How It Works
How It Works
A Short Story by Michael Kiggins
Trigger discipline only anticipates the final twitch.
It’s distrusting soap. Does it truly disinfect, or is that just ad-copy? You understand how it’s supposed to work, and not even you can deny its smell, that odor so crisp and so closely paired with the very idea of cleanliness. Still, you have to wash your hands with scalding water at least three times after shaking someone’s hand or ten times after rising from the toilet. As it does with the venal and mortal, your mind levels all distinctions: If a sin’s a sin, then a contaminant’s a contaminant.
It’s accepting that your hands have aged much more than your twenty-six-odd years of life. It’s hearing from strangers, “Just looking at yours makes mine hurt.” Not that you can blame them. Most days, the skin between your fingers readily flakes off, and your knuckles are crisscrossed by fault lines that resemble sun-baked mud and sting when, in those pinches, you’re forced to resort to hand sanitizer.
It’s reassuring those who ask: no, no, no, your compulsion isn’t a value judgment. How could you politely explain that it is a condemnation—sometimes subtle, sometimes not—just one that lacks consistent, predictable snares and is almost never based in reality. Regardless, the whole process seems much too simple: Wet, lather, and repeat for the time it takes to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Clean? Hardly.
It was nearing dawn on a Saturday in May 2003. For those of us who were still drunk, it was the dregs of another Friday night in Memphis, long after I’d clocked out washing dishes at Café d’Esyal.
I’d forced myself to go clubbing with my roommate Chris and a friend of his.
When Chris introduced us, he said, “Bry, this is Stefano Malatesta, but he prefers to be called ‘Stephen’ because of the daytime-programming implications, or some such shit. Me, I just ignore the precious.”
Me, I couldn’t.
We’d finally wound up at a dive club called Ntropé, where we loitered until five a.m. The club was nestled in a gully behind the Forest Hill Dairy plant on Madison and didn’t close till a quarter-to-five, with a wink to the M.P.D. that they stopped serving at a quarter-to-three. While it had an “entertaining” drag show—one performer was deaf and never quite lip-synced in time with the lyrics; another frequently answered hecklers with, “You are ka-rashing my T-cells! You want me to die so I can’t kill?”—its real draw was how, whether on the dance floor, the patio, or in the dimly lit side hallway, you could find whichever party favors you desired.
Until the harsh fluorescent lights were flipped on and the desperate fled to the sidewalk sale, we’d danced, drinking from red Solo cups, illegally filled and re-filled with cheap draft beer. Tonight’s vintage was Icehouse. It could have been worse, I suppose, but not by much.
I catalogued itches to scratch later and kept my hands away from anything vital. Drunken systematic desensitization, sure, but it was still a step forward.
Fifteen minutes after leaving Ntropé we were sipping coffee in a window booth at the Midtown CK’s, hoping that would return us to a little bit of order. Chris had stretched his legs across one half of the booth, forcing Stefano and me to share the other side.
Across Poplar Avenue, Sputnik revolved. It was erected in 1962, and while it had been advertised with much fanfare, over the following decades rusted stasis supplanted its neon dynamism.
The proprietors of the liquor store had restored the landmark four years ago. On an atypically cold but typically drizzly May afternoon, a sizable crowd had gathered, waiting to see Sputnik unveiled. Once more it was a glittering, mobile diadem, with a shiny red orb and pyramidal thorns illuminated by neon strips of blue, green, purple, red, white and yellow.
There are sixteen thorns total, eight per hemisphere, arrayed in a starburst pattern: half near each pole; half near the equator. Both hemispheres revolve in a counterclockwise fashion, while the whole globe, if viewed from above, spins clockwise. Bright, giving swift chase, the thorns always appear like they are about to collide, but they don’t. They can’t. They can never touch one another.
Sober, it’s kitsch. Drunk, it’s confusing. Tripping, it’s entrancing. Regardless, it’s beautiful. Right then, it was disorienting.
When the lazy-eyed waitress finished taking our orders, I closed my eyes and listened to her polyester-clad thighs brushing against one another. Between this, the bacon and eggs sizzling on the range, and the clinking of silverware on plates, I was beginning to zone out. Until an SUV rumbled to a halt in the parking space nearest our window booth with its brights on.
As the engine revved, a guy fell out of the rear passenger-side door, his feet and palms hitting the asphalt almost simultaneously. He stood slowly, brushed his hands off, then staggered to the corner of the building just past the window on Chris’ half of the booth.
“Nice,” Chris exhaled, craning his neck to look. “The cap-and-khakis creep sure is.”
While Creep shook off and zipped up, his three friends exited the SUV. All four wore nearly identical outfits, and they were drunker (or at least much louder) than us. The creep looked the sloppiest of the four, his white button-down half-undone and untucked on the left side. His ball cap’s fraying bill was a sloppy triangle, he’d shaped it that much. The hair curling from beneath the sides and back of the creep’s cap was as bright orange as mine, our faces equally scattershot with freckles.
Me-Creep, I grinned.
Two of the quartet sat a few booths behind Stefano and me.
One went to the jukebox, fed it quarters between leers. Credence Clearwater Revival’s cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” started playing on the jukebox. Subtlety. None of us, least of all me, was expecting that.
The fourth, Me-Creep, elbowed up to the counter by the cash register and distracted the waitress: “So, darlin’, how long you been slinging grits?”
She handed a few orders to the cook without looking.
“You wouldn’t tell me to kiss them, would you?”
God help me, I wondered, what are grits a euphemism for?
Returning my attention to our table, I observed, “You know you need to find a sponsor when…”
“Ever you wake up,” Chris laughed, then yawned, stretching his arms above his head. “Was that out loud? Sorry. Back on task. She’s not even a Monet. More like a Francis Bacon.”
Stefano opined, “When I was in a frat, we’d call that a case of Helen-Keller-beer-goggles.”
“Wait! What?” Chris raised his hands and spread his fingers. “Frat boys can pun!”
One of the women in the booth behind Chris was scarfing down a hamburger while pontificating, “If he’s wearing one of ’em stupid-ass buckles and ain’t riding in the PBR, he won’t be worth that less’n eight seconds he’s bound to last.”
“Me,” her friend laughed, “I always heard they’s tombstones for dead dicks.”
“Pardon me?” I asked.
“Par-done?” the first woman turned around, tilting her head and burping with her mouth mostly closed.
“What about guys who don’t wear belts or opt for suspenders?”
Her forehead wrinkled. “Next thing you know, you’ll be asking me about real ties and bow ties.” She took another bite out of her burger.
“As if you,” Chris exhaled toward the window, “are so upwardly mobile.”
“Really, though,” her voice rose, “why do you wanna know?”
She, her friend, and the caps-and-khakis chuckled.
Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” started blaring.
When the song reached its chorus, the caps-and-khakis Karaoked the lyrics, bourboned drawls flailing for a harmony. Everybody in the diner laughed.
My laugh was too loud; I just didn’t realize it yet. “I need to piss,” I said, sliding out of the booth.
“And, Bry,” Chris tapped his cigarette against the ashtray, “we’d thank you not to pressure wash the masonry.”
Later that same Saturday, Stefano treated me to a matinee at the Highland Quartet. Afterwards, he took a right onto Southern Avenue, heading toward Midtown. There was a car wash just past the Circle K at the corner. The sight of people cleaning their cars made me nervous. More accurately, I made myself.
I barely heard him talking about the movie—“I thought the plot was pregnant. What? The damn, she’s-a-gonna-blow! Now, audience, wait forty minutes for that water to break”—as focused on the car wash as I was. The same had been done to every car in which I’d ridden shotgun, including this one. Family and friends had used the same vacuum hoses on floor-mats as they did seats, not washing their hands after picking up the mats, oblivious to the filth they’d tracked in from who knows how many public restrooms, and spreading that filth onto every surface they touched. And I’d opened passenger-side doors, rolled down windows, fastened seat belts, changed radio stations then touched my face without suffering any prominent infections or blistering sores that wept for days. More precisely, none of either that I could clearly backtrack.
All I’d ever caught was a free ride. One might think that would be enough to make me stop, to wake me up, but it wasn't, isn’t, will never be. Instead, the inconsistency only makes me feel lucky, justified.
As Stefano turned right onto East Parkway, he asked, “You feel like hitting ’Broso?”
Cocina Sabroso was an unearned mainstay at Cooper-Young that served overpriced Tex-Mex and bland margaritas. Like the matinee, though, it was an opportunity. “It’s late for lunch,” I said, drumming my fingers on my thighs, “but I’m sure I could eat something to balance out a Margarita.”
Because the restaurant was busy, we got seated at a wobbly two-top in the enclosed alley-patio between it and Young Avenue Deli. The shade trees were sparse, the afternoon sun was harsh, and the Chipping Sparrows were dive-bombers for every wayward crumb.
Stefano found our waiter, Drew, attractive. But Drew was too nervous for my tastes, like this was his first day serving and he desperately needed weed killer. The other waiter covering the patio was better looking, with a light brown high-and-tight, prominent brow, square jaw, and thick, hairy forearms.
Sipping my water, I watched the second waiter maneuver between tables, checking on his guests. By the time I glanced back at Stefano, I’d emptied my glass.
After Drew had taken our orders, I said, “That’s something I just hate.”
I ignored him. “People whose names are past-tense verbs—”
“Suffix. Prefix.” Stefano interrupted.
“—like their identities are actions already completed,” I continued.
“Maybe, but I knew a guy in middle school named Drew. Just that. It wasn’t short for anything. And as much as he liked comics, he couldn’t draw, which was disappointing. Always wanted to ask him, ‘Why can’t you?’”
“I grew up with a guy whose legal first and middle names were Ricky Jack, not Richard John. Think he’s serving five-to-seven now.”
I laughed, trying to mirror Stefano. “Sounds like that curse: christen your kid ‘Blank-Wayne-Blank,’ and he’ll grow up to be a serial killer.”
“With a first name like Blank, who wouldn't? So,” Stefano chuckled, “what were you saying?”
“Just that when I think about it, regardless of tense, people whose names are verbs annoy me.” I sampled my margarita. “Besides little Drew here, I’ve known a Chase, a Chip, a Park, a Trip. The people didn’t annoy me. I mean, some did, sure, but changing verbs to proper names seems such a cruel thing to do to one’s child.”
“And,” Stefano winked, “we shan’t ever speak of gerunds.” His cell phone rang; it was Chris. Stefano said, “We’re at ’Broso,” then he observed, “Bry’s crushing on one of the waiters….Nope, he’s attractive, I s’pose.” Stefano described him, then there was a pause before he laughed, “Hold on. Let me put you on speaker.” He held the phone toward me, and said, “Alright. Go.”
“I said, Bryan only thinks the Neanderthal’s hot,” Chris deadpanned, “because of those forearms. He just loves it when guys shovel through his Cracker Jack for the prize.”
“On that note,” I pushed my chair back from the table, “excuse me.”
It’s anticipating triggers, in whichever form these might snag your carelessness. With each, the periphery dissolves so you can focus on the minutiae of a gesture or an action, or the potential of either. For example, sometimes at the urinal droplets of your piss ricochet, droplets contaminated by the piss of all those thousands who have stepped up, zipped down, yanked out, and sighed before you, despite the certainty that the urinal has been flushed at least once.
It’s mapping where each pin-drop splashes—a finger, a forearm, sometimes even your face—so, like a leper who still thinks soap is the answer, you can monopolize the sink. And how many times have you seen a man exit a stall after hearing him unroll a tree’s-worth of toilet paper, his stench an almost visible contrail, as he glances in the mirror, fingers through his hair, and leaves the restroom without washing his hands?
It’s opening doors that have handles using the pinky of your left hand, making sure to hook the finger at the bottom of the handle, not at the top or the middle, which is where people tend to grab. If there’s an actual doorknob in your way, you’ll use makeshift gloves (a sandwich bag, a folded paper towel, your shirttail—in that order of desperation) to prevent skin contact. And it’s not that you can’t see the utility of doors, of locks—the security, even if only a modicum, that the combination affords. And it’s not that you consider the compartmentalization of space the singular genesis of an infinitely fractured human failure. No, it’s only that doorknobs seem outdated, dangerous. (Doorknobs and salad bars. Which cult out west was it, you struggle to recall, that sprayed E. coli on a restaurant’s doorknobs and salad bar tongs as a test run for a biological doomsday-offensive?)
It’s distrusting the flush handle of your toilet, even after cleaning the bathroom with disinfecting foam you sprayed from an aerosol can that features anthropomorphic bubbles. On the can, they are pictured racing forward at an angle fit for a villain’s lair on the 1960s’ Batman TV show, their eyebrows raised over wide-open eyes, lips spread in a ruinous smile. (When you were younger, you wanted to program a video game wherein you would be the bubble. You remember wishing that the scrub brush bristles upon which the bubble slides were an all-around mustache, though you never then stopped to consider how this mustache would be, once dry, interwoven with and clumped together by filth.)
Returning from CK’s restroom, I yawned so violently my eyes closed. As I blindly rounded the counter, I heard “Hey, buddy,” in a clipped tone reminiscent of every schoolyard mêlée.
Do I want whichever cap-and-khakis is coming to our booth, I thought, standing over me, or do I want to meet him halfway?
I chose the latter, sighing, “What?”
Me-Creep stood with fists clenched, chest puffed out. He was a bit skinnier, and he kept glancing between his pals and me. Great: a tall guy with a Napoleon complex. They’re so much worse than guys who aren’t tall enough to ride the ride. The two of us would have been a fair fight, but—“Hey, buddy,” Me-Creep said, nodding to his friends. “Just letting you know now, but after you’re done eating, I’m gonna kick your ass.”
When was I Kugalmassed back to junior high? In disbelief, I asked “What?” three times, foolishly thinking that both my luck and this story would change. But Me-Creep simply repeated himself each time. “Alright,” I finally asked, “why?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“No, I’ll worry about it. I don’t like being threatened for I have no idea what kind of shit this is.” As soon as I said that, I frowned.
“After you eat,” Me-Creep smirked, nodding to his friends, who weren’t bothered by my phrasing.
One of them, who was sitting on the outer edge of the booth with his back to Stefano and me, chuckled, “Dude, just go sit down.” I started to walk away, then that guy looked back and winked. I stopped in my tracks until Me-Creep piped up, “Your food's waiting.”
When I slumped back in the booth, Chris exhaled smoke, “Let me guess, the john only had a pube-festooned bar of soap and a hand dryer?”
Stefano glanced over his shoulder. “What’s up with the aggro?”
“The public pisser,” I rubbed my eyes, “just scheduled my beat down.” My grilled cheese and hash browns had arrived during my absence. I pushed the plate away, “At least I get a last meal.” I felt idiotic: most likely, nothing would happen, so why couldn’t I stop my thighs from shaking?
“Why’d you go over there?” Chris rolled his eyes as he stubbed out his cigarette.
“Eat up,” Stefano laughed. “We got your back.”
“Mm-hmm,” Chris lit a new cigarette.
“I meant like a straight guy would.”
“Yeah, sure, even better. They’ve always got something to prove.”
Not long after that, Me-Creep and pals left. He stared me down as he staggered last past the window, his arms held out to the side, his mouth hanging open.
Matching Me-Creep’s stare, I made sure that my expression was indifferent, bored, arched eyebrow included.
Finally, the Winker jerked Me-Creep by the collar so roughly he lost his footing, his right elbow and hipbone slamming into the asphalt.
Though that made me smile, I felt even more ridiculous than before. My thighs were still shaking, my breathing was coming short, my teeth were gritting, and that last meal looked like it had suffered flood damage.
I didn’t take my sunglasses off when I walked inside Cocina Sabrosa. My hands felt filthy. No need to sully my specs. The restaurant itself wasn’t too dark, but when I entered the restroom I went blind.
“Goddamn it!” I fumbled for the light switch. “C’mon, Bry, you stupid fucking piece of—”
In the darkness, a deep voice: “Shh!”
I heard the clinks of a belt buckle, the rustling of fabric. When I finally found the switch, which was placed lower and farther from the door than light switches usually are, I saw a middle-aged man and a chubby boy of twelve or thirteen huddled before the same urinal.
The boy had a look on his face like he had just been caught doing something wrong.
The man zipped up his fly, shouldering me into the door as I asked, “What’s going on?”
“Somebody,” the boy blurted, “turned out the lights.”
Almost simultaneously, I thought, Why didn’t you turn them back on? and Why are you both using the same urinal? But I only echoed the boy, who shrugged a “yeah” as he dampened his hands under the faucet and fled the restroom.
I washed my hands until I broke the dispenser's tab squeezing out the dregs. Then I held my hands under the faucet until the hot water began to run out. When I finally made it back to the table, I crumpled my hands on it, oblivious to the stains.
Stefano flipped shut and pocketed his phone. “Look at you,” he laughed and shook his head. “Breakdown-broke.” When I didn’t reply, he leaned across the table on his elbows. “Were they out of paper towels? The unmitigated horror—oh, the huuu—” He stopped laughing when he saw my hands, bright red and steaming. “What the fuck?”
After I told him, Stefano tossed a few bills on the table. “C’mon. Let’s…just c’mon.”
In the main dining room, I saw the man and boy sitting at a long table. The boy was leaning into the man, his shoulder pressing against the man’s arm, as they and the rest of their large party (their family?) ate chips and salsa.
And my legs started to shake, and my stomach folded itself inside out. I didn’t say anything because what exactly did I see? Something suspicious, yes, but enough to have accused the man when, at best, the boy would have denied me, or, at worst, would have accused me of who knows what?
“Bry.” Stefano shook my shoulder.
Or was my inaction—like the questions that flashed through my mind when I flipped on the restroom’s lights—an attempt to assign complicity to the boy, so I’d somehow feel less culpable?
No, I felt then, as Stefano dragged me out of the restaurant by an arm, how I will always feel: I could have helped that boy, if only by planting seeds of suspicion. By doing something—anything—instead of that gawk-jawed, thigh-shaking nothing.
It’s learning to regard your right hand as a prosthesis after you’re unable to avoid shaking someone’s hand. You just can’t not in some situations. Most people—especially mere acquaintances and strangers—are so easily slighted and so terribly sensitive to rejection, less often real than imagined, it just saves time, breath, and resentments to bow to convention. Your friends have learned that you consider this a sign of disrespect, so while they give you shit occasionally, they never expect a handshake or high-five. But with acquaintances and strangers, post-firm-greeting, you’ll hang your hand at your side, a slight inward curve to the fingers, and as soon as you can, you’ll quietly excuse yourself.
It’s needing to get really, really drunk, or just gone on whatever’s handy, so you don’t worry yourself limp. But even then, even if you’re lying on your back with your cock down someone’s throat, you are aware: of which hand he’s using on himself, making sure he doesn’t jerk you off with that hand; aware of his body, of anything out of the ordinary which, like a Rorschach blot, can mean whatever you can’t not think about.
It’s learning to do just about everything with your left hand—getting keys out of your right pocket (a habit you can’t break); rubbing eyes and running fingers through hair; buttoning shirts, zipping up pants, and fastening belts—almost everything, that is, except writing.
I’d spent so many summers exploring the woods behind our house, climbing trees, touching leaves, rocks, everything. Sometimes, when I got far enough away, I’d strip and lie down on dirt, in streams, on moss, in caves.
But when I was twelve-years-old that old blindside tackler puberty gave me the worst summer vacation. Upon waking from a dream in which I was Quasimodo, I rubbed my face. My hands recoiled. When I found my mother by the coffee maker, she whispered, “Oh, my,” her eyes large as her mouth was while shaping that vowel.
Poison Ivy et al. had sealed my left eye shut, and it seeped so profusely that I “cried” orange tears, the run-off’s color matching my hair. Blisters littered my arms, chest and legs, but no part of my body was as caked as the bridge of my nose. My reflection resembled some obscure alien race from Star Trek, featured only once because the cost of the facial prosthetics was prohibitive, and its otherness was just too other.
As disgusting as my flesh felt, it was nothing compared to seeing how others saw me. In the lobby of the doctor’s office, children either pointed at me in fascination, or hid their faces in their mother’s sleeves while they cried.
Then things got worse.
“You don’t want that down there,” the doctor warned, looking more at my mother than at me. “Make sure you wash your hands really good before going to the bathroom.”
Soon, though, soap didn’t seem strong enough. So, I compensated:
Strip naked, get in the shower, and pour bleach straight from the bottle onto the welts.
Welcome the acrid smell and cold sting.
Lie to my mother: “I have no idea where all the Clorox’s gone. What would I need it for?”
Take a shower, alternating the water between scalding and freezing.
End on freezing.
Last as long as possible.
Air dry as much as possible, then pat dry as gently as possible using different towels for different body parts.
It took the rest of that summer for the welts to heal, but the scars, which seemed as plentiful as my freckles and didn’t fade until the following summer.
Despite my many contamination fears, washing dishes at d’Esyal didn’t bother me. Sure, my friends saw this as a contradiction in terms, and, sure, I’d have to agree with them, but the daily handling of strangers’ missed forkings didn’t spring the usual mousetraps.
I liked the job because it provided me with a cover. It comprised a set of mandatory, regulated rituals. For everyone else, an onerous series of obligations. For me, a welcome duty.
Because my skin barely managed to survive, I wasn’t altogether worried about the commonplace microbe: anything that could survive the pre-rinse and machine wash and still prove virulent would have already done so. And then, hands washed or not, we’d all be fucked.
Sunday brunch was busy, if unexceptional. Whenever I bussed tables, I always tried to figure out from bleary eyes whose bottomless-Mimosa-or-Bloody-Mary-forestalled hangovers were socially acceptable camouflage. Bloat wasn’t always a sure bet. Just look at me, I’d like to brag, but I know that’s a cousin of humor: If I don’t look as bad as some of these bloodshot Rudolphs, then I couldn’t be nearly as bad.
At the end of my shift, I emptied the garbage. My logic was I’d rather sully my hands, knowing I’ll wash them afterwards, than let others do it only to return inside and, without doing so, answer the phone, roll up silverware, plate dinners, or serve a drink with a lemon-slice, all of which I knew happened when I wasn’t here. As long as I didn’t see any of these happen, though, I could lower the volume of my anxieties.
Outside, noon blazed in a naked sky, Memphis’ typical pit-drenching mug. I slung the bags into the dumpster. Then I stared shuteye at the sun for a few minutes.
Overwhelmed by so much stimulation, my retinas flashed outlines in concert. I saw spray-painted sketches of ghosts, watchers, whomever. Even though I was looking up, these never flickered from a worm’s-view (I know, I know they can’t see. Just go with it). They strobed flatland—eye-to-eye—in colors better befitting the other side of the first covenant. Were these outlines simply a dispersal of excess optical potential, or were they something more?
Honestly, I’d love to chalk it up to the latter, but that would be presumptuous, outlining my gall on the asphalt, dead at the thought. The back of that particular House couldn’t be toured so easily. Seems like it’d be the opposite. Like it’d have to be.
After a couple more minutes, I returned inside, to my sink, those outlines fading to floaters as I washed my hands. Might as well settle for the proscenium.
As I lathered, I wondered how many years every shift at d’Esyal, every unnecessary trip to the sink, and every squirt of hand sanitizer erased from my lifelines.
Because I had no idea how to calculate that, I concentrated on the cool glob of relief that followed each tab of soap.