Their hands were rigid around paper cups: coffee was their addiction.
Rose asked: "So what do you think? Should I get a nipple tattooed on my new boob? Apple red?"
The women had become friends when their babies were born, years before. They had sat on park benches feeding the children from their breasts, side by side and hardly modest.
"Tell me more about it before I give you an answer. Is it going to hurt? What else should I want to know?"
"If it's going to look good."
"I don't know. I've never seen one. What's good?" Rose's words could be sarcastic, but her dark blue eyes were always sweet.
"Real it is not. That's the point."
Rose's breasts had done the majority of their work: baby, lovers. Her husband Sam could live without a nipple; so could she.
"What about symmetry?" Hannah caught Rose's very blue sweet eye. "Do you feel lopsided?"
"Feel-- yes." Hannah watched Rose from the outside, her inward turning eyes weighing something she, Hannah, couldn't know. Her own breasts hung marvelously neutral, easily forgotten.
"But an apple red tattoo?"
Rose stopped to take a quick sip.
"I don't know. Do you want to see?"
Hannah weighed her answer. 'Sure' might seem too casual. 'Why not?' a little mean. 'Of course' too forward.
Rose upzipped her black fleece, pulled up her white t-shirt. She waited for an answer, wondering aloud if it would ever stop trying to migrate back to its rightful place.
What Hannah saw was too smooth and eye-less, a little sad.
"It's absolutely fine just as it is. Haven't you been through enough?" Her voice crept into the upper range; she brought it down an octave. "Rose," she said, not taking her eyes away, "it's far more pert than mine are."
Rose let the shirt fall and zipped her jacket. She picked up her coffee cup and tried to sip but it was empty.
From inside the house, they heard the man everyone in the neighborhood called Walkie-Talkie. He was over six feet tall and had a sturdy mobile face. He leaned back as if pushed by a heavy wind. He held an imaginary gun and made real-sounding gun noises.
Whenever he saw them, something inside him switched and he nodded courteously, said, "How you doing?" as if they'd already asked him the same question.
Start with two breasts. Take one away. Remove your hands. Put them empty at your sides. Stop imagining what once was there.
In his sleep, Sam's got an apple in each hand.
Rose's garden was filled with weeds. She wasn't supposed to do anything that might make her arm sore or give her an infection so she watched her garden, which she said was her only thing in the world, go to seed.
A few days later, Sam found Walkie-Talkie out on the street and invited him in to the backyard. He told Rose to show Walkie-Talkie what to do. She got down on her knees and pulled. The man stood tall in her garden.
"Okay. What I need you to do is get down on your hands and knees here, and weed. All the long, straggly things have to go. Anything with a little green bud stays. All right?"
He seemed to nod. She left him in the yard and went to the kitchen where she could watch from the window. He stood there without doing a thing for almost an hour before she went out and told him that he could go. She handed him five dollars and never told Sam. Her garden was there, somewhere, beneath all the overgrowth.
Back in the Park
One morning, Rose and Hannah took a long walk over toward the park. On ratty, squirrel-churned grass, the homeless people were still asleep, their bodies wrapped like presents in sleeping bags and plastic blankets. They walked at the edge of the bodies trying not to step on any part that might be alive.
Rose mused: "What do you think our kids are doing that we don't know about?"
"Would you really want to know Lillian's secrets?"
"Probably not. I always had the feeling that my mother knew everything I did. It was eerie."
Underneath the stone bridge, a man bent into the curve of his saxophone, playing against the echo. Talking, they treated him like scenery. Once they passed, Rose turned back and waved. "Thank you, thank you!" At the back entrance after Thursday nights at the symphony Sam always clasped his hands together as if he were praying and said, 'Thank you, thank you, wonderful concert tonight.'
Just as they were crossing the flat, short streets, fresh cups of coffee too hot against their palms, they saw Walkie-Talkie coming down the middle of the block, leaning back as if against a wind, but moving forward. He held a finger up straight in the air, brought it to his lips and blew on it, then crossed over to their side of the street.
Sam dreamt that music was a conundrum Walkie-Talkie could decipher.
Walkie-Talkie, he asked him in the dream, would you mind coming inside today? Sam's hand pulled the man through his own front door, guided him to the deep red leather chair where he tripped on something and fell into the seat.
Want a cookie or something Walkie-Talkie? A carrot? A bottle of juice?
No, Sam, he answered as if he always found himself in Sam's living room. Just put on the music, he said in the deep voice he used early in the morning as he passed the houses when they were still asleep. He looked at Sam from behind thick glasses.
The dream ended with the beginning of the music. Sam opened his eyes on daylight. Rose lay on her back, her mouth open as if she were about to speak. He watched for words, then waited for her breath, holding his own.
Jacob's head was in Lillian's lap for hours at a time. He shifted when she did, and sat up when the weight got to be too much. He breathed beneath her breasts as she quizzed him on the Table of the Elements, discovering that they were not small at all, but deeply round and heavier than he would have thought.
He wondered if his Dad the surgeon could recognize a woman with his wide gray eyes closed simply by weighing a breast in his hand. That thought departed swiftly, Lillian stuffing his mind with unimportant facts. What he really wanted to ask his Dad was: How am I supposed to remember any of this stuff with a boner from here to tomorrow? He turned over in Lillian's lap, put his lips to where hers were behind her jeans. The words in his head felt like prayer: Dad, how do you concentrate? How do you forget? Am I sick or are you?
Dr. Goodman walked with authority, unaware of it, pondering the weather: heavy clouds low to the earth, a deceptive cradle. Blue skies with high thin clouds were a precursor to his best work, but there were other days, mysterious fog-filled mornings that brought gifts and left him to bestow them on the women whose breasts he found in his hands.
His sixteen-year-old son wouldn't understand, ever, unless his penchant for reading and soccer turned, senior year, to science. There were mornings when Jacob wouldn't face him. He wanted to say: Jacob, my son, it isn't what you think. But his hands, even when cradling a spoon, betrayed him.
Sometimes the doorbell rang mysteriously without being pressed but right now, Hannah knew that Rose was outside the door, trying to find her.
I'm inside but you can't find me.
Rose's new dog Margot scratched against the painted door. She heard Rose saying, no Margot, stop it Margot. Hannah crept around inside, trying not to breathe.
I'm on the inside, you're on the outside. There's nothing you can do right now to find me. But I'm here. Hannah chuckled very softly to herself. The dog stopped scratching. She was at the very heart of the house.
I can hear you but you can't see me.
She could hear Rose fumbling with the mail slot. "It's not contagious, you know!"
Margot was an all-white Tibetan terrier Rose had found on the Internet, looking up breeds, and finally getting to hair versus fur. Lillian was allergic to anything truly fur, alive and maybe even dead. It was the year Walkie-Talkie did not die.
She was called Margot, though they might have called her Magpie because she carried home found items off the street and had a pile of detritus that only added to the complex orderliness of their house. No one could find anything and when Hannah turned up for walks they had to search for Rose's shoes.
That day, they put the dog in the back of the car and drove out to the beach. The water was astonishingly shiny, like something rubbed and burnished with fronds of seaweed marring the perfection of the surface. The dog frolicked, made friends. Hannah and Rose walked side by side.
Off to the north, there were condominiums on the spot where as children the women had been scared by Big Bertha's horrid laugh at the entrance to the Funhouse. Playland at the Beach had been a financial disaster, but they remembered it with a perverse fondness.
"And the skeeball, didn't you push quarters or was it dimes into the slot so that the handsized balls rolled down like stiff, heavy soldiers? Then the cool roll along the runway, like spherical planes taking off. It took such intricate concentration. I've never been happier."
Hannah skipped as she spoke, pulling a long piece of seaweed. Margot growled at it and followed, trotting. Rose looked at the sky and forgot to listen. For her, the beach was a handful of bliss. She put out her arms, pulled the day to her.
About the author:
Anne Germanacos' stories and essays have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Quarterly West, Salamander, Santa Monica Review, Mudlark, Pindeldyboz, Georgetown Review and others. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. A story published in Fourteen Hills recently received the Holmes Award.
© 2011 Word Riot