An Old Piece of Junk
It was winter, and Ron’s hands were cracked and often bloody. The prescription psoriasis cream wasn’t working. He’d resorted to Vaseline and gloves, an old trick of his wife’s. Ex-wife.
He’d been powerful once. Made a mistake. Got greedy. He’d cut corners on some safety inspections and a girl lost a finger, and he got sued. Money was the only thing that had made people want him and want to be him. And then he lost it, and everyone around him got lost.
What was he now? Owner of a tanning bed franchise in a central Pennsylvania college town. Apex Tans had been his family’s business, had made them big money in the 90s. He’d wanted nothing to do with it then, wanted to make his own name with a different franchise of Rita’s Italian Ices.
After the lawsuit and bankruptcy, he’d come crawling back to try to save his house and his marriage.
In the end, Laura left him anyway for some guy she’d met in an online chat room for camping enthusiasts. Her new lover had picked her and her suitcases up in a Ford F150 with a pop-up attached and a set of those fake rubber testicles hanging from the trailer hitch. They dangled all the way down the driveway like a great big fuck you.
Ron was 48. He could feel his 50th birthday rushing towards him like oncoming traffic, all he hadn’t accomplished: no kids, no house, no fancy letters after his name. A receding hairline and a growing paunch. Who could want him? Certainly none of the buxom college girls that came in and out of the tanning beds. Women his own age barely looked at him and when they did, he saw pity—not exactly an aphrodisiac.
Most of his friends were still happily married or at least married. Had kids. He felt awkward at their barbecues and birthday parties. Was that how these things happened? Self-fulfilling prophecies: you felt weird so you turned weird. Became the weirdo. “Mom and Dad’s weird friend from high school.” Or so he imagined. He spent so much time alone that he’d gotten terrible at interacting with real humans.
He longed for touch. For skin. In summer, when bathing suits and short and sundresses were the style, he had enough eye-fulls to sate him. Enough fodder for his desperate imagination. But in winter, skin was hidden beneath layers of wool and down and fleece.
His desperation grew.
Watching the women had started innocently enough. The tanning salon was part of a building that had once been a pawn shop, armed with well-hidden security cameras in the ceiling. He had them remove all but one of the cameras to cut costs on the renovation. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever actually look, but the box TV sat in his office, staring at him. Taunting him. Daring him.
He rationalized: it wasn’t that bad because the girls had to be at least eighteen in order to tan, according to a new law. They were perfectly legal—even if watching them was not.
One day, after Laura’s lawyer had served him the official divorce papers, he decided he’d turn it on, just after he heard the door click closed on the next room. His hand shook as he pulled the remote from the back of his desk drawer.
Click. Fuzz. Image.
He walked over to his door and locked it, returned to the TV. On the screen was a closed tanning bed, a single chair, a faux plant and a pile of clothes on the floor. The customer would emerge in a few minutes. His heart beat faster at the thought. His armpits prickled.
A faint beep, and then there she was. Painted pink toenails sliding into socks. The curve of a young hip covered by only a string. The outline of a nipple through the thin nylon of a bathing suit. The thrill of a secret: sometimes the only will a person had to live.
He’d thought about doing what Laura had done, looking for companionship online. But once he was in cyberspace, he’d quickly devolve into porn. Since his first experience with the tanning bed camera, his personal genre had become voyeurism. The thrill of seeing things he wasn’t supposed to be seeing, people at their most naked and vulnerable. He was in control. He had the power. No one cared who he was or what he looked like because no one knew he was there. The high, better than the best joint he’d ever smoked, better than the best sex he’d ever had.
At least, until later, with the tissues and the re-zip, the rough handwashing, and the glimpse of his flushed, fat face in the bathroom mirror.
And often, his thoughts would turn to Laura. What she would think if she could see him now. She’d maybe been the only person who saw anything good in him—he was sensitive, smart, driven. Now he wasn’t any of those things, and to add to his list of sins, he was a goddamn pervert. She’d never forgive him if she knew.
He’d never touch Laura again, never sleep beside her. He tried to hate her, but that vise squeezing his heart wasn’t hate. He missed her to the point of madness.
Their honeymoon had been the happiest week of his life. They’d gone to Mexico. They drank and laughed and fucked and didn’t have to answer to anybody. It had been here, when the excess sun exposure had caused his hands to dry out so badly that he’d wince to close them into fists, that she’d taken them tenderly in her own, kissed each blood-crusted knuckle, and showed him how Vaseline made everything better.
He wasn’t only into the young women—although in a college town, they were his most frequent customers. Eventually, he was watching every woman who went into that room. Eventually, it became more than lust, the base urges of puberty twisted into darker depravity. Sometimes, if he was lucky, the woman would go in the bed topless to avoid tan lines. These moments were the most exciting, and it was partially the anticipation of this that kept Ron watching: the bikinis had stopped being so thrilling after a few weeks. He needed a better fix.
It was a Friday when she came in—probably tanning for a wedding or something the next day. Her body was subtly plump all over: heavy breasts, rounded abdomen, soft, wide thighs, dimpled back. She looked to be Laura’s age, maybe a little younger. She stood in a floral two-piece in front of the mirror, and as she swept her graying hair up into a bun on the top of her head, she started to cry. To sob. She let the hair drop to her shoulders again and sat down on the chair.
Something caught in Ron’s throat as he watched her. This kind of nakedness was harder to look at. Made him feel a different kind of shame. A shame that pushed him to act. A shame that reminded him of who he was—or who he used to be. Before all of this.
He stood up.
He pushed the TV off his desk, hard. The glass shattered, but the thing kept on buzzing. He kicked and stomped on it until it went quiet.
A knock came at his door a minute later.
“It’s open!” he yelled.
“You okay in here?”
It was the woman from the room next door. She’d finished tanning. Her face was shiny and black rivulets of mascara had dried on her cheeks. She had rebuttoned her shirt over her bathing suit, but she was one button off and it gaped funny on her chest, exposing her bright pinkish-brown skin.
Before he could say anything, she took a step in and saw the broken television. Her eyes widened.
“Just an old piece of junk,” he said, gesturing at the rubble. “Sorry if I scared you.”
She was so close now that he could see her chest was covered in freckles. Hundreds of them, like constellations. He imagined tracing them slowly.
“It’s all right,” she said, still standing there.
She looked down at his hands.
“What are the gloves for?” she asked.
He paused for a second, deciding how much truth was important here.
“My skin gets dry and cracked in the winter, especially the knuckles. I put some moisturizer on and the gloves. It helps,” he said. “Only good thing my ex ever gave me.”
He could see the empathy shining in her eyes. He suspected he was right about the root of her tears—her left hand bore no wedding ring, just a white line of skin on her finger where one had used to be, made more evident after her time in the tanning bed.
“You know, I happen to sell Mary Kay, and we have this special set called Satin Hands, “ she said, digging in her purse.“Sounds girly, and it’s pink, but it really works.”
“I’m okay with the gloves. A habit for me.”
“In case you change your mind,” she said, pulling a business card out of her bag and putting it in his glove. Their skin would have touched if there wasn’t latex covering his. Her name was Carla Covington, and she was a regional manager. He bet she drove one of those pink cars.
“I just might,” he said.
She smiled at him. “I hope you do.”
And then she was gone.
Later, after everyone had gone, he brought tools back from home. He took a sledgehammer to the ceiling himself and then cut out the camera wires. He had no idea what he was doing, but he did it anyway. It was sloppy and stupid, but it felt like penance. He left the room in ruins—he’d clean it up eventually.
His hands bled again, badly, with all the force. He washed up in the bathroom and returned to his desk. He took the travel size jar of Vaseline out of his drawer and pulled out a new pair of rubber gloves from their box. He rubbed and rubbed the petroleum jelly in all the cracks until he felt relief. He put on the gloves. He picked up Carla’s card from his desk with one hand and dialed her number with the other.
About the author:
Amanda Miska is Editor-in-Chief of Split Lip Magazine. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in Whiskey Paper, CHEAP POP, jmww, The Collapsar, Storychord, Five Quarterly, Lockjaw Magazine, Pea River Journal, Hippocampus Magazine, Cartridge Lit, Atticus Review, the Prairie Schooner blog, and elsewhere. She lives and writes in the Northern Virginia—for now.