Sullying Summer by Emma Turkel
I was on my way to meet Uncle Karl. It was the middle of summer, when my levels of blasé were sky-high and my perpetual illnesses were dormant. I was able to drink two cups of coffee per day during this time as opposed to the autumn-through-spring rule of one, as my sweat glands were pulling more than their weight and expelling much of the toxins I consumed so thoughtlessly. I strolled along the snaking streets nodding my head with a deferential smile at all who passed me, humbled by the day’s beauty.
Birds chirped. Dogs barked. Lawnmowers growled. As I gazed forward, eyeing the technicolour of the city, a tiny fly flew at top speed directly into my cornea. My heretofore merriment vanished in a flash, as it felt like someone had stabbed me in the eye with a toxic pencil. The stinging overwhelmed me and I was temporarily blinded in my right eye.
I staggered momentarily, pressing the palm of my hand over my right eye in some vain attempt to stop the stinging. Passersby looked at me with concern. Something always happens to me on my way to meet Uncle Karl. He condemns tardiness with the same zeal he would condemn child abuse. He’d become increasingly doubtful of my reasons (or ‘excuses’ as he called them), regardless of their truthfulness, and I imagined that my current anecdote would be met with an incredulous ‘Ah, the old bug-in-the-eye tale!’ I could feel this tiny bug inside my eye pressing itself between the lid and the ball. My lashes were adorned with designer-brand mascara and my miserly ways determined that I should not attempt to cry the little devil out. I also did not want to give dear Uncle Karl cause for concern.
Several minutes of half-blind walking later and I made out dear, old Karl in a proper three-piece suit. His body heat was emitting from his contours like steam curling out of a pot on the boil.
‘Aren’t you hot wearing a waistcoat and a jacket on a day like today?’
He glared at me.
‘Are you worried that others will smell my body odours?’
‘I am more concerned for your sake than anyone else’s. But yes, I imagine you probably aren’t at your freshest.’
‘This is how I prove my existence: I stink therefore I am!’
He pretended to be an intellectual and I pretended to believe him. Since the household ubiquity of the internet took hold, Uncle Karl found amusement and solace in mocking the Cartesian Dialectic. I looked down at my bountiful chest and wondered around which epoch large breasts became déclassé. Was it the Victorians? It was a shame, as my propriety simply couldn’t keep pace with my body. Uncle Karl took my arm and we carried on our journey. Uncle Karl in the three-piece suit and I with the bug in my eye.
I had walked arm in arm with that avuncular pudgeball for thirty-seven minutes until we reached the shop. My heart skipped a beat when we entered the supermarket. Nerves stood on end, nipples hardened. My sweat felt like it was turning to ice. Dear Uncle Karl exhaled with relief.
Valencia oranges were the only oranges he would eat, so we had to journey all the way to the organic supermarket to get them. The supermarket closer to my apartment only sold oranges from another continent. I longed for the days when tea and oranges that came all the way from China were considered an exotic and poetic thing, worthy of folk-song lyrics. Now they only conjure up visions of pesticides and exploited farm workers. Indeed, art itself had fallen victim to the endless interrogations of our highly critical youth. The spoils of the Orient and Poetry have died along with the quest for Universal Truth. So it is: Organic Valencia oranges for the new middle-class and for the cranky septuagenarians who wouldn’t touch goji berries with a ten-foot cane.
After we paid for the exorbitant oranges, Uncle Karl suggested we bivouac on a park bench, take off our shoes and feast on our purchase. Mercifully the sun was beginning to set. I could feel sweat from the bottom of my tits gathering in the underwire of my brassiere. I felt an urge to complain about it, but thought it might make Uncle Karl uncomfortable. His bashfulness gave him his idiosyncratic nomenclature for various acts and body parts. For example, a person’s genitals would be their ‘south,’ and the sex act would be described like a Napoleonic victory. One time I asked him his thoughts on an old Hollywood film I wanted to see and he replied with: ‘I didn’t like it. In the film, Humphrey Bogart spends the whole time trying to Austerlitz Lauren Bacall.’
We both took off our footwear and felt the grass between our toes. His earthly desires were highly incongruous with his civilised sartorialism. He was dripping orange juice and bits of pulp on his waistcoat.
I must admit, the oranges were far zestier than the ones I normally buy. However, the lack of seeds in my GMO oranges would have spared me from seeing Uncle Karl’s jowls bouncing with each one he spit out.
‘Uncle Karl shall we make a move and go somewhere? It’s starting to get dark and I’m still high from this morning’s coffee. I need to be productive.’
I could hear Uncle Karl grumbling under his breath. He often bemoaned my proclivity for time management, which was taken not without reflection, unlike my late Auntie’s advice to consider some-such flowers.
Uncle Karl threw a bit of Valencia orange peel at a pedestrian pigeon while I was strapping my sandals back on. He thought I didn’t notice but I did. I asked if I could come back to his apartment with him (to take care of the bug in my eye, but I didn’t tell him that). Once we arrived I realised that something about the sun and oranges took their toll on me- or perhaps it was the caffeine comedown. I took a mid-day snooze on his terribly uncomfortable chesterfield. All of his stiff and decorative furniture was downstairs. The cosy and sensual pieces were in his bedroom. He didn’t want his guests to think for one minute that he liked to be comfortable, and he certainly did not wish for them to be. Nieces included.
I had a dream that I was resting on that same park bench where Uncle Karl and I ate those oranges. On my chest were two Kinder Surprise eggs. I opened one and it contained human hair and mucous. Horrified, I threw it into a rough patch of dirt where a robin was digging up worms. I opened the second one and saw a human organ covered in blood, still warm inside. I woke suddenly and clutched my heart with a gasp. Coffee gives me uncanny dreams, especially in my second sleep. I lethargically lugged my tired and confused body up the creaking staircase to tell Uncle Karl that I was going to head home. I couldn’t be bothered with the bug.
With the door of his bedroom slightly ajar, I poked my nose in the crack and could spy with my little eye dear Uncle Karl sitting in languid repose upon the crimson velvet chaise-longue. He seemed to be in a trance. Then, as if a bolt of holy inspiration came down from the heavens, he swung his body around and arose from that chaise-longue with a slam of his italian-leather-sporting tootsies on the distressed wood floor. He sashayed swiftly to the full-length mirror, held his liver-spotted hands together, cocked his head and stared into his reflection, batting his lashes with coquettish longing.
Why has thou been so cruel?
What didst I do, to deserve such malice?
I have been sullied by your rule,
And made drunk by your chalice.
And now I am but a fool,
All alone in your palace…
His face turned stern and aggressive. He threw himself toward his writing desk and jotted down each word with a vigour I was not aware he possessed.
I was stunned by his pseudo-Shakespearian way with words. He had left his bedroom window open on account of his perpetual cigar smoking. The cicadas chirped under a sky freckled with stars. What is it about the heat the brings out the devil in us? The diva? The raconteur? Dear Uncle wasn’t who I thought he was. I needed a drink immediately.
I mounted my bicycle and allowed my feet to take me where my psyche wanted to go: the closest bar with the cheapest red wine. My tit-sweat had turned into a sticky film in the cool night breeze. I felt a rash developing where the brassiere sat upon my ribcage. I parked and tried to make out who was inside the bar. This particular establishment was simply called P Bar. It was a cafe by day, bar by night. Was not pretentious, just had a lazy and unimaginative owner who named it after his first initial (P for ‘Paul’). The cakes there were mediocre but the coffee was divine. The red wine was only a few steps up from battery acid, but for a tenner I could imbibe four glasses.
The new bartender, Mr A from P Bar glared at me with derision. The all mighty, all powerful position of The Bartender! Conceited enough to display complete and utter reluctance in pouring my drink, arrogant enough to ignore me for however long possible, but not clever enough to match my cutting rejoinders (which I only said in my head).
Upon swallowing the nascent contents of my first glass, I caught a little birdie in my periphery. The most beautiful birdie I had come to know. A birdie who I made a point of ignoring, for fear he would know what a darling I thought he was. I hated smoking, but would do it in front of him to make him think I was a Kathleen Turner-esque femme fatale. I hope he bought it, because holding back what could have been a near asthma attack was no easy feat. I always thought he was out of my league, and that any attempt at Austerlitzing him would probably end in me being Waterlooed. He sauntered up to me, never taking his eyes off of me. I was not nearly drunk enough.
‘Have you got any fags?’
I hadn’t, because I hadn’t planned on seeing him, which historically has been the only reason for me to buy a pack of cigarettes.
‘I just smoked my last one.’
‘Okay, let’s ask this guy.’
He pointed to a middle-aged bearded fellow sat alone.
Birdie asked for one for himself and one on my behalf. The middle-aged gent obliged.
‘Here you go.’
We attempted to engage in smalltalk while I gulped back my battery acid. I wasn’t really paying any attention to what he just said, as the nicotine hit me like a thunderbolt and my heart began to slam at jack-rabbit speed against my chest. Why must I have such a delicate constitution? As he was speaking to me in German it was much easier for me to take in his words as mere Teutonic cacophony. I could feel the blood draining from my face. In the dimly lit P Bar I prayed that he could not notice my bloodshot and bug-filled right eye. The Valencia orange juice on my fingernails became overpowered by nicotine, and I felt stabbings of guilt. He kept talking. I realised he was more than half in the bag. Naturally, that was the reason he was giving me the time of day. He was still glamorous, however. And I, still but a sack of dimply flesh and teeth stained with wine so dry it was sucking in my face like a vacuum.
Little birdie kept chirping, but I interjected to offer him another drink. Something needed to offset my nicotine high. He accepted, so back I went to face off with Mr A. Mr A ignored me for over four minutes (I timed it). While I was in the midst of ordering he cut me off and said ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know.’ He cut me off before I could order birdie’s drink. What would birdie think! I couldn’t go back to him empty-handed so I just gave him my wine. He looked disappointed, as earlier he was drinking Moscow Mules, but he nevertheless stuck his beak in it without hesitation. Greedy birdie, that was supposed to be mine!
‘So would you like to come and see them?’
As I had not been paying any attention to what he was saying, I had absolutely no idea what he was asking me.
He took my hand and we headed out into the night. The air was thick and groped my bare skin like some ghostly pervert. We couldn’t hear any direct voices, only reverberations that bounced down the narrow alleyways. Laughter here, grunting there. I was holding hands with birdie, and the thought that I could look back on this night and say ‘birdie and I held hands’ was far more gratifying than the actual real-time hand-holding. I prayed that someone I knew would walk past us, witness this moment and spread the gossip.
‘So where exactly are we going?’
He looked at me with frustration.
‘Where do you think?’
His impatience was rude and off-putting whilst simultaneously attractive. I longed for more battery acid.
He led me to an open park with bits of segregated garden. I believe this is what is referred to as an allotment. I knew he was going to drop my hand soon (not feign disinterest, as Uncle Karl would diagnose it, but simply drop it out of genuine disinterest). He dropped it. He showed me his patch of dirt. Then he told me that he thought I was cute, but that he did not think we had anything in common. I was crestfallen.
I told him I had to leave, and after twenty minutes of walking whilst keeping my head down, I sat down on a park bench to indulge in a piece of humble pie. Good luck with that harvest, birdie! Come October you’ll be digging up nothing but worms, with that battery acid-red-wine-stained beak of yours, I reckon. But you were never the early bird, now were you. I became grateful for that nicotine attack, as it spared me having to listen to birdie discuss urban agriculture. Uncle Karl would have described this night as a ‘Spassky-Fischer-Game-Seven’ sort of night. He was the Spassky because he approached me. Or maybe I was the Spassky because I was rejected. It’s hard to say.
The last time I attempted a rendezvous with someone I was idealising from afar, my veneration faded after a mere thirty minutes into the conversation (‘Well, at the moment I’m working in structured product, but my real passion is in interest-rate derivatives’). Witnessing dawn on no sleep arouses a hyperbolic self-pitying within me. I resigned myself to the fact that I would end up as Uncle Karl’s caretaker until he croaked and then I’d die alone. A lugubrious tear fell from my right eye. Then my left. It slowly became a stream, a silent and dignified stream that cooled my face and made my overly-priced mascara decorate my cheeks in abstract adornment. Crying normally ends in catharsis, but the purgation I was feeling rendered me bordering on ecstatic: the bug had finally been released. I stroked my right cheek delicately and saw life’s tiny creature crawl along my middle finger. He coughed, and in a proud recitation brought forth from his tiny diaphragm, he declared:
Whilst lying in your cornea
Your life had become thornier.
I curled up in your iris
Like some old rolled up papyrus.
Thought I would be stuck for years
But was set free by your tears!
I’m not good with politeness
But: you’ve got conjunctivitis
I’ll refer you to John Henry Frist:
A cracking opthalmologist!
Tell your Uncle I said hi
And say he ought not to be shy
He’s bright, theatrical and sage
He is a man meant for the stage
The fruit fly then crawled closer to the edge of my palm and looked me right in the face with his uncanny compound eyes and declared in sober candidness:
I’m a lucky ol’ fly
You may not have gathered
You may wonder ‘why?’
But I know that I’d rather
Be stuck in an eye
And drowning in tears
Than drowning in tit sweat
In massive brassieres
I took that last stanza on the chin and the tiny fly flew off into the sunrise. As I stood up I saw a bit of Valencia orange peel on the pavement and imagined it festering in tomorrow’s rays.