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Good on Paper by Amy Barnes

Good on Paper by Amy Barnes (from Issue 15 of Stanchion Magazine)


I fell in love with a man who sold copiers. A Minolta Man.

As a little girl, I thought I wanted a Marlboro Man like my father, tall as a billboard and always-tinged with a cloud of tobacco smoke and bravado. According to my mother, I was mousy and unappealing to men with my dull hair, foggy eyes, rubber cement and Wite-Out in my veins, and a perpetually-sad mouth.

She was always mad I’d chosen to be a librarian instead of a chemist like her.

“You’re far too good with scissors and tape, and not good enough with men.”

Mama told me when I wasn’t married by thirty-three.

“You remember all those famous musicians and even Jesus who were dead by thirty-three?”

“Yes, Mama.” I said.

“I named you Ester for a reason. Do you remember why?”

“Yes, Mama.” I said.

I knew all too well the story of how I was named after chemical perfume and food bases, but also the overhanging Biblical meaning of a perfect, unblemished woman named Esther. My mother was the kind of mother that wanted to bottle my new baby smell and sell it out of her lab. However, she didn’t want to bottle my librarian ester, glue and staples and dust and first editions and yellowed tape.

Before I met Earl the copier salesman, I lived in my very own tiny studio apartment over the fortune cookie factory where I worked nights because librarians didn’t make a ton of money even if they had an Ivy League education, something else my mother pounded into my head. Every day, I woke to the scent of baking fortune cookie circles wafting into my bedroom and every night, I wrote about finding love and tall dark strangers for other people.

Earl seemed perfect from the first time he came into the library wearing a paper bow-tie, with inky fingers that held mine tightly for far too short a time. He had long receipts and wads of Vicks-kissed tissues in his pockets, mimeograph cologne smears that blued his white cuffs and my pale pink lips. When we snuck kisses in the library stacks after he fixed the library copier for the third time in a week, we were surrounded by many other men that were good (and bad) on paper - musty books of scientists, Victorian villains and heroes, presidents and prisoners, lovers and serial killers.

“You know paper doesn’t smell like anything?”

“You’re wrong. Try this.” I said.

I pushed a Shakespeare volume and thick resumes and tissue paper at his nose.

“Nothing.”

On our first real date outside the library, I rubbed magazine perfume strips into my pulse points because I couldn’t stand any of the perfumes my mother made in her lab, test tubes of amber liquids I kept on my dresser.

We went to a dying mall because that was the only option in our small town. It was the kind of mall stuck in pink and teal Miami Vice 80s decor with no anchor stores; only a community college, indoor pickleball court, cult church, ghostly food court, broken acoustic roof tiles and leaking skylights leaving shadows over the remaining Spencer’s Gifts and candle stores spitting their wares like carnival barkers.

He bought me a food court pretzel that smelled of Germany, cheap mustard and abandoned mall. I didn’t know it then but he also bought a cubic zirconia engagement ring at a teenage accessory store and kept it in his pocket.

“I will never abandon you, Ester.”

He told me as we snuggled under his car’s lemon air freshener.

I believed him and we fell in love on paper – Valentine cards with cupids and lacey hearts, postcards from his copier sales territory, silvery gum wrappers with lingering Juicy Fruit, Fruit Stripes, and Big Red – all tied wtih attic-red ribbons attaching me to his heart.

We married in paper clothes, temporary inexpensive garments: a tuxedo that crackled and an eyelet wedding dress made from dot matrix paper and hole protectors. There were no candles (for obvious reasons) or other people, just my mother in the front row and Earl’s dog Buster wearing flowers around his neck – tissue paper gardenias, somehow fragrant and tropical in the frigid Midwest winter.

My mother was there with us again to bless our child with a splash of her specially-concocted baby cologne. I caught her sniffing Edward’s head with a deep sucking sound to try and finally figure out the formula for newborn.

“You can’t recreate that in a lab,” I reminded her.

She smiled.

I smiled too because I was a mother and wished she could bottle it too.

And then one day when Eddie was nearly-two, Buster sniffed at Earl and wouldn’t stop. Sniffed. Brought me to him. Sniffed again. Moaned.

“Sometimes dogs pick up on the smell of cancer,” my mother said.

“That’s enough,” I told her.

But I knew she was right. And it turned out Buster was right too.

In his last days, Earl became a frail man with paper lungs who wore paper gowns that absorbed hospital and chemo and death, seeping in but not quite touching his skin. The hospital waiting room magazines didn’t have any scent strips in them because of potential allergies, according to our favorite nurse.

“Bring me a Cosmo from the gift shop, Mama,” I asked.

She did. And I rubbed expensive perfume on my wrists for Earl.

“I love you.” I whispered.

“I know what paper smells like now. And love.” He said.

He died the next day and I went home to a toddler and a cancer-sniffing dog and a fortune cookie factory full of empty promise strips, and to plan a funeral.

Paper snowflakes fell on his coffin. They smelled of nothing.



Amy Cipolla Barnes is the author of Child Craft (Belle Point Press), Ambrotypes (word west press), and Mother Figures (ELJ Editions). Her words have appeared in many publications, including The Citron Review, JMWW, Trampset, Flash Frog, No Contact Mag, Leon Review, Complete Sentence, The Bureau Dispatch, Nurture Lit, X-R-A-Y Lit, McSweeney’s, Southern Living, SmokeLong Quarterly, and others. She’s been nominated for Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction, Best Small Fictions, and long-listed for Wigleaf50 in 2021, 2022, and 2023. She’s a Fractured Lit Associate Editor, Gone Lawn co-editor, Ruby Lit assistant editor and reads for The MacGuffin, Best Small Fictions, and Narratively. Find her on Twitter at @amygcb.

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