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Paint by Numbers

I am tempted to reframe the flashing atrocities of memory and imbue them with significance—to stave off the cold trickle of fear like germs in the abstract.

By Sung Yim

Pointillism, a technique of creating a cohesive painting through the clever arrangement of dots, was developed as a means to bring discipline to the loose, intuitive aesthetics of Impressionist art. Up close, the full context of a pointillist work is lost in an abstract array of freckles.

The first time I meet Mr. Grossman, it takes me a moment to realize why he doesn’t want us touching his things.

After I’ve plowed through a long post-holiday line of returns and exchanges, here comes this older guy. He holds up a cautionary palm when I reach for his tall stack of magazines. He tells me to keep my hands to myself. He wants me to scan his items without touching them. I have no clue what he means until he tells me to take the scanner out of its plastic holster.

In the middle of the transaction, he mentions coupons. He digs a crumpled piece of notebook paper out of his pocket and reads me a code. We are so close to locking up for the night. I’ve only been working here for a few weeks, so I defer to my store manager Sarah who explains that we’re really not supposed to take handwritten coupons as these codes are one-use-only, but she’ll make an exception. Sarah is a master of taut, red-faced smiles. When Mr. Grossman notices her sniffling and coughing, he flinches. She apologizes in a sing-song voice that she has a terrible cold, at which point he demands that she not touch anything, not do anything more. He requests that I finish up, and we explain that only Sarah can approve the transaction coupon. He no longer cares about that. All he wants is for Sarah to back away.

We don’t finish the transaction until fifteen minutes past close. He pays with two separate gift cards. Sarah and I watch with glee as he fumbles to squeeze a glob of sanitizer into his palm with bags hanging from both arms. He drops one of them, spilling its contents across the tiles. He hangs his head.

Mr. Grossman stands before the register, staring down at his magazines. He must be contemplating the futility of his efforts to mitigate disaster, the acute crisis of having had no disaster to mitigate.

I fidget with the stack of plastic bags behind the counter, trying not to look at him. I know exactly how it feels to live one’s whole life thrashing blindly against the invisible and looming. The familiar emptiness of standing there with nothing left to do but admit to yourself that despite all your efforts, you’re not in control.


I collect nervous tics like it’s a hobby. First it’s nail-biting and picking ingrown hairs, it’s making sure my car windows are exactly parallel and that the thermostat is set at an odd number and that the radio volume is always a multiple of five. These are the small pleasures I allow myself between binge-purge sessions. When the picking and gnawing and fine-tuning prove themselves so uniquely satisfying that I crave more, to pick all the way to the bone, I allow myself to eat an entire box of something and forgive myself by puking it up.

In workshops, professors ask us who we are on the page. We chart our “magical threes”—three aspects of self to build one rounded persona, three distinct motifs to weave through our narratives, three examples in each elaboration. And inevitably, the mess is someone who shows up in each of my essays. Sung—the student, the immigrant, the mess. Sung—the friend, the addict, the mess. Sung—the survivor, the child, the mess. I’m living one of those narratives in an idling Honda when my mother looks straight ahead and says, “You’ve ruined our family.” When I move in with an abusive drunk who’s way too old for me. When I cringe at loud noises, constantly forgetting what day it is. I’m a mess, calling the suicide hotline again and again when the operator berates me for going back to him—”Why should I help someone who’s just going to waste it?”

I’m Sung—mess in recovery, cashier in student loan debt—when Sarah calls Mr. Grossman “a total weirdo” after locking up behind him, and I’m silent. When another coworker mumbles under her breath that he “probably just has OCD or something,” and I’m silent. I’m Sung—magical thinker, lapsed Presbyterian—warm with the smear of guilt like a big, red stain as I pick apart my unwillingness to defend him. Mr. Grossman’s mental health issues are perfectly understandable, but did he have to be so rude about it? Did he have to make his problem everyone else’s problem, too?


Two summers ago—I’m running up and down Pauly’s townhouse with a can of Lysol in one hand and a roll of paper towels in the other. I don’t remember what it is this time.

No, I do. It takes a minute. It always takes a minute.

Pauly has a strict regimen of drinking Crown Royal all weekend starting as soon as he gets home on Fridays. Five fifteen sharp. He has precise expectations: one jigger of whiskey on the rocks, topped off with cold water. He’s never shy about pointing out when there’s too much of this, not enough of that. Three ingredients and I never seem to get it right.

Friday night, he’s sniffing my neck and saying I smell like flowers. He says he can smell me in a room I’ve been in like I’m an exquisite trick of the light. Come Sunday, he wakes up with a zit. The skin cream for his psoriasis tends to aggravate his acne, and his acne medication tends to cause psoriasis flare-ups. The booze doesn’t help. But he’s convinced it must be the shea butter lotion I’ve been using. The one that smells like flowers. He’s screaming about essential oils and what they do to his pores. He punctuates sentences with “my house” a lot. His rant is filled with phrases like that filth, my rules, and fucking twat. His rant spins psychotic, it goes from territorial rage to delusional paranoia. He says I’ve let the devil in his home, I’ve been whoring around with Satan. He calls me Lucifer’s puppet. Every time I try to open my mouth he snaps, “Satan is the father of lies.”

He hands me the disinfectant and tells me to wipe off every surface I’ve touched since I’ve started using that lotion. He throws out all my bath products and replaces them with harsh, orange, antiseptic versions—Dial bar soap, Dial liquid soap, CVS brand moisturizer. It’s not about what’s logical, but what’s familiar.

Eventually he’s calm enough to eat something instead of screaming obscenities and calling me the devil. I tell myself he’s a sick man and he needs me. He tells me the same thing and I can’t remember who started saying it first.


On my commute home from the bookstore I find myself negotiating a new shade of truth—Mr. Grossman, favorite customer. Mr. Grossman, under-medicated and misunderstood. Mr. Grossman, the slashed and sculpted version you’ll hear from Sung—short story writer.

Actually, Mr. Grossman’s kind of an asshole.

One night, he saunters up right at close, demanding that I ring up four books in four separate transactions, redeeming each one with the same exact coupon. I have to get Larry, the manager on duty that night, to explain with some higher authority that we can’t honor his request. On top of that the register won’t even read the code but Mr. Grossman is chillingly calm about it—eye contact steady, voice unwaveringly clear and pleasant as he explains that he doesn’t even need these books, that he’s actually doing us a favor.

Larry’s a soft-spoken guy with a beard and ponytail who comes to work in cargo pants covered in dog fur. Authority is something he exercises begrudgingly. This is his first time face-to-face with Mr. Grossman, who keeps asking the same question—why not—while Larry asks him to please just respect his opinion on the matter. “The booksellers who let you use that expired coupon previously were wrong and I’m sorry, but I don’t make the rules.”

It takes us an extra half hour to get through closing duties that night. Once the magazines are straightened and misplaced books are put away, I apologize to Larry for the trouble without even being sure why. He pauses and chuckles politely, like I’ve told a bad joke. He tells me not to worry about it, assuring me that it wasn’t my fault. There’s this strange and unspoken understanding between us that I need to hear this.

Pauly’s on the phone, trying to fix a billing issue with the cable company. I commit to memory the tight-lipped way he enunciates cus-to-mer ser-vice, and, after a sip of beer, bil-ling to the automated system. I will write another poem tonight that my professor will slash through with ink, writing too vague in the margin.

While on hold, Pauly mutters cusswords and fiddles with the remote control. He bounces his leg with nervous energy. When someone picks up the call, he reverts right back to breathing-quietly-through-the-nose Pauly. Hey-how-ya-doin Pauly. It’s the version of him I see at office parties, when he parades me around in the dress he sent me out to buy. For the bulk of the call, he gives a lot of steady commands in such a calm tone that he almost sounds like he’s asking a buddy for a ride home. “Come on. Just this once. Why not.”

I can’t recall at what point he starts screaming, but we end up with free cable for that month and premium channels for the next year.

Next billing cycle, I’m the one on the phone while Pauly’s at work. While the hold music plays, I scroll through his daily emails where he tells me not to forget the groceries tonight, and that we really need to start pinching pennies with this cable problem going on. Turns out the premium channels weren’t free and we’re being charged extra for them. Pauly is furious. And, by extension, as long as I’m home alone with no one pressing me into passivity, so am I.

If I do this, then aren’t we golden? Haven’t I been good? If I fix this, won’t my poems start making sense again?

The customer service rep is calling me ma’am. I’m shuffling Pauly’s papers into neat stacks and shouting that this is bullshit. I didn’t ask for this. You promised something and delivered a shitload of hassle. I’m shouting myself hoarse as I pace up and down the house, washing a dish here and loading the dryer there. I’m shouting as this man explains in a weary voice that there’s nothing he can personally do. I know that. I know.

He gives me his supervisor’s number and I say I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I hang up.

I start dinner. I hate myself.


Mr. Grossman comes in every Sunday night around seven thirty, wearing exactly the same outfit—jeans and a mossy gray sweatshirt with the sleeves rolled up. In damp November, he lumbers through the café with rain-dappled hair. He stands square in front of the magazines on the coldest day of January, the skin of his forearms rubbed pink with frost. At eight o’clock, as my manager announces over the intercom that the store is closing, Mr. Grossman surveys the checkout line and hangs back until the last customers take their leave. He looks up and smiles when I hold up the scanner.

He says, “You’ve got it down pat, huh?” He shows me the barcode on each item and I scan them from where I am. I apologize when my cash drawer springs open. There were forty-six cents left on his gift card. Mr. Grossman doesn’t get upset. He holds out his palm to receive the coins without protest. He notes how funny it is, though—after all these precautions, like buying gift cards online just to avoid touching money and other people, look what happens.

“Y’know the worst thing you can do is touch money,” he says. He shakes his head with a dry, hissing laugh. “Maybe I’ll get over this germophobia thing, one day.”


Seeing a Seurat, seeing the Seurat—you know the one—can be frustrating. On the one hand I don’t understand what’s so compelling about a bunch of expressionless figures standing around at a park. Part of me resents the notion that a meticulous process can indiscriminately breathe life into something so joyless and banal. On the other hand, Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a big part of all of us. Looking into the painting from a cynic’s perspective will enchant and enrage you because it beckons a special kind of perception that takes work, and you are then moved, begrudgingly, by your own effort.

It’s strange how pointillism—intended to refine the focus of an artistic movement—led to the division of tones into dots, refracting the act of looking into the work of seeing. It’s funny to me in a way I feel I’ve misunderstood. This is the kind of ex post facto irony I sniff out when Mr. Grossman’s gift card closes out and my cash drawer opens. I wonder if a punch line has gone over my head.

Some workshop professors will say you can write the same essay a hundred times because there’s no such thing as a single objective narrative in real life. Truth doesn’t come in shades so much as numerous specks of one indisputable, collective experience that no one has the distance to see.

Like Seurat furiously devising his theories and techniques, building lawful connections between colors to other colors and dots to other dots and dots to colors to dots, some part of me needs a tidy pattern. I am tempted to reframe the flashing atrocities of memory and imbue them with significance—to stave off the cold trickle of fear like germs in the abstract.

If Mr. Grossman is my favorite customer, then Pauly was just broken and I didn’t have the fix in me. If I can forgive him, then the world can forgive me.


Excerpted from What About the Rest of Your Life by Sung Yim. Text copyright © 2017 by Sung Yim. Published by Perfect Day Publishing, November 2017. All Rights Reserved.