Groceries

The next customer returned her smile. His red hair made a halo around his face. He made her think of a tall poppy. She chased that idea, tried to focus on the task at hand. She ran the cash at the supermarket. She tried to always be personable and efficient. She felt that showed best her professionalism. He had put his purchases on the conveyor belt, peanuts and other assorted nuts, chocolate bar, tortilla chips, bananas. She’d seen this before, customers buying snacks and a fruit to give themselves good conscience. She said, smiling “Quite the party you’re having”, because really, who could eat all that by themselves. She wanted to show she cared.

The customer looked at her and said slowly, meanly, “I’m not one to drown my sorry with Ben&Jerry. My lover left me, if you need to know. Not that I owe a perfect stranger an explanation for my purchases.” She had rung up his “grocery”, if you could call it that. She replied, “Nobody’s perfect,” indicating her name tag at the same time. It could be construed as an apology for her lack of discretion, but what it was is that she had taken offence at being called a perfect stranger. She resented the name tags, a pathetic gesture to personalize the interactions, when really, nobody ever bothered to say her name. Her name was Evelyn, as was proudly displayed on her tag, though everybody at home and even her friends called her “Ev”. He paid and left, without another word.

She sprayed some cleaning fluid on the little plastic window in front of the reader. She was not allowed to smoke or do her nails, not allowed to chew gum or wear perfume. The list was too long to commit to memory. She listened absent-mindedly to the music and then came ten o’clock. They dimmed the lights and turned the music off. This was a new thing – they had been primed to serve customers that were easily overwhelmed by sensory overload (she had learned the lingo to impress her relatives). Her uncles had asked what strange creatures would come out of the wood works. He was crass, but she was curious nonetheless. As soon as the lights dimmed, she saw people emerging from their cars, like zombies in the apocalypse. They staggered towards the dimmed store and suddenly she felt a bit exposed.

The crowd was quiet, subdued. She had expected a mad dash, as happened on Black Friday. She was observing the customers. They actually looked like normal people except they smiled more and talked amongst themselves, as though they now could see each other better. There was a kinship as happens during snowstorms, an acknowledged vulnerability that brought them closer. The customers took their time. They were there for real, doing their weekly grocery. The owner was walking amongst them, shaking hands and talking to them, playing the nice guy when he imposed so many rules on the cashiers. Oh, look smart, here comes a customer. She straightened and wished she had chewing gum to give herself a countenance. She missed working as a waitress sometimes, though she didn’t miss the assholes that came to the joint.

An old man came first, positively glowing. “Isn’t this marvelous? I wear hearing aids and the music and announcements just resonate in my skull. I usually dread coming here, but today was amazing.” He was gushing! She totalled his bill. She’d often seen him. Today, he’d treated himself to some goodies, probably to encourage the owner. It was good business, she thought unkindly, then chided herself. “I sound just like Uncle Bill.” She forced a smile and a nod. “I’m happy this new initiative worked for you. Is there anything more I can do for you today?” They had been prepped to sound compassionate. She would’ve liked to be an actress, had the looks and the brains, but not the cash. She swallowed a sigh. “Sure, I’ll take a winning lottery ticket.” “Good luck,” she said, kindly this time.

Behind him was a lady she knew with her strange child. He wasn’t clingy today nor “spastic.” He usually did this thing with his hands, waving them in front of his eyes, his mom looking away stoically. Today, he was looking around, almost relaxed. “How was your experience today?” she asked by herself, genuinely curious now. Tears glistened in the lady’s eyes. “Night and day. I am so grateful you’ve done this. Do you think you’ll do it again?” “If there is enough interest, we will. I’ll make sure to tell my boss. He wants to hear from all the customers.” “God bless,” added the lady as they took their bags. Now that she didn’t expect.

There was a steady stream of customers now, but no one seemed to be in a hurry. She felt as though they were travelling back in time, with actual conversations, unhurried and friendly. She realized she’d felt a bit stressed at first, but was happy now. The customers’ good mood was contagious. She didn’t see them as zombies anymore. They themselves walked straighter, no longer skulking in corners but fully inhabiting their space. She was observant, part of her training to be an actress. You had to continually research characters. The owner greeted the late comers. “We will be resuming normal operations in 15 minutes. The dimmed lights and absence of music are on purpose.” Most people knew. They had been featured on the local news and in the paper. Some were just gawkers. She blushed when she saw Uncle Billy walking in.

He was staring at the customers, with a superior grin. Nobody paid him any mind. After a few minutes, he stopped his circus and made a purchase. He stood in line at her cash, waving excitedly as though she hadn’t spotted him miles away. There was a soft announcement over the PA system. “Dear customers, in five minutes, we will turn the music and lights back on. Please make your way to the cash if you need to do so at this time. Thank you for coming today. we hope you had a positive shopping experience.” Her uncle’s presence annoyed her. She could feel his gaze on her and didn’t appreciate the interactions with the other customers fully because of it. When it was his turn, he’d bought a loaf of dark rye bread, his favourite. “I seem to have missed all the weirdos,” he said loudly. She stared him down. “They’re at my cash right now, Uncle Bill.” It was his turn to blush and fumble for his change. He slunk away. The lights came back on. She took a bow.

The Shipwreck

The sun lay prone today, eyes open, lost in thought. The winds had abated after yesterday’s fury. The water had carted long grasses from faraway shores. From the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a long-lost shipwreck. It vanished if I looked too closely, but the cries of the birds echoed the ones of the deck hands, none of them swimmers, all but one sinkers. This one hung on to a barrel for dear life. He fastened a rope around it that he tied to his waist. It was a long night, surrounded by the howling winds and the lashing waves. Morning came and he paddled to where the debris were more abundant until he crashed to shore, his barrel slowing him down now, the weight of his dead comrades.

His collapsed mass was brought to a hut by beachcombers. They tried to force a hot beverage through his salted lips. He vomited the sea, small fish, fear and terror, the howling winds and the seagulls’ laugh. They did not hold it against him. They understood his need to expunge the sea from his belly.

When he rose, his body wracked but intact, white birds detached from tree limbs, afraid at this ghostly apparition. His minders had laid out clothes for him and they hung on him as limp sails on a windless day. He stuttered to the sea’s edge, cursing his fate. He’d been too stubborn to die and he must now live on, crowded with spectres, day in, day out. He used the last of his strength to shake his fist to the heavens then went back to bed to recover some more.

The maitre d’

« No thanks, I don’t drink, » I say, putting my hand over the top of my glass. It’s a classy joint, so I don’t get the usual stink-eye. The maitre d’ (I told you it was a classy joint) offers me a Virgin Caesar, fizzy water, fruit juice. I settle on San Pellegrino, after he rattles off a bunch of choices. He brings it in a bourbon glass with a slice of lemon and a cherry for colour. My date is not impressed, clearly thinking I failed her.

She whispers, “You didn’t tell me you don’t drink.” I whisper back, “I didn’t think it mattered.” She huffs and puffs. “Well, I’m having a drink.” This simple interaction has become my personal acid test for new relationships. It exposes the insecurities and feelings of self-worth of my counterpart in subtle and obvious ways. At first, I was apologizing for my choice, explaining my motives, pretexting health issues. The truth is, I drink when I feel like it, and that has become less and less often with time.

My vis-à-vis grabs her drink and chugs it back with a vengeance. I attack my appetizer in silence. She seems to be seething. I am curious. I feel I am conducting a social experiment. The asparagus is tender. I love the taste of vegetables in season. And this chef is amazing. I am immersed in the sensations in my mouth. I glance up to ask my date if she’s happy with her choice and find her looking at me, glass in hand. She peers over her glass, “You’re not gay, are you?” (That’s a new one!) “Why would I be gay?” “You seem pretty intent on your food.” (Oh my, wait till I tell Emily about this.)

I thought I’d kept my face neutral, but the maitre d’ quickly appears at her side, concern etched on his features. “Is the appetizer not to madam’s taste?” Olivia has not eaten a bite. She dismisses him with a wave. You can almost hear the wind as she shoos him away. He floats off with a sad look, his eyes riveted to mine, sorrowful beyond words. When mom passed away, her will stipulated her three children must all be married within three years of her death before any of us may enjoy their part of the inheritance. The spouses stand to inherit half. Emily and Burton are already married, but I am stubbornly single. They have been presenting me eligible women to choose from, in the hope they can start benefitting soon from their inheritance. Of course, I can’t just marry anyone. They’d get a say in the way the fortune is spent. So I’ve been going on these dates with random women, some of whom are quite nice, others who are more “interesting.”

I look up at Olivia, fiddling with her Belgian endives, blue cheese and date. “You seem preoccupied, Olivia,” I say kindly. She rubs her toes on my shin, playing footsies under the table. The tablecloth hides the movement, but I still blush at her audacity. (What would Mother do?) I am not quick-witted. I am slow and deliberate. I am not my mother’s son as this fiasco painfully shows. Mother had warned me about vulgar ladies. The shoddily-applied lipstick was a dead giveaway. We’re just grabbing a bite before heading to the opera. I hope she won’t be disappointed. “How about we skip the music tonight?” she says, pressing her toes to make her point clear. I signal the maitre d’. He fills her glass as she smiles broadly. Minutes later, he comes to the table and whispers “An urgent call at the front desk.”

I excuse myself and follow him. The maitre d’, Burton, can tell when I’m distressed. He’s my brother after all. “What’s happening?” I explain my predicament. “I was looking forward to my evening at the opera, but she’s saying she won’t go. She wants to… you know.” I say, mortified. “What time does the opera start?” “In another hour.” “Take my place for the next 30 minutes. Ask to leave in 30. Emily will call in a replacement” It’s Emily’s restaurant, she’ll understand. We exchange uniforms. I am a bit heftier, so the uniform is tight. My suit looks better on him than on me. He’ll have more success with her. Did I mention we are twins? Nobody ever looks at the maitre d’ or sees beyond the uniform. We’ve traded places so many times in our lives, it just feels natural. Burton’s always seeing me out of a pickle. He walks back in and picks up where I left off. I clear away the plates.


I bring my impersonator the bill, adding a generous tip for fun. I can’t tell whose paying whom with what money. As always, the lines are blurred between identities as well as fortune. We have trouble drawing lines in our family and Mother’s will has made things worse. We’re always discussing, and the family now feels like a gelatinous mass in which everybody wades desperately trying to escape inertia. Burton surprises me by handing me the two opera tickets. Of course, they were in my shirt pocket which Burton ended up wearing. That was a close one. “I hear you enjoy Barber. Tonight, Vanessa is playing. It’s your luck that we are unable to make it. Please have my chauffeur come forward. We’re heading to a nightclub.” We both keep a straight face. My chauffeur has delivered a suitable replacement suit that I will change into for the opera as soon as the couple will have left the scene.

Vanessa is an obscure opera. Those are the ones I enjoy the most. It is perfect in the mood I find myself in, with endless intrigues and reversals. I feel that way about my life. Opera seems to describe me, one aria at a time. I vibrate and buzz, more than any drug could induce in me. The same cannot be said for Burton. Though extremely moral and extremely married, he considers it his duty to right a wrong. He tells me later they did go to a nightclub. Because she was looking around, he concluded she was looking for the ladies. He wanted to show her a good time and directed her to the powder room, in this club, the room with the powder i.e. cocaine. She came back sniffling and in a great mood. He had ordered champagne. “I told her I don’t drink!” “She forgave you. I said “I” didn’t drink… when I ate.” I grunt. “She loved the music, complimented me on my taste and stopped flirting with me. I invited others at the table and found her a suitable companion. I told her I had to leave but she could have my chauffeur drive her back when she was ready. The usual.”

We may be twins, but he’s the other side of the mirror, and my reputation doesn’t concern him as much as it concerns me. I’m seen as the bad boy because of his impersonations, yet I can’t manage without him. It’s Cyrano de Bergerac all over again and we all know how that ended. It wasn’t pretty. I may end up marrying loyal Mabel, whom Mother did not hold in high esteem. We’ve been to all the same schools, our families know each other, our grandfathers had a falling out after they tried to enter in partnership. Marrying her would tie our families closer than ever, which Mother did not want. I think Dad had an affair with Mabel’s mother, which would explain the antagonism. It’s a real soap opera. Maybe I should get both our DNA tested discreetly to ensure we’re not half-siblings. That would explain the attraction and the prohibition. Emily suggested I look into online dating sites. She said it in jest, but she may have a point. I am running out of suitable candidates and I am loathe to submit Mabel to the indignity of a DNA test. What if she were our half-sister? Then she should inherit too. My head spins. We only need to avoid procreating so we don’t inbreed.


I need to get this settled. I feel as out of place as an olive in a glass of beer. I move slowly, with the grace of an ocean liner, dignified and sturdy, ancient, classic. Two years have passed and time is running out. Emily and Burt don’t want to be cheated out of their inheritance. The three of us meet to discuss the issue. We bat around some ideas, a ball – I don’t dance – the Internet, I tried with no success. We’ve gone through our relations, distant cousins, younger women. None of the ideas please me until Emily lobs the tennis idea. I happen to love tennis. Emily will propose a tournament for eligible female bachelors. The cup they are competing for is my hand. At the end of the tournament, I will declare the winner. I fancy myself a good judge of character and sports to me are a great way to reveal character. In my view, mental toughness is what distinguishes the best players from the fray.

The tournament attracts thirty candidates, some unlikely, but I am willing to entertain them all. They know what is at stake and are fighting for my attention and affection. I watch every game, and take notes. The sore losers, the bad-tempered, the mild mannered, the poor players, the whiners, they all get a rating. I decide who makes it to the next round. In a game, sometimes both adversaries advance. Some get eliminated in the first round. It is exhilarating. I now have eight potential mates, all equally interesting. Some of the ladies who have been eliminated have hung around to see who the winner will be. I keep an eye on them as well. Mabel is in the rejects, which shows the high quality of the applicants. Their reactions are still interesting to me. They are all coached by their mothers, and that shows me the family dynamics as well. Every evening, I pour over my notes. It feels like a reality show. I feel omnipotent. We’re down to a quadrille. I decide to have them play double, on a whim.

It turns out to be an excellent idea. I rotate them to see how they interact. I can’t decide between Mia and Madison. They are both rated equally high tied in the top spot. We regroup and discuss strategy. At this point, Burt says to go to the one I am most physically attracted to. Emily counters that I’m looking for a life partner and that physical beauty fades, where internal beauty improves with age. I agree with Emily, but I don’t know how to proceed. I turn to her for more ideas, since she’s the one who came up with the tennis tournament. “Now you need to interview them separately. You know their temperament. They are both steadfast, tough, impassive, and display impressive sportsmanship. Now you need to know what they expect from you.” It is sound advice, as always. My twin is out of his depth, as am I. I decide not to meet them over a meal, seeing that I had so many disastrous experiences. I decide to go on a walk with Mia. We stroll on the compound and sit in the shade. We talk. I decide on Madison, almost instantly. We announce the winner.

I am asked by the mothers to explain what made the difference. I am ashamed to tell anyone, even my wife-to-be. I make up explanations. In my heart of hearts, I know it’s because Maddy is just like Mother. Strong-willed, righteous, tenacious, and so I love her and she, in turn, will love me. Both Emily and Burt rejoice. The inheritance is ours to share. Mother smiles in her grave. She will live on, through Madison’s spirit if we don’t have children. It is the perfect choice.

Curtain

The artist had stipulated in his will that he wanted to be cremated, alongside his paintings. Thierry was 50 at the time, very much in demand, but very picky as to who his art would go to. He started getting very concerned that his art would end up in the wrong hands, little bits of his soul scattered around the globe. His views on death were tinged by his upbringing. He rejected the doctrine he was inculcated purgatory, heaven and hell and conceived his own rendition, as unique as his art. He felt that what he created should die with him, and to that effect, he started buying back his art, pushing the prices up.

Unwittingly, by creating scarcity, Thierry became unable to afford what he created, yet could not help creating more. His agent begged him to let him place his paintings, so that he could still generate revenue and keep on living. He arranged for the art pieces to be on long-term loans, with a proviso that they should be burned within 50 years of his death. Privately, he saw a bonfire, the patrons creating a mega-event by choosing to all act on the same day. He would have liked to choreograph up to the last details, ascribe meaning to the proceedings, crunch numbers to make them relevant and help his soul find the rest he aspired to. In that period, his art was minimalist. Thierry spent hours staring at a carefully prepared canvas on which he had dutifully applied a thick coat of white. In his mind’s eye, he view carnage on the snow, a battle between forces, a broken tension. After hours, nay, days of staring, he dotted the landscape with large swaths of blood. He made it snow to cover them up, their unsettling presence made known by the pinkish hue, a half-blanketed empty cartridge barely visible, fat vultures sitting on forlorn branches.

They were a hit, of course. The art critics had a field day, analyzing the deleterious effects of modernity on Mother Nature. He was haunted, and it matched the day’s zeitgeist. He went into fits of sleep, interspersed with bursts of activities, the white canvas giving way to monochromes. He painted horrific scenes from the nightmares his mind brought to life. And then he covered the whole thing with thick black paint and called the piece “Night.” The piece was to be seen under a special light that revealed the gruesome shapes beneath. Again, collectors all wanted a piece of him, and it tore at him when he relented. Even at the outrageous prices he charged, Thierry still felt robbed, as though no money could soothe the pain he felt.

He died, of course, as we all do. Everyone knew of the will and art critics took his demands seriously. By that time, he had asked that his body be preserved and burned at the same time as his oeuvre. He had painstakingly catalogued all the pieces, with owner and known addresses so that his wishes could be carried out. He wrote that his soul would know no peace until all of him was together again and disappeared on the same day. Before the time came, however, war broke out. It was a long war, and very damaging, as wars tend to be. Rich houses were not protected, art was looted and defaced, his body abandoned when its protectors flee or were killed. The coffin in which his body lay had been forced to see if it contained treasures and left open when the looters saw there was nothing but a corpse. Bombardments shred the roof and from the box he could finally see the sky. Buzzards came to feed. There was no blood. Snow fell. Night fell. Curtain.

The Lilliputians

He’d fallen in love with a dog walker. Actually, he now knew the four dogs were her own, crowding her tiny apartment. When he first came in, the little dogs swarmed his feet, interacting with them as though with their own kind, sniffing and prodding and nipping. She stopped them in time when Jacko made as though to urinate on his socked foot. “Jacko, not in the house,” Lorena said sternly. He would have preferred “Not on Regan’s foot” but he supposed general rules were easier to enforce. He recognized he had a lot to learn, starting with avoiding stomping on dogs. They always seemed to be underfoot, and he bobbed and weaved his way to the kitchen, Bordeaux in hand.

It wasn’t the grand entrance he’d rehearsed, the effortless funky walk that would make her swoon. He pretty much stumbled into the apartment and into her arms. She made a joke of it, a little alarmed that he would crunch one of dogs underfoot. They laughed uneasily; the setting was not what he expected. He sat down on the sofa while she arranged in a vase the flowers he’d brought. The dogs snuggled against him, one unnervingly laying down on the back of the sofa where he had thought he’d rest his head. He ended up leaning forward, which he reasoned made him looked interested. He’d read about posture for interviews. Leaning forward was good. He relaxed into it, tried to stop his Turbo-charged mind running from him. Lorena brought him some Orangina, a very tame drink that he thankfully held. He didn’t want to pet the dogs. He didn’t like the smell of them.

She took place beside him, shooed the dogs away to be close to him. His magnetic charm was working. They clinked glasses and chatted about the book that had brought them together. It was on the table, a grand epic set in Hong Kong. The book was turned upside down, open at the page where she was at. He winced. Seeing the book pinned down on the table, quartered almost, was painful. He retrieved a business card from his pocket, slid it between the pages and righted the book apologetically. It was her turn to blush and stumble, and they stayed in an awkward silence, looking at each other over the rim of their glasses. He started a joke, got into it, started talking excitedly waving his hands about. Jacko growled. “Jacko, no. Regan is a Friend. Friend.” She sat closer, her face almost touching his, looking intently at the dog. He turned, intending to give her a friendly peck on the cheek, but she was turning to apologize, and they kissed on the lips. Jacko got the message. Regan was in.

After that, dinner was a blur, and they made their way to bed. He hadn’t intended to be sharing those moments with all those eyes staring at him, the dogs jumping up, nestling in the crook of her arm, on his feet, on the side where he intended to lie down. It was awkward for him, but Lorena was quite used to sharing and moved them about lovingly. They talked into the night, that time that is so favourable to confidences. They couldn’t snuggle easily. He felt like the book, the sheets stretched taut by the weight of the dogs. He was pinned in place and feeling a little claustrophobic. He hardly slept at all. She was up early. “Did you sleep well?” “Hardly a wink.” “Nap a bit while I walk them. I’ll take my time and then we’ll have breakfast.” She got up to prepare and the dogs started following her around, like the sweep of a long dress swooshing all around her feet. He could hear the patter of their nails on the floor and feel their excitement growing until the door thankfully shut and the lock bolted.

He fell into a deep slumber, peopled with fantastical dreams taking place on a barge. He felt the motion of the boat, heard the seagulls, woke up to the smell of coffee. He tried to sneak up on her, to see her vulnerable in the naked light, but he stepped on a dog, who started them all yapping and circling him, the intruder. “Hello, Sleepyhead,” she said with a kiss. “I’m warming up some croissants. It’s a lovely day. I thought we could eat out on the balcony?” She had cleared the small table from the plants that usually lived there. He felt he was displacing everything, taking up more room than he ought to, but that was only his perception. He could tell Lorena welcomed him easily in her space, the awkwardness of the previous evening replaced by a new complicity. He gave Jacko a piece of croissant to seal the deal.   

Knock, knock

Pain knocks at the door, but he knows better than to let it in. He focuses on his video games, turning a deaf ear to the steady, patient knocks. He gets up and grabs another bottle. Pain and Fear are chatting in a corner, not paying attention to him. He didn’t see the doorknob turn, the door open, but he now senses a presence, feels a shimmering in his bones. They slipped in while his guard was down.

The booze does the trick and knocks him cold, the dull headache competing with the emotional pain. He hates that they broke up. He looks around at the absence of her, the no cosmetics taking up all the space counter in the washroom, the tidy kitchen with no ongoing project, the empty bedroom without her piles of clothes on chairs, the floor, the dresser. Her half of the bed is barely messed up. He didn’t have the heart to sprawl. He was too wasted anyway. He ended up sleeping in the position he was in when he crashed.

It’s been two days. He hasn’t washed nor eaten much. There is no incentive to shave or to look presentable. He’s not going anywhere. He can outlive the pain, trick it until it lashes out at inappropriate moments, at a distracted cashier, or a hapless driver. He excels at avoidance and denial. He feels no pain and dislikes those tears that flow unbidden. He paints his eyes with heavy mascara, dons leather and spikes his hair. He’s put on his armour, makes sure no one will try to approach him. Ricki, his white rat, is on a leash and comfortably roams on his shoulders. People turn to watch him as he attacks the pavement. He’ll go to Karl’s for a piercing.

He knocks on Karl’s metal door. He lives in a bunker-like apartment. “Karl!” he shouts. There’s screamo on. He lets himself in. Bodies are strewn in the gloom. A hand offers him a pill – ecstasy, for sure. He pops it with a hint of misgiving. He’s already hard-wired. He gropes his way until he finds the kitchen. There is Karl, working on a client. He’s focused on enlarging a pierced earlobe. They have a common bourgeois background and expectations. For sure, he would’ve gone on to be a surgeon without his detour to the underworld. He’s got nerves of steel. Ducky waits his turn. He’s relaxing now. He’ll ask for his left eyebrow since there is still room. He knows the drill to keep it clean. He’s never had an infection. Karl talks non-stop, like a runaway horse, or better yet like one of those cattle auctioneers. He chuckles to himself.

First Skate

Mark was a slow-moving, lumbering man. People often compared him to a bear. He didn’t have a bear’s ferocity, nor speed when he ran. At least, I assume not, because I only saw him moving at one speed: slowly. He had a great smile, an insufferable accent, and loved to hear himself speak. Come winter, he always walked around with a pair of skates over his shoulder. Manolito was a newcomer to the country and my classmate. I had gotten new skates last year. He was small so I had him try on my old ones. With an extra pair of woolen socks, they fit perfectly. I had decided to teach him how to skate and Mark joined us when he saw them hanging by their long laces on our shoulders.

“Headed for the pond?” “Yes, have you been yet this year?” “No, I thought I might have a look.” We walked together, after introductions, Mark trailing with his shuffling gait, us boys scampering on ahead, a little excitement pulling us all along. The trail was packed by other eager feet. We heard the metallic sound of blades hitting the ice. There was not much sound apart from the scraping, other than the occasional scream and thump from falls, followed by murmurs when kids were pulling other kids up. We turned a bend and saw the pond. It was well attended with Billy and Joe and Peter and others I didn’t recognize at first glance. We dropped down onto the snow and took our boots off. Mark arrived and looked around with a smile. He was tall. If he sat, he might not be able to stand back up. He leaned against a tree and proceeded to change into his skates.

Manolito and I were done fast. I helped Manolito lace the skates tight and saw his surprise when I pulled him up. He was unnaturally tall on the blades and ready to topple back in the snow. I guided him to the edge, walking slowly. He had put both his hands on my shoulders to steady himself. I descended upon the pond and turned around to face him. “Slowly,” I advised. He put one wobbly foot on the hard surface, then another. From the corner of my eye, I could see Mark detaching himself from the lamppost and see his labored breath condensed in front of his mouth. It was probably everybody’s first time of the season. The ice was pockmarked. Here and there tall grasses broke through the surface and tripped the unsuspecting skaters. “This way, Manolito.” Bravely, he started dragging his feet, trying to walk with those contraptions.

“Glide,” I said unhelpfully, as I strode away. The new skates were amazing, sturdier and the right size. My feet were happy, I could wiggle my toes. I soon forgot about Manolito as I saw Tom and his sister Kate , Anthony and Peter, and joined them to compare skates and stories. With a pang, I realized I’d forgotten about Manolito. Mark was talking to him, with large arm movements. He put his arm out and Manolito took hold of it. Mark started dragging Manolito around. He was so graceful, even with this weight attached to his arm. For his part, Manolito’s job was to stay upright and watch the scenery. Mark was skating effortlessly, away from the rough edges to give poor Manolito a chance to keep his balance. The speed helped and Mark was talking non-stop.

Cautiously, Manolito tried to imitate him. He was scrawny but emboldened by Mark’s steady arm. He kept losing his balance, the skates giving out under his feet and pulling him forward as his head drew an arc back towards the ice, but his grip was good and his tottering gave way to a more stoic stance. They were a sight to see, Mark gliding away, followed by what looked like his tree. As Manolito started to relax, he increased his speed, and soon we were watching them circling us, like a circus act, thinking that at any moment poor Manolito would come hurtling towards one of us like a bowling ball and topple us down like pins. We could hear Mark talking and soon, still holding Manolito, he turned and started skating backwards effortlessly, all the while holding Manolito’s gaze on his own. Manolito started gliding too, imitating Mark’s long strides. I don’t know who started clapping, but pretty soon a rhythmic clapping accompanied them, muffled mitten sounds, then stomping blades and chanting. We had retreated to the edges, leaving the nicer, smoother part of the pond to the pair.

Mark said something and sent Manolito sailing in the air. The chanting stopped as we saw his body suspended mid-air, Manolito’s exhilarated face turned to the sky before pummeling back to the ice. But Mark caught him effortlessly and deposited him on the pond, before pushing him off in a straight line. He hadn’t yet learned to stop and so Tom came to the rescue and grabbed his elbow before he barrelled into someone. He expertly turned him around and started skating with him in the other direction. Kate took him off his hands. She was the same size as Manolito and their strides were equal. One by one, kids accompanied him back and forth, to the chanting and clapping of the others. He was grinning so much we thought his face would forever stay that way, frozen in perpetual glee. The light was falling and the cold was getting fierce. Reluctantly, we brought Manolito back to the edge and sat him down in the snow. His eyes were lighting up the small area where he sat. Kate helped him out of his skates and into his boots. When he stood, he looked as unsteady as when he first put on his skates and we ribbed him gently.

All the kids were now shod again and about to leave when we looked back once more at the deserted pond. Mark’s silhouette could still be seen gliding in furious circles, doing arabesques and jumps, no longer a lumbering bear, oblivious to the dwindling light, happiness lighting the way.