Elephant Man: A Pretty Child
Joseph was born to Joseph and Mary Jane and was called John.
He had the feeling he had done something wrong
but couldn’t quite understand the entire context, or what
he had done, specifically, that should cause him to feel
shame that did not hold up to the hot light of his own
investigation but was exponentially aggravated
when his audience was cruel or drunk, and so his own mind’s eye
transformed his shame into a mythical beast with giant
bat-like wings. He was often in hospitals, and ended by
living in one, like a hotel. I myself thought of Joseph
when I began to go once a month to hospitals
to have my face examined. Men and women wearing white coats
like some kind of washed out, antiquated British army
said things like ‘presentable’ when referring to my face,
milling about the room like puttering vacuums collecting
any dust or decay or unpresentable faces. I enjoyed being
ugly but am ashamed of this because it makes me feel
as though I am normally a pretty boy and I guess I am
and I do feel ashamed. Joseph-called-John was not pretty
and because of this he thrived in his hospital home
where he could finally live in his ugliness.
There was a doctor who eventually learned to be human.
There was a businessman who ran the hospital.
There was Joseph, unable to sleep in a reclined position
because the weight of his head drew his blood
and he would die during the night. There was Joseph
knowing to prop himself with pillows. There was
the hallway and his room at the end, where sometimes
he entertained visitors whom he loved as though
they were his very parents who had loved and cared for him
all his life, as though he were a pretty child. He could not
have been comfortable at aristocratic functions but accepted them
with a kindly smile. My face was not what I had done wrong,
but it felt like a simple solution to my guilt, like easy karma applied
by extraterrestrials. I don’t know if Joseph took any pills.
Likely there were no pills then. Joseph-called-John became famous,
and I hope he was okay with that. It would have been nice
not to be famous for being physically hideous, having either a good
or a bad light poured over him. There’s a scene toward the end
when he goes back to his handler, having no one else.
Now the lines remind me of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”:
she would have to cling to that which had robbed her,
as people will. I had so many handlers, I cannot remember
their names. Some of them have even stuck around, keeping an eye
on me and my blood ﬂow, my lipids and my whatever else.
One doctor who was very good, and also kind, would pinch
around my face for thirty painful minutes, but was too expensive
and didn’t take my insurance. I thanked him over the phone
from the back seat of a car and I felt a kind of love toward him.
Soren Stockman’s poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in The Iowa Review, the PEN Poetry Series, Tin House online, The Literary Review, and Narrative Magazine, which awarded him First Place in the 2013 Narrative 30 Below Contest, among others. He performed the role of John Merrick in “The Elephant Man” with Built for Collapse at the Wings Theater in 2010. He is the Administrative Aide at the NYU Creative Writing Program, Program Coordinator for Summer Literary Seminars, and Curator for Springhouse Journal.