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Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls
By Alissa Nutting
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 2012 Alissa Nutting
All rights reserved.
I am boiling inside a kettle with five other people. Our limbs are bound and our intestines and mouths are stuffed with herbs and garlic, but we can still speak. We smell great despite the pain.
The guy next to me resembles Elvis because of his fluffy, vaguely-pubic black hairdo. It may be the humidity.
Across the kettle a man is trying to cry, but his tears keep mixing with his sweat and instead of looking sad he just seems extra warm. For a moment, I have the romantic thought that maybe we are actually boiling in tears, hundreds of thousands of them, the sweetest-true tears of infants and children instead of a yellowy, chickenish broth.
I am the only woman in the kettle, which strikes me as odd. I'm voluptuous and curvy; I can understand why someone would want to gobble me up. The men do not look so delicious. One, a very old man across the kettle from me, keeps drifting in and out of a semi-conscious state. His head droops down towards the broth then suddenly, just as the tip of his nose touches one of the surface's bubbles, he snaps upright and utters a name. "Stanley" is the first. The second, "David." We think he is saying the names of his children; we even continue to humor him after he gets to the fifteenth (perhaps he's moved on to grandchildren?), but as he yells his fortieth name it's clear that he is not poignant but nuts.
"He isn't crazy," the crying man sobs. "These are the last few moments of our lives. Shouldn't we all be calling out the names of everyone we've ever met? Ever known? Ever loved?"
"Uh-huh," agrees Elvis.
But the man to Elvis' left is not as fond of this idea. A series of teardrop tattoos on his upper cheek indicate victories in multiple prison-kills. Ironically, he is tied up right next to the crying man. "I like quiet," the tattooed man says.
The man directly next to me on the right, he isn't really my type. His features are youthful and feminine in a way that makes him resemble a boyish Peter Pan. But he's smiling at me through the spices and trimmings shoved into his mouth; undeterred by them he manages a nice, soft look.
Since we're about to be eaten, I lower my standards and choose to be bold.
"I love you," I say. It's coming from a good-pretend place. I just want to pack as much into these last few moments as I can.
Yet when I watch the impact my words have on his face, the effect is very real. Maybe, I figure, since we are all cooking towards the finish line, things are kind of fast-forwarding. Maybe what I'd just said could actually be true.
And then it is. Seconds pass and love for him grows suddenly, like ice crystals or sea monkeys, all over my body.
We stare at one another and he scoots towards me as much as our fetters will allow, enough that our fingertips can touch. "I love you too," he says. "If we weren't tied up, I'd give you the softest kiss you've ever felt in your life, right on your steamy lips."
From the corner of my eye, I notice the tattooed man, who up until this point hasn't been very chatty, is suddenly showing variegated upper teeth. His lips pull back wide in order to verbalize the list of things he would do to me, were we not tied up. They are not romantic or legal.
"You're a monster," my lover says to him. "The rest of us shouldn't have to boil in your juices."
"Uh-huh," agrees Elvis.
"We're dying just like this criminal," weeps the crying man. "It isn't fair."
Suddenly the old man raises his head. A drop of yellow broth falls from his chin.
"Amanda," he rasps, then his eyes roll back and his head falls down. I smile.
"That's my name!" Glee fills me though I don't know why. "He just spoke my name," I tell my new lover, whose fingertips squeeze my own.
"Amanda." My lover whispers my name into the hot mist.
"What if it's some kind of death list," the crying man snivels. "What if that old codger has been here for ages, been in pots with hundreds of people who've all been eaten, but he always gets left behind because he's so old. It would drive a person crazy. It might make him repeat over and over again the names of people he's had to watch die in a halfhearted attempt to bring them back." After pondering this, the crying man lets out a long, shrill sob that is chirp-like. It reminds me of a parakeet I had when I was young. I try to remember its name.
"Dan," the old man says.
"That's my name," my lover laughs, bouncing a little in the water. "He just said our names back-to-back. It's like our love planted them in his head!"
The tattooed man makes a gagging noise.
For fun, I ask everyone to please mouth his name, just to see if the old man will say it next. I encourage them to hurry up and do it while the old man's head is flaccid beneath a layer of broth.
"Hector," whimpers the crying man.
"Sam," sings Elvis.
"Fuck off," mutters the tattooed man.
Dan and I watch the old man with anticipation. Finally his aged face surfaces, and he gums the taste of the broth droplets on his cheeks before saying "Lancelot."
"See," my lover coos. "Our names before; it was magic."
I want this moment to stay. I want it to multiply on and on with the unnatural growth of things just before death, speeding off the pure fat of life's last moments. I want the feeling of our brushing fingertips to breed like cancerous cells.
When the steel door opens, even the old man sits up and blinks his wet lashes. A chef walks in sharpening a long knife against a stone. "Who first?" he barks. We're all silent, though I think I hear the old man whisper "Daisy."
"Alright then." The chef points his knife at me and moves it a little like he's writing his name in the air. "I'll take you, since you're the meatiest."
I give my lover a farewell glance but suddenly his screams fill the room. "No!" he cries, thrashing madly and fish-like. "Take me in her place. Please, I beg you, make her the very last one."
"Okay," agrees the chef. But first he twirls his knife at me a little more, like he's casting a spell, just so I know who's in charge.
Two men wearing long oven gloves come over and cut my lover's ropes. He stretches his lips out to kiss me, but is too soon pulled away and carried from the room like a ladder—one man at his shoulders, one man at his feet. "Please," he begs, "one kiss," but the two men aren't as permissive as the cook. They possibly do not speak English, or any language.
"That was so beautiful," sobs the crying man. "Such love."
Despite my grief, I try to live in the moment. "Do you sing?" I ask Elvis-Sam.
"There's a moon out, tonight," he croons. The garlic cloves really muffle his vibrato.
When the chef and his goons reenter, the tattooed man speaks up.
"Take me," he says, "I hate these people."
So they take him. As he's pulled from the water, we see that he also has a tattoo on his arm that reads, MOTHER. This makes Crying-Hector cry even harder. "I should've called my mother more," he laments. "Told her I love her and appreciate her cooking."
"This one's for Mother," says Elvis-Sam. He begins singing again. "You are the sunshine of my life."
Crying-Hector's sobs are uncontrollable. His emotion touches me. I watch the ripples in the broth move from his torso over to mine, lapping at my stomach like a soft current. "It will be okay, Hector," I assure him. I want to extend my foot across our little bullion pond and wipe his tears with my brothy toes, but my legs are bound together at the ankles.
When the door opens, four men, increasingly sour from the first to the fourth, enter with the chef. "I need two," he orders. The men grab Elvis-Sam and Crying-Hector, who continue singing and weeping respectively as they are carried away.
Alone with the old man it is very quiet, and I realize how loud the boiling noises have become. He lifts his head and says, "Heidi."
I knew a Heidi once. From ballet class in high school. I imagine being taken from the kettle and laid onto a silver platter next to a giant cake, and on top of that cake is Heidi, posed in a graceful pirouette.
When they lift the old man from the broth, I'm surprised to see he is missing a leg. I wonder if he arrived with it missing, or if they'd eaten his leg and then put him back.
With the others all gone, the boiling bubbles feel far more scalding than before. I am bad at science and uncertain if before we had all somehow shared the heat but now I alone bear its brunt. It seems so. I miss my lover, and my willingness to suffer perhaps makes the broth feel hotter as well.
As the footsteps come, I wonder if there will be anything after death. Perhaps Dan will be waiting for me on the other side and our new and budding love will be allowed to blossom from the beyond. Then, although morbid, I try to prepare myself for what it will feel like when they cut me up. "There are worse ways to die," I tell myself, "than being boiled then sliced with a knife." But it takes me awhile to think of one.
Finally I imagine being carried out the door to a table where all five of my kettle-mates are waiting, forks and knives in their hands, skins still pink from the boiling broth. I imagine Dan saying he has dibs on my heart, and the others laughing; Elvis singing "Goodnight, sweetheart," as my carving starts and I lose consciousness to the sounds of battling forks and knives. This daydream dampens the horror of my fate like a bowl placed over a candle. You can bear anything, I tell myself, if you know you're not alone, and the cold air stings my cooked skin as the men lift me into their arms. Their fingers are strong with knowledge; I'm only going where the others have already been.CHAPTER 2
My best friend Garla is a model from somewhere Swedishy; if you try to pin down where, like what town, or if actually Sweden, she just yells, "Vodka," or if she's in a better mood, "Vodka, you know?" which seems like she's maybe saying she's Russian, but really she just wants to drink. Garla hates particulars, and is actually able to avoid them because where she actually lives is model-land. I wish I lived in model-land too, but the closest I can come to that is hanging out with Garla, which is like going on vacation to a model-land timeshare.
We met at a party in Chelsea that I pond-skipped to. I definitely wasn't invited. I'd gone with a real friend to a not-so-hot party, and then left with her friend to go to a better party where I met someone new who took me to a quite hot party. It was there that I made out with the photographer who took me to the party of Garla. She wasn't hosting it but she was present, and anywhere Garla goes is Garla's party.
I think the only reason I ever saw Garla again was because I was drunk enough to tell her the truth. She was trying on bizarre clothes—there was a shroud that looked fiercely spacelike yet medical, like a gown one might wear to get a pap smear on Mars. Then Garla put on a dress whose pleating created the suggestion of a displaced goiter somewhere to the left of her neck and she sashayed towards me. I was holding my head onto my body, carefully and by the window, so that its breeze might sober me up enough to walk to the end of the room where I might then become sober enough to walk to the toilet and land on the floor. There, hopefully, the pressure from my cheek against my cell phone could call someone who knew me and liked me and wanted to get me a cab and make sure this night was not where my life's journey would end. But for all I knew it was, and when I saw Garla I held on to my head just a little bit tighter, because she appeared to be strutting over to grab it and rip it off.
"You," she said, and I straightened up grammar-school style. I puked in my mouth but absolutely did not open my lips and let it fall on the floor. "Do you like this?" She did a turn that was so beautiful and practiced and impossible but to Garla was something that accidentally slipped out of her like a tiny fart.
"It makes you look like you're pregnant in the back," I said, and used the nose of my beer bottle to itch the middle of my back where the seam of her dress magically globed out. She scowled and pranced off. I assumed she was offended until she brought over a silver-plated bowl filled with the car keys of various guests.
"Use for vomit," she said, and then, "have phone," and slipped a miniature crystallized computer-wallet into my purse. I think at that point two large, gray wolfhounds walked up to either side of her and the three of them then headed towards the kitchen. "You love dogs and have a tendency to hallucinate them," I told myself as I stumbled towards the bathroom. Various refined guests were staring at me with horror as I pawed around Helen Keller-style, groping everything in sight to stabilize my journey into a small room housing cold linoleum and a sink. "Why am I always the nerd at the party?" I thought. "I am in my thirties and by now I should at least know how to pretend."
The thing about bathrooms in parties is they don't always stay bathrooms; they start out as such but then become make-out rooms or coke rooms or shower-bubble-madness rooms. When I burst through the door holding my abdomen, a slight and waify couple seemed to be using it as a get-to know-one-another room; they were drinking very red wine, sitting on the side of the bathtub and giggling, drawing simple pictures with fingertips of wine onto the white tile. The "braap" sound I made while becoming sick intrigued them a little bit. They were children nearly, perhaps nineteen. I could feel them looking at me with something real and concentrated. I don't think it was pity as much as curiosity; they seemed to wonder very much what it might be like to be so uncomposed. "I don't get when people use puking in art," said the boy, and the girl said, "Well it's not like that, when they do," meaning not like me but like Garla throwing up pink paint onto a teal ceramic raccoon.
"I need a cab," I mumbled, and the boy was sympathetic but firm.
"I won't touch you," he told me.
"Of course not," I said, "Heavens no. Just call one and I'll get myself down to the door."
It took a great while to do this. At some point I wondered if I should try to find Garla and give her the phone back, but then I saw a great flash and there she was, the camera's light bouncing off her translucent thigh, her foot inside the host's tropical aquarium. Everyone wanted a shot of her leather bondage shoe surrounded by fake coral: people were holding up cell phones and professional equipment and thin digital cameras, "Tickle fish," Garla was saying to everyone, and there was simply no way I could have that amount of attention suddenly focus over to my own body, even if I was waving a phone that belonged to the darling of their affections. I was like a turd inside someone who'd accidentally swallowed an engagement ring: I was nothing, yet I carried something uniquely special.
I fell easily down the stairs and by the time I was able to stand, to my great surprise, a cab had come. "Thank you," I called up to the beautiful children in the bathroom, but it was a gurgle and I knew they weren't listening.
I kept the phone on my desk for several days wondering what to do about it. There was something wrong with the phone; it didn't ring. Garla's phone would ring, wouldn't it?
It didn't ring until the fourth day.
"Hi Womun." It was Garla. I began explaining how I'd meant to give it back, etc., but she stopped me quite quickly, "It your phone for me. I call you with it," she said, to which I could've said a lot of things, like how I already have a phone, or that I was very afraid of getting killed for this jewel-phone, should someone see me talking on it in my neighborhood, because I don't have a lot of money and neither does anyone else who lives here, but oftentimes people badly need money, for personal reasons, and desperate times/desperate measures.
"I get you for fashion show," she said, "tonight at the seven-thirty."
Out of some type of pride I wanted to make sure that she didn't mean I would be in the fashion show, that it wasn't an ironic thing where the beautifuls each try to snag themselves an ugly, and whoever snags the ugliest ugly and dresses it up is the winner. "You mean go watch one with you?" I asked, and she said "Ha," then lit a cigarette and said, "Ha. Ha. I mean this," and told me where to meet her.
Since that night my life has changed in a myriad of ways. I'm still no one, unless I am with Garla, and then I become With Garla, a new and exciting identity that makes nearly everything possible, except being a model myself. And except being someone when I am not with Garla.
Excerpted from Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting. Copyright © 2012 Alissa Nutting. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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