John Pistelli

 

John Pistelli was born in Pittsburgh, PA, but now lives in Minneapolis, MN, where he is a writer, teacher and Ph.D. candidate.

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Mine (October 20, 2009. Issue 10.)

He hurled his head around and out of a paralyzed nightmare, and lay still for a minute with the blood beating out loud pulses in his head. Sun from the tall windows stuck his t-shirt to his chest with sweetly stale-smelling sweat. He leapt up, put on a different t-shirt and ran out of his apartment, down the fourteen floors on foot to the café on the ground floor.

House music domesticated a tropical rhythm. Tall, taut students from the nearby art institute, adorned with the markings of their tribe, lolled around the high-ceilinged sitting area behind the front windows. They pounded back black coffee and checked their email all the time. He took his raspberry Italian soda to one of the deep-cushioned chairs in the corner of the purple-carpeted back room. He read with desultory interest the financial section of the New York Times then scanned a few pages of the of the Zola novel he had been trying to read for days, relic of his student years when he thought he’d be a professor, thought he’d make a great refusal and work at some urgent intellectual task for his living.

In truth he now took interest only in the woman behind the counter—from this seat he could see the back of her, but she had smiled when he ordered. His eyes returned to her again and again in jerks, as if she had them on a string. She was really so plain, with hair you could call dark blonde, though it looked like it was made of white, black, platinum and brown strings that had nothing to do with each other. Glasses that caught window-squares of sunlight hid her eyes and her small features wore no expression. She stood at the register, heard orders, took money, made change, while another woman fixed all the drinks. The counter girl did not stand unaided: she hung between two aluminum underarm crutches that freed her hands to tender the money all day long.

He sat for far too long in his comfortable chair, indifferent to the capital flows that sustained him and to the fate of Thérèse Raquin, until, before the lunch hour, the counter woman crutched out into the open with a laughing good-bye to her colleague and her replacement. She used a skilled, bewildering blur of hand and crutch to get through the café’s double-doored lobby. From one black pantleg sprouted a pale, sandaled foot with black-painted toenails and a beaded anklet. The other pantleg, pinned up in a cuff, fell limply in empty air. He was out the door behind her.

“I just want to talk to you.” Talk he did and smoothly, with the fluent roll of a man who’d had poetic ambitions and a knack for language. She talked back.

It turned out she had a master’s degree in French, more educated than he was and in the same useless field. But when a drunk pilot crushed his parents’ associate’s private plane into the earth with all three aboard, he retired on the inheritance and spent heavy, heavy days staring through the air of his vast apartment and out the window at the city below. He never did write those poems or those monographs on Verlaine. She, conversely, with nothing to retire on and still less desire to grind out her days in professional futility, went to a Francophone war zone with an NGO, out of a lust for intensity more than altruism, though at that time both co-existed with mutual distrust in her heart. Then a landmine reach out like a fetishist at the end of his rope and ripped her foot off at the ankle. What became of it, she never knew. Now she worked in a café, took art classes—watercolor, translucent and calming, was her métier—and made some money on the side posing for pictures on a members-only website that catered to men who had an interest in women with missing parts.

“And what,” she finally asked, out on the sidewalk, “did your parents do to get so rich?” She didn’t hear the answer. Behind them, through the glass, in the low-ceilinged back room where the scent of coffee, milk and sugar hung damp in the middle air, where the walls had been specially painted to look like an abandoned basement rooms’, an art school girl shrieked her pink and black head off when blood welled up every time she depressed a key on her laptop.

“Happens all the time,” she said and shrugged between her crutches. “Yes,” he agreed, “gore gets caught in the coltan somewhere between the mines in the Congo and here. My parents told me.”

Later, she had gone to her watercolor class and he had fallen asleep again. When he woke up, the sweat chilled to his body by the late afternoon air filtering in through the high window, he pulled aside the sheet next to him and found a limp sleeve of skin that had fallen as a bloody flap over a pale young foot with nails painted black. Then he woke up all the way into the empty room. He changed his shirt and went out.