--I AM STALLING. I AM GOOD AT STALLING
The children at the next table were cackling as they played, fists slapping “One-Two-Three. Rock-Paper-Scissors.” Their mother waited in line to pay her bill. She was pretty, but defeated and worn-looking, as if some poltergeist had ravaged her, flung her and flung her until she was so shaken that she no longer cared how she appeared.
The man rose and stood over the children, his shadow a machete blade across their Formica table.
The boy looked up, a brave defender of sisters, his fist clenched, jaw set, a sneer forming. The boy in no way resembled the man’s son who’d disappeared all those years ago, yet he said to the kid anyway, “That’s right. Just like that and you’ll be fine.”
Your face is a song I know by heart, pedaled chords with a sweeping finish. Your fingers, eyebrows… cheekbones high but not yet so strong—I know these, too. I wish you’d giggle some more, your living laughter, it sluices through my gut like a sick soup of sin and razors, but I’ll take that kind of pain any day.
When you look up from reading your cereal box, I see the identical lids and nose I once kissed, and a yearning like death’s strong hand pulls me down the way it did your mother.
“What is it?” you ask. “Is something wrong, Dad?”
She had many little ones the size of freckles but the biggest wart would not stop growing. In time it looked like the head of small cauliflower. Her mother told her to quit whining, said it was nature’s way of pushing the toxins out. Her mother was always going on about evil and the sin nature, though she was in no way religious. Since the divorce, her mother had become more and more fearful of disease, contamination, and germs, so it was hardly anything when she stopped hugging or kissing her daughter.
After awhile the girl decided to have the warts removed. She went to see someone, a young, lithe doctor with long amber hands, his Indian accent as yummy as caramel. He told her she should try wrapping the warts with duct tape. “I know, I know. It sounds nuts, but it works.”
Indeed it did. All the small ones disappeared but she did not apply tape to the monster wart. She kept recalling the doctor’s voice, so sticky and sweet pressed that close in her ear, his corduroy trousers giving off heat as he leaned in to examine her fingers.
He smiled when he saw her again in his office, and this made her sigh so hard that she had to cover her mouth to disguise her relief.
“So my remedy did not work?”
“It did, partially,” she said, the fib a partial one as well. She held up the forefinger with the wart.
“All right then. It’s no big deal.” She felt a bee’s nest knocking over in her head, his voice making her insane.
She did not squeal or flinch when he injected her with the needle. The sharp prick and digging pain felt instead like a love potion.
As he bent over her with a soldering gun to burn the now-frozen wart off, she did the unthinkable. She touched her lips to his glossy topaz forehead. It wasn’t a kiss. A kiss involves lip movement and transfer of pleasure. No, this impulsive act of hers was one-sided.
He scooted his wheelie chair back and she said how sorry she was, then her heart dropped and disappeared the way the wart just had when he said, “Don’t be. It happens all the time.”
Here! Now! Alive!
The girl at the coffee shop was reading an article about suicide in Seattle, holding her cup beneath her chin so that steam misted her glasses and cheeks, giving an impression of consecrated gloom.
The boy took a seat on the lumpy loveseat catty-corner and pretended to read a book of poetry by John Donne. He looked up repeatedly like a wary squirrel, each time further stunned by the girl’s grief and how it colored her with a rare, tragic beauty. He thought of great paintings he had seen in books and magazines and how it was doubtful he’d ever witness them in the flesh. This girl and those masterpieces seemed to share the same sort of untouchable splendor. But then he reminded himself, I am here! Now! Alive! seated just inches from this sullen loveliness.
He looked up, scooted forward and opened his mouth to speak but the girl had stood by then, moving toward the door with urgency and purpose.
Her backpack lay at the foot of her chair where she’d forgotten it. Perfect, the boy thought. He picked the bag up and trotted across the room. Opening the door, he hesitated, wondering what words to use. He was so good at messing up.
He watched her stride to the edge of the curb, no longer looking sad, but rather, staring ahead with a glimmer of optimism in her smile.
It’s now or never, he thought. Be brave.
He opened his wordless mouth, horrified, stymied as he watched the girl take a short leap from the curb into the path of a speeding bus.
I know my mother is crazy because she keeps working on the same white painting, hours and hours she will go at it, layer after layer of oily white, plastering, adding more white, coaxing nothing from it but the same stark white. Then one day when I come home from school I see the easel but not Mother and I know her masterpiece is complete, that she’s gone and done what father had always accused her of, painted herself nonexistent.
He burst into the coffee shop like an explosion and we all grabbed each other or our table. His hair was infested and long, his eyes spinning manic. He screamed, “I’ve got a bomb!”
The barista behind the counter looked at him, then to the line of crouching customers. “Who’s next?” he asked.
He looked so different without it, thin, aged, an unfamiliar patch of pale skin consuming his cheek. She remembered his hair golden and wavy like sheets of taffy. Underwater when they were young and neighbors it floated like fingers reaching her way. Chums then, they’d play Marco Polo, pool water crying down his chest, her not hiding with the others, just staring at his dripping long hair because his eyes were closed and she could.
She had chosen Ted as a decision in favor of practicality. Now, these twenty years later she leans across the casket and kisses her love for the first and last time, not caring who sees or what their whispers say.