by Salvatore Difalco
After work, Ruggerio Puma decided to stop for a drink at Johnny’s Ball, a sports bar located near his midtown flat. He’d been to Johnny’s Ball once before, had disliked the Buffalo wings and found the draught beer warm as piss; but he needed to wind down before he went home, and convenience trumped misgiving on this occasion.
Ruggerio wrote copy for a thriving advertising agency, but was struggling. Ideas that used to flutter into his head like flash cards now had to be coaxed, coddled, poked and prodded out. He’d even taken the advice of Anthony, the head writer, and tried smoking weed to get the juices flowing, but only wound up drifting off into his own silly associations, or conceived of suggestions too outlandish or stupid to be of any use. Some days, no matter how hard he tried, he had nothing. Today had been such a day. His team had been brainstorming a promotional pitch for a new Advil product. All he could think of during their session was how much his head ached and that he could sure use an Advil. When he made this known to his colleagues, they ridiculed him.
“Aw, did ya hear that guys? Poor Reggie’s head hurts.”
“Want me to rub it better, pal?”
“There’s an ice-pack in the freezer. Donato used to ice his corns with it.”
“No wonder his head hurts, it’s huge.”
“Yeah, quite the melon.”
“I’d get that checked out.”
Everyone had a good laugh at his expense. And then, unabashedly, they turned their back-and-forth about his whining into an actual pitch for the product, featuring a man with an oversized head complaining to a doctor that it weighed a ton. Advil could reduce the size and weight of the sufferer’s head. So went the pitch. Max, the staff illustrator, went so far as to sketch panels of a man holding his pumpkin-sized head while a superhero, dressed as a giant box of the new Advil product, delivered him from the affliction.
Ruggerio sat at the bar and ordered a double bourbon. The bartender had a shaved, perfectly round head and sleeve tattoos with skull-and-bone designs on both arms. He also had a metal nub jutting out of his lower lip, which made Ruggerio wonder if it was merely cosmetic or pertained to the bartender’s sexual predilections.
“I’m Tank, your affable bartender, haha. And how are you this evening?”
“Hi, Tank. Ruggerio. Friends call me Reggie. I’m okay.”
“Been a long day, you know.”
“I hear you.” Tank licked his lips and frowned. “Ruggerio?”
“My family’s Sicilian. Ruggerio’s common there. It actually translates to Roger. From the Normans. They were there way back when.”
“Hm. Interesting. You don’t like being called Roger?”
“Never took. Everyone’s always called me Reggie. Even my mother—God rest her soul—called me Reggie.”
“Ah, sorry. She passed when?”
“Been a few years. Cheers.”
Ruggerio sipped the bourbon. It felt good going down, spreading warmth through his chest and shoulders and causing his nerves to stop jangling. He thought of his poor mother who had died of complications from dementia. Not a pleasant way to go out. She’d spent five years hallucinating animals and little people, and didn’t recognize her own son for the last two years.
Tank moved off to serve another customer. On the flat screen mounted over the liquor bottles, Barry Bonds, the contentious former baseball slugger, spoke to a sports journalist. Ruggerio couldn’t tell if it was a new interview, but Barry looked slimmed down from his latter playing days. He’d started out as a lean, base-stealing contact hitter with some pop. Then, over the years, had transmogrified into an upper-deck jacking monster. Maybe the interview had something to do with the Hall of Fame. Ruggerio figured Barry belonged there, even if he’d been juicing. Everyone was juicing back then.
He overheard two guys in suits, at a table just behind him, talking about Barry Bonds in terms of his head size.
“Looks almost normal now. Remember how big it got?”
“Fuck yeah. He must have been doing horse roids.”
“Haha, yeah. They say his head size increased from, like, a seven to an eight and a half.”
“Is that big?”
“Buddy, that’s huge. Upper three percentile.”
“How do you know that shit?”
“I know, I know.”
“Yeah, his head was huge by the end. Like one of those Earth globes.”
“It’s smaller now.”
“Heads can shrink?”
“I guess. Not sure. It’s still pretty big though.”
Tank asked Ruggerio if he wanted another drink, but a nascent headache ticked his right eye. Another drink might birth it. Headaches had been plaguing him for the last month or so. Bad ones. They’d become an oppressive constant. Before that, he had rarely experienced a headache that an aspirin or a strong espresso couldn’t nip.
“Think I’m good,” he said, rubbing his right temple.
Tank stared at Ruggerio’s head while he dried a pint glass with a cloth. It was this stare which started the wheels turning in Ruggerio’s mind. What was the guy staring at? Did his head look that unusual? Was it really as big as his colleagues had insinuated?
“You might be dehydrated,” Tank said, filling the pint glass he’d been handling with water from a frosty pitcher. “Drink this. It’ll help. If I don’t drink enough water when I’m in here I get dry.” He rubbed his forearms as if to demonstrate. “And sometimes I get headaches.”
Ruggerio drank some water, but it didn’t go down well, almost making him gag.
“You okay?” Tank asked.
“I—I think I’m just going to split. Thanks for the drink.”
Ruggerio paid and slid off his stool. When he turned away from the bar the duo in suits were staring. More specifically, they were staring at his head. He stopped and glared at them until they averted their eyes. What, they’re mocking my head size now? he thought, hastening to the exit. Jesus.
As he stepped into the warmish evening air, he reached up his hands and grasped his head. A passing group of young women in reds and blacks ogled him, whispering, then laughed out loud when they were safely down the street. Ruggerio ignored their merriment and squeezed his head. Was it possible? he thought. Was it possible that his head was growing, or had grown in the past few months?
As he walked home he tried summoning his hat size. Truth was, other than toques and adjustable ball caps, he’d never been fitted for a hat. If eight was huge, what size was his head? Then he recalled his college football days at Western. He had played tight end for the varsity team, and as far as he could recall had worn a size seven helmet. That wasn’t huge.
When he got home, he immediately went to the bathroom and studied his head, turning it this way and that and straining his eyes to size it up. Yeah, it was definitely not a seven now. What the fuck had happened? He’d dabbled with steroids back in college, but only briefly, and except for a vicious case of acne vulgaris had never experienced any side-effects. Seemed unlikely steroids were the culprit.
He searched the Internet for information about abnormal skull growth—a mistake. The condition, generally known as macrocephaly, was caused by any of a multitude of rare disorders. He read about maladies like hyperostosis frontalis interna (a thickening of the frontal skull bone), fibrous dysplasia, Sotos syndrome (distinguished by cerebral gigantism), Adams-Oliver syndrome, Crouzon disease, Cowden disease, Noonan syndrome, melorheostosis, and something called cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome . . .
Ruggerio’s headache intensified. He took an aspirin, but after a few minutes found himself kneeling at the toilet, puking his guts out. His head continued pounding. He went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. He pulled a bag of peas out of the freezer compartment and retreated to his bedroom. He threw himself on the bed, slapped the bag of peas over his right eye, and tried to still his mind.
It had been a bad day. Chalk it up to that. All this business about his head. Absurd. There were the headaches, true. And he didn’t feel right, hadn’t in months. But stress could trigger headaches. Stress was a quiet killer. Stress killed the body, spirit and mind. His creative failure at work and feelings of inadequacy had manifested themselves with headaches. Of course: his brain needed a break. He’d been hammering away for years trying to spin silk from shit, that is to say trying to sell shit to people, shit they probably didn’t need. Maybe all he needed was a vacation where he didn’t have to think about anything. He’d always wanted to go on a hot-air balloon ride. It seemed like the serenest thing a person could do. He just imagined himself floating slowly and soundlessly over the landscape, not a thought in his head, not a care in the world.
He opened his eyes to daylight. The headache had broken. He felt relieved and oddly refreshed from his dense, dreamless sleep.
Running late for work, he washed up hastily in the bathroom. He made a cup of coffee in his Keurig and drank it while he dressed. Last thing he wanted to do was be late for work. He’d learned his lesson about complaining to those vultures. If he showed up late, he’d only draw more attention to himself, and thus more ridicule.
When he got to work, everyone was already in a meeting that had been called that morning. Had he read his emails, he would have known about it. When he entered the conference room, the big boss, Stuart Mangold, wearing a beige linen suit with a red-and-white polka dot bow-tie, was addressing other members of the creative team. He didn’t pause or acknowledge Ruggerio as he took a seat at the big table. His colleagues weren’t so oblivious, grabbing their heads and making agonized faces as Ruggerio forced a smile and tried to catch the boss’s drift.
“As I was saying,” Stuart Mangold intoned in his rather high-pitched voice, “it’s come to my attention that someone’s been stealing toilet paper. We’re not talking a roll or two here. Someone has pilfered several large boxes with a month’s supply of toilet paper, for the whole building. That’s a lot of toilet paper, people. That’s a ton of toilet paper. Security’s working to discover the thief or thieves, but they suspect an inside job.” Stuart stopped talking and with thinned eyes looked at every member of the creative team. When his eyes fell on Ruggerio, he smiled. “Nice you can join us, Mr. Puma. I see you have recovered from your headache. You look hale. No more headaches with Super Advil in the house, huh?” Everyone tittered. “Well, glad you could make it, albeit tardily, which can be forgiven if it is due to your headache.” More titters. “But tell me this, Reggie, during your episode—and I want you to answer frankly with no fear of repercussion—during your episode, did you happen to haul off some boxes of toilet paper? I’m not accusing you, I’m just asking.”
Ruggerio looked around the table at his smirking colleagues. They were making sport of him? If so, it was intolerable.
“I know nothing of any toilet paper.”
“Of course not,” Stuart said, winking at the others. “Okay then. As a result of this theft, and to punish the perpetrator, we’ll not be providing toilet paper for the balance of October. Let’s say we’ll reinstate toilet paper on Halloween. How’s does that sound?”
A collective groan issued from the creative team. The meeting was adjourned. Ruggerio quickly slipped off to his cubicle. He didn’t want to engage with anyone. He fired up his computer and started looking randomly at some websites. One of them featured the red crabs of Christmas Island. An accompanying article considered the mysterious statues of Easter Island. Someone tapped him on the shoulder.
He swiveled around in his chair. It was Stuart Mangold.
“Beavering away, eh?”
“Is everything okay? I mean, you look okay. But I’m turning sixty—that’s right, sixty—next week and I can fairly say I know when someone’s not right. Are you not right, Reggie? Tell papa everything.”
“Look, Mr. Mangold, I’m in a bit of a slump.”
“Problems with the lady?”
“I’m single. It’s not that.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s . . . it’s my head.”
Stuart burst out laughing. He laughed hard, snorting and slapping his thigh. Then, in the midst of his merriment, he pointed at Ruggerio and said, “Good one. Good one, man. I’d heard you were quite the wit. Well-timed. Haha. Brilliant!” He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes. “I love this job,” he said, walking off. “I really do.”
Ruggerio sat back in his chair and sighed. These people were a bunch of fucking idiots. Of course, he’d known this for a long time. From the outset, actually. When he couldn’t get any traction with his journalism career, he turned to advertising. He figured it would be an easy gig, and it was, for the most part. Except for all the idiots you had to deal with and all the shit you had to eat, buckets of it. His head was pounding. He rested his elbows on his desk and let his head fall into his open hands.
Fuck, it felt heavy. Like a fucking cannonball. This was ridiculous. He considered making a doctor’s appointment. He even went to dial the number, then remembered that Dr. Allega could be a real asshole. A few years ago, after a bad break-up with his fiancee Giannamaria, he’d gone in to see him for depression, and though Dr. Allega did refer him to a psychiatrist—who prescribed some antidepressants that left Ruggerio dazed and dry-mouthed for weeks—he mocked him for succumbing to, as he termed it, pussy-whipping. Another time, when Ruggerio went to see him for some rectal bleeding, Dr. Allega insinuated that he’d been the victim of rough anal intercourse. “No loob for the strap-on?” he recalled him quipping. No, he wasn’t going to call Dr. Allega. He’d be all over him about an enlarging head.
At lunch, Ruggerio ditched the crew, who were headed to Swiss Chalet for a feast, and went for a walk. He wanted to find out exactly how big his head was—he needed it measured—and searched for a haberdashery, but these days such establishments are few and far between. He did land upon a tailor, and thought he could get his head sized there, but when he proposed this to the wizened, ancient tailor, he turned him out of the shop and told him never to come back. Such a violent reaction. The old tailor must have had some history with a corrupt hat-maker.
When Ruggerio passed an old-fashioned woman’s dress-shop, which also sold woman’s finery and hats, he ventured inside and approached the saleslady, a matronly woman with enormous bosoms and a florid complexion. Her name-tag read: AGNES.
“How may I help you?” she asked with a vaguely British accent.
“I know this may sound strange,” Ruggerio said, “ but I need my head sized.”
“For a hat?”
He thought about it. If he admitted he was merely concerned that his head was growing, she might get spooked.
“Yes,” he said at last. “I need to know my hat size. It’s for a wedding.”
“Ah, I see, top hat. Yes. Lovely. All the rage this season. I can certainly measure your head, if you wish.”
A black-shawled old woman rifling through marked-down dresses regarded Ruggerio with a stern gaze. She seemed to be measuring his head with her beady little eyes. He was going to say something, but stopped himself when Agnes returned with a tape measure.
“Okay,” she said, “arms at sides. Remain still. Let’s see how big this pumpkin really is.”
Ruggerio reared his head.
“What is it?” Agnes asked, oblivious to her slight.
“Nothing,” he said, swallowing. “Go on, please.”
After some fumbling and looping and readjusting, Agnes declared that she had successfully sized Ruggerio’s head.
He waited for her to voice the number, but she hesitated, as if trying to intensify the drama of its disclosure. The old lady leaned in, sucking her dentures, also keen to hear the result.
“Well?” Ruggerio barked, at the limits of his patience.
“Now now, sir. I’m doing you a favour. Your head size—ta-da—is just over eight.”
“I doubt Jesus’ head was that big, sir.”
“Man, eight is really big.”
“Yes,” Agnes said. “XXX grande, as they say.”
“Poff, no need be. My old Unks Aberfoyle wore an eight-and-half derby back in the day. He used four pillows in his bed to support that noggin. Me and my cousins used to call him Unky Dumpty. He did die from a fall, poor man. Broke that massive skull wide open. All the brains—”
“Okay, I get the picture, ma’am.”
“That’s the thanks ya get,” the old woman piped-in. “So ya got a big old head, wah wah. Wah wah. You donks are so entitled. Wah wah, I got a big head. Go buy a big hat for that big fat head now and see how it goes.”
“Ah, don’t listen to her,” Agnes said, tapping her temple. “Dementia.”
“I’ve not got dementia, you little hussy.”
“I’d best be on my way,” Ruggerio said, and he exited before further damage could be inflicted on his crumpled ego.
As he walked back to his office, he kept catching sight of himself in glass storefronts and windshields. It was true, he had a gigantic head. A Mardi Gras float came to mind, one of those ambulant Krewe du Vieux jobs. Eight plus, eight plus, that was fucked up. He had to call Dr. Allega. Even if the guy mocked him, he had to see him. He had to find out what the fuck this was. He felt so heavy walking, that is to say, his head felt incredibly heavy as he tottered back to his office. People stared. Children pointed. The fucking horror! At his office he avoided all eye contact and skulked into his cubicle. He rested his head on his desk. That felt wonderful. Then he heard his name and started.
Iggy, one of the IT guys, loomed by his cubicle like a titillated scarecrow.
“What do you want?” Ruggerio said. He wasn’t in the mood for shenanigans.
“Dude,” Iggy said. “Having a bad hair day?”
“What? Bad hair? What the fuck is it, Iggy? Don’t have time for your shit.”
“Eight plus,” he said, nodding.
“What did you say?”
“Eight plus, bro. We know. We know.”
“What is this?”
“Look,” Iggy said. “We feel for you. The IT department, that is. We commiserate. Now there’s a good word. I’ve heard you use it before.”
Ruggerio wasn’t sure what was going on, but he had a feeling someone had planted an electronic bug or something on him. There was no bottom to their cruelty. He passed his hands down his shirt-front and patted his pants. He checked under and around his desk.
“You’d never find it, if we did,” Iggy said. “But we didn’t have to. You know, Kenneth, that little twit in the mailroom? His mother owns that dress-shop you visited at lunch. Yeah, uh-huh. News travels fast these days. I mean, eight plus—Jesus. You gotta get hats made custom.”
Ruggerio stood up. He wasn’t a big man, but he had a big temper, and had been known to uncage it on occasion. He stepped toward Iggy, who took a step back.
“If you think I’m gonna let you make me a laughingstock,” Ruggerio said, “you’re mistaken. If you’ve let the cat out of the bag—”
“It was already let out of the bag, as you put it. I’m just giving you a heads up.”
With that Iggy darted off, cackling. Great, Ruggerio thought. Just great. Now he surely would be a laughingstock, if he wasn’t already. He spent the rest of the afternoon ducking everyone or in the men’s room splashing cold water on his face and fighting off panic anxiety. His head ached, needless to say. And his jaw ached, that was new.
When he finally left work he took the back stairs to avoid any confrontations. He stopped at Johnny’s Ball for a drink. Tank manned the bar. A friendly face was always heartening. But when Ruggerio took a stool at the bar, Tank didn’t seem to recall him. Not only that, but the amiable vibes from the evening before had been replaced by a sour countenance and a prickly, even menacing energy.
“What’s your poison?” he asked with lidded eyes.
“I’ll have a bourbon, Tank.”
“Only friends call me Tank. Who are you to call me Tank?”
“No offense. I was here yesterday. You introduced yourself as Tank.”
“I fucking highly doubt that.”
“Hey man, what’s your problem? I can leave if you don’t feel like serving me.”
“Don’t be so fucking sensitive.”
Someone from a booth asked them to pipe down.
“Shut the fuck up, Rudy!” Tank shouted at the complaining party. “Fucking tool.”
“Yeah,” Ruggerio said under breath.
Tank stared at him for a full minute before he turned to get the drink.
What the fuck was wrong with the guy? Was he on drugs? Ruggerio’s head felt hot and huge. He rested his forehead on the cool zinc of the bar counter. Ah, relief.
“Don’t lean on the zinc,” Tank said. “You’ll get face grease all over it.”
“Face grease, right.”
Ruggerio downed the bourbon in one go. He didn’t feel like hanging around.
“Leaving so soon?” Tank sneered.
“I don’t know what’s crawled up your ass, but I’m not into it.”
Ruggerio turned around and headed for the exit. On the way he passed a table with a silver-haired man in a navy blazer and a young woman dressed in red. They were laughing, not unusual on its own, but when the woman pointed to Ruggerio and bent over in a spasm of hilarity, he knew he was the object of their ridicule.
He hurried out. Streetlights flared, horns blared, voices rushed at him in a buzzy sonic wave. Everything seemed too bright and loud. He had trouble walking. His equilibrium was off. He found himself grabbing at parking meters and street signs to stay upright. His neck muscles strained to keep his head erect, and the minute he let them slacken, it tipped to one side. It was as frightening as it was absurd.
He made it home, barely. He let himself into his flat and fell on his sofa, supporting his head on the arm-rest. Jesus, what if he had Sotos syndrome? The phrase cerebral gigantism filled him with dread. Fibrous dysplasia was equally disquieting. Why was this happening to him? His family had no history of such a thing, at least not to his knowledge. An Uncle Ignazio, who’d lived in Buffalo and ran a numbers operation back in the 1960s, was a huge man, reputedly weighing over 400 pounds. But Ruggerio didn’t know if he had an enormous head to go along with his prodigious girth.
This was fucked up. His skull plates seemed to be expanding at that very moment to accommodate the growth. But was his brain actually swelling up or were the bones thickening?
He pressed his fingers to his skull. It hurt to touch it. Eight plus, he thought. Eight plus.
He started weeping uncontrollably. Tears streamed sideways down his horizontal face.
He couldn’t sit up. His head felt cemented to the sofa’s armrest. He tried again to lift it but couldn’t. His panic only made things worse. He knocked over a lamp. The loud crash brought him back to his senses. As fucked up as this situation was, he had to remain calm. With his head firmly planted on the armrest, he counted to 10 and regulated his breathing.
Finally, with a violent twist, he rolled off the sofa, only to land hard on the floor. His head hit the floor tiles like an anvil. He couldn’t lift it. He could only worm himself along the tiles, his forehead rubbing a path through the dust.
He wriggled and writhed his way to his bedroom and then to the side of his bed. By lifting his buttocks and straightening his legs, then grabbing his head securely with both hands and heaving it up, simultaneously with his torso, he was able to hurl himself onto his bed. His head plunged into the pillow, depressing the mattress below it.
Exhausted mentally and physically, Ruggerio soon fell asleep. He dreamed he rode a scarlet hot-air balloon into the blue heavens. He felt weightless and free floating over the quilted landscape of greens, yellows and browns. Then he looked up and saw that the scarlet balloon was actually in flames and that he was falling. He was falling to earth in a languid blur. Falling, falling. He wasn’t afraid.
Salvatore Difalco is the author of 4 books. His short fiction has appeared in many print and online formats. He splits his time between Toronto and Palermo, Sicily.website: http://saldifalco.weebly.com