Smaller, and Farther Away

He is flying east again, thinking about his ex-girlfriend. She was a perfect cupcake, just the right size, with frosting. Toenails like tiny fire engines. Watching the little screen, no sound, noticing the way the actress enunciates, the way she flips her hair. He thinks of her naked with her hair pulled back off her face, her cheekbones and pointy chin. No more pretzels. The woman in 22D has trail mix. She used to bring him cookies, little treats, let him finish her meals. The pills help his anxiety but don’t stop the sadness. The turbulents are smoothing out. The flight attendent glides up the aisle, like a dancer, away from him. He can’t bear to watch them do those hand motions indicating the locations of the overwing exits. From 22C he cannot see the famous skyline, the oil tanks like little watch batteries. He looks at the models in the magazine ads. He will continue to age, but she will always look the same in his memory, except smaller and farther away.

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Josep+Paloma

Paris is Raining

Water is raining down Montmartre, rivulets leaking to the Seine. Josep feels like a martyr, the slow torture of wet feet. The stitching of his leather shoes is rotting; that’s the kind of winter it has been. Paloma hugs his left elbow with her two impatient hands and leans her head on his shoulder like Suze Rotolo as they go freewheelin’ to déjeuner. Little birds scatter from a puddle, a flurry of wings, les oiseaux she says under her breath, in kinship. She could live on bread and butter, and strong coffee, bien sûr.

Brooding

Paloma and Josep sit silently, side by side in a black car, each watching a world blur away through tinted glass. Her hands worry in the nest of her lap like brood mates. His spine is a ramrod. The world is desultory, patches of olive and dun and abandon. Her ring is a dew claw — functionless, prone to catching on things, to getting caught.

Josep Is Away

Paloma is crossing the Pont des Arts. They took down the iron grillwork and the thousands of love locks. The brass Abloy with J+P scratched into the side. Last fall they locked it beneath the third streetlamp and tossed the key in the Seine. It is too hot for September, 30 and humid. Paloma stops, scratches at the bandage wrapped around her left wrist and hand, pokes her fingernail under the flesh-toned wrap and rakes at the skin of the back of her hand. A pigeon flies off with something in its beak. She is staring into the water, how it flows around the footings in ripples that are never urgent. Beyond the shadow, the surface of the water is too bright, full of sky and clouds.

Laundry

SHE IS DRIFTING in the warm lulling roar of the laundromat. She is a writer of erotica, and she has her standards. No vampires, no werewolves, no zombies.  She’s no prude; au contraire, light bondage is just too trendy, has lost its appeal for her.

The way afternoon light kisses clean sheets. The breeze that stirs the curtains. Bare skin in all its colors, how it blushes and blotches and glows. Her reflection in the fish-eyed dryer door, her lips around the long straw in her frappuccino. She sucks it dry and revels in the throaty gurgle of the last drops. Clothes tumble round and round, a mad chase of bras and panties.

TO PUSH THROUGH the heavy glass door of the laundromat warm and moist and thrummy into the hard winter air is to be born again, the same gulping reflex. She does not cry, just hurries along the patchy sidewalk, past the bodega-slash-taqueria, down the 6th Street grade toward the coast highway, canvas bag over her shoulder. The houses are ragged, perched uncertainly on small lots. Her scalp itches under an acrylic ski hat.

Fort Bragg is that kind of town, not far from Frisco but closer to Coos Bay or Aberdeen by the looks of it. You’re not supposed to say Frisco but she doesn’t care. Sometimes she walks aimlessly for hours, hands jammed in her front pockets. Her jeans are looser this year, held up by a braided hemp rope.  Her old boyfriend said she was hipless as a snake. He was a classic inland dumbfuck from a place called Leggett Hill. He talked her into a three-way in the back bedroom with a bleached blonde with big floppy tits after a long night of drinking, which left her feeling hung over and inadequate. She quit him, and tequila, cold turkey the next morning after throwing up in the kitchen sink.

Thank God she wasn’t pregnant. Lots of erotica writers are, you know. No one knows why, and she doesn’t want to find out.

THE CEILING is a familiar tension of cracks, plate tectonics. She lies alone on the stripped mattress. She is a candle that will not stay lit, a wax figure in a darkening room. Click of the radiator. She wants to be Lucinda Williams purring I lie on my back and moan at the ceiling, but all she can hear is Amanda Palmer singing the first orgasm of the morning is like a fire drill, it’s nice to have a little a little warning but not enjoyable.

They told her California would fall into the sea. Take me, she whispers, I’m already underwater.

THE PARTICULAR BRIEF PANIC of waking alone in the dark, unsure for a moment whether it is a.m. or p.m.  The absence of sea gull cries. She pulls on her skinny jeans, zips her boots. Puts water on for tea. Lights a cigarette off the blue gas flame. Calls Jeanna. Come on. Fuck, no answer. She still owes me $40.

On her iPod, Aretha sings you make me feel like a na-tuh-ral wo-mun. Breathe. Okay.
This is her territory, the streets at night. Cap pulled low, hair tucked in her army surplus coat, hands in fingerless gloves, fists pushed into pockets.

As she strides through the double shadows between street lights, passersby think she’s a boy.

SHE IS HALFWAY through the overnight shift at the call center. Her given name is Julie but she has gone by Rainy ever since some crazy bitch threatened to kill her over a mistake on her phone bill.

Sometimes, after midnight mostly, when she asks is there anything else I can help you with, men will tell her she sounds pretty, ask her to describe herself, what she’s wearing, the size and shape of her breasts, the color and style of her panties, where she likes to be touched. She has one of those voices that arouses the perverts who have questions about their long distance charges or data plans, makes them ask her to mail them her panties after she has worn them first. Sometimes, on slow nights, she talks to them for a while, plays along, humors them, to the annoyance of the gal in the next cubicle, a Bible banger. After all, she majored in English at Santa Cruz.

After two, hardly anyone calls. She gets up to stretch her legs and pee. She locks the door, hovers over the toilet, tinkles, does a little shake, pulls her jeans over her hip bones, leans toward the mirror over the sink, studies her face at close range. She is 28 but still gets carded.

A PALE ROSY DAWN blooms as she climbs the stairs to her apartment. The laundry is still in the bag. She is too tired to make breakfast, too tired to make the bed. She takes off all her clothes, even her wool socks, and wraps herself tightly in the old red quilt. She closes her eyes and is already half asleep, dreaming of hands touching her, on her legs, on her belly, stroking her softly. Sleep is her heavy blanket, her patient lover, her only friend, the demarcation of one lonely day from the one before and the one yet to come.

Josep+Paloma

Paris is Raining

Water is raining down Montmartre, rivulets leaking to the Seine. Josep feels like a martyr, the slow torture of wet feet. The stitching of his leather shoes is rotting; that’s the kind of winter it has been. Paloma hugs his left elbow with her two impatient hands and leans her head on his shoulder like Suze Rotolo as they go freewheelin’ to déjeuner. Little birds scatter from a puddle, a flurry of wings, les oiseaux she says under her breath, in kinship. She could live on bread and butter, and strong coffee, bien sûr.

Brooding

Paloma and Josep sit silently, side by side in a black car, each watching a world blur away through tinted glass. Her hands worry in the nest of her lap like brood mates. His spine is a ramrod. The world is desultory, patches of olive and dun and abandon. Her ring is a dew claw — functionless, prone to catching on things, to getting caught.

Josep Is Away

Paloma is crossing the Pont des Arts. They took down the iron grillwork and the thousands of love locks. The brass Abloy with J+P scratched into the side. Last fall they locked it beneath the third streetlamp and tossed the key into the Seine. It is too hot for September, 30 and humid. Paloma stops, scratches at the bandage wrapped around her left wrist and hand, pokes her fingernail under the flesh-toned wrap and rakes at the skin of the back of her hand. A pigeon flies off with something in its beak. She is staring into the water, how it flows around the footings in ripples that are never urgent. Beyond the shadow, the surface of the water is too bright, full of sky and clouds.

Les Nymphéas

Josep is in the Musée de l’Orangerie, waiting for Paloma. He sits in the center of an oval room surrounded by Monet’s water lilies, une petite tempête, a little storm in the eye of the calm. Paloma is wandering the Jardin des Tuileries, unmindful of the hour. Errant raindrops, carried on the rising wind from some faraway cloud, splat the red clay path. Paloma looks skyward, wondering, while Josep is sitting on the oval bench, head tilted back, his eyes two black slits. He is staring cross-eyed past the semi-opacity of his aquiline nose at an opulence of purple and green wavering in and out of focus, trying to understand whether it would be possible to experience any comfort during a dreamless, endless sleep.

Paloma crosses the Place de la Concorde, walks down the long stairs to the Metro and boards the 8 for Pointe du Lac. The stations pass like days, light and dark, light and dark, the rattle and sway, the rhythm of her newly decided life.

Another snowy day

A short story that was published in The Blue Hour magazine in December 2012.

Sno-Caps and Lake Effects

by Ray Sharp (2003)

Late lunch after a quick swim at the college. I come out of the cold into the neighborhood sandwich shop to grab a sub to eat back at my desk. There’s one customer ahead of me: short woman, forty-fiveish, dull brown hair, talking to the big, cheery blonde who works weekdays. Looks like snow.

“Think we’ll get much today?” the customer says,nodding vaguely toward the door, then squinting up at the sandwich maker.

“S’posed to,” answers the sandwich maker. “Lake effect.” She pauses from her work, absentmindedly wipes her hands at the broad hips of her green apron, brushes wisps of growing-out bangs from her cheek and tucks them behind her left ear. I’ve been coming here for almost a year and never asked her name. Call her Donna.

“Ha! Doubt it. I been walking every morning. S’been a good winter so far,” says the short woman. Faded jeans tucked into old boots. Parka patched at the elbow. Call her Liz, no, Jerrie.

Jerrie’s going on kind of loudly about a movie she saw last night. Maybe a little drunk.

“…at the Bijou. Bad movie. Well, good director and all, lots of quick action, sorta like what wazzit called? Oh, ya know, with those two people. Woody Harrelson and that girl…”

“Natural Born Killers?” I offer from over by the cold drinks. I never actually saw it.

“Yeah, it was like that, only bad.” She smiles at me like she’s a little pleased that the guy in the coat and tie has joined the conversation, and then continues. “I fell asleep. Actually, I closed my eyes when two guys were fighting. I hate it when men are fighting. They were hitting each other in the face. Blood was spraying all over. I closed my eyes and missed about half an hour and woke up and it was almost over. I hate that. Donchya hate that?”

Definitely been drinking. And it’s only one-fifteen. We’re the only three people in the shop. Jerrie’s nobody I ever met before, never even noticed her in this small town. It’s starting to snow.

“Yeah, I just saw a movie at the Bijou, too,” Donna says. “Mayonnaise, mustard, oil?”

“Mayonnaise.”

“Salt and pepper?”

“Yeah, thanks. Whadjya see?”

“Oh, um…I can’t remember. Geez, what was it?”

A brief silence. Jerrie is coming toward the cooler. I step away to give her room.

She picks up the thread again: “And didjya notice them seats? When they made it into three theaters, how small them seats got? I mean,ya gotta hold your arms like this, ‘cause that’s all the room ya got.”

“Not like some of those places with, like, rocking chairs,” Donna says as she looks up from the cutting board. I like watching her work. Her fingers are long and thin, piano fingers. Even during the noon rush, she never seems flustered, always has everything under control.

“Oh, and I got some Dots last night!” Jerrie’s small eyes twinkle as her grin spreads wide like a crescent moon through patchy clouds.

“They were all chewy and got stuck in my teeth. Isn’t that great, you know, candy they only have at the movies?”

“Yeah, and what’s that other kind…Snowballs or something?” I chime in.

“Sno-Caps,” Donna says, and flashes me a private smile.

“Yeah, I was just thinkin’ of them, too,” Jerrie says. “Isn’t it funny that you can only get ‘em at the movies!”

“Then there’s that whole other kind of movie candy you also find in vending machines, like Raisinettes or Milk Duds,” I add, now fully engaged in the repartee. I know this because we have both kinds for 85 cents in the downstairs break room at work.

“Life is just so great, isn’t it? There’s always something new to think about,” Jerrie says.

We all nod and smile. I sneak a peek at my watch. I need to get back for the two o’clock budget meeting.

“I work at the deli counter in the IGA,” Jerrie says, as sort of an introduction. “I make 180 sandwiches a day. I’m quite the chef.”

“That’s a lot of sandwiches,” I say. “I guess I’m the only one who doesn’t make sandwiches, professionally that is.” I hope that didn’t sound condescending. I order a tuna on whole wheat, with all the veggies.

Jerrie turns and walks toward me. “What’s on the bottom of your tie,” she asks, and begins to reach for the front of my coat, then softly brushes her thumb along her fingers, like she was about to grab my tie and then pulled back at the last instant.

“Oh, nothing, just a picture of a fishing lure…and I don’t even fish,” I laugh. I pull out my tie and hold it up for her to get a better look.

“I collect vintage ties, ya know,” Jerrie tells me. “I love ‘em. Fashion accessories are great. Old purses, scarves, especially ties. Know what I mean?”

“I get mine at thrift stores. They’re twenty-five cents at Vinnie’s in Hancock, but seventy-five in Houghton,” I say. “What’s up with that?”

“I know, I saw a great tie the other day, a classic Seventies wide tie with paisleys, but it had a big grease stain on it.” Jerrie grabs a quart of Budweiser and heads for the register.

“Be with ya in a minute, Hun, just gonna finish this,” Donna says.

“’Sokay, today’s my day off,” Jerrie replies. “Goin’ to a friend’s house for lunch. Beer and a sandwich. It’s gonna be a great day. Ya know, a hug would feel good right now. He’s a stranger…he’ll give me one,” and with that, Jerrie puts the beer on the counter, strides over to me, short arms outstretched, head tilted slightly to my left. I take the last step forward and bend down toward her, put my arms out tentatively, and our bodies meet in front of the sliced turkey breast. The sweet smell of beer breath and the feeling of hair against my face pull me to a faraway time and place. Self-conscious now, I glance over her left shoulder toward the window, but no one’s there. Then Jerrie turns, pays, and walks out.

By this time, my sandwich is done. I grab some pretzels and a Diet Pepsi and put them next to the cash register.

After I pay, I pull out a folded-up flyer for a credit card company.

“Look at this,” I say to Donna, “They pay you two dollars for every referral you make, and two dollars for every one those people make, right on down the line. It says here that if you refer ten new people, and they each refer ten, and so on for ten levels, you can earn twenty billion dollars. Only problem I see is there’s not ten billion people on Earth, and I’m probably not even getting in on this at the top of the pyramid.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Donna chuckles. “And I’ve never even had a credit card.”

“Really, a business owner like you?”

“Well, I’m not the owner, just the manager.”

“Oh, I always figured you were the owner.”

“No, the owner mostly works weekends.”

“Was he in here last week, helping you at lunch time?”

“No, that was probably my husband. Just taking orders and working the register?”

“I guess so. I didn’t really notice.”

After that there isn’t much else to say. On the way out I pause to wish her a Merry Christmas.

“We’re closing tomorrow, you know?” Donna says, in a voice that suddenly seems too small, like it’s coming from far away.

“That’s good, everyone should get Christmas Eve off.”

“No, Bellucci’s is closing for good, going out of business after 29 years. I thought you might have heard.” Donna frowns and looks away. “I guess with all the new chains opening up, and with what it costs to heat this old place, well, anyway, this is my last day.”

“Have you tried to get a job at Subway or Cousins?” I say, as she dabs at her eyes with brown paper towel. “I’m sure they’d want to hire you.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that, it wouldn’t feel right. The Belluccis are like family to me,” Donna says, turning back to face me.“Besides, I work weekends at Cinema 5 out at the mall. That will have to see me through ‘til something better comes along.”

“I guess you really do know your Sno-Caps,” I blurt without thinking, a dumb line if I’ve ever heard one. We both smile.

“Well, hey, take care and have a good holiday,” I say as I head for the door. “I have to get back to work now.” What I don’t say is“while I still have a job to go back to.”

Outside, it’s really coming down now, big, wet flakes, each one beautiful and perfectly unlike every other. I hesitate in the doorway, then turn to face the stinging northwest wind. You only feel pain where the tender skin is exposed, and only until you’re numb from so long out in the cold.

Dear God, I hope it doesn’t come to that.