Anna Lenau, 1/12/2015

Current Occupation: Dog sitter, caregiver, day dreamer, writer.
Former Occupation: English 101 Instructor at Western Washington University
Contact Information: Anna Lenau is a queer, genderqueer, feminist writer, poet, and song writer/musician transplant from the Midwest to Cascadia eleven years ago, where ze fell in love with the trees of Bellingham. Anna enjoys long bike rides and last summer completed a 950 mile ride from Bellingham to the Redwoods to Crater Lake. Ze is a recent graduate of Western Washington University's MFA program in Creative Writing and is currently editing zir first book.

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Four-Wall Town

(2001) I see her at the ice cream shop while I wait in line for a waffle cone of mint chocolate chip, after I’ve worked a full shift flipping hamburgers, bacon, frying French fries and fried fish or shrimp all-you-can-eat. My sister Melanie visiting from college and she wants ice cream so I hopped in her car still fuming of cigarette smoke and grease, a layer thick on the edge of my shoes where my overlarge men’s jeans don’t cover.

    She stands there nonchalant, her bony-white hairless arms crossed in her turquoise tank top layered over grey, golden curls pulled back around her head like a tiara, blue jeans tight around her small hips. I take note of the little silver toe ring on her delicate, ivory toe, second to her pinkie on the right foot nestled in flip flops. Every thing about her, on her, seems new. She can’t be more than 15. She acts aloof, almost disgusted that she is here with her mother and younger brother, waiting for her lime freeze, one of those new kind of sundaes from the machine with a hint of sour. I am a little disgusted for her, that she must stoop to this level, waiting like a commoner by her somewhat less attractive mother and mischievous brother.

    In low tones I whisper to my sister with something of awe in my voice, Everything about her is perfect. Melanie looks at her then with something akin to confusion, looks at me with something like annoyance because she too is one of those girls.

    Clean, white, thin, golden, hairless, perfect.

    Seeing her there in all her small clean glory, I am suddenly so aware of my hair like a soiled brown velour curtain coiled into a tight rope under my bandana and my large yellowed t-shirt resembling the napkins that wind up in the garbage at the end of the night, the scent of locals’ cigarettes mingled with the food I serve up for them clinging to my skin, congealing like the grease from the fryers that I empty in the oil vats by the dumpster when fish Friday is over.   

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(2013) The butternut squash hisses in the oven’s heat like birds singing from the spidery limbs in my backyard. I eat the orange flesh—burnt sienna flecked squash—the same way I gnaw into an exposed mango, peel flesh out of skin with my teeth, juice drips down my chin, shove my thumb deep into its throat, dig out my sustenance. No time for fancy arrangements, I’m hungry, voracious. Drool at the bacon in my cast iron skillet—marble-white between salmon-colored slivers that shrivel, hiss and curl into burnt sienna edges frying.

This birdsong reminds me of the rows and rows of bacon I used to fry up for years every afternoon as we got slow and the men from town came in for their afternoon coffee and sat at the large round table by the big windows and smoke. I stand in back in oversized men’s jeans, a bandana on my head and an inch of grease on my shoes, and fit as many slivers of bacon as I can on the large grill, scrape off the slick wet grease from the near left corner into the grill gutter for the order-up mushroom burger and keep the rivers of grease away as the pulverized red and white meat cooks.

Marble-white and salmon colored bacon-hiss

every afternoon as we get slow.

I’m slower than most, a late bloomer

they call it, slow to come around,

slow to come,

slow.

Shrivel and curl into burnt

sienna edges frying

rivers of slick

wet grease.

The skin on my hands breaks out up to my elbows from all the water, bleach, latex gloves, eczema, stress and the Top 40’s Country whining through the stereo. I refuse to sing along until one day my knees buckle, I put the twang in my voice, make my mother laugh with, “Where were youuuu when the who-rled stopped tuu-rnin’, that September da-ay?” I embrace every lost love, all those brokenhearted girls in the rain, all those cowboys with regret, they are my comfort.

I begin to eat bacon—with eggs, on cheeseburgers, a BLT, ice cream, chili cheese French fries. No time for fancy arrangements, I’m hungry, voracious. They are my comfort.

Shrivel and curl and hiss

into burnt sienna edges,

sizzle and spit slow.

Skin broken out

up to my elbows

in bacon grease,

frying

Broken girls

singing in the rain

skin hands

burnt edges

Sizzle, spit

put the twang

in my throat

oversized jeans

an inch of grease

on my shoe 

peel flesh out of skin

teeth frying

birds hiss from my throat.

#

(2001) My hands are bleeding cracks, the little blisters that poke up under the skin of my palms raw and weeping, cluster around the nails in the creases at the base of each finger, weeping blisters like lesions. It has come back again at 19 after six years dormant. And I have no idea why. All that dishwater, bleach, the latex gloves, the bacon grease on the spatula handle in my hand, the constant heat from the grill. Much later, after the horror of skin subsides, I treat myself randomly to a manicure down the street, because that’s what girls do. I don’t want nail polish or anything fancy, I just want someone to hold my fingers in their soft hands, take notice. She massages my right hand in both of hers and then holds it up limp. Like a psychic she says, “You hold something in your right hand that dries it out.” I think to myself, no shit.

#

In the afternoons when we are slow, I clear the grill and fill it with row after row of bacon, lined up. If someone comes in and orders a burger just then, I’ll clear a corner and cook the burger but inevitably it will have a hint of bacon as the rivers of grease flow into the drains at the edge. When I’ve filled two cambros of bacon, I’ve done my prep for the following day and can begin rotating the onion, tomato, green pepper, lettuce, mushrooms, and cheese for the morning shift. The boxes of powdered latex gloves lay out on all the countertops.

    I call it eczema because that’s what someone told me it was when I was playing soccer at 14. It doesn’t dawn on me until it moves up my arm and stops at the elbow that it could be from the gloves. My skin is raw and angry like the pulverized beef I form into patties and press down with a flat metal press, squeezing out the excess grease that forms a puddle around the meat and scrape it into the gutter drain.

    I keep to myself and don’t say much, even to Heather, who is the nicest girl in the world but very quiet. She’s got two kids and is going to school and trying to make it work with her boyfriend Jeremy, the father of her baby. When Amy comes in after school, the blonde dishwasher I met on the first day, she is loud and boisterous and asks me questions, gets me laughing and talking. Heather says, “She doesn’t talk to me, but when you come in she talks!” So I vow inwardly to change my ways because Heather is nice.

#

“Why are you wearing those?” Amy asks as she stares at the bright yellow latex gloves I’m wearing up to my elbows.

    “Because my hands hurt.” The juice from the fish and the fry batter seeps into the red cracks of my skin and it stings and itches. What I don’t know is, this will only make it worse. But I have to work. I have to get out of this town.

    Friday night fish fry, grab the thawing fish in the box next to the giant metal bowl full of batter, dip it in, nestle the fish into the grease fryer and wait for them to float to the top, then fish them out with a metal net. All you can eat.

    I’m a hard worker, washing all the dishes all weekend, but I don’t say much and Bernita, our boss, comments on it often. I don’t know why I am so shy. I have plenty to say at home or with my church friends. She comes from a different world than me, with two teenage sons, a drunk for a husband, and later, a boyfriend who is not much older than me. In my head I always rhyme her name with Gordita, like the female version of the Taco Bell double decker taco.

    My first day on the job, it’s my 19th birthday. I walk across the street from my house at 10am, enter the Stage Stop Restaurant, Bernita gives me a white starched apron and a blonde girl says her name is Amy and shows me the drill. Wash in the first sink with soap, bleach water in the second sink, last sink rinse.

    I take a deep breath and hold it as I plunge my hands into the hot water that reaches up past my elbows and dig in for the next four hours. My friend Shawna and my cousin Shawna come to pick me up and though I smell like French fries, bacon and cigarette smoke, when she asks if I want to take a shower first, I say, “No, I’m sick of water.”

    I change my clothes and we go to the mall. I have always hated the mall with memories of being dragged around for hours by my mother to find the best deals on clothes for her swiftly growing brood of children, but that’s what teenage girls are supposed to like. I am tired with a headache and in pictures Shawna takes of me that day, I am pale, washed out, but trying to be silly and smile.

    Eventually I work up to an evening cook after the new cook doesn’t show up for a few days because he went to jail. I know I can do everything he was doing and Bernita gives me a try. But on Friday and Saturday mornings we have to make homemade white and raisin bread and at some point I always burn it.

#

When I’ve saved enough money I go to the dentist down the road to get a root canal for the back molar that has been rotting and causing me pain for months. I am surprised when I see Gene, my sister’s ex-boyfriend, filling in. He is kind and competent, but when he sees my hands he asks about my work and tells me to stop using the latex gloves because I could have a serious reaction and wind up in the hospital. I don’t quite know what he means and it takes a while longer to realize he is right. It’s the latex on top of the eczema festered by water and bleach and grease that is eating my hands and arms alive.

    But even after I quit using the gloves, the raging anger of this lesion won’t be appeased. My father’s nutritionist friend with no credentials, the only healthcare provider my father listens to, says it must be from the chemicals I am exposed to. “Stop the exposure, and you’ll stop the skin problems.”

    “I can’t quit!” I almost yell. Well then it will never get better, because I can’t quit my job, I say to myself. I feel desperate and trapped.

 

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