The Reverse Spotlight

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” ~ Matthew 5:8

A small black square within a silver rectangle. That’s what the wall of @NOW looks like from The Desert Sky. The Desert Sky? I’m sure you’ve heard of it. The themed restaurant? In Sunny Bluffs Shopping Center?

What is @NOW? Walk a little closer to that silver wall, and you’ll find out. Pass the kiosk with clusters of gold and silver chains dangling dragon medallions and Mercedes-Benz emblems. Note the glow within the black square.

Walk closer. Maybe the mist from the amoeba-shaped fountain grazes you.

Keep going. Right up to that silver wall. The odors tumbling from QuintEssence nip at you. Feel how smooth and cool the wall’s metal panels are.

Now go to the black square. Look inside. Black fish glide in the coppery light. Black backdrop, black pebbles. The fish slip through black caverns and wind around black plastic plants.

***

Candy apple green leaps off Ty Ripson’s shirt. He manipulates his mouse—black, of course—and tells me the method behind the blackness. “It says power. It says technology. It says luxury, efficiency, refinement. That aquarium’s my reverse spotlight.”

He’s right. Cell phone accessories, fountains, carousels, dark chocolate raspberry truffle-flavored coffee, squishy balls covered in fluorescent rubber tentacles. Thousands of Sunny Bluffs objects throw their sensory temper tantrums. They blink and beg. They splurt. They twist, drift, and glow. They demand. Come, shoppers. Come watch, experience, touch, whiff sip savor. You will buy me.

Then, ignoring all these antics, there is the aquarium, which introduces (to those who are sophisticated enough) the object that reigns over its underwater black empire: a gold necklace flaunting a diamond-smothered pendant. The pendant is the size and shape of a thumbnail. That’s a six-foot-six, 275-pound man’s thumbnail. A ring of white diamonds surrounds another ring of yellow diamonds, which surround an inner diamond teardrop—a Paul Bunyan teardrop. Beneath their sparkle, the yellow diamonds are the color of dehydrated urine. The pendant pisses on those of us who can’t afford it. What kind of woman wears this?

“If the aquarium says all that,” I say, “then what does your shirt say?”

“‘Say?’ This shirt doesn’t ‘say.’ It sings, girl. ‘She’s so beautiful, / She’s so divine, so lu-uh-uh-uve-ly.'” He leans back, slides his black silk tie between his fingers. “But this, on the other hand, is a perfect reflection of the image the aquarium conveys. I’m bold. I am subtle. I believe that Ty Ripson is the man you are looking for, Ms. Lesssslie.”

“I wouldn’t want to steal you from Julieanne.” I point at his computer screen. Julieanne Forgey, who has smiled at me from the magazine racks of many checkout lines, coaxes on one side of the screen. A necklace with an emerald pendant is on the other.

“Most of these rich old bitches—oh, sorry Lesssslie, so ungentlemanly of me.” He puts on a pair of black-framed glasses and crosses his legs. “According to a recent poll, thirty- to forty-five-year-old females in households with annual incomes exceeding one hundred and fifty thousand consider Ms. Forgey their favorite actress.”

One of Ty’s onyx-striped cufflinks clicks against the glass of his desk while he drags the mouse. The necklace floats onto Julieanne. A few clicks and taps, and the pendant is the perfect accessory to her evening gown. Ty puts on a taunting lisp. “If Julieanne wears it, I want one.”

He slides an open palm toward a framed photo of Kateland Conrad, whose entrance into Hollywood several years ago had less to do with brilliant acting, and more to do with butt flaunting, lip pumping, and chest heaving. Ty has accessorized Kateland with a gold necklace that suspends three diamonds. “Twenty-one to thirty, seventy thousand plus.”

“You could get in trouble with these photos.”

“I don’t display them. I just show them to those who need a little convincing.”

Then Ty touches the glass covering the face of the ever-flirting starlet Samyra Blue. Ty’s sapphire necklace dominates the photo, crushing Samyra’s efforts to bring your eyes to her lips by puffing them out like a rainforest creature trying to mate. “Every fifteen- to twenty-year-old girl’s idol,” he says. “Bling bling!”

Samyra’s “Stay Blue” movement has spawned an entire subculture of teenage girls. You see them all the time in Sunny Bluffs. They pile on peacock blue eye shadow, and describe anything they like as “bluevy.” Their periwinkle shirts expose belly skin, which doughs over the jeans of the girls who eat a lot of Sunny Bluffs food court meals.

“Horny boy plus greedy girl plus this picture? Cha-ching!” Ty leers at me, and pinches his chin. “You know, Samyra reminds me of you, Lesssslie.”

“What? She’s a sham. In love with herself. Talentless. Inherited everything. She hasn’t done real work a day in her life.”

“True, but I was referring to her natural beauty. I think you’re both bluevy.”

***

A few days later, I’m back at the aquarium. This is good. The mall’s pretty empty.

What about the fish? Large fins and tails drift around black blotches. They are like witches, water witches. The black bodies are slightly transparent; a metallic color peeks through the black and shines brighter toward their bellies. It’s as if the necklace below them has—”Can I open them now?” A woman’s voice tramples on my reflection. The voice has the gracefulness of a lily of the valley, covered in dung.

Blonde. Her eyes are closed. Peacock blue eye shadow. The body buzzes “eighteen,” but the face whispers “forty.” Darkness beneath the eyes. The skin on her cheeks resembles the film that forms on some tomato soups. And it seems as if an invisible piece of tape pushes down her nose and lifts her upper lip. I could easily rest my chin on her head. Very troll-like.

The guy with her wears a Glark’s Gym T-shirt and exercise pants that swish every time he moves. He winks at me and kisses her neck. “Go ahead,” he tells her. Swish swish. He seems glarky.

The smell of grape bubble gum skips by as she opens her eyes. Pond slime green. She looks into the aquarium. Her smile stretches her nostrils, but doesn’t reveal her teeth. “It is real, isn’t it? You know I’m allergic to fake stuff.” She puts a lipstick-smudged straw in her mouth and pulls red liquid. Troll juice.

“That thing’s five grand,” he says. “Better be real.”

I’m glad I’m not allergic to fake stuff, or I’d be sneezing the moment the Troll arrived. Swishy’s hand (no ring) sifts through the dark hair on the back of her head. She’s revealed her roots by bunching all the blond hair into a kind of shredded nest. Her rust-colored skin—she must spend a lot of time at A Perfect Tan—makes me look like a ghost. Her chest—yeah, right, her chest—bucks out a gold star on a cotton candy pink shirt. The lips, which resemble shiny pink ballerina slippers, are one collagen injection away from bursting. And the eyes? I don’t think so.

I try to enjoy the fish. She whispers something in Swishy’s ear. More swishing. Or is it kissing? Or the fountain splishing?

What sounds like Martian dance music stampedes from Swishy’s pants. His watch sparkles as he swipes his phone. “I thought I told you to call me at nine. No, Jag. It’s 9:06.”

Troll sighs, stomps. Swishy holds up a hand. “I’m trying to figure something out. Are you well?” he asks Jag. “No, I mean mentally. I heard you told Mayor Levine we’ve never designed a building made of limestone. Just curious: what were you thinking? You know our modus operandi with shit like this.”

The Troll looks at the aquarium necklace while sucking air and zipping a pink pendant up and down the necklace she’s wearing.

Swishy continues. “Levine’s thinking about a new city hall—we’re talking fifteen, twenty million—and he likes limestone. What about Fox Valley South? The school?”

Something squeaks. Over by the food court.

“Hold up. We didn’t technically design it. But we did do some preliminary designs. So I’m just curious why you told…so what? Take a picture of it. Tell him we did it.”

More squeaking. A man in a white T-shirt shuffle-jogs toward us. His mouth is open, and he’s looking up.

“And don’t forget about that mixed-use building in Indianapolis.”

The young man is closer. Late twenties. Worn jeans.

“I know it’s fuckin’ concrete, but you gotta shovel it, shovel a little shit to make it. Call Levine. Tell him those buildings are limestone. And they’re ours. That jag’s not gonna be able to tell the fuckin’ difference.”

The still-squeaking young man has a dark brown paper bag. The Old Country Cookies bag. He keeps looking up. What’s so fascinating? The clusters of plastic foliage? The sky painted on the ceiling? The papier-mâché bluffs? Or are they some kind of hardened foam?

Something that smells like bleach and candied cherries spurts from QuintEssence. Swishy keeps spurting too. “Tell him the mixed-use building got a ‘Project of the Year’ award, ten years ago. From…the National Limestone…Association. No, the American…the American Limestone Council. The ALC. Levine’ll never know. American Limestone Council award. It’s the ALC. The ALC, and they dissolved a couple years ago.”

Cookie bag crumpling joins the squeaking.

“You know our modus operandi. You know it: do what it takes to get the job.”

The Troll clicks her tongue when she sees the young man. He squeaks into a patch of sunlight. He doesn’t see any of us.

“What? The ALC? Of course I made it up.” Swishy steps back. “Who gives a shit? Just curious. Haven’t you ever—” A thump as the young man rams into Swishy. Swishy swishes and knocks into the Troll. She squeals and the ice cubes crungle in her cup. Swishy’s phone clanks on the floor.

The young man’s eyebrows slope, and his brown eyes ask forgiveness. He points at the ceiling. “Bird up there, right?”

I see it. Like a deflating balloon, a brown speck flubbles between the skylights.

“Hey, jag off.”

“Bird’s up there. How will he get out?”

“You almost broke my fucking phone.” Swishy shoves the young man. He falls backward, then lands on his Old Country Cookies bag.

I make sure the young man doesn’t hear me. “What are you doing? Can’t you see he’s a little slow?”

“Not too slow when he slammed into me.” Swishy thrusts his thumb at me and looks at the Troll. Her eyelids descend. Flecks of green within the blue. The eyes rove from my face to my hips.

She swirls her drink, then prances over to the young man. He’s leaning on his elbow and searching the ceiling.

The Troll scans the mall. She opens the lid, then tips the drink. Red liquid explodes over the young man’s white T-shirt. His body stiffens, flings ice cubes across the floor.

The Troll’s fingernails—Divine Design, I’m guessing—glisten as she drops the cup into a garbage can. She returns to Swishy’s side, then applies a fresh layer of lip gloss. I’ll bet you can see those lips all the way from Nordstrom now.

“Are you two still in kindergarten?” I say. “It was an accident.”

I help up the young man, then point to The Desert Sky. “If you want, just come right over there and see me. I work there. I’ll get you a new shirt.” He peels the shirt off his chest, shakes the liquid off the paper bag, and then pulls out two clumps of mashed chocolate. He extends the brownies toward Troll and Swishy. “Sorry I’m sorry. I…you can have these. Sorry. I have two: one for you, and one for you.”

I push back his hands. “They probably don’t want those. Those are too grown-up for them. They probably want something with frosting.”

Swishy exhales. “Look, I’ll buy him a couple brownies.”

“No. No, you won’t.” The Troll scans me again. Her lips seem to pulse. “But maybe you can buy some for her. She looks like she likes brownies.”

***

Ears as big as rowboats protrude from the head of the Dessie statue in the center of The Desert Sky. Dessie is our mascot. His ears take up about half of his total body volume. Dessie is a desert fox. He wears sunglasses. How appropriate for a nocturnal animal. And Dessie’s purple. I’ve seen pictures of real desert foxes. They are not purple.

The faux fox appears all over the restaurant. He flaunts his ears and flings his smirk as he listens to and watches over the gluttony. Dessie on glasses and plates. Dessie on shirts and nightgowns, towels and toothbrush holders. Dessie on baby bibs and children’s cheeks and Dessie on wallets.

A couple hours after the aquarium confrontation, the Troll is here, at the bar, looking at the menu as if it’s infested with maggots.

The lights dim. The sound of wind blasts through the restaurant. Sand in the floor-to-ceiling glass boxes starts to swirl. A child shrieks. Such a dynamic dining experience.

How many this time? The waiters burst from the kitchen. Five. “SAAAANDSTORRRRM.” They wear their hiking boots, khaki-colored cargo shorts, and long-sleeve T-shirts (emblazoned with Dessie, of course). Dave holds a bowl—more like a small bucket—of what looks like sand. It’s actually cinnamon and sugar covering a calorie and carb bomb of chocolate, caramel, and nuts. Behold the “Sandstorm,” our signature desert dessert.

I want to hold a Sandstorm in front of the Troll’s face, take a deep breath, and then blow. I want to hear her scream as the cinnamon and sugar burn her eyes and stick to those blue eyelids and bulging pink shiny lips. But she’d never order that.

On one side of her, Swishy barks orders into his cell phone. On the other is a guy dumping sugar into his Irish coffee. His hair resembles chocolate frosting streaked with caramel. The work of a few highlights, and probably as much mousse as we use to smother the treats on the dessert display (whipped cream melts). He has a book: Discovering the Perfect Blend…and Serving It Up to Make the Sale. I think I’ve seen this guy. I think he works at Permasleek.

Her purse is on the bar. It’s decorated with gold leaves and the letters P and S merged together. To me, that “PS” has always looked like “BS.” It’s the Pedro Santriosi logo, which the teenage girls dream of displaying, and for which trophy wives and girlfriends pay a thousand dollars to grace their purses. Peeking out of the Troll’s purse is a small, glossy black bag. Its only decoration is a thin, wavy line of silver. “That line has the vibe, the vibe of sophistication, and prosperity,” Ty told me. “The vibe that lets me charge more.”

I say, “Nice purse.”

“It’s not a purse. It’s a handbag.” She puffs and contorts her lips.

I ask her and Swishy what they’d like to drink. She says, “A Jade Elephant.”

I say, “Never heard of it.” Maybe you’d like a Pink Bitch instead. The Dessie on the back of her menu smirks at me as if his ears—they pop right out of the top—pick up my thought. Right on, girl!

“Really?” she says. “You’ve never heard of a Jade Elephant? I’d think that you’d know a lot about elephants.” She doesn’t look at me.

I extend my arms and look at the walls, which are clad in giant photographs of sand mounds lounging beneath a sky whose computer doctoring Ty Ripson frequently admires. “No elephants in this desert. No jade ones, or even any gray ones.”

“Oh, I think I’ve seen at least one.” She scans me. “But this one’s more of a tan.”

Swishy puffs out a laugh and checks his phone.

“Maybe the Jade Elephant’s not mature enough for you,” she says. “I mean, after all, if I drink it. I’m still in kindergarten, right? So you’re more mature. Clearly. A mature, successful bartender.” She pets the rubber needles on one of the cacti around the bar. “A bartender, at a themed restaurant, in a shopping mall.”

“I’m sorry. No Jade Elephants,” I say. “But maybe you’d like one of our specialty drinks instead. The Mirage? It looks really glitzy, and it comes in a fancy glass. But it’s really, really bitter. Or maybe…” I pet the cactus. “…the Cactus Dream. Really dry, and it’s got a lot of flavor. Artificial flavor. I also call it The Prickly Wench.”

Purple ears pop up behind a booth. Then the sunglasses, and the grin. Go Leslie, go Leslie! Go! Go! The large Dessie plush, available for only $39.99 at our retail store.

***

A few minutes later, she’s eating her “Salad with a Spike,” one fat free raspberry vinaigrette-coated morsel at a time, and talking to Swishy. “My brother started dating this financial analyst. She seems okay. She only drives a BMW, but she does have a nice house. About four thousand square feet, I think she said.”

Precisely the things that one should look for in a spouse, but I’m guessing that the Troll and Swishy prefer Jags over BMWs.

I set down Swishy’s second Gentleman’s Cocktail. Not on the menu either. He points to my copy of The Scent in the Harbor: A Writer’s Guide to Description, which leans defiantly against the shimmering metal of the mixing machine as it churns peach and strawberry daiquiris. “Is that your book?”

“It is mine.”

“You’re in school?”

“Yes.”

“What degree?”

“Master of Fine Arts.”

“An MFA. I have a bachelor’s in English. Thought about getting an MFA.”

The Troll nips, “He got an MBA.”

Oh, he’s still an MFA. An MF and an A. Both of you are. Purple ears jut from a girl’s neck, bounce out of the restaurant. Ahhhh yeah! The medium-sized rubber Dessie: $19.99.

She says, “An MBA’s just a little more…practical.” She, of course, with her Pedro Santriosi purse, blue eye shadow, pink shirt (with a gold star), pertinacious lips, and @NOW jewelry, is the embodiment of practicality.

She sets down her fork, then finishes her wine (never got that Jade Elephant). “By the way, I love your necklace. Where did you get it? Princess Palace?” She turns to Swishy. “I shopped for something for my ten-year-old niece there. I think I saw that necklace.”

Was it your niece? Or your granddaughter? The Dessie nightgown. There on the back wall. Hellllllll yeah! $24.99.

“No. Actually, it’s a gift from my mother,” I say. “She died in a car accident when I was eight.”

Swishy looks as if he’s pulled a groin muscle. But the Troll remains multi-colored stone-faced.

“SAAAANDSTORRRRM.” The Troll, Swishy, and Mr. Permasleek turn around to watch the ceremony. I snatch her wallet. There’s your dessert, bitch!

When Swishy and the Troll leave, her grafted-on pink jogging pants and her practiced sway deify her butt. It calls out to Mr. Permasleek, dares him to betray his literary masterpiece. He does. Blessed are the sleek. The pink pants have a tiny back pocket. Insert cash here. Highest bidder gets the ride.

***

I get a call at the bar. “Hey, what’s your modus operandi for things that get left there?” It’s Swishy!

“Excuse me, sir?”

“This is the girl from the bar, right?”

“I’m one of the girls from the bar.”

“I was in there earlier, with my girlfriend?”

“I’m trying to remember,” I say. “Maybe if you describe her.”

“Pretty blonde, a little over five feet.”

“Pretty blonde…pretty. Hmmmm. No, I’m still drawing a blank.”

“C’mon. She was the most attractive girl in the restaurant. We were right there at the bar.”

“Oh. The most attractive girl. Yeah, she was wearing a blue shirt. I remember.”

“No, no. She was wearing pink.”

“Okay, right. You threw me when you said girlfriend. Gentleman’s Cocktail, right?”

“Right. Well, she lost her wallet. Sometime today. Could’ve been there. Have you seen it?”

“I don’t believe I have. Does it have any distinguishing characteristics?”

“Why would you ask me that? Just curious. Do you have a box of lost wallets?”

“If I spot it around the bar—”

“It’s a wallet. A woman’s—what?” The Troll’s voice chafes in the background. “She says it’s Pedro Santriosi. Now go check.”

“Sure, sir. Why don’t you hold on and I’ll do some investigatory work. Perhaps I’ll inquire—”

“I’ll wait.”

I chat with the couple at the bar for a while, start a fresh pot of coffee, and then text my mother—yes, she’s still alive.

I return to the phone. “Hello? Sir?”

“What, did you get lost?”

“No. I’m very sorry sir. I got held up.”

“By what?” he said. “Oprah coming to interview you about what color soap’s in your bathroom?”

“Just give me a minute and—”

“Hold up. You haven’t checked yet?”

“No. It’ll just take another minute.”

“Last time, I gave you a minute. I gave you five minutes.”

“I’ll look.”

“Is it gonna be a minute, or another five?”

“I’ll try my hardest, sir.”

It was not another five minutes. It was closer to ten. “I’m sorry, sir, but Oprah was on,” I say. “Couldn’t resist. A special on bathroom color schemes.”

“I’m trying to figure something out here. Your restaurant covers about, I’m thinking, fifteen thousand square feet tops. So for you to look around the bar and ask a couple employees if they’ve seen a wallet, unless you’re crippled. Are you crippled?”

“Sometimes.”

“It’s three thirty on a Sunday afternoon. Now I’m thinking there can’t be that many people there. Are there a lot of people there? Just curious. Or maybe I have my days mixed up. Do you think I have my days mixed up? I thought it was Sunday.”

“Hmmm. I’m not so sure. It feels a lot like a Tuesday. But if it is Sunday, it’s a lot busier than usual. Anyway, I asked the other bartender and several waitresses, and I found out…just a minute.”

One couple sits at the bar. Several of the waiters are chatting in the back.

I tell Swishy that we don’t have the wallet. Eventually.

***

An odor chomps on The Desert Sky retail store. It smells of nail polish and facial cream. The source is a bright orange candle that our manager insists on burning every Sunday night. She says it “purifies the area.” The scent is Appalachian Mist. I’ve never experienced an Appalachian mist, but I’m guessing it doesn’t smell like nail polish and facial cream.

I’ve been sentenced to finish my shift here. A mixture of whale squeaks, wave lapping, flutes, and synthesizers—they call it Mediterranean Eclectic—glirks through the speakers. If you can figure out what “glirks” means, maybe I can figure out what whales and waves have to do with deserts.

Not many people here now. Two teenage boys place flexible rubber Dessie figurines in sexual positions, while a couple girls with enough blue eye shadow to rule ancient Egypt giggle. Over by the CDs of the natural, glirky variety, a woman yanks a Dessie doll away from her child. He screams. A boy near me sticks up his middle finger on one of those contraptions with the thin metal rods that make the shape of whatever is beneath them.

I reach to the back of the shelf below the counter and feel for the wallet I hid there. Here it is. I can feel the little pits all over it. Gold leaves, and a fusion of the letters P and S.

The voice of one of the teenage boys stumbles over the counter. “Hey man, I thought the ketchup’s supposed to go on the sandwich.” Laughter from the girls. Then the other boy: “He’s been shot! Call nine-one-one!” More laughter.

When I stand, the teens are leaving. Then I see the T-shirt, with red splattered all over it. The young man, a chocolate smudge on one corner of his mouth, stands there. His sand-colored hair contrasts with the multi-colored sand that fills the plastic Dessie figurines next to him.

Then I notice something I didn’t see before: it looks like the shadow of a tree branch running from his left temple to his jaw. But there aren’t any trees in The Desert Sky. It’s a scar.

“I’m glad you came,” I say. “Those two were really jerky to do that.”

“A shirt, right?”

“They shouldn’t have done that to you. It was an accident. I saw it, when you ran into that jerk?”

He looks down at his shirt. That scar seems so out of place at Sunny Bluffs, where everything is coated and colored and powdered and filled in.

“Well, you need a new shirt.” I point to the shelves with stacks of T-shirts. “Any one over there. Just pick one out. Any one you want.” Most of the shirts feature Dessie or some other desert-themed image, and of course, the name of the restaurant. But he needs a new one.

He pulls out some change.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “I’ll buy it for you. I get a discount because I work here.”

He tugs at his shirt. “This one works fine, right?”

“That one’s stained. You need a new one. Right over there.”

While he wanders over to the shelves, I snap open the wallet. Like a centipede speed-crawling, a picture of her jolts me. Another picture of the Troll, this time with Swishy. And look at this: some cash. I count it. Two hundred and twenty-five. Frequent purchase cards for Amalga Mate Café, Shady Cove Spa, Sinthesis Intimate Apparel. No credit cards. Probably Swishy’s department.

A puff of air hits my face. A white T-shirt lies bunched up on the counter. I hide the wallet in a Desert Sky bag.

When I rise, the young man puts his finger on the counter, right over the ears of one of the Dessie stickers swarming on it. A ladybug crawls onto his finger, and he studies it.

I smooth the T-shirt. No Dessie. No Desert Sky logo. No camels or cacti or sand. Just white.

“Don’t just get this one because it’s the cheapest. You can have any one you want. Any color, any picture.”

“This one’s a good one, right?” He watches the ladybug crawl into his palm, then cups it.

“You got it.” I hand him his bag.

He thanks me, but his scar scolds Sunny Bluffs. It mutes Mediterranean Eclectic and snuffs out Appalachian Mist. It bitters the Sandstorm and floods the desert walls. And the scar grieves for me, for plopping down twelve dollars for a jar of cucumber melon facial rejuvenation cream at Your Body to Love.

The young man, still cupping the ladybug, leaves. Will he save it from Sunny Bluffs? Or does it need Sunny Bluffs to survive? From his other hand hangs a bag. On it, Dessie throws a grin at me. This isn’t gonna turn out the way you want it to, girl.

Twenty minutes later, I discover that I gave him the bag with the Troll’s wallet.

***

When I get off work, the mall is pretty empty. Most stores have closed their gates, and the whir of a vacuum has replaced the fountain’s hiss.

The setting sun sprays its light into the mall, like it’s trying to purge Sunny Bluffs of something. And after two hours of Appalachian Mist burrowing into my nostrils, I feel refreshed by the atrium air.

The @NOW wall glows orange. Before the aquarium stands a figure, a man. The sunlight exposes the dust particles floating around him, and the aquarium seems much lighter.

Next to my bench, an electronic poster of Samyra Blue transforms into a photo of Sunny Bluffs entrance F, its walls of glass, steel, and concrete sloping and slicing like a magic show contraption. My fingers trace the cool grooves on one of the bench’s logs. Plastic, of course.

Then something familiar nudges into view. Trickling down the side of the face of the figure by the aquarium is the scar.

An odor stuffs itself into my space, injects me with images of men with silver hair and black luxury cars.

Spandex fingertips glide across my neck, then down my arms. Bright green sleeves, gold and black cufflinks. I slide away from Ty Ripson. “Did you shower in cologne?”

“Oh, the unenlightened. I just got this. It’s called Apropos.” He fans the scent toward me. “A study proved this stuff arouses women. Does Apropos arouse you, Lesssslie?”

“Are you trying to sell jewelry, or arouse women?”

“Could I do one without the other? I sell more when I wear this, I think. Nine thousand in sales today. Cha-ching!” He spins around the bench, then plops down next to me. “Not bad for a guy who got through college without reading a book.”

Ty leans back. His hair rivals the Permasleek guy’s in spininess. He squirts some lotion into his palm, then rubs his hands like he’s plotting.

“He must really like that necklace.”

“Who? Scarface?”

“Ty, don’t be an ass.”

“No necklace in there now. I slid it out. That boy’s lookin’ at the fishies.”

“How come the aquarium—it looks so white now.”

“The background slides out too, and changes colors. I changed it to white, so he could see the fish better. He really likes those fishies.”

“I’m surprised. Could it be? An act that’s not sales-driven?”

He scoots a little closer. The lotion dumps more odor on me. “You know, I have a great deal of compassion for our special friends. Especially ones like this. He’s really special.” His breath sprinkles cinnamon on the odor heap, and his fingers start slithering through my hair.

I push his arm away. “What do you mean?”

“A couple came into the store earlier. She was mmmm tasty. Had on this pink jogging suit? Thing looked like she melted it on. And some guy was with her. Some macho schmo. He bought her a necklace. The one I show in the aquarium? It’s her bootie loot. Chicks like that? You gotta pay to play.” He points to the young man. “A couple hours after they left, this guy shows up. He’s got a white shirt on, covered in this red shit. Must’ve changed it since then. And he had a bag, from your place, and a wallet, a women’s wallet. A Pedro Santriosi. That’s that brand that—”

“I know Pedro Santriosi,” I say. “Where did he get the wallet?”

“Didn’t ask. But he shows me the picture in it. Sure enough, it’s the hottie. The one in pink? He saw her by the store earlier. So he brought me the wallet.”

“Was there any money? Or any credit cards or anything in it?”

“Yeah, over two hundred bucks in cash. No credit cards.”

“Did you give it back to her?”

“Hell yeah! She’s a paying customer. I called her and she sent the schmo to come get it.”

“Did you tell them he found it?”

“I’m a businessman, Leslie. I told them I saw some punks looking through a woman’s wallet. I had to chase them down, but I got it.”

“Nice.”

“Hey, he offered me a reward, but I said no. I mean, he’d already given me five thousand bucks.”

“You should’ve taken the reward money and given it to this guy.”

“Nah. This guy, he doesn’t care about any reward. Just like he doesn’t care about jewelry. He just likes that fish tank, those fishhhhies, Lesssslie.”

After Ty leaves, the young man, open-mouthed, continues to stare into the aquarium.

Keys jangle from a nearby nook. A door squeaks open—must be the maintenance exit at the end of the nook—then clanks shut.

That scar. Something drifts around me. A trace of something, from outside I think. Did it slip through that door? A smell, maybe. No, more of an impression. The impression (or whatever it is) swells and deflates, like a jellyfish.

The orange glow stomps on the impression. I recognize that orange, from somewhere. Then it comes to me: it’s the same orange of the Appalachian Mist candle. Like the chorus of an overplayed song, the odors of nail polish and facial cream hatch in my nose.

This is a reprint of work originally published in The Milo Review.

Douglas J. Ogurek is the pseudonym for a writer living somewhere on Earth. Though banned on Mars, his fiction appears in over forty Earth publications. Ogurek founded the controversial literary subgenre known as unsplatterpunk, which uses splatterpunk conventions (e.g., extreme violence, gore, taboo subject matter) to deliver a positive message. Recently, Ogurek guest-edited Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #58: UNSPLATTERPUNK!, the first ever unsplatterpunk anthology. He also reviews films at that same magazine. More at http://douglasjogurek.weebly.com. His Twitter: @unsplatter.

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