The First Labor: Heracles and the Lion1
After pursuing the Nemean Lion2 to an apple orchard, Heracles wrestles it for many days and wins the match by disemboweling the creature with its own claws.
Heracles fashions a cloak and hood from the trophy. The lion’s hide is a rough armor, a second skin.3
It started when Henry received a postcard that said: “Dear [Prospective Candidate]: Congratulations. It is the honor of Atlas Systems to offer you the position of: [general laborer]. Sincerely, Yuri Bashford, Interim Chief of Human Capital.” 4
Henry had never applied for ajob, and he couldn’t find any record of Atlas Systems on the internet.
However, as he read the postcard, he felt he had no choice but to accept the job. To him, it felt like fate.5
The postcard told him to travel to Deep River, Iowa and check in to a motel called the Gilded Gelding, where Atlas Systems had arranged a room for his use. Once in the room, the postcard said, he’d receive more instructions.
After many days of driving, he finally arrived in Deep River, where he stopped at a gas station and asked the clerk how to get to the Gilded Gelding. The clerk had a tattoo across her collarbones that read: “Life’s a Bitch, and Then You Die.”
“There is no Gilded Gelding,” she said. She smiled, exposing a set of dentures that, in the gas station’s flickering lights, seemed to reflect every star in the universe at once.
He showed her the postcard. She barely glanced at it.
“People come in there with those all the time,” she said. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
He crossed the gas station’s parking lot, crossed the street, and entered an Applebee’s.
Inside, a waitress guided Henry to a booth and asked if he’d ever been to Applebee’s before.
“I’ve never even been to Iowa before,” he said.
“Applebee’s isn’t limited to Iowa,” she said. “It’s everywhere.”
“That’s great,” he said. He didn’t know what else to say.
“I bet there’s at least one Applebee’s in every state.” She placed her hands on her hips. She was incredulous. “Are you sure you’ve never been to an Applebee’s before? Not even once in your whole life?”
“Does it matter if I’ve been to an Applebee’s?” he said. “Does it change anything?”
“It’s just something they make us ask,” she said.
She handed him a menu. She waited while he flipped its pages.
“I’ll try the Applejack Crisper,” said Henry.
“Yum,” she said. She scooped up the menu and left.
A family occupied a nearby booth. A middle-aged woman in a denim dress. A middle-aged man resting his head in his hands. A teenaged girl whose eyes were hidden behind a stiff sheet of neon-dyed hair.
There was music playing in the restaurant. It was a jangling murmur of electronic downbeats, like the soundtrack for a meditation retreat. The music was almost too quiet to hear.
Behind it, something quieter skulked.6
The server placed a sizzling Applejack Crisper on Henry’s table. She paused there. She looked like she was trying not to sneeze.
“When I was little,” said the server, “my grandma would babysit me. She sometimes tied one end of a clothesline around my ankle. She called it ‘the thread of hope.’ She’d tie the other end to her claw-foot bathtub, and then she’d push the TV to where I could see it, and then she’d go gambling. The boats, you know.”
“Did she give you anything to eat or drink?”
“I’ll be honest: yes. She’d provide a bowl of graham crackers or something, and usually a glass of milk.”
“That sounds like….” Henry didn’t know how to finish his sentence, because he didn’t know what it sounded like.
The server placed Henry’s bill next to his uneaten Applejack Crisper. The bill curled, slowly and stutteringly, like a butterfly swatted out of the sky.
“Are you close with your dad?’ she asked. “Were you ever?”
Henry shook his head.
“I bet you never met him,” said the server. “I bet he swooped in pretending he was something he wasn’t.”
“I can’t say,” said Henry.
“I’d like to tell you another story,” she said. “It’s about dads.”
For her eighth birthday, her grandmother gave her a petrified dinosaur egg.
She said the egg was neither smooth nor egg-shaped. It looked instead like a stepped-on loaf of homemade bread, its surface scored and floured. The server put it on her bedside table, where it sat displayed in a plastic case designed for collectible dolls.
“One day, when I was in eighth grade, I woke up in the hospital. I didn’t know how I got there. The doctors couldn’t figure out why I’d fainted, but their scans of my body revealed that I was carrying a lithopedion in my uterus, which was unheard of for someone so young, and especially for a virgin. Do you know what a lithopedion7 is?”
Henry said he didn’t.
“It’s a stone baby,” she said. “Sometimes, when a fetus dies in the womb, the body will cover it with a layer of calcium. When that happens, you end up with a rock in your body that has to be removed.”8
At the table near Henry’s, the teenager said, “Excuse me,” to her parents, and stood. She twisted her face in his direction of Henry’s table. “I said excuse me!” she yelled, and she released a cackling laugh.
The teenager plunged into the women’s restroom.
“When they removed my stone baby, it looked like a loaf of bread, its surface floured and scored, and that’s how I knew that, somehow, the petrified dinosaur inside the egg my grandma had given me had impregnated me. It was my baby’s father. I just knew it,” she said. “Call it maternal instinct, I guess.”
“It made me so sad. My poor dinosaur, unhatched, encased in stone for a hundred million years, and our baby in my body, unhatched just as its father was, a tombstone in the graveyard that is me. It still makes me sad. I try not to think about it.”
“It’s a very sad story,” said Henry. “I can’t say I’ve ever experienced anything like that.”
“If you think about it long enough,” said the server, “and I mean really, really think, I bet you can come up with a memory of something like it. A similar experience.”
“I can’t say.”
“Can I join you?”
The server slipped into the seat across from Henry’s. They listened to the jingling music, with its dark undercurrent. They listened to the loud, dry breathing of the mother and father in the nearby booth.
Their daughter had yet to return from the bathroom.
“You look like you’re about to ask for a favor,” said the server.
“I need help finding a place to stay tonight,” he said.
“You’re out on your ass,” she said. “I could tell the second you walked in.”
“I badly need a place to sleep for tonight. I can’t remember the last time I slept.”9
“You won’t,” she said.
“I won’t remember the last time I slept?”
“You won’t find a place to stay. The motorcycle rally is this weekend. Every bed around is already rented and spoken for. The motorcycle rally is why this town exists. There are bikers everywhere.”
“I haven’t seen a single motorcycle,” he said.
“Nonetheless, there are bikers everywhere. But let me see what I can do. You’re not the only person in this position. All day, I’ve been serving customers who are the same as you. All week even. All month. Maybe even all year. You might even say that this is a perpetually ongoing thing.”
She disappeared, and, soon after, reappeared at his table. “What do you see when you look at me?” she asked. “What kind of person? You can be honest. You can be fair. When you look at me, what split-second judgments bounce around in your head?”
“Why do you care what I think of you?” Henry glanced at his room-temperature Applejack Crisper.10
“Just answer,” she said. “Lie if you have to.”
“You look normal,” he said.
“We close at midnight,” she breathed. “We open at nine. You can sleep here from midnight until nine.”
“If you leave before nine, leave through the back. There is a sign there that says an alarm will sound if you exit, but it won’t. Just push on through and leave.”
“I’ve been so nervous since I got here. I was so afraid you’d say you couldn’t help me.”
In the Applebee’s bathroom, a beam of steaming water hissed from a faucet with a broken motion detector.
A Muzak version of Bob Seger’s “Old Fashioned Rock & Roll” played from speakers in the ceiling.
Henry used a urinal. He washed his hands. He approached the hand dryer. He pressed its button. He stuck his hands into the rushing column of hot air.
The dryer had a small metal plate bolted to it. The plate said that the number of paper towels this hand dryer saved in a year could, if laid end-to-end, make ten-thousand orbits around the earth. It said that any astronaut on a spacecraft making ten-thousand orbits around the earth would go insane from the interminable solitude of the mission.11
A person in one of the stalls said, “Hello? Come here for a second please?”
A stall door swung open, revealing the teenager with neon hair—the one whose parents were pouting at the booth near Henry’s. She sat on the toilet, cupping a phone like it was a fledgling bird pushed from its nest.
Henry blinked, and she was a teenage boy. His hair was like a wig made from rock candy and stained glass.
He turned the phone to Henry. Its screen showed a video of a fish tank in someone’s home. Underwater flora quivered in the small current created by the tank’s pump. A lonesome bottom feeder sucked bubblegum-colored pebbles on the floor of the tank.
“I watch these kinds of videos to relax,’ said the kid. “But tonight, it’s not working. I’m still on edge.”
“You sleeping here tonight?” the kid asked. “In this fucking Applebee’s?”
Henry said that he was. “It’s my first time at an Applebee’s.”
“We’re sleeping here, too. My mom and dad and I. We planned to get a motel room for the night but everything is already booked.”
“Same thing happened to me.”
“Same thing always happens to everyone,” said the kid.
The kid said that his name was Paul. Henry said that his name was Henry.
Paul said his family was headed somewhere out west, where his parents planned on dropping him off at a camp for wayward adolescents.
“The word they use for it is ‘rustic.’ They say I’m being ‘rusticated,’ for my own good.”
“I’m sorry,” said Henry.
“I’m not against it. It’s the only solution. Things are too dangerous at home.”
Paul told Henry that the problem stemmed from his older sister Emily.
“Emily always told me that she’d do anything for me,” Paul said, squeezing his words through a tightening throat. “I was never sure what she meant by ‘anything.’”
Emily had been a negative influence on Paul.
“She’s worse than she’s ever been,” said Paul. “Two weeks ago, she gave me heroin.”
“Did you want heroin?”
“I don’t know. Kind of,” said Paul. “My parents think I can escape her forever. And I wish they were right,” said Paul. “But she’s following us.”
“How do you know?”
“She texted me a few minutes ago. She said she’s going to save me. I don’t want her to.”
“I don’t have siblings,” said Henry, “but I can imagine how confusing your situation would be.”
Henry’s hands trembled. At some point during this conversation, he’d become afraid.
“I need your help,” said Paul.
Paul said that Emily was coming to Applebee’s.
“All I need you to do,” said Paul, “is talk to her when she gets here. Tell her that I’ll make my own decision. I can be my own man.”
“I’m not sure about this at all,” said Henry. “It sounds like you’re asking me to be some kind of mediator between your sister and your family. I’m not the right person for that kind of job. I’m conflict-averse. Conflict puts me in panic mode.”
“I’m not asking for conflict. I just need you to step in between her and me. Just talk to her honestly.”
“Why don’t you tell her yourself?”
“Because I love her. It’s the people you love that do the real damage, and I love my sister more than anyone.”12
“I’ll help you,” said Henry. “I’ll tell her to leave you alone.”13
“Be careful,” said Paul. “Emily is tricky. At one moment, she can seem pitiful, and the next, she’s full of power. She seems like nothing but love, and she is, but she’s also nothing but hate. She’s everything rolled into one.14 But I guess that’s what all guys say about their sisters.”
“I’ve never heard anyone say that about their sister.”
“This will probably work out fine.
In the Applebee’s parking lot, Henry dug through his car’s cluttered backseat for a toothbrush or maybe a towel. There was a lot of stuff back there, and very little of it was his. Much of it seemed to have appeared since he’d parked in that spot.
As he searched, a motorcycle pulled into the adjacent spot.
The rider dismounted. “Hey,” she said, nodding to Henry. “I’m Emily.”15
Henry watched Emily walk inside the Applebee’s, and then he went inside, too.
Emily’s hair was the color of roadside snow near the end of winter. It was wind-roughened and full; a weathered mane. She wore a nylon shirt covered with vents and flaps and lanyard-like loops. Her pants billowed around her legs like a half-pitched tent. She wore mesh-topped sneakers with little cushions that looked like pods of laundry detergent installed in the soles.
Emily sat at the bar, holding a five-dollar bill out to a bartender that wasn’t there. Henry sat next to her.
“What kind of clothes are those?” asked Henry.
“Technical fishing clothes,” said Emily.
Henry took out a five-dollar bill and held it out, just like Emily was doing.
Henry’s server appeared behind the bar took their orders. Emily wanted a gin and tonic. Henry asked for a Coke. The server made two gin and tonics and disappeared, but not before offering Henry a conspiratorial wink.16
Emily and Henry picked up their drinks, took a sip, and placed them back on the bar. They both sat with one palm flat on the bar, another on a knee. They both shifted their stools farther apart by the approximate distance of a quarter inch.
Henry asked Emily if she was in town for the big rally.
“What rally?” asked Emily.
“The bike rally here in town. They’ve got all the hotel rooms booked up for it.”
“Hey man?” asked Emily.
“It’s ok that you’re trying to help my brother. I appreciate it, even. That’s why I’m talking to you as an equal. As a human being.”
“Thank you,” said Henry.
Emily removed a cigarette from its package and tucked it behind her ear.
Henry plucked a stirring stick from the bar and tucked it behind his ear.
“I have no intention of harming anyone,” said Emily. “But if you think I’m a harmful person, that’s ok. I can understand why you would. My little brother Robert can be a very persuasive person.”
“You mean Paul.”
Henry scanned the Applebee’s. Paul was nowhere in sight. Henry felt humiliated and scared.
“Paul reminds me of my little brother,” said Henry.
“I’d give anything to have one more moment with my little brother. But he’s gone.”
“I’m so sorry,” Emily.
“Suicide,” said Henry. “And I can’t stop blaming myself.” He was lying about having a brother, and lying about the suicide. But real grief washed over Henry, intensely. It was a new feeling. He let it happen. He felt it spread and fuse with the fabric of his being, the way spilled wine might stain a rug.
At first, Emily seemed unmoved by Henry’s lie. But the stain of grief slowly transferred from Henry’s body to hers. This is not a metaphor. The quantum chemicals that constitute grief sloshed through Henry’s intestines, and seeped into the dense network of nervous tissue bundled around the gut.17 It wormed through his deeper viscera and into the systems that exchange material with the outside world. The lungs. The pores. In this way, Henry immersed Emily in his grief.18
Her shoulders dropped. Clouds formed in her eyes. She finished her drink. She stood and left. Henry listened to her motorcycle leave the Applebee’s parking lot, and then sat at the bar and watched the ice melt in his glass.19
He looked at Paul’s table, where Paul sat alone, a half-drank beer in front of him. He offered Henry a yellow-toothed grin. Henry realized that Paul was not a teenager. He was a very old man.20 His skin stretched over his bones. His face was reptilian. Henry understood that Paul’s scored and floured appearance was exactly that of stone.
Henry’s server said, “Do you want another drink, honey?”
Henry said no.
She said, “You did a good job.”
One end of a clothesline was tied around her left ankle.
“You conducted yourself like a hero,” she said. “And now Paul needs to talk to you.”
The clothesline snaked through the restaurant and disappeared behind the men’s room door.
“Meet us in the kitchen in fifteen minutes. If we put our heads together, I think we can figure out what all of this is. What it’s all becoming.”
“You promise?” she asked.
“I promise,” he said.21
But when it came down to it, he wasn’t interested in what all of this is.
“Swear on your mother’s grave?” she asked.
Henry looked at the ceiling.
He didn’t want to know what he was becoming.
“I swear,” he said.
His server handed him a corporate survey card. “See you in fifteen,” she said. She walked away.
He read the survey questions printed on the card.
“Will you sacrifice your comfort for someone else’s justice?”
“Do you believe in mercy?”
“Have you experienced love?”
“Will you help us please?”
Henry checked “extremely satisfied” for each item on the card.
He placed his card on the bar and walked out the door. He started his car and pulled out into the street.
As he guided his car onto the on-ramp, he couldn’t help but feel like the bad days were finally behind him. He had a brand-new job in a different town, and he’d made some new friends at Applebee’s tonight. He even had a new little brother to think about, too.
Henry was getting off to a very good start.