cambridge book review


August McGinnity-Wake


polyesterI could feel my mind wake up before my eyes. Opening my eyes was a herculean effort as I tried to break through the crust that had formed around them throughout the night. I rolled over and my body awoke in a flurry of itches and tingles starting at my neck and feet and meeting at my torso. The polyester sheets dug into my skin like needles. I had purchased the sheets last month for a good price at a garage sale; I thought they were cotton. The following morning, and every morning since, I’ve woken up under siege from the unforgiving polyester fibers. The next thing I knew, she was rolling over, too, and her knee dug into my lower back. I cringed and curled my back to try and create as much space between us as I could. The last thing I wanted was to be near her, Sophie. Her name tumbled around in my head with such a lack of emotion attached to it that it was nearly frightening. I just didn’t want her anymore. This had dawned on me in recent weeks. It wasn’t a gradual drifting apart, nor was it a single event that drew me away from her. It was a realization that crossed my mind and I slowly got used to this idea and settled into the state I now lived in. I realized the action most conducive to my immediate goal would be to just get out of the bed. This would actually serve a dual purpose, escaping both Sophie and the ruthless sheets.

I swung my feet around so they dangled off the side of the bed. When I stood up and my feet touched the floor for the first time, it was like I was stepping on marbles. I plodded around the bedroom for a few moments until my feet got their bearings and I was able to stand comfortably. I proceeded to the bathroom, which was attached to our bedroom; it was the only full bath in the house. I pulled opened the drawer where I kept my toothbrush and found a bottle of whisky concealed under a washcloth. I didn’t remember putting it there. There were a few drops remaining in the bottom of the bottle that I gulped down with ease. I brushed my teeth while I let the shower warm up and my thoughts wander of their own accord. Sophie was on my mind; she was always on my mind. I tried to figure out the best ways to avoid time with her and near her. I put the thought of how much I had come to despise her on replay. “The sex is the worst,” I thought as I stepped into the shower. It had become mechanical, with no passion whatsoever. I dreaded the evenings when she would get that look of lust in her eyes and I would just know. When would it end? When would I be able to live in peace without concerning myself with the nausea I feel at the sheer prospect of being near Sophie every waking moment? These thoughts plagued the rest of what probably could’ve been a very pleasant shower.

Speedily, I dried off and slipped into a dark grey suit. I owned four suits: the one I had on, a navy blue suit, and two black suits. With enough cheap polyester shirts and ties, all of which I had recently purchased along with the used garage-sale sheets, it made it appear as though I had many more outfits than I actually did. I rushed out of our bedroom and into the kitchen to scarf down a quick bowl of Kix. I knew Sophie would be up soon, and I didn’t want to be around when she arose. The last thing I did before rushing out the door was slip on my bulky black dress shoes. I only owned this one pair of dress shoes. Their bulkiness and heaviness allowed them to handle the winter snow better, although snow wasn’t even a possibility on this balmy, humid July morning.

* * *

The metallic elevator doors slid open to floor six of the headquarters of The Philadelphia Inquirer, and I stepped out of the elevator with the same anticipation of a miserable day full of mindless work and mundane tasks that had been eating at me in recent weeks. Already waiting on my desk was a stack of articles that needed proofreading. I only proofread columns, and they were all garbage. Thousands of characters of “Ask Carey” and “Better Interior Decorating with Gary Hildire.” After reading through some of this drivel, I reached into the inside pocket of my polyester suit coat, and … yes! It was still there! I pulled out a small hotel-sized bottle of vodka I had snagged on a business trip last week. I kept it close to my chest, concealing it from any prying eyes around me in the office. I bent over and broke the seal on the bottle. I swallowed the contents in one fluid motion. My eyes darted from desk to desk to make sure none of my coworkers had just witnessed my blatant breaking of company policy.

I was about to go back to my monotonous, mind-numbing work when I heard a booming voice behind my left shoulder, “Bill, what in God’s name do you think you’re doing?” Mr. Haffley roared at me. “I can’t believe what I just saw. You’ve been arriving late nearly every morning this month, the quality of your work has gone to shit, and now this?” At that point, his words became mush and I completely tuned him out. He spoke for a long time, and every eye in the office was focused on me, but it didn’t matter. I simply had no emotion, there was nothing left.

“… you may come pick up your things tomorrow. I suggest you go home today before you cause yourself, your coworkers, or this newspaper any more embarrassment,” Mr. Haffley finished. I stood up and walked by him, right back to the metallic elevator doors out of which I had begun my day only a few hours ago.

* * *

I took a right turn instead of a left, which would’ve taken me home to Sophie. I slowly increased the pressure of my foot on the accelerator. I moved my toes inside of my shoe; it helped me remind myself that I, in that moment, actually existed. I let out a scream that felt hard in the back of my throat. The power behind it decreased little by little, until I was letting out nothing but an empty sigh. At that point I took my foot off the gas and slowed at a stop sign. Diagonally across the intersection my eyes settled on a flickering neon sign, Rusty’s Bar and Grill. I rolled my car into the parking lot and slowed to a halt in one of the parking stalls. There were only three other cars parked on top of the cracked and warped asphalt in the parking lot—a large brown station wagon with a bungee cord holding the cargo-door closed, a baby blue little Volkswagen that looked like it had been keyed several times, and a small Chevy that had once been white but had since tainted to a dirty yellow. I opened my door and pulled myself out of the car. As I was walking toward the grimy bar, I had the first inkling of questioning myself that I’d had in a long time. I thought, “What the hell are you doing? Just get back in your car and go home. Eat dinner with your wife, make love to her, and get a full night’s sleep in your warm bed under your violent but familiar polyester sheets.” But it was only a fleeting thought, with not near enough emotional clout to influence my physical body to turn around.

I shoved the barroom door open and a menagerie of sounds bombarded me. Nothing loud, there was actually very little activity at the bar, probably considering it was early on a Tuesday afternoon. But the “ching” of the cash register, somber conversations in low voices, and the subtle squeal of the beer tap as the bartender pulled it down to draw out the golden beverage all entered my sensory system at once. I sat down at the nearest barstool, two seats away from a heavy man in his mid-60s. He wore a brown corduroy suit coat, shiny at the elbows from resting his arms on innumerable counters and tables. His hair was long ago grey; however, a few black hairs were lingering amongst the snow-tinted stubble on his face. At that moment, I realized he was repulsive. The bartender walked up to me. “What can I do for you?” he asked, his voice a low grovel as if he had woken up only half an hour ago, just now starting his nighttime shift at the bar. I ordered a beer and swiveled around on the barstool, observing the rest of the dark and damp hovel. There were two pool tables and the walls were covered with various pictures of memorable sporting events, a noticeable amount being related to the Baltimore Orioles. There were several holes in the walls, and a number of scuff marks. I decided not to ponder the origin of the marks. The bartender tapped my shoulder. I swiveled back around to see a cold, frothy beer waiting for me. I gulped it down and immediately ordered another. I drank that one in a single motion, too, and I could feel my mind start to cloud over. I ordered another beer. Seven, eight, nine more (I lost count) and I felt sufficiently numbed, physically and emotionally. The bartender tried to talk me out of driving home, said he’d call me a cab. I brushed him off and lumbered out of the bar, signed Orioles memorabilia blurring as I walked past.

My car was still right where I left it, and I heaved my exhausted body into the driver’s seat. The car made a series of successive jangly beeps when I put the keys in the ignition before closing the door. It was a more obnoxious sound than I remembered. I closed the door, the beeping stopped, and I turned the keys in the ignition as the motor roared to life. I delicately maneuvered the car out of the parking lot and cautiously navigated my way home through a maze of pothole infested backstreets and quiet intersections. I never looked at the clock, but as I turned the car into my driveway, it must’ve been at least one in the morning. I exerted the effort to free my body from inside the car one final time and silently, or what I thought was silently, advanced inside the single-story brick flat that Sophie and I purchased from some friends for a very good price after we got married. That was almost four years ago. “Our anniversary is next week,” I thought to myself, and was instantly disgusted at the thought of it.

* * *

Sophie usually went to bed very early, and was long asleep by the time I arrived home. Especially on nights like these, which had become more frequent in the last month, it had become apparent to me that it would take quite a stir to wake her. The few times I had burst into the house more impaired than usual and foolishly knocked a vase off balance or tripped over a chair causing a loud crack of furniture falling and rather loud cursing from myself didn’t even produce a peep from the bedroom. But on this particular night, for some unknown reason, Sophie was there waiting for me, with such a look on her face as I had never seen before. Not exactly anger, but some cross between exhaustion and disgust. When she saw me, she perked up momentarily, but then her eyes fell and her lips quivered. “You’re drunk,” she murmured under her breath but just loud enough for me to hear.

I was able to manage a few broken phrases, “… no, I … just, I only—onlyafewdrinks.” My hands motioned along with my words, until I had no more words to say so I just ran my fingers through my hair. It had grown greasy during the day and night, I noticed. I needed a shower.

“Every night,” she continued, “your breath reeks of alcohol when you come to bed hours after I expected you home. Your hands don’t feel the same when you wrap them around me as we sleep; they feel grimy and sleazy, not that you touch me anymore. I don’t understand. Just tell me, just tell me. I want to understand.” She was crying now and her nose was running. Her bottom lip trembled with each word she spoke.

“I’m … I’m going to take a shower,” I said through a drawn out sigh.

I think that’s when she broke. I think that’s when Sophie became broken. I saw her face freeze and the emotion drain out of it. There was nothing left in her except raw feelings. I thought she might collapse, but she did the polar opposite; she exploded. The next thing I knew strings of profanities and lines of incoherent babble were pouring from her mouth as she hurled glassware toward me from the cupboard. And I was still numb. Nothing fazed me. I didn’t want to be with her, I hadn’t wanted to be with her for days now. She was just the one that finally came around and acknowledged it.

When she ran out of words and plates, she came toward me in long, broad steps. I noticed two wisps of hair that had not been coaxed into her hair-tie blow back as they caught a breeze from the briskness of her steps. In the moment before she got in her final insult, a slap to my right cheek, I saw the fury in her eyes. Why didn’t I feel that? I didn’t say anything to her; I didn’t even look in her direction. I just spun around on my heels and walked down the hall to my study, with my shoulders slumped over with a feeling of tiredness and defeat I was not used to. I gingerly closed the door trying to make as little sound as possible and I sat down in the large black-leather chair she had given me for our first anniversary. I closed my eyes and hoped I could stay that way long enough that so much crust would form around them I could never muster enough strength to open them again. I ran my fingers through my hair again, and I again noticed the greasy residue it left on my fingertips. I heaved myself up and stumbled toward the bathroom.

I tripped as I was leaning over to turn the faucet on in the shower. My body flipped over itself and I ended up lying on my back in the shower stall with lukewarm water pouring over my polyester suit and myself. I laid there, bunched up and uncomfortably bent in strange ways, for what felt like an hour. After an ache in my lower right side became unbearable, I stood up and turned off the shower. I stripped down out of the ruined suit and slipped into a robe hanging on a hook on the back of the bathroom door. I walked into the bedroom and noticed something amiss: the dresser drawers were all pulled open and emptied. I made it into the kitchen just in time to see Sophie glance back inside one last time as she closed the door behind her. She tossed two suitcases in the backseat of her car and within moments she was gone. I kicked the wall, forgetting I wasn’t wearing my boot-like dress shoes, and jammed my big toe. “Dammit!” I blurted out. I turned around to see the day’s mail strewn about the counter. There was a letter from a doctor friend of mine, whom I had asked recently to test a strange skin rash that had been getting progressively worse after it popped up on my right arm a few weeks ago. I tore the envelope, pulled the letter out, and opened the perfect trifolded white piece of paper:

Dear Bill,

I ran the tests you asked me to. The official results are attached, but it’s very technical and I wanted to help you make sense of it. It seems your skin irritation is due to an exposure to a synthetic fiber, probably polyester. Polyester clothing, sheets, or anywhere else you’re exposed to the fiber could cause the irritation. You seemed a bit out of character when you came in, and I just wanted to give you a heads-up that the reaction of your skin to the polyester could also be negatively affecting your mood. I’d get yourself away from that polyester as soon as you can.




August McGinnity-Wake is 16 years old and resides in Cambridge, Wisconsin. He will be going into his third year at Cambridge High School in the fall. His love of writing and literature goes back to the strong emphasis his parents placed on them throughout his childhood. He is currently active in the Democratic Party as Vice-Chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | short story | , | Leave a comment