issue 44: September - October 2004 

 | author bio

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 wage—so there’s 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 I’ve 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. Don’t use the data. For all I know, they have an arrangement with Duke, special perks I'm not privy to.
      There’s 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.
      "Evidently not."
      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 shiny—mysterious. 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 he’s 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 comfortable—aware he knows I'm a woman and he's a man, and that's that—nothing further. I like it that way. Don't have a man, and I'm not sure I want one.
      The hair on Lifty’s arms is somewhere between blond, gray, and silver, a mix I can't pin down. It shines, and I bet it’s 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 asked."
      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 Lifty.
      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?"
      "I do."
      "What, are you my mother?"
      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 ‘You’re not that ugly?’"
      Lifty went for his head again. There’s something sexual about it, as if he’s touching his genitals. "Do you like men?"
      "Lifty, are you asking my sexual preference?"
      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 he’d 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 ground.
      "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, he’d never revealed anything personal to me.
      "Did they move away?" I asked.
      "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 Lifty.
      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 Lifty’s 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?"

Karen George 2004

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author bio

Karen GeorgeKaren George’s fiction and poetry have appeared in Timber Creek Review, Wind Magazine, Cincinnati Poetry Review, Pikeville Review, and is forthcoming in Drexel Online Journal. She is the recipient of a grant from The Kentucky Arts Council for her short fiction, and she has twice won The Dr. Sandra Cuni Creative Writing Award from Thomas More College, where she edited their literary journal, Jesture. To support her writing habit, she works as a computer programmer, and practices Reiki. She lives in Florence, Kentucky, where she is currently at work on a third novel.
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issue 44: September - October 2004  

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