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Alex Deckman had only turned forty recently, but for the past two years felt much older after waking. His features appeared odd in the bathroom mirror, which in itself was not unusual. Alex slept face-down and the weight of his head pressing against the mattress left lines, folds, and even trenches in his face. They would gradually smooth while he stood upright to shave and shower.
His mother claimed, “You were born with a heavy skull. Eleven pounds is average for an adult and your head must weigh fifteen at least.” A sad faraway look inhabited her eyes. “We made you wear foam wedge collars as a child for support.” She winced. “You inherited your poor father’s Neanderthal blood.”
Beverly was given to exaggeration and fabrication, so Alex disbelieved her, but somehow his sleep positioning did distress his features.
Today, Alex observed his brown hair nearly covering his ears. He first noticed an absence while rubbing shaving cream on. He washed the cream off in shock. His lips had disappeared. Gone. Vanished. Alex opened wide to see if his sleep posture had perhaps wedged them inside his mouth. Nothing there. Just his smelly teeth waiting to be brushed.
Had he chewed them off amid some bizarre dream then swallowed? Checking the pillow, no blood or remains lingered. He studied himself again in the bathroom mirror. Without lips, his mouth hung slightly open like a jerkwater yokel. But he lived in downtown Manhattan. Totally unacceptable.
A knock sounded outside. “Alex? Open up.” Damn, it was Beverly.
Due to a low-paying job, Alex had been forced to live at his widowed mother’s apartment. She had fashioned his old room into a studio, the entry door opening to their pantry and a back door leading outside, so they both could maintain a semblance of privacy.
“Shaving, Mom. I’m not dressed.” He felt disoriented. “Leave me a voicemail or come back later.”
“I saw you naked as a child, but if you insist, come talk when you’re done.” She made sighing and wheezing noises. “You haven’t paid your rent yet.”
Although $1,000 was dirt cheap for a studio in Manhattan, Beverly now raised the rent every year like any other greedy New York landlord.
“My friends Pam and Binky say I could easily get double from a quiet NYU student.”
“Okay, okay. Let me shave in peace.”
Beverly grumbled off.
Alex showered and dressed. He would sneak into his private office at work. With a scarf wrapped about his gaping mouth, if anyone asked, he’d claim to have gashed himself shaving.
He edged outside the studio’s door.
“There you are,” Beverly said, skulking in the unlit hallway. She dusted his coat collar. “Take off that absurd wrap and explain where my rent check is.” She yanked the scarf away then blanched before flushing. “You’ve gone…lipless.” Her eyes went wide.
“Calm down, Mother,” Alex said. “My lips got pressed into my mouth while sleeping. They’ll return by nightfall.”
Beverly crumpled against a wall, unsteady. “I had so much belief in you, in your promise. And now this.”
“No you didn’t,” Alex said. “You always favored Randall, and raved about his good looks.”
She showed a wounded expression. “I did admire your older brother, but his wife stole his looks from me, fattened him up on beer, cheese, and sausage. Now he’s forty-six, overweight and horribly bald.”
Beverly added damning adverbs to normal human conditions. Her best friend Ellen had looked “frightfully old” before she got a facelift and now appeared “dreadfully taut.”
“I’ll pay my rent tonight. It’s only December 2nd. Normal landlords give a grace period.”
“But I’m your mother.” She formed her about-to-cry face. “After everything I’ve done for you, I’m left with a circus freak for a son. Don’t come home until you fix your pie-hole.”
Alex refastened his scarf and darted out. Sometimes he wondered about his father, Jack, who went for a swim in the East River ten years ago and never returned. Assumed drowned. Insane, or driven to it by Beverly?
In the rush to escape, Alex had forgotten breakfast or coffee to power him. He slipped into Chelsea Cafe for a to-go order he could eat in Madison Square Park without being gawked at. Inside he saw Suzy, a barista he’d dated a week ago. He made a clumsy pass at her and she pushed him away. Suzy usually worked the afternoon shift, so he retreated toward the door, embarrassed. Unfortunately, she spotted him and bounded over.
“Alex, can we talk, in private?” Suzy trailed him outside.
He kept moving along 23rd Street, but seeing that she wouldn’t relent, he signaled toward an alleyway between Fifth and Sixth Avenue.
Suzy followed, mouth downturned, eyes sad. He waited for further admonishment regarding his oafish date moves.
“I just wanted to apologize for the other night,” she said. “I was confused and wasn’t ready, but you only wanted to kiss me. I so overreacted, dude.” She stared at the pavement. “Can you ever forgive me?”
“Uh, sure,” Alex replied, stunned.
“Let me make it up to you.” Suzy puckered her lips and unwrapped his scarf. “Oh my God!” She recoiled. “I mean, I wasn’t expecting that. I’m not judging.” She rested her head in a hand. “I guess I never noticed you didn’t have lips before.”
Alex gripped his scarf. “It’s temporary. They’re inverted now but will be back, I promise.”
Suzy looked dazed. “Yes, yes, why wouldn’t they…”
“Can I call you when they do?”
Lines formed on her thirty-year-old forehead he’d never witnessed before.
“I’m going up north for a while, far away…” Her voice drifted off. “But when I do get home, I’m sure I’ll see you at Chelsea Cafe.” She struggled to smile. “Until they, uh, return, use a little of this.” Suzy plucked a natural-colored lipstick from her purse, then inscribed it around the edges of his mouth. She tucked it into his overcoat’s breast pocket. “I’ve got to get back. Ciao.” She scurried away.
Alex checked his reflection in shop windows. From a distance, the lipstick created the illusion he still had lips. Flat lips. If any coworkers commented, Alex could claim his dermatologist had taken a biopsy and they should mind their own damn business.
Somehow he arrived without causing alarm and locked himself inside his office. When associates knocked, he said, “I’m busy,” then asked them to call or e-mail. That worked until floor manager Lonnie Begonza thumped on his door.
“Open up,” he demanded. “We don’t lock doors on my watch.”
Alex made sure the lipstick was thickly applied before unlocking. He retreated to the window beyond his desk, maintaining distance. “I have the super-flu. I don’t want anyone else to catch it.”
Begonza strode in and squinted at Alex. “Yeah, you look godawful, but I’m immune. Got a flu shot in the arm and a booster in my ass.” He circled around the desk. “Something’s really messed-up about you, Dickman.”
“It’s Deckman,” Alex said. “Just went to my dermatologist. I need privacy.”
“This is my world and you live in it.” Begonza frowned. “You sound funny.” Using a window drape, he wiped Alex’s face. “Jesus Christ, you’ve got no lips.” He stepped back. “Dermatologist? You flew down to Panama last weekend, went to one of those unlicensed plastic surgeons, like Mickey Rourke did.” Begonza slumped against the wall, breathing heavily.
“It’s temporary,” Alex said. “My lips inverted overnight. They’ll plump out by tomorrow. Just wait.” He had begun to believe the lie because nothing else made sense.
“No can do,” Begonza said. “Management from the Midwest is visiting today. They’ll be touring the offices to shake hands and give encouragement.” He paced the floor. “They can’t see you like that, no siree. We believe in facial diversity, because of company regulations, but not carnival sideshow stuff.” Begonza paused, thinking.
“I really need this job.”
“You think I want lawsuits and bad publicity? Hell no. We’re just going to relocate you.” Begonza slammed the door behind him. “Lock up till I get back.”
Alex waited until Begonza returned. “You know the building’s maintenance crew.”
“Sure,” Alex said through his scarf. “Good to see you Raul, Tevin, Luigi, and?”
“Hyman,” the elderly one said. He weighed around 120 pounds and didn’t seem long for the world.
The crew acted annoyed at being diverted from their routine of lazing about the lobby, eyeballing women, and waiting for their shifts to pass.
Begonza pointed. The three younger men unplugged lamps and devices, then grunted Alex’s desk through the door. Hyman worked a toothpick between his teeth and watched, his face contorting with the effort the others expended.
“What’s going on?” Alex asked.
“Follow us in a minute, the back corridor.” Begonza sauntered outside.
Alex never used the dim utility hallway. Reserved for food deliveries, packages, and maintenance staff. At the far end he saw Begonza beckoning impatiently.
“Is this for real?”
“Of course it’s for real.” Begonza nodded. “Your new office until that nasty condition heals.”
Alex’s desk was pressed to the rear corner of the spacious freight elevator. An elevator that had transported grand pianos when songwriters used to toil in upstairs offices decades ago.
“No need to thank me.” Begonza smiled in his menacing manner. “Got to run. Important folks are coming.”
Alex took his seat behind the desk as the maintenance men wandered away. The realization hit that Hyman was the service elevator operator and his new office mate. “This is quite the situation,” Alex said, trying to start on a good note.
Hyman coughed then spit. He muttered something under his breath like “ass-clown” before turning his back to work the iron levers of the manual gears.
Alex gasped when the elevator plunged eight floors and stopped abruptly, his guts rising into his chest.
“You’ll get used to it after a few years,” Hyman said.
“Years? I only intend to be here a day or two.”
Hyman’s laugh sounded hoarse. “The last one said that.” He raked a hand through his gray wedge of hair. “Listen, we’ll get along if you don’t talk or ever surprise me. I don’t need a heart attack. Might lose control of the spaceship. Ever seen anyone scraped out of an elevator that’s dropped twenty floors?”
“No. Have you?”
“That’s how I got my job. Replacing the previous guy. Looked more like a slab of pizza than anything human.”
Alex tried to adjust to his odd predicament the following morning. He sent e-mails while the elevator traversed lower floors. The WiFi weakened above the fifteenth floor so he transitioned to phone calls then. The sudden rises and long drops between floors aggravated lunch sandwiches loitering in Alex’s stomach.
He checked craigslist seeking a temporary solution. Postings showed for wax lips, rubber attachments, and even ling-cod fish lips. His body trembled. As an adolescent, bullies had teased Alex, calling him “liver lips.” Humiliating then, their dwelling on the features he hated most. But now Alex thought fondly of those vanished liver lips. How he missed them.
Midday, Hyman asked, “So what’s wrong with your kisser? That scarf hiding a rash?”
“No, no.” Alex sighed. “I’ve sort of misplaced my lips.”
“Either you’ve lost them or not.”
“Okay, they’re gone.”
Hyman halted the elevator. “You need to talk to the man upstairs.”
“But I’m an atheist…”
“No, Doc Feingoss. But I call him Dr. Fungus.”
“He has an office upstairs?”
Alex saw the 32nd floor light had been scratched out. “I thought management permanently closed it off, for safety reasons.”
Hyman grunted. “There’s a little asbestos behind the lead paint on the walls. A minor gas leak and structural damage to the support pillars, and the City gets their panties in a bunch.”
“You’re telling me this doctor still works there? And he can replace my — ”
“Not saying anything. I can take you up after hours or not. No skin off my lips.”
Alex’s laptop screen showed a No Internet message. He shuffled papers around the desk. “Yes, I want to go.”
Being December, cold and dark early, the building emptied out by 6:30.
“Ready?” Hyman asked after his dinner break. Alex nodded. The operator cranked the power lever to the right and the elevator surged upward.
Alex felt his ears pop but their progress slowed at the 30th floor. Gears squeaked and ground to a halt as they reached the 31st. Hyman yanked on a gearshift. The carriage vibrated violently as it rose at a crawl.
“Is this safe?”
“Hell, no,” Hyman shouted over the noise, amid the smell of burning rubber. “But as long as these cables hold, we won’t plummet to our doom.” He shrugged. “It’s the only way to the top. The fire stairwell is sealed.”
Finally, Hyman slid open the metal accordion gate. The 32nd floor resembled a war zone of toppled cabinets, broken glass, scattered pills, wrecked furniture. The walls were cracked and liquid pooled on the floor. Smoke issued from a back area where small furry things scampered about; overhead lights blinked on and off.
“Hey, Doc? You awake?”
Alex heard a ratcheting cough then a creaking sound approaching.
An ancient man worked his wheelchair forward over wadded papers and exposed wiring. He wore a spattered lab coat and had a medical reflector headbanded around his gaunt skull. “That you, Hyman?” He squinted through Coke bottle glasses, eyes distorted.
“Brought you a patient, Dr. Fungus.”
“Well, I’m not sure yet,” Alex said, alarmed by the surrounding chaos.
“Young fellow,” Fungus said. “I’m on my last legs, so spit it out. What’s your problem?”
Alex unwrapped his scarf as the doctor wheeled up close.
Fungus started laughing and Hyman cackled along with him.
“I’m glad you find this amusing. I’ll be going now.”
“Son,” Fungus said. “I’m the only specialist who can help.” He focused a bright lamp on Alex’s face. “Now, do you have your detached lips? That would make the operation a cinch.”
“Operation? No, I have no idea where my lips got to.”
“Were you treating them right, with respect?” Fungus asked.
“Forget it.” Fungus rolled backward. “Okay, turn and pull down your pants.”
“Are you crazy?”
“Do you want me to fix your mouth or not?”
Alex slowly dropped his trousers. He felt unsettled as the doctor reached out then squeezed his ass.
“Enough.” Alex belted-up his pants, disgusted. He wanted to leave but remembered the stairway was sealed.
“Sit down.” Fungus pointed to a ravaged leather couch. “We can remove a small area of soft buttock flesh, microwave it for a minute to color it pinker, then transplant two carved pieces onto your mouth to serve as lips.”
“That’s preposterous.” Alex wanted to leave but remembered the stairway was sealed.
“No, he’s serious.” Hyman gripped the doctor’s wheelchair. “It’s the only body area that can approximate the softness and thickness of lips. Fat tissue.”
Alex shuddered. He felt horrified yet recognized their logic. The next time Lonnie Begonza called him “ass-face,” he realized it would be literal. “I don’t see any medical diplomas, doctor.”
“I served in South America.”
“At a clinic?”
“No, in the field.” Fungus lit a cigarette.
“The jungle. The only diploma you get is they let you crawl out alive.”
“I need to think this over,” Alex said. “I assume such surgery has risks.”
Again both older men laughed. “There’s a 50/50 chance that your mouth will reject transplanted tissue,” Fungus said. “But seriously, son, it’s the best option unless you find your missing lips.”
“And where would I locate them?” Alex exhaled with frustration.
“Try a bar called Odds & Ends,” Fungus said. “Bunch of freaky people congregate inside. If you don’t get a tip there, you may as well pay me to operate tomorrow.”
“While I’m still steady.” He extended his hands and they shook wildly.
Alex returned home crestfallen. Both options seemed insane, but he might live to be eighty or ninety. Half a lifetime without lips, without the chance of ever kissing another person again seemed a bleak prison sentence.
He ate cold cuts at the kitchen table in the dark, the sounds of his teeth chewing amplified.
Beverly bustled in and switched on the lights. “Oh no, you’re back.”
“Yes, I live here. Remember?”
“Klaus Vanderhooven is coming.” She slapped an open palm against her face. “He cannot see you like that. He might think it’s genetic. Klaus arrives any minute.”
“Remember, I’m your Aunt Beverly.”
Alex’s sixty-three-year-old mother dated men no older than fifty. A forty-year-old son did not fit the narrative that she was fifty-five. Beverly romanced the last vestiges of Manhattan Eurotrash. Their once abundant species had died out at the turn of the century. Dukes and Counts and Lords of total bullshit, hungry for what they considered a moneyed mate in exchange for access to their dubious titles.
“Can’t you spend the night elsewhere, or lock yourself in your studio?” Her voice became girlish. “I think Klaus is the one. He showed me his castle on the Rhine.” She proffered a photo.
“Uh, that’s a postcard, Aunt Bev.”
“You always crush my dreams.” She crouched down. “I say this with motherly love: Please leave — now. If Klaus mentions your condition, I could be finished in New York society.”
“Don’t worry. Going in five minutes. Keep him out of the kitchen at midnight so I can sneak back in.”
On 44th Street near 12th Avenue, sat Manhattan Mini Storage in the shadow of the raised West Side Highway. Though most of New York had been cleaned-up and turned into high rent apartments, a certain seediness lingered there. The area perfumed by a dead fish scent off the Hudson River, overhead car exhaust billowing down, and the sulfur gas odor from factories along the New Jersey Turnpike. Between small locksmiths and computer repair shops were squat windowless structures with padlocked metal doors.
Alex rapped on the door displaying a yellow skull and bones POISON sign.
A towering black man opened the door wearing a T-shirt in winter; his massive biceps expanded and contracted as if they were breathing.
Alex tried to peer around him. “Odds & Ends?”
“Need to see some identification.”
“You want to card me?”
Even the bouncer’s sigh sounded threatening. “No, I need proof that you belong.”
Alex noted a gouged wound on the man’s head.
“You see something funny?” he asked in a bass rumble.
“Not a thing.” Alex then exposed his lipless mouth.
The bouncer nodded. “Go on.”
Dark and smoky inside. A mixture of cigarettes, weed, and burning meat on a distant grill. Alex rubbed his eyes while heading toward an open barstool. The floor felt sticky, but with colored lights strobing and the haze, he could barely distinguish anything. The music sounded chaotic, a mixture of hip hop, heavy metal, and free jazz saxophone.
He climbed onto the stool and shouted a whiskey order to the Mr. Clean lookalike bartender. Around Alex were tall men, little people, extremely obese characters, and others on the brink of starvation.
“Never seen you here before.” An attractive woman with worn features swiveled her stool to face him. “You’re kind of cute. New meat always is.”
Alex reflexively cupped a hand around his mouth. “I — I’ve had a lip malfunction.”
“Joanna,” she said, and gently moved his arm. “Doesn’t bother me. I hate kissing. That’s where we eat and breathe.” She handed him the roach of a joint.
“Smoking inside is legal?”
The bartender cough-laughed, slamming his fist down on the bar top.
“Kissing is filthy,” Joanna said, “but I do miss sex.”
Alex didn’t question her assertion. “Why do people come here?”
“Some of us feel incomplete inside. We become whole at this bar.” She pointed west. “The docks are over there. Ships come from across the world, bringing the unimaginable. They send merchants in looking for rare items to export.”
The whiskey tasted rank and the smoke irritated Alex. He sensed a headache birthing. “I need to walk around.”
“Do as you please,” Joanna said. “I’ll be here. I never go anywhere.”
As Alex rose, he squinted in the darkness. It couldn’t be. Joanna had no lower-torso. Her entire being ended at the waist, which was propped on the barstool. Hallucination? Alex rushed away. Black cloth curtains hung down, separating the semicircular bar into different sections. He pushed through one, then another. Flat-faced men waved. Women pawed at him with their bare feet. He had to escape.
In the fourth section, Alex stopped. His lips sat atop the bar and smoked a cigarette, a vodka glass nearby.
“You’re here,” Alex said in disbelief.
“They, their, and them are our pronouns,” the lips replied.
“My life has fallen apart, my job. I can’t go home.” Alex stared at them. “I need you back.”
“We broke-up with you,” they said. “You considered us your worst feature.”
“I was wrong. I’ll be nicer.”
“You know, you used to bite us,” the lips said.
“I won’t anymore.” Alex’s voice trembled. “I’m begging, please.”
“Promise to take better care of us? Blistex, lip balm, oil, scrubs?”
Will you floss and brush more? Your bad breath is legendary.”
“Yes, I swear.” His buzzing headache grew in intensity until Alex could only see a throbbing redness. Pressure immense, as if his brain might explode. Then Alex pitched forward, face-planting onto the drink-spattered bar.
“Wake up, buddy.” The bartender shook him into awareness. “Closing time.”
Alex noticed the man’s eye-patch for the first time. “How long have I — ”
“It’s 3 a.m. You do the math.”
Alex wiped his sweaty face with a bar napkin. And then he felt his lips, attached as before, no scars or wounds. “What’s the deal with this place?”
“People come looking for what they can’t find anywhere else.”
“Simple as that?”
“Well, it’s import/export,” the man said. “If you find something of value, then you trade something in return.”
“Did you?” Alex asked.
“Sure. I met the love of my life at Odds & Ends.”
“And the price?”
The bartender lifted his eye-patch to show a black empty void.
“Ugh.” Alex felt queasy. “I need to go home — now.”
“Get going, liver lips.”
Alex smiled at that. He pushed through the solid metal door and headed east until he could hail a cab on 11th Avenue. Inside his apartment, he soon drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, Beverly acted delighted by his appearance and didn’t even mention rent. She kissed him on the lips. “Here, I’ve been saving these expensive sunglasses for you.”
Alex placed them on the bridge of his nose, but both stems swung loose and the sunglasses slid off. He touched the sides of his head in horror. “My ears!”
Max Talley is a writer and artist from New York City who lives in Southern California. His fiction and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Fiction Southeast, Entropy, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Bridge Eight, Santa Fe Literary Review, and The Opiate, Talley's novel, Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, was published in 2014 and his fiction collection, My Secret Place, is forthcoming from Main Street Rag Publishing.