by Bonnie Lykes
The consignment shop is only a yard from vicious traffic. It doesn’t seem fair the sweetness of so many grandmothers and dear uncles suffers the exhaust. Flimsy tapestries, shaky wood shelves, a nickel cooktop, beaded wallet, a painting of post-modern ladies fanning fans all crammed up, orderless. I have an open wall that needs something.
I shuffle, in neutral, and wish, for what I don’t know. A path winds through these mismatched histories. The owner wears army shorts and a thin white tank. His boney hands grab at the piles. He snatches at pleather, wood, and canvas cranked all around us. His skin is alive and peculiar. An intensely complicated tattoo covers his face, neck, ears, shins, and arms, and, I’m sure, sweeps down to his dark inches. The ink is delicate and crawls over his body like a fine red lace. No macho flowers or smiling snakes, no Sanskrit. No philosophical quotes, no irreversible ex-lovers—only dark, angel-hair lines. They look like the fragile twines of an antique doily stretched in all directions to cover him completely. Jesus, he’s stuck in a net! Whenever he turns, I avoid his eyes and look at his big black boots. He has no open flesh. Not an inch of real pigment. No shine of plain sweat to commiserate with. I can’t look straight on, but I feel his eyes beam, caged and frenetic.
I rest my hand on a table statue of a fisherman with a bent spine. I move on to a black ashtray with yellow lettering: Belle Of Baton Rouge Riverboat Card Room. I linger. He bleats out, “You want that one?” He hunches and lurks five feet away consistently.
I answer to his boots, “No, no thanks.”
He floats a fragile nightstand up and away from a throng of loveseats.
* * *
I know why he’s here. Clearly, drugs and heartache have obliterated his brain, now dried metal. He feels closeness from what’s left behind by strangers. He lives for objects left by “almost people.” The ghosts that hover on the ceiling are his family. Yes, someone tossed him in a wastebasket before his first teeth came in. As a child, I see him wait, hungry, under a table, ribs popped. Anyone who would get a tat like that is mentally off. Maybe he was shoved in a real jail cell for years and the day he got out he made his own bars with the ink. Maybe arrested for squeezing a pure, clean throat.
He starts to pepper me with points and chats. “If ya like meat, a portable smokehouse just came in.”
“Be careful—that vase has a hole!” His nervous system radiates and affects the entire room. I sense ripe anger. A pink shame, lying in wait. I’ll be quiet.
He shifts furniture away from my advancing feet. When he turns, I steal shots of the bright lines around his eyes. I spot the way it wafts right up to his tender ear tips. He doesn’t wear body art well. His bones are too sharp. He must have been really conked out for that needle to finish. I glance across the crap pond to reboot my secret opinions. I don’t see a thing for my wall.
I don’t like to surrender to stuff. I surrender to people. I absorb easy truths from bodies in public; that person isn’t friendly, this person is sweet, that man looks rude, or that clique chats stupid. A casual grimace or a dirty look in traffic; all seep right under my open skin. But when people disappoint me, I take care of them. I give myself over to this irony. People hook me with their worthy problems, their nagging neediness, their demands for praise, their right to abandon humility, their need to constantly outdo every other person. They suck marrow from the heart of my patience. We’re pack animals, yet we separate ourselves with utter perfection. And what would spill out of him if I were imprisoned in this room? What rotten selfishness from this ruined ink-man would I have to drink in?
He horks an embroidered stool to a patch of bald floor, just to clear space for my now-fading hunt. Sir, you’re working much too hard. His green shorts tent on his sharp hips. Black Doc Martens, loose on his stick-shift ankles, are scuffed from kicking too many sofas. I try to bop nonchalantly through a mirage of cigar smoke. I’m ready to bolt through the glass doors.
I twist around to the exit. I’m mixed up between a hard deck of framed paintings and a stack of coffee tables. Ahoy…! I see a soft orange flash about a foot and a half from my sneaker. It’s a painting, about 16×20. The schema beams like an ignored testament page: The Responsible Woman is penciled on the backside paper. I feel fresh wonder as I heave it up. The sudden success makes my head crane, without a hitch, to see him. I could never look otherwise, but I do look at him now.
“Oh, that one!” he reveals the sides of his teeth. Then, he smiles broadly. He stands half an arm’s length away; the crappy wheat carpet underneath us. As if in the harmony of a predestined appointment, together, we fall into the wood frame. We see her tiny candle, a shimmering dot of light, as she flies, wingless, burdened with responsibility told by holey pots and pans that swing heavy, hooked to her dress. She clanks herself into deep space, into the abyss of a black loveless night.
His long, first finger points to a carved initial U on the frame. He stares evenly into my face, and his eyes sizzle, high and clear. Now, he stands so close, and not a word is said. I am suddenly embarrassed. In a wave, I understand he’s much more than what my brilliant mind calculated between scene and assumption. Then, as if to drive it all the way home; his hand scans the wood and oils like a magi; like he’s read the picture through the heart of his palm. He breathes inward and peruses. He absorbs an equation, a quantum parable, a meeting of hair, breath, flesh, motion, and canvas and then, to me. In a flash, his gray orbs flicker insight, spun from his lively inner sun cued by intelligence and life. I see he creates connections I don’t understand; connections coiled at the end of his worthy impulses. I thought I knew him; nearly his every inch—just like the ink. But his real history is undiscovered—especially by me.
Through the lines of ink, he lives in this room, this big block of dust. And beyond my hidden lies of his buckshot past, he knows what is true. I see now that he knows very well. He knows I’m a martyr because it’s right here on the canvas. Who else would want this work? And how I tried to cover him up with slurs, my slander. Who the hell do I think I am?
So now, I am far less. I am not an educated avoider of others, not one who understands anyone or anything at all. I am the one who’s starved. I wait hungry under tables. Now both of us at eye level, the ink spills away clean—to a small, bright, ginger colored boy. He smiles even wider, “You want this one?”
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing