'Fried Rice & Black Lacquer'

Stephanie Dickinson

     My eye shadow felt bruised when Mr. Squires limped into the typing room.   “Did you get hold of the Xerox guy?”   I rubbed at the coppery sheen on my lids, smearing it over my temples.

      “Yes, Mr. Squires,” Blondell said, moving her eyes from the gobs of gutty rain dying on the window to the glowering managing partner.

      I tried not to look at him. When he talked instead of words I heard wasps building nests in my earlobes, their stingers stabbing. In his hairy hand the Mr. Squires waved a sheet of ledger paper from the door of his office. “Stop talking! I want action. Get those Brooklyn Society for Abandoned Children fixes made.   Start typing.”

      Blondell licked her kiwi lips. “He's a nice old man.   His wife is just as sweet as he is.”    She scraped all the abnormally large shrimp from her fried rice to the side of her paper plate.   They appeared to be fat blue grass shrimp, the kind used for bait.   “Them mens,” she repeated, a ringlet of green onion hanging from her fork. She separated her water chestnuts from her bean sprouts and bamboo shoots into their own sweaty piles.   “I can't stand to eat my food all mixed together.” She taped her goldfish container of fried rice, and then carefully set a paper plate next to it.   “I sure don't understand why you love that Hamster when he treats you so mean,” Blondell rolled her eyes. She dressed like Grace Kelly in Rear Window, mid-calf skirts, high collared white blouses, her electric hair bunned. She worried that people on the street stared at her, not just a person here or there but every single person, every two eyes in every single head.

      “Finished that poem yet?” Blondell asked, unfurling a napkin. “The coast is clear.”

      I had no appetite for food or poetry. Hamster didn't come home to our shared apartment last night and today the ringer was off on his cell. I cut and pasted a letterhead logo into a header and unlinked it from the previous page and stared out the office window mulling it over. Unsung insects and crickets embedded in rain stickiness blurred the view, pigeon feathers and entrails stuck in the flypaper of old condensation waved when an updraft stuck them. The window faced an air shaft and brick wall. I loved Hamster more for his strangeness than his good looks, his monetary generosity that alone could charm anyone, and there was his exquisite taste in material things, especially clothes.   His father, the handsome James Garvey, who his mother Lorna put up with for a matter of months after she birthed Hamster, had been a window dresser.   James Garvey broke Lorna's jaw and now lived in New Jersey with Hamster's twin half-sisters. Yet James Garvey lived in him. Hamster, born with an eye for display. Hamster with his three hundred pairs of socks, his two hundred ties, his fifty umbrellas.   James Garvey hit Lorna. When Hamster's temper flared I saw a prehistoric sailbird-fish with twenty foot wings.

      I saved what was on my screen. “Well, Blondell, complicated people interest me.”   I found Hamster to be fascinating, just like Blondell herself, who picked up a pair of scissors and slowly cut open her plastic set of silverware, setting the scissors down in the exact spot. And something else I had to admit: I wasn't disturbed by the ladies underwear he wore, no matter how ridiculous the smidgeon of nylon tricot looked on his tree of a body, no matter how often we trotted through the dainties at Macy's and K-Mart, no matter if he insisted I call him Leda at home. Wasn't it the mix where it got intense, the androgynous territory of mannish girls and girlish boys, the muscular, six-footer, and inside his jeans his silken stallion, a groin bedecked in lace?  

      Blondell chewed each grain of rice twenty times. “Complications, my mama says, always end up costing money.   If I were you, I'd find someone new, someone nicer.”

      I didn't want someone nicer. Nice people were Twinkies. There were other qualities Hamster had that wouldn't be easy to duplicate like his the way he turned a phrase, used active verbs.   I was a sucker for words. Furthermore, he was my meal ticket, my mother, and father.   He was the punisher, the parent, the provider. An image of his corpse floated up in my mind.

      “But do you think he's alive?” I asked frantically.   “What if he's dead?   He could have fallen into the Hudson.   He wouldn't do this to me if something hadn't happened.   I've called all the hospitals.”

      “If he isn't dead, he's probably alive.   That's how it is with mens,” she said.

      How would Blondell know?   She had never had a date and celluloid men were the only ones she ever talked about.   She watched Dangerous Liaisons three times a week.   “I sure do like that old actor John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons. I keep my VCR just to keep watching that video. My mama went DVD but I stay VCR. He plays that bad man real nice.”

      Talking to Blondell was no better than having a discussion with the locked supply cabinet.   People disappeared in Manhattan, and eventually some of them ended up in the Daily News, dismembered and stuffed into oil drums, or asphalted over in Long Island basements, they ended up in four different Hefty bags. Yes, maybe they were preparing his flesh this instant. Split Hamster and Ham. My head ached, sniffing a thick Latvian mixture, sumptuous with Hamster bones and marrow, a blood stew simmering, an odor of famine and boiling stallion.

      Blondell was still eating when the Xerox technician arrived.   He had a monk's circle where his hair was thinning, and was smiling at himself in the mirror over the in-box.   I had decided more men stared at themselves than women, peering into every shiny surface to catch a glimpse.

      “How much longer before that thing is working?” Mr. Squires snarled, after an hour.

      The technician's chin jerked. “Huh?”   He had fallen into a trance, running hundreds of sheets to make sure the shadow line stayed off the copies.

      “Geez.   What kind of service do you people have?”

      Usually, I took pleasure in his displeasure.   Work product foiled by computer disasters and acts of God.   In his sixties, Mr. Squires was close to retirement, and had labored long in the old office world where there were no computers, no word processors and no calculators.   A ledger paper, sharpened pencil, and sweat world, where you weren't a slave to the microchip.   Now there were layers of people between you and your deadline, now what passed for work consisted of staring deep into the monitor, an autohypnosis, broken only by lunch.  

      “Come on, come on.   Goddamnit.” Mr. Squires paced the length of the typing counter, his jaw grinding at the laser printer and shadow-filled copier.   He was a lionfish out of water.   “Look alive!”

      But we couldn't.   The technician was stupefied. Blondell ate slowly, her lunch hour lasting from 12:00 p.m. to 2:23 p.m. I wa s hardly present. The office day had an underwater feel, an interior drunkenness. The junior accountants were sitting up, but unable to move like little Swiss Family Robinson boa constrictors, who had each swallowed a donkey whole.   The trial balances, the schedules of restricted funds, the trips to the bathroom–all of it were being digested. I opened another window in Microsoft Word.   I still hadn't finished yesterday's poem. I tried to write something each day while on the job so I'd have something of my own to show for all that wasted time, something besides the fixed game of a wage.

The chair rested in emptiness, the only one in the hollow house and when he crawled in the window looking for something to sit on he found the elegant black settee with red velour cushion, and when he lowered his bottom into it, he shivered with the sensation of an otherness still there. Likely a she-chair he thought as his thighs spread and his legs relaxed, discovering a skirt, a slippery rivery thing   with crinkling underthings, itching knickers, a white trout between her knees. Heat and heat   and yet she sat so passive under him. That he pulled all of this and that down, ahoy there, he called out and not a sound from the woman's blood-dark mouth, and his hand   deeper   into the chair, into the lip. A red haired girl kiss, high flush riding up.  

To be continued…

      Mr. Squires picked up the schedule I had just queued to print.    His paw rested on my back, his groin pressed against the arm of my secretarial chair, and then he reached around me to the typing stand, his privates at my elbow and forearm's height.   He rubbed himself against them. It was part of my job to be pleasant.   I wondered how long since Mr. Squires and his wife Betsy, an ex-nun, made the beast with eight legs. Hamster and I did ours on Saturday mornings when I stretched out on the floating satin sheets, a cool black river in a lacquer frame. I was inside a Japanese music box, and then Hamster woke and I scented his clay odor, tasted the night's sleep in his mouth as he mounted me.   “Maintenance,” he grunted. I laughed and closed my eyes, seeing the red-eyed Kabuki actors applying wax to their eyebrows and white face cream on their cheeks, princess and commoner practicing samurai sex.   Hamster in his goldenrod panties.   Hamster singing the muffled traffic of the streets below. Hamster saying, “Hey,” into my ear, “I'm going to taste you.” Hamster, between my legs, his breath tickling the inside of my thighs, his blond hair meeting my darker hair. Hamster trying hard to please me, and I'm ashamed of where his tongue is, my quivers growing stems, musky and filled with French sauce, Hamster gripping my thighs, ordering me to become a puddle of muddiness an orchid shuddered from. But I didn't let it out, I would go only so far toward the edge even with him, I couldn't dissolve. In the heaven of predators, I never let my guard down, and I practiced leaving my body during sex, running with the flatfish, the skates and ray swordfish, the triggers and puffers, all prey. He liked to wear women's dainties, he was a fetishist, but he loved me.   I had a wide-open mind. “Typist, get it right.   I give you one goddamn thing and I keep getting the same mistake back.”   His eyes were blue like Hamster's, hot blue ice.   “Goddamnit, I even had to ask you to wash your hand.   You left fingerprints on every financial statement you ever typed.   Even goddamn lazy Blondell doesn't do that.   Ever hear of a Wet Wipe?”

      “He's a little mean on Monday's,” Blondell remarked after Mr. Squires had skulked back into his office. “He acted on stage back in the old old days when he was at Yale.”   She spooned her piles of baby corn and shredded red pepper back into her takeout container, pushing the gray jumbo shrimp towards me.   “Take these, Stef.”

      I couldn't eat.   I was ready to jump out of my skin.    I tried calling home once more; I put in one more call to Hamster's work, the Puerto Rican dwarf sighing when he heard my voice.

      “Blondell, I'm going to be sick,” I announced, marching into Mr. Squires office.    He looked up from his desk covered with green accounting paper. “Sir, I'm sick to my stomach.   I'm about to throw up.”

      “You're not pregnant, are you?” he asked with alarm.

      “Absolutely not.   I think I've caught a bug.”

      He had fired the Dominican typist after her second pregnancy.   I'd replaced Grace.

      Just then Blondell popped her head in the door.   “Mr. Squires, I'm sick too.   We both ate bad shrimps from China Moon.”

      Mr. Squires slumped in his chair.   “All right.    Goddamnit, all right.”

      Back in the typing room I turned off my monitor and grabbed my jacket.   “Wait for me,” Blondell insisted, beginning the going home ritual.   She removed her sneakers, took the left fireman's boot from the sack and put it on, took the right boot from the second sack, refolding and placing them empty in her cabinet, her novel Savage Love returning to the zip lock baggie, and then into her purse. When we walked past Mr. Squires' office, he let out a burst of more Goddamnits before the elevator came. On the street, Blondell wrapped herself in a blue raincoat and disappeared, even her fireman's boots didn't help her stand out.   The crowd came and carried her away.  

      I hurried to the 42nd Street Fleet Bank.   The teller machines were useless to me.   I didn't have twenty dollars so I tromped up the stairs with my checkbook. Did I think a man was going to save me, and that Hamster was that man? Is that why I needed him to stay one?   I stood in line; jealous of the cashiers on their high stools, how cool and disembodied they looked, dispensing cash. More asleep people. Not a tilt of the chin or a lift of an eyebrow when I cashed a check for seven dollars. Yet I felt almost rich strolling towards Times Square.   The Prudential sign where Broadway split into two traffic streams seemed to have grown mightier. The Chock-Full-of-Nuts coffee cup, released puffs of steam that rose like miraculously filthy clouds. On the U.S. Army/Navy Recruiter Island, the Holy Roarers, their plastic headbands glittering with paste rubies, preached.   Two men turned the pages of the Good Book. The early afternoon gathering of unemployed men smelled of Thunderbird wine and dingle berries.  

      “A man turned evil and what was his punishment, brothers?   He was bleached,” the speaker boomed.   “Ain't no secret, Satan is the Beast.   The Bleached Demon is a woman.   The Flesh-Sucking Silken One is eating the back of manhood. This City is Her womb, brothers.”

      The streets were emptier, warehouses of grimy brick, scarecrow water towers peering down.   I pictured Hamster as Leda, big as a thresher bedecked in a red dress with plunging neckline, reclining on our bed, my girl sipping eggnog and nibbling on Godiva truffles.   His voice dropped to kiss level and sweet as a nectarine.

      Jobless men pressed against me. I tried to love them like the shivery whispering woods, but I couldn't.   I turned and headed toward Rockefeller Center, and then west.  

      I stopped at the Italian Pharmacy on the corner of Ninth and 42nd where they let me post date my checks.   The bell above the door tinkled and I walked into an orange spice aroma.   A perfume decanter called out to me, mottled brown like the elegant flank of an antelope.   “Saw your better half,” the druggist's wife Angela smiled. “What a man.”

      A fire truck clanged far away.

      I licked the key so it would turn more easily, slowly pushing in the door letting it close like falling snow.   It was quiet here too.   Was he taking a nap?   I slipped off my shoes while the white walls and exercise bike watched.   I tiptoed under the framed photographs of the Flatiron Building.   The kitchen faucet dripped, plinking.   I froze.   A drip of water hung on the faucet.   I waited for it to drop.

      From the bedroom I heard the TV go on, not the sound blips of channel surfing.   Someone groaned, and then a moan.   Maybe the groans were in the faucet, the pipes were moaning.   I walked past the mirrored armoires.   Fuchsia ginger flowers had been left on the dining room table like offerings for a Nile snake goddess, perfume decanters, amber and lavender.   I heard a fresh moan.

      I'm not going to knock; I have a right to go in, I said to myself, taking a deep breath.   A wide screen TV; its 64 inches were enough to drink the room into it.

      “What are you doing here?” Hamster's voice came from behind me.

      “I ate bad Chinese.   I think I have food poisoning.”   I made my voice go bright; I put a smile into it.   If he knew how pissed off I was, he would run.

      My broad shouldered handsome blond man pirouetted toward me in a mid-calf length long sleeved dress, beige-brown with a black sash at the hipline, a tasteful Easter Sunday ensemble. He was dressed like Blondell. Like a lady not familiar with our missile to shoot falling spy satellite out of the sky time.   His eyes told me I was last person he wanted to see.   I felt my knuckles whiten as I sank onto the bed.   I thought you were dead, I wanted to whimper, and I've suffered.

      Would Leda jog in the bathroom like Hamster, creating a steam furnace of rancid mist, and when finished rush out to hug me against her dripping body, pick me up, toss me on the bed, smearing her sweat onto my chest while I screamed and laughed?   Would Leda be as generous with her money as Hamster?   I didn't want to be his sister or lesbian lover. He was my rock, and on his arm I was beautiful.   If a man this handsome wanted me, then I had to be desirable. I was a squeezed kid; I pinched my face and scratched my scabs—my skin gave off the smell of metal.   I used to be a sloucher who wasn't tall.   A blinker who had 20/20 vision. I giggled when things weren't funny.

      “Well, what do you think?” he asked.

      I giggled.