Dunce – A Short Story

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Dunce

Everyone calls Dunce ‘Dunce’. Everyone thinks that Dunce is an idiot. I used to think so too but not any more.

Dunce is completely bald and has a really pointed head so the temptation to get him paralytic on his thirtieth birthday, carry him to the tattooist’s and get a nice big ‘D’ smack bang in the middle of his forehead was too much for me. Trouble is he can’t afford to have it removed so he wears a big plaster over it. Gangs of children tease him.

‘What’s underneath the plaster, mister? Show us!’

They swear he has a third eye under there.

My name is Bill but Dunce calls me ‘Fez’ on account of my hat. I’ve known Dunce for over sixteen years. I don’t have to use my memory to work that out; I just count the number of boxes of Turkish Delight I’ve got stashed in my cupboard. Dunce buys me a box every birthday. Dunce thinks that because I wear a fez I must be Turkish (I’m not) and that being Turkish I must like that powder-covered gunk (I don’t, I hate the stuff).

On my last birthday, after saying:

‘No, Dunce, I’ll eat it later,’ and stashing box number sixteen in the cupboard, I decided to take Dunce to the theatre. He’d never been before.

The play was called ‘Death in the Dark’. We had front row seats. Dunce was captivated. He stared at the actors with a gaping mouth.

The lights dimmed to darkness. Kitty Malone, the beautiful star of the show, was stood centre stage. A shot was heard. Dunce jumped right out of his seat.

‘What was that?’ he said.

The lights came back on and Kitty was lying in a pool of blood. Dunce let out a scream then shouted:

‘Someone call for an ambulance! And the police!’

The audience thought that Dunce was an actor, that the play was being cleverly extended beyond the stage, questioning the boundaries of theatre.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ Dunce shouted at the audience. ‘How can you carry on as if nothing has happened?’

‘This is wonderful, just wonderful,’ I heard someone say behind me.

Kitty was stoically sticking to her role, thinking that the show must go on, but Dunce was clambering up onto the stage, crying, stroking Kitty’s hair and checking her pulse.

‘She’s alive!’ he shouted with relief.

‘No I’m not!’ Kitty hissed at him through clenched teeth.

That was it; I was in hysterics. What a birthday treat this was turning out to be.

‘I’m acting. It’s part of the play. No one really shot me,’ Kitty hissed at Dunce.

The realisation was excruciatingly slow. I watched Dunce’s face change from shock to confusion to understanding to embarrassment. He made his way back to his seat. He didn’t speak or look at me until the play was over. The play got a standing ovation and we headed for the bar.

Kitty was in the bar too. She smiled at Dunce who blushed. She seemed to be fascinated by the top of his head. She walked over and invited him to her dressing room.

Twelve hours later and Dunce was in love! How about that? And what’s more, Kitty was in love too! And not only that but they were in love with each other! Kitty fell for Dunce. Not ‘fell for’ as in ‘was deceived by’ because there’s no deception where Dunce is concerned, he can’t do it, but she fell from her deceptions towards him. I couldn’t believe it.

‘It won’t last,’ I said to Dunce. ‘Enjoy it while you can but face facts: you are Dunce and she is Kitty Malone. Think about it.’

Dunce told me that Kitty had a thing about ice cream cones, a fetish you could say. She ate six a day. She liked to bite off the tip of the cone and suck out all the ice cream. She had a recording of ice cream van music that she played whilst they were having sex. She was forever stroking the top of Dunce’s head.

Then came the day. Dunce came round looking really worried.

‘Fez, have you seen Kitty? Do you know where she is?’

‘No, I haven’t seen her. Why? What’s the problem?’

‘I had a dream last night,’ Dunce said. ‘I dreamt that I was in bed and I looked at the calendar by the side of my bed and it was tonight. I put out my hand to touch Kitty but she wasn’t there. There was just this cold sludge covering her side of the bed and this smell: vanilla. It was melted ice cream.’

‘So what’s the problem?’

‘I think that something is going to happen to Kitty. I have to find her before tonight. I don’t want to wake up tomorrow morning alone in a bed full of melted ice cream.’

‘Dunce, dreams don’t mean anything and prophecies are impossible. Sit yourself down. Let’s have a couple of beers.’

I opened a cupboard, reached in to get the beers and a pile of boxes of Turkish Delight toppled over and fell out, breaking open and spilling their contents all over the floor. Dunce looked at the boxes then looked at me. I watched his face go through the same slow transformation from shock to confusion to understanding to embarrassment that I had witnessed so many times before.

‘You don’t like Turkish Delight?’ he said.

I said nothing and guiltily handed him a beer.

Dunce sighed then said:

‘So why did I have that dream?’

‘No reason at all,’ I said.

We sat in silence for a while then Dunce suddenly stood up.

‘It’s no good, Fez, I have to find her.’

Dunce found Kitty in the centre of town, lying on the pavement in a pool of blood. An ambulance and the police were on their way. An ice cream vendor was crying and yelling:

‘I don’t understand! I don’t understand!’

A huge, plastic ice cream cone was protruding from Kitty’s chest. It had fallen from on top of the ice cream shop for no apparent reason, smashed through her rib cage and crushed her heart.

Dunce cried. Then he cried some more. The next day, he cried and the day after that he cried. Three weeks later, he awoke, dressed, ate some breakfast, then cried. The next day, he came round to see me. He was crying.

‘Hello Dunce,’ I said. ‘Do you want a beer?’

‘What’s wrong with you?’ he said. ‘How can you carry on as if nothing has happened?’

‘It was an accident, Dunce,’ I said angrily, ‘a random occurrence. These things happen. You just have to get on with life. Why are you so stupid?’

I regretted saying it as soon as I heard it come out of my mouth. Dunce stared at me with tears in his eyes.

‘A fez is only a severed cone,’ Dunce said. ‘At least I have a point.’

I took off my hat and looked at it sullenly. Dunce had a point that he had a point. If he’d found Kitty a moment earlier… if I hadn’t delayed him with my arrogance, my cynicism…

‘Fez,’ Dunce said, ‘you remember the tears that I cried in the theatre when I thought that Kitty was dead but she wasn’t? I think that the tears I am crying now are the same as those. I didn’t understand what was going on in the theatre and I didn’t understand what was going on when the cone fell on her. I think that maybe we only cry because we don’t understand what is going on. Maybe if we understood what is really going on we wouldn’t cry at all, ever.’

Dunce smiled through his tears and beneath the plaster on his forehead I swear I saw something move.

 

Copyright © 2014 Mike Russell. All Rights Reserved.

This story is one of twenty that can be yours by purchasing Nothing Is Strange.

20 mind-expanding short stories

Inspiring, liberating, otherworldly, magical, surreal, bizarre, funny, disturbing, unique… all of these words have been used to describe the stories of Mike Russell so put on your top hat, open your third eye and enjoy… Nothing Is Strange! 

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Those Curious Coen Brothers

Known for their unique characters and gripping dialogue, Joel Coen, 61, and Ethan Coen, 58, are the directors, writers and producers of numerous critically adored films including “Fargo”, “The Big Lebowski” and the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men”. The Economist

Joel Coen is often listed as the sole director on early projects, but this is only because guild rules stopped two individuals taking credit for one film. They have pretty much shared most roles throughout their careers.

I’ve seen people walk out of the cinema before a Coen film has ended, and I’ve heard the confused and annoyed chatter during the end credits, but the brothers have still managed to break really quite unusual, niche films into the mainstream. Perhaps this is partly due to the large list of popular actors who are keen to work with them.

Anyway, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on my top Coen films…

Burn After Reading (2008) is one of my favourites, with Brad Pitt and John Malkovitch giving hilarious performances, particular when in the same scene. Pitt’s character has grand plans but it’s a Coen film, so you know it’s not going to work out for him!

True Grit is another of my favourites, and it’s thanks to this film, Quentin Tarantino and the Weird West fiction genre, that I’ve finally realised westerns are great. The characters in True Grit seem very honest portrayals of human beings, doing what they want or need to do. I think it’s one of their more normal films too, which probably explains why it’s their most financially successful so far. I’d love some more recommendations for modern traditional westerns. It’s one of the Coen brothers’ few films that doesn’t mash up genres.Business Insider

I saw Barton Fink very late (last year I think) and it’s probably in my top three Coen films, being complicated and super exciting all the way through. It’s a bit of a secret film, meaning different things to different viewers.

Fargo the film is one of the best films of all time, Fargo series 1 was an extremely fun viewing experience… and I’m not sure I can even talk about Fargo series 2. “We have no problem with it. It just feels divorced from our film somehow.” – Joel Coen talking about the TV series. However, all three pieces of work make me wish we had more snowy settings on the big and small screens. Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is possibly one of the best Coen creations.

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No Country for Old Men (2007) is a film that I often forget is by the Coen brothers. Watching it for the first time seemed like such a big experience and I felt like films were changing, they were going in a new, higher direction. It’s also their longest film at two hours two minutes, short by today’s standards. “I mean, after two hours with a character we feel we’re pretty much done with them.” – Joel Coen. Many say “No Country for Old Men” is objectively the best film the Coen brothers ever made. They have a point. “No Country” earned them their first Oscars for best director and best picture. The awards were well-deserved. At first, this doesn’t feel like any Coen brothers film ever made.Business Insider

If I had to pick a favourite, it would be A Serious Man (2009). It’s hard to explain why, but since first seeing it I’ve discovered the short stories of Ethan Coen and this film seems to have a lot of his mind in it. It is hilarious, but it’s also so… well, serious. “A Serious Man” is the most confident and personal film the Coen brothers have ever made… At one point, it diverges into a story about Hebrew letters found on a man’s teeth. That’s because the Coens can. Business Insider

And then there’s The Big Lebowski (1998). 

“The Big Lebowski” is bigger than just one movie.

The story of a laid-back stoner named The Dude (Jeff Bridges), who gets sucked into a seedy LA underworld after asking for a replacement for his soiled rug (“that was a valued rug”), was a box-office flop when it came out. But it slowly gained cult status. Now it plays to sold-out crowds at midnight showings. It has launched clothing lines and even a religion called Dudeism.

And even with the overexposure, “The Big Lebowski” never gets old. After countless viewings, I can’t quite put my finger on it, because my perception of this movie changes every time I watch it. That’s what happens when you have a story so intricate and well mapped out. The mystery gets more intriguing and makes more sense the more you watch it. And yes, this is a film you will want to watch many times.

The Dude deserves to be in the pantheon of great cinematic characters as does Walter Sobchak (John Goodman). For creating a timeless comedy and a character whose face decorates both a shirt I wear and a mug I drink coffee out of every morning, I say, “the Dude abides.” Business Insider

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Moving on: The Coens are often praised for the music in their films, and composer Carter Burwell is responsible for the score in sixteen of them. He is not responsible for the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack, one of my least favourite of their films (it’s not a bad film but I expect amazing from these guys now, so I was disappointed). Not planning to be a film composer, Burwell received numerous requests after scoring the music for Blood Simple, the Coens’ first feature-length film. “It is, in fact, just an accident of the way that Blood Simple was received, frankly. Other people started calling me and asking me to do film scores. So, yes, it’s entirely their fault” – Carter Burwell.

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Despite Burwell’s lack of formal training, Joel Coen says the brothers have always felt like they were in good musical hands.

“Carter is so good at sort of moving into these different kinds of storytelling,” he says, “and understanding what the sort of imperatives of the movie are, and what it needs musically.”

That’s good, because the Coens don’t like to give Burwell too much instruction up front. Burwell says they discuss all the practicalities, but he can’t necessarily ask what a scene is really about…”I’m a bit more of a quieter person,” he says, “and often the music is more behind what’s going on.”…Burwell says he tries to work with people who understand the virtue of withholding information or leaving the audience uninformed and even confused. NPR

Their latest film, Hail, Caesar!, another period piece about Hollywood, isn’t released in the UK until next week, so I haven’t seen it yet! It looks silly and fun, so I’m looking forward to it. This twisted love letter to blacklist-era Hollywood finds the brothers at their most absurd, and it totally works. Business Insider

If you’re an aspiring film-maker, the brothers offer some tips here!