The table is like a space saucer hurtling through a nebula of skinny twenty-somethings. Everyone has a half-finished mustache and no stomach. I clutch the menu, and Mrs. B, my girlfriend’s mother, flicks me a sharp glance. “I’ll have the Italian Hero,” I shout at the waiter.
Mrs. B frowns. Did she disapprove of something? The menu reads Sandwich, not Hero. I peer over the daily specials at my girlfriend, but she’s looking away. Her sister orders a soup-salad combo. The sister is younger and prettier and I’ve secretly thought about her on top of me, more than once.
Here the four of us sit ordering dinner. Mrs. B asks about my new job as a firefighter. She has a twitch under her left eye, and strokes it like a cat. She frightens me in her judgement and her wisdom. Can she tell? Does she know?
Moments like these make we wish Mrs. B would just speak candidly. I tell her that I’m enjoying my job and recognize the hypocrisy. I don’t say that I hate my job or that we’re only sitting here because her daughter sleeps with me or that I’m plagued by the notion of her other daughter. Or that I spend my free time with a pet python that I bought because I have flashbacks of hot bodies and unhappiness and snakes are cold and content.
Do they know? Herpetology is the study of snakes, deriving from the Greek herpetón, meaning “creeping animal.” Creeping means to crawl at a relentless pace. The python follows the rules of escaping a fire: Stay Low to Avoid Smoke Inhalation and Increase Visibility, and Always Keep Moving. A Creep, of course, is a detestable person. Her mother tries my beer and says, “Good Choice!” The table is really whirling now, like a top.
My girlfriend tells her mother that I’ve been writing a screenplay. In the last two hours, I’ve flipped it from a screenplay to a short story to a graphic novel and now I’ve trashed it. I’m not creative. I’m digging through ash, nothing is shiny or sexy. The story was about a child who discovers her baby teeth in a jewelry box in the closet, but the closet is sweltering, the air like sticky raisin jam; she discovers that the tooth fairy’s a fraud while hiding from a fire. It was going to be called Skeleton’s Mouthful. It was a bad story.
Her mother exclaims she can’t believe her daughter is dating a hero. I tell her I was just doing my job. Her eye shivers like the shutter on a camera. Does she know? Can she tell?
I saved two people from Room 516, hustled them down the stairs and launched them out the side window that I had busted with my pry bar. Both were addicts with concave hips; they were too high to notice the alarms. It was only after the blaze had been quashed that they sobered up and remembered their daughter.
I found her in the closet. Her round face oozed like a marshmallow, blackened and flaking. Does Mrs. B know? Can she tell that I nudged the girl’s jaw with my boot, and it calved like an old log, letting up a sneeze of ash? I don’t blame myself for her death, but I didn’t need to prod her mouth off. Her baby teeth gleamed like gems in the soot and I knew she’d been a good brusher.
My girlfriend remarks that she and I are great together because I’m so brave. She and I are good, not great. We’re like the digital clocks on the oven and the microwave: forty seconds out of sync, together proximity-wise, but still strangely unrelated. These issues will be put off until another power failure.
Her mother pats my arm. I’ve tricked Mrs. B, but it hardly brings me joy.
“The Italian Sandwich?” calls the waiter, resurrected with four plates. The table grinds to a stop and my spine notices the chair. I wave and he sets it in front of me, the same way I slide a frozen rat in front of my python to make it strike. “It’s an Italian Hero,” her sister teases, lapping at her soup. “For the heroic firefighter!”
“It’s a sandwich,” I respond, and fang through smoked flesh, filthy ham juice trickling down my jaw line.
Photo used under CC.