As a pharm tech, Greta had spent eighteen months working in the warehouse of a mail-order pharmacy, filling prescriptions by hand. Warfarin, a blood thinner, was the drug she handled most, but there were about a dozen other friable tablets, usually generic versions of popular drugs, and she often ended her shift covered in pharmaceutical dust. It wasn’t long before any kind of dust began to resemble pill dust, particularly the pale yellow dust of Norco 10s. She was convinced she could see floating particles in people’s personal breathing zones (PBZs). She saw pill dust on carpets, mirrors, screens, people’s sweaters. There it was again, sprinkled all over the popcorn at the movies. Long after she quit the warehouse, she continued spotting pill dust wherever she went.
Now Greta saw transcripts. The transcripts belonged to Om’s clients, and they came to her whenever she set foot in Cathedral, the most popular coffee shop in town. The place had perfect acoustics and was crawling with Om’s clients, because his office was located directly above it. Greta always heard at least one voice she recognized.
She couldn’t recall the entire transcript, obviously, as they were often quite long, but if she closed her eyes and concentrated, her memory was good for several pages.
Just now, at the table where she sat waiting for Om, she recognized the drowsy voice of the man seated next to her. She didn’t know him personally, but a piece of his transcript came to her while she waited for her Americano. His initials were AAG, and he was sleeping with his sister-in-law. They met in hotel rooms in the city, but right now the man was talking to his wife, presumably, and holding her hand. Like most people in Hudson, they were better-looking than average and dressed like boutique farmers.
OM: What’s special about Tamara? What does she have that your wife doesn’t?
AAG: We hate all the same things.
OM: Such as?
AAG: Board games, truffle oil, magic realism, Harry Potter, politics, toddlers, the elderly, people who get excited about mac and cheese, scatting—
AAG: That thing jazz singers do. It sounds banal, I know, but I’ve never had so much in common with anyone.
OM: What do you do together?
AAG: Are you familiar with the eating of the ortolan?
AAG: It’s an ancient rite of passage among French foodies. Ortolans are rare, tiny birds. The chef captures them, drowns them in Armagnac, and roasts them whole. Then the entire bird is eaten—feet first, bones included—with a linen napkin draped over the person’s head, to retain the aromas and, as the story goes, to hide from God.
OM: This is what you do with Tamara?
AAG: No, but that’s how I eat her pussy.
OM: By drowning it in Armagnac?
AAG: With a napkin over my head.
Greta inadvertently smiled at the wife, at whom she’d been staring like a creep. The wife returned her smile. Then AAG looked at Greta and smiled at her, too. Greta scowled at him and then stared at her phone, ashamed. She was picturing herself walking down the sidewalk with a napkin over her head when she heard another familiar voice order a cappuccino. This voice was deeper and belonged to KPM, a guy in his thirties suffering from PTSD. KPM was being stalked by a lunatic who called herself a life coach, and so he often wore a disguise to Om’s office. Greta turned slightly, hoping to get a look at his face, half expecting to see Darth Vader in a turtleneck.
OM: Is that really how your penis looks to you?
KPM: Yeah. I think it’s a pretty common dick shape. Sometimes I imagine it whispering to me in the voice of James Earl Jones.
OM: What does it say?
KPM: [DEEP VOICE] “You do not yet realize your importance. You have only begun to discover your power.”
OM: Do you believe that’s true?
KPM: I’m kidding, dingus. My dick doesn’t talk to me.
OM: Well, if it makes you feel any better, mine looks like it’s wearing a beret!
KPM: Does it have the voice of Gérard Depardieu?
OM: I wish.
KPM: Yesterday I googled “How many bottles of wine does Gérard Depardieu drink per day?” Guess what the answer was.
OM: Why would you google such a thing?
KPM: Because I’m dying for a drink? Because I’m being stalked? Because I’ve been forced into this hypervigilant state and it’s fucking with my prostate?
As it turned out, KPM had the most unusual forehead Greta had ever seen. It looked as though he’d recently shed antlers and they were just beginning to grow back. Somehow this only increased his attractiveness, as though his forehead were a secondary sexual trait. Additionally, he had a full beard and Willie Nelson braids. He was not wearing a turtleneck but rather a neck brace, and she wondered if it was fake, or part of a larger disguise. He was currently being flirted with by yet another client, a man in his fifties with the memorable initials of BTW. Greta had identified his voice weeks ago—not at Cathedral, but in her own living room, because BTW, whose first name was Brandon, bought weed from Sabine.
Still, three clients in one day was unusual—a sign, perhaps. BTW was himself a huge believer in signs and yet never acknowledged the obvious ones, such as the bloody bandages on his fingertips—telltale signs, in Greta’s estimation, of onychotillomania, which happened to be Greta’s favorite mania and just fun to say out loud. His condition had never been mentioned in therapy. In fact, he seemed to think he’d achieved total enlightenment. He claimed his DNA was so extraordinary that the government was interested in collecting samples and performing a study. In his sessions with Om, he often practiced breathing instead of talking, which was why his transcripts were so short and easy to remember.
BTW: I have two life lines. They meet in the middle, cross, and then wrap around my wrist. I have the conjurer triangle on my palm, which is extremely rare. I can conjure almost anything.
OM: Can you conjure me a croissant? I’m starving and I forgot to bring lunch.
BTW: I’m currently trying to conjure several hundred thousand dollars for myself.
OM: How’s that going?
BTW: We’ll see.
OM: Let’s talk about what’s going on with your skin.
BTW: I’ve told you twenty times. My aging process is reversing.
OM: You’re fifty-two, correct?
BTW: On paper, yes. But my wrinkles are disappearing—that’s why I have these little scabs on my face—and the rest of my scars are disappearing, including my belly button.
OM: Oh? Where is your belly button off to?
BTW: It’s vanishing entirely. That wound is finally healing. And some of my hair is falling out to make room for new hair. You should feel how soft it is. Here, feel.
OM: It’s quite soft.
BTW: My penis is also reverting to its original state.
OM: Meaning . . . ?
BTW: My foreskin is growing back.
OM: I’m afraid that’s not possible.
OM: I hate to be the one to tell you, but it sounds like middle age. The penis shrinks, or become smaller in size and paler in color—
BTW: I know my own body. Here, can I just show you? Do you mind?
BTW: Right? See what I mean?
OM: You’re well-endowed, I’ll give you that, but the head is rather . . . red, isn’t it? Greta had imagined a pig in a blanket left overnight in a chafing dish.
OM: Are you still sleeping with Mr. Lilywhite?
BTW: God, no.
OM: I’m sorry to hear that. I liked how that relationship was developing for you.
BTW: Do you mind if I lie down?
OM: Please do. If you want, close your eyes and we’ll have a minute or two of fire breath.
BTW: How about a quick gong bath before I leave?
OM: It would be my great priv.
Yes, Om had a goddamn gong in his office. Greta had never seen it because she had yet to set foot in there, but apparently, the gong was quite large and shiny. The first time he’d mentioned it to a client, he’d said, “I waxed my gong for you, in case you wanted a sound bath at the end of our session,” which Greta had transcribed as “I waxed my dong for you.” Om had texted a few days later: “It’s gong, honey, not dong,” a phrase Greta now repeated to herself at random.
From Big Swiss by Jen Beagin. Used with permission with the publisher, Scribner. Copyright © 2023 by Jen Beagin.