The Juggler

“If there ever were such a thing, she would have it.” Regina paused to look at her work. The shape of the mouth was coming along, but only gradually. She had hoped that by rounding out her lips, by thinking about the shape of an O, or the sound of an O coming from the mouth of Alistair she would eventually get it. But she hadn’t quite.

“I wanted to ask her, because I thought you’d say that, but I was afraid.” Yvonne offered to refill her drink—the ice cubes, once large and opaque, weltered and shrunk now to nothing in the last bit of iced tea. Her mother’s eyes flashed once at Yvonne before returning to the portrait.

“Why should you be afraid?” she said coldly, then smiled. She didn’t look comfortable. And there was something strange about her facing the wall the way she was, back straight, eyes squinting, but that’s apparently how her mother drew. She traced the contours of the man her husband’s shoulders with the crayon swiftly several times, unsure of what to tackle besides the mouth, which had made no progress it seemed for the last hour. Yvonne turned slightly as though to look toward the door, and in her periphery observed a woman staring at nothing; silently, attentively studying her thoughts, and she felt a sweep of something cold and strange along her neck.

“I thought I heard someone,” said Yvonne, though her mother hadn’t said anything. “It’s looking really good,” she added, not for the first time, and briefly placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder.

At the door she leant against the jamb and gazed down the empty hall. Monica was on the floor above, the top one. They had tried to get contiguous rooms in the hotel but the staff had said it wasn’t possible. Yvonne thought about that now, and wondered if it was true. Her mother didn’t like lawyers. Didn’t like Monica. She was comfortable with her at an arm’s distance. But she was hard-working, her mother at least would admit to that, and over the months had increasingly stretched the limits in both their minds of what it meant to be a lawyer, what work and will was really needed in what Monica had once called “compiling”—that body of information out there, withheld, away, subterranean, that would make the whole thing work, or not. There were no certainties, after all. “What did you see?”, “What did he say?”, “Is that what he really said?” There was nothing in Yvonne’s life that had made her scrutinise her past the way this had, not with the expectation of pulling out some weighty thing, some conclusion about another matter. It hadn’t occurred to her as a child that her father’s life connected to other people’s lives, least of all to important people like the president. But it had. This now was a story shaping itself for the first time from the levicula, those small vain things of her childhood, and she viewed her father though still fondly and with deep regret at his dying, with a certain sense of distance, not as one “in on something” but as one to whom that something had brushed up against and scared. That was his breath, that bourbon-bleach. Those black spots mopped clean by her mother around his study—cocoa-cola whiskey, ice stirred with a finger sucked of its sweetness after. Never wiped against a pant leg, dried with tissue or rinsed with water. She had wanted to taste that finger too, for some reason she didn’t know. Like that special mix, whiskey-coke was more special from his large finger, which would rarely point at things rudely or be misused in the way it seemed to her this, his stirring was a misuse. She had stirred mixed drinks for years after that way until corrected by her husband, who found it classless, and dumbfounding.

“So,” her father would begin, because she was looking through the keyhole at him by his desk. “I wonder what smells in here all of a sudden.” And he would look beneath the desk, around at the cornices, scratching the stubble of his neck. “What’s this, I hear a gigglin’!” And he, her father, two-hundred-twenty pounds, was on his knees now looking through the hole, at a lock of hair not quite of view, at the shadow of a girl shuddering, laughing quietly and fearfully.

“A humble man,” she said, then cringed. She had only wanted to try it out—it was what the funeral director had said of him, and others had nodded quite solemnly, as though this somehow added to the injustice, and perhaps, she thought, made his death more pathetic, as though death were a thing to fight, were one valiant and unafraid. But humble did not mean afraid, and her father was never afraid. He had just got in with the wrong people. The wrong people, her mother thought, were responsible for his death, and all appearances to the contrary were just that—appearances.

The air outside was sharp. At the top of the street Yvonne allowed it to blow through her hair, to clear her head of thought as she watched the straight lines of cars flash and glitter like flecks of tin as they passed each other on the bridge. Gulls rode the grey air up, swept and carried on as they did. Squabbled, bobbed and drifted on the tide. From the bridge, where she had spent some time the previous week walking up and back thinking through the approaching court date, far down beyond the guard rails the great mass of blue water in the midday sun had looked like an electronic grid of lights, a display of some kind, like one enormous project in extralinguistic communication.

“Enormity,” she said. “The enormities of war. The enormities of political corruption.”

At a nearby café Yvonne adjusted to the warmth of the little crowded room and inspected the menu. Her eyes watered now, and blurred. She blinked several times, wiping away the tears with a woollen sleeve, but the fibres irritated the sensitive skin around her eyes.

“Here,” said a man who had returned from the counter with his order, handing her a napkin.

“Thank you,” said Yvonne, startled for a moment. She pressed the napkin into the corners of her eyes, dried the burning tears and when she had finished the man was still standing there.

“Oh!” she said. “Philippe! I didn’t recognise you—I mean, I couldn’t see you, how are you?”

“I’m wonderful,” said Philippe, and taking Yvonne’s hand in his, kissed it delicately. “Yours,” he said, raising the paper cup stacked against another in his hand. Yvonne looked. “It’s quite hot, still green tea I presumed, or no?”

“Yes!” said Yvonne, hurrying now to take the tea from him, “how did you . . .”

“I saw you outside, just before while I was at the counter. Will you sit with me?” He indicated a bench against the glass shopfront.

“I don’t believe it,” said Yvonne as she sat, her eyes on Philippe, “how did you see me?” She looked outside at the drift of hurrying human bodies, men and women passing, talking, a real medley, she thought, then blushed at the idea that she should be noticed so readily.

“How could I miss you, you look radiant, thoughtful as ever, like your father,” said Philipe. He took her hand again on the way down. His grey hair was perfectly smooth and parted. His white teeth gleamed as he smiled.

“I can’t stay long,” said Yvonne, “I only came to get a coffee for someone.”

“And nothing for yourself? You’re that strapped?”

Yvonne smiled again coyly. “Well this whole court trial thing . . .” she said, draining the condensation of her tea’s plastic lid into her cup.

“Yes I’ve heard. It must be very hard on your mother, it’s good of you to take care of her the way you do.”

“Yes. In fact the coffee was for Monica, our attorney.”

“They don’t have service at the hotel?”

Yvonne stopped blowing on her tea. “Which hotel?”

“The one you’re staying at, of course.”

“I just thought she’d appreciate it. In fact I don’t know. I wanted to get something specific from her but I changed my mind and felt like some air. Such a wonderful city, I’d forgotten.”

“It is,” said Philipe, and adjusted his glasses as he looked out at the harbour. “What is it you want from her?”

“A photograph. One that I remembered seeing a while ago.”

“Ah,” said Philippe. “Of Alistair. What was it like, from what you remember?”

“It was him, sitting in his chair, with his hand like this—” Yvonne rested her cheek against a fist, parted her lips to form an O, a gesture of quiet, perhaps weary contemplation.

“Yes!” said Philippe, “Yes that’s it exactly, it’s Alistair!”

Philippe laughed, and for a while they cast their eyes about the café, conjuring, if they could, other fond impressions of the man they knew.

“This is so weird!” said Yvonne suddenly, slapping the table, “I just don’t believe it!”

“It’s quite cold out there,” Philippe said evasively, shrugging in his deep blue overcoat.

“Yes. Yes it’s getting there. Still lovely. I like to see a grey sky sometimes.”

There was another, longer silence between them.

Philippe recrossed his legs. “Tell me about Regina, how is she doing?”

“I think she’s okay. I mean . . . I think she is.”

“And how are you doing?”

“I’m okay.” Yvonne laughed and once again felt herself blushing. Her ears burned and she felt suddenly itchy under her coat. “I am, I am okay. There’s been so much to think about, it’s difficult to disconnect sometimes.”

“And I bet you wish you could leave it all behind at times, too. The whole circus. The always shifting court dates, the hotels, the endless questions your mother has to face.”

“Well, yes, but it’s what Mom wants. And I want to help her.” Yvonne wished her tea would cool so she could sip it to punctuate her words, the spaces between her words. Her thoughts, she realised, that were so meagre and small and unsure, and which Philipe always seemed to know. “Yes, it’s the right thing,” she finished resolutely. At the counter a young woman held in her boyfriend’s embrace was placing her order, and her boyfriend, tall, sturdy, square-jawed, kissed the top of her head.

“Would that we were all so brave. But do you believe it?”

Yvonne could feel her father’s old friend looking intently at her. She felt as though she were enduring a kind of assault, everything at once felt too heavy, and too loud.

“Believe what?” Yvonne said, turning. Philippe just stared, smiling.

“His memoirs. All of it I guess I mean, or the parts that are being contested. All the vile, illegal stuff your father apparently thought was occurring.”

“I think it’s possible, but I don’t have the same convictions as Mom. I don’t know what Dad meant by all the things he said. I don’t like that it’s being blocked but at the same time if something is untrue and dangerous to . . . to national security maybe it should be.”

Philippe hemmed his approval, took a sip of his coffee.

“What do you think, Philippe? I’m very interested in that, I mean you must have been exposed to at least some of the stuff that—”

“No,” he said, and smiled, then added, “this part of town is full of secrets.”

At a park along the canal Yvonne drank her tea and watched a young man practice contact juggling with several glass balls, and fail at whatever it was he was attempting. The sounds of the distant promenade, the busy streets, and sirens announcing the death of a woman who had jumped from the top floor of a hotel downtown washed in a rhythm like a wake along the cold air, and she listened to its noise for a long while, imagining it, like the water below the bridge to be the articulations of some language she didn’t know, could not know, must not know.

Thanks for checking out my short story.

Did I tell you I wrote a novel? You can read it here for free, or get it for your e-reader on iBooks, Amazon or Kobo. Or you can just say you read the book, and donate five bucks down below. Go on.

Gabriel Muoio



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