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Pocketful of Mumbles

By Nicole Walton

We stepped outside the restaurant onto a tiny concrete landing. Melting snow made a dull pinging sound as it dripped from the roof onto a hollow pipe railing. A little hill of ice was growing on top, and icicles were forming on either side, underneath.

It was the first time he suggested we share a smoke. I was terrified. I reached out to his extended pack, withdrew a cigarette. He lit it with his clunky windproof lighter.

"She found your little purple pills," he said, about a minute later. "Are they what she thinks?"

I exhaled slowly and looked down at his fat black oxfords. He wore a 8-1/2 5E and they were stained with salt and road ash. I wore high platform boots, brown stretch leatherette, with chunky heels, and they zipped up my calves. The toes were scuffed.

My hot cheek felt he was looking for a straight answer, and I nodded an admission.

He rested one foot on the lower rung of the railing and flicked an ash over the side. His insulated gloves were sticking out the side pockets of his ski jacket. I moved next to him and leaned onto the railing, facing the street. In front of us, a line of grayish brown slush snaked slowly along the gutter towards a grate.

"I don't understand," I said. "I took them out of the dial pack and scrunched them up in a Kleenex. They were the back of the drawer, behind my underwear." Now I was looking up at him, and he was looking away.

"She's nosy. You know that." He flicked his finished cigarette towards the drain in the street. "We'll have to think of something."

The pair of us went back in to our table, where my mother was scraping at a bit of polish on a fingernail she disapproved of.

She did not speak when we returned. She had barely spoken that evening. It seemed she might cry at the slightest provocation, and I pretended not to notice. My father pretended not to notice. We continued on, not noticing, for the rest of the holiday. We made deliberate, cheerful small talk, as though she were not there at all.

At last, our long skis were strapped to the top of the car, our suitcases piled in back. We secured ourselves into place with lap belts, the old thick kind, with heavy chrome buckles like the ones they still use on airplanes. My mother sat up front, next to my father. I sat behind him.

We were driving home from Vermont the way we came. We were listening to Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water album for the umpteenth time since my father bought it, having finally worn out the completely memorized sound track to Doctor Zhivago. We were nearly in New Jersey.

"At-choo," my father said.

"Geshundheit," I said. He fished around for a tissue but could not find one. I handed him one from the box on the back seat.

"I think I am coming down with something," he said, but he did not seem all that sick to me.

"I wish I had something," he said, a short while later, sniffing.

"I have something you could try," I said, finally catching on. "I forget what they're called. My roommate gave me some, in case I got sick over the break. They're these little purple things, and they are supposed to work so well you don't even know you have a cold."

Suddenly my mother pulled herself around to face me. She looked me in the eye, and said, "Nicole, you shouldn't take other people's medication!" She was frowning, shaking her head, but she seemed completely relaxed.

I frowned back. "It's just cold medicine!"

"I don't care. You know you shouldn't take something that hasn't been prescribed for you!" Then she turned back around, replacing her hands in her lap.

In a little while, my father started singing along with the chorus to "The Boxer." It was raining by then, and the wipers almost kept beat. They would go out of synch and then, after a predictable number of bars, briefly come back into synch again. Then for a while, I pressed my forehead against the cold side window, which made my teeth vibrate. It grew dark as we left the Turnpike, and it was going to take forever to get the rest of the way home.


 

Nicole Walton lives in Baltimore with her husband and daughter. A trial lawyer for twenty-five years, she has authored numerous journal articles and chapters in professional treatises. She is now at work on a memoir and several pieces of fiction.

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photo by Dinty W. Moore