When you keep finding troll dolls around your apartment, you assume your boyfriend is playing a practical joke. You think your boyfriend is funny, like that time he asked you for $10 and then didn’t contact you for six months after you gave it to him. The first troll has blue hair and a jewel in its belly and sits on top of your alarm clock. The second you find floating facedown in your toilet tank. Its wet purple hair radiates from its head like a nerve.
You don’t mention the trolls to your boyfriend. You pay for dinner and he talks about his job. This is part of the joke, you think, and you know the joke can go on for up to six months. When you open your bedroom door and the room is so full of troll dolls that they avalanche into the hallway, this is part of the joke. The joke is when you find, well, it must be half a million troll dolls, neck deep in your front lawn. Your first instinct is to call someone, but who? A gardener? A toy store?
The last straw is when there are no troll dolls at all, for a week and then longer, a month or two. You and your boyfriend start getting into fights. You don’t bring up the troll dolls, but you yell about other things, about the time he left the butter out overnight. Your boyfriend yells back that you don’t actually need to refrigerate butter, it will be fine. You’re pretty sure you read that somewhere but you aren’t willing to give any ground now.
Six months later, he calls, no reason, just wants to talk. You’re pretty sure he wants something, but it feels good to hear him laugh. You open the junk drawer, but you don’t remember what you were looking for when he called. He’s talking about changing jobs. You find the first troll, blue hair with the belly jewel. “What was the deal with the troll dolls, anyway?” you ask, cutting him off.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he says, and continues his story.
Your boyfriend wants to become the Pope but there already is a Pope. Your boyfriend doesn’t want to wait for the Pope to get sick or die or retire in disgrace, and decides he’s going to be the Trash Pope instead.
Your boyfriend the Trash Pope goes out to live in the landfill outside of town. It’s about as gross as you expect, but your boyfriend is optimistic. He nails two boards together for a cross and hangs it on a shack he builds out of discarded sheet metal.
Initially there is some trouble because your boyfriend has never read the Bible and has only the vaguest idea of what Catholics do. He doesn’t speak Latin, so he tries Pig Latin instead. He burns the discarded stubs of candles. He blesses pools of stinking, rotten water.
“I’m not sure what you’re going for here,” you say to your boyfriend the Trash Pope.
He finds a lot of dead bodies abandoned in the muck. He consecrates the remains and buries them behind his cathedral. He tries to fancy the cathedral up a little bit but it’s still a metal shed draped with stained cloth with some broken wind chimes dangling off of it.
“I don’t remember there being a lot of wind chimes,” you try to explain. You grew up Catholic but your boyfriend doesn’t listen to your advice.
“I’m the one who’s Trash Pope,” he says.
You start going to regular, non-trash church. It’s comforting how clean the stained glass is, how bright the light on Sunday morning. Incense smells nicer than garbage, you say to the priest at confession.
You don’t know how to explain this to your boyfriend. Everything here is so much nicer, it’s enough that you just believe.
You’re ready to go home but your boyfriend is still floating out on the lake, so far out he looks like a discarded t-shirt. You wave to get his attention, and when he doesn’t look up, you think he might be dead. Eventually though he swims to shore and tells you to go home, he’s going to stay in the water for a while.
You assume this is just a phase and go home. But he refuses to leave the lake. You keep going back, hoping he will change his mind. You bring him sandwiches and he eats them in the water, soggy bread and all. You carry a freshly laundered towel and try to lure him to shore with it.
When you drive away you watch him from your rearview mirror. He looks dead to you, a spot of color floating in the dark water. Alone every night, you try not to worry. You think of things that could happen. Poisonous snakes. Man-eating fish. Water bears. Crocodiles. Jet skis.
You call your boyfriend’s mother and explain your concerns. “What is a water bear?” she asks. You start to explain that it’s a bear that lives in the water, and she hangs up.
Increasingly you become distracted at work and your performance suffers. You find yourself screaming at the dog, slamming the door on girl scouts.
“This is becoming a problem,” you say to him on your next visit.
You sit, your feet dangling in the cold water. Your boyfriend’s lips and fingers are turning blue. He tugs on your big toe and you jump, thinking a fish is trying to pull you under.
“I’m not coming back here,” you say.
Your boyfriend splashes his face, pours water down his cheeks. “Look,” he says, “it’s like I’m crying.”
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