Saturday, May 2, 2015

Dani Clark: Short Fiction

Mid-Day Lunch


            Josinna draped her jacket across the chair beside her favorite table before standing in line to order. She secured her favorite spot this way everyday, always choosing the table in back, hunched right up against the corner where two walls meet. She never risks getting stuck at one of the free-floating island tables, right in the center of the café. Any person could walk past her at those tables, heading for the garbage can, or when they left through the side door. At the table against the wall she's sheltered on two sides. If anyone walks past she'll see first, since they only come from one direction.

            That day there are four other lunch patrons dining in the café: an older gentlewoman reading her newspaper; a glum business lady sucking through a straw; a woman with fire-engine red hair wearing a fake mole on her upper lip, drawn on with eyeliner; and a punky chick half-asleep, spinach turnover clutched in her hand at a table by the counter.

            "Glazed donut, Vietnamese sandwich, and a cup for water," Josinna ordered her usual.

            "Ah, no Pepsi?" The lady behind the counter looked at Josinna's lean hips when she asked, but Josinna just walked back to her table. The day before she ate lunch in a conference room with her supervisor who looked down at the donut on Josinna's plate and said, "you're so lucky hmong girls have those skinny Asian genes, I'd weigh 200 pounds if I ate a donut every day," phlegmily annunciating the silent H in Hmong.

            Waiting for her order Josinna turned to the dog-eared page in her book, but found herself staring at something else.

            The girl sleep-chewing at the front of the shop wore a studded belt, skull charms and nautilus stars dazzled the waist. An art portfolio peeked from inside a messenger bag on the table in front of her, just beside a glass of neo-green liquid. Josinna used to drink a green power juice just that shade before tennis matches in college. The herbal mix in the glowing drink gave her so much energy she could track the ball as it pinged across the net and back, only moving her eyes. That was before she left school to perform data entry for a firm in the Financial District.

            The Punk rocked sideways in her chair, with her eyes closed. Then she tilted forward, slowly at first like a jackhammer held overhead, protracted and lazy just before a heavy drop. Her mouth met the hand holding the turnover, propped by an elbow on the table. When the girl bit into her food a lace of strained spinach slumped onto the ridge of her fingerless glove, sloppy and curling. She swayed back in the chair, face lifted as she methodically chewed, still quasi-asleep.

            Lunch break only lasts an hour, so Josinna focused on her book, relieved she wasn't stuck in that working lunch, listening to her supervisor, "You're so lucky to have that gorgeous Asian hair. I bet you couldn’t cut it short since it's so thick though. The hair would poof out from the weight. Your head would look like a mushroom!"

            Josinna stole coy looks at the sleeping girl when she flipped through the book. On the page Durga battles Sumbha, the warlord who wants her power. She births the mothers: Kali, intense and unforgiving; Brahmani, delicate but fierce; Kaumari, big and imposing; then Aindri, who sees everyone trying to escape. Together they beat back Sumbha's army. Enraged and vengeful from the loss of his own men, Sumbha claims Durga cannot win a battle without the mothers, then challenges her to a combat between him and herself alone. Durga knows before the battle begins that she can win, because all the mothers were her own manifestations, and she created them from strength within herself. When Sumbha comes, unaided by an army, she defeats him with only one stroke of her spear.  

            The girl in the café is clean, and doesn't look like a junky. Maybe she'd gone to a show the night before, where crackerbox bands played, guitarists moving their hands across instrument faces so fast the noise couldn't make music. Now she's all puffy eyes and yawns from a night out. Or, Josinna thought, maybe she's just narcoleptic.

            The Straw-Sipper and Fire-Engine Red both glanced over at the girl occasionally, like Josinna. Maybe the girl moved that way on purpose, understanding her sluggish movements wrought attention, and only slipped into faux-sleep.

            The woman behind the counter didn't furtively watch, but she was the only one, busied in building bread castles, piled high with lettuce turrets and moats of cold cuts for the people in line with orders. "Sandwich, ready!" She looked at Josinna as she shouted and Josinna waited until she finished her page before walking to the counter, then back to her table with the tray.

            The girl slumped farther down into her chair, torso curved, chin parallel to chest, and let her wrist collapse onto the table. The turnover toppled, spinach first, innards avalanching from the baked shell. Then she whipped awake and tugged open her portfolio before standing, sudden movements making Josinna and Fire-Engine Red start from their static observation.

            She lifted the opened book of sketches toward a man walking in the door and mumbled, like a beggar holding out a cup. The man brushed the collar of his coat and kept walking. At the counter he turned smoothly, without stopping, and came back to the girl's table, yanking a red earbud from his ear.

            "Let me ask you something…" Voice unassuming.

            The Punk nodded, an appreciatory grin riddling her face.

            "You could have shown that to anyone in here, but instead you showed it to me. Why'd you show that, to me?" He put a fist to his chest.

            The girl stood still, blinked, artwork still framed in her hand.

            The man's voice rose, feverish, fist knocking against chest, "you could have asked any of these women in here to look at your artwork, why'd you have to show it to me?"

            "Uh," the attitude in her voice caught up with her facial expression, "Excuse me, I didn't know I wasn't allowed to talk to men."

            "I don't want to look . No man would be interested in that. You could've asked anyone else in here!"

            Josinna turned back to her book, but the words seemed fuzzy on the page. When she glanced up she looked directly at the wall in front of her, yellowed, trailing ripped wallpaper at the seam. Fire-Engine Red's face tilted sideways, looking out the window.

            Voices got louder.

            "Say that to me again," the man had an index finger pointed toward the girl's jaw, thumb extended.

            "You’re a pussy," she almost shouted, backing from her table into Josinna's corner.

            "Say it one more time and I'll hit you! I swear I'll hit you!"

            The woman behind the counter faced them, chewing her thumbnail.

            Josinna had pepper spray in her jacket pocket. She had a siren app on her phone. She had a voice. She pulled her heavy purse into her lap and looked down into it.

            With long, heavy hair curled around her finger she looked back down at the book lying flat and open on the table, and pretended to read. Then Durga held out her arms and all the Goddesses returned to her, and she was whole.

            The Straw-Sucker looked down and sighed into her half-empty glass. The man looked fierce, his lips braced against teeth. The girl's eyes half-closed. He lowered his arms and turned back toward the door.

            As he walked away she shook her head, goose flesh puckered on her arms. "Pussy!" She shouted after him, "You’re a pussy!"

            He turned around again, rushed at her from across the diner, slapping the glass of green liquid as he passed it. The glass tilted, then rolled, trailing the sloshing drink like paint spatter on the floor. The girl moved farther back, toward the wall where Josinna sat trapped, and threw chairs from empty tables into his path.

            The man stopped. Laughed. Rolled his eyes. He turned around and left.

            The girl walked back to her table, pulling in the chairs she'd flung out. "Sorry everyone. I guess I don't know how offensive I am," she shrugged and packed her things. The Straw-Sipper stood, stretched arms above her head. Fire-Engine Red left through the side door, passing the gentlewoman who never looked up from her newspaper. The counter-girl turned to build another order.

            Josinna tucked the book into her purse and left through the side door too. In the open air she felt damp. Her reflection in the window looked plain; black business slacks, sooty gray button-up, brown belt. When she turned the corner, wind caught her, made her wilt, pushing heavy hair across her face.