Rock, Paper, Scissors - EXCERPT
“Remember when Dad brought us here the night of the accident, after you’d been to the emergency room? We sat over there.” Jenny points at a table next to the window. “I think it must’ve been this same waiter, back when he was young. You were pale as a sheet. How old were we?”
“I was eleven, you were nine.”
“And we got to order whatever we wanted. All I ate was chocolate cake. Three slices.” She laughs suddenly and loudly. “Ha! You were pale as a sheet, though nothing had happened. Nothing serious, Thomas. Bumps and bruises. Just a few bumps and bruises.”
The waiter sets steaming plates before them. The bartender places a red drink, a pallid stalk of celery poking out of it, in the middle of the table as if it were meant to be shared.
“Just a few bumps and bruises,” Thomas repeats slowly, pushing the drink toward Jenny. “That’s one way to look at it.”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. Eat your food. Cheers.”
She raises her Bloody Mary so that the lamplight shines through the red liquid. “Ha! Just a few bumps and bruises!”
“That actually looks like blood,” he says, pointing at the glass with his fork. Then he bores into his oxtail and shovels the sauce with his knife. The waiter limps back carrying a half-empty bottle of red wine along with a plate of olives. But Jenny isn’t happy. “They aren’t anything like the ones we had last time. Plain, tasteless. I bet they got them at the local supermarket. Try them yourself. Everything gets worse over time, everything, everything. Doesn’t it?” Thomas refuses to try the tasteless olives. He takes a swig of wine, and says: “Dear Jenny, you’re always complaining. Everything doesn’t get worse over time, everything gets better. We’re rid of Dad, for one thing. Think about that. And he’ll never come back. Except in our most terrifying nightmares.”
[. . .]
“Okay,” she says. “Listen. This is how it was: We sat right over there, at the table by the window, and Dad said: ‘Order whatever you want.’ He didn’t care, he said. At first I didn’t believe him, but he was serious. You remember that? He snorted and groaned. Sweat dripped from his temples down his cheeks. Remember how sweat used to run down his temples? Who’d called him anyway?”
“You know. Someone from the emergency room. I waited for hours. Do we need to discuss this?”
“Yes, we do. Dad visited you in the emergency room, then what?”
“Jenny . . . let it go.” Thomas stares resignedly at her.
“Come on. Then what?”
“Something had happened. I sprained my left arm, banged my head, and injured some vertebrae.”
Jenny leans back smiling patronizingly, almost gleefully.
“It’s true,” Thomas goes on, annoyed. “And the first thing he said to me when he walked into the room was, ‘What the hell have you done now?’ He didn’t care that I’d been hit by a car. He thought it was my fault.”
“Did you walk in front of the car, or what?”
“No, and you know it.” Thomas feels anger surging in him, his voice growing shrill. “It was speeding, it turned the corner, it hit me, I landed on the hood. You know all that. Maybe the sun blinded him. It was spring.”
“Who was blinded by the sun?”
“The driver! But it wasn’t my fault.” Thomas sighs loudly. “I was going to buy bread . . .”
“Yes.” Jenny flares her nostrils and turns away, eyebrows lifted. “I waited for you in the hallway. Waited and waited. But you never came.”
[. . .]
They stare at each other a moment, then each loses focus. Thomas zones out, his eyes resting on two men bent over their pasta. One of the men dabs his mouth with his napkin; the other says something, and the two laugh at the private joke. Thomas smokes greedily and drains the last of his cold, bitter coffee. Jenny gnaws at her pinky nail. She goes to the bathroom. Thomas thinks of his father’s kitchen, the toaster. The smell of the kitchen, the sound the cupboard next to the stove made when you closed it, how it stuck when you tried to open it. And the toast that would pop up, almost always too burnt at the edges, was like coal against his teeth, like tinfoil. He asks for the check. Jenny returns and begins to rummage in her purse. She fishes out a tube and slathers her hands with cream. A faint odor of menthol spreads around them. Then she begins to talk about her night shifts at the nursing home. About her modest salary and Alice and her friends who eat all her food. “What am I going to do?” she says, raising her hands only to let them drop heavily to her side. Thomas is exhausted, doesn’t say much. He pays, and they say goodbye outside the restaurant. Jenny is under a red umbrella, and Thomas is under a black one. Rain lashes the sidewalk with such force that it bounces off as if it were coming from both above and below. She offers him a key. The word Dad is etched onto a small piece of blond wood attached to the key ring. “I’m going out there tomorrow,” she says.
“Say hi to Alice!” he calls out as she walks away. She raises her arm dismissively but doesn’t turn back. Maybe she’s begun to cry. For a moment he feels a prickling jab of tenderness for the plump, swaying body disappearing around the corner. Then disgust. Then tenderness again.