BY BRIAN TRAN
Hang up and Dial 9-1-1
The ceremony had been splendid but you could find splendid on the street, pick splendid from a tree. Enough of these ceremonies will turn anyone into a critic: tasteful is no taste at all and the vows how they dragged. Here on the street, here by a tree, he wonders where he parked. There are reasons not to leave a weepy lover at home, and this—a plus one to have witnessed where you parked—is one of them.
He trudges up the slope of a narrow street, one of those streets that arcs away from view and emerges from the bend with a new name, a separate sum of addresses. A curve of cars to his right traces along the gutter. Steering wheels are cranked counterclockwise, everyone wanting an hour back, the two o’clock hour, t’was a two o’clock ceremony. He takes off his blazer, breathing bigger, the slope unrelenting. He untwists his tie, unbuttons his shirt. He stumbles towards a splay of bougainvillea and reaches for dear life, a bundle of loose vines bouqueted in his grip. His vision vignettes, funny bone sleeving up and down his arm, Is this a stroke, is it a heart attack, to hear cathedral bells ringing, faintly, so far away now from the church, yet loud and clear in his muscles?
A good question.
And what about the time he saw a man who only vaguely resembled his brother Bob and he approached the man nevertheless and said to him, in all sincerity, “Bob?”
Or when he was in grade school and the shock of a car driving over his foot in the parking lot, tire marks staining the top of his sneaker. Why, then, when a teacher held him by the shoulders and asked if he was okay, why—after having just acquired the secret knowledge that these things actually don’t hurt very much at all—why did he start bawling?
And how about the episode he once caught on the Nature Channel about the mama leopard. The mama leopard who hid her young as she went off to hunt. Tra-la-la, she hunts, only to find upon her return that a snake has devoured one of the cubs. She kills the snake, the bloated and torpid thing, tearing it open at the bearing of a bulge. But the cub is dead. She noses at the small carcass, prodding it, maybe sniffing, and then proceeds to eat the remains of her baby. For the rest of the episode, mama leopard cries out for it, searching for her lost cub, searching in all her usual hiding places. What to make of all that as the credits rolled with absurd velocity?
Let’s not get carried away: he does not think of these questions now. Though if he did? If he did, he would find that somehow, in some mumbled way, they have already been answered.
I saw you today, she said. I saw you at the nursery—wearing overalls, mud-caked up the calves, the full ensemble. Not you, it wasn’t you, but the guy. This guy, he had your face! Slight modifications to everything, and he was older, but, still, the eyes, they’re the same eyes. Kind and expectant and watery. The mouth, the same mouth.
And the teeth, the same teeth? he asked. Do we have the same dentist?
I spoke to him briefly. He finally turned around to confront the funny lady haunting his steps and I asked him about the plant I was holding by the lip of the pot—proper water care, or something, something he looked like he would know a lot about, this man, this overalled man. And his mannerisms were yours, too. Her voice went small and delicate. Her tiptoe voice. Similar mannerisms, yeah. Like, he looked down and away in retrieving his answers to my questions. You do, too. Without troubling the rest of his body, just a look, down and away. And his speech. She gasped here—a shallow one, she was one to gasp. The man worked with a different vocabulary, but something in his delivery, the same gooeyness, the way your sentences tend to come out flat.
Look, I hadn’t noticed it either, not until then, not until I heard your voice hosted by another human being.
Flat, yeah. Like backup vocals, like you’re providing harmony for how the melody of the sentence is supposed to sound. She laughed.
Well, thanks for the call. I really appreciate all this.
And how did I look in overalls?
Listen, it’s a hard look to pull off.
Did I look happier in them? Did I look rich?
Que será será.
The call had interrupted his eating of an apple pear. The skin too tough, the size too squat and sturdy to undertake with teeth alone, he’d been lopping off cheeks of it at a time. Tipped over on a plate, half of it was an excellent dome, the other half a polyhedronal face of shallow corners and jutting surfaces. A sheet of rust had finished over the slush of its meat.
He picked up the apple pear. Cupped the dome in his palm.
Alas, poor Yorick.
The rerun hour of NPR years later and he powers off the car radio—mid-sentence, mid-word. A stunned second of deafness whenever that happens.
He begins to laugh that his name is _______. It’s a funny thing that his name is _______and that this has always been his name, a name that everyone calls him, for the duration of his life. He is only now, it seems, coming to understand this fact about himself, the fact of his own name. Hey, I’m _______, very nice to meet you. He is unable to stop laughing, incontinent—yes, incontinent with laughter, the final discharge of bowel and bladder at the ticking arrival of you know what. When he stops laughing, he feels admonished. He gets off at the next exit.
He calls in sick.
At a coffee shop, seated by the straws and napkins, he listens to the names being called out. Kent. Margaret. Arnold. He looks at the faces on their way to retrieving their orders.
Iowa up for grabs, Crackdown on Medicaid scams, and Protests, violence continue. All this, above the fold. Apparently: Now’s not the time for — see FDA, continued on A19. But what’s the rush, what’s the hurry? She’ll get there when she gets there. When was the last time she had this pleasure, the weak crinkle between her fingers, the airy flop above her lap, to read a paper with the day to herself? She flips over to A2.
Supreme Court may decide, it reads. Ah, decisions, decisions.
At some point, it had happened. It had become a struggle to read anything with him in the same room. Some of the time, not all of the time. (But why some and not all? certain times, not others?) What does he want from me? she’d think, her eyes sliding from her work to her lover, over there by the window, just keeping to himself and not saying a word. This was sometime last year. She glowered at him. She pictured him leaving—a command, if you believe in clairvoyance. First, leaving the room, then the house, off to run an errand. Enough time for her to change the locks. She turned back to her work and stared at sentences that fell apart. Meanwhile he basked in his being. A greedy presence. How his presence was just there and yet it demanded everything of her, every last mote of it. Finally, he looked at her. She looked at him. Their distance stippled with activity. They held the stare for several moments, mind-reading each other’s happiness—for, yes, she had turned happy. Rapturous, even. So what if she ruined it with a wink? Why should love have to hold still? Why should it have to behave?
Now she reads B7. A New Bag, and a New Film, the article says. A casual, leisurely read, but if you ask her in ten years what the film was, she’ll be able to tell you.
C10, Obituaries. The dead are alphabetized. She finds his name in the second column, accompanied by date and time of the service. It reads, Beloved father, brother, friend—nothing here in relation to her, the resident lover, abandoned and hung up on.
Her love was never as red as when it was salted in hurt.
What she wants for today is to read the paper front to back. She is just past the Classifieds and has arrived at the answers to yesterday’s crossword puzzle. All that’s left are the Sunday funnies.