8.06 / June 2013

The Paste-and-Scissors Man


The paste-and-scissors man has demands morning, noon, and night. He wants me to tell him everything, and then he wants me to tell him more.

“You fucking blackhole,” I call him. I keep hoping obscenity might work, obscenity with a twist.

But he doesn’t care–he just sits there in his straight-backed chair, staring past everything, skinnier than Jesus.

There are books to dust and floors to polish, tubs to scrub and rugs to beat, laundry to hang and bread to bake. If you made a little movie of the tasks I do each day and then watched it in fast-forward, you’d think I was a superhero of sorts.

The paste-and-scissors man can’t do a thing for himself, but that’s not why he requires me to do the household chores, or so he claims; he thinks it’s important to have concrete tasks to go along with the less concrete ones. It would be cruel, he says, not to give me assignments that have tangible results: a gleaming porcelain bathtub, a geranium perked up from a recent watering, a drawer filled with softly glowing silverware.

But really, I’d like to know the state this place would be in without me. Meanwhile, don’t even ask about my own home, poor thing.

After the stew has been stirred, after he’s refused supper in that nasty voice of his and invited me into the library in that nice voice of his (I’d take the nasty voice over the nice voice any day–who wants to listen to a wolf trying to whisper?), after I’ve washed my hands with lavender soap (my contribution, though he paid–he used to not have a splinter of soap on the premises!), after I’ve pulled off my socks sweat-damp from a long day in heavy shoes, he puts the clips on my fingers and the clips on my toes, ten and ten. He places the helmet on my head and buckles the belt across my waist. All those years ago, when I first saw it in the corner of the library, surrounded by globes and paperweights, facing the straight-backed chair and the typewriter, I assumed it was an ancient set of armor from a sect of knights who didn’t fear death enough to truly protect themselves.

“Excuse me,” I say to the paste-and-scissors man, “but do you have a dozen murdered wives locked up here?”

He giggles with delight, if you can imagine him giggling.

“Good work, sugar scrap.” He calls me sugar scrap as though it’s a normal term of endearment. “That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m after.” He bends over to tighten the leg buckles. “But no cigar–you know there’s no attic here.”

“There’s a basement,” I counter.

“Well if you must parse hairs, my dear sugar scrap,” the paste-and-scissors man says, “there are only seven dead wives.”

I cry out with something halfway between horror and humor. I know there are no dead wives. At the same time, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised.

“All right,” says the paste-and-scissors man, taking a seat in his stiff-backed chair and placing his fingers on the typewriter. “Go ahead.”

But I’m annoyed tonight, still dizzy from scrubbing that damn tub so hard, and the helmet is tight enough to press a pattern into my forehead.

“I don’t know,” I tell him. “I got nothin,” I say. “Nada,” I add.

He gazes at me with bland curiosity, like an animal who doesn’t understand language.

“I said NOTHING,” I thunder.

“It doesn’t have to be much,” he whispers, gentler than anyone’s mother.

I decide to thwart him by telling him the most boring thing I can think of, or at least the thing he’ll consider the most boring.

“My husband and I, we have a cat,” I say in my flattest voice.

But the brightness in his eyes turns up a notch.

“A black cat,” I say with a performative yawn.

“Bad luck?” he mouths. If you didn’t know him, you wouldn’t have heard it. But I do know him. And with those two words, the boringness unravels, and I’m thinking of the day we brought CoalCoal home, and all that happened after.

“Yes,” I suddenly can’t resist telling him, though it’s wrong to tell him anything at all, because my bad luck should belong to me and me alone, right? “That cat brought us bad luck. We took it from the pound because we weren’t superstitious. They have a hell of a time getting rid of black cats. So, being rational human beings, we adopted a black cat.”

“And?” he says, stiff with anticipation, half-standing, his fingers poised over the keys, his neck straining toward me, his held breath making him look skinnier than ever.

“That’s it,” I say. “We adopted a black cat and our luck slid.”

“Keep going,” he insists. “Keep going.”

His gaze sears my forehead, as though it possesses actual heat, a candle passing half an inch away from my skin.

“The black cat brought us bad luck,” I claim, and then it hits me: “or maybe we were just bad to begin with.”

He releases his breath, sinks back into his chair, his fingers fast on the keys. “That’s my sugar scrap.”

THE BLACK CAT BROUGHT US BAD LUCK, OR MAYBE WE WERE JUST BAD TO BEGIN WITH: the tasseled green desk lamp shines through the piece of paper sticking up from the typewriter.

“Excellent,” the paste-and-scissors man says. And then, right away: “More?”

“You fucking blackhole,” I mutter. “Do I look like a reservoir?”

He looks at me, startled.

“Of course you do,” he says in that frank way of his. “Why do you think I hired you?”

“I quit,” I tell him, though there’s no way to match this pronouncement with a storm out the door, a stomp on the stoop, my whole body clenched here in copper and leather.

“How about this, sugar scrap,” the paste-and-scissors man goads me. “Why don’t you tell me about Easter?”

“Easter,” I scoff, “Easter.” But as much as I want to foil him, as much as I want my brain to remain barren and unresponsive, something does come to mind, rising up painfully from that single word.

“Tell me,” the paste-and-scissors man commands. He always knows when I’m thinking something worthwhile, or at least devastating.

“We live in the kind of city where a kid who throws a fit in school because the blue he’s painting on his Easter egg doesn’t match the blue in his mind gets handcuffed and removed from the premises in a police car!” I scream. “Now let me the fuck out of here.”

After placing on the paper the words THE BLUE HE’S PAINTING ON HIS EASTER EGG DOESN’T MATCH THE BLUE IN HIS MIND, the paste-and-scissors man, otherwise known as the loneliest person on the planet, otherwise known as my taskmaster, myself, unbuckles the straps and unclips my extremities. He moves aside to let me exit the contraption, and here I’ll say it: it is a feeling not unlike the feeling following copulation. The paste-and-scissors man never touches anyone–surely it’s been years since he’s felt skin against his skin, and frankly I find it hard to imagine him allowing anyone to touch him even when he was an infant–yet once in a blue moon our fingertips graze against each other as I dismount the pedestal, or maybe I’m just feeling the heat of his fingers, the shadow of them, the wish for them, but anyway.

He doesn’t thank me. He says, “See you tomorrow.”

Because every day I quit, and every day I return. At night my husband rocks our little monster and strokes our black cat. He’s trying to grow daffodils in our pitiful window-boxes. He pretends nothing went wrong. I love him terribly much, even when he reeks of other women. I sit across from him at our tiny table in our kitchen where cockroaches crawl among the teaspoons. The window-boxes will not go unmentioned, nor the cockroaches, the teaspoons. My husband pours cool water into a pair of blue bowls so I can soak my aching fingertips. “You don’t have to go back there,” my husband says ardently, as though I have any other choice.

Helen Phillips is the author of the novel-in-fables And Yet They Were Happy (Leapfrog Press, 2011) and the children’s adventure novel Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green (Delacorte Press/Random House Children’s Division, 2012). She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, the Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, The Iowa Review Nonfiction Award, the DIAGRAM Innovative Fiction Award, and the Meridian Editors’ Prize. Most recently, her work has appeared in Tin House and been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts. She teaches at Brooklyn College and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, artist Adam Douglas Thompson, and their baby daughter.
8.06 / June 2013