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Gary D. Wilson

How To Lick an Envelope

She stares hard at him through the non-bifocal part of her glasses.

He halts in mid-lick, stares back.

I don't know how you do it, she says, eyes searching him.


Make that much noise licking an envelope.


Sounds like a cow.


She lowers her head, runs her finger across a row of fig­ures on the pink sheet of paper on top of the stack in front of her, stops, writes one of them into a square on a grid by her right hand, turns the pink sheet face-down onto a smaller stack, finds another number on the next sheet, writes it down, and so on. She's compil­ing data from a research project on color preference among children under three years of age.

He's paying bills and relicks the envelope he was sealing.

You did it again, she says.

He turns the envelope over, affixes a self-adhesive return address sticker and stamp and writes the date and how much was paid on the receipt portion of the bill. Paid in full is his favorite notation, which is what he puts on most of them. Except Visa and MasterCard. They always seem to carry a balance. A real pain in the ass, but one they've given themselves, he supposes. No discipline, etcetera. But the banks help you along by giving you payment holidays ("interest charges will continue to accrue") or ever-larger limits. It's gotten to the point that, if he had the inclination, he could buy a Lexus with a credit card or run off to Brazil, find a tract of beach-front land to settle on and start all over again interest-free, since as far as he knows, there is no extradition treaty between Brazil and the U. S.

Be hot, though, he's thinking as he picks up another envelope marked for payment the fifteenth, pulls the guts out of it and drops all but the bill and return envelope (if there is one—you know how cheap some companies are) into recycling, writes a check, being careful to put his account number on the "for" line at the bottom, slips it and the top portion of the bill into the envelope so that the company address shows through the little window and licks.

That's the problem, she says. You're using your whole tongue. She sticks hers as far out as she can to show him. It hangs broad and flat, quivering, over her lower lip. Like this. She flaps it back into her mouth. Sticks it out, flaps it back in a couple more times. Hear that? Sounds like a dog drinking.

You said a cow a minute ago.

I changed my mind. It's a dog now.

He sticks the return address label and stamp on the envelope, lays it aside with the others that are ready to mail, waits for further instruction.

You should only use the tip of your tongue, she says.

Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking...why don't you show me? he says. Give me a lesson...and when she passes, each man she passes goes ah-h-h.

Is that all you ever think about?


Oh, cut the innocent act. I can tell when you get that...that silly look on your face.

Which must be all the time.

I didn't say that.

But you did say it's all I ever think about—whatever "it" is.

With that many people living there, it must be the kind of heat you get used to, he's thinking as she picks up an envelope to demonstrate the fine art of flap-licking. Fewer clothes, lower utility bills, a sea breeze to make the nights just right.

Now what you do, she says, is, as I said, use just the tip of the tongue, maybe the first fourth, and keep it muscled up, like this. She sticks her tongue between her lips and he thinks how ridiculous she looks. Like a three-year-old. He half expects her to say, nanny-nanny-pooh-pooh, or plug her thumbs into her ears and wiggle her fingers at him, but instead she lifts the envelope to her tongue and slides the adhesive strip on the flap over it, first down one side of the envelope, then the other, lifts the envelope away and says, There, that's all there is to it. Quick, easy, and not a sound.

Yeah, but my god.


Paper cuts. I mean, you could lacerate your tongue something horrible doing that.

Are you serious?


She shakes her head to say: How can you live this long with somebody and think you know everything about them and then, bam, you suddenly feel like you're talking to a complete stranger?

She stares at him again. The irritation has changed, with only the slightest elevation of an eyebrow, to a question, as if she were trying to see inside him, read his thoughts, as it were, his intentions. Is he being serious, sarcastic, or only stupid? And he can tell she can't decide, because, of course, the comment could also be a red herring, designed to divert her attention from other, more consequential matters and thus provoke exactly the kind of response she gives, cannot other than give: So does this mean—this obsession of yours—that there's something else I need to know? Should know, so that when you die from your laceration of the tongue I won't be like the woman in Ann Landers who discovered a cache of condoms in her dead husband's things, which she says weren't used in her presence—whatever that implies—and later found stacks of pornographic magazines and a box full of sexual tools and gadgets, as she called them, in the man's closet? This man who was looked up to by the community and was loved and respected for his good works.

Pretty weird, he says. The whole business—him with all the kinky stuff and her telling several million people about it. Who's crazier? I mean, would you do that if you found out, you know, some strange thing about me? Not that there is, of course, but—- Or, he wonders, would she start a column of her own: Hints for the Hapless—souls like him who wander through life thinking about how the girl from Ipanema licks an envelope.

What are you smiling about? she asks.

I don't know.

Tell me.

Really. I didn't even know I was.

Her eyes are set to judge him, jump all over him for what's happening inside his head, which he has no control over, not the least bit, and wouldn't choose to have, even if he could. If he were truly insane, he might. People have told him that thinking thoughts no one else can understand or relate to or hearing voices when no one is there is a frightening experience. But that's different from going to Brazil. Brazil makes perfect sense. His wife could go too, if she wanted. He has nothing against that, nothing against her. In fact, he loves her intensely. It's their life he can't stand.

He's finished with gas, electric, water, bank cards, the plumber, music lessons. Next time it'll be Sears, Penney's, Lord and Taylor's, Discover. Twice a month money comes in, twice a month it goes out—in-out, in-out, a rhythm as unnoticed as breathing or the passing of days, months, years in fact. He has already disciplined himself to put a new year on checks but can't recall anything truly memorable about the last. Sometime in July he'll have a momentary lapse and write last year's number on a check and the clerk will look at him with concern, perhaps even pity, and say he shouldn't think another thing about it, it happens all the time. But it's not a matter of forgetting, he would tell her if she would listen, it's a matter of remembering. Nothing is missing from his mind. It has instead been leveled by minutia, left to compete for meaning against an ever-swelling tide of senseless, nameless detail.

But in Brazil.

Nothing's perfect, she says.

He waits, she waits. Meaning? he finally asks.

Not me, not you, not us.

What brought this on?



The way you lick.

God, can't we drop that?

But it's such a good example.

Of imperfection?

Of the way it starts.


You know what I'm talking about.

Maybe counseling would help.

I've thought about it, she says, laying down her pencil. I really have.

A lick therapist.

She studies him a moment, frowns in disappointment. I should have known better.

What now?

You never take anything seriously.


Not if it's something I think is important but you don't.

Which is, in a word, what she tells the therapist in her opening statement, the two of them in comfortable seats across the desk from him as he leans back in his leather executive swivel chair and nods thoughtfully, hands clasped, raised index fingers pressed to his lips in earnest concentration. The office is cozy, of course, nicely appointed though not ostentatious, a couple of tasteful prints, a museum art poster, an original pseudo-impressionistic landscape designed to evoke but not provoke in the center of the wall to the right, shelf upon shelf of texts and journals edited by experts in otolaryngology, his name in several as author of articles and chapters on tongue sensitivity and reflex. Behind him, to one side of the only window in the room, hangs an assortment of diplomas and certificates to reassure his clients that he is qualified to counsel them. On the other side are photographs of mouths with tongues in various poses, as coolly clinical and unemotive as a display of wrenches. His mahogany desktop glows warmly in soft sunlight, bare but for a picture of his family and a life-size pewter replica of a tongue balanced atop an arching pedestal.

It isn't unusual, he's saying, for situations like yours to develop. Far too often couples leave unattended what begin as minor irritants, but later develop into large, complex roadblocks to their relationship. She's nodding, the doctor's nodding. (Has she been feeding him information from their conversations?) And in order to keep that situation from worsening, we have to do two things: first, we must get to the root cause of the difficulty; and, second, we have to decide what action to take to eliminate it. This unfortunately sounds simpler and more foregone than it is. It's a complicated matter indeed that may take some time to unravel.

So I should perhaps back up a little at this point, he continues, and talk about the importance of the tongue in communication—physically and symbolically. Do you know, for in­stance, that every sound we make, with the exception of something like mmmmmm involves the tongue? The letter L, for example. Hear that? Elllll. You do it. Elllll. Good. Now feel where your tongue is. Hold a finger to your larynx. He touches his, asks them to do the same, gesturing like a choir director for them to make the sound again—elllll—and hold it, draw it out to its fullest. How intricate, he says, how complex. And that's just one sound. Think of a word, every word we speak. What an elaborate combination of articulations! Or a sentence! My god, it's enough to tongue-tie you when you consider how this small muscle in our mouths performs these amazingly acrobatic feats again and again, and we hardly notice. In fact, I would say we largely take it for granted.

None of which yet addresses the social—or symbolic—value of the tongue. When someone sticks it out at you, for instance, do you take that as a mark of disrespect, playfulness, or allure? Or consider the picture you've probably seen of the woman with her head tilted slightly back, the tip of her tongue curling between perfect white teeth and full red lips toward a ripe strawberry being held in front of her by an anonymous hand— suggesting, if you will, the tongue's legendary role in human sexual activity.

And, finally, we come to a blending of physical and symbolic values in the tongue as tool, aiding us in all manner of tasks, from eating to drinking to envelope licking, which, as I recall, is what brings you here today.

Excessive noise, your wife charges. But you obviously don't think so or you wouldn't be here, would you? And I gather that you've reached an impasse in discussion of the matter? Just as I thought. What we need to do then, it seems to me, is to establish a baseline, a reference point, and work from there. The doctor opens a drawer, takes out a white business envelope and hands it to him. Would you mind licking and sealing this? And be sure to do it the way you always do. Otherwise—

He licks the envelope and seals it.

The doctor nods thoughtfully. Now when you lick like that, do you think you're saying anything to your wife?

No, he says. You can't lick and talk at the same time.

But remember the tongue is not merely a tool in this case. You're also communicating by the way you lick. And what is it you're saying by doing that?

Nothing, for crying out loud.

What is it you're trying to hide? the doctor asks.

(Has she told him about the man in Ann Landers?)


Nothing. Really. I'm not hiding anything.

Come now, we all have something, if only a fantasy (does he know about the girl from Ipanema?) or an impulse never acted upon, all or any one of which could easily lead to the type of mis-lick you're experiencing.


Exactly, he says with a smile.

Etcetera and so on, until they break him, make him confess his rude and inappropriate behavior and assign him lessons with a licensed lickologist, to train him in acceptable tongue tech­nique—French or Swedish, his choice—and voilà! he's cured.

The perfect man—

What's wrong? his wife says.

He shakes his head that it's nothing worth mentioning.

Why are you frowning?

Don't mean to be, he says, making his lips smile.

Is it what I said? About you never taking me seriously?

Mmmmmm, he shrugs, not really. He has no idea how to explain that if you're perfect, you really have nothing left to live for.

Well, whatever. Because none of it means anything now that I have it figured out. The licking thing. And it's so simple, I don't know why—

We didn't think of it sooner?

Exactly. And she hurries to the kitchen sink and squats, rummaging under it until she finds an old sponge, cuts a circle out of it with the kitchen scissors, takes a small bowl from the cupboard, puts the sponge in it and wets it. There, setting the bowl on the table between them, just like the post office. Now is that brilliant, or what?

He looks at it, her.

The perfect man with the perfect wife with the perfect solution.

But he has the perfect escape, since instead of dying just yet or killing her, he's decided to take up sailing instead, accept his brother-in-law's offer to accompany him on his boat from Chicago, down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico; but rather than making a left at the Atlantic and heading north to the St. Lawrence River, they'll go right and dock finally at Ipanema, where she'll be waiting; and he'll live in a hut with his young and lovely and learn to move to the rhythm of the sun and moon and stars, the samba, the mambo, the bossa nova, their dance of love, as she teaches him during those languorous, sea-breezy nights exactly how to hold his tongue to achieve the fine art of envelope licking Brazilian style, a method that is both silent and safe and destined to change his life forever.

Well? his wife says, eyes wide, watching his every move and mood. What do you think?

Great, he says, a slight smile, trying to hold back a bigger one. Really, touching the sponge like a child inspecting some foreign food that's been set before him.

The only thing is, she says, you'll have to be careful about the paper crinkling. The sound, I mean. It's like popping your knuckles. She shivers at the thought.

He mulls over what she's said, rips a small piece from the sponge and eats it. Another and another, to her speechless amazement, until it's gone. Then he picks up the last envelope, raises it slowly to his poised tongue and, perhaps even against his better judgment, licks.


©2010 by Gary D. Wilson

Gary D. Wilson is the author the novel Sing, Ronnie Blue. His short fiction has appeared in numerous periodicals, including Slow Trains, In Posse Review, Glimmer Train, Quarterly West, Quick Fiction, Nimrod, Witness, Orchid, The Baltimore Review, The William and Mary Review, City Paper of Baltimore, Wisconsin Review, Kansas Quarterly, Wind, Quartet, Cottonwood Review, The Laurel Review, and Sun Dog. A Quick Fiction story was included in the anthology Flash Fiction Forward from W. W. Norton. Wilson teaches fiction writing at the University of Chicago, Graham School of General Studies.

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