The Masseuse

My estranged father came in for a massage. Seeing him, for the first time in twelve years, in the doorway of my spa made me feel like I was personally responsible for everything in the place. I was wearing the aromatherapy bottles and massage oils and all that like jewelry up and down my arms, in my hair. They were me, out there, too much, not enough.

"Nice sign," he said.

The place had our last name. It was my place. He was painful to look at dressed kind of the same but in a different way that estranged fathers always are, because you look at them as wholes, not as parts. I couldn't really see him, not even to check him for evidence of I-don't-know-what, for proof of I-told-you-so. He appeared in the doorway, and I could barely stand to look, my head heavy with the weight of my store on me like some kind of pageant hat.

"Yeah," I answered. My eyes burned. I pressed my fingers to them, and my fingers smelled like someone else's fingers, like our peach soap and almond oil.

"Looks nice, you've done well," he said. He looked around, fooled with a Native American tapestry on the wall. "Business must be pretty decent."

My stomach turned. Or maybe I should say my large intestine contracted and rippled. I heard the sound it made. I was glad I was sitting behind the desk, and he was across the room.

"It's okay," I said.

"So what kind of a thing can a tired old man get here?" he asked, failing to lighten things up.

"There's a brochure right there," I said. I pointed to the low table with our literature on it. Magazines were stacked below on shelves, and on top was our literature and some other literature from health-food stores and community groups. Colorful flyers and a bowl of mints.

My estranged father quietly studied the brochure. The words in it were like a tattoo on the skin of my back, nearly smoking with ink. I couldn't stand to wait. "So what do you want?"

"Well, I haven't decided yet," he said, smiling deflectingly. "Everything reads fancy, these words. I can't tell what I'm in for." He shrugged as if he were helpless and as if I should agree that it was funny for him to pretend that his estranged daughter's business was out of his league and that it threatened him somehow in a way he found only charming or cute.

I didn't say anything. I started to write in my appointment book. I didn't have anything to write. My next appointment wasn't for ninety minutes. It was a Monday in June in Rochester, Michigan. You could get a malt shake at Knapp's Dairy Bar or an energy smoothie at the new place across the street or a hazelnut coffee at the corner Starbucks that had tucked itself as delicately as a hermit crab into the sandstone edifice of what used to be a bank. You could buy art or antiques, cowboy boots or snowboards. It was that kind of tree-lined upper-middle-class main-street downtown. Summers I got my usual older women plus guys playing sports, golf spines and softball shoulders, but it was still slow, typically. I didn't grow up here. We had lived down river, which means south of Detroit, blue-collar, industrial, immigrant, struggling. My father'd had odd jobs all his life. Painting the homes of auto workers, fixing up their boats when times were good, walking out on us when times were bad, the last time being twelve years ago. There were other things about my estranged father I'd willed myself to live above and beyond, out of the cold reach of memory. I became a citizen of the present, a tenant of the world as it was becoming what it would be, one smooth moment at a time. I sat at my desk against the silence of my estranged father and wrote down things I wanted to learn to do some day: play piano, fly a plane, mix drinks.

"How many you got working here?" he asked.

"Just me today."

"Oh. But I mean--"

"I got three plus me, part-timers, couple days a week. They alternate. Kim and Laurie and Christy. You know."

"Sure," he said. "Well, I was just stopping by."

"No, come on," I said. I was surprising myself. I couldn't stop. "What do you want?"

"Me?" He put the brochure back on the table, slipping it conscientiously into the fanned stack. "Oh, no, I don't go in for this stuff. I never had none of this. I see a doctor about once a month. Blood pressure, diabetes. My teeth, you know--"

He was talking. He was uncomfortable.

"Most men your age," I interrupted, "have a lot of tension built up in their--" I scanned the body of my estranged father, but it was no use. I couldn't really see him.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't catch that. In their what?"

"Calf muscles," I said.


I stood and pointed. "Calves."

I came out from behind my desk and pushed open the door to Room One. "You can take your jacket off, but leave everything else on. You got sweat pants, just roll them up to your knee. You'll be fine."

He followed me into Room One.

"Face down," I said. "Right up on here." I patted the massage table. "I'll give you five minutes."

I shut the door on him in there and sat back down at my desk. I'm not sure what I thought about. I can't account for the time I sat there. Next thing I know I'm in Room One wondering why I'd thought the calf muscle would be safe as the muscle to lie about old men storing tension in because it isn't quite. I'm not sure what muscle of your estranged father would be safe. Estranged muscles. Father muscles. The calf is like a buttock when it's plump and phallic when it's thin. Face down, my father was no one, a dead body. That was lucky. There wasn't anything that big about massaging his calf muscles like I was afraid there might be. He didn't even comment on the funny Indian music. He would have considered it funny. I didn't. He said nothing. He breathed. I thumbed and knuckled his thin little hairless calves, like a boy's but with splotchy moles and loose bumpy skin, like drumsticks thawing in the sink. I left his socks on, they were brown Wal-Mart socks or something. His shoes were those tan Rockport things. They were under the chair. His jacket he'd folded over the back of the chair. He was probably holding his keys in his fist. Probably hiding his wallet under his belly lying there on top of it. The calf is an easy muscle, simple, brute, right there. The lotion squirted out into my palm with a sound he didn't say anything about but he shifted a little when he heard it. I rubbed my hands in it, heating up. I laid my hands on my estranged father's calf muscle and worked out on it, thumbing it, knuckling it. The Indian music plinking and moaning away. It was perfectly normal and meant nothing, I wasn't doing anything different I wouldn't have done for any customer, I wanted him to think that, I tried to think that so he should think it, too. I was thinking there should have been more. There wasn't. I was done.

All the smell there was was the massage lotion and the candles. I didn't feel any differently, not really. I felt like I'd been tricked kind of but not totally. I didn't think he knew what to make of it either. He never said a word. "You can rest for a while," I said, "and then come out when you're ready."

I closed the door and went and sat at my desk. I felt my estranged father's calf muscles ghosting empty in my palms, a residual sensory effect that's pretty typical. I didn't want to but brought a palm to my nose. I expected some underlying sexual musk, like something lingering above a motel coverlet or hospital pillow, but detected nothing I could name, except the lotion. So I got up and washed my hands, which was what I was supposed to do, my routine. I came and sat back down again. I looked at my appointment book, at what I thought I wanted to learn to do some day: fly a piano, mix a plane, play drinks. Someone else had written these things.

I decided to write a note. I wrote a note saying he owed me thirty dollars and to leave the cash on the appointment book because I wouldn't be back for twenty minutes and I had my next appointment soon. I folded the note into a kind of tent and propped it on top of my paperclip holder so it wouldn't slip down or fall off or be missed. I had colored in a big black arrow on it to catch his eye.

I got up and opened the blinds, which I never do because light is disruptive and darkness is calming, better to relax the client, and I noticed the sun casting my name the right way in shadow across the floor. The name of the store was backwards on the back of the window glass, but righted when elongated in blurry shadow letters on the carpet. We were on a side street great for peace and quiet, not so great for attracting new customers. No one passed outside. I went into Room Two and left the door open a crack so I could see my estranged father come out and realize he was alone in my bright store.

And then I wanted to watch what he'd do.

About the author:

David Barringer's latest project is the Dead Bug Funeral Kit. Site: E-mail: