By Glen Peters
Every day at work he earns this headache, and this call makes it worse. This job. This job is the culmination of a long journey sideways. He could say, if he had to, how he got there, but he prefers not to think on it. He returns the phone to its cradle. It feels especially warm, especially plastic, and he can’t wait to let it go.
Anthony stands and stretches with a certain regularity. He’s thick, and athletic, and he’s punished for the confinement of office chairs. “I have to walk, Donny. Taking my lunch.” His coworker nods, a figure in a chair that casts no shadow under the halogen sky.
Breaching into the fresh air, he feels like he’s fallen into an ocean of oxygen. Senses are startled awake, and he shivers. That office is a dentist’s chair. It’s just a block to the storefronts and, despite his discomfort, he feels lucky. The Old Quarter by the Port has work space, green space and retail all nicely at hand. For lunch hour he has time to eat, to walk, and pick her up “something special.” This weekend, it’s her birthday.
And he wouldn’t mind a moment by the water, just a moment.
Summer sidewalks here are insistent with life. Foot traffic surges. Office anecdotes carry across the street. Flowers (they’re everywhere) throw colour and perfume over everything like they own us. Seagulls crisscross above, and descend occasionally to shout and joust for French fries. With a similar force of life, Anthony pushes for the antiques store.
Inside, minutes — entire minutes — pass behind two ladies discussing oak armoires before he learns they’re not in line for service. Damn it. They have his package, he only needs to pick it up. At the counter, at least, the dealer has a sympathetic look… and his parcel.
Suzanne had seen it on TV. She loves gardening. She was Queen about her horticulture, and yet, without end, she asked his advice and shared stories about this thing that was all hers. “Look at that statue, Tony! Wouldn’t that be amazing in our spot out back? I’d put it on a pedestal, I think, over the snapdragons. And the irises, yes.” The camera panned around the pale figure, the form of a goddess, long hair and childbearing features. “See something lovely,” she said. “Make it a treasure.”
Ten months later, and he had her in his hands. Not the very same statue, but the same goddess, the same craft — an original. Over two hundred years and an ocean and the goddess was going to answer prayers, to make Suzanne understand that to him, she was lovely. His treasure. Every day, in the garden she loves, she would know it. He carefully passes her back for packaging, and offers a plastic card for exchange.
Outside again, he’s passing a bar and grill as four half-drunk suits exit, with too much noise — heads full of business figures, sports figures, themselves. Their leader, holding court, lurches laterally from his audience and into passers-by, clumsy elbow aloft. Anthony hears it with a supernatural clarity: the sharp report of something undone. He contemplates his empty hands. Upon the cobblestone, in the darkness of a box, rests an untold story to which everyone knows the end. It was a piece of his spirit given shape, something he could have given her in a way he can’t with words. He doesn’t know about gods, but he has now the hollow feeling of her absence.
“Fucking imbecile!” The ruined efforts and hopes of past and present pile up in his head and add to the mass there, the compact discomfort. In an event of frustration and aggression, desire possesses him with all his heart to commit a violence. Hands raise of their own accord for a man he outweighs by fifty pounds. This, this is the sort of person upon whom we all assume the wall of the world surely must fall, but never does.
The god of men is dead, too. Anthony doesn’t grab the lout. He doesn’t stoop for the statue’s broken bones. He turns instead, the sun in his eyes as he surges away. Everyone’s all shadow, all noise is white. He applies upon himself a force equal to the explosion inside, all rage in stasis. He’s not going to the bar, he made a promise. And he’s not going to work. He’s going to the store, and nearly trips getting there. Soon he has his new package: cigarettes he’d forsworn, because something has to give.
There’s a network of one-way lanes in the Old Quarter. Their walls are high, the streets are narrow. There’s shelter from the oppressive sun; from the scrutiny of others; from explanations. And there are archways here that bridge these paths, and can’t be found anywhere else. They have always seemed civilized to him — proof that, at some time, it was significant that you should pass from one path to another. Your life in stages.
The distant smell of pastry mingles with the cradled burst of sulfur, and fresh tobacco. He leans for a moment against the grey, stoned wall. It’s rough and cool and feels good on his temple.
The seagulls are muted here, and their forms relegated to dark profiles seen briefly between rooftops, against the blue band of sky.
“This is when quitters quit,” his old man had said. “You’re gonna, I can tell. Things get tough, that’s what you do. What you always do.”
He won’t. He pulls on his secret cigarette (is it helping? he’s not sure). Time is short now, but he wants a little while at the Port. He wants to see the water, sure that it will help. Needs to keep it together.
He’s on his second smoke when he emerges from the labyrinth. The calm ends suddenly. All the winds hit him at once. This is the riverside, all storefronts to the left, all water to the right. Along the boardwalk are runners, and walkers, lovers for lunch and walkers of dogs. The birds fill all spaces in between.
Anthony pushes on. How... how to say “I love you” in three short days? It’s her birthday.
He’s almost there, at his perfect spot where he can meet himself. He’s probably late for work, but he’s not tracking time anymore. The cobblestones are memory, and life is now wooden boards underfoot. He feels the phone vibrate, barely hears the tones these jealous winds try to steal away. It’s work, and he doesn’t pick up. “Things are getting tough, eh, kid? You wait and see.”
It seems they’re everywhere, the fathers and the mothers and the children. It seems impossible there are so many smiles. He feels sick, and lights his third cigarette all the same. Those smiling children are not beaten, their dads haven’t quit….
This is his place, the pier at the end of the boardwalk. Anthony likes the drum of suspended wood under his heels, likes walking its length, the shore retreating behind him. He likes knowing that at its end, unable to go on, he can stop.
Someone has left chips in a bag. The seagulls are thick and aggressive, filling his eyes and ears like large feathered flies. Discontent and greedy, they flap and yell, and he’s sure they’re a nation of wild, reincarnated office clerks.
I hate seagulls.
I hate my job, gawddamn seagulls.
He charges the last remaining stretch, swings his arms and scatters the panicked birds who circle, and scold in anger. His phone again, with a different tone.
“What!” He has it to his ear, bunched in his fist. He can’t refuse. “What!”
Suzanne is surprised, Suzanne is angry, Suzanne is concerned — is everything all right? What’s all that noise? Where is he, why isn’t he at work?
Anthony, struggling with himself, wants to be done with the phone, which he hates; but won’t cut the call. Anthony loves Suzanne.
“What is it, Sue? Eh? Never mind that, just tell me what you want. What!”
She was thinking about the garden. That garden. She saw something at the Garden Centre, not too gaudy, affordable, something for the space by the irises. The focal point of his failure.
“I’m late for work, Suzanne, why would you — call now — I don’t have time for this!”
She doesn’t understand, she’s sorry, she just…. He’s yelling incoherently now, barbs of love and shame, guilt and random, hurtful remarks. Crying, finally, Suzanne disconnects.
One of the black and white birds, in thrall to the chips at his feet, ventures too close — and is knocked from the pier by a very mobile phone.
Anthony knows what’s happened. What he’s done. Broken something precious and unique, two goddesses in a day. Those kids don’t know: life is loud and greedy, full of monsters with hard shells. We cut where it’s soft. Heroes please the gods; normal people keep their jobs, and lose their love. But Anthony, he won’t quit.