“The Sun Tan” (Buying Cigarettes for the Dog):

First one side, then the other. Then, a half-hour later, over again. Face down. Face up. All morning, all afternoon. Lana was the talk of the poolside. Well, they talked about delis and flea markets and gall-bladder infections, but that was just a prelude to talking about Lana. She was golden and glistening. She was tall, too, taller than all of them, and the sun raked up and down her entire impossible length. They couldn’t stop talking about her.

They came down in the morning after collecting their mail. They sat by the pool in their baggy shorts and their socks up to their knees. The women wore kerchiefs and sunglasses. They read the letters from their grandchildren, letters written at gunpoint: “How are you? I am fine. How is the weather there? It’s snowing here and Dad makes me shovel.”

And there was Lana, her hands gliding along her brown, leathery limbs, smearing on oil, over her shoulders, along the straps of her two-piece swimsuit, across her puckered belly, reaching around to her back. She was both baster and bastee, chef and main course. She spread an even layer of oil over herself, a perfectly even layer that glistened and twinkled and bubbled beneath the morning sun.

And soon they’d get up, the others, and they’d go to the flea market, maybe play some cards, visit the doctor, there was always something to visit the doctor about, always some curious drip, some new and spectacular ache, some change in regularity, some body part falling off. Always something to fuss about. And then they’d be back, a little later, back when it was safe again to lie beneath the sun, in the cool breeze of the afternoon, and she’d be there still, face down, or maybe face up, never reading, no music, glistening in the sun, a fresh perfect layer of oil smeared over her tough brown body.

They talked about her. How many husbands she’d had, where she was seen for dinner, who she was with, which of her sons were lawyers and which owned hardware stores, how beautiful her brown, brown skin. They talked about her in voices that carried across the pool and over the shuffleboard court, and through the palm trees and into the malls, in voices that wafted in her direction, and circled her head, brushed her face, her closed eyes, but never entered her ears. They talked about her while she cooked, basted, and cooked some more.

One of the men, a man named Albert, pulled up a chair beside her and cleared his throat. He carried a large canvas bag with his towel and his sun screen and his other pool accessories, and this he planted at his feet. He peered into the dark, wrinkly shadows between Lana’s breasts, and he cleared his throat again. He thought — this is what he was thinking — he thought he might like to invite her to dinner. The palm trees rustled around the pool, and somewhere in the distance there was a smack, a coconut falling to the ground and killing a gardener. But this man, Albert, he thought he might like to ask this woman to dinner — nothing formal, maybe a bagel and some potato salad. He had a small white towel over his thick, hairy shoulders. His chest was broad and white, and his large rubbery stomach hung down over the waistband of his baggy blue swim trunks. He cleared his throat again and prepared to introduce himself — introduce himself even though they’d shared the same poolside for going on twelve years now. Her leathery brown eyelids remained in place over her eyeballs, and her glistening forehead and nose didn’t even twitch. He thought he saw the faintest flare of her already full nostrils, but he couldn’t be sure.

Some thick clouds passed over the sun, or rather under the sun, between the sun and the earth below, throwing Lana’s thin brown body into shadow, blowing a cool breeze across the film of sweat and oil that bubbled on her flesh. It was a moment frozen in time, and people around the pool fell silent, and the water in the pool became still, and the shuffleboard stones stopped in mid-glide. Then a bird broke through the clouds and let in the sun again, blanketing the poolside in warmth, setting mouths in motion and rippling the surface of the pool.

Albert was a big balding man with a tub for a torso and arms as thick and hairy as a gorilla’s, but his bottom half belonged to another, tinier man. His thin white legs poked out of his swimming trunks and reached to the ground, ostriches pecking for food. His bony feet were covered by black leather loafers with tassels, and his knees popped up like tumours in every direction. One of his testicles hung out the left leg of his trunks like an almost-empty marble bag, and he kept tucking it back in, and it kept tumbling back out.

“My name,” he said, “is Albert. Albert Greenbaum. And you are Lana, am I correct?”

A small, stray cloud drifted in front of the sun again, casting a brief shadow across Lana’s face. But she said nothing. Her eyelids still refused to even flicker. An aphid dropped from a tree and landed on her forehead. It crawled in small circles for a while, then tried to fly away, but found itself trapped in the oil that coated her brow. It stumbled about a few moments, and then it gave up, frying gently on the large brown expanse of Lana’s shining forehead.

Albert reached a large, hairy hand into his beach bag. “My father was a prisoner of war at the time of the Russian revolution. But he was involved in that other war. He was in the Polish army, and fearing that he would die a slow and painful death in the trenches, perhaps bleeding from the stomach until he expired, he gave himself up to the Germans. Conditions in the prison were abysmal, but at least he was fed enough to keep him alive. My father was a tailor by trade, and he was desperate to keep his restless hands busy. He found in his cell several small stones, and he scraped them against each other until they were sharp and narrow. He begged a couple of large woodchips from a sympathetic guard, and spent the next two years carving tiny wooden animals with his sharpened stones.

“After the war, my father was released, and he wandered Europe for a couple of years, doing odd jobs, mending the clothes of farmers and merchants, until he had earned enough to board a boat to America. I was born in 1924, and when I was 13, my father gave me a gift. It was this tiny wooden mule with large floppy ears. He told me to keep it with me wherever I went, that it would bring me luck and perhaps even happiness. It was one of the animals he had carved while a prisoner. Lana…”

Lana’s forehead wrinkled slightly, and very, very slowly, her eyelids rolled back, revealing dark, glassy eyes.

“Lana,” Albert continued, “I want you to have the little mule that I have been carrying with me all these years.” He pulled his hand from the bag and slowly opened his fist. Sitting in the middle of his hammy palm was a limp yellow chicken foot, the hot sun glinting off its tiny nails. Albert placed the foot on Lana’s belly, just a few centimetres above her puckered navel.

Lana’s eyes opened wider as she felt the splayed toes pinch her leathery flesh. A small crowd had begun to form around this new couple, but nobody said a word. They were breathless, and they knew that things would never be the same at the poolside. They watched as the man with the giant torso and the scrawny legs reached again into his bag and drew out another chicken foot. He placed this one just a little to the left of the first, then reached into his bag again.

And so it went for what seemed like hours. The poolsiders peered on in silent awe as the man placed chicken foot after chicken foot on the glistening prairie of the woman’s exposed skin. They wondered what they would talk about at dinner now, and what they would tell their grandchildren. They wondered if now they would have the strength to play shuffleboard and visit the flea markets. They felt the heat of the sun reach through their floppy hats and their kerchiefs and warm their grey hair and their bald skulls.

Lana lifted her head and gazed down at her body. It was covered now in a kind of chicken-foot hound’s-tooth pattern, and she could feel all the little toenails digging into her tough, golden skin. This man, this Albert Greenbaum, thought he was giving her a tiny wooden mule with large floppy ears. He thought a hundred severed chicken feet were a tiny wooden mule with large floppy ears. Her cheeks, stretched tight across her face, began to crinkle slightly, and soon she was smiling. She reached out a long, slender, wrinkled hand and grasped the tips of Albert’s fingers. He felt the oil transferring from her hand onto him, and he knew that she had accepted his gift.

The surface of the pool began to ripple with a cool breeze, and soon it leapt and danced to the steady sprinkle of rain. The rain fell harder, splashing in sheets across the pool, and splattering on the cement that surrounded the pool, and against the empty webbed lounge chairs that sat scattered around the empty poolside.

Copyright © Stuart Ross, 2009