Robert Parker is an emerging writer and philosopher who's worked mostly in retail and the restaurant industry. He lives in Virginia but has lived and traveled all over the Mid-Atlantic, from Philadelphia to Virginia Beach, and loves to write about the people he meets and the lives they live together in the region. Once a week he hosts a meetup where he hangs out with other writers and visual artists and is amazed by the work they share with him. For fun he keeps a dog, gardens, tries his hand at drawing and is always working on a novel.
“I've held you in my arms, though I still don't know if you can be alive.”
“You don't know if we can be alive.”
“Yes, that's right. All women. The feminine we, the nosotras. I can have my hands on any one of you and not know if you're a member of the same species. There's always the need for further investigation. Though you in particular, you've compartmentalized me to a point where I don't know if you're real. You allow me to graze your flesh, sometimes you allow me into you, though I still don't know if you exist outside these walls.”
“It was all a matter of you saying the right thing at the right time. I'm a busy woman. You got visitation rights with me in the morning. Why can't it be just that? Aren't you content with just me, just in this context, both of us sick, willing to forget?”
“Yes. Very much so.”
“You get coffee too. There's still time for coffee.”
* * *
Her apartment was a two bedroom walk-up on the second floor of an ancient brick building that had been renovated some time in the past thirty years. The first floor was now a cafe, the sort that hung saleable artwork on an interior wall opposite an equally punchable vertical surface displaying framed photographs. They were all of a family who seemed very aware of both its civic duty and privilege. Its members stood by podiums and held trophies. The old men were short with boxy heads and suits, the old women bird-like and rattling. Its brothers were all close and seemed to own businesses because you could tell they were winners by how light their hair was and how much adrenaline had seemed to fill their upper musculature for their entire lives. Somewhere behind the cameras were the sisters and wives who seemed to enable such a state, unspoken and always presumed. They alerted the clientele to the establishment's local bona fides, but also made strange those who couldn't boast a lineage going back at least three generations in the same state. I'd always sensed a certain hostility from the young waitresses toward me in particular. It was a nice place; I always knew on some fundamental level I didn't belong.
For the simple fact that I didn't know many places, I'd chosen the cafe underneath her apartment. There would be coffee, but not with the long drags and three-dimensional translucence that exited from the artificial heft in her lungs. I was late. I'd missed my turn onto the obscure side street from the highway and had to double back around onto the interstate because I couldn't figure out a way to get back onto the highway once I left it and somehow found myself in recognizable territory. From space my trajectory had subtly traced a cursive L into the landscape. I hadn't lost sight of that fact.
I walked past those waiting for the hostess and found the young guy in a corner booth. He didn't look like his pictures in the papers. His name was Mark. His clothes had become darker, less formal, he'd gotten his earlobe pierced and he'd dyed his black hair an orangeish mock-blond on top but had shaved the sides and back to a concealing stubble. He was a kind of mirror linked to time; his hair resembled a haircut that I'd given myself in my early twenties. I must've looked ridiculous. I must've been getting old. At core the thought was a judgment of the young man embedded within a perpetual sort of ghost. I'd meet him more often as I approached forty, fifty, sixty if I was lucky. The outer layers would be pulled away gradually every time I met him until I was actually judging the young man in my head and not my past self, until eventually I'd be openly shaming him by telling him that he'd be more beautiful if he just let himself look like himself. His old styles would be left behind me like tiger pelts, collapsing to the ground without the meat scaffolding, until I was the one actively gutting him. In the future I'd be a hunter, though at the moment I was still somewhat grateful for the connection. I was still there, in front of me. To a certain extent I could still be that kid.
“Sorry I'm late.”
“Have you been waiting long?”
There were the usual pleasantries, my gratitude expressed for the interview. We decided to eat but the waitress was prompt and brought me a glass of water immediately. The menus were single laminated sheets. We perused them with a disinterested sort of angst. He wouldn't look me in the eye for more than a moment. It made me wonder if my beard was too long, if I'd brimmed over into the terroristic, that shadow cast onto our military order that seemed to creep out of me and affix itself to my words no matter what I said. He was like a private to me. He didn't realize it but his haircut was part of his uniform.
“I know what I'm getting,” I said, wondering if I should get coffee. It seemed adulterous to consume it in the same building without her present.
“I really wasn't there when it happened,” he said abruptly – it was going to be a confessional. “I only saw what happened afterward. I don't really have much to say about it.”
“First, do you know what you're getting?”
“Yeah,” he said, returning to the menu's promises. He stiffened it with a subtle whip like undulating sheet metal. “I think I do.”
The waitress appeared then and took our orders with a malevolent sort of swift. She was a tart cheerleader type with almond brown hair and perfect breasts who seemed tiny even when positioned above me. It seemed that she wanted to protect the young man in front of me from my beard, the implicit scolding in her words speaking to a desire I didn't really possess yet which she presumed of me. Maybe, if he hadn't had that ridiculous haircut – there I was, already too old.
“Whatever information you can give me would be appreciated,” I said when she left.
“There's not much to say really.”
“Let's start with you. Are you in college?”
“No. I left after my freshman year.”
“Why'd you leave?”
“It was boring. It was useless.”
I recalled the photographs from the papers. His family was like the one in the photographs on the wall, only less than perfect, the monster relatives taken out of hiding and paraded in public as complement to the tragedy. The kid in front of me was in the process of allying himself with the less attractive cousins, though he wasn't necessarily one of them.
“I'm betting your parents didn't want you to leave.”
“They haven't said much about it. It's saving them money. I know they're happy about that.”
“Had you already left college when it happened?”
“No, that was before I went, the summer after my senior year.”
This poor kid. He was melting in front of me though he thought he was solid. I wished he would look at me for longer than a moment, for some aggression to manifest on his crueling mirror guise.
“So it's obviously affected you.”
I'd meant the statement to antagonize, but he sighed into his uniform instead.
“Your whole family too, I imagine,” I said. “How have they been taking it?”
The food arrived then. I'd ordered the meatloaf with mashed potatoes and coleslaw. He'd ordered some kind of sandwich with potato chips, I think corned beef. He went for the chips first. It was a sort of primetime-approved rebellion, like a child asks for cookies before dinner, if children still asked for such atrocities on television anymore – I didn't know. I didn't watch television anymore. The chips were golden with red patches like the sun. I think they were barbecue.
“We haven't talked about that either.”
“Not even during the trial?”
“Not really. I was away at school. Everything proceeded like normal. I didn't even go to the trial. Almost everything I heard about it I heard on TV at school.”
“Your parents didn't call you and give you updates?”
He spoke with a mouth full of chips. I imagined them filling the indentations in his molars. I was jealous. My mouth was watering. I still hadn't started my meal. I'd listened to the waitress when she recommended the meatloaf without the gravy. I reached for the ketchup that we were holding hostage against the wall. I have nothing against gravy. I don't know why I listened to her.
“You think so?”
“Notable. An interesting detail. Charity was your cousin. Were your parents not close to your aunt and uncle's family?”
“No. We saw each other all the time.”
“Even outside the holidays?”
“That's a close family. Did you know Helen Esposito?”
I put some meatloaf covered with mashed potatoes and ketchup in my mouth. Sweet, but there was no crunch. My envy for his chips grew.
“She was my aunt's friend.”
“Had you met her before?”
“I'd seen her. I met her when I was younger, being introduced, or told who she was. I don't remember. She'd just always been there. I didn't know her though. I'd see her, maybe, two to four times a year. I knew she worked at the library, but that was it.”
“She was important enough to your aunt to be invited to your family gatherings though.”
“Oh, yeah. But so are a lot of people. They're always really big. Even I can invite friends.”
“Who was she with at the birthday party?”
“With my aunts and my mom.”
“The same group she always stayed with?”
He put the last of his chips in his mouth and picked up his sandwich.
“She's a sick woman,” I said. “We know that – we know what she did. But try to think of how you saw her before.”
“She was always kind of strange.”
“She was always looking down. It was almost like she was always about to fall forward and start crawling around like a cat.”
“You thought her posture was strange.”
“Yeah. It was like she was a hunchback, though she wasn't.”
I'd noticed the same sad taint in the way the Esposito woman held herself. I didn't think he was right – the severity of it spoke to some congenital abnormality. It had seemed normal when she was being led in handcuffs to and from jail, but the stilted nature of her gait was there even when seated in the courtroom, where she defied the symmetrical sort of stillness almost expected of those who were awaiting their fate. I resisted the urge to straighten my own posture, which was almost as bad as hers, or at least I thought so.
Mark was well into his sandwich. Now that they were gone, I wasn't regretting that I hadn't ordered chips as much as before. We both chewed for a moment, not saying anything.
“It made her stick out,” he said once he'd swallowed. There was a shame in his voice, one that originated in the certainty of his gut.
“She was dark.”
“Do you mean her hair?”
“Not just her hair. It was all of her. She was dark, almost damp.”
It was a cliquish sort of secret I could tell he thought he'd never divulge. It made me wonder about my own years, whether they'd been enough to understand what he was talking about. The younger had been proving themselves capable of besting me in terms of wisdom, though whether they were doing it consciously or not was a conundrum. It was possible that wisdom was exactly what they lacked, that it manifested itself in the shape of their movements and words precisely for the lack of it in the structure of their brains, a reading I could take from them because they never slowed down enough to consider themselves.
“Damp – a contrasting damp? Like she was wet while everyone else was dry?”
“Yeah. The people she was always around, my aunt and mom and grandma, they always seemed brighter than her. They glowed. When they'd be sitting together, the whole area would glow but where she was was dark. Dimmed.”
“Are you talking about auras? Some new agey spiritual stuff?”
“No, I've never been into that stuff.”
“So it was like she just didn't belong. A low tone surrounded by high notes.”
“Why do you think they invited her?”
“Why not? They were friends.”
If he was willing to overlook a base sort of revulsion in why some people wouldn't hang out with others, Mark was a young man of greater optimism than I'd come to expect from anyone anymore. He was of college age. I remembered going to college myself, the undamp perfect sorts who hung out together and who'd pass me by in an unspoken unity against those like me still a presence in my memory. Mark could've been one of them. He would've been one of the ones who passed me by, my age likely the only reason he was sitting at a table with me, a respect he'd learned from being young and confused. I put some more meatloaf in my mouth and glanced at the pictures on the wall again. The success of the family in them was glowing onto us. Were we dim in comparison? There was a civic power in those photos that spoke to an implicit genetic ideal, sets of remembered traits that would divide the family from within yet somehow constituted its unity. Mark glowed, though I don't think enough or with the same tint to be invited into the same spaces as them. He wasn't of the sort; his inclusion would be an outcross, the resultant children an experiment in other kinds of knowledge. I know I'd never be invited. Among them I had a greater chance of being like Helen Esposito, camel urine evaporating off desert sand. But he glowed with his own family ideal despite his dark clothing and earring and dyed hair. Without the mocking hair he had more of a chance than I did, though I could see what he was saying about Esposito. She was like me – she shouldn't have been offered a chance.
“Tell me about the day itself.”
He swallowed before he answered. I swallowed after he did; I'd spoken with my mouth full.
“I almost slept too late, but my mom woke me up. It was summer so I wasn't setting my alarm. We were almost late because I slept so late. They don't live that far away but the party was at two and I didn't get up until twelve forty-five. I showered and I think we got there just in time.”
He took another bite of his sandwich and chewed it to completion before speaking again.
“Most everyone had already arrived. I went out back with my dad where my uncle was barbecuing with my cousins and my other uncles. It was my grandma's birthday party, but she was inside with my mom and my aunts and cousins.”
I noticed he was reluctant to say women and men. It was the women who were inside and the men who were outside, though he still identified them by their social roles. It seemed appropriate, even enlightened for sex to remain implied in a family, unless it got out of hand. Unless you found yourself looking forward to getting your yearly colonoscopy with your dad and otherwise eschewing penetration of any sort, it seemed enlightened.
“How long were you there before it happened?”
“Not too long. Helen wasn't there yet – I didn't notice that, they told me afterward. But she was there when my Aunt Becky came out and scolded my uncle for taking too long to cook the meat. She always says the same thing. 'How much longer till you're done? We're starving in here!' Always the same thing. Every time.”
“Rituals are comforting to some people.”
“I guess so. It's strange how she knows just when to come out, just when he's almost done with everything. It didn't happen long after that. There was a change in the air before the screaming started, like I knew nothing like Aunt Becky coming outside and yelling at my uncle would happen again. Everyone outside stopped talking before the commotion in the house started.”
“Everyone outside stopped talking?”
I dipped the last piece of meatloaf in the ketchup and put it in my mouth before I picked up the ramekin containing the coleslaw and made a show of putting the tip of the fork's prongs into it while I chewed. I'd put too much ketchup on my plate; I'd drawn swirls with it across nearly the entire surface, but there were still a few large reflecting globs left. Normally it was a source of slight though satisfying pride that I never wasted condiments. Usually I'd run out before the last few bites and would pick up the bottle and apply an adequate serving to the morsel on the utensil. It was a trick I'd learned from a friend years ago, a trade in joyful table manners that I wanted to show off but had no reason to.
“Yeah, it was like we were arrested mid-movement, waiting for a sign from the inside that something was wrong.”
“I wasn't really thinking when it happened. My mind went blank too. I think everyone's mind went blank. My cousin, he said his mind went blank too. Everyone froze. We were waiting for word of what had happened even though we hadn't expected anything to have happened in the first place. If you've seen that show Archer, it was like after a bombing and everything goes silent because the noise has caused a temporary hearing loss. There's commotion all around but for a moment it's from the point of view of the character, and there's a temporary ringing in his ears so he can't hear. It was like that.”
I wasn't familiar with the show, but I'd be sure to look it up later. Maybe I'd enjoy it, but it could offer some insight into what he was describing.
“It speaks to the closeness of your family for there to be a connection like that.”
“Yeah, we're kind of a close bunch.”
He looked down at his plate, which was now empty of his sandwich. I was still eating the coleslaw.
“Then what happened?”
“The screaming started. I think it was my aunt at first, then my grandma. It was like there was a riot going on inside. We all ran inside. I was toward the back, so I didn't see much. My mom had to restrain my aunt from killing Helen. Everyone was rushing toward Helen, trying to restrain her too, but she was fighting. I saw her hands flail upward. But eventually everyone called down. A lot of people ran outside with their cell phones on. It was a total communications breakdown. Everyone was doing their own thing. I was trying to get to the front so I could see what had happened.”
“What did you see when you got there?”
“There was blood.”
He looked down at his empty plate. Around him his cloud of willingness to be interviewed seemed to dissipate. I was suddenly intrusive, a rogue agent pushing into matters that weren't mine to know. The guilt felt sex-based, as though the purpose of my asking him there had been to seduce him. I wasn't, though I couldn't be sure he didn't think that. Not with that new air about him, as though he were about to ask me to leave before he had to call the police. Maybe he'd realized that I was as dark as Helen and felt intruded upon doubly then. Maybe he'd never recounted the story before and was only now formulating his emotions after hearing it out of his own mouth. Most likely it was that, though as the one who'd brought it out of him for the first time I felt a certain responsibility.
“My Aunt Marjorie was holding Helen in place along with my cousin. My Aunt Trisha was on the ground, wailing. She'd been violent, but she'd collapsed onto the floor. My mom was positioned over her, trying to get her to stand up and come with her away from Charity.”
The waitress came and took our dishes, leaving us alone with our water glasses. He played with the straw and shrunk into himself. I didn't want to press him any further. With food in him I could tell he was regretting the interview. The waitress came back with the water pitcher. She advanced toward my glass but I put my hand over it.
“No more,” I said somewhat more disingenuously than I'd intended.
“No problem,” she said in a matching tone.
She left the bills. I paid with a ten and a five and told her I didn't need change. She was grateful and very prompt in bringing Mark's credit card and receipts.
“Thank you for speaking with me,” I told him once he'd signed the restaurant's copy. I meant it and I could hear it in my voice. I didn't want to frighten him too much.
“And you're writing a book about it?”
“Maybe. Inspired by it, at least.”
He didn't speak back and I allowed a silence to build between us.
“If you could maybe talk to some of your family, tell them I'm interested in hearing what they have to say, I'd really appreciate it.”
He winced. I hadn't been expecting a wince.
“I can try,” he said. “I need to get going.”
He said his goodbyes while I stayed at the booth, giving him a head start. I got up as the entrance door was closing behind him. I opened it but then let go and took two steps back in the building, ducking behind the thick vertical section of the wooden doorframe so I couldn't be seen from the street. I peeked around and saw her through the glass. I thought I'd see her daughter, but there was no child with her. She walked with a high heel tilt to her head and her keys out and ready. I waited for her to disappear up the stairs to the second floor before leaving.
* * *
“How long do we have?”
“I don't want you to worry about such things.”
“So I'll know how fast to sip. So I'll know how fast to raise my blood pressure.”
“You're not on the clock here. Here it's all about space. There's only us, the air and the objects that we find ourselves surrounded by. I don't want you to be pressured by a narcissistic force like time when you're here. You and I define our interactions as a necessity of pleasure. Time can't exist for us here. For our arrangement we go back to basics, the original moment, when we're just bodies, animals moving through space.”
“Yet there's a deadline you're ignoring. The result of space is the deadline you're ignoring.”
“Now you're pressuring me.”
“If there's any pressure it's coming from you. You're prescribing a fantasy.”
“I think the coffee's gotten you antsy.”
“Antsy, like a worker caste. See? Even when we're existing in pure space and avoiding the very conceptuality of time, it comes back into the equation in the form of the inevitability of space itself. Maybe it's language that perverts space and creates elephants that aren't actually there for us to see. Maybe language is the force that creates the mirror of time, that we can only be in space without the inevitable temporal implications as long as we're not speaking.”
“Then shut up and drink your coffee.”