July 12: “Cock Sculpting” by Heather Fowler

Greetings, Story366! Today’s story comes from Heather Fowler’s collection Suspended Heart, out from Aqueous Books. I bring this up so soon in the post—usually I don’t get to the story until later—because the story I’m writing about today, “Cock Sculpting,” incites a memory I haven’t thought of in a while, the time back in college when I named a set of bowling pins.

My last two years of college, I lived in a three-story old house off campus with six or seven guys, engineering and physics majors I met my freshman year when I was a hopeful and hopeless mechanical engineer. I lived up in the attic, other guys lived in the four or five bedrooms, and we crammed another one or two guys into rooms in the basement. That house burned down about ten years ago—sadly, killing a young woman who fell asleep on a couch on the front porch while smoking—but me and these ragtag young scientists had a pretty good time in that house, basically acting like idiots, like little boys, one last time before we graduated, went our separate ways, grew up.

The dining room had an old cabinet inlaid into the wall, and when we moved in, we found a whole bunch of board games inside the drawers. We had chess and checkers, Stratego, Tournament Labyrinth, and a little basketball game, the kind that you flick a button and make a little plastic ball pop up toward a basket. Also in the drawer, for whatever reason, was a child’s bowling set, a plastic hollow ball the size of softball and ten brightly colored plastic pins. I may have had the same set as a kid, or maybe there was one in my kindergarten class.

Over the course of two years, we played all the games, even got decent at Tournament Labyrinth after hours and hours of practice. We also played, in all sorts of manners, with the bowling set. We were nineteen and twenty, immature, and often bored. We would have played with jacks or tiddlywinks or a hoop and a stick if they were in the drawer, made some stupid game out of it to pass the time.

And here’s the part of the story that “Cock Sculpting” reminded me of: Because I was even more bored, super-bored, I named all the bowling pins. And because they were phallus-shaped, I gave them phallic names, scribbling them on the pins with permanent marker. There were ten, so I started with the following:

1. Dick
2. Peter
3. Johnson
4. Paul Robert (aka, P. Bob)
5. Woody
6. Willie
7. Rod
8. Pepe (Spanish!)
9. Frank

My favorite, however, and perhaps my crowning achievement as a creative writer:

10. Eric Sean

Go ahead: Say it, “Eric Sean,” quickly. Works better than saying “St. Nicholas” really fast to make “Santa Claus.”

Anyway, Suspended Heart is an eclectic, wonderful collection. I read a few stories, including the title piece, “Suspended Heart,” but then couldn’t resist jumping around to some of the more interesting-sounding titles I spied in the table of contents. I read “Crack-Smoking Parrots” and then “Cock Sculpting.” “Suspended Heart” is an absurd, magically real story about a mall security guard finding a still-beating human heart and putting it on display outside a Bath and Body Works. “Crack-Smoking Parrots” is exactly what it sounds like, though said parrots are anthropomorphized into literary magazine editors for the bird world (Note: That is not a typo).

Today’s story, “Cock Sculpting,” is a classic deal-with-the-devil tale: Sculptor Verdana Lane accepts unending fame and fortune in exchange for one night with Satan. As the title suggests, Verdana sculpts cocks, realistic reproductions of real men’s penises, a practice which has gotten her nowhere in the art world. Satan comes along and brokers a rationale, honest deal—there’s no loopholes or exploitation of double-meanings—and when Verdana hesitates, he sweetens the deal by removing her advanced-stage lupus. Verdana bites, and then the night together commences. I was sort of expecting Fowler to take this in some ironic direction, as “a night with” is very vague and could include anything; Satan could have traveled  the globe, murdering babies, and Verdana would have had to help. Nope. No tricks. Satan just wants to fuck her her until sun-up, and that he does, along with his fourteen-inch Eric Sean, insatiability, and lust for unapologetic positions. Remember, too, that Verdana is frail, lupus just about running its course. Interestingly, Satan doesn’t alter her, doesn’t heal her, doesn’t transform her into a porn star. It’s almost refreshing that he takes sickly, hook-nosed Verdana as she is, sort of the violent-sex-with-Satan story for the accept-who-you-are movement.

Verdana, as promised, gets really famous, really fast. She sells cock after cock, gets wealthy, becomes a media darling and a hot item is social circles. Satan pays his debts, no loopholes, no more lupus. So what’s the catch?

Verdana starts to feel like a president bowling or playing basketball, his underlings letting him win every time. Or like Homer as the Chosen One of the Stonecutters. Everything Verdana touches turns to gold (not literally), but she grows bored with it. She wants honesty, integrity, and humanity. Satan, who kind of hangs around as a fan/friend, gives her another deal, another night in exchange for all this reality, for an honest opinion of her work (though at first, he wants her soul instead of another night together). Verdana talks him into the sex—ten times more violent and painful than the first time—and suddenly Verdana is human again.

I won’t go any further into the plot, as I’ve probably gone too far already. The themes really take over at this point, though, as Fowler is not writing a story about pepes diablos or art or the nature of evil. She’s really writing about fame, its cost, its payoff. It’s a familiar avenue, this deal-with-the devil story, from the Bible to Goethe to Marlowe to Irving, to the Rolling Stones and Al Pacino. In this book of absurd, carefree stories, “Cock Sculpting” hits the right balance of silly, serious, and tragic, but most of all observant. Human desire, like in all its predecessors, is the one who’s really on trial.

Heather Fowler just put out a new novel, Beautiful Ape Girl Baby that I’m excited about. She is the author or co-author of a few other books of stories and nonfiction. She’s extremely cool, too (we’ve read together a couple of times), and I’m glad I finally got into Suspended Heart. It’s a lot of fun, but there’s a lot more to it than just that.

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