Louise turned off the ignition to her car. She took the key, jangling with many others, and placed it in her purse which lay on the passenger seat. She then inspected her face in the rearview mirror. A lone piece of hair had found its way to the middle of her bare forehead. With a long, magenta fingernail, she tugged the strand and pulled it behind her right ear. Taking both hands, she adjusted her wide-brimmed purple hat until there was a perfect stripe of yellow peeking out beneath it. Finally, she adjusted her rectangular aquamarine glasses which perched on the top of her pointed nose.
“Another layer,” she said.
She fumbled in her purse, found a small silver cylinder, and twisted the bottom to reveal a smooth mass of bright orange lipstick. With a few practiced strokes, an extra layer was painted on her glowering lips.
“Good enough,” she said, corking the lipstick and placing it back into her purse.
She opened the door and pushed it until it touched the car next to her. A gust of wintry air greeted her and ruffled her dress.
Her 6-inch high-heeled shoes lay at the foot of the passenger seat, as she couldn’t drive with them on. Leaning over, she plucked them with her nails, turned to her left, and dropped them on the pavement. There was only about a foot of wiggle room. All at once, she heaved her legs through the opening and felt with her feet for the shoes.
Thus began a struggle between her feet and the high-heels that refused to stand up straight on the pavement. One shoe would be ready for entry, but then the other shoe would fall to the side, forcing the foot hovering over the standing shoe to help the other foot aright the second shoe without tumbling over the first shoe. This battle went on for a good thirty seconds, the chill of the air biting each foot in turn, until the grand moment of triumph when the high-heels succumbed to the will of both feet and encased them in a suffocating grip.
Louise stretched her right arm, grabbed her purse, and pushed with both hands against her thighs to propel herself out of the car and onto her wobbling support. She took a step forward, turned fully around, leaned over and locked the door, took a shaky step backward, and slammed it shut.
The trip to the office building went without a hitch. There was a point where Louise nearly lost her balance and stepped into a sewer grate, but she caught herself (quite nimbly, she supposed) and made it inside with nary a scuffle.
In the front of the lobby was a security desk. Behind the security desk sat a rotund man in standard drab uniform.
“Good morning, Louise,” said the man. He sniffed the air like every morning—Louise had a new perfume, but it still couldn’t mask her body odor.
“Morning,” said Louise, pulling her ID card out of her purse. “Here.” She handed the card over to the guard. When he inspected it, to make sure that she was indeed an employee of Technicore, she couldn’t help wincing in slight disgust. One, the dirt above his lip more resembled scat, and two, she knew that she would have to touch the card that his grimy hand had smothered.
“Thank you,” he said, handing back the card. “Have a nice day.”
Louise plucked the card out of his hand and deftly placed it in a tissue in her purse. “Yes,” she said, forcing a smile, trying not to stare at the bulbous pimple on his chin.
She moved on to the elevator and sighed when she was inside. “Every day, no less horrible,” she muttered, clicking the button for the sixth floor. The elevator rose, and her main thought was to try to erase the image of the ugly man before she properly started her day at work.
At the sixth floor, the elevator stopped and the doors opened. Louise tiptoed out (as tiptoeing is really the only way you can walk on 6-inch high-heels) and headed over to the double glass doors marking the entry of 1st-tier technical support. A faint din could be heard through the cracks.
Louise opened the door, and a flood of chattering voices swept into the elevator lobby. Recently, the floor had been transformed from a traditional cubicle model into a more open variety, with sound walls put up in rows between desks to reduce just enough noise to not disrupt the new sophisticated microphones and receivers. The open floor plan was created to encourage community and comradery between employees. They may not be able to see the people they talk to on the phone, but they could see and enjoy the company of those around them.
Louise’s desk was in the very middle of the room. It was accessible from either of two open walkways in front and behind it. Louise always chose the path behind it.
She walked (tiptoed) down this path and couldn’t help her eyes from wandering from person to person as she went along. Each person in turn returned the gaze, as they couldn’t help but sense Louise’s smell as she walked by.
Sylvia had the gall to paint one fingernail a different color than the other—what a tease. Richard still didn’t notice that he had three long hairs poking out of his left nostril. Joan was wearing new dangling earrings which looked like a pair of golden men hanging themselves. Hanna held to the belief that she was fooling everyone that she was actually a cup size C. And Edward’s black toupee somehow managed to get dandruff.
Eventually Louise reached her desk and put down her purse. A clock on the phone read “10:59.” At 11:00 the phone would be open to inbound calls.
A cup of coffee was in order before she began taking calls. As she moved to head toward the break room, a voice called out from across the walkway in front of her desk.
“Hullo, Louise! Barely made it in time this morning, eh?”
Louise turned toward the voice, but kept her head down at her desk. She didn’t have the energy to take in Peter’s face which was surely peeking over the sound walls.
“Yeah,” she said. “Traffic.”
If she left to get the coffee now, Peter might intercept her to continue the conversation when she walked back. And at that point she would not only have to take in his face, but his whole person.
“Traffic this late in the morning?” continued Peter. “Was there an accident or something?”
Louise stared at the phone. There was an accident when you were born, she thought. And a second later, Wow, that was harsh even for me.
The clock turned 11, and a light began to flash signaling that a call was waiting.
“Phone call,” stuttered Louise. “Bye, Peter.”
She scrambled into her chair and put on her headset. The day had barely begun, and the phone had already saved her. She pressed a button on the phone and was connected with the person waiting.
“Thank you for calling Technicore,” she said. “How may I assist you today?”
* * *
Jerry arrived to the large gravel lot early in the morning. It was 6:00 and still dark. No other vendors had yet arrived, and he could choose whatever spot he wanted to set up his wares.
He parked his truck dead center in the middle of the lot. The truck was like a moving van, big and white, with blue letters on each side that read “JERRY’S BERRIES”. The legendary berries were always coveted at the farmer’s market.
Within a few minutes, Jerry had four long tables set up in a half-square enclosing a space flush to the back of the truck. He was alone and worked quickly.
“Good,” he said, “Now to my beauties.”
He headed into his truck and stood for a moment inside. The berries were stacked in perforated plastic boxes on pallets along each wall. There were strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and boysenberries. Jerry let the scent of the berries consume him. The scent was better than any perfume, soft and sweet, offering a gentle caress and an assurance of palatable delight.
“They don’t deserve you,” he said. “Nor do they appreciate you. But…” He paused and closed his eyes. “But, like every week, they will buy you. And I can’t have you all to myself.” He nodded and set to work transferring the berries from the truck to the tables outside.
Around 7:00 he had half of the berries out of truck and onto the tables. At around 7:30 he had another quarter of the berries out of the truck in stacks for quick restocking purposes. By 7:50, Jerry had all of the berries out of the truck and was ready to let his berries go.
The first customer walked up to his table at 7:55. It was a middle-aged woman with a plastic bag in her right hand and a purse in her left. She looked pensively at Jerry, who was standing with his arms crossed behind a tower of strawberries.
Jerry narrowed his eyes and met her gaze. He recognized her from the week before. She was the woman who missed out. She had arrived at noon and soon learned her mistake. The man in front of her in line had bought the last ten boxes of berries.
“Can I…” she started.
“—Eight o’clock,” said Jerry, looking at his watch. “Five minutes until eight o’clock. That’s when I open. However…” He could see a twinkling in her eyes as she looked down at the berries. She arrived early to make sure she would get what her heart desired. In her looks of longing, she seemed to be able to see a glimpse of what he saw in them—their beauty, purity, and loveliness. “…if I was to offer a recommendation, the blackberries are especially exquisite today.”
The woman nodded and moved her gaze to a stack of blackberries to her left.
As the two of them stood in silence, other customers began to arrive and form a line behind the woman. When Jerry’s watch struck eight, there were ten people waiting for the opportunity to buy some berries.
“All right,” Jerry said. “What do you want, and how many?”
The woman took five boxes – three boxes of blackberries, and two of strawberries.
“Four dollars a box,” Jerry said. “That’ll be twenty bucks.”
The woman gave him a twenty out of her purse, which he took and put in his back pocket along with a wad of ones and fives for change.
“Thank you,” said the woman.
“Enjoy them,” said Jerry. “Next!”
Thus began the day of the constant stream of people patronizing the table of delicacies at “Jerry’s Berries.” Every person was greeted the same way. And every person received the full scrutinizing glare to deduce their level of adoration and love for the gems they were purchasing.
By 11:30, there was only one box left. It was a box of raspberries that went to an old man who grinned at receiving the final box. This week, there was no one else in line, so Jerry didn’t have to turn anyone away before he began folding up his tables and putting everything back into the truck.
By 11:45, Jerry was on the road back to the farm, and by 12:45 he was in his kitchen preparing himself some well-deserved lunch.
“Glass of cranberry juice…two peanut butter and boysenberry sandwiches…and a bowl of blueberries on the side. Nothing could be better. Now to update my inventory.”
As he popped a few blueberries in his mouth, letting the sumptuous flavor linger until it rose and tingled the tips of his nose hairs, he turned on his laptop computer and waited for it to load.
A few minutes and a few bites of delicious sandwich later, he opened up a document with his inventory and updated the numbers, recording how much was sold and the profits made. He then clicked to print the document.
“Better work,” he muttered. He had installed a new printer the night before, but hadn’t had time to test it out with his laptop before going to bed. The printer was on the kitchen counter, and to his dismay, there was nothing signaling that there was a document pending to be printed. “To think growing my babies would be easier than connecting a printer with Wi-Fi,” he said. “I’m not even going to try to fix it myself. Where’s the number on this thing?”
He looked on the printer for a phone number, but found nothing. Next, he searched for the printer model on the internet, and after skipping through a bunch of self-help pages, found what he was looking for.
“Let’s see how long I’m on hold this time,” he said, typing in the number on his cell phone. He heard the phone ringing and took another bite of his sandwich, expecting to be connected to an automated system to be put on hold. Instead, he nearly choked as a woman responded in the most beautiful voice he had ever heard.
“Thank you for calling Technicore,” she said. “How may I assist you today?”
* * *
If there was love at first phone call, it would be that between Louise and Jerry. The transcript of their first conversation (all recorded due to Technicore’s quality and training initiatives) would make you think it was a nervous and hilarious interaction between two half-drunk children rather than a tech support call to resolve a printer error. Louise and Jerry chuckled and chirped, cooed and cawed, and simpered and stuttered about all of their interests and backgrounds and how they found the immediate company of the other person unexpectedly joyous. At the end of a full hour (with a meeting with her supervisor likely forthcoming due to wasting company time) Louise begrudgingly told Jerry that she had to go, but that she had his number and that she would call him back when she was finished work. Jerry accepted this with excitement and hung up the phone, wondering how he would make it through the rest of the day with Louise pressed upon his mind. (He also realized that never found out how to fix his printer.)
That evening was the second of a series of daily conversations between Louise and Jerry. During every conversation they grew closer in heart and spirit. Louise was fascinated with Jerry’s berry farm, and was completely won over by his stern, but gentle demeanor, his rough and sexy voice, and his sense of discipline and determination with which he said that he approached every task. Jerry adored Louise’s twittering laugh, was in awe of her technical prowess and skill, and felt a deep sense of respect for her patience and servitude in being on-call for customers each day on the phones. And for both of them, there was the litany of intangibles that made the opposite person ever so charming, attractive, loving, and beautiful.
After a month of communication, the two decided that they must meet in person. Louise lived in northern Minnesota, and Jerry lived in southern Florida. Louise convinced Jerry that a trip to where it was warm was much better than him travelling to where it was cold, and he obliged and promised to pay half her air fare and any expenses when she was down (after being refused to be allowed to pay the whole thing). Thus a date was set for the first week of February, and the two waited in anticipation to finally be in the presence of the other.
* * *
Jerry sat on his porch and rocked in his favorite chair. His eyes were glued to the dirt driveway that led from his country home to the main road. He had proposed to pick up Louise from the hotel, but she refused and said that she must find his farm on his directions alone, comparing it to finding a pot of gold on a map after being given clues to its location. Jerry admired her independence and subtle playfulness, acknowledging that a bit more patience couldn’t harm him at all. And so he waited.
Around noon, with the sun high overhead, a little red car appeared at the end of the driveway and moved towards Jerry’s home. With the glare of the sun shining on the tinted windshield, neither Louise nor Jerry could see each other as Louise stopped and parked the car a stone’s throw away from the porch.
Louise began her routine of inspecting herself in the rearview mirror, being doubly sure that everything was in order, with her hair, her makeup, her lipstick, another check on her hair and hat, and then lastly another check on her lipstick. She opened the door, grabbed her high-heel shoes at the foot of the passenger seat, dropped them on the dirt ground, and proceeded with the usual struggle of getting them onto her feet.
As Louise was taking a while to get out of the car, Jerry, in curiosity and good manners, rose from his seat to go help her out and give her a hand. She had told him before about her battles with her shoes, and he smiled as he mused that he might help her earn a quick victory.
Jerry approached the car and saw the shoes drop to the ground. He rounded the door to greet his maiden.
Louise pulled both legs out of the car and hovered her feet above her shoes. She was about to put her feet down when she heard a voice and looked up.
Before Jerry could finish her name, Louise shrieked and kicked both of her legs forward into Jerry’s groin and sent him sprawling onto his back in the dirt. Her face was plastered with shock, and in double horror she realized whom she had kicked and what she had done.
“I’m sorry—Jerry—” she squeaked, shielding her eyes with her left hand as she looked down at her feet to get her shoes on. “It’s just that—that I didn’t expect—I’m—I’m sorry.”
Jerry was trying to deal with the fact that Louise literally took his breath away. The immediate pain was so intense that his head was foggy and every word that he attempted to utter came out in a cough. After a minute, the pain dulling ever so slightly, he felt a shadow resting over his tear-blurred eyes. He sucked in a couple breaths of dusty air and cleared his throat.
“That…was…unexpected…” he grunted. “Might…I…ask…uuugh…” Right when he began to get his breath back, a putrid smell descended like a cloud and enveloped his body. He began to gag as well as cough on the ground. He rolled to his other side and began to inch away with his hands, scraping the dirt to flee the grasp of the suffocating poison.
“Here, let me help you up. Again, I’m so sorry.” Louise, still shielding her eyes with her left hand, reached down with her right for one of Jerry’s shaking hands.
The cloud descended on Jerry again, and this time he gagged so hard that he nearly threw up the blueberries he had eaten a few minutes prior.
“P-please,” he choked, “L-let me…just…b-back away…” He got to his knees and crawled forward until he was out of the realm of the putrid cloud. His right hand was massaging his throat, and his left hand was massaging his groin.
Louise stood and waited. The back of his head didn’t look quite as shocking as his face.
A few slow minutes later, Jerry got to his feet. He feared to turn around and be greeted by the smell which lingered behind him. “Well,” he said, facing a field. “I’m glad you made it here safely. Did you find the place alright?”
“Y-yes,” said Louise. “Very good directions. I couldn’t be happier to be here and see—er—to see—you.” She tried to not to accentuate the last word, but failed miserably.
“I feel the same way,” said Jerry. “And I would turn around, but you…you know…”
“It was just instinct, and again I’m sorry! But if you really feel the need to stay—facing—you know, another direction—I wouldn’t be opposed, you know—for the time being, that is, until we become more used to each other.”
“I agree, yes,” said Jerry. “Follow me into my house, and I’ll make us some lunch.”
“Sure. That would be lovely.”
Jerry took a breath of clean air, held it, turned, and walked toward the porch. The smell that cascaded from Louise wasn’t perfume. Well—to be sure—there was perfume there, but it was accompanied by a smell as foul as death.
Louise followed and wondered how she could make eye contact with Jerry. She was going to have to do it at some point. It was instantly the greatest mystery how such a brilliant man after her own heart could have the hideous face that Jerry possessed.
They entered the house and Jerry led Louise into the kitchen. It was a spacious kitchen with tall windows which Jerry pushed open as wide as they could go. He immediately poured two glasses of cranberry juice and began preparing some peanut butter and boysenberry sandwiches. “Take a seat,” he said, waving his right hand behind his back.
“Oh—sure,” said Louise, taking a chair at the kitchen table. As she had watched Jerry walk to the porch, and then into the kitchen, and then prepare the food, she noticed that his back was perpetually hunched over, and that his right leg was bow-legged. His brown hair was long and thin, and from what she saw of his hands, they seemed a bit gnarled and wrinkled. He also had this odd twitch he did with his neck every few moments along with a soft gasping cough (though it still could have been from her incident).
Jerry finished preparing the sandwiches, put them on two glass plates, took a hesitant deep breath, and turned around with the plates in his hands. The mistake he made next was breathing in. When he did so, he choked and tripped over himself, letting go of both of the plates which fell to the ground and broke into pieces on the hardwood floor.
Louise yelped at the sight of Jerry’s face again, and then yelped again at the crash of the plates.
“Sorry,” coughed Jerry, breaking into a fit. “Let me—cough-cough—pick this up.” As he coughed, he kept breathing in more of Louise’s essence, which made him cough all the more. He turned to his left toward the sink and waved his right hand as if he’d get to in a moment. Turning on the faucet, he splashed water on his face, and tried to get the coughing to subside.
While Jerry was recovering from his episode, Louise was trying her best to look at his face without gasping in further shock. She had thought that perhaps her initial response was an over-reaction. But as she took a prolonged gaze, all was confirmed that made her cringe. His chin was too close to his bulbous nose that had wide, flared nostrils. His eyes were sunken into his head behind chin-bones that were crooked and raised like mini mountains. His eyebrows seemed ready to shake hands, and his thinning hair drooped over his forehead like withered grass. Louise couldn’t imagine a world where she could live with the sight of this man.
While he was under this unknown scrutiny, Jerry found it impossible to hold it together with regards to Louise’s stench. The smell invaded his nose and corrupted his senses. He could taste it, feel it engulf his tongue, almost begin to rip away the very memories of the bliss of his delicious berries. Jerry couldn’t imagine a world where he could live with the smell of this woman.
Louise closed her eyes and spoke. “Jerry,” she said, “I have to tell you something.”
Jerry turned off the faucet. He shook his head in resignation and grasped his nose with his left hand to hold the nostrils shut. “Louise,” he said, turning towards her, “I also have to tell you something.”
There was a pause. Both of them were unsure how to say it.
“Jerry…” began Louise.
“Louise…” began Jerry.
“I need to be honest with you,” said Louise.
“I need to be honest with you, too,” said Jerry.
There was another pause. Then Louise said, “Jerry…why does your voice sound more nasally?”
Jerry sighed and chuckled. “I’ve got it shut with my left hand. And why are your eyes closed?”
“Because I just wanted to hear your voice,” said Louise. After saying this line, something triggered in her heart. A pang of longing shot through her body. She said the line again, her own voice shaking. “Because I just wanted to hear your voice…because I just wanted to hear your voice…I just wanted to…” She trembled and was now the one choking up. She kept sucking in air trying to hold it back.
Jerry held his nose shut as hard as he could and approached Louise. He took his free right hand and gently placed it under her chin. He saw tears begin to well up behind her clenched eyes. It was the first time he noticed how much makeup she had adorned herself with. How perfect she had tried to make herself look. How much importance she placed on outward appearances. She had hinted to it on the phone, but now it was ever so clear.
“My darling,” said Jerry, trying not to chuckle in the face of her tears. “You find me repugnant, don’t you?”
Louise took one more gasp of air and then let it all out with a huge burst of tears. “Yesss,” she sobbed. “I do. I really, really do. But—but—” She bawled and flung her arms around Jerry. “I love you!”
For a brief second Jerry almost let go of his nose for a full hug. But he caught himself and dodged his head so Louise would cry over his free shoulder. He then rested his head against her own and rubbed her back with his right hand. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, Louise. I love you, too.”
Louise’s sobbing lasted for a few minutes as Jerry consoled her with sweet words. As she calmed down, a thought reentered her mind. “Jerry?” she whispered. “What were you going to say to me?”
“Oh,” he said, clearing his voice. “That…you see my darling…you reek.”
Louise let the word rest a moment in an awkward silence. And then she said, with a quivering laugh, “Yes, I do. I really, really do.”
With these final words, both of them felt all walls fall tumbling down, and they laughed and laughed until their voices ran dry.
* * *
It was a very odd phone call and a very odd visit to the hospital. Both Jerry and Louise were adamant about their decision.
The soon-to-be couple sat in the same waiting room with the surgeon. Both of them were in hospital gowns and sat in adjoining chairs, holding each other’s hand.
“I want to repeat that this is irreversible,” said the surgeon. “There is no going back after your procedures are completed.”
Louise squinted, turned to look at Jerry, turned back to the surgeon, and nodded. Jerry, clothespin on his nose, nodded as well.
“I might add,” continued the surgeon. “That this is the first time I have done this with completely healthy patients. But, ironically, the complications are generally the results that you’re looking for, so there shouldn’t be any worries. So, for the last time—are you sure this is a sacrifice that you both want to make?”
Louise nodded in resolution. “I am willing to lose the sight of myself and this world. Take away my vision, doctor.”
Jerry followed in confirmation. “I am willing to lose all the fine smells of this world. And I acknowledge that my taste shall be blighted and forever changed…in any case, take away my sense of smell, doctor.”
“Very well,” the surgeon replied. “One shall be made blind, and the other shall never smell. May these sacrifices benefit both of you in ways that only you can understand.”
The surgeon then placed a hand on each of their shoulders. “So,” he said. “Who’s first?”