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 yet.

            “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 me.

            I’ve just turned eighteen, and grown men have started looking at me.  They’ve started smiling.  They’ve started talking.

            I didn’t know this would happen.

The woman 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.

My voice 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, and he’s Hollywood ready.  The girls here often flirt with him on our coffee breaks, often leave him flowery notes on his machines, but his hairy arms, his dark knuckles, his bluster and spin scare me.  He knows good Mormon girls wait all their lives for a righteous man, a white knight, and though I’ve started to know I don’t want this either, the predictability of my culture helps me get out of marrying him.

            “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 at me.

            “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 Antarctica ,” he says.

            “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.

Corni looks 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 leaves.

            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 convert.”

            “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 her eyebrows.

            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 Antarctica .”  I say, “I’m a crack shot in the snow.”  Someone is knocking on the door, but I don’t want to go back out there.  I think about Las Vegas and its lights.  I’ve never been there because our Bishops tell us weekly what a sinful place it is.  I would like to visit a sinful place just once.  I would like to taste a wine cooler and sit under an umbrella in the sun.

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.

Someone 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.

“College girl,” she snorts.

In the 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 not in Las Vegas .  I’m in Salt Lake City .  There’s a golden angel on top of a building here, but otherwise, things look gray.

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.

“You want to go eat?” he says.

            “I don't really like music,” I say.

            “Not music.  Food,” he says.

            “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