by Morgan Hobbs
The cigarette fell on the cigarette in the crease in the sidewalk, under a black shoe. The cane and the tall hat, the lapels of the overcoat tight against the throat, the exhalation of cold smoke. A glance from a woman stepping onto the sidwalk. A step more and a second look. The click-stop of heels on the wet sidwalk -- face-to-face. The woman drowning in smoke, the smoke of his breath under a black street lamp. The man never says hello. The woman wants to make him out, invasion of the eye. A car door slams, a woman's voice, the sound of a bottle rolling down the sidewalk. The man looks down the street.
"Are you my baby boy?"
The man talks back. He looks. There's no one.
"It's been so long. I thought the worst. You really must come and have some soup."
He follows, gliding.
"What's your name?" she asks.
"I'm older than you," she says.
Jaguar says, "Not by much."
The two walked, and the man held back, just enough to remember a particular episode from his past. Chinese. A golden egg in a red brown broth. The essence of life. The end of a promise. He knocked it off the table, the bowl crashed against the concrete. The soup pooled on the floor, a tinted window, a reflection of a memory in stained glass.
"This is it," says the woman, at the base of a tenement building. They go up and through the door, into the apartment. The warmth waits for them inside. Boiling radiator. Blue rocking chair. Red Oriental rug on a heart of pine floor. The black-and-white television set alone more than half a century old.
The woman takes his coat.
"I like your place."
"All right, then, Jaguar. I don't need much."
Under the dim radiance of a chandelier, she raised her arms, letting down her hair. Brown and red strands falling softly on her shoulders, intimations of a great beauty.
"Won't you please have a seat at the round table?" she asks.
She brings out the soup, joining Jaguar at the table. He sets his tall hat next to the bowl. The cane rests in his lap. There was a moment of silence as he tasted the soup.
"I'm treading deep water," he says, after the last bite.
She rises, saying, "Such an appetite. I'll run into the kitchen and make you a shark fin sandwich."
He calls after her.
"I never got your name."
"Cherise. I come from a fairly decent family."
Her voice trails off as she slips into the kitchen. The man appreciates the lilacs, in a vase on the table, next to his hat. The world felt cleaner inside. He changes his mind for the second time. The situation comes to a head. He reaches for daylight. Jaguar brings his hands to rest on the cane, gradually sliding the two sections apart, barely aware of what he's done.
From the refrigerator the woman takes a jar of dijon mustard, a tomato, an onion, and the shark meat; from the cupboard, a loaf of sour dough bread, arranges them all on the counter. From a drawer under the counter she removes a large kitchen knife. This seems to cause Cherise some alarm, and she drops it to the floor. Perhaps it was because, as she knew full well, that for spreading the mayonnaise a mere butter knife would have sufficed, or perhaps it was the way she held it: arm cocked, fingers gripping the handle at ear level, blade poised and directed toward the floor. Not exactly. It was when she saw her reflection in it, the reflection of her face along the edge of the knife, her face in the shape of a knife.
"Is everything all right in there?" said the man, hearing the metal against the floor.
"Only a little accident," said Cherise.
The sandwich was brought out on a bed of iceberg lettuce, with an iced tea: lightly sweetened, a slice of lemon impaled on the rim of the glass.
"Good sandwich," he says, after a bite.
"The tea's from China. Hopefully not one of those prison camps."
She twirls the telephone cord around her toe. Neither this, nor the sudden part in her evening gown, escapes the man's attention. Nor the candle burning on the window sill and the pools of hardened wax.
The woman makes a move with her face.
"I'm thinking . . . I'm thinking that maybe you're my baby boy."
The man wipes his face with his napkin. Between bites, the taste of lemon on his teeth, the observation of the coat rack's long shadow on the wall, he moved his hands to his lap and drew apart the cane once more.
"Where'd my baby boy get a thing like that?"
Jaguar looks at the back of his wrist.
"My father used to drive a Cadillac."
"I don't believe I've seen this one before, not anyway in the light."
The woman sinks back, admiring from a distance. The tattoo on the back of the man's wrist -- an eagle with a snake in its mouth, a remnant from the past. Beneath it, written in red letters, is BAD FUN.
"I could point you out in a line up," she said.
He closed the door, his image in the mirror, drawing the cane apart, posing with the sword, admiring himself in the sword, the face turned into a sword, the image of the face in the mirror. The water swirled lazily around the bowl, emptying into tomorrow. He returned to the table. The woman sat painting her nails. "Were you shaving or something? I wondered what was going on in there."
Jaguar answered: "I have a yacht. In dry dock. Down by the promenade, the Spanish Riviera."
"I love clean skin. We can just have it burned off, you know. You get to keep what's left. Just right down town."
"I'm terribly sorry," he said. "I used the laundry hamper as an ashtray. Reminded me of one of the old flip tops." He lit the cigarette off his own, handed it to her. She takes it without looking up, into her mouth, the hair half falling into her painted smile. Jazz on her lips, blowing her toenails through the strands of hair.
"Oh, you mean this?" He studied the tattoo curiously in the chandelier light. "Must have had too much punch. There were a lot of weddings that day. Down in the web of moonlight, cascades of smoked glass, all the clubs letting out at half past. Reminds me, must have lost my watch." Shows her his wrist. "Must have been how you saw it."
"Have you seen my camisole? I left it, draped it over something when we came in. Did you see this, in the paper? A new species of rock. Is that the water?"
She runs into the kitchen. The man has a leisurely look around the apartment, observing the portraits on the wall, ancestral, daguerreotype, fingering the spines of the books on the shelf. Medical texts, law books, art history (Classical, Neo-Classical, Renaissance), Theosophy. He draws out a handsome leather bound volume on alchemy, cracks the spine. She returns with the tea, and he puts it back, dashing the cigarette into his mouth.
"How do you like your tea?"
"Standing up." He nods, receiving the cup. "For the moment."
The woman sits, sips, tosses her head back, rolling her head along her shoulders. She shakes her hair.
"My sex is like a fireside chat. Have you ever been to a slaughter house?"
"It's starting to get late."
The man checks his watch, sees the tattoo, the eagle with the snake in its mouth, the red letters, BAD FUN.
"I don't remember, you know," he tells her. "The operations."
"Is that all it was to you, the war? B-girls and tattoos?" She lights another cigarette and smiles. "What a boy will do."
Jaguar set the cup down on the table.
"I really must find my watch."
Standing before the fireplace, the fire lit up his face.
"You might check the boudoir."
He turned his head, looked down the long hall.
"A woman knows the smell of her own baby boy," she said.
Jaguar picks up the cup, takes a sip, then throws it into the fireplace. The cup shatters.
He looks at her, her lips parting under the ceiling fan.
"You never come back."
About the author:
Morgan Hobbs graduated from the University of Wisconsin - Madison in 1993, with a degree in English and History. He currently resides in Fredericksburg, VA. His work has appeared in Shattered Wig, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Mississippi Review, The Nocturnal Lyric, Punchline, and Satire Magazine.