Fate Is a Flask Spiked With Acid
"Queen of Heaven" by Joel Cuthbertson, recommended by Electric Literature
Introduction by Halimah Marcus
“Queen of Heaven” is a rip-roaring current of fate and human cruelty in three acts, and it happens to be the second story by Joel Cuthertson in Recommended Reading. This one is challenging to introduce because practically every sentence is a surprise. It goes all out, plunges in face first, is filled to the brim with fearless writing that leaves a mark on your mind, body, and heart. It’s the kind of story that makes you say things, out loud, like, damn and holy shit.
In Cutherbertson’s first story in RR, “After Life” (which might also make you say holy shit), a father confronts the existential responsibility of having a child. That story exhibits a verisimilitude that will be uncomfortable for new parents: the raw explosion of emotion that occurs when your life is no longer your own.
Because “Queen of Heaven” starts with an accidental acid trip at a zoo, and because “After Life” takes place in a delivery ward, I’ve heretofore considered them very different stories. So different, in fact, I was impressed and slightly baffled that they were written by the same person.
But as soon as I sat down to write this introduction, I saw that Cuthbertson’s writerly DNA is all over them both. That fearlessness, that interest in the forces of fate, and our role in it as humans that act, and are acted upon. And the stories we tell about it later.
At the zoo, Kyle is on a date with his son’s second-grade teacher. They are sipping from a flask, which has apparently been spiked with acid. A taste: “His feet fell into puddles of anti-matter as he strolled. Uh oh, he thought. The sidewalk—it’s nowhere. ‘Oh my god,’ he said. ‘This is such a good date.’” It escalates from there. (“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” is dangerous first-date fodder, especially when both parties answer honestly.)
Like “After Life,” “Queen of Heaven” is a ride that, once you get on, goes full gas, but not where you expect.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor, Recommended Reading
Fate Is a Flask Spiked With Acid
Queen of Heaven by Joel Cuthbertson
No one was saying Kyle worshiped wolves. Kyle was especially careful on this point. Maybe he had some paraphernalia. A wolf mask for ooh-la-la, or whatever. He wasn’t crazy. He didn’t want to become a wolf. Chatting with Carolyn, he ran his tongue along his eyeteeth, circling and circling and being very human.
They were at the zoo; her suggestion. Did he need to say more? She understood him. Carolyn was his son Wesley’s second-grade teacher. A gift. A wonder. She was already half raising his boy, which meant Kyle didn’t need to squeeze his mysterious, heroic feelings into a speech for her. Clan. Blood. Fatherhood. Not that a speech would do justice. He wished he could jump in front of a car in Wesley’s stead or beat some bully to jelly. He had this great untapped valor, and packing the kid’s lunch or throwing a baseball once a week wasn’t enough. Give Kyle one school shooter to prove himself, and the world would know.
Sometimes, late at night, even when he was alone, he howled. Naked to briefs, honest in the starlight, he snaked into the yard and raised his head to worship the moon. Neighbors sometimes saw him. One tried to leave a note anonymously, as if Kyle’s doorbell was from 1970. A note, Brad? He’d had to look up “zoophilia,” all because Brad walked his dog every night and wanted to create a big, tough paper trail. Fuck you, Brad.
“Do you want a swig,” said Carolyn. She was hiding a bejeweled flask in her purse.
“Yeah. Okay.” The flavor was sugar and burning. Carolyn’s heart face, her billowy skirt, her sharp mouth, waited. He drank. “Oh, shit,” said Kyle. She winked, took some herself, and handed it back to him. He inhaled, the strength of the pull surprising. He almost howled. He checked himself. Later. Let the Alpha come forth on its own.
“What I want from an elephant,” she told him, “is for it to bend down to me. I want to climb its trunk and go for a ride.”
“Like the circus.”
“More like a fairy tale.”
They took a few more swigs. A mother passed them, her child on a leash. This made Kyle furious. How emasculating. How unmotherly. How—but he goggled as an elephant loosed its bowels. Carolyn giggled. The mother watched them, her eyebrows twitching a Morse code of superiority.
“We have to free that kid,” said Carolyn, and Kyle nodded. “There might have been some acid in that flask, by the way.”
He was in awe. Still he did not show her his tattoo or reveal his true wolf name, which he kept secret from the world. There was time.
Together, they stalked the mother, who was an idiot, prim to the point of parody, her hair a single organism, her t-shirt bust-tight. Great ass, thought Kyle. But he corrected himself. He was going to be better around Carolyn. He was going to be chivalrous, circumspect.
His feet fell into puddles of anti-matter as he strolled.
Uh oh, he thought. The sidewalk—it’s nowhere.
“Oh my god,” he said. “This is such a good date.”
They entered the reptile house. The fake rock stunk with human grease, its manufactured pores rubbed smooth by a thousand unthinking hands. Alligators. Cobras. Alcoves for the smaller creatures. A kingsnake whose colors rippled down its body, whose lines changed places, hummed. They were jingling at him.
Kyle took a knife from his boot. He was his own movie. He was surprised that the knife hissed at him, but this wasn’t his first trip. Sometimes things hissed at you. Was he going to drop the knife because it was saying his true wolf name and hissing at him?
“Fuck you, Brad,” he whispered.
“Here,” Carolyn bent down and collected the knife from the floor. She put it in her purse. Panamanian golden frogs glowed like squat, poisonous lighthouses behind her.
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done,” she asked.
“Atelopus varius zeteki.” He was staring at the sign for the frogs, but also at her. He never told women the worst things he’d done.
“I grew up in the country,” he said. “Around real animals. I miss real animals.”
“In my undergrad,” she said, “a sorority made my friend walk barefoot for Chinese food in the middle of February. She got frostbite and lost two toes, so I burned their house down. They never caught me. They never even tried to catch anyone. The whole campus just knew: that house deserved to burn.”
“She only had eight toes?”
“Unless more fell off later.”
He listened to the song of the serpents in their glass homes. “I put a man in the hospital once.”
“Over a woman?”
“Yeah.” He was casual, but this was recently. This was about his last girl, Diana. This was something alive before Kyle right this minute. Diana’s brother hadn’t even known what he was getting into, the little guy simply lunged after Kyle dropped Diana off half naked. That wasn’t Kyle’s fault. They’d been in a parking lot. She freaked when he howled at the climactic moment and yelled at him to take her home. He didn’t know why she was surprised. He’d been wearing the mask. But fine. He took her home. People were always blaming him for things he did for them. That was the world. The brother flew from the porch. His tiny fists. There was hair in the kid’s eyes. Maybe not a kid. Maybe high school? Kyle didn’t hit him but twice. But that was with wolf thunder. He hit him with every morning, every 5 AM metal in his hands, lifted, dropped, re-set. He hit him with the power of routine iron and the kid just sank. Diana had called an ambulance and he’d left. Broken jaw, he’d heard. No police.
Around their heads, the blaze of the world was fading. He didn’t want to ask for the flask. More high wasn’t going to do anything. Carolyn walked her fingers up his thighs, made them skip. Everything she did was so damn artless. And beautiful.
“Let’s do good,” said Carolyn. She seemed very powerful to him. Someone who could make him better. Kyle considered whether this was the moment to tell her he loved her. He knew it all of a sudden. He pulled his shirt up to reveal the wolf’s paw inked on his side.
“I’m an Alpha,” he said.
“Obviously,” she said.
He rose and pulled her with him and as the voids beneath his steps widened they also emitted soft heckles of laughter. He snubbed them. He was buoyant. There was a worse something he’d done which fell into the abyss as Carolyn walked beside him.
“Where the hell did I park?”
“I drove,” said Carolyn.
He laid down in the back of her car. He nosed the cloth of the seat and mistook it for anything—it could have been everything, the whole earth. No matter what, he was determined not to vomit.
Carolyn wasn’t drunk. Carolyn was only putting the flask to her lips and winking a lot. She hadn’t known what was in the flask because she’d stolen it from her roommate. “Ah, shit!” her roommate had texted maybe two hours ago. “I put a little acid in that one!!” Such a coincidence was the work of God.
She was the punishment of God.
On nights like these, rare nights of inspiration, a small corner of her mind remained in awe of herself. Singular with purpose. And lovely. Always more lovely than usual, somehow. She’d seen Kyle for drinks on Monday. Coffee on Wednesday. Both times the same. Both preparing for tonight.
She drove into Kyle’s neighborhood and Kyle nodded in the rearview.
“Yes,” he said. “This is exactly what I was thinking. You’re, like, in my head. This is the best date ever.”
She parked along his cul-de-sac and waited.
Kyle staggered from the bright, tiny sedan and jogged up the driveway. He looked almost boyish. An unperturbed joy. He walked to the front door and she betrayed nothing when he unlocked it. Nothing surprised her. Not tonight. Not even—okay, she was going to enter his house. This decision happened to her. Even so, she remained resolute, a mercenary set upon the world. Such forbearance wasn’t so different from her work as a teacher, when little S-H-I-Ts like Wesley put their wet fingers in girls’ ears. Rape, she mouthed when they did it. The little rapists.
“Hang on,” said Kyle. He tucked part of her hair behind an ear. “Maybe, you know, straighten up a little bit.” He turned to the empty rooms and filled it with his voice. “Wesley!”
God, she thought. God damn it.
“Did you really burn a sorority down?” Kyle asked.
She balanced her weight on the balls of her feet and breathed normally. “One girl almost died,” she said. “It would have been terrible if she had. They’d have done an actual investigation.”
Kyle shuddered. A pleasure shudder.
She fingered the edge of his knife in her purse, a long and thin blade, and followed Kyle upstairs.
“Wesley!” called Kyle. “That damn kid.” Not in the guest room or Wesley’s own room or in the bathroom or in the towel closet. “I love him, you know? But I’m gonna kick his ass when we find him.”
Carolyn wanted to ask how often he hit his son, the worst student in her class. She was positive that he beat women.
“It’s wild,” said Kyle, “I have never come down this calmly. I’m seeing snakes everywhere and it’s fine, you know? They’re not here. I understand that.”
Carolyn’s own high, the pure heat of purpose that entered her like possession, was perhaps wilting. A little. She didn’t want to find Wesley. Wesley, Wesley. The boy filled her inner life. Students did that now and then. None like Wesley, who wasn’t exceptional in the least. Not too smart, not too talented, not thuggishly charming, not endearing. If anything, she hated him. She was scared by how much she hated him, some days. She’d asked out Kyle to understand Wesley and she thought she did. Wesley’s father could be summed up by his gym bag and the bruises he left on Wesley’s neck. Splotches dabbed along the nape were always a paternal pattern.
If she killed Kyle, should she adopt Wesley, to save him? Hm. She wasn’t sure she was enough of a kid person for that. Sometimes she daydreamed about remanding Wesley to a shelter one town over, to a commune with skinny women who smelled like the earth, who shoved kale into their spiritual gaps. Or maybe he could go to a military school. He was not a good boy.
“He could be anywhere,” Kyle said. “That’s what’s so scary about kids. You have so much less control than you think. Almost none, okay? I don’t know what the fuck he does when I’m not looking. I let him roam though. I want him to be strong. He could be doing anything out there. He’s doing it himself though, okay? He’s got time to even out.”
The boy shouldn’t be here. He mustn’t be.
“Wesley!” Kyle yelled into the master suite. The boy emerged from beneath the bed. Carolyn wanted to sit down, wanted to go inside a dark bathroom for a few minutes to pray and perhaps arm herself.
“I was sleeping,” Wesley said.
“You little punk,” said Kyle.
“Why is she here?” the boy asked. “It’s weird that you’re here. This isn’t school, you know.”
“I don’t live at school.”
“Are you gonna bang her, Dad?”
“Watch your mouth.” Kyle clapped the back of his son’s head.
“Ouch!” Wesley kept speaking to her. “Why are you here?”
She must think less. Even less than thinking little. She must react. There was a boy. They were at Kyle’s house. God had put a knife in her purse.
“I need some water, man,” Kyle said, and stepped downstairs to get a drink.
Carolyn’s voice deepened with authority as she leaned toward Wesley. She was more than herself. “I’m sorry he hit you,” she said. She wanted to share how she was going to rescue him, but the words were evasive.
“I told my friends,” Wesley muttered. “I told them you were probably easy.”
What was admirable in Carolyn was her ability not to slap eight-year-olds when they deserved it. All decent teachers shared this prudence, and it was given to her now in excess. But she also began thinking, thinking, overthinking.
God maybe wanted her to leave. Who could say. Her mother used to speak with angels and taught math in California. Carolyn kept trying to rationalize to imaginary friends, to projections of real friends—she was loved by many. Why are you here, Carolyn? Why did you keep the knife? You are reasonably normal and we are very wigged at this entire fracas! was how her friends might sound. Wesley was sitting and pouting as if this tension, this terrible conundrum, were happening to him.
Kyle returned with a beer. Wesley ran past him, down the stairs, and out into the backyard. Crying, probably. Carolyn thumbed the knife in her purse as she settled with Kyle at the top of the staircase. She wondered for the first time whether this was simply a date. Maybe she was dating. The beer was shared between them. She’d chosen to be alone with this puppyish, dangerous man—he was ravaging her in his mind, she could see it behind the eyes, the undressing, the forceful imagination. And here she loitered, pondering what she wanted. A date.
“I hit a woman once,” said her date. The stairs were a lean, dark wood beneath them. “Yeah. More than once. Kind of a lot. And more than one woman. That’s the worst thing I’ve actually ever done. But I could tell you anything, I feel like. I need to tell you.”
“I’d like Wesley to stay outside,” she said. “To give us some time.”
“He’d be nothing without me, you saw him, the little wiseass.”
“I worry about all my students. About Wesley especially.”
Kyle’s eyes glistened. “Me, too. I can’t even explain it. Fatherhood? I cannot explain its perfection, the amount of love I feel.”
“You know, I think all my students, all people, just deserve a chance. Everything is such a lottery. Our preferences, our weaknesses. How can we carve out our own chance?”
“I want to tell you everything. I can feel, you know, I can feel how close I am to being clean. This close. I can get Wesley where he needs to go. People have so many cute little ideas. They don’t believe any of them. Everyone’s a meat-eater at heart, everyone claws the faces from their brothers. Show me the last communist who wasn’t a careerist. Show me a rich man who’s not shitting out the bones of, you know, fucking people like me. Jesus. I’m seeing things. The universe, maybe. What I’m teaching Wesley is that he can survive anything. If he can survive me, he can survive the world. Everyone wants some fucking help, but no one’s strong enough to help themselves. But I’m so close. I’m so close to helping him.” He paused. “Honestly, you’re like a miracle.”
She was shaking, she wanted to say something, but that wasn’t possible. She taught second grade. She was wearing ballet flats. The knife was in her hand. More was happening to her, internal shifts, but Kyle was making too much noise for her to concentrate. He was standing and yelling and cursing and pointing at her hand. He was frightened, careless, aroused, and he slipped. He reached out, clutching, and caught nothing and understood he was falling down the stairs—his face fell first—nanoseconds before the crash occurred. The knife was in her fist. He carried his beer with him and made stains everywhere, himself and the alcohol. She waited for god. For the little god who answered only to the great God, and who spoke to her. He was real. He had taken care of everything. She was unable to bend her knees as Kyle bled in slow slugs from his skull. She closed her eyes, returned to her body, and waited.
“Wesley,” she said.
The boy jumped. Where did she come from? He was on the patio steps, shredding leaves from their stems. He kept failing to detach even one leaf perfectly and this made him want to claw the bark from the tree with his fingernails. Stupid freaking tree. Its stupid leaves. He ignored her.
“Wesley,” she said again. “I thought you and I could go somewhere, just the two of us. We could get some ice cream, yeah?”
No way he wanted that. He couldn’t believe his teacher was here. What if anyone found out? Collin lived two doors down. Even Collin wasn’t that stupid.
“Is Dad coming?”
When she didn’t answer, he followed her to her car and she let him sit up front, which even his father never allowed, and they drove to Dairy Queen. He was disappointed they didn’t go inside. She didn’t even let him order, but got two cones of the same kind, cookies ’n cream. They kept driving and she explained everything that was out the window. This was pretty odd, he thought. He could also see through glass. She explained every tree they passed.
“Why’s it called an elm?” he asked. It didn’t look like “elm.”
“I have no idea,” she laughed. “It’s totally beyond me. Why are you called Wesley?”
“I imagine it’s about the same for the elm.” She kept laughing and explaining everything they saw. The different highway signs, the church denominations and their ancient violence, the mountains in the distance, even the clouds, which he liked the least. They’re clouds. They didn’t need individual names.
It wasn’t until he was thirteen that he asked about his dad again, and she didn’t tell him the truth, but lied kindly, and as often as he wanted to ask, she answered. It wasn’t until he was seventeen that she got caught, a speeding ticket of all things. She tried to explain that she carried a gun for her own safety, but her hands moved too fast and the state police shot her anyway. They had good aim for people who otherwise didn’t know how to use their weapons. He was twenty when he went into the force himself and he never shot anyone, never drew his pistol, never went beyond a uniform or a small-town dispatch. The ladies at the local library loved him, and gave him a fake award for tackling a vagrant who kept slipping lit matches into the book drop. Wesley: Defender of Literature.
What else do you want to know?
There was once a woman he took to Hawaii, and all she did was sit in the sand and complain about the brightness. After that, he lived alone in a white, clean condo. Everyone in the compound knew his story. But Wesley didn’t mind. Each morning, even before he retired, he lowered himself into the community pool and walked its length to the chatter of his own wake. Generations of barn swallows chided him from a nest on his porch, which he never removed. When a neighbor found him in his own bed at the age of seventy-eight, she was surprised he hadn’t killed himself. But he hadn’t. He hadn’t even been asleep. He was mesmerized by a stray memory of that old library award. “Our local hero,” they called him. “Our personal Wyatt Earp.” Kill himself? The thought never even crossed his mind.