Long Thief Finger
Carl picks a table by the door and sits down. He inhales a deep breath of brewing coffee and grins. A satisfied grin. The walls are a soothing sort of yellow, he notes with pleasure, looking around. He notes everything in the room with pleasure. This is a good place. With good people. He unbuttons his jacket, as if to note his approval, and lets his body relax into the seat.
It’s cold outside and the gray tweed jacket, now unbuttoned, was not enough. His body is thin and long and needs more layers, but Carl hadn’t realized how cold it was; he hadn’t left his house in days. His small gray house on a small gray hill. It makes him nervous to leave. But this seems o.k. Yes, this shop should be fine.
Mike walks in. This is Mike, isn’t it? Yes, it’s Mike. Round and robust, the wind blows in with him like good health and wet leaves. Overweight, but only a bit. Mike. Mike. Carl waves him over with a long, thin, finger on a long, white hand. Mike smiles and lifts his head in recognition. That funny head lift that people do when they see you. That’s what Mike does and walks over to Carl. Mike takes off four items of clothing, carefully: overcoat, mittens, scarf, and hat. Tossing them into an empty chair.
“I need a coffee! You alright?” Carl nods in response to Mike’s query, who, in turn, walks with a bounce up to the counter. Bounce bounce bounce. Carl watches him, counting his steps. Seven steps to the counter, Carl notes with glee, watching the robust bouncing man. He smoothes his tweed jacket, the sort a professor might wear. A professor of anthropology or history, perhaps. He puts his hands in the pockets, and leans deeper into his chair. His eyes leave Mike at the counter and scan the rest of the room, settling on a woman wearing a red overcoat. She hasn’t taken her hat off. Nor her scarf, nor her mittens. Not like Mike, Carl thinks. She interests him and he gazes at her from the side of his eyes musing about why she is still so covered up, and right as he is about to make a conjecture, something to do with hat hair, Mike returns with coffee, loud and cheerful into a chair.
“Carl, it is good to see you again!” Mike says. A bit too loudly, Carl thinks, and he feels several heads glance up to look at them. This is the second time they’ve met, as they’d only met once before. At a small bar. Carl was sitting by himself drinking a bourbon, and Mike (this was several hours before he was drunk) had gravitated towards him, perhaps as two people alone can sometimes do, but then again, perhaps as people can sometimes do, just to Carl. Specifically. And they ended up there for hours (until Mike was very drunk), talking and talking. Though, in truth, it was mostly Mike who talked, and mostly Carl who listened. And then it was Mike who had said, still drunk, but still a bit nervous, “Can I buy you a coffee sometime?” because for some reason, and he did not know why, he wanted to talk to Carl again. And Carl, not drunk at all, sipping on bourbon, had smiled, slightly, shyly, and said, “That would be nice.”
And now there was no alcohol, only coffee, and they were a bit awkward, staring across from each other. And Mike circled his mug with his right index finger and then out it came, “You know what I had been telling you, about Alisa?” And Carl nodded, and Mike leaned forward, excited, because sometimes it is so hard to find someone to talk to. You work side-by-side and walk side-by-side and live side-by-side and still there is no one to talk to. And all that gets stored up and comes out and so Mike is telling Carl about Alisa again and the fights; she’s been crying all the time. All the time.
“You know what she said to me the other night? She says, ‘You selfish bastard, you ruined my life!’ Mike is talking quietly now, “She says that to me. That I ruined her life. You know? You know what it’s like to hear that? That I ruined someone’s life? And the thing is, the thing is, Carl, part of me feels like I did. I don’t know,” he sighs. He’s getting more comfortable as he talks, less awkward, he doesn’t even think about Carl, sitting there in a professor coat, “I mean. I convinced her to move here. I convinced her to quit her job and follow me. I thought,” he hesitates, “I thought about her dreams all the time, you know? That’s the part I don’t think she knows. That all this was for her. Do you think I wanted to live here, to work this job? I never did, but I thought if I did and we had the money, then everything would work out from there. All her dreams. I thought that.”
He is quiet for a while. Carl sips his coffee and waits. “And do you know what? I feel horrible saying this after everything, but the truth is…” Mike hesitates, weighing whether the next words are actually true or not, “The truth is sometimes I wonder whether or not I’m ruining both of our lives by staying with her. I mean, I don’t want to be here working this shitty job in this shitty town. I did it all for her, for us. But I’ve been wondering lately if it’s all worth it. You know? There are a lot of days I just don’t even want to go home. But she needs me, you know? She really does. And it feels good to be needed, but I just don’t know what’s right, you know? I just think it would break her heart. And I’m not sure I could do that to her. I never wanted to hurt her.”
A plate drops in the kitchen. Mike turns his head in the direction of the noise and here it is, Carl sees it, here it is! His moment! You can always see the moment, because it happens in slow motion, he thinks, but for only a second. He swiftly stretches out a long, thin finger and with a quick, hooking sort of motion, grabs Mike’s soul and puts it in his pocket.
Mike is still turned towards the kitchen, and Carl turns the soul over in his hand. It’s warm and solid. Like a gold-colored pool ball in his pocket.
Mike turns back to Carl, “What were we talking about? Oh Alisa. So anyways. What can you do?” He takes a deep breath of resignation and the oxygen seems to inflate his lungs like helium. He grabs on to the table as if to hold his body to the chair. But the feeling passes and he looks back over at Carl, taking note of him, as if for the first time, “What a strange looking man,” he muses. “His eyes seem too big for his face. Like a thin, pale, frog with neat brown hair. ” And he wonders how they came to talk in the first place. And why they are talking now.
The conversation between them has stopped. Mike can’t remember what they were saying before; what seemed so important? Nothing really seems important at all. Oh, Alisa! It was Alisa. Her name feels strange in his mouth. Alisa Alisa Alisa, he says it twenty times in his brain until it becomes a ridiculous sound. He shrugs. Anyways.
Another minute or so passes. Mike attempts a few more tries at conversation, but Carl is just sitting there smiling at him, and it starts to irritate him. Mike finishes off his coffee and announces, “Well, it was really good to see you again, but I think I need to get going.”
Carl nods and Mike stands up. Robust and healthy. Mittens, scarf, and overcoat on. “Take care, Carl. Maybe I’ll see you around!” Mike makes for the door. All feeling of helium gone, his walk seems more even, weighted, heavier, close to the ground. “One, two, three…” Carl counts Mike’s steps to the door, out, and down the street. His smile spreading almost from ear-to-ear. Almost. He closes his eyes, picturing what it will be like for Mike without a soul. Heavier steps and shorter sentences and quick goodbye, Alisa. Carl muses.
He glances one more time at the bundled woman in the red overcoat before standing up himself. He buttons his tweed jacket, and hands in pocket, turns toward the street. With slow, measured steps, he reaches his small gray house, on a small gray hill. And taking the soul from his pocket, puts it on his mantle, next to the others. Gently rolling, then clinking them against each other, Carl smiles a thin, wide grin, stretching all the way to his ears.
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Portland Fiction Project
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