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TOE Short Story :: The Compact – Ch 5


by Michael Davidson

Chapter Five

As is always the case, I wait for the husband to extend his arm – palm facing me, fingers together – and offer me a seat at their dinning-room table with the salt and pepper shakers, calendar from the cleaners.

I accept, wait for him to fill a black coffee mug with spring water. He asks me if the temperature is too hot in the apartment. I read the thermostat from where I’m sitting. Set at eighty. Outside it has to be close to ninety, this sweltering metropolis. No-no, I say. I say, I’m alright, unless you’re hot.

He doesn’t hesitate to shake his big head, smile. If his smirk isn’t in response to the hint of sweat on my brow, to the way the back of my shirt sticks to my skin from excessive perspiration, I’m not sure what he’s reacting to.

He hands me my water and sits on the opposite side of the table. His mug is flowered, in its usual place in front of him, already filled with spring water. He takes a sip. Suddenly, his big head goes crimson and his shoulders start. Water sways inside his mug, some leaping up. Settling on the table. On the tip of his nose.

He promptly cleans the spills with a napkin, embarrassed by his mess. I want to ask what’s wrong. Other than some footsteps on the landing of his apartment there are no sounds.

No scratching or knocking.  No preparation of keys to unlock his front door, barge in.

Moreover, as far as I can tell from my seat, nothing happened inside apartment 1624, at least nothing within the pristine common area. I listen to the front door opposite Big Head’s open and close. The footsteps outside go silent.

It might’ve come from down there, I think. I think, Whatever disturbed him had to have come from down there, referring to the well-kept mystery of their private chamber.

I lean back in my chair, keep hold of the table edge, tilt my head until I see down the hallway. It’s dark in the tunnel, veering to the right at the end, a whole new wing.

Don’t know how many doors are in this section nor what rooms they open into, another bedroom maybe? My curiosity strengthens, forcing me to imagine.

Down the hallway to the left, I see what I always see, their bedroom door, closed. Light shines out of the crack at the bottom, between carpet and wood. I assume his wife is behind this door, the wife I’ve never seen in person. Working over the desk. Or maybe on their conjugal bed. Again, I wonder if she’s clothed.

The husband doesn’t appear to be bothered by me snooping around. Truth is, he seems almost pleased at my curiosity. The crimson has subsided in his big head. His shoulders are collected.

He says that I look tired from work. He doesn’t know anything about me. Must assume that I work by the dead look in my eyes, the same look that resides in all bookstore managers: near-sighted.

I sip my spring water and say, I am. Big Head’s all smile.

Today I go over these topics, he says, voice laden with accent, his intonation awkward. But that’s why I’m here, to improve his spoken English. Ok, I say, always obliging.

He moves a ream of papers from his side of the table to the center, close enough for me to see the bold title capitalized on the top page. English Literature, it scans. Ignoring the prompts, he says, I read very interesting article over weekend. I correct him, patience in me: You read a very interesting article over the weekend, Yes, about Perry Mason, you hear of that. I correct him again, then ask, The TV show.

He’s unclear on what I mean by this, leans his big head across the table, turns his better ear towards me. I see into its recesses. I say, You mean Perry Mason, the lawyer, Law-yer, Yes, is that what you’re talking about, I ask. Nah, he says. He says, Not on television, i mean Perry Mason.

I shake my head, still registering the name of that show dad used to watch while mom did dishes. I ask if he could write it down. He reluctantly positions his pen over the page and tries to vocalize one last time before admitting defeat to English.

Permason, he says, determination making him speed up his pronunciation, cramming together into one jabber what used to be two words.

Big Head waits for recognition in the skin around my mouth. My tongue. But I remain blank. Confused to the point of growing red faced, fuming from my bull nostrils, jumping from my seat onto the table and wringing his stump of a neck for being so damn stubborn. Just write it down, I think. I think, Just write it, you idiot, or I’ll fuc, but the husband saves himself before I can finish my thought.

He scribbles Free Masons in barely legible print.

July 11, 2009 5:06 pm

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