A Story by Alicia Oltuski, second place winner,
Phi Kappa Sigma Prizes, 2004
I walked in on Dad sucking peanut butter out of the individually wrapped tubes that you squeeze. He didn't take the blue plastic out of his mouth until he'd swallowed.
"These things are delicious." He wiped the sides of the tube, then chucked it into the garbage, ending with a basketball follow through, and sat back down on the two legged stool he got at Sharper Image. They sold massage chairs and flat screen TVs there, too, but Dad liked the chair. He said he'd have to think analytically every time he sat down, which is good. I think he bought it for Nell because she liked physics. And vegetarian food. Nell wasn't a vegetarian, but she liked vegetarian places in Manhattan for their ambiance.
"Aren't they just regular peanut butter in squeeze tubes?"
"Yeah, but the texture changes when you keep them like this. It gets softer." He washed his hands with detergent. "What's doing?"
"I measured people today."
"You know, for Cirque de Soleil they have to measure everything. Like the distance between features. Like the distance between your eyebrows. So they can apply the makeup flawlessly."
Dad tried bleaching his eyebrows, one Thanksgiving, the year he was dating Dawn. She kept kissing them when he leaned over to cut the turkey and then later when he served it. She called him dude. They broke it off less than a month later but Dad's eyebrows stayed blonde ten weeks into the new year. Then he had three colors on his face. Between his moustache, the bleached hairs on his eyebrows, and the ones that stayed black. The lady at the The Muffin Company called him rainbow face. Dad told her the entire story before she'd asked.
When Nell came in, she said, "Ahoy." I tried to guestimate the distance between her hips and knees. It looked like eighteen. Her legs seemed only a bit longer than the girl playing Danny's wife.
"Hi, girl." Nell called me girl. "So, do we want to go to No Pork on My Fork for Groundhog Day?" It was the vegetarian restaurant in Harlem that served fish.
"When's Groundhog Day," Dad asked.
"Bob, you ignorant slut. That's from seventies SNL. You remember? 'Jane, you ignorant slut.'" Dad didn't know but I did. It was tomorrow. I looked for Nell's hip/waist ratio as she leaned over to rub Dad's ear.
I got on the floor to measure his in-seams.
We didn't have a bendable tape measure for the show so I used ribbon for costume sizes and held it up to the carpenter's tape measure to compare.
"Ok. Spread your legs a little." I said to Danny, who was playing the lead in A Comedy of Errors. He was going to be the rich twin from Ephesus. The boy playing his brother was three inches shorter than he was and was growing a moustache, but the director said it was okay. It depended more on who fit the part.
Danny's jeans were too big and long on him and covered his ankles so I pulled them up a couple of inches to see where his leg ended. I held the ribbon to his inner upper thigh and straightened it down along his leg with my other hand.
"More." I moved his feet a little, like ballet teachers did when they walked around the studio, correcting position.
"Yeah, sure. Like this?"
"A bit straighter. Make them face the bathroom door."
Danny fixed his feet and I pressed the ribbon down a bit so his jeans wouldn't make me overcompensate his size. He was skinnier than I was by about a ratio of one point five to one.
"So who taught you to measure people like this," Danny asked, keeping his head fixed.
"Karen ran through it with me but it's really simple. I mean, I'm good with my hands. I mean, I also paint."
"Oh. So are you on set?"
"Oh." Danny lifted his arms to fix his hat and his jeans lifted a bit off the floor. I remembered to ask the next boy whose pants were too long to do that.
Danny cleared his throat.
"Ok." I aligned the ribbon with the carpenter's tape measure and filled in his in seam in the chart I'd prepared at home that morning.
"Thanks. So, what night are you gonna come see the show?" His legs were still spread apart.
"I'll be there every night. In case anyone needs last minute adjustments. Last year, when we were doing A Long Day's Journey into Night, the girl playing the mother's dress ripped through the middle during intermission."
"On the top or bottom?" Danny drew down the pant leg I'd rolled.
"If you could send the next person down who's ready."
"Sure. I'll see you opening night."
"Well, I'll be here sometime next week to make sure everything fits right. Karen wants me to go to this thrift shop with her in the village that she thinks might be good for the time period."
"What's it called?"
"Time and Again. Do you know it?"
"No, but I go down to the village sometimes."
"No, not too much."
"Okay, so I'll see you next week." I hung the yellow ribbon over my shoulder.
"Sure. I'll go get the next person who's ready. See you next week and, um, on March tenth in case my outfit rips down the middle." Danny stepped back and lifted his hand a bit, like a high five or something before turning around to go up. He picked up one of the soda cans they brought for cast on long rehearsal days and stuck it in his pocket, located halfway down his leg.
No Pork had seats on the floor like Japanese places. Dad sat down on the floor first and slid onto his seat Indian style. He looked like his knees hurt.
"Joia's doing costumes for the school play."
"What play are you doing?" Nel asked me.
"A Comedy of Errors."
"Is that Milton?"
"Shakespeare. It's early."
"Most of Shakespeare's comedies have cynical undertones." Nell turned to Dad when she said 'cynical undertones.' "Do you try to reflect that in costumes?" She looked back at me.
"The cynical undertones?"
"Well we're on a low budget because they're using the leftovers for the senior play."
"For your senior play?"
"No. That's in two years."
"Nell, remember the documentary we saw about Cirque de Soleil?" Dad distributed the menus.
"Yeah. They measured people's faces for makeup. Like their noses."
"And eyebrows. Joia, do you want sushi?"
"Tuna sashimi, please." I noticed the fish in the wall tank with the swelling eyes. They looked like they were going to explode.
Nell folded her menu into a cylinder. "You know, Tuna's called the chicken of the sea? It's what they call it, you know." Dad kind of smiled at her. More nodded than smiled but sometimes it meant the same thing when Dad did it. Nell made the chicken sound.
When she got it, Nell dissected her sushi. She ate the inside and the rice and the seaweed separately.
"I think the place is losing business because of Asian Fusion." Dad was planning on asking the manager, whom he always liked to speak to.
"I think you're probably made out of mercury by now." Nel laughed into her napkin.
"So are your people changing costumes?" "Nell," Dad said, "you forget it's a high school production. Joia loves theatre. I wouldn't be surprised if we see her on Broadway in seven, maybe eight years."
"Or off. Or off off. My brother in law's company just went off off. He said it gives him a much more intimate relationship with the playwrights."
"Why do they have fish here if they're vegetarian?"
"Fish isn't meat." Dad poked me with a chopstick. Then he poked Nell.
"But it's not vegetables."
On Monday, I distributed costumes. Danny's were too big and he pretended to swing his arms like a rapper.
Karen, the director, said we had half an hour to breathe at five o'clock, when they'd run the first two acts. Me and Danny and the girl who played the abbess went to the grocery store that had seats in the back. I got an orange juice.
"So you know when I say 'Satan avoid! I charge thee, tempt me not!'?"
Jenny laughed. I couldn't find her waist through her clothing when I'd measured her.
"How funny is that?" Danny hooked onto the leg of her chair and pulled it toward him. Jenny held onto the table but not hard. I looked at the bottom of my orange juice bottle. Danny would be in acting camp by the time my juice expired.
"Where do you live?" Jenny asked him.
"First and thirty eight."
I liked it when people didn't put the th or rd or st at the end of street numbers. It made them sound like taxi drivers.
I wondered if Jenny would come over to his house after rehearsals. They'd watch movies with women whose only mechanism for avoiding sex on first dates was not shaving their legs.
When I came home, Nell was dressed in Solinus' ceremonial garb. She was laughing, loudly. "I had to try on the costumes you left at home." Her hair fell into the satin hood of the robes. It was not dyed at the moment.
She once gave me a picture of her and Dad at the Berlin Wall. I'd been at camp when they went to Europe. "They were selling pieces of it but I didn't think they'd be authentic. You wouldn't have wanted fake graffiti-ed Berlin Wall, would you?"
She looked ridiculous in our living room in Solinus' clothing.
"Are you guys ready?"
"Are you planning on performing, Nell?" Dad grabbed her lightly by the hood.
When she'd changed back into the black dress she'd worn, Dad and I packed up the costumes in a garbage bag and we all drove to opening night.
We sat by the sound box and Nell covered her ears when they did effects. I liked it loud.
"Do you know all the actors?" Dad asked me, pointing to each one in the playbill we'd handwritten and xeroxed. I nodded. Danny had messed up the Satan line.
In the kitchen, Dad said "Danny's Dad calls him son." They'd met backstage.
"It's funny. You don't have to say 'son' to your son. It's implied." Dad laughed.
Nell had left him that night, after the play. She walked out the theatre door, even though she wasn't making a scene. I didn't tell him that it was the third woman with a monosyllabic name he'd dated even though I noticed it just then.
Dad walked over to the sink and turned both knobs, simultaneously. Then he poured exfoliating lotion on the top and bottom of his hands.
"My hands are dry."
"That's because you wash your hands with Palmolive."
"It's supposed to not make your hands dry."
"Do you want to go to the Dairy Queen?" Dad called The Muffin Company the Dairy Queen because he grew up in New Jersey. He only took me back, twice, to go apple picking and grocery shop at Costco. We passed the Trenton sign that depressed me. It said Trenton Makes the World Takes. "Now that's capitalism," Dad said every time we passed it.
"I love the peanut butter hurricanes." Dad put the detergent back. "Then again, I love peanut butter anything." His laugh segued into clearing his throat.
When we got there, the cashier told Dad that peanut butter hurricanes didn't exist anymore.
"What do you mean?"
"They've been discontinued."
"How do you discontinue a drink?" He played with his cardigan zipper.
"People didn't drink it enough." I sat down by the table next to the ATM machine.
"What are you talking about? I had one at least three times a week. Maybe four."
"Yeah, I remember you, sir. You were here a lot."
"It's ridiculous. Can't they just keep the ingredients and down the advertising?"
The woman didn't answer right away. I wondered if she knew he worked. "It's too expensive."
Dad turned around and faced the soda machines for a moment. "Okay," he said. "I'll have a shake."
"I don't care."
We were the only two customers in the store, until a lady with red roots came in to use the ATM. I went up to get a water. Dad started to talk to her.
"I like your hair. I like it when there are several colors." His eyebrows were homogenous by then. I looked into my bowl and wanted there to be a cleaner bathroom at DQ I could visit. The lady looked at him but only briefly, while she waited for the machine to process the transaction. Her pin faltered the first time.
"Dye's gotten expensive."
She didn't answer. Her money and receipt came through.
"Are you from around here?"
The lady walked past our table, and used the straps of her bag to wear it as a backpack.
Dad started on his shake. He used the spoon and straw, together like there was something under the whip cream he wanted to get to. I hoped for him, he'd find it in the ice cream. I crossed my legs and tried to think of a comment on peanut butter or hurricanes or both.