Calloused Hands

“How do you cope with life?” he asked me. I could smell him before I heard him. It was the smell of the streets, the miasma of a kind of life I feared. It was a life that was waiting just around the corner for me. Some people, people I’ve known who didn’t truly know what they were talking about, thought it was a more honest life, a noble life. I just wanted to always have blank beige walls to come home to, no matter what. I wanted soft, warm covers to envelope me and a glass of water at my bedside. I lived a comfortable horror, and I could not imagine attempting my life without these slight and simple amenities.

His startling scent reminded me that I was not safe. If things went slightly worse, I could be deposited under a bridge, languishing in the rain, trying to bide my time in a park before I’m run off to find another wild place to hide myself. I was very close to acting the part of the hungry animal I truly was. I’d rather be a housepet than a stray. That’s the truth about me.

We wear perfumes on our bodies like talismans. They are enchantments and spells to ward off our oldest and deepest fears. So are our ritualistic cleansings: rinsing and scraping the build-up of living, searching always for that new, fresh skin. People like him did not scrape off their old, dead skin. It lingered on him, collecting with dirt and bacteria to foster a whole ecosystem that seems vile and unholy to the washed masses.

I personally did not always keep as clean as I wished I did, as others probably wished I did. Sometimes I would startle myself in the mirror with my greasy, tangled, and neglected hair. I worried if maybe I sometimes smelled, if my breath was foul. I scraped my tongue, I ate mints, I smacked on gum. I flossed sometimes, even. I religiously applied a thin, transparent coat of gel to my armpits. I sprayed perfume on my neck. Sometimes I remembered to wash behind my ears. I’d periodically sniff the crotch of my favorite jeans. But I don’t know if I did all these things were enough to not seem a bit off. I don’t know if I carry some aroma signal to others, alerting them to be wary, that I am slipping and they must be cautious not to go down with me.

I didn’t know how I coped with life. “I guess I just try to get through each minute without blowing my brains out,” I replied, daring to look at him.

“That sounds a bit like me, yeah.” His face had those deep ridges you only get from sleeping on daytime concrete. It was probably drugs, too, and cheap foul alcohol. His eyes carried a sharp stare you don’t see in the eyes of haunted business people sipping their cocktails and picking at raw fish. We’ve all seen things, never quite the same things.

“Except,” he said. “Except I take LSD so I can see my family again. I lost them to a drunk driver.” I don’t know what I said to that. What can you say? But that’s when I started crying, and then it was my stop and I had to get off. I cried all the way home, not caring what people would think or say to me. I deflected all looks, putting up a forcefield. If anyone called to me, I willed myself not to hear them. I wasn’t asking for attention, I was just trying to walk home.

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  • We’re all a bad month from becoming Kilgor Trout, Kurt Vonnegut’s fictionalized version of himself on the skids. He was sometimes portrayed as homeless, sometimes living at the margins, seldom affluent or notable, and if so, always in a kind of distant fashion and by way of accident. We’re all victims of a series of accidents, beginning with birth. This common narrative ought to bring us together but the banality of the fact of birth has yet to be seen as a bonding element.