Sarah Langan grew up on Long Island and went to college in Waterville, Maine, where she published her first short story ‘Sick People’. She gained her MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of the novels The Keeper and Virus (called The Missing in the US) but as well as writing she is also pursuing her Master’s in Environmental Health Science/Toxicology at New York University. You can find her website at http://sarahlangan.com/
A week ago I was a salesgirl at Filene’s Basement. It was seven am on the morning of our semi-annual suit sale, and I was driving my twelve year-old Saturn down Stewart Avenue. I was late for work because I’d stayed up drinking Wild Turkey in front of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. It was a depressing good time for lonely hearts at the casa de Koszalin, punctuated by a screaming alarm at 6:30 am and cheese doodles dried to the side of my face.
Stewart Avenue was empty. Manhattan commuters and downtown county seat clerks were still listening to their bedroom air conditioners hum. It was a bright morning in August and the sun was already high in the sky, which was what I wanted to be. But I was fifteen minutes late, which meant that unless I wanted my pay docked, I needed to shake a leg. I lit a Parliament to keep me company for the twenty feet of sidewalk on my way to the sliding glass doors.
That’s when I saw it.
I didn’t know what it was at first. I didn’t want to know. I thought about work, where the Steve Windwood muzac would bore into my brain and lay eggs like an earwig. I thought about my dad, whose eyes had been either blue or green, and how it seemed really important that I should remember which. I thought about my idiot sister Melissa, who cooked cabbage rolls and kielbasa for his wake like we Koszalins were just off the boat from Krakow instead of third generation Long Island.
Then I looked at the tip of my left index finger.
It was flat and red instead of round and pink, like overnight someone had sliced away a millimeter of skin without my having noticed. Underneath a thin layer of clear scab, I could see my capillaries pulsing. Most alarmingly, there was no blood.
Had I been sleepwalking? Smoking cigarettes from the wrong end? I’d never before seen a burn so perfectly formed. The wound was small. Insignificant, practically. Still, what was this.?
Just then my manager pulled her rusty Hyundai into the space next to mine. Ten years for the company and all she had to show for it was health insurance. When she saw me smoking on the sidewalk, she shook her head through the rolled-up window like I was a disappointment to her; she’d had such high hopes for a career salesgirl like me. “Better punch in!” she called. If I’d been the kind of person to flip her off and go straight to a doctor, I think my life would have turned out differently. But I wasn’t that person, so instead I pitched my Parliament and followed her into Filene’s Basement.
After bandaging my finger, I spent two hours prepping the floor before the sale started. At exactly nine am, the head manager blew her whistle, and the rest of us hid in the men’s shoe department. It was like a scene from a camp in Auschwitz. A crowd of discount rabid Long Islanders reached through the apertures between the bars to the front gate. Their arms waved at us in a frenzy. Then the bars lifted, and they poured into the store. Pretty young women, haggard secretaries in street clothes, and toddlers attached to their mothers by harnesses raced through the aisles. The floor shook as they converged on the suit racks.
It took less than ten minutes for them to lay waste to every display. The place was a bleeding wound of clothes, overturned racks, and broken mannequins. I started thinking about my dad again, even though we’d never been close. He used to call me a few times a month. “How ‘bout those Mets?” he’d ask, even though I didn’t follow them.
I looked down at my bandaged finger. It suddenly seemed less full, like whatever had happened to that missing millimeter of skin was spreading. Overhead, a muzac version of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit dissipated from the speakers like anesthesia. On the freshly waxed floor, two hags fought over a $49.99 polyester pinstripe monstrosity. Out the back door, smokers pitched their cigarettes into a dying hemlock like they couldn’t grasp the concept of cause and effect. The high school girls working the register were wide-eyed, like they’d rather be bathing in a tub full of lye than ringing up this cattle call. I found myself wondering if the small things are actually big things. Maybe all together, they amounted to a sign, and I was witnessing the end of the world.
At the jewelry counter stood the only man in the entire hoard. His dyed-black comb-over had flopped to the wrong side, where his greasy bald spot glistened. He was clinging to the counter with both white-knuckled hands while around him the crowd thickened. Probably, his wife had dragged him here and then forgotten about him. Now he was stuck in a discount department store, waiting for his wife to emerge from a fitting room, only to reassure her that no matter what zebra stripe animal print she wore, she didn’t look fat. The sight of his frail terror should have made me laugh, but it didn’t.
The women swarmed into the communal fitting room with arms full of clothes. A few didn’t bother waiting, and stripped down to their panties in the aisles. Their fat asses pointed toward the ceiling as they grunted their way into skirts one size too small. And here was this man all alone. His eyes were closed tight like he was having an anxiety attack, or maybe even a heart attack, and nobody could see it even though he was surrounded by people. Not even his wife knew or cared what was happening inside him.
Thinking about all this got me upset enough to run into the stockroom, where I sucked down six gulps from the bottle of Wild Turkey in my locker.
When I got back to work the sale was over and the store was a wreck. Not a single rack was still standing in the women’s department. The suits had migrated to every part of the store: between faux antique clocks, on top of hats, beneath down pillows, and crammed under fallen displays. The carpet was littered with the arms and legs of mannequin pieces like a war had happened here, and we salesgirls were visiting the aftermath to claim the body parts of our dead. I picked up a torn green blazer, size zero, which was attached to a glassy-eyed mannequin’s trunk. I felt sorry for her, poor girl. It’s no fun going through life a cripple. I tried to find her legs, but I was so drunk that I tripped on a stray golf cleat and fell on my ass.
It didn’t take long for the eighteen year-old assistant in Young Miss Sportswear, Ashley Nicholas, to find me. “Look at you!” she pointed from across the waxed divide between departments. “You’re drunk!”
I shrugged because this seemed evident, but like the man at the jewelry counter, surprisingly un-funny.
Ashley went to Hofstra University, and unlike me, would graduate. Ashley held her stomach she was laughing so hard, like she was busting her own internal parts she was so amused, and I knew it wasn’t my drinking that tickled her. It was my snarled hair, too-tight pants, and must-buy paisley polo from four years ago that were a non-stop riot. I wanted to tell her that anybody could be pretty if they spent $500 on boots. I wanted to tell her if she got hit by a Mac truck tomorrow I’d laugh at her funeral. But I didn’t say that, because people like Ashley don’t get hit by trucks. They marry bankers and move to fancy towns like Manhasset and Old Brookville. One day five years from now Ashley would walk into Filene’s and I’d be so embarrassed that I hadn’t been promoted to Dress Department assistant manager that I’d hide in the stockroom. She’d see my slumped shoulders in the distance, or hear my name called on the PA for a price check, and she’d laugh that very same laugh. I could see it happening in my mind. In life there are winners and there are losers, and nobody had to tell either of us on which side of the divide we stood.
Ashley was laughing like she’d never stop, so I got up and crossed the wax floor into her department. The next thing I knew she was on her ass crying, and it took me a second before I realized that I’d put her there with my fist.
I was fired, of course, and got five minutes to clean out my locker and go home. I packed my half bottle of Wild Turkey, two sweatshirts, and an Anne Klein watch I’d stolen from the jewelry department two years before but had never worn. It jiggled at the bottom of my bag like something on fire, and just to show them they hadn’t broken me I took a swig of Wild Turkey on my way out the door.
Back at my studio apartment where the cheese doodles and half-empty pizza boxes seemed to have married and made babies in my absence, I noticed something pretty terrifying. My bandage covered my entire finger, but about half of it was hollow. It looked like half my finger was gone. I probably should have peeked. I know I should have peaked. But I didn’t. I was afraid.
On TNT, Natalie Wood was reciting Whitman’s “Splendor in the Grass”, which started me thinking about the man at Filene’s, and my bitchy little sister, and my ex-boyfriend who wasn’t so sharp, or even literate unless you count The New York Post , but at least his presence in the apartment had shamed me into showering a few times a week. I thought about Ashley Nicholas, and the fact that I’d never once called in sick at that damn job, never once fudged on a price check or hidden a new shipment in the stockroom so I didn’t have to unpack it, and still, I’d gotten fired. I’d lost yet another thing I didn’t give a shit about, and somehow that made it even worse.
Suddenly Natalie was crying, because even though she didn’t know it, very soon her life would change for the worse. She’d lose Warren Beatty, and she’d wind-up in a loony bin, all because she was too sensitive for her own good. All because nobody had ever had the sense to offer her some decent advice, or even point her in the right direction.
I realized that I was crying, too. My bandage had fallen off. Half my finger was gone. Though it had been years, I said a prayer over it, like mourning the dead. The bone was as white as a Crest Girl’s smile.
After “Splendor in the Grass” I got drunk enough to sleep through the day and half the night. When I woke up I tried not to look at my hand. I figured what I couldn’t see wouldn’t hurt me. I found a dishrag and wrapped the whole hand. Then I soaked it in the last of the Wild Turkey, for antiseptic.
On my way back from getting more Wild Turkey, I decided to stop at the unemployment office across the street from my apartment complex. I waited on line for three hours, which I liked, because it was a change of scene from my couch. I might have been talking to myself. Reassuring my hand that if it thought happy thoughts, its finger would grow back. The woman behind the counter was wearing a $50 purple polyester pant suit from Filene’s Basement. “Next!” she called to me. Her breath was pastrami and garlic. “Reason for termination?” she asked.
“It could be anything,” I told her.
She squinted at me.
“I broke up with my boyfriend,” I said. “Well, actually, he broke up with me. But I would have done it eventually.”
The woman wrote something down on her form. I don’t know what. “Unsatisfying love life,” maybe?
“But what’s the reason?” she asked.
“We had to wear heels all day, even though we were always on our feet. That’s why I have bunions.” I should probably admit that I’d dipped into the Wild Turkey while on line.
The woman cracked a smile. I knew I wasn’t helping my case. I knew I should just shut up. “My father died, too. Not today. Last month. I’ve been drunk ever since. My mom and sister didn’t tell me he was in the hospital even though they visited him every night. They thought I’d be an emotional burden so they only told me after he was dead. Ever wonder what happens when the only person who ever loved you dies? It’s sort of like the sound of one hand clapping, you know? I think you start to disappear.”
The woman wrote something else on her form. “Dead dad,” maybe.
“Also, I punched a rich girl at work. But she’s fine.”
The woman handed me a form. “Take this to that other line and then see your doctor,” she said, nodding at the line across the room. The new line was about twice as long as my line. The heading at the top of the form read, “Inability to work due to disability,” the subcategory that had been circled was mental illness.
“I don’t know about this,” I told the woman.
She nodded her be-speckled head. “Oh, I’m pretty sure.”
The second line stretched all the way out the door. The people on it kept their heads bent down low and everybody else tried hard not to look at them. I thought I saw the man from Filene’s with the comb-over at the front, mumbling to himself. These people weren’t ready for prime time. These people could barely hold up their end of a conversation, let alone a job. I wondered how it had happened that there were so many of them in the world. I wondered how I had become one of them.
I walked out the door to find the end of the line, but it went on for so long that I just kept walking.
After the unemployment office I went home. There was a frozen Stouffers’ Italian Crust Pepperoni Pizza in the freezer. When I tried to open the door my bandage slipped off. All the fingers on my left hand were gone. Sharp white bone and severed tendons lined my palm and the sides of my wrist. It took me a second or two before I threw up.
Then I called my sister. Her answering machine clicked. “Help me. I’m disappearing,” I said, and then I hung up.
Then I called Chev at his new girlfriend’s house. “Missing fingers?” he asked. “Are you sure this is important, because it’s free wing night at Croxley’s Ale House, and you know all the good wings get eaten early… By the way, stop getting drunk and calling me. It’s not funny.”
Finally I called a doctor from the phone book, but the earliest he could fit me in for an appointment was three weeks.
To keep up my strength I had a few shots, which made me so tired I needed to sit down. On the television, Oprah smiled reassuringly at me, which I took as a sign. I decided to get soused.
When I woke up two hours later I felt worse. I peeled the crumbs from my cheek. When I tried to stand, I fell over. My feet were missing. I lay there for a long time. Then I hoisted myself back onto the couch, clicked the remote, and started watching the Oxygen Channel for Women’s afternoon movie, “Mafia Princess,” while making damn sure not to look down at my stumps.
I’m reminded here of an old episode of “Oprah” about medical anomalies. On the show one of the guests talked about the sixty pound tumor that had taken root in her womb. The woman explained that the thing grew so gradually that by the time it was full-sized she hadn’t even noticed, and thought she’d simply gotten fat. When she said this, the audience and even Oprah looked at her like she’d just taken a puff from a crack pipe because, who the hell wouldn’t notice a sixty pound tumor? But even then, I understood.
Like any other tumor the thing had started out pea-sized, but over the years it grew. When it was the size of a grape the woman had probably guessed that something was wrong. But maybe she didn’t want to be a bother, or she was afraid of hearing the diagnosis and losing what little hope she’d clung to. Or maybe she had a phobia of male doctors, or knew someone who had died from the accidental amputation of both kidneys, or like most women she was just afraid they’d put her on a scale and write down how much she weighed.
By the time the thing was the size of a basketball and she was more afraid of it than of the doctors she’d have to face, she’d probably thought it was too late. Been embarrassed by her own stupidity for having waited so long to begin with. So she didn’t go then, either. When it got to be sixty pounds she’d just sort of given up. Decided she’d lost the fight and that the entreaties she’d whispered, begging Saint Jude for a miraculous cure late at night, would go unanswered. And so she bought herself a cane and started wearing extra-extra-extra large gowns from some shit store like Filene’s, and acted like nothing was wrong.
One day the damn thing cut off her corroded artery and she fainted from loss of blood while riding the Long Island Rail Road to Penn Station. She was rushed to the New York University Hospital, which I guess was a lucky thing, because if they hadn’t sliced into her abdomen and plucked the thing out right then she would have died.
And so this woman’s womb nourished a sixty pound hunk of cancer, and she never told a soul. On “Oprah,” sixty pounds lighter, she smiled placidly. No matter how many times Oprah asked, her answer never varied: “Golly. I have no idea why I didn’t go to a doctor. I guess I just didn’t notice it.”
But I can tell you for sure that she noticed. Because I was so scared that morning that I pissed myself and it ran down my legs and all over the couch. And then I turned on the TV, because crap, there was something about all this that seemed like God’s wrath. Something about it that I figured maybe I deserved.
But that’s not how you rationalize it, if someone were ever to ask. You tell them the whole thing was an oversight. You tell them you didn’t think there was anything a doctor could do. You tell them you were too drunk to notice rather than admitting that you were so terrified that the only way you could find the courage to take the next breath was to close your eyes tight, and insist that nothing was wrong.
The next day I was trying to feed myself by lifting a slice of leftover pizza with my elbows. By this time my ears were gone, but I still had those long canals in my head so I could hear the television, which for some reason seemed very important. At least I wasn’t going through this alone: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and the medical expertise of the entire cast of “ER” were with me for the ride.
Around this time my doorbell rang. I slumped down in my couch so that no one would see me through my window. But then a key sounded in my lock, and I knew it was my sister. With my elbows I pulled my blanket up over my shoulders and tried to hide.
Melissa was three years younger than me and her whole life she did everything right. Because my mom thought it was aristocratic, she majored in, no kidding, Polish Culture, and married a guy whose father owned a large share of Dow Pharmaceuticals. They lived in a big house, had three kids, and every Sunday night the nut baked chocolate babkas for the neighborhood.
I was hiding beneath my blanket in the middle of a work day with some very vital body parts missing, and there came Melissa. She was standing over the couch and I could smell the Chanel Number Five that she thought was sophisticated, but in fact smelled like a rest home.
“Olesia,” she said to me. “I called Filene’s. They said you didn’t work there. Were you fired?”
I was hoping she wouldn’t notice my missing ears. Hoping she wouldn’t notice that under the blanket my legs were stumps. I was so busy hoping this that I couldn’t even answer her.
“I tried to call, but your phone’s out of service.” Then she looked around the room. “I don’t know how you can live like this,” she said, like she thought I’d made a choice to be fat, single, thirty-four, and wearing damaged sale item trousers from Filene’s. Like this was fun for me. The thing about Melissa was that she pretended to be concerned, but she liked that I was a screw-up. By comparison I made her look good.
“What color were dad’s eyes?” I asked.
She frowned, but her voice softened. “I know it’s been hard for you.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It has.”
“But you can’t fall apart every time things don’t go your way.”
“I fall to pieces,” I sang, just like Pasty Cline, which I guess suggests that I was still drunk. She narrowed her eyes and frowned. She was looking straight at me. Looking directly into my face, my missing ears, and somehow she didn’t notice. I wondered if I was becoming invisible. It occurred to me that as the world begins to wish you into oblivion, you are probably the only person to notice. Everyone else forgets that you ever had hands, and feet. Pretty soon they forget that they worked side by side with you in the dress department. They forget that they lived with you, read the Sunday Post with you every morning. They ever forget your name, and the color of your eyes. You are gone, and even you may not remember that you ever existed.
“Dad loved me. I’m pretty sure of it. That’s why this is happening. Because he’s gone,” I said. “What color were his eyes?”
Melissa blinked, and a tear fell down her cheek. “I need to go to a doctor,” I told her. “I’m all fucked up.”
She sniffled, and I saw that she was genuinely upset. “I know,” she said. “It’s a bad time with Rich so busy, but I’ll look into it.”
“I’m not crazy,” I told her. “I need a real doctor.”
“Of course,” she answered, but she was looking around the apartment at my empty bottles of whiskey and piles of clothes and old pizza, and I could tell she wasn’t so sure.
“Was I ever normal?” I asked. “Did anyone ever think I’d turn out okay?”
She looked at her watch. She was crying. “I have to pick up the kids. I wanted to stop by.”
She shook her head, and I wished I the rest of me would disappear, too. “No,” she said. “But it’s not like anybody survived mom without a few bruises… I mean, I the Polish thing, that was never my idea... Neither was Rich… But that’s life. It’s not easy, you know?” Then she put her hands on her hips and closed her eyes until her tears were dry. She was back to herself again, pissed off Melissa the martyr. So tragic that her sister was such a burden. “I’ll send you some money for a while. How’s that? You can get your phone working again. Mom’ll come over next week with some food and some of my babkas.”
“Sure,” I said.
She nodded. Then she leaned over the couch, and narrowed her eyes again. Something registered on her face; I know it did. For just a second, she saw me. She saw that the skin on my nose was melting away. She was crying all over again as she backed away. She was frightened. But then, just as quickly as she’d seen, she was blind again. “See you,” she said.
I couldn’t help myself. I started laughing.
More days passed. I stopped counting. Flies amassed into an army like they’d chosen my kitchen as headquarters for a war against humanity. My television blinked off, and did not come back on. Melissa came back one more time, but I hid under my blanket. I was so small by then that she didn’t know I was there.
Last night I dreamed my father visited me. He sat next to me on the couch. I wanted him to fix me, but he just watched the television’s snowy screen. The funeral parlor make-up on his face looked like a fake tan. After a while, he turned and smiled. It felt good to have him with me. It felt right for the first time in a long while. His eyes were blue.
“I do love you,” he said. “But is that enough?”
I wish I could say that when I woke up, I did something. I acted. I called a doctor or 911. I tried to fix myself. But I didn’t. It was a hot day, and I was tired of the couch, so I shimmied into the bathroom and flopped into the tub. I put my trunk under the drain, and let the cold water drip on my chest.
And now here I am, sitting in the tub. Its been a week, almost. My legs and arms are gone, so even if I wanted, there is no getting out. It’s happening so fast that I can feel the loss of feeling. I can’t feel my nose, can’t feel my heart, can’t feel the hunger in my stomach. Only the phantom tingling of an amputee.
Everything is dark. Black. My eyes are gone.
And then, I am gone.
When I see again, the world is different. My apartment is full of translucent people. They are filaments stretched thin, like sea anemones in an ocean. I feel myself floating. Through walls, through doors, outside my apartment where there are still more people. Though she does not know it, my sister knocking at my door is surrounded by a legion of them. We do not speak. We do not hear. We do not touch, and I know that I have joined my kind. We are the lost, neither dead nor living, flitting through the world like ghosts as the days pass by.
(C) Sarah Langan 2007
© Paul Kane 2003-2007. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.