WE THINK HENRY DESERVES HIS COMEUPPANCE by MIKE MUNGIELLO
Henry shuts the door behind him.
He is professor of Graphic Novels at our college.
Rather than unfollowing his ex-wife on social media, he has stopped using social media. “You should focus on your work,” his sister says over Skype. “Maybe adopt a dog?”
One of his students presents him with a reddish puppy. Henry loves it, welcomes it into his life, buys it a bed. He notices it still has a tag on its leash. The tag is pink. The tag reads:
Henry removes the tag but does not discard it. He renames the dog Death.
Henry produces syllabi for his students. Doing this each semester is what it means to be Henry.
He goes to a bar with Dylan, Professor of German Baroque Music. Henry says, “So do I look like a heck of a wreck?” He says this playfully. He assumes his colleague will answer this with equal playfulness. He assumes Dylan will comfort him. Instead the friend crinkles in thought and says, “You look like this one Oskar Kokoschka painting of a widow.”
The student who gave Henry Death? Her name is Geneviève. “It’s a normal French name,” she says. Henry, who does not speak French, smiles. He laughs. “But I go by Gen,” she adds. “Pronounced, ‘Jen.’” We all think Geneviève is the smartest in the class.
Months ago Henry deleted Spotify from his phone. He did that to make room for recording Diana’s open-mic acoustic guitar performances at a biweekly “coffeehouse.” This was back when he was trying to save their marriage. He makes a playlist composed solely of the Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach album Painted from Memory. Occasionally he adds a Future song to the playlist.
Now he is sad on his walk from work so he re-downloads the app.
Dylan calls him. “Are you using my Spotify?”
Henry says, “No.”
“No,” Dylan says, “you are, because on my phone it says, ‘You are listening to ‘Toledo’ on Henry Water’s phone.’” In this moment Henry is scared.
“I think because I logged into my Facebook on your phone and you logged into Spotify through Facebook...” Henry laughs and logs out of Spotify.
He’d known the whole time though. When he made the playlist he’d seen the account name and picture and knew they were Dylan’s.
Something about the Spotify logo made him hate Dylan.
Dylan has a rock band. He talks about it with Henry. Dylan laughs and says, “Maybe you can write lyrics for us.”
Henry Facebook messages Dylan some lyrics and doesn’t ever hear back.
A few months later Dylan’s band releases a Name-Your- Price album on BandCamp and Henry listens to it all and none of the songs use one of his lines.
He’s at a bar with Dylan. “I’ve got an idea,” he says. He’s finally going to do it. Write his own graphic novel. It’ll be called Lamentabolo, about this Italian-American ex-opera singer who becomes a cowboy in the post-Civil War Wild West and who’s just gotten divorced; alongside a team of ghosts, he hunts down bandits, searching for the lesbian werewolf who broke up his marriage. Not for revenge, Henry explains. Lamentabolo just wants to talk things through. “It’ll be subversive,” Henry says. He drinks. Dylan frowns. (Privately, as an artist, Dylan doesn’t think that Henry’s brand of ~masculinity~ or ~sad anti-masculinity masculinity~ has much of a future. But then again Henry’s also recently divorced, maybe, Dylan thinks, he’ll grow out of this.) They order two more Goose Islands, their lush brown brought out against the translucent beads of water bedecking their curvature.
We think they look like this:
Henry thinks this is a moment of communion between them.
Dylan knows that it's just two beers.
How to describe where Henry lives? Suburbia in the last stages of leukemia.
But when he and Diana first moved there, it was as promisingly beautiful as anyplace else. We mean promising. The world was something that waited for them to refine it.
They’d met in grad school where she was completing her dissertation on Plato and he was just beginning his study of Scooby Doo & Shaggy: The Comic, which would flower into a book on the imagery of impotent depressive men. Or was it images of impotent masculine depression? Either way, its success bought him his job and his house and and and and and. Until it didn’t.
In Henry’s mind he and Gen are having an affair. In his mind they are in Geneviève’s twin bed. Maybe they have just returned from dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant. Maybe Gen’s roommate recommended it.
Henry is 32.
Henry imagines looking at Geneviève’s photos of family and friends from high school pinned onto the bulletin board above her desk. He’d see her toiletries arranged around the rim of her marble sink.
“My ex-wife is a good person,” he’d say. She’d kiss his ear: thunderous, mucilaginous, like a grandmother would kiss.
He’d face her and smile.
“You are dear to me, Professor Waters,” she’d say.
(We all feel uncomfortable with that.)
Henry dreams of falling asleep listening to her stories of growing up amid a family of Francophiles in rural Missouri.
He remembers how Diana, when he asked her what her “good, calm, beautiful” thoughts were, used to say:
HENRY IN THE DRIVEWAY PLAYING HOPSCOTCH WITH THEIR DAUGHTER
Her name would have been Lucinella.
He would’ve taught Lucinella everything about graphic novels, he even would’ve let her call them comic books.
Diana had been depressed but resisted seeing a therapist (“unnecessary!”) or taking medication (“unnatural!”). Instead she sutured together a collage of self-care codes. Mantras, mottos, breathing techniques, and scenarios for guided meditation.
The most important part of her self-care plan was to respond to psychic collapse by thinking her “good, calm, beautiful” thoughts.
When he was away at the Graphic Novel Convention she was “bad” and failed to listen to her “good, calm, beautiful” thoughts and remembered: no more Lucinella. She hurt herself and called herself a failure. She told Henry when he returned two days later and he said it wasn’t her fault, a lot of women think it’s their fault, and he hugged her and kissed her widow’s peak and Diana asked him for a divorce.
Work on Lamentabolo is slow-going.
So far Henry has three binderfuls of notes and only two pages of illustrations.
The notes are photocopies of pages from graphic novels Henry finds inspiring.
His illustrations are two full-page introductory panels. One for “Lamentabolo”, one for “By Henry W.”
He imagines while taking Death for a walk that he and Gen, on a whim, take a trip to New York.
She’d buy him a copy of her favorite manga; it’d look a little porny for Henry’s taste but he’d smile. She’d grab him by the waist and look for a true smile. Henry would look away.
Look at him!, he thinks in the third-person. At an expensive restaurant/lavish spa/digitally illuminated city center with a lover who loves him! Although he knows she’s never been in her life, Henry would look for Diana, for just a second, every time he’d enter a new panel.
We think that’d look like this:
We do not know much about what things look like what.
Henry thinks Gen would think that the pity Henry arouses in you is the kind that makes you feel put upon. And yet he’s a professor. He has her dog. He’s different than the boys in her class. Less attractive, sure, but different. And difference is attraction enough.
At least this is what Henry thinks she would think.
Dylan asks Henry to meet for drinks. He has something serious to discuss. A quandary of the heart.
Geneviève. The real Geneviève.
“I like her a lot, Henry. She’s in my Bach class now and asked if I wanted to get drinks with her this weekend.” Henry stands up. “Death has to go for a walk right now.” They walk for three hours. They return to find Dylan asleep on Henry’s couch. On Dylan’s phone, five missed calls from “Gen-Pronounced- Jen” and several texts with affectionate emojis.
Dylan and Henry are roommates.
Henry’s daydreams of Gen are interrupted by the real Geneviève and Dylan.
His daydreams of Diana are never interrupted.
Dylan’s parents are in town and treat their son, Henry, and Gen to dinner at an authentic Austrian restaurant. Gelatinous meats and nimbus clouds of mashed potatoes (veined with suspicious blue) are drenched in a beige sauce. They discuss how each of Dylan’s songs is based on family lore. One verse comes entirely from a much beloved cousin’s most popular anecdote. Dylan and his parents exchange a few light-hearted asides in German and Gen uses some of the phrases Dylan’s already taught her. Henry is the only one who asks for a doggy bag. At home he pours his leftovers onto his illustrations and binders. Death licks it all up overnight.
Sleeping alone he hears snippets of indecipherable Italian. Initially he believes his neighbors are having another argument. Then he realizes it’s the voice of Diana, who doesn’t speak Italian. At this point in the dream he sees Lucinella’s face.
She does not speak to him.
We knew one day this would happen!
Geneviève graduates! This does not mean that things were not serious, it just means that graduation was at least slightly more serious.
Dylan goes with Henry back to the bar where they ordered those drinks. Dylan says that he will not "pursue" anything with Geneviève.
"What am I,"; he says, "a pursuer?"
Geneviève goes on to her own life, her own pleasures, her own non-pleasures. She's off to the Heartland, working to politically convert the disenfranchised and irritable and also of course to meet more Dylans and Henrys and Genevièves.
Henry listens. He feels the need to drink more slowly than Dylan. He wants Dylan to be drunker than he is. "For some reason," Henry says, "I know exactly how you feel." He laughs and looks away.
Dylan almost puts his hand on Henry's shoulder but instead reaches into his pocket to pull out his phone.
"Are you texting her," Henry says.
Dylan suggests they play darts. In this moment Henry is scared.
A week later when Dylan is seen around campus with a much older woman Henry makes a gesture, later, at lunch, like, "Who is this much older woman?”
Dylan gestures, "My ex-wife."Then he says, “My ex-wife.”
She is a specialist in Victorian architecture.
"Aren't we all," says Henry, not knowing what he means. He goes back to his house and yells at Death.
Dylan's ex-wife is named Diane.
Things are complicated for Henry. We do not know if that looks like anything. Maybe a Rorschach blot. Maybe it looks like what we can’t draw.
Henry plunges a dart into his thigh.
Work on Lamentabolo resumes but really it feels like it’s just beginning. Now he has stubble and chews on a Viennese cigar. “Let’s lament!” Lamentabolo says to his adolescent girl helper.
Then it occurs to Henry that the adolescent girl helper should, at one point in her story arc, get her first period. Writing this is tricky. He erases her character, which is for the best.
One conceit that proves less problematic is this: each time Lamentabolo falls to the ground, due to some villain’s lasso, etc., the dust particles stirred up become the ghosts that are his aides.
A corollary of this is that his ghosts aren’t there all the time. Only when an enemy’s lasso, etc.
Henry sees Dylan and Diane on the sidewalk, arm in arm, love in love. This happens day after day. He goes straight home to his drawing table and spends three consecutive hours coloring an entire piece of paper blood red, pointillistically.
Henry, in his dream tonight, is flying and sees things not as things but as shapes, people too, they’re only shapes, that is how high up he is but the thing is, he’s not flying, more like he’s being flown, more like his absence is being emphasized in each point he’s just left than that his presence is being emphasized in each point he’s entering, flight, flight, and it all feels real and now he’s falling and the scariest thing is that as he approaches the ground the shapes do not come back into focus as people and as things but they stay shapes, larger shapes, that’s the only difference now, with proximity the shapes are bigger and although he knows they are intentless he nonetheless remains convinced that these shapes would like to and will likely engulf him and have already engulfed him because now he sees they’re actually so large that they were in the sky the whole time and formed a constellation and its name is DylanDeathDiana and the name of the new moon is Geneviève and falling is flying down, he knows this and wakes up in midair and this cycle repeats three times before he’s able to leave his dream, but the thing is that he’s not the one leaving, more like he’s being left behind.
From Henry’s bedroom window you can see cars go by in the middle of the night. Even at four a.m. His house is on a busy street, that’s why it was so cheap. Square white lights then a gutter of blank dark then red lights squarer than the whites.
He used to imagine that he and Gen looked at these lights and imagined the cars were shooting stars.
Now he imagines that the white and red squares are the lights of buoys that are far away and careen in and out of invisibility, taking the hope of help with them.
There is no difference between the two fantasies.
His sister is also his accountant. “Those dog supplies are setting you back,” she says. “The Lamentabolo supplies are setting you back too.”
You know what would help Henry relax? Listening to Painted From Memory. While he’d like to get his own Spotify account, he is significantly set back.
He remakes his Painted from Memory playlist, logging back into Dylan’s account.
Dylan texts him: “Hey can you not use my Spotify. I think that’s what keeps making my library glitch. It keeps disappearing and reappearing and unsaving all my saved music.”
Henry replies: “Sorry. It’s deleted.”
Dylan replies: “Thanks man. Is that the only way you can listen to music?”
Henry throws his phone into his toilet and takes Death for a walk. He imagines he’s a mouse getting eaten by a cat. Henry favorites Dylan’s tweet about how real friends respect boundaries. Henry swallows his dog’s nametag.
While walking Death one day he sees a poster on a telephone pole.
LOST DOG: RESPONDS TO “COPING MECHANISM”
He calls his sister again. She says, “Stop writing Lamentabolo. Go back to work. Return that dog.” He microwaves another tray of Indian food and eats it out of Death’s water bowl. Death, in turn, munches on the contents of Henry’s trash: eggshells, mustard, strawberry yogurt, and a Post-It Genevieve doodled on three months ago.
(Henry snatched it off her desk after the last class.)
A knock at his door. The rightful owners, into whose laps Death leaps. A man of fifty, his dignified wife with a tasteful glass eye. “Good Coping Mechanism,” say the owners. Henry refuses their one-hundred dollars but accepts their twenty-five.
In lieu of the standard party favor, Mr. and Mrs. Dylan give Henry a year-long Spotify Premium membership. Henry, however, promises himself he will continue to use Dylan’s account.
In lieu of a traditional wedding gift, Henry gives the couple a self-published copy of Lamentabolo. Diane thoughtlessly says, “Our baby will love it!” “Diane,” says Dylan, “that was thoughtless.”
They open Lamentabolo in the comfort of their honeymoon suite in Berlin to find that, in the final draft, each panel portrays the titular character falling and falling and falling and falling. Identical but different each time. No other characters in sight, the dust forever unchanged into supernatural aides.
THE GHOSTS NEVER REALLY COME
And at home Henry listens to the Elvis Costello ballad, “What’s Her Name Today.” He’s drunk. He shuts the door behind him and all the windows and the blinds and the lights and the toilet seat and the cabinets too. He shuts everything. He waits until his sight adjusts to the dark. He takes his Lamentabolo pen and then drops to his knees then to his stomach then he crawls into the kitchen where he doodles distractedly along the rim of the water bowl bought for the dog he doesn’t have anymore and never actually owned.
Mike Mungiello is New Jersey and live in Queens. He has been published in McSweeney's, Fourteen Hills, TXTOBJX, Eclectica, and Connotation Press.