by John Gorman
Once a week they pull me from the factory for public appearances. They rouge my cheeks, fluff my hair, wax my upper lip, and squeeze me into a girdle. Can’t let anyone think I’m a glutton for my own pretzels, even though I’m merely posing as the Snack Queen. Folks are dingbats if they think I’m the real Auntie Bloom. Why would I flapdoodle in a polyester pantsuit if I had her dough?
My fellow pretzel punchers are good sports about my big break. They won’t pimp themselves off like me, but for a few extra bucks and the chance to meet new faces I go wherever the head honchos send me.
“What if we stick you on the cover of Hungry Hank’s?” Nick says.
I thumb a splotch of gunk from my eye, then smooth it a shade lighter near my brow and catch a glimpse of my stupid getup in Nick’s sunglasses. I wouldn’t be here if St. Adalbert’s offered me the lousy nine bucks an hour to teach after school dance classes. Maybe I’m nobody’s top dog, but I’ve got pride. I consider what Louie the mailman has been telling me: to get an agent and a good lawyer. He reads from legal proceedings and depositions right out of his carrier between deliveries and I nod a lot. If I could give up on these childish dreams of making my mark I’d be better off. Louie is waiting with open arms. We were lovers for a short while, but he had to hold my hand in public. He made me feel like we were the only couple left on this withering planet. Now another woman might find this romantic, but there isn’t a lifetime’s worth of love in me. My desire spoils after short spurts. Louie’s in for the long haul. He gets angry when I accuse him of falling in gooey love. He’s in love with the idea not the flesh and blood. So my stubbornness makes two souls miserable. Call me selfish, but I’m doing him a favor.
Nick keeps pushing me to sign a bogus contract to pay me in pretzels for as long as my picture runs in the Daily Post.
“What if I get you on public access?” Nick says with the pomp of a vacuum cleaner salesman.
“No dice,” I say. “I want overtime.”
“We’re offering a lifetime’s supply of honey oat,” he says.
I poke his shoulder. “How many years you think I’ve got?”
I’m seventy-something, but I’ve got a wicked index finger, a bruiser. Nick mutters under his breath. I take the last tissue out of my jacket pocket and blow Nick a raspberry.
He’s tickled pink the company is running with his Chipotle-flavored nuggets. Another feather in his cap. I’m happy for him, but worried too because he blips through life believing all dreams come true. He’s never washed his laundry and though he’s finally moved out on his own he survives on Chinese, Burger King, and whatever tinfoiled treats nuke at Jack-in-the-Box. The worst thing ever happened to the guy was spilling champagne all over his cummberbund when he made a wedding toast.
Nick talks about Auntie Bloom as if it’s his company and if he gets a few more well-timed promotions he’s going to stick a satellite office in Tokyo. He’s thinks I’m his biggest cheerleader and traps me behind the booth, rattling off his unfiltered brainstorms. Where can I hide? I’d crawl under the table, but my knees are rubber. I tore my meniscus when I hit a low point praying on the unforgiving, uncushioned kneelers at Precious Blood. When I tried a new sanctuary, the church-goers gave me cold, pitying looks.
I’m a workaholic now, that’s my religion. Louie’s obsessed with stopping the world from blowing to smithereens; Nick’s a cockeyed optimist who wants to heal the stains of the world with carbo-heavy snacks. I strive to be useful.
At a grade school bakeoff, kids want to hug me. Granny stamped all over my face. Laugh lines I tell them, and give a good chuckle. I just want to stop feeling indebted.
We squeeze a week’s worth for the day: Hillside Mall’s grand opening, Cooper Condo’s white elephant sale. My stomach feels queasy at Elmhurst’s Street Festival. The lousy sun beats on my head, but Nick refuses to let me wear a visor. I tell him my make-up will melt.
“Willpower,” Nick says.
“I’d rather have a cold beer,” I say.
He’s been reading Schopenhauer, Dr. Phil, and Chicken Soup for the Aspiring Wunderkind and thinks that qualifies him to be my mentor. To him, I’m still a menial laborer trundling along the great conveyor belt of life.
Nick takes my elbow to help me cross the street and I belt him with my tote bag. I’m sick of people thinking I’m ready to expire, but I have to work. Social Security doesn’t stretch as far it used to plus I’d go nuts if I sat home all day. I’m not into hobbies unless trimming Chia Pets is a hobby. Twice a month I buy animal-shaped plants from Goodwill. I now have an ostrich, a duck, a rhinoceros, and what looks to me like a water buffalo.
Back in the factory, I do the itsy bitsy spider to warm up. I find this better than greasing on Cortisone cream. Four other punchers besides me squeeze hydrocarbon templates into the burbling hot dough. Marty and Esmeralda compete to punch out the most pretzels. I know my speed. We don’t get paid more boosting production so I lag at my pace. The pay is the same as Hal’s Greasy Spoon, but I’m done wiping tables. Actually, the pretzel factory is a good workout especially for the triceps and whatever those muscles are called below the shoulder blades.
Jimbo, one of the pilers, lets me switch with him to break the monotony and I tong the punched pretzel off the belt and place it on a hanger to cool. Three minutes under the ultraviolet rays and it’s ready for inspection. Jimbo’s not a worrywart the way Nick was when he was a piler. Nick freaked out the time I lost my balance, flopped over and almost busted my knee. He swooped me over his shoulder and rushed to the makeshift infirmary, really just an extension of the water cooler with a drawer full of duct tape, peroxide, and a half empty bottle of Smirnoff. Nick poured me a heaping cup of water, spilling a little over his boots. I could have given him a big juicy smooch on the lips, but he’s happily married, forty years younger, and he once caught me trying to slip a mickey in his lemonade while we were in the lunchroom.
I mention this because I’m not treated like a bedpan at the factory; I’m an integral part of the team, a breadwinner and a productive citizen even though my ovaries have long since gone on the permanent fritz.
Has anyone done something so nice for you you’re mad as hell at them? You’re mad because you need to pay them back, not because they expect it, but to squish it from your conscience. After Nick ducktaped my knee at the factory he nursed me in an inexcusable way. He made my life rosier. He talked the head honchos into getting me to play Auntie Bloom, the fake founder of the pretzel franchise.
With a wooden rolling pin, I flatten fake dough on a pullout table crisscrossing patterns until the tomato-shaped timer goes off, then brush my free hand across my sweaty forehead.
Nick leans over my shoulder breathing mocha latte into my face. He looks ridiculous with an apron around his waist, but I must say he gives a good roll. I’m lulled by his gentle press, east, west, east, west. It’s terribly romantic, the salty air, the cinnamon, the sweat. I’d rather watch Nick rolling fake dough than see the hydrocarbon templates punch real pretzels. I hand out leaflets while Nick fibs the history of Auntie Bloom.
“Step right up and meet the proud twister of rods and figure eights,” Nick says.
He kisses his fingertips and says “Magnifique.”
“Can the French crapola,” I say.
“Just play along,” he says, forcing smile. “Auntie Bloom is strong and zany enough to wrestle alligator.”
I flex my bicep on cue. Nick grimaces as if I should squeeze harder.
Deep inside it irks me that I wouldn’t be where I am without Nick’s intervention, but have I helped somebody the way he’s helped me? I left the one man, Louie Lonka, who truly loved me at the altar forty years ago. Why? Because I’m not the marrying kind. I was stupid then— drawn to a uniform and a steady paycheck. Louie wouldn’t be a crackpot if it wasn’t for me. By the butt end of the mall, his mail carrier is stowed. He bulldogs along with his mine-detector. I can’t blame myself for all the crackups. At least my friendship with Louie has kept him from going postal.
Sometimes I stare at all the saline dust glittering on our pretzels. I marvel at the crystallized beauty and wonder if the pretzels would look as scrumptious if we used real salt.
Today we have garbage bags filled with nubs and discards. They’ve become our samples. I call them the rejects from the pretzel factory. Nick doesn’t get the joke. When I was a girl, kids went to great lengths to strike the best insults. A popular one was, “You’re a reject from the pretzel factory.” It meant you were so ugly, uncoordinated, or just plain stupid that even the pretzel factory would toss you in the garbage. In those days, it was a sin to waste food.
Nick looks to me for guidance when we’re running low on samples. His gelled part comes undone and hangs askew over his right temple. His mouth screws into a tight knot. A sweat stain, the size of an egg yolk, forms at the crook of his armpit. I rip the rejects into bits. We serve ten times the amount of customers after I’m done splicing. He takes my hand as if we’re sneaking into a spookhouse. Then I ward off a heifer who’s been loading up her duffel bag.
“One per customer,” I say.
Nick shakes his head and flashes his bootlicking grin. A little girl with three chin-length pigtails tugs his jacket sleeve, snapping off a gold button.
“Gimme another pretzel,” she says.
And Nick’s poised to hand her one until I put on the kibosh. I tell her she can keep the button. She smiles.
Before me, they tried another Auntie Bloom who didn’t cut the mustard. She didn’t look nurturing and the funny part is she has dozens of grand kids. Rumor has it she’s the Patty of Patty’s Pancakes. Billboards along the interstate flaunt her pasty mug.
At 12:45, a karaoke machine slides onto a six-foot-wide stage. Most of the snackmongers flee to press their luck via electronic keyboard and a Radio Shack mike. A gangly fellow in overalls strums air arpeggios waiting his turn.
“You can only do so much,” I tell Nick.
“Nonsense,” Nick says, digging into the box only to find we’re out of pretzels.
The karaoke machine bleeps and when our following realizes our reserve is tapped they march to the electric joybox.
“Take a breather,” I say.
He reddens at the neck all the way to his creased forehead. He scrounges through the box a second, third, and a fourth time then under the table to see if a secret stash has materialized.
I offer him a soda. He bites his cuticle.
The karaoke guy sucks. Nick takes advantage of the long line and talks pretzels, miming punching and piling.
Somebody suggests he take the mike and I nod. He takes a stab at Tom Jones, but I think the crowd finds Nick’s style quite unusual. He holds the mike like a beat reporter offering it to a disinterested interviewee. His jughandle ears never looked so perky. Nick sounds amazing, in fact, he’s more Tom Jones than Tom Jones. Nick could be lip-syncing instead of singing. He struts with pizzazz. He’s already undone his top button, peeled off his paisley green tie and flung it into the crowd. Women scream. They want to see his hairy chest, his gold chain. Nick doesn’t break from his macho groove. He snaps his fingers, thumbs to his imaginary band to bring it home. Nick gets Elvis in the pelvis, the improv wins a few hoots and hollers.
When the song’s over the gal who’s next defers to Nick. Encore, somebody shouts. Nick shakes the mike cord away from his loafers. With a cocksure head toss, he riffs into “Sweet Home Alabama.” Seven clapping rows chime the chorus. Nick’s jaw goes slack. His mouth curls into a baby O. He squeezes his fist as if praying into dice then throws his hand open. The crowd catches his naked spirit. It’s been forever since I had this much gusto shooting in my gut. I’m happy for Nick. Stunned he has heart.
When he’s done he’s swarmed by groupies who paw him like half-priced London broil. They rip his shirt till I push my way through the crowd.
Animal lust mixed with grave fear glimmers in his cold blue eyes. I ward off Blondie and the bimbo in shocking pink tank top whose getting her tummy autographed by Nick. I’m inches away when Nick starts wobbling. His face blanches. The blue veins in his neck read like a roadmap. He tips over. Part of his fall is broken by one of the bimbos.
I crawl under somebody’s legs and rest atop Nick’s chest. I pinch his cheeks, not a budge. I tilt my ear to his lips for a kiss of breath. One, two, three, I pump his solar plexus. I give him mouth to mouth then pump him again. After the third try, he shakes. He mumbles but the buzzing crowd drones him out. He latches onto me shivering; his blazer is long gone. I remove my jacket and swaddle him and he nuzzles into my breast. I pet the back of his head and a little drool dribbles down his cheek.
That night I drift asleep with the cicadas buzzing their own dazzling earnest summer wishes and a memory triggers of when I was a girl clobbering erasers. The billowing dust sprinkles and I recall the sweet smell of rain glistening on the schoolhouse bricks. Warm rain and drizzling chalk— a speck of hope dotting the tip of my nose. Back then, I yearned to be a great dancer gliding across the cool polished wax of wooden floors and have people shout and clap for me. I clapped my erasers and heard cheers. When the white dust poofs away, I’m left twiddling my fingers and a savage thirst for spring water takes me over.
There’s nothing worse than feeling indebted to someone until he’s indebted to you. Talk about cling-ons.
Nick promises me job security and a raise. Then in the next breath, he makes me feel his head because he’s sure he’s coming down with a fever.
I miss a few events to catch a break from Nick. The next time I see him he looks as if he lost his puppy. I busy myself. When there’s nobody at the table I staple handouts. Nick’s so despondent, his face hasn’t a single dimple left; he wears two day’s worth of mottled beard. I pull out the staples and redo the handouts. My peripheral vision sucks, but I catch a glimpse of Nick’s oxblood loafers.
He’s standing on his head.
When I slide his way, he stares at me as if I might do him harm.
“I’m not a monster,” Nick says.
“Of course not,” I say.
“I’ve got a real sensitive side,” he says. “Did you know I cry at the sound of windshield wipers?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“It’s a very sad sound, like somebody weeping. When I was a kid, I called them weepers.”
Somebody passes and doesn’t notice Nick parked on his head. I should be relieved, but I am not. I want this all to be over. He must sense my uneasiness and is milking this situation. I keep my eyes peeled for passersby. A plastic takeout bag makes me jump. I liked it better when I was indebted to Nick.
“Let’s get some ice cream,” I suggest.
I get desperate. I’m willing to let the company pay me in pretzels when a crowd builds. For a second, I think he’s lost his balance. He bicycle kicks, but doesn’t timber.
“Promise me something,” he says.
“What?” I say.
“Follow your dreams.”
I think back to my days as a Rockette. All that wound up potential winded up who knows where. We did the old kick-ball-change, thirty-eight of us across strung arm to arm, hip to hip. Imagine the level of precision. It took months to get in fluid sync. I had a crisp high kick, a bit higher than most of the other girls. They called me a showoff. I had long legs and when I got into full swing, I couldn’t just put a leash on it. The stage manager pulled me aside. “Stop being a showoff,” he said.
All I ever wanted was to shine like a precious stone.
My dreams have long since passed, but Nick has inspired me to do something crazy. I gaze at him and consider standing on my head as a sign of solidarity. Then I decide not to. Way too many snackmongers need tending and copycatting Nick might aggravate him. I feed the snackmongers until the supply is kaput. Then I march to St. Adalbert’s. On the way, I rehearse all the demands I am seeking. The list gets bonky. I almost get mowed down by a delivery guy donning a backwards visor.
When I pass the statue of the Virgin Mary I cross myself. I haven’t done that in years and it unsettles me. The air is filled with fresh cut grass and I hear the faint clack of a jump rope whipping concrete. I struggle up the back entrance steps and curse whoever was responsible for the lousy masonry. I’m sweaty-palmed the moment I step into the principal’s office and pass the gum-crackling secretary without so much as a glimpse. I sneer at her, but her ears are plugged with headphones.
The principal has grown both sides of hair bushier and his scalp is rising. The leather patch on the right elbow of his corduroy jacket peels southward and his mint green rayon tie is tucked in a crummy Windsor knot. He’s immersed in mechanical scribbling. His smarmy thin-lipped mouth and wide vacant eyes make him seem like an idiot encyclopedia salesman and I get the funny feeling that all the books on the shelf behind him are nothing but dummy leather spines.
For the first time in my life my knuckles have the wherewithal to crack bone and I step off the edge of reason. The principal shares a lazy smile, holding two fingers. I can’t read his lips. My head’s an empty shell.
The next thing I know I’ve inherited two after school classes on account of the first and second string teachers are out with Mono. I stuff my pride back in my purse where it belongs. Twice a week, for forty-five minute stretches, I share my fancy footwork with bratty kids who make fun of my right cheek mole. In between tap combos and the Charleston, I spritz harsh truths on the video game generation.
“One day you’ll swim out of the guppy bowl, but there’s no guarantee you’ll make it into the right stream.”
The kids chuckle and notice my varicose veins. Maybe it’s all for the best. When the principal sees I’m a decent fill-in and also a viable dart board for the kids’ wisecracks he asks me if I know any other talented suckers. The school has a guppy budget, but grouper ambitions. I suggest they let you know who fill the other forty-five minute slot with karaoke-style singing.
Nick’s perfect. Little girls and boys dig his vibe. The tuneless are treated like Supernovas. I’ve only been out of Auntie Bloom’s uniform for a day and I’m already a grump. We are two reject pretzels, but together we make a whole.
Nick and I take turns wet-nursing each other. The real Auntie Bloom I played for seven months comes back and almost runs the company into the poorhouse. On our days off, Nick and I lounge around the house trimming Chiapets. I handle the incidentals. It’s nice having somebody to burn toast for— to give bubble baths.
Something wriggles in my gut. It could be gas, but it’s too heavy. It feels like I’ve grown a heart.
Before his words found their way into print, John Gorman snapped the Eyesore of the Week for the Queens Ledger. Now he spits wine for a living. His work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Yellow Chair Review, Newtown Literary, Twisted Vine, and Gravel. He is the author of the novels Shades of Luz and Disposable Heroes. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. You can read more of his stuff here.