I couldn’t squeeze a poem out that summer no matter how hard I tried. I glued, painted, drew, struggled to breathe. And wrote this. Besides me, this is what survived: a piece of fiction. Read, be entertained, be glad that summer’s over.
It was too hot for the usual suspects: speed walkers, fishermen, duck feeding old ladies. With nothing to hide from, she found a seat close to the sunlit pond that left only her and the sun massaging her back into deeper shades of cinnamon. Burying her face into knees she’d folded to her chest, she concentrated on the sounds of the ducks. She figured if she listened long enough and watched their accompanying movements, she might figure some of it out.
She made a pillow from the pile of materials that were her clothes. Stretched out so that the slightly overgrown grass pricked the back of her calves. Folded her legs at the ankles and her hands behind her head. Closed her eyes against the disappearing day.
The ray of sun emerged from the opening between the clouds, an arm beckoning her. She climbed the gossamer stairs. Flopped on a cloud the size of a bean bag chair first. There wasn’t much room to move. Not that she needed to. She let her feet dangle from the edge for a moment before finding another and stretching out. For a moment she felt too human, heavy and expected to fall to earth any minute.
A bead of sweat rolled between her breasts down to her navel. She swatted lazily at a bee that was attracted to her hair oil and drifted into another time. Another one of those need-to-get-away-like-way-y-y away days. Like when Donnie would pick silly fights so they could do the break up thing. That was a year of hard time because making up was so good. But it wasn’t worth the price of the ticket.
The last time they were on Jill and Beck’s deck and it all started with a comment about her socks. Socks! They’re so thin—you bought a million pairs in September and needed more by November—aren’t pantyhose cheaper? The deck was made of wooden planks. She got a run and mistakenly, albeit half-heartedly, chose to lament. And there he went. So she told him to shut up; didn’t argue or anything, just said after he kept on and on; looking past her to blow his cigar smoke away from her face, “Shut up.”
Gifts, trips, painting her bathroom mirror with apologies, he was still predictable as the others. “Shut up, shut up,” he taunted, wrapped his arms around her, nibbled her neck. She just stood there. Beck’s nose protruded from the screen door to call him to the phone.
She squeezed her eyes to blot out those memories. Not here. Not now. From the gravelly parking area Mark first saw the lump in the grass, stared until he made it out to be a human body. He watched the woman draw designs on her belly with her fingertip, scratch at her adam’s apple, sleepily rub her eyes; imagined that she must be a little crazy, out here naked as if this were not a public park. And crazy usually smelled, he reminded himself, like the ladies who availed themselves almost as freely at the convenience store he frequented on his way down MLK. But he wasn’t turned off. He could only imagine her smelling like lavender or vanilla mixed with the sweat that made her skin shine. He tried to imagine how much smaller her breasts must look in clothes, if her nipples had the same certainty under cover. They pointed to the sky as if they saw god and were in awe. Her jaws were tight, her lips pressed, eyebrows trying to rest but often furrowing when she would squeeze her features together as if she smelled something foul. After the last squeeze, she simply rested one palm on her belly and placed her other hand, palm up, beside her. She was still. Her face relaxed. She lifted her knees and swayed back and forth. Stopped. Was still again. He slouched into the leather seat of his truck, hid his face behind his newspaper, feeling awkward about interrupting something sacred. Wars…rumors of wars…a boy was rescued from the Misipillion…another was found shot in the Village…bank merger…he peeked over his newspaper to see if she was still there. She was standing now, revealing that she was fleshier than he first imagined, rounded and soft around her waist and the backs of her thighs. She stretched upward, lifting onto her toes, looked to either side and walked a little closer to the water’s edge. Leaned a little putting her hands on her hips. His pants got a little tighter and he felt embarrassed. Not his usual m.o. If he started the engine, he might startle her. The hell? He tried to catch himself: he didn’t even know her. He waited. And watched. The sun’s setting formed a cape around her shoulders. She stretched again, her hands taking fistfuls of sky this time as they reached into it. He imagined her ascending. The image sat on his eyelids and forced his lips to part slightly. Just then his frat screeched in beside him, “Yo, what’s up for tonight?” Jonathan leaned across his steering wheel, loosening his tie. Mark squished his temples between his fingers, let his knee jingle the keys still in the ignition. “Damn, you just getting off?” “Meetings all day—and I need a drink, man, a couple of ‘em.” “The Grille, now?”
“That’s cool; I’ll check you over there in a few minutes,” Jonathan headed out the same way he came in—like a bat out of hell. She was still there, a lump in the grass again. That exchange hadn’t startled her? Maybe she thought she was hidden when she lay down. No, she must be crazy. Or maybe I am, he decided as he opened his door and headed down the grassy slope toward her. “Hello.” She raised up on her elbow, covered her breasts with one arm and followed the lines: burnished brown leather shoes, black pants, royal blue button up, sleeves cuffed enough to reveal hairy mustard brown arms. Then his face. He was biting his lip. She raised her eyebrows as best she could over her squint to encourage him. “I just saw you and w-w-ere wondering if you were okay or…”
She nodded first, “Yeah.” Offered a trained grin. No teeth.
“Uh, oka…” he started to walk away but thought better of it. “Do you come out here often?”
“Not really,” she lied, pulling her thighs closer. He put one hand in his pocket, jingled some change. She waited for him to say something else. Sat all the way up, moved her hand from her breasts and leaned back on her hands so that her breasts jutted out.
“Well, I’m Mark,” he reached to offer his hand,” and I come out here some evenings—it’s so quiet—good way to end a long day.”
“Tanjie,” she returned a firm handshake.
He squatted a second, sat and circled his knees with his arms and looked out onto the pond. She followed suit. In increasingly comfortable silence, they watched a lone duck float across the brown, shiny water. He smelled her now: sweat, something standard like one of those fruity body sprays.
“I wonder what they think of us.”
Tanjie grabbed a blade of grass to occupy herself. Let that be her answer.
He unbuttoned his shirt, took it off to reveal a stark white wife beater and well built—not bulky—arms, a symbolic tattoo on his bicep.
“What’s that?” she touched it without considering his space. He flinched slightly.
“Something I found in the parlor that looked deep. It means wisdom.”
“Oh.” She didn’t know if she expected to hear something deeper or was as unimpressed as she sounded.
“You have any?”
Well, I’m sitting here buck-bald and you’ve been watching for god-knows-how-long, you probably know how many moles I have, that I need to shave my thighs more closely next time, and… she stopped thinking to herself and just answered. “Yeah right here on my ankle,” she tapped her left ankle.
“Well can I see?” He started to get up and walk to the other side of her. She crossed her leg and stretched it to him. He held her foot to examine it: a set of emphatic female eyes. Without looking at her, he rubbed his hand along the length of her calf, leaned down and lightly kissed. She considered stopping him but pin prickly heat along her inner thighs decided otherwise for her.
Only their noses kept their faces from smashing into one another. His first kiss was hard, anxious; he had to pace himself. He traced her cheek with his nose. Then her chin. Then her neck.
The day was growing duller and a breeze crept up her thigh and turned her pores inside out. She stroked his back. Could not stop her thighs from tightening around his waist when he moved side to side. Could not resist licking his neck, pulling the skin slightly with her teeth. She raised her rear to him, squeezed her eyes shut, and swallowed her moans. His spasms gave way to a groan. Slowed. He was dead weight in her arms.
The room was dark save for the street light glowing through the small bathroom window. Cool to Tangie’s still sweat damp skin. She plopped on the futon in the corner with a huff, “What do you want?”
The silence of the room betrayed what was really there. “I’ll never see him again.” She glared at the phone number Mark had written down when he dropped her off, balled it up. “See, really,” and with that she tossed it across the room to a wicker wastebasket. She missed.
He’ll be as predictable as the rest, she thought to herself, her eyes fixed on the ball of paper next to the wastebasket.
“I’m serious,” she offered aloud. Sucked her teeth around a full lipped pout. She leaned back on the mattress and folded her arms, illustrating her resolution.
Tanjie was two, another word for precocious, her Mamaw used to say, the first time she’d been dropped off. Predictably according to the scribes. Since—that was eighteen years ago—she was always fighting prediction and simply looking to live. Wasn’t that how it was supposed to work? Here anyway? But these people always behaved inside of prediction and expectation: 401k and savings accounts, immunization and meteorology, heaven and hell. Even though there were remnants everywhere that it should be, somehow, different than this: temporary insanity defenses, AIDS and abortion, bungie jumping and Las Vegas weddings.
Tanjie’s mother usually corroborated with Mamaw, “You’re too much,” she would pinch Tanjie’s cheeks, “Mama’s baby is too much.” The day she dropped Tangie off, her mother was smiling that same smile. Strangely, though, so that her face was tighter than usual; her teeth almost gritting. “I too much,” Tanjie had told her, toting a sandwich and puzzle as they journeyed along The Path. Noticing, too, her mother’s eyebrows, Tanjie decided that the shape they formed had also been in response to her latest antics. “I too much,” she repeated, her switch turning into a full-on skip.
Too much to stay. The rings around her eyes. The solar eclipse on the afternoon she was born. All signs of expectation. Knowing. She was misplaced. So at the end of The Path that day, her Mama dropped her off. With her sandwich and her puzzle and her self assurance—her mother never offered hers, Tangie managed without her.
Once the sandwich was gone, the puzzle no longer a novelty, her assurance’s deductible too high to keep it, she found Nolan’s, Corey’s, Donnie’s, Mark’s. When they offered themselves—and they always did—she took them. Enjoyed the novel quirks of each, lamented the predictable Path each took. She finished the puzzle of each quickly, scarfed down sandwiches of aloneness wrapped between sets of them.
Mark gulped the last of his Guiness before breaking. As it stood he was $50, a Run DMC cd, and his firstborn in debt to Jonathan; why he was setting himself up more, he didn’t know. His set up looked good, but he miscalculated his angle and missed the shot he was aiming for. He wrapped his cue behind his back as he went to lean on the windowsill where he watched Jonathan destroy him again.
The bar was lazy; it was a Tuesday night after all. The street hummed softly with traffic. He was ready to crash. Jonathan could tell, so he wrapped it up after that game, following Mark to the truck to get the cd. Mark’s phone vibrated warm against his hip. The number wasn’t familiar. He dumped it in the passenger seat and dug the cd from the middle console.
He spotted her car parked in a strip mall as he headed to the grocery store for dinner from the prepared foods aisle. She hadn’t been able to resist when she saw it, peeking, so she pulled in and headed up the stairs. The man hands found a spot she’d never found before; never could find since.
When she returned, Mark’s note was tucked in the windshield wipers. He had gone in all 4 the stores there and hadn’t found her. He wasn’t much of a shopper, so he didn’t look hard; just headed to her spot to wait empty stomach all but forgotten.
Tangie gave him thank you love for that feeling—though he had little to do with it except not searching too hard so she could have and enjoy it. He stayed awake afterwards, rubbing her belly, staring at the side of her face. She was taken aback too.
He considered her quietly preparing ice water and wondered, the same way he had earlier in the afternoon, how he’d arrived at this moment. She seeped into the room with the cups of water. He gulped it for a diversion from the flush that enveloped his body. Who—what—was this woman? His thoughts transported him into a dreamless sleep.
Tangie sipped her water and stared at Mark’s mouth, then leaned closer to feel the heat of his breath as he slept. It tickled her nose. She giggled and leaned back on the futon. “I know I promised,” she whispered in no particular direction, grinning, and then looked deliberately from the hole in the heel of his right sock to his palm face up and open on his thigh, the perfect curve of his neck. She closed her eyes and sighed, patted a growl in her stomach and swallowed some more water with her grin.
By the time they lost contact she had already stopped checking her emails. Mark had coaxed her into getting an old secondhand number but it crashed in the storm. She was never very interested in computers anyway so she just let it go.
The cell phone he’d given her went directly to voice mail and a month after leaving his last note on her windshield, she had left a cryptic message about being “in transition,” planning to move to the County. In the new county phone book, there were a million T. Smith’s, a few T. L. Smith’s, but Mark was hardly ready to act so pressed. He still went to the park. Especially in the evenings and on Sunday nights. She was never there. She seemed to have decided to fall off the face of God’s earth. Without saying goodbye.
Trina cooed, “Wow, that’s really sad.” They were doing the I-wanna-know-how-long-it’s-gonna-take-for-you-to-get-on-my-nerves-talk where you act interested in the past relationships just so you can see how the others got cut down—and how soon. Mark knew that the part of him that had been looking for Tangie in the obituaries was the part that made him talk about her to another woman in the first place. Trina knew too. Broads never really feel sorry for one another. He knew that. And that she was eventually going to use it against him.
The Ethiopian one at Tsedaye and Rohan’s party put it down before she used it. But she put it down. And that was what mattered.
Mark excavated some old books from his library that he’d put off reading and starting getting some of his merchandise back from J at the Grille.
It was the macaroni and cheese that messed with his head. He missed Tangie’s macaroni and cheese. And the way she nestled her head beneath his chin when he slept. Which was a little annoying when he was sincerely sleepy. Until now that it wasn’t an option anymore. And the way she fingered his palms while he slept. Don’t ask he caught himself saying aloud as he headed up 85.
Tangie hardly said two words; hardly ate two bites. She barely blinked. At the other end of the futon, Mark leaned over his lap to finish his lo mein. Her stillness intrigued him. But he was never challenged by it like he would’ve expected. He just stuck around. Her skin was cold. But her body bent into his touch. He continued. Her nostrils flared as she inhaled, her lips pursed together. She guided his head toward her breasts; arched her back and closed her eyes. Mark learned quickly not to worry if he was touching her wrong, or as he’d once decided, that she was just not interested. Her coolness always gave way. Quickly.
He woke to find her absent from the futon. The sky was a grey sheet lit dimly from behind. He didn’t smell any eggs. Her studio offered few other hiding places. The bathroom was empty. The corners she sometimes crumpled into were empty too.
Tangie walked toward the heat of the sun. The half disk seemed so close to most. Yet they always felt so far away. She paused. Plopped on the shore of the deserted beach and whispered, “Just…Could I…” She looked at her lap. She licked the wetness that surprised her cheeks. It was salty. She could feel the rocks of the Potomac taking her air. She wondered aloud, “Is this,” but didn’t complete her question. Instead she stood and pictured Mark. Began to speak, “…transition…will call… sorry…will call.” The wetness was beginning to feel itchy against her cheeks. She wiped at it, dusted sand from her bottom, a lttle less fleshy than a couple of months ago; body started to feel like the gush of piss that awakes you from sleep after a night of drinking. But she would not return to dreams like them.
Mark began to rack the balls. “Man, I am so on you,” J bragged after winning yet another game.
“That was a lifetime ago; now is what’s up,”
Mark dressed in his give-a-damn game voice. “I think not!”
“Yeah, well keep reading the obituaries; you’ll see.”