Too old for old tricks: Chapter 1

It was Easter Sunday. Whatever of life and death, sacrifice and the resurrection were subsumed by the festering jubilation in the grocery store. Buy one get one free rabbit-sized bonbons, seventy percent off honey-glazed ham. Perhaps one could prevision death and its runny afterbirth from the scarlet poinsettias gracing the gardening aisle.

The cold and the diarrheic glimmer of beer bottles billowed from the open-faced fridge before Anton folding him arms tightly across his chest. His bangles felt icy against the scars on his wrists. Something itched, rather wriggled underneath the squamous scars. Ratcheting the cool metal over his wrists, Anton regretted the short sleeves of his tshirt and the white hairs over his arms and the infinite choices for beer.

And oh yes, beer. Brown bottle, green bottle. Gold foil cap, slovenly monk with apricot cheeks. Anton reached for the choice of the past seven years: the case of all-American swill refreshing crisp lager. Emmanuel preferred it and he preferred to prefer Emmanuel’s tastes. But he thought, Easter seemed an occasion for something different, something of spring, leastways a resurrection for better beer. And what perhaps of the all-Japanese swill or the all-Chinese swill—How now beer from the middle kingdom of el-cheapos?

It was decided a case of the house favorite. Then he perambulated the aisles, like a whale that had lost sight of the sea and its obviating vastness, no more content, no less disinclined to feel disappointed in himself for defaulting to the familiar.

Perhaps a different brand of mustard? Emmanuel bought the mustard. Or the organic, natural, non-fluoride, non-sweetened toothpaste? But the regular one with ingredients of unpronounceables looked less frightening. The soft head brush toothbrush should be better than the medium head toothbrush? Emmanuel preferred the medium head, but wasn’t the soft head better?

The dental conundrums were no more clearer than the conundrum in his back pocket: a handwritten letter addressed to Emmanuel Cohen.The letter had arrived three days earlier, but Anton held onto it instead of placing it on Emmanuel’s study desk, like he always did. And in examining the letter again, feeling the ink strokes mark the white envelope, he decided its precise curlicues and the compact loftiness were of a feminine hand. This ‘Chris Winston’ on the sender’s address must be female, which ruffled him.

Why should Emmanuel, work-twenty-seven-hours-a-day Emmanuel, receive handwritten letters in this age where sharing and caring were worth less than a byte? Unsurprising, given Emmanuel’s lucky happenstances, but still, Anton held fast, in tremulous wondering, to his own letter addressed to Antonin Bulgakov. He would like a letter, too. It was just as well Emmanuel would dismiss his want with a pathetic shrug; and therefore Emmanuel should not mind if the letter came from a bronzed ephebe lounging on a far-off Greek Island—warm sands and warm bodies. But Emmanuel would not mind; rather, Emmanuel did not care to mind.

Unnerved, he stuffed the letter back into his pocket and slipped back into deliberating between soft head toothbrushes and medium head toothbrushes. Analyses were still as muddy when the loudspeaker bleated the last chance for six inch round lemon chiffon cakes at seven ninety nine. Randomly, he tilted his gaze over towards the row cakes on display and was immediately and quietly seized by the irrefragable fact of the day being Emmanuel’s birthday. He dumped a pair of medium toothbrushes in his cart and trundled to the bakery section.

The assistant looked young, rudely and flippantly handsome, as he played with his tongue in his mouth, rounding cheek to cheek in a careless rhythm. The boy reminded him of rich acorns and fluffy moss. Anton wanted to reach over the glass display and pop those cheeks. Maybe jump over the display—no, bum knee, bum kidneys—and lay the boy’s face over where his cholesterol-clogged heart was. And he would whisper restfully about hog-tying bucks or practicing the loops of a hangman’s noose—no, none of that—Morse code for SOS or SOB.

Rubbing his wrists mindlessly, he mulled the delicate yellow lemon cake inside a glass shelf.

“Sir, you get an inscription on the cake,” the boy said as if celebration was wanting.

How good of you to call me sir. Anton suppressed the flutter working up his face. Unearned familiarity was always discomfiting, formality comforting, even subtly arousing from the boy now eying him impatiently. Anton, looking down, contemplated the crisp frosting flowers on the cake. An inscription might read, “Happy Birthday Emmanuel, love Anton,” or, “Happy Birthday Emu, many more steaks to you, love Crocky?”

The choices felt dry, wasteful. Emmanuel’s father was a reformed Jew, mother a Jamaican Jehovah’s witness. Birthdays, Easter, the cake being this sop to the crisis of spring, Emmanuel would not understand it or the pleasures of a handwritten letter.

There was the blare of the loudspeaker again announcing the cheapest unbelievable Easter eggs, and Anton’s senses whittled away in the disorder murmuring away to eggland. The cake sans inscriptions sounded better, or perhaps just the unfrosted cake, even better to leave off the cake and take home the empty box.

Anton saw the boy’s fingers uncurl over the glass counter like it was surrendering to the Easter din around. A line of a shadow trailed up the short fingers and its hairs up to the arm and his folded sleeve, and to the face, evidently suffering a gaze on him. He must be new here. Anton decided not to smile or soften; the boy braved to keep up his stare. His face could be more gentle, could be more innocently boyish. And pink grilled around the temples. The eyes, blue as the twilight, as those myriad eyes that flickered and watched him in his dreams like ghosts roused rudely from stupor.

Anton hoped the boy was docile as his stance presupposed. He was too tired to fight or boast illustrious feats, much less conquer or claim.

His wrists troubled him again, causing him to fidget with the tight clasps of the bangles. There were inscriptions embossed over the dull metal; inscriptions held no meaning, drove no need in him. And yet casting them aside never occurred to him as a possibility.

“Cool bangles,” the attendant interjected.

“You like them?” He regretted his too eager reply and quickly blurted, “Titanium. They’re made of titanium”

“Titanium? Get out of here.” The boy’s smile was the glitter of clear water. “Now, where does anyone get titanium?”

Anton saw now the squareness of his hairline, and the mole underneath the brow. The boy could be … Francis, truly? The name had the ring of the faint clink of pebble ricocheting down a well. No face fastened to the name, or smell, or touch. But the name had the surety in his mind, and Anton concluded it had to be this Francis who gifted him the bangles. But that could not be. Or was it Wilson, the military orthopedic surgeon, who had given them to him before he was discharged dishonorably for gross sexual misconduct.

“Must have been someone important,” Anton said noncommittally.

The boy looked more serious. “You want the cake?”

“Since you insist, I shall.”

“Hehe, doing my best to make more money for the Man,” the boy said. “You want an inscription?”

Anton chuckled. “Sure. ‘Happy birthday Emu, love Crocky.’”

“Man…” The boy guffawed. “Your name’s really Crocky?”

Anton looked back at the discolored incisor jutting out of the laughing mouth like misshapen stump. And the puns followed with more laughter and feelings warmed expansively.

“Crocky?” The boy repeated to himself, feeling the size and girth of the word. Then he removed the cake from the shelf and placed it on the counter. He raised sharp eyes to him. “Pink, all right for the inscription … Crocky?”

“Green … if you don’t mind.” Anton’s voice rose a little. “And you don’t get to call me that.”

“Emu sure can.”

“He stuck around in spite of my balding head. I think he earned the right. You’d have to give me some of those napoleons for free before I might let you …”

“He—I should get this done.” Cake unsteady in both hands, the boy turned away to the table in the shadowy recesses beyond the light display.

Anton was amused with how fast his eyes narrowed and his cheeks lost their high mien. But it was all right for dreams to last a moment. A flame that flickered for an instant was no less a flame, after all.

The wrists bothered him impolitely now. They felt as if a hot wire were boring down his wrist and piping up his forearm. Anton examined the clasps of his bangles, the darker-colored scars underneath, the reticule of thickening veins. Something was clawing from beyond the grave of his youth, where names were whispers and faces were chimeras ghosting the deep. Whatever was coming, he did not feel ready.

The boy returned without expression on his face and with the cake yellow, blue and green in a clear container.

“Enjoy,” he said, deadpan.

A tub of ice cream and dishwashing soap, completed the groceries. At the checkout counter, conversation plodded about the involuble weather, paper or plastic, cash or credit, if forty is the new twenty-five.

The cashier’s cheeks were thin and her eyes darkly deep. But there had to be something delightful in her because she smiled and chatted and smiled and chatted a lot. Even though she smelled of the earthy mushrooms in the forest damp, Anton could not help but think of her smiles like lipstick on a skull.

“Forty, wow, I have got five more years till then,” she chimed then defaulted to a careless laugh. “Age is all in the mind. My three-year-old son runs me around all day. I feel old and young at the same time. You get what I mean?”

Anton nodded, fixed his gaze at the automatic doors, open, close, toddler in a tutu, open, close, man gnashing teeth, in search of coffee. And then the burble on anxieties he was the wrong sex to understand. And of course the son.

“Did I tell you, the kid put a frog in his mouth the other day.” She clutched her breast dramatically. “It scared the bejesus out of me. The last time, it was a cricket.”

Anton thought of the crying, the puling, the mewling of the wobbly things. Those wobbly things were supposed to his lottery ticket to meaning, to immortality. Beautiful things want to beget beautiful things. Good things want to beget good things in the transcriptions of DNA and RNA.

Her words floated on him, floated through him, floated away from him. He was rotating his wrists now to wish away the renascent discomfort.

“You have any?” she asked.

Anton blinked. “Children? Happily … no.” He pasted a smile then took hold of the handles of the grocery bags. “Here’s to remaining thirty-five forever.”

“Thanks.” Her smile wilting on her lips, she dumped the pair of toothbrushes into the bag. “Wish Emmanuel happy birthday for me.”

“I shall.” Anton sighed, moved to lift the bags away, but his wrists hiccupped in pain and the bags dropped with a light bang.

The cashier’s eyes narrowed. “You okay, there? You need a carry-out?”

“Thank you, but I’m all right.” I’m fifty-three, not ninety. He gritted his teeth as he jerked the bags off the counter in a show of his lusty strength. The pain was definite, like gears turning the bones in his wrists. Useless hands. Useless body. Futility was on his mind as he glided from the store, to pavement to his car. Inside the car, he refrained from starting the ignition, instead wriggling his fingers and clenching and loosening his fists, trying to feel the strings of pain each action effected. Its prickling sounds lulling him, the wind assaulted dust and pollen upon the windshield and flurried the dry leaves onto oil slicks. He looked at the sky maddeningly bright, maddeningly blue, and waited. For what? For how long? The pain called to pain, his worries called to Emmanuel.

Gently and precisely, he got his cellphone from his pocket. After a glance at its artic blue screen, he tossed the phone aside and wriggled the letter from his back pocket. It felt warm and damp. There was the graceful name again, ‘Chris Winston’.

Emmanuel always had truculently asserted his right to identify as bisexual. Anton dismissed his view as droll; after all seven years of monogamy should decide it one way or another. Yes, but they had had seven years now of what exactly?

His pusillanimous thoughts so appalled him that he flung the letter into the grocery bags on the passenger seat and stuck the keys into the ignition.

“Ow!” Gently again, he cradled his right hand to himself, but burls of discomfort grew wilder in his forearms and his hand flamed. He could see the ash black roots curled over his digits, stretched and spiraled over his biceps, and clawed its pin tendrils up his neck. In that great revelation of pain, he lifted his eyes to the eastern horizon. His mind, in an instant, expanded, warped, sheared—a great tree darkening half the sky, its leaves of magnesium-blue flame, its fruits hanging like massive lanterns during a Chinese New Year. Today was Easter; more importantly, it was spring, and therefore the season of its pollen celestial tide.

The pollen streamed from the east, covered all over rooftops and electric pole, passed through windows, open hands, open mouths—diamond dust, metaphysical dust enthralled his eyes and prickled his skin. But his hands, the inky roots were bulging and pulsating underneath his taut skin, and neural darts harpooning and bursting the myriad corpuscles in his brain. His vision swooped close in from the sides. Lost in a shattering darkness behind his skull, he slumped onto the steering wheel. Then he remembered.

Francis was not Francis. Wilson was not Wilson. The bangle was not made of titanium. It was simple iron, as old as himself; it was an emblem, a seal gifted to him from his parents.

Light and its variegated hues bled down his vision. And his arms felt like postulating appendages. The air was thick and dry in his nostrils. He moaned, “Why now? Why now after thirty seven years?”

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