By Chris Kassel
In principle, Miss Tawni did not object to operating on her knees, but this particular morning, the shrink-wrap fit of her outfit, a skanky black Tadashi cocktail number with a sweetheart neck, and the elevation of her Dippity Do-oozing bouffant twist, made the convoluted squat required to search behind the steam register all but impossible. Not only that, but the apartment landing was filthy, the carpet hadn't been vacuumed...ever... and she had no tactile competence at the tips of her six-inch fake fingernails, shimmering like fish scales beneath the forty raw watts which struggled down from the cracked overhead fixture. Unfortunately, a rhinestone from her tiara had popped loose, rolled behind the thumping steam cock, and there was not a single gallant soul in sight, either within the vestibule, or on the frosty Detroit streets beyond. By five on a Sunday morning, even the jackers and rapists were tucked safely into bed.
Miss Tawni found that by crouching down, bracing the small of her back against a relatively unfunky patch of wall, lowering her derriere to a point several inches above the rank carpeting, she could avoid soiling or splitting her lycra Capezios while doing a blind reconnaissance of the furry burrow behind the grate. She grunted in disgust; it was abominably hot and disgusting back there. Now, suddenly, she was grateful for the solitude, since, by necessity, she looked and sounded like she was defecating.
She snagged an artificial nail on a popped screw and swore crudely. There went the fifty dollar hot-manicure and one-tenth of a set of Donita Jones Metallic Eggplant add-ons. Gamely, Tawni grappled on. She made contact with a small, round object, but when she withdrew it, it wasn't the rhinestone after all; more like a mummified cheese ball. She wondered how the rodents had missed it... unless it had already passed through a rodent unscathed. Christ, what a thought! She crooked her head, so that the bouffant do was partially crushed by the windowsill, but at least she could wedge her face behind the register. However, with forty watts to work with, it was impossible to make out much. Being six foot four didn't help. She'd have tossed in the proverbial towel except that the tiara had been borrowed from her cousin JayShandra, who'd been PMSing when Tawni had usurped it the previous evening, and who'd be PMSing when Tawni abdicated it after church that morning. And who tended to be a nasty bitch even on in-between days.
The heavy front door opened. David Lieberwitz, who lived across the hall from Tawni, tromped in wearing a grocery apron. Thick, wet snowflakes perched obscenely on the tip of his nose. He was an oddball; slow as a zombie and about as pale, a white boy living in the middle of a predominantly non-Caucasian war zone. He'd been there at the projects for at least five years; as long as Tawni and Gran'mama had been tenants. In that time, Tawni had shared a few quick words with him, doorstep kind of pleasantries, since they both worked nights, and sometimes arrived home simultaneously, before anybody else was even awake. She'd learned a bit more about his situation from his mail, since it got accidentally jammed into her box more frequently than not. She knew that he'd arrived at the building via a halfway house for runaways. He'd probably been about eighteen at the time, which would have made him twenty-two or three now. He had a sort of downward-skid demeanor that might have made him endearing, but he was creepy and standoffish enough to counteract it.
For sure, he was the alonest motherfucker that Tawni had ever run across. She'd have been willing to bet mascara money that he'd never had a single visitor in the whole time she'd known him. Not even a hooker. He'd never once mentioned a family, never received through Tawni's overly-accommodating mail slot anything that she might have taken as a note from home. Once, on a whim, she'd even asked about it, and he'd grumbled: "Naw, my 'rents...? They're spookier than I am."
To Miss Tawni, he sounded like a suburban kid. A Pop-Tarts and Fruitopia kid from Livonia or Rochester or somewhere. Only Fruitopia kids from Rochester called their parents 'rents. Plus, he had a genuine work ethic. In five years, he'd never drawn a welfare nickel to cover his two sixty per month flat note; he'd been a janitor, a security guard, a pizza delivery boy, sometimes he'd held these jobs all at once; currently, he worked the graveyard shift at the nearby twenty-four hour Ivanhoe Market, where he bagged groceries, put away stock, and hustled along the junkie shoplifters. But strange? Some kind of misfit. Not that Tawni saw herself much differently; for starters, biologically, she wasn't even a woman. And not that she gave a shit to begin with. The Oxford projects, a typical, government-subsidized low-rise block of forty-nine units surrounded by gay strip joints, boarded-up buildings, and stores with iron grates, was mostly populated by strung-out losers and space cases. Isolationism was a survival technique. The projects was a good quarantine warehouse for the scum thrown off by the melting pot of society. Insanity being one of the unfortunate side effects of modernity.
David took in the scene on the landing with a puzzled scowl as his nose snow melted and trickled down his chin. Tawni showed him a self-conscious mouthful of pearls: "If you gonna wear a tiara, boyfriend, just make sure you have that bitch pinned down."
"What's the problem?" There was morbid solicitousness in his tone. Tawni explained the problem as would any demure and flirtatious damsel in distress. "David, I done searched, and searched, but lemme tell you, it's darker than Sambo's ass back here..."
David shrugged and went down on all fours, thrust his hand beneath the grate and began to fish around amid the greasy rat droppings, insect shells, spider webs, and sticky furballs, as readily as if he'd been plucking a mint from a candy dish.
Glancing down, Tawni noticed a ferocious whitehead on the back of his neck. It was bigger than a Kennedy half-dollar. A swollen, infected Vesuvius of a zit, about ready to blow sky-high; it was surrounded by an army of satellite zits, a maroon litter of baby pimples that disappeared in pustulant waves beneath his apron straps. Tawni had never seen anything quite so grotesque, and she'd seen plenty; it was worse than the skin rashes you got from crystal meth. "Oh, baby, what's wrong with your neck? You got a boil there looks like Whoopee Goldberg in heat."
David glanced upwards. A lock of thinning, oily, black hair dribbled over his face. He looked as if he was considering some urgent revelation. "It hurts like hell, actually. It's a reaction to this hair growth stuff I'm using. Myrnax. Says right on the label it can cause acne." She noted that he continued to stare up at her, taking an inordinate amount of time perusing the length of her tapered leggings. "But, yeah," he frowned. "It must look pretty uncool by now."
"Myrnax is some ugly stuff, baby. Major chemistry in that jar. You oughten be messing with it."
"I guess. But I'm too young to go bald."
"Why, bald ain't so bad, child. Ain't everybody can be a pageant winner like yours truly. Besides, Lord may want you being bald; that's His business. You don't know what kinda trouble you in for if you go tampering with the Lord's business. Lissen up; I ain't just talking to y'all, David, I'm testifying..."
David's position remained fixed. He was ogling her unabashedly, all the way up to her gaff. Tawni stepped back, modestly smoothing her skirt. "Keep it platonic, baby. Remember, this chocolate motherfucking bar got nuts."
David shrugged. Tawni hadn't noticed; he was holding out the rhinestone.
Fifteen minutes later, she was rapping steadily on the door of No. 16. David appeared, still wearing his Ivanhoe apron. Possibly, he slept in it. She noted his employer's incongruous, almost ironic logo: a white knight on an armored stallion parading before a ghetto market. From behind the door chain, unidentifiable, unpleasant odors drifted out, overpowering her Yves Saint-Laurent Rive Gauche. The smells were probably the result of faulty plumbing and dirty dishes. She opted not to speculate. She thrust a tube of Tectirol-Z All-Natural Acne Cream through the gap between the door and the jamb. "Say, David, why don't y'all try this on your neck. It oughta do the job; believe me, when it comes to a peaches'n'cream complexion, Miss Tawni Porto don't never mess around. Plus, this stuff is some kinda wholesome. Organic, baby. None of those twenty-letter chemicals, like in that damn fool Myrnax." She pointed at the label for effect. "Nothing but jojoba oil and some enzyme found in pussy-willow."
"Yeah?" he said. "I could use a little pussy-willow." He took the tube, and she could see that he was profoundly touched and even a little bit pleased with her unexpected succor. As far as Tawni was concerned, that settled the rhinestone-under-the-steam-cock score.
Inside the one-room shithole, David made a five-minute phone call to Candy Cookie and took care of business. He was a compulsive masturbator. Afterwards, he drank four beers, warmed up a can of Spaghettios on the jive little projects stove, flipped down on the ratty corduroy sofa and looked at the Tectirol-Z tube. Pussy-willow enzyme. Fucking jojoba oil. About what you'd expect a cross-dressing zulu fag to rub on his face. Oh, well. He slathered a greasy handful onto the back of his neck. It stung as it dried and contracted, squeezing out a trickle of pus which ran down the inside of his sweatshirt in a slick, blood-warm rivulet. A minute later, the back of his head began to tingle. There was an 800 number listed in fine print beneath the active ingredients. 'Toll Free! Call With Questions or Comments!'. Comments? What kind of lack-of-life dingledork would actually have a comment to make to a stranger in the middle of the night about some homo zit cream? He had better uses for the phone, the budget notwithstanding. Candy knew the score. Screw budgets anyway. He sucked down a couple more Millers. Only six left; maybe he should have picked up a case. Budgets were for dicks. Still, fifty hours at six twenty five only equaled three hundred twelve before taxes; goddamned camel jockey owners wouldn't pay overtime. And when you stopped and figured it out, like a responsible adult was supposed to, it was the beer and the 900 numbers that got you into trouble.
So, what the hell were you gonna do? He punched up the 800 number. The operator answered on the first ring. Pre-dawn on a Sunday morning! First ring! Imagine that, somebody with even less life than him. The operator asked him to identify the brand name which had caused him his concern, and he nearly hung up in chagrin. But he caught himself, imagining that there were probably dozens of straight guys who used jojoba oil. For any number of reasons. Besides, there was something about this woman's voice that appealed to him. Something soothing and deliberative. Maternal almost. It was refreshing to speak to such a voice for a change. For one thing, she wasn't asking him for a credit card number or describing genitalia; she was wondering gently if he wanted to make a comment or ask a question about Tectirol-Z All-Natural Acne Cream.
"Make a comment. Well, no, ask a question, really. I mean, what's the deal, you know? It's making my head get the heebie-jeebies. Oh, and it says on the label, like, not to consume alcohol while using this goop. I drank about eight beers so far. Should I be freaked out?"
"That depends," replied the operator in her steady, accommodating tone.
"On whether or not you are currently on any medication for malaria"
"Malaria? What are you, bullshitting me? I'm from Michigan."
"Have you ever had an allergic reaction to Yellow Dye # 5, tartrazine?"
"Huh? What difference does it make?"
"Plenty. What about the preservatives found in fermented sausage? Any sensitivities?"
"I don't know. What's fermented sausage?"
"Salami. Bologna. Ball Park franks. Vienna mini-dogs. Bob Evans Breakfast Links..."
"I hate that kind of crap."
"Well, nitrates are the culprit. Any history of problems associated with gentamicin or tobramycin, or any other aminoglycoside antibiotic, including amikacin, kanamycin, neomycin, netilmicin, or streptomycin?"
"I dunno.... I don't think so."
"What's your name?"
He was briefly startled. "...It's David Lieberwitz..."
"Not to worry about the eight beers, David Lieberwitz, unless you're planning to drive somewhere. See, adverse reactions are often caused by cumulative drug interactions. That's the concern; most of us are walking drugstores, you know. Drug-to-drug reactivity is one of the most overlooked phenomena in pharmaceutics, especially given the truckload of prescribed medications and the 40% of the American public that uses OTC preparations in a given twenty-four hour period."
"Over the counter. Brand-namers. Like Tectirol-Z. Or Extra-Strength Hybrium, which in 25 mg doses is used to treat malaria. See, the active compound in Hybrium is hyanine, which when combined with the jojoba in Tectirol interferes with the liver's ability to metabolize alcohol, and prevents the body from eliminating it. Effectively, the combined effects of these products causes you retain and concentrate the booze in your bloodstream until it reaches a toxic level. Nitrate or yellow food coloring-sensitive individuals, making up approximately four point two percent of the population, find this reaction tripled."
"Man, how do you know all this stuff? College, or what? What's your name, lady?"
"What are you... uh, wearing?"
"A housecoat. Trust me, David; I'm old enough to be your grandmother."
"Well. So, how do you know all this stuff?"
"It's what I do for a living. I'm on call twenty-four hours a day, like it says on the Tectirol label. All this information I'm giving you is on an FDA database. The mainframe's in my mud room, behind the clothes dryer. Know what I'm doing right now? I'm sitting in front of a CrystalScan computer screen in my den, drinking decaffeinated Folgers and entering information as you feed it to me. An instant later, the myriad potential, predictable, and preventable reactions to the smorgasbord of available medications appears in luminescent green letters."
"You have a cool voice, Mrs. Doosenberry. Know what I'm doing right now?"
"Drinking another beer and playing with yourself?"
He jerked his hand away so hard he spilled his Miller.
"For the tingly scalp, David, the safest product out there is MiCort; the powder, not the topical salve. Mix it with a pint of lukewarm water, loosely bandage the affected area and change the dressing once every six to ten hours. Of course, excessive perspiration can result. If it does, try Dri-Zine Aerosol.... given that specific pharmaceutical cocktail, there should be no further side effects. Oh, and I nearly forgot, David. While using Tectirol-Z All-Natural Acne Cream, or any OTC product containing vermonyl... that's the clinical term for pussy-willow enzyme... in fact, it's also prescribed for menstrual cramps... you're not suffering menstrual cramps are you?"
"I... I mean, I... I, uh..."
"Gotcha! Anyway, David, if you choose to continue using Tectirol-Z, and want to remain alive, don't consume the following foods: avocado, fava beans, canned figs, or pickled herring. Are you writing this down? Forgive me; your name...Lieberwitz... you're Jewish, right? Gefilte fish is an no-no. Those foods contain tyramine, which is totally incompatible with vermonyl. Leads to abdominal hemmhoraging and potentially lethal bleeding into the brain. Good night, David."
"Good...?" The line went dead. He stared at the receiver. Shook his head. Gefilte fish? What the fuck was that? An ever-blinking sign for the Manhole Club, a dive across the street, filled the room with an eerie strobe effect. A patrol car passed by, languidly. He looked at his watch. Five hours till the bar opened. Wonder what Candy was doing right now? On second thought, he could imagine. He applied his twice-daily squirt of Myrnax, and thus, exhausted his roster of pastimes. He scratched his scalp. Passed wind. Smoked a Marlboro Green to kill the smell, watched a column of migrating cockroaches gathering about a tarry scab that had collected around a crack in the ceiling molding... having a fucking field day, those lucky roaches... and fell asleep.
He awoke mid-afternoon with severe, throbbing gastrointestinal pain. It felt like somebody was pile-driving I-beams into his descending colon with rhythmic abandon. Half an hour on the toilet, hunched in a fetal position, nose plugged by his knees, spewing out godawful gallons of blackish muck, led to a momentary cease-fire, allowing him to stagger over to the Ivanhoe... not, as he often did on his day off, to scam on Laquenda, the AM checkout girl with the hypnotic, emerald-colored irises, but to pick up some Lanolyte Plus Extra Strength Diarrhea Relief. Much to Laquenda's personal relief.
Evidentially, the Lanolyte contained rhyphenoxylate and xatrophine, and a supplemental portion of phenylpropagelanine, meant to replenish the electrolytes he'd necessarily flushed into the Detroit river. The label displayed a blatant, boldfaced warning against use if abdominal obstruction was suspected. As far as David was concerned, nine Millers and lukewarm Spaghettios were suspected. He downed a dose of Lanolyte like it was a schnapps slammer, then another dose for good measure, just to get him through an afternoon's worth of schnapps slammers at the Manhole Club. There was an 800 number printed above the manufacturer's address. Toll free. Comments and questions. Just in case.
Before leaving, David heisted a jar of MiCort Powder, and stashed it beneath his woolen Salvation Army pea coat. A coat which he'd been unable to wear since his neck acne had kicked in the month before. If nothing else, the Tectirol-Z had worked like a charm; within the span of a few hours, the mother zit had gathered her brood and split town.