*Fiction — April 2, 2017
Suki and me, we’re hungry and mean. We’ve got bitter jewels buzzing in our guts. They’re bright and gaudy and we couldn’t ignore them if we wanted to. We don’t want to. It’s the starving that makes us glow—the gimcrack ache, that’s what Suki calls this. It’s dark and shining, nothing like what you have, what your everyday snack-seeker has. It’s not a pang. What we’ve got is sharp, sticking through. Something perfect boring out.
We’re carbon slips flitting through customer service. We’re silent on raked carpet, sly and tiny with that report you wanted. Would we mind doing this or that? Some days it takes the two of us both to empty a wastebasket, two of us to change the toner in the fax.
We’ve got thinspiration pinned to our message board. A lingerie girl eased back in a storm, rain pooling in the bowl of her hipbones. “Ooo la-la,” says a pudgy from accounting, come to hike up the AC. “Hey, pretty-pretty,” is what he says to the girl we’ve spread on cork. He plants a thumb on her face and sucks in sharp. Some clown mustached her, inked her with a monocle and a cigar. We suspect it was one of the cows in Biz Dev, maybe the abdominous mailman.
“See with your eyes, walrus,” Suki says to the pudgy. I swat him away with my letter opener, but this pudgy is one of the good ones. We’ve seen how he watches us. He knows to keep his doughnuts out of our department. He knows we take our coffee black. We’ll crank up the heat as soon as he leaves and this pudgy won’t pester us again. Suki and me, we’re always so chilly.
I don’t mind about the magazine girl’s face, but Suki does. I have red nostrils and gums that bleed. I have a white scar above my eyebrow in the shape of an eyebrow. I’m not beautiful in whole like Suki is. Not long ago, I wasn’t beautiful in part, but I’m getting closer. Now, when train men and bus men stare, I see the bending and folding they do to me from my neck down.
I fought to keep the girl pinned, fucked-up face and all.
We have tricks. Pumps and heels double calories spent. Avoid elevators, escalators. Wear a headset when you take the angry calls. Pace during each complaint. Pace during each resolution. Never, ever lick an envelope.
I’m turning sideways in every reflective surface, searching. I’m heading to where Suki has already been, where she is trying to get back to. Inside her desk there is a pair of leather pants pressed and folded in a hanging file labeled THIS WAS YOU.
Tug is all talk.
“He ain’t gonna do it,” Suki says. “He’s what they call pseudo-suicidal.”
Tug drinks St. Ides from a paper bag, sulks around on PATH train platforms. Every six minutes, he loses his nerve fresh. “He’s gutless,” Suki says. “His body won’t let itself leap.”
Tug is Suki’s man. She has him on speakerphone, to show me what her life is like. We are on lunch, painting our fingernails black in the conference room. I do Suki’s right hand and she does mine. “He just needs to talk it out of his system,” she tells me.
Listen to him: “I’m getting spinelesser and spinelesser all the time. I’m the worst kind of candy-ass, Suk. I’m getting to be a poltroon.”
Suki unmutes Tug. “Do what now?” she says.
“And there’s the nightmares.” Tug says. “Taunts from the universe. I can’t put words to them.”
“Well,” Suki says, “try me.” She blows on her fingertips. We have half an hour to kill. There’s a yellow peanut M&M on the floor by the umbrella stand.
Tug’s an Arkansas remnant Suki brought with her. It’s hard to believe he’s her first and only, that he’s had her locked down since high school. I try to hate him but he’s a nice enough guy, pleasant and all of that. Once they dragged me bowling with them. I fought against being the third wheel but Suki insisted, said they were sick of each other’s company. She and Tug were new to the city like me, and they looked and sounded like home. That’s the night I told the beginnings of some lies I’d have to maintain, namely that I had a boy too, one I couldn’t drag out of the South.
“Is it true,” Suki asked with Tug at the top of the bowling lane, posed out of earshot, “that everything’s bigger in Texas?” Suki leaned over the ball return, said, “Tell me, woman to woman.” We gabbed and gabbed while Tug bowled for all of us that night, the sport.
But then his thoughts got too messy and he showed Suki his darkest worst. Now, when he isn’t failing at being dead, he plays percussion in an urban jug band. He sits on a bucket by the stairs and irks commuters. He’s got those clanky spoons and that hollow birdhouse thing you scratch with a stick. At the end of the night the band divvies up what’s fallen into an open banjo case. Tug goes home and flops into bed with Suki, who shivers up sharp and cold under his bloat.
Tug’s still carrying on over the speakerphone, crying a little, spewing about blue devils and haunted haircuts and a baby made of oak. He’s like this when he drinks, Suki says. Our nail polish starts to dry. Later we’ll go at it with our thumbs, chip it off to make like we don’t give a goddamn.
“You’re homesick is all,” is what Suki says, her eyes rolling, her hands wringing a neck out of the air in front of her.
Then, just like that, Tug says she’s probably right. He hangs up and we hang up and Suki gives a little shrug and says, “See what I mean.”
I don’t miss Texas but I miss quiet. It’s not cruel to keep a dog penned up, my fatty neighbor says.
“A cage mimics a den,” says the fatty, defensive in the laundry room, belligerent in the hall. “A natural place of rest when the pack is still.”
But his hound is alone in a kitchen, baying for her brethren while the fatty works the third shift. The bitch can hear me on my side of things. She digs and snuffles at the corner where my wall touches hers. By the sound of her, the moon’s full or she’s in heat or both. A kick at the wall gets you not a minute of peace.
I swear I won’t go out.
The yen wakes me up and keeps me up. Gimcrack ache is a southern thing, Suki says, but I’d never heard the expression before. It’s the feeling you get when you see a bauble on somebody, a cheap necklace or a stickpin so pretty you’d do anything to steal it.
The pain’s not gleaming without Suki. It throbs. What I need is Suki holding out a piece of string as big as her waist was little. I need a picture of her zipped up in those leather pants. It’s too late to call her. Tug has probably finished blubbering by now, is fast asleep in a tangle of snot and Suki’s hair. I pull my magazines out, my glue stick, get my girls cut and pasted pretty. My kitchen’s the safest place. Nothing here but ice.
It’s some cow’s baby shower. There’s a cake and all of that. Vanilla or yellow, we couldn’t say. We chipped in, but Suki and me don’t get close enough to tell.
You should hear this cow complaining about the state of the world. Nobody offers her a seat on the bus, nobody opens her doors for her, she carries her own groceries to boot.
“Maybe they can’t tell you’ve got a bun in that oven,” Suki says to the cow and the cow takes it as a compliment and touches Suki’s hand and Suki and me will snort long and hard over that one.
The cows crowd around the conference table and moo about diaper creams and titty creams and Suki and me fold our clean sporks into our empty plates and sit on the floor to listen. We jot on pink napkins everything that’s too stupid to forget.
Big Boss comes in and gives the cow a card he made everybody sign. Then he flashes his beaver grin and gets ready to shut the party down. He digs at a molar and looks at the gunk under his nail. He burps a little but makes like it’s a hiccup, then says, “Back to work, ladies.”
“What a parcel of a man,” Suki says when he’s gone. “What a charmer.”
One of the cows gives her a look since everyone knows Suki is swore to Tug. Before things got bad he bent down on a knee and gave her a gold band. It’s all rolled up with Scotch tape on her tiny finger.
“Congratulations,” was what I said when she first showed it to me. I worked hard to keep my eyes bright and my voice spirited.
“A ring don’t plug a hole,” Suki says to the cow and we snort.
Upstairs, there’s a junkie stewardess, thin as a penny. She works the red-eye. I know she’s awake by the mess of wire hangers she drops on her closet floor. There’s some loony down by the trashcans going through recycling, counting his future quarters aloud. The super’s another one. He trolls all hours with a set of keys clinking, flaunting his access. You can pick his comings and goings out over the telenovelas that spill into the halls. Delivery trucks. Car alarms. Gunfire or fireworks, who can tell?
No point in going out.
In the city you best keep your hackles up. It’s not only men to watch for. There are crazy bitches with scissors waiting to cut off your ponytail and sell it to the wig shop. There are sick midgets disguised as kids. Look for patchy hair on their necks, little dicks that stick straight out when they walk.
Tug plays at disappearing. He’ll say he’s done with this rattrap, ready to pack up and get back to his mama and the opossums in the trees.
“Don’t you come after me,” he tells Suki and Suki will say,“Huh?” because she can’t hear over the elliptical machine she rides in their living room. She calls it her horse and she never misses a night with it.
Tug says, “Stay put, Suk.” Then he slams off and comes right back because he forgets his keys or wants his dinner.
“Gone whoring,” is what Suki says this time, when two days pass, then three.
“Somebody skinnier, somebody prettier,” she says.
There’s nobody like that. I ask does she want me to come stay with her? She says she feels something like carsick, like trying to sleep on your back in a rocking boat. But do I know what, she says? It’s not so bad, being alone.
“My offer stands,” is what I say.
All of this takes place by telephone, me at my kitchen table, Suki at hers.
It gets to where you want to swallow something that isn’t even for eating. Like a potholder can set you off, a grocery bag. You think about cracking up a china plate and sucking on the pieces.
I’m staying in, I swear it.
Where I’m from you can hear your eyelashes swipe the pillow. There’s so much nothing pouring in you fall asleep listening to your choice. Foghorns or sportscasters or somebody whispering your name, clear as any bell or bird. Here, I get sleepy doing maps in my mind over the din. It helps to think about which of your morning selves will get you where you’re going the fastest. Suki walks to work. She leaves with the sun and comes into the office all shimmery. If she can’t catch her breath she’ll lie down under her desk with her feet on a stack of phonebooks. She’ll put her hand in her shirt, grab around for her vitals. Sometimes I’ll touch my fingers on her forehead, act like it’s some favor to her, like it’s just this normal friendly thing I’m doing.
It’s when I’m between work and home, coming by train or going by bus, that I’m most afraid.
It’s been a week. Tug doesn’t come back and doesn’t come back. Suki says it’s the easiest two hundred pounds she’s ever lost.
I’m pacing with some mister in my ear. He’s threatening me with the Better Business Bureau, asking where do I get off selling a touch lamp without the shade? Asking what, exactly, is this scheme, pyramid or otherwise?
I’m flipping through the catalogue, offering this mister something, anything that compares to what it is he’s looking for. Lately, there’s a sound when I breathe. A rasp that doesn’t quit. The mister’s saying, “Put the shade guy on.” I patch him into oblivion, the never-ending hold loop Suki and me set up for cranks and perverts.
Tug keeps being gone and even his mama hasn’t heard from him. Where’s the police report? Where’s the search party? Suki won’t mention it, so I won’t either. I keep looking for signals from her, a door that might open differently for me.
There is something eggy in the ashtray by the elevator bank. The need I’ve got has corners. It’s top-heavy and turning.
Suki winds her scarf around her head and waits for me in the lobby.
“Want to come over to my place?” I say. “It’s a good little jaunt. Get some steps in.”
She’s looking at her reflection in the glass of the crappy sea horse painting Big Boss picked out. He’s made the whole goddamned lobby ocean themed, shells in glass bowls and turquoise pillows scattered all over like underwater turds. Suki’s using a little doe-foot wand to slick hot pink gloss onto her lips. She smacks her mouth open, smiles and tilts her chin at herself. “Isn’t tonight when you talk to your boy?” she asks. I’m flipping off the lights one by one.
“Looks like that didn’t work out so hot,” I tell her.
“Oh, honey,” she says and turns to me. Her big eyes are glittery. “So sorry to hear it.”
I wind my scarf around like Suki’s and shrug.
“Long distance is tough,” I tell her. “Started to feel like I didn’t really know him.”
I look at Suki’s mouth and put my pink lip gloss on by feel. “Still,” she says, “I know you had high hopes.” Then she yawns.
“A walk?” I say. “Coffee?”
“Let’s raincheck it,” Suki says. “I’ve seen my future, and it’s a good book and a hot bath.”
Locking eyes with the wrong person is what gets you into trouble. There’s a look you can give on a train or a bus, out on the street. It’s the opposite of safe. Safe is eyes down watching your hands. Tucking your hair under your hat, walking fast.
“You miss your stop?” someone will say. I could keep walking, but I won’t. The body hankers for touch and they can see it all over me. The brave ones ask and I say yes. Yes to the beard in the leather jacket. Yes to the acned teen, the banker in tweed, yes to the off-duty guard guarding nothing now.
“I like your boots,” they’ll say and something spreads open. It’s the look of want on their faces that decides for me. The body puts itself out for the taking. What comes next can’t be stopped, a kind of vomiting.
“You like more than that,” I say. Doorways, alleys, anybody’s car. Yes, yes. All of you, yes.
Suspenders is full of sausage, as per usual. No women except Suki and me and our whore of a waitress. We go there after work with Big Boss and some pudgies because why not? Suki says, “We’re single, am I right?”
Our waitress isn’t pretty, isn’t fit, but everyone in the bar stares at her like she’s something. Suki and me order dry martinis and smoke cigarettes to cancel out the calories. Turns out your body burns heat just trying to breathe.
Suki wears the leather pants. “How do you get into those?” Big Boss says and Suki says, “It ain’t easy,” and snorts at me. Then she’s drunk and stupid and the pudgies take turns dipping her on the dance floor.
She takes a breather between numbers. She’s down to bones on that barstool, her face pointy against my shoulder. On the bar, the rims of our glasses touch. Nothing has happened between Suki and me. Nothing will.
“I know you’re ticked,” she whispers. “But just keep working and I swear, you’ll meet your goal.” The gin feels cold all the way down.
Suki makes a mess flicking olives at our waitress, that whore.
Tug isn’t dead or dying. He’s in the Catskills, clearing his head, pissing off woodpeckers with his drivel. He’s back in touch and aren’t we all just so relieved.
“We’re giving it another go,” Suki says to me and shrugs.
At lunch, she gets him on speed dial, says, “Here’s the horse’s mouth.” Tug says he’s lost and found. Was blind but now he sees. He’s got a broke hand and fresh outlook.
“Howdy, Tug,” I say into the speakerphone. “I’m glad you’re such a chickenshit.”
My key is gone, or I never had it. It’s late, early. I buzz the super. Nothing. Where I’m from there’s no point in locking your door. The only people who know your house is out there in all that country are the people who know you personally. Nobody you know wants what it is you’ve got.
I buzz the fatty and I buzz the junkie stewardess. They’re sleeping sound or have already gone to work. I’ve got something like wet gauze in my gut, soaked up and bloating.
Next I start in on people I don’t know, apartment numbers that seem friendly somehow, names I like the sound of. I’m pleading to the groggy and the curious. The trick is to take your dumb want and make it sparkle.
“We’ve got a floor plan in common,” is what I’m saying, trying to say. The gauze grows, a toilet the only answer. They’re brushing me off, my neighbors. I’m buzzing everybody now, moving down the list. I don’t discriminate. Morse code, some dots and dashes, then I’m mashing with my fists, my forearms, really giving it my all. Now they’re saying they’ll get the cops involved or else come down and show how mad they are. Some of them are oddly specific about solving this buzzer deal, each one with a different method or threat.
A bathroom. Jesus. I start moaning into the intercom, to prove how serious and how crazy. It frees me up, the sound of big need coming from my face like that. I have no idea why, but the noise also seems to get a better response from folks. I can hear some of them breathing, waiting. I’m haunting my way through the building, groaning into people’s lives. “It’s me,” is what I say when I stop my yowl to listen. “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me,” I’m saying each time some strange new voice asks.
Originally published in No Tokens Issue No. 6. View full issue & more.