Prose: Matt Maxwell

Barbed Wire on the Brain

When you said to me, “Hearing your voice is like dragging barbed wire across my brain,” I mutely applauded your simile. Sure, the insult bristled. But does a tree branch complain when a hawk wraps his talons around it? I was used to your criticism. Like the time you said, during breakfast, “You’re ugly, you know that. You’re the ugliest I’ve ever seen.” Or, standing in line at Burger King, loud enough for the kitchen goons to hear: “I set out the red shirt for you to wear. What made you think you could wear the blue one?”

Me, the timid, meek, withered man, flagellated into a corner by you. You, overbearing, stentorian, your eyes tense with static impatience.

So uninventive. All of them. Until recently. I know you’re not reading from my library—the books are still covered with dust. Besides, you can’t read and watch TV at the same time.

“Hearing your voice is like dragging barbed wire across my brain.” You thought my ensuing silence was to appease you. Why would I further agitate you? Not with the iron in your hand, pressing the shirt I have to wear today. I’m not as ignorant as you convince me I am.

I was silent because you dabbled in poetics. And it stunned me. This was Goodman Brown finding the sash after awakening; Mr. Bovary’s first clue to Emma’s infidelity; Lord Wooton uncovering Dorian’s portrait. I had to swirl the simile in my mind several times, trying to decide if you stole it from somewhere I might recognize. Not a book, or a magazine, or even a song. It had to be the TV, something I didn’t watch with you, though since four months ago you relegated me to the spare room: “I can’t stand the way you sit. Go watch TV in the other room.”

Poetics. Poetry. A simile. The first I heard tumble from your virulent tongue. I would have kissed you if you’d let me.

So I folded clothes in silence. You didn’t see the grin I didn’t hide. I wanted you to ask me what I thought was funny. I would have said, “Nuttin.” And you would have said, “Then why you smilin?” And I would have said, “I’m not smilin.” And you would have said, “Yes you are.” And I would have said, “Sorry.” You didn’t look up—you trusted in your admonishment. I folded clothes in silence, with a grin, my arthritic, gnarled fingers like meat hooks.

I finished the four trash bags of clothes, hauled up the apartment steps by me. You outweigh me by sixty-two pounds; you’re nearly twice as strong. But I know better than to say anything. There’s an audible whistle when I pronounce aspirated words—syphilis, sex, ceaseless, cynicism—thanks to a tooth you knocked out when I sassed you thirteen years ago. I put away the clothes, everything in its proper place, tucked neatly in their Rockwell-ian
world. I considered asking what I should do next but remembered your beautiful insult, so I made your bed—again—and Windexed the TV monitor.

I slunk out of the room, quietly opened the door to the hallway. I knew you knew I exited the apartment. The sounds of the neighbors’ brats screaming and wailing barged in. I quickly returned with the mail, holding it in my hands as if the stacks were a baby bird.

“Did the State check come in?” you asked.

I shook my head.

“Did you read all of them?”

I nodded my head.

“Did you double-check them?”

I continued nodding my head.

You read aloud the sender of each piece of mail. An important piece you tucked under your armpit; trash, you flicked to your feet. “You did something right,” you smirked. “Sometimes I think you not retarded.”

I couldn’t believe you said that: “…you not retarded.” Just moments ago you said the most exquisite thing—”Hearing your voice anymore is like dragging barbed wire across my brain”—and then you say something atrociously incorrect. Behind closed lips I gnawed my tongue. You offered a glimpse of the ethereal…and then returned to simplicity. One shouldn’t mimic Swift, then quote someone from Jerry Springer.

You set the mail on the couch—*That’s where I sleep*, I almost objected—and reminded me to watch “Survivor” with you… in the other room. That was five hours away. How to fritter the time?

“Can we go to the park?” I asked. My voice had the tenacity of William Wilson questioning his doppelganger.

“Ouch!” you screamed.


“Ouch! Ouch!” You clasped your hair, and I could see your red fingernails in the shock-gray and white and wispy black.

I crumbled to my knees, picked up an envelope, dashed to the end table for your pen, the one you use to circle in the *TV Guide* which shows to watch, which to record. I wrote my question, and you kept wincing as you read it. I backed away.

“I guess so,” you said, “as long as you wear your yellow shirt.”

I whisked through my pile of shirts, found the solid yellow one. I was ecstatic. You had spoken in poetry; I got to watch ducks eat handouts.

The walk to the park, across traffic and impatient whips, sapped me. Limping, wheezing, I had to be propped by you. I pointed to an empty bench, only because I knew you wouldn’t allow me to sit near other people. I chose wisely. You couldn’t have recognized my consideration. I am Bradbury’s vacant house that continues to prepare meals, to clean, to read Elizabeth Browning.

Seated, I found the four slices of bread. I was a magnet, a black hole: the ducks sped, fixated, to my feet.

But my thoughts were still on your simile. “Hearing your voice is like dragging barbed wire across my brain.” It signified something deeper, more symbolic. I longed to tell you. In my mind, I said, “Do you know what that means, your using a simile?” And you would have said, “A what? What the fuck are you talkin about?” And I would have explained *simile*: “A comparison between two things using ‘like’ or ‘as.’ You compared hearing my voice to having barbed wire scraped across your brain.” And you would have said, “So?” And I would have said, “Not only is that the first time you insulted me using a simile, but it shows an inner beauty you have suppressed all these years.” And you would have said, “What?” And I would have said, “If music soothes the savage soul, then poetry—or in this case, thinking in a simile—proves a genial soul. It proves you’re not as harsh as you pretend, that inside you have the propensity for poetry. And hence, compassion.” And you wouldn’t have said anything, so I would have said, “This is a start. Give me something else. Say that I walk like something, or that I eat like something. We can practice this.”

But I didn’t say anything. I knew better. Living with you is like biting my tongue just to recycle my blood.