by

Dan LeRoy

It would be wise for you, my friend — if you want to get out of this cell alive — it would be wise for you to stop smiling.

That’s the trouble of America — you’re American, of course. Yes? Yes. The trouble of America, the sickness of America, is the smiling. Always smiling. Like this, see? Like in the Batman movies — like Heath Ledger with the green hair?

Of course you don’t know what I mean. I can tell by your face. But at least you stopped smiling, for just a moment. That’s something, eh?

OK, sure, I’ll sit. I’m making you nervous, with this pacing around? You’d pace too, my friend, if you’d seen them. You would pace too.

So, I’ll sit, then. And I’ll tell you. Oh, you’re afraid? You’re scooting away like I have fleas or something? You see an immigrant, you think, Uh oh, one of those Spics. Wetbacks, you still call us? Even if you have no idea where we’re from? Uh huh. I know your type. How could I not? Two years in America, I know your type all right. See them every day. And yet even though I’m much bigger than you — yes? — it’s me who has more to fear. From you.

Now the smile again. Stop it, please. Oh, I see. I crowd you a little, you stop. You’re afraid of being beaten. Or maybe worse. You know what they say about these jails.

OK, OK. I see how to make you stop smiling now. I just give a hint of threat, and you go into your shell like a fucking turtle. Good to know.

But I’m not joking about the smiling. Not at all.

You have a name? Tomas? It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Tomas. Well, not really. But we can be civil, maybe. I’m Gustavo. You can just call me Gui.

Now you want to go sit on the floor, in the corner? You’re still scared? Be my guest. I can stretch out on this board, then, at least a little. Better for my back.

You’re in here why, Mr. Tomas? Don’t say. Let me guess. You drink, you drive, you lose, eh? Ah — I thought so. The rumpled suit, the bloodshot eyes. You still stink, if you don’t mind my saying.

Me, I’m here because of smiles.

You don’t get it, I see. But I’ll come to that.

Probably you’ve guessed that I’m not born here. Venezuela. Probably you’ve heard of Venezuela on the news, though I doubt you can find it on a map; you’re like most Americans that way, too.

What you do know, I guess, is that the country has fallen apart. Chavez, he dies, and when he does, everything goes to shit. But back when he’s alive, he makes the Americans take water, and they don’t like it, right? Heh heh.

You’ll never see it, probably, Mr. Tomas, but Venezuela is a beautiful place. I haven’t visited since I came here two years ago. You don’t get many trips home if you work in a Go-Mart — even you know that. But the beaches, the forests, the weather—it’s paradise. I think I’m really doing something, when I come here, but I’m a fool to leave. I figure that out pretty fast. I follow a girl who comes here to school, the girl follows some other idiot — and here we are.

Thing is, I would have been OK, you see. Girls are everywhere here in America, pretty ones. But it’s not long after I get here that I start to notice the smiling.

Now you smile again, I see. I get it. You think this is funny, and I wish you were right, Mr. Tomas. But it isn’t. So stop it, please.

Anyway, my story. So I’ve been in America maybe two months. Already I’m starting to see that the things I hear, all of them maybe aren’t one hundred percent true. Jobs, they’re tough to find. These guys you always hear about on Fox News, that want to pay illegals lots of money under the table, I don’t run into any of them. Maybe because I’m legal? Whatever. There doesn’t seem to be any work for me here.

I’m walking home one night from the bus stop. I’ve just been uptown to apply for a night shift job as a dishwasher, some bar or other, and now I’m ready for bed. If I can sleep; if the old man who lives below me isn’t yelling at his wife all night about their dog.

No one’s out on the street, and the light at the end of my block goes out right as I walk by. Pffftttt. Fine. I know the way to my door by now.

Then I see a young lady walking toward me. Pretty. By herself. And she smiles at me. Smiling big. Nice. Maybe I forget all about my girlfriend, finally.

But the thing is, there’s something not exactly right with this smile. I’m watching her, and the smile gets bigger and bigger and bigger, until — how can I say it? — her mouth is her whole face. All teeth, just lips and teeth. Yes, I know, Mr. Tomas — you think I’m drunk, that I imagined this. But I’m not. I didn’t.

That mouth, that smile, it gets wider, and her mouth opens, like she’s going to tell me hello. But I don’t think that’s it. I think of that fairy tale, of Red Riding Hood. “What a big mouth you have, Grandma!” Or whatever she said.

I’m backing away, and she keeps coming towards me. Just body and mouth. A mouth on legs. It’s maybe like her head is a red flower, one of those flowers that sucks in bugs and drowns them, before it eats them. The lips are petals, and they’re horrible and wet and waiting.

So I run. And I don’t look back until I’m in my apartment, chain across, bolt turned. All the lights on.

OK, so you say, Big deal. This happens once, maybe it’s something you eat or drink, Gui. You don’t get enough sleep, maybe. Yes, yes, I know. I can see you thinking this.

But it happens again. And again. Not every day, no, not every week or even every month. Christ almighty. I’d have been in here long ago if that were true. But it happens just enough that I’m always wondering. Always afraid, at least a little.

Once it’s the old man who lives below me, out watering his plants as it’s getting dark, His head turns into one of those terrible red flowers. I can’t see his eyes anymore, but I can feel them anyway. And I know they’re looking for a bug to pull inside those big, slobbering lips, under the water at the bottom of his wrinkled throat.

Once it’s his wife, walking her little dog. Her head, it turns inside out and it’s like it just…blossoms.

And the dog, it smiles at me too.

And once, just a couple of weeks ago, it’s a little blonde boy on a playground I walk past, late at night, and this time, when he turns around to me and smiles, I see his whole face flip itself inside out. Slowly. Like taking a pillowcase off a pillow. The boy’s lips, they get bigger and brighter and redder, until they cover his whole head like a mask, and his teeth snap and chatter just like a skeleton’s. Before they spread apart and disappear under the skin. And his tongue, it lolls from side to side between the lips as if it’s some idiot animal, a…a slug, maybe. A slug that’s starving.

I run again, and I wonder, why is this boy so late on the playground, all by himself? And I start to think — and I think I’m right about this — that he’s there because he’s waiting for me. Waiting just to smile at me. And it turns my insides to water. I almost shit myself right there in the street.

I think about things I’ve read. You might wonder, how much philosophy are you going to get from the clerk at the Go-Mart, eh? But I was a student, Mr. Tomas. I study philosophy and psychology still, and I think of this when I’m home alone, safe behind the locks on my door, and the light in my front room is burning bright.

There are lots of stories, you know, about you Americans smiling, and about how you don’t understand how people in other places will interpret this. When they brought me in here, of course they took my wallet, where I carry this clipping from one of your big magazines. The Atlantic. It was published just last year, but I can quote it to you almost perfectly anyway. I burned it into my brain. So here it is:

In the countries with more immigrants, people smiled in order to bond socially. Compared to the less-diverse nations, they were more likely to say smiles were a sign someone “wants to be a close friend of yours.” But in the countries that are more uniform, people were more likely to smile to show they were superior to one another.

I’ve learned those words like they’re lines in a play, Mr. Tomas. Because I think they’re true.

But there’s just one thing I think they’re missing, the people who do these studies. And it’s a big thing.

I think these smiles you Americans are so fond of, I don’t think they’re an accident. I don’t think Americans want to be close friends of mine. And I don’t think it’s only that Americans think they’re superior.

I think it’s that they’re hungry. Hungry all the time. It’s always been that way with America. Hungry, hungry, hungry. You eat and eat and still you aren’t filled.

And sometimes, just sometimes, I can see the smiles for what they are.

That’s what happens tonight. That’s why I’m here. Because all at once, in the Go-Mart, everyone is smiling at once. A girl who comes to buy cigarettes; a fat man who wants a lottery ticket and twenty dollars regular unleaded; a thin man with his coffee and a sad old woman with her Twinkies. Even a baby in its stroller. Its lips, they peel right back like a banana, and even though it has only the two teeth, the tongue lolls and sways, and I look down into the baby’s neck and I can see the pool down there, waiting for me.

And for just a moment, I think of Venezuela, and how I used to dive from a cliff, a small one, into the ocean and feel it cover me up. How for just a second, I would be shocked, paralyzed, even, when that water hit me. This would be a little like that, I think. I would float like a bug and relax and not worry about what came next.

Then I’m screaming. Screaming and thrashing, knocking over boxes of candy and cigarette cartons and breaking the merchandise to get away.

And then I’m sedated. And then I’m here. With you.

You’re smiling again, Mr. Tomas. I figured you would. I figured you’d be too drunk or too dumb or just too American to understand my story, and yet it helps me to tell it anyway. So thank you for that.

Now you want to be friendly? Well, no thanks. You can just stay in the corner. You can just back up, because I’m tired now, and a little sick. And you can stop your fucking smiling. I mean it.

I mean it, Mr. Tomas. Back up. Back away. I won’t look at those big lips, those big teeth. I won’t look down into your neck and think of floating in a pool. I won’t. I won’t. I won’t look at that smile, that smile that’s even worse than the Joker and that dead red grin of his.

I won’t —


Authorities “Baffled” By Grisly Jail Slaying

(AP) Police killed a Charleston man who murdered a fellow inmate in a bizarre and gruesome cannibalistic crime at the South Central Regional Jail over the holiday weekend, according to state and local law enforcement officials.

The attack occurred late Saturday in a holding cell. The assailant, 53-year-old Thomas Loeb, was an accountant who was being held at the regional jail temporarily on a drunken driving charge.

Loeb apparently attacked and began eating his cellmate, 23-year-old Gustavo Melian, then fought off a half-dozen police, forcing an officer to use lethal force to subdue him, police said. Loeb was killed by a close-range gunshot to the head.

Melian had been arrested on a charge of disturbing the peace earlier Saturday. He was awaiting a psychiatric evaluation after he threatened customers outside the Go-Mart on Corridor G. Melian had worked at the store as a cashier for the past eight months.

According to a spokesman for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, which oversees the jail, the attack occurred while the correctional officer in charge was using the restroom. The officer, who has not been named, has been suspended without pay while the investigation continues.

“Having these two individuals share a cell, even temporarily, demonstrates a lapse in judgement,” said Capt. Todd Shelton. “To then leave them unattended, even if both had been arrested for nonviolent crimes, is simply unacceptable.”

Critics of the jail say Loeb and Melian were forced to share a cell because of overcrowding at the facility. County Commissioner Kent Carter Jr., a longtime critic of how the jail is run, issued a statement calling for a new, larger facility to be constructed.

Authorities struggled to explain how Loeb, who stood just 5 feet 8 inches and weighed 135 pounds, could have overpowered the 6 foot 2 inch, 200-pound Melian. Initial tests showed no sign of drugs in Loeb’s body, but a more detailed blood examination that can screen for the presence of new, powerful synthetic drugs and hallucinogens is currently being conducted.

It was other parts of Loeb’s autopsy that posed the biggest questions, however.

State Medical Examiner Cyrus Webster, who conducted the autopsy, said he was “shocked” when he saw Loeb’s stomach, which was swollen to more than twice its normal size with large chunks of undigested human flesh.

“Had he not been shot by police,” Webster told the Associated Press, “there’s no doubt he would have died soon anyway, and died incredibly painfully. There’s no way his body could have processed the amount of material in his stomach. The police might actually have done him a favor.”

Even more baffling to Webster was how Loeb was able to swallow the chunks of flesh discovered nearly whole in his stomach.

“How does it all get down his throat?” asked Webster. “I can’t tell you yet. I mean, it’s like the guy had to have been all mouth.”

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