We live in a dark place of oily smells. Some of the men work in lubrication and some sell diesel off the backs of trucks.
There are a few towers here with tiny spiraling staircases, and many more dark corridors.
Lately, I've been watching a man who climbs the stairs on a certain tower. I figure this must be his job, but I dream that it isn't. I dream that he loves stairs more than anything in the world, except for wind and oily smells. He loves all three so much, he climbs the stairs to be as close as he can to them. And maybe there's something that happens up there on the stairs, something I can't predict.
So one morning, I stand below him and count the stairs. He is standing on number 60. It's very high. When he looks down, his face droops like an old purse. We stare at each other and it feels like he is very close even though he's far away.
I used to be fascinated by the absences left by molar extractions. But I've touched the interiors of too many mouths to feel anything for them anymore. Now I look for things beneath the towers. Mostly I find bits of hardware. Until one day a gold crescent winks at me from the gravel. I rub it between my fingers until it's hot and shiny.
I carry it inside my mouth.
There is an internal logic at work, but I can't tell you now. Too many men are lined up, their mouths rinsed with menthol, their jaws open. My supervisor will wonder.
The nightshift begins.
The first man sighs as I wiggle his tongue. I probe his lower palate, the hard curves and soft depths. His face and shoulders drop and I go to where he's gone, too, for a second. I withdraw my fingers, close his jaw.
“All done,” I say.
After the men leave, I sit on my bed and slide my hand under my skirt. I spit the gold crescent into my other hand and assess its weight. It's the size of a fingernail, but feels different from any thing I've ever touched because it's real gold.
I take an X-Acto knife from my drawer and slice into the space between two other things. I push the gold crescent into my flesh, panting like a dog until the pain subsides.
Here's what I couldn't tell you before:
At age 14, I buried a string of brass beads inside my thigh. After the flesh healed, I pressed the bumps and listened carefully. I could hear muffled sounds. It hurt, but it also made me want to yank my tampon, again and again.
I buried other objects: pebbles, gaskets, a vinyl-coated paper clip. I stuck a microphone to my leg and recorded. I posted it on youtube. People started following me.
One day, the person who would become my supervisor appeared at my parents' house. He asked if he could touch my leg. I refused. Later, at a moment when I would have gone anywhere, he offered me a job.
A week later, I return to collecting things beneath the tower. But the man on the tower is not on the tower.
I sit on the edge of my bed, gently pressing the rise in my thigh, listening for the new sound. It's so low I can barely hear it and my flesh is purplish, and a little swollen, so I don't press hard. I can wait. I open my Altoids box and play with a bent swastika earring and a blue rubber band. I do not want these things inside my leg.
I sleep the rest of the day. I dream that the man on the tower is living in a secret room inside the house I grew up in, except the house has many rooms inside the walls that no one knows about. I open the front door, thinking I'll find him and I'm suddenly on the fourth story and the porch is an endless plain of tar paper.
During the nightshift, I think about my dream. As I move my fingers inside a man's mouth, he reaches for my face.
“The spaces in my mouth keep me awake,” he tells me.
He wants me to give him something, but I all I have is my desire to see the man on the tower.
“Are you into mercy?”
At sunrise, I fail to recognize a knock. I get out of bed, crack the door. It's the man on the tower. He's wearing a patterned scarf around his jaw.
My heart thumps.
“I pretended something was wrong with my mouth to get past your supervisor,” he says.
“But I am not a dentist.”
He sits on the edge of the bed. I sit next to him and for some time we just sit there. I wonder how his skin feels under his clothes.
“I've lost something. I thought you might have picked it up.”
I start to sweat.
“It's a piece of a necklace.”
“I stole it a long time ago.”
“Who did you steal it from?”
“A pretty girl.”
“How did you do it?”
“I followed her into an apartment building and climbed several staircases right behind her. When she turned around, I held a knife to her throat and cut the purse off.”
“Is that why you're climbing the stairs on that tower?”
“It's the least I can do.”
“I don't have it.” I hand him the Altoids box in which I keep the other things I've collected. “This is where it would be.”
“What about your leg? I've heard you buried a tooth there.”
“No one touches my leg.”
“My necklace can not become your sound,” he said.
“Anything can become my sound.”
“I need it to remind me of what I am capable of.”
His gaze darts between the skin that's grown over the gold crescent and the drawer where I keep the X-Acto knife.
“Can I hold your hand?” he asks.
After the gold crescent was extracted, I went outside. The mountains had moved.
The next day, my supervisor interrogates me in my room. I tell him what happened.
“What mountains?” he asks.
“You don't see any mountains?”
“Your performance has suffered. No one will want to work here anymore.”
I remain in my bed, lifting my head. I don't know what will happen if I let it fall.
“Someone rearranged the furniture in your head,” he says.
“I am not a dentist,” I tell him. “I don't wear latex gloves.”
When the man on the tower comes to my room he asks how I am doing. I lift my skirt to show him the scar. It has sunk. The skin is the color of skin.
He puts his ear to my thigh, lightly pressing the indentation. On the other side of the door, my supervisor is breathing.
Vanessa Norton is a writer living in California. Her work appears in the anthology Sex for America: Politically Inspired Erotica, edited by Stephen Elliott, StoryQuarterly, Gigantic, Spork, Fanzine, Hobart, Whiskey Island, and other places. She is currently working on a project with writer Steven Trull that explores street dwellings in the context of architectural theory.