By Rosemarie Colangelo
Cracks and bubbles of archaic paint provided topography for the mocha walls of his apartment. A scorched landscape bound him. Each direction he gazed, gave the illusion of a slow descent toward a broken planet, marred by neglect. He was caught falling everywhere, so he went nowhere and inhabited a cold space somewhere in between.
Here, ripped sails blew from an open window, frayed at the ends. They jumped sporadically behind him while he sat at his table. Like tattered hands, the frayed tendrils pawed at his torso coaxing him out for a quick flight and traced across his shoulder blades, seducing him, and mocking him. He couldn't stand their presence and he envied the sails for their lack of purpose, severely tempted by them to the point where he almost propelled himself through the window frame, decorating the streets with the stringy contents of his bulging gut.
On the table at which he sat, was some coffee, in a cup, stolen from Joe's. He ate at Joe's, worked there too. The cup was decorated with a red stripe and he envied it for it's stern commitment to duty. He found escape in the cup through images he saw formed on the coffee's reflective surface, yet the escape was not a permanent one, like that offered by the ripped sails.
Sometimes, in a stupor induced by the images in his coffee, he'd caress the legs of his table and give a laugh of disbelief, half in tears, half asleep. The table was from the fifties. He yearned for that time again, where impracticality ruled and there were always big chunks of apple in his pie. He was a child then, so all his memories had a hazy, picturesque mystique. As a youngster, eating pie, each subsequent chunk of apple seemed especially large and every bite was a struggle to chew its excessive volume. He always pictured himself with a satisfied smile, while he excessively nodded, which corresponded to each bite, during this decadent exercise. To him the apple in his cheeks made his head look like a teetering fair-skinned football.
He didn't eat apple pie anymore though. At Joe's, working as a cook, he often opened packets of ready-made pie filling and cried to himself because of the wanton dicing of apple into small particles. Over the years he built contempt for the apple pie he made, and those who bought it.
His daughter, whom he loved and cherished, sometimes came by the diner after work, and tortured her father because she'd never fail to request a slice of apple pie. She always sat at the third stool where she could watch her father sweat into the food. After a few minutes he'd spot her and make like he was quickly finishing up some work but really stalling in mental preparation for her visit. Their relationship had transformed from one of sharing to one of taking, mostly by her. At work, his neck was hinged and his chin attached to a heavy weight, so he rarely made the attempt to look up. Every now and then, he'd make an exasperated effort to check the third stool, most of the time letting his head drop back down in relief.
She was there now though. He hated when she came by.
Walking out of the kitchen he'd dirty his hands on a greasy apron, intricately dirtying every crevice on his hands. They'd play out their same tired act every week, perpetuating the now superficial relationship.
He would lean on the counter as if
to bear some theatrical cleavage and say,
"I've heard only great things about your apple pie. I think I'll have a slice."
"No, no. You don't want the apple pie. It tastes funny. Not worthy of your palette, if you ask me."
"Well thank you kind sir, but I'll have the apple pie. I've heard only good things about the cook here and the apple pie was specifically recommended."
"You must travel in quite the circle. Your father should be proud. We don't get the civil in here too often. On the house sweetheart."
"Why thank you kind sir." She'd take a dainty slice of the apple pie and chew it meticulously, savoring each odd flavor. "They were right. Best apple pie I've ever tasted." He'd smile.
"Well I'll definitely be back. What can I say your name is when I recommend you to my friends?"
"Oh, well. I'm just a lowly cook."
"Then I'll call you Joe. And you can call me Samantha. Remember that next time I come in Joe."
She'd finish her apple pie, they'd talk small for a short while, then she'd say, "Well Joe, that was the best piece of apple pie I've ever had. I'll see you around sometime handsome."
"Okay sweetheart." She always left satisfied. She liked the taste of tears and sweat. It was a taste she'd acquired from her husband.
And so Joe would go back to working in the kitchen, satisfied with the piece of mind his daughter would not be back for another few days. Samantha would go back and hide behind the fortified walls of white picket with 'Prince Charming,' satisfied with the gluttonous indulgence of emotion. He now remembered why he had referred to her future husband as 'Prince Charming.' It was a night, years ago, while playing checkers with Samantha, by the dim light of a lamp, in the living room of the house they all once lived in.
"Sounds like your gonna marry this guy."
"Daaaaad," whined Samantha, as she made circles of embarrassment with her head to avoid her father's smirking glare. "Oh, shut up. He's just a great guy. I like him a lot."
"I see. And I guess it helps that the last time he came to pick you up, it was in some fancy car."
"Are you spying on me?!"
"Spying? Sam, you're my daughter, I gotta watch out for you honey. I just wanted to make sure..."
"Thanks, but I don't need you to watch over me, thank you very much. Anyways, his fancy car isn't why I like him. I'm not a gold digger! How dare you suggest that."?
"Good, I'd like to think me and your mother raised you with some morals."
"Yes you did."
"... So he's rich then?"
"His family is fairly well off." Admitted Samantha. "His Dad owns some multi-national company or something. There. Your move... Fatso."
"Fatso eh? I'll show you fatso..."
His wife, who was now smiling, had been standing in the doorway watching them interact. They looked so perfect for each other she thought.
"Sam, don't call your father fatso," she lightheartedly suggested.
"It's okay dear, it's my nickname." Samantha smiled at her father's defense of her.
"You better not give me a nickname like that you big oaf or you'll catch five across the eyes. Finish your game quickly. Dinner's ready, k guys?"
"Okay Mom." They both simultaneously replied and began to laugh.
"So who's move?" Samantha said after their laughter had died down.
"I think it's my turn." Propping up his head on his knuckle, he began to fake deep though, mustering up the courage to ask her a question that had been festering him. "What were we talking about again? Oh yeah. So uh, when am I gonna get to meet this, Prince Charming guy?"
"Umm, I don't know Dad. Soon, soon..." Samantha nodded in a self-assuring confirmation of her response. She had avoided their meeting because of her father's shameless portrayal of a middle class-man, a position he was perfectly content with. It would rip them apart when she died. Samantha would have to abandon her past to get by; he would relive it until his death.
* * *
After closing time he'd walk for ten blocks and pull himself up the railway track to his home away from hell. There he'd pour himself a cup of coffee to feed his insomnia and sit at the fifties table. His bed sat waiting, ready-made for two months. Rarely did he ever lay in it for more than a quick nap, leaving just a wrinkled indent, remnants of his last escape.
He liked looking into his liquid viewfinder and seeing himself as a child in the fifties. Sometimes he'd be sliding on the voluptuous curves of a shinny car. It would hurt him to think that a child nowadays would probably injure himself attempting the same feat on the compact boxes that made such an efficient use of city arteries. He imagined the city's backwards anatomy and though of how it pumped, and despised the bustling blood cells zooming around from work to home, work to home, carrying nutrients to live, taking and consuming. Everyday at nine in the morning, and five at night he'd feel sadistic pleasure when the city would have a heart attack and the bustling blood cells would clog the arteries and stop bustling, there at a stand still, wasting nutrients. He felt comfortable walking the streets then, a meandering blue germ, avoiding Prince Charming and the collective of white blood cells that so tenaciously sought to eliminate the dwindling population of his kind. Fortunately he knew that for those few hours the Prince was just another part of the plaque constricting the city, so like a germ he traveled, and half-knowingly mocked them every rush hour constitutional he'd take. It was one of his only pleasures and he escaped best then.
As he looked down, walking, the rhythmic intervals of concrete rectangles would mesmerize him. He'd wake up a few hours later on an unfamiliar street and scurry home, or to work. The condition of the streets portended the coming of Prince Charming or some other counterpart of the campaign he represented. He was never in any danger, and knew that himself, but only felt safe in his kitchen at Joe's, or staring into a cup of coffee at the table in his apartment. Nothing in his life really existed, except perhaps, his daughter, whom he now felt, had betrayed him for her husband.
He took solace in the fact his tired routine would burn itself out and him along with it. Sitting over his coffee at the fifties table, only fear remained. He'd been leeched of his strength and sadness by his own daughter. He could live, if he just had some sadness, it was good, fear too, but he'd been deprived for too long of one, and inundated by the other.
Overtired and under-stimulated, he sat over his coffee with the frayed tendrils still tickling his back. There was a rumbling somewhere in his torso. He remembered that in church he had been taught that his solar plexus is where the soul is harbored. It was no surprise to him that it had been giving him trouble over the past year or so. There in his gut he had felt as if his soul had been liquefying into thick goo. Now more than ever he felt it slosh around inside of him. It was restless and demanded action. It seemed to leap into his throat every now and then, attempting to escape.
Staring into the viewfinder he clenched his gut. He helped the gooey liquid up and felt its thickness slither and jump through his neck and into his head where it contemplated a route of escape. His eyes began bulge and his head convulsed as the fluid battered around in his head trying to seep free of his body. He shut his sinuses and locked his lips, then clumsily grabbed a nearby napkin, ripped it in half and shoved the pieces in his ears to make sure nothing leaked out. Clasping the table with his hands he began to vibrate and ripples formed in his coffee. His silly reflection refracted and each ripple gave way to the formation of a woman's image, standing with her hands crossed under her bosom, oscillating as she hummed a syrupy hymn. She stood with a playful impatience for him and his desire was intense. It wasn't long before the fluid began to drip from his eyes and into the cup with her, where it would funnel between her breasts and into her awaiting hands.
His head fell with a thump, and the ripped tendrils triumphantly pirouetted over his limp mass once more, then fell limp themselves as a world of hustle and bustle passed by his dreams of simplicity and apple pies.