America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
What’s Next to Go
By Heather Startup
28 June 2014
The president is on TV, and my wife is holding her nose—not pinching it like he stinks (though he does), just cupping it like she’s been punched. Above a vast new expanse of flat skin between his eyes and mouth, he’s telling us our noses will be next to go.
“These noses,” he says gravely, “will be shipped out to underdeveloped countries, to the millions of children who have lost their own in the ravages of war. Looking at pictures like these”—on the screen behind him pops up a giant photo of a dark-skinned girl; a hole had been blown through the middle of her face, taking out her entire nose—“made me reflect on how little I actually need my own nose. Now that nose is going over to help others less fortunate than ourselves.”
His voice isn’t as nasal as you’d think, just hollower, like each word is a boulder he’s found in his chest cavity and dragged out. He displays the reasons for this latest initiative: We’ve outgrown our need for noses, studies show that noses just let in more bacteria and parasites than they filter out, they aren’t just superfluous but dangerous in a post-industrial society. I sift through his words like a kid at the tourist mine down the road, a kid who can’t tell sapphires from a lump of dirt. I’ve never been able to tell when someone is lying or not. Like the time Terri said I looked like I needed a new suit and I asked why; she said my old one was looking worn out. Then that night I heard her talking to her mom on the phone and saying how I’d “put on some weight.”
“That poor little girl,” Terri says through her fingers. She has no nails now, or hair. None of us do. It was supposed to help us win the war. They say we’re winning.
“Do we get the after picture?” I ask.
“Mr. President,” a reporter says. She’s an intelligent-looking woman with glasses, though I know I assume people are smart when they wear glasses. Maybe she knows too. “Could you clarify for the press why these children need noses when the president and other Americans don’t?”
The president’s mouth tightens; if he had a nose, I’m sure he’d be looking down it at her right now. “A very good question,” he says, “an excellent question. Right now”—he waves at the picture behind him—“a variety of bacteria and parasites are slowly eating away at this little girl’s face, as well as the faces of countless children around the world. A good nose would stop all that. When I had the operation, the proper equipment and procedures were used, so it was all sterile and perfectly safe. The experts at BioLife”—he nods toward another suited old man on the stage; we all know him as the CEO of BioLife Hospitals Inc. from the commercials—“have assured me that, once the hole in her face is patched, no more bacteria will be able to enter.”
I stare at the CEO’s face; he still has his nose.
“He does look younger,” Terri says. “Less wrinkled.”
“Probably threw in a facelift,” I say.
I kinda like my wife’s nose, the way it curves up into a ski jump. On days when I leave for work and she’s still sleeping, I kiss the end of it, right where the Olympian would leave the earth and spring into space.
* * *
When Earl saunters across the construction site with his clipboard, his potbelly swinging like it’s an extra dick, he doesn’t waste any time. “There’s government discounts, you know. Five-hundred-dollar vouchers. Supposed to make it affordable, you know? I just don’t know if it’ll cover it enough.”
I look down at the nail-strewn dirt so I don’t have to see him. “It’s not like turning in a coupon at Wal-Mart,” I say, though that’ll make no difference to Earl. That sonofabitch has always climbed any ladder he could find—the sports ladder in high school, the career ladder where he’s perched now on the foreman rung, the ladder that led to Terri a year ago before that ladder went limp.
Earl waves the clipboard the way an engaged woman finds new ways to flutter her fingers. “Forms, paperwork, that shit’ll always be there. Hopefully it won’t leave any of us behind.”
“Everything’ll leave you behind out here,” I say. I wave at the expanse of dirt surrounded by an expanse of grass, nothing but expanses all around us. I figure I’ve been an adult for long enough now that I can decide what to do with my own body, thank you very much, although a few years ago I wouldn’t have guessed that I’d be repeating a women’s-rights mantra for myself. I didn’t guess I’d have to remember a time when me and Earl had been friends either. Since kindergarten, that time had been every time.
Earl lets the clipboard fall, a sure sign he’s about to let his mouth fall open too. I have to forgive Terri all over again every time he does that. If I don’t, I end up asking myself what she saw in that slack-jawed, slack-dicked idiot, and then I see oozing from every pore all the ambition she must have seen.
“What the hell’s left you behind?” he asks. “We’ve got families, decent jobs—damn, Rick, if this thing’s paid for already—if, mind you—you’re not even gonna take it?”
“My nose doesn’t seem to be doing me any harm as it is,” I say. “Why get rid of it?”
“Well, sometimes you get colds, don’t you? Wouldn’t it be great not to have snot running out your nose?”
I eyeball him real hard and say, “If we’re cutting off body parts that don’t work right all the time, how about you go first?”
Something growls in Earl’s throat, and he looks like he wants to hit me. But all he can do is stare me down till it all simmers out of him. “You better shut up about that,” he says, like I knew he would. I need this job, but I need these jabs just as much, and his lousy dick lets me know he can’t fire me without a fuck ton of guilt landing atop him. So I just nod and start hammering at the other side of the house. At times like these, each nail is Earl’s head on the night Terri told me she’d been cheating. Each bent nail is what drove them apart, what she might have left me for had it been intact. Each clang is the dull thud of my heart, beating on when I wanted it to stop.
* * *
A woman on channel six—mid-thirties, probably blonde before ditching her hair—stands in front of a BioLife Hospital surrounded by stout palm trees. Her mouth moves under a flawless expanse of noseless skin, moves and smiles, forces out soundless words, smiles some more. It’s been ten days since the president’s announcement, and I’m surprised at how fast it’s happening, how quickly they’ve managed to spew out the latest surgery ad. It took them at least six weeks to get the hair-removal ads on TV. It makes me even more tired than I already was.
“Could you unmute that?” Terri asks. The ad is almost over, and I wait till a shiny black car comes onscreen before turning up the volume.
“You could hear from better people before a decision like that,” I say. “Like a doctor.”
She flops down on the couch, her legs tucked under her and her feet barely touching my thigh. “Honestly, Rick, you’d say that about an ear piercing.”
“An ear gouging, yes—which this seems to be, but for a nose.”
She takes my hand, strokes the fingertips where the nails used to be. I don’t mind that they’re gone; at first the very ends felt limp, but now I hardly notice. Before I got them removed, every day brought eight hours’ worth of dirt home at the tips of my fingers.
“Rick,” she says. “When was the last time you’ve seen someone with nails?”
Next to the highway off-ramp with a sign that said Homeless—God Bless! I don’t say anything.
“Or how about someone with hair?”
Only stubble on the occasional pedestrian. But sometimes I still see Terri reach up to run her fingers through her shoulder-length hair before she remembers it isn’t there anymore.
“Hair gathers lice like crazy nowadays,” she says. She picks up my index finger, then the middle one, like she’s mulling over a purchase. “Who knows what noses will gather, what with all the diseases out there now. Better safe than sorry, right?”
I wrap my fingers around hers. “What if you just end up sorry and not safe?”
“Me?” Her eyebrows crinkle up, and without her bangs to hide them, her confusion is clearer. “We’re doing this together or not at all.”
Her shoulders drop; I can almost hear them make the thud of a gavel. “I’ve made a consultation with Dr. Jennings. For both of us. He can tell us what he thinks.”
I feel my face mirroring hers. “I’ve told you what I think.”
“You said you wanted to consult a doctor.” She sits up straighter. “So that’s what we’re doing.”
“I said you could see a doctor, if you’re intent on ripping your nose out.”
Her hand twitches in mine.
“You’re not thinking of removing your boobs too, are you?” I try to smile.
“God, Rick,” she says, “you’re impossible to talk to.”
“Oh, is that it?” I say, then decide not to. “You know I can’t take time off work.”
“Earl will understand.” She looks away. “We have good health insurance. Between that and the voucher—”
I stand, feeling her hand slip from mine. “The voucher. What’s all this about a goddamned voucher? We’re supposed to give away our money along with our noses if we can’t get a fucking voucher?”
“Rick.” Her hands are folded in her lap. “It’s for charity.”
“Up next,” a man’s voice behind me says, “the latest drug that has infiltrated your child’s school.” Suddenly I feel foolish, as if I’d stood up in the middle of a sermon.
Terri pats the cushion beside her. “Let’s just watch the news,” she says.
* * *
It’s almost one when I come home that Saturday night, buzzed but not drunk, not too drunk to drive, which is what I tell myself all the way home. I throw the truck in park and head inside. The porch light is on, and I figure Terri must be waiting up for me.
The living room light is on too, but I don’t see Terri. I can hear her, though, from the direction of the bedroom, pulling up giant sobs. I can almost feel them; they’re the kind where you can hardly breathe.
She’s under the covers with a bottle of whiskey, and I know I can’t trust whatever she says. Yes, a man has to trust his wife, but I doubt that applies when she’s got Jack Daniels on the table next to her. Her voice doesn’t break rhythm, but her eyes look scared behind her already puffy lids. Mascara clots on her skin, down to the tops of her cheeks. My own skin feels hot.
“What’s wrong?” I ask. The room feels thick with sex and alcohol, and I figure something involving both is hanging around past its welcome. I move through it toward Terri, its weight slowing me down.
“Earl came over,” she says.
I sink to the floor.
“It’s not what you think,” she says. Her voice is rising above the remnants of the tears. “He came over—I thought he was with you—and he grabbed me—right here—”
I turn just in time to see her clasp her right wrist. When my head swivels back, I see her black jeans wadded up on the floor. I pull myself up to the bed and sit on the edge. “Did he force himself on you?” I ask, and I want so badly for her to say yes.
“Yes,” she says, and I feel like my wanting it made it true, like I deserved any cheating she dealt out if I could wish a thing like that. “No.”
I take her hand. I wait. Her wrist has a light purple spot the size of a man’s thumb.
She almost smiles. “He tried, but once he’d got his pants off, he couldn’t get it up.”
It sounds like Earl. It sounds like the Earl she must want me to believe in. “Did you call the cops?” I ask.
She shakes her head. A second ago, she looked devastated, then a little amused, but now she looks scared. “No, I don’t want to call. I’ve been through enough right now, and I just want to let it go.”
“We should at least get you to the hospital, just in case.”
“No,” she says again. “Once he realized he couldn’t do it, he just ran out the back door.” She looks through the open bathroom door to the one that leads outside, to wherever Earl went.
“I want to make sure you’re okay, Terri,” I say. “You’re sure you’re not hurt at all?”
“Just kind of shook up right now,” she says, and slides farther under the quilt.
Her bare thigh glints out for half a second before she’s all covered from chin to toe. Earl saw it—saw all of it, but all I want to think about right now is what he saw when neither of us wanted him to, what he felt in his clipboard-wielding hands. I kiss Terri’s nose—it’s cold, I’ve never noticed before but I want to now, in case she ever comes home without it—turn off the lamp, and lock every door in the house before I get back in my truck. I’m halfway to Earl’s by the time I wonder why Terri would think I’d invited Earl over. I convince myself it doesn’t matter and speed up.
The lights at Earl’s are off, but I get out anyway. “Earl,” I say. I’m pounding on the door, yelling his name over and over. “I know what you did. Earl, get out here. Earl, I know you hear me.”
An upstairs light turns on. I keep yelling. A minute later, the door swings inward. Earl is standing in his half-open robe. His eyes are wide open.
“Rick,” he says. “Nice to see you. Kinda late, though. Call me tom—”
My palms smack his chest, and a tiny grunt puffs out of him, a grunt smaller than I’d figured a man could make. It makes me even angrier than I already was, and I punch his arm. I meant to punch his face or his ribs or somewhere where it would do some damage, but my vision is all blurry from rage and booze.
“Rick, have you been drinking?” he asks.
“Shut up,” I say. “Just shut the fuck up.”
My fist flies toward his face and connects. It’s not hard to stop thinking about Terri, or Robin and the kids upstairs. I just focus on hitting Earl as much and as hard as I can. When Terri finally surfaces in my mind, I see her half an hour ago, telling me she won’t have her assailant arrested, and I see her a year ago, telling me about my best friend. I see Robin, her eyes full of shame and resolve and the desire to forget. And now it seems everyone’s okay with what happened, everyone but me, just like all the people on TV have gone bald and the people in the magazines have lost their nails and even the president has lost his nose. We’ve all lost something, but next thing you know we’ll have pulled out our eyes too and won’t know where to look to get that something back.
My head clears. My left eye aches, and I see blood on my knuckles. Earl is lying on the floor, holding his head. He rolls toward me, peeling his arms away. It’s a mess: blood, skin, bone.
“Take me to the hospital, you motherfucking piece of shit,” he says.
I consider my job. I consider my leverage, my willingness to press charges over Terri’s objections, Earl’s willingness to let the whole thing go. I consider Terri, how unimpressed she’ll be when she finds out. I haul Earl to his feet and prop him up in the back seat.
* * *
Last year, when Terri told me about Earl, there were no tears, no screaming, no pleas or clasped hands, nothing but a clear-eyed squeeze of my hand and “Honey, I have something to tell you.”
I don’t remember exactly what she said after that—sleeping with Earl, broke it off last month, want to work on our marriage—but I remember those words. I have something to tell you. They’re never good, yet somehow you hope it means something you just didn’t expect: an out-of-the-blue job offer, the sudden adoption of the cat that’s been scratching your door. She squeezed my hand when she was done, almost a post-interview handshake, and it was so much like a business deal that it took me three days to finally put my fist through the wall above the kitchen phone. And that was how, with ice on my knuckles and pain juddering up through my wrist, I knew I still cared.
And what have I cared about tonight? Just Earl. Before, the only real thing was kicking his ass, then keeping my job. Now, as I sit in this hospital lobby that smells like the opposite of dust, like too much Windex in places not meant for it, I realize I left my wife in bed for this. And underneath the surge of guilt, I suspect before I can stop myself that she was lying about Earl. I don't know if she fucked him tonight, but nothing’s stopping her from fucking him later. I don't know whose idea it was or if they planned it at all, but I know how hard I hit him. Even through the haze of anger, I could feel his nose shatter beneath my fist.
* * *
I follow the nurse in her green BioLife scrubs through a tangle of hallways. She hasn’t turned around since she opened the first door for me, and her clipboard is hidden by the curve of her left breast. I wish the doctor had come instead. I’d find some way to ask about Terri, how people act when they’ve been assaulted. I want to know if Terri’s doing okay, if I should believe her if she keeps saying she is. I want to know why I still want to believe her. I want to know if we’re going to make it. I want to know what’s normal now.
“He’s just woken up a few minutes ago,” the nurse says.
We must be nearing Earl’s room. He didn’t say anything about me as long as I was around, but I have no idea what he said as he was going under, or if anyone would believe him with anesthetic coursing to his brain. “He took more punches than he should have,” I say. “Is he gonna be all right?”
“He seems pretty happy now,” she says, and she opens a door on the left. “I’ll give you fifteen minutes.”
It must be three in the morning by now, and I’m not family. Then again, we are at BioLife. I go in.
Earl is lying on a white-sheeted bed, the top half raised to forty-five degrees. Most of his head is bandaged, but his chin sticks out. I see just enough of his mouth to tell he’s smiling.
The bandage above his mouth is flat.
“Buddy,” he says, grasping my hand. His grip is weak; his fingers can barely hold on before slipping right back off. “You really came through for me. A blessing in disguise. Don’t worry about me pressing charges or anything. This more than pays for it.”
My arm feels even weaker than Earl’s. Despite the sterile smell of the room, the buzzing of the overhead light sounds more like the drone of flies playing tag with an open wound nobody can stitch together again.
“Hey, maybe I can hook you up too,” he says. “I hear they’re coming out with a new plan, we might get on board, then insurance’ll take care of it, at least what’s not covered by the voucher if you can get one—”
On the stand is a roll of gauze, not one of the little ones you can put in a first aid kit but a big one, wide enough to use on Earl’s head. He doesn’t seem to have noticed it, the way it’s just sitting on the table next to him, pretending to still be sterile. I pick it up and unwind.
“—don’t know what I’ll say to Robin, but we can make up a bar fight, I guess, I know she’ll believe it—”
I let him talk. The cloth unspools.
“Anyway, man, I know you have a lot against me, I know I’ve been a real bastard to you, I really owe you—”
“How about Terri?” I ask. I shred the cloth when I have a good three feet of it.
“God, man, I’m sorry about that,” he says.
I don’t want to hear any more. Maybe they cooked this up together, a cheap way for him to ditch his nose; maybe I’d almost caught them fucking; maybe he’d forced himself on her. Any way this story goes, I’ll hate it more than I hate him. I wad the gauze and stuff it into his mouth. He’s so surprised, his shout is almost entirely muffled by the time it comes. I stuff it farther down, hoping it grips his throat and throttles him as his useless arms waft up and bat at me. I wait till he stops his muted screams. Then I grab more gauze and tie each arm to the railing.
His eyes are wide, the opposite of Terri’s when I found her in bed. I want to tell myself I’m doing this for her, but I’m not. I leave before my head can clear itself and save that motherfucker again.
I try to remember the series of lefts and rights I took when I came in. I don’t hear the blare of Earl’s bedside buzzer. I don’t hear alarms or running footsteps. And all I see is this maze of tile and industrial lighting. I pass a doctor, white coat and all, even a stethoscope dangling from his neck. The light reflects off his glasses, making it impossible for me to see his eyes. He’s got a mask over the lower half of his face, but when I look again, I see two bumps where one nose should be.
Heather Startup earned her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and teaches English at Adventist University of Health Sciences in Central Florida. Her work has appeared in The Copperfield Review.