Jeff Knight


“So, I tell the guy, the story is about these mutant lice, see? And no, he doesn’t see. Just hear me out, I say to him, but this guy—do you know the guy?—never mind, you wouldn’t know him, he’s an LA guy, a big stinking big-shot sitting around his big-shot office and looking at me like I just described to him in some detail the size, shape, and consistency of my last bowel movement, which, by the way, you don’t wanna know, and he’s acting like he’s pretty unimpressed with my pitch, and um, hey, buddy, can I get another one of these frosty malt beverages? Thanks, anyway, you don’t know the guy, but he’s one of the guys that turns the big wheels that tells schmucks like you what you’re supposed to like, and hey, did you see that show where young Benjamin Franklin was drinking beer and killing these soul-sucking demons in colonial America? He zapped them with this electrified kite? He had the Iroquois sidekick and that one girl, the one in the low-cut peasant blouse? The guy I’m talking about was a muckity-muck on that project from the development stage on, and he knows how to get things done is why he’s the guy I went to, ‘cause he can make a project happen.”

It’s three o’clock on a weekday. He comes in here sometimes to blow smoke, and he’s pretty harmless, if windy. I don’t remember his name, and I only engage him the little bit that I have to. I’m developing a minimalist bartender aesthetic. I say, “Ben Franklin, huh?”

“Exactly! Ben-freaking-Franklin, killing these demons. That’s what I’m talking about! So I’m telling him about my mutant lice idea. See, there are these mutant lice . . .”

“Are these head lice?”

“Yeah, head lice.”

“Not body lice?”

“Jesus Christ! They’re head lice, pay attention, and they’ve mutated, so that the head lice crap you get at the store doesn’t kill ‘em anymore. They proliferate! They’re everywhere. The President of the United States—a very jowly old guy with the dignified old guy silvery white hair—goes on TV to address the nation about the head lice crisis and he’s scratching his head the whole time. ‘My fellow Americans’—scratch, scratch, scratch—‘our country faces a grave crisis’—scratch, scratch, scratch.”

“It’s funnier if the president’s a chick. Joan Cusack, maybe.”

“HAHA, you’re right, I love it!”

“What else happens?”

“Freak-outs! Accidents! Mass suicides! People can’t take it; they’re driving off bridges and so on. Chaos swallows America whole! I see this one great shot of a car going off a bridge and into a ravine, and this guy gets killed, blood on the windshield and all that, and the camera pulls in on him, and we get this extreme close-up into his hair, till the follicles are like tree trunks and we’re seeing his scalp and man, I am telling you it is infestation central. It’s like, you know that video about the ugly bugs having a party? With Burl Ives? This is the head lice hoedown, man.”

I have to admit, if I happened upon this show, chanel-surfing on a weeknight, I’d stay tuned. Hmmm. I ask, “So how’d the lice mutate?”

“I dunno. Evil scientists, I guess.”

“Sure, it’s gonna be evil scientists. I guess what I meant was: why? How does the chaos benefit these scientists?”

“What do you mean? They’re evil, and they’re causing misery and death. How’s that not a benefit?”

“Okay. Sure, I see that. Um, tell me about the hero who foils the evil scientists’ plot.”

“How do you mean?”

“The good guy.”

“Not following.”

“Um, do the evil scientists win?

“Yes! That’s what I’m telling you! Chaos swallows America whole! People die!”

“Yeah, and cars go flying off bridges, but then what happens?”

“Oh, I see what you’re asking. Then it’s all about the mutant lice.”

“The lice?”

“The mutant lice. They form a mutant lice civilization. They get intelligent because they start to evolve. Leaders begin to emerge. There’s a mutant lice constitutional convention, they work out branches of government, stuff like that.”

“But if the people all die, don’t the lice starve?”

“The mutant lice. And no. There are still some people; they just aren’t running things anymore. And there are animals. The lice prefer humans, but they can feed on dogs and rats and what not. In the new civilization they’re forming, I’m sure they’ll develop some kinda mutant lice culinary skills, and be able to add flavorings to the less desirable types of mammal blood.”

“You are so full of shit.” It’s Dorothy, who pretty much never makes conversation, down at the other end of the bar. She’s pretty, late 30s or early 40s, maybe, comes in every Tuesday afternoon with a book, drinks two beers, and splits. “This isn’t some wildly imaginative idea,” she says, “it’s how things already are now. The lice we have are already mutant lice. They’ve already evolved a resistance to the pesticides in lice shampoo. If your kids get lice at school, you just pour olive oil all over their heads, and the lice suffocate, and you gotta pick the nits out, which sucks, but it’s not the end of civilization. So, unless they mutate to where they don’t need air—which is unlikely, yes?—your idea makes no sense. No wonder this guy paid you no attention. If you even had this meeting, and the size of that ‘if’ . . .”

“Whoa, hold on, hold on,” says the would-be screenwriter, laughing, palms up in surrender, “See if you can confine yourself to busting one ball at a time,” and Dorothy’s face softens some and she gives a little laugh. It’s the first time I’ve heard it; I like it pretty much. I like it a lot.

“Dorothy,” I say, “we’re just exercising our creativity muscles a bit. Creativity is important.”

“Okay,” she says (but no laugh for me), “agreed.”

“Yeah,” says Mr. Big Schemes, “Creativity is important. Like, you can just accept a Boston Cream donut the way they give it to you, or, um, ORRR you can build on that foundation by sucking out some of the filling, and then shoving some M&Ms into the newly created space. See what I’m talking about?”

She laughs again, and now I’m pretty much hating this guy. He gestures “just a sec” to her, strolls over to the jukebox—which has nothing on it I don’t loathe from sheer repetition—and makes his selections. Then he walks over to where Dorothy is deciding whether to retreat back into her book, and he sits down beside her. “Hi Dorothy,” he says. “I’m Jack.”

“Hi Jack,” she says, and shakes his hand, as “Dock of the Bay” emerges from the jukebox, and it’s never sounded more ridiculously perfect. Pretty soon they move to a table, too far to eavesdrop, though I do some peripheral vision reconnaissance. And I wonder, all these afternoons, was she waiting for me to start up a line of talk so she could shoot it down and start a conversation? What, and then she might have liked me? Evolution is brutal. All the generations of mice it took to evolve camouflage coloring and super-sensitive hearing, while the owls in the natural selection arms race were working the kinks out of silent wings and night vision. I’ll never catch up. Plus—goddamn it— now my head is starting to itch.

Jeff Knight is a fiction writer and poet in Austin, Texas. His work has previously appeared in Stirring and other journals, including Prairie Schooner, The Virginia Quarterly Review, South Carolina Review, and The Worcester Review. “Mutant Lice” is from Performance Studies 101, a collection in process on how we much of everyday life can be understood in terms of performance dynamics. By day, he writes video scripts for an educational media company.

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