David talks in pictures. I’m told it’s a pretty rare condition, something to do with childhood trauma or too many ill humors in the brain, or perhaps the liver. “Good morning, David,” I say to him on the elevator, both of us smothered in rain-darkened overcoats, briefcases in hand. Whiskey in crystal, he says to me. A single still-furled orchid. This means good morning, Alexis, and how was your weekend?
Most folks have a terrible time understanding David when he really lets rip, but it all seems pretty clear to me. Holly and snow at midwinter, lights in the distance, means are you seeing your family soon? Old red truck up on the cinderblocks, rust on the hood, engine shot to hell, means happy Friday, and did you finish the Johnson report? David and I chat all the time at the water cooler, little paper cups going warm and soft in our sweating hands. “Where did you grow up?” I ask him. “Were you happy there?”
Blue-gray January sky, David tells me. A bare gum tree, white limbs stretching up and up. A circling hawk, there and then gone, which means, I think, Central Florida, and also no, not really.
David does the accounts at work, long columns of black numbers, his big eyes blinking and squinting, one row to another. Sums don’t require a conversation. I pass his dim little office on my way to the ladies room. Shreds of gray clouds rushing before the wind, he tells me when I put my head in. I say, “You’re absolutely right.”
I’ll admit that sometimes I do get it wrong. Red stained glass at sunset, he told me last week. Incense and singing, a deepening cold. We were at the company retreat, picking over the dessert table. I stared at him. I’m so lonely I cry at night, he’d told me, and when I hesitantly asked if he’d thought of therapy, he waved his hands and laughed and said BLUE stained glass, perfume, so he wasn’t lonely at all, and he hadn’t cried since he was twelve, but when I offered him a hug anyway he clutched me to himself for two heartbeats, three.
I started getting it wrong more often, after that. A gray-faced hound dog asleep in the sun, running his legs to a dream.Your eyes are beautiful. But no, he’d meant: could you email me that string of W-9s? First light at the ocean, moon nearly gone, water coming up black and then gray and then blue. I wait all day to talk to you. But really he meant: it’s starting to warm up outside. Campfire in the deep woods, tongues of flame touching the still air, mountains as walls of deeper night. Stars dim and hazy and far-off, folding away behind a bank of tall spare pine. I feel so small in this enormous world, like I’m running as fast as I can on a road that unspools forever, and there’s never any safe place to stop and rest, no shade and no cold water and no gentle voice telling me to lie down now, to close my eyes, to sleep. But what he was trying to say was congratulations on your promotion. I’m sure the New York office will be thrilled to have you.
Everyone signed a card for me on my last day, little notes and scribbles, Best wishes! and Good luck with your move! The bottom-right corner was full of David’s tiny neat letters: A child on a hill, dusk. The whole green-armed forest spread below, shaking in the wind, loosing blackbirds to the air like kites. I love you.
But I’m probably wrong about that too.
Maria Zoccola is a queer Southern writer with deep roots in the Mississippi Delta. She has writing degrees from Emory University and Falmouth University. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, Colorado Review, Spillway, Southern Indiana Review, Fence, Lunch Ticket, and elsewhere.