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Something Like Wood by Francisco Nieto-Salazar

Something Like Wood by Francisco Nieto-Salazar

Fiction, Vol. 3.3, Sept. 2009

For the longest time all I knew about the house at the top of the hill was that the owner had an Astroturf lawn. He kept it spotless and taught, and it gleamed in everyone’s face. Rows of fake tulips stood guard along the perimeter of the house, confusing the insects with their ridiculous colors. On both sides of the main walkway, the rare visitor was greeted by a menagerie of lawn ornaments, which poked their little heads out from the artificial forest he had arranged out of fake Christmas trees. It was all so eerily well-kept, like a brand new miniature golf course for the well-off.

Art was as enigmatic as his one-story pink shrine. His presence on the block was marked by his reclusive tendencies and his odd landscapes, which even the dogs didn’t piss on when their masters walked them by. For months after I moved in, I couldn’t remember actually seeing the man face to face, until he approached me one day while I was unloading my van.

Hi, so, you do floors? He pointed to the sign.

Sure. We do cabinets, kitchens, the whole thing.

We introduced each other. It’s Art, not Arthur, he clarified. He must have been in his late forties, and wore a crooked mustache and a clip-on tie. An orange toupee drew the eyes upward and held them firmly in its grasp. It was a formidable beast of a wig, without being overly large, and looked like it had been dunked in shellac. He wore it like a crown.

I have a floor in the need of remodeling, he said. I live over there. He pointed to his house with his prosthesis, from which dangled a golden watch that seemed to be worth more than my van.

Flooring. What are we looking at?

Something like wood.

I agreed to come and take a look the following day. Things were still good in those days, and a job off the street like that was not uncommon. Art walked off after shaking my hand tightly with his left, which was his good one, and patting me on the shoulder with his right. His watch hit me with a thud which I felt for a minute longer, as he walked back to his little palace. He stopped only to straighten a Christmas tree and to say a few words to a yard donkey before going inside. He emerged seconds later with a leaf blower and dusted off his miniatures on the easy setting as he waved to me.

*

I saw you talking to Art.

Marty, that impeccably put-together guy next door (even in his bathrobe he appears like a helmeted Gavin Newsom), told me to keep an eye out when he found out I was going over there the next day to talk floors. You know, in case he’s some kind of a nutcase, he said.

I’ve lived around nutcases before (the guy on Dwight Way who pruned his hedges dressed like Hitler, whom I shot with an air rifle from across the street), and I have lived with nutcases (my roommate at Cal who ran down the hallways swinging a real sword around like Braveheart’s little squire, saying with everything but words, I want to poke my puny cock into this cruel world!) so I was not exactly as worried as my neighbors, who eyed my brief interaction with Art with curiosity.

I heard he lives alone, but you never know who’s in the basement, said Marty. Nora next door says she hears him talk to people, and that his backyard is littered with weird stuff.

Weird stuff? Like what?

Like old roadside, funhouse type of junk. She told me he has a giant fiberglass ice-cream cone and a patio deck with a bunch of a mannequins sitting around a table, he said, taking a sip from his mug. And Theo, you know him? He works for Kaiser. He said the same medical supplier from work pulls up every once in a while to make deliveries.

Their worries were out of proportion, I thought. Art didn’t strike me as a psychopath. A little crazy, maybe. A wingnut, sure. A menace to society? Not this guy. Maybe he owns a mannequin factory, I said, or a department store.

Maybe.

*

The following day I went to see him in his mock palace. The house was large enough to be considered the jewel of the block; one story, multi-leveled, and wearing a rose petal pink coat with white trim. It should be a nice little job, I thought, and I smiled. I could feel the neighbor’s eyes peering through their blinds as I walked up to his door.  The still life peered at me too, with suspicion, and I felt their tiny heads turning as I passed them, making my smile wilt away under the heat of their glares. At my feet, a hippo and trio of no-evil monkeys gave their approval, or at least failed to prevent me from making my move.

Art opened the door before I landed my fourth knock.

Inside, everything was neat and clean. He offered me an O’Doul’s almost as soon as I walked through the door, which I graciously declined. The walls depicted a bright bamboo forest and a beach sunset. He walked me though the house, pointing out the main rooms. He was tired of the green rug. It wasn’t at all like grass, and why would he want grass inside his house? No, he wanted the closest thing to wood without being wood. I suggested linoleum, other carpet, bamboo floors, but this seemed to aggravate his thinking. No, he said. It has to be almost wood.

I’d do it myself, he said, but I haven’t done much construction since this. He raised his plastic arm in a ninety-degree angle, as if pledging an oath. Lost an eye too, and most of my teeth. I wasn’t about to ask why, but I had the feeling Art would volunteer the information.

War wounds?

No no. Good God. No. Industrial accident. Paper mill. Got me a good settlement, though.

He left me alone for a minute while he went to look for a pencil. I scanned the room and noticed all kinds of pictures. Frames with people, with documents, strange forgotten toys on shelves. There were several life-size cutouts of sports and movie stars standing around the living room, or leaning against the walls of the room, forced to live out their distant roles on fading cardboard. On Tootsie, a superimposed photocopy of his face, which grimaced at the light of the Xerox when it got in his eyes. Elsewhere, a decapitated Ronald Reagan had been fitted with Elvira’s monumental coiffure.

He came back and reasserted that he didn’t want wood, but something similar. He mentioned his yard outside, his fake lawn and its denizens. They’re great imitations, he said proudly. I don’t have to water them. I don’t have to do a thing to my garden, except a little leaf blower action here and there. Who cares what the neighbors think. The closest thing to beauty is envy.

It was then that I understood my client.

Then I think you should go with a laminate like Pergo. It’s only a picture of wood, a thin layer glued on to the composite below. It’s perfect for you, I told him enthusiastically.

A picture of wood? So it’s not wood at all?

They have all kinds of pictures. You pick the grain and color. It’s got a tough layer on top of it to protect it from scratches. And it’s economical.

Oh, that sounds great. Melinda will be so happy. She hates this ugly dog of a carpet.

I was overcome with curiosity, and glad he brought up the subject of a wife. In a way, I felt obliged to mineinformation for Marty and the others.  They had been waiting for years to see what was going on inside and would be thankful to me, the cosmonaut who ventured into the unknown universe at the end of the block. They sure would be glad to have me for a neighbor.

Your wife? I said.

Yes. Come meet her. She doesn’t get around much. She likes it inside.

I followed him down a hallway. Stuffed animals, dolls, and furniture covered in leopard print and vinyl, a fake bird in a cage. He stopped at the door and I didn’t follow him any farther.

Dear?  The neighbor is here to look at our floors. You ever heard of Purrgo?

I did not hear a sound, but Art claimed she was interested in looking at some samples.

Come in, and turning back into the room, Oh, it’s okay Melinda, you look fine. Melinda. It’s alright. Really. Don’t you start that again.

My feet froze when I saw his eyes sharpen.

Look, Art. No need to disturb her.  I’ll go get some samples and let you two think about it. I’ll be back tomorrow to take some measurements and give you a full estimate if you’d like.

We left it at that.

*

I knew I would have to give my report, so the next day I walked around with a careful eye. He wanted the living room, study, and hallways redone. Without snooping, I registered all sorts of odd curiosities as I took my measurements. Tacky wouldn’t quite describe the place. It was too museum-like, things demanding little note cards to explain their inclusion into that gallery where everything was almost real. It was a shrine to all things phony.

On the backyard I managed to see the little party of mannequins, poised around the patio furniture, wigs askew, incomplete, looking battered by the sun and the rain. The party nursed empty drinks where they had hands to hold them. They must have been complaining of their neglect, and for a second I thought I should intervene in their behalf, poor miserable things.

Don’t worry about them, said Art after he found me staring out between the drapes. All they want to do is party. I can’t get them to come inside.

It was then that I noticed that the mannequins were not your average clothes hangers you see at the mall. They were professionally done, almost like medical puppets, or prototype dummies.

Interesting, I said, feeling caught. Listen, Art, I can get started next week, probably as early as Tuesday. I fired my medium-range estimate at him. What do you think?

Let’s see what Melinda says, he said not too disapprovingly.

He went away and came back in less than a minute. She gives her approval, and she chose this one. He put forth the small sample: Tuscan Walnut.

The ugliest one, I thought. That’s a great choice. Elegant. Tell Melinda she has exquisite taste.

I know. She’s really something. She’s the one who convinced me to live like this. She told me, Art, the world is so full of shit, so full of lies, the only thing left is to celebrate the great deception, Viva la replica! Yup. She helped me get through it all. It was even her idea about the glass eye.

I commented on his yard again. Why no gnomes?

Because, don’t be ridiculous, gnomes don’t exist, he replied, recoiling at the absurdity of my statement.

*

The following week, I returned as promised. The neighbors damn near started a blog about the whole affair. They were curious to know who Melinda was. I don’t know, I said. She keeps the door closed and never leaves. To tell you the truth, I am a bit afraid to meet her, I said. I mean, either she’s eight hundred pounds or the female equivalent of John Merrick. They were almost disappointed I did not uncover some sex slave ring, just more weird stuff. Replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Shroud of Turin, several issues of Artificial Organs, a 1952 Mickey Mantle stamped FORGERY in heavy ink, bogus memorabilia of all sorts from movies and sports, and a stack of press clippings about that guy who got a face transplant, all of which I had to move in order to do my work. The job took two days with my assistant Luis’ help. He shot pictures incognito with his phone camera to show his wife. Man! Finally someone weirder than her, he said.

We spread the horrible Tuscan Walnut throughout the house like a wooden oil spill. Art went into the basement and spent much of the time in there, tinkering, as he said. Every so often he would emerge, comment on the good work, adjust his hair like a hat, and go back down, followed by the sound of a deadbolt.  It was clear that’s where he spent much of his time, but like his bedroom, I wasn’t so eager to meet the contents. Art, throughoutseveral interactions, had planted plenty ofseeds in my mind, which had germinated into a strange appreciation for the project that was his life. As much as it creeped me out, I could see how his replicate lifestyle made him appear like some sort of comic book persona, although I wasn’t sure if he was aiming at a superhero, or one of the villains.  He could have easily been Dr. Replico, or the Copy-Cat, and I imagined him taking apart his body piece by piece, in secret surgeries preformed by henchmen doctors, and replacing them all with synthetic parts. Even his accent had to be bogus. The paper mill thing was just his cover, I began to suspect, each suspicion building upon the next; like when I was a schoolboy and imagined my teachers all in on some big trick played on me, meant to prepare me for a life of servitude in weird teacher experiments they conducted in the staff lounge. Gluing down Pergo can lead to such thoughts.

Only once while I was there did I encounter something that made my blood pump backwards. Going into the fridge to help myself to an O’Doul’s, I came across a strange tin container. It was labeled, Flesh Compound #17. I didn’t dare open it, and I convinced myself that it must have contained some tofu-like mess he had cooked up himself. That was what I thought until I looked inthe door, and saw another, smaller plastic cylinder labeled Ears #03, and a vial with a warning: For research purposes only, not approved for veterinary or clinical procedures. When I heard the deadbolt turning, I got back to work. I didn’t mention a thing to Luis or the neighbors until I had a chance at another look.

*

On Thursday, I came back without Luis to do some final touch-up work with the moldings, and heard Art tearing hard into Melinda about something. He was really letting her have it. Poor silent thing, I thought, she probably couldn’t fight back. I almost went in to try to help her, but I’ve made that mistake before, and found myself fighting both man and wife. Besides, the wicked thought crept up that if I denounced Art for messing up his wife, he might well go to jail and never get around to paying me for the work. So I went home, uneasy, trying to convince myself of my good judgment.

Later in the evening, Art came to see me.  Sorry about earlier. His mood was odd and he wasn’t wearing his toupee, and his prosthesis was strangely absent.

We have some things to work out between us, Melinda and I. The bitch broke my best arm.

It’s not about the Tuscan Walnut? I said, fishing for humor.

No, you guys do great work.  In fact, I’ll pay you now and you can just call it a job, okay?

Are you sure? I said. He took out a wad of hundreds, put them under his chin, and counted them out like a one-armed bank teller on the hood of my van.

Is she okay?

Eh, I’ll fix her up. She’ll be fine.

*

The following week the police descended on Daisy Street. More than twenty vehicles representing several law enforcement agencies surrounded Art’s house, flashing lights and screeching sirens. It was early in the morning and the neighbors’ noses were poking out of their windows as far as the curb, their phones calling each other, and getting busy signals. A squad car and another vehicle with several men parked outside my house, blocking my van. Knocking on my door, a featherweight officer named Valencia held up his badge. Federal Bureau. He brought with him a nice black suit and a much-taller man that must have been his junior. Valencia leaned in closer and pulled out a hundred-dollar bill. He handed it to his deputy, who then held it up to my eyes, pulling on both ends tightly, as if I were going snatch it away. It looked just like the ones I had recently been spending around town.

Where did you get this bill, asked Valencia, trying to pretend there was nothing going on behind his back.

Art gave it to me. Art, the guy with the Astroturf lawn up the street. It was for doing his floors. Guns were drawn and positions taken. An echo mimicked the commands shoutedvia megaphone up and down the street.

We know who he is. Do you have any more? he asked, sniffing my house out like a rodent.

Wait a minute. Are they counterfeit?

Did I say that? What do you know about that?

Well, him and Melinda…

Him and who?

Melinda, his wife…

Valencia looked at me as if I was trying to deceive him. Then he turned over to his sidekick and said, The Deuce, a wife? They both laughed, and put their arms around me. How much did he take you for, you poor bastard? They laughed again when I told them. Well, if he’s married, said Valencia, we just might have to charge her with something too! Can a doll stand trial? Never did such healthy laughter sound so sickening.

The bastards didn’t laugh for long.

*

After kicking down the door and trampling on my work, the agents pointed their rifles at something like Art. It was revolting and unfinished, pieced together from odd parts—part prosthetic, part organic, part beef jerky, part latex foam job, as I later learned. Art’s tinkering was finally revealed. It was as close to human tissue as possible, with pig parts where he could not obtain artificial organs. It didn’t move and it stared at the cops with a wistful expression, holding a grenade in its hand. Art would be proud to know that the cops stood off against the most prized of his spurious projects for over two hours, waiting for authorizations to shoot it before they realized their mistake.

The real Art musta been tipped off, said Sgt. Cicek of the OPD in an off-the-cuff remark to Agent Valencia made in my proximity. He was long gone. The neighborhood was blocked for over six hours.

Freakin’ manhunt. What the hell are we chasing here, Sir?

The Deuce was prime suspect in over twelve states for crimes involving identity theft, intellectual piracy, forgery, impersonating royalty, and frauds of every color. He had eluded them for years, and had lived briefly in Scotland, the Dominican Republic, Phoenix (where he was nearly netted in a sting operation targeting fake organ dealers) only to end up on Daisy Street, where he hid for the past four years perfecting his imitations.

The operation was not a complete waste, however, as they recovered a great many valuable fakes, a freezer full of biological evidence that surely gave the bureaus’ medical experts a few decorations. They found live cells, bio-polymers, keratinocytes, and a jar filled with foreskins.

Why foreskins? Asked Marty when I told him of my conversations with the officers, who interviewed me extensively after their failed attempt.

I looked it up, I replied, they’re raw materials for artificial skin. Apparently you can make up to four acres of skin from just one neonatal sample. Theoretically, that is.

Art never turned up, but the Daisy Street neighbors never failed to invite me to their barbecues.

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