At ten in the morning, there was a knock at Misty Fontaine’s front door. Misty hadn’t heard it at first. She was in her darkened living room watching her favorite film, Rebel Without a Cause, while swirling cheese from an aerosol can onto a plateful of Triscuits. The volume was turned all the way up in an effort to drown out the incessant high-pitched jingle of “Turkey in the Straw” that emanated from the neighborhood ice cream truck and to combat the noisy construction that was taking place on the vacant land behind her property.
The knocking went on for several minutes, but Misty’s mind was too caught up in the drama between Buzz Gunderson, Jim Stark, and Judy. Rebel was the first film Misty had ever appeared in. She had just turned seventeen and landed a spot as an extra, thinking it was the start to a promising acting career. Though she had been on the set only briefly, the memory of the experience was remarkably vivid, as though it was stored in the library of her mind and she could pull it off the shelf whenever she wished to look at it. For two days, her gaze had been fixed on James Dean’s pompadour, squinty blue eyes, and bee-stung lips. On the second day, when she had been watching him eat lunch under the actor’s tent, he was called to the set and left behind a half-eaten sandwich. She slid into his warm, vacant chair and devoured the remainder of his roast beef on rye.
Triscuit crumbs sprayed from Misty’s mouth while she recited Natalie Wood’s lines as if she, too, was playing Judy. It was during a touching scene between Jim and Judy that her ears detected the rapping at her door. Jim donned a red jacket with the collar turned up, and he was leaning toward Judy as she apologized for being mean to him. Misty paused the movie and waited for the disturbance to stop, but it didn’t. After rising from her roost, her liver-spotted hands closed her robe, the one she had taken from Audrey Hepburn’s dressing room, as a keepsake from her time on They All Laughed. It had once been snow white and fluffy like an expensive hotel towel, but now it was gray and thin, fraying at the elbows and hem, with egg yolk and mustard stains stuck to the fibers. Misty shuffled to the door in her bedroom slippers and lightly patted the spongy pink rollers in her platinum hair. She peeked through the curtains and saw a middle-aged woman in a purple velour tracksuit, who looked like a dumpy, low-class version of Ann-Margret. The woman was holding a Pekingese in her left arm and her free hand was still busy knocking.
“What do you need?” Misty said through the closed door.
“It’s Fran, from down the street. I need to talk to you.”
“What’s it regarding?”
“There’s a head in your yard.”
Misty opened the door, her eyes stinging as they adjusted to the daylight. “What’s that?”
“There’s a human head in your yard.” Fran twisted around and pointed. “I was taking Humphrey for his morning walk, and there it was.” Fran had more hair than her head could hold. It was all piled on top of her skull and held in place with hair combs and a thick crust of hairspray.
Misty shifted her body so she could see past Fran. There was a shiny crow perched on top of what looked like a prop from one of the B-horror movies she had worked on. Since it was smack dab in the middle of the large lawn and several yards away from her front door, she had difficulty discerning whether it was in fact a human head. The bird tilted its head back and let out a caw as if to notify its flock of the find.
“It must be some kind of a prank,” said Misty. “It can’t be real.”
“It sure looks real to me. And Humphrey smelled it from thirty feet away. That’s how I seen
Humphrey had a tiny flattened face with wide, glassy black eyes and a pronounced frown,
which were all barely visible underneath thick tufts of cream fur.
“They’re predicting another hot one today. That head is gonna stink to high heaven and attract all kinds of animals,” said Fran.
“Well, what am I supposed do with it?” Misty shrugged her shoulders.
“You should call 911 before the neighborhood kids see it.” Fran started down the steps of the porch and then turned back to Misty. “And you might want to get that buzzer fixed. I hurt my hand pounding on your door.”
Misty looked at the doorbell button which was dangling by colored wires, from when she had deactivated it several years ago. She took another glance at the head before shutting the door.
After forty years of bit parts, her only real claim to fame was the time Warren Beatty copped a quick feel of her right breast, during the time she played a high school student in Splendor in the Grass. But she had never given up the hope of having one glorious moment in the limelight. She held onto that dream like a person gripping onto the edge of a cliff. It was her motivation for getting up in the morning.
After her chat with Fran, Misty made her way back to her chair and picked up the handset from the telephone that was on the nearby side table.
“This is 911, please state the nature of your emergency,” said a gravelly female voice.
“Hello. There is a head on my lawn and I need it removed.”
“There’s a head on your lawn?” The operator posed the question with no inflection, like she had received calls like this on a daily basis.
“Yes. A head turned up on my front lawn and I need somebody to take care of it.”
“Is this a joke, ma’am?” she said, flatly.
“It certainly is not,” Misty said. She took a deep breath and tried to maintain her composure.
“Well, whose head is it?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea.”
“There’s a hostage situation going on right now at the Pioneer Bank. I don’t think there are any units available to check out your head.”
“What am I supposed to do until somebody gets here?”
“Ma’am, if it’s just a head, it ain’t going nowhere.”
Misty tapped her foot and wrapped the phone cord tightly around her finger. “Aren’t you even going to ask me for my address?”
“What’s your address?”
Misty clenched her fist. “51 Two Notch Road.”
“52 Notch Road, got it.”
“No, don’t hang up. I said, 51 Two Notch Road.”
“Right. A squad car will come out as soon as one’s available.”
“Wait. Read that address back to me,” said Misty. But there was just a dial tone on the other end.
She returned to the front room and peeled back the curtain from the window. There were two dogs playing tug-of-war with the head. One was a yellow mutt with matted fur and the other was a fat brown basset hound. Misty flung the door open and rushed at them. “Get away from there!” She swatted them with one of her slippers and smacked the yellow one’s flank so hard that it let out a yip. The mutt took off down the street with the basset bumbling behind it. She reached down and returned the slipper to her foot. It was only half past ten, but she could already hear “Turkey in the Straw.” It always sounded like it was in front of her house even when it was several blocks away. She started to walk back inside but stopped, deciding to look at the head.
The right side of the face rested on the grass. Misty deduced that it had belonged to a man because it had side burns and short black hair. It looked like something out of Zombie Ninjas III, one of the last flicks she worked on. The skin was pale-green and waxy, and little bits of it had been ripped from the face and neck, exposing the decaying tissue underneath. One of the dogs had torn the left ear, and it was dangling by a slim strip of skin. A few maggots trickled like tears out from under the eyelids. It gave off an ugly putrid smell, mingled with a tinge of sweetness that made Misty gag. She covered her mouth and lowered her head, which was when she saw that the neck had been cleanly severed from its body.
“You okay?” said a male voice.
Misty looked up to see the colorful ice cream truck parked in front of her yard. She had gotten
so used to hearing its circusy chime that she hadn’t realized it had pulled up next to her. The ice
cream man was a fellow in his thirties, wearing tight Wranglers and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He had blue eyes like Paul Newman that were quite striking against his tan skin. His receding blonde hair was bleached at the tips.
He stepped down from his truck and walked toward her, holding a frozen treat. “Good God! What the hell is that thing?” He had a slight lisp and reeked of Old Spice.
“What’s it look like? It’s a head.”
“Why’s it on your grass?”
“How am I supposed to know?” She threw up her hands. “It just turned up here.”
“Didja call somebody about it?”
“I called 911 but they didn’t seem to be in a hurry to send anyone.” She longed to return to the dark refuge of her house and kept looking at her front door.
“It’s starting to attract flies.” His hand swatted the air around his face. “Well, here, I thought you might could use this. It’s gonna be a real scorcher today.” He smiled and handed her a Popsicle. His teeth were the same shade of yellow as his hair.
Misty held the wooden stick between her thumb and index fingers. She tapped her rollers with her free hand while inching toward her porch. “Well, thank you for the ice pop.”
“Don’t mention it.” He climbed back in his truck and drove slowly away.
She went back to her chair and watched forty minutes of her movie before there was another rap at her door. It was Fran again, with Humphrey held captive in her arms.
“I noticed that the head’s still there. Did you call the police?”
Humphrey squirmed and growled as though he had more important things to do with his day.
His body ran like a motor as he panted in an effort to cool down from underneath the blanket of
fur, and his pink tongue poked out of his black mouth like a little piece of ham.
“I called 911, but I don’t know when anybody’s going to show up,” Misty said.
“Can’t you call again? The kids are gonna be traumatized by that thing.”
“They don’t look traumatized.” Misty pointed toward the head.
While Fran was talking to Misty, two young boys had run over to the head and were jabbing it with broken branches. The ice cream truck was teetering down the street and rolled up along the sidewalk in front of Misty’s house. The pair threw down their sticks and bee-lined to it. A tan arm poked through the window and handed one of them an ice cream bar.
Fran put a hand on her hip. “That’s certainly not something children should be playing with.”
“Well, that truck is going to draw them right to it, if it stays there,” Misty said. She was becoming increasingly irritated that the head had become her responsibility just because it had shown up on her property.
“Please, just call again.” As Fran walked across the yard toward her own house, she kept looking over at the head. Humphrey tried to wrestle free of her grasp, impatient to have his chance with it.
“This is 911, please state the nature of your emergency,” said the same voice as before.
“I called earlier about the head on my lawn. When is somebody coming out here?”
“Ma’am, I told you somebody would go over there when they could. This line is for emergencies only.”
“But it’s been an hour since I called you, and people are hassling me about it.”
“Ma’am, do you realize that it’s against the law to call 911 when it’s not an emergency?”
“But, it’s a human head.” Misty returned the handset to its cradle once she realized the line was dead. She poured herself some iced tea and went out to her back porch. She sat in an old cane rocker, sipping from a mason jar, and watched giant John Deere tractors scoop up big chunks of earth. For the past several weeks, Misty’s peaceful existence had been violated by the construction workers and their machines. First, the roaring chain saws ripped through the forest, and then she was subjected to Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring from boom boxes and shrill beeps that warned when the bulldozers were backing up. No one seemed to care that this commotion was disturbing her. She couldn’t even enjoy the serenity that the countryside was supposed to offer.
When Misty finished her tea, she retreated to her bedroom for a nap. She popped plugs in her ears and slipped under the worn sheets. Once she drifted to sleep, she dreamed she was on the beach, kissing Warren Beatty while the waves rushed over their bodies, like Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. Warren had just yanked down the shoulder strap of her bathing suit when she was awoken by a banging on her door. She opened it, expecting to see a pair of police officers standing on her porch, but was dismayed to see Fran and Humphrey again.
“It’s been over two hours since I told you about that head, and it’s still there.”
Several people had gathered around the head. Some had their arms crossed and heads tipped to one side, like they were viewing a museum exhibit. A few of them placed a wide berth between themselves and the head, and were only a few steps away from Misty’s porch.
“Where did it come from? Has anyone called the police?” said a man with spidery legs in
denim cut-off shorts.
“I don’t know. I think Fran is asking the owner of the house,” said a heavy man in a sweat-stained wife-beater that was a size too small for him. His navel looked like a gaping mouth gasping for breath under the tight white cotton.
A brunette in a green terrycloth sundress covered her daughter’s eyes. “Don’t look at it, Shawna,” she said.
The ice cream truck pulled up again, and the small crowd meandered toward it, while keeping
their eyes on the head.
“I called 911 again,” Misty told Fran. “It’s not my fault that nobody came.”
“Well, I just phoned the local news. That should get somebody’s attention.” As Fran pivoted to leave, Humphrey’s bushy tail brushed across Misty’s face. He turned his head back to look at her, as if to show that he was rather pleased with himself.
Misty called to Fran. “The local news? Am I going to be on TV?”
“If they show up,” Fran said.
Misty palmed her rollers and scurried to her spare bedroom. She sat on a tufted stool in front of a table cluttered with cosmetics, hair products and dusty perfume bottles. Armed with a can of Aqua Net, she slipped the rollers from her hair and tried to create Marilyn Monroe’s hairstyle from one of the pictures framing the big brass mirror. When she was done, and the fog of spray had settled, she smoothed on bisque foundation, filled her sparse eyebrows with pencil and dabbed rose lipstick on her thin mouth. She then rose from the stool and maneuvered through the racks of clothes and costumes crowding the room. Her fingers flipped through garment bags until they found a strappy black sequined evening gown. After she slipped it on, she moved from side to side in front of the mirror. Though she bore more of a resemblance to an aged Barbara Stanwyck than she did to Marilyn Monroe, she was pleased with her appearance. She felt pretty, and she hadn’t felt pretty in a very long time.
A mob was gathering in front of Misty’s house. Some people had brought lawn chairs and coolers to her front yard. A girl had set up a lemonade stand on the sidewalk and was selling
cupfuls of it for a quarter. A long line roped around the ice cream truck. Parents were keeping a close watch on their children and scolded them if they ventured too close to the head. A news van was parked in Misty’s driveway. Two men were standing close to the head. One had a large video camera hoisted on his shoulder, and the other was busy snapping photos with a small black Minolta. A tall blonde in a red suit with matching lipstick was making her way up the walk. Misty lifted her chin and straightened her back. Her eyes scanned the collection of people. She waited for them to look up at her before descending to the walkway. Her hand lightly grazed the
railing while she slowly glided down each step. She liked the way the sequins on her dress
sparkled in the sunlight, and she hoped others had noticed it too.
When the woman saw Misty, she slowed her pace and looked her up and down. “Um…hello, you must be the owner of this residence. I’m Gail Green with WXSC news.” She had a microphone in her left hand and held out her other one for Misty to shake.
“I’m Misty Fontaine. Am I going to be on television?” Misty looked past Gail toward the video camera.
“Yes, Mrs. Fontaine. I’d like to interview you about the head.”
“It’s Misty Fontaine.”
“Listen, will you be giving me a script to read from? I’m very good at memorizing lines.
I’ve been an actress for many years.”
“That’s nice.” Gail smiled. “No, you won’t need a script. I just want to ask you a few questions.” She made her way over to the head and spoke to her colleagues.
Misty stood in various places, trying to determine at which angle she wanted to be filmed.
The ice cream man hopped out of his truck with a stack of ice cream sandwiches and started
handing them out to the news crew. It was midday, and Misty was concerned that the heat and humidity would cause the makeup to slide from her face.
Gail returned, followed by her cameramen. “Okay, Miss Fontaine, we’re ready to interview
you. I’m just going to ask you a few things about the head and then we’ll be done.”
“Could somebody check my makeup for me?” said Misty.
“You look fine,” said Gail.
Misty fluffed her wilting hair with her hands and took a few deep breaths before signaling
that she was ready.
“We’re here at the home of Misty Fontaine who is having a most unusual problem today.
Misty, when did you first notice there was a human head on your lawn?” Gail tipped the microphone toward her interviewee.
Misty looked straight into the camera and smiled. “Well, first I want to say that I’m so honored to be here. I’ve worked in movies most of my life. I’ve even had lunch with James Dean. But, I must say that I’m very tickled to—”
Gail took back the mike. “That’s great, Miss Fontaine, but I’d really like to hear about the head.”
“Well, I was watching Rebel Without a Cause when my neighbor knocked on my door to tell me about it. Did you know that I was in that film?”
“That’s nice, but, about the head…” Gail pressed her lips together and glared at Misty.
“I was getting to that—” Misty was suddenly looking at Fran’s back.
“Hi. I’m Fran Jones from next door. I’m the one who found the head.”
Gail’s smile returned. “Great! Fran, can you tell me when you first discovered it?”
Misty moved from behind Fran. A small seed of rage formed inside of her, and it was sprouting rapidly. It was one thing to step aside for a star like Natalie Wood or Marilyn Monroe, but there was no way she was giving up the spotlight for the likes of Fran Jones. She thought of the six-shooter she'd stolen from the set of Bonanza. A prop gun. She forced her face close to the microphone. “It’s been on my lawn all day,” she said.
“So, Fran, where do you think the head came from?” Gail shoved the mike under Fran’s lips.
“I don’t rightly know. I suppose that construction might have dug it up.”
“And what did you do when you first discovered the head?”
“Well, Humphrey is really the one who found it. Isn’t that right, precious?” She scratched his
head with her purple press-on nails. “Then I told the lady that lives here, but she didn’t do
nothing about it.”
Misty gave Fran a swift shove, causing her to tumble backward onto the grass. Humphrey
was loose and ran straight toward the head. He grabbed hold of the hair and snarled while he tugged at it. The throng of people crept closer to the women. Gail and her crew stepped back. She quietly told her guy to keep the camera rolling. When Fran got back on her feet, she ran toward Misty and smacked her in the jaw. Misty fell into some low holly hedges. She put a hand to her face and ran her tongue over her teeth. Spiny leaves scratched her arms and legs. The sound of laughter singed her eardrums. Her face felt scalding hot and the nerves near the surface of her skin were pulsating.
Fran brushed grass and dirt off of her backside. “What a lunatic,” she said.
Misty rolled herself out of the shrubs and landed on her knees and palms. Fran was walking past Misty while calling for Humphrey. Misty grabbed Fran’s ankles and pulled her feet out from under her. Fran’s arms flailed in the air before she fell to the ground. She crawled over to Misty and grabbed hold of her dress strap. The neighborhood residents formed a circle around the women and cheered Fran on while the two pawed at each other’s hair and clothes.
“Scratch her eyes out, Fran,” said a pregnant woman in a Budweiser t-shirt and striped clam diggers. Sticky chocolate crumbs from an ice cream sandwich formed a moustache across her upper lip, and she was tearing into the wrapper of her second one.
The woman’s pudgy son licked a Nutty Buddy while leaning against her hip. “Yeah, get her,
get her,” he said.
The crowd spread out when a police cruiser pulled up behind the news van. The siren let out a sharp wail, and then two officers jumped out of the vehicle and dashed to the scene.
“Break it up, ladies,” said the portly one, as he hiked up his baggy trousers.
The cops took hold of each woman and pried them apart.
“She hit me first,” said Fran. Her arms were restrained behind her back, but she was swinging her feet at Misty. “I’m just finishing what she started.”
The tall, muscular cop was holding Misty. His fingers were digging into her ribcage. Misty’s arms and legs felt weak, and her head lolled like a limp dandelion.
Misty and Fran were told to sit on the porch and behave while the officers spoke to Gail. Misty’s dress was torn, and there were sections of sequins missing. One of the straps had ripped at the seam, exposing her tattered taupe bra. Fran had a grass stain across her cheek, and her mass of red hair hung on the side of her head like a tangled skein of yarn. Humphrey had come back to her, and she was cradling him in her arms.
“Fran was just defending herself,” the pregnant woman explained to the cops.
“Okay, okay,” said the tall officer. “We got a call about a head. We’ll deal with that first and then we’ll straighten out the altercation.”
“Where is the head?” said Gail. She raced to the middle of the lawn with the policemen. “It was right here,” she told them. “We have it on film.”
The cops returned to Misty and Fran. “Did either of you see somebody take it?”
Both women shook their heads.
“Who the hell would snatch a human head?” said the man in the jean cut-offs.
“What if it was the killer?” said a teen-aged girl. There were bits of ice cream cone caught in her braces, and she was picking them out with her fingers.
“A killer? Oh my God! What if there’s a killer living among us?” said a woman with blue cotton-candy hair who was hunched over a metal walker.
“Calm down, everyone,” said the tall cop. “We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Rounding up the bystanders was challenging because some of them had scattered when the siren sounded. The policemen questioned those who remained and took down their names. The ice cream truck had left, and parents were trying to calm their whiny kids who still wanted treats. Gail and her crew packed up the news van and backed onto Misty’s lawn to get past the police cruiser. Misty and Fran were free to go once they had told the officers all they knew about the head. Fran carried Humphrey home while murmuring expletives under her breath.
Misty went back into her house. She popped open the freezer and retrieved a bag of frozen peas. Holding up her ripped gown with her free hand, she shuffled to the living room and sunk into her chair. She flicked on the TV with the remote control and surfed through several channels before settling on one. With the bag of frozen peas clamped to her jaw and a grin on her face, she waited for the local news to come on.