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Preening
by Rosalind Goldsmith

Preening
by Rosalind Goldsmith

Published September 16, 2022

He was standing in front of the bathroom mirror – knowing it was futile – most of his hair gone now, only three or four strands in the front hanging down from his skull, and six or seven from the back – he’d counted them – but still he preened. He put baby oil on the strands in the front and coaxed them over the top of his head. A scant – pathetic – little comb-over. But good Lord! What else could he do? 

What was left to him now but to survey, to calculate, to take the measure of his changing appearance, in this – this last mirror left to him – to study his reflection just to make sure there was something of him left in that reflection – nothing much that was recognizable to him, true – but he was still there. For now. For not much longer, according to his doctors. There was his face, haggard and sagging, and his sluggish eyes, staring back at him – fish eyes or hollow Easter eggs painted to look like eyes – there they were, those things, staring back at him. 

But all things considered – and if he squinted – he thought he looked alright – passable at least – though he didn’t dare open his mouth – that was not a good idea – God knows what was going on in there, he didn’t want to see. It frightened him awfully and he ought to call someone, someone to come and visit him – not to, not to – take care of him – good Lord, no! This was bad enough on his own. He wouldn’t land this on anyone. But someone to sit with him for a few minutes to keep him company, someone who would speak to him – given his strange and disturbing appearance, and given he only had seven hairs left on his head, or possibly twelve. Who would want to speak to him now? Well, who?

He stared at his nose in the mirror. It looked like greyish wax slipping down a candle – so his nose was changing also – he was dissolving – who could he call? 

In his mind that was no longer really a mind but more like a thick wad of damp, tangled moss stuffed into his skull, he went through a list of his friends, in search of one who might sit with him – if only for a few minutes – he went through six – fewer than the hairs on his head, and ended up with one old friend he knew would oblige – if she had the time.

He made himself a cup of Chamomile tea and called her. She sounded distant and just a touch surprised to hear from him after all this time, but – good Lord! – when he explained, she said she’d be over right away. She was a good one.

Twenty minutes later she arrived, surveyed his shabby and squalid little apartment and gave him a small paper bag.

They sat down on the worn old sofa in the living room which was also a kitchen, which was also a bedroom. She didn’t seem to notice his changed appearance. At least, she said nothing about it. He offered her a drink but she refused.

She smiled. “It’s good to see you – after so long.”

“And you,” he said. His voice was hoarse from not speaking. “Thanks for coming over.” He cleared his throat.

She smiled again. Her eyes were strange. So bright, such a strange colour. 

“You haven’t changed a bit,” he said. “You look just the same! You look great! So fine of you to come – so kind of you, after all this time.”

“You look –” she began.

“You don’t need to say,” he cut in, “I only have seven hairs left on my head. Or twelve.”

“Oh,” she said.

It felt good to tell her the truth. It was a tremendous relief, really, to share this knowledge, this certainty of his change in appearance, and to see that she accepted it. He hoped, though, that she couldn’t see the baby oil on his head – or see inside his mouth when he spoke.

His voice was still hoarse. “I meant to visit you that time, that time when you were – you know – I just couldn’t,” he said. “I couldn’t handle it.”

“It’s ok,” she said. “It’s really ok. I understand. It’s good to see you. All this time, you’ve been –”

“Away from you,” he said.

“Yes,” she said.

“It’s been so difficult, these years, you know, not to have you here.”

“I know,” she said. She closed her eyes, but a light seemed to shine through her eyelids.

“We had –”

“I know.”

“It was so damn interesting when I was with you, that’s the thing.” He pounded his fist on his knee. “I remember it all. I’m sorry I didn’t –”

“No need,” she said and smiled. “‘Sorry’ doesn’t cut any ice now.”

“Cut any ice…” he said. “I’m not sure I know what that means…”

She shrugged. “Since the water underneath is always dark.”

Don’t go cryptic on me, he thought, but didn’t say it.

“And the ones who sink beneath the surface, when they go deep enough, they start to glow.”

“Really?” he said. He was not going to challenge her in any way – didn’t know what the hell she was talking about, but wanted her to stay.

“Please,” he said, “Can’t I offer you a drink? Vodka? Vodka and soda or orange juice or Vodka and cranberry juice – your favourite – no, no I don’t have any of that, but I have –”

“No thanks.” 

She smiled and crossed her legs. She was wearing that sweater she always used to wear so many years ago – brown and white – that comfortable, warm sweater with the curved, arcing pattern around the neck. Her favourite sweater. And his. It was who she was. 

Her eyes were really – too bright – kind of lit up, he thought.

“You ought to get that seen to,” she said.

“What?”

“The inside of your mouth.”

So, she had seen. He was devastated. Now he was sure she’d seen the baby oil glistening on his head.

“No, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “And by the way, I use baby oil only because it’s – it’s relaxing. It’s not vanity, you know.”

“God forbid it should be that!” She laughed. But he looked serious. “I didn’t notice it,” she said. “Really. I didn’t.” She smiled again in that way she used to smile when they walked through the neighbourhoods together and traded jokes, and traded ideas and said nasty things about the people they knew, loved each other to near insanity, and felt loved, each one by the other.

She leaned forward. “And farther down beneath, I’ve seen creatures you couldn’t even begin to imagine,” she said.

“Is that right?” he said. “What kind of creatures?” He would keep asking her questions, to keep her there.

“Long flat beings with eyes on the top of their heads. Eyes that glow yellow and gold out of the depths. Some of them, quite beautiful.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “Really glad.” He wanted her to stay, not leave. Not now. Not ever.

“And strange plants that grow tall and sway back and forth in the currents, stretching out their arms, almost like they are dancing a minuet. They are also beautiful, and so many different colours.”

“I’d like to see those,” he said. “I really would. Maybe we could –”

Again, she smiled – this time that smile that seemed to be hiding something but probably meant nothing – because she always wanted to be a mystery to him. An unsolvable mystery.

She didn’t stay long. After ten minutes, she got up and hugged him close. At the door she said, “It’s not so bad, you know. You’ll see. It’s not what they tell you.” He tried to hold her there, but she slipped out of his arms and left.

He went back to the couch. On the little table in front of it was the brown paper bag she’d been carrying. He opened it and looked in. He took out an oddly shaped little thing with branches. It rested in his hand. A piece of coral. From God knows where she got that, he thought and put it back down on the table.

After a minute, he got up again. Slower. The pain slowed him and he shuffled into the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror.

He opened his mouth wide. Then he moved one hair that had fallen to the side and placed it carefully back on the top of his head, and took out the bottle of baby oil.

“It’s not so bad,” he said.

Rosalind Goldsmith.jpg

Rosalind Goldsmith

Rosalind Goldsmith lives in Toronto. She began writing short fiction seven years ago. Her short stories have appeared in journals in Canada, the USA and the UK, including filling Station, Orca, Litro, Into the Void, Fairlight Books, Chiron Review, the Lincoln Review, Stand and Fiction International. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions. Her first collection of short stories, IN A HOUSE DEMOLISHED BY THE WIND, will be published by Half-Light Press in December, 2022.