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Essential

            The axe swishes through the air and lands in Zendaya’s chest with a satisfying thunk. Fault lines spider web out from the blade, and the next second her body breaks apart like a chocolate Easter bunny. I pick up the hollow fragments and toss them into the melting pot. The late September sun scorches the back of my neck. They say this summer’s gonna be one for the record books. Highest temperatures. Highest unemployment. Highest mortality rate.

            “Come on, everybody’s got a number,” the boy I’m trying to ignore says to me.

            His shoes enter my field of vision as I pick up Zendays’s burnt sienna and cadmium yellow arm, adding it to the liquid soup of colors bubbling in the barrel.

            “My girl is obsessed with Maroon 5,” he tries. “And her birthday was in April. You know what April birthdays were like this year? I gotta make it up to her. Please? I’ll give you a hundred bucks for it.”

            When I don’t answer him, he puts one finger under my chin, tilting my gaze up to meet the blue eyes that peak out as he lowers his Ray-bans to the bridge of his nose.

            “Seriously. What are you gonna do if I just throw it in my truck?” he asks.

            His eyes dart from mine to the axe at my side. His smile is a taunt. He doesn’t think I’ll use it on him.

            I take a moment to consider how correct his assessment is, then set the axe down. The boy has just enough time to chuckle over his victory of wills before he’s shrieking. He rubs his eyes to relieve the pain and only succeeds in spreading the capsaicin further. Eventually, he regains enough coherency to call me a “fucking bitch” before fleeing the alley.

            “Thank you for visiting the Onyango Family Wax Museum,” I call after him as I slip the pepper spray back into my pocket.

            I hoist the axe again and drive it into Adam Levine’s face.

 

***

 

            Freed by the blank slate of the empty museum, I work in a frenzy. A one woman assembly line. Sculpt clay. Mold plaster. Pour wax. Remove wax. Script liner #2 brush for eyeballs. Fan size 3 for cheeks. I tear the seams from a pile of clothes and repurpose them into more utilitarian garments. Scrubs. Uniform polos. Aprons.

            I can make four figures a day if I don’t sleep. But sleep keeps claiming me anyway. I pass out with a point chisel clutched against my chest like a teddy bear, wax under my nails. When I wake up, it’s to my landlord’s face looming over me.

            “What the hell have you done?” Dave asks, taking in the new exhibit through wide eyes.

            My back pops as I sit up off the floor.

            “I’m going in a different direction,” I say.

            “People aren’t gonna pay see this. They pay to take selfies flipping Trump the bird. Why would you…?”

            The question dies on his lips as he stops to read the plaque in front of a young woman with warm brown eyes and a donated, handmade surgical mask. “Rose Onyango. Medical resident at George Washington University Hospital. Worked 16 hours a day March 2nd to May 13th, 2020. Died May 24th, 2020.”

            He takes a step back and runs one nervous hand through his hair.

            “Eidi…” His tone is softer this time. “Maybe you should take some time off.”

            I continue sculpting until he leaves.

 

***

 

            I call the new exhibit “Essential” and for awhile it seems it’s going to be a success. The reporters flock in with their cameras, capturing the life-like details of a grocery clerk’s customer service smile. The travel bloggers pose next to figures of RN’s playing cards with elderly patients who had no other visitors. An Instagram influencer has to be told off for sitting at the desk beside a 5th grade teacher reassuring her students. It took me four hours to paint the Zoom chat on her laptop screen, the faces of frightened children who don’t know what the next month will bring. Her own face strained behind the smile, a stack of unpaid bills on the desk next to her. Her name was Sherry Hanson. The influencer makes a note of this before I tell her not to sit at the desk. Stay behind the velvet rope. Observe the wax should-be celebrities from afar.

            Everyone agrees it’s a great idea. I watch them stand out front and live blog about how important it is to never forget the heroes who died flipping our burgers and delivering our Amazon purchases.

            But Dave was right. It’s not what people will pay to see, no matter how “important” it is. A few days after the news breaks, after the articles are shared and reshared and heart reacted on Facebook, there’s not a soul inside but mine. Customers wander into my lobby, and when I tell them there’s no replicas of Kate Middleton and Rihanna to be found here they walk away disappointed; their unspent stimulus money still in their pockets.

            “It was a great publicity stunt,” Dave says. “You could put the celebrities back up now. I’m sure you’ll get lots of traffic.”

            My gaze drifts to the back door where the empty barrel sits in the alley.

            “Sure,” I say. “I’ll put the celebrities back.”

 

***

 

            By the time I open the doors again, there’s a crisp chill in the air. Curious patrons enter my lobby, enquiring if all their favorites are on display.

            “Yes, I’ve got Justin Bieber,” I say. “Hillary Clinton too. Beyonce in the yellow dress from ‘Lemonade’. If you’ll just step through the legs of the 12 foot high golden calf, you’ll find them all in the next room.

            “Oh no. No velvet ropes here. Walk right up to them. Touch them. Get down on your knees in front of the pyramid and worship them as they so rightly deserve.

            “What’s that? Oh, the woman lying on the altar with her heart being ripped out of her chest by Joe Exotic? You don’t recognize her? Her name was Rose Onyango. She died on May 24th, 2020.”

            The Instagram whores and gossip journalists stare in open mouthed horror.

            “This is freaking awful,” one girl says.

            I shrug my shoulders.

            “You’re probably right,” I say. “I’ve never been any good at subtlety.”

            I leave the doors open and walk out.

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