Appears in Other Voices #43
“Lorna, do you know how many kids in this country gash open their skin every day? Billions. Look here.” Mr. Carpone pointed to a space above his right cheekbone and angled his face in the light over the worktable. “Feel it.” Taking my hand, he traced a scar that stretched from his hairline into the middle of his cheek. “I got that when I fell off my bike—I was a little boy, then.”
I looked closer, delighted to know about the scar, an incident that occurred years before I became his assistant.
Mr. Carpone picked up a small brown glass bottle and swirled its contents with a rubber dropper. “Watch.” He opened the blade of a pocketknife and made a quick stab on his forearm. Blood appeared in a slim crevice. Mr. Carpone wiped the blood away and I could see the faint indentation he’d made. He dabbed a few drops of the scar serum on his arm and the beads of blood hung suspended in the fluid. When he rubbed it into the cut, new bits of skin filled in the open space. Within minutes, Mr. Carpone’s arm was healed—no cut, no scar. It was as if the blade had never touched his arm. “Now you,” he said.
I held up my hands in protest; I began to sweat. Mr. Carpone tipped his head to the side and smiled lightly then asked, “Where’s Mom today?”
His question reminded me that he was all I had. I straightened up. “Auditioning for some cleaning commercial. She’s probably leaning over some one else’s toilet right now, using every bit of elbow grease she has.”
“It won’t always be this way,” he said.
“Our bathroom is never clean,” I told him. “She spends all her time impressing a bunch of executives with her methods of spraying air freshener.” He clicked his tongue and in that pointed sound I felt redeemed.
He waved the bottle of scar serum and I took two steps backwards. “Come on, Lorna. You’re my assistant. And you’re brave.” Yes, I was, on both counts. So I rolled up the sleeve of my T-shirt. While most of the other girls in my class were shopping at The Limited and wearing colorful, fuzzy sweaters, I chose to spend my afternoons in Mr. Carpone’s basement. I closed my eyes. Upstairs I could hear the music that signaled the end of General Hospital. Next, Mrs. Carpone would watch Jeopardy with Alex Trebeck, whom she found handsome. Once, she had told me I should marry a man with hands like his—she said they would take me places.
I didn’t care about anyone else’s hands. Only Mr. Carpone’s beautiful fingers spoke to me in a way I understood.
Sharp pain stung my neck and I opened my eyes. Mr. Carpone stood with the blade in hand—blood tinged its end. He held a paper towel below my jaw. “We’ve already done my arm. I needed to try a different section. You’ll be fine.” His hand steadied my shoulder. I swallowed. The truth was I would let Mr. Carpone do whatever he wanted. He’d chosen me.
Nothing he did to me could hurt much.
When he took off the towel bits of it stuck to my skin and Mr. Carpone had to scrape it off with his fingernails. I watched in a square of mirror as he applied the serum and the skin made over. He took my face in his hands and turned it to the left and right. “It’s beautiful. Not a mark.”
I had spent the last few days eating my lunch in the handicapped stall at school. Earlier that summer, the girl I considered my best friend moved away. So now when I walked down the hall and my classmates mimicked the sound of thunder or mooed, I didn’t have anyone to pretend to speak with. But at Mr. Carpone’s, none of that mattered. Here, I was vital to the success of his project. He needed me.
Initially my mom had asked the Carpones to keep an eye on me while she secretly went to auditions. And then I began to go there without being told to do so.
After the first night Mr. Carpone tried his scar serum on me, mom served tuna casserole and a green salad. She filled my plate three-quarters salad and one spoonful of the creamy noodles. “You aren’t that hungry, are you?” she asked when I continued to hold my plate suspended. She turned to my father. “I read in the paper today they’re holding auditions for the musical “Annie.” Wouldn’t that be great for Lorna?” A folded-over copy of Business Week sat beside my father’s glass of wine. She cleared her throat and tapped a fingernail on the rim of his plate. “Charles, wouldn’t an extra-curricular be great for our daughter?”
“If that’s what Lorna wants.”
It wasn’t the enthusiasm my mom had hoped for and the conversation came to a screeching halt. My dad thought theatrics were foolish. If it had been up to him my mom and I would both be volunteers at the cancer center, just like the spouses of the other attorneys. As if she was auditioning for another part, mom abruptly pushed back her chair. She stormed into the kitchen where she dialed the phone number of her best friend and the two of them relived their starring roles beginning with high school drama.
Meanwhile, I returned to my room. I was halfway through a biography of a bag lady and was hoping to finish it by the weekend. The truth was I had no interest in being on stage, my form illuminated in the cape of stage lights. I preferred books and my room to uncertain spaces. While I was reading, there was a knock on my door and mom burst in before I could say anything, flopping on my bed like some love-torn teenager. Her eyes were dry and she squealed, pounded the quilt with her fist and shaking the book in my hand. “I got the part! I’m going to be the Mighty Scrub mom!” I offered her congratulations and shifted my weight further from her, plopped a pillow on its side and leaned on it. “You can’t tell your father. I’m going to share the good news when the time is right.” She patted my ankle. “What do you think he’ll say?” I didn’t have the slightest clue. She continued, “It will take some adjustment. He’s just used to having me to himself. But he’s going to have to share me or else. In the commercial—Lorna, are you listening?”
I held my thumb on the page I had been reading and looked up at her.
“In the first scene, I’ve just finished washing dishes and I’m scouring the sink. We’ve had spaghetti for dinner, though, and I simply cannot get the sink clean. I’ve been leaning over it for half the night when Captain Mighty Scrub arrives with his scrubbing fleet and helps me get the job done in a flash.” She snapped her fingers.
“It sounds good,” I told her.
“Good? This is just the beginning. Maybe someday you’ll want to follow in your mom’s footsteps.”
Maybe I should have told her then that I was Mr. Carpone’s assistant and that someday we would be rich and share a home and in our home I would make Mr. Carpone dinner and together, we would eat as much as we wanted.
My mom spoke louder. “What are you reading?” I showed her the cover. “Huh. I never read that one.” She pecked the air near my cheek and skittered away, leaving the door wide open.
That night, I dreamed of being chased by rivers of blood, curling brooks bubbling with my own life force, endless rivulets pouring out of vast orifices on my body. I was a fountain moored in the ground. While the blood spread out of me, Mr. Carpone remained at my side, advising me. In the dream I held his hand and it covered my own completely.
I woke with a pillow guarding my chest.
The next day, Mom told me she had arranged for me to take the bus to and from school and that it would only be for a little while during the filming of the Mighty Scrub commercial.
“But this is just between us. To your father and anyone else who asks, I’m volunteering for hospice.”
This didn’t make any sense to me. “What about when the commercial airs? Dad will find out at some point.”
“Watch your mouth, miss.”
“I was just wondering,” I said.
“Well don’t.” She pinched my cheek and then glanced down at my second bowl of Choco Flakes. I pretended not to notice.
When the bus dropped me off on our street that afternoon, I went directly to the Carpones’ house. “You are a smart cookie,” said Mr. Carpone. We were in his basement workshop and I was sitting on the stool where he usually sat. I had told him my idea for a scar serum commercial. In it, two neighborhood kids collide on bikes. The two boys do not know each other because one has recently moved into the neighborhood. They go back to one of the boys’ homes and apply the serum by themselves and by the end of the commercial they ride off toward an ice cream truck. “You’re too intelligent for the kids your age, aren’t you? That’s why you’re my assistant.”
I felt myself blush. I couldn’t tell him that in my dreams there were only the two of us and that sometimes the blood would not stop.
“And we’ll ask your mom to star in the commercial, right?” He chuckled. “No, no. You’ll always be the star here.” Truthfully, I didn’t even want him to mention my parents. At his house, I only wanted him to consider me.
“We’re going to do our legs today, Lorna love. It’s got to be done.”
I had momentarily forgotten the work, our purpose. I nodded. Refocused.
He reminded me, “When we send the papers for the trademark we’ve got to make sure everything’s been accounted for. Then we’ll get you your money.” I didn’t have any clue what I’d do with my share of the earnings, although Mr. Carpone had said we’d be wealthy and that my college tuition would be paid.
He turned his back while I unzipped my pants. I pretended we were two lovers who lived in a homeless shelter like in the biography I was reading. My pants hung at my ankles. I looked away when Mr. Carpone opened up the knife. My underpants were white and generous.
The cut was on the meat of my thigh, long and thin like a sliver of paper and I yelped like a puppy, something to be pitied. Mr. Carpone pressed a clean paper towel against it, the blood a quick streak of red. “They’ll want to know we’ve tested this in every possible situation.” He dabbed on the serum. It felt like chilled olive oil as he kneaded it into my thigh.
Mr. Carpone’s hands were remarkably tender, as if they were filled with jam. As he rubbed, he talked. “If I had a daughter like you I wouldn’t leave you with the neighbors.” He shook his head. “You deserve only the best. And someday your parents will come to your mansion and you will decide whether or not to open the front door, right?”
Our mansion, I wanted to say. The one we owned equally, decorated with the awards our scar serum would win.
He pulled back his hands and we both leaned in. Skin had filled in the cut without any visible scaring or lines. “You know, when I was your age the only school subject I understood was science. So I read every scientific book I could get my hands on. Everyone thought I was a fool, except for Mrs. Carpone. She said I’d be a scientist and look, I am.”
A tiny lump fixed itself in my stomach. Mrs. Carpone wasn’t his assistant—I’d never even seen her downstairs. “My mother thinks I could be a model if I lost weight.”
“Poor Lorna,” said Mr. Carpone. “Poor lovely Lorna.” He touched my cheek. “You will always be my brilliant assistant. Always the best.”
Later that evening, I leaned against the couch where my father read the newspaper and read my book. I became angry. When the bag lady had a cough she had to wait in line for a whole day until a doctor at the clinic could see her. The unfairness of it all. Mom had told dad she was volunteering for the local hospice organization. Really, she was auditioning for a part in a soap opera—Hours of Our Day—and the thought of real patients on soiled sheets, waiting for death to relieve them only added to my fury. We were waiting to eat dinner with her. “When will Mom be back?” I asked.
“I don’t know exactly. When she’s done.”
He was so unaware. “What does a hospice volunteer do?”
“You’ll have to ask your mother.” He flipped a page, and then stood up, holding his empty wine glass. He headed for the liquor cabinet.
“You think she helps them?” I asked.
“Who? Oh yes,” he said. He uncorked the bottle of wine, refilled his glass. I didn’t understand my parents’ or even the Carpones’ marriage. Why did they remain together when it was obvious that the whole lot of them were better off alone? Except for Mr. Carpone. He should be with me.
“Why are you still married to Mom?”
“Lorna, you know this. We love each other.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“We had you, didn’t we?” He flipped to another section of newspaper.
I asked, “Do you think she loves you?”
“Lorna, I’m tired.”
“I need to know,” I continued. “What would end it for you?”
In my room, I tore off my clothes, piled them into a heap, and got into bed. The sheets were smooth against my bare skin. I closed my eyes and pretended Mr. Carpone was with me. He would pat my shoulder, his handprint warm and steady before he told me where he needed to try out the serum. I would undo the laces on my gym shoes and slide off my jeans without being asked.
“Lovely Lorna,” he would sigh. I would undo the buttons of my shirt, and stand there, hair hanging in my face, the beginner’s bra conforming to the mounds on my chest. He would take off his shirt as well, rubbing my arms.
The light would bounce off his scalp. Smelling of limes, he would make tiny scissoring cuts on every stretch of skin from my neck to my feet. After each slash he’d cry out, dab at the wound with the towel and ask, “That’s not so bad Lorna, is it?” His eyes brimming with tears, his other hand already reaching for the bottle so he could put me back together. “It hurts me more,” he’d murmur.
I would pray his steady hands might slip, that the knife would pierce deeper, dive into a warm place where only a prick of blood would mark the entry way and the point might pierce through to the other side. Finally, he would hand me the blade. Still wet with my blood, its pearl handle smooth, he would instruct, “Go on, I’m ready.” But first I would kiss him hard—on the lips. And he’d kiss me back. “Oh Lorna,” he’d say. And I would open my arms to him.
From downstairs, I heard my mother’s voice, calling me and all too suddenly, I remembered who I was.
Over fajitas, my mom told us about a woman with a brain tumor she had met at the hospice. “She has such spirit! She’s only in her fifties, but she has an amazing outlook on life. Today I read her some of the New Testament and she was very grateful.” Mom had made fajitas. I peeled back the warm tortilla. Mine held a tablespoon of meat.
“She sounds tough,” said my father.
Her lies were exhausting. I finished my fajita first, my plate marred only by a spot of orange grease. This was no place for Mr. Carpone’s brilliant assistant.
Like any good actress, I became poised, found my center. “Dad, did you know Mom’s the new Mighty Scrub lady?” I tilted my head toward my audience and concentrated on projecting my voice. “She’s going to be famous—isn’t that great?”
I fumed up to my room, their voices crossing over one another, canceling out the clarity of a single word. Finally. They would go their separate ways and I would too. I packed a bag, put on my pajamas, and slipped under the blankets. Their words sounded like flags snapping in the wind. After a few hours, when the voices fell to a hush, my mom entered my room.
“I still love you, honey. It’s going to be all right.” I shivered, clasped my arms tight. “I forgive you,” she said. Yet I felt the same—black, heavy. Filled with something immobile.
After hours of blinking into the darkness, I took my bag and left for the Carpones’. The sky was cloaked in dark folds and our street numbed of sound. I crouched beside their bedroom window where the faint light illuminated their forms. Mrs. Carpone was dressed in a long white gown and she sat across from her shirtless husband, his arm cradled in hers. She held a kitchen knife in her palm, and they were both grinning. I pounded on the window as hard as I could and their faces jolted, squinted at my oily locks and round face. Who else could it be? Mr. Carpone’s eyes narrowed in on mine, daring me to keep quiet, but it was too late for silence. I had come to be with him.
I slammed the pillar of my wrist against the window, into my own glimmering reflection. My arm crashed through the glass, shards stabbing my skin. Real blood. It ran fast, streaking down my arm and onto the Carpones’ beige carpeting. It was darker than ever as if it was drawing from the deepest part of me, a place I recently discovered craved revenge.