NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire Vol 17.2: Fall 2017 - Page 8

fiction / short story By John McCluskey Mostly, she looked after passing couples longingly, covered her mouth with her hands in seeming horror, when a mother snatched a stubborn child to trail her more closely or a passing man cuffed a child on the back of its head for some unseen or unheard sin. A brown paper bag occupied the seat next to hers. When the arm of a sweater or the hem of a faded dress sprouted from its top, her hand pushed them down almost lovingly, her mouth moving. We had not made eye contact those first times I had walked past to find a nearby booth. Whether my shyness or her shame? It could have been either or both. But I had quickly begun to shape her story in my mind. A recent widow on fixed income? Perhaps burdened with a bad hip and nearly alone in the world? But I could not wonder too long, could I? There was the clutter of my own life to attend to — a ten year relationship gone sour with the most wonderful woman I had ever known; a job that had plateaued early to the horizon, then vanished. A curt note, the talk with a grim-faced boss and his empty palm beckoning for the keys — these were the offerings of humiliation. During the past two weeks, life was beginning to be a contest of attending to surprises, sudden or as agonizing for me as a drive along high cliffs in a fog. So I put her out of my mind for a day or two. These days, sad to say, there were always folks with shopping bags for luggage, run-down heels, screaming loudly, even in their silences, for you to slow down and hear their story with or without the plea for your loose change. But who listened to their stories? Who listened to yours? This morning I interviewed for a bank teller’s position. Even before the firing, I had had enough with sales at the shoe store. This way I can chatter or flirt or smile or curse silently, as I might say, “Have a good day. Next?” Two, three minutes and the transactions are over, no customers, as in my last job, who dawdled over shoes and waiting to lounge in the comfortably warm bath of your flattery. (“Now that pair on your lovely feet is definitely you!”). Only now after the interview was the waiting, the torture. “We’ll decide in a day or two,” the store manager had said, tapping along the top frame of his glasses. He was a short man and wise enough to avoid a showy toupee. “If you’re selected, we will call you in to complete the paperwork, and you must be ready to start the next day.” Then there was a limp handshake and quiet, earnest questions. “Understand? Can you move that quickly. I mean, immediately?” Can a “yes” be a simple plea? And I had nodded. The woman in the booth rose to leave in that slow way older folks can do, one or two attempts to push up after sliding to the end of the seat, the slow rising wave of the torso, the labored sigh or two. She pulled her bright red-gold shawl around her shoulders and gripped the handles of her two bags, one canvas and unseen, the other of brown paper. Then she stood proudly, erect. I dropped my last two French fries in the puddle of ketchup on my plate and gulped down the last of my sweet tea. My turn to stand, our eyes met briefly. I felt ashamed somehow for even letting her see me, as if I had been staring beneath a shade of her apartment window and beheld her bare knees. She did not smile. She left. I followed. Would she head to a rundown rooming house five blocks or so from downtown? To an alley dumpster? No, let it be to a room with at least a small television set, halfway down a corridor that held the mingled odors of fried onions and cabbage. And once inside would she hurry to the blinking message light alerting her to a call from a son or daughter? Or lover, a boyfriend with a missing tooth or two? I could fashion such plots so easily, like nets to capture her. By the end of the first block from the diner, the sun was dimmed by a high cloud cover, and the late March wind nibbled at my fingers and ears, candy wrappers as confetti before my feet. Why was I following this woman? It would be easier to study the nice firm legs of young women marching to and from the expensive shops, their laughter like bright ribbons trailing? Then again where do solitary old women who while away their time in donut shops and diners spend their afternoons? I kept a half block distance behind her. Erect with her bags, she did not seem old. Perhaps she was a mere sixty to my thirty-five? When she turned every so often, I slipped behind a passerby or stopped to tie my shoe. 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