Episode 19: “Hand Jobs”

Joining us on this episode of the n+1 podcast is Christine Smallwood, who reads her short story “Hand Jobs,” originally published in issue 22 of n+1, then stays for a short conversation on writing the story.

Hosted by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen
Audio Engineer: Malcolm Donaldson
Produced by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen
Graphics by Eric Wen
Music from Arthur Russell, The Sound, Ted Lucas

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, subscribe via RSS, or download the episode (58.7 MB).


Episode Transcript

Intro

Eric Wen: Hi, welcome to the n+1 podcast. I’m Eric Wen, and we’re joined today by Christine Smallwood. She’s going to read from her short story “Hand Jobs,” which was in n+1 issue 22. Welcome to the Podcast.

Christine Smallwood: Thanks for having me.

SEGMENT 1: “Hand Jobs” read by Christine Smallwood

CS: It was my birthday and we were drinking white wine and waiting for the palm reading to start. We were at Henry’s apartment. Henry was a friend of Carla’s, and a scholar of illuminated manuscripts. He lived in a converted firehouse with his boyfriend, a fund manager, and he liked hosting parties, because it made use of the space. There were no closets. All their worldly possessions were displayed on modular shelves or hanging off horseshoe-shaped hooks. The palm reading had been Henry’s idea. The palm reader had been recommended to him by a friend of a friend, and he kept saying she was the best, like he could tell the difference.

The palm reader, when she arrived, moved in a way that suggested she was not in too much of a hurry to arrive in the future. She was like some piece of human clutter purchased to give the room more character. Ceramic roses were clipped to her earlobes and beneath her black crocheted dress her breasts strained to get away from each other. On her left hand was a diamond the size of a Brussels sprout. She was between 40 and 65 years old. I was the guest of honor and I got to go first. She led me away from the drinks and the stereo and the cheese to the corner under the skylight, and sat me on an egg-shaped orange chair. The palm reader sat herself on a low wooden bench, a Shaker pew that had been bought at auction.

She smelled like lemongrass. The first thing she said was that I would change jobs many times, a statement that had the advantage of being already true. I had had all the jobs a young person has. I had been a telemarketer, taco maker, babysitter, barista, waitress, and tutor, and I had modeled for a life-drawing class, even though the money wasn’t very good. I liked variety; I lived like a gatherer. At that time I believed that if you string enough moments together life becomes a collection, something worth talking about. Like that movie I saw at the repertory theater, La Collectionneuse, at the sea with the people talking on telephones. Collectionneuse is a word that feels good in your mouth, especially if you don’t speak French. It’s hard to believe now, but there was once a time when it really mattered if you spoke French or not.

The palm reader asked me to quiet my mind so she could concentrate. She told me that I had extra vitality. Then she told me that, vitality notwithstanding, I was strongly controlled by fate. I asked to see her palm for comparison, but she refused.

“That’s against my policy,” she said in her voice that was gravel crunching.

“You know,” she said, “in a way, none of us are self-made.”

I assured the palm reader that she did not have to persuade me that destiny was a good thing.

“What’s personal responsibility anyway?” I said, mistaking our conversation for a dialogue.

“Why do you clean houses?” she asked. I looked at my hands. If it was a guess, it was a good one. There are lots of ways to ruin your hands.

“I need the money,” I said.

When the palm reader opened her eyes, nothing else on her face moved. She leaned in until our foreheads were a hair from touching.

“Maybe,” she said. “You also want something else. But it’s not what you’re going to get. Also” — here she pulled away — “I don’t think your relationship is going to last.”

“It already ended,” I said.

“The next one won’t last, either,” she said.

The next morning at eleven o’clock I was sitting on a bench under a tree whose name I didn’t know waking up with a large sweet coffee and reading my own palm. The park was laid out like the spokes of a wheel. It was warm for October — it might have been the warmest October on record. The basics were easy. Every hand has a heart line, a head line, and a life line, but not every hand has a fate line. Having a fate line is special. For some people life is just one thing after another. Having a fate line means you have a purpose, and your job is to discover it.

I didn’t have any jobs lined up that day so I finished my coffee and went downtown to see Diary of a Chambermaid. It gave me ideas. It also showed me the limitations of my own situation. In Diary of a Chambermaid Jeanne Moreau triumphs because life presents obstacles to be overcome; also, a little girl is raped, and dies. Perhaps cleaning houses on a drop-in basis wasn’t going to give me enough material; perhaps I needed to become a live-in housekeeper. From reality would greatness issue. Living together presents a different kind of interest. Whatever was happening could not yet be fate.

Carla had said she would meet me at the movie, but something or someone came up and so she came over that night for TV instead. We both liked shows about sex crimes. Before she arrived I noticed a spider of hair behind the bathroom door and picked it up with my fingers and threw it away. I dragged a piece of toilet paper over the lid of the toilet bowl and took a paper towel and picked up the dust bunnies that had gathered along the living room moldings and near the front door, but I didn’t have the energy to disturb the untidy stacks of papers and books and the piles of clothes. Uncompensated labor had started to seem like a phase of life I had grown out of.

We got high and watched four episodes of SVU. Somehow or another we started talking about greatness. Carla said that greatness resides in the pursuit of greatness, in simply making the attempt; Carla is the child of artists, and she has a tendency to go easy on herself. But at least she thinks greatness is something. Most people I know don’t believe in it at all. Of course, when these people talk about greatness, they are not meaning the same thing that I do. I don’t care about prizes. I only care about recognition.

She left and I ate more pizza and looked at the dishes piled in and around the sink and worried: What if a high professional standard inevitably meant that you slipped up at home? Did I care too much about getting paid? I stripped and got into bed. What’s the most important thing in life? I wrote in my journal, longhand. Food-shelter-water. But how do you get food-shelter-water? By being good at your job. What else separates us from the animals?

Most of the clients were one-offs — people hiring to impress a dinner party, or for a visit with family. People who would never hire a cleaner regularly but justified it for a special occasion. Like how maybe you do cocaine at parties, but you wouldn’t buy it yourself.

Not everyone was awful. Once a cool dad was there, watching his daughter, and he was making a kale-celery-lemon cold-pressed juice in a German juice machine, and he offered me one, too. He ran out of kale so he gave me the good juice and he drank the celery-water. This showed his character. Once a middle-aged man hired me to clean his mother’s apartment on the Upper West Side. The mother was a hoarder. I filled twenty trash bags with takeout containers and the man sat in the corner and held his mother while she cried. Once a skinny brunette followed me through the apartment apologizing for the mess and picking at her arms. The place was so clean that I stopped pretending and followed the brunette, assuring her that she had done a terrific job. But every time I told her it was great, she kept saying, “It’s not professional quality.”

Once I was in the big dining room of a posh townhouse on the east side, polishing silver, when a tax lawyer who worked from home called down that he needed help with a “big job” upstairs. It was annoying to be interrupted. I liked polishing. It made me feel noble and useful and a bit tragic, like I was Stevens in The Remains of the Day. I liked all the parts of the job that felt old-timey, like dusting. I usually got high before work, so it was easy to get into a good rhythm with it, to really get in there and make it gleam. Polishing also cost extra.

“Coming!” I called, nicely.

Up the plush stairs, steeling myself for the nasty hairball, silently pumping myself up with mantras, like It’s just dirty hair, and If you do it once you never have to do it again. I held a red plastic plumber’s snake in one hand. It had jagged teeth to catch the hair and draw it up to the light. Last time I had plunged a drain, the sight of the hair slick with dirt had made me gag — but I held it in.

Up the plush stairs, through the French doors of the master bedroom, sinking in the sea-blue carpet, looking through the open bathroom door. Months of weekly business magazines were stacked on a stool that was imitating something but I didn’t know what, maybe one of the Louis, like Louis XIV. The oval mirror was wreathed with painted gold leaves. The lawyer was naked and holding his dick in his hand. His chest and stomach, round like a loaf of new-risen bread, were matted with glistening wiry black hair. His hand was moving furiously.

The lawyer was looking just to the left of my head.

“Do you want to touch it?” he asked and held it up, like he was willing to share.

The entire region had been rendered optimistically hairless. Keeping my eyes on the potato of the lawyer’s round vacant face, I unbuttoned the top two buttons of my sky-blue uniform — not enough to see anything, but enough to suggest that seeing something wasn’t so far behind. His eyes tracked down and hovered at the tit area.

“How much?” I said.

“A hundred dollars,” he said.

“For what?” I said.

You know,” he said, but neither of us did.

Sometimes sex is a thing we do for those in need out of compassion, or for ourselves, out of curiosity. I unbuttoned another button. The lawyer, who in all this time had not stopped handling himself, took a step back and collided with the sink. I pulled one bra cup down and lifted out a single breast. The executive shuddered. It was finished.

He wiped his hand on a washcloth and turned away from me to pick his pants off the closed toilet bowl and rummage for his wallet. He counted out five twenties and handed them to me without turning around. I made sure to finish polishing and put away the silver before I let myself out and locked the door behind me. I thought that was just what Stevens would have done. On balance, it had gone pretty well. I had been efficient and sensitive. I had not had to touch anything.

At home that night I turned on the kitchen light and something scuttled into the corner with the trash — a rebuke for leaving my professional zeal at the door. I took my computer to bed and stared at the white screen and tried out first sentences. Dick was better than cock, for this situation. It left more dangling. I texted Lawyer = Flasher! to Carla and spent some time in front of the mirror lifting one breast and then the other out of my shirt. They both had advantages. The next day Carla brought over a picture she had drawn of a fat man jerking himself off. His face was pockmarked and punctuated with a bread-roll nose. We hung the picture on my refrigerator. The money, we agreed, was a problem. What does $100 buy you?

This was a problem I had faced before. In college I babysat for a philosophy professor named Talia who had adopted a little girl from China. She needed a regular babysitter because most weekends her dog traveled to compete in obstacle courses against other dogs. The dog was an excellent competitor and the dining room was filled with trophies and ribbons and medals. When I graduated Talia gave me a $100 gift card to the local liquor store. I went in alone and asked the first person I saw to show me a $100 bottle of white wine. The person suggested a nice Chablis, but at the register it rang up for $20. I lowered my voice to explain to the cashier that there had been a mistake.

“She wants the $100 bottle!” the cashier yelled across the store.

That night I drank the whole bottle myself and had no hangover the following morning, because that’s what you’re paying for with a $100 bottle. One thing I learned from that experience that I hadn’t known before was that there is a $100 version of everything, even Chablis, which I had only associated with church ladies and Tennessee, because I once heard about it in a country song.
Carla, who knew this story, proposed that I use the lawyer’s money to buy another nice wine, but I wanted to feel like I was growing.

The air had that very clean taste, like breathable ice. I felt healthy in it, new. It was Saturday afternoon and to kill time while we waited for a brunch table we went to the park to enjoy the leaves, and in the park we saw Henry, walking with his boyfriend and his boyfriend’s dog. The dog was tan and tall and had four skinny legs. We said hello and tried to pet the dog, but the dog was pulling on the leash, so the boyfriend gave up the slack. We all silently watched the dog scurry on its twiggy legs up to the top of a nearby pile of wood chips and tremblingly squeeze out a pale log of excrement. Henry’s boyfriend groaned and scrambled after the turd and rejoined us holding a lumpen plastic bag a ways out from his body.

“Your dog is the king of that pile of wood chips,” I said.

“He thinks so,” he said.

Henry was reminded of a research librarian he had seen in a rare-books room some years ago who had the most fastidious manner of handing him extraordinary objects from the special collection and a way of presenting and opening the materials as if the two of them were joint explorers on a sacred mission.

“I felt that I loved him,” Henry said, “in the way that you love someone for only an instant. I loved that he was opening this world to me.”

Henry’s boyfriend made a joke about opening “something else” and everyone laughed too heartily and then Henry went on.

“But later in the afternoon,” Henry said, “we were next to each other at the urinals. After the librarian zipped up, he left without washing his hands.”

“What does this have to do with the dog?” his boyfriend asked. “She doesn’t have hands.”

Henry and his boyfriend often had these breakdowns in communication. The boyfriend just didn’t have a poetic imagination.

“I taught myself how to read palms,” I said. “After the palm reading at my birthday.”

“What?” Carla said. “You didn’t tell me that.”

“Will you read my palm?” the boyfriend asked.

“Twenty dollars,” I said, and he laughed and stopped laughing when I didn’t start.

“I have my future to consider,” I said. “If I start giving it away now, where will it end?”

Henry’s boyfriend gave Henry the plastic bag to hold and opened his wallet.

“I only have a five,” he said. I took the bill and examined his hand, twisting it this way and that in the shadowless light. No matter what I did, his great love would die terribly young. Whether this was Henry or not, though, I had no way of knowing.

“You have a fire-shaped hand,” I said. “That means you’re bold.”

He was pleased, and asked me to go on.

“You are very healthy,” I said, stalling.

The boyfriend didn’t care about getting his money’s worth. The dog started pulling and straining on the leash, and they lifted a hand to wave good-bye. After they were gone I told Carla what I had learned about the young death of his great love.

“Maybe he is going to leave Henry and date someone else, someone young, and that person is going to die,” Carla said. “Or maybe Henry is going to die. Are we still young?”

I felt uneasy that I hadn’t told the full truth to a paying customer.

“It wasn’t ethical,” I said. “It wasn’t professional.”

Carla shrugged. She’s a good person, but it’s hard to interest her in questions like this.

That Monday I got my schedule for the week and saw that the lawyer had left me an online review: five stars for professionalism and four stars for satisfaction. I had not realized he had such a keen sense of humor. Still, I was proud. Is that so wrong? I had comported myself admirably in a difficult moment. It was like those five golden stars all colored in in a row were five golden hands tipping five golden hats, saying, I see you.

I knew that the best moment of my house-cleaning career was behind me. I would have to work another year at least to have an encounter like that. I was done with research. I logged on and deleted my account with the agency. Instantly I received an email asking me to rate my experience as an employee. Instead, I set up a user account with a different email address and scheduled a cleaning for my apartment. The woman they sent was named Yasmin. She was 50 years old and wore a diamond crucifix and a hairnet and talked about her very intelligent grandchildren. She was there for one hour. She cost $60 and I gave her a $45 tip. Problem solved.

My tenure as a maid had lasted forty days. To celebrate my freedom, Carla took me to a dark bar where we toasted our past and future selves. Carla said she would let me read her palm and I promised to tell her the truth.

“Even if someone is going to die,” I said. “I’ll tell you.”

It was hard to make out the lines by candlelight. I held her hand close to my face and touched the inside of her palm. She giggled. Carla has always been ticklish. Once I saw her kick a Korean lady in the face during a pedicure. She didn’t mean to do it, but when the lady started scrubbing the sole her leg jerked out and she made contact. The Korean lady was a real professional. She wiped off her glasses and finished the job. We never showed our feet in that nail salon again.

On Carla’s hand I saw vitality and creativity and success. Then I showed her how her health line branched out from the life line.

“Your life will be threatened in old age,” I told her.

“That’s what the palm reader said on your birthday,” she said. “But everybody’s life is threatened in old age.”

“Not like this,” I said. “It looks like something violent.”

Carla was pleased. Everyone wants to meet a dramatic end.

We got drunk and talked about Henry and how long he had to live; and if he died, how he would die; and when he died, would I tell everyone that I had known all along? Because what was the truth? There are some things you can know about yourself, and there are some things only someone else can know. There are things you can’t tell now that you find out later you knew all along.


SEGMENT 2: Interview with Christine Smallwood

EW: What was kind of like the inspiration for writing this story?

CS: I guess I think it’s a story about work and what it means to be at an age when you want to start getting paid for your work. I don’t think there’s necessarily a lot of hidden meanings in the story, it’s very much all on the surface. She talks about uncompensated labor and how important it is to her to be considered professional and stuff like that.

EW: Well, something I noticed while you were reading and also while I read it before you came was this idea of young people having to do dirty work to get to the point where they could have the kind of sense of identity, or, at least, professional identity, that they are satisfied with. So was that something that you were consciously dealing with?

CS: Yeah, and I think that having her be employed through a kind of web-agency was also a way of, in an oblique way, bringing in the kind of gig economy that we all work in now, where everything is kind of contract-based, and you’re not a real employee. You kind of set up—you, like, hang your shingle either outside your door or through a larger and visible corporate structure, and you interface with other users.

EW: Right, well it’s the kind of Uber model.

CS: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And that was intentional; I wanted to bring that in.

EW: How much did the story change from the first draft and then from the n+1 editing process, how much changed from that?

CS: Well, I write in a lot of drafts—and this is true in all of the writing I do—so I don’t know which one counts as the first draft. There were probably thirty different Word documents related to this story that were saved on my computer over the course of writing it. At a certain point I kind of fell into what this story then wound up being, but for a long time it was in the third person, and there were—it was totally different. Over the course of four or five months it kind of settled into this shape. And then I brought it to the magazine through Charles Petersen, and then it didn’t actually change very dramatically at all. There was some copy-editing that happened, but I was expecting, honestly, a much more interventionist editorial situation based on my knowledge of other people’s experiences writing non-fiction for n+1, but it basically just went into the magazine. [Laughs]

EW: Do you—were you happy about that?

CS: Was I happy about that? Yeah, I mean it would’ve been interesting to know what a more activist editor would’ve wanted to change, but the story felt really done to me, and I don’t think stories are always done when people take them to other people.

EW: Well, when you were working on it, you were saying that you had like thirty different Word documents. What was, like, the breakthrough? What was the thing that made you or helped you find the story and find the narrative voice?

CS: I think when I started writing it in the first person, then, and when I started. . . . For a while I had this story that was about like a palm-reader. Like one of those people who you see in the Village—like, who are like full-time palm readers—and her like apprentice. And that was the whole story! And once I realized that I wasn’t actually interested in palm reading per se, I was interested in the whole kind of matrix of jobs you can do with your hands—and the story is very much like an extended joke on this phrase “hand jobs,” right? So once I realized that that was what the story was, it was just going to be a kind of pun in narrative form, then I could abandon these characters that were—that had like no basis in reality, and I could just write as more of a version of myself. Imagining what it would be like if someone like me—although very different from me. I, for example, would not take being flashed in stride in this way at all. And so for me, that was kind of interesting to imagine what it would be like to be someone who would have that kind of attitude about that experience.

It’s funny, though, people kept telling me these stories were funny, and actually I didn’t think they were that funny. [Laughs] Not that I thought they were serious, but I’ve been really surprised at how people find them funny. Because I just find them true! [Laughs] That makes me sound like a crazy person, I know.

EW: That’s interesting, though.

CS: I wasn’t trying to write a funny story.

EW: Right, so it wasn’t your intention, necessarily, a comedic, like, David Sedaris–style-

CS: No!

EW: -comedic narrative story.

CS: No, no, no! And it wasn’t . . . I mean, I think I’m pretty funny, so I’m not surprised people found things witty and whatever, but I didn’t sit down to try to be funny. I just tried to imagine these maniacs and what they would be like.

EW: Well I guess when I was reading it, I thought it was funny just because the scenario was, um, very strange, and in the story it’s dealt with in a very blunt and-

CS: Right, well, like, Nikil [Saval], when he put out the letter about the issue described the story as being “weird,” which I guess, but I don’t know, they just feel realistic to me.

EW: They feel like things I could see happening, but they’re also a little beyond what you would expect—like if someone told you this story, like you were just hanging out with your friend, and your friend told you this story, you would be like, “Oh wow! That’s fascinating!”

CS: Yeah!

EW: It’s not something that you would really expect in your day-to-day life.

CS: Right, that’s what my husband said. He was like, “Most people just write stories about, like, going out to dinner.” So that’s all that weird means: it just means “not people arguing about their marriage at dinner.” But that’s so sad, I think. It’s like, that’s what we . . . that’s the only thing we think normal is, or something.

EW: Alright, thanks so much for coming on the show.

CS: Thank you so much.


OUTRO

EW: Thank you for listening. The n+1 podcast is produced by Aaron Braun, Moira Donegan, Malcolm Donaldson, and Eric Wen. We’d like to thank Dayna Tortorici, Laura Cremer, and our guest for today’s episode Christine Smallwood. See you next time.

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