Quondam

January 2013
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Lineographia

Fiction

—–

There’s no one here he needs to impress, and so his only goal is drunk.

He opens another beer and tips it back, wondering how many he will have to drink before someone says something interesting. As the cool bitterness hits the back of his throat, it occurs to him that the last time someone said something interesting, she broke his heart. Perhaps he will drink right past that window through which people might reach to touch him with their words.

He finishes the beer he’s holding and opens another one, savoring the heated thrum of alcohol through his system as his fingers caress the cold neck of glass.

Maybe he won’t talk to anyone at all. Maybe he will just drink until he forgets to drink.

Lately, that’s been about the right amount.

“So what about you?”

The words register, but he doesn’t realize at first they are directed to him.

The words come again, “So what about you?”

It takes him a few seconds to collect the bits of his scattered focus, and when he does, he finds that there are several men and a woman staring at him expectantly. It’s a woman who has spoken, her eyes golden brown, the same color as her hair. He stares at her face as she speaks, entranced by the perfect soft cleft that runs from below her nose to her upper lip. Idly, he wonders what would happen if he were to reach forward and run a fingertip down that fleshed invitation.

“What about you?” she asks again, lifting her wine glass to punctuate her questions, “We were talking about school — What was your favorite year?”

He answers without hesitation, without thinking, “Fifth grade.”

She smiles, but her smile is diffused by pity, and he sees that he has missed the mark. The group is talking about high school, or college . . . college . . . of course they are. She asks kindly, “And why is that?” but he glances at the faces of the men who stand on either side of her before responding, and yes, he has definitely missed the mark.

He returns to her face, and he shakes his head, “It doesn’t matter.”

He turns away, grabs another beer, and walks outside to sit alone on the hood of his car.

Once, he was nine.

Once, he was nine, a few days before he was to start fifth grade, and it was his mother’s birthday. He helped her make a cake, chocolate with chocolate frosting because that was her favorite. He made her a present, an empty mayonnaise jar he painstakingly covered with small ripped bits of masking tape and then rubbed with shoe polish – a vase of gleaming ochred glass within which he rested lilacs snipped from the neighbor’s bushes.

They sang together, his father and his mother and he, a song of happy birthday, and his mother smiled and held back her hair and leaned to blow out the candles.

She paused to close her eyes and make a wish.

His father asked, “What comes out of a chimney?”

“Smoke.”

“What color is smoke?”

“Black.”

The three of them chanted the next part together, as they always did, “May your wish and my wish never come back.”

His mother blew out the candles then, her lips pursed, the soft cleft below her nose deepening as she extinguished the fires, one by one.

She opened her gifts, exclaiming happily over the vase and giggling at the lilacs, which she recognized from the neighbor’s yard. His father handed her a wrapped gift about the size and shape of a hardbound book, but which turned out to be something else entirely. She looked at it curiously, pulling it from its box, “An Etch-a-Sketch?”

His father nodded, “I think you’ll like it.”

He had not even known his mother was an artist, but suddenly, she was filled with magic. Over the months that followed, she drew pictures of him, of his father, of herself. She sketched their house, their lives, their dreams . . . all in exquisite detail, and all of a single unbroken line. She spent hours on a single image, catching every shade and shadow of the apple tree in their back yard, and then, having shared her vision with him, she would shake the image into oblivion.

He picked up the toy and turned the small white knobs one by one, revealing a set of stairs from the lower left of the red-framed screen to the upper right corner. He shook the frame and tried again, turning the knobs one by one, this time making an ever-decreasing rectangle march around the screen until he was pinned in the middle, unable to escape. He shook the toy again, frustrated.

His mother spun the knobs and there was the horse they passed when she walked him to school in the morning. There was the barn. There was an outstretched hand, sugar cubes in its palm.

He offered her pencils and paper, asked her to draw him some pictures he could keep, but she shook her head, “I like that each image must give way to the next. I like their impermanence. I like that I can never have them back.”

May your wish and my wish never come back.

In his memory, she drew him pictures most every day of that year. He was in fifth grade, in Miss Hamilton’s class. When they sent home the class pictures, each student in his class a tiny rectangle of smiling face, every day for a month, his mother greeted him with a sketch of one of his classmates. Every day, he hurried home to see what she had done.

Every day, he shook the image free of its frame, all evidence of its fleeting existence erased and gone forever.

Until one day, just as the school-year was drawing to a close, she fell over and died.

Just like that.

An aneurysm, they told him, but he knew what they really meant to say was that the fall had shaken her existence free of its frame.

Either way, she was gone.

Just like that.

He sat on the front steps and stared at the smoke coming from the chimney of the house across the way. He made the only wish he could think to make, performed the only ritual he could think to perform . . .

What comes out of a chimney?
Smoke.
What color is smoke?
Black.
May your wish and my wish never come back.

But just like all of her evanescent magic, once she was gone, she stayed gone.

And so . . . fifth grade.

Fifth grade had been his favorite year . . . an unbroken line of magic.

In the end, shaken free.

All these years later, he drains the last of his beer and lights a cigarette, tilting his head back to watch the smoke tendril skyward.

One time, not so long ago, he told that story to a woman.

Only one time.

Only one woman.

She had tilted an inquisitive face in her palm as he finished speaking, “But that’s not how the rhyme goes.”

“What?”

“That’s not how it goes.” She thought for a moment, “Yes, I remember . . . What comes out of the chimney? Smoke.”

He stared at her, annoyed, “I know how the rhyme goes. We repeated it at every family birthday up until my mother died. I know how the rhyme goes.”

She waved him silent, childishly pleased to be able to correct him, “But the next part, about the smoke being black? That’s wrong. The next line is simply . . . May your wish and my wish never be broke.”

“What are you talking about?”

She chanted the rhyme . . .

What comes out of a chimney?
Smoke.
May your wish and my wish never be broke.

Giggling, she explained, “Don’t you see? By adding that extra line, and then rhyming with black, you and your family asked for your wishes to never be granted at all.”

He hated this woman.

May your wish and my wish never come back.

Every wish he had ever made, including the ones surrounding this woman . . .

Each wish a single unbroken line into oblivion . . .

Unanswered.

Just like that.

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