A Lisa Frank Unicorn Gives Poor Regional Food Advice

The light was industrial yellow, reflecting off the painted cement blocks and wall of gray mailboxes across the hall. Remodeling had driven the residential desk office to a former janitor’s closet tucked into a corner of the commons hall. The small room still smelled of drilled concrete and floor wax. The dutch door, top half open, was the newest fixture the building had seen since the 70s.

I worked the midnight to eight shift on weekends, a descriptor of both the setting and my social life during my sophomore year of college. Armed with fifty pounds of books, I’d descend into the basement every weekend, intent of finishing my papers early, and spend the hours reading true crime stories on the internet or playing a pixelated bowling game on the black and gray screen of my Nokia phone. I taught myself to write backward with my left hand. I helped manage social crises of my high school friends via email.

Other than my manager stopping by for fifteen minutes once a night to make sure no one had killed me, I was alone. One red button buzzer was affixed to the bottom of the desk, linked directly to campus police if someone tried to steal the fifty dollars we kept in the register. I rarely had real work to do. Every other night or so, a drunk student would show up after having lost her purse and borrow a spare key. Occasionally, a night owl would want to pick up a package at 3am. The janitor would hang out with me some mornings around 5am, eating yogurt and telling me about how taking coke didn’t help her weight loss, but aided in house work. Most of the time, though, I was alone.

Except when the unicorn visited.

I’ll admit my confusion the first time he stopped by, clopping down the hallway and leaning his chin over the top of the dutch door to stare at me. My brief childhood obsession with horses ended abruptly when my father told me I could ride cows instead, plopping me on the back of one of our herd as she walked to the holding pen. She had a retained placenta, a few days old and fetid, wrapped around her tail, and slapped me in the face with it as though I was a sixty pound fly on her back. You learn to stop asking about horses after that. Though my first best friend, a cow named Marlene, only had one horn, I was never a unicorn girl, which was why it was hard to fathom a white unicorn with a rainbow mane staring at me. A braid, inexplicably tied with a rainbow ribbon, hung limply over the door. Large black eyes blinked at me. A twisted multicolored horn poked into my personal bubble of safety.

“Hey,” he said. Little flecks of glitter shifted in the yellow light as he spoke.

“Hey,” I said. “How can I help you? I thought he might need a key to his dorm room or want to buy some ping pong balls (for playing ping pong, of course).

Bits of bright grass cling to his prehensile lips as he spoke. It was late December. “What you reading?”

I looked at the yellow book open next to the tablet where I’d been practicing my backwards writing. “Um. It’s a compilation of manifestos. I’m taking a class on them.”

He nickered at me. “You an English major?”

“Yeah.”

He nodded, as though this was the piece of information for which he’d arrived. As though this was his 3am package pick up. His spare room key. He backed up (as it was a narrow hallway and most equine couldn’t turn around in it) and clopped towards the stairs. I rolled my chair over to the door to watch him go, rainbow tail swishing with each hip movement. Oddly, a few rainbow leopard prints spotted his rear quarters. Upon reaching the stairwell, he looked back over his flank, as though he knew I’d be looking back. He cocked one front foot in acknowledgment. An impossibly bright reflection caught his hoof. Then, he was gone and I was alone.

I expected this interaction to be a singular experience, as though he was testing for some credential and found me lacking. I wasn’t a maiden fair or a desperate virgin. Rather, I was a fat feminist with a boyfriend back home, trying to mind her own business. I didn’t understand why he came by the next weekend and stuck his head over the door once more.

“Can I help you?” I asked, then paused. “You have a bagel on your horn.”

He nodded, the bagel bouncing up and down as he did. Snowflakes clung to his mane and fur where they had hardened, turning into little plastic decorations. “You know, you can’t get good bagels around here.”

“You have a bagel,” I said.

“It’s not a good one.” A rainbow butterfly landed on his shoulder. He jerked his head at it, annoyed. “It’s impossible to make good bagels if you don’t know how. Most people don’t know how.”

“I thought Lender’s frozen bagels were the only type of bagel that existed until I was in high school.
I said.

If a unicorn with impossibly long eyelashes could blink with malice, he managed it.

“I grew up on a farm,” I explained. My heart ached to say it. I enjoyed learning, lusted for it, but hated living in a town.

People. Sidewalks. Concrete.

No streams. No snakes. No hours spent alone without unicorns talking to me or drunk girls crying about their lost keys.

“So you didn’t have good bagels.” He scratched the side of his face on the door frame, leaving behind glittering pieces of fur.

“I guess not.”

He stepped back and dropped his head to the ground, pointing his horn at the waxed tile floor. With a little bit of shaking, he managed to free the bagel, which slid to the ground. He clopped back a few paces, stared at it, then stomped on the bagel. The butterfly, bothered by his movements, began to flit away. He tried to snap at it and failed.

It occurred to me that the unicorn was just like me, a college kid missing home.

“I’m sorry there aren’t good bagels here,” I said.

“I’m sorry, too.”

After winter break, he started coming by every weekend. He never mentioned his major or his residence hall. He did have very strong opinions about regional food. I was lectured on New England versus Maryland chowders, New York versus Chicago pizzas, different types of barbecue. Often, I suspected he was a little drunk, coming back from some dormitory celebration and making me his obligatory stop. I found myself looking forward to his scheduled appearances, but also disliking them. He was so charming, slick. I tumbled over my words. As much as I enjoyed socialization, I found my engagement in it to be awkwardly distasteful.

Sometime in March, he came to visit. A swarm of little rainbow bunnies followed him, but hopped away when he stopped to speak with me.

“Sup,” the unicorn said.

I closed my anthology of Milton. “Not much. Working on my term paper.

A long black peacoat hung over his back like a blanket saddle. “What’s it about?”

“Areopagitia and the virtue of temptation.”

“Why do you have that, then?” He jerked his head at Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which was suffering beneath my hardbound Milton. “You like comics?”

“I’m writing another paper on graphic novels as literature and, yes, I like comics.”

I was afraid I’d frightened him when he took a few paces back, but before I could react, he lept over the open door, coming to a clean landing in the small open space between the desk and the trashcans full of assorted game supplies.

“Have you read The Dark Knight Returns?”

I glanced around nervously. I should have been frightened that a unicorn I didn’t know very well had just jumped into a small, isolated room with me, but I was more concerned that my manager would stop by and I’d get censured for allowing another student into the residential desk.

“Some of my friends have,” I said.

He fell back onto his legs, sort of sitting. His long, redgreenblueyellowpurple tail curled around his rump. The peacoat slipped off his back, onto the floor. “You gotta read it,” he said. “It’s so good. The best. So amazing.”

I listened for my manager, but the hallway was silent. The unicorn leaned against the door, head tilted back.

“Wouldn’t you be more comfortable… not on the floor?” I was really hoping to get him out of the office.

“Nah, I’m good,” the unicorn said. I could smell stale booze emanating from the coat. He fluttered his lips a few times. “You really should read it. Miller is amazing.”

“So I’ve heard,” I said.

There was some thumping in the hall. I leaned forward past the unicorn, stomach in my throat, to see one of the rabbits returning. It twitched a lavender ear at me.

“One of your bunnies is back,” I said.

“Little fucker can wait.”

“I think it’s waiting for you.”

He glare at me with large, moist eyes. “I said it can wait.”

We were very close. Close enough to make me uncomfortable. I sat down in the office chair and tried to casually roll it backwards.

“You ever have a good cheesesteak?” he asked me suddenly.

“Yeah, of course. There’s this place back home that makes great cheesesteaks.”

He nodded, knowingly. “Tell me about it.”

I leaned back, bathing in my childhood memories. “Well, they have hard or soft rolls, which are baked locally. Then, there’s this pickled hot pepper relish. And the steak comes mixed with tomato sauce and onions. Oh, and provolone.”

His hide twitched beneath silken fur as though I was a horsefly. “Provolone. And onions.”

“Yeah. It’s great,” I said. “They’re like two bucks.”

“And tomato sauce.” It was as though he hadn’t even heard me. “Tomato sauce.”

He was on his hooves in a moment. His head pushed against me knees, sending the chair rolling backwards. “Tomato sauce?!??”

I tried to grip the side of the desk, pulling myself closer to the hidden alarm button, but he blocked it. “You ever been to Philly?” The unicorn asked.

“We went to see the Liberty Bell when I was in 5th grade,” I said.

“You listen to me,” he said, snorting in my face. His unicorn breath smelled like funfetti cupcakes and scented pantyliners, the ones you accidentally buy not noticing the Now Scented text on the side. “You’re going to go to Philly.”

“I mean, I guess I am,” I said.

“And when you go, you’re going to go to Pat’s, not Geno’s.” Steam from his nostrils fogged my glasses. I pulled them off.

“Pat’s?”

“Yeah, Pat’s?” he spat back. “You’re going to go to Pat’s and when you get there, you’re going to say wizwitout, you got that?”

“What’s that mean?” I asked, trying to walk my chair out of his way.

“Wizwitout,” he repeated. “Say it to me.”

“What do you–”

“Say it to me.”

“Wizitout,” I said.

“And where are you going to go?”

“To Pat’s. In Philly.”

“Right. Wizwitout.”

The unicorn backed up as I was cleaning my glasses on my shirt. By the time I had them back on, he was standing against the door again, looking away. “Wizwitout,” he said, a little meeker this time.

“You should probably get to bed,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

I reached past, pushing on the door’s latch. His rainbow tail hung limply as he walked out.

“I’ll, uh, see you later,” the unicorn said. The swarm of rabbits waited for him at the bottom of the stairwell, glaring.

“We’ll see,” I said.

He lipped at the side of the door frame before clopping slowly away.

It was the last time I saw him that year. I put the peacoat into the lost and found box and tried to get back to my term papers.

Right before graduation, my boyfriend and I were eating ice cream outside of the local used bookshop when the unicorn saw us and came over to say hello. He wanted to lend me his copy of The Dark Knight, but we were moving soon and didn’t need to be trying to find a unicorn and return his graphic novel.

“Who was that?” my boyfriend asked after the unicorn walked away.

“That’s the unicorn that used to bother me in the residential desk before they opened the new one.”

“He seems nice,” my boyfriend said.

“He’s also kind of an asshole,” I said.

The unicorn was right that I eventually did go to Philly, but I was a vegetarian by then. I never ordered a cheese steak from either Pat’s or Geno’s, though I did find that wizwitout meant Cheese-Whiz without Onions, that last part proving that unicorns know very little about good, regional food. You always get the onions.

Paper Cuts Make Good Bait

He broke the clear sticker stealing the envelope containing Fredrick’s Complete Divorce Packet with Bonus Instructional CD and Free Internet Access to Digital Forms. Sure, he hated paperwork, but only slightly less than he hated Karen. He studied the CD, marked Instructions For Use: Open First, across the kitchen. It bounced off the wallpaper, ricocheted against the rim of the trashcan and hit the floor, rolling back towards Wally. A spoon specked with dried-on food hung from his mouth. A pint of off-brand Moosetracks melted on the table leaving an expanding ring of condensation on Karen’s mother’s oak table. Fatty Joe stalked the ice cream, rubbing against Wally’s socks and meowing.

The three ply non-carbon copy paper was covered in boxes with tiny print. Boxes like the ones he’d filled out on their Application for/Report of Marriage form thirteen years ago. Boxes that made him feel trapped in a maze of bad choices when all he wanted to do was get free. Go all Thelma and Louise with Fatty Joe in his GMC Sierra. The black Bic shook in his fingers as he held it over the box reading Husband’s Last Name. He flipped through the packet, hoping to find an easier question. It wasn’t until he noticed a bloody thumbprint atop Wife’s SSN that he realized he’d gotten a paper cut.

Getting a band-aid was as good an excuse as any to avoid the form for a few minutes longer. After jamming the spoon into the ice cream, he put down his pen, padded across the linoleum to their grumbling old Whirlpool refrigerator, and felt around its top for their first-aid kit. He was peeling the wrapper off an ancient fabric band-aid when Fatty Joe started hissing like he did when the neighbor’s tom walked past the porch’s sliding door. Wally turned around to see his black-and-white fur-covered-ball-of-lard perched on his chair, front paws on the table, growling at the melting ice cream.

Wally chucked the box of band-aids at the cat. “No table, F.J. No table! Down! Down!”

Fatty Joe managed a plaintive, angry yowl while jumping down.

“Freaking cat.” The words got stuck in the back of his mouth as a tiny pinkish-orange man peered out from behind the ice cream. Steam curled around his feet as the condensation evaporated.

“Freaking cat, indeed,” the man replied, brushing off his shoulders as though there was invisible dust on an invisible shirt. He was bald and naked, except for a black belt with a shining gold buckle digging into his pudgy middle. His eyes were like black sesame seeds nestled into a wrinkled brow, above a bulbous nose and fat lips. He walked bow-legged as though he spent his days riding a toy horse. “More of my colleagues get killed by cats than dogs, you know. Hazardous monsters.”

Wally nodded dumbly as the little man kicked over the pepper shaker and sat down on it. “You ready to talk business, Walter?”

He fell into his seat as he watched the little man scrape his toes against a little spot of char his foot left in the tabletop. “Business?” Wally asked.

“Yeah, business. The skinny. The down-low. The dirty. The deal.” He frowned at the black spot burnt into the wood. “Sorry about that. You should really use a table cloth if you don’t want your furniture ruined.”

“That’s what Karen says.” He said it automatically, like saying “bless you” when someone sneezes or “go fuck yourself” when Jehovah Witnesses knock on the door.

The little man squinted at the form, his eyes almost disappearing into his head as he read the top of it upside down. “Oh, divorce. Right. So, you want her dead?”

“Do I want her–?” Wally trailed off. He’d thought about her dying so many times. Not killing her, but simple, sweet death. The kind of death that would make his in-laws not hate him, her friends not bad mouth him. Something with a pay out from her employer-provided life insurance policy.

Of course, he’d thought of himself dying even more frequently. Cancer with lots of morphine at the end. A heart attack while stuffing fries in his face in a fast food parking lot. A patch of black ice late at night, a friendly electric pole, a swift end.

Sadly, the two of them just kept on living and hating each other.

The chair across the table groaned as Fatty Joe clawed his way onto its seat, the tips of his black ears barely clearing the table top. The orange man took a step closer to Wally.

“I don’t want her dead,” he said defensively, as though someone other than a four inch tall imp sitting at his kitchen table had suggested it.

“It’s okay,” the little man said. He’d begun to sink down into the pepper shaker as his butt melted the plastic. “No need to act all righteous in front of me. Even people who love each other want to kill one another sometimes. Nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I don’t want her dead,” Wally said. “I just want her gone.”

The imp rubbed the furrow in the middle of his brow. “Look, it’s a lot easier to kill someone than to make them not exist.”

Wally tapped the packet of forms. “I want this to be over with. I want to be a year from now when everything is resolved. I don’t want to have to deal with it.”

“Look, I can’t alter time. I can’t make people disappear. I just kill them, okay?” The imp stood up and pushed the pepper shaker away, a little line of pepper spilling out from a hole he’d melted into it.

“Well, I don’t want her killed.”

“You hate her?”

Wally looked across the room to the picture of them standing at the Grand Canyon on their honeymoon, slipped into a magnetic frame. “I think I do.”

“Then what’s the problem?” The imp clapped his hands together. “Bang! Pow! Dead!”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to kill your wife.” Wally picked up the pen and pressed the nib hard into the divorce form, writing out his name.

“Aw, jeez. You’re going to fill out the fucking form?” The imp wandered over, watching him work. “One word from you and I can make her dead.” He snapped his fingers.

Wally kept working until he got to the bloody block for Karen’s Social Security Number. He couldn’t remember it.

“Dead,” the imp whispered.

Wally tapped his pen against his chin, thinking. “I don’t want her dead. I want her to go make some other loser miserable and leave me alone.”

The little man sighed. “I’m going to be honest with you, Walter. I’m not trained for this job. I usually work road rage cases. Jump out of the glove box and give my offer, buy Kyanthia asked me to cover her shift for the evening so she could go see her kid’s ball game. She gets the night off. I get next Friday off. It seemed like a good trade, but this whole divorce thing isn’t really in my wheelhouse. Heavy emotional shit and all that. You’re going to have to cut me a little slack.”

The corner of the form began to blacken and smoke under the imp’s foot. Wally licked his thumb and snuffed it out. “Not interested. Go kill someone else’s wife.”

“You were the one who called me, buddy.”

“Did not.”

“Did so.” The imp wandered over to the bloody thumbprint over the Wife’s SSN box and tapped it with his pointer finger, no thicker than a toothpick.

“I cut myself,” Wally said.

“You summoned me,” the imp said, tapping his foot. “It’s in the instructions on the CD.”

“I didn’t load the CD,” Wally said while filling out their address.

“It says Instructions For Use: Open First.”

Wally shrugged.

“I think I know why you’re wife hates you.”

He shrugged again.

Growling, the imp launched himself towards Wally’s pen, grabbing onto it and kicking at Wally’s hand with his scorching feet. “Lemme kill your wife!”

“Hey!” Wally shook his hand, scribbling across the page while trying to free it.

“Lemme kill your wife! Just say the word!”

“No! Let go!” He grabbed the imp with his free hand, pinching his shoulder between his thumb and forefinger, and tossed him. “Get off!”

The little man skidded across the table, grabbing for purchase on the oak’s grain. He finally slowed near the edge. “Asshole! Lemme kill your–”

Fatty Joe’s paw swiped over the tabletop, batting the imp to the ground.

Wally jumped up in time to see the cat grab the imp in both his front paws and bite down on his head, gnawing on it gingerly like the time he’d tried to eat a jalapeno popper. The imps screams were soon replaced with the sound of crunching bones.

Wally sat back down with a sigh and returned to his paperwork.