For the last seventeen years Craig Loomis has been teaching English at the American University of Kuwait in Kuwait City. Over the years, he has had his short fiction published in such literary journals as The Iowa Review, The Colorado Review, The Prague Revue, Sukoon Magazine, The Maryland Review, The Bombay Review, The Absurdist, The Louisville Review, Bazaar, The Rambler, The Los Angeles Review, Five on the Fifth, The Prairie Schooner, and others. His most recent book, This is a Chair: A Lyrical Tale of Life, Death of Other Curriculum Challenges was published by Sixty Degrees Publishing. October 2021.
Birthday with Dreams
The night before his doctor’s appointment he dreams of Africa, of a village in Africa. At first it is a quiet village: lazy white tails of breakfast smoke winding into the morning, a dusty grove to the right, the savannah to the left, lines of misty brown hills everywhere. But then there comes a
noise, a hum, like machinery approaching. And like a kind of magic the villagers suddenly appear, scurrying from their huts, shading their eyes to look eastward. There is chatter and the children bounce with joy. His dream-eye turns eastward too but sees nothing except a gray smoke. The humming grows louder, bigger. Looking harder now, the dream-eye sees that it is no ordinary gray smoke but something more, alive, a swarm of locusts. The humming turns to a clatter. It is then that the villagers, as one, turn their backs to the approaching swarm, extend their arms Christ-like and shut their eyes. With a swoosh, the locusts engulf them. The children giggle and squirm. A woman screams. The locusts are so thick and gray that the village flickers shut, disappearing. In the end, the swarm moves on, leaving the villagers bleeding, bruised and happy. The dream-eye moves in to investigate, and yes, they are smiling, touching their ears and noses and smiling. Although they speak Swahili, the dream tells him they are happy because they can hear and smell better. Swarming locusts are like that: helping themselves to everything in their path, even earwax and mucus.
He wakes to a square of sunlight, heavy and hot across the bed. Like always he pulls back the curtain to inspect the day, looking for clouds, a chance of rain, wind in the trees. He does twenty push-ups and thirty sit-ups, sometimes thirty push-ups and twenty sit-ups. Either way it adds up to 50. He does not like this exercise business, never has, but once finished he almost always thinks the same thing: That’ll show them.
As he steps into the bathroom, fronting the mirror cowboylike, something’s not right but he isn’t sure what until he moves closer, squinting; and sure enough there’s a sliver of old skin hanging from the corner of his mouth. It could have stayed there for hours, all day, and nobody would have said a word. Nothing like an ‘Excuse me but you’ve got something white right there. Yeah, right there--something white and dangly.’ Frowning extra hard until his eyebrows beetle. That’s what it’s come down to: people happy to sit and stare and let a man go through life with bits of dead skin hanging from his face. Not right. Got to help a fellow out. He readies his fingers to pull off the skin, to steel himself for the tiniest flicker of pain that is to follow, but it takes no pulling, and falls neatly onto his fingertip. He flicks it into the sink. His face feeling, looking, better already. He turns his head this way and that, knowing all along there’s only so much a man can do, wondering how a beard would look, Salt and pepper, more salt than pepper. Grow beards to hide something—warts, moles, funny lips. There’s a small, unimportant tapping at the door.
The eight-year-old pulls up a stool to watch him shave, watching him in the mirror. After the first ski-like stroke down his cheek, she clears her throat and points out that, “In case you haven’t noticed your teeth are yellow and mine aren’t. In case you haven’t noticed.” He laughs
at this, but once his shaving is almost done and she has jumped off the stool to get ready for school, he turns on the brightest light in the bathroom and snarls into the mirror. She is right. Later, after his doctor’s appointment, he will go to the store and buy one of those expensive teeth whiteners. If anybody asks he’ll say it’s for someone else, anyone else. After the doctor, sitting in his car, he will even practice: ‘It’s for someone else. My daughter. It’s a birthday gift for my daughter.’ Returning home he will slip it into his pocket—just in case—and walk quickly to the bathroom and hide it in the bottom drawer, a drawer full of hot water bottles and pale plastic tubing. For a week, maybe two, he will use it every morning; and just when he thinks there is something going on, a hint of that old whiteness returning, she will look up from her oatmeal, stare at him, take another bite and then making one of her ugliest faces, press a surprisingly hard finger to his lips, saying, “Still yellow. Monster yellow.”
Back at the mirror, he looks at his hair. More than ever it is important that it look right, that it lay right. And just when he thinks he’s got it, his hands hovering at the ready, staring good and long, he remembers the mirror’s way is not the real way, and so he recombs, slanting his hair the other direction. It looks all wrong, but. . . He lets the warm water run over his hands. This is the best part of the morning.
By the time he gets downstairs, they are all gone: work, school, school. He no longer worries about slippers because it’s only cold for a moment, as long as it takes to unlock the front door, taking two, three, sometimes four giant steps to scoop up the newspaper and back again. The front page is all about earthquakes in India, children shooting children, politicians, buses plunging hundreds of feet down cliffs in Mexico… The coal mines in China are killing their miners, weekly. Only after glancing at the date does he remember it’s his birthday. Double checking, he turns to get a good look at the refrigerator, the calendar that is forever
taped to its door—a door crowded with assorted photos and slivers of paper. He strains but of course it is impossible to see that far. He pours himself a cup of coffee. Before he sips he has forgotten his hair but not his teeth. Snarling, he sips.
The receptionist, a woman who seems suspiciously fat for any doctor’s office, says hello, and he says hello back and then goes on to add that he is here for Dr. Shah. “Ten o’clock, Dr.
Shah.” She answers yes, like she knows all about it, but then takes out a piece of paper, “Just to make sure.” Next to her telephone are photographs of children, boy, girl. The boy has a black smile, his front teeth gone. “Yes, here you are. Ten o’clock. Have a seat.”
Doctor Shah’s handshakes are never bold and warm and doctorly, but just something that has to be done before moving on to the real stuff of medicine. He sits here, Dr. Shah there. There is a chart to look at, lab results to review. In the end, Doctor Shah sighs, stops to examine the tip of his ink pen, clicking it in and out, in and out, until finally, clearing his throat he tells him he has reached that stage in life where he must now take a good long look in the toilet before he flushes. He goes on to ask if he has ever noticed blood in his stool. “Any at all?” When he says he doesn’t know, he’s never looked, Doctor Shah frowns and looks down at his chart, and now turns to stare out the window, a bright day, and back to his chart, flipping through pages. Finally, “It’s important to note the color, texture, if there’s any trace of blood. Nobody likes looking at their own shit, but somebody’s got to do it.”
A baby wails, followed by laughter. There is music—somebody’s car radio. Dr. Shah rises from his silver stool and says he will be right back. “I’ll be right back.” While he is gone, he listens to louder, bigger laughter, and studies a map of the digestive tract on the wall. What’s
that for? Case he forgets? A quick glance is all it takes. Can’t be easy remembering all those Latin names. Et tu Brutus?
As promised, Dr. Shah does come right back, and when he does he hands him a container of blueandwhite pills to be taken “every morning before breakfast.”
Some general nodding. “For how long?”
“I mean, about how long?”
“One month, two?”
Dr. Shah beetles his brow and sighs. “Taking a pill is nothing. Believe me, there are worst things.”
As he leaves, the receptionist waves to him like they are old friends and it was so nice to see him, and come again real soon. “Bye now.” He strains to look one last time at her black-mouthed son.
Only later, in his car in the parking lot, does he realize he doesn’t know what the pills are for. Just some blueandwhite pills to be taken daily, before breakfast, thank you and see you in three months. He wonders if coffee counts as breakfast. If he should take the first pill now, or tomorrow, or even if coffee and blueandwhite pills go together? He should have asked. Can I take the pills today or tomorrow? What do you think, Doctor? The lid to the container says he
must press down and twist. He does this three, four times, and nothing happens. After press twist number five it opens. He takes one of them out to take a good look: one half is white, the other blue. Two medicines? Why not make it one color? Is there a law? Medicine color-coded law?
If he leans, craning his neck, he can see the white squares of Dr. Shah’s office windows, one for the receptionist, one for him, remembering, ‘It’s not for me, you know.’ The pills go back into his pocket.
After stopping at the store—‘It’s for my daughter’---he doesn’t know where he’s going next until he turns right at Wellington and decides to turn on the radio but almost immediately remembers it doesn’t work, hasn’t worked since that soft dashboard popping last month. Only after he takes another two rights does he realize he’s headed for Hector’s.
". . . and so he killed himself in January--around New Year's they figured--and because he didn't have a friend in the world--not one--and because it was so damn cold, they didn't find his body til' the very last day of February, the 29th--a damn leap year. 'Magine that. They buried what was left of him that first week in March. Ground was so frozen they had to use one of those jackhammers to get down to the soft stuff. Three months. All toll, three months--count 'em.”
Hector waits for John Shawcross to finish before laughing, shaking his head. “Isn’t that something. I tell you.” Still shaking his head, he sprinkles on a little talcum, unsnaps the sheet, shakes it out and neatly, like somebody’s fancy waiter, drapes it over his arm. When John Shawcross steps down, he looks like one of those old-fashion trumpet players--his hair all shiny and slicked back.
"Feels good, Hector," says John Shawcross, as he fixes his collar, dipping to look into Hector’s wall mirror. "Yeah, real good."
John Shawcross is tall and has the better part of his right thumb missing. Some kind of boating accident that he doesn’t mind retelling when, . . . “Say, John, what happened to your thumb there? Yeah. That’s right. That one.” Almost everybody likes John and his stories.
He waits until John Shawcross is done saying his good-byes and out the door and in his pickup before getting into the chair. When he leans back he can feel the warm patch John Shawcross left behind.
“Why so early?” says Hector.
“It’s a free country.”
One of those early-morning ranchers, Jack Yates, is sitting next to the TV, reading the paper, waiting for Hector to finish up, or maybe not. He leans his newspaper toward the TV to get a better look at who’s talking free country so early in the morning.
“It is at that,” says Hector.
“Could be. Too early to tell.”
And so on.
Meanwhile, Hector’s father prowls the backroom, carrying cardboard boxes from here to there, sweeping up batches of hair, washing and then rewashing the combs and brushes and scissors, and then, like clockwork, falling asleep in the big blue chair next to the
television, only to reawake at 3:30, when his soap opera comes on, turning up the volume too loud.
Hector looks at him and says, “You were just here, . . what, two, three weeks ago?”
“I need a trim.”
“You don’t need a trim.”
“Yes, I do,” running his fingers alongside his ears. “Just a trim.”
Hector can’t help but pull the barber’s sheet just a little too tight around his neck.
“Nothing to trim I tell you.”
Meanwhile, Jack Yates’ newspaper isn’t folding the right way; he struggles to get the Sports page on top, until finally, he gives up and reads it half-folded and wrinkled all wrong. Hector snips here and there, pressing his ears down to get at some of the little, unimportant hairs. Still, it’s nothing like a real trim. Working the scissors with the one hand, while rubbing his scalp, the soft spot behind his ears with the other.
He closes his eyes as the scissors flicker and fidget. A long time ago he decided this was the best part of a haircut; the way the scissors and Hector’s hand tinker and toy with his scalp, fingertips brushing his neck, the soft thrill of goosebumps. And like always he grows drowsy—something like a drifting-- his eyes shut, his head gliding, nodding.
“Don’t you go a sleep on me.”
Hector’s always been pretty good about getting right to his customers. Over in Diamond Springs, the fat barber, Bud,--the one with the bad teeth and medicine breath, the one with the
hair in his ears--thinks nothing of sneaking off to the backroom to smoke a cigarette between customers. Hector is alright. Besides, you don't see many red-haired barbers anymore. Fact is, Hector is the only one he’s ever known, ever seen. If it weren't for that big black mole between his eyes, almost everything else about Hector is neat and handsome, in a small-town way.
As a rule, he doesn’t like talking while his hair is being cut. Same goes with dentists. What if you say something they don't like? It's always a good idea to keep quiet when you're dealing with barbers and dentists and people like that, either that are agree with everything they say.
Hector keeps a row of small plastic spray bottles on the table under the mirror, and now, thinking he’s all finished trimming, he grabs the smallest blue bottle and sprinkles his head. After that he opens that long top drawer of his and takes out one of his biggest, blackest combs, combing his hair straight-back so when he chances a glance at the mirror he looks like
somebody else. It is then, as the door squeaks open and in walks one of those new young lawyers, that Hector looks up and goes back to snipping.
"Hi ya, Red," says the young lawyer just a little too loud for there being only the four of them.
'Red?' He chances a peek but can't tell if Hector likes being called Red, or not.
"Mornin," says Hector.
The young lawyer steps over to Hector's counter, reaches down and around and brings up a magazine. Thumbing through the pages, he backs into one of Hector's wooden chairs.
Hector's way of cutting is to always start at the back and work forward. He'd take great handfuls of hair and slice, and do it so fast that you'd know he's not measuring or anything--just a handful here, a handful there, and before you know it the back of your head is all cold and prickly. If you didn't know that was Hector’s way, you'd wonder what you did to make him so mad.
The young lawyer stops flipping through the magazine long enough to say, "Kind of warm in here, don't you think?" Re-crossing his legs and looking up at Hector's ceiling. "How about turning your fan on, Red?"
In the middle of Hector's barbershop ceiling hangs a large wooden fan. The three long blades are a dirty-brown smooth, and towards the top you can see where three blue and red wires disappear into the ceiling. Secretly, he’s always thought it looked more like somebody's junked airplane propeller than ceiling fan. He’s never ever seen it working, turning; and except for Gavin Heller, he doesn’t know anyone who has. Gavin Heller once said he'd seen it working plenty of times. Said that when it's at full speed it's like being in one of those wind tunnels. Said Hector turns it on for him and only him. But because Gavin Heller's always trying too hard to be important, everybody knows he doesn't count.
"Can't," says Hector between snips.
"Why not?" says the young lawyer in a tough lawyer-way.
"Cuz it's not workin'."
He turns back to his magazine, and in a half-hearted way says, "It can't?" But then just as quickly, as if for a moment he'd forgotten he’s a young lawyer, he snaps, "Why not?" " 'Lectrical problem."
When Hector stops his snipping to see if the lawyer wants to say some more, he drops the comb.
"Electrical?" says the lawyer, like it’s a new word.
Hector goes to the big drawer and pulls out another comb. John Shawcross tells the story of how there never used to be so many lawyers. They just kind of appeared one day, almost as if somebody had more young lawyers than they knew what to do with so they decided to let some of them loose just the other side of town--right where the sign says PLACERVILLE, Population five-thousand-and-something. Of course being young lawyers and everything, they just naturally worked their way into the fancy buildings on Main Street, and that's where they've been ever since. Says John Shawcross.
On the wall above the lawyer hangs a big square Brown's Dairy calendar. This month's picture is a rainbow trout twisting high out of a blue Rocky Mountain stream. You can see the white-capped mountains behind the fish, and after that a clean, cloudless sky.
Beads of blue-mountain water and foam dancing all around the trout. A couple of months ago it had been a gray bass, and before that a lemony perch. Hector drops the comb again. He’s never seen that happen, not twice with one customer anyway, and it makes him squirm. But Hector just scoops it up, slaps it against his pants and plunges it into what looks like a jar of green pond water. Right then the door squeaks open and in walks a couple of housing contractors.
Housing contractors are easy to spot. They’re the ones with a neat little row of pens and pencils in their shirt pockets, the ones who drive chromy new pickups, the ones who spend a lot of time around telephones. When the two of them sit down and take off their caps, you can see where the sun has drawn a neat red line across their foreheads.
"Lewis. Robert," says Hector, as calmly as if he'd been expecting them.
"Hector," says the contractor with the reddest line.
They stretch out in Hector's chairs like they wouldn't mind staying right there for the rest of the afternoon, even part of the evening. Long and straight-legged, their boots dusty and scarred, they slouch.
"How's it goin', boys?”
“Good, Hector. Real good,” answers the contractor with the reddest line. “Yourself?”
A motorcycle roars by, and then after a little quiet of nothing but scissors snipping, "Still buildin' those houses, those custom homes, are you?"
"Sure," says the other one. "Got us a couple good ones up the other side of Camino. Real nice ones up in the pines. Hot tubs, kidney-shaped pools--the works. Real pretty. Interested?"
Another tip of silence, and then somebody snorts, and the three of them laugh. The young lawyer looks up from his magazine, grinning, as if the laughing was his idea and he’s glad everybody’s enjoying themselves and he'll try and do it again but only this time make it better, funnier, louder.
About the time Hector plugs in the electric clippers and starts in around his neck, one of the contractors pulls out his little notebook and begins writing. When he finishes, he nudges the other and they both lean in to look. For the longest time there is a lot of nodding and poking at
the paper. When they finish, Mr. Reddest Line turns to ream the wax out of his ear with one of his pocket pens.
Hector likes spending a little extra time on the neck because it’s his way of postponing the last part, the front. Everybody knows the front's the most important part of any haircut, and of course Hector knows it better than anybody. When it finally comes time for him to do the front, he's right there in your face, leaning, and if you
wanted to you could see the stitching around his collar buttons, the lint in his pocket, something like a smudge of egg yolk on the tip of his chin.
The lawyer has come to the end of his magazine and slips it back behind Hector's counter. After that, he does four things very quickly: he stretches, rubs his eyes, turns to look at the contractors and glances down at his watch. He has one of those large silvery watches that has two extra dials just in case he needs to know the time in India, or maybe Peru.
"Got an appointment at eleven, Red. Can't be late for one of my appointments, you know." Pushing his hands into his pockets, he shuffles closer. "The woman wants a divorce, Red. Wants it real bad. She wants the kids, the cars, the house--she wants it all." A tiny wind tumbles through the open window, giving the ceiling fan a lazy half-turn. "Can't be late, Red. Know what I mean? Bad business." He stands there smiling, his vest pulling at its buttons.
Hector finishes his front with one last snip, and whispers, "Divorce," shaking his head like he might know something about divorce.
Hector doesn't wear a wedding ring but that doesn't mean anything; maybe it's not a good idea to wear rings when you're cutting thirty or forty heads a day. Maybe there's something in all that hair that could ruin a good wedding ring real fast.
A dusty red car pulls up, and somebody big and smiling gets out, slamming the car door. Car dust jumps.
"Hi, Hector," says a large booming voice.
When Hector turns to see who the large booming voice is, he suddenly becomes somebody else, somebody who hasn't been listening to young lawyer-talk
about appointments and divorce, who hasn't been cutting hair all morning. His face goes soft and smooth, his mole grows calm.
"Hiya, Thomas. Come on in."
The young lawyer steps over to stare at August’s rainbow trout.
“Full house?" Continues the booming voice.
"No, no," says Hector a little too quickly. "It won't be long. Have a seat."
The big smiling man nods and looks over at the lawyer and then at the two housing contractors.
There used to be a time when another barber would help Hector on Saturdays. He always wore the same black cowboy boots, and had a thin sad-like mustache. He cut hair a lot faster than Hector. Once, Mr. Black Cowboy Boots had just finished with somebody and it was his turn but when he didn't move he came over and said, “Your turn.” He had to look up and tell him that he was waiting for Hector, but, “Thanks anyway.” He shrugged like everything was all right but he could tell by the way his mustache twitched that he didn't care for things like that.
The big man is dusty and has a great brown surprise of hair. He looks again at the young lawyer who is still studying the rainbow trout.
“I'll come back later. See ya, Hector." A moment later, the dusty red car roars away.
By now his haircut is close to being over, but Hector seems interested in doing something a little extra special behind his left ear, and he can feel him combing and then snipping, and then re-combing and re-snipping. The lawyer has finished with the calendar, and with arms folded moves back toward Hector. The two contractors have the notebook open again. Right then a dumptruck chugs up and stops across the street, blowing a long patch of black smoke. He sees it but it doesn’t look right, and when he tries a small half-turn to get a better look, Hector pulls him straight. Dirt? But it’s shiny and wet. Mud? A truckload of mud?
The young lawyer edges closer, and for an instant the sunlight grabs hold of his shoes just right and his feet sparkle. "About finished, Red?"
Hector humming louder.
"Red?" Moving to Hector's shoulder, "Red, I've got an appointment." He isn't looking so young and lawyer-like anymore.
Just like that, the lawyer darts to the other side of the chair, facing Hector. "You going to cut my hair or not?"
The two contractors, grinning, look up to watch.
"Sure I will," said Hector, and then he takes a deep breath, his ears and part of his neck a fire-engine red. "Sure I will. Just let me finish here. You're next."
The contractors grinning.
On the wall, over Hector's shoulder, hangs one of those big black hospital clocks. Its numbers are large and simple, with a red second-hand that twitches from second to second. The lawyer says, "Time's money, Red. You know that. Time's money."
Hector begins one last combing. When the lawyer steps back, his head blots out the clock. Right then, the door groans open and in walks Joseph Looks.
Joseph Looks is fat and goat-teed and looks like one of those white-coated scientists they're always interviewing on television specials. John Shawcross says Joseph Looks is the kind of guy you'd say good morning to even if you didn't know him. Somewhere along the line Joseph Looks must have figured out what John Shawcross meant because almost everybody says he’s the best real estate agent around.
"Joseph," say the housing contractors.
Joseph Looks doesn’t take a seat right away, but scans the room kind of proud-like, as if he’s considering a better idea. When he comes to Hector's ceiling fan, he stares."Where'd you say that's from?"
"Malaysia. Friend of mine brought it over from Malaysia, . . . oh, eight, nine years ago." Hector steps away from the chair and looks up at the ceiling fan with Joseph Looks. "It's not workin' right now. 'Lectrical problem. Small 'lectrical problem."
When the young lawyer leaves the barbershop, he tries slamming the door. You could see how he tries slamming it by the way his arm works. But Hector's barbershop door isn't like that; it squeaks and groans but it isn't the kind to slam.
In the end, Hector won’t take his money, saying, “Don’t come back until you need a real haircut” and quit wasting his time, and with one final barber finger, “There’s the door.”
As he leaves, Joseph Looks is still standing there, stroking his chin and watching that old Malaysian fan like it’s extra important. Hector is standing next to him, hands on hips, looking up, like he's never seen his own ceiling fan before.
As he approaches Thornton Street the light is red and he slows, thinking he won’t have to stop if he times it just right, slowing even more, its red blaring, and now almost stopped and still red, and so he must stop and when he does he glances left, and there in the short grass and cigarette butts and plastic bags is somebody’s dead grayandwhite kitten. A flash of collar and a tiny grayandwhite leg sticking flagpole straight. I pledge allegiance to …. No, not funny. Poor little girl. Where’s there’s a kitten there’s always a little girl. Unwritten rule of sorts. Still, what can you do when they come scampering out of nowhere, chasing butterflies, bits of string, maybe a leaf. Too young to even know what a car is. No time for braking—just dead cats and dogs. A sheet of newspaper tumbles by, followed by honking. The Thornton stoplight has always been too long. The year it rained almost all June he’d called one of their offices, the Office of Traffic Lights, and someone’s receptionist answered, asking him if he wouldn’t mind holding, and although it had sounded like a question, “Will you hold please,” before he could give a yes or no she put him on hold.
As he takes the turn at Marshall, a long line of orange-vested people suddenly appears on the shoulder. They are cleaning up garbage, spearing papers and plastic with sharp pointy sticks, and cramming everything into bright orange bags. Cool Hand Luke. Nothing like a bossman, though. No shotguns. Can’t do that anymore. Besides, what if they do run away, where would they go? Can’t hide. No use in running. County jail, cheap labor. They don’t look like criminals. An insurance salesman that one, that one somebody’s school teacher. Shoplifters, wife beaters. Can’t tell anymore. Could be your neighbor, best friend. Right, thirty days in the county jail, or clean up the road from here to Sacramento. What’ll it be? Wonder if they give them choices? Can’t give criminals choices.
Off to the right is a wave of sparrows. He slows to stare at the way they dip and glide like water. Many acting as one. That’s the way it should be. Right then, with sparrows cascading into the trees, dotting the telephone lines, something like a sorrow washes over him, and for a moment he wonders if it has to do with his birthday. No, don’t want to go there, can’t do that. Not now, not today. He pushes the unhappiness away, wincing as if it has a special weigh all its own. After all, it’s Tuesday, and he’s headed for Shaw’s.
Shaw’s oldest son brings him a muffin with jam because when he first walked in Shaw spotted him and gave him an astronaut’s thumbs up, followed by, “The usual?” To his right, two women are swapping grandchildren tales. Behind him the car salesman is telling the story of his blood pressure. “As a matter of fact it’s gone skyhigh. Of course, there are medicines to take, doctors to see, but you’ll never guess what happened? I mean, you’ll never ever guess. Go ahead guess.” That’s right, the other day, he almost fainted. Glancing over his shoulder to get a better look at what an-almost-fainted car salesman looks like. There are four of them: three sitting at the table, the blood-pressured car salesman standing. One of the sitters, a boy, 18, maybe 19, is more interested in staring out the window, drinking a coffee that is more cup than coffee.
He turns back to his muffin and jam and coffee, and between little Mary scraping her knees and 190/120, he sips, stopping to get a good look at his uncoffeecupped hand. Liverspots. One day nothing, the next, freckles, then bigger freckles, finally they graduate to liverspots. Looking down at the fleshy swirls of his knuckles, studying bits of green under his fingernails. Where’d that come from? All the while the car salesman hasn’t stopped talking about blood pressure and medicines, and finally, the boy, all done staring out the window, pushes back his chair and excusing himself, saying to the car salesman, “Please take care of yourself.” And leaves.
The car salesman smiles, nods. “Would you like to see where they inserted the needles?” With nobody saying yes or no, he starts to roll up his sleeve. “Big needles.”
That’s when Jane Wentworth comes in.
Jane is birdlike with a sharp chin and a sharper nose. Ever since anybody could remember, Jane spends most of the time talking to herself. But it’s more than that--she takes on both sides of the conversation. “Good to see you. Why thank you, and you too. Fine weather, yes? Marvelous. Have a seat? Thanks ever so much.” Jane is devoted to the symphony and opera and sometimes the University’s drama department. She’s always telling herself about some Italian opera or some French composer that she’s never heard of. When it gets cold she wears a sweeping black cape. They say when she was younger, better, she was special, something like a child prodigy. They say she knows all there is to know about chamber music and Mozart, and if you don’t watch out she’ll have you talking to the two of her. If you aren’t doubly careful, she’ll ask you to donate a little something to the University’s drama department. She sometimes talks herself into giving a few dollars as well.
A couple years back there was talk of contacting the right people to come take a close look at Jane, to help her out, to get her off the street and maybe into a place that would do her good. But then one of the Ellison brothers cleared his throat and reminded them that she’s one of those artsy crafty types, always has been, and—clearing his throat again—‘That’s just the way they are.’ Some general nodding. ‘And besides, she’s harmless. That’s the best part—harmless.’ Now a lot of nodding, and then Bill Jackerman coughed, followed by somebody shuffling his feet, and finally the other Ellison asking what they thought of the Giants’ pitching staff this year.
Shaw and his wife run the shop, and although their food is good, it’s too expensive for a small-town café. She cooks, he shakes hands and collects the money, and his father and sons do the in between. Around lunchtime you can hear Shaw and his wife screaming back in the kitchen. It usually has something to do with money or too many olives in the salad, or maybe not enough cheese on the club sandwiches. “You bitch, don’t you know by now this is too much tomato? You think I’m rich? You think I can give half a tomato to every customer? Stupid bitch.”
“Take a good look, Mr. Big Shot, we have this little nothing restaurant. You see, nothing. What, screaming over tomatoes, over 35 pennies. Silly old man.”
And so on.
But because they are Lebanese, nobody says anything.
Both hands around the coffee cup, he sips, closes his eyes, still feeling the ghost of Hector’s fingers over his scalp, around the tickle of his ears. Too much caffeine bad for my health. High blood pressure and other nasty things that they discover almost daily. I could sit with these two and trade stories, let the whole restaurant listen in. Cellphones just as bad. They let them ring three, four times on purpose, just to let you know somebody needs them. Think they’re in their own house. Ought to be a law. Cellphone abuse: threes days of picking up trash with the others. As he fishes in his pocket for nothing special, he finds the blueandwhite pills. He secretly lifts one of the pills out of his pocket and into his mouth, followed by a gulp of coffee.
There’s no use leaving anything like a tip at Shaw’s. They bring the food and disappear. To get a refill, extra mustard, another napkin, you’ve got to raise your hand, like a schoolboy.
Still, today’s his birthday.
When he goes back to the car and sits there, she decides to back into him, leaving two angry gashes in the passenger door. At the last possible moment, he sees her coming--the pale backup lights popping to life, the lurching; she never looks back, not once. It is one of those deer-in-
the-headlights sort of things; he should have honked, maybe yelled, but he will only think of this later.
As he slowly steps out of the car, she flings open her door, bounding out. He first walks around to get a good look at the door, and yes, there it is, two finger-long gashes. When he is done looking, running his fingers along the newly-gouged metal, she is standing right there, leaning, and he says, “Hello.”
She, a tinge of purple in her hair and floating in something like one of those Hawaiian muumuus, thick with parrots and bamboo, the tiniest glow of a cigarette at her fingertips, an enormous handbag dangling from a forearm, says nothing, squinting at him.
He tries again, “Hello.”
Squinting to get a good look at this man who keeps saying Hello, she steps over to get a better look at the passenger door. Seeing her work, she hisses, “Didn’t you see me?”
He blinks at this, then laughs. “No, no, I was hoping you’d see me.”
“Why didn’t you say something, honk, yell? Why didn’t you try to stop me, get my attention? Anything?” She flicks away her now-finished cigarette, glancing one last time at the damage. “Not too bad really. Could be worse.”
“Not too bad,” he repeats.
She does not like this repeating. He can tell. Frowning still, she reaches deep into her bag, pulls out a new cigarette, lights it, and seems better, happier.
“Well,” she starts, “Now what?”
“Now what, indeed.”
A station wagon edges into the parking lot but then sees the two of them standing by his car, and gingerly backs up, excusing itself.
“My insurance company will take care of this, you know.” “Yes,” he answers, “I’m sure it will.”
Gray clouds trickle across the sky, from left to right. It is not a bright sunny day, but a yellow day, not even yellow but whatever that color is just the other side of yellow; there is no sun; he cannot point at the sky and say the sun is there, or there, or. . . . A yellow fills the air. He holds out his hand, turning it this way and that.
She grows anxious to solve the problem, inhaling deep and hard. “Yes,” and with that, she fishes deep into her handbag, pulling out cards and papers, and now keys, until finally she finds a bright orange card, her insurance company, and hands it to him. In return, he gives her his insurance card. She takes it and scribbles down his name, address, . . . on what looks like a paper napkin. All done now, she stuffs everything back into her bag.
He waits for her to finish before asking if he can use her pen. “If you don’t mind.” This, too, makes her angry--a man without a pen.
They finish, and taking one last look at her gashes, which have now become his, get back into their cars and drive away, she going first. Only after he waves good-bye, does he realize that he probably shouldn’t have.
Stopping at the redlight two intersections down, he thinks about the book he is reading and how it is not a very good book, not really, but it is too late for that because he is almost done with it, one more evening, . . . and how about those Giants? . . . one more pitcher, a decent left-hand starter will do fine, thank you . . . and now that he thinks of it, the radio probably needs a new fuse, that’s all, just a fuse, . . . He passes a building shaped like a thermos and wonders why he’s never noticed it before.
Once free of intersections, and on the smooth backroad that will take him home, a grand quiet fills the car. The late morning sun slanting through the window, spreading lap-warm across the seat, along his leg. It all started that day the car radio suddenly quit. It made for a silence that he’d almost forgotten, a hush that goes all the way back to when he was younger, boyish, of summer afternoons in his bedroom, staring through the open window, into the treetops, across the pasture and beyond, certain that he was wasting his life. Meanwhile, a red car desperately wants to pass him. It has been a long time since he worried about going too fast. He lets others race by, no longer getting angry when they suddenly loom fat in his rearview mirror—one moment nothing but empty backroad, the next, a grinning grill with flashing lights. The red car hurdles by.
Only after he gets home and turns off the engine and steps out of the car, does he remember the woman who gashed him, and yes, walking to the other side, there it is. He sighs, remembering the way her long, chromy car lunged at him. As he walks toward the house he stops to realize two things: first, he should have honked; and second, looking up into the morning yellow, the word is sepia. Yes, that’s the color, sepia. Slipping the key into the lock and walking into his house feeling unusually good. Yes, sepia.
With the teeth-whitener tucked neatly away, he goes into his room that he sometimes calls the study and they usually call his room. It is more books than room. Although the house is empty, he shuts the door, sits down and thinks about reading. Reading is what he does when he knows he should be doing something else. Yet, there is so much to read and so little time. This is one of his biggest secret worries: with time running out what should he read that will make a difference?
There is a dog and a cat. Over the years it has been a dog and a cat, a dog and a dog or a cat and a cat. Some kind of animal has always lived in the backyard. Now, this dog that never barks even when it should is now barking. He strains to listen, as if listening hard and long enough is like a seeing. But no, just a barking that is weak and croaky that belongs to the white dog they call Skip. And because Skip refuses to bark, his job over the years has been to fill the backyard with holes and assorted lumps of shit. The cat on the other hand is black and fat. This remains one of those mysteries to his backyard: a fat black cat that never seems to eat or drink but spends its days tucked behind rose bushes, walking the fence. A cat that is forever watching Skip be doggy.
He waits for Skip to stop barking and when he doesn’t he steps to the window that offers only a wedge of the backyard, and of course he sees nothing. When he steps out into the backyard the barking stops. The black cat is nowhere to be seen. Skip the dog is standing in the middle of the lawn, sniffing a blueblack bird. The barking begins again, and when he shouts, “Stop”, the dog barks louder, croakier. Even before he gets there he can see that the bird is dead, touching it with the toe of his shoe. He spends far too much time looking down at the dead bird. Finally, he does three things, one right after the other: he pushes Skip the dog away extra hard, hurting his doggy feelings, looks to see who might be watching from any neighborly windows, and walks to the garage. Skip the dog isn’t used to being pushed extra hard away from anything and he doesn’t follow him to the garage. The gloom of the garage doesn’t stop him; he knows exactly where to go. When he comes out with the shovel, the dog barks once. He scoops up the dead bird, steps to the corner of the yard, behind the rose bushes, and begins digging. There is no reason to dig deep, the ground is soft and rockless. Very quickly the bird’s grave is done. He edges the tangle of blueblack feathers and brown beak and wide unblinking eye into the hole. With its eye watching him, he hesitates, Skip the dog is right behind, waiting. As he fits the dirt neatly back into its hole, from out of nowhere steps the black cat, leaning and sniffing as it comes. It is then, with both hands on the shovel handle, with the dog waiting, the cat pawing at the grave, that he cannot stop crying.
When his wife comes home, everything speeds up: she cooks and watches the news and tells the girls to pick up their clothes and dry their hair before they go to bed, and “When was the last time you cleaned your room?” At dinner he asks them what happened in school today, and they almost always say, “Nothing.” He no longer questions this nothing. “I see. Please pass the carrots.” The eight-year-old is having the hardest time with her multiplication tables, especially the eights and nines. At the other end of the table is the fifteen-year-old who has just recently started to become more complicated; some of the things she says are even beginning to sound right. She spends far too much time looking and sounding terribly sad. He wants to help, to tell her not to worry, but it never comes out right. Her answer: “You don’t understand.”
After dinner there is television with stories of cowboys, fishermen in Lisbon, murderers. He watches bits and pieces of all of them. In the end, there is the eleven o’clock news and tomorrow’s weather report.
Before bedtime, he sits on the toilet and thinks of Dr. Shah. It’s not easy staring at your own shit if you’ve never done it before. But sitting on the toilet, looking down at the smooth, pale tiles—ten this way, ten that—and thinking that his days have changed. He can’t remember when it started or even why, just that it did. Before, things had been longer, smoother, easier, like water, like birds. But then somewhere between then and now something broke, and now things come in chunks, . . . no, shards. The constant straining to see what time it is. What’s on TV? When do they get home? Dinner’s at six.
Once in bed, back to back, the house slowly settling, with sleep circling, she says, “Ohmygod.”
As she turns to face him she takes his warm part of the blanket with her. “We forgot. Ohmygod. We forgot. It’s your birthday.”
“It’s nothing,” he says, pulling to get his warm part of the blanket back.
Now up on her elbows. “I’ll wake the girls. There’s still time. I’ll wake them.”
“No, don’t do that. It’s nothing.”
“I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you tell us, remind us?”
That night he has another dream, but this one has nothing to do with Africa. He is at a play. He is standing in the wings, arms folded, waiting for the play to begin when this person--perhaps one of the actors, maybe even the director--suddenly appears and taking him by the arm asks, no, pleads with him to Please, if you don’t mind, do us all a favor and read this part. The audience is waiting so please, just this one time. It would mean a lot. And of course, this makes proper dream-sense to him, so he says yes, Why not, thinking how difficult can it be? They hand him the script and say, Here, read it—just read. We understand. Everybody will understand. Just read. He nods. The curtain opens and he walks out on stage. There is the gentle hum of people waiting, the rustling of programs, the occasional cough, and then he looks down at the script and can’t read it. It’s in some sort of foreign language, the lighting is bad, the print blurry,. . . He stutters, stumbles, tries turning pages this way and that to get more light. Such a simple request: Just read this. But it is impossible, he can’t get it right. The audience is hushed.