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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

Stain Removal

                Two bites into his meal at a restaurant with a name he didn’t care to attempt to pronounce, Zachary dripped hollandaise sauce on his shirt. Wendy followed him into the men’s bathroom because that was the kind of girl she was. She didn’t trust him to get the stain out of the shirt by himself. Zachary was willing to admit he hadn’t earned her trust in this regard. There didn’t appear to be anyone else in the bathroom. Zachary stood in front of the sink and scrubbed at the stain with a wet paper towel while Wendy pointed out the many inadequacies of paper towels, ticking them off on her narrow little fingers.

                “They disintegrate. They don’t get the stains out. They drip everywhere. They’re made from trees.”

                “Should I add soap?” asked Zachary, more to show his willingness to seek Wendy’s opinion than to actually seek her opinion.

                Wendy pressed two fingers to her forehead in a way that led Zachary to believe that he had asked a foolish question, though he wasn’t sure whether the answer was an obvious ” yes” or an obvious “no.”

                He was just about to take the significant risk of adding a dab of soap to the wet, shredded square of paper towel in his hand when the door to the handicapped bathroom stall swung open and a fat man on crutches came hobbling out, a black comb clenched in his teeth. He made his way across the bathroom with the rubber tips of his crutches squeaking on the slick tile floor, and balanced half-leaning against the counter. Then he took the comb from his teeth and began to run it through his thick, blonde hair. After a moment, he saw Zachary looking at him in the mirror and gave him a friendly grin.

                Zachary started to say something that would have been pleasant and innocuous, but Wendy grabbed his arm and whispered, “Don’t talk to him.”

                “Why not?” whispered Zachary. He was sure the man knew they were talking about him and he felt bad.

                “There’s something wrong with him,” she whispered. “He’s really bad. Evil, I mean.” She wasn’t kidding. She sounded completely convinced.

                “Evil?” asked Zachary. “You can tell? You can’t tell.”

                The man was still combing his hair and he winked at Zachary when he glanced at him again. The man’s hair shone, soft and bright. The more he combed, the more the hair seemed to glow.

                Wendy pulled Zachary a few steps further away from the man.  “We’re leaving,” she said. “We really need to.”

                “But I’m still a mess,” said Zachary, pointing at his shirt. The stains were still there, damp and flecked with bits of rolled up paper towel.

                “I know a good trick for stains,” said the man. His voice was smooth and even. “What is that, horseradish?”

                “Hollandaise sauce,” said Zachary, and Wendy gasped as if he’d just revealed their most cherished secret.

                The man kept combing his hair as he spoke. Beyond reflecting the fluorescent lights on the ceiling, his hair was now noticeably producing a light of its own. “Here’s what you do,” said the man. “Spit on a dry paper towel. Rub it counter-clockwise with your thumb. Fold it once. Add a drop of cold water from the faucet. Rub the paper towel on the stain or stains. They’ll come right out.”

                “Don’t do it, Zachary,” said Wendy, her eyes fearful.

                “It sounds like an old wives tale,” said Zachary. “Folk medicine? Is that what they call it? Folk medicine?”

                “It’s evil is what it is,” said Wendy, her fingers digging into Zachary’s arm. “It’s unnatural and you shouldn’t do it. So don’t.”

                “It’s paper towels and spit,” said Zachary. “You know what else is unnatural? Food coloring. Food coloring doesn’t occur in nature. But you can’t get enough of blue frosting.” He turned back to the man on the crutches. His hair was shining so brightly it was painful to look at.  “What was step three?”

                “Fold the paper towel once,” said the man. “Only once!” He stopped combing his brilliant hair long enough to hold up one finger and waggle it back and forth.

                Zachary followed the man’s instructions as Wendy shook her head, her frown almost as deep as the time Zachary had broken his ankle running away from what turned out to not be a runaway bus at all, but rather just a bus with a short but very competent driver.         When Zachary completed all the steps and rubbed the paper towel on his shirt, the stains disappeared instantly, even under the slightest touch. There were no signs of hollandaise sauce on his shirt, on the paper towel, not anywhere.

                “Wow, that’s quite a trick,” said Zachary. “I’ll have to remember that one.”

                “There,” said Wendy. “The stains are gone. That’s what we came in here to do. Now let’s go.”

                “I can do other things too,” said the man, combing sparks out of his hair that hissed as they landed in the small puddles of water on the countertop next to the sink. “I can perform wonders for you. I can change your life.”

                “Don’t listen!” said Wendy. “He’s snaring you!”

                The man slipped his comb into the back pocket of his pants. “I’m not snaring anyone. I don’t even know what you mean. I don’t even know what you’re saying, really. You aren’t being clear.” His hair flared up, the lights on the ceiling cowering away.

                “Wendy,” said Zachary. “You really aren’t being very clear. And look at my shirt.” He displayed it for her, holding it near the bottom and pulling outward. “It’s never looked nicer.”

                “I don’t care,” shouted Wendy. “I don’t care about your shirt! And I can’t be any clearer! I’m not going to be a part of this!” She turned and left the bathroom in a rage, leaving Zachary alone with the man, who had pulled a toothbrush out of his pocket. Without applying any toothpaste, the man began to brush his teeth with a steady up and down motion.

                “That’s not true,” said Zachary. “What she said, it’s not true. She does care about this shirt. She picked it out, not me.”

                The man shrugged and kept brushing his teeth, which were fast becoming the whitest teeth Zachary had ever seen.

                Zachary turned and leaned back against the counter, trying to seem casual. He folded his arms across his clean shirt. “So,” he said. “You mentioned something about things you could do for me? Life-changing things? Not that my life needs major changes. Not that I know of. Maybe it does. Does it?”

                The man stopped brushing his teeth so he could speak. “It doesn’t have to be life-changing. It can be anything . Pure entertainment, if you want. Pure pleasure. An experience. Any experience.

                 “I always struggle with too many options,” said Zachary. “Give me an example.”

                “Fine,” said the man, turning to face Zachary directly for the first time. He didn’t seem to be resting as much weight on his crutches as he had before. His hair blazed ferociously and his teeth had begun to glow as well. “If you wanted, if you asked me and the appropriate steps were taken, you could become as big as a galaxy, many times bigger than any galaxy, and swim through space and feel the fury of stars in all stages burning in the gaps in your guts.”

                Zachary didn’t know what to say to that. But it sounded pretty good. “What else?” he asked. “Something for comparison. Something smaller.”

                The man laughed and said, “Again, if everything was done by the book, if the transaction was executed correctly, you could dip one finger behind your lower front teeth and pull out an exact replica of yourself, but with a different set of regrets and a different ending, and if you liked those regrets and that ending better than your regrets and your ending, you could step inside of him through a passageway in his heel and you’d become him.”

                “That’s a strange one,” said Zachary. “Almost makes me want to try it. I doubt I would have thought of that one on my own.”

                “I’ll give you one more example,” said the man. He tapped his right temple with the handle of his toothbrush and said “For added flavor. Provided you and I were in agreement on the finer points of our arrangement, provided the ‘Is’ were dotted and the ‘Ts’ were crossed, then you could become a deadly bacteria waking up for the very first time inside the body of the most powerful man on Earth, you could grow and divide and spread inside of him and feel him succumb to you, feel him bowing down to you, buckling before you, withering beneath you.”

                “I don’t think I’ll be going with that one,” said Zachary.

                “Suit yourself,” said the man, and he began to brush his teeth again. They glittered in the light from his hair.

                “I hate to be like this,” said Zachary. “But you mentioned a transaction of some kind? Is that what I think it is?”

                The man kept brushing his teeth but his eyes were locked onto Zachary’s. A beam of light from his top left front tooth hit Zachary in the neck. It felt warm.

                 “I should probably just be content with what I’ve got,” said Zachary. He turned and left the bathroom. In the restaurant, couples  ate food, as did families, as did singles. They talked at each other, past each other, all around each other, over and under and through each other. Zachary didn’t see Wendy anywhere. She’d probably gone home. Had he been dumped? He thought he might have been. It was possible.

Zachary thought about the man on crutches and his proposed deal. He had neither confirmed nor denied Zachary’s suspicions about the terms of the deal, but maybe that was only because Zachary’s assumption was so far off the mark. Besides, even if Zachary was on the right track, how would such an abstract arrangement even take place? How would one know it had worked? Out in the restaurant with so many plain, dull-looking people the whole idea seemed silly. Zachary didn’t even know if the man had any real powers besides a good technique for stain removal. Wendy’s weird reaction had probably just made him paranoid. Zachary had just bee humoring the man and it had paid off. The stains were gone. What was the harm in humoring a fat man on crutches in a restaurant bathroom? Certainly no reason to get mad and leave a restaurant without telling someone if you’d broken up with him or not.

 A waiter dropped a whole tray of fajitas and the hissing meat scattered all over the floor like a plague spreading across a continent. Zachary resisted the urge to eat a piece of meat that slid past his shoe. In twenty years, all this wallpaper would be peeling and the paint would be flaking away and the drywall would be crumbling and there was always a chance that Zachary might be entering the 19th year and 364th day of the deepest coma on record provided there was a way to record depths of comas. He was bored with sitting around waiting to discover whether or not disaster had been averted yet again.

Zachary went back into the bathroom. When the man smiled, the glare of his teeth sent green and black spots swimming across Zachary’s vision.

                “You decided,” said the man.

                Zachary said nothing.

                “If you agree to the terms of the deal, say ‘Yes.’”

                Zachary couldn’t make himself say it.

                “If you agree to the terms of the deal, merely think the word ‘Yes.’”

                Zachary couldn’t make himself think it.

                “If you agree to the terms of the deal, envision the following image: An infant bemoaning the passage of time as the first second of its life begins to show signs of perhaps eventually drawing to a close.”

                The image leapt into Zachary’s mind fully formed, and he examined it from all angles as the fat man bathed him in the enveloping light of his every hair and tooth. 

Discussion Questions

  • Greng wants me to ask you if the soul is separate from the body or if the soul is the form that gives the body structure. So which is it? For whatever it’s worth, Aristotle thinks it’s the latter.

  • If the fat man’s so powerful, why is he on crutches? Do you think the crutches are actually the source of his power? Wouldn’t that be something!

  • Have you ever been sure that something’s a bad idea, talked yourself into doubting your assurance, and done whatever it was only to have it turn out badly? Boy, you really went out of your way to screw up, didn’t you?

  • What role does Wendy play in the outcome of the story? How do her attitude and actions influence the course of events?

  • What makes Zachary the kind of guy who would go back into the bathroom and strike up a deal with the fat man on crutches? Why does he do it?

  • Is the fact that he or she knows a good trick for removing hollandaise sauce stains from a shirt reason enough to trust someone?