I used to write a lot of short stories. Here’s one.
Remember that blind guy on Jeopardy and how his eyes looked like coals on a snowman. All this puckering around them and set way back in his potato head. The contestants next to him both spelled their names in loopy skywriting letters, but the blind guy typed his—another tiny thing in a too-big socket.
“He’s cheating,” I said.
“Fuck you,” you said. You ate a Bugle off the tip of your index finger and said it again with your mouth full: “Fuck you.”
“Fuck him. He’s playing the sympathy card.”
“Quit it with the ‘playing the card’ thing,” you said.
“They don’t want to beat a blind man. How would you go home with that? You won on Jeopardy—it was at a blind man’s expense?’”
You wiped your nose with the back of your hand. “If someone else knows the answers then it’s hardly winning at his expense. That’s how the game’s played. The blind guy wouldn’t be on the show if he thought he couldn’t handle it.”
I stole a Bugle from your pinky.
“Don’t you think there have been much harder struggles for this man?” you said. “Don’t you think just getting up in the morning and feeling the sunlight from the window and not being able to see it—don’t you think that’s much more of a struggle for him—a daily struggle—than losing on Jeopardy?”
“Have you ever lost on Jeopardy?” I said. “Have you ever been born blind? Do you have any idea what you’re talking about?”
You wouldn’t look at me. I saw the Scrubbing Bubbles commercial reflected in your glasses.
“And if he’s so bothered by the sunlight every morning, he shouldn’t put his bed under a window. He’s a masochist.”
Then you ignited.
Remember how in the movies, when someone’s lit on fire, you can look really closely at a flailing arm or leg and see the stuntman inside the flames. You weren’t like that at all. You didn’t run around in circles screaming. Just a pop, and then fire. You may have looked at me, but I don’t know. You said nothing. Your eyes boiled pretty fast. Then you were a little pile of ashes. And glasses. And teeth.
You had tiny teeth. Remember your mother used to call them eensy-weensy. Most women with tiny teeth have regular sized gums. They smile, and it’s all pink. But your mouth was proportionate—so small it barely had room for all your teeth.
“Those things are packed in there like a Chinese army,” I said.
Remember you ignored me. It used to feel like a game of charades, and your ignoring me was that circular hand motion that says “you’re close, keep going.” But towards the end it just felt like a stop sign.
I held my chin in my hand, feigning pensiveness. “Yep,” I said. “Like a million Chinese all lined up in a matchbox.”
You grabbed both sides of your head like you had a live grenade in there. “Will you please shut up so I can finish this?”
Remember your hilarious drama.
“Who are you? What are you doing in the library?”
“Why wouldn’t I be in the library?” I said.
“It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday.”
“Don’t quote Billy Joel at me, tiny teeth.”
You laughed and slapped a hand to your lips to hide your mouth.
“You should have those looked at,” I said. “Open up.”
You coughed and sniffed and opened your mouth with your eyes turned away. Remember you said I could have kissed you then, but I didn’t.
I was charming.
Thank goodness your teeth were still there, otherwise no one could identify you. You’d just be a woman-shaped oil slick on my bed, and there’s no explaining that to the cops. I made out a shadow of black dust where your fingers used to be, but no prints. I saw a bump in the soot I thought might be your nose. My breath leveled it when I came in for a closer look.
I harvested your teeth with my fingertips. It felt like hundreds. You must have been a scientific anomaly. I felt a sneeze coming on, so I carried your teeth across the room before I could blow the rest of you into the carpet.
Remember that tree we found in the woods.
“What the hell?” you said.
Little planks nailed into its trunk like a ladder. The nails rusted over. The wood splintered as you climbed.
“Be careful,” I said.
“You’ll catch me,” you said without looking down.
When I was a kid, my dad told me our living room spread about twenty feet wide, and that’s the reference I’ve used ever since. You climbed about two living rooms high and said, “There’s a platform up here.”
The pine bark cracked and creaked with each of your steps. There’s no way I could have caught you. I’m a small person, even with shoes on.
“It’s probably a deer stand,” I said.
“There’s a white cross with a drop of blood in the middle. I think this is a lynching tree.”
My grandfather showed me his robes one time before he died. I must have been in the first or second grade. I don’t know if he ever forced black people to climb these trees and jump off the platforms with a noose around their necks. I barely remember him, but I’m pretty sure he was an asshole.
“Shit, there’s more,” you said. “I can see three other platforms. No, four.”
Remember you wondered if they made people climb all the trees at once—if they just stood up there and looked at each other before they jumped.
“I’m coming up,” I said. A couple planks broke off as I climbed, but I didn’t look down. Remember I sat next to you on the platform and slipped my hand in your back pocket.
“What?” I said.
“Look behind you. Someone carved ‘Bonnie and Jacob’ in a little heart.”
Sure enough, there was a little love signature carved into the tree next to the painted cross.
“Who do you think carved it?” I said.
“Bonnie’s name is first. Probably her.”
“She didn’t finish the arrow.”
The feathery end of an arrow poked from one of the heart’s cheeks but never came out the other side.
Then the platform broke, and we went falling forty feet to the mud. Remember you landed on my leg and gave me my limp.
I set your teeth in the candy dish with the caramels and peppermints. You and your caramels. The wrappers all over my apartment. I felt one crinkle as I sat at the edge of the bed. The ceiling fan shined off you like an oil slick. You smelled like a bowl of milk left out for days.
Remember you read the newspaper and kicked pillows off the couch.
“Why don’t you get up and move around for a little while?” I said. “You’ll feel better.”
“He ate my cat,” you said.
Remember your cat used to wake me up by sinking his claws in my chest as many times as he could before I threw him against the wall. He’d been missing for a week. I felt great.
We saw the story on the news about the mailman who’d been stealing and eating the cats on his route, but we didn’t recognize his blurry picture. We’d never seen our mailman anyway. But when we got the letter it cheered me up, because can you imagine that? Working in public relations at the post office and all of a sudden having to write a form letter apologizing about a cat-eating mailman?
You didn’t think it was funny. You cried and hit things.
“He may not have eaten the cat,” I said. “He might’ve just kidnapped her. Maybe he was marinating her. Get up.”
“You’re an asshole.”
I sat down next to your feet and rubbed your ankles through your socks. “Do you want a new cat?”
“Yes. Go get one. Right now.” Remember you used that ironic monotone.
I pulled some blanket from you and dozed off to the sound of newspaper flapping under the air conditioner vent. I dreamed I was the king of Mongolia, and I knew a barber with slices of cheese I really wanted but he wouldn’t give them up for anything.
You said, “You ever think about seeing other people?”
Remember that feeling right before you fall backwards in a chair.
“No,” I said.
You made a loud breath and didn’t speak to me until the next morning. You jumped on the bed and asked if I wanted pancakes and eggs or eggs and pancakes. I said eggs and pancakes and pretended to forget you didn’t love me anymore.