Armis Writes Oprah a Letter
Jamie Zerndt

Dear Oprah Winfrey:

This is a bit awkward. Something happened when I watched your show last week and you put out the call for participants in your latest makeover contest. Your words seemed to glow and vibrate. They seemed to beseech. They throbbed with reassurance. Oprah, they said, understands that a makeover can be more than physical. That it can be metaphysical. I want my insides reinvented, Oprah. Botox my heart. Silicone my soul. Nip and tuck my big fat head. Well, you get the idea.

Anyway, let me start with my studio apartment and the loss of my job. The words “I want new breath, all innocent air” are written on the wall next to a picture of my parents. Beneath that is a reminder. A photograph of MoonDog Productions. I was fired from there shortly after watching your “Don’t be afraid to chase your dreams!” show. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying it’s your fault or anything. I’ve only been unemployed for about twelve hours now, but I’m thirty years old and time is running out. The words on the wall were written ten years ago when I thought I was a poet. Then, I’d wanted just one poem to place on top of everything else that had come before me. It didn’t have to be anything grand, just something perfect. Something microscopic. A diamond to carry around in my pocket to give me comfort in my old age.

I still have the book of poems I wrote tucked away in a drawer under the black socks that go with my only suit. The poems are mine, no matter if they only gather dust now, but the thought of them lying there useless makes me more aware than I’d like to be of my own staggering mediocrity. And, yes, it is staggering.

The theatre production company MoonDog Productions is located in an old industrial part of town that seems frozen in time. The restaurants all have names like Joey’s Greasy Fork‚ or Old Mr. Mack’s Ribbies. The area is also completely devoid of fast-food chains, something which borders on the miraculous nowadays. The people there are generally cheerful and friendly despite the dismal gray concreteness of the place. It was like a modern-day Mayberry. A small-town set fenced in by belching smokestacks that keep out an annoying metropolis neighbor. Namely, the rest of Portland. If you ask me, the town should be placed on the endangered species list so nobody can ever touch it.

The warehouse itself is divided into three sections: the welders, the carpenters, and the painters. The frames for the scrims are first welded together before being handed over to the carpenters for additional support. Next the cloth is laid on by the painters and eventually covered with whatever stage layout is desired. There are also an endless number of props made by the carpenters that needed to be painted. Fireplaces, stones, barrels, statues, fences, fountains, pianos all made their way through the shop. With every bucket that passed through my hands, my desire to work on these things increased. Anything beat bucket duty, which consisted of standing in front of a slop sink and scrubbing out old paint pails, brushes, and other miscellany around the shop. I wore an oversized yellow smock, something a deck hand on one of those Alaskan fishing boats might wear. The heavy-duty rubber gloves that came up to my elbows only added to this effect. I was a fisher of buckets.

The owner of the production company was a tall, gangly Texan named Wright Johnson. The man never spoke or even looked in my direction. This was partly due to the fact that the departments were separated and his office was next to the welder’s wing. His office sat panopticon-like overlooking each of the departments via a one-way glass window. Still, I could hear Mr. Johnson screaming at the welders over the din of my buckets. He was the stereotypical dickhead boss, a breed I hadn’t run into since I was sixteen. Employus dictium phuctus. But my real enemy at the warehouse was the clock. I’d time myself on how long I could wait before looking at it again. Fifteen minutes was the average on a good day. This was how I spent my days.

The rest of the art department was a pretty tightly knit crew. I satisfied myself with being Paul’s quiet friend—he’s the one who got me the job there—rather than make any attempt to infiltrate the group. Most of them had that stand-offish attitude you tend to find at some of the lower paying jobs. It’s funny how tenaciously some people guard what nobody in their right mind would want in the first place. During breaks, they all hung out around two metal tables and read the paper and smoked cigarettes. Conversation was sparse during these breaks so I just sat there quietly next to my friend and followed along as best I could when something was said. I am what I call a defensive talker rather than an offensive one. Conversation, no matter how mundane, can feel like a fast-moving stream if you’re nervously standing on the banks and looking for a spot to jump in. The most I can usually handle is dipping a toe in here and there. It didn’t matter anyway. I was the new guy, even after three months. I didn’t count yet.

A new show had just been contracted. This meant longer hours and, more important, more buckets. While it had a bigger budget than some of the other shows, it was one of the cheesier sets we’d worked on. The clients, a little man with a sad moustache and a large obnoxious tent of a woman, flew down from L.A. periodically to check on the show’s progress. They were like a couple of peacocks dipped in perfume. They’d strut around the shop scrutinizing every prop and scrim for imperfections. The man was particularly fond of climbing up a thirty-foot ladder and then raining down a list of criticisms. Thanks to them and the quickly approaching deadline, I was finally taken off bucket duty and allowed to work on some of the drop cloths.

It was also around this time that I, out of boredom, decided to write a poem in the shop bathroom. Inside the bathroom there was an old smudgy message board that was used for reminders to bring in coffee or sugar or whatever for the next day. The poem should have stayed in my head, but I wanted to see what kind of response it would get. If any.
So this is what I wrote in the bathroom of the MoonDog Productions warehouse:

Time curls up into my arms
Stretches its claws
Unhinges its jaw
And lets its tongue unfurl
Like a red carpet
Welcoming peace


It’s not much. I was thinking about my cat, Frank. The poem went untouched for the first two days before one of the girls, who perpetually smelled of crawfish for reasons I could never figure out, made a comment during one of the breaks about somebody having written something “weird” in the bathroom. I, of course, didn’t say anything. Then the first change occurred. The last line was now “Welcoming donuts.” Not bad, really. Then the next day it was “Welcoming pussy.” Not my favorite, but I understood the double entendre they were going for. And finally it was amended to “Welcoming your sweet puckered ass.” This was the final draft the crew seemed satisfied with and nobody changed it.

Before my bastardized poem was erased into obscurity, it was to have one more viewer. The L.A. couple had flown in for one last look around the place before the show was to be packed up and shipped out. They latte-d around the shop for a good hour before deciding on a few last minute changes. You could tell they’d never done an ounce of labor in their lives. If they didn’t ask to change something, the trip would have been a complete waste. They would’ve been forced to feel the weight of their own uselessness if they’d simply said, “Hey, everything looks great. Good job, everybody!”

Sorry, but I have this thing about rich people. I hate them.

Before the two left the shop, I watched each of them quickly duck into the bathroom. The sad little man had a wry grin on his face when he came out, like he had a secret he didn’t want to share. The lady, after finishing her tinkle (she was the type who’d say “tinkle”), had a beautiful scowl on her face. Apparently, she wasn’t pleased with our collective handiwork. After they left I went in to see if they’d made any adjustments. Sadly, it remained untouched.

It only took five minutes for Wright Johnson to come gimping and banging through the doors, heading straight for the bathroom. I heard him say, in a booming voice, “Son of a bitch!” Then there was nothing. A long, still quiet. I felt a mix of fear and excitement rush through me. Now this was poetry that made things happen! Poetry like a fist. I busied myself with a fresh pile of buckets and listened to the muffled flush of the toilet. I figured it was a good sign. He couldn’t be that upset if he took the time to shit. Poetry like a laxative, Oprah. When he eventually came out, he stopped and glared at me. I smiled at him and the man’s cheek began to twitch.

“You wouldn’t know anything about certain vulgarities my clients just complained about would you? Something about a poem, maybe?" he asked me.

“Well, yes, I know about it but—” I managed to say, turning off the water so that I could hear the man address me directly for the first time.

“Those people who just left feel it raises questions about the character of my employees. Do you understand that?”

“Yes,” is all I said. I was afraid my voice would betray my nervousness so I decided to say as little as possible.

“They also mentioned not feeling comfortable giving this company a recommendation to certain other cruise ships. Do you have any idea what a recommendation like that could mean for this company?” His voice was rising steadily.

“I have an idea,” I said quietly, while staring at the inside of a paint can.

“I have a feeling you don’t, son, or you wouldn’t go around writing faggot poetry on my bathroom walls!” I could feel Texas spit on my face.

Faggot poetry? I didn’t write anything inappropriate in the bathroom. if that's what you‚re saying.” If I wasn’t so intimidated by the man I would have laughed at the idea of my creating a whole new genre of poetry. And then, I would have thanked him for the compliment.

“Who else here, and I know my crew, would write such a filthy thing!”

“I’m sure I wouldn’t know, sir.” The word “sir‚” came out much the same way he’d said the word “faggot” a moment before.

“If I see anything else inappropriate go up in that bathroom I’m holding you directly responsible. You understand?”

“I don’t see how that’s fair, I...”

“I don’t need you to see, son, I just need you to do your job. We understand one another?”

“Sure.”

“Sure? Wrong answer, son. You’ve got yourself five minutes—no, make that two—to get out of my sight. No more fucking poetry. You understand me?”

“Sure,” I said again and smiled. It was for the audience. People from the other departments were filing in to see what was going on. Wright Johnson’s face turned orange and splotchy and looking like parts of it were going to tremble right off as he limped back to his office. I just stood there with a stupid smile on my face. It was sort of stuck there, the smile, but I was determined not to let anyone know I was upset. Paul came over to me and patted me on the back.

“I’ll quit, too. He can’t treat people like that. Nobody thinks it was you and even if it was, that’s no reason to get fired. Especially if he can’t prove anything.”

“I didn’t write it.”

“You didn’t?”

“Well, the original family friendly version, yes.”

“I figured. I thought the last edition a bit of an improvement myself. No offense.”

“None taken.”

This all happened twelve hours ago.

* * *

Lately I’ve gotten into the habit of sitting on the couch and listening to my neighbor’s television through the floor. It sounds like a warbling pigeon. I picture my neighbors, a married couple, sitting there watching this pigeon strut around their living room and it makes me smile. Outside my window, a tree seem to be laughing, too, holding its black stomach and chuckling along with me. If it didn’t already exist, I’d invent something exactly like it and hang it outside my window. This is why I need to keep busy, Oprah. My thoughts begin to run melancholy and childlike if I don’t keep moving.

What I need to do is call her. I can’t expect any pity from Piper, but drinks are a definite possibility. It’s only been twelve hours after all, so I have a few weeks before I have to do any serious thinking. I need to relax, but that’s the problem. I’ve forgotten how to relax. When I was younger that was all I’d been good at. I was a sort of professional when it came to fucking off. Pardon my language, Oprah, but you might as well get used to it. Just one more shortcoming of mine. Hey, maybe they could do some plastic surgery on my tongue.

Back to the apartment. At my feet, on the coffee table, is a book. There’s a picture of the author on the back and his eyes are bright and sparkling, the edges crinkled with what I take to be peace. I wonder how often he looks like that, like life was just a soft hand there to push up the sides of his mouth and pinch the corners of his eyes. I can’t remember what the book is about although I do remember hearing he’s some kind of genius. You may know him from that book club of yours.

If you look at his crumpled brow you don’t see a mountain ridge leading to the spring of truth or any literal nonsense like that. The nose too looks average; it sits like a beer belly on the guy’s face. Even his chin is weak. I think it’s all in the eyes. The eyes seem to let in a certain kind of light the rest of us don’t have access to. You seem to share this light, Oprah.

My own eyes are cloudy. Nobody would ever stop me on the street and start a conversation based on the light emanating from my eyes, though that probably never really happens, anyway. At one point in my life, when I was much younger, I went so far as to tack up a collage of thinkers and artists in an attempt to find some common characteristic. I vainly thought that maybe then I could detect this certain quality in myself. Then I’d have proof of what I secretly hoped for, but no matter how hard I stared into the bathroom mirror I couldn’t see any similarities. A puddle. Somebody told me that once that I have a puddle for a face. There is a sort of beauty in the phrase, don’t you think? My face, in case you’re wondering, is actually far from anything puddle-like at this point in my life. Over the years my baby fat has disappeared almost completely. The eyebrows are still attached, save for a thin stretch that dissects the roving caterpillar I have there. My nose is strong, but looks as if it’s been broken a few times as it’s slightly pushed off to one side. This is perhaps the only feature that lends me any sort of toughness, however illusory. Oh, and I have a shovel full of brown hair that looks like it was dumped onto my head. But that’s mostly my fault; I never comb it.

Other traits I possess:

I have a knack for missing my stop when taking the train, too busy imagining myself a giant jumping over the passing factories and houses outside. Or forgetting to answer the phone, my daydreaming only allowing the idea of a ringing phone to enter my head. I am a distracted person, but mostly with nonsense. I am a person who needs notes. Lots of notes.

If you watch me for any length of time you’ll begin to notice that I rarely make eye contact. I usually focus somewhere above the mouth and just below the nose. Depending on the mouth. Depending on the nose. It’s normally a safe place to hover. The whole idea of eye contact is ludicrous to begin with. It’s an overwhelming burden and I don’t understand how people out there actually enjoy it. If I’m forced to endure it for any length of time it usually results in a shortness of breath and extensive watering of the eyes. I really don’t know how you do it. Don’t get me wrong. None of this is to say that I am an especially sensitive person. Simply put; I’m afraid.

At odds with my appearance, I keep my apartment fairly clean. Apart from a corner of the living room, which is used as a small studio, the apartment is simple, sparse and orderly. The walls are lined with child-like oil paintings I’ve created over the years. My favorite is of a man against an orange background with a disproportionately large finger extended up his nose. I call it “Minimal-jism” Nobody but me thinks this is funny. Then there’s the tin can of peaches by my bed with the label removed. In its place is a watercolor copy of one of Egon Schiele’s prepubescent girls wrapping itself obscenely around the can. It was given to me by Piper when we’d first started dating. I like the fact that it’s most likely the only such can of peaches in the world and that has to be worth something. You’re probably wondering who Piper is. I’ll get to her in a bit.

The only photograph in the place is of my mother and father standing in front of a house that sits dejected and alone on a hill. From the outside the house looks sick, like it’s on crutches and groggy from pain meds. There is a smiling round-faced man with his arm around a slightly embarrassed and annoyed woman. The man is completely bald and the woman has jet-black hair at the age of seventy-two. When I was growing up, friends constantly mistook them for my grandparents. When I first realized that my parents were older than most others, I began climbing into my father’s lap and pressing my ear to his chest. I never told him, but I’d been listening for his heartbeat. Some days it beat in a whisper I had to strain to hear; other times it beat so loud it hurt. For some reason I never worried about my mother. The deep blackness of her hair seemed to shield her from aging. From death.

My mother was a strong woman. There’s no question of that. A hard-working Catholic, she was rarely idle. I could never understand how much work she seemed to always have around the house. It was unending and she was religious in her devotion to it. To watch her do the dishes was to see her genuflect, each dish a bead in a rosary between her nervous and prostrate hands. There was something necessary in it for her after so many years, something soothing in it like a prayer. The fact that she never allowed me to help her further cemented my belief that there was room for only one in my mother’s pew.

This pragmatic work ethic as well as a penchant for drink was handed down to me in internecine spades. I can see my father coming home from work in his brown suit and then taking to his brown couch for the remainder of the night where he would incubate a hidden bottle of whiskey under the cushions. Even now I keep my liquor in the back of a cupboard behind a sentinel of canned soups and chili. All I’d need is a brown suit and the transformation would be complete. I don’t mean this to sound so terrible. There are times I aspire to be more like my father when I can’t bear the fact that I’m succeeding. Anyway, that’s the beginning of all this. The beginning of my quest to win your makeover contest. My only hope is that points are awarded for honesty and originality. I suppose I should tell you my name. It’s Armis. Armis Wilk. Nice to meet you.

* * *

In front of Piper was a half-eaten burrito, my poem in her bean-caked fingers and what looked to be my credit card bill. Piper, as usual, looked amazing. Her eyes, when she looked up to acknowledge me, were blue-green and all lit up like 500-watt light bulbs. I’m not too good at this, Oprah, but I did have enough sense to know that they, her eyes, weren’t exactly happy to see me.

“Hey! What are you doing here?” I asked. She had stopped by my apartment unannounced. When I bent down trying to find her eyes again they’d taken refuge behind the credit card bill. “You on lunch break or something?”

“Something.” She ignored the questions. “So who’s the cutesy poem to?”

“Who do you think?”

“I’d like to think me, but I don’t really know.” She was looking at the poem like it was a smelly sock, holding it out away from her.

“Piper, c’mon, who else would it be to? Is that my credit card bill?”

I was starting to understand where her look was coming from.

“Uh huh. I was bored so I just sort of opened it. Must have been my woman’s intuition or something.” Now she was smiling, but it wasn’t a happy sort of smile. “What’s ‘Live Talk Communications—$24.99’? Pretty spendy, Armis. Wait, don’t tell me. It’s for the new cell phone you bought me, right?”

“No.”

“You’ve been wanting to tell me, but were keeping it a surprise. You’re embarrassed now. I ruined it, didn’t I, baby?” This was sarcastic Piper. Sarcastic Piper wasn’t much fun.

“You’re right about the embarrassed part,” I said.

“Why’s that? You’re not proud that you feel the need to call up phone sex lines even though you have a perfectly wonderful and beautiful girlfriend the same number of digits away?”

“Piper.” I must have looked like I just stepped on a nail.

“Piper what?”

“It isn’t like that.” My voice sounded like it was going through puberty, light tufts of hair sprouting from every word. “Well, not always. Most of the time I just send messages back and forth. I’ve never talked with anyone directly, if that helps any.”

“Directly? You sound like a pro. This really is embarrassing for you, Armis. If it isn’t, it should be.”

“Trust me, it is.”

“You could have told me, you know. It could have been fun. It might have even turned me on, but instead you chose to lie. Now it’s just gross—gross and pathetic. A creepy old man pathetic.”

“That’s exactly why I didn’t want you to find out. I knew how it would look.”

“How long have you been doing this?”

“Only for a couple of weeks, I swear.”

“And what do you say to these women?”

“You’re not going to believe this, but—”

“Try me.” Piper was up and moving about the room, slowly gravitating toward the window.

“Sometimes I just read my poems to them.” The words crawled out of my mouth, heads hung low, self-conscious, cringing.

“Why? To get them in the mood I suppose, get the old juices flowing? Jesus, Armis.”

“They made me feel good about what I’d written.”

“But it never occurred to you that maybe I’d want to hear them?”

“It was easier to read them to people I didn’t know, people I couldn’t see.”

“You expect me to believe that’s all you did?”

“No.”

“So what else happened?”

I wanted to jump out the window. I needed to get outside. And from there, I needed to go outside again.

“Sometimes they talk dirty, too.”

“No shit, Armis, really? My God, it’s like a fucking glory hole for introverts.”

I pictured myself standing in front of a long black wall, thrusting my stiff poem through an anonymous hole.

“Maybe.”

“There’s no fucking maybe about it, you idiot. If you can’t see how pathetic this all is, I’m not going to explain it to you.”

Piper headed for the door, the poem hanging limp in her hand. Flaccid. Spent.


* * *

A few days later Piper agreed to meet me at The Vern and so I decided to write her a poem. I was intent on penning her a beer-napkin poem so brilliant she’d break into tears right on the spot. This would be followed by such comments as “I had no idea you had it in you!” and interjections throughout the remainder of the evening like “My God, this is amazing! Are you sure you wrote this?” I would get irritated from all the attention she’d give it. My poem would become a throbbing erection in her hands, praised for its larger-than-life persona. God’s name would be invoked a number of times to explain the complexity and unparalleled beauty of the thing. It would be lauded for both its generosity and its sustainability. My poem would hand out multiple orgasms. She’d tell her girlfriends about my poem.

I went into the sock drawer and pulled out my old book of poems. There were a few that might have worked, but that would be a cop-out. It was like trying to impress someone with a picture of yourself that was taken ten years ago,_before the gray hair. I told myself I could make something new, something presentable, even if it wasn’t all that great. Did I used to drink when I wrote the poetry? It couldn’t hurt, though I had to be careful not to write anything too syrupy. She wouldn’t go for it if it was at all syrupy.

On my way to the bar I was still negotiating with myself as to how and what I should write, all the while visually trying to pick out lines along the way. This had become a habit with me, though very few of them ever actually made it to the page. A group of children playing in a front yard would turn into “little breathing dreams.” I instantly hated the line so much that I almost apologized to them as I passed by. Next there was a pair of “vertiginous thighs” or a darkening sky that “descended like a blanket over the tired day.” They came like that. Disjointed. Random. Useless. What I lacked was a way of arranging them into anything coherent. It’s really more of a game I play to pass the time. The phrases are conjured, then held up and scrutinized in the palm of my poet hand before being released again. They run like subtitles under the screen of my daily life. Like the white subtitles in a documentary about snow. You have to squint a lot.

The Vern is a twenty-minute walk from my house. Its real name is The Tavern, but the sign has lost a couple of letters over the years. Trust me, it’s even less funny if you hang out there. It’s one of those anywhere bars you can pick up and drop in Iowa or Texas and it would be equally at home. There’s a cardboard cutout of a popular supermodel (I won’t say who, as you may know her) swaying from a makeshift noose stuck into the ceiling. Over the bar there’s a list of persons who’ve been eighty-sixed. The ones crossed out have recently died. Seriously, Oprah, it’s the only way to get off the list, so behave if you ever go there.

Now I think you’ll agree that there’s nothing more depressing than a man drinking alone in a bar and writing on a napkin. The whole thing was a bit too cliché, even for me. I became acutely aware of the pen in my hand as the napkins in front of me turned into belligerent friends calling unwanted attention to my table. To somehow cover their mouths, I jotted down some numbers on one of the napkins, various additions and subtractions, and left it in the middle of the table. Just doing a bit of figuring I’d say, should anyone ask what I was up to. After three beers I had two of the napkins covered and was busy feeling enamored by my own quiet prolificacy.

Napkin #1
I made a jacket
Out of a poem I wrote
But it was cold like me
Dropping colors and phrase from its sleeve
And shivering
So that it was useless
Until I hemmed in
The warmth of your name.

(To be honest I was thinking of you for this one, Oprah, but that can be our little secret!)

Napkin #2
There is a voice
Still born
In your eyes
A sound
Underneath the quiet
Like a match
Patiently waiting
To be lit

(And this one was actually about the bartender, but Piper needn’t know that.)

When Piper showed up, I was still scribbling on the back of my third napkin. As I watched her order a drink, I realized two things. One, she was already drunk. Two, she was over an hour late. I hadn’t noticed the time I’d gotten so wrapped up in my napkins. I nervously lit a cigarette (do I light them any other way?) and mulled over the last poem I’d written.

Napkin #3
It’s your mouth I dream about
the curl and arch of it
when you want to be fucked
the twisting hook of lip
the trembling smile
as it raises up slowly
like a skirt
purposeful
and obscene.

(Don’t worry, this one really is about Piper.)

But there was something missing. There was a lot missing. What was I trying to say after all? That I thought Piper was a coat, a stillborn, a fish? Not very romantic. The poems left me with the usual bad aftertaste in my mouth, something more acrid than the PBR I was putting down. The whole thing started to seem like a bad idea. I convinced myself that she’d think the poems were a joke and as a result shoved them into my coat pocket before she even got to the table.

When Piper came over she had a sly grin on her face and serenely lidded eyes. She looked attractive even when fucked up. It was about the hundredth time I’d noticed this. She always held herself together. Even when hung over, she seemed to have ten times the amount of energy I did.

“What’s crackin’?”

Piper didn’t normally say things like “crackin’.” She must have picked it up at work.

“Hey—” I sat up straight while my hand balled the nervous little pieces of paper into nonexistence. “Where have you been?”

“Oh, we had to wash the kitchen mats and then a few of us decided to stay for a quick smoke.” She emphasized this by pinching her two fingers together around an imaginary joint and then blowing out a real cloud of cigarette smoke. She’s pretty crafty, Oprah.

“The usual, then.”

“Pretty much. So what’s with all the numbers? I thought maybe you were writing me a love letter.”

“No, sorry. Just going over some numbers from work. You know, calculating how much I didn’t make this summer.”

“A girl can hope, can’t she?” It had been a long time since I’d written her anything other than notes saying I’d be back later or apologizing for eating all the waffles.

“I thought you hated love letters.”

“I do? Oh, yeah, I guess I do. Not from you, though.”

“You’re stoned.”

“Yeah, and you’re cute.”

“Spanks.”

“So you’re probably wondering why I gathered all of you here tonight, yes?” Piper said this and fanned her hand elaborately around our small empty table.

“All of who?”

“Details shmee-tails.” She slumped down a little. I was no fun, apparently. “You’re so literal, Armis, do you know that?”

“Piper.” I could tell she had something to say and was postponing it. I’d seen her do this before and it never ended well.

“OK, fine. I’ve got an idea. You know how I’m getting really tired of working all the time and getting nowhere? I mean, I don’t get how people can ever make any money in this world.” Her eyes scanned the room and landed on Larry, a gray shadow at the bar and also a Vietnam vet. “Like that guy there, he’s probably on his hundredth beer, been in here most of the day, right? So how does he do it? Where do all these people get their fucking money from, that’s what I’d like to know.”

“He’s a gimp. Ask him about it sometime and he’d be more than happy to tell you. And as far as money goes, he gets a stipend from the government and not much of one at that.” I knew all about Larry. I’d gotten sucked into his stories nights I was too drunk or too lazy to get off my stool and head home.

“See what I mean. Everybody’s got some angle they’re working. I could handle a limp if it meant I didn’t have to work.”

“Larry might disagree with you.”

“Anyway, I have an idea I don’t think you’re going to like, but remember, it’s only an idea. So just listen, okay? Can you do that? How many beers have you had?” She knows I’m pretty much useless after six.

“Two.” I lied, though I’m not sure why. I’d only had three.

“Good. All right, here goes. I’m thinking of lingerie modeling.” She said it just like that. The words like big fat turds falling into a toilet. “Lingerie”...plop! “Modeling”...plop!

“Lingerie what?”

“Are you being serious?” She thought I was being sarcastic, but I really wasn’t sure what lingerie modeling was.

“Yes, I’m being serious,” I said. “I mean, I kind of know what it is.” I had a vague picture in my head of a department store catalog with Piper staring back at me in one of those just-under-the-navel white panties that older catalogue women used to wear. There were frills on it like on a doily.

“People pay to see you model lingerie and, well, for lack of a better word, masturbate. Wait, it’s not so bad, Armis.”

If I’d been a cat, my back would have been arching.

“They can’t touch you or anything because you’re behind glass. They just watch you from a booth,” she added soberly.

“You’re kidding, right?” Please be kidding.

“I’m serious, Armis. Why the fuck not? The girl I work with does it and she’s always talking about how much money she makes.” The girl she worked with was also a junkie. “Don’t tell me you’re one of those guys who’s got a hang-up about stuff like this.”

“I wouldn’t call it a hang-up, Piper. What girl you work with?”

“Susan.”

“She’s an escort, Piper, am I right?”

“Yeah, but that’s totally different.”

“Apples and oranges.” I’d met Susan before. She looked the part somehow. Piper didn’t.

“You’re mad, aren’t you? I knew it.” The similarities between me and a two-year-old are sometimes frightening. If I bite my tongue, you know an explosion is coming.

“Mad? No. I think ‘incredulous’ may be the word you’re looking for. Huh, my little phone calls suddenly don’t seem so serious.” It was as honest as I could put it, regardless of the soap opera undertones. There was a time when I would have clammed up, said nothing and drunk myself stupid before saying anything else. But I’m working on that. Trying to get things on the table as quickly as possible.

That’s all. Oh, thank God. I was almost worried there for a minute.” She was reaching now. Searching the bar for the moral indignation she’d left my apartment with the other night. Projecting, I think it’s called. “Listen, I’m just thinking about it. I doubt I’ll actually go through with any of it.”

“Doesn’t that go against the feminist manifesto or something? You know, whoring yourself for money.”

“It can actually be a form of self-empowerment. I’d be using them, instead of being used.” You could tell she wasn’t so sure of this, but it sounded good.

“OK, sorry, what I mean is—well, I just can’t see you doing it. I’m sorry, but I can’t. That’s what I mean. Maybe I just don’t know you.” I could feel myself cooling down a little, stepping deeper into shade.

“We’ll see. I’m probably too old now anyways. I’m just sick of watching everybody else get ahead. It seems like everybody’s got money but me, and all I do is work.”

“How much would it pay?”

“A couple hundred a shift, depending.” Did you hear that one? “Depending”...plop! Sorry, Oprah, I should have warned you about that one.

“You know they fuck some of the clients, don’t you?” It was a guess. I had no clear picture of what went on in those places. I swear.

“Not all of them do that.”

“That’s real reassuring. OK, I know I’m supposed to be cool with this and not be jealous and not be a lot of things I probably am right now, but that’s not me. It would fuck me up if you did that. That’s all I know, Piper.”

“Let’s talk about it later, OK, Armis? I’m just talking, mostly. There’s no point getting upset about something that hasn’t happened yet. I’m just frustrated with things. Let me buy my favorite boy a shot, deal?”

“Sure.”

I sat and watched her as she ordered us two whiskies. I played absently with the napkins in my pocket and thought how ridiculous it would be to pull them out right then. OK, enough about lingerie modeling, what do you think of these over- sentimentalized poems I wrote for you? Yes, they are sweet, aren’t they? Now what do you have to say about that silly little idea of yours? I thought so. No, apologies aren’t necessary. How could you have known of the gold mine I had to offer you? Consider it forgotten. I can be such an idiot, Oprah.

As I waited, images of Piper with her legs spread and her hand tracing the elastic band on a pair of hot-pink panties in front of a greasy-looking one-way mirror were becoming more pronounced. Soon she was sucking her fingers and using that look she uses on me when she wants to be fucked, that “twisting hook of lip” look. And she was enjoying it. She was turned on by the forty-five-year-old pot-bellied fuck sitting there with his dick in his hand. This was the real Piper, the one that existed when I wasn’t around. The one that would show my poems to her lingerie- modeling friends before they all went on stage to have a good pre-lingerie-modeling laugh.

Maybe she was that sexually ruthless. Maybe she just didn’t give a fuck. Maybe she wanted to model lingerie. It went something like that. My thoughts quickly careened away from me as I watched some hipster with a shit-eating grin lean in on Piper at the bar. She wasn’t doing much to get out of his way. She looked as if she were blushing, Oprah! I clutched the pieces of paper in my pocket as if maybe I’d throw them at the guy if things got ugly. Look out! He’s got over-sentimentalized love poems in his pocket! Everybody run! That’s pretty much the last thing I remember.

Bushes. I remember jumping into some bushes at one point. Other than that, it’s all a blur. Oh, yeah, and the poem. I do recall a vague feeling of superiority before I vomited onto my can of Egon Schiele peaches and passed out.

* * *

I went for a walk
Looking for a poem
But found a tree
With arms weighted down by snow
Palms up
As if holding something precious
I turned to see
All the trees had heavy hands
Offering you
                      — Armis Wilk


* * *


That’s pretty much it, Oprah. I’ve lost my job, my girlfriend, and my creative juices all in the span of a few days. I believe I’ve pled my case fairly. I didn’t use any tricks to pluck at your generous heart strings; no starving babies, homeless daughters, or recurring afflictions (unless you count my inability to stop calling up chat lines and spreading my verse, my never ending poet seed). And I know that sometimes you do the makeover thing and then—surprise!—we’ve also bought your parents a home in Florida, gotten you a new job as editor for O Magazine, and guess what, a year of free relationship counseling. None of that, Oprah, I mean it. A simple makeover is all I’m looking for. So in conclusion, please keep in mind the words of our long lost poet: “I want new breath, all innocent air.”

Your biggest fan,

Armis Wilk
Portland, Oregon


The story “Armis Writes Oprah a Letter” is actually the first chapter of a book titled The Never Ending Poetic Seed of Armis Wilk, which is currently being auctioned off on eBay for 35 cents.


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