeloaders were bleeding him dry? Did he have to take the queen of the layabouts out on the town? It was time—high time—that he put her in her place.

“’Cause you don’t deserve it, woman. And ’cause heads are about to roll.”

* * *

A month went by, and no statement came from Sarah. The head, perhaps emboldened by Sarah’s silence, had now grown to the size of a cantaloupe. And then a remarkable thing happened. The head perked up one morning and began singing in a deep and abiding baritone. “Everybody looooves somebody sometiiime . . .”

Virgil leaped to his feet. “It’s possessed. Now they gotta cut it off.”

Trixie put down her nail file. “Golly, Virgie. It sounded just like Dean Martin. I’ve been listening to him while you’re sleeping.”

“Dean Martin’s in Hell. He led a wicked sinful life and now he’s paying the price.”

“Dino? He oughta be in God’s choir. I just love Dino.” Trixie hopped from the couch and began to sing. “When the moon hits the sky like a big pizza piiiie . . .”

That’s amoreee . . .” sang the head.

Enough!” shouted Virgil. Clearly, the head was not taking the situation seriously. And why should it with all the scumbags in its corner? The Green Team, The Coalition for the Homeless, The American Civil Liberties Union, even that squatter in the White House. And Trixie was only making matters worse.

Enough!” Virgil repeated. “What’s next, woman? Sinatra and Crosby?”

“It’s singing ’cause it’s lonely, Virgie. You oughta make friends with it.”

“It’s got enough friends.”

“But it’s you it’s attached to.”

“Not for much longer—I’m gettin’ it axed. How many times do I have to tell you that?”

“You don’t have to tell me that at all—it’s horrible. Anyhow, what makes you so sure of that?”

“Because, Ms. Jezebel, there’s gonna come a reckoning. I’m familiar with the lay of the land.”

Trixie laughed. “What do you want with the lay of the land? You can’t even satisfy me.”

Virgil slouched his shoulders—humiliated yet again by the familiar dig. The ease with which she deflated him was outrageous. Wasn’t he supporting her, after all? If not for him, wouldn’t she be a welfare slug—yet another leach on the back of the workingman?

“Why do you stay with me?” he asked.

“Why do you love me?” she said.

Ba ba ba booooo,” sang the head.

* * *

The demonstrations began two months later on the Fourth of July. In Washington DC, several hundred protesters swarmed the Capitol, their battle cry—Socialism No—like a snarling wave that would soon shake the building to its foundation. In Wisconsin, members of the American Dairy Association denounced the misuse of their product. The notion that cheese—or even Cheetos—might nurture an alien race was simply un-American. And in Alaska, Sarah Palin finally broke her silence. Her pet phrase—On a clear day you can see Russia—was a reminder of the Red Menace about to engulf the nation.

By Labor Day, the White House itself was under siege. A hundred thousand demonstrators—most of them wearing union buttons and Tea Party logos—clogged Pennsylvania Avenue from one end to the other. So imposing was the crowd that the president—standing on the White House lawn and shielded by bulletproof glass—looked like a caterpillar trapped in a jar. Even so, his speech—a sermon on the sanctity of all life—was delivered so condescendingly that he would have been better off remaining silent. Head lover, cheese burglar, and Commander-in-Thief were among the milder of the epithets that spilled from the crowd. And so, on the second week of the siege, mounted police were turned loose to disperse the mob—a difficult task as the head busting was somewhat complicated. Since many of the demonstrators were sporting second heads, it was often an auxiliary cranium that was laid open by a baton. But the bloodiest deeds were reserved for the demonstrators. Ultimately, a large group of them scaled the bomb barriers and threw fifty severed heads onto the White House lawn. The amputated heads, their eyes more vacant than usual, were broadcast on Fox News—a sight so grisly that Trixie quickly changed channels.

“Don’t look at them,” she cried. “It’s horrible.”

“Well, no one invited ’em here,” snapped Virgil. His own second head had continued to grow and was now more irritating than ever. It was as large as a soccer ball, and it smelled like garlic and had a wicked-looking cleft on its chin. And it purred like a cat as Trixie ran a brush through its thick oily hair. Trixie spoke consolingly as she worked. “Don’t worry, Alfie. That ain’t gonna happen to you.”

Soothed by her tone, the head began to croon. “Mooon river wider than miiile.”

Trixie dropped her brush and began to sing along. “I’m courting you in style some daaay.”

“Woman, enough,” shouted Virgil. He could barely hear the news flash that had interrupted One Life to Live. A band of counter demonstrators—college students and priests—had gathered in front of the San Francisco Hall of Justice. They were waiving placards that said Cheese for All and God Hates Abortionists.

Virgil turned off the television. “God hates meddlers,” he spat. “That’s what He hates. There’s far too many of ’em sticking their snouts in where they don’t belong.”

Trixie nodded profoundly. Slowly, soothingly, she continued to groom the head. “No one likes a meddler,” she said.

“Meddlers and Muslims—they’re pretty much all the same. And this here head is a Muslim.”

Trixie arched her eyebrows. “Don’t Muslims have four wives?”

“Now that ain’t the point, Trix.”

“No, Virgie, I guess it ain’t.” She examined the brush and picked off the stray hairs, chuckling as she worked. “That would make you a rascal, Alf.”

The head burbled contentedly as she continued brushing it. After a while, she said, “Virgie?”

“What, kitten?”

“Let’s have no more talk about killing Alf. You know I’ll leave you if you ever do.”

Leave me then.”

This time I mean it, Virgie.”

Virgil swallowed his panic. If only he loved her less, things would be so very simple. “All right,” he said. “I won’t speak of it again.”

“And talk to him gentle—even if you don’t mean it. It will make things so much easier for me.”

“All right, kitten. I will.”

The head perked up and smacked its full lips. “Much cheesier,” it said.

* * *

The demonstrations continued for two more months. Fires scorched cities, troops fought back rioters, and federal buildings were pelted with Limburger. And a battalion of National Guardsmen was stationed permanently around the White House. But by Thanksgiving Day, the troops were reduced and the White House offered a compromise. The president announced that amputations would be permitted on one condition: that the heads would be attached anonymously to the shoulders of people who wanted them.

The announcement rocked Virgil to his heels. “Who would want those greasy fuckers?”

“Someone’s bound to want them,” said Trixie. “People who are lonely, people who are blind, people in need of money. The government’s paying out a hundred thousand dollars to anyone who will accept a head.”

“That’s bullshit,” said Virgil. “Those heads are still gonna spy on people. They’re still gonna eat up our cheese. And they’re gonna keep singing those corny old songs.”

“Hush now, Virgie. You’re gonna wake up Alf.”

The head, which still stank of garlic, was licking its lips while snoring like a truck driver. The sheer bulk of it was displacing Virgil’s own head—so much so that his body now resembled the letter Y.

Virgil lowered his voice. “Trixie,” he said. “What if we reattached Alf to someone? We could give him to one of those losers you’re talking about.”

Trixie put down the brush. She seemed not to hear him. After a minute, she spoke. “That’s so cold, Virgil.”

“Well, at least he won’t be spying on a workingman.”

“But you’ve got no secrets worth spying on, Virgil. Jeepers, you ain’t even working right now.”

“How can I work with Alf on my back? He’s heavier than a watermelon.”

“You never worked that much before Alf was born.”

“There’s not that much business anymore, Trix. Not for a plumber, anyhow.”

“If you get rid of Alf, there’s gonna be even less. Women love Alf—that’s why you’ve been getting all those calls.”

“So let’s give him to one of those women.”

Trixie was now staring at him—staring so coldly that he suddenly envied the parasite on his shoulder. “But, Virgil, the transplantations are anonymous. Didn’t you hear the president?”

“I’m sure Alf will go to a loving home.”

“Or maybe he’ll go to a pervert.”

Virgil clenched his teeth. The conversation had become insane. “Now Trix,”“ he said patiently. “What would a pervert want with Alf? Alf is a head.”

“But he’s such a beautiful head.”

Virgil hands were now shaking, a spasm so violent that it made his hair stand on end. But his hands always shook when it was time to make a stand. And he was about to make the stand of his life.

“He’s coming off, Trix. I’m gonna call the hospital and arrange it.”

“But you promised, Virgil.”

“I promised not to kill him. I didn’t promise not to give him a new home.”

You ain’t giving him nothing, Virgil.”

“Don’t give me that, Trix. I got a damn good reason for what I’m doing.”

Trixie folded her arms. Her expression was so fixed that she seemed to be carved from stone. “You’ve always got a damn good reason, Virgil.”

The head stirred as Trixie patted it. The hair on its chin, which now prickled her palm, reminded her that it needed a shave. She started to sob. “Did you hear that, Alfie? Virgil’s got himself a damn good reason.”

Virgil lowered his eyes. He could only hope now that an item or two might be salvaged from the ship he was about to run aground. “Will you be there when it’s over, Trix?”

“You think this is gonna be over?”

“Will you be there? That’s what I want to know.”

“If you’re asking, ‘Am I gonna leave you?’— no. You ain’t getting off that easy.”

Virgil looked at her tenderly, grateful for the pique. If her love for him had ended, her anger would have to do. “At least you were fond of me once,” he replied.

Once upon a time is how I’d put it. And I ain’t fond of you no more.”

Awake now, the head began to slobber. “Fondue,” it said.

* * *

Two months later, Virgil lay resting on a hospital gurney awaiting the removal of the head. He was lightheaded from the morphine drip—a soothing sensation that mitigated the sight of Trixie sitting stiffly beside him. Were it not for the embrace of the morphine, she would have looked like a wax statue.

It had taken six weeks to locate a recipient for the head and two weeks more to complete the paperwork—a mound of forms acknowledging the risks of invasive surgery and assuring the anonymity of both donor and recipient. The confidentiality of the operation struck Virgil as ridiculous: he did not have any desire to meet the head’s new host. And so he chuckled as he lay on the gurney. “Whoever he is,” he remarked, “he’s gotta be a total jerk.”

The head burped, as though affected by Virgil’s comment, and looked at Trixie with glassy eyes. The morphine seemed to have stupefied it—or perhaps it was the dab of Camembert she had snuck it as a parting gift. Trixie gazed at the head as though she were hypnotized. She seemed deaf not only to Virgil but to the bustle of the nurses and the rowdy clamor of the ward’s television. Despite the president’s compromise—despite the successful completion of dozens of transplantations—riots were continuing in cities across America.

Virgil spoke again. “Now don’t worry, Trix. When this is over I’m gonna buy you that poodle you’ve been wanting. This operation ain’t costing me a dime, you know.”

Trixie continued to stare at the head.

“Thank god I still got my insurance,” Virgil said. “Beats socialized medicine any day.”

Trixie did not stir.

“Trixie,” snapped Virgil. “Quit looking at Alf. Now a greaser like him ain’t worth a broken heart.”

Trixie broke her silence. “He is my heart, Virgil. He tickles my womb. Haven’t you noticed that at all?”

“Well he’s my head. And I’ll do with him as I please.”

“Then don’t think you ain’t gonna pay for this.”

Virgil squirmed on the gurney. In spite of the morphine, he could feel the needle in his arm, the chronic ache in his shoulders, and the merciless pressure of his ulcer. “Can I pay for it in Vegas?” he said. “We could hit a few slot machines—take in a show. You wanna see the circus there, don’t you, Trix?”

“Fine,” Trixie said. “We’ll go to the circus, Virgil.”

When an orderly came to wheel Virgil away, Trixie hopped from her chair. She said, “Please—one minute more.” Using her pocket brush, she combed Alf’s hair into a thick appealing Mohawk. “You wanna look good, Alf,” she whispered. “You wanna look good for your new home.” She then kissed Virgil hastily on the forehead and walked in the direction of the waiting room.

* * *

Six hours passed before the surgeon came to see her—six hours that she barely noticed. She would have almost preferred it if the operation had taken longer: the surgeon’s smug smile, his enveloping handshake, his cheery assurance that everything had gone perfectly only added to her bereavement. How could everything have gone perfectly?

“Do you want to see him now?” he asked.

She nodded woodenly.

Following the surgeon down a long corridor—a hallway that smelled strongly of cleaning fluid—she felt as though she were under assault. The antiseptic stench of the hallway stung her nostrils, the fluorescent lighting burned her eyes, and her high heels seemed to explode upon the slick uncarpeted floor. As she approached the recovery ward, it was all she could do not to bolt from the building.

“He’s awake,” said the surgeon. “Just a little goofy.”

Repressing a dry chuckle, she followed the surgeon into the ward. She walked slowly among the curtained partitions, searching for Virgil’s bed. And when she spotted it, she gasped.

The surgeon touched her elbow. “You all right, Miss?”

She sank into the chair beside the bed. “Go,” she hissed. “Just go.”

The irony of what she saw, its dark predictability, in no way diminished its impact—a sight so freakish that she could barely stop herself from screaming. But it was true: Virgil’s head—Virgil’s splendid head—was no longer attached to his body. Only Alf still remained upon Virgil’s stout shoulders—Alf, who was staring back at her with a bland but infectious smile. The hospital had fucked up big.

Covering her face with her hands, she wept bitterly for twenty minutes. And then she began to laugh.

About the author:
James Hanna is a published writer, a three-time Pushcart nominee, and the fiction editor of The Sand Hill Review. He has recently retired from the San Francisco Probation Department where he was assigned to a domestic violence and stalking unit. James’ profile and some of his stories may be found at Will Write For Food. Another of his stories, “Another Will Take Your Place,” is available online at Red Savina Review. His short story, “Call Me Pomeroy,” was Editor’s Choice in the first issue of Empty Sink Publishing. James has completed his third novel, The Siege, which depicts a riot in a penal facility. It will soon be available through Sand Hill Review Press, and will be reviewed in the March issue of Empty Sink Publishing.

About the artist:
Dan Gale grew up near Farmland, Indiana and discovered his fascination with art in high school. He studied fine art at Ball State University, but went on to a career in technology with General Motors. He returned to his artistic paths in retirement and continues to photograph, paint, and draw in Sarasota, Florida. See a selection of his work at