Mr. Sticky Fingers
by Jody J. Sperling
Earlier that afternoon I received an unexpected rejection from a summer writer’s workshop. I’d figured on being passed up for funding, but nothing in me was prepared for an outright, form rejection. The punch had me reeling, distracted, sunk deep in a muck of failure. Not even the view of a brilliant orange and pink sunset from the third-floor window of my hotel room could lift my spirits.
Several eighteen-foot trailers, perhaps full of merchandise arrived from China or Taiwan, lined the walls of the Wal-Mart parking lot west of me. As the horizon darkened, and with only one lamp burning, the contours of my room sharpened.
This preceding a long day of work, I struggled to quiet my brain for writing, which is my true vocation, though it’s the work I do either early in the morning or late at night when the demands of my paying job are minimal. Yet it wasn’t the rejection or the dulling of my paying job that distracted me. It was my own face inked in stark shadows, lit for critique.
As is common in hotels—I defy anyone to explain this feature—a four-foot by two-foot mirror was centered over the work-station. Sitting in the office chair in front of my computer at the desk, I faced my reflection nose-to-nose. I was empty and aimless, awash in self-pity, when a knock startled me. I went to the door of my room and opened it, and there he was.
Since age fourteen, I have longed to grow a beard. One of the sophomore classmen at my highschool, a boy a year ahead of me, maintained a full beard. I remember his acne-pitted forehead clearly, though his name has long since abandoned me. He was one among a small group of students who, between passing periods, walked across the street to the smokers’ pit. I recall eavesdropping on a conversation in the cafeteria lunch line between him and a boy from the wrestling team. He bragged about how easy it was to buy cigarettes because of his beard. No one, but no one, carded him.
Though I never joined the crowd at the smokers’ pit, I did smoke, but except for once, on account of my baby-face, I never managed to buy a pack of cigarettes before legal age. My failure to buy cigarettes embarrassed and angered me. Convenience store clerks always asked for my ID, and I recall once trying to use a Yale t-shirt I’d gotten as a souvenir on a trip through Connecticut as evidence that I was old enough. It’s laughable to relate how when the clerk asked for my ID I said I forgot it at home but pointed to that shirt and said, “I’m a college student.”
It was around then I met Mr. Sticky Fingers, on a night walking alone through the neighborhood. In the park at the end of the block this old man wearing pleated khaki shorts, knee-high tube socks, and penny-loafers soared on the swing set, cutting a trough in the woodchips with every kick of his legs. Nearly twenty years have passed since I met him. If I were to follow the lead of certain literary lions who import great significance to singular events, I might state that after meeting Mr. Sticky Fingers my life would never be the same again. He stole for me my first pack of Dunhill Menthol from the deep freeze in the garage out of my mother’s own carton.
From that point on, we periodically lifted items from retailers, neighbors, family members, friends, and even once, a Good Samaritan who’d picked us up, hitchhiking. When, years later, alcohol became a part of my life, Mr. Sticky Fingers said it dramatically improved my disposition. You’re so much more fun, he said, and picked a scab from his left nostril.
We’d often split a sixer, and heads spinning, drive to the mall or nearest Barnes and Noble. I picked the place. He lifted the goods.
Until my trip to Wyoming, where I had gone to train one of my employer’s sales representatives, Mr. Sticky Fingers and I saw everything eye-to-eye. It was there in Jackson Hole that I drank too much, even for Mr. Sticky Fingers’s liking. He kept warning me, There’s an art to it, my boy, and, Excess is egress, but I was bored or thirsty or both. He had been with me all afternoon, lifting a cattleman hat, two books, a porcelain buffalo figurine, a Buck knife, and a souvenir t-shirt before I doubled back to the Bison Brewery. He stopped at the door.
“Let’s have another drink,” I said.
He wiped sweat from his pale forehead. Here’s where we part ways, he said. There’s a difference between getting shitfaced and having fun.
“I beg to disagree.”
I finger-waved and left him standing there on the elevated pine boardwalk. Some time later, blackout drunk, I returned to the western attire retailer. Had I not returned, Mr. Sticky Fingers would’ve got to worrying and searched me out, helped me back to our hotel room, and our careers as drunks and thieves might have continued uninterrupted, but I, for reasons I’ll never understand, wanted another look at the Stetsons. The cashier who earlier had taken my head measurement—seven and three-eighths—identified me as the hat bandit and called security.
There would be police and fingerprinting and a cold concrete holding room. There would be a long night and an isolation cell where I met a strange cockroach who spoke fine English and swore the horror stories about his kind were all lies of the fearful. At dawn, when I finally sobered there would be my release, the return of my personal effects, among them a shot-glass in the shape of a boot that had painted on its side in flowing script Jackson Hole—perhaps planted by Mr. Sticky Fingers to shame me for my indulgences—and there would be a phone call from me to my wife who had spent a night worrying I was dead until she discovered I was alive and sobering in jail.
My wife and I recovered from that drama, though I’ll never know to what extent she considered leaving me. I swore off drinking, and while Mr. Sticky Fingers briefly came back around, he failed to persuade me on the virtues of moderation. He said he didn’t know what was worse, Nothingman, the blackout drunk, or Lieutenant Boredom of the 349th Sober Division. Son, it’s the road for me, he said and thumbed a ride out of town.
The next four years, I devoted to the slow rebuilding of marital trust. Twice during that time, Mr. Sticky Fingers passed through town, just on the outside chance I’d had a change of heart. Both times he came, his age showed as if a decade separated each. On the night of that first visit he had balded from forehead to crown, and somewhere along the way he’d started wearing rimless bifocals. On his second visit he’d resorted to the use of a rubber tipped walking cane, which he needed on account of his bowed back. He had a good sense for when my wife was away. When he came I bought him a beer and he showed me how to lift a signed copy of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, but the fun was nothing like old times.
Before my trip to Jackson Hole, when I still believed my impulses were under control, I got my hands on a few bottles of minoxidil. My family was living in Spokane. We’d moved there for school, for me to attend a Master of Fine Arts program at Eastern Washington University. Our second son had just been born, and we were living in an apartment on the South Hill.
I had been, for several months, dropping hints to my wife that I wanted to try minoxidil on my face. As is common for me, I had researched the effects and outcomes of the drug’s use on men’s faces. I noted timelines (one to two years for satisfactory results), learned terms (vellus hair was the translucent hair that first responded to minoxidil, lengthening invisibly before falling out to make way for coarse, pigmented terminal hairs), and documented the ways in which men endured the journey (namely, a lot of guys used hair dye at around the six-month mark to give color to the stubborn vellus hairs that were slow to transition). Hundreds of men had posted before-and-after pictures of their beards in online forums, and so far as I could tell, there were no horror stories. But my wife was afraid minoxidil would turn me into a monkey with hair growing up to my eyeballs and across the bridge of my nose.
Embarrassed by my desperation, and hating to be teased, rather than explaining to my wife that I wanted to feel I had control over some small element of my impossible dreams, I asked Mr. Sticky Fingers for help. I kept the canisters he gave me in my car, and it was easy to apply morning doses as I set off for work. Evening applications were more challenging, but I got good at forgetting invoices in my glovebox or needing a stroll around the block.
After a month new chest hair began to sprout, but my beard showed no improvement. There was a night when my wife and I were naked and brushing our teeth before bed. She pet my chest and said, “So burly.” I felt both proud—more hair seemed the correct masculine trajectory—and lonely, because secrecy isolates.
During the second month, I was plagued by fears of being caught. My wife would find the canisters hidden in my car, which would lead her to question my last few years of open and honest living. There’d be bags packed, flights booked back home, and a signed copy of divorce papers on the pillow of my lonely king bed. I see now all the classic denial of addiction in my choice to do just enough to satisfy myself that I had averted the worst outcome. I disposed of my minoxidil and in so doing convinced myself I meant to swear off my burgeoning kleptomania, which would in turn give me a running start at curbing the behaviors that looked a lot like early alcoholism. Wouldn’t a confession of my transgressions merely degrade marital trust? Mr. Sticky Fingers and I agreed I had shown proof enough of my intent to reform by throwing away the stolen minoxidil, and so my beard experiment came to a halt with nothing but an extra tuft of chest hair to show for it. To celebrate this victory of integrity, I bought Mr. Sticky Fingers an extra round on my next work trip.
I dislike remembering the day I stood in the basement bathroom of my childhood home before the oval mirror, how I pondered my reflection, how I desperately, desperately wanted a beard. Contorting my lips and cheeks I stared and gazed, hoping the sparse peach fuzz might somehow evolve. “Do you think I could grow a beard?” I asked my mom later that day.
“Did you want me to lie?”
I went out walking to blow off steam. At the park I found Mr. Sticky Fingers at his usual swing. He glanced casually toward me and said, In case you were wondering, your grades aren’t good enough for Yale.
That memory replayed in my mind as I stood nose-to-nose with my old friend at the hotel across from Wal-Mart. Mr. Sticky Fingers asked if I ever meant to invite him in or if we were just going to stand there. I stepped aside.
He complimented my digs and went right into his pitch. Turns out there’s no one quite like me. He knows; he’s searched. And he could tell at a glance what I needed. We could be of use to each other, he said. Why didn’t we pop across the parking lot and wander the aisles at Wal-Mart like old times? He’d lift a box of hair dye, and I could tell him how good and sneaky he was. He needed a little encouragement, he said. People didn’t understand how important it was to get some affirmation.
I balked, but Mr. Sticky Fingers said, Come on. I know you hate when your wife teases you. You need this. It’s been a rough week full of rejection. Or am I missing something?
“Go away,” I said and closed myself in the bathroom, snapping a few photos of my cheeks and lips and zooming the focus to the trouble spots. Within the bald horseshoe bisecting my cheek and underlip there were plenty of vellus hairs I thought would darken nicely with a bit of dye.
Once again, Mr. Sticky Fingers was right. Some weeks ago, I’d hinted that I might want to try hair dye and my wife had laughed. I rushed out of the bathroom and reached for the door to the hallway, opening my mouth to call out.
Still here, Mr. Sticky Fingers said. He’d sat at the foot of the bed, kicked his shoes off and set to work massaging his swollen heels.
Under the parking lot lights, Mr. Sticky Fingers seemed shorter and pudgier than ever. His skin had gone paler than lemon pith, but time had added to him, where the sun assaulted his body, patches of keratosis. His face was puffy from a lifetime of cheap beer and his body, always odorous with a patina of sweat layered on sweat, was even more sour than usual. Passersby ignore him, because he is too disgusting to acknowledge, and these details perfectly equip him for his work. His wild powers of repulsion have no equal. Only I am immune. Not even the Wal-Mart greeter could wave hello.
We made the standard inspections of the store—oblong security cameras mounted in ceiling corners and employees in blue smocks drifting like automatons with price-sticker guns—before meandering into the cosmetic section. Mr. Sticky Fingers asked by eye-signals which dye I thought I wanted. I answered in rapid blinks. It was too hard to think critically under the circumstances so I settled pell-mell on Medium Brown. Mr. Sticky Fingers palmed the box and smiled. His teeth were medium brown.
Everything was going pretty easy before I lost my nerve. It’s so disgustingly sentimental that thinking of my wife and kids and the years of progress we’d made cooled my jets. But I did think of them, and if anything was certain it was my family. I think what happened was that six months prior I finally decided rather than hinting to my wife that I wanted to try minoxidil for my face I told her I was going to buy some, and doing that hadn’t hurt so bad as I feared.
“I’ll use my birthday money,” I’d said.
She’d said, “Okay, Monkeyface.”
Sometimes Mr. Sticky Fingers reads my mind, but that night he was way out there, hardly even aware I was with him. He walked past me, and I followed through the men’s apparel, past shirts emblazoned with slogans and images I imagined were popular among the kids of the day: #NoCompromise, Force Push, one of Black Panther in a crouching leap. He wound a strange tributary toward the beer aisle. How am I doing? he said.
I knew I was supposed to encourage him, but my loyalties had shifted. He wanted my opinion on a beer selection.
He said he preferred Coors over Bud Light. A full body weariness washed over me. One day you’re out there shoving your pockets full of candy and tallboys, the next you’re sweating idly under fluorescent lights in a beer aisle with an old man who’s concealing a box of medium brown hair dye. Someone swapped the terms and conditions of life on you, and you don’t know who or when but you think it was probably you, and you’re sure you recall a period spent writing the new instruction manual.
“The hell with it,” I said and snatched the box of dye from Mr. Sticky Fingers. “See you around.”
He slapped his cane on my head. “You used to be fun!” he said.
I rubbed my crown, wincing and turned back. He was melting. His feet were puddles on the floor, his ankles softened butter. The left side of his face drooped, and a glob of cheek meat splashed on the tile. “We used to have fun,” he gurgled. His right eyeball popped from its socket and burst in a hundred tears that splashed my shoes. The skin on his scalp slipped from his skull and the bare white bone beneath began to smoke. His shorts fell to the ground, and his shirt slipped from the waxy blob that had once been the wall behind which I hid.
Jody J. Sperling, author of the forthcoming THE NINE LIVES OF MARVA DELONGHI, is host of cre8 collabor8, a podcast for first-time novelists who value the marketing mindset. He lives in the smallest Oakland in the world in northeastern Nebraska with Ashley, Silas, Edmund and Tobias.