by: Donald Hubbard
“Instead of maintaining his crackpot belief that he possessed the power and skill to divine fortunes by exploring the human scalp’s contours, he needed to rely on human nature, the conviction that dishonesty and sorcery and black magic will ultimately triumph.” The acerbic union between the phrenologist and the pornographer…
From outside, Ridge Stenson’s silhouette feather-dusted his phrenologist’s office, sweeping the ribs of his roll top desk and the joints of the few uncomfortable wobbly wooden chairs. Reverentially, he skirted along his phrenologist’s texts and an ivory model of the human head with regions mapped out and identified in script. Old posters in wooden frames of past trade conventions and the like littered the office’s walls, and beckoned him.
Despite being the last phrenologist in the world, he did a poor business, maybe a few clients a year, mostly stoned teenagers and people mistaking him for a phlebotomist.
Didactically he explained, “A phlebotomist draws blood. I can tell you who you are and what your fortunes will be by touching the bumps on your scalp.”
The sole occupant in a second-floor walk-up in a largely abandoned strip mall in Hale, Connecticut, Ridge had inherited the entire complex, and while the tenants gradually departed, he did not possess the heart or business acumen to evict himself.
His lone remaining tenant, the owner of an adult bookstore and novelty shop, occupied a fraction of the street-level retail space. The Pornographer paid Ridge monthly by direct deposit because Ridge refused to touch a check or money from the Pornographer, since Ridge feared contracting a social disease from contacting the surely-contaminated commercial paper.
Symbiotically the two enterprises co-existed. Ridge needed a bit of rent each month from someone to defray tax and utility bills and the Pornographer had no other place to operate his business in Hale, after everyone else had turned him down. The Hale elders largely did not harbor personal feelings against smut, they just wanted to find it elsewhere.
Ridge preyed on the sentiment on the few occasions that he encountered his tenant, always asking, “How does it feel to prey on perverts?” To which the Pornographer retorted, “Big talk from someone who tells fortunes by feeling someone’s head…and who apparently sucks at it.” The Pornographer annually gave Ridge a new dildo for Christmas. In exchange, Ridge unlocked the adult bookstore every Christmas morning and urinated on the blow-up love dolls.
Except not this year. On Christmas Eve, the Pornographer climbed the stairs late in the evening, to Ridge’s office and knocked on the door loudly. Ridge rose to see who was there as the Pornographer let himself in, already talking.
“You don’t have to bother pissing on my girls this year.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Cut the shit Ridge, every year I give you a dildo and you piss on my dolls, you know it and I know it. I sold the store and I am heading down to Florida to retire. My lease is up in a week and someone will cart away my inventory. This is goodbye.”
“You know that you have to give me a one month’s notice before you plan to leave.”
“Sue me. You can keep my security deposit. Merry Christmas, asshole.”
The door slammed and the Phrenologist frowned. As much as he hated the Pornographer, he liked dealing with known entities, phrenologists are like that, wishing for the soundness of the dollar or the certainty of bumps on a head. Mostly, loneliness seized him. Without someone around, someone who drew business and some life into the strip mall, bankruptcy awaited him.
It sounded silly, yet psychics drew steady business through voodoo and tarot cards. If people scoffed at phrenology, why did they fall for cards shuffled in a deck of playing cards or someone pretending to fade into a trance?
Panic overtook anger as Ridge now faced monthly carrying costs for a building poxed with vacancies. He looked at the mournful portraits on the wall of great phrenologists past: Franz Joseph Gall, J. G. Spurzheim, L. N. Fowler, George Combe and decided in order to stay afloat financially, he had to torch his own building and hope that the insurance adjusters let it pass.
He plotted to frame the Pornographer who hated him and bad-mouthed him to all of his customers, and it might not appear coincidental that he left town with the smoke’s first appearance. Checking the parking lot, Ridge saw that the Pornographer had driven away, so he entered the adult store and found enough flammable creams and salves and oils to start a fire throughout the entire complex. Joyfully, Ridge squirted out these ointments in every part of the building, including the stair wells. “They wouldn’t let any of this shit on airplanes,” Ridge said to himself, “there is enough here to blow up the entire town.” Heading back downstairs to set the fire, Ridge slipped on one of the gooey flame accelerants and bounced all of the way to the street level, alive at the beginning of this sentence, and dead by its end.
No one found Ridge until New Year’s Day, when the Pornographer’s movers stopped by to pick up the sex toys and novelties, repelled by the smell permeating the building. A 911 call went out.
State Trooper Rob Piznicki gingerly lifted Ridge, surprised by the absence of a fractured skull.
Deadpanned Piznicki, “Crazy….he must have snapped his neck, probably didn’t want to muss up the bumps on his head.”
The EMTs wheeled out what was left of Ridge, leaving the building vacant until the Town took it over in tax title. Belatedly, the Town auctioned off the Phrenologist’s items, then tore down the entire building, leaving behind a nice sandy and weedy block of land. Every few years the Cub Scouts cut down the weeds and bag the beer cans.
Lack of faith, not some botched insurance fraud scheme, killed the Phrenologist. Instead of maintaining his crackpot belief that he possessed the power and skill to divine fortunes by exploring the human scalp’s contours, he needed to rely on human nature, the conviction that dishonesty and sorcery and black magic will ultimately triumph. That’s where he went wrong.
Donald Hubbard has written six books, one of which was profiled on Regis and Kelly and another that was a Boston Globe bestseller and Amazon (category) top ten. Two books have gone into a second edition and he was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame as an author in 2015. A chapter of one of his books was published in the on-line edition of Notre Dame Magazine. His published stories include those in Funny in 500, Quail Bell, Praxis, 101 Word Story, Flash Fiction Magazine, Crack the Spine, Dime Show Review and Oddville Press.