Peace Offering by Elizabeth Pratt


PEACE OFFERING

‘Beautiful view from up here,’ he says. He’s an older man, maybe forty, forty-five. Old enough to be my father.

‘Yeah, really nice.’ I don’t look at him. Maybe he’ll get the message that I don’t want to talk. I just want to be left in peace to think about things, but people keep coming over to me. This one, like the other men, is going to be a talker. I can tell.

He’s right, though. You can see all over the city from here and everything seems very far away. I don’t see the beauty in it anymore. I think I did, once, maybe years ago, but I can’t remember. That seems like a different life.

I turn away a little, as much as the space will allow, and try to get back to my own business but he just doesn’t take the hint.

‘I used to come up here with my first wife,’ he says. He glances around. ‘I mean, not exactly here, but you know – the restaurant part.’ He looks across the city at the Chrysler building and gestures to it. ‘You know they built that in 1930? They knew what they were doing, back then. These days it takes us the same amount of time but somehow we don’t do as well. Too many backhanders. Bribes, whatever. Too many people involved.’

‘Too many pesky safety regulations?’ I don’t really care. At least he’s not asking about me, though, and that makes a nice change. I wonder if he does this kind of thing often.

He chuckles and the sound lifts me out of the drone of background noises. For a moment, it seems quiet. The sirens of the city seem far away.

‘They did things different then, it’s true,’ he says. ‘But back in the day, you know, they had to get folks from the Mohawk tribe to come out to do the really high bits.’

Folks? But he says this so simply that I believe he actually uses words like that. ‘What are you talking about? That can’t be right,’ I say.

‘Oh, but it is. Those Mohawk people, you see, they don’t have any fear. Not about height, anyway. Their people don’t believe there’s any difference between a mile and a foot. Isn’t that strange? Same thing to them, a mile and a foot.’ He shakes his head in wonder at it all. ‘They don’t care about being so far off the ground because to them, it’s like they’re crossing a log. So they were better at the job because they didn’t mind. Imagine not being afraid.’ He glances at me, sidelong, to make sure I’m imagining. ‘Wonderful, isn’t it?’

‘I guess so,’ I say.

The sun is just going down and this is the time I was waiting for: watching the lights of the place come on, almost one by one, sparking to life and changing the landscape of the whole city. He falls silent for a while, watching with me like it’s why we’re up here. The Chrysler building lights up and he points, as if I don’t see it, as if we’re in a canoe along a riverbank and he’s spotted a pine marten. He stays silent all that time and we just look.

When the cars turn on their lights and the streets run in colour, he smiles. ‘I watched a documentary, you know, really late the other night.’

‘Why weren’t you asleep?’ I don’t know why I ask. I don’t care.

‘Indigestion.’ He’s a big man, I guess. He points at his belly. ‘Worked late and had a Godawful pizza. Anchovies, the whole works. Half a bottle of red. I shoulda skipped the wine, maybe. Woke up with my insides burning.’

‘You drink at work?’ Now, this is interesting. I wonder about his job. Is he a drunk because of it, or is it all he can do anymore?

‘Well, I maybe sneaked in a bit. It came with some offer.’ He shrugs his big shoulders and moves a little closer. ‘Anyway, the thing that made me think of it was the lights on the Avenue. This documentary was about volcanoes, you see? That red, that looks just like the stream of lava from this big old rock of a mountain. It just goes and goes wherever it wants. Nothing can stop it.’

‘It’s molten rock,’ I tell him. ‘It’s so hot that it’s liquid.’

‘Yeah, like that’s not strange enough. Thing is, though, this old Japanese guy, he has a business in the little village down the hill from the mountain – Pele, I think they call it. Like the soccer guy? Anyway, this Japanese fella, he’s worried about his business so he goes and gives the old girl some gifts. The volcano, that is. He puts a load of fruits and what-not on the road, where the lava is coming towards. A bottle of vodka, too.’ He laughs that big laugh and looks over at me. ‘Like he’s tryna convince the lava not to do this thing that it’s set out to do. Standing right there in the flow of this fire, making this offering. He believes that he can change its mind.’ He pauses. ‘Damndest thing, though. It works! The lava goes right to the road and then it kinda splits, goes either side of the things he’s put down. Can you believe that?’

‘No,’ I say. He looks disappointed.

‘Well, neither could I. I guess you had to see it.’

He’s not trying very hard. Others have been like beggars, trying to convince me to surrender myself to them – but I won’t go with just anyone. I think back on what he’s said and my memory catches on something. I say, ‘Your first wife. Tell me about her. Did she leave you?’

He nods, then shakes his head. ‘Not like you mean. She died. Eight years ago. Pancreatic cancer.’

My insides flutter but I don’t say I’m sorry. For all I know, he beat her or something. I look at his hands, under those gorilla wrists, and they look big-knuckled and calloused. The kind of hands that could beat a woman, sure. But then you never can tell about people. I’ve been very wrong before. ‘That’s not what I meant,’ I say. ‘You didn’t tell me about her, you just told me about her disease.’

‘You’re right. She wouldn’t have liked that, either.’ He moves again, sitting right near me now. ‘She was a complicated woman. She liked art, you know, the big stuff. Matisse, Monet, all those guys. Even the old paintings that look dirty, you know?’

‘Pornography?’ That surprises me, that he would tell me that.

Again, that belly laugh. ‘No, no. I mean like the old masters or whatever. The portraits of people, and the paint is all dark and looks yellowed. Really old stuff. She used to take me to the museum on my days off, and we’d just mooch around and she’d try to get me to see the things she saw. She’d say, ‘Bob, try not to just look at it. Try to see it’. I liked some of it but it’s not all for me. Mostly, I liked being in the cool rooms on the hot days and knowing I didn’t have to pay for all that AC.’

Well, at least he’s honest. ‘That doesn’t sound complicated,’ I say.

‘I’m getting to that bit. The thing that was funny was that, with all those other things, she liked other stuff that wasn’t so…’

‘Highfalutin?’ I’m worried that he doesn’t know what it means, because he talks like a farmhand, but he smiles and nods.

‘That’s it, yeah. She liked cartoons. Snoopy, and that fat lasagne cat. Even Tom and Jerry. She was thirty-seven years old and she’d sit in her pyjamas and drink from a plastic cup with Tigger on it. I loved that about her, that way she was happy and didn’t care if anyone teased her about it.’

I had to get rid of my stuffed Tigger when I was thirteen. My father said that it took up space on my bookshelf where I should be keeping grown-up things, like make-up and jewellery. He said nobody wanted to have a child around for any longer than they had to and I had to start looking after myself for a goddamn change, maybe making some money with what little I had to offer. He sold everything, then. Even me.

I envy this woman, this pyjama woman with her sippy cup and her Monet. Not the cancer, so much. People always wait in life and then end up in pain. Not me; I’m going to get out in front of it.

I’m in my thoughts and I don’t want to be. I want him to keep talking. ‘I’m sorry you lost her,’ I say. I might even mean it.

‘So am I.’ he says.

‘But you got married again?’

‘Brenda.’ He says her name flatly.

‘You don’t like her?’

‘Of course I do. She’s a good woman. She’s just… different, is all. She likes tennis and her cooking classes. We go on vacation every August, from the 23rd to the 31st. Taking advantage of the long weekend even though it means more traffic coming back. He father has a cabin Upstate. We go there.’

‘Every time?’

‘Yup. Four years we’ve been married. Every year, that cabin.’ He shrugs. ‘I get to fish. I don’t mind it so much.’

He looks so glum that I laugh and then he does, too. ‘I don’t even fish,’ he says. ‘I go sit out in the canoe and watch the ducks. Her and her daddy, they say I’m the worst fisherman ever. Then he has to show me how to cast when I get back. Out there in the yard, there’s one tree and he catches it every time. He knows where the goddamn tree is, too. Not like it’s moved, but he catches it every single time.’

‘People are stupid.’

‘He means well. And he’s too cheap to buy fish off the boys that come in and want to sell ‘em.’

‘He should go out in the canoe himself, then,’ I say.

‘Bad hip. He can’t sit still for too long before it gets to him. He’s an old guy.’ Bob leans to one side, then the other. I know what’s coming next. ‘Speaking of which,’ he says, ‘I’m not young anymore, either. You want to come in and get a cup of coffee and talk a bit more?’

‘I can’t believe you’re hitting on me.’ I mean it as a joke, it’s absurd, but he looks shocked.

‘No! I didn’t mean. I just meant, maybe come down and-’

‘I know, Bob,’ I sigh. ‘It’s okay.’

‘So you’ll have a coffee with me?’

‘No,’ I say. ‘But I might have a cup of tea.’

‘Good! Now you’re talking. We’ll get you a cup of tea and then talk a little more, right?’ He extends a hand to me, but I shake my head. I have to do this by myself.

I don’t want to startle him, so I move slowly when I get up to stand. The ground spins, dizzying, and I lean against the building for a moment to steady myself. I stand on the ledge and look over the city, thirty-five floors below, the glittering lights and the motion of the people in the world. The endless stream of people, struggling, caught up in the current, flowing along the streets where there is sadness, and heartbreak, and everyone carries pain.

But height doesn’t mean a thing. Not to me.

I try to be Mohawk.

I try to imagine not being afraid.

THE END

About the author:
‘Elizabeth Pratt is a transplanted American who took root in the UK way back in the carefree 90’s. She lives happily in West Wales with her fella, a few cats, and an untamed vegetable garden. She’s enamoured with writing short stories and flash fiction of all genres, but has also been hard at work on her first novel. Her procrastination activities include playing computer games, baking, gardening, and staring blankly out the window. She also writes as Elizabeth Ardith Aylward.’

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