Spinning the Dreidel for Talmadge Sullivan’s Soul
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Wax"
Originally featured on 03-26-2010
As part of our series "On Not Splitting Hairs"

Jillian rang the buzzer and checked her reflection in the glass door. The orange leopard skin blouse looked tighter around her midsection, but that was because Malachi was wrapped around her stomach. Malachi was a five foot long python. He squeezed her belly tighter as she walked into the air-conditioned stairway. The meeting was on the second floor, in the Sienna Room.

Mike felt a twinge of dread burrow into the meat between his collar bone and his shoulder. He looked up from the flowchart displayed on his clipboard. Mike’s full name was Michael Roman Aeigher. He knew that the devil was on her way to the meeting before he heard the resounding click of her heels in the hallway. His nametag read “Micromanager, pleased to meet you.”

This was not how Mike had wanted the afternoon to start off. He had led many different kinds of support groups, and the first meetings always started not much differently than this one, but he did not want this to start like other support groups. He had envisioned a room full of people laughing, eating and drinking — the kind of room where laughter existed before people got there.

Next to Mike sat Benjamin Kroppit. Ben’s nametag read, “Bankrupt, pleased to meet you.” Across the table sat Desiree Anne Francine Kheist. Her female friends called her Fran, and her male friends called her Des. Her nametag read, “Disenfranchised, pleased to meet you.” Zack hovered in the corner with a blank nametag, hesitantly uncapping the marker the receptionist handed him.

The receptionist held the ruler across the printed attendance list and said, “You must be Zachary Vaaz.”

Zack shook his head and then nodded his head. “Zack. It’s not actually Vaaz, that’s- that’s what I go by. It’s Vazredut.”

Zack’s mind zipped backwards two years to an airport ticket taker looking at his ID and saying, “Vase Red Doot, that how you say it? What’s that, middle eastern or something?” Zack’s head sank floorward.

The receptionist said, “Do you have a middle name?”

“Tully. Zack Tully. Spelled-”

The receptionist took the marker from Zack’s hand and wrote on the nametag before Zack could spell it. “Sexually frustrated, pleased to meet you.”

The devil entered. Nobody saw the snake slithering around her navel, beneath her leopard skin blouse. She smiled, reached into her bra, pulled out a dreidel and launched it into a graceful spin on the table. It did not stop spinning or slow down.

She walked around the table. Her smile walked with her. The dreidel continued spinning. The receptionist walked after her and asked her for her name. She stopped, peeled the nametag from its sticker, puckered her lips against it, producing a perfect imprint of red lips for a name, and gently pressed the nametag over the receptionist’s mouth. The receptionist tried to peel it off, but it would not peel off. He tried to poke his tongue through it, but it would not break. He looked at the dreidel. It was getting faster.

Mike extended his hand. “What’s your name?”

The devil stopped smiling. Malachi settled down. “Jillian.”

“No, I mean your name, name. Your phonetic name. The reason you’re here.”

The devil crossed her arms and leaned her weight on her back heel. “Just Jillian.”

Mike wanted everything to be different. He imagined a guest walking into a room of strangers saying, “Hi, I’m sexually frustrated,” and the next person standing up without missing a beat to say, “Hi, I’m bankrupt,” and laughter roaring. Regardless, he was glad the devil was here. He was not completely sure why she was here, but he wanted her to think he knew why she was here. When he opened his mouth to yawn, something shapeless and invisible reached into his mouth and wrestled his tongue like a fish. He heard himself say, “You’ve been at all my meetings, I just never recognized you. It’s about time I extended proper hospitality.”

Her back was turned. He saw movement in the fabric of her blouse and thought nothing of it.

Mike pulled the receptionist aside and looked over the checkmarks on the list. One more person was to arrive — his name was blank. When blank showed up, Mike would deliver the opening speech.

The sound of a gunshot startled everyone. The ceiling cracked. Then the dreidel that had shot itself up at the ceiling floated back down to the table and continued its spin.

Malachi was hungry.

Mike grabbed Jillian’s arm and walked her to the wall. He spoke directly into her ear. “Why are you here?”

The devil pointed her finger at the door. Her fingernail was painted a shade of glitter that never stopped at one color for long enough to discern. The center of her pupils were exactly the same as her fingernails. She said, “Because of him.”

In the doorway stood a man of average height and average bearing, wearing a flannel shirt and a beard that seemed to make his face tighter around his jaw. The receptionist approached him and said something, through the nametag attached to his lips. The average man was seemingly responding to what the receptionist said when he swung his arm down onto the table, the knife-edge of his palm striking the wood with a rickety thud, the sound of a block of moldy wood plunking down on a moldier workbench.

From where Mike and the devil stood, the average man might have been intending to break the table. He also might have been sluggishly imitating what he thought a karate chop might look like to somebody whose concept of hand-to-hand combat came from watching Saturday morning cartoons.

The receptionist nodded and walked away. For the first time in the average man’s life, he did not have to explain that the action he had just performed was his legal name.

From another section of the room, Mike heard Desiree talking to Zack. “…the point of this, really…it’s like, just a name, it doesn’t define you…can be whoever you want…”

Mike said to the devil, “You know him?”

Jillian said nothing.

“So his name is karate chop?”

Malachi hissed and tensed up, recognizing the average man’s smell. She said, “The man’s father went to court and paid nine-hundred thousand dollars to expand the legal definition of a name so that it could include a gesture. Just a gesture. To be accurate, he would have to break a table every time someone asked him his name.”

“But…what does it say on his driver’s license?”

“It has no spelling. It contains a holographic image. Same as his W2 forms.”

Ben Kroppit, overhearing them, walked over and said, “If my name was a gesture, it would be” He thrust his hips and made a slapping motion with his hand toward his crotch. Instantly he became engulfed in flames. Malachi salivated. Gray ashes spouted from the top of the swirling flames like fizz from a champagne bottle, and then the flames reduced him to a melting mass of orange wax that pooled on the floor.

Something shapeless, invisible and warm softly massaged Mike’s chest and back, seeping inside and outside of his skin, quelling his shock and amazement, neutralizing the information his eyes relayed to his stomach, and then moved up to his neck and caressed the base of his skull. He caught Jillian’s eyes. She had always been here, at every one of his meetings, like he had said. He recognized her now, as he always had, only now he realized it. Her reason for being here would make sense in words, once he thought about it with words. For the time being, it only made sense in a warm, peaceful sensation tenderizing his neck and back. Ben Kroppit had to be sacrificed.

Desiree scuttled around the smoldering pile on the floor, screaming hysterically and falling into a frantic, spinning crabwalk, trying to run away from the spot, but needing to look at it, inspect it, dig through it, sift her hands through it. Her body was stuck in the middle of running away and crawling into the nucleus of activity. She hyperventilated.

Backing away from the fire, Mike said, looking at the dreidel which seemed to be spinning faster than before, “I feel as though I just witnessed either a win or a loss.”

The receptionist was frozen in shock, his back against the corner. Zack tried to comfort Desiree but could not, so he kissed the lipstick on the nametag on the receptionist’s mouth and then walked out the door. Zack would be permitted a safe retreat. This was part of the course of things. In the hallway, down the stairs, through the door, down the street, in the cold lamplight, Zack would experience a humiliation unlike any he had known, and with no identifiable external or internal cause.

Jillian held her palm over the dreidel as if sheltering a delicate flower from rain. “We play dreidel. If it lands on the Hebrew letter gimmel, his name will be legally changed to Talmadge Sullivan. If it lands on any of the other three letters, he’s not so fortunate.”

The average man blew on the dreidel. It kept spinning. He broke the table in two with a karate chop. The dreidel continued spinning in mid air. He squinched his eyelids shut, reached and closed his fist around the dreidel, knowing it would bore a hole through his palm.

With his eyes squeezed so far closed he could only see black and a fleeting streak of orange, his hand felt no sensation. Then in the blackness, two beacons of sentience rattled a flitter of code language. The devil’s hand was on his shoulder. Mike, the devil’s minion, was no longer needed to further the transaction. This was not about him. This was not about a name, or anybody’s name, or lack thereof. This was something that went back farther than collective minds could venture.

Malachi exited from Jillian’s pant leg and slithered across the floor. The devil exhaled. The quiet from outside seeped in through the window like a sickness.

The average man whispered “Talmadge Sullivan” as he checked his elbow for splinters, and went to grab a nametag.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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Portland Fiction Project

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