2d by Rick Aquino
The sign behind the lady behind the counter at Esprit D'Monet Florist said, "Remember us when you need to make the right impression..." Aqua had to squint to read it. Glaring plant lights burned her eyes thorough a mist of reckless fumigation and the seed of a headache made her wonder if she'd regret going out at all. The spectrum of blossoms displayed was vast and healthier than any she'd seen, but their fragrance was smothered by a chemical stench. Forced to take shallow breaths to keep from coughing, she was shocked the saleslady seemed perfectly comfortable. She tiptoed across the oily parquet to the register hoping for a brief transaction.
She didn't get a word out before the woman started in like they were old friends, "My what a smart chapeau," she exclaimed. "You just don't see them anymore. I think a clever hat accents an outfit like nothing else. Makes you feel really dressed. You know, I saw darling little pill boxes the other day at Olivier's. I'm sure they were on sale. They had one to match your coat exactly and you know what a nightmare that can be. I can't tell you the days I've spent running from one end of town to the other..."
Aqua tried to hide the faintness washing over her behind a smile. It often happened when a headache was escalating toward migraine. The toxic air in the shop made it worse. She put her dark glasses on and closed her eyes. When she had nothing else to hold onto, her habit was to grab what she had, tightly gripping her thumbs inside her fists. She held on for what seemed an eternity of throbbing, waiting for a pause in the machine-gun monologue. Finally, she interrupted with a meek, "Excuse me."
The woman rolled over her cue like a tank. Aqua opened her eyes and glanced furtively over her shoulder to see if she was speaking to someone else. The shop was empty. She tried again. "Pardon me," she said bolder, and followed it by clearing her throat. Still the tongue rattled on. Aqua noticed the woman's skin was glittering jewel-like, coated with tiny amber beads of insecticide. She began to add animation to her soundtrack, striking poses, piling fists full of her flaxen hair into wild configurations. She asked Aqua's opinion of each style, never pausing to check her response. "How 'bout two rolls, one each side, or maybe one big shock on top?" Aqua imagined her working into a frenzied metamorphosis, mutating into Japanese movie lizard. She began to twirl, her long hair brushing Aqua's face as it escaped its glistening axis. Aqua winced and pulled her makeshift turban-it never was a hat-even tighter over her head. Inside her skull something was pounding to get out. She heard a desperate scream, "I want to buy some flowers!"
The pounding stopped. She recognized the voice. It was too late to retrieve it.
The flower lady froze in mid-pirouette. She gave Aqua a sidelong glance of one raised brow, as if confirming to herself she was dealing with a lunatic. With an exaggerated lilt in her voice she asked, "Will you be taking them with you or do you wish them delivered?"
Aqua wished she could crawl inside one of the large ceramic tree pots and disappear. She pulled down her helmet of scarves still tighter. Past failures to control her emotions had caused her irreparable damage. She stared at the woman in blank horror.
"I'm very busy," said the woman, after sighing so hard it blew the hair off her forehead, "perhaps you need to think about it and come back."
"I'm terribly sorry. Really I am," said Aqua. "It's just I-I'm not-I don't know what kind of flowers to send."
"Then you do need them delivered," the flower lady snapped, ignoring her apology, "There's no way I can send them out today!"
The different arrangements were all so confusing. Her head was bursting. What was it they always used? "White lilies-I think white lilies. They're for a doctor-I mean they're not really for him-they're for his family-I don't know..."
"My dear," interrupted the woman, condescendingly flipping her hair back, "if I was trying to impress a doctor or anyone associated with one, I wouldn't send funeral flowers. Flowers send unique messages. Red roses for anniversaries and lovers, white for reconciliation. Orchids are in vogue as flowers of power. If you want to impress good taste and breeding, I'd suggest a rare cymbidium. The common whites and pinks are striking but passé. Hospital rooms naturally mandate cheerful bouquets, but unless it's for an elderly person I'd avoid the rotund English groupings. The Japanese have taught us so much about asymmetry, well, it's practically broadcasting illiteracy to ignore them..."
Aqua felt herself disappear again as the flower lady's voice got louder and louder. A prickly heat building at the base of her neck warned her a volcano was building. She had come in for funeral flowers, but maybe was making mistake. For all she knew the doctor's family blamed her for what happened to him.
The woman's eyes glazed over as she recovered her manic routine. Aqua actually envied her disregard for reality. Her own pain could not be ignored. It made her reach under her scarves and grab the top of her head to keep it from cleaving in two. The fuzzy texture against her fingertips still caught her off guard; yet it was alluring and soothing and captured her attention. The cleared terrain, not smooth, or domed, had furry stubble and its own topography. She looked around at the shop and the woman and, losing all sense of a reason to be there, headed for the door still holding her head as if it weren't part of her. The saleslady continued to address the flowers.
Aqua couldn't remember not having headaches. When she was little she got them when she was hungry or when her nanny left her alone. In school they accompanied bad marks. Those were just headaches. The first time she got an exploding migraine was the day she applied to be a waitress at Wyatt Earp's Rib Emporium at the Western Roundup Shopping Village. The mail was an investment her sister made when she inherited all their father's money. "Mind you," her sister warned, "I can't influence whether they hire you or not, but I've heard the waitresses do great there."
Aqua never had a job before and was terrified of being interviewed. At twenty-five, she had lived for years off pawning childhood gifts from her father. He'd been very generous until the end when he lost his senses and turned on her. Now everyone knew it was the Alzheimer's that made him leave her out of the will. Still, her sister's lawyers won in probate and Aqua found herself out of trinkets. It was no less than dire need that brought her to an empty restaurant, in the middle of the night, looking for the manager's office.
Behind the door with horseshoe handles everything was veiled in purple shadows, still smoky from departed customers. She could barely make out tables arranged on terraced levels around a dark open area in the center. Across this void, alight beckoned, and she moved instinctively toward it, feeling her way along a cold, greasy rail. Against her nature she called out to see if anyone was there. She despised drawing attention to herself, but she was more afraid of falling off the ledge into a black unknown.
"Stay where you are," a voice answered, "I'll flip the switch." She felt silly clutching the rail when the lights came up and shrank the room. The abyss she'd feared was only a few feet down but her eyes came into focus on a disquieting sight. A pile of bones in the middle of the arena made it appear as if the pit had indeed claimed victims.
"People are pigs, aren't they?" said the same voice. It came from a woman in a waitress uniform whose brassy hair-do made her head look like a lit match. She was sitting in a corner booth stacking bills and coins.
"Used to be a band played out there. Now the janitors use it. It's easier for 'em if they sweep everything into the middle. What can I do for you anyway, you leave your purse or somethin'?"
"No, I...uh, I'm here for an interview with Mr. Adib."
The woman was possessed of well-rounded assets and made a tight fit under the low table. When she started to laugh it shook and threatened to topple her cash. "That's a good one. It's nearly midnight and you're here pounding the pavement. If I didn't know he was such a yo-yo, I'd think you were the nut case."
Aqua was speechless. She had thought it was a strange time to schedule an appointment, but was in no position to question Mr. Adib. Her head was beginning to ache and she wanted to run away but was too afraid.
"Come over here and let me get a good look at you," the waitress said, "grabbing her and spinning her from front to back. "I think you might do. Fact is, I run this place even though I let Greaseball think otherwise. I'm Lavon. What's your name, honey?"
"Aqua. I'm sorry to be a bother, it's just I was sure Mr. Adib said 11:30 PM. I'll come back another time."
"Don't be silly, I'm sure he did," Lavon said. "You're here now and now's when he'll see you. Just stick with me, sugar, and you'll do fine. C'mon, I'll take you back to the monkey cage."
Aqua felt lucky to meet someone as nice as Lavon and reluctant to be left with Mr. Adib. He was as wide as he was tall, had oily black hair, a matted beard, and wore a shiny white suit covered with red sauce stains. He sat behind a massive desk on a pink vinyl chair creaking under the stress of his poundage. He slid off it repeatedly-each time making an obscene whoosh-attempting to reach his stubby arms across the debris-scattered desktop. Aqua couldn't believe what her eyes roamed over. The clock on the wall had its numbers reversed and the second hand moved backwards. The garbage basket next the chair spilled over with the bones she'd seen in the dining room along with wadded-up paper cocktail napkins. These-of which there was still a fresh stack on the desk-sported a lewd cartoon of an aroused naked man in a garden introducing himself to a nude nymphet. The caption read, "Madam I'm Adam." The combination of body odor and barbecue sauce in the close space was nearly toxic and Aqua was suffering the consequences. In a final attempt, flopping across the desk like a beached whale, Mr. Adib laid hold of a sheet of paper familiar to Aqua as her application. "Let's see," he said in a squealing voice, "you must be Miss Malloy... Belle Aqua Malloy."
"That's backwards," said Aqua, smiling timidly. "Aqua Belle Malloy, but people call me Aqua."
"I see you've already heard about my condition," he said defensively. He flipped his arms, launching himself back into the pink vinyl. "You may as well know I won't tolerate anyone making fun of dyslexia. We have jokers and prima donnas around here as it is." He tossed her application back to the same spot he'd fought so hard to reach, and never looked at it or her again. She didn't know what dyslexia was and was much too afraid to ask.
"The rule here is you do your job and get no grief," said Mr. Adib. Leaning back, his feet propped up on the desk, his head nearly disappeared behind his stomach. Aqua was afraid he might topple over. "I've seen your type before," he whined. "Think the world owes 'em somethin'. Don't have to lift a finger to earn it. Well, let me tell you. Our customers expect service and what's more..."
Aqua felt trapped and wanted to get outside and take deep breaths.
"...you'll be responsible for every dime you take in. And don't think I haven't seen every trick. Somebody'll be watching you every second. I'm back here most of the time..."
"eating ribs," Aqua assumed.
"...the less you see of me the better off you'll be."
From the mountain he presented in her foreshortened view, she already knew this was true, but was he actually going to hire her?
"You come in early tomorrow and train with Lavon. And do something with that long hair. Most of 'em pile it up one way or another. It'd be showing up on plates in no time."
Mr. Adib appeared to be knocking imaginary flies away from his face until Aqua realized he was motioning her away. 'So this was how people became employed,' she thought. She ran to a nearby gas station restroom and washed the grease of her hands and face.
It took several weeks of naive enthusiasm before she began to feel the hard knocks of working life. Lavon, who had seemed a blessing at first, was stealing her tips and threatened to have her fired if she made trouble about it. The other girls couldn't be trusted either. They were sweet on the surface, but were always jockeying for Lavon's favor, spying for her, hoping to score better stations. Aqua tried to follow Mr. Adib's advice. She didn't get involved, and managed to make just enough to get by. Frustrations could be buried and headaches endured. Life had been better but there was no reason to assume another job would be.
One day the pain in her head reached a new intensity and her tightly wound loose ends unraveled. In the middle of delivering three Earp's Big Buckets she had a panic attack that stopped her cold in the middle of the room. She forgot where she was and what she was doing. The clamor of customers, waiting for ribs, got louder and louder. They seemed to be leaning in on her, surrounding her on all sides from three raised tiers.
"Move those bones! screeched a voice behind her. It was Lavon bulldozing with Buckets of her own. Aqua recoiled. Tossing her load, she grabbed the top of her head with both hands and screamed, "I'm not the enemy! I'm not the enemy!" Later, after the medics calmed her and carried her away, Lavon ordered one of the other girls to get a mop and broom, "...and be quick about it!" she barked. "It's the middle of lunch and it looks like the bone sweepers find it after closing!"
The court appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Beatrice, was the first person Aqua had felt comfortable with in years. He actually listened to her and seemed to care. She looked forward to her visits and was devastated when he told her there was nothing more he could do for her. He said her headaches might result from a physical impairment and recommended she see his colleague, Dr. Virgil. She pleaded with Dr. Beatrice to continue her therapy anyway. "It's out of the question," he told her. "You have to be brave and trust me to do what's right. There are many patients waiting for my care. You wouldn't want me to neglect them."
Reluctantly she went to see Dr. Virgil. He was a prominent neurologist who never wasted his time until patients completed a battery of diagnostic tests. Aqua went through dozens of them. One particular reflex test produced an insufficient number of leg kicks in proportion to needle pricks administered above her knee. Aqua prayed the concern this generated would be found unjustified and they would send her back to the warm security of Dr. Beatrice. When the results were compiled, weeks later, Dr. Virgil's office called to award her an appointment. The nurse made her feel like she'd won a contest.
"I'm afraid the magnetic resonance image reveals a dense presence couched in the frontal lobe," explained Dr. Virgil. "It might account for the increasing recurrence of headaches."
Aqua was intimidated by the terminology. She couldn't tell what was wrong but she knew she wasn't going back to Dr. Beatrice.
"Of course we'll have to go in and see exactly what we're dealing with, but if it's as I suspect, it could be one of the most rare and fascinating tumors I've encountered..."
At the word tumor, Aqua swooned and grabbed the lapels of his coat. Dr. Virgil didn't appreciate the familiarity and squeezed her wrists until she let go. "This is nonsense!" he said. "Settle down and get a grip on yourself. With another doctor it could be risky. But I assure, you're in good hands. There is only the slightest chance surgery of this nature is ever fatal. Quite likely whatever it is can be removed without complications. The worst case scenario could mandate the extraction of adjacent brain tissue. In that event you might lose the benefit of certain high and low emotions, but your cognitive functions would remain intact."
The explanation did little to calm her, yet she was frightened more by her acceptance of fate than she was by the news. "What if I don't have the operation at all?" asked Aqua blank faced.
"I'm afraid that's out of the question," he answered. "This surgery is a matter of life and death."
Poor Dr. Virgil didn't realize how prophetic his words were. Four days later, after endless appeals from her sister that she had nothing to lose, Aqua checked in County General for the initial exploratory operation. She attempted to arrange her affairs-discovering she didn't really have any-and prepare her mind for the worst. Her head ached constantly, seemingly in defiance of a cure. When they drugged her in preparation for anesthesia, she was grateful for the dull cessation of pain. They shaved her head, including her eyebrows, and wrapped it in sterile gauze except for a small square patch over her forehead. They told her she fought like a mustang when the nurse cut her hair off hurriedly in coarse uneven clumps. She didn't remember any of that.
She lay in recovery for a long time afterwards, too long it seemed, faintly aware of a commotion going on in the nearby hallway. The drugs has long since subsided and she wondered if she had the strength to get up and find her room. When a nurse finally came by, frantic and preoccupied, she acted as if Aqua was in her way. Mumbling profanities, she jerked the gurney out of its locked position and started wheeling her down the hall. Aqua begged her for information, "How did it go? Please, it's alright. I can take it."
The nurse just sneered, as if her concern was ridiculous. "Typical! People only think of themselves! I warned him he was working too hard, but no, he'd never listen."
Aqua was afraid. The lights on the ceiling were strobing by too quickly. The nurse's cheeks were red and tear-stained. Something was wrong. This couldn't be normal procedure. She started to cry, too, and scream for Dr. Virgil.
"There isn't any Dr. Virgil! And there wasn't any operation; so pipe down if you know what's good for you! I don't know how people can be so selfish!"
Aqua thought she was having a nightmare. "Help me!" she cried. "Someone! Please!"
The nurse ran out of patience and produced a long hypo from under her gown, "I've had enough outta you!" And she plunged it into Aqua's thigh, sending her reeling back to sleep.
When she woke up she was back in her room and a different nurse was leaning over her explaining what had happened with exaggerated drama.
"Before he even had a chance to sink the scalpel, the poor doctor had a heart attack. He died! Right there on the floor of the operating theater!"
She still felt hazy and the message lost its impact. Her only wonder was why the nurse was looking at her so funny, like she was contagious? "I have to go now," she said as she backed out slowly toward the door, "but Dr. Virgil's people promised, as soon as they all recover from their terrible shock, they'll make someone else perform your operation."
After she left the flower shop Aqua walked four blocks before she realized she didn't know where she was going. Each step on the sidewalk reverberated up her spine and amplified the pain in her head. She was scheduled to meet her new doctor within the hour but his office was in the opposite direction. The words played over and over, "...it could be quite tricky...I'm one of the few surgeons alive...alive..." She stopped and grabbed her head again. "You're not alive," she thought out loud. "You're dead! You're dead!"
The sound of squealing tires and honking horns startled her into present time. She'd stopped, unaware, in the middle of a crosswalk, against the light, jamming traffic. People on all four corners were staring, and she realized she might have been screaming again. The nose of a bullet shaped red convertible was aimed at her a few feet away, and its driver, an attractive young woman with long blowing hair, was hurtling obscenities at her to move.
A lifetime of habit commanded her first impulse. Dive into the nearest manhole and pull the hole in after. But something stronger was triggered inside her. A response too unfamiliar to be questioned or analyzed. 'Why not give her something to scream about,' Aqua thought.
She met the woman's gaze eye to eye, and matched her tone of indignation. Without moving an inch from her position, she grabbed a corner of her scarf and held it above her head at arm's length. Slowly at first, then faster and faster, she rolled her head around in circles, unraveling the coil 'till it fluttered from her hand like a long snaking flag. It dropped the jaw of the woman in the car and an audible gasp rose out of the crowd. She flung it high in the air and walked slowly to the curb where the people formed an aisle, allowing her to pass. All eyes were fixed on the white ribbon wafting its way to the pavement. Even the bullet shaped car froze at the green light until it hit the ground. By that time Aqua was down the street.
The incident sobered her. She realized she would have to turn around or miss her appointment. She decided to keep on. Walking into the breeze made the top of her head all tingly and cool. She realized the more she reflected people's stares, instead of absorbing them, the less she felt the surges in her head. It was only a few blocks more to the park. Maybe she could sort things out in peace.
At first all the green was cool and soothing. The park was quiet and even the playground swings jangled empty. She entered the checkered light of a path, shaded by trees, hoping it would lead to her favorite spot. The murky silence was eerie and left nothing to distract her from her problems. The headache reasserted itself along with a menagerie of painful voices: Dr. Virgil; Mr. Adib; her sister; the nurse; the lady in the sports car; and the one in the flower shop; all talking at once, all accusing. There was something about the headaches and voices. Always together, they were one and the same. They twisted and squeezed her until she was wrung dry like an empty sponge, with no voice of her own. One voice became suddenly dominant. It was an unfamiliar, amplified voice, a voice of authority. "Do not, I repeat, do not cross over the line. This is for your own safety. Things are getting our of control. Measures will be taken to restrain offenders. Stay back!"
Aqua realized the voice wasn't inside her head but was coming from the other side of the thicket. It was a real voice. She followed it out to the bright sunshine and found a huge crowd of people concentrated around a platform on the other end of an open clearing. Someone had either just given a speech or was about to present one very soon. The crowd, families mostly, had apparently been waiting all day. Their vari-colored blankets, dotting the lawn, gave the scene a festive and relaxed feeling. Here and there someone carried a political banner but the slogans and symbols were meaningless to Aqua. The only thing that seemed out of place was a barricade of security guards and mounted police. She was about to ask a Frisbee-tossing kid if he knew what it was all about. Then she heard the voice through the bullhorn again.
"This is the last warning. Do not cross over the line!"
This time it came from the far side of the stage where a scuffle was erupting. A man was trying to climb onto the platform and a crowd of people behind him were slamming each other into the police line. She couldn't see anything happening on the stage to protest. The objective appeared to be pure defiance.
Curiosity drew her closer. She was amazed people grabbed their children and scrambled out of the way. When she got close enough to see clearly, she began to understand. The troublemakers were an odd-looking tribe. Both men and women, most were young, but a wide range of age was represented. Quite a few were dressed in army fatigues and would have looked like death camp survivors except they were wearing swastikas and chains. Others looked completely out of place. There was a middle-aged woman in a pink housecoat and fuzzy slippers and a young man in a business suit with no shoes and crutches. As different as they were, they all had one thing in common. Like Aqua, they all had shaved heads.
She didn't know who they were, why they were there, or why they shared her uncommon appearance. The families had recoiled from her, just as they did from the others who looked like her. She began to see why their instincts had been right. She did feel a kinship with these people. Their anger didn't need an explanation for her. She knew they had hundreds of reasons, reasons like hers.
The skirmish was escalating and rocks and bottles began to fly. In a solid wall of swinging clubs the police moved in. Aqua found herself picking up a stone and hurling it at them to protect her clan. The release was liberating. She wanted more. She flung herself into the melee screaming, flailing her arms at everything that moved. She was showered with blows and trampled by a horse, but she got up swinging, exhilarated by the battle, fighting for her life beside new brethren. She would have gladly died, so great was her passion, but a cloud of tear gas doused the fury. In seconds the whole thing was over; the mob reduced to its knees, gagging and hacking.
Aqua was arrested and packed away in a paddy wagon along with the other skinheads. Her body was bruised and battered but her spirit burned radiant. Barely able to breathe, from the gas and a broken rib, she took the wretch next to her into her bosom and gave him comfort, stroking the gray stubble above his ears. One of his eyes was swollen shut and several teeth were loose and dangling. The others apprehended were in similar shape. Silence embraced them as the wagon sped downtown.
Reed makes it all up as he goes along, imagining himself inside the lives of people around him. His essays have appeared in numerous San Francisco magazines and journals, his stories in The South Carolina Review, The Alsop Review, The Blue Moon Review, and forthcoming soon in The Blue Penny Quarterly. A novel is under construction out in the blue Pacific, atop Haleakala, where he and his partner are exploring the Outer Limits of American culture. The story "Skinhead" first appeared in The South Carolina Review.