“Ahh, ugh, I’ll, uh, pay it and stuff.” Usually these conversations left the person on the other end more confused and less confident their message had been received.
His personality may be grating, but his appearance is down-right offensive. 400 pounds ago he would have been considered overweight, now he barely manages to wobble around. His legs and arms resemble bursting sausages, with diabetic wounds oozing in a constant state of half-healed ichor. He no longer showers, leaving every crevice packed with dead skin cells and solidified sweat. Unemployed, and doing odd-jobs to get by, George exists in a constant state of detox from alcoholism. When he has money, he buys cheap Canadian whisky by the gallon. Unable to ration himself, he drinks away his money faster than he can earn more. His body shakes from withdrawals or drunken tremors, and most never knew which it is.
George Stephens is a man on the edge and he can’t take it anymore. He pawns his TV to buy one last bottle of booze and a cheap revolver. He sits in the darkness of his one-bedroom apartment listening to an old radio. His favorite songs from the 50’s and 60’s are playing on a local “oldies” station. He tips the gallon jug back and drinks the contents straight. His throat is scarred from years of smoking, drinking, and hungover vomiting; and the alcohol no longer burns when it goes down. He feels a comforting warmth in his belly, but that’s it.
The whisky does its job, and after a quarter of the jug George gets the tell-tale dizziness that hearkens a blackout. On the edge of consciousness, George raises the semi-rusted Colt revolver to his head and pulls the trigger; finally ready for eternal darkness. The hammer clicks, but there is no explosion. “Dammit,” George mutters. He fumbles with the chamber release and checks to make sure he loaded the damned thing. Inside, shining bright, are six bullets ready for the slightest urging to fly out and destroy. George replaces the chamber, aims the gun, and shoots at a dying potted plant. Instantly, the gun reports and the ceramic shatters, spraying dirt and pottery on the wall.
Too sober to try again George continues drinking from the plastic jug. He tosses the gun onto a coffee table and it lands perfectly in the center of a collection of water rings permanently staining the tabletop. On impact the gun fires and lodges a bullet in the wall just above George’s head. “Seriously?” George says, both in disbelief at how easily the gun fires now, and how the bullet couldn’t do him the favor of finishing what he couldn’t.
He lays his head back, mouth full of whisky, thinking maybe he’ll accidentally drown. Eyes closed and with a mouthful of cheap corn liquor, George hears the radio switch from The Doors Hello, I Love You to a commercial. Hey you! Yeah, you! The pathetic sack of fat and crap trying to off himself on his threadbare couch. Cut it out, will ya? George’s head shoots up, the motion forcing the alcohol still sitting in his mouth to flow into his sinuses and causing an excruciating burning sensation.
That’s better dumbass. Now, listen up because we’ve got a deal for you. Do you find yourself struggling with body image, confidence, and general wellbeing? Of course, you do, you’re a fat, pathetic slob with no job and an addiction to the world’s worst type of booze. But I’ve got a solution for ya. So Fresh, So Clean will wash away all your unwanted bodily features and make you into a person you can be proud of again. Want to know more? Call 1-800-SO-CLEAN to order now and you’ll receive a travel size of So Fresh, So Clean free of charge; only pay shipping and handling. So, call now, that’s 1-800-SO-CLEAN. 1-8-0-0-S-O-C-L-E-A-N. Don’t live another day the way you are.
George doesn’t believe what he’s hearing. He stares at the radio waiting for someone to come on and say April Fools, or at least “Gotcha”. Instead the radio speaks again, I’m waiting moron. Reach in front of you onto the table. George does as he’s instructed, surprised to find his phone sitting there. Good. Now, dial the number. Wait, let me guess, you’ve already forgot. Okay, one more time, 1-800-SO-CLEAN. George begins punching in the numbers searching for the numerical equivalents of the letters. Yes, good job. Oh! What’s this I hear? my phone is ringing. “Hello, thank you for calling So Fresh, So Clean, how may I help you today?”
George hears the voice on the phone and a half-second later on the radio. “Haven’t you ever called into a radio show before dumbass? Turn off the radio!” the voice commands. George jumps at the sudden derision and fumbles the phone before dropping it. He stretches his arm to the radio and flips the power switch.
“Pick up the phone George,” the voice says, though George is hearing it faintly from a few feet away. He wriggles and squirms his body to reach the phone, but his mass doesn’t allow for much bending. Finally, he lays down on the couch and by letting his arm dangle off the side of the cushion he grasps the phone.
“Uh, hello. Who, ah, I mean, what’s this? And stuff,” George says into the phone.
“This is your lucky day George Alan Stephens. I’m off – wait, do your initials actually spell G-A-S? Even your name is disgusting,” the voice says, cackling with delight. “Okay, back to it. I’m offering you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change everything you hate about yourself with no effort on your part. Sounds good doesn’t it? It appears you aren’t a fan of trying.”
The shock is wearing off and George gets the sense this voice is mocking him. “Hey, just a, a – second now. I don’t like the way you’re treating me and stuff. What is this?” George says.
“Didn’t I just finish explaining this? Let me try starting from the beginning. I represent Wash-A-Way, LLC., a limited liability shell corporation that sells questionable products to the consumer market. Today I’m calling to offer you our newest product, So Fresh, So Clean. It’s a proprietary blend of…stuff, that allow the consumer to wash away the unwanted features of themselves,” the voice says on the other end of the line. Immune to tone and context, George doesn’t pick up on the exasperation oozing from every word the voice speaks.
“How does it work?” George asks.
“Ah-ah-ah, George. That’s a secret. But I can tell you’re intrigued. I’ll tell you what, since we’re becoming buddies, you say yes to an order right now and the first batch is on me,” the voice says.
“Yes?” George says.
Before George can continue and ask what he’s saying yes to, the voice jumps in, “Great! I knew I could count on you George Alan Stephens. I’m putting you down for one bottle of So Fresh, So Clean. And don’t forget that free travel size bottle. Great for erasing blemishes on the go.” The words escape in a torrent and while George’s booze-addled mind tries to keep up the line goes dead.
“Hello?” George says to the dead line, “Are you still there? When, ah, do I get my bottle and stuff?” An ancient sounding dial tone answers on the other end.
George awakens the next morning with a faint recollection of a strange night. His dry eyes open slowly, and he blinks a few times to get the moisture back into his over-worn contacts. He sees the gun lying on the table and eyes is curiously. With immense struggle George lifts himself from the couch and turns around. He is eye level with a bullet lodged in the wall just above where his head had been. “What did I do last night?” George mutters to himself. “Guess I drank too much, and stuff. Wait, where the fu-f-f- hell’s my TV?”
Running a hand through his few remaining hairs, George manages a half-way stretch and yawn. He walks to the kitchen and fills an old cottage cheese container with water and takes a long drink. Years before, when George did the same thing around his then-wife, he explained, “there’s no sense buying special cups when we have dozens of containers just lying around.” She hadn’t seen the same sagacious wisdom in that statement as George, and later that day she bought a lovely set of cobalt blue drinking glasses. The same glasses George later shattered when he threw them at his wife’s head during an argument. That was the night she took their only child, his son, and left for good.
Not used to admitting mistakes, George still bears the burden of losing his son. How old would he be now? George wonders. Got to be in his late 30’s or early 40’s by now. He shakes his head trying to remove the memory, but it still lingers deep at the base of his mind; a quiet voice reminding him, “Pathetic. You abandoned your son.” The voice, George’s oldest friend, often reminded him of his countless failures and shortcomings. “You’re an obese nobody. If you died there would be no one to miss you. You can’t hold down a job. You’ve failed at every undertaking.” The voice could be a real dick, but its familiar presence keeps George company.
The voice always brought a friend too, a dark curtain that closed over George’s eyes and mind. If he didn’t shut the voice up it kept going until George passed out; the curtain completely drawn. A whistled rendition of the first few notes of Yankee Doodle came from someone knocking at George’s door. Saved this time, I suppose, George thinks.
He waddles to the door and turns the handle. Outside is a small, brown package set perfectly in the center of his welcome mat. “Ugh, I have to, uh, bend down, and stuff?” George mutters. He drops to one knee, perpendicular to the door’s opening. Then, he bends sideways and just manages to grasp the package. “Already down, might as well, uh, stay awhile,” George says. He drops to his other knee then slips onto his butt. Sitting in the open doorway, fat rolls spilling over onto the floor, George rips open the package.
Inside are two bottles. One large, roughly the size of a 1 liter of coke, George thinks; the other is tiny, the size of a nail polish bottle. George also sees a folded piece of paper tucked inside the package.
To: George Alan Stephens,
On behalf of Wash-A-Way, LLC I would like to thank you for your recent purchase of So Fresh, So Clean, our newest product. Thousands of people around the world have seen their lives forever changed by our product and I truly believe you will as well. The results are spectacular, but the instructions are anything but. To use, simply replace your normal soap with our patented blend of astringents, oxygenators, and dehumidifiers. After a single use you should see those unwanted features washed down the drain. Wish you had a full head of hair like you did in high school? Simply wash your head with So Fresh, So Clean and like magic I guarantee that hair will grow back. Sick of an unsightly appendix scar? Wash your stomach and watch the scar slough off like dead skin. Wish you were more charming? We all do! Just wash with a little So Fresh, So Clean and soon you’ll have more charisma than Charles Manson (his endgame may have been questionable, but the guy had game). Thank you again for your order of So Fresh, So Clean. We look forward to hearing how So Fresh, So Clean changes life for you. *No refunds, credits, or exchanges will be offered on used merchandise. All sales are final.
What the sh-sh-shi-heck is So Fresh, So Clean? George wonders. He looks on the box for any other distinguishing marks but finds none. A neighbor passes by George’s door at that moment and says, “What have you got there George?”
“I, uh, don’t, um know. Think I must’ve got it on some infomercial last night, and stuff,” George says.
“Well, whatever it is, have fun,” the neighbor says before continuing down the hall. I guess I might as well give it a try, George thinks. What’s the worst that can happen? In just over twenty-four hours George would come to find he couldn’t imagine the worst, even in his darkest dreams.
George flipped the switch in his bathroom and a single, bare bulb struggled to illuminate the cramped restroom. He took a lone step forward and pulled back a moldy shower curtain. Inside the cracked porcelain tub a spider attempted to climb the side and escape the permanent green puddle of stagnant water that lingered there. George turns the tap to the perfect temperature from memory and flips the lever to run the water through the head.
The spider struggles in the flow for a moment before washing down the uncovered drain. George raises a foot and wavers for a moment then steps into the scalding water and closes the curtain. His hands are trembling as he turns the bottle of So Fresh, So Clean over and over. Gazing at the logo with a fully clear head, brief memories of last night pop through.
The gun wouldn’t fire, George recalls. Shit! I tried to kill myself last night. And then I heard something on the radio. Did someone on the radio make fun of my name? Then I said “yes” to something and now this package is here. What the hell? “The letter didn’t sound too dangerous though. Maybe I should give it a whirl,” George says.
He flips the bottle upside down and pops the plastic cap off. He squirts a small pool of the soap in his hand, the familiar scent of Irish Spring soap filling the shower. “Let’s wash away this fat, and stuff,” George says as he struggles to reach every part of his body. He nearly pulls a muscle reaching crevices and under fat rolls he hasn’t touched in years. His breathing becomes shallow, almost hyperventilating, with the effort.
A pleasant tingling sensation races across his skin that soon turns to a deep burning. When George coached basketball, he used Icy/Hot every night and the sensation feels similar. The burning intensifies, just as Icy/Hot does, and George expects any moment the cooling relief will come. The cooling never comes. Instead, the burning intensifies and George screams as he rubs at the fat covering his body. Instead of soap and water, George’s hands come away greasy and full of a gelatinous substance. Looking down George finds the entire tub is filled with a similar ooze. “What the fu-fu-shit!” George screams.
It’s a strange anomaly in the human mind that we block out the most obvious facts when under enormous stress. As the body and mind flood with hormones urging us to fight, fly, or freeze, we stop paying attention to reality. Like a soldier under fire, we only see the danger directly ahead of us. If George had taken a moment to evaluate his situation he would have noticed he’d lost roughly 400 pounds of pure fat, and in its place toned muscles had developed.
Instead of understanding his situation, George gave into the darkness that lingered at the back of his mind and passed out. He slumped forward onto his knees, and sunk waist deep in a tub full of rendered fat. He then fell to the side, draping his body over the tub’s edge like a bathmat. Whether from terror, exhaustion, or confusion no one could say, but George slept that way for three hours. While he slept, the fat that once held his body prisoner oozed down the drain.
Later that afternoon George stands naked in front of his bathroom mirror. The shock hasn’t worn off, but his new body is alleviating some of it. He had ab muscles, one for each of his six decades on this earth. His chest is swollen with strength. Each inhalation pulls in a lungful of fresh oxygen; a sensation George didn’t think he’d ever experience again. An impressive set of genitals bulge from just below his waist. George couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his penis, much less the last time it had throbbed with power. “I’m a gr-gr-Greek statue,” George says. He strikes a few comical poses doing his best Charles Atlas impression. Before leaving the bathroom, he snaps a solitary photo of his penis, “that might c-c-come in handy,” George says.
He leaves the bathroom and rummages through his closet for anything that might fit. His shirts look like dresses now and there is no belt in the world that could synch his pants tight enough. He finally lands on a pair of his ex-wife’s sweatpants he’d mistakenly grabbed when moving out, and a short-sleeved button-down Hawaiian shirt. His comically large shirt and old-fashioned ladies’ pants made him look like a deranged clown but would do until he could get to the store for new clothes.
George’s doorbell rings, and he walks to answer. Through the peephole he can see a woman in her 40’s whom he does not recognize. Her red hair and tall frame form a striking figure, even through the distortion of his peephole. George opens the door slowly and stutters out a “hello”. Instead of responding the woman bursts out laughing.
“What are you wearing?” she asks. “You look like you’re on layover coming back from Maui.”
“Umm,” George begins to say before being cut off.
“I’m sorry, that is so rude. Sometimes I speak before I think. I keep meaning to stop,” the woman says.
“Who are you?” George says.
“I’m Eve, but everyone calls me Evie,” the woman says, sticking out her hand. George does not take it. Evie awkwardly lowers her hand before continuing, “I’m your new neighbor, sort of, I just moved in down the hall. I thought I’d try and meet all my neighbors today. So…hi!”
This time George takes her hand and shakes it once, formally. The human contact makes him uncomfortable and excited at the same time. “We-welcome. The Dunport is a nice apartment building, unless you li-li-like reliable amenities, and stuff,” George says gruffly.
“Yeah, what’s up with the water around here? Mine comes out in a trickle,” Evie says
“You should probably call the landlord then,” George says, then adds, “my name is George by the way.”
“You’re a strange man George. Very strange. But I like a little mystery. It’s nice to meet you,” Evie says before moving down the hall and knocking on the next door.
“You won’t get an answer th-th-there,” George says. “Mrs. Lindstrom is deaf. She won’t hear you knocking. Ring the doorbell and it’ll light up a strobe light in her living room.”
“Thanks George. Hey, do you want to come with me? You seem like the kind of guy who could show me around,” Evie says.
“Yeah,” George says, “I think I’d like that.”
George lays in bed with Evie, struggling to understand what happened. They were out walking around the building. Then, they found the street, a cute Italian restaurant, and before George could question anything they were kissing and walking back along the same route. In a single instant Evie appraised George’s apartment and deemed it acceptable. She didn’t say anything about the bullet hole in the wall, the shattered plant, or the cottage cheese tub half filled with water. Together they walked to George’s bedroom and shared a night together.
To George it felt like his first time all over again. It had been years since a woman touched him, and many more years since one had wanted his touch in return. George fumbled with her bra which only elicited a laugh and an impressive feat of contortion by Evie to remove it herself. He hadn’t lasted long, but the connection was explosive. George fell in love with this fiery-haired goddess. And George guessed Evie felt the same. At least, he hoped she does. But years of insecurity don’t just wash away. He may have a great body now, but there is plenty more he would change. So, he does.
George rolls over and kisses Evie. Her hair is disheveled, and strands stick to her forehead. He brushes the stray hairs away and whispers, “I’ll be back soon.” In the bathroom, George gazes at himself in the mirror once again. “What does she see in you?” George whispers to himself. He lifts patchy strands of hair from his own forehead and tries to cover his bald spot with creative hair placement.
In the mirror, George sees his bottle of So Fresh, So Clean sitting in the shower. He warms the water and flips the lever from tap to shower head. George wets his head and rubs the soap in. The same agonizing burning rips through his scalp. He feels needles pushing through the skin and screams. George rubs his head and tries to rip the burning skin away. Instead, he feels hair growing. Despite the pain, George smiles.
Back in his bedroom Evie’s already familiar shape is missing. “Evie?” George calls, leaving the bedroom and searching the rest of the small apartment. “Where did she go?” George wonders, not sure of the etiquette in this foreign situation.
George dresses quickly, pairing over-sized jeans with a jean jacket; an outfit his son would have called a Canadian Tuxedo. Around the corner is a small diner that serves greasy breakfast and still allows smoking inside through a legal loophole. George orders chicken fried steak, extra gravy, fried potatoes, and black coffee. He lights a cigarette and casually picks at his food. Lost in memories of the previous night, George swears he can hear Evie’s laugh. Raising his head George sees Evie having breakfast with another man.
“Hi E-E-Evie,” George says, approaching the table, “who is this?”
“Oh! Um, hi George,” Evie replies. Her voice squeaks with the Oh, but she regains her composure. “What are you doing here?”
“Eating breakfast. I thought w-w-we would have done that after last night, and stuff,” George says.
“What is this guy talking about babe?” the man across from Evie asks.
“Um. Nothing. He got drunk last night after showing me around the apartment complex and I helped him get to bed. Nothing serious,” Evie replies. She fidgets with her napkin, tearing it into smaller and smaller pieces.
“No, Evie. We had sex last night,” George says bluntly. “Do you not remember?”
“Are you kidding? I’m married! I would never sleep with you. And besides, I don’t go for bald guys. That wig isn’t fooling anyone,” Evie says.
“Let’s go babe,” the man says, grabbing Evie’s hand and pulling her from the booth. “Listen up, buddy. I don’t know what kind of sick fantasy you’ve made up about my wife but stay the hell away from her.” In his new form George has about six inches on the guy, and at least fifty pounds. One well placed punch would have knocked the heroin-thin guy into the next booth. But George does nothing.
“S-So-Sorry,” George mutters. He stuffs his hands in the pockets of his denim jacket and shuffles out of the restaurant.
Outside, Evie says, “I’m sorry George, I-uh, I don’t know what to say,”
“It’s fine,” George says back. He walks the half-block to his apartment building confused. “I know physically I look good,” George says to himself, “maybe the problem is inside.” George grabs the letter that came with his bottle of So Fresh, So Clean and reads it again. “More charm than Charles Manson, he was compelling,” George says.
The magic of So Fresh, So Clean is confounding but undeniable. George reads the bottle and letter several times looking for clues on how to use it in the way he wants. “What do I want?” George wonders. “I would like to not st-stu-tutter, and be better with words. I wanted to lose weight so I rubbed it on my fat. I wanted hair so I rubbed it on my head. Maybe I should try rubbing it in my mouth.”
George opens the bottle and moves it toward his face. The astringent scent of bleach stings his nostrils. “I can’t eat this shit,” George says. Already though, he is bringing the bottle toward his face again. With one hand George pinches his nostrils shut. With the other he tips the bottle back. A small dollop of clear gel drips from the cap and falls on his tongue. The now familiar burning starts instantly. It feels like a hole is burning through his tongue.
He is coughing, then gagging, and finally vomiting. Blood and black liquid fly from his mouth and mingle on the stained rug of his living room. Once again, the transformation is overwhelming and George slips into blackness.
Sometime later, George is awake and has cleaned up. His tongue hurts like he sipped a too-hot drink, but he can speak again. “Let’s give this a shot,” George says triumphantly. He marches to Evie’s apartment door and knocks three times; quick, confident raps with his knuckle. “Evie, it’s George. Can we talk for a moment?”
Evie cracks her door and whispers, “what are you doing here George? I thought I made it clear I didn’t want to see you again.”
“I think we both know that was for show this morning. Your husband was there, you had to make it look convincing. Great job, by the way,” George says, winking.
“It wasn’t for show George. He is here right now. Look, sleeping with you was a mistake. He and I were fighting. We’re doing this trial separation thing. I was confused. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you,” Evie says.
“Come on Evie. Don’t talk like that. We had fun yesterday. We can keep having fun,” George says. He begins forcing his way into the apartment and Evie tries to hold him back. “Besides, I don’t think that husband of yours is really here.”
“George, please get out. I don’t want to do this. I thought you were a nice guy,” Evie says, “but you’re not. You’re being an asshole and I want you to leave.”
George stops pushing on the door suddenly, and Evie’s weight forces it shut, catching her fingers in the crack. “Ouch! Damnit George. Just get out of here!”
“Fine. I’ll leave, but I’m not done. I don’t know what you want me to be, but I’m going to figure it out and become that person. You just wait, Evie. You’ll be mine,” George says.
He walks back down the hall to his own apartment and throws the door open. “Fuck! What does that bitch want?” George yells. He sees the bottle of So Fresh, So Clean sitting on the coffee table next to the revolver he never bothered moving. George strips off his clothes and stands naked in the middle of his living room. He pops the top on the bottle and pours its entire contents on his head, allowing the gel to run down his face all the way to his feet. The gel is both freezing and burning and it envelops George like a glove.
Without a clear picture in his mind, the mysterious soap makes the changes to George it sees fit. The flesh melts from his body revealing musculature and bones. His eyelids are gone, and the brightness of the morning sun stings his eyes. Tears don’t come though, and his mouth is dry, like all the water in his body has been boiled away. One foot grows too large and the other falls off leaving a stump. The now-visible muscles on George’s back and biceps swell to body-builder size before bursting into disconnected chords of meat and tendon.
George falls to the floor and scrapes his exposed flesh on the rough rug. He reaches for the phone and hits redial. A familiar voice, silky but harsh, speaks on the other end. “Thank you for calling So Fresh, So Clean. This is Wormwood, how may I help you?”
George speaks slowly, every word is painful to express. “Your soap is killing me,” George says.
“Oh, hey Mr. G.A.S. Does your life still stink?” Wormwood says.
“I’m dying,” is all George can muster.
“Yeah…I probably should have warned you about that. This product isn’t exactly ‘safe’,” Wormwood replies.
“What. Do. I. Do?” George whispers into the phone.
“Sorry pal, there’s nothing to be done. Best just to ride it out or end it quicker,” Wormwood replies.
“Why did you do this to me?” George begs.
“It’s nothing personal Georgie. I find weak people who would do anything to be someone else. Even if it means selling their soul. You seemed desperate,” Wormwood replies.
“My soul?” George says, questioning his own sanity.
“It’s kind of what us demons do. Buy souls, trick people, cause chaos. It’s tough work but somebody’s got to do it. When we spoke on the phone you entered into a verbal contract; and using our product equates you agreeing to the terms. Your soul is ours buddy boy,” Wormwood says.
“Bullshit,” George spits out.
“Listen George, I have to get going. My boss is starting to look at me funny for talking so long. I expect your arrival down here within the hour. I’ll be there to get you acclimated to your new home and get you on the phones selling; just like me.” Wormwood says.
The line goes dead.
* * *
George opens his eyes and sees a reflection of his body; his old body. The image is distorted, and George realizes he’s seeing himself in a set of elevator doors. A soft dinging pulls his attention to a single lit arrow pointing down. The doors slide open and George is greeted by a man dressed in khakis and a tucked in polo “Hello George. I’m Wormwood. It’s great to finally meet you.”