When you stole something, it usually wasn’t worth the trouble you spent
|Lisa Cueman - In Flight, 2013|
Then there was a loud ringing bell and the green gates flung open.
Jim watched the animal and the jockey take off, a bolt of white horseflesh followed by a cloud of dust, a spray of dirt. The horse bounded across the track in a phantasmagoric blur, all steady whiteness and steam, its coat shiny, hurling itself like a muscled locomotive. The report of the mare’s hooves against the dry earth rang out like thunder, whoom, whoom, whoom, the hooves hitting the dirt with their specific, tremendous explosivity, the sound of horses running unlike any other sound in the world, a sound suggesting tireless movement, joy, an escape from the past, from the present, from the uncertainty of the future. Seeing the mare go, the grandfather imagined the sound of its hooves against the clotted dirt was his own heart racing to meet its end. He felt something well up inside his chest and forgot what it was, the word for it. Then he turned and glanced at the boy and saw the same expression on his rounded gray face. What if? the grandfather began to think again, turning to watch his animal pull three lengths ahead, then four.
The boy turned to ask his grandfather a question then, pushing his headphones off, his small eyebrows looking concerned, dividing his wide, round face. “Sir?”
“Do you believe it’s possible for a human being to talk to an animal?”
Jim smiled curtly. “We talk to the chickens all day.”
“No. Not tame ones. Wild ones. Like in the movies. Like in cartoons. So they can understand you.”
“I don’t know if I can say I ever thought about it.”
The boy nodded and then looked away. “I can do it.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can. I can talk to animals and some trees. It’s because I have developed a new way of using my ears. I can hear things most other mortals cannot.”
The grandfather frowned and in that moment felt neither disappointment nor pity, only a slight grief.
“Do you ever have a thought you keep to yourself?”
Quentin shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. Why?”
“You might want to think about trying that sometime. Keeping those sorts of things to yourself.”
The boy nodded and went silent. Another few seconds passed and then the blare of the boy’s headphones once again began to desecrate the air.
Quentin counted out the money and handed over three bills. As she recounted them and shoved them into the open drawer of the cash register, he noticed in her face a level of boredom, yes, but something more—a kind of loneliness—this girl only seventeen or eighteen, chewing her gum, leafing through magazines. Holding the gas can at his side, he saw for the first time in his life someone who seemed as lonely as him. His eyes dropped to the plastic name tag pinned above the soft slope of her breast. It said Shanya, which made the boy smile, the sound of the name like some far-off African princess. He realized she was trapped; there was nowhere for her to go. He decided for once he would say something; he would do something he had never done before and try to be someone else, an older, braver version of himself; he would stare at her a moment longer and then look her right in the eyes and say something like: I can talk to animals.
The girl glanced up from her magazine, the pink wad of gum indistinguishable from the contours of her soft tongue. “What?”
“That’s why I’m interested in herpetology.”
“Herpetology. It’s the study of reptiles. I’m planning on maybe becoming a biologist. Or a veterinarian. I like working with small vertebrates.”
The girl’s eyes were a little wide, puzzled, the gum still motionless in her mouth.
The boy continued: “I’m not gonna see you again so it doesn’t really matter. But I thought maybe you’d like to know.”
Then the boy heaved the gas can up against his hip and turned, slightly beaming, proud of himself, feeling that today was one of the better days, one of the best days, the glass door to the gas station slamming shut behind him, the familiar Donkey Kong theme now on his lips. Da-da-da, da-da-da-da, da-da-DA, da-da-da-da.
Even at a young age he learned that crime was something you did simply for its own fun. Because when you stole something, it usually wasn’t worth the trouble you spent.
I’ve got a face, Jim, the kind you put on. It takes all kinds of makeup and smiling when you don’t feel like smiling. When I’m at home, I’m a mess. Who am I kidding? I’m a mess now.
“Well, like I said, if you ever need anything, you just give me a ring.”
“I will. Thanks, Jim.”
“And don’t be a stranger.”
“I won’t. Goodbye.”
He watched her climb inside the car, realizing then that he had forgotten to return her goodbye, standing there on the curb, imagining the other words, the other ways the conversation might have ended.
On the way back home, driving past the furrowed rows of corn, the boy looked at him and grinned.
“What?” Jim asked, but the boy only kept on smirking. “What? What is it?”
“I saw you talking to that lady. Hubba-hubba.”
“Very funny,” Jim said, and then switched on the radio.
The film played before them on the gigantic screen, the other cars and trucks parked in close vicinity, rows and rows of steamed windshields, couples in similar moments of candor, the Western Silver Lode going mostly unseen, Jim fighting to remember he was not overseas, knowing the girl would not want to see him again if he did what he wanted to do, his hand creeping up the girl’s goose-bitten thigh, brushing the fringe of her skirt, making its way upon her stockings, struggling at the garter there, the girl not pushing his hand away but not making any kind of sound either, him struggling to get his pants unbuckled, the oily, perfumed smell of her hair reminding him of the girls over there, what had they done to him, how they made him uncouth, unchristian—and then something went wrong, the feel of her breasts too much or the fuzzy fabric of her sweater, him not getting his pants off in time, something which had happened a few times with the girls over in Korea, him going slack now, burying his face in her hair, and then, for no good reason, absolutely no reason at all, him seeing Stan’s face—lying there in the mud, eyes searching the leaves for a familiar color, a familiar shape, dead, dead, dead—Jim feeling like a child then, muffling tears into the girl’s hair, squeezing her harder than he knew he ought to—knowing no girl worth her salt would bother to see him ever again—and here he was, with a girl from church, a girl his mother had called up for him, an American girl, and he was moaning, the white flash of Stan’s face still rising before his eyes, Deedee’s cheek against his cheek, and then the faint words that ricocheted in his ears, “It’s okay. It’s okay,” she said. “Shush, shush. It’s okay.”To see her like that again. What I would give.
The boy asked him a question. The grandfather turned, unsure of what had been asked.
“Which is why I don’t know if there’s a heaven,” the boy said, serious, small hands gripping the steering wheel.
The grandfather nodded once and thought, Not a place, and then, but a person, a fragment of an hour.
Joe Meno - Marvel and a Wonder (Akashic Books, 2015)