issue twenty-nine
art gallery
past issues
current issue
(4360 words)
Jess Simms
Jay calls while I'm locking the studio and says, "I just sold one of your pieces."

"Which one?" I ask, hoping he'll say a lamp, a statue, something with a pricetag big enough to pay the rent.

"A bong," he answers. "Two-footer. Lizard on the front."

I don't remember it, but then I've been making bongs for Jay for maybe three years, now, long enough I know there's more to this before he says, "So yeah. He wants you to do a commission."

"For another bong?"

A cough on the line, muffled conversation, then Jay answers, "He wants to talk about it in person. Like now, if you can."

Commissions are good news. They mean customers who care about quality, who'll pay extra for cool needless shit like color-changing glass and double slides. If my dad knew how much a good bong nets from the college student demographic, he'd be less doubtful about my career choice.

I tell Jay, "I'm still in my studio clothes." Sweat-stained white wifebeater, lime green running shorts, hair frizzed all to hell. Not deal-making attire. I look fresh from an orgy.

"It's cool," Jay tells me. "You know this guy."

"Who is it?"

He pauses. I get the sense, through the line, that he's trying to be clever.

"Let's just say it's an old friend."

Five things you can do with a B.A. in glassblowing:
1: Be a free-spirited hippie boy's Best Girlfriend Ever.
2: Become the top earning contractor at a college town headshop.
3: Get into concerts by offering to make the bouncer something really special.
4: Garner enough attention from the art world for an honorable mention in the Toledo Museum of Art's Emerging Voices contest (but not quite enough attention to win).
5: Regularly ask your dad for money, sometimes when you don't even need it, just to remind him his daughter is an artist and not a neurologist or a C.F.O. or anything else worth bragging rights at the office.

Although, to be fair, half that list could be accomplished with a nice pair of tits.

       At the shop, the sign that says Dude, we're open! in cheerful green neon is covered up by folded notebook paper with 4:20 brake scrawled on it in Sharpie. Geddy Lee bass grooves thunder from the back room. Hopefully Jay's testing the merchandise with this old friend. If the guy makes the deal stoned (and I show a little cleavage) I could tack a good 10% on to the asking price. I bang on the side door. Jay opens it and I step inside. I blink the sunlight out of my eyes until the room takes shape around me, Jay's ash-dusted coffee table and fraying couch and on that couch is Mike.

I tell Jay, "No fucking way," and twist back, into the heat.

       I was about to say here's a funny story, except it isn't. It's a normal story. The kind that's a little embarrassing, but you tell it to show you can laugh at yourself. Like a party puke story. Everybody's got one.

This one's about a bleach blonde who was once a redhead. Everyone tells her she should be a model. Her mom calls the color of her eyes a true ultramarine. She's an undergraduate in glassblowing. She's not here for the degree. What she wants is a husband, the big MRS, and when junior year hits and no one's put a ring on it, she decides to push the issue. She makes art pieces, little Chihuly knock-offs with twisty tendrils and vibrant colors, and the Fine Arts dean is only too happy to help her get them put up around campus. Not on the Union lawn or anything -- she's not delusional about her talent level -- but in the library and dining halls and Business Administration building, there's her glass.

And of course she's proud of it. That's why she stuffs some rags in her purse every now and then and goes around to dust them off. It's pure coincidence she spruces up Triumph VI in the Finders-Keepers dining hall the same nights Delta Sigma Pi have their Study-A-Thons. That her Future of America -- an inspiring tower of red white and blue -- needs to be wiped off every Tuesday at 6:30, while the Young Republicans mingle before their meeting. She's the kind of girl who cleans art in peep-toe pumps. It's ambition tucked into Spanx with a Cover Girl smile.

So it's Thursday afternoon at 4:15 and she's headed to the library to give some love to Knowledge is Power in her strappiest black heels. Riding up in the elevator she hears a ruckus, more than usual from the Future Lawyers of America (not known to be a rowdy bunch). The door opens on a crowd of men in polos and khakis, their pale cheeks splotched, mobbed around a guy in a knit beanie and corduroy pants. His hair's in those thick ropes that make it look like he doesn't shower. The look on his face is like campus security caught him with a joint. The girl's glass statue, it's in about three billion shards on the linoleum between 335 (Socialism) and 347 (Civil Procedure).

Knit-Hat's defense is, "This dude pushed me!"

Which is almost definitely bullshit, but the girl's lips are too numb to call him on it. Her face feels hot. She stammers, "I made that statue." Made the open book, the detailed feathers of the tall purple quill, the elaborate stand curled like cast iron.

Knit-Hat tells her, "Dude, really?" He leans toward her and underneath the beanie, in between the hair-ropes, he's got these eyes that sparkle more than high-lead crystal. They're green laced with brown, like African jade.

"It was great. How you used purple for the quill -- the color of royalty, right? So it's like the Man's writing the knowledge. That's why he has the power." Knit-Hat takes the girl's right palm in both of his and cups it gently, like a baby bird. "I'll totally pay for it. Later. But right now -- I gotta jet."

It's only after he's bounded down the stairs that she opens her hand and sees a business card with Knit-Hat's phone number and name.

The F.L.A. president says, "In my opinion, you shouldn't talk to him." His words have the sound of a practiced script, too confident to be improvised. "I'm well versed in personal injury litigation. You could sue him for thousands of dollars in property damage. Literally. Thousands."

He, too, hands the girl a business card, tells her, "Call me. Any time."

And it's the damndest thing, but somehow that second business card gets lost in her purse beneath her notebooks and make-up bag and a purple chunk of glass that used to be the top of the quill in Knowledge is Power. Four days later, she's at dinner with Knit-Hat (his name is Mike; he's a bassist; he takes her for Thai food then back to his apartment).

Thirteen months later, to the day, Mike breaks up with her in a Denny's window booth at two a.m., because he's cheating on her and doesn't think it's right to, like, play her like that.

Almost three years after that (not that she's keeping track) Mike comes to J's on Main to commission a bong.

He still hasn't paid for that fucking statue.

       Jay pushes through the door right behind me. It's not worth the effort to evade him. There's nowhere in this town I can hide. I stop in the parking lot and light up a cigarette.

"I know you're not talking to Mike -- "

"Then why the fuck did you call me?"

" -- but he's willing to pay a lot. You don't have to like him to take his money."

A mosquito buzzes past my ear. I swat the air. When I'm quiet too long, Jay tugs at his cloud of hair and says, "Jesus, Tiff, how long can you hold a grudge?"

It's too hot for a cigarette but it's easier to look angry when I'm blowing smoke. It feels good to burn something. Mike's not even the kind of guy I came to school to find. He's the kind of guy that never changes his passwords, and maybe I know that because sometimes, if I'm drunk and alone, I'll log into his Facebook. I read how his band still plays gigs at that dive on Wooster Street and I know his newest girlfriend left him a month ago. I almost never walk by the party house he rents on Church Street.

I ask Jay, "Is he serious about this?"

"I think so. He paid cash for the lizard."

My dad would tell me any customer's a good customer. I look up at Jay and he's nodding at me, vague smile, like he knows I'll make the right choice.

       Mike's sitting in the same spot on Jay's awful couch. Since our last encounter he's grown a beard, Zach Galifianakis style. I'm irrationally pissed at him for changing, the way it makes all my mental snapshots obsolete. He looks up and tells me, "You're doin' really nice work these days, Tiff."

"Thanks, I guess."

A door chimes in the front and Jay scurries off to tend his shop. I hunch into a folding chair beside the back door, close to escape, and that's not right. This is my turf. I might've met Jay through Mike but I sell my glass here and that's legit claim. It was one of my victories after the break-up, claiming J's on Main.

"So," I say, staring at my manicure. "Jay says you want a bong."

"Straight down to business? No what's up, how's life?"

I dish him a few seconds of silence and he gets the point, scratches his beard and looks away. I ask, "Do you have a design in mind?"

"I want it to be a dragon" -- he gets animated, now, talks with his hands -- "and it's gotta be, like, this high -- what's that? Two feet?"

"Closer to three."

"I want the tail to curl around the mouthpiece and the bowl to come out of its mouth. So when you light it -- right? -- the dragon breathes fire. And it's gotta be green, and gold. Real bright colors. Put some red on there, too."

"That's an insane amount of detail."

"Yeah but Tiff, I know you can do it."

"Where the hell did you come up with this?"

"In a dream."

I can't tell if he's serious. I never could with Mike. "You want an inscription or something?" And I ask him, "Who's it for, anyway?"

"A friend."

A three-foot bong of a dragon -- that's gotta be some friend. Dude has to save your life to earn this. "Mike, you realize what this'll cost?"

"If you're worried, I'll pay up front." Either I'm looking at him funny or he's got a guilty conscience because he takes one little peek at my face and stammers, "Look, it's for my ex. I wanna show her I'm not the dumb asshole I used to be. I know I'm not the nicest guy, but. It'd help me out."

If I ignore the beard it's the same old Mike. His eyes are glassy from the weed, greener in contrast to the red in his eyeballs. I've still got that chunk of quill from Knowledge is Power. It lives on the sill of my bedroom window and when the sun shines it catches the rays, refracts them on the walls and ceiling, a parade of purple question marks marching through my room.

       My mom's the kind of person who still uses an answering machine. It's a Friday evening and I'm sure she's on a date but I leave a message anyway. I search the freezer for ice cream, find half a pint of Phish Food and take it to the couch. I'm surfing the channels for something mindless when my phone rings.

It's my sister. After half an hour she's got me convinced that Mike's really trying to get back with me. That this whole commission is just a way to get me to talk to him. Or maybe I thought that all along and it took someone listening to make me say it.

When my mom calls me back at noon the next day I'm sketching out Mike's piece while I drink my morning coffee. I've never done something this detailed. Usually I just follow the will of the glass. It's a different beast entirely, forcing it to obey.

"Your father tells me you borrowed money again," I hear my mom say while I'm erasing, re-drawing the details of the snout.

"It's slow here in the summer," I tell her. "But I got a big commission yesterday."

"Have you thought any more about a job?"

"I have a job, Mom. I sell my art." I dot on the nostrils and lean back, light a cigarette. "Anyway, you've never had a job and you're fine."

"I don't like the idea of you relying on someone. This bullshit your father's got me tangled up in -- I never want a man to do that to you."

This bullshit would be the divorce, or the after-divorce, the anti-honeymoon. My mom insists it wouldn't be so messy if she had her own source of income. Knowing my parents, it would've been messy regardless. I ask, "How's that going?" because I know she wants me to. She sighs elaborately.

"I suppose we're making progress."

"So you're back on speaking terms."

"Well since your father deigned to let me keep my collection."

I murmur along as my mom lays out all the gory details, most of my brain still focused on the dragon. How to make his eyes both wise and cold-blooded. Better to ignore her than to tell her about how Dad hates her Tiffany collection. He only ever wanted it because losing it would break her heart. He told me this last time he visited (I took him to that Mexican joint by campus and he got a little sloppy off golden margaritas). If he got the collection, he'd sell it off piece by piece and turn a tidy profit. Business first: that's my father in a sentence.

"Your sister picked a date for the baby shower," mom says, and I can hear her inching her way toward my lovelife.

"She told me last night. Look, Mom, I've gotta get back to work." The last thing she'd want to hear is that I'm getting back together with Mike. Then again, if Mike's got money to throw around now, maybe she'd have a change of heart. Money makes everything look better. That's Mom in a sentence.

Two other things I'd never say to my mother:

1: It's hard to grow up in a house where things are more important than people. I'm not judging, just saying when you name your daughter after your favorite lamp maker, maybe that's a sign you've got a problem.

2: You at least should have seen this coming. Sure, Dad slept around, but you knew from the start you were a trophy wife. It's all about understanding expectations.

       Jay calls me down to his shop and looks nervous when he opens the back door. He hands me a half-smoked joint and runs off to the office, returns with an envelope.

"Business usually picks up at the start of August, but not like this." He takes a seat and takes the joint. "Sold eight of your pieces in the last week."

Inside the envelope is a check for seven hundred dollars. Knowing what that weighs in glass makes my stomach do a flip-flop.

Jay asks, "How's the commish going?"

It's been six days since Mike placed his order. That's twice my normal turn-around time for a bong. I tell Jay, "I'll be done tomorrow. I'm just working on the details. The wings and snout and... stuff."

Jay leans toward me, squints one eye, like I look better in mono. "You're putting a lot of effort into this. I'd expect you to half-ass something for Mike."

"Is this what you wanted to talk about?"

Jay's the kind of person who can't bluff in poker. His face is always talking. Right now it says this is Business Jay telling me, "Perrysburg Arts Fest, first week of September. A booth just opened up at a discounted rate. Some drama with a folk artist from Michigan -- it doesn't matter. Kinda conservative town -- no place to sell bongs -- but those vases and statues? Hell, you could even make some jewelry. Earrings and shit. Arts fest crowd would eat it up."

"That's in, like, three weeks. I can't fill a whole booth that fast."

"C'mon, Tiff, what the hell else you got goin' on?"

I snap, "I have a life." Which is mostly a lie, but I say it with confidence. "If you want me to make earrings, I'll make fucking earrings. But you sell my shit here. Why do we need a stupid festival?"

"I let you sell that shit here because I like you. Also it kinda makes this place look legit. Like, to the cops. But let's be real, here. I run a headshop. What's a stoner want with a five-hundred dollar vase?"

Business Jay punctuates his points with the burning tip of the joint, then hits it. "We sell one of those statues and it'll cover the booth fee. And once we're going -- there's state fairs. Music festivals. Your glass would go like crazy."

I tell him, "This is starting to sound like a lot of work."

He stares. I hit the joint. Lower my eyes. Jay's breath escapes in a whoosh. "The deadline's not for a week. Just think about it. That's all I ask."

       It's five p.m. on a Friday in August and the studio's abandoned. My sneakers make a squeaking echo on the stone-tiled floor. The body of the bong is chilling in the annealer, each color hardening at its own pace. With the green, the gold, the red -- the bong would explode if it didn't spend enough time settling. There's still work to be done on it. The shaft is a twist of green-gold coils, waiting for scales; the face, a misshapen ball of red in need of eyeballs, whiskers, fangs. I put it in the annealer right before I went to Jay's. Too early to torch it for surface work.

There's some shards in the scrap bin that make me think of fire. A shattered pane of streaky orange, a black-striped red, a jagged chunk of yellow. I grab the chunks, envisioning the bowl and slide while I put on goggles and settle in at the blowtorch. I melt the orange first, stretch it and twist it, move the colored streaks by memory. At this temperature, everything is white. Most times my brain goes white, too, when I'm working with the glass, an empty Zen of details and motions, but today my mind won't quiet down. Jay's offer has me out of sorts and I can't find my zone, feel the sweat dripping between my shoulderblades, down my temples.

When the orange is a molten tube I feed in the red. I add the yellow on the outside, start blowing shape in, let gravity drag the colors into place. The festival doesn't make sense whichever way I flip it. Jay's got thirteen contractors from as far away as Ann Arbor. I can't imagine I'm the only one making shit other than pipes. I shear the bowl off at the wide end, hold it upside down and spin. The glass drips down in globs and I curl them. With the blowpipe I tease out a knob, curl it under. The glass cools back into color, until what I've made is a funnel of flame.

I work straight through the night and in the morning call Jay over to see the finished product. He pulls out a baggie, says, "You wanna test it, right?"

The dragon stares at him, face resting on its paws, gleaming gold claws spread out for stability. Jay packs the bowl tight and hands it to me. I slide it into the dragon's mouth. The eyes take on life, a red shimmer from the bowl that hints at malevolence.

"Take the virgin hit," Jay tells me. "You've earned it."

Three hours later he hasn't asked if I've thought about the booth. Not when he packs the second bowl or when we step outside for a cigarette, not even when he asks about the incomplete projects stacked on my workshelf. Maybe he can see I'm thinking it over. Or maybe it's that when you work in a business of stoners, patience is a tool of the trade.

Three possible reasons Jay asked me to do this booth:

1: He's sick of my statues taking up room in his shop and figures, even if we don't sell a damn thing, it'll still clear out some floorspace for a few days.

2: People think it's cute when chicks do dangerous shit (especially with fire) and he's banking on that to up our total sales.

3: All his other contractors said no.

       My sister says not to rule anything out. "What about that lamp you made for Mom last Christmas?" she asks me. "It's on display in the front hall. She moved a real Tiffany for it."

"I told him I'd think about it."

Mike's finished bong sits on the table. He's coming for it first thing tomorrow. Knowing Mike, he'll get here around noon. The damn thing's even beautiful in my apartment's shitty lighting.  My sister says I'm quiet tonight. She says, "I'm not surprised he wants you back. You're really pretty when you try at it."

My sister's the kind of girl who really means that as a compliment.

       I barely knew what a bong was before I met Mike. Mike's the kind of guy who names his pipes, and when we first started dating his main piece was a bong named Gilbert, because it was purple and it makes you retarded, man. It was plastic, utilitarian, but not like I knew any better. I torched the bowl the first time I hit it and coughed until I almost puked. The second time was easier. It didn't take me long to learn the nuance, to pull the perfect hit, just enough to feel numb, to increase my gravity.

When I was stoned I used to promise Mike I'd make him a new bong, five feet tall and three chambered, the godfather of all bongs, and I never got around to that but I did make him a pipe once. It was pocket-sized with a shallow bowl, barely bigger than a one-hitter. It was a Christmas present. I striped it like a candy cane.

The plan I'd made coming to college never had me making bongs. According to that plan, I should've called the F.L.A. president after that day in the library. I would've charmed his fucking pants off. We would've gone steady until graduation, when I'd move with him to New England and work as a waitress, or a secretary, maybe, while he passed the bar and opened a practice. By now we wouldn't quite be at white picket fence but we'd be well on our way.

Falling in love with the glass -- that was never in the plans.

       "Jay can find you a case that fits," I tell Mike as he steps through my doorway. I'll admit it, because I can't deny the butterfly tickle in my gut: I care. I want him to like it. We turn the corner and I show it to him and I can't even speak.

"It's perfect," he says. My heart re-starts. He hugs me with one arm. "You're amazing, Tiff. You really came through for me."

He picks it up to look at the detail on the face. Tiny whiskers of gray poke out around the curve of the snout, its red glass infused with gold specks. The damned thing could be alive. I ask him, "Do I know the girl?"

"Hm? Oh, probably not. Her name's Sharon."

Sharon. I do a mental check: Sharon isn't Tiffany. Mike sets down the bong and pulls a checkbook from his back pocket. The Mike I remember didn't carry a checkbook. That grew with the beard, I guess. I push away the memory of my dream last night, where this same scene played out except Mike didn't say Sharon, he led me toward my bedroom, my lips hot and raw from the friction of his whiskers.

Mike asks me if I want the same price I quoted. I tell him that's fine. I wrap the bong in a pillowcase. On the way out, Mike says he'll see me around and I say, "You know that arts festival in Perrysburg?"

I say, "Jay and I are gonna have a booth." Which, to be honest, I didn't know for sure until the words came out of my mouth, but now that I know -- it feels right. "If your friend likes the bong, maybe she can check out my other stuff."

He says he'll spread the word, and I believe him because he's not the kind of guy who'd lie to make me feel good. Mike lets himself out. The door latches. I run to my bedroom and I see myself picking up the quill from Knowledge is Power and hurling it at the mirror -- better, hurling it through the drywall and into my living room -- best, hurling it out the window where it hits Mike in the back of the head, knocks him sprawling, and the precious bong shatters into about three billion shards on the stoop of my building.

Mike climbs in his Jeep. It glides away. I pick up the glass chunk resting on my windowsill, weigh it in my palm. I squint, tilt my head to the side. It's heavier than I remembered. The swirls of purple gleam with potential.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Jess Simms. All rights reserved.