Jill Holtz


The lady at the phone company was pleasant. "Would you like your new number listed in the book?" she asked me. "It'll be an additional four dollars a month to keep your number out of print."
     "Will it?" I said, scribbling on a year old phone bill I dug out of a cabinet drawer. In the past few months, I've grown increasingly frugal, without a doubt something I picked up from Rodney Number Two, who talked freely of depriving himself of hot water year round.
     "But cold showers?" I asked him, blowing into a cup of coffee he made from instant cappuccino mix and recycled coffee grinds—tastier than it sounds, really; it was my second cup that evening.
     "You get used to cold showers," he told me, taking my hand in his, his glasses, fogged from the steamy cappu-coffee drink. "You start to crave cold showers." His fingers tickled the inside of my palm, cold, tingly.
     My own frugality is usually limited to grocery runs kept at twice per week, and I try to watch the air conditioning, keeping the temperature at a sensible seventy-six degrees more often than not. I try to buy generic soaps and spend less on wine. I often sleep in the nude.
     The lady at the phone company asked again: "Ma'am, do you want to have your new number listed in the book?"
     I lifted Fuck Face, the hairless mouse Rodney Number Two left in a glass box beside the phone, onto the coffee table to give him a better view of the television set and moved an issue of American Heritage magazine that might further obstruct his view. I have the deepest sympathy for the neglected, hairless creature.
     "No, I don't want my number listed in the phone book," I said. I heard my other line beep.
     Fuck Face has a tendency to get all worked up when things don't work out the first time around. He can be very impatient.
     One time, I went to a birthday party at the Hilton with Rodney Number Three, left Fuck Face waiting in his box for over three hours, well past the time the neighbor's sprinkler system usually kicks on and Fuck Face likes to try his luck and skedaddle on over for a bit of rough and tumble with the other backyard water-loving creatures. The party was for a philosophical fellow I met once before, a co-worker of Rodney's who'd written a book on herbal cough drops and remedies for the human spirit, Eucalyptus, Guts, Grit. Rodney Number Three was very interested in remedies for the human spirit. I was more interested in herbal cough drops; my throat, as a matter of degree, has always been rather dry and my voice, rather horse, a flat alto with a straining determination toward soprano I've been told on occasion. Fuck Face was livid: fat, purple veins pumping under his spiny, pale yet often glabrous skin; his bantam body racing back and forth between the potted palm trees and pink seashell ever-filled with pumpernickel bread crumbs I arranged in his box.
     "Just ignore him," I said to Rodney Number Three as Fuck Face turned over the dish of the pumpernickel crumbs. He hurled one right at the glass.
     I rolled my eyes, noticeably, at the ceiling.
     "He has to learn to stop expressing himself this way every time something doesn't turn out the way he wants. There are other people in this world, other creatures," I said, my voice croaking from what felt like a lifetime of bad wine and an incident earlier with an expired cherry cough drop. "Others among us with expectations. With disappointments. Sometimes you've got to learn to make do, try to be patient, try to work your way around."
     I'd been trying out a sort of tough love approach with Fuck Face. Only briefly, I considered reaching in to cradle that agitated, hairless mouse in my palms before dropping it gently to the carpet for it to roll around and rid itself of all of its irascibility. Only briefly.
     Pumpernickel crumbs slid down the walls of his box. By then, Fuck Face had fogged up half the glass with perspiration. Fuck Face twitched, scratched at his forehead.
     I closed my eyes.
     "So Rodney," I said, in an attempt to deflect attention. "It strikes me as unusual to think how our physiological responses are often colored with some sort of explosion of wetness. We retch. We ejaculate—or some of us, at least you do—I don't, but of course, you know that."
     "What is that thing?" Rodney Number Three said. He nudged me, gently, leaning forward over Fuck Face's box as Fuck Face's tail gone somewhat limp swatted the glass.
     The lady at the phone company asked me to hold while she pulled up some numbers.
     "Sure," I said as I watched Fuck Face skitter across the coffee table and take his usual seat atop the morning paper. He took a sip of water from his dish.
     "Keep pushing those fluids," I told him.
     And then he returned his attention to the television, once more, deeply engrossed in an episode of M.A.S.H.
     I was transferred to another line playing the typical classical music.
     I heard my other line beep again, and I felt a bit peeved, considering the slew of obscene calls I'd been getting from a rather depraved individual pretending, in an affected guttural voice, to conduct market research on women's preferences in lingerie as well as prophylaxis.
     At first, I thought it was Rodney Number Five behaving badly. Rodney Number Five, when in one of his flirtatious moods, sometimes called me from the psychiatric hospital where he worked. "Greetings doll," he'd say. "This is Dr. Rodney calling from your local lobotomy clinic to confirm that the brain is still, indeed, the sexiest organ in the female body. Now, just as a point of comparison, would you mind removing your bra and lightly stimulating the area around the nipple?" He was a real goofball of a guy whose mind had a tendency to wander off and reside in desolate places, places littered with the sad baggage of lonely nights spent curled up with a silent Mrs. Butterworth bottle beneath the disco ball and bongos his ailing, arthritis ridden mother had wishfully hung in his room with the idea that her Rodney might one day grow up and dance the mambo center stage.
     At any rate, the first time the inane caller asked me to go into my bedroom and try on a pair of my pantyhose, I heard something in the amative thrash of drums and strings rumbling and stirring from the caller's stereo that seemed suggestive of Rodney Number Five's penchant for performing kinky love songs in bed. Of course, this was the same ill-fated night Rodney Number Six (who'd been loftily saving himself for marriage) and I'd decided to call it quits, and Fuck Face, having come down with a bit of a heat rash, started in with his incessant squealing and scratching. I held the phone gingerly to my thigh, crisscrossing my legs as I listened to the faint honking and sirens flooding in from outside. "Seventy-five percent of women say they prefer the feel of silk to leather against their bare skin," I heard the gravelly voice say as I inadvertently bumped the caller up to speaker phone. "MAY I ASK WHAT SIZE YOU'RE WEARING? I'D LIKE TO SEND YOU A PAIR OF STOCKINGS IN THE MAIL."
     "Okay Rodney, that'll do for one night," I said a bit groggily, and then I hung up the phone.
     Once I climbed into bed, however, I felt a twinge—I've never been one to sit well with ambiguity. And so, much to my chagrin, I got up again at three a.m. to write Rodney Number Five a rather lengthy email, in which I'd written roughly: I worry I've misled you with our "consultation" earlier tonight. The truth is I feel unready to dive headfirst into another sea of troubled water, at least for right now; I've too much work yet to do on my own muddled self. However, I want you to know I'll always remember our unexpected evening together as something outré and altogether rare.
     The next morning, of course, he'd written me back: What the hell are you talking about?
     Which made me feel as though I'd been kicked in the stomach.
     Needless to say I've been screening my calls.
     I went into the kitchen to pour myself a glass of lemonade and then downed it as I stood beside the counter listening somewhat languidly to my other line as it continued to beep.
     Under the air conditioner a congregation of insects had begun to float in a puddle on the linoleum.
     A fruit fly dove nimbly between a pair of overripe bananas in a bowl in front of me.
     Outside a dog howled from dehydration.
     I drummed my fingers along the counter feeling undeniably frugal, and so I snatched the bananas from the bowl and peeled them, dropped them into the blender and turned it onto puree.
     My apartment was being eaten up by termites, the whole of which slightly unnerved me. Yesterday morning, I discovered them: a thousand or so of the little buggers scattered across the linoleum as well as in thick, sordid clusters along the windowsill, most of them dead, a few wings still fluttering about the floor. I usually try to keep a pretty tight kitchen and had gone at them with a broom for well over an hour; their wings have a way of blending in, sticking to the floor like wet rice. Sadly, my landlord has been less than sympathetic. My landlord is a rather sedentary, burly man, who wears a fat, gold chain around his neck and who yesterday evening brought his infant daughter and a can of over-the-counter-insecticide-spray into my kitchen.
     "Do you want me to take the baby?" I said as I watched him spritz around the window.
     He gave me a look that let me know I'd pestered him once again, as though I tried my best to interrupt his family's dinner.
     Inexplicably, my landlord does not like me; at first I thought I imagined it until I found out he told the lady across the street that I am a lesbian, which I'm not. "You don't know what I've seen in there," she told me he told her, alluding to some sort of paraphernalia of the orgiastic.
     "I don't think spraying is going to do the trick. You're going to need to call an exterminator," I told him.
     He sort of grunted, not saying a word, and then left abruptly, flailing down the front steps with his infant daughter.
     There is only so much you can say about having low self-esteem.
     I turned off the blender and scraped the bananas into a Tupperware container, the phone shelved between my shoulder and ear.
     "Hey Eleanor, I hear you clunking around in there." I heard Rodney Number Four bang on the wall and yell. "Might you spare an egg?"
     I glanced at the wall, a bit warily.
     It happened to be the case that I purchased a dozen eggs yesterday evening; however, I was less than eager to relinquish one to Rodney Number Four, who's been rather full of requests since he, quite unabashedly, moved into the apartment next door to mine.
     "Really, Rodney," I said, feeling my throat get fuzzy. I nudged the spoon around inside the blender, silently adding up the number of comestibles and cooking utensils Rodney Number Four asked to borrow within the last week. "Don't you ever go to the store?"
     For starters, he still had my frying pan, which I reluctantly lent him for veal scaloppini. Then there was the incident with the yellow mustard. Also, half a bottle of merlot I bestowed when he came over desperate for some cooking wine. Plus or minus a couple of granny smith apples.
     Rodney Number Four banged on the wall again, a bit softer this time. Then sadly, dragging his voice he said: "You know I'd be more than obliged."
     I sighed, suddenly woozy, eyeing the grimy, green salad bowl I'd set in the sink. It wasn't so much that I minded helping out Rodney Number Four when he came up short an item or two. In his own way, he was apt to return the favor: tossing a baked good in my door or showing up for Six Feet Under with herbal tea. But Rodney Number Four was terribly mopey. He tended toward the messy side, and I'd often get my dishes back with pieces of debris. This morning, for instance, I found the salad bowl propped in my front door along with one of his bundt cakes that he bakes and a note: sorry to hear about the bugs. Around the bottom of the cake: pieces of red, human hair.
     "Ma'am?" the lady at the phone company said.
     "Yes?" I said. I decided once again not to stare regretfully at the wall.
     "Our records indicate you've changed your number five times within the last two months?"
     "Yes," I said, although I hadn't realized it'd been quite five times. I set the bananas in the refrigerator and wandered into the living room, feeling rather pleased to see Fuck Face jumping giddily about on the coffee table, shaking his tail back and forth at the television. His favorite commercial just so happened to be on—the one where Snuggles the Bear rides the flying beach towel through the tops of breezy palm trees, and then falls, giggling, whirling through the springy midmorning air, before landing comfortably indoors on top of a pile of perfectly folded, bath towels. Fuck Face loves Snuggles. He especially likes it when Snuggles summersaults or wiggles his nose at the camera. Either gesture will usually get him rolling, swooning. He loves just about anything that is soft or mildly animated. Just last week, for instance, when my landlord came over to fix my fuse box—the fuse for the garbage disposal needed to be replaced—Fuck Face got a hold of the fleecy, pink, ladybug blanket hanging out of the corner of the toolbox and dragged it across the room over to his spot under the coffee table where he rolled around gleefully, rubbing his behind.
     "Is there a problem with your current line you'd like to report?" the lady at the phone company said.
     "Pardon me?" I said as I watched Fuck Face throw himself off the end of the coffee table and land in my laundry basket.
     I knelt down beside the basket. Inside, Fuck Face was wriggling, sinking fast below a pair of my time worn blue jeans. He poked his nose up at the ceiling, his soft yet beady eyes turning suddenly panicked, his tiny body, already perspiring, treading against a current of soiled bath towels.
     I thrust my hand inside the basket. Fuck Face started to squirm downward, scrambling away from my fingers. I watched him crawl in and then fall out of one of my oven mitts.
     "Hold still," I mouthed at him, feeling the phone slide a bit from my ear.
     "Ma'am?" the lady at the phone company said.
     "Yes?" I said. I lifted my dirty smock with mustard on it and watched Fuck Face tumble under a pair of my purple underwear. As I lifted a dish towel, he slid under a pair of my running pants. I plunged my hand in deeper and grabbed him—his sweaty legs scratching spastically at my wrist—and then I dropped him and watched him topple sideways onto a pair of my pantyhose where he ran around shrieking, wrapping himself in nylon.
     Right about then, Rodney Number Four tapped at my window. I glanced up to see his stubbly, wan face was pressed goofily against the glass, fogging up the window around his mustache as he breathed. He was standing on the porch in his navy blue bathrobe. He held up his fingers beseechingly.
     "What?" I said, shooing him away. "I'm on the phone."
     He held up a bag of oolong tea. I looked back at Fuck Face, jerking, screeching, strangling himself with my pantyhose.
     "Excuse me for one moment," I said, by now fumbling with the phone. I snatched Fuck Face from the basket with both of my hands, careful to steer him away from my most delicate parts, and tried my best to untangle him, stretching the nylon over his small, trembling head, his spiny, sunken stomach expanding rapidly in my palm. He sank his teeth into my knuckles.
     "Sssshh!" I yelped, sucking air through my teeth. I yanked the pantyhose over his head, feeling rather startled. Fuck Face had never bitten me before though I remembered he once bit Rodney Number Five that time he insisted they play fetch indoors, and Rodney Number Five taunted him, deliberately tossing the pick-up-stick behind the couch. I pressed the phone once more to my ear.
     "I'm sorry about that," I said, peering down at my knuckle. There was a small incision on my middle finger. Already my finger throbbed with the intensity of an irregular heart beat.
     "My pet just bit me," I said.
     "Excuse me?"
     I watched the blood dribble out of my finger.
     "Do you have a pet?" I said.
     "Dogs," the lady at the phone company said. "Two dogs."
     I glanced down at Fuck Face, who was breathing much more steadily, slumped against the side of his box, kicking his bread crumbs one by one up at the miniature palm trees.
     "Ma'am," the lady at the company said again. "Would you like to report a problem with the current line?"
     "No," I said rather pensively as I staggered into the kitchen and realized my other line had already stopped beeping.
     I enjoyed a moment of repose while I penciled my new number on the calendar beneath the number for Fuck Face's dermatologist, listening to the last few mellifluous bars of what I later recognized to be Rossini Sonata Number One in G major trickling in from the television. Two termites crept out from behind the calendar—I dropped the phone and smacked them with my hand.
     I turned on the sink's faucet and ran my troubled finger under the cold water until it felt good and numb.
     And then I went upstairs to give Rodney Number Four an egg.