Below is Part 9 of 23 monthly installments for Visitant.
Agnes Person has coiled her hair into four tight tails like zoo monkeys trying to keep warm on a bitter cold day. She turns up her collar and exhales. Trick or Treat? She can see her breath. In a special Halloween physics, cold air rises from grimy asphalt through the soles of her shoes and up the lining of her long coat. Outside the hotel, gusts jar a make-do snack bar, a cart under a heavy Mylar tent. Folds pump dirty arteries of melted sleet like a giant four-chambered heart.
Agnes and her ear-muff monkeys are trapped in a line of academics pressed close as tenure and name badges permit. The hotel overbooked the conference, and the pre-paid breakfast tickets are worthless, nil. Angry attendees push gloved fists in pockets and ready small bills for We Appreciate Your Business.
Agnes adjusts her backpack of birthstones, opals for October. Outside, brilliant yellow maple leaves catch, bunch, scurry—the occasional one soaring, a small wet hand waving farewell to beauty.
Near the food cart, three people sit, crammed under Today’s Special. They crumble so many free saltines in their Styrofoam cups of soup that the swizzle sticks stand. A giant cookie marks an empty space defended with glee for whom? No one in this cast-iron queue.
Agnes studies the trio’s thrift-shop clothes and odd speech patterns before she spots their belated companion—a little person, her bright yellow running suit too thin for the cold, her hair lank in matching yellow clips, her hazel eyes confused by the crowd.
The friends wave wildly. One roars. Agnes pulls the stretchy yellow suit so the little person can stand in front of her. Happy Birthday! Agnes says, understanding at last.
The round head turns and smiles ear to ear. Thirdee-fife she replies, flashing her fingers open and closed like a guessing game. The friends laugh and sing How old are you now?
Professor Sorry-Late for the first morning session elbows in.
His searing rays bounce off Agnes’s rock-hard backpack and ricochet. Prof winces, dances the tarantella, doubles over, poof, disappears in tweedy ash.
Alien invasion! the three friends yell. They grab the short woman’s small arm and run.
Tent billows. Coffee cups and flung coins roll along the curb. Doppler Effect.
Agnes stands her ground. Opening her stalwart backpack, she would have liked to give the short woman an opal, her birthstone. She steps forward towards the cart. All front, there is no line. Agnes buys a small coffee, passes toppled chairs to a small orange table, and carefully places her steamy cup on the Formica surface. She gladly leans her weighty pack.
Hello, may I join you? asks a tall dignified man with beautiful diction.
Hello, he says again, flipping his name tag. I’m Josephy, Josephy November, a sociobiologist. He gestures toward the hotel conference.
The evening’s Distinguished Lecturer, Agnes later learns.
He rights a chair for her, and says, Letting that little lady in line caused quite a ruckus. In my business, we call such acts of kindness altruism.
Agnes thinks of her fish. Most days, Zen leads Pal around in circles. Then, of a sudden, they switch directions—the signal, mandate for them, mystery to her.
Agnes and the professor sip bitter coffee as rain pelts the Mylar tent like a gym full of middleweight boxers. Agnes registers his long legs and his socks, a gorgeous wool blend. She feels safe with speckled sienna on chestnut. She also senses his vulnerability, like the kestrel’s spotted egg.
Chilly out here. Wish to move inside? Josephy asks, checking his watch. Still time for brunch at the hotel restaurant. I have two meal tickets.
Watching Agnes hoist her bag, Josephy raises an eyebrow. Let me, he insists. What are you hauling, he jokes, rocks?
Yes, Agnes replies, liking he didn’t ask why. And yes, she’ll dine with this man with time on his hands and a month of birthdays hung over one arm.
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