Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Present

By Thomas Head

A light appeared in the backyard.

Nickolas Whaley crumpled his napkin, crumpled the hell out of it.

“What the Hell?” he muttered.

The backyard maples seemed to welcome it down, down past their bows until it came to rest in the clearing where he had been bullshitting his wife about putting up a gazebo. He dropped a spoon laden with gravy.

Mildred was startled by the splash.

“What is it Walt?”

“I ain’t got no clue,” he replied.

He adjusted his glasses. Examination only muddled his thoughts. The object hovered a foot off the grass. Silly as it seemed, it resembled a glowing boob.

“Well whatever it is, you’ll be rubbing them gravy stains outta my linens,” she said.

“There’s a big floating titty in the backyard.”

Mildred flinched before setting a fearsome stare on him. Her eyes became angry slits.

She turned her head, craned her neck to look out the window informed him that there was indeed some kind of big floating titty in the backyard.

Mildred had a bad habit of that sort of thing, not believing a thing that Walt said. Despite her many faults, she made a passable gravy. Their relationship was complex.

Walt thought for a moment the object had disappeared, but in the next instant the noise and the light returned.

“Whoa!” Mildred barked.

“Ouch, hey!” said Walt.

The noise hurt. Light blazed with a retina-burning intensity. Oversized shadows of Walt and Mildred were sent throbbing against the wall.

“What the hell’ve you done Walt?”

“Hush! You think I did that?”

“Aren’t you going to do something!”

He grunted under his breath and blinked repeatedly.

“Uh oh,” she said. “What’re you doing?”

“I’m going outside.”

“Christ’s sake, you stupid fool!”

Walt delivered a glance.

“What are you going to do, idiot, invite it in for biscuits and gravy? Get the gun!”

“Nonsense,” Walt said, to all of it. He had no idea what he was going to do, but grabbing the gun seemed somehow impractical, and inviting it in for his share of the gravy was out of the question.

Briefly, he wondered what Mildred thought of the universe, if she ever imagined stars and planets. He put it out of his mind and buttoned his sweater, stepping out onto the back porch.

The object was still there, dimmer now, less noisy.

Walt grunted. His disapproval grew. He grabbed at trees, where handy, used branches and trunks as overgrown walking sticks as he trekked up a tree-covered slope. He went loudly, as if it were a raccoon in the trashcans.

It was unaffected.

Some vent tubes spun toward him.

Walt paused.

He glanced back to see Mildred observing from the safety of the paned glass windows – no doubt glad they had purchased them last winter.

He stared at the somehow obscene-looking vent holes. A blackness pooled underneath the lighted tit. Walt stepped a bit closer. The pooling void was so profound it seemed to bend the ground into a bowl. It rippled here and there with rivulets of aquamarine, like moonlight on a different planet.

The object itself, it was dark, more ceramic-looking than metallic, and rimmed with vaguely hieroglyphic writing.

“En hmm,” he said flatly. “Ye-ep.”

After plenty of squinting and breathing and some second-guessing about what in the hell he should do about all this, he knocked on what he supposed the hull, careful to avoid the vent holes.

The knock revealed a number of things, principally that the object was sizzling hot.

He was blowing on his scorched paw when a porthole sphinctered open.

Breath-high and just to his left, out popped the head of a remarkable creature.

Walt froze.

A glimmer of a smile crept across his face.

It was a little English fellow.

A gnome?

He was scarcely able believe what he saw. A gnome, yes. It might have come from outer space. But it was, in fact, an almost clichéd-looking garden gnome.

Without warning, the creature’s head rocked back before producing a joyous laugh.

Walt jumped, then crouched, pummeling the air with fists and elbows.

The garden gnome regarded the maneuvers. Then several quiet moments passed between them, a silence which married well with Walt’s lack of ideas concerning exactly he should do with this surprise.

Walt breathed, then invited the gnome in for biscuits and gravy.

It nodded at Walt.

And, that settled, they resumed staring at each other. Walt took stock: he had in-laws more freakish.

Wordlessly, he extended his hand for a handshake, but the craft’s warbling erupted into a whine.

Walt spun. “Whoa!” he shouted, arms waving. “Hey! Get back here!”

The craft rose stiffly, up past the trees. It rose higher still, before blinking across the sky. And that was it.

A pale, watery streak stretched into the heavens. The wake faded, falling like the afterglow of a fireworks display.


“Son a bitch!” Walt shouted.

The gnome laughed.

“What’s your game, mister?”

The gnome answered with a silence.

This was not going to cut it. “Well your ride’s gone, jackass!”

It nodded at him.

Walt palmed his forehead.

He once again invited it in for biscuits.


Mildred was stiff, plastered against the dishwasher. Her eyes were frozen little ponds, and it did not seem to be occurring to her to breathe.

Walt grabbed a plate and fork out of the sink. “Have a seat, then, fella.”

Mildred passed out.

Walt thought about the moments and the unreality of the present reality struck him like a sudden slap and he joined her, unconscious, on the floor.


The blurry dining room spun.

The gnome enjoyed a biscuit, plowing it on a fork (improperly) through the gravy before stuffing a mouthful in. His feet dangled from the chair.

Mildred watched the thing. She was playing dead, half-crouched in a sort of predator’s stance.

Still on the floor, folded with nausea and grief, she said, “Walt, you have got to do something to fix this.”

A giggle rose from the gnome. It nodded at him.

Walt smiled as he sat up. He felt hung-over. He looked up at Mildred. He still had no idea how to exit his shock. Too much in denial to do much else, he got up and sat beside the gnome. He showed it the right way to sop up gravy.

“No need for the fork. Save it for the chicken.”

It smiled politely.

It continued using the fork on the biscuit.

“God’s sake,” he whispered. To Mildred he said, “There’s no telling how far this fellow came. Come in here and visit.”

Wearily, she rose and approached.

She came and sat, just before vomiting across the table.

“Are you satisfied now?” Mildred asked.

Sighing, more embarrassed than ever, Walt got up and grabbed the apple print towel they kept draped over oven handle. He wetted it and cleaned up. “You know good and damn well I’m not.”

“I tried to warn you this would happen!”

“Hm!” he told her. Then he turned to the gnome. “So, you in town long?”


The hours that followed were the strangest of Walt’s life.

He lay in bed, quite unable to sleep, a gnome asleep on the bare wood kitchen floor. Walt compared his wife to a Japanese suicide bomber in his racing mind. That night, in fact, was stranger than the time during the war when it occurred to him, out of the blue, that here he was a Kentucky boy, floating over nearly a mile of ocean, gunning down men he didn’t know before they could slam their planes into his vessel.

It just came to him all of a sudden, and he could not get over the sheer naked absurdity of that night for a number of weeks.

He found it all so remarkable. It was remarkable that a gnome had come from a space ship. That he had invited it in.

It was somehow even more remarkable that Mildred had fallen asleep. Just a few words: “First thing in the morning, you got to get rid of that thing!”


Walt managed a few zees himself before the sun rose, which it did over a frosty morning. The chimney was ablaze, apparently fed sometime during the night by his visitor – who was markedly absent from the kitchen floor.

Walt panicked. Christ, he thought, that thing could be out anywhere stirring all kinds of stink.

“Milly!” he barked into the bedroom. “Mildred, get up. It’s gone!”

“What’s gone?”

“Our little English buddy.”


“He took off. The gnome took off.”

“Sweet meat, Walt! Settle down.”

“What do you mean settle down? I’m calm.”

“Calm? Going on about elves!”

“What! A gnome! Elves are… Oh, whatever. It’s gone.”

“You feeling okay?” she asked holding a clammy palm to his head.

“Mildred, for crying out… Are you telling me you didn’t…”

“Of course I saw it, jackass. But it wasn’t a gnome.”

“Alright, leprechaun. Whatever. It’s gone.”

“Of course it’s gone,” Mildred laughed. “Leprechaun!”

“Okay, smarty. What do you wanna call it? And what do you mean: ‘of course it’s gone?’”

Mildred continued laughing. Walt waited.

“Oh, you poor, sweet man,” she said, and dropped to the floor, clutching her chest.

She never woke.


It’s weird, but some things happen and you almost can’t tell the truth about it. So screw it, you don’t. Just keep it to yourself and never let the world know. Besides, once you think you got a grip on something like the truth, it laughs and snakes around. It digs into your haunches with the little teeth of truth.

Especially when the truth is as bizarre as this: Santa Claus came to visit you the night before your wife died, which she up and did on Christmas morning.

Walt breathed, and the world’s silly rampages did not bother him.

In fact he rather enjoyed the gentle absurdity of those moments. He stayed in the present.

Trying to make sense of that present, he wondered if his present had been the present. And if so, was it a sugarplum or a lump of coal?

Thomas Head makes his home these days in Tennessee with his wife Ann and his dog Jock, a Scottish terrier who growls and cusses too much but means very little of it. His fiction appears from time to time in literary and genre publications.

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