Literature 11-4-2009

mnLIT Original: “The Four Hermans”

"The Four Hermans" by Brian Beatty is the first of our newly commissioned pieces by the 2009 mnLIT grand prize-winning poets and writers. Each work will be accompanied by a curated selection of work drawn from's vast database of artists.


HERMAN NUMBER ONE WAS DRUNK IN THE UPSTAIRS BATHTUB, struggling to recall exactly how many little pills he’d choked down so far. Not enough to get the job done, obviously.

There’s a warning they need to mention in those pharmaceutical ads on TV,” he slurred, gagging back a throat full of something vomit-y: “‘Could be difficult to count when trying to end it all. Ask your doctor if you’re healthy enough for suicide.'”

His missus, perched like a deposed queen atop the toilet, zoomed her video camera up in Herman Number One’s face. She sighed. “You’re not making any damn sense again. Those can’t be your last words. Because they came out all garbled, that’s why. Once more — but this time, would it kill you to enunciate?” 

Herman Number One sure hoped so.  

“How do I look?” he wanted to know. “Is my make-up smeared? I’m serious.”

“Oh, you’re always serious, Herman. I’ve told you a million times. Some kid’s birthday party is not the place to go following your muse. Balloon animals and juggling, maybe a quick mime routine, if junior doesn’t know better — that’s what parents want. They’re paying for entertainment. That’s all. Nobody cares that you consider this clown business some kind of artistic calling, or whatever it is.”

Whatever it was, was right. This movie-making missus of his was always right. Herman Number One could see that, of course — in the metaphorical sense, at least. Literally, at this very moment, Herman Number One couldn’t see too much of anything. He tried, but it was proving impossible to focus his eyes with them rolled back in his head, so now was not the time, perhaps, to give his failed life the close examination it deserved.


Hunkered away, in the downstairs foyer coat closet, with padded headphones clamped tightly over his ears and the backlit controls of his jerry-rigged broadcast board shining in his round hipster bifocals, the African-American Herman, Herman Number Two, better known to former students and a new handful of listeners in the surrounding neighborhoods as Professor Bud, had no better half to shame him so.

Not lately – and not that he missed her.

What he had instead was a microphone he wore in a rusted harmonica rack around his neck, as he cued up jazz vinyl from the vast collection that walled him inside this bunker/studio he’d built, where no one would think of looking for a pirate radio station. Yard sale turntables and thrift store stereo amps were better company than the soap operas and television talk shows that had wasted away those first excruciating weeks following his retirement from teaching saxophone at the university down the street.

Herman Number Two didn’t know who tuned in for that garbage every afternoon, or how a person was supposed to survive more than a few minutes of it. Even that Oprah wore on his nerves.

It was bad enough living in this house with these other Hermans and their women. Watching half-ass actors play at the same craziness on TV didn’t interest him one iota.         

Now that he could blast out 10,000 watts of John Coltrane whenever the mood struck, especially his late shrieking favorites, Herman Number Two didn’t owe white people shit.

Fuck them.


The last anybody had seen of Herman Number Three was a poem in elaborate calligraphy on a fine piece of parchment he’d staple-gunned to a front porch pillar before disappearing to who-knew-where:


If I were like Tarzan
and could tame
this jungle
in which I live

I wouldn’t waste my time
shrubbery and treetops

in my
looking for squirrels
to hypnotize.

I’ve kept up with
my beastly
ex-girlfriends and wives
for a reason.


“I’m totally sorry,” said young and handsome Herman Number Four to the girl across from him in the breakfast nook. 

She bit her pouting lower lip and nodded. She couldn’t look Herman Number Four in the eye. He was glad, to be honest. She’d been crying into her unfinished cereal bowl since the morning before — sobbing uncontrollably from the moment she’d spooned up the engagement ring.

This flood of tears wasn’t quite the “yes” Herman Number Four had anticipated. Even after living together for seven years, the girl still had a few surprises left in her. 


Herman Number One was likewise preoccupied with unanticipated circumstances. No surprise there.

His eyes were both in working order again, but what he saw depressed him.

Somehow he had broken his favorite bourbon tumbler. Radiant little razor-sharp shards glistened in his tepid gray bathwater like so many glass stars in an orbit unwinding toward a truth as dreadful as it probably was inevitable. Pills that had fallen from his slack, slobbering mouth bobbed in this soaking oblivion like tiny satellites on a crash course with whatever new reality lay waiting out there beyond the beyond. At the center of it all floated his red rubber nose.

Herman Number One knew better than to mention one word of this to his missus. She hated everything science fiction. He couldn’t stand to disappoint her once more — maybe twice more, since so much as a whisper would prove that he was still alive.


Herman Number Two hated the hip-hop and that electronic racket everybody downloaded into their white plastic earplugs, these days. Toward the end of his teaching stint, even some of his students admitted they enjoyed it. They’d wished their horns had a place in that noise.

The shit all sounded the same to Professor Bud — like an army of mannequins raping a pile of cheap pocket calculators. Not even Miles Davis let himself go that crazy.

Just as Herman Number Two set the needle down on the Davis classic “So What,” his cell phone did a little dance across his desk.

He watched it vibrate again, then took a look at the caller ID. It was his old lady.


Herman Number Three’s most famous poem was an untitled haiku, first published in the pages of The New Yorker:

Every woman
I dated was like magic:
so fake, so boring.

The other Hermans wondered if Herman Number Three had disappeared because Hollywood was making a movie out of his most famous poem, a movie starring Brad Pitt, and his poetic sensibilities were a tad delicate and wilt-y for the glare of media spotlights.  

They agreed, at the same time, that they wouldn’t be surprised to see a segment on the evening news about how Herman Number Three was now dating that Angelina Jolie.


Herman Number Four and the girl destined not to be his fiancé met back in college. She had puked on him at a frat party.

He wasn’t a member of the host fraternity or their invited guest. Neither was she.

They were chatting about how lucky it was they had both wandered into the same stupid party, hoping to scam the same free booze, and how, otherwise, there was no way they would have met each other, when Herman Number Four noticed that he was wearing everything the girl had been drinking all night.

The girl followed him back to his place, like some stray dog begging to be scolded for ruining his favorite t-shirt. She helped him out of his nasty clothes and into his shower; then she climbed under the trickling water, too.

They’d lived happily ever after until Herman Number Four popped the question. That had started the girl bawling for a solid day and a half. When she did eventually stop, she mumbled something about getting back to that party now.  

She had friends who were probably worried about her, she said.


The mail shoved through the slot in the front door hadn’t been touched for weeks. Amid the cluttered mountain of credit card applications, grocery store coupons, and sound system catalogs, Herman Number Four found a scalloped postcard picturing a landlocked tourism board’s idea of an island paradise circa sometime in the mid-1950s.

He picked it up and turned it over. On the message side was a literary masterpiece. It was short and rhyming and scrawled in ballpoint pen with force enough that it could almost be deciphered backwards, through the card’s antiquated beach scene. The title and subtitle of Herman Number Three’s latest poem explained why nobody had heard from him lately:


My latest honeymoon
ended last night
in bed.

“Take your ho-hum
out of my hoo-ha,”
my new
bride said.


Herman Number Two was talking dirty to his estranged old lady on his cell phone when Herman Number Four’s hyperventilating bride-not-to-be opened the foyer closet door. She pretended not to notice that the pirate DJ’s pants were down around his Hush Puppies.

“Hi, Professor Bud.” She inhaled. “How you been?” She exhaled. “I just broke my Herman’s heart.” She inhaled. “He thinks he needs a wife. That’s the last thing he needs.” She exhaled. “He needs a job. Or a hobby.” She inhaled. “Like, Herman Number One is a bank president.” She exhaled. “And he’s also available for birthday parties.” She inhaled. “You have personal interests, too.” She exhaled, then checked out the posters tacked up to give his little studio an authentic jazz radio vibe, and continued, “Whoever this Thelonious Monk fellow is, that hooka over there, playing with yourself.”

“Don’t get the wrong idea,” Herman Number Two said. “My woman’s on hold.”

The girl turned to her ex. “More than you need to become somebody’s husband, you need to become yourself. I’ve done so much thinking and growing up this last couple of days. Now’s your turn.”

Before her Herman could defend himself, Herman Number One came crashing out of the bathroom and zooming down the stairwell. His missus chased behind him, swearing and brandishing her video camera above her head, ready to kill whatever happened next –which was Herman Number One rejoining civilized society once again.

He flopped around in their front yard like a cartoon fish gasping for air. The others followed him only as far as the porch, keeping what they hoped was a safe distance, as he purged himself of his earlier death wish. One person at a time, at first, then entire families hugged together; neighbors emerged from their darkened houses, out into the pink-orange glow of city streetlamps, in time to witness Herman Number One puking up everything but his grease paint and wig.

“You never finish the job!” his missus yowled at him. “Just once I wish you would!” 


About the author: Brian Beatty‘s jokes, poems and stories have appeared in numerous print and online publications, including Conduit, elimae, Exquisite Corpse, Hobart, Juked, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, METRO, Monkeybicycle, Phoebe, The Quarterly, The Rake, Seventeen, Word Riot, The Writer and Yankee Pot Roast. His story “Squirrels” was a 2008 miniStories contest finalist; his story “Velour” was a 2009 miniStories/mnLIT contest grand prize-winner.

Don’t miss the related slideshow of visual art by Minnesota artists at the top of the page. Each work was handpicked specifically to accompany this story.

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Brian Beatty

Brian has written for Alba, All Music Guide, Arts Indiana, The Bark, The Big Jewel, Blues Revue, City Pages, Dark Mountain, Elephant Journal, elimae, The Evergreen Review, Gigantic, The Glasgow Review of Books, Guitar World Acoustic, Guffaw, Gulf Coast, Hobart, Juked, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, METRO, Minnesota Monthly, Monkeybicycle, Opium, Paper Darts, Phoebe, Publishers Weekly, The Quarterly, Rain Taxi, The Rake, Revolver, Seventeen, The …   read more