Two Stories by Chris Tusa

Baby Proof

Each morning, after the herds of yuppies drop off their sniffling kids, I spend almost twenty minutes emptying Benadryl capsules into plastic baby bottles. For the next hour or so, I change piss-soaked diapers, wash baby food from filthy little mouths, until all the kids finally fall asleep, dazed deep in their cloudy antihistamine comas.

Usually, I spend the next few hours hacking into my husband’s email account so I can read the latest messages from his skinny, bleached-blonde supervisor, who he’s been screwing for the last few months. But today I have an appointment with a woman who wants to enroll her kid in my daycare center, so instead I lie back on the sofa, waiting for her to arrive, sipping from a dented Sprite can filled with Vodka, the smell of dirty diapers chewing through the air.

A few minutes later, I hear the sound of tires crunching gravel, and I peek through the window to find an anorexic woman with a Hitler hairdo climbing out of a black Hyundai. She’s dragging her little rotten brat behind her on one of those toddler leashes. At the door, she introduces herself, and we walk to the back of the house, to my office. There’s a freckled, pig-tailed puppet lying face-down in the hallway. The last thing I need is for the woman to trip on it, break her stupid neck, and then sue me, so I pick it up, and once we get to my office, I drop it into a basket of toys in the corner.

“It’s so quiet,” the woman says, scratching her neck with a chipped fingernail. “You’d never know this was a daycare center.” She tucks a short strand of jet-black hair behind her ear. “You’ll probably feel guilty for taking my money after you realize how low-maintenance my son is. He’s extremely well-behaved for a child his age. My pediatrician says he’s gifted.”

As she says this, she unhooks the little Rhodes Scholar from his leash, and he bolts across the room and starts climbing across the sofa. I watch him smear a long green string of snot into the sofa cushion, and I can’t help but wonder: if this kid is so goddamn gifted, why can’t he wipe his own stupid nose?

“He’s an excellent speller too,” she says. “He even won a local toddler spelling bee a few months back.”

Can he spell hyperactive disorder, I want to say. What about gross negligence?

“We actually have four other children,” she says. “But all of them are fully grown.

“You have five kids?”

“I know. My gynecologist calls me The Woman with the Golden Uterus.”

As she says this, I think back to that night when my husband rushed me to the hospital, the pain eating through my insides, a clump of clotted blood like a purple jellyfish crawling down my thigh.

“Are you sure your doctor is actually a gynecologist?” I ask.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, these days, you never know. Did you see that special on Dateline a few weeks back? Some guy opened a doctor’s office, and he hadn’t even gone to college. He was performing like ten plastic surgeries a month, and he wasn’t even licensed. Apparently, he’d learned everything off the Internet. None of his patients had a clue, until he botched some woman’s boob job and her nipples rotted off.”

“My doctor is a licensed physician.”

“Lots of people don’t know this,” I say, “but you can buy authentic-looking diplomas from all the big medical schools on the Internet. And printer technology would amaze you. The printers people have in their homes today are as technologically-advanced as the ones large print companies had just two or three years ago.”

“Trust me,” she says, a crooked smile growing on her lips. “He’s a licensed physician.” She stares around the room uncomfortably for a minute. “I’m sure you get this question all the time,” she says, “but I assume the facility is baby proof? I guess that’s a stupid question. My husband says I’m so obsessed with safety.”

As she rattles on and on about anti-bacterial soap and some incident in the news concerning a baby who died after the head of a Barbie doll got lodged in his throat, I remember a conversation my husband and I had, long before the miscarriage. How after almost two years of trying to get pregnant, he’d jokingly called my dead uterus “baby proof,” the way someone might call a Kevlar vest “bullet proof.” As I think of this, all of the anger and loss rolls over me again like a wave, and I begin to feel like that freckled puppet in the basket of toys, my insides hollowed out, my mouth gaping open—locked in a kind of silent, empty scream.

After the woman leaves, the words “baby proof” drift around in my head like a black thunder cloud. I flip on the TV, lie down on the sofa, and I begin to feel the vodka crawling through my blood. A baby begins to cry in the other room, and as I close my eyes, I imagine myself sprinkling the floor with paperclips, removing the plastic covers from all the electrical outlets, spilling pain pills across the floor like Tic Tacs.

The Crucified Man

I’d been reenacting the crucifixion of Christ in The Square for almost three years, but recently the performance had grown stale. In the beginning, simply wearing the fake wig, the beard, and the loincloth while I carried the plastic cross on my shoulder attracted a steady crowd. But as more and more mimes, jugglers, and fire breathers began competing for the tourists’ attention, the coins and sweaty dollar bills I collected in my cardboard box each day began to steadily decrease, and I realized I needed to make a change.

I’d studied acting in college, and I’d worked on different movie sets a few times as an extra, so I knew there had to be some way to make the crucifixion a real crowd-pleaser. My friend Benny had worked in Marketing for twenty years, so I decided to go to him for advice.

“What you need,” Benny said, “is more suffering, more blood. Don’t get me wrong, dragging a cross around makes people think of suffering, but nails hammered into your hands and feet by some guy dressed up like a Roman soldier, now that’s a show. Let’s be honest, that loincloth you wear looks like a wrinkled tablecloth from Pier One, and that crown with the fake plastic thorns, that’s not fooling anybody. Have you thought about adding a flagellation segment? After all, nothing says suffering like a good lashing.”

Benny said he knew a man named Ron, a local tattoo artist who specialized in unique body piercings, and that Ron could surgically drill small holes into my hands and feet and then fill the holes with small rubber plugs so that the skin would grow around the holes. Once the holes healed, I could insert tiny capsules of red dye into them so that when someone hammered nails into the holes, the capsules would burst, and the wounds would appear to bleed. Benny said that even though it seemed odd, the procedure wasn’t much different than the holes Ron bored into earlobes and cheeks on a daily basis.

“The idea sounds great,” I told Benny, “but it seems a little drastic. Isn’t there some other way we could make the wounds bleed? When I worked on the set of a movie once, they put a silicone cast around a guy’s arm and pumped fake blood through the imaginary wounds. Maybe something like that would work.”

A look of frustration fell across Benny’s face. “Taking short-cuts like that is exactly why you’re in this situation. If you want this little reenactment of yours to be a real moneymaker, you’re going to have to make people believe that you’re genuinely suffering. It’s all about authenticity. The crowd needs to feel like they’re witnessing an actual crucifixion.”

Benny had been very successful over the years promoting lots of different products, and I knew he was right, but to be honest, I was a bit apprehensive about having someone drill holes into my hands and feet. I’d had a number of body piercings in the past, so the idea wasn’t overly gruesome or frightening to me. And, since my landlord had been threatening to evict me from my apartment, and since I’d been on a steady diet of canned beans for the last few months, I eventually came to the conclusion that desperate situations called for desperate measures.

That Thursday, Benny and I went to the tattoo parlor, and after Ron gave me a hefty dose of painkillers, he used a surgical drill to bore tiny holes into my hands and feet. When he was done, just as Benny had said, Ron filled the holes with small cylindrical rubber plugs. To fight infection, Ron told me, I had to dress and clean the wounds thoroughly twice a day, and though they’d never fully heal (mostly because of the tissue present in the areas), the rubber plugs would prevent the skin from growing over the holes.

Over the next few weeks, while I waited for the wounds to heal, Benny helped me revamp my performance. Insisting that he dress as a Roman soldier, he went to a local costume store and bought a red velvet tunic, gold chest and leg armor with a matching gold shield, and a gold helmet topped with red feathers. Though we still used the plastic crown of thorns, Benny insisted on hiding the red dye capsules in the crown for added effect. He also insisted on adding a Flagellation Segment which involved him shackling me to a wooden post and mocking me. He constructed a whip with brown felt straps, and his plan was to soak the straps with the red dye just before the show. He said simply dragging the cross around The Square, as I’d done in the past, wasn’t enough, so he bought some lumber from Home Depot and constructed a life-size wooden cross. H even devised an elaborate pulley system, which would raise the cross once I was tied to it.

During our first performance, when Benny pushed the plastic crown down on my head, the red dye capsules exploded just as planned, and fake red blood trickled down my forehead. During the Flagellation Segment, when Benny whipped my back with the felt straps of the whip, the red dye smeared across my skin like blood, and the crowd gasped. After the scourging, Benny used rope to tie me to the cross by my ankles and wrists. Once I was tied to the cross, he used the pulley system he’d devised to raise the cross upright. Despite his concern that the pulley system might malfunction, the show ended without a hitch. The crowd cheered and threw money at our feet. An old woman in the audience wept. One man even said that watching the show had purged him of all the anger and hate he’d been harboring, and that after watching the performance, he no longer wanted to murder his ex-wife. A young boy said the show was bloodier than any of the horror movies he’d ever seen, and that if the bible was this violent and gory, he was going to start reading it online.

Eventually, after the wounds in my hands and feet healed, Benny insisted that we add a segment to the performance that involved him nailing me to the cross. The night before the performance, Benny and I went to Home Depot and bought some large nails he called “Crucifixion Nails.” The next day, before the performance, I pulled the rubber plugs from the holes in my hands and feet and filled the holes with the red dye capsules. During the performance, Benny laid my body down on the wooden cross, tied my wrists and ankles to the cross, and then gently hammered the nails into the holes. As the capsules burst and spewed the fake blood, the crowd held their hands over their mouths. One woman fainted, and another puked all over the man in front of her.

Benny said the performance was a huge success, but he said that while making people faint and vomit was an accomplishment, he wouldn’t be satisfied until we had to hire a paramedic for each show equipped with a defibrillator.

Over the next few weeks, the crowds grew steadily, and soon we needed four cardboard boxes to hold all the bills and coins tourists tossed at us. But as the crowds grew, Benny insisted that we needed to up the ante. The only way to truly convince people I was suffering, he said, was to give the audience real blood. He constructed a crown of thorns from rose branches, and he insisted on using an authentic medieval whip (which he’d bought on eBay from some collector) that had five braided leather straps attached to a short handle. He seemed obsessed with making the spectators cringe. He said he wanted to splatter the tourists with blood until half the crowd fainted, until their eyes rolled back in their skulls and they dropped to the ground like a herd of tranquilized sheep.

Tonight, at the beginning of the show, Benny pushes the crown of thorns onto my head, and blood trickles down my face. He shackles me to the wooden post, pulls out the braided leather whip, and begins striking me in the back, mocking me as the whip cracks the air, his voice growling like a chainsaw. There’s a dirty, wild look in his eyes that I’ve never seen before, and when I wince and whisper to him that the lashings are beginning to hurt, he ignores me and turns to the crowd, cracking the whip at their feet and asking them if they want more. He ties me to the cross, and when he hammers the first nail, he misses the hole in my left wrist just slightly, and I can feel the nail pierce a piece of my skin. I yell out in pain, but he just smiles.

Once he’s secured me to the cross, he walks over to the pulley system he’s constructed and begins turning the hand-crank that slowly raises the cross. When the cross is completely upright, he locks the pulley and stares up at me as I hang from the cross wincing in pain. A moment later, I see him at the foot of the cross holding what looks like a bronze spear. He holds the spear over his head, and the crowd cheers. He drags the pointed tip of the spear over the curves of my ribs, taunting the crowd, until the cheering gradually transforms into a bloody chant. As the crowd grows louder and louder, Benny turns and glances up at me, a grin crawling in the corner of his lips. A man in the crowd with a mouthful of popcorn screams “Do It.” A woman with a baby strapped to her chest yells “Finish him.” As the crowd continues to cheer, Benny points the spear at me, and in one quick motion stabs it between my ribs. The crowd grows quiet, and I hang there, a bloody piece of meat nailed to a slab of wood, the breath in my chest buzzing like flies.

It’s all a build-up to the new Resurrection Segment Benny’s devised, where I rise from a grey plaster tomb and hover above the crowd, a string of white lights glowing beneath my robe, my bleeding wounds miraculously healed.

Chris Tusa has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Florida. His debut novel, Dirty Little Angels, was published by The University of West Alabama in March of 2009. With the help of a grant from the Louisiana Division of the Arts, he was able to complete his debut collection of poems, Haunted Bones, which was published by Louisiana Literature Press in 2006. His work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Connecticut Review, New South, Texas Review, New Delta Review, South Dakota Review, The Southeast Review, Passages North, Spoon River, storySouth, and others. Aside from teaching in the English Department at LSU, he also serves as Editor for Fiction Southeast.