from "Afferent Thursday" by Marie Stern

May 26, 2009

FULL STORY APPEARS IN THE JULY 2009 ISSUE!

Inside the photo booth, I sat precariously on Mr. Saturday’s lap, his bony thighs jutting into me painfully. I smiled anyway, and the flash went off in a blinding assault. Thin arms held me close, and we seemed a strange sort of couple.

With a squeeze, Mr. Saturday asked me, “How do you feel, Elijah?”

The tips of his hollow fingers rested on my stomach, at once selfish and questioning. I leaned back into him, felt his ribcage through his jacket, wondered about his spine. My head drooped forward, and I felt his cold breath stir the fleecy hairs on the back of my neck.

A horrible plaid curtain hung in the doorway at an odd angle, so I could see the feet of a young girl – tiny pointed mary-janes – waiting their turn, scuffing the dirt, making a pattern.

He shifted under me, and his scent flooded the little, artful tomb in which we sat. I wondered how many souls were trapped beneath my seat, inside that screen. My answer came truthfully, if not wholly, “I have no breath with which to convey this love and fear.”

I felt the rise and fall of his chest, the sharp support on my back. He offered no warmth of skin, no heat but that which colored my thoughts, even as I dredged to mind all those people I had known and loved, sinned against and lost; even as I filled my lungs with air, desperate to calm myself. The smell of cotton candy and funnel cake invaded us, wrapped around us like a blanket, in us like a gulp of bourbon. There was something about this carnival, this Thursday, that gathered up tiny evils and churned them together until they turned to dust and coated your tongue. It was freeing, somehow, in the way that accidents happen, or in the way that with enough apologies, anyone can become a great and militant lover.

Under Mr. Saturday’s gentle guidance, I shifted in my seat, to face him, to look him in his sunken eyes. His face was soft and cruel. He was my mother and my father, my third grade teacher, who died three nights after I wished she would. He told me it was not my fault, and reaffirmed that it was. Mr. Saturday was the owner of the corner store, the gas station attendant, the woman at the Laundromat with whom I thought I was in love for the longest time, and with whom I never exchanged a word. He was my second cousin, he was my first kiss.

I slid my arms over his neck and held sure. Well, as sure as I could. Mr. Saturday was chuckling a little, and the rhythm of it made my palms sweat.

He leaned forward and fed the slot dollar after dollar, the slips of paper disappearing like much needed sustenance into a greedy mouth. I looked at him, startled, and said in a voice much younger than I wanted it to sound: “Wait. All it’ll get is the back of my head.”

Mr. Saturday grinned his death’s head smile and asked, “Do you have something back there to hide?”

I didn’t, so I let my forehead rest against his collarbone.

“Let me come home with you, before we run out of money to feed this stupid machine,” he whispered to me in the shell of my ear. The camera went off: Flash. In his voice, I could hear the ocean. In his voice, I could hear the promise of things to come. Flash. “I can fool July into freezing, a pollen blizzard, a winter of stolen kisses. You’ll never suspect me.” Flash. I felt his tongue, dry and warm, follow his words. Flash. I chewed my lip and tasted copper. Mr. Saturday was in my head, and I never wanted him to leave.

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