Sibilance Is Unbecoming On You
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Snake"
Originally featured on 01-29-2008
As part of our series "Zodiac Thriller"

Spence did not need a magnifying glass to see the lone gray hair in his mustache. The strand was coiled more loosely than its compatriots, and stuck out from his oily brown, neatly trimmed beard—cultivated by controlled daily exposure to sunlight and lots of vitamin B—like a fat man acquiescing to play hide-and-go-seek. He stared for a moment, disbelieving, before he noticed what his hand was doing. A box of cue tips and a tube of some clear jell flew to the floor as his fingers made a b-line for the tweezers.

When acting upon phobias, the outcome of Spence’s frenzies normally involved some amount of blood.

The white-gray string of protein swiveled and oscillated on the lip of the sink drain as water surged over it. It looked like a question mark. He twisted the faucet to full force, but the blast only pushed it further up the side of the bowl. On his face was a bead of his blood where the tweezers had gouged and plucked.

In youth, Spence made no denial of his phobia of spiders, and would always emit an inhaled chirp choked off in a panicked hiss before stomping one into goo that he would humbly beseech the assistance of his big sister Haley to scrape off his Adidas sneaker, a task to which Haley always happily lent her unflinching services.

Spence killed the gray hair silently. That was easy. The disposal was the messy part. Half an hour later at the breakfast table, his heart was still swinging a sledgehammer at concrete through a foot of snow. He wondered if bathroom mirrors had the capacity to lie.

His wife Praisciense saw something on his face. She peered over the Living section of the Sunday paper and held his gaze in the same way that she might hold a martini. Yes, she was enjoying this. She sat on one folded leg, the other foot freely swaying, causing the folds of her bathrobe to respire. Her strawberry hair reached up from her slim shoulders like a yawn.

Her chin quivered a couple beats and she swallowed. Something about her had always struck him as…predatory was the best he could come up with, after four years of searching his brain for the right word. Her posture bespoke an inscrutable land of magic to which the silky folds of their luxury bed was the only earthly gateway. The woman was a web unto herself.

Praisciense was magical, and her unearthliness was undiminished by two years of matrimony replete with synchronized grocery shopping and laundry and a bathroom full of feminine hygiene products that intimidated him and scented post-it notes on his study door that read “Leave the shower curtain rumpled again and I'll murder you, dear”.

The newspaper page lowered slowly. She was holding her tongue. His vanity was an insecurity that she liked to prod relentlessly with a hot poker to the point of cauterization, and this morning presented a gold mine, but she was saving it for later. The way she held the Living section of the Sunday paper communicated this much to him. He smiled without smiling.

His wife’s scoffing soothed him. The more ruthless the onslaught, the better he would sleep at night. Haley had treated him the exact same way in youth; her endearing jesting was executed with an identical infrastructure of wit and tactless abandon. Haley’s teasing did not sooth him. He did not care to wonder why.

Haley had a merit system by which she would quantify Spence’s debt to her in favors—the payoff of which consisted mostly of physically terrorizing boys in school on whom she harbored idiosyncratic personality-based grudges—and it involved books of fine-ruled graph paper and a scientific calculator—the kind the seventh graders used in advanced algebra—and interest rates. Spence never asked her to perform the actual killing for him (the implicit forfeiting of masculinity in such a request notwithstanding, a creepy-crawly assassination would cost him nine and a half points of favor currency, as opposed to the mere three points of a corpse disposal transaction). The system worked.

Haley worked in human resources. She was arriving at the airport that evening to join in the feast that marked the occasion of her brother’s new book contract.

Spence had just finalized the publication of his treatise on the sociological and economic repercussions of emergent intra-social-spectral-analysis technologies in the New World, and would soon be celebrating the academic community’s reception of his work with a salmon barbecue on the patio of his and Praiscience’s newly mortgaged—and furnished—cottage on Bryerr Lake. The gray hair ruined everything.

His research would be the evening’s primary topic of discussion, but only after the intimate company of three had exhausted every conceivable joke that could be cracked on behalf of the shit God had taken on Spence’s well-groomed mustache. God was Spence’s preferred figure of speech for what Praiscience crisply referred to as the celestial pantheon of angelic postulates and on which Haley—who had stood up at the family dinner table one Easter when she was twelve to emphatically proclaim herself an atheist (Spence wished he could have recorded the silence of the dinner that followed for musical posterity)—deferred any discourse.

The jokes began at the airport loop.

Haley looked younger, smaller with heavy suitcases in her hands. She refused help carrying her luggage, and that’s how Spence knew for sure that it was Haley. She stood perfectly vertical. Her gait subdivided the ambient air like a knife slicing bannana into a bowl of breakfast cereal. Her face was lean in a way that didn’t suggest fitness so much as…cost efficiency (Spence had had a lifetime to come up with the right word for it). She had lost at least thirty pounds by the looks of her, and her attire—slacks, a sequined turtleneck and leather jacket—saw to it that the fact of her weight loss could not possibly escape any observer. She looked at Spence as if to size him up and make her own determination that he was Spence, and then clapped him on the shoulder with her varsity-women’s-lacrosse-coach knuckles.

“You look good, Spence. Not just good as in on-purpose looking good, but…taken care of, I should say.” She then turned to Praiscience. “You must be my little bro’s caretaker whom I’ve heard so much about. I’m the brat sibling who made his childhood a living hell.” They shook hands. The handshake was a formality on the outside, but there was an electricity that passed between palms, a sister-in-law bonding contingent on the promise of long overdue compounded Spence-bashing.

In the car Haley asked “So…wow, it’s been like, three years—babies born since our last reunion are already toilet savvy, isn’t that whacked? Holy snakes, I mean…I know you wrote a book, but…what exactly do you do for a living these days?”

Praiscience could not hold it in any longer. “He grows out facial hair and sells it to the dental floss industry.”

The comment was followed by a quarter mile of silent confusion, and then an eruption of snorting, tonsil-skidding laughter. And that was before Haley got the joke.

Then there was a momentary relapse to the awkward silence. Spence said with his usual professorial sarcasm “Well, now that we’re all comfortable…” and the laughter resumed.

The dental floss joke blended seamlessly into the endless gray-hair-mock-fest that transported them through the obligatory grand tour of the house and most of dinner. They were on their second champagne toast when Spence began to wonder if the subject of the global impact of intra-social-spectral-analysis would be addressed that night. By the time dusk tucked Lake Bryerr into its misty bed of mosquitoes and a loon could be heard above the rustle of pine trees shedding their glory, he wondered how much more he could take.

Attuned to Spence’s exasperation, Praiscience granted him an interlude of mercy when she changed the subject to Haley’s physique. “So you coach a high school lacrosse team?”

“I coach a keep-Haley-sane-via-relentless-exercise team, and in my spare time, yeah, I fling some balls around with nets and yell at people.”

“Well you look fabulous.” Praiscience nodded her eyes toward Spence as if to say unlike my flabby husband. The implication was received with a grin from Haley.

“Thank you.”

“How do you maintain it?”

Spence interjected “When we were teenagers, you always used to lecture me about my complex carbohydrate intake.”

Haley batted him on the shoulder. His chair shook. “You're a complex carbohydrate.”

If emotional armor was a virtue, then he had Haley to thank for his integration of the knowledge that the ability to laugh at oneself was tantamount to holding one’s breath under water. Self deprecatory laughter could be faked, but the women in Spence’s life were never fooled. The gray hair he had obliterated that morning had managed to slither out of the trash, under the bathroom door and now it was alive and flitting around the table, and what it would take to seize, silence and inter that little demon, Spence was not sure, so he kept on forcing laughter until his diaphragm felt like the time he had performed sit-ups through an entire episode of The Simpsons to impress his first girlfriend in college. She had not been impressed.

The hair’s removal had left a small hole. The bleeding had been miniscule. The taunts gushed uncontrollably as he knew they would, and when the skin healed, all jokes would be stuck inside. Like fossils. Their two voices almost became indistinguishable.

“…just been welcomed into the senior citizen club…”

“…have to ask him if there’s a blizzard when he comes inside, because I can’t tell if that’s snow on his face or…”

“…talk about clit ticklers…”

Spence was not laughing anymore. He could not determine how long ago he had stopped laughing. There was silence around the table, like a moving, swirling thing. The three sat back on the patio digesting barbecued wild salmon and champagne and listening to the crickets' slow overture, bellies loose, drunk off fresh lakeside air. Praiscience reached under the table with an arm that seemed to stretch like putty and tickled Spence’s lower back.

The flickering stubble of milky light sprinkled across the lake’s surface made its depth look infinite. The monochrome trees against the black could still be heard.

Spence rose to the podium his eyes conjured out of contours and lines in the black mist. If bathroom mirrors were not prone to prismatic anomalies of deception, the sky was.

"I look at all their feces- pardon me. I look at all their faces and I-" The trees roared with polite laughter. "I play myself a little game of connect-the-dots. I choose an emotion—not a general emotion like anger or grief or lust, but something situational. Then I look for a face that fits it. That’s dot number one. I’d say my project is to look for consistent shapes and patterns in the distribution of dots, social constellations, if you will. But that would be a lie; I don’t look for them so much as they look for me. The symmetry is what first caught my attention. And the scientific community- well, let’s just say it took a geological event or two to get their attention." Intrigued rustlings. "There’s a grid of magnetic forces operating down there in the molten core, and they carry photons—without going into too much quantum detail, we can say that there’s an ocean of light beneath the earth, it has its own tides, its own storm systems, and it affects us. The specifics of how and why we won’t understand for another few centuries, but I believe that we’re making progress toward a theory that will unite astrology with cosmology and all the other ologies. That may not mean much for technology in our lifetime, but what we can do is play connect-the-dots. Try it the next time you're looking down at an expansive crowd with a pair of binoculars. My girlfriend dumped me and I want to get laid produces concentric octagons. I just got a big promotion looks kind of like a crab. My personal favorite is I just found out I’m pregnant and haven’t told anyone yet; it’s in the unmistakable shape of a bow tie." The trees were in uproar. "The term intra-social-spectrum was coined-"

"Spence, what the hell are you talking about?"

The two ladies had already gone inside. Haley was holding the sliding door open and shivering. "Are you coming in?"

The fireplace crackled. The brass-framed oil painting hanging above it depicted a shimmering pyramid floating in space.

Praiscience had gone to bed.

Haley’s arms were crossed. She was looking past him at the window when she spoke. “You owe me thirty four thousand, eight hundred and twenty merit points.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“How do you get that figure?”

“Complex carbohydrates and exercise three times a week.” Spence did not force a laugh. He had none left. “You want to see the ledger and check my math?”

“How shall I begin to, um-”

“You can’t.”

“I can’t begin to?”

“Kill your wife.”

Spence drowsily gave her the finger and said "Connect these dots."

"Kill your wife."

Spence removed his sweatshirt, tossed it over the arm of the sofa and sat down by the fireplace. "You're older than me. You ever found a gray hair?"

"I just told you your debt to me obligates you to murder your wife, and you're still talking about that stupid hair we spent all night harassing you over? Spence, look at yourself."

"Through whose eyes? Yours?"

"Do you need me to spell it out for you?"

Spence gulped. It was the champagne.

"Where’ve you been the past three years while I nursed our father through-"

"If you came out here to feed me a guilt trip, I’ve already eaten, thank you."

"No, Spencer, I came out here to congratulate you on your fantsy-pants spectrawallawhatsa thesis." She clapped her hands with pure violence. "Braaaaavo. You squandered Dad’s savings on an overpriced school so that you could go into the mountains and intellectualize about lasers-" She made a gesture indicating smoking marijuana while at the same time gesturing with her other hand to represent masturbation. "-or auras or whatever, and party it up with your little girlfriend- excuse me, wife, while I- no, you know what? Forget it. You just keep on living your life and pretend I never flew out here to bitch at you. Consider all favor debts liquidated; you can file for moral bankruptcy and we'll scratch it all from the record and start with a clean slate, how’s that?"

Haley’s weight was huddled against his on the couch. At first he thought he was shivering, but it was a different kind of shaking. The fire crackled. Logs capsized and sparks fountained. The sparks looked like inverse dots. He could not determine how long ago his sister had spoken bitter words to him, but she was stealing his warmth now.

"Do you have to do that?" She was not looking at anything.

"What?"

"That thing where you inhale through your tongue, you’ve done it since you were a toddler, drives me crazy."

"I don’t know what you're talking a-"

"When you're upset, but not quite upset enough to start crying, that’s when you do it. It’s the most irritating sound I ever heard."

"You never told me."

"Of course not. I never told you how pathetic it was that you needed your sister to wipe dead spiders off your shoe for you either. Ignorance makes for increased profit. That’s how I live, and I live in that notebook of accumulated karmic debt, you know that."

"Well, um, this noise I make, what does it sound like?"

She imitated it. They both laughed.

"Yes, I quite agree, sibilance is unbecoming on you."

All was quiet.

Haley shifted her weight on the couch. "But, I have to admit, I think gray hairs can be kind of sexy on a man. What does she think?"

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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