Usually there’d be a few dozen ears spread out on the white counter sorted out by size and complexion near a jumbled heap of them, as though someone had been called away from a grisly game of solitaire. I’d usually scoop them up in a box, pretending I thought they had been left out from the last shift, sorting them again with my naked eye by color, gender, and size, even though their serial numbers were linked to a dozen or more manufacturing variables that could easily be pulled up from the data base with the hand scanner. Head and face parts are expensive, justifying the white lab coats fresh from the cleaners that we wore to mark us as special, even at our pathetic tech-deprived level. But with all the money they spent around there, we carried these precious remains in a battered, smudged topless cardboard box with the word SORT scrawled along the side with black magic marker. We categorized the defects as either human or mechanical error, so that the operators could re-calibrate the machines and get reamed out or fired if they kept wasting the product. Sometimes the defects aren’t even noticeable by an untrained naked eye, but they have to be found and the offending part cast out into the un-eternal fire of a kiln that cranked up for this purpose about once a week. Yes, most of the other workers found sorting defects boring work but on the other hand–you always end up tripping over a hand or nose around here when you try to say anything—I never tired of doing it. Sometimes I’d be there for hours and see nobody –or at least no whole body, just fingers, facial parts, maybe a whole hand—never a whole face.
What I enjoyed most was helping out in the lab section whenever we had collected a few parts that had the same flexibility or fraying problem. In the lab, we would place large slices of the parts in round bottomed vessels, heat them beyond red to the edge of blue-white with Bunsen burners. There’s a large bulb of glass tubing above that collects the gases as they condense, liquefy, and precipitate out snowy compounds. We extract these and pour in acid so the condensates dissolve again and present these to the chemist who then determines what additives or impurities are causing the problem. I am mesmerized when I assist him. I feel like I am Micky Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. You remember it? When I worked with him, I’d ask dumb questions about organic chemistry but, you know, I’d be wanting to ask about human essences, questions like does the form alone contain anything essentially human? Sometimes, I daydream about what the lab would look like a decade or so from now. It’ll be easier to clone the parts from cells than to forge these secret simulacrums, works of art aspiring to be undetectable. You’re right, I am a little odd and old-fashioned, more that than nerdy.
It’s steady work. Faces—after all—are standard enough so that replacements roughly fit the assembly line production model– even if each part eventually has to be customized before installation. Not much marketing to do. Shattered windshields, antipersonnel mines, industrial accidents, birth defects, create the demand. Lots of people have to wait to get what they need, but eventually a government program, insurance company, or a charity will chip in.
When I am there, I feel a kind of nostalgia—maybe for a prenatal place in the mind, where all the loves and fears we anticipate while awaiting our entrance into the world are faceless, the idea of a name, a Mama or Dada not even imaginable, and we are ready– hungry, even ravenous–to gaze upon sunlit countenances. I can sometimes see the decomposition and reconfiguration playing out as I wave at someone down the hall, or watch the janitor wring out the mop, his hands are perfect specimens–each hand in itself a team of perfect specimens–interlocked in a battle with the wringer and handle. All of this feels familiar, something like an arrival, beautiful to the point of distraction.
And then there was Myra. I guess if there were no Myra, you wouldn’t be here listening to this, but I am sure you have heard that line before. It wasn’t a heart crushing blow of love at first sight like in the movies. She grew on me. She could have been a bundle of stereotypes about Japanese women, petite, cute but sexy, glasses, waist-length hair that looked like it was drawn by a computer graphics utility—so clean and shinny that it couldn’t be part of the natural world, you wanted to touch her hair to see if it was real or the latest offspring of the union of Redmond and Hollywood. She had a few blemishes, a pimple on her right cheek and a tiny scar on her upper lip that looked like she’d been biting her nails and a half-moon sliver of pearl had stuck there. All things that would have been brushed out from a prosthesis, no defects meriting rejection, in fact, they added to her beauty.
One afternoon, I watched her comb her hair out as I stood within touching distance of her, pretending to be waiting for the bag of popcorn to finish in the microwave, feeling each exploding kernel as a mini-fireworks announcement of revelations gathered around her. She bent from the waist, her hair dangling just above her open-toed black satin pumps, her whole being wafting jasmine and something dark, foreboding, and impeccably clean, something so powerful that I could not be sure if my sense of smell or my eyes or my imagination were responsible for throwing me so totally off balance. That was that. I knew this grooming ritual was only one among many, with which she would regale each part of her body with fitting attention; cleansing, caressing, perfecting, and nestling the part, like a diamond in a silver fitting, ushered to its perfect place in the diadem known as Myra. I finished my break before Myra, making sure I could position myself on the lab floor below where I would have the best view of her enunciation. Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ from the break room, her presence an awesome unity of fragments, self-creating variants, each part of her celebrating its own identity in the reality of the whole Myra.
I thought of her as my nose-chin girl. I daydreamed about her constantly as I worked, my hands and eyes no less unerring. In my off-hours, I would see her thumb, her right ear, her dimple, that ruby crescent on her lip appear over a TV commercial, or in a panoramic centerfold across a billboard. Eventually, I maneuvered to share the light-rail commute with her. She never suspected that the train took me ridiculously out of the way from my apartment. First my hand had brushed against her hand, and then a week later we were pressed together by crowds, and in one wonderful microsecond I wasn’t sure if the flank I pressed against was Myra’s or if it belonged to the redhead in front of me who was clinging for balance with her hand almost interlaced with Myra’s pinkie. You laugh but I really was that shy. These were, of course, fleeting encounters, and it was crystal clear that I needed some practical means to get closer to Myra, a feat beyond anything in my previous experience with women.
One Friday I spent the evening in the International District, going into a half dozen shops, and peering into dozens of others, looking at particular objects of beauty, jewelry, glasswork, fine silks, a diary bound in red leather and delicately, ingenuously, embossed in gold with the figure of a dragon devouring its tail. I hadn’t been fully aware of what I was doing until the jeweler’s display cast more light than the ebbing sun. I could see my own image reflected back, amazed by luminous jade miniatures. One was an old woman holding an empty bowl. Another’s base was an unfolding rose engulfing the globe it held in its petals. It reminded me of the distended jaws of a snake engorged with the southern hemisphere, the gulf of Mexico hanging above the last ring of petals, Florida like a lizard’s wayward leg slowing the meal down.
Among the objects in the window was a comb, displayed on a black velvet stand, a thin gold line down its spine, as luminous as the reflection of the moon that by then was rising behind me, lending the jade and gild and extra beam of pleasure and discovery. The guy who was locking up must have thought for a second that I was a stickup man. He was clean-shaven, short neat hair, no glasses, and the blemish-free face of a babe, and me standing there, all a-jitter with excitement, my wind-blow shock of greasy, dishpan-blond hair, heavy framed eyeglasses half-cocked, and cheeks that look like they’ve been dragged over a gravel road. I like to think my thick lenses give me a scholarly look. No need to flatter me. When I take them off to peer into the mirror I ask all the usual questions from the fairy tale.
I am giving you the whole history, as if I were a museum docent commenting on a painting. Buying that piece, like having you with me here, took my whole paycheck and more, but I was so elated. I skipped dinner and jogged to the bus and then straight back to my apartment to admire my gift and dream about how I would make Myra its owner. I sat at the kitchen table and lit a candle to enhance the comb’s phosphorescent green-and-golden glow, admiring the precious object, my Cinderella’s slipper, wanting to live that tale in a reverse and transmogrified way. How could I get Myra to dance with me, romance the night away, confirm a perfect fit of that exquisite object to the unbroken perfection of her dark, profluent cascades, even transform a taxi into a pumpkin carriage, a perpetual promise of autumnal culmination? Don’t laugh; it’s not all funny. The old versions of the fairy tale have Cinderella’s ugly sisters cut off their toes and heals to fit their bloody broganous trotters into the dainty, diaphanous slipper and when they are jettisoned by the prince, avenging crows—like ever-present dark angels– pluck out the lying imposters’ eyes and feed on the gore. But in my little fantasy, all that ugliness was left in the dustbin of re-carpentered fairy tales, and Myra and I would live the happily-ever-after life of Disneyland. I was convinced that when she ran that comb through her silken waterfall, she would feel completed, like I’d given her the gift of missing knowledge, a calling to her true self. That’s when I started stalking Myra—or that what they ended up calling my expressions of affection. I found in her the perfect embodiment of my kind of love, an aura of connection and disconnection, of fragmentation and death, over which hovered the essence of a promise, like ephemeral balm of morning mist over a desert island.