Practice Problem by Joseph Salvatore
Circles, overlapping circles, circles intersecting with other circles, like the slow closing interstice of moon crossing over soon-to-be-eclipsed sun, circles overlapping with small shaded areas of geometry, not the geometry of Lobachevsky or Gauss or Euclid, but the geometry of Jennifer, the geometry of Jennifer Hampton, small-boned, green-eyed, pale- faced, goth-girl, theatre major at the state college in Salem, Massachusetts, a women’s studies minor currently on academic probation, for the fall semester of 1995, for failing Introduction to Geometry last spring, a writer of poetry and nude dancer at Shelby’s Slink Factory on Route One, where Jennifer sticks out her pierced tongue and makes contact with her pierced nipple raised by hand up to her black-lipsticked mouth, Jennifer, Jennifer Hampton, the geometry thereof, and those circles, overlapping circles, circles like her silver sunglasses, the ones she wears day and night, indoors and out; circles like her many pills, the ones that deter pregnancy and manic depression, social anxiety disorder and panic attacks, O.C.D., A.D.H.D., and P.T.S.D.; circles like the Sunbeam clock above the dish-filled sink, the clock that hasn’t worked since 4:48 on a day when it seemed time finally slowed to a stop, circles like the antique opal ring that Terry gave her, and then there’s Terry: big-boned Boston bouncer at Club Zero Hour located behind the Fenway, the hearty, Irish, shaved-redheaded overseer of the cage-dance bar crowd that he’s paid to control with their wiry, bangled arms and pythonic, nylon-skinned legs sprouting from combat boots and silver platforms, and, look, there’s Terry now: tight black T-shirt, hard body, jeans and silver-tipped boots, shaking down the clientele, running hands up thighs, over asses and groins, searching for nines and boxcutters and other shit the grungy, flannel-shirted boys (and lately the girls) try to get past, the geometry of Terry, the geometry of Jennifer, Jennifer Hampton, intersecting planes and lines and overlapping circles and then we turn to our assignment: Graph the total area, spatial solidity, and utter leather morosis of Jennifer Hampton on a solid three dimensional plane (note: be sure to make use of the fifth axiom and point P), and to begin the assignment we use a blank sheet of paper, blank slate, start clean, pen and pencil, and we wager softly on the depending outcomes of logistical circumstance, positive relativism, apathia, we allow to coincide the Sunday morning that big-boned Terry Hogan woke up in Laura Huron’s four post canopy bed, the brittle condom still biting around his flaccid manhood, his head a crescendo of constricting blood vessels, and at the same moment Jennifer Hampton pouring her morning urine into a clear chemical solution and then over the colored cardboard dipstick embossed with two tiny indicator circles, one pink, the other white, almost simultaneously swallowing three pregnancy-deterring circles, trying to make up for the three she missed last month after spending a Friday/Saturday/Sunday biking from Roxbury to Cape Cod with Miguel, but her Sunbeam clock above the dish-filled sink doesn’t tell time anymore and Jennifer sends a letter to Roxbury, to Miguel in Roxbury, Miguel from Roxbury, now the slim-hipped hairdresser on Newbury Street, bi and beautiful, sideburns cut like coke, and the letter starts politely, calmly, Hey there stranger, then a few lines later, Can you believe this is happening to me? I’m getting it done next week, hope I don’t get shot by someone wearing a Save a Fetus for Jesus pin, guess I’m going to have to slow down, haven’t used my breaks in so long, hope they still catch, wld love to hear from you, where you been? love Jennifer, and if the Sunbeam clock above the dish-filled sink had still worked she’d have known that it was two-hundred-and-twenty-nine hours since she walked downtown to the corner of Derby and Congress and pulled the lip and fed the mouth of the mailbox a pink envelope addressed to Miguel de la Cruz of Humboldt Avenue in Roxbury, Massachusetts, who, at the exact moment when the mouth of the mailbox was pulled by Jennifer’s small, many-ringed, black-fingernailed hand, was asking another women, this one even smaller-boned than Jennifer but almost the same age (actually fourteen months younger, but he, Miguel, never asks, only hopes) to accompany him on a trip from Roxbury to Cape Cod, he says it’ll be the best exercise she’ll ever enjoy getting, and touches her arm on the very same spot where he touched Jennifer’s for that crucial second longer than is necessary, and his pouty tight lips will finally spread east to west, and this girl, Veronica, fourteen months younger than Jennifer, Veronica Sheldon, a transplanted District of Columbian, will remember how her ex, Brian, Brian of South Boston, with his Leprechaun-tattooed shoulder, promised her romantic trips like the one she’ll take with Miguel, down to the Cape or to Walden Pond or Revere Beach or somewhere, anywhere, just as long as she wouldn’t leave him or cheat on him or look at other guys, and how his promises for romantic getaways became inter-textured with his promises to stop drinking until that Friday night last December when he opened up the side of her face, his diamond Claddah-ringed fist catching her below the cheekbone, and now that pinkish-purple worm crawls across her cheek forever, but Miguel said she was beautiful, and that’s more than anyone else ever said to Veronica Sheldon, and Jennifer’s clock has hands that don’t move and Jennifer’s addressee, Miguel, will pedal next to Veronica Sheldon and the two of them will cross the Bourne Bridge together and not see passing them, intersecting their radii, the smoky green Saab of the doctor who first looked at Veronica’s cheek the night Brian’s fist left its mark, and Dr. Powers will speed his Saab from Harwichport back to Boston, a smoky green line segment darting from the center point of his world toward the circumference of another, speeding back to Boston, back to Beacon Hill, to give his daughter’s college dorm-mate, Emma, twenty-seven years his junior, a gold tennis bracelet and dinner in the North End, and up on the fourth floor in an apartment across the street from the restaurant, across the street from Giovanni’s where Dr. Powers and Emma are planning the duplicities of their delicate new union, up on the fourth floor Leslie and Karen are stoned and sixty-nining, and Leslie moves her tongue in empty circles between Karen’s labia majora, wishing Jennifer Hampton would just return her phone calls, but Leslie knows that Jennifer only sees the night they slept together after Club Zero Hour, the night Leslie had to spend an hour and half to get her Astroglided fist wrist-deep inside Jennifer, Leslie knows that Jennifer Hampton only sees their night together as her obligatory college-feminist foray into the trendy lesbianism that’s been written about so much lately in The Phoenix and The Voice, Leslie knows that small-boned, green-eyed Jennifer Hampton with her witchy pentagram tattoo on her slim Salem ankle only wanted to piss-off her ugly, shaven-headed, control freak, total breeder, bouncer boyfriend because he puts his hands way too far up women’s skirts when he’s working the door, Leslie knows that Jennifer is one of those total breeder girls who desperately want to be bi, really bi, like beautiful Miguel whom Leslie introduced to Jennifer in Boston, the day they were having double espressos and rolling Drum cigarettes, sitting on Newbury Street at the Armani sidewalk café, and Leslie knows that Miguel took one look at Jennifer’s sad green eyes and her all-too-ripe, twenty-year-old body and thought, Mmmm, definite bike trip to the Cape, and, to be honest, Leslie doesn’t even believe Miguel is really bi, since for as long she’s known him he’s never gone biking down the Cape with anyone but beautiful young girls, and, as for beautiful young girls, Leslie also knows that Jennifer blew her off that next night at Club Zero Hour so she could make her bouncer boyfriend jealous again, but this time with Miguel, not some dyke from the North End—just return my fucking calls, bitch—and although a non-subscriber to phallocentrism, Leslie will use a Jell-O-red dildo on Karen whose legs will be tied too far apart so that later when she is untied and gets up to use the bathroom she, Karen, will walk stiff and grimace like an old woman with arthritis, while in Salem, Massachusetts, the city where broom-straddling witches decorate refrigerator door magnets and the sides of police cars, in Salem, Massachusetts, Jennifer Hampton places a Nine Inch Nails CD into her Sony Discman, the silver circle refracting in her tobacco-stained fingers, and she won’t remember that she was supposed to return one of Bull-dyke Leslie’s two dozen manic messages—she’s such a drama queen—she’ll be rehearsing some new dance steps for the beer-glazed, tear-glazed eyes at Shelby’s Slink Factory in front of her oak framed mirror that she found in Marblehead in someone’s trash, she will be thinking about Miguel and the baby that never was, and she will roll a tight Drum and decide to take a walk and think and write Miguel another letter, and she will see the October moon fat and round in the grape Zarex sky, and this will invigorate her make her feel consumed with a belief in fate, a belief that everything happens for a reason under that great glowing green-cheesed celestial sphere, and who says it’s not the eye of the goddess? our earth mother of the night, able to pull the oceans away from the sands and up into the stars? who says it’s not all going to work out in the end? who, other than Jennifer, after all, can control her own fate? and that’s when Jennifer will see Anthony, Anthony the painter, Anthony the artist, who uses hollow-core bathroom doors in place of canvasses, and who stacks them down the cellar of his apartment building where his landlord, Raymond Callabrazio, will throw them out next week since he’s been vowing to do so for months now to his wife, Sophia, who had her breasts enlarged and her nose jobbed last year and who, while during her stay in Salem Hospital, saw the smoky-green-Saabed Dr. Powers walk past her room every so often and although she never met him she considered him a very attractive gentlemen, but right now here’s Anthony the painter, Anthony the artist, whose daytime job is bike courier and who delivered a white package last week to a man named Jules in Jamaica Plain for three hundred dollars, but Anthony didn’t ask any questions, just delivered a package is all, a portion of which got cut up and split in half and distributed to a young dealer, Jason Barnard, who sold a portion of his portion to a queer named Miguel who works in some hair salon where Jason’s other customer Karen Delmaro works, Karen who lives with her girlfriend, Leslie, in the North End across the street and four floors up from Giovanni’s Restaurant, the present locus of love and linguini for Dr. Powers, but right now to the north of that spatiotemporal amorous cabal, right now, here comes Anthony the painter, Anthony the artist, coming right now toward Jennifer, walking slowly, left hand in pocket, in the right a cigarette glowing like a lit fuse, coming toward Jennifer Hampton from the direction of the college, scraps of fallen leaves skittering between the closing chasm of their collective steps and mutual paths, and Jennifer will look down, avert her gaze, as Anthony passes, she will see the dim splatters of paint on his black Doc Martens, and she will turn back as he passes but not say a word after seeing that he cut his ponytail off, and Jennifer will keep walking, as will Anthony, two integers, units of measure, unknown values and variables, maybe positive, maybe negative, void now to extrapolation, moving in opposite directions on a given line, distance compounding with every step, no backward glances now, and Jennifer will walk on until she ends up at the college, the buildings black this time of night, and across the street she will step into the college pizza shop, which is actually called College Pizza and Sub, still open, thank goddess, and Jennifer will order a slice of pepperoni and a small coffee, and sit at a brown Formica table and pull out her pouch and roll another cigarette, looking at her reflection to the left in the darkened front window of the shop, and begin to conceive another letter to Miguel, and that’s when she will see Anthony, ponytail-less, his paint- speckled Docs glowing extra-terrestrially in the neon light, and Anthony will enter and stare up at the posted food prices and run his hand through his hair and feel around for the amputated limb of ponytail and then realize and reach farther down, as if to scratch the back of his neck, and he will pretend not to notice Jennifer Hampton, who at the same time is pretending not to notice Anthony, acting all preoccupied in getting her cigarette to roll just right, head bent down, fingers working the white paper into a fat, soon-to-be- delicious smoke, and Anthony will make his order, a small onion and mushroom, please, oh and hey, throw in a can of Diet Coke with that too, ah-ight? and the man behind the counter wearing a stained apron will bark back in broken English, small pizza-pie? and Anthony will say, no, no pie, thanks, just the pizza, to which the man behind the counter, head down now like Jennifer’s, already spreading the toppings over the tomato-pasted dough, tossing the onions and mushrooms out like a dealer at a blackjack table, will say, oh ya, oh ya, okay, small pizza-pie for you, and Anthony will smile nervously and turn back to get a reality-check response from Jennifer whose head is still down like the man behind the counter, the man behind the counter, whose wife, Marta, is kneeling in front of a candle-lit religious shrine across town, her head down at that very moment, just like her husband’s, just like Jennifer Hampton’s, three heads all bent down at that very moment, three points of a triangle spreading out across the city, and Marta’s head at one vertex bent down in prayer now, praying for her husband’s fingers to get cut off in the salami slicer, and Marta, emotionally exhausted from working the late shift at the pizza shop after her husband, the man behind the counter, begins his affair with a chubby college freshman named Nicole, Marta will imagine one great day shooting and killing her husband, shooting him in the face, his head broken open and spilling over like a fabulous pinata, syrupy colors running all over the floor of the pizza shop, College Pizza and Sub, colors everywhere, on the tops of police cars and ambulances, on the walls and the cash register, and if Marta’s lucky that night: on the blouse of that puta Nicole, colors running out of her husband’s open head like the vibrant paints Anthony had used on those hollow-core bathroom doors, those doors which by that time, thanks to Raymond Callabrazio, will be forgotten in some dump, buried under a card table once belonging to the poet Lucie Brock-Broido, but Marta won’t know any of this, won’t know poets or paints, won’t know guns or gundealers, won’t even know Jason Barnard who could hook her up with any firearm she desired just by making a phone call to the pager of a West Indian called Toby, but Marta won’t know the right equation for tracking Jason Barnard down, and soon Jennifer will be back with big-boned Terry after spending two and a half artistic months with Anthony the painter, Anthony the artist, but right now here’s Anthony sitting across from small-boned, white-faced Jennifer Hampton who is chipping bits of black polish off her fingernails, her head still down, a black pen lying across an open notebook, and Anthony will follow her disinterested lead and look down at his own hand, at the gray sprinkles of paint on his knuckles, and then over at Jennifer,
—Hey, weren’t you in my figure-drawing class?
he’ll say, and Jennifer will snap her head up, and with the thesbianic acumen of DeNiro, feign surprise;
she’ll say, plucked brows arched, but eyes lidded with apathy, and Anthony will explain that he was um mistaken he thinks maybe, but he’s sure he’s seen her around uh maybe in Boston? and Jennifer will mention Club Zero Hour and how this guy she’s um kinda like seein’ but not for much longer is a doorman there, and Anthony will ask for some of her tobacco, getting up and joining her at her table in an unspoken gesture that communicates his gallant refusal to let her reach across the fluorescently- soaked, garlicly-odoriferous pizza shop, and she will ask him what happened to his ponytail, and he’ll say he had a job interview and like he was getting like totally sick of it anyway, besides everyone has one now, even the assholes, and Jennifer will agree and smile, flashing the silver bar in her tongue, and Anthony will smile back, and they will eat pizza and drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and be sweetly ignorant like two people who are about to fuck for the first time often are, and for the next eighty-two days big-boned Terry will join Leslie and the legion of other phone callers whose messages Jennifer won’t return, and Terry will call Miranda Kaiser from Swampscott who wears a Jobs Not Jails pin on the front of her backpack and who volunteers planting trees in a small playground in Roxbury, two streets over from Humboldt Avenue, and in the next eighty- two days Terry will give Miranda thirteen orgasms, two dozen roses, and one case of Herpes Simplex Two, a disease miraculously not transmitted to Jennifer Hampton, the contagium’s progress halted, cancelled out on her side of the supposition, her graphed placement inside the text of this assignment, this geometric assignment, this practice problem that asked us to graph the total area of Jennifer Hampton, plotting points like the naming of already-dead stars, and when the pizza crusts lie splayed upon the silver tray, and the fat October green-cheese moon glows outside the dark shop windows, and Jennifer Hampton swallows two small circles down with her last sip of coffee, and crumples another aborted letter to Miguel, dropping it into the butt-filled ashtray, the man behind the counter will clear his throat and say, we closing, we closing, and Jennifer and Anthony will stand and stretch and then leave in search of latex circles and more cigarettes, Anthony hoping his roommate, Hal, isn’t still up watching the Playboy Channel, the smell of sperm permeating the paneled room, discarded Kleenex by his feet, and Jennifer will hope Anthony’s not in an orally generous mood tonight since she hasn’t showered since this morning and waxed since last week, and the outline of Jennifer and Anthony will darken, then disappear into the tree-lined expanse of Lafayette Street, and the man behind the counter will move in front of the counter to clear their table, wiping it with a rag in broad, muscular circles, repeating the words again to himself, we closing, we closing, we closing.
Credit: Joseph Salvatore, “Practice Problem” from To Assume a Pleasing Shape. Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Salvatore. Used by permission of BOA Editions Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
Joseph Salvatore is the author of the story collection To Assume A Pleasing Shape, and the co-author of the college textbook Understanding English Grammar. He is a Books editor at The Brooklyn Rail and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. His fiction has appeared in The Collagist, Dossier Journal, Epiphany, New York Tyrant, Open City, and Willow Springs, among others. His criticism and nonfiction has appeared in The Routledge International Encyclopedia of Queer Culture; Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ Writing; The Believer Logger; The Scofield; The New York Times Book Review, and others. He is an assistant professor of writing and literature at The New School, in New York City, where he founded the literary journal LIT. He lives in Queens. www.josephsalvatore.com @jasalvatore
Practice Problem was read by Michaela Morton for the Borders & Boundaries edition on 1st June 2016