after Joe Bucciano's "The Party"
Copyright ©2016 by Christopher Conlon
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They sit together at a black wire-mesh table covered with a cloth of roses, painted red roses in various sizes and shapes at which she gazes intently, leaning her head to the table so close that her eyes nearly touch them. He says gently, "Don't, Sister, don't do that, sit up, our drinks will be here soon," and she straightens her back again, looks up at the blue New Orleans sky, says, "It's very hot, I'd like ice in my drink, will there be ice in my drink?" and he responds, "Of course, lots of it, all the ice you want." She says, "But I don't want to bite down on it, I don't want to chew it, ice hurts my teeth, I just want to let it melt on my tongue to cool my mouth because it's such a hot day." Though she thinks it's midsummer she's wearing a heavy overcoat and mittens and her favorite red wool hat. At the institution that morning they told him she always wears these things, has for years. He'd bought them for her long ago, before he'd had to run, to flee her forever. A moment before he'd suggested that she take them off but she denied wearing them, saying she had on only a light summer frock and that if she removed it she would be naked. "Have some of your cake, Sister," he says, "your lovely birthday cake." Flies crawl on the uneaten slices—flies in cold November?—and he shoos them off. She ignores the cake, stares unceasingly at the red roses so like the roses that were in their garden at home when they were children, the roses Mother would clip and bring inside and drop into elegant vases, the roses they would wear in their hair when they laughed and ran gleefully through the house which is on the other side of the universe now, Mother dead a thousand centuries. After a while he stands, adjusts his scarf, looks across the empty courtyard. They are the only people sitting outside on this brisk autumn day, her birthday. He steps to the sidewalk, looks up and down the deserted street. Later he'll put her to bed in his hotel suite, she'll sleep well, she usually does except when nightmares wake her as they do even now, all these years later. He'll sleep too, or try to, though it's possible she'll wake him with her screaming. Tomorrow he'll take her back, leave her, never return, until he returns. He always returns. He stares at the street, reaches for a cigarette, remembers that he hasn't smoked in two decades. He looks back at her again. She's bunched up the rose-covered cloth in her hands and she's biting it, tearing it to bits with her teeth. Moving to her he says, "Why, Sister, don't do that, why are you doing that?" and she answers, bits of cloth stuck to her teeth and lips, "I thought I could get home this way, I thought this was the way to go home."