Despite the holiday crowds, Kaya tried to steal a pair of panties from the bargain bin. All afternoon she had been drifting in and out of department stores, a willowy silhouette that attracted the suspicion of each floor manager until she disappeared again behind a bale of tentacled acrylics. Without fail the man in charge would follow Kaya across the discounts, trapping the girl between a pair of glossy, headless mannequins where, in the absence of faces, hers could almost naturally seem suspect. When he asked if he could help, his voice became practiced, accusing, and chipper. “I’m just looking,” Kaya said, which was half true. She’d learned that if you found the jewel of truth in what you were saying, you’d be alright.
By four o’clock Kaya had already collected a tiny fortune in scented candles, tortoise shell barrettes, and synthetic pony tails meant for white girls, and an imitation crystal vase whose color gently faded from garnet to cotton candy. None of this stealing, however, had anything to do with a man. Kaya only knew one man, but by some error of fate she had given him the wrong impression. His impression was that she was the kind of girl that ugly things were done to. How this happened was an accident, but its repercussions made her believe that she had altered her path in life. So, in order to reverse her inevitable future, Kaya pulled a satin bra from its coat hanger. She palmed a few vials of perfume that might have been free anyway.
Kaya Benoit was on the cusp of a long spell of wickedness, and on today, the Wednesday before Christmas, she had resolved to do something about her life situation. She was fifteen but younger in the head, gap-toothed, plank-chested, skinny, and lonesome. People were always telling her that she had a great deal of potential, but this only reminded her that she had never been a straight-A student.
Grades were not the problem. Kaya believed her big problem was that she was neither quick witted nor sharp-tonged, and these were the weapons you needed to survive. Girls could leap out of trouble before it started if they had a wise mouth. For a while anyway, they could talk themselves all the way around life’s dead ends, even shame their enemies into good behavior. But as Kaya spoke, the words moved across her tongue like wooden blocks. They tumbled out in pairs and trios, bursting to airy cinders.
Whenever she did speak up, the other girls of her grandmother’s apartment complex would glance up expectantly with pinched noses, as though some fragrant mood-altering mist might descend on them like a blessing simply because Kaya had something to say. But each time this turned out not to be the case, and the girls sucked their teeth and slumped, annoyed that even the smallest things in their lives were doomed to stay the same.
Afterwards when Kaya repeated her observations to her grandmother, Delphina suggested in sighs that the girl try to make friends without saying too much. On the wood-paneled wall of the apartment they’d been sharing for over a year, the graduation portrait of Kaya’s own mother seemed agree with this advice.
Kaya believed her big problem was that she was neither quick witted nor sharp-tonged, and these were the weapons you needed to survive.
The only person to his head and gaze back thoughtfully was Donnell Gregory, a neighbor from Building 5. Gregory was the only one with enough bullish patience to watch Kaya half-drowning in conversation, reaching from one word to the next until she’d almost made her point which was only this: I just can’t get over the fact that I’m alone.
“I know the feeling,” said Gregory. He smoked a peppery cigarillo in long gulps and studied Kaya with the kind of sympathy that’s eventually paid for at a high cost. “I quit believing in the Lord when I was your age too,” he said, and Kaya flooded with shame. This had not been her meaning, but at the same time she agreed.
On the day it stormed so bad that the city shut down the schools and major highways, Gregory had shown Kaya how to tie a reef knot, insisting that only a few living people knew how to do it. “Less than one hundred in the whole country,” he said with one of his hidden looks. In the carport of her grandmother’s apartment, rain was jackknifing up views of the fields and overpasses and slowly it began to seem like anything was possible. “Now you’re one of us,” Gregory said and laughed cigarillo smoke. Kaya laughed too knowing that she was now part of some secret, and that there were more secrets to come.
Kaya could not say what drove her to repeat this episode to the girls, but the fact that her words now alarmed rather than disappointed compelled her to touch her fingers to her own chapped mouth and listen to the breath that was keeping her alive. Bianca, the mousiest of the group, famous for getting dragged to Juarez by her grown boyfriend and then dragged back by her mother, said, “Mr. Gregory wants to show you things.” To illustrate her meaning, she made a gesture like she was thumbing a ride or gigging a frog, Kaya couldn’t tell which.
Everyone laughed in a dull, clipped way, because it wasn’t often that Bianca joined the conversation. It was more believable that something else, something hidden deep inside her, was actually doing the talking. Kaya watched the opaque vapors of her own breath ribbon into the air and wondered about the thing inside her that was doing the laughing.
On the Tuesday that school let out for Christmas, Gregory asked Kaya for the second time if she cared to come with him to the beach to collect seashells. “My fool’s gold,” he called them, though there were over one hundred names and species he could recite like an endless phone number.
He taught Kaya the names of all kinds of sea shells and the animals they’d once been attached to. He explained how an exoskeleton was formed and talked about the process of ecdysis, a word that sounded to Kaya like medicated shampoo. He described animals pulling themselves from the bouquet of their own skeleton, as if he’d been the only one to witness. He had seen too much and therefore seemed to know everything. Sometimes he’d steal a look to see if Kaya had knowledge too.
The first time Gregory requested Kaya’s company was on the day before Thanksgiving, when he’d walked into her grandmother’s living room bearing the gifts of a fried turkey and three crossword puzzle books. It was strange seeing him there, standing before the mirrored wall that doubled and reversed the plants and old-fashioned lamps, the family bible, pictures of cousins, and the cracking, vinyl sofa that, seen twice, looked more disgruntled than other sofas in its condition. As she saw Gregory in the mirror and in front of her she began to realize that she had never seen him when other people were around. She couldn’t explain this feeling, but she was already returning to it with closed eyes to give herself the shivers at will.
At just the right time, Gregory presented her with a shell whose pattern was identical to the freckles that melted across his nose, and it felt good and unexplainable, so right away Kaya was closing her eyes, remembering the moment again.
It was the golden time of day and the Gulf of Mexico smoothed itself before the world as if aware it was being admired. A seagull dipped down and flapped its wings upward in an almost painful effort. Kaya watched open-mouthed, shielding her eyes.
As they walked, she noticed that Gregory’s manner had become formal and instructive. He presented Kaya with two anomiids, a translucent orange one and a pearly plum. She was moved by the way he brushed away the sand and placed them in her open hands.
“Sometimes they get bleached in the sun,” he explained. “You have to shake them around in the water to bring their colors back.”
All afternoon Gregory kept finding things Kaya could not have foreseen. An alphabet cone, a keyhole limpet, a southern quahog. She walked beside him down the beach, cold foam breaking at her feet.
“You can find a clam any time of the year,” he said, “but the best shells turn up after storms or during winter.”
Kaya looked sideways up the beach, but there was no living thing in sight. Gregory handed her a rose petal tellin, a junonia, then an angulate. When a seagull screamed, Kaya looked at the sky.
Then something was happening, or it was about to happen, and Kaya found that she could no longer look Gregory in the eye. She could only nod and grin and hide her face. However, this was not what she meant. She started to believe that it was her destiny to be misunderstood or be nothing at all. She could not see a way to change this.
The sun was starting to fall, so they found a place to sit and observe the shells. Gregory arranged them from pale to dark and sat on his knees formally introducing each one. As he called out their names, Kaya stared through the blur of her eyelashes into the gulf, willing every wave to stay in place.
When she felt him watching, Kaya gave Gregory her meekest smile as if any other type of smile would wound him. He suddenly seemed a little delicate, something like a candy egg, and the thing inside him seemed to be crying out for something ugly but simple. It was as if the repeated act of crying out had done something to his eyes. They were glossy and immeasurably deep, searching. Kaya grinned into her chest and glanced away.
She started to believe that it was her destiny to be misunderstood or be nothing at all.
Once he’d touched her, she was going to wriggle her knee out from under his hand, although she doubted this was an option. She watched Gregory’s thumb trace a slow arc across her knee, felt his fingers invisible underneath, playing a damp gritty chord. Kaya looked up again and saw that now he was staring past her knees, and his eyes, though nearly closed, sparkled with lust. She was going to cross her legs, which she assumed was the ladylike way of rebuffing a man. She was going to pull her knees up under her chin where they belonged, feeling like she needed to hold herself together. But the moment had passed. When Gregory looked at her, his eyes were the same and different. In the coolest tone available to him, he asked Kaya which shell she liked best.
Walking into her grandmother’s apartment, Kaya was stunned and lopsided. But as she floated past the mirrored wall, she decided that Gregory was right. Nothing had really happened. He’d informed her that that he would see her in three days, the day after Christmas. In three days, it would happen.
Kaya watched her reflection lurching beside her like something slight and desperate that you just had to tolerate, and she noticed her body at a clip that seemed like terror. Her long neck, curving forehead, the legs that suggested an animal running. The clothes didn’t do much. Kaya’s reflection showed a naked girl in the room with her.
“Three days,” she repeated, and the girl at her side was moving her mouth too, coaxing out the sounds. It seemed odd to wait for it to happen.
Kaya was still feeling Gregory’s touch pinpricking the curve of her knee as she rode two busses across town to the mall. She decided to do something she had never done before in an effort to create a new vision of herself that would fool others and thus protect the real Kaya. It was like crawling into a hydraulics-controlled sarcophagus that you’d made yourself and then steering the reckless monster down the side of a mountain.
After Kaya’s mother had passed, a well-meaning stranger, a tiny vulture of the prayer list, had taken Kaya by both hands to inform the girl that her mother had not really died. This was exactly what Kaya already believed. She had stood up from the church pew looking past the stranger to the back door where she expected her not dead mother to walk inside. You can think of it like this, the stranger explained, the car she was driving had a break down, so she had to get out and walk the rest of the way. Hearing this kind of thing had permanently influenced the way Kaya held her mouth. There was no way to forget that feeling of irrational, desperate hope.
It was almost time for dinner, and the mall crowds had begun to thin out when Kaya met Noreen. By then the she had become immune to the din of Christmas carols and absently mouthed the words as she stole a five-pack of earrings. She watched her hands working on their own, as though they were attached to a more daring, confident person who knew what she was about.
“How sad,” said Noreen. “The way you mindlessly fall victim to the stereotype. What on earth will you become?”
A tough, little wildflower pushed through Kaya’s heart, and its budding mouth was tickling the base of her throat. She stood still, knowing that if she twitched even a fiber of a muscle this part of her life would become irrevocably true.
Kaya turned to face the elderly ballerina at her side. Noreen wore a tailored blazer in a severe shade of eggplant that fully conveyed to Kaya the gravity of what was about to happen. Noreen’s eyebrows were thin, quick brushstrokes that scaled a long slope of forehead above which poles of florescent light shot through her helmet of hair. Her eyes were much bigger than Kaya’s but multifaceted and cold, with topaz-crammed irises. Her face was the kind that could easily sell red lipstick. Kaya was deeply attracted to it and what all it could achieve.
“Well, can’t you speak?”
“I speak. Yes, ma’am.”
Kaya’s fear had nothing to do with getting caught shouldering five hundred dollars’ worth of accessories and home goods, and she had nearly forgotten the one who would hurt her for the sake of curiosity.
“That’s good,” said Noreen nodding, unconvinced. “That’s a good start.” Kaya’s fear was that she would somehow answer yes again even before the question had been asked. In a way, she already had. “Well, what’s your name?” said Noreen. “Where are your people?”
“I’m a runaway.”
Noreen’s eyebrows climbed higher. “What you running from?”
Kaya glanced over the fountain and the skylight that poured yolky sun on the heads and torsos of people walking by. It was an eerie, homey feeling to be talking to Noreen, but each person, with their own little light, did not seem to notice.
She felt a tug at her side, a weight lifted. Noreen reached into her bag and was holding up a pair of panties in a happy, citrus print. Kaya was amazed to find herself unembarrassed. “I stole it,” she said, pride mounting her voice. “I guess that makes me a thief.”
“That’s what you think, but you have so much potential. I can see it, so why can’t you?” Noreen stuck her nose carefully into Kaya’s face. “Would you like to work for me?” she said. “I think I can give you bigger ideas.”
The inside of Noreen’s house smelled strongly of ammonia and Virginia Slims. Every wall was upholstered in green velvet and, instead of family portraits, Noreen had arranged a series of geometric oil paintings that told tales of romantic, paranormal experiences. A girl on her Juliette balcony was enjoying her parents’ cognac while being outnumbered by a gang of hooded friends who weren’t really there. A chimney sweep, likely killed by a chimney, was clutching his housewife-babe in a near death embrace. She was just starting to blink herself conscious. Kaya studied the moment before impact with her nose nearly grazing the canvas. Cherry wood furniture filled the rooms. Crinkled pumps lined the hall. A Christmas tree sulked in the corner, apparently waiting for Christmas. The dining table was covered in mail and ceramic figurines: dragon cubs, marble-eyed cats, debutantes checking their hair in non-reflective mirrors. Noreen seemed to lord over it all as she stood at the head of the table spooning crawfish etouffee from a tureen.
Noreen laughed like one of those people who’d seen too much and were out of new thoughts, and so sad laughter was the only conclusion.
Plumbing herself into a wicker chair, Noreen told the quick, moralizing tale of a tender-hearted child she’d once known who, just like Kaya, had resorted to petty theft to roughen up his self-image. But the boy was confronted by people in the town who tried to control him by giving him things. The boy received a bicycle, plus some black cat firecrackers and seventy-three dollars, all the change in the till. The townsfolk reasoned that if they gave him the object in question, then he wasn’t really stealing. This way they could avoid the moral responsibility of having produced a criminal.
“In the end,” said Noreen, “nothing was lost and everyone lived happily.”
“Everyone except the boy,” Kaya said. “He didn’t get to steal and that’s what he wanted.”
Noreen’s face began to melt to alarm. “There’s an idea,” she said watching. The Christmas tree, leaning under the weight of its own decorations, was watching too. “Seems like you’re full of them.”
Sensing that she had to say something, Kaya smiled weakly. “In two days, something bad is going to happen to me, and I won’t be able to stop it. I think people know from looking at me that I’d be a good one to try it with. Sometimes I look at myself and I can almost see my problem. But no matter how long I look in the mirror, as soon as I walk away, I forget what I look like.”
It was dark outside. Street light twinkled off the windows. A porcelain cherub and her brass deer associates gazed up with sad and hopeful expressions. One by one, Kaya turned them away.
“So, that’s it.” Noreen looked closely. “You’re in trouble. Someone’s got their eye on you before you could even become beautiful. You got the wrong person’s attention.”
Kaya shrugged. In her hands the salt and pepper shakers turned a do-si-doe. “It’s two days left,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell everyone.”
“They never listen,” said Noreen dreamily, cordially. “Not once in human history.”
Noreen rose and sailed to the phone. Kaya hesitated before reciting her grandmother’s number. In the next moment Noreen was leaving a strange message, summarizing in her style what Kaya had confided in her. “Fact is, this man has been guiding your grandbaby into the terrors of male pleasure, one stupid seashell at a time, and you haven’t done a thing to stop it.” Noreen repeated her name, phone number, and the time that she had placed the call. Hanging up the phone, she sat down at the table again seeming almost satisfied.
“As someone who also finds herself in need of some reassurance,” Noreen bristled at the inadequacy of her words, “I can appreciate your position. I’ve played it a time or two. But I survived because I learned how to get my reassurance where I can. You get it, you have it, you run out. Do you know what to do when you run out?”
It worried Kaya to be habitually admitting the truth, but she said no.
“You’ve come at just the right time, girl. Tomorrow I’ll be getting mine. I’m throwing a funeral for myself,” she said. “To see.”
“To see what?” said Kaya.
Noreen stared at Kaya without speaking. “Options. Dimensions. I’m going to see what I really mean to people. What all this surviving has amounted to. I have a right to know.”
Kaya glanced down at her bowl of etouffee. Her mother’s was better. Dragging her fork around the bowl, Kaya began to doubt that running away with Noreen would improve her life.
Noreen laughed like one of those people who’d seen too much and were out of new thoughts, and so sad laughter was the only conclusion. “Look at me. I’ve saved a life today and I celebrate my own tomorrow. I’ve made my own arrangements. It’s all set.”
Noreen gestured to the stack of mail at the place setting beside Kaya as though it had some news to share. Printed on embossed stationery was a confirmed guest list of a dozen people.
“I’m honored that you’d invite me,” said Kaya. Beside the mail, a ceramic yellow puppy seemed to be judging. Kaya thought, I must steal him.
“Oh, no,” said Noreen. A sad, fat grin grew quickly across the bottom of her face. It was odd. She could smile really hard, but the top half of her face wouldn’t move at all. “I need you to work my funeral—like event staff. You’ll pass out programs. Fan somebody in case they catch the spirit. You will be compensated for your time.”
Kaya watched as Noreen’s thickly-veined hands removed an alligator pocketbook from her purse. She signed her name in violent slanting loops, ripped out the check, and handed it over to Kaya. Kaya ran her fingers over the imprint made by Noreen’s ballpoint, smearing ink. Her wages for the day totaled twenty dollars.
“Poor Runaway,” Noreen said flatly. “Nobody thinks of you, do they? You’re like that set of batteries that always gets left out.”
The tambourine smashing angel looked on with sympathetic eyes. Staring into them, Kaya thought, I must steal her too.
That night, with only the spider dangling from the ceiling fan to witness, Kaya spread the contents of her bag across Noreen’s guest room floor. She pulled out several kinds of patterns, pliable plastics, gauzy things without corners, and she had her stolen wares all around her. Then she undressed. The purpose was to look at herself with some detachment and become too smart to feel exposed. But before that could happen, Kaya lost interest.
She drifted to the closet, swimming her hands through Noreen’s old clothes. She stepped into a pair of stockings, a bed jacket, and a sleeping bonnet that brought to mind other devoured grandmothers you couldn’t feel bad for. Just knowing about them raised your chances of being eaten alive too. But a deeper look into the mirror revealed a naked girl. When she closed her eyes, she heard her breathing rapidly. She zipped herself into a quilted nightgown almost disappearing, only her hands and face remained, and she stood before the mirror to appraise this girl. Anger flooded her ears and eyes, coalescing in hot tears.
“Cunt,” she hissed.
Across town, Kaya’s grandmother did not bend her ear to this call. Delphina did not climb into her pearly sedan and cruise by the creek to timidly look down. She did not storm into the police station pulling her housecoat closed, reciting even the most minute detail only for the men in charge to say they’d see what they could do. She did not staple signs with Kaya’s sulking yearbook picture to telephone poles and fret about whether it would be best to include a note that Kaya’s hair had changed and was no longer knitted into dry braids. She did not call on other people’s pitiful children and grandbabies to confess what they knew.
Instead, Delphina gathered the prayer warriors. Versed in every grade of domestic tragedy, they swayed into the apartment, each cradling their bibles like a football. They switched off the television, excused the dog, and boiled water for tea. Then they laid hands on Delphina and made a grand appeal to God. Creator of the Universe, Most Gracious Father, console our dear sister who is distraught on this evening, Lord. Dispatch your rescuing angels. Bless your lost child. Bless the feet that will guide her home. The unknowable thing that surrounded these words rose up over the women, blooming itself in every direction across town, reaching the little guest room of Noreen’s house where Kaya lay awake, and knocked against the curve of her forehead so she could feel without knowing what it was like when someone was praying for her.
Kaya stood in the den passing out programs as the guests tramped in, trailing churchy perfumes mixed with cocoa butter. With people like that, she found that she kept noticing the wrong things, like how the blunted points of high heels or a toothpaste stain on a collar could make a person seem profoundly doomed. Of the doomed, Kaya’s favorite was a squinty-eyed man who made other people nervous simply by standing too close.
Noreen came into the kitchen, heels clacking on the slate floors, cradling a gift box with a red bow and a foil reindeer leaping across the seams. Kaya stood at attention. Noreen eyed the girl and crossed the room, snatching up the telephone to call Kaya’s grandmother one more time.
“I realize that you probably believe you’re out searching for your grandbaby,” said Noreen, “but truly, you’re just missing the essential focal point again.” Kaya tried to seem appreciative, but it felt like a temple was falling into a sinkhole. To remedy this feeling, Kaya reminded herself that she was a thief and a runaway.
Then Noreen presented Kaya with a gift, a little something-something to quiet the complaints lodged deep in her heart.
“You didn’t have to get me anything,” said Kaya pressing her ear to the box.
Noreen looked at Kaya as if there was fire dancing around the edges of the girl’s head. “Well, it’s for the greater good. Open it when I’m not around.”
Noreen set the present on a chair so that everyone passing by could fret about showing up to her funeral empty handed, so they’d feel tempted to move the box, but in the end let their good manners keep them from doing anything. Then she walked to the front of the room and lay pharaoh-like across the sofa, clutching a bird of paradise to her neck, suppressing a smile. Voices bounced around the den and then everybody was laughing. It was a black folk’s laugh, rising to crescendo and easing into a long sigh.
To jumpstart her own memorial, Noreen encouraged people to shout out the gift each of them had been given that they could never give away. People spoke up almost immediately.
“My jade ring,” one of them tried. “It ain’t worth much, and I inherited it anyway. But still. The color looks excellent on my skin.”
“My greatest gift that I couldn’t give up would be this hard road I’ve travelled.”
Two ladies volleyed a look.
“Well, mine is my capacity for forgiveness.”
“My hair,” one lied. “Couldn’t give it up anyway,” she said, and that was the truth.
“I’d have to say I was my first husband.” The lady shimmied with the laughter she’d started. “No woman can give him up. It’s been a problem for him too.”
“How about my good sense? Everybody don’t have good sense.”
Someone said “my mind” but that was too close to what came before so it was ignored.
“My psychic abilities.” Heads turned on that one.
“How about my pearls?”
My dog . . . my ovaries . . . my desert china, and so on.
She was trying to make a confession, she was trying to give him a little burden, set a marble on his heart that he’d have to keep in place.
Kaya brewed a pot of chicory coffee and mopped the kitchen in ammonia. Then she walked through the den tearing open a package of plastic spoons with her teeth. As she passed the outer aisle, a man’s hand reached itself out, tugging gently at her wrist. Hellfire shot up her face and ears. In less than a second, she had convinced herself that it was Gregory, that he’d tracked her scent, slipped in with the mourners, and was just reaching out to say hello. She turned to the sweetly ashamed gaze of the squinty-eyed man from before, just as he was withdrawing his hand. The shock and disappointment made her hate Squinty Eyes. She took in his face, the bulbous features battling for dominance. Everyone else in the den was smiling towards the front of the room. For some reason, Squinty Eyes was the only one looking.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” said Squinty Eyes, and somehow Kaya could tell that he prefaced every request just like this. “But since you’re here, could you please fetch me a piece of yellow cake?”
In the seat next to him, Kaya saw that he had brought a hermit crab to the party. The crab milling around in his crate was just about as ugly as Squinty Eyes. Both of them were timid nobodies. But the crab had a home to cloister himself away from the world. And even when he was gone, there would still be the fact of his shell. Squinty Eyes, by comparison, had his itchy coat, the candy pin in his lapel, and other objects that couldn’t help him. Kaya pictured him picking them out in the store, fingering the seams of a button hole, and somehow it was menacing. His clothes could belong to anyone.
Kaya returned with a large wedge of cake and curbs of cracked frosting where she had scraped the knife. The presentation was bad, but Squinty Eyes didn’t seem to expect much, so ugly cake is what he got. He began eating immediately, his eyes telling each other, We’re so unfortunate to see everything clearly.
Kaya tried communicating something with hers, I’m going to become a bad woman.
And Squinty Eyes replied with an unsurprised, That’s okay.
Miss Noreen says she can give me better ideas but she’s just playing dead.
She’s a family friend.
Well, your friend has to play funeral when my mama had to have one.
Sorry about your mama. I’m sorry about everybody’s mama.
She used to have headaches and a bum liver, but they tell me her car broke down.
I haven’t heard that one before. It’s a nice idea.
Kaya sighed. She was trying to make a confession, she was trying to give him a little burden, set a marble on his heart that he’d have to keep in place. This dead woman ought to be helping me, but all she does is call my granny. I’m supposed to hope that my granny is looking for me, but she don’t know who to look for.
Kaya lingered to get a last word with the crab. She knew she wouldn’t really have to talk to him. She wouldn’t have to hear her panicky voice fumble with sentences she only half believed in anyway. “Now it’s only one day left,” she said.
People kept getting up to confess. Kaya went and sat with her present in her lap to watch. Everyone had a problem they could not give away, so they talked about people who had wronged them or presented a situation where it was clear whose side you ought to be on. Theirs! None of it was enough. A woman gave a little curtsy as if accepting an award. Meanwhile, Noreen lay across the sofa biting her violent little flower between her teeth. Occasionally, she opened her eyes to see who was speaking and then rolled her eyes in a flutter. You couldn’t expect people to appreciate you just because you insisted.
Squinty Eyes worked himself upright until he stood up to his waist in human heads. He was still clenching his plate of napkin-tented cake.
“Today I have some things I would like to give up,” he said. His eyes zig-zagged toward the floor as he began to account for his sad choices. “I’ve been holding onto them my entire adult life but since you asked . . . on today . . . ” The word “today” seemed to embarrass him. As he smiled, diamonds of spittle showed in the corners of his mouth. His dimples appeared too high in his cheeks and looked painful.
People froze, appreciating the weirdness he’d probably cultivated on accident. The only exception were the two ladies in candy-bright skirt suits seated to his left and right. Sharing a copy of People, they leaned past his knees to judge fashion trends and the whorishness of celebrities. One shook her head as the other turned the pages.
Squinty Eyes continued. When he was young and failing he used to ride around his mother’s neighborhood and covet the stone animals in people’s yards. The lions caught his eye because he had never been a young lion. So he took a pair and hid them in his mother’s garage and once his mother had gone to work, he liked to visit the lions and chain them to his waist. “I was practicing, you see. I was testing it out.”
Squinty Eyes tried to smile, but his face was like a lit match about to go out. Noreen sat on her elbows to watch. Everybody waited for him to get on with his big disruption and save them.
When he moved to his own place, he brought the lions and whenever the mood struck, he’d practice some more. He was working up to the inevitable. He was practicing for the day he would take his lions, chained to his sides, and walk into the bayou like the guest he’d been waiting on. “I’d planned to push them in first,” said Squinty Eyes, “because I’ve always been too polite for my own good, and anyway the three of us would sink to the bottom. But I’d have the company you don’t get with a suicide and at least we could charge onward and I could do something different with my life.”
Squinty Eyes tried to smile, but his face was like a lit match about to go out.
Meanwhile, the two ladies were talking. One adjusted the neckline of her dress stretching out a begonia and laughed with her flat tongue hanging all the way out. The other leaned heavily across Squinty Eyes to throw her friend a smacking high-five. The ladies’ chatter was thrashing Kaya’s sense of continuity. The fact that a spectacle of confession and gossip could play out at the same time gave Kaya the creeping sense that there was too much that was possible in the world.
“Anyway,” he said, “Today I would like to give up the lions.” He reached into his chest pocket, as though fishing out the statues he’d been talking about, but he caught a handkerchief instead and dropped his plate. The crowd responded with mixed levels of enthusiasm. It wasn’t embarrassment on his face, just unsurprised disappointment that things hadn’t gone as planned.
“It’s me, you fools! Me!” Noreen waved her arms in a wild arc. “I’m the gift you could never give up. She knows!”
In her desperation, Noreen looked to Kaya, but people kept their eyes on Noreen. Posed on her sofa with her arms out and despairing, Noreen looked historic, contagious, and cheap like any number of the trashy keepsakes in her house. Other people noticed and Kaya felt successfully deceptive. She felt amused and irritated to the point of laughter.
Kaya glanced down at the present between her hands. Her slender fingers pulled on the ribbon that seemed to keep growing, then she removed the lid, opening the box. Nestled in leaves of whispering paper was a knotted mass of multicolored lingerie. At least twenty pairs knotted together, their outrageous price tags still attached. Kaya looked and looked, her expression barely registering any change.
But that was beside the point. Kaya had not wanted a present, she had wanted to steal. And now she wanted to steal again.