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Broken Things are Fashionable as Art

I wanted to be there first.  It was all I thought about while getting ready.  I thought about how he’d be late and I’d be there waiting and that meant something – something enough to make me hurry, to get the appearance right, but I didn’t ever really consider why.  For what? 

The place was almost empty when I arrived.  An older couple, probably in their fifties, were drinking beer at the end of the bar and watching a muted television.  The bartender smiled at me, she was older too, and I came in and ordered a bottle of beer, which I immediately knocked off the bar while removing my coat.  Green glass shards shot across the floor and the beer foamed a moment and then pooled and ran, and suddenly, somehow, I thought of Sarah’s mother.  The poor bartender came out with a mop, broom, and dustpan.  I apologized three times and got in her way as she cleaned up and apologized again.  I suppose I was watching for the door.  It had been months.  It had been years even too.

After I had moved farther down the bar and the bartender had finished cleaning, she brought me another beer without asking and made me blush all over again.  Then he came in – I saw him pass outside the window and turned a little, I guess, away from the door and just waited.  I watched the older couple as he stepped in and they each turned to see him, their expressions changing only slightly in the quick and casual estimation strangers afford one another.  But the man’s eyes moved first, his wife’s lingering on the spot he must’ve been standing in, obvious, and that’s when I turned.

The absence.  Long and hot and drowsy.  The porch stoop in the morning.  Leaving.  A long good bye and the drowsiness of his absence.  And the heat of it – high temperatures in June on the ocean, when it wasn’t to be.  And then September and the porch and his absence after.  His, all his.  The contrast, he said, the contrast of sea and sand and seeing me there so clearly.  So clearly against the contrast and the finite instant on the porch stoop in the morning.  Gone and I cried just a little, just a little, before refusing it, his absence, his contrasts, and moving swiftly into the future.      

There was snow on his hair.  He came in, saw me and then looked immediately away in the way of his, feigning interest in everything else, the geometry of the bar, the wet sheen of floor below the stools, the lights but not me.  I told myself not to leave the stool, making our introduction cumbersome and awkward and after smiling and putting his arm along my shoulder, he removed it and then offered me his hand.  And everything was muted, his voice even, because I thought I wanted none of it to matter.  We said ‘hello’ and smiled and he suggested moving to a table, which we did, and then he was at the bar, his back to me, ordering himself a drink.  I didn’t need to look at the back of him this time.

He had brought me a book, and in it, an old photograph of the two of us at a ballgame.  And he smiled and stammered and ran his fingers through his hair in the way of his.  His hairline had withdrawn some.  And I could tell he hadn’t ironed his shirt because his collar was impossibly contorted around his neck and he needed to shave, I thought.  We got through the beginning with little imagination, how we’re doing, families, work.  Then I noticed his fingers wrapping over his glass.  His fingernails, once chewed up and bloody and bothersome, were clean and rounded now.  I got up and went to the girls room.

I thought about his book and his photograph and his fingernails.  He was loosing his hair a little, which made me smile remembering a time when he had more of it, and I took heavy breaths and practiced lively expressions in the mirror.  He drinks the same, I thought.  He drinks just so, the glass to his lips, a pause, he fills his mouth and another pause and finally after the long delay, he swallows.  What artifice, I thought.  I went back to the table.  He was at the bar again when I returned and he watched me coming and asked if I’d like another. 

“Please,” I said, “But this one the same as you.  I didn’t care for the beer.”

After the second drink, the conversation was much better.  I hadn’t noticed but the book he’d brought was written by someone we both had known and he pushed it at me again and I gasped. 

“Any good?” I asked him and he smiled mischievously and shook his head and then was very grave about it.  We talked about literature, as always, and our work.  I had the misfortune of admitting my enrollment in a writing course and he was all over it, asking about my stories and thematics and all the boring things that brought him animated.  And then later, he lowered his voice and told me he was considering anti-depressants, which was a wholly selfish confession.  And I almost loved him for it.  The nerve, I thought, the pitiful nerve of him to choose me this way.  He probably thought himself as quietly brave in admitting it too.  I tried to look sympathetic, but really, there was nothing at all inside.

On the beach, buying a kite from a little man.  Flying a kite sitting on the sand when sunset came.  The sunset and the contrast of sea and sand.  This was the beach in the heat of June.  This was then, long ago, far from here.  All in one season.  Far from the porch stoop and the absence of mornings.  The beach in June, the hotel room and the heat.  A child and his pail of sand watching.  The child asked to fly the kite and it was his.  The photograph of the child flying a kite.  The taste of salt water sea kissing, of the setting sun.

When he’d finished confessing, looking at me helpless in his way, I said something contrite and reassuring, and quickly left for the bar.  “It’s my turn,” I told him.

He asked me again of my classes and working, and then produced a pen and began writing little exercises for me on cocktail napkins.  He spoke determined then, louder, and self-effacing in the way of his, and explained how to guide the class using his hands, gesturing, and then back to his pen and napkins.  I hated him for it, he was so natural and quickly at ease again.  And sharp and smiling, telling me brief, amusing stories of other students, his students, his ways not mine, but how I could have them if I chose.  Or this other idea to try, another drill to get them going.  He told me how much fun it all could be.  How I could generate ever-new responses.

“Write that one down,” I asked him and he wrote in a large sweeping hand, as if he was signing some important document, a binding contract, and it was the handwriting of his letters.  The handwriting of his letters I could never return, refused.  The absence of his delicate hand.

He asked me about my travels and I went on.  “Do you know about airport tears?” I asked.  He didn’t.  But it was this type of remark that always stirred him and he was smiling, curious as ever, leaning back on his stool and drinking, waiting, swallowing, and asking me to tell him.

“I was in the airport – arriving,” I explained.  “And I was walking through the terminal and there was a woman standing in the hall.  Just in the middle of the hall, far from any real gate I could tell.  And she was crying airport tears.”

His face lit up.

“And I never knew whether she was sad or happy – she wasn’t standing waiting or had been left… longing, as far as I could tell.  She had no things, no suitcases or flowers or magazines for traveling.  Just her purse, this little lady standing in the middle of the concourse crying airport tears.  That’s what they were.  No one gone, no one to wait for.  Nobody.  When you don’t know, they’re airport tears and that’s the only place they exist…”

He was looking at me now, in love with me again, because I told him this story.  A story of my own and he always loved that.  He loved when I asked him an either/or question, or gave him a strange hypothesis or made him wonder.  He loved me to make him wonder because it was so absent from the rest of him.  It was only real when I made it for him, in my quiet appreciation of his handwriting, in understanding the austerity of his confessions, the wonder at all for him, to meet him in a bar again and tell. 

But I couldn’t tell.  I wouldn’t.  I’d tell about airport tears and silently promised myself that would be all he’d receive.

He said that ‘airport tears’ could make for a wonderful story, that I should think of writing it, but I explained that what I’d told him was all there was.  That ‘airport tears’ was a five-sentence story, that’s it, because its brevity makes the mystery more real. 

“Think about it,” I instructed and he ruminated over this a while and was all the more delighted. 

He grinned and we met eyes and then he asked, “Then what are you writing about?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t tell,” I countered and he was frustrated, which at once made me feel I’d really hurt him.  “Really, I don’t know.  The class only just started and I don’t feel the pressure yet, it’s not anything missing yet, you know?”

He finished his drink slowly, in his way.  And replaced the glass on the table and killed me in his flashing glance and then looked away, seeking the other, the more important sights of the bar and not me.  When he came back, things had changed.  Always.

‘Would you come back?’  – Never asked.  ‘Stay.’ – Never thought to tell.  And just that, the porch stoop in the morning without the question, without the wonder that maybe would have kept it.  Instead, the absence, the sea and sand, the child and kite in the sunset.  All of one short season.  A season and that’s all.  The heat and missing on the porch.  Never asked, never told.  Instead – absence and tears, but briefly, and then the future without them. 

It was late, we’d lost the time in the bar and he walked me home through the snow.  He moved around my place very judiciously, allowing me to lead, which wasn’t like him.  He made me nervous.  He was embarrassed to look into my bedroom.  On the patio, I pointed out the old photograph he’d taken – the boy with a kite on the sand.  He said something about his certainty in my disowning of it and I told him not to be so silly.  High above him hung the little string that fell from the roof access panel.  He tried jumping for it but it was far too high.  I told him about the Fourth of July and the near catastrophe of the attempt to build a structure high enough to open the panel and reach the roof.  “I’ve no ladder,” I laughed, “and it all came down before any of us made it.”  He stared at the ceiling a long time, then scanned the height of the wall like he was making a calculation, very thoughtful and affected in his way.  He told me that I deserved a ladder and I wanted to roll my eyes at him.  Then he glanced quickly again at his old photograph, the corner of his mouth curling up, the smallest recognition, and then he moved past me back inside.

He drank beer in the kitchen talking.  I had switched to water by then and I pulled out some things to eat, which he immediately approved of.  He was leaning on the kitchen island drinking beer slowly, languid and heavy of body, moodily draped over the side of the island drinking beer.  I watched him from a far-off corner.   

He asked me about writing again and I didn’t have more to say.

“You know, it’s always kind of bothered me about you,” he said.

“My writing?”

“No, well,…” he looked up from his beer bottle, “The way you seemed to always shrink from it.”

“You’ve always said that.”

“I have.”

He shrugged his shoulders at me, so I did the same.

“It’s not important to me, really,” I explained.  I could have gone on but I saw him staring at me, his eyes running down the length of me and then up and stopping on my breasts.  I felt nauseous.

“You look skinny,” he said and I responded quickly.

“Everyone says that, but I eat all the time.”

“You ever go to the Hamburger Heaven?” he drawled.  He was probably drunk by then, but he concealed it in the casually deliberate way he leaned on things, in his still-sharp ideas, only revealing it in his voice then, he gave it away there in that slow new accent of his.  “It’s by your work.”

“I can’t go there,” I told him and I couldn’t believe it.  I hated him for it.  The way he looked at me and drew from me the many moments of my life without him and how easily, almost carelessly, I would tell him.  And his wonder in it.  Suddenly, my life would be more adventure tales for him, amazingly clear and alight, speckled with moments of great revelation that had been nothing more than passing for me, as if I needed him to show me everything.  And then he came back from his long absence, a thief of me, and casually asked about my traveling and immediately there was his wonder – his wonder, not mine really – of the airport tears.  And now Hamburger Heaven.  How dare he.  His eyes passed over my breasts again and I resolved never to tell him.

“Why can’t you?” he asked.

I wanted to tell him how rude he was.  Rude for everything, for me being there, cornered in my kitchen giving answers.  Rude and hurtful for the absence, and now a presence, and the past, and a future without, and now this.  He was foul and disrespectful and boorish enough to make me seem so grand.  How dare?  Because it was grand, wasn’t it?  We’d been grand… 

And these are your feelings, not mine. 

The child with the kite and pail full of sand.  The beach and the heat.  The contrast of sea and sand.  It was light and hot and the salt water taste of it.  And absence is a trespass.  The way you feel about it, not me.  All of your absence was a trespass.


“Hamburger Heaven,” I began, “is a terrible place.”

He made a wonderful, curious face and though I hated him and wanted to refuse him and tell him no more, I almost had to, felt compelled to because he’d love me all over again for it.

“Hamburger Heaven opened one summer, long ago, and ruined everything.”

“What do you mean?” he interrupted, “That place is so popular there’s lines…”  But I shushed him quickly.    

“It ruined everything,” I continued.  “There’s a teacher I work with, Sarah, her mother grew up around there and her father owned an A&W Rootbeer Soda Shop.  He’d been there years before that Hamburger Heaven ever came around.  I eat lunch with Sarah sometimes and she says she’s heard stories of it forever growing up.  Her grandfather would always tell her.  But her mother, Sarah says, won’t even speak of it today.” 

He interrupted me again, telling me something perceptive about the way I tell stories and I hate him, I really hate him.  I walked away from the corner and sat down opposite him at the island.

“So it all happened this one summer.  Sarah’s mom was just twelve or thirteen, around there, and the Hamburger Heaven opens down the street from her father’s soda shop.  It was awful.  In one tiny summer, the new place stole all the business from the A&W and by the end of the season, the poor guy had to close the place for good.  I mean, think about that, it came and in a season it was over…”

He nodded glumly then, asking for the coda, “So that’s why you won’t eat at the Hamburger Heaven.”  He took a last draw on his beer, the finality of it, in that way of his, the curtain call drama of it, as if to frame my little story for him to be satisfied enough with it and now I hated him, finally, because I wasn’t through yet.

But the wonderful part is this,” I kept on and he stalled in putting on his jacket and he looked at me actually surprised, the wonder of me for him.

“So Sarah told me that after her grandfather decided to close the A&W, that her mother was real upset and cried to her father about keeping the place and threw fits and really hated Hamburger Heaven.  Well,…  I guess when it was really closing, the family was there and cleaning the place to leave it.  And Sarah’s mom asked her father about what was to happen with all of those big glass root beer mugs all over the shelves.  You know those, right?”

He nodded eagerly.

“There were probably hundreds of those mugs still all over the place and the family was packing everything up and there was no way they could take all of the glasses.  And so Sarah’s mom asked what they would do with them all and her father explained to her that they’d just leave them there.  It was all they could do, which is really sad to think about that – all the glasses and just the emptiness of leaving a place like that.  And the whole family packed up and said ‘good bye’ to the place and left…”

I watched him wait for it, raising his eyebrows at me and it was mine now.  I knew it was mine, him waiting for me now, forever.  I paused for him, took a breath in that way of his, and then I gave him away.

“…So, I don’t know,” I told him, “later that night, Sarah’s mom snuck out of her house or something and went back to the soda shop.  And it’s a mystery still because she’s never admitted any of it.  But they say that she snuck back to the place and somehow got inside and took all of the remaining root beer mugs outside and smashed every one of them against the wall.  All of them, probably dozens and dozens of them – isn’t that wonderful?  Just the sheer hurt and disappointment and release of it.  I think it’s perfect really.”

I could see the excitement in him drain at the end.  He realized it then.  How far it’d come from back then and he looked at me as if to apologize or confess again but all he said was “Wow.”  And that was enough really.

“So, that’s why I can’t ever go to the Hamburger Heaven.”

“I guess you can’t,” he replied.

It was nearly dawn by then.  “You know,” he told me, “you say all these things.  These certain places to cry, this story you just told me and its end,” he took a deep breath and exhaled in the way of his.  “Maybe you should write those stories.”

“Those stories are just for saying,” I replied, realizing what I meant as I was speaking.  “You say those kinds of stories and there’s the absence in them and that’s what they mean really.  They shouldn’t be any more than that.  They can’t be really.”

He smiled his heartbroken smile and I walked him to the door and stood on the porch watching and he went away again.


Sean Duffy lives and works, and occassionally writes, in Chicago IL, the place he was born and bred.  He holds an MFA in Creative Writing and enjoys participating in bowling, triathlons, beer-league softball, and late night rat hockey.


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