“Hole in Your Head, Hole in Your Heart” by Joe Baumann

Jackson enjoys a good ghost story as much as anyone else, he explains to Devon after they look at the house.  He’s just not sure he wants to be a part of another one.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he says.  “I just—”

“I know.  It’s not a selling point.  But the realtor did say he only haunts televisions.  We’ve only got the one.”

Jackson nods.  They’re driving back to the city.  The house is in Pacific, and would create at least a thirty-minute commute for both of them.  But Devon would like to try living where things are cheaper even if there are anti-abortion billboards and endless second-amendment bumper stickers and Confederate flags.  The house itself, a sprawling ranch with three bedrooms, is bigger than anything they could afford in the pretzeled suburban subdivisions that surround Jackson’s community college and the pricey city streets flanking the private high school where Devon teaches music and coaches tennis.  Plus, the house comes with a slightly-scuzzy private lake with a short dock like a stiff dog’s tongue, the water too unclean for swimming but nice for looking at; as they stood on the back deck, Devon mused about buying a kayak that they could paddle from one end to the other—about a football field’s length away—in nice weather.

“Sounds like we’ve made up our minds,” Devon says.

Jackson nods.  If he wasn’t the one driving, trying to make a tricky merge onto I-70, he’d rub at his chest, the little concave spot that lights up with tingles—not pain, not pleasure, just a faint buzz—every time he’s nervous.  Instead, he clamps his hands tight against the wheel, the fake leather squeaking under his grip.

His family’s ghost lived in a grandfather clock that was large, ornate, wood-hewn and hand carved, the gears clicking and pendulum seeping into Jackson’s dreams even though it sat in the living room, far down the hall.  As a kid he was too scared to have his door closed all the way and so the sounds of the night spilled in—the settling of floorboards, the spew of the kitchen sink, the sigh of the air vents when the heat or cooling kicked on—keeping him awake or wrenching him from sleep.  Plus the babble of the ghost, who mostly muttered to itself.

The woman was hard to see.  Jackson had to stare at the clock face for a long time for her features to shimmer onto its surface.  The letters were iron, the background brass, the hands spindly arrowheads; their movement often made Jackson feel seasick.  But when he mustered the courage and fortitude to look, unblinking, through all of that, her upturned nose and pouting lips and narrowed green eyes would slowly emerge like she was bursting out of a deep well of water, her mouth moving in stuttered, speedy prayer.  He never understood, exactly, what she was saying, and if either of his parents caught him looking they would nudge him away, never willing to explain who, exactly, she was.

They buy the house.  Their realtor mediates several back and forths on the final price, persuading them that the seller’s third offer, ten grand lower than the list price but two more than their most recent counter, is a good deal considering the comps and the area’s standard of living.  So a month and a half later Devon and Jackson sit in an too-air conditioned office and sign pages after pages of documents: escrow, deeds, liabilities, insurance, mortgage, waivers after waivers, Jackson’s hand a cramped little homunculus by the time they are finished.  With each signature, the little concavity in his chest squelches out more tight buzzing.

Pectus excavatum:for a long time it shamed him, this concave space between his muscles—which are also, as a result, slightly ill-defined and impossible to build in the traditional way with traditional exercise—that makes it look like a small part of him has been scooped out.  At the beach and in locker rooms he’s been gawked at, fingers pointed, mouths gaped, eyes boring and then flitting away.  He could have had surgery to fix the problem, but this involved titanium rods and a long recovery time, and his case was largely cosmetic: the important structures surrounding his ribs and lungs weren’t compromised, and so his parents had convinced him not to go under the knife, and despite his hatred for the way his body looked, Jackson had never made the plunge.  When Devon saw it for the first time all he did was run his fingers over it and murmur, “It’s like a hole to your heart.”

Jackson was breathless.  They’d had sex, finally.  His head was filled with cotton, the rest of him empty.  He wasn’t sure what to say.  Devon’s hands continued to trail along Jackson’s skin, fingers lingering at the collapse at his sternum where the cartilage hadn’t formed correctly. 

They stop with the U-Haul at Jackson’s studio apartment first.  He’s dutifully packed up all of his possessions over the course of two weeks, taking a little section at a time, carefully labeling boxes.  Despite his belief that he’s lived his life in relative austerity, he had to go out and pick up more of them twice.  How, he wondered more than once as he stored his drinking glasses and extra linens and the contents of his bathroom vanity, does one accumulate so much and manage to forget about it?  Periodically he would be struck by a queasy wave of nerves, and briefly, like he was being quickly zapped by static electricity, he imagined he was making a mistake.  He had lived in the studio for five long years, and he’d grown content.  But he knew that he owed his relationship with Devon this shift in trajectory, this next step, no matter how rickety.

Devon’s apartment is bigger, but he isn’t bringing as much: his roommate Troy, a food blogger, contributed their dining room table and the living room furniture, purchases funded mostly by his lawyer parents, who had enough money to indulge a twenty-something in his twenty-first century “creative pursuits,” a phrase Devon utters with licorice contempt on his tongue but which Jackson is pretty sure is steeped in jealousy; in his free time, Devon plays banjo with a bluegrass band that has recorded a trio of albums but never made any headway aside from a limp folk festival circuit that cuts through Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee during the spring and summer, paying, often enough, in “exposure” or travel reimbursement and nothing more.

Everything fits in a single load.  Jackson stares into the back of the U-Haul after they nestle in the last box, and when Devon asks what he’s doing, Jackson says, “Just look.  It all fits together.”  Devon rolls his eyes and claps a hand on Jackson’s shoulder, telling him that of course he would find some symbolism in the simplest thing.

“It’s really just Tetris.  Optimizing space,” Devon says.  “But of course you see it as more than that.”  But Devon squeezes Jackson’s shoulder and they both laugh, heads clicking together like they’re toasting.

The ghost has a hole in his head.

“That’s how I got here,” he says to Jackson one morning when he turns on the television, intending to watch Sportscenter.  Instead there’s the image of a man in his thirties, dark hair, bristling mustache, crater taken out of his frontal lobe above his left eye.  His temple is crumpled in.  “I guess, really, you could say I just never left.”

“Such is the nature of hauntings,” Jackson says while he pours cereal.  “I suppose.”

The man in the TV nods.  He watches Jackson move between the fridge and the kitchen island.  The main floor is open concept, a single great room where the living room spills into the kitchen, so Jackson can talk to the ghost—or maybe he can’t avoid him—while he eats.  He’s alone for their first weekend because Devon had already booked a show at some bluegrass festival months ago.  Devon invited Jackson along, as he always does.  And as he almost always does, Jackson begged off, this time under the guise of the need to start unpacking all of their things; boxes are still strewn about every room where the movers left them, a few of them foraged for essentials—in the case of the kitchen, spoons and bowls and enough glassware to get them through a handful of meals—but most of them still sealed up with mail tape.  It’s not that Jackson doesn’t appreciate what Devon does, and it’s not like he hates bluegrass and folk music.  But he doesn’t particularly enjoy outdoor music festivals, where the only bathrooms are hundreds of yards away from stage, are often Port-a-Potties that haven’t been cleaned in over a day—if not longer—and everyone reeks of weed and cheap beer and lots of people don’t wear shoes.  He’s not big on roughing it, and the festivals that Devon plays at, with their tiny sound stages and lack of indoor plumbing, are exactly the kind of scenery he’d rather swap out for the comforts of air conditioning and an actual toilet.  He can’t stand to be around the strangely large coalition of bible-thumping Jesus freaks, either, who are somehow willing to debase themselves into standing shoulder-to-shoulder with legitimate hippies, white people with dreadlocks and beards, sleeve tattoos and hemp t-shirts.  It’s a demographic phenomenon that not even Devon can explain; when Jackson asked, he shrugged and said, “Half of our songs make reference to the devil.  Don’t ask me.”

So instead, Jackson spends the weekend unpacking, as well as getting to know their ghost.

His name is Sid, and he was shot by a junky who lived in a lean-to somewhere at the edge of the property.

“Long gone by now,” Sid says.  “Don’t worry.”

“The lean-to, or the junky?”

Sid smiles.  He has shockingly white teeth.  “Both, surely.”

The whole weekend, Sid talks any chance he gets.  Jackson discovers, to his disappointment, that turning off the television doesn’t turn off Sid: he can appear on the blank, black screen at will.  In, fact he seems to prefer it, blinking into existence the second Jackson turns off ESPN or logs out of Devon’s Netflix account.  He appreciates the courtesy of Sid not interrupting his binge-watching, but he finds, by the time Devon pulls into the driveway on Sunday, that what he has missed over the two and a half days has been any semblance of quiet.  He finds himself missing his studio.

He steps into the garage to meet Devon, and says, “Thank god.  I’m going insane.”

Devon, looking properly bushwhacked from a weekend in the middle of nowhere, slouches against the car.  “You and me both.  I think the band broke up.”

“Oh,” Jackson says, unsure of what else he should be saying.  “I’m sorry?”

Devon sighs.  “It’s fine.  It was getting to be too much, anyway.  I slept in a tent and I think my back is permanently screwed up.”

“Poor baby.”  Jackson holds out his hands and Devon, grunting, throws himself forward and into Jackson’s arms.  He smells of grass and loam, sweat, the sweet-sour of unwashed skin.  His hair is greasy.  “Do you want to meet our roommate?  He’s a chatty one.”

Devon groans, his voice vibrating up and down Jackson’s body, clanging in the concavity in his chest, swallowed and held in Jackson’s core.

The hole in Sid’s head is clean though jagged.  His ghastly form doesn’t bleed.  Brain matter doesn’t pulse beneath the break in his skull.

“Jesus,” Devon says.  “What happened to you?”

Sid is unfazed.  He tells the story like he’s a news reporter.  Sid, who had lived in the house by himself after his parents passed away when he was in his early twenties and didn’t have any interest in leaving, spent most weekends alone on the little dock, sitting in a flimsy folding chair and drinking inexpensive beers, lining the empty cans up next to him like a string of baby ducks.  One summer night, maybe a decade ago now, Sid thinks, though time has lost its sharp essence in ghosthood, he heard a rustling in the tree line.  Dusk was just becoming twilight, and Sid thought nothing of it at first; he’d heard plenty of animal rustling in his time, even seen deer and skunks and once a coyote come dipping through his property.  But then this rustling took on a distinctly human flavor and he looked over and saw a man with a face so pitted he could see the grim, grotesque contours from sixty feet away.  Holes of a different sort than the one Sid sports now, he says, raising a hand and clomping his palm against the unblemished side of his skull like he’s trying to shake water out of his ear.

“Anyway,” Sid says.  “This guy can’t be any older than me, really, but he certainly doesn’t look it.  Mangy, toothless.  And armed.”

He threatened Sid, voice raspy and incoherent, demanding, well, Sid still isn’t sure what.  Sid, who’d never seen a gun before despite living in second amendment land, was just as incoherent in his inability to offer whatever the man wanted.

“Next thing I know, I’m here,” Sid says, gesturing to the edges of the television.  He pretends to rap on the edge with one phantasmal knuckle and chuckles at himself.

“He seems nice,” Jackson says later that night as they’re tucking themselves into their bed in their bedroom that distinctly does not contain a television set.  This is not only because of Sid’s presence in the house but because of Jackson’s upbringing: despite all the ways in which his parents were casual and unoppressive, they put their foot down about their child having a television in his bedroom.  He begged and pleaded when he was eight, nine years old, especially after sleepovers where he saw his friends’ personal sets and basked in the futuristic neon glow of the screen, falling to sleep by the illumination of Nintendo 64 and Playstation games.  But by high school he’d embraced this anti-technological living and continued to do so all through college and into his post-university life.  Devon, who’d owned a small flat-screen that perched on his bureau, made no objection.  Having a private escape from Sid only seems to sweeten the deal and Jackson’s position.

Devon turns on his side, facing Jackson, and presses a hand carefully against Jackson’s chest, his palm fitting in the concavity at the center.  This is both soothing to Jackson and also a sign: Devon is horny.  They have an unusual kind of two-way seduction, whereby they quietly and carefully approach sex with minute gestures, slow-walking toward it rather than leaping in like on television and movies; in fact, Jackson can’t ever remember either of them pouncing on the other.  They’ve never knocked through a doorway, entangled in one another’s arms, struggling to peel off clothes, desperate to touch one another’s most sensitive skin.  It’s always a quiet, almost timid approach, as if sex is a prey animal that will dart into some underbrush if they aren’t careful.  Usually, Jackson likes this tender, thoughtful attendance to their bodily wants; there’s a romance, a build-up, an attention to detail and the body’s signals that makes the act itself more intense and pleasurable.

But every now and then, Jackson does wish they’d just fuck like they’re in a porno.  That Devon would grab him by the hips or the hair, would press their mouths together so his lips swell or his teeth sting, leave scratches across his back or teeth marks on his throat, that his fingers would press so hard against the hole in his chest that he’d feel the pressure in his aorta.  That his heart would briefly stop—maybe metaphorically—the wind pulled from him, his vision spangled.

So he snatches Devon’s hand and lifts it to his mouth, bites at his pointer finger.

“Oh,” Devon says.  “What?”

Jackson shoves Devon’s shoulder and straddles him, pinning his body beneath his.

“What is happening?” Devon says, but his voice carries a smile that Jackson can see in the darkness: flash of white teeth, dimpled skin in the cheeks.  “This is different.”

“New house,” Jackson says.  “New us.”

“Okay,” Devon says.  His legs churn beneath Jackson.  “Alright.  Yeah.”

“Yeah,” Jackson says, voice hissing.  He pulls one of Devon’s hands up to his chest, makes it ply and press and reach deep, deep inside.

Jackson explores the property.  He feels strange, trekking through the wild grasses and further into the trees, the only human noise the shuffle of his feet and the rasp of his breathing.  Jackson has spent his entire life in suburban enclaves where vehicular traffic and human noise is inescapable; even at night, the hum of HVACs and four-lane thoroughfares cuts into the sounds of nature, the trill of night birds, the swish of tree branches.  But on their sprawling land Jackson can hear the scuttle of ground animals, the beat of wings, the trickle of a stream that it takes him fifteen minutes to find his way to.

They moved in near the close of the semester, which means that in addition to his gigs, Devon is gone with frequency for tennis tournaments.  His student-athletes are good, his varsity squad favored to make the state competition.  Just as when he travels for his music, Devon invites Jackson along, another invitation he declines.  Jackson actually likes tennis well enough—he even owns a black Roger Federer hat—but the one time he went with Devon Jackson felt islanded, his husband spending most of the time corralling a bunch of teenagers, spending their overnight at the hotel skulking in the halls so that no one snuck out under his watch.  Jackson had to drive separately from the bus that carried the kids and coaches across the state because of some concern over liability.

So Jackson stays home.  He tries to wrangle the heap of packed boxes but finds he doesn’t have the energy.  The end of the semester means another heap, a pile of freshman composition essays, research papers with gnarled MLA citations, vague and misplaced thesis statements, works cited pages that seem to have been frapped in a blender.  And Sid, if Jackson sits in the living room, won’t stop talking, telling stories, sking questions.  He starts humming and even huffing if Jackson doesn’t pay attention to him, interrupting whatever television show is on for background noise.  Sid’s arrivals on screen make Jackson’s chest hurt, as if he’s somehow pressing on the concave space, a pressure that makes it hard to breathe.

He tells Jackson a story about the one time he fell in love, with a girl who lived in the nearest house; Jackson knows the one, half a mile down the winding state highway off which the driveway branches.  It’s a dilapidated bungalow, the roof looking like it’s on the verge of collapse, the front yard dotted with empty rain barrels and rusting bicycles.  He hasn’t seen a car or any signs of life any time he’s driven by, a detail he doesn’t share with Sid, whose voice goes distant with want as he tells Jackson about the girl, whose name he never knew.  They only spoke a few times, when Sid would go on long, wandering walks, careful to move into the scutch-filled shoulder when cars would come blitzing by, hitting him with a warm wave of exhaust.  She was there, twice, sitting on the porch swing—Jackson doesn’t mention that there’s no longer such a swing; he can hardly imagine that loose-tooth-rotten roof holding something that heavy up with any success—and she waved and said hello the first time he passed by.  The second, a day blazing hot on which Sid had no business doing something even as simple as walking in the noonday sun, she invited him up into the shade.  She brought out glasses of lip-puckering lemonade and they drank, hardly saying a word.  The girl was golden and bright, her voice lilting, her cheeks gathering sunshine against the planes of her face.  She was the most beautiful person Sid had ever seen.

And then, a week after he felt the crushing weight of his love for her, he was shot.

Sid’s story stops there.  He goes silent, as though suddenly muted.  Sid is staring, not at Jackson but past him, so intent that Jackson turns and glances at the appliances—the wall-set oven, the basin of the sink, the stovetop—to try to sort out what he’s looking at.  But there’s nothing, except for the hand towels and liquid detergent and the sticky notes Devon likes to jot to-do lists on and stick to the microwave.

Jackson stands and moves into the living room.  Sid looks as though he’s frozen, a close-up still from a movie.  His head is tilted forward just-so, the hole gaping.  When Sid doesn’t respond to Jackson’s approach, he comes closer and closer, looking at the finer details of the wound.  The hole doesn’t reveal Sid’s brain.  Instead there’s just a black nothing beneath Sid’s skin.  Jackson shivers.  He imagines that he, too, is empty, a shadow inside, nothing of substance that makes him move.  Jackson gently presses a hand to his chest, feeling at the tender collapse there.  He hates feeling this spot on his body, his fingers jolting at the reminder of this deep imperfection, this piece of him that doesn’t look like it should.  It is only Devon, with his strange ability to manipulate and ply and pull from Jackson something deep-welled and thick, who can touch him here in a way that makes him feel anything but wrong.  Jackson feels a sudden, thick sorrow on Sid’s behalf, for his entrapment, for his loss, for the isolated life he carved out here whether he wanted it or not.  His hands leave his chest and float toward the television, moving from his own hole to Sid’s, but right before his fingers brush the screen Sid jolts back to life.  Jackson lets out a surprised chirp and Sid, shaking his head like a dog wringing water off its back, blinks and frowns. 

“Sorry,” he says.  “I lose myself sometimes.”

Jackson drives into town for his co-worker’s annual end-of-the-school-year party.  He takes a slightly circuitous route so he can pass the bungalow from Sid’s story.  Time hasn’t been kind to it, the roof’s missing shingles like gaps in a mouth, the porch steps so rotten Jackson can see the disintegration from the road.  He wonders who owns the property, if it has a ghost.  But of course it does: places like that are always haunted by something.  Even if there’s no Sid equivalent, nothing like the woman in his parents’ grandfather clock, something hovers over the space, memory, abandonment, sorrow.  The girl must have ended up somewhere, unless she ended up dead, too.  The thought makes Jackson queasy.

He thinks about stopping the car, pulling up to the curb, walking through the untamed grass.  Feeling at the front stoop, knocking on the door.  Jackson keeps driving.

The party is out in the suburbs.  Jackson drums on the steering wheel as he passes houses lined up like dominos, clean replications of one another, the same architecture, front windows, basketball hoops, side gardens full of peonies and marigolds, portulaca and catmint.  Devon, as seems to be the case every year, is busy: this time, a trip to the state tennis title match in New Madrid.  No question of Jackson going, not even an invitation.  Jackson didn’t mention the party, either. 

He likes his co-workers; they go out for beers after late-afternoon all-faculty meetings to lament the administration’s newest hare-brained schemes for saving the college money or increasing enrollment, none of which ever exist within the realm of logistical or intellectual possibility.  Deans and vice presidents come and go, convinced when they arrive on campus that they’ve got the solutions to every higher ed problem that exists, and then suddenly they’re shunted off to some closet-sized office when their newest fad doesn’t pay off.  At their own department meetings Jackson and his colleagues each bring in a snack and they gorge, potluck style, on processed sugar and the periodic organic vegetable product, sipping tea from an ornate urn their department chair bought as a joke gift for his daughter’s wedding.  Jackson tells Devon stories about them all the time, how a trio of new hires last year spent much of their first year redecorating their office suite, a single long hallway painted gunmetal gray that had been barren, absent any accoutrements.  They filled the hall with posters of famous writers, covers of the college literary magazine, printouts of student poetry.  But Devon has never demonstrated any interest in joining him at these sojourns; he and his co-workers are colleagues only in the professional sense: Devon guffaws at the idea of spending time with them outside of the office.  Jackson has no idea who else he would hang out with in Devon’s absence.

Everyone is already half-drunk when Jackson arrives, even though he’s right on time.  The grill in the host’s generous back yard is pluming up smoke as it chars burgers.  Brats spit grease.  Pop music plays on a Bluetooth speaker.  His co-workers laugh at a story about an idiot student who copied an entire Wikipedia page, headers and photo captions and everything, for a final paper.  Someone offers him a beer from, and while he drinks his Abita someone asks how the new house is.  He tells them about Sid and the tale of his death and unrequited love.

“Tragic,” the host, a creative writer who everyone is pretty sure is going to start looking for a new job next year now that he’s published a book, says, throwing himself into the chair next to Jackson.  He doesn’t talk much about his book, but Jackson can tell he’s proud of it; why wouldn’t he be?  Jackson doesn’t have any artifact of his work, but he’s not a writer.  He’s not like Devon, either, with his albums, even if almost no one has bought them.  Jackson stares down at his hands. 

“Mine is practically mute,” the host says of his ghost.  “Doesn’t help that she lives in the oven door.”

“Is she Sylvia Plath?” the department chair, a woman in her sixties who doesn’t drink but loves mock daiquiris, says. 

     The host chuckles.  “She does like to talk in rhyme, actually.”

“So not Plath,” an Americanist who never finished his dissertation says.  His voice is nasally, as if he’s constantly congested.  “Didn’t she hate form poetry?”

They launch into a discussion of poetics, and Jackson finishes his beer.  He slips out of his seat and goes inside to where food is spread out on the kitchen island in an impressive array of cut fruit, chips and dips, a charcuterie of expensive meats and soft cheese.  After plucking a strip of prosciutto and popping three slices of pineapple in his mouth, Jackson finds himself looking at the oven door.  It’s set in the wall at chest height, the glass window surrounded by onyx plastic.  He sees only himself, a dark outline of his shoulders and face.  He squints close and wonders if the woman will appear.

“She only comes out at night,” the host says.  Jackson turns, startled.  “Sorry.  Didn’t mean to spook you.”

“So she’s nocturnal?  Like an owl?”

“A housecat.  She actually moans sometimes if she’s lonely.”

“That must be annoying.”

The host, who has a narrow frame, the musculature of a distance runner, shrugs.  Jackson knows he’s done a few marathons; many of the characters in his stories—at least the ones Jackson has read—spend a lot of time pounding the pavement, contemplating the ravages of their existence.  A pair of sunglasses are perched atop his head.  “She’s usually pretty quiet.  Doesn’t have much to say.”

“Do you know what happened to her?”

“Not really.  She’s never volunteered, and I didn’t think it right to ask, you know?”

Jackson nods.  The host shimmies past him to the sink, where he fills a glass of water and sucks it down.  “Can’t get too rowdy.”

“I’d say you’re the one who can get rowdiest.  No worries about driving.”

“That’s true.  I guess you’d have to be the most careful.”

“I guess.”

“No fun for Jackson.”

“Story of my life.”

The host slaps him on the back, sets his glass in the sink next to a greasy spatula and a plate spattered with little bits of raw meat, and slips back outside.  Jackson knows he should follow, should engage with his friendly co-workers, share his own end-of-semester tales of student woe, join the bashing of upper administration and their endless chain of bullshit.  He should field innocuous, friendly questions about Devon.  But instead he looks at the oven again.  He’s tempted to knock on it like he’s at someone’s door.  Wants to ask her to tell her story, because everyone has a story.  Everyone wants to be heard.

His chest aches.  Jackson reaches up to massage the concavity there, staring at the reflection of his fingers as he massages at his tender sternum.  He imagines his fingers crawling all the way inside, reaching to his heart, massaging it into a different rhythm, a transformation into something else, something more, something beyond his wildest imagination.

Joe Baumann is the author of four collections of short fiction, most recently Where Can I Take You When There’s Nowhere to Go, from BOA Editions, and the novels I Know You’re Out There Somewhere and Lake, Drive. His fiction and essays have appeared in Third Coast, Passages North, Phantom Drift, and many others. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. He can be reached at joebaumann.wordpress.com.