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Ronald Duane Smith

The Water Column

SHE LEFT ON ALL THE LIGHTS. And it sounds like a couple of the downstairs windows are still open. I told her about that.

Daylight. The moon's up too. I unscrew light bulbs and sling them at our things: the black TV that watched us for twenty-seven months; the ugliest couch ever sold; the cooey Klimt print above our bed; the blue cat I never wanted, Sore.

While I'm at it, I toss one bulb out each open window. For luck or, at least, for symmetry.

Glass all over the floor. I'm running around, I slip, I really almost fall. But the fragments are still warm, they shine under the one bulb in the kitchen that I can't reach. I punch off the wall switch. She left.

__________

I BREAK EVERYTHING. But then I feel bad, sort of too male. Over-doing it. So I pick up Sore, and sing to him. Well, in my own way. So singing isn't your thing. So what? she said. Alone, I have a better voice.

Just me and Sore counts as alone.

__________

OTHER THINGS DON'T LEAVE. Bars of Belgian chocolate. A tube of blue glitter. Other things I can't use. Triangular make-up sponges. Three year old heels.

And Sore. What time is the cat supposed to eat? What does he eat? Little ribs, pretty claws? Did she take the can opener?

The sheets have to be changed. I'm seeing in black and white. The nickel-sized spot I find could be anything: blood, lipstick, mildew, paint. Is the stain hers or is it mine?

__________

THE RADIO'S BROKEN. It gives me two, three stations at once: hours in a gray velour cubicle with murmuring and static in my ears. Riding inside a shadow.

I drive faster than I want on the colorless freeway. Then I pass a wreck. A good one that slows me way down.

Ambulances, chocolate, the moon--all that over-referenced crap makes me think of her. There's probably some trick to beating that. I should have been paying attention.

__________

SHE TALKED IN ITALICS MOSTLY. I rushed to a haircut yesterday morning. She asked why, I told her. You read by candle-light? she whined. Without your glasses?

The last thing I remember her saying. But probably not the last thing she said. I didn't say I was happy. I think Sore wants her back.

__________

A MALL SEEMS LIKE A GOOD IDEA. I can be as invisible there as I want. She might even be shopping. Malls are very important, in urban sociological terms, she tried. They fill some of the gaps left by decentralization.

It's a Saturday so I have to park very far out. By the time I make it to the glass doors with their decals of cigarettes inside red circles, I'm sweaty and I've seen the Pope's new bestseller on three different mid-size sedan dashboards. Safety.

__________

INSIDE I SMOKE. I get to talk with some of the security people that way. But no one else. It's too crowded to walk at a comfortable pace, so I take a vinyl-covered mesh chair on the perimeter of The Food Arena.

I watch teenage girls and pick out a few that might end up looking something like her. I send them sturdy looks that make them touch their purses and flip their hair and look at their shoes. I get bored.

I buy a copy of the Pope's book. Just curious. I'm not Catholic but I get thirty percent off of the list price because I have a special card from the bookstore. The card cost money but I don't know how much. It was a gift, signed in fat cursive: Maybe this'll start you reading again.

__________

MY MOTHER CALLED HER A GEM. More than once. So I hightail it out to her place. She should have to deal with me now. It's only fair.

Mom just had the house painted. A sort of fishy color. She had to pay someone because my Father lives in Chicago now. It was Mom's idea. That was just after Christmas. She could have waited, gotten one more house-painting out of him. Actually, most people paint their houses in the winter here, it's driest then, so I guess that wasn't it.

I understand why she asked him to leave.

__________

"YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE REFERRED TO HER AS SA-TAN."

My mother takes an eerie tug from her menthol as she hands me a Sprite. Her cheeks collapse and her eyes disappear. I should quit smoking.

"Nothing to joke about. It all adds up. I told you that."

This way to the denial lounge, ma'am. "Well I'm just not so sure, Mom, where that fit in. Anyway, it doesn't matter now."

She grinds out the cigarette in the sink and climbs onto a chair. "Of course it does, William. If I had someone following me around, calling me Satan and--" She hands me a giant ceramic strawberry. What was that other thing you called her?"

I sigh. "Beelzebub." Was this ever funny? "What the hell are you doing up there?"

"How many cookie jars do I need? How many cake plates? I haven't baked a cake since 1982. Anyway. If I had someone following me around, calling me Satan and Beelzebub... On top of everything else. Well, I just can't see how that would help much." She hops off the chair, surprisingly lively.

"Damn, Mom. Dad called you-"

"Shush. And you'll notice that your Father isn't around anymore." She rinses ashes down the sink, touches my cheek with the damp back of her hand. "You know where she is?"

I finally snap open my can. "I don't want to."

__________

I DO KNOW WHERE SHE IS. But I don't want to see her. I'm almost certain. Her car's parked in the driveway of the big house on Moselle. She lived there with her parents when we met. Now her younger sister Claire does. Claire has a husband; they're already working on a baby.

I drive some more, without the radio.

__________

THE KITCHEN IS JUST BLACK. I don't see the stuffed garbage bags resting against the dishwasher door until Mom's turning on the fluorescent lights and yelling something about my teeth.

I fell.

__________

THE EMERGENCY ROOM SMELLS HORRIBLE. Sweat and unwashed hair. I cracked my front teeth right off. Mom has them in her purse. It doesn't hurt like it should, the bleeding's already stopped.

We wait an hour and a half. I use this time to check for messages on our machine at the apartment again and again.

I run out of quarters so I walk around the halls of the hospital. I find a tinted glass room with tables and vending machines. No bill-changer, but the drink machines take dollars. A Sprite costs eighty cents. I feed the machine four Ones. Eight dimes, three more calls. If my luck holds.

I see a fountain outside the smoked window. It's a really great one: a circular dimple in a courtyard with this glowing column of water running straight into the dark blue sky. I wish I could hear it. The water doesn't seem to come back down. I can't figure out how the thing works.

There's a butterscotch cat in the courtyard. Hunting something I can't see, a roach maybe. I remember that Sore hasn't eaten. I didn't like cats. Just let me have one and you can name it anything you want, she said.

I watch the fountain and the tabby for a while, then I walk back to the pay phone. The four Sprite cans fit perfectly on top. The second time I call, the answering machine malfunctions, maybe because I've been checking for messages that aren't there. There's a sequence of clicks, dial tones, touch tones, then silence. I'm ready to hang up when a collage of old messages starts playing.

"I got the flowers Will. I can tell they cost you. It's a nice gesture, but--"

"I'm gonna have to cancel lunch. I'm too pissed. I just talked to my mother. They think you're sick. Thanks ever-so-much. (Sigh.) I don't know if I can--"

"I know you think opera's phony, but the tickets were free and I really want to go. Please? For me--"

"I'll be home at six-thirty, sweetie. Feed the one known as Sore--"

Behind me, someone says my name, impatiently. They're ready for me. I don't hang up the phone, I let it swing.

Mom hands me the tissue that contains my teeth. She wants to go in back to see the resident with me.

"Not a chanth." I hand her my loot.

She leans into me, cradling the four green cans, and says, "She would have married you, Will."

Mom's no floodlight. "And then what, Mom?"

__________

SHE'S BEEN GIVING RIDES. The passenger door of her car is unlocked. I sprint back to my car and grab the yellow and red plastic sack. Inside's the book by the Pope. The early morning air pulls a sting out of my new gap. She's not Catholic either.

I watch the windows of the house as I walk back up the drive. People have been shot for less than this. Nothing, a kitchen light.

I tear the last page out of the hardback and stuff it into my pocket. Then I open her car and rest the Pope's book on the dash.

Sore needs to eat.

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