CARA LYNN ALBERT | Acquired Taste
For the past four weeks, Jodi Collins has been stuffing dollar bills into her late father’s corpse. She likes to roll them up tight, until they’re a centimeter in width, and stick them anywhere she can find room. The first cavities utilized were his nose and mouth, obviously.
His nostrils were easy. Long, hair-like spider legs poked out from the abyss. Jodi began with a stack of five-dollar bills she had earned in diner tips. They rolled into thin, green pins and stacked neatly upon one another, bouqueting over her father’s lips.
His mouth was trickier. Though he didn’t have many teeth left, the bits that remained made the bills fold awkwardly, and they wilted against his tongue. She dried the area with cotton balls and used a pair of rusty pliers, found in his garage, to pry away each tooth. Over three hundred dollars were packed inside his mouth, his lips stretched thin like rubber.
Her father’s name was Marshall Collins. Jodi found him in his house on January fifteenth, draped over his recliner like a winter coat, something to be ignored and dealt with at a later time. She grasped his leather loafers and slithered him onto the laminate wood flooring. His pale, slack skin waterfalled down his forehead and cheekbones, smoothing the deep lines and making him look younger. The extra flab puddled under his jaw.
Four weeks ago, his neighbors called her about the scent of old eggs and rotten fruit that had migrated from Marshall’s house.
What do you want me to do about it?
We’ve tried calling and knocking on his door. He doesn’t answer.
Maybe he’s let some food go bad.
Would you please just check on him, Jodi?
His odor overwhelmed her after only five minutes of arranging his body on the living room floor. The funk had soaked into his walls, filling every crack and pore. She stepped outside to seize a few clean breaths when she saw his neighbors in their driveway. They had just returned home from grocery shopping, sheltered in their cashmere sweaters and carrying paper bags filled with a garden. The pair waved at her, heads cocked to side. They were waiting.
Just like I thought. Some of his food expired. I got rid of it all.
Better than ever.
Jodi re-entered the house her father had been living in for the past thirty-eight years. The one he bought after he lost her mother’s home during their divorce. Jodi was only five years old. The one he pressured her to visit on alternating weekends. The one she stopped inviting friends to after the third sleepover in a row when she woke to find her bedroom door ajar, the hallway light splintering midnight, her father’s amber eyes like glass marbles fixed on all of them.
She sprayed dense clouds of Lysol throughout the living room and gathered every candle she could find, lighting each one until the stench landed somewhere between a hospital room and a bakery. This wouldn’t hide the stink for long, but maybe it would keep the neighbors at bay. Jodi thanked her father for having the decency to die in the middle of winter. In summer, with his decomposing insides bubbling in the sun, his odors would be much more difficult to control.
Her daily routine warped around this habit. After her shifts she’d visit her father’s house, spray Lysol, light more candles, the disinfectant mist rippling in the flames, and find new craters with which to stuff the cash she made in tips that day.
Three days after the first of the month, Jodi’s water was shut off. Marshall’s nose, mouth, and ears choked with the money she normally saved to pay her utility bills. Once his face contained no more vacancies, Jodi unbuckled his slacks, flipped his flaccid body over, and tugged his pants down to his ankles. Her father’s ass was ashen and dimpled, dark hair like a beaver dam sprouting from the crack. She pried his cheeks apart and found a smear of something thick and puce. The shit his muscles released after he died. The reek of which propelled her toward his bathroom, retching into the toilet with an inky ring around the water line. Jodi brushed her sweater sleeve against her lips, the cotton sponging nuggets that remained. She grabbed a stiff towel hanging from the shower rod and soaked the tip in the sink. Before returning to her father’s corpse, Jodi found a half-used roll of duct tape and peeled away a two-inch strip, tacking each end to either side of her nose and pinching the bridge to seal her nostrils.
Jodi crouched next to her father’s body and arched his waist over her left knee. She pulled one of his cheeks to the side and used the towel to swab the ripe shit away from his asshole. Bits collected between the cloth nubs. Once finished, she double wrapped the towel in two plastic bags and tossed the pile into the neighbors’ garbage bin outside. Jodi returned to Marshall’s freshly scrubbed anus and, over the course of three days, crammed nearly six-hundred dollars inside the increasingly expanding pit.
Five days passed and Jodi’s power followed the same fate as her water bill. She began sleeping in Marshall’s house for the heat. The corpse on his living room floor no longer bore any of her father’s discerning features. Marshall’s crooked nose sunk into a fleshy lump on what used to be his face. Some of the rolled bills sloped out of his nostrils, so Jodi shoved them in deeper. He wasn’t born with a warped nose—it was shattered by an umbrella handle after Marshall attempted to steal toddler Jodi in the midst of his divorce. Her mother found the two of them in a motel an hour outside of their city, and it happened to have been raining.
Jodi shifted her efforts to her father’s eye sockets, which were obstructed by his dehydrated eyeballs. She supposed she could plunge the bills through his corneas, but she’d find more space if she removed the orbs altogether. In Marshall’s kitchen, Jodi scavenged through his cupboards and drawers for a melon baller.
Near the stove top, Jodi recalled the summer before eighth grade when she developed an obsession with cooking after watching Julia Child on The French Chef. She spent that summer honing her knife skills and refining cooking techniques by preparing dinner almost every night. One evening, as she bent over the stove with Julia’s bœuf bourguignon recipe, she felt something firm strike her ass. Jodi turned around to find her father staring at her, an eager smile unfurling on his face. She didn’t move, and he waited there, hungry for her retaliation.
While a melon baller was out of the question, Jodi found a grapefruit spoon in the back of Marshall’s silverware drawer.
That should work.
Jodi returned to her father’s body with the grapefruit spoon and a porcelain coffee mug. She kneeled down to his face, positioning the spoon at the corner of Marshall’s right eye, and pushed the serrated edge deep into the socket with no resistance, like slicing into warm butter. The spoon was too small to scoop the eyeball in one motion, so the pulp collected in a heap, strings falling at the sides. Marshall’s iris and pupil collapsed into the clear jelly, amber marbling into black. Jodi ladled eye goo into the coffee mug and scraped sterling silver against the socket borders curtained with skin, repeating the process with his left eye.
Almost a week and four-hundred dollars later, Jodi’s landlord has tacked an eviction notice onto her front door, and she’s moving her essential possessions into Marshall’s home. Her father’s skin is now turning black. Jodi’s given up on concealing the smell. A few days after he passed, she noticed blue and purple stains pooling around the underside of his neck and back. Those same parts have grown darker, like the flesh of an eggplant. Jodi digs her middle finger’s nail into her father’s arm, and it leaves a delicate pocket. She unbuttons her father’s shirt, revealing gray skin draped over a cage of ribs, and pokes the same nail into the stretch below his belly button. The dimple remains with no resiliency.
A series of large parties pack the diner, and Jodi earns more than one-thousand dollars in tips, hoarding her savings in a pile adjacent to her father’s body. She locates a crisp note, the kind that hangs straight when held at the side, and rolls it into a needle. Jodi pulls the skin above Marshall’s right nipple taut and pricks the rolled bill through the surface. It stands straight, perpendicular from his chest.
She removes all of Marshall’s clothes and rolls bill after bill to make rows of slender green soldiers across his chest, down his legs and arms, through his fingertips since the nails had fallen off. Jodi calls in sick the following day to continue her task, and soon her father’s body is layered with thick, pale sod. While she locates the last remaining white spaces on her father’s skin—the creases in his neck and ravines between his toes—Jodi re-visits the last day she saw her father alive.
Two months before the neighbors contacted her, Marshall called Jodi and demanded she clean out the junk from her former bedroom.
That room’s got better use than actin’ as a shrine to the daughter that abandoned me.
Really, Dad, can you blame me?
Just come get your shit, Jode.
Jodi used the only spare key to Marshall’s house when she unlocked his front door, a large box and two garbage bags balancing underneath her arms. He sat in his recliner.
You know where it is.
He sipped something from his white porcelain mug—most likely whiskey mixed with a trace of tea.
Jodi’s bedroom looked the same as it had when she turned fifteen and started living with her mother full time. A bunk bed was crammed into a corner, the top bunk not having been used since she was nine. The walls were painted teal and splatter stained the beige carpet below, reminding her as a child of the ocean creeping into sand. Fairy lights bordered the top bunk’s bedframe. She found the cord unplugged from the wall, but when she jimmied it back into the outlet the lights remained quiet. They once projected a violet glow that she’d often use to illuminate her room in place of the ceiling light fixture. Jodi unplugged the cord from the wall again and wrapped the wire in a circle around her arm, placing it in the box when she was finished.
Other items Jodi saved: an icicle-shaped Christmas tree ornament she found under the couch one Sunday in February. A bag of dry kibble for the shelter dog Marshall tolerated only two months. Middle school yearbooks she had to steal back from her father’s room. Seven decks of playing cards. An Easy-Bake Oven.
Most of the room’s contents were tossed inside the garbage bags, including her old clothes and some unwashed garments left in her hamper. As she plodded down the hallway with a bag in either hand, half of her dirty clothes spilled out—mostly gym shorts, panties, and training bras. Topping the pile was a pair of sooty, white crew socks with delicate pink lace along the trim, and Jodi was surprised to find she once owned something so innocent. She abandoned the spilled clothes and carried the bags to her car, returning to throw the dirty pile inside the half-filled box of keepsakes, which she lifted off of her former mattress and carried into the living room, stopping when she reached the front door.
I’ll see you around then, Dad.
Marshall heaved his body off the recliner and waded toward Jodi, her limbs locking as he approached her. He reached his hand out toward her waist, and she soon noticed that he was aiming for the doorknob, twisting it and pushing the door open. He stared at her, and she stared back. Matching amber eyes with no fragment of familiarity.
Jodi stepped through the frame, and she turned around just before the door shut to watch her father retreat back to his chair. A bit of fabric poked out of his jeans’ back pocket. Something stiff and white, with fine pink lace hanging off the trim.
Jodi grabs Marshall’s trousers that she stowed on his recliner and checks the back pocket.
No socks. Just some lint and two five-dollar bills, which Jodi buries into his left armpit.
The police arrive on a Friday afternoon. A month and a week after Jodi first found Marshall’s body.
She hears knocking as she shaves the wispy, silver hair that’s left on Marshall’s head to give him a crown of green, and she shifts her feet toward the front door, socks skating on laminate wood. She presses her eye against the peephole and, spotting two blue uniforms, restrains a yelp with two palms. Her swathed feet shuffle back to the corpse, hands still strait-jacketed over her mouth.
Jodi studies her work.
She can’t find Marshall’s crooked nose or void eye sockets. His liver spots have sprouted a lush forest and his rotting juices perennially perfume the house, almost comforting Jodi now. An acquired taste. She’s never seen her father more beautiful.
This is the police. Open up, please.
Jodi kneels to her father’s crown.
We know you’re in there, Ms. Collins. Your car’s in the driveway outside.
She hoists Marshall’s shoulders off the floor.
People have reported some strange activity. We just want to make sure you’re okay, Jodi.
She determines that the neighbors likely blew the whistle. Jodi hooks her hands under her father’s armpits and drags him to his recliner. She wants to display him for the policemen.
But as she heaves her father across the living room floor, the bills become unsettled in their flesh pockets. Jodi watches her hours of toil avalanche down Marshall’s sloping body. She lets his corpse drop down to the floor and, without re-rolling them, jams the paper back into the empty grooves, hot tears stinging her cheeks. The beads slip down her neck and dribble onto the bills, drowning the delicate fibers.
Jodi lifts her father’s shoulder again and hits the plastic television stand, producing a harsh, grating sound against the laminate floor.
The police tell Jodi they’ve given her enough warning. They have a warrant, and they’re coming inside.
Something heavy hits the front door, vibrating the whole foundation. Jodi hastens her backwards shuffling toward the recliner, ignoring all the new bills fleeing their unstable homes. Tears saturate Jodi’s face and neck now, even staining her shirt collar.
The front door slams open, colliding with the wall. Two policemen stand in the entrance, the sun striking them from behind, so they become dark, featureless silhouettes. They stare at Jodi for a few seconds, who’s still cradling her father’s limp body in her arms, frozen in the sun’s spotlight.
Jodi examines her father. The unraveling dollar bills float around his corpse like waves drifting off an island. Jodi has never seen her father less valuable.
Holes. Where the bills retreated, holes remain in their place. They stretch as the flesh pulls away from the bone. The holes resemble many things. Honeycomb caves. The balding scalp of a porcelain doll. Webbing in fishnet stockings. Marshall’s skin looks like all of these, but they are not the images that Jodi’s brain generates.
Here’s what the holes remind her of:
Summer. Age thirteen. Jodi kneading bread dough for dinner that evening. She generously oils a sheet pan and positions the supple mixture in the middle of the tray, spreading it out to the edges, traditional for focaccia. She pokes her fingertips through the dough, swirling the hollows around until she can feel the oil slip on the other side. See the black of the sheet pan. Jodi checks the clock. Two in the afternoon. Her father won’t be home for hours, and the tang of warm yeast soaks into her skin, expanding the space between her cells. Jodi swells to fill her kitchen.
Cara Lynn Albert is a writer and educator from Florida, and she is currently embracing the Rocky Mountains while she completes her MFA degree at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her work has also appeared in Baltimore Review, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. She serves as the Creative Nonfiction Editor at TIMBER Journal. To stay up-to-date with the author on Twitter @caralynnalbert.
Photograph by Ahmed Adly