Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Dermit has a skin problem. There is a name for his condition, but those who are blessedly free of it are oblivious to that name. They simply see Dermit’s splotchy red skin and put an extra foot of space between him and their own unblemished surfaces.
Dermit lives on the third floor. He rides the antique elevator up and down twice a day; once on his way to the post office where he works and once again on his way home. Occasionally he sees Tabitha from number 5 riding in the elevator to or from the second floor. When Dermit sees Tabitha his palms grow sweaty and the red patches of his skin feel particularly itchy.
Tabitha wears a goldenrod beret and matching crocheted scarf. Her pea coat is navy blue, her ballet flats are red and she wears a hue of lipstick that matches the color of the shoes. Her hair reminds Dermit of a dark polished wood like mahogany and maintains a stylish bit of waviness that he is certain comes naturally to her. Her eyes are remarkably blue. Dermit thinks that women with dark hair and pale eyes are a rare treasure.
Dermit wears his post office uniform. He covers his arms with a navy blue cardigan. He hides his legs in the dark blue trousers and avoids the shorts that some of his colleagues wear in the fair months. Despite this, the condition shows itself on the backs of his hands and sometimes flares up along his neck and behind his ears. He spends too much time in front of the mirror adjusting his wire rimmed spectacles and buttoning and unbuttoning the cardigan, helpless against the unwanted patches of irritated flesh.
Tabitha has noticed Dermit in the elevator, fussing with his sweater buttons and staring zombie like at anything but her. She has taken the extra steps to put space between herself and the guy with the rash.
One day, after work, Dermit boards the elevator.
“Hold the elevator please!” someone calls from the building entrance.
Dermit waits listening to the hurried scuffle of shoes on marble and Tabitha appears. Her eyes widen when she sees who it is she is boarding with. Dermit closes the accordion style gate and presses the number three button.
“You’re on two right?” he asks her.
Tabitha forces a smidgen of a smile and nods curtly. Dermit presses the button marked two. He begins to turn to stare into space as is customary, but suddenly looks directly at Tabitha and blurts:
“My name’s Dermit, I live in number 8.”
He extends his hand and Tabitha merely stares at it, at the red splotch that has swallowed it. After a moment Dermit retracts the hand.
“Sorry,” he says. “It’s... it’s not contagious.”
Tabitha swallows. Dermit tries again.
“I’ve just... seen you a lot and wanted to introduce myself. Maybe we could get a cup of tea around the corner sometime. It’s nice to know your neighbors.”
The elevator stops at the second floor.
“I’m really busy, a lot of the time,” Tabitha says as she opens the accordion style gate, steps out and closes it again behind her. She is already out of sight when the elevator resumes its ascent.
Alone in his apartment Dermit adds this year's special edition valentine stamp to his collection before feeding his cat, Archimedes. He vows to take the stairs for the rest of the month and looks for a new dermatologist in the phonebook.
One night after work, Dermit stops at the corner drugstore to pick up the cream his new dermatologist has prescribed. There is a woman in line ahead of him and it takes Dermit a while to recognize her as his unfriendly neighbor from the second floor. He abstains from greeting her.
At the register, Tabitha swipes her debit card to pay for the tampons and Advil she has brought to the counter. An uncomfortable minute lapses and the cashier says,
“I’m sorry. It says there are insufficient funds.”
Tabitha fumbles as she pulls out another credit card and takes the debit card back. She swipes it and is once again denied after an anxious wait. She tries again with the first card, her shoulders creeping towards her ears, her cheeks reddening. She can feel the eyes of those in the growing line behind her. As she takes the card back from the irritated clerk a fourth time, a man steps up beside her at the counter and hands the clerk his own debit card.
“Here, try this one.” Dermit says as the hot silent tears start slipping out of Tabitha’s eyes. “And I’m here to pick up a prescription for McLaughlin."
“Thank you.” Tabitha sniffs as the clerk turns to fetch Dermit’s cream. She is unable to look at the stranger beside her and instead stares down at the counter trying to stop the tears.
“It’s all right.” Dermit tells her.
When the transaction is complete Dermit hands the paper bag full of Tampons and Advil to Tabitha and she looks at him for the first time. She starts to cry silently again, walking with Dermit towards the exit. After a few sniffs they step out into the cool night and Tabitha says,
“Thank you again, uh, Dermit. I’ll pay you back. You said before that you’re in number 7 right?”
“Eight.” Dermit tells her, “But don’t worry about it.”
“No, I will.” They start walking towards their building together. In silence they pass through the lobby and board the elevator. Dermit presses the buttons for both floors. The elevator stops at the second floor and Dermit opens the accordion style gate for Tabitha.
She steps into the hall and presses her lips together. Her cheeks are still burning crimson.
“My name’s Tabitha.” she tells him. “I live in number 5.”
Then she vanishes down the hall, her ballet flats thudding softly on the carpet.