David Penn – These Deals Won’t Last

   I blame my leprosy on the mall. I blame it for the picking, the chewing, the tearing at my flesh until I look diseased—scabs and scratches and spots all over. And that’s not a leper exactly, not truly—I know that. But I’m a leper, I mean, in that I suppose I imagine lepers with blemishes all over like what I have, all these bug bites and scrapes and zits that I scratch until they’re scabs; then I keep scratching so they won’t heal. An unending suicide. Lepers might not really be the sort of ghoulish, Swiss cheese creatures I’m imagining, but if they are, and if they wake up in the middle of night sweating and itching all over until they have to kick off the blankets and peel back at the new skin until it bleeds—if that’s anything like what a leper is—that’s me. I’m not healthy is what I’m saying. Unclean.

It’s not that I haven’t tried a few ways to get better. A pretty eastern European girl selling lotion near the food court gave me something to try once. The sharpest salesgirls can catch when you look at them even just peripherally. They’re not scared to seize just a little bit of eye contact and then squirt gray herbal-remedy cream into your hand.

“Your skin full of toxins,” she said, rubbing slowly. “Unseen, invisible.”

She didn’t mind touching the scabs and spots. She rubbed in the lotion all the way up to my elbow, one arm over the other like a sailor pulling in a rope. Something occurred to me, but she asked first.

“How old you are?”

“Twenty-four.”

“Acne make you look younger,” she said. ”Use on face too.”

Was she younger? No signs of age, but long spidery lashes like an older woman might have had. No zits, no wrinkles. Bright white cheeks. But not powdery—not dry looking. She had skin like magazine paper. Glossy skin.

She had me compare hands when she’d finished.

“Big difference between left and right hand, no? Toxins gone in this one.”

Was there a difference? I looked down from her eyes and saw my hand—jagged nails, ragged cuticles, a scab on my wrist that I’d had for more than a year. I saw no improvement.

“This hand is definitely wetter,” I said.

She brushed her fingertips across my palm. “Yes, better.”

I shook off some goosebumps and reached for my wallet. “How much?”

I went to bed with gray stuff caked on my face like an old woman at the spa. I was careful not to roll on my side and get gunk on the pillow. It took forever to fall asleep. When I finally did, I dreamed myself into an egg, my scaly little chicken feet next to my beak, everything squished into a small, oblong space. I saw a pinhole of light, and I picked and scratched at it hoping to hatch. The hole became big enough to squeeze out of. I saw a trembling sun beyond the shell, but I struggled to get hold of it because I was trembling too. It was nearly in my grasp, but before I could seize it, I woke up. My hands were covered in gray.

***
I came back a week later with a few questions about the regiment, a few words to have with my Russian temptress, but the kiosk had become a vitamin stand. Where once she had stood, I saw now a kid, younger than me even, shilling fish oil and iron supplements. He was playing on his phone.

To see if the kiosk had moved, I traversed the entire L. I went all the way up the long, fashionable leg, and all the way down the short leg, lined with plus-size women’s apparel shops and sleepy t-shirt outlets. I stood for a long time where the two legs meet and chewed my nails.

And the whole L is like that, really—inconstant, I mean. It picks away at itself like I do, especially at that time of the year. It was right after Christmas. All the ornaments were being plucked and the peel-plastic Santas scraped off the windows. Trees down, hearts up. Give her a Valentine’s to remember.

There was a live band on a stage in the center of the food court—where the two legs meet, I mean. Just two weeks before this, they were playing songs of warm, winter melancholy. Now they were cranking out contemporary hits—pop-rock, rock-rap, I don’t know the words for music. The lead singer was stomping back and forth across the stage like some Indian chieftain praying for rain. The whole band was just a bunch of ponytailed old dudes with leather jackets and sunglasses. They played too young for themselves.

Then I saw someone I didn’t want to see.

“I think your break ended five minutes ago.” It was Bill, my manager. He handed me my lanyard. “Come back inside.”

Every day that I work at The Pacific Candle Company for six hours, I get a fifteen and a thirty—those are breaks. My problem was that lately my fifteens were becoming twenties, and my thirties, forty-fives. I liked to walk the L, though, to window shop. I still do. I can calm down a bit that way. That green light that blinks between the jagged teeth of each moving stair on the escalator—it soothes me.

Bill made me sign something about being late.

“Is this another Friendly Reminder sheet?” I asked.

“It’s a form B,” said Bill. “Friendly Reminders are Form A’s.”

“How high up does the alphabet go?”

“Not very.”

Bill is a candle man. A seller of wax with waxy, untroubled skin. The scrappy, white hair makes me think he’s nearing retirement, but really he’s too fat to show his age. His skin folds over itself in thick rolls visible beneath his polo and in layers that spill over his shirt collar in the back. And he sure does love candles. “Autumn Breeze!” he’ll gush to a customer. “That’s my favorite! I have it at home!” “Sugar Pine! What a great smell! Perfect for this time of year!” But they can’t really be his favorite—not all of them. Not everything. He says it too much. He doesn’t think anyone’s noticing these things, but I am—stocking the shelves with Bamboo Mist and Tangerine Cactus and Summer Lawn, grinding my molars on a hangnail—I’m sure as hell listening, and I know he’s blowing smoke. The metaphor, you see, continues.

The anxiety ate away at me for the rest of my shift that day. I had been working on a scab on my elbow, and, after a couple of hours, I could tell I was near to getting the whole thing off. I excused myself into the bathroom a couple of times to look at the shape of it in the mirror. I like best right before it comes off and the wound looks like a little doorflap—hospitable, somehow. This one was heart-shaped, pink around the edges, redder in the center, white-pink underneath.

But after all, warm affection—attachment, I mean—is no reason really to keep tight what is becoming loose. And really, quick pain feels almost like pleasure. I bit hard on the loose skin right at the end of my shift. I pulled a crumpled paper towel from my pocket to dab the red.

“Goodbye, Bill. I’m done at six today.”

“Cheers,” he said. Idiot.

I stopped by Bongo’s to take a spin in one of their massaging recliners. Wilmore’s has massaging chairs that you can use too, but theirs are just pads, really, the kind you attach to a normal chair. Bongo’s, though, has enormous recliners that swallow you up almost completely and push against you with these mechanical jaws hidden beneath the leather. The kind at Bongo’s squeeze against your limbs and spine until it hurts a little.

I saw someone I recognized behind the counter.

“Hannah!” I said, reading her nametag. “You used to give pretzel samples,”

“I still do,” she said. “I just got off there an hour ago.”

“Well, thanks for those. Sorry I never bought a pretzel.”

“The nature of the business.” She smiled.

But I had seen her somewhere else too. Once when I got off the bus, I saw her changing in her car. It must have been between shifts. She took off a teal polo and put on a white one. Between polos she put on deodorant. I remembered that her arms were muscular and pale white and that her sports bra was black.

“Quite a change!” I said. “Selling pretzels to selling…” I looked around the store, “all kinds of crap.”

Her features drew together when she smiled, like her nose was a drawstring pulling everything inward from her round cheeks. She wore a cap when she sold pretzels but not for this job. Her hair (I was seeing it for just the second time) was wispy—daringly short. It spoke of a certain attractive confidence that she would let her squeezed-together face communicate all her beauty. I squirmed a bit looking at her. Pretty girls make me itch.

Bongo’s—do a new doo-dad today!

“Yeah, I guess I’m climbing the ladder,” she said.

I almost spoke up there to explain to her that that particular figure of speech has more to do with getting a promotion than taking on another, more desirable job in addition to what you have already. But I bit my tongue. I’ve got to bite it pretty hard sometimes.

“You might have seen me selling candles,” I said. “Short leg side—but near the middle, actually. Right by the food court. I’d love to get out of it, though, if I could. My manager is…he likes candles way too much. But it’s hard. Hard to find other places that are hiring, I mean.”

She nodded. “It’s mostly about persistence, I’d say. I was stopping by the information booth every day for a few months looking for other openings, places that paid more.”

I noticed a slight crookedness to her teeth, like each one was turned just a hair sideways. Sharp teeth. My itchiness turned to dizziness. I made tight fists.

User-friendly features? That’s a plus!

“And I saw you in your car once.”

Her smile and eyebrows slowly drifted away from her nose. My left thumbnail found the scab on my right wrist—a good standby that will bleed if I’m patient. Pluck-pluck-pluck. I’m a guitar that makes no music. “I take the bus myself. No car for me.”

“Well, Do you have questions about anything here?” she asked.

“Questions? Ah…no,” I said. “I’m a bit of a browser.”

She said goodbye and walked to a customer who was pressing his palm into a memory-foam pillow. Slowly, the palm impression disappeared. Momentarily, only five indentations remained where the fingertips had been. “Amazing, isn’t it?” she said. She really believed in what she sold.

***
After that, I said hi to Hannah all the time when I saw her. Just about every day I’d stop by the pretzel place for a sample and we’d talk as much as we could with her still doing her job. I don’t earn enough to really spend, but I’ll take what’s free. Not just food either. Pressing all the red Try Me! buttons in the toy store, winding the handles on the miniature pepper grinders at Cutlery Plus—that’s a fun afternoon for me.

The trouble started, though, when this guy working the fitting room at Wilmore’s sort of rolled his eyes at me when I went in to try something on. It was the same guy who’d been there yesterday and the day before. He had come to realize that I never bought, really, that I was just there to try things on. A half-hour later, the old lady that runs the newsstand downstairs confronted me when she saw me thumbing through my favorite newsweekly. “This isn’t a library!”

The whole L moves with one mind sometimes, with a single personality that you don’t want to get on the wrong side of. After two years working there, I was beginning to feel recognized, not merely by the other retailers, but also by some greater force that I suspected was trying to work me out of itself, pressing a fingernail between its teeth in order to pick out an unhealthy morsel. I had been labeled a sampler, not a buyer. And more and more often, I suspected that people turned as I passed. The shoppers, the sellers, the custodians, the headless mannequins standing at attention in all the windows, even the woman in that lingerie advertisement posted every few feet through the whole L like wallpaper—that slender, golden figure with red nails pressed against her lips—it felt at moments like she was meeting my gaze, not the other way around.

Be comfortable. Be sexy. A bra designed with you in mind!

My condition worsened—the itch I mean, that antsy impulse to pick. Skin couldn’t grow faster than I could pick it off. Disrobed in the fitting room, I found blemishes I couldn’t remember beginning. Wounds without a history. Scabs without a story.
In an effort to sample less, I spent more time parked in the food court. Not eating I mean, just staying put. The band of old dudes was becoming a pretty frequent presence. Their tastes had changed a bit since I’d first heard them. They’d become a little less voguish, a little more comfortable playing hits from fifteen years ago, songs not old enough to be classics, really, but sometimes just anachronistic enough to make me look away from the neon.

I stood listening with Hannah one day. We got to talking in depth about music and high school. Turns out she never went to college. She’d started in retail before she was eighteen, and she realized pretty quickly where most of her sister’s friends with BA’s were ending up anyway.

“I’d sell anything but clothes,” she said. “Clothes stores make you wear what you’re selling. Plus you have to start dressing for cold as soon as the winter line comes out—even if it’s still hot out.” She nodded, real sure of herself on this one. “My friend slipped once. It was the sweat.”

“Still, it seems better than food service. You’d rather sell pretzels?”

“You can move fast in food service—you can move fast up. Two girls have quit since I’ve started, and I can see my manager now has an itch to leave. I’ll be damned if someone gets her spot before me. That’s twenty an hour. Full time.” She stood stone straight in her uniform, and with a proud and thin arm she held out her basket of pretzel bits like blind lady Justice holding the scales perfectly square. Something twisting inside of me wanted to laugh to her face, but then I thought of what I must look like to her.

“I was manager of a sandwich place in Nor Cal last summer,” she said. “But then it closed.”

I took this revelation perhaps a bit too much in stride: “Nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Not the sandwich place, I mean—the mall. The whole thing went broke. We were doing just fine until the property was seized. Malls are doing that more and more, you know. Brick and mortar’s on its way out. It might happen to the L one day too, you know.”

“The L’s too crafty for that,” I said. “I can only imagine the legs getting longer. I’ll probably be here when I retire.”

“You should climb up, then,” said Hannah grinning. “You don’t want to retire with a job you hate. There’s room on top of the ladder for both of us.”

“I don’t think I could even get my foot on the first rung of the ladder at the candle store,” I said. “My manager hardly gives me a chance to prove myself. He’s always cutting my hours. And I’ve never once gotten a raise.”

“Confront him,” she said. “Tell him you’re a full-time employee now.”

“Wouldn’t work,” I said. “I’m stuck.”

“Nobody’s stuck. I don’t think like that.”

An older man with shades and driving gloves came by just then. He took the last two samples from Hannah’s basket. With one hand he lifted his amber sunglasses so he could wink at her. With the other he popped the pretzel pieces in his mouth both at once. She nodded in reply, but was otherwise unmoved.

Embarrassed for both of them, I mumbled something about my shift starting soon and walked away. The truth was, I had the day off and had come to the L just to see her. But something just then tasted sour inside of me. Plucking a scab on my neck, I walked to the giant, green fountain near the long leg’s east entrance. I looked for myself in the water, but it was hard to distinguish a reflection through all the glittering pennies. My hands felt dry, and I tapped the water’s surface without thinking. The sensation of wetness caught me off guard, and my fingers tingled so much for a second that I almost thought I’d been healed after all.

Just then the band began a song that I had come to hate in high school.

***
Bill’s little back office was tan-pink on the walls and littered with candles. It was smoky back there, but the wrong kind of smoky. Flower smoky. Sweet smoky. No windows. I put my hands on my hips.

“I want more hours,” I said. “I want more hours or I want a raise.”

He just shrugged and smiled at first, held out open palms helplessly. No one said anything. He was sitting and I was standing, and that’s how I wanted it. He thinks of himself as an expert at disarming people—a real level head. But I could tell after a second that I was affecting him, not the other way around. I saw him sort of tug at his big, blobby chin anxiously, dart his eyes around the room. Other people have their nervous little mannerisms too—not scars like mine, not ugly the same way, but little tics just the same. I’ve learned to notice.

“A raise is out of the question,” he said finally. “We’re not pulling in anything close to last year’s numbers.”

“Increase my hours then,” I said. “I want to be full-time now.”

“No one here is full time,” he said. “Only yours truly.” He folded his chubby hands over his belly and sort of batted his eyelids.

“Well, why do you keep hiring?” I asked. “You keep adding workers, and cutting everyone’s hours. It’s not right.”

“It’s not wrong to hire. People need work,” he said. “Listen, the complications with making someone full-time, in terms of paperwork and insurance, it’s all too much to get into. But I’ll tell you I have no qualms about hiring. It’s good to hire. Good for you guys, good for me, good for the L.”

“It’s not good for me,” I said. “I’m living paycheck to paycheck.”

Then he sort of arched his back and rotated his shoulders, like he was preparing himself for something. “All right,” he said, “You want a raise? You want more hours? Let’s talk about your work performance. What time did you come in today?” The fluttering whimsy was finally gone from his face. He had found the right tone—a low, stern voice—, and it seemed like he wanted to sing the whole song now real quick before he lost the pitch again. “Also, how long was your break? Yesterday I thought you were never coming back. Half of your shift you spend doing God-knows-what in the back.”

“That’s not what this is about!”

I shouted it. I spoke too loud. My fingertips felt wet and I realized that I had been plucking at the scab on my wrist the whole time. I made a sudden fist with my hands and straightened my arms all at once. I could feel the blood trickling down.

“Let’s be…” he searched for the word, “adult.”

His walls were covered in promotional material from the Pacific Candle Company. A scent can take you away. Ask about this month’s discounts.

“All right,” he said. “Go take your fifteen. Cool down. Make it a fifteen, though, not a twenty—not even a sixteen. Got it?”

I went straight to Bongo’s and recounted the conversation to Hannah. I was lateral—half swallowed by the massaging chair, letting its giant tongue press against my back and lick clean my wounds. Hannah had her hands on her hips and was looking down at me with anxious eyes.

“You’d have killed in college,” I told her, half asleep really. “You’re a hundred times smarter than me, and I have a Bachelor’s in British Literature.”

“I don’t dislike that kind of thing, but I feel like you get enough of it in high school,” she said. “‘Look back on time with kindly eyes.’ That’s British, right?”

“That’s American,” I said. “Dickenson. I wrote a great paper on her, though. She’s the kind of girl a guy like me could…well, I could really get into a girl like that.”

“She’s smart, you mean? Or just pretty?”

“I’m mostly just into the dashes.” I stretched out my limbs in the chair. “Hey, happy Valentine’s Day, by the way. It’s the fourteenth today, right?”

My eyes were closed, but I could hear a rush of customers come in just then. It was like a change in the wind, a swirling up of the leaves on the ground accompanied by just enough raindrops to remind you that you don’t really belong wherever it is that you are. The senior citizens, soccer moms and mall-walkers who inhabit the L through lunch time were giving way now to the swarms of adolescents who march through it by night. I imagined the L’s two legs like the hands on a clock—three PM. “Is this your break right now?” she asked me.

“Yes.”

“Well, shouldn’t you get back? You’ve been here for nearly fifteen minutes now. I don’t want you to get in trouble again is all.” I could tell she was uncomfortable reprimanding me. She put a fingertip to her mouth and pulled off a hangnail.
Sometimes, I think that what I am is infectious.

The rest of my work day was uneventful. I returned not more than a minute late, and Bill and I kept our distance. I heard him complain again to another employee, loud enough for me to hear, though, that we were “dreadfully” behind last year’s numbers. There weren’t enough customers for me to really lose myself behind the register, and I didn’t want to get caught alone with anyone in the back room, so I wandered the shelves and asked people if they were “finding everything okay” because I wanted to see them squirm, to put down their candles and walk out of the store feeling embarrassed for being there to begin with. I only had one customer who actually took the bait, a purplish-red haired woman holding a screaming child. She had a distinct scent in mind, but nothing I showed her was exactly it.

“Something citrusy,” she said, “but not fruity really. A not altogether sweet smell, and not strong either, just soft—can a scent be soft? Does that make sense?”

“How about lime?” I asked. “Lime’s pretty good.”

After my shift, I wandered the long leg for about an hour and handled all the merchandise I passed with bloody fingers. The whole world, it began to seem, was fixed together with screws and bolts that needed loosening. I switched the pen caps at The Stationery Station. I pressed my thumb into the hollow plastic fruit at Forks N’ More. I’ve committed crimes like this at work too. Sometimes I can’t help but dig my nails through the wax of a new candle in the backroom. Nothing should be so smooth.

I saw two men at Wilmore’s disassembling a Valentine’s display and literally plucking the feathery wings off a life-sized Cupid figure in the window. Glittery eggs sat idly by. The sharp ends of the hearts were dulling out now and splitting sideways into colorful oblongs. Deep reds were beginning to bleed into gentle pastels. The stretch into Easter is a long one, but things move quickly after that—Mother’s day, Father’s Day, the Fourth of July. Smart sellers can tell what’s coming.

Later on, I wandered into a store for men’s apparel—not Wilmore’s. Somewhere chic. I couldn’t afford any of it, of course, but I wanted to try something on, to peel off the blue candle store polo and see what I might look like if I could look how I wanted.

And there is something about my reflection that I can spot in the fitting room mirror at the mall that somehow doesn’t show up in the bathroom at home. Of course the scabs are miserable to see, and studying them only makes me want to work away at them more, but there’s something else about my appearance that has struck me lately. For a time, I felt haunted by young features—wide, apprehensive eyes, and round, babyish cheeks. But I’m pleased to be looking older lately. My cheeks are sinking in so that the bones beneath are beginning to suggest an actual jaw. My eyebrows are growing in thicker and darker now, and there is a sagging grayness below my eyes that has nearly washed away that suggestion of naivety to my countenance that I used to loathe. The clumsy youthfulness is still there, still lurking just below the wrinkles, but it’s balanced now, evened out a little by the wear of a few lonely years away from the nest.

Look sharp. Live smooth. Select menswear items 25% off.

When I left the mall, I saw Hannah in her car again changing. She put on an orange shirt with a nametag. It didn’t seem like it was a uniform for either of her jobs at the L. Maybe she had a third job. She backed out and left, but she didn’t pass me. I made it to the bus stop early, but the bus was late. I sat there in the dark for a long time thinking about her bare arms.

I didn’t work until mid-afternoon the next day. At about noon, I visited the information booth to ask if there was anywhere in the L that was hiring.

The guy working had a burrito. “The information booth is hiring,” he said chewing. “I’m quitting tomorrow.”

“Looks like a sweet gig,” I said. “Anywhere else?”

He flipped through a folder. “Just the pretzel place.”

I visited Hannah at Bongo’s. She was with a too-tall geeky-looking guy and a young boy demonstrating a remote-controlled helicopter. She could get it hovering steadily just a foot or two off the ground, but each time she handed the controls to the man, the thing did a backflip and clattered on the floor.

There was something unpleasant to my massage that day. The gears in the chair were turning too quickly it seemed; the mechanical tongue was too rapid to really soothe. The knob that was supposed to massage my neck sort of bumped against my skull. I kept repositioning my body, but my clothing kept bunching up the wrong way and I couldn’t get comfortable at all. I was fiddling with the settings when Hannah came by.

“Everything okay?” she said.

“This thing is broken,” I said. “It’s trying to spit me out.”

“You thinking of buying one of these?”

“Ha!” I was still playing with the settings. “On my salary? Not a chance. I earn hourly wages. You probably know what that’s like.”

“I earn commission,” she said. And then, “That’s kind of the thing.”

I looked up, trying to catch her meaning.

“We have a lot of customers in the store today is all.” She was making a little box with her fingers and sort of tapping each of the tips together one at a time. “A lot of serious customers.”

I’ve tried to recall her face in that moment many times in these months afterward. Firmness, not anger. Pity—but not sympathy, and not apology, either. The brown eyes and tiny mouth were gathered at the drawstring nose, as if her features had all gathered in solidarity against me. Little worry lines around her mouth and little thought wrinkles across her brow slowly revealed themselves, but with real reluctance. I was reminded of those skinny worms that are pushed out in a storm. I never did learn her age, but she seemed older than me just then. Stronger too. Fundamentally, her face in that moment was as kind a face of negation as any young woman could be expected to muster for some scribbly slob mooching off her store’s massaging recliners.

From there, I jogged straight to the pretzel store, the heels of my shoes squashed down in my haste to leave Bongo’s. I knew that I didn’t have much time for lunch before my shift started. I needed to eat somewhere with no line, somewhere where the food could be yanked out from a beneath a yellow heat lamp. I bought two pretzels and ate them both in a hurry. My stomach sort of protested at the second one, but I did my best to tune it out.

The band was playing again in the food court. They had regressed all the way back to tunes that were golden oldies well before I was born—Springsteen, Dylan, even some Beatles—music too good to get excited about anymore, really. They seemed happier, though—more comfortable with old music, I mean. The lead singer swung his arms real high over his head to clap, but it was awkward because he had a handheld microphone too. I nodded along with the beat for a minute, but not because I liked the music or anything. Not because I enjoyed it. I took a piece of loose flesh from my elbow, and it peeled out in a graceful spiral shape. We’re all rotting really.

Above the fountain, men on ladders pulled ropes loose and a giant canvas ad spooled down with a rumble like thunder. The model couldn’t have been a year older than I, but he wore a trim gray suit with black shoes, and he glared into the distance in the way that a man can only if he knows his place in God’s will exactly. It was a sharp-looking suit and briefcase, but the ad was for razors. Four feminine hands without faces reached out from the sides and brushed against the man’s face and neck. Their nails were red. There was, I believe, no tagline for this one. There was only the man, and only the logo, and only the four hands around him. For a long time I sat staring—ashamed, exhilarated.