Totem by Justin Meckes

I built a totem pole out of paper towels and a broomstick. In case you want to do this, you should know that I painted the paper towels with acrylics I’d bought at a Walmart. Also, know that most of the time I was in my boxer shorts and a bathrobe, and that I was probably possessed by something pseudo-native or I would’ve never started hallucinating.

Here’s some kind of explanation: I lost my job a week previous. I was expecting to lose it or half-expecting to lose it. There had been layoffs. It seemed inevitable. That’s why I was doing a Vision Quest in my condo. I wanted to see the future. I needed the guidance.

I painted the raven first. I painted a roll of paper towels completely black and then I painted wings and a beak with gray paint. I made breakfast while the raven was drying. I picked at a bagel and cream cheese as I added eyes to the totem. I added feathers as the finishing touch. Next, I painted the fox, a bear, and the deer, all in a similar style. In case you’re painting by numbers, these animals came together with red, black, brown, and white paints.

Lacking real artistic talent, my totems looked like they were drawn by a second grader. I wasn’t exactly serious about the painting, either. I watched Drew Carey host The Price is Right as I worked and also used some of the paper towels to wipe cream cheese off my face.

I saved the face of the man for last. I painted an old man, giving the paper towel roll wrinkles. I spent a lot of time on his headdress, incorporating more of the colored paints. In the end, it still looked amateurish, but I didn’t care. It was sufficient. With the man completed, I went to my hall closet and found my broom. I moved a chair from the corner of the living room and slid the TV stand across the floor. I was going to place the totem pole against the wall in the living room.

The paper towel rolls went on the broomstick in the following order: the old man, the bear, the deer, the fox, and the raven. The raven was supposed to be on top, but there was an issue with the broomstick. It wasn’t long enough for all five totems, so I propped my broom against the wall and went and got the duct tape. I duct taped the fox to the raven. Being careful with the tape, I tore it neatly and wrapped it around the paper towels twice. The tape looked okay. The totem pole itself? I thought it looked earthy.

Starting my fast, I skipped lunch and sat cross-legged in front of the totem pole. I stared at each of the animals and the chief, in turn. After half an hour of staring and thinking, I decided to paint my face. In the bathroom, I painted my face blue and used my fingers to add yellow streaks. Some of the yellow in the streaks turned green.

Then my cellphone rang while I was gelling my hair into a mohawk.

My girlfriend said, “Hey!”

I was looking at my mohawk in the bathroom mirror and being careful not to get blue paint on my cell phone.

“Whatcha ya’ doing?”

“Combing my hair,” I said.

Jenn laughed. “I’m gonna come over later, okay?”

“That’s fine,” I said, “but I’m on a Vision Quest.”

There was a pause. “You were serious about that?”

“Yes,” I said as I applied a yellow streak down the center of my forehead. “I’m applying war paint.” I rinsed my finger and walked out of the bathroom.

Jenn said, “You’re in what?”

“I’ll show you when you come over,” I said. Then I hung up.

I spent the afternoon sitting on a sofa pillow, staring at the totem pole. When I wasn’t meditating on the totems, I was cleaning. I got bored and the place needed straightening. The condo was spotless when Jenn stopped by later that night. Jenn was wearing a sweater and tights. Her hair was curly. She said, “I like the totem pole, but your face is messed up.”

I sighed. “I know. It’s cracking and I might be allergic to acrylics.”

Jenn removed her wind jacket and crossed her arms. She waited in the living room while I went to the bathroom and washed off the paint. I scrubbed, but a lot of it stuck, in particular around my ears, nose, and in small globs in my eyebrows. Getting that out would have required hair removal.

“I’m gonna make dinner,” Jenn said, from the living room.

“You can’t,” I yelled back. I stepped into the living room, towel in hand.

“Why not?”

“Because I’m fasting.” I dabbed my face with the towel.

Jenn rolled her eyes and walked into the kitchen, saying, “How long is that going to last?”

I shrugged.

Then she said, “You better paint my face, too.”


“I should do this with you,” Jenn said, going through my pantry. “Mostly, I want to show you how crazy this looks. All of this.” Jenn was holding a can of tomato sauce in my kitchen. She motioned with it toward me and to the totem pole. For a second, it seemed like she might throw the can at me, so I stepped back.

“I’m not happy about what’s happening here,” Jenn said. She put the can down on the stove and crossed her arms.

I didn’t say anything.

“Do you care if I eat?”

“I’d prefer that you didn’t.”

Jenn huffed. “Well, then, I’m leaving.” I followed my girlfriend to the door.

As she put an arm into her jacket, she looked at the totem pole and said, “You’re starving yourself in front of a craft project, Mark.” Her eyes narrowed and she glowered at me.

I looked at the totem pole. It did look ridiculous, especially with the duct tape.

Jenn zipped her jacket. Then exited and sort of slammed the door.

I was up all night. I took two cold showers and drank two pots of coffee. Four days passed with me struggling to stay awake, cleaning, watching TV, listening to loud music, and painting a few crude landscapes with the leftover acrylics. There was no word from Jenn.

On the morning of the fifth day, my eyes popped open. I was laying halfway on a sofa cushion. I didn’t remember falling asleep, only sitting on the cushion and meditating. I sat up slowly, sore and stiff, and deciding to make another pot of coffee when I heard a loud banging at the front door. I stumbled toward the noise and nearly tripped over my vacuum cleaner cord.

I opened the front door and a brown bear brushed past me. The bear lumbered toward the kitchen. I watched him. When I finally worked up the nerve to follow him, the bear only looked at me with his big, round, sad eyes. Then he returned his attention to the pantry. He walked past me again after that. He sat on the remaining couch cushion and explained, “Your potato chips were stale, but you have Honey Oats and they’re okay.” The bear’s paw was inside a cereal box.

Because I suspected that it was so, I asked, “Are you my totem?”

“Yes,” said the bear, “But I’m only here to hibernate.” The bear pulled a blanket off the couch and wrapped himself in it. Then he turned and continued, “For me, this is less like any quest for meaning and more like a tutorial on healthy eating. I’m going to sleep now.” Then the bear gave me a wink and he smirked. I turned to go back into the kitchen, but the bear stopped me. He said, “You have anything to drink?” The bear shoved a handful of Honey Oats into his mouth, spilling some of them on his fur and the carpet.

“Oh sorry,” I said. “What would you like?”

“Whatever you got.”

When I returned with a can of soda the bear was asleep, snoring noisily. I scratched my head; flakes of gel fell onto my shoulders. My mohawk was completely mangled. I cracked open the soda and drank it myself.

The bear snored hard. It rocked his entire body. Kneeling beside him, I tried something foolish. I touched the bear’s coat. I rubbed him just to make sure he was real. The bear rolled over and, fortunately, only snorted. I could have been mauled for less, but I had to made sure that this was real. I’d felt it now. Next, I decided to remove my bathrobe. It was a way to feel closer to nature, to bare my chest. It seemed like the tribal thing to do.

Half-naked, I went into the kitchen and started cleaning the mess the bear had left outside the pantry. I vacuumed the stale potato chips and a few Honey Oats. When I finished, I heard the bear moaning and gasping. Then I heard a groan of pleasure and a giggle from another voice. I peered around the door jam. There was a young deer beneath my throw with the bear.

The deer and the bear were locked in an embrace, kissing. The front door was open. I shook my head and stomped toward the front of my condo. I slammed the door, in an attempt to break up the two lovers in my living room. The bear looked up; his eyes glistened and they were black.

“Is there a problem?” he said.

The deer threw the covers back. She was resting on the bear’s chest. “You’re door was unlocked,” she said.

I stared at the two animals with my hands on my hips.

The bear and the deer sat up. The bear sighed and scratched his chin with his paw. “You’re irritable because you haven’t eaten,” he said.

The deer sniffed the room. She said, “I like your totem pole.”

That changed my mood slightly because I was proud of the work. I said, after a thoughtful moment, “I like it, too.”

The bear put his arm around the deer.

I looked at the bear and said, “And, I guess, I am kind of hungry.”

The bear sighed and crossed his legs.

“Why don’t you eat something,” the deer suggested. Then she gave the bear a look.

The bear moved his arm.

I ate with the bear and the deer. We had frozen dinners. The deer and I ate chicken. The bear had beef. After we’d finished, a fox wandered into the house through the back door. The fox walked into the living room and began, “Okay, everybody, I want you all to know that I do not have rabies.”

I wasn’t worried about rabies. I was wondering if animals knock.

“No one said you did,” the deer said.

“Yeah, well,” the fox said, “I’ve been acting a little strange today and some jerk called Animal Control.” The fox took a few steps into the living room. Then, pointing at me, he said, “If you do that, I’ll be forced to bite you.”

“I won’t call anyone,” I said.

The fox sat in an armchair. I was sitting on my sofa cushion again. The fox continued, “You wouldn’t get rabies. It’d just hurt like hell. You’d go to the doctor, get stitches, and everything. It’d be a major pain in your ass or wherever I bit you, so don’t mess with me.” The fox wiped sweat from his brow. Then he continued, saying, “Why am I here?”

The deer pointed to the totem pole in the corner of the room.

I shouldn’t have been, but I suddenly felt embarrassed by my childish attempt at a totem pole now that the animals were all looking at it.

The fox said, “You got a totem pole in your condo?”

I nodded.

“I’ve seen it all,” the fox said. The fox walked toward the totems.

The bear started to snore.

The deer elbowed him.

The fox said, referring to the pole, “It’s okay for acrylics.”

A little while later, there was a tapping at the window. It was the raven. He flew through the back door and circled the living room before perching on the armchair beside the totems. The raven looked frightened. He cried, “Ca-Caw.” Then he flew up and perched on the mantle.

I had started to feel woozy and feared passing out with all these animals in my house.

The raven looked me over and cocked his head. He said, “Sometimes I get so high, I can see for miles.” He looked at everyone. “It’s like the future is right before my beady, little eyes.” No one knew what the raven was talking about except for me. I wanted to see the future.

“I’m sorry,” the raven said. “I’m kind of high, right now.”

“No, go on,” I said, perking up.

The raven looked around. “You need wings.” Then the raven flapped his own wings. A couple of feathers floated to the ground.

I duct taped the feathers to my bare chest.

Then, without warning, an old man entered the room from my bedroom. I assumed he crawled in a window. Anyway, the man said, “You can’t sleep.” The man was dressed like a chief in Native American regalia, the kind you buy for a Halloween costume. It was made of felt, beads, and synthetic feathers. He was a white man. He carried a walking stick and said, “You can’t sleep,” again before hitting me with his stick.

I said, “I know. I’m on a Vision Quest.”

“I know,” the chief said, squatting to look me over. “You want to see the future.”

“Yeah,” I said, sleepily. “But I haven’t seen anything yet.”

The chief smiled. “But, you will.”

The chief grabbed a small, sofa pillow and placed it in the center of the room. He grabbed the raven from the totem pole, unraveled the paper towels, and lit them on fire with a Zippo. He waited for the flames to climb above his head and threw the paper onto the cushions. Then he smashed my coffee table with his foot and added its particle board parts to the flames. Next, the chief threw blankets and lamp shades into the flames. I didn’t try to stop him. I cowered in a corner with the other animals as the old man added the rest of the totems to the fire and began to dance. I looked into the flames and watched my totem faces melt away. Then, suddenly, I stood, made a war cry, and clapped my mouth with my hand. It was offensive, but involuntary. It made the chief stop dancing. He went into the kitchen and returned with a bucket full of water. He doused the flames. He did this until the fire was completely extinguished. It was like he was calling the whole thing off.

I looked around the living room. The animals were gone.

The chief walked past me. He said, “They’re afraid of fire.”

When the chief walked outside, I followed him. Some of the hair on my arm was singed and my mohawk was smoking. I patted my head. The old man stood beside me, crossing his arms. On the sidewalk in front of my house, the chief said, “Did you get what you were after?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

Thinking to himself a moment, the chief said, “You are One that Knows Not.”

I nodded, then said, “I think I already knew that.” It was pretty quick considering how tired I was.

The chief nodded, knowingly.

After that, an Animal Control truck came speeding around the corner into my condominium complex. The chief turned to walk away, but he stopped and looked at me. He said, “You are One that Knows Not.”

It was like rubbing it in.

I said, “Thank you,” even though it wasn’t the answer I’d been looking for. It wasn’t. I already knew I didn’t know the future which meant I was a walking contradiction and that was way more than I could handle at the time. My legs were wobbling; my eyes were hanging half-closed. I hadn’t seen my bed for days.

The Animal Control truck stopped and the officer ran up to me. A short, mustached man asked, “Have you seen a rabid fox?”


The Animal Control officer nodded and ran into the woods. He was carrying an animal noose.

I wasn’t able to stand any longer. I was on my knees. My pants were wet from the dousing in the living room. There was blue paint in the scruff on my chin and along my hairline. I was shirtless and had feathers duct-taped to my chest. I was also barefoot and collapsed in the front yard.

The next thing I remember was seeing Jenn hovering overhead. She was holding a canvas bag full of job hunting and self-help books. She was waving one in my face. I looked past Jenn and the book and with my blurred, unfocused eyes I could see the bear and the deer. They were hiding behind some holly bushes beside my unit. I passed out again, but before doing so I thought that those animals must be more scared of my girlfriend than she was of them.


This fiction piece is the first signs of Justin Meckes words on RASCAL, but we are smitten. He writes, lives and creates illustrations from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and has had work featured on the audio project, Telltale Weekly. The featured illustration is also a product of Meckes. 

2 thoughts on “Totem by Justin Meckes

  1. Pingback: Perfect Soul by Justin Meckes « RASCALmagazine

  2. Pingback: Totem | J. Meckes

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