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G.D. Brown has worked as a literary editor and as an award-winning newswriter. His literary work has appeared in or is set to appear in Full Stop, Oyster River Pages, Abandon Journal, COUNTERCLOCK, Jokes Review, Westview, PopMatters, Oracle Fine Arts Review, The Tulsa Voice, and elsewhere. He is a Goddard College MFA graduate and lives in Milwaukee, WI.
From WTP Vol. IX #10
I had a bolt of wool across the table, a collection of fibers pulled apart and brought together again as one, as a bolt. I was eating lunch, or I was sipping something bitter while my lunch settled in my stomach. The bistro deck was rising and falling with traffic, young people in sweatshirts, old people wearing caps, their ceramic mugs and paper napkins. Tree limbs wobbled back and forth over the line of tables nearest the patio fence, over the bent-over heads of the hungry or the back-leaned heads of the wrinkled conversationalists. The branches’ shadows were climbing east with time. Soon, my wife would be back at our apartment, home from work.
The wool on the table was originally meant to be a coat, a sheep’s coat, but then someone had repurposed it to be a heavy shirt or a blanket at the mill across town, where I had interned during college. Now, thanks to the kindness of a former supervisor, the wool was going to be a set of scarves, one for me, one for my wife, one for her dog, all three for a picture I’d promised to take before the holidays. The wool was immaculate plaid, black and green with sharp blue streaks, not a hint of defect. My former supervisor had joined me at the bistro for lunch, to drop off the fabric and to wish me luck with it. Then she’d left me behind with the dishes, hardly a shared memory left uncovered in only half an hour. I ordered something to drink while smears of cheese and a pale green sauce coagulated on the otherwise empty plates.
“Right this way.”
A hostess pointed a couple to their table, which was on the other side of my table. I inched forward to watch them pass, my belt digging ridges into my belly. Beneath the skin, food was melting away into energy, into waste. Within hours, all that was good of my lunch would be gone, that is, if I was lucky. In the best of circumstances, it would be used-up before it could make its way to the spare tire I was carrying beneath my shirt.
I was gaining weight nearly every week back then, my wedding weight or however close I’d been to achieving that weight, becoming something like a schoolyard tale, something that someone else had told to me instead of an image of my own body. So, I was eating sandwiches with potato chips and counting every empty calorie that entered my body during mealtimes. My wife remained slender in spite of her hours spent on the couch. By the time we’d tied the knot, we’d already been living together for years, since just a year after college. When we first met, I had been earning my living behind a sewing machine and kept my sketchbook on the bedside table. Despite the delay and the seemingly clerical nature of the whole thing, my body knew the weight of matrimony, and the pounds gathered en masse over my belly, in knots of jelly at my sides, the way that it had done for nearly every television father who had guided my childhood.
The couple sat mere feet from me. I could imagine their scent. I flagged down some waiter or other and ordered another drink, a cup running over with foam and fat-to-be. The couple was younger than I was, maybe 10 years younger, probably still in college, a shaggy-haired boy and a girl in cat-eyed sunglasses. The boy tossed his head around when he made jokes. The girl dipped her glasses down to flash her eyes at the boy from time to time. They both laughed the controlled laughter of polite adoration, first date laughter, that great equalizer and safety blanket, half-bared teeth and dimples. They took turns listing names and explaining their respective relationships with the names.
“He was totally in my bio class!”
Before the couple, the bistro patio had kept about its business with a sense of reservation, hushed tones and library propriety. Their arrival signaled that it would soon be time for the youth to overtake the patio like Jacobins. They would fill the place with their crackling voices and chai lattes, and they would run off the old men and the folks like me who would soon be old men. For now, though, the couple was alone in their vibrant sociality. They bubbled up between the quiet regulars, the perfect pairing for the lively gusts that rocked the trees beside them.
Usually, I made a point to leave the bistro before the young people showed up. I liked the place best in the mornings and with coffee. I liked to watch the steam sway over the top of my cup and warm my chin while I made notes in my sketchbook: add fleece here, fringe along the sleeves, etc. Sometimes, on weekdays, I was the first person to show up, to have a cup of coffee before I hurried off to sell fast-fashion at the retail store where I was a clerk. On my days off, though, I’d have an Irish coffee or a beer out on the patio, trying to remember how it felt to draw a skirt hanging on a woman’s hips, on the actual bones. I would sketch and erase until the early afternoon. Then I would go home and sleep until my wife came home from her job at the laundromat. We stayed in fashion that way. I put new clothes on people, and she got those clothes cleaned up and ready for another round of wear.
“What are you thinking?”
The boy was leaning over his lunch, resting his chin in his palm, no sign of a belt-ridged belly like mine. The girl had taken off the sunglasses and was staring back at him with a teasing smile, an I-know-a-secret smile. I heard their voices over the street traffic and the drawn-sword sounds of silverware. I saw the color in their cheeks burning with the coming possibilities. I hadn’t yet been married when I’d last asked my wife about her thoughts. In fact, I’d nearly forgotten about the whole universes that were exploding and turning in on themselves in the soft matter beneath her skull. At some point, I’d begun to categorize her answers by their nearness to my coming gratification, and I found little use for any real thoughts she might have had. Are we all so willing to lose the eternal thrill of discovery to dusty habits wrapped in a pawnshop word like “love,” to go on unmoved by the explosions in our so-called “lovers’” heads?
“I think you can take a guess,” the girl said.
Her boy bit his lip. The both of them smiled, unhaunted. Soon, I was settling up for my drinks and hobbling out to my car with the bolt of wool under my arm, cursing the hormonal ease of the first-date conversation. People, especially young people, often say that it is hard to talk to prospective partners, but when we are young, it is about the most natural thing we can do. Our bodies are warm and full of butterflies, our minds quick, focused, ready to fire. One day, however, we wake up with a stillness in our chests, and from that day onward, we must dig up every careful word for our partners, must make promises beyond our genitalia, if there are any promises left to make. The instinctual gives way to the mathematical, and there is no solution without its proof.
I did not drive home from the bistro. My stomach was burning with drink. The couple’s infectious sense of discovery had me feeling brave and open to the world outside my couch, where my wife was certainly already watching something I wouldn’t understand. I drove to a craft store, clicking the white stripes on the highway with my teeth as I struggled to keep my steering proper. Hot-faced, I kept the appearance of virginal sobriety. The craft store was part of a strip mall, the sort of place whose name had, when I was a child, evoked a sense of sexuality—a “strip” mall, a place for stripping. I was in my teens before I learned that a strip mall was actually another concrete tumor of our consumptive need to buy, a place for the stores that could not afford the rent of the indoor, stripless malls. I was in my twenties before I had any idea of what that actually meant in any material, social sense. I was in my thirties before I paid to watch anyone strip.
The row of shops at the strip mall was all dim lights and shuttered windows, cut hours and layoffs on account of a market crash and low evening sales, hardly the glut of sexiness I would have imagined as a child. Nothing would be open “after dark.” The craft store itself would close in twenty minutes, according to the sign on the door. The part-time staff had already pulled the plug on the neon letters that hung behind the front window. Still, a handful of cars (most of which likely belonged to those employees anxious to head home to both their families and their video games) made dotted lines in the parking row in front of the store, morse code, “S . . . S,” my car included. Somebody help them, not even enough traffic for a proper distress signal, and still, I was surprised by the shoppers who remained.
I went to the store to find a thread, a tie to bind my wool against itself, to make a proper scarf. I wouldn’t need a pattern. Scarves, as I’m sure you know, are only slender rectangles folded and wrapped and tied around necks, some with fringe or tassels. My collection would have no fringe nor tassels, none of the indicators of bourgeois opulence. No, my scarves would draw the eye through their firm control of color, through the dyed wool and its contrast with the slender red thread, the bright and zig-zagging line along the wool’s edge. Though I could have gone home and produced a number of reds from my drawer of thread, I wanted something new, something daring, not the familiar reds of blood and candy apple, not the possibly-sourceless crimson or scarlet, not the apparently seasonal, subdued red that bordered orange and the call to autumn. I sought a red that was both deep and still-living, vibrant and unassuming. My tiny touch of red would bring the wool from its bolt state to a place of high fashion, to a garment status. But to create such a piece, I had to first take my place among the elite creators of my age, those monied hands carving out their places in every boutique and magazine I’d never heard of. To create, of course, I had to buy.
The craft store, a narrow unit lined with fabric and frames and an entire wall of paint, felt uncomfortably full thanks to the four or five other artists whose cars sat next to mine in the lot. The tops of their heads bobbed along the aisles as they picked out their yarn, their canvas, and their turpentine, those minor tools lost to the casual eye amid the greater media, the paint, the bright cotton strip. The employees charged with seeing the last of us back out to our muses were leaning over the glass countertop where they kept the register, laughing and glancing from time to time at the clock that hung above the door. They were young people, hardly older than the couple at the bistro, two dyed mops of hair that ended below the ears, two stick figures wrapped in red vests. My quick nod to them as I entered the store was a promise that I wouldn’t be there long. I, if anyone, would respect their will to leave.
The thread display was divided among endcaps near the mess of fabric, along with the darning needles, thimbles, and fabric shears. The store carried two of the most popular brands of cotton thread, what I assume are the big names for most craft stores, strands that didn’t become a visible mess of frizz when you held them up to the light. Both brands described their colors with numbers rather than the useless names otherwise assigned to the visible spectrum. Their arbitrary digits attempted to say nothing about what they were describing, because they knew, as any good artist knows, they could not.
The sun glared hot against the front window as I took the numbered threads in my hands and felt the plastic spools with my fingertips, the thread wrapped tight on the spools in perfect circles. A spool of #119 from one brand seemed to burst from the shelf, but then, so did the other brand’s #150. I long considered these threads, holding both spools. My eyes wandered about the room, and I let my mind, my artist’s instinct, take the place of my failing eyesight, the product of the modern age. My artist’s mind faded back into the deep recesses of my head, though, when I was distracted by the familiar weave of a woman’s mousey, brown-haired head over the top of an aisle at the other side of the store.
The head was bobbing along, seemingly uncertain, parted hair in the middle. It was a familiar head, perhaps the head of a former classmate, a one-night stand, certainly not my towheaded wife, who was by now, of course, at home and forgetting her day in such a way as to render it unmentionable. This head, however, bounced up and down the short aisle before me. I was still standing there with the thread in my hand, forgetting which spool had been #119 and which had been #150 and why I had ever needed to consider either of them. Now, I was subject to a verifiable mystery, the mystery of this bobbing skull full of thoughts and ideas and wrapped in flesh and dull brown hair. In fact, it was only when the head, and the woman that belonged to it, appeared to find whatever it was that it was looking for and turn toward the register at the front of the store that I considered a solution to the mystery. Surely this woman was, or had been, married to a friend of mine, a dorm-mate in college. Yes, I had likely met my own wife at their wedding, only to hear from someone at my wedding years later that this woman and my friend were filing for divorce. I heard he took the kid too.
The woman was standing at the craft store checkout then, and I could not see her face, not her full face anyway. Twice she moved her head to the side as if she were gazing out over the parking lot, unbothered by the young employee who was ringing up her crafts, and I could catch the white of an eye and the intimate corner where her lips met. Still, I could not be sure whether this woman was the same woman who had told her husband, on the altar, that she did not need him, who had not cited some progressive wholeness, but who had instead reassured her dearly beloved that Jesus Christ was already filling her every need, that my former dorm-mate was just along for the proverbial ride. I wondered where that left her now. Did the now-absent husband and every-other-weekend child leave a hole in a woman so filled by the omniscient Christ as to wave Him around her wedding like the chaperone’s intimacy-busting ruler at a middle school dance? Was it even reasonable to expect room for another man, much less a baby, in such an arrangement? Either way, the woman was paying for her crafts. Soon, she would again be gone from the periphery of my life. This, of course, assumes that she was indeed the woman at the craft store in the first place. I stood watching, alone with my growing belly and my two spools of thread, waiting for answers.
My dorm-mate had been the sort of friend who was good for drinking beer and for smoking cigarettes, the sort of friend whose bond fades when you’re all out of smokes or having to stuff plastic cups into trash bags before heading off to work. Sometimes, I wonder if I am also this sort of friend, or worse, this sort of husband. When I am sober, I hardly have anything to ask my wife, to ask anybody. My mind floats just out of my own grasp, ready only to respond. It is no real wonder then, my old dorm-mate’s disappearing after he tied the knot, and who could blame him, having to compete with Jesus Christ for this woman’s attention. I, for one, was never able to make the short drive across town to his house, 20 minutes and two highway interchanges.
Perhaps, in the end, it had been a large and jealous Jesus who had brought about their divorce. Perhaps fistfuls of post-wedding weight had done them in. Or perhaps they had simply run out of words. I still ask myself whether it takes so little to undo holy matrimony, whether it is worth our time then to go along ascribing holiness. My old dorm-mate had really cried at his wedding, tears and snot and red on his cheeks. I had been picture-perfect smiles at my own wedding, hardly a glossy eye. Did we ever stand a chance? Again, I considered the thread in my hands. Again, I sought out the woman’s face at the register eying her purchases, which were now ready to go in a paper bag. Then it hit me: if I could make it to where she was standing before she took the bag and left, I could ask her where it all went wrong. I could ask her if I would soon suffer the same fate. But then the woman was leaving, still a mystery, and I was putting both spools of thread back onto the rack.
Before I left, I pressed my face against the storefront and watched the woman drive away, her identity still obscured, this time behind a tinted windshield as she backed up and out of the parking lot. The employees at the register were asking if they could help me, but I wasn’t listening. I was thinking of the distance between myself and the woman, between myself and the young couple at the bistro. I was thinking about the bolt of wool in the front seat of my car and whether it could be made into something more than a scarf, more than an accent in a painful photograph. I was thinking about love and bistros and weddings and craft stores, the places where love goes to die, and I realized then that I hadn’t thought about love in far too long.
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