Steven woke up with a bad case of the gnomes.
Rising from a dream in which he was scuba diving deeper and deeper until the pressure was too much to bear, he opened his eyes to find the weight on his chest was real. A tiny, white-bearded face wearing a gleeful smile almost touched his nose. Steven was too stunned and too tired to leap up.
“Oh, shit,” was all he could muster.
When the gnome stepped off him and started going through his medicine cabinet, Steven called his HMO. He felt it was definitely urgent, but not an emergency. The first appointment would suffice.
His primary physician had a full schedule and no openings, but, with a little cajoling, Steven arranged to see another doctor.
The ride over was uneventful, mostly because his car had a never-before-used child safety window, so the gnome couldn’t ride with his face to the wind. The gnome sulked in the backseat until he found a discarded magazine and made origami mushrooms until Steven parked the car. The Portobello, with a pouty, baggy-eyed face as the stem, was best.
Steven stared at the stirrups in the examination room and knew this doctor usually saw women instead of men, but quo vadis American health care. As the gnome flipped in the gynecological device like an Olympic gymnast on the rings, the doctor, a thin, balding gent with a gurgly Romanian accent, explained his brand new condition.
“It is sexually transmitted, I’m afraid to say.” The doctor looked over his glasses as he turned to Steven.
So, he thought, Sheila had given him the gnomes.
“I’m afraid the only cure is passing it along.”
Steven thought about his night with Sheila and how odd it had been. Throughout their congress, they both were clumsy and fumbling. He felt bad that he hadn’t called, but he wasn’t sure if she wanted to hear from him. He was still bummed about the whole thing, because he liked her. But she wasn’t exciting. He turned back to the doctor, putting on a smile.
“You mean I have to get laid again? Do you know how hard it was the last time?”
The doctor closed the thin manila that held his records.
“That is none of my business. To alleviate the symptoms, there are the old wives’ remedies. They might work.”
Steven nodded to the doctor who really didn’t want to say them out loud.
The doctor sloughed out a sigh. “All right. Let me think.” The doctor put his hand to his chin and Steven crept forward on his padded chair. “I believe you are to cleanse the genital area with lemon juice and rubbing alcohol.”
Steven slid back immediately. “That won’t happen.”
“How do you feel about enemas?”
“Well, some of the women in my country say spicy food drives them away. That one I cannot guarantee.”
The doctor continued with more instructions, but Steven stopped listening. It was all so confusing and the gnome, who was break dancing on the exam bed paper, made crunching noises. Steven grabbed him and walked out, thanking the doctor for his time.
Steven came home to find that his problem had multiplied. There were many male and female gnomes going through his CDs, reading his mail and filling his Internet browser history with porn and auction sites.
He decided to call the original one Beardy, even though all of them, including the females, had facial hair ranging from Amish to Abe Lincoln. But Beardy was the only one with a moustache that gave him a Santa Claus vibe. He couldn’t decide if calling the gnome Beardy because of the moustache was irony, paradox or coincidence. He flipped quickly through his iPad, but Wikipedia was no help.
Steven stood over the growing crowd of miniscule miscreants and wondered exactly what to call them collectively if, or more likely when, he had to explain his condition to someone else. Although he couldn’t hear them speaking, the gnomes all seemed to understand him. With the help of his thesaurus, he cycled through “bevy,” “batch,” “passel,” and “suite” to a series of frowns. “Murder” brought a threatening reaction. “Village” was rewarded with smiles. He had a village of gnomes. He had to live with that.
Steven decided he liked cooking more than searing scrotum pain or a hose up his ass, so he drove to the grocery to find peppery pickings. The drive was pure chaos, because he now had multiple gnomes climbing around, bouncing on the seat cushions and blowing against the windows to puff out their cheeks. One female kept tuning the radio to the hip-hop station and jamming up the bass.
He regretted his choice of the high-end natural foods store because it was just too big to keep tabs on his tag-alongs. The gnomes overran all of the sample stations, stole grapes for a juggling routine and posed in the Garden Supplies section, only moving to scare those who would buy them. The final straw was when one of the green-aproned workers saw a gnome taking a gritty shower under the peanut butter dispenser. They allowed Steven to buy the contents of his cart, which came to $151.32.
Getting home, Steven got to stewing, roasting and slow cooking the most diabolical recipes he could remember. For lunch, he made Johnny’s curry, an infamous concoction which held three chopped-up habaneros along with the usual spice mix. Steven sat down to eat with anticipation, but, try as he might, he could only finish half the bowl. But he was encouraged, because the gnomes finished off the pot.
For dinner, he tried his best to recreate the Evil Jungle Prince from the long-closed Cafe Siam. He knew Thai bird chilies and chicken were involved and he cobbled together something close. He got a whole plate down, this being as flavorful as it was spicy. The gnomes looked like they wanted more.
He didn’t sleep well, partially because of his grumbling stomach and roiling bowels, but mostly due to the calliope chorus of gnome farts. But, in the morning, the gnomes were still there.
By the end of third day, the gnomes took over his second bedroom. They hauled in garden dirt and grew crimson-striped mushrooms that smelled of dung. They commandeered his footie socks for bedrolls and Beardy turned the clothes washer into a hot tub. When Steven wanted to do a load of whites, a pruned Beardy handed him a shot glass full of mushroom wine. Reluctantly, Steven drank it down. He didn’t remember the rest of the night and, the next day, the hangover was fierce.
Through the searing headache, he tried to figure out what to do. He felt he couldn’t live like this, trying to keep order with the gnomes. At work, all he could do was think about what trouble he would find when he got home.
Steven decided he had to get back into the dating pool, anything to get rid of this nuisance. It would be a horrible thing to do, but he wanted his life back. Let somebody else deal with this mess.
He knew the Internet back and forth would take too long, and bars were too random. He gave speed dating a try.
When he arrived at the bar, Steven realized that the gnomes were hip to his plans. They must have snuck into his car and quickly run in while he fretted in the parking lot, trying to psych himself up for the lies he had to tell. The female gnomes filled the slots, so, as he went from table to table, he saw only his hirsute housemates. The first one batted her eyes at him like the world’s ugliest kewpie. The second blew fish-lipped kisses. The third simulated oral sex, jabbing her tongue into her cheek. He actually considered this offer, trying to figure out if it would solve or worsen his problems. In the end, the logistics just wouldn’t work.
Finally, he came to the table of an actual human female. Claire was only three deviations from very attractive (he considered himself three-point-five) and she drank white wine, which had a nose of surrender and a finish of desperation. It matched the top notes of existential crisis in his single malt. She crooked her mouth to the left.
“Wow,” she said. “Someone who can look me in the eye.”
Steven looked down the line and Beardy and his bros waved at him. He turned back and tried to make his own smile simmer. “And maybe I’ll actually answer your questions.”
The rules of the night were no job talk and no personal history. Creativity was emphasized and only reacting to physical beauty of the potential date was discouraged.
Steven answered he would be an oak, like the ones that line St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans; he would be the planet Mercury because he liked hot weather; and the dinner would be with Muhammad, Jesus and Emperor Augustus because he would want to see how quickly a fist fight would break out. Claire’s last question came off-handedly, as she filled out her date evaluation cards.
“What up with the gnomes?”
“They’re with me.” Steven shut his eyes tight.
“You have gnomes? When were you gonna tell me?”
He could only shrug his shoulders as the bell rang. He got a one out of five rating, his only point coming because Claire liked his answers. The gnome with the Van Dyke got her phone number, but the little fucker never called.
Over the next week, Steven hit bars, gallery openings and adult sock hops. He even went to a church social for one of those Protestant religions he just didn’t understand. But like Mary and the lambs, the gnomes always turned up everywhere he went. He got thrown out of every function before he could connect with anyone, and he would go home without human companionship.
On the second Sunday night, Steven splayed on the couch, exhausted from heavy drinking and still going to work every morning. As he watched the football game, the gnomes joined him. Most snuggled up in every corner of his body as others carted in bags of microwaved popcorn. While he couldn’t hear them cheering, they were into the game, throwing their arms up at great catches or big hits. For the first time since they arrived, Steven felt relaxed.
Even though he had given up on the spicy food, that Monday he found he had andouille sausage for jambalaya. He put together the rice dish after coming home from work. As the cayenne smell filled his apartment, Beardy broke out a concertina and another gnome grabbed a wire-ringed notebook to use as a washboard. Soon, they were playing “My Toot Toot.” Steven thought the version was pretty good, and he danced around the kitchen trying not to step on any of his housemates.
While the rice boiled in the stock, he decided to finally call Sheila. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say, but she picked up midway into the second ring and he could only stammer out a weak, “Hello.”
“I was wondering if I was going to hear from you again.” Her voice balanced exactly at the midpoint between excited and peeved.
“Well, there was this problem.”
“I should’ve told you. But, I . . . ”
“I know. Three-date rule. I stressed that.” Sex after a third date was the explicit social contract in Steven’s mind. But why hadn’t Sheila warned him of the aftermath?
“You know, it was really great.” Her voice sharpened to a katana edge. “If you want to give it another try.”
He heard something in her voice. The tone could not mask that she lied. “You want the gnomes back.”
“No, you were . . . ” Sheila’s voice sounded nervous, like she didn’t want to offend him.
“Stop.” Steven held up his hand, even though she couldn’t see it. “It was first-time sex. I’d give us a B-minus, mostly because of the red wine.”
“Okay, you’re right. It was only okay. But I didn’t know I was gonna lose all of them. I had plans. Like, I went to the Baby Gap that week and I downloaded all these knitting patterns.”
He put his hand over the phone receiver and turned to see the remaining gnomes two-stepping in a circle.
“Hey! Do y’all want to go back with Sheila?” The gnome fais do-do immediately ceased. Scowls ripped across their fist-sized faces. Beardy stepped forward and thrust his thumb downward. Steven uncovered the phone. “It looks like I’m stuck with them for a while.”
Sheila cried on the phone and then came to Steven’s home. She threw open her blouse in a desperate move to get him in bed. But she wanted the gnomes, not him. He asked her to leave. Beardy saluted her as she walked out.
Steven decided to wait the gnomes out. Had the doctor said something about a cure? He couldn’t remember. He thought maybe boredom would drive them away.
But staying home and cutting himself off from society developed from slight sadness to a full-grown funk. He could feel himself giving up. He ate cheese dip for dinner. His face bloomed a bushy beard. Soon, soft-rolling hills were visible beneath his t-shirt.
From his CD collection, the gnomes saw Steven had a deep love of Mississippi Delta music. To cheer him up, they decided to lip synch to some 12-bar ditties. But they could only cobble together a half-assed Blues Brothers tribute that just made Steven angry and he threatened to call Sheila. The gnomes gave up and created a video of themselves dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” It got over one million views on YouTube.
Over the next month, he noticed, despite the weight gain, his pants were loose and baggy. He had to switch to military-style pull-tight belts to keep from showing ass crack. His shirts felt like circus tents.
After two months, Steven woke up to find he himself had turned into a gnome. He stood on his bed, now a lake of cotton, and looked at his stumpy legs and round belly. He thought back to that day in the doctor’s office. Had the doctor said “curse” instead of “cure?”
He rappelled down the covers to the floor as the other gnomes surged toward him, Beardy in the lead.
“Beardy, what happened to me?”
“The name is Moses, brother. Welcome to our village.” Moses pulled him into the world’s tiniest bear hug.
“Wait. You can talk.” Steven heard the growly timbre of Moses’ voice and tried not to compare it to Papa Smurf.
“We could always talk. You couldn’t hear us.”
“Are your voices like dog whistles or something?” Moses nodded. “Okay. Now for the hard question.”
“It’s quite simple, Steven. If you don’t get rid of us, you become one of us. I was human once myself. Just like everybody in the village.”
“But what if I want to go back?”
Moses laughed at the question.
But that wasn’t what Steven wanted to hear. He crumbled to the ground and all of his repressed feelings erupted in a howl. He felt the tears flood his cheeks and he smashed the carpeted floor with his minute fists.
“I don’t want this. I want my life back!”
Moses crouched down and put his arm around Steven’s shoulder. With a soft force, he lifted Steven to his feet and pointed to the now-huge room. “Take a moment, Steven. Look around. Things may not be as bad as you think.”
It was then, as Steven beheld his house and the faces of his new family, he saw just how radical was his shift in perspective. It was like he was a toddler again, all the world huge and wondrous. But he still had his memories, his ideas and all his accumulated knowledge. The cloud of his funk dissipated as he finally understood why the gnomes just didn’t care about human rules.
He turned to Moses. “What happens now?”
“We need to find a new home. But, before we set off, we want to throw you a welcome party.”
He made a deal with his new leader: if Moses would learn how to play some Fats Domino on his concertina, then Steven would somehow make some seafood gumbo. They spat in their hands and shook on it.
CHARLIE BROWN is a writer and filmmaker originally from New Orleans. He lives in Los Angeles where he is working towards a Masters in Professional Writing from USC. His stories have been published in The Menacing Hedge, Aethlon, and others. His film Angels Die Slowly has been signed for distribution.