Jeff Phillips: A Mustache on Jessica

Carl’s dad had given him this fancy German lighter, and Carl’s dad had died a long slow death. The way flame would fade when holding spark, letting the thumb quiver, reminded him of this, and it was a sadness that he enjoyed, because it made him feel righteous. For an impulsive young man who palled around with football players, and those who tried to keep up with the dominant personalities, feeling righteous, even smothered in sadness, brought him a solid sense of self. And so the fancy German lighter with a metallic swirl of a sort of coat of arms was a bit of talisman that reminded him of his own potential to dominate, to grow beyond his peers. He may be a lackey now, but give him a few years; another growth spurt, the absorption of college knowledge. Yes, Carl had the gift of fire handed down by his personal god.

He started smoking cigarettes because it gave him an excuse to flicker the fatherly knick knack.

At a house party on Salty Pond, Carl spent much of the night on the dock smoking cigarettes, and so did Jessica and her friends. Carl was so taken by the vivacious little blonde, and her tan legs that seemed all the more enticing up against her pink shorts. Carl liked her, and Jessica liked most guys. They spun playful conversations, more cigarettes were sparked to ease the sexual tension that couldn’t be acted upon because it was too soon, Jessica’s friends were around, and she was a Freshman, he a Senior, and though not a big taboo, still cause for a self conscious hesitation.

They sat next to each other with their legs in the black, moon spackled water, knees touching, talking, and inching closer. The next cigarette was to be sparked, Jessica fumbled the lighter and into the lake it went after bouncing once off Carl’s knee cap. At first Carl said “no worries, Jessica, it’s no big deal.” And it wasn’t a big deal, until he had some time to think about it between thoughts, breaths taken, and conversational pauses. About how his dad had used that lighter for some 50 years and then gave it to him, not his brothers, because his dad saw himself most in Carl, knew he’d someday take to smoking, and though he wished Carl wouldn’t because of the cancer, he had asked him to use this lighter if he did, so he could think of his old man. And think a little of the consequences, to let that sink in each time he lit up, in hopes Carl would make it an occasional action, albeit, a special one. Because his dad loved smoking, in particular, the conversations smokers have; relaxed and deep, such as Carl was in the midst of with Jessica until the fumble.

Carl looked into the lake. He thought himself a dunce for not diving in right away to get it while the mark was still fresh! And why didn’t she offer to jump in after it? His mind seethed. In his dad’s words, she was inconsiderate with other’s properties. He definitely remembered mentioning to her that his dad gave him that lighter, while she’d traced the raised metal surface, a tactile wonder, with her soft fingertips. And she should certainly know his dad died, it was the talk of the town, and come to think of it, Jessica’s sister worked in his clothing store. Jessica didn’t say sorry. Not when it went plunk! Not even as a small gesture of remorse after he politely said it was okay!

When Jessica stood, said she was going inside to find another lighter, he felt the temperature drop outside, in the air between them, but inside his own glandular pumps his temper flared like a dying flame trying to gulp air for one last flicker. He pushed Jessica into the water. Her feet tapped a quick side step as she tried to maintain balance before tumbling off the dock. Her friends laughed at first, then quickly righted themselves and twirled on him, saying “what the fuck Carl? You fucking butt-hole!” when it was clear from Jessica’s startled flailing and choking for quick air in the water that it wasn’t funny to her, so not funny to them.

Carl sighed, a buckle of potential crying in his throat, pressed tremolo into the exhale. The friends helped Jessica up onto the dock. She dripped like a pink wash cloth hunched on a shower hook, the water soaking the wood plank, and touching through the heels of his hole-worn sneakers. These were tears. The night was crying for him so he could hold back shame until she was out of sight. The piercing intensity of her glare needed very little moonlight. She called him a dip-shit and went with her friends into the lake house to find a towel.

Carl stayed out on the dock for a long while, thinking about his dad, and how his dad might have been looking on as a sidelined ghost. He was sure his dad would be on his side, since the altercation was triggered by disregard for his lighter. And being the kid recently traumatized by recent loss, he should’ve been seen as sympathetic no matter what. “Give me a goddamn break,” he said as he paced the dock’s length. “I get a goddamn break. Lady Dimwit. She should change her name. Fuck them.”

When he heard some partygoers step out from the house, to make their way to drink on the dock, he snuck up to his car and smoked a cigarette using the car’s electric lighter and it tasted awful, like it had been stepped on by a girl’s dirty feet.

He went home.

He couldn’t hold still his resentment. Jessica giggled in eyelid hallucinations. Carl wished to divert his spit up into head to spray down these haunts, wash away the taunts. Lady Dimwit! She earned the title, he thought, for not bothering to have a clue about the real importance of the lighter, about his dad, for not trying to see his perspective and reason for having shoved her in the lake. Instead she let slip all chemistry they had stirred, let it drip through the space between the dock’s floor boards, back into the body of water below where it would undergo further dilution. She asked no questions. And as bad as he felt about the push, he thought she should feel worse. What if he had pushed her in as a joke? Should that inspire such hatred? And if she didn’t sense a joke, would she not want to explore the sudden turn of mood in her new friend? She was shallow, he thought, shallow, shallow, shallow, shallow…if only we were sitting along the shallow end. An arm’s reach could’ve prevented a soured, spoiled, snuffed seduction.

Before going to sleep, he opened up that year’s freshly printed yearbook to the page with her face and drew a series of vertical lines on her upper lip. A mustache on Jessica.

As he tried to sleep, he remembered a time when he was much younger, when his dad had scolded him for playing with matches while no one was home. Told him he could’ve burned the house down and couldn’t be trusted alone. Carl had gone to his room and taken the family photo out of his Velcro wallet and penciled in a hideous mustache on his dad’s face. A shame spackled and throbbed behind his eyes when his dad offered him the lighter a year later, his thirteenth birthday. He knew then he had earned back the privilege of making flame. Had he trusted his dad’s ability to forgive, a once nice portrait of a man wouldn’t be lying crumbled in a tin box.

“You’re going to explore some things,” his dad had said. “Let this beast light the way.”

When the lighter was handed over, he and his dad talked out on the porch late into the night. Carl listened to his old man’s jokes and tales from early dating fiascos before meeting his mom. Carl told his dad of his two crushes at the time, and his dad helped him decide on whom to ask to the upcoming dance.

And he wondered, where did this urge, when embittered, come from that made him want to deface a seeming enemy’s picture with unwanted facial hair? He felt along his own upper lip; the patchy fuzz. He rubbed his legs to remind himself he was hairy in other ways, that there was still power in this secret, misdirected insult.

When the sun rose, and he hadn’t slept, he recognized the consequences. Had he taken time to shrug off the sinking of the keepsake, seeing that the next day could shine its light upon a solution, perhaps with the rounding of another week, Jessica could well be sitting on the floor of his room, writing flirtatious scribble in the opening pages of the yearbook – a thickness now the better for kindling, and to ignite forgetting.


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