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issue 22: January -February 2001 

 | author bio

John Aber

It's Sunday morning, and once again Stan undresses the minister, wraps him in a white towel, orders him to crawl up on the treatment table, and gives him a massage.  His twelve-year-old daughter, Sarah, sits next to him in the pew, staring down at the new pair of Reeboks Stan bought her the night before at the mall.  Stan glances down, admires the shoes for a moment, then squints toward the pulpit and shakes his head from side to side, telling himself he should just listen to the sermon for once and forget his fantasies.  But he can't help himself.  The minister looks too much like General Eisenhower.  And for as long has he can remember, Stan has always wanted to massage General Eisenhower.  
            Stan's father, who trained his son to become the best massage therapist in Newark, Ohio, was once Eisenhower's personal masseur, and he never tired of telling stories about how the General loved the touch of his fingers:  "Some nights Ike would work with Churchill until five in the morning," Stan's father used to say.  "He'd leave those meetings with a knot in his neck the size of a pomegranate.  But I'd blade the shit out of his trapezius and then do some thumb-tip cross-fiber stroking.  When I finished with him, he'd just close his eyes, let out a deep breath, and pucker his lips like he wanted to kiss me."
            After his father died of colon cancer, Stan slipped a yellowed newspaper photograph of Eisenhower into the coffin.  He'd found it in one of his father's old wallets.  Later, at the grave-side ceremony in Cedar Hill Cemetery, the minister said something about the dead man's distinguished service in World War II.  Ever since, whenever he'd take Sarah to church during one of their weekends together, Stan would just glance at the minister's bald head and baggy green suit, see Eisenhower, and long to massage him. 

            "I could do more for him than Mamie ever could," Stan mumbles to himself as he and Sarah open their hymnals to join in the singing that would end the morning's service. "Maybe more than Daddy could."  Sarah pretends she doesn't hear anything, opens her mouth wide, and lip-syncs to the music as the rest of the congregation sings. 
            Sometimes Stan has fantasies about massaging other famous people.  Louis Sullivan, the American architect, is one of them.  When Stan decided to move his massage therapy clinic to larger quarters, he bought the three-story Old Home Association bank building that sits near the courthouse square in downtown Newark; it had been designed by Sullivan in 1914.    After he gutted the building and remodeled it to resemble a doctor's office, Stan read a book about Sullivan and decided that a world-renowned architect who drank too much and who was stuck designing small-town stores and banks for the last twenty years of his life could have used some soothing therapeutic massage.  Once in a while, Stan senses that Sullivan creeps through the building, just waiting for a chance to lie down on one of Stan's treatment tables. 
            Mr. Hayes, a retired Rockwell worker crippled with arthritis, has had a standing appointment with Stan every week for years, and the Thursday morning treatment often goes like this:  While his fingers rub Mr. Hayes' swollen knees, Stan feels Sullivan's eyes staring at him from the air-conditioning duct in the ceiling.  Stan rubs harder, feeling the sharp edges of Mr. Hayes' Fiberglas knee-caps dig into his palms.  He notices that Sullivan's eyes are no longer in the air-conditioning duct but now stare at him from deep holes in Mr. Hayes' skull.  Sullivan's beard, the one he wore at the height of his career, sprouts from Mr. Hayes' chin, covering it with coarse dark bristles.  Grabbing a sweaty ankle with one hand and still clutching a knee with the other, Stan bends a leg into the air and twists the old man's thigh into a quick series of hip rotations.  Mr. Hayes yelps with pleasure as the notched metal ball glued to the neck of his femur scratches and scrapes the few chunks of bone that still remain in his hip socket.  Stan grunts hard as he works, proud that he can give Mr. Hayes so much pleasure and sure that Sullivan likes this form of manipulation, too.

             When Stan has a female client stretched out on the table, he sometimes pretends that the woman is one of the film stars that Sarah likes to read about in the People magazines scattered around his waiting room.  One of Sarah's favorites is Winona Ryder.  She pointed her out to Stan one Friday night when they were watching a movie on HBO.  The actress played a skinny, adopted teen-age girl from Clyde, Ohio, who secretly knew she was the actual daughter of a famous rock singer.  In one scene, she was in a department store dressing room, awkwardly trying on strapless gowns and continually staring down at her breasts, worrying about how small they were, wondering why they didn't even exist.  It struck Stan that Sarah once complained about the same thing when he offered to take her to the mall to get a new swimsuit.  "For heaven's sake, you'll grow," Stan had said, patting her on the shoulder.  Sarah had grabbed his wrist and slid his hand away.  "Don't pet me like that," she said.  "I feel like you want to give me a massage."

            One day a young woman, a student from the college in Granville who says she plays field hockey, comes to Stan complaining about a pulled hamstring.  She doesn't look as dark and thin as Winona Ryder, but she looks to be about the same age.  Besides, her lips are puffy and creased with the same tiny wrinkles that Stan remembers from the movie about the adopted girl.  That's more than enough similarity for him.  Taking his chrome-plated Cross ballpoint from the pocket of his white lab coat, Stan checks off her name in his appointment book and scratches the name Winona in parentheses underneath it.  He leaves her alone in one of his treatment rooms while she strips to the two-piece swimsuit she has on under her clothes.  Then she puts on the short paper gown she's been given, leaving it untied in the back.
            "This is a Louis Sullivan building, isn't it?"  she says.
            Stan rolls her on her back, shoves her knees toward her chest, and begins his warm-up routine by lightly kneading the backside of her upper leg.
            "Yes, that's very good," Stan says.  "Not many people around here know the history of this building." 
            "Actually, I'm not from here," she says.  "I'm from California and right now I go to Denison."
            Soon, Stan locates the origin of the hamstring at the base of her buttock by probing deeply into the tissue with the tip of his thumb.  He cross-strokes at the origin of the muscle, progressively applying more pressure as he talks.
            "For heaven's sake," Stan says, "why did you come all the way to Ohio to go to school?"
            "My father's a Denison grad, a cinema major."
            Stan turns her over onto her stomach, stabilizes her thigh with his right hand, and begins deep stroking the hamstring lengthwise with his left thumb.  Just as he reaches the cheek of her buttock, he hears the snap of the clapper and then the whir of the camera.
            "There's some pain," Winona says, "but it sure feels good."

It's a little lonely for Stan during the two weekends a month when Sarah is with her mother.  For companionship, Stan sometimes leaves the apartment he designed for himself on the third floor of the Old Home Building and drives to the bar of the Granville Inn for a late supper.  One night, he's eating a shrimp cocktail and talking to his cousin the bartender about the volatility of mutual funds when he hears someone call to him from a table over by the fireplace.  It's Winona, the Denison field hockey player.  Stan walks over and stands next to her table.  There are three or four young men dressed like fraternity boys sitting with her.   All are drinking Chinese beer from green bottles and eating from wooden bowls filled with little orange crackers that look like fish.
            "Sit down, Stan," Winona says, "and tell us about that wonderful old building you renovated." 
            Stan orders a round of beers for the students, a Singapore Sling for himself, and tells the students that he didn't really know his building was significant until after he bought it.
            "The real estate people told me it was designed by a famous architect," Stan says, "but I didn't pay much attention to that at first.  You just don't expect to find anything important in downtown Newark.  Some people want to put it on the register of historic places, but I'm not too interested in that yet.   For heaven's sake, I'd never be able to do anything with it then.  To me, it was just a good place to put my massage practice.  But I have developed an interest in Louis Sullivan."
            After the students drink five more rounds and discuss with Stan how important touch is as a form of communication and why good architecture can be a form of therapeutic massage, they ask him for a late-night tour of his building.  So he loads everyone into his Jeep Cherokee and heads back to Newark.  It's dark on the square, but the floodlights Stan mounted on the building illuminate it pretty well.
            "It's gray terra cotta," Winona says, pointing to a large cluster of ornamental leaves and vines that grow from a thin pilaster and spread across the front of the building. 
            "Look at the tile work," Stan says.  "I've tried not to cover it up with my sign."
            The students look up above the leaves and see a large triangle made of tiny ceramic squares.  The pieces are mostly blue and green, but there's also some red, brown, and yellow cemented around the edges for good measure.  In the middle of the triangle, in large gold lettering, is the name of the bank:  THE OLD HOME.
            Eric, one of the fraternity boys, says that the triangle reminds him of a pyramid.  "It's all so eclectic," he says.  "It's ornate, yet sort of simple.   It's nineteenth century in sentiment, yet post-modern in terms of line.  And I like the hint of the ancient Egyptian.  It gives the whole thing an air of mystery."
            When Eric finishes talking, he throws up his beer and goldfish on the sidewalk, leaving a dull orange puddle near the door.  Stan looks at the mess and thinks that Eric's puke must smell much like the embalming fluid used by ancient Egyptian morticians.  Then, he takes a white handkerchief from his pocket, wets it with his spit, and wipes off Eric's mouth.
            "If your digestive system keeps acting up," Stan says, "you ought to come back next week and let me give you a treatment."
            Stan leads the students in through the back door and flips on the lights.   "The rest room is over there," he says.  "I think it used to be the bank vault."
            They line up to empty their bladders then walk up the stairs single-file to the third floor.  Stan grabs a bottle of cheap Scotch and hands it to Winona.  The students pass it around as they look at the apartment.
"Originally, this was office space for the bankers," Stan says, "but after my divorce, I decided to use it as a place to live."   The apartment is actually just one big room, divided here and there by shelving units, a couch, and a large table.  In the far corner, close to a big TV screen, is a queen-size platform bed and a small roll-away.  Winona stretches out on the roll-away for a few minutes and yawns. 
            "Who sleeps here on this little bed?" she asks.
            "My daughter," Stan says.  "She visits every other weekend.  She'd be a big fan of yours if she met you."
            The second floor is filled with air-conditioning duct work that Stan installed.  But the red circles, yellow stars, and turquoise triangles that Sullivan designed and had stencilled on the walls and ceiling are still visible.  Stan slides his hand along a wide strip of dark wooden molding that surrounds one of the leaded-glass windows.  "I did try to save some of this," he says. "Sullivan was a stickler for detail.  He even had wood venetian blinds to match the molding, but a lot of those have been lost."
            Back downstairs, the students poke their heads into one of Stan's treatment rooms and become intrigued with a black porcelain object that's bolted to the wall and attached to two water lines running up to it from the floor.  A canvas hose is coiled in a tight circle and hangs from three rubber hooks embedded in the porcelain.  Right above the hose are lots of gauges, dials, and knobs, one of them with a big red warning label stuck under it.
            "What the fuck is this thing?" Eric says.  "It looks like something a car mechanic would use to back-flush your radiator."
            "I saw it when I was in here before," Winona says. "I think it's some kind of enema machine, but I was afraid to ask."
            "It's my colonic irrigation equipment.  It can be quite effective for certain people with diverticulitis, toxic livers, acute menstrual discomfort, things like that."  Stan thumbs through a stack of  brochures that are lying on a table and finds one called "Colonic Therapy and You."  He hands it to Winona.
            "You really stick this thing in people's bodies?"  Eric fingers the plastic nozzle that's screwed to the end of the hose.  It's thin and tapered like a pair of needle-nose pliers.
            "For heaven's sake," Stan says, "the nozzle itself never touches human tissue, not even when I'm giving a treatment to Louis Sullivan."

 In the Jeep Cherokee, on long day trips he sometimes takes with Sarah, Stan shares some of the fantasies he has about massaging famous people.  He does it mostly to make the time go more quickly for Sarah.   But he also thinks she finds it interesting.   Usually, he makes Sarah guess the names, turning their conversation into a variation of Twenty Questions.   One Saturday, on the way to Sidney to look at the only other Louis Sullivan bank in Ohio, Stan begins the game by describing a Civil War general he sometimes thinks about massaging:  "I rode through Virginia," Stan says, "burning farms to destroy the South's food supply."
            Sarah stares out the window and doesn't offer a guess.  Stan tries again:  "I lived in Ohio, and a small town just south of Newark has a statue of me right in the middle of its biggest intersection."
            After a five seconds of silence, Sarah answers:  "Eisenhower.  He was a general.   You always talk about how your father knew him."
            "You know Eisenhower was from Kansas.  For heaven's sake, your mother and I took you to see his birthplace a few years ago, don't you remember?"
            Sarah turns to look at her father.  "I can't keep all your fantasies straight, Stan.  There are just too many of them."
            "For heaven's sake, Sarah, General Eisenhower's no fantasy.   He was the most real thing that ever happened to my family."
            "You never met him--did you?" Sarah asks.
            "In a way, I haven't," Stan says, "but I feel like I know him.  What can I say?   I like Ike.  I like his round little stomach and his skinny little thighs.  His tight neck muscles and his flat white bottom." 
            Sarah laughs, shakes her head, and looks straight ahead toward the window again.  "Barf.   That's gross.  That's disgusting.  Eisenhower's dead."
            Stan arches his eyebrows in mock surprise.  "For heaven's sake, I'm not disgusting, and Ike will never really die.   I take after my father and simply appreciate the human form in all its permutations."
            When they get to Sidney, they stop at a fast-food restaurant on the edge of town.  Sarah is hungry and wants a cheeseburger.  Stan gives her some money, sends her into the restaurant, then heads across the street to a supermarket.   "Get whatever you want," he says, "and don't forget to pick up a plastic spoon."  He meets Sarah back in the Jeep where they eat together there in the parking lot.  Sarah finishes her cheeseburger quickly, but it takes Stan ten minutes to eat the jar of apple sauce he bought. 
            Downtown near the square, they find Sullivan's bank, the People's Federal Savings and Loan.  It's magnificent.   Stan's Old Home building back in Newark seems puny and insignificant in comparison.  Above the front door is a huge arch ablaze with a shimmering mix of turquoise and yellow, radiating enough intensity to reach across the street to where Stan and Sarah are standing and startle them with its power.
            "The Old Home triangle is nothing compared to this," Sarah says.
            "Guess that's why I got such a good deal on it," Stan says.
             Sarah grabs her father's hand and leads him across the street. Together, they bend down to examine the black marble veneer that covers the foundation and skirts the entire building.  Then they look skyward to admire the exquisite detail of the cornice.
            "This bank's still a bank, isn't it?" Sarah asks.
            "It is," Stan says.  "It is.  Let's go inside. I bet Sullivan put some nice touches in there, too."
            Putting her hands above her eyes to block out the sun, Sarah peers into a window.  "There aren't any lights," she says.  "It must be closed."
            Stan tugs at the door and taps the kick plate with his toe, but nothing moves.  "For heaven's sake, you're right," he says.  "It must be closed."
            On the way home, Stan tells Sarah about massaging Winona Ryder.  This time he doesn't play the Twenty Questions game.  He wants Sarah to know that he doesn't just think about dead historical figures that young girls have never heard of and may not care about.  And even though he's not sure she'll believe him, he wants Sarah to understand that what she reads about and talks about has some influence on him.   Still, he's never quite sure what's safe to talk about with Sarah.  Stan often gets the feeling that she believes certain topics are out of bounds for anyone over fifteen.
            "You remember the movie we watched," Stan begins, "the one with Winona Ryder?  I worked on her a few months ago.  She came into my office with a pulled hamstring.  She'd like to meet you."
            "Silly shit," Sarah says.  "Why talk so silly?  Mom says you never take anything seriously, not even your job."
            Stan nods.  "Your mother's right.  I'm not serious about my job.  I enjoy it.  But I am serious about Winona.  She goes to Denison.  She's very nice.  She has some nice friends, too.  I've been getting together with them once in a while on the weekends you're with your mother."
            "Winona Ryder's somewhere in California," Sarah says.  "She'd never come to Newark.  Sometimes, you're just too weird, Stan."
            Stan begins humming a song he used to sing with Sarah when she was four or five years old, a song about a duck, a rubber duck, the kind Sarah used to take to the bathtub, the one she cried about when her mother threw it out after it had become caked with soap scum and dark brown mildew.  "Well, little Duckie," Stan says, "What do you want to do tonight?"
            Sarah quickly offers a proposal:  "Let's go to the mall.  I need a new pair of soccer shorts.  Do you think it'll still be open by the time we get back?"

Two weeks later, Sarah's mother drops her off in front of the Old Home building late on Friday afternoon, the usual time.  But as soon as she walks into Stan's waiting room, she can tell something is different.  In the corner, over by the People magazines, a young man is adjusting a lamp that's attached to the top of a tall aluminum tripod.  He clamps a pair of vise grips to the back of the lamp, swivels it around toward Sarah and turns it on, nearly blinding her.  Then, he takes a small light meter from a battered metal case and walks around the room, gazing at the dial.   Three other people, who are about the same age as the man with the meter, huddle in another corner and read from a legal pad.  Sarah rubs the light from her eyes and slowly walks over to look at what's written on the pad.  Tiny circles, arrows, and boxes, all drawn in pencil, cover several sheets of paper.  One of the people, a young woman in an unbuttoned brown workshirt that exposes the top of a blue two-piece swimsuit, turns to look at Sarah.
            "I'm Madeleine," she says, "but you can call me Winona if you want.  That's what your father likes to call me.  You're Stan's daughter, aren't you?  I've been wanting to meet you."
            Sarah nods and looks straight at Madeleine's chest for a second before looking up at her face.  "You don't look much like a Winona to me," she says, "but Madeleine is a pretty name."
            "I don't think I look like Winona either," Winona says, "but I can't convince Stan of that.  His fantasies know no bounds."
              The young man with the light meter disappears into one of Stan's treatment rooms and reappears seconds later with his arm around Stan.  Pretending she doesn't see her father, Sarah picks up the overnight bag that she had thrown on the floor and heads toward the back door of the waiting room.  But Stan stops her before she can go more than a few steps.
            "Hello, Duckie. This is Eric," Stan says, nodding at the young man standing next to him.  "He's from Denison, and he wants to make a movie about the building.  You want to be in a movie?  Eric wants to film anyone he can find who has spent lots of time here."
            "What kind of movie is it?"  Sarah sticks her left index finger into her thick dark hair and twirls it around until one thin strand becomes a tangled black knot.
            "I see it as a documentary style fantasy," Eric says, "sort of a combination of Fred Wiseman, Ken Burns, and Luis Buñuel.  Magic happens when people inhabit and interact with a building."
            "How did you get into the movie-making business?" Sarah asks.
            "That's still our dream,  our fantasy," Eric says.  "Right now, we're just majoring in cinema."
            "Do you think it'll be shown anywhere?" Sarah says. "The movie, I mean."
            "Next spring we'll screen it on campus," Eric says, "at the student film festival.  And if it's any good, we might enter it in a couple of contests."
            "Don't worry," Stan says, "you'll get to see it."
            Winona walks over to Sarah, stands behind her, reaches into her hair and tries to untangle the knot Sarah's finger has created.  "Yes, don't worry," Winona says, "once we shoot you, we won't edit you out."
            The rest of the afternoon and evening, Sarah and Stan watch as Eric and Winona shoot the interior of the building.  Winona operates the camera most of the time while Eric sets and adjusts the lights.  Now and then they ask one of the friends they brought along to unpack a lens or position a scrim at a certain angle, but the two friends often seem more interested in drinking the beer they lugged in with them than in helping with the shoot.  Sarah watches as the camera slowly pans the treatment room doors four or five times and seems surprised at the amount of footage Winona is shooting.
            "She's getting every square inch of this place."  Sarah yawns, puts her head on Stan's shoulder, and scratches his round belly with her short red fingernails.
            "Yes, every nook and cranny," says Stan, "every cranny and nook."
            Hanging on the wall next to Stan's masso-therapy license are some portraits Winona and Eric want to shoot.  The biggest one is a hand-painted photograph of Stan's father in an ornate wooden frame.   Eric spends ten minutes getting the light just right for an extreme close-up of this picture.  Then he spends almost as much time readjusting things so Winona can do a slow dolly straight toward the Masonic ring on Stan's father's hand.  They repeat essentially the same procedure for the portraits of Dwight Eisenhower, Phil Sheridan and Louis Sullivan that are also on the wall.  The last picture they shoot is a 5 x 7 Olan Mills portrait of Sarah and Stan taken when Sarah must have been seven or eight.
            "Except for Stan's moustache and wrinkles, you two could pass for sisters."  Winona laughs and turns on the camera.
            "Is there anything else we have to get down here?" Eric asks.
            "We have to get some shots of that colon-cleaning machine," Winona says, "but besides that we've got everything we need."
             When the shooting is finished, the equipment is packed and carried up to Stan's apartment by the two beer-drinking assistants.  Eric tells them to put everything over by the roll-away bed.
            "We'll shoot you and Sarah right here tomorrow as we planned," Eric says to Stan.  "As we said, I need to use the entire building, convey the interconnection between you and Sarah and this space, put things in their natural context."
            "You really want me in the movie?" Sarah asks.  "I don't understand what I'm supposed to do.  I don't know much of anything about this building."
            "You don't need to do anything," Winona says.  "You'll just sit and answer some questions, like in a conversation.   Just be who you are."           
            "For heaven's sake, it'll be fun," Stan says, "and you'll be fine.  Of course, if you feel too uncomfortable, you don't have to do it."
            "I can do it," Sarah says. "I want to do it.  I just wish you'd let me know what's going on."
            "We have nothing else planned, " Stan says.  "All we'd do is watch TV and go to the mall."
            "I sort of like that."  Sarah looks out of the large leaded-glass window that's right above her little bed and sees the gold dome of the Licking County Courthouse.   Every night at dusk a half-dozen quartz lights come on and illuminate it in a bluish-yellow glow.  Floating above the treetops, it looks almost like a deep-sea diving capsule, ready to descend to the ocean floor.
            The next afternoon, Sarah sits at the foot of her roll-away and answers some questions that Eric and Winona have prepared on one of the sheets of their legal pad.  This time, Eric operates the camera.  Mostly, he holds it steady on the tripod while Sarah talks.  But whenever Sarah's fingers tug at the elastic bracelets she wears on her wrist and forearm, Eric jerks the camera down in a quick tilt to capture some of the movement.  Off camera, Winona reads from her list of questions.  At first, Sarah seems a little intimidated by the long black microphone that's aimed at her face from behind the camera.  But once she starts to respond to Winona's questions, she becomes more relaxed and animated.  The first few questions deal with rudimentary facts about Sarah herself:  her name, her age, where she goes to school, how long she's lived in Newark.   Gradually, Winona shifts into a series of questions about the building and Stan's massage practice.  At one point, Sarah gropes for words when she's asked to describe what it's like to sleep in a room where bankers once reconciled their accounts and gauged the merits of loan applications.
            "The bed's a little smaller than what I'm used to," Sarah finally says, "and sometimes on Sunday mornings I don't feel like getting up for church.   But I usually sleep okay here, except when Stan is snoring really loud or mumbling in his sleep about some general or some massage technique."
            Sarah is a little confused when Winona asks her to describe what sorts of things Stan does all day.  But after a little prodding she decides to talk about some of the people he sees and how he helps them.
            "I'm not here all that much," Sarah says, "but I know he heals people.  I had a fifth-grade teacher once who came and had her back worked on.  She told me it felt a lot better.  Sometimes, when I used to get a bad headache, Stan would just turn my neck a certain way then rub my forehead.  It would go away in five minutes.  And I know he spends a bunch of money on his equipment and things.  He's always buying something and having it delivered."
             "What do you think of when I mention Louis Sullivan?" Winona asks.  "Do you know anything about him?"
            "His name is on the building," Sarah says.  "I guess he built this place.  Stan talks about him some. I think he'd like to bring Mr. Sullivan back from the dead and give him a massage."
            "Isn't that sort of a crazy idea?"  Winona has quit looking at her questions and watches Sarah's eyes as they dart back and forth from Eric's camera lens to Stan who sits fifteen or twenty feet away at the table eating slices of cream cheese with a paring knife.
            "Well, he's kind of turned you into Winona Ryder, hasn't he, Madeleine?"  Sarah reaches behind her head and pulls off the elastic band that had been holding her hair back in a pony tail.  She shakes her head, letting her hair fall around her shoulders, then puts the band around her wrist.  It looks exactly the same as the bracelets that are already there.
            "What do you think of having a father who massages people?" Winona asks.  "Do your friends say anything about it?  It is a rather unusual profession, don't you think?"
            "I never think about it," Sarah says.  "It's just something you take for granted.  Your father is just your father, I guess."
            The shooting is over in less than half an hour, and everyone tells Sarah that she did a good job.  But Sarah protests.
            "I didn't really talk about anything," she says.  "I told you I didn't know much of anything about Louis Sullivan."
            "For heaven's sake, it's a wrap," Stan says.  "You were wonderful."
            "You did quite well," Eric says.  "I adore the way you move your hands when you talk.  And I had a great angle on you.  The bed, the window, the courthouse dome, everything was in focus when I wanted it to be."
            "But you won't even be able to hear me," Sarah says.  "The camera makes too much noise."
            "Don't worry," Eric says.  "It's blimped.  It's got all kinds of padding and insulation to absorb the sound."
            "Blimped," Sarah says.  "Whenever I think of blimps, I see whales in the sky."

 Sarah doesn't see Winona or Eric again until months later at a Marx Brothers movie that Stan takes her to see over at the college in Granville.  To get Sarah in the mood for the movie, Stan puts on some Groucho glasses as they walk up the stairs of Slayter Hall to the screening room.  When they sit down next to Winona and Eric, who are waiting for them in the fourth row, Stan passes out Groucho glasses to everyone.  Eric and Winona put theirs on for a minute, but Sarah hesitates.   Stan pulls out a rubber chicken that he's been carrying in the folds of his raincoat and hands it to Sarah.
            "Put on your glasses, Duckie," Stan says, "and you'll be able to see the chicken."
            "I can see okay.  I don't need your glasses."  Sarah stuffs the chicken under her seat and looks at the screen, waiting for the movie to start.
            "Have you ever seen the Marx Brothers?" Winona asks.
            "Stan showed me one of their movies once on the VCR," Sarah says, "but I don't really remember it."
            After the movie, Winona and Eric talk about Margaret Dumont and what a perfect foil she was for Groucho.
            "She was one sturdy woman," Eric says, "and a perfect straight man."
            "There's someone for your massage fantasies, Stan," Winona says.  "How would you like to plunge your fingers into her?"
            Stan squeezes the bulb of a bicycle horn that's hanging from his belt.   It emits a high pitched honk that almost makes Sarah jump.  "For heaven's sake," he says,  "Margaret Dumont is too much for me to handle.  But I've often thought about cradling Harpo's thigh in the palm of my hand." 
             Sarah changes the subject and asks Eric when his movie will be finished.
            "The final cut is almost ready," Eric says.

The Twenty-first Annual Denison Film Festival begins with a short black-and-white movie about actors who are rehearsing a Noel Coward play.  A few minutes into it, the ingenue slaps the director, kicks him off the stage, and takes over the direction herself.  Sarah laughs at this scene but soon grows bored as the actors bicker about how to interpret Coward's lines.
            "When's Eric's movie?" Sarah whispers to Stan.  "They didn't give me a program."
            Stan leans forward in his seat and tilts a piece of paper toward the screen, so he can read it in the darkness of Slayter Hall Auditorium.  "We're last," he says.  "No, make that next to last."
            None of the movies lasts much longer than eight or nine minutes.   Most of them are in color and have something to do with college life.  The strangest one shows a young woman carrying a grocery sack full of condoms all over campus.  She keeps trying to give them away to people in public places.   But no one wants any condoms.  Finally, she goes into dorm rooms where heterosexual couples are humping under piles of blankets and sheets.  She tosses condoms on the beds, but the couples throw them right back at her, angry at being bothered by a condom woman.  In the last scene, she enters her own room, throws the bag of condoms in the wastebasket, and crawls into bed with another young woman, possibly her roommate.  They do not hump.  They do not move.   They do not cover themselves with sheets or blankets.  They sleep peacefully, like dead women.  The only movie with any violence in it is one about a gang of fraternity boys who kill a turkey in a residence hall cafeteria and throw its bloody carcass at a freshman girl who is trying to eat a grilled cheese sandwich.  Sarah covers her face with her hands when she sees the turkey's throat being slit.
            "My god," Sarah says, "how could they do that?"
            "For heaven's sake, stay calm," Stan says. "It's only a movie."
            Eric's film about the Old Home building finally fills the screen.   The first shot is of an art professor from Oberlin who talks about Louis Sullivan's final years as a penniless alcoholic.  Then, as he begins to talk about Sullivan's small-town bank projects, the professor becomes nothing more than a voice-over for some slow pans of the Old Home's facade.  Soon, there's a quick cut.  Titles appear that list the different tenants who have used the building over the past seventy-nine years:   It was a bank until 1930, but during the depression the building was vacant.  In 1943, it housed a business called Newark Sanitary Meats.  After that, it was a jewelry store.  Then Stan bought it.
            Some rapid montage showing close-ups of chicken legs, sausage links, and jars of pigs' feet is followed by a brief interview with an old man who was once a butcher in the Sanitary Meat store.  He seems apologetic because he stayed in Newark and didn't go to Europe during World War II.   But he does stress that he enjoyed his time in the Old Home:  "They still had the bank fixtures there then, and we used to slice the roasts right there where they counted the money."
            The old man dissolves into a picture of a steer wearing diamond earrings and a matching necklace.  The steer fades to black.  Out of the darkness, the daughter of the jewelry store owner becomes visible.  "Dad tried to run an honest business," she says, "and he made a little money, too.  Now I hear our store has become a massage parlor."
            A black-and-white still of Louis Sullivan dissolves into the face of the jewelry store owner's daughter, giving her a beard for just a few seconds.   Stan's voice is on the sound track.  He's talking about his massage fantasies, saying he got interested in historical figures because of his father's close connection to Eisenhower.   "I have a lot of fun in the Old Home building," he's saying.  "I never know who will walk in the door."
            Over Stan's voice roll several slow-motion shots of Stan massaging different people in one of his treatment rooms.  Intercut between these are stills of Eisenhower, Sheridan, and Winona Ryder.  At one point, Eric throws in some stop action, making several different people appear and disappear on the treatment table.  Sarah's not sure if these people are real or just actors Eric found somewhere, so she turns to ask Stan to clarify things.  But Stan is immersed in the images, mesmerized, transfixed.  Sarah says nothing.  Old men turn into toddlers, women turn into old men, someone fully clothed in a civil war uniform turns into Eisenhower in his khakis. 
            "I know how they do that," Sarah says, glancing over at Stan.
            "For heaven's sake, look.  This is great."  Stan shoves his Groucho glasses up into his hair and stares at the image of himself on the screen.
            Sarah can hear her voice on the soundtrack, but she doesn't see her image.  Instead, there's a shot of three chrome knobs against a shiny black background.  A hand enters the frame and twists the knobs clockwise.  Water spurts from a thin nozzle into a large stainless steel basin in a thin pulsating stream.  In a medium-close shot, Stan holds a clear plastic speculum and smiles at it as he squeezes the handle, opening and shutting its jaws.  He reaches into the basin and, while the water still spurts, snaps the handle of the speculum into a notch at the base of the nozzle.
            Sarah hears her voice say something about her father's ability to help people.  And her words seem to somehow relate to the pictures on the screen.  Stan is rubbing the lower back of a thin young woman whose face is turned away from the camera.  She wears nothing but a white paper gown that's been pushed up around her neck.  She looks a little like Madeleine, but the image is grainy and slightly blurred.  In extreme close-ups, the young woman's skin changes texture and looks loose, gray, a little bit flabby, a little bit hairy.  For all Sarah knows, it could be General Eisenhower or even Mamie.  It could be anybody. 
            Stan leans into the job and cross strokes the woman's muscles with steady concentration.  Suddenly, he pulls her hips up toward a wire frame saddle that's clamped to the lip of the basin.  She squirms in the saddle, trying to find a comfortable position.  There's a quick cut to the drain in the bottom of the basin.  The stream of water pours steadily down it.  Stan tests the water with his fingers and lowers the pressure just slightly.  He puts on a pair of rubber gloves, taking the time to make sure each finger fits snugly.  Grabbing what looks like a tube of toothpaste, he smears the blades of the speculum with a thick layer of gel.  It sticks to the blades like candle wax.  An extreme close-up focuses on Stan's gloved hands.  He touches each bump in the young woman's spine.  Then his fingers glide down to the cleft in her buttocks.  There's another quick cut.  Water gushes toward the audience.  The screen is glazed with dripping globules of wetness that make it look like a window streaked with rain.
            "For heaven's sake," Stan says, "I hope they didn't hurt the camera getting that shot."
            After the last movie is over, Stan and Sarah find Winona up by the projection booth.  Stan congratulates her and tells her they enjoyed almost all of the films.  "Didn't we, little Duckie?" he says, turning to Sarah.  "Didn't we have a spectacular time?"  Sarah swallows once or twice and then coughs to clear the saliva from the bottom of her throat.  "That's a good description," she finally says. "Spectacular, really spectacular." 
            Stan pats Sarah on the shoulder and looks around the room to see if he can find Eric anywhere. "I don't think Eric showed up," Winona says.  "He said he could never bring himself to attend a screening that would show one of his movies."

An hour later, after a silent ride home in the Cherokee, Sarah pulls off her soccer shorts, slips on the extra large Ohio State T-shirt she likes to sleep in, and lies down on her roll-away.  Stan kisses her on the forehead, says good night, and reminds her they have to get up and go to church in the morning.  Sarah says she'll set her little travel alarm for nine, but she also says she's not too sure she wants to go to church with a father who does things that are against the law.  "Mom says you aren't supposed to use that machine.  You don't have the right license or something."
            Stan protests:  "For goodness sake, Sarah, colonic therapy is perfectly legal. Your mother should know that as well as anybody.  The State of Ohio has a keen interest in keeping people healthy, inside and out."  Stan rubs himself on the buttocks with both hands to emphasize his point and then shuffles toward the kitchen to open a can of pineapple juice.
            Sarah wants to shut her eyes and go to sleep, but before she can, a small picture in a square black frame over near the TV catches her eye.  It's a color drawing of the human digestive system and looks as if it came out of an old anatomy book from the public library.  Sarah has seen it a hundred times, but tonight something about it looks just a little bit different.
            "What's the fish there for, Stan?  What's it doing?"  Sarah is sitting up in bed and pointing at a spot right underneath the pink vermicular mass of the small intestine.  Stan, just back from the kitchen, takes a gulp of his pineapple juice and wipes his chin.  "Fish?" he says.
            "There, there in the picture."  Sarah is still pointing.
            Stan walks over to the drawing and stares at it for a second.  Then he takes his finger and puts it on the fish's mouth, right on the spot where the colon abruptly ends its twisted descent towards the white space below.  "This," Stan says, "is one of God's miraculous designs.  It's a cross-section of our elimination apparatus.  It does look a bit like a little fish, doesn't it?  Where the colon ends, we have the rectum, the anal canal, and here between your fish's caudal fins is our strong little sphincter muscle."  Stan finishes his juice and flips off the lights.
            From the far corner of her bed, Sarah starts to ask Stan why he sometimes mentions God at the oddest times.  Could he possibly think that God cares about things like sphincter muscles and anal canals?   But before she can decide how to best phrase her question, before she can decide whether to use words like shit and asshole or whether she ought to say things in a more delicate way, she hears Stan start to snore and somehow knows that she, too, is already fast asleep.

© 2001 John Aber

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

author bio

John Aber is on the faculty at the College of Mount St. Joseph, Ohio, where he has taught since 1985.  For the past eight years, he has been working on a series of stories set in and around Licking County Ohio; "Massage" is a part of the series.  Six other Ohio stories have been published in small literary magazines such as Whiskey Island, Ambergris, and Riverwind. Currently, he is working on a series of stories about teen-age women and their children. These are also set in Licking County.  John Aber has been awarded two Individual Artist Fellowships for fiction by The Ohio Arts Council, one in 1996 and and the other in 1999.
He can be reached there at john_aber@mail.msj.edu
navigation:                         barcelona review 22              january - february 2001

Frederick Barthelme - Driver
Helen Simpson - Wurstigkeit
Frank Huyler - two stories
John Aber - Massage
Juan Goytisolo - two stories

-Poetry Tim Turnbull - 7 poems
Antoni Clapés -
from Hair's Breadth

George Orwell
Answers to last issue's Gothic/Horror Quiz

-Regular Features Book Reviews
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