Authors: R. A. Nelson
empress of grease
I’m doing it again.
Obsessing at the drink dispenser.
Brown soda flows over my fingers; makes for sticky change. “Sorry.”
Schuyler’s stuffing his face with cheese from the condiment shelf. I’m not hungry.
“Any sign of Beezle Bob yet?” I say.
Beezle Bob is the Pimple-Faced Shift Manager with a Little College. He drives a vintage VW Bug. The only cars I see in the lot belong to the other kids working with us, Mary Katie, Country, and Threatt.
“Y’all going to the prom?” Country says.
He fills up my space with his chest. Country is big and doughy. You can tell his mother cuts his hair. Everybody calls him Country because he speaks fluent Mobile Home.
“Yes,” I lie.
“Me,” Threatt says. I push him as he goes by.
Threatt is a foot shorter than Country. He has the largest, most expressive eyes of any human being I’ve ever seen. His name rhymes with
. His Cow Face Burger hat is perched at a sassy angle on his perfect hair.
“What about you?” Country asks Schuyler.
“He ain’t got his license yet,” Threatt says. “He’s scared.”
“It’s true!” Threatt says. “But that’s cool. Just get your father to hire you a limousine. It’s not that much for one night. Buy your baby a big corsage. Just don’t accidentally-on-purpose pin it through her nipple.”
“Ooh. That’s what I’m talking about,” Mary Katie says from the drive-thru. The back of her corn silk hair is bobbed pink. If her pants were any lower on her Mini Cooper butt, the drive-thru would be R-rated. “Except a corsage is supposed to be pinned on the arm, not the boob, Threatt.”
“But then you might stick her in her jugglers vein,” Country says.
“God,” Schuyler says under his breath. “This place destroys brain cells. If my mind were Antarctica, I would have just lost the Ross Shelf.”
He plunges a load of fries into the spattering grease, thumbs the red timer button.
I fiddle with the cups so I can get closer to him. “Why don’t you get your license just to shut them up?”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“I hate cars. They hate me.”
“Hey,” Beezle Bob says, coming around the corner. “I’m not feeling so warm and fuzzy about you myself right at the moment.”
We take our stations. The supper crowd is arriving.
“I can’t believe it,” Schuyler says from behind the grill. “He’s here again.”
His voice is a chain pulling me back to earth. I was daydreaming of living at Sunlake.
“No. Piltdown Mann.”
It’s true. Mr. Mann’s coming through the door in a short-sleeved shirt, arms casually muscular. His steps are long. I feel every footfall inside my body. Molten images flare and ricochet: Mr. Mann, his shirt off, lifting me onto the counter.
“You don’t have to get all jacked about it,” Schuyler says. “Doesn’t that cradle robber eat anywhere else?”
Mr. Mann has been coming here off and on for weeks.
“Writers don’t cook; they compose,”
he likes to say.
He’s memorized my schedule. Emily by day,
by night. He usually orders the same thing. I’m convinced he’s saving all his decision-making synapses for me.
He’s holding a book under his arm. I read the title upside down as he puts it next to the register:
The Annals of Tacitus
He shows his lopsided smile, goosing my heart. “Hi, Carolina. It starts slowly, but when you get to the murderous bisexual Nero, it’s hotter than Grisham.”
Sometimes I can’t believe we’ve come this far. That we’re talking this way. There’s a silence. For once in my life, I’m not uncomfortable.
“You check out that Amherst web site?” he says.
I nod. “Emily’s house is a lot nicer than I pictured. Two-story brick Italianate. It says they’re fixing to restore it to its original color, baby-poop yellow.”
A serviceable word. Can I have a mint julep with my order, Miss Scarlett?”
“Quiet! You should talk, Mr. Boston Baked Beans. Besides, you know what I mean. From her poems I was expecting Little House on the Prairie or Walden Pond.”
“Things were a lot more goddamn pastoral back then.”
I rap his knuckles with a coffee straw. “Control yourself, Captain Trashmouth. You’re in the Bible Belt now, son.”
“Saints preserve us.” The dazzling eyes cut left and right. “And while we’re on the subject of turning human beings into jams and jellies, I think I would make a kick-ass Seville marmalade. You I would peg as raspberry jam.”
“An inside joke for Trappist monks. They make their own preserves at Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass. Only twenty-eight miles from Emily’s front steps. Tastes like heaven.”
While I’m thinking about this, the places he used to live, what he looked like walking around there, he asks a question.
“Do you ever think you were born a century too late?”
I nod. “All the time. Except for the Hubble.”
“Yep. Have you ever seen the picture of the gas pillars in M16, the Eagle Nebula?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s a place where stars are being born. You’ve got to see it. It’s looks like the fingers of God; it ’s—”
“Nine,” Beezle Bob snaps from his cubbyhole office. His face is a glowering dot-to-dot.
More customers arrive. I speed pour five drinks and return with Mr. Mann’s cholesterol.
“I hope you enjoy your meal.” Our fingers touch.
“Hope is the thing with feathers,”
Mr. Mann says. I don’t know if he’s quoting Emily or just being delectably weird.
“Ooh,” Mary Katie says from the drive-thru, flipping her bubble gum hair.
I’ve got to be careful. I can’t let other people besides Schuyler notice I have a thing for my teacher.
Does he have a thing for me?
It’s so easy to get carried away when you know there is no chance. But if there is—if there really is? If it’s not all just my imagination— what does that mean? To a man? That he likes me? Wants to be around me? Teach me poetry? Or does he want to undress me, touch me, kiss me, hold me? Be with me for the rest of my life? Love me?
Or just recommend a few killer books?
“Disgusting,” Schuyler says when Mr. Mann sits down. “Worse. Antediluvian.”
I giggle stupidly—he’s tickling me again. Finally I can’t stand it anymore and thump his paper hat in the french fry grease to get away. “Go burn something, Spartacus.”
Like always, Mr. Mann takes a long time to eat. He reads one-handed. When the crowd has thinned, I drift out to the dining room to wipe things down. I polish the Formica off the table next to his. When Beezle Bob leaves early, I actually sit down and we talk until closing.
Back home I check the web and find this:
Then something even better:
HOPE is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all
As goofy as it sounds, there’s something inside my blood that’s gathering steam.
But I approach the problem scientifically.
I’m methodical in my love.
I pursue without pursuing, watch without watching. Wait without waiting.
Our days become a kind of Brownian Motion: emotional molecules herding the two of us toward a particular desired outcome.
The way I hang around, the questions I ask, the not-so-accidental meetings—he has to know.
Does he know?
Confession of the Day:
I’ve swiped Mr. Mann’s picture from the school web site.
Back home I turn it into a j-peg, blow it up 400 percent. His eyes become lakes in the Ngorongoro basin. Lips, rills of sand. Neck, a salt plain in Tanzania.
Kiss the picture. No good. Try again.
This time I study the picture a long, long time.
I put Kitty Nation out, lock my bedroom door, and bury my face in my pillow, bunching the warm, bulgy fabric against my mouth. I move my head slowly from side to side, eyes closed, lips making the cloth wet, crushing the pillow until it wraps around either side of my head, pushing hard into the softness, his face shining in my inner eye.
Now he’s tilting his head, eyes gone smoky, eyelids at half-mast. He’s feeling this kiss so much, he needs to close his eyes but can’t—he has to watch me even though I can’t watch him. It’s too much to see his face this close, too intensely beautiful—I clutch at the pillow, squeezing with all my strength, pushing my body into his, mixing our particles. Forever. Forever.
The telephone rings.
I try to pick it up, drop it on the floor.
“What!” I yell miserably through the sheet.
“You got a cold?” Schuyler says. “Or were you asleep?”
“No.” I’m trying to rub the pixel burn out of my eyes, actually.
“You know,” he says, “it’s theorized primitive man got as much as twelve hours a—”
“Please, Schuyler. Give it a rest.” And give me one too, while you’re at it.
“Okay. Mom wanted me to remind you, the work-a-thon is tomorrow.”
It all comes back to me.
Painting, cleaning, hauling away trash at the elementary school where his mother teaches. Worse, Schuyler can’t go—he has a chess tournament in Nashville. Where can I hide? Bosnia? The Marianas Trench?
“Aw, man. I don’t feel up to it.”
“Come on. You promised. Besides, you owe me. Remember that lab animal you stuck me with for a work partner last year?”
“Hey, that wasn’t my fault. Pinkeye is extremely contagious. Just call the CDC.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll be there.”
Oh, well, such is life. When I settle the phone back in its cradle, I spy Mr. Mann’s blown-up photo. I study it again, snuggle back into the covers.
He’s there, holding a jar of Seville marmalade and a spoon.
April in Alabama:
The air is full of sunlight. There’s a warm, blustery breeze. The clouds are hanging like planets.
And all I’ve got to look forward to on this gorgeous Saturday is eight hours of paintbrushes, cleansers, hammers. Maybe day-old Tater Tots for lunch, if I’m lucky. I’m stuck at the elementary school, Schuyler’s work-a-thon.
The sign-in man is boldly asexual, thick around the middle and balding to boot. I bet his tan Dockers won’t see a single smudge all day. He glances at his watch when I come up, makes a brisk architectural notation.
“I’m sorry. Schuyler Green. But he had to go to Nashville for a chess tournament. Allegedly. So I guess I don’t have anybody.”
Dockers lines through Schuyler’s name with a ruler and looks around. A pudgy boy jumps up from a box, citrus cleaner in one hand, booping Game Boy in the other.
“Well, Robbie, looks like we found you a—”
“I’m her partner,” a voice says behind me.
Degreaser Boy sags. My mouth hangs open; I force myself to clop it shut.
He’s coming up the walk behind me wearing jeans and a UMass T-shirt. Scruffy white sneaks. His hair is tangling and untangling in the wind.
He extends his hand to shake with Dockers, bare arm almost touching mine.
“Richard Mann at your service. Of the Boothbay Harbor Manns.”
“Says here your name is Green,” Dockers says.
“That was before the operation.”
“Just kidding. It’s Mann; it’ll be on the next page.”
Dockers finds his name, makes another time notation. “All right, let’s see what we’ve got for you here.”
A rush of cold horror floods my chest.
I’m wearing shorts.
My legs are so winter pale, you could use them to signal the cavalry. What does he think of me? My blow-away hair? And who showers when they know crushed milk cartons are on their horizon?
A quick, terrifying Systems Check: Tic Tacs, no; blackheads, yes; bra that fits like a busted slingshot. Stunning.
Mr. Mann doesn’t seem to notice my wobbling knees. Dockers consults his paperwork, makes a couple of neat engineering marks on his list. “All right. Let’s see what we’ve got left here—baseboards or trees?”
“Which do you want? Scrubbing baseboards or planting trees?”
Mr. Mann and I glance at each other sideways, partners in crime. Dockers taps his pen impatiently. “Hmmm,” Mr. Mann says. “There’s dirt and then there ’s . . . dirt. What do you think, Carolina? Knees or trees?”
“No doubt struck dumb to be teamed with such an experienced work-a-thon . . . er. All right, trees,” he says to Dockers. “I spend too much goddamn time in places like this as it is.”
Dockers touches a pen to his flabby lips and nods at the Booper. “Big pitchers have little ears.”
Two minutes later we’re escaping down the hillside with a shovel, a posthole digger, and a croker sack full of pine saplings. The school grounds loom before us, empty of people, not even a car in sight.
Is this possible?
A whole day alone with Mr. Mann.
I suddenly realize I’ve forgotten how to walk.
As we descend the gentle slope, each step becomes a conscious act, a series of jerky mechanical movements preceded by careful thought. I’m a stumbling idiot, a giraffe. Is he watching my legs? My butt? Say something, anything!
Mr. Mann grins. “Glad to oblige, my queen.”
I somehow manage to feign a pout. “So you’re my son?”
. Knight at arms. Together we have just vanquished the Tan Lord and the bleeping Duke of Orange.”
I giggle like an idiot, clap my hand to my mouth to stifle it.
Thirty seconds down.
Only 28,770 to go.
What’s wrong? Why am I so nervous? I’ve talked to this man practically every weekday for months. What’s so different about this place? Being alone together for the first time? Am I afraid something’s going to happen?
Or terrified something isn’t.
“Along here?” I say.
“That’s what the man said. You want me to do that?” Mr. Mann touches the wooden handles.
“We can take turns. I kind of like it.” It’s also keeping me standing.
“I kind of like that you kind of like it.”
I raise the posthole digger—“I claim thee in the name of Sir Guy of Gismond!”—and stab it violently in the trampled sod.
Stop being stupid. Calm down.
I lever the metal jaws shut, lift, pull away a bite of turf, pile.
“Hey, you’re pretty good at that.”
I feel myself flushing pleasurably and stab the hole again. “My dad taught me. We used to build stuff. So what are you doing here?”
“Hey, can’t a new guy join the community? Actually, I promised Britton and Kelly—they pledge, I work.”
I feel myself bristling.
“So how much did they give?”
“Completely confidential! Dollar an hour.”
“You get what you pay for.”
“So they say.”
Is this turning into small talk?
I dig steadily, trying not to grunt. Praying my deodorant is a shining example of Truth in Advertising. I need something to occupy my hands, my flaming attention. I watch my feet to keep from glancing at his back, his shoulders, his arms. The ground is reasonably soft; the hole grows in satisfying pinches.
For a while we don’t speak. I appreciate the lack of mindless chatter. We set the first tree, shovel in the fill, pat the cool earth. When our fingers briefly touch, an electrical impulse riots up and down my spine. When I get up again, my hands and legs are shaking. I grip the digger harder. We move along the edge of the field, slowly emptying the sack. I refuse to trade for the shovel.
After an hour or so of this, things are feeling a little more comfortable.
Start with the easiest question.
“There’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you.”
Mr. Mann leans on the shovel, top lip beaded gold. I love the fact that he hasn’t shaved today; his stubble is dark and bronzed at the tips.
“Why Emily? You could have picked so many poets. Whitman, Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Frost, Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Wouldn’t longer poems have been easier to dig into?”
“And you said you didn’t know poetry.”
“I don’t. But when I learn something, I learn it. What’s the internet for, anyhow?”
“EBay. I’m looking to score a set of Clackers.”
“Never mind.” He stretches, making me nearly gasp in wonder, arms reaching over his head, broad chest pulling at the material of his shirt. “Whew. Haven’t done anything like this in a while. Okay. Why Emily.”
He brushes his eyes with a shining arm. I’m glad I’ve got something to hold on to.
“Because she’s the Queen of
,” he says.
“Almost beautiful. Almost married. Almost published to fame and fortune. Almost, almost, almost. That’s even the title of one of her poems, ‘Almost.’ The closer she would get to a thing, the more she would cut herself off from it.”
“That sounds so quantum,” I say without thinking.
“Yeah, you know, you’re right. It is.”
I don’t know what to say next. I’m too busy thinking. We move on to the next hole.
I’m suddenly paralyzed by a terrifying thought:
Is that what this is, this thing with Mr. Mann? Quantum theory?
Am I trying to discover what’s really real there?
A quantum physicist chops hunks of matter into smaller and smaller bits, atoms, neutrons, electrons, quarks, hadrons, leptons, gluons, etc. Looking for what they call the
—it has been so hard to find, some physicists call it the God
particle—that final piece of matter that really, truly, concretely exists.
That final piece of something you can actually, physically Touch.
But it’s never really there. You can slice away forever and not find a single piece of solid ground to hang on to.
A burning starts behind my eyes, the sudden need to bawl.
I drive the posthole digger viciously.
I’m a Deep Sky astronomer. Deep Sky astronomers are used to dealing with stuff that seems impossible: quasars, black holes, event horizons, bubble universes.
I set my jaw. My voice is a little trembly; I can’t help it.
“But what if some of those
things were beyond Emily’s control? Forced on her by life?”
Mr. Mann blows air between his lips. “You mean, did she have a choice? Do we get to choose? On the really important things? I don’t know.”
I do. I’m rolling now. “Maybe she wanted to take things all the way but couldn’t. That doesn’t mean she didn’t want to. Maybe she needed somebody else to help her. That’s the answer.”
Mr. Mann considers this. “Maybe we’re not supposed to know the answer. It’s a mystery. Life. Maybe it’s supposed to be. With Emily, I believe the answers are in her poetry. I can relate.”
“Because I’m the king.”
“Nope. The King of
. Almost had friends. Almost a poet. Almost married.”
I silently beg him to keep going, but he stops.
A blue Wal-Mart bag tumbles by, snags on one of the trees we’ve just planted. I pull it off and crumple it in my pocket. The moment feels inexpressibly sad.
Good. There will never be a better time. Ask him.
“But why didn’t—?”
“Look at you.” He suddenly touches my cheek with his warm hand, brushing at something there. I feel the blood moving to my face. “You really throw yourself into it, don’t you?”
I will his hand to stay there—please, please, just keep touching me—but it goes away. “I’m focused,” I manage to say. “I’ve always been focused.”
“I like that. Teach me, huh?”
I start to say something, but he’s already moving on to mark the next spot.
The rest of the day the conversation somehow expands in every direction away from him, like a gamma-ray burst from a star. No matter how I try to steer it. What is he thinking? Why does he come so close, then pull away? Is he holding something back? Why? What is he afraid of?
By the end of the day we have planted sixty trees.
I have dug every hole.