Her finger, tucked under his top lip, roved over his top front teeth. He wondered how much longer she needed. She had been kind—her veiny hand was sheathed in a blue plastic glove, but still, the bare unpleasantness was hard to bat away. She could see it in his expression, the moments where his congeniality died at the eyes and he was visible—exhausted. She had been talking about pearls. She must be in her mid-seventies, he estimated, in good-ish health but with a posture that might cave in the next four years. She was gentle. She did not burst the edge of a gum even though he hadn’t flossed in weeks.
“I’m done, I’m through.” She extracted her pointer finger from its landing spot on his left incisor. He nodded, running his tongue over the new plastic-taste. She pulled her phone out, tipped 22 percent, and gave him a small smile. A “get out of my house” sort of smile. He returned it to her. His bike was on her porch. Not locked; the neighborhood was quiet and suburban. He’d have a while to go to get back to the city, but he may be able to pick up something on the way. It was seven. The sky threatened pink. When he said goodbye, tying his shoes, his words threatened him with their own latex. The bike had a mint-toned frame. His forehead had a little headache. His bank account has seventy-four dollars now. The first of the next month was in a week. He would have to put himself back-to-back to make it out with no money and no debt after rent. The warmth of a zero providing a corona for an exhausted body. A small permission to sleep. He was so glad, so lucky, that most people were mostly ashamed, when you got to the things they actually, organically wanted.
People wanted to see people. You’d expect most of the postings on the app to be about seeing someone naked. And they were, at first, but people could see other people naked on the internet at any moment. It was the niche stuff survived: I want you to tell me about your worst breakup and cry in my kitchen, I want you to eat a bowl of olives for me because my blood pressure won’t let me, I want you to stand in the hallway between me and my wife and tell her that I do love her because she stopped listening to me. These were the desires that endured past the first few weeks of obvious requests. And these people were ashamed: to touch a stranger’s teeth and discuss a necklace made your guts feel like guts, so you felt bad, so you tipped the kid and then tipped him again when you watched his bike from your window. You saw him spit on the street. You tipped again. He had seventy-nine dollars now. You’d lose three inches of your meager stature in the next half decade.
He pulled his bike onto the sidewalk when he felt his pocket vibrate. Someone would paint a tiger face on his thigh for fifteen dollars a block from here. Sure, easy, tolerable, noninvasive, good prior reviews. If he could make it there in ten minutes, he could take the gig. He pumped his legs uphill. This would be a coveted one. Surely, someone else, maybe someone with a car, would be gunning for it too. He had his best luck with ones like the teeth one—ones that disturbed, but did not offend. Many casual workers shirked these, so they paid better, again, because of the shame. People just wanted to touch and see people. Could you blame them? Yes, he pushed into the bike, of course you could. You had to.
The house was a coral pink. It rang out that color, matching with the dying light. Down the block, a girl was turning a moped around. They saw each other like jousters. Deadly for how their postures, their tiredness, mirrored one another’s. She sped. She had gas but he had some minor advantage in maneuverability. His fridge: his roommate’s cottage cheese and a bag of chips and hot sauce. He stood up from the bike seat and hunkered himself over the handlebars. They raced toward the tiger between them, which would be done in nail polish and would be tricky to get off. It would eventually be removed with a vodka-soaked paper towel. There was no vodka at his house. She would win, would ditch her teal vehicle on the lawn, and give him a strained look as she bounded up the short steps. He stopped, half to get his breathing back and half to look into the house. She was sorry. She was ashamed to have beaten him. The tiger man’s hands would be gentle. It would be her best job all week. The tiger would look up at her like she was a mother. She would not become a mother.
Sometimes, she’d think about her childhood, defined by the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the loss of the ozone. People forget that people fixed that problem with the ozone. It closed back up. Healing like it remembered its own un-body again. They’d fixed that. She would not become a mother or buy a house, not ever. The tiger looked at her until she washed its eyes clean off its face, off its head, off her leg. Before this, she’d come out from the house and text her girlfriend, one leg of her shorts hiked up as forty new dollars glistened on her screen. In the now-dark yard, the ungassable mint bike lay in the grass like something shot. Her moped was out of frame. She wanted to scream, but held it. The tiger man watched her from his window. She’d have to lower the seat, but the uphill home would be fine. It would have to be.
Claire Oleson is a queer writer and 2020 Fiction Fellow at the Center for Fiction. She is a 2019 graduate of Kenyon College, where she studied English and Creative Writing. Her work has been published by the Kenyon Review online, the University of Kentucky’s graduate literary journal Limestone, the LA Review of Books, and Newfound Press, among others. Her chapbook of short stories debuted May, 2020 from Newfound Press. She currently lives and works in NYC.