pages Coward

by Nathan Stretch

Published in Issue No. 161 ~ October, 2010

They walked past those houses whose lots are so small the yards are mostly cars: whose tenants keep their tiny lawns with ancient blades exhibiting their age in the protesting swirls of clippings, in chipping-off paint. They walked in the neighbourhood where he lived in a basement apartment whose door didn’t close properly. It stuck in the frame. When he wrestled it open that morning at the insistence of her knocking-within the agreed upon structure for the day-that is to say, in order for them to go on their date, she was dressed correctly for the weather and chided him into pulling on a sweater. The day was brisk, if not yet fully developed, perhaps a bit undecided in its own way, perhaps a bit stuck in its frame.

Strolling along as they were, in silence, he was struck by the colour of the damp birch leaves on the trees near the alley. He knew that the hue of those leaves-leaving-trees was the same that the bruise on his cheek would be in its fading from silhouette to a faint reminder of what he thought he might be about say. The impending colour was absorbed through his skin; it sunk right in through his cheek to his mouth where he gulped down the tone, swallowing it whole, though the taste remained in his throat.

He stopped and turned and said, We should talk. And he said it just like that, in just that way.

He went on to speak how he hadn’t meant to speak-how he knew he would-with much wandering peripheral and disjointed accusation. She struck him in the face and stalked off pulling, as she did, at her finger in a silent twisting rage. She dropped their glittering bond into the gutter and it rolled his way with a wobbling gait.

He threw up in a storm drain when reaching for the token, felt the craven bile burst from his mouth suddenly, sneakily, as he bent at the waist. He heaved in that place with such force that he burst the capillaries around his eyes and felt tears well up, though he didn’t cry.

The mark she left on his face was oval and long; she’d kept her fingers loose when striking so the force would be splayed across his face but still concentrated, like killing volleyball in a volleyball game. Afterwards his friends would see the bruise and say,

You look tough; you’re a real player.

And when he didn’t reply, they made up stories; they imagined what had happened in a glorifying way. But they soon caught a whiff of something rotten in the bruising and stopped admiring him for his badge as it faded from purple, to gray, to a lingering discoloration: the sick, yellowy-green of a cheap ring leaving a stain.

He kept the ring in his pocket for a month. He fingered it while sitting on the bus, while eating in the nearby greasy spoon, and, increasingly, while sprawled out in the fluorescence of his sitting room watching television on a flickering screen; a growing recluse. He transferred the ring from his jeans to the top of the TV and watched it tarnish from a band of brilliant gold to tawdry yellow. The ring had been custom built: he had designed it himself. The band was broad and without beveling. The gold was soft and he had wanted to hang the diamond so he needed a substantial ring-one that would hold the rock like a pincer. The result was modern, almost boxy, with hard industrial edges, like a section of polished gold piping.

The stone fell out of the ring the day she dropped it, striking loose on the concrete curb before vanishing in the litter of the gutter. The design couldn’t be faulted, the force could have knocked the rock out of a traditional setting just as easily, he supposed. He pushed the malleable metal together to fill the space where the stone had sat-in its tension set-to maintain the integrity of the circle.

One night he pushed the dingy band on to his pinky finger, forcing the gold apart as he did, and slid it up and down the strings of his old acoustic guitar, making sad music softly in the underground apartment. The songs were jaundiced as they took shape, crawling from the sound hole on weak and thinning legs to quickly collapse and lie huddled on the floor-piling on top of one another and suffocating-each emerging derelict finishing off the last with a huff and a flop and a sigh. The ring met the bronzy strings with mild recognition, the four bottom of which were wound wire, and they danced to the sound of their music dying, a slow, serrating grind up and down the fretboard; a whimsical strangling.