Issue #14 |

How Lovely To Be Made of Wax

It was a patient, Mr. Clayton, who told Nell about the Traveling Hall of Wax, while at her office to replace a cracked molar. After measuring the gap and gluing in a temporary crown, Dr. Klein left Nell to clean up.

“Spit,” she said.

Mr. Clayton spit. “You know Taylor Swift? I mean, I know you don’t know her. She’s a bizillionaire with a yacht and a private plane and what you do call it, entourage. Like the TV show. But you know what she looks like?”

Nell had seen the singer on magazine covers. Her teeth sparkled, and her dental hygienist must be very proud, and maybe also owned some kind of boat, though probably not a yacht. “I’ve heard some of her songs. Stay still please.” She selected a tool.

“I don’t know about songs, but if you want to see her up close without paying a million dollars, I know a way.” He waited, a bit of drool on his chin. In moments like these, when it was so clear what patients wanted, Nell toyed with the idea of not giving it to them. But she did. She always did. It was just easier that way.

“Wow, really? That’s so interesting. How?”

Mr. Clayton grinned. “Wax museum.” He’d heard it from his cousin in West Lafayette, the one with the hip troubles, not the one who sold farm equipment. It would open on Wednesday, ten to six, in the building that used to be Krogers, then Family Dollar, then the for-profit business college that closed after some of the students sued it, and now remained empty. After a long weekend, it would move on to a mall three towns over.

Mr. Clayton beamed. His bottom incisors stuck out at odd angles – not enough to qualify for braces, just enough to mark him as poor. Nell thought of telling him wax museums were idiotic, for children.

“Well, isn’t that neat!” She repositioned the lamp so it shone down his throat. “Open up, please. Wider.”

Nell had no particular love of dentistry, or any job really. Even as a child, when teachers asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she answered “vet” but meant “dog.”  But then her father had been fired from his adjunct teaching job and decided he was meant to be an artist, anyway, so really it was perfect. “I never meant to end up in this town, Nellie,” he told her. “No one here would know art if it bit them in the ass.” And so it fell on Nell to earn money for the both of them. She’d chosen “dental hygienist” at random from a list of two-year certifications over twenty years ago, and learned only two things in the decades since: mouths were disgusting, and no one opened wide enough on the first try.

When she withdrew her hands, Mr. Clayton tongued all along his molars and said, “My cousin said the statues look as real as you and me, I swear on my life.”

Under the fluorescent glare of the lamp, laid out like a corpse, this man did not look real. He looked as if his skin had been inexpertly painted on, like the saints in all those early Medieval triptychs. “Come back in a week for the permanent crown,” said Nell. “And in the meantime, no nuts, no gum, nothing sticky.”

On Wednesday, Nell’s appointments ran long. When she pulled into the mostly empty parking lot, only a few minutes remained before the museum’s closing. It was February, fully dark already by five o’clock, and Nell had mace in her purse, a gift from her father when he noticed her growing breasts. She didn’t take it out. Nell felt safely armored in her puffy coat, though she supposed that might be some kind of logical fallacy on her part. Fallacy or laziness or a kind of tempting of fate. C’mon, Fate. Do something. Do anything.

Why had she even come?

The store’s automatic doors whooshed open and a gust of warm air puffed out. From the deep innards of the building, an industrial refrigerator still hummed. She wiped her boots on a flattened mat and unzipped her coat, then followed the trail of slush puddles to the back, where the business college had removed the grocery shelves and added partitions to create rows of cubicles and classroom spaces. There, the overhead lights flickered, their glow softened by a white cloth someone had tacked to the ceiling.

A three-legged easel cradled a homemade sign:

Welcome to the Traveling Hall of Wax! $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and children, dogs, cats, and cockatiels free! No refunds or guarantees. Please do not touch any part of any statue with any part of your own body. Thank you, and have a very very nice day.

A lawn chair sat beside the easel, empty except for a metal lockbox. Nell thumbed a five-dollar bill through the slot, then pushed aside the black curtain.

Inside, cubicle panels pressed close. An orange extension cord trailed down the aisle, blanketed in a series of mismatched runner rugs, and Nell let it guide her, cloth walls dulling her step, past the angled nooks where the still wax figures waited.

Michael Jordan in a white-and-red Bulls jersey, rich brown face lit by a clipped work light, the table beside him decorated in Goodwill trophies: girls’ softball, principal’s honor roll.

Taylor Swift, her wax nose sharp and shiny as a playground slide, her lips candy red. I sing! read a notecard taped to her microphone. Nell didn’t push the button.

A Last Supper scene, Jesus and John and Judas. The three of them sat leaning elbows on a folding table, draped in sheets cinched at the waists, drinking from dollar store wine glasses.

One nook was curtained off, a “Look if you dare!!” print-out safety pinned to the fabric. Nell dared. Behind it, a zombie woman froze mid-stumble, her organs dangling from a watermelon-sized wound at her gut. Nell let the curtain fall. She’d seen enough of people’s insides.

There were several more scenes she couldn’t figure out – a child in a top hat, a woman with heaving breasts, orangey paint cracking at her cleavage. Even so, Nell found herself holding her breath outside of each new nook, waiting… for what?

For one of them to speak.

It was ridiculous. What was she doing here? She’d been dragged to art museums – hospital white walls, men in sweaters coughing on her neck – but this museum was nothing like that. These figures had faces like department store mannequins, blank and squeezed, paint chipping, tips of ears and noses droopy with melt. They’d been arranged in their tableaus like paper cutouts in a fifth grader’s history diorama, decorated with dollar store wigs and thrift store knick-knacks.

But lovingly, lovingly.

Then she saw him.

He was the last exhibit, just before the black curtained exit, standing behind a wooden podium with a small microphone positioned at his open mouth. He smiled, showing slightly bucked top teeth. Wrinkles fanned his blue eyes. He wore a navy suit and a red tie, and each one of his gray hairs sprouted neatly from his skull. She’d seen him on TV, of course she had, and almost once in person, but here in front of her, with his ivory hands balled into energetic fists, and his chin tilted slightly down; with his eyes kind, and his shoulders just barely broader than hers – Nell found herself drawn to President Bill Clinton with the kind of power she could only describe as miraculous.

I speak! said the notecard attached to his podium. Nell pushed the button. A pause, and then his voice, in the Southern drawl she remembered hearing as a teen: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Nell frowned. She pushed the button again.

“Jesus H. Christ.” Someone gasped behind her. A man stood half inside the hall, caught in the fabric of the exit curtain. He shouldered it off and held a hand to his chest. “You were so quiet. I thought you was one of my wax buddies here come to life.”

Nell touched her cheek—skin drooping at the jawline, dark hairs prickling her upper lip. How lovely to be made of wax. “Thank you.”

The man shook his head and thumped his chest a few times. “Gotta make sure the old heart keeps beating, you know? This would be one crappy day and place to die. Sorry if you’re from here. I don’t mean anything by it.”

Bill Clinton made her bold. “Most people hate the place they come from.”

“That’s right,” said the man. “I think that’s right.”

They slipped into silence. The man pulled his hair back into a ponytail, then released it. He was tall but held himself as if the height was a surprise. Rectangular wire glasses, the kind that had never been in style, slipped low on his nose, and Nell guessed his age as somewhat older than her, mid-fifties maybe. She wondered how quickly she could locate the mace in her purse.

“You’re the owner?” she asked, at the same time he stepped forward and said: “You want a photo?”

“A photo?”

“With Bill!” He drummed his fingers along the podium. “I thought his button was stuck. Kids do that sometimes, break it so he keeps on talking. They think it’s funny to make him rap.” His fingers stilled. “Yeah, I’m the owner.”

“I don’t want a photo.”

“They kept stealing the Jordans, too. Michael’s sneakers. That’s why he’s wearing those knock-offs now. I bought them from a Chinese website for twenty bucks.”

“I didn’t notice.”

He tilted his head down. “Aw shucks, thanks.” He smiled girlishly through strands of greying hair. “I’m Doug.”

Nell kept her question casual. “Did you buy the statues, too, Doug? Or did you make them?”

“Some of them I bought. Not from online.” He straightened. “They cost an arm and a leg.”

“They should cost two arms, two legs, a head, and a torso.”

Doug blinked, chewed the wad of gum he’d been holding at the back of his jaw, then pointed his finger at her like a gun. “You’re funny.”

No one had ever called her funny. “What about this one, for instance?” she asked, gesturing to the President. “Did you buy him?”

“Ah,” said Doug. He waggled the gun finger at her and turned to the statue; ran a thumb along the edge of the podium, then cupped his hand around the President’s emphatic fist as if to say: I’m here. I got you. “Bill is special. Bill came to me.”

Doug told the story.

After high school, he worked a couple of jobs, tried to apply to colleges but couldn’t make anything stick. Not because of drugs or whatever, just because none of it seemed real, if that made sense. What the hell did essays and test scores mean to Doug, who worked early mornings at a gas station where his coworkers stole straight out the pocket of his coat? He delivered pizzas; sold sunglasses at a hut in the mall before emptiness ate the storefronts like a modern-day cancer.

Doug finally landed a job at a life care center, which was a fancy name for a nursing home. Some of the doctors were stuck up, and some of the orderlies didn’t speak English, but the patients were nice enough. A few could still talk normal, clean and feed themselves, but most needed help with everything, and Doug meant everything. He hadn’t thought about his body much since puberty, but after spooning chocolate shake into loose lips and then wiping it up as shit a couple hours later, well, a person learned to think about what it meant to wake up each morning, to stretch, cough, to swing out of bed and take easy steps to the bathroom.

“My father’s in a nursing home,” said Nell. She imagined Doug lifting him into a tub, his stringy grey hair falling across her father’s skull like a wig.

“No shit,” said Doug. “Small world.”

He continued.

The job didn’t pay much, and the stress of all those disintegrating bodies, all those crying families who visited, or worse, who didn’t, well it took a toll. He needed something to relax, and so he began smoking pot in his car after work each day, just to unwind. Or better yet, on warm days, he would smoke in the woods behind the center, where just beyond the trees a sharp embankment rose to a highway overpass. The humming cars sounded like a river sometimes, and he squatted on a soft log and closed his eyes and smoked and imagined himself somewhere else.

One unseasonably warm November afternoon, he did all that, just that, nothing more than usual, but when he opened his eyes, a body lay prone at the bottom of the embankment, where scrubby highway grasses turned to rock and pine.

Oh shit, Doug, he thought to himself. You’re caught now. He flicked the roach away into the damp underbrush. “Cigarettes, such a bad habit,” he said loudly.

But the body didn’t stir, and that’s when he got worried. Old folks, they wandered away sometimes from the center, the ones who could still wander, that is. What if this one had fallen? Been struck by a car? What if it was dead? He thought of running, but he was a better man than that, so instead he stepped forward, the tips of his worn boots soaked through with slush. He brushed away pine branches and knelt over the body, which was cold and stiff and decidedly not alive.

“Excuse me?” he asked and tilted the head towards him.

It popped right off.

“I just about shit my pants, I don’t need to tell you,” Doug said. “I mean, Jesus, can you imagine?”

Nell didn’t like to picture Bill like that, headless and spread-eagled on the wet ground. She shook her head. “I really can’t.”

“It took me a minute to realize he was wax, and another minute to realize my luck. Statues like this sell for a fortune on eBay. So I hauled him to my car. I was used to carrying bodies, you know, and he was lighter than the old folks. But once I got him home, I thought, ‘Doug, this is a sign, and you don’t sell signs. You follow them.’ So I did. I learned how to sculpt, how to pour wax, and then me and Bill took our show on the road.” He smiled. “We’re self-made men, the both of us. Bootstrings and all. Bootstraps? Bootstrings?”

He was so proud. He faced her, one hand on the podium, the other hooked behind his neck. He smiled. It was so clear what he wanted.

But oh well, thought Nell. Oh well. A giddiness rose up inside her. “It’s a shame. Bill Clinton did so much for this country, and that’s the quote we choose to remember him by?”

Doug’s face fell. “That’s the one people know.”

“A museum is a chance to teach people. Not make them feel like they know everything already.” She thanked Doug for telling her about his wax figures and let him show her out.

“I’m open all weekend,” he called from the black mouth of the store. Nell zipped her coat. “If you want to come back, you can. I won’t charge you. You already paid once.” The automatic door threatened to close, and he stomped a foot to open it. “Probably. I didn’t check.”

“Thank you,” said Nell. “I did pay. I’ll think about it.”

 

Nell first heard of Bill Clinton, incumbent, when she was eighteen. He was a heady drawl on their bunny-eared TV, an energetic grin in a crowd of frowning old men. “Too slippery,” her father had said, still a professor then. “That Slick Willy, he’ll walk into a room and give twenty different people exactly what they want, even if they all want something different.” He sucked his teeth, but Nell wondered: what would Bill Clinton give her? What did she want?

Like most of her smoke-stacked northern Indiana town, she voted for him, and when he won, she listened with a vague sense of hope to the music pulsing the bricks of the corner bar. This will change things, people said. Things will be better now. Nell wasn’t sure what they meant by “things,” but she lined up with the forty thousand others when in 1996, the President made an appearance at her town’s park. From her spot at the back of the crush, she saw only speaker stands like the turrets of a faraway castle. Which gray head was his? The family in front of her ate Pop-Tarts the entire time, ripping off the foil tops and letting the breeze blow the scraps onto the trampled grass, like it was an accident.

“What did I tell you?” said her father, waving a paint brush at the TV when the newscasters ranted about stained dresses and cigars. “You can’t trust him.” But Nell saw the admiration behind his scowl. For her part, she blamed Monica. It seemed as if all the things, whatever they were, would go back to being the same because of her, and they had. Credit card bills. Trips to the laundromat. Dreams lit the same red-dark as half-open mouths.

She remembered the electric thrill standing in front of his wax form. His whole body radiated a joyful, irrational hope. Charm, that was the word. Little sparkles of magic, dangling from a silver bracelet; spells whispered into cupped hands in the dark.

 

Nell stayed away from the museum until Saturday afternoon. Slush-stained cars dotted the lot, and inside, Doug took photos of a family posing in front of Michael Jordan. The youngest boy tugged at the shiny basketball shorts and the mother swatted his hand away, her smile vibrating at a frequency that hurt Nell’s eyes.

Doug lowered the phone and waved her in. His hair was tied back; his shirt boasted a wilted collar. “You’re back.” He didn’t bother to hide the excitement in his voice. “You didn’t pay, did you?”

Nell shook her head and lifted a slightly damp bill. “But I have money.”

He waved her hand away. “You’re a VIP now. Are you gonna stay? I’ve got something to show you, but…” He gestured at the family, all the children getting antsy now. “Gotta deal with the plebs first.”

Nell put the money in her pocket. “I can stay.”

She wandered past the statues. My wax buddies, Doug had called them, and she could see why. There was something comforting about their almost-but-not-quite humanness. From a certain angle, they looked real, as if it a visitor had paused mid-step, but then an inch or two closer, and relief flooded Nell’s chest. Not real. Wax. Quiet, solid. So very badly made.

Except for Bill. His blue eyes tracked her as she moved down the aisle, his expression frozen in a look of continuous delight. She wanted to trace one finger along the shine of his cheekbones and the divot above his upper lip, but the building was crowded, so instead she stood by the black curtained exit and nodded to each person as they exited. Some of visitors thanked her. “Thank you for coming,” she said back. She liked that they thought she had something to do with the museum.

The weather turned stormy. Doug escorted the last customers out. His footsteps echoed across the tiles, then around to the back offices. He popped back through the curtain hands first, his outstretched palms balancing a severed human head.

Voila! I hope I didn’t startle you,” he said. It was clear he hoped he had.

“You didn’t.”

Doug set the head onto the podium and stepped back. “It’s wax.” He pushed his wire glasses back up the bridge of his nose. “I made it.”

Nell had been foolish to think he sculpted Bill. This head dripped hardened pink slop at the edges. This head would never be anything but a very badly molded head. “Who is it?”

“It was going to be Hillary, back when everyone thought she’d be Madame President. But now, I’m not sure. I guess I could just finish it, stand her up behind Bill.”

Nell pressed her thumb into the head’s right cheekbone, gently at first and then harder, to see if it would dent. She leaned her face close and sniffed the wax. It had a mild smell, not like crayons or candles. More like pennies. “No, I don’t think so.”

Doug nodded. “Then I guess I melt her down and start over.”

“Now?”

Doug clapped. “Well, hell yeah, if you want to.” From the back, he brought out a large electric hot plate and thick-sided metal pot. He plugged the plate into the orange extension cord and together they waited while the temperature gauge ticked up. Nell watched him crouch to adjust a dial. Doug wasn’t smart, not like Bill or her father. He had the kind of face many people would want to smash simply for existing so freely in world. She imagined kicking him.

“Just about ready. You wanna grab Miss Hillary?”

Nell cupped her palms around the pink head and lifted it off the platter. It was heavier than she expected and she almost dropped it. Staring at it, eye to eyeless eye, she thought about kissing the wax lips. They would be soft and smooth and neither give nor expect anything back.

“Just plop her in.”

The head fit perfectly into the pot and almost immediately began to slip in on itself.

“When it’s done, you’ll pour it out into another head?”

“I don’t have the mold for another,” said Doug. He explained: he started by molding a head out of clay using photos he printed from online. Once the clay was just right and hard enough, he cast a plaster mold around it and let it dry, then peeled the plaster off in two halves. He screwed the halves back together, then poured in the melted wax, and when it hardened, ta da! Say hello to a new wax buddy. “But since you’re here, we could do it another way.” He seemed nervous. “I could just wrap the plaster around your head, use that as the mold.”

Nell imagined him bent inches from her face, his knobby fingers pressing cold, slimed paper into her eye sockets, and then darkness. “I’m claustrophobic,” she said, instead of: That’s one thousand percent crazy, Doug. I don’t know you. I have mace in my purse.

“Your hand then.”

She became aware of how close he stood to her – the grunge ringing his collar, the reek of body spray and oniony sweat.

“What would I do with another hand?”

“Put it on your dresser to store rings on,” said Doug. “Or watches.” He’d already thought about it.

“I don’t wear rings.”

“I could keep it, then.” He tugged at the ponytail at his neck.

She curled her hands into fists. “What would you do with it?”

Doug’s arm shifted. His pinky finger brushed her right elbow, its touch butterfly soft on her skin. “C’mon, aren’t you curious? You don’t got nothing else going on tonight, you already told me that.”

She felt the urge to blurt: do it all, Doug. Wrap my entire body in plaster and when I’m hard, crack me open and pour in something warmer, soft.

Instead she made an excuse and left. Something about an emergency at work.

 

Sunday afternoon, she ate an early supper with her father at a diner where the menus were pinned under beneath cloudy plastic tabletops. Nell cleared ketchup spill off the salad section with a balled-up paper napkin.

“Where did you mean to end up?” she asked.

Her father opened and closed his hands over the all-day breakfast spread. Veins stood out against his skin, as if drawn in with a fine-tipped brush and French ultramarine blue. “What?”

“You always said you didn’t want to end up here.” He’d repeated it her whole life, actually, in endless variation, but always with the same conclusion: I was meant for something better than this. “Where did you want to end up?”

Her father poked at a photo of pancakes. “Don’t get smart with me. I could’ve gone anywhere.”

“There’s a wax museum in town. It travels.” She told him about Jesus and Jordan, about Taylor Swift. She didn’t mention Bill. Her father raised his reading glasses to examine the drink menu, then let them hang around his neck.

“It’s a drug front.” He waved away her protests. “Think about it, a grown man, a truck full of wax people going from one hick town to the next. It doesn’t make sense.” He called over the waitress. “Come on, Nellie, you’re smarter than that.”

“Maybe he just loves it.”

Her father frowned. “He could be doing sex stuff, I suppose. That’s a possibility. Out in the woods, they do it with sheep, why not with wax Jordan?”

“That’s disgusting.”

“Use your brain, Nellie. No need to get emotional. Just ask yourself: what could he possibly want?”

Nell gulped down her dinner and drove straight to the museum. Doug greeted her at the door. “I’m sorry about the other night. I switched vitamins and I think my head was just all messed up for a minute. I know you don’t need another hand. Classic case of foot in mouth disease.” The words tumbled out all at once, rehearsed.

Nell inhaled the warmth, the scent of wax and floor cleaner. “More like a case of hand in mouth.”

“Ha! Ha!” He stuck out his lip in a pout. “Today’s the last day. You almost missed us.”

“I know.”

“We’re kind of busy now.” He swept his hand back at the padded halls, laughter and shrieks and the repeated I did not, I did not of Bill’s sound bite. “But you could come back later, if you wanted, after we close up. Really take your time. I’ve got a ton of packing to do, so I won’t even be around, if you don’t want me. I’ll just leave the doors open. Around nine?”

This was another clearly terrible idea. But what was Nell’s life before the museum arrived? The days ahead stretched black and cold. She remembered her first job in a pediatric dentist office. Debra, the other hygienist, had told a story about a friend who dropped a full ball of waxed floss down a patient’s throat during a cleaning. It slid right past his uvula and into his esophagus, and he never even opened his eyes, and the friend never told him, she kidded Nell not. “But it had to come out sometime, right?” Debra asked. “Not like it just unwound in there around, flossing out his small intestine and large intestine and colon and asshole and all. That’s not how that shit works.”

Nell had no idea how that shit worked, but in that moment, she decided: if she were to drop something, she’d make it unique. A small plastic diamond ring, maybe, or a frog that shot out a small sticky tongue when you squeezed its belly. They stocked both in the mock pirate treasure chest, so it wouldn’t be difficult. She imagined her patient days later, peering into the murky waters of their toilet bowl, wondering how their body had produced such a tiny marvel.

Maybe she would swallow diamond rings after the wax museum left, one at every meal, or take a ceramics class at the local community center.

But she wouldn’t, she knew that already. This was the one moment of magic in her life, and tomorrow it was leaving her, and so she agreed, yes, nine o’clock, and by eight fifty-eight she was turning off her engine in a parking lot empty except for the box truck that squatted near the loading dock, ready for the next day’s move.

She entered through the automatic door and slipped silently through the front curtain. It was like being born, she thought: the slide of velvet on her cheeks, the warm, dark closeness of the hall, the quiet press of people waiting just out of sight. The cloth walls ate her footsteps and so she listened only to the in and out of her breath. Was this how Monica felt? Twenty-two years old and head over heels in love with a man who could never fully love her back. Quick trips to the bathroom; invented reasons to swish past his open door. And look what happened to her.

She reached Bill. A small desk lamp sat on the podium, spilling light onto the wood and shining the bottom of his face. Nell stepped closer than she ever had before and placed her purse on the inside shelf, where a speaker might have stored a bottle of water. Bill’s left fist grazed her upper arm. She tilted her face towards his.

What now? Go home, sleep, wake. She rubbed the end of his blue tie between her thumb and fingers. She placed her right hand on his shoulder, steadying his frame from the slight rocking she caused by pulling at his tie, then rose up on her tiptoes and pressed her lips to the lips of President Bill Clinton, wax.

His skin was soft. It tasted like the rim of an empty mug.

When she lowered her heels, she was no longer alone.

“Don’t be embarrassed.” Doug stood with his back pressed up to the exit curtain. “I kissed him once too, back when he first came to me. On the cheek, though. I’m not gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with being gay. I’m just not.”

Anger rose up in Nell’s chest. “You lied. You said I’d be alone.”

Doug pointed at the statue. “Bill lied! He lied all the time. He lied up and down ‘til Tuesday, and people still loved him.” He bunched the curtain in both fists, then wrapped the black fabric around him like a cloak, securing it at his throat. “Why though? Why did people love him?”

Nell would scream. She would murder him and melt down his bones. She yanked her purse off the shelf and set it on top of the podium, rummaging for her keys, for the mace. Gum, lip balm, hand sanitizer, old receipts, an unopened packet of tissue. Trash, nothing but trash. She dug deeper. She overturned the whole mess out onto the podium and shook it. Coins dinged against the wood.

“Hey now, you’re okay. It’s okay.”

Nell watched her hands move like spiders in a pile of her own trash – bitten, red, veined. She turned. Doug stood still draped in the black curtain, hair weeping down his forehead, twin indents on either side of his nose from where his glasses slipped. She realized several things at that moment, namely: he would never be loved like Bill Clinton was loved, would never go out for early drinks and late dinners and exude so much charm that he had to crack the hotel window first before falling into bed, or else risk suffocating on his own charisma.

But also: neither would she.

“What would you have done with my wax hand?”

“Stuck it in the cupholder to hold whenever I got lonely on a drive.”

“That’s creepy, Doug. Like, serial killer creepy.”

“Oh, I know.” He let the black cape fall. “Don’t think I don’t know.”

But like he said before, she had nothing else to do. “Did you pack everything up yet?”

From the back, he carried several buckets, a tarp, and powdered alginate that he mixed up into a purplish, milky goo using a long drill bit. She retrieved the folding chair from the front and sat. He asked if she was ready and she nodded, very ready, and he gripped her elbow gently in his and helped dip it into the bucket until the cool mixture glopped up around the knobby part of her wrist. “Pick a position, like this.” He demonstrated with half-cupped fingers. “And just hold it there. Don’t move.” They waited for it to harden. One minute, two, three. He breathed beside her, they breathed together, Bill Clinton smiled benevolently over it all, did not breathe, did not have to. Bill Clinton was beyond breathing.

Eyes half closed, Nell had the sense she was floating, and not just her hand in the gluey mix – her whole body. Legs lifting, heart ballooning upwards. She wasn’t happy but she was close.

“Almost ready, now,” said Doug. She opened her eyes. “I just gotta go grab some wax. One minute, don’t move.”

Now it was just her and Bill again. What a miracle, what a true intercession of grace for Doug to find a wax figure like that. If Nell thought about it, his story didn’t seem believable, but most stories didn’t, like the floss one, for example. That was probably a lie, too.

The alginate tightened like another hand holding hers. Who was the last person she had held hands with? In the soft light, Bill offered his fist. He offered his silver hair. He offered his stick-out teeth.

To who? Not to Doug, that wasn’t fair. The man who loved but didn’t fully appreciate the gift that had been (perhaps, but probably not) tossed down to him. Who had stolen him from someone else. That was one thing Doug and Bill Clinton and Monica all shared, at least: they knew exactly what they wanted and they went for it, even if it didn’t make sense.

Footsteps echoed in the back.

Nell slipped her hand from out the almost-solid mold. She swept her things back into her bag, quietly, quietly. One arm through the purse loop and the other, that’s right, easy now, under Bill’s armpits. He was light, just like Doug had said, but he was taller than her, and his dress shoes dragged as she hurried out the curtain, over the tiles, whoosh through the automatic doors. Who needed mace with a president at her side? They flew across the parking lot. “Shotgun!” she said as she reclined the passenger seat and bent his body into it.

Did she hear Doug call her name as she started the engine?

She did not. She’d left him a hand, as many hands as he wanted to cast, and so it was a fair trade, or at least a trade. Nothing in life was fair.

She cracked the window and turned the radio to a station she never listened to. Her hair fluttered back at her temples; she licked her lips. This must have been how Monica felt. No, better – how Bill had felt! Shrug the weight of country off your narrow shoulders, lie back, relax; let the world shrink down to the warm, dark center of you.

She asked him, “What do you want to do next?”

Nell wanted, suddenly, everything. Would she do sex stuff with him? Maybe! She would do it all: sex, love, dinner, drinks, dog walks in the park and checkerboard spreads of cheese and crackers on pretty blankets in the grass, because with President Bill Clinton – patron saint of unexpected passions and ill-advised affairs, of easy lies and breathless charm – the world was an oyster, and she had gone for far too long without.

 

Photo courtesy of Trevor Huxham; view more of his work on Flickr.

author marya brennan

Marya Brenan’s work has appeared in The Florida Review, Literary Hub, and The Normal School, among others. She is a proud alum of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Tin House Summer Workshop, and The Writers Grotto Fellowship Program. Her 2021 article, “Writing a Novel in Prison. In 30 Days. During a Pandemic.”, appeared in Literary …

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