Beyond Apices on the Stepladder of an Hour

Dan Gutstein Click to

Dan Gutstein is the author of non/fiction (stories, Edge Books, 2010) and Bloodcoal & Honey (poems, Washington Publishing House, 2011).  His writing has appeared widely, including Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, American Scholar, The Iowa Review and Best American Poetry.  He works in Baltimore, lives in Washington and rides the MARC train, endlessly, in between the two burghs.

Mirabelle had painted her right-side cheekbone the same broken capillary hue, backhand bruise to the left, suborbital and slackening. She plunged the chain to the light bulb swaying above the mirror, a sixty watt slumber, and wrinkled the afternoon in footsteps that slanted against the gap-tooth automobile traffic. If a white person noticed, she’d offer, “This is called complexion, this is how black people look, okay?” and if a black person questioned her, she’d say zilch, communicating via omission—ocular terror as the buckled fist floated beyond apices on the stepladder of an hour. Mirabelle was half black, half antiquity—Roman—with her bosom in slings. The razzle of her brown ringlets. The dough of her shoulders. The broad hips that rotated her buttocks on the suggestion-withholding continuum. An avenue of takeouts bilingual tax specialists plus plywood windows zoned commercial downstairs dollar boutiques plus walkup flats with boosted police lock busted buzzer. Mirabelle ordered the meatloaf with mushroom gravy at the counter of the twenty-four-hour lunch counter. After bringing the plate, the waitress, Khadi, said, “Girl!” and reached for Mirabelle’s bruised—not made up—side, but Mirabelle shrugged it out of reach, Khadi’s cupped palm stretching across. Later, out of doors, the bells and bones of rooftops versus the luminous vellum of the sky. Mirabelle’s oversized earrings—aces—spade and heart—bangled in the window of the cellar doorway until she pushed into the narrow beer hall where she tended a dozen taps. She waddled a quarter keg of porter to the tap where a quarter keg of strong ale had kicked. The bouncer, Jesse, arrived in beret and vest, so Mirabelle poured two tumblers of whisky they clapped atop the bar before shooting. College boys appeared. They said, “Natty Boh’s my go to brew, Brah,” before they left without ordering. Her homey, Apples, showed up, in Adidas: shoes, cap, shirt, duffel. “Girl!” he said, gesturing to her cheek, but she raised her palms, flat, like the Scales of Justice: “It’s complexion, Apples, this is the way black people look, okay?” He slapped her five, a small packet between them, and Mirabelle excused herself to the ladies room, where the commode did not flush. She fixed Apples an apple-back shooter when she looped back, behind the bar, a tumbler of whisky pursued by some concentrate. His namesake. “The dilly pickle!” said Apples, gorging and approving. She logged into Facebook. She liked a couple dozen statuses rapidly before changing her mind, unliking them rapidly. Whitney Houston had just passed, Mirabelle played some Whitney from her iTunes, “I want to dance with somebody,” she joked, “with somebody who beats me.” Apples said, “Huh? I got to jingle. Caught ya.” He goosed it up the steps—“Granny Smith!” went Jessie, outside—before Apples joined a thickening belt of evening-goers. Nobody clapped down the concrete runners to the cellar, then, but if one did, it might’ve been the guy, with a florescent, electric expression to taunt a sketch artist and a girth of fist like Ali or Louis, Mirabelle admitted—it had once excited her.


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