Reverse Engineering – Robert D. Kirvel

An aromatic jolt reminiscent of a factory-fresh luxury car gone slightly gamey on the inside tingled his nose. Beyond the entry, layers had been stacked on racks that reached the skylights, and a handful of people roamed the aisles. Those he could see from where he examined a single culatta of buffalo appeared to be rawhide-rugged middle agers, some borderline daft.

“One does not sew.”

So cautioned a fleshy female stationed on the opposite side of a discount table, where she fingered a baby-falo. He expected her to waddle in reptilian fashion—elbows jutting, one eye wandering—but she moved with grace. Five earrings through the left ear, a nose ring, and eight black fingernails glinted as she spoke. Her right ear was taking it easy with the doo-dads.

“One stitches … leather. Stitches, mind you.”

The admonishment came from someone who probably knew about stitches, in response to his remark that working (he’d used the word “sewing”) hides was a fairly new interest. Only that much was easy to convey, so he explained nothing more on this amiable Saturday morning while loitering across from a woman in a leather-goods warehouse.

Merchandise piled on either side of the aisle ranged from capra to croc, buttery deerskin to latigo cowhides prepared as splits and sides or half hides up to 9 feet in length. The motives driving his fascination with leatherwork remained as arcane as mysteries surrounding his childhood. Files on lineage had been sealed, leaving medical histories unknown. Were his parents alive or dead, vibrant or frail with heritable afflictions? What led to his abandonment as a child? Only blurs and burrs populated his skull where other people kept precious family memories. Height and intelligence were coded in his DNA along with fair skin; maybe a penchant for leatherworking originated there as well?

“Oh, I wouldn’t say they were fussy about their selections so much as particular in knowing exactly what they need.”

The woman paused to verify he was listening. He registered half of what she said.

“Why, just the other day I saw one of them in here with those horns grafted on her forehead.” She pointed to a temple, apparently hoping for a reaction. “Right here under the skin. You know?” The idea of temporal implants seemed to please her.

She had his attention again. “One of them…” apparently referred to the S&M crowd, which Ms. Nose Ring felt inclined to re-introduce into a zigzag conversation that had left the dock on a casual bearing centered on social niceties. Was she trying to shock, the better to assess his character? He eyed the contours within a black leather halter as she reached sideways to stroke a lambskin, flinched at the idea of assessing any female’s curvature so blatantly, and yet could not help picturing a waterbed. This woman must have been a rebellious teen, dashing off to a city parlor for another piercing or tattoo. As alien as such inclinations were to his temperament, he knew the territory, suspected that if those breasts were to spill from undergarment restraints, they’d ripple a familiar topography and tease a single silver nipple ring against her flesh. But how could he know? He shook his head.

The woman continued to jabber as he pictured sparsely furnished rooms yielding off an unlit hallway, walls exuding the smell of sweat and old leather. He imagined hearing faux cries of arousal suggesting pain or pleasure or both until her voice yanked him back into the present.

“… just like children,” she allowed.

The stranger’s tone mellowed as he experienced another image, a vision, though he was not one to credit mysticism or extrasensory anything. A kitchen filled itself with sunshine to spotlight a rectangular table of mid-century design as a mother attended a child in a highchair set at one corner, spooning the baby dabs of yellow goop from a glass jar. Perhaps Ms. Earring had parented this youngster—boy? girl?—some decades in the past. Each time the mother dipped the spoon she touched it to her lips first for a pretend-taste encouragement. He felt the goop on his own skin but focused on the jar—Banana Puree—just as the image faded to a silver nose ring dead center on his fovea.

“…just like children,” she was saying. “Sometimes they come to meet and swap addresses at this very spot.”

“Who?” He looked around the warehouse and waited.

“Yes, you know, sometimes they playact at being children, sitting in a highchair to be spoon-fed and all that.” She sucked air and snickered. “Part of the game, all that leather and metal they wear. Just gamesmanship.”

Was this woman privy to images in his head? She’d been whimsical at first, perhaps to win his confidence, but what was she driving at now? If her intent were to dim the house lights, he would wait for the curtain to rise. He couldn’t ignore how she would return to the leather crowd—her people, S&Mers—as though she couldn’t help herself, talking as a lover talks. A woman in love is compelled to gush about her beloved while telegraphing nonchalance, yet in the present case making a game of her own enjoyment.

He guessed she’d lived in two worlds, straight-laced and bent, by the time most individuals settled into family-hood. Perhaps she’d had a strict upbringing and been saddled with a child or two before glimpsing alternative paths, racy and so delicious that she simply must have a taste. How long the escape from convention into risqué territory? One year? Twenty? After she’d satisfied herself with a joyride, only the black calfskin halter-top remained as telltale evidence along with the nose ring, earrings, and fingernails.

People needed something in their lives, he understood: excursions and indulgences, tattoos or piercings, maybe adventures into dungeons or belfries, or family recollections from childhood. People required comforts to relieve tedium and provide a sense of self.

The mother and child charged his thoughts with possibilities ranging from wishful thinking to fact. The vision could represent the parent he had always wished for or be nothing but false memory. All he knew was he’d stumbled past a threshold, allowing him to experience sensations in two, simultaneous dimensions and timeframes: the here and now versus a suggestion about the past.

“…as I watched what she was picking out, I thought she would gravitate toward the softer material, like this, but no….”

The idea of testing present possibilities sent an electric current down his spine. The woman held out a single bend of cowhide, rubbing it between fingers as if to draw him into the game. With the middle finger of her free hand, she touched some irritation or crumb just to the side of her mouth. He leaned closer as the feeling of familiarity intensified.

“You have to realize certain leather is stretchy, but some of it isn’t much at all, depending on thickness. Here, feel this.”

In the kitchen, something changed. Light shone as brightly as always, air through the open window came as fresh as an Adriatic breeze, but something appeared to be happening to the baby.

He extended an arm to accept the leather, rubbing it between his fingers to feel a distinct warmth and pliability.

“You see what I mean?” He saw what she meant. “Now if you need to bind someone tightly, you might want a little give, don’t you think? Not like upholstery goods or saddlery. You don’t want the goods cutting into flesh—unless that’s the thing you’re after.”

“Of course.” He answered absently, without troubling himself with the implications of what he was saying or what one might be “after.”

Qualities more adult than childlike re-formed the flesh of the child as he looked at his own hands. Was this still his dream or someone else’s? Maybe it was a case of two people having the same dream with shared memories. Who was the child and why did it feel so familiar as it aged, as if he could inhabit the skin, slip inside and sense everything it sensed? He focused his internal gaze. The mother wore a nose ring glinting in the sun. Below, something yellow, something moist, adhered to one side of her lip.

The woman’s tongue flitted, but did not reach its target.

He knew the chill of saliva on a white handkerchief applied to his cheek, tongue and saliva, then wet rubbing. How did he know? Was this fantasy realism—a fiction so longed for that it assumed the guise of reality to replace reality?

He reached across the table of leather goods toward the place beside her lip—

“Are … are … ?” he stammered.


“Are you … ?”

—as she leaned forward to receive his touch and a shared possibility.


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Robert D. Kirvel has published literary fiction in the UK, New Zealand, Germany, and a dozen U.S. journals, such as the Columbia College Literary Review. His ArtPrize-winning creative nonfiction appears in Imagine This! An ArtPrize Anthology 2015.