MOTH by Cary Holladay
Augustus Gwynn: Gus Gwynn, drop-dead handsome, running on hot. When he was forty, wrecked and ruined, he was irresistible.
The problem, he said, is I’m in my head all the time.
Women loved that. And he always looked like he’d just killed somebody. They loved that too.
So, his mother. When he was forty, they started talking. She laughed a lot. Her teeth were jewels in her head.
You get older, she said, your style changes. I didn’t exactly go in the direction of truth and beauty. Your father was unfaithful, and I went to one of them and cut off her finger.
They were peeling potatoes for soup.
Ha ha, she said. Is this enough?
It’s enough, he said.
There’s something of the Italian ice-seller in you. That black hair. It’s my side of the family. Gus?
When you were young, we lived in the woods. We were starving. Remember?
It was when your sister was a girl. Your father set a trap to catch an animal, but he caught a person instead. And we ate him and burned his clothes. You don’t remember?
I told you I don’t.
The potato soup was ready, boiling on the stove. She poured it into bowls.
Going out, he said and plunged out into the alley.
Steep cobblestoned streets, strings of white lights twined in the nighttime trees, some festival going on. Part of the city was for show: crenellated towers, alligator pits. He didn’t remember much about his sister before she’d become a boy. He’d known his father was a rogue. A total rogue, his mother used to say.
Why not? Why not a tattoo?
It hurt—needles, caustic ink. The artist got as far as M O T H and was leaning in to sting an E on him when memory struck like a mudslide. He leaped off the reclining chair and ran pell-mell into the street. Sprinted uphill to the house where his mother was washing the dishes. Panting in the doorway, he gripped his bloody arm.
I remember living somewhere it was always dark and there were hippies next door, he said.
That was it, his mother said. We ate a hippie.
He married one of the women who used to love him, and their house was like everybody else’s, with money hidden so well they’d never find it, and their heads bursting with passwords.
I was a man on fire, he liked to say.
Gus, people said. Gus, finish it. You only need two more letters. Turn Moth into Mother.
I can’t, he said. It hurts too much.
All the women, the back-and-forth of love, had caused some deterioration. Still the tigery tensile spirit was alive in him. All over town, women raged at their men because those men weren’t him.
Things reminded him of things.
I felt like, he said.
Like what? his wife said.
I just . . .
The story was set in his heart. If he made it into a movie, it wouldn’t need sound. He thought about that sometimes.