Wednesday 17 April 2024

Commercial Book / Margaret Freeman

As many of you will be aware, my short story collection, "Commercial Book", was recently published by The Eyeball Museum via Psychofon Records. The collection features 40 short stories of exactly 1000 words in length, and these stories are based on the 40 songs of exactly one minute in length that featured on "Commercial Album", released by The Residents in 1980. "Commercial Book" is fully endorsed by the band.

I'm aware that some of my readers will be unfamiliar with The Residents, and fans of the band will also be unfamiliar with my writing. As the book can be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the music, I've decided to post one of the stories here in full, so readers can get an indication of what the collection is like. Without further ado, I present "Margaret Freeman". A link to the song concludes this post. Incidentally, "Margaret Freeman" is guest-sung by Andy Partridge from XTC.

Margaret Freeman

Wanted: skeleton key.

To begin with she was just a girl I knew growing up.

Then she became a girl everyone knew.

And then a girl no one knew.

I didn’t call her anything. Some of us called her Bones. Later she was known as The Skeleton, or Skeleton Girl, although oftentimes the moniker was rendered as Skellington Girl which tells more about the company she had to keep than the rest of my story. Those she travelled with were illiterate, often vicious taskmasters who had little concerns over those in their care other than their capacity to make money. When I caught up with her the second time around I saw those exchanges that occurred when they thought no one was looking. Large men would enter her tent with anticipatory smiles, and it was barely a comfort when they left that those expressions were twisted into something unfamiliar: shame wrought on their faces.

Yet my first memory is of her moving next door. We lived in Tulsa. For a time it was known as the Oil Capital of the World. My father was a roughneck on the oil fields. He would return home slick. There was an iridescent ring of starling-feather discolouration around our tub that could never be shifted. Honest work. This dirt – this black gold dirt – was in complete contrast to the buildings that had sprung up around town, their art deco architecture of relative simplicity, planarity, symmetry, and unvaried repetition of elements seemed an extension of the machine: that marvel of the modern age. Will Rogers High School, the Philtower, Boston Avenue Methodist Church: they still stand today should you care to view them.

Of course, Tulsa had a darker history. The race massacre was a recent memory. It wasn’t that anyone spoke of it but it was another stain that couldn’t be shifted. Some times I think folks seek different targets to take their minds off atrocities, which possibly explains why they talked about her but never intervened.

I was sat on the stoop, whittling, when they pulled up to the house. She had no father with her. Her mother was a hook-nosed woman who picked the wrong side in fights. The girl was paper thin. Jokes came that she had to walk with a stick sideways in her mouth in case she fell through a drain cover. This is not what I saw that day. I saw a body that appeared to echo internal thought – a manifestation of a soul. She was a few months younger than me but older than her years. I expected to befriend her.

It was the holidays, so in those first weeks there was no school. I saw her rarely, but so exact was my initial impression that I had become fixed to the stoop, surrounded by shavings, silently shaking my head when friends invited me to go to the lake or on rabbit shoots. It was as though she had found a way to capture me with barely a look. I was hollowed from the inside out whilst for her it was the outside in. That’s how I describe it now, although maybe it was no more than morbid curiosity, an affinity for the strange.

I’d kick a ball in the vicinity. She might come out to hang washing, her arms as thin as the line. We’d exchange a look but the howdy stuck fast in my mouth. There was a tension there that only now I might define as sexual. We were thirteen. Buds on the tree of life. She’d return inside. The backs of her knees concave. In my daydreaming I saw her legs bend wrongways like those of a stork.

If there was an innocence to my observation then this collapsed when school resumed. My closest friends catcalled her. They’d forgotten about me when I stepped out of the game. The most inventive was Coathanger, but Bones was common. They’d crowd behind her back in the playground like leaves caught in a dust devil but no one would touch her. She wasn’t brittle – there was fibre in her being – yet you imagined she might collapse like a folding chair. I could see they were afraid of her. Their whispering a barrier, a defence.

There was something thrilling in becoming a voyeur. I’d observe this cruel behaviour, admire her restraint. By not participating I considered myself an accomplice: aligned myself to her over my friends. I’m sure that unspoken bond was in my head. Yet this suggestion of intimacy granted me permission to observe her inappropriately, from ever-decreasing distances.

I took to watching her window after dusk: an illuminated square that she would extinguish as she entered her room. Her form in subsequent shadow as thin as the light cord dangling from the ceiling, whilst she reached down to pull her dress off over her head. I could write music to it.

One afternoon I enacted a cherished fantasy. I approached her house with a handful of hen’s eggs. A faux-neighbourly gift. I knew her mother was out. The back door was open. I said nothing as I entered the house. She stood by the sink, naked, washing dishes. It was then that I saw her mother’s sodden ways had rubbed her rib cage raw. Her body was as manipulated as a Chinese woman’s feet or the extended necks of the Burmese Karen tribe. It wasn’t natural. It was abuse.

I can still hear the sound of those eggs smacking on the wooden boards. Still see that slight turn of her head.

When I pressed my hand to my chest the hammering remained.

I didn’t run. She watched me unashamed. Her body as ridged as an art deco monument. I stepped forward.

By winter she had joined the freak show. I charted its progress through advertisements and word of mouth. As I aged, I took to following it around. The Skeleton. The Skellington Girl. Bones.

I saw that no one called her Margaret.

But I did.

*  *  *

"Commercial Book" was available in a special limited edition version with CD and chewing gum, however this has sold out. The regular paperback is still available HERE although copies are also limited.

And here is the song, my inspiration (only the song, I hadn't seen this accompanying video before I wrote my story):

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