THE RETURN OF DOKTOR FLESH
by Ted Hicks
David Chandler, Jr. sat alone in his living room, watching the snow drift down outside, large flakes illuminated by the streetlights and reflected in the headlights of vehicles slowly moving up and down the unplowed street. He was still badly hungover from the night before. A pain throbbed and pressed behind his eyes. Another beer might help.
He rose and walked slowly to the kitchen where he took a can of Bud from the refrigerator. A movement caught his eye and he stopped dead. A cockroach was crawling up the side of the sink. Keeping his eyes on the roach, Chandler very slowly reached for a paper towel. He smashed the roach in one swift, decisive movement, looking quickly to see that he had in fact gotten the little bastard, then crumpled it tightly in the paper towel.
He returned to the living room and sat at his writing desk, the unopened beer in one hand and the wadded paper towel in the other. Chandler wanted the beer, but he had to get rid of the roach first. He squeezed the paper ball as hard as he could. He believed you couldn’t kill them enough. No matter how crushed, they might return to life, so he always flushed them down the toilet. They might live on in some maimed, crippled fashion in the sewers, but he didn’t have to see them.
He turned from the window and the falling snow. He looked past the kitchen and down the hall. Light from the bathroom cut into the hallway. Chandler knew he’d have to go there sooner or later, and not just to flush the cockroach. For that matter he could open the window and throw the roach out into the snow and it would be just as gone from his life.
Reluctantly Chandler began to rise, then sat back down. Earlier that evening there’d been an argument, then something happened, an accident, and now his mother lay dead on the bathroom floor. They’d been arguing, as always, over Doktor Flesh.
His mother is peering intently into his bathroom mirror. She has her eyes and nose squinched up in a way that drives Chandler crazy. She is doing something to her eyebrows. “You could use better light in here,” she says.
He stands in the doorway watching her. She stops and turns to face him. She has removed her blouse. She is wearing a bra with openings that expose her large nipples.
“Listen, Junior,” she says, “you can stand there all night, but I’m not giving you the rights. I’ll never give you the rights, I’ll never sell you the rights. How many times do I have to tell you?” She turns back to her work in the mirror.
“But why?” he asks, trying not to beg. “Why not? What would be so terrible?”
She turns again and gestures with a silver tweezer that makes him think of a weapon. “Look,” she says more sharply, “try to understand this. You’re not going to turn your father’s work into a bunch of comic books. You’re not a good enough writer to begin with, even if they’d let you write them, which they probably wouldn’t. But it’s not happening.”
But this is my big chance! he wants to say, but doesn’t. He knows she’ll say that at forty-four it’s a bit pathetic to see writing comic books as his last chance to be somebody. She’ll tell him once again that none of his writing has ever been successful, not even in those workshops he keeps taking, and that maybe he should just grow up and try to be the best data-entry clerk he can be. She’ll tell him that the late, great David Chandler, Sr. is the one and only writer in the family.
Chandler stared at the rows of worn paperbacks on the shelves above his desk. The joke was that his mother talked as though his father had been some sort of fucking William Faulkner. In the late Forties and Fifties, David Chandler, Sr. had written forty-seven paperback originals, each featuring Doktor Heinrich Flesh, an evil, bloated genius, a bloody monster whose fiendish exploits became as popular as those of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu.
Chandler took one of the books from the shelf and looked at its cover. It was typical of the series, a lurid scene rendered in garish colors turned slightly muddy by the printing process. Doktor Flesh, dressed in black, eyes hidden by small, round glasses, the mirrored lenses shining in the light, stands leering over a half-naked woman with long blonde hair who is bound tightly with wide, studded straps. Doktor Flesh is pulling on a leash attached to a metal collar around the woman’s neck. At his side is his mistress in black leather, Lydia Chelm, caressing an elaborate torture device. In the background, chained to the wall beneath a burning torch, Inspector Nigel Baskett of Interpol looks on in abject horror.
Chandler knew this was crap, but the books had a trashy appeal that was undeniable. They were periodically re-issued, and currently were back in vogue.
On the desk was the latest letter from Martin Bobb at Necro Comics. They were impatient to clear the rights to use the characters. When that was done there’d be a contract for Chandler to sign. They understood that he wanted to write the stories himself, and they’d give him a shot at that, but they’d pay him just to use his name. It was a hook – the new adventures of David Chandler, Sr.’s famous characters, written by David Chandler, Jr.
Jesus. For this his mother was dead in the bathroom. What a fuckup. He put the paper towel containing the roach into the waste basket by the desk. So what. It was only a roach. Maybe he didn’t have the right to kill it anyway. One of God’s creatures and all that. He snapped the tab off the can of Bud and began to drink.
The hell with it. Chandler stood and walked straight toward the bathroom. Then his resolve faltered. He hesitated several steps from the doorway. He felt a coldness spreading in his chest. Chandler stepped slowly forward and looked around the door frame.
His mother was still on the tile floor by the toilet. Where else would she be? Her head was propped at an awkward angle against the tub. A thin line of dried blood ran from her nose. There was blood on her bra. Her eyes were open. Chandler let out his breath. He felt unsteady for a moment, then straightened up. Time to man up, he thought.
He went to the bedroom and got his jacket from the closet. He was on his way out the front door when he stopped and went back to his desk. He fished the wadded paper towel from the waste basket and opened it. The cockroach was still inside, one of its legs moving feebly, or was it? He returned to the bathroom, leaned over his mother, and flushed the roach down the toilet.
Chandler went downstairs to the bodega on the corner where he bought four large bags of ice. The man behind the counter said, “Hey, Mr. Chandler. It’s snowing! What you want ice for?”
Chandler said nothing and waited for his change.
“Maybe you’re having a party? Girls, huh?” The man laughed, making a fist and pumping his forearm slowly back and forth.
Yeah, right, Chandler thought. Asshole.
“My refrigerator’s on the blink,” he finally said. He took his change and left.
Back in the bathroom he emptied two of the bags into the tub. He turned to his mother. He felt funny about picking her up without her blouse on. He looked around and found it hanging on a hook behind the door. After a couple minutes of trying to get his mother’s arms into the blouse and avoid her glassy eyes, he gave up and put it back on the hook. Those guys in funeral homes knew how to do this. Must be some trick to it. They weren’t kidding about dead weight.
With a clumsy effort he put his mother in the tub. Thank god she wasn’t stiff yet. He emptied the remaining ice over her. Chandler sat on the edge of the tub and packed the ice around her as carefully as he could. He remained sitting there, drumming his fingers on the side of the tub, and turned to look out the open bathroom door. Now what? He needed to think about this.
Chandler went to the kitchen and got another beer. In the living room he sat at his desk looking out the window into the night. It was still snowing. A snowplow was making its way slowly down the street. He saw his own reflection superimposed on the window, looking back at him like some fucking ghost. Maybe he shouldn’t get too hammered. There was too much to do. Christ, maybe he definitely should get hammered and stay that way.
The beer began to create the frequent need to pee, and for awhile he used the kitchen sink to avoid returning to the bathroom. The next time he said fuck it and strode purposefully into the bathroom.
He tried to focus only on the toilet bowl, but out of the corner of his eye he thought something was different. He turned. His mother’s jaw had dropped and her mouth was gaping open as if in surprise. Still holding himself, the image flashed through Chandler’s mind of pissing into her open mouth. He began to laugh, then stopped short as he saw his mother’s staring eyes. How could he think such a thing? He turned back to the toilet and as he peed, rapped the knuckles of his free hand against the wall above the toilet. Rat-a-tat-tat. Those eyes. Those eyes. Windows to the soul. Where was her soul? Where was his?
Chandler rushed across the hall to his bedroom and came back with a pair of sunglasses, wrap arounds from his hipster days that he didn’t have the balls to wear anymore. He positioned them on his mother’s face and stood back. Weird effect, but at least he didn’t have to see her eyes.
He left the bathroom and got another beer. He began to take the Doktor Flesh books from the shelves above his desk and carefully arrange them on the living room floor. When he’d finished he pulled up a chair and stared at the grand design spread out before him. Chandler leaned forward and the nearly full can of beer slipped from his hand. He tried to catch it with his other hand, but it had already hit the floor. Beer began to soak into the row of books closest him. Oh hell, he had to be more careful. These books were original editions. He stood suddenly, and the chair fell over behind him.
David Chandler moaned and twisted in the bed. In his nightmare blood dripped from the knife gripped in his hand onto the naked body of his mother lying at his feet, and he was shouting. He woke with a start and anxiously turned on the light beside the bed. His throat was dry and he was very thirsty. He became aware that the sheets and his naked body were spotted with blood. In his sleep he had given himself many small cuts and nicks with the knife he saw was gripped in his right hand.
As he brought the knife closer to his face, a hand gloved in black leather reached out and took it from him. He looked up and saw Lydia Chelm kneeling by the bed. She turned to smile at him, her eyes dark and piercing, her hair drawn tightly back from her face, stretching the skin on her skull. She threw the knife over her shoulder where it stuck in the floor, then reached forward and cupped his balls in her leather glove, gripped and twisted. Chandler gasped as she looked at him and brought the index finger of her free hand to her lips and whispered “Shhhhhh.” She smiled sweetly, and opened her mouth. Chandler saw that her teeth were filed to perfect razor points.
She dipped her head to take him in her mouth and bit down hard. Chandler screamed as she twisted her head savagely back and forth. Over the curve of Lydia’s shuddering back he saw Doktor Flesh in the dim light, smiling back at him, his lenses glittering.
Chandler slowly woke lying on his bed, nauseous and disoriented. He suddenly jerked awake, sat upright and reached down to grab at his crotch. The sudden movement caused brutal pressure in his brain. He lay back and let his eyes go out of focus. He realized he’d pissed the bed. There was that familiar smell and wetness. Hadn’t done that for a long time. Fuck it. What the hell. He lay there and tried to think.
Ugly fucking dream, that’s for sure. It occurred to him that maybe everything from the night before was a dream. Just another drunken binge. He had a moment of hope. His mother was still alive and he was still in the dead end of his life. Well, that was better than the way he remembered it.
He struggled out of bed, pulled on his flannel robe and slippers and stepped across the hall to the bathroom doorway. He knew he was fucked before he got there. There was a bad smell, getting worse, something turning sour. She was lying in the tub like he’d left her, gaping jaw, the wrap-around shades, looking like she’d just been thrown from a motorcycle.
As he leaned forward to close her jaw he saw that a mushy substance had partially filled her mouth and run down her chin. What the fuck was that? More blood had run from her nose and had turned black. He took some toilet tissue to wipe her chin clean, then tried to close the jaw. He couldn’t budge it. He poked the flesh of her bare arms and shoulders. Stiff as a board.
Chandler turned and shuffled down the hall. It had stopped snowing during the night and now the living room was filled with harsh sunlight. He saw the Doktor Flesh paperbacks spread across the floor. He had forgotten doing that. The pages of two of them were wet and swollen. He bent and carefully picked them up. Something had spilled on them. Beer. He hoped they weren’t ruined.
In the kitchen he opened the refrigerator door slowly, expecting to be screwed there as well, but there was one beer left, thank god. He went back to the living room and looked at the books still on the floor. He put on a Beatles album. Chandler began picking the books up from the floor. When he’d finished replacing them on the shelves, he sat down at his desk.
What was he going to do? He couldn’t just sit here drinking beer. That’s what he wanted to do, but there was the smell, for one thing. He didn’t know anything about decomposition. He never thought he’d need to know anything about it, except maybe for some story he might write, but he could just make that up. What about his mother? Doktor Flesh had an acid vat in his cellar for this kind of thing. That guy in that teenage Frankenstein movie had an alligator in a tank. Yeah, well, this was a New York apartment.
Maybe he could get some acid, sulfuric acid. Where would he get it? Could anybody get it, just walk in off the street and say “Give me ten gallons of acid”? She was already in the tub. He could do it right there. But would it fuck up the plumbing? Eat through the tub? Maybe he could cut her up and take the pieces out in small garbage bags like on The Sopranos.
He shook his head. He knew he couldn’t do any of that. He was fucked and he knew it. His mother’s housekeeper would start wondering where she was pretty soon. Somebody, the cops probably, would come around to check with him pretty soon, someday, any day, whenever. What was he going to do then?
He sat up straight in the chair. Okay, the first thing was to call in sick. He obviously wasn’t going to work today. He laughed. Maybe never. Then get more beer, some food, more ice, maybe some deodorizers, etc etc etc, blah blah blah.
Chandler made the call to his job. He brushed his teeth at the kitchen sink, fuck shaving, later for that, got dressed and went out into the fresh snow and sunlight.
He felt better by the time he returned to his apartment. Braced by the cold of the winter day and the brightness of the snow, loaded down with his supplies, he felt a sense of some accomplishment, some purpose, even some hope. He began putting beer in the refrigerator.
Later, in the bathroom with his mother, he set out the dozen Air-Wick bottles that he’d bought. The final effect was a little heavy, to be sure, but Chandler felt it successfully masked the smell created by whatever bacterial processes were going on in his mother, or at least made it seem like something else. Something else.
Chandler sat down uneasily on the closed toilet seat. He’d become aware of a bowel movement pressing on him, and while he knew it wouldn’t make any difference, not really, he just couldn’t do it here with his mother in the tub beside him. Christ, he’d have to go out again, find some establishment that didn’t restrict its restrooms to customers only, or maybe he’d have to order something just to take a dump.
Grow up, grow up. Be a man about this. Your mother used to change your diapers. She won’t care. Especially since she’s dead. He raised the seat and dropped his pants. He sat down on the toilet and began to cry.
He was on his knees beside the tub, washing blood from his mother’s face with the almond soap she’d given him when he heard a knock at his apartment door. A rush of adrenalin surged through him. He didn’t move. He waited. There was another knock, and a voice called out, “David? Are you there?”
Chandler couldn’t believe it. It sounded like his girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend. He knew it was her. He went out to the door and said, “Who is it?”
“David, it’s Annie. Hi!”
He tried to slow his breathing. He didn’t move.
“David?” she said again.
Leaving the chain in place, he opened the door a crack. He saw her heart-shaped face peering in at him. “Hi,” she said, then frowned. “Can’t I come in? What’s wrong?”
What’s wrong? he thought. He wanted to laugh. Anyway, he hadn’t seen or heard from her in six weeks, and now she was at his door as though nothing had happened.
“This isn’t a good time,” he said. “I’m in kind of a mess here.”
He saw her fidget where she stood. “What are you talking about? Please let me in. This is silly. I want to see you.”
Chandler slowly unlatched the chain and opened the door. Fuck it, it wasn’t like this was the first stupid thing he’d done lately. She stepped inside, leaving little tracks of snow. She was wearing jeans and cowboy boots and a leather bomber jacket with the collar turned up, and held a pair of furry ear muffs in her hand. He saw her nostrils flare.
“My god! What’s that smell?” she said, looking around the living room.
“I told you I had a problem here. I’m cleaning something up.” He looked at her. She was beautiful as usual. “Listen, I’m surprised to see you. How’d you know I’d be home?” He paused. “I didn’t hear the buzzer. How’d you get in, anyway?”
“Somebody was coming in, so I just followed. I just took a chance you’d be here.”
“Well,” he said, “it’s nice to see you.” What was he doing? He couldn’t let her stay here. “But believe me, this is a really really bad time. Can we get together later?”
“I guess so,” she said, “but since I’m here I need a favor. I need to use your bathroom, okay?”
“Oh no, no!” he said loudly. “It’s the plumbing. That’s the problem, it’s the plumbing. You can’t go in there!”
“It’ll just take a second,” she said, giving him that look that told him how stupid and unreasonable he was being. And before he could stop her, she darted around him and went down the hall to the bathroom.
Chandler moaned and sat down at his desk. Man, she’d come up just to use his fucking bathroom. It just went from bad to worse. There was nothing he could do. He leaned forward, held his head in his hands and waited. He heard her shocked cry.
Chandler looked up as she ran from the bathroom and stumbled to a stop across the room from him. This was like some sitcom. Her eyes were wide and her jaw worked up and down until she finally spoke.
“That’s your mother! What happened? What did you do?”
He stood and made what he hoped were calming motions with his hands. “I can explain that, Annie. It wasn’t my fault?”
He took a step toward her and saw her catch her breath. “But what happened? How long has she been there? She’s swelling up!”
Chandler stopped and pulled his hand across his mouth.
“Have you called the police?” When he didn’t answer, she said more frantically, “David, you’ve got to call the police!”
“I think it’s too late for that, Annie,” he said. He saw the look on her face as he stepped forward.
He knew enough this time to close the eyes and tie the jaw shut with a dish towel so it wouldn’t fall open later. He’d laid Annie on her back on top of his mother in the tub. Need more ice, he thought. He looked at her sadly, then picked up the small hammer he’d used. He was washing off the blood and hair when he heard his apartment buzzer, the one Annie should’ve used.
Chandler laughed shortly, shook his head, and went to the intercom by his front door. He pressed the button and said, “Who is it?”
“Hey, David. It’s Martin Bobb! I need to see you about the contract. Can I come up?”
David Chandler, Jr. shook his head and took a breath. He balanced the claw hammer in his hand and spoke into the intercom. “Sure!” he said. “Come on up!”