A Story You Tell Yourself

A version of this story was published in the journal Western Humanities Review (1991 or 1992?)

They call it the waiting room for a reason. Others could testify, although you wouldn’t hear them. Although you sit and wait alone, others have been here, involved in situations. You sit and you wait and, while you don’t exactly feel other presences, you read their signs. You read the signs they might have read, as they sat, as they waited. Warning signs. Friendly advice. Factual information. And just as readers preceding you might have worked out, person by person, the terms of particular situations, you postpone your own coming-to-terms and try to decipher these hieroglyphs, these remains of visits vanished into history, fragments of waiting, artifacts of wondering and maybe, more than likely, worrying, little more or less than leavings in the shallow ashtray.

To your left, at arm’s length, on the unsteady octagonal endtable, adjacent to the coverless copy of People and the waved, probably water-damaged Self, the shallow ashtray is white, is made of china, and carries on its still-glossy surface the crimson images of two masks. One mask represents comedy; the other, tragedy. You attribute, vaguely, this symbolism, its idealism, its basic dualism, to the ancient Greeks, but don’t know where or when you first learned about or else invented, for you just might have invented, this association, nor can you imagine yourself apart from its making, the way you can’t divorce your shadow, your sketchy mental self-portrait, and this situation, this sitting alone in the waiting room, finger in the slippery ashtray, from your name.

For you are here, as the signs always say. Bloodless, you are pinned like an entomological specimen. Which is such a cliché, the last thing you want to be, but still, you are stuck here, affixed, finger in the little depository, your other life on hold, and for a second, for whatever reason—and for another second you not only suspect but glimpse the connection between these two states, as though it, the link, were a wisp of white smoke, or a calico cat’s tail slipping around a cornerstone—you sit behind the steering wheel. For a second, the wait takes on a different texture entirely, as you grip the stick, as you shift into third, as you give it gas, as it jerks back, then accelerates, and you luxuriate in the virtual time of miles-per-hour. A world, a world of motley, brightly colored surfaces flashes past or rather rushes around or, perhaps, against—no, around it is—around you as the backsides of factories and apartment complexes become the chain-link fences encircling schoolyards and playgrounds in which children wearing windbreakers chase children bearing peaked caps, as least they look like peaked caps; red, yellow, blue, all of your primaries appearing at once in a succession too rapid to record; though why would kids be holding their little hats instead of fitting them onto their little heads?

And then, for that fraction of a second, the gap between perception and common sense, a sliver of doubt about surface and significance, a little of what you seem to remember psychology textbooks calling cognitive dissonance forces you another step beyond the charmed circle, throws you head-first out of the safe place in which seeing knowing meaning are the same thing, or come complete in a single package, which you get a purchase on by being, always becoming some being, spending energy, inhabiting another, larger, not necessarily safe place, or places, a process, in time, and it’s time. It’s time. It’s time that takes you past the edge of town, where the tall trees try in vain, their fir forever alert, as though aware of and overcompensating for the greater arboreal failure, to hide the landfill, flea market for seagulls, its jagged mound venting an ammoniac gas so pungent you picture a scalpel. You picture a razor blade. You picture steel wool fraying on its course into your nostrils, not just hanging out at the nasal openings either but reaching, branching up into passageways that all but overthrow the central government in response to this latest outrage, their urgent telegrams to you, combinations of complaint and demand, culminating in a general olfactory strike, a sort of systematic sort of refusal to perform behind your eyes, which prompts you not to wait, not to hesitate, but to roll up your window.

Distance from the source of the offense is not a factor here, however much such distance grows, and it does, as it must, because the car moves a lot faster than your arm as you turn the handle, and as you turn, still asking the machine to pick up speed, as sand and ragweed give way to greenery that, if only by juxtaposition, because really, how could any scene, any scenery, any percept have the same effect when taken in isolation, having been lifted from its bigger picture, which is most certainly not to beg or to downplay but instead to kneel and bow one’s head, to practically prostrate oneself before the, here, particularly pertinent question of whether anything in the world—or anything not in but beyond the world, to define the world as the known universe and to suspend for a moment, for the sake of argument, Buddha’s dictum against metaphysical speculation—can exist or be regarded in and of itself, divorced from any other or constituting an entire context, thus seemingly free from the influence of such forces, networks of force, as society, politics, and history, to name but three in the interests of time and progress, and to circle or circulate back to the landscape, which suggests, perhaps through sterility, perhaps merely dullness, its having been manicured, you suppose by a team of green- or brown-uniformed state workers, not a chain gang, there being to your knowledge no chain gangs in the northeast, still steering toward the on-ramp, toward the passenger side you see him, and you stop short.

You stop short when you see him in the passenger seat. The car drives on, the car drives up and around, the car slows down as it enters the curve then regains that lost speed on its way out, its way ahead. On its own along the highway the car gathers momentum, as though propelled by this newfound need to make locations vanish, as though intoxicated by the power to effect change outside itself and by the desire to find itself, inside, following such a change or changes of place, substantially remade. You, however, remain separate from the drive. Characterized by stasis you sit and wait, because at the moment you detect his presence, and at the moment you detect his presence, or in some transitional groove between that moment and the next, you look closer at the cobwebs collected in the corner of your right eye and, astonished, recognize them as premonitions or else premonitory surges, you stop short and you stay stopped. Yes, because he is there. Is, remains, there. Look away, go ahead, look ahead, think about anything-but, anything not-him; try, anyway; why give in to that first impression when the masks—no—marks it makes have so little substance, display so little depth; when, freed from the tyranny of your fiery desire to know, itself the handpuppet of your ever-grasping, ever-further-reaching consciousness, all of this, all that you see, all that it seems and, by seeming, suggests, could be fleeting, could be so fleeting as to leave you free from its influence? Your choice.

So what are you waiting for? Are you waiting for confirmation, is that it? Would you like him to acknowledge his presence, to second his appearance? To say, for instance, I think you should change lanes/slow down/be on the lookout for a green sedan? To touch your arm? To take your hand? Is that it? Would you like to be right, here, now, and not only, though certainly, right, as rain, as any ninety-degree angle, but actually making contact? For to feel his fingers, four or five of his fingers, as they palpate the flesh of your upper arm, as they grasp your wrist, as they come to cover four or five of your own fingers, perhaps not the entire digits, perhaps more the outside, as opposed to the palm side, surface of your right hand, would be to exceed, as a couple, the dimensions of denial.

For as he proves his point, makes manifest his place within your field of vision, presses indelibly into your periphery, you relinquish control. Don’t you let him drove home an even deeper, wider nail, or no: Why not make that stud, it fits so snugly, in his ironclad case against or, again, like the threads on any screw, around and around you. Yes, because he is there. Is, remains, there, and there, and there. And there is no such thing as chance. A door may happen to fall shut, but this is not by chance. No; but how, whence, do you know this, the way you know the creases on those knuckles, by heart? It is conscious experience of the door, the door, the door, the door. What’s more, there is no respite, is there? For as he, the passenger, rides, provides physical evidence, exhibits A, B, and C, you steer according to his will, you fail to maneuver, no? No? As you refute it, refuse it, turn back the hand, bear in mind that you are, remain, in some sense suspended, riding, waiting, sitting, in suspense. And hasn’t his inaction gone on long enough? Hasn’t his form of self-defense run its course?

The pressure to advance, as though you were pleased, no, placed at once next to the unsteady octagonal endtable and inside the ontological equivalent of a slide projector—say, sitting, static, on the carousel—is intense, and since that intensity, for which you are, though not strictly speaking the source, of course at least partly responsible, shows no sign of abating, you should, first, accept and, second, heed its call. It calls for you, this vector; this monster you’ve created wants a destiny. So, what’ll it be? Where to? Toward which terminus, however provisional, possible or impossible, do you tend, and do you intend the same for all concerned? For you and all, you in all, your named, nameless, and unnamable aspects? And his? For he is there after all. The moment having mutated, its meaning—say it, why not, get it out and over with, while not essential to the experience, meaning might, just might, add untold dimensions—having moved, like a diligent waiter doing his time-tested and prize-winning impersonation of a commuter train, from town to town, from station to station, you having declined or forfeited your controlling interest in this passage, in other words your freedom to construe and, by construing, construct, he is not to be denied. No, not now—nor then, now—when he sits, when he waits, and he waits, as he must, for you, wanting you as he does, which is to say wanting something from you, and you alone, and you know what that something is, right? Well, needless to say it’s not you in all your aspects, not you, how could it be, as you view yourself, when you do, and you do—what? Take stock—both more often that you’d care to admit and more fully, more mindfully, more soulfully, if you will, and (again) why not; you can use the term “soul,” even if you don’t believe in the thing, so long as you issue, if only to yourself, or your nonself, as would be the case, a blanket statement, some hand-fashioned boilerplate concerning skepticism about or downright disbelief in any basic unit of being, any physical or metaphysical cornerstone, any Logos or expressive core; so long, that is, as you wield the word ironically; and if you can ironize with no affective result, with no destructiveness or laughter either—in other words, with indifference—then you have a chance for another vista. Then you do, indeed you must, take stock, even now, more soulfully than you realize, though by the same token, to swiftly steer this runaway train of thought and feeling back to that as yet obscure something he wants from you, it’s not not-you, now is it?

You’re thinking, What? But No, whatever it is, it’s not not-you, and that’s something, the thing he wants. It’s what you have, not everything you have, but one thing, one of those things you can’t wish away but can grasp onto, at the moment, in the moment, of the moment, and, grasping, as you grasp, maintain your sense of being-in-touch while moving out and moving on.

Why lie to yourself? Why lie, when you know what he wants. When this brief, protective, you’d like to think productive but will settle for perfectly justifiable hesitation overstays its even briefer welcome and, presto, within and without you becomes not bad breath but something harder to believe, bad faith, you’ll be cursing or, better, berating yourself for shortsightedness, for failing, like a flat- rather than fleet-footed firefighter, having heard the call, to respond in time. And you won’t be noticing this tendency in yourself for the first time, either. You’ll be remarking upon a familiar phenomenon, namely the way in which, without becoming aware that you’re doing it, of course, until it’s too late, again, and again, and yet again, you see, you lose sight of the biggest picture and concentrate on a detail, follow the meanderings of a tangent, take some particular, in all its minutiae, which is really getting compulsive, isn’t it, so far out of the given, which is not to say the original, context, the original context being impossible to determine, if indeed such a thing exists, as to transmit yourself or transmute the situation into an entirely revised situation, town to town, state line to state line, not so new but by no means the same, consisting of bits you recognize in a scene you don’t quite place, for instance, or just the reverse; that is, familiar whole, disparate parts. Who knows how or why it happens? Let’s just say you get carried away by your thoughts sometimes. You get pulled in unexpected directions, or pulled along by inexplicable connections, however many at once, however manifest. You have some say in this, of course. Like the author of any destiny, you make choices and are, in turn, like the character equivalent to that destiny and existing at that author’s mercy, made by those choices.

Choosing and chosen, making and made, saying and said, you stand, one foot firmly lodged in each of both the factual and the fictional realms, neither any sort of pure or promised land, and one question remaining in mind: Does this position, this epistemological straddling, afford you the best or the worst of two worlds? How do you know? How can you know? How could you know? And, were it possible now, in this instant, would you? What? Know. You know what. No, wait. You don’t know. That is, you’re not sure, now that you’re here, in the car, in the waiting room, in this situation, and you’re heading, in your head, toward information, telling and told, and your finger is inching, in the soft ashes, between the balls of silver foil, among the wrappers of yellow cellophane, and you’re approaching, as you learn from the slightly iridescent green-and-white sign that spreads out overhead, a rest area, in one mile, a potential respite from this succession of—oh, what to call them?—small dilemmas, call them small dilemmas, if you can, before vanishing, a vision, a suggestion of stopping, or if not a full stop then a pause in the action, a place in which, having come to something like a haven, you can go so far as to step outside the situation, as far as you can step, coming and going, which is not a matter of being—well, of course it is a matter of being—not a matter of being granted permission, however, which strikes you as something entirely different. For where, from whom, in what form, would such a mandate for movement be given, unless you, yes, you, being as you are, wherever you are, that which you find yourself in the process of becoming, were to simultaneously make provision for and mark the boundaries of your own inner life, and maybe you would and maybe you wouldn’t, at this point you’re unsure, but—just—think: Then, made and marked, your own inner life would be or could entail both a capacity and a place, both components central to your venture and, at the same time, off the major thoroughfare, obscured by artificial means, mundane enough, namely a mound of earth and a clump of pines. Behind that dirt and those trees you might relax, you might fold out the world map you keep in mind, your own little schema, and, tracing your progress thus far and, having fathomed its organizing principle, project an end, in or out of sight, some inevitable but provisional conclusion. Or you might, like a lifelong swing dancer forced by circumstances, by friends and family, by inflexible authority, to take a refresher course in the mambo or the samba, know anew, step by step, what you know, which as a process is not, despite reports, altogether different from climbing back into the saddle and/or onto the bicycle, more or less returning to the proverbial swing of things-as-they-are. You might, you think, regain equilibrium there, on the swing, in the oasis, reclaim at the very least your very sense of humor, or, if calling that acute awareness of lurking absurdity—and no mere resignation either, we’re talking a full-fledged embrace of life’s rich contingency here—but if calling it humor would be to carry hyperbole an immeasurable degree too far, to fall prey to the seductive possibilities of poetic license and, form united with function and, victim of an imitative fallacy, failing miserably, make a statement that, itself, verges on absurdity, then by all means think again. Don’t hesitate. Don’t.

Just call it regaining your sense of the senseless. Call it recovering your balance. Call it what you will, whatever you see fit. Just be quiet. Gather your forces, tether your faculties, then do it. Do what? Well, please, before you get yourself and your passenger killed, signal your intentions, then glance in the rear-view mirror and, having ascertained the feasibility of this plan, and when, as they say, the coast is clear, sidle from the middle to the slow lane, slow down, though not to a standstill, never attempt a standstill on this or any other parkway, but lower your speed to what the traffic will bear and, finally, following the signs, all the while trusting in these stoic tour guides, in their official capacity as strong and silent representatives of the state, not to steer you wrong, at least not too wrong, at least not so far from where you want to go that you wind up, a drifter, all hope lost, in space and no place, neither here nor there and helpless, hapless, like a happy holiday shopper jettisoned from friends and family, imprisoned in an overstocked and overcrowded department store of the spirit, overburdened by bundles as well as ever-extended credit, and riding the escalator, up or down, one floor to another, your direction hardly matters, when the step beneath you drops out, simply falls away, exposing, in that momentary reprieve from bearing your own weight, upright, on your own two feet, against the dastardly force of gravity, granted you by a minor deity that may be nothing other than your own sense of surprise at this turn of events or, if “your own” either denotes or connotes an inappropriately proprietary or exclusionary interest, perhaps a sense shared by you and by the system as a whole, as you hold an airborne position that displays, to the sharp-eyed witness or witnesses later interviewed by security personnel, store executives, plainclothes detectives, and a slew, no, make that a school, of reporters, all the hallmarks of floating, of sudden untenable wrongness too wrong, really, too far beyond routine experience, to absorb fully, assimilate, reflect upon as part of oneself, a chasm: a dropping-out and dropping-off that sucks you in and pulls you down, so easily and tracelessly you’d think such vanishings happened all the time, and so, still burdened, like Alice down the rabbit hole, you fall, no chance to scream or tie up loose ends, no less to replay your every scene, through a sort of internal return, in search for a fitting denouement, into the machinery, a meshing threshing organism that eats you alive but derives, so far as the coroner or any other higher authority figure can ascertain, no nourishment, go ahead and veer off the Interstate.

Know in your heart that this handy but limited escape route, this vehicular pause button, was somehow, somewhere, (somewhat?) designed with your dilemma in mind and, while you’re at it, while you’re feeling so confident, so much less confined, so much more attuned to cosmic frequencies, out-of-body rhythms and extrasensory melodies, don’t disturb your composure by turning on the radio, not here, not now, but do lighten your psychic load, at this delicate juncture, by admitting to your slightly riven self that, yes, you know, not what you know—you can’t yet make that sweeping claim, though it will come, given time, given room, you know that too—but what he wants, which is not the wish list of a lifetime, not in his deepest desires distilled and displayed, but what he wants right here, right now, from you, my dear, which is not you as you know yourself, not you in all your aspects, which would be impossible, it’s true, but then not not-you, and not unreasonable, not too unusual, neither devious enough to make inroads nor direct enough to suggest real interest, yet not a dismal failure, not in and of itself the end of this affair, not a totalitarian gesture, not your idea of fun, not his favorite pastime, not a crime, not yet, not the beginning of a beautiful friendship, not a basket of cheer left on your doorstep, not a ticket to the Olympics, not a hit record, not a minute too soon, not a collector’s item, not inappropriate for children but by the same token not likely to hold their interest, not a test, not totally unlike a test, not about to explode, not enough to live on, not the seeds of revolution, not a major motion picture, not all the makings of tragedy—not without its tragic elements, however—not a stairway to the stars, not a Mardi Gras party, not Socrates, not E=MC2, not the corporate octopus, not the military-industrial complex, not income tax, not running out of gas, not a dead battery, not a busted fanbelt, not a blowout, not a blowup, not a blow job, not a snow job, not a blizzard, not a lizard, not a poorly ambulating Godzilla, desperate for attention, its venture measured in inches, calligraphic contours, a series of creaks and seizures; at first touch terrifying, petrified skin, something monstrous you could become, given life, given death: alien, wakened, weakened, mobile bag of guts and pulses, precarious as tiny Christ on the hood ornament, more fish than baby, more water than body, a bit of squiggling jelly overtaken by its shadow, an empty spot that, when pressed, gasps, half grasps, a lullaby, one low note stretched tentlike over, say, ten nonsensical words; fleshlike, broken porcelain, lost to time, carried by the tide to where children lie on flattened stomachs reading hieroglyphics; but what he wants is not this, no, because what he wants is nothing, no, nothing but an answer, which he’s been waiting for, which he deserves, because he asked you a question, because he senses something, because something seems wrong, and he is there, and your condition matters, and he cares, and he cares enough, and he cares enough to ask, and he cares enough to try, and he cares enough to try to find, and he cares enough to try to find out if you’re feeling, and he cares enough to try to find out if you’re feeling all right. Are you feeling all right?

They call it the waiting room, but your signs say some invented Albuquerque, a still city in which saliva meets, means, survival. Inside you, while you stay here, spiral jets rise from sandy mounts to freeze, like spittle in water, alphabetic sugar sculptures, captured in the spaces between cactuses, bars, car parts, train stops. A pinned-up girl strips and squirms on a peeling blue billboard. A crumbling tumbleweed chases its twin across a dirt road. In the shallow ashtray a single pink-lipstick-stained cigarette lies, never lit, broken in half, and spilling its tangled sawdustlike guts, while on the surface an illustrated crimson ribbon, curled elaborately at both ends, runs between the two masks, the one smiling, its nose darkened or missing, the other grimacing, its forehead frownlined. The eyes of each visage are also darkened or missing, and another, lighter ribbon, which cuts over and in fact severs the first, perhaps major, certainly more prominent ribbon, binds both masks. This is all very mysterious, not only the existence of such an ashtray, such a ceramic reminder of our two-faced nature, but its placement here, as though officially sanctioned, at your fingertips, in a clearly designated no-smoking zone, one of a nearly endless series of restricted zones, in a world ruled increasingly by designations and resignations, by official sanctions and mysterious existences. Coincidences? Accidents? Questions: inquiries. In the zone, you ask yourself a nearly endless series of whos, whats, wheres, whens, and whys, and yes, you ask yourself for a reason. Over the loudspeaker, Marvin Gaye is singing “Can I get a witness” as you ask, for a reason, Can I have a reason, for being, for being here, for being here in such a condition, and yes, to answer these queries would be to enzone the state you’re in, to define the term, to determine the limits of your own imaginative New Mexico. It’s a big project, a life’s work in the making, and in the meantime you take up the ends of that abandoned cigarette, that leading cause of death, and, trying to make the pieces fit¸ you wonder about the hands that broke the thing, the lips that held and, holding, discolored it.

Picture these processes and you afford them substance. Enact them and you advance one step further, affecting the atmosphere, extending the charmed circle until its roundness ruptures, most productively: From rifts issue possible pasts, alternative futures, in the form of cartoon thought balloons that rise, like soap bubbles but higher, beyond the historical record, beyond reckoning, beyond ken, and that’s not a distance to be overestimated, now is it. So when you see another woman sitting in the waiting room, contemplating a state you thought was private, wearing that telltale shade of salmonish lipstick, and shaking, and shaking from a bent and crackling pack your cigarette, you add, or is that substitute, a new and relatively unknown, potentially unstable factor into the equation of your situation, which, rest assured, is the way of the world, today memorized by every schoolchild. So let X, rational or irrational, equal any number of women who might occupy, assume, or imagine themselves in this position and, imagining, multiply the possibilities, just as, just as well as, legs crossed, eyes open, seeing herself the other way around for a moment, the woman you’re watching raises the cigarette, takes it between her lips, looks up at the no-smoking sign and, in, with, a snap, creates an entirely different set of circumstances.

How does she accomplish this transformation, this trance-inducement? By believing in the power of particulars to reorganize bigger pictures and, like ringmaster—ringmistress?—of a one-person circus, getting her slideshow on the high road, putting her traveling psychodrama to the test, not an essay test, nor a true-or-false test, though not unlike a multiple-choice test in its tacit acceptance of guesswork. Easy as that? Almost. For a moment, or is it a fraction, a faction, a fiction, of a minute, she inhabits three separate but not discontinuous realities, which is like looking at the world through the shards of a single, slightly warped pane, or like reading pages torn at random from a detailed film scenario, or like being under the simultaneous influences of several contraindicated mind-altering substances, or, perhaps most, like tasting the chili or chutney in an unfamiliar restaurant or bohemian café on an outskirt, one of many remote theater districts, of the zone, and, as the spices meet, greet the tip of your tongue, having wicked, instantaneous déjà vu about having déjà vu. It’s like, she thinks, a story you tell yourself, full of twists and turns, full of sounds and furies, some ingredients rising, in bubbles, bursting to the surface while others remain buried, while others dissolve so easily and tracelessly into the olio, which has no recipe, because you make it up, because you make discoveries, as you go, as you go along, as you move, as it moves, as you play, and if you play then you make it a game, and if it is a game, a set game, then the board is given, in the beginning, but the rules are yours, are yours to devise, and may remain, and may remain fluid, and may remain fluid and forever open to interpretation, and reinterpretation, if you so choose, if you prefer the extended foreplay of postponement to the shattering climax of winning or losing. You can use this—call it a form of strategy—if you think shifting parts is, shifting parts are, more fun than finding some safe place, reserving your usual table, in the far corner, at the neighborhood coffee shop, where the help knows you by name, knows your order by heart, and settling in, settling down, settling qua settling, as you sit there, sitting still, and waiting, you wait, for what? For what, for what, for what, for what, for what? For what your parents got?

Surprise. Your parents got older, since you’d seen them last. In fact, at first you hardly recognized their faces. Through the windshield: As you drove up, as their door opened, and they stepped out. As they stepped out of the house, you thought two strangers, two replacements, had stepped into your parents’ lives. Not realizing, not then, sitting there, waiting for something to happen, waiting for your legs to wake up, waiting to move, that the strangers in this scene were inside the car. No, you failed to see. You turned toward him, as they crossed the line—crossed the lawn—before you turned off the engine, you smiled, you smiled sweetly, you saw yourself in the rearview mirror smiling sweetly, and you answered his question, after letting it linger, a flyerless kite, in the sun-warmed air above the dashboard for so long.

Yes. Yes, I’m fine, you said, she thinks and, thinking, crosses the room, not the waiting room, a sort of resting room, but not the rest room, not a sink or toilet to be seen, three of the four walls lined with vending machines that vend edible things, liquids and solids, but not food, not sustenance, while in front of the fourth a booth stands, abandoned, bearing a sign that neither warns nor advises but merely promises Information. And while she finds that offer tempting, even, in its democratic lack of assumptions and qualifications, in its leaving open of options, charming, she chooses, this once, to honor an immediate physical need rather than to invest in a long-term intellectual and spiritual desire. Instead of gaining ground, that is, she remains in flight.

And perhaps, given the—in a word—myriad forces, unseen and unknown, that surround any moment on its movement into any future, her decision is, unbeknownst to her, between six of one and half a dozen of another, but the fact is the drive has made her throat dry, she feels thirsty, she wants to drink, she wants to drink a can of soda, ginger ale for preference, before requesting or receiving information, however shortsighted or single-minded her trajectory from the parking lot to the resting room to the cold-soft-drink vending machine might seem to some casual observer, some bystander, that woman, for instance, small, solid, striking, steady, stranded halfway between the glass doors and a little boy, hers apparently, smaller, even more solid, who refuses to come when called. He wears little white shoes, a little blue sweatsuit, a little brown beanie, what might accurately be described as a devilish grin.

Milo, come, his mother calls, but the boy stands firm, a miniature master of control, a little Lee Harvey Oswald. In his future, there is a company to run, a country to rule, a Camelot to ruin, a conundrum to solve. Or none of the above. A multitude awaits, a destiny hangs upon, Milo’s response to his mother’s command. In the meantime, a woman passes, passes his mother, passes him, crosses the room, and pauses in front of what might accurately be described as a cold-soft-drink vending machine.

As the woman reaches into her purse, Milo approaches. As she deposits correct change into the appropriate slot, he comes to rest, beneath her arm, against her hip.

Milo, come. His mother steps up, and the other woman looks down, sees him, too late to stop little Lee Harvey Milo from reaching for, reaching, depressing a button, the biggest reddest button, not the ginger-ale button, which is small and green, on the cold-soft-drink vending machine.

In Milo’s present, there is a button to be pressed. That’s all he knows. Then there is a pause; then his mother coming to rest, her hands above his shoulders, as she, and he, and the other woman wait and watch the machine. Nothing happens. There is no can.

Then Milo’s mother restrains him, her hands across his shoulders, as the other woman, the not-mother, the never-ever-wanting-to-be-mother, quickly depresses the small green button. She listens for and hears a rumbling inside the machine, then a bang, and receives, as promised, as requested, as some modest fulfillment of the American dream, the ginger ale. She turns and smiles when Milo’s mother apologizes, asks if that is right, asks if that was what she wanted. She smiles sweetly at the mother, at the little devilish boy, at the silliness of the situation, at all the worrying compressed into one moment, all the anxiety released like held breath into the next, and says Yes. Yes, it’s right, it’s what I wanted. It’s fine, really. I’m fine.

As though to prove her claim, she pops open the small green can, raises it to her lips, and shows, widening her eyes, how much she enjoys the first sip. Her throat stings, her nose itches, as she performs this pantomime.

She watches Milo lead his mother out of the resting room before she ventures back to her own car. She starts the engine and finishes the soda. When the nurse calls her name, your name, she looks up and you look up at the same time. Milo is off and running, his little brown hat in his hand, over the mound of earth, heading for the pines and the highway beyond. His mother runs after him, laughing, her head thrown back and her arms outstretched. She is taking this misadventure, yet another small dilemma, in stride.