Melvin is in love with Denise. That is, if he can be certain that what he is feeling is in fact love. Men in suits have said people like him don’t have feelings like everyone else. That they don’t have detailed memories. Melvin remembers seeing that on TV. He remembers how it felt. While he mops chicken grease off the plant floor, Melvin takes stock of his life, of his body. His eyes are an old tomato and a deviled egg, respectively. He has banana peels for hands, so he can’t ever gently hand Denise a flower, but he can sort of fling things in her direction. He has nine baby carrots for toes, and so he’d never expect a foot rub after a long day, but maybe he’d like that once he finds another baby carrot to complete the set.
Melvin’s had that rotten glob of stuck-together maraschino cherries plucked right out of his chest and thrown back into the dump. But still, he would give Denise the Astroturf right off his back. He is an avid reader of love letters, and he once tied one of his own, for Denise, to a pigeon’s leg—a difficult task given that he has no viable hands for writing or tying knots. Alas, the pigeon never delivered it. Melvin isn’t sure how you’d train a bird to do something like that; romance must have been easier in the olden days, must have come naturally to everyone, men and pigeons alike.
Melvin glides across the floor with his mop. “How sweet it is to be loved by you, by you,” he hums, eyes nearly closed. He palms the wooden handle of the mop, not so different from how he imagines he’d touch the small of a woman’s back—gentle, but firm. The clunking and grinding of the machinery around him, the smell of grease, the distant shouting of his coworkers, everything takes on a misty, faraway quality, less real than the music in his head.
“Melvin!” Patty shouts from behind him, and Melvin jumps, provoking snickering among the other plant workers. “We’ve got a puddle of blood over here. A lady could slip and fall!”
Melvin pushes his mop and bucket over towards the line and begins soaking up the blood. He spends most of his days in this way—mopping up blood, pus, bits of bone and plastic, the most unwanted of all garbage. Melvin completes the task quickly and is proud of his dexterity as a cleaner. While other things can be tough to pick up or manipulate, Melvin can always move trash and muck, keep it in his hands. He’s drawn to it, as though by magnetics.
From down the line, Denise watches him, and when he catches her eye, she smiles. Denise always smiles at Melvin. Almost forgetfully, as though kindness is second nature to her and Melvin is still no one in particular. She probably does forget Melvin. But he doesn’t forget. Melvin remembers his first shift at the plant, struggling to punch his time card, the thick paper falling to the floor again and again as others waited with exasperation behind him. Denise had stepped out of line and bent to pick up his time card, her hands callused and right index finger cut off at the knuckle. Under the glow of the fluorescent lights, Melvin thought she looked like an angel.
He also remembers the first high school football game he attended. Melvin begged his way inside, eagerly showing the fantasy football magazine circa 1985 he’d pilfered from the garbage to those at the ticket counter until they, while plugging their noses, allowed him to pass. Popcorn and confetti littered the ground, sticking to his feet, becoming part of him, and as he approached the stands, someone threw a hot dog at him, hitting him directly in the face. As he wiped mustard out of his eyes, the crowd cheering and laughing, he spotted his assailants in the stands—men with orange face paint on and WILDCATS spelled across their collective bellies—foam fingers pointing to the heavens, asserting that they were number one and always would be. On the edge of the group sat Denise with a burly, orange-faced man wrapped around her. Denise rose from her seat for a moment, face crumpling slightly as if she were about to cry. The man, unseeing, pulled Denise back down and started kissing down the length of her neck. Over his shoulder, Denise closed her eyes and shook her head—a gentle, almost imperceptible protest—looking lonely as a ghost.
Denise is blank-faced and hard at work today, cutting a chicken carcass into sellable parts—breasts, thighs, and wings. She has tired eyes for a young woman and her forehead is smeared with chicken fat, but still, she is the most beautiful woman Melvin’s ever seen, in a plant largely populated by men speaking other languages and rough women too old to quit and find other work. Melvin thinks the rough women were probably like Denise when they were younger. He looks at Denise, then back at the older women, then back at Denise, then back at the older women, until they blur: blonde hair, no hair, two arms, one leg, missing teeth. Bodies are all so arbitrary, he thinks.
“What are you staring at?” Mae laughs.
Melvin shakes his head, says, “Nothing. Sorry. Back to work.” He leaves, dragging the bucket behind him. He sweeps and mops in another area of the plant, where there are no women to cackle at him, no Denise hopelessly out of his reach. He works until noon, when he sneaks into the cafeteria and hastily serves himself a bowl of chicken stew, hoping as always to finish it before anyone comes in and asks him how his mouth works.
“Hey Marvin,” someone calls from behind him. Melvin turns to see Patty, Mae, and Tom—a man-made of toy cars. They are already very close, so close that he can see the sweat on Patty’s upper lip.
“Do you need the table?” Melvin asks, rising from his seat. Mae eyes the slime beneath him.
“No, we’re good,” Mae says.
“So you like Denise, huh?” Tom clatters at him.
“How did you know?” Melvin asks.
“You’re always staring at her,” Patty says, adjusting a ring on her chubby finger.
“We couldn’t ignore you two lovebirds if we tried,” Mae says. Tom laughs behind her and she elbows him in the stomach, causing him to shed a toy car, which rolls quickly away from the scene and smashes into a wall. Even Tom, while infinitely more respected than Melvin and others like him, was still subject to regular abuse from his coworkers. Still, Tom was lucky. He and the many other men made of toy cars had formed a sort of community, with bargaining power and social visibility. No one knew why there were so many men made of toy cars and so few made of garbage or toilet paper or used chewing gum, but Melvin figured the toy car men didn’t spend much time thinking about it; they probably spent most of their time just being grateful.
“Lovebirds?” Melvin asks. A smile forms on his face, revealing the single chiclet he is currently using as a tooth.
“She wants you to take her out,” says Patty.
“On a date, dummy,” Tom says.
Fierce hope and weaker disbelief war in Melvin’s chest. He intertwines his banana peels together nervously. “I’ve never been on a date,” Melvin says. “Where do I take her? When should I meet her?”
“She loves the roller rink,” Patty says. “Hows about you take her skating?”
“What about the carnival?” Melvin asks, looking nervously from Patty to Tom to Mae. The carnival, where Melvin doesn’t have to rent shoes, where he has a chance at hiding in a crowd.
“Nah,” Patty says, smiling at Mae. “Denise has already been. Skating is better.”
“Yeah, skating. You can do that, right, buddy?” Tom asks.
Melvin frowns. “Yeah, skating,” he says. “I can do it.”
“I’ll set it up,” Patty says. “Let’s say, tomorrow at seven. You can pick her up at her place. It’s the pink trailer with all the flower boxes out front.”
“Seven. Pink trailer. Flower boxes,” Melvin mutters, committing it to memory.
“So you’ll be there?” Patty asks.
“Yes! Yes, I’ll be there!” Melvin says. Mae and Tom turn to leave.
“Good job, Marvin,” Tom says. “She’s a real keeper.”
“Thanks,” Melvin says to their backs, his stew now cold. Every coffee filter in his body tingles.
After lunch, Melvin sneaks off to the warehouse. He thinks of Denise. He digs into his abdomen and pulls out two emptied tin cans. He puts them on the floor, plants each baby-carroted foot on top of them, and tries to roll. He does okay. I can do this, he thinks. I can do it.
Still, Melvin is nervous, and back at work, he looks at Denise. Each time, she meets his gaze and smiles. At one point, Melvin waves, dislodging a jawbreaker from his palm and inadvertently hurling it in Denise’s direction. She and the other workers on the line duck, and the jawbreaker bounces across the floor, coming to a stop under the conveyer belt at Denise’s feet.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Melvin says, rushing over to collect it. Denise kneels down and picks the jawbreaker up, seemingly undisturbed by its stickiness.
“No big deal,” Denise says, handing the jawbreaker to Melvin. She meets his gaze directly and a little juice leaks out of his tomato eye, like air hissing out of a balloon.
“I am so sorry,” Melvin says again. He wants to ask her about the carnival and the skating rink. He wants to tell her he will make sure things go smoothly tomorrow. “I promise, things will go—” he gets out, before he hears a shrieking in the distance. Denise and Melvin start to move in the direction of the screams.
“Hey, focus up,” a supervisor says to Denise, pointing her back to the line. “You,” the supervisor says, turning to Melvin. “Get going.”
Across the plant, Mae shouts, “Get it, get it, get it!” She’s kneeling atop a metal industrial table. In the corner, quivering at the sound of her voice, is an old dog, licking at a scrap of chicken skin.
“Go on, she said get it!” shouts Patty at the men in the group. “That dog’s got rabies!”
“How do you know?” asks Melvin, the dog’s scared eyes meeting his own.
“I can spot rabies a mile away,” says Mae, eyes clenched shut.
“I’ll get rid of it,” Tom says, approaching the dog, its growling growing louder. His toy-car hand nears its snout and it snaps, sending him careening backward, falling over a workbench, cars scattering in every direction.
“Useless,” Patty says. “Go on, get rid of it,” she tells Melvin.
Melvin looks around for Denise. She is across the room, still on the line, eyes trained firmly on her work with the supervisor over her shoulder. Melvin crouches and draws nearer to the dog. He slowly extends a banana peel in the direction of the dog’s head. The growling grows softer, and when Melvin makes contact, it stops. He tries to scratch the dog’s ears, and though he isn’t successful, the dog pushes its head against him. Melvin picks up the dog and holds it like a baby in his arms.
“Nice initiative, boy,” says Mr. Campbell, Melvin’s boss, from a distance. He draws nearer and looks Melvin up and down. Melvin feels real happiness for a moment. “What was your name again?” Mr. Campbell asks.
“Melvin, sir,” he says, raising his arm and stiffening his banana peel in an effort to give the firmest handshake possible, but Mr. Campbell gives him a thumbs-up instead, and then some finger-guns, and then he returns to his office, full of other things Melvin will never touch.
Melvin imagines himself in Mr. Campbell’s khaki pants and polo shirt, both too neatly pressed and unmarked to have spent much time in the plant. He imagines having feet, normal functional feet, and walking with those feet down Main Street in Mr. Campbell’s leather shoes. He imagines himself dipped in an invisible coating, his trash hermetically sealed away, his clothes unmarred, his life intact. He imagines shaking someone’s hand and leaving no residue behind.
After work, Melvin fashions a leash from a length of rope he found wrapped around his ankle and he walks the dog into town. People glare at him and plug their noses as they pass. Melvin smells like something forgotten and left out for a few days, glistening in the hot sun. His scent is often intolerable and he has regularly been turned away in shops and restaurants. Only in a place as foul as the plant could his odor be somewhat obscured. But even by Melvin’s standards, the dog smells terrible. Melvin takes a knee and inspects the dog, inhales deeply. Amidst the overwhelming stench, Melvin catches a whiff of nutmeg, one nice smell, reminding him of the time Denise brought in cookies for everyone at work.
“I’ll call you Nutmeg,” says Melvin. “How does that sound?”
“I’ll tell you how it smells,” says a passerby, chucking a crumpled-up piece of paper at him.
“Just ignore them,” Melvin whispers to the dog, to himself. He walks Nutmeg to Peterson’s drug store and tethers her to a pole by the front door.
“Stay,” says Melvin, backing up slowly into the automatic doors, which do not register his presence until he physically forces them to part, opening if only to avoid touching him any further. Melvin rushes through the aisles, gathering a bag of kibble and bowls for water and food. He turns a corner into aisle nine and nearly bumps into Mack, Denise’s brother.
“Can I help you?” Mack says. His name tag reads, “At Peterson’s, we’re family!” It is always strange for Melvin to see Denise’s friendly features distorted with hate on Mack’s face. Melvin struggles to keep grip on the bag of food and the bowls.
“No, this will be it,” Melvin says, stepping to the side in an attempt to move towards the counter. Mack moves in sync, blocking him.
“Heard you’re hooking up with my sister,” Mack says. The cashier behind him laughs.
“No, no, nothing like that—”
“It’s alright,” Mack says. “I don’t care who Denise goes out with. But I think you ought to pick up some of this before you go anywhere near my house.” He plops a stick of deodorant into Melvin’s already overfilled arms, and Melvin nearly drops the whole pile. “This too,” Mack says, spritzing Melvin with cologne before adding it to his load.
“Do you think Denise will like this?” Melvin asks, coughing through the mist.
“You’ll smell like a football star, buddy,” Mack says. “And we all know how much Denise loves the football stars.” The cashier laughs knowingly. He is a former football star, Melvin realizes.
“I’ll take it,” Melvin says, approaching the counter and handing over a twenty-dollar bill coated in a fine layer of goo.
When Melvin leaves, Nutmeg is still waiting safely outside the store, too stinky to tempt any dog-nappers. Melvin quickly unties her and they make their way towards the woods, away from town and its dangerous residents. Melvin used to roam through town much more, sometimes sleeping on benches or in parks, looking at the same stars the other people looked at, until the residents complained that his garbage trail was lowering property value in the area. Now he stays in the woods most of the time, far away from anyone’s houses or cars, in a tent he purchased with his own money. It is almost a physical relief Melvin feels when he sees his tent in the distance, knowing his neat stack of paperbacks, his pillow, and his blanket are waiting for him inside, all slick with his residue. Melvin lays out food and water for Nutmeg, and Nutmeg gulps water for a long time, only stopping briefly to pant for air. When Nutmeg is finished, she curls up by Melvin’s feet—his feet, the worst of all!—and falls asleep.
“I’m going on a date with a Denise tomorrow. Can you believe it, Nutmeg?” Melvin whispers, stroking her fur. Nutmeg snores softly. “Maybe I should bring my rock collection. Do you think she’d like that?” Nutmeg snorts. “You’re right,” Melvin says, as if he already knew. “Girls don’t like rocks. They like—” he says, squinting at a newly stolen copy of Cosmopolitan magazine, “Nine ways to climax together?” Melvin has read the word climax before. He knows it means the peak, the pinnacle, the best of something. He hopes he and Denise can experience the best together.
Melvin leaves Nutmeg in the tent and again practices rolling on the aluminum cans outside. If the roller rink lets him skate, he’ll be ready. But if they don’t, if they don’t want his feet in their shoes, that’s okay. He would be more than happy to watch Denise skate, to buy her nachos and give her quarters for the arcade games he was not dexterous enough to play. Melvin thinks about their date until he lies down and falls asleep, and then he dreams of it, a clean dream-Nutmeg by his side.
“Stay!” Melvin shouts the next morning as he backs away from Nutmeg and the tent. “Stay!” At work, Melvin is given a long, hard job cleaning equipment on the evisceration line. It is messy and dangerous and, worst of all, far away from Denise. Melvin does not see her all day, and by the time work concludes, he smells particularly of chicken guts and grease. He uses the whole stick of deodorant, mashing it into himself, and sprays several pumps of cologne. He hopes it is enough.
On his way into town, people sniff the air and glare at Melvin, but still, he is pleased, as it is less severe than usual. Near the bus stop, Melvin sees an unusual looking flower—half pink, half blue, stem twisted and discolored as though two flowers had merged—and when he bends and plucks it, it gives off a little squeak, as if in pain. He hears a disgusted sound from behind him, and he turns to see a woman made entirely of flowers standing there, the red poppies comprising her mouth twisted into a scowl.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he says. He offers the flower to her, but her eyes are dark and her arms stay firmly at their sides until he backs away. He continues walking, leaving the people at the bus stop frowning and inching closer to the flower woman, in the hope of chasing Melvin’s scent with something sweet. When Melvin is out of sight, he tucks the flower into his ear-area and whispers, “I’m sorry,” once more.
As Melvin passes the alley behind Fiesta Pizza, a man shouts, “Go on, get out of here, get!” Nutmeg bolts out from the kitchen and into the alley, shaking and splattered with marinara sauce.
“Hey!” Melvin yells. He kneels and Nutmeg runs to him gratefully. “I told you to stay,” Melvin whispers, scratching below Nutmeg’s chin, wiping away the marinara. “They don’t take kindly to our type here,” he says, and as he says it, he wonders what their type is. They don’t fit in with the other creatures like Tom or the flower woman, nor do they fit in with people like Patty and Mae and Mack. Melvin isn’t sure where he and Nutmeg fit, but he hopes it is someplace. He finishes wiping away the marinara, gives Nutmeg a sniff, frowns, and spritzes the dog with cologne.
Melvin reaches the trailer park where Denise lives with Mack. At the entrance, a sign says, “Willow Woods Mobile Home Park.” Below that, “Human and toy car only.” Melvin looks around and, seeing no one, continues until he finds the pink trailer with the flower boxes. He squints at the sun and realizes from its position in the sky that he must be a bit early. With Nutmeg circling his ankles, he approaches the door. Melvin doesn’t have veins, but if he did, adrenaline would be coursing through them. He plucks the flower he’d tucked away and holds it between his banana peels, trembling slightly. He lifts the tennis ball functioning as his elbow to the door and gives it a bang. He waits. He waits. The sun changes position.
“Maybe she thought we were meeting there, Nutmeg,” Melvin says, descending her front steps, Nutmeg trailing behind. “That must be it,” Melvin says. “She’ll be angry I’ve kept her waiting.”
With the sun setting behind him, Melvin walks briskly out of the trailer park and down the shoulder of state route 401. He doesn’t startle when a truck driver blares his horn at him, nor when someone whips a half-full beer can out their window, lodging it painfully in the back of his head. His arms pump back and forth like pistons, propelling him forward with purpose. It is dark when he reaches the oil-stained parking lot and enters the skating rink. He hands over the ten dollars for entry to a teenage girl with acne, who goggles at him as he successfully uses the turnstile.
“Hey, no dogs!” she shouts as Nutmeg scurries in behind him. “Security!”
It is Friday night and the rink is pulsing with bodies—young bodies, tall bodies, able bodies—skating round and round to a synth-y pop song. Melvin scans each face desperately, deflating a little each time he confirms it is not Denise. He rushes to the arcade, inspecting the area, alive with the sounds of the pinball machines and the air hockey table. No Denise. He rushes to the snack bar, the smell of fried Oreos in the air. Still no Denise. Maybe Denise is late, too, he thinks. Maybe she’d like a snack when she arrives. His own stomach grumbles. “Two orders of fried Oreos, please,” he says at the counter, before being grabbed from behind by a sweaty man with a walkie-talkie clipped to his belt.
“I’m sorry, please, please,” Melvin says, shuffling to keep up with the guard, Nutmeg whimpering behind him. The guard escorts him out into the parking lot and shoves him away, brushing the residue off his shirt.
“No dogs allowed,” the guard says, squinting at Melvin.
“Please,” Melvin says. “I’m supposed to meet someone here.” He holds up the flower, now crushed.
“I’m sorry,” the guard says, looking him in the eye. “Really. But you should get out of here.” He opens the door and disappears inside, leaving Melvin and Nutmeg together, alone.
“Maybe Denise thought the carnival was a good idea after all,” Melvin says, not wasting a moment, taking off running down the street, shedding clumps of trash with each bound. Nutmeg lags behind, barking herself hoarse, until Melvin disappears around a corner and is gone. Melvin follows the road, his not-lungs not heaving, until he reaches the mini-mall parking lot. The flashing lights of the game booths and rides outshine the stars above, and the carnival is packed, far too full for him to find Denise in the crowd.
“She loves dessert, Nutmeg,” Melvin says to no one as he gets in line for funnel cake, his head on a swivel, a vigilant eye on the carnival’s entrance. He tries to keep a respectful distance from those in front of him, but teenage boys and their dates repeatedly cut in front of him and fill that space, and Melvin is hungry but getting nowhere, getting farther away, until he hears someone shout, “Hey, no cutting!” The latest batch of teenagers laugh as if it doesn’t matter, as if he doesn’t matter, and they kick at the dirt as they remove themselves from line, clearing a path to the little tin cart with Denise inside. Denise, a sweaty-faced angel, finally found.
She’s wearing a dingy white apron, much like the one she wears in the plant, but to Melvin, it may as well be a bridal gown, with the flush in her cheeks and her smile and the way she is looking at him. She’s here, Melvin thinks. She made it. He nearly floats to the counter, where she is holding a hot funnel cake just for him. “That’ll be three dollars, please,” she says, but it sounds like, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”