K. R. Rosman’s stories have been published Foxing Quarterly, Adirondack Review, Platte Valley Review, Raven Chronicles, Corium, and others. She is an educator, and a graduate of the University of Montana. She holds an MFA from Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.
The baptism at church upsets you. You can’t leave because you are in the middle of everything—the pew, the service, your divorce, and you can’t get out. Everyone stands with their hands lifted in blessing and your throat closes on you because you are about to cry. You try to open it with a long breath and you lift your eyes, not in praise—more like a lament from the past centuries of an angrier God. The choir sings.
The diazepam was supposed to take care of your anger. You worried that it would be the opposite, that you would laugh at the way the pastor pushes his bottom lip into his upper lip. So you decided not to look at him, and you floated through the hymn of the day, which seemed more solemn than the sermon, and now the baptism. You can’t remember the baby’s name because you forget it each time the pastor says it.
“Mmrph, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
Your throat tightens and you don’t think about the half bottle of gin you drank last night, or your joblessness and the criticisms you still hear, even though those people in your life are gone now. How wrong is your body that it would tighten on you while you’re high on a diazepam pill (but not too high, just a little floaty) while a baby, whose parents you’d never seen before, is baptized?
The handbell sounds three times and the pastor carries the baby through the sanctuary. The baby is quiet. There’s something wrong about a quiet baptized baby. The congregation sings “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia,” then the handbell sounds again and the congregation repeats their alleluias. That grandfather’s an atheist, you think but not spitefully, more as a distraction because the pastor is bringing the baby closer. Those eyes find yours and the baby puts a fat fist in his mouth. You remember what that felt like, breaking new teeth against the skin of your hand. You had a baby once. He’s a man, now. But you once had a baby. You swore you wouldn’t hold a grudge but you feel differently.
Or the same, because after you drive away from church you don’t turn left at Linden but right, taking the arterial to Aurora, the way you used to drive home. And it is the unmarked police car that causes you to realize that you’ve turned the wrong way. And how is it that you can easily recognize an unmarked police car? Even the pickups and the SUVs, but particularly the sedans. Only old people, police officers, and wannabes drive that particular sedan. You change lanes and he changes lanes. He seems to have intuited something about you. You set cruise control and feel grateful that both the giddiness from the diazepam and the tight-throated anger have worn off. All the other drivers also seem to have set their cruise control. Recognizing unmarked police cars must be a common talent.
But you’re on Aurora, headed for the house you lived in for over twenty years. It’s the wrong way home and a police officer is following you. If you exit at Forty-Fifth Street to loop back towards Greenlake, the way back to your new home, away from the son who visits you as if you’ve already grown old, would the police officer follow? You’re not even sure if you can loop back to Greenlake at that intersection. They’ve changed it, and even if you could loop back, you don’t always stop for the light at the right spot. The police officer would turn his lights on you for sure. You know he’s on drunk patrol because of the football game and you’re sober but the hassle of it, the embarrassment. Better to stay between the clearly painted lines on Aurora.
Normally you never take anything, not even for a headache. Except for this weekend, you’ve quit drinking, though it hadn’t been a problem (verified by the therapist). So why the diazepam now? It was the boredom of it all. Everyone, your parents even, expecting a crisis that didn’t happen. One pill, a year past its date, that you took in the parking lot at church because that’s how you get your thrills.
You keep driving and the cop follows you until the Queen Anne U-turn, your old exit from Aurora, and you blinker to change lanes, accommodating entering traffic. You pass a couple of cars and move back into the lane so now the police car is no longer behind you and you relax, even though you haven’t done anything wrong.
You decide it would be too much hassle to turn around now, and you drive into the heart of the city. You will go to Pike Place Market because that is something you used to do, until he started to grow bored with it. Then you divorced after two decades of marriage and everyone was so shocked, then shocked again to learn that you weren’t devastated. You felt guilty for not accommodating their expectations, so you stopped telling people. You were surprised when only a few seemed to notice that he was no longer with you at church, or maybe they knew you wouldn’t talk about it. You made sure to continue to smile and say hello to the ones you told, and you made a mental note to find friends outside of your old life. But your old life has aged you beyond the years when you had friends outside of your marriage.
It’s not yet ten o’clock, but parking downtown is already tight for a Sunday. That’s okay. You have your lesser known streets and you readily find a spot and take the stairs that go to the backdoor of the market—this has always been the way you like to go into the market—so that you notice first your favorite busker, the man who plays the fiddle as if it were a small cello, and give him a couple of dollars, then you find your favorite bookstore. It’s the kind of store that used to be more common in Seattle, what a tourist would politely call eclectic and you call unfocused, even tasteless. You like this bookseller for that reason, there is no vague suggestion as to what you ought to be reading. He’ll feed you the panic driven survivalist with David Foster Wallace.
You spy a man waiting for you to leave this area of books that is stacked so high it hides him, and you know it’s because he wants to steal the thin book in his hands. You stay with him. Your body turns towards him while you browse the shelf in front of you. You remember what it was like to be followed by the police car, and you want to give him the same feeling. You remember all the bookstores you have loved that closed and you feel proprietary about this place. You have time, so you stick with him as he tries to lose you and then he gives up and sets the book down and leaves.
You pick it up. It’s a slender volume of poems by Patti Smith. You like Patti Smith and decide that you like this person who tried to steal the book. Your life has been full of small trespasses like his. You decide to buy the book for him.
After you buy the book you leave the store and turn left, the direction you last saw him go. Luck would have it, you see him from the knees down as he walks the stairs to the main floor. He wears slacks, the sort that can be found at a thrift store, and his shoes have that tan gum sole that always looks comfortable but is actually cheap. You follow him. You would rush forward but you’re not sure what he would say. He could be crazy, or angry, or both. A crazy man once chased you across the Fremont Bridge with a knife in his hand, so even though you mean well, you hesitate. You’ve always meant well.
He’s passing the fishmonger now, the famous one, and you listen to the man who stands point, calling “Anyone wanna buy some fish now?” You pass him and the crowd is that perfect mix of locals and tourists wearing Seahawks jerseys. The clouds have rolled in and the lights in the market feel heavy. This is the way that Seattle is most pleasant, when you feel like a stranger. It’s why you always come on a Sunday because no one else is wearing the clothes they would wear to church. You feel most right when you’re slightly out of place.
You realize that you should not give the man the book he tried to steal, and that you should stop following him. But you can’t. He takes you north, past more vegetable stands and another fishmonger, and now you are among booth after booth of crafts—pepper jelly, hand-drawn Space Needles on tee shirts, flowers grown by Hmong who call “Pretty flowers,” as if addressing you. You can’t stop. You might lose him.
You realize that he knows you are following him and you decide to be brave but not to follow him anywhere that would compromise your safety. Even though your instincts tell you to quit, you will give him the book. He looks over his shoulder at you. You smile. You can tell he isn’t frightened of you. He isn’t the sort who will pull a knife. He isn’t crazy. You will give him the book and there will be an understanding between the two of you. An apology. You were judgmental. You shouldn’t have interfered. The book is already his in spirit.
He stops and stares at you. You catch up. You’re close now, within arm’s reach. He is wearing a black felt jacket and it looks as if the zipper is broken. He looks poor, maybe even homeless. You feel awkward. He returns your smile. This emboldens you. It is beginning to rain and you are outside the market. The venders at their tables are prepared and have already covered their wares with sheets of plastic. They knew this would happen.
You hold the book to him and he looks at you as if you’re holding filth. You don’t understand. You want to tell him that it’s the same book he tried to steal but you thrust it towards him instead. You want to put it inside your coat to protect it from the rain, but you can’t. He must take it, this gesture of your generosity, your forgiveness. He does take it, but the look of pure filth remains on his face. He puts it in his jacket pocket.
He no longer looks disgusted. You think he has softened towards you, forgiven you. Perhaps he wants to thank you. You fold your hands into your elbows like you did whenever you waited for your son—coming up the street from school, coming off the field from soccer practice, coming home from a play date, coming home from a real date, late for Thanksgiving dinner. You wait and feel your body relax. This is the moment of exchange. He takes a card out of his pocket, a prayer card. Margaret of Cortona. You recognize her because your mother was a midwife, born in Italy.
He shows it to you. He presses a thumb to his lips and holds the card to you, watching you. As you are about to take it, he turns it over, his thumb still pressed to his now smiling lips. Here is a nude woman—aureoles like tarnished silver over her breasts, her vulva mostly sheared so that her slit shows through her sparse pubic hair. She looks up from the card as if she had less of a choice to be there than you. He thrusts her at you in the same way you had thrust the book at him.
You almost take it, if only to end this exchange. You want your book back. You know he will look at it and laugh at you. You wonder why he would steal it if he didn’t want it. He put the card in the same pocket as the book.
If you held your hand out, which item would he put in it? You turn away—one, two, three, five, eight, now thirteen steps from him. You’re frightened and you look back and expect him to be laughing but he isn’t. He has pulled the book of poems out of his pocket and is looking at it. You reenter the market. The noise of the people. The damp exhausted air. He is gone.