Karst

cosmetics_lip_adj

This story has been drawn from the Vol. 1, No. 9 of the American Reader, available in our Shoppe.

The wall alarm buzzes, which means another shipment of fatty epidermis has arrived, which means I get on the phone to Porcine, Bovine and Marine, and advise: Prep to intake. Then I’ll call down to Labs and advise: Initiate collagen and tallow extraction.

Below my office, the docked semi trucks unload parcels of skin. I gag, distract myself with the svelte of my plastic terrarium, and coochie coochie coo a leaf. The Complexion department thinks I took the divorce bad, that I’ve got unTylenoled diaper fever. As a joke, Larson got me a baby thermometer. I use it as a coffee stirrer. But the terrarium had been a gift from Doreen in Archives. “Look,” she said after my divorce hit the grapevine. “I glued a rubber lizard to the tank. Thought you could use a little color. The north end of the building doesn’t get direct sunlight.” Often, Doreen touched her forehead wrinkles in her computer screen reflection. This confirmed my fondness. I worry about my own crow’s feet and eye tic. Tara and I didn’t share something self-conscious like that. She was flawless down to the piggy toe. She moved away with a rigid Italian dentist who ends all his words in vowels.

My favorite part of the day is filing the Transport Discharge. I check the semis’ license plates: Oklahoma, Utah, Montana. Since last year, I’ve been to Mount Rushmore and Niagara Falls. I like that I can go back and they’ll be waiting for me. On an old gas station map, I draw lines over the highways I’ve driven. I stir my coffee with the thermometer, sweating whenever I imagine Tara making the Italian moan Thata Feelsa so Good-o! My eye twitches, recalling how my neighbor wept over his wife’s coffin, his children’s, cursing the maybe deer that darted in front of their car. I’m nauseous by the lot of possibility.

I used to send Doreen notes with the Transport Discharges, like, On the sea of life you’re my soul matey! She saved the Post-its in her desk. Then Clint from Rejuvenation started showing up, stretching her forehead skin and saying, “See, see?” And she lifted her eyebrows, saying, “Yes, I do see!” I reported Clint’s behavior to Dengle, but he said, “Randolph, what is it we manufacture here?” To which I replied, “Cosmetics?” To which he corrected, “Try beauty? We’re already the bridesmaid to Maybelline. What kind of president would I be if I stuck my schnauzer into personal affairs and disrupted something beautiful?”

So I phoned Clint and called dibs, advising: Back off. 

To which he retorted: Make me.

I did not make him. He showed Doreen his ear piercing, took her for a ride in his nice truck with the sleek chrome and red rubber testicles hanging off the trailer hitch. Soon after, Doreen crumpled my notes in the recycle bin. They stretched each other’s faces and laughed. I watched the whole opus and massacre from my office mail slot.

They married. She’s out on maternity. The office threw a baby shower. I called in sick, returned to a stale piece of cake with ations! in frosting. After the trucks depart, Clint faxes me: How long have you been peeking in our windows? I heard you weeping in the landscaping. You woke her up. Don’t think I don’t notice you and that gay terrarium.

I shouldn’t think it’s meaningful that I woke her, but I do.

In an Excel spreadsheet, I compile reasons why I’m better than Clint to maybe give Doreen someday. I update it with: Does not use “gay” flippantly. Maybe I should buy a dog. Or take another trip. I fax the Intake Order Receipt and Transport Discharge to Archives. Doreen’s replacement, Jeff, likes that kind of high five where he interlocks his fingers with yours so you end up just standing there, holding hands over your heads like a couple of celebrating marathoners. But I don’t have the nerve to let go.

The epidermises always arrive bundled in twine like hay bales, or so Larson says at lunch when we go over the Lab Harvest Review. I advise him, pale and choked up: TMI! To which he gulps, “Sorry, I forgot! How is Mr. Padula holding up?” 

“How do you think?” I gasp.

“I don’t know how you go on after something like that,” he whistles, “your family just smashed into mush.” I twitch and say: Show some respect. They were people. We ate Sunday dinner together. I went to his daughter’s graduation party, for Christ’s.

“You still racking yourself over that?” he says. “It was probably a deer, Randy. Deer are always causing wrecks on the interstate. I think maybe you should just talk to somebody. You know, about the hypothesis you’re hypothesizing?” Larson coughs and then adds, “Of course, maybe you shouldn’t, concerning the potential legalities and all.”

After lunch, I inform Prototypes: Develop lipstick #4217b, #4217c, and #4218a from collagen harvest NW-202. Samples ship to Marketing where #4217b becomes Sunset Yore, #4217c Antebellum Blush and #4218a Nude Fruit, which I’ll learn in faxed memoranda, while Larson down in Clinical Trials tests the products for safety. 

At the end of the day, my intercom buzzes. It’s Dengle. 

“I’m evaluating internally for the new VP, you know,” he says.

“I got the memo,” I say. 

“I’m winking into the intercom,” he says. “I’m looking forward to the new autumn line.”

At home, Mr. Padula has displayed the remaining sixteen bikes in his yard: tricycles to training-wheeled juniors to the full-sized kind with multiple speeds. Some have handlebar tassels or pegs. A bicycle built for five. The sixteenth sits kickstanded beside him, the banana seat and side-view mirrors and basket cradling the sign: For Sale.

His therapist suggested a lawn sale on the one-year anniversary of the crash. The bikes are baby steps. I’ve seen him through his window, cradling one of his wife’s hairpins in his palms, wheezing and rocking. Or chewing Cam and BJ’s Legos. Or paper cutting himself between his fingers with Natalie’s high school diploma. 

Mr. Padula smokes in a lawn chair, a cup of coffee Pisa-ing in the grass.

“How are things?” I say, sliding my wedding band off and on my finger.

“Oh, you know,” he says and shrugs.

“Any offers today?”

“Oh, you know,” he says, turning his hand side to side.

I microwave leftovers, do push-ups during commercials. On the map, I guesstimate the distance to the Grand Canyon: about forty thumbs away. The VP promotion could punch my first plane ticket. Maybe I’ll go to Pisa, or Hawaii and see a volcano. I could bring Doreen back a necklace made of obsidian. Bet assholing Clint never did that.

Outside, the mulch has soured during dusk, flaring the righteous pathetic out of my nostrils. I do a little bit of weeding while it’s cool. I find a snapped rubber band caught on a root. Mr. Padula used to make these wooden rubber band guns with clothespin triggers. Rubber bands dangled in the rhododendrons between our yards. Once, one glistened slick with dew, hanging off the mailbox flag like a gallowed nightcrawler. I wonder how many might be hiding in the soil had his family not slammed into that overpass.

“You know what?” I say to Mr. Padula, “I forgot. A coworker is having his nephew stay with him for a week. He wanted me to get him a bike.”

Mr. Padula rubs his face, his thick eyebrows up as he looks at the rows, “Which one?” 

I shrug and tap my toe.

Mr. Padula paces the bikes, settling on a junior one. He grips the handlebars, runs his hand over the frame, pats the seat. “How about this? This okay? Is the nephew still?” he says and holds his hand above the ground, which means to ask if the nephew is about four-foot, still little, around his twins’, BJ and Cam’s, heights.

“That should do,” I say, rubbing my neck and blinkblinkblinking. “How much?”

“Jeez,” he says, scratching his head. “Five bucks?”

“Here’s ten,” I say. “My coworker gave me a ten.”

Mr. Padula holds the bill between his hands. Then they tremble. “I don’t got change,” he says. “I can’t make change.” He looks at the rows of bikes again, moving his jaw side-to-side, “Maybe he should take another bike then? Maybe take one of them trikes?” 

“I don’t think he needs a tricycle,” I say.

“Aw, hell, take it,” Mr. Padula sniffles, shoving it my way.

I load them in my car, watch him shrink in the rearview, wheeling the bikes back into his garage filled with cardboard boxes. Dusk pales and periwinkles, the clouds converge and bruise, and everything is brushstroked with the suggestion of smoldering.

Six miles outside town is the dirt road to the defunct limestone quarry.

Oolitic is the size of several football fields. The state has been converting it into a reservoir since the fall. Part of the road is flooded. The only way down is to rappel the twenty-foot benches. Dad worked at Oolitic. He griped about befouling the karst and calcium carbonate accumulations. “The stuff is damn insoluble,” he’d grunt, hiking up special socks over the varicose veins that bulged from his calves like embossed trees.

When he died, the doctor said his liver was firm and stratumed with deposits. 

I wheel the bikes to the edge of the first bench and toss them in. They fall twenty feet to the next bench, clunking atop all the other bikes. Wheels spin, baseball cards flap in the spokes. I cry until they quiet, say another prayer, then head home. 

Later in the week is Developmental Briefings with Dengle. Fragrance introduces Enamor™, and Cuticles presents a line of nail polishes called Heirlooms™. Moisturizers is absent. A shipment of mink fat came in and Perez had to advise: Prep to intake and Initiate mink oil extraction. I present Dixie Charms™: Sunset Yore, Antebellum Blush, and Nude Fruit.

Dengle winks, which I take to mean: Expectations exceeded. I think my first order of business as VP will be to fire Clint, or maybe demote him to placenta collection. I’ll promote Doreen to my assistant and take her to lunch in the bird atrium gazebo and tell her how much I like her working beneath me. Though that might be sexual harassment.

Dengle was impressed with my Yummys!™ flavored lip glosses. He said strawberry rhubarb was just like Grandma used to make. I’ve been on his radar since. The Yummys!™ line replaced Retro Chic™, which included an absorbent collagen booster that increased voluptuousness by sixty-five percent, and a protein-enzyme harvested from the Clostridium botulinum bacteria to reduce the oral commissure wrinkles. Except Clinical Trials found that the Clostridium botulinum produced a mild neurotoxin. Lick your lips enough and the headaches started, the blurry vision, the light sensitivity. Maybe a hand numbed or a leg spasmed or a body seizured. So the report said. Larson said if just one person gets even the mildest sniffle, Clinical Trials is required to list it as a side effect because of legalities. After the Padula car wreck, I scrapped the line, shredded the files, went on a weeklong bender to Niagara Falls and was pulled back from the fence by a tour guide when he caught me trying to jump in. 

The leafy green hue of Niagara was from the rock flour, which Dad explained as pulverized mineral dust. Oolitic was full of it. I remember him coughing up quarry and swallowing it back down. It caked in his nostrils and mustache. 

The last person to present is Clint. He offers Bimini™, a new Botox with eighty-five percent more pull, and includes a formula for cell renewal, increased lipid barrier function, and elasticity. “Look,” he says, squinting. Except no crow’s feet or parenthetical wrinkles form. His face moves but it doesn’t. It’s sort of terrifying and brilliant.

Dengle stands, applauding: Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!

Later, I shred the memorandum announcing Clint as the new VP.

I detour on Route 42. I see a bunch of fish heads nailed to the side of a barn. At home, I trace the new route on the map in red. Slowly, Indiana is looking like a cardiovascular system. 

Mr. Padula sits in his yard with the remaining bikes, practicing his wave and small talk for the part-time work he puts in as a Walmart greeter some weekends. A few kids play roller hockey in the street and he tries not to watch them.

His family had been returning from Dunes State Park. His oldest, Natalie, placed twenty-fifth in a triathlon there. She was studying biology at Vanderbilt. During vacations, she’d rummage through my trash for the recyclables I didn’t separate. His identical twins, BJ and Cam, would take my recyclables and set up race courses in the street for their bikes; and when the bikes got bigger with them, they started bunnyhopping stacks of tin cans. They’d brought their sleds to the sand dunes to race down them. It was presumed by the median ruts crossing I-70W to I-70E that Mrs. Padula lost control. Mr. Padula asked me to go to the hospital with him, pickled drunk. Tara was coming home later and later then, smelling of Italian. Under those sheets like that. All that skin. It wasn’t something we should’ve seen. The hospital returned a baggie of belongings. An earring, a Game Boy button, a nickel, a prototype tube of Retro Chic™ I’d snuck Mrs. Padula. They found it wedged in a dash vent. 

“All the hot stuffs today,” Mrs. Padula would joke, puckering lips. “I need help!”

But she was not unattractive. She had a pencil eraser mole on her temple she concealed with graying bangs. Mr. Padula refused to let her remove it. I could’ve made a million off bottling the glow she got when talking about her kids, her husband. 

“They can’t even autopsy,” I overheard an orderly say. “Where would you begin?”

I’d been to the overpass once. Exit 41 to Cloverdale. The median ruts were mud puddled and rippling with mosquitoes. I looked for hoof tracks. The crack in the overpass pylon began thick at my waist, forking and tapering upward into thin slivers. There was a wilted bouquet jutting from the thick part of the crack. 

Mr. Padula practices his greeting and wave as crickets purr throughout the lawn. He says the work is about keeping busy, not the money. I see it as a thwarting. To counterbalance the leaving with as many welcomes as he can accumulate.

My eye spasms so hard it’s like the right side of my face avalanches.

Did Mrs. Padula lick her lips a lot? is all I’ve wanted to ask him for eleven months.

Instead, I buy another bike. “For a corporate charity auction,” I tell him. 

I toss it in the quarry. Maybe right now Doreen is knitting baby booties or rubbing Belle® lotion on her round belly to reduce stretch marks. But Clint’s truck is in the driveway, those big red rubber hitch testes fuck-youing me under the HOOSIER DADDY? bumper sticker. So I settle for slowing, trying to look in the lit windows.

“We’ve got a precarious situation on our hands,” Dengle says. “I won’t say it. You both received the memo. Speaking the situation may only solidify it as a genuine hanger-on issue. Maybe solidify was a poor choice. I’ve said too much.”

It’s just me and Clint in Dengle’s office. The door is closed. 

The memorandum only said: Urgent.  

Dengle elaborates. Seven of the ten Bimini™ rats are dead. The rest have unquenchable thirst, only sated if they aren’t too confused to locate the water bottle. Fevers are running high to delirium. One of the five focus group testers is comatose.

“Why is Randolph here?” Clint says. He furrows except he doesn’t. His forehead moves in one smooth sheet. No striae at the eye corners. His cheeks rise, eyelids lower, which means he’s squinting, which either means: upset or confused.

“Because he’s got expertise,” Dengle says.

“I do?” I say. 

Dengle frowns, “Don’t be coy. Are you my ex-wife? Do you fail to reduce the sodium-content of your cooking and clip your toenails in bed to provoke me?”

I shake my head.

“Then don’t be coy,” Dengle says. “I know about the hiccup with Retro Chic™.”

“The hiccup?”

He rolls his eyes, “What did I just say about being coy? I know about the Padulas. You’re just lucky there wasn’t an autopsy. You know it’s frowned upon to distribute prototype products, Randolph. You want the competition one-upping us?”

Larson, I think, hot-eared and pukey, that assholing spineless finking gossip nutsack.  

“What’s worse than a bridesmaid?” Dengle asks. “The press gets wind of the coma and we’ll be the, the, the groom’s-drunk-racist-uncle-who-makes-a-scene-and-maybe-hits-on-the-bride’s-mother-or-fondles-her-tit to Maybelline!”

Dengle makes air-quotes, “Aka downsizing and layoffs.”

“Nothing is wrong with the injections! Look!” Clint declares and shoots up his face. He sticks the hypodermic into the corrugator muscles. Little bubbles rise under his skin, droplets of red bloom. The bumps flatten, the blood dries, and his brow lifts as if he’s surprised, his face unfolding like a song.

“I think we should scrap the line and pay the tester’s medical expenses,” I say.

“If I wanted ship-jumping I’d have vidconferenced my ex-wife,” Dengle says. “Ship-jumping will not get us to Maybelline Bride Status.”

Clint pales, his neck sweats and he clears his throat a few times. 

I request: Clarify my expertise?

To which Dengle replies, “What did you do for Mr. Padula. You pay him hush?”

My eye goes twitch twitch twitch and I imagine jumping out his twelfth-story window.

Dengle takes the twitch twitch twitch to mean: wink wink wink, and he winks three times in return, which I take to mean: understood, hush it is.

“Maybe we should phone Miller in PR?” Clint says, not noticing the exchange.

“If I wanted nay-saying you know who I would have phoned?” Dengle says.

The week passes. I continue developing Dixie Charms™, circumnavigating the fringe of what could be my Indianapolis, my eyeblink tic curling half of my face into a fist. I buy more bikes from Mr. Padula. “Next month’s a year,” he says. “The Mrs. was a packrat. You seen the garage? Kept everything. The baby clothes and toys and walkmans and science projects. The house is a freaking museum.” He sort of statics after saying that.

His therapist suggested he use the lawn sale money to buy an in memoriam.

“What’s an in memoriam?” I ask.

“A plaque or statue or garden or scholarship fund in their name,” he says and shrugs.

I spin my wedding band, wondering if it’s more an in memoriam or a memorandum.

“You’re going to sell everything?” I ask.

He inhales deep, “I suppose. Guess I should get to the bank so I can make change.”

“How’d you do it?” I ask. “How’d you make peace with it?”

An ice cream truck jingles and turns down our street. Mr. Padula sticks his fingers in his ears and shuts his eyes until it passes. Then he runs his fingers through some handlebar tassels. “I didn’t say I did,” he says. “How am I supposed to do that?”

Mr. Padula squints at me, “That spasm is getting worse. Might want to see a doctor.”

“It’s been a tough year,” I say, tears flicking off my jerking face.

Mr. Padula doesn’t notice, or maybe he doesn’t care because tears are on his cheeks, too.

“Preaching to the choir,” he tells me.

I can’t sleep. I sweat into the sheets. I toss to Tara’s side, roll over and face the wall where the bicycle built for five leans. If I drift off, I imagine Mrs. Padula applying Retro Chic™ in the dark rearview, Natalie sleeping in the passenger seat with dried sweat salt on her cheeks, the twins passing a Game Boy between them, glowing in the screen. Then Mrs. Padula’s arm slumps, or her foot spasms into the accelerator, or she starts to tremble and foam at the mouth. Or maybe everything is fine and a goddamn deer comes out of nowhere.

Next time I toss, I’m driving to Oolitic, the windows fogging faster than I can defrost them. I want to throw myself in the quarry. Nightcrawlers on the road make themselves fat then thin, wriggling and undulating like a living signature.

Up the dirt road is a truck with hitch-testicles and a HOOSIER DADDY? bumper sticker. 

A rope is tied to the hitch. It falls over the first couple quarry benches. I hear a thin clinking and grunting echo out of the pit. On the third bench, just above where the reservoir floodwaters have risen and reflect gibboused moon, is someone chipping at the escarpment with a pickaxe, filing down the little limestone chunks over a bucket. 

In the truck bed is a statue. A person sleeping, dressed in a hospital gown. The hair looks like brown coral, the fingernails shiny quartz. I tap the skull and it feels like stone I haven’t felt before. It sort of gives a little without breaking. 

From the mouth comes a cough, a cloud of white dust, and I run for the bushes.

Out of the quarry, the figure drags the statue from the truck, pushing it over each bench precipice until it’s sunk in the floodwater, bubbling and rippling the moonlight. I run up the trail back to my car. At home, I shiver under the covers, watching the light creep up the walls and my clock until the alarm goes off and it’s Monday morning.

Before the first shipment of epidermises arrives, I elevator down to B3’s Tippecanoe Clinic. I find the botulinum #2146d cage. The rat ear-tagged 92f gasps on the wheel. Rat 92j pants a bloody tongue. Rat 92m sleeps on its side, except without breathing. It sinks heavy into the sawdust bedding. Stitched into its side meat I see white mica crystallized patches. Its tongue, a stiff fossil. Its teeth, stalactited and stalagmited.

Beside botulinum #2146d are cages labeled botulinum #2146d.1, #2146d.2, and #2146d.3. These rats look okay, eating pellets and sucking off the water bottle, except for the occasional eye-rolling and coughing and swallowing.

I elevator up to Rejuvenation, march into Clint’s office without knocking. He’s tying off his arm, holding a syringe, which he explains, with the rubber tube ends between his teeth, is an electrolyte supplement for the dehydration. He’s thin, pasty, perfect, minus the dead skin flaking from his temples. I inform him about the petrified rat. He frowns. “You should see the insides,” he says, shaking his head. “The insides look like pumice.”

“It’s the calcium,” I tell him. “I saw you at Oolitic last week.”

“Calcium’s important to protect the lipid barrier. For skin regeneration.” 

“Not if it’s in your blood,” I say. 

“Like you would know,” he says, rolling his eyes and I swear it sounds like gravel.

My breaths stutter, “Like you could know how I know?”

“Thing is,” Clint says, his thick forearm veins bulging. “Thing is?” He pants and his tongue is all mica-crystal-patchwork-bloody. “Thing is, Rudolph. Is is is you don’t persist. You’re a quitter. Which is why you are the VP and I am not. Why is Doorknob my lovely Doreen is my lovely Doreen and yours is not. Maybe she’s born with it?”

“Think of her,” I say, and do, maybe Tara, teary. “You’re going to be a dad.”

“Twins. Not so good. What I do I do because.”

“You didn’t give her Bimini™ did you?” I ask.

“You fucking my therapist?” Clint says, and pisses himself.

Then he keels over.

Except he doesn’t keel but coma, turns out.

Medics carry him to an ambulance while one squeezes a hand-held ventilator balloon strapped to his mouth. They look into his eyes with a penlight. His pupils do not contract. The whites look marbled, quartzed, dolomited, Triassic.

I elevator to the top floor where the glass walls overlook the east side of town, a sliver of I-70 traffic and the latticework of power lines reaching across the lush green like skeletons Red Rovering. Dengle has his feet on the desk. I advise: Terminate Bimini™ !

But Dengle shakes his head, “Not even Clinique has a lipid-barrier rejuvenator,” he says, “much less Maybelline. Oolitic is our thick-peckered groom.” When I refer him back to the snafus re: the drunk-uncle-tit-fondler-to-the-bride he stretches, “Taken care of. Thanks to your expertise,” and throws me winks and elbow nudges.

My eye goes twitch twitch twitch.

“Exactly,” he says. “This is why we have trials, Randolph. To troubleshoot.” 

“But at what cost?” I say. “What about Clint?”

Dengle sighs, “I think you’re familiar with the cracking-eggs-omelet metaphor?”

“This is perverse,” I say.

“No, it’s beauty,” Dengle says. “Beauty is intended to please a moral sensibility. Moral sensibility is based on tradition. The Chinese bind feet, Ethiopians insert lip plates, the Burmese wear brass rings to elongate necks to sheer elegance, and in America, here in Indiana, we tattoo, augment breasts, pierce and stretch faces. It wouldn’t be beauty if everyone agreed with it. It wouldn’t be tradition. It’d just be general consensus.”

He cracks his knuckles, “One person’s immorality is another person’s beauty.” 

It’s true. Even with all the Belle® eye cream the tic is sinking me fast. 

Maybe a bird flies into the window with a thud. We turn and look at nothing together.

“And,” he says, “I can out your skeleton to Mr. Padula.”

To which I inquire: What about the omelet?

To which he informs: I’ll crack the dozen to save the carton.

So I take hush and severance, box my possessions in the terrarium, feeling a black callused hitchhiking thumb of a terrible. I imagine Clint sunk into Oolitic, or deposited in the Indiana landscape, some sediment of the panoramic sentiment. I think of Tara and the Italian, the collective suffixed vowels, the lines on their map if they do such a pathetic thing. They share spaghetti, their lips meet, and I puke in my trash can.

Larson’s at the vending machine as I am leaving. I wrestle him down and slap his face.

“I’m sorry!” he cries, shielding himself. “I’m sorry I told!”

I keep making him until security yanks me off and escorts me from the building.

Unemployed and twitching, I attempt geomantic rearrangements of my furniture, trying to achieve something I read about in a magazine called feng shui, hoping I can harmonize my chi and channel heaven so I can ask Mrs. Padula: Was it a deer? 

After socking Larson, I have my swollen hand looked at, and seeing my tic, the doctor prescribes me something called alprazolam. The blinking slows and I assume chi, a tightness in my chest I didn’t even know was there until I feel it evaporate. Breezes feel like blown kisses. I kiss back. I sit in a chair and maybe two weeks pass. Then I read the possible side effects and discontinue treatment, driving the length of I-70, sobbing sorry sorry sorry at the Exit 41 overpass. I throw out every Belle® product in meek protest and dry out, dandruff, raccoon face, wrinkle, blemish, halitosis, hang nail, crack, peel, sag, and discolor.

With the severance and hush, I research Hawaii and imagine throwing myself into a lava hole. Then the Italian is in the lava hole. Then a palm treed beach, rubbing coconut oil onto Tara, or Doreen’s big stomach. They can call me Daddy, I say. They don’t have to know. Blood relation, schmlud relation. I visualize a feng shuied bamboo porch, a twin in each arm, maybe Clint-like ear piercings out of respect, Doreen inside baking pies and coming out with floury hands to watch me sing them to sleep and I chi all over the place. I book two tickets to Hawaii, telling myself: Jerk Jerk Jerk and But? But? But?

At Oolitic, I tie a rope to a tree, rappel down to the first bench and retrieve two tricycles.

Clint’s truck is in the driveway but I know he’s not home. I park down the street. I almost ring the doorbell. Then I get down on one knee and almost ring the doorbell. Then I put the Hawaii tickets in my teeth and almost ring the doorbell. Then I leave the tricycles on the stoop and ring the doorbell and hide in the landscaping.

She opens the door. Her eyes, red and wet and swollen. Her stomach is a fine basin under her dress. Her lips, full and fat. Her scalene nose is equilateraled and streamlined. This is Doreen but also not. This is Tara but also not. Her forehead wrinkles are gone. 

She sees the tricycles and her face moves but it doesn’t.

The thing about full lips is that they are a subliminal indication of fertility and drive men bananas via primordial need. Full lips excite our “caveman instinct.” This was the beginning of my presentation for Retro Chic™. Of course, the irony is that men and women who collagen and botox do so to increase the perception of what is not there.  

I just watch her snot down her face and touch her tummy and cry cry cry.

If beauty is to please a moral sensibility and I am here in these bushes no longer finding Doreen beautiful because of this primordial need-awareness or some guilt or shame or fear that she won’t love me back or if I ever loved her, or she will and it means it’s truly over with Tara, I wonder what it is I find beautiful. What is moral and right to me?

Clint was wrong about me being a quitter. I don’t know when to quit is the problem.

Doreen looks up and down the street then shuts the door, leaving the trikes on the stoop.

The doorbell rings some Saturday and my head is throbbing and splitting. I took a few Xanax with wine and woke up naked with morning wood and a belt around my neck, lying in the tub with the toaster. I remember seeing the newspaper headline. Doreen had given birth: these two little silted figurines, gorgeous and horrified and still.

I put on some pants, pop an aspirin, and open the door. It’s Mr. Padula.

“You got change?” he says. “I forgot to get to the bank.”

His yard is full of people browsing the cardboard boxes from his garage.

I’ve been grieving a zit for days and feel a soreness swell, tough to look him in the eyes, and I press it, worried that the soreness only goes so far inward, and I hope it can go deeper than that. Odd to hope there is more of me that can still be hurt.

I feel Mr. Padula’s stare but can’t meet it. I tear up and start to snot bubble.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I can’t make change either.”

Mr. Padula touches my shoulder, “Hey, hey. It’s all right. I’ll just switch the price. Don’t bang yourself up about it. Why’re you banging yourself up? I know what you’ve been doing with them bikes. I appreciate it. But you can’t do everything.” 

I nod.

“Yeah,” he says and sidesteps his slumping spine between the rhododendrons.

I clean up in the mirror. My shoulders are dandruffed, belt marks chafe my throat. My face spasms, tired, weathered, pocked, and porous. Mr. Padula is maybe twice as old as me. But I look worse in half the time. Excavated, unexfoliated, this is me.

And it’s terrifying, to think someone would let themselves live this way.

The crowd rummages through cardboard boxes labeled Toys, Clothes, Trophies. A sign out front reads Name Your Price, Everything Must Go. I take my wedding band off and put it in the jewelry box a woman is perusing. Another woman pays Mr. Padula ten bucks for three baby strollers and loads them into her minivan. Somebody else is checking out the patterns on the bedspreads. A man cradles an armful of VHS tapes.

I browse boxes until I come across a chessboard and bag of ceramic pieces.

“That’s Cam’s,” Mr. Padula says. “We played every week.”

I hold a piece, heavy and cold in my hand.

“The board’s walnut and maple,” Mr. Padula says. “Made it in my woodshop class.” He picks up a castle turret, a pawn, both with creepy anthropomorphic faces. “I kiln-fired these from a mold in the ceramics class I taught at the high school.”  

He examines a bishop with a broken face, “Could take five for all of it.”

I advise: Do not sell this.

To which he says, “But everything is supposed to go.” 

He scrunches, unfurling wrinkles across his face that mean something, have good reason.

“Why don’t you keep it and we’ll play?” I offer.

Mr. Padula turns a piece in his hand, “Every week?”

“Sure,” I tell him. “It’ll be our own tradition.”

“You any good?” he asks, eyebrows up.

“I don’t know how to play,” I find myself lying. 

“Well, here,” he says, “jeez.” He turns over an empty box and sets up the board. We sit in the grass and he points to pieces, “This is the king. He’s the one you want to capture. That’s called checkmate. This is the queen. She can move anywhere on the board. Do you know what this piece is called?” he asks, holding up the horse. 

“The pony?” I say.

“It’s called a knight,” Mr. Padula chuckles. It’s the first time I remember him laughing in a long time, and I laugh at that, or me, or us sitting here, unable to recall the last time I laughed too, and some of that tightness and tic in me seems to lift.

We play, pausing whenever he makes a sale. The sun moves across the sky, shifting the skirts of shadows around the pieces. I make intentional bad moves. Sometimes, I take one of his pieces and Mr. Padula laughs, “Good! Good! You’re learning!” Boxes empty, the crowd thins. The ice cream truck comes and goes and he doesn’t even notice. 

Mr. Padula gets me in a third checkmate when some neighborhood kid shows up.

He’s holding the science fair project volcano, and Mr. Padula gives it to him for free. Then he brings out kitchen supplies and tells the kid to fill the conduit with baking soda and add vinegar to the crater. The kid does. The volcano erupts.

“How’d you do that?” the kid says.

“I did most of them projects,” he says, nodding to the box with the solar system, the digestive tract, the dinosaurs. He cites facts he learned with his children as they worked. “You know the small intestines is like twenty-three feet long?” he says. He mentions the Oort cloud, how dinosaurs became birds, then the thing about erosion I don’t believe.

“Look it up,” he says, handing me the N encyclopedia from a box. 

I do, and he’s right.

The current rate of erosion for Niagara Falls is approximately one foot per year. 

“A whole foot?” I say. “It’s lost twenty-nine feet since I’ve been born.”

Mr. Padula takes a large tape measure from his toolbox and hands me the end. We back away from each other twenty-nine feet, a good width of his yard. The boy puts his hand on the tape at eleven feet to stake his claim in the footage of damage. Then Mr. Padula tells me to keep backing up, and I sidestep the rhododendrons into my yard until he yells stop. We’re a good distance apart now. “I’m fifty-eight,” he shouts to me. “This is what’s happened in my life.”

We stand like that for a long time, considering it.