Emilio Iasiello is the author of the recently published middle grade fiction book, The Web Paige Chronicles. He has written two other books, a collection of short stories entitled Why People Do What They Do, and a nonfiction narrative, Chasing the Green. In mid-2018, he published his first chapbook of poetry, Postcards from L.A. He has published poetry in several university and literary journals and written the screenplays for several independent feature films and short films and has had stage plays produced in the United States and United Kingdom. He currently resides in Virginia with his family. More information can be found on his website, https://emilioiasiello.com.
Jack stands in front of the auto parts store. It’s a small shop with a service garage attached to the side. There are two other garages in town and this is the third. Jack has never had his car serviced here and knows now he never will. He sees three men standing beside the open hood of an old Dodge Shadow and a fourth actually working on its engine. He looks at each man trying to match his face with the bits and pieces his wife -- now ex-wife -- Mary has told him.
He presses his face against the side of the building, peering past the corner. The brick is cool against his cheek. One of the mechanics, a Hispanic, sees Jack and motions to his friend who turns, squints for a moment, then shrugs.
Jack’s fist tightens. Despite everything, one thing remains certain. One of these grease-stained men is Winston, the man Mary has left him for.
The men continue talking. They don’t pay Jack any more mind. They smoke cigarettes and joke with one another. Someone says something funny and they all have a good laugh. Jack watches them a little longer then walks inside the store.
An old guy stands behind the counter flipping through a flier. When the bell above the door dings, he looks up at Jack. He moves his jaw around then returns to turning pages. Every so often he jots something down on a pad of paper.
Jack heads down one of the aisles. There are various car accessories -- floor mats and rubber cleansers -- as well as a wide assortment of strange chrome gizmos Jack has never seen before. He stops to check out prices, and once in a while so he won’t appear suspicious, removes a package from its hook. He compares it to another brand, pretending to read the back before he returns the item to its original place.
He retrieves an orange comb from his back pocket and goes over the sides of his head. He looks at himself in a rack of rear-view mirrors and sees his tiny image reflected in the entire row. Once on one of those nature shows, he saw the world as viewed from the perception of a common household fly. It’s vision was peculiarly honeycombed. Each eye was composed of thousands and thousands of individual blurry facets. Supposedly, this gave the fly the ability to decelerate the activity around it to such a degree, that even the sharpest movement was reduced to slow motion. Jack thought it a horrible way to look at the world -- your worst nightmare multiplied and perversely distorted over and over again.
Jack stares at one of his images. He inspects his hair line, running his fingers along the tender ridge, stroking the fine hairs he finds there. He checks one side, then the other, gently testing the follicles. Then he digs into the thickness in the back. He pulls and tugs as if to reassure himself of something.
For the past few months Jack noticed that he was losing his hair. Someone down at work had made a remark one day and when he went home, he examined his head in the bathroom mirror, rubbing the individual hairs between his fingers. He even went so far as to scrutinize the brushes, distinguishing between Mary’s long blonde wisps and his own brown-grey streaks. He’d hold one up to the light trying to determine the exact point where the thickness stopped and the thinness began. One day shortly after he found the comb, Jack laid a white sheet of paper on the table and scrubbed his head furiously. Then he counted how many hairs that had fallen out.
Mary came in from the kitchen drinking a glass of iced tea.
“What the hell are you doing?” she said.
He shook some more. He pointed to the paper.
“See? Do you see? My hair’s falling out. It’s just coming undone. I’d be lucky if I’m not completely bald by the end of the year.”
He pointed some more. Mary snooped the paper.
“What are you talking about? I don’t see anything.” She took a sip of her drink. You’re obsessing again, Jack. You always obsess over everything.”
He snorted. “I obsess if I have something to obsess about.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Jack ignored her and turned his back to the paper. He nudged the fine strands with his finger, pushing them around the white background. He could feel her eyes boring through him. She slammed the glass down hard enough that Jack flinched.
“For crying out loud, you get something in your head and you won’t let go. You’re worse than a goddamn pit-bull, you know that? How many times do I have to say it? You’re not losing your hair. I’m not having an affair. End of story.”
She stormed out of the room. Jack stared at the doorway then put his head down on the table.
Last night, Mary came over with the papers. He had a bottle of bourbon and two glasses ready and poured them both drinks. They had bought the house together, but she hadnt been around for a while. They did a little talking. There wasnt much left to say.
When the time came to finalize them, Jack put down the pen.
“I’m not signing these,” he told her.
“You have to,” she said. “You can’t afford a lawyer and neither can I. Come on, Jack. Don’t you get it? This way it’s fairer on everybody. I don’t want your things. I don’t want you.”
Jack said nothing. He again shuffled through the papers in his hand. It was more for show than anything else. He hadn’t read a word, not with her staring at him like she was. He laid them down. Then he removed something from his shirt pocket. It was the comb.
“Oh God,” she said. “What are you still doing with that?”
Jack looked at the comb. He didn’t know why he still kept it, the one shred of evidence of his wife’s affair. It was the same comb that Jack had found in the bathroom -- his bathroom -- when he came home early from a sales trip last month. He remembered every detail perfectly: walking into the bedroom, finding the bed in shambles, the sheets torn off the mattress as if picked up and discarded by a tornado. The whole scene looked like something out of a pulp detective novel -- the lamps knocked over, books and magazines scattered, everything tossed in a random senseless order.
Too tired to think, he went into the bathroom to wash eight hours of traffic off his face and that’s when he saw it -- sitting on his side of the sink. The comb. It was a horrible looking thing, bright orange, a couple of teeth missing on one end. It was something a child might use. He picked it up and inspected it in the light. He brought it to his nose, smelled it. It made a strange noise when he ran a thumb over the remaining plastic bristles. This wasn’t a comb he had ever seen before. And then that feeling started.
“I’m going to see him,” he said. “I want to see him first, okay? I have to. Then maybe later. After. Who knows?”
“Why on earth would you want to do that? What could that possibly accomplish?”
“I want to ask him something,” Jack told her. “Is that all right? Can I do that at least?”
“Ask him what? Why would you do that? It’s over, Jack. I’m not proud that if happened if it’s any consolation to you. But it has. You seeing Winston isn’t going to change that. It isn’t going to change anything.”
She argued some more. She taunted him, called him names. She said some mean, unkind things. Jack didn’t say much. He let her do most of the talking. She folded her arms across her breasts and swore up and down. Finally, when he didn’t respond, Mary threw her glass against the wall where it shattered, sending shards everywhere. Some even hit his right check. But Jack didn’t even notice. He sat hunched over, holding the comb tightly in his fist as if that was the only thing that made any difference in the world.
The old man keeps looking up from his flyer. He clears his throat once or twice, then hacks it up into a handkerchief. He eyes Jack uneasily. He doesn’t sense his purpose here. Jack senses his apprehension, his confusion even. But he doesn’t realize that Jack isn’t interested in cup holders or spark plugs or any of this junk. He’s merely putting on a charade, an act. He’s getting his thoughts together. Figuring things out.
Down another aisle, he pretends to browse through air fresheners. His fingers run over the different scents -- vanilla, pine, cherry, green apple. There are different designs as well, one for each sign of the zodiac, a Grateful Dead symbol, a bunny, a unicorn. But the shapes hold as little interest or meaning for Jack as do their odors. One freshener is as good as another is as good as another. But that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes it mattered. To some people it mattered. And if you really wanted to get down to it, what was really important here was what scent did Winston have in his car? That was the real question, what he really wanted to know. What kind of air freshener, if he had one at all, would a man like Winston have?
There was a time last summer -- how could he forget? -- Hank, one of the older salesmen from work found out his wife was seeing someone else. Hank was an older man, heavy around the mid-section, nearly balding. He wore suspenders as well as a belt. He had been with the company for years. He walked into Jack’s office one morning and started bawling his eyes out, just like that. A complete break-down. Didn’t even bother with the door. People who passed by saw the whole thing. Jack didn’t even know Hank that well. It wasn’t like they were buddies. Sure, they had shared an account or two, and had traveled together a few times on business, but Jack didn’t feel like he really knew Hank, at least, not in this way. He didn’t know what to do so he stayed behind his desk while this near-stranger spilled his guts out all over the floor. Jack recalls thinking how pitiful he looked -- hunched over, fat jiggling, his head buried in his hands, tie askew, sweat staining his underarms. It was a sight. He couldn’t get over how pathetic Hank seemed. It was like every flaw was heightened -- his obesity, the liver spots on the back of his hands, everything. Eventually, he had to be helped out of the room by a couple of co-workers. Jack wished he could have said something that might have made a difference. Finally, when Hank left, one of the secretaries popped her head into his office.
“What was that all about?” she asked.
But Jack just shrugged his shoulders.
Two hours later, Hank left work for the day. The next morning, his office was cleared out by Enrique, one of the mail room clerks. Jack leaned against his door frame as boxes were carried out and stacked in the hallway.
When Enrique noticed Jack watching him, he nodded to the empty room and shook his head.
“Bitches, man. Am I right? Bitches. But what you gonna do?”
When he finally confronted her, Mary told him everything. It was like she couldn’t get it all out fast enough. Jack just sat there as she related the details.
It started over a drink and a few games of pool. The story was about a month ago when he left on his Northeast regional sales trip, Mary went out with a couple of her friends, Betty Patzelt and Gail Bernstein. They ended up at Pancho Villa’s, a small Mexican restaurant not too far from the auto parts store. It was a small place with sawdust sprinkled over the floor. On the walls were murals of bull fighters and pretty senoritas with roses between their teeth.
Anyway, as things would have it, Betty was divorced and Gail had just been dumped by her new man. So, the girls had some issues to talk about, male-bashing or whatever. They got there in time for Happy Hour. Time passed. One thing led to another. They started in on a third pitcher of margaritas. That’s when Winston walked onto the scene. A regular cowboy, complete with hat, boots and tight denim jeans. The girls had stopped talking. Someone nudged someone else, pointed, made a comment or two. He went up to the bar and ordered a bottle of Dos Equis. Mary was very specific about that -- Dos Equis -- dark, heavy beer. Later, it was Gail who bought him another round. Then Betty beat him two out of three games of pool. But it was Mary who ended up taking him home.
Jack recalls sitting there at the table, barely able to move. He couldn’t find his anger anywhere. He kept pouring himself more to drink as Mary rambled on. Winston was sweet. He treated the way a woman should be treated. Winston understood her feelings. Winston gave her things that Jack never did. Her voice melded into one fluent hum. He watched her expressions change almost with every word. Her hands moved around a lot. Finally. when she was finished, she threw her hands on her hips.
“Well? Aren’t you going to say something? Anything at all?”
Jack stopped listening. He scrubbed his head furiously with both hands. Then he inspected the table top.
“What on earth are you doing?” she said.
Jack nosed around some more. He looked up at her.
“My hair,” he said. “Do you think I’m losing my hair?”
He bends over to look at some anti-freeze. There is a bright yellow sign with the word “Sale!” in thick, black lettering.
Jack picks up a bottle and holds it in his hands. He wonders if its heavy enough to smash a man’s skull. He envisions himself bringing it down hard along Winston’s temple. He even practices the motion, grabbing the bottle by the handle, slamming it into the place right above the ear. He then considers that he might need several hits, so he practices a second and third, dishing out a real licking. If for nothing else, he feels good for the imaginary beating.
“Mister, are you here to buy something or just act all crazy?”
Jack turns. He forgot all about the old man behind the counter. He replaces the anti-freeze and turns around.
“I’m just looking.”
“Well, look harder. This ain’t no crazy house.”
Jack considers why he’s here, if his reasons are strong enough. If the confrontation is really worth the effort. He stands in the middle of the aisle with his hands at his sides as he makes up his mind.
The old man looks him over when Jack walks to the register. The man is around sixty. He wears a faded red mesh baseball cap with the auto parts store logo on the front. The name patch on his shirt says, “Carl.”
Jack thinks he recognizes the old man from somewhere, but for the life of him, can’t put his finger on it. He studies the old man’s face a while before he realizes that this is the same man who this past August played Bimbi the Clown for the children at the church carnival. Jack has to close one eye to picture the weathered face covered in white and red make-up, and a blue costume with bright yellow frills around the neck instead of greasy coveralls.
“Can I help you with something?” Carl asks.
“No. Yeah.” Jack pauses. “I’m looking for Winston.”
Carl’s face changes when he hears the name. He glances down at his hand and picks at something in between his teeth with his thumbnail. Then he inspects what he’s dug out.
“Winston, eh? What you want him for?”
Jack rubs a hand across his mouth. He shifts his feet once or twice.
“It’s important. I want to ask him a question. It’s -- It’s a personal matter.”
Carl looks at him again. Different this time. He makes a noise in his throat. Jack wonders if he knows, if the whole goddamn place knows. Then he thinks about the men laughing outside and his stomach gives a slight jolt.
“All right. Wait right here. I’ll get him.”
Carl turns around and shuffles in back. He has a slow manner about him as if it takes a great amount of energy for this man to gather up speed and move. The doors swing back and forth. Jack thinks he hears something. He puts one hand on the counter. He puts one on the counter and the other he runs through his hair.
Jack realizes he knows almost nothing about Winston. All he really knows is what Mary has told him. She has built him up so much that all that Jack has is this grand sweeping image without any details. Is he a big man? What color hair does he have? Is he muscular or wiry? He wonders if he’s ever seen Winston. He tries hard to recall the face of every person that has worn a cowboy hat, but just shakes his head.
Once a long time ago at summer camp, Jack met a kid named Winston. He was a tall and slender almost to the point of frailty with pimples all over his nose and chin. He had red hair and dark freckles. Jack knows this isn’t the same person, couldn’t possibly be. That Winston was from Maine or somewhere up north. But when Mary finally told him the name of the man she was leaving him for, Jack couldn’t help but think of that same gangly boy.
Mary doesn’t understand why Jack has to see him. She’s afraid that Jack might do something foolish, and Jack knows she’s right to think that. Sure, Jack wants to kill him, or at least feels like he should. But he also knows that killing is just a feeling, just as momentary and fleeting as other feelings, like love. Thing is, there are intangibles to be considered. Little details that help people make sense of things.
He looks in his hands. Like this comb for instance. What kind of person carries a comb like this?
Jack drums his fists against the counter. It’s taking too long. He looks at the Miller beer clock on the wall. He wonders what could be keeping him. He looks through the gap between the door and the frame. There is movement outside. People walking back and forth. He cannot help but think about the men in the garage. He wonders if that old guy has told Winston to beat it. Told him that old Mr. Nasty has come to thrash him within an inch of his life.
Jack looks up as the door swings open.
“You asked for me?” the man says. He looks at Jack with a curious expression as if trying to find a name that matched Jack’s face.
He is much older than Jack has expected, a good five or six years older. He has this rust-colored bushy moustache with a few grey hairs interspersed within. There’s a mole below his right eye and a paunch that pushes against oil-stained coveralls. What’s more, he’s almost bald on top -- just a few wisps of light colored hair. Jack imagines a cowboy hat with a wide brim covering all the right places.
“I’m Winston,” he says again. This time when he speaks, Jack notices a couple of teeth missing. There is a long silence. “Is there some sort of problem or something?”
Jack doesn’t say anything. What is there to say? His fists unclench themselves. His fingers stretch out across the counter. He notices that his nails are rimmed with dirt.
That’s when he realizes that he isn’t going to kill Winston, or beat him, or even lay a finger on him. In fact, he has no animosity for this guy any more than he has for any other stranger. He just doesn’t have it in him. The anger doesn’t exist. The sad truth that he knows now is that he just doesn’t care.
“Is this some sort of joke? You want to ask me something or not?”
Jack stops, looks back at the bewildered man. He has absolutely no idea what he should be feeling or how he should be feeling it. He digs the orange comb out from his back pocket and holds it in front of him. He notices a glimmer of recognition Winston’s eyes and then a twitching.
Jack thinks of something to say. There is more to it than all of this. He opens his mouth. He tries to convey this to Winston but nothing comes out. He keeps trying until he loses all train of thought. Then thinking better of it, he turns away and heads out the door.