by Russell Bradbury-Carlin
I’ve always tried to ignore the fact that I walk around with a small tail. It’s been difficult at times. But, because I am not a nudist and my tail does not stick out from my forehead, I’ve usually been able to pretend that there was nothing strange. This is made easier since it is rather smallish, kind of a nub really, more than an actual tail.
One might think that the most difficult situation I would have was with girlfriends. How and when does a guy introduce the fact that he has a small tail? Well, it really hasn’t been a problem. This is because I haven’t done much dating. I’m not sure whether I am shy because I have a tail or I’m just shy and I also happen to have a tail.
It’s not like I haven’t dated anyone. I’ve had a number of dates. In fact, I’ve been in a sexual relationship. We were together for two months. And the fact that I had a tail was not a problem. This is why I am sure I’m not chronically shy. I reached that level of comfort with at least one woman and we got along fine.
Helena Marshall and I met in our freshman year of college. She took to being away from her deeply Catholic family and to her newfound freedom with more than a bit of ferocity. What I mean to say is, she was very aggressive, sexually. At least from what friends have told me about their girlfriends and wives. I don’t want to give a lot of details, but I think she found the evidence of my evolutionary link to the animal kingdom kind of erotic.
I guess, given that experience, I shouldn’t have been surprised that my tail’s first, second, and third words were “Ralph, where’s Helena?” I was sitting on my ratty couch alone watching one of those afternoon court programs when I heard a husky voice from behind me utter those words.
Unfortunately for my vestigial tail, Helena and I had long ago broken up.
At first, I considered the possibility that I was insane. But I didn’t feel insane (except for the fact that I heard my tail speak). Supposedly those who are crazy do not ask if they are crazy. I was relying on that one concept.
Over the following days, I began to wonder if I had really heard anything. After all, I didn’t hear the voice say anything else. I soon brushed off the idea that I had a talking tail.
Then, a few weeks later on a hot summer afternoon, I was riding the mid-town bus. It was crammed with people. Suddenly my tail blurted out “Monkeys can’t type Shakespeare!” as if it had been choking on the words. I gasped and turned around quickly — wondering who on the bus had yelled. Then as I saw that everyone else was still in a dull-eyed commuter trance, I realized that it was my tail. I glanced down at my rear-end, then quickly looked out the window as those around me seemed a bit concerned.
I realized no one else could hear it. I also began to consider that my tail was not only talking, but that it also wanted to say something.
“I want… hmm, dum-ta-dum… it’s a long road… one, two, three… D, E, F, G… hark, the herald angels sing…” my tail babbled.
The progression of my tail’s linguistic abilities was not unlike a child’s, only it didn’t use babbling as a way to test the ability of its mouth to form words. My tail has no mouth. I have no idea how it creates words. I don’t hear the voice in my head. I hear it as if its voice were coming through my ears. My tail’s use of language followed a very steep learning curve. It began with two and four word sentences. Then it quickly leapt up to paragraphs, chapters, and novels of words. Even though I understood that my tail was trying to say something to me, I also think — like a child — it just enjoyed the process of talking. As time went on it just talked and talked and talked. It was not unlike living in a busy nightclub on a perpetual Saturday night.
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me early on that I could possibly communicate back to my tail. It appeared to enjoy babbling on and on to itself, only occasionally making some reference or comment to something I was involved in. It didn’t seem to be able to read my mind. Or at least when I repeated over and over in my head “shut up, shut up, shut up!” it didn’t seem to respond. Perhaps it was just ignoring me.
Then, one morning, I was sitting at my kitchen table drinking my third cup of coffee and feeling that grainy drag on my eyelids from lack of sleep (apparently tails don’t need to rest) when it occurred to me to talk back to it.
“…the simple biological-evolutionary answer,” my tail rambled, “is that as embryos we are all structurally female first…”
“What do you want?” I asked out loud.
It paused. “You don’t know?”
I jumped up from my seat in surprise. I hadn’t really expected it to answer back. Hesitantly, I responded. “No. But clearly you’ve got something to say.”
“Listen, all I know is that I’ve recently discovered that I can say things. Before that I listened to you all the time — sometimes with interest, sometimes quite bored.”
“I thought maybe you had something important to tell me. It isn’t everyone that has a tail. And I am sure very few people have a tail that talks to them. Is there something you need to say to me?”
“Not that I can think of.”
“Oh.” I was a bit dumbfounded. Then what was this all about? I wasn’t sure what to say, so I said the first thing that popped into my head. “Well then, I guess we’re just going to have to figure out how to live together.”
“More you with me. I’ve learned to suffer living with you.”
“What? You’re the one that came out of nowhere. Maybe you should go back to being silent. Or at least keep quiet at night.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
That was it for a while. I lived my life. My tail lived its. It kept its ongoing chatter down to a manageable whisper — enough so I could begin to ignore it.
My tail mostly babbled on about evolution and Charles Darwin. I had majored in Biology in college and, apparently, it had been listening more carefully than I had, since it seemed to be able to quote every book I had read and every lecture I had attended.
It also did me the courtesy of keeping quiet at night.
One day I was out on a date with Marie, a girl I had met through someone at work. It seemed to be going well. We were having dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. It’s a quiet place, candlelit, with each table separated from the others by rice-paper screens. In other words, it was quite romantic.
Marie and I were in the middle of our second glasses of wine. I was admitting to my love of Jim Jarmusch films and she was astounded that I had even heard of him. Things were going well.
Then, we weren’t alone.
“He’s my all-time favorite director,” Marie gushed. “I still can’t believe you like him, too.”
My tail suddenly spoke up, “Hey. I’ve realized something.”
For a moment I froze. I considered responding out-loud to my tail, but I knew I would sound crazy. Instead, I tried to integrate the conversations, emphasizing certain words to my tail: “…I like to rent Jarmusch’s films then tell everyone to — go away — so I can watch it alone.”
“Which of his films is your favorite?” Marie asked.
My tail said, “I can’t wait. I need to tell you something now.”
I continued: “I really like Down by Law because I also love Tom Waits. Did Jarmusch ever do a movie called — We’ll Have to Talk Later?”
“I, uh, don’t think so,” Marie looked perplexed.
My tail was persistent. “Either we talk now or I am going to repeat everything I know about Darwin, over and over.”
I responded: “I think it was a short-film. It came out before Don’t You Dare.”
“What are you talking about?” Marie sat back in her chair.
“Darwin was born in…” my tail started.
I gave in. “I need to go the men’s room. I’ll be right back.”
I stood up quickly and left the table. I could see in Marie’s eyes that the tide was turning on this date.
When I reached the men’s room I found it empty.
“What the hell do you want?”
“I think I do have something to tell you –- some wisdom to impart.”
“Why now? Couldn’t it have waited?”
“No. Listen. I’ve been thinking about the fact that I am a vestigial tail — a remnant of your link to your evolutionary past. And, I’ve been thinking about the fact that I can talk, which I am pretty sure is not a quality that any kind of tail has had — past or present. Then, it occurred to me why I am here. Once I realized this, I had to tell you right away.”
“Okay, okay, but make it quick.”
“I am actually an evolutionary jump forward. Not only that, but I am not a talking tail.”
“I am your conscience.”
“It dawned on me when I was recalling all of the time I just sat and listened to you: you did not seem to have a conscience. Or, if you did, you’ve done a good job of ignoring it. Evolution gave humans an inner-voice to help you navigate your moral world — to help you survive. Somehow that little voice in your particular head has been silenced. So, apparently, evolution has dipped into its past to leap forward. A talking tail certainly grabs your attention doesn’t it? It’s brilliant.”
I had difficulty understanding what my tail was saying at first, mostly because I was focused on leaving Marie alone for too long. But I did try to consider if my tail was right. I thought I had a conscience. Didn’t I?
I was standing in the middle of the men’s room staring at the black-and-white tiled floor considering all of this when a tall guy in a tux came in. I coughed, and then bent over to tie my shoe so he’d think he had walked in just as I realized it was untied — and not that he walked in while I was talking to my rear.
My tail continued, “Don’t say anything. Think about it. In the meantime, go back out there with Marie. Pick up where you were before I interrupted and finish your date. And, if she seems interested, give her a kiss goodnight. Tell her you had a great time and that you will call her tomorrow. But do not sleep with her tonight. As your conscience, I think that is the best course of action.”
Sleep with her? I hadn’t even considered that that would happen on this first date. I wanted to protest, but the tall guy was standing right beside me at a urinal. So, I finished re-tying my shoe and went back with Marie.
It took me a while to recover as I kept thinking about what my tail had said. Things seemed to be going well with Marie by the time we finished dessert.
And, I did what my tail told me. I didn’t sleep with her. I called her the next day.
In the end, though, Marie dumped me. Or at least we didn’t get to a second date. I think she sensed something was off with me. How could she not, with my tail interrupting my already weakened dating skills.
I was pissed. I was confused: a ripe moment to manipulate me.
“Okay, here’s what you need to do.” my tail offered one day.
I was throwing a pile of my black socks into the washing machine in the basement of the apartment complex I live in. I was alone, kind of.
“Fuck off,” I answered.
“You don’t mean that.”
“I don’t know if I’ve meant anything more than those two words right now.”
“Whatever. You’ll get over it. Listen, what you need to do is call all of your past girlfriends and apologize to them.”
“I take back my previous statement. I mean this more than I’ve ever meant anything: Fuck off.” I slammed the washing machine door shut. It echoed off the concrete walls.
“As your conscience, I’ll have you apologize to me later. In the meantime, I am going to insist you apologize to every woman you’ve slept with or intended to sleep with.”
“I’ve got some tracts about the history of evolution theory from a class you mostly slept through. I intend to scream them until you pick up the phone.”
“And if I agree to this ludicrous idea, what am I apologizing to them about?” I slipped four quarters into the slots of the machine’s coin drawer.
“For dating them only to sleep with them, when they thought otherwise.”
“What are you talking about?” Sure, don’t most men want to have sex with the women they date? But I had assumed that I wanted more than that, too. Or did I tell myself that because I didn’t have a conscience?
“Let’s start with the only woman you’ve actually slept with.”
I shoved in the coin drawer, heard the water start to rush into the washer, and went back to my apartment.
It took me a few weeks to find Helena’s phone number. Apparently, she had moved to Vermont, married some guy and taken his last name –- Golder.
The phone rang about ten times. I was feeling relieved that there was no answering machine and apparently no one home when someone picked up and said “Hello.” It was a female voice that immediately brought Helena’s face back to my memory.
“Do it,” my tail demanded.
“This is Ralph. Remember? We dated in college.”
“Ralph? Yes. Why are you calling me?” I thought I heard the high-pitched squeal of a child in the background.
“I’m not sure…”
“I’ll help you this time,” my tail interjected. “Helena, I want to apologize.”
“Helena, I want to apologize.”
My tail said, “I want to apologize for dating you with the sole goal of sleeping with you.”
I repeated the statement.
“We never slept together,” Helena countered. I heard her moving around, the child’s squeals fading, then the sound of a door shutting.
“I said we never slept together.”
“Well, I beg to differ — yes we did.”
Helena’s voice became very stilted –- even more than it had been already.
“Listen, Ralph. I am a different person than you knew in college. I have cleansed myself of all of my past sins, including you. As far as having sexual relations with you –- in regards to Jesus and me –- it never happened. I am married. I have two children. And, up until two minutes ago, you didn’t exist. Now, I’d like it if you would return to non-existence.”
She hung up.
“That went well…” I said.
“Don’t you feel better?” my tail said. “A good first step.”
I called some of my other past girlfriends. I was pretty resentful of it.
Some of them hung up on me. Some seemed indifferent to my call. Some forgot who I was. None thanked me for apologizing.
It was about two weeks into this process when my tail decided to update the plan. This time I was in a grocery store, tossing a bag of nacho chips into a cart.
“You need to drive up and apologize to Helena in person.”
I looked around — no one was nearby. I kept my voice low, just in case.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Listen, Ralph, I am putting you through a process of cleansing your improprieties. Believe me, as your conscience, if we don’t do it now, you’ll be wishing you had on your death-bed –- where you’ll be lying all alone, facing eternity with a load of guilt on your shoulders.”
“But why do we have to apologize to Helena in person? I thought it was enough to say it, regardless if the person accepted it or not.”
“Sure, that’s true. But it all started with Helena, really. It is important that you clean away the roots. If you don’t, all of this stuff will come back to haunt you.”
“Either that or you will sing On the Origin of Species to me?”
“That could be arranged.”
That is how I found myself sitting in my tiny black Toyota on the side of a snow-covered road in the middle of rural Vermont. It is also how I found myself spying — no, stalking — my ex-girlfriend Helena.
Her house was a powder blue cape. A red SUV sat in the driveway. There was another set of tire tracks in the snow-cover that led up to an empty space beside it. Since it was around two in the afternoon on a Tuesday, I assumed her husband was at work.
“So, how will I do this?”
“Let’s make sure she is home alone first. Then you go up to the front door, knock, and apologize. I’ll walk you through it.”
I saw shadows pass back and forth behind sheer white curtains in the downstairs windows.
We watched for a few minutes to be sure she was alone.
I considered the absurdity of my situation.
I had driven hundreds of miles, much of it in the snow, which I hate. I was now prepared to apologize, again, to a distant ex-girlfriend with the aid of a Cyrano de Bergerac-like talking tail.
I tried not to think about it too much, because it made me re-consider my sanity again.
I thought about the story of Cyrano de Bergerac though. His ability to romance women with words. His unattractive face. How Cyrano helps another man woo the woman Cyrano loves.
Helena suddenly appeared in an upstairs window with the curtains pulled back. She carried a load of laundry, which she dropped onto a bed and began to fold.
“There she is,” I whispered.
Helena looked more matronly than she did in college. Her face seemed to have widened a bit, as had her body in general. But even from across the street, over a yard and through a window, I could make out her thick dark hair and her long eye-lashed eyes. She was still beautiful. She was still alluring.
“Go. Go for it. I’ll tell you what to do,” my tail sputtered.
Then it occurred to me: Cyrano. My tail’s plan. Helena. How could I have been so stupid?
“You want me to get back with Helena, don’t you?”
“What are you talking about? Go over there. Now’s your chance to apologize to her.”
“No. No. You’ve brought me here so I — we, can sleep with her again.”
“I am your conscience. You must do what I say.”
It all made sense. My tail had constructed this whole situation so we could be with Helena. I had been duped. I had been manipulated — and all for the carnal pleasure of a vestigial tail.
I wasn’t going to have it.
I started the car and drove away.
“What are you doing?” My tail sounded a bit worried. “Come on. Let’s go back. So what if you know what I was doing. You know you want to have sex with her, too.”
I said nothing. I kept driving.
“All right, all right. Listen, if you don’t turn around now and go back, I am going to start singing On the Origin of Species just like you said.”
My plan was to drive straight home, only stop for gas, and not talk to my tail again. Let it wonder what I was thinking. It was about time.
“Fine, then. Here I go: ‘When we compare the individuals…’”
We drove for about an hour and half when I realized that I couldn’t take it anymore. My tail was clearly not going to stop singing. I could not take that husky voice warbling off-key in my ears for much longer. One of us had to stop this. And I certainly wasn’t going to give-in to my tail.
I changed my plan a bit.
The axe only cost me three bucks. It was cheap, but new. I didn’t need to get an expensive one since I didn’t really care if it stayed sharp for a long time.
I was only going to use it for one chop.
We were still in Vermont on an empty road cutting through the mountains.
“You aren’t serious.” There was clear panic in its voice.
I didn’t respond. I pulled the car down a snowy dirt road into the woods.
“I don’t believe you would actually do it. The pain would be too intense.”
I stopped the car and got out. I grabbed the axe and walked a few feet into the stark forest. The crunch of ice-covered snow under my shoes was the only sound — besides the increasingly panicked voice of my tail.
“Okay. Maybe I went too far. We can forget Helena. I swear.”
I stopped and undid my belt, then the button of my pants.
“What if you get an infection? You’re no surgeon. You don’t even know where the nearest hospital is. And what would you tell them anyway.”
I dropped my pants and my boxers. The chill of winter air wafted around my legs.
“Stop. I am serious. Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it. I swear.”
I turned around and pulled the axe up. It was awkward to be twisted around as I was. But I thought with one swift stroke I could do it — quickly — one brief shock of pain. Then it would be over.
I clenched the handle of the axe and squinted.
There was silence.
I waited, axe held high.
I dropped my arm and let the axe lay by my side.
“Are you there?” I asked.
There was only the sound of a light breeze and the occasional crunch of snow falling from a tree limb.
My plan seemed to have worked.
I pulled up my pants, grabbed the axe and returned to my car.
The drive home took me six hours. I heard nothing. I began to feel that I was alone. I wasn’t sure at first because it was something I hadn’t felt in a long time. It was an odd mixture of emptiness and comfort. After a while though, I became so uneasy with the silence that I turned on the radio and listened to any station that had a talk-show. I didn’t care what the subject was.
I never heard from my tail again.
I don’t know if it’s lying in wait or if its voice returned to wherever it came from. It took me awhile to let go of the feeling that it was going to suddenly chime in — especially when I started dating again.
Now I’ve been dating a woman named Katherine for five months — a record for me. She asks me, occasionally, about my vestigial tail. Harmless questions such as “What was it like growing up with it?” and “How did other lovers react to it?” I choose not to tell her much — even as we are lying in bed arm-in-arm after making love, which is when I am most tempted to tell her everything. I don’t follow on the temptation, though. I am afraid my tail might take it as an invitation to speak up. Perhaps it remains silent because I am with someone and so it is, too –- but I tend to think it was Helena, in particular, that it desired.
I tell Katherine that it has been weird having a tail and that I’ll tell her all about it someday.
What I won’t tell her, however, is that the axe in the trunk of my car is there for a specific reason. She thinks I keep it there for emergencies, like a tree blocking a road if we are ever out for a drive in the country.
The real reason I keep it there is for another type of emergency, one that I actually state out-loud while driving alone — just in case my tail is still aware, listening.
RUSSELL BRADBURY-CARLIN is a part-time writer living in Western MA. His stories and poetry have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Rattle, Pindeldyboz, and Monkeybicycle amongst others. You can find him at russellbradburycarlin.com.