Check out some books and authors discussed in this episode:
Dungeons and Dragons novels: The Companions / Elminster: The Making of a Mage / Dark Sun: Ianto’s Tomb
Shadowrun novels: Never Deal With a Dragon / 2XS / Conan the Barbarian
Jack Kerouac: On the Road / The Dharma Bums / Big Sur
Charles Bukowski: Post Office / Ham on Rye / Women
Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Grey / The Importance of Being Earnest / An Ideal Husband
Nicky Finney: Head Off & Split / The World is Round / Rice
Various: Stories from the Twilight Zone
Slow Day at the S. A.
At first the two girls had considered using a paperclip. They found one while rummaging underneath the cash register’s drawer, but when they straightened it out it didn’t look sharp enough to work. Its point was flat, and there was the fear that it might suddenly bend at an awkward angle when they tried to push it through. Next they had thought that a thumb tack they had pulled from a cork board in back might do the job, but it was only a stubby point far too short for the task at hand. Later in the morning they debated using a ten-penny nail they had found in a tool kit neither of them could remember seeing before, but decided that the hole it would leave might take days to close. Finally, Kayla found a long hatpin stuck in the lapel of a stiff cotton nurse’s uniform and both girls decided it was the best they could do.
“This will do nicely,” Kayla said, as she held the end of the hatpin to the flame of her cigarette lighter to sterilize it.
Both knew it was important to use something sharp. The night before Rachel’s brother David had told them a story about a kid he knew named Jackson. They had made the mistake of mentioning their project to him on the back porch when his stories of college hazing died down. He had told it like a campfire story which gave the girls the impression that he was trying to scare them. For his part, David had considered it a warning and told it only in the hope that it would take the thrill out of their plan.
David described Jackson as a real emo wreck, the kind of kid who worked hard to look as if he was always on the brink of tears. The two had met at a summer camp held at a local state university for gifted and talented high school students. For the first month Jackson never said a word to anyone, and spent most of his time alone in their bare dorm room mulling over French poetry. He was working on a paper about Rilke or some other mopey poet for college credit.
Halfway through their program Jackson had become obsessed with “new tribalism,” and David was sure it was because of a girl. He stretched out his ear lobes until they held obsidian rings the size of quarters. He branded his arms with a lighter and coat hanger as research for the essays he was writing about scarification. The program heads wanted to send him home, but somehow he got a paper accepted to a conference in the city so they turned the other cheek and began to encourage him. David had stopped in the telling at that point to lend room for a dramatic pause.
So after he had lifted welts on his arms and stretched out his ears to the point of needing cosmetic surgery, David explained, Jackson got into piercing. He put a bone through the septum of his nose. No matter what he did, the graduate students working with them thought it was interesting and profound. That is until the chicken bone incident.
With space to pierce at a minimum, Jackson had tried to push a chicken bone through the loose skin at the bottom of his neck. The problem was that it wasn’t sharp enough, or that it was too flimsy, David wasn’t sure which. Regardless, the end result was that the bone snapped in two and came close to putting a hole in his trachea. They had to take him to the hospital, and the program heads had to explain to his parents that they didn’t stop him because they saw value in his journey. “That’s what they called it,” David had explained with amazement showing in his eyes, “His journey.”
“So what happened to the girl?” Kayla had asked between bubble gum pops.
“What girl?” David responded.
“You said he did it for a girl.”
“I don’t know if there ever was one,” David said. “Maybe he was just hoping. Besides, you’re missing the point.”
After the hatpin cooled, Kayla went to the bathroom to retrieve a first-aid kit that was lying under a stack of Cosmopolitan magazines next to the sink. When she found it, she skipped back to the front counter and flipped it open like a magician opening a mystery chest. She had hoped to find everything one would need for home surgery, but frowned when the white aluminum case revealed only a half-full bottle of rubbing alcohol, two cotton swabs, and a few elastic bandages. She looked at Rachel leaning on her elbows from the other side of the counter, and gave a smile.
“Looks like we will have to make do,” Kayla said.
There was no one in the second hand store, which gave the two girls all the time they needed. Sundays were the slowest days of the week so they were the best days to work. Without customers the second-hand store became their clubhouse. They would eat tofu hot dogs Kayla brought from home next to the register, and drink green tea out of bottles decorated with Aztec designs which her mother bought by the case. When their conversation died down they would dress in uniforms that had been donated and pretend to rescue one another. If no firefighter or mall security shirts had come in that week, they would have trashy fashion shows to amuse themselves, strutting up and down the long scuff-marked isles wearing prom dresses and wedding gowns which had long since served their purpose and been abandoned in the name of spring cleaning.
Cow bells hung from the front door and if they rang out a warning the girls would race back to the storeroom laughing until they couldn’t breathe. Then whichever one could compose themself first would walk out front and ask the customer, “Can I help you?” It was a game, running from invading customers dressed in sheriff deputy shirts that hung to their knees, but today was different. Today was serious.
“Are you ready,” Kayla asked, her hand reaching out for Rachel’s.
“Of course,” Rachel said, noticing Kayla’s manicure which today had tiny green butterflies floating against the purple painted field of each nail. The girls walked hand in hand to the back storeroom, which was cluttered with shipping boxes and plastic garbage bags filled with ratty undershirts, to begin.
Sitting on a bag full of packing peanuts, Rachel slid her skinny jeans down to her knees and leaned back onto the makeshift beanbag chair. The vent in the duct work above her blew cold air onto her face and rumbled like a milkshake machine. Looking down at her pale legs, she watched blue veins line across her thighs they way they do on the back of an old lady’s hand, and wondered if someone bleeds less when they are cold. Kayla stood in front of her, stripping the packaging tape off of boxes before throwing windbreakers and suit coats to the floor.
“Are you trying to make me nervous?” Rachel asked.
“No, wait. Here,” Kayla said, pulling out a pair of dungarees with the knees worn through. “I want to test it first.” With the jeans in hand, she folded one of the legs into a thick denim target. Then she thrust the hatpin in to it and pulled it out quickly. “I want to make sure it’s sharp enough. It has to go straight through.”
“We forgot something,” Rachel said as she pulled her jeans back to her hips. A knowing look came across Kayla’s face, and she followed her friend back out front.
The girls walked to the front of the store singing a song neither of them could remember all the words to. At the front of the store they squatted down behind the long wooden counter, out of sight of the windows and the people on the street, next to a locked metal cabinet. Kayla took a key the color of old pennies from the cash drawer and opened the door to the cabinet. At the count of three both girls pulled on the cabinet’s handle until it slowly swung open with a musty sigh.
The steel shelves inside the cabinet where stacked with boxes that could have once held baseball cards. At one time they had been white, but in the stale sunless air of the cabinet they had become a tainted pale yellow. The end of each box was marked with a permanent marker so that it was possible to know what was inside each without opening every one. The girls pulled out each box marked “Jewelry,” and eased the door shut again.
Kayla sat cross-legged on the tile floor and opened the first box as Rachel scooted on her knees beside her to see what was inside. “Now you can’t leave this in too long or it will turn you green. They’re all fakes.”
“Then why do they keep it locked up?” Rachel asked.
“I don’t know,” Kayla said, “Maybe some of them are real. I don’t think they know one way or the other. They won’t miss just one any way.”
Kayla leafed through the plastic bags inside the box with a frown. The rubber jelly bracelets and glass beaded necklaces were not what she expected to find and were completely wrong for the job.
“This box is a waste of time,” she said. “Open the one over there.”
Rachel picked up the box that had been pointed out and found much the same thing. Gaudy necklaces coiled around each other like pink and peach colored sea snakes. Rings the size of drink coasters fell to the floor, their polished imitation semi-precious stones shaking lose from where they had been set. Parts of wristwatches, mish-mashed together like Erector Sets, scattered like dice. “This is hopeless,” she said. “They should keep this junk in plastic eggs instead of baggies. They belong in claw machines.”
“Don’t be sad,” Kayla said. “I think I found just the thing.”
Hunched over a new box that sat on her lap, Kayla pulled out a pair of earrings that dangled from her hand to the floor. “How about these?” she said.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Rachel replied as she watched the sunlight move from the windows above them down onto Kayla’s new highlights before finding the crystal in the earrings she held.
“Just kidding,” Kayla replied as she rolled her eyes, and it seemed to Rachel that Kayla could never tell when she was joking. Whenever she tried to be sarcastic or funny, her friend would yawn or get serious as if she was never sure how to take her, as if she had the same distance that her older brother had, the one which made her feel young and silly. It was this dead zone of experience Rachel worked so hard to cross, to prove to her friend that although she didn’t have the benefit of a Prozac mother who didn’t care what her daughter did, she could still surprise her.
“How about these?” Kayla asked, holding up a pair of stud earrings. She had an air of boredom in her voice. It was a tone Rachel had heard many times before from Kayla’s mother. Rachel had gone shopping with the two of them in the past and seen her mother use the same dissatisfied tone when modeling skirts or push-up bras. It was a voice that let you know the things you were doing, which should be enjoyable, were becoming a chore. Rachel had wondered why Kayla even bothered to shop with her mother since it always devolved into tedious plodding from store to store with bitterness brewing out of sight, but she realized it must have been the only time the two of them spent together. All Kayla’s stories involving her mother occurred at a mall, a salon, a cruise. Kayla had told her once that her mother liked having her around because she was still young, but it also had the terrible side effect of reminding her mother that she was not. “It’s not so bad,” Kayla had said. “Everything with my mother is a terrible side effect.”
Rachel took the earrings in the palm of her hand then lifted them into the sunlight. “No. Studs won’t work,” she said. “We need a hoop. Not too big though.”
“Like this,” Kayla asked with a simple hoop earring in her hand. “We only need one.”
The girls agreed and made their way back to the storeroom with only a quick glance over their shoulders to make sure that the bells hanging from the front door were still in place. For now they were safe.
In the storeroom the girls lifted cardboard boxes filled with work pants and baby clothes off a Smurf blue sofa that had seen better days. They stacked the boxes on top of one another around the sofa until they had made a wall which gave them the privacy the job required.
With the sofa ready, the two girls explored the furniture that waited to be moved to the front, grabbing every lamp they could find. They plugged each lamp into the wall until they found three with good bulbs which they moved to the top of the cardboard wall by the sofa. A desk lamp lit up followed by a standing floor lamp and a pot-bellied aqua marine table lamp until the sofa was awash in fluorescent light. Unfortunately the sofa belonged in a dim room as the light bulbs burning above it only accentuated every cigarette burn and unidentifiable food stain left behind by its previous owner.
“Gross,” Kayla said. “We need sheets.”
From shipping boxes marked “Bedding” the girls pulled baby blankets out onto the floor. They searched through rust-colored sheets and bleach-spotted flannel ones until they found a set that was snow white. These they draped over the couch which gave it a better, if less than clinical, appearance. “Perfect,” Rachel said. With their operating room complete, the two girls turned their attention to the instruments at hand.
Kayla took the initiative to insure that everything was sterilized before they began. From the houseware isle she took a cut-glass punch bowl and brought it to the back along with the bottle of the first-aid kit. She then rested the punch bowl on the floor and emptied the bottle of rubbing alcohol into it before dropping in both the hatpin and the earring.
“Now at least you won’t end up like Caitlyn did,” she said looking up at her friend who nodded. Caitlyn was a girl the two had known in middle school. Her strict religious mother had banned her from getting her ears pierced, so she had done it herself one night at a sleepover with a sewing needle. Unfortunately for her she hadn’t known to clean the needle, or was in too much of a hurry to consider things like that, and ended up with a fungus which turned her ears the color of orange creamsickles for almost a year.
“What ever happened to her?” Rachel asked as she stood.
“Who knows?” Kayla answered. “Let’s just let this sit for awhile.”
As she looked down at the pin spinning in the punch bowl, for the first time Rachel took in the fact that this was no longer a game. She had liked the idea, but wondered what the reality of it might bring. Steadying herself she resolved to go through with it, fearing that she would never live it down if she changed her mind. She would remain two steps behind everyone she knew for the rest of her life, and she would not let that happen. For once she would be the first, and girls like Kayla would have to follow her lead.
“I’m ready,” Rachel said. “I just want to go to the bathroom first in case.” Her friend nodded toward her from the floor where she spun the bowl around to watch the pin dance.
While Rachel sat in the bathroom she read the same issues of Teen People that she had a dozen times before. The shiny new feel was gone from the pages, replaced by creases and crude comments about the super thin models Kayla had written in the borders. The things Kayla had written in magazines had made her laugh before, but now only added to her anxiety. Was she doing this to be a friend or just to see what it will be like? Will she make me one of her horror stories, and hate me afterwards for being the first? No answers seemed to visit as she washed her hands in the sink and prepared for what was to come.
In the store outside, Kayla pulled a V-neck nurse’s smock patterned with hurt teddy bears over her tank top. The girls laughed as she was the first nurse either of them had ever seen with a nose ring.
“What do you think?” Kayla said as she mimed dusting the shoulders of her new uniform.
“That will do,” Rachel answered.
Since no one had bothered to visit the store all day the girls got brave. Standing on a step stool Kayla turned off the radio playing good times oldies and pushed in a mix tape she had gotten from a boy she was secretly dating who was in a college band. The boy who Rachel had never met was further proof to her that Kayla was far more advanced in life than herself. When the tape started to play Kayla turned the volume up as loud as it would go until it was nearly impossible for either girl to think.
“It sounds like a trashcan falling down a stairwell!” Rachel shouted as she covered her ears.
“Noise rock!” Kayla yelled back as she jumped around. “Don’t you know about it?”
After a minute the music became too much to bear for Rachel. She shut the power off with a sigh of relief then offered her hand toward her friend.
“It’s time,” Rachel said.
“This way,” Kayla answered with her arms around her friend still playing nurse. “I’ve been expecting you.”
In the storeroom the instruments were laid out on a clean white t-shirt that had a Red Cross emblem sewn onto the pocket. The hat pin sat next to a wash cloth and the earring which shined like new. Rachel took her place on the couch as her friend fished around in the pockets of her jeans for a treat.
“Take these first,” she says handing two robin egg blue pills to Rachel. “They always help my mother relax.” Rachel swallowed the pills dry and tried to relax herself into the cushions. Reclined on the couch with her eyes closed she could only hear the sound of her pulse and the rustling of her jeans moving down her legs.
Kayla became more of a nurse as she watched her friend’s chest rise and fall in steady rhythm of someone searching for peace. She adjusted the lights positioned above, and pulled on opera gloves she had found which would have to take the place of latex surgical ones for the day.
“Before we do this,” Rachel said, “I want to make sure I will be the first.”
“You will be,” Kayla answered, the tone in her voice softening. “I promise.” The girls discussed everyone at their school who had their belly buttons pierced, every person with a lip ring or surgical steel ball sticking out of their cheek, until they were satisfied that it was true.
“You need to take those off,” Kayla whispered as she pointed toward her friends panties. They said “Wednesday,” but she warned her a long time ago that no one was ever supposed to wear them on the right day.
“You’re right,” Rachel answered, then stopped with a new idea offering salvation. “What if we did my boob instead?”
“In Jamaica my sister says it costs almost two-hundred dollars to get your boobs pierced and that doesn’t include tip,” Kayla said. “You have to tip for everything there, even toilet paper.”
“We’re not in Jamaica,” Rachel said.
“OK, but a junior girl got hers done last week. I heard her mom signed and everything. Plus you don’t want to end up like Hunter.”
“What happened to Hunter?” Rachel asked.
“Well,” Kayla said scooting closer. “I’ll tell you.” Rachel watched her friend’s eyes turn white as grains of minute rice and her cheeks begin to glow as if she had a mouth full of juicy fruit. It was the look of pure delight she had every time she began one of her suburban horror stories.
“Hunter pierced his own nipple, but he went too deep or something,” she began. “It always got infected so he had to take it out. When he took it out it left this BB of scar tissue that looked like a third nipple, right? Well, one night he was picking at it when he was really high and it came off, but there was this string attached. He sat and flipped the string for awhile but it wouldn’t come off so he cut it. The next day he woke up in the hospital. It wasn’t a string after all, but some nerve that attached to his heart. He had a heart attack right? No lie.” Kayla smiled wider as she placed the white cotton “Wednesday” on the floor. Then she picked up the pin. “Try to relax.”
There was no way to get comfortable on the couch as every way Rachel moved pushed her back into a different spring or into the wooden frame. With the help of her friend, she lifted her right leg into position on the arm rest and began to breathe the way she was taught to in yoga class. Both girls fell silent as the echo of focused inhalations and exhalations filled the room.
Opera gloves moved onto Rachel’s thighs as the veins in her legs turned blue as ice packs, and the feeling of swallowing a snowball ran down the center of her body.
“Hold it.” Kayla whispered to the sound of her friend pushing the air out of her lungs. “Hold it.”
When the pin entered her, the snowball inside Rachel boiled away as her body became electrified. The moment had passed, and she had passed the test. From the floor Kayla stared at her friend with glassy jealous eyes.
“Promise not to tell,” Rachel asked when she could speak again.
“Of course,” Kayla answered. “See how much I love you.”
The two girls hugged one another as the bells from the front door rang out.
Michael Wayne Hampton is the author of three books. His criticism, essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous publications such as Atticus Review, The Southeast Review, 3AM Magazine, and Fiction Southeast.
In 2013 he won The Deerbird Novella Prize, and in 2012 his work was nominated for Best American Short Stories. In the past he has been a semi-finalist for the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, and a two-time Finalist for the World’s Best Short Short Story Contest. In 2014, he was awarded an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award.