Len Kuntz

The Remedy

Iris was nine years old when the first visits began, always near midnight, moonshine bleaching the curtain fabric like a large birthmark.

It was also around this time that Iris stole her first object, one of her mother’s perfume bottles, the one with a peculiar crucifix shape. Her mother had an assortment of the containers, forty or fifty arranged next to the His-and-Her sinks, all empty, in every size and shape imaginable, delicate and chunky, most clear but some with odd, seductive shades—ruby, lime, dandelion orange, shimmering silver.

On Thursdays after a bubble bath, Iris’s mother examined each bottle with a watchmaker’s intensity, holding it up to the overhead light, and then swaddling it in a hand cloth while rubbing vigorously between her thumbs and forefingers. Iris thought of diapered infants and miniature mummies. Along with her mother’s singing, usually an Elton John tune—“Candle in the Wind” or “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” –it seemed to Iris that her mother was attempting to somehow coax the things back to life.

Clearly her mother should have noticed the missing crucifix bottle, and yet–as Iris awaited a confrontation with hand-tingling angst–nothing was said.

So she took the pear bottle next, and then two heart designs.

In this manner, Iris learned that it was okay to take, so long as you didn’t get caught, so long as no one mentioned what was missing. If there wasn’t anyone to proclaim the item stolen, was it in fact stolen? If–as some philosopher had once posited–a tree fell in the forest but no one heard it, did the tree actually make a sound? Similarly, if her father did things to her during his nightly visits and no one intervened or declared it wrong, did those incidences even happen anywhere but in Iris’s still-forming mind?

In the weeks that followed, Iris grew bolder with her stealing, though nothing too brazen. She stuck to random household items, mostly articles of her mother’s clothing—a padded bra that snapped in front, a pair of skimpy leopard-print panties that looked unworn, a hairbrush, one black stiletto—then some miscellaneous fodder—a calculator that doubled as a radio, two cook books, a small watercolor depicting some sea side storm and a crock pot that had been used, as far as iris knew, twice.

Satisfied yet chilled, with the heart-thumping guilt of her newfound criminality, young Iris buried the entire booty in the backyard.

And to her astonishment, none of it—not a single item—was ever reported missing.

Emboldened, Iris took her thievery beyond their homestead.

Again, she started small, filching a hardback copy of, “The Scarlet Letter” from Powell’s Books. That same day she returned to the store in the afternoon, had a foamy cappuccino and chocolate-covered biscotti in the café area, and left without paying for any of it, including “Portnoy’s Complaint,” “Lolita” and a tattered but current issue of “Field & Stream.”

A week later she stole a pair of shoulder-duster earrings from a kiosk in the mall, trying them on right in front of the daft girl who ran the register. At the downtown Nordstrom the next month she stole a pair of Limited Edition suspenders embroidered with bulls and bears, whose purchase price was $145.00.

At a 7/11 Iris stole a pouch of chewing tobacco, “Redman,” and a tube of ointment that claimed to eradicate hemorrhoids. Pushing her luck, Iris revisited the same 7/11 several hours afterward and boosted a box of twelve Miller Lites, clamping the freezing case between her thighs, doing her best not to appear too bowlegged as she exited.

To say that stealing thrilled Iris would be a massive understatement. While she was scoping out her next crime, taking in conditions such as employee head count, distance from herself to the door, overhead or side-view mirrors as well as looming customers who might actually be vice squad, Iris became so giddy that she often peed herself—just a dribble, but still. When she stole, Iris felt a jagged joy, her whole body replete with needy nerve-endings. “Such sensations were how Iris imagined sex to be–spiritualistic sex–with someone you loved and who loved you back.”

But the stealing sensation was fleet. Once it was over, once Iris had buried her latest loot in the backyard with the rest of her cockle collection, an unbearable loneliness overtook her, a true physical illness ambushing her like a sudden star-spotted migraine or limb-swelling allergic reaction. Her throat would constrict. Sores—not exactly canker sores either—sprouted up between her gums and cheeks, little raspberry buds with broccoli-headed tops.   Her head misted over with sweat. She shivered, burning up and freezing simultaneously.

The only remedy was more stealing.

***

“They were almost caught once.  Iris thought of herself as “they” because it was her room and her bed and her body, and the visits by her father.”

Guests were staying over that night, Aunt Belinda and Uncle Roy. On the way to the bathroom, Belinda’s slippered feet stalled outside the door. Tapping first, then knuckling, Belinda’s voice sounded parched and dusty when she said, “Iris? Everything okay in there?”

Iris’s father had been sprawled awkwardly across the bed, his body position similar to a crime scene chalk silhouette. This was his habit, ensuring their two skins would never physically touch.

When Iris’s father heard Belinda’s voice, he leapt to his feet, flinging the blanket over Iris like a bullfighter abandoning his cape.

He opened the door a crack. “It’s okay, Bell,” he said, holding a forefinger to his lips. “She gets nightmares from time to time, but she’s sleeping now.”

Through a peep hole she’d created between the bunched-up blanket and mattress, Iris watched Belinda’s head swing around her father’s face, as if they were playing Do-Si-Do.

“All right then,” Belinda said.

“Yes, all right,” her father mimicked.

***

By the time Iris turned thirteen her habit was running up against a curb. The 7/11 stood only a few blocks from her house, but she’d been there so often she’d practically ransacked the place. While it was an obvious advantage having a fix this close at hand, Iris was almost out of things to steal. Looting for looting’s sake no longer satiated, she needed more.

In just ten days time she’d burgled a blender, cans of baked beans, economy-sized boxes of tampons, every type of cereal known to man, thirteen shriveled monster dogs (in one shot), an ice chest, a ten gallon jug of purified drinking water and a rolling mop bucket from the store’s cleaning closet.

And still, desperate and cunning, she returned.

Tonight she wore a skirt with thin, knit leggings underneath, prepared for anything extraordinary that might catch her eye. The sensor bell gave up a dull belch when she stepped on the muddy floor mat and bursting air sent a shiver squirreling up her thighs, despite the leggings.

Disappointment stripped away her excitement when she saw that the boy wasn’t behind the counter. In his place instead was a sheik.

The sheik’s head was adorned with a snow white turban. A beard began high up on his face, just below the eye sockets, and he sat on a bead-backed stool wearing a short-sleeve shirt, his wooly arms crossed.

It wasn’t as if Iris had a crush on the boy, far from it. Setting his dark good looks aside, he was no different than any other indolent boy at school, and Iris did not abide laziness.

What she liked was how the boy’s presence heightened the tension. He’d been present for every one of her countless crimes and, she felt, if anyone were ever to finally nab her, it’d have to be him.

She walked the aisles slowly. The store was a compact space, not browser-friendly in the least. A wide-bottomed person would have a heck of a time passing through should another shopper be coming down the other way.

A bolt of encouragement shot through Iris as she peered over a row of Good & Plenty boxes to find the sheik studying her, not very inconspicuously either. Managing to lift something while under constant and blatant surveillance would be a new twist, like lip-kissing moving onto French.

The door swung open, blasting frigid air, the bell burping. Two punks with Mohawks, requisite leather jackets, and platform boots stumbled in, giggling like girls, both of them higher than Neptune. The sheik straightened and his nose twitched, spotting new blood.

For the second time in less than five minutes, discouragement whirled through Iris. She wanted to sob. It had been years since she’d cried and while the urge was there inside her, close to the surface, Iris wondered if weeping was a skill you had to dust off consistently lest you lose it altogether. Nevertheless, to her shock and horror, Iris began bawling, gurgling like a coffee pot. Liquid streamed down her eyes and twin snot bubbles exploded in either nostril as her mouth became inexplicably awash with a vat of belly-warmed saliva.

What to do?

She bent down beside the row of metal spokes displaying beef jerky and pepperoni sticks, gum coiled inside tape measure containers, foot-long cheese sticks and rainbow-colored gummy worms.

For the first time since her thieving ways began, Iris walked out of the 7/11 with nothing in her possession, bearing only gloom and shame.

She took a few steps, saw the boy, and then changed direction.

“Hey!” he called.

Lazy Teller Boy had been lying across the hood of a car, arms crossed behind his head, staring at the sky and smoking. Five feet away sat a dumpster overflowing with heaps of trash that he easily could have picked up, considering all the spare time on his hands.

Iris’s house was in the opposite direction, but the last thing she wanted was to deal with the slouch yelling after her. She’d rather be handcuffed and tortured by a bunch of Nazis.

When he caught up to her, the boy grabbed her elbow, not rough though. “If you please,” he gasped, walk-jogging to keep pace, “perhaps you could do me the favor of pulling up for a moment.”

His elocution was proper, his accent middle eastern. Iris almost gasped herself when she looked down at his hands, their velvety, chocolate-milk luster one of the most spectacular sights she’d ever seen.

“What did you boost?”

“Scram,” Iris said, putting some growl into it.

“I’m not going to bust you, if that’s your concern.”

“Just bugger off.”

“Are you British?”

“You wish!”

“What is that supposed to mean?” He had one of those sloppy, wet-lipped grins that Iris always found irresistible.

“I’m cold, angry and female, not necessarily in that order.”

“No kidding?” He laughed, wheezing a bit. “Please, just stop for a second. I am entirely winded.”

“Yeah? Well, keep smoking and in a couple of years you’ll be making S’mores with your trachea.”

“I know, bad habit, right?”

“I hear it’s a killer.”

He was doing things with his legs, scissoring them, making crisp skipping motions to keep up with her.

“You look spastic,” Iris said. “Are you a cheerleader or something?”

“You are a funny girl. But tell me, were you crying back there?”

“Allergies, Dr. Dumb Shit.”

“Of course, naturally.”

“I’m allergic to excessive body hair.”

“You mean me? Hey, low blow!”

“No thanks.”

“Funny again!”

“You said it, I didn’t.”

“You are quite an angry individual.”

“I tried to warn you. I’m no Mother Teresa.”

“Excuse me, whose mother?”

“Oh, brother.”

“Please, won’t you stop for just one moment?”

“Maybe I have to pee.”

“There’s a restroom back at the store, but then you know that, yes? Please, just tell me one thing and then I swear I will leave you alone.”

“Yeah?”

“Just one thing, but first, stop before I faint.”

“You should really consider using a treadmill once in awhile.”

When Iris stopped, she noticed his name tag said “Ralph.”

Ralph came to a jerky halt, bent over and puffing, clutching his side. When he straightened up, he stood panting directly into Iris’s mouth.

“Oh! Your breath smells horrible!”

“I owe you many apologies.”

“What’d you do, barbeque a monkey in there?”

“You are very descriptive.”

“You don’t look like a Ralph.”

“Oh, that,” he said, following her eyes to the name tag. “You are correct. My name is actually Raja, but my father—he is running the store tonight—my father considers Ralph a more American name, projecting capitalistic opportunity.”

“What a bunch of hooey.”

“What is hooey?”

“Don’t get me started.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Shut up and ask your stupid question. Geez, what if I really did have to pee?”

They stood beneath a street light, their bodies casting black wand shapes across the lighter smoke-gray pavement. In the distance, a couple of cats were tearing each other to shreds.

“My question is this: how do you do it?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Each time you come in, you are not at all secretive in your movements, and even though I don’t watch you continually, I am still very much aware. Yet I cannot ever spot your theft! It is most impressive.”

So he knew. Of course he knew. “What exactly are you accusing me of?”

“Please, do not be defensive. I said I was impressed, and that is the truth. If you had a fan club I would be a member, perhaps even serving on the executive board.”

“Do you have a tape recorder under your shirt?”

Raja smiled, his teeth whiter than she’d expected, considering his smoking habit. He pulled his shirt up to his neck, revealing a muscled torso, a river of downy hair growing from his belt buckle and winding upward onto the plains covering his chest. Iris swallowed and studied her shoe tips.

“Aren’t you freezing to death?” she asked.

“I am cold, yes. The winters here are most unkind.”

“Look, I need to get going.”

“But you haven’t answered me.”

“You’re right, I haven’t. So,” she said, back turned as she walked, “I guess you’re not as dumb as you look.”

***

Raja was Iris’s first and only boyfriend.

She learned that his family had come from Pakistan and that his parents were Muslim. Raja loved America, especially the food and the many brands of cigarettes. He showed Iris how to blow smoke rings, though just by watching. He let her run his hands over the moguls of muscle rippling on his abdomen, let her finger the coils of his chest hair. He taught her how to kiss. Raja was sixteen, she fourteen. He told her he had fallen in love with her the night she boosted the case of Miller Lites. He likened her abilities to that of the greatest magicians: Harry Houdini, David Blaine and David Copperfield, Jesus Christ.

Iris’s stealing addiction subsided during her tenure under Raja’s tutelage. He became her new infatuation. Raja represented safety, calm, certainty. She thought she could love him.

Raja pressed Iris for information about her life. “You are so secretive, why?” (Wrapped around his accent, the word “why” sounded like a plucked sitar string.) “I must know it all, everything about you, each delicious secret.”

“What if some are gross?”

“I assure you, nothing you can say will make me love you less.”

“My story’s boring. Your life is so much more interesting.”

And it was. Pakistan!

As a young boy Raja had raised a pet lynx he named Fahad after an uncle who, with his pointed ears and bowtie chin whiskers, precisely resembled the mangy beast. Whenever Fahad the lynx became angry, wings would jut out from the sides of his ribcage and so Raja was forever taunting the exotic cat, snapping the air with a towel as if in a gym-locker duel. “That’s horrible,” Iris had said. “But he could fly!” Raja said. “How fantastic, right? And just look at this,” he said, pointing to a leg scar that did look quite a lot like a fang mold. “I bled for two days, but it was worth it, because I lassoed the creature, which infuriated him, and together Fahad and I shot out the living room window and toured both the cities of Khairpur and Sukkur in a single magical evening.”

In time Raja ran out of stories, even made-up ones. He ran out of breath, too, from so much talking and kissing. To wit, one day, exasperated yet ever humble and polite, Raja exhaled noisily.

Was that a sigh? Iris had never heard Raja sigh, and it frightened her. “What?”

“It is difficult being in love with a mystery.”

***

At night when her father came into her room, Iris closed her eyes and tried to conjure Raja’s face. She struggled to recall his liquid voice, displacing her consciousness as he whispered exotic fables into her ear canal. However, no amount of effort or imagination ever worked.   In fact, there were times when, because the trick didn’t take, Iris found herself actually blaming Raja. His love, her love for him—that type of soul mate love should have been enough to shoulder anything, even horrors.

Yet how could it? She was damaged, permanently stained, scarred from the inside out, just fourteen years old but she might as well be dead already. Good riddance.

***

One day they were sitting in the back of Uncle Frooq’s El Camino very near the dumpster where Raja had been smoking the day she’d left the 7/11 empty-handed.

He cradled her in his arms, elbow under elbow, his cheek pressed against her head, rubbing the filaments of her hair between his fingers as if sifting for gold.

“You must tell me something about yourself.”

“I’ve told you it all.”

“Ah, then how come I know so little?”

“Maybe you should listen better,” Iris said, stunned and stung by her returning bitterness.

She felt Raja flinch. “I suppose you are correct.”   He tweaked her nose and ran his fingertip down the slope, inching slow as a caterpillar. She shivered. “Please, just a morsel of information,” he said, “something deliberately fresh.”

“What do you want to hear?”

“Your parents for starters. It is rare for you to speak of them.”

“Why should I?”

“What does your father do?”

“Cuts and sews.”

“Ah, a tailor.”

“Surgeon.”

“But then that would be cut and repairs, cut and heals.”

“Trust me, there’s no healing involved.”

Iris could feel Raja’s confusion through his fingers for he began tapping an erratic pattern against her cheek.

She bit her lip and sucked down a gulp of air as if she were swallowing her first beer—half a glass of it in a single swig. “Okay… My mother does things, but I don’t know what those things are because she never talks to me, and I’m pretty certain she hates me. Plus she’s never home. She has girlfriends, neighbor friends. I assume that’s where she gets her conversation quota in. Let’s see, what else? Oh, and my parents’ divorce lasted three years. My father’s been back as long as I’ve been stealing.”

“They divorced and then remarried?”

“I guess. It’s just paper anyway.”

“See, your life is quite fascinating. I knew it.”

Iris hadn’t cried since the day Raja came running after her and she did not want to cry now, yet the effort to stop from doing so sent her body into convulsions, shuddering like an overstuffed dryer during the spin cycle.

Raja whispered, “Shhh, my princess. You are safe,” and with that short collection of words, his voice brought about serenity. Iris felt something crumbling inside her as Raja took her head in his hands, held it as if it was a very delicate and precious bowl, and kissed her on the crown. He began to stroke her hair with a brush. After a few silent moments, he took the comb and slowly ran its handle across Iris’s cheek, when she leapt.

“Stop it! Stop touching me!”

Raja jerked.

Iris broke free of his embrace and scooted to the side of the El Camino, her back to the wheel hub molding. She had grabbed the hairbrush and now she flung it at him as hard as she could. “You stink. You smell like a barn, like the inside of a zoo, an ashtray.”

“Love—“

“Don’t you ever bathe? What they say about Muslims is true, your whole race is no better than livestock.”

Raja cocked his eyebrow like a scolded puppy. “This is a test, yes? A way to determine the strength of my love?”

“Why do you have to be so damn sappy all the time?”

“Iris?” Whenever he said her name she quivered, as if nicking an electric fence.

“I don’t know why I’m with you. We don’t belong together at all. I’ve been an absolute idiot. We’re completely wrong.”

“We are two halves—“

“Bullshit. I hate you.”

Raja appeared panicked and alarmed now, blinking rapidly. “But I have held your heart in my hands. I have watched it beating while you’ve slept.”

“See? That’s what I’m talking about. It’s all a gag-fest, one giant load of crap.”

“But I love you.”

“Well, good luck with that.” When Raja tried to help her as she stepped out of the truck, Iris swatted his hand away. “You got hair in your ears? Didn’t you hear me? I said I HATE you.”

“I don’t believe it.”

Stuck in stasis for a moment, Iris stared at him. Then she took off one of her shoes and beat him with it, lurching over the car’s edge, hitting on the back, shoulders, neck and head. She was the one screaming. Raja wouldn’t raise his hands, wouldn’t defend his self, and when Iris saw that, she spit in his hair and ran.

***

The next day she called a meeting with Mr. Khakwani, Raja’s father.

When Iris arrived, he nodded to her at the entrance of the 7/11 and flipped the sign so that it read “Sorry, we’re closed.”

He offered Iris his swivel stool behind the counter but she said she preferred standing.

So, he asked.

She gave him her story.

Mr. Khakwani fanned his hands, wasting no time in conveying his disbelief.

But wasn’t he missing inventory? Iris asked. A few months back, hadn’t there been quite a few shortages?

No, Mr. Khakwani said, nothing gone. In fact, he and his son took a full count each week, tallying very carefully. Even their corporate franchiser did not recommend weekly counts.

That was when Iris realized Raja had been covering for her, either by replacing the stolen items or by manipulating the inventory sheets.

Did she have proof of her outrageous claims? Mr. Khakwani asked.

Iris said that she did. She went further.

“Lies!” Mr. Khakwani screamed.

“I don’t want any trouble. I’m not blackmailing you either, if that’s what you think. My only request is that you keep Raja from ever seeing me again. This madness has to end.”

“But the proof, where is the proof? You make these accusations against my son, you say a boy—a very good boy!—like my Raja sexually abuses you in exchange for free merchandise? I don’t believe it. Not for one second.”

Iris leaned across the counter and turned her chin into her chest laughing. “You think you know your son, but he’s not what he seems.”

“Again , where is the proof?!” Mr. Khakwani shouted, kicking a magazine stand over. “I demand proof!”

Iris dug up all of the items she’d stolen and wheel-barrowed them over to the store. It took six separate trips. It was hard getting the items clean again. She used a whisk broom, swishing it back and forth like a seasoned archeologist, and yet she never could get all the dirt off.

***

Len-Kuntz-154899_1689601768934_1504415167_31682279_294741_nLen Kuntz is a writer from Washington State and an editor at the online magazine Literary Orphans.  His work appears widely in print and online journals.  His story collection, “The Dark Sunshine,” debuted from Connotation Press in 2014.  You can also find him at lenkuntz.BlogSpot.com

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