Monday, July 18, 2011

Lightbulb Moment

A withered teenager. He holds his daughter awkwardly, the frayed cuffs of his tracksuit brushing against the dirty pink of the donated blanket. His milk-dust moustache is an ambition, really; a glimpse of fake adulthood. His girlfriend squats, her glassy eyes not quite focused, her jeans-now too small- exposing the small of her back where the mountain range in miniature is laid out across her vertebrae.

The couple shift the tiny human back and forth, back and forth- a game of pass the parcel- as musical promises of lovin’, sex, and parties stream out of the radio. The boy scratches his elbows raw, and the girl plucks incessantly at her bra straps: They’re too loose. He cursed his mother quietly for being so damn poor- the toaster had only fetched twenty rands at the pawn shop on the corner. Nooo, the man had said, ignoring that the silver machine was almost new, I can’t sell this junk. Still. The note from Cash4Goods had sorted them out for today.

The girl elbows him. Hard. Come on, man, come on. She watches with the eyes of a wary bird, then, as he slips the small paper envelope out of his pocket. His fingernails are dirty and chipped, except for the ones on his pinky fingers, which he liked to keep long, for show. Couldn’t remember any more why that was supposed to be cool, and didn’t care. In another pocket he found the tiny globe he'd slipped out of the taillight of a Mercedes last night, the amber casing shattered with a paving stone.

A little blood appears as he snaps the head off it, the ball of his thumb dripping, but the floor is already filthy, so he doesn’t notice the scarlet orbs spiraling to the concrete.

In an instant he’s a chemist, a scientist- an honour-roll student showing off a technology project- as he slides the powdery crystals into the glass. A lighter and a tube appear in his girlfriend’s hands. Somewhere, the baby gurgles.

As they lay back and inhale, sharing the vapours the way the victims of a plane-crash in the Sahara would do water, they look in each other’s eyes and giggle. The laughter is like the hollow part of an echo, lost from its source, and full of…. Nothing.

In another house, not too far away, a boy looked around nervously. She’d definitely catch him this time, he thought. His hands wrapped around the warm ebony of his mother’s bedside table, and pulled the drawer open

In the drawer she kept all sorts of things: coins from foreign countries, postcards from relatives, a wooden owl her father had once carved as a child, and her cigarettes.

She didn’t smoke much- just when the boy had finished reading and turned off his light, maybe- a long slow ceremony on the balcony with a glass of the bitter wine that seemed to help her end the day.

Still, the boy felt it his obligation to try, at least once. He slipped one out of the box. It had gold rings around the filter, and an oddly manly smell. It hinted of grownups and parties, and of celebrations past.

Then, from nowhere, came the thoughts again. He remembered the pungent reek of disinfectant in the hospital corridor, and the broken, empty expression in his mother’s face as she had tried her best to comfort him, although words had failed her.

He opened the drawer and put the cigarette box back. No. Not today. Perhaps not ever.

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