Pieces of Soap

Stanley Elkin




This would have been after the ms was first diagnosed but before the chair glide was put in, before, in fact, anything very important was wrong with me at all. Before the wheelchair, before the walker. Probably before the canes even. Though I may already have owned a cane. Using it larkily, boulevardierly, like Fred Astaire, say, like a prop for my disease.

Ourselves, a visiting professor, and the Lebowitzes in the living room conjoined. For drinks and dip and conversation assembled. And I forget now how it came up, though you have my word it was naturally. No one, I mean, set anyone else up. So it must have been naturally, in the sense, I mean, that anything coming out of left field like that is natural, thrown in compulsively—from the hip, on the mind, off the chest. Naturally. Organically. The visiting professor had made this, well, confession. Or maybe not this confession at all so much as this shy, tentative admission, sly, something between a pretended amusement at a harmless foible and the genuinely expeditionary—a little like someone fishing for a compliment.

I didn’t need Joan’s or the Lebowitzes’ encouraging glance. What, for an opening like this? Your one-chance-in-a-million opportunity? I was out of my chair and on my feet like a shot. (So it would have to have been back in the mists of time, back in the golden age of my arms and legs, of my skin and balance.) I grabbed the professor’s elbow and motioned for him to follow. “Come,” I called over my shoulder, taking the stairs two and maybe three at a time. “Are you coming? Good,” I said. “Come up, come up.” I remember I was already laughing. (Because I knew what I was going to say. Because your chance-in-a-lifetime, one-in-a-million-opportunities don’t come up every blue moon or cold day in hell, so maybe without even knowing it, you have reflexively, already prepared, primed and polished, not staircase wit but its opposite, as down pat as a comic’s practiced squelch, except that mine was not even rehearsed but something all condition-ripened second nature, like ouch! or yippee! Natural. Organic.) And now he was in the upstairs hall with me. I directed his attention this way and that. “What,” I said, “you steal soaps from hotels? You do?” I directed his attention to the bathroom. “You think so? You do?” And even had a reply ready, what I hope I would have said in his place. This was not staircase wit either. “No,” I hope I would have said, and offered up the punch line from the old joke, “but the guy that sells me salt, can he sell salt!” Though come to think of it the professor’s was close enough in its way, even though what happened was that all expression drained from his face, he closed his mouth, and narrowly shook his head a few times. It wasn’t a punch line. It was better. It was pure submission signal.

Because I have, in basket and hamper, in all summertime’s lanyard-laced, twiggy, wickery woodwork like a woven porch or patio furniture, stashed in its indoors-outdoors texture like supple, vaguely rain forest, vaguely jungly splinter (vine, picnic’s processed straw like a coniferous soup or an evergreen vegetable, all the indeterminate tropicals and periodics of the American breezeway elementals—Adirondackian, Poconosaic, Ramapoaon—spread over good green loaves of lawn, all that luxuriant matter of the undeciduous year), five or six thousand bars of soap.

The thousand-bar point spread is not insignificant. There are men so rich they cannot reckon their true wealth and must wait on probate for even a ballpark figure. I do not really know the extent of my soap collection.

But this ain’t about souvenir. It isn’t even about memento. Proust isn’t in it, or near it—or wasn’t. And if I’m no connoisseur of soap, then neither am I soap’s bag man. His assorted flotsam and jetsam, his cardboard dreck, is for the rainy day—provisional, pointed and purposeful as annuity. It is, I mean, contingent—plan abiding time, tool waiting on emergency. Not like my own two or three hundred pounds of wrapped motel, hotel, airline, railway, and steamer soaps and others, too, some of which I have and some of which I have seen only (from the stately homes of England, royal weddings, the sealed tombs of pharoahs, from all impressive, high-ticket places—the soaps of San Marino like an intimate postage, the Great Wall, soaps of the poles and trade winds) in imagination—equatorial soaps, space soaps, soaps of the jet streams and ocean currents. The stamped soaps of Heaven. The branded soaps of Hell.

I write, you see, more from the grave robber’s viewpoint than the collector’s, more from some spiritual homeopathy than either. Soap’s little miniatures passed out like Halloween candy, soap as superstition, soap as sod and soap as relic. As a piece of my private public record.

Oh, it’s complicated. Here, I think, is how it happened.

My father was a traveling salesman. On his rounds two and three weeks, three and four weeks at a time. Bringing back in the dop kit, like little picture postcards, the house Palmolives and Luxes, their Camays and Lifebuoys. From the Radisson in Minneapolis. From the Milwaukee Pfister. From Grand Rapids and Greencastle, Indiana. What Fargo looked like, what Rapid City did, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids. Views of Springfield, Illinois, and Joplin, Missouri, two and three bars high in the medicine chest. My pop’s soap strictly for use, for blow, not show. Knee-deep in ethics, tutored in the waste-not/want-nots of his sensible prairie territory and ecologicals, my old man never stole a soap he didn’t intend to bathe with. Glimpses of motor courts in Nebraska a bar’s sidebar, never the point. For whom a mile held neither nostalgia nor beauty nor even simple interest, who kept score in a different currency altogether and who would have worried about me if he’d caught me pouring over, like some kid miser, the architecturals of the various hotels, counting the stories, its “fireproof” rooms, the skyline of individual blocks, studying the little cars out front, squinnying the tiny, to-scale, guest populations entering, exiting, the revolving doors on the wrappers. It was quite like examining the drawings on money, or the golden graphics on a package of Camel cigarettes, trademark’s mysterious etchings. Some tropism in me for logo itself. With all the makings but without the knowledge of a stamp collector. This accidental tourist altogether. Who put no stock in baseball cards and had no hobbies. (Though, briefly, when I was seven, I actually did have a stamp collection, a hand-me-down from a college-bound distant cousin who put away childish things and gave not just into my charge but granted me in absolute freehold and fee simple forever her stamp books and catalogues and little waxy envelopes. All of which for a promised but reneged, undelivered quarter from a closer cousin, I tore up, burned, destroyed.) Not even, not yet, the simple hobby of soap.

Which came later. I was thirty-seven, already heart-attacked, and maybe three years older than my father would have been when I started those long, comfortable, belly-flop occasions on the living-room rug with the soaps in fuzzy, dreamy, contemplative, surrogate travel and exploration, one part speculate, investigative scholarship, geography lessons read right off wrappers, and four parts play like a dry martini. Something of a traveling man myself now. Once in a while. Occasionally. Whenever I was invited to read from the oeuvre to three or four dozen drummed-up students and faculty for a token honorarium and expenses plus all the motel soaps I could steal. And which, at least at first, I grabbed as pure reminder, some “our song” thing like an elbow to the memory box, sentimental as an ashtray or a matchbook cover or a bid from the prom. Dealing in manageable numbers. Spread out, three and four of a kind, on the sills and shelves of my bathroom like a lay in rummy.

But no connoisseur or soap snob, believing from the beginning in the thoroughgoing democracy of soap, even in its almost generical Ivories of placeless gigs, the unmarked bills of lodge and motor court, of all inexpensive, locally owned unfranchised inn, in, as it were, the plain-brown-wrapper soap of all off-ramp, off-strip, difficult-access and service roads, places you pay a deposit for the room key and another to unlock the telephone, where the coffee you brew beside the sink comes in little paper packets with nondairy creamer, wide paper cones you place in plastic holders a couple of shades lighter than Grey Poupon mustard, a wooden swizzle stick, and a packet of sugar hardened by humidity. (Because nothing that goes into the scrapbook is alien to me.) Already dealing in quantity rather than quality—though I didn’t know yet that the one pushed to the extreme ultimately becomes the other—and was perhaps inspired beyond the parameters of memento, old times, and simple occasion, by the valueless ordinariality of the brand-name soaps in those unaffiliated chainless, disenfranchised motor hotels, to a benign smash-and-grab, or maybe even to actual outright thievery. Who would never think of swiping a towel or making off with so much as a wire coat hanger, but who, and even at first, was this conscienceless soap yegg and soap poacher, this footpad of handsoap, something exponential in the blood that made me this, well, brigand of the bath, this simple soapsy-sud fetishist, this collector-plunderer/hunter-gatherer of special soap booty, grabbing up my pieces of soap like pieces of eight, handfuls of discrete, magic, anal greed, filling my pockets, shtupping all my clothing like a contestant let loose in a supermarket. In any of those first minutes in a hotel or an airplane (early on in my career I developed the habits and techniques of someone very dedicated or very crazy) locking myself like someone caught short, seized up with diarrhea, into the lavs of aircraft while we were still attached to the chupah or jetway or whatever it is they call that thing that connects the airplane to the terminal, the “Return to Cabin” already flashing its red emergency while I pull handfuls of handsoap from the little metal dispensers like someone scraping change from the coin return of a pay telephone, or like a Vegas mechanic dealing cards from a “shoe,” working fast in the close quarters, even breaking if I have the time into long, plastic-sealed sleeves of the stuff, a knowledge of the eensy mop-and-broom closet arrangements in the tiny compartment, stuffing pants pockets, shirt, the inside pockets of sport coats I might not have even purchased had they not been deep enough to accommodate my special soap needs, ripping off between a dozen and fifteen bars at a time on my great plane-robbery raids, something not ungentlemanly about my m.o. withal; never, that is, taking the last few bars, leaving like a gent cat burglar’s calling card these signature soaps, any self-respecting thug’s Whoosis was here.

And actual method in my m.o., too. I shower, I bathe. I use the TWAs as keepers and to trade up, too. The first thing I do at a destination, after hanging my clothes, after emptying my pockets and hiding the airline soaps, along with all the soaps I can find in the room—you clear them off the bathroom sink, you open the curtains and look in the dish in the tub, you look in the medicine chest behind the mirror—in some hidden pocket of my garment bag, is call Housekeeping and ask them to please send some soap up to the room please as there wasn’t any when I got here and I’m tired from my travels and I’d like to take a shower, please. When they arrive I throw them in with the dozen or so already in the garment bag, unwrap a TWA which, small as it is, I will use for the duration of my stay, or until it’s only a sliver of a sliver or maybe even only one single lousy dried-up sud before I break out another. Each day adding Housekeeping’s fresh soaps to the now considerable pile growing like a sort of culture in the luggage—it has become the luggage—as yeast grows, as yogurt begins, from those primal foundling seed soaps.

But how the punks do it I’ll never know. Not Mister Bigs, not major sluggers from the S&Ls, not even the wiseguys, stickup people or smugglers bluffing past customs. Because felony I understand, breaking and entering, all the large motor movements of assault and battery. But mine are furtive kid-in-the-cookie-jar ways, clumsy I am as an amateur card tricker, even in the locked privacy of those airborne privies, work under the gun, high-pressured as shoplifting, my heads-up, look-both-ways heart skipping beats as I did the dirty on soap. It’s a wonder I don’t sweat through the paper wrappers, that I don’t give myself away in a trail of lather. So it’s hard to imagine now how I ever used to pause at maids’ carts in the hall, picking over the soaps like someone shopping fresh fruit. Because I never really had the nerve to go for a soap rustler. Not cut out for a life of crime, lacking the sinner’s ballsy bearing, not even born with a thing for soap. Never anything like rage in my soap lust, never anything like lust in it—nothing personal. (So detached from my needs, I’d as soon send my wife and kids, friends and acquaintances, even people I don’t care for very much, out on soap forays as go on them myself.)

It isn’t a hobby. It isn’t even a collection. If anything at all, it’s an accumulation. And no sense on my part of anything hanging over the accumulation of even an accidental art. It has never occurred to me that so many soaps in one place may have something of the monumental about them—a vernacular accretion like the Watts Towers or the canes and crutches of Lourdes. Just, for me, this open-ended, piecemeal, laying on of an unsystematic taxonomy, at once as all-inclusive and indiscriminate (I have few rules for accumulating soap: They must be in their original wrappers, they must be taken; once a dear friend, stopping over in Indianapolis, purchased some miniature theme soaps for me—classic Indy 500 racing cars decaled on clear cellophane; out of love for my friend I buried them somewhere in the accumulation, in it but not of it) as Kinsey’s gall wasps, or all generic paleontologic fossil. Just exactly that unexamined. More. The soaps unarranged, not even sized, unalphabetical, undisplayed—not set out like equipment in a tool box, fishing tackle, spanners, and drill bits. Indeed, the hardest thing to explain to my friends, all those enlisted agents spreading across the country on my behalf, over the globe fetching from the four corners—from Europe, from Alaska and Rio and Sydney and Bombay, sometimes in a kind of origami wrapped, in very jewel boxes mounted, my four- and five-star luxury soaps, my specimen soaps lying down in the hopper with, if I had them, the interesting rough industrials of jail and penitentiary, of high gulag and minimum-security prison, and distributed all assimilate by chronology and gravity in those big elemental picnic hampers through the halls and rooms of my house—is just this: where they actually are, how something so carefully and thoughtfully gathered up and retained, not in the least eleventh-houred or last-minute-remembered, schlepped from those four far corners, from Natchez to Mobile, from Memphis to St. Joe, not even checked through with the steamer trunk and matched Hartmann leathers, for God’s sake, but hand-carried for God’s sake, and got up in a pretty paper package like macadamia nuts, sourdough, or Italian cookies, from those four far corners fetched, Alsace-Lorraine to University City, Missouri, door-to-door in purse or one of those little canvas money belts travelers affect rather like external sexual organs, so specially, specifically cared for (and I don’t know whether they mean me or the damn soap), and not only not an afterthought but sometimes—I’ve actually heard this—the hotel chosen, picked, for the soap it might yield; so what do I mean I don’t know where their particular soap is? that I not only can’t locate it in a specific basket but have no idea in which room the basket that contains it might be? All I can do is tell them what I’ve already told them—that it really is the thought that counts.

“The thought?”

“Well, the physical soap, too, of course, but I’m really more interested in the weight of my collection.”

“Simple quantity.”

Which is a tough one. Because it’s misleading, and only partially true. A single three-hundred-pound soap would mean nothing to me. Or a soap the size of a sofa. Quantity and quality, too, I suppose. The tiny airline soaps for ballast, for purposes, as I’ve explained, of trading up, sure, but for their cumulative heft, too, like, like, as it were, small change, like rolls of pennies, say, rolls of dimes. Because I see now there is something fiscal, at least something vaguely denominational about this accumulation of mine, something safed, vaulted, deposit-boxed, and counting-housed. Denominational, too, in the papers that protect them. Not necessarily, I mean, in the often embossed, bas-relief aura of the punched dimensionality of those vaguely origami’d wrappers, so much as in a sense of graduated value in the embellished, ornamental strokes of the adorned lettering on the seals and crests of the various hotels like the signatures on banknotes or stock certificates, this faint heraldry of wreathed logo, uptown as an address written on a canopy. (Or even—value, denomination—in soap’s inflected hues, its declensions of ivories, creams, and beiges. Up the palette of its peachy, ultimate pastels to something like gold itself, like colors refined, rarified, extrapolated from precious stones and metals.)

Because I see this now, too. The value of the collection, my accumulation, its very meaning is treasure! Pieces of eight indeed. (Once, transferring my soaps into smaller containers from an immense amphora, at one time high and wide as a ten-year-old child but buckling now from the weight of the bars, I could see the various layers devolved by gravity into some sandy sediment of soap, its settled, powdery molecules like an inverted geology, the topsy-turvy bedrock of my soapy ingots, shifted as treasure sunk in the seas.) It is treasure, it is, the world’s strangest coin collection, something truly miserly in the pockets of my soul, perhaps. (And there was this one time, not when I first started out but back in the days when I didn’t have so many, when I wasn’t pulling down more than seventy-five to one hundred soaps a year, say, and it wasn’t an accumulation yet and still manageable enough to exhibit, which I did, in various small baskets and shallow platters of soaps, in the bathroom itself, like one of those display cases in the natural-history museums where they trouble to place the stuffed bird not only in a mock-up of the nest on the branch of the very tree in which it would most likely pitch its tent, but to get the rest of the habitat right, too, the flora and fauna, the color of light in those latitudes, so that was my way of it, too, choosing as natural habitat for my soaps their natural habitat—the toilet, on top of the tank where I could appreciate them whenever I peed, and just that Tuesday I’d broken out a brand-new shallow basket for some brand-new bars of soap from an expensive ski lodge in Sun Valley a pathologist pal of mine had brought back for me from one of those getaway-with-the-rich-and-famous conferences scientists send themselves on to talk about curing us, and now it was Wednesday, the day the lady came to clean our house and that afternoon while I was appreciating the Sun Valley soaps I noticed that something was terribly wrong—that three bars were missing—you know how it is with the obsessed, we have these Dewey decimal hearts; a place for everything, and everything in its place—and it was perfectly clear to me what happened—the butler did it!, and I was furious, I felt violated—you’re not going to understand this, you’re going to take it the wrong way—as a rape victim, and I yelled for Joan. “What, what is it? Why are you screaming?” “Fire her!” “What? Why?” “Fire her, she took my soap!” “I can’t fire her, I like her.” “Fire her, fire her!” “Will you shut up? She’ll hear you. So she took a couple of bars of soap. So what? You have so many. How do you even know she took them?” “Because everyone else in the house knows the soap rules—that they’re never to be used. That basket’s brand new, I just put it out last night.” “She’s honest, she’s an honest woman. I won’t fire her for taking a bar of hotel soap. And aren’t you forgetting something?” “What?” “My God, that’s how you got them!” There was a certain raw logic in this, and I told Joan that if she explained to the woman how important my soaps are to me and made her promise never to try anything like that again, she could keep her job. “No,” Joan said, “I’d feel ridiculous explaining how important your soaps are to you.” So we worked something out. We agreed that if she never touched my soaps she could have a raise. And that, though neither Joan nor I demanded the return of the embezzled Sun Valleys and the accumulation will forever, like some surrendered, irrecoverable loss leader, be a couple of bars shy of what it could have been, is exactly what happened.)

But now it’s not only after the MS was first diagnosed, but after the canes were prescribed, the walker and wheelchair, after the bath bench, the raised commode, the custom footbrace and special shoes, after the stair glide; after the slow slipping of my balance, my giving way, it sometimes seems, to the very air, eddies of inclination in the room unfelt by others, after the special courses of prednisone which are a little less effective each time I take them, after the new symptoms, my fatigue during the day, my lengthening insomnia at night, the slow capsize of the long habits of my body, after the piecemeal diminution of my strength, since I have forgotten not only how to swim but even how to float, since I can barely stand upright in water even with the assistance of the woman who comes to exercise me three times a week.

And I have actually had thoughts of who I will, who I can, leave it to—my joke collection, my toy treasure, my thousands of bars of pack-rat soaps.

Recently, only this past April as a matter of fact, Joan and I went to a conference in Italy on the novel in the next century. I’d had, as I notice I’ve had for perhaps two years now, second thoughts. Separation anxiety not only about leaving my city, my country, but my area, the second floor and, more specifically, the bedroom and office where I most comfortably spend my time. So I’d had second thoughts, third, about undertaking such an extensive journey, even to speak on such a silly, improbable topic. (The novel in the next century indeed! Just that past week I’d been to the doctor. It was all I could do, and with assistance at that, just to get up on the examining table. In his office afterwards he was describing to me some of the promising research on multiple sclerosis, that they would certainly have a cure for it within ten years. “Ten years?” I said. “In ten years you can fuck multiple sclerosis.”)

I’m not a particularly brave man and, most certainly, not in the least a reticent one. I publicly whine, I mean. I don’t keep myself to myself, which is where, in all probability, I probably belong.

So I was up to third thoughts about leaving my area. Three planes. The difficulty of maneuvering my walker down the planes’ narrow aisles to the toilets. The alternative difficulty of, walkerless, swinging my way along the seat tops, like some ruined and grounded Tarzan. The three planes. The extensive journey. From St. Louis to Kennedy. From Kennedy to Rome, where we’d have a twelve-hour layover. From Rome across Italy to Ancona on the Adriatic. From Ancona by car to Macerata, better than an hour away.

In the end it wasn’t Joan who talked me into going. She was no more eager, I think, for that long trip than I was, and had been having second and third thoughts of her own. It was me. Surely the soaps I’d have coming to me had something to do with it. (The three planes, the Rome hotel where we’d lay over for much of the afternoon, wherever it was they’d be putting us up in Macerata, wherever we ended up after the three-day conference was over. A trip to Europe, a trip to Europe could be worth 100, 150 soaps to me.) In the end I brought back something like fourteen. So if the soaps had something to do with it, it couldn’t have been much. It ain’t over, they tell us, until the fat lady sings. But one is the fat lady, and if I ain’t heard nothing yet, it may be because of that same old superstitious anal greed, shtupping as much life as I can into what I still have for a body as once, under the gun, I’d stuffed the deep inside pockets of my sport coats. Working fast now too, higher pressured than shoplifting, “Return to Cabin” flashing redder than ever, redder than hell. But hey, all events have their degree of difficulty.

I still steal soap. I get out less often than I used to to do it, and, increasingly, the accumulation builds more by contribution than by my own efforts, but that was never the point of the exercise anyway. And something else has happened. I have begun to use the soaps, a different one every day. (What was I saving them for, a rainy day?)

Searching out scent like a lost chord. Because we’re a long time dead and I mean, in my queer, reduced circumstances, to lather and unguent myself, poking about, stirring the pungencies, the macho savories and aromatics, the dim remembered love musks and the neutered, bracing scent of sweat. Perhaps as bought-into an illusion—we are what we smell, the sweet smell of success—as an ad for an aftershave, loading my skin with the odor of health, the higher cleanliness, whatever God-proximate order and arrangement flesh is heir to, seeking this soft and easy low-end high, the reflexive, passive passions, mechanical, available, and automatic as contagion or a contact rash, my body in quickest fix subsumed, transmuted, transubstantiated in some coated hotel heraldries of smell, a few minutes of four- and five-star stink, all the expensive, windy pomanders. Which too soon blow over, evaporate, are gone, compromised by one’s laundry, by breakfast, the morning paper, by almost anything (but which live longest in the mustache and the grasping hairs of my chinny chin chin) and, like a kind of Midas manqué, gilding the lilies, covering everything I touch, at least for a while, in lively, lovely, twenty-one-karat shadows.


Stanley Elkin (1930-1995) was an award-winning novelist, storywriter, and essayist. He lived in St. Louis, MO.