“A winsome puzzle, Indeed”….the working woman is reimagined in surrealist speculative fiction by Alysa Levi-D’Ancona.
Art by Pancakepie360
Writing by Alysa Levi-D’Ancona
LIKE WATER TO OIL
The dimpled woman retires into her being when her boots echo on stone floors. Wurch Hall was distinguished in its ability to make any expert of CXBS wonder at their smallness, to anonymize and familiarize. But unfamiliar fingers would find her soon. She previewed the assessment before making the journey and thus feels ready. There’s a tickling flutter of nerves, but she knows she will succeed with capable grace. The woman walks into The Boil, orders a dish for 15 PDs, and disappears into a booth in a corner.
Midtwen-parts pass before the man shuffles across stone, his steps less certain than that of the woman. She catches a glimpse of him under her curtain bangs but thinks better of waving him over. This is part of the belldrummer, she reminds herself. And so she waits.
Some midone-parts later, she sees his scuffed boots occupy the mosaic stone floor of her booth.
“Miss, Ms. Erghuo?” the man asks.
She faces him now: pointy nose, unevenly gray beard, plaid pocket square in tan dress shirt. Like water to her oil, Pedsben is everything she hoped he’d be.
“Hezly moved to Orsymo,” she corrects. “I’m her replacement.”
“And you are Miss…?”
It’s always the men that insist on addressing women with a title, she notes internally. Her nose tickles; she resists scratching it. “I find the Ms. so impersonal. Zharani is just fine.”
Remaining with one leg crossed over her knee, folded in her seat like a labyrinth, she offers no hand to shake.
This does not escape Pedsben, and he nods once before he lowers himself to sit across from her. He crosses one leg over his own knee, thinks better of it, and uncrosses them. He puts his sticky hands on the table, but finally can see Zharani under the yellow light of the booth. He notes the curtain bangs that hide her forehead. She would be prettier without them, he thinks, but he knows he is lying to himself. For as Pedsben studies the woman in front of him, he finds a winsome puzzle. Though it’s at least 1.1 UO inside the bustling Boil and not a cloud in the sky outside, she sits with a ruby, rubberized raincoat zipped nearly all the way up. And yet, it is open enough to see the shadows of hinted cleavage. She catches his wandering eye and he shuffles in his seat, crossing his legs anew.
Pedsben interrupts his poor manners: “I wish she would’ve told me is all.”
Zharani presses her lips into a tight smile, “Yes, but as we always say, we catch the still stars—”
“—with chocolate arrows,” he grumbles. He knows it’s Zharani’s duty to state the Name mantra, but he wonders at it, remembers the reason for the meeting in the first place, and shuffles again.
She twitches her flat nose, wishing she could scratch it. “Right, then. Hezly briefed me on your parans from last month.”
“Great,” he strains enthusiasm.
This cushioned seat is dreadful, he thinks. It squeaks as he fidgets, and he finds himself ankling her under the table. Pedsben freezes but it is she who accidentally ankles him this time.
Zharani continues: “This month’s only half-way through, but you’ve always been a top contributor. Just a few thousand more parans and you’ll be close to winning the SNR promo!”
Here we are, ankling ourselves in a diner, Pedsben muses. A small voice reminds him to be firm with the business at hand until moseying is on the table, though he would fancy himself a mosey, he thinks.
“Listen, Miss Zharani—”
“Leave the missus at home, please,” she says.
Pedsben hears her slowly. She must have seen my band, he thinks to himself, blushing. Improper, yet enticing. But business, yes. Business.
Zharani is well aware he thinks her ignorant. She sees him fidgeting with his ring, sees his beady pupils flickering to her lips every time they part.
He asks himself how she will react, chest thumping. Ms. Erghuo was always so patient. The woman before him is warmly plastic, violently scrupulous. A winsome puzzle, indeed.
Tiagin’s playbook for management, rule #84: like water to oil, she thinks.
“Pedsben?” she says.
“I am listening, as requested.”
She places her elbows on the table and rests her dimpled chin on it, expectant. She waits for Arc’s Taxonomy to take hold, is ready for his next words or lack thereof.
He knows that to be lost is to be ex-found, which is to say that Pedsben is struggling to place where he has left his resolve. Under the powdery stairs of manhood, perhaps, as his missus might argue. He thinks of his missus, of their changing bodies. Does a body exist if it is not touched? He will leave forty as a small, untouched man if he does not do what he set out to today.
No, he tells himself, thinking of the exhausted names that he’s harangued into his same dilemma, that won’t return his calls or sell their parans anymore. Come to think of it, he is Zharani to his own Pedsbens, and as such it is his duty, no, his power to stand up to his Zharani.
“While I have been, just, grateful for this business opportunity,” Pedsben begins, “I cannot—”
A waiter places the food in front of them, and Zharani mumbles thanks. Their eyes linger on the steaming mash of food. The more he studies it, the more it looks like the floor unpeeled if it ever were to.
“Please, help yourself,” she offers.
Pedsben’s insides twist until his stomach grumbles. When he swallows inward, her mouth curls devilishly.
She considered the rubric when she planned this meeting, which is why they are in Wurch’s Boil and not elsewhere. Somysev’s acoustics are far too efficient, as any multitude of conversations in it sounds Gregorian chant-esque. Bazol’s could only be described as under-tiful, and, well, no self-respecting person calls a meeting in Sade Bistro. The Boil is perfect to take a man such as Pedsben and unhinge him. So many opportunities for meaningful releases and meaningless ones, too.
“Unless, that is,” she begins, “you’d rather I order you dundra cheese?” She peels her eyes open in earnest, searching for a waiter that will never make it back to the table before the trap is set.
It has been too many midtwo-parts since he ankled her, and now he worries he made the whole thing up.
Pedsben regrets the intervention and sputters apologies. “Oh, it’s, um, no, no. I insist it’s no trouble,” he says, ex-found once more.
He digs for a saving grace, but as sweat accumulates in dribbles along his spine, he wonders if Zharani understands how his body Achilles falls to her metallic gaze every time she peeks out from those curtain bangs, how he cannot bear the notion that she considers him so closed-minded as to refuse a meal, no matter how unpeeled-floor-like it is, for mere dundra cheese.
So he melts and says, “I, do… do I use a fork or spoon?”
She lets him scan the table for utensils another midfour-parts before she states, “Hands.”
They look at each other for another midten-parts, maybe even midthir.
It’s tantalizing, he thinks, how glimpses falling into another feel a lot like divided elongation.
Good, she thinks. We are in the zone of rebimal development.
With unencumbered gravity, his fingers find the mash and scoop them to his lips. Gritty, he notes at first, but it tastes like nothing he’s ever known. Maybe it’s the humdrum of The Boil’s patrons—how can they chortle in their steeped brews and denim sequins? Or perhaps it’s the half simplicity of Zharani’s watching him as he licks the gritty food from his claimed ring finger. Did she just bite her lip? Is this what feeling himself savored might mean? He never considered himself a romantic, but with newfound levity, he dives into the mash again, using both hands to shovel the meal past his teeth.
Zharani leans back against the plasticky foam of the booth. She relishes in the trappings, he in unbound ease. It is not that she expects him to have any grasp of the situation. On the contrary, his reaction is normal, exactly why she factored in p±1 during the preliminary 6W evaluation. But as she thinks about all the wonders learned from this line of work, she reflects that men like Pedsben are precisely why she finds oblique inspiration—not in them—in herself. An out of body experience, in a way, to watch the predator as it lures the prey.
They are all the same, she reflects. All previous clients of hers are Pedsben and all future ones will be him too. It is the shaffoning of the situation that makes each encounter remarkable and yet un- at the same time. The backwards design is all the same. But the thrill from fluidity reminded, of feeling the present, not even sex could give her such a power high.
Zharani unfurls in her seat as she fingers a piece of clumsy lemongrass in the mash, guiding it to her lips as she holds it between her canines and tears off a bite. A glob of grey-brown mash tumbles from Pedsben’s mouth as she chews. She offers the lemongrass to him. He swallows the food already renting space on his tongue, then obliges, delicately placing the plant on the open real estate before closing his mouth. He traces the lemongrass to taste the essence of her, realizing an essence is not all he wants anymore.
I wake eternal, he thinks.
All the same, she thinks.
It is time, Zharani reminds herself. “Now, about the LTS,” she says.
“Hmphh,” Pedsben garbles past the saliva and food. He gulps it down, sweat finding itself on his mashy hands now as he fingers his glasses.
“Another seventy parans at 405 PDs,” she suggests.
He clears his throat, wondering whether he should mention that he only sold thirty parans last month, that he has only 1000 PDs in his account, or that he didn’t recruit enough last month as part of the jigwat approach. He considers the wavering sunlight as it hits Zharani’s raincoat.
Pedsben allows himself to imagine her joyous rain creating hearts that know what their bodies already know. But when he lets his mind carry itself away, he thinks only of Zharani tucking him into bed.
The tingles in Zharani’s nose pepper like numbness, she notes. She cannot wait to exit The Boil to scratch it. She bites her lip to stretch out the skin without touching her face.
“Make it eighty parans,” he counters.
Her mouth twitches into that devilish smile and whispers, “That’s my guy.”
“Hey, can I ask a favor?”
“For you? Anything,” she lies.
“Can you…” he trails off.
He swallows inward again.
“Listening, as requested,” Zharani says.
“Can you, can you hold me?”
Zharani puckers her lips in thought, then pats her lap. The plasticky fabric creaks as she uncrosses her legs.
Pedsben raises himself to walk to the other side of the booth and sits, shuffling over to her. While feeling her body’s warmth, he realizes he forgot what one’s jutting toward another leads to. Her itchy, wide nose prickles at the odor of his residual nervous sweat. Backwards design, she reminds herself.
Her body a touch away, he thinks.
His body waxes the closer he gets, she thinks, and opens her arms to him.
As he positions his buttocks on her lap and leans against her frame, she cradles his damp back with one hand and strokes his gray beard with the other. Though he never verbalizes this desire, she starts humming the instrumental tune of the Name’s mantra. He thinks of the smallness of womb feet and hands, and wishes, for a moment, to be as pro-rest as ex-found. In his own private breaking, sticky tears trickle down Pedsben’s weathered cheek.
The waiter is all too kind some midtwen-parts later. He notices the depressing man in rattling snores still on Zharani’s lap, offers to help put him to bed on the outside pavement. When they drop him to the concrete, Pedsben rips another deep snore.
“He’s out like a kohlron!” the waiter cracks.
Zharani chuckles. “It’s no wonder! With a work ethic like his, he’s only a few thousand parans away from an SNR promo.”
The waiter raises his eyebrows. “Wow, an SNR promo,” he sighs, thinking of the decades of waiting tables he’ll have to do to put 20% down on one.
Her nose is begging to be scratched, but Zharani twitches the urge away, another opportunity ripe and unfolding before her. “How would you like the freedom of being your own boss?” Like water to oil, the dimpled woman thinks. They’re all the same.
They descend the wooden steps, leaving Pedsben to the street.
About The Artist
Alysa Levi-D’Ancona (she/her) is the author of An Absurd Palate (Querencia Press, 2023). She will receive her MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from the University of Washington Bothell in June 2023, and she teaches high school English by day. Liminality, surrealism, burlesque, absurdism, and speculative fiction are the pepper of her pages; cats, coffee, cooking, hikes, and blankets are the salt of her earth. Levi-D’Ancona’s writing has recently appeared in Querencia Press, Occulum, Stone Pacific, The RavensPerch, UWB Crow, Clamor, Alice Says Go Fuck Yourself, Caustic Frolic, and TulipTree Press. Follow her on Instagram: @alevidancona.
About The Artist
Pancake Pie 360 is everybody.
They are you or I.
But not me.
Is it you?