Bitter Skin was published in Volume 13, Issue 4 of Meat For Tea; The Valley Review, 2020.
“Golly, is that your cologne? It makes quite a statement.” The lawyer inhaled deeply. “I can’t place it, Sal, maybe like pine fragrance or an astringent. Either or, my eyes are watering.” He sifted through a file cabinet and hauled out two thick manila folders. “Some of these complaints go back nearly fifteen years. How long have you been with the company?”
“Fifteen years.” Sal could only tolerate being in the presence of anyone for a short time. This was no exception.
The lawyer glanced up at the nondescript man fuming on the other side of his massive desk. “Well, let’s get down to it, shall we?” and then flashed a perfectly enameled smile to no one in particular. “We certainly have a lot to work with! You’ve been a busy boy.” He leafed through the papers. “Unless I’m missing something, you’re lucky to have never been incarcerated. This list of accusations is bottomless. And this,” He removed a page sandwiched between the stack that was covered in post-it notes. “You were observed in the employee bathroom doing something to a woman’s shoe? What were you doing? Don’t answer that, by the way. It says here you mauled a dog on this note. How is that even possible? There are complaints here ranging from the confusing to the annoying to the blatantly psychotic. Yikes.”
Sal bared his teeth in a grimace. “May I ask YOU a question?” His voice inched toward hysterical. “What’s the big deal? Since when is smelling a shoe in the bathroom a crime?” The lawyer squinted at the fine print. “I don’t think there’s anything inherently illegal about smelling a shoe on your own time, however, you snatched it off of someone while she was still wearing it.”
“Big deal. Tell me the bad news.”
“The bad news is that your behavior, on average, is so sickeningly repugnant they just want you out. Severance pay included. They are practically paying you to leave. Consider yourself lucky and go find yourself another job, and good luck with that. You have the moral standing of a wet noodle.”
Sal’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. “Who the hell are you to judge?”
Sal stalked out of the lawyer’s office mumbling and cursing. He trudged over concrete pylons, shimmed between cars and finally emerged on the north side of the road where his own car was parked. It was dark and the pavement was slick, and just as Sal fell into the driver’s seat, his cell phone vibrated under the lapel of his corduroy jacket.
“I understand they’re trying to push you out of the company.”
“Who is this? Is this so and so’s friend from Kentucky?”
The woman cleared her throat. “I’m hunting down disgruntled employees in order to get a lawsuit going.”
Sal paused. “What do you need from me?”
“Not much, really. Just an interview with my team. Are you at all interested?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Thank you for meeting with me.” They were sitting at a snug booth in a service road diner. Sal couldn’t remember the last time a woman willingly sat with him for any reason at all. He couldn’t guess her age, but noticed that she smelled good.
“Where’s your ‘team’?”
The woman acted as though she didn’t hear the question. She leaned in and said, “Tell me something. If you had a chance, wouldn’t you like to do something different with your life?” she put her hand on his arm. “If you could have anything in this world, what would it be?”
Sal rubbed his chin. “Who knows? Money, I guess.” Suddenly, he had an epiphany. Sal yelled out, “I want people to notice me!” Then he blushed and got a warped look on his face. “I want people to revere me. Worship me!”
“For doing what?”
“Ah. I see.” The woman tapped a lacquered nail on the tabletop. “I think maybe I can help you. How do you feel about the great outdoors? Are you at all partial to gardening?”
“What the hell kind of question is that? Are you making a list?” He scanned the back of the diner and tried to make eye contact with the waitstaff, but no one obliged. “I thought you wanted to know about the ingrates at work and my back stabbing co-workers.” In that split second, Sal began to think thoughts he hadn’t entertained in a long time. He wondered what her shoe size was. The woman turned to him with an expression consumed with disgust and he looked offended. “What? Now you’re a mind reader?” Sal chuckled to himself.
The first thing he noticed was feeling warm everywhere. He felt illuminated. Glowing. Somehow it all made perfect sense. Time was irrelevant. He understood that he was connected to a vast network of roots entwined like synapses and that everything was infinite; much larger than he could have imagined. He was no longer alone and cold, but safe and content.
“Get the crate and grab the basket off the truck. These are ready.” The man shielded his eyes from the sun. “Look at that! It’s like a gift from God when the sun shines through, just like jewels on a crown.” He walked over to the vine. “Come here and taste this.” There was more shuffling on gravel. Another man walked over.
In his former life, Sal would have recognized the pattern of vibrations as footsteps approaching, but he was no longer himself. He was, well, happy, until he felt a quick tug. The man exclaimed, “This is divine!” and popped Sal, the formally nondescript man into his mouth. After a moment of grinding the bounty between his dentures, the man reconsidered. He spit out Sal’s remains. “This one’s not so good. I’ll have to try another.”