Karen L. George
After five years I still
didn't know what color Lifty's hair was. But I'm not as nosy as some of the other women at
the BP gas station.
Lifty's the only male in a
gaggle of twenty females. Most of the women work part-time, odd shifts to supplement
income from full-time jobs. Not me or Lifty. This is our one and only place of employment.
One job is more than enough, in my opinion.
Most of the women stay a couple
months, half a year tops. The owner, Duke, is a generous man. Pays us a nickel over
minimum wageso theres a constant turnover. You might wonder why Duke only
hires women, except for Lifty. I suspect they're his girlfriends. They're not young, and
they're definitely not pretty. But there seems to be an endless supply of inventory work
to be done in the back storeroom. Duke's in and out a lot.
Everything Ive heard about
Lifty comes through the grapevine, bits and pieces over the years. The women say he has
something to hide. I listen to the gossip, but don't comment or spread it. Certainly
passes the time.
I keep track of all the rumors
about Lifty in a tiny notepad. If it's a slow TV night, my notes provide hours of fun. All
the notes reside in a database I created by reading the manual. I can sort the data, find
certain fields, do queries and reports.
The data is all contradictory. I
make no attempt to research its validity. I only compile it. Not that I don't wonder about
the truth of things, but I try to form as few opinions as possible, and if I have any,
keep them to myself. I'm sick to death of hearing other people's opinions on everything
from Chihuahuas to Bill Clinton to speaking in tongues. People's opinions should be kept
to themselves. That's my opinion.
Lifty and I have worked together
five years. He started a month after I did, so I have seniority.
I keep tabs on Duke's women,
documenting their too long lunch hours and too frequent breaks, the times they help
themselves to jerky, jujubes, jelly bellies, and pork rinds. Dont use the data. For
all I know, they have an arrangement with Duke, special perks I'm not privy to.
Theres a cut-down version
of Taco Bell tucked in the corner of our gas station. If the customers are not already
gagging from gas fumes, maybe the smell of Taco Bell pushes them over the edge. You'd be
surprised how many people buy into it. I wonder if they came for gas and decided to throw
back some refried beans, or they came for Chilitos and said, "Why not fill the gas
tank while I'm at it?"
I've never grown used to the
smells of gas and fried meat.
"Isn't it against the law
to prepare food in a gas station?" I asked Lifty.
For maybe the hundred-thousandth
time since I've worked with Lifty, I wonder what color his hair is. His head's bald. I've
stood next to him outside, when we clean the pumps and grounds at the end of our shift.
Under those bright lights, there was not a glint of stubble. How is that possible? Does he
shave his head every day, along with his face?
Dorsey told me Lifty waxes his
head. Lucy claimed his hair fell out from some radical AIDS treatment. Bonnie said he used
to work at a chemical plant and had been involved in some spill, which altered him
irreversibly. Paula swore it resulted from a birth defect because his mother shot up with
heroin while carrying him.
I couldn't say for absolute
certain that there wasn't any stubble, unless I ran my palm over his scalp. I want to.
Think about it at least once an hour on nights we work together. His head begs to be
touched, so smooth and shinymysterious. What if I pressed a soft kiss on his scalp
before he knew what hit him?
Lifty has a habit of smoothing
the palm of his hand over his head, as if to make sure hes still bald. He does it at
least three times during any given conversation. I've become so accustomed to the gesture,
I wait for it, try to predict the exact moment he'll raise his arm.
I don't think he's interested in
me romantically, but I have felt his eyes on me, and I enjoyed it. Not like those ugly
leers you get from some men, after which you need a shower. Lifty's once-over leaves me
warm and comfortableaware he knows I'm a woman and he's a man, and that's
thatnothing further. I like it that way. Don't have a man, and I'm not sure I want
The hair on Liftys arms is
somewhere between blond, gray, and silver, a mix I can't pin down. It shines, and I bet
its soft. Jana claims his pubic hair is red. I called her a bald-faced liar. She
just smiled. I hope Lifty has better taste.
"Do you think it's right to
say we can't smoke here?" Lifty palms his head.
"It's no skin off my
back," I said. "I don't smoke."
"That's not what I
Here we go again. Lifty drags me
into conversations I don't particularly want to take part in.
"I don't like inhaling
other people's cigarette smoke," I admitted.
"So you think it should be
against the law to smoke?"
My face felt hot. I hate it when
Lifty snatches words out of my mouth, words I hadn't even tasted, much less chewed.
"I didn't say that."
"But should it?" Lifty
prodded, once again running his hand over his head.
"Not necessarily," I
wavered. "But I'd be glad if smoking was against the law."
"You want to give the
government that power over your personal life?"
His voice had risen to such a
pitch of disbelief, I didn't dare answer yes.
"Where've you been, Lifty?
The government has power over you and me, whether we let them or not."
I hate when my voice gets that
hard edge, when I'm drawn into an argument about something I have no taste for. I tell
myself every time I'm not saying another word on the matter, and somehow Lifty pulls
things out of me. Afterwards I feel as if I owe him an apology, even though he's the one
who started it.
At the very end, Lifty said,
"How'd we get on that subject?" and it was all over for him, just a
conversation. But I had lingering half-resentments that I didn't want, because I like
He made a wisecrack, and I
forgot all about any ill feelings. It's hard to stay mad at Lifty.
That's the way our evenings go.
Lifty instigates one debate after another, in which I feel as if a huge spotlight is
directed down on me, and he's trying to force me to give up bits and pieces of myself. I
fight tooth and nail. If I initiate a subject, he refuses to participate. If I ask a
personal question, he acts as if he never heard me.
"How come you never
married?" Lifty asked.
"Who wants to know?"
"What, are you my
He rubbed his fingers over his
scalp, lingering. "No, I'm just curious. You're not a bad-looking woman."
"Oh, jeez, thanks. Why not
just say Youre not that ugly?"
Lifty went for his head again.
Theres something sexual about it, as if hes touching his genitals. "Do
you like men?"
"Lifty, are you asking my
I wouldn't normally answer a
question like that, but I made an exception for Lifty. "I like men. Just never found
one that interesting. I like to keep to myself. Easier that way."
"I hear that." Lifty
seemed on the verge of launching into some confession. I waited, knowing the chances were
slim to zilch.
He looked at me more directly
than I believe anyone ever has, as if he just discovered something about me. I was more
than a little uncomfortable, wishing hed crack one of his off-color jokes, the only
kind he told, the only kind worth hearing.
I had to say something quick,
break the spell. "How about you, Lifty? You ever been married?"
He stared at me even more
intensely, buffing his crown one more time. I wanted to scoot away from him, but stood my
"Once, when I was eighteen.
I have a child somewhere. Well, I guess she wouldn't really be a child anymore. She'd be
twenty by now."
I hadn't guessed Lifty to be
thirty-eight. I thought he was younger than me.
It felt as if I had a wine-buzz
going. In five years, hed never revealed anything personal to me.
"Did they move away?"
"Yes. Her family would
never tell me where. I guess I could have hired someone to find them. Doesn't seem right
to lose track of your own flesh and blood."
That's funny, I thought. One of
my main goals in life was to lose track of my family.
I predicted the precise second
Lifty raised his hand to smooth his scalp.
"Maybe they were better off
starting fresh somewhere else. Wonder what Sharon told my daughter about me?" He
stared as if I had the answer.
I began to wish I had a bald
head to rub.
"Lifty, do you mind if I
ask you a personal question?"
"Depends on what it
is." He narrowed his cool blue eyes. "Shoot."
"Are you bald by choice, or
is it a hereditary thing?"
He turned away when a customer
swung the door open. She eyed Lifty as she paid for gas. Most women have that reaction.
Who knows what they think, but you can tell they're glad the counter separates them from
I've often tried to imagine hair
on Lifty's head, and it just doesn't work. He looks good bald, in my opinion.
After the woman left, he
refocused his attention on me like a zoom lens, closing the gap between us.
"Balding runs in my
family," he said. "I started shaving my head before it had time to set in."
I felt iridescent, as if my skin
glowed. I finally knew one of Liftys secrets. Let the other women continue their
rumors about his baldness. I might still document them in my database.
I took a deep breath.
"Lifty, what color is your hair?"