What I Need
Copyright © Lee Ann Mortensen 1990
I'm on my lunch break sitting on grass pretending to read while a woman
on a bench tries to get a bald man to sit down with her.
She is pulling his thumb with one hand and picking the paint off the
bench with the other.
“No bugs here,” she says. The
man pulls his thumb away and sits on the grass by her feet.
“There's an ant on your shoe,” he says.
She laughs and pulls at his shirt. “I
like the way you say ‘Ant’ like an easterner,” she says.
I watch them, and wonder if they are married, if this is what married
people do for lunch, pick at benches and flirt a little.
My head begins to hurt from the sun, but I don't want to go back to work
“Look,” the man says, and I look.
He is holding a blade of grass.
“You're probably sitting on a nest,” the woman says.
The man looks at me and I look down, turn a page in my book.
“It's all bugs, this place,” he says loudly.
I look up. He is smiling at
I’ve just turned eighteen, and grown men have started looking at me.
They’ve started smiling. They’ve
I didn’t know this would happen.
turns the man’s face toward her. She
says, “I got a spider bite on the elbow last week.”
The man says, “I was bit by a snake once.”
His voice is still loud enough for me to hear.
“I went swimming where they film shark movies,” the woman says.
“Your eyes are like shark’s eyes,” the man says, and the woman
looks at him. They hold each other's
thumbs for a moment, then stand up and walk down to a rancid pond.
I wonder if holding thumbs and talking nonsense are what it’s all
about. I wonder if that’s what
happiness looks like.
The grass is dying in patches from the heat wave, and I pull at it,
wishing I didn't have to go back and see Corni, wishing I could stay and feel my
clothes melt, or go swimming up at City Creek.
But I'm starting to see sun spots, so I stand and walk back to the car.
The door handle burns my hand, and I can't touch the steering wheel, so I
sit and watch the woman and the man putting their feet in algae.
A Mexican on a bike rides by. He
stares at me and winks, and I start the car.
I work in an optical lab, and when I open the warehouse door, Corni
doesn't look at me as I pass his polishing machine.
He smiles at the knobs on the machine next to him, and I know he is
drunk, probably because I told him I didn't want to go to Vegas with him.
Mormon girls are taught to obey, but I knew I didn’t want to go with
him. Still, I’m not a girl who is
used to saying no. It takes a lot of
energy. Corni says he loves me.
He says I look like his sister. When
we talk, he is the only one who speaks.
often frogs out uncertainties people never hear.
I wave to everyone without looking at them, turn on my hardening units,
and put a pair of lenses in the tongs. The
machines vibrate and the lenses move down to be heated, and I think about Corni
staring at me after work yesterday. He
didn't say anything. He’s
handsome. Cornelio is his full name,
“You have to be a Mormon,” I told him.
“You have to have gone on a mission,” I said.
“That’s the only way I would ever go to Vegas with you.”
Cold air blows onto the first set of lenses, and it sounds like farting,
but nobody laughs. The only person
moving is Charlene. She is flipping
her towel at the pictures of beautiful models in eye glasses on the wall.
She looks up and I smile a little at her because Mormons are taught to
smile. She raises her middle finger
“Did you know apes can do that?” I say, clearing my throat.
I’ve been practicing this for a week.
“You would know,” she says.
“You ladies are so lovely,” says Dale.
Everyday he wears a different Hawaiian shirt, and each one seems to make
his skin look more transparent. But
his hands are big like Corni’s.
It's warmer here than outside, and the older burns on my fingers are
beginning to hurt as I heat up another set of lenses.
I try to focus on the heat. I
try not to think about men and their large, calloused hands.
“Hey, Señorita,” says
Corni behind me. My hand jerks into
one of the tongs, but I pull it away before it blisters.
“What?” I say.
“I've got a case,” he says.
“I'm busy,” I say. He
tries to take my burnt hand, but I move to the next machine.
He stands there looking at his palm.
“I've got a long lifeline,” he says.
I put green lenses in a pink tray and brown lenses in a yellow tray and
try not to look at his bloodshot eyes.
“I'm really busy,” I say. He
seems to be pointing at my feet.
“There are millions of penguins dying in
“I know you’re drunk,” I say, trying to make my holy, non-drinking
heritage yet another reason I avoid him. But
I am curious. I have seldom ever
seen drunk people up close. There is
an odd odor around his skin, like chemistry.
I have often wondered what it would be like to be out of control, to slur
my words like that.
up at the ceiling, pushing his hands together as if he were praying.
He says, “They shoot them.”
I say, “What?”
“They shoot the penguins,” he says.
He’s trying to make me feel bad. He
thinks I have a soft heart.
I say, “I
own a gun. My father taught us to
shoot when we were children.” I
want to push Corni to see if he falls back without moving.
“Munguia,” says Margaret, walking in, “What the hell are you
doing?” Corni is still looking up.
“Leave Rhonda alone,” she says. He
doesn’t move. Nobody says
anything. They all focus on their
dials and gauges. Margaret walks
over to Corni. She looks at his
sweating forehead, then looks at Charlene cleaning a lens, and when she looks at
me, I turn toward a machine. I can
hear her breathing, and then she says, “I don't want to hear about it,” and
Dale says, “You're so upwardly mobile, Corni.”
“I got a ring,” Corni says. “It's
white gold,” he says. I look at
him hoping to see him laugh, but his lips are serious.
“I’ve told you,” I say.
“Yeah, yeah, but I’ve got those preacher boys of yours coming to my
house,” he says. “I’m gonna
“Will you please let me work?” I say.
“Yeah, Ok,” he says.
He doesn't move.
Charlene is looking at us, licking a lens with her tongue, and wiggling
I say, “Your machine's on fire.”
Corni's eyes are wet and I wish for a moment that he would hit me or spit
on me. I want him to hate me, and
then maybe I could go grocery shopping without wanting to hide every time I see
a Mexican with a bushy mustache.
“Excuse me,” I say and walk to the rest room.
My hands are red and I hold them in running water until they stop
hurting. I talk to myself.
I say, “Penguins are dying in Vegas.”
I say, “People are being shot in
Then I look
at my face. My dark hair, my pudgy
cheeks, my desert eyes. I still have
my baby fat. I’m short and painful
shy and virginal. How can Corni
think he is in love? I have never
even smiled at him. I seldom ever
smile at any men now.
The knocking gets louder, then stops.
A hand appears under the door and leaves a piece of round metal there on
the floor. I sit on the toilet,
looking at it shine. It is simple,
silvery and thin. I want to throw
the ring out the window, but good girls aren’t supposed to be rude like that.
I can only sit there and watch it, feeling my lungs getting smaller,
knowing I will not leave the bathroom until the night crew arrives.
knocks on the door again. I watch a
cockroach crawl along the sink.
“I have to go, dammit,” says a voice.
It’s Margaret. I pick the
ring up and open the door. “Sorry,”
I say, looking down. Margaret
breathes at me as I walk to my machines.
There is a broken lens on the floor, and I look over at Corni's polisher.
He is bent over with his arms around his machine.
He’s hugging it, coolant squirting around his body and pooling on the
floor, and I almost can’t look at him. All
I’ve ever done is stand here feeling hot and stupid, and now this.
Dale is staring and Charlene is wiping her eyes, laughing.
“You should work in the circus,” she says.
“You're better than Eddy Murphy,” she says.
“Shut up,” I say, but it is a whisper.
“You should get overtime,” she says.
I say, “Shut up.” She
looks over at me and stops smiling.
“You're it,” she says.
Margaret comes in and stands staring at Corni from across the room.
“You're on the shit list, Corni, and I don't want to hear about it,” she
says. She walks over to his machine
and reaches around him to turn it off, and he stands there, dripping, and she
stands there, breathing, and Charlene is cleaning a lens.
“What the hell are you on?” says Margaret, “Do I have to call the
police this time?” She grabs his
shirt sleeve, and pulls him to her office.
“This is as good as it gets,” says Dale.
“I'd have paid to see that,” says Charlene.
I turn off my hardening units, and walk past Charlene.
girl,” she snorts.
parking lot the sun is blinding. I
breathe the heated air in and hold my hand over my eyes, squinting at the hot
waves coming off the pavement. The
ring feels large and heavy in my pocket. I
take it out and it blinds me. I
think Corni must be crazy, so I let the ring drop, and it wheels around under a
parked car and out into a patch of sticky Coke, where it stops in mid roll.
“Rhonda,” a voice says, and I turn.
Corni is standing in the doorway behind me.
He smiles. He could be on TV
except for his clothes.
“I don't feel too good,” he says.
“She fired me.” He
swallows and I look at his feet. “I'm
going home,” he says, and he touches my arm as he walks by.
“I guess I'll watch TV. I
think there's a soccer game on.” I'm
still facing the door, unable to move, but listening to the slow crunch of his
shoes on the asphalt. “And maybe
I'll eat some ice cream. What d'you
think?” he says, and I don’t move, and I don’t say anything, and then I
can't hear him at all. I turn around
and he is gone, and because I am supposed to be a nice girl, and because I feel
like I might be the cause of some of this, I almost wish I could have smiled at
him, but I'm glad his voice has stopped. I
walk to my car and get in, feeling the seat burn my legs as I start it, then I
drive until I come to a Gasmart. Because
I remember needing something, I stop.
“Hiya,” says a man behind the counter.
He waves a cigarette over his magazine, dropping ash on it.
“What can I do for you?” he says when I pick up a bottle of aspirin.
“You got a headache?” he says.
“My knee,” I say, pointing down.
“Yeah, I got arthritis,” he says.
He moves his fingers at me. “You’re
kind of young for that, though.” I
put the bottle back and walk down the isle, trying to remember what it is I
need. I pass toothpaste, throat
lozenges, allergy pills, bubble gum and chocolate bars but nothing seems vital,
nothing looks like it can stop me from feeling guilty.
I want to smile so my face is doing something, and I look up at the man,
but he is reading, and I stand and look around the store, wanting to be in Vegas
because it is glitzy and shiny, and I might be able to laugh there, and I might
feel less afraid there. But I’m
I walk to the
counter and put down a package of Alka-Seltzer.
I also buy some nail polish, neon blue.
“Is this it?” he says, and I nod.
He gives me change and a bag and I look at him.
“You need something else?” he says.
I look at him. His hands are
big like Corni’s. “No,” I say
and leave. There is a phone booth by
my car. I look at it.
I feel bad for not saying anything to Corni after he got fired.
I probably won’t ever see him again, so I decide to call him.
I will tell him I'm just making sure he wasn't run over.
I look through the White Pages. There
are three Munguia’s.
I dial the first one, but no one answers.
I dial the second one.
“Bueno,” says a voice.
“Oh, uh, Corni?” I say, pretending not to understand.
I feel my face getting hot.
“Esperate,” says the voice,
and the phone is dropped. I hear
yelling, and think about hanging up.
“It's me,” says Corni.
“This is Rhonda,” I say. “I
just wanted to make sure you were ok,” I tell him
“Feel lots better now that I threw up.
Damn, I had some, didn't I?” he says.
“Well,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says, and my lungs tighten.
“I've got to go,” I say, but I don't hang up.
“You want to go to a movie?” he says.
“The preacher boys tell me movies are fun for girls like you.”
“No,” I say, but the decisiveness of my tone frightens me.
“Maybe,” I say. The man
in the store is looking at me and smiling, so I turn away from the window.
“You ever hear that song?” Corni says.
“That song,” I say.
“The one playing now. Hear
it?” His voice gets small and I
know he’s holding the phone out, but I can't hear anything.
There’s a beetle crawling on my hand and I blow it off.
It spreads its black wings and flies away before it hits the sidewalk.
I think about Corni kissing my ear one time when I went back to the
lunchroom, and he was the only one there, and he came close, and I didn’t know
what he wanted, and I couldn’t move. His
black mustache was like wings pricking me.
to go eat?” he says.
“I don't really like music,” I say.
“Not music. Food,” he
“That's not what I need,” I say.
I look at a dime on the cement. I
say, “Did you know you can make a hundred dollars a month just picking up
change on sidewalks?”
“What d'you think?” he says.
“I'm going to hang up,” I say, but I don't, and I hear him laugh.
“I will sing to you,” he says, and he starts singing as I let go of
the phone and bend over for the dime. I
walk to my car and get in, listening to his clear, tenor voice singing in
Spanish until I start the engine and drive away.
Copyright © Lee Ann Mortensen 1990