First strange thing: leaving the Food Court, I notice a hand towel on one of the tables, a Portuguese hand towel, or featuring large red words in that language, anyway, and I say to my husband, That’s weird, and he says, What, and I start to describe the hand towel, but my husband—second strange thing—has led us right to the edge of a spectacle: a woman and man are having sex on the floor by the Eddie Bauer, and I say, Okay—I guess ironically—and turn to relate to my husband, but my husband—third and worst strange thing—is gone, and I turn around looking for him before making the choice to move on, past GAP, past Claire’s, towards JCPenney, our original aim, except by the Hot Topic everyone’s dancing, young and old, dancing in circles, in silence, counter-clockwise, and that’s when I understand what I probably have to do if I want to see my husband again: I probably have to make my way back to the Food Court and read the towel.
She was trying to read a poem and apparently failing. She didn’t know why there had to be fault, but if there did, she guessed that fault could be split down the middle, like a turkey sandwich: half for the poet, because he had tried to make language without her, and half for her, for the usual reason: her brain and its terrible wildness.
About loss, they were never wrong, the old masters. It can be marked—as a shape, in the distance. It can be feared. But you can’t know it until you’re inside, and trying, maybe—he can’t say—to drink your coffee again. Or put on clothes for work. He can’t imagine. He buys a bullet-resistant backpack into which he threads his child’s hands and arms. He kneels to do this. It is, he understands, a gesture, light as prayer.
Hunger must have looked good on me. I was hired, at a very decent rate, by a man whose apparent shtick was to be outrageous and hire skinny young guys off the street. They measured me, had me in clothes, at a table, with all sorts of food and drink that no one could actually touch. We were supposed to be laughing. Me and this white guy and two women, one black, one Latinx. We were supposed to be charmed, like nightclub royalty, having the time of our lives. When they had enough pictures, they took back the clothes. They gave me a voucher. They opened a door. I didn’t know if I should say anything, I just left. I kind of stumbled moving into the afternoon glare.
I found a telephone number written in dark blue ink on the back of a claim stub tucked in the pages of a crime novel I’d purchased second-hand. I thought about taking the claim stub out but figured I’d probably lose it if it wasn’t any longer in the place where it had been lost. Plus, the telephone number sang to me from that place, page seventy-three. I’d open the book and turn the stub in my fingers. Ocean View Cleaners. I’d think about what I would say to the person whose number was written in ink, how I would start, what kind of lies I might shape. But I never called. I think I felt that a call would empty the situation.
They said, How old you want to be on earth? I said, What? They said, Age. I pointed out to them the fact that I seemed to be dead. They controlled their impatience. Listen, they said, there’s a whole lot of stations after this one, yeah? You might want to pick up your pace. I said, Right, sure, but I don’t understand. On earth, they explained, the minute you die, you get to be generally remembered at some one age, which makes sense—was I following them?—because once you die you have no age: it’s a wide-open situation. I said, Ah! Which was stalling. I saw my own face, back in life, as if in a set of still pictures. Nine. Forty. Eighteen. Thirty-two. I said, I can’t answer. They said, You weren’t old enough. If you’d been ninety or something like that, you’d pick. Sure you would. You’re ninety, you’re old, probably frail, and you die, then ka-boom, you’re twenty-eight again. Just look at you. Yeah? Just look.
Toads no bigger than houseflies, hopping around. Is this even possible? Could be people have magicked these toads, using some ancient equation. She could be biking. Take a hard bend and get hit in the face with giant flies.
Instead of doing a search for the lyrics, I thought I would write them all over again, for myself, because—and I don’t mean to brag—I’ve probably nightswum more than the crooner in question. I’ve nightswum all of my life, often naked, which is, at least in my view, the best way, because when you nightswim it’s like being born. You shoot from water, everything dripping. You work to secure a few breaths. You start to acquire a feel for yourself, your size in the star-messed darkness.
He remembers once when they were about to fight, a maybe vicious fight, cause they’d been drinking wine, her more than him, and she was smaller, too, actually borderline tiny, so she was just trashed, and no way could he win a fight like that, cause she was always willing to take the meanness higher, though she wasn’t mean, was just unable to quit, which was actually something he loved about her, as part of her general fucked-up-ness, which he loved, too, and so, to ward off the fight, he made some random, stupid remark—he can’t remember what—and she was distracted, kept asking, What did you say? And she laughed. And she couldn’t quit laughing.
Scott Garson is the author of IS THAT YOU, JOHN WAYNE?, a collection of stories. He has work in or coming from The Best Small Fictions annual, The Three Penny Review, Conjunctions, The Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, and others.