Wednesday, January 28, 2009


At the age of three, Alfred had carefully and thoughtfully licked the stickiness off of every sheet of a lint roller he found in a laundry basket beside his mother's bed.  "He had to be rushed to the emergency room," his mother told her friend Cecilia, "because the adhesive was toxic, but that was just the first in a long line of dangerous things he licked or sucked until he almost died."

"Mom!"  Alfred hissed.

His mother laughed.  "Oh, it will come in handy for him someday, I'm sure!"

Alfred cringed.

"We had to start reading all the warning labels on everything and hiding the most unusual household items.  'Avoid accidental ingestion,' they'd say, but I tell you when I walked in on Alfred he was going after that lint roller like it was his full-time job!"

Cecilia laughed aloud and took a sip of her Pepsi.  "Kids are sick individuals!" she said.  Alfred curled his upper lip and bared his teeth at her, and she shuddered.  "Sick," she muttered.

Alfred's mother had been looking upstream at the oncoming traffic.  "What's that?" she asked, turning back to Cecilia.

Alfred narrowed his eyes at her.  "Nothing, Mother."

"I was not speaking to you, was I Alfred?  Now, go back to your Gameboy and let me speak to your Auntie Cecilia." 

"She's not my Aunt," Alfred muttered and turned away from them and toward the giant Batman poster on the side of the bus shelter.

"What's that, Alfred?"  His mother put her hand on his shoulder.

Alfred bent himself forward and wriggled from underneath her.  "I said it's not a Gameboy.  It's a PSP.  You should know, you bought it."  

Alfred's mother tsked at him and turned back toward her friend.  "He's at that age now, you know.  Won't hear a thing from me anymore."  

Alfred hated the way his mother spoke to him in hypothetical questions and about him in platitudes.  He hated the way she referred to all her female friends as his Aunties, which just about ruined the fact that some of them had really fantastic cleavage.  Speaking of which, facing the Batman poster at the right angle, he could just about see down the front of Cecilia's low sweater, which jiggled as she laughed at his mother's inane list of other products he had sucked or swallowed.  He could think of a thing or two he'd like to...


Alfred swung around roughly and glared at his mother.  "What?" he sneered.

"Why do you have the Gameboy," she rolled her eyes, "the PSP in your mouth?"

Alfred dropped his hands to his sides and bit his lip.

"This is exactly what I'm telling you about, isn't it Cecilia?  You'd think we'd be done with it, what that it's been ten, eleven years, but no!"  She laughed, "He hasn't changed from when he was a toddler!"

Alfred wiped his lips with his sleeve and glowered at Cecilia's breasts.  

"Alfred!" His mother cried.

"What!" He snapped back at her.

"Isn't that your school friend, Natalie, over there?  Why don't you go say hello to her?  I wonder if she's taking the same bus as we are, I imagine she lives near us, doesn't she?"

Alfred scanned the bus stop erratically, wiping the PSP back and forth across his pant leg and drying his mouth with his other arm.  

"Never mind, Alfred, you missed her.  She just got on another bus.  Why don't you ever pay attention when I'm pointing things out to you?  If you paid half as much attention to the things coming out of my mouth as you do to the things you put in yours, well..."

"Gross, Mother!"

Cecilia laughed, and her sweater slipped down so that Alfred could see the bow on the front of her bra.  He smiled winningly at her and said to his mother, "Our bus is here.  Could you stop being embarrassing for a minute?"

"Alfred!" His mother said, "Will you grow up?"  She turned to Cecilia "He is such a trial!  Did I tell you about the time we found him sucking the antifreeze out of the car?”

Cecilia laughed again, and Alfred pushed ahead of them to board the bus alone. 


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

When Joe Died

They had not sung Amazing Grace at the funeral, because the organist did not know it and besides, everyone attending was over 80 and most of them never knew Joe.  The organist was a small boy, wearing brown pants that were too large for him and lugging a shiny-looking book of service music that was made to open flat.  He had stood to the right and behind the pastor, his father, until the service started and then sat up high on the bench and could not reach the foot pedals.  Anna had not given the pastor any other hymns or favorite readings because by the end Joe was agnostic when it came to almost everything and Anna had never cared much for church herself. She sat on the folding chair in the center of the first row and the rest of the funeral regulars arranged themselves around the room.  They all cried for the people they had lost long ago and no longer remembered, but Anna held very still and gripped the Kleenex the pastor had given her.  At the end of the service she shook his hand and looked for a long moment at his little organist boy and then walked out to the bus stop and waited for the bus that was headed downtown.  

The air around Anna cracked and shattered as she sat at the bus stop looking at her hands in her lap and wondering where they came from.  She had forgotten to wear socks, and her skirt pulled up around her calves when she sat, revealing cold, grey ankles and flat, backless shoes.  She also forgot where they kept the sugar and how to make lasagna and what time they met their friends for poker.  Days seemed to pass as she sat and forgot things because Joe had kept them for her, had tuned their radio and bought the eggs, and all that was left was the breeze that shifted her light collar against her neck.

When she got into downtown, Anna had to walk four blocks to her bank, and the dry snow sifted underneath her feet.  Behind the tall counter, the bank teller was kind enough not to smile when she took Joe's check register and closed the account on her computer.  She handed Anna twelve crisp one hundred dollar bills and a little slip of paper that slid away and drifted to the floor.  Folding the bills in half, Anna tucked them into the inside pocket of her coat and made her way back to the bus stop.  

Bits of Joe bumped up against one another in Anna’s head, and their shells were brittle and already cracked.  She still knew which way was South and that she needed to take the number 29 bus, but if she turned too quickly that would be lost too, and so she held very still.  A young Asian woman sat down on the bench beside Anna, and she asked carefully, "The number 29 stops here?"  But the woman did not hear her, and so she had to say it again, too loudly now, and the woman nodded her head and said, "Yuh huh," but she was wearing very unusual shoes that Anna had never seen before.  Casually she moved her fingers and thought they looked like earthworms.  She thought of the face of a bus and the shape of the numbers two and nine, and also of Amazing Grace, which floated around the back of her throat.

When the bus came Anna still remembered it, and climbed aboard carefully and piled her bag up on her lap.  She would think of the door to the nursing home for the entire ride and save her energy for tomorrow. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Star Crossed

Lucia looked at the rainbow reflection of her water glass on the white tablecloth and realized that she was star-crossed, she just didn't know with whom.  It certainly wasn’t with Bear, sitting across from her, stolidly munching on a crust of bread.  Bear’s real name was Julius, but he had been born a ten pound, eight ounce baby covered in hair and grinning with gums as sharp as teeth.  By the time Lucia met him, he had been known only as Bear for more than 25 years and had grown to fit the nickname even more than could be expected.

He looked up from his food and smiled at her, crumbs tumbling from his mouth and catching in his beard.  Lucia smiled back and thought of the security guard in her building, who had dark skin and a shaved head and teased her about not stopping to talk to him on her way in and out of the building.  She saw him once in the Walgreens down the street from her office, buying a bag of chips and a fancy bottled juice.  They talked in line about the self-help book he was reading and about visiting his children, who lived with their mother, over the holidays.  He was charming and handsome and altogether too approachable to be her star-crossed lover.  

Bear worked as a receptionist in a dental clinic, hunkered down behind a semi-circular wall and entered patient information on the black and green screen of his computer.  He read the same copy of People Magazine over and over, listened to talk radio shows about hockey and straightened his brown knit necktie anytime anyone came up to the desk.  Lucia brought him lunch on her days off, and they sat outside on the wall in the parking lot when it was warm.  In the winter they chose the smallest table in the back corner of the employee break room and chatted about the low temperatures for the upcoming week.

There was a man Lucia saw at the gym most days that she went, who signed up for the cross-trainer next to hers and asked her once about what she was watching on the television.  He was short-ish and portly and hadn’t gotten any more slender in the months she had seen him at the gym.  Other than the interchange over the television, Lucia had never spoken to him, but she saw him at least twice a week, sweating through his gray t-shirt and carrying around a cream plastic water bottle with a maroon top.  Once, they left the gym at the same time and headed in the same direction, and she had to walk an uncomfortable middle distance behind him so he would not think she was following him and she could still go a reasonable walking speed.  He had turned off a couple blocks before her apartment, and she wondered how close he lived.

Bear was paying the restaurant bill now, slowly writing out the check in his crabbed left-handed writing, although Lucia still had two ravioli left on her plate.  She scooped one into her mouth, mashed it and swallowed, then followed it quickly with the last.  Two ravioli were too few to take home and too many to leave on her plate, she reasoned as she chewed, following Bear out into the snow falling heavily on the darkening street.  She wondered about the Hispanic grocer named Luis who always nodded to her from the cheese aisle and the slim young bus driver who wore his glasses on a chain around his neck.  Bear grabbed her hand to stabilize her as she slipped in the slushy snow and then led her to the bus stop where they sat down on the empty bench, hand in hand.