Kak tucked her feet under the chair, hoping to conceal their bareness from the Sanibel Bean staff, and admired the pocketknife. Open, it was just under five inches long. The rounded brass ends were scalloped and combined with the curved green abalone shell casing to give the tool a pleasing oval shape. She found it in the back of her father’s tool chest when she was five years old, in the garage of a house she no longer remembered. The tool chest, though, she saw clearly. Like her, he’d abandoned it when he left. She’d taken the knife and hidden it, knowing her mother would confiscate it from her small hands. Aside from an X-chromosome and his last name, the blade constituted the only possession of hers that had belonged to her father.
She unfolded a napkin and spread it on the table to catch the shavings. Taking her time, careful not to slice at too steep an angle and reduce its life prematurely, she laid blade to pencil. Slivers of wood casing peeled away, exposing the baked graphite and clay mixture of the core. She whittled more, sculpting carefully, the thin parings dropping away as she refined it to an attractive point. The finished product in her fingers had the potent feel of a weapon.
Now the Moleskine journal. She flipped it open to the last entry, from 365 days earlier. September 26th. One year exactly. The last time anything had worked. She placed her left hand firmly on the notebook, fingers spread wide, and pressed the slim volume flat to the tabletop to play the game she’d played every day since Langone.
Don’t think. Just write. It was the first bit of wisdom Professor Tuck had dispensed on the first day of class. Tuck, the most beloved screenwriting workshop instructor at NYU, paused as each student wrote it down. As if this one nugget of wisdom would evaporate into the air and never be recovered. As if collecting it on paper would guarantee the writer some mystical edge.
There was more. On the second day of class he dispensed a second gem. This one darker than the first. He asked, What can a large pepperoni pizza do that a writer can’t? When no one offered an answer he supplied it. Feed a family of four. Everyone laughed. Except Tuck.
On the third day of class he gave his final piece of advice. If you can see yourself happy doing anything else, quit this and do it, because this will not make you rich or famous. It will only make you miserable. No one laughed as they had the previous class. No one wrote it down. Tuck observed their discomfort and burst into a giddy cackle. Kak watched him as his clucking petered out. She saw the misery then.
She brought the tip of the pencil closer to the page. An inch. Half an inch. Quarter of an inch. And there it stopped, prevented from touching the paper by the same invisible barrier that kept it off the page every day since the day in Langone. No matter how hard she pressed to drive the pencil through the last quarter inch it would not go.
Three minutes later the tip of the pencil was frozen at the same altitude. Sweat moistened her brow. Still, the tip of the pencil would not descend to the surface of the page.
She lifted it, telling herself she’d set it on the table for a sip of coffee. As quickly as she’d withdrawn it she thrust it back toward the notebook. Whatever the barrier was, physical, mental or mythological, it stopped the tip of the lead precisely a quarter inch above the paper. Surprise would not work.
Perhaps another method. Holding the pencil by its unsharpened end, she dangled it a few inches above the notebook page. She needed only to let go and gravity would finish the job. It couldn’t levitate above the surface of the paper by itself. The pencil would strike the notebook, leave a mark and the spell might be broken in this way. All she had to do was let go. She watched her fingers lightly gripping the wooden barrel of the pencil. Just let go. But no matter how long she watched or how fervently she commanded her fingers, they would not release the pencil.
So much for a farewell note. She put the pencil on the table, closed her eyes and lay her hand on her chest to feel the nothing. It was still there when she heard the voice address her.
“You saying the Pledge of Allegiance?” he asked.
She shouldn’t have recognized it. Not after their limited exchanges the previous day. But she knew who it was.
“You sonofabitch,” she said.
“It’s nice to see you, too,” Rudy said.
She heard him pull out a chair. She didn’t hear him occupy it.
“By all means,” she said, opening her eyes. “Sit down.”
He eased himself into the chair, pulling his wheeled luggage up against his knee and letting a smaller bag slip from his shoulder. It was him alright, but with a difference from the previous day. It was his energy. Or lack of. He’d been angry the day before. Now he was weary.
Aware that her hand still pressed to her silent chest, Kak pulled it away. Having nothing better to do with it, she waved it in a northerly direction, or whatever seemed to her like north.
“I thought you had to go to Atlanta.”
“Something went wrong.”
“That seems to be going around.”
He didn’t respond to this.
“How did you know I’d be here?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I took a chance.”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well. I have a busy day ahead.” It was a lie, of course. In less than an hour Evelyn and Stammer would be off the beaches and back to the cottages with their treasures. Kak would drive to the sand and swallow enough doxepin to ensure there would be no day ahead, busy or otherwise. But after the fleeting hope and disappointment of the previous day she enjoyed dismissing him. She made a show of organizing her things to make it clear she was packing up to leave.
He watched without comment while she scooped her journal and useless pencil into the backpack, stood, and slung it over her shoulder.
“Some free advice,” she said. “Because you seem a little down. Don’t skip steps.”
She almost felt pity for him. He’d started in denial like a normal person. Yesterday he was in anger. So far so good. His next logical step was bargaining but here he was slipping into depression a stage too early. It was a mistake.
“Stages,” she said. He wasn’t following. It didn’t matter. “Never mind. Good luck.”
She was at the door before he spoke. She grabbed the door handle and pulled it open. The warm, sweet outside air pushed in as it never would again.
The words came then, sudden and urgent, the most amazing words she’d heard since Langone.
“I want to make a deal with you.”
She stopped in the doorway. Had she heard him correctly?
“Say that again,” she said.
“Go to Key West with me. In return, I’ll do whatever you want. Help you do all that bullshit you said yesterday. Okay? You come toward me, I come toward you—.”
His lips kept moving. He was saying something else but she’d stopped listening to him. She didn’t hear the idle chitchat between other customers. Didn’t hear the person complaining she was letting all the air conditioning escape. It was all drowned out by the rumble and groan of mutual gravity taking hold.
She could barely breath as she felt it pulling their two masses toward each other in a near-miss that might this time be destined to slingshot her past him toward anger and denial. A voice rose above the cosmic roar in her head. The voice said, ‘and it was in this manner that bargaining would come to replace depression’.
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