The Men That I Meet

Candyce Pelfrey Kannengieser

1. Enemy

Luis is all hands, short wide fingers, thick.

I sit across from him. Behind a table, a coffee, a cup. There are others around us. I am not afraid.

“You’re a teacher, huh?”

“Yes.”

Professora. That’s what we say at home.”

I like the sound of this.

Professora. I’m glad you met me here.”

He has a distinct gap between his two front teeth. He smiles at me. I imagine my tongue there, over his teeth. I drag my tongue across my own.

“What time does it start?” he asks me.

“Nine.”

“Soon. I left my wallet in my car. Come with me, okay?” He stands, pushing his body away from the table. I follow him. We walk in the darkness. He slips a hand around my waist. I wriggle away.

“What’s the matter, professora?”

I don’t know.  My cheeks burn. I squint at the sky. He smiles at me.

“Come here,” he says. “I want to show you something.”

He opens the door to his small, white truck, rifling around under the seat. “Here,” he says. He opens his wallet and shows me his driver’s license. New. I twist it toward the light to see the iridescent colors change.

“I took the test in English,” he grins.

“Congratulations,” I say and smile.

Luis is an engineer. He works in straight lines and numbers. Problems solved by science, formulas, will.

“I learned a new word,” he says.

He pushes up against me. I step back, toward the truck, then sit on the tan plastic seat.  He lays his hands flat across the roof, leans in to kiss me. I let him. His lips are thin and his tongue, like his fingers, thick. I feel his thighs close over my legs. I place my hands on his chest, and try to push him, gently, back. He grips my shoulders, applying pressure. I am still. His tongue slips further into my mouth. Another hand is on my knee, then thigh, hands up my skirt. I am reminded of high school. I try to push him away, harder. He eases back.

“What new word?” I ask.

“Treacherous. An adjective.”

The movie is long and I tire of it.  An old man and his young lover kill strangers. They hold cab drivers still with long handguns shoved into temples. Stark bullets spray blood and skull across the dusty earth, across black tar pavement across the movie screen. Afterwards, the old man finds cathedrals where he confesses. He kneels before altars full with candles lit for the dead. Red carnations and yellowed roses fall around and he thinks they are for him. He thinks they are left for him as answers to his prayers. He cradles a wilted rose, then presses it to his lips and kisses it.

Luis leans into me, one arm over my shoulder, his other hand pressed flat to my thigh. He reaches for my fingers, pulling them down until my fingertips feel the soft weave of his pants. His legs are strong.  I cross my legs catching his hand between my thighs. He asks me to leave with him and I agree. I am relieved by the air of the night. He walks me to my car and invites me to his house. I decline.

He whispers my name, and holds me against the door of my car. His fingers creep into my blouse; his tongue catches a taste of my neck. I think of roses. I try to push him away. “Come with me,” he says. I try to imagine him in my house, among my things. It is impossible. I don’t know him. “I have to go,” I interrupt his hands, taking his fingers away from my waist. “Where do you live?” he asks. I think of him with arms taut, held against me harshly. I think of loose cord in my house he could use to wrap my wrists. I turn. “ I have to go.”  He does not let go. His grasp is definite. His fingers pull the ends of my hair. I recall the soft press of rose petals to my lips. He pulls at my hair until my neck arches out and he slides his wide hand over the open expanse of my throat.

Holding my breath in, I turn again, abruptly. He squeezes, hands clenching, hot, but I push him harder, away. I lift the handle to my car, open the door, and slide in. I press the lock down, definite. He calls after me to stop, stay, listen. The engine sputters awake and I pull off.

At home, my reflection betrays the long red impressions left by his hands. I hold my hand up to my throat, comparing the width of the mark with the width of my fingers. The red is larger than the white. I lay in bed and think of rose buds, the soft fragrant flesh of rose petals. I imagine myself kneeling amongst piles of discarded flowers, their skin drenching mine.

*

2. Stranger

Downtown, after work, I walk to my car. The city is full with traffic and shops, awake with business. Today, a young man approaches me. His step is definite, a strong pace. Homeless? Maybe. I size up his worn sneakers and worn jeans smeared with black grease as his stride catches up, then matches mine. If he isn’t homeless, he’s a bottom feeder, anyway.

“Where you from, girl,” he asks. I feel him smiling at me, then at my black bag.

“Nowhere.” I answer him with eyes away pointed toward a clear autumn sky and the limited horizon of our city.  I pull my bag closer to me.

“How come you don’t look at me?”

I turn and glance at his face. It is burnt, or chapped. Long, white flakes of skin dangle from his nose and cheek. His ear is red and scratched. A line of dried blood clings to his soft, young man stubble.

“I’m in a hurry,” I say, mean-like, as to get rid of him. I look to see if I can dash across the street, against the traffic, but the stoplight is against me, and cars roar by, too quick to stop.

“Hey Chappy—” He calls out to an old, old man, also homeless, with back bent, in worn sneakers and black suit pants too long for his legs.  The cuffs drag across the sidewalk, drooping over his ankles.  I look up to the old man’s face, and notice his bright turquoise baseball cap.

“Nice hat,” young man says. Then, quicker than I realize, the young man shoves his browned fist up toward the old man’s face, forcing the hat to topple off the old man’s head.  Old man groans, softly. We both shudder, pulling away from the young man.

“Hey—” the old man cries helplessly. Then, bends slowly to retrieve his hat. I jerk away from the young man, who laughs, delighted by his own joke.

Young man turns to me. Serious again. “I have breast cancer,” he says.

“No you don’t.”

“I do. Wanna see?”

Before I can reject, he lifts his shirt. A long, black metal object is stuffed in the belt of his pants. My heart stops, looking for the handle of a revolver, then picks up pace again. It is a flashlight.

“See—” he says, pointing to his own erect, brown  nipple. Random black wire hairs sprout around it.

“Cancer,” he says. “Here.”

“I gotta get going,” I say crossing against traffic. I step into the street, determined to walk alone. A shiny blue Mercedes honks at me, as I briefly hinder its path.

*

3. Brother

He sits across from me, slurping purple, orange, and yellow circles off a milky spoon. I smile at him, heavy, still, from last night’s sleep.

“I don’t like the green ones,” he says, still staring towards his bowl.

“Why not? They taste the same.” I lift my coffee up and slurp, careful not to spill it down myself.

“Unlucky,” he says. “Very bad luck.”

His short blond hair sits stiffly above his brow. His mother told me of how he insisted on a flat top when she took him to the barber. He reaches up and pulls at the short bristles.

“Why do you think that is?” he asks me.

“What—”

“You know. Some things are good luck. Some are bad.”

“What do you mean?”

He shrugs and smirks familiarly.

“Some things work and some things don’t,” I say.

He wrinkles the soft skin of his brow, unsatisfied with my response. I am unconvinced, too. The coffee is too strong, so I pour in more milk and turn a spoon in it, sifting through the sugar at the bottom of my cup.

“But why—” he presses.

“I don’t know. It’s like when Ricky died last spring.”

Ricky was his pet turtle. He kept him in a cardboard box next to the sliding glass door of his mother’s apartment. He fed him shredded lettuce and pieces of apple. Occasionally he’d find a bug at the playground and bring it to the turtle, a gift. In the evenings, the boy would read fairy tales to Ricky, insisting that the turtle liked the stories although they were too babyish for him. The boy would search out his thick, stained copy of his favorite book and sit, cross-legged, on the cold linoleum floor. At first he had some trouble sounding out all the words, but he got better, built up speed and soon could make voices up for the characters, with special emphasis on the trolls and witches.

“Ricky died because it was his time,” he says.

“How do you know?”

He shrugs. “That’s what you said. You know. At the time.”

He was right. I had said that. He waits for me to respond to my own stupid logic. His feet thump against the legs of his chair, padded sock foot against wood.

“Grown ups don’t always have the answers.” This child knows this fact all too well. He knew it when his father died. He knew it when his mother, a lanky brown haired girl, brought him to visit me last night so she could go dancing with her young childless friends. Maybe all children know it, know that the only constant between parents and children is the growing degree of distance, each year more separate than the last.

He cocks his head at me. “Did you have any dreams last night?”

I close my eyes and think back, back to bed to blanket then to sleep. I see a boy, like this one, but tall, grown, with wide shoulders, and long legs stretched out under him. I see my brother, and I reach out to grab his hand, but miss. His blond hair is limp against his head, and he brushes it out of his eyes with beautiful, thick hands. He sits across from me at a table I don’t recognize, in a house I don’t know with a yard that smells like my mother’s bedroom.  He asks me if I remember him and I do. Brother. This baby’s father. Brother.

In the dream I am snapped to the place where he is killed, the same as it was photographed in the newspaper. The apartment building, the streetlight, the shaggy green and brown grass in pockets poking out from the broken sidewalk where he died, the dented cars in angles surrounding him.  His killer stands and looks back at me, panting, and frightened.  He is just another boy with black hair.  I do not recognize him and I scream so loud it frightens him away in quick leaps, his feet crunching against the asphalt.  I scream and cry out until the cars on the street around us wail with alarms and sirens.  I scream the way they do in movies, for catharsis. I scream out and awaken, hoarse and fatigued from the same dream that returned to me again.

“No,” I say. “I can’t remember any.”

“I dreamed I was a turtle,” the small boy says.

“Were you slow?”

“Yes. Very. But I didn’t mind. Turtles have a long time to live, you know. So it’s okay if they’re slow.”

“Was your shell heavy?”

“Not at all.” He slurps the last of his cereal through lips curved like an O.

“Did you like being a turtle?”

“Sure. But I’d rather be a bird, I think.” He looks thoughtfully towards the sky. “A bird. Or a volcano.”

“Boys can’t be volcanoes.”

“They can’t be birds, either.”

“Yes, but don’t you think it’d be more fun to be a bird, free and flying, than a volcano?”

He sighs, impatient. “What would you want to be?” he asks.

I sit and consider the question. The milky cool coffee tastes bitter.

“Nothing,” I say.

“Nothing at all? Not even for one day?”

“Well, maybe for one day I could be a turtle.”

“Any turtle?”

“Ricky had it pretty good,” I say. The boy scoots to his feet and comes to hang on the arm of my chair. “What time’s my mom coming?” he asks.

“Pretty soon.”

“Did she have fun last night? Without me?”

I touch the short soft bristles of his hair. “Of course she didn’t.”

He smiles at this, and races off to find his shoes.

#

Candyce Pelfrey Kannengieser is a writer of short fiction, long poems, flash memoir and experiments in prosody. She also teaches English, tends to a dog named Wyatt and is currently working on two projects of mosaic fiction—pieces fitting together to bring a whole work of art into focus.