I am watching the deaf couple talk with their hands, seeing how every so often the girl stops and lets her mouth open up and drop out giddy laughter that is as honest as a sunrise yet it sounds like a retarded child’s laughter and so at once I’m ashamed for making that comparison and when I look around, indeed, there’s a man in a black fedora staring at me as if I’ve just killed his pet dog with a butcher knife.
The waitress asks am I okay, would I like a refill, and so I nod but don’t catch her eyes because I haven’t looked any living being in the eyes since I was nine. For a few years it was even hard looking at myself in the mirror. I kept seeing dirty seashells and sidewalk puke. But I practiced on magazines, staring at the woman who looked like she could be my biological mother even though I knew she was a lucky actress promoting healthful sleep by way of a certain mattress type. My guts ran through a sausage grinder as I worked up enough courage to hold my gaze on the mattress lady for more than a few seconds. Even though her smile was soft and upbeat, I kept expecting her hand to leap off the page and her nails to claw garden rows down my cheek, matching the scars that were already there. And that’s when the actress sniffed and made a face, her lips crinkling up the page. She tried to spit at me but couldn’t because she was made of paper. Still, she said, “You’re dirty. You smell like garbage. Did you mess in your pants?” I took her out back and lit the magazine on fire and let it burn down to my fingertips before I chucked it inside the old oil drum. Even then, I could hear the lady hissing at me, her accusations echoing up with smoke like the devil’s own belching.
Right now the deaf couple has their eyes pinned on one another, speaking without speaking, spilling and soaking up so much love that there’s excess. They finger each other’s faces with their pupils wide open and shiny like sheet metal. The girl has orange hair and pretty peach-colored freckles that swirl in ridiculous swaths down her jaw and then run off down her neck and I see his thin hands catch a few of the spackles as if they might be detachable, like miniscule glitter pentagons.
Glitter always makes me think of my first foster family. They ran a kiosk in the mall—“Christmas in July!” it was called. They sold ceramic Santa’s and elves and reindeer and Mrs. Claus in a girdle with her hand to her face and her rosy cheeks embarrassed. They sold everything Christmas every day of the year. I never remember either of them touching me. I knew they got a check from the government but I was fooled. One day when we were packing up wooden carvings of toy soldiers for a customer, my foster mom stopped humming and told me to look at her, to turn and look her straight in both eyes. She said the agency was coming round to get me that afternoon. “That’s just how it works. If you’re not placed before you’re ten years old, you never will be.” I wanted to ask, wasn’t I placed with you? But I didn’t. I spread bubble wrap around the carved guardians. I fastened ropes of tape tight around their necks, trying to strangle those soldiers who were going to live with people who wanted them. I knew I was stupid because wooden sentries aren’t alive, but still, I’ve been repeating a version of that process my whole life. I’ve been in seven homes and I’m grown now and own a house, but no matter where I am, the air feels off—sort of heavy and thick, like oily vapor. Even in summer, even in the tropics. While we’re vacationing there, my wife will take my hands and claim I have a circulation problem and I’ll look at her through my mirrored sunglasses so she won’t know I’m staring and I’ll want to tell her things, but I won’t. I’ll watch the sweat fill up a slip of skin across my belly crease. I’ll marvel at the sun hanging so arrogant in the sky, but I’ll get a little shiver nonetheless. I always do.
Len Kuntz has work published in such journals as Elimae, Juked, Storyglossia, Pank, among others.