Peggy Price

Smoke Man

Outside the enor­mous IKEA café win­dow the sky was gray, gray like Europe. The win­dow stretched from the floor to the ceil­ing and from wall to wall. The sky through the win­dow seemed to hold in its clouds tables and chairs a cer­tain dis­tance apart. Quiet sil­hou­ettes of peo­ple sat in low con­ver­sa­tion or walked across clean glossy floors in a drifty, insti­tu­tion­al way, only not with­out hope, not beat down or weary, but still kind of like they were dead and in heav­en. Sharon sat next to the win­dow and sipped cof­fee from a real cof­fee cup. She swung her foot under the table.

Through the glass at the side of her head the Swedish flag dan­gled and blew out flat on occa­sion. Dark birds flew togeth­er then apart. Sharon breathed heav­i­ly into the cup at her lips and smiled at her breath flow­ing right back at her face. Down in the park­ing lot a woman pushed a cart between cars, elbows out, the Tin Man in Reeboks on a quest of con­tain­ment. She had a cart full of plas­tic bins, under­neath, a stack of col­or­ful lids. This year will be dif­fer­ent! Sharon imag­ined the woman huff­ing to her­self. Everything in its place, labeled and stacked. The con­tain­ers so large she could crawl inside. She only need­ed the one, Sharon want­ed to tell her as she cut into a meat­ball.

Three tables in front of her the cou­ple sat togeth­er and care­ful­ly turned pages of the cat­a­log. All of the tables in between them were emp­ty. When Sharon looked up there they were again, mak­ing progress. Chubby, beige, glass­es, both of them matched, turn­ing those pages. Sharon swiped part of a meat­ball through a clump of jel­ly and bit. Silver flat­ware, hard round plates. IKEA was like an air­port with­out any of the things air­ports have. It was like an air­port for peo­ple with nowhere to go but home. She pulled at her col­lar, pulled the two sides togeth­er to warm her neck. It was one of her habits. It warmed her neck for a minute.

There wasn’t a plane but Sharon imag­ined a plane and old jet lag and sweet almonds and Albert pulling the han­dle up from her suit­case trail­ing behind as they had walked coat to coat togeth­er towards the car in the air­port park­ing lot. The Cologne sky was like gray water they were under all of the time mov­ing through the mist with­out need­ing to hold their breath (but she did with­out think­ing, held her­self in). The air­port looked like a giant cruise ship to the future, Sharon had remarked, as they had merged swift­ly into the red tail­light stream of exit­ing cars.

Albert shook his head with his silent laugh as he looked from the wind­shield to the rearview and back.

What?” Sharon looked at the women in oth­er cars. Brown hair. Blond. She won­dered if she looked American.

Things always look like some­thing else with you still.”

The air­port? It does.”

Albert had flipped on the heater, rubbed her knee. “Yep,” he said.

He drove with one arm loped across the wheel, the oth­er hand busy with her knee, her braid, the backs of his fin­ger­nails under her scarf. She had rolled her head down like a kit­ten toward his soft wrist and kissed. Sharon was woozy from the flight; an inte­ri­or haze moved through her body.

The key is don’t sleep,” Albert had told her, cup­ping her chin. He turned down the heat. His curls looped out of his knit cap, parts of his face pink from cold German wind. His eye­brows lift­ed high above his glass­es. “Body clock, babe.”

Mmm hmm.” She may have mum­bled. “Let me hear your body clock, your body clock.”

Albert looked at her side­ways and laughed a lit­tle through his nose. The sun was nowhere. He nev­er got her jokes. Wipers wiped. Cars then hills. Wipers wip­ing. Albert final­ly. Cramps from the almonds. Dying of thirst. GPS voice speak­ing in German. GPS? Doesn’t he know where he’s going?

Don’t you know your way around?”

Sure,” Albert shrugged.

What’s with the thing?” Sharon flung her hand toward the dash briefly then dropped her hand back into her lap.

Albert rocked his head from side to side a lit­tle. “I like it. I like her to tell me.”

The nav­i­ga­tor said some­thing about grois­chz­tan­hiemen or some­thing. Sharon stared at the glove com­part­ment for a while then looked at Albert. He turned on the blink­er while look­ing back over at Sharon then point­ed to the word on the upcom­ing sign. “Ta da,” he said, all smiles.

Out of the car and walk­ing Sharon had tried to shake off the flight and accept the time of day with­out com­par­ing it to her watch. Albert walked lean­ing into her side, his hand on her shoul­der; the weight was a res­cue, a des­ti­na­tion. They moved through the park­ing lot behind build­ings toward music.

Here, turn,” he said, posi­tion­ing her shoul­ders. People passed them up in a hur­ry. Dark coats, a red cap, skin­ny boots up to the knees. Two lit­tle girls jump-walked like hop­scotch and flapped their arms behind a cou­ple swing­ing white shop­ping bags from gloved hands. A cou­ple of men wear­ing fat jack­ets, their arms half in deep pock­ets, walked toward them, their chins sunk into their scarves and eyes blink­ing in the after­noon mist. An elder­ly man in a beige coat and tint­ed glass­es stopped and looked up, then back at where he had been before. The crowd moved around him.

Sharon watched her feet and the black asphalt. She could only absorb the peo­ple in parts of cloth­ing and quick glances with­out stum­bling again. Albert found her neck under her hair and rubbed his thumb against her skin, kissed her tem­ple. “Here we go,” he said.

The lot led to an open square filled with Christmas. Sharon wrapped her arms around Albert’s waist and they worked their way down the rows of mar­ket booths under strings of white lights bridged over their heads. The smell of the air mixed with cin­na­mon and the occa­sion­al beer car­ried by in the hands of oth­er shop­pers. Booths were dec­o­rat­ed like chalets and fea­tured wood­en nut­crack­ers and mar­i­onettes and pra­lines. A woman tried out a xylo­phone with hes­i­tant taps of a mal­let. They maneu­vered through a group gath­ered to watch a man in a sailor’s cap demon­strate an incense burn­er shaped like a lum­ber­jack. The man waved Sharon and Albert clos­er to the booth as he placed the minia­ture wood­en lum­ber­jack on the counter, the tiny o-shaped mouth aimed at Sharon.

The merchant’s hands were chapped and curved as though he would have a dif­fi­cult time straight­en­ing out his fin­gers. He must have dis­cussed the details of the appa­ra­tus as he pulled the entire top half of the lum­ber­jack clean off at the waist.

Oh my,” Sharon said.

A boy in a striped sweater stood on tip-toe and held on to the counter, look­ing up.

Albert adjust­ed his glass­es and smiled down at Sharon. “It’s a smoke man,” he grinned. “I’ve got one some­where.” He waved his hand “some­where.” Albert was still ful­ly occu­py­ing his body at the Christmas Market, she remem­bered, the ener­gy in his arms so easy around her and the half-turn of his lip lift­ed with every curios­i­ty and his face flushed with his pres­ence, his speci­fici­ty. She tried to explain the loss to her­self, to help her under­stand when lat­er Albert’s body seemed to emp­ty him­self out, his face a no one with the details dis­solved into the air, his expres­sions van­ished into the slack and smooth as if all of who Albert was could only be seen in the creas­es.

Clinging cou­ples yanked apart by tor­na­dos must know how she felt, to watch him go. The coils he imag­ined inside his chest wrapped up tight. She lost the abil­i­ty to get them untan­gled. It was con­fus­ing. She wasn’t a psy­chol­o­gist. She would hold her hands flat against his chest above her and say there they go baby there they go and he would brace his arms on either side of her body and shake his hair and try to breath, his eyes full of fright, creas­es dis­ap­pear­ing, and she would lift her head from the pil­low.

The mer­chant held the incense between his fin­ger and thumb like a dia­mond. He insert­ed the cone into the hold­er attached to the bot­tom half of the smoke man and lit it on fire for a sec­ond before the flame dis­ap­peared. The smoke smelled of pine. The boy dropped his hands from the counter and looked up at his father. Albert point­ed to the top half of the lum­ber­jack being placed over the smok­ing cone and the lum­ber­jack stood with the smoke flow­ing out of his round wood­en mouth. He held in one hand a hatch­et; on his back he car­ried a bun­dle of sticks. The smoke twist­ed out of his mouth. Everyone clapped and breathed in the pine-scent­ed aro­ma with noses tilt­ed up high and inhales that were slight­ly dra­mat­ic.

 

Sharon didn’t know if she would go on with the mem­o­ry this after­noon to the cathe­dral – The Dom – with the stone spi­ral stairs and crowd­ed hus­tle up and around and up and around in her new orange scarf to wave at Albert when she arrived at the roof. She had been sit­ting for a while and her food was get­ting cold. Plus she would won­der again why she had the orange scarf to wave when he was the one in the blur at the bot­tom. They should have both waved some­thing bright at each oth­er. She had stood with the city below light­ing up against the dark riv­er. Two teenaged girls hand­ed her a cam­era to take their pic­ture togeth­er and she remem­bered their faces well. “You?” The one in tights had asked. Sharon gave her back the cam­era and stood hold­ing her hands straight at her sides, smil­ing with­out teeth, wait­ing against the wall for the white flash.

 

Parking spaces with black cars: forty-one. Beyond the park­ing lot were cars dri­ving now with lights on the ser­vice-road and one after anoth­er along the com­pli­cat­ed high­way above. She appre­ci­at­ed her relaxed advan­tage, her sweet meat and breath in a warm cup.

Now the cou­ple was kiss­ing. Making out. Mouth to mouth. Short arms wrapped. Sharon tilt­ed her head. Where were their lips? She won­dered if they knew what they were doing. The arms didn’t move. The mouths didn’t move. They were attached with­out lips. They were ghosts tug­ging at each other’s souls. That’s what it looked like. A hor­ror movie. Warm neck.

A man walked toward her table with his tray out like jr. high school and looked straight at her. Sharon squint­ed. Some kind of camp­ing hat and long scrag­gly hair gray and blond. International. Was he inter­na­tion­al? Probably from Dallas. Short beard. Blue eyes. Skinny. He went on to the table behind her. A clat­ter behind and over her shoul­der and the back of the man as he placed his tray down on the table with a black-haired woman but­ter­ing a roll. Her hands have the right amount of grip with­out appear­ing to strug­gle, Sharon thought.

No birds now. The flag hung in a drape of blue and yel­low. Hundreds of cars moved like glit­ter­ing liq­uid through a straw across Texas. The cou­ple no longer embraced and the cat­a­log was closed. They sat side by side with their heads bent down, fore­arms angled on the edge of the table as they flicked short pale thumbs over the tops of their phones.

~

Peggy Price stud­ies cre­ative writ­ing at The University of Southern Mississippi, where she works as a librar­i­an. Her short fic­tion has appeared in eli­maeSmokelong QuarterlyPindeldyboz, and Opium Magazine. She lives in Hattiesburg, MS.